Categories > Original > Sci-Fi0 Reviews
Bark is an idealist. He just wants to blow up The Man In Charge. Who doesn't? The last thing he actually expects is to get a chance to do it...
This isn’t as bad as it sounds, on the whole he runs things quite well, if you behave yourself. The few thousand citizens who disappear without trace every year have only themselves to blame - they were thinking naughty thoughts, weren’t they?
This has been going on for the best part of a century now. People, especially world dictators, live a lot longer now. It’s later than you think. The world is smaller than you think. They can do lots of things you don’t know about, but don’t worry about them, I’ll tell you what you need to know.
To return to the point, most people behave themselves because they believe they will get found out if they don’t. Bark doesn’t believe this. He doesn’t believe the Man can read his thoughts; he’s never heard him inside his head. And Bark has a bomb. But more of that later.
Bark lives in a room close to the centre of the city, it’s very convenient for buying drugs and getting home quickly. There’s a fish in the room below.
You think that’s bad? The fish used to be in the room above, that was really bad, the water used to drip through the ceiling like water generally does through rotten wood and plaster. After about a year of this, Bark arranged to swop with the fish, so the fish had the ground room and he had the one above, that way the fish could fill his room with as much water as he liked and only the rats in the cellar would get dripped on. Bark thought of that one all by himself, and he was really proud.
You know, of course, that it wasn’t a real fish? Not the swimming, scaly, mouth opening and closing kind - yuck, who’d want one of those in the same block? The fish was one of those aliens, you know, the kind that like water, and have a lot of it back home, wherever that is. The furry, snouty, short-legged sort of fish. They’re okay to have in the same block, as long as you make sure they’re in the room below you.
So Bark had his own room with a good view of the street, and he didn’t have to share it with anyone. Didn’t have to. But he did. The good view of the street was instrumental in bringing into his life The Lovely Nikki.
One night there was a fight, or something, just below his window. Bark looked out, he had a good view of the street, you see. And he liked a bit of violence now and again, as long as he wasn’t personally involved. Don’t we all. He saw three men beating up a woman. Fine, a hint of sexual overtones to the violence didn’t go amiss as far as Bark was concerned. Three against one was a bit unfair, he thought, but he enjoyed it while it lasted.
After it was over, and smitten with what could almost have been a touch of post-excitory guilt, he crept down the narrow stairs after the men had gone and left the woman lying on the pavement and stuck his thin features round the corner of the door onto the street to see what he could see.
He saw a woman snivelling on the ground, dishevelled and in general disarray. He cringed with embarrassment, and wanted to sneak back up the stairs again, but she saw him and called out, so he reluctantly sloped over to her and stared sullenly down.
She looked up at him, tears filling her sky-coloured eyes, melting black mascara and carrying it in twin muddy tracks down her dirty face. Bark melted like the mascara and shyly thrust out a hand to help her up.
She blinked at him, sending more sooty sploshes across her bruises. She sniffed and gulped.
“I’ve hurt my leg.” she said, in a squeaky voice, showing him the bleeding abrasions on her shin.
Bark wanted to do something unpleasant to the three men, who were, fortuitously, long gone from the scene of the crime.
He half carried her up the narrow stairs to his room and put her on his lumpy bed. When the blood and mascara were cleaned away, he could hardly believe his luck. The Lovely Nikki was, well, you know…. lovely!
Now, to be brutally frank, Bark had never had much success with women. Even ugly ones. It wasn’t that he was particularly revolting, it was just that, as he knew in advance that they were going to say no… he never actually asked them… Thus he was rarely disappointed by the response.
With the Lovely Nikki incapacitated in his room, he found that he was able to talk to her without his usual embarrassment, and her undying gratitude was a bit of a bonus, too. She stayed with him, and he was overjoyed. She didn’t have anywhere else to go, but that didn’t matter, when she looked at him with those butterfly-blue eyes and preened her fluffy, pale hair, he could forgive her anything. Including… Well, you’ll find out about that later.
So, at this point, everything was so peachy for Bark it would just about make you throw up, you know? He was getting on alright with the fish, and he even got a rebate on his social allowance, back-dated sixteen and a half months. The Lovely Nikki could do some extraordinary things with her tongue.
Here comes the barf in the bowl of cherries.
You see, Bark was a terrorist. An Urban Guerrilla. A Freedom Fighter. He was dedicated to ridding the world of the Man who owned everything, ruled everything, and looked inside people’s heads. Remember him? Good, he turns up later.
Bark’s three most treasured possessions in the world (apart from the Lovely Nikki, of course), were a genuine antique signed picture of the Legendary Colonel Gadaffi, an army surplus green and brown camouflage jacket, and a funny old magazine he’d found behind the walls when he’d been trying to dry out after the first fish-flood.
There was an article in this magazine on how to make explosives. Okay, some of the text was blanked out, and the diagrams didn’t look as if they had much to do with the procedure, but Bark was pretty sure that he had it figured out. It didn’t look too difficult. So Bark built a bomb, and the purpose of this bomb was to blow up the Man in Charge.
Now, if Bark had ever met this Man, he probably wouldn’t have wanted to blow him up as he was a decent enough chap, with a wife, and a son, to whom he was genetically related, and quite probably a dog too, although I couldn’t actually swear to this.
But Bark didn’t know the Man, or his wife, although he’d probably seen his son, who worked in media presentation, just to embarrass his father. He turns up later too, watch out for him. So to Bark the Man in Charge was an abstract of all that was wrong in society, and thus had to be removed in order to make way for a fairer, happier, less annoying way of life. Bark was an idealist, you see.
At this point, you can pause for a moment to feel sorry for the Man in Charge, who always got blamed for what went wrong, and never got any credit for the things that went right. Remember, too, that his son was a great embarrassment to him, and you’ll see that being a World Dictator is not as easy as you think.
In case you’re wondering, the trains didn’t run on time.
Bark explained all this to The Lovely Nikki, who nodded gravely, and agreed with him totally, as she always did, which was one of the things Bark liked best about her, then, while he was outlining his plan to rid the world of the Dictator who couldn’t even make the trains run on time, she fiddled with the velcro fastening on his trousers, which came apart with a curious scream, and began to poke and prod within, and do the extraordinary things with her tongue which had so endeared her to him in the first place, and which was another of the things he liked best about her.
After his breathing and glandular secretions had returned to normal, he realised he hadn’t the faintest idea how he was going to carry out his great plan, so he went out for a drink in the nearby bar, which was just around the corner from his room, leaving the Lovely Nikki lying on the bed humming to herself and shaving her legs.
In the bar, he ordered a pint of beer, and got something brown that complied with the nutritional labelling regulations act and tasted like piss. He saw Lizzie over in the corner, single-handedly preventing the wall from collapsing, and he went over to join him.
As far as Bark knew, Lizzie divided his time more or less equally between lying face down in the street in a puddle of his own vomit, and getting that way. Occasionally, he took a well-earned break from this arduous occupation in order to get his leg over any woman who wouldn’t snitch on him to Kizzy. There were quite a number of these, who huddled in various corners of the local drinking establishments and sighed and aaahhed over what a cute arse he had, and made surprisingly imaginative comments on what they would like to do with it.
Kizzy must think he had a cute arse too, the amount of shit she took from him. Either that or she was just plain stupid, which Bark didn’t think she was. A really nice, intelligent, sensible, decent sort of woman, except when it came to Lizzie and his cute arse, but then everyone has their weak spot. Don’t you?
Bark looked at Lizzie and his cute arse, and his long eyelashes and innocent smile and drunken spittle dribbling from the corner of his mouth, and pondered the unfairness of existence and his own passing resemblance, on his bad days, to a dyspeptic weasel, and decided he didn’t really mind after all. He had The Lovely Nikki, which was more than he’d ever expected from life, and he was content with that. All he wanted now was to blow up the Man in Charge.
Before Bark was half way through his fourth pint, Lizzie slid gracefully and elegantly down the wall, like a ship down a slipway, and landed heavily on his… you remember, don’t you? Bark jumped out of the way quickly. He’d been pebble-dashed by Lizzie before, and he didn’t relish the prospect of vast quantities of nutritionally regular whatsit gushing forth over his shoes. For a start they weren’t even waterproof!
Lizzie’s innards seemed stable tonight though, and Bark prodded him cautiously with his toe, just to make sure he wasn’t going to get up again. The man behind the bar looked down at Lizzie in disgust, glared pointedly at Bark and jerked his thumb in the direction of the door.
