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The Edge of Propinquity

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You Know What Hunts You
A Guest Quarters story
by
Jay Lake


Bastards took the fingers of my right hand. The Nice Man did it, him what sits in judgment back in Triune Town. Dark Towns, the devil take them all.

Not that I'm so hot on the Cities of the Map, either. But at least there a man knows where he stands. Not on his hands, not me, but they left me my feet so's I could walk away and be a warning to whoever might come after.

I walked, I did. Can't hop a freight with no fingers to grab the ladders and swing the chains, but there's still truckers out there who remember the brotherhood of the road. Me, I live in Portland, Oregon now, almost as far from Triune Town hidden under the Alleghenies as a man can get and still be in these United States.

People, they don't know what lives around them. Beneath them.  Beside them. Within them.

I ain't telling. Otherwise the Nice Man will have my tongue out, to go in that little bell jar of absinthe where they put my fingers to float forever in green fae dreams.

#

"Beatty!"

"Sir?" The old bum stirred from his resting place on the surplus locker room bench in the warehouse's storage area.

"Get out here. We got a new load backing in."

The beeping whine of a delivery truck in reverse penetrated Beatty's consciousness. He squinted at the wall clock. Mickey's big hand said he had six more minutes of break time. Boss Man said otherwise.

Mickey didn't make his payroll, and day labor sucked.

With a sigh, Beatty heaved himself off the bench. The padded leather glove covering the knuckle stumps of his right hand took his weight with the same old pain. It looked like a small boxing glove, but felt like a kick in the nuts.

This truck had Tennessee plates, which made him nervous. Too close to Pennsylvania. A five ton delivery van, spattered with red dirt and mud. Not a lot of red dirt in the rich, dark soil of Portland's Willamette Valley. Another strike of nerves, Beatty realized. But it was the logo on the rollup door that really made his nuts shrivel. "Triune Delivery 3 For the Price of One."

He worked for Boss Man for a lot of reasons. This was the worst of them.

The guy with the clipboard there was always a guy with a clipboard wasn't a dwarf, at least. Those scary little fuckers would kill you as soon as look at you. They didn't move around in the world of the Map so much on account of standing out in a crowd of normals.

"Herschel here has got eight pallets for us," Boss Man announced without actually looking at Beatty. "Get 'em off his gate and onto our dock."

"Anything hazardous, liquid or perishable?" the old bum asked.

"Only my good right fist."

Herschel smiled at Beatty in a way that made him nervous for different reasons than Boss Man's habitual low-grade aggression. He was a good looking fellow, dark bronze skin and a face that probably made all the waitresses swoon, but what the Beatty saw was the same smile the dwarves wore back in Triune Town.

"Long way from home," he said, then turned to get the powered lift started. They're not here, he told himself, they're not looking for me, I paid my price and they let me go.

Except the Dark Towns never really let anybody go.

"You start driving, and you go til you're done," Herschel said by way of reply. He was dressed all in crisp white, like the cartoon milkmen who'd been long gone even back when Beatty was a ten-fingered boy. "It's all the same in between. Roads and miles and old sin."

"That what you got on these pallets?" Beatty powered up the lift, which whined and bucked a little bit as the motor torqued. "Old sin?" Sometimes he just couldn't help opening his mouth.

"Seems to me a nice man like you wouldn't know much about that now, would he?"

He could hear Herschel's smile broadening into daggers even with his back turned. And Boss Man, there was one who never cared what crossed his loading dock or went out the front doors, so long as the freight was paid and the storage costs weren't past due.

#

Dark Towns, they ain't on no map. They're just places. Cui-ui. Ooze. Triune Town. Only one ever made it over to the other side, onto the map: New Orleans. A feral Dark Town, they call it on the slanted streets and in the blighted alleys of old Nola's former sister cities.

The Cities of the Map, they're real. They got power and water and sewers and satellite TV. The Dark Towns take from them without being seen. A junction here, a rail switch there, an unmarked truck ramp off an Interstate that don't seem to lead nowhere. Like aphids on a tomato plant, except them pale aphids are as big and fat as the red fruit they steal from.

You got to know, though. Or find your way there by accident. No one ever goes on purpose. Not anyone sane, not anyone who ain't a birthright Dark Towner.

