It was amateur night in Rosie's Bar and big Links Hammer had cut out his heart for the audience. They were laughing fit to bust a blood-vessel or two of their own as he fell to his knees, pitched forwards off the stage and landed in the lap of a startled punter. It was a classy gathering. All the stars of the late night crowd were there, the ones who could afford the really expensive rebuild needed if they were caught by the sun, the ones with their own private meat wagons ghosting behind them as they prowled the edge of dawn. They loved his act. Or at least they loved the ending.
One of the bar robots put a shunt into his chest and dragged him through the back door to where the rubbish waited for collection, Links was just coming to consciousness as its metal arms loaded him onto the ambulance. Nice of the club, he thought, there was no need to do that. He lay waiting while the collectors gathered together more stiffs, trying to control his damaged body, ignoring the shrieking signals from his chest. The robots were taking their time, stacking their dead and comatose customers one by one, chattering to each other in the high-pitched squeaks they used among themselves. The wagon was almost full when Sonja drifted up to the door at the rear, an inevitable cigarette hanging from her full, red-painted lips. Her face wavered when he looked up at her inverted features. His eyes were failing.
"Your sign-off was great, Linksy. If you cut out the political crap about the Federation, stay with the knock-about, you can have yourself a job. I need a new comic. Deal?"
"Deal" he croaked as she slammed the door. He couldn't say more. He had been dead too long and a whole mass of his neural circuits had failed. One of his hands twitched spastically as the vehicle jolted over the potholed roads, unloading bodies here and there. He had gone fully blind by now but he knew where he was, tracking the rhythm of the wheels. Next stop Megahotel. His brain was still working at full pitch. All the way to his cubicle he thought about the world, how it stank, how he hated the Corporation, hated what it had done to them all, hated being marooned in this hell. But no-one cared. Even Sonja D. didn't care. Only Links cared, cursing in his tight metal coffin as it bumped through the streets of Night City.
Lucifer was no place for Man. Sirius B sat too large in the sky. Scorching him by day, savaging him with hydroxyl radicals at night, it tried in a thousand ways to tear him apart. Even breathing hurt. Every day his body had to be rebuilt cell by cell, the machines repairing the damage of the previous night, readying him for another eight hours of torture. Sometimes Links remembered what he had been told of Earth with its twelve hours of night and he shuddered, unable to bear the thought of consciousness longer than Lucifer's brief night .
In the old days, when the metal and armaments lowed off-planet and the Corporation grew fat selling the machinery of war to the Empire and the Federation by turns, the inhabitants could see some point to the suffering. Now the only things they had was unlimited power from the trans-planetary coils and unlimited time. And pain. They had a lot of pain. Maybe they would live forever as a reward for suffering, renewed eternally by the resurrection machines, but it was a prospect that filled them with no pleasure. They were never rebuilt from the ground up. One day it might happen, if the techniques of DNA synthesis improved, or at least got cheaper. Then, instead of grubbing for cells in their corpses, the machines could build them new bodies from raw chemicals, ingredients which would hold no imprint of death after death after death. One day, but not yet. Somehow, as he gagged over another lethal lungful of air, Links reckoned even the chance of eternity wasn't enough. The business as a comic had started out as a bet, but the more Links thought about it the more he realised it made ideal cover. Most jobs in his real trade were simple trace and returns, looking for wives on the lam, kids trying to go to the bad in a city that was all bad. Rosie's Bar was central, the most popular venue in town. As resident comic he would have the perfect excuse for hanging around. Besides, he found that he had real talent. The meat wagon pulled up outside his bolthole and negotiated for a few seconds with the hotel mind, checking he had a reservation. Then it unloaded him. The handling robot was not particularly gentle: it knew he would soon be dead. The Megahotel cubicle was only just big enough for his frame and it felt cold as he was shoved into place. His clothes were ripped to ribbons by whirling blades, sucked away to be remade and to wait for night. Links lay naked, shaking with terror. The door closed behind him. At once the machine began to break him down. It happened quickly.
