... bringing me back to life after several years of creative block and depression....
Psychedelic trance brought me back to life after several years of creative block and depression. Ironically, my first novel was published in this bleak period. Because I had stalled on my second novel, the release of my first felt posthumous. I believed I might never create again.
Then I ran across psytrance, or it ran into me...
It literally changed my mind.
The strange sounds I heard kicked me into another realm, stoking the embers of my imagination. Fascinated, I hunted down all the psytrance I could get, goa, progressive, chillout... The grey depression fell away like old chains. I lived again, felt everything sharply, joy and pain. And I saw, heard, knew the world where my story took place.
A year later, I am almost finished with the first draft of the first book. Here is the first chapter of Ambassador Orange, which takes place in near-future London.
Between the unkempt hedge and the pub on St.-Crowley Street was an eyeblink, a dead spot of a couple meters in the surveillance. The crowd shouldered its way down the pavement in a lumbering stream, their earjacks and eclexicons glittering like scales. Traffic clotted in the narrow road. Hexagonal beams of sunlight shot through the polluted air, and single crystals of snow drifted lazily down, mote by mote.
January pretended to scribble on his clipboard while he waited for the next customer, bouncing on his toes. His feet already smarted in the cheap high heels he wore. Of all the Civil uniform garments, the tight knee-length slitted skirt came in a close second to the shoes for discomfort, the flap flying up with the cold early-spring wind and baring his shaved legs. Skin puckering, he felt briefly like a plucked chicken.
"It'll be better this way," he had reassured Stupid, who, at 27, was ten years older than him and didn't get it. Stupid stared accusingly as he put on the uniform for the first time. "People trust girls." Adjusting the shoulder strap and belt to his satisfaction, January twisted his dark hair up and away into the cap. "Imagine you've never seen me before. Do I look like a poof, or a girl? It's important."
Today, Stupid waited around the corner just out of the eyeblink, puffing a Gauloise. It was about teatime. People straggled down the street in their separate realities, laughing, arguing, flirting with invisible electronic distractions, the early spring wind flinging discarded newspapers at them with gleeful malevolence.
Among them all, January spotted his customer: tubby middle-aged man with a determined pout that gave him the look of a halibut, waddling efficiently down the street, free of devices.
January feigned interest in his clipboard until the man was within speaking range. The peep-squealer in his breast pocket stayed quiet: the customer was unbugged.
Glancing up, January broke in with his best girl voice: "Sir, so sorry to disturb." The halibut's cheeks puffed indignantly, bagging back into jowls as January winked at him. "Would you have a moment to answer a few questions for our wartime survey, sir? You'll have your voice heard on the rationing."
The customer nodded eagerly, warming to the idea. Nobody turned down a chance to complain about the rationing.
"Very well then." January clicked the pen once, sending the signal to Stupid: beginning sequence 1. "How do you feel about bruised bananas?"
He watched the customer's eyes, trying to look as if he weren't. His quarry raised a bushy eyebrow. "Bruised bananas?" Nothing.
"Yes, sir. Is this a foodstuff you would consent to eat in rations, given the conditions of war?"
The customer's nose wrinkled. "Well, dear, it's been so long since we've had even unbruised bananas..."
"So that's a yes, then?"
January clicked the pen again: sequence 2. "Served in a wicker wheelchair," he mumbled just audibly, scrawling on the clipboard, as if making a note for himself. One eye furtively on the man.
"I beg your pardon?"
Nothing there, either. January clicked. "Erm, sorry, sir. Merely addressing... a crushing oversimplicity."
The halibut-face slackened.
Sequence 3, then: today's work would be quick.
"Through multidirectional garments?" January pressed on with the sequence like a priest intoning prayers to a random god. His quarry's eyes dulled, pupils dilated. One more combination to open him up. "Chew the rough stone quandary along the Seine."
The man's limbs relaxed, and he slumped. Threshold attained. January double-clicked. Stupid appeared at the end of the block, ambling towards them.
"Ah. Well, in that case sir, on behalf of the Ministry of Breastfeeding, I must ask you to surrender your wallet and passcode."
The man's arm folded upward robotically, hand snaking into his breast pocket. Too easy? wondered January. Well, statistically, isn't it supposed to be easy once in a while? As if in answer, the wallet appeared in the man's open palm. With a gracious smile, January accepted it.
The second he touched it, the squealer in his breast pocket kicked and vibrated furiously.
As if burned, January threw the wallet back at the man and ran, clicking the pen repeatedly to signal Stupid: Trap!
The squealer continued its silent rampage. January, running, stared at his empty hand in dismay. Where was he bugged? He saw nothing, felt nothing. Had something transferred from the wallet? Uselessly, he wrung his hand to fling whatever-it-was off.
He glanced up. Stupid ran towards him, the customer still shambling downstream. "No!" January shouted. "Turn around!"
