In the cold street below, hazy light spilled out from ornate gas lamps. The hydrocarbon fuel was long gone, now bioluminescent chemicals swam in the cold white candles. A sea of people strolled through the fake heritage: Neo-viks, Metalheads, Necs - or Necros - and Breed plus a few wannabe's down from the corporate zones. Far above them, the father of the Nec movement watched from his office window. He stood holding a bone white china cup filled with fragrant tea. The vessel of similar colour to his own modded complexion. Aldrich - another untruth fixed to the man - looked down and pondered his next line. Behind, there was the gentle scratch of a stylus against a data panel. The reporter could have videoed the conversation, but there was something delightfully old school about his approach. It was that, that had piqued the old surgeon's interest. Aldrich rarely gave interviews these days. "It startles me that people choose still to read," and sipped his tea. Aldrich turned and looked along the corner of his office to view the junction of 1st and Morrison. "I thought it was a dying art."
The reporter stopped writing. Aldrich's ears picked up the clink of teeth against the pen. "We have a strong readership. Sure, lots of people prefer vids and stuff like that, but you'd be surprised. I hope."
"How's the tea?" Aldrich asked changing the subject. He found himself nervous. Odd considering his sparring with property corporations, Security Services and the Old Man's chief whip, Kellerton. A lift craft fixed with much Victoriana rose from a roof top garden and drifted high into the half light. Necroville was never brightly lit, the architecture and population seemed to prefer it that way. It was also much cooler than other parts of the giant city. You could spot a Stack resident as they'd be wearing a hat and glove.
Aldrich's gaze settled on the lift craft again. Its smart glass roof hardened into shape after flowing from the fancy wood and brass surrounds of the air carriage. He wondered if some of the Neo-Viks were starting to overdo things. His eyes tracked it upwards until they met his own reflection. A man in his 40s with the traditional dark hair and pale face that marked him out as Nec. He had kept some of his Arabic features, the hair was much like his fathers. Nec, or necroform, to use an older word. Not many did these days: Nec was short, blunt and common parlance. Aldrich studied the well cut suit he wore and wondered if he should have opted for something less formal. Still, there were fashions even within Nec society and the Victorian look was on another loop. Still, a break from last season's leather road warrior and tough luxe. He left such decisions to Miss Crew, she knew far better than him in that regard.
He shifted his gaze to the reporter sat in a chair behind him. Harsher elements of Nec society would describe him as a kenbie, while the ancient core, a muggle. Both words fascinated Aldrich. Despite his and Miss Crew's work to try and bring Necroville into mainstream acceptance, they - like the denizens of the Breed zone - remained at arm's length. Perhaps they would never merge and this was a hopeless dream.
"The tea's fine, thank you," came the answer. The reporter leant back in the leather chair which creaked slightly. He was dressed casually and would have stuck out on the street like a war bot at the crucifixion. "Why don't we start with some of the history?" the reporter asked. "The beginnings of this hab-zone, the start of the movement and of course, you and Miss Crew."
Aldrich finished his drink and placed the cup and saucer on the large desk that dominated one side of the office. "Really, the movement and the zone - as you call it - are tied together. One influenced the other."
"When did you start?"
"Shortly after Magdalene became a city state," the doctor answered. "I blew in from the wreckage of London." The reporter nodded, hoping to coax more out of him. "I didn't have much with me. Most refugees didn't. At least I had my health: psychical, mental and spiritual."
"You believe in spiritual health?"
Aldrich thought about it, looking up at the plain white ceiling. A brass fan hung motionless above the reporter. "Don't you?"
"I can't say I'd thought about it," came the answer. "As a man of medicine, do you find a level of spirituality surprising?"
"Some people have faith in religion, some in each other and many only in themselves," he found himself replying. "What I mean by spirit is... belief. Some would call it drive, but to me, there's more a creative side to it than a desire. Spirit is what calls people to Necroville. There often something - missing - from their life outside and they come here looking for it."
"Don't some come to die?"
"You mean the euth-tanks?" Aldrich replied and the reporter's head bobbed. "They are not to help people kill themselves, at least, not in the way you might think. They do let you die, that is true, but they bring you back. As a society, we can beat death. The post-humans in Maple could probably tell you more than I could."
"So why do it?"
"To see the other side perhaps?" Aldrich shrugged. "I did it twice: once to see what the fuss was about and second to be sure that there's no great mystery awaiting us."
"You truly think that? That there's nothing after this? Doesn't that play into the hands of those who say Necs are all about doom and gloom?"
A smile hit Aldrich's face. "I thought you may say that. I did not hear or see a corridor of light - although some have - I did not experience anything. Only a sense of peace. Perhaps I did not die long enough to witness the Other Side as it were. But I will tell you this, it is all about what you can do now in this existence."
"Do feel you've done that?"
"In a small way..."
