by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 18, part 1
appear in this issue.
part 2 of 2
Smiling broadly, Becky took the cash, pocketed it, and then retrieved a bottle from a locked cabinet. “Let’s toast with the real thing, Luddy.” Pouring two shots, the cyborg handed one to Ludwig, raised hers, and said, “To the Regiment.”
Lifting his glass, Ludwig replied, “The Regiment,” and then downed his shot. “Now that,” he added, “is vodka.”
Becky gave Ludwig directions to an Iron-town address, with caveats. “Okay, Luddy, I assume you have your own means of passing the checkpoints. Once you do, you better be packing a blaster.”
“Don’t worry, I can take care of myself.”
Becky laughed. “I’m not worrying. It’s your ass, not mine.” Pouring her fifth shot of vodka, the cyborg continued, “Once you get past the checkpoint and across the Fourteenth Street Bridge, you turn right on Tiberius Boulevard, walking north. The I.S.P. patrols there, but they won’t hassle you, as long as you keep moving and mind your own business.
“You’ll run the gauntlet of pimps, hookers, dealers and panhandlers for about one click until you get to Constellation Avenue. Turn right, and go up the hill to the projects. Expect a challenge at the first cross street.
“Remember this sign.” Becky made a “v” with her index and middle fingers, crooking the other fingers into her palm, with her thumb resting on top. “They’ll sign you like this; you respond like this.” The cyborg illustrated by placing her right hand across her chest. “That means you’re a friend of the ‘Insane Pimps.’ They scrawl graffiti all over Iron-town, and the Constellation Hill projects are their territory.
“At the top of the hill, you’ll see ‘The Augustan Towers’.” You can’t miss them; they look just like the military cellblocks on Penal Colony Alpha. Go to the south tower “A,” unit 912, ask for Commander Cody, and tell him you’re ‘Becky’s man.’ Cody’s my partner, and skipper of the Albatross. He’ll probably scam you for another thousand, but I wouldn’t give him a lead denarius more than five-hundred.
“One more thing about the ‘Pimps’: sign, or no sign, a group of them at the tower will for sure demand money to let you go upstairs, and using my name won’t help. Your alternative is to fight them: pay or play, it’s up to you.”
Ludwig finished his drink, smiled, extended his hand, and said, “Thanks, Bec. You’ve been a big help. I won’t forget it.”
Shaking her friend’s hand, the cyborg answered, “What help? Even if you survive Iron-town, and the trip, you’ll probably die on Algol 1.”
“I’m hard to kill, Becky.” Before leaving, Ludwig added, “Things are going to be changing in the Republic, and very soon. Get out of this racket, while you can; it’s not for you.”
Laughing bitterly, Becky replied, “What other life is there for a used up, bad-ass cyborg, in the civilian world?”
“Slim’s doing all right. You should look him up, some time.”
“Slim’s an officer, Luddy; your class, not mine.”
“Things change, Bec, including people. Try to stay alive and out of prison for the next few weeks, and you might be surprised.”
“Okay, Luddy, you do the same.”
After leaving “The Gallant Guardsman,” Ludwig used the Aureus, teleporting past the Fourteenth Street Bridge checkpoint and across the Neo-Tiber, materializing in an alley off Tiberius Boulevard. He could have easily transported to the “Augustan Towers” housing project, but Ludwig wanted to see what conditions in Iron-town were like.
It was about one a.m., and a few yellow bulbs dimly lit the dark alley. Walking toward the boulevard, past an overflowing dumpster, Ludwig smelled the familiar stench of death. The body of a dead panhandler, wrapped in a vermin-infested blanket, sprawled face down on the pavement. From a cursory examination of the state of decomposition, Ludwig reckoned the homeless man had been dead for about two days.
On the boulevard, Ludwig witnessed the evidence of urban decay: badly maintained street-lights; cracked pavement; clogged, stinking sewers; and broken water-mains flooding the streets with brackish, contaminated water; boarded-up windows; deserted buildings; overgrown empty lots; abandoned hover cars; uncollected garbage; scavenging stray dogs and cats; lost and forgotten people trying to survive another night.
