|The Naked God|
|Peter F. Hamilton|
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
Over the last five hundred years, the whole concept of Downtown had acquired a new-ish and distinctly literal meaning in New York; naturally enough, so did Uptown. One thing, though, would never change; the arcology still jealously guarded its right to boast the tallest individual building on the planet. While the odd couple of decades per century might see the title stolen away by upstart rivals in Europe or Asia, the trophy always came home eventually.
The arcology now sprawled across more than four thousand square kilometres, housing (officially) three hundred million people. With New Manhattan at the epicentre, fifteen crystalline domes, twenty kilometres in diameter, were clumped together in a semicircle along the eastern seaboard, sheltering entire districts of ordinary skyscrapers (defined as buildings under one kilometre high) from the pummelling heat and winds. Where the domes intersected, gigantic conical megatowers soared up into the contused sky. More than anything, these colossi conformed to the old concept of "arcology" as a single city-in-a-building. They had apartments, shopping malls, factories, offices, design bureaus, stadiums, universities, parks, police stations, council chambers, hospitals, restaurants, bars, and spaces for every other human activity of the Twenty-seventh Century. Thousands of their inhabitants were born, lived, and died inside them without ever once leaving.
At five and a half kilometres tall, the Reagan was the current global champion, its kilometre-wide base resting on the bedrock where the town of Ridgewood had stood in the times before the armada storms. An apartment on any of its upper fifty floors cost fifteen million fuseodollars apiece, and the last one was sold twelve years before they were built. Their occupants, the new breed of Uptowners, enjoyed a view as spectacular as it was possible to have on Earth. Although impenetrably dense cloud swathed the arcology for a minimum of two days out of every seven; when it was clear the hot air was very clear indeed. Far below them, under the transparent hexagonal sheets which comprised the roof of the domes, the tide of life ebbed and flowed for their amusement. By day, an exotic hustle as kaleidoscope rivers of vehicles flowed along the elevated 3D web of roads and rails; by night, a shimmering tapestry of neon pixels.
Surrounding the Reagan, streets and skyscrapers fanned out in a radial of deep carbon-concrete canyons, like buttress roots climbing up to support the main tower. The lower levels of these canyons were badly cluttered, where the skyscraper bases were twice as broad as their peaks, and the elevated roads formed a complex intersecting grid for the first hundred and fifty metres above the ground. High expressways throwing off curving slip roads at each junction down to the local traffic lanes; broad freight-only flyovers shaking from the eighty-tonne autotrucks grumbling along them twenty-four hours a day, winding like snakes into tunnels which led to sub-basement loading yards; metro transit carriages gliding along a mesh of rails so labyrinthine that only an AI could run the network. Rents were cheap near the ground, where there was little light but plenty of noise, and the heavy air gusting between dirty vertical walls had been breathed a hundred times before. Entropy in the arcology meant a downward drift. Everything that was worn-out, obsolete, demode, economically redundantdown it came to settle on the ground, where it could descend no further. People as well as objects.
Limpet-like structures proliferated among the criss-cross of road support girders bridging the gap between the skyscrapers, shanty igloos woven from salvaged plastic and carbotanium composite, multiplying over the decades until they clotted into their own light-killing roof. Under them, leeched to the streets themselves, were the market stalls and fast-food counters; a souk economy of fifth-hand cast-offs and date-expired sachets shuffled from family to family in an eternal round robin. Crime here was petty and incestuous, gangs ruled their turf, pushers ruled the gangs. Police made token patrols in the day, and went off-shift as the unseen sun sank below the rim of the domes above.
This was Downtown. It was everywhere, but always beneath the feet of ordinary citizens, invisible. Quinn adored it. The people who dwelt here were almost in the ghost realm already; nothing they did ever affected the real world.
He walked up out of the subway onto a gloomy street jammed with canopied stalls and wheel-less vans, all with their skirt of goods guarded by vigilant owners. Graffiti struggled with patches of pale mould for space on the skyscraper walls. There were few windows, and those were merely armoured slits revealing little of the mangy shops and bars inside. Metallic thunder from the roads above was as permanent as the air which carried it.