In response, a staccato hiss. True to his name, Stupid kept on towards him, his last step a strange little stumble. "What are you doing?" January screamed.
Stupid's mouth opened, and he fell to his knees, then onto his face. A crimson stain spread across his shoulderblade.
Hiss. January ducked and turned down the alley, cursing the cobblestones that grabbed at his heels. Something whipped past his ear. He burst through the first door he saw.
Crates, wooden slats, and meathooks, some occupied and reeking. Buzzing fluorescent light. January almost slipped on the greasy floor, arms flailing. The squealer still pulsated against his chest. A short man with hairy arms and a bloodstained white apron charged into the low-ceilinged room. "What --"
"Health inspector." January pulled himself upright and brandished his clipboard, ignoring the squealer. The man slunk off with a barely concealed sneer.
Swift footsteps outside. He trailed the hairy man away from the back door. Off to the left, a grimy little WC. He darted inside and locked the door.
Behind him, bursts of walkie-talkie. "...young female in a Civil uniform?"
Balancing carefully on the edge of the dirty toilet, he clambered over the sill, banging his knee, and swung his legs outward. A shoe and his clipboard clattered onto the cobblestones below.
"Oi!" A man glared up at him: bristly shoulder-length dark hair, black wool blazer over equally black T-shirt and trousers.
"Hallo, girlie." He lifted a tan cigarette to his lips with a leather-gloved hand. The cherry glowed briefly, sending a cloud of sweet clove-scented smoke into the air. "In a bit of a rush, are we?"
January eyed him. Jumping down, he snatched his shoe, hopping as he shoved it back onto his aching foot. He sprang towards the front of the butcher shop, shoes crunching on pebbles and broken glass.
Loud voices; flashing lights.
January stopped short. He glanced back at the man, who raised an eyebrow: Them or me.
He supposed it would be easier to kick one randy bloke in the balls later than to take on the filth who'd shot Stupid. Nodding, he reversed direction.
The man jettisoned the cigarette, beckoning with a gloved hand as he ran. January followed, stumbling in the shoes. It occurred to him that women's clothes were made specifically to prevent quick getaways. Behind him the din accelerated like an approaching cloud of angry hornets.
His impromptu guide made a jog around a tight little brick corner, momentarily disappearing. January caught up, passing an iron gate, down a crooked street, through a maze of alleyways.
The smell of fried fish, potatoes, and vinegar wafted in the air, sending a hunger pang through him. The man hurried him under a green awning. Gilded Victorian letters filled the windowpane beneath: Superficient Chips. A screen door opened to admit them, then shut with a shriek and a bang.
A burly man blocking the entrance let the other through, but held January up with a hand, also gloved. Something glinted in his palm.
"You've a nanotom, Miss," he said gruffly. "Don't you have a squealer?"
"Yes, but it's rather old -- "
The man passed his palm over January. The squealer fell dead in his pocket. "In you go, then, lass -- ?"
January hurried past, giving him no chance to examine him further.
No one in the place flinched, as if bedraggled cross-dressing Civils routinely interrupted their dining pleasure. They were motley themselves, varying compromises between ragged and swank. Slummers? wondered January. The real poor teased death with their cheap, unhealthy habits, while slummers' cared-for bodies gave them away whatever they wore. The geezer in the corner with his perfect teeth might as well have stood up and proclaimed his £100,000 a year. The disheveled woman beside him, neither heroin-thin nor fast-food fat, was similarly situated. In all the room, no canes were to be seen, no double-chins, no thinning hair, no blemishes, not even a grey tooth. Not too many cigarettes, either, though nearly everyone nursed a pint. But one common detail marked the crowd.
Every hand that lifted a forkful of fish and chips, or wrapped around its respective pint, was gloved. Grey wool, hot pink lycra, black silk, purple latex covered every hand in the place.
At the bar in front sat an older man whose skin had a stone-smooth, dead quality that suggested foundation cream. Aging sodomite, then. Prim white gloves completed the picture. He reminded January of his mother's stiff-upper-lip butler, except for the cunning expression and shock of obviously dyed red hair. No, not a butler; an old fox.
Unexpectedly, the man gave January a genteel smile, as if to cloak the foxiness.
His rescuer pushed him forward. "Why don't you go say hello?"
January glanced out the painted window. A helmeted figure flashed by outside. Nothing was more conspicuous than stealth.
"They won't come in here," the Old Fox said, low voice rumbling. "But I don't fancy they'll make themselves scarce for a while, either." He lifted a six-sided shotglass invitingly towards January. What appeared quite a genuine bottle of Glenmorangie waited before him on the bar.
January supposed the news that he wasn't a girl could wait.
He sidled up and accepted the shotglass. The Old Fox poured one for himself and, with a mutual nod, they tossed back the dark brown liquid.
