Union Pier, a year later, Sal plucked at his tight, iridescent body
suit, all of a sudden wondering what he was doing here. What was it
that made him want to risk it all like this? It was not an understandable
3 gave him a steady look as the three
liners snapped their bronze ear plugs into the sockets in their ears,
the implanted mics coming alive in their mouths.
"What about my D-line?" Sal
"Here's your ear plug and your viz,"
said 3, handing him a bronze tube and visor without acknowledging his
question. "Put them on."
Sal did as he was told and immediately
it all changed. So this was D-line, he thought, but it was merely the
warping of the high density plastic in the glasses as they sensed the
exact shape of his eyeballs and formed themselves into a perfect match,
providing near 20/10 vision for the wearer, then solidified.
As if reading his mind, 3 said, "No,
you're not on the Line yet. The line is in your ear plug, and that patch
I put under your arm is synthesized Sea Snake poison."
Sal twisted his arm back to see where
3 had grabbed him. A small, flat grey disc had burned through his suit
and clung to his skin, pulsing. Symbiotic snuff trigger.
"Sorry about that little fuck over,"
said 3 rolling to Sal, "but you know tails can't quit. There's
a timer on that pad; when three hours are up the pad releases the poison.
If you don't make it through the Breach, the patch will release its
contents and you won't get the antidote. The pad doesn't come off."
3 twisted her own arm back to show the fabric of her body suit stretching
over a small, pulsing disc. "Now you know why tails either make
it or die, invariably." Sal said nothing and 3 didn't move from
in front of him.
"This is D-line, Sal." She
tapped his talk twice and slid her hand over one of his leg vents. He
saw it happening. 13 and 15 were solid, expressionless, but 3 was blurry.
She was moving, then she was. Visual coils running hands around, covering
vents, smoothing, rubbing legs. Heavy weakness, covered vents and a
fan of voices, a digital row your boat of 3 saying: This is D-line.
3 touched Sal's talk once more, her voice
centered but the visual string stayed. "You've heard all the talk,
all the speculation, well this is it, you are now on D-line. This is
our greatest secret." She took her hands from his vents and stood
still, only the parts of her face still blurring.
"What you are seeing is a little
bit of the future and a little bit of the past." All three liners
remained still. "D-line gives you about four seconds future side,
or a four second 'foreflash,' and four seconds back slide, or a backflash.
Right now no one has moved, is moving or will be moving in the next
four seconds, so we look solid; you don't see the shade of what we might
be about to do because we are not about to do anything."
13 blurred slightly, but never actually
moved, having noticed the slip and corrected it before it actually happened.
This schoolbook lecture thing was not his speed.
3 continued, "There's a director on the
Line which allows it to affect only your vision and hearing. The audio
distortion gets cut by your talk, it centers the voice-remember, the
voice is always now, no matter what's happening with your eyes. The
voice is at the center, present tense."
3 began to blur within her own vicinity.
"After four seconds forward the probabilities vary too much. You'll
notice my future forms dissolve into what looks like a mist at the front
of the foreflash. That's what happens. Too many probabilities, too far
ahead and the foreflash dissolves. Get it?
"So that's D-line. That's how we cut
through crowds-you pick the spot with the least blurs and slice it as
fast as you can make the cuts." Sal was uneasy, seeing the ghost
of his arm move, then moving and snapping into solidity.
3 continued. "You know the best
skims see their line; well, they visualize their line. Whatever that
means. But with us-we actually do see the fucking thing." She paused.
"It may sound really twisted, but the future is attached directly
to your consciousness; well, everything's consciousness, anyway, 1 will
explain all this stuff later. I'm not the brains of the outfit," she
said, rolling up to him. "I'm the muscle."
3 began to spin on her two front wheels.
"So let's get this lecture thing over with and get it on. Picture
the three-dimensional graph, Izen. Line A: the vertical first dimension."
She was now a solid black tube. "Line B: the horizontal second
dimension." She began to move laterally, creating a shadow wall.
"Line C: depth, the third dimension." Her wall was full black
to Sal as if she'd created some sort of portal against the bright hull
of the city. 13 and 15 began to spin on either end of her wall, flowing
into and bending it until on every side Sal could see nothing but black,
interspersed with the whip-flash of their visors as they spun.
3 spoke in his head. "Three dimensions,
that's where most people live. Now Sal, with all that crap blacked out
can you see the three lines? The graph?"
