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Houses of the Holy

By Recca Phoenix

 

**this is my EXCLUSIVE intellectual property, licensed under Creative Commons.**

 

DISCLAIMER – click here

The highlighted portions I have marked for revision, they sound awkward.

Crossed-out portions are to be cut, I have kept them there for later reference.

 

Last update: 10/1/07

Chapter 8 added

Minor revisions

 

Opinion Poll

CONTENTS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

In the faint violet-white shades of the streetlights filtering through the window, I lay on my stomach on the cold, cracked linoleum.  Another hit successfully completed.  I opened the top of a black plastic storage tube I’d saved as part of that night’s disguise and stowed my rifle inside between some half-painted rolls of white card.  I hid the spare rounds I’d brought inside some empty tubes of paint and put them in my canvas bag.  I gathered up my bag and the tube, putting some stray marks on my clothes and hands with colored chalk to complete the disguise.  

The Peoples’ University for the Cultural Arts was nearby, and students often returned late from the studio.  It was a perfectly blended shadow of a plan, another one-time disguise that wouldn’t elicit the slightest reaction from a pole, and that was on the off chance that one would even be on duty at that leaden, wearisome hour near the U campus.  As far as I knew, most of them simply snuck off to the late-hour cafés during night duty and drank coffee as they struggled to stay awake.  There’d be a story in the paper almost every month of heroic bravery by some fat, red-eyed pole foiling a break-in at a late-nighter.  It made me smile to myself as I walked down the silent asphalt passages, the thought of the bewildered expressions those half-asleep sods always wore on the front-page photos.  I was entertaining this train of thought when the event, the encounter, entered my life.  It was as if a stray ball had stopped at my feet and I stood there wondering to the empty air around me. 

A piece of rusted piping swung towards me furiously out of the blue night air.  My heart beat frantically against my ribcage as I leapt back and tried to pull the tube from my back to defend myself.  I backed away, looking for an escape route as the shadow came closer.  The attacker lunged to one side, giving me the chance to escape in the other direction.  I ran backwards a few steps then turned and sprinted when I’d evaded the reach of his pipe.  I faced arrest every day and had certainly grown up in danger’s shadows, but this threat sent horrid bolts of fear through my body.  I tried again to loosen the tube from my back but I’d strapped it too tightly and had no time to fumble with the buckles.  My heart surged with frantic spasms of dread as I reached the end of the alley.  I turned and saw my attacker approach slowly, a crazed look of bloodlust, greed, and childish delight reflecting off his toothy grin.  I stood my ground and kept my composure, hoping to intimidate the boy into leaving me alone.  As he drew closer, he laughed under his breath like an ogre child in a sweet shop.  I’d never have thought myself a gang victim, my brain shouted in terrible, ironic melancholy.  I bit my lip, holding back the floodgates of cowardly, pathetic self-preservation rooting me to the spot. 

As the boy drew closer still, I observed the gray dress suit and black armband of a gang member.  My eyes grew large in frantic hope as I held up the sign of the assassins’ guild.  My hands trembling slightly as I looked through my crossed fingers, I saw him laughing in smug amusement. 

“Making up signs won’t help you, girlie,” he laughed.  I searched my mind for other signs we’d used – perhaps he’d been out of the loop?!   He couldn’t have been any older than myself.  My breaths grew tight and audible as I backed into the wall, still holding up the sign.  I flinched as he cut across my blouse with a folding blade, still laughing in horrible amusement.  I was seized with an angry hollow desperation.  I am not about to become a rape victim, not on my life.  I wrested the tube from my back as I tried to sidestep the gang member.  I heard shouting, a girl screaming and crying, and a rush of feet in boots echoing eerily off the alleyways.  My attacker tried to cut me again as I darted to the side, the strange sounds fluttering in my ears like bats. 

I sighted a flicker of relieved hope as I attempted to escape to the side, but the boy elbowed me into the wall.  Through the hot, throbbing pain in my shoulder where it had smashed into the case and the wall, I desperately tried to fend him off with the sign again.  He laughed like he was winning some childish game and swept the pipe down towards me, his unkempt hair forming a wild halo around his leering face.  I was able to block it with my tube this time, but terror crept in around the edges of my vision like a spreading stain.  I heard the heavy footsteps grow closer and said in that unnatural, wavering tone of fear and defense,

“Do whatever you want, you stupid bastard, but know that my family will destroy you and every last member of your petty ‘organization.’” 

I shut my eyes, trying to close off my mind and face the impending darkness with dignity. 

I opened my eyes as I heard my attacker shout in pain. 

“What?!” he shouted in an accusing tone, standing up to face another young man in gang uniform.  I still had my hands up in the sign, the fear clutching at my shoulders like talons.  I started to come to, catching pieces of the argument between the two gang members.  I gradually fell back into my usual calm demeanor.  My attacker stomped away, pouting and leering at the other gang member, who turned to smile confidently at me as I rose. 

“The assassins’ guild,” he stated somewhat boastfully.  I checked my bag to make sure nothing had fallen out.  “I had no idea how few of you there were left, and I’m truly sorry for my companion’s behaviour.”

Oh, nice.  Someone else knows how pathetic our numbers are.   

After securing my bag, I turned to look at him.  His eyes were a shining walnut colour that exuded an old-world aristocratic air, and his hair, though slightly longer than most boys’, was clean and fell neatly to his neck.  Still, he was a gang member, I thought as I tried to think of a way to leave without offending him.  A rapist, probably.  A criminal, most certainly.  But I did owe him something.  As he owed me, for if I hadn’t been intrigued by his politeness and in too vulnerable a state to lash out, I’d have sent the guild after every gang member in that uniform in the city. 

“I owe you,” I said reluctantly as I tried to leave.  The boy stepped in front of me, smirking.  He had the air of a mischievous upper-class schoolboy, but I felt there was something dark and threatening under the surface, like a lion cub toying with its prey before the kill.  He inclined his head and stared me straight in the eye.

“As I do,” he replied, almost in a whisper.  “I know the scope and talents of the assassins.  Something to be respected.”  I was too tired from my close call to reply with the usual sarcastic witty rebuke, so I nodded my acknowledgement and walked past him. 

I felt something touch my back and stopped, ominous shivers slowly creeping up and down my body. 

“Art student, returning home late from the studio…” said the boy as he ran the point of his umbrella up and down my back.  He returned the umbrella to his shoulder and stepped to my side again.  “Clever disguise, girl.  Completely plausible.” 

“Well, unlike you schoolkids I can’t afford to wander the streets in uniform,” I said. 

He laughed smugly to himself. 

“I suppose I’m not facing a death sentence like you are.” 

I looked at his self-confident smile and noticed he had drawn around his eyes with dark eyeliner.  It gave him the look of a gothic prince. 

“I should be going.”

“The night’s still young, Miss Assassin.  Why the hurry?”

