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Beneath the Floating City
And other science fiction short stories
Donna Maree Hanson
Note: The author uses Australian/British spelling conventions.
First published by Aust Spec Fiction (Donna Maree Hanson) in 2017.
Copyright © Donna Maree Hanson 2017.
Beneath the Floating City: and other science fiction short stories
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations) in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the author.
This is the first publication of ‘Lake Absence’. All other stories in this collection have been published previously.
CIP National Library of Australia
Ebook ISBN 978-0-6480650-8-1
Beneath the Floating City
Green, Green Grass of Homeworld
Night of Masks and Spears
About Donna Maree Hanson
Donna Maree Hanson’s Books
Beneath the Floating City
The flashing lights and the easy stride of narcotics through his system kept Nic Da Silva gyrating on the dance floor. The low hum of voices of the club patrons combined with the drumming beat of the dance music flowed over him. Nic grinned as the woman dancing with him tucked a wad of credits into the front of his trousers, her hand dropping slightly, stroking him, lingering there possessive, slightly aggressive. It was enough money to pay his shot at the inn for another night. God how he loved Hedonia.
‘Let’s leave now, Mr Engineer,’ the woman whispered in his ear, her breath a warm, spicy tickle. ‘My hotel is across the road.’ Nic nodded and he followed the woman out, her body draped in translucent robes that shifted and swayed with as she walked. At least he thought she was a woman, a human woman. There was so much enhancement these days it was hard to tell. The Club Zephyr was patronised by humans mostly but that didn’t mean other races didn’t try their luck. Exotic, erotic encounters. He shrugged mentally. As long as there was mutual satisfaction and, as she’d paid, he’d do the necessary no matter what the removal of her clothes revealed. A few scales, an excess of mucous hadn’t put him off before. A man’s gotta eat.
A city engineer leaning against the bar caught his eye and winked as Nic passed through the main doors. Engineers on Hedonia were a bunch of stuck up bastards, if he had ever met any. He’d been trying to get into that profession for so long that he’d gotten used to being invisible to that lot at the club. Nic saluted in a casual way, acknowledging the man. Another engineer joined him and they both turned their backs. Still, Nic was heartened by the attention, a friendly wink was better than a punch in the nose. Their presence was why he frequented that particular club. He was an engineer, too, by profession, but unemployed, recently retrenched from the mines on Xeno. His severance pay had got him to Hedonia, it was up to him to do the rest. Hedonia, the decadent floating city, a holiday haven for those with money and the will to spend it, with little to show in the end but a blur of a narcotic haze, zero remaining credit and maybe a sexually transmitted disease or three.
Lucky for him this is where he wanted to be for the present and damn if he wasn’t going to have a good time while he eked out an existence, sleeping in third grade hotels, slumming it in bars and earning his way with his other great organ. In his current state of mind, decadence was good for the soul. Being an engineer certainly helped, but he was not a Hedonian City engineer. They had status because of the great marvel of the place and the secrecy behind the tech, while he had no status. Zilch.
The woman he accompanied waved her ID card at the monitor and the doors to the hotel swished open. Not bad, he thought, as they walked through the plush surroundings. Everything had been done to augment the ancient alien design of the building, even the air was slightly green-tinged. Richly carved stone walls, full with alien figures doing what came naturally complete with patterned borders full of swirls and interlinking designs. Once in the elevator the woman pushed him back against the wall and groped him, making him grunt in surprise.
‘My, you’re hot tonight, pretty lady,’ he said in his best gigolo voice. She purred as she rubbed herself against him, so maybe his charm had worked already.
The lift door opened to her suite. They tumbled inside, kissing up a frenzy and the lights went on.
‘Take them off,’ she said pulling back, her own fingers separating the robe she was wearing. Yellow, it spilt like sunburst and landed in a delicate puddle on the floor.