"Bisect all the angles. Run a diagonal
through the center. Do you see that line, Sal? The diagonal?"
"That's our line, Sal. That's the
D-line and it's ours." A whirring, black pause followed by a dying
whisper, "Let's go."
Already, the wall thinning into a funnel
down the pier toward the city, vortexing into a ghost line streaking
into the dark. Sal was on them, instinctively tailing tight. His heart,
wracked by fear, tore his chest cavity to shreds. He bumped the liner
in front of him. It must have been 15, although he couldn't tell through
"I'm solid, you'll notice,"
said a voice Sal thought might have been 15's. "Our bodies are
real time, they look solid; learn to notice this."
D-line didn't hurt his ability to skim
like some synths did. In fact, he felt sharper. 3 spoke through the
talk. He tried to pick out her solid form from the forward blur. "We
use a synaptic booster with the Line. You should feel lighter and faster."
"Yes." Sal grinned into the
motion. "Stronger, too."
"That's adrenalin. Try to push that
down or you'll fry too early. Try to feel adroit." Her teeth flashed
a sparkling streak.
Normal street-level skims don't chase
Seam Runs for three reasons. One, a skim is lucky to even see one happening.
Two, no skim could stay with one, even a skim with vents. Without D-line
and the right training, it was impossible. Three, D-lines didn't like
it. It's okay to chase D-lines alone, but not a Seam Run. If they see
an iridescent suit, they back off.
Sal couldn't believe it. Their foreflash
at fifty was a good hundred yards long. He watched and followed its
swerve, slight air over cracks, holes and trash. Some skims could keep
this kind of speed for a while, but not long. It was too difficult to
keep the pace and avoid a grind. But with the benefit of foreflashes
Sal could concentrate on his strokes; he could get down on his legs,
pushing out farther and harder. This was as fast as anything Sal had
"Spread! Here we go."
3's foreflash shot over the railing of
the overpass. Sal saw his own flash make the jump and so he leapt with
the others. At the tail there isn't much disturbance. Sal's flight was
soundless, deft. He caught the power plant's glow and the fore and backflash
of long red tail lights below. 3 pushed the landing out, cutting hard
to the left. Sal hauled over, waiting for a tendon to snap. When nothing
bad happened, he spoke.
"That was Ollie's Gap." He
was obviously rattled. "Nobody's ever done Ollie's Gap."
3 just laughed, then she snapped, "Bone
toy head on! Over the top, now!" Sal's left skim just nicked the
top of the oncoming car, pushing his leg back. He landed clean on his
right skim, but sparks flew from his left before he could pull it into
"I'm okay," he said over the
"We saw the foreflash, we know.
Sal was embarrassed and silent. It wouldn't
have mattered if he'd ground out, they wouldn't stop. They would trigger
his poison and call a detail out to grab his body. His leg vents would
be removed, they'd repo his tail skims, strip his iridescent suit, pull
his ear jack and viz, then dump him into the power plant's intake. Certain
jellification. Before the Seam Run, the D-lines had made sure he knew
exactly how he would die. Sal could still hear 8 saying it:
"The dying's easier than the Run,
less painful. There's a touch of the sublime to it. That melancholy
drop from the foil into the intake. It's the strangest thing I've ever
seen. No splash, you're just gone."
"Concentrate," said the talk
as Sal's shoulder nicked the corner of a building. "Watch the flashes.
You're not watching."
"Shut up." The voice was 3's.
"You had four seconds to adjust to that and you still cut yourself.
Put a lock on that cut or your heart'll pump you dry in minutes-and
next time watch where the fuck you're going. I've never seen a tail
die from hitting a building on the Line." There was mute chuckling
over the talk.
Enraged, Sal tore his suit away from
the cut and slapped a grey patch from his belt over the bloody spot.
The patch began to pulse. Sal leaned into his anger, half accidentally
shoving 15 into 13 into 3.
"You little bastard! I wondered
what the hell that flash was all about." 3 pushed it faster, then
faster, then... faster. In minutes Sal's anger was replaced by the bad
euphoria of oxygen deprivation. Even with the vents his legs began to
split apart. 3 was relentless; she'd just picked a five mile stretch
of Lake Shore Drive and gunned it the whole way. If Sal could've seen,
he would have noticed 13 and 15 struggling just a little bit, not much,
but a little nonetheless.
