No sign hung on the door, but everyone knew it was a chemjack nest. Covered in a fur cloak to look the part, Mallocrest trudged into the shadowy, candlelit room, imitating the heavy footfall of the crusties. Patrons lounged on couches, matresses and the floor, some with injectors hanging off their arms, others drinking from clear bottles or smoking through infusers, all of their rags slightly better than Mallocrest’s.
He dropped a capsule of sodium bicarbonate laced with accelerators into the entrance dish, the doorman too blasted on ashaplex to bother checking it. “Ickborlites,” he said.
The doorman pointed down a hall to the right. “Third left.”
The reptilian stench grew rapidly down the hall. He let himself in and the smell swamped him. Ignoring it, he looked around for his objective, sorting through all of the crusties laying about. They had their cloaks off, their skin covered with ickborlas, scaly rat-like creatures with jaws opened into a flat oval with fangs that clamped into their flesh and hung on. A few of them had upwards of thirty clinging to different sections of their bodies.
He went through to the next room, more of them huddled up with each other, men with men, women with women, the ickborlas jumping from body to body.
There he was, sitting next to a cluster of seven. His face washed out and stretched thin, he had four ickborlas sucking his blood on his neck, his chest, under his arm, and on one side. An ickborla left the pile, crawled over to him and clamped on to his forearm, eliciting a quick suck through the man’s lips. Mallocrest wondered if it was for pain or pleasure.
“Tulleru,” Mallocrest said. The man opened his eyes. “My friend, pull them off and come with me.”
The largest man in the pile turned his head and glared at Mallocrest, then pulled himself away from the others, standing a half foot taller. Mallocrest pulled out his forty-five and pointed at the man’s head. The man snarled, exposing rotten teeth, then burrowed himself back into the pile.
“Come on,” said Mallocrest.
Tulleru stared, his face drawn in despair. “I’m part of the Ancrasha now.”
“You don’t have to be,” said Mallocrest.
Mallocrest squatted. “Pull them off.”
“They’re the interchange that join me to him. To the Ancrasha. They bring me his deenay and I give my deenay, we all participate in the nature of our sovereign and receive her covenant through him.”
“They suck your blood to feed our tormentors.” Mallocrest grabbed the hind legs of the one on Tulleru’s side to see if he would resist. His friend didn’t move. “How did you come to this?” he asked. His friend gasped as he pulled the ickborla off. It hissed, and Mallocrest threw it across the room before it could snap at him. Some of the crusties grumbled, but stayed low in their piles as the ickborla found a new host.
A tear formed in Tulleru’s eye. “I lost everyone in the Amorca wastelands, and these found me. They fed me and included me in their gentegration, and when I could walk, I was one of them, two ickborlas attached to me. I’m one of them now. Assured of a room in the Desiderasha.”
Mallocrest pulled off three more, but Tulleru grabbed the one under his arm and pinned it before Mallocrest could take it.
“I’m one of them now,” Tulleru said.
“It’s not too late,” said Mallocrest. “You didn’t want this. They’ve given you doubt and you fear loneliness.”
“It’s my duty.”
“I need you.”
“I’ll lose my empowerment in the Desiderasha,” Tulleru said.
“You will die a slave to their empowerment.” Mallocrest patted his knee. “Pull it off. Remember where you came from.”
“Pull it off.” Mallocrest reached for the ickborla and Tulleru didn’t struggle. Mallocrest took his hand and wrapped Tulleru’s fingers around one leg as he took the other. “Pull.”
Tulleru pulled lightly, causing tension on the mouth of the creature against his skin.
“Pull,” said Mallocrest.
His friend pulled hard and it released. Tulleru shuddered and moaned as Mallocrest tossed the ickborla away.
“Good.” Mallocrest stood up and held out his hand. “Now come with me.”
Tulleru took his hand and pulled himself up. Mallocrest held him around the back and walked him out. He could already hear grumbles increasing behind them as he popped a cap off a tube of acetic acid and dumped it into the basket on his way by. He could hear the accelerators amplify the chemical effect and burst into a ball of foam, hoping it would frighten the front patrons to flee down the hall and slow down any crusties.
Mallocrest jostled Tulleru down a few side streets until he was confident he’d lost any followers.
“Take me back,” said Tulleru.
“You don’t need them,” said Mallocrest.
“If I don’t offer my deenay, I betray them. Only if I am with them can I make them love me.”
“These are lies, my friend. You once knew that.”
“But without them, what do I have?”
“Me, my friend. You have me and a most noble purpose.”