So I jab at the buttons on the panel and ride the gee as the service lev display flickers through the quartz numbers to rest on 172.
Stepping into the corridor is always weird. I have to walk carefully, trying to get used to the thickness of the carpet and not quite making it. Never do. It makes my visits almost dreamlike. Was born up here in the levels, even if it wasn't this floor or this Milerise - but I've spent most of my life down on Street.
Life? Should say lives. I ran away from the levels at twelve years old - three plastijobs and fucknows how many cogboosts ago.
Don't pass anyone in the hallway. Sometimes do, and they give me the wary, fluttering glance that means I'd be better forgetting the visit and getting down fast. But I never do. Always take the risk that they won't raise an alarm.
I reach Chance's door and knock. Even that's suspicious in a Miler, means my retinas aren't in its memory. Lyn could've uploaded them, but that'd be even riskier. Would be an admission that she and her family still have contact with me, a registered levaway.
She opens the door. Face-wide only. Hers has the usual expression it takes when I show - though every year it changes a little. It's not just the collagen boosters that're part of my sister's sour frightened negotiations with time; no, the smile's a little less real, the resentment less hidden, year by year. Emotional tectonics you could call it.
The apt doesn't change much, though. The luximorph seats, the painfully delicate objet d'art scattered with precise casualness, the auto-flowering tables.
"Where is he?" I ask as she opens the door. Sure enough, my accent's mellowed as it always does when I'm back up the levels, consonants a little less scratchy, vowels slightly more liquid. Maybe it's the ionizers.
"We didn't know you'd be coming today," she says, opening the door a little wider. Even as I squeeze inside I turn and look at her. Something's wrong. Of course she didn't know it'd be today. His fifteenth birthday isn't until next week, but don't I always vary my visit as much as a month before or after the date? Be too risky to do otherwise.
"Sit down," she says.
"Wait," she says.
"He should be back soon."
Wrong. All wrong. Nothing about how I look, about how have I been, albeit nervously and insincerely. No dry brittle little comments trying to be conversation and not accusation.
"Where is he? He still like to hang around the mall on 600? Still seeing that girl from 720? Or is it a music tutorial? He has plenty of talent, should stick at it, like I should've..."
The pretense dries up on both sides. We look at each other, accepting it.
She looks down. I ask again. All she does is shake her head.
"On Street?" I force myself not to run. Not just yet. "And you let him?"
There's something in how she says it. I stare. "It's not the first time. Is it?"
Head down. Barely aloud. "No."
"How long? How many times?"
I'm out of the door and running almost before she finishes. Stomach is already churning before the lev reaches speed and the air pressure regulator kicks in. Not fast enough. I elbow the panel and yank the decent inhibitor and the lev plunges.
So I barrel out of the building, head and ears singing, almost stumbling over a piece of street litter lying by the doors. He swears some blurred insult. The xides and carbshit hit my lungs but after twenty years breathing Street they don't break stride any more than the rest of me.
Dash over the road to a payscrew and ask her if she's seen him. No reason she would've. Panic more than anything. I describe Chance - height, hair, build, as much as I can dredge up and gasp, as if the force of detail can make her know him. She just stonescreens - hard mask of face and cheap designer pheromone.
I twist and run.
Keep running the rest of the afternoon, checking places I think he might be - places a fifteen-year-old from the Milers would go on Street - Ratmalls - Screwhouses - Bladezones - Geneghettos. The places I went. Sometimes see some kid who looks familiar, yeah? And every time I'm wrong. Eventually I figure it out. They're all familiar. All me at fifteen. But none of them is Chance. I stop running. Go back to asking passers if they've seen him, grabbing the ones who don't stop, pushing the ones who mouth off, taking my frustration out on them.
The last one to walk by me, I just let go, just stand and let her go.
For the first time I notice that the afternoon has slunk into evening. It's no darker - there's little enough sunlight at anytime on Street, the Milerises are too high and too packed together. That and the floatcrap. Morning, afternoon, evening, night, are just different combinations of primary colours tumbling down from the huge vertiscreens which cover the outsides of the Milers. Photoporous optical cladding. Inside the apts they're just windows, outside each window is part of a massive advertising panel, huge video images selling product to the facing Milerise occupants. Some down on Street get addicted to them, climb the buildings, clinging to the screens, eyes rammed against the massive LEDs until they lose it totally and just drop off like drugged flies.
The evening ads have channelled in.
Street subtly changes gear, quietening, slowing.
What's left of my panic slips away.
I turn for no particular reason. Glance around for no purpose.
Some of the shops are shutting, their smeared punctured windows dim. Windows down here are just that - windows from both sides - and their lifespan is brutally short. By this time every day Street's splashed with plastiglass debris like crystalline sick. Every step you take crunches on the shatterings. Other traders are opening, their lights flickering on. Some places just stay open twentyforever. Like Bars. Like the Bar across the road.
