“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
“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
Does anyone else get the feeling that the complete collapse of civilization is going to be really good for the planet?
Like when a guy my age has his first heart attack—it’s a wake-up call! You start eating better, exercising, get your sex drive back, suddenly you’re in the best shape of your life. Sure, there’s some scar tissue, and you have to take your medication and pay attention to doing things in “cycles”…I mean, whether it’s your personal apocalypse or a global one, I guarantee you will start riding a bike again!
I mean seriously, I feel like there’s little hints that some kind of mini-geddon is coming. Everyone’s talking about how it’s better to eat food that’s locally sourced, that we should all be growing our own vegetables and brewing our own kombucha and cultivating our own weed and 3D printing our own protein substitutes. I am not good at any of that shit, so I’m starting to apocalypse network. Where you meet someone at the farmer’s market who grows their own strawberries and bottles their own chai and makes their own vegan cheese out of cashews and dustbunnies and you’re like “Can I get your number? Are you on Instagram?” Though what we really should be doing is asking, what’s your physical address and how can I make it to your place on foot when the shit goes down?
I’m an atheist, but I like to get high, so I’m still on an eternal quest for meaning. Like I see patterns and apply significance to the tiniest shit to make myself feel better about my preposterous life choices. “If I hadn’t gone to Burning Man that one time in ‘96 I would have never considered the possibility that I could survive the end of civilization!” (not the right punchline but a fine placeholder)
I’m at that age where I’m not sure if I’m in the best shape of my life, or the worst health I’ve ever been in. Like either I’ve got everything pretty much locked down and figured out, or it is all about to fall apart tomorrow. I mean, I eat better and exercise more than I ever did back when it would have mattered, but I also do ridiculous things to my mind and body that far fewer adults have grown out of than you would probably like to think.
I’m in my fifties and what nobody tells you about being in your fifties—or probably lots of people do in books I just haven’t bothered to read—is that this is the time in your life when you start adding up your balance sheet. I don’t mean literally; my finances remain precariously on the precipice of one-serious-medical-event-we’re-done. But it’s when you start trying to figure out if it’d be okay if you were to suddenly die. Like, how does everything stack up for you? What’s the big unresolved shit? Who do you really really really need to apologize to and who can you afford to just say “fuck it!” Because it becomes very tangible past a certain point. People start having those aforementioned “medical events.” Stupid accidents, things attacking you from inside your own body, just scary horror movie bad stuff. And you can no longer pretend it’s impossible or that it’s something that happens to other people you read about or that it isn’t eventually, inevitably, no matter how hard you slice it, coming for us all. So you have to start being ready for it. Making peace with it. Not easy peace, either. More like the kind of peace between rival gangs who know bad ugly shit could go down at any second, and inevitably will, but it’s best for everyone in the meantime to stave it off as long as possible so we can all make some money and get laid a few more times.
Another short story scratched out in a fevered rush sometime pre-y2k, intended to be a sort of noirish crime thriller about the bordertown on the edge of the 6th dimension. I never quite got the full balance of Twin Peaks-meets-Lovecraft weirdness I was trying for, but you can get an idea of what I was going for. The bones are there, as they say.I could slap a digital cover on it and throw it up on Amazon for free or .99c, but I’d rather reward my half-dozen or less loyal readers with a chance to peruse it for free right here at the source. Besides it’s just an old first draft, and publishing it would inevitably mean polishing it, and god knows I barely have time to put that kinda work in on the new stuff. So have at it.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to tell which side you’re really on…”
I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one.
Okay, okay, so maybe I’m being melodramatic, and anyway, I stole that line from Apocalypse Now. But just by the fact that they gave me the job, I knew it had to suck. Considering my most exciting gig since coming to work for Public Health was chasing down a pack of pasty-faced neoGoths who fancied themselves vampires, called themselves Hemogoblins (I think they thought they were a band, too), and absconded with a Red Cross donor van as part of a scheme to slake their self-imposed “need” for human blood, I knew this had to be a milk run. Not that I wasn’t interested in getting a peek at the almost-mythical Bucket’s Door, if they even let me near it, but I could do that kind of thing on my own time, should I choose to vacation in the asshole of the world. Or in this case, Texas. But seeing as my supe had me shitlisted three ways from Fat Tuesday, it wasn’t like I had much of a choice.
Portaltown’s spontaneous emergence was neither an accident nor a miracle, more like an organic outgrowth, a tumorous little burg that bubbled up to meet the needs of a new era. The scientists came first, to investigate the phenomenon of Bucket’s Door, as the portal itself was quaintly dubbed. The first free-standing, unregulated interdimensional access point, result of a lost prototype rediscovered and subsequently entered by a renegade quantum physicist and paranormal private dick name of Dr. Frank Bucket, whereabouts unknown. Apparently, the good Doc passed through the portal and into the 6th dimension, and in his excitement or demise or whatever went down, left the gate open for any and all who might happen upon it. A couple of enterprising rednecks, since trampled into ignominy by the stampede of history, stumbled across it first, tried with all their might to turn it into some kind of roadside tourist trap, never mind it was miles from any highway. Suffice to say, the government got in on the operation, shut the bubbas out, bought the land out from under and militarized the whole area. An economic boon to the community either way, as local commerce became a function of serving the researchers and posted troops.
Then came the private interests, small-time operators and big biz types alike, looking to exploit the regional phenom in any way they could, establish franchises, vie for rights, squabble over resources. The major corps, Monolith and their ilk, were the most far-reaching in their concepts and strategies, hoping to plunder the uncharted realm for whatever unknown and untapped veins of commercial possibility it might yield, maybe even establish trade links with the entities on the other side.
Next to arrive were the zealots, the New Age spiritualists, the Bible-bangers, the cult-crazies, some convinced that the Door was a link to our manifest multiversal destiny, others certain that it was the entrance to Hell. Not a religious man by nature, I was kind of on the fence in respect to its true significance.
Finally, the tourists showed up; once the powers-that-be, seeing that the news was out and there would be no way to stop them, determined that the portal posed no threat to the general public and vice versa, there was little choice but to open the place to curiosity shoppers, make Bucket’s Door an adjunct of the National Parks system, and reap a little excess revenue in the bargain. For awhile, PortalTown flourished as some kind of Fed-run metaphysical Disneyland, but once the joyriders realized that there would be no guided tours into the Realms Beyond, they moved on to the next big thing and that biz dried up quick.
That left the dregs, the peddlers, pushers, pimps and prostitutes, the luckless would-be-opportunists, the sadsack drifters and career fringe-dwellers, desertheads and looney tunes, the core civilian populi of poor old PortalTown, along with a tiny core contingent of Army regs and the researchers whose project they were duty-bound to safeguard and protect.
Colonel Winifred Tempe was everything one would expect from a career military woman. No nonsense, no makeup. Friends called her Freddie, or even Fred, and no one, not even her husband, called her Winnie. I’d known her almost seven years, since we served together as advisors on a Biological Terrorism Response Committee, and I called her Colonel. I found her at her HQ, an Army mobile control unit that looked pretty much like an International Airstream trailer, situated about three hundred yards from the Bubble, the ominous geodesic structure that served as shelter and defense for the portal site.
“Mr. Ross, it’s good to see you again,” Tempe greeted me, with all the warmth she could muster for an estranged former biz associate.
“Likewise,” I replied, wincing at her kung-fu grip.
“I understand your visit is something more than a routine facilities check,” Tempe said, getting right down to biz, a trait I admired in anyone.
“That’s true, Colonel. The Department’s received word that a serious leak has occurred at Bucket’s Door.”
“I can assure you, if there had been any incidents of leakage or spillover, excepting the permissible trace amounts, not only would I know all about it, but this entire township would be under complete lockdown.”
“I’m talking about more of a security leak. No offense.”
“None taken. Yet. Please explain.”
“Now, this may or may not have anything to do with the people in your command, but I have reason to believe that certain members of the exploratory
teams, whether private, military, I don’t honestly know, have been smuggling materials back from within the 6th dimension.”
“That’s just not possible.”
“Colonel, not only is it possible, it’s happened. And our evidence suggests that these materials pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of the American people, and by extension, national security.”
“Forgive my skepticism, Ross, but what kind of evidence are we talking about?”
From an inside pocket of my government-issue trench coat, I produced a vacuum-sealed glassine vial. Inside was a small silvery droplet, very hi-viscosity, maybe a centimeter in diameter, resembling nothing so much as a blob of mercury.
“What in the world is that?”
“In this world, nothing, at least according to what the labscan can tell us. It was discovered in the apartment of a young man in Schenectady, New York. Poor guy had turned into a puddle of goo, or maybe glue. Everything below flesh level was more or less molten. There were traces of an unknown substance in the mess, the same foreign elements we detected in this globule. So, obviously, we presume a connection.”
“But what makes you think it comes from here?”
“You know a Corporal Zehta?”
“Of course. He was assigned to me until about six months ago. You’re saying…?”
“What were his specific duties?”
“Uh huh. So, it’s safe to say he had access.”
“Yes, he was frequently onsite. But he wasn’t cleared for crossover.”
“Any idea why he requested transfer?”
“Personal matter. He needed to be closer to home.”
“He showed no signs of illness?”
“He had a thorough examination and total deep-clean before he left the region. It’s standard.”
“Apparently, your methods aren’t quite thorough enough.”
Tempe sat back, fingers steepled beneath her chin, tried to stifle a sigh.
“I suppose you’ll want to pay a visit to the Bubble.”
Portaltown existed in a perpetual miasma of bilious orange, a pumpkin-hued fog that swirled and eddied through the streets and around the buildings that comprised the seedy hamlet. Most of the buildings looked like temporary structures, all corrugated tin and plastic, plywood and pasteboard. Considering the whole site was less than two years old, it was rundown, raggedy, suffused with rot. Colonel Tempe assured me that the haze was just atmospheric runoff from the Door, stuff that didn’t entirely dissipate within the Bubble; onsite researchers tested regional air quality on a semi-regular basis, and so far nothing notably hazardous or in excess of admissible toxicity levels had been detected. Of course, none of that accounted for the globule in my pocket.
The Bubble itself acted as a kind of filtration/purification system, as well as a protective shield, and a secured containment area. Once there, we suited up, standard full-body anti-contamination rigs, just like the ones we wore in those absurd nontox test runs all those years ago. We entered through a kind of airlock, a semicircular corridor of some amber polycarbon, had me feeling like a hamster in a Habitrail tube. The whole outfit was kind of cheesy, like the rest of PortalTown, not what I expected considering the miraculous mystery within. Still and all, my heart was doing a trip-hop beat and I was sweating in my yellow spacesuit, not quite sure if I was ready for this.