Several looks were quickly thrown Quinn's way before eyes were averted for fear of association. He smiled to himself as he strode confidently among the stalls. As if his attitude wasn't enough to mark him out as an interloper, he had clothed himself in his jet-black priest robe again.
It was the simplest way. He wanted to find the sect, but he'd never been to New York before. Everybody in Downtown knew about the sect, this was their prime recruiting ground. There would be a coven close by, there always was. He just needed someone who knew the location.
Sure enough, he hadn't got seventy metres from the subway when they saw him. A pair of waster kids busy laughing as they pissed on the woman they'd just beaten unconscious. Her two-year-old kid lay on the sidewalk bawling as blood and urine pooled round its feet. The victim's bag had been ripped apart, scattering its pitiful contents on the ground around her. They put Quinn in mind of Jackson Gael; late-adolescence, with pumped bodies, their muscle shape defined by some exercise but mostly tailored-hormones. One of them wore a T-shirt with the slogan: CHEMICAL WARFARE MACHINE. The other was more body-proud, favouring a naked torso.
He was the one who saw Quinn first, grunted in amazement, and nudged his partner. They sealed their flies and sauntered over.
Quinn slowly pushed his hood down. Hyper-sensitive to trouble, the street was de-populating rapidly. Pedestrians, already nervous from the mugging, slipped away behind the forest of support pillars. Market stall shutters were slammed down.
The two waster kids stopped in front of Quinn, who grinned in welcome. "I haven't had sex for ages," Quinn said. He looked straight at the one wearing the T-shirt. "So I think I'll fuck you first tonight."
The waster kid snarled, and threw a punch with all the strength his inflated muscles could manage. Quinn remained perfectly still. The fist struck his jaw, just to the left of his chin. There was a crunch which could easily be heard above the traffic's clamour. The waster kid bellowed, first in shock, then in agony. His whole body shook as he slowly pulled his hand back. Every knuckle was broken, as if he had punched solid stone. He cradled it with frightened tenderness, whimpering.
"I'd like to say take me to your leader," Quinn said, as if he hadn't even noticed the punch. "But organising yourselves takes brains. So I guess I'm out of luck."
The second waster kid had paled, shaking his head and taking a couple of steps backward.
"Don't run," Quinn said, his voice sharp.
The waster kid paused for a second, then turned and bolted. His jeans burst into flames. He screamed, stumbling to a halt, and flailing wildly at the burning fabric. His hands ignited. The shock silenced him for a second as he held them up disbelievingly in front of his face. Then he screamed again, and kept on screaming, staggering about drunkenly. He crashed into one of the flimsy stalls which crumpled, folding about him. The fire was burning deeper into his flesh now, spreading along his arms, and up onto his torso. His screaming became weaker as he bucked about in the smouldering wreckage.
The T-shirted kid raced over to him. But all he could do was look down in a horror of indecision as the flames grew hotter.
"For Christ's sake," he wailed at Quinn. "Stop it. Stop it!"
Quinn laughed. "Your first lesson is that God's Brother cannot be stopped."
The body was motionless and silent now, a black glistening husk at the centre of the flames. Quinn put a hand on the shoulder of the sobbing waster kid at his side. "It hurts you, doesn't it? Watching this?"
"Hurts! Hurts? You bastard." Even with a face screwed up from pain and rage, he didn't dare try to twist free from Quinn's hand.
"I have a question," Quinn said. "And I've chosen you to answer it for me." His hand moved down, caressing the waster kid's chest before it reached his crotch. He tightened his fingers round the kid's balls, aroused by the fear he was inflicting.
"Yes, God, yes. Anything," the kid snivelled. His eyes were closed, denying what he could of this nightmare.
"Where is the nearest coven of the Light Bringer sect?"
Even with the pain and dread scrambling his thoughts, the waster kid managed to stammer: "This dome, district seventeen, eighty-thirty street. They got a centre somewhere along there."
"Good. You see, you've learnt obedience, already. That's very smart of you. I'm almost impressed. Now there's only one lesson left."
