Sun Ra - Column for 4/14

Downbelow in Fangville (fiction)

Opium is my constant companion.

Not the real thing, of course. No, I can only afford synthetic garbage, cooked up in some second-level lab and sold to us Downbelowers for whatever we can pay. About the only real vegetable products you see down here is the free food the government sends down, which they do to keep us from coming upstairs. Old corn, soybeans, rice - all that stuff they pay themselves to keep producing. Forty acres and a subsidy.

Not that I mind the free food. It's one more thing I don't have to pay for.

The opium, of course, costs. So does the hole I live in, four walls rented to me by Meekers, who owns all the shacks in this part of Downbelow. He's a real rat fucker. One eye and chronic halitosis. Sometimes I pretend I pay him the rent just so he'll go away. Of course, then I see him evicting some other poor fuck, as often as not using that shock baton he got from some second level cop.

One time he was using it on me - I was late on rent, but he believed my lies about having money coming in, so he just gave me a taste - and I saw a sticker on it warning about permanent nervous system damage. Saying not to use it on someone more than once within twenty minutes.

Not that Meekers can read.

When Meekers evicted No-thumbs, he went through one battery core, slid in another, and kept on shocking him. It didn't surprise anyone. His biggest expense is probably batteries for his zap stick.

Mine, of course, despite what I tell Meekers, is the opium.

I need the opium because of the blood poisoning. The only antibiotics I can get down here are way past their expiration dates, and although Kovacs is willing to help me - he was a doctor before he got killed - to help me test them, find the ones that won't kill me and may even fight the infection, he won't help me with painkillers. Hence the opium.

I don't think I'm an addict, though I'm rarely off the stuff long enough to know.

Yeah, that sounds more than a little delusional. But it's the blood poisoning, see. It makes me feel so bad, it's hard to work. And I have to work, so I need the opium.

And I need the blood poisoning.

I give it to myself with my blades. I don't know where any syringe I might find has been. So I use a knife. I have a bunch of them. They're a business expense. Heh.

I used to be an accountant, you know?

Lately I've been using this milled aluminum six-inch. Not much good in a fight, but I've got other knives for that. This one's just sharp, and has good blade control. I smear it with some infectious shit I keep in a jar, dig a nice groove in my arm, and viola! Blood poisoning. Not too much, or I have to go crawling to Kovacs. But I've had a lot of practice by now.

My forearms look like tire treads from the scarring. I guess it means I'm good at what I do. Been around a while.

I guess.

Anyhow, like I say, I need the opium. And it was Thursday, and I'd just run out. Rolled over in my bag and opened the metal box I keep it in, and it was gone.

Funny thing is, every time that happens - and it happens a lot - my first thought is always that it's been stolen. It's stupid, really. No one would try to steal it. First off, it ain't worth shit. Second, I sleep with a ten inch steel blade and a seven inch punching knife, wake up at the drop of a pin, and my shack is so small you can't open the door without hitting me. And third, I live in a fucking shack in Downbelow. Who the fuck would come here to steal anything?

But that's always my first reaction. Someone stole my drugs. Of course, then I remember using the last of it to go to sleep. And I remember having told myself for days to go out and get a job before it runs out, which I never seem to do.

But now I was out, so I got up. It's a vicious cycle, of course - now I had to get the opium from Jackson on spec, pay him back later, and that kind of interest is always a bitch. It would have been better to go without it - but I needed it to work. And I needed to work so that I could pay for it.

So I rolled over to Jackson's shop. It's the only relatively permanent structure in this part of Downbelow. I can never remember the name of the building I live under. It's kind of irrelevant. We leave the support columns alone, they leave on the big overhead lights, and we both pretend that the other folks don't exist. Now and then, like angels on an unscrutable mission, teams of them come down to repair something or examine something or, shit, just as tourists, I guess. Paying to see the trogs. Then they go back into their heaven, and we get back to eating rats.

Anyhow, Jackson ran the shop for this chunk of Downbelow. The only building in this basement with an electrical feed. All cinderblock, unlike the sheet metal of the shack farm Meekers owns. One door, metal, which I went through.

"Weatherman!" he says, leaning on the counter. It's just me and him. I guess I woke up early. "What can I get you?"

"You got any O?" I ask.

"The usual? Yeah, I think so," he says. "How much you want?"

"How much you got?"

"Actually, I got a couple hundred grams. My boy came back from the last meds auction with a bunch. I knew you liked it." He slid a hand along the battered countertop. "How much can you afford?"

"Whatever you can give me on loan," I replied.

He slid his hand back along the counter. "Shit," he said slowly. "Weatherman, you have to stop doing this. Cash up front, you get twice as much. You know it's going to cost you. "

I didn't bother to tell him that it didn't have to. It did have to. Jackson had expenses. Water, electricity, product. He was sending his kids to a school up on second level. All that cost money.

The rest went for protection, of course.

