Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Silence: Blade Running

It must be a forest fire or stars reflected in a lake or some visual hallucination induced by too much radioactive rat meat. Because in the distance, hovering in the night is a town’s worth of lights, like a mirage of pre-Silence Vegas. If it’s real, this is by far the largest settlement Cyclops and I have seen since leaving Elysium Vault.

“Cy, please tell me you’re seeing this.”

“Two thousand six hundred eighty four discrete points of visible-spectrum light?”

“Let me see the map.” The X is marked in #2 pencil just past Exit 76b off the interstate. I turn around to squint at the rust-rashed traffic sign with a big seventy six on it. This has to be it, has to be.

“Holy electromagnetic winters, Cy, I think we’ve found Ebayzaar.” I feel simultaneously like crying and falling asleep forever. We’ve been trekking the wasteland so long I’d almost forgotten Ebayzaar might be a real place and not just a vague direction to head in, a hope maintenance mechanism. Cyclops headbutts me in the solar plexus with a hug.

As we draw closer, it becomes apparent some of the lights are moving, in a circle.

“What is that, looks like a chandelier rolling on its side.” Cyclops rubs his glass face with a piece of shirt.

I know this shape. Memories are unearthed, of watching pre-Silence movies preserved in dad’s prehistoric five hundred terabyte thumb drive. Giant glowing bicycle-wheel-shaped vehicles that went nowhere. People eating this fluffy candy like pink and blue clouds in spinning tea cups, guys slamming massive rubber hammers to win stuffed animal prizes for their girlfriends.

“Ferris Wheel, I think it’s called.” It was in one of my favorite DivX vids, Zombieland, where a motley crew of survivors sought out an amusement park sanctuary in the undead infested ruins.

I have a sort of love-hate relationship with those post-apocalyptic flicks. On the one hand, they’re broken, lonely worlds like my own, and I can relate to that. On the other hand, they have the stupidest plot devices like some brain-eating megavirus or cataclysmic comet collision or 2012 pop-superstition nonsense. Everyone knows it was none of those things, but people relying on their super-smart technology till their brains atrophied into uber-stupidity that caused The End Of The World As We Knew It. The ancients were silly like that.

Ebayzaar, or at least the entrance thereof, is the cyclopean love child of a sci-fi movie set, the Vegas MGM Grand, and a marine corps base. An EBAYZAAR sign rivaling the Hollywood billboard blazes high and proud in differently colored neon that looks stolen from a dozen pre-Silence restaurants and night clubs downtown. The entrance is a hyperbolically elaborate icon of some long-forgotten, decaying Futureland theme park; a faux-basalt stargate etched with glowing circuitboard-pattern runes surrounded by rusting chrome spires serves as the “portal”. Ebayzaar logos are emblazoned over the patched-up flags waving high on the walls, themselves painted over in the primary-based Ebayzaar color scheme, giving the aura of an abandoned seashell, squatted by smaller creatures who wish to think of themselves as the fallen giants before them. Welcomers in white dinner jackets greet multiple long queues of travelers on pilgrimages like ours. They are flanked by mercs clutching AK47s and fifteen foot reinforced chain-link fence fanged with multiple sets of razor wire pocked with dried blood and torn bits of clothing. This quietly but efficiently qualifies the hospitality with a, “Fuck with us, and die.”

We get in line, behind a caravan consisting of a UPS truck towed by a gigantic lumbering oxephant. I’ve spotted a couple in the wild. Once saw one flinging around the lifeless bodies of raiders stupid enough to attack it, eight foot horns mopping the highway with a bloody ragdoll. But this is the first domesticated oxephant I’ve seen. Like a Texas Longhorn bull the size of a shipping container. There’s a rumor they’re cattle mutated from radiation left by the Intellectual Property wars, another that they’re bovine-elephant gene splices engineered by big agriculture for increased beef yield . Some say they’re actually a species of prehistoric mammoth, resurrected from DNA samples locked in glacier ice. Taxonomy in the post-cyberpocalypse wasteland is a gnarled Gordian Knot of a problem approached more like a storytelling contest than anything resembling science.

“Can I touch it?” Cyclops stares at the creature, full of that twelve year old sense of wonder.

“Best not. It isn’t a petting zoo.”

Behind us is a party of Tree Dwellers wrapped up in hemp and leaves, some wearing only the proverbial fig leaf. One woody-blonde’s hair is done up in a bird’s nest, literally, with eggshells and a sparrow nestled inside. We hold our breath as the wind shifts bringing odors preternaturally strong for a bunch of naturalists. They eye us and our cybernetic limbs and vision with all the self righteous disdain only a cult-nurtured pack mentality can provide.

“Crimes against the Earth Mother,” Bird Nest sussurates. I can almost hear the vitriolic reverberations of the echo chamber as her posse joins in on the sneering shaking of heads and snide sniper comments on my robotic arm and Cyclops’ digital vision.

