I'm one of the lost generation: the lost kids brought up to expect nothing, getting nothing, giving nothing. What education we could get wasn't any fucking use and we didn't want what our elders offered us - no hope - we wouldn't accept our lot. There was practically no industry left here in the city, no work, and so many left, looking to the brighter lights of London, Paris, the US, Tokyo: we never heard from them again. Others dropped out of society altogether, wandering the roads like grubby gypsies in large communal bands, their lives getting more difficult as more and more restrictions forced them ever on. The bastards thought we'd come in from the cold, become responsible members of society, but we didn't, we couldn't - some of us came back to the city and joined the lurking underclass, living off crime and drugs, the rest clashed with the busies and died in the quiet country they weren't allowed to live in anymore.
This part of the city has a particular smell to it: a sweet smell, caused by the processing of chemicals and oils in one of the last factories in the area. On windless days, when the air is still, the smell is at its strongest and can be overpowering: cloying and concentrated into a small area with the factory at the hub. Newcomers retch and curse; longer term residents just grin and bear it: it's been part of our lives for as long as we can remember and in its own way brings comfort, a stable thing in the unstable world. But on windy days... the smell is almost pleasant and drifts for miles.
When I was young my da said that he could identify all the individual oils they processed there - he worked there all his working life - but I didn't care then, just hating the stench on his clothes when he came home from work. I understand the meaning of the smell now, but I still don't care what it is, simply that it is. The factory gave my da 'early retirement' after all his hard work and now it's manned by a skeleton staff of men like him: working crap hours for crap wages. He said he needed to do a decent honest day's work; I've spent more in the last year than he earned in a lifetime.
I left my parents' home when they started getting too heavy, asking questions, criticising, and eventually I moved in over the rail tracks: from poor and honest to well let's just say that over the rail tracks is another world. It used to be all docks, built in Victorian times to ship goods in a triangle: cotton, tea, coal, slaves. Now the docks are dead, the ships long gone and the ghosts have moved in: a shanty town in the huge warehouses and offices - seedy pubs and neon lit bars, arcades and drug havens, hostels and cheap capsule hotels all springing up to cater for the addicts and the homeless, the criminal and the unlucky who end up here. It's my home.
That night, the wind was in my hair and the smell was no more than a lingering hint in the air, but I was hardly aware of my surroundings: I was as high as a kite and soaring. I hustle - I've dealt drugs, software, guns, all sorts of shit - and I really don't care what, cos sometimes I can score something so hot, squeeze such a good deal that I can sort me enough cash to keep me in poppers for months. I'd just completed such a deal and was rushing to get home with the money burning a hole in my pocket.
'Course, cash is hardly legal now: coins don't exist and plastic has mainly replaced paper, but here in the docks we know that plastic is an added hassle and so most deals are in cash. I'm glad: I like my cards but I also like the feeling of the paper in my hands, their feel; their smell. Nothing like it.
As I said, I was tripping along, tripping out and then tripping up. I sprawled on my face in the dark and rolled over: my reflexes reacting quicker than my head, and squatting, looked out into the dark. It was silent except for the whine of a police car far off on the other side of the tracks - the busies don't bother coming here anymore - and a couple arguing in a squat just up the road, their window open to the street, their voices high. There was a buzz from a broken neon above my head and its red light flickered on and erratically lit up the street. There was a body lying to my right.
My first instinct was to panic: I didn't need this, didn't want no hassle, certainly didn't want to be sliced by whoever sliced the stiff. I was about to do a runner when the stiff moaned a soft little sigh: it, she, was alive and for all my sense of self preservation, I couldn't just leave her there, cos by the morning she would be fish food in the docks, stripped of all her gear, or spare parts in some black clinic. I wouldn't wish either fate on anyone... well not most people...There was only one thing I could do and so I picked her up and started to heft her back to my flat.
The sector of NYC that we controlled had always seemed too small when we were running it, but that first night that Julia was missing we realised just how big it really was. Alex thought we had it all sewn up: after all the sector is ours in effect, but all the powers we had at our command couldn't help us that night. The narks, the hustlers, the killers, the men we controlled, were all out on the streets, searching for one woman among the detritus of the city. The bars were empty, the casinos quiet, the whores without their pimps: all for one woman. She couldn't be found. We found out later, she'd already left the city before nightfall.