The Bubble wasn’t quite the hubbub of buzzy activity I’d anticipated, but then again, the gov had cut funding for almost all its scientific programs, and the portal project was just another victim, all but dormant until the corporations could wrest ultimate control of the operation. Dim inside, that orange haze really thick there, shrouding even the overhead flourescents. And smack in the middle of it, a shimmering, pulsating oval of iridescent orangello, like a lava lamp reflected in a funhouse mirror. The Door itself. Maybe seven feet high by four across, in 3D measurements. Freestanding, it seemed to hover a good foot and a half above the hard rubber flooring of the Bubble, as if simply suspended in air. It had no apparent thickness, a self-contained slice of another world.
The Door was flanked on either side by a pair of space-suited guards, armed with vicious-looking, trident-tipped lightning guns, stolid and stoic as two suits of armor in a museum hallway. Tempe led me right up to it, and I could tell she was still somewhat in awe, even after all that time. She’d never been in, so she told me. That wasn’t part of her job description. And I wouldn’t be going over either, didn’t have a high enough security rating, which was alright with me. I felt too close to the damn thing already, right there at the threshhold.
“See this?” Tempe’s helmet mike squawked. With one gloved hand, she was indicating the magma-like encrustation that formed the frame around the Doorway. I nodded. Tempe picked idly at the crust, but it was gelid, irremovable. “This is the reason for all this.” She gestured at the surrounding enclosure. “Under all this glop somewhere is a Model Sporesby Doormension 6. One of the prototype series. As far as is known, this is the only one that’s ever worked. Of course, that’s the official story, so you know how far you can throw it. But once the general public got wind of this, they had to come up with something. Of course, it didn’t do much to appease the religious nuts and other seekers, thrill or elsewise. If they could have, I’m sure they’d have shut it off, packed it up and hauled it somewhere nice and secret, like one of the Nevada Black Labs.”
“How’d it get here in the first place?”
“No one knows. Some say Dr. Bucket brought it here himself. He was part of the original design team, but his contributions were mostly theoretical. So I hear. We get a lot of rumors out here, and not much else. And we’re ground zero. But, hey, I’m a dedicated employee of the US government. I’m used to sifting through the subterfuge.”
I heard every word, but I had no more to say, staring into the roiling, burbling midst of the ethereal elsewhere.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Creepy, I was thinking.”
“Funny. As children, we’re terrified of the dark. As adults, it’s the light we’re most afraid of.”
“Hey, Colonel, you’re not turning into one of those religious nuts, are you?”
She laughed, a fairly rare occurrence in my experience.
“Hardly, Damon. But even we atheists experience a capacity for wonder.”
“So, who goes in, if not the US Army?”
“Scientists, full clearance, top-level, probably Bucket’s old research cronies. Real freaks, most of them, more atrophied social habits than even I’ve developed, but then, I’ve always been a people kind of person.”
Now it was my turn to laugh.
“Any of these freaks still hanging around?”
“Dr. Stopper, freakiest freak of them all. I can drop you at his lab site on the way back to base.”
I found the Doc in his lab, a plastic quonset hut located about a half block off the main drag. Right away, I sized Stopper up to be one of those premillennial relics of science geekdom who mistook the graying ponytail backing up his pathetic combover for some kind of concession to cool.
I flashed him my credentials.
“Always pleased to make the aquaintance of a fellow Fed-schlep,” the Doc said, offering a fishily unfirm and bloodless hand. “I’m Dr. Stopper. Friends call me Rob.”
“What’s up, Doc?” I couldn’t help myself, even got a kick when he winced.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Ross?” His tone a few degrees cooler.
Never much of one for small talk, once I’m down off the barstool, I got right down to biz, producing the same plastic vial I’d shown to Tempe. “Dr., what can you tell me about this stuff?”
Stopper’s demeanor was less that of the kindly man of science than the blissed out guru dude. “My, my, my, what have we here?” he asked, with the sleepy smile of a lifetime stoner. He played it unfamiliar, like he’d never seen the stuff in his life, taking the ampule from my hand and examining it in the fluorescent lablight. Yet I couldn’t help notice, as he uncapped the container without a care, and let the mercurial contents slide out, that he seemed utterly at ease with what I’d brought him. Downright paternal, I’d say, taking the little globule gingerly onto the end of one forefinger and seeming to caress its silvery surface with the other.
“You ever seen this before?”
“Oh, yes. It’s in quite plentiful supply, over in the Sixth.”
Now I was getting somewhere.
“What can you tell me about it?”
“Some kind of fungus, I believe. It grows everywhere in there, like moss on trees.” He peered closely at its shimmery surface. “It’s really quite beautiful, isn’t it?”
I could only shrug. “I suppose. You’ve tested it, I assume?”
“Oh, goodness, no. So far, our sample research has been entirely limited to inorganic and inert materials. Rocks, fossils, crust. By strict regulation, and in light of our uneasy truce with the less-than-approachable denizens of 6D, we are strictly forbidden to bring back organic matter in any form. Even the simplest plant life, which this most likely is, cannot be removed, at least not at this point. And while I would love to have access, for purposes of pure research, I suppose it is best at this juncture to maintain a cautious policy. After all, nobody knows, or at least didn’t until now, how this substance would react to oxegynation, whether it would expire, implode, or worse.”
“Yet you took it out of the container without a second thought.”
“Oh, well, I just assumed…after all,” he indicated the vial, “it’s not as if this little baby were airtight, right?”
“So, how did you happen to come by this?”
“The details are all on this jump drive, along with the results of Department testing.”
“Oh, may I?”
“I assumed you would want to.”
“Thank you. And the sample? May I hang onto it for further study?”
He visibly shivered with excitement. “Ooh. You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this moment.”
“No,” I offered, “I guess I don’t.”
After I left Stopper, I checked into my motel, the Dementia Inn, a dirt-lot cul-de-sac formation of Bucky Fuller geosheds styled as miniaturized replicas of the Bubble. Once ensconced, I raided the minibar, downed half a liter of O’Buggles whiskey and snacked at the satellite feed trough before drifting into a stuporous approximation of sleep.
I was cattle-prodded out of the Land of Nod by the digital chirp of my lobephone, a viciously overamped interior noise that rolled over my brainscape like a thresher come to harvest all the dead cells. Tempe on the twine, barking incoherent, only in replay did I understand it was one of those “Get yer ass over here NOW!” kind of messages. Forced myself not to pass back out, dragged my liquor-drenched corpus to the bathroom and ran a lot of water through it, laughing bitterly at the tiny dying voice inside begging me for the umpzillionth time to please never do this again. Only when I was outside my cabin, hearing the snick of the lock and just knowing my passcard was still in there somewhere, did I realize that I had no idea where I was supposed to be going. No matter, Tempe knew me and my habits well enough, she Jeeped up practically rolling over my feet before I could even choose a direction.
The apartment building was nothing more than a block of stacked shipping crates, fully mobile temporary housing units, second hand scrape motored down from some abandoned research outpost in the faraway Arctic. Tempe led me up a flight of plastic stairs to a third-level unit, a couple of post-adolescent MPs hovering in the doorway looking pale and sick. A strong odor emanated from the unit, human funk distilled with something darker, heavier, a roasted carbon stink. Inside, on the floor, a creature that might have been a girl once, alive, if that was the word for it, barely audible but utterly pitiful noises coming from somewhere deep within her. Her head, losing shape, had sunken down into her shoulders, and below where the neck used to be, she was a fleshy blob, limbs flailing uselessly, connected only by the encasing skin. She’d evacuated from every possible orifice, everything from the evening’s dinner back to pabulum and primordial soup. A tub of goo, no way to tell what she used to look like, except maybe from photos. Nearby, on the short-nap carpet, was a mucky greenish-brown stain, mottled with tissuey chunks in haphazard array around a small pile of ashes.
“What have we got?” Tempe asked one of the MPs, who looked ready to do a bout of evacuating himself.
“Name’s Annabel Fritz,” he responded, trying not to look, unable not to. “One of Kitty’s girls. Near as I can gather, those firepit remnants, that’s the boyfriend. Doorman at the Rupture, weekends only. Didn’t do much else, not on the books anyhow. Jon something.”
“Trefoil. Jon Trefoil.” It was Tempe’s biz, knowing those things.
The girl made more horrible sounds, tears streaming from sunken sockets. Annabel was definitely on the fritz.
“Where’re the fucking medics?” Tempe wanted to know, visibly shaken. And it took a lot to faze the Colonel.
“On their way,” the kid corporal responded.
“When? Sometime this weekend? Jesus, doesn’t this rate emergency response time?”
“Understaffed, I think. They don’t have enough medtechs for a round-the-clock detail.”
“Goddamnit, what kind of shitass assignment is this?” Tempe almost shrieked. About to lose it.
“I was just wondering the same thing myself,” I offered, none-too-helpfully from the look she gave me.
“Well, let’s try to make her comfortable at least,” Tempe’s brilliant suggestion.
I took another long look at the fleshy mass quivering and sobbing on the trailer floor.
“How do you propose we do that?”
We did what we could, and for what it was worth she was still showing vitals when the meds finally came and took her away, though the awful noises had long since ceased, Miss Fritz fully lapsed into staring, slack-mouthed catatonia. Almost comical, watching the medtechs puzzle over where to pick her up, how to load her boneless body on the gurney and keep her there. Almost. Once they were gone, I gave Tempe the biz.
“Colonel, other than moral support, why’d you call me out here?”
“What else, Ross? C’mon, you must have noticed the resemblance between her condition and my noncom in Schenectady.”
“But that guy pretty much melted.”
“Well, Fritz wasn’t exactly rigor mortifying, was she?”
“But…she was alive.”
“Yeah, I don’t know why either. Must affect people differently.”
“How do you…?”
Tempe bent over the plastic crate that doubled as the coffee table, scooped something up with one short, manicured nail, showed it to me. Metallic and glittering, the same alien substance I’d shown her that morning. I nodded grimly, not half as surprised as I wished to be. I glanced down at the table, saw a small plastic pouch bulging with a large glop of the stuff, and beside it, something strange, a doubled tube of burnished steel, machine tooled, maybe five inches long, with a pistol grip and trigger device.
“That’s the smallest damn shotgun I ever saw.”
I reached for it, but Tempe snatched it first. Turned it over and over, checked the action, peered the wrong way down the barrels.
“Holy shit,” she muttered, then pointed the thing at me.
I took a look, first thinking that someone had done a bad soldering job, realizing slowly that the little globs were residue of the same strange substance. Tempe cracked the little blaster open, checked the chamber, we could see more of the stuff packed in there, clinging to the sides. It hit me where I’d first seen one of these rigs.
“The NeuroSatanist,” I muttered out loud
“Excuse me?” Tempe’s brows shot up in wonder.
“In college, I had this roommate, one semester, going for his PhD. In neuroscience. Got himself hooked on megamphetamines, part of his study routine. Lost all interest in his field, got all up into numerology, the cabala, Crowley. Just before finals, he disappeared. Dropped out, last I heard, to become a full-time student of Satan. Hence the nickname. Anyway, he used to have a shooter like this, used it to put away his study aids. Little too extreme for my likes.” I got a thought, shuddered. “You don’t think…?”
“I’m the wrong person to ask, Ross.” True enough. Belief in a Supreme Being aside, the Colonel was straight as a Southern Baptist.
