If you cut the main artery from some living organism and laid it out across an arid wasteland then, Sabbi supposed, you would have something much like the Strip. True, the Strip was inorganic, a man-made thing cast in concrete, steel and glass, but still it lived. There were places where you could stand and see the Strip stretching away like a ribbon of light across the night-time desert, unspooling for mile after mile, blurring into one featureless splash of neon advertising hoardings.
And sooner or later, it would bleed out and die.
But Sabbi had become expert at letting tomorrow take care of itself. Save your worries for the here and now: there were plenty of reasons to.
The crowds of shoppers ebbed and flowed–and that was good. They provided her with anonymity: a hundred thousand or more, thronging the broadwalks of the Strip on a hot summer afternoon, closeted by endless store-fronts and restaurants and coffee-houses–imprisoning them within the Strip’s rapacious jaws.
From behind the gleam of her sunglasses, Sabbi scanned faces, trying to avoid flat-foots mingling with the shoppers. Most of the cops wore the Strip-sponsored uniform–visibility a key part of their deterrent–but they came in a plain-clothes variety too. They knew all about the petty thieves, the grifters like Sabbi who worked the lower echelons of the Strip’s ecosystem. Flat-foots carried the authority of no lesser person than the Chairman herself to arrest-and-deport on sight. They also carried tasers delivering kick-ass voltage–not intended to be lethal but not something Sabbi was inclined to put to the test. Worst of all, they carried attitude.
And now the stolen bracelet was burning a hole in her pocket. Every fiber of Sabbi’s body could sense its bulk as she moved, its cool sleekness pressing against her thigh. You could find plenty on sale down the Strip worth ten times its price. But this one was special. This was a commission, lifted to order. These days, Sabbi only worked to commission. The payouts were lower but the work was steady, so it balanced out in the long run. And it helped make her feel more… legitimate. The way a professional business-woman ought to act. Yeah, go me with my worthless career aspirations.
Something didn’t feel right, though. A vague uneasiness gnawed at her. Nothing she could pinpoint, but you didn’t survive on the Strip without learning to trust your instincts. And right now those instincts were telling her this wasn’t worth the risk.
So just do it–and do it quick.
There was no shortage of marks to choose from. There was never any shortage on the Strip. That was the whole point.
She drifted closer to a young woman browsing store-fronts arm-in-arm with her boyfriend. Strip-standard attire said everything there was to say about her: wealth, privilege, arrogance. Perfect. Sabbi stumbled lightly into the woman, mumbled an apology, and the bracelet slipped into the woman’s shoulder-bag in one smooth motion.
Sabbi would drift for a while to get her composure back, but stay close. If all seemed okay, she’d find an opportunity to ‘reacquire’ the bracelet. No sense in wasting a commission payout. Nobody would be any the wiser. And no harm done, except maybe a tiny dent in profits for one particular Strip merchandiser, and frankly she considered them good for it.
Sabbi noticed a man watching her from thirty feet away, the way you do when one pair of eyes seems to be locked on you in a sea of oblivious faces. She felt her heart jump. She lifted her head, looking straight at him, letting him get a good look at her shades.
With the sunglasses on, Sabbi looked as if she had bug-eyes. The lenses had a clever faceted-prism design: transparent for the wearer, but appearing to everyone else like the compound eye of some nightmarish bipedal insect. And while the casual observer was trying to make sense of it–a hundred tiny reflections of their bemused face staring back from those lenses–Sabbi was checking them out, working out what kind of mark they might be, or what threat they posed. Or maybe sussing out an escape route. Definitely one of those, and sometimes all three at once.
She loved those shades. Sure, people noticed them, but they were meant to. And because they only ever noticed the shades, not the person wearing them, when she took them off it was like throwing an invisibility switch.
She side-stepped away into the thickest part of the crowd, slipping the glasses off, changing direction at random. Glancing back a couple of times, she caught only the briefest glimpse of the man. His movements seemed to lack urgency, but he was shadowing her moves and that couldn’t be chance. Sabbi quickened her pace, beginning to shoulder her way through strolling couples who didn’t move out of her way in time.
And now Sabbi could feel a buzzing at the base of her skull, a kernel of pain threatening to blossom into a headache. She ignored it and pressed on, puzzled at the surge of people suddenly moving in the opposite direction. A moment later, she heard it. Or felt it. Or–
Perfumes for the ladies! Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else! All kinds of perfumes!
The words slammed into her frontal cortex, assaulting her with almost physical force. No sounds though, just fully-formed words straight into her brain. Around her, people were dipping their heads and turning away, like a shoal of fish cleaved in two by a predator. Some were rubbing their foreheads, others muttering curses.
Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot–
Unwelcome thoughts and images exploded in her brain, thundering around inside her skull until she was sure she could feel her eyeballs vibrating.
She saw the hawker twenty yards ahead, his hand-cart piled high with bright packages of cosmetics. Sabbi knew most of the street traders in this zone, but here was a new face–frozen into a rictus smile that was fooling no one. In front of his stall, tethered to it by a thick ankle chain, the Thal paraded miserably up and down, issuing forth the mental torrent of advertising slogans.
Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else!
Maxine à la Mode!
