by Nicolae Glas
sci-fi metaphor for current socio-economic atrophy
| Chapter 1:Under A Neverdawn Sky
A flutter. Black on black. Film noir imagery of slanting steel ribcages. The matte white of pigeon shit; a fierce wind biting through layers of dirtied rags. Ariel, a girl. A stooped gargoyle. Better yet, a filthy angel crouching, basal, above the spiraling vortex of electric light that was Stitchtown.
She watched them. The throng of bleating humanity, teeming, doe-eyed and innocent to the danger around them. The sin consumed them even as she watched.
Teeth of concrete and iron jutted skyward, a dark maw which the oblivious willingly crawled around inside. The beast hovered over them like a shadow, the controlled midnight that draped over the fringes of L.A., shutting out the sun. Shutting out the radiation that the shadow itself created.
It was alive, she knew. She could feel it, pulsing with lecherous life all about. It was sentient. Controlled. Evil personified. Subtle and patient as Earth herself. And it had a name.
The livewire spark and sizzle of instant linkup, parabolic axis rotating slowly to connect and grid. Slipstream reality, all blues and blacks and peroxide whites. Synaptic command, matched with retinal scan and photo-optical refraction, and Race had what he wanted. Blink, one two and the frame-surfer zoomed back to 32-color reality and present company.
A small, rust-brown bar occupied by the usual rabble attracted to small, rust-brown bars. Smoke permeated the atmosphere, rolling like a complacently lethal fog into every cranny of the poorly-lit establishment. "Crazy Mike's," Atkins believed was the name. He made a mental note never to step foot in the place again.
Tap. Tap. The gaunt web-surfer's attention was diverted, focused on his guest. One Mister Cyrus Clayton, apparently of ill-repute with the Law in most areas of the Strip, and in some places Race only half-believed existed. Being a datathief, it had been hit-or-suck finding Cyrus' profile and criminal history in the Web-sphere, but the discovery had been little better than useless.
The brute's record fit every other thug's in these parts, a typical spreadsheet for one of the Yakuza's lackeys. Tap. Tap. Cyrus clicked his square-nailed fingers against an empty mug. Apparently the man was getting impatient.
Just the way Race liked 'em. When you lost patience, you got clumsy. When you got clumsy, you got bullet holes. Running thin, nimble fingers through sandy hair, Atkins plastered an apologetic smile on his face. His finger just couldn't seem to stay away from his pistol's trigger. Under the table crotch shot, corner pocket.
"Don't mean to keep you waiting." He spoke with the utmost sincerity, even feigning interest in his wrist-welded lunar chronograph. "My associate should be transferring the file to my active databanks. You know how long that can take."
The other man, balling and unballing his meaty fists as if in desire to pound something...
anything...stared back with the vexed gaze of a saturnine five-year-old. His sloped forehead wrinkled in inkling suspicion. Slowly, the man spoke, preening his tight-fitting three-piece with pride.
"Do ya or dontcha' have the file?"
Race groped in the pocket of his suede jacket for a loose cigarette, tiredly reiterating that he had the file but was unable to access it at the moment. Meanwhile, he kept the barrel of his .50 cal pointed squarely at Cyrus' crotch. Any sudden moves and dear ol' Cyrus would get a sex change real quick. Stupid people didn't need to breed anyway.
A momentary silence, then: "Da boss thinks you's lyin', Atkins." Quite the charming accent. "An' da boss don' like liars." Intercom chip, most likely embedded in Clayton's eardrum, a direct linkup to 'Da boss.'
The boss in question was Tommy Lancaster, better known as Tommy "Two-Fingers" of the Stitchtown Mafiat. Two-Fingers was a middle-tier lackey, and would probably remain so for the rest of his dubiously-lengthed life. Rumor had it that he was a fuck up, which would explain the nickname. If you screwed a job in Tommy's business, you lost a finger. Once you had no more fingers, you started losing more important parts.
Soon they'd be calling him Tommy "The Finger." Just a hunch.
