Author Archives: Michael Davis

About Michael Davis

Writer. Reader. Appreciator of corgis.

Goodbye America

One thinks: this shit’s never gonna end. Puerto Rico. Idiot with a bump stock on the the 32nd floor. Nuclear Viagra giving Trump an intercontinental hard-on. Hurricane Maria, Irma, Harvey, take your pick. My friend’s house underwater in Houston, his dog on an inflatable raft. Girls stabbed in Marseilles. Girls with acid in their faces. Girls shot in a club. Catalonia blowing up. Spanish police hurling voters down the stairs, zip ties, broken jaws. It will never, ever end.

One thinks: on a long enough timeline, the probability of any given thing in the United States becoming a horrific instrument of death rises to about 99%. Maybe puppies, water lilies, and soft serve ice cream are exempt, but you’d be surprised. America is a lethal place. More lethal this year than last year and you know why. There is no fate. No grace. No help from above. Just you and me and the justice we make. But maybe I don’t know what’s just anymore.

One thinks: if we could figure out what justice is, we might make a little more of it in the time we have left before the Empire falls and the barbarians come wailing in to roast mom for dinner. But, you see, mom has it coming. The Empire is always collapsing. That’s part of what makes it the Empire. And mothers are the ones raising a new generation of infantry to help it all along. Mothers are secretly to blame. If you really want to be the change, just don’t breed. But you can’t help yourself, can you.

I once dated a girl whose mother had retired to Coronado Island after 30 years of running a large farm in the Midwest. The woman now lived in a pristine four-story mansion with stained glass windows and aged admirals as neighbors. The story of how she got transported from a farm to a high-end resort off the coast of San Diego unpacks like a cliché movie of the week: illegal pesticides, cancer deaths, enormous lawsuit, and an out-of-court settlement that made everyone but the families of the farm laborers obscenely rich.

Mom was, as they used to say in Northern California, hella happy with the outcome, even though (or maybe because) her second husband also kicked it in the process. She was the Laughing Farmer Buddha of corporate hush money. Though after she met me, she was perhaps less amused by life or by her daughter’s choices in men.

When we shook, she twisted my hand open in a death grip, looked down at my palm, and said, “Hmm. Soft hands.” Then she stepped back, crossed her arms, and frowned at me the way you would at a corpse just dragged from a polluted river, the corpse of the man I could have been but obviously wasn’t and never would be. Watching the exchange, her daughter—who I’d been out with no more than two or three times before that night—seemed ready for good bit of fun. It was then that I began to feel that none of us were destined to be best friends.

One thinks: there must be a reason I had this experience, some sort of magnetic resonance floating out around my navel, pulling in all manner of bigots, racists, fools, prevaricators, sea lawyers, farmer savants, red-mesh-cap-wearing bumpkins with absolute opinions on everything they don’t understand and fear. Why does Donald Trump exist, you ask? Why does wedding cake taste like shit? Why can’t we have nice things before those things try to kill us? Scott Pruitt works for the EPA, for one. But maybe you don’t like that answer. Pay no attention to the pesticide behind the curtain.

Toward the end of dinner, her mother told the story of how she’d come into her millions. It was a yarn she seemed to have told at many dinners over the years. She’d refined it with certain references to the overall stupidity of her late husband, racial slurs aimed at the farmhands, clever allusions to the worthlessness of a college education, hints at an ongoing Zionist conspiracy, and various artful insinuations that such evils were all rooted in the basic homosexuality of our times. She was, in short, one of the most repulsive people I’d ever encountered.

She was so offensive that I began to wonder whether it was all a practical joke. But by the end of the night, I saw the truth. This was a suitability test being run by her daughter. If I could deal with the repellent overbearing mother, I was worthy. If not, well, there are winners and losers in this wide world and the daughter was only interested in the former.

For desert, we had mother’s old-time funnel cake topped with sweet cream. We took our plates to the den, where mom started up the fireplace and handed out glasses of cheap bourbon to go with the cake. I saw my date wink and pour hers into the philodendron by the couch. But the plant was not within range of where I was sitting. I thought about pouring it between the cushions.

“You gonna drink it or look at it?”

I smiled and ate some funnel cake. Mom was already into her second glass.

