“Repent! Repent!” the naked man screamed. “You desecrate the perfection gifted to us by the Ancients! You sacrifice your humanity to the false god of technology!”
Ashton Carpenter watched the street preacher out of the corner of his eye, afraid to look straight at him for fear the man might try to engage him. The guy had balls to start haranguing crowds outside a Skin-ganger chop shop. The cyborgs, “Evolutionists” they liked to call themselves, were already filtering out of the dingy, sheet metal building, their glowing red oculars glaring at the Predecessor Cult missionaries. The neon glow of the street signs glinted menacingly off the exposed silvery metal of their bionic limbs and Ash walked a little faster.
Kanesh was bad enough without wading through a religious gang war. He hated the dank, claustrophobic chill of the tunnels and the thin sheen of condensation clinging to every metal or plastic surface and the unshakable feeling that with every step he was descending deeper into the bowels of Hell. Docking at the asteroid’s hub, the place had seemed a strange and almost quaintly bureaucratic cut-rate version of upscale pleasure stations like Belial in the Alpha Centauri system, except here they let you keep your weapons as long as you paid an exorbitant tax.
But then he’d traveled spinward in the lift, out towards the levels of the rotating cylinder of asteroid rock with higher centripetal gravity, and had to search each one of them, had to experience everything that people were willing to do to each other when there were no consequences for their actions. Kanesh had been built by the Pirate World cartels, far outside the jurisdiction of the Patrol, too remote for even the military to bother with it. Like Belial and other, smaller pleasure stations inside the bounds of the Commonwealth, it was a “blown” asteroid, cored with a high-power laser, filled with water, spun and then heated with solar reflectors until it expanded like a balloon, leaving a thick skin of nickel iron shielding the empty space within.
Unlike Belial, Kanesh lacked even the semblance of law or restraint. The station had been built by criminals as neutral ground, a place to do business without the worry of another cartel crashing through the door or one side double-crossing the other. And that was the only order maintained on Kanesh: business was sacrosanct and anyone who interfered with it was dealt with swiftly and brutally, usually without even wasting a round of ammo on them. The bodies floated like debris in orbit around the station, more effective than any verbal warning.
Cartel negotiators, smuggler crews, assassins, bounty hunters, enforcers, fugitives and exiles flocked here, and so did those who fed on their appetites. There were restaurants and bars and hotels and dance clubs, of course, almost prosaic in how little they differed from businesses just like them on dozens of worlds. They seemed out of place here, obscene in their normality next to the other things, the things you wouldn’t find even on the Pirate Worlds themselves, because none of the cartel leaders would want to admit they sanctioned such things.
Here, no attempt was made to hide their vices, no cosmetic veneer was thrown up as camouflage. Garish holographs advertised the attractions of each level, with little organization by types: gladiatorial combat to the death, with and without weapons, bettors welcome; chopshops where you could sell the limbs and organs stolen off of others, or have a suitable replacement grafted from the inventory, or have your own biological pieces replaced with cybernetics to chase the next step in human evolution; snuff show where you could watch unwilling participants killed live in imaginative ways; drug dens that catered to whatever addiction might suit, from conventional chemicals such as Kick and Spindle to black market ViR that directly stimulated the pleasure centers of the brain.
And, of course, there were the older vices, the ones that were the great equalizer. No matter how powerful or dangerous or inhuman the client, everyone had the hardwired desire to get their rocks off. On Kanesh, you could do it safely, cheaply, simply, with cybernetic pleasure dolls and Virtual Reality, the same as on any of the seedier establishments in the Commonwealth proper. Pleasure dolls felt no pain, had no pride, carried no diseases or psychological baggage; you could do to them whatever you wished, indulge whatever sick fantasy that appealed to you without worrying about hurting anyone else.
Which was why those other places existed. Because humans being what they were, there were always a percentage who wanted to hurt others, who wanted pain and psychological scars, who wanted to make victims. The advertisements and the signs were open and blatantly honest in what they offered, and the open brutality of it struck Ash like a physical blow.