When I got her back to my attic, I was sweating cobs: though she was dead light herself her jacket and duffel bag were fucking heavy. I laboured up all the stairs, struggled through the door, quickly switched off the security, switched on the lights and unceremoniously dumped her down on the sofa. She was still unconscious, but I thought it'd be best to take her jacket off, look for signs of injury: she was so pale, I guessed she must be bleeding somewhere. When I got the jacket off there were no signs of injury, except self-inflicted ones - the inside of her arms were dotted with needle marks. I sighed and closed my eyes for a second to get my head together: I didn't need this, not after Annie.
Annie and I'd met and become lovers a couple of years ago and, though she'd been gone for months, there were still constant reminders of her, littering the flat, littering my life. We'd met in the most incongruous place for romance: I'd been picked up by the busies for not carrying my ID and then they found the poppers. Now, while the uppers I carried weren't illegal they bore a striking resemblance to some that were and, to teach me a lesson, I guess, they took the whole night to find out and let me go. Annie and I shared a holding cell and she told me she was being held for the same reason. She lied.
Annie was a junkie: she was held for having no ID but they found no drugs on her cos they were all in her. She told me, later, that she'd first taken E in her teens to have a good time and then speed to help her pass exams (me? I didn't even bother with exams) and then she'd discovered computers and how many doors they could open and then she'd realised how many doors remained closed and so had started taking Ki and then it was too late. Ki was, is, a 'smart drug' - expands the mind, quickens the reactions, while the taker remains in control - and is so addictive that it only took Annie one go. After the first small white tablet, came more and more until they weren't enough and then she switched to hypos until they weren't enough and were too much and I came home one day to find her dead: the hypo lying on the ground beside her, her beautiful blue eyes wide open in astonishment.
And so I sat for a little while, my head in my hands, wondering what to do. I know what I should have done: dumped her back on the street, cos if she was shooting Ki it didn't matter if I saved her today cos nothing would save her in the long run. Take that shit and your body clock just starts timing you out: from the look of things the nameless woman on my couch didn't have much time left. Her hair was flame red and long, braided in tight, thin plaits down one side of her face and hanging loose on the other: it needed washing, was tangled and hadn't seen a pair of scissors in ages. It fell over her face so, gently, I brushed it back: her face was pale and almost luminous in the flickering light of my room. She was not so young anymore - obviously she'd come to Ki late - and fine lines had started to appear around her eyes, but she didn't have the Ki look that I'd seen in Annie even when she slept.
Perhaps it was because of Annie; perhaps it was the decency my parents tried to drum into me as a kid that was worming through, but I knew that I couldn't throw this woman back out onto the street. Did I want to redeem her? Save her? To make up for giving up on Annie, giving up so I lost her. I don't know, I still don't.
But I knew what would happen if she woke up and needed a fix and so decided to rifle through her gear to find it. That's all: I really wasn't thinking of swiping anything, but when I opened her bag... I'd seen all sorts of tech and other gear and knew the basic rule of merchandise: the cheaper the rig, the most big and garish the logo emblazoning them. When I was a kid my mam and da saved up for ages to buy me a computer and when it finally came it was amazing: colourful box, cheerful instruction book, big, garish corp logo all over it, I loved it. And it was crap: I could just about play games and knock out essays for school on it (when I did them) but it was hopeless for anything else. Annie's gear had been pretty much the same and it had frustrated her like crazy - if it had been more expensive, better, would she have needed to try the Ki? But when you get to more expensive gear the logo gets smaller until you get the gear that is so expensive, so exclusive that there is no logo: none is needed cos if you're rich enough to buy one then you're gonna know who to go to. This woman was no Annie, skirting on the edge of poverty: the gear in her bag was black, sleek, smooth and without a mark on it. Lovely.
"Take your hands off that..." I turned sharply at the voice. The woman was sitting up slightly and was holding a small, but deadly, needler in her hands, pointed at me. "Bring your hands up where I can see them..." I moved my hands slowly upwards and started to protest but she told me to shut it. It was strange but she was completely calm; her eyes were dark and wide but with no hint of the Ki madness; her hands shook slightly but that was understandable - hell she'd just been dead to the world - I look worse in the morning. I realised, with her eyes open and her face more animated, that she was beautiful, but I guessed then was not the time to tell her that.
