The goddess of love lives in a loft apartment, on West 81st. She is tall, but never taller than her lovers. Her back is supple and muscular, but her bones do not show through her skin. Her hair is always a different colour, but nobody ever seems to notice. Her face is not marred by excessive beauty.
She grows tomatoes on her rooftop deck in the summertime, and in winter she puts out suet and seeds for the birds who linger in the city. By day she works as a waitress in a midtown bar & grill, because otherwise she would have no way of paying the rent. It is an undemanding job, but she earns good tips and gets to meet many people.
She has many lovers, of course. They come to visit at all hours, and although she is careful to schedule them at least one hour apart, the system occasionally breaks down through no fault of her own. Typically, one of her lovers will drop in unexpectedly while she is with another, and there will be terrible shouting and displays of anguish, and sometimes a fight. Occasionally a murder.
Murder is reponsible for the loss of quite a few of her lovers over the years. Suicide, too. Also, nervous breakdown, heart attacks, and freak automobile accidents. Never once, not once in ten thousand years, has a lover simply left her, never to return. She reads about it in the women's magazines, and thinks it must be terrible.
The god of war has a corner office on the 36th floor of a downtown tower. He runs a small but successful investment firm with 31 employees, and an exclusive list of clients. He is stern of face, and strong of body, but is never intimidating or overbearing. He always wears a charcoal grey suit with a blood-red tie. In all his years in this business, he has never lost a client.
His employees, too, are fiercely loyal. They sometimes retire, or move away, or die unexpectedly, but they never defect to another firm. Each solstice and equinox, he walks around the offices and personally delivers the quarter's bonus cheques to all of the employees. He knows every person's name, plus the names of their wives, husbands, children, and dogs. He asks after the health of each, their plans for the future, and if there is any other way he can help them achieve their goals. If he were not immortal, he would give his life for any one of them.
He lives on the upper east side, in a good but inconspicuous building with a hard-working doorman. His second-floor suite is not large, but has high ceilings and modern fixtures. The furnishings are simple, and might even be spartan if he didn't have to occasionally entertain and leave his guests with a good impression.
On Saturday nights, and sometimes other nights when he can make the time, he sees his lover, a lawyer by the name of Helen. Together they enjoy fine dining, off-off-Broadway theatre, and planning exotic vacations, which they never take. Secretly Helen wants to marry him and have his children, but she suspects that the time isn't right to confide this secret. Something just tells her that he isn't quite ready to settle down.
The god of war and the goddess of love both take the subway, because it is fast and they do not fear for their safety. He takes the number 6 green to and from work, while she takes the A train. Day to day, there is almost no chance that they would meet accidentally, but sometimes on weekends or in the evenings when they depart from their regular schedules they end up on different routes. Still, it was not until recently that they finally caught each other's eyes for the first time in many ages. It was on the A train, which the god of war was riding in order to meet Helen for dinner. The goddess of love was on her way home.
Their eyes met accidentally, once. Then again several times, trying to figure out if the other's face were attractive, or simply familiar.
``Hi,'' said the goddess of love, and then she looked down at her shoes in embarassment.
She got out at the Museum of Natural History, and noted that he followed her up to the surface and then down her street. But he slipped into a corner grocery before she came to her building. She stopped at the main entrance and looked behind her for a while before opening the door with her key.
It was not long before he buzzed her apartment.
``Hello?'' she said into the intercom.
``Hi. Are you the woman from the subway?''
``Come up,'' she said, and buzzed him in.
She ran into the bathroom to check her hair, and decided to quickly brush her teeth while she was there. She was a little concerned that she hadn't had time to change into something nicer.
A knock came at her door, and she checked the peephole before undoing the lock. ``Come in,'' she beckoned.
He stepped in far enough so that she could close the door behind him, but no further. Refastening the lock quietly, she studied his strong back and arms with furtive glances. She wanted to imprison herself within their warm and protective confines, but she was not yet sure how she would accomplish this.
``I brought you something,'' he said, turning to her.
She smiled. ``What is it?''
He opened his hand, and it contained a single egg, very white. She reached out and took it in her fingers, and it was warm from his palm. She lifted it to her cheek, and closed her eyes.
``Thank you,'' she said, and opened her eyes. ``Please come in and sit down. Can I pour you some wine?''
``No, I can't stay,'' he said, turning back to the door.
Her expression fell. ``What are you doing?''
``I'm sorry, but I'm meeting someone soon,'' he explained. ``I shouldn't be late.''
``I must. It can't be helped.''
``No, don't go,'' she said, reaching out toward his arm. ``Please stay.''
``I can't,'' he said, opening the door. ``Good bye.'' He stepped out, and with a brief glance back through the door, he shut it tight. His footsteps receded toward the elevator.
The goddess of love stood there for several minutes, trying to figure out what had just transpired. She heard the elevator doors open and then close again, and then the hiss of water pipes from somewhere in the building. He was gone. He was here, and then he was gone, and he hadn't so much as touched her.
``Fuck!'' she screamed, and threw the egg at the door. It hit just above the peephole, and spread itself in a broad splatter of whites and yolk that dribbled slowly down to the floor. Fragments of eggshell clung to the viscera like shattered bones. ``Fuck!'' she screamed again, kicking at the door. She tore her coats down from their hooks, and threw them on the floor, and kicked them all, and screamed some more, and tore at her hair until it hurt, and then ran to her bad and flung herself down on it until her first lover of the evening rang up.
The god of war returned later that night. He rang her apartment while she was in bed with Jeremy, her second date that evening. She buzzed the god of war through before considering the consequences.
"You have to leave now, Jeremy," she said, once she had considered them.
"You can't stay."
"Who was that?"
A knock came at the apartment door. "Put your clothes on," she said, and threw on her own gown.
"Hi," she said when she opened the door for the god of war.
"Hello again," said the god of war, stepping inside.
"Hey," said Jeremy, still putting on his shirt as he stepped into the hallway. "Who are you?"
"It's none of your business," said the goddess of love. "Zip up your pants, for fucksake."
"What the hell is going on here?" snapped Jeremy, waving his hands in the air. "You're hot then cold. Who is this guy? Are you her husband?"
"Would you just shut up!" she shouted. "Get out!" She pushed him out the door, and slammed it while he was still shouting. The door rattled as he kicked it from out in the hall.
"I'm sorry I interrupted," said the god of war.
"No, don't be silly," she said. "Come in, please. I'm glad you came back. Will you have some of that wine now?"
"I think I will," said the god of war.
The god of war returned the next Saturday night, and the next. They arranged the meetings in advance, so as not to surprise any other lovers. The goddess of love took to cancelling her other Saturday night dates following the god of war, so that he could stay the night if he chose. After a time, she stopped scheduling others on Saturdays altogether, which caused all sorts of troubles during the rest of the week. Many of her lovers angrily accused her of seeing someone else, and there were several surprises and fights as seven days worth of lovers suddenly had to make do with six.
It was horribly, horribly exhausting, and the goddess of love soon realized that there was no sensible way to manage it all without scaling her work back to half-time, which was not an option. She briefly experimented with breakfast and lunchtime dates, but they didn't work out so well. There was only one solution: she had to dump some of her lovers.
But which? She agonized for days, but each had his (or her) own charms, and there was simply no way to rank them. Attraction was such a complex, multi-varied thing, it could not be measured on a simple numeric scale.
"Shit!" she exclaimed one afternoon at work, when the solution suddenly came upon her. "Sorry," she said to the customer she was serving. "Just realized something."
She would have to dump them all.
"Will you come up?" asked Helen, as they lingered at her building entrance after the show.
"Not tonight," said the god of war.
Helen nodded, raised her key to the door, and hesitated. She turned back to him.
"What is it?" he said.
"I was going to ask you the same thing," she said.
"I don't feel like it tonight," he said.
"You haven't felt like it for months, it seems."
"Yes, I suppose."
She swallowed, gathered her nerves. "Is there someone else?"
"I---" She nodded tightly. "What did I do wrong?"
"What can I do better?"
"Then why? Oh, fuck. You're not leaving me? Don't you leave me. I couldn't---" She pressed her lips tight and shook her head.
"Good night, Helen."
"That's it? `Good night, Helen?' That's all I get for three years? Three fucking years? You son of a bitch, I love you. Don't you do this. Don't you do this to me!" She stepped in, her hand raised to slap the god of war hard across the face.
He slapped her first, and she stumbled back, startled. She took a step forward again, but faltered when she saw that the god of war's fist was clenched and ready to strike another, much harder, blow.
"What's happened to you?" she said.
The god of war shook his head, and stepped back. Then he turned and walked away.
"Don't you go!" she said. "Don't walk away from me! You've never walked away from anything in your life!"
He kept walking.
The goddess of love lay in the god of war's arms at the stroke of one. Both were wide awake, recollecting the day's jiltings and listening to traffic passing on the streets below.
The buzzer rang. Neither of them moved. It rang again, and rang, and rang.
The goddess of love sighed, pulled the blankets aside, and stepped naked from the bed. The god of war heard her conversing with someone through the intercom.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"It's Jeremy," came a voice from the intercom.
"It's one o'clock, Jeremy."
"Let me in. I have to talk to you."
"No. I already told you everything on the phone."
"I really have to talk. Let me in."
"I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Fucking let me in, or I'll---"
There was a click, and the goddess of love returned to the bedroom shaking her head angrily. The buzzer started ringing again.
The god of war turned over. "How many more will there be?" he asked. This was the third one since he arrived.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's not usually like this."
"Let's go to my place," he said.
They got dressed and left the apartment. Jeremy was standing on the stairs at the building entrance.
"Oh I shoulda known," said Jeremy. "How long has this been going on? How long have you been jerking me around?"
"Get away from me, you jerk," said the goddess of love.
"Is that how you talk to me now?" said Jeremy. "Is that how you talk now you bitch? You run around with another guy you bitch, and you call me a jerk?"
"I ran around with lots of guys, Jeremy. Dozens. Hundreds maybe since I first met you. Get lost."
"What, you some kinda whore? You fucking whore!"
"Don't talk to her like that," said the god of war.
"Shut up! Do me a favor and shut the fuck up. I'll fucking cut you to pieces if you don't get the fuck away from me!" With that, Jeremy pulled out a switchblade knife and waved it at the god of war.
"Put that away, you asshole!" shouted the goddess of love. She stepped in to grab the knife, and Jeremy backhanded her.
The god of war leapt forward, grabbing for Jeremy's arm. The knife flashed forward, plunging into the god of war's abdomen just before he pushed Jeremy violently down the stairs. Jeremy's head hit the bottom step with a meaty crack, and his body crumpled up on the sidewalk.
"Shit, you're bleeding," said the goddess of love.
The god of war looked down to see his shirt all bloodied. He pulled his jacket closed to hide the mess. "Let's go," he said, stepping down over Jeremy's body, and leading the way to the nearest subway station.
They rode in silence, the goddess of love occasionally trying to open the god of war's jacket to see how bad his wound was, but he held it tightly closed and wouldn't talk about it.
They walked down the last block to the god of war's building. It was late and the doorman was off duty, but someone was still standing in the entryway.
"Hello, Helen," said the god of war.
"Is this her?" said Helen, looking at the goddess of love. "Is this what you're leaving me for? She looks like a waitress, for Christ's sake."
"I am a waitress," said the goddess of love.
Helen laughed bitterly. "I... I'm sorry. I'm sorry for whatever I did wrong. Look, I don't know what you see... I mean, I'm sure she's very fun, or good in bed, or younger looking, or something. I don't know. It's okay for you to see her, I decided. It's okay, and I won't complain, but please don't leave me. I'll do anything. Anything, for you."
"Holy crap," said the goddess of love.
"I don't want anything," said the god of war.
"Sorry honey," said the goddess of love to Helen. "It's been a shitty day for everyone."
"You shut your little---" started Helen, but then caught herself. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry," said the goddess of love. "You're the one who got dumped."
"You little skank!" Helen's eyes flared, and suddenly her hand emerged from her purse with a gun in it. There were popping sounds and flashes, and the goddess of love fell on the sidewalk clutching her chest.
"No!" shouted the god of war, stooping toward the goddess of love. He turned to look back, and saw that Helen had the gun levelled at him. It was trembling as she tried to squeeze the trigger.
"Helen," he said.
"I can't," she said. "I can't do it."
The god of war looked down at the goddess of love, who was struggling to breathe as she lay on the ground. There was another popping sound, and when the god of war looked back, Helen was lying on the sidewalk, with blood coming from her head.
"Get up!" wheezed the god of war, pulling at the goddess of love's arms. "Get up! We have to get out of here!" He dragged her to her feet and, they stumbled back up the street, heading toward the subways.
"My chest hurts," moaned the goddess of love, coughing. She wiped at her mouth and noticed blood on her sleeve.
The god of war dragged her down the stairs into the subway station. They caught a train heading north, toward the Bronx. The car was nearly empty. They sat down together, smearing blood across the seats.
The lights of the train flickered, and the goddess of love coughed up more blood.
"You'll be all right," said the god of war, and she believed him.
The god of the underworld lives in an unused steam tunnel beneath 112th Street. He subsists on pidgeons, canned dog food, and lots of Chinese cooking wine. Everything he owns, including a fake Rolex watch, a plastic-handled steak knife, a set of NYPD tempered steel handcuffs with keys, and a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo, he keeps in the pockets of his trenchcoat, which smells very bad.
After dark he sometimes heads above ground to beg, or to buy things with the change he begged the previous night, or to ride the subways back and forth, waiting for opportunities of any kind to cross his path.
"You kids got any spare change?" he asked the lone couple on the train tonight. "Maybe a couple dollars to spare for an old timer who's seen better days?"
"We've all seen better days," said the man, and the god of the underworld noticed that he was covered in blood, and so was the woman.
"I see what you mean," said the god of the underworld. "Are you going to a hospital?"
"No," said the man.
"Just trying to get away," said the woman.
"Eh? From what?"
"People," said the woman.
"I hear ya," said the god of the underworld. "I do the same all the time myself. Was a time, I was a real bigwig. Everyone respected me, and I mean everyone. You asked around back then, and people knew me. Everyone came to see me at some point, if you follow me. But kids these days, you know? They got different beliefs. There's nothing left. Nothing at all. But what can you do? Hey, I got a funny feeling about you two, though. A funny feeling. Bugger if I ain't got a funny feeling."
"What's that?" said the man.
