by Phil South


    So there I was, sitting on the Hampstead Hoppa, thinking about Greta. I'd only met her a couple of weeks before, you see. The little memories she'd stored in various parts of my anatomy were still hijacking my conscious mind whenever I had an idle moment. And travelling through Hampstead on the bus in the middle of winter is an idle moment if ever I have one.

    We'd met at the Dance-O-Mat in Kings Cross, a sleazy little dive, which was the neon hang-out for most of the pro computer jockeys in town. She came over to sit next to me and ordered a drink. She asked me if I had a match, and I said I didn't smoke. She said neither did she, but it seemed like a good way to get the conversation going. Hah! That was her all over. Cute, funny, ballsy, and hotter than a microwave. She had straight tobacco blond hair, and the kind of glossy brown eyes that made you want to swan-dive into them. She had a good build, and dressed like she wanted to kill you stone dead just by letting you look at her. So, we dated a few times. Well, I dropped by the Dance-O-Mat a few times and she was always there. And we went places. Then we didn't go places, but stayed in, watched movies and got fresh with each other. Before I knew it, she'd moved in, and I was loving every minute of it. So there I was on the Hoppa, mentally flipping her clothes off and nuzzling my nose in that fragrant niche next to her ear, when I felt the unmistakable cool pressure of a pistol muzzle at my neck. I flicked my eyes around the inside of the bus, only to see there was just myself and a little old lady on it. So, not much risk of a heroic rescue, I relaxed and waited for the gunsal to make his move. He did.

    His breath rasped like a tiny nailfile close to my ear. "I am Grodu Volant of the Dken. I identify you as Frank X and I am going to kill you if you move a muscle." Now I hadn't done much starhopping in the last few months, but I knew an authentic Dken accent when I heard one, like a metal edge being drawn across stone before battle. Nice people, the Dken. Since there were no wars left to fight in their own galaxy they found plenty to join in ours, if the price was right. I turned slightly. "Where are we going then, Grodu?" - "You will be please to keep your hands in plain sight, and then alight from this vehicle at the next stop." By way of punctuation he prodded the gun into my neck.

    Now, I wouldn't want you to get the idea that this sort of thing happens to me every day. Nope, I'm a freelance programmer by trade. I fix things for people. You know, if someone owes you money, I crack into their bank account and strip them clean. If someone steals your girl, I crack into the police computer and tell it that he's an escaped lunatic and he gets canned. Inconvenience and revenge, they're my stock in trade, and I do alright on it. But I'm good, and I never leave a trace. So why was this cheap alien torpedo poking his alloy piece into the collar of my shirt? I had to admit, I drew a blank on that one.

    We stood and lurched down the aisle together, really close so his iron pressed into my spine. As we started down the steps I made my move. I used the handrail to bring my elbow near his face, and then quickly snapped it back, catching him a good shot in the throat and spun round, grabbing the hand holding the pistol. Jumping down onto the pavement, I pulled his arm up and out of the doorway, forcing its owner outside with a strangled yelp. We landed on the verge with his arm behind his back, the pistol in my hand and his face in the snow. He struggled for a second, until I pressed the flat snout of the gun to his cheek. "Hold it there, old boy." I hissed. He relaxed and glared, his mouth set, breathing hard.

    "You alright there, mate?" Said the driver of the bus, revving his engine. I pretended to be picking my assailant up, carefully placing my body between the door and the gun. I looked around at the driver, a convincing look of embarrassment heating my face.

    "Hah, yes thanks... we're alright..." I smiled thinly, brushing snow from my coat as the bus drew away from the curb.

    My captive started to move, very fast, and almost got a hand to my throat before I clipped his flat forehead with the hard muzzle of the gun. He crumpled to the grass. Going through his pockets I found his forged British Passport, in the name of Brian Smith (Tsk! So unimaginative), and his real papers from the Dken Embassy. As I touched them they flashed into flame and disappeared. They must have been treated with some kind of chemical which reacted to my salty human skin. My prisoner groaned, and as I looked down at him he rose gingerly to his feet and started at me with his black beady eyes. I glanced at his pistol in my hand.

    "Hmm," I said conversationally, "nice piece. Fulgerator. Made in about 1998 in Macau, unless it's a Dken copy. Is it?" I raised my eyebrows. He didn't move. "You know what one of these can do to a person close to, don't you? The lightning bolt comes out of the barrel, and before you even notice someone's fired at you, all your blood is boiling and squirting out of every orifice. Horrible, really." I watched his eyes flicker. He wasn't going to tell me anything.

