“Damn, we’re in a tight spot!”
Simon had never seen a more troublesome mentor in all of his training. He just sat wide-eyed with two suitcases in his arms, stuffed behind a pile of debris from their bridge-port fight, his legs poking out. Simon’s maverick mentor Alabaster Jones was firing a X347 over the cover at the raining ion flames of the entire Solar Flare drug cartel of New San Diego. Simon began to wonder just how a simple trip to the baggage claim at the space-port had gotten him into this situation.
“Frag! I’m out of juice! This fight needs to get dirtier. Hey, Squire! Squire!” A beefy hand slapped poor Simon on the back of his head, making him blink.
“Yes?” He narrowed his eyes up at the flamboyant eye of the storm.
“Pay attention, kid!” he said as another ion blast disintegrated dust just beyond them on another pillar of concrete. “I need that Microsoft Assault 4 from the blue case. And on the double!” Simon hurriedly unsnapped the case and tugged out the green-hued sleek, rifle-like weapon and handed it up to Jones. Jones snagged the gun and began blasting. A flare of red issued from the muzzle of the plasma weapon, shading them both.
“Jesus!” Jones ducked back behind the cover and shoved the gun at Simon, “I said A4! Not P1! I just sank a hole the size of a football field in the bridge!” Simon began to apologize but Jones just grabbed the blue steel weapon from the case and loaded it, his back hugging the rubble.
“Hm. Wonder if that bridge will hold. Kid, better grab the Smith and Wesson Auto-Fletch. We might be making a run.”
Simon had the balls to slam the blue case shut and tug the gray one up on top. “What in God’s name did you do to piss these guys off?” He tugged the dull gray weapon, relatively small in comparison, from the case. Easily gripped in one hand, the multi-barreled flchette would serve him well while Jones continued to lay waste to armies with the A4.
“What?” Jones winced as the loud roar of the Assault 4 plugged them good. The smart-shells were doing their job: getting rid of the cars they were using for cover. He yelled down at Simon. “Oh, well suffice to say, kid, you shouldn’t sleep with any woman you meet at a smuggling bar! Well, that and steal cargo.” More rumbling from the weapon of choice, and Jones looked satisfied, “Yeah, that should buy us some time.”
He switched out the smart-shell with a concentrated ray-beam complete with microwave sequencing. Sneaking a peak back over the cover, he grumbled and looked to Simon. He was sitting with a gun in his lap and a look of complete frustration and comedic anger on his face. “Kid… I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but… looks like they brought a Sony Atomizer, ’75 model. And, well… they’re aiming it at the structure.”
Simon sneered and mockingly aimed the flchette at Jones before his shaky hand fell back to his lap. Jones only poured salt onto the wound.
“I hope you can swim, kid.”
A professor of mine once said that creativity was the last resort of losers.
That it was an evolutionary quirk, of no more merit than a giraffe’s elongated neck or a platypus’s duckbill. That from an evolutionary standpoint, creativity was not worth mentioning, and worth even less compared to something like flight.
Speaking of which, here. Take this. Remember to breathe deep.
You’ve imagined what it would be like, right? Sure, we all have. What it would feel like to be up there. Unencumbered by some claustrophobic airplane. To be actually flying.
Yeah, no, man. That’s perfectly normal. Just breathe deep. It’ll pass.
But, yeah. We’ve all thought that. Like we belong up there. Like the fall from the Garden of Eden is more literal than we ever thought. That flight is really just an evolutionary step away.
You’re feeling it now, aren’t you? Move your arms. Isn’t that amazing?
What my professor never understood is that evolution is slow and random. That its approval is not something we should strive for.
Not when creativity can grab evolution by the balls.
Your system should have adjusted by now. Welcome to a whole new point of view.
Ready for lift-off?
On rainy days, on days when the air smelled like ozone and soot and water fell swollen with chronoradiation, Anton climbed to the roof of the tallest building in Pripyat to watch the sun peel the clouds from the horizon at sunset. The first nine blocks were easy: he pushed the girl ahead of him in a rusted shopping cart. The stairs were more difficult, but heâ€™d fashioned a sling out of an old backpack to secure the girl to his back. The whole ordeal took nearly three hours, so he always started early. Unfortunately, because the stairwell was windowless and he had no way to measure time, sometimes the sky was already dark when he opened the door to the roof.