Bark was miffed - Lizzie wasn’t his responsibility, and who was it had sold him the vast quantities of stuff anyway? But the barman was large and muscular, so he hastily downed the last of his brown liquid of dubious quality and dragged Lizzie across the sticky, stained floor and out into the street.
Outside, no amount of vigorous contact with Bark’s foot could persuade Lizzie to assume a vertical position, so Bark took the opportunity to land a few more kicks in Lizzie’s tender regions before reluctantly hauling him up with a strangled grunt, balancing him precariously over one shoulder, leaving his arms dangling down over his back, tickling the back of his knees. For someone who regularly downed vast quantities of finest recycled piss every night, Lizzie weighed surprisingly little. Probably had worms, though Bark gloomily.
He certainly had an interesting collection of external parasites. Bark had seen a number of eager, scuttling things-on-legs boogieing about in Lizzie’s long, shaggy hair when he had bent down to haul him up. Lizzie’s crotch was now about an inch from Bark’s left ear, and he tried not to think of what was partying away down there too! Whatever it was got a sudden and unexpected bath. A warm, wet feeling began to spread down Bark’s left shoulder just at the same time as his nose picked up a familiar, unpleasant smell.
Bark’s language was unimaginative, but he used his limited vocabulary with enthusiasm. He almost dropped Lizzie onto the road again, but the damage was already done, so he just stood there and made do with an instant replay of his favourite expletives. Death and chopped liver in colour, if Lizzie didn’t get you out one end, he got you from the other! Grumbling to himself, Bark staggered off down the street, leaving a damp trail behind him.
Fortunately, Lizzie’s room wasn’t far. Bark would never have attempted his ill-repaid altruistic deed otherwise. He arrived at the place still damp and disgruntled, and pushed the enter-buzz, waiting for Kizzy to let him in.
When there was no answering bleep, he pushed the door, which swung open without resistance, and he swayed in and clumped up the dirty stairs, making sure to bang Lizzie’s head off the iron railings at every possible opportunity. Burdened by Lizzie’s dead weight on his shoulder, he was panting and coughing by the time he reached the room his unconscious passenger shared with Kizzy.
Now, strangely enough, Kizzy had a fish in the room below, too. This was not at all a common occurrence, fish were rare enough in the city, and it was just a co-incidence that these two happened to live within two blocks of each other. They didn’t know each other, and they never went out and got drunk together, and you don’t have to remember anything about them, because they’re not really important as far as this story’s concerned, it’s just one of these things, synchronicity, or whatever, okay?
Standing at the door, Bark could hear voices from within, Kizzy’s voice and another woman’s. They seemed to be arguing. He wondered if he should just dump Lizzie on the doorstep and leave him, but he was becoming increasingly aware of the dampness all down his left side, and he decided that Kizzy owed him a dry towel at least for his good deed of the day.
He knocked loudly at the door. The voices stopped immediately and there was silence. A few seconds later the door opened a cautious inch or two and Kizzy peered furtively through the crack. At first it seemed as if she wasn’t going to open the door any further, but when she recognised what it was Bark had slung over his back she relented and flung the door open wide, ushering him and his moribund cargo inside.
The room Kizzy and Lizzie shared was clean and tidy, despite Lizzie’s frequent attempts to turn it into something resembling an open sewer. It was quite large, too, over twice the size of the cramped hole Bark and The Lovely Nikki lived in, and had a big, bright window in the wall opposite the door, through which alternatively sunlight and neon street light illuminated the interior with regular, diurnal rhythm.
There was a bed in one corner, with a brightly coloured cover, onto which Bark dumped the unconscious Lizzie, who bounced once, and elicited a twang from somewhere underneath the frame. Kizzy clucked anxiously at the sight of his limp body on the bright orange bed-sheet. She sat down on the bed beside him, stroking his chocolate-coloured hair with her thin hands, occasionally crushing the odd, unwelcome life-form between her nails. She began to remove his wet clothing, still humming softly to him as he snored noisily. When she saw the marks on his body, her long fingers fluttered over the dark,bruised areas on his white skin like roosting birds, probing gently.
Bark felt peculiarly guilty. Not about kicking Lizzie, the sod deserved every last punt, but he felt responsible for causing Kizzy some undue distress.
How was it that an intelligent, nice, not to mention passably good-looking woman like Kizzy would want to waste herself on a total creepoid like Lizzie? It surely wasn’t fair, he knew for a fact of eight men who wouldn’t mind taking up with Kiz - he’d had a secret yearning for her himself until he’d met The Lovely Nikki, and here she was weeping and wringing her hands over that worthless bozo down there who was out every night getting dissolved and chasing everything in a dress until his legs gave up the impossible struggle of holding him up.
She must know - everybody knew. And if she didn’t know, he wasn’t going to be the one to tell her.
For the first time he became aware of another person in the room. A woman with short, mousy hair and forgettable features. There was something unusual about her, though - a presence, a feeling of solidity, of dominance. She was looking down at Lizzie’s naked body on the bed with just the slightest hint of disgust in her eyes.
Bark had to admit that Lizzie was not looking his most appealing best just at the moment, it was a pity all the ladies in the drink-houses couldn’t see him now, white and limp, like something unused to daylight that had just crawled forth from underneath a stone.
The look on the woman’s face suggested that she would rather he crawled back immediately. Whatever she and Kizzy had been arguing about before he came in, it was clear that Kizzy now had her mind on other things, and it didn’t look like he was going to get his towel either. He turned to go.
“See ya Kiz, and get him some rubber underwear next time, yeah?”
“… yeah, and thanks for bringing him home…” Kizzy’s voice trailed after him absently as he let himself out. To his surprise, the short- haired woman followed him, shutting the door quietly behind her, and gazing at it thoughtfully for a moment.
“What a creep!” she observed, almost unnecessarily
Bark didn’t answer, he didn’t like to slag off his friends in front of total strangers, even if he did agree with them.
“Drink?” said the woman, unexpectedly .
Bark was undoubtedly surprised, but never one to look a gift animal in the mouth, or anywhere else for that matter, so he said:
“Yeah, but better make it Toadstools, just come from the Bucket with you-know-who, don’t think they’ll let me back in tonight.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
They walked the short distance to Toadstools with the woman making short, decisive small talk. When she said ‘Nice evening,’, it wasn’t so much a comment as an order, and Bark would have been very surprised if the evening had dared to turn out even the slightest bit nasty after that. He said nothing, just nodded in vigorous agreement with everything she said.
Terry Trimble’s Tremendous Toadstool was an appalling sight. It wasn’t shaped like a toadstool, but would have been, if Terry Trimble could have got the planning committee bribe together in time. Instead, a giant toadstool motif was painted on the outside of the building, and inside patrons were required to sit on toadstool-shaped seats and put their drinks on toadstool-shaped tables, all resplendent in scarlet with white dots and green spears of grass painted around the bases of their singular supports.
The workers were dressed as overgrown pixies, and looked about as pleased at this turn of events as you would expect. One sullen faced imp dragged himself unhurriedly over to their table, and faced them with bored expectancy.
“Two pints of whatever haven’t gone off!” demanded the woman
Bark was going to add his usual joke “Yeah, and I’ll have two pints too!”, but he had the feeling jokes were not this woman’s strong point, so he didn’t bother.
“You known Kizzy long?” she asked him suddenly, after the drinks had arrived
“Yeah, well, you know. Couple of years, I think. Hangs around in the same places, her and Lizzie. I mostly go drinking with Lizzie. Or used to, he’s getting a bit ahead of me now, you know?”
“Gets in that state a lot, does he?”
“If you call every night a lot, yeah.”
“Why doesn’t Kizzy just boot him down that ever-so-handy flight of stairs outside her front door?”
Bark screwed up his face in puzzlement. “Dunno. Maybe she likes him, or something.”
The woman pulled a face.
“That’s the problem though, isn’t it? I mean, when people outstay their welcome, don’t know when it’s time to leave. And nobody wants to give them that push, even though they know they’d be better off without. In the long run. That’s the problem… with life in general … isn’t it?”
She gave him a long, meaningful stare. Bark felt flustered.
“I don’t know, I mean, is it?”
She emptied her glass, put it down smoothly and clicked two fingers at the scowling waiter.
“You must be aware, of course, an intelligent man like you,” - Bark liked that bit - “of the problem created by repressive regimes, like, say, a government, just as an example, where there is a lack of new blood, new ideas, dependency on old, familiar ways just for the sake of them. Fear of the new. It’s always easier to stick with what you know, isn’t it?”
“Of course, all it takes is a little courage, a little vision, some determination, and the old, restrictive relationship can be swept away and something better put in its place. At least, that’s how I see Kizzy’s situation, don’t you?”