Nic paused. The woman was stunning. Firm breasts with brown nut nipples, great tan, long lean thighs. He realised he was standing half naked with his mouth opened and shut it. Why did this woman need a paid fuck? You’d think she’d have to fight them off, the men wanting to pay her for her time and not the other way around. Their bodies crashed together. The room lurched around him as he found himself held firmly, face down on the floor, arm twisted up his back. ‘What the—’
Next morning, Nic’s eyes were gooey and his nose was filled with a particularly nasty stench. Waking up proved to him that he had indeed been thrown out of the hotel, according the door receipt he held in his hand, exactly one hour and thirty four minutes after he had arrived. Groaning he levered himself up on his elbows. He was in the gutter. Figures. Blasted trans, can’t trust them as far as you can root them. Of course its body had been too good to be true. It was a transmuter alien, able to morph sex, shape its body into other species, appearing anyway it chose. It had fucked him senseless taking it everyway and then some, then sucked out all his brain juice. That’s when it started getting kinky. Staggering to his feet, he felt a wave of exhaustion hit him. A needle headache shot through his skull. ‘Argh!’ he blurted, unable to hold it in. Squinting, he realised he was a block or two from his own flop house. He could make it there, maybe they’d even let him sleep in a bed all day. He checked his pants. At least the cash was still there.
It took a while to get into his room. He had to pay first and negotiate the next payment. He used the san unit, the harsh jets washing the street scum and transmuter juice off him. He thwacked the wall in frustration. No wonder the blasted engineer acknowledged him on the way out. All this time wasted trying to fraternise with them, trying to wheedle his way into a job and the bastards were laughing at him. He’d rooted alien arse. Shit! He had his own penetrated as well as the mental shakedown. What a rape of the mind that was. The creature got high on his emotions, his memories and thoughts. Nothing was secret now. When it realised what he was, what he was after, it had laughed and thrown him out. Real bone fide, licensed gigolos had more interesting minds than an out of work engineer and better sense than to mess with transmuters in the first place.
Though his mind felt rather empty when he woke up, he thought there was no permanent harm done. The thrill for the transmuter in sucking brain was in the taking, in the struggle and the pain inflicted as the thoughts were ripped out.
Later, Nic half limped to the Zephyr Club, expecting that none of the engineers would be there. It was midday and already the place was filling up. A few new shuttles had arrived and the tourists didn’t let city time interfere with their visit. Hedonia was a place of indulgence after all—an ancient and alien floating city, full of aged opulence and mysterious technology.
The tourists in the club were a mixed bag of those who had been in the city for a couple of days to those who had recently arrived. The older ones could be distinguished by the jaded, slightly greasy skin tone as something in the atmosphere created an unnatural sheen to human skin. As no ill effects had been experienced, except the discolouration, scientists had put it down to a type of local fungi. Nic’s own swarthy complexion had deepened to a golden brown. He liked the shine.
He was on his second drink and feeling mellow when the engineer he’d been waiting for arrived. Quite blithely, the man fronted up to him and slapped him on the shoulder. ‘So how was it?’ he asked with a grin.
‘Bleeding bastard. You could have warned me it was a transmuter. My head hurts still.’ So did his rear but he wasn’t owning to that.
The engineer nodded. ‘Better you experience the brain drain now while you still know nothing. We suspect they are after the specs for the floatation engines.’
‘Fat lot of good it does me. Can’t even get an interview with you lot.’
The man grinned and waved to the barkeep. ‘As it happens there is an opening. There’s a workbus leaving in two hours for an undercity inspection. If you are interested, make sure your credentials have been lodged with the city. There’ll be a test afterward. Tell them, Johann sent you. The foreman’s a Fleche so don’t wear any colognes or strong scents. It overwhelms his olfactory senses and makes him twice as cranky as he normally is.’
Johann turned away, slapping his business card on the counter as he did. Nic gaped at it stupidly, not quite believing his luck. If he sealed this deal, he’d be legit, a resident and also in funds. A whole pathway of future plans opened up to him.
Without finishing his drink, he pushed away from the bar and ignored the sexual overtures of two over eroticised bi-pedal females. Next time he slapped his flesh against a woman, it would be because he wanted to, not because he was desperate for money. Glancing over his shoulder at the second woman, a Taelen, he saw she wasn’t too bad. With a shrug, he decided to trust to luck that they’d cross paths again and he’d be in the mood.
There were nine other contenders for the one vacant position. Nic ground his teeth as he attempted to assess the competition. The Fleche was giving nothing away, not even a twitch of his elephantine nose, which looked more a like a penis than a nose. Nic tried not to think of the noun ‘fuckface’ or ‘dickhead’ when he looked at him, because he knew he’d start to laugh. He turned away to order his thoughts in a more professional manner.
