by Nicolae Glas
The most recent installment of the novel I am currently working on.
|Chapter 6- The Burning Night
Ariel, pulled into the waking world by the skittering of paper across a barren concrete floor, rubbed at her eyes with grime-encrusted hands and teetered into a sitting position. Shivering from the scorpion sting of Stitchtown's freeze, she wrapped her threadbare trenchcoat tighter about her thin frame. Baleful blue orbs stared into the darkness, the girl's elliptical face drawn and haggard.
Resolutely, she rose, teetering from the one-two punch of drowsiness and malnourishment. It was almost time. She had to be strong. Had to save her friends from the Killing Pens. Had to save mankind.
Still, her thin shoulders slouched against the ferocious midnight air, muscles involuntarily spasming to force more warmth through hunger-thinned blood vessels. Anticipation hung upon her brow, a beast quivering in anticipation of satiation at last.
Most of all, though, she was afraid.
The Killing Pens manifested as factories; processing plants. Government-mandated. Tax-funded. They sprouted up in every major city, mushrooms a day after the hard rains of near extinction. Compostion: retrieval, processing and dissemination.
Retrieval incorporated the faculties of large, tentacle-bearing androids capable of holding 1.2 of cargo. Roughly ten people. Not surprisingly, they were given unassuming names, though they deserved the unofficial titles of "Death Catcher," "Cannibal Blender," so on and so forth. Retrieval drone was the politically correct reality. They were mobile prisons of death, sent from various facilities dispersed throughout the city to harvest the indegent populace. Homelesnesshad become illegal soon after the Don't Speak War, a crime punishable by forgoing the rights of a human, becoming cattle for the harvest. Accordingly, the vagrant nation had rapidly dwindled over the successive years, and was now nearly on the brink of annihilation.
The drones were operated remotely by teams of physicists. All had a mandatory Doctorate's in socio-economics. Who better to weed the worthless excrement out of the crowd?
The second section of this terrible machine's gears, Processing, enatialed the deposition of lawbreakers into atmospherically-moderated environs, where they were screened for communicable diseases and malignant caners. The most common of these maladies grew from the massive quantities of electromagnetic radiation that constantly permeated the air of the domed cities. The homeless did not receive the EMP disruption inocculations necessary to survive in these biologically unfriendly climes. Thus, they were extremely succeptible to the permeation of hard-walled ions and the associated radiations of the cities' very life-support systems. Few lived to see the age of 40.
After the Don't Speak Wars, protein had become scarce. All animal life on the planet had been extinguished, 4/5 of the world's human population along with it. All for a petty little plant that had the potential to solve every ecological, energy, and hunger crisis known to man.
As the study of prions had panned out into dead air, leading into devastating illnesses such as Mas Cow Disease and Neon Algae Symbiosis. The latter was proported to to produce vast amounts of controllable amino acids as well as solve the energy crises of post-War civilization. (Though electromagnetics technology, using the guidance of Tesla innovations, had advanced to the point where man could control the variant principles of the poles' massive magnetic charges and use the Earth's own rotational pull as an inexhaustable energy source; the EMP disruptors vital to every man, woman and child within the Strip had a tendency to short circuit any electronics device within a two meter radius of the carrier. Negative-force atom splicers were far too expensive for practical household use.) Regrettably, the tests on indegent subjects proved the fungus horribly corrossive, eating away and replacing flesh and tissues and stoppable only by extensive radiation therapies.
Despite its failings, neon algae was still used as a catalyst in all but the most exorbitant technologies. To control the spread of the malignant mold, specimens were placed into incorruptible vaccums which, upon the rare chance of cracking or breaking, would implode to nano-atomic level and superheat, destroying any spores in the process.
So, the only apparent inexpensively available source for protein: the homeless. The recombination plants proved the first and final shelter for most of its denizens. Here, in their electrified pens, they were mass-sentenced to execution via comm-screen, surreptitiously doused in acid baths, and "processed."
Processing, itself, consisted of the neutrino-demortification, grinding, and blending of the sentenced withing great red-hot vats, the straining of the remains through secondary filtration and purification, and the meat was ready for distribution.