Ludwig laughed to himself, as he noticed an “Elect Consul Finn’s Ticket,” poster plastered on a kiosk. The Iron-town citizenry had a fractional vote, which they typically sold to their Assembly Representative.
Ludwig walked toward the kiosk and noticed the scrawled “Insane Pimps” graffiti. Some street artist had drawn a Van Dyke and horns on Finn’s portrait, a penis in his mouth, and ripped out the eyes, leaving white, gaping holes. There was also a poster promoting the upcoming games, featuring the “Spectacular Masked Challenge.”
About one block up the boulevard, a pair of hookers propositioned Ludwig. One of the whores was obviously a man in drag. Ludwig walked past them without a word; he grimaced at the male prostitute’s insult. “Who are you, big boy: the head eunuch in Consul Finn’s harem?”
Near the corner of Tiberius and Constellation, a tiny, jittery dealer suddenly popped out of a dank doorway and hovered like a spider dropping from a ceiling and dangling on its silk. Jogging down the street like a puppet on wires, the dealer jabbered, “Hey, man, you want a good, cheap high? I got real Algolian; pure happy dust... five Republican a half-bag.”
Ludwig pushed the dealer aside, and turned the corner. The dealer called after him, “I hope they waste your ugly ass up there,” and then climbed back into his spider-web, waiting for his next prospective customer.
Walking up the hill, Ludwig thought, The purest Algolian dust is the stuff they serve at Capitol Hill cocktail parties. They must cut this Iron-town dung with roach poison. After walking a block, he saw three young men in red and black gang colors, crossing the street, heading in his direction.
He kept walking, and then stopped when they signed him from a distance of about twenty feet. He responded as Becky had instructed him. The three boys, who appeared to be between the ages of sixteen and twenty, let Ludwig pass by them and continue on to the tenements.
Crossing Constellation Avenue, Ludwig entered the “Augustan Towers” campus, walking along a badly cracked and weedy cement sidewalk, bordered by patches of dog crap, cat crap, rat-infested rubbish and what used to be lawns but was now dirt littered with broken glass.
Ludwig entered the south tower lobby through a shattered and half-unhinged glass door. The acrid, pervasive stench of feces, urine and rotting trash assaulted his nostrils. He walked under buzzing, flickering yellowish lights to the two elevators. Their doors were bent, misshapen and covered with graffiti. Neither worked. Someone with a sense of humor had wiped his or her butt on the “Out of Order” signs.
Turning back toward the stairwell, Ludwig encountered a group of four very mean, hardcore looking young men, wearing the now familiar “Insane Pimp” colors. After Ludwig returned the sign, the biggest of the men approached him. A man in his mid-twenties, about six-foot five inches tall, and three hundred pounds, covered with bulging muscles, hair, and tattoos greeted Ludwig. “My name’s Ursa Major; if you want to go upstairs, you pay me fifty Republican; if you don’t want to pay, you fight.”
Smiling in response, and without a moment’s hesitation, Ludwig kneed Ursa Major in the groin, mashing his testicles and then breaking the big man’s jaw with an uppercut, knocking him to the floor. His companions on the right and left immediately drew weapons. Using Ursa’s recumbent bulk as a defensive barrier, Ludwig kicked a blaster out of the hand of the man on the right, and then disarmed the knife-wielder to his left, breaking his arm in the process.
While Ursa and the knife-wielder lay prostrate, groaning and writhing in agony, Ludwig rapidly pursued their comrade, who made the mistake of turning his back while attempting to retrieve his blaster from the floor. Ludwig delivered a blow to the blaster-man’s head that rendered him unconscious. Ludwig picked up the weapon, aiming at it the fourth boy. The gang-member stood immobilized by fear and shaking his head in disbelief at what he’d witnessed. The fight was over in less than thirty seconds.
Ludwig walked to the youth. The boy quivered in panic; his pants reeked of liquid feces, and urine dribbled from his pants leg into a smelly puddle pooling at his feet. Ludwig stuck the blaster in the boy’s right ear, grasped his long ponytail from behind, and jerked and twisted his head, dummy-like, toward his badly injured companions, on the floor.