The twelve seater workbus took off from a service dock, quickly rising over the city. In this sector, some of the ancient buildings appeared to be sinking. He wondered how the buildings remained upright as some had a serious tilt. The buildings looked to be made of stone, covered over with the same greasy gold sheen as the people of Hedonia eventually acquired. Nic rubbed his chin, feeling the slight layer of film on his chin, even his tongue had acquired the colour, though it was more brown than gold.
Ornate arched bridges linked sections of the city, spanning nothing at all except the plummeting depths of the atmosphere to the surface below. As the workbus pivoted over the perimeter of the city, Nic held his breath, getting his first look at the colossal engines holding it up.
Underneath the floating city huge turbines larger than the buildings they supported whirred and droned. Enough thrust to keep the city afloat and enough momentum to keep it fairly still. It wasn’t truly stationary, but the tether meant it floated in a slow arc. Any movement the city made was undetectable to the inhabitants. The physics of it blew Nic’s mind. So much so that his head ached sharply and then eased, leaving him feeling queasy.
Housing the turbines were fluted pillars ending in ornate grapples, clutching the machine housing. Never had Nic seen anything so beautiful and mysterious. Over the loudspeaker, the Fleche explained the purpose of the turbines, obvious thought Nic, but he listened anyway in case the test at the end included some idiosyncratic commentary from the foreman. Nic noticed that what the foreman said was veiled to hide the true properties of the alien technology. Any engineer worth his salt could at least map out what was being done, the difficultly lay in the how.
Further in, he glimpsed walkways and cathedral style doors, disguising sufficient space to accommodate thousands. He figured that the builders of the place must have lived beneath the city as well as on the top. The Lynex race, the name bestowed on the builders of the city, had disappeared long before humans and other species had come to this sector. Carved images, thought to be depictions of the Lynex, were spread through the buildings and some of those images implied that the city was a place of decadence and indulgence for them too. To a human eye, they were downright erotic in places. His gaze once again went to the gantries and those closed doors. What secrets did those passageways contain?
‘Excuse me,’ Nic asked the foreman, pointing. ‘Those walkways and passageways. Are they used by the workcrews?’
The Fleche’s nose twitched. ‘At times is it necessary to access them. Most are sealed by order of the city council.’
‘The city council do not explain themselves to their employees. We have extrapolated their reasoning to determine that safety concerns are at the forefront of the edict. There is also a seal on most corridors placed by the Academy of Exoscience that is currently undertaking research.’
‘So what happens if you need to gain access to repair a turbine or perform maintenance?’
‘We use work harnesses. Only if the machinery is inaccessible by this means do we request access.’
Nic swallowed. The workbus was sealed but outside the wind was cold and powerful. A man wouldn’t survive long in a workharness and, if suited, then dexterity would be inhibited. There must be something worth hiding if the engineers were forced to those extremes.
The workbus finished its inspection of the undercity and returned to the dock. The Fleche led them to a small room with info-terminals at the ready. ‘You will take a seat and sit the test. Please register your ID and commence.’
Nic waved his ID card and the first test question flashed up. It was a fairly basic equation. The next question related to a piece of commentary from the tour, the next a bit of detail from the turbines that he happened to pick up on. Then the questions got harder. He had no idea how long the test took because the Fleche called to a halt and the terminal screens froze. Nic had no idea even if he had finished the test. Surprisingly, he answered the questions readily, despite having his brain drained less than twenty four hours previously.
‘You will be notified of the outcome within twenty four hours.’ Nic nodded and left the room. Man he needed a drink or a Tee, so he headed back to the Zephyr Club, hoping that he’d showed the right stuff and landed the job. When he entered the bar, the engineers gathered by the bar welcomed him and Johann slapped him on the back. ‘So how did you go?’
‘Good, I think. Beneath the city was fascinating. My head is full of it, full of the possibilities.’
Johann smiled. ‘Yep it was like that for me too. So are you selling your body tonight or drinking with us?’
Nic’s eyes widened and then he nodded. He hoped the golden tinge to his skin hid his blush. ‘With you, of course!’
