The Rags Place


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We were lost again.

Bethanis started sneezing in the dirty alley behind the Seraph restaurant. We were wandering among soiled fragments of cardboard and battered galvanized bins. I glanced back at her, and then looked up through the narrow space between high dark buildings to where the green and purple sunset still stained the sky. We’d been in Rags Place for seven weeks now, but I couldn’t get used to the odd skies – their whorls and festering uncertainties, their rippling colours. They were as disturbing as a slow-healing wound.

“Kushooo! Pah-kushooo!” She leaned against a bin that was taller than she was. She appeared pale and exhausted.

“Your pleasure,” I said.

She pressed her palm to her forehead. “I think I’ve got a noseleech, Nad.”

“Shit. Bugger.” When we’d entered Rags Place, after many months spent staggering from one Monday Zone to the next, we’d thought the pathogens would be fewer and less virulent. The opposite seemed true. Hogam’s palsy, fuguist’s disease, ruggart, shist, malgart, Frellis syndrome, Mab’s chorea and noseleeches: we’d encountered them all.

Bethanis snorted and groaned, her features distorting, shuddering and then returning to their original form. Distorting again. Stretching…until, at last: “Pah-kushow!” Her hand, a feeble shield, waved in front of her face.

I adjusted my backpack. “We’d better get it out, I suppose. Before you forget everything.”

A bloodstained polyp of snot crept from her left nostril and she sniffed it up quickly. “I agree.”

“We’ll sort out where we are later. I’m pretty sure Bloodfoot’s not more than two or three days away. It probably knows we’re coming.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” She yawned hugely. “But the map’s completely fucked. It seems terrified. Keeps curling up into a ball.” She blinked. “Hey. Did I just see a rat?”

“Not likely,” I said. I looked down at the ground, which was awash with a peculiar gritty scum. “The Seraphs clear out all macrofauna when they think people like us are on the way. Even some non-sentient forms are evacuated. The Seraphs can’t abide socially awkward situations. And their powers of empathy are ridiculously good. Fucking painful.”

“Assholes.” She took out a used tissue and attempted to separate its crusty folds. We had no fresh tissues left. Worlds lived in our old tissues. Bethanis blew her nose and studied the result. She grimaced. “Fuck. It’s like blowing your nose on razorblades.”

I stared at the restaurant’s unstable rear gantries – hundreds of them, zigzagging and meshing. A sign hung above a low door. “Dobby’s Bistro. Sounds nice. Let’s spend the night here, and we can deal with that noseleech.”

“Right.” Wincing, she pulled on her pack’s straps. “I’m fucked. I’ve had it.”

“Everything’ll look better in the morning.”

The door wasn’t locked. We passed through the kitchens – lots of stainless steel and blackened woks – and entered the dining area. All of it was deserted, of course. I tried a light switch and, to my moderate surprise, it activated the usual oily restaurant lighting. The décor was tasteful, I suppose: velvet wall hangings and polished wooden tables. The barest hint of womb.

“Excellent.” I took off my backpack. “Right, Beth, let’s do the necessary.”

As she removed her own pack, her nostrils flared and her mouth opened. She gasped and flung her head back, as if caught in the blast of a savage wind. She quivered and wilted, and shut her eyes tightly. Sickness and energy radiated from her. Time stood still for a moment, and then she sneezed: “Gushooo!”

“Your pleasure, Beth.”

“Arrgh.” She ran her thumb under her nose. “You still like it when I sneeze, don’t you, Nad?”

I removed the medical kit from my pack. I looked at her frankly. “Beth: I love you, but you’re not the woman you once were.”

“And you’re not the man you used to be.”

“True.” I found the tweezers and a small torch. “You remember what I told you about sneezing?”

She braced herself against a table as I approached. “About your home? Yes. There are sneezing pleasure grounds. Of course I recall it. Sneezing as a leisure pursuit. Harmless and invigorating. Showering blessings.”

“Good. You do remember. Put your head back.”

She stared at me levelly. “Of course I remember. But you don’t sneeze now.”

“Put your head back, Beth.”

“Why don’t you sneeze now?…You’re testing me, aren’t you?”