“Well, who do I talk to?”
Tempe handed me the rig, let me pocket the pouch, too.
“In a case like this, it’s probably best to start at the bottom.”
The sky was an unnatural shade of lavender, with creeping tendrils of pink and rose, as I tooled Tempe’s Jeep out to the South ass-end of PortalTown, where I found the lone freestanding structure, a sloppily spruced up and elaborately neoned old farmhouse that served the community under the banner of the Sexy Terrestrial. The proprietress was within, counting the earnings of the evaporating evening in a dingy lamplit office with all the gaudy Victorian trimmings. Even the tattered glamor of her ratty maroon dress was a nineteenth-century knockoff, retrophiliac kitsch meant to lend her the air of an un-Reconstructed Southern dame. Engrossed in her bookkeeping, she didn’t seem to hear me come in.
“Kitty Darling?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer, just to get things moving.
“Sorry,” she drawled after giving me the barest glance. “All my girls are tucked in for the night, else otherwise occupied. If you was a regular, I might be able to…squeeze ya in.” An indifferent innuendo, a concession to her career choice.
“Thanks, but I’m here on a different kind of biz.”
She paused in her accounting and looked at me for real.
“Ya ain’t the law are ya? Cause I’m all flush, where ya’ll’re concerned. I’m very scrupulous in that respect. Course, ya can always take some out on credit.”
“Maybe later. Anyway, I’m not the Man. I’m with the federal government.”
She dropped her pencil on the desk, pouty and put out. “God, not another audit.”
“Nothing so mundane.” I showed her my ID.
“Health Department? Look , mister, all my gals are tested regular, for every known transmittable offense.”
“I’m not here to investigate your establishment, Miss Darling.”
“Then what? Please, I’m very busy. And goddamn tired.”
I produced the shooter, the pouch, dropped them on top of her receipts and credit slips. “Know what these are?”
Kitty nodded, solemn for a whole second, then gleaming. “Sorry again, but I never partake past the witching hour.”
“You employ a woman named Annabel Fritz?”
“You mean Lady Spite? Uh huh. But again yer outta luck. She’s got the night off.”
“The first of many.”
That got her interest. Kitty decided to play along. “Whattaya mean?”
“Annabel, if she’s still alive, is currently residing at whatever passes for a hospital in these godforsaken parts.”
Kitty was quiet for awhile, then sighed heavily. “Shit! That stupid little bitch! She better hope she ain’t alive. Like I kin well afford to lose another worker now.” After a short, epithets-under-the-breath reverie, Kitty noticed me again.
“So, what’s all this gotta do with me?”
“I’m just curious why one of your employees is laid up with a spinal condition that’s turned her into a glob of Concord grape jelly.”
“Oh Lord. Okay, sure, so I knew she was usin, most of my girls are on somethin. But she swore up and down that she had it under control.”
“So, you’re telling me that this is some kind of drug?”
“What? TRIX? Of course. You don’t know?”
“No, ma’am. But I’m learning fast. You say it’s called TRIX? Is that just a street name? Does it stand for something?”
“What’s it do? I mean, besides deboning off-duty prostitutes?”
“What ya think? Gets em high. High as freakin Chinese box kites. Suborbital.”
“You ever use it?”
“Mr. Ross, at my age, I pretty much done all the self-medicatin I’m gonna. Not really up for any more experimental research. Gimme a nice bottle of bourbon, leave the science projects to the high school kids. Know what I’m sayin?”
I had to admit I did.
“This stuff, TRIX, where’s it come from? Is there a lab, or…?”
“Mister, you got more trouble puttin two an’ two together than I do balancin’ these here books. What is the sole economic and cultural hub around which this sordid ciudad revolves?”
“You mean the portal?”
“Give that gentleman the key to the city. He’s really catchin’ on.”
“So, what, it’s synthesized from materials they’re mining over there or…”
“Do I look like a goddamn scientist, Mister? All I know is since that shit come over to this side, this whole place been gripped in a fever. Even my regular customer base been dryin up, folks vanishin or succumbin or whatnot. High weirdness everwhere, and spooky spook types pokin around, keepin tabs on everone.”
“Spooks? You mean DeepFed?”
“Maybe. But I don’t get the feelin they’re investigatin much. More like, lookin for a marketin angle. More than I know, really, and probably more’n I should say. Anyhow, they don’t spend no money in here. Now, if you’ve got all ya need, I really do need to finish up here.”
“Yes, I’ve…Thank you, Miz Darling. You’ve been a big help.”
“Uh huh. Sure. Come up an see me sometime an all that. Bye now.”
I Jeeped it back into PortalTown, full-blown megaton Texas sunrise turning the horizon into a shimmery mirage. In my exhaustion and at a distance, it looked like the whole world was flooded with TRIX. Dropped off the vehicle at Tempe’s HQ, and hoofed it home to the Dementia. Raised my supe on the twine, figuring it was time to call in some backup, this all suddenly beyond my area of expertise. I gave her the lowdown, and I’ll be damned if Diz didn’t sound downright gleeful. She was even being nice to me, in her way.
I finished bringing her up to speed, and she gave a low whistle. “Whoo, this is big.”
“Yeah. Too big for me. Look, boss, we need DeepFed, the DEA, ATF, somebody with a little more jurisdiction.”
She was having none of it, but she was still playing it upbeat. “No can do, Ross. This is our baby and you’re our boy. Budget review’s coming up in a month, and we need something to show them. Besides, since when does an unregulated substance not warrant a serious public health threat?”
“But, boss, I don’t know where to begin with this, much less end it.”
“You’ve come this far, Ross. And frankly, I didn’t expect it.”
“So, why’d you send me?”
“It was a low-priority gig from the outset. Nobody had any idea it would blow wide open, least of all me.”
“Listen, just get me one somebody, an experienced sniffer, a fucking K9.”
“Sorry, Ross, this is our baby. And you’re our boy.”
And that was that. I could expect no help on this one. Cut off, cold-shouldered, left to my own outmoded devices in the toilet of the world. At least there was Tempe. She could help. Between the two of us, we could unearth enough rot to force a major investigation, have PortalTown requarantined until the TRIX mystery could be satisfactorily resolved. Or so I hoped.
“I’m telling you, Ross, there’s nothing I can do. The higher-ups have been steadily eroding my powers of persuasion since the day they stuck my ass out here. I’m just a puppet authority, a show dog. We’re only here to see that everything functions smoothly until the privatization.”
“Privatization? You’re telling me the gov’s going to auction off PortalTown to the highest bidder?”
“The deal’s pretty much done, what I hear. The rest is just details. I’d say I’ve got about a month left before my transfer, and truth to tell, I’m simply counting the days.”
“But Colonel, as long as you’re still in PortalTown, you’re the law in these parts. Isn’t it your duty to see to it that the flow of TRIX is stopped at the source?”
“I used to be an idealist, Ross. I used to be a true believer. There was still a little bit left of it when you met me. But times have changed. I’ve seen the light, what little there is of it. The gov’s on the way out, not just of PortalTown. It’s a global phenom. Or hadn’t you noticed? The real power in the new millennium belongs to the corporations. I’m a figurehead. Not much more.”
“You sound pretty resigned.”
“Not much choice. If I fight it too much, make too many waves, they’ll just get rid of me. I’ve got twenty-two years in the service, Ross. I wouldn’t know what else to do. The way I’ve got it figured, better they should strip my power little by little than have it all yanked away at once.”
“I never thought I’d be feeling nostalgic for the armed forces.”
“Me neither. Not while I was still in em. Try not to hold it against me, huh?”
“I understand your position. What I don’t get is mine. Why am I here then? If the gov’s throwing in the towel on PortalTown, why bother?”
“Who knows? Maybe they’ve got you in here under everybody else’s noses. A last gasp attempt to stanch the flow before they lose all control.”
“If that was the case, you’d think they’d want an undercover.”
“I don’t have any answers for you, Damon. I wish I did. But I’m just a functionary, sad to say. I just want to finish up my tour of duty and get the hell out of Dodge.”
“C’mon, Colonel. You still know where the strings are. Pull em. Get me one guy, military intelligence, someone who can help me on this.”
“You don’t think MI knows about this? And if they don’t and find out, what? They’ll just be looking for a way to exploit it, use it against the enemy of the week. TRIX warfare. Imagine the possibilities.”
“At least then it’d be outta my hands. Please, you must know somebody. The last honest man?”
“You mean besides you? I’ll see what I can do.”
I’d be paying a visit to Dr. Stopper soon enough, but since he likely wasn’t going anywhere in too much of a hurry, I had a hunch I wanted to follow up first. Made sure I found out from Tempe who was black market savvy around here, the number one look-the-other-way vice peddler and procurer of illicit goods. The Colonel, wise as she was to the ways of her world, put me on to Murch.
. Madman Murch’s Discount Outpost looked kind of like a firecracker stand the size of a semi trailer, garishly painted and cluttered outside and in with every conceivable piece of useless doodaddery and unwanted Americana I’d ever tried to get rid of, forget about, or otherwise ignore. I could tell by the setup that Murch was too cheap to hire help, and thus had to be the skinny, cancerous, gray-faced bonerack loitering under the awning and choking on his own sidestream smoke. I braced him straight away.
“Damon Ross. DPH.”
“Public Health? Aw, cheezits, whattaya guys want? I already had the CDC, the FDA, the FBI, the IRS, and the BPA on my ass, and that’s just in this fiscal quarter. I’m tellin ya like I tole alla them, I’m runnin a legit distribution service here. Strictly on the up and up.” I could tell his Brooklynese was a put on, some kind of affected dialect meant to give him character, make him sound tough and worldly.
I came on a little heavy, badcop without a partner. I figured this was one guy who might still be intimidated by an agent of the American government, even one as totem pole lowly as me. “What do you distribute? Exactly?”
“Y’know. Goods. And services. Fully approved. My paperwork’s in order. My license is good. What else?” I could see he was flustered, just keeping up appearances. Tourist season was over, after all, he couldn’t cover a bribe, much less any fines.
“It’s come down the twine that stuff’s been passing through the portal. Non-reg stuff.” Still I had to wonder how he stayed operational. And why.
“I don’t know nothin about that. Not my biz. Sides, it ain’t possible, what I know. Or ain’t ya seen the kinda security they got at the Door?” I wasn’t sure if he just wanted me to think he was a big man in P-Town, or if maybe he really was.
“Yeah, well, my sources, highly informed, tell me more than one someone is on the take out here, and in my experience, it doesn’t cost alot to buy off non-coms and duty boys. A few bucks, a good buzz, a free hummer, they’re more than willing to look the other way.”
“All well and good and true, but ya can’t bribe sensors, scanners, elemental detection systems. These are sensitive instruments.” I’m not sure either one of us really knew where this confab was going.
“Hey, machines go off line, data gets erased, lead-lined containment units get flagged through without so much as a cursory check. Systems are made to be circumvented. Designed as such. Always a back door, a breach.”