“I have classes tomorrow.” 

He looked genuinely surprised.

You pursue a normal citizen’s life…” He smiled again with a strange curiosity.  “Interesting, chicky.”  That disgusting familiar term, I thought, containing my offense to avoid any confrontation. 

“I suppose that’s the fundamental difference between the gang member and the assassin…education, training, lifestyle…” he continued. 

It could be helpful to know a gang leader, I mused momentarily, quickly dismissing the idea as I recalled my ordeal several minutes earlier. 

“Thanks, comrade,” I mumbled. 

“No problem at all.”

What are you doing, Ciel, get out of there, I chided myself, walking quickly and cautiously into the concrete night. 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

I walked home in a daze of thought, staring off into space.  I was relieved that I’d come out of the encounter unhurt, but embarrassed and angry that I hadn’t been able to defend myself.  When I finally arrived back at my apartment, I fell into bed and slept in a single motion like a lead weight. 

The shrill, harsh sound of my alarm clock severed me from sleep the next morning.  I stumbled into the bathroom, rubbing my eyes.  I noticed the tear in my blouse and the cut from the previous night, and the terror of the experience flashed coldly in my mind.  Being calm helped me to sort things out, and I devised a plan to prevent that type of blunder in the future.  I located a small folding blade and stuffed it into my bag. 

I took a long, hot shower, letting the tension, blood, and fear wash onto the yellowing tiles as I listened to the usual morning drivel on the radio. 

“Heeeey comrades!  It’s time to wake up with your number-one digiradio pop traks stream, COMET-K!  It’s Marta and Chris in the morning!”

“Wooo!  This is Marta…”

“…and Chris…”

“coming to you live on Comet-K!”

“And we got a smashing new trak from Roxana!”  Roxana, my best friend, was something of a celebrity these days.  Which wasn’t too surprising, I guess, for such a choir standout and constant hummer.  *past stuff?* We both found the other’s profession quite useful in the event of an emergency, but more importantly had been able to talk freely in each other’s company since childhood.  It was difficult for an assassin to have this kind of relationship with anyone, even inside the guild.  Roxana’s cheerful, natural voice launched into an upbeat tune, the usual working hard with friends tale, the kind of trak that earned government approval easily and therefore streamed on the digiradio easily as well. 

Summer sun in the workers’ park

Dancin’ and playin’ till the sky turns dark

Worked so hard to earn this relaxation

Yeah!

Comrades, brothers, sisters, it’s you!

            “Comet-K, your NUMBER ONE digiradio pop traks stream! This is Chris…”

            “…and Marta in the morning!  And now for the news, direct from PBC, the People’s news you trust!”

            I picked through my straight champagne-coloured hair with a comb, wondering what ridiculous story of government success in industry they’d scoured the area for today.

            “So, Marta, I hear that the People’s U of Pre-Rev ranked last among the U’s for student happiness…”

            “Oooh, well it’s no wonder.”

            “Why’s that?”

            “How are you going to be a good citizen if all you do is study what happened before the Revolution?”

            “Hah, that’s true, comrades!”

            I sighed in annoyance as I looked at the rings under my eyes in the dingy mirror.  It can’t be helped…  The council did everything it could to discourage the prospective U student from going into any field with an element of history.  Ironically, it was the one field that most of the better students found interesting.  Well, it never stopped me from going to P.U.P.R.S., I thought, laughing to myself. 

            “Well, we’ve already heard Roxana’s new single here…” Chris said cheerfully.

            “…and it’s great as usual!” squealed Marta.

            “Why do you like Roxana, Marta?”

            “Well, she’s a real person for one!”   

            “Have you been to one of her concerts yet?”

            “Yeah!  I couldn’t believe it, she had an actual band playing different instruments!”  I had to admit, even though Roxana’s songs were as stupidly optimistic and simple as the rest at times, it was nice to know she wasn’t an airbrushed face with someone else’s voice dubbed in, or worse, completely synthetic. 

            I dressed in my uniform, a white button-down shirt and a pair of shorts.  I grabbed my books and, making sure I had my keys and wallet, walked out the door.

I took the newspaper from under the door and read it as I went down the eight flights of stairs that led outside to the streetcar stop.

Roxana’s picture caught my eye on the front page.  She’d dyed her hair a seamless, deep blue and she wore her usual skirt, lace boots, and Party hat.  She posed artificially with one hand on her knees and the other held up in a V-sign.  Everyone had become so accustomed to this kind of cuteness from the airbrush stars, even the actual humans were copying it now…  The article praised Roxana’s new album and went into a survey of public opinion.

 

“Roxana’s appeal lies in her humanity,” says Professor () of  P.U.M.A., Pre-Rev Music Dep’t.  “Sure, you can achieve ‘perfection’ with your voice-chip mods and synthvox, but Roxana is real and does just as well.  She’s the only real person on the charts these days, isn’t she?  She gives concerts all the time as well, and chooses to use musicians and instruments, which I haven’t seen since I was a boy.  It may be old-fashioned but it’s different and most importantly, it brings music back to the people.”  Roxana’s agent told THE PEOPLE’S BANNER that her concerts were designed to do just that – to share music with her comrades, the people of our city.  “Comrade Roxana is a true granddaughter of the revolution,” says Council Music Minister Cho, “She doesn’t insist on some pretense of her humanity or try to criticize the revolution like these purist groups.  She loves the Party and the people.  Above all, she wants to serve them, and I think that’s something the kids nowadays can learn from.”

 

I saw Roxana’s coy pose on a newly erected billboard in front of the aging office building on campus as I stepped out of the streetcar.  I laughed to myself as I walked into the library to cram in some extra studying before classes began.  Pre-Revolution Literature, now there was an amusing class.  Anyone could earn a fairly good mark simply by criticizing every work assigned.  1984 is a presumptuous piece of pretentious speculation that shows a typical pre-revolutionary ignorant fear of new government,” I wrote after scanning the summary at the top of the KomPage on the book.  I wondered if the government deliberately chose to write longer, duller summaries for the older books to deter people from reading them.  I wouldn’t be surprised take out?

 

I arrived home after a somewhat interesting day of Pre-Rev Lit and fell back onto my bed.  I pulled out my KomPage processor and logged into the historical research hub.  Purists insisted on gaining the multiple levels of Party clearance needed to access the paper copies of documents and the visas needed to travel and find even more documents, but the great majority of professors and the entirety of students read the KomPages on the subjects, easily searchable and conveniently filtered for reactionary content.  Unique perspective could hardly be called a criterion in research anymore.  

I had to squeeze and pressure myself into research mode in those rare instances of free time when I wasn't searching for or carrying out my guild assignments. 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

The ring of my phone sent bolts through my concentration.  I picked it up, my heart still pounding.

“Comrade Corovya?”

I recognized my guild advisor’s voice speaking the keyname, so I switched on the signal interception device near the phone.  I’d disguised it as a lightswitch to avoid questions.

