AFTER FIGHTING HIS WAY across a main road, Cookie emerged on the same side as China-Ville. The place wasn’t hard to miss, standing many stories high, with thick cables strewn from the corners and outer solid concrete walls. The concrete wasn’t visible until a few levels up, though, as the bottom floors were completely wrapped in colourful flags, pictures, lights, garments, billboards — basically everything. Despite all of those things, though, it was something else that made China-Ville so hard to miss. The mega-complex seemed to have a life of its own. It was like a parasitic organism that relied on other, weaker, and often unknowing creatures to keep itself alive. It seemed to be of infinite size and complexity. This structure called out to people from all walks of life, drawing them in from the world over. At its outer perimeter, there were mostly tourists or those who exploited tourists. Cookie took a quick glance from one end to the other, far in the distance, and tried to estimate how many Hawaiian shirts he had just mentally ingested. The fads changed from year to year, and the market changed its stock to suit, though there was one constant that he couldn’t deny, and it was what Cookie despised the most. While still about a block away, Cookie could smell China-Ville, strong as ever. It smelled of nothing in particular — not just weird foods or unwashed inhabitants — but more of the combined smell of everything that happened there. It consumed the entire area, and he wondered how the people living nearby ever could get used to it.

As he pushed past the first row of shops, he couldn’t help but marvel at how clever the residents here really were. It was absolutely a matter of hiding in plain sight. So much was going on at once that so much could pass by right under one’s nose. It was a criminal haven in disguise, with walls not only of concrete but of civilians buying pirated goods. First things first, Cookie purchased a scarf from one of the street-level stores, which was now wrapped around his shoulders and nose. It would help with the smell, keep his identity covered, and keep the grime off his back, all in one. A trick learned years before that he still swore by.

Cookie squeezed through one of the entrance gaps, almost becoming wedged between a store and a support pillar. Even the walkways were a defensive mechanism. They acted as funnels, growing narrower the further he advanced. Defending this structure wouldn’t take Spartan inhabitants, just patience and large ammo magazines.

The market stalls had begun to thin out, and straggling tourists were diverted by strategically placed whorehouses or other slightly more illegal goods and services. After what felt like another layer, though Cookie couldn’t be entirely sure, he became aware of the burning eyes all around him. Shopkeepers had dropped their friendly acts. The fake watch vendors had long since disappeared. Tourists generally didn’t travel this far. This was where he needed to be to see if he could find what he was searching for and make it out again. Above him, window slats were slammed closed. Clicks of what sounded like firearms being loaded echoed down the halls. A man was sitting nearby, acting casually like he was drinking a glass of wine and reading a good book on a balcony. Though there was no balcony here, just an uneven ground of concrete slabs and bamboo weave, the smell of various dead things, and grimy, stale air that begged for a breeze. The liquid in the man’s cup wasn’t wine, either. It was black, thick, and shiny — a cup of pure grunge.

“I’m looking for a phone.”

“You look around. Phone shop everywhere.” The man’s voice was raspy. Just listening to it made Cookie’s throat hurt.

“No, I need one of these phones.” Cookie made to remove the transmitter device from his pocket. The man stopped him with a strange sound and a raise of his eyebrows. He seemed surprised that anyone would be stupid enough to reach for their pockets here.

“You move, you dead.”

Cookie raised one hand in surrender but knew that if he didn’t explain himself fast, they would most likely kill him anyway. His free hand moved slowly to the pocket, and he removed the three-beep transmitter he’d used earlier to contact Boss. The man snatched it and scanned it closely. Once he found whatever he was looking for, he tossed it hard to the ground. An armed ex-military type stepped from the shadows and kicked it through a broken drain cover. The grunge drinker barked an order at the soldier and had him lead Cookie away.

Cookie recognised none of the area and hoped that he wasn’t walking straight into a trap. The walkways widened, and he wondered if the soldier was leading him to an exit, back towards the streets outside. The soldier pushed him into the shop front of a reverse-engineered movie boutique. He then spoke in hushed tones to the engineer at the counter, who nodded. There was another person in the store who Cookie hoped was an oblivious browser, though he kept his ears trained on the area behind him, just to be safe. The engineer tapped at a glass cabinet in front of him, and Cookie leaned in for a closer look. He heard the engineer whisper something but looked up to find that his mouth wasn’t moving. He looked down at the cabinet and once again the voice sounded. It was coming from inside his head. Cookie’s R-chip was being overpowered by a transmitter hidden amongst the gadgets in the cabinet. To indicate that he’d heard, Cookie glanced up at the engineer and gave a short nod.