“Yer talkin bout corruption from the top alla way down. So who’s to say this ain’t how it’s sposed to be, huh?”
He had a point there, but it wouldn’t do me any good to let him think so. “I got a job to do, Murch. Anything coming through the gate unchecked, unregged, is a threat to global security, the public welfare, and the health of the human populace.”
“Well, la-de-da and hi-de-ho, Mr. Shinin’ Armor. Everything made by God or man under the sun is a potential danger to our well-being, or hadn’t ya noticed?”
I’d somehow slipped from my ready-to-rumble persona into the self-righteous tones of a spokespigeon for true believers everywhere. Which I most definitely am not.
Still, I couldn’t help myself.
“True enough. And we’ve got our fists plenty full without adding any extra-D flotsam into the mix.”
“It’s the natural course of things, G-man. What difference whether it’s some ET virus brought back from Venus, or some prehistoric bacteria growing in an African cave, or some undifferentiated lifeform creepin over from 6D?”
“None, maybe,” I admitted. Murch was making more sense than I wanted him to, and whether it was the early drinks or the smog from 6D, I was getting a headache.
“But I’d rather err on the side of safety.”
Murch laughed so hard he got to hacking, threatening to give with a lung. “Get with it, Ross. There ain’t no more safe side.” When he regained his composure, and saw he still wasn’t rid of me, he decided to throw me a bone. “Only one guy I know could get in ‘n’ outta 6D without gettin noticed.”
“Name’s Beauchamp. Bodacious Beauchamp. Crazy Creole mothafucka, fringe-drift, no legit line, hangs out at a bar called the Rupture, when he’s around.”
Murch turned away from me, pretending to arrange his junk, and I figured that
was all I was going to get from him, this round.
“Thanks for the tip.”
“No prob, Healthnut. That one’s onna house.”
Maybe Murch was right. Maybe the lines were being erased, the walls coming down. No good, no bad, just biz, in its many sticky forms. Whatever the deal, he was elbows deep in it, him and maybe every other two-bit hustler and four-star general in Portaltown, not counting the Colonel, of course. Could be the corrosion ran so cell-deep here that my job was just another officially sanctioned lost cause, and me just another PR pawn sent in to keep up appearances.
Between that thought and Beauchamp, I had one more excuse to get good and ripped.
After making the local rounds, nosing here and prying there and turning up exactly nothing, I found myself developing a powerful thirst. I stopped in for the liquid lunch special at an alcoholic black hole called the Rupture, one of those dustlit pits of entropy and despair where time seems to stand still until all of a sudden someone yells last call out of the clear blue haze. Somewhere before that awful moment but well after the end of happy hour, I managed to make a drinking buddy. A displaced crazy Creole of indeterminate age whose short-syllable speech pattern belied his infinite wisdom. He was a lanky, well-toned giant of a man, swarthy-complected, maybe a quarter Black, I couldn’t be sure, some kind of voodoo swamp doctor from the bayous around New Orleans, name of Bodacious Beauchamp. He was as much a local legend in PortalTown as he must have been in Louisiana, though at the time I thought he was just another booze-sodden shitspieler. After all, the gossip was that old Bodacious was a veteran traveller between this and the neighboring dimension, and not as a member of the official team. In fact, if the regional wingnuts were to be believed, rumor had it that Mr. Beauchamp had been spotted by members of the sanctioned exploratory units on more than a few occasions, wandering casual as could be around 6D without so much as a drymask. Despite my skepticism, and fueled by a day-wasting gin bender, I figured I’d play along with the local mythos, and do some pretend private dicking to make up for all the lost time.
“So, Beauchamp, you’ve been over there, right?” I asked thickly, around burps and hiccups.
“What are they like?”
“Who?” Playing dumb, apparently a PortalTown custom.
“The…y’know…the 6D’s…” Forging ahead, against my better judgement, long gone anyway.
“The sixties? I don’t remember.” A sense of humor, too, this one.
I was undauntable, a common function of my drunkenness. “No, y’know, our counterparts. On the other side.”
“Oh, they’re not like us,” and now I couldn’t tell, was he still having me on, or was he giving with the honesty? “But not so diff’ent.”
“Well, that’s plenty vague,” I slurred around a mouthful of sloe.
“Dey bigger. No, deeper. Longer. Ex-spanded.”
Whatever. “They got arms, legs, eyes? All that?”
“Could be. But not like we know dem.”
“Ah.” Mysterious son-of-one.
“You got to see to know. Some tings you can no explain.” That much I could almost fathom. Almost.
“I’m not so sure I wanna know.”
“But you not sure you don’t?”
“Right now, I’m not sure of much.”
“You wise man, Damon Ross. Wiser than most, leas roun here.”
“Why you say that, Beauchamp?”
“You got second thought, tamperin with cosmos forces. These others, they got no idea what they messin with, but they go right on messin.”
“What do you know about it?”
“I know they be bringin tings back wit em, back from de otha side. Tings dey ought not to touch, if they knows what’s good fo de Universe. But dey don. Dey don know at all.”
“What kind of things?”
“I tink you know, Damon Ross. I tink you know damn good an well.”
Maybe I did. But it was getting hard to think by that point. I almost showed him the stuff, my sample, probably would have, fuck the regulations, but I remembered I’d left it with Doc Stopper. I got an eerie vibe from Beauchamp, not bad, not evil, just a sense that he knew way more than he let on, maybe more than anyone in PortalTown. Then again, I was skunked, utterly.
It’s pretty much cutting-room floor from that point.
exhausted all of my ready options, and I’d waited long enough. It was time to revisit the freaktent. Time for another chat with Dr. Stopper.
I stormed into Stopper’s office, a dervish without an invite.
“Ah, the Sanitary Crusader. I’ve been expecting you.”
“TRIX, you sonofabitch. Tell me.”
He still wanted to play.
“It’s some kind of drug, right?”
“More or less.”
“Either it is or it isn’t, Doc.”
“Then sure, yes, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say it’s a drug.” Stopper was amused, smug and certain, having long-decided he was smarter than me, and just about everybody else for that matter.
“So, what’s it do?” If he thought I was stupid, I wasn’t going a long way to disprove it. “Aside from the obvious.”
The Doc leaned back in his swivel chair with the smug look of a man totally in his element. His voice took on the impersonal, authoritative tone of the seasoned lecturer. “It would seem, for all intents and purposes, that the substance Trimonium Xenide, known on the mean streets of Portaltown as TRIX, has effects well beyond the simply euphoric and hallucinogenic.”
“So I’ve noticed. What I want to know is how. Why.”
“Well, from what I’ve been able to observe, the drug’s core properties are physiological in nature. Which is to say, it affects the user most deeply at the moleculocellular level.”
“TRIX is only tertiarily mood-altering, or mind-expanding. More than an organic compound, it is, I believe, a living thing, whose purpose it is to bind with the user, to merge and intermingle at the very core, and restructure, integrating and assimilating itself until it is one with the host body.”
“Host? You’re saying this stuff, this thing, is some kind of parasite?”
Stopper sighed, growing weary with the inarticulate lug whom duty compelled him to indulge. “It is much more than that. You see, when TRIX is used casually, ingested in small doses, the effects I’ve mentioned are temporary, even somewhat benign. But with prolonged use, or in a single massive dosage, the bond between substance and user becomes more affixed, the influence of TRIX more profound in its manifestation, until a kind of fusion, perhaps irreversible, takes place. Thus, where once there were two distinct beings, there exists only one, and in a form quite different from whatever either existed as before. Thus, TRIX addiction becomes, in effect, a kind of intradimensional mating ritual. If you will.”
“So, you’re saying these things, they’re trying to…take us over…to infiltrate…”
Stopper raised a condescending hand to silence me. “It would be pure hubris, especially for a scientist, to speculate on the intentions of a heretofore unknown lifeform. For all the little we know, this could merely be their way of learning more about us, if we presume to ascribe intelligence to these beings. Perhaps the biological metamorphosis is purely accidental, a side effect.”
“Some side effect.”
“Or perhaps, as you suggest, our otherworldly counterparts are attempting, with mitigated success, to assimilate themselves into our culture. Though we have no reason as yet to suspect that their intentions are hostile.”
“Not hostile? I saw a kid turned to jelly on this stuff.”
“No substance is meant to suit everyone. He had the wrong metabolism, maybe. Or just a weak constitution.” He spat out the word weak like it tasted foul in his mouth.
I’ve seen many other subjects who’ve had little or no problem adjusting…”
“Subjects? What, you’re testing this stuff on people?”
“All in the name of research and recreation.” I guessed by the way he said it that I was meant to laugh at his joke. I didn’t. “It isn’t difficult, in a place as isolate, indeed, desolate, as PortalTown, to find a suitable number of denizends willing to play labrat in return for a promising rush.” He paused, seemingly deep in thought and pleased with it. “I could show you right where it comes from, you know. If you’d like to see it.”
I didn’t get him at first, but it dawned soon enough. “You mean…”
“Sure, I’m project coordinator. I could take you in there. Such wonders to behold. And a motherlode of this.” He caressed the globule yet again. I pondered the unexpected possibility, but my heart just wasn’t in it. And something about t he gleam in his eye told me Stopper wasn’t being friendly, the offer a screen for some sinister intent. I imagined being led into that smoldering hole, abandoned there, a hapless drifter on the wrong side of PortalTown.
“Uh, no thanks. I’m not much for adventure.”
“Suit yourself. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, though. You’ll be kicking yourself later.”
“Okay by me. As long as I have the legs to do it with.”
The god of science laughed heartily at this mere mortal. I did what I could to get the conversation back on track.
“So, Dr., you’ve seen what this stuff does to people?”
The question seemed to excite him.
“And you keep giving it to people?”
Another stupid question, where he sat. “I ran out of animals.”
“They’re turning humans into mutants. And you’re helping them.”
“Perhaps, but to what end? Couldn’t it just as well be that they are preparing us for further exploration of their realm? Could these genetically altered few be the metanauts who will boldly traverse the limitless expansions of the neighboring dimension? And even more optimistically, might this even be the much-anticipated next phase of our long-stagnant evolution?” It was almost refreshing to meet a man whose apparent contempt for humanity exceeded even my own. Almost.
“I don’t think most folks are ready to make that leap. A lot of us still haven’t adjusted to our climb down outta the trees. Me, I’m pretty content with this post-simian stage I’m in. I’m not so eager to pass through genetic puberty just yet. And while it’s all well and good to speculate, from a scientific viewpoint, as to what TRIX is or does or wants to do, I’m going to see to it that this thing or stuff or whatever is classified as a dangerous substance until we have a whole helluva lot more data.”
“Mr. Ross, in all due respect to you and your department, which I admit isn’t much, I think you are making…”
“A giant fox pass? Maybe so, but I’ll sleep a little better knowing I did everything I could to keep this stuff off the global market.”
“The only hope you have of that, I’m afraid, would be to close that portal forever.”