“Ciel Angelique Heaven, keyname acknowledged.”

“Hello Ciel.  How are you?”

“Normal.”

“I suppose that means ‘good?’”

“You know what I mean, Orion.”

“But it’s true, no?  If things are normal for you, then it’s good.”

“Right, I’d get suspicious if things were ‘good,’” I laughed.  I gave my usual report of assignments and their results to Orion.  He was only four years older, a small age difference that never would have existed between an advisor and an un-pledged guild member had we not been short on numbers.  It made for a more comfortable relationship, though, as he was easier to approach when problems came up. 

“Your earnings are a bit low this term, Ciel,” he said with detached criticism.  I felt a stab of cold realization.  “You can’t afford to be choosy about jobs in the coming months.”

“I thought I’d made more than enough last term…”

“You did, Ciel, but I decided to deduct your equipment fee because of that.  You’re still making average progress at the moment, but you’ve got to be careful.”

“I see.  Thank you.” 

“You’re welcome.  Goodbye.”

I retrieved the details of the job and looked them over, but I found my mind wandering.  I’d be pledged and a professional at my age if the assassins’ guild, our glorious Heaven family, was once again its former self, triumphant…this shadowy, secret existence and the council’s rabid persecution of our brothers and sisters had reduced the age and expectations to pledge…but the decisive, cold severance and murder of any suspicious member remained an ugly, hovering shadow threat for every Heaven.  And the days before that…before the council and the restriction of guilds …before even the revolution?  I’d be adopting new members into the guild, long since pledged at my age.  I’d be adopting and training those from outside the blood family, competing with rival guilds, teaching and watching my students die senselessly in warfare between guilds.  So perhaps it was fortunate that our family had fallen so.  Still, the dying, decrepit numbers cried out weak and sickly for us to pledge as young as possible.  As soon as I finish school, they’ll be breathing down my neck to pledge into the guild, I thought.  Surely, I’d be ready…

            I prepared my disguise for the job I’d received through Orion the previous week, trying to clear my head about the fate of the Heavens.  This assignment was in the PUCA campus area again, but further North, closer to the Black District.  I dressed myself this time as an insomniac photog student out taking night shots.  It was a plausible lie; I’d known my share of photogs and they loved the old light fixtures in that area of the U campus.  It had been converted from a few of the former “college” buildings on the periphery of the Black District, after all, and the dirty stoops were still covered in bullet marks from the revolution days.  The council discouraged that type of sentimental architecture and its association with needless, pretentious knowledge, but they’d been short on building funds and were forced to repurpose those few blocks.  As if “counter-revolution” ever came from architecture… 

            I pulled on some worn jeans and a black sweater, stowing my rounds in film canisters and my rifle in a tripod case.  I painted my shoe soles with a light layer of shadow grease, just enough to reduce sound but not so much as to cause suspicion if a curious pole stopped me.  I closed the curtain on my sooty window and stepped into the chill grey breezes of the early Autumn night. 

 

            Pools of violet-tinged light from the Heligen streetlamps illuminated the dark blue streets of the PUCA campus.  My target was a writer of council policy, according to the brief, vague description sheet the client had filled out.  I looked at the photo I’d been provided to familiarize myself with the man’s silhouette.  The paucity of information didn’t interfere all that much with the assignment, as guild agents retrieved all the relevant address and location details; the more degrees of separation between assassin and target the better.  I recalled my older cousin Geoffrey Heaven lecturing me as we played screengames in the moldy VR arcade.  It should get to the point where it’s mechanical.  Automatic.  Like shooting the pictures on the screen, Ciel.  Good timing!  I’d been no more than nine or so at the time, Geoffrey a pledged assassin.  He trained me occasionally, and on the days when I seemed bored with the usual exercises he’d sneak me into the VR arcade, sit me on a peeling vinyl stool, and let me play the shooting screengames until my eyes hurt. 

            I continued this train of thought while ascending a rusted-over fire escape in the oil-black shadows between buildings.  I scoped out the distance between my chosen stakeout room and the target’s windows.  Perfect.  The unsuspecting pole would’ve seen nothing but an eccentric photog-in-training trying to get an interesting angle from the fire escape.  I prided myself on these disguises – like a glass window, they were just invisible enough to overlook.  I suppose I made up for my physical shortcomings with clever planning and cautious intellect.  It had saved me when the council screened Heavens through “physical fitness tests” in the grade schools and the unusually swift and agile children “disappeared.”  After all, I only had one chance to make a shot.  A minute of caution or a lifetime lost to a death sentence or worse…

            Wonderful train of thought before an assignment, I mused, trying to nonchalantly cast off the gravity of the situation.  I lined up my sight with a glass panel in the target’s bathroom window.  I’d seen him remove his shoes and Party jacket in another room and drawn conclusions accordingly.  He was a young, untidy man with a halo of curly, electrified brown hair and a thick mustache like a brush.  The council lets its own look this unkempt?  I smiled in amusement as the man walked into the bathroom and I steadied the crosshairs.

            Click.

            The silent peregrine 52-7 special round pierced the glass cleanly and took down its target like a practice panel, out of my scope’s view.  What happened outside of that circle was no concern of mine. 

            I felt a rush of satisfactory relief course through my body like a massage.  I quickly disassembled and hid my equipment, sliding out of the room like a ribbon. 

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

            I was physically exhausted after the hours of rapt attention that day, but the beaming warm content of a job well done kept me alert as I headed home.  I heard shouting and eerie laughter echoing off distant buildings along with the distinctive, deadening sounds of beating down a human body.  The sounds took on the character of a demonic ritual as they rebounded off the walls.  As I made my way through the alleys, I saw black shadows blown out of proportion on the apartment complex walls in the lights of flickering Heligen lamps and yellow Safelamps. U students, probably back from a night of studying the various stages of human inebriation, no doubt…replacing their various artistic “blocks” with post-party angst the morning after.  Probably just a drunken brawl, I mused as I meandered around some toppled trashcans.  Silence.  Then the unsettling distorted voices returned as I moved into a different street. 

            “Big haul, Rex!  Where’s your little brother’s share?” said one voice, deranged and mocking. 

            “The minute you start treatin’ him like a big brother you’ll get it,” replied another voice caustically.  Some confused shouts rang out and I heard the scuffle of boots as another fight of some kind escalated into shouting and beating.  I’d departed the U area at this point – some barricades and stages had been set up for a street fair the next day and I’d been unable to go by my usual routes.  I scanned my surroundings, reminding myself of the absence of poles in the Black District, which drew dangerously close. 