The god of the underworld squinted at him. "I got a feeling you can spare a dollar for a washed up old bastard like me."
The man pulled out his wallet. He produced a one hundred dollar bill and gave it to the god of the underworld.
The god of the underworld pulled the bill taught between his hands and inspected it with wide eyes. "Well, well," he said. "Now that'll boost my standard of living for a while. It's gonna be just like old times."
"Old times," mused the god of war.
"Sounds nice," said the goddess of love.
This is a story about the end of the world.
This particular end of the world isn't a great one, as ends of the world go. It's not quite up to the standards of a 10th-Century Biblical Armageddon, or a 20th-Century Nuclear holocaust. We will not be snuffed by fire this time. This time, we are the fire.
It is the next thirty days preceeding this particular end of the world that interest me, because my good friend Iggy announced today at Caf\'e Ocula that he is going to become a terrorist. He has thirty days to achieve this goal, more or less, so I suppose this will be an account of his efforts to that end. Naturally I wished him great success in achieving his dream, but seriously, what are the odds?
If this is to be a novel about Iggy, then I should say a few words about him to start.
Perverse. Paranoid. Impassioned. Antisocial. Diseased.
Iggy's closest personal relationship is with the carnivorous plant he keeps in his kitchen to eat the fruit flies. Ultima always yells at him to take out the garbage, or at least scrub the sticky brown spots off the counter so that he wouldn't have the problem with fruit flies, but I think Iggy secretly cultivates the flies to make the plant happy.
The plant is called a sundew, and it has these sticky hairs all over it, like a million chameleon tongues with scarlet tips. When the fruit flies get stuck, the leaves curl up around them like a lover, and Iggy beams proudly. The plant is named Lucy. Ultima suspects it is a reference to an old girlfriend, but nobody has ever just come out and asked him.
Iggy's full name is Ignatius Loyola, which is funny because there was a time, not too many years ago, when Iggy entered the seminary on his way to becoming a minister. That plan derailed when he fell in love with a beautiful woman named Yvette. He desperately wanted to marry her, but her family wouldn't consent unless he went over to Rome---which would turn him into a Catholic priest and prevent him from marrying at all. Poor Iggy had no choice but to renounce the Christian God as a sadistic bastard, and then slut his way through Zoroastrianism, Shinto, Scientology, Reform Marxism, and the Church of the Machine in search of true enlightenment, which he never did find.
Why Iggy's mother named him after the founder of the Jesuits is a mystery, because she was a Buddhist. Nobody really knows about his dad, who was killed in a jungle skirmish in the Yucatan three months before Iggy was born. Apparently his name was Alf, and he was once the Yukon log-rolling champion. Iggy inherited the trophy, which he uses as a stand for Lucy. It is a polished disc cut from the trunk of a spruce tree. If you count the rings, the tree lived for two hundred and seventeen years, which for some reason really impresses Iggy, even though it's not that old for a tree.
I had always figured that log-rolling was related to caber-tossing, until Iggy explained it to me one day. Two guys stand on a log that is floating in the water, and they try to toss each other off by spinning it under their feet.
``Can they kick each other?'' I asked. ``Or punch?''
``Dunno,'' said Iggy.
``That's a good sport,'' I decided anyway.
``They don't play it anymore,'' explained Iggy. ``Because it's a frivolous use of a perfectly good log.''
``Can't they use a synthetic log?'' I asked, but Iggy didn't know the answer to that.
It was some time after that that I got the brainstorm of using a truck axle for a log. I was down at a scrap yard by the river, closing a deal on three quarters of a ton of Lexan that I had received in exchange for a hot tip on black market industrial lasers. While waiting for the scrap dealer to weigh the lexan, I noticed a truck axle up on blocks. The tires were still on the wheels, and the axle still spun quite freely.
``Do you think you could use this for log-rolling?'' I asked the dealer, whose name was Loo.
``What the hell is log-rolling?'' replied Loo.
``I stand up on this tire,'' I explained. ``And you stand up on that tire, and we both try to spin the axle under our feet and knock the other guy off.''
``You're crackers, Doc,'' said Loo.
``It's a good sport,'' I explained.
Loo looked at both tires. ``Can we chuck things at each other?''
``Sure,'' I said, even though I didn't know if that was in the rules.
But even with that incentive, Loo decided he didn't want to play. So I told Iggy about the truck axle, and we both went back to the scrap yard the next week and explained that we wanted to test out the axle for log-rolling. Loo said fine, so long as he could watch.
Iggy climbed up onto one tire while I held it steady, and then I climbed up on the other one while Loo held the axle steady.
``Can you spit at each other?'' asked Loo, evidently glimpsing the myriad possibilities in his mind.
``No,'' we both said.
Loo let go of the wheel, and we both stood up there just looking at each other stupidly. The wheels weren't turning. Iggy jumped up and down on his tire, and then they started to turn slowly. We trotted along the revolving tires, and they slowly built up speed. The tires spun faster and faster, and it was only then, balanced a metre and a half above a wrecking yard strewn with scrap metal and broken glass that I realized what a spectacularly dangerous sport this really was. I was in a full-out run on top of my tire when Iggy's arms started waving and his hips started gyrating, and he started to scream ``Shit!'' when both of his legs shot straight out behind him, and he belly-flopped right down on top of his tire. The momentum of the spinning axle was so strong that the tire just picked him up and shot him straight out into the wrecking yard, where he hit the side of an old van.
I couldn't look because I was trying to maintain my balance as the tires spun down slow enough for me to hop off. When I eventually got to Iggy, he was conscious, but he had blood on his head and a broken thumb.
``So,'' said Loo. ``Do you think you'll take the axle?''
``It's got too much inertia,'' I said.
``Hard to change directions,'' I explained, spinning my finger one way and then the other.
``Oh,'' said Loo. ``Sure, I can see that. You say this is a sport?''
Some months later we learned that he was running a small gambling ring based on log-rolling with car and truck axles. He had several different axles set up in a little arena, with different inertial qualities and several diameters of wheels. Spitting was allowed, and throwing things, and hitting with poles and ropes and stuff. The reigning champion got a big belt, and prize money, plus there were live netcasts, and audiences were attracted to the novelty and violence of the whole affair.
Iggy and I walked home that day after trying out the axle. I felt bad that Alf's log-rolling genes evidently hadn't been passed down to Iggy, but I couldn't think of any way to make it up to him.
``This whole thing reminds me,'' said Iggy as we walked past an abandoned shopping plaza, its windows all papered or boarded up. ``This whole thing reminds me of that guy in Heathrow.''
``What guy?'' I asked.
``You remember, that guy in Terminal 6 of London Heathrow. He snuck out of his country using false documents, and then ripped them up and flushed them all on the plane. But now they won't let him through airport customs without a passport and he has no money or documents to get back out, so he has been stuck for eight years in the arrivals area at the airport, and has to beg for food from the snack bar and for people to let him use their cash cards so he can go to the pay toilet.''
``Oh, that guy,'' I said.
``The world is seriously fucked up,'' said Iggy.
``How does this whole thing remind you of that guy?'' I asked.
``I dunno,'' he said, his brain evidently not quite recovered. We walked along for a while, beneath crackling power lines, and past a tent camp set up by vagrants in an empty industrial yard. ``Somebody should do something about it,'' he finally said.
We went back to my place where I treated him for mild concussion and set his broken thumb with a good splint.
``Thanks, Doc,'' he said, and then went to sleep for three days in my bed.
This is probably a good place to point out that I'm not a medical doctor. My friends call me Doc because I went to graduate school to study anthropology, and pre-industrial technologies in particular. My intention was to become an academic, a Doctor of Philosophy, but that plan was interrupted by my untimely death.
I had travelled into the high Arctic to study native craftsmanship among the Inuit who still hunted in their traditional lands. When I got there, they all had turbocharged snowmobiles with satellite navigation, drone fishing boats with automatic fish finders, and even networked uplinks to the other clans to share information on where the few remaining catches were to be found. The hunting weapon of choice was a Kalashnikov caseless semi-auto rifle with infrared smartsight. Even the traditional Inuit crafts sold to tourists on North Pole jaunts were mass-produced in Malaysia.
I decided to come home, but the bush pilot who had flown me there had been given a job in Madagascar in the meantime, so I was stuck. I tried using the clan's computers to call for another flight out, but nobody else would come without the cash paid up front, and I couldn't requisition that much cash from the University without signing for it in person. To make a long story short, I spent the winter on Baffin Island and when I didn't return on schedule, the University declared me dead and terminated my study program.
You can usually correct clerical errors like that if you catch them in time, but after a whole winter, record of my death had spread from database to database until there wasn't a computer system around that would acknowledge my existence. Re-establishing my life proved terribly difficult, because the computers all cross-checked with each other, and quickly restored my deceased status after I thought I had proved otherwise. It was like putting out a raging house fire using only a damp dishrag. Eventually I gave up.
So I never did finish my Ph.D., but my friends call me Doc anyway. My real name is Odie Gogo, but since my death I have been persona non grata and forced to make a living as a karma broker with Sexy, my lovely phone-bot. I still study out-moded technologies in my spare time, since it will all come in handy when civilization finally comes apart at the seams and there is a 500-year interruption in services. Ultima thinks that I am planning to be King in the post-Apocalyptic world, and to some extent she is right. We all have our little ways of dealing with the end of civilization.
Until today, Iggy's method of coping involved collecting stories about the end of the world. He surveyed the news and the nets and found these little gems that illustrated, to him anyway, that Western Civilization has passed its apogee and was now on a ballistic trajectory towards very solid ground.
This afternoon we were having a brew at Caf\'e Ocula, and Iggy started venting about the credit multinationals, all on account of some woman who was murdered in her car because her credit was declined by the police.
``Except that her credit was okay,'' fumed Iggy. ``It was a mistake by the bank, so afterwards they credited her account by a million dollars in compensation.''
``Well, that was nice of them,'' said Snuzi. ``Even if it was only a million.''
``Yeah, but the murderers had killed her for her wallet, so they had her credit cards and they got that money, too. And the bank wouldn't compensate again because it was her heirs' fault for not reporting the card stolen, and the bank is holding them responsible for the million dollars. So her heirs went bankrupt and were thrown in jail.''
``That sucks,'' said Snuzi.
``By the same police that had refused the credit in the first place,'' added Iggy.
``I'm going to have another espresso,'' said Snuzi, getting up.
Iggy looked at me and Ultima. ``The world is seriously fucked up,'' he said, which was how he ended each of his stories.
``You said it,'' said Ultima. ``But what can you do?''
``I've decided to become a terrorist,'' said Iggy.
``No kidding,'' I said.
``A terrorist?'' asked Ultima.
``A terrorist,'' confirmed Iggy.
``How about that,'' I said. ``A terrorist.''
As conversation killers went, Iggy's terrorist revelation was right up there. Ultima looked at me quizzically, assuming that I understood what Iggy was talking about, but this was the first I had heard of it, so I just shrugged, and we both turned to look out the caf\'e window until Snuzi came back and complained that they had Merry Christmas paper napkins in the bathroom instead of toilet paper. She pretended to be traumatized about using the baby Jesus in that way, but you could tell that she found it hugely amusing.
I broached the subject again later that evening, when Snuzi and Ultima took some time out to gamble their grocery money on the caf\'e's netlink.
``So, Ig-man. You're serious about this terrorist thing?''
``Suicide bombing,'' nodded Iggy.
I considered this. ``Picked a target, yet?''
``Working on it,'' said Iggy. ``Say, Doc, how would you spend your last thirty days?''
``My last thirty? How do I know they're my last? And how do I know I have thirty?''
``Because,'' said Iggy. ``You have brain rot, and the doctors have given you thirty days to live.''
I leaned back in my chair and exhaled, considering the problem. ``Well, clearly everything that I have done in my life to prepare for the future is useless.''
``Clearly,'' agreed Iggy.
``And thirty days is hardly enough time to lay some new foundations,'' I continued.
``Right,'' said Iggy.
``And probably not enough to change the world for the better using my creative powers,'' I added.
``Probably not,'' said Iggy.
``Given so little time to build, I could accomplish more toward improving the world by being destructive,'' I reasoned.
``Good idea,'' nodded Iggy.
``I'd probably have to become a suicide bomber,'' I concluded.
``My thinking exactly,'' said Iggy.
And that's how my good friend Ignatius Loyola revealed his role in the end of the world.
When he stepped out to get the morning paper, Harry found a dead body lying in the middle of the lawn. Scooping up the paper, he hurried back inside the house and closed the door. He pulled aside the curtain, and looked out the window. The body lay face down on the grass, its nose pressed into the ground. The left arm was thrown out to the side, while the right was bent awkwardly and trapped beneath the stomach. The legs were akimbo. The body only had one shoe, and there was a hole in the exposed sock.
It sure looked dead, Harry thought, and he wondered if it had been lying there most of the night. If it wasn't already dead when it hit the ground, it must have died of exposure. He stared for a while, looking to see if the chest was moving.
``Honey?'' called his wife, Greta. ``What are you doing?''
``Nothing,'' said Harry, squinting at the body.
``Is the paper there?''
``I'll be there in a minute,'' said Harry. He opened the door again, and shuffled down the walk in his slippers. He bent over the body, still trying to see if the chest was moving.
``Hey,'' said Harry. He waited.
``Hey!'' he said again. The body didn't move, so he poked it with the rolled up newspaper. He looked it over for gunshot or stab wounds, but saw none. He poked the body in the shoulder again. ``Hey!''
Harry scratched at his pajamas, and looked around. He could see over the hedge into the yard of his neighbour Gus, and out onto the street, but nobody was out this early. If someone were to walk by, they probably wouldn't even see the body lying in the yard. The hedge mostly blocked the view.
Harry kicked the body. ``Hey!''
``Who's that?'' asked Greta. She stood at the door in her dressing gown.
``Don't know,'' said Harry.
``Wake him up,'' she said.
``I tried,'' he said. He kicked the body again. ``Hey!'' He shrugged at Greta. ``See?''
``Is it Gus?'' asked Greta. ``Remember last Christmas when he came home so drunk and tried to get into our house?''
``I don't think it's him.''
``Roll him over. Look at his face.''
Harry bent closer, and wrinkled his nose. He took the rolled up newspaper and pushed at the side of the body's head.
``What are you doing?'' asked Greta. ``You can't roll him over with a newspaper.''