Sabbi had never seen an actual live Thal, and certainly never got this close to one. As far as she knew, the few that had survived into adulthood had all been taken to isolation centers once the geneticists had finished dicking around playing god and the federal legislators had closed down the labs. This one had a stocky build, classically prominent brow-ridge with receding hairline and thick black hair allowed to grow long, but otherwise normal-looking. Not all Thals were strong broadcasters, but most showed the symptoms: predisposal to unilateral telepathic projection, an ability–if that was the right word–that laid bare their soul to everyone around. She tried to imagine what it would be like to uncontrollably broadcast your innermost thoughts to anyone within range, to forego even the most basic level of privacy.
And now this? Using a Thal as some kind of all-pervasive advertising gimmick? That had to be a new low. Though never underestimate the Strip’s ingenuity if there was a quick buck to be made. Sabbi shuddered, but she was damned if she couldn’t nearly smell that perfume now.
The Thal was tiring. His thoughts were losing focus, breaking up into an incoherent babble that mostly radiated hurt and loneliness and longing. The hawker yelled something incoherent at him but the wash of emotions only fragmented further.
The Thal continued to parade up and down, his head endlessly questing from side to side in that curious manner of the slow-witted, as though searching for something long since lost. He looked forlorn.
Sabbi let herself be carried with the flow of the crowd away from the hawker, the Thal’s thoughts beginning to fade from her mind. She’d lost sight of her pursuer, and that made her nervous. And she’d almost certainly lost her commission.
Something hard and claw-like gripped her arm, tightening inexorably. From behind, a voice spoke into her ear, foul-smelling breath assaulting her nostrils. “Prosser wants a word, my little lady-bug. Wants to know when he gets paid.”
“Ow! Let go of me! You’re going to cut my frackin’ arm in half!”
“Prosser’s not happy.” The grip tightened. Sabbi half expected to see blood staining her sleeve.
“I told you before, Crab. When I’ve got it, Prosser gets it.” Her fingers skittered uselessly over the pincer-like artificial hand squeezing her upper arm, trying to pry it loose. A tingling numbness was beginning to spread from the loss of circulation. Rumor had it that Crab had once snapped a man’s head clean off at the neck, like dead-heading a flower. Some poor unfortunate who had seriously pissed off Prosser. Just like her.
With no lessening of pressure, Crab began to maneuver her towards one of the narrow service alleys leading away from the Strip. The people flowed around them in an ill-temper, unsettled by the Thal’s blunt advertising message. Even now, something akin to the Thal’s carrier wave reached out to anyone within a hundred yard radius, broadcasting its jumble of resentment and misery; a cacophony of sub-vocal thoughts. It was like having some whiney two-year old living inside your skull. She glanced back and saw the hawker slip some kind of gauze hood over the Thal’s head–and immediately a calm descended.
“Look,” she told Crab. “Maybe there’s another way.”
“Oh yes, lady-bug. I like the other way.” The grip tightened a fraction and Sabbi yelped.
“Listen! What if I could set Prosser up with a shot at the Lakenbys store?”
Crab seemed to think about this. The pressure eased a fraction. She could almost hear the gears turning in his brain. “Lakenbys is not possible.”
Well, yes. They all thought that. The smart grifters stayed well clear. Lakenbys took security to a whole new level on the Strip: i-cams everywhere, beam interferometry on the display cases, item tagging–you name it, and Lakenbys had almost certainly implemented it. And there were too many staff with suspicious eyes. Management policy was ruthless prosecution of all grifters to the maximum permitted in law. But even Lakenbys had a weakness. Customers. You had to entice customers into the store–so long as they came with big fat credit chips. Draw them in, sell the goods, complete the transaction, send them on their way. In and out. And that meant being open and inviting. A pro like Sabbi sneered at the unsubtle nature of snatch-and-run, but really it was no different to the usual mode of business–except for the bit about the credit transaction. You had to be audacious and quick, and the staff had to be slow or off-guard. But it could be made to work.
“No, not possible. Not Lakenbys,” Crab repeated.
“Yes, possible. With the right kind of distraction. And I know just the thing.”
The Strip opened at noon each day but only came alive at sunset. The pretty young things came then. And the social climbers, and the out-of-state tourists and the rich city workers from the gated communities near the coast. They came in their tens of thousands each evening, looking for ways to flaunt their money and buy themselves status. It wasn’t about the merchandise. You could have the goods droned-in to your personal collection point from the very same warehouses that nestled up behind the Strip’s storefronts. It was about the experience–and there was something almost religious in its intensity. The Strip was the New Church of Latter-day Commerce; a place to worship at the altar of materialism. Its cathedral: a twelve-mile long mall crammed with every conceivable and irrelevant luxury.
But still a façade. The Strip was nothing more than a single great artery of opulence; all length and no width, pulsing to the daily heart-beat of its trade. Step into the stark service-alleys and you encountered a different world: festering trash piles awaiting collection, squalid boarding houses for employees lacking the means to travel in from the city suburbs. There were twenty-four seven basement bars where off-shifters frittered away meager wages on cheap booze. Tat-parlours, brothels, crud-head joints, even backstreet surgeries if you needed a little patching up with no questions asked.
