Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 5.

5

Maybe he didn’t want to go home.

The anonymous author of The Book advocated a daily routine as the test for sanity. Code might turn you into a werewolf every full moon, but if you got up in the morning, went to work, cooked dinner, and kept a tidy living space, you were at least a functional werewolf. That was supposed to be better than nothing. But Donny wasn’t so sure.

He stayed dry under the florescent awning that blinked with advertisements in 17 or 18 languages. The feeds said there were 25 documented language groups in the city, 72 discrete dialects. You could hear or read almost all of them if you walked a few blocks through the Feliz Sector. So far, Donny had walked about three kilometers. Around kilometer two, he’d finally gotten one of the damp cigarettes going while staring up at an advert for Portuguese contraceptives. A green-skinned girl moaned and writhed on what looked like a blue octopus. Pinyin subtitles blinked across the bottom of the screen. From what he could tell, it was a biotic suppository called “Live Bait.” But Donny’s Pinyin was bad.

Maybe he didn’t want to go home because that was regular, stable, predictable, just what Friendly would advise. Maybe Moss was right: they woke up with chips in their brains because they’d made the choice at some point to explicitly not follow the rules.

The rain was as filthy as on any other night, smelled like sulfur, turned your skin gray after prolonged exposure, a mark of the street. Whole families lived and died in the shadows of the arcologies, the corporate office towers, the megablocks, the commerce domes that squatted like enormous mirrored bullfrogs in the vast circuit-board horizon of greater Los Angeles. Most street kids would never ride a drone up over the lights, see the city pulsing and fuming beneath them in black space like a confluence of stars. They’d never see the orbital colonies, feel a low-grav susurrus lift them off their feet beneath an artificial sky. Instead, they’d subsist on garbage and carry weapons made from broken machine parts. The rain would burn their faces gray like the skyline. And toward the end of their short lives, they’d become unnoticeable shadows, as if they were merging with the streets and alleys that birthed them.

Morbid thoughts on this rainy Tuesday night. Donny smoked as he walked, pulled up the hood of his windbreaker, watched two kids chase each other out a steam-filled doorway. Their clothes were a mesh of metals, resins, scraps of synthetic fibers no doubt salvaged from the Staples Garbage Pyramids far to the south. You couldn’t see the Garbage Pyramids at night. But during the day they pointed up through the rain like gargantuan hives, shaped that way from a century of municipal dumping.

The drone on the foundry’s roof hadn’t waited, even though Donny had asked it to. So now he was on foot. The meeting had been so upsetting, so pointless and depressing, that he wouldn’t have wanted to go right home even if he could. There was a drone station six kilometers south in Chinatown. Six in the dark. He’d walked it before on a night just like this. The streets were congested with the usual foot traffic, ground cars, rickshaws festooned with blinking lights, holograms swooping up to scrolling marquees, light-glow in the rain, street vendors grilling pale ikayaki and gai yang that could make you sick for days, while the crowd swarmed in every direction, heading to every sector that wasn’t dead.

Maybe it was simply that he didn’t want to stand beneath the buzzing light bar that ran the length of his capsule apartment, thinking of the 34 handguns he’d made all in a single night. Bleeding from another near-miss, half aware, Donny had stacked the guns in two laundry baskets in the closet. Then, on some night after that when he’d been too slow with the pills, the baskets had gone empty. Of the 34 guns, he’d now found ten—the most flimsy, the ones that would have only worked once or perhaps not at all. The zip gun made from a cardboard toilet paper roll. The crumpled graphite barrel printed and reprinted until it began to resemble a 1905 Luger 8. The blue glass bottle, its back end melted into a propellant reservoir with a plastic compressor valve that could send a bullet down the neck.

And bullets. Boxes of them. Bullets were harder to make. Still, Donny had so many. Somewhere, he was buying them. Had been. Consistently. Which meant the yellow pills weren’t working all the time. And he wasn’t remembering when they didn’t. So the Damocles Algorithm was toying with him. Some part of it—some part of Donny—knew he’d eventually run out of materials to make guns at home. Then what?

The drone station came into view. Intense white floods. Pristine subcrete. Little caged security guns on electrified poles that sparked blue from the moisture. And the row of drones, a line of black wasps gleaming in the light under a large corrugated awning. Donny didn’t know how the others left the meetings. Friendly had a ground car. The rest must have walked or caught drones. But Donny couldn’t imagine enormous Moss climbing into one of those narrow cockpits. Moss was afraid of heights. Even if he could have fit, the drones reached dizzying levels at the top of the skyway.