Somewhere in the fourth minute of the
drive Sal blew his left string. He grabbed the prongs from his belt
and spiked the back of his leg.
"Hamstring," said 3, not easing
up. Sal had to slack off for three or four strokes until the prongs
kicked in. He couldn't catch up. His right leg started to flutter.
"Ready to stop?" came 3's voice,
the same time her foreflash changed completely, snapping off to the
right, 13 and 15 just nanoseconds behind. Sal's foreflash flopped right
like a dying fish. He met it half a second before the railing over which
the backflash of the others draped. He leapt into the gaping maw--his
fear ripping through him.
The three liners had slammed to a dead,
upright stop on the up-sloped parking ramp. Everyone including Sal watched
as his foreflash smashed shoulder first into the pavement. Airborne,
forcing his shoulder up and around, watching the foreflash change until
he met it on the pavement. One skim slipped, one leg gave and he crushed
down sideways, his head smashing the hand he put down to save it.
He looked to 3's foreflash in front of
him, then to her, "Get up. Get up! You might as well die trying."
Sal struggled up. His legs were ground
up a bit, generally okay, but his hand was mulched inside.
"A little respect. Get it?"
3 rolled away.
"Your flash changed." Sal gasped,
hunching over his hand.
"I changed my mind," said 3
as she fell into a sprint down the parking ramp. "If you change
your mind and it's completely spontaneous, you can change the foreflash."
Her voice sank to a whisper and Sal knew
why. Despite his hand he'd been trying to count how many ramps they'd
gone down. It was either twelve or thirteen. The rule was: don't go
down past ten. Ten was the dividing line between safe and not safe,
between people and slates.
Slates occupied the lower levels of the
Reservoir, and whatever they were they weren't safe even to themselves.
After water cars were put on the market,
and cities still had massive suburbs, every city in America hit the
worst parking crunch in history. Chicago's answer was to dig out massive
parking garages under the city. With the financial aid of the car companies
who were making a killing off of the unregulated production of water
cars, Chicago managed to hollow out an area that stretched as far south
as Hyde Park, east past the Loop and north to Broadway. Under center
city the thing was as deep as thirty-five levels. The slates took over
while it was still being built. And as the suburbs were slowly swallowed
by the encroaching desert from the southwest, forcing people into the
city Block as it came to be known, the slates, led by certain elements
being hunted by the powers that were and are, took over the entire thing,
save the top few levels.
It was always warm that far down, and
now it was completely safe from the police. No cop ever went below level
ten; they were waiting for them down there, but the cops never came.
The rumor was that the slates got their
nickname and their leadership from a group of renegade scientists, mainly
genetic engineers and biotechs whose branch of research went out of
legal fashion after the Weirding.
Sal shuddered, thinking of the 'all leg'
creature that chased him in his nightmares, how it hovered over him
silent and desperate. The worst part was that he didn't know if it just
needed help. Could it even hurt him without arms or a head? Or could
it only chase and run away? He had shrieking dreams, unable to determine
the evil, trapped under heaps of arms, legs and rounded molds of flesh.
He shook the terror out.
Might as well die trying.
On the next ramp they punched through
a warm wall of human scent. 3 cut the descent, shooting straight onto
a dark plane. There were people here; Sal knew it, his panic knew it.
He could feel their presence like oiled skin on skin.
3 whispered over the talk, "Go to
reds and touch."
Sal tapped his visor, kicking in the
infrared, and laid his hand in 15's palm, which 15 then placed on his
Sal choked on the red--couldn't see what
it was. Ahead, their foreflash blazed dull red, eerily punching its
way into the black. That was fine, he understood that, but to each side
ran hard red rivers he didn't understand. It had to be heat of some
kind. But if they were slates, why weren't they moving, chasing anything?
As if to torture him, the talk said something.
"This is wrong, right?"
"Izen, get behind me. 13 right. 15 left."
"Weave," came the next command and 13
and 15's flashes changed, whipping into symmetrical waves with Sal and
3 blazing a straight line down the middle.
"Something--" but the talk stopped. From
around the corner came three skims moving to intercept. But they weren't
just three skims with three foreflashes; they were three skims with
thirty foreflashes--ten each. Like crimson flowers of hate they spread,
blooming forward into flickering adversity, sealing every avenue.