``I just want to look at his face,'' said Harry. But the head wouldn't roll. He pushed and jabbed and shoved, and the newspaper crumpled with the strain of it. Harry squatted down and looked at what little of the face he had managed to expose. The body smelled bad.
``It's not Gus,'' he said. He stood up, brushed at his legs, and then walked back towards the door.
``Is that it?'' asked Greta.
``That's it,'' said Harry. ``Let's call the police.''
He dialed, while Greta poured coffee and cleaned off the dirtied parts of the newspaper.
``Hello. I have a dead body in my yard,'' he said into the phone. ``Yes, it's definitely dead. I tried to wake it up, and it doesn't move ... 228 Fletcher Drive. You can't see the body from the street because of the hedge ... Thanks.'' He hung up.
``Well?'' said Greta.
``They're sending a car,'' said Harry.
The police showed up in a few minutes. Harry and Greta watched from the window as the two cops entered the yard and walked up to the body. One of them bent over and shook the body's shoulder, then lifted it to get a view of the face. The other spotted Harry and Greta in the window, and nodded towards them. Greta waved back.
The cops discussed the situation for a while, alternately shrugging and nodding to each other. Then the first cop went back to the car, and returned with a small glass vial. He opened it and waved it under the body's nose.
As if a puppeteer suddenly jerked on its strings, the body was instantly up on its feet, blinking.
``Oh!'' said Greta.
The cops didn't seem surprised by this turn of events. The body blinked a few more times, and swayed unsteadily on its feet. The cops asked it a few questions, and the body mumbled a few answers, occasionally nodding or shaking its head. The body produced a wallet and showed the cops some ID. The cops warned the body not to lie around in people's yards, and told it to go home. The body nodded and said it would do just that. Fine said the cops, and making sure the body was out on the sidewalk and pointed in the correct direction to find home, climbed back into their car and drove off.
``I'll be damned,'' said Harry.
The body swayed unsteadily on the sidewalk, took a few steps to the left, then a few to the right. Then it keeled right over onto the hedge at the edge of Harry's and Greta's yard. The head went right over and hit the lawn. The torso came after it, and then the legs tumbled after, all loose and gangly.
``Goddamit!'' said Harry.
``Oh would you---'' said Greta, but she didn't finish.
Harry opened the door, and started out into the yard.
``Wait!'' said Greta. She ran into the study.
``What?'' said Harry.
Greta came back with his .38 revolver. ``Take this.''
Harry took the gun and shuffled over to the body where it lay now in a heap at the base of their hedge.
``Hey!'' said Harry, but the body didn't move.
It was lying face up now. The face was very pale in colour, and had a few days growth of whiskers. The eyes were half-closed, and only the whites were showing.
``Hey!'' said Harry, pointing the gun at the body. He sidled up to it, and pressed the barrel of the gun into the body's chest. ``Hey, get up!''
The body didn't move. Harry took the gun and put the barrel to the body's left temple. ``I said get up!''
When the body still didn't move, he shrugged at Greta. She shrugged back at him. He took the barrel of the gun and stuck it into the body's mouth. He cocked the hammer. ``I'll shoot you, so help me God,'' he said. The body didn't seem to care.
Harry felt at the body's neck. He felt in several places, trying to find a pulse. Then he stood up and looked around. He exhaled sharply through his nose and shook his head in disgust. He kicked the body, right in the stomach. A wheezing sound came from the body's mouth.
``What?'' said Harry. ``What did you say?'' He kicked again, and got another wheezing sound.
``What did he say?'' asked Greta.
``Nothing,'' said Harry. He kicked the body right in the head. ``Ouch!''
``What happened?'' exclaimed Greta.
``Hurt my toe,'' said Harry. He hobbled back to the house.
``Oh boy,'' muttered Greta, looking at his expression.
``Okay, here's what happened,'' said Harry. ``The body wasn't quite dead when the police got here. But I think the exertion of standing up was too much, and then it keeled over dead for real.''
``So we should call the police again?''
``Yup,'' said Harry. He called the police again. ``Hi, there's a dead body in my yard ... Yes, that was me ... No, this time it's really dead ... Yes, I went out and did everything. It's definitely dead this time ... Well, when can you come? ... I see ... I see. All right, then. Bye.'' He hung up, and then exhaled sharply through his teeth.
``What?'' said Greta.
``They're not going to come.''
``They say it's not dead. They already checked it. They're very busy, and unless we are in danger, they can't keep coming out to look at a body that's not really dead. Or something like that.''
``Oh,'' said Greta.
``They said they can come to check it again in 24 hours if it is still dead.''
``Oh,'' said Greta. ``Are we just supposed to leave it there?''
Harry threw up his hands. ``I don't know, okay? How am I supposed to know what we're supposed to do with it? Do I look like I deal with dead bodies every day?''
``Fine, then,'' huffed Greta. ``We'll wait until tomorrow.'' She went back to the bedroom to get dressed.
Harry paced around the kitchen for a while. He drank two cups of coffee, and tried to read the newspaper. He returned twice to the front window, before finally going into the bedroom to get dressed.
``Is it still there?'' asked Greta.
``Yup,'' said Harry.
``Am I just supposed to stay here all day with a dead body from who knows where, while you go to work?''
``I'll call in sick,'' said Harry, and he did.
At eleven o'clock he caught Greta poking the body with a shovel.
``What are you doing?'' he said.
``Nothing,'' she said, and she walked around to the back of the house, taking the shovel with her.
Harry watched her go with a frown. Then he walked over to the body, and felt at its pockets. He found the wallet in the pants' back pocket, and pulled it out. There was a credit card, and a driver's license that gave the name of the body as Lyle Garrigle. There was also twelve hundred dollars in cash, mostly hundreds.
``Hm,'' said Harry. He took the wallet into the house, but he didn't remove the cash. He counted it twice without removing a single bill. Then he went through all the cards, and then put them back in the wallet. He went into the utility room, and put the wallet behind an old paint tin on a high shelf.
``Looking for something?'' said Greta, coming in from the garage.
``Huh?'' said Harry, looking at her in surprise. ``Um, yeah. You seen the ammonia?''
``It's under the sink. Why?''
``Those smelling salts the cops used did a good job. Maybe something smelly will work.''
``That's a good idea,'' said Greta. ``Ammonia really stinks. Wait, I'll get the gun.''
Harry took the bottle of ammonia, and tried to wave the nozzle under the body's nose, while Greta kept the gun trained on the body's head. Harry ended up spilling ammonia all over the lawn, and even splashed a fair amount on the body's face by accident, but the body didn't even twitch.
``Nope,'' said Harry. ``It's dead for sure.''
``Stupid corpse,'' said Greta. ``Fucking asshole corpse.'' She looked like she was close to tears.
``Nothing we can do about it,'' said Harry. ``Let's go.''
``No,'' said Greta, and then she began crying.
``Oh jeez,'' said Harry.
``Shut up,'' said Greta. She kicked at the body. ``Stupid jerk! Why can't you die somewhere else?'' She pulled the trigger, and the gun went off.
``Damn!'' said Harry. ``Give me that!'' He grabbed the gun from her, and she sat down on the grass, sniffling.
``Jeez, look what you did,'' said Harry. He was looking at a new bullet hole in the body's abdomen.
``So what,'' said Greta. ``It was already dead. You said so.''
``Do I look like a doctor? What do I know about dead?''
``You said it was dead. You said so!'' She stood up and ran into the house.
``Jeez,'' said Harry. He looked over the hedge, but the street was quiet. ``Damn,'' he said, bending over to look at the body's new bullet hole. There wasn't much blood. He went back into the house.
``I got an idea,'' he said, walking into the bedroom where Greta lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. She didn't answer, so he went on. ``Let's take the body and put it in Gus's yard.''
``You're gonna blame the gunshot on Gus?'' asked Greta.
``No, no. When Gus sees the body, he'll call the police. Then they'll come because it's not us calling again.''
``That's a good idea,'' said Greta after thinking about it.
They went back out to the yard, and Harry picked up the body under the armpits, while Greta picked up its legs.
``Are we going to walk it around on the sidewalk?'' asked Greta.
Harry considered this. ``No, lets just throw it over the hedge.''
They carried the body to the hedge, and Harry tried to throw his half over. But the body just fell into the hedge, parting the bushes and breaking off a lot of branches.
``Damn,'' mumbled Harry. He and Greta pushed the legs over, and tried to shove the rest of the body completely into Gus's yard. Then Greta knelt down and tidied up the messed-up hedge.
``I think that oughta do it,'' said Harry. They stood up and surveyed their work.
``I'm hungry,'' said Greta. ``Want some soup?''
``Love some,'' said Harry.
They ate lunch, and then left the house later in the afternoon to do some shopping. They stayed out longer than they had to, in the hopes that Gus would find the body when he returned home, and call the police. If things went their way, everything would be taken care of by the time they got home.
But when they got home, they discovered that the body was back in their yard.
``For the love o' Pete,'' said Harry.
``How did it get back in our yard?'' asked Greta.
``That bastard Gus must have thrown it back here,'' said Harry. ``Crazy old coot.''
``Why would he do a thing like that?'' asked Greta.
``Remember that time you caught him throwing the dog poo in his yard over the hedge onto our lawn?''
``Oh my. I forgot about that.''
``Shoulda known better than to count on Gus,'' grumbled Harry. They sat down on the sofa, and thought about things.
``Okay, I got a better plan,'' said Harry. ``We'll take the body and put it in the trunk of the car. Then tonight after dark, we'll drive it out to the old bridge on Highway fifteen, and we'll throw it into the river.''
Greta thought about this. ``Okay. That's a good idea.''
They went out to the yard, and picked up the body again, with Harry holding the shoulders, and Greta the feet. ``We'll take it through the house,'' said Harry, and he led the way through the door. They carried the body into the kitchen, through the utility room, and into the garage. They lay the body down on the concrete floor by the rear wheel of the car.
``I'll go get the car keys,'' puffed Harry.
``I'll come with you,'' said Greta, not wanting to be left alone with the dead body. In the kitchen she noticed the .38 revolver sitting on the kitchen table, and she stopped to pick it up.
``Here, give me that,'' said Harry, taking the gun. ``I don't want you shooting the place up again.'' He grabbed his car keys from the hook by the door, and they went back into the garage.
The body was gone.
``Where is it?'' asked Greta.
Harry knelt down and looked under the car. ``I don't know.''
``Where did it go?'' asked Greta, and an edge of hysteria crept into her voice. ``Oh my god, Harry, where is it?''
Holding the gun out in front of him, Harry walked around the car. There was no sign of the dead body.
``It's not here,'' he said.
Greta, holding her hand to her mouth, looked to the left and to the right. ``Where could it have gone?''
They both looked around the garage, their eyes settling on the door to the utility room they had just passed through. ``Oh my god,'' said Greta. ``It's in the house!''
She ran to the utility room door, hoping to slam it shut and trap the body inside the house, but the body came lurching through the doorway just as she got there. Greta screamed and clawed at the face of the body.
``Help me, please help me,'' the body was saying, as it tried to grab Greta's hands and stop her from clawing its eyes out. ``I've been shot,'' it said. ``And robbed. Help.''
By this time Harry was able to run over, place the gun barrel against the body's chest and fire twice. The body staggered sideways, hit the wall and fell over.
``Shoot it again!'' screamed Greta.
Harry shot it again, once in the back, and then again in the head.
``Again!'' screamed Greta.
Harry shot again, hitting it in the neck.
``Again!'' screamed Greta.
``No more bullets,'' said Harry.
``Oh,'' said Greta.
``It's not moving,'' said Harry.
``Is it dead again?'' asked Greta.
``I think so,'' said Harry.
But Greta didn't believe him any more, so she tied up the body with an electrical extension cord. She also tied a cinderblock around its waist, and filled its pockets with gravel from the alleyway, so that it would sink well when they threw it off the bridge on Highway fifteen. She also wrapped the body in plastic garbage bags that she taped around it like a mummy, because it was bleeding a lot from all the bullet holes.
That night, they threw it off the bridge into the river. The body, wrapped in black plastic, vanished from sight as soon as they let it go. There was a big splash, and that was all. They drove home in silence and went to bed.
The police called the next morning.
``Hello?'' said Harry when he answered the phone. ``No, it isn't there anymore ... Yes, you were quite right after all, I guess it wasn't dead ... No problem, thanks for calling.''
He hung up and went to get the morning paper. On a whim, he stopped by the study, picked up his .38, and re-loaded it. Then he went outside and found the newspaper lying in the middle of the walk. Harry picked it up, and looked around the yard, his hand on the gun in the pocket of his dressing gown. He walked along the hedge, checking underneath it.
``Hey Harry,'' called Gus from next door.
Harry waved with the newspaper.
``Lose something?'' called Gus.
``Nope,'' said Harry.
``Whatcha lookin' for?'' called Gus.
``Not sure,'' said Harry. ``I'm not sure.'' He walked back into the house.
``Get the paper?'' asked Greta.
Harry whirled, with the gun in his hand. ``Jeez! You scared me,'' he said, lowering the gun.
``Oh! You scared me too,'' said Greta, with her hand on her chest.
Harry laughed, and then Greta laughed too. ``Let's go have some breakfast,'' said Greta.
``Good idea,'' said Harry.
Greta started towards the kitchen, and then paused, looking back. ``Are you coming?''
``Right behind you,'' said Harry.
``Bring the gun,'' said Greta.
``Yup,'' said Harry.
The mugger stood in the shadow of a doorway, his arms clinched tightly about himself. The wisps of a weak beard on a strong chin projected from the hood of his navy sweat jacket. His hands fidgeted nervously inside the kangaroo pocket of the jacket, playing with a four-inch buck knife.
His eyes were aimed up the street towards a man who walked slowly toward him. The man was wearing a nice rain coat, and had a good haircut. He didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular. Staring mostly at his feet, he kicked at leaves and bits of wet paper that hugged the concrete in front of him. He ambled closer and closer to the doorway where the mugger lurked, before pausing suddenly and looking around himself in confusion.
"Hey buddy," said the mugger, stepping out of the doorway, and walking toward the man. "Spare some change?"
"No," said the man, looking behind him as if unsure of his bearings.
"Hey," said the mugger, putting his hands out plaintively. "I'm flat broke man. Look at you, you're well-fed, well-dressed. Can't you help me out?"
"I don't have any change," muttered the man. He didn't meet the mugger's gaze. "Sorry," he added after a thought.
"Hey, look, I'm not doing too well here. I haven't eaten all day. I just got out of prison, see, and I don't got nothing in my pockets except a knife. I could really use some help."
The man finally turned to meet the mugger's eyes. "I've got no money, okay?"
"You don't get it," said the mugger, taking another step closer. He looked over his shoulder, and then lowered his voice. "Give me your fucking wallet, or I'll stab you."
The man took a step back. The mugger reached into his kangaroo pocket and pulled out the buck knife. The blade was old and worn, and had been badly sharpened more than once.
"I'm telling you the truth," said the man, his eyes on the knife. "I don't have anything."
The mugger's nose twitched. He looked over his shoulder again, and then stepped forward with the knife held in front of him. "Empty your fuckin' pockets."
The man just stood there, paralyzed.
"Do it!" The mugger's arm flashed out, cutting the sleeve of the man's rain coat. "Next time it's your face! Do it!"
Hands shaking, the man turned his pockets out. He was only carrying keys and a pack of gum, true to his words. "Sorry," he said. "I was just going for a walk. Didn't need my wallet, right?"
The mugger stood back, shaking his head and looking around. His lips moved, trying a few different words for size. "You said you live nearby?" he said suddenly.
"What?" said the man.
"You're going for a walk. So you live nearby," said the mugger.
The man hesitated, trying to compose an answer.
"Come on," said the mugger, flashing the knife again. "Where do you live? Let's go."
"You gotta be kidding," said the man.
"Do I look like I'm fucking kidding? You want another cut? How much money you got at home?"
The man just gaped at him. "That way," he said, pointing past the mugger. The mugger turned to follow the gesture, and the man suddenly bolted in the opposite direction.
The mugger whirled back in surprise, and then took off in pursuit. Together they pounded down the sidewalk for half a block, the man gasping with fear.
"Help!" yelped the man, when it became clear that he wasn't going to out-run the mugger. But his lack of breath made the yell feeble, and there was no one around to hear it anyway. He wheeled, his hands in front of him for protection.
The mugger was right behind him. "You fucking---" He tried to slash at the man's face, but couldn't get past his arms. He cut at one of his sleeves again, and kicked him for good measure. "Don't fuck with me!"
"All right, all right," gasped the man. "Stop, I've got money at home. At least a hundred."
"Not sure. Six blocks, maybe."
"Okay, let's go. Come on!" The mugger motioned for the man to start walking. The man glanced uneasily at the knife. "Relax," said the mugger. "I'm not gonna cut you as long as you cooperate. See?" He put the knife back into the kangaroo pocket of his sweat jacket.
They walked for a block in silence, the man watching the mugger tensely from the corner of his eyes. The mugger took long strides, his hands in his pockets, and whistled a little.
"My name is Bernie," said the mugger after a while.
The man glanced at him, but kept walking.
"You don't have to tell me your name," said Bernie. "I understand."
"Whatever," said the man.
"What, you think I'm making that name up?" asked Bernie. He shrugged. "Maybe I am. Who cares? Just thought you might want a name to put on me."
The man shook his head.
"Mind if I call you Norbert? Since you won't tell me your real name? I'd kinda like to think of you as somebody, too." Bernie smiled and whistled a little more. "Hey Norbert," he said after a few more strides. "I'm real sorry about all this. But it's fucking cold out, and I'd kinda like to get a real bed tonight, you know?"
"Sure," said the man.
"Kinda like to get a whore, too, but I understand if you don't want to finance that."
"This way," said the man, turning a corner. Up ahead a couple walked towards them.
"Don't get any funny ideas, Norbert." Bernie grinned at the couple as they approached. "Good evening," he said.
"Hi!" the couple smiled as they went past.
"Nice neighbourhood," said Bernie.
The man stopped. "My house is up ahead. Wait here."
Bernie grabbed his sleeve. "No way, Norbert. If I let you go, you'll call the cops."
"You can't come in," said the man.
"Then we got a problem," said Bernie. He slipped his hand into the pocket where he kept the knife.
"Look," said the man. "My wife and kid are in there. No disrespect, but you're a criminal with a knife and you can't come in my house. I don't want to get stabbed for a few bucks, but this is my family and that's different."
"Okay, Norbert, okay," said Bernie. "I understand. But how do I know you won't call the cops?"
"I promise, okay?"
"No disrespect, Norbert, but I'm not an idiot. You haven't been straight with me so far."
"You know where I live. Why would I double cross you?"
"Well, Norbert, maybe this isn't really your house. Maybe it's your friend's, or a total stranger's, and you're just gonna use their phone."
The man shook his head in exasperation, and spread his hands. "Then you're gonna have to stab me right now, 'cause you aren't coming in with that knife."
Bernie took out the knife and looked at it. "Fine then. I'll leave the knife right here." He threw it at a patch of lawn next to the sidewalk, where it buried itself up to the handle. "Okay, let's go."
The man looked at the knife, and then back at Bernie. "Wouldn't it just be easier to find someone else and mug them?"
"Probably," shrugged Bernie. "But in for a dime, in for a dozen."
The man gathered himself, shaking his head.
"What's the matter?" demanded Bernie.
"Don't speak a word of what's happened here," said the man, pointing his finger at Bernie. "I don't want to cause any worry."
"Of course not," said Bernie. "We're friends, right, Norbert?"
"Rick," snapped the man. "My name is Rick. Come on, then. I'm going to give you the money, and then you're going to leave, and then I really am going to call the cops, so you better make good time."
"Wait a few minutes first, okay? So I can get a head start."
"Jesus," muttered Rick. He turned up the path to one of the houses, and climbed the steps to the porch. He let himself in with his key.
Bernie pulled his hood back, revealing a mess of dark, curly hair. He stepped in after Rick, stopping inside the door and clasping his hands in front of himself. They were in a long, narrow hallway, alongside a stairway that went up to the second floor. A row of coathooks and some battered old movie posters covered the wall. Worn vinyl flooring ran down to a rectangle of light that spilled from a doorway to one side.
"Wait here," said Rick, and he went up the stairs.
Bernie could hear Rick walking around upstairs, and his eyes flicked back and forth across the ceiling following the sounds. His attention snapped back to the hallway when a shadow fell across the light from the door at the end. A woman stood there, leaning against the door frame. She pulled at a cigarette, and exhaled.
"Hi," said Bernie. "I'm just waiting for Rick." He pointed towards the sounds from above. The woman nodded, and dragged on her cigarette again. "My name is Bernie," he added.
"Hi Bernie," said the woman. "I'm Charlene. Are you going to stay for dinner?"
"Oh, uh, no thanks. Rick's just getting something for me, then I'll go."
"You sure? Why don't you come in the kitchen and wait for him here? I'll fix you a drink."
"Well---" Bernie looked up the stairs. "Okay." He followed Charlene through the lit doorway into the kitchen. A pot simmered on the stove, and the warm air smelled like beef stew. A forty pounder of rye whiskey stood on the countertop, recently opened. A big Chinese meat cleaver sat next to it on a chopping block. There was a phone on the wall, and Bernie picked it up, heard the dial tone and hung it up again.
"Do you need to make a call?" asked Charlene.
"No," said Bernie, eyeing the meat cleaver.
"Charlene!" came Rick's voice from the stairs.
"Whiskey?" asked Charlene, holding up the bottle.
"Sure," said Bernie.
"Ice? Water?" asked Charlene.
"Charlene!" shouted Rick again.
"Neat," said Bernie, and Charlene poured several ounces into a glass.
"Cheers," she said, handing it to him. She sipped from her own glass, which was nearly as full.
"Fuck! Charlene!" howled Rick.
"What!?" screamed Charlene.
Rick's footsteps thumped down the hallway. He glared at Bernie from the doorway.
"Hey Rick," said Bernie.
His jaw set, Rick turned to Charlene. "Where the hell is my wallet?"
"Right there," she said, pointing to the countertop, beside the bottle of rye.
Rick walked over and grabbed it, flipping it open. "There was a hundred bucks in here," he said.
"I went shopping," said Charlene.
"While you were gone," she said. "For your walk." She curled her lips as she said this last word.
"You spent a hundred bucks?"
"We needed groceries. And I got a couple cartons of cigs," she said.
"And booze," added Rick.
"And booze," said Charlene.
"Jesus," said Rick.
"What the fuck do you care?" asked Charlene. "You'll drink more of it than me."
"Shut up," said Rick. He turned to scowl at Bernie.
"Why don't you stay for dinner, Bernie?" asked Charlene. "There's lots of food."
"He can't stay," said Rick.
"Let him decide," said Charlene. "You can stay, can't you Bernie? Where you in such a big rush to go to?"
"Charlene," said Rick.
"I don't know," said Bernie.
"There, see?" said Charlene. "Before you couldn't stay, now you don't know. You'll stay, then."
"He can't stay, Charlene," growled Rick.
"Shut up, Rick. I asked him, not you," said Charlene. "Let him answer for himself. Bernie, stay and have dinner with us. I insist." She picked up the bottle of rye and added a few more ounces to Bernie's glass.
"Okay, then," said Bernie.
"You can't stay," said Rick.
"Rick, don't be rude," said Charlene.
"Maybe I should go then," said Bernie, trying to ignore Charlene's pleading look.
"Right, then," said Rick. He jerked his head toward the door.
"No, he's going to stay," said Charlene, standing beside Bernie, and putting her hand on his arm.
"He can't stay, for chrissakes!" shouted Rick. "Get the fuck away from him!"
"Don't you go, Bernie!" said Charlene. "The minute you go he's going to beat the shit out of me."
"Shut up!" shouted Rick. "Shut the fuck up!"
"Hey Rick," said Bernie. "Cool it, man. What about your kid?"
Rick glared at Bernie, his jaw slightly slack.
"Kid?" said Charlene. "What kid? What kid, Bernie? Rick, what the hell is he talking about? Look at me when I talk to you!"
Rick turned slowly to look at her.
"You got a kid, Rick? You got a kid somewhere I don't know about?" demanded Charlene. "Answer me, you prick! I'll fucking kill you!" She grabbed the big meat cleaver off the counter and raised it in the air. "Tell me now, Rick! Tell me everything, or I'll bury this in you. I'll cut your throat in your sleep, you asshole. I'll cut your balls off, I swear to god I'll fucking do it!"
"Charlene, put the knife down!" seethed Rick. "There's no kid, okay! This guy, he's a liar, he's a thief, his name isn't even Bernie!"
"What?" said Charlene. "What is your name?"
"Bernie," said Bernie. "Really."
"He's a thief, Charlene! He mugged me with a knife!" shouted Rick.
"You got a knife?" said Charlene, turning towards Bernie with the cleaver.
"No, no knife!" said Bernie, raising his hands. "I swear!"
"Don't fucking bullshit me, Rick!" screamed Charlene. "What about the kid?"
"Put the knife down!" shouted Rick. He looked around for a weapon to counter the big cleaver, and grabbed the pot of simmering stew by the handle. "Put it down or---"
"Or what? Or what, Rick? Think you can do it before I get in my whacks? Come on!"
Rick swung the pot of stew. The lid flew off and boiling stew sprayed across the kitchen. Charlene screamed and ducked, then threw herself at Rick.
Bernie ran. He flew out of the kitchen, down the hall, and out the door. He ran down the steps, along the walk, and down the street. He ran for a block, turned the corner, and ran for three blocks more. He slowed down a little once he reached a busy street with traffic, but he kept walking quickly for another half hour.
Finally he stopped in the doorway of a closed shop, and gathered his breath. He realized that he had forgotten his knife, buried to its hilt in the lawn of Rick and Charlene's neighbour. He looked behind him, wondering if he could retrace his route, but he hadn't paid attention to the streets, coming or going. Muttering to himself, he pulled his hood over his head and wrapped his arms around himself for warmth.
"Hey buddy," he said to the next man who walked past. "Spare some change?"
Lily invited me to her wedding while we lay naked on the couch, our heads resting against opposite armrests. "Oh, this is for you," she said, fishing the invitation from the bag on the floor beside her. The sun cast shadows into her navel as she twisted back and handed it to me.
It was an attractive invitation, hand-embossed with a veil of gauzy paper. "This is nice," I said, fingering the RSVP card. "Can I bring a date?"
She ran her toe along the line of my jaw, making the whiskers rasp. "Who?"
I shrugged. I was bluffing, and admitted it. "Penny, probably."
"Okay." She smiled, her eyes half-closed. I considered making love to her again, but fell asleep before coming to a decision.
I spoke to Penny later that week. "I'll be your date for Lily's wedding," I volunteered.
"Alright!" she agreed. That was easy. "By the way," she went on, "I know that a few of us had talked about going in together on a gift, but I found a nice glass decanter that I'm going to get for them, so you're on your own."
Shit. To be honest, I didn't remember any plans to split a gift. I hadn't even thought about a gift until Penny brought it up. There were few things more annoying than being ambushed by forgotten duties, but gift shopping was one of them.
What kind of wedding gift can you get for a couple that has already lived together for five years?
Practical, yet thoughtful: Electric toothbrushes. A rainbow assortment of spray paints. Post-It notes. Beer.
Playful, yet romantic: A chinchilla named Max. Pump-action squirt guns. Twenty feet of rope and a gallon of ice cream. Nerf swords.
Unique, yet disturbing: His and hers voodoo dolls. A fossilized bat. Ten pounds of goat cheese. A severed head.
"Oh my god, I'm having such a bad morning," said Lily on the phone.
"Do you need to be rescued?" I asked.
"Yes, please. How about noon? No, make it two."
I picked her up on my motorcycle, and we crossed to the North Shore, nipping into one of the canyons. The road stopped when the canyon walls went vertical, but there were foot trails, and we followed them into the rainforest. Lily picked a narrow path at random, and we hiked down to a huge boulder at the river's edge. Climbing on top, we wrapped ourselves in each other's arms, and watched the river tumble between the cliffs.
"This is my spot," said Lily. "I found it."
I was agreeable, even though I'd been here before. "Tell me about your morning," I said.
"I got in a fight. Punched some guy in the face."
I grunted in amusement.
"He was harassing me, and I was really stressed about the wedding, so I punched him. I used my left hand, but I still got him pretty good. There was a good sound."
"Like dropping a pound of ground beef on the floor?"
"Like beating a sack of live fish with a piece of lumber."
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine that sound, but it was difficult with the roaring river and the crows.