Then her daughter said I was trying to be a writer, which made her mother guffaw and suggest we play a game of Scrabble. Because writers are supposed to like Scrabble. And so did mom, who saw it as a kind of IQ test. She even owned a Scrabble dictionary, no doubt for those late-night bourbon-fueled disputes about whether “gherkin” was a 170- or 180-point word.

Needless to say, mom won the game. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do recall her mix of satisfaction and disappointment, as if she’d once again proven to herself the uselessness of liberal intellectual book learning and what a waste it all was.

One thinks: why didn’t I run out the door screaming when I had the chance? Maybe because I stayed (and because others before me had probably excused themselves long before the funnel cake), the daughter decided I was good boyfriend material. She kept calling long after I gave her the Let’s Not Even Be Friends talk and blocked her number. Her mother had done her part for Big Farm Poison and the Hitler Youth while Jesus Camp and Rush Limbaugh were riding high.  Now her daughter was running free on the earth.

This was long before we ever thought Trump would be anything more than bad TV, before he started referring to our present non-nuclear-holocaust moment as “the calm before the storm.” This was before the end of America, the grand finale, the New American Century with Slim Pickens riding the bomb down to bring on the Rapture. I know you believe it. So stop shaking your damn head. You were there in Charlottesville. I know it was you.

“He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.” – John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse

She’s married now, lives in a suburb of Boise with husband and kids, supports Donald Trump, the white identitarian movement, and a particular identitarian organization of which I gather her husband is a card-carrying member. She must be a genius. The public posts on her FB timeline are mostly family photos, lifestyle articles from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, comments about the coming race war, and Breitbart. I know she’s not an evil person. But I can’t make fun anymore. It’s hard to even smile.

And so one thinks: that’s all over now, the thought, the hope, that the system would right itself. The system is what got us where we are. The system is wrong if it has produced this. I’m almost to the point where I’m ashamed I voted at all, even if it was for Hillary. Let’s not ever be friends, okay?

You go make America great again until your gene pool becomes so homogeneous that you start sacrificing people on step pyramids in the forest. Only the steps of those pyramids will be made out of bullet casings and the skulls of immigrant children. Go ahead. If your sister doesn’t mind, I won’t say no. I’ll be in hiding. I already am. Don’t come looking for me. And don’t keep calling. I’ve got soft hands. I like books and classical music and non-violence. I don’t own a bump stock. I don’t even own a gun to put a bump stock on. I won’t be manufacturing any justice in my basement today. I just want you to stop fucking with me. I’ve got my ear to the tracks.

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The Glamorous Life of a World Traveler

PDX in the afternoon and everyone is miserable. Suitcase slightly too heavy equals the most exorbitant bag fee I’ve ever paid in a fever of desperation. I could have bought a second suitcase, should have. In the security line, a teen starts shouting that he’s not going to remove his shoes and is detained while 200 people watch. 45 minutes later, the scanner finds a sword-shaped metal object hidden down the back of my shirt. There is nothing down the back of my shirt. I am patted down.

“What’s back there?” asks a bullet-headed TSA officer with a nervous tick in his left eye.

“Nothing.”

“Are you sure about that?” He looks me over, twitches, does the hand-held metal detector. It beeps when he passes it over my back. I can still hear the boy shouting in some far-off security area.

I am asked to step behind a partition. I remove my button-down. I am patted down a second time. My T-shirt is tested for explosive residue. My shoulder bag is tested for explosive residue. My shoes are examined with a TSA dentist’s mirror-flashlight, then tested for explosive residue. I am asked multiple times where I am going and my answers are checked against passport, boarding card, secret TSA spreadsheets. This is not the first time this has happened.

I tell him I think there’s probably someone with my name and physical details on some kind of list.

“Oh really?” He taps that into his tablet PC and gives me a long sour look. “You’re free to go.”

 

Layover at SFO. 45-minute security theater, but I have time. It passes smoothly, no screaming, no detentions, no squeaks from the machinery. I deposit my last freelancing check at an ATM, change the money into Euros, hating myself for doing it like that but feeling like I should have some cash in my pocket. Then I look at my boarding pass. It says, “THIS IS NOT A BOARDING PASS.” I go to the gate, but there’s no one at the gate. At information, I’m told that this particular airline won’t issue a boarding pass at the gate for this flight and that I have to go back to passenger check-in to talk to a representative. I’ve never heard of this, but things are always changing when it comes to air travel. So I consider my options.