Bark felt a growing buzz of excitement in his stomach. The short-haired woman wasn’t talking about Kizzy and Lizzie, he felt that for sure. Sometimes he just had this sort of, well - intuitive understanding, a sort of gift, really.
Two more pints of the management’s finest arrived. The bearer of the unhappy beverages dropped the glasses heavily onto the chipped surface of their toadstool with indifferent bad temper, and some of the fluid spilled over the edge of the glasses, across the tilted table top and into Bark’s lap. He looked down briefly, half expecting it to eat a hole in the tattered fabric of his clothing. It looked as though he had pissed himself, but since he smelt that way anyway due to Lizzie’s recent contribution, it didn’t greatly add to his feeling of discomfort, and anyway he was much more interested in the unexpected turn his conversation with the strange woman had taken.
He took a large gulp of beer, ignoring the taste by sheer will power and years of practice.
“So what you’re saying,” he frothed eagerly through a mouthful of brown suds, “is that it’s possible to bring about changes by direct action, rather than just sit around waiting for it to happen. That we can really have an effect on… on situations and, er, society, and.. everything…!”
“You have a very perceptive mind, Bark,” said the woman, drily.
It wouldn’t have helped if Bark had known the meaning of the word ‘ironic’, anyway. He was beyond help now.
By the time the fifth pint was gushing its way down into the seething maelstrom of his stomach, he had outlined in great detail his plan for the salvation of civilisation as he saw it, which, as you already know, involved the removal of one certain individual.
Halfway into his sixth pint, he told the woman about his Bomb.
Now, don’t be too hard on Bark. He didn’t actually know at this point that his drinking companion was a member of the Unaligned Terrorism Affiliation and Coalition. As a matter of fact, he didn’t actually know there was such a thing at all!
Neither do you? Okay then…
All you really need to know about the UTAC is that it was they, and not the Semi-Autonomous Quasi-Official Opposition Party, or even the Neo- Pragmatists (Hah!) who were responsible for;
(a) The bombing of the Embassy Dungeon in Greater Circle 1 six months ago
(b) The hijacking of the Inter-sat shuttle and subsequent ruthless murder of the entire crew and first class passengers, and
(c) The attempted kidnapping of the family of the Third Minister for Overall Power (failed). (The kidnapping, that is, not the Minister, he does alright.)
Their activities are mainly financed by selling addictive chemicals to unsuspecting minors, and possibly suspecting ones too, and in short, these are not a nice bunch of people at all!
Now, the short-haired woman, whose name is Rosebay-Azalea, but prefers to be known as Raz, for fairly obvious reasons, is not the sort of person who would go as far as to personally indulge in any of the above atrocities, but remember, she is a member of the UTAC, so she’s not someone you want to get mad at you.
What her personal motives are for joining such an organisation - well, discuss amongst yourselves, if you like, who’s to say, but the avowed intentions of the UTAC are total destablilisation of the Governmental System and dismantling of the power-hierarchy in order to reinstate a more socially equitable form of control.
In short - them out, us in, nothing changes.
As for Bark - our hero, remember - sitting on a two foot toadstool getting quietly pissed out of his not over-large mind, he’s not a bad sort, really. He’s a genuine idealist, he honestly believes things will improve if he can just off the man in charge. He hasn’t really thought about what he would put in his place. Certainly not himself.
As you can see, there are going to be a few ideological differences between Bark and the UTAC woman.
Bark didn’t remember getting home. The next thing he knew it was mid- afternoon, his brain was trying to make a forced exit from his skull, and Nikki’s lovely face was gazing down at him with a querulous twist to her lovely, painted mouth.
“There was a woman here this morning looking for you,” she said petulantly, with just enough emphasis on the word ‘woman’ to let Bark know he could be in trouble.
He was still half asleep, and his head was now trying to get out the door, so he didn’t take the hint.
“Oh yeah, Raz,” he muttered, as an incomplete recollection of the previous night’s events floated past, full of toadstools and snarling pixies and bombs.
“On first name terms already!” Nikki snapped, marching over to the cracked sink and dropping a bashed metal jug into it with a flourish, causing a shock wave which reached Bark’s ears and exploded like a thermo-nuclear detonation, sending bits of his brains bouncing all over the inside of his skull and sharp fragments sticking into the unprotected area just behind his eyes.
His intuition told him Nikki wasn’t pleased. He thought fairly hard about it for a minute and came to a conclusion. He hopped out of bed and swayed uneasily over to the sink, putting his arms around her.
“What an ugly cow!” he said, clutching her tightly so he wouldn’t fall over.
It wasn’t strictly true, but she certainly wasn’t in Nikki’s league
Nikki gave a happy purr. She pressed close to him, and he could smell her warm body scent, rising thick and musky into his nostrils. Her face touched his, and her tongue thrust suddenly into his mouth, hot and wriggling, probing indelicately.
She tasted salty and sour, with just a hint of sweetness. A sharp, individual flavour, mixed with the smell of her breath. Bark loved it, because it was her. He licked the delicate inner surfaces of her mouth, as if he was trying to transfer her chemical signature from her to him.
He breathed in her exhaled breath, and absorbed her pheremones, which did peculiar things to his equilibrium. He felt her strong body writhe like a snake in his grasp, felt her muscles sliding under her smooth skin like a landslip.
She giggled and grabbed him between the legs.
“I bet she can’t do what I can do! I bet she hasn’t got what I’ve got!”
Bark was finding it difficult to breathe, partly due to the intoxicating effect of Nikki’s body secretions, and partly because she had an extremely powerful grip on a sensitive part of his anatomy. Nikki was full of surprises, but Bark didn’t care.
“I don’t care,” he said, through clenched teeth, “I think you’re lovely!”
“Yes, so do I,” she whispered, eyes opening wide like flowers, as she increased the pressure of her grip.
Tears began to form in Bark’s eyes. He must be in love!
Raz waited at the Bucket Bar for Bark. When he didn’t arrive, she looked round at the dismal surroundings and its occupants. There was no-one there except the bored-looking bar-man and Kizzy’s drunken hanger-on, who seemed to live in the place. He had leered at her as she walked in, his tongue protruding very slightly between his even, white teeth.
Raz raised a finger in his direction, indicating her lack of interest.
After a while, the place began to fill up, the usual useless organised protein you’d expect to find in a tip like the Bucket Bar. A female with an expression so glazed she could have been a cherry. A guy with dingy blonde hair that hadn’t been washed since last election day, his sleeves firmly covering his lower arms, his eyes darting all round the dim Bar, searching, a flicker of desperation in his agitated expression. You could buy other things in the Bucket besides disgusting beer and watered down whisky.
A group sat in the far corner, all dressed entirely in black. Sombre expressions, surgically altered faces. A Neo-Anarchist Collective. Weirdos. Two figures of indeterminate age or sex sitting holding hands, gazing dreamily into each others eyes. Impossible to tell if they were officially partnered or illegal perverts.
The fish who lived in the room below Bark was sitting at the bar, staring into the wet depths of a pint of water, heavy with some unspoken tragedy. Aliens were uncommon, but this one had become part of the fixtures here, and no-one paid him much heed. He never spoke to anyone, just sat at the bar every night, drank three pints of water and left, apparently as unintoxicated as when he arrived.
What was he thinking about? Who knows? Aliens are different, you know?
Lizzie was now in the toilet, talking to God. God was telling him he shouldn’t drink so much, but then, that was what God always told him, so he wasn’t listening, as usual. Lizzie had been ignoring God’s advice for quite a while, and he wasn’t about to start taking it now.
He delivered one last, projectile rebuke at the Ultimate Being, then walked unsteadily back to the bar to replace his lost intake.
Very shortly Lizzie is going to wish he had taken God’s advice, however, that’s his problem, and uncomfortable as it will turn out to be for him, most of us will find it very difficult to have any sympathy for the bugger. You can if you want, though.
Raz had almost decided to give up and go home when Bark and The Lovely Nikki walked in. She raised an arm and signalled to him to come over.
Nikki tugged at his sleeve and pointed to the opposite corner of the room, but Bark wove his way with precision through the crowd of people swaying gently round the centre area towards her, dragging the reluctant Nikki with him. Her expression showed her all too obvious displeasure. Raz ignored her and turned to Bark.
“Thought I’d find you here. I have to talk to you.” She paused, watching his face very closely.
“What we were discussing last night. You remember, the, uh, hardware.”
Bark gave a weak smile. He’d been hoping she’d forgotten about that.
