Conley surveyed the scene from their vantage point, a hillock
near the riverside road where they'd stopped at a stall for a munch-pack.
Roween had paid, gold. Conley didn't know whether to believe her excuse
that it was weight she'd rather be without when they hit CBT; she had more
than a hunch that if Roween was around when someone used a click-well,
the traders would go red-eyed crazy...
Before them lay the expanse of Cala Bay Town. The White
River was still visible way to the north, and beyond it the spires and towers
of Cala, place of her birth. Cala. Murak's great coastal port, with its
palaces, its docks, its markets, its warehouses, its sprawling cosmopolitan
vitality; she smiled to herself. What city was there in Soat to match its
majesty? Or in Svala, or Galur? None! Only Cala was fit to be the capital of
Justan's four-nation kingdom. A sense of pride rose within her.
Yet between her and home lay Cala Bay Town. It was curious,
she thought, that she'd lived so close to this place for so long, yet never
visited it - despite temptation enough. A ferry-ride away but a world apart,
it looked so completely different from its namesake. The streets were
narrow, the buildings either old and ramshackle or new and even worse.
Smoke poured from a thousand factory chimneys, to hang over the houses,
lend an oppressive, grimy half-light to the twisting roads and unending
She'd heard of the town - who hadn't? Never favourably.
Where Cala had large, domed halls of commerce, Cala Bay Town had
dingy, stench-filled taverns. Cala's modern schools were Bay Town's
cramped prisons. Where on the left bank might be a surgery or hospital, on
the right would be a tiny garret in a decaying tenement. Cala Bay Town had
a diseased reputation; even from here, it looked deserved.
"We'll have to be very careful when we reach the centre," said
Roween, her voice thin. "It can be dangerous..." Conley looked over to
her. Roween had turned to face away.
"You've been there before?"
"It's where I went when I left home. Awful place. Awful.
`Specially for anyone like me." She drew her greatcoat tight about her.
"And we're meeting someone called Medreph? So what's he
Roween gazed steadily towards the bay. "Tall, fair-skinned,
ginger hair, he's losing it, about fifty. He's from Elet."
"Elet?" Conley was a little surprised. "What's someone from
Elet doing this far East?"
"Collecting books, taking them back with him." Roween
"What do barbarians need with books? I thought the Elets were
wild? Disorganised savages..."
"Elet is strange. The people are not wild, they are free."
Roween's voice faltered. "They have the biggest library in the world.
Bigger even than the Academy's. Medreph procures books from Murak,
fixes up a caravan every couple of years to take them back." She pressed a
finger against her bottom lip.
"This library, it contains sealed books?"
Conley paused a moment, phrasing her final question. "And
Medreph, he wouldn't also smuggle passengers to Elet with him if he
thought their lives were in danger, would he?"
Roween turned her head and looked towards Conley. Her
attempts to hold back tears had almost been successful. "On occasion," she
* * *
By the time they reached the outskirts of Cala Bay Town,
Roween was no longer visibly upset, but she did look worried. Already, the
sky was shadowcast with smoke - dark smoke, fuming perpetually from the
foundries and smithies that massed near the river, writhing southwards
carried by the magically prevailing winds. Conley could feel despair and
fear all about her, the grey-black, soot-ingrained walls of nearby houses
howling with the echo of horsehooves passing by.
"These are the poorer areas, Medreph will be in the uptown.
It's normally real dangerous here, but they'll peg you as an expert and
won't bother us, maybe just chuck a stone or two. Uptown, there'll be
"So what happens if anyone uses spells on us?"
Roween clicked her teeth, grimly.
* * *
They'd dismounted, were leading their horses. It was evening,
mist-black. The uptown streets were teeming with people, animals,
barrows. Customers in pavement cafés chatted, bickered, watched as others
spilled out into the throng. Carts were hauled slowly along busy, swarming
roads, crowds milled around stalls. Conley had never seen such a vibrant
mass of disparate individuals. Everyone was moving, hurrying, calling. In a
shadowed passage, a man was arguing with an elderly woman all in velvet.
Three sailors were peering through the window of a brightly-lit tavern. She
heard the smack of a hand across a boy's head, saw him drop the apple
he'd stolen from a fruitmonger's basket. This place was so - so alive! She
glanced at Roween, seeking to share her wonder with her.