Since my 20s, I’ve had a knee problem that can act up in a very painful way. Today, I’m walking with a limp and every step is agony. But I’m a veteran traveler and I’m not going to call for the senior citizen golf cart. Plus, time is now getting short. A crowd of anxious Irish have already started queuing up for the flight to Dublin. So fuck it. Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim. Back to check-in I go.

By the time I get there, I am perspiring heavily. The pain in my knee feels hot, dull, and serrated all at once. The girl in the green polyester blazer gives me, then my passport, the same level stare. “It’s a good thing you came up here,” she says. “Your bag might have not gone through.”

My bag? What did my bag have to do with it? Ah, I think, it must be because I’m flying with two different airlines, United and then Aer Fuckery. The latter must not like the former. Airlines are like angry steroidal pumas that need to be constantly stroked and placated or your valise winds up in Somalia.

I smile. But because no one smiled at her since she was a child, just developing her deep hatred for all life, she is immune to smiles.

“I have a knee problem and I’m wondering if there’s any way, since we’re doing this, you can put me on the aisle. It’s a 10 hour-flight.”

She gives me the stare again, hands me the boarding passes, then unleashes the puma: “You were already on the aisle. But I wouldn’t have changed your seat. We never change seats. You couldn’t have gotten a seat change from me. Oh no. We don’t do that. So you shouldn’t ask that at check-in.”

“Really? Never?” I think Aer Fuckery must fly in a different universe than the rest of us.

“Never. And I’d advise you to get to security if you want to make your flight.” She said all of it with maximum leaden distaste: look at this bum asking for a better seat.

Back to security theater, the line is three times longer than before and people seem three times as anxious. When I get through, I have to run-limp back to the gate. The extras from Titanic have already started boarding, replete with bowler hats, a miasma of farts and liquor, and multiple jokes being told at all times in multiple directions. I love the Irish. And Irish air travelers love a gimp willing to run through an airport. A few people cheer for me when I show up coughing and sweating.

“You did the foot race.” The enormous red-faced man in front of me in line smiles, sways, and extends his hand. We shake. Yeah. The foot race. Grand.

There are no more problems getting going. And, though I now stink and have started wincing with every step, I’m ready to settle in with Excedrin, my book, and a good 10 hours of intercontinental semi-consciousness and dread. I actually love the physical sensation of takeoff and landing, and I’m not afraid to fly. But put me in any poorly lit area for that long and I start thinking about my life, which is never ever advisable. As soon as the harsh self-critical life performance review begins, I usually start the in-flight movie fest. Pull blanket up to chin. Shut off brain. Sweet novocaine for the soul. Unfortunately, I’ve been flying so much this year that the only films available I haven’t seen are Marley & Me, The Boss Baby, and The Fast and the Furious.

I wonder whether I should just drink my way across the Atlantic. But Aer Fuckery charges for their alcohol and the stubborn angry Welsh hillbilly in me feels that the booze should at least be cheaper and more abundant if not better. Moreover, I will not give AF any more of my money after all the fun I had back in SFO. This is the dark side of assimilation, kids. I noticed the Americans on the flight had already opened their wallets and fired up the Vin Diesel. I’ve lived in the UK too long to appreciate an $8 can of Budweiser.

Could it get worse? Well, the plane didn’t crash. No one freaked out. And I had space. So I can’t complain about the basics. I did have some issues with the complimentary key lime pie (fellow travelers allergic to the chemicals used in UK and Irish dairy products take note) and spent a good part of the night in line for the toilet reminding myself that at least there was a toilet. Think about it. Small graces. Simple truths. Yes, indeed.

The connecting flight from Dublin to Paris was also uneventful and sedate. Of course, AF lost my suitcase (“Your bag might have not gone through.” Uh huh). And then, on the delirious train ride in, some girl wanted to talk to me about Donald Trump. Really, universe? After all this, you offer me a Trump conversation before I even get to Denfert Rochereau?