The waster kid quailed. "What?"
"To love me."
The coven's headquarters had chewed its way, maggot-fashion, into the corner of the Hauck skyscraper on eighty-thirty street. What had once been a simple lattice of cube rooms, arranged by mathematics rather than art, was now a jumbled warren of darkened chambers. Acolytes had knocked holes in some walls, nailed up barricades in the corridors, pulled down ceilings, sealed off stairwells; drones shaping their nest to the design of the magus. From the outside it looked the same, a row of typically shabby Downtown shops along the street, selling goods cheaper than anywhere elsethey could afford to, everything was stolen by the acolytes. But above the shops, the slim windows were blacked out, and according to the building management processors, the rooms unoccupied, and therefore not liable to pay rent.
Inside, the coven members buzzed about industriously twenty-four hours a day. Looked at from a strictly corporate viewpoint, which was how magus Garth always regarded his coven, it was quite a prosperous operation. Ordinary acolytes, the real sewer-bottom shit of the human race, were sent out boosting from the upper levels; bringing back a constant supply of consumer goodies that were either used by the sect or sold off in the coven-front shops and affiliated street market stalls. Sergeant acolytes were deployed primarily as enforcers to keep the others in line, but also to run a more sophisticated distribution net among the dome's lower-middle classes; competing (violently) with ordinary pushers out in the bars and clubs. Senior acolytes, the ones who actually had a working brain cell, were given didactic memory courses and employed running the pirate factory equipment, bootlegging MF albums, black sensevise programs, and AV activant software; as well as synthesizing an impressive pharmacopoeia of drugs, hormones, and proscribed viral vectors.
In addition to these varied retail enterprises, the coven still engaged in the more traditional activities of crime syndicates. Although sensevise technology had essentially eliminated a lot of prostitution outside of Downtown, that still left protection rackets, extortion, clean water theft, blackmail, kidnapping, data theft, game-rigging, civic-service fraud, power theft, embezzlement, and vehicle theft, among others.
The coven performed all of them with gusto, if not finesse. Magus Garth was satisfied with their work. They hadn't missed their monthly target in over three years, making the required financial offering to New York's high magus over in dome two. His only worry was that the High Magus could realize how lucrative the coven was, and demand a higher offering. Increased payments would cut into Garth's personal profits, the eight per cent he'd been skimming every month for the last five years.
There were times when Garth wondered why nobody had noticed. But then, looking at sergeant acolyte Wener, maybe he shouldn't be all that surprised. Wener was in his thirties, a big man, but rounded rather than wedge-shaped like most of the acolytes. He had a thick beard, dark hair sprouting from his face in almost simian proportions. His head was in keeping with the rest of his body, though Garth suspected the bone thickness would be a lot greater than average. An overhanging forehead and jutting chin gave him a permanently sullen, resentful expressionappropriately enough. You couldn't geneer that quality, it was a demonstration that the incest taboo was finally starting to lose force among Downtown residents. Fifteen years in the sect, and Wener was as far up the hierarchy as he'd ever get.
"They got Tod, and Jay-Dee," Wener said. He smiled at the memory. "Tod went down swinging. Hit a couple of cops before they shot him with a fucking nervejam. They started kicking him then. I got out."
"How come they spotted you?" Garth asked. He'd sent Wener and five others out to steam a mall. Simple enough, two of you bang into a civilian, cut a bag strap, slice trouser pocket fabric. Any protest: you get crushed by a circle of aggressive faces and tough young bodies looking for an excuse to hurt you as bad as they can.
Wener shifted some flesh around on top of his shoulders, his way of shrugging. "Dunno. Cops maybe saw what was going down."
"Ah, fuck it." Garth knew. They'd hit a streak and stayed too long, allowed the mall patrols to realize what was happening. "Did Tod and Jay-Dee have anything on them?"
"Shit." That was it. The cops would send them straight down to the Justice Hall, walk them past a judge whose assistant's assistant would access the case file and slap them with an Involuntary Transportation sentence. Two more loyal followers lost to some asshole colony. Though Garth had heard that the quarantine was even affecting colony starship flights. Ivet holding pens at every orbital tower station were getting heavily overcrowded, the news companies were hot with rumours of riots.