Anton thought of the girl as Antonina, though heâ€™d never learned her name. Like most of the shadow children, her metabolism had slowed after the incident, and any physical aging in the last decade was negligible. Her body was eighteen months old, he estimated. There was no way to know if her brain grew in body time or thought time, but he fancied that she was nearly eleven behind those dark eyes. That was how old his daughter had been.
The front left wheel of the cart screeched with every revolution. Anton used it to keep his footsteps in rhythm. Every three shrieks, he leaned hard against the plastic rail to shift his weight from his leg. It was two thousand and twenty six steps to the building, but only one thousand and thirteen of them were painful. The injury was relatively minorâ€”a ligament torn during a game of tag with his daughterâ€”but, like Antonina, his body moved in Pripyat time and it could take decades for the tissue to knit.
Above them, the dim patch of light inched towards the horizon and the first shade of smog-soaked red spilled over the empty village. Anton estimated it would take another hour to make it to the roof, which put them perfectly on schedule with the darkening sky.
As he walked, Anton hummed a song heâ€™d picked up in the university pubs of Moscow back when his wife had been his girlfriend and his daughter had been a laughable impossibility. When Antonina’s chubby face opened into a broad grin, Anton tried to sing the chorus. Most of the words had been forgotten, and his syllables washed ahead like echoes swirling over the sooty streets.
“Did you hear about the breakout on the southside?” Alison twisted her head around to watch Misty pulling off her decontamination helmet, which emitted a soft suction sound as her head popped out of the air-tight seal.
“What? I couldn’t hear you through this. You know I hate it when you do that.” Misty shook out her brown hair and went to sit at the kitchen bar, taking a deep breath, breathing in the viral air. She felt it take effect as her hands lay palm-flat on the surface, feeling the sticky texture of the unwashed counter top.
“I said, did you hear about the breakout? The Government is all over it. They brought a tankard of Influenza.” Alison said it matter-of-factly, but in reality she was scared of whatever would take a tankard of Influenza to get rid of. Her hands fidgeted in her lap as she looked at the dull glow of the television.
Misty was getting used to her new disease. She bit her lip as she tried to pour herself some bacteria, her breath a bit broken by the viruses running through her system. “S-so what did they say about us? What about East Town? Are there any left?”
“Antibiotics? No. They found a case of Vioxx and two or three instances of Prozac, but nothing to be scared of, hon.”
Misty was relaxed now, allowing her body to give way, and she just smiled at the knowledge that outside was going to be safe soon. Her fingers tugged the cup of soiled water towards her and she sipped it, tasting the tangy, bitter fluid.
She sighed at the taste and opened her clear blue eyes. “You need to get some more Flu tonight. We’re all out and you know how I hate going to work without Flu. I get all shaky and shit…”
Alison was paying attention to the sore on her arm where the flesh-eating virus had been working, and she picked at it once or twice. She was barely able to hear that Misty had spoken, she was so transfixed. “Huh? Yeah, yeah… look, I’m trying to save up to get us some new Pox. You know the news said that Pox is curing Zantac and Antibiotics on the East coast. I wanna try it out.”
Misty coughed and then felt her lungs get tight. It was a good sign. “Okay, I’ll see what I can find on my way to work tomorrow.”
Carol laughed, her plump cheeks rising over tiny eyes. “Admit it, you’re a genius.”
Jude shook his head and his dark silky hair slipped over his pale face. “I do okay, but I wouldn’t say I’m a genius.”
Carol smirked and put her hands on her fleshy hips. “How about Renaissance man? Come on! When you were seventeen you conducted experiments on global warming with Nobel Prize winners.”
He smiled rakishly. “It wasn’t just global warming. The simulations were dealing with the negative environmental effects of mankind on the planet. There were hundreds of variables involved; global warming was just one of them.”
Carol leaned on the bar. “Right, then you decided that wasn’t enough and you switched to medicine.”
Jude shrugged. “No one cares about the environment. It was too depressing to watch simulations of humanity killing itself.” Jude scowled, imagining his great grandchildren burning. “Besides, there is more money in viral research.”
Carol wiped her sweaty hands on her square skirt, a piece of clothing that looked like it was pulled from her grandmother’s closet. “Sure, yeah, you’re curing the worlds illnesses for the money.” Carol put her wide hand on Jude’s shoulder. He smiled flatly and pulled away. Carol grinned back at him, freckles stretching on her cheeks. “On top of all this professional stuff, you conduct those martial arts and survival skills workshops on weekends.”