First the brain. His thoughts echoed oddly as the hotel resonated his nerves, checking for updates, rewriting the data holes labelled Links Hammer. Links had missed being updated only once. His brain had been mashed to jelly in an accident and the rebuilders had been unable to ream out his memories. They had ended up using the old records, skipping one whole day.
He still resented the loss of that data. It was almost as if it had been stolen from him, secreted somewhere by the dispassionate machinery of Lucifer. Each morning in his cubicle, in this brief instant while he waited to die, he thought the same thing: something had been stolen from him. It was a wasted thought. He would never remember this moment, although it was repeated day after day. His memories had already been taken to the Company store and no new thoughts or sensations could survive what happened next. So it didn't matter to the machines if they hurt him. The blades moved closer, opening pathways. A millionfold tiny fingers reached into his body, plucking at his cells, shredding his meat and bone and nervous tissue down to sludge. When the metal hands ripped out the shunt that was keeping him alive he screamed and fell into an infinite white-out of agony. Finally there was peace.
Cell by cell he was grown again, struggling up the ladder of evolution as the City cowered under the lash of daylight, layered by the rays of its blue-white sun. Bone cells replicated, heart muscle regenerated, nerves fissioned and grew. The machine spun and wove another perfect remade Links from the pool of slurry that he had become, dumped the censored memories of his life into his rebuilt brain and held him comatose until nightfall.
His body didn't seem to fit very well. He could feel a needle diffusing through his skull and tendrils of steel scraped against the bone of his eye sockets. When he tried to move, a white-hot bolt crackled down his back, knifed into his head. Pain, nothing but pure and total pain. He thought, as he thought each evening,'l wish that I was dead and buried, dead and buried, dead and buried', whispering the mantra as a shield against his suffering. It was too much to bear.
A needle jabbed into his arm. The electricity faded, dying long and slow along his nerves, drifting gentle and soft out of his fingertips, oozing from between his distorted lips. He was himself again. Alive. Alive! Porcelain was freezing beneath him. He even remembered his name. Links Hammer yawned and switched off the alarm. It switched itself back on.
"You have five minutes to leave this cubicle. Insert your hand into the slot to the right of your slab if you wish to reserve occupancy for another day. Ten credits will be deducted from your basic allowance. If not, Megahotel repair facilities thank you for using us. Next time your body needs rebuilding or a friend needs dragging from the dead, remember Megahotel. You have four minutes fifty seconds...."
He lay still for another minute, calculating the odds. If he found the Shaunessy girl tonight he'd get her back to the judge and rate an advance, perhaps a bonus. Then, after his act, he could get into a decent boneyard, maybe even afford to book into the Atun Resurrection Parlour itself. He would wake up on marble for a change. Daren't risk being caught without a bolthole though.
He tried to work it out logically. She'd been gone four days. If she was dead it was going to be a full rebuild, some parts of her body needing growing from just a few cells. It could take weeks, even with the machinery that the judge could afford. If she was alive her brain would need rewriting, deleting the memories of her defiance. The longer his search went on the less he'd earn in bonus. If it went beyond a week the judge might go to another agency. His methods were known to be rough - Links wouldn't realise he'd been fired until a disrupter came out of the dark behind the spotlights.
But how could he hurry?
There was only one lead. She'd last been seen in Rosie's Bar and he had a good description of the guy who had left with her. One lead meant only one game plan, hang out and see if she walked in through the door. The guy with her might just turn up again - she'd be back herself if all she was doing was hiding from her old man. Maybe. ]inks had no choice. His chances were slim and he had rent to pay. He'd stick with Megahotel. Their neurone regrowth might be laky but they were the best he could afford, at least until the Shaunessy job paid off )inks shrugged. He'd better get on. He put his hand in the slot and watched as the machinery explored it, re-affirmed the identity it had just put into his body, and siphoned the cash from his allowance. The alarm cut out.