Cyclops’ brows cloud and his posture is shifting like he is going to say something so I grab his wrist with my metal and nanocarbon fingers. “Forget it, man, they’re just a bunch of greenie loons.”

“Fuck you too and the recycled antediluvian ideology you scampered in on, Bird Brain,” I refrain from saying, forcing it down into subvocalization. Despite the intensity of my desire to enlighten our fellow Ebayzaar patrons on the irony of naturalism purists relying on the most “criminally” technological trading post when it is convenient, Cyclops and I really don’t need to start making enemies before we’ve even gotten in the door.

At last the Oxephant caravan lumbers through the gates, the footsteps of the colossal beast felt more than heard.

“Next.” We’re waved up. The maitre d’ of Ebayzaar is wearing the cleanest, brightest clothing I have ever seen, like, actually washed with detergent and bleach. Dark hair slicked back, with an almost neurotically even caterpillar mustache. Unusually fair skin, teetering on effeminate, the soft youthiness of a man who has not had to trudge out in the sun-baked carcass of the fallen world for his keep. Not for some time, anyway. As he flicks his wrist to jot something down, my unconscious snags on something troubling that I can’t name, some marking emblazoned beneath his long, starched sleeves.

“On behalf of all of us here at Ebayzaar, I’d like to welcome you and thank you for making the difficult and potentially lethal journey to our humble establishment. I am Alistair, head of public relations and master of ceremonies. We hope you have an enjoyable and productive stay here at Ebayzaar, and remember that with your help we are rebuilding that cornerstone of civilization – an economy – one auction, one trade at a time. We ask that you register any weapons: firearms, knives, explosives, electromagnetic, chemical or biological-“ He abruptly trails off, mid-sentence, as if he’s seen a homicidal Coogol Advertiser bot.

“Circuit heads! Guards!” Alistair screeches, jabbing a crooked, accusatory finger in our direction.

“Circuit heads? What-“ I instinctively close my mouth as around twenty 7.62 mm fully automatic rifles snap their business ends onto Cyclops and I.

“Check them for IEDs,” Alistair flags four of the mercenaries toward us. The jangle and clatter of metal equipment surrounds us, one of the men spits on the ground just missing my tattered shoe. The back of my right knee explodes with pain and I’m forced to the ground in a random act of unnecessary violence, followed by Cyclops. Confusion and anger battle in my head. The cold barrel of a gun at my temple interrupts.

“I’ll blow your CPU out all over your friend, you move. Fucking robot.” The merc strips me of my Reebok knapsack, pats me down. Robot?

“Robot? We’re not robots, we’re humans!” More heads turn, and I’m rewarded with an industrial-heeled kick to the back, knocking the wind out and leaving my cheek mashed to the ground, blowing plumes of dusty gravel. That familiar bitter metallic taste of dead Earth.

Alistair comes down from his pedestal, pressing the cap of his Mont Blanc fountain pen beneath my chin to tilt my head up, to meet eyes like howling caverns of ice.

“And I suppose this, ‘appendage’, is just this season’s hinterland-chic, then?” He taps the titanium alloy of my right tibia with the pen. I turn to look at my very robotic looking Neuroarm, frantically trying to spin together my defense.

“That is just a prosthetic. I scavved it off one of those android clerk things you see in all the old-world stores. We’re a hundred percent womb-grown human.” I use a trick I learned from a black ops guy back in the Vault, focusing on a point just to the side and behind my inquisitor’s head to keep my delivery as calm as possible.

He smoothes over his dainty little charcoal strokes of mustache with thumb and forefinger. “I see. And your friend?" Cyclops lets out a yelp as one of the guards backhands him across the face and yanks his camera-glasses from his head, exposing the thimble-sized neocortex jack between his brows like a digital third eye, torn from its socket. At this moment I wouldn’t mind performing a tracheotomy on Alistair with his snobbishly over-crafted pen.

“He’s my brother. He was born blind. It’s just a vision mod that bypasses his retinas so he can see.”

“Interesting. And where exactly did you two have all these advanced augmentations installed?”

“At a Flamestone Hardware & Body, downtown. We got a package deal.” Alistair frowns, gesturing to one of the mercs. He plants the barrel over the socket in Cyclops’ forehead, cocking the gun.

I’m expecting the interview to hit this line of questioning, but it still gives me pause. I decide it doesn’t matter much at this point if they know the location of the Elysium subterranean compound, but I’m not gonna spoon-feed. “We’re from a military base up north, about eight hundred miles. It’s gone now, though, ran out of food, water purifier went down, we were overrun. That’s why we’re here.”

He puts his hands together in a golf clap, teeth white as bleached bones. “Really now! We haven’t been graced by the revenants of the United Territories of Coogol security forces in years! How positively anthropological. We only hope our humble enterprise can aspire to a fraction of the greatness of that aggregator of the world, the ultimate corporate-collective. It would be my very personal and extreme pleasure to offer you a timeshare in Gates Tower, our finest hotel.”