She was right. Noseleeches excrete prions that, given time, will permanently damage a host’s memory; and they secrete antihistamines that suppress an organism’s attempts to expel them. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your point of view – Beth was the sensitive type. One diminutive noseleech couldn’t secrete enough to fool her immune responses.

“Why don’t I sneeze, Beth?”

She frowned. “You had fuguist’s disease. Noctivagrancy. Yes. Some of your autonomic reactions were damaged.”

She was right again. I don’t sneeze; I can’t vomit. I have to think about blinking. Breathing is a chore. I struggle to piss and shit, and my erections are infrequent. I can manage only the feeblest of coughs. Hardly a full recovery.

“Put your head back, there’s a good girl.”

She did as I ordered. I shone the torch up her nostrils, which gaped like tunnels to an unguessable future. “Whatever you do, don’t sneeze now.”

I raised the tweezers. High up in her right nostril was something white and plump. It was coated in mucus, but I knew it wasn’t snot. Trying to keep my hand steady, I inserted the tweezers.

“Hold still. I think I’ve got it.”

She moaned faintly. I tugged. The noseleech, a segmented little wriggler, came free with a soft ‘plock’. Beth squealed and jerked backward, both hands covering her nose and mouth.

“It’s gone.” I placed it on the table she was leaning against and squashed it with my thumb. A small bloody globe emerged from its rear or mouth – I wasn’t sure which was which. To try to calm her, I told her what she already knew: “Because it’s no longer feeding you antihistamines, your reaction will become worse for a short time. More sneezing, I’m afraid.” I paused and added: “I’m pretty sure I got the mouth parts, so you shouldn’t get an infection.”

“Oh, Nad!” She hugged me. Her dull yellow hair smelled musty. At least, I thought it smelled musty. My sense of smell isn’t that good.

“There, there,” I said. “All over.”

She was not the woman she used to be – not the magnificent adventurer I had met two years ago – though she was still impressive looking. Her broad face, with its high cheekbones and strong nose, still possessed searing, unquenchable eyes. Gasflame blue. But lines of fatigue ran from the corners of those fierce eyes, and her right jaw was ridged and puckered with old scar tissue: the legacy of the smartpox that had almost claimed her life eighteen months ago. And there were open sores on the backs of her hands. She had malgart, and the sores were the external signs of an insidious pathogen that was slowly consuming her internal organs.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“Hungry?” She dabbed at a bloody nostril with her fingers. “I’m never hungry.”

“Neither am I. But we are in a restaurant. And we should keep our strength up.”

“All right then. White meat or fish of some kind. I couldn’t stomach anything else.”

She began to sneeze again as I returned to the kitchen. I listened to her, but did not turn to watch. Her spasms, undoubtedly accompanied by a spray of blood, were a mournful, insistent litany:


“Your pleasure, Beth…”

In the kitchens I found a huge metal door that led to a massive cold store; a frozen room. Chimera carcasses hung on large hooks. I recognised hopperhogs and spithounds; chislots and mothcows. But they were all too big for me to remove and butcher. In a cabinet against the wall was a selection of seafood, which looked more manageable.

I discovered two vilch steaks. If you haven’t eaten vilch before, you need to know a little about this rare delicacy. It’s an oceanic predator that hunts in shoals. Its huge jaws could cut a man in two, assuming a vilch fisherman was ever unlucky enough or stupid enough to fall overboard. Most of it is tasty, but the flesh taken from the propulsion gland is the real prize. This has a strange property: the vilch diner’s exhaled breath becomes visible and coloured: a rainbow cloud. Sweat becomes luminous. Even farts are spectacular explosions of colour.

My libido may have been severely wounded, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to see a vilch eater sneeze.

Bethanis had moved to the kitchen by the time I emerged from the cold store. She was sitting on a stainless steel worktop, legs dangling. It seemed that an invisible and inept puppeteer was jerking the strings that controlled her face, shoulders and hands.

“Pahhh…” She swayed forward and was jerked back. “Hahhh…” She jerked again. “Puh-kushooo!”

I said: “Isn’t there something in the hygiene regulations about not sneezing in the kitchen?”

She smiled, still in a post-sneeze daze. Her features were unfocused, moistened and inflamed. I returned her smile and we both started to laugh. We always found any reference to hygiene irresistibly funny.