            A blinding light obstructed my field of view as a heavy blow like a door slam hit my upper arm.  I blocked the following blow with my rifle case, coming face-to-face with a grinning boy in a black Chinese silk jacket.  He wore an ash-coloured beret on his unruly blond hair.  He swung his wooden bat forcefully in my direction with all the grace and control of an umbrella in a hurricane.  Another gang member, I realized, spotting his purple armband.  I sidestepped his next blow and located my switchblade in the front pocket of my bag.  I ran, only to nearly meet another weapon.  I backed into a nearby wall to avoid the second attacker, the cold, damp bricks seeping fear into my back.  The second attacker set upon the blonde boy with the ferocity and glee of some hellish jackal, repeatedly and without calculation.  Transfixed by both the novelty and the utter shock of this violence, I found myself unable to turn away and run.  The jackal boy turned towards me when he’d finished with the blonde boy and threw his body weight into his weapon.  I blocked his blow with my case, struggling to fend him off.  I ducked towards the side to catch him off balance, giving me enough time to flash the Heavens’ sign. 

            “Miss Assassin?” the jackal said quizzically as his posture sprung back to normal.  I recognized the refined, youthful drawl of the upper-class gang leader who’d saved me that time.  “Ho, not too bad with this type of thing either, are we?”  He smirked and lunged towards me again with his umbrella-weapon, a playful expression in his dark-rimmed eyes.  He reminded me even more of a jackal now, his toothy grin and Egyptian-looking eyes showing a kind of jaded sadism.

            I heard the approaching, distinctive high-pitched whine of a Bluebell shaft and instinctively dove for the ground, taking the boy down with me.  The shattering explosion nearby knocked us into some trashcans.  I quickly righted myself and saw the glinting, metallic shards of the missed Bluebell hissing and fizzing on the pavement several paces away.  The boy rose and brushed off his suit, twirling his umbrella into his hand.  I noticed it was the variety with a blade concealed in the shaft, as it had come unsheathed when it hit the ground.  The boy smiled as he faced me and said,

            “And that is why you don’t give an assassin’s weapon to-”

            “…someone like you?” I suggested, picking up the film canisters that had fallen from my bag.  The sooner I left and the less I said to him the better.  “Besides, no self-respecting assassin would waste their notes on Bluebells, they’re too noisy,” I grumbled.  What was I doing talking to this pretentious sadistic brat?

            The sounds of the nearby fight cross-faded into moaning and self-indulgent whooping laughter. 

            “I suppose that was meant for me…” chuckled the boy, “but what a miss!  I’m sure that poor idiot spent a whole month’s haul on that thing.”  I couldn’t help but laugh, picturing a young gang member throwing a tantrum at wasting the one shaft he’d been able to afford. 

            “Ah, see, we’re both human beings with a sense of humour,” the boy said in a low tone, drawing nearer.  He sauntered over to me like a hungry jaguar.  I nodded and turned to leave, but the boy sidestepped in front of me.  I reluctantly decided to play along and avoid any confrontation.  “I’m very grateful to you…”  He stalled, raising his intonation to imply an introduction.  I sighed tensely, wondering whether to give him my name.  I avoided eye contact as I tried to wander away from the problem as my mind suggested.  The boy leaned forward, trying to meet my eyes. 

            “Rex Corona,” he said quietly, raising his eyebrows in anticipation of a reply.

            “Ciel Heaven,” I mumbled, looking at my feet in embarrassment, my posture sinking with my nervous, grudging spirits. 

            “The sky and the heavens,” Rex said pensively, looking into my eyes with a kind of wistful curiosity.  “I suppose your middle name follows that beautiful standard as well?”  He looked me over with a kind of lusty ennui, and I felt myself tense like I’d been caught in a cold rainstorm. 

            “Angelique,” I said, trying to shrug off my nervousness and irritation in idle chat. 

            “French, isn’t it.”

            “I’m surprised you knew that.”

            “Well…” he said confidently, his piercing mahogany eyes tracking me like a searchlight.  I looked around, waiting for him to turn away so I could leave.  I looked down at the unconscious blond boy and snatched his beret. 

            “Disguise piece, I suppose?” Rex inquired, squatting next to me, attempting to penetrate my eyes again.  We stood up and came face-to-face.  I bit my lip and stared back, feeling prideful and stubborn.  “I really…can’t begin to think how I can repay you,” Rex said with a wavering sincerity that caught me off guard.  “But…you didn’t pull any strings over our little misunderstanding…?”  It was halfway between a question and assertion, a translucent shade of threat.  He gripped his umbrella handle. 

            “No,” I said flatly.  His posture relaxed.  I was moved, somehow…gang member or not, I’d never met anyone outside the family with a realistic degree of respect for the Heavens, driven to the shadows and weakened as we were…I was lucky he’d even recognized the sign, now that I thought about it. 

            “I owe you something too…” I mumbled, trying to conceal my impressions. 

            “No, no…” Rex said, shifting his weight.  “I’ve got an idea.”  I inclined my head slightly, curious as to what he was thinking.  He scribbled something on a wrinkled piece of paper he took from his suit pocket.  He then searched through his other pockets and handed me a small black metal cylinder on a ribbon.  “This,” he said, handing me the paper, “is my KeiT number.  And that,” he said, touching the cylinder, “is a completely pole-proof UCCAPSys.ŗ  He explained to me the password and sequence for activating and operating the UCCAPSys.  “This way, if you’re ever in trouble somewhere, I may be able to lend you some manpower.”  He swung his umbrella to accent his point. 

            “I can’t thank you enough,” I laughed nervously, immediately regretting the frankness of my reply. 

            “I can’t even imagine…no hospital use….   I suppose you can’t use any government service, even…” Rex said, showing an innocent, friend-like concern. 

            “Thank you,” I said again, leaving quickly.  As I briskly walked home, I examined the UCCAPSys.  It looked standard, and besides, it wasn’t within the ability or budget of a gang member to hack one into a homing signal.  I checked to make sure it was de-activated and stuffed in in my jeans pocket.  He had nothing on me, it was fine…but who exactly was he?  Sadistic, gang member, petty criminal…of course.  All of them were.  Protests when the government took over had reduced the poles to something to be laughed at, a costly leak for public funding, and as attention turned to eradicating the assassins, the gangs grew in size and number.  And as long as they stopped short of “organized crime” or terrorism, the government would continue to overlook them.  But Rex…I sensed something odd there, like a laid-off professor in a soup line.  Odd, but intriguing. 

            As I dragged my leaden feet back into my apartment, I hid the UCCAPSys in the safe box with my KeiT and Rex’s number.  The safe box severed all signals and deactivated transfers.  But…what was I thinking taking a UCCAPSys from a gang member…I suppose he risked just as much as me by giving his name, but….if I ever happen to see him again, I’ll run away.

