Damn Sue

Here’s some more stuff that will never be published in a book. It wasn’t too long after I started on my passion project when I realised I’m not yet the writer I need to be to do the story justice. I’ve been practicing, working, as they say, on my craft, trying to get better. I’m learning. Let me know what you think of this old piece.

Excerpt from Kimchi Queen (working title), a work in progress:

Here, in this particular Figment, you can call me Damn Sue. That’s the name I hear whispered as the crowd parts for me. Even though people move out of my way when they see the red flame by my shoulder, when they recognise my lenses, my hands are trembling on the three silver coins I rub together.
 I try to see myself as they do. Walking tall in the long dress, the same colour and sheen as my hair, straight and long down my back. I’m doing the trick Uncle taught me, making my body strike a confident pose so my mind will mirror the attitude.
 The narrow streets of SLA are lit by strings of flickering bulbs. My heels crunch random grit on the stone. The seediness, the grime and disrepair are all a pretence- this could all be perfectly clean and brightly lit, but order and safety are not why people come here. Dancing neon reflects in puddles, shop signs in English, Korean and Spanish. People of all colours and persuasions mingle in the shifting light.
 In real LA it’s about 6 pm. Here in Shadow Los Angeles, in SLA, it’s always midnight. This bad dream-world flickers through entangled particles of Luciferous Aether, into the minds of dreamers from all over the globe. Their reclined bodies might be in Patagonia, New Zealand, or some other nowhere place, but to act out their dark fantasies, they all come to this imagined city of sin. Black, white, brown, yellow and red- even green these days- they’re all searching for the next thrill, or the new hit, or the fresh press of skin on virtual skin.
 It’s all a dream, the Figment of a battery of vat-grown brain analogues. Within the Figment, human minds find the illicit pleasures they are denied in real world 1952.
 And some of us help them find it. For a fee.
 A man points at me and shakes his partner’s shoulder, says my name:
 “Damn Sue!”
 Bloody tourists.
 Tourists like Alex, the one making my hands tremble. You’d think I was a fan girl. You’d think I’d never met a star. I’ve Alex in another Figment, one slightly more real than this one. Alex doesn’t know that, though. My disguise holds.
 She stays close to me. She wears her signature outfit, a man’s suit and tie, but cut to fit a woman’s body. Her only camouflage is the veil hanging from the brim of her hat. This had seemed foolish at first, but there are plenty of fan girls around who imitate her. I’ve seen two already tonight, and they just smiled at Alex, as if she was one of her own admirers.
 No doubt she’s recording this scene for the audience, for The Alex Gotha Show, for those sensible enough to never dare walk these streets.
 Up close and personable, the face of the ‘reality’ star is just the same as that on the magazine covers in flesh-space newsagents. Not that I ever buy those magazines. Not often, anyway.
 I hate myself for this starstruck feeling. When she arrived this evening I felt like I should curtsy. I’m Damn Sue, damn it, she should be the nervous one.
 Not likely. She is the real thing, a true star. Her curls are cut short, boyish, but her face is feminine, her smile warm, her red lips full, her teeth even. Her cheeks are not quite defined enough to make her truly beautiful, but even in this pretend place she has real presence. Her silver/blue eyes twinkle with a virtual light all of their own.
 A pale man with grey stubble and acne steps in front of Alex and peers beneath the veil, squinting. She just frowns at him.
 “Holy shit, it’s-”
 I rub the coins in my hand together. His eyes flick to me as my flame flares, lighting up his face. The ball of fire leaps in between Alex and the man, and I know that for a moment he sees a fierce mask inside the flames. He freezes, I mean he really freezes, he becomes a statue. His mouth is open but unable to announce Alex to the people walking past. He flickers like a faulty TV, then shrinks to a point, crumples into a ball, and is gone. Somewhere in the world, he’ll be sitting up, rubbing his sore head.
 “What the hell?” Three more men step up, frowning and ready to fight.
 “Really?” I say, stepping towards them. My flame brightens, turns white.
 “Oh, hey, it’s cool, no problem here.” The men back off. I try to not smile. I fail. In a few short months, my reputation has grown big enough so that no one will take me on. No one with any sense. The stories about me have grown. Most of them are blown way out of proportion, I admit, but that’s fine because even Alex has heard of Damn Sue.
 I turn to her.
 “Can you…?” I circle my finger around my own face. If Alex didn’t look so much like, well, herself this would be easier. And maybe I’d relax a tad.
 She tilts her head, looking at me and taking a second to get it. Sometimes people get distracted by my look.
 My eyes, here in the Figment, are not so genuine as Alex’s. In the consensual lucid dream of cypher-space, we can be whoever we want if we have the skill and if we practise. I might not have the skill but I have a little help- my flame. My construct.
 We can fly, we can fight, those things are easy. There are certain things your mind clings to, though, aspects of your self-image that it takes a great deal of skill to manipulate.
 I don’t have the skill to change the slant of my Asian eyes, but I can hide them behind mirrored lenses, the edges of which penetrate the skin of my dream-body. From eyebrows to cheeks, the curve of the glass continues the curve of my forehead down to my high cheekbones.
 I’m proud- damn proud- of my Korean heritage, but the sad truth is that in cypher-space people are not always as polite as they should be.
 Despite the transcendent state of Her Artificial Majesty, Queen Victoria, many of her subjects do not share her tolerance. In the virtual world, racism is not synthesised, it’s real. In cypher-space you can be whoever you want, but, sadly, many people choose to be exactly who they are. It’s trouble enough being half-Korean, but being a teenage girl as well? That’s just asking for grief. And so I have gone to great lengths to take on this persona, to grow this mask. Damn, Sue.
