Under A Dark Sky
I press the call button on the ancient intercom beside the corroded metal door of Winger's place. It's raining again, only this time we're deep underground.
It takes a couple of hours for the rain to filter down through the cultural layers and detritus of the sky-scraping needle that is the megacity of Southern Masada. The humidity down in the Bottoms is not so very different from the rain forest climate uptown. The only difference is that down here, the sun never shines and the rain is blood-red with rust.
After a short while a tinny, metallic voice answers from the rusty grille, heavy with static.
"Who the fuck is it, and what the hell do you want?"
Winger is an unfriendly bastard at the best of times, and lucky for us, this seems to be one of them. With the surveillance camera above the door smashed since who knows when and the reputation of this neighbourhood I can understand if Winger is a bit touchy.
"Asher Perez," I reply. "I called earlier." A short pause and the locks disengage, motors struggle and the reek of burnt electronics tastes like nosebleed in the air. The huge door rumbles inward on creaking hinges, revealing a red-lit tunnel, sloping down into the underworld. Cue spooky music and you've got yourself a textbook entrance to hell. Like most places down here in the Bottoms, the smell is more septic tank than sepulchre though.
Wagner stoops low to enter the doorway ahead of me. Like all abnormally tall people he goes through life hunched over like a boxer, ready to take one in the face from life, but he needs to really bend over to get through the doorway.
As we walk down the damp concrete tunnel, randomly lit by weak light-panels behind rusty metal cages, the air grows noticeably colder and less breathable. Written on the wall in graffiti two metres tall is the age-old admonition that "Here be Dragons". The inference is clear; Abandon hope all ye who enter this shit hole.
Winger has always been a sucker for theatrics, but I'm too old in this business to be creeped out by a creative arms dealer. Even one as well equipped in the arms department as Winger.
We reach the end of the tunnel where another massive door bars our way. This time there's working surveillance gear tracking us as we approach. We stop in plain view of the cameras, allowing the scanners to read us. The door slides open, this time without a sound; a sure sign of expensive tech. Like I said, Winger is the best.
Despite its decrepit appearance, the outer door would probably shrug off a direct hit from a cruise missile and this bulkhead would keep you safe for the rest of the war. It's always good to know someone as paranoid as Winger when The War comes. In my experience, it's the paranoids who get the last laugh.
As we step through the door and into the state-of-the-art airlock behind it, the door behind us slides closed again. Our ears pop from a sudden change in air-pressure and we are hosed down with some kind of sharp-smelling disinfectant.
Winger is chronically suspicious of germs and viruses. For good reasons.
The airlock completes its cycle, and a door opens up in front of us, this time on a huge, dimly lit hangar filled with crates. In places they're stacked to the high ceiling, packed with the coolest kit you've ever seen. Men fall in love with the place at first sight. Women just shrug and wonder what all the fuss is about.
In the centre of the room, four banks of spotlights hang from aluminium trusswork bridges suspended from the ceiling on chains.
A massive industrial fan, stylishly backlit in morphine yellow, rotates slowly in the far wall. The rest of the room is unlit, the occasional twinkle reflecting off well-oiled technology the only indication there is anything out there in the darkness at all.
We walk down a canyon between the wooden crates and our footfalls echo around the large chamber. I run my fingers over the rough surface of the wood. Not a single speck of dust. There are no obvious security systems, but I know they are out there. We wouldn't get far if we were here to rob the place. We reach the central work area and there is Winger, bent over a work-table, her back to us.
She's wearing an oil-stained sleeveless top displaying her slenderly muscled arms and shoulders to great effect. The short top also reveals her dimpled lower back over the black leather pants which are not doing a very good job of hiding her long shapely legs.
The legs are the first thing you notice about Winger.
She straightens at the sound of our footsteps and turns to face us, stretching her back and showing off her ample assets in the harsh light. The cynic in me knows it's all a show to get better prices for her gear, but the romantic in me wants it to be all for me.
The second thing you notice about Winger is her strong but stunningly beautiful face, framed by a swell of curly dark hair. She's the kind of woman wars are fought over and poems written about.
The third thing you notice about Winger is Christine.
The small parasitic Siamese twin growing out of the side of her abdomen never fails to get people's attention.
At the moment Christine's asleep, and Winger has covered her in a soft blanket. If I didn't know better I'd say she had a baby propped on her hip. Had they been born a decade later to a wealthy family, they could easily have been separated at birth and new organs grown for Christine, but they were not. When the price of the procedure had finally come within reach of ordinary people like Winger's folks, she and Christine had grown inseparable, if you'll pardon the pun.
They say a guy once fell in love with Winger and convinced her that her sister was not going to be a problem. Everything went alright for a while, and then the guy stabbed Christine in the face with a knife when Winger was asleep, hoping to force her to have Christine removed. The guy was never seen again, but ever since then, Winger wears a necklace of gold-plated teeth around her neck. They are much too big to be her milk teeth.
"Hey, Finn," she greets the giant. "Back so soon? Did you get to fight the Sumerian yet?"
"No, not yet." Wagner is unusually uncomfortable around Winger, and he keeps fidgeting with his belt buckle. He has never been very good with women.
Me, I've had a crush on Winger since I first met her a couple of years ago, and coming here always gets me in a good mood. I'm not one of her regular customers, but I try to find excuses to come see her every now and then. It's just too bad she's already taken. Her lover is a very lucky girl.
Her lover is also a psycho biker dyke, and I don't much fancy being the subject of her male-hating rage, so I keep my hands off. For now.
"And who the hell are you?" Her question smacks me in the face like a gutted cod and brings me out of my reverie. She's looking at me like she half remembers my face but can't decide if I'm a celebrity, unrecognisable out of makeup, or if I'm the guy from the sushi stand, unrecognisable out of context.
"Cut the crap, Winger. I called an hour ago." That doesn't seem to ring any bells, so I try again. "Hello? Perez, remember?" Still nothing. "What have you been smoking, girl?" I ask her, my good mood starting to evaporate.
She frowns, and then what I take to be recognition trickles in like cold water down a spine. She always was a bit absent-minded. That's just one of her many endearing qualities.
"Right. Sorry, man. No need to get grumpy. You're just not the Perez I was expecting, but since you're here let's see what I can do for you." A quick smile that could melt the ices of Nifelheim and she walks over to another desk, the light glinting off her leather pants, highlighting her smoothly rounded curves.
She picks up her com-pad and Wagner lets out a long breath I never knew he held. Funny that such a big man can be scared of a woman a fraction of his weight. He could lift her with one hand, easy. The image of it in my mind's eye brings a crooked smile to my face.
"There you go." Winger smiles back. "You're not half bad looking when you smile. You should try it more often. Might stop people from trying to kill you just to put you out of your misery."
I know it's all show and a calculated greasing of a customer, but her words still make me feel all fuzzy inside. Is it just me, or did it get hot in here?
"Cute, Winger, cute. Now, cut the crap and let's get down to business."