Roween looked to be in pain, one eye closed, face bracing like
she was listening to something so loud it would burst her head. She
signalled to Conley, head for that alley.
When they reached it, Roween slumped against the wall,
breathed out, deeply, relief written into her every motion. She smiled,
weakly, at Conley. "There's a lot of magic out there, lot more than there
used to be. Maybe one in four have some kind of zip on them. Weapons,
cosmetics, shots, even prosthetics. Hot, I can't take much more of this, it's
making me ill."
"How far do we have to go?" asked Conley.
"Medreph will be either at his place, or at The Essence, it's a
club, he knows the owner." She gulped back air. "Give me a moment, you
"No, it's clear by me, nobody seems to be paying us much
attention." Maybe people collapse in alleyways all the time hereabouts...
She studied Roween closely. Her face was flushed red, she was sweating
heavily, maybe the greatcoat? No, she looked exhausted, like she'd been
running up steps, even a little feverish.
"What is this? What's happening? Should I try find a doctor?"
Roween shook her head. "I'll be fine, fine. It's just this smell,
the magic, I have to hold back, can't let it get to me out here, too many
"You're saying you have some kind of allergy to magic?"
Again, Roween shook her head, her hair matting to her cheek in
wet strands. "No, not an allergy, more of a, a dislike, like you mightn't
like the taste of fish, the smell of sulphur. Not all magic, some of it feels
good, but the mixture here, it's so sickly..."
"Why can't I feel it? Why isn't it doing this to me?"
"You will feel it, yes; I have to teach you. Not yet, there're
other things to learn first." She rose to her feet, unsteadily, still the colour
of cherries but breathing better. "I'm good enough, now, we'll make for
The Essence. It's maybe fifteen minutes from here, but we have to pass
through some territory."
"You said `territory' like it meant something special."
Roween smiled again, her ironic smile. "It's special to some
folk, yes. Most of CBT, it's run by gangs. The ones who deal with the
outskirts, they're mean, you cross them and they rip your arm off. The
ones who handle the uptown, they're real mean, you cross them and they
make you rip your own arm off. Territory is where one group pulls
complete control, you better be real clean if they catch you violating their
"In the middle of town? You can't walk from one area to
Roween was straightening up her greatcoat, unconcerned by its
conspicuousness in the sticky heat of the evening. "Course you can, just
don't look like you mean trouble, that's all."
"So it's safe?" Not that she believed it was.
Roween laughed. "Conley, these are not nice people. Someone
with your looks, they'd think nothing of husking you up and slamming you
in a brothel for the next fifteen years. Hot, nothing is ever truly safe here,
despite their efforts! You can keep - " She stopped as a youth turned into
the alley, slid between their horses, strode off arrogantly towards the
"What do you mean, husking me up?"
"Like the shell spell they use in Cala." Roween was still
following the youth with her eyes, or one of them, watching until he was
out of sight. "Someone makes a focus, you hit them with a shell.
Personality, willpower, all gone until it wears off next day. Except before
the next day, you have them make a focus again and loose another shell,
and so on, long as you like."
"But that's only meant to be used as a replacement to the death
penalty, isn't it? More humane, and reversible. Only the courts can order
"Maybe in Cala, yes, but here it has other uses. People who've
been done that way, they're husks. Do anything anyone tells them, long as
it's simple enough they don't need to think. Prettiest are had for sex, but
the main use is in factories. Old or injured are used for surgicals or spell
tests. None can cast spells themselves, though, wonder why?" She grinned.
Conley was aghast. "That's just deplorable! Don't they have
any laws at all here?" She realised immediately the plain stupidity of the
"They have laws, yes, but it's the ones who make the laws that
are the ones who make the husks." She grunted. "Come on, we better go."
They stepped back into the bustle of the night. Roween led them
down worming streets, lit by the candles and light-sets of the shops and
houses that lined the way. There were people everywhere, strange faces
with furtive looks, confident sneers. A man walked past wearing a spangled
robe straight out of Hease and Eller's. Two others were touching
comspheres in a doorway. Where did they all live? What did they all do?