“Oh yeah,” he muttered, without enthusiasm.
Raz’s eyes, slitty and snakey, slid across and came to rest on Nikki’s impassive features.
“We need to keep this really low-profile, you know”
Her pale, glittering eyes stayed on Nikki, but her words were for Bark.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Bark, cheerfully, “Nikki won’t say anything.”
Raz sighed impatiently and fumbled in her pocket, producing a handful of crumpled notes.
“Here, be a love and go and buy us some solvent, dear.” she said, flatly, thrusting the notes at Nikki.
Nikki snatched the offered currency ungraciously.
“…know when I’m in the way!” she squeaked, and departed to join the long queue at the bar.
Raz didn’t waste any time.
“I can get you an opportunity,” she said, pinning him with her hard, intimidating stare.
“A what… An opportunity? For what….?”
Raz controlled her impatience with the moron in front of her and explained, quickly and simply, through clenched teeth.
“An opportunity to use your piece of hardware. An opportunity to get him. That’s what you built it for, isn’t it?”
Bark’s normal expression was with his mouth slightly open, so the few extra centimetres didn’t make that much difference.
“What… you mean….”
Raz fought the urge she had to hit the idiot in his gaping mouth.
“Yeah, shut up and listen. The Man will be at a Promotional Gathering in the Media Complex next week. I can get you a pass and an identity. You can even take your moll for a cover.
He’ll be spending a lot of time in the Presentation Studio, it’s quite small, but it’s not secure. You can plant your device and set it with a timer sometime in advance. The Media Complex is designed to keep shocks from outside out. In the enclosed area, the containment will more than make up for the device’s limited power. As it’s non-nuclear, their detection equipment won’t see it.”
“You can be out of there before anything happens. You can get the bastard, Bark!”
She didn’t add the words ‘You’ll be a hero!’, because she thought even the wretched Bark wouldn’t be stupid enough to go for that, but it was obvious by the unnatural glow in his eyes that he had already supplied the line for himself.
“Yeah, wow,” he breathed, awe-struck, “I can do it. I can really do it!”
Raz reached into the hand-sack she carried with her and drew out a sheaf of paperwork.
“Look, here’s your entry pass, your Identy-kit, your personal holo- profile and a reasonable amount of interesting Media-speak to get you through a couple of hours. Just don’t try anything clever, keep away from the snouters and don’t try and bullshit your way through anything you haven’t a clue about. Just pretend you’re drunk, okay?”
He probably wouldn’t be pretending, she thought, but as long as he kept himself together long enough to plant his device it wouldn’t matter. Whether he actually got out or not was not her concern.
“Take the Bimbo, like I said,” she continued, “that’ll keep a few snouters running in circles, she’s just their sort.” She stretched her thin lips across her teeth in what Bark realised was her version of a smile.
“She may even get a contract!” said Raz, pleased with her own humour.
Bark looked mildly impressed.
The Lovely Nikki returned at this point, with a dazed looking man in tow, carrying what appeared to be an entire evening’s supply of alcoholic beverages.
“You didn’t say what you wanted,” Nikki informed her primly, “so I got some of everything, just in case!”
Raz swore under her breath and grabbed one of the glasses, emptying it swiftly
“I’ll contact you in a couple of days,” she said, “meanwhile, keep a low profile, don’t get arrested for anything.”
“What if I need to ask you about anything, how can I find you?”
“You can’t,” she told him flatly, “I told you, I’ll find you.”
She rose to go, but as she stood up a familiar figure walked into the table, sending splashes of beer and other liquids over her legs.
Lizzie could smell spare alcohol and/or women at a range of half a mile or more. The combination of the two had proved irresistible, and he stood there, fluttering his long eyelashes at Raz, holding on to the edge of the table for support.
“Hey, you’re really pretty, y’know?” he slurred at Raz, smiling coyly.
“Nice tits too,” he added as an afterthought, seeing as his nose was a few scant inches from the glands in question. Raz was never going to be described as dainty.
She looked down at him briefly.
“Bog off, creep,” she said, with no great interest, and marched off without giving him time to reply.
Lizzie was not discouraged.
“Yeah! Total! Wonder if she’s got a whip!” He trotted off after her, scratching his behind.
“No taste.” observed Nikki sagely.
Bark smiled. He’d long since gotten over being jealous of Lizzie. He reached over and took Nikki’s hand. She gazed at him reproachfully for a moment, remembering his unexplained association with Raz, then she relented and squeezed his fingers.
“Hey, look, she left us all this booze, we can get totally dissolved!”
Bark raised his glass to her and smiled again, then without hesitation, emptied it completely in one go.
There was something bothering Bark. It took him all the next day and most of the following evening to figure it out, but when he finally sussed, he made up his mind quickly, and before he had time to change it, he set out to find Raz. He had no idea where she lived. The only other person he knew who’d had any contact with her was Kizzy, so he went round to her room as soon as the bars were throwing clients into the streets. The front entrance was open again, so he went straight up the stairs and knocked at Kizzy’s door. It opened almost immediately.
“Oh, Bark, it’s you.” She sounded disappointed.
She peered out into the poorly lit landing. “Have you got Lizzie with you?”
He shook his head. “Nah, sorry, not this time. It’s you I came to see. Can I come in?”
She nodded absently, and opened the door wider to admit him.
“I haven’t seen him all day you know,” she told him distractedly. “He usually doesn’t manage to stay upright till this late.”
Too right, thought Bark wryly to himself, Lizzie would almost certainly be horizontal by now, but it was unlikely that it would be the pavement underneath him. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t want to upset Kizzy.
“Yeah, well, if I see him, I’ll let you know. Uh, listen, Kiz… I, ah, need to get hold of Raz. Know where I could find her? It’s kinduv important, you know?”
Kizzy gave Bark a measured stare. She trailed her skinny fingers through her thick red hair and exhaled a long breath.
“Bark…” she began, uncertainly,
“It’s important, really, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t!”
She nodded. “Yeah, I know, but… Bark, maybe you shouldn’t get too involved with Raz. Maybe you should just forget about whatever it is. Some of the people she knows…” her voice trailed off in frustration.
“Y’know, I really shouldn’t be saying any of this, but… be careful, Bark, don’t get out of your depth. Just go home to Nikki and forget about her, okay?”
Bark shook his head stubbornly.
“Nah, it’s really important, yeah? But don’t worry, I know what she does, I can handle her.”
There was no humour in Kizzy’s short laugh.
“You’re a fool if you think that! Oh, I’m sorry, Bark, but I don’t want to see you get hurt. Or anyone else for that matter!”
“It’ll be worse if I don’t get to see her!” he warned, trying to sound serious and confident.
“Yeah, well, what’s it to me, don’t take any notice of what I say, will you, it’s your funeral, okay?” She sounded angry, but Bark knew he had won.
“Just give me the address, alright?”
She hesitated a moment, then wrote him a few lines on a crumpled scrap of paper and handed it over. Bark sensed that she wanted to say something else, but he cut her off.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell her how I got this.” He wiggled the scrap of paper under her nose.
“What…? Oh,… no…. doesn’t matter. Just watch your back, you know?”
Raz’s address was the other side of Circle 2, and he had to take a shuttle-tube. Even Bark, who regularly prowled the more unsavoury corners of the city, was a bit wary of the shuttles this time of night, full of dangerous looking, oddly dressed, dope filled creatures with murder in their eyes.
Bark peered nervously at the man standing next to him. The man peered nervously at Bark. They edged carefully away from each other.
There was a scuffle and a short scream from the other end of the shuttle-tube. Both Bark and the man next to him suddenly developed a great interest in their own feet and the various pieces of rubbish, dirt and unpleasant looking stains on the shuttle floor. No-one’s eyes strayed in the direction of the disturbance.
Bark was relieved when the shuttle finally came round to the outer edge of Circle 2, and he slid gratefully out of the harsh, yellow-lit interior into the cool anonymity of the night. The air temperature was up a few degrees, and the currents were still, indicating either a mistake in the atmospheric flow management or an unexpected depression. Either way, the night felt enclosing and dangerous.
Bark slunk along unfamiliar streets like a weasel, feeling naked and unprotected away from his own territory. He hugged the walls of the dark, oppressive buildings and turned his face away from every stranger he passed, unwilling to make any accidental eye-contact which could be mis-interpreted. He quickened his pace, and was almost running by the time he reached the block containing Raz’s room. His heart was labouring from the unaccustomed exercise, and he paused for a moment to let his breathing regain its natural rhythm before tackling the steep flight of stairs which led up the tall building.