She looked about her a bit, still pointing the needler at me, taking in her surroundings. I thought about trying to jump her and made a slight move, to test the water: she jumped and moved her gaze back to me and I gave up that idea as a bad lot: I thought I'd have to rely on my silver tongue. but she interrupted my thoughts,
"Who are you? Where am I? How did I get here?" The questions came tumbling out then she cut off short and, her eyes closed, leaned back against the couch. "Please, where am I?" And passed out again.
This time I took no chances and, having removed the needler, checked her for other concealed weapons. Nothing. I went back to her bag and ignoring the hardware, rifled through all the pockets and those of her jacket until I found it. Not Ki. Well, not the Ki I knew, yellow and sickly in little plastic ampoules with no markings: the drugs I found were in two clear glass ampoules, clear and just slightly viscous - they could have been anything. There was a new disposable syringe with them and I wavered for a little while but decided to wait until she came round again before injecting her: if it wasn't Ki I could kill her and I knew I didn't want to do that.
I didn't have to wait long: she woke again a little later and immediately cried out in pain while motioning to me to inject her. My hand shook as I twisted the tourniquet and they were all over the place as I looked for a place to inject. S'funny but in all my time with Annie I'd never injected her: she wouldn't let me come close when she needed a fix and I didn't want to anyway. So there I was about to inject a complete stranger with god only knows what, and I was shit scared. Perhaps she could see this cos she extended her left hand, and took the hypo from me, brushing her hand against mine, and slowly, carefully but steadily injected herself. She let out another sigh and closed her eyes again: I wiped the sweat from my forehead and sat back.
We'd known we were going to lose her for some time - since before I went to join her in New York - we didn't know when but knew we shouldn't go making any plans. Sometimes it was hard to bear, as each day she was eaten away inside a little more, each day the pain became more terrible, each fix of morph a little stronger, a little less effective. Other days, and these became fewer and farther between, it was as if the years had fallen away: she was without the pain and her smile lit up all who knew her.
Some people exert a strange fascination over others - Julia was one of those people - a look from her dark eyes, a quick smile and they were hers. But she didn't want them and they wanted her and she'd spent most of her adult life running from them: corporations and lovers. And now she's gone, but not how we expected. She's run away again, as she's always run away. Now she's running away from her life, as if this'll make her death more palatable. She didn't even leave a note.
The woman's name is Julia and I think I'm falling for her. I can't help myself, I really can't. After she'd injected she fell back asleep and slept for hours and I found I just sat there and watched: her breathing was deep and rhythmic, her eyelids twitched slightly as she dreamed. What did she dream of? Annie said she didn't dream at all: the Ki was enough, more than enough, for most people. I can't remember my dreams but I think I dream of Annie.
When I saw she was waking up, I went over to the kitchen area and boiled up the kettle for tea, emerging a couple of minutes later with two steaming mugs - she was awake and had sat up, rubbing her eyes a little, brushing her hair from her face.
"Thanks," her voice was soft and low, as she took the tea and sat sipping it, her legs crossed on the sofa. I said nothing. I could think of nothing to say that wasn't rubbish. I knew then that she was no Ki-head, no Annie, but I couldn't ask her what she was taking, what she was. After the tea she had a shower and emerged, ages later, with hair washed and brushed, her face clean except for a little make- up, wearing a clean pair of black jeans and a faded black t- shirt. She looked a lot better.
We talked into the night, but to be honest she hardly told me anything: I told her loads about me though - she was a fab listener - my mam and da, Annie, my other dodgy love affairs, my equally dodgy deals - she listened to it all and smiled and encouraged me on. The last time someone'd listened like that had been the new parish priest when I was eleven or twelve: he was young, sweet and eager and I even found the church for a while. But he left the church and the parish a year later to live with his male lover; the next priest was a cantankerous bastard and that was that.
As we sat and talked we drank beer I'd had sitting in the fridge for weeks. The evening was hot and still and the smell wafted in despite the air conditioning, but Julia didn't seem to mind. I found it hard to place her accent: it wasn't normal for the city but some words rang true. But she does come from here, lived here through her childhood, but'd been away in the States. Now she's back home; I didn't ask why.
