Extract: High Tide in the City

High Tide in the City is a noir cyberpunk novel by Martine Lillycrop. The following is an extract from the book, available now on Amazon

Forget the turban, the Asian music, wispy beard and joss sticks, where he lived said more about Sitaroo Man than his appearance. His next-door neighbour was the council’s high-level housing project – a giant scraper-complex built on stilts, like some hip urban oil-rig. Port Town aside, the building’s vast underbelly, during the dry season, was responsible for more crime per metre than any other part of the city. Just living here, right next to it, was good reason to call Sitaroo’s sanity into question.

Mini-whirlwinds chased litter under the concrete overpass, scraped and rattled it across the rough asphalt. I steered clear of the handrail as I took the steps to ground level. Still had a scar at the base of my thumb, where I’d once been caught by the razorblades someone had chem-welded to a handrail as a ‘joke’. Yeah, great fun. Laughed my ass off.

Stepping into the shadows should have been a relief but it always put me on edge, walking past the stilts. Because you know they’re in there, watching.

I took off my sunglasses and was rewarded with a face-full of dust – dried silt left behind by the last Spring Tide, whipped up by wind eddies into powder so fine it wasn’t even gritty in my mouth. My eyes were more sensitive, though, and I blinked, tried to clear them before any ganglanders lurking down here could take advantage.

Ganglanders. They’ve been around longer, they’re more organised than Port Town scum and more dangerous because of it. Like all the city’s night-life, they prefer dark places. Like under the stilts, where no one could see the punishments they dished out, the vengeance killings or the plain, old-fashioned hits. And while they can see you walking past, it’s much harder for you to see them lurking in the darkness.

I bluffed it. Moved deeper under the tower’s shade.

Feet disturbing gravel and low, muttered comments filtered from way back under the concrete supports. I resisted all but the briefest glance – chemical torches and half-seen figures huddled together. Or maybe glowing graffiti and piled-up rubbish. Hard to tell. There was crime afoot in there, in the urine-drenched gloom, but you don’t walk into Hades with only a Sandman for company. Even the gun-jockeys with their automatic rifles, their Kevlar and their AI back-up know better than to venture in there, except in large numbers.

Christ knows why anyone would want to live right next to it. And if that wasn’t enough, Sitaroo Man had to live in a basement. In a part of the city where, with the lower-level geology and the monsoon weather we got these days, even stilts couldn’t guarantee to keep you dry.

His house was a survivor of the Victorian era, its steam-age façade vying with the multi-legged monstrosity stealing all its daylight. Cast-iron spikes cordoned off a stairwell separating the basement entrance from the street. Sandbags were piled against two rows of hexibricks surrounding the railings – their old-fashioned pragmatism shoring up the flood defences where high-tech had obviously failed.

My shoes crunched grit as I took the steps leading down. Flakes of paint came away with my hand when I hammered on the warped door with the side of my fist. I brushed them off, listening for sounds of movement coming from inside until it cracked open and a miasma of garlic, curry and sandalwood flooded out.

Sitaroo opened the door wide. He grinned, flashing the gap in his mouth where his missing incisor should have been.

‘Hey, Paydirt! Perfect timing, man. Landlord’s due Monday.’

‘You know, you could let me in before you mug me,’ I said.

‘You’re a harsh man, Nix. I only ever take what’s due, you know that.’

black_mart_by_km33-d8cfl8dImage from http://www.deviantart.com/art/Black-Mart-504612157He wasn’t wearing his turban. Let loose, his hair reached his waist. Baby blond, but the peach-fuzz beard gave that away first time I ever met him. Just because he had no ethnic links to India, though, didn’t stop him living like he was born and bred in Delhi. And he could cook a mean phal, which was authentic enough for me.

‘You could pretend to be less mercenary.’ I stepped over another row of sandbags and into the apartment. ‘Puts me in a better mood.’

‘You pay me for dirt, man. Paydirt. I just call it like it is.’

‘Not today. I’m not here for information.’

Sitaroo muttered something under his breath and the door rattled shut behind me. He shouldered past and I followed him to his inner sanctum.

A single window was set high on the left-hand wall. Grime and a security grille fixed to the outside blocked most of the light coming through it. The insipid beams highlighted the wisps of sandalwood smoke creeping across the room. The incense tumbled through holes in the church-style censor, which hung alongside the H-projector in the ceiling, and entirely failed to mask the pervading smell of damp.