Raz’s number was right at the top. When he arrived, he was almost as breathless as he had been down below, and again he had to pause for recovery, but this time his heartbeat refused to slow, even though physical demands were no longer being made. Finally, with the rebellious heart still thumping loudly somewhere just below his dry throat, he gathered his courage and knocked loudly at the door.
There was no immediate reply, and Bark stood there, nervously shifting his weight from one foot to another, wondering whether or not to knock again. Eventually he did so. The door still did not open, but Bark was sure he could hear noises within, and encouraged he gave the door another pounding, more vigorous than before.
His arm was still raised for one, last thump when the door flew open, crashing against the wall behind and bouncing twice before swinging loose. Bark had no time for surprise before he was seized roughly by the neck and flung into the dark innards of a small room. The door was grabbed, too, and slammed shut behind him.
He blinked for a moment, his eyes adjusting from the dim outside light to the even dimmer inside light. After a couple of blinks, he saw that it was Raz who had engineered his precipitous entrance, and he was about to greet her with his explanation when she surprised him again by thrusting her hand sharply into his crutch and up between his legs.
It briefly passed through his mind that she was a lot more interested in him than he had supposed, and then he decided that she was trying to cripple him, but when he finally realised that she was searching for concealed weapons, his faith in human nature was restored for the moment.
Hers was not, despite the fact that she had found nothing of any interest to her concealed in his trousers.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” she spat furiously.
Bark opened his mouth to reply, but he never got the chance.
“You never, and I mean never come here unless I tell you to. Do you understand that? DO YOU?”
She grabbed his shoulders and shook him and for a moment he began to doubt his personal safety again, and he could only nod his head furiously and gape, offering prayers to any available deity that she wasn’t going to break his neck. She looked angry enough to do it, and she looked more than capable.
She gave a sort of half-snort, and let him go with one last, powerful flick, which bounced Bark off the wall behind him, but he was relieved to have escaped so lightly.
Raz sat down slowly in a buckled, plastic chair with lethal looking broken points jutting at strange angles from its back. She wriggled a bit, squirmed in its uncomfortable depths, before pointing a finger first at Bark, then at another, oddly shaped chair opposite the one she was sitting in.
He sat down cautiously, perching on the edge, never taking his eyes off her.
“What…. “ she said, tersely, enuciating every word separately as if she was speaking to someone with a hearing deficiency, ” do - you - want?”
“About the Promotional thing. You know, and the b… the hardware.” He swallowed nervously as Raz’s eyes narrowed to their intimidating snakeyness.
“I gave you all the information you need.” she said.
“No buts Bark, you just do it, exactly like I told you, don’t bother with any half-assed ideas of your own, just do what you were told to do, okay?” She wriggled in her seat again, and scratched her crotch, cursing.
He looked at her unhappily. “But what about the others?”
“In the room. When the bomb goes off.”
“What about them?” she seemed genuinely puzzled.
Bark pulled at his spikey hair in agitation.
“Yeah, well, won’t they…. I mean….some other people could get killed… couldn’t they?”
His voice faded away, and he cowered down into the seat, wishing he could fold up and disappear through a crack in the floorboards to escape Raz’s cold stare.
“Of course they could,” she said with scorn, “we’re fighting a war, not writing to the complaints department of MegaCo - there are always casualties in war, it’s the price we have to pay, is that all you wanted to see me about?”
She sounded bored now, but Bark couldn’t let it rest there.
“I don’t think I want to do that though,” he said uncomfortably.
There was a dreadful, latent menace in Raz’s voice now, and even Bark was not stupid enough to ignore it, but he swallowed hard and stood his ground.
“I… I don’t want to go through with this. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll, uh, find some other way. Thanks for all your help, I…”
“Now you listen to me, you little shit.” Raz cut into him with a voice like serrated steel.
“You will do exactly what I told you to do. You will plant that bomb and you will set it off, and you will forget any ideas of backing out, because that is not one of your options, am I making myself clear?”
Bark was trembling now. “But… I can’t! “ he whispered.
“You asshole! You total shithole!” Raz got up, and Bark thought his last moment had come, but she began pacing up and down the confines of the small room like an animal in a cage.
She stopped suddenly and stood above him, towering, like a huge, threatening monument.
“Listen to me, bozo,” she said, in a low voice, “if you don’t do exactly as you are told, then it just may be brought to the attention of the relevant authorities that your lovely friend Nikki is not what she seems to be. And do you seriously think that she’ll be allowed to live with you once they know that?”
“On top of which,” she continued, her voice rising as she noted the effect her words were having on Bark, feeling the initiative return to her, “It can be so dangerous for a girl on her own. Anything could happen to her. Anything. Do you understand me, Bark?”
Bark understood. He knew Raz had won. He nodded miserably.
“Okay,” he croaked, “I’ll do it, like you said. Don’t do anything to Nikki though!” He looked up at her, pleading with his eyes. Raz said nothing.
He got up and shuffled over to the door. With his hand on the knob, he paused and looked back at the implacable Raz.
“How did you know? “ he asked, “I mean, about Nikki….”
She gave a triumphant smirk, and it was an unpleasant thing to look at.
“Oh, I was, uh, with Lizzie the other night. He seems to know everyone’s dirty little secrets, you ask your friend how he knows hers!”
She gloated at the sudden look of stricken horror on Bark’s face.
“Yeah, that guy really puts it about a bit!”
Her expression changed to a furious scowl as she suddenly thrust her hand down the front of her trousers and began scratching vigorously.
“But he won’t be putting anything about anymore, I’ve seen to that. Bastard!” She gave one last vicious scratch as Bark fled the room.
Bark didn’t take the shuttle back, he walked through the narrow streets in a daze, oblivious to the crawling night-life all around. He didn’t want to think about it, but the pictured burned in his head, like fire. He closed his eyes and it was still there. Lizzie and Nikki. Nikki and Lizzie. It couldn’t be true, there had to be another explanation.
It was cooler by the time he reached his own area, the threat of the storm had passed. The streets were nearly empty now, life had moved into the spaces behind the walls, in the cramped, insanitary boxes and rooms filled with love and fear, hate and desire, the whole city a cauldron of stale emotions and sterile passions. Life enclosed within a turning sphere. And death.
The narrow stairs leading up to his room were as grim as he remembered them, but they were familiar, and they were home. He pushed open the battle-scarred door and slipped in behind it, wearily. And almost tripped over a large, solid mass lying on the floor just inside.
It was dark in the hallway, there was no interior light, and the streetlight outside had not worked in nearly two years, so Bark was unable to see what it was he had stumbled upon. He bent down for a closer look, and the tiny, nagging suspicion he had had in his mind since his foot had first made contact with the object was suddenly and appallingly real.
The object was a body. It was Lizzie.
Bark gave a barely-suppressed shriek of horror, and leapt back immediately, nervously jumping from one foot to the other. He raised his hand to his mouth, without thinking, and found it smeared with a dark, congealed fluid that tasted like blood.
It was blood. Bark gave another half-croak and slowly edged past the dark mass, with his back to the wall, terrified of touching it again, then he fled up the stairs, two at a time, desperate to reach the comforting safety of his own room.
Nikki was inside. Her welcoming smile turned to a look of alarm as she read the horror on his face and saw the bloodstain.
“Shit! What’s happened. Bark, are you alright? Bark?!”
Bark stood panting for a moment, his legs wobbling.
“Lizzie,” he croaked eventually, “Downstairs. In the hall. I think he’s dead. Someone’s killed him!”
Nikki reacted immediately. She grabbed a small hand torch and hustled Bark towards the door.
“Shit! Come on,” she ordered. Bark followed unwillingly, he had no desire to see any greater detail of the crime, but Nikki’s tone was one of command, and he couldn’t let her go alone anyway.
At the bottom of the stairs, he found Nikki kneeling in the dark pool of blood beside Lizzie’s inert body. The small illuminator showed the floor and walls splashed with red, a horrible, wet, sticky scene, like the very innards of hell. Bark felt his stomach flip over several times.
“He’s not dead,” said Nikki, “here, give me a hand.”
Bark drew closer and looked where Nikki was indicating. He wished he hadn’t.
Lizzie’s face was exactly as he remembered it - except that some of it seemed to be missing, a dark, bloody, watery hole in the place where his right eye had been, a frightening pit full of strange fluid and macerated tissue. His mouth was opened further than before - opened by another two or three inches, a red slash into his cheek. Bark could see the back teeth, white through the red blood - blood running from his face, through his hair, down his neck, onto the floor…
The other side of his face was still perfect and untouched, his long, dark eyelashes resting innocently over his remaining eye. The skin looked soft and unblemished, the half-smile almost serene…. dreaming.
