by Alli Kirkham
Test vapers blocked the alleyway, blowing out lungfuls of sweet steam. One of them had fallen, seizing, into an oil-rimmed puddle. The upside of being a tester was enough cash to feed yourself for the week and the occasional fantastic high. The downside was that designer drugs didn't always work as expected; sometimes you felt like a king, sometimes you fell down twitching, shit yourself and had to live through a nasty hangover. The new batches didn't usually kill people, but it wasn't unheard of. The vapers were philosophical about it - most of them had been heroin users before the new industry exploded and so they'd all been expecting to die young and high anyway.
Mason edged past them and into the alley where violently neon displays assaulted his eyes. Club windows stretched out the length of the block, showcasing dancing men and women under glass. Neon words leaped at him, advertising services and group rates in twenty languages. Long lines formed at most of the doorways at first, tapering down to a scattering of customers the deeper in he went. He finally found himself facing a rectangle of glowing purple with a couple of vapers passed out under the empty window. He knocked on the door and was duly glared at by the bouncer and owner, Frank, then squeezed inside.
Purple marked out the perimeter of the room, interrupted by heads in booths and bodies on tables. It was dark and sweaty and sparsely populated. He walked up to the bar, knelt on a stool, and leaned over until he could feel blood rushing behind his eyes.
"Mason!" he tried to get a fix on the voice, but found his nose neatly tucked into floral-smelling cleavage and felt hard arms wrapping around his head before he could even see where Isa had been hiding.
"Hey cutie," he said to the bottom of her chin. "What's the problem tonight?" Her arms retracted and he was allowed to move his head back until he was smiling at her upside down. She sighed and crossed her legs and blew pink hair away from her face, pouting. "You mean other than working at a strip club surrounded by brothels?"
"That's your problem every night, but you don't call me to fix it."
"The lights are all wonky. Look!" She stuck her arm out from her cubbyhole and bright green lines appeared in a circuit-board pattern from her fingertips back to where her body was wrapped in shadows. "I can't tell if my ink's fucked up or if it's something on the light board but nobody pays if the surprise is spoiled before I even get on stage."
"Doesn't look like much of a problem tonight - there's hardly anyone out there and most of them are already getting solo dances." He lifted his head up and scanned the room again. Maybe one more customer had come in, but it was getting close to midnight and nobody was pounding down the door. "It's dead out there, babydoll, you sure you need to make a scene? These guys don't care about the staging - they just want to see your tits, hon."
"I care about the staging! You know that." She cocked her head and made puppy eyes at him, pronouncing her pout until it became a caricature. He relented and climbed over the bar, crossing his own legs and pulling out a tiny laptop. "Lemme see your hand," he booted the little device and picked through his bag until he found the connector he was looking for; he plugged the square end into his laptop and put the other end close to Isa's finger. "Little prick now," he said. She smirked, "Says you. 'Sides, I think I can handle it - I got the tattoo in the first place, right?" He swallowed and nodded and slid the sheath onto her finger. "I now pronounce you sin and vice," she intoned gravely, spoiling it with a wink. His computer immediately caught and scanned one of the few million nanobots swimming around in her blood. While he waited for it to catch fifty of them, he held a small flashlight over her palm and flicked through fifteen combinations of LED light - the tattoo only flared twice as he completed this little ritual. The laptop had finished scanning.
"I'm gonna have to leave you here and look at the lights. Your ink is just fine - it's on like Donkey Kong." He leaned over and bumped a kiss into her cheek, detaching the connector from the laptop and tapping his sample into a shot glass that he swiped from under the bar.
"You're such a nerd. Thanks, babe."
"Your nerd," he grinned, and bit her ear for good measure. She swatted playfully at his butt but pulled her arm back quickly when it flared up in the light.
The club was still pretty dead when he walked around to the production console. Bobby, the stage tech, sat at the helm gently puffing at a fat silver vape cylinder. Mason set the shot glass on the corner of the table where it glowed a steady green.
"That shit's gonna kill you, dude," he said by way of greeting.
Bobby grunted and wiped a little drool away from his lip and sneered at Mason, as usual. "Nothing's wrong with my lights, man, Isa's just being a little primadonna bitch again."
"Not my battle, man, I'm just trying to help," Mason adjusted a couple of switches and the light in the shot glass turned blue. He opened up a keypad on the board and typed for a couple of seconds. Nothing happened.
"You try turning it off and turning it on again?" Bobby chuckled. He was slurring.
"Not everything responds like a Microsoft box, Bobster. I think your board may have a couple of dead capacitors. I have a few spares; it'll just take me a minute to get them swapped - it's all plug and play under the hood here."
"Fuck you man, ain't nothing wrong with my lights," Bobby stood up and knocked his stool over backwards. His vape tumbled to the ground and made a loud pinging noise. His hand was shaking.
"Bobby, where'd you get that charge?"
"My lights is the best, asshole, best in the whole fucking alley. Best in the hole-fucking fucking-alley, you dick!" He tried to take a swing at Mason and fell flat on his face; Mason heard his teeth crunch into the concrete.
"Bobby," he shouted, then lifted his head over the edge of the console; he pulled his little flashlight out of his pocket and flashed its red beam at the door, trying to get Frank's attention. When he heard heavy footsteps and Frank's deep voice he looked down at the little tech again. "Bobby, where did you get that charge? You get that from those assholes on the street?"