    A proud race, the Dken. Trained from infants to be soldiers, then sent out into a universe with concepts they don't understand like love, individuality, kindness, truth, beauty... It cracks them up. You can't turn them, convince them, or convert them. They're like vicious dogs, with two legs, flat heads and sharp pointed teeth. To be honest, I'd like to say I don't enjoy waxing them. But I'd be lying.

Neon Bar

    When I got home, I had a shower and put my bloodied clothes in the incinerator. I slipped on a pair of dark canvas trousers, soft black shoes and a dark shirt, and pulled my favourite black leather jacket out of the wardrobe. I tried the geek's fulgerator in the pocket of the jacket.

    I got Kino on the blower. His face was hamster rumpled on the screen, like he'd just woken up.

    "Hey Frankie, what's happenin'?" he rubbed his almond eyes and lit the cigarette that hung in his lips.

    "Listen, Kino, I need some info, and I need it fast. Why would a Dken hitman be after me?"

    Kino's thin Jap face blanched. "I - I don't know what you..."

    I slammed my hand down hard on the table. "Don't bulsh me, Kino, if the Dken have heard about a price on my head, then you must know about it too. Who's paying the price, Kino?" I pulled the fulgerator out of my pocket and held it up in front of me. "And before you answer, think about whether you'd like to join the ex-owner of this piece in little bits all over Hampstead Heath."

    Kino gulped and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. "It's not me, Frank. It's not me. It's Bella. He thinks you steamed his computers after that last job you did for him. Please Frankie, don't tell him I told you, you know he'll..." I snapped the switch and the screen went black. I hate to see a grown man cry.

Neon Bar

    Bella's house was in Finchley, along a main drag, set back from the road. There were gaudy lights around the doors and windows, and a big neon sign proclaiming "Casa Bella - The Home Of The Boink". Tasteful. I slid into the shadows beside a phone booth and waited.

    A thick set Dken opened the side door and walked out onto the street. He looked both ways up the street before stepping onto the pavement and striding up the road towards Finchley Road tube. As he passed the phone box I flipped a trunk dart into the back of his head and he fell face forward onto the pavement.

    It's not easy to strip the clothes off a sleeping geek and put them over your own inside a phone booth, but I did it. I roughed my hair up and shambled along the alley into the side door. As I opened it a guy looked up from a desk inside. "You forget something, Drack?" he said to the clothes, not noticing someone else was wearing them. I sent him out with a sharp rap from the edge of my hand and lowered him under the table. Bella's office shouldn't be hard to find, now his minders were napping. I thought I was in the home stretch, which probably explains why I didn't feel the cosh until stars flew into my head and filled it with air.

Neon Bar

    I woke up with my hands tied, facing a man sitting behind a desk. It was Bella, and he smiled without showing his teeth. But I knew Bella. He had teeth alright, and he'd be the first to bite you if he thought you were pulling his chain.

    "Good evening, Frankie." he said drily. His voice was a soft powder falling on skin. "What a surprise you should turn up, just when I was looking for you. In a moment I'm going to have Dink take you for a ride and wax you, but first you're going to tell me the keyword which disables the virus program you put in my system..."

    Bella was disgusting. A fat man with slanted eyes, and jowls which overflowed his collar, even hiding the knot in his tie. His chin was greasy, his eyes yellow and brown like caramel. What was left of his hair was dyed purple, with wet tobacco stained tips. He wheezed as he spoke, making me want to cough. I weighed the options, and in spite of my better instincts decided to tell the truth and try to escape later.

    "I didn't put those worms in your machines, Bella. I was hired to ice Gino's operation, not steam yours with a bunch of electronic jamming programs. If you don't believe me, check my programming log in your files... it's under directory LOG4/B444..."

    The geek next to me jabbed a fist into my kidneys, whooshing all the wind out of me. Bella snarled.

    "Don't slash me around, Frank. You put them there, alright, and you're going to pay for it... AFTER you tell me how to stop the damage your programs are causing. Are you going to tell me now, or am I going to get Dink here to take your brains out through your belly button?"

    "Okay! Okay!" I got worried when I looked at Dink and his eyes lit up. He'd enjoy it too! "Okay, I'll help you. Get me to a terminal..."

    I stared at Bella. I thought he wouldn't do it, but he motioned and Dink cut my bonds and pulled me up out of the chair. As he pulled me up, I sagged a little so he bent over me to set me up straight. I brought my knee up into his head, sending him flying back into the wall. Bella was about to cry out to someone outside the door, but I reached him, slipping out the flexible platinum stiletto from my shirt collar, and touching it to his fat neck.

