MINDJACKER | PRE-EMPTIVE | PLUGHEAD | THE HOSPITAL | POST-HUMAN | LEFTIE-RIGHTIE
PART I: FIRE AND ASH
CHAPTER 1: OCCUPATION: MINDJACKER
Evryst smiled as he thought about what he'd buy when he got his money. He dragged the limp, cold body of a man into his apartment and began hooking up the cords. The man’s shoes were covered in blue and grey fluff from where they had picked up the peeling bits of carpeting as he dragged the body through the building. The man was still alive, of course - Evryst had hit him with a brainblaster that stunned most humans.
As the unconscious man sat limply in an ancient plastic chair, the machines behind him began to flicker on. Sharp bolts of electricity jumped back and forth through the wires that Evryst had taped to his temples and forehead. Evryst flipped down a pair of green-tinted ski goggles and carefully placed a thin, spidery-looking machine over the unconscious man’s head. Small panels placed on the insides of the thin metal arms of the device lit up, casting an eerie electric blue light over the man’s face. Evryst cracked his knuckles and turned his computer on.
The black display shone, and white letters appeared on the screen.
Evryst typed into the command code to load the brain download and encryption program. The computer replied:
COMMAND CODE RECEIVED. LOADING PROGRAM..
The apparatus behind the man began to hum slightly, and the arms of the machine mounted on his head twitched like a living spider made of metal. A cold blue light came from inside the machine, bound into a single sharp spot upon the man’s wet, grey flesh. Other little lights came flickering on, and the arms projected these onto certain exact locations with its frightening precision.
The blue dots tightened and, as always, the dark room, unlit by anything save for the light of the computer screen and the cold blue of the machine, began to smell of burning flesh. The computer screen displayed a 3d picture of the victim’s brain and head, cross-sections showing the steady progress as the arms burned through skin and bone to get at the precious tissue within. Shortly after, it stopped the progress, the arms having penetrated the skull. The machine sent out tiny fibrils, connecting itself to the man’s brain, and the computer displayed a single sentence.
CONNECTION COMPLETE, READY FOR TRANSFER
Evryst typed: input directive: commence transfer
The computer displayed a red progress bar that showed how much of the man’s brain functions had been turned into data. Suddenly, at 50%, it stopped, and Evryst muttered, “Oh shit.”
activate manual mode, he typed. Normally the computer handled this, but sometimes there were special cases. Some people had antihacks in their heads, they’d usually give the comp’ some trouble. He wondered…
Yes it was. A Namikon-90 by the looks of it. The new brain implants were getting harder and harder to crack, for every new model that came out. The Namikon-90 was one of the newest. It used the power of the implantee’s own brain to amplify its defenses. Hacking into a person’s head was becoming harder than hacking into computers – the race was ever-escalating. This victim’s implant, however newfangled, took a lot longer than Evryst had expected it to in order to activate – perhaps the man had gotten it implanted illegally, or obtained a secondhand copy. Evryst started to work on his assault.
Three hours later Evryst’s nerves were frazzled with his effort. A bead of sweat rolled down his face. He pressed the button and hoped he would finally get past the little silicon implant in the man’s head. The computer made a small beeping noise and the man jerked for a second, pulling on the wires connected to his head. Evryst sighed with relief and presently a small yellow-orange crystal disk popped out of the disk drive on the computer tower. The man woke up and looked straight forward, blankly, a line of drool coming down from the corner of his mouth. Evryst dragged his limp, senseless body over to the window and kicked the brainless idiot out, letting him plunge into the black abyss below.
Evryst pocketed the yellow crystal disk and, reaching inside his frayed old grey vest, took out a small pill which he popped into his mouth. All the ache and tiredness that he felt was washed away in a few minutes. The man in the alley had assured him that it would last for at least three hours, but Evryst had long ago learned not to trust the claims of half-drunk old alleyway salesmen. It didn’t matter. He’d get the new ‘jacked mind to them before the effects came crashing back down again. He looked at his wristwatch. It was almost 3:30 in the morning.
Evryst walked out of his apartment and down the long corridor. It was lit with a sickly greenish-yellow light, and the badly painted, faded green walls only made it feel all the more nauseating. Here and there bits of the wall were crumbling down, large mats of insulation and wiring could be seen through the larger holes. The walls and the doors in them were badly marked, the decaying remnants of two hundred generations of taggers and vandals who had worked their entropic power on the building. The walls were covered in hundreds of graffiti; some were sprayed on, painted over, and sprayed on once more, others were more permanent, carved into the wall itself.
The cold darkness of the outside world hit Evryst like a leaden weight. It was heavy with the exhalations of a billion mouths. The raucous sound of autogyros whizzing about above echoed downwards through the cavernous darkness between the mile-high skyscrapers. Placed precariously around the air and buildings were long metal catwalks that connected the sidewalks on every floor. Now and then a shower of yellow-white sparks would illuminate the world around them, from the jury-rigged electrical connections that the poorer people used to power their apartments. As Evryst walked down the sidewalk he could see the multicoloured neon ads blinking on and off in the shadows. Everyone who needed money allowed the corporations to hook up ads to their houses for a minimal pay every month.