She sniffled and wiped her nose with the heel of one hand. Then she reached behind her and produced a bottle of wine. “Look what I found under one of the tables.”

I glanced at the label. “Nuits-St-Georges. Outstanding. The Seraphs might be pathologically shy, but they’ve made sure we’re well provided for, the little darlings. It’s a pity I’ve got vilch steaks. You know – red wine and fish.”

She shrugged. “Fuck that.” She pushed herself off the work surface, moving with surprising agility, considering all we’d been through. “Vilch steaks, eh? You devious son of a bitch.” She grinned roguishly. The kind of grin that could outshine the worst scars.

I reached for a large copper frying pan that hung above a gas hob – and winced.


“I’m okay. Just shouldn’t stretch like that.” I’d contracted rillets while we were crossing Bakelite Plains. The disease causes spontaneous rents in the flesh. Most are fairly small. They don’t bleed and rarely become infected. But every now and then one appears that is longer, wider and deeper than the rest, and it usually means trouble. I dragged up my shirt. Several days previously, a bad fissure had opened across my stomach, just above and to the right of my navel. I’d stitched it using nylon thread, and, to my relief, my handiwork seemed intact. I tucked my shirt into my trek pants.

“Oh, bliss!” Bethanis had pulled out several drawers. “Paper napkins!” She stuffed white wads into her pockets, and then unfolded a single napkin with careful reverence. She blew her nose, and a red flower bloomed where the white fabric covered her nostrils.

“Careful you don’t start something you can’t stop.” I pressed the ignition switch and lit a gas ring. Everything in full working order.

“I don’t get nosebleeds like you,” she said. “This is a two minute job. No more.”

I poured oil into the pan and threw in the steaks. “I’m glad you’re confident. Because the fish won’t take more than five. Or six. Maybe eight. Soy sauce or lemon juice?”

She shuddered. “Unseasoned, Nad. Definitely unseasoned.”

“Okay.” I pushed the fish around with a spatula. The pan spat and hissed, and I sighed. “I’m really sorry I dragged you with me, Beth. You don’t deserve all the shit I’ve put you through.”

“I’m a big girl. I’m here of my own free will.” She stood next to me, watching me work, bloodstained napkin pressed to her nose. “Anyway – ” she nudged me “ – how else would I have been able to satisfy my Munchausen’s syndrome?”

Ten minutes later, each steak sat at the centre of a clean white plate. Served like this, the vilch had dignity. The steaks, exuding steam, were like precious exhibits displayed in a sacred museum. We selected a table in the dining area, and I uncorked the wine while Beth located glasses and cutlery. Sacred the vilch steaks might have looked, but that wouldn’t save them. We sat and began to eat.

The Vilch Effect began after the first mouthfuls. Purple and green tendrils snaked from her nostrils. Rainbow veils drifted up from her mouth, caressed the magnificent sweep of her cheekbones, and wreathed her hair. She’d eaten less fish than I had, but it was having a more powerful effect on her than on me. All I could manage was a dirty orange smog. Slugs of colour oozed from my nose and mouth and ascended slowly toward my eyes. I kept looking down my nose at them, distracted from my meal, and slightly annoyed.

Bethanis had consumed a third of her steak, but I could tell she was already struggling to eat more. She kept puffing out her cheeks and sighing, causing multi-hued torrents to spill from her lips on to the table. Her forehead was damp with perspiration, giving her a faint tiara.

Then she put down her knife and fork, and her features softened and melted into an achingly vulnerable pre-sneeze expression. She turned to her right and covered her nose and mouth with her hands.


Primary colours jetted from between her fingers. Dazzling tubes broke into iridescent jewels that dissolved as they reached the outskirts of the dining area. I was mesmerised, my meal abandoned.

I knew she would sneeze again, and I said: “Take your hands from your face, Beth. Please.”

She dropped her arms, and I was stunned by her face, her posture: a heartbreaking distillation of agony, tenderness and desire.

“Kisshooo!” A cone of light burst from her. Her exhaled breath contained an entire galaxy – nebulae, gas giants, constellations and hurtling comets…exploding suns.

I had always thought she was an attractive woman, but I was wrong. Bethanis was beautiful, and I believed I was witnessing the spectrum of her soul.