“Thanks for the suggestion, Doc.” Stopper knew alot, but he didn’t know enough to be sorry he’d said it.
Hearing my supervisor, Diz, chew me out over the cyberoptic was almost enough to make me homesick. Almost.
“Close the Door? Are you out of your mind, Ross? You’re a fucking civil servant! Just like me. We don’t have that kind of pull. Not anymore.”
“Well, what would you suggest, boss?”
“Finish the investigation. File a report. Go back to chasing down vanloads of plasma junkies. Don’t go pissing into windmills. You’re not there to stop traffic. You’re an observer. Realize, Ross, there’s no room in the current system for crusaders.”
“How about kamikazes?” I didn’t know what I meant, but it sure sounded good.
“What are you–!?”
I hung up on her. I saw how it was, how it would ever be, and maybe always had been. The whole world arrayed against me, the world I was trying to save. A world not worth the effort. But I’d save it anyway, just for the hell of it, system or no. Like, I say, systems, they’re made to be circumvented.
Back at the Rupture, working my way through a litter of Pit Bulls on Crack, trying to get the right head on for the job at hand.
“How do I do it, Beauchamp?” I queried my taciturn Cajun friend. “How do I close the Door?”
“No way, not once it’s been opened.”
Was there nowhere I could turn for a single word of encouragement? “Ah, not you, too.”
“But you could seal it,” Bodacious offered after a long silence, partially restoring my faith in human nature. “For awhile,” he added, by way of a reality check.
“How long? How?” My desperation showing, me not giving a rat’s balls who knew it.
“Who knows?” Beauchamp shrugged, taking a long pull off his Spatterbrau. Just like that.
That was it. All the incentive I needed. Beauchamp vanished soon after giving me the advice, smart fucker. He had no stake in the operation, no real ties to PortalTown, probably just as soon see it all go, up or down. After all, he didn’t need any Door to cross over, not to 6 or any other dimension. He could go any time he wanted, and anywhere. Full clearance, valid passport, good old black magic. More power to him. He only hung around Portaltown to see how wrong we could get it. Just keeping an eye on things already well out of hand. Not that he wasn’t concerned. After all, he had friends over there.
I went to Tempe first. I hadn’t spoken to her since I’d tried to enlist her aid. Two days of loitering and not a word, I had to assume her efforts had been unsuccessful. If she’d even had the balls to try.
She wasn’t at the HQ, and the woman at her desk was somebody I didn’t recognize, a civilian from the look of her, and the demeanor.
“Can I help you?” asked around a fake customer service rep smile.
“I’m looking for Colonel Tempe.”
“Late last night. It was very sudden. I don’t have all the details. Apparently, she was needed elsewhere.”
“Did she leave any word? A forwarding APO?”
She pretended to check the desktop. “No, nothing. It was all very…hush-hush.”
Still giving with that phony paste-on grin.
“So, who are you?”
She extended a hand, like I was supposed to cross the room just to shake it.
“Marta Loft. Marketing Strategist. Monolith InterSystems.”
The times, they had a-changed.
Walking through town, it became apparent, exactly what had been bugging me all day. No soldiers anywhere, not a one. Like they’d all pulled out, sometime while I slept. I couldn’t believe Tempe would just split without leaving some word for me, even just so long and good luck. And what military emergency could be so big that it wasn’t all over the twine? PortalTown seemed busier than ever, alive again, full of renewed purpose. Fresh faces everywhere, most of them grinning like Miz Loft, the rest giving me hard stares from behind impenetrable shades. The place was a buzzing hive, back on the map, and I was the sole outsider, more alone than I’d ever been.
Back at the motel, I checked my slaptop for e-missives, hoping for a message from the Colonel, but all I had was a hot note from Diz, ordering me back to DC, mission aborted. I wouldn’t have minded, right then, but it was already too late for that.
I figured I’d reconnoiter at the Rupture, try to catch some news of the shift from the local gossip twine, but somebody had other ideas. I hadn’t even cracked the door on my way out when it blew back at me, knocking me headlong to the foot of the bed. Three suits came through it, identities obscured beneath latex masks, each a hideous caricature of an American president. Shamefully, I could only name two of them, Deerborne and Reagan. The third might have been Clinton, or Carter. I only know it wasn’t Kennedy.
I tried to sit up, got a wingtip in the ribs for my trouble. The Deerborne mask kneeled down on my chest, just enough weight that I couldn’t get up or quite catch my breath. He stuck something in my face that I recognized as a White Noise gun.
Reagan, standing up, spoke to me, his voice altered electronically, but couched in some kind of put-on tough-guy dialect. “Word around town, Mr. Ross, is you been stickin your nose where it don’t belong. Askin lots of questions, makin all kinda threats. Well, Snoop Dogg, we’re here to tell ya, that kinda behavior ain’t welcome aroun PortalTown no more. Things have changed, in case ya ain’t noticed. You an yours ain’t got no more friends aroun here. No one’s gonna talk to ya, an no one’s gonna help ya, so ya might as well move on.”
“Who the hell are you people?” I wheezed.
“We represent certain innerested parties, who have a bizness type stake in this community, an who pay us a regular salary to insure that those innerests remains protected.”
“What are you, the Mafia?”
Reagan laughed, and the others joined in, a cacophony of staticky cackling.
“Not hardly,” he said, once the fun was over.
He opened his suit jacket, showed me his badge. SecuriTech. Not Mafia, Monolith. My worst fears confirmed. The gov was out, the company was in. PortalTown was now an official subsidiary of the largest, most powerful multinational on the planet. I was very far from home.
“Do we have an understanding, Mr. Ross?”
I nodded dumbly. What else could I do?
“Fair enough. Okay, Tomy, zap the bastard.”
“What? No, I–!” Whatever I might have said, it didn’t much matter.
I woke up in the same spot, as lost in the world as a defrosted Neandertal, unsure if I’d lost an hour, a day, a week, a year. Thirty-six hours, as it turned out, a day and a half on the Plane. Once I regathered my remaining wits, I was determined not to lose any more.
The twine chirped. The desk clerk calling. Something had come for me. My walking papers, more than likely. I jogged over and got it, not the slim official envelope I’d been expecting, but a cardboard box, about the right size to carry my head. Maybe Diz expected me to send it to her.
I went back to my room and tore it open, spilling foam popcorn and tearing away bubble wrap until the contents lay revealed. An oblong black object, hard plastic, slightly larger than my slaptop, covered with meters and dials and toggles. I had no idea what to make of it. As I lifted it from the box, a recorded message began to emanate from the object. Tempe’s voice, no question about it. I turned the thing over in my hands until I spotted the tiny viewscreen, a toonish pixellated rendering of the Colonel’s face delivering her secret missive.
“Hi, Damon. Sorry I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. Everything came down kind of suddenly, part of the plan, I think. Anyway, from what I’ve been able to gather here in Washington, you’re really on your own out there. That is, if you haven’t done the smart thing and bailed on your own account. Public Health’s prepared to disavow any knowledge of your actions, they’ve backdated your walking papers, persona non grata, tabula rasa, the whole nine. So, you see how it is. And seeing as the Door’s private property now, even a full-blown TRIX epidemic won’t be enough to secure a shutdown order. But I don’t want you thinking that the whole world’s sold you out, pal. Use it as another excuse to drink yourself into a self-pitying stupor. Or that my lack of nerve before my untimely departure presupposes an empty conscience. So, I did a little research and reconnaissance of my own, and managed to secure you something that just might help. What you have in your hands is a preregulated PalmHandy Duty Nuke, some kind of wicked instrument for close quarters scorched earth combat. Apparently, these babies are what the BPA used to decommission the Sporesby’s the first time around, and my source in the Bureau swears they worked like a charm. It comes with prerecorded instructions, which you can access as soon as this message self-deletes. So, get to the task at hand, young man. And Godspeed. For what it’s worth. See ya somewhere, sometime. I hope.”
So the good Colonel had come through for me after all, and beautifully. On further investigation, and with the help of the talkbox guide, I discovered the folding stock, the telescoping blast tube, and the reserve of plutonium bolts. Kind of an atomic grenade launcher, if I followed correctly. Granted, the thing was jerrybunk, premillenial field artillery, a real piece of scrap. Strictly last year. But so long as the fusion coils were good, and the plutonium bolt didn’t misfire, I was good to go. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time or space enough for a field test.
I needed a few more things, and Murch was the man to see, the guy who could get things, and for the right price he would, no questions. Never mind that his livelihood was about to go up in a mushroom bloom. And maybe him along with it.
My expense account had been cancelled, so I traded my slaptop for a pen-sized lightning gun, figuring I’d want a short-range hand weapon in case I caught trouble.
“What, don’t tell me, ya found roaches swimmin in the deepfat over at the Burgatory? Gonna bust in there like the Orkin man, give em the bugzap?”
I wanted to smack him, just on general principles, but I decided to save my anger. I was going to need it. Anyway, he was more than happy to get the gov-ish PC, no use to me anymore, and he even threw in the canned goods and camping supplies, just to show he was a magnanimous fellow. I played it grateful, left the poor schmuck believing I was just another satisfied sucker.
I found a secluded spot on a ridge, next to an old abandoned weather station, packed in some breakfast, and camped out overnight, beneath the corporate constellations, a half-mile from my getaway hopcycle. Gave myself a pre-dawn wake-up call and waited for the rosy pinkish glorious glow to overtake the aqueous blue in the sky before I settled down sniper-style to take my one and only possible shot. Sighted on the opaque semisphere of the Bubble, indifferent to the scuttle of human activity within the projected blast perimeter.
“Pow,” I said, and squeezed the trigger.
Not a fizz, not a spark, just the dry click of the firing pin. I toggled the instruction unit and waited to hear what was wrong.
“There is a metastatic jamming signal emanating from the target site. The signal must be decoded, desequenced or otherwise disrupted before the duty nuke can be utilized.”
I tried my best to word my query in the proper jargot. “Is there an emergency backup alternative for this scenario?”
“The combat option may be employed, but is recommended as a last resort only.”
“What is the combat option?”
“The duty nuke can be manually detonated in the immediate vicinity of the intended target.”
“How much time would that give me?
“Please rephrase or clarify the question.”
“How do I set the timer?”
“The timed detonation mechanism is not included in the combat option.”
“What? How come?”
“Please rephrase or clar—“
“Why can’t I employ the timer?”
“The jamming signal is likely to affect all automated functions of the duty nuke. In order to guarantee target obliteration, detonation of this device must be carried out manually.”
“You mean I have to be there?”