Sucking on the spit-n-spark tailor made fumes of his Lucky Strike, Race contemplated the awkwardness of just such a name. A cloud of smoke drifted like a yawning dragon over the pitted fiber-plastic table. Oak motif. Cheap as hell.
Crack! The Desert Eagle freefloater spat out a round of molten lead. Yeah, Race had a bit of an itch. You can imagine his surprise when Cyrus didn't double over in unbearable agony. Instead, the brute lunged across the table, fists clenching for Race's larynx. Holy nuts of steel!
Reflexively, Race kicked the table into the leaping man's gut, simultaneously falling back and firing off four more rounds into his would-be assassin's face. Point blank. Stretch-flesh split and peeled to reveal metal framework and crackling circuitry. Electricity coursed jaggedly over what remained of the leering countenance. Great, just what he needed. A cyborg.
Mechanized grinding erupted from the man-machine's hands, which slowly gyrated to reveal the rotating barrels of dual gatling guns.
Race hated cyborgs.
A parched wind tore across the shattered land. Black dust whirled as far as the eye could see, dotted by the occasional formless hunk of metal and plastic. Great rents in the black dirt, like clean slices from some enormous taloned hand, crenellated the surface of the wastelands. Smooth and slick as glass, the sides and floor of these trenches were the only shelter from flesh-eating winds and blinding dust. Small shelter at that.
Within these rifts a few piebald creatures, skin flapping about in time with their skittering movements, clung to survival. They may have at one point been human, but the ravages of radiation had stripped features to colorless bone and transparent skin. The desperate struggle for survival had debased thought into all-but-animal instinct. These barren creatures were forced to feast on each other to stave off starvation, the strong preying upon those more frail. They were infertile and genderless, reproductive organs having long since sloughed off. Soon even these last mad remnants of life outside the quarantined environs of the Strip would be gone. Dust in the wind, as all else had become. There was no hope, only Maciavellan death. Through hunger. Through disease. Through screeching insanity. Barren, wasted death...
But one walked among these scarred lands freely. He was known as the Vagabond. Barefoot and wearing wind-torn robes, he loped the Shatterlands with naught but a plain staff. His mooth, Oriental features were framed by thick black hair, tapering downward to a well-muscled neck and torso, strong arms and legs. His very posture betrayed years of study in martial combat.
The cancer, the disease, the famine would not touch this lone wanderer in his silent vigil. For he walked with Purpose, into the blood-red sunset of Southern California, leaving in his wake strange footprints, melted. Glass. Even these were soon covered by the black dust. As was everything, Outside.
He was the Vagabond. The burning man.
Kaliya Nemorne. Kali for short. A cigarette burned between delicate fingers, capped with candy-striped latex nails. She leaned against an uneven brick wall, the storefront of a restaurant. "Jack Quinn's Irish Pub," raised gold letters proclaimed in black relief above the single-pane door of the place.
Pink tresses roamed in the cool bay breeze, purposely touseled. Black combat boots, lace with red-white shoestrings. Stockings to match, leading a sensual curve of leg up into leather mini-skirt and matching halter-top/fishnet combo.
Gutter-punk Barbie chic.
A final drag on the lipstick-rimmed filter of her Camel Wide, and Kali turned and walked away from Quinn's. Sure, she worked there. Sure, she'd get shit for leaving work early. Frankly, she couldn't give a steaming asslog.
She needed a fix.
Chapter 2- Cherry Flavored Photographs
The comfort of a brown-gray plaid couch, smothered in the aroma of cherry tobacco.
"Daddy, tell me again why we have to hide." The drowsy embrace of the strongest arm in the world. The reassuring hollow of a father's armpit, perfect fit for a child's shy face.
"Okay, butterfly, but this is the last time." He always said that. It made her giggle.
The slow curl of cherry-flavored cigar smoke skipping through the long, low domed structure. Strangely reminiscent of a small boy kicking an old, rusted can down the center of an alleyway.
"A long time ago, when you were just a tiny caterpillar..." the red flare of another slow pull on the cigar, "Your mommy made a big mistake. Now, remember, sweetie, that doesn't make her a bad person, 'cuz everybody makes mistakes."