Since this process was dramatically cheaper than mass-cloning and breached none of the borderline taboos of stem-cell reproduction, recombination was widely accepted as the main producer of amino acids, monopolizing the public's meat industries. One factory pre dome. One death-plant per city. Minimum quota, ordered by the World Council.
Though a few extreme conservatives and their counterpoint bleeding-heart left wingers claimed it was unjust to take human life, no matter how detrimental those lives proved to the economy and aesthetics of the civilized world, the Council held decisive word. And they knew it for the genius it was. Turning economic loss into an enormous cash-making giant and solving food-shortages simultaneously. Only the most dazzling minds culture's evolution had so far produced could have found such an enlightened and well-rounded solution.
This particular outlet, however, was merely a stall. A majority of profits were poured into R&D for nanotechnology, carbon manipulation, and other distant dreams. Fast approaching, the homeless population would become depleted to the point of becoming and inadequate fuel. The laws would have to be revised to include the next rung on the ladder, those poverty-stricken and underemployed. Then the next...
At the current rate of consumption, this method would eventually obliterate the human race entirely. Another solution must needs be discovered before rebellion sewed her seeds. Perhaps a breeding program to plug the dam...But that would take decades to bear fruit. The average adult male could eat a newborn baby per day.
Ariel's daddy had taught her all this before he...went away. He had told her enough to make her scared. And angry. She fit into the category of extremist activism. Being homeless herself, she could identify with the negative connotations of society's heartless solution. Her friends, Miala and Tio had been captured. Now, two days hence, she would arise from the ashes of her mourning to strike against the evil of the Killing Pens. She would emerge a savior, victory shining from the faces of every gutter dweller in East Los Angeles.
They would become her righteous army, and Ariel would lead them forth into glorious battle, swift and surgical strikes, against the Beast. She, with the help of her wrathful Host, would smite the horrible goliath named Technology with the Sword of Truth, bringing it low and freeing manking from its demonic possesion of evil and folly!
The girl tripped over the hem of her patchwork cloak, stumbling to her knees. She began to giggle, at first softly, and then louder until great peals of falsetto laughter rang from the walls of her desolate hangar.
Any who heard that laugh would pity the blighted soul whom had finally broken under the strain of her yoke. They would mourn this strange form of death for a moment, and then hurry past in hopes of not coming into contact with the cackling loon. All would pass save a lone man, wraith-thin, who would stare wistfully into his memories, breath frosting in the artificial midnight, hands shoved deep into his simsilk-lined jacket pockets. He knew that laugh all too well.
It was his.
Chapter 7-Stitchtown, Incorporated
Race loped down near-deserted sidewalks, dirtied from the day's traffic. The Sweepers hadn't come yet. His hands were shoved within the folds of a careworn suede2 jacket. It was night, as if that fact would ever change as long as the domes held.
Perhaps this permanent dusk was what attracted the freakshow representing the majority of Stitchtown's residents. "Home sweet hole," some called it. He stared at the neon skyscraper skyline, a Lucky Strike hanging forgotten from chapped lips.
Electric reds and blues, and the occasional streetlamp yellow alternately outlined his hard-bitten features, highlighting the deep black pockets beneath his eyes. Too much drinking. Too little sleep. His shadow cavorted along the concrete and tar in macabre ballet. Mocking him.
This was Runner Street, so named after the legendary hacker, revolutionary and madman who was the unofficial sperm donor of this sinful little shithole. Runner was the reason Race had joined the business. The man was his hero. A golden god whom Race had made his life an altar toward. He had died to leave an untouchable legacy. Atkins not only wanted to touch, he wanted to hold a legacy of his own. His sole drive was to surpass the immortalized data-thief's grand legend.
A sound broke the corejack from his reminiscence. Laughter. A child's. Insane. Halting, he stared up into the dizzying heights of the city's ramshackle building tops. He knew that laughter. It was the free verse of someone who'd lost it all. The sick mirth of one who'd gained nothing in return. He had laughed that same way before, long ago. The laughter of loss.