So I run. What else can I do? No one else is going to save the goddamn planet, probably not even me, but if nobody gives shit one either way, why shouldn’t I? Try to kid myself that I’m just doing my job, but this is obviously above and beyond the call. No room for crusaders, Dez said so, and I’m not, I swear to God. But I move toward the Bubble at a dead run, a man enmeshed in his destiny. Somebody’s got to make a choice, some poor bastard’s got to take a stand, why not me? I’m not afraid to be a statistic. I’m not married and I don’t own anything anybody’s going to fight over. I’m out of a job no matter how it’s sliced and all I know is I couldn’t live with myself in a world further ruined by my own inaction. The time has come to stop following orders and do something. So I run. With the duty nuke banging against my side, clutching the shoulder strap in one hand and my lightning gun in the other, I headed straight for the Bubble, the smoky dome, a cauldron of wicked magic about to boil over. Sensors tripping, tipping off the sleepy SecuriTechs to my approach. Suddenly I’m thinking how stupid is this? If I wanted to do it this way, I could have gone straight up to the gate, flashed my DPH badge, and set it off with a smile while they were still scanning me for clearance. Dumb dumb dumb. Corporate soldiers coming up fast, I hear a megaphone bark that seems to come from all around me like a grunt from God. One unintelligible syllable, then bullets and blasts and beams all around me, zigzagging not to get hit, but a few do, a burn on my shoulder, or through it, a slash on my leg, a numbing sting in my lower back, but I’m close godamnit I’m almost there when a kevlarred soldierboy pops up from nowhere right in my path and without breaking stride I give him a happy zap, a sparking arc of blue, the crackle of atmospheric electricity being channeled, focused, directed right into GI Schmoe, who leaps five feet at the sky and drops back flat in a smoking heap and I keep moving, even as the burning numbness spreads down my arm and I drop my little bug zapper and a million pins and needles sting me everywhere like a swarm of African bees and when I’m there right there about to run smack into the side of that big plastic blister I thumb the detonator switch and tear a piece of the world wide open…
I am engulfed in unholy fire, standing ground zero in a contained burst of pure fusion, the eye of the firestorm. I feel the force, but see no flash, nor do I hear the mighty nuke boom. I am not knocked backassward so much as dragged, as if two strong hands reached down from the sky and pulled me backward, which in fact they did. When I open my eyes it isn’t God or Lucifer, not St. Peter or Charon, but the beatific beaming features of Bodacious Beauchamp that to my wondering eyes appear. I try to move, to speak, but he stills and shushes me with the merest gesture.
“You safe now, Damon Ross. And no, you not dead. Close maybe, but we fix that. These friends.”
All of a sudden, I’m aware of shapes, vague through my pain, hard to make out or even comprehend, living things, I think, all around me, hovering, murmuring, not deigning to touch me. For which I’m grateful.
“They want to thank you. You do them a great favor today. Now maybe they don lose so many chillun, huh?”
“All in good time, Damon Ross. In good good time.”
“Where you think?”
The 6th dimension. I’ve crossed over. Reason enough, I think, to pass out.
Beauchamp heals me, the Al Schweitzer of holistic remedies, the Jesus, the Dr. McCoy. Then does his best to bring me up to speed on the view from this side. Seems Doc Stopper was wrong on all counts, save one. TRIX was alive alright, and sentient. But it, or rather they, were no more intended to meld with us than we were them, and were in fact just as much in danger from the fusion. See, those little globules, they were seedlings, cell clusters, fetuses, inseminated tissue in an early stage of development, some kind of self-gestation process that I still don’t understand. Black market babies, stolen and sold on our side for the sake of recreational self-immolation. And my suicide bombing, successful from all reports, effectively put an end, or at least a temporary stopgap, to the kidnapping and consumption of the children from 6D. So while back home I’m a villainous monster, a mass murderin dog presumed dead, over here I’m a hero, a warrior, a savior of millions of tiny lives. Funny how things work out sometimes. In light of events, I might just stay awhile. It’s not so bad. Different, but not so much. I know, I know, I should try to describe it, but some things just have to be seen.
This is another story dashed off most likely in the wee morning hours of a meth-fueled comedown in the basement (it would be a stretch to call it a bedroom) of the townhouse in SF’s Lower Haight that was my primary residence for the better part of ’98. Apparently I wrote two versions of it, and while both have their merits, on reread I prefer the punchy energy of this one. Though chances are I’ll publish the other version next just for comparison’s sake. I’m not sure either is entirely successful in relating the story I wanted to tell, something about semi-militarized meat delivery drivers in a pre-apocalyptic wasteland of the Southwestern U.S. that had been abandoned by the govt. after a manmade toxic disaster. Somewhere under all the testosterone and self-consciously cybergrunge aesthetic I think there’s a redemption story trying to smuggle its way out.
Far to the crack
A story from the Safety Belt
By Stephen T. Brophy
An impenetrable curtain of sand slaps the windshield, obscuring the white-hot horizon. Somewhere beyond the tumultuous orange cloud lies Cali, the golden homestead, prefab plastic suntanned ancient Rome, reenvisioned without irony by semiconscious imagineers of the Holowood Dream Machine. Somewhere back there, to the East, an impotent President prays to whatever God’s been preselected for a miracle cure, preferably one without too many deleterious long-term side effects…
I can’t go back for him. I can’t because it would mean my ass, too. I can’t go and cradle his head in my arms, give him comfort in his final moments. I can’t because for him, those moments have already passed. Besides, I doubt he’d want it. I do not mourn for him, alone here in the cab of his truck. Not just because I didn’t know him well, but because tears have never been much my style. Even as a baby, my Grandma Plowhorse told me, my capacity for extended, meditative silences was almost eerie. But then, Grandma Plowhorse was a full-blooded Navajo with a legendary gift for genealogical myth-making. Me, I never went in for all that Native American reservation bullshit, got out as soon as the getting was good and never looked back. My partner, though, back there on the roadway with his body all perforated and broken, wolves, buzzards and vermin hovering for their share of what the cannibals can’t finish, he and Granny Plowshare would have got along just fine. His collection of fully-posable, self-customized totemic action figures dangling from the rearview, ceiling, doorhandles, and most every other inch of nonessential space in the cab are plenty testament to that.
The Cracker Mac Daddy, what he called himself, a great fat redneck with a penchant for whisky and a history of dirty biz. DeepFed field work that took him to the farthest-flung, warrest-torn corners of what he called “this massive bastard planet.” Spoke broken bits of a hundred international lingos, all in his corn-syrupy slo-poke Bible Belt drawl. His visible skin, face, neck, forearms, even the fuzzy vee of chest exposed by the open throat of his Western shirt, a grisly cross-hatch of scar tissue and crude tattoos, badges of honor, merit, memory, whatever, like the dolls.
No…he’d said it through teeth so clenched I thought they’d shatter. They’re not dolls.
What are they then?
Yeah. More’n that. They’re…they’re…symbols, y’know, icons, tokens. Of what? The fallen. The lost. The forgotten and the damned. Each one, see, is a perfect likeness of one of the soldiers I served with.
No. This goes beyond friendship. These people were…fellow warriors. Ah, you wouldn’t understand.
Maybe, but I’m trying.
They were like braves. You get me now? Folks who did one thing, very well. What?
Fight. Kill. Die.
That’s three things.
No. T’ain’t. And these, these are how I remember them. See?
The doll…uh, action figures.
Yeah, like, like, kachinas. Get it. If I’m in a bad way, I can look at one of these, think of the person, and I…this gonna sound screwy and I don’t usually share this, but, guy like you, you oughta get me.
Anyway, they give me a little bit of their power.
Where do you, what, you get these at a toy store? Find em, steal em off kids, what?
They’re made for me. Each of these is an exact likeness of the man. Or woman.
(At this, he fingered the curvy, limbless, molded plastic torso of a redheaded GI Jane.)
Why are they all…messed up?
That’s to show what become of em. How each of em looked, last time I saw em. Toymakers do that? No. I do that part myself. It’s, well, kinda cathartic. Ah. Think I’m nuts.
Probably. Who wouldn’t be? All the shit you musta seen. Nuts not to be nuts.
Right. But I ain’t. I’m the sanest man ya ever met, I bet. Cause what I know, it’s enough to drive ya that way. Beyond right, wrong, good, bad, beyond leftist politics and reactionary dogma. Truth. Pure and simple. Humanity, so far from God, so close to eternity. Ya go and go until somethin breaks and no one can fix it, right? That’s all. Do what you’re made for. Just do it well. What else is there? Couldn’t tell ya. That’s right and that’s just fine, how I like it. What you believe in, Johnny?
The OmniBank, Monolith, and the almighty dollar.
Yer on yer way, boy.
Whatever. Fate. Destiny. A fat steak and a good fuck. But remember, a perk’s just a perk, t’ain’t a reward.
I’ll keep it in mind.
Alone in the cab now, trying to figure out the control system, all these dials and lights, myriad as a shuttle cockpit. Alone but not really. Mac Daddy’s pantheon of comrades all around me, staring out through their damage with dead little eyes, those that still have them, staring and giving me none of their secret strength. And in the back, a dozen plus head of live cattle still left, settling down now after their restless upset, the unexpected savagery of the SkullChasers attack, beyond their bovine comprehension. Still, no one to talk to, no one to help me reconcile the events of the last mad hour.
New to this, my first long haul, partnered up with BeefCo.’s number one meat runner, I didn’t figure he’d like me much, from what I’d heard about him. But we’d found a few things to talk about, if not a lot of common ground. Now he’s gone and I miss him. Sacrificed his Cracker ass so that I might live, not that I was so important. But the delivery had to get through, else we might both as well be corpsed. No turning back, not with BeefCo., unless you could afford to cover the cost of the meat, at retail price. Six months working gratis might repay the debt, eighteen if they only took a percentage, and that was if they let you back on long haul, highly unlikely. Shitcanned in the end, either way, Bob Buck and Co. didn’t brook sissies or cowards or drivers that couldn’t go the distance. Right job for a semi-retired soldier of misfortune like the Cracker, no doubt. But me? No warrior here, just a guy who liked doing bongs and watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, wanted a girlfriend who didn’t expect much, and enough liquid in the bank to make rent and maintain a low-key hassle-free approx of the so-called good life. Desperate times called for creature comforts, a roof, some hooch, tunes. Fuck the serious shit. But here I am, lips deep in it. Nothing at all like delivering pizzas in the burbzone. Sure, you can get killed doing that, too, but at least there’s tips.
Try it man, it’s good money, and if you do alright, Monolith’s got a tracking system, you can move up, motor pool, security, the sky’s the limit.
I never drove no big rig, hominy. Gameboy don’t count.
So, you fudge it on the rez, dudeman. Not a lotta guys wanna do this.
So why do I?
Cause, JT, you been outta work since two Xmasses, and the odd lawn job just ain’t gonna cut it, and the brown bud border runs gonna get your ass slammed.
Oughta just make this shit legal, hominid.
Fuck it, tobacco companies ready to jump right in on that, cut you down and out, no room for the small bizboys.
Too too true.
Well, what say?
What day you say they interview?
I could just swing the truck around (not without jackknifing) or pull over (and be instantly set upon), go up topside with one of the autocarb’s (and get plugged with a hundred SkullChaser crossbolts), do something bold and rash and stupid and at least try to save the fat ragged bastard, too old and used up to be risking his half-plastic ass to throw a couple cows down as a sort of peace-offering-cum-decoy, appease or else slow the onslaught of those cannibal biker freaks. But no, the Cracker tells me, whatever goes down, ‘cludin me, just keep the rig on the road and goin’. And, he adds with a wink, ya ever call em dolls again, I ain’t responsible fer their actions. And that’s that. Goodbye, Cracker Mac. Son-of-a-bitch. Not everybody gets a burial. Cracker said that one, too.