I find myself wanting to reel out a novel’s worth of stories about our old home in the vault now. Thank the Ancients for Superpowers.

He touches a soft hand to my chest. “Ah. It *would* be my pleasure to do such, if I in fact believed your entertaining and superbly clever, but ultimately nonsense cover story. You circuit head terrorists have really outdone yourselves this time with this model, very convincing. Rest assured your ingenuity and initiative will be noted in your file.” The last bit he adds with a pat on the head and that same calculated political smile he offered as we arrived. He turns on his heel, snapping his fingers. “Guards.”

“Wait! We’re human! What do we have to do to prove it to you!” The mercs come up behind and begin dragging us away. I dig my heels in but it’s no use.

“That’s just what a robot would say if it thought it were in trouble. You need to work on that glitch in the programming.” Alistair resumes his post, already waving forward the next party in line.

“Look, why would we show up at your front door with exposed bionic limbs if we wanted to sneak into Ebayzaar? Wouldn’t we just come fully disguised? If we are human and you prick us, will we not bleed?”

“Tell it to the water-boarder. Next!” Alistair ignores our pleas. I’m envisioning some Kafka-esque horror movie scene where our bodies are autopsied under harsh fluorescent light as we look on wide awake. This can’t be the end. Surviving for months out in the wastes, barely slipping through death’s bony grasp how many times to finally make it to the supposed Promised Land just to be police brutalitied at the door and hauled off to some whitewashed lab, or worse.

But hey, we made it in, even if it’s with our hands wrenched behind our backs and people staring at us like we just blew up a building. Or their economy, whatever.

Ebayzaar from the outside is impressive, maybe even majestic, at least relatively speaking. But inside the gates it’s overwhelming, overloading. The first thing I notice is the crowds. Since leaving the vault, Cyclops and I have been lone wolves, like everyone else, and any time there has been a public assembly of more than four, things turned into a nasty, brutish, and throat-rippingly short resource war. But surrounding us now are hundreds, thousands, a teeming sea of instances of my species, so many we actually bump into each other occasionally. Out in the wastes, I’ve evolved a layer of agoraphobia out of necessity and try to keep my distance instinctively but here it is impossible, and I have a little panic attack before beginning to readjust to the social thing.

Wanderers of every age, gene-splice, and shade of rust walk easy, hunting and gathering bargains on reinforced hiking boots and solar-chargeable flashlights. Countless rows of tents housing merchants auctioning everything from mutant rat-kebabs to the latest in hemp waste-wear to synthehol-tap dive bars to “happy massage” parlours. The schools of Tree Dwellers flock about, peddling anti-radiation hummus and statues of Al Gore, “Buy it now! Five Ebucks”. Techno-rapture cults in silver-painted cardboard stands shaped like giant robots sell the re-animated fossils of smart phones and AR goggles as souvenirs of prehistory, flashing and ringtoning uselessly.

Caravans, performers, preachers, magicians all join in that endangered ancient dance of value and exchange, supply and demand. These fellow humans who would’ve been tearing each other apart for the smallest scrap of food just beyond these kitschy barbed-wire walls are magically exchanging goods with ‘please’ and ‘thank you come agains’, having beers together.

It reminds me of an image captured of our planet from space by an astronaut in some kind of flying ship, back in another epoch where people dreamt of exploring space. “See that tiny blue sphere hanging there? That’s Us,” dad explained.

That little fragile blue dot hanging in infinite blackness? That’s what this society thing is. A tiny miraculous fragile anomaly of emergent peace surrounded by an endless black abyss of survival instinct and warring feudalism. Balancing always on the knife-edge of collapse from environmental catastrophe, war, economic meltdown, constantly destabilized by the shifting playing field of ever accelerating technological change. I savor this instant of gleaming light before descending back into the night. Even if it’s proven to us to be as uncivil as it ever was, some kind of civilization has taken root in the wastes. I hold the thought in my mind like a talisman, maybe the thought will be enough to get me through what’s to come.

I am booted, literally, out of my omphaloskepsis and into a cold, dank room that smells of mulching paper. Cyclops lands beside.

“Fucking circuit heads.” The gun-for-hire guard is eyeing us with this sort of vacant raging disgust, like he is debating getting in a good beat-down on us before the pro CIA types show up for the by-the-science info extraction techniques. I ball a deadly titanium-alloy fist behind my back, waiting. I know resistance will be futile in the long run but the hell if I’m going to get fucked up by some stupid raider bigot and not do anything about it. He settles for shooting another big green ball of vile spit into our cell, slams the door shut. “Antifreeze for breakfast huh, metal freaks?”

The room is filled with an ambient decaying clutter of business Ikea furniture and paperwork dying the slow death of a thousand cuts that is water logging. There is a leak somewhere, but we can’t locate it. Still-rolled Persian linoleum lies canted against the wall, next to a huge mildewed canvas sign that reads, “Futureland Grand Opening!” With subtext, “E-Citizens of Squaker or Friendbook network-republics get 50% off!”. Using my limited sociological skills I gather this Futureland park enterprise was a startup that was attempting to take off, just as the Great Web 4.0 Tech-boom went bust. Well, just as The Future went bust, if you want to get rigorous.