Conley could feel the energy of the place, almost tangible, but always
tainted, curdled with an omnipresent menace.
Roween paused at a T-junction, under a glitzy blue Magicorp
advertising display. "I think it's this way," she pointed, "haven't been here
awhile. There's a black-fac we pass, makes unsound cleanser, sells it to
others to put in soap, shampoo, detergent, that kind of stuff. Can burn
"Should we ride? Or would that make us noticeable?"
Roween didn't answer. She set off walking left, then stopped.
The blue glare from the hoarding washed her face undead. "Conley, for
how long can you hold a gesture? Say a wrist?"
Conley frowned, puzzled. "How long? Normally I'm asked
how short. I don't know, I guess maybe five, ten minutes for a wrist, it
doesn't ache too much with repetition." She stepped aside as a pair of
hollow-eyed adolescents pushed past.
"Good, a wrist will look less odd. If we do meet trouble,
chances are it'll be toting magic. Best thing if that happens is for you to hit
me with a spell, that'll likely kill half of them when their prosthetics revert.
Only if I give the word, though - it's not everyone who'll be trying to do
Conley wasn't sure. "You mean I run the gestures for a spell
now, and hold the penultimate one. Then, if we're jumped, I finish it?" She
scoffed. "That'll never work!"
"It will, try it, give the first twenty-two gestures of a 23 light-
prime, see if you can hold it. Long as you don't use it on me, it should
Conley deftly completed the necessary movements in under five
seconds. Roween still found her speed and fluidity breathtaking. The best
prosthetic hands would be pushed to match that rate, and she wasn't even
Conley held the final wrist while they crossed the road to a
dimly-lit office doorway out of the way. "Gestures can't influence a matrix
this long, it's been tried, I'm sure. The effect is like clapping out, kills the
spell, total." She regarded her hand warily. "Or does it cause a backfire?"
"It's a new technique, but there's no problem, believe me, just -
just believe me."
"I guess you'd just snuff any feedback bang anyway, right?"
The window next to the door was dark, the office empty.
"It's only going to be a 23, and that won't kick me." She
smiled. "Go on, then, do it!"
Conley threw the final palm; there was an immediate flash of
light. She blinked. A green after-image danced wherever her eyes rested.
Should have closed them, had forgotten she didn't have her lenses now.
"We better make a move, people are giving us looks," Roween
placed her hand on Conley's back. "Start a pain sequence, short one, if you
keep it at the itch level I shouldn't have to make a focus. Second-last is a
Conley glared at her as she flicked out the gestures. The green
spot danced on converging eyes.
* * *
The vigorous, dynamic street-life they'd seen earlier was absent
here, at least on the surface. There were far fewer people, but they were
better dressed, richer. Roween knew this area, why it was territory. CBT
Investments controlled it, a holding company fronting for Magicorp. They
provided "secure accommodation" for corporate personnel. The looming
apartment blocks were occupied by Magicorp's black-fac people, cold
types, high-fliers who spent their days styling spell plans, their nights
shotted out. Some employees would prove and manufacture, but the real
gold, those who Magicorp cared enough about to pay for this protection,
were the designers: risk-takers, the cutting edge of the magic business, here
in CBT because its bureaucratic safety and misuse regulations were
unenforceable, meant toss. Roween felt uncomfortable. She found herself
wondering if, had Conley been here alone, she'd have been able to take one
of the production casters, face-to-face. She thought back to Conley's light-
prime, smiled to herself. Hot, she could roast anyone at that speed!
The narrow street was deserted, and little light filtered down;
Conley was probably missing her lenses again. Her right hand was
motionless, fixed in the four hundred and thirteenth gesture of an itcher.
Roween tried not to look at it, fearing she'd make Conley nervous. No, it's
because I'm edgy myself. She glanced at her companion. No worry, Conley
was living this, her eyes raking with fire. She had power, concealed,
hidden, just waiting to be freed. Roween could sense her bridled
excitement, waiting - hoping?
There were four of them, three male, one female, emerging
from the shadows as if they were formed from them. All wore a basic
leather uniform, add-ons idiosyncratic and personal. Professionals. The
man who twinked on the light-set was in charge.
"Nice horses," he said. "They've been ridden a long way."
"We're meeting someone at The Essence," Roween stated.