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

            I shook my head spasmodically every few minutes, trying to clear it of the dull, throbbing pain that kept blurring my vision.  It’d been two and a half weeks since my last assignment and I needed money to buy the latest chip for my KomPage processor.  I couldn’t afford to skip an assignment, sick or not.  I’d decided to walk along the roofs in a blackout suit to save time and disguise money.  Besides, there were no poles to cut into my work and no late-night drunkards’ broken songs to spoil my concentration.  I peered onto the street below to double-check my whereabouts, feeling a stabbing dizziness sweep over me as I bent down.  I took a few deep, labored breaths to regain my balance and continued over the roofs.  I thought back to the last few weeks to keep my mind off the growing nausea I felt as I stumbled along:

 

 

            I’d seen Rex on the street below from the top of the billboard as I left the assignment, and took great pains to make sure I came down from the building in a dark and secluded spot.  He’d appeared out of the shadows like a ghost, his underlings chatting behind him, scaring me half to death.  I walked away without a glance back only to meet Rex alone at the next corner.  He stared at me with a kind of sad detachment, as if he wanted to talk to me.  As I turned to leave he flicked a strand of my hair and whispered in my ear,

            “Keep at it.  I just wanted to thank you again…for saving my life.” 

Cold prickles of panic struck me as he lightly ran a finger across my neck.  I saw him smiling deviously as I looked back.  I ran, cursing the idiot for trying to talk to me again.  Good thing I sealed off that UCCAPSys…he’s probably trying to catch me alone so he and his lackeys can have their way with me… 

 

            I’d run into him again another night on the way back from a history seminar across town, almost drawn into the tail end of a brawl with a few chain-wielding boys in moth-eaten wool Revolutionary Army coats.  All I had was my switchblade, which I knew would be useless against the brutes.  I ran, straining against the limits of my speed and approached the Heligen-lighted pool around the other end of the alleyway, the boys too absorbed in their fight to notice.  I stopped to catch my breath as I came out into the main street, a slight breeze stirring some discarded flyers for a Kiki Momo concert on the sidewalk.  I heard footsteps approaching and drove my blade into the assailant behind me, who stumbled painfully back into the alleyway, bloodstains spreading onto his overcoat.  I saw Rex stepping away from the brawl, eyes wide in amazement as his underlings chased away the remnants of the overcoat gang. 

            “Oooh, that one’s a looker!” said one of them, eyeing me playfully.  I flashed my switchblade as they approached and walked away.  “Wanna play with a real weapon, lolly?”

I gritted my teeth in irritation.  I hated the saccharine, familiar terms that had become so prevalent and somehow generally acceptable.   

            “Come on, come on, Rex, let’s have some fun…” whined another one of them like a little brother tugging on his mother’s skirt.  “We can take the bird, all she’s got is that puny blade.”

            “Yeah and we need something to cut off the clothes with anyway,” a third one howled.  I increased my pace as I heard their footsteps playing on the edges of my perception. 

            “…Not today, boys,” Rex said with an artificial loudness.  “You never know when you might meet someone again.”  There was an awkward silence as they paused, confused. 

            “What?” said the first boy.  “Annh, nevermind, I’m too tired to do some on a fighter…”

            “Fighters are fine once you hurt ‘em enough,” grumbled the third boy.  I took off into the night… saved by the whim of a criminal. 

 

 

            I felt another wave of pounding, staggering nausea creeping in, and I crouched behind a nearby air vent to vomit.  Nothing happened, and the feeling clung to my insides like talons along with my uncertainty over Rex.  Biting my lip, I rose and attempted to walk forward.  I couldn’t have more than a few blocks to go, and I could rest at my stakeout point…

            Blue and black clouds spotted my vision and my legs shivered violently as I plodded across the next roof.  A wave of hot pain pushed me over, the metal air ducts next to me faded from view and my sharp breaths gradually left my ears. 

 

            Blurred shapes and garbled sounds returned after the indefinite darkness: a rusted ladder, the terrible sound of a metallic ringing in my ears.  I somehow made it over to the ladder on the edge of the roof and climbed down onto a nearby fire escape.  The cool metal felt soothing to my burning forehead as I lay down on it.  I saw gray and white shapes stirring in the alley below.  Fever ghosts, reappearing to dance around my field of view…  I slipped again into a pulsing unconsciousness, my soft cry fading away from my ears. 

 

            “Ciel,” said the voice as someone lightly shook my shoulders.  I felt my eyes open, but the blurred shapes assaulted me with dizziness and I shut them tightly again.  “Ciel.”  The dizziness drained away as quickly as it had approached and I opened my eyes again.  The blurred face looked over its shoulder to see some fuzzy silhouettes depart the alleyway.  It turned back to me when they’d left.  I clutched at the air, looking for something – anything – to help me stand up.  A warm hand rested on my forehead as the voice became clearer  , the overwhelming heat blinding me again. 

            “Be strong…” it said quietly.  I flailed my arms weakly, trying to speak something, beating against the darkness with all the strength I could muster.  “Stop it, stop it!” the voice whispered, holding back my arms.

I glimpsed a scorching desert dancing in mirrored heat mirages, pounding my head with the sound of an empty oil drum.  A black jaguar ran silently out of the wavering mirage clouds, boring into me with its predatory eyes.  The cat took my collar in its teeth and dragged me away, the lost hunting falcons circling overhead like observers at a murder scene.  I kicked wildly as the border to the conscious came into my view, breaking away from the jaguar.  I stumbled and collapsed onto something hard, my knees stinging in agony.  I fell back into the darkness as the jaguar’s booted feet approached, blind fear draining the last of my energy. 

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

            I awoke in a completely white-walled room in a soft, cheap bed.  I couldn’t raise my head to look around further, so I strained my ears to listen for any sound.  Unfamiliar places were the most dangerous situation for a Heaven, and I needed to escape, but I was tied down by my own fatigue and illness.  I heard footsteps in the distance and felt dread rising in my throat as they approached.  I grasped weakly at my pocket, trying to locate my switchblade.  I heard someone gasp as they drew nearer.  I saw a blurred face look down at me from above.  I squinted, the features slowly revealing themselves…

            “Ciel, it’s me,” Rex said softly, noticing my look of fear.  “Can you talk?”  I tried to protest, but my voice emerged as a weak groan.  He sat on the edge of the bed and offered a glass up to my face.  I turned away, my head pounding from the effort.  “It’s water,” he said, turning my face back and forcing the water on me with his hand.  The terror gradually left as I drank the water.  Nothing in here…  I heard Rex walk away and take off his jacket and tie.  His footsteps returned and he came into view again, giving me two more glasses of water.  I tried to raise my head again, but it felt heavy and swollen.  When I found that I was able to turn it to the side comfortably, I did so, closing my eyes again.  I heard Rex’s footsteps grow quiet and turned to the left to survey the room.  It was painted entirely white, with two round black pebblechairs in the opposite corner.  A desk held a stack of some square plastic cases and some antiquated audio equipment, along with a more modern D-card player and some small black wireless earcasters.  Rex’s dirty black boots leaned against the desk lazily, the bottoms caked in dirt. 

