It was like many of these settlements that grow up around a cluster of soft museums. There was a take-away that sold every type of junk food, fried chicken, burgers, kebabs…. There were open fronted knock-off outlets with their reproductions of long dead brands such as Levis, Nike and Adidas. Lots of bookies showing televised horse races so old the results were lost in the most obscure of archives. And of course the arcade with its aisles of gambling machines, flashing and playing little runs of synthesised melody beneath bright fluorescent lights that were never turned off.
In the arcade there was a slot-boy, a specialised unit, a coin-op Jesus who-if you put in the money-would suffer for you, and take away your sins. At least for a while.
The tourists would usually spend an evening and a night in dissipated revels, drinking and whoring or indulging their more specialised tastes, before, in the bright hung-over light of dawn, they staggered into the arcade desperate for forgiveness.
Max had been at the Wheel of Torture all night. In the arcade he saw the slot-boy ahead, the crosses printed on its panels shining with divine light. He approached with his head down trying not to catch the eye of the gamblers at the regular machine.
Max stood before the machine.
"I…" he begun.
"Please insert money," said the slot-boy in its dead artificial voice.
Max dug into his pocket. His trousers were torn at the side but somehow his money was still there. He pulled out the little plastic change-bag and took out a coin. He looked at it for a moment in his palm. It had his own face on it. I'm a king, I'm a head of state, he thought mockingly. But everyone had their own coins. Everyone was head of state.
He put one of the coins in the slot.
"I forgive you," said the slot-boy and came to life, an organ tune playing and the three reels spinning their symbols: lambs, crosses, keys of St. Peter, scallop shells of Santiago.
"There was this woman…" Max said.
"You don't have to tell me," said the slot-boy.
The reels came to a stop showing a different word on each one.
You. Are. Forgiven.
"She was so very beautiful," said Max, "And then there was another woman with the head of a falcon…"
"You really don't need to do this," said the slot-boy, "I can make it all go away, just look at the reels."
But Max had to tell it.
The Wheel of Torture was a soft museum, a place where you can assume the identity of someone else. The soft museums had accumulated many theories about them: some thought that they were bankrolled by God to give the people at the end of time something to do; others that they were a fake within a fake. But the point of a soft museum was not to wonder what a soft museum was. The Wheel of Torture was a mile high pagoda tower. Each floor was a circular gallery with doors down either side lit from above by elaborate miniature chandeliers.
Max had gone up to the third floor, Delectations of Degradation. He walked down a gallery wondering which door to choose. The world beyond each door was indicated by some cryptic epigram printed on a metal plaque. A few grabbed his attention particularly, nagging at some recollection:
I have to make Airfix models of my dancer.
Or further along:
I'm sorry but I must go for long walks with that Ape.
Max was standing by this door when a figure appeared around the curve of gallery. This was irritating as he'd been promised sole use of the floor. He'd made to raise his hand, to point and say something. Only then he saw that the person was a woman with the head of a bird. She was almost naked in a tight bodice of chainmail that reached to her thighs. She walked towards him, each bare leg stretching out in turn as she did. When she was close he saw her head, the ghost surface of feathers, somehow solid but permeable. She was soft thing, with a vicious hooked beak and talons.
She stopped before Max her flesh visible through the rings of mail, making her more naked than if she had been entirely bare.
"Excuse me," Max said, "I think…"
She put her finger up to her bill.
But Max had to ask her: "Would you like to come into one of the rooms with me?"
The black surfaces of her eyes glared. When she replied the words sounded in his head, thudding there. Her beak and head remained motionless.
"You always say the same thing. Poor old Max."
"What do you mean? I've never..."
"Rooms within rooms, Maxie. We're already in a room."
For a moment there was the glimmer of some memory. But he wasn't going to let her confuse him.
"If we're in a room then what did it say on the door?"
"What it always says."
She turned and ran and Max realised that this was the game. He ran after her, needing to catch her. What it said on the door didn't matter. It would have been something as absurd as all the doors here. Chasing a bird woman or some such.
Because of the curve of the corridor she kept disappearing just ahead, just out of reach.
Then she was ahead of him, standing beside a door. Her garb had changed so that now she wore a long robe that reached to the ground, its rich abundance of feathers forming a textured surface like the accumulation of paint on a canvas.
She raised her arms, parting her gown, showing her naked body. The gown was attached to her, it was her wings.
"Are you mine now?" Max said, "Is that it?"
But she turned her head, presenting an Egyptian profile; her beak pointed towards the door. Then she grabbed him.
Max read the sign on the door the moment before she pushed him through it, her claws ripping a tear in his trousers as he went.
Do unspeakable things with my Orwellian gadget.
The room had harsh artificial light and grey walls where harnesses and chains hung. Opposite the door he had come through was another door reinforced with steel, with solid hinges and a heavy lock. In the middle of the room was a chair, also reinforced with steel. A young woman was bound to the chair with leather straps around her wrists and ankles. She was emaciated, her hair-once golden-was as brittle as sand. She turned to look at him straining eyes that had been too long away from sunlight.
"Please," she said, her dried lips cracking as she spoke.
She was sitting amongst a contraption of almost Heath Robinson absurdity. Yet Max knew that the specifications for this device had been developed after months of listening to this woman's intimate conversations, confessions and pillow talk; panic calls from troubled dreams.
On a table was a glass helmet like an inverted fish bowl, with a seal that could be tightened around the neck. From the top of the helmet a tube came out that led up to a bucket suspended on a stand above the woman's head. There was a tap at the bottom of the bucket that, when turned on, would let the liquid in the bucket flow down into the helmet where it would fill up, drowning the wearer. So far so obvious.