Well, so be it. I’m here. I’m back. I have new income possibilities. I can eat the cheese. I feel a certain rationality returning that was conspicuously absent during my recent visit to the States. I feel a new chapter of my story beginning. Meanwhile, my suitcase is either winging its way to me over the dark waters or is destined to be a gift for someone in Mogadishu. But words are still here and my knee is already on the mend. Who knows what’s next? Only time, as they say, will tell.


Hurricane Dreams

I feel toxic, radioactive. || Michael Davis

Source: Hurricane Dreams


Burning Down the House

What’s next after the violence in Charlottesville? || Michael Davis

Source: Burning Down the House


Update on Midnight Gladiolus . . .

I’m currently going back through the first 75 ms pages of the novel, making notes and essential line edits, and putting in reminders of the edits people have suggested to me here and on Wattpad.  This has been a great experience so far and I’m excited that Chapter 10 will be done before long.  Since I’ve never written a science fiction novel before, much of this is new in process as well as substance.  Keep the emails and comments coming and thanks for reading. ~ Michael


Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 9.

[8 July 17, did some essential line edits and added some material. Currently working on Ch.10.- M]

 

9

Luck, fate, delusion, coincidence. They might have all been the same as far as Donny was concerned. The code made it all relative. That which he couldn’t control he named—for lack of any other way to emotionally cope with it. He called it bad luck. He called it coincidence. He called it the Damocles Algorithm.

Had he hallucinated a fragment of his consciousness as a lonely girl in a red cap? Had he named her Mera, the Cultivator, because some broken piece of awareness was trying to send him a message? It was possible. The history feed said Griffith Gardens had been locked for 57 years. Had he really been there? Or had Donny been sitting on a curb somewhere, delusional, lost in the deserted wastes of his own mind, another side-effect of being chipped, adrift an impossible world of his own making, like dreaming of a sky with no rain.

His black coveralls were uncomfortable, freshly creased smelling of chemical starch. He zipped the front all the way up as he swiped in through the tiny airlock on the north side of the Shung Building’s dome. Why the employee hallway needed an airlock was a question for the history feeds, not for night workers like Donny. Still, one noticed details now and then: airlocks where a simple doors would have sufficed, enormous anti-riot spikes as if a building were an ancient dreadnought set to tear holes in enemy ships, asymmetrical quadrangles designed to force rioters toward various choke-points or lines of sight.

If you paid attention, you’d see the signs of how corporate culture had anticipated changes in climate, population, and culture over time. Adapting to and channeling human behavior is what kept the multi-nationals alive. And now the sectors of Los Angeles were an archaeology of blight and control, layers of subcrete, Plexiglas, and steel pulverized and effaced decade after decade to make room for new, more profitable, layers. The dead zones were like necrotic organs, devoid of all profitability and therefore of meaning, of existence—disavowed, disrecognized spaces. Security gates walled them off with motion detectors, autoguns, electrified concertina wire. You didn’t approach a security gate red zone from the dead side unless you had a municipal identity card or chip with a transponder. The autoguns were highly accurate.

The Shung Building was itself was a kind of dead zone, a junk pile from an earlier era guarded by humans because synthetics were too valuable and expensive to waste on a detail like that. Over a century ago, the so-called robot revolution was expected to usher in utopia. All the dull, filthy, dangerous jobs were supposed to go to pre-synthetic industrial units and a universal basic income was promised to all—as if the corporations would ever let that happen. Instead, corporations like Shung, Ryderco, and Aspernix developed the first synthetic technology. And many of the dirty and low-paying jobs that went to low-AI proprietary robots went back to cheaper humans. Many specialist jobs went to the high-end synthetics. And so things continued the way they always had, if a little quieter, as the fearful voices of egalitarianism and humanism faded into the hum of mega-factories that operated unceasingly with flawless efficiency. Art, culture, and most human intelligence went orbital. Those left behind had ubiquitous AI, the feeds, an endless variety of pre-pac soy that imitated various old-world foods, the luminescent half-dark of the city, and the endless poison rain.

