Read Sugar Skulls Online

Authors: Lisa Mantchev,Glenn Dallas

Sugar Skulls

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2015 Glenn Dallas and Lisa Mantchev

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Skyscape, New York

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Skyscape are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503949713

ISBN-10: 1503949710

Book design by Sammy Yuen

To Mom and Dad, who never said it was impossible . . . They just said, “Keep working.”

—G. D.

For Terry Pratchett, who taught me it was all right to go for the joke.

—L. M.

CHAPTER ONE

M

Three blocks away from the club, two stories up, I’m staring at the Wall and counting down, waiting for the shift from twilight to dusk.

Three . . . two . . . one . . .
As the last flickers of holographic sunset fade, the stars wink into view, speckling the fake horizon.

Of course, nobody streetside is watching for it. The newest crop of recruits wanders around the Odeaglow, dazzled by all the neon-splashed debauchery. As I make my way down to ground level, across ledges, down fire escapes, and through back alleys, I see them everywhere. Streaming into the nightspots. Waving a wrist in front of a vending machine for a hit of glim. Pairing up for another evening of physical and chemical delights.

There’s nothing like the Cyrene nightlife.

I step into Hellcat Maggie’s, trading the constant hum of the city outside for ambient murmurs and the breathy tones of speaker-buzz. The shift eases my nerves ever so slightly. Speaker-buzz can herald great things.

Sidestepping an attractive pair of temporary blondes wearing more mini than skirt, I let my gaze stroll along their bodies, appreciating the show. One girl’s hair colorshifts from ash to auburn, the other’s to a light aquamarine. They stumble past me without a hint of acknowledgment, eyes glazed from a few hits of moondust.
Glad the fresh meat started off with something light.

Normally, I’d never brave the front door of Maggie’s during business hours, but with all the new recruits getting their first taste of prime-time excess, I’m just another face in the crowd.

The ’dusters slip outside, letting the city lights dazzle their chemically enhanced eyes. They’re the first girls I’ve seen without the ghostly face paint or other overt signs of obsessive fandom. They’ll be in the minority inside, from what Maggie has said about Sugar Skulls fans.

Maggie is all about them right now. I remember her pitch almost verbatim from her post on the Cyrano network, advertising the show:
Forget our usual fare. Forget all that DJ-spun techno generated in-city. The Sugar Skulls shatter the mold. This band is all-girl metal-infused technoglam, complete with lead vocals. There’s nothing else like it in Cyrene.

Since I ran a few extra errands for her this week in addition to the usual drops, she’s passing me a ticket for the show. I
would
duck out on the invite, but I can’t keep blowing her off. Losing Maggie as a contact isn’t an option.

I make my way down the narrow corridor, from one staggered pool of light to the next, past the facilities and a few convenient shadowy alcoves, which will no doubt be seeing plenty of traffic later on. My fingers instinctively whisper-brush a curtain, grasping at memories of damp skin, the barest traces of shared moans, the heady hints of rapture.

I pull the curtain closed and walk away.

One dark corridor and a sharp left later, I taste the ozone in the air. I’m here. The double doors are propped open, and the static electricity spikes the hair on my arms.

Right now, for everyone else, dopamine is flooding their mesolimbic pathways and making everything fine and dandy. Nanotech scrubs out anything harmful but lets the recreational chemical goodness through unscathed. Like a soft blanket, these top-of-the-show highs envelop them in a thousand flapping butterfly wings of sensation.

Not for me, though. I ease up to the bar and order a #3, a double. Neat. Tastes like the inside of a vacuum cleaner bag but burns so good on the way down.

One quick drink, then I’ll retreat to the safety of the rafters.
Out of sight. Out of mind. Above the fray.

Less than a foot separates the pit from the bar area, but they might as well be alternate worlds. Everyone’s already down there, the hive alight as they sample pills and eyedroppers and stimulants galore, expenses covered by a simple tap on a biometric scanner, small stipends of starter credits funding newfound vices. This preshow binge will pay off in spades a few minutes from now.

Especially if those new thrum-collectors mounted along either side of the pit are up to the task. In a few minutes, the show will kick off and the collectors will go to work, grids of lasers collecting every ounce of thrum generated as the crowd writhes and jumps and dances, fueled by a cocktail of music and chemistry. The free light show is just icing on the cake.