Still, some of us get in one way or another. Everyone there did, at some point. The Dark Towns didn't climb down out of the trees alongside our monkey grandparents, after all. But a lot fewer of us get out. And we all leave something behind.

What we take with us is something different.

#

Eight pallets bulked in the back of dock three. Shrink-wrapped in slick white plastic, Beatty had no idea what they were. He reckoned the loads weighed in about four hundred pounds each, from the way the lift had groaned and torqued.

He didn't want to know. Whatever Triune Town shipped out was no business of his. But Herschel had decided to be friendly now that the load was off his truck. In a way, that was even more frightening that the usual undercurrent of menace.

"We should get some coffee, Beatty. Mind if I call you Beatty?"

"Don't matter much to me." He tried for gruff, but it mostly came out sad. It mattered a hell of a lot, actually. "But I'm on the clock."

"I'll talk to your manager." Herschel winked, and walked off through the receiving area toward the office.

Beatty took the opportunity to quit. He was paid weekly anyway, this was only Tuesday. It was worth losing his forty bucks cash a day to get away from this smiling bastard from Triune Town. He clambered off the loading dock, slipped around the side of Herschel's delivery truck, and headed down Oak Street toward Grand. A man could lose himself quickly there with the crowd around the mission kitchen and the usual drifters.

He walked, if not briskly, at least with purpose. Away, away, away, a voice shrieked in his head. In the old days, he would have just hopped a freight, gotten out of town, out of state, gone away. No more of that.

It was a lot harder to go city to city now.

Still, Beatty kept his stride firm if not swift. He didn't do swift so much anymore.

Which turned out to be an error when Herschel touched his elbow. "Already heading out?" The younger man laughed, razors in his voice. "You might have lost me."

"What do you want?" Beatty snarled in his startled fright. He wasn't working Boss Man's dock any more, he didn't have to be polite.

"I deliver a lot of things," Herschel replied. "Goods. Services. Messages."

"Then deliver your god damned message and leave me the hell alone."

That got a huge smile. "Now you're talking. Coffee, then the message, then you can be as alone as you might favor."

He even sounded like one of those damned Triune Town dwarfs.

Defeated, not even able to fight about it, Beatty followed Herschel into a little hippie dippy coffee joint advertising vegan lattes, whatever the hell those were. Portland was as weird as a Dark Town, in its way.

#

They're not everywhere in the world, but they're in enough places, the Dark Towns. Maybe not Greenland or New Zealand, but a lot of the older countries. Life in the inverse is a kind of magic as old as cities, as old as temples. Everywhere someone raises a wall, there is a shadow. Any time someone builds a door, there are things kept out.

Those are the Dark Towns. The shadows, the things kept out. The deep reflections of the fires and lights and movement of the Cities of the Map gazing back out of the darkness.

They are not true opposites, of course. There is no Kroy Wen standing as an explicit reflection of New York. Triune Town and Cui-ui and all the others are not correspondents to cities of the map. Still, the Dark Towns follow the same logic of water and terrain and resources and people that the Cities of the Map do.

Especially people.

Because after all, what is a city but a shared fiction in the minds of a teeming mass of urbanites all striving to be in the same place at the same time? Like maggots on meat, citizens push together. In this, the Dark Towns are no different.

#

"I know what hunts you," Herschel said over his vegan soy latte in its cheerful fucking paper cup with pictures of bugs printed on the outside.

Beatty slurped at a normalish coffee, clutched in the fingers of his left hand. Brown stuff, American style, though he preferred his black and thick enough to stand a spoon up in. Hippies didn't know how to make real coffee.

"I know what haunts me," he said. "Nothing hunts me but what hunts us all."

Herschel laughed, tipped back his white milkman's cap, and beamed at the old bum. "You are an optimist, sir. Foolish to the bone and twice as proud."

Beatty waved the leather glove on his right hand. "I learned all about bones from the Nice Man." The dwarves had taken his fingers with a pair of bolt cutters. All he'd gotten for the pain was a steel-toed kick in the nuts and a shout to shut the fuck up. That and a pass from a blowtorch to seal the wounds.

The scars still wept sometimes, three years later.

The delivery man winked. "It's called a 'draw'. Old magic."

"Magic my ass."

"You got into Triune Town on your own," Herschel pointed out. "Old Laertes filled me in. The Nice Man doesn't keep case files, but the city remembers. That takes a special kind of magic for someone born on the map."