Donny entered the break room and printed a soy-chicken sandwich, still thinking about Mera, about his meeting with Freddy, and how that old woman’s PVC arm seemed obscene and yet just right, a sign of the times far more honest and true than the synthetic white Shiroi Karasu or even Freddy himself. The soy-meat sandwich was supposed to smell like the real thing. Sometimes Donny chose tuna, sometimes beef or chicken, but it always smelled the same, tasted the same. The printer’s internal assemblers congealed a gray patty and sprayed directly into a congealed soy-bun—a lunch eaten by every worker on the planet. It was supposed to have all the nutrients your body needed, but how many people on earth knew what actual chicken tasted like or what nutrients were necessary for a long, cancer-free life beyond your estimated peak productivity levels? Donny put the sandwich in the mini-fridge, filled his thermos with Postum, and his starting workday ritual was complete.

Then Loach stepped in, panting, smelling like body odor and patchouli.

“We don’t have no time to bullshit, Donny. You listening? We got a situation.”

“Why don’t you take a step back.” Donny held the topped-off thermos between them as much to cancel Loach’s smell as to put some symbolic distance on what the big man was muttering. Loach had told him that patchouli kept off the mosquitoes. Donny couldn’t remember ever getting bitten or even seeing a mosquito in the Shung building, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. According to Loach, the stagnant water bred swarms of them, some lethal, full of disease. But Donny would believe it when he saw it. Until then, killer mosquito swarms would be just another one of Loach’s stories.

“Them version ones up on the deck level 15 are activating and I don’t know what else.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Yeah?” Loach massaged the back of his neck. “Zeke’s here and he says he saw it. And Zeke doesn’t lie.” Loach looked more exhausted than usual. He’d unzipped his coveralls down to his navel and Donny could see a V of sweat on his ribbed tank-top underneath.

“You’ve been up to something down in control, haven’t you? Did you flip some switch, turn something on by accident?”

“I didn’t turn on shit! Come on!”

Loach walked out of the red-lit break room and Donny followed screwing the thermos shut and wondering whether his supervisor had finally gotten into the sand. Zeke was waiting for them in the hallway, three electric double-barrels bundled under his arm. Where Loach was balding and stocky with oily shoulder-length hair combed back behind his ears, Zeke was completely hairless. He didn’t even have eyebrows. Tall and thin, his coveralls hung on him, all bones and sharp angles and a long grave face.

“Hey Donny. Been a while.”

Donny nodded. He wanted to ask how long. They always worked opposite shifts. So Donny didn’t know exactly how long it had been since he’d last seen Zeke. Maybe since before. But if Zeke noticed a difference, he wasn’t letting on. He handed a shotgun to Loach and one to Donny. The guns had ARQUEBUS LTD down each barrel in chrome block letters like some kind of toy. But their 10-gauge 766-grain lead slugs accelerated and compressed to 1400 feet per second by an electrical current. They could cut most walls in half, turn an organic person into red mist. Donny didn’t know what they could do to a synthetic. He’d only seen the guns once when Loach showed him the security room down in control. They’d been locked to a wall-rack with a shiny steel chain through the trigger guards. But now one of them was right here in Donny’s hands. Why Loach thought they needed to be armed like this when they could just cut the power to the nursery level was unclear. Version ones didn’t have an onboard power supply. They drew power through the bottoms of their feet. Shut down the level and they’d shut down everything beneath a version three, of which there were none currently listed in the building.

“I hate this shit.” Loach cracked open his gun’s breach and checked the slugs in each barrel.

Donny looked at how Zeke was holding his shotgun resting in the crook of his arm and did the same. “I suppose you’re going to fill me in on why we’re set to take down an army.”

“We don’t actually know what’s going on up there. There might be a lot of them. They might be going apeshit.”

“It looked like a lot of them on the monitor,” Zeke said.

“How many?”

Loach sighed. “Does it matter? We got a protocol for this. We go straight by the book.”

They had a protocol for everything. There was a four-inch-thick operations manual back in the break room—an ancient, coffee-stained three-ring in a hard plastic case that Donny had never seen Loach take down, much less read. It stayed up there, covered in dust like some kind of forbidden scripture. Loach quoted from it with great specificity at times—a specificity that could only come from a perfect recall or from perfect bullshit. Maybe Loach carried eidetic cross-point memory implants, but Donny doubted that even more than the big man’s mosquito stories.

“So what’s the protocol?”

“Simple, kid.” Loach cocked the hammers on his double-barrel, and Donny heard the faint whine of its trigger coils charging.

“We go up there and shut the bitch down.”

Zeke put his hand on Donny’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Anything comes at you, blast it.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Good, Donny. That’s real good.” Zeke nodded and smiled around his cigarette as he lit it.

Loach went first. Then Donny. Then Zeke, keeping one eye on the hallway behind them. Then they went through the round opening that had once sported a pressurized cast-aluminum door with a wheel handle in the center for sealing the employee hallway from the main dome. It was made like that in case of a gas attack, but now the door was long gone, probably stolen. They crept out, across the ground floor of the dome—silent, except for the motion detector’s ping and the whispery shuffle of their work boots on the subcrete.

Speaking felt wrong under the vast dark of the broken Shung dome, vulgar, like raising one’s voice in a place of worship. Loach would have denied it, but it seemed to Donny that they all felt it, the solemnness, the quiet. They climbed the frozen escalator steps to the mezzanine like they were in some kind of procession—black-clad gunmen, the long hand of the Shung Corporation reaching out from 30 years ago to kill whatever had woken up on deck level 15.

It occurred to Donny that whatever, maybe whoever, was now awake up there probably didn’t know that there had been any kind of shutdown. These were version ones, the first generation of synthetics, still more machine than artificial person. They were supposed to have been problematic, made a lot of mistakes, sometimes caused accidents, deaths. Only the Shung corporation would have assigned a group of them to a nursery level.

“Hold up.” Loach murmured so quietly Donny almost missed it.

The three of them stopped, still in single-file, halfway across the mezzanine. Donny looked back and saw that Zeke had squatted, pointing his double-barrel over his left thigh at the valley between two six-foot-high mounds of what looked like broken plastic crates. Zeke looked coiled, ready to shoot or spring back, and Donny wondered where he’d learned that pose, what sort of life Zeke led before hiring on at Bug.

“What?”

Loach didn’t answer. He adjusted the motion detector, panned it around.

Then Zeke whispered, “We better get a move on,” smoke trailing up from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

“I hate this. Makes me want to shit myself.” Loach stared into the dark.

“Maybe using the flashlight would, you know, help you get control of your nether regions.”

“Fuck you.” Loach moved forward, the motion detector in his left hand, the double-barrel held low in his right.

By the time they reached the enormous urn and the hidden access hallway, Zeke was already getting to the end of a second cigarette. He flicked it and they watched it spark orange against the wall. When they got into the freight elevator and pulled the doors shut, the crackly AI voice said, “Smoking is hazardous to your health.”

Donny looked up, past the safety bars, as he always did, at the tiny points of light.

All kinds of things in the Shung building were hazardous to one’s health, some due to age, some by design. But Loach didn’t want to give away their position. If there were malfunctioning version ones wandering around the upper levels, keeping the flashlight off was probably wise. This generation of synthetics had limited vision, but they’d notice a flashlight.

The freight elevator took the three of them to deck level 15, but it didn’t open directly onto the marble foyer that led to what had once been condos for Shung middle management. Instead, they had to walk through a completely dark loading area by the glow of Loach’s motion detector, then through another access hallway so narrow that, if Donny hadn’t been holding a shotgun, he could have reached out and touched both sides. When the detector started pinging, they stopped in place.

Loach muted it but kept his eyes on the detector’s small glowing screen. “16 meters,” he murmured. “North-northeast.”

“What’s up there?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”

“Just get ready,” whispered Zeke as he patted Donny on the back. Zeke had gotten very close in the dark. And Donny found himself wondering again about Zeke’s past. What possessed a normal person to want to work in a place like this—to want to work for Bug Security at all? Donny knew his own excuse. And Loach was clearly making a career out of it because it was just about the best he could do for himself. But there was something off about Zeke, off like the guys who came to Friendly’s group. Was he chipped? He didn’t show signs of wreckage. So what was it? He could be a little crazy. Maybe he was just a weirdo. Or maybe—though Donny didn’t even like entertaining the possibility—Zeke was synthetic.

When they reached the end of the hallway, Loach shut the detector off and faced them. “This is an access hatch. It’s designed not to be noticed. But we got no idea what’s going on out there. The scan said multiple pings, 16, maybe 20. So pick your targets, if it comes to that. There’s a hallway goes straight back. At the end is the power emitter. We shut that down, the whole floor goes dead.”