On cue, Hellcat Maggie saunters out of her private office, projecting an aura of easy confidence, but I can sense the tension all around her. She believes the Sugar Skulls are a Big Deal, and she’ll be going over every aspect of the show with razor-sharp attention to detail.

Draped in a luxurious red silk dress far too formal for the occasion, Maggie is harshly thin, all sharp angles and careful craftsmanship to hold aging to a stalemate. At least she pays the club the same attention, constantly striving to keep pace with tech upgrades and the latest mods and fads. I help out wherever I can, doing odd jobs and maintenance work to ingratiate myself with her.

On her way to the back dressing room, she spots me at the bar and instantly changes course, adding an exaggerated little wiggle to her walk. I sigh, recognizing the intent behind that wiggle.

“Oh, hello, dove.” Maggie’s always careful not to use my name in public. She hugs my shoulders and kisses my cheek, a bit closer to my lips than I’m comfortable with. “Thank you for running those extra parcels for me today. You’re a lifesaver, as always.” Her arms slowly drift from my shoulders, but she lingers close. Her lavender perfume assaults my nose.

“Not a problem at all, Maggie. Happy to deliver more over-the-Wall tunes to the musically impoverished here.”

“Which reminds me.” She slips a prepaid card from her cleavage and presses it into my hand. The card’s warmth is unsettling.

“Right. Thank you.” I tuck it into my pocket. “So, what do you think of the new recruits?”

Maggie reluctantly drags her eyes away from me and considers the crowd: the fruits of Cyrene’s most successful recruitment push to date. They can afford to turn people away now, cherry-picking those best suited to keep the city fueled and humming. “Corporate has high expectations for this lot. Tonight’ll be a solid test. I bet we’ll out-thrum the competition two to one.”

She’s wagering the band will help her deliver.
“Anyway, thanks for the ticket. Can’t wait to see if they live up to all your hype.” The edge of the bar digs into my back as I lean away.

Maggie doesn’t give an inch, her breath already haunted by wisps of high-octane booze. “You know, you’re welcome to join me for the after-party. Little get-together at my place. You deserve a treat, always working so hard for me.”

Yeah, a little get-together that turns out to be just the two of us.
“Appreciated, but after this I should really get back and grab some shut-eye. Gotta be well rested for my runs tomorrow.”

“Oh. Of course. Well, if you need anything, talk to Rete. He’s at the Palace for the next week or so. He won’t mind.”

Ugh, Rete. Her scumbag second-in-command.
I’m saved from discussing him further by a short double tap of static over the speakers. To the uninitiated, it’s just background noise, but to the rest of us, it’s Maggie’s five-minute warning before showtime.

She scowls slightly before brushing the expression away with a flutter of her fingers. “Business before pleasure, dove. I’ll catch you later.”

She takes my wrist for a moment to punctuate her promise, before turning and stalking toward the back. Still wiggling.

Better move soon. After one more drink.

V

The girl in the mirror is an undead supermodel in search of a catwalk. It’s the handiwork of the new styling team Corporate brought in to deal with my hair and paint my face and glue sequins to my eyelids and shove in the black-light contacts after the old team quit.

Not that I’m admitting I had anything to do with them unceremoniously packing their kits and leaving before the last show. Better to point the finger at Jax.

In the group, Jax is “the crazy one.” Damon recruited her a year ago, just before her eighteenth birthday, and she’s driven every styling team we’ve had batshit insane with her demands.

“Spiderwebs,” she decides for her face paint tonight, then points her index fingers at a case of skunk-striped bedhead so legendary, it looks like mice have nested in it. “Just don’t touch the ’do.”

There’s a continuous rumble coming from the front of the house: newbies, fresh off the nanotech install and frothing at the mouth to get a taste of everything Cyrene has to offer. The mistress of ceremonies appears a few minutes later, hovering around the edges of my mirror like a moth about to get bug-zapped, makeup already settling into creases she thinks no one else can see. Hellcat Maggie drones on for a bit, her words painted in every shade of predictable monotony.

Eyes glued to the set list on her laptop, short hair spiked and pink, Sasha nods and makes understanding noises without really listening. Five months back, Damon pulled her from outside Cyrene, where everything is workaday business as usual, melting polar ice caps and recycling and talking heads, minimum-wage jobs and Wall Street assholes. She told me he offered a considerable chunk of cash to her poor-as-dirt family in exchange for a three-year contract capitalizing on her sound design and computer skills. Means Sasha got to leapfrog over a hundred thousand or more eager applicants all clamoring to get into the city, but instead of acting like a badass, she’s more like a puppy that might pee on the rug.