Ludwig growled, “You see that mess, sonny? I want you to clean it up, and then go tell the rest of your friends what I did. If they have a problem, you know where they can find me. Nod once, if you understand.”
The terrified youth nodded. Ludwig let him go, dropped the cheap blaster on the concrete floor, and smashed it under the heel of his boot. Noticing that Ursa was trying to get back onto his feet, Ludwig walked over to him, slammed his right into the man’s head, knocking him back down, where he remained, foaming and bleeding from the mouth and nostrils, and twitching spasmodically.
Picking up the broken-armed one’s knife, Ludwig snapped the blade against the wall and threw the remains at its sobbing owner.
Entering the stairwell, he turned and said, “Thanks, boys, it was fun.” He then proceeded to walk up the nine flights to Commander Cody’s apartment.
Ludwig climbed the stairs to Cody’s apartment in darkness, breathing the stale, fetid air, stepping over passed-out drunks and junkies and slipping on crumbling cement steps slick with urine, vomit, spilled liquor, and squashed feces and vermin.
Reaching the ninth floor landing, he pushed hard on the steel door, shoving aside a female derelict sleeping on the other side. The woman mumbled incoherently as Ludwig entered the hallway. She rolled over, and went back to sleep, her face resting near a puddle of puke.
Ludwig walked down the dank, garbage- and rodent-infested hallway, past walls covered with gang graffiti, pornographic drawings, political statements like “Down with the Republic,” “Bronze and Silver are the Running Dogs of Platinum and Gold,” and “Androids Suck,” punctuated by blaster holes and bloodstains.
Stopping at 912, Ludwig heard the sounds of loud music, and a man and woman laughing. He pounded on the door to get their attention. After a minute or two of door banging, the volume of the music lowered, and he heard a raspy, woozy male voice demanding, “Who the hell are you, and what do you want?”
“I’m Becky’s man, and I want to see Commander Cody.”
Ludwig heard the clicking of locks, and the sound of a heavy metallic bar sliding through grooves. The door opened a crack, and a glassy brown eye cautiously peered into the corridor. “Are you packing?”
“Yes, a mini-blaster.”
“Alright, Becky’s man, take it out real slow, and show me it’s on safety.”
Ludwig slowly took the blaster out of his front pants pocket, and held it up in the palm of his right hand.
The man eyed the blaster for a moment, and then said, “I’m Cody. Keep your blaster where I can see it and come on in.”
Ludwig entered the apartment, Cody quickly locking and barring the door behind them. The small, cheaply furnished unit was surprisingly neat and clean, although the atmosphere reeked of joy-joy weed, its sharp, eye-watering smoke like brush fire and odor barely masked by a few burning incense sticks and candles.
Sprawling on a couch beneath a barred steel-shuttered window, a half-naked, overweight but attractive dark-haired girl of no more than fifteen stared at Ludwig with glazed, dopey eyes.
Cody looked at the girl and rasped, “Get into the bedroom and close the door.”
Mumbling, the young woman rolled off the couch and staggered out of the room. As she reached the door, the little rag she wore fell from her waist, revealing buttocks and thighs marked with bruises, welts and a couple of red and blue heart and flowers tattoos. Just before entering the bedroom, the girl turned to Cody, her suddenly animated eyes flashing with contempt before she stumbled over the threshold, slamming the door behind her.
“Bitch,” Cody muttered. Commander Cody sat in a small, padded metal chair, motioning for Ludwig to take a seat opposite him. Cody appeared to be in his forties, of average height and weight, with long graying black hair tied in back and about a week’s growth of dark beard. He was barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a pair of blue denim pants. Three prominent wound scars and a large Republican Fleet tattoo adorned his bare, almost hairless chest. He kept a blaster in a shoulder holster, modified for a quick draw.
After Ludwig sat down, Cody glanced at his watch, and said, “You’ve got five minutes.”
“Becky said you were a good man. I want passage on your ship to Algol 1.”
Cody laughed, and replied, “Never believe a cyborg. You want some weed?”