"Even you, Daddy?"
"Even me." The bass rumble of his voice was the most soothing sound ever. "Back then there was green everywhere, not the green of neon signs or paint, but alive, and more different kinds of animals than you could count."
She held up her fingers and toes in awe. "Even more than this much?"
"Uh-huh." His head moved slowly up and down. "Way more than that. But your mommy's mistake made it all go away. And now all we have left to remember the green and those pretty animals by is old photographs and flat-frames."
"So why are we still hiding from everybody, Daddy?" The child kicked her feet in the air excitedly, knowing the answer already. She'd heard this story before, countless times. It was her favorite.
Another wave of sweet smoke punctuated the question. "Because, butterfly, your mommy's not done making her mistakes. Not by a long shot." He shifted slightly, allowing her to burrow deeper into the soft shirt that covered the tickly hair of his armpit. "And we're gonna wait here, where it's safe, until she comes home."
He was starting to say something more, but the warmth and comfort enveloping her tiny form coaxed her into a deep, relaxed doze.
She was safe, wrapped in that cherry-flavored cocoon...
She was home.
The frail puddle of rags shivered slightly as she awoke to the cold, blackened concrete of reality. There was no daddy here. Only the chill of endless night that had long ago ingrained itself into the very fiber of her hangar.
Its humorless shell had been gutted and burnt to a sooty black four years ago. Her father had died in the conflagration, while she was saved only by a chunk of sheet metal that had pinned her to the floor and protected her from the worst of the heat.
The only thing that had survived the blaze was his favorite trenchcoat. All else was ash.
Ariel didn't remember how long she had lain there crying for her Daddy, how long she had called in vain; however, she recalled quite vividly the epiphany that haunted her still to this day.
Mommy was home. and she had made another mistake. Mommy was home and there was no more home.
Now, as she lay shivering on that cold floor, staring at the skeletal remnants of her childhood, Ariel recalled how rapidly she had adapted to the life of a street rat. Just so natural to survive off the refuse of an indifferent society. She fit in. She'd even made a few friends whom she shared the squat with. Tio, the bastard child of a Peruvian senator and a crackwhore named Tawanda...and Myala, whose early childhood was a shroud of secrecy and half-truths.
In exchange for their lodging at her luxurious establishment, Tio stole food and small valuables for the group's meager comforts. Miala gathered information on where and when the next retrieval drones were scheduled for collection and dissemination.
Nobody else knew about the hangar. Well, except for crazy old Bagface, but he hardly counted.
The two had just gone off on one of their adventures, apparently planning to scale the scaffolding of the dome structure around the city for a peek at the outside world. Ariel had warned them it was stupid, and listed off the dangers of such a reckless and unplanned endeavor. Bud did they listen? No.
Now, endless hours later, there was still no sign of them. She was beginning to get worried...
Suddenly, the scuffng of footsteps sounded outside of the thin plycrete door, and a sharp rattling cough Alerted Ariel to the presence of company. Quickly, she leaped to her bare feet, nearly tripping over the ragged ends of her father's enormous trenchcoat.
They were back!
The ragamuffin child flung the door open wide, preparing to give those two hellions a scolding they wouldn't soon forget. Maybe she'd even make 'em sleep outside tonight...
A face loomed up out of the dark, grizzled by time and neglect. Flesh sagged in so many places, it was a wonder the skin even stayed on. A warbled greeting erupted from decaying lips, followed by a cavernous grin showing but a few rotted teeth still teetering to gangrenous gums. This, in turn, was replaced by a half-crazed furtidity.
"What do you want, ol' man bones?" the youth roared, her excitement turning quickly to seething rage. "I told you to stay away from here, Bagface, and I meant it! All you'll do is lead those damn flying meat traps straight to us."