    "One word," I hissed "and I'll fillet you like a fish." His mouth closed slowly and his horrible slug eyes fixed me with a hateful, fishlike glare. I motioned to him to sit, and I walked around the table and stood behind him.

    "Firstly, Bella, I didn't put those vermin into your computer system, and if I did you wouldn't know about it until they were picking your bones. Second, whoever is doing it is not only steaming you, but they're steaming me too! It's my handiwork they're undoing. So, what I need to know is where did you get your information? What make you think it was me, dipsnot?"

    Bell's neck quivered like a waterbed. "We got a tracer program into the network. It ran back through the system, following all the nodes which were disturbed. And it all ran back to you..."

    "What do you mean?"

    "Frankie, you dummy, it came from your neighbourhood, your node, your block... your... what were we to think?"

    That sent my head into little somersaults. Someone in my building?!? An electronic agent from another manor trying to muscle in... in my own apartment block? My blood boiled. Someone was looking for a steel tongue depresser.>BR>
    "Which apartment, fatso? I'll get the bastard..."

    Bella flinched. "B-but that's what I'm telling you, Frankie... it was coming from YOUR APARTMENT..."

    I dropped my hand away from Bella's neck, and he scrambled away. He was blubbering about how sorry he was, and how he'd help me to get him, whoever he was, he'd help me. I wasn't listening. I was thinking of any way that it couldn't be the way I was thinking it was, of some tricky technical way it could be done without breaking my heart. I couldn't.

    It had to be Greta.

Neon Bar

    The flat was dark. The shades were drawn and everything was off. Greta was seated at the dining table, her silhouette against the faint light through the blind. I worked my way around her until I could see her hands. They were palms up, open, on the surface in front of her. I relaxed slightly and moved forward.

    "Greta, I've got something to say."

    She was standing up in seconds, impossibly fast. The table lamp beside her came on, lighting her face, casting shadows across her naked figure. She looked at me in an odd, blank way, like she wasn't looking at me, but deep inside. Then suddenly she snapped her head up, and she was back. There was someone behind her eyes again.

    "Hello, Frank. I didn't hear you come in. Have you been in long?" Her voice was clear, sweet juice in my ear. It trickled down the back of my brain, making me feel a way I didn't want to feel any more. "Why are you holding that gun?" She wasn't disturbed by this somehow, as if she knew I could never, ever hurt her. She was immortal, as long as she stayed with me.

    "Why did you do it, Greta? Why did you get to know me, make me love you, and then try to get me killed?"

    "I don't know what you..." she began, raising her hand up to me and walking forward.

    I was almost taken in by the softness of the voice, but a sixth sense in me kept part of my body awake long enough to dodge the lightening bolt that burst from her fingertip. The bolt smashed silently through the glass cabinet behind me, before the glass shattered and the crack of the electricity made every hair on my skin stand up. I dived forward, aimed the gun and fired in one movement, jumping as I hit the ground. I was up and at the stairwell in a moment. Greta whirled and pointed her finger at me again. My face hit the carpet as the bolt ripped into the wall, spraying plaster over my back and legs. I could hear her feet thumping across the room, as I fumbled the magnetic grenade from my pocket. I turned over just in time to see her standing over me, finger extended, her beautiful nakedness marred only by the crease my shot had put in her shoulder. A crease in her skin, revealing, not blood and pulp, but clean, shining silver. She saw the grenade and smiled. "Goodbye, Frankie" she said.

    I pulled the pin, and the magnetic field burst out of my hand and wrapped itself around her. She jolted upright, arcs of electricity showing inside her pretty mouth and glowing in her eyes, her body juddering and quivering as the field ripped her android circuits to scrap. White jewels of robot saliva dripped from her nose and mouth, sizzling to the carpet. Then she stopped, and in the sudden terrible silence, fell back onto the floor with a sickening mechanical crunch.

Neon Bar

    Long after it all happened, it struck me, why did she pause at that moment? She had me dead to rights, and she waited for a microsecond, gave me time to set off the grenade. She'd said goodbye. I knew in my heart that she was saying goodbye 'cos she was about to let me kill her. Perhaps when it came to it she did love me after all. Ah, the hell with it! Why is it when I find the girl of my dreams, she turns out to be a hunk of machinery manufactured in Korea by a bunch of comms scientists?

    I didn't actually care why she did it, although Bella gave me a call and told me what he'd discovered. She'd been programmed by one of his competitors to get as close to me as possible and find out what I'd done to this competitor's system. Then using the microwave modem inside her head, she'd cracked Bella's computers while I'd been sleeping next to her. And I thought she was having bad dreams.

    You know its crazy, but I'm really going to miss her.


Published in:
No. 37 - January 1989

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