Safety Belt rolls by outside, manmade badlands, scorched earth backdrop for a toxic odyssey. I journey further, keeping to the edge of the no-zone, no safer, really, in a big rig with nowhere to run. I wonder, as I chew on Cracker’s share of the beef jerky, what would happen if I just set the cruise control, logged to the coordinates of the onboard computer, and bailed. Truck knows the route better than I ever will, no doubt. That ever happen, Cracker, dust-crusted semi pulling into Cali, right into the BeefCo. Exchange nexus, hissing and pissing oil as it settled into a tired patient idle, no driver in sight? Here I am, look what I brung ya? Cracker has no answer, a hundred some-odd miles dead and gone.
Have to figure, most of my family, definitely Granny Plowshare, probably lots of others, several years since gone the way of Cracker and his comrades. Not the same way, mind, but rather poisoned as victims of the intentional fallout that ravaged and rendered uninhabitable this soulless stretch of contained Armageddon, what the mediators of buzzpop cleverly nicked the Safety Belt. Aftermath, many believed, of some government con to sever Texas and much of the Southwest from the precious resources of the Greater United Estates of AmeriCo. No way, I say, and some things Cracker drawled seem to confirm me. Fed’s haven’t got that kind of pull, not anymore, much less the imagination. Nah, only one bunch could pull off such a devilish deed and actually stand to bennie from it, what with their HQ smackdab in one of the superscrapers towering over downtown HousTex. Only Monolith. My boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, only a few more bosses removed than I’ve got room for.
Rumors abound about the Belt and its attendant dangers, but thus far, the reality far exceeds even my wildest expectations. Tumor dogs, polyploids, manimals, feral chickens, no such childhood terror fables are any match for a full contingent of flesh-hungry motorcycle devos sporting handmade weaponry and their previous victims’ skulls over the headlamps of their custom-jerried hogs. I soiled my only khakis and when I finally can’t stand my own smell, figuring even a sudden crossbolt’s worth the risk, I roll down the driver’s side window. Almost right away, flies find their way in start buzzing my lap. Night falls, I hold out that long, pull over and have a good wash, kill the rest of the first day’s whisky and do a jolt of megamphetamine before I get back on the ancient broken highway. No rest for the wounded.
Get the babbling loonies, wired to the eyesockets and feeling the amp tingle all the way to my split ends. No one to talk to and every shape-shift shadow out the window a potential agent of looming doom. The radio long since given over to white noise, the atonal squawk of music from the Big Bang Era. I have to talk to someone, so I direct my garbled, nonsensical, all-give-and-no-take commentary to the seared, scarred, charred, and chopped figurines that comprise Cracker’s morbid pantheon. Try with all sincerity to remember their names, the few he told me, make them up whenever memory doesn’t serve. So much for honoring the dead.
I become particularly chummy with the one called Smokin’ Hole Jimi, who got his spine twisted up like a corkscrew after encountering a high-voltage containment wire, a near-invisible monofilament of secreted, waiting death. I have to resist the urge to twist his legs back around the right way, since that seems to be all that’s troubling him.
Try to strike up a flirtation with the red-haired mine-blast amputee, Hypodermia, try to make her feel attractive, okay about her ruined self, but all I get for my valiant efforts is a steely scowl and sobering silence.
“C’mon, guys, the night is young and so are we. Let’s light em up and burn em down!”
“Jimi, you know how to rage on the stage, huh? Let’s tear the roof off this whole theater of operations!”
“Eddie Chunks. Special Ted. 2Fro. Give it up for the g-force, ya’ll! We need total all-out jam warfare deep inside the enemy perimeter! Can do?”
“Alright, I give up. Don’t say I didn’t try. They ain’t pinnin’ these morale problems on my red ass. No way. Hey, what was that? You guys see that? Nobody? I swear, I thought I saw…”
Flashing by, just for a second, less, a patch of almost ghostly white in the uninterrupted darkness. Not a rabbit, maybe a coyote, but on two legs, not four, and wearing, I think, a T-shirt. Slowing down, why, I don’t know, amp logic, probably, making me hit the wrong pedal, making me downshift and ease off on the blast even as the schedulator counts off how much more time I’m losing. And dumbass, drug-buttered me slowing down to manually check stats on a possible psycho hell-bent on slicing me up for Sizzlean. Eyeballing the passenger sideview, just a smudgy square of night and the reflection of the rig’s running lights. And then…something else, staggering, lurching, clawing at the sidepanels as makes its way towards the cab. I’m frozen, can’t even remember how to manage the shifter.
“What’s my move, Jimi?”
Jimi swings on his lifeline of nylon fishing twine, slowly twisting until his feet face me and his face faces the armory box.
Faculties snapping back into some approximation of action, I key the codelock and dig in the box for a suitable weapon as the whatever-it-is draws ever nearer. Grasping at the door handle now, desperate, wanting in. The top of a head appears, a round white dome, shaved not quite clean, scalp nicked here and there in the non-pro process. Then some eyes, the standard two-set, wide, wild, blue as they say the sky used to be, blue as it is in old vids, but how real is that? Peering in, frightened and curious and maybe completely deranged. A boy, I think, a kid, maybe thirteen, fourteen. Way out here? All alone? I point the White Noise gun at the face in the reinforced window and the eyes drop back out of sight.
Should haul ass, right? Throw it in motion and roll. Any sane man would. Like the Cracker. Shit, Cracker never would have stopped in the first. But I’m not the Cracker, and only questionably sane, this point, and more than any of this, I guess, I’m desperate for some company.
Sliding out the cab, all I can hear from everywhere is ticking, some kind of time-bomb ambience. The dash-Geiger, the schedulator rollover, the cooling engine—when’d I shut it off?–and little drips of fluid underneath the truck. And a more musical sound, the chirp-tick of what sounds like electric crickets. No boy, no being, somewhere far off a howl, and no moon even to bay at. A sudden scuffle as I bend down to peer into the shadowy gap between the undercarriage and the blacktop.
“Hey, hey,” I say, more abrupt than soothing, how I meant to be. “It’s okay, kid. I ain’t gonna zap ya.”
Silence. Kind of. Tick tick tick. Chee-urp. And some breathing, stereo mix, me and the kid.
Slowly, the kid slides out from under the truck, shakes off like a wet dog, and stands there, about ten feet down, just glaring. In one hand, a mean-looking blade, no handle, serrated edges and a kind of hook at the point. Holding it out, just a little, trying to look menacing. I’m unmoved. All fear gone, a wave of near-relief behind the megawatt ampage.
“Need a ride, kid?”
No reply, silent as the dolls inside, only the blue eyes aren’t so cold, so dead. Betray a hint of fear and plenty suspicion. Understandable.
“Can’t talk? What? C’mon, I gotta get movin’ here. And I could more or less use the company. What say?”
Kid lowers the knife, blade comes to rest alongside the seam of ragged Levi’s. Gesture of faith, I do the same, pointing the static stunblaster at cracked asphalt.
I try to feed the kid, try talking, get tight-lipped grunts and wild gestures in reply. Wild child, I figure, dumb bastard savage. How’s it stay alive? I wonder, but I don’t want to get too personal right off the bat. Kid keeps mute, staring at the broken little warriors, batting at them with grimy, blood-crusted fingertips.
“Leave her be,” I say, catching the kid trying to pull Hypo fom her dangling place. Suddenly protective, these stupid toys, but just because I don’t want to piss off the Cracker, dead though he’ll ever be.
The kid makes a motion, the universal gesture of for furtive scribbling, and I point at the glove box. Could get interesting. Kid fetches pen and notepad from amid the stowed rubbish, and I think I see something in there, something out of place maybe, but then the little door snaps shut on whatever it is. The kid there, scribbling away, then holding out the pad for me to read by the pale green dashglow.
“What ar thay?” it read.
“Hey, you speak the lingo. What up?”
More scribble. “I ain’t a idjit.” Written in near-perfect dialect.
“So I see. Anyway, long story, and not mine to tell.”
I started to wonder what the little punk’s trouble was, just mute or something grisly, like the tongue cut out.
“How come you don’t talk, kid?” Plunging on in.
The kid looks pensive for a long set of seconds, and kind of embarassed, too. Then shows me. A quick flash, lips pulled back in a grimace, revealing a crazy metal gridwork criss-crossing yellow-brown teeth, some missing, others just broken, some kind of botched backwater orthodonture. Thank the God of EZ Payments for my dental plan. No, thank Monolith. Evil fuckers sure take care of their own. Long as we stay useful. But this mess, shit, kid’s mouth like the site of a train derailment. Then it dawns.
“Wired shut, huh?”
Kid just nods.
“What, you break your jaw?”
Head shakes again, side to side this time, a negative. More scribble.
“Punnitchmint,” the note reads.
“Jeez, you musta been a bad boy.”
Kid looks puzzled, just for a sec, then furiously writes some more.
“I’M A GURL!!!”
And so she is. A puberty oversight. The slight lumps suddenly more visible beneath the soiled tee, finally making sense on that skinny frame. And the lashes around those beautiful blues, delicate, fluttery things, like insect legs.
“Sorry. My bad.”
The kid just shrugs.
“Got a name?”
“Andi,” she writes.
“Andi Monument,” the paper reads, once she’s added the surname.
“Johnny,” I say. “Johnny Throwdown.” Extending a friendly hand. “JT to my friends. What’d you do so bad, Andi?”
“Nasty, huh? Nasty how?”
She doesn’t write anything, just looks at her dirty hands in her lap, the pad and pen hanging loose and useless. A loss for words. Ashamed.
“C’mon, we’re all friends here. Jimi don’t mind. Do ya, Jim?”
The kid watches me funny.
“What’d ya say? Huh? Hypo wants to hear it.”
Heavy sigh and sluggish reluctance, Andi Monument writes down her crime for me.
I laugh at that, and Andi looks kind of horrified. “That it? Jesus X,” and she winces at the expression. “Where you from?”
She writes some more.
I let out a low whistle, impressed and sympathetic. Heritage Farms. I know a little bit about the place, one of the more high-profile Safety Belt enclaves. Real Right White Wing Fundamental cases, Xian paramilitary survivalist types, a town with room for 144,000 souls, not one more, a number of some Biblical relevance, though I’ve never known what. The unofficial Safety Belt census tags the actual population a damn sight lower, though.
“Sucks for you, kid.”
“No mor,” she writes. “I gott out.”
“So ya did. Wasn’t easy, I bet.”
Her eyes go wide, she tries a laugh, a kind of painful snorting behind her barbed wire braces. I have to like the kid.