“Three or five beep?”

Cookie placed three fingers on the glass in front of him. The engineer removed the front row of computer chips and held them out to Cookie. Cookie frowned, unsure as to what he was being shown, but he realised as the engineer pointed to the contacts that the different chips were indicating varying levels of encryption. Cookie selected the largest chip and the voice entered his head again.

“Meet me around the side in twenty minutes.”

The engineer exchanged the chip for a small empty box and placed it in a bag, then passed it over the counter to Cookie. Aloud, he said, “Thank you, sir. Tell your friends.”

Cookie left. A few others had joined the other shopper, but all were too busy checking out new release movies to spare him any attention. Cookie set a GPS mark on his watch so he could find his way back here, then stepped out into the quiet walkway, following the sound of bustling hustlers. It didn’t take long before he was back at the outer layer and all sorts of useless things were being shoved in his face for a “good price, good price!”

The smell of dead things was temporarily overthrown by the smell of living things defecating. The whiff of questionable foodstuffs blew past occasionally, offering some respite. The only pleasant smell that Cookie came across was from a perfume cloud of an exotic-looking woman. She walked far faster through the crowd than Cookie could manage, and he wished that he had the time to chase her down for his nose’s sake. His watch vibrated and the screen lit up, indicating that he ought to head back to the engineer. In the rushed evacuation from his house, he forgot his lenses, so he couldn’t see the directional arrows projecting from his watch. He had to stop pushing through the crowds at each fork in the path to check the tiny screen on his wrist. It took a little longer than he hoped, but he made it back to the store without the engineer having waited too long. Cookie slipped down the side of the store, scarf scraping grime from the wall as he pressed against the narrowing passage. The door was already open a crack, and the engineer must have seen Cookie approaching because he opened it the rest of the way immediately, thrusting a small, crudely taped-together device into his chest. The door then slammed closed.

Cookie continued shuffling along to the back of the shop and, ignoring the family perched around a small bowl of chow, began to transmit some more beeps to Boss. After he’d transmitted only a few beeps, the engineer’s voice crackled in his head, just as before.

“If I’m picking up that signal, then you’re too close to my shop. Piss off. I won’t warn you again.”

Cookie checked his watch. Fifty-five minutes had passed since he first beeped the Pizza Boss. He didn’t have time to push his way out of the layers and find somewhere safe to transmit from. He set to work ripping his new phone open, memorising where the parts belonged so he could reassemble it later. The engineer must have put a bug in the phone itself because there was no way that the same one from inside the glass cabinet could overrule his R-chip from this distance. He thought back to the small gadgets he’d seen in the window and tried to find anything in the phone that looked similar. He couldn’t risk the engineer recording the supposedly encrypted call to Boss and selling it to the highest bidder.

Fifty-seven minutes had passed now. If he didn’t send his digital key to Boss immediately, he would need to find a new way of contact.

Fifty-eight minutes.

Cookie gave up and reassembled the phone. He tapped at the keypad and watched the time as the message flew from his screen, down to the submersallites, and across to Boss’s receiver. The phone rang a second later.

It was Boss. “Jesus, kid. You’re cutting it fine.”

“Listen, I’m tapped. We need to meet.”

The voice of the engineer spoke over Boss’s response. “Get away from my shop, man! I don’t need your pirate signals drawing attention this way!” the engineer yelled directly into Cookie’s head.

“Just shut up a sec. I’m going to be quick.”

Boss was fuming. “Don’t tell me to shut up, you — ”

“Not you, Boss. It’s the engineer giving me lip over my R-chip.”

The engineer was furious this time and continued yelling through Cookie’s R-chip, drowning out Boss’s voice yet again.

“Boss, repeat that?”

The engineer was still yelling and behind Cookie the side door was kicked open. It took the engineer a few seconds to squeeze into the side alley, but the open door was now blocking Cookie from view.

“Where are you, ass wipe? I know you’re close.” The engineer was shuffling his way down the alley towards the front of the shop, looking around for Cookie. His string of insults didn’t stop, and Cookie couldn’t press the phone any further into his ear as he struggled to hear Boss over the engineer.