"What do you want?"
"Horses like that, they need money to keep them, you got
"So, what do you want?" repeated Roween.
The leader was about to answer when the woman beside him
whispered in his ear. He nodded, smiled, and pointed at Conley.
"The lady here, she got a click-well?"
"Sure, I have a click-well," replied Conley, pulling it out.
"You want it? Go fetch!" She hurled it over her shoulder, shelling it against
a wall, into the dirt.
Roween was horrified, stared at her in hazed disbelief. Conley's
reply was to afford her a glance of such contempt she could only interpret it
The man looked at his colleagues, hooked his thumbs into his
belt. "That wasn't very bright, lady." He nodded in her direction, and the
other three walked forward, slowly, self-assured.
"Neither was was that!" Conley's right hand whipped up,
pointed at Roween, and dropped.
Three of them were on the floor, screaming, moaning, spurting
blood. Binders fell from doors either side, half-light returned. She jeered at
the remaining assailant. He snatched a comsphere-2 from his jacket pocket,
tapped it, nothing happened. Angrily, he threw it at Conley, wide. Turning,
he leapt down a side-alley, his running footsteps echoing as he made his
Roween called after Conley as she raced for her click-well.
"You damned fool, they only wanted ten clicks to let us through, why'd
you have to do that?" Conley ignored her. "You idiot, idiot! You killed
three people!" She looked down. Crawling along the rutted cobbles towards
her was the woman, eyes missing, right hand gone, agony carved into her
face. Roween froze a moment: life, what have I done? She twisted, fell to
her knees, threw up.
Conley was astride her mount, ashen hair falling about her
shoulders. "He'll be back with reinforcements - we ride?"
Roween stood, pulled herself into her saddle. She was shaking -
rage, fear, nauseousness. She kicked the horse into motion, leaning forward
as it sped off. Conley followed the blur.
* * *
The Essence was brick-built and damp-coursed, one of the few
buildings in Cala Bay Town that didn't look to be crumbling to rubble.
Conley was surprised by the club's facilities - there was even an ostler to
stable the horses. Roween had tipped him a coin, walked to the revolving
door. Conley herself hadn't much experience of tipping as a custom,
disagreed with it anyhow - was why she'd confronted those tollsters, she
told herself. She followed Roween into the lobby; Roween had probably
given enough for two...
Inside, The Essence was classy, even by Cala standards. Conley
soon found it to her taste. She felt out of place herself some, but more so
for Roween in her oversized coat. She decided Roween was probably used
to stares, though, having those skewy eyes of hers. At the moment, she was
talking to a thin-faced man at the desk. He was looking through a large, flat
book, running his finger down the left side of the page. Roween pointed at
an entry. He stopped, consulted a panel to one side, and tapped at it.
Roween slid him something, probably more money, and returned to
"Medreph is in his room, I've had the receptionist call him."
"What's he got there, a bank of comspheres? Must have cost a
"Not quite, those are rejects from a black factory, one that
specialises in lookalikes, even engraves the Porett logo on the base. They
had some problem upgrading to a comsphere-2, the new sort with the
priority lights on calls and stuff. These glow, but don't fade out, you can't
see who you're talking to. Manager got them as a job lot."
"Roween! So it is you!" A man's voice, his accent unusual to
The tall, slightly overweight figure descending the staircase was
grinning widely. Roween span round, her face a sudden picture of
unqualified joy. She'd reached Medreph before he'd taken another two
steps, hugging him, laughing, like a small girl greeting her grandfather.
Conley supposed that perhaps, in a way, the simile wasn't far from the
"Medreph, you have to come and meet my friend." Roween
was alive with excitement, her guilt and anger temporarily forgotten. She
walked coyly to Conley, leading Medreph by the wrist. "Medreph, meet Dr
Conley of Malith."
Conley shook his other hand. "Pleased to meet you," she said.
It seemed appropriate.
Medreph smiled, kissed her middle finger, and then, without
changing his expression, said, "Ro, I don't have to do anything."
* * *
Conley was bored. Medreph had taken `Ro' up to his room, so
she was left on her own in the lobby. Private conversations, not for an
outsider... What was it Roween had come all this way for, anyway? A fat,
balding bookbuyer - what did he know?