"You built a hab-zone, you're a world renown bod-modder - tailor as we say now - and the figurehead of Necroville. Wouldn't you say they are big achievements?" The reporter stopped and held the stylus near his lips. Aldrich wondered what work the young man had had on his face. Chin and nose perhaps?
"The zone was already here," he answered. "Sector 17 was part of the Rescued Buildings Project. Older buildings that survived the war and the town style ones were imported as part of a living museum. Certainly a grand idea. Sadly, a lack of planning with this being in the wrong part of Magdalene didn't help. This place is cold, colder than the central parts and people did not - if you pardon the pun - warm to it. The Consortium tried to redo the properties and sell them on, but there was little interest. A vicious feedback of no investment, so no facilities. No doubt the lack of a good sun tube feed made the place darker than usual. To the Nec Movement, it was perfect."
"How did you fund it?"
"Favours, loans, promises and the movement. Necroforms - or necs as you call us now - we'd been around as long as people have been able to modify our bodies - "
"Is that were you made your fortune?"
"Yes, Aldrich said. "My trip from London. I set up business here as a tailor: not clothing in the traditional sense of the word, but as someone who could remake a person. My gift was bioware and biosculpting. I say with no falsehood that I did well out of it. Certainly that helped fund large sections of the community you stand in now."
"It has been said that you are against cybernetics? Is that true?"
Aldrich shook his head gently. "Not strictly. From an artistic point of view, I prefer to work in the medium of flesh. I find that infinitely trickier to work with and yet so capable as a material. The Chrome Age, if you could call it that, was an age of identikit replacement. There was no soul to it. So, yes, the artist in me is against them, but the realist says some people need them to survive." He folded his hands slowly. "Who am I to say what is right? Is a plastic handle better on a brush or a wooden one?"
The reporter scribbled away and pursed his lips as he thought. Aldrich looked very carefully and his vision zoomed in like a hawk's. Yes, he nodded, definitely face work. Very good though. The youth seemed to stealing himself to ask a question. "May I ask you about your partner, Anita Smith?"
Ah, Aldrich thought, I was wondering when this would come out. "What about her?"
"Well," the reporter seemed to struggle to get the question out.
Aldrich's gaze wasn't helping, although inwardly the old Nec was on the verge of laughing. Miss Crew would no doubt chastise him for such social cruelty.
Finally, the young man gathered his wits: "You came from London and I believe you met a year later, is that correct?"
"That is right, yes. We met at an art exhibition. A mutual friend had created a series of pieces called The Human Network. The one that sticks in my mind was the over scaled blood and nerve system hung about a large room. A large heart was in the centre - underneath the seating - which pumped blood through it and kept it alive. Very clever, Anita told me. She'd helped him and we got talking. She was a fascinating woman."
"I'm sorry, you talk about her in the passed tense, yet she is still alive." The pen tapped out time against perfect teeth.
Aldrich let out a sigh and turned to look out of the window. His gaze became unfocused as the memory played back to him. "I'm afraid that is not strictly true. Anita did die that fateful night. We had been to a party when we were attacked. My assistance, Kalis was fatally injured, but it was Anita who took the brunt of their fire."
The reporter put down the stylus and lent forward. "What happened?"
"There was a group of them: two men, two women. I am not sure, even to this day, which meme they represented, but they had decided to kill us. They said we had committed crimes against the natural order. Whatever that meant and we could not be allowed to live.... as that would let the corruption continue." Aldrich's lips had become dry and he looked at his empty cup longingly. "Kalis moved to stand between us and our assailants. I remember activating my panic button and trying to get Anita into the porch. Our town house was heavily protected, but it was not to be. I was shot in the leg and the back. My darling? She took many hits. Automated security arrived very quickly, but it was too late for her. I saw the life go out from her. That look will always be with me."
The reporter fidgeted in his chair. "I-I'm sorry. Would you like me to remove that from the transcript?"
"No. Leave it in. It is history." Aldrich took in a deep breath and turned to face his interviewer. "Besides, there is a happy ending - of sorts."
"I know you brought her back."
"Again," Aldrich answered cooly. "Almost. It is as if much of our history has... become enhanced into legend. I did bring her back from the dead, yes. But it was not Anita who came back to me, but Miss Crew."
"What is she like? How is she different to Anita?"
A tiny smile bounced Aldrich's lips. "Why don't you ask her?" The reporter frowned and then almost squeaked in alarm as he found a tall, elegant blonde woman stood by his side. "Miss Crew says you dropped your pen," Aldrich continued. Previously his wife's hair had been long and a neon red. He never managed to keep up. Miss Crew smiled politely and then walked over to stand at her husband's side. Her dark leather dress made no noise, there was only the soft clock-clock-clock of boot heels against the fine wood flooring around the desk. "How are you, my dear?" he asked and waited. "That is excellent. We have a visitor, Lucian Grenham from Tower House Publishing."
