I gave them a few minutes to get to the bloon docks and get clear, then I headed up there myself. Sleep was completely out of the question. The images were roiling and the pressure was building and I needed something to blow it off. When it got this far, liquor wouldn't help, and I wasn't fit for civilized company. I needed to find some uncivilized company now.
Joey was working the hotel dock that evening, just like he does about sixteen hours a day. "Hi, Joey," I said to him and he gave me a smile.
"You going out now?" Joey asked me, just a little uncertain, because I usually made air runs for the hotel during the day. Pretty much all night runs have to be under power, you can't expect to control a one or two klick drag line in the dark, and an air run under power is just about a break-even proposition. Fumio runs a taxi service, too, but I don't like to do taxi runs, because you have to meet too many people. Given my distaste for taxi work Joey was wondering why I'd be taking a bloon out in the complete dark.
"Yeah, Joey, I'm going out now." I winked at him. "Just a little free float. To be by myself for a while, you know."
Joey gave me his smile again. He didn't really know, but he liked being in on things. "Do you want to take Bess out?" he asked, naming my favorite bloon, an old one that was still improbably alive after all she'd been through.
"No," I said. "We'll let Bess rest for tonight." I reached into the nearest bloon and pulled the transponder from its position by the entrance flap. "Hang onto this for me, won't you?" I told him.
This time he gave me a wicked grin. He knew that it was illegal to pilot a bloon this near the City without a transponder, so I must have some mischief in mind. There were only a few of Fumio's air jockey's that were allowed to play transponder tag, and I was one of them. Of course the deal was that Fumio was never supposed to know about it. If I were caught I was in a stolen bloon, but I wouldn't get caught, not where I was going. And the deal always meant an extra tip for Joey.
"Sure, Mr. Honlin," he said. "You take care of the bloon, and I'll take care of the box." He carefully put the transponder in a recess under his seat.
I winked at him again. "I won't be too long," I told him. Then I got into the bloon and pushed off.
I needed to find some uncivilized company now.
Like I said, a power run costs enough in fuel expenses to eat up the profit on an air jockey assignment, so the more free sail you can do, the better your pay. I have a full sail license and I'm good enough to do a straight cross wind tack from the uppermost free sail level, just below the Darkunder clusters.
But even novices can do it the easy way, by dropping down a few more levels to where the planetary jet is slower and letting the City pass by up above. That's just differential drifting, of course, and if you want to return the same way, you have to go up above the City level, where the differential is much less, so the travel is much slower. But no one is allowed to free sail above the City proper, so you still have to do some tack work to get outside. The round trip for a differential drift and a short tack line can take a day or longer. The round trip gives you a nice overall view of the City, though, and during the day, the drift tours are a tourist attraction.
That night I had a different plan in mind. I was using the smugglers' route, by powering a short way over to the north, then dropping down to the lowest transport level. Then I drifted.
This part was no real risk at all. You can lose your license if you're caught free floating without a transponder near Sky City, but on the lowest drift levels, the likelihood of being caught is pretty much nil. Bloons don't have that much of a radar cross section, that's why they carry transponders in the first place, that and for identification purposes. Besides, the lower levels get some uninhabited bloons from time to time that drift up from the lower depths. Policing Darkunder's basement would be a waste of time.
I stabilized my bloon at the 310 Kelvin level, about two kilometers below the City floor. The differential drift rate at that level is only a bit over a meter per second, not more than a slow walk, but I didn't have all that far to go. It took maybe 45 minutes for the triangulator to count out the required distance, and I used the time to adjust the bloon's external fins for a slow spiral.
When the triangulator told me I was in the right spot, I dumped half my charcoal ballast and began my assent.
This was the risky part if there was any risk to the run at all. If someone happened to notice my bubble up maneuver, they'd know instantly what I was up to. But no one was likely to see me in the dark, and unless the geography of shadowville had changed in the past couple of hours, there was nobody between me and the City floor.
More of the underside floor of the City is warehouse space, and except for a few entry points, docks, and air shafts, the warehouses are packed side by side, with no roads or alleyways between them. The bottom is uneven, since the storage bloons are not all the same size. So there are thousands of nooks, crannies, and clefts in the underside floor, perfect for trapdoors.
My bloon was on an upward spiral, right toward one particular cleft, one that contained an illegal entry hatch. Every so often I adjusted the external bloon fins to modify the spiral slightly. Overall, the maneuver was a cakewalk, since the triangulator had my position to within a meter, and I had plenty of time to adjust my trajectory as I reached my target nook. The most challenging part of it was trying to time the spiral so that my bloon wound up with the right orientation. This didn't matter much, since the docking was largely self-correcting, but I'm a purist. When the gentle thump came, announcing that my bloon was sliding upward into the correct position, I noted with satisfaction that the bloon settled in with practically no rotation.