"Hoo-hoo. That's an owl of hoots!" laughed the sickening wretch in a liquor-soaked slur. "Got some news fer ya, I do, I do." He hiccuped, sending greenish spittle rocketing from his nose. "Don't matter much now where I lead those meat traps to, said the honeysuckle to the frog. Seein' as your wittle buddys's jus' now packed up an' hauled 'way to the pens." A cacckle escaped the crag of his mouth, and a thick whitish tongue darted out to lick away the snot dripping from his bulbous nose. "Think they'll make right scrumptious burgers, though. Yes indeed. I'd like one meself ya know." his breath whistled and cracked unhealthily. "An' you ain't got no frie-ends! You ain;'t got no frie-"
He began a shuffling jig, and Ariel slammed the door in his rheumy old face. She leaned against the cold poly-rock surface of the portal, thinking quickly. Old bastard was probably lying, trying to get her to break down and cry or something. He was crazy enough for that.
Yeah, that had to be it. Tio and Myara couldn't be taken away. They were all she had. She wouldn't cry...
A sob broke free and the bony figure slif to the floor, lost in the folds of her mildewed trenchcoat. Soon she was crying so hard it drowned all else out. Everything else washed away...
Cherry-flavored tears to make it all dissapear.
In the background, the faint pounding of flesh on stone. "Ariel! Ariel! Seein' as ya got a few spaces open up on yer floor, I was wonderin'..."
A tapestry of pages flutters on the breeze
Pictures and words call for the scavengers
Into ravens, turn and feed
Photographs of memories, dust in the wind
Pecking and prodding and picking at me
Now turn around, and watch me bleed
I can't feel this pain-anymore
I watch my body drop anbd hit the floor
Yeah, I need a fix
In my veins it's frozen
I'm tired of this life
My death, it seems, I've chosen
It's so foul, as it washes me away
-Exerpt from Magdalena's Foul
Chapter 3-Needles and Mirrors
Tap. Tap. The metronome romance of fingernail meeting syringe. The intake of breath, anticipation of puncture. The wooshing influx of catalysts impregnating the vein.
A mating ritual.
Consciousness freezes and melts, burning down to a single point of illumination. Punctuation. Neurotoxins kick in as synapses stutter and fire rapid electric orgasms. Explosion. A million perfect crystallized shards of ecstacy, racing outwards like hungry sperm toward Nirvana.
An arctic landscape, moving too fast to move at all. Tundra become rainforest become desert become all and nothing in the moment of mind's eye conception.
Dilation of the universe, as it expands in hi-fi leaps and bounds through, beyond any realm of cognizant thought.
This impact event allegory of parodicism neatly wraps in upon itself, its true form -for at this moment, the sole criteria for truth is existence- a pink polyester hairtie. She'd been looking for that...
Everything, fading at the edges, folding at the seams. Nothing, the shadows of potential from which true creation stems.
Heroin, the drug of dyslexic genius.
A kaleidoscope of alien colors swim like fish through Her enormous vision. Large scale contraction, small-scale expansion to extreme opposites as tints and shades flip-flop in their dance of opiatic frenzy. Calling forth the rain of disillusion through hallucination. Her fix had been spiked with the CGI special effects of LSD.
A cigarette candelabra vanishes within the space of an inhalation, and a fly is frozen in mid-air like some technicolor freeze-frame.
Exhale, and the insect zipped away. Her Camel Wide burnt its way to full length again.
A night club drops around Her awareness. Disco lights break like multicolored waves in a sea of sweaty limbs and fetish wear. Grinding music throbs to Her pulse, pumping battery acid through fossilized arteries. A shot of vodka vanishes. Untasted. Replaced by another.
Then, it happens. time slows as He approaches. Black on black, ivory skin. Gleaming lupine smile. A beautiful predator. She was His. He was Hers. The club fades out beneath Their feet, fade in to stained beige carpeting and an empty bed.
Cocaine, floating placidly on the liquid lake of a vanity mirror, scraped into long archipelagos, consumed.
Limbs intertwined, shadows leaping from swinging lamplight. Fuck. Sweat, siemen, blood, hair. The pulsing rhythm of drug and sex rodeo, endlessly pivoting on acute points of pleasure.
Searing, crushing bliss. Collision and explosion into infinite fragmented starbursts of chaotic beauty, drifting down into the embrace of unnatural slumber.