Bark watched Lizzie’s chest rise and fall very gently, confirming Nikki’s belief that life still dwelt within.
“That’s not all,” said Nikki, “look.”
She moved the small illuminator so he could see the lower part of Lizzie’s body
His clothing had been torn away and he was semi-naked. There was a lot more blood, all over his groin and abdomen.
The knife which had been used for the attack lay beside him. And beside that, a small, round piece of organic tissue. Two of them actually….
Bark turned away as quickly as he could and was suddenly sick, his vomit mixing with the blood-mess on the floor. Raz’s revenge….
“Give me your shirt.” demanded Nikki.
He didn’t argue with her. He didn’t feel like saying anything.
She took the garment and pushed it firmly against the gory mess between Lizzie’s legs, then she arranged his torn clothing to cover the worst of the unpleasantness, and laid a small scarf of her own across his face.
“Can you carry him?” she asked briskly
“He can’t stay here,” she pointed out reasonably
“Yeah, but… shit, we don’t want him in our room. Someone might think…”
“We’ll have to take him to Kizzy,” Nikki decided, “she’ll know what to do… Come on, get a hold of him, look, here, under his arms…. no, not like that… look, you grab him there, I’ll help you…”
Bark found himself desperately unwilling to touch Lizzie’s mutilated body, but Nikki was insistent. Together they manhandled him out of the narrow, dark hallway into the street.
Bark looked round furtively to make sure no-one had seen them. He glanced down and saw that he was already smeared with blood, and he wiped his hands shakily on his clothing, trying to remove the incriminating stains, and the sudden perspiration which oozed from his palms. Nikki looked at him, and Bark knew he had no choice. He gathered the pathetic bundle up in his arms, like a child, and with Nikki in the lead they made their way, by the shortest route, to Kizzy’s room round the other side of the block.
Standing at the door with Lizzie a dead weight in his arms had a curious, dream-like feeling about it to Bark, remembering himself standing there just the other night, in the same place, in the same situation. Except that the warm, wet liquid soaking into his clothing had not been blood that time, he had never heard of Raz, and life had been an awful lot simpler all round.
How could two days change so much, and why couldn’t he just have left well enough alone?
The wait seemed to go on for ever.
He thought about Nikki’s calm and efficient handling of the situation. He would never have expected it of her, she’d always seemed so…. vague and helpless before. He knew he’d still be sitting back in his room now, gibbering stupidly and unable to face the horror in the hallway, if she hadn’t been there.
“Y’know, you really stayed in one piece back there. I kinda didn’t expect that, you know?” he told her.
“You don’t know everything about me,” she said, “I had an existence before I met you. There’s a lot you don’t know.”
And that was true enough, he thought.
The door opened at last.
Kizzy’s face. Bark watched it. Slowly, like a poor quality drama-video, the inner thoughts displayed themselves on the outer surface.
Query, at first. Recognition. Realisation - blood! - surprise, horror, disbelief. Denial. Mouth opening to emit only the faintest squeak, hand raised to cover opened mouth. Colour draining from the face, body systems out of equilibrium, eyes huge and glassy, wanting to look anywhere but the terrible, torn face and unable to move away from that appalling vision.
Bark pushed past her brusquely, unable to deal with her emotional overload, and put Lizzie on the bed, like he had done two days ago, only more gently this time.
His life seemed to be moving in horrible, endlessly repeating circles; Carrying Lizzie home. Waiting at doors. Warm, wet stains. Doors opening. Lizzie on the bed. Doors opening. Carrying Lizzie home. Waiting at doors. Faces in the gloom. Doors opening. Waiting outside doors. Lizzie.
Nikki spoke into the squirming silence.
“I’ll go and get someone. You stay here with Kizzy, Bark, I won’t be long.”
She left before Bark could say anything.
He turned to look at Kizzy, and saw that her mouth was still open, her face was still white, and her eyes were still fixed on the bloody ruin of Lizzie’s face. He wondered if he should tell her about the other damage. Someone should. He didn’t have the courage. He didn’t know what to say. He looked away.
“What…… uh, how…….?” Her small, hoarse whisper startled him. He looked up again, and he look away again just as quickly.
He was about to tell her it was Raz. Then he remembered the threats, and the other things that would have to be explained. Things he didn’t know the answers to himself yet. He refused the fence. Slid underneath the obstacle, ducked out to the side.
Shaking his head he mumbled; “Just found him like that,” still avoiding her gaze so she wouldn’t seen the lie in his eyes. Or the guilt.
There was a small noise from Kizzy, like a stone breaking. Despite himself, he looked, and saw she was crying. He felt horribly embarrassed. Kizzy was a strong woman, she wasn’t like the drop-outs and bozos he knew, she had pride, and integrity, which made it all the more incredible that she should want to have anything to do with a creepoid like Lizzie, but seeing her like this, Bark felt sick. Lizzie was important to her. You didn’t have to know the reasons why, and it didn’t matter what you thought of him, you couldn’t deal with him in isolation, you had to think of the effect on other people, the innocent bystanders. He felt even more sick.
He thought of Raz. She hadn’t considered Kizzy, just taken some petty revenge for a minor humiliation. He tried hard, but he just couldn’t make any sense of it. People like Raz who didn’t care about anyone who got in their way. Didn’t care who they hurt. Like Nikki. If Bark had been harbouring any hope about his situation, it disappeared down the plughole now. He knew exactly what sort of person Raz was, and what she would do to get her own way.
The door opened and in walked Nikki. She was accompanied by a grey, aged-looking woman Bark had never seen before.
“This is Smith.” said Nikki “She can help you, and you won’t have to fill out any forms.”
Or spend the next ten years paying back the bill, thought Bark to himself.
Smith obviously practiced without a licence, that much was obvious by her very presence here. Maybe she never had one, but from the expert way she was touching Lizzie, Bark didn’t think so. Probably had it revoked, and made a living now out of not asking the wrong questions at the wrong time.
Bark wondered briefly what she’d done. Illegal engineering was a possibility - there’d been massive purges for that. Or not filling in the forms, not telling the Man what his people were up to, not letting on what was going on in the back streets and dirty rooms.
Helping people without a licence. Shouldn’t be allowed!
Nikki touched his arm.
“We ought to go now,” she whispered, “we can’t do anything else.”
“What about Kizzy?” he hissed back, but there was no need for secrecy, Kizzy ignored them, she sat in the corner on a grimy rug, twisting a small piece of string, or wool between her fingers, not looking at either Nikki or Bark or Smith or the bed.
“She’ll be okay once she calms down. Smith’ll see to it, she’ll handle it, you’ll see. Come on.”
They left in silence.
Walking back through the gloomy streets, the very first grey of morning just beginning to dissolve the eastern quarter of the far-away, domed sky, Bark on several occasions found himself on the edge of blurting out to Nikki his recent revelations from Raz, but every time his nerve failed him at the last.
When he looked at her, all he could see were her soft, still features surrounded by fine tendrils of white-gold hair - and Lizzie’s hands, Lizzie’s arms, Lizzie, touching her, taking her, Lizzie covered in blood, his blood dripping onto her body, mixing with sweat and other things.
The wetness of the blood, shining in the faint glow of the torch, the mess of his face, weeping clotted tears from the dark hole, and the small pieces of flesh lying on the ground, neatly incised from the body.
Bark found himself shaking, his pounding heart deafening him to any external sound. He was afraid, and the fear was not of Raz, or the gory sight of Lizzie’s entrails. He was afraid of himself, for when he thought of Lizzie and Nikki together - lying together - he could have wielded the knife himself. For one moment, in his mind, he could really have done it. The thought terrified him.
He was still shaking when Nikki at last closed the door of their tiny retreat on the dreadful outside world. He had the words in his head, rehearsed silently, all the emphasis researched and refined, but when he finally found his voice, what came out was nothing like what he had planned.
“Lizzie knows,” he said, too loud, too quickly, “about you.”
Nikki was standing at the door, and she turned slowly to look at him, her expression unreadable.
“What does he know?” she asked softly. Bark could still tell nothing from her neutral tone.
“About you! He told Raz, and Raz is pressuring me now, I gotta do what she says, and what she says is not nice! I’m really in the shit because of you, Nikki!”
He waited for some reaction from her, but there was none. She stood there, immobile, a slightly puzzled, far-away look drifting over her eyes.
And then Bark was quite suddenly swamped by an overload of emotion. Anger, hurt and frustration. He slammed his fist against the wall, shaking loose a few fragments of crumbling plaster.