The D-lines were handicapped to the point
of helplessness. Some slates moved alongside, and Sal heard 13 go down
with a sickening thump and skid. 15 cut in towards the middle only to
be taken out by the solidified form of one of the skims. He and 3 blasted
through somehow and before he knew it 3 had him by the neck and was
slinging him in front of her.
"Go!" And he got manic, stomping his
strokes out like a thresher, pushing every muscle strand to its limit.
"Keep going!" 3 yelled. "If you turn
around I'll kill you." This said, 3 cut to a stop and Sal heard what
sounded like a snarl as she went for the nearest skim. Despite the multiple
flashes, she got to the solid form of that skim and latched hold, slinging
him into the nearest concrete post, giving off an unusually gratifying
sound, the bone-toy sound. Another thud came and then tumult as the
slates devoured her form in their mass.
Sal never stopped, 3's last threat being
pointless. If he didn't make it to Home Stone he'd die anyway. Around
the corner he cut and shot toward the first exit ramp he found. Ten
eerie foreflashes faded up to his left side, closer together now and
all grinning sick grins. Before reaching the flat surface, Sal cut in
front of them, leaping the partition on to the next ramp, beating the
pavement with his wheels, violently kicking the spiral, uphill chase.
In this there was no pain, only fear. Fear and the strength it brings
in motion. Adrenalin soaked his muscles to the boiling point and they
exploded on command.
The skim wasn't far behind--Sal caught
glimpses of his multiple flashes while careening over the partitions.
Suddenly, two single flashes appeared
in front, laying a dirty smear which led back behind a pillar ahead
and to the right. Sal cut right hard, pulled one of the blades from
his belt and, slipping in behind them as they sprang out, sliced the
backs of their thighs--his only sense a vicious realism. The screams
cleared his mind like a nuclear blast, sudden and complete; only white
hot ash and air still as neutrons remained.
This was not Sal's act or behavior, it
was his reaction. There is no action on this level, only reaction.
Sal learned this during his escape. He
studied it like an artist might be said to be studying as they paint,
thinking, this line here, an extra shove here, a stroke, a dab imbued
with every scrap of will. Every reaction driven by an impetus that is
either irresistible or dead.
A new thing--no more ramps. Sal clicked
off the infrared and began to scan for another exit, all the while picking
up speed on the flats. Glancing back he acknowledged his pursuer with
a loud "Get fucked!" and stepped up the pace, thinking no skim could
hold that speed for long. He was mistaken. Again, ten leering flashes
flanked him, this time on the right. Sal looked at them amazed, hating
it but still in control.
It was obvious: this wasn't just any
skim, not just some punk off the stone. He wasn't good, he was great.
And why the multiple foreflashes? Why the slates waiting like held-back
Not just some skim and Sal was seeing
the amoeba. The amoeba comes near a collapse, seething into the field
of vision like floating hell. First the peripherals fade and then the
amoeba swims in, sick and slow, confusing, confused. Sal ground his
teeth until their slip and catch made a popping sound. Watch the flash.
All of a sudden his talk crackled.
"Ease up, my friend. You'll never--"
Sal slapped the talk dead, consecutive waves of audio distortion began
blowing through him. He tried to cut it, to center everything into his
vision and then forward to the furthest flash. Without any sense, his
foremost form arched back and fell--Sal made a brutal cut, his new flash
streaking just under the falling form of the old, now weaving in between
the concrete pillars.
This changed things. That skim had a
pulse. Why hadn't he used it before?
Slowly, Sal came to understand the nightmare.
They wanted him alive. And they definitely weren't just some dit slates
or skims; they were the ones at the bottom of the Reservoir. The skim
hadn't wanted to use the pulse because that might kill him; he might
fall, veer into a pillar, anything. Lots of ways to die like that. No.
They wanted his living tissue.
A ramp! Sal jumped a clean line for the
incline, spinning backwards and throwing one of his blades for the center
of the skim's flashes. Missed, but bought him the time to jump the ramp
wall and put a full ramp's distance between the two of them. As he cut
the next corner a pulse hit the pillar next to him, chipping away some
concrete. Three more inclines and they were on the fourth level. A few
cars here and there. The sulfur lights blared rudely after the murky
A new audio distortion bled into Sal's
head. A car. Engines, it had to be, this late-definitely engines. Sal
jumped the ramp wall again, but instead of heading up the next hill
he leapt over the other wall and caught the dying flash of a slow-cruising
cop car. Yes! Sal never thought he'd be glad to see an engine, never.