Indian musical instruments hung on the walls, festooned with cables and optical wiring, and a dancing figurine of Ganesh stood on an antique sideboard littered with circuit boards and casings. Saris and psychedelic silks were draped over a couple of benches that, I knew from previous visits, contained the hardware pertaining to Sitaroo’s latest current project.

My reason for this visit.

He was always telling me how great the damned thing was. Now was his chance to prove it.

He’d built the Turing-grade Dakka-Hoddern rig from spare parts filched from god-knows where and it was his long-term obsession. It lurked in the far corner, humming darkly to itself, clearly impressed by its own, autistic brilliance.

Sitaroo seated himself cross-legged on a shabby moonchair and rested the backs of his hands on his knees, yoga-style.

‘So what do you want? If you’re not here to give me money, make it quick. Gotta hungry habit to feed.’

He gestured at the rig with his chin, as if I’d forgotten he rarely talked of anything else. I glanced at the crate-sized black box and pulled a face.

‘Ever think it might be cheaper to take an Einstein squirt on a daily basis? Then you could just act like an eccentric genius instead of being one.’

‘Ah,’ Sitaroo basked shamelessly in the compliment. ‘Did I just hear you encourage me to engage in a heinous, degrading and illegal activity, ex-Detective Nixon? What’s up? Been short of victims lately?’

When I didn’t bite, Sitaroo shrugged.

‘Okay, so supporting her costs for now. But I got plans, my man. I got a top lawyer working on it so she gets declared a sentient being. Then I can claim benefits.’

‘You gotta be kidding me.’

‘Hey, she’s my bitch. About time she earned her own keep.’

I sighed. ‘In the meantime, maybe it can earn its keep today.’

I crossed to the black cabinet inside which, so Sitaroo claimed, sat the three semi-sentient stem-cell arrays which had brought me here. The Dakka-Hoddern’s tone changed pitch as I approached. I put it down to the room’s acoustics.

‘She’s alive, you know.’ Sitaroo was watching me through half-closed lids. ‘Takes lots of attention, keeping her happy. And cash. Lots of cash.’

I shot him an annoyed look. Just stepping through Sitaroo’s front door cost lots of cash. I didn’t need reminding.

‘Alive? So what does she… What does it feed on?’

Sitaroo’s eyes took on a keen glitter. ‘The blood of my enemies.’

I snorted, despite myself, perched my rump on the black cabinet and folded my arms. Got the satisfaction of seeing the city’s best, if wackiest, computer nerd visibly flinch.

‘Don’t do that,’ he said. ‘She won’t like it.’

I shook my head. ‘You’re creepy sometimes, you know that?’

‘Come on, Nix, I mean it, get off! What do you want, anyway?’

I stood up, slid the bracer out from under my faux leather sleeve and flashed it at him like he might be able to see the problem from there.

‘I want you to take a look at this for me.’

Sitaroo lifted a skinny-fingered hand, pointed at the door. ‘Repair shop. Downtown.’

I dropped the sleeve again. ‘It may have fried someone’s implants out a couple of days ago, but I can’t figure out how. Plus it’s been acting up since then. On top of that, I found something on it I want you to get your bitch here to check out.’

Sitaroo gave a sour grunt. He rolled his eyes, closed them and exhaled slowly, deliberately. Wasn’t the first time I’d seen him do this and experience had taught me not to interrupt. Not if I hoped to get what I wanted. I waited for him to ‘re-focus his chi’, while fatigue tore shreds off my patience.

I’d often wondered if he had a reservoir of something relaxing tucked away sub-dermal. Easy enough to get installed these days. Easy enough to trigger with a preset mental image. Or maybe meditation really works. Whatever it was, when he opened his eyes his voice was chilled and his expression mellow.

‘So what are we talking about? A virus?’

I stared at him blankly. While he’d been seeking his focus, I’d gone and lost mine. I massaged my stubble, irritated. Sleep. I needed sleep.

‘Don’t think so. A deep-root system check should find out if it’s faulty, but the thing I want your love-bot here to look at…’ I waved at the Dakka-Hoddern. ‘Is just a file.’

‘Well, cash is everything where files are concerned. How big a file?’

I took a deep breath. This was starting to sound like it could be an expensive visit.

‘Six petabytes.’

Sitaroo didn’t actually sit back, mainly because he was already as far back in the chair as he could be. But the expression on his face told me if he could have, he would have.

‘Six petas? You’ve got a six petabite file sitting on your bracer.’

Sounded a lot like he didn’t believe me.

‘Slowing my systems down like a son-of-a-bitch.’

‘No kidding. What have you got in there, a couple of AI’s and their 2.3 kids?’

I shrugged. ‘You tell me.’