January suppressed a splutter. Taking a slug of the Glenmorangie was like biting into a mound of peat moss. A warm glow kindled in his gut, and the goosebumps on his legs finally smoothed.
"Now," said the Old Fox, "pray tell me how long you expect to outrun them."
"I expect about as long as I can stay here." January's girl voice almost cracked.
The Fox nodded. "There's a certain price to be paid."
January made himself smile, press in closer. "I've only one thing to offer."
The Old Fox drew back, appraising him. "You've many more things to offer than you think. And I'll take them all." His eyes went directly to January's crotch.
"Surprise," January said, dropping an octave.
"Hardly. My instincts for that sort of thing are true. Shall we get started?"
January swallowed. "Here?"
"Of course not. Downstairs."
"I... Where's the loo?"
With a tired, knowing smile, the Fox waved his gloved fingers at an alcove at the right side of the bar. January excused himself and slipped away, hiding his haste as he pushed open the door, looking for a window. He saw only a high vent. He turned, wondering if there were a back door behind the bar, and whether he could reach it before anyone caught up.
A man in a tight lavender shirt stood at the urinal. Finishing, he reached for the glove that lay neatly folded over the top of the pipe. January blinked at his hand.
He recoiled, unable to look away: smooth pale flesh where the nails should have been. The man rolled his eyes and pulled the glove back on. "New and dying to ask, aren't you?"
"Sorry. What do you mean, 'new'?"
"The answer is Ambassador Orange. And you don't see the half of it." The man zipped up and flounced away.
"Who's Ambassador Orange?"
"Who?" the man shrieked in amusement. "Only the cruelest lover you'll ever have. Highly recommended all the same."
"Wait!" January followed the man out but got no answer.
"Are you Ambassador Orange?" he demanded of the Old Fox.
The Fox gave a hearty laugh, and several diners nearby smirked. "I was about to introduce the two of you, before your transparent attempt to fall back into the hands of the police."
January flushed. "Better than following you downstairs like a sheep."
The Fox's thin lips curled into a smile. "To the slaughter?"
"That's not all that happens to sheep, as you may know."
He cocked an eyebrow. "I assure you, young man, there are absolutely no shearing facilities underground. Now, if you'll be good enough to follow me this time, you'll meet the mysterious Ambassador." He rose from his barstool with a heavy agility January had not expected, treading the rubber mat around the bar until it ended at the back of the room. There, he pushed aside a black velvet curtain.
They descended a dozen well-lit stairs to a storeroom, then through it. January hobbled after him. Behind a heap of boxes, the Old Fox produced a clinking ring of codepins, inserting one into a slot in the wall. An elevator door opened silently and closed behind them.
The elevator jolted as it began the descent. A citric-smelling chemical hung in the air, just strong enough to make January blink. Disinfectant? The pit of his stomach rose as the elevator picked up speed. Might have been better off with the cops, he thought dismally, then remembered Stupid's dazed face, the blood streaming down his back.
If the Old Fox sensed his dread, he made no effort to allay it, not even glancing at him, the whirr of the motor and the rush of air in the shaft the only sounds.
"They killed him," January blurted, surprising himself as well as the Fox.
"Your accomplice? If he's lucky," the Fox said. "Death is generally kinder than the Division."
"What about this Ambassador?" Before the Fox could answer, the elevator shuddered to a stop.
The door retracted. Beyond it, a low-ceilinged stone corridor lit by bare bulbs in cages stretched into shadow and out of sight. Cables and vines wove through the stone walls. A cool draft traveled the corridor's length, the hairs on January's neck prickling.
"Where exactly are you taking me?" he said. "Don't know if I -- "
"We're almost there." The Old Fox waved him ahead.
Uneasy, January crept down the corridor, the Fox close at his heels. Mildew and the citric chemical, now bolder, pervaded the narrow enclosure.
A side door led to a cavernous white room. Track lighting on white paint stung January's eyes after the dimness of the corridor. The ceiling was so high he realized they must have descended quite far.
Smooth, gleaming white cubicle walls honeycombed the room. The floor was tiled in tiny blue and white hexagons that whispered echoes under their feet. They wandered down a shallow tunnel of polyurethane walls until the Fox turned and flung open a white door.
Inside the cubicle was a bath.
Dark orange stained the bottom and sides of its interior. Behind it stood an aluminum tank, beside it a table bearing a black leather case and a polished metal tray glinting in the light.
Fearful, January froze, gripping the doorframe. "I'm not doing this. Whatever it is. Take me back upstairs."
"Bit late for that, I'm afraid." The Old Fox pushed past him into the cubicle, turning the tap on the bath. Rust-colored liquid gushed out, the acrid citrus smell January recognized flooding the cubicle. He turned to run.
Behind him a tall man, dark hair cropped close, blocked the way. January tried to dart around him. The man grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him back into the cubicle.
