The Mirrored World
by Miguel Ángel López Muñoz
translation by Michael E. Lloyd
part 1 of 2
Jeff Crobber pulled the photonizer from his waistband and for the first time in a long time savoured the sweet scent of prey. He was ready to finish off a job that had been postponed for too long. A job that had now turned into something personal.
He remembered the endless psychology lectures at the Academy of Nocturn Hunters. Never let it turn into something personal. Never let the work take you over. Never lose sight of the victim by focusing on the assassin.
But he was no longer one of those. An Ex-Nocturn Hunter. A failed hunter. A pariah of the 25th century.
He loaded his weapon, and allowed his memories free rein as he began the pursuit. His target had some advantages and seemed to know the terrain better than he did, but at that moment he was counting on taking the initiative; he was making the first move. He’d been doing this for over a hundred years, a hundred years of pursuing Nocturns, which in earlier centuries had been known as Vampires (and how much it pleased her to keep re-naming herself, he thought). His relentless strong-arm tactics had earned him many successes, but his bosses had never been happy with the reputation Crobber was steadily giving the Nocturn Hunters.
There was little doubt that the Nocturns had withdrawn from Talopolis X because of Crobber and his solitary excursions into the Dark Zone of the city, but one man was not going to be allowed to do the work of a whole department. And Crobber’s tendency not to despise legends and the old methods had done the rest. They’d thrown him out of the force, turning him into something useless merely because he could serve no other purpose. They’d buried him alive, and in some way they’d made him a Nocturn too, another rejected child with no place in the third millennium.
But Crobber had not hung around waiting for the sands of time to smother him. His first step towards illegality was to undergo a back-street age-extension treatment, the sort the department would not allow him, the sort that ensured that Nocturn Hunters would stay in place for as long as their potential cases remained unsolved. The results of that botched job were the wrinkles etched around his eyes, which revealed his true age and experience, despite his outward appearance of a young man of thirty: a young man tired of a seemingly endless struggle.
But now, at last, the hunt was nearly over. It had run from Datapolis III to Ernepolis VII, but the chase would end here, under the ground in Etapolis IV, the filthiest city in the eastern zone of the Rham Desert. So long spent pursuing her, and at last she was pinned down. He prepared the lethal dose of Beta Spice, and penetrated the darkness.
Crobber did not have the slightest doubt that his enemy was trapped. It was clear from the way she was walking and running and groping around for a nonexistent way out. He moved forward slowly, to avoid splashing the stagnant water that came up to his waist; he moved carefully, measuring each moment as only someone on the force knew how. There was hardly any light, but he could still see well because of the gently shining sphere that surrounded the butt of the photonizer. He switched it off and kept moving through the silence. Never use the photonizer in surprise attacks, he remembered.
At last he came into a wide, vaulted chamber, stuffy and stinking. A weak half-light from the gratings up above fell accusingly upon his eyes. From there he could distantly see, as if in a dream, a little of the outside world: the worst crime-ridden districts of Etapolis IV, the places hardly more desirable than the depths he was in here and now. Finally he looked towards the far end and switched the photonizer back on. There she was, right at the back in a musty, slimy corner, trembling from her head to her toes, not from cold but from distress. She seemed about to sink into the putrefaction.
“It’s over, Phellax.”
The woman turned and stared at him. Nothing was reflected in her gaze, not even the shafts of light from outside.
“It’s been a long time.”
“Too long. This had to happen sooner or later.”
“It doesn’t need to end like this. You know that. They rejected you. You’re just like me. Like us.”
“I’m not a Nocturn. That’s not the path I’m following.”
“You’re deceiving yourself, Crobber. You understand the weight of Time at last. You’re carrying a whole century on your shoulders. You still don’t know it as well as I do, but you’re beginning to get the idea. Most of my kind don’t make it past the age of one hundred. The Nocturn Hunters get half of them, and suicide does for the rest.”
Crobber stopped moving and took a good look at her. She was wearing clothes from the late 20th century, but even so she showed a few touches of modernity. Nocturns, he thought. A strange mixture of past and future which refused to abandon its privileged position in the nightmares of men.
“Join up with me, Jeff. You want to. It will be somewhere to belong. Somewhere to be.”
“You’re right. I do want somewhere. But not like this. You say I’m like you, and I thought that once, too. But not now, not after all we’ve been through. The hunt, the hatred, the massacres of Etapolis II.”
“It’s the way I am, Jeff. You should know that by now.”
“You’re not in thrall to evil. That myth was dispelled a long time ago.”
“You think my behaviour’s nothing more than legend, just as the Nocturn Hunters put it down to faulty genes. I’ve been five centuries in this painful world, Jeff Crobber. Maybe in other times that would be easy to bear, but in this world of crime and decadence, I’m more than ever a creature of the night. A victim.”
“That’s true. You were your own first victim. And I loved that victim. I loved what she was and what she could have been.”
