Xenoform Online - Mike Berry

CHAPTER ONE

Leo Travant shook a reeferette from a battered Sativia packet, lit it and inhaled expansively. He smiled, stuffing his hands into his pockets, happily regarding the teeming crowd as it breathed and swelled its way towards Friday night.

He fluttered his brilliantly-plumed parrot wings, feeling the greasy evening air ruffle their feathers delicately – the caress of the living city. He savoured this sensation momentarily as the gravpods silently planed up and down the neon roadways. He absent-mindedly relit one edge of the reeferette where the wind had smoked it and crossed into the pulsing, almost solid mass of High Street foot traffic, heading west against the tide.

He would see the Jukeman one more time. Of course, the Jukeman wasn’t his real name. Leo didn’t know his real name, and knew better than to ask. To the Jukeman he was an interloper from another world – the world of smart suits and conference calls. Or was he an interloper in the world of smart suits and conference calls? Either way, he would have one more hit and then off the stuff. It would all be fine and life was good.

The people here were dressed in the simple, clean lines of the moderately wealthy, their bodymods of reasonably high quality, doubtless most of them legitimately obtained and installed, unlike Leo’s own. The lovely, flightless wings would have cost a year’s worth of his good city salary on the legit market. They had been custom-designed and made by one of the black market’s finest bodymod surgeons, introduced to him, coincidentally, by the Jukeman.

The people moved hurriedly and without fuss – cogs in a machine, grinding and meshing along the crowded pavements. Places to go, people to see, lives to be lived, busy, busy. HUD-glasses showing street-map overlays, net-brooches jacked into direct neural interfaces, stunning chameleon skin patterns, high chrome faces, sexmods and fightmods and workmods – a heaving, breathing bio-mechanical mass.

The domes of the spaceport loomed in the north – huge, silvered hemispheres like congealed blobs of mercury. The elongating plume of an ascending lightpusher – a sustained-acceleration craft still climbing out of the Earth’s gravity well on fusion drives – hung like a dwarf star above the monolithic skyline. Soon it would switch to ion thrusters for its long and steady acceleration into deep space.

Leo moved away from the glittering edifice of the Smithson Investment Advisory Services building where he worked, crossing at a junction without waiting for the lights, passing the holo theatre. From a projector in a film advertising billboard emerged foot-thick metallic snakes, holograms made solid by force-field manipulators. They writhed through the air like trails of silvered smoke. Occasionally, one would snap the hat from a passer-by, spitting it back into the crowd or soar towards someone menacingly then swerve away at the last moment, fangs bared and crackling with electricity.

A stunning woman with lengthened legs and honey-coloured skin bumped Leo’s arm and he burned her on the bare elbow with his joint. She hissed, scowling, and jerked her arm away but continued into the throng without slowing.

‘Sorry!’ he called after her redundantly as he paused to watch her recede from view.

Damn sheep. There should be a cull, he thought, but immediately scolded himself for allowing his mood to falter. Leo re-pasted his smile into place and returned to the business of walking.

Spyflies buzzed past on tiny whirring rotors, their helter skelter flight patterns so much like those of real flies. Some were operated by the police, but others belonged to market research companies, private detective agencies, mapping and surveying organisations, even private owners. The tiny, complex devices were the latest piece of highly desirable, highly expensive must-have tech amongst the business classes.

Leo came to the end of High Street, where it exploded into a six-armed junction. Two roads anticlockwise from his position he saw Beat Street, heard its heartbeat of pulsing seismo-bass, saw the play of laser light along it.

Not looking out for cars, he dashed across the road to a traffic island. A gravpod with an iridescent paint job braked sharply to avoid running him down. A smooth-faced man with sunglasses leaned out and shouted something at him before accelerating off again.

This is some strong shit. I nearly got creamed there. Must keep it together!

Leo looked suspiciously at the roach between his fingers as if the item itself had tried to get him killed and dropped it to the floor. It bounced, trailing embers, into the gutter and he ground it underfoot as he stepped out,