[U]nless the geography of shadowville had changed in the past couple of hours, there was nobody between me and the City floor.
I already had my bubble mask on, you always do when free sailing, and I squeezed the peroxypack under my armpit to enrich the oxygen a little for the exit and climb into the warehouse. The illegal hatch had no airlock, and the warehouse was nitrogen only, with no O2 in the mix. I'd used this particular hole only a couple of times before, running some blank comm chips that I'd assumed were hot, either stolen or slipped under the excise collectors. Most likely they were both, come to think of it.
It wasn't one of the better shadow holes. It was just a random bloon tear that had been patched with ziplock instead of sticktight, by somebody who had then sold the location to some people who needed to make a quick run. But it was small, and the warehouse opened onto a corridor that was too busy to carry a lot of contraband without somebody noticing. So after a few small deals, the hole fell into disuse, forgotten by everybody except me. I used it when I needed to.
Most often my need would take the form of wanting to get into the City but not being able to bear the idea of going through a checkpoint. Sometimes this was just for bar hopping, but most of the time I headed for the most deserted areas of Sky City, the big warehouse corridors after hours.
There's not much security in the warehouse corridors. A few of them have motion sensors, or surveillance cameras, fewer still are patrolled by guards. Mostly though, costs of security outweigh the benefits. Too much stuff moves through Sky City for thievery to make much of a dent, and most of that stuff has a high bulk-to-value ratio. If a thief wants to spend his time loading raw bloonsilk, bloonskin, or activated charcoal, he might as well get a job.
But hidden away in some of the storage areas are things worth stealing, microchips, pharmaceuticals, exotic produce, vid glasses, and digistores. Usually these go into the security areas, but sometimes someone gambles that you can safely hide them under a bale of bloonsilk. Usually, they are right.
I climbed through the hole into the warehouse and ziplocked it behind me. The warehouse was packed with bloonskin that day, with rolled bolts of it stacked high. I threaded my way between them to the outer door. It was locked, but it was easy to gimmick the lock from the inside. They are made easy to get out of in case a worker gets trapped; the only tricky part is evading the alarm switch.
The corridor was deserted, which was to be expected at that hour. I pulled my bubble mask off my head and stuffed it into my pocket. The air was a bit stale, but my earring and the telltale strips on the walls both agreed that there was plenty of O2. Occasionally they put a whole corridor to pure nitrogen to kill vermin so it's a good thing to always have a peroxypack with you.
What I wanted that night, at least in part, was to walk. And to be alone. One or the other is easy enough, but in bloon culture both are hard to come by. Back on Luna I'd sometimes suit up and go out topside, just to get away from everybody and everything. But being in a vacuum suit still carries a little bit of claustrophobia with it, and a morbid imagination can always get to wondering what would happen if you pulled the release valves of your helmet, just like it's always so easy to imagine stepping over the side of a bloon and plunging toward the planet below.
The other thing I sometimes did on Luna was to go prowling the lower corridors after lights-off, when most citizens were supposed to be in bed. The lower levels could never keep their sensors in repair; fix one and it would get vandalized within a week. Anybody you found out in the lower corridors after hours was apt to be up to no conventional purpose. Sometimes it was just teenagers looking for a place that wasn't under their parents' eyes. Sometimes it was meetings of like-minded insomniacs, trying to walk off the deep black blues. Other times, people I met were clearly up to no good. There's a deep need for violence in the human psyche, I think, and almost everywhere there are places where men go looking for a fight.
That's another reason why people go to the lower warehouse levels late at night.
I kept up a brisk walk for a couple of hours, occasionally taking a pull off of a water bottle I'd brought with me. I'd done this a number of times before, usually not running into another living soul for hours on end. Those times I'd end up my walk with a sense of disappointment, sometimes a sense of relief. Occasionally I'd find somebody else who was looking for a rumble, sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes. Then it was fight or flight, and I was always curious to see which I would do.
That night I hit the jackpot; I stumbled onto a burglary in progress. The odds weren't greatly against it, I guess. If I cared to check the insurance statistics I'd know how lucky I was. Maybe the gods sometimes arrange to give a man what he truly needs.