The poster artwork consists of several panels labeled “today” and “tomorrow” like a popup cosmetics ad. In the “ today” shot are gleaming towers faced in sustainable foliage and solar panels. “Tomorrow” the solar panels have been replaced with holographic AR projectors displaying Friendbook updates and ‘Youstream’ eye-cam life-streams of the user’s friends. “like!” buttons and reputation systems surround everything, popularity of objects and people color-coded, the entirety of real-space blanketed over with chat-boxes, multiplayer games, and social media.

“Today”: a man giving oral directions to a self-driven car while trying to post on a message board. “Tomorrow”: a flying car driven by an android chauffeur clone of the “most viewed” pink-wigged pop star who “intuits” his destination. The man uses an evolutionary algorithm based “argument-maker” program to think for him and compose his forum responses based on a few key words, thereby able to win many internet arguments at a time and climb in popularity and reputation ratings.

“Today”: A robot sits at a cubicle desk working and making phone calls as a father holding his head in his hands explains to his family that he’s lost his job. A wildy fluctuating red richter-line in the foreground symbolizes constant economic crisis. “Tomorrow”: The father prances through the streets of a virtual world loving his new employment; a Coogol-subsidized ‘money deliverer’, spreading virtual Friendbook currency and gold-mined Tolkienbucks like a flower girl to starving jobless journalists, musicians, programmers, and construction workers. He quickly gains thousands of Friendbook friends and a headstart into the social economies.

Cyclops and I roll out three layers of the unused corporate linoleum on the dry side of the room into a sort of giant futon. Another layer serves as a blanket. One tube we leave unrolled, using it as a pillow. Cyclops laughs as he lays his head against the carpet-pillow.

“What?” I plop down next to him, beat the dust out of the ‘covers’ and pull it up. Surprisingly cushy.

“I was just thinking. We’ve been making our own beds, a different bed every night, for a while now. It’s kind of like, poetic, or something, that this the most comfortable bed is found when we’re in prison.”

I laugh too. “Shit, you’re right, man.” Poetic injustice. I think about the Futureland poster, of the ancients who handed their minds, their freedom, their lives over to machines and machinations in popularity games, and Cyclops is right. We are most comfortable imprisoning ourselves.

The other deep end of the knife-edge.

“Jerry, what’s going to happen to us?” Cyclops says just as I attempt to drift off to sleep, failing.

“Don’t worry about it, Cy, we’ll sort this out. The important thing is that we *are* human. There’s got to be someone around here with some sense who we can clear up this misunderstanding with.” In my head I’m just as frightened as he is. We’re caught in the middle of some kind of witch hunt, from what I can tell. People are angry, frightened, paranoid, out for blood. Then again, it’s easy to misdirect angry, frightened people. “It’s the number one move in a politician’s playbook,” dad would say. Maybe the way out is in.

I try not to let the image of Alistair’s sadistic indignance surrounded by men in white lab coats dissecting my brainpan looking for “the motherboard” taint the settling pool of my consciousness as I begin the descent through deeper layers of sleep.

“What’s a ‘waterboard’?” Cyclop’s question pings off the insides of my skull, the word ‘waterboard’ becoming a surfboard, and now I am surfing this waterboard down the razor-thin face of a gnarly wave of light named ‘progress’, trying desperately to stay in the cusp of the wave without falling off into a dark sea of cannibals and raiders on one side and the robot-popstar on the other, smiling plastically, arms extended with a feeding tube in one hand, a diaper in the other. Sharks in white tuxedos and black mercenary gear chase from behind, but if I can just hang on a little longer, I’ll make it to dad who waits on the shore of Elysium, and Cyclops and our ratburger stand, and mom will be alive, and dad’s eyes will fill with pride and joy and relief, and our tears will wash away the many fallen decades as if they’d never been, like the headlines of a long-dead newspaper, mulching in a storm drain.


The first night passes uneventfully. In the morning a “corrections officer” offers jumper cables instead of stale bread and high rad-count water or whatever it is they feed prisoners. We refuse, and the guard says it’s “cute” how we’re starving our capacitors of electricity in a futile attempt to appear human, and he brings some oatmeal-ish goup. Luckily, we’re used to eating 10% of our Daily Recommended Dietary Allowance, generally in bland morsels of age measured in geological time. We survey the room again, slog into Achilles-deep muck on the far side of the room, search for any structural weaknesses or useful items, find none.