Bobby's teeth were turning red and he was starting to seize, but he was smiling. "'Sgood shit, man, whaddya care where I got it?" Mason patted down Bobby's clothes until he found something that approximated a wallet. He extracted it from the tech's pocket and shoved a corner of it into his mouth, checking that no parts of it were small enough to swallow. The little man's limbs had started to go rigid.
"Awww, fuck, Bobby, whadja do now," Frank said from behind Mason.
"I think he got a bad charge off some vapers. There was a kid outside twitching like this when I got here. We gotta get him out of here, call the paramedics or some shit."
"Dumb asshole," Frank sighed. "You stay with him and try ta keep an eye on the girls - I'll go down to the corner and put in a call."
Mason nodded. The five minutes that Frank was gone were a nightmare. He tried to remember all the first aid bullshit his sister had practiced on him when she was in girl scouts, he tried to make sure that none of the customers was roughing up a dancer, he tried to check that Bobby was still breathing and just couldn't tell over the noise and in the dark. He worried that Isa was seeing this. Finally Frank reappeared with two men in peppermint striped jumpsuits bearing a stretcher. They loaded Bobby onto it efficiently. One asked questions while the other nonchalantly jabbed a needle into Bobby's chest.
"You know what he was smoking?" Frank and Mason shook their heads.
"How did you know to call us?"
"Saw a vaper wipe out earlier. Figured it was something in the water," Mason mumbled. The paramedic shrugged.
"You guys know anyone else who smokes these things, tell them to lay off the experimental stuff for a week or two. We've had five calls like this tonight, and two of them ain't gonna make it."
"Shit," Frank said, "is Bobby gonna be okay?"
"Fuck if I know," the medic with the needle said. They turned and grasped the stretcher together, and carried their unconscious burden out into the night.
Mason and Frank watched the door close behind them. Frank gestured to the console, "the mike on this thing working at least," he asked.
"'Sfar as I know."
Frank thumbed the switch at the bottom of the mike and let his voice boom out over the music: "The Velvet Tiger is closing early this evening. Please finish your dances and make your way to the exits. Normal hours resume tomorrow."
Mason heard some grumbling but most of the customers seemed happy enough that they weren't getting booted out on their asses. The girls treated the announcement like a national holiday and put a little extra into their shaking and shimmying, so maybe that had something to do with it.
Ten minutes later the purple neon had been switched off and the fluorescent tubes were humming overhead. The club looked dingy in full light, as did most of the girls. The neon hid their bruises and their acne and their age. But they were a good-natured lot, nattering over Bobby's fate as they threw on dresses and slipped shoes on their feet. By the time most of them had left there was a pool going to bring him treats in the hospital and a plan to give him a private show to raise his spirits and speed his recovery.
Isa was hanging out behind the bar, still mostly naked, waiting for the other dancers to clear out. Frank took a stool across from her and waved Mason over.
"She wants to run whatever tests you need to so she's all set up for tomorrow. You willing or you just wanna get home?" Frank, for all his glaring and swearing and bulk was eyeing him with concern.
"I'm not too shook up. It'll only take me a second to get the components plugged in and we can run it." Frank nodded and Isa sauntered over to the stage. When Mason opened up the electronic guts of the console he found Bobby's vape charger jammed into one of the outputs - it had fried the capacitors he was replacing. Frank grunted behind him and snatched the offending wire away from the board.
"Dumb fucker just lost his job on top of an already shitty night," he grumbled. Mason hummed at him and rattled around in the cabinet. He popped up from his work quickly and ran his hands over the console, adjusting levels and flipping switches. Frank turned the fluorescents off.
Isa stood on the stage, invisible in the dark. Mason started one of the tracks he knew that she danced to and one of her arms appeared, a circuit skeleton etched in red. The arm struck a pose and a leg lit up, radiating a deep violet. The song moved along and eventually all of Isa was outlined, her full-body tattoo changing colors in time to the music, occasionally going dark in the shape of a bra or panties that she would tantalizingly "remove" as the lights filled in again over her perky breasts and round hips. The performance was a marvel of timing, a program that he had written for her alone years ago in their dark bedroom as she danced and spun and laughed. The song finished and Frank flipped on the lights.
"Looks good, sweetheart," Mason said. She smiled at him and pulled a pair of pants out of a duffel at the edge of the stage. "Ask him, Frank," she said as she shimmied into the jeans, a technique that Mason didn't think he could look away from if the world caught on fire.
"You want a job, kid?"
"Loverboy, give the lady some privacy. Eyes on me." Frank tapped his shoulder and Mason managed to make eye contact. "Isa said you're looking for work. You can run this board better than anyone else who's run through here in the last six months. You made the program that makes her money and she makes me more money than anyone else in this place. Do you want a job?" Mason held his hand out and Frank took it. "Yeah. Yeah, I do," he said, then followed Isa's form toward the door.
Frank locked up behind them. Mason put his hood up against the rain and Isa dug in her duffel for an umbrella. She popped it open and balanced it on her shoulder, reaching out her free hand to find his.
"Not every day here sucks, you know?" she leaned her head against his shoulder. "Just some of them."
"That's okay. Everywhere else is like that too."
Once they got past the alley's throbbing noise the streets were quiet, emptied of people by the rain.