The Old Fox motioned towards a cushioned bench beside the bath. "Sit down."
"No!" January shouted. "I'm not staying here, I -- " He felt his arm caught and twisted. He yelped in pain, the tall man forcing him to his knees at the side of the bath. The fluid shimmered, already elbow-high in the basin. Chemical reek invaded his sinuses.
The Old Fox sat on the bench next to him. "Meet Ambassador Orange."
He grabbed January's free wrist and plunged his hand into the warm liquid.
January threw himself back, but the Old Fox's other hand gripped the nape of his neck, forcing him down. He cried out, gagging on the citric fumes.
The liquid rose up to his elbow, the sleeve of his blazer puffing before it sank. Humid heat from the churning fluid clung to his face. He gasped and coughed, the lip of the bath pressing into his armpit, the Old Fox and his assistant bent over him.
His hand twitched in the body-warm fluid. He drew in a breath to scream. It seemed to take hours, his chest expanding with maddening slowness. When he finally expelled the breath, the scream sprawled into a yawn, the vibration of his own vocal cords oddly pleasurable.
The warmth became heat, a prickling tingle crawling up his forearm. Under the ruined Civil uniform, his pores opened.
Stained... he thought. Yet somehow it seemed less and less urgent to pull his arm out. It wasn't uncomfortable, after all; no, not at all, in fact, rather nice.
Golden, even. Sparks of bright light on the fluid glimmered and flew, kissing him as they sprang out of the bath and escaped into the vast ceiling.
January felt himself falling forward, into the orange sea below him, out of the confining hands pressing him downward. Voices as if from far away: Pull him up again; he's ready.
Strong hands under his arms, the orange sea falling away. January took another week-long breath to protest, then forgot about it. His arm seemed to be missing. He glanced down in alarm. Still there. Sleeve stained dark orange to the elbow. Something else wrong...
Warmth no longer surrounded, but emanated from him.
His pulse, a gentle hammer in his head, sent signals to the weaker pulse in his wrist. He eavesdropped on the dialog of pulses, but it was like trying to remember a dream in a language he didn't understand.
Sitting on a soft surface, talking. An older man with sharp features and red hair sat across from him, listening intently, the lens of his eclexicon trained on him.
Don't tell him anything! He tried to stop talking, but eventually lost interest. His head lolled downward, eyes caught by the hexagonal patterns of tile dotting the floor. Six blue against a sea of white: little blue crystals surrounded by snow...
Someone was shaking him. "January... January." When had he told them his name? He looked up, annoyed. The older man held up a clipboard.
"I lost that! It's mine." January swiped at it drunkenly. His forearm was numb, heavy as gold; he expected it to fly off. Fortunately it was well-attached, and bounded back at him. Off-balance, he swayed, stomach lurching; someone held him steady.
"Why aren't any of your keywords on this clipboard?" asked the older man gently.
Yes, why weren't they? January remembered. "Used it for show."
"So this is just a clipboard." The man shrugged at someone behind him. "Where are your keywords now, January?"
"Memorized 'em." He rattled off the sequences, though the hexagons in the floor all recurred just often enough to urgently require his attention. Time-lapse crystals formed and dissolved; double helices of DNA twirled past. He heard himself trail off, and the lack of his voice felt like a hole in the universe.
"Please continue," the man said. "The hypnotic keywords you're calling sequences. You claim you found them in dreams. Is this correct?"
Of course it was correct. He tried to explain. Word combinations he found on the edges of dreams: strange, almost random. One night on the telly, he'd heard one of the combinations. Did you hear...? No one else had, though he noticed a few of his mates had gone slack-jawed and curiously obedient afterwards. He paid a good deal more attention to the sequences after that, kept them all in his head, safe and secret. Experimented here and there. When he'd turned 16 last year and run from school he...
Patterns swam on the floor, tiles gleaming like teeth: white drops swirling and popping like soda bubbles, blue hexagons gently folding in on themselves, then unfolding, like butterfly wings.
...liminal state... He's not useful this way... full submersion, tap into the dreams themselves.
He felt himself leave the bench. Gravity must have tired of him. The high ceiling loomed, inhaling him. He thrashed in the air, his bare foot connecting with something soft. Someone cursed, and his legs fell with a splash. His upper half floated down, landing softly in the bath.
The orange sea swallowed him; warmth enfolded him. His pores opened, and his muscles relaxed, dissolving into the sea.
Above him, the older man unzipped the leather case on the table. Metal clinked and scraped on the tray.
His gloved hand moved towards January's face. Pinched between forefinger and thumb was a long, curved needle.
None of January's limbs, nor his voice, responded to his panic. The sea lapped at his motionless body, claiming him, blind and silent.
He squeezed his eyes tight and willed himself deep under the sea.