“No, thanks. I need to keep my head clear, for the ‘Pimps.’”
“No bull. How much did they hit you for?”
Ludwig smiled, and answered, “Nothing. I chose to fight.”
Smirking with incredulity, Cody remarked, “Come on, you’re telling me you fought Ursa Major and lived?”
“Yeah, the Papa Bear, his two Mamas, and a baby.”
Grinning, Cody took a small pipe and lighter from a table next to his chair, filled the pipe with joy-joy weed, flicked his lighter, and took a hit. After exhaling, he said, “Now I know for sure you’re bad-ass Becky’s man. What did you do to them?”
“One of the Mamas has a very sore paw, and the baby needs his diaper changed. Big Bear and the other Mama might live if they get to a hospital real soon, although I suppose they’ll be mentally impaired.”
Laughing, Cody said, “I like your style, mister... uh, what’s your name?”
“Alright, Ralph, I’ll fly you one-way to Algol 1, for one thousand Republican.”
“Five hundred, Cody: two-fifty now, the rest upon safe arrival.”
“I bet that bolt-bag semi-human gave you that price.”
“You may be right, but I’ll pay another five hundred, for information.”
“You pay me five hundred now, and the rest when we land, and I’ll tell you what I can.”
“Hear the question first, and I’ll decide whether or not what you tell me is worth the extra nickel. I assume you’re kicking back to someone to get around the blockade. I want to know who you pay, and how you pass inspection and slip through the fleet patrols.”
“Hey, what are you: Internal Investigations?”
“What I am is none of your business, Cody. Do you want the five hundred or not?”
Taking another hit on his pipe, Cody thought a moment, and then replied, “Alright, Corbin. For the extra five hundred, and because you’re Becky’s friend, I’ll tell you this. “We pay off someone at the I.S.P; I don’t know the name: we just pay a bagman. We make a drop at a pre-arranged time and location and then we call a number after they make the pick-up. An electronically disguised voice gives us the blockade patrol schedule, and we time our hyperspace jump accordingly.
“We also get help with our flight plan, manifest and cargo inspection. For example, we file a plan for the Cetus space station to pick up a cargo of Chateau Cetus wine. We fly to Algolian rebel territory and load the empty wine bottles with pure happy-dust. Now, pay me the five hundred.”
“I want the contact number you call, Cody.”
Cody gave the number, and Ludwig took out the bills. Before handing the money over, he said, “I’ll check this out, Commander. If it’s bullshit, I’ll be looking for you. One more thing: I don’t like big men who abuse little girls.”
Cody answered carefully, aware that he was dealing with someone who got by Ursa and his companions. “I’ve been straight with you, Corbin. As for the girl, she begs for it; I don’t give her anything she doesn’t want.”
“That still doesn’t make it right. As a former Fleet Commander, you should know that.”
Cody shook his head, smiled sadly, and replied, “The Fleet was another life, in another world. Besides, who are you, anyway? Sir Galahad?”
Ludwig got up slowly, saying, “I’m leaving now, Cody. Give me the time and place where we meet.”
After giving him a New Ostia address, and instructions to meet him there in two days, at 5:00 a.m., Cody added, “If you want to get out of here alive, you need to know something. Considering what you did to Ursa and his friends, the ‘Pimps’ will be posting snipers on the roofs of the towers and other buildings all the way down Constellation Avenue. Unless you’ve got a plan for evasive action, you won’t get twenty yards from this tower.”
Ludwig smiled. “I guess you want the rest of the thousand. Don’t worry, Cody, I have a way of getting around the ‘Pimps’.
“I’m sure you do, mister; see you in two, at 0500.”
After leaving the apartment, Ludwig walked back through the hallway, toward the stairwell. When he reached the still sleeping derelict, he heard the not too distant sound of loud, angry voices, followed by the screams and sobbing of a woman.
Walking into the stairwell landing, and having had enough of Iron-town and the Insane Pimps, he used the Aureus, transporting to a small, Silver Hotel near the New Ostia spaceport. After checking into his room, the first thing he did was undress, go to the bathroom and take a long, hot shower.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder