Today, I’m posting an excerpt (one chapter) from a manuscript I’ve had on the back-burner for several years. I’m offering it up here for comment or criticism. Anyone who is so inclined is welcome to give feedback.
– one –
The natives are itchin’ tonight, there’re fires all over. I can see giant shadows flit across the block fronts – long bodied monsters bent on mayhem. Ten meters down the street one of those old plastic Googles is cheerily melting down to a shapeless, crackling blob. It’ll take a cutter to separate it from the tarmac by mornin’ – not that anyone will bother. The thing will still be there in a month’s time, another piece of ‘urban art’ to add to the growing collection – fuckin’ Downtown man.
A big cop gunship tumbles slowly from the sky, splashing itself vividly across the front of one of the Meg-blocks. Rule one here is never look up but the sheer spectacle takes my breath and I stare impressed, despite myself. “Very pretty,” I murmur so the shotgun mics won’t grok. There’ll be cops of one sort or another swarming all over here in ten, though, and I sure as hell don’t want them showing me any special love. Move on.
The game plan is simple, don’t, under any circumstances, get involved. This riot blew up quicker’n most, overtaking me on my way home from the Traders Mall. Wouldn’t have minded so much if the rumour about cheap Soyggets® down there hadn’t turned out to be total web-truth.
There’s a quick burst of gunplay somewhere up ahead and screams too, I’m pretty sure; reason enough to shift course. At the next intersection, I cut east along Snowden and a bunch of hopped-up ‘sumers stumble past in a wild-eyed jostle, their arms full of real-world loot. Trouble here always starts with moral outrage and ends in ‘sumer-goods and pharmaceuticals -funny that.
All along here the windows have had their security screens torn out, and their ImpervSpex® beaten to jagged shards. All of ‘em are pretty much gutted. Just the same, I find myself scanning the tech stores, thinking I might spot a decent quality game deck, least ways better than my crappy-ass JayBo® back home. Nix, they’ve all been stripped to the paint.
Then, right at my feet, I see somethin’ that makes me gasp. Some wasted booter musta dropped it. It’s a new chip, still, in the blister, a fuckin’ NightWing® no less. My heart’s beating fit to bust my cage. A top-shelf chip like this would really give my shitty deck a kick – truly.
Zoning wildly, I reach down for an item four weeks’ worth of ezee-creds wouldn’t buy. I stop, though, my fingers centimetres from it, feeling weirdly conflicted. This isn’t fiving from some uptown chain. The vendor this comes from just lost everything tonight. I can’t do it. Shit, a NightWing®, though. I can hardly believe what I’m doing as I straighten up leaving the chip still laying on the ground. My mind’s spinning, convinced I’m playing some stupid game with myself, dead sure I’ll reach down again and snatch it up. But after a half-beat pause, I walk on, not daring to look back.
It feels surprisingly good. Guess I just made the jump. I’ve been talkin’ loud for a long time now about not being one of the herd, ‘bout having Bushido. Well, tonight I’ve proven – to myself at least – that I wasn’t just full of shit. For once I’m standing tall. Maybe not Samurai but, shit man, least I can hold my head up. Sure gonna feel like an asshole next time I fire up my deck, though.
Another block up, my head still spinnin’, it’s time to cut north again. With any luck, the worst of the insanity‘s behind me, least that’s what I’m hopin’. Then up ahead, half in shadow, I spot something -odd, a shape that doesn’t quite fit, I’m almost on top of it before I realize what I’m looking at. It’s an escape pod, I’m guessing, from that downed gunship. The seals are all unbroken so I figure the cop inside is probably dead or busted up pretty bad. Either way, it’s nothing to me, I fuckin’ hate cops. I give that unhatched egg a wide berth.
Ultimately, after another two detours, the twenty-minute walk takes me over an hour. The elevators in my block have gone schizo again, naturally, so there’s nothing for it but to climb the twelve flights to my box. By the top, my legs are sacks of sand and I’m breathing like the old patchwear vendor on my corner with – whaddayacallit? – emphysema.
I take out my swipe and remember, for the umpteenth time, that the data strip is lifting from the plastic. If I’m not real careful, next thing I know, I won’t be able to access my own place. I really have to get my ass down to the Housing Center in the morning and hustle a replacement. Fucking things never last. I hold my breath as I swipe the card but the door’s in a good mood tonight and snicks open smooth as you please.
Be it ever so humble. Box is a good name for these places, a Fibrelite® cube, barely big enough for a decent sized bed, the kitchen a recess, off to the side. They usually don’t come with windows, just a big plastic wall screen spewing infotubes ‘round the clock. The bathroom at the end of the hall’s a time-share with the rest of the boxes on the floor. Spartan, I’ve heard ‘em called, that must mean shitty. At least they’re affordable, though only if you know how to scam a little.
The climb’s got my head spinning and I flop down on the bed until my screaming lungs can claw their way back from the edge. When I can more or less stand up again I go over to the bench, flip the switch on my trusty electric jug, and squeeze a blob of miso paste into the tiny ceramic bowl. The bowl’s my favourite possession. I found it in one of the trash markets down South Tunnel way. I know the guy stiffed me but I just couldn’t resist. It was so perfectly Japanese, pre-corp Japanese that is. Shit, there’s no such place as Japan anymore. There’s hardly any actual countries left now, that’s kind of an unprofitable way to do business.
The jug comes to a boil and adding water to the paste, I stir them slowly together. The smell’s got my juices goin’ as I carry the soup back to my bed. Sitting cross-legged, I begin to sip from the bowl, breathing in the steam, going internal. When the soup’s all gone, I wash the bowl in the dinky sink and dry it carefully, placing it in its proper space on the shelf. As always, this little ritual brings its own kind of pleasure.
Feeling replenished now, I return to my bed and my eyes settle on the dust filmed JayBo® on the floor. Instinctively I reach over and pick it up, placing it across my lap. The weight is familiar, comfortable. Smiling a little, taking slow, deep breaths, I draw out the interface line between thumb and forefinger. Adrenaline’s already flooding my system as I insert the tiny jack into the uplink socket behind my left ear. It’s funny, I can never feel it sliding in, but I always wince. I brush the initiation pad with my fingertips and…
The night is bright and ferociously hot, filled with the incessant chirping of cicadas. A few light clouds scurry across the sky so high up that it looks as though they may collide with the moon; brilliant and full. They pass, however, far below her, failed challengers to her ascendancy. This is not real.
Itto Yoshitaka strides confidently, almost arrogantly, down the perfect path that wends between the precisely manicured trees. The only sound he makes is the delicate swish of his silk kimono. His left-hand rests lightly on the pommel of his killing sword tucked securely into the sash at his waist. He knows full well that he is entering the jaws of an ambush but walks on unafraid.
He pauses a moment by a small pebble garden, unable to pass by a thing of such beauty without marking it. He admires its order, impressed by the complex perfection of its raked patterns created, surely, by some master gardener. There is an ancient stone placed simply at the center of the spirals. It is covered in the most exquisite lichen; truly perfect. The enemy strikes.
Yoshitaka’s sword sweeps free of its scabbard and sings a perfect arc. At the end of that arc, he stands ready in an immaculate killing stance as an arrow, sliced in twain, tumbles right and left past both ears. Another arrow speeds towards him and is as quickly dispatched. A third shaft, released almost simultaneously with the second, pierces his sleeve harmlessly.
He flashes across the garden, feet soundless on the mossy ground. The enemy samurai springs from concealment, throwing his great bow to the ground and drawing his sword in one, fluid, movement. Too late, Yoshitaka’s blade slices him in a diagonal from collarbone to hip and his face takes on an almost comically startled look. Then his body slides apart in an explosion of darkest crimson. Yoshitaka’s kimono remains unsoiled.
Another assailant drops from above. He has been hiding atop the high garden wall to catch him unawares. But Yoshitaka has been aware of him from the start, This one always hides here. He’s dead before he can raise his weapon and the unruffled samurai runs on, vaulting the wall effortlessly, and landing in the courtyard of a modest house.
I become aware of a random element here, a guard dog I’ve never seen before. The dog’s lips peel back from its, bared, teeth in an impressively menacing snarl. Saliva froths and drips from its jowls – a nice touch. The animal, however, offers no real challenge and Yoshitaka takes it out easily with a single downward thrust of his blade. The thing yelps once and slumps, twitching, to the ground.
He moves forward to the shoji of the house.
The shadow movement on the screen’s translucent surface is intended to alert me ‘subtly’ to the danger inside, redundant, irritating. I choose the most blasé approach, sending us crashing through the paper screen and barreling into the would-be assassin. Realistic weight and momentum carry us to the floor, and I hear the enemies breath burst explosively from his body -another nice touch.
The man’s hands lock around Yoshitaka’s throat as his face takes on a convincing portrayal of fear-driven desperation. I draw this moment out awhile, studying the beads of sweat on his brow, fascinated as always by the craftsmanship that went into this. Then the life meter begins to flash red on the edge of my vision.
Yoshitaka drags his short sword free of its scabbard, quickly plunging it into the other’s abdomen. The enemy’s hands fall away from his neck as the body twitches a little then falls still. Yoshitaka stands over the corpse breathing heavily and watching the spreading, dark, pool pattern the wooden floorboards.
It’s all so intricate, so beautiful.
A movement back in the shadowed corner of the room catches his eye. In the dimness, he thinks he see’s the pale oval of a woman’s face. What’s she doing here?
The arrow that slams into his chest is a complete surprise. He gasps and shudders backwards, going into shock. There is a perfect, tiny hole in the shoji screen in front of him, and a reed-thin beam of silver lances through it creating a perfect duplicate at his feet. ‘Perfect.’ He coughs and tumbles sideways to the floor.
As the scene begins to fade around him a sympathetic voice announces ‘GAME OVER.’
“Fuck,” I murmur, gingerly pulling the jack from my skull, “where’d that come from?” I’m rubbing at my temples, trying to ease the dull ache that always comes with ghostdeath. I try hard to believe that this time felt real, but, as always, it fell just short. The intricate synthesized reality didn’t jack my disbelief – it never does. That’s the kind of experience I want, it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Yeah right- like I’m ever gonna have that kind of credit.
The box feels stifling tonight, and sleep’s still way off. I feel edgy, and start thinking about maybe heading outside again. Surely the riot’s moved on to some other hood by now. Maybe I can vector one of the crew and catch the latest G. That’s it then, I drag my heavy jacket on again and trade the claustrophobia of my box for the claustrophobia of the streets.
‘Sumers, thousands of them. Night and day, the streets are jammed with them. The noise, the smell of them, it overwhelms and suffocates. They flow about me like a toxic spill, vacantly stirring, looking for something, anything to relieve the mind-numbing tedium.
Almost nobody in Downtown has work and only the push-pimps have any real cred, that leads to a lot of agro. There must be at least a hundred fire gutted blocks around here. Neighborhoods burned down to the dirt by their own inhabitants, too blind to see they’re only hurting themselves; too empty to care.
The only real form of expression we have here is rioting. We riot because the best food we can get has almost no nutritional worth and tastes just a little too much like shit. We riot over the brutal methods employed by the cop tribes who treat Downtown (not without reason) like a war zone. FOX help us, we even riot to vent our frustration over the damage caused the last time we rioted. And each time more die or are made homeless, and the whole stinking place gets a little uglier. Still, what ya gonna do?
It’s cold, as usual. I shrug deeper into my jacket but it still finds me, biting through four layers of clothing, working into my bones and joints. I’m barely twenty, but cold like this makes you feel ancient. It just has to be endured, though, another fact of life that can’t be changed.
After a few minutes, I reach ‘The hub’, an open-air canteen surrounded by a chaotic, jumble of tiny stalls selling food, beer, pills to the bored, the homeless, and the lonely. The MicroMac® multiplex is the focal point of the whole mess, of course, but at least it’s not the only option.
I wander over to a vendor I recognize. The small, leathery woman is stocked up again. She looks OldGreek or something but her sushi’s the best I’ve been able to find around here. I pick out some Toona® rolls and, as an afterthought, a pretty nice looking Kalifornia® I spot at the bottom of one of her bamboo baskets. “Was saving that one for my supper,” she grumbles without looking up but drops it in the tray with the others all the same.
The woman scans my proffered wrist and I’m ten milli-creds lighter. I’ve visited her stall at least five times in the past month or so but she offers no recognition, just a perfunctory “enjoy your meal consumer. Come again.” I thank her with equal enthusiasm and make my way, tray in hand, towards one of the long trestles, already packed with diners.
After a while, I find a space reasonably close to one of the big fire drums placed at the end of each row. ‘Sumers keep these well stocked with wood scraps and other bits of flotsam found among the burnt-out shells of their former homes. As well, the sanitation guys drop stacks of compressed paper bricks off to them twice a day; a gift to the masses from ‘Admin’, whoever the hell that might be these days.
Actually, since the weather’s gotten progressively worse, these drums have been multiplying rapidly. You see them now on just about every street corner, in the parks, anywhere you find people and that’s everywhere. Always with a huddle of dispossessed misery crowded around trying to keep the eternal chill from sorry-ass bones.
Taking my seat, I pull the little, scratched up, plastic pencil case from one of the pockets inside my jacket and place it on the table before me. Lovingly, I take out the small laminated chopsticks I’m never without. I’d be a tool to admit how much I paid for them, but they’re so much nicer to use than the cheap shit that most places give out for free.
Fitting them between my half-frozen fingers, I tap the ends together experimentally, then dip them into the green smear of wasabiSim® at the edge of the tray spreading the paste carefully onto one of the Toona® rolls. When it’s just right I pick the tiny roll up between the sticks and pop it into my mouth.
As usual, the ritual draws curious stares from the surrounding patrons busily shovelling their own food into their holes. This is a MicroMac® neighbourhood, most of the ‘sumers around here have trouble dealing with a knife and fork. I ignore them, savouring the textures in my mouth, feeling the sting of the wasabi high up in my nostrils; bliss.
I quickly follow the first piece with another and then, just as I’m about to eat the last of the Toona® rolls, a hand lands heavily on my shoulder. I stifle my start and turn with studied slowness. “Hey, Kev.”
Looking up, I smile a greeting, as my oldest friend Simon squeezes his long skinny frame onto the seat beside me.
“Si, how’s with you?”
“Yeah, Halo,” he answers as he begins to unwrap a small grease paper bundle, his habitual burger meal. I wrinkle my nose at the smell of it, he notices smiling.
“Still jumpin’ a dead culture I see,” he smirks. Ouch, preemptive strike.
“Least it’s food,” I offer back. It’s always been this way with us for as long as either can remember.
“Oh really?” he drawls, one eyebrow raised to Upside, “reconstituted rice, tuna substitute, questionable vegetable matter, Fake green goop…”
“Wasabi,” I interject.
“Er, synthetic wasabi,” he corrects, “the only real thing on that tray is the seaweed, and that was grown in a vat.”
I shrug, unmoved, but he’s just warming up.
“Seriously, the only difference between your food and mine is the shape. This thing’s just minced seaweed, rice and meat sub, all squished together into a convenient patty by the good folk at MicroMac®. Mine pretends to be a burger, your’s sushi. So what’s the diff?”
“Yours smells really bad.”
“Well duh, it’s an MMBurger®. But face it, consumer, the only reason you eat that barely sushi crap is that it makes you feel all Jappy ‘n’ shit. And you just love that ‘cause you feel like you’re in-game instead of out here in the grey with the rest of us.’