“The floor is dead,” said Donny.

“As dead as it gets,” said Zeke.

Loach set the motion detector down at the base of the wall and turned back towards the door. “Just don’t shoot me in the ass.”

And you, Donny wanted to say to Zeke, when the time comes, where will you be pointing your gun? But he just looked back and saw the other man’s bald, eyebrowless visage in the light from Zeke’s antique chemical lighter. He puffed a cigarette into being, grinned with the corner of his mouth, and snapped the lighter shut. Then all Donny could see was the glowing ember when Zeke took a drag.

“I think I got it.” Loach said as he cranked the wheel handle. The hatch groaned and he pushed it open.

They crouched in silence, gripping their guns—so quiet that the hiss of Zeke’s cigarette sounded like air being let out of a tire in short intervals. It was humid. A nearby pipe must have burst or the heat exchangers must have spooled up when the level came on. Loach was sweating out every drop of moisture in his body. Fear sweat. Don’t make a sound sweat. Did version ones have a sense of smell? If so, Loach was more of a problem than a solution.

They crept a few feet into the foyer, then crouched again. The three of them stayed that way, perfectly still, not making a sound, until their knees started to ache. Eventually, Donny detected a mechanical hum, almost beyond the range of hearing, somewhere far off in the dark. It might have been in the walls. Might have been on another level entirely. But it was the only thing noticeable apart from the sound of Zeke smoking.

Finally, Loach couldn’t take it anymore, whether from knee pain or stress. He stood up and said with a normal voice: “Fuck it. I’m done with this shit,” then snapped on the flashlight. Loach could take care. He could be methodical. But he hated being like that. And enough was enough. They couldn’t crouch there in the dark forever.

When the light came on, Zeke said, “Holy shit,” his voice higher than usual, cutting off at the end as if he had a lump in his throat.

There were 16 version ones standing in the foyer. In good condition, they’d look vaguely human—rubbery skin over a baked ceramic endoskeleton harder than steel. The ones meant to pass for female had on dresses or miniskirts. The males had jumpsuits or faux-canvas work pants and long-sleeved vinyl shirts. They wore wigs, had fake eyeballs that hid tiny sensor arrays, brains that contained 1000 microprocessors and the most advanced AI for their era, which still couldn’t pass the Turing Test; though, it could beat the world’s greatest living chess master nine games out of ten.

But these version ones were not in good condition at all. A few had been burned horribly such that arms or, in one case, half of a torso had melted like wax. Others had lost their wigs and had put new ones on incorrectly, long blond hair hiding half of a scorched face or slipping back on a an exposed ceramic skull meant to imitate human bone structure. All 16 of them simultaneously turned toward Loach a moment after he shined the flashlight around the room. Then two started walking over. The one on the right was missing both of her arms and her face was half-melted. The top half of her dress no longer existed and her rubbery breasts were torn and blackened. But the male on the left seemed relatively whole. He even had his wig on properly and could have easily been mistaken for an organic person in low light—save for the star-shaped bullet hole in the center of his forehead.

Loach shined the flashlight on him. The version one’s eyes stared straight ahead the way a blind man seems to have traded common sight for a vision of something infinite and distant.

“Stop right where you are,” Loach said. “Designate.”

Hearing the old command word, the two did stop, for a second, the lead synthetic tilting his head to the side like a puzzled animal. Then they continued forward.

“I knew it.” Loach started backing up. “Command and control is offline.”

Donny was in the middle of asking what that meant, when Zeke opened fire.


Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 8.

8

Certain moments in life stay with you forever—even if they didn’t happen.” Friendly smiled behind a clump of kitsune udon. He held the noodles in front of his mouth with black chopsticks, making Donny think of worms in the beak of a crane. “Anyone can have an anomalous experience. The unenhanced hallucinate just as often. It doesn’t mean you actually met some magical gardener and had a life-changing experience.”

The noodle shop was named 白いカラス, Shiroi Karasu, White Crow. Its oversized mascot fluttered and refolded its wings, staring through the glass storefront at the rain. A thin silver chain ran from its leg around a dowel, which made a perch at the top of a wooden hat stand. The stand was very old, would have been a valued antique if long thin nails hadn’t been hammered into its top struts in order to keep the dowel in place.