Wener was shoving his hands in his pockets, pulling out credit disks and other civilian crap: fleks, jewellery, palm-sized blocks . . . "I got this. The steam wasn't a total zero." He spilt the haul on Garth's desk, and gave the magus a hopeful look.
"Okay, Wener. But you've got to be more careful in future. Fuck it, God's Brother doesn't like failure."
"All right, get the hell out of my sight before I give you to Hot Spot for a night."
Wener lumbered out of the sanctum, and closed the door. Garth datavised the room's management processor to turn up the lights. Candles and shadowy gloom were the sect's habitual trappings. When acolytes were summoned before him, the study conformed to that: a sombre cave lit by a few spluttering red candles in iron candelabrums, its walls invisible.
Powerful beams shone down out of the ceiling, revealing a richly furnished den; drinks cabinet filled with a good selection of bottles, an extensive AV and sensevise flek library, new-marque Kulu Corporation desktop processor (genuinenot a bootleg), some of the weirder art stuff that was impossible to fence. A homage to his own greed, and devoutness. If you see something you want: take it.
"Kerry!" he yelled.
She came in from his private apartment, butt naked. He hadn't allowed her to wear clothes since the day her brother brought her in. Best-looking girl the coven had acquired in ages. A few tweaks with cosmetic adaptation packages, pandering to his personal tastes, and she was visual perfection.
"Get my fifth invocation robes," he told her. "Hurry up. I've got the initiation in ten minutes."
She bobbed her head apprehensively, and retreated back into the apartment. Garth started picking up the junk Wener had left, reading the flek labels, datavising the blocks for a menu. A gentle gust of cool air wafted across his face. The candles flickered. It broke his concentration for a moment. Air conditioner screwed up again.
There was nothing of any interest among Wener's haul, no blackmail levers; some of the fleks were company files, but a quick check found no commercially sensitive items. He was indifferent about that. Data was the other offering the coven made to the High Magus, and that on a weekly basis. A gift that never brought any return, other than the invisible umbrella of political protection the sect extended to its senior members. So Garth played along, considering it his insurance premium. The reports were more than a simple summary of what was happening inside the coven; the High Magus insisted on knowing what action was going down on the street, every street.
Years of being out on the street at the hard edge had taught Garth the value of good intelligence, but this was like a fetish with the High Magus.
Kerry returned with his robes. The fifth invocation set were appropriately flamboyant, black and purple, embroidered with scarlet pentagrams and nonsense runes. But they were a symbol of authority, and the sect was very strict about internal discipline. Kerry helped him into them, then hung a gold chain with an inverted cross round his neck. When he looked into a mirror he was satisfied with what he saw. The body might be sagging slightly these days, but he used weapon implants rather than straight physical violence to assert himself now; while the shaven skull and eyes recessed by cosmetic adaptation packages gave him a suitably ominous appearance.
The temple was at the centre of the headquarters, a cavity three stories high. Straight rows of severed steel reinforcement struts poking out of the walls showed where the floors and ceilings used to be. A broad pentagon containing an inverted cross was painted across the rear wall. It was illuminated from below by a triple row of skull candles, great gobs of wax in upturned craniums. Stars, demons, and runes formed a constellation around it, although they were fading under layers of soot. The altar was a long carbon-concrete slab, ripped from the sidewalk outside, and mounted on jagged pillars of carbotanium. Impressively solid, if nothing else. There was a black brazier on top of it, lithe blue flames slithering out of the trash bricks it was filled with, sending up a plume of sweet-stinking smoke. A pair of tall serpent-shaped candle sticks flanked it. Ten iron hoops, sunk into the carbon concrete, trailed lengths of chain which ended in manacles.
