16:25 – Wednesday, May 18, 2174 (Muhaze, Tapi-36)
The qi-bird wasn’t moving. It looked dead. Not a single one of its brightly coloured feathers stirred – there were no signs of life.
Without thinking, the little girl knelt down and picked up the lifeless creature in the palm of her hand. She held it close to her chest, under her chin. The poor thing, she thought, then felt a reassuring hand on her shoulder as her mother knelt down beside her, and smiled. The woman gathered her daughter into her arms and said something, softly, in her ear.
Then, together, they closed their eyes.
The young girl began to feel the tingling of an almost electric energy from somewhere deep within her, near the solar plexus area above her stomach. It was oddly painful and she wished it would stop – so intense was the feeling. She stole a look at her mother and saw that she was still smiling, so she, too, held on.
Her whole body began to tremor, like there was a Tapi-quake occurring right underneath her feet, and tears began to form in the corners of her eyes. The pain inside grew and grew as a warm glow materialised around her lower arms and hands, producing a radiant, ochre light that moved steadily to surround the bird. Then, just when she thought she could stand the pain no longer, the energy and the golden light disappeared.
The girl was left breathing heavily as she carefully put the qi-bird back on the ground. She stood back and watched in amazement as it began to flutter its wings, then flittered over, getting itself onto its feet. A few more ruffles of its feathers and it took off.
It was alive!
Thirteen years later…
09:25 – Friday, July 27, 2187 (Muhaze, Tapi-36)
Mikita Smith had a heart, she just didn’t want anyone looking into it without her permission. She simply needed to find her own space where no one could hurt her; somewhere she didn’t have to hide away all that sucky angst; where she could lay out all her things, look up to the horizon, and say: ‘Here is another day. I am ready.’
And just where the fire is that? Mikita wondered, as she stared out across the city from the window of Hanoi’s apartment.
It was midsummer in Muhaze. The skies were usually clear as glass and the mercury high, but, today, Mikita saw dark clouds moving in to block out the sun and felt a brittle chill on the back of her neck. Perhaps it was the sudden change in temperature that had made her shiver, but it was more likely the memory of last night’s argument with Hanoi that had brought the shudder to her spine.
He’d tried to give her his key.
His draining key!
They’d only known each other two minutes and he was already inviting her to move in. She’d refused to take it – then he’d called her a commitment-phobe. Well, maybe she was. So what? Did that make her a bad person?
Hanoi had left for his night shift, leaving her alone in his flat to ‘think things through’, but Mikita didn’t need to do that. She already knew that it wasn’t going to work out between the two of them. And the cold light of day had only served to reaffirm that it was for the best – to get out, before things got more complicated.
That said, Hanoi’s flat was very nice. Way nicer than her student rental, so it hadn’t bothered her to stay in it while he was at work. But, now, she just wanted to leave, before he returned and wanted to ‘talk’ again.
Mikita fixed up the sofa she’d slept on and put her belongings into her bag, then went into the kitchen and found an envelope. On the front, she wrote: ‘Sorry, I can’t do this, M’, then put Hanoi’s key inside and sealed it up. She placed it on the living room table, so he would see it when he came in, then left the flat, closing the door firmly behind her.
You need to be more careful who you get involved with, Mikita, she thought. Don’t you think it would be better to avoid this kind of situation, in future?
She breathed a sigh and headed down the hall for the Weah Mansions lift.
At the other end of the corridor, she saw Gompi, the caretaker-mutant, busy doing his morning rounds. Mikita had spoken to him a few times before, when she’d been at Hanoi’s working on her Mu-U essays. Gompi wasn’t like the regular mutants, he was an anomaly. Mikita thought that it was the way he took things to heart – even if it was a battery powered Cardio-Pump (Model No. SN14).
The TAPCON Specialists had done a good job with Gompi. He had an official, formal look to him, and the standard silvery-blonde hair, that all mutants were given, only added to this efficient, custodial demeanour. He was dressed in a stiffly-ironed white shirt, a black waistcoat and a purple cravat. His shoes were sparkling, having had a fresh polish during his Mu-tea break earlier that morning.
Gompi always had a smile on his face and did his best to keep some sense of order and decorum at Weah Mansions. Unfortunately, Mr. Dontai, the factor, wasn’t interested in spending money on the maintenance of his property. He was only concerned with making as many Muhazian dollars as quickly as he could. As a result, the paint was peeling off the walls, windows were smashed (with the shards put back and held together with tape), broken banisters and railings were mended with bits of wire and old string, and never mind the elevator that was fast becoming a bucket of junk on a rope.
“Good morning, Mikita Smith,” said Gompi, giving her a little bow. His voice had that robotic monotone that all mutants possessed – which made sense really, considering he was half robot and half… well, whatever the Specialists could get their hands on at the time.
“Good morning, Gompi,” replied Mikita, with a smile.
“Mikita Smith have green eyes,” said the mutant, looking pleased with himself.
“Yes, I do, Gompi,” she said, slightly taken aback. “Thank you for noticing… I guess.”
“It is job, Mikita Smith. Gompi check who come and who go, what look like. Mr. Dontai want to know.”