Magdalena's "Shove it In"
Shove it in. Dig it out..
Dilation of embryo
Shove it in.. Dig it out
Rockin' me to sleep
Diggin' through too deep
Shove it in and dig it out
Eternity through ecstacy
Shove it in and dig it out
Somewhere I'll never be
Keepin' me awake
So easily I'll break
Shove it in! Dig it out!
Each time it takes a part of me
Shove it in! Dig it out!
Until there's nothing but debris
Melting through this tragic spoon
And it ends my life too soon
Chapter 4-Becking Calls
Freebase tanks, lined in surgical steel uniformity. Blink. One, two. A silent scream, impossible when your lungs are full of liquid oxygen.
Floating, helpless, awake. Chutes and ladders in stasis. A never-ending, never-moving freefall punctuated by the occasional shot of hemoglobin or opiates into coagulated arteries. Snakes and streamers of I.V. tubing serve all bodily functions autonomously. Another silent eruption of terror as a boy views neat rows of stitching across his naked abdomen. They'd taken his kidney.
This time he heard the scream, and it startled him into sweating wakefulness. Glancing balefully about, Race recognized the small white foam-floored cubicle where he slept.
Smiling, he traced a finger along the puckered scar which ran along his left side, rib to hip. A memento of his first few weeks in Stitchtown. He'd been lucky to survive, and had vowed to leave the aptly named slums as soon as he could.
That had been five years ago.
Sighing and reaching for his clothing, the thin datathief contemplated on what kept him in this hellhole. Sure as shit wasn't the scenery.
Pulling a t-shirt that could have been whitein a distant past over his head, Race stood to tug on the wrinkled jeans he'd worn the night before. Hollow-eyed and half-awake, he bumped his head hard on the low ceiling. Sure as fuck wasn't the luxurious accomidations keeping him here.
Wincing and rubbing his newfound knot, Race stumbled to the open doorway, stooping so he wouldn't slam his bruised domepiece again.
"Mornin', handsome." A sultry voice greeted his newfound migraine as Atkins stepped wearily into the well-lit formica of his dining room.
"Morning, Sherry," he mumbled through sleep-thickened lips. 'Sherry' was the nickname of his apartment's artificial intelligence. A computerized maid that came with the house. Shit, she was the house. Her piecemeal voice was extracted from a collaboration of songs he'd demo'd. The album: Angel with A Shotgun. He'd fallen in love with the singer immediately. Consequently, Sherry had become Race's dream woman...sans flesh.
"And what would you like for breakfast, Racey?" She liked to call him Racey. Got a kick out of it. He'd programmed her to. Now if it could just be as easy to program real women...
The tousel-haired manling chuckled morosely, scratching at the sparse five o'-clock shadow sprouting on his ascetic face, and shuffled toward the pastel blue of his bathroom door. "The usual, babes," he called absently over his shoulder as he settled into his morning routine. Shit, shower and shave. Never failed.
"What? Me?" the apartment called back flirtatiously. Sometimes 'she' got a bit too carried away with the whole girlfriend thing. Like having a poultergheist wife.
"Maybe after breakfast," Atkins called back before shutting that blue bathroom door, which happened to match the linoleum in both kitchen and throne room. He failed to appreciate this half-hearted effort at color coordination. Race hated blue.
Kathy's eyes had been blue.
Fifteen minutes and a well-timed bowel movement later Race returned from the ninth circle of interior design Hell, only to plunge straight back into a perriwinkle dining room set. Ewwwwww. His sole consolation was the mouth watering aroma of sausage and...well...more sausage. Table. Chair. Fuck the fork.
"Any messages?" Atkins called between mouthfuls of tubed pork-like substance. Oops. He caught himself looking over his shoulder, as if the 'real' Sherry were standing in the next room. Remember, he thought wrily to himself, she is the next room...and this one. And all the rest. Maybe he needed some time around other people....prefferably ones that actually lived and breathed. Reality might just be a good thing to keep track of, now that he thought about it.