"I don't know what the hell you're on about," growled Beatty. "Dumb, blind, shit luck ain't magic. It's my life."

"Still," the delivery man persisted, "you came in. And you left part of you behind. That's the draw, those bones of yours, a calling, if you will. A bright line pointer for those who know how to read it."

"Fuck you." He took a long slurp of his American coffee. Then: "Your message is to tell me that my fingers were magic. Fuck you and fuck the Nice Man."

"No, my message is to tell you that the draw has hooked something. I know what hunts you. You might want to know it, too."

"What the hell would that be?" He'd been hunted by a lot of things before and after going down the rat hole that was Triune Town. Cold. Hunger. Grime. Meth heads looking to roll an old drunk for his last quarters.

Herschel flashed that unnatural smile again. "Call it a metrophage. A virus that eats at cities. One of them is killing Detroit right now."

"Something that eats cities is hunting me?" Beatty began to laugh, before breaking into a hacking cough. When he got his breath back, he continued: "You're bug-fuck as the rest of those bastards."

"You're drawing the metrophage in. Back to Triune Town. Just like we hoped."

"Why?"

"We're going city hunting ourselves. We need it for a weapon." Herschel winked, dropped a dollar on the table and walked out.

"So what am I supposed to do about it?" the old bum asked the empty air. He thought about taking the dollar, but the counter guy was making a lot of extra noise, keeping himself noticed. So Beatty waited a couple of minutes and left himself. Not much point in avoiding Herschel. If the man wanted him, he'd find him.

#

The Dark Towns don't have countries, and they rarely cooperate. Each looks to its own needs and territories without much respect for the others. In this lies the greatest safety of the Cities of the Map, because if the strange armies of the Dark Towns ever did march to war in unison, the toll would be terrible indeed.

But like wolves on the prowl, the Dark Towns do acknowledge one another. And when one grows, pushing too hard at the loose boundaries that divide them, another will snap back. So they have their little wars, silent gossamer airships passing through the night skies to rain gaseous death, or squads of deadly youth scrambling over spike-topped walls to silence a vocal leader or restive magus.

Sometimes the little wars grow bigger. Sometimes the weapons grow stranger. Sometimes the ecology of diminishing returns that is the world today extracts a price so high that the violence flares fire-bright and the throes of suffering can be felt even around the world of the Cities of the Map.

But like any good parasite, they always seek to keep their host alive.

#

That night he slept at the Sally again. Beatty didn't drink so much any more, and he didn't mind praying when asked. That was good enough. Beds were scarce these days. Safe beds were even more scarce.

There was an uncommon lot of short men around the dormitory though. He watched carefully from beneath his blanket, trying to see if they were dwarves. Mr. Scalpel and Mr. Gloves and their brothers had been a merciless lot. Even the Nice Man had seemed a bit sickened at what his minions had done to Beatty, in their thigh-high leather boots and slick, spattered rubber aprons.

It was hard to tell. And the Dark Town bastards were slippery customers. Still, he knew he was being watched.

That feeling kept him sleepless through much of the night. Poised somewhere on the edge between dreaming and panic, the old bum relived the worst moments of the past few years. He was pushed wide awake with a sense of pressure on his chest, like someone sitting there.

There wasn't anyone. Not even one of the damned dwarves. But the air felt thick and curdled, and all the fellows around him in their hard, narrow beds were breathing in unison: a great, rattling noise through two dozen chests at once.

"You're here," said Beatty aloud. Herschel had called him a draw. Well, he'd damn well drawn something. What he was supposed to do about it was beyond him.

The air felt thicker. His own breathing was like through a blanket or worse. City virus. Metrophage. What the hell did that even mean? He imagined a sort of giant, steel snowflake settling in to rot among the sewers and alleys. Not something to sit on his chest and take his breath away.

That was the stuff of ghosts and nightmares.

But then, so was Triune Town.

He was sick, sick and tired of the whole business. Beatty raised his stump, the glove being tucked into his shoes beneath the bed. "You want me, take me. Otherwise leave me the hell alone."

With that, he rolled over and pretended to sleep.

#

Every Dark Town has a purpose of its own. Some beast or spell or irruption at its core. In a sense, they are all accretions. Coral reefs built on the structure of human consciousness and the impulse of urbanization.