As the sun sank lower, the Strip came alive, glittering with the lights of ten thousand mall-stores. The already crowded boardwalk filled with entertainers and hustlers. It was said that on a hot summer night, half a million souls came.
In different circumstances, finding the hawker again might have been a problem. As it was, a rough location was all Sabbi needed. She had guessed he would hole up in the southern district tonight, maybe try his luck tomorrow further north. And she had been right. Now the faint whisper of miserable thoughts leaking from the Thal made the rest of the job easy.
Sabbi hurried down shadowy backstreets, pausing and retracing her steps whenever the background signal grew marginally fainter; triangulating, closing in. She checked her watch. Prosser’s man would be in place by now, waiting for her to do her part. No time to lose.
She stared at the box-panel van parked up at the far end of an access road, as far away from people as possible. The thudding pulse of a juke-box rose from a basement bar on the other side of the street. As she passed by the van experimentally, the background static from the Thal’s mind grew suddenly loud as though someone had twisted a dial.
He was here.
The driver’s cab was empty and there was no sign of the hawker. He would be somewhere out of range, and glad of it, downing his third or fourth whiskey by this time of the evening. Sabbi checked the street again. Deserted.
She tried the van’s rear door. Locked.
But Sabbi knew about locks. She suppressed a smile. Just one of the many skills a professional woman like her needed on her CV. A moment’s concentration and then the tumblers had fallen into place.
The tone of the mind babble coming from within changed. The Thal must have heard her scratching at the lock. She sensed his confusion and uncertainty.
Good. Her plan depended on that.
Sabbi wrenched open the back door. A low wattage bulb lit the interior giving out scarcely more light than a candle. Most of the space was taken up by a cage: heavy duty floor-to-ceiling bars set a few inches apart, covered with a skin of gauze-like mesh, similar to the hood she had seen the hawker pull over the Thal’s head.
The Thal sat on a stool at the back of the cage, a plate of food cradled between his knees, fork half-raised to his mouth. Off to one side was a chamber pot. A smell of spicy broth and piss hung in the air. There was barely room to stand in the back of the van. The caged Thal could take maybe two paces at most. If this was how he lived, she would be doing them both a favour.
Who you? WHO YOU?
“It’s okay. Take it easy. I’ve come to help.”
The Thal had stood, spilling the broth onto the floor, retreating to the furthest corner while his distress beamed out to the world.
“A friend,” Sabbi said, hating herself for the lie. “Come to get you out.”
No friend! No friend!
“Why don’t you tell me your name?”
There was a door set into the front of the cage, made of the same mesh construction presumably designed to dampen the worst of the Thal’s thoughts. She would need to brace herself when she opened the cage.
But the door was secured by some kind of electronic lock, a spot of red light glowing on one edge. “Where’s the keycard kept?” she asked the Thal. She glanced around in case the hawker had hung it on a hook out of reach.
No. Not leave. STAY!
“Listen! This is your chance to go free, okay? Escape! But please–” she touched a hand absently to her forehead and rubbed at the place where a headache was beginning, “can you not shout?”
NOT SHOUT? The Thal reached into a pocket and pulled the gauze hood over his head. Better?
Sabbi tried to calm herself. How the hell was she supposed to break this kind of lock? If she couldn’t get this door open, her plan was ruined. She had promised Prosser a distraction, a good one, and a confused, unhappy Thal blundering his way down the Strip was certainly likely to provide that. But not if she couldn’t spring him. Her tools skittered uselessly around the locking mechanism, looking for a way in that wasn’t there. She tried not to imagine Crab’s relentless grip on her arm, squeezing until the bones beneath began to crunch.
You go now? She heard a note of hope behind the thought.
“Not without you. I need to break you out of here.”
No! Want stay! NEED STAY!
She hadn’t figured on the damned Thal being too stupid to escape, if the chance came. If. Big if.
“Do you really want all this? Living like someone’s goddamned pet in a cage? Only taken out when your master needs you to perform your tricks? Here’s your chance. Here is your moment.”
The Thal stared at her with eyes somehow bright in the dimness of the weak bulb. His head made that curious weaving motion, smooth and sinuous, even though his eyes remained fixed on her.
Teleoman. Teleoman. TELEOMAN!
“Ah. Right, fine. Pleased to meet you, Teleoman.” She squatted by the lock, trying to think, willing her brain to come up with some alternative plan. But her head was filled with jumbled thoughts leaking from the Thal’s mind. Even though he wore the hood, she felt the rushing torrent of white noise as an almost physical thing, drowning out her own thoughts. “Alright, listen Teleoman. There must be something you’ve always wanted to do, some place you wanted to go?”
He seemed to consider this.
Teleoman belong here!
“No, you don’t. No one belongs in a cage. Everyone deserves the right to live on their own terms.” She thumped her hand against the mesh uselessly. “Except I can’t get this frackin’ door open.”
Teleoman stood and moved towards her. Some instinct made her back away, a primitive part of her brain awed by the physicality of the Thal, and the brooding strength in that body. This must have been what those geneticists were after when they spliced neanderthal genes into homo sapiens chromosomes. Frackin’ assholes.