“Meet… at… place… First… place…”

“Got it, Boss. Give me twenty.”

With that, Cookie ripped the back off the phone and crushed a couple of random chips. He discarded the rest in the gutter and started running, the engineer’s voice fading quickly as his signal emitter fell behind. Once Cookie was beyond range of the engineer’s signal, static erupted in his R-chip, and Cookie couldn’t help but yell in agony, clutching his hands to his ears. That did nothing, of course, as the chip was in his head, and it took him all his willpower to think through the noise and ask the chip to switch itself off. He clambered to his feet, only now aware that he’d even fallen to the ground, and continued running. Risking a glance behind him, he saw a crowd of people disperse as the bulk of the engineer charged through. He must have heard Cookie cry out. Ahead was another cluster of stalls, and it wasn’t long before Cookie was also ramming his way through a crowd, leaving a clear path for the engineer to follow. It took a few last-minute turns to dodge and duck the main influx of people, and once again he was somewhere in the second layer of China-Ville. After a long few minutes of regaining his breath behind a thick binding of cables, Cookie stood, flicked off some of the grime, and checked his watch. Because he had previously set a waypoint at the engineer’s shop, he could use that as a landmark for navigating his way out of this endless twist of alleys. He selected the shop from the recent locations menu and waited for something to happen, but nothing did. The screen flashed a few times, then went blank. After a second, the power light turned itself off. The watch was dead.

Cookie punched a tin wall, harder than he meant to, and cringed as he heard it echo in all directions. He paused, listening for footsteps, but heard nothing. He sat back down behind the cables, deciding to take cover before he tried fiddling with his watch. Chances were, it would take a while to reset.

“Jammers, I’m afraid.”

Cookie jumped, not realising there had been somebody nearby. He looked towards the voice but saw nothing except grimy pipes and piles of trash. He shuffled a little closer, focusing between two support beams, and to his surprise, he saw that one of the rubbish piles was sporting a pair of goggled eyes. Cookie looked at the pile, dumbfounded. He began to wonder how many other homeless people he’d passed today without even noticing.

“Jammers, you say?”

“Yep, best jammers there are.”

“Well they’ve buggered up my watch. I’m trying to find my way out of here. Do you know where we are?”

“Sure do.”

“Where?”

The small person in the rubbish pile smiled. “I’m awfully hungry.” A leaf of paper lifted and a cupped hand poked its way through.

Cookie patted down his pockets and found a ten-dollar note, then placed it between the trash-dweller’s fingers. The hand retracted quickly with the money. Then the trash offered an answer.

“China-Ville.”

Cookie waited for the person to continue, but it seemed like that was the end of it. He stood, preparing his angry voice.

“That’s it? No shit we’re in China-Ville. How do I get out of here? C’mon, I’ve got somewhere to be.”

The paper lifted again and out popped the cupped hand.

“You’re kidding, right?”

The goggles held the stare. Cookie removed a twenty and made it quite clear that was all he had left. Before handing it over, he activated his shock ring in front of the trash and let it glow blue. He couldn’t tell if the person was intimidated or not, but he hoped they knew it wasn’t an empty threat. He didn’t have time for games, especially in his least favourite place on earth. He handed over the note, and the trash nodded a sort of thank-you, though no words were spoken.

“Well? How do I get out of here?”

The trash replied in his same steady tone. “You will find your way.”

Cookie had had enough. He lunged forwards, rearing his arm, ready for a hit. As he slammed his shock ring into the pile, it leapt alive. Energy exploded from the ring and tore the trash into millions of new pieces, which caught on a breeze caused by the sudden energy pulse and scattered all along the alley. Cookie watched the pieces drift as gravity barely bothered to pull them back towards the ground. All kinds of things floated there — discarded paper items, bits of cardboard boxes, torn metal from cans, shattered lids of bottles — but nothing that made up a human.

Cookie looked down, directly at where the pile had been sat. He wiped the ground clear with a foot, revealing a solid metal drain cover sealed tightly from below.

With a beep, the screen of his watch blinked back to life.

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Jonathon Best is a science-fiction / fantasy poet and writer, from the burning wastes of Western Australia. Find his books at jbestbooks.com

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Jonathon best

Jonathon best

Jonathon Best is a science-fiction / fantasy poet and writer, from the burning wastes of Western Australia. Find his books at jbestbooks.com

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