It was late when we finally ran out of things to talk about. The weather had got stickier and sticker throughout the evening as we sat there and a film of sweat coated my lower back, my forehead and my upper lip. Julia didn't seem so affected but I could see her eyelids drooping with fatigue so I got up to go to my bedroom. As I stood, she extended her arm and gently touched mine,
"Thanks." Her voice was little more than a whisper as she looked straight at me, her lips twisted into a smile. I don't know why, perhaps it was the ale, but I bent down and kissed her softly on the forehead. I closed my eyes: she tasted slightly of salt, slightly of perfume, but I was about to pull away and apologise when she lifted her face to mine and kissed me full on the lips. I sank down to my knees in front of her and the kiss became an embrace.
That night Julia and I became lovers. Not even when I was Annie did I find as much satisfaction in love making: Julia was gentle and fragile, the drugs she took making her less energetic but more sensual that Annie could ever be. So in the smell of processing oils, we moved like in a dream, our sweating bodies entwined. She cried out softly just once and then was silent and I didn't make a noise, afraid to break the spell we both seemed to be under.
After that night she moved in to my attic flat and we began to make a life together - well as much as she would allow. It seemed that I told her everything but she told me as little as possible about herself. If I pressed her she'd just nuzzle herself into the nape of my neck, her breath touching the tiny hairs so that I'd shiver and then, pulling back, shake her head sadly. In the end I gave up and life settled into a rhythm: I would work, dealing as I could, and she'd work when she could on her rig. Sometimes I'd just watch her, her hands floating over the keyboard but I didn't really understand it all and she wouldn't explain. Other days she couldn't log in and lay in bed, wincing with pain, or went out to try and walk the pain away. She never complained about it, but she didn't have to: I could see it in her eyes, in every muscle as she moved. But she didn't want to talk about it and I didn't ask - I was afraid of losing her too much.
Alex looked for Julia for months with no success. He must have spanned the globe scores of times going to all their places - Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Tokyo, London - that he thought she might run to, but still he couldn't find her. When he came home that Autumn he walked in through the door, threw down his battered bags and wept. Sergei and I said nothing: we'd been looking too but our search had not been so exhausting, nor so soul destroying. Sergei had sent out his people in the city to look for her - he still thought she might well have just gone to ground in a place she knew well. He didn't find her. And me? I'd searched for her in the place I knew she couldn't abandon. Sergei and Alex thought she was dead by that Autumn but I knew she wasn't: in the Net I picked up traces of her - recent traces - like the vapour trails left behind a jet - but before I could follow they would dissipate into the aether. But during the months Alex was away looking I picked together the clues and they pointed to one place. She'd gone home.
It took a bit of persuasion to get Alex to let me go: he needed me more than ever with Julia gone and he'd just about given up on ever finding her. Then he wanted to go himself but I pointed out that I knew the ground, knew it better than he ever could: that if anyone was going to find Julia it would be me. So he let me go and I found myself on a plane over the Atlantic, going home.
The autumn came and Julia and I were still together. Julia was worse though, as if the summer sunshine and warmth had given her what little strength she had, and now it was gone her pain had just got worse. The only comfort I got was that she seemed to be putting on weight - but I couldn't be sure it wasn't a side effect of whatever drugs she was taking, puffing her up. One evening, after another downcast day, the sun finally came out from the clouds and the wind dropped and we were able to sit on the balcony and watch the sunset. We were both silent as it dipped lower towards the skyline beyond the docks.
"Never leave me, Julia..." I didn't look at her, but simply took her hand in mine. She was cold and didn't reply for a while, so that I began to wonder whether she'd heard me, but she turned to me, her eyes sad and on the verge of tears,
"Please don't ask that of me. I can't make such a promise, not any more. I've made promises in the past, that I didn't... I couldn't keep and it only hurts everyone..."
I tried to interrupt, to tell her she could rely on me, but she raised her hand to my mouth and gently shushed me.
"Nothing lasts forever, everything changes. Learn to forget and move on." She shivered, "I'm sorry..." and got up slowly and walked back inside. I remained seated for a little time, until the sun had disappeared and a red haze lit the horizon. I was cold and my face was chilled from the tears that had dried on my cheeks.