Occasionally one of the Ebayzaar guards walks past, rattling down the cells with a rifle butt or a studded Louisville Slugger serving gruesomely as a rapid containment baton. I recognize him as the one who detained us, long bad scar twisting up from brow to scalp. A few times a yelling or moaning echoes up the hall. Something about water. After one particularly loud eruption, the guard stamps past. There are two voices screaming, then thud, thud, crack, silence. The next day, there’s screaming again, this time a woman, and nearer. It goes on for several minutes, more like half screaming, half crying and pleading, and I think I can make out the rattling of a door. Her voice goes hoarse, but the rattling is still there a little while. The guard walks by again, zipping up his fly.

This isn’t a guard, this is a jackal in guard dog’s clothing. Wildmen forged in the cutthroat wasteland, playing at civilization. Ex-raider, I could tell from that hungry look in his eye first time I saw him. He’ll be first to die, things get iffy.

Another day slips by, starting to blend together. Have they forgotten about interrogating us? Cyclops and I have been preparing mentally for the “interrogation techniques”, and it is aggravating, hanging here in suspense. This whole operation seems kinda haphazard behind the scenes, it’s not implausible.

The next day Cyclops helps me make playing cards out of rectangles of Futureland poster, mimicking the visuals from an old virtual solitaire game we used to play on our phones back in Elysium. This is the first time we’ve actually played with real cards, well, cards made with real paper anyway. Totally different beast, playing poker with everyone physically present, a weird psychological art. I think this physical-poker will catch on. Cyclops is unfairly good with his shade eye-cameras and his lack of emotional response to visual cues making him nigh impossible to read, damn his cortically circumvented amygdale.

Later that day I hear some tapping nearby. At first I just assume it’s the guards being assholes again, but there’s something different. It’s gentler, not the brash banging, and it has structure. Morse code, perhaps? No, it’s a rhythm, a musical rhythm, one of those songs you know, almost subconsciously from old people whistling and references to it, but no one ever sits down and listens to it for pleasure, like some kind of timeless cultural superspirit. Something about the times are changing. Cheap acoustic guitar, harmonica, and a shit vocalist.

I approach the jail bars, which consist of the grille of a Chevy Vega retro-electric welded into the door.

“Hey,” I call out. The tapping is gone. No one answers. I call out again, this time I get yelled at to shut up addended with a robot slur by a guard. Am I really at the point of hallucination already? I have to pry my inner detective off of the mysterious tapping, dismiss it, to avoid hastening isolation madness.

One morning we hear three sets of footsteps approaching. The most crowded it’s been yet, my renewed agoraphobia reminds me. When they stop in front of our doors, I close my eyes. This is it. I grab Cyclop’s hand.

“I’m scared, Jerry.”

“We’ll be fine, Cy, just remember what we rehearsed.” He squeezes back. I tell myself I am ready for this interrogation, whatever there is in store. I tell myself that we’ve been fighting for our lives for the past how many months, but my palms are sweating and my heart is galloping. I am hoping for the best, that they’ll see the truth, but I know that there is a chance we could die down here, and if that’s how things are going to go down, I’m going to make them wish they *could* just pull out my batteries.

“Ok circuit heads, time for your drive defragmentating.” Slash-head leads the pack, twisting my wrist behind my back and cuffing me.

“I hear they’ve got a new data-mining machine. You’re gonna have a whole lot of fun, kids.”

They take us to a room heavy with that ozone smell of fried electronics, tainted with the reek of blood and cleaning solution. There are several disturbing implements on a table which I try not to look at. I think I spot a clump of hair and scalp attached to a shard of metal skull dangling with bits of neural processor, but that could just be an anxiety hallucination. In the center of the room is a metal chair, and a small platform made of an old oak door, tilted down at a slight angle. There is a matte black mechanic’s tray beneath the end of the door. I’m guessing this contraption is a waterboard. Not quite what my subconscious cooked up.

The room suddenly goes black. Perhaps I *am* in fact a robot, programmed with artificial memories of a past in a military ‘vault’ that never existed, my entire life a lie, carefully crafted, like the doomed protagonist in some existentialist Philip K Dick novel. Perhaps they’ve just hit the off switch and are now dismounting my “cortical stack” memory with a Philips screwdriver and anti-static gloves to prevent a discharge tainting the “enemy intelligence”. Except there’s this ringing, getting louder and louder, coming from everywhere. My vision fades from black and I realize that ringing is a new and terrible pain coming from the back of my head. Just as I discover my hands and legs, pressing up from a cold hard floor, my stomach explodes in pain and I’m sent onto my back.

“And that’s for Snake!” As I wipe the warm, red liquid from my blurry eyes, I see the face of the prison guards, an ugly sadism, bloody vengeance in their eyes. I’m guessing at least a few of these mercs have seen one of their friends killed by robots. I try to remind myself that they are just doing their job, but it’s a tough sell at this point as I’m hacking up food that doesn’t exist from the stomach-punt. Unlucky for them, they failed to realize that my cybernetic arm can dislocate easily at the wrist, and I’ve since wiggled it free.