Just over half of the coven's acolytes were waiting obediently when Garth arrived. Standing in rows, wearing their grey robes, with coloured belts denoting seniority. Garth would have preferred more. But they were stretched pretty thin right now. A turf dispute with a gang operating out of ninety-ten street had resulted in several clashes. The gang lord was doubtless thinking it would all be settled with a boundary agreement. Garth was going to cure him of that illusion. God's Brother did not negotiate. Acolytes had the gang under observation, building up a picture of their entire operation. It wasn't something the gang understood or could ever emulate, they didn't have the discipline or the drive. Their only motivation was to claw in enough money to pay for their own stim fixes.
That was what made the sect different; serving God's Brother so rewarding.
In another week Garth would unlock the weapons stash and launch a raid. The High Magus had already arranged for him to take delivery of sequestration nanonics; that would be the fate of the gang's leadership, turned into biological mechanoids. Any attractive youths would be used as bluesense meat after the acolytes had enjoyed their victory orgy. And, inevitably, there would be a sacrifice.
The acolytes bowed to Garth, who went to stand in front of the altar. Five initiates were shackled to it. Three boys and a two girls, lured in by the promises and the treachery of friends. One of the boys stood defiantly straight, determined to show he could take whatever the initiation threw at him so he could claim his place, the other two were just surly and subdued. Garth had ordered one of the girls to be tranked after he'd spoken to her earlier. She'd virtually been abducted by an acolyte angry at losing her to an outside rival, and was likely to go into a mental melt-down if she wasn't eased in to her new life; she had strong ambitions to better herself and rise out of Downtown.
Garth held up his arms, and made the sign of the inverted cross. "With flesh we bond in the night," he intoned.
The acolytes started a low, mournful chanting, swaying softly in unison.
"Pain we love," Garth told them. "Pain frees the serpent beast. Pain shows us what we are. Your servants, Lord."
He was almost in a trance state as he spoke the words, he'd said them so many times before. So many initiations. The coven had a high turnover, arrests, stim burnouts, fights. But never drop outs.
Indoctrination and discipline helped, but his main weapon of control was belief. Belief in your own vileness, and knowing there was no shame in it. Wanting things to get worse, to destroy and hurt and ruin. The easy way forward . . . once you give in to your true self, your serpent beast. All that started right here, with the ceremony.
It was a deliberate release of sex and violence, an empowerment of the most base instincts, permitting little resistance. So easy to join, so natural to immerse yourself in the frenzy around you. Indulge the need to belong, to be the same as your brethren family. An act which gave the existing acolytes that fraternity.
As to the initiates, they passed through the eye of the needle. Fear kept them in place at first, fear of knowing how exquisitely ugly the sect really was, how they would be dealt with if they disobeyed or attempted to leave. Then the cycle would turn, and there would be another initiation. Only this time it would be them showing their devotion to God's Brother, revelling in the unchaining of their serpent beast. Doing as they had been done by, and enraptured by the accomplishment.
Whoever had designed the ritual, Garth thought, had really understood basic conditioning psychology. Such elemental barbarism was the only possible way to exert any kind of control over a Downtown savage. And there was no other sort of resident here.
"In darkness we see You, Lord," Garth recited. "In darkness we live. In darkness we wait for the true Night that You will bring us. Into that Night we will follow You." He lowered his arms.
"We will follow You," the acolytes echoed. Their rustling voices had become hot with expectation.
"When You light the true path of salvation at the end of the world, we will follow You."
"We will follow You."
"When Your legions fall upon the angels of the false lord, we will follow You."
"We will follow You."
"When the time . . ."
"That time is now," a single clear voice announced.
The acolytes grunted in surprise, while Garth spluttered to a halt, more astonished than outraged at the interruption. They all knew how important he considered the sect's ceremonies, how intolerant of sacrilege. Only true believers can inspire belief in others.
"Who said that?" he demanded.
A figure walked forward from the back of the temple, clad in a midnight-black robe. The opening at the front of the hood seemed to absorb all light, there was no hint of the head it contained. "I am your new messiah, and I have come among you to bring our Lord's Night to this planet."
Garth tried to use his retinal implants to see into the hood, but they couldn't detect any light in there, even infrared was useless. Then his neural nanonics reported innumerable program crashes. He yelled: "Shit!" and thrust his left hand out at the robed figure, index finger extended. The fire command to his microdart launcher never arrived.