 So I hide my Anglo-Korean ethnicity from creepy white men who, on one hand, resent the Korean Empire’s symbiotic relationship with the British Empire, but who would still like to lay the other hand on a young half-breed.
 My lenses have the added benefit of being damned freaky. Most dreamers can’t look in a mirror, it’s just one of those things, like light switches, that takes a huge effort of will to do in a natural dream, or in a Figment. Most people don’t have that strength- they couldn’t look me in the eye if they tried.
 “I’m sorry?” Alex says, not smiling now. She seems to be checking her makeup in my lenses.
 “Your face. The veil’s not working.”
 “Oh, yes.” Alex shuffles her cards. She flips one without looking but I catch a glimpse: a skeleton in tattered robe swinging a scythe. Death. I shudder, both here, in the Figment, and probably on the other side of the world, in flesh-space London.
 Alex’s features blur, melting and flowing, then snap into focus again. Her eyes are brown, the skin around them wrinkled with the smile lines of an older woman. Her nose is hooked and her lips thin, bare of lipstick. Her hair is red now and tied in a thick plait, draped over her shoulder, reaching down to her waist.
 She’s that good. This is why she has her own show.
 “So, what’s the point of this Alex?” I ask. I need to assert my dominance here, reclaim my edge. “Show the nice people at home what the low-lives get up to?”
 “No! No, it’s not like that Sue. I just want to let people know what’s really going on in the world, I want to show people what they don’t see on the news.” Her very upper-class English accent hasn’t changed with her face.
 “To cast light in the shadows you must step into the dark,” I quote. Although we live in the same city, my accent shows we live in different worlds.
 Her smile returns.
 “So you do watch my show.”
 I sneer.
 “I’ve caught a couple of episodes.”
 Music echoes from a dark alleyway strung with prayer flags. My little ball of fire darts ahead, to light our way, revealing a big man filling the width of the alley. He grins at me, his sharpened teeth red in my flickering flame. He holds up a slab of a hand. I slap it.
 “Evening, Sumo, who’s up tonight?”
 He raises his eyebrows, lifts his head an inch, a greeting.
 “Hey, Sue. Screaming Jay’s just gone on.”
 Cool. I grin and hand him a couple of notes. He slips them into his jacket pocket and steps aside, nodding to Alex.
 The courtyard is open to the sky but I barely flinch. It’s not really the sky and we won’t be outside for long. The crude wooden stage at the back is lit by three small airships drifting above it. Spotlights shine from them down to where smoke curls from the cigarette clamped between the teeth of a skull on Jay’s electric piano. Jay, a young black man, is melodically screaming into a microphone hanging above his keyboard. A saxophonist blats a simple tune from his curved brass, a guitarist shimmers feedback from his electric strings. Jay’s voice is powerful enough to challenge all these as he bangs on the keys, bouncing on his feet. The piano is wired to a wooden cabinet, a representation of the real world biomachines that process, distort and amplify the signal from Jay’s fingers on the keys. No drummer- the machine does that as well.
 To play a song, the musician’s minds need to feel the physical instruments in their hands, but the speakers, the cables, the amplifier are all part of the show, just like the rough wooden stage. In the consensual dream, people can do anything- anything- their will allows, but the strangest thing is that so many people here spend so much time in something that looks pretty much like the real world.
 About a hundred young men and women jump and dance to the beat pumping from the speakers, jostling and pushing each other in time to the music, slamming into each other. I know from experience that it looks a lot more violent than it is. Alex’s wide eyes flick from side to side, checking the raucous crowd. I pull her back as a young man is thrown to the ground at her feet. He jumps up again, laughing, and hurls himself back into the throng.
 I steer Alex away.
 On the far side of the courtyard, a ragged grey curtain with holes in it covers a doorway in a small stone hut.
 “Open it,” I say, nodding at the curtain.
 Alex hesitates, then moves to push the curtain aside. The curtain doesn’t even ripple, her hand stops as if hitting steel.
 “Gosh. Isn’t that odd?”
 “Come on, try harder.”
 Alex leans into the illusion of thin fabric, putting her weight behind it. There’s a flash of electricity and she jumps back with a yelp, cradling her hand.
 “What the bloody hell?”
 I can’t help laughing.
 “Sorry,” I say, “I just wanted to show you the security is tight. You’ll be safe in here.”
 I flip my coins into the air, catch them, slap them on the back of my hand without looking to see which is heads or tails. My coins are another way flesh-space intrudes on the dream, like the musical instruments. In theory, you can just think, just imagine the changes you want to make, but in truth, people need a physical prop to symbolise their will. Alex has her tarot cards, I have the I Ching.
 “Another diviner, I see,” Alex says, nodding at the coins in my hand, “I recently met a student who uses those.”
 Is she having a go at me? I look at her, trying to see a reflection of the soul behind Alex’s false eyes. Has she figured it out? Does she know it’s me? Should I say something?
 “A student?” I ask.
 “Yes, bio-silicone engineering. I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks, she… she’s doing impressive work, groundbreaking really, but a construct she created clashed with the university head’s idea of ethics.”
 I feel a smile creep, unbidden, onto my face. I turn it into a smirk.
 Groundbreaking eh? Like a bulldozer, you just wait. I’m not finished digging yet.
 I feel good now, this is going to be fine, just another walking tour of purgatory. I’m the expert here, Alex is just another client.
 I rap my knuckles on the door frame and push the curtain aside like cobwebs.

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