Hard up for cash, Turtle did what anyone in his situation would: put his boots on, tucked his pistol into the back of his pants, and made his way to the entertainment district. Not the one he himself went for entertainment, and not the well-lit, well-policed courtyards and skyways of the Transcendents, but the Wallows. Where the high-rollers went to slum it, where the scrapers and miners on holiday came to live it up a little. Where there were still shadows and corners with camera blind spots where an enterprising young ruffian could relieve revelers of the burdens their pockets carried.
Of course, the Wallows didn’t come without their own unique risks. Poorly policed, sure, but by the design and financial arrangement of the Hanging Blades, who jealously guarded their fallow fields and fattened flock. It was a calculated risk, but the Blades were more likely to take his money and give him a beating than kick him out a lock onto the surface, as the Transcendent’s security forces were wont to do. A lot of Turtle’s friends had learned that lesson, found later by walkers, bodies slid halfway down a crater’s slope, slide arrested by their snap-frozen death’s piss.
He’d found a few himself, and the image of Largo’s face rimed in the frozen carbon dioxide of her last panicked exhalations was one that still occasionally woke him, sweating, from the depths of sleep. But Turtle wasn’t thinking about that now. Hitchhiker transient he was, he didn’t have the freedom of movement fully-vested citizens of The Rock did. Making his way from the service tunnel squat he’d called home for the last few months required navigating long-disused survey tunnels, emergency stairwells, and the occasional bot path, low ceilings and walls still rough, floors polished in strangely patterned ribbons of high gloss by the passage of service bot wheelfeet.
The kick was coming. Turtle could feel it in the cold sweat forming on his palms, the twinges of weakness in his legs, the rising tinnitus. Breathing hard already, he picked up the pace on the long stairwell he was descending coreward. He started jumping landing to landing despite the vertigo-inducing shaft just on the other side of the railing. He feared the kick more than the low gravity fall.
Twenty-seven levels down, a bank of striplights flickered and changed colors over the door, Turtle’s landmark to the back way into the Wallows. It had taken him a solid two days to work his way through the maze of rock tunnels, ventilation shafts, botways, and maintenance paths from the Wallows to this door, only to be stymied by several centuries of rust. It took another day to find the way down to the other side of this door, and another to coax the frozen locks and mechanism open, even with the application of a vial of black market industrial nanobes. Grunting with the effort, he reefed open the heavy seal locks with a squeal that shot away into the shaft like a trapped ghost set free. He was through the door before the echo returned.
On the other side of the threshold, Turtle stopped and took off the bulging rucksack that was his namesake. His upland rags would stand out in the mid-level luxury environment of the Wallows, as would his disheveled and grimy appearance. Digging through his bag, he pulled out a tightly-packed clothing packet and a cosmetics kit. He set the clothes on top of his bag, and carefully removed a blister pack from the kit. He popped one light blue pill out of the pack and put the rest away, then standing, closed his eyes and crushed the pill on his forehead.
Slowly at first, a mass of translucent bluish fluid spread out from the point of impact, disappearing as it spread out over his face and into his hair. As it spread, the dirt and grime, cuts and scrapes and bruises all disappeared as if being wiped off a whiteboard, leaving behind clean skin unblemished by a life on the margins. His hair took on a life of its own, unruly tufts laying down and organizing themselves into a smooth, dapper hairstyle, replete with the ringlets along the temples that were currently in vogue. The tiny nanobes in the pill laid down a layer of eye shadow on Turtle’s closed eyelids in the dark colors that were currently en vogue for men, as well as applying dark lining around his eyes. As it reached his lower face, the week of growth along his jawline fell off, leaving his face dewy and shining. As a final touch and signal of completion, the cosmetic pill released a light waft of aftershave scent. The cosmetics didn’t do anything to fix his eyes, however. Jaundiced and bloodshot, sunk into his skull like something was eating away at the flesh and bone behind. He might pass as normal at a glance, but anyone with any savvy would know he was deep in the throes of the Kick.
Turtle opened his eyes in time to catch the now-depleted nanobes falling off his face in a rapidly dissipating cloud of glittering dust. He quickly opened the stickpatch catches on his jumpsuit and stepped out of it, shivering slightly in the cool air of the abandoned corridor. As if he needed reminding, his knees took this moment to buckle warningly, telling him the Kick was approaching, inexorably. He reached into a side pocket on his bag and pulled out a large lozenge about the size of his thumb, and smashed this one onto his chest. Another rush of fluid spread out, covering his naked body and dissolving the dirt and grime, grooming and trimming Turtle’s various patches of hair and applying body makeup in programmed styles. Dark stripes appeared along the sides of his torso and arched across his stomach, leading into his groin. He hoped this was still the look, as he’d picked these cosmetikits up a couple weeks ago. Trends burned through fast in the Rock, and the quickest way to look out of place was to fall behind the curve.
Cleaned and groomed, Turtle tore the strip off the side of the clothing packet and shook out the items within. These too might be already out of date, but he was out of time, options, and most importantly, money. They’d have to do. The packet contained an iridescent jumpsuit in an shade of purple that it was hard for his eyes to focus on, a cropped white tank top, and matching toe socks with rubberized soles. Hard-soled shoes were worse than useless in a low-g environment. Some observer voice in the back of his head shook its head at the get-up as he struggled into it, telling him he looked ridiculous. A louder one came in and silently shook him by the nervous system, foreshocks to the Kick.
Turtle crammed his pack into a nearby equipment cavity after securing his pistol and a wicked little shiv on his person. The cut of the jumpsuit was tight around the groin, with a low, plunging neckline that dipped into a V that showed a tuft of bot-groomed pubic curls, but loosened up around the chest and shoulders. Turtle applied stickpatch to the side of his pistol and a spot just under his left armpit where the loose material would hide the weapon. The shiv he stuck similarly to the outside of his right ankle where the legs of the jumpsuit billowed out from the knees and split over his feet.
The final touch was a comm earring in the form of a thick gold hoop that he secured to his left earlobe. Clothing styles changed rapidly, but smart jewelry remained a constant accessory for the populace and people were reticent to change their personal devices once they’d been fully integrated into their lives. Combination ID, personal assistant, communications portal, and payment token, there were a broad range of devices from earrings to bracelets to genital piercings that people used, and while clothes were disposable, one’s smart jewelry functioned more as a personal totem than a display of vanity.
This earring had belonged to an unfortunate Scraper who’d come in flush with a load of organics from a ghost freighter and had objected, physically and strenuously, to Turtle’s imposition of a local income tax. After a brief struggle, Turtle had become the owner of not only the Scraper’s credit balance, but his cargo as well, which manifest was discreetly revised to include another hundred kilos of biomass. That windfall of credits was blown in a haze of pure artificial sunlight, luxury condo on the inner levels of the Rock, bathed in the inner glowing warmth of endomorph seeping through a dermal patch, floating globules of drool happily drifting away from his hammock. It was the happiest he’d been in a long time, maybe ever.
He tried to glean a glimmer of that glow to sustain him for the next few hours. Hands trembling, he approached the lift at the far end of the corridor and punched for the next car down. Moments later it arrived and he stepped through the doors. Catching his own eye in his reflection on the mirrored wall, he pawed carefully at his face, bemoaning the lines he found there and the twin sinkholes his eyes had become. Endomorph was a harsh mistress. He silently vowed to pick up some shades at the Wallow’s bazaar before he went fishing. Better a mild faux pas than let the truth written on his face show.