It was an effort to crawl from the cubicle into the world, rebuilt muscles and bone creaking protest as he dressed in his issue overalls. Outside, Links swung his arms, tried to limber up. Lucifer's weather was putting on its usual nightly show. The ferocious sun had set, leaving behind a raw, electric feel to the air, lethal ions filling the night with a thrill that never paled. Water vapour had been sucked into the atmosphere by the searing heat of the white dwarf which ruled the day. Now it felt the touch of darkness. It condensed and fell on the city in scorching torrents. Rain pounded from a dead sky onto the decaying buildings, gathered in dark pools around his feet, chuckled in the collapsing storm drains. A burning wind rattled the shutters. It bit at his skin. Thunder ran in a long chain across the blackness, the clouds too thick for lightning to show. link's gun nestled cold under his armpit. Every building was coming alive. Out from the day shelters where they had lain and regrown, the inhabitants of Night City stalked their realm, sniffed the wet air, smiled with perfect remade lips. Behind perfect remade faces their brains groaned with unremembered suffering.
Tormented organs signalled their visceral memories to unresponsive hearts. The eyes of the undead searched the streets. They were looking for excitement. Looking for something - anything - to drown the cell-memory of coffined days, to batter down their unconscious bone-recollection of being dead and dead and dead again, seeking some sensation which might encyst the echoes of mortality nagging just below their minds.
The underage kids were dropping acid in Rosie's Bar when Links elbowed through the crowd towards the door marked private. A young girl, her face already disfigured by one of the corrosives, turned to watch him as he passed. She was high and lying. Her arms were swollen where the needles had been going in.
"Hey, big boy, want to push me around some?"
Her companion put his hands on her, his voice whining.
"Sweetpea, honey, look at me. Don't I give ya whatcha want? Here, try this. Acid, you like acid." She squealed as smoking liquid hissed on her smooth white thigh and ate into the lash.
"Wow, I felt that!"
Sonja D. was leaning against the doorway of the performers' room, watching idly as the girls changed. "Hi there, big one. Better jokes tonight?"
"Funny's not what alternative comedy's about. You knew that when you hired me. It's meant to make you think, Sonja, not make you laugh."
"Making me laugh is what your money's about, you big lunk. Understand? No joke, no pay. Like this." She flicked a butt at one of the dancers. It sparked on its namesake and the girl squeaked. Links looked down on Sonja. He was not pleased.
"OK. I'll put in lots of routine stuff"
The needle in his skull shifted and lightning lashed across his vision. The sleazy room, stained mirrors, half naked girls, reeled and darkened. He shook his head and the pain went. Sonja had grabbed him and she held him up a little longer than was needed.
"Megahotel rebuild. I'll cope. Who'm I on with? If I'm gonna do slapstick I'll need a straight man."
"Suki Ka. You know her? Little girl with big..." Sonja gestured. "She's the act before yours, with lake. Use lake as well if you like. Looky here, Links, if you're really skint I'll sub you an advance..."
"No favours, Sonja. Pay me what I'm worth. Thanks anyway."
More straight She wanted it more straight, Links felt himself gripped by the idea. His gun was heavy, warm and smooth and heavy against his skin. His trigger finger twitched. "OK. Tell Suke and lake we'll go right in from their fadeout. You want funny, I'll give you funny. No alternative, just slapstick, OK?"
"That's what'll pay your rent."
When he'd dressed in his full stage kit, leather, tattoos, spiked hair, he sat in front of the screen which monitored the audience. They were scattered around the smoky room, stacked three deep by the needles, lounging singly or in pairs at the tables. The tail end of the evening crowd was there and the first of the midnight people were drifting in, hungry eyed, bodies as yet unmarked. The girl who had tried to pick him up was still just about on her feet. Her companion was slumped beside her, throat burnt out. She moved her tongue pinkly across her teeth, briefly filling the gap where her cheek had been.