Shivering with a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the dropping temperature, the gaunt man hurried away, escaping the demented cackle.
Escaping his past.
"Well, hello there, beautiful."
Rose. Blonde hair, green eyes, full red lips. 32, 26, 32 and a cherry red skirt to flaunt it. Drug of choice: freebase. Pure oxygen, liquified by mercurial floating. Extremely addictive. Extremely corrosive. Like her.
Race had just finished his third shot of Jack Black, and his vision had trouble clearing as the voluptuous woman approached.
"Hello yourself, handsome." Rose possessed curves that would make an hourglass jealous and, by the perfect swing of her hips, knew exactly how to show them off.
She sat down on a stool beside the man, crossing her legs lasciviously. Race could hear the faint slither of hose against hose. Distracting. "Whiskey sour," she called to the bartender, Joe. The man had a face that made you think of leaving clothes in the washer for too long. Atkins, his throat parched, ordered another Jack Black and leaned back, taking a long drag of artificial tobacco. Sure, they had the technology to prosthetically recreate nicotine and alcohol, but couldn't seem to manage to restructure a fraction of pre-War ecology. Guess the funding just wasn't there.
"So, what brings you to the Cowboy Loner this time of night?" he drawled smoothly.
"Why, you silly boy," she giggled and playfully slapped his nonexistant bicep. "The great Race Atkins, of course."
He glanced sidelong at her, a playboy smile shimmering across his thin lips. "Never woulda guessed."
Business partners and part time lovers, the two played this game every time they met. Kept it fresh. Part of the ritual. The shots slammed to the nu-teak countertop, sloshing over to the black varnish. Everything was prefab nowadays. Even the people.
The hack-slash cyber warrior immediately downed his whiskey, imparting the age-old mantra, "Keep 'em coming" to the silently brooding bartender. Drinking had been his favorite pastime and most relieable friend for years now. Tended to wash those memories right down. On his list of things to do, it was second only to jacking in. If he wasn't doing one, it was the other.
A feigned "oooh" of concern wafted from the direction of the gogeous blonde. "What happened to your facey, Racey? Looks like someone thought it would be a good acoustic surface."
She was so damned funny sometimes. "Fell down some stairs," he lied in barely audible tones. His business was his business alone. She knew that.
Sighing, the well-endowed doll turned to the bar, fingering her still-full glass. "Some stairs," she muttered into her whiskey sour. "You got a shiner fit to rival the Stitchtown sun."
Race downed another shot, silent. Rose was devastatingly gorgeous and, if that wasn't enough, the chick had an intelligence to rival (and most likely best) any Harvard graduate. It just wasn't fair.
The room was tiny; cramped. Just big enough for the two to sit uncomfortably in. Complete with a hands free headset, top of the line. Mercuccio-Sony, fresh from R&D.
Rose needed the stimdeck to jack in. He didn't. Score one for the skinny guy.
Thanks to nanotechnology and black market software/surgery combo, Atkins' brain served as an autonomous web engine. Visuals stremed through electrode impulses to his otical nerves. The data-thief's eyes were picture windows into cyberspace.
The surgery had been illegal and expensive. There weren't many things in Stitchtown falling under any other category. If worthwhile, the product was served with a generous dollop of both.
All he needed to do was blink twice and Racey-boy was in, synaptic circuitboards firing in real-time webspace. Surfing was instantaneous. Just think, and you were there. Expensive as hell, but worth every ounce of gold. Blink twice more and he'd be out. Simple. Ingenious.
"Ready to see the new software, babes?" Rose had strapped on her chrome-sprayed fiberplastic tiara and waited to flick the small power source behind her ear that would play the websphere through her brain.
He shrugged. "Whatever."
Blink. One, two. He was in.
Chapter 8-Neon Strippers
Kali's apartment, juxtaposed katty-corner on the converging avenues of Spruce and Talbot, was the second story of a strip club. She loved it.