Teleoman drew back a powerful forearm and punched through the mesh part of the cage as easily as if it was made from wet cardboard. He reached through, wrenched the lock contraption from its mounting and the door catches sprang back top and bottom.
Sabbi stared at him. Hell’s teeth, he could have done that any time he liked.
Alright. Teleoman come with you.
“What? No! Not with me. You just run! Go!” She had visions of wading through crowds of late night shoppers on the Strip, this hulking monster of a man dogging her footsteps, mental voice booming out terror and confusion directly into every person’s brain for a quarter mile around. She had promised Prosser a distraction, one that would draw every flat-foot on the Strip. The last thing she wanted was to be standing there when it happened.
She backed away, jumping down from the van as Teleoman stooped to climb out. He tugged the hood off his head as he did so, and Sabbi reached for the side of the van to steady herself as a fresh sledgehammer blow of thoughts assaulted her.
“Go!” she said, pointing to the bright lights of the Strip at the end of the street. “That way. Keep going! Don’t stop for anyone.” Prosser would get his distraction one way or another.
Now Sabbi was anxious to be gone too. If there was some kind of silent alarm on the vehicle, the hawker could come bustling out from a nearby bar, mean as a hornet, at any moment.
She turned and ran the other way into the darkness. A moment later she realized the Thal was following her.
Teleoman come with you.
He caught up to her easily. He grabbed her arm and swung her round, like a parent grabbing a child about to run into traffic. Doors were opening further up the alleyway, pale faces peering out to see who or what was screaming thoughts into their heads.
“Please,” she said. “You’re hurting.”
Teleoman scared. Lady kind to Teleoman. Teleoman come with you.
Sabbi caught glimpses of the thoughts behind the words, fleeting moments of savagery and fear. Endless humiliation. Thought-flashes of incarceration and isolation. Yet beneath these surface thoughts were echoes of human needs common to all; of thwarted dreams and ambitions, of love and the desire to be loved.
More people were piling into the alley to gawk. The Thal had let go of her arm. This was her chance. She could vanish down any of a dozen narrow twisting alleys where maybe the Thal couldn’t follow so easily. Yet she hesitated.
Teleoman stood looking at her, a vague, child-like smile on his face. Burdening herself with the Thal was just about the craziest thing she could do right now. She could forget stealth. Forget quietly disappearing into the shadows. And even if they got away from the Strip, where was there for the Thal to go? Where did you hide a Thal?
“Stay close to me,” she hissed. “And put the damned hood back on.”
Hell’s teeth. No one had ever called her a lady before.
Once clear of the Strip, the land became a rucked-up carpet of low hills and arroyos. There was nothing much out here, just scrubland sliced and diced by the occasional freeway. Even on a cloudless night like tonight, the sky glowed with reflected light from the Strip; a false dawn that never quite arrived, but sufficient for them to travel by. Sabbi had a vague notion of heading coastwards but they would be walking all night to get there–and with no real prospect of safety at the end of it. So she led them down a dusty incline towards an underpass where a freeway crossed a man-made channel diverting run-off from the distant hills towards the ocean. “Here,” she told Teleoman. “We can rest here for a while.”
A lighter flickered in the darkness not twenty feet away. They froze. Its yellow glare lit a nightmarish face: swirls of purple and red, tattooed images of gaping mouths and teeth sharpened to points high up on the man’s forehead. The tat gang-leader took a step towards them. “Looky here! See what we’ve caught ourselves?” With a sinking feeling, Sabbi realized there were a half dozen others crouched in the darkness around their leader. “Reckon we got ourselves some proper sport tonight.”
If she ran now, it would only make things worse: the hunted and the hunters. She could probably out-run one or two but they would have motorbikes nearby, and on foot her chances were slim.
The tat-gang leader flicked away the glowing stub of a cigarette into the darkness. “Come a little closer, pretty lady.”
“Jeez, man,” one of the others muttered. “My fucking head–”
Teleoman stepped forward. The gang appraised him carefully, sizing up his bulk and muscularity. Impressive. But there was still only one of him, plus the girl, and plenty of them. Those were good odds.
Then Teleoman slipped the hood from his head. A wave of unbridled hatred suddenly swept outwards, animal-like in its intensity. Again it was all Sabbi could do not to stagger beneath the force of the mental assault.
TELEOMAN FIGHT. HOW MANY YOU WANT KILLED?
It took her a moment to realize Teleoman was asking her a question.
“Uh, I’d say… all of them? The smart ones will probably run anyway.” She tried to sound cool about it, but didn’t think she was succeeding. She hoped Teleoman knew what he was doing.
GOOD! TELEOMAN LIKE THAT!
Teleoman strode forward, rapidly closing the distance to the group like this was just some trifling business to be dealt with. Each footstep thumped down hard on the ground.
TELEOMAN KILL ALL!
He broadcast this thought with a curious cheeriness, as if he’d been waiting a long time for this moment.
As one, the tat-gang fled into the darkness.
They found a space up where the steel beams of the flyover met the sloping concrete of the embankment beneath, small and cave-like. “Stay here,” Sabbi told him. “I’ll come back in the morning, once I’ve figured out what to do next.”