"The morning just went downhill from there," continued Lily, leaning into me. "Is it too late to back out of the wedding?"
"You've got four days until the ceremony," I said. "Plus the ten day warranty period after that."
Turning around, she pushed me on my back and gave me a long, wet kiss.
"What makes a good wedding gift?" I asked my friend Al.
"Dope," he said.
"They don't smoke," I said.
"Mangoes," he said.
"Not mangoes," I said.
"I love mangoes," he said.
"Not mangoes," I repeated.
"Goldfish, then," he said.
I gave this some serious thought.
"How come you always end up over here, naked?" I asked.
"Keeps me sane," said Lily, drawing pictures on my back.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" asked the shopkeeper.
"A wedding gift," I said.
"We have lots of great wedding gifts," he said, obviously believing himself to be helpful.
I wandered through the shop, confounded by the number of different ways they could make candle holders and CD racks. Tucked against one wall was a cabinet containing some glasses. I picked up a tumbler etched with a Chinese character. "Harmony" said the English translation, etched beside it. I examined a second glass. "Love" it said. There were six glasses.
"I'll take them," I said.
With the glasses wrapped in tissue and stuffed into my backpack, I leapt on my motorbike and raced for home, feeling lighter and fleeter with the killing of a duty. Traffic was thickening in the late afternoon heat, but the bike was nimble, and I was quick. But not quite so quick as to avoid a Honda that changed lanes suddenly without signalling. The rear fender of the car touched my thigh, and I pulled towards the meridian, laying on my horn, trying to find room in the shrinking lane. The Honda driver realized his mistake, but rather than pull back, he hit his brakes. My right handlebar clipped his mirror, the front wheel wrenched sideways, and I somersaulted over the gas tank.
I limped into my kitchen, unzipped my backpack, and pulled out the tissue-wrapped tumblers. Unwrapping them, one by one, I examined the broken shards, and then placed them into the garbage.
Miraculously, one glass survived. I placed it on the counter, and looked for something to drink. I could find only a couple of ounces of vodka, which I emptied into the glass, waiting for the last drops to get the courage to fall.
The phone rang. It was Lily. "Can I come over?" she asked.
Sure, I said.
Hope, said the glass.
Lately I've been overcome with apathy, and I'm having difficulty understanding it. It began one night a few weeks ago, when I ran away from home for no good reason.
Actually I hadn't planned to run off at all, but I heard from Wally who lives four doors down that there was a gang of people running around at night having a pretty wild time of it. He said he knew this chick Lola who he sometimes ran into at the park, and that one night she got out and hooked up with them, and they went everywhere, even down to the fences around the launch zone, and they lit a bonfire and one guy brought a bottle of gin (no kidding) and they got pissed and sang songs and told stories, and some of them fucked, and then she snuck home before dawn.
I didn't believe any of it. ``No way,'' I said.
But he swore it was true, and that Lola had told him all about it. He said she was so psyched by the whole experience that she was planning on sneaking out again sometime soon. Wally said he would find out when she was going, if he could get down to the park sometime to meet with her.
``You want me to let you know?" he asked.
``Let me know what?"
``You know, when we're gonna do it."
``Do what? Sneak out to run with the gang?"
Wally nodded eagerly. ``Yeah! What's the matter, don't you wanna go?"
I thought about it. Even if I didn't believe the stories, it still sounded like fun. ``Sure, let me know," I said non-comittally.
``Cool," said Wally. ``Say, do you think I should ask Brodie?"
``Brodie? Are you kidding?" Brodie was a maniac. He lived in the next house beyond Wally, but his keepers never let him out. He was a big, strong guy, obviously kept for security reasons, and was extremely bitter about never being taken out. His keepers didn't do much with him, so he mostly just sat around, pumped iron, read magazines, and masturbated. Whenever I passed nearby he would shout at me from inside, ``Hey Fargo, what the hell you lookin' at? Get the fuck outta my sight you goddam fruit! Don't you fucking look at me, I'll kill you! You know what I got in here? Auto-repeaters, two shotguns, and a goddam flame-fucking-thrower! A fucking flame-thrower, Fargo, you listenin'?" But his keepers never gave him fuel for the flame thrower since they were probably afraid that he would torch the whole place. But every now and then we heard loud bangs that could have been gunfire, so we never bothered Brodie if we could help it, since maybe he would get out one day, and go on a rampage.
``Brodie's not so bad," said Wally. ``You just gotta understand him. He's bitter. I think he needs to get out, you know? It might do him some good."
``How's Brodie gonna get out?" I asked. ``He's kept under lock and key. He's dangerous, that's why they keep him. There's valuable stuff in that house, and Brodie can't wait for some prick to break in so that he can blow him to pieces."
``Yeah, so? I think Brodie could use a little perspective," said Wally.
Wally and I didn't see eye to eye on Brodie, but then again Brodie didn't threaten to kill Wally every day. I didn't say anything though, since I got called for dinner just then, and had to leave. If I didn't come to dinner within five minutes, my keepers would just skip it, no matter how much I complained, or what my excuse was.
I had corn flakes that night, which was starting to get annoying, since I'd been eating corn flakes for three days straight now. Somebody wasn't doing any shopping. I looked around at everyone to see if I could tell which was the guilty party, but nobody would meet my gaze. That was hardly surprising, though, since keepers have such incredibly bad vision. I think they're spooked by human eyesight, like it's some kind of extra-sensory thing.
Oh well, never mind about the corn flakes. At least there was milk.
Afterwards the elders encouraged the youngest one to entertain me, so we played chess for a while, while they burbled about this and that. Every now and again I picked up recognizable sounds, and looked up to see if it was me that they were talking about, which sometimes amused them. But the conversation was too complex and multi-dimensional for someone born and bred to linear language systems to follow.
I returned to the game. In spite of a brilliant Queen sacrifice, I resigned in the endgame when I wasn't able to prevent a promotion that would have left me in an impossible material position. I wanted to play again, but the young keeper lost interest and went off to other things.
For the rest of the evening I read magazines and wondered what Wally was up to. He was keen on playing hockey, which was wierd because keepers are really not suited to the sport, and on the few occasions when they tried to entertain him by participating in a pick-up game, he not only soundly thrashed them but actually frightened most of them so badly that they wouldn't even let him practice on his own for the next month. They've pretty much relaxed about it since then, and now they let him practice by shooting at targets in the basement. Sometimes he would convince me to play, but I wasn't very good and once I got a black eye from an elbow. My keepers went over and scolded Wally's keepers after that, and Wally wasn't allowed to have friends over to play for a few weeks.
I sacked out in my bed in the front hall that night and had a restless night of dreams about wanton women dancing around bonfires while witty and sophisticated people drank red wine and smoked cigarettes around me.
As luck would have it, the young keeper took me out for some exercise in the morning, and we ran down to the local park. He had to yank on my harness a few times, so that I didn't accidentally run across the plasma conduit and get fried by a passing pulse. It's quite ridiculous the way you have to watch out for these things, even though Wally claims to have figured out how to predict when a pulse is coming and when it's safe to step across. He explained it once, but I couldn't follow his explanation, which was embarassing since he's usually the lug and I'm the brain. Evidently it's an art and not a science. Whatever, it means I stay harnessed on the way to the park, whereas Wally is often trusted to run free.
At least it's comforting to know that if Brodie ever gets out, he probably won't get more than a few blocks before getting toasted.
Anyway, we were just strolling down at the park, and there was Wally, sitting at the coffee shop with two hot-looking women, who were dressed rather dangerously in tight pants and low-cut tops, and wearing make-up.
``Yo Wally!" I called, waving, and my keeper yanked on the harness as if I had committed some crime. ``Come on," I begged. ``Let me go over and talk to them. Just for a few minutes, I swear." He consented, raising a digit to caution me about taking off anywhere where I might end up crossing some plasma conduits. Yeah, yeah, I muttered. As if I didn't know that it was plasma. I'm not an idiot.
``Fargo!" beamed Wally when I came up. ``This is Lola, and her friend Yoko. Sit down, you want a cappucino?"
``No, no," I declined. ``Can't stay long."
``This is Fargo," said Wally to the women. ``He's got himself a pretty good setup a few doors down from me. Good food, games every night."
``Every night?" said Lola. ``Sounds great."
``Well, not every night," I said modestly. ``And the food has sucked for the past few days. Corn flakes."
``Oh!" laughed Yoko. ``I get corn flakes all the time. I hate that!"
``I don't know what to do!" I laughed, delighted at having discovered common ground, however mundane, so quickly.
``Know what I do?" said Yoko slyly.
``What?" Everyone leaned in conspiratorially.
Yoko stuck her finger in her mouth.
``No!" gasped Lola.
Yoko gave a slightly embarrassed smile, and then shrugged. ``Works like a charm. Last time I did it, I got hamburgers the next night."
``There you go, buddy," said Wally, slapping me on the shoulder, in an uncharacteristicly chummy way. He must have been happy to have a second male present. It turned the situation from morning coffee with a couple of acquaintances into a double date of sorts.
``Okay," I said nodding, as if this was indeed a brilliant strategy that I would put into immediate practice as soon as I got home. ``So other than the food, you got an okay setup?"
``It's alright," said Yoko.
``She has her own room," said Lola.
``Yeah," said Yoko.
``With a TV," said Lola.
``Shut up, Lola, you're embarassing me."
``Hey," said Wally, seeing an opportunity. ``Your keepers allow you to have friends over?"
``Sometimes," replied Yoko. ``During the day."
Wally nodded as if everything in the world was satisfactory, and sipped from his coffee. My keeper was wagging a finger to summon me, but I pretended I didn't see it.
``And you, Lola?" I asked.
``Don't ask," she said. Yoko tilted her head sympathetically.
``What? What is it?" I wanted to know, but my keeper's finger was really shaking now.
Wally nudged me. ``You're being paged."
I groaned, and Lola giggled, not out of pity, I hoped. ``Well, I guess I have to go," I said, standing.
Wally tapped me on the knee. ``Tonight, Fargo."
``We're going out tonight."
``Remember, like I told you yesterday?"
I looked at Lola. ``Tonight?"
``It's gonna be great," said Lola. ``It's an unbelievable rush. You'll really love it."
``Are you going, too?" I asked Yoko.
``I don't know if I can get out," she replied. ``But I hope so."
``You'll come?" asked Wally. If Yoko was coming, then it would be easier to pair off if he had another guy with him.
I nodded thoughtfully. ``Okay. We'll talk later."
``Right-o," said Wally, pointing his finger at me like a gun.
So I went back to my keeper, who made a show of exasperation at my refusal to come when summoned, as if I was some kind of delinquent or something. I felt a flash of annoyance. I could kill him with my bare hands in seconds if I really had the inclination. Paradoxically, that thought calmed me enough to submit to the harness and return home.
After all the keepers left for their daily duties, whatever they were, the house was quiet, and I amused myself by playing music and studying a book on watercolour portraiture, even though I didn't have the materials to try it out myself.
A few hours later I discovered that somebody had left the toilet door sealed and I couldn't get in to take a piss. Morons! For a goddam superior intelligence they sure had their lapses. I stomped around the house for a while, trying to calculate if my bladder would last until their return. Of course that only made it all the worse, and I started plotting where I could urinate and how I could attempt to clean it up so as to minimize the inevitable ruckus when everyone returned. The least they could do was install some goddam doorknobs that a human hand could use. Wally once got in trouble when he kicked in a cabinet containing some food after his keepers had forgotten to make him dinner.
In the end my bladder endured, and when the first keeper came home, I bitched until the toilet door was unsealed.
``God damn!" I moaned as I released my stream into the toilet bowl. ``For four hours I've needed to piss. I thought I was gonna die!" The keeper chittered at my protestations, and went off in search of some food for dinner.
That night they fixed macaroni and cheese for me, so I didn't have to consider resorting to Yoko's stratagem.
Wally came by that night while I was getting my ass kicked in a game of Go with one of the elders. I heard him outside calling my name, and wondered if he had some news about what was happening tonight.
``I resign," I said.
The elder keeper burbled and pointed out a few pitifully small areas on the board where I still had a chance of capturing some territory.
``No, no," I said. ``Look you have all this area here, and I don't have any chance down here, really. Maybe here, but that's nothing. You win. Can I go out and talk to Wally?"
They let me out, with the usual cautions about running off, and Wally waved me over to a hedge. I followed him around, and then nearly crapped my pants when I saw Brodie there.
``Hey Fargo," said Brodie, with a mischievous smile. I'd never been this close to him before, and noticed that he was missing a tooth.
``Brodie," I said. ``You got out?"
``Fucking right," said Brodie. ``Used a goddam art statue to smash the door open. Should have thought of that years ago."
I swallowed. Brodie would be lucky to have a job when he got back. If he got back.
``Come on," said Wally. ``We're meeting Lola and Yoko down at the park. Follow me."
``Wait," I said, looking back at my door. ``How long will we be gone?"
``Who knows?" replied Wally.
``I don't know if I can go," I said.
``Of course you can't fucking go!" snapped Brodie. ``That's the whole point, you goddam panty-waist. Am I gonna hafta drag you?"
So Brodie and I followed Wally, especially at the plasma conduit crossings, which Brodie loudly cursed. Wally told us both to shut up, even though I wasn't saying anything. There were some keepers still out at this hour, and their ears turned this way and that when they heard us go past, but since we weren't their responsibility we made it to the park unmolested.
Lola and Yoko were both there, and Brodie whistled to himself as we approached. ``Wally, my man. I never took you for such a stud." He immediately set to work charming the women with his ample musculature and impressive command of scatalogical and expletive terminology.
``Wally," I said nudging him. ``Did you have to bring Brodie?"
Wally shrugged. ``I didn't know if you were coming or not. Relax, he'll be okay."
I discreetly waved my hand at the group. Three guys, two girls. Think, Wally, think!
``It's okay," said Wally, understanding my concern. ``It'll be okay."
``It's this way," said Lola waving us along. ``They're all gonna meet down by the main plasma trunk."
This was sounding more and more dangerous all the time. Already my keepers probably knew that I had taken off, and there were probably getting panicky about me getting fried or something.
``Hey Fargo," said Brodie, as we followed Lola down an alleyway.
``Mm?" I looked at him, puzzled by his air of comeraderie.
``Check this out." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a rather large handgun with a peculiar looking sight mounted along the top of the barrel. ``Nine millimetre with laser sight. Clip holds thirteen rounds."
