Ant Smith
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The Locksmith and the Empath

'Give me the Gods'

Shiv saw the dull glint of gunmetal in the shabby alley mouth and stopped dead. He hadn't heard the words but he understood immediately what was happening. You only pointed a gun at someone for two reasons and since he couldn't imagine anyone wanting to spoil his pretty good looks he assumed the second. He knew he was unarmed, and he knew he had a pocket full of life force. Death force. Everything contains the seed of its opposite. Life force, gun, death force. He holds a handful of God coins out.

'What do you think you're doing?' Nico asks.

'He's got a gun'


'So I'm giving him the goddam Gods'

The coins slip from his slender hand in to the rough grasping palm and the encounter melts away as if it had been nothing more than a five fingered back alley shuffle. Then Shiv feels Nico slap him.

'He had a gun'

'He had a gun', she mimics.

They trudge on. Him miserable, smarting cheek. Her smarting at his stupidity, wondering if she should slap him again. Short walk. Should have taken a car. Nobody walks.

'Who the fuck walks?' she asks no one in particular.

And no one answered. Simple enough job. Walk down round the block. Turn a few tricks. Hustle a few Gods. Trot home and settle in to it. Lose themselves in the misty light glow from the game screen. Drinking more than they ought. Wanting more than they ought. Gambling. Winning. Gambling. Losing. Together. Heady night. Heady Friday night. Panting. Through it, together. Siblings touching. Nearing. Drawn close. Feeling ready. For the Big Game. The big win. This week. Got to be in it. One god, just one would do them. Why didn't he keep that back? Goddam it. Goddam it. Goddam.

Weary steel door confronts them.

'Insert credit please', chirpy steel voice.

Slender hand tickles the slot with short spike. Maybe he falls to pieces when people point guns at him but Shiv was proud of his lock cracking skills. NIco was not impressed, she hardly notices his deft motion. Ordinary. Everyday. The door notices. It knows no credit was supplied but still it springs ajar with a creaking huff. All the way up the stairs it chirps after them

'Insert credit please'

But it had been doing that for months now. Friends and neighbours constantly complaining about the racket it makes. Shiv and Nico as oblivious to it as to the dawn chorus.

'Insert credit please'

Shiv was glad to sit down. He'd been knotted up inside since the hold-up, not even the pleasure of Nico's slap had unwound him. Normally he'd have revelled in that, but guns made him nervous. Now he slumped in an old upholstered grotesquery of a chair. He knew it was alive with bugs but the feel of a material weft pleased him. He said he liked the organics of it. Others said the organics of it liked him. He absently picked an armoured scurrying thing from his forearm. He wondered what kind of creature ate this. Everything gets eaten.

Nico preferred the floor.

She shuckled her jacket from her slender frame and allowed it to languidly slip to her feet. Languid shuckling, one of the many benefits of engineered materials. Any girl can strip as though she had the grace and favour of Monroe. Not that Nico needs such gross tactics, she just likes the way the cloth folds itself neatly beneath her as she sits.

And as she sits she sighs. And as she sighs she weeps. Shiv looks up.

'Hey, Nique...' using her junior nick, the name they only use between themselves. It works. It always does.

'Oh Shiv', she replies. 'what's to be done with you... giving the whole lot away like that'

'I know but he '

' had a gun that probably wasn't even loaded', she finishes for him.

'You don't know that. You can't know that'.

But Shiv knew that she could, and in all likelihood did. She didn't waste further words on the matter. Although she did look. In that way people do. When they feel very reasonably let down by you. The game was due and with no Gods they were sure to get creamed. One way or another.

The game had provenance. In the earliest days of pre-organic computing multi-user gaming had been born. From EssexMUD, through Zork. Nobody had understood how to capitalise on the draw. Gaming had grown more readily down the graphic individual action path, the quintessential PacMan'. Many millionaires had made their quick buck. The mass player game came into its own once mass connectivity had taken a hold, once it was realised you could charge by the experience not the artefact. All the trouble and expense that physical product meant evaporated. The Game simply let you move in a city of 50 million plus, without the attendant physical danger of moving in a city of 50 million plus. In a world where people trusted less, spoke less, knew less, cared less the population had been dying of boredom. Of a loneliness of the spirit. The Game had changed that. The game had made it possible to once again, feel a part. Be a part. Not apart. A whole community working in concert. A whole community of 50 million plus. Less two. This night. Less Shiv and Nico.

They sat in their accustomed places. Godless. Still staring mechanically at The Game screen, as it sprang into life. A fine mesh of interconnected points starting to glow stronger and stronger as the city came on-line. As millions jacked in. Nico shivers. She can feel the minds winking out as the city consciousness shifts from the streets and the buildings into the Game Space. Ordinarily she would be one of the first. If only to avoid this sensation. This awareness. This deep unsettling feeling of grief. Life upon life winking out of real space. The night growing quieter, colder, emptier. Nico Shivers.

Shiv kneels. He has seen her like this before. When they were late. The curse of her gift. On the one hand she knows people. She knows what they feel. She knows what he feels. She can read. She can read him. It hurts her. Death. It touches her, deeply.

Shiv wraps his arms around her. She falls into him. His mind slips back to that time before. He closes his eyes and floats with it for a moment. Letting the memory, the dream, transport him. How easily he slips from the here and the now. How easily the toils are obliterated and replaced by an inner heat. But his guilt, his doubt, his fear lingered. He had to do something in the here and in the now. He couldn't let go. He couldn't let her down. His hands slipped across her back. Leaving smears of blood. Every life lost to the game cuts her. Her pores open and bleed. This is no damn good. He's losing her and he knows it. He has to get her into the game, and soon.

Tobbacco. Television. Lotto. Buprenorphine. The Game. The long line of socially sanctioned drugs. Always stepping up. As the lethal nature of each is revealed. As people come to learn social living is social dying. Another silver bullet. Another way out. The Game. Where falling down is standing up. Where you can live the dream, whatever it may be. Visit Columbine or Dachau. Be a space hero. Face fuck the eye sockets of a puppy. Live the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Game. All for the price of a single God coin. But God coins don't come cheap.

God coins can't be bought. They have to be won, one way or another. Shiv and Nico hustled them. Her unique talent and his untouchable hands. The empath and the locksmith. He can dip into any space. She can smell the unwary. It had been a fine haul this night. Until the gun. The gun she said had not even been loaded. Shiv curses himself as Nico slips into a trance.

Gently, he lays her back upon the floor. Briefly his lips brush her cheek. He stands and he exits. He has a God to win.