The Bar isn't crowded, isn't empty. There's that muted feel to the air, the atmospheric cushion of alcohol and cannabis drifting in and out of the conversations. Bars are the sacred places of Street - places of peace - of neutrality - all vendettas are left outside. All the shoals have the compulsion programmed into their credos.
So I make my way to the counter and sit and wait for one of the Barstaff to get free. I take out the digiprint of Chance I always carry in my head and look at it. Can't risk a physical one which could tie me in to my family. It's a year old, of course and a lot can change in a year - in a minute - doesn't take more than that to get streetwise. Didn't take me that long.
It was in a place like this. Can't even remember why I did it now. Why I took the little tab of chemware that was the Golgotha's template and joined my first shoal. Think it was the Golgotha. Every shoal on Street has their own - a designer credo of smart bacteria that alters the brain chemistry, redesigns neurotransmitters, rehashes engrams, remodels the user's mind to the template of attitudes, behaviors and beliefs of the shoal. Pretty sure that the Golgotha was my first, soon after I went levaway.
Who the fuck knows.
Memory - according to the psychiapriests who haunt the ratmalls looking for volunteers to go under their scanners, searching the synaptic gap for the soul - memory is as fucking malleable as anything else.
All it takes is one tab, yeah? One swallow, and you're Golgotha or Scorpion or Shuriken or Kraken or Scythe, any of the psychotropic allegiances that pass for family on Street. I'm not what I was before that first tab, or who I was.
I hope Chance hasn't taken a tab. Remember the first time I was offered one - remember taking it just to impress a girl - but I didn't swallow, not that time. Hope Chance hasn't swallowed.
I got out of the shoals eventually, saw too many brainwipes, sorry losers who'd streetwised-up too often, cogboost after cogboost, the chemical bleed damaging their minds past return. Sure, going cold-psyche means not belonging anywhere, no backup, no trust. But at least my loneliness is all mine, not chemware. And I always knew Chance was up there in the Milerises, living the life I couldn't anymore...
The Barserve still hasn't made it my way. I twist on my stool and check out the room.
You can almost tell who belongs to which shoal by the expressions on their faces. Though some faces, some eyes seem to hold thoughts I can't even guess at. There's a rumour that some of the latest chemware credos are actually mutating new emotions.
"So what're you drinking?"
I swivel back and see her on the next stool.
Sometimes it can happen just like that.
You can look at someone and know.
Some say that artificial pheromone can fake it, at least the expensive follicle implants, but I don't buy. Sometimes, not often, hardly ever, but sometimes... you know.
"A drink. Can I get you a-"
It's happened to me before, once or twice I think, no more than that. And both those times I remember doing what I do now.
"No. Thanks, but."
There's surprise in her aggressively vulnerable eyes, and maybe something more. "I'm not a payscrew, if that's what you-"
"No. It's not that. Sorry."
She smiles, shrugs, and there's still something more in her eyes. She knows it too. She can't figure out why I'm acting this way. There've been women, sure. For one night. Maybe two. But nothing serious. For serious you need hope in your life, and after butchering my life by going Street in my stupid, stupid youth, I don't have much left.
Some, sure, but I don't keep it on me, yeah? It's vested in Chance.
It's nearly sixteen years since I went to my sister. Had to force my way into the apt, and it took a while to convince her who I was while I held a shiv on her husband. She'd assumed me dead, and there were ten years and three plastisurg jobs between us. I dredged up memories from our childhood, shared secrets and shames. I gambled those were intact and still accurate after several changes of chemware.
She'd always wanted, needed children. Her husband too. Adoption wasn't an option for her. She'd wanted something of her own flesh, blood, DNA. That had been one of the secrets she'd shared with me.
But she was inoperably sterile, and cloning was illegal. At least it was in the Milers, unless you could afford the ethical-bypass license. But on Street? On Street everything's legal.
She wanted a child.
I wanted a second chance.
I knew a surger who would do it.
She faked a pregnancy and nine months later that second chance was born out of my cells and smuggled to her apt.
Chance was my life from then on and I was little more than my own shadow. Whatever I did, whatever was done to me, what someone might feel about me, what I might feel about them - none of it could matter. None of it could -
"Can I get you?"
This time the voice isn't hers. The Barserve has finally gotten around to me. I turn. The stool next to me's empty. Shake my head as I slide off mine and head for the door.
Outside the night colours sift down from the vertiscreens and wash the streets. I start walking without knowing where. Unable to shake off the thoughts from the Bar, my mind drifts.
Bad. You just don't let your head drift on Street. Even as I walk past them, four or five, leaning against the entry to an alleyrun, even before one of them whistles, I'm thinking bad. Fucking, fucking bad.