Links zoomed in on her eyes. They were glazed with pain and pleasure, pupils dilated as she stared vacantly at the couple writhing on stage. She was stroking her long blonde hair while she dialled at random from the menu. The bar stuck another needle in her arm. He didn't need to check the picture the judge had given him.
"Gotcha, sweetheart" said Links softly. "You just stay right where you are and Daddy'll be along to pick up the pieces."
He waited in the wings until he reckoned they were nearly finished, the last twenty bars of the throbbing monotonous music still to go. lake was pounding flat out with Suki thrashing desperately beneath him.
Hold it, hold it...
Links strode out onto the stage, feeling the sweat on his palms, the dryness in his throat. Stagefright.
The gun was in his hand. It bucked as the forty-five calibre slugs cascaded into a thousand lechettes. They tore into the two figures. lake's head jerked up and his spine cracked open. Links saw terror and ecstasy on his contorted face. Every muscle in his body convulsed and he was gone. A total experience.
The audience cheered, began to laugh. The music ended. The only way to go, blown away on the glory stroke thought Links. Suki's scream of fear seemed almost real, cutting off abruptly as he took aim. What an actress. If she only knew. He squeezed out a couple of shots that smashed her body into red ruin. Even the adults in the crowd were laughing now. From behind he heard Sonja's low tones.
"Attaboy Linksy. They love you. Now give 'em hell."
He turned towards the audience, soaking up the cheers. He bowed ironically.
"It has come to my attention that some of you guys don't like alternative comedy. You like it straight. Slapstick. OK, so when Sonja tells me, I like to oblige. They want it straight, she says, so I say I'll give 'em straight. Sort of. Hence the start of my act." He leered, catching the quick rustle of attention. He had them now, hanging on every word.
"I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that when the curtain falls the meat wagons'll come in. Take and Suke'll get a good day's rest on a slab, full rebuild courtesy of the Club and tomorrow night they'll be back on stage, rebuilt, better than ever. The world-famous lake Shlong will be in action again, that's what you think." There was an ironic cheer from the dark. Links edged round so his randomly waving gun covered the bar. He could see the girl even against the spots.
"Let me tell you why I'm an alternative comedian, why I don't normally do this slapstick stuff I want to be an act with class, an act that gets under your skin. Like a blast of the high UV you'd pick up on a midday street. But it's difficult to do. Everyone's so bored. If you want a big laugh on Dub all you do is stroll down the sidewalk. The sun'll rip you to bits so fast the meat wagons will have to catch you as you fall. After a joke like that where's the fun in a night club act?" He paced restlessly, the auto-spots following his tall bony figure.
"You'd feel nothing if I blew you away, you're junked to the eyes. OK, so there's pain, yours and other peoples'. That can be amusing. But we're all too used to pain. The sun sees to that, picks our bodies apart night by night, day by day. Besides, pain's not feeling, it's just pain. Fear though, that's different. We've forgotten about fear. Not..." He paused, dragging it out. One or two of them looked like they were catching on. "Not...real fear. Until now. Until me."
He pointed casually with his gun at the two bodies behind him. Already they were breaking down, liquified flesh dripping from reefs and racks of crumbling bone. From the audience came a gasp, a frisson of horror made audible, Links waved up the house lights, cut the spots. He was in shadow. The atmosphere changed abruptly. Suddenly he was something to be feared, unknown, dangerous. The audience was in the light, exposed, vulnerable. They huddled down in their seats, trying unconsciously to make themselves into smaller targets. It was very quiet. Links grinned to himself.
"On Earth, people used to be afraid of the dark. Not here, not on Lucifer. We love the darkness here. Daylight kills. The night's our friend. I'm gonna change that. Here. Now. Tonight. I'm gonna make you beg for a bit more light. You'll beg to see me, see what I'm doing." There was a sob, cut off, from a girl at the back, Links raised his gun. She caught the motion in the shadow and she moaned. In fear.
