Skyglass: Chapter 4
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Quiet and Quicksilver
One more night before the show. I knew I wasn’t ready. I knew I was weak. I was hungry, but I didn’t want to eat–and though work had just ended, I didn’t want to go home.
Marko and I left Myriad at the same time; when he headed deeper into the Abyss, for a couple of hours of glow-in-the-dark swordplay, I went in the opposite direction. My boss often went out and immersed himself in the game of bright-battle after work, while I always headed straight home.
But today was different–I stopped the second I was out of sight.
I let a few minutes pass, then headed for the battle arena a few levels below Myriad. At the end of a wide, high-ceilinged passage just barely illuminated by fractured tubes dripping chemical light, a giant black box sat at the top of a staircase: the watching room. There was another set of steps on the left that led down to the arena. I hung back in the shadows for a moment, but Mark was nowhere in sight. I cut off the music in my headphones and climbed the stairs to the watching room.
Inside, thick port-cables dangled from the ceiling; a couple of the watching room’s occupants were hunched around a drinkup in the corner, but most lounged around the room, hooked up to the ports via their coms. I found a free cable near the room’s farthest wall, scrolled through the list of fighters on my com until I found Epiphyte&Mead, and synced up to Marko’s feed.
I shut my eyes. For a moment, there was only darkness, and then my mind aligned itself with the virtual feed and I could see him, like Marko and his surroundings had been soul-painted onto the insides of my eyelids. He’d just entered the arena, through a side door that opened on an old, rubble-choked cathedral–one of the many abandoned spaces bright-battle had absorbed into its playing field.
I could barely see Marko in the dark, but his height gave him away, as did the digital letters above his head: Epiphyte&Mead/0 Kills. Marko generally wasn’t the best bright-battler around. He had potential, sure, but he didn’t spend much time honing it. I just like to play, was what he’d told me.
It was Marko’s uniform, though, that marked him most obviously. All bright-battle garb looked basically the same: heavy, black fabric molded close to the body from head to toe, but outlined in a single, bright color that threaded from limb to limb and around the throat in a vein of neon. Each fighter wielded a long, thin sword with the same line of brightness down its blade. Mark’s color was a searing electric pink, and extremely hard to miss–which was, quite possibly, the main reason he usually perished after getting in only a kill or two.
Today, he managed a full two, and almost a third, but got stabbed between the shoulder blades before he could finish. I unhooked myself from the port before he even toppled, and then left the watching room so I wouldn’t miss him when he exited.
I slouched on the steps, listening to Robobone, hoping to trick myself into a feigned sort of self-confidence. I was supposed to be home by now. My shift was long done, and I wasn’t the sort of person who hung out after work, or made a habit of stalking my boss through the creepy deep of the Abyss–which was why he looked at me bug-eyed when he came up the steps, sword sheathed and wrapped, the head and torso of his uniform undone and flopping around his bare waist.
After a few uncomfortably long seconds passed, he managed a few words. “Wha–what the hel are you doing here?” He clearly wasn’t upset–just very, very confused.
“Walk,” I muttered, standing. Astonishment still had his eyes shoved halfway out of their sockets, but he followed.
He glanced over at me as we tramped up and away from the arena, the rusty, plant-heavy framework of the stairs rattling beneath us. “I don’t wanna sound like I’m complaining, but seriously–why? I thought you went home. Did you watch me fight? Oh, gods…that would be humiliating.” He grinned, though, like he didn’t really care.
“You shoulda said something, Moss–not that I mind. But this… It isn’t normal. You know? I just…wanna know why, I guess.”
I smirked, because no, it wasn’t normal. But normality had punched out four years ago; it meant nothing to me these days.
“Why?” I asked. “I’d like to know why, too–why everyone’s okay with that woman. Phoenix.” I dredged up her name from the corner of my mind I’d tried to hide it in. I didn’t like how it sounded coming out of my mouth.
“I thought she was…nice. Though I was surprised to find out she was living with you after you said she wasn’t. Why didn’t you–?” He broke off with a weird expression on his face. “Anyway,” he went on. “She hasn’t stolen anything yet, right?”
I snorted. I didn’t have anything to steal. Besides my albums, but she was no purist. “She pissed on my whole apartment,” I reminded him.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess. But you’ve gotta admit, she does have some pretty expensive piss.”
“I don’t care what kind of piss it is. Why is it okay for some random rotsucker to invade my home, dismantle it, and just–just live there…” I trailed off, because there was nothing else to say. The only reason I was still living there, after all, was because of her.
“Well, I won’t lie–I don’t like it. I worry…” He didn’t finish.