There were three of them, and they'd cut open a door with a skill saw. One was stationed at the outer door, and the other two were using a pry bar on some sealed crates insides. It looked like the crates were full of vid sticks, or maybe high density storage crystals. They were loading a pallet outside the door with the goods, and I guessed that they would then haul it over to some small storage space that they'd rented nearby for later transfer and fencing.
There's a deep need for violence in the human psyche, I think
The one at the door saw me round the corner, and he gave a short bark to the two inside. They expected me to turn tail and run to give an alarm, I guess, thinking that I was a security guard. When I kept walking straight for them, I saw them tense up. When I was about four meters away, they moved to block the corridor. Two of them pulled knives, the third still had the pry bar in his hand.
"Where the hell did you come from?" said the one who had been at the door, who I took to be the leader.
"I'm from the goddam planet Krypton, pal," I told him. "I've got a Science Police warrant to kick your ass."
He relaxed a little with that, figuring me to be crazy or brain damaged. "Take care of this guy, Leo," he said to the one holding the pry bar.
The one called Leo came at me, swinging the bar as if he expected me to jump away from it. That made it easy. I tossed my water bottle into his face, and slipped in underneath his swing, giving him a stiff arm right to the nose. I felt the bone and cartilage go crunch, and Leo's head snapped back as the pry bar thudded to the floor. The sight of their own blood enrages some people; others faint. Leo was closer to the second sort, or maybe I'd rattled his brain. Either way, his legs turned to string, and he fell right over.
The other two should have attacked immediately, or they should have run. Instead, they tried to flank me. Maybe they even moved fairly quickly, but you couldn't prove it by me. I'd hit the slowdown, where the adrenal rush sends everything into slow motion. I'd first experienced it years earlier in my first tournament competition, and it had become a regular companion over the years.
It was obvious which one of the guys in front of me was the better fighter. The one who called the shots was smooth and he held his knife like he knew what to do with it. So I charged the other guy. This one held his knife out in front of him like I was going to do him the favor of impaling myself on it. I let him think that until the last moment, when I rotated off the line, snagging his knife hand as I slid by. A quick pull and a twist, and I heard a series of popping noises in his hand. He gave a scream of pain and went down hard, trying to contort his body around his hand in an inept parody of proper ukemi. I kicked him in the temple as he went down. I don't think I killed him.
Then there was just the Leader. He knew enough not to charge me outright, even when I reached down to pick up the knife from his fallen buddy. I moved the knife from hand to hand and saw that he kept looking at my eyes, not the knife. I held it up in front of me and pretended to examine it closely. Still no charge.
"What a piece of crap," I said of the knife. "Epoxy blade and cheap plastic handle. Switchblade mechanism. Feh." I held it between my two hands and pushed. Blade and handle snapped apart.
I tossed the pieces over toward him and they landed at his feet. "You can still walk away," I told him. "You don't owe anything to these two losers."
I'd hit the slowdown, where the adrenal rush sends everything into slow motion.
"Fuck you," he told me.
I shrugged. "So many offers, so few meaningful encounters," I said.
The guy with the broken nose moaned and the blood on his face his face bubbled with it. I glanced over at him, taking my eyes off the Leader.
He took the bait and launched himself at me. He was as good as I expected, his knife getting close enough to slice my shirt sleeve as I parried the thrust. Then I had him in a wrist and elbow lock that let me twirl and suddenly he was staring at his own knife, still held in his own immobilized hand.
I looked into his eyes and let my own demons feed on what they saw there. "I could make you eat it now, you know," I told him. "That's one of the standard endings. Or I could just take it away from you and send you on your way." His eyes blazed with hatred still, enough to cover the fear.
"Let's split the difference, shall we?" I told him and squeezed. His knife fell from his grasp. Then I gave a little downward pull. From that position, the alternative to elbow and shoulder dislocation is to drop, and he dropped. I followed him down until he was flat on his back. His other arm flailed madly, trying to reach across his body to get at me, but that was impossible. I steadily increased the pressure until I felt his shoulder give. He exhaled noisily from the pain, then pretended to pass out. I reached down and claimed his knife, watching for any sign that he would try some other move. Some people don't know when to quit.
"Move and I'll kick your teeth out," I told him as I got up.
He realized that I hadn't fallen for it, so he opened his eyes and looked up at me. "Why?" he asked. I felt my body go warm at the evidence of human contact. Real communion is so hard to find.
Real communion is so hard to find.
"I thought I might need a knife sometime soon," I told him. I looked at his. Real metal blade and handle, good balance, none of this switchblade shit. A collector's item for sure. I smiled at him.
"Thanks for the blade," I told him. "I owe you one."