            I was surprised by Rex’s gentle care.  Surely, I’d be in much worse trouble if it wasn’t for-  I was overcome by angry tears.  What good’s this going to do, I thought, trying to calm myself down.  My breathing gradually slowed as my brain relaxed its frantic pace.  Still, I have to be careful…I don’t know what he’ll try when I’m weak like this.  He’s probably just waiting for me to get well enough to attack… I heard a heavy front door close.  My alertness and caution had beaten me to exhaustion like waves on a cliff; I fell into sleep immediately, the warm darkness of rest cradling me like an overstuffed feather pillow. 

            The sound of the front door closing jolted me awake.  I saw Rex walk into the room holding a plastic bag.  He sat down in a chair at the desk and took a small brown frosted-glass bottle out of the bag.  He retrieved a glass of water from outside the room and briskly walked back.  Meticulously measuring a spoonful of the murky liquid out of the bottle, he turned to face me.

            “Relax, it’s just standard head-fever medicine,” he said, showing me the bottle.  I couldn’t make out the text on the label from my position and I felt a shiver of icy paranoia run through my body.  I turned away when he tried to give me the spoon.  He furrowed his brow in frustration then started to laugh.  “How old are you, seven?”  He met my eyes with a sharp, self-confident stare and grabbed the back of my neck gently, forcing me to drink the medicine.  “See…that wasn’t so bad,” he laughed.  His smile faded into an innocent, childish look of worry.  I felt somewhat relieved, and didn’t fight him when he offered me more water.  His expression became somewhere between the satisfaction of reprimanding a child and an evil domineering voyeurism.  “That’s a good girl.  Now get some rest.”  I wanted to close my eyes and collapse into sleep right there, but Rex remained in the desk chair next to the bed, looking over at me every few minutes.  I turned to the right wall to face away from his chilling gaze. 

            The next day proceeded at some unknown, hazy pace as I floated in and out of consciousness.  At one point, I came out of a horrible, twisting, burning fever dream to see Rex sitting on one of the pebblechairs in the opposite corner, watching me intently.  He eventually walked over like a leopard and started moving strands of my hair out of my face with an eerie gravity.  In the fever, I saw Rex looking at me with slit golden cat-eyes, keeping me alive for his amusement. He started tracing up and down my spine with one of his fingers, and I began to cry hot, angry tears.  He stopped without a word after several agonizing minutes and departed the room like an owl. 

I washed up onto the soft shores of morning the day after hit by a shock of ravenous hunger, forgetting the dreamlike events of the day before. 

            “Rex,” I said weakly.  He came in from outside the room to see me clutching my stomach in pain.  “I need to eat.”  The words came out garbled, and Rex spent a few minutes frowning at me as the meaning worked itself out in his head.

            “Right,” he said, eyes wide in surprise.  He came back in carrying a half-eaten plate of  fried eggs, some kind of fruity-smelling chai, and a piece of steam bread.  He broke the steam bread into pieces as he watched my reactions.  I found that I was able to lift my arm enough to take a piece of steam bread from Rex, who smiled as he handed it to me.  He then gave me some of the chai and eggs, feeding me like a child.  There was something amusing about it, yet something utterly, dreadfully humiliating as well, like watching a baby try with all its might to stand up.  Still, I started to feel indebted to Rex…he’d saved me three times already, now looking after me like a younger sister.  I felt the tension in my body melt away drowsily as I drank the warm chai.  Rex noticed me relaxing and cast a sly look my way as he gathered up the dishes and left the room.  I watched him come back in and sit in the same desk chair next to the bed, bending slightly to look at me.

            “Well,” he said.  “How about some music?” 

            “Sure,” I replied.  It would give me something to think about other than how I’d failed a job and become indebted to a petty criminal. 

            Rex went into the other room and raised the volume on some crackly piece of music that began with a seesaw, lusty old-fashioned electric guitar and went into an easy, seductive beat.  Some pre-revolutionary tune, and not a bad one at that…  The lyrics moved something in me, driven by a raw, rusty, passionate voice.  Never in my life…, I thought, letting it envelop me, seal me off, mesmerize me with its gently driving melodies. 

Let me take you to the movie

Can I take you to the show

Let me be yours ever truly

Can I make your garden grow?

            As the song ended, I slowly rolled out into the world.  I felt as if it had sparked some raw, animalistic craving deep inside me.

“Rex,” I said, “can you play that song again?”  Rex smiled knowingly at me like a fox as he returned from the other room and rifled through some of the plastic cases on the desk.  No, I thought, he wants this.  The song began again and I fell into its spell, this time noticing the rough, ecstatic energy of the analog instruments.  I felt as if the music was filling some need, some urge deep within me, but I also I felt like the music had driven a need into me that had never existed before, some unnatural hypnosis.  “This song…” I began, losing my sentence in the trancelike complexity of the trailing electric guitar passage. 

“Ah, you see the superiority, the passion of real music,” Rex said heavily like a dense perfume.  “I’ve collected these over the years, forgotten little treasures the council doesn’t want us listening to.”

As I recovered, I became intoxicated by the richness of Rex’s music collection, particularly the first song he’d played for me.  He’d noticed this and played it more often than the others, slyly gauging my reaction out of the corner of his eye.  Something about it taunted and intrigued me, and each time I heard it I plunged deeper into its hypnotic melody. 

 

I sat in Rex’s makeshift kitchen, sipping mineral water through a straw.  He dusted the obsolete audio equipment intently and lovingly, humming to himself in the absence of music.  I picked up one of the square card sleeves as I sat on the floor, examining the picture on it.  A gray and nondescript building from an older concept of urban space loomed over a shadowy man hunched forward on the stoop.  I couldn’t make out the red letters in the windows or what was attempting to be spelled, as the man on the stoop absorbed my entire attention.  Rex slid over to investigate which of his precious possessions was holding me captive. 

“Physical Graffiti,” he said, taking the cardboard sleeve from me.

“Hm?” I said, the photograph’s spell dissolving.

“That’s the name of the album.”

“What?”

“The album.  This album.”  He held up the sleeve. 

“What’s an album?”

Rex stared at me like he was about to discipline a naughty puppy.

“This was one way of putting songs onto the market back then.  ‘Singles’ for two songs, ‘albums’ for a collection of songs.  The companies sold them this way, people couldn’t make their own back then, either.”

“Oh, so this sleeve holds the Mchips?”

“No,” Rex said, a hint of impatience darkening his voice as he gingerly pulled a thin black disc out of the sleeve.  “The album is recorded on a record, in this case.”

“How does it work?”

“It’s a simple analog device…”

Rex brushed some dust off a large square machine with a glass cover near the wall, placing the disk on a spindle in its center.  It began to spin as he turned it on, a crackly silence descending into the sensual attack of my song.  My eyes wandered back to the picture on the “record” sleeve as I fell back into the now-familiar coma.  The man on the stoop seemed overwhelmed by the gaping black hole behind him and the utter bleakness of the dirty brick landscape.  The song seemed to jokingly ridicule the poor man as it taunted my infatuation with it, boastfully asserting its dominance over me. 