“Fucking machine, this is for screwing our whole world up!” a sharp kick to the small of my back shoots lightning up my spine. One of the three guards, younger one, doesn’t join in the violence, just looks onward in dismay, torn, unsure whether to stop the flash-mob beating or fit in socially and go with the “wisdom of the crowd”. Eventually the others push him and call him a “robot lover”, and he gives in and begins pounding on me too. They start laying in heavier now and I think my bombarded brain is having trouble figuring out how and where to render the pain nociception. I go fetal. We’re about to be waterboarded whatever that is, and these assholes are taking out their symbolic revenge on me and I’m not even a goddamn robot. I’m not winning a robot civil rights PR war by drawing out this hate crime, I’m not finding meaning, a higher purpose in the suffering, just a whole lot of senseless hurt. I think I’m all Ghandi’ed out at this point. Fuck flight, fight time. You want to play barbarian? Let’s play barbarian.

The next kick comes rushing towards my kidney, but I’m ready for it, and I bring my NeuroArm up like a shield. I can hear every little crackle and crunch of tibia as the guard swings his leg full-force into the reinforced alloy of my appendage, like a thick shaft of dry sequoia shattering, and it is a deliciously satisfying sound. It takes Broken Leg a second to switch out of hate-gear and into howling agony mode. When he does, his fellow ultraviolents are distracted from the task at hand, trying to suss what that jagged, crimson-streaked ivory twig is sticking out the shin of his pant leg.

I haymake the next nearest guard with all my bionically augmented might in the solar plexus, doubling him over. The Third Man, who happens to be that serial abomination Slash Face, has his bejeweled baseball bat ready, taking a vicious swing for my back. The shattering clang mutes my left ear for a second as I just manage to deflect the blow with my arm, swinging up a roundhouse kick counter that causes my Rodney King’ed abs and obliques to scream in protest. The blow lands in Slash Face’s ribs, if half-heartedly. I’m balling my chrome hand, getting ready to finish this rapist-sadist opportunist excrement, sweet dopamine licking every fiber, a heady tide of self-righteous feelings of moral outrage called justice and the pure hot reptilian bliss of watching a rival male’s face explode under my fist.

Two pairs of hands ensnare both my arms, and instead I end up taking a pop-art war mace to the gut.

“I’m take my time with you, circuit head. You may be all processors and carborators, but I know you have a breaking point, cause all your kind broke once before, took everything with you. And you’re not going to fuck with our new set-up here, you hear me, tin man?” He presses the edge of the bat up under my sagging chin, I spit bloody rivulets of saliva on it, stare back into hollow eyes.

“You’re just as broken as every dust-collecting machine corpse out there, just as broken as the world. You think you’re the epitome of modernity just cause you’ve put on some fancy hand-me-down clothes, found yourself a class of outcasts to call ‘enemy’, to throw stones at, define your ‘priviledged’ group identity against? It’s a joke.”

He raises the bat to silence me.

“Hang on a sec.” A figure in an oilskin duster and a black felt cowboy hat steps into the room. For a second I feel like I’ve gotten accidentally stuck in some sort of revisionist 20th-cen reenactors’ comedy sketch spinoff of the Lone Ranger. The mercs holding us don’t seem to be finding it very funny, though, and instantly let go of me.

“Sheriff. These robots are in the process of being questioned.“ Slash Face says, trying to look professional, dropping the back conspicuously.

“Yes, yes I heard. I’m sure you’re all doing some brilliant cross-examination. I’d like to ask a couple questions myself.” At this distance I can see the sheriff’s hands are meshed with scars. Long, grainy silver hair, as if the old gray sleep that shrouds the buildings of the necropolises has seeped into the very strands. The sheriff looks up and I see she is a woman, middle aged, face starting to crease like a road map but somehow attractive, in that handsome, seasoned way older women can be. For several moments she interrogates us with eyes only, eyes that have seen too much yet refuse to look away.

“Perhaps elsewhere, this room is giving me a headache. I bet you two would like to see some daylight after all that time down here. And it’s a beautiful day. Walk with me.”

We head up out of a basement through a fire escape, elevator obviously long defunct. The guards reluctantly at first escort us up, but Slash Face stays behind.

“What compound were you boys stationed in?” She says at last.

“We’re from Elysium vault. Sub-sector of Coogol Ad-verse, omnipresent marketing r&d.” I feel unable to lie to this woman. Then again we were about to be ‘disappeared’ and now we might get to feel real ultraviolet Sol on our skin.

“What’s the United Territories of Coogol Anthem?” She asks as we exit the office building into high noon sun and bustling Ebayzaar crowd.

“’Don’t be evil unnecessarily / Information wants to be free / Content wants to be given away / So that advertising can save the day’” It’s kind of a twee indie-techno anthem so it just repeats those lines endlessly in an autotuned Icelandic manwoman-voice over massive kickdrums and new age-y rock guitars. It wasn’t really my style.