He didn’t have to, though–Marko wasn’t good at explaining himself, but I had no trouble filling in the blanks. That was part of why he kept me at Myriad: so I could point people to music they’d like, since he was usually either at a complete loss, or seemed to think it was his duty to make anyone who set foot in his shop listen to his vast collection of doom and Viking metal.
Anyway, I understood what he was trying to say. Or at least, I knew he agreed with me.
“Even Devin likes her,” I said, abruptly outraged.
“What do you mean, ‘even’? Of course Devin likes her. He’s known you how long? He only wants you to be…to be…better?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
We walked the sketchy back tunnels of the Abyss a little longer, until Marko convinced me to come home with him for food. I was so desperate to avoid my home that I agreed.
His one-room apartment was small–little more than a kitchen, a table, a few chairs, and a bed set into a shallow recess in the wall. Instead of soul-paint, he had cloth flags from bands hanging from his wall. The place smelled lived-in–old beer, stale bread, freshly laundered clothes (most of which were piled on his bed and spilling onto the floor), smoke and wax from the giant candles half-melted into the center of his kitchen table.
As soon as we entered, Mark pulled out a chair for me, poured me a glass of water, and walked over to the wall adjacent to his bed with its shelves upon shelves of discs.
“What do you want to listen to?” he asked, turning to face me.
“Something from this century, preferably,” I replied, staring intently at my water glass because he still hadn’t put on a shirt.
“Hm,” he mused. “Bathory it is, then.” He stuck a disc in his exear.
I rolled my eyes at his prehistoric taste in music, but didn’t complain.
Next, he turned to his cupboards and pulled out a sack of potatoes. “How do fries sound?”
“Silent,” I muttered.
He wrinkled his nose at me, then proceeded to fry up a whole platter of homemade fries.
“I’ll give you a lemon if you eat a handful of fries,” he said, piling a plate with the grease-spitting slices of potato. I opened my mouth to say no, then shrugged. Nodded my head. Gave in. I had made a promise to my bandmates. Losing consciousness at the show was the last thing I needed.
Also, I really wanted a lemon.
Two hours later, I finished my second fry. “I have music to keep me company,” I said, returning to my initial argument against Phoenix. “I don’t need a rotting housemate.”
I glared at the pile of fries remaining on my plate. Two down, the rest to go.
It was hard. Lifting a third fry from the plate was actual agony–the heavy force of disgust crowding in on all sides. My brain was telling me no no NO. I nibbled off a piece of salt and put the fry back. Marko shifted in the chair across from me, idly spinning the lemon. “You’re like a popper, only different,” he said abruptly.
“And you’re like a sage, minus the wisdom,” I retorted.
“Okay.” He didn’t argue that. “So. You guys have that show tomorrow. You ready?”
I tried to hide my sigh, but couldn’t manage it. I stared at the table and said nothing.
“It’ll be great,” he assured me. He stopped the lemon mid-spin.
“Two fries and a piece of salt. That all you’re having?” He studied the citrus in his hand.
“You remember what I said to you that first time we met?” he asked, eyes still on the lemon. “In the bathtub?”
I swallowed. “Yeah.”
Please don’t die.
He nudged the lemon across the table. I caught it as it rolled off the edge. I dug my fingers into its rind. “I’m gonna die someday, Marko.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
I lifted and dropped my shoulders. “I’ll try to delay the inevitable as long as possible,” I said, and then got up to find a knife for the lemon.
A day later, twenty minutes before the show, Marko handed me another lemon.
“Here,” he said.
I took it without looking.
We were seated near his van, on the mossy back of a nurse log, waiting for the show to start. Skyglass was playing a popular rooftop drinkup that night–not that I cared.
I’d rather drink goat piss than go up on stage.
“Excited?” Marko asked.
“No,” I said, tightening my hold on the lemon.
I glared at the giant cherry tree blooming over the stage. Dad would have hated it–the tree had meditation pods set like gems into its broad trunk, each housing a shut-eyed elf hard at work keeping it pretty in the winter. The elves were feeding it with brainpower–and feeding the drinkup in turn, through green-spitting leech lines strung through the broad canopy above that reached out to the growing crowd.
I could feel the mob’s countless eyes on me, even with my hood up, even with the protective fog that had wisped in across the roof. I hated the stares, but apathy was easier than putting up a fight.
The bitter sharp smell of rind and citrus cut the air as I dug my fingers into the lemon’s peel. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed the broken fruit against my nose, but didn’t take a bite. I just breathed it in; let the acidic air scour me clean.
I had to play that night–whether I wanted to or not.
Proceed to Chapter 4, page 2–>