Evryst walked on. A fell wind howled through the cavernous darkness of the city, bringing with it the smell of strange foreign pollution. As he walked past the consecutive rows of cones of light, emanating from pale orangey-yellow sodium lamps, Evryst began once more to contemplate what he’d do with the money made from selling the stolen mind. Perhaps he’d buy himself a toygirl. Most didn’t come cheap these days, but it was only a small change compared to what toygirls could do these days. Evryst tried to remember the last time he was with a toygirl. He couldn’t.
It didn’t matter. After tonight he’d refresh his memory. Evryst fingered the hexagonal disk in his pocket. The hologram surface wasn’t exposed, of course. The mind contained within it would be used as an AI, perhaps. They would lock it with various programs, break its will. When the mind surrendered it’d be totally loyal, cold, and intelligent. People could never get the hang of creating artificial intelligences. It seemed as if people lacked the ingenuity to design the correct software architecture to support an artificial intelligence. So they did the next best thing. Evryst was only one of many of the freelance souls that companies turned to when they needed more AIs; the previous ones dying out eventually over a few generations of copies. It had been discovered that brain-made AIs, gotten from human minds, tended to decay after they had been duplicated several times. It was the reason why it was important to only get certain people, possessing robust minds. That was good for Evryst. He’d probably never go out of business.
He arrived at his usual rendezvous place. It was a lonely little bar, crammed into the alley between two gigantic megaskyscrapers. The moment Evryst entered he was hit by a leviathan blow. The air reeked of the stench of men and the putrid smell of urine and beer. A single, yellow bulb at the center of the room, dangled precariously from an exposed wire, provided feeble lighting, and the motes around it danced in the air like insects. In one corner was a large brown discolouration. That was the place the patrons considered the restroom, as the old one with urinals and such other amenities was broken for as long as Evryst knew it. The paint, turned a sickly yellow from long years of smokers, was peeling from the wall. Some men, seeming to be permanent fixtures, like the tables and love seats, were covered in bits of peeling paint. They were all fat except for a tall, thin chap in one booth. This was the man Evryst was looking for.
The man looked up as Evryst approached him. He wore black sunglasses and a giant black hat, his black trenchcoat with its collar turned upwards, so as to conceal him in darkness. Evryst sat down and whispered, “The rabbit is in the eggshell.” The Trenchcoat Man nodded his assent and out slid a black-gloved hand, a single transparent rectangle in its palm. Small red and green fibres were embedded within it. In this small chip was the fractal encryption code that would unlock the e-bank account that would allow Evryst to get his money.
“Now the holobyte disk?” asked the Trenchcoat Man, his voice a neutered artificial one, so as to conceal his identity.
“I got it right here,” Evryst said, taking out the yellow-orange disk. The Trenchcoat Man grabbed it as would a starving man grab a meager morsel of food.
“We have details on next assignment,” said the Trenchcoat Man.
“Really?” asked Evryst, “Already?”
“Indeed, and the rewards are also – different…” said the Trenchcoat Man.
“Will I get my money?”
“Far better. You see our scientists have found a way to replay the memories of encoded minds. Now we can replace virtual reality with a complete visual representation of someone’s real memories. Memories have been shown to have more physical clarity than VR programs. The first models have been sent out, and we’d like you to try out our new system.”
“I’m not gonna be your guinea pig.”
“But on the contrary! They’ve already been tested. We’d just like you to see the product as one of the few individuals who actually get it before mass shipping begins.”
“Hmm… sure. But I still want my money.”
“But of course. Here is the dossier,” the Trenchcoat Man took a thin piece of smart plastic from a pocket in his trenchcoat. Evryst studied it, wrinkling his brow.
“I want something in advance. Let’s say 20k.”
“Look, man. I’m not gonna try and get this guy without insurance. The others were small-timers, but this is a major job.”
“Name your price, then.”
“20k now. 20 when the job’s done.”
“10k. I’m willing to pay 30 more, but only after you’re done.”
Evryst paused and considered it. Was it worth the risk?”
“Alright… alright. You got a deal.”
“Excellent,” the Trenchcoat Man arched his fingers, “Pleasure to do business with you, Mr. Evryst.”
The man left, leaving behind another small chip, and Evryst stayed a while after him before leaving with his money.
Evryst began to walk home when he suddenly turned around and began to walk in the opposite direction. The catwalks, sparks, and colourful neon signs seemed as if they would extend into infinity before him. As the putter of autogyros whizzed past, haphazardly avoiding metal catwalks and the loose cables of electric wires, Evryst could hear the “whooom” sound of the noisier tubecars, soaring past in crystal-glass pneumatic tubes far above the poorer levels. Out of open windows everywhere flapped garments that people had set out to dry in the wind. A terribly stupid thing to do, as the air was cold and humid, and liquids from who-knows-where suspended in air, seemed to cling to all dry clothing so as to drench people in their inane filth. It came now, into Evryst’s lungs, filling his mouth and trachea with the oily taste of pollution built up over a millennium.
The neon signs changed subtly as Evryst walked on, and the sidewalk, attached to the 1,000th floor of a six-mile tall skyscraper, seemed to be filled with somewhat more hustle and bustle of activity. Now and then, instead of the sickly urine colour of isolated sodium lamps, there would be bright greens of halogen lamps, most in the doorways where the toygirls and toyboys stood waiting for customers. People on the sidewalk seemed to Evryst as a mass of moving black forms, like flies clinging to a rotten piece of flesh, and Evryst knew that it was the drug. The effects were beginning to wear away, one hour earlier than its proprietor had declared it to last. At last he stopped, almost at the end of the giant skyscraper. A large red neon sign attached to the corner, read: L’Hôtel Rouge. The Red Hotel in an ancient language, long forgotten.
There was a large glass window, displaying its wares. The naked toygirls inside smiled at him as he stood at the window, perfect teeth half-showing behind perfect rose-red lips. He went inside, and bought one from the salesman, and together they went upstairs for the night. There she, whom he knew only as Number Ten, worked her craft upon him. It was a good night and, with all his earthly worries banished with the help of the aphrodisiac drugs the toygirl gave him, Evryst slept soundly for the first time in what seemed to be ages.
That morning Evryst was woken by the vibrations of his wristwatch, which he didn’t take off last night. The toygirl was gone, and he lay naked in the bed. The only light came from the autolamp in the ceiling. He looked at it. It was about nine o’clock. Still dark outside, the shadows of countless miles-high skyscrapers obscuring the light of the morning sun. The levels in the shadows never saw the light of day except during high noon, when the sun was directly perpendicular to the ground, and even then it was difficult to find shafts of real sunlight because of the wiry maze of criss-crossing catwalks. Evryst dressed and paid the proprietor for his night’s stay.
Out in the dark sidewalk, Evryst scanned the plastic dossier. The corporation had chosen someone in high standing. Probably it wasn’t enough that they chose smart people to be their AIs, they had to start moving on to people in rival corporations. Oh well, it didn’t matter all that much to him. To Evryst the corporations were always just a fixture in life, too huge, remote, and intangible to be of any large object of concern. He made his way home. It was a cluttered mess, like any good room. He didn’t much care for neatness, it was much more comfortable just to let things go where they would. He grabbed the tools he needed for an average job. A 25mm Forcegun, a few clips of extra energy packs, and a Brainblaster Pistol. The forcegun created shockwaves of compressed air and sound, which caused most things that weighed less than a hundred kilos to be blasted a good distance off. The Brainblaster was a special weapon that projected a combination of sound, light, and negative alpha-brain waves which in sync, stunned most people exposed to it.
He returned once again to the thick blackness of the world outside. It enshrouded and smothered him like a great black blanket. Evryst felt fatigue start to claw at him once more, and he popped another one of the little white pills into his mouth. Bereft of any liquid, he gratingly chewed the dry drug between his teeth. It made his tongue burn with chemical fire, and he quickly swallowed the bits of drug.
Evryst often walked outside, aimlessly. It helped him think about the upcoming jobs. An aging police autogyro, painted in blue, black, and red, roared over him and landed on a helicopter pad nearby. Internally Evryst jerked. The police were overstretched. They were too bogged down with precinct rivalries, and numerous inefficiencies to keep control of the public. On average there were about five hundred thousand people for every one policeman. It wasn’t likely that he’d be caught, but nobody could know these days. Once Evryst saw a gang of police officers beat up, gang rape, and murder a toyboy on the street in public as the crowd walked on, uncaringly. He saw it happen, and was pretty sure others did too, but the great black mass continued onwards and so did he. He felt guilty for that.
A neon advertisement showing a massive blue and purple neon Jesus loomed over Evryst. The police on the helipad were smoking cigaweeds and drinking coffee, probably on their breaks. Evryst went over to the railing of the catwalk, minding the electrical wire that was looped around it. The city stretched out panoramically before him. This was one of the larger boulevards that the catwalk, painted in fading and peeled yellow paint, had crossed over. Down below and high above were the orange lights of passing autogyros and tubecars, and normal wheeled cars. They moved back and forth around the world like numerous fireflies and beetles, mindlessly going about their scuttling through a dark cave lit only by garish neon and flashing laser light, and the cold artificiality of sodium streetlamps. A fireball would periodically explode from a smokestack somewhere far off, burning off the excess slag produced from drawing oil and trash liquids or who-knows-what from down below. Evryst never saw the Bottom before, but he heard much about what it was like down there. Some said that there were rivers, great rivers of ancient oil and pollution. Others said that the Bottom was never seen, that the residual radiation of the radioactive slag would kill people long before they got there. Yet others said that there were swamps of methane gas, produced by trash that had piled up long ago, and the methane was what the great power plants drew up from so far below. No one knew for sure.
Evryst’s boots made a deep clanging noise as he walked with heavy feet on the metal grating of the catwalk. He was thinking about his next victim. The man was a corporate, a manager. He worked for the Nakhimov Corporation, and he was in relatively cushy position. This would be difficult. In the distance Evryst could hear the pop-pop of distance gunfire being traded between two warring Corporation-clans. Corporations were no longer ways to make money together. Instead, over the ages, the stockholders and employees became more and more tightly knit. This was encouraged as corporations got larger and larger. Soon the word “corporation” no longer meant a business, but a tribe of people. Tribalism re-emerged and so did vicious clan and inter-clan rivalry.
An advertisement dirigible floated by, its scintillating flashes of light and sound momentarily hypnotizing Evryst as it implanted messages in his brain in the form of brainwaves. Evryst had the sudden urge to buy Sani-Cola, the popular drugdrink that supposed cleansed one’s innards as one drank it. He shook it off. The companies would never stop pestering you, even when you went to sleep an autoradio would whisper advertisements into your ear. All of a sudden Evryst recoiled, something pale orange came across his face. It was bright and warm, not the cold yellows, greens and whites of streetlamps, nor the garish, vapid light of neon signs.
It was a sunbeam! The true, natural light seemed to illuminate Evryst, showing his nearly colourless complexion. It must have found its way down to this level somehow. He smiled and bathed himself in the yellow white warmth of sunlight, and people began to move out of shadows, attracted to the real light like blanche-white moths to a feeble candle. Then a dirigible moved, and blocked it, and a hummer – a helicopter with twin rotors on either side, grabbed the misdirected light shaft. It carried the shaft back upwards, directing the precious sunlight back to the rich who deserved the light. The shadow people sighed a collective breath and continued their mindless movements, flickering black ghoul-forms in eternal shadow. Evryst slouched and turned his eyes downward again. Back to business.
There was a furtive moving on the catwalk above Evryst. Up there an animal thing crouched in the shadows. He climbed up the ladder to get a better look. It turned to him and he began to back away into the deeper darkness.
“Ok. Ok. Whatever you are, just stay there, OK?” Evryst said in a quavering voice.
What was this weird shadow creature? His slow backing turned into a jog, and then a run as the animal thing leapt toward him. He ran, pushing past the people on the catwalk, eliciting some derogatory gestures and mutterings of, “Hey fuck you, asshole!” Evryst ran and the animal-thing ran after him. He was pursued down a blind alley. He could hear the tap-tap of the thing’s feet as it pursued him. In his terror, Evryst tripped over a trash can and, stumbling on the wet refuse, fell onto a cardboard box. As the thing came dashing down the alley, its form concealed by the steam from a manhole, its feet splashing stagnant pools of water, Evryst backed into a corner, screaming, “Help! Help!”
Of course, no help came. People heard that almost daily in the city and thus were numb to the plea. His breath came in ragged gasps and Evryst could hear his blood singing through his ears. Then the animal was on top of him, its long legs spread over him, and Evryst could feel its hot breath in his face as it bent down to bite him. Its lips touched his.
He opened his eyes. A pale face, painted blue by the light from somewhere above. It was round, and had a small nose and large almond-shaped green eyes. Well-manicured fingers gripped around his face, and it sat itself on his stomach.
“NumberTen?” Evryst whispered as the girl turned her ear close to his face. A lock of her long jet-black hair fell over his eyes.
She nodded. She was wearing nothing except for a pair of black half-gloves that exposed her long fingers, and black knee-length boots. Shakily, NumberTen whispered.
Naturally her cognitive functions were impaired by genetic engineering. Toygirls and toyboys didn’t need to be smart.
“You escaped? From the hotel?”
NumberTen smiled and cupped her left breast, perfect, but then she peeled an artificial skin patch off to reveal a blue-black bruise. She began to peel off other patches, but Evryst stopped her.
“He’d beat you, huh?”
NumberTen smiled and nodded vigorously, “Y-y-yah!”
“Me – you,” said NumberTen leaning closer, pointing first to herself, then to Evryst. She grabbed his face again and whispered shakily, “Live? To-to-to…”
Her sentence broke off and she pouted, looking for the right word.
“Together?” finished Evryst.
NumberTen nodded. Evryst stood up, brushing himself off.
“Okay. I guess its alright if you stay with me for a while, but I’m very busy. Understand? I’ll need to be gone a lot, maybe for a long time. OK?” He punctuated his sentence in certain parts and talked slowly and clearly, as if to a child. NumberTen giggled with delight and fell into his arms, whispering into his ear,
“O – K!”
“I’ll bring you to my place, ok?”
Evryst started to walk away and for a short moment, NumberTen paused as if in indecision. Then she ran after him and too his hand, like a little kid, smiling wide, showing a set of perfect white teeth. Evryst thought silently. An assignment to take out a corporate. Living with a toygirl. This might get interesting…
CHAPTER 2: DOCTOR, DOCTOR
The door flew open and NumberTen rushed in. She squealed and giggled, flying around Evryst's apartment, looking around, somehow avoiding the piles of dusty electronics. NumberTen threw herself onto his bed, further rumpling his wrinkled and unmade covers, burying her face into the pillow. Presently she sat up, crossing her black booted feet under her, her pale, naked back illuminated from the only source, a blue-purple neon sign hanging perpendicular to the wall outside. She smiled up at Evryst but then heard a gurgle in her stomach, and she covered it with her hand, looking up at Evryst in askance.
"Hm. Hungry, huh? Alright, well I'm hungry too." Evryst went to the refrigerator in the next room.
His apartment was rather large, as most apartments went, especially those on Midway, the level of city on which Evryst Lived. A whole two rooms. Some less fortunate folk had single-room apartments, the shower, toilet, and refrigerators placed on moving racks, able to be summoned up at a touch of a button. Evryst rooted through the refrigerator, trying to find something edible amidst the stale and rotten things sitting in there. He came a cross a small plastic container. He opened it and nearly fainted, the vapours coming from it making him giddy. In disgust Evryst tossed the container out the window and down to the Bottom. Maybe someday it would evolve into something that could be killed and eaten. He came across a package and opened it.
Inside was some tofu, made from one-hundred percent artificial vat-grown soybeans, or so claimed the label. He grabbed a handful of gelatinous white cubes and brought the container to NumberTen, who still sat cross-legged on the bed, midst the piles of electronic junk. Eagerly she bit into the soft white curds, and shoveled handfuls of the stuff into her mouth as she examined the bits of electronics and wiring.
Evryst started, "So, well. This is my apt'. Hope you like it."
NumberTen grabbed a soft white cube of tofu and offered it to Evryst.
"Mmm?" she mumbled, her cheeks comically bulging. He took it and chewed the curd thoughtfully. Evryst sat down beside her and leaned against the wall, eating tofu. He looked to the television on the cardboard box in the corner, and it turned on, sensing his sight. Evryst had stolen it years ago. The owner of the television shop, a gnarled old man, had let loose a long stream of curses at him, among other things, but he was a terrible shot and Evryst didn't get hit by the bullets from his shotgun. Only six feet from the shop, the man tired of chasing Evryst and snarled, "Gyaah. Take that damn TV. Hope it blows up."
On TV was a message from The Mayor. In the background the city's anthem, "Our Land", played with actual instruments, broadcasted its merry tune. The Mayor's voice narrated as they were shown a series of scenes from Topland.
"This is our land. Our lovely city, beautiful and prosperous," said The Mayor. On the screen was a group of Toplanders, all beautiful and young, dressed in pastel-coloured tunics, smiling and laughing as they walked through lovely groves of trees.
"We come with open arms to all," as the screen showed two hands shaking, and a man, casting away his Midway rags for Topland tunics.
"To all who strive and work hard for their goals, Topland awaits you. Come! Work for money, and come to Topland."
Children frolicked on vast open ceramic walkways as tubecars and hummers soared in the blue sky above. The old people sat on shady benches under the resplendent leaves of trees. All of the Toplanders were smiling, laughing, or talking animatedly.
"Paradise awaits only three miles up," ended the benevolent voice of The Mayor.
Evryst turned the TV off. He hated that commercial. It was lies. All lies. Nobody believed it, of course. Everyone knew that if you were born in Midway, most likely you'd stay in Midway. If you were born in the Bottom you'd definitely stay in Bottom. But the Toplanders still aired that stupid commercial, perhaps, just to spite them. Evryst had never been to Topland but he knew it was just full of stupid rich people. And what was there to see up there anyway, other than a crystalline matrix of tubecar pneumaways and buzzing hummers?
They finished their meal of tofu and NumberTen was looking around, examining her new home. Evryst took a small tin from his pocket and opened it. He needed one of those pills. He looked within, and swore. There weren't any more. Could he have gone through them that quickly? Evryst combed his apartment for a second, wondering if he had any more pills. Nope. He swore again, and suddenly there was a knock on the door. NumberTen jerked and hid in the shadow of a large stack of data tapes. Evryst went to the door, expecting the worst as always. And he was right. At the door was The Spanish Inquisition.
"Ugh. What d'you want now, Span?" asked Evryst in disgust.
The man with the strange name was a short, dour-looking Asian, just as pale as Evryst, but far from Evryst's emaciation.
"My software. Do you have it?" A credit chip was in The Spanish Inquisition's fingers.
"Yeah, yeah. Just wait a sec."
Evryst rummaged through the junk in his apartment and found the small black chip containing the pirated data.
"Here you go," Evryst reached out his hand and the Asian dropped the chip into it, "Now leave me alone."
The little fat man waddled down the green, graffiti-stained, corridor as Evryst shut the door.
Evryst glanced at his apt' as NumberTen got out from behind the electronics. His apartment seemed dismally dark, as if it were all melting into black ooze. He became aware of the peeling wallpaper, the holes in the old couch, leaking stuffing, the great piles of nearly useless electronics. They were gathering dust. To Evryst's painfully aware senses it seemed as if the entire world would disappear into junk and dust. The people would continue to drop trash from the windows. Soon his apartment and all else would be covered in stinking useless crap. The Greater Sludge Sea to the north would expand and fill, its shores overflowing with industrial waste and acid rain that never evaporated. Someday all the city, Topland, Midway, and Bottom, would be covered in oily grey-black sludge, and he, NumberTen, The Mayor, the old drug dealer in the alley, The Spanish Inquisition - all of them would be dry skeletons that would crumble to dust and blow away in the wind, with only the black ruins of a giant city and an immense sea of waste as sole testament to their legacy.
Evryst shook it off, and NumberTen was looking at him strangely. It was the effects of the drug. The withdrawal. Once he got more of the pills it'd all be better. But he'd need to get back to that alley, way down There. Evryst wondered how much money he had left. Checking it on the computer showed that he had five thousands left in his account. Buying drugs wouldn't help that. But he needed a fix so badly right now. To get rid of this awful depression. He'd need to see Old Doc again.
"C'mon NumberTen. We need to go down. To the Bottom. It's cold down there, you'll need some clothes."
She followed him to his "closet" a run-down refrigerator box in the corner filled with clutter and unwashed, rumpled clothing. Evryst rooted around and found a great yellow raincoat that he didn't know he had. Evryst had lots of stuff he had ferreted away at sometime or another and had forgotten about.
"Here, try this one," he said as he tossed it to her.
Shaking her head, NumberTen said, "No."
"It's really cold down there, you'll need it."
The same reply.
"Ok. Fine. Whatever," Evryst said in resignation, "Let's go."
The door locked behind them as they exited. NumberTen still clung to the raincoat, which was several sizes far too large for her slim body. She'd learn, thought Evryst. There was no direct route to Bottom from where Evryst was, so they'd have to walk down a bit before finding a public elevator. Sometimes Evryst envied the rich, and pictured himself owning a tubecar or a hummer. Then he'd come back to reality. He was born in Midway, and he'd never own a hummer. If he was lucky he might be able to buy an autogyro someday. That'd smooth the trip downwards. The day had proceeded onwards, and the cloying darkness was somewhat less cold, but it was nonetheless humid with the vapour of ages-old pollution.
NumberTen, on going outside, instinctively changed her attitude and assumed the casual, sensual walk of a toygirl. Obeying her genetic programming, she flirted with every person that happened to glance her way. Early on in her life she had tried to fight the devouring instinct, but in the end there was no suppressing the artificial instinct. So she had consigned herself to live with it. Sometimes it was immensely frustrating to her, to be who she was. She'd often try to convey an idea only to run up against the power of her atrophied frontal cortex, and could only make simple gestures and words. But there were some advantages. Her body would, on sensing cold, begin to burn fuel at a much higher rate. So NumberTen never felt cold, at least never on Midway. She had incredible control over her metabolic processes, which was why she had been able to catch up to Evryst when he ran from her, even though she was wearing high-heeled boots. That was one advantage, but it was sorely paid for.
They passed by another great neon Jesus, mounted on an adjacent catwalk. The neon Jesus' eyes seemed to follow them as they walked and they couldn't help but to look back. The catwalk led downwards several levels and in a short time they were walking on good solid pavement again, no longer a harrowing view to the multicoloured Hades under their feet. In the distance flashing yellow orange pops of light could be seen as a company of autogyros engaged in an air battle.
Not far away the black, moving silhouettes of the dark people were illuminated by the glare of a giant TV screen, its twenty-four hour opalescence giving light and colour to the masses, showing them a tantalizing view of the utopia that lay three miles above. The constant shimmering glare of the TV seemed as if it were a great magnifying lens, casting its view upon the world, giving form and shape to the otherwise indistinguishable ant-people. The face of The Mayor came on, or at least his eyes did, and it was as if he were a cruel onlooker from above, examining the insects on their mindless hustle and bustle.
Evryst and NumberTen continued onwards to the Bottom. Just a few more levels now would bring them to the elevator which would take them down a part of the way, and it'd be back to walking again. NumberTen pulled at Evryst and pointed. A group of punks, their heads turned into colourful Day-Glow spikes, metal hanging from all parts of their faces. The leader was a giant, sporting artificial legs that increased his height. He wore a long bone in his nose and his left eye was the crimson circle of an ocular implant. The gang was messing with an old woman. Evryst began to yell "Hey!" but the word was half finished when it died in his throat. NumberTen wailed a short, "Aaa!" and Evryst leaned against the railing, watching in grim silence.
The old lady screamed, and batted at the youths with her cane. They grabbed her purse and she cried, "Help!" or so thought Evryst, but the crowd muffled her call with their mass. The old woman flicked a button on her cane and a silvery-blue bolt of light zapped from it, and one punk fell down dead. The gang laughed at this feeble defiance and together they lifted the woman. The crowd parted unconsciously and went around the consternation, then the punks threw her over the side into the abyss. Her scream echoed in the dark and her voice was like a sole cry to the heavens from the throat of one damned. NumberTen burst into tears and Evryst took her by the shoulder.
"You couldn't save her. Everyone's too scared for their own lives to do anything about it; too busy saving their own skins to care."
NumberTen stopped crying and thought a while. Then, stuttering, though Evryst didn't know whether it was from crying or from her atrophied speech centers, or both, she began to talk.
"What. What. What if - if. Some-day. We. Happen. Us?"
"It won't happen to us: we're just two in two billion. What's the chance? It won't happen. There's no chance. It won't happen."
Evryst tried to comfort her, but he found he was just blindly repeating himself. Maybe he was going crazy. Nah. It couldn't happen to him. It couldn't. Not to him, or NumberTen. There was no chance. He kept saying that in a strange sing-song voice until NumberTen's whimpering died and it was just an echo in his head. It kept echoing as they walked, two small dark shapes in a sea of blackness that had no form save for the heads in the glare of the TV screen. And in the distance the giant neon Jesus waved his finger back and forth, back and forth, as the thought-dirigibles sailed silently in the hum of bees that in the dark, were autogyros.
NumberTen grabbed her shoulders, covering large breasts that stood up and outwards, feeling the goose-pimples rise on her skin. Evryst said it was colder further down, away from the heat energy trapped by the pollution that lay at Midway where all the warmth of lights and electricity and fire kept the air a good sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Evryst wasn't kidding. Yet NumberTen was still reluctant to wear the raincoat, even though the flood of black ant-people had dwindled to a trickle. She wasn't used to wearing clothes, at least, not anything more substantial than gauzy, skimpy undergarments that probably didn't even amount to the title.
"Oh for cryin' out loud. Here," said Evryst finally. He took the raincoat from the crook of her elbow and opened it.
"Put your left arm in there. Good. Now the other arm in there."
He fastened the Velcro and pulled the hood over NumberTen's voluminous black hair.
NumberTen smiled. It was warmer. But she still felt odd. The cloth inside rubbed with her skin, and felt cloying and itchy. It was singularly strange, to wear clothes. She was glad it didn't cover her legs, too. That would be far too uncomfortable. The strange Bottom made her curious, and as they descended farther into the depths of the smothering abyss, she became all the more fascinated by her surroundings. They had gone down several levels in an elevator, and NumberTen had giggled in delight of the feeling of vertigo as they went down. The world changed subtly. The apartments with their fraying garments fluttering in the updraft had all but disappeared. The moisture drifted down from the sky and it condensed into droplets everywhere. The neon and colour had become pipes. Massive pipes ran in crazy directions; up, down, left, right, diagonally - criss-crossing in a confused tangle. Those few people who moved about were either furtive, creeping creatures, or destitute, brain-dead souls that moved aimlessly, bottles of beer in hands, and their clothes reeking of piss and vomit. The light became regular whites, urine yellows, and electric blues. The poorest of the poor looked out from habitation tubes everywhere.
Those who couldn't afford apartments lived in cheap, city-owned tubes, hexagonal coffins. The coffins of the poor loomed on either side like the hives of sleeping bees. Yet the darkness still extended down like the cavernous maw of some enormous beast. NumberTen felt nervous. It was altogether too cold and moist. The oily pollution condensed and stuck like a greasy patina on all surfaces. NumberTen felt that she was, in midst of this foreboding darkness, in a world altogether alien; away from the streetlamps and red Chinese lanterns that lit the darkness. She preferred the colourful artificiality of Midway to this gloom. NumberTen turned around, hearing something, and her boots ceased to tap on the wet asphalt. A faraway sound, light at first, but getting louder. She caught up to Evryst and tapped him on the shoulder.
"What is it?" he asked.
"What do you hear?"
Evryst shrugged. He began to walk again, being careful not to slip on the condensed, watery grease that seemed to permeate this place. He stopped all of a sudden, and turned to NumberTen who was beside him.
"I hear it too."
They both stood there, looking around, listening. What could it be? There was nothing here. Nothing to make noise. Nothing. NumberTen had an idea. She put her hand to her chest. It was pleasant to feel living warmth on it. Then she pulled open Evryst's tattered grey vest and listened, cupping her ear to him.
"Shh." Evryst was still.
The sound was in her ear. She could hear the sound from Evryst's chest. It was quiet at first. She moved her head. There. It was louder now. It was a deep sound, reverberating from within. A thump-thump sound. NumberTen smiled.
"Thump-thump-thump?" she asked, pointing to Evryst's chest.
"That's my heart," he said.
NumberTen smiled again, pleased with her discovery. She skipped a bit, as best as she could, in her boots. Evryst followed. A mere toygirl figured it out. And he was a mindjacker! But though she had discovered it, she didn't know what to interpret that as. She was just pleased, and not the pleasure of lovemaking either. It felt good to NumberTen. Evryst knew what it was that they had heard. It was the sound of silence. All that was left in the tranquil gloom of Bottom was the drip-drip of condensed water and vile fluids, the sound of Evryst's feet, the clickety-clack of NumberTen's boots, and the inner voice of their hearts in the somber silence of the night world.
There was electric organ music playing somewhere, faintly. In the distance, far from Evryst's or NumberTen's sign, a neon sign flickered over a door in the darkness, and a neon Jesus embraced the doorway. The people milled in, and there was faint gospel music as the poor prayed to an evangelist transmitting a hologram. It came from a network station somewhere, far away. At the door there was a clinking as the poor dropped their tokens in the slot and the coin-op church allowed them in to atone for their sins.
Evryst and NumberTen turned a corner and went down an alley. Pools of condensed water reflected their faces like a dozen mirrors and their reflections disappeared in ripples as they walked. Something crunched underneath Evryst's feet and he looked more closely at the pavement. He drew in a sharp gasp of breath. They were ground bits of bone. NumberTen stifled the urge to throw up as she took in the horrifying scene. Bone fragments of small animals - human children? - lay here in this abandoned alley. In the background, somewhere, there was the plunk-plunk sound of dripping condensation from the maze of pipes above. NumberTen stifled a shout and it came out as a truncated squeak, and she took his arm, drawing close. Something had eyes in the darkness that glowed, and mandibles clicked for a moment before disappearing in a drumming of claws on booming vent metal. NumberTen's eyes looked around like those of a hunted animal.
"Wan' go now," she said.
"Yeah, I know. I'm scared too. We just gotta keep walking."
"Some. Something. Live. In there."
"I heard it. Can't believe anything can live down here. It must be some sort of mutant. Maybe from the air or the waste factories, or something. Better not stay in one area."
They walked in silence, their feet grinding the bone fragments into dust. Soon they arrived at a door in the wall. Evryst knocked the big metal door that blocked the narrow alley. From within came an angry and crotchety voice that shouted,
"Go away! We don't want any trouble!"
"It's me, Evryst, Gill. I need more Stim."
"Yeah, yeah. Ok. I'm comin' "
With some groans and irritable sighs the old man came to the door. A thin wedge opened up and two sunken, baggy eyes peered out through the peep-hole. From inside, dozens of latches and metal dead bolts began sliding out of solid locks, and the deep rumble of cold iron could be heard. The door slid open on grating hinges.
"Well? Are you going to let an old man freeze to death in this cold air, or are you going to come in?" asked Gill, looking up at Evryst and NumberTen.
He was a bent old geezer, crooked like the root of some twisted bristlecone pine tree, and was clad only in an off-white nightgown. Two thick spectacles magnified his eyes and Gill seemed not unlike a frog. They entered and sat down at a table.
"Now then," said Gill, adjusting his glasses by turning a squeaky brass knob mounted on the temple, "What's all the hullabaloo? And who is this lovely young lady?"
"I gotta get more Stim. I need more, Gill. Oh - this is NumberTen."
NumberTen smiled at hearing her name. The old man seemed rather odd, hunched over and wrinkled, wearing brass spectacles with adjustable binocular lenses, and an enormous beak of a nose. He held his chin under his long white whiskers.
"Hmm, well okay, but it seems rather early. How long since you bought some from me?"
"About four days."
"Good God, boy! You're goin' through 'em so fast! You'd better slow down some. It ain't healthy for you."
Evryst pounded the table he was sitting at, the sudden noise making NumberTen jump slightly.
"Damnit. I need some Stim now! Not some moral lecture from a goddamned old bastard! I can't stand this awful depression!"
"It's the addiction," sighed Gill as he got up from the table, turning to the shelf behind, "All right, son. If it helps you. I'm warnin' you though. Them pills are dangerous."
"Just get me another tin," said Evryst quietly.
Gill took a box from the top of the shelf, grabbing it with an extending bionic arm, and doled out a small tin of Stim pills.
"That'll be five hundred."
Evryst took out a credit chip and handed it to Gill, who snapped it into the transfer slot of a small black exchange device. It beeped once as the data was electronically transferred to the old man's account.
"You're gonna have to control yourself, boy, or you'll end up wired for the rest of your life," he said solemnly as he handed Evryst the credit chip. With shaking hands Evryst grabbed the chip and the tin. He got up to leave when he turned back to the old man and said, "You take care, Gill."
As they exited the tiny room, Gill felt an urge come over him, and he rushed to the window, seeing them walking down the dripping bone alley.
He yelled after them, "You take care of yourselves now, y'hear?"
NumberTen turned and waved, saying, "Bye-bye!"
Gill watched the two go off into the distance and knew that they'd be destined to stick together. A curious rushing coursed through his body, and strange long-forgotten memories came flooding back to the old man. Suddenly he felt as if her was no longer a decrepit old geezer, but a bold young man, heedlessly running the 'Net to the ragged edge. It was glorious! He embarked on wild adventures without ever leaving his computer terminal; always staying one step ahead of the SysOps, raking in all the cash he could hack out of any account he happened to come by. He diminished. The exhilaration of netrunning faded, along with the flaming passions of long-ago youth. Someday, he knew, they too would fade, and vanish into the decrepitude and twilight of senescence. But how they'd get there was what counted, and that was the wonderful thing about youth. Those two were destined to experience something perhaps greater than the wild and reckless adventures of his heyday. He was sure of it.
All text on this page are copyright of Anh-vu Doan, c. 2003. May not be reproduced without consent of author.