“I WANT TO KNOW HOW HE KNEW!” he bellowed.
That got a reaction from Nikki, but not the one he was expecting. She gazed at him with a mixture of astonishment and curiosity, as if she had never seen him before in her life.
She took a few steps towards him, but Bark held his ground.
She rolled up her left sleeve.
“Look. Do you know what that is?” she indicated a small, triangular mark, like a faded scar, just in at the crook of her elbow.
“Good.” She rolled down her sleeve. Bark waited for a further explanation. She offered none.
“Is that it?!” he shouted “Is that supposed to tell me all I need to know. I’m not a fuckin’ mind reader, I want to know.” He grabbed her arm and forced her onto the bed.
Nikki shook him off angrily, refusing to be intimidated by his display.
“If you have to know,” she said crossly, “and believe me, it would be a lot better if you didn’t, then it’s a somatic engineering diagram - an information tracer. Yes, Bark, a genetic engineering marker, and no, it’s not an illegal one, and no, I’m not going to tell you what it was for. That’s what Lizzie told Raz about, nothing else!”
Bark stood there, blinking stupidly.
“Aren’t you going to ask me how Lizzie knew what it was?”
“How did Lizzie know what it was?” he said woodenly
“Because he’s got one too!”
Bark could still think of no suitable reply, and she took pity on his helpless incomprehension.
“Those marks aren’t too common, you know,” she told him, “hardly anyone who hasn’t been - fixed - knows what they are. For obvious reasons, you can imagine the trouble it would cause.
Your friend Raz seems to make it her business to know about these sort of things, she probably saw Lizzie’s, and he could’ve told her about me, I dunno, maybe hoping to take some of the attention away from himself.
It’s not illegal you know.” she repeated, “It’s just, well, it’s the sort of thing someone like Raz could use for her own dubious ends, you understand, don’t you?”
She looked at him, and he looked back blankly.
“I’m not making this up, you know!” She smiled suddenly.
“I know what you must have thought. You thought Lizzie knew I was a man, and wondered how he came by that piece of information.” Her smile was broader now, and her eyes held a humorous glint.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that Lizzie hadn’t shown a passing interest, but he’s more used to standing still and letting it come to him rather than doing the chasing himself, and he certainly didn’t get any encouragement from me!”
She put her arms around his neck and drew him closer.
“You know I don’t want anyone but you!”
Bark held her close, and released a long, deep shuddering breath, feeling it exhale away a painful wave of tension he had been secretly carrying with him since his encounter with Raz earlier. Until this moment, he had been scared to admit to himself just how terrified he was of losing Nikki.
There was little in Bark’s life that could be described as good or worthwhile, he had no money, no prospects, little in the way of material possessions and was not overly gifted with intelligence. It was a mean enough existence. Nikki was the one, shining, gloriously unexpected gift of an otherwise uncaring universe, and Bark was smart enough to know that the Universe doesn’t give you two chances. It rarely even gives you one.
He loved Nikki, for herself alone, for the love she brought into his miserable life, and for the opportunity to give and receive love, which he never expected to have, and if the fact that she happened to be a man was an inconvenience, then it was only a minor one to him.
She could, after all, as we have already discovered, do some extraordinary things with her tongue!
(By the way, having, at this point, ascertained that the The Lovely Nikki is, in fact, a he instead of a she, we shall continue to refer to him as her in order not to bring any further confusion into our lives. This is, after all, how Bark refers to her, and he knows her better than anyone, so I think we can bow to his judgment in this case, don’t you?)
“What shit?” Nikki asked.
“…. ah…. what?….” Bark’s mind was still struggling to assimilate all the thoughts and feelings of the last few minutes, and he stared fatuously at Nikki, lost by the sudden turn of the conversation.
“You’re supposed to be in the shit because of me, remember”
Understanding came floating back.
“I… I can’t say anything right now. Nikki, stay away from Raz, please?… and… and don’t hate me if you find out what I…. I’m only doing it for you, Nikki, I haven’t got any choice.”
Nikki heard the unhappiness in his voice, and stroked his ear soothingly.
“Hey, it’s a time for sharing dangerous information,” she said gently.
“I showed you mine, now you show me yours. I won’t hate you, not ever, I promise.”
Bark broke under her kindness.
“I have to kill the Man,” he said, in amazement, as if the whole thing was as much a surprise to him as it was to her. “blow him up, with my bomb, you know? Raz is getting me into the Media Presentation”
Nikki nodded understandingly.
“.. and everyone else near him too,” he continued bitterly, “and quite probably myself too, I’m not too sure how reliable that thing is!”
“… but not detectable by emissions.” Nikki murmured thoughtfully, “no wonder Raz is keen, she must think it’s her birthday!”
She paused for a moment, thinking, then:
“Bark, can you build another one… another bomb?”
“And can you get me into the Presentation too?”
“Nikki, I can’t believe you’re saying this!”
“Calm down Bark. What do they say about not being able to beat them….. something like that… Don’t worry, I can sort it all out!”
“Nikki, I hope to hell you know what you’re doing!”
“My sweet, as you have already discovered, to your infinite pleasure, the little I do, I do very well. Very well!”
She pushed him somewhat forcibly onto the bed. He did not resist.
Raz looked at the two ugly, identical objects she held in her hands.
“Yeah, this oughta do it. I like your handiwork, Bark, we can use more of these. You could be in with some career prospects here, you know?”
She rummaged in the green shoulder sack she always carried with her.
“Here’s your entry cards. You taking the Bimbo?” She jerked her head in the direction of Nikki, who smiled vacantly.
“Uh, yeah, she…. ah, wants to see the Promos.”
“Good. Good cover. These bozos are always leching after new flesh, they won’t even notice you!”
Bark suppressed a shudder, trying to conceal his disgust.
“Now, remember, I don’t want to hear from you again until after it all hits the extractor. Remember, I’ll contact you if I need you.”
She rose to leave.
“You, uh, want to take this one with you?” Bark said in an offhand manner, scratching his head as he offered her the spare bomb. “It might come in useful, you know?”
She grinned at him, showing a row of sharp, white teeth.
“Sure, it might at that. I’ll think of something. Bye bye Bark!”
“Bye bye Raz,” whispered Nikki very quietly, as the door closed.
Bark stood for a moment, holding on to Nikki for support, until his heartrate was back down to double figures and his legs remembered what their function was.
Going through the scanner, he had been sure - absolutely dead certain - that the small bundle strapped to his body under his voluminous, billowing shirt would set the alarms screaming and accusing, and that the terrifying policemen with faces like glaciers would descend on him in swift retribution. He could almost feel their heavy gripping hands on him as he entered the chamber, feel the cold muzzles of their automatic weapons jabbing into his ribs, and the sweat seemed to trickle down the hollow of his spine in cold lumps.
His mouth shrivelled and dried, but the alarms stayed silent, and they were disgorged without further attention into the main arena.
The whole area was humming, like a wine glass stroked with a wet finger. Important People were everywhere. So were unimportant people. Bark and Nikki were conspicuously ignored, which suited Bark just fine, he wanted to get to the Presentation Studio with as little fuss as possible, but Nikki had other ideas.
“Hey, look over there!” she pointed at a carefully arranged clump of people in the centre of the large arena, all of whom were instantly and immediately recognisable.
There was the woman who had invented the self-perpetuating hologram; no one had found a use for it yet, but all were agreed that it was a major advancement in technology. It was widely expected that they would manage to turn it into a neat little weapon any day.
There was the half-brother of the late and unlamented pseudo- revolutionary, Earwig-man II, a one-time hero of Bark’s, until he had found out what an earwig actually was. Earwig-man II had been killed trying to liberate a swarm of slave-bees when he had accidentally fallen into a 1,000 litre vat of honey.
Yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s all absolutely true. There are a lot of weirdos around these days, don’t forget. Anyway, his half-brother now made a decent living doing impersonations of his erstwhile relative on late-night chat shows, so some good had come of it, I suppose.
A lot of people wondered what had happened to Earwig-man I. I know, but I’m not telling
There was a slightly-more-than-averagely attractive woman who had spent several years working her way through late night chat shows interviewing morons like Earwig-man II’s half brother, and who was now a well- respected presenter, and the face you would most likely see on your screen looking really solemn to announce the latest disaster.
Everyone knew why she was there.
The reason why she was here was standing in the centre of the throng, with everyone keeping a respectful distance.
The son of The Man in Charge.
You see, I told you he’d turn up later, and here he is!