Crew slow blinked and put her arms behind her back. "My wife says it is nice to meet you and..." Aldrich stopped to smile. "She hoped that I have not been too cruel to you."
"I was going to ask - how are you different? What happened to Anita?" the reporter asked.
Remaining silent, Crew shifted her weight to another foot. Aldrich answered for her: "My wife says that it was like coming out of sleep. That before... she had been dreaming and is now fully awake. She says Anita died that day. There is nothing left of her."
"Do you mourn her?" The question rang out like a shot.
Aldrich put his hand to the small of Miss Crew's back. "Each day I am thankful that Miss Crew is with me."
"But is she Anita?"
"My wife tells me to see her previous answer: Anita is dead."
The reporter nodded and made some more notes on the data pad. "Why does she not speak?" His cheeks flushed in embarrassment. "I-I'm sorry. I was told I had to ask the question."
"If I may answer that?" Aldrich asked Miss Crew and then added: "Miss Crew says she cannot speak until those who did this to her have been brought to justice." Aldrich lent back in his chair and Miss Crew moved to the other side of the room. She opened a wall cabinet and took out Aldrich's coat.
"I'm sorry if I've caused you offence - " the young man began.
"When you've been shot for being who you are, questions such as yours," Aldrich actually grinned at the reporter. It wasn't an altogether pleasant experience. "Let us say that I've had worse. Please Mr Grenham. I have another appointment and our time is now up."
The reporter pushed the stylus into his pad and the plastic reabsorbed it. He offered a hand to the Father of Necroville. Aldrich shook it firmly. "Miss Crew will see you to my assistant and they will see you out. Same time next week?" The reporter visibly relaxed when he heard the offer of a further interview. The two made their way out, leaving Aldrich to stand by his desk.
Left alone, Aldrich walked over to the wall and picked up his coat. Draping it over a high backed leather chair nearby, he pressed on a panel of dark wood. It slid back revealing a distinctly ancient chemistry set. He picked up a dropper and squeezed two drops of liquid on to his tongue. Aldrich gave a short shiver and then stretched his back like an old cat. "Much better." He heard the door shut behind him. "All done?" he asked.
Miss Crew padded across the floor and stopped by his side. He was a very bold young man, she sent to Aldrich. Her voice sounded only in his ears. Anita's soft country tones would never grow old, never wither. They were the only constant of life in his world.
"Why do they always ask about the talking?"
I could not say, but you always did like the sound of your own voice. Mirth danced in her pale eyes. Today they were lilac. Yesterday they had been the colour of blood.
"Thank you, dear," Aldrich chuckled. "Talking of which. How are our guests?"
The same as ever. Miss Crew slid the chemistry set aside to view a small tank. Inside four partial human brains floated in a tank of nano-gel. In abject pain, but very much alive. Tubes and wires ran from inside them to the sides of the tank. They didn't need to pulse malevolently, but Aldrich enjoyed the comic touch. "Where are they?" he asked.
Running through Programme Six, Miss Crew returned. The iron forest. Her crimson lips remained closed and perfect. Shall we?
"Just five minutes," Aldrich said pulling up a chair. Above the grand fireplace a holoscreen flickered into life. Dark woods filled with sharp metal trees filled the landscape. Four people - two men, two women - woke up naked. They looked confused and then one screamed. A hand burst from the forest floor and grabbed the nearest ankle. The hand became an arm and then a shattered head erupted from the dirt. The bullet ruined face of Anita Smith pulled itself free. Snarling and snapping, the creature chewed into the woman's leg. The others fled, abandoning their conspirator to a slow and savage death.
Aldrich picked up a book and flicked through it. See how they run, his dead wife sang to the holo footage. One of them ran into a tree, the branches sawing through skin and pinning him in its murderous grip.
"A thousand creds that Christopher makes it to the waterfall this time," Aldrich wagered.
You are tight. Tell you what. If he does, you can pick the restaurant tonight. How about that?
"Done," Aldrich smiled and looked up from the book. A Breed version of Anita was now stalking the remaining two: Christopher and Sarah-Anne. This one seemed like an unholy trinity of wolf, bear and crocodile. The undead Anita was still busy chewing on the still living remains of the other woman. This Breed body had been real enough, Miss Crew had worked on an unanimated clone of herself as a pet project.
Sometimes the players would fight each other to make one fall and today, Sarah-Anne didn't disappoint. Today she got the upper hand. She caught Christopher in the throat and he slipped, gashing his leg as he fell in a riot of metal brambles. As the screams rang out, Miss Crew smiled wickedly. You lose, honey. I feel like a visit to Solar Arc tonight. You can book. I shall be downstairs working.
"Enjoy, petal." Aldrich waved his hand at the display and it reset. The four killers returned to the boot point of the game. Unmolested, uninjured. Now, the game would run again, and again until the four learned to be human and to help each other. Part of him hoped they never would. He muted it and returned to his book.