“It’s too late for that. I followed the path. Now all you need to do is follow mine.”
Crobber raised the photonizer, and Phellax’ eyes at once gleamed with a strange brilliance that he really didn’t like the look of.
Suddenly Phellax sat up and with one last glorious effort held out her hands and plunged them into the filthy water. Crobber had no time to shoot. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. A little later he decided that he could have fired in time, if he had really wanted to.
The room began to lighten, as if hundreds of lamps had been strung out along its walls, arranged especially for Crobber in accordance with some unknown ritual. Phellax made a gesture with her hands in his direction, and he tumbled head first into the mire. He pulled himself up as best he could and tried to find his weapons on the bottom, but Phellax made another gesture and sent them out of reach. Crobber thought for a moment and decided she probably hadn’t needed to do that: the water was so dirty that nothing could be seen in it anyway.
Phellax looked weaker than ever. Yet Crobber recognised that the next move was hers. So he just listened to her, as he tried to work out what she was doing; he’d never seen anything like this before.
“You refuse to join me, Jeff. Very well. I shall invoke the power of the Vampires of hidden times, and carry you off to a world where you will be the hunted, where the curse will come instead upon you!”
A moment later an intense radiance took Crobber beyond mere physical blindness and threw him once again to the ground. Struggling to remain conscious, his arms flailing in this space that had suddenly been transformed into a whirlpool, he grabbed at a pillar and held on in an attempt to combat the currents, until suddenly the level fell back and his feet touched bottom again. Then he just let himself drop.
When he came to, he feebly pulled himself up and tried to catch sight of his enemy again. No sign of her, or his weapons. He leant up against a wall, feeling suddenly nauseous. Looking all around, he realised that something was not as it should be, but at that moment, exhausted and drenched to the skin, he couldn’t tell quite what.
He fumbled around, searching for the exit, taking great care at every junction and in every corner, but nothing else happened. Phellax had disappeared. He remembered the other times she had evaded him, as well as the times he had escaped from her traps, and he wondered just who was hunting whom. Finally he came to the conclusion that, basically, each of them was hunting the other.
Once he had made it outside, through an exit into a filthy little alley, Crobber looked around again. Nothing seemed different at first glance, but then his eyes fixed on a huge, horizontal neon sign saying . He walked on until he reached the main street and spotted others: , .
It was then he remembered a mysterious legend about the Nocturns, so improbable that not even he had ever paid it any attention. According to that legend, every five hundred years a Nocturn has the power to send a human being to the Mirrored World, a world identical to ours except that everything exists as if it were seen in a mirror. A world where writing is back to front and the end of a book is its beginning, where left is right and the hands of a clock move backwards.
Suspended between fear and fascination, Crobber realised that he was now in that world. What he did not understand was why that was so important for the Nocturns. Why he would now be the hunted one ...
He decided it would be best to finish what he had already started as quickly as possible. It wasn’t like all the other times: this was it. One way or another it had to end here, in Etapolis IV. And as soon as possible. There was no time to spare, no time to check out the dangers of this world which so few privileged souls could reach — certainly nobody he knew, anyway, and he knew people who’d been in some very strange places — and yet which seemed to him so disturbingly familiar. But Crobber had the distinct feeling ... the feeling that he was being watched, that the answer was staring him in the face, but was also miles away.
Too tired for philosophical reflection, he aimed himself at the worst part of town, looking for a shop that could sell him the basic materials for hunting Nocturns. Eventually, by picking up hints and pressing people for information, he found himself in a badly lit street outside a place called .
He went in and walked up to the counter. He waited and waited, but nobody seemed to be around. But all the while he could hear worrying little sounds ... as if there really was someone else there in the shop.
He looked down to the end and spotted a table that was bare save for a cigarette lighter and a wallet. Now this wasn’t the sort of area where you left your wallet and your lighter (a good one, too) on a table in some back-alley dive. Once again he got the feeling that the answer was staring him in the face ...
“Can I help you?”
At last an old man had appeared behind the counter. He looked as if he’d had a thousand and one age-extension treatments, each of them less effective than the one Crobber had undergone.
“Not many trees growing around these parts,” Crobber remarked casually, then proceeded to take a few bills from his pocket.
“I hope they’re not duds.”
Once he had done so, the wrinkled little old man produced five wooden stakes and placed them on the counter.
“These are made of Eastern European wood,” he said, pointing at the first pair. “And these two are not of such good quality, but on the other hand they are longer and sharper. The last is made of titanium, with a fine wooden inner shaft. It’s best to shoot that one — it’s too complicated to use by hand.” He looked at Crobber as if expecting some sort of objection.
“I’ll take the first one. Wood’s hard to get hold of these days.”
Crobber screwed up his shrivelled eyes. “A photonizer,” he whispered.
At that moment he heard a noise from the other end of the shop, and turned around but still saw nothing. He looked back at the table. The wallet and the lighter had gone.