            “What’s the name of this song?” I asked Rex, handing him the sleeve. 

            “Houses of the Holy,” he said. 

            “Houses of the Holy,” I repeated, wide-eyed at the title’s simple beauty. 

            “So,” he said, staring at me with grave concentration, “do you feel like listening to more of the album?”

            “I suppose,” I said, unable to break free of our mutual glaring. 

            “You’re feeling better, right?” he said, placing his hand on my forehead.

            “Yeah…” I said, turning away and busying myself with throwing away the empty water bottle. 

            “I think you’ll like the rest of the album since you’re so taken with ‘Houses,’” Rex said professionally, turning the record equipment on again.  A driving, two-beat rhythm stepped confidently into the room as it strutted about like a pole in a disciplinary school.  As I looked down at the soiled plates in the metal mop sink, I noticed the bandages on my palms.  What…was I doing?  The day’s surreal strangeness overwhelmed me like a briny swell, washing the captivating music out of my consciousness.  The dizziness returned with mocking irony, crushing the small glimmer of escape.  I stumbled into the bedroom to sleep, the music aggravating my headache like a mischievous imp. 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

            I awoke after a fuzzy indeterminate sleep, still vulnerably blanketed in drowsiness.  Rex and I ate unevenly burnt toast in his sitting room.  As the food settled in my stomach, my energy came creeping back slowly, like a bear awakening from the winter.  I gazed out the window, absorbing the soft pink morning sunbeams.  For the first time since I’d arrived at Rex’s apartment, I noticed the worn, elaborate faćades of the buildings outside.  Crows cawed as they scuffled over the dented drainpipes, which were green with age.  Below the drainpipes, masks with gaping eyes screamed silently in tragedy, festooned with bunches of grapes and ribbons.  What kind of decadent

            “Interesting, isn’t it?” Rex said, smiling.  “Hard to believe they used to put so much effort into architecture.”  He looked up at me deviously as he sipped his hot chai.

            “Isn’t it dangerous to live in the Black District…” I muttered, turning back to the window. 

            “Oh, come now,” Rex said, his stare reducing me to a disobedient kitten, “you know as well as I do – no, probably better than I do – that not everything the council says is true.”

            “Yes,” I replied angrily, “but still-”

            “Oh, Ciel…” he groaned, “Look, I’ll explain it.”  He paused to take a long drink of chai in preparation.  “The Black District was counter-rev central during the revolution.  It used to be the old ‘college’ and they wanted to save all these fine old buildings.  But you probably know all that-”

            “I'm at P.U.P-R.S…” I interrupted, hoping to cut his tale short. 

            “Oh, really?” he smiled, giving me a quizzical, mysterious look.  “…but, of course, after the revolution, the Council had no use for the ‘college’ and no funds to demolish it.  They didn’t want anyone strolling around here, reminiscing about the past, admiring the buildings, so they created a deterrent.”  He paused, savoring the impact of his words.  “ ‘Stay out of the Black District, comrades, it’s flooded with crime!  The gangs have reclaimed it!  We’re fencing it in!’  Yea, it was true for a while – no poles here to catch us – but no one to rob either…and no one to rob equals dead territory.  I’d say only…twenty or so gang members live in the entire district.  And some miscellaneous odds and ends of society, of course.  But dangerous?  I think it’s more dangerous in the council members’ quarters!”  He laughed sardonically. 

            “And besides,” he continued, “words like dangerous mean nothing to you, right?” 

            I shrugged, my thoughts turned inward, appraising my health.  I discreetly set about locating my possessions, relieved to find them untouched in a corner of Rex’s kitchen. 

            “Leaving?” he asked, appearing behind me suddenly.

            “Yes,” I replied, gazing at a dark spot on the floor. 

            “Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked, frowning ominously.  I at once felt cornered, pushed back into shadow. 

            “Mm,” I said, scouring my brain for something to break the tension.  Determined as I was to get home and resume my life, I sensed a hole somewhere, like when you leave for a trip and can’t help feeling you’ve forgotten that one thing.  

            “Oh, before I leave,” I ventured meekly, “I’d like a copy of that song.” 

            “Of course,” Rex smiled vaguely, pulling a tangle of cables out from under his record player.  He’d moved it into the sitting room since the day before.  I observed him attaching it to a dusty Mchip recorder. 

            “Er…” I protested.  “I saw a Dcard recorder in your room…can’t you use that?”

            “It’s broken,” he said mysteriously, looking defensive and irritated.  “Don’t you have an Mchip player?”

            “I…think so,” I replied, recalling a moldy box full of forgotten technology in my closet.  “But they’re so bulky…and they don’t even last past twenty plays.”  Something about Rex’s insistence felt dark and deceptive.

            “Well, that’s all I have,” he said lightly, almost as if to irritate me into accepting.  I sighed angrily. 

            “Okay.”

            “Here you are,” he said after several minutes, handing me the large, lipstick-shaped chip. 

            “You know…” I said, recalling something I’d wanted to ask him, hoping to alleviate the tension I sensed.  “I wonder if they’ll ever bring back that all-digital system they used to have…I just think it’s really fascinating that people used to be able to put traks directly onto players from their, er…”

            “…computers?” Rex suggested.

            “Right…but I don’t think it’ll happen.  They split up that network-thing so much that-”

            “Yea, the ‘inter-net?’  I heard that when the council first set up the filters and exclusions after the revolution, the music business skyrocketed.  Especially after they brought in the Asian model.”

            “Oh, yes, ‘creating’ stars...” I said with disgust.  “Well, I suppose it keeps everyone happy, and brings in profits for the Music Ministry…”

            “They used to have a special network for buying digital traks, you know.  I think they called it the musicnet.”

            “I guess it didn’t stop anyone from copying traks once they bought them, though.”

            “People still copy the Mchips…” Rex said. 

            “I don’t think anyone really cared about that, they don’t last all that long anyway.”

            “Right, and the blank Dcards are so damn expensive now…”

            “Yea.”

            A much lighter silence permeated the air. 

            “Thank you so much-” I said far too frankly, embarrassedly averting my eyes.

            Rex waved his hand in dismissal.

            “Don’t even mention it,” he said.  He drew closer, backing me into a wall.  “You spared my life, don’t forget.”  Despite his admission of debt, his tone betrayed something threatening that could turn for the worse at any moment. 

            “If you ever want anything…music, help…” he trailed off ominously and suggestively, whispering in my ear, “all you have to do is return.”

            I twisted away without a word, looking at the door.  An embarrassing revelation surfaced.

            “How do I get back to the U area…” I muttered. 