Teleoman stared at her with his deep liquid eyes, head bobbing and weaving as always. With the gauze hood back in place, she found it bearable to be in his presence but hardly comfortable. She needed to get away and do some thinking. She also needed to say clear of Prosser who would be mad as hell with her by now.
You come back?
Sabbi choose not to answer. She was imagining what it would be like to live with every thought exposed to the world, no possibility of lying or deceiving.
“Stay out of sight,” she told him. “And keep the hood on.”
Then she walked away into the darkness, not planning to return.
But in the morning she came back. The day after, too. Sabbi brought him food–and each day the reasons changed.
First it was guilt. That first night she hadn’t dared return home to her quarto, a quarter-share of converted shipping container where she lived. It was one of several dozen abandoned in a corner of a disused parking lot, and home to a transient population of Strip support workers or grifters like her, unable to afford workhouse rents. She imagined Crab waiting for her there in the darkness and felt an intense desire to keep all her digits intact.
So she walked the endless concrete flats behind the Strip, through empty lots and back-alleys. When the night air grew chill, she grabbed a couple of hours’ rest next to a hot air vent, trying to ignore the stink rising from an over-flowing dumpster nearby. Maybe she’d move north up the Strip for a few days. It wasn’t her territory, but she could blend in if she kept her head down.
Her thoughts wandered back to the Thal she had freed. What had she been thinking? She doubted he could fend for himself. He certainly couldn’t steal what he needed, not when he might as well be announcing his intentions via a bullhorn from two hundred yards away. They’d been lucky in that business with the tat gang, catching them off-guard. But more thugs could return at any time, tooled up and looking for trouble–enough of them this time to take down a Thal, no matter how strong he was.
And if he survived that? She imagined the Thal sold on to another hawker or returned to some federal institution–and neither seemed like a fair outcome to her. She had created this problem. She couldn’t just walk away.
So guilt drove Sabbi back to the underpass with a packet of food part-scavenged, part-stolen as she’d slunk through the service alleys behind the Strip.
The day after, it was curiosity. The Thal kept himself hidden, staying out of sight in the dark little crevice up between the road supports and the poured concrete. He kept himself hooded, too. She hated how pathetically glad he was to see her.
The day after that, it was a reluctance to let go of a half-finished project.
And by then, she’d just gotten into the habit.
Each day Teleoman emerged cautiously from his hiding place when she called his name, eyes blinking in the sunlight, a sheepish grin on his face. Teleoman hungry! What you brought?
I have my very own troll living under a bridge, she thought.
Being in his presence gave her a low-grade headache. Sometimes she could feel her pulse pounding at the base of her skull as the broadcast babble of his thoughts rose and fell like endless breakers crashing onto the shore.
“Can’t you turn it down, somehow?”
Teleoman stared at her. She saw intelligence behind those eyes; a fast mind despite the appearance of slowness. His strange, questing head movements and clumsy thought-speech could easily fool you into believing he was retarded in some way, but she saw now it wasn’t so. He started to respond–thoughts rising up like a foaming breaker. “No! You’re doing it again! Calm thoughts, okay? Just breathe, or something. Whisper, damn it.”
But he cut the thought off somehow. The wandering head movement slowed. A frown creased his brow as he concentrated.
Now he was concentrating too hard. The wave broke, shattering into a million roaring thought-fragments.
“No, not like that! Don’t force it. Let it flow out of you.” Jeez, what was she turning into? Some kind of new-age therapist spouting psycho-babble?
Sure, and life ain’t no easy ride for me either, you lumbering neanderthal.
Sabbi regretted the thought immediately. He was doing the best he could. Even knowing Thals couldn’t pick up thoughts–it was all send and no receive–she found herself blushing.
Now there was a difference. Instead of roiling, white-water waves, the sea of projected thoughts had become more of a swell, rising and falling to a slower rhythm. Not that her headache had gone, but it was a start.
Owner not kind to Teleoman. But Sabbi kind.
“Hey, that was a little better.”
Teleoman beamed at her. What’s in bag? Teleoman hungry!
And this time, his voice in her head was just a voice, not a shout. Sabbi smiled and showed him.
He was good with his hands, too. On his first day in hiding, she watched him fashion a crude chair out of some scrap rebar, wedging the straight rods into an angle of the roadway’s steel beams and bending them into complex shapes. That was a Thal trait, of course. No homo sapiens had the upper arm strength to do the same. Teleoman scavenged an old mattress from fly-tipped rubbish nearby, rammed it into the home-made frame and settled back with a sigh every bit as satisfied as an old-timer relaxing into a porch recliner. When Sabbi next visited, he’d made one for her too.
She tried to coach him, showing him how to breathe–mainly for her benefit, not his. “Watch me,” she told him. She forced some of the tension from her shoulders, letting them slump and took an exaggerated breath; held it. Exhaled. “See? Try and feel all those thoughts sliding away, growing shallower. Like… I dunno. Ripples in a pool spreading out and fading.” Teleoman stared at her without blinking but she did think his broadcasts were not as overwhelming as they had been. She still made him keep the mesh hood on, though.