She and Jax are the same age, but you’d never guess it, because Sasha is “the nice one.”

And me? Well, I guess that makes me “the bitch.” Like now, instead of joining in Jax’s preshow pill binge or Sasha’s obsessive run-throughs of the set list, I hug Little Dead Thing and wish everyone would just shut their cakeholes. He understands my mood, curling up in a tight fur-splotched ball in my lap, purring like a rusted-out lawn mower engine. Sasha dragged this sorry excuse for a cat in off the street a couple months back. He’d almost immediately started trailing after me, gratitude be damned, yowling at doors closed between us and shredding furniture when left behind at the Loft. Just easier to bring him along, a freaky little mascot who leaves hairs all over my robe.

But I banish him to a dark corner before getting dressed. Fuck-me wardrobe. Heels so tall, I prance instead of walking through the dim red lights in the wings. Corseted waist, narrow skirt, a thousand pounds of hand-sewn beads catching the light when I step onstage. The dress was a class-me-up gift from Damon: vintage and gorgeous and beyond expensive.

I’d taken a switchblade to it, because tatters suit me better.

Still miles away from comfortable, I try to draw a deeper breath than the corset allows, and it catches in my throat. I shouldn’t be stressing. Tonight’s just a warm-up for the big to-do at the Dome. Three days and counting. Have to test the set list and the newest energy-grabbing thrum-collectors Corporate’s eager to roll out citywide.

Every time I blow up one of the old ones, it knocks me off the grid. Cue a mind-scrubbing and a nanotech reboot. I’m tired of waking up as a brand-new Vee. I’d like to keep this version of myself, even if that means making nicey-nice with the equipment.

Anything to keep Damon off my back for a little while longer.

M

From the bar, I watch roadies and techies in midnight black swarm the stage, running cables and hauling equipment for the band. On the left, a girl with hot-pink punk style and an enigmatic smile warms up a laptop and lovingly caresses the keys on a top-of-the-line Moog synthesizer. On the right, a dervish with an unkempt lion’s mane and retro-goth Victorian flair barks orders at anyone who comes within two feet of her holographic mixer board and turntables. I dub the left one Treble and the right one Trouble.

Then my gaze falls front and center where
she
commands the stage despite a sapphire cloak of preshow lighting. I barely glimpse her face behind a curtain of raven hair. Streaks of wicked green and electric blue only highlight her two-tone mystique. Porcelain skin gives her the perfect palette, highlighting every brush, dab, and flourish of face paint. Her eyes are two black-rimmed blossoms, illusory sunken sockets wavering between bluest sky and deepest violet. Her nose vanishes beneath the dark makeup, shadows bending to her will. Her lips and cheeks are lined with more black strokes, completing the effect.

Sugar Skulls, indeed.

Her beaded black dress shimmers in the soft blue light, shredded beyond all reason, as if she lost a few dozen knife fights in the last twenty-four hours. She’s adorned it with staples and buckles and all manner of punk rock regalia.

Whining feedback arcs from speaker to speaker when Treble and Trouble plug in their laptops.

Maggie steps into the small spotlight at the edge of the stage, reveling in her brief moment of ringmaster glory. “And here they are,” she croons into the mic. “The Sugar Skulls!”

The overhead lights cut out, and the masses cheer in the darkness. Anticipation spikes as warm ambers, pulsing crimsons, and soothing blues scatter across the crowd. Swirling spotlights illuminate the pit. The emerald lasers of the thrum-collectors fan out, activated by the crowd’s enthusiastic response.

Maggie is banished from memory as the girl stands at center stage, bathed in purest white.

V

At some clubs, the spotlight’s the ghost of a lover, already fading as the sun hits the sheets on the cold side of the bed. Other times—times like this, a club like this—it’s bright enough to drain a dozen power banks. It tightens, sparks on the beads, and throws tiny reflections across the room like stars.

Sasha loads up “Drunk on You” and starts accessing threads of older songs, forgotten songs, conjuring the voices of dead musicians on the fly. No crystal ball necessary, just the Corporate music archives. It’s the only way to get a taste of over-the-Wall music, percolated through a thousand programs and filtered by every piece of equipment we have; even then, it’s in hacked-up bits and pieces, just like my dress. Jax mixes the threads together and brings up the volume until the stage starts to vibrate.

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