I unclipped the device, slid it off my arm and passed it to his outstretched hand. He flipped the lobster-scale plating over his left hand and began shuffling through the menus like the damned thing belonged to him.

See, that’s the reason I come to Sitaroo Man for stuff like this. No chance in hell I’d trust my bracer to some High Street hacker. Handing your bracer over to someone, that takes trust. The kind of trust which comes from knowing your fixer not only has the biggest brain in the city, but would also happily sell his own mother for the briefest chance to play with technology, especially if it didn’t belong to him.

He was an addict of a very different sort. Digital coding was his particular drug, but it wasn’t all he was hooked on. He could programme an AI in a week, strip a VR system to its core components in one hour and construct a self-repairing robot from spare parts and glue. He knew his way around bracers like most people know their way around the inside of their nose.

‘This it?’ Sitaroo looked disappointed. ‘But it’s just an audio file.’ His brow puckered. ‘Wait a sec. Twelve seconds?’

‘Huh?’

‘A twelve second audio snip is taking up six petas of space in there? No, no, no. It’s not an IUM file, it’s a–’

‘Yeah it is.’

Samuels’ scream. It had taken until yesterday to remember flicking that record button. Six petabytes, give or take, for a thirteen-second recording of a man screaming.

‘No, it’s not just audio, man. There’s something else hiding behind it.’

Hiding? Like what?’

Sitaroo unfolded his legs and pushed off with his feet sending him, and the moonchair, rolling towards the Dakka-Hoddern. He used his palms to brake himself against the cabinet then flicked a switch somewhere towards the back and the man-chine interface slid out of its recess.

I took a step back.

Should have figured. This was Sitaroo Man. So he insisted on using a keyboard? Fair enough. But God forbid he’d use a regular one. Even so, I’d have expected tits and fannys. Lips. Something on those lines. Not the shallow cavity arrayed with ribs, tongues, tubes and orifices, all with teeth. What dark fantasy had inspired Sitaroo to install that nightmare I didn’t want to guess.

‘Jesus! You really do feed it blood!’ Wouldn’t be the first time I’d wondered what my magic cap could tell me about what went on in the guy’s head.

Sitaroo replied with a gap-toothed, evil grin. ‘Wanna stroke it?’

‘Thanks, but I’m straight.’

‘Remember what’s in there next time you’re looking for a chair.’

While the computer was powering up, he unravelled a cable from one of the cabinet’s shelves and slotted the loose end into my bracer’s linkup. Struck me as too low-tech for him, until I realised it was for the rig’s protection. Hard bottleneck, just in case there was something in my bracer’s storage bin which might quite like a new home.

For all its bizarre appearance, the interface was still just a keyboard. Plus it was further proof of Sitaroo’s eccentricity, considering he lived in a world where text could be mentated – created, manipulated and disseminated by thinking the words in your head. Evidence, also, that he was as paranoid as he was brilliant. The man refused to put hardware inside his head which, theoretically, might be controlled by external agencies. In that regard he was even more Neanderthal than me.

I recognised my own home page when the Dakka-Hoddern’s screen finally lit up. Sitaroo began prodding the mini monstrosities in front of him, navigating deeper into my bracer’s system, looking for what he’d seen earlier.

‘So, what’s on the file if it’s not just audio?’

He paused to glance at me and I could see him trying to figure out if I was serious. Problem with nerds – they kind of assume what they know, you know.

‘Looks like machine code,’ he said eventually.

Machine code? Come on! That’s a recording of a man screaming. It can’t–’

‘Lots of machine code.’

‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘That’s impossible. The sound came from a man’s mouth.’

‘Not impossible. As long as the carrier wave is gonna to be digitised, it’s totally possible. Been doing it for decades, right? Radio? TV? Digital info over an EM frequency. Only difference is wetware versus hardware. The key is the codec. The sound waves act as a bridge, see? Get the right frequency, when the codec on any kind of data manager processes it – a bracer’s a perfect example – it translates it into something it thinks makes sense. If there are enough cohesive sound packets on the signal, they’re processed together and, crunch, you got machine code. The clever part is getting the right frequency. That’s more tricky, natch.’

‘Natch. So what kind of machine code we talking about?’

‘If you’ll stop yakking for two nanosecs I’ll try and find out!’

Trouble was, my mind was now spinning and I always think better out loud.

‘How the hell did whatever it is get inside Samuels so he could transmit it in the first place?’

Sitaroo gave me a bug-eyed look. ‘I don’t do people stuff, Paydirt. You know that.’

 

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