“Ah, yes, I’m sure he does,” said Mikita, wryly.
“He say, ‘Gompi, you tell me names, give descriptions, you ask questions.’ I tell him, ‘It a pleasure, sir.’”
“Well, it seems like you’re doing your job perfectly, Gompi,” said Mikita. “It’s a very old building and needs someone like you to take care of it.”
“Oh, it old, all right. I hear Mr. Dontai say top floor sway about in wind. Up to 50cm side to side! But I never feel that happen, you not worry, Mikita Smith.”
“I won’t, Gompi. And you keep up the good work.”
“Thank you, Mikita Smith. I try do my best,” he said, with mutanty pride. “OK. I go. You have your nice day.”
“Thank you, Gompi. You, too.”
Mikita walked over to the lift and pressed the recall button. After a short pause, she heard the elevator clanking its way up the hoist towards the 12th floor. It was wheezing and spluttering like a fat man contemplating exercise.
One of these days, thought Mikita, some sad sap is going to get mashed in that contraption.
It stopped with a heavy clunk and the doors opened with all the effort of said fat man attempting to get up off the couch. Taking her life in her hands, she got in and pressed the button for the ground floor. She hoped that Hanoi hadn’t come home early and was waiting for the lift down in the lobby.
That would be just my draining luck.
It took a few seconds, but eventually the lift managed to jerk itself into motion. To Mikita’s annoyance, it began to clatter its way up, instead of down.
Oh, come on, you shizzing death box! she cursed, as it went right to the top floor – the 15th – and stopped.
The doors futzed themselves open.
Standing there, much to Mikita’s dismay, were two of the block’s more infamous derelicts: Vannerman – a black-market racketeer and drug dealer (clutching his obligatory bottle of Muhazian beer) and his girlfriend, Taarja – a complete flake and energy vampire. And on a leash, with Vannerman, was something else…
Mikita stepped aside in revulsion as the three beings burst into the elevator.
“Oh! Hi, Mikita!” frothed Vannerman, haphazardly pressing floor recall buttons. “Woooooah, looking fine today, lady. You know, you need to come round to our place sometime for some beverages – and other things!” he babbled, doing a mime of smoking some kind of illegal, Earth-based herb.
The lift doors closed as Taarja slapped him on the arm in semi-mock-jealousy. “Vannerman! You dirty draining rotter!” she squawked, then changed her tiny mind. “Well, actually, that’s not a bad idea,” she said, mooning her black eyes at Mikita and starting to giggle like a demented child. “She is my type, after all! Sulky and moody! Oh, hurt me, Mikita, hurt me with that sultry stare of yours!”
Mikita said nothing. She was too busy looking at their companion stuttering about the lift on its six, short, sucker-strewn legs, making a disgusting squelching sound. It was quite common for Tapians to have pets, and alien ones at that, but this gargoyle was like nothing she’d ever seen before. And, now, it was making a wheezy gurgling noise that made her feel ill, like she’d been gagged and bound, and thrown into a pool of sick.
“Drain me, what the fire is that!” she thought.
At about three feet tall, its head was small and rectangular with no obvious nose, and had a hole for a mouth that looked like a crushed peach. The number ‘317’ was tattooed into its closely shaven head and a small tuft of black hair stuck up at the front like some ageing, Earth-based Goth. A clear plastic tube ran down from the centre of its forehead, past three adjoining, frog-like eyes and into the side of its neck. Lime-coloured liquid was pushing through the tube in spasmodic bursts. It had arms, though far too many for Mikita to count, while its entire body was covered in hideous, wart-like cysts that seemed to be opening and closing, giving off a rank stench that filled the lift with noxious fumes. The elevator was reeking of the thing! Mikita tried not to breathe – if she did, she was sure she would retch.
“You’re quiet today, Miki-Chick,” said Vannerman, “What’s the matter? Hanoi dump you, or something? Ha, ha!”
The alien pet was now staring at her and jigging up and down; Mikita felt a tiny bit of sick come into her mouth.
“He, he,” cackled Taarja. “Look at him! He likes you, Mikita. Don’t you, Leo? You like her, don’t you?”
“Tsssturck-tsssturck! Hurg-hurg!” said the alien, as a long, red thing, that was probably its tongue, poked out of his mouth and a bit of yellow drool dripped off the end of it.
Oh, my shizzing Herra! thought Mikita, as she closed her eyes in disgust and her stomach churned.
Vannerman pounced. “Well, if you’re a singleton now, why don’t you come over tonight and watch the Argon lift-off with us?” he slimed. “We can have a bit of a par-tay? Just us four.”
Mikita shot Vannerman a look as the crippled lift jolted to a stop at the ground floor.
The gruesome threesome spilled out into the lobby.
“OK! See ya, Mikita! Message me!” Vannerman said, pinching Taarja’s behind, and getting a further clout from her in retaliation. He grinned, blearily, took a hefty swig from his bottle, then whooped – “Come on, guys, let’s all go shopping!” – and the three of them went off, laughing and squelching, through the front door of the building, out into Weah Stratis.
By this time, Mikita had almost turned blue.
She got out of the lift and exhaled.