Overhead, morning traffic began to pick up, the rhythmic da-dum da-dum of tyres on the expansion joints came like some irregular cosmic heartbeat. Sabbi worried about those people. Did they notice the sudden but brief intrusion into their consciousness, like the blare from a sound system heard through an open window? And always the same place each day. Or were they too busy scanning the headlines or talking on the phone or snoozing, as their little automated metal box whisked them onwards to the city in comfort? Did they ever wonder where the intrusive thoughts came from? If so, how long before someone thought to make a complaint to the authorities?
Why you helping Teleoman?
He had come up behind her while she stood staring out across the valley, lost in her thoughts. Something must be working, if he could approach so close without her even realizing. She thought about his question.
“Because no one deserves to be kept in a cage. That’s not right.”
But Teleoman hurts people, if not in cage. With this.
He tapped the side of his head through the mesh hood.
“I know. But you’re getting a little better each day.” She gave him the brown paper bag she had brought. Fried chicken with deli coleslaw and pork-strippers. All cold of course and rescued from a dumpster, but mostly untouched. No pop, but there was a trickle of brownish water in a rainwater run-off which Teleoman seemed happy to scoop up with those big, flat hands of his.
Why you do this?
“Because you’d starve otherwise.”
No. All this. Why YOU live like this?
She was about to point out that he was the one holed up beneath a freeway, hiding away from human contact. He was the misfit, not her. (It occurred to her to wonder what it was like when he dreamed. What images of fractured reality and broken dream-logic would pour from his mind then? It gave her the shivers.) But Teleoman was right. She was only a rung or two further up the ladder: her home a rusty shipping container that broiled her in the summer heat and turned into an icebox in winter. And her job? She might like to think of it as ‘credit-free business transacting’ but stealing was all it was really. Whatever that made her, she was just an insignificant part of the complex food-chain that was the all-consuming Strip.
She sighed. “Because. Because nobody expects better of me.”
Teleoman think you can do better.
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Life coaching lessons from a Thal? Is that what things had come to?
Sabbi timed her visits for soon after dawn when the Strip slumbered, along with most of its workers. She liked the bite of the early morning air, before the sun burned off its chill. Everything seemed a little quieter, as though the world had been made anew, ready to be ruined again by the day.
She needed a new plan. She needed to move Teleoman somewhere safer. Starting tomorrow, she promised herself, she’d think of something.
Sabbi was a little way off when she spotted a little wisp of smoke curling up into the still morning air from the underpass. She froze. She had a bad feeling about this. For a moment, she just stood watching, listening. There ought to be something, some faint insect-like buzz in her mind. Lately, she felt she’d become more sensitized and could hear his shielded mind from much further away.
Sabbi began to run down the shoulder of the freeway. She’d bought coffee and fried dough-pieces sprinkled with sugar, grease spots already blossoming on the brown paper bag. Bought with the last of her credit–actually bought. Now dribbles of hot coffee squirted from the hole in the lid as she scrabbled and half slid down the slope to the underpass.
Teleoman sat by the remains of a little smoldering camp-fire, bones and animal skin from some kind of meal scattered in the ashes.
“What the hell!”
He stood as she approached and watched her kick over the ashes, stamping down hard until the tendrils of smoke stopped.
“Didn’t I tell you not to do anything to attract attention?”
As if to emphasis her point, a couple of cars thrummed by overhead, reminding her just how close they were to others. Hiding him here had been a stupid idea. She pictured a little convey of unmarked vehicles pulling off onto the dirt strip, the armed enforcers jogging down into the underpass, restraint sticks drawn. Sabbi felt sick.
Teleoman grinned at her and it took her a moment or two to realize why.
He wasn’t wearing his mesh hood. And she wasn’t crumbling under his mental assault.
There was something; a kind of white noise, but nothing worse than the sound of water tumbling in a stream. She refused to let her anger simply ebb away, though. “I told you to stay hidden! It’s not safe for you to go wandering around! What were you thinking, lighting a fire? What if someone had seen?”
Teleoman shrugged, the smile still on his face. Hungry. Catch rabbit. Cooked rabbit taste good!
“Where’s your hood?”
Teleoman practice. Has good teacher! Getting better, yes?
“Yes.” Sabbi approached until she stood right in front of Teleoman. There was a detectable wash of emotion but the waters were calm, nothing like the raging storm-waves from before. When he spoke, she heard his voice clearly but that was all. Whatever other thoughts were buzzing through his brain, he was managing to keep them down. It was the difference between yelling to be heard above the background roar of traffic, and a quiet conversation by the side of a lake.
“You still shouldn’t be out here. Promise me you’ll stay hidden and not go wandering off.”
He nodded slowly.
“I’m going to figure out a plan. Take you somewhere where you’ll be safe. And free.” It wasn’t quite a lie, but almost. But she would figure something out.
Teleoman stooped and retrieved what he had been working on. Like?
She stared at the little wire-frame model of a jack-rabbit sitting on its haunches, lively and alert. The wire looked as though it had been scavenged from a trolley basket, part gleaming chrome, part rust.
“It’s really good. You’ve got a real talent,” she told him. Stashed in the darkness of his hideaway was a growing collection of his wireframe art: a meadow poppy, a gym shoe, an old-style Cadillac, even a tiny replica of one of the distant comms towers complete with dishes and antenna. “But you shouldn’t just copy what you see around you. Invent things. Make things that only you can see inside your head.”