"Join with me," Quinn ordered. "Or I will find more worthy owners for your bodies."
One of the acolytes launched herself at Quinn, booted foot swinging for his kneecap. Two others were right behind her, fists drawn back.
Quinn raised an arm, his sleeve falling to reveal an albino hand with grizzled claw fingers. Three thin streamers of white fire lashed out from the talons, searingly bright in the gloomy, smoke-heavy air. They struck his attackers, who were flung backwards as if they'd been hit by a shotgun blast.
Garth grabbed one of the serpent candlesticks, and swung it wildly, aiming to smash it down on Quinn's head. Not even a possessed would be able to survive a mashed brain, the invading soul would be forced out. Air thickened around the candlestick, slowing its momentum until it halted ten centimetres above the apex of Quinn's hood. The serpent's head, which held the candle, hissed and closed its mouth, biting the rod of wax in half.
"Swamp him!" Garth shouted. "He can't defeat all of us. Sacrifice yourself, for God's Brother."
A few of the acolytes edged closer to Quinn, but most stayed where they were. The candlestick began to glow along its entire length. Pain stabbed into Garth's hands. He could hear his skin sizzling. Squirts of greasy smoke puffed out. But he couldn't let go; his fingers wouldn't move. He saw them blister and blacken; bubbling juices ran down his wrists.
"Kill him," he cried. "Kill. Kill." His burning hands made him scream out in agony.
Quinn leant towards him. "Why?" he asked. "This is the time of God's Brother. He sent me here to lead you. Obey me."
Garth fell to his knees, arms shaking, charred hands still clenched round the gleaming candlestick. "You're a possessed."
"I was a possessed. I returned. My belief in Him freed me."
"You'll possess all of us," the magus hissed.
"Some of you. But that is what the sect prays for. An army of the damned; loyal followers of our darkest Lord." He turned to the acolytes and held up his hands. For the first time his face was visible within, pale and deadly intent. "The waiting is over. I have come, and I bring you victory for eternity. No more pathetic squabbling over black stimulants, no more wasting your life mugging geriatric farts. His true work waits to be done. I know how to bring Night to this planet. Kneel before me, become true warriors of darkness, and together we will rain stone upon this land until it bleeds and dies."
Garth screamed again. All that was left now of his fingers were black bones soldered to the candlestick. "Kill him, shitbrains!" he roared. "Smash the fucker into bedrock, curse you." But through eyes blurred with tears he could see the acolytes slowly sinking to the floor in front of Quinn. It was like a wave effect, spreading across the temple. Wener was the closest to Quinn, his simple face alive with admiration and excitement. "I'm with you," the lumbering acolyte yelled. "Let me kill people for you. I want to kill everyone, kill the whole world. I hate them. I hate them real bad."
Garth groaned in mortification. They believed him! Believed the shit was a real messenger from God's Brother.
Quinn closed his eyes and smiled in joy as he gloried in their adulation. Finally, he was back among his own. "We will show the Light Bringer we are the worthy ones," he promised them. "I will guide you over an ocean of blood to His Empire. And from there we will hear the false lord weeping at the end of the universe."
The acolytes cheered and laughed rapturously. This was what they craved; no more of the magus's tactical restraint, at last they could unleash violence and horror without end, begin the war against the light, their promised destiny.
Quinn turned and glanced down at magus Garth. "You: fuckbrain. Grovel, lick the shit off my feet, and I'll allow you to join the crusade as a whore for the soldiers."
The candlestick clattered to the ground, with the roast remains of Garth's hands still attached. He bared his teeth at the deranged possessor standing over him. "I serve my Lord alone. You can go to hell."
"Been there," Quinn said urbanely. "Done that. Come back." His hand descended on Garth's head as if in anointment. "But you will be of use to me. Your body, anyway." His needle-sharp talons pierced the skin.
The magus discovered that the pain of losing his hands was merely the overture to a very long and quite excruciating symphony.
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