It was tiny, cramped, and in need of some serious renovation. The living room was illumined by a strobing red neon sign just below the window, procaliming Hot! Live! Girls! It was perfect for the rag-tag collection of bean bags and Courtney Love posters plastered haphazardly about the room.
A flickering 60-watt cailing bulb was the only other source of light in this room. She preferred the neon sign.
Lighting a cigarrette with her trusty Zippo, the screemo chick made her way to the kitchenette. She tossed her candy red latex purse to the floor. The fridge, yellowed with mildew and never cold enough, procured its aquiescent offering of a Fat Tire. The last in the box. Kali twisted the cap, tearing the palm of her hand in the process.
Cursing, she sucked on the injured hand, launching the small serrated bastard vehemently into a corner. She clomped through a black spiderweb of tassels into her bedroom.
The dresser, complete with the chipped pallor of an off-white middle-age, squatted in the far corner. It was one of those antiques that could only hold cryptic family charms and miscellenious items of geriatric nostalgia. Then there was the futon, draped in silken black tapestries and leopard print comforter. Dramatic. The garage sale daybed partnered for the TKO with a rickety nightstand which matched her dresser in both color and condition of fossilization. Upon this 'heirloom treasure of carbon-dating' rested an industrial strength hurricane lamp, twisted and stretched into surrealistic proportions and decorated with elongated black forms. Ghoulish dancers, frozen into the red-tinted glass.
She lit the lamp carefully, and the dancers immediately sprang to life. The smell of kerosene permeated the room, blanketing its insence-laden air with a pseudo-narcotic motif.
The gal, shucking off her heavy boots and collapsing onto the futon, watched the shadows as they danced the walls in erratic crimson melody. She'd gone to work that day and Tommy, her manager, had succeeded in being his usual perverted self. Beady-eyed, balding and slack jowled, the piglike pile of human shit managed to prove time and again that in certain cases homicide would be a viable solution. He always stunk of haggis and cabbage, a permanent sheen of sweat coating his corpulent body. Morbid obesity, so pretty. The slob was repulsive.
Kali sighed, reaching for a songbook. She needed to write.
After staring blankly at an empty sheet of paper for a few minutes, the aspiring lyricist sighed in resignation. She lit a Camel Wide in frustrated silence. Just couldn't concentrate.
Huff. She tugged the flower-form doorknob of her bedside table's lone drawer, cracked paint chipping away at her touch. It pulled off. As usual.
Nothing like heirlooms.
Nemorne jerry-rigged a wire hanger to pry the age-warped wood open, which reluctantly revealed an off-white bundle of folded cloth. Dead center of the lace-embroidered material rested a rock. Ugly. Dull. Gray. Misshapen. The girl picked it up with the utmost care, turning it in her fingers. Love? Its edges had worn smooth years ago, the smoothness slowly sinking into shallow grooves. The permanent sheen of hand oils glossed its blank, stormcloud surface. Love.
As the stone pivoted in her palm, deep scratches emerged. Once its underside fully showed, all those lines suddenly meshed into a mosaic. The gouges, made by some indelicate tool, bore the likeness of a delicate face. Rough-hewn and abstract though it was, the half-finished portrait showed features too familiar to be mistaken. The smooth, bowlike jaw and vaginally reminiscent eyes of a woman she'd never met. Love, unreturned.
Bernie! She needed to call her dealer. Kali placed the stone back onto the cushion of fabric and closed the drawer, replacing the knob and kicking the trashed hanger beneath her futon.
Maybe he'd spot her a dime 'til Sunday. If not, fuck it. Literally. There were other forms of payment. And it was worth it.
It was worth anything.
I don't really want you
But that's okay..You take away the reason why
I don't really need you
But you're my favorite playmate
Think I'll never have you
But that's okay...I'll borrow you for a day
Fucking's an addiction
So point that fucking finger at yourself, you consumer whore bastards!
Do anything for a price, won't ya?
No, you can't kill me!
Think I'll kill myself
You just taste so good, pretty lady H
Always seem to save the day...
I g-gotta taste you under my skin!!!!
Yeah, your my favorite thing about me (so rescue me..)