I turn and look at them, knowing that the rest will already have appeared on the sidewalk behind me.
They're Skull-viz shoal, the skin on the face surgically stripped and replaced with a transparent flesh sub. They all wear the tarantula-cut, hair like ravaged nests of spider's legs. They wear their arms bare - shoddy, blurring derma-graffiti shifts on steroid-jacked biceps, the usual rape scenes, strip dances, sex acts, fake wounds, dirty words misspelt either deliberately or otherwise. Vertiscreen light glints on titanium knuckle implants.
A smirk tugs the muscles on one of their faces. "Come for it," she sneers. "Come get your soul kicked in."
Look over my shoulder to check if I'm right about the rest of them being there. I am - no surprise - I know Street - it's what I am, still, cold-psyche or no. And if Chance has followed me, twenty years later, thrown away his life and my second attempt at one by going streetwise...
I stare hard at one of the shoal. His skull-viz looks redder, fresh, as if the skin has only been smart-tooled away in the last day or so, maybe even the last few hours. Is he looking at me differently than the rest? Are the eyes not so untainted by intelligence? Could it be? The idea is crazy, but it's still there. It doesn't scare me, though. For some reason what the idea generates is anger. The cold side of fury. The side that's likely to make you kill, not be killed.
I reach the taser from my pocket and edge sideways, keeping both groups in sight. Push the intensity up and a crackle of electricity snaps between the taser prongs.
"You fucking come for it," I say.
So I stumble along the corridor of the Milerise, feet almost dragging through the pile of the carpet, and pound on the door. Almost fall through when Lyn opens it. A drop or so of blood from a cut appears on her precious apt carpet and for a moment her mouth opens to say something but doesn't.
Her husband gets up and does. It doesn't matter what, I don't even hear it as sense. Maybe it's just a question - why am I here, what's going on, what's happened to me with the cuts and the bruises and the sweating and the pumping breath? All that I hear's his voice and I hit out at it as I'd hit out at anything in this state. Matter it's more of a shove, I'm too beaten up to do much more, but he goes reeling into a table.
Then the words come into focus. Or rather what they aren't. Neither has asked if I've found Chance. Which must mean...
I storm unsteadily towards his room. Can hear the bass stretchings from an update of the audiogame he was enthusing about the last time I saw him. My sister is screaming after me as I shoulder the door.
He's lying on his bed, listening to his composition. I wade forward and the threads of nano-resonator that web the room disassemble and vanish as I brush the first pulsing strand.
I'm pinning Chance to the wall in the sudden silence. Not easy - he's pretty much as big as me now - but I'm shoving all my fury at him and he's almost lifted off the floor.
It's like looking at a digiprint, yeah? - what I used to look like, what I used to be. His shirt is rucked to one side and I notice something on his neck. A dermagraffito.
A pair of black lips press the shape of a kiss on his skin, then widen to reveal slim fangs which apparently prick into a carotid, releasing twin rills of blood which trickle down to his collarbone for a moment until the lips close to a line then reopen as an eye already shedding a single pear drop tear before closing and dilating again into lips...
It's not a design I've seen before, certainly not a shoal tag. It's... It's beautiful I suppose. But I've never had a dermagram, far as I know never even considered one, not even when I was Chance's age.
Watch it again - lips, fangs, blood, eye... Chance still doesn't speak, doesn't move.
Then he slides back down and I realize I've relaxed my grip and let go of him.
He's still virgin, hasn't gone streetwise. I can tell by his eyes, eyes that stare at me as if he doesn't know me.
All these years, stealing visits... I've never really visited him, just watched the growing image of someone I might've used to be a long time ago.
When I managed to slip the Skull-viz, allowing the anger to fade and the fury to finally kick in, keeping it burning as I made my way over here... I'd already begun to figure it out... And now I'm sure. It wasn't Chance I was crazy at. It was me. How can you be crazy at a stranger?
The room is strange too, yeah? though I've been here any number of times.
Somehow the apt lounge is unfamiliar too. And the wary faces of my sister and her husband...
It's hours before I find my way back to the Bar. Taken the time to go back to my scurry and clean myself up. The vertiscreens' night spectrum is falling sluggishly, preparing for the day images to take over. An armoured plastiglazing car is crawling along, spraying up the next day's windows. Inside the Bar the sluggish alcohol and cannabis mix in the air is almost solid.
It would be stupid to hope that she'd be there, but that's what I did all the time I was applying medispray and films to my cuts and bruises. Practicing hoping, yeah? Getting the feel of it again.
And I recognize her the moment I see her, even from the back of her head. I ease myself - stiffly - onto the stool next to her, and while I wait for the nerve to meet those aggressively vulnerable eyes, I ask her what she's drinking.