Aside from King Rat's thugs, who wouldn't hesitate to descend with lead pipes and home-made guns if he was a day late on his payoff, Jackson had to pay the building security goons not to tear his whole store down when they came downstairs on one of those sweeps. Meekers could just rebuild, but Jackson had invested. He had to pay off the goons.

And he had to pay Ludwig.

Even Meekers paid Ludwig.

"Yeah, I know. You know I'm good for it, though."

"Yeah, you are. Until you're not." He sighed again. "I'll give you twenty."

Less than I wanted, but it should get me through a job. "That's great, Jackson. Thanks."

He just shook his head, and went in back to get the stuff. I was alone in the front.

I'd seen a kid once, junior grade thug, hop the counter to see what he could steal while Jackson was in the back. Threatened me with a glass knife, which had a threat level of exactly nothing in his hands, but I was curious to see what Jackson'd do. I'd tell him, of course, before the kid could go anywhere.

He didn't find anything, of course. Jackson doesn't keep anything of any value behind the counter. And rather than mug the potentially dangerous shopkeeper, the kid vaulted back over the counter.

Jackson came down the stairs with a shotgun, raised it, and blew the kid's head off. Without preamble. The thug, junior class, now deceased, barely had time for his eyes to get wide.

I offered to help clean up, and since then Jackson had cut me some slack on my payments.

So I left the store with a couple of grams in me, and a couple more in my pocket. Life was better. Before the first high mellowed out, I stopped by my shack and cut myself. Always good to get that out of the way early. The jar of bacterial goop I kept by the door was running low, but there was plenty there to get a good infection from it. I'd have to add more food to the culture when I got back.

Thinking of food had me considering a jaunt up to the trough. Like most folks down here, ninety percent of my calories came from the institutionalized handouts at the Urban Hunger Amelioration and Rehabilitation Center. We just called it the trough. My pants were loose again, so I probably should have gotten some food.

But the opium always dulled that need. I decided to go get a job, first.

So I went down to Ludwig's.

Ludwig's is on the water. Of course, San Francisco long ago ate the bay, but once real people started moving further up, the water managed to creep back into Downbelow. Large chunks of basement are underwater these days. It isn't exactly valuable real estate, even in Downbelow. Nothing beyond algae and insects lives in it. And it's often polluted by spills, accidental or surreptitious, from Above.

But Ludwig didn't have his club built on stilts for atmosphere.

He wanted a moat.

Of course, it also meant that he was a little ways away from fangville. This was nice, since it meant that I didn't have to walk through it to talk to him. It meant I could leave my bigger knives at home. I found my way to the start of the pier and headed towards the lights. It was a dark walk.

Without potentially grumpy squatters, the buildings whose basements were flooded didn't bother turning on the lights. Suited Ludwig just fine - his club was lit up like a Christmas tree, all paid for by the gambling and prostitution - and dirtier things - that went on inside.

I never saw those parts. Didn't dress nice enough. Didn't have the money.

Ludwig did. Aside from the club, he ran a string of businesses here and in Fangville that specialized in activities illegal up Above. In addition, he got protection money paid by the local living folks, to stay that way. I didn't resent his success. He paid well.

Of the two guards at the service entrance, one was new.

"Damn," the new one said as I approached, "you smell like bad meat. Get lost before I pull your head off and stuff it into you upside-down."

"Chill," Clark said to him. He looked at me with red eyes. "Hello, Weatherman."

"Hello, Clark," I replied. "I'm here for a job."

"What the hell could you do for us?" the new guy asked.

"Hold on," Clark told me. He picked up a walkie-talkie and spoke into it. I waited.

Noise came back from the walkie-talkie. I could tell by the surprise on new guy's face that it was good news.

"Okay," Clark said. "He wants you. Go on in."

Clark opened the gate, and I walked through. There was an elevator cage, and I hit the button. Behind me, I could hear the guards talking.

"Why did he smell so bad?"

"Blood poisoning. If you bit him, you'd get really sick."

"Bite him? With that smell? I'd rather eat a tire."

"That's why he does it."

"You mean he does it to himself? On purpose?"

"Yeah. That's why the boss hires him, kid. He's crafty."

"Fucked in the head is more like it."

Then the elevator arrived, and I got in.

I'd say that Clark was a good guy, but he wasn't. There was something about being turned into a vampire that basically erased your moral code. There were a few exceptions, like Kovacs, who had turned into vampires the tough way - got murdered by one and then rose again, much to their surprise - but most vampires got that way by drinking some other vampire's blood. I just figured they wanted to be evil, and dying and coming back as the undead was a small price to pay for losing all of their inhibitions. Well, inhibitions about hurting people, at any rate. Vampires were bad folks.

No way I was going to become a vampire. No freaking way. I'd kill myself again before the sun had a chance to set.

But they paid the best of anything in Downbelow. By far.

Hence my trip to Ludwig's. Hence the blood poisoning. Hence the opium.

The door opened, and I walked into darkness.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra