The Orange Blossom Special

“Look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
Hey, look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
It’s the Orange Blossom Special
Bringin’ my baby back…”

The Orange Blossom Special by Ervin Thomas Rouse

Russia 2077: Look Into The Close Cyber Future By Evgeny Zubkov
Anthrax Ripple sat in the infamous Money$hot Lounge, dark end of the downstairs bar, waiting for nightfall.  The right moment. His special purpose. A neglected cig smoldered between his fingers, yet he didn’t sense the burn as flesh turned yellow then brown then black.  Synthskin, complex biopolymers that could be made to resemble the human epidermis down to the whorled grooves of the fingerprints—Anthrax personally had no use for such identifying marks—but contained only the most rudimentary approximation of nerve endings. The left side of Anthrax’s ravaged shell was a mass of prostheses, servomotors, semi-organic plastics, metal plating, steel rods, nuts-&-bolts, wires and dials, a clicking, buzzing humming synthesis of hi-tech cybernetics and jerry-rigged life support.  The unnatural extremities and artificial addendums were the result of a lifetime’s struggle with his dear ol’ Dad, pitting the innumerable agents of his father’s relentless vendetta against his own inexhaustible and nearly superhuman will to live, if only out of spite. 
            Well-armed, well-paid assassins tracked and attacked him wherever he went; he evaded, thwarted, and disposed of them in nearly every region, province, state or nation on the North American continent, various locations throughout the Western Hemisphere, and one particularly hi-profile incident aboard the Monolith InterSystems Orbital Waylay. If he hadn’t been under contract, and subject to the constraints of a closely scrutinized expense account, Anthrax would seriously have considered fleeing to a far corner of the planet, even off-world, though he thoroughly, and not unrealistically, anticipated that the death merchants in his father’s employ would find him out, no matter how far or wide he might travel.
            Ironic, in some respects, that an evolutionary dead end like Anthrax could so casually dispatch such a tremendous number of the world’s most highly-trained, if not highly motivated, killing machines. Anthrax acknowledged that his grafted enhancements, despicable and hideous though they were, gave him an edge which most mere mortals did not possess; he was painfully aware that he would be dead several times over without them. ‘We can rebuild you,’ They’d told him once, the first time he submitted to Their wretched scheme. ‘Make you better/stronger/faster/a real/Ubermensch/andallathat/blah/blah/blah.’ Despite the maniacal laughter, They weren’t kidding. Of course, nothing was ever said about making him happier. Once a said-and-done deal, contract signed, permission granted, it was out of his hand. They didn’t own him outright, just the parts, and if he reneged in any way, They’d send the repo men to take back what was Theirs, far more than an arm and a leg. He was Their boy, all he owned were his thoughts, and he was pretty sure those were at least monitored, if not outright controlled. They were as good as Their word, he had to admit; whenever he took damage, on the clock or off, They were on hand with the requisite compensation: replaceable parts, digit, limb, or organ, running the gamut from state-of-the-art to total wonk-sci.  He’d had so much work done, he wasn’t entirely certain where he ended and They began. Whether he oughta thank Them or go kamikaze and kill Them all. In truth, he didn’t even know exactly who They were, or where to find Them. Some unholy coalition of Nazis, Mafia, and extradimensional intelligence, more than likely, headquartered in the churning bowels of Hollow Earth. No matter, so long as They kept him running long enough for one last father/son chat.
 
            Nick Ripple returned from his tour in ‘Nam with a bum left leg, a bleeding ulcer, a morphine habit, and a not-altogether irrational fear of his own seed. His platoon was just one of many whose collective service to God and country entailed a generous—if accidental?—dousing with the military pest repellent known as Agent Orange. Though he now existed, lingering, on the outermost periphery of the US Marine-World, he was privy to rumors, dark, absurd, inconceivable. Reproductive malfunctions, in the tactful words of a combat acquaintance. Monsters, a more emphatic warpal declared. Abominations, exclaimed another former trenchmate in impassioned vehemence.
            Mutants, freaks, evolutionary mishaps, whatever they be named, they were defective, and Nick toed a hard line when it came to the differently abled, especially where the Fruit of his own Looms were concerned. Considered them weak, pathetic, offensive to behold. Don’t piss in the gene pool, that was Nick’s stance. And though he desired heirs, he wasn’t about to let any so-called abominations swim past him.
            Nick’s double-edged fatal flaw would be his own undoing, however; weak links in his chain of resolve regarding potential progeny. Nick had an eye for the ladies, too much so to remain faithful to his predictably long-suffering wife. Worse, he found himself quite consistently drawn to strong-willed, self-preserving women, the sort who preferred to make their own decisions as to whether or not they were ready to endure the dubious bliss of motherhood; those who chose inevitably proved rather obstinate and uncooperative when it came to the subject of their precious treasures being treated as abortions after the fact. Even the previously unquestioned influence he wielded over wife Travalia was put to the test and found wanting when, the night of her return from the hospital, she discovered Nick in the kitchen preparing to suffocate and dismember their firstborn, Anthony. Though the child had exhibited no signs of abnormality, its presence in the house made Nick acutely uncomfortable, and he regretted allowing it to come to term. Val took the child and fled to her parents’ home in Connecticut. Nick found them a week later; indifferent to reconciliation, Nick came only to kill the child. In the struggle that ensued, Val’s father was killed, and Nick went to prison. He was out in five, and a month later, little Tony disappeared from the playground at his preschool; no body, or any other trace, was ever found.
            In all the years before and after his internment, Nick took no special precautions to ensure that his family tree not flower on far-flung, hard-to-reach limbs. Nor did it occur to him that a simple vasectomy would nip any such unwanted offshoots in the proverbial bud. His exposure to Agent Orange had indeed wrought havoc upon his chromosomal makeup, yet was anything but detrimental to his potency. Of the twelve children Nick would sire over the two decades following the war, eight of them would come to term, though only two would survive him. One of these was little Anthony.
 
Anthrax didn’t like it, not in any way, shape or form. Going after Pentler was one thing, a personal vendetta fully sanctioned by the corporate overlords whose bidding he did with such vicious aplomb. But this one, the intended target for which he’d received his brainfaxed orders not an hour before, was his friend, as much as he allowed himself to have any. A man he respected, whose body of work spoke for itself; a man who never judged him, never treated him with the kind of thinly veiled disgust, contempt, and fear to which he was accustomed from his other employers.  Those members of the Consortium who consistently attempted to distance themselves from the copious gore which puddled at their own feet, stained their clothes and soiled their fingers to the subdermal layers. Bob Buck was cut from a rougher cloth, reserved his considerable disdain for the pretentious elitists with whom he was forced to consort by virtue of his own ill‑gotten fortunes. The kind of man Anthrax could drink with, not just a casual cocktail in some glass-walled Babylonian tower, but an honest‑to‑God street‑level bender, dangerous inebriation, wasted mayhem, all night and all day and again until the weekend when the real partying would begin. And now he had to kill him. No question in his mind as to whether he’d do it; orders was orders. Just seemed a damn shame, that’s all. He wanted to ask why. But that wasn’t his biz. He did what They told him, and They covered his ass. Hard bargain.
 