The bastards knew what he been doing all these weeks. Knew and did nothing to help. Like to see them down on their luck and see how they like it. Nic got wasted that night. He wasn’t sure how he made it back to his hotel, but he did and woke up alone.
At reception, he found a sealed package in his secure niche, along with the bill for the next night’s accommodation. He ripped package open to find an acceptance letter, employment details, including salary, fraternization restrictions and confidentiality agreements and the news that he had to report at his assigned dormitory that evening. As he read all the conditions of his employment over a hot coffee in the hotel annexe, he realised his foray into the high life would now be curtailed. He could go to the assigned bar but had a curfew, and had to sleep in his assigned quarters, no visitors allowed. That’s why the engineers were so standoffish. It was part of their job description. He recalled how he had blundered in there, asking questions up front about the turbines, about the aeolus gas and its properties. No wonder the bastards had shunned him all that time.
Returning to his room, he gathered up his gear and had it sent to his new accommodation. Then he checked out, paying the last of the bill with the money he had remaining. He hoped food came with the accommodation or he’d be mighty hungry before payday.
Back at the Zephyr he nursed his drink, taking it slowly as he had no cash for another. The engineers dribbled in groups of twos and threes after their shift. There was only about fifteen of them who were regulars.
Johann sidled up to him. ‘I hear congratulations are in order. Buy you a drink?’
‘Thanks. Thanks for the tip too. Appreciate it. I’ll take a drink but I can’t repay the favour until payday.’
‘No more tricks from now on, heh? Man, how I hated that when I came here.’
Taking a sip of his drink, Nic nearly choked. As it was, he sprayed beer over the bar in a wide spray. ‘You did what?’
‘Same as you. Not much else to do around here unless you want to turn narc dealer. Lucky for me it only took me two weeks to get a place.’
Nic gaped at Johann. ‘So are there vacancies because the engineers leave or is there more and more work opening up?’
Johann shook his head. ‘A bit of both, except they disappear or die but I guess you call that leaving permanently.’
Nic took the new drink the bartender handed him. It was spicy and warm just how he liked his brew. ‘Disappear? Die? How?’ He thought about the workharnesses and how difficult the work would be, perilous too if you weren’t careful. Surely the city would protect their workers. There were a lot of engineers around but still, recruitment costs, benefits.
Johann took a long draw on his beer, closing his eyes. ‘Different ways I suppose.’
Nic frowned into his glass. He wasn’t stupid. He knew hedging when he saw it. ‘So are you warning me, giving me safety tips? I want to live, for a very long time actually.’
‘Neither. I’ve been working here three years now. I haven’t had any problems myself. But you hear stuff, you know.’
‘Yes I do.’
They finished their drink making idle talk with the others who joined them. Mostly they watched the dancers, the tourist drunk on vacation, narcs and sex. He watched them, like the engineers had watched him. Quite a sobering thought. Before midnight the engineers began to drift out the door. Johann led him to the street. ‘I’ll show you to your new home. Your room is right next to mine.’
Nic let out a huge belch. ‘I’d appreciate that. Hope the food is as good as the pay.’
‘It’s not but it’s edible. Better than the shit you’ve been eating.’
Nic harrumphed, hitching up his collar. ‘Some of it was damn fine. You’re just jealous because you’re restricted in who you fraternise with.’
‘Could be. We only get approved hookers once a month. At least they’re clean and free.’
Nic thought about that. Approved meant security and drug screened. Not many hookers he knew would subject themselves to those processes unless it was worth it. He wondering how rich Hedonia City really was. The docking fees for the shuttles would add up. There was at least ten of them a week, not including the support craft with supplies. Legit sex and drugs were taxed and he guessed all the imported food was too. Then there were the lease fees. No one could own any part of the city, it belonged to the city council corporation.
After a good breakfast next morning, Nic dressed in his new uniform, feeling a sense of pride that had been absent from his life for quite a while. With a smile on his face, he reported for his first day at work. For the most part, he observed, listening to ‘fuckface’ all day until he yawned.
The routine continued day after day. His nights were plagued with flashbacks of his time with the transmuter, memories and dreams merged together. The alien couldn’t get enough of him. Give me more, it would demand. You must get me more. He’d start over, feeling exhausted on waking.