``Whoa," I said.
``Gonna have a fucking party tonight, eh?"
``Hey Yoko," called Brodie, slipping the gun back into his jacket.
``You got a nice ass."
A glance passed between Yoko and Lola, secret messages hidden in the cants of their heads and the angles of their eyes.
``It's gonna be fun tonight, eh Fargo?" said Brodie, nudging me with his elbow.
``Let's hope so."
``Don't fucking hope! Do!" Brodie bared his teeth and looked at me, real crazed-like. ``Eh, Wally? Lola? No hope!"
``Party on, Brodie!" cheered Lola, and Brodie laughed.
Lola led us through a torn fence, and down across a few more plasma conduits. She evidently understood them at least as well as Wally, and her knowledge of the streets was impressive. We followed the edge of a service trench for a few hundred yards, crossed it on an old board, and then dropped over a wall into a broad paved area.
``Through here," whispered Lola, leading us through a service gate and onto a service walkway that parallelled the main plasma trunk for this part of the city. ``The junction is a few hundred metres down. That's where everyone is."
We followed her along, our journey lit by awesome blue and orange strobes from the conduit. It made the skin tingle, and the hairs stand on end, and I heard Yoko gasp after one particularly energetic pulse flew past.
When we arrived, someone called out to us from a vacant area overlooking the trunk junction. We climbed up a retention wall and found ourselves in a small field of grasses that filled one of the quadrants formed by the four-way junction. A fire had been lit, and the faces of people could be seen in the glow, gathered for warmth and companionship. Somebody had brought a guitar, and idle chords were being strummed as Lola made some introductions and we found places to sit.
I found myself beside a couple, Tino and Dionne, whose arms were wrapped around each other. Turns out they had been trying to get out to these ``getaways" every week or so. They had met at a previous one, and by the looks of it were madly in love. Dionne didn't find it difficult to sneak out, but Tino's keepers were extremely strict and didn't encourage socialization. He would get severely punished when he returned, and as of last week had run away for good.
``So now you do this every night?" I asked.
``Yup," said Tino. ``Where else can I go?"
I didn't know. ``What do you do for food?"
``Oh you know, there's places you can find stuff. Stuff that's been thrown out. Sometimes you can steal. Dionne brings me stuff every now and then."
Dionne smiled. ``Cookies," she said. Then, to me, ``Want one?"
``They're good," said Tino, so I had one, and it was delicious.
We discussed history, and whether keepers civilized humans, liberating us from our animal pasts as they claimed, or whether they conquered us and our civilizations generations ago, as some radical humans sometimes postulated in private conversations. Tino fell firmly in the conquest camp, which was hardly surprising. Dionne didn't contradict him, but I could tell that she was not convinced. Myself, I suggested that maybe both stories were true, and that keepers simply didn't recognize human civilization as being that civilized. Everybody knew we could be a dangerous species, after all. That's why keepers used us to fight wars, guard their homes, and give them a sense of security.
``Keeper propaganda,'' dismissed Tino. ``One day we'll figure it out. Then everything will change.'' Maybe he was right. Who knows?
Someone began to play the guitar, and some people sang. A couple of bottles began to get passed around, whiskey and a large jug of cheap white wine. No matter, it all went down. My head grew light, and I laughed, looking at the sky, and the light on people's faces when the plasma bolts flew past. The rich sights of humanity were all around me, and more people came, and danced, and I could smell the smoke from tobacco and hashish in the air. Tino and Dionne excused themselves and went off to find a private piece of grass on the periphery, and I moved in towards the fire.
Brodie was there dancing like a god damned tornado, kicking up sparks whenever his boots stepped into the fire. He had Lola gripped about the waist, and she was smiling and red-cheeked in the face of his tempest. She saw me and disengaged, and Brodie just kept on going, grabbing at another woman, and then a man to accompany him into the blissful oblivion that he was seeking.
Lola flopped herself down beside me, and brushed at her hair. ``Brodie's an animal," she gasped.
I nodded, since nothing more could be added to this assessment. ``Where's Wally?" I asked instead.
``He and Yoko were together for a while," she said, not bothering to look around. ``Maybe they went off."
``Yeah," I agreed, and looked into the fire.
``You having a good time?" asked Lola, touching my arm.
I looked at her. ``Is this what it means to be human?" I asked. ``Because that's what I'm thinking. Somehow, this just seems like what we're supposed to do, you know?"
Lola smiled. ``Wally said that sometimes you're a philosopher."
``Wally can go to hell," I drunkenly proclaimed. ``It's a good question, and it deserves an answer."
Lola nodded. ``It deserves an answer."
``Then answer it."
``I don't know," she said, looking into the fire. ``I really don't know."
``What makes you come here?" I asked.
``Warmth and love," she said. ``Something here speaks to me. The fire, the music, I'm not sure. There's strength and maybe ... I don't know."
``Strength and what?"
``Purpose," I repeated.
``It's wierd, because we're not really doing anything. But it's a purpose, because otherwise I don't know what my purpose is, except to try and avoid getting beaten with a stun stick."
The fire roared, and the guitar chords resonated down our spines. ``Purpose," I said again. ``That's good. I like that."
``Fargo," said Lola.
``Do you want to go off into the grass somewhere?"
``Yeah, I do."
We walked off and found a quiet patch of grass overlooking the plasma trunk. The hair on our arms stood up as a crackling green pulse whizzed past. The silhouettes of the others could be seen against a backdrop of sparks and licks of fire. We lay down and amused ourselves with figuring out how to remove enough clothes to continue without catching a chill this far from the fire.
``Like dogs," she said, getting onto her knees. ``We have to fuck like dogs."
So we did, and I slipped my cold hands up inside her shirt to touch her small, warm breasts, as I thrust into her at what I hoped was a lazy enough pace to preserve my honour. After a time, I ejaculated onto the grass, and we zipped ourselves up, and held each other silently until the patrol craft found us.
It came in low enough that nobody saw it until the spot lamps fired up and caught the whole party in their blue-white glare. People started shouting, and breaking for cover, dropping back down to the service walkway, or running off through the grass to find some other escape. There were calls for lost ones, and shouts of anger.
``Come on," said Lola. ``Let's get out of here." We stood and looked for a way back down to the service walkway.
I spotted Brodie, standing in front of the fire. ``Come on, mother-fuckers!" he was screaming. ``You want a piece of this? Come on you fucking rat-faced pencil-necks! Come closer!" He reached into his jacket, and pulled out the pistol that he had showed me earlier. ``See this? Nine-fucking millimetre, you two-toed troglodytes! One bullet is enough to wipe out your entire goddam species!" He started shooting at the patrol craft, and it pulled upwards in response with a heavy whine. People screamed, and Lola pulled me away from it just before the craft began to spit return fire.
We dropped down to the service walkway along the plasma trunk, and started to run. Ahead we could see other forms, also running. Where were Wally and Yoko? I wanted to stop and look for them in spite of the chaos, but I was in Lola's hands now. She knew the streets better than I, and if I had any chance of getting back alive it was by sticking close to her. If she said run, then I ran.
We ran and ran and ran, until we got netted and stunned at the service gate by waiting impoundment officers.
I woke in a small cement cell, to the sounds of human misery. Crying, angry challenges, people kicking at the bars in futility. My head was messed up so bad it took me fifteen minutes before I could stand up on two feet.
``Lola!" I called at the bars, trying to see the others who had been locked up. ``Lola!" But if she was there, she wasn't answering.
I was only impounded for about eight hours. My tags were in good shape, and my keepers were notifed immediately. There were token fines to pay, of course, but nothing too serious. It was only human nature, after all, and if keepers weren't as stringent as they were in keeping a lid on it, then things like this would be a more serious and common problem than they actually were. Fortunately, only one person had been cooked when she unwisely crossed the plasma trunk, but it hadn't caused any service disruptions.
I was taken home, scolded roundly, and had almost all my priveleges revoked for the next few weeks. I sulked for a while and refused to play any games, but then one day they made me lasagna with garlic bread for dinner, and all was forgiven.
But not quite forgotten. I was forbidden to go out on my own for some time, even to see Wally, but he came by and was allowed in to visit. We played darts and drank cola, while he described his escape across the field and under a chainlink fence into an industrial service yard. Several others, including Yoko, got out the same way.
``Brodie?" I asked.
Wally shrugged. ``I haven't heard anything from next door since that night. I guess he never came back."
I gathered Wally hadn't seen Brodie start his little war. Still, who could say? Maybe he got away with it, and just never came back.
``Have you seen Lola?" I asked, finally.
He shook his head. ``Nope. I go down to the park every day, but I never see her anymore. Not since then."
He left an hour later, and I waved him off with a promise to meet again tomorrow. Going back inside, I paced around for a while, thinking. Normally I would take up a book or a difficult puzzle and amuse myself by studying it to the point of exhaustion, but not today. I looked around at my books and games with vague distaste, and then sat down, trying to diagnose the strange ennui that had suddenly gripped me.
For the first time in my life, I didn't know what I wanted to do.
The bug attacked while they were cruising down the alleys behind the auto wreckers in the warehouse district. It was a big one, maybe thirty kilos, and it was fast. It came charging out of the dumpster where it was foraging and went straight for the rear tires.
Perez floored it, and they felt as much as heard the impact when the bug pounced, too late, and hit the rear fender. But it must have got its claws around the corner of the wheel well or something, because Perez didn't see it in the rear-view mirror as he sped off. There was a bad grinding sound coming from the rear of the car.
"Shit," he said. "We're dragging it."
Jones reached behind the seat and pulled the electric cattle prod out of the equipment bag. She quickly checked to make sure the capacitors were charged, and then nodded to Perez.
"Whenever you're ready," she said.
Perez slammed the brakes on hard, and spun the truck sideways to disorient the bug. Jones was out the door before the pick-up had even stopped moving, and Perez heard the snaps of the discharging cattle prod as he climbed out, his taser gun drawn. Jones was good, though, and she had the thing immobilized before it could get to the gas tank or engine bay. Together they dragged it out into the light, being careful to avoid its twitching mandibles and #8-bit proboscis.
"Jesus, that's a mother," said Perez, counting eight articulated legs.
"It's beautiful," agreed Jones, wrapping bungees around the legs to hold them out of the way while she peeked under the armor plates for the proper nerve lines to cut. "Looks like it matches the bounty spec. Get my bag, will you?"
Perez grabbed her canvas backpack from the cab, and handed it to her. As she began searching through it, the bug gave a mighty twitch and flipped over onto its feet. Jones jumped back as its mandibles slashed wildly at its bindings. It went hopping and skipping down the alley, dragging the bungees and trying its damnedest to make a getaway. Perez scooped up the cattle prod and chased it down.
He dragged it back to her by the legs, cattle prod over his shoulders, looking for all the world like a caveman returning from the hunt. "Did it hurt you?"
"Nah," she said as she flipped on her logic analyzer and attached the ground clip to the bug's exoskeleton. Within the minute she had found the primary nerve corridor, and cut it with wire clippers. The bug's legs went slack.
Jones started unbolting dermal plates and removing legs. "God, this is great, look at this," she said, pointing to a dense collection of circuit boards tucked in behind the bug's fuel tank.
Perez shrugged. "Bug guts," he said.
"Separate neural nets for each leg, that's pretty innovative, don't you think? I've never seen that before. Looks like they were adapted from voice-recognition systems stolen out of cars. This is really great. It's probably a new species. What do you think?"
Perez spat on the base of a telephone pole, unable to share her enthusiasm. "Bug-us Jones-us," he said in his best imitation of Latin. "Can't wait to find its nest and kill its whole fucking family." He grinned at Jones' expression of disgust.
"It's people like you, Perez, that wiped out three quarters of the species on this planet," she said.
"Hey, it's my job. I'm an exterminator. Boss says kill the bugs, I kill the fuckin' bugs. It's your job too, don't forget."
"My job is to control bug migration and development so as to minimize interference with human activities."
Perez rolled his eyes. "Is that so, Dr.~Death?" He teased her with that moniker whenever she refused to admit her talent for killing. Fact was, none of the crew knew the chinks in bug armor like Jones.
"Shut up and help me lift this baby into the truck." They hoisted the partially dismembered bug into the truck bed, and tossed a few of its detached components after it.
"You know what the trouble with you academics is," began Perez.
"I don't want to hear about it."
"You think that any kind of extinction is bad, and that all kinds of conservation are good. Extinction is good, see? You think the extinction of the dinosaurs was bad? If it weren't for that, we wouldn't be here. Without extinction there can be no progress. That's how life works."
The corner of Jones' mouth twisted. "That's a killer, you telling me how life works. Spare me your rationalizations, Perez. Unless your idea of progress is ending up the only thing left alive on the planet, choking in your own shit, don't second guess nature and exterminate anything that's mildly inconvenient, okay?"
Perez raised his eyebrows and spat again. "Cool," he agreed. "Are we going to find that nest or not?"
Jones looked around. "Yeah, I guess." They both climbed back in the truck. Perez turned it around, and they began cruising back toward the dumpster that the bug had pounced from.
"Careful," said Jones. "The spec said these new ones attack in packs."
"Right on!" snorted Perez. "That I'd like to see. Who was the poor bastard who reported that?"
"City garbage crew. Five bugs attacked their truck and chased them off. By the time they got help, the truck was mostly stripped."
"That's hilarious! Did they track 'em down?"
"Nope. Never found them. They made off with a lot of high-power hydraulics and fuel."
Perez revved the engine as they got close to the dumpster, trying to coax any other bugs out. None came, so he parked the truck and they both got out, packs over their shoulders. Perez holstered his taser gun, and slung a goo gun with a two-liter magazine over his shoulder. Jones looked inside the garbage bin, and seeing nothing, climbed in.
"Goddam scientist," grunted Perez. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Jones didn't answer, so he looked inside to see her rooting through soggy cardboard boxes and packing foam. She squealed with delight suddenly, as a little four-legged bug scrambled out of the light when she moved a box aside. Diving after it, she fought with garbage for a few seconds before emerging triumphantly with the little bug in her hands.
"Isn't it cute?" she grinned, a strip of packing tape stuck to her hair. "Ow! Stop that!" The bug was pinching her fingers, trying to free itself. It was constructed mostly from old tape deck motors and plastic mounting brackets. "Tetrapod. Looks like a derivative of the Frisco Garbage Gremlin. Hold it for a sec. I want to take some pictures."