If sunset was uproarious purples and pinks and oranges and yellows almost off the spectrum, dawn is ashgray and toxic, drab harbinger of some horrendous nuclear winter on its way. I pull over, finally, all caught up on the schedulator after an all-nite drive. Spec-check the fuel reserves, enough blastahol to get us out of the Belt, long as our luck holds. One eye on the horizon at all times, wary of any potential weirdness, perpetually ready to crest. Mind-mangled crashdown, flaming psychic tailspin in the wake of the previous eve’s overamp. Speedfreak apocalypse, this no-place ready-made for it.
Nourish the cows, twice around the rig to survey and assess yesterday’s damage, patch as best I can whatever places the armor plating didn’t hold. Shorted by those BeefCo. sons-a-bitchin’ underbosses, no long-haul trailer this, weak-walled and cheap-fixed, rusted out and weather-wrecked in many integral spots. Not nice, cutting corners on us, underbidding their own profit margin or whatever. Like I know shit about the big biz.
Dig in the auxiliary toolkit, come up with tin snips, needle-nose pliers, a hacksaw blade no longer than my fuck-you finger, a hi-intensity laser coil. Go to work on the kid, impromptu oral surgery, stopping short and refiguring my strategy whenever a tooth chips or her gums start bleeding. By the time I finish, Andi’s lips and cheeks all swollen and torn, four hours gone and the schedulator’s resumed its wage-garnishing countdown. No partner, no matter, every unmiled minute’s costing me a pretty penny, nickel-and-diming my company credit rating down toward the deep red.
Crack an icepak from the medkit after packing Andi’s maw with sterilizing gauze. Sure she means to thank me but she passes out from pain and exhaustion right after I administer a squeeze tube of oatmeal pabulum. Anyway, her mouth is out of prison but still on parole, she won’t have much to say out loud for a day or so. Let her sleep it off, take a quick midday nod for my own ass, re-amp and get right back to rollin’.
“Where to, Mac?”
The Cracker didn’t laugh at my intro line, or much else for that matter. Neither does Andi. Missing my friends and all that flip hipster cynic shit that passes for funny where I’m from. Toxic morning shadows rolled back when Andi was under the knife, the rest is just unrelenting waves of unfiltered solar heat, cottonmouth from inhaling sand.
Andi moans alot in her sleep, I get shot through with empathy pains just listening to her. Harsh life, this, dragged from some suburban somewhere that must have seemed normal compared to the ironically monickered confines of the Safety Belt. My first full-fledged foray and already I want to never come back, cash advances and Monolith prestige ratings be damned. Little girl looking like bad news from Auschwitz—I know that much history—and whoever did her like this, probably her own family, still in their skinhead-secured sanctum feeling smug and self-righteous about the deed. Rough justice meted out with ruthless impunity, wonder what they do to post-juvie offenders, and no social services or overreaching enforcement agencies to answer to. At least half of why they ran, that, lawless Aryan trash who answer only to some Anglo-sadist remake of the original Xian deity, a wrathful Old Testament redneck with a bushy beard and a sawn-off double-ought lightning rod. Yahweh re-envisioned as a race-baiting hate-monger, dumb, drunk, and hungry. BeefCo. even makes occasional runs up Heritage way, so the Ku Klux Klowns can help themselves to the bloody red feast that is just a wee part of their sacred entitlement. Glad this ain’t one of those gigs, hard to resist igniting the fuel tanks and running the whole flaming fleshload into their full-of-it midst. How’s this for some wrath of God, you race-baiting trailer trash halfwits? Such are my thoughts, brainbaked in the wasteland.
“Where ya headed?” I finally get to ask, whenever Andi wakes up, sometime around dusk, if the sky’s right, never mind my memory of events.
Wincing as she struggles to form words with her stuffed and puffy mouth. I indicate pen and paper, and in her delirium, even that proves a struggle.
“bIG Crak,” she manages to write.
“In thee Erth,” she adds.
“Forgive my idiocy. I ain’t read Revelations.”
Again, she looks slightly aghast, as if I’ve committed some heathenish act of treason. Scrunches up her brutalized features in concentration, at it with pen and paper again.
“mY frend Litl mAry tol mee. BIg kined ov hol. In thee grownd.”
Meteor Crater, all I can think of.
I scan the dashmap until I find it.
“Aha. You’re talkin’ the Grand Canyon.”
“The Big Crack, that’s what they call it. The Grand Canyon. It’s a National park. See?” I point it out on the screen. “Mighty goddamn big crack alright.”
Another quizzical look, kinda fearful, like she might bear witness to my almighty smiting at any moment.
“Oughta wire my jaw, huh?”
That gets a kind of smile, with accompanying wince. She gets a lightbulb look, scribbles more.
“Doe yew beeleev?”
She points at the roof of the cab, presumably beyond.
“Shit, I dunno. Not my area of expertise, really. Do I think there’s soemthin bigger’n all of this, all us, well, it sure seems that way sometimes. I mean, this mess couldn’t have just come from nothing. And I kinda hope it’s so. Do I think whatever it is gives shit one about our sorry asses? Doubt it. No more than we think about the fleas on a dog, probably less. Some people call it God, or Allah, or Jehova, or whatever. I call it Nature. The Universal Mind. Too big to figure it out in our measly little lifetimes. Too huge to even worry about.”
More than I’ve ever said out loud regarding my spiritual philosophy, and I can tell Andi isn’t quite following me. For a minute I’ve forgotten her age and the negligible educational standards of her homeplace. Although I’ve tried not to use too many of the Big Words.
“How bout you? You a believer? Must be. Gotta know God to wanna fuck him.”
She scowls at that, like a little kid who’s just had her first bite of spinach. Puts pen to pad in a quivery flurry.
“I don won du that.” Making an “eww gross” face for emphasis.
“Well, ‘Fuck God,’ right? Wha’d you mean?”
I smoke most of one of Cracker’s First Strikes while she composes her reply.
“Long story. Heritage people are chosen, right? Chosen for what? Where we live before was Ohio Canton. I had friends—lots! And Charlie my dog too. Daddy says all them people dead and gone to hell. To burn. Why? Not? Cause Daddy says they have bad thoughts and bad ways don’t love God don’t know him does Charlie I say he say no! Then when some people come and ask for food or water they get beat sometimes killed they burned the village with the dark people have a name for them I don’t think it’s nice Daddy did the burning to he says those people had the devil in them back but I don’t I think the devil with us!”
“I get ya. You don’t see why God would let all these shitty things go on and let his chosen few go off killing and hurting everyone that doesn’t fit within their narrow little Xian vision.”
She was even more confused. At that moment, I loved her, overcome with dumbstruck emotion in a way I never let myself get back home.
“You’re a smart little kid, Andi. What you’re talking about, they call it hypocrisy, babe. And it is fucking worldwide rampant. Human arrogance, manifest destiny, earthly dominion.”
Here came the flood. All the unbidden high dollar college scholarshit, the unformed notions gleaned from half-read books. My past playing footsy and grab-ass with the new ruined loser me and this poor kid’s sincerely struggling synapses, popgun epiphanies firecracking in her revelation headset.
“You’re right! You’re right! Don’t you get it? They lied to you! Not Fuck God. Fuck Daddy. In his big fat fortified whitebread ass, fuck him! Fuck him and all his Bible-bashing proto-Nazi uberminions!”
My words a cascading ack-ack-ack barrage of venom and righteous fury, worthy of the most evangelistic dogma, a drive-by crucifixion perpetrated with a verbal nailgun. Years of apathy-dampened hate-filled fervor bubbling to the surface, mindlessly misdirected at this helpless daughter who I suddenly loved and only wanted to help.
She was sobbing, hands trembling as she pushed the nib so hard into the pad that it punctured the sheet and the pen spurted , leaving an inky stigmata.
“I no I no I no I want to find the Big Crack where my friend went and throw myself in like her who want a world like this who want a world at all….”
And there at the edge of the Safety Belt, at the crossroads of nowhere and wherever, I braked the truck to a shuddery shrieking halt so sudden it got all the leftover cows going up back, mooing and lowing and stampeding in place. And I grabbed that sad and fractured little girl in my arms and kissed her misshaven head, no doubt another symbol of her undeserved punishment, and I cried with her, cried for her, and Grammy Plowshare and the Cracker Mac Daddy and all the damned and doomed and dangling action figures swingin’ from their nylon nooses all around us and for everything they meant to a dead man I hardly knew and it felt so miserably wretchedly fucking good that for just one moment awash in the poison-painted late afternoon Safety Belt sky I felt like maybe God finally really had reached down and smacked the back of my head the way my own Dad used to whenever I spouted something vulgar or just plain dumb, like, wake up, asshole, this ain’t just about you. For a moment only, though. Then I pulled my shitpile back together and got wiseass all over again.
Had to go into the mainframe to reroute the itinerary, convince the truck’s computer brain that there was a damn expedient reason to cut South. Lucky for me, Cracker still had the manual. Unplugged the schedulator, to make it shut up more than anything. Two major violations, already a flashfax would be beaming over to payroll, and I didn’t give shit one. I was quit as they come, and they could hunt my raggedy red half-breed ass to the farthest reaches of this “massive bastard planet,” far as I was concerned, looking for what I took off em, and they probably would. That’s Monolith’s style, after all, and I hear they’re used to be something called the Mafia that did biz the same way, only those guys had colorful names and distinctive faces. No matter. At that moment of stunning universal clarity, when my decision got made, whether by me or for me, I wasn’t so sure I wouldn’t just throw my own ass off the lip of that monster crevasse right behind little Miss Monument. Now I have a better idea.
When I went into the glovebox for the manual, I found something, an object buried in amidst the chargeless batteries and spent shell casings and empty ammo clips and the archaic paper maps and scraps of tissue and ignored Regional Defense citations and all the irrelevant detritus of Cracker’s happy mad road life. Another figure, if you didn’t guess, unmarred, unscarred, not a match burn or twisted plastic limb. All done up in cowboy camo, some little demolition dude, tricked out for some personal Armageddon, grinning wicked. After I let the cows go, which took some doing, dumb, reluctant beasts, fated for the food table either or, I hung the uncanny plastic likeness in a place of honor, in the midst of his warrior pantheon. Couldn’t bring myself to bloody him up, tweak him into some fractured lifeless version of the man, rather remember him the way he was, vital, fiery, all piss and blastahol. Hope he don’t mind.
The vast chasm is just across the way form here, filled with orange and purple and all the other colors of the morning sun. Now all I have to do is convince Andi that there’s a better way to get to the bottom of that Big Crack than going over the side. Not easier, not as fast for sure, but much more of a view, or at least more time to take it all in. I hope she’ll go along with it. We’ve made it this far.
I seem to remember hearing that there’s Indians living down there, or used to be. If they’re still around, if the Crack in the earth hasn’t swallowed them up. I don’t know if they’re my people, can’t remember, or if they’re some old enemy tribe, from back when those things used to matter. Whoever, whatever is down there, at the absolute bottom of the world, I only hope they’re willing to teach me something more than what I already think I know.
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