She wandered around. Nice place, well fitted out - maybe she
should go for a stroll in the grounds? She sighed. Maybe she should stay
where she wouldn't have to kill anyone. Roween was right, she had been
stupid. Too keyed up. The regret was beginning to gnaw her. She'd
deliberately provoked four people just so she could blow them away. How
could she have done that? She became aware that she'd drifted into the bar,
and remembered the click-well in her pocket. No use to her with `Ro'
around, she may as well spend some of it while she had the chance.
There was a good selection of shots on view. Conley went for
the Evergreen Lites, not as strong as her old brand, but well able to happy
her up, take her mind off things. The barman handed her a pack of six,
enough for a couple of days, taken singly; only the foolish or the lost
doubled them up. She passed him her click-well. The till's was chained to
the underside of the bar; he pulled it out, and locked the pointed, conical
end of hers into the funnel end of his. Conley always found that mildly
erotic at times like this, though she'd seen the action thousands of times.
He turned ... click, click, click, click, click, click, click. Only seven clicks
for a pack of happies? Half the price of the ones in Cala. She began to
doubt the authenticity of the MedSpell insignia stamped on the packet side.
Click-well and happy shots in hand, Conley left the barstool and
looked around the room. There were only a few people, mostly paired up,
some alone with a drink or their own shots. She chose the seat furthest from
the door, no table, room to sprawl. The pack flipped open in her hand, a
motion still easily familiar even after all this time. A tear formed in each
eye. Three people, bleeding to death, her fault, and she'd enjoyed it. What
kind of monster was she? She pulled out a shot. Why did she get that way?
How come she couldn't control it, didn't realise she was like it? Why did it
have to happen again? A tear rolled. She slapped the shot to her temple.
* * *
"How many has she used?" asked a voice.
"There are two left in the packet," answered another. That
sounded like her friend, Roween. She opened her eyes, dreamily. She was
so peaceful, so content, everything was just perfect. The palace was
decorated pastel shades of pink and blue and lemon, and she could smell
fresh-cut flowers. She was so happy.
"If she wants to get that way, it's her own affair."
"I can't leave her like this, she's almost vacant."
"Let me have a look at those shots."
Another wave of euphoria washed over. She drank it, arching
her back, stretching, letting it flow through every nerve. It felt so good, so
good, was she naked? She didn't care.
"They look genuine to me, you think she'd fix four at once?"
"I don't know, I don't know why she did it, oh life, what's
that? This is her second packet!"
Second packet? She didn't remember, she didn't remember
anything, why remember when you have rapture surging through your
veins? What memories could outshine such total joy? Who was the girl with
the crossy eyes?
"I've seen people get shot up like this before; ten at once, it's
bad. They can stay that way, permanently. Mindless with ecstasy,
"Well help me move her to your room. Hot, we can't afford
that to happen, too much depends on her, our plans..."
"Your plans, not mine. If she wants to go that way, let her."
"She doesn't, I mean, she can't, this isn't deliberate, oh please
no, she's fading..."
Floating, floating in a cool fire of delight, caressing her,
sensuously, licking her body with tongues of tingling flame. This was so
delicious, satisfying, balmy...
"For my sake, Medreph, please, she's my friend, I can't watch
her burn away like this."
"You'd do it here? Yes, yes, I believe you would... Very well,
Ro, for you."
Hands gripped her.
There was a place, in her mind, did it exist? It sang to her. Her
pleasure was everywhere, all about her now, enfolding her, it was
everything. She heard voices, were those words? They had no meaning.
Meaningless in her secret world, her secret self. Alone, safe. Happiness,
"Take the click-well, the comsphere, anything else in here
"What will you use for a trigger? Oh an Evergreen, of course!
"Hold tight, Conley, this is going to hurt..."
All gone, everything, fallen away, pity me, what did I do?
Emptiness, no, no, please, I want it back... I couldn't have done it, not to
* * *
Roween held Conley's head against her breast, gently rocking
as she listened to the uncontrollable sobs. Medreph stayed outside; no Elet
would want to witness this. Conley was in torment, total, all-encompassing,
suffering the misery of memory. She wept, repeating but one word over
and over in her blabberings: "Mother".