I feign indifference. “Your point being?”
“Don’t really have one. I’d just like you to admit that your shit’s fundamentally no different to my shit. It’s all just shit.” He smiles and waves the offensive clump under my nose.
“That may be so, but you’re missing my basic point.”
“Ritual – enjoyment of the act – the food’s a means not an end.”
“Oh fuck, not the Zen crap again. You know, you could try a little external living every other day.”
I don’t really want to go down this road, it’s been well and truly trampled. “You’ve got your way of getting through the day, I’ve got mine,” I answer hoping, that’s the end of it – nope.
“Yeah, only mine’s gonna get me the hell out of here someday. You just use yours to blot the reality out. You’re living in denial consumer.”
Now I can feel my hackles coming up. “Well tell me a little denial doesn’t come in handy living in this shit hole. Tell me the knowledge that you’re owned, mind and body, by the MicroMac Corp® ain’t worth a little denial.”
He sighs a concession, “yeah, I hear you.” It’s a big step down and, for the first time, I notice how much darker the dark circles around his eyes have become.
“How’s work going?” I ask, suddenly a little unsettled. Simon scored a gig with TransUrb®, one of the big Uptown body-courier outfits, a few months back. I have no idea how he did that. He’s been working his ass off ever since, though. It’s all part of his master plan with a place at MacMed® as his eventual end goal; a one-way ticket out of the blocks and out of Downtown.
“All Halo,” he chirps in reply, “but I gotta admit it’s pretty full-on down there. Fuck up once and you’re use-by is history. No excuses accepted. There’re thirteen million uncontracted consumers just hanging for a shot at what I got. And the dispatchers make sure ‘n’ tell me that at least ten times a fuckin’ day.”
“Yeah, you’re looking kind of beat up I have to admit.”
“Fuck man, they’ve got us all pullin’ double shifts now. The cred’s good but it doesn’t leave too much ass-scratch time.”
“Least you get to cruise ’round on those sweet wheels all day.”
I remember what a screenshot he was when he first turned up with the blades. He’s never told me where he got the cred for them and I’ve long since given up asking. He sure was bustin’, though, Street Ninja® nano blades; top shelf. Probably the single most perfect thing I ever grokked up close. They look just like a pair of extra-techy running shoes. Touch a small heel stud, though, and a set of inline micro-discs snap down into place. That’s it consumer; you’re outta there.
The discs are a blended hybrid alloy; Kevlar and Nanolight® ridiculously thin and unbelievably strong. The sort of stuff they make the hardshell riot gear the cops wear out of. And the nano-bearings are almost totally frictionless. The result, well that’s somethin’ to see. The blader just seems to glide on the soles of their shoes, looks really freaky. And the speed! I’ve had a bit of time on Si’s pair and I ain’t ever gettin’ over it. On a good surface, you can bend space.
Simon’s about to launch off on another rant when the godawful digi-pop ringtone of his Paytalk® implant crashes his train of thought. He brings his glowing palm up and EyeDees. His whole face sags as he listens to a voice only he can hear. Then he mumbles a “kay” and closes his fist on the call with undisguised disgust. “Shit, fuck, shit!”
“What’s ya malfunction?”
“The assholes want me back in for another shift – right now. I gotta go. Shit! I just came off a double.”
“Man, that’s cold. They really are jamming you hard. Hope it’s worth the butt-hurt.”
“Oh don’t you worry, It’s worth it. I’ve seen some amazing shit in Uptown since I’ve been running their stupid crap around. There’s life like you can’t imagine going down on the upside, and I’m gonna get me some of that sweet, sweet stuff. This little block monkey’s gettin’ out.” He all but sings the last part, standing up and slinging his bag over his shoulder. “Anyway, I’ve really gotta go man. Keep it encrypted, Kevy boy. I’ll see you round ‘n’ round.”
He meshes with the crowd before I can even remind him how much I hate being called Kevy.