Another pulse slammed into a nearby pillar; he ignored it and set his
pursuit. The engines were barely moving, not even interested in trouble;
hiding from it, most likely. By increasing his speed, Sal could come
around the corner and meet the car head on with at least three to four
hundred feet to spare. That would give him enough time.
He executed this move and when the car
saw him, its hood began to flash in warning.
The monitor squawked, "Okay skim, the
Reservoir's off limits after two. Pull it up, you're goin' down."
Good enough that they couldn't see the
tiny D-line insignia on his chest. D-line wouldn't get blamed for what
he was about to do. Without slowing up, Sal snatched his other blade
and threw it at the oncoming car. It clanged harmlessly off the windshield
and ricocheted into the dark. Sal looked back to the flash of his pursuer;
the closest form was only feet away, and the face looked confused and
scared. Turning back to the engines, Sal watched the grate between the
headlights fold down and the weak glow of a charging pulse seep from
under the hood. He maintained his course until he saw his front flash
creamed by the pulse. Still he held, watching consecutive flashes topple
in a wave toward him. In the last split second he went down, getting
as low as possible, grinding the outside of his leg badly but missing
the pulse by what must have been millimeters. The skim behind him caught
the full brunt, was stopped cold and thrown back a good ten feet. Definitely
unconscious. Probably dead. The engines slammed to a stop as Sal used
his momentum to rise, push a few strokes and then leap, rolling rough
over the flashing hood, then windshield and finally off, disappearing
up the nearest ramp. Concrete flew as pulses were fired after him but
Sal was gone, heading for the final stretch to Home Stone. The timer
on his left skim told him he had fifteen minutes until his three hours
expired. His left hip was ragged and throbbing in time with his smashed
hand, an injury he'd forgotten about in the melee.
The pain accompanied thoughts of giving
up. Strange, now that the immediate danger was gone so was the drive.
Just to slump here against a nameless abuttment; to stretch one leg
out, pull one leg up and rest, waiting for the poison to char his neural
pathways. The amoeba came slinking in, weak and irresistible. Sal thought...
No. Too much the perfect tragedy in my
own head. Too much the monstrous upper city. Not enough stone covered
He came up from the Reservoir on the
northwestern edge of the block, about six miles from the Breach. Six
miles in fifteen minutes wasn't usually a problem. But Sal was all out.
He started off evenly, avoiding the usual engine spots. By now a call
would be out on him and he couldn't deal with any more trouble. He'd
be lucky if they weren't blocking the Breach. The Breach; hell, even
if he could reach it, could he cross it? Blood began to push through
the fresh clot on his hip.
He was losing it.
Ten minutes to go.
Now under the upper city he felt thin,
pale, weak. The artificial light giving him nothing. Nothing. And the
amoeba dancing rudely, like some vicious little primitive.
He could use the gun he'd sequestered.
No telling how it would mix with D-line, but it didn't much matter.
He pulled it from under his belt where he'd stashed it and rammed it
into his neck. In seconds he could feel his heart going mad-pumping
blood from his hip faster and faster, and he himself bereft of pain,
clumsy but strong again, at least for a while.
With one minute to go he broke from under
the block. The Breach was in sight and he celebrated with a terrible
crackling sound from his crusted throat. The gun was still there but
the amoeba had come back, swimming upstream and stopping for a jig,
zooming in, then backing up, then zooming in... His left leg was soaked
in blood and he held his broken hand up to keep it from throbbing, to
keep it from feeling like it would blow with every heartbeat. One last
push and he was on the overpass, climbing to the Breach. No time to
stop. Nothing left to focus on the foreflash. He just dropped his head
and gunned it, his legs quivering at the end of every stroke, dragging
up to his gut and pushing again. It wasn't a matter of caring, it was
continuance, continuity, the seam and only one last stitch.
Amidst the pounding overture of his body's
mutiny the crucible melody smoothed the ragged edges of his composure
until there was nothing left but meted abandonment. Alone he was quiet,
calm, on-line and yet beautifully varied, sublime. Ten feet before the
Breech his eyes closed and he leapt, seemingly unconscious in flight,
only to be roused slightly by the smashing feel of his shoulder catching
one of the bars. It spun him like a rag and he skidded to a stop, catching
a few lavender clouds in his open eye. The melody faded with consciousness
and Sal was done--the seam run complete and his own bone-snapping risk