Phoenix Café: from Chapter 6 "Blocks and Docks"


One night, after meeting at the cafe and drinking a great deal of complicated wine, Catherine and her first friends -Joset, Misha, Rajath, Matho- took cabs to the corrida, to see Lydie in action. They went in person because there was no direct cortical tvc at the Phoenix Cafe. The others chose different names from the programme, discussing the season's form in this fashionable interactive sport. Catherine chose Lydie for her virtual partner. They sat in the Connelly box right above the arena, premier d/c bands clinging to their temples. The show was called bull-dancing in English, in reference to a very ancient tradition, but the animals were female. Bulls were reserved for a different spectacle. The wild cattle ran out: splendid, astonishing beasts, with the pure extraordinary beauty of forty thousand year old cave paintings. They held their tasselled horns high, and looked around at the crowd with alert, intelligent eyes. The dancers joined them, slim young athletes in their white tight suits and brocade jackets, springing into casual backflips and somersaults. Then the fun began.

The friends in the Connelly box were shouting and gasping in the grip of adrenaline-fueled euphoria: blood, muscle and brain united with the performers. The crudely hooked-up poor in the tiered seats yelled as loudly and seemed equally transported. There were several injuries, but no fatalities tonight.

They left at the end of the first tournament. All of them were dripping sweat, grinning maniacally; their eyes in the glimmer of a full moon black mouths of gaping pupil. The poor and the employed streamed around them, out into an ancient street that stank of big, hot animals, dung and piss and violence. To be at the arena in-person was as much of a thrill as the sport itself. The mood of the people was uncertain, unbalanced by rumours of the Aleutian Departure. No one sure what was allowed now, on the brink of the end of the world.

They waited for Lydie, high as kites and hungry for more adrenalin. It was about two in the morning, north-western Euro time. Misha, who had broken his usual rule about taxis and had a cab waiting, revealed that he'd sent for a case of rifles. He had promised Catherine that he would take her hunting. This was a good night for it, he said. They would go after a tribe of foxes that had been plaguing a vehicle nursery. He'd had a report from the local keepers. He'd told the men he'd take care of the cull himself.

The Connellys had been wildlife wardens since the Gender Wars, when the first Michael Connelly had been huntsman to one of the warlord kings of Paris. Nowadays their chief business was the management of mass-market virtual wilderness experience, but they retained some antique privileges and pleasures. The friends had jumped into cabs at the arena in the jostling midst of a crowd. Now they were alone in the dark on a street corner in a neighbourhood none of them knew, and no one except Misha had ever seen before. They sent the cabs away. Misha unveiled the weapons. They were beautiful: classic, sleek, simple works of art and craft.

'It's a vixen,' he said, 'and her half grown cubs. They don't kill, they graze. They get in the nursery pens and tear chunks out of the vehicle blanks, which are at this stage much like very thick domestic animals: huge, stupid, moving heaps of meat. You know what foxes are like? They go blood-crazy. They can do a hell of a lot of damage.'

'Nasty,' agreed Matho, looking solemn and responsible.'Got to be stopped.'

'We're going to try for the mother, because if she's gone the cubs will scatter or die. I've a plan here of her usual movements. Wild animals are creatures of habit.'

They sat round him, peering over his shoulders at the flat reader he'd laid on the ground. There was no one about, no sound but a vague stirring and grunting from the open pens. On the screen, menacing tawny shapes slipped in and out of shadow.

Lydie murmured: 'Is that what foxes look like?'

Misha laughed. 'I lied. It's not foxes, it's lions. A big family group has moved here from some preserved woodland nearby. If it was foxes we'd do nothing. We don't give a damn for the cab breeders, alien-stock profit-grubbers, so what if they lose a little fat. But lions that move into the streets sooner or later will prey on humans, and that we can't allow.'

'How many do you want us to kill?' demanded Joset grandly.

'If you kill one, Jo, I'll be very much surprised. To your positions, ladies and gents.'

He took Catherine to her place himself. He put her at the mouth of an alley, the pens ahead of her and the street behind. She was in a state of extreme excitement. The night was full of gleaming teeth, flashing limbs, white-rimmed eyes. It smelled of sweat and body heat and blood. She had lost her memory. She didn't know what had happened to the others. Through a darkly transparent barrier she could see the big soft bodies of the living machines. They moved like heavy clouds, and exhaled faintly luminous green gases that drifted through the air.

'I'm glad you kept some big wildlife,' she whispered, her blood thrumming. 'Once it looked as if they would all vanish. There'd be nothing left but you people, your food and machines like those.'

'Only the ruthless ones,' said Misha. 'Lions, foxes, raptors. Nothing gentle survives in the wild.' He put the hunting rifle into her hands, and guided it to her shoulder. 'Have you used one of these in the real ?'

'Yes. Have the others?' She was concerned. 'The real is still different, no matter how well you can handle yourself in a game envie. They might do something crazy.'

'You mean Joset?' He laughed softly. 'It's okay. He's firing blanks. Self, I'm so high I could fuck one of those things. I could roll in that field and eat tiger weed. What about you?'

He left her. She wondered: have I the right to kill the beast that preys on humans? She wondered if her own weapon was loaded with blanks too. She saw the rust red sand of the arena racing towards her, the wicked curved horns plunging. She jumped over the moon, and leapt, oh, flying, on the edge of death. The alley was cold. She heard movement. She levelled her antique rifle: searching the uncertain space for a low-moving shadow, filled with fellow feeling for the animal she might kill, waiting intensely for a deadly rush and a spring-

But the animal was Misha. Without a word he gripped her waist, turned her away from him, pushed her against the wall and impaled her, stabbing in and out: ah, ah. The barrel of the hunting rifle jarred against her breasts.

When he'd gone she was unsure of what had happened. Was that real or was it part of the high? Fluid dribbled between her thighs. She picked up the weapon, which she'd dropped when he let go, and took it back to the street corner. Lydie and Rajath were there, sitting in the roadway. Lydie had her rifle in one hand and a bottle of complicated wine in the other. 'I'll tell you something,' she said, when she recognised Catherine. 'When we're in the arena, everyone wants us to be killed. People say they do d/c sports for the endorphins, for the excitement, the skill, the artistry of the performers. But what they want is for us to be killed. You only have to look at the stats, the peaks in the ape mapping.'


'Audience participation,' explained Lydie gloomily. 'Neuron activity mapping.'

'I'm not morally challenged,' said Rajath, grinning. 'I was just scared.'

Catherine sat down beside them.

'You know the other corrida? The bull-fighting?' the dancer went on, 'I've never wanted to be a matador. I don't care how famous you can be. But what I was going to say was, nobody wants to hook up to the bull. Maybe a few, but it's a tiny percentage. And it's the rich. Who wants to be the victim, huh? Trapped, no way to escape. Most of us have that for free, every day of our lives: it isn't romantic. In my game a steady thirty per cent of the punters want to be the beasts, even though you can't remember it. You can't, you know. No one can remember being an animal, it's like a dream, it vanishes the moment you uncouple. But people want it because they know the animals are not the victims, we are. If a cow kills one of us she's an overnight sensation. Then everyone wants to hook up with her. You know what the games are? Drug dependency: brain candy. No different from the injectables and pills that they teach us to think were so awful and degenerate. Why bother with the analogues, when you can mainline the original and best... So.' She handed the bottle earnestly. 'That's why I don't want to hunt. Fooling around with death isn't fun, it's work.'

'I think they're loaded with blanks anyway. I don't think there are any lions around here. Or any foxes either.'

'Oh?' Lydie scowled. 'Typical Mish. The outsider, laughing at us all. I bet you're right.'

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