Perez juggled the bug while Jones fished out her cam and took ten seconds worth of footage. Then he tossed it back into the trash bin, where it quickly climbed inside a paper bag. "I don't know why you like those goddam things so much," he said, wiping his hands on his pant legs.
Jones climbed out. "Some people like cats. Some like fish. I like bugs. Besides, I'll never finish my dissertation if I don't collect field data. Artificial life, Perez! Don't you think it's kind of magical?"
"They're a bunch of greasy parasites and thieves. They shoulda jailed that Jap who set them loose when his grant was cut." Perez looked around as if trying to spot something worth shooting.
"Konaka was a genius," retorted Jones, inspecting the bug footprints in the dust and decomposed newspapers at the foot of the garbage bin. "Where do you think our space program would be right now, if it weren't for his research into Von Neumann machines?"
"Yeah, yeah, tell that to the folks in Tokyo. I saw on TV the other day that a whole family was killed by a hunter pack that broke into their house. They ate the TV and stereo, and stole a kilowatt-hour of power." Perez was strolling idly down the alley, following a meandering set of wheel tracks.
Jones didn't answer. She had seen that story, too, and it had disturbed her in the way she imagined it would be like to discover that your fourth-grade teacher was a child molester. She had often entertained the notion that the bugs would eventually evolve towards intelligence, mutating through successive generations by replicating themselves with improper replacement parts. It would be a wonderful world, she had imagined, coexisting with these benevolent machines. We would be like gods to them, but we would be kind gods. They could work for us, but they would be free.
The Tokyo slayings had raised the possibility of violent strife, even wars between humans and bugs. The police had hunted down and destroyed the murderous machines within hours. A mass extermination program had been launched. If bugs ever did evolve intelligence, it wasn't going to be in Tokyo. Watching the news clips over and over, Jones had come to the belated realization that there were no free servants, and certainly no kind gods.
Perez whistled from down the alleyway. "Yoo hoo, Jonesie," he cooed in his worst falsetto. "Bug highway!" He was pointing at a peeled back section of chain-link fence that led into an auto-wrecking yard. The weeds and litter at the base of the fence were all trampled from the traffic that passed through the hole. The wrecking yard beyond the fence was prime territory for a bug nest. The only trouble was that the main gate, farther up the alley, seemed to be chained and locked shut.
Perez was pulling the broken chainlink back as Jones came up. They could easily squeeze through, but they would have to leave the truck in the alley. And of course there was the matter of getting permission from the yard owner to go hunting on his premises.
Perez slipped through the fence and started to follow bug tracks beyond a doorless Korean hatchback. "Where you going?" asked Jones. "We gotta call in first."
"Yeah, yeah," mumbled Perez. "This is reconnaisance. I'm not killing anything."
"You're still trespassing."
"Fucking tight-ass. Do you want to get the bugs, or do you want to fuck with red tape all day?"
"I don't want to lose my commission because you dicked with the procedure," said Jones. It had happened before, and Perez hesitated, considering this powerful piece of logic.
Suddenly the blare of horns and sirens filled the alley behind Jones. She jumped out to see the beacons and headlights of the company truck flashing wildly, as its security system tripped. The truck was rocking like it was full of manic children, and the alarm was shouting "Stand back from the truck! Stand back from the truck! Occupants will be stunned in fifteen seconds!" Jones caught glimpses of mechanical legs and other appendages flicking in and out of the engine bay and wheel wells.
Perez was quickly beside her. "How many?"
Jones shrugged. The security system boomed, "Stand back! Occupants will be stunned in ten seconds!" She and Perez stood passively, waiting for the system to send its thirty thousand volt spike through the chassis and bodywork. That was usually sufficient to fry any bugs that were trying to disassemble the vehicle. Worked well on people, too.
"Five seconds!" bellowed the security system. "Four. Three. Two." And then the truck shut up. The lights shut off, safety beacons stopped flashing, and the security system went silent. But the vehicle continued to pitch and rock.
"Christ," groaned Jones. "They cut all the power."
"Lucky bastards. Let's go!" said Perez. They were responsible for half of all damage to their truck, levied against future commissions. Fortunately the company trucks were all fortified against bugs, but that didn't mean they were invincible. It just meant the bugs took a little longer to finish their business.
Jones ran after Perez. "I left the cattle prod in the truck!"
Perez tossed her his taser gun. She juggled it to avoid the electrodes, not sure whether he had left the safety on. A check of the magazine revealed three remaining shots.
"You got cab and cargo bed," commanded Perez. "I got engine and gas tank!" He ran right up to a wheel well that had a bunch of legs protruding from it, and whacked off a couple rounds of the goo gun.
Jones looked through the open driver's side window and noticed a big octopod disassembling the dash. It had already completely removed the truck radio, and was working on the air conditioning system. Jones leveled the taser gun and pulled the trigger from a range of half a meter. The round popped audibly when it discharged, snapping the bug's legs straight and launching it into the windshield. The safety glass shattered into a million fragments, and the bug tumbled upside-down onto the seat, legs twitching spasmodically. Jones threw open the door, and dragged the bug out onto pavement. It was still fighting, but couldn't muster any coordination of its limbs. The shock of the taser shot must have cleared its memory or blown its feedback sensors.
She left the bug squirming on the ground and hopped up on the rear bumper. There were two bugs in the cargo bed, having a field day with the toolboxes and testing equipment. The carcass of the bug from the dumpster was also a subject of intense interest. Jones aimed and fired at the closest bug, catching it right on the carapace, just behind its monocular eye. The bug twitched, and then sprinted for safety, running right into a steel tool chest. It about-faced, and charged right into the tailgate. She had only managed to fry its visual circuits, and had to use her last taser shot to put it down.
The second bug didn't ignore this turn of events. It turned on her and raised its forelimbs, like a crab preparing to fight. It was similar to the bug from the dumpster, close to thirty kilos, and Jones wasn't willing to take it on without any more ammunition. She hopped off the bumper and backed down the alley. The bug scampered to the edge of the cargo bed to watch her retreat. Jones took a few more steps back, keeping her eye on the bug. With an unknown species like this, you couldn't be too sure of its pattern recognition algorithms. Bugs occasionally mistook humans for machines and tried to disassemble them.
The bug kept its attention on her, though. It hopped down from the truck and scuttled in her direction to get a better look at her. Jones froze and started to sing softly. This was usually enough to convince bugs that the subject of their attention was not of mechanical interest, and sure enough the bug stopped, reevaluating.
Jones could hear Perez cursing and kicking something around the other side of the truck, then the liquid whunk of the discharging goo gun. The bug in front of her remained fixed and staring at her from a few meters away. It was evidently having some difficulty deciding if she was worth the effort of disassembling. Either it was incredibly stupid and lacked the usual selection criteria for spotting machines, or else it was unusually intelligent, and the usual criteria were insufficient. Whichever, it wanted more data.
"Piss off!" said Jones, stamping her foot.
The bug perked up, and advanced a few steps. Jones swore softly. Evidently, she hadn't done the right thing. She relaxed and began to retreat again. The bug accelerated and resumed its pursuit.
"Perez!" screamed Jones. "I've got a tail!" She dodged the bug and ran back towards the truck, the bug trotting close behind. Perez whacked it as they passed by, and the bug tripped up, trapped in the goo gun's congealed ammunition. With the barrel of the gun, he flipped the bug over on its back and then methodically broke each of its legs with the heel of his engineer's boots.
Jones walked back toward him. "Take it easy. It isn't going anywhere."
"Piss me off," said Perez. "Peckers cut the brake lines, the ignition system, everything! They're getting so fast, we're not going to be able to stop them, soon."
"How many did you get?" asked Jones, looking under the engine.
"Jesus, at least five, I don't know," spat Perez. He shook his goo gun. "Just about drained it. Can't be more than a couple shots left."
"Don't worry about it. Your five plus my three, that more than covers the damage to the truck."
Perez sighed, nodding. "Yeah, I guess you're right. We're still gonna need a tow. I'll call in."
"Don't bother. The radio's trashed."
Perez rolled his eyes. "Coffee break, then." He tossed the goo gun into the cab, and pulled out his lunchbox.
Jones breathed deep, surveying the carnage. Eight bugs. That was rare for a single incident; bugs generally had little in the way of cooperative or social instincts. Nevertheless, coordinated attacks were becoming more common, as the Tokyo incident had shown. The most remarkable example of pack coordination was a recent riot in Mexico City. It involved an estimated one thousand bugs who laid waste to an industrial park during a three-day rampage that caused almost two hundred million dollars in damage. Academic circles were abuzz with all sorts of scientific speculation about cooperation and communication in this and other, similar, bug incidents. The subject was of intense interest to Jones. Her thesis was entitled "Communication via RF Interference in Von Neumann Insectoids".
She popped the hood, and looked around the engine compartment. Congealed goo covered everything, with the occasional trapped bug twitching stubbornly in its sticky grasp. "Jeez, Perez, you look like you were trying to ice a cake or something."
"I was cooking, that's for sure," said Perez, stuffing a muffin into his face. "Speaking of which, we can't go back for the nest until I get more ammo."
"It's a good thing you used the goo gun," decided Jones, still watching the writhing bugs.
Perez raised his eyebrows. "Let me guess: because it's non-fatal? Jones, you crack me up." Jones just shook her head; it was pointless even debating the topic with him.
They both looked up as another company truck turned into the alley, its safety beacons flashing. Head office would have been signalled when the security system tripped, and it was company policy to dispatch extra agents to lend assistance.
Perez swore under his breath. "Is that who I think it is?"
Jones nodded, "Malkovich and whatsisface."
"Bunch of cowboys." They both looked away down the alley, feigning disinterest.
"I shoulda known it was Bonnie and Clyde!" called Malkovich from the truck as he pulled up. His partner, Chan, giggled maniacally from the passenger seat. They jumped out, bristling with weaponry, and swaggered over with the relaxed gait of the self-important.
Malkovich let out a whoop of laughter when he looked at the engine. "Perez, you been jerking off again?"
Chan cackled, slapping his thigh. "That's it, Malkie! I bet Jones was giving one of her lessons in Bug Love!" The two of them exchanged ritual punches in the arm.
"Yeah," said Malkovich. "You two are redefining the meaning of buggery." Chan snorted with laughter, despite the fact that it had to be the oldest joke around.
"Shut up, you morons," growled Perez, closing his lunchbox and throwing it back inside the truck. "I need to borrow a magazine of goo."
"And two clips of taser shot," added Jones.
Malkovich pursed his lips and rocked back on his heels. Chan nodded enthusiastically, looking back and forth between Perez and Jones. "What's up?" said Chan.
"Nothing's up," said Perez. "One bug got away, and we gotta hunt it down."
"Yeah right, one bug," said Malkovich softly. "Two litres of goo and a dozen tasers for one bug. That's some serious bug, eh? Must be one mother-fucker bad-ass bug, huh, Chan?"
"Worst bug I ever heard of," admitted Chan.
Malkovich nodded. "Well, if the bug is that bad, me and Chan will have to help you get it."
"We don't need your help," said Jones.
"I'll bet you don't," hissed Malkovich.
"You found a nest," said Chan. "Where is it?"
Perez snorted and looked away. Jones shook her head, "Do you think we'd tell you?"
"We're coming with you," said Malkovich.
Perez's face contorted as he wound up to eject some expletive. Jones put out her hand to stop him. "You can't," she said.
"Bullshit," said Malkovich. "You guys can't keep a commission like that to yourselves."
"Doesn't matter," replied Jones. "I was just telling Perez here that these bugs are all of tremendous biological interest. I was going to declare them all lab specimens, but didn't get around to filling out the forms, yet. Perez and I need to find that nest pronto, so you guys are going to have to tag and bag them all for us. Section 3-17, Scientific Priority."
"Don't shit us, Jones," growled Malkovich. "These bugs aren't no lab specimens."
"Check out those big octopods," said Jones. "New species."
"So what?" complained Chan. "They look pretty dead. No 3-17 priorities on dead bugs, sorry."
"That's right," said Malkovich.
"The ones in the engine bay, too," said Jones.
Malkovich glanced at the bugs still wriggling in the engine bay. "You can't be serious. That's just a Jumping Mucksucker and a few Portland Gutter Scooters. Stupidest bugs on the face of the Earth."
"That's what you think," said Jones, "For your information, those Scooters were exhibiting signs of an evolved locomotion algorithm that is really amazing. And that mucksucker, I coulda sworn it was talking Morse."
"My ass," said Malkovich. "You pull this, Jones, you'll get no favors from me."
Jones shrugged. "My loss, I guess." She grabbed the cattle prod and nodded to Perez. "Got your ammo?"
Perez smiled, and put his hand out to the other two. Chan reluctantly unhooked a bottle of goo from his belt and handed it over. "And two taser clips," said Perez, wiggling his fingers. "Thanks," he said when Chan coughed up these as well. "And don't wait up for us."
He and Jones turned and trotted down the alley, trying to suppress laughter. "Not bad, Jonesie, you're not bad," smirked Perez. "3-17, that's a good one."
"Fifteen minutes!" called Malkovich from the trucks. "Then we're coming after you!"
Jones waved at them, just before disappearing through the chain link fence. They didn't need permission now that their truck had been disabled. It was justifiable under one or another of the protection of property clauses in the bug laws.
They ran between rows of rusted cars, following the bug trails like frantic bloodhounds. If Malkovich said he was following in fifteen, he could be expected in ten. They would have to be fast to avoid splitting the commission from the nest.
"Check there," said Perez, pointing down a dead-end row of minivans. Jones searched it to no avail, as Perez did the same down another row. Jones came back, dragging the cattle prod across rows of sun-bleached doors and fenders. The noise flushed a six-legged bug out of the weeds, and it tore down the road, making its best getaway from what it assumed were predator bugs.
"Perez!" called Jones, sprinting after it. She stopped at a Thunderbird sans doors, as Perez ran up behind her.
Perez looked under the car. "What is it?"
"I don't know, looked like a Banzai Express, about five kilos." She swung the cattle prod under the car, as Perez kicked the frame noisily. The skittish bug broke out, making another dash for safety. Perez charged after it, banging like crazy on any cars the bug tried to hide in, to keep it moving. Jones stumbled along behind him, watching at each stop to see which way the bug was going to run. Suddenly the bug charged across an open gravel space, and straight down an open storm drain.