Jude put down his beer. “That’s just for friends, it’s nothing big.”
“Right. Nothing.” Carol looked at their friends, smoking and drinking around the bar. “If I didn’t know any better Jude, I would say you were building an army.” Carol giggled, and Jude’s face went blank and grey, like a shut off television screen. He laughed a moment later, a hollow, dark sound. Carol’s eyes widened. She knew, and it was his fault.
Later that night, Jude went to see her, holding a bottle of old red wine in his hands. Carol’s house was cluttered, dried paint stains, magazine clippings and fabric in piles around the floor. It was two AM and she was drowsy, her eyes puffed and sleepy. She let him in and asked him what was wrong.
Jude had been crying.
He opened and poured the wine without asking. They drank as he told her everything she wanted to hear. Her face beamed, suddenly and unexpectedly pretty. Then she sputtered, wine dripping down her chin as she tumbled out of her chair and landed heavily on the carpet. Her body was heavy and soft, her nails trimmed and painted. Jude ran the tub and set her inside, gently laying her head on the ceramic. He hoped that Carol had drunk enough of the sedative that she would stay under.
Jude told himself that when they rebuilt the world, he will tell them about her, how she died to protect the secret of his plan. They would erect monuments in her name; he would see to that. After the plague his handpicked civilization would all know the truth. They would call her the mother of peace. The children might not know her face, but they would appeal to her as a saint. He told her this in the bathroom, her body slipping again and again under the warm water.
It surprised him how much it took to cut her flesh. It bent like rubber wrinkles around the razorblade. He had to try over and over before he punctured the skin, pressing hard against freckled meat. Blood slipped over her arm and under his fingernails. His hands were shaking. Jude sawed against the skin, grinding his teeth. This was for everyone.
In the evenings I would go into the studio, tablet in hand, and sit there for hours, just sketching. My husband had bought me a full-wall screen for our last anniversary, finally giving in to the idea that without my art, we wouldn’t have had a marriage. After twenty-two years, it was an admirable concession to make. I would turn the lights down low and let the soft light of the screen illuminate my face as I sketched. I liked the way the color of the room changed as I painted, bathing me in whatever mood I wanted to create. The big screen was the best present anyone had ever given me, though I’m sure my husband regretted it more than once when I spent sleepless nights in the studio. He never complained, though, and I appreciated that.
My gallery was on 23rd and Spruce, in the New City, with some of the highest resolution displays in the business. Naturally it wasn’t an exclusive gallery, but since my pieces sold better than anyone else’s they tended to give me most of the showings. I sold some prints, but only on rare occasions; for the most part, I sold chips, compatible with any screen of appropriate quality and etched for uniqueness. My husband used to grumble that I made more in a day than he did in a week, but since I only sold pieces once or twice a fortnight I considered us even.
It was late January when I saw the painting. It was at a hanging in one of the offshoot galleries, one that I had stopped into on a whim on a cold, dirty-snow afternoon. The room was small and subtly lit. The first thing I noticed was that the screens the paintings were on hadn’t been coordinated to illuminate the works. I frowned and stepped closer, meaning to take a better look before going to the gallery manager to expose such an appalling lack of foresight, but gasped instead. The paintings weren’t displayed on screens. The texture on them was real, not a clever illusion. At first I was appalled. How dare someone hang paintings that were made with real paint? That didn’t take talent! It was like cheating. I opened my mouth to tell someone, anyone, of this terrible deception, but she spoke and my words went unvoiced.
“Would you like to touch it?”
I gaped at the woman behind me, open-mouthed. She was small, thinner than I was, with square glasses and a little button nose and a round face ringed by hair that was dyed a quiet silver. Her smile was as small as her frame. “Go ahead, Lily. That’s what it’s there for.”
My mind reeled at the fact that she knew my name, forgetting that everybody knew my name in the art scene, but I reached out all the same, running my fingertips over the canvas. I could feel every smoothness and every imperfection. I could feel the texture of the canvas where the color was thin and the thickness of the paint where she had gone over something more than once. It was dynamic, breathtaking; a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional frame. I’m not sure when she left, but when I finally lifted my fingers, I was alone in the gallery.
That night I smashed my screen. I threw a vase into itsomething antique, I thinkand smiled with satisfaction. I’d changed my mind. The vase was the best present anyone had ever given me.