Find the beast, like the lizard at the bottom of the well that is Ooze or the great, undying fish to which Cui-ui clings, and you can make over or overthrow the city. Find the spell that keeps a Triune Town or the irruption that drives a New Orleans, and you can take it for yourself and re-create in your own image.

But to slay a Dark Town, that requires a sword the size of a city and a hand large enough to wield it.

Or sometimes, a very small and subtle blade indeed.

#

The next morning Beatty bought some 20/20 orange. He hadn't done that in a while, but after the night he'd had, it seemed needful. If he missed a couple more nights' sleep and didn't shower, he'd be right back to the street. There wasn't far to fall.

Whatever hunted him had found him, but it had left him sleeping. The draw drew. Herschel and the dwarves wanted him to lead it back to Triune Town so they could somehow take it on. Beatty hated being bait. He hated being told what to do. He wished he knew enough to take the draw and sic it on those Dark Town bastards, make them swallow their own crap.

He wasn't bait, he was the hook. And the line was those fingers of his swimming in a jar of the green back under the Alleghenies.

What could he do but go back for his fingers?

Beatty was going to do it on his own terms, though.

Fortified by the 20/20, he walked the long, slow distance back to Boss Man's loading dock. He figured on finding Herschel there, on account of he figured Herschel wanted to be found by him.

Once again, there were short men everywhere. Even for Portland, the sidewalks were crowded and strange. A clown on stilts gave him a long, bright-eyed stare. Three women in ruffed collars a yard wide followed him for a few blocks, chattering in some language that sounded like morning birdsong. People came out of storefronts with their arms folded to nod cautiously at him. The sky began to curdle from the usual Pacific Northwest gray to something oily and rainbow-dull.

At the Boss Man's place, Beatty hitched himself up onto the dock. No truck with Tennessee plates. That was okay. He went back to the eight pallets he'd unloaded the day before. A minute with a box cutter slit the shrink wrapping off a big no-no here, but he'd quit the day before, hadn't he?

Each pallet was loaded with large, sealed jars stacked in Styrofoam holders like giant eggs. Each jar was filled with bright green fluid in which a handful of fingers bobbed like aquarium fish. Dozens and dozens of jars. Hundreds of fingers, their bases ragged and torn, looking like so many abbreviated dead eels.

Beatty stared at his gloved right hand. He could feel the missing fingers sometimes, even flex them, or so it seemed. Today, though, he just felt stumpy. He walked back to the loading dock. All the strange folk he'd seen on his way over here filled Oak Street with a strangely quiet mob. They raised their right hands, a hundred rounded leather gloves extending into the air.

With a diesel engine clatter, Herschel's truck eased through the crowd. The man looked neatly pressed as he had the day before. He rolled his window down and tipped his cap. "Want a ride back east?"

The people parted to make a way between the old bum and the delivery man. Beatty felt the pull of destiny, the attraction of purpose. Whatever had found him last night would find him again and again, wherever he went. So would Triune Town, which had sent so many of its people out to him like seeds on the wind.

What could he do but go?

I could choose not to, he thought.

If it was just his body they needed, he realized that Herschel would already have made off with him. They needed his mind, his choice, his purpose.

He still had a choice. He didn't have to be the hero of this fucking story. Once around the block in Triune Town ought to be enough for any normal human being. Beatty knew he didn't control much in his world, but for once he could just tell everybody 'no', tell them to fuck off, and not do what was demanded of him.

For once, he could be his own damned man.

"I have to see a guy about a job," he said, then turned back and tugged down the loading dock's roll-up door.

Boss Man likely wouldn't take him back, but that was okay, too. He'd find enough money for a bus ticket and get out. The metrophage that hunted him could go right on doing that it was no different than Herschel, it needed him to choose as well.

All he had to do to win was not play their fucking little game. They could follow him from here to hell and it wouldn't matter, so long as he didn't choose. And if it did strangle him in his sleep, at least he'd die his own man.

"Boss Man?" he said, peering into the office. "I'm back."


Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2011/2012 books are Endurance and Kalimpura from Tor Books, and Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh from Prime Books. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a past winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

Story by Jay Lake, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011

Last updated on 11/15/2011 11:53:47 AM by Jennifer Brozek
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