Teleoman looked puzzled. Not real things? Why?
“Because when you make them, they become real.”
“I don’t know. Dragons, or dinosaurs or unicorns! Things that don’t exist but everyone kind of wants them to. We all dream about lots of stuff–but you have to make the dream real if it’s going to count.”
Teleoman stepped closer. He laid a hand on Sabbi’s bare arm. She almost expected his touch to act as some kind of short circuit, for her mind to fill with unstoppable images, a tidal wave of thoughts that would drown her until she moved out of reach.
Instead, she felt only the soft warmth of his hand on her arm. You have dreams?
She chose not to answer him out loud. Maybe once, she thought. Not anymore.
She stood up, breaking contact. “You need to promise to stay hidden, no matter what, okay? It won’t be for long. Don’t go wandering around when I’m not here. Promise?”
The Strip seemed peculiarly alive tonight. The distant north-end lights danced and blurred in warm air rising up from the asphalt despite the sun setting hours before. It transformed the boulevard into a writhing snake of lights as though at any moment a wave might propagate back towards Sabbi and twist the ground beneath her boots.
Tonight she must earn, or too many debts would fall due. She was hungry, too. Hadn’t eaten all day. And she’d need something to take to Teleoman in the morning. Plus she owed rent on her quarter-share of shipping container. She needed currency. Stealing wallets was risky at the best of times, but she couldn’t see any other way. With legit credit she could buy what she needed.
Flat-foots were everywhere tonight, more than she remembered seeing in a long while, patrolling in pairs amongst the crowds. Some had their goggles down, running random facial ID checks.
And there was Prosser to worry about. She’d let him down, and Prosser had never been big on forgiveness.
Sabbi mingled with the crowd, trailing a dozen paces behind one or two possible marks. There was an art to it, as there was with most things. Everyone knew to keep a tight hold on wallets and purses. This was the Strip, after all. But then that exquisite little trinket in a shop window caught their eye and excitement quickened their step. Oh! Look at the price tag. What an absolute steal! That was when one’s guard dropped.
Not tonight though. Hidden behind her designer shades Sabbi diffused through the loved-up couples milling in front of brightly lit store windows, and just as subtly they seemed to edge away from her. Could wealth sniff out desperation, even with her disguises? Maybe.
A hand fell on her shoulder. Not the light touch of an acquaintance stepping out from the crowd. This was the hard slap of contact that screamed out, You’re mine!
As she twisted round to face her assailant, she wondered which she’d prefer. Flat-foot or Prosser’s people? Tangling with authority would mean plenty of trouble, maybe jail-time or county deportation. On the other hand, Prosser liked to see people get hurt if they crossed him. Prosser and people like him, though–they were her people. Maybe she could find a way to sweet-talk him round. In the end, you stuck with your own, didn’t you?
She turned and looked up into the face of the cop, his eyes hidden behind the dark goggles already running a facial recognition scan.
“Yes, that’s her,” said the street-hawker, standing just behind. “She’s the one that took my Thal.”
After the sting of a needle in her arm, events became a little blurry. She remembered being bundled into some kind of vehicle. Then a hard, uncomfortable ride breathing diesel fumes from a leaky exhaust. Typical of government to be the only ones not running electric vehicles these days. And then a narrow cell. She had slept in worse places, though.
By the third day, Sabbi knew they had nothing. By then, they would have confronted her with any real evidence, angling for an easy confession and quick judicial processing. Instead, they played a tedious game of cat-and-mouse: interrogations at all hours; some long, some short–all designed to disorient and wear her down.
Sabbi played dumb. Yes, she’d been in trouble before, but was running straight now, doing courier work where she could get it. No, she had no idea of the whereabouts of any Thal. Yes, she’d felt a Thal’s presence on the Strip a week or so back–but hadn’t hundreds of people? Wasn’t that the thing about Thals? They got right inside your head, the dirty bastards.
All Sabbi had to do was brazen it out. The right-to-detain held good for ten days, but not a minute longer. Patience was going to be her friend and get her through this.
She lay on her hard little chunk of foam mattress in the dark, wondering what Teleoman was doing, what he was thinking when she failed to turn up each day. Would he think she had abandoned him after all?
The last thing she’d told him was not to light any fires, not to leave the underpass; to stay out of sight. Without her daily visits bringing food, how long before he starved? Worse, now that summer was here, the trickle of dirty water in the runoff gully might soon be gone. Maybe he’d get desperate and decide to move on somewhere. If he did that, he’d be caught in no time.
As she lay in the darkness of her cell, she imagined she could hear Teleoman’s voice tickling at her thoughts; a low sigh like the whisper of leaves stirred by a breeze. Impossible, of course. The detention centre was close to the coast, a good fifteen or twenty miles from the underpass. Not even the strongest Thal could project more than half a mile. Even so…
Was it possible she had trained herself to listen for the sounds of his thoughts even as Teleoman was training himself to whisper? But the sounds in her head came and went like the sound of distant surf creeping up the sand and retreating. The more she strained to hear it, the more she became convinced it was only the sound of blood pounding in her veins.
There was nothing left to do but wait, and wonder.
The waiting was the hardest part.
The cops didn’t tag her. Once the paperwork was signed, she was kicked out the back entrance into scorching noon heat, blinking at the bright sunlight she hadn’t seen in days. Nobody said a word to her, just processed her from pillar to post until she was nobody’s problem but her own. What had she been expecting? An apology?
With no money for a taxi ride anywhere, it took her hours of walking to get back, first one interstate and then another, only risking cutting across country when it seemed safe and she was certain no one was tracking her by vehicle or drone. She flattered herself, though. The cops had no real interest in her. To them, she was just another bottom-dweller in the Strip ecosystem–and so what if some hawker was pissed at her for stealing his Thal? Without proof, it wasn’t worth wasting any more of their time.
She had to bite down hard every time she thought about Teleoman.
Had he stayed hidden, unquestioningly following her last instructions–quietly dehydrating and starving to death? Ten days was too long a wait. She imagined the coming of each day’s twilight crushing his hopes once again. Or had he blundered off towards the beckoning lights of a coastal community? The no-man’s land beyond the perimeter fences was a dangerous place, full of biker-psychos and tat-gangs and crud-heads and all kinds of crazies who would have no compunction about hunting a Thal for sport. Thal strength and stubbornness might be the stuff of legends but a dozen gang members against one Thal could have only one outcome. Even if Teleoman made it as far as a gated community, the guards would likely as not shoot on sight if they felt threatened.
Sabbi needed to know he was okay. She’d been the one to get him into this.
With her stomach tightly knotted into a ball of anxiety, she skidded down the familiar embankment towards the dusty track leading to the underpass.
The hiding place was deserted. No trace of Teleoman anywhere. Even his little collection of wire artwork was missing. More to the point, she could sense nothing of his thoughts, not even the vague uneasiness she felt when he was consciously shielding them.
Sabbi stumbled out into the scrub beyond the underpass, wanting only to escape the rumble of passing cars on the freeway above. She couldn’t blame Teleoman for leaving. He had no way of knowing what had happened to her or if she ever intended to return. Now he was gone and that would be the end of it. She had her answer.
She sent a rock skimming off into the brush with her boot. Wasn’t this what she had wanted back at the start? To be a free agent?
She wandered further into the scrub, following a faint trail down the incline, the kind made by wild animals, not humans. After a quarter mile, it turned south and followed the edge of a steep-sided canyon. Forty feet below, a thin stream of water oozed its way around small rocks in the river bed. Sabbi stared.
Below her, Teleoman sat on a fallen tree-trunk, legs dangling over the water, head bent in concentration. His hands worked at something, sunlight glinting from what now looked like a twist of wire.
“Teleoman!” She began to scrabble down the narrow path. “For god’s sake! Have you any idea how much you just scared me? ”
Knew you would come.
He didn’t look up from the object he was manipulating. He didn’t even seem surprised to see her. She’d expected more from him: relief, concern–something.
Heard you coming. From far off. Had to finish this first.
She realized there was something else not quite right. She stood watching him for a long minute, trying to figure out what had changed. Suddenly it was obvious.
No background noise, not even a low-level wash of emotions. When he spoke, his thought-words were clear and strong, but it was at conversational level, not shouting. They still carried an edge, a reverberation like the echo of words spoken loudly in a hushed cathedral. But two weeks ago, simply being in his unhooded presence would have all but pummelled her brain to mush.
The transformation was remarkable.
Teleoman go soon. Waited for you, though.
He shrugged. Anywhere. Somewhere better. He hesitated. Sabbi could come too?
She thought about that. Somewhere new, where no one knew her. A chance to reinvent herself? There was something appealing in the thought…
She shook her head and Teleoman’s face fell. “I have to stay. Without the Strip… I don’t know how else to live.” It was where low-lifes like her belonged, grifting and preying on the rich.
Sabbi better than that.
“No, I’m not. I’m just like all the others. We’re all trapped playing the same game. If I gain, you lose, but tomorrow it may be the other way round. That’s what the Strip does to you. You look out for yourself because nobody else will.”
No. Sabbi help Teleoman. So why Sabbi do that?
She’d asked herself the same question over and over, and still wasn’t sure of the answer. Perhaps with a little more time to think about it…
Here. Teleoman make. He held something out to her. A gift. For you.
Sabbi took the object; a complex shape fashioned out of thin silver wire. A tiny stallion, its wire outline perfectly capturing a natural grace and beauty–as though it might come to life at any moment, and spring from her palm.
Ah, but no. On its forehead was a narrow, silvery spike.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered, wondering at the inadequacy of her words. “There are stall-holders on the Strip who’d sell this kind of thing for a decent sum. Enough to make a living from.”
No. Not for sale. For you.
Sabbi leaned down and kissed Teleoman lightly on the cheek. His eyes widened a little in surprise. A vast wave of joy radiated out from him and a feeling of such optimism that in that instant all things seemed possible. It washed over her like a blast of heat from an oven, the signal so strong and clear that even those in the coastal communities might have felt something.
And just this once, that was fine with her.