            “I’ll show you,” Rex said, opening the door for me.  I stepped out into a high-ceilinged stone landing and spiral stairway, its corners covered in dusty cobwebs.  A brown sparrow sitting in the slit stone window opposite Rex’s door tilted its head at me quizzically.  The shame returned in waves, the stifling heat making me anxious to depart.  I looked around, searching for some far-off corner in which to conceal my thoughts from Rex, to divest myself of that wavering self-guilt. 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

            “It used to be some kind of church complex,” Rex said flatly as we descended the stairs, ignoring any uninterest he may have perceived, “that was at one time converted to apartments, but obviously abandoned until they fenced off the Black District…”

We emerged from the spiral staircase into a well-kept courtyard.  The healthy colours of the multiple species of flowers and trees puzzled me as I walked among them slowly, wondering who would bother to maintain anything in the Black District.

“It doesn’t look abandoned to me…” I murmured.  Something white amongst the browning trees caught my eye.  I spotted a girl with long, wispy gingerbread-coloured hair examining one of the trees in the opposite corner of the courtyard.  I looked at Rex’s face, seeking an indication of her identity. 

“Cherry over there takes care of it,” he said to me quickly.  He ran quickly to the center of the courtyard, waving his arms around.  I followed him slowly, confused by his strange actions, filled with some kind of unfounded ominous fear for the girl.  She watched Rex’s face intently as he spoke to her, nodding intermittently. 

“Cher-ry,” he said, meeting her eyes attentively like an older brother, “this is my friend Ci-el.”  He over-enunciated each syllable, as if practising a foreign language with a child.  The demeaning attention he’d paid me during my illness came to mind as I watched the girl’s innocent attention.  I suppose she wasn’t a ‘girl’ per se, but her frail figure and white sundress made me think of her that way. 

            Cherry’s mouth opened in a silent greeting. 

            “She’s a mute,” Rex said quietly to me. 

            “Oh…” I said, realizing the reasons for his strange conduct.  Cherry smiled as she turned and spoke to me, mouthing the words more slowly this time.

            <I’m Cher-ry,> she said.  <Nice to meet you.> 

            “Oh, you too,” I stammered. 

            “She stays here, it’s safe…” Rex said to me as Cherry turned back to her tree, snapping off branches here and there.  “She has some job at the florist as well.” 

Rex smiled as he watched Cherry work.  I couldn’t help but feel that something was odd, that the situation was far less innocent.

            “So what does she do for you?” I said, surprised at my sullen interjection.  Rex laughed, taking me aside.

            “Do you really think the council would bother giving someone like Cherry the extra support she needs?” he said darkly.  He didn’t seem to have heard my question.

            “So you help support her.”

            “Yes.”

            “And what does she do?”

            Rex frowned in confusion.  Perhaps he was trying to come up with a euphemism to explain the kind of “favors” she no doubt provided for him.  I walked off in disgust.  

            “Take a right when you leave the complex and follow that road, it should take you to a gap in the fence,” Rex said quietly, walking away from me. 

            As I walked through the dead quiet of the Black District, I felt my head swimming with the dull pain of confusion.  I ran, hoping to exhaust myself into peace. 

            I returned to my apartment that night with a horrible languid urge to sleep as much as I needed.  I surrendered to the impulse, promising myself that I’d work nonstop to make up for lost time.

            The mountain of assignments quickly allowed me to forget about my strange ordeal.  I worked a horrible self-imposed schedule of homework, classes, homework, and the occasional guild assignment.  My shortage of income combined with my time at Rex’s had enslaved me to the telephone and InkTel, Orion’s icy, businesslike tone bringing a twisted feeling of relief as I took each measly assignment regardless of my schedule.  In the rare minutes of silence I found throughout the day, my mind wandering as I mechanically walked to class and waited in lines, the tune returned to gaze down at me condescendingly, its powerful rhythms drumming into my skull.  I took every opportunity to pull out my antiquated Mchip player and retreat between my earcasters, each session uncovering some new pleasure from the song. 

            I began to notice the prongs wearing down on the Mchip after a few days, and tried to limit the number of times I listened to the song.  Rex’s smug face flashed in my mind, laughing at my dependence on a trivial piece of music…

 

            I shouted, throwing the Mchip player across the room as I gripped my textbook.  No, this is ridiculous…how could such a simple, self-indulgent tune...  I took several deep breaths to calm myself and returned to reading Analyses of Failed Revolutions and Counter-revolutions. 

It is believed that the violent music the ‘Blackbridge Hundred’ listened to incited their radical activities.  Robert Yakov, a witness of the Blackbridge Riots, said that “those damn Blackbridge hooligans were always playing that ridiculous *expletive deleted* music over the public speakers when they took power.”  Indeed, the normalizing counter-revolution immediately banned the works of the three main musicians associated with the Blackbridge Riots after their coup the following year.

I paused, wondering if my song held such power.  I quickly dismissed the thought, reminding myself of the council’s ridiculous insistence on the dangerous intoxicating potential of earlier art forms.  I stared at the Mchip player lying disheveled in the corner, powerless.  Yet somehow, the echoes of the many times I’d listened to it remained lodged in my brain, flying back and forth like drunken bats.  I slammed the book shut and dove into my bed, turning my sleepwave generator on full volume, hoping to sleep off the vile influence of Rex’s music. 

            Even without the music to listen to, the song still echoed in my mind.  I needed to hear it again, I ached for it.  I felt a hollow dread break out as the Mchip broke in half inside the player.  Cheap piece of…  I hurriedly taped it back together, but it refused to play.  I was probably listening to that stupid song too much anyway, I thought, trying to calm myself down. 

            Every free second, the song returned to mock me, disrupting my reading, driving me to seething frustration when I studied.  This is ridiculous, I thought as I lay awake one night.  If I could just listen to it one more time…  I refused to return to Rex’s.  I had to think of my future in the family and my schoolwork.  We’d repaid our debts to each other and I had no more reason to subject myself to his leering presence. 

            Roxana….

            Of course; a student at P.U.M.A.¨ would probably know more about obtaining rare pre-rev traks than the average person. 

 

 

DISCLAIMER

This novel is in no way affiliated with the band Led Zeppelin (performer and author of the song “Houses of the Holy.”)  The title is being used purely as literary allusion.  Excerpts of songs (centered in italics in the text) are:

Chapter 6, 17 – “Houses of the Holy,” © Led Zeppelin

Chapter 10 – “Rock and Roll,” © Led Zeppelin

 

I am not seeking to profit off the work of the above artists, only to allude to their wonderful music.  I checked the legality of this action by looking at Haruki Murakami books, which regularly reference and quote popular songs, in particular his novella Norwegian Wood, which is titled after a Beatles song. 

 



KeiT = “Keitai” or “KeiTel”, slang for the portable phones imported from Asia that became popular and cheap after the revolution. 

 

ŗ UCCAPSys = Unique Closed Circuit Alert Pager System

¨ People’s University for the Musical Arts