"It's examination time. Let's find out why lake and Suke ain't going nowhere but the city tip in a bucket. You, the little guy with the blood on his collar. I've fixed it so they're not coming back. How'd I do that, little feller?"
"Disrupter. Disrupter bullets." The man's voice was very faint.
"Louder, so everyone can hear
"Disrupter bullets!" His voice rang loud in the hush.
No-one moved. They were frozen, fascinated. For the first time in their interminable lives they were feeling something.
"Yo there. A genius. Disrupter bullets. Little crawling beasties that split their cells down to slime. So they're not dead. They're dead dead. All their cells poisoned in one cataclysmic come. No cell, no rebuild. Nothing for the resurrection machines to work on. No brain to dump the hole into. Dead forever. Goodbye lake. Goodbye Suke." The girl at the bar tittered a little, nervously Links smiled at her though she could not see, a nasty smile.
"It's the real crowd here tonight. I watched as you came in. You're the dudes. The sophisticates, the cool. You don't like alternative. You don't like nothin'. You're bored with everything, junk, jokes, love, pain. You're not satisfied if a comic dies on stage while you watch. You want a bit of real mayhem. You want funny. I show you.... funny." He hefted the gun and its black perfection glittered as it emerged from the darkness. There was a hiss of indrawn breath. "Now for some audience participation."
The barrel centred lazily on the girl at the bar who stared at the great black hole, her eyes widening. "No, no...." She was shaking her head, still trying to mouth the words when the soft metal slug ploughed into her. It broke into pieces and spread her guts across the mirrors. She fell like a tree. All hell let loose.
In ten seconds the bar was empty, the only sounds the buzz of the electro booths and the drip drip of dead flesh. Links stepped out of the dark, a lopsided grin on his face.
"My name's Links Hammer" he said softly to the empty room, bowing a little left and right.
"Thank you and goodnight." He strolled across to the bloody heap that had once been a human being, gun hanging idly at his side. Spilled acid smoked gently on the floor Outside he could hear the customers howling as they ran.
"OK, Linksy, so you're real funny. Where's my custom? I need them in here shooting up, not hiding in the alley." Sonja came out from behind the bar with fire in her eyes.
"They'll be back. You watch, Sonia, you'll be the hottest place in town. Come to Rosie's for the real thing. The only bar in Night City that sells real fear.
"Maybe. If you're right you can stay. If not, you're fired." Sonja looked at the mess on her mirrors. "Why'd you pick on the girl?"
"That's Shaunessy's kid. He hired me to bring her back, dead or alive.
"Dead, not dead dead. He'll have your licence for this."
"Nar." Links shook his head. "I only had five disruptors, used them all on stage. She's just got a little lead poisoning. Be good as new in the evening.
"What about Suke and Lake?"
He shrugged. "Disrupters. I had to make a point. That's show bit." While Sonja rang for garbage, )inks turned the girl over with his foot. Pretty eyes, he thought. The first new customer was already arguing with the robot at the door. Sonja had jacked up the admission charge again: she might complain but she knew that he was going to make her a mint. A small queue was forming behind the gesticulating figure.
For the rest of the night the punters sat staring with frightened eyes as Links paced around the bar. It was very crowded. No-one spoke. The needles did a roaring trade. Curfew bells were ringing when the last customer was turned out and even then the robots had to use a lot of muscle. Sonja came and sat down next to Links who was quickly leafing through the menu, trying to decide what to shoot up with. Rosie's Bar was generous to its performers and he needed something to help him face the Megahotel machines.
"I've got a spare slab out back, Links. You can bunk down there if you like. Full custom rebuild, no charge." She looked tired but friendly.
"OK. It's been a long night."
Shutters slammed down as the building detected the approach of day. The two sat still and silent for a while, trying to put off the moment when the doors of their resurrection cubicles opened to take them in. The air grew sharper and more painful to breathe.
Outside a hostile sun was rising, harsh in a grey dawn.