Ned watched as Agent Choinski awkwardly followed his own calm lead, taking a gulp of air before pulling the hood of her hazmat closed. He nodded to her, “you’re safe now,” he said roughly over the mic. He’d already felt the pinch in his own throat of cartilage fracturing in the gas. He tried to take a long, deep breath of recyced air and then looked around through his goggles. The air so grainy, dusted… the way an old film shows a nerve attack. He crossed to her, checking the hood which fit loosely around her bouffant hair, but it was secure. It’d be worth the discomfort.
Ned was proud of his innovation; thinking of the competition in the security rackets, the consultancies and their fire. Burning evidence and infrastructure alike. No, this was better. An aerosolised, termite-derived, cellulite dissolving enzyme. With the right precautions, it was safer than fire.
Theoretically. Though the Agent had asked him of the tests she’d seen, made on clean slabs of vat-grown flesh… Yes, it should only have attacked the contravening bond. He hadn’t wanted to admit that. So she had evacuated the whole site herself. ‘Just in case,’ and he had felt professionally stung—though personally appreciative of her sense of duty.
Covered, the two of them walked back into the kink club, where Ned had to grimace in soft, ironic humour: the cloakroom had peg after peg of gasmasks of their own. Well, he shrugged, if that’s what the punters wanted. Closing the curtain behind him, he left only a small, puckered gap around the nozzle of the gas mister and followed her inside the main room. Ned immediately saw the ludicrous print-jobs, literally ticker-taped around the two podiums, and shook his head—why would anyone be so gauche? Though he actually had a pretty good idea of why.
Choinski walked over to the stage, where she bowed and picked at some of the threads of now sticky bond.
As if in sympathy for their Authors. How novel. In contrast, at the time he’d developed the gas, corporations and Houses had all been overly concerned with analogue security—hence his ridiculous business name: Paperless Securities. The corps always wanted to know ‘why would anyone print?’ But Ned knew why—that’s how he came to be out in enterprise after academia; they thought it was foolishness or blackmail? Ned knew: print was philosophical. Owned. Egotism made crystal.
No room for sympathy then.
While the corps had loved him: he’d only used them to prove his own theories. Reader profiling. And they had so much to thank him for. That’s how they had found this target, after all.
He watched, as, in her hand, the contra-bond bled its fat from the cellulite fibre. Dribbling ichor to the floor.
His radio crackled: “Needing us? Guys are getting anxious out here.” His men were waiting outside the tent on stand by. Normally, this kind of job would only be his and his men, an Agent of her rank would never normally work directly with them, but this was a special case.
“I don’t think so, mate, you can douse ‘em now.” No one liked carrying the torches, holding on, prepared to burn the building. “Looks like it should be wrapped up in here. Get going on to staging area two.” There were new leads to take from there.
The two of them: Agent and consultant, looked across at the dance party photo prints, weeping in their frames around the stage. Then directly at the typewriters, their modified mechanisms still hot from printing. The House had only brought her in on this one at the end of the mission. To finish it off. Damn right, too, he thought. The club had been hosting illegal Auteur bouts, patrons betting on two pitted Hemingways; who, as they wrote, struggled versus one another, the words they wrote, catching, clipping and chewing the tape of the other man’s prints. Disgusting to use the poor wretches like that. Only one of them would come away with a text, the other likely shipped off, with his promised visa eaten up like the ruins of his shredded tape.
And he knew it wasn’t only that. Auteurs and diagnosed writers alike were being spirited illegally into the country every day. Into places like this, encouraged further into print… so they’ll never get free of it. Maybe, with the right help, the wretches could have had a real life. Ned looked at the crude fonting on the tape. It was a little gray as to whether it was publishable text at all. But that was why the Agent had been brought in along side his consultancy, to track those Authors down. To try and ‘bring them in to the fold.’ Huh. Listening to her, you’d have thought she believed it was her ethical duty. But Ned knew, if the Houses couldn’t have the Authors, no one would…
By Paul McLaughlan
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Decorative initial letter “N” from 16th Century. Source: Delamotte, F.: “Ornamental Alphabets, Ancient and Mediæval” (1879)