"Just one new message," replied the provocatively-voiced analog after a moment's pause. "Should I play it now?"
"Go for it." The voracious core-jack shoved another link of snausage between his thin lips, lacing them with slick, bubbly grease. He promptly swallowed the protein substitute whole as he heard the caller's voice. Thick accent, late twentieth century Brooklyn. Probably grabbed from some old mobster flat-frame, and then spliced into Lancaster's larynx.
"Mr. Atkins. This is Tommy Two-....errr, The Finger. Seems we have some unfinished business to attend to..."
Chapter 5-Snowglobe City
It was night.
Or as close to night as it got in the Shatterlands. A steady orangish luminescence permeated the thin post-Holocaustic atmostphere, eclipsing any light from the near-forgotten moon and stars. On the near horizon, strange whirling clouds fluttered about, catching huge lightning bolts in their superheated nets. Permanent doom-and-gloom sunset, thanks to the side-effects of large-scale fission warfare.
Soon, he knew, the nightly hunts would begin. The dance of fire. He walked unhurriedly through the surreal Halloween dusk, oblivious to the roar of a scorching radioactive wind that had begun the long journey from pole to pole. It flung burning obsidian sand into every orifice. Uncomfortable.
It would be beautiful, he knew. The dance. He hoped They were watching closely.
There. He saw it. The City of Los Angeles, gleaming darkly under the smothering embrace of an enormous electromagnetic field. Opaque at the fringes, fade to transparent near its center. A giant snowglobe, a memento of times before the War, just waiting for some juggernaut hand to turn it over and watch the snowflakes fall.
The Vagabond had never crossed the city of angels on his travels, but did not wonder what it was like. All cicites were identical now. The Council of Seven, governing body of United Earth, had seen to that. Complete with reverse polarity magnet pocket-packs and credit card genes, injected into the bloodstream to reform DNA into a means of commerce management. Those precious little productive drones had to be safe from the harmful magnetic radiationand the near-daily collapse of corporate giants, soon to be overgrown by struggling sapling businesses vying for the monopoly. Cancer, loss of housing and substinance...not exactly favorites of the populace.
A shadow flickered on the edge of the wanderer's vision. The Feeders. He continued the leisurely pace, footprints glistening red in the new-natural twilight.
Cadaverous faces, pale and rotting, loomed up on all sides. Leering grins, feral, revealed the sharpened teeth suited to cannibalism. Sunken eyes roved madly in hollow sockets. Teeth chattered frantically, neon yellow saliva glistening on several emaciated jawlines.
He kept walking.
And then they were on him. Clawlike bony hands ripped at the ronin's flesh, jaws crushing down with shattering force. The horde converged in a mass of twisted limbs and gnashing teeth, seeking to rend every shred of flesh from this ulnerable morsel.
But he was not there. Ten meters ahead, he continued to walk. The Feeders, now worked into bloodthirsty frenzy, chattered and clicked all the louder. They streaked like tainted quicksilver across the jack-o-lantern landscape.
The first to reach the Vagabond-largest and most dominant of the pack-lunged forward with gaping maw, prepared to sink its brittle canines into his sweet, yielding flesh....and landed on the blackened earth with a soggy thud, head twisted one hundred and eighty degrees. Its spine had been snapped in 15 places.
The Vagabond kept walking.
The remaining flock, catching the scent of the newly dead, leapt upon their former Alpha's corpse, jaws tearing and shredding, throats working to swallow quickly and take another bite before it was gone. Withing moments, its broken, cancer-riddled bones gleamed spotless, stripped clean of flesh and marrow. They lunged after their quarry with renewed strength.
A flurry of crunches and thuds, accompanied by the whiplash display of gaping holes rent into soft flesh. This was their greeting. Sickening, impossible poses were executed by the milky-white forms hurtling into the afterglow of Apocalypse. Still, they chattered, brains not registering their fatal wounds.
The dance was over.
As the dead and dying thudded to the glassy sand, the warrior continued his tireless trek toward the snowglobe city. He had never taken his eyes from Los Angeles.