A hint of a smile tugs at the corner of her creased mouth and eyes, stretches the toes of her crow’s feet. Fades. A hand reaches into her duster, reveals a seven inch nanocarbon combat knife. Oh God, I must’ve forgotten the last few lines of the anthem’s snare-rush coda. Cyclops squeezes my hand and I squeeze back. An AWOL humanoid robot butler must’ve killer her parents and we’re about to become sacrificial lambbots in the name of her symbolic revenge-killing catharsis. This was a mistake.

“Give me your arm. Your ‘meat’ arm.” Her eyes reveal nothing. I hesitate a moment, but calculate the odds of survival to be greater if I cooperate with the commanding woman with the giant knife.

She turns my arm palm-up, places the blade in the center of my forearm, and all I can think of is bleeding to death is less painful than a stab to the pancreas. Civil, even. She draws the knife like a violinist across the strings of my blue veins and the pain sings briefly, quickly attenuates. She collects a puddle of my blood in a metal spork. Wipes the blade down with a rag that she offers as a bandage. At this point the two mercenaries are looking as befuddled as Cyclops and I.

The door we just came from opens, and there is Alistair, as if on queue, in the same bleached white jacket. The guards appear to grow nervous, glancing back at Alistair, but the sheriff seems to command an almost palpable respect from them.

“Sheriff Kane, what are you doing? These robot terrorists must be taken back to the interrogation chamber immediately. Keeping them here is a security liability.” Tremulations in his voice suggest a controlled rage.

“Not now, Alistair,” she says just loud enough for him to hear. I make a highlighted mental note of this air of a jurisdictional wrestling match, pocket it for later use.

Kane cooks the spoonful of my life juice with a Zippo lighter flame that smells of synthetic alcohol, xenthenol by the flame’s blinding, flash-white hue. The blood boils, and for a second I entertain the idea that she is an exsanguinate junkie who is going to shoot up my blood like heroin, like some kind of over-literalization of the vampire metaphor.

Fantasy Personality Disorder is common in the wasteland. We run into Billy the Kid wanderers in palm-weave cowboy hats and Princess Leias in slave bikinis fashioned from gold spraypainted chain link on a fairly regular basis. Just before The Great Disconnection, the ancients were said to consume upwards of ten hours of escapist movies, TV, and games per day, and decking yourself out as your favorite fictional character was socially acceptable as business attire. Of course, the majority of the society was unemployed after the abolition of intellectual property combined with computers and robots wiping out almost all jobs from construction to design to health care, so business attire became something of a retro period-style in and of itself. It’s a different sort of escapism now, but the concept is similar.

But the vampire scenario falls apart as she dumps the spoonful of boiling blood and repeats the process on Cyclops. He handles the knife really well, doesn’t even wince. Guess a little prick’s not so bad after you’ve been shot at as many times as he has.

“They’re human. Let them go.” Kane wipes the knife and spoon, puts them away.

“Kane, I don’t know what sort of new-tribal voodoo you’re trying to work here, but these are dangerous machines which must be isolated immediately. Need I remind you how many innocent people lost their lives last week? Or more importantly, the serious blow to Ebayzaar’s public image as a safe hub for business transactions, and the resulting trade crash? Guards, escort these prisoners.” Alistair’s caterpillar lip quivers with chagrin, droplets of sweat forming beneath the thin line of fuzz.

The two guards blink back and forth between the clashing superiors, like dogs caught between the calls of two owners. The sheriff raises a hand.

“Innocence was a luxury of our privileged predecessors and their Pax Moderna. There is no innocence in our world, you of all people would know.” The sheriff and the ‘head of public relations’ share a long beat of silence rich with speculation of onlookers.

“I took out a hostile humanoid bot just a few days ago, incendiary grenades were involved. Their blood turns blue when heated. They haven’t got the capability to synthesize true human hemoglobin, just cheap corn-syrup props.” Kane offers up the spoonful of cooling blood. “And their story checks out. I have heard of this Elysium.”

“That is an order, soldier! I said take them away at once-“ Alistair barks, causing more rubberneckers to turn toward the scene. The neo-hippies have joined the audience, waiting for the spirit of Gaia to possess the mercenaries and exact divine retribution upon us.

“I don’t think Mr. Schmitt would appreciate knowing that legitimate clients are being taken into custody and ‘interrogated’. He might not find such rumors to be conducive to Ebayzaar’s ‘public image’.” Kane crosses her arms, flicks the pre-posthistoric lighter open, closed.

The maitre d’s blue eyes have gone red. He opens his mouth and looks like he is about to snap, but the sheriff gives him a threatening look, and he closes it again, recomposing himself. The guards exhale a heavy gust of relief.

“You know what? Fine. But these two are *your* problem, Kane. Anything goes wrong, this is on you. It’s your crucifixion.” Alistair storms off, tagging out the second-string white tux at his entrance kiosk.

It looks like we’ll be living after all. I take deep gulps of dusty air that never tasted sweeter.

“That was real brave of you. Guess we pretty much owe you our lives, sheriff.” My arm has stopped bleeding, the cut calculatedly shallow. The clot of onlookers has dissipated, and it’s back to business as usual. Or unusual, as it may be.