Donny climbed into the drone at the end of the row, spoke his 18-digit account number, and waited for the AI to authenticate. He knew he was thinking too much. Ruminating. Depressed again. Lost in all the Moss questions, chip questions, bullet questions, blue octopus, Garbage Pyramids, the cold darkness of the Shung Building, Graciela snoring in this T-shirt, how long will the yellow pills last, and what to do about the little broken duck.

Maybe we can get some epoxy. Put it back together. It’ll be a fun project. Fun was something people had, a normal part of everyday life. Graciela knew about things like that. She said being with him was fun. Donny probed the idea the way you might hold an odd stone, maybe put it in your pocket and turn it over a few times, your brain absently mapping its contours. Fun. A strange, oddly shaped thing that she’d handed to him. Dangler might ask what one did with fun, what its intended function was. But Dangler didn’t say anything earlier in the evening when Friendly also told them how important it was to learn how to have fun again. Like everyone in the group must have had all kinds of fun at some point but forgot about it along with everything else. Like it was possible to recapture that life again.

Jackson Filter said, “I think I had fun once.”

And Friendly nodded, flashing his maddening grin. “Yes, Jackson, of course you did.”

Of course. But nothing was of course anymore. Jackson Filter had taken his name from the logo on the industrial lading container where he’d woken up covered in blood that wasn’t his, a tube snaking out of his nose, and a portable pacemaker on its last three bars of power. Jackson had a bomb in his heart. As long as he recharged the pacemaker every day, he’d stay alive. If he didn’t, the chip in his neopallium would trigger and nobody knew how big the explosion might be—as big as the city of Los Angeles or as big as a man’s heart. No, of course was stupid. Of course was unthinkable.

Check,1187, rising,” said the drone, a different pair of eyes—far less alluring that those of the previous drone—blinked at him from the dash monitor. “Please fasten your seatbelt, Donald Stilton.” Then the turbines kicked in and the drone hovered slowly out from under the awning. Rain clattered against the acrylic canopy and the black wasp suddenly went straight up towards the skyway, gathering speed as it rose past the marquees, the tangle of hologram adverts, bright white floods, coruscating fields of pixilated Pinyin, New German, English, Spanish, Japanese, the green girl in the distance advertising “Live Bait,” the night throngs of the sector down on the street with their bio-luminescent amulets and VR-guided walking umbrellas and tuk tuks belching grease fumes into the particolored night.

What is your destination?”

I’m . . . not sure.”

It is necessary for you to state a destination. What is your destination?”

I . . .”

Are you disoriented? Do you require medical assistance?”

No.”

Please state your destination.”

Do you like it here?”

You have failed three of five opportunities to state a destination. What is your destination?”

John Desmond Frame, Jr. had been unusually talkative that night, And Rupert Two-Gears. Two extremely closed-mouthed individuals suddenly telling stories, emoting, describing memories. It felt strange. In a circle of ghosts, of men who’d been erased from the dayside life of human society, strange was an achievement. And then there was Moss’ outburst at the end. That wasn’t of course, wasn’t something anyone would forget. Moss throwing chairs. Putting his fist clear through the side of the corroded steel bin behind him. Breaking the arc lamp’s tripod over his knee. Screaming about how unfair it was, that he’d kill someone, that he’d have his revenge. He never said on whom. Because he didn’t know.

Moss was a kind, gentle giant until he wasn’t. Then he was a raving psychopath. Of course he was. Donny thought of the guns impossibly hidden somewhere in his capsule apartment. It’ll be a fun project, she said. If by “fun” Graciela meant something else, maybe “a moment of slightly less fear.” Maybe that’s what fun was for people like Donny.

The drone was at 700 meters and still rising to the skyway. The city was teeming with light, movement, energy—except for two unlit megablocks standing dark and neglected in Old Hollywood like rectangular black holes, enormous intangible voidspaces noticeable amid the rain chop and light wash only by virtue of how desolate they seemed. They no longer drew power from the L.A. grid. Disrecognized. Like him.

You have failed four of five opportunities to state a destination. What is your destination?”

Take me somewhere beautiful,” he said, not sure why, half-expecting the AI to ask for clarification or deny his request or offer him a sedative. But the eyes on the dash monitor blinked and the AI said, “Thank you” as the drone rose into the bottom lane of the skyway.

< Read Ch. 6 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IH >

< Read Ch. 4 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-ID >

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About Michael Davis

Writer. Reader. Appreciator of corgis. View all posts by Michael Davis

One response to “Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 5.

  • popegrutch

    Still holding my interest. Only glitch here: the sentence “And Rupert Two-Gears.” is preceded by a comma. Possibly you want a lower-case “a” in “and,” but I’d just make the comma into a period.

    Like

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