Slowly I got to my feet. I moved round the table until I was in front of her, then I got down on my knees and put my head in her lap. She stroked my hair and crooned to me briefly. I felt her body lift, absorbing force, preparing to expel force.


I looked up into indigo mist; into incandescence.


I was bathed in a cascade of violet, orange and green. I embraced her and we slid from her chair on to the carpet. We kissed and shed our clothes, and our old scars bled light. Coronae encircled her breasts, and from her genital cleft flowed warm, generous, gentle hues. We made love for the first time in almost six weeks, and orgasmed simultaneously for the first time ever.

As I rolled away from her, I grunted in pain.

“What’s the matter, Nad?” She sounded spent, utterly exhausted.

“Nothing. It’s nothing.” I stared down and saw that a new fissure had opened just beneath the old one. A knuckly section of small intestine bulged through. I poked it back, and held the rent closed while I stood and searched for my sewing kit.

“Nad?” Beth yawned; purple smoke curled from her lips.

“One of my stitches has come undone.” I knew she would worry if she thought my fissures were multiplying. I removed the sewing kit from my backpack, administered a local anaesthetic spray, threaded a needle and set to work.

“Can I help?” She yawned again, and snuffled. A faint, coloured aura still surrounded her head, but the Vilch Effect was wearing off.

“It’s all right,” I said. “You sound worn out.” I stopped stitching, found her sleeping bag and tossed it to her. “Here. Get some rest.”

“Are you coming to bed too?” She coughed weakly.

“When I’ve finished. I won’t be long.” I inserted the needle, squinting in the poor light.

“Don’t forget to switch on your sensor,” she said sleepily.

“I won’t.” My electronic sensor gives me a small shock if my lazy body forgets to breath while I’m asleep.

“And Nad…”


“It was a lovely evening.”

“Yes it was. Fuck!”


“Just pricked my fucking finger. Fucking needles.”

“Sure you don’t want help?” She yawned.

“No. Go to sleep.”

When I woke the next morning, Bethanis was dead. I’d seen enough corpses to know. I didn’t need to check her pulse or put a mirror under her nose. I touched her cold, waxy face.

“Oh, Beth. My poor love.”

A pale green dawn was lighting the restaurant’s frosted-glass windows. And I thought of an old riddle, something about the place where I always am, but which we cannot find; the place that has no location. The place that is no place at all. There was probably more, but I couldn’t remember it. I knew the answer, though. The answer was consciousness. Beth’s body, her shell, no longer possessed the place without location.

I dragged her naked corpse into the cold store, moaning with pain from my fissures, and sat her with her back to the wall, her left shoulder against the seafood cabinet. I’d known that the malgart would kill her if untreated; but I hadn’t expected the end so soon. Although we’d never talked much about it, we’d both assumed I would be the first to go. I guessed that the malgart, which usually attacks the alimentary canal first, had taken a shortcut to Beth’s heart. The pathogens were always changing, evolving. This shortcut must have made her death quick and relatively painless. If she had suffered at all, she would have cried out, or convulsed, and my night’s sleep would have been disturbed.

I dressed and took the map from her jacket. After I stroked it and made some coaxing noises, it unfolded and spread flat. I knew now why it had been so distressed the previous day. It was a sensitive if crude organism, and it must have been aware that Bethanis’ death was imminent.

I left by the restaurant’s front door. The street outside was grey and empty: the Seraphs wouldn’t be back for a month or two. Opposite was a gaudy shopping mall, and to the south were grey factory buildings.

I headed across the street, toward the mall. If I could find the correct route, reach Bloodfoot in time and persuade it to give me a Seed, there was a chance I could return to Rags Place and resurrect Beth. As I walked, I began to cry. But my tears didn’t last long; they were too painful. Tears of searing acid: another side effect of fuguist’s disease.

If Beth and I ever looked on each other’s living faces again, she would probably remark on my new set of scars. Two vertical streaks, one on either cheek.

*          *          *

A little later I wondered about the wisdom of my plan to revive her. I wondered if resurrection could ever be right. If I’d learned one thing, it was this (and I know it sounds banal): that to deny death is to deny life. We fall down so others can run unhindered. Death is the engine that drives evolution.