Is that what I am? Enhanced?”

Friendly slurped fat white noodles between his lips, grinning as he did it. Everything he did seemed easy, effortless, enjoyable. “Well, you’re just as special as everyone in the group. You’re also a product of our times. I still think you need a sponsor.”

She said she knew . . . “

About your chip? Your old life?” He laughed and plucked a hunk of aburaage from his bowl. “Of course she did.”

The bird was synthetic. It didn’t need to be chained to its perch. It would never try to escape. But someone had decided that the silver chain was necessary to maintain the illusion. It turned its head and looked at Donny, blinked, then looked back out at people passing the restaurant. They kept their heads covered with slowly dissolving broadsheets, walking umbrellas, the sanitary hoods of cheap mylar ponchos one found in Venice Sector’s canal stalls. The shop’s name blinked above the door, staining the crow’s pure white feathers with multicolored light.

I never said I had a life-changing experience.”

But that’s what you wanted, right? Some kind of relief? Some kind of explanation?” Friendly rested his hand over Donny’s on the table, but Donny pulled away. For a brief moment, Friendly stopped smiling. “It’s what everyone in the group wants, Donny. But what does The Book say about that?”

Donny looked down at his cup of jasmine tea, the little black grains at the bottom. Graciela said her mother taught her how to read the future with tea leaves. He wondered if she could read the past.

I don’t know.”

Friendly drank from his bowl, noticed that the tip of one of his shorter dreads had gotten into the soup, smiled at it like it was a pet, then cleaned it slowly with his paper napkin. As he did this, he recited from memory: “Part two, chapter 13, ‘The Futility of Blame.’ Our problems are of our own making. The synthetic aspects of our being merely symbolize our struggle. We have accepted the truth, that ultimately we have done this to ourselves, and that we can therefore hold no one outside ourselves responsible for the experiences in our lives.”

She was crying . . . when she put me in the drone. She said she was sorry she forgot to make me tea. Then she said, ‘I only wanted to be touched one last time.’ What do you think that means?”

What I think is irrelevant. Since you imagined it, you have to ask what it means to you, what your unconscious was trying to communicate. For example, I’ve noticed you don’t like to be touched.”

The old woman in a ragged kimono, who’d served them, came out from behind the curtain. She frowned, barked something in a language that wasn’t Japanese, went back to the kitchen. Her left arm was filthy white PVC that had been scavenged from a pre-synthetic public service unit. If you lost a limb and you could find an arm or a leg that fit, there were clinics that would wire the servos to a cheap control chip. It wasn’t illegal because nobody cared about the old vaguely human municipal robots. Do it with any version of a synthetic person, though, and the LAPD would make you disappear. Loach once told Donny about a black market synthetic body trade that was big money. But Loach liked to talk.

What else did she say?” Friendly tipped back his soup, then set the bowl down, smiling as if Donny had just told the best joke ever.

I don’t remember much. I was drugged. The Midnight Gladiolus—”

Does not exist. There’s no such plant. There’s an Evening Gladiolus, which went extinct 137 years ago on all continents, but that’s all. I looked it up when you left me that crazy message.”

I don’t know.” Donny squinted at his untouched tea. “I think I asked her if she’d always been the Cultivator. And she said that always is a long time.”

Friendly laughed, shook his head. “Listen to yourself, brother. You definitely need a sponsor.”

Do you like it here, Friendly?”

As in, this noodle house? Yeah, I love this place.”

That’s not what I meant.”

Friendly tilted the bowl and showed him the last fat noodle curled at the bottom. “Do you know why it’s called kitsune, Donny? Because it’s supposed to be the fox’s favorite food. Do you think that’s true?”

They looked at each other.

I think we’re done here.” Donny stood and wouldn’t shake Friendly’s hand, which seemed to amuse Friendly as much as the prospect of noodles being named after foxes.

Look, I’ll get you another copy of The Book. And Donny? Read it this time, okay?”

Her name is Mera,” said Donny.

Friendly grinned, nodded slowly. “Right.”

 

< Read Ch. 9 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IN >

< Read Ch. 7 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IJ >