            Buck wasn’t at the ranch house.  That would have been too obvious.  He knew they were onto him, a man who’d put out and personally pulled that many contracts had rear‑end heat sensors to pick up that shit a million miles off. Then again, Buck wasn’t one to run, more than likely to find an open field and take em all on at once, boots on in a blaze of glory.  The only way.
            Anthrax tracked him easy enough, hating it every minute as he waded through a slew of Buck’s hired guns, rendering each of them eternally inert. They died in silence, for the most part, true pros, not candy‑ass salaried security chumps and suckers, guys he knew, old Joes and dogs‑o‑war who’d pulled his out of the fire more times than once, boys he owed his life and so what, they all saw him coming and treated it like any other ugly deal, didn’t pull their punches or hold their fire, for all the good it did them, steely precision and a lifetime wasted wallowing in the mire of sponsored violence earned them no mercy in the end. Corporate casualties, every one, causeless deaths in the meaningless name of a biz they didn’t understand. And Ripple was no different, just better at it, souped‑up skills engineered to serve no other purpose but this insensate brutality. A master of death. And so what.
            Buck was waiting, sure enough. The blasted remnants of his private army smoldering in his assassin’s wake, and Buck just sat there, laughing behind his desk in DalTex Buckwagon/BEEFCO headquarters, North end of nowhere, a rusty bastion of corrugated steel and old‑fashioned barbwire.  Like he didn’t even care, neither surprised nor pissed by this betrayal.  Buck ensconced in three‑piece grey flannel, 10‑gallon Stetson, alligator shitkickers, surrounded by a miniscule sampling of his personal armory, Colt revolvers, Smith and Wesson’s, Browning automatics, Walther, Luger, Mauser, Berreta, Glock, Uzi, Russian, Arab, Israeli, Chinese, Japanese, German and good ol US cobalt, titanium, matte black and metallic grey, nickel‑plated, silvery‑blue, the full ultraviolent spectrum.  Launchers for rocket and grenade, c4, tNt, plastique, nitro, round after round after round.  In his lap, Bob cradled his beloved Winchester, the one that had hung unused above the mantle of his manse these many long years since it had served to scatter the thoughts maintained within a Democratic cranium, as unlikely a sniper’s rifle as any agent‑sinister might have devised.  Over his vested chest, crisscrossing bandoliers filled with Cuban cigars, some final irony which Anthrax could sense but not quite get. Buck rose slowly from his leather-backed chair.
            “Well, son,” was all he said, completely unwilling to plead, no sign of weakness to make this any easier.
            Anthrax felt his trigger finger jump, brain afraid that another word might be enough to make him reconsider.
 
            Bob Buck stood his ground; he always had before, and he saw no reason to stop now. The first shot took him in the stomach, left a hole like a rouge‑lipped mouth hanging open in shock. He staggered back a step, from the force if not the pain, and his cigar popped out of his mouth. He shook his head, admonishing Anthrax with a cluck of the tongue, somewhat disappointed that he wasn’t dead already. The head, Anthony, c’mon, my brains on the wall, Zapruder jumpcut, I’m not some gook in black pj’s like yer daddy usedta deepfry in the rice paddies, ya kill me once so’s I stay dead, doncha know. But the poor kid had lost his nerve, useless now to the company, might as well a sold ‘em out and pledged allegiance to BEEFCO if this was how he meant to play it. BANG. Like an m80 in a tin can when Buck was a kid wranglin’ punk fun out in the boonies. Groin shot. HA. Hurt like fuck, no lie, more’n likely lethal but his skullcap was intact as he sat down hard on the cold cement floor, found his smoldering stub between his legs before his seeping blood could extinguish it, plenty of time to roll it between his fingers, even take another puff as Anthrax stood there lookin’ like he wasn’t quite sure what he’d just done or if he even wanted any part of it anymore. Buck reachin’ up to touch the lit end to the tip of a fuse that wound its way through the powderkeg backroom and yeah boy ol’ Tony Ripple’s jaw did most certainly drop  at the sight of that, suddenly  shit-scared at the prospect that Unca Bob Buck had done him just as sure as he’d just double‑plugged the ol man sittin’ gutshot on the stone cold in a puddle of his own blood. BANGBANG two aimless rounds as he backed out the door and the fuse followed him fast like some hissing sidewinder faster than he could run almost and goddam Bob Buck wasn’t even dead yet was he had to go back but no way Jose and holy shit if that sulfurous snakefinger wasn’t ahead of him three steps already gimme three steps mister which had to mean that whatever was supposed to blow was somewhere up in front gimme three steps toward the door so maybe doublin back was the way to go but WHOOSH some force aflame propelled him just enough and gimme three steps he almost caught up with the taunting fuse and BOOM you’ll never see me no more…

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