Jones and Perez ran up and listened. The scrabbling of the bug's metallic legs as it scampered through the sewer echoed out of the dark hole, audible over their panting. The storm drain grate lay beside the open hole, where it had been pushed aside some time ago.
"Bingo," said Perez. "Who goes in first?" He looked at Jones cheerfully, but she didn't seem keen. "I guess it's me." He removed his pack and pulled out a head lamp, which he strapped over his forehead. "God, I love this part!" He winked and lowered himself into the sewer.
Jones followed, pulling both packs in behind her. The sewer was cramped, and they were forced to crawl. Their pant legs and gloves were quickly soaked by the trickle of water running along beneath them.
Quickly enveloped by darkness, Jones considered stopping to pull her own flashlight out of her pack, but the sewer pipe was too small to turn around and look through the pack or pull it up from behind. She lurched forward and bumped her face on Perez's wet thigh. Her heart jumped.
"What's the matter? Why are you stopped?" she whispered.
"Take it easy," grunted Perez. "I'm just adjusting my headlamp."
"Are you going the right way?" Jones asked.
"Yup," said Perez, too sure of himself. He always took on these underground jobs a little too keenly. Made him think he was some kind of medieval spelunker.
Jones wrinkled her nose at the mosaic of pungent odors, and looked at Perez's butt, filling the sewer pipe just in front of her. "How do you know?"
"Follow the water flow. It'll take you to the main sewer lines. That's where the nest will be."
Jones looked down to see that they were in fact following the trickling water. She shut up and crawled along behind Perez, dragging the packs behind her. She hoped they wouldn't come to a dead end and have to back up all the way to the storm drain. She briefly fantasized crawling backward and having the packs get jammed in the sewer behind them so that both directions got blocked, and they'd have to lie there for days or until swarms of psychotic bugs found them and disassembled them, feet first. She closed her eyes and continued her dogged crawl.
"Ah ha," said Perez, "Here we are." He crawled out into a black space and stood up. They had reached one of the main city sewers, and it was more than big enough to let them stand up fully. Jones rubbed her neck and breathed deep.
"Now which way?"
Perez looked each way, inspected the water they were standing in, and shrugged. "Keep following the water, I guess." They set off, footsteps splashing in the shallows.
Perez stopped, pumping his goo gun and aiming it down the sewer.
"What is it?" asked Jones, drawing the taser gun. She looked around him, and saw the shape of a bug glinting in Perez's headlamp beam. It wasn't moving. "It's dead," she said, moving around him to inspect it. It was stripped of electronics and motors, leaving only a bare metal frame to rust in the city's runoff. Maybe it had run out of fuel and was scavenged. Maybe it was caught by predators. She took a few more steps and spotted a detached leg a few meters farther along, and a plastic armor plate a short distance past that. These were probably dropped by the scavengers/predators as they hauled the booty off to their nest. She waved Perez forward. They were on the right track.
Emboldened, they picked up their pace, trotting down the sewer, now certain that they were close. Perez was eager, rushing forward, panning his headlamp back and forth across the tunnel. Smaller pipes joined the main line at periodic intervals, along with the occasional access shaft, which Perez slowed only briefly to scan, goo gun raised. The splashing of their feet and the echoes of their breathing filled their ears, and too late, they realized they were surrounded by bugs.
"Shit!" bellowed Perez, firing two rounds of goo in random directions. Jones covered her head, and fired at the first moving thing she saw: her own shadow in the light of Perez's whirling headlamp beam. The taser skipped off the wall, discharging against the moist masonry with a blue flash that illuminated bugs everywhere. On the walls, floor, ceiling. Several ran toward them, and slipped by on the walls, scooting back up the sewer from where Jones and Perez had just come. Perez whirled to chase them, goo gun at his shoulder, and ran off with a battle cry.
"Perez! Don't leave me!" shouted Jones, too late. He was gone, and she was left in darkness. She fumbled in her pack for her flashlight, trying to ignore the clicking, clacking noises around her in the gloom, and the echoes of Perez's splashes and cursing filtering down the sewer. She spotted the red glow of a light-emitting diode, and fired at it. There was an electrical crack, a scrambling noise, and the light went out. Two small incandescent light beams appeared, and swept toward her. She fired at one, and the light popped and went out. The other light blinked out before she could get a bead on it.
She took a careful step backward in the dark, and felt her leg brush against something. She screamed, trounced it with the heel of her boot, and whacked it with the cattle prod several times to be sure. They were everywhere.
"Perez! Get back here, you prick!"
Perez's voice came back down the sewer. "You okay?"
"I'm surrounded, I got no light!"
"I got several cornered up here," he called back.
"Jesus, Perez, that's the oldest trick in the book. They lured you away from the nest! Get the hell back here!" She kicked at the water around her feet, and swung the cattle prod around her to fend off imagined attackers. The area seemed to be clear for the moment, so she dug deep into her pack, pulling out pliers, analyzers, bungees, and finally her flashlight. She flipped it on, and pointed it around her, accusingly.
A few adult bugs scampered back when the flashlight beam swept past them, not sure about the predator in their midst. Two twitching bug corpses lay in the water, the victims of her shots in the dark. Junk lay everywhere, struts, brackets, bolts, wheels, all scattered about like bones in a wolf den. Rickety scaffolding had been erected along the walls, to keep the nest above the water that regularly coursed along the floor. Shelves and cubbyholes in the scaffolding contained partial motors and incomplete bugs, missing legs, electronics, or armor. These were the bug young, in mid-assembly, just waiting for the adults to find the appropriate components to complete them and give them their independence. An electric conduit, spaced with light bulbs for maintainance workers, was strung along the ceiling, and the bugs had tapped into this power source at numerous points to feed their hungry families.
Jones looked at one nearby adult, perched on a shelf in front of an incomplete bug with no legs. It was big, like the bug from the dumpster. She pointed her cattle prod at the adult, and took a step forward. The bug raised its forelegs in defense, but took a few steps backward. It was afraid, but it was also willing to die to protect its young. Jones hesitated.
She lifted her taser gun and pointed it at another bug that was dancing nervously on the ground behind her. The bug skittered back underneath a shelf. Intrigued, Jones aimed the gun at another bug, and it, too, tried to hide. These bugs had some amazing pattern recognitition algorithms, to recognize a danger in her mere gestures. They knew she was here to kill, they knew she was capable of it, and they even knew how she was going to go about it.
"Jonesie, what are you doing?" came Perez's voice from behind her.
She looked over her shoulder, to the see the light of his headlamp a short distance up the sewer.
"I don't know," she said. "I've got a very strange feeling about this. They seem to understand why we're here."
"They're machines, Jones. Don't empathize. Just do your job."
Jones shook her head. "No, no, they're intelligent. Look." She re-aimed her gun at another bug, and it tried to duck behind a box. "Lots of bugs hide from predators, but these ones aren't afraid unless I take aim at them. How do they know that's when they're in immediate danger? They're a new species. They've never been exposed to exterminators. They haven't had a chance to develop an evolutionary response to us." She shook her head and looked back at Perez. "They must be figuring it out for themselves."
Perez walked up beside her, his goo gun at his shoulder, and swept the barrel around the nest. Everywhere he aimed, the bugs scrambled and hid. After a few seconds, the bugs began to peek out and creep forward again.
"Huh," grunted Perez skeptically. "I don't know." But he didn't fire.
A short distance down the sewer, a bug crept slowly out from a shelf, and climbed down a truss to the ground. In its forelimbs it carried a small electric motor, from a blender or power drill or something. This item would undoubtedly have formed the core of some bug's locomotion system.
Perez swung the barrel of the goo gun toward the bug, and it dropped the motor and hid under the nearest shelf.
Jones hit him in the arm. "Stop it! Put the gun down." Perez looked at her like she had just popped a brain artery, but he lowered the barrel anyway. After about ten heartbeats, the bug inched its way out, and examined the two exterminators with its monocular eye. Then it slowly went over to the dropped motor, picked it up, and resumed a cautious advance toward them.
Perez shifted his weight. Jones kept her hand on his arm to quell his urge to shoot. The bug slowly moved forward, every movement of its eight legs slow and deliberate, so as not to provoke alarm. Other bugs watched the whole episode from their positions on the shelves, their eyes panning back and forth with barely audible whirrs.
The bug stopped about two meters from Jones. It placed the motor down on top of a metal sheet that protruded from the water covering the floor. Then it scampered back a few steps and hesitated.
"What the fuck?" said Perez.
"Holy shit," whispered Jones. She put her hand to her cheek. She was dizzy. She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them again. The motor sat in front of her like a small, glistening fruit, with two wires hanging off of it. The bug stood a short distance away, looking at her with that inscrutable eye.
Was she misinterpreting this? Was she somehow blowing this all out of proportion? Or had this bug just tried to bribe her?
"It's an offering," she said.
"Huh?" said Perez.
"It's making a sacrifice in the hope that we'll take it and leave the nest alone."
The implications were phenomenal. Social interaction and communication between bugs was a radical enough concept. But communication between bugs and humans---outright trade that was initiated by a bug!---this was completely unheard of.
"Ha!" said Perez. "It's not enough! We got 'em by the balls. Can you tell 'em that?"
"My god, Perez, you're missing the point. They're trying to talk to us." She looked into the monocular eye of the bug, obviously recycled from a video phone, and saw fear, love for its offspring, and a powerful enough sense of community that it would potentially sacrifice its life in an effort to make peace with the invaders.
She felt a powerful urge to pick up the motor, and walk away. To accept the bugs' offer with grace and without hesitation. It was the only way she knew of saying, "I hear you. We are not that different, you and I. We can come to an understanding."
And then it exploded. Great chunks of its carapace shot into the air, four of its legs were completely severed, and the eye lens shattered. A searing roar whistled down the sewer, the unmistakable howl of a shotgun blast in a tunnel. Jones gagged with horror.
She whirled on Perez, but he was on his knees, with his hand covering his head. Perez never used firearms---she wouldn't work with him if he did. Suddenly two brilliant halogen spotlights fired up just behind them, blinding her completely.
"Get down, Jones," came the voice of Malkovich. "We're gonna clean this place up."
"No, stop, you can't!" Jones had her arms up, but the spotlights were incredibly bright, and she didn't know where to look. "Please, this is very special! Section 3-17, absolute scientific priority!"
"Bullshit," said Chan. "That scam only works once."
Somebody was muscling past her, but she couldn't see who it was. She grabbed at the air. "Stop! Please don't do this!"
"Fuck, let go of me!" said Perez. "I'm not doing anything!"
"Make them stop!" screamed Jones.
A thunderous roar ripped through the sewer once again. She could hear creaking and splintering as scaffolding toppled. The air was full of the sharp scent of gunpowder. Big red spots danced in her vision, everywhere she looked.
"Taser grenades, take cover!" shouted Malkovich. Buf-buf-buf went his grenade launcher, and Jones stumbled toward the wall to get out of the water. The grenades popped and zinged as they sprayed highly charged capacitors into the scaffold wreckage, discharging on bugs, shelving, and sewer water alike.
"Look at 'em all!" called Chan. Another shotgun blast tore through the air. "Run, mother fuckers!"
"Sorry Jones," came the voice of Perez. "Can't let 'em have all the commission." She vaguely saw him get up and charge into the heat of the extermination.
She couldn't breathe. Her chest heaved, and no breath would come. Everything was wildly off-balance. She put her fists to her temples, and sank against the wall, fighting to center herself.
She was six years old, horrified that her uncle was slaughtering a hutchful of rabbits for their meat and fur. She was fourteen, slack-jawed as the family car crawled past the scene of an accident as the police waved them on, their flashlights reflected in blood. She was nineteen, standing in a crowd in an alleyway as two drunken skinheads kicked another man senseless, screaming incoherent strings of profanity.
She was twenty six, curled up in a sewer tunnel, choking on gun smoke and a profound sense of betrayal.
Her ears rang from the furious orgy just a few paces away. With each blast and roar, the commissions ticked over. That's what they do, she thought. I can't stop it, it's just what I do. Jones shook her head and blinked the fogginess from her eyes.
She pushed herself to her feet and followed Perez into the madness of halogen beams and smoke. She had done this many times before. It was just like any other job. She was good at it.
She scrambled over the toppled scaffolding, stabbing through it with the cattle prod whenever she spotted the occasional bug scrabbling for cover. The pickings were pretty easy, since the bugs were big, and many were trapped by the fallen shelves. Four, five, six. She spotted one juvenile trying to make an escape with only three legs. She booted it, snapping one leg, and when it refused to stop, dragging its belly on the ground, she whacked it with the taser gun. About three meters away, Malkovich was clubbing something with the butt of his grenade launcher. Jones stepped over the twisted corpse of an adult that had been hit by a shotgun blast, and glanced at the object of Malkovich's fury. He was trying to bend a panel of metal shelving enough to get underneath, where Jones spotted the glint of several eye-lenses and the nervous flicker of legs. Using the barrel of the grenade launcher as a crowbar, Malkovich pried an opening, thrust the weapon inside and fired. A terrific banging and screeching erupted as the bugs thrashed themselves to death under the weapon's intimate hail of lightning.
Jones staggered forward through the nest, trying to get to the other end, where the bugs would be fleeing. Great pink splotches of goo, like the droppings of a giant bird, covered the wall on her left. Perez was up ahead, shooting gobs of goo down the sewer. She noticed a bug upside down in the wreckage. No marks on it, so she hit it with her cattle prod to be sure. It gave a mighty kick as the prod discharged, and then twitched spasmodically. Clever. It was playing dead.
The shelving wreckage ended as she came up to Perez. "Is that it?"
"Yep. I don't think any got away," he said. A half a dozen bugs were visible farther down the sewer, their limbs gummed together by the goo gun.
The sounds of Malkovich, cursing behind them as he banged on something, echoed down the sewer. Chan joined them. "How many escaped?" he asked. Perez shook his head.
Chan nodded. "Good nest, guys. Maybe twenty-five adults, fifteen juvies. Close to a ton of live product." He grinned. "We all made a lot of money in the last five minutes."
He turned and headed back up the sewer. "Give it a rest, Malkie, you're rich!" he shouted. Malkovich's laugh rolled down the tunnel.
Jones looked at the floor, watching the murky water run over the toes of her boots. Then she looked at Perez, who was watching her silently.
"I think I'll buy me a new TV," said Jones.
Perez patted her on the back. "Of course you will, Jonesie," he said quietly. "Of course you will."
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