The son of The Man in Charge is one of those people who turn out to have a very profound effect of the course of human affairs, but not right here, tonight, I’m afraid, so don’t get your hopes up.
There are two things you might like to know about him, though. Firstly, he has been very expensively genetically engineered, and that must be the worst-kept secret in the entire world, and to be honest, he doesn’t really care who knows. Because;
Secondly, everyone is afraid of him.
This is probably due in part to the fact that he is the son of The Man in Charge, and yes, rank does have its privileges these days, does it ever, let’s just say he never has to pay the fines for his traffic offenses. But that’s not the only reason people are frightened of him. He’s a frightening person in his own right, okay?
The woman presenter, who is one of six people who are not afraid of him, is here because she lusts after his genetically engineered, and, let’s face it, fairly interesting body, but this relationship is not really going anywhere at the moment, for a number of reasons which we haven’t got time to go into right here, but the very least of which is the woman he arrived with. Things should be so simple!
Nikki pulled Bark by the hand over towards the super-celebrity group. They joined a sort of secondary circle, outside the first, all standing admiring the admirable.
A man with a thoroughly alarming haircut slid up to Nikki, flashing his promo-badge at her, and said something unctuous. Nikki smiled. Bark scowled. The man lifted his hand and stroked Nikki’s cheek, and his other hand went in the opposite direction. Nikki continued smiling, and bit him.
The man jumped away, startled, and retreated to a safe distance before throwing her a dirty glance and mouthing obscenities.
“Oh, come on,” said Bark impatiently, and led her away, still smiling beatifically.
They sidled slowly and uneasily towards the back of the large arena, where the entrance to the Presentation Studio could be seen. Bark still felt embarrassingly conspicuous in his huge, flapping white shirt, like a tea-clipper in full sail. Or perhaps there was a huge, pink neon arrow just above his head, pointing down, it couldn’t have made him feel any more noticeable.
Just as he thought they were past the self-congratulatory throng, just when he thought he’d gotten away with it and everything was going to be alright, he found himself less than six feet from the son of the Man in Charge.
The son of the Man in Charge looked at him.
Bark knew what a cobra’s victim felt like the second before the snake struck. He knew why you had to avoid snake’s eyes. And he knew why people were frightened of this particular individual. He was!
The eyes like snakes, or something even worse he couldn’t even think of, looked straight at him, into him, through him, through the very flesh of his body. And right past him.
The son of The Man in Charge stepped forward and greeted another person just behind Bark. Bark nearly fainted with relief.
He was sweating lumps again, and he felt that his tent was going to stick to his damp skin and reveal his illicit cargo.
Nikki tugged him efficiently over to the back of the arena, and poked him till he recovered enough sense to produce their second-level entries.
They passed peacefully into the Presentation Studio. It was quieter in here, a sort of reverential silence. The Man in Charge was just about to arrive! Through the back entrance, thus avoiding the crowd out front.
“Now’s your chance!” hissed Nikki, “look, he’s coming! No-one’s looking at you now, go on - down there!”
Bark took a great gulp of air, slipped the bomb cautiously from under his sailing-ship and placed it neatly behind a screen at the back of the raised staging area. Easy as that!
Before he had time to let his nerves get the better of him and make a run for the door, the Man in Charge arrived. Bark didn’t look, he couldn’t, he didn’t dare after his encounter outside with this Awesome Person’s Son and (rumour went) heir. He stood frozen, eyes fixed to the ground, and again it was Nikki who gently guided him away from the scene of his crime. As they retreated into a safe corner, he lifted his head and risked a tentative glance.
He saw The Man.
“But he is just,” thought Bark with some surprise, “a man after all. One head, two arms, two legs, tall, middle aged man. What is everyone scared of? Why do they all do what he tells them? I wonder if he’s got a dog?”
Bark was then instantly smitten with an enormous rush of guilt.
He’s just a man like me, he thought, what right have I to take his life, it’ll upset his wife terribly, and his dog, too, if he’s got one, and maybe even his son (! don’t like to think about him!), but this man has done nothing to me, not personally, I mean he may have executed several thousand dissidents, but I didn’t know any of them, and who am I to talk, I’m just about to blow up a roomful of innocent people I’ve never met who haven’t even plotted to overthrow me or anything…..
Bark gave himself a vigorous shake to untrap his thoughts from their circling conclusions. He had to go through with it. He knew what sort of person Raz was, knew she wouldn’t hesitate to carry out her threats against Nikki if he didn’t do exactly what he was supposed to do.
“What’s the matter?” asked Nikki, seeing his troubled face.
“I dunno,” he said slowly, “do you think it was a good idea to give Raz the remote detonator?”
Nikki favoured him, with one of her most radiant smiles.
“Absolutely…….” she said “………… not!”
She put her finger to her lips and inclined her head slightly.
From behind the screen came a small ‘pop’. No one took any notice, they were too busy attending to the Man.
“What was that?” asked Bark
“The detonator going off.”
“The what……? Then the bomb….. it hasn’t gone off. It didn’t work!”
“No, that one didn’t”
“That one? What…. Nikki! What is going on!” Bark was beginning to loose his grip on things a bit.
Nikki shrugged innocently.
“That explosive you made, it wasn’t terribly stable, specially not in damp conditions - you’ll have to have a word with the Fish again dear - it tends to degrade a little over time, and after all you did make that bomb some weeks ago!”
Bark was saying nothing, but the hole in his face was getting larger by minute.
“The other one, however,” continued Nikki sweetly, “was quite fresh, and should have produced quite a decent Ka-boom back in Raz’s room, when she over-precipitously pressed the switch on the remote detonator which was linked up with both bombs.
Now, isn’t it terrible that she couldn’t wait till we left. We could have called her and told her about that little glitch, couldn’t we, Bark? Not our fault, is it dear?”
Bark’s mouth reached maximum aperture. “Are you trying to tell me…..”
“…….that our dear friend Raz is now a lot of red splotches and sticky lumps smeared all over the what is left of the inside wall of her room, if the room is still there, yes, I rather think I am, precious. Sad, isn’t it?” she cooed, without a trace of sadness in her voice.
Bark searched himself for any sign of remorse or guilt, and found neither, and he didn’t feel guilty about that, either. He felt as if an enormous weight which had been slowly crushing him was suddenly removed.
He looked at Nikki, and she was the most beautiful thing in his life, and his life was full of beautiful things, and joy, and wonder, and he was totally, unexpectedly and incredibly happy!
So then, that was Bark and his little skirmish with the forces of darkness. Aren’t you glad it had a happy ending? Except for Raz, of course, but then she deserved everything she got, dontcha think?
You want to know about everyone else? Okay.
Kizzy, being an intelligent, decent, hard-working sort of woman had a small amount of capital accrued, with which she immediately employed the the services of a free-lance plastic surgeon to fix Lizzie’s face, so he looks quite alright now, a bit better than before, actually. The other bit(s) she’s still saving to have replaced, (yes, they can do that these days -isn’t technology wonderful!), although quite why she’s bothering no-one can actually figure out, since Lizzie is now the best argument you’re likely to come across for having your cat sent to the vet. He stays home at night and doesn’t damage the furniture anymore, and even though he’s getting a little on the plump side, most people think it suits him.
Still, if Kizzy wants his bits put back, that, presumably, is her damn business and nobody else’s. (Except Lizzie’s, of course, and to be frank, he doesn’t really care one way or the other as long as he gets fed on time.)
Nikki got a contract from a nice promo-man she met at the presentation. She became a minor-celebrity, and she and Bark got enough money to buy lots of new clothes and move into a nicer area of the city, with two rooms and no fish, and no-one ever found out. Bark kept the old magazine, as a sort of reminder, and also because it had some strange stories in it Nikki liked, but he never built anymore bombs
Needless to say, the world had not heard the last of the UTAC, although no-one from that cheerful little band ever bothered to find out what had happened to Raz. She didn’t have any friends, you see. Hardly surprising.
There’s a moral in there so close to the surface it’s hardly worth pointing out, but just make sure you don’t go joining any terrorist organisations, okay?
The Man in Charge stayed in Charge, the trains didn’t run on time and he never got a dog.
Interestingly enough, he knew all along what Bark was up to, and about Nikki, and everything, because he is The Man in Charge and Knows All. Although how he Knows All, I’m not at liberty to say!
What he doesn’t know, though, is what his Son is up to - remember him? Good, he turns up later.
If he knew about that, he wouldn’t be so damn complacent about the trains and everything, but that’s another story.
* This story is entirely and absolutely true. All the events described actually happened, and all the people actually exist.
You try proving otherwise!