Heh, Who complains about a rosebed prison anyway? (please drown me)
-Magdalena's "Breaking Circadian"
Chapter 9-Climb into the Sun
...my little miss marionette
With your conformist subculture
And your plastic house
And your token pets
And your tiny lives
And your 2.5 SUV/sedan surround sound
And then I'll come along
And melt it all around you!
Make you realize
The nothing it ever was
-Excerpt from Magdalena's "Humanetica"
The acrid odor of corroded steel. The sharp bite of a prefab night wind. The crushing oppression of being locked inside a bubble, never to escape. She wanted out.
So she climbed. Clambered down into the depths of the beast. Down a hundred chutes, ladders and crumbling ledges into the streets of Stitchtown. Into the waiting embrace of corruption, the stagnant midnight ozone alive with sin. Sibilant whispers of the devil's hand at poker. So she walked.
MARCHED! in tattered combat boots, her fatigues the remnants of a past as blackened as the walls of her hangar, her feet calloused by jungle rot, innumerable blisters. She STOMPED! until her ankles bled. And kept on stomping. The pain was just a ghost, a demon come to turn her back the way she'd come. She knew what must be done.
That's when the lights went out.
*Static*-the burn of slow entropy. A slight honey glaze smoothing the sharp edges of fade-out.
*Fade in*, zebra-striped black and white.
Awake. The night hovered above Stitchtown like some great, scavenging raven. Just waiting for the lepric city beneath its shadow to draw that final breath.
Ariel flitted along obsidian streets, near silent but for the single tol of a clock. 1 a.m. She envisioned the sharp talons of technology rending chunks of gore from humanity; devouring ravenously until all that was left, an empty husk, would collapse in the sands of apocalypse.
She alone would fight to save her errant kind. Ariel would be the name of a martyr, awakening the blind to their heedless plight into oblivion. She would be their guiding light through the darkness of Babyl's sinful splendor. She would be the first to step off the edge and through the veil. Daylight lay beyond.
And so the collection of sticks and rags ran on, midnight hair streaming out behind her fragile face like a trail of smoke. Her trenchcoat flopped and floundered, a dark, ragamuffin tapestry, draping her form in faded night. Those worn boots thudded dully on alternating black and gray pavement. Both alike in sound and texture.
Gradually, the land began to rise. The gap-toothed condemnable structures of Stitchtown gave halting way to newer towers, elaborate webs of bridges and pneumonic tubes, mirror-shelled skyscraper creatures. The business district, complete with holographic stars peering down from the vaulted heavens overhead.
Chrome, steel, metallic rainbow hues zipped past, ionizing air in their wake. I.M.Vs, -Immediacy Matrix Vehicles- shuttling human cargo through vacuum-like air tunnels, glistened in the phosphorous glow of light tracks cocooning the city. It all seemed so new and shiny. Vast multiplex apartments, corporate-owned, housed lower- and middle-tier employees, slaves for life to their own personal engines. Drones in the hive.
Past this dazzling array of pseudo-cutaneous technology Ariel ran, and was soon splashing through puddles of clear rainwater. She'd never seen its like. The black, oily liquid that plummeted from the finite skies of Stitchtown was fatally corrosive and poisonous. This water didn't burn. It didn't eat cancerous holes through clothing and skin. It was cool and soothing.Pleasant, even in the near-freezing climes of early morning.
Stop. Gape in awe. Grass, greener even than the flat-frames pictured. What's more, it ringed the still waters of a crystalline lake. Better than anything in simulation. Better than her dreams.
Strange animals, covered in white pinions and with graceful swooping necks that tapered into orange bone mouths spread alien wings to take flight at her approach. Avians. Real birds! But, wait..metal underbellies appeared as the churning flock rose slightly out of the water. That's not right...
Amazement belly-flops, replaced by the revulsion of realization.
It was a charade.