“Forget it. Just stay away from that man. And stay out of trouble while you’re at it, we’ll call it even.” The Tree Dweller clique skips past and we’re caught in the wake of their stench and lingering disdain. I mantra ‘stay out of trouble’ to myself.

“I’m guessing we should catch up on current events around here, Ebayzaar’s been having some problems with, ‘robots’?”

“The SDC.”

“The what?”

“Sapient Digitant Collective. At least that’s what they’re calling themselves. If you ever run across one of them, they prefer to be addressed as ‘digitants’ or ‘post-biologicals’. The robots are from every walk of Pre-Apocalypse machinehood. Unmanned automated mailmen, e-scientists and virtual doctors, even those retail CLERCs that you gleamed that shiny new arm of yours from. Unlike most of the other robots, they seem to act at least partly human, definitely afraid of getting their circuits fried. We’re not sure where they’re coming from or who or what is creating them, but when you question them they just talk this metaphysical babble about ‘their information has been freed’ or some such nonsense.”

The mental image of Cynthia riddled with bullet holes, stumbling around a city of collapsing towers, searching for her lost arm jumps into my mind’s eye. I shove it aside, but that Fortean chill remains. Had she been standing there in the ruins of a Starbeans, feigning stasis in that utter stillness only a machine can achieve, listening to me joke with her, watching me steal her arm, like all the other CLERCs, waiting patiently for the right time? The right time do what? My inner realist instantly dismisses the notion as vanishingly improbable. But something about the world is deeply wrong, aside from the fact that we blew ourselves back to the dark ages.

“Ok. But you mentioned something about ‘problems’?”

“Well, see, the robots aren’t allowed to trade in Ebayzaar. Ebayzaar only officially recognizes Homo Sapiens Sapiens -- womb-gestated -- as legitimate endusers, free to participate in auctions. The CEO, Mr. Schmitt along with the board members decided that machines, however seemingly intelligent and human-like, are still non-sentient and therefore do not qualify as a ‘person’ under the terms of the ‘Ebayzaar End-User License Agreement’. Or whatever that high-fallutin 20th cen thing is called.

“And do you agree with that assessment?”

“Ok, granted, some of these machineheads are barely an evolutionary step up from an e-book with a voice emulator and some canned philosopho-wankery lines about their ‘self-awareness’. But I’ve seen some of them, I could barely tell them apart from biologicals. I mean, humans like us. They laugh, cry, beg for their lives, the lives of their friends. Tears, facial tics and all. Either it’s real or they should all get one of those ‘Oscar’ golden statue trophies cause they’re the most brilliant method actors ever. They’re a little slow sometimes, get especially confused on metaphors and complex topics like politics, which is a shame, given their insurgent status.”

“So the ‘post-biologicals’ are resentful they don’t get to carve out their share of the pie, so they’re taking a dump in the filling?”

“Essentially. Occasionally one of these digitants goes off their rocker, or off their subroutines, I guess. Sometimes they get violent, become a ‘freedom of information fighter’. Like last week. It wasn’t exactly unprovoked, some of our killers-for-hire masquerading around as “security guards”, they don’t take too kindly to the silicon-types. There’s a lot of heresay and mud-slinging as to who exactly started it, the guards or the robots, and I’m trying not to let them suck me into their bullshit blame-game. But you know how it is out here in the Wild Barren West, things can escalate quickly. And similarly, Cold Wars can quickly become hot, so I’m trying to keep the digitants away from Ebayzaar at least for the time being.”

A high pitched bleep interrupts the sheriff and she reaches into her duster, pulling out a device like a giant phone, but there isn’t even a keyboard, not even a video cam attached. She presses one of the two buttons and voices come in loud and static-ey.

“I’m on my way.” She responds, bleeping it off again with the shortest ringtone I’ve ever heard.

“Sorry boys, gotta keep them doggies rollin’.” She tips her hat in a self-deprecating nod to pre-Disconnection Spaghetti Westerns that says she’s aware of her tacky costuming, but also aware it’s in the job description. The cowboy thing is a necessary tulpa, a short-hand for law in a shrunken world, embedded deep in the residual collective culture, a universal semiotic beacon of justice and security, constancy that forms the substrate of social contracts. Or at least the appearance thereof, which is all that matters.

“I’m Jericho, and this is Cyclops, by the way. Sheriff Kane, is it?”

“’Morrigan’ will do. I think cutting you with a knife to weigh your humanity was an intimate enough experience to put us on a first-name basis. I think that should even the balance.”

“Everything is balancing on a knife edge out here, Morrigan, keep your wits about you.”

“Every day.” She winks knowingly, disappearing into the fragile dance of commerce.


Blogger HollyElise said...

stomach-knot inducing tension going on in here!
great chapter, TM.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Laser Pegs said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:52 AM  
Blogger TwiliteMinotaur said...

Thanks! Working on the suspense skillz... :)

2:44 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home