The rolling grass hillocks proved an artifice of terraforming, each curving blade of green formed of polymers alien to any remote resemblance of life. The sleek, majestic birds were robotic, programmed for artificial response, players in the stimvid of this scenery. Even the waters of the lake were too clear. Too free of the microorganisms that would attract fish to the pond, which in turn would have attracted the swans. This "ecosystem" was stamped with mechanical sterility. There was no nature here. Only the Beast, revealing another face.
Oh how sly, thou Prince of Deceit!
Nausea struck in electric currents, turning the child's brackish stomach contents out where gravity brought the nanoturf to meet it. There had been no food to purge. At least she hadn't wasted.
All blended, careening kaleidoscopic machinery into nothingness. The teetering, rotten letters of a once-grand sign rolled into her Vision. "Hollywood." Then, nothing but the embrace of razor green.
Chapter 10-Feed the Machine
"Fuck!" Race dove, rolling to a kneeling position, firing round after round into the grafittid tumbledown alleyway.
Whoooosh! a roar of incredible heat blasted past, sucking the oxygen from Atkins' lungs, leaving him gasping for air. The bruised and battered core-jack sprinted across the street, momentarily stumbling as the sole of his shoe melted on the asphault. He left the plyorubber and a layer or two of skin behind. Through the glaring glow of a streetlight, over the low brick wall of an abandoned parking lot, duck just in time for another raw ball of super-heated atoms to sear overhead. It left an odor that made Race empathize with burn victims.
Back against the wall in a low squat, the skilled marksman glanced over his shoulder, rising and pivoting, riddling pitted concrete and pavement with steaming volleys of lead-traced barium. The shots were wild. He couldn't focus on the indistinct blur of his target.
Atkins dropped back to a crouch as the white-hot charge of his enemy's arsenal roared poast, charring the spraypaint on the outer surface of his blockade to a chalky soot. Mortar melted and burned against his jacket. "Fuck," he reiterated prosaically, failing to concentrate on larger vocabulary. Tommy had sent another cyborg after him...and hadn't spared any expense. So it was up to good ol' Racey-boy to relive that old David and Goliath routine. Only, this time Goliath had a mean-ass gun.
Hydraulics enhanced the machine's speed, strength and reflexes. Exhaust from the canon melted any bullets that strayed near its body, on the off-chance someone was actually able to aim at it... Add that Tesla canon, right arm mounted, and you had one hell of an assassin. Unsurprisingly, the word 'illegal' didn't bother the middle-management mobster. Handheld Tesla weaponry had been outlawed after the Hellish destruction in 2012 that made nuclear warfare look like lighting matchsticks in comparison.
A hurricane of tar and brick exploded around the grim Atkins and he rolled to the side, landing in a practiced crouch, gun trained on the alley. A flicker of movement on the right peripheral. The data-thief dodged in a graceful somersault. Too late. He noticed a glassy rift cut through cracked pavement as white-hot flame hurtled in. Too late. Damn. He hated it when that happened...
Scorching agony caught Race mid-air, and he became a smoking rag doll, flung end over end over end. He spun into the brick retaining wall, body wrecked beyond physical endurance. A falling star, hurtling into the eternal night...
A half-hour earlier, in the white-on-white cube of Rose's netroom, Race was staring blankly at the wall. Comatose.
His mind was in cyberspace.
Sweeping citadels of data, punctuated by ethernet web communities and delineated by the blazing blue-white of crisscrossing map and grid information causeways, life was played out across the real-time circuitboard landscape. 256-color, a world inside a world, infinitely larger than the material plane. This was home. He ate data for breakfast, and shat it into the open hands of the highest bidder. The best core-jack alive. Period.
The static image of Rose, connected via weaklink from her Sony-kuza neuro netboard, smiled. Her virtual teeth pixellated into Vaseline brilliance. "Here's your new toy, Tiger." A simulacrum of her alto voice echoed through the relative non-entity space of the websphere, her analog procuring a liquid platinum cube for inspection. "Best sexual favors can buy. It'll cut through a firewall like a lazor through your five-o'clock shadow, hon."
Race looked at the cube nonchalantly. "Well, woop-dee-doo." Something was bugging him. "What's the job?" his pseudovoice echoed. "Worth the effort?"