There had been another coup, but that didn’t matter to Alba. All Governmentalists were alike; so what if they exchanged one secretary for another? The anarchist papers were cheering over the shift, but Alba knew better. If the “coup” had reached the newspapers, it was little more than a PR stunt. Alba wasn’t a cynic. She was just a realist, and in the City, it amounted to the same thing.
In college, Alba had been a rebel, but it wasn’t until she left the school system that she discovered how the world really worked. In her last year she’d become enamored of a journalist, a vibrant, sexy woman named Medina. Medina had convinced her to take a year off, to explore the slums that Alba had never seen. Medina was writing a story, a daring exposÃ© of the darker life, and Alba was caught up in the thrill.
They traveled together for three months, hitching rides on the back rail of subway cars and thumbing lifts from off-duty taxis. Alba had never seen the lives of the poor, the wage slavery sycophants who believed every word of the Governmentalist propaganda and spent their precious hours of freedom reading tabloids about the lives of the rich and influential.
It was in one of a long line of cheap hotel rooms, when Medina was sated and sleeping in their broken-springed bed, when Alba picked up the digitizer to read Medina’s half-written report by the light of the neon signs outside.
“Dee. Dee, what is this?” Alba reached out and shook Medina’s shoulder, sharply recalling her to the waking world. The dark-eyed woman blinked sleepily.
“It’s my report. You should know that. I only work on it every night. Come back to bed,” Medina breathed, tugging lightly on Alba’s arm.
“Your reportâ€¦ this can’t be your report.” Alba ignored the touch, her eyes still fixed on the digitizer. “There’s nothing in here about the things we did or the people we saw. This is allâ€¦ Dee, this reads like Governmentalist propaganda!”
Medina sat up and tapped one of the buttons on the digitizer. A new document came up, this one filled with names and addresses and detailed notes on the disaffected people they’d visited.
“That part’s already been sent to the recording bureau,” Medina explained with a secretive, playful smile. She chuckled and moved closer to Alba, slipping an arm around the younger woman’s slim waist. “I had no idea you were such an idealist.”
“What are you talking about?” Alba pushed Medina away. “I’m no patriot. Are you telling me you sent all this away to the government? Do you have any idea what they’re going to do with this information? Weren’t you listening to the people we met?”
“They’ll take care of it,” Medina said soothingly.
“Take care of it! You mean they’ll arrest them for dissension! Dee, these people spoke to us in confidence. You’re a journalist. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
Medina stared at Alba for a moment, then looked down and shook her head, smirking. “You’re so naÃ¯ve.” She leaned back, stretching like a cat. “Journalism doesn’t exist in the City. It’s impossible, even if someone was foolish enough to try. Even the anti-government newsletters are screened.” She gazed out the window, a look of proprietary fondness in her eyes. “I don’t do this because I’m some sort of idealist or rebel. I’d be fired in less than a day. I do it to keep myself fedâ€”and maybe get a few thrills in the process.” She looked back at Alba and grinned wickedly. “That’s how you play the game.”
“You’re turning people in to die.” Alba’s voice was flat, and she wasn’t smiling. Medina sighed.
“Is that any different from what the anarchists do? I’m letting the government know when someone’s working against the state. What they do with that knowledge isn’t my problem. Anarchists kill people with their own handsâ€”innocent people, government clerks and flunkies who’ve never touched a gun in their livesâ€”and they call it ‘liberating their souls for freedom.’ If anything’s wrong about our City, that’s it.”
Alba didn’t answer, and eventually Medina sighed and rolled over, falling back asleep. Alba read the entire report, all the data collected, all the names. Then she reformatted the drive. She gathered her clothes, stuffed her things into her worn duffel bag, and picked up the digitizer again. In a new document, she typed the words, THIS IS HOW I PLAY THE GAME.
Six months later, when she was the leader of her own rebel cell, Medina was the first soul Alba liberated in the fight for freedom.
“How’s it going, Cody? Got another level yet?” Miss Katrina knelt down next to Cody’s desk and peered over his shoulder at the game displayed on the screen. Cody looked up at her and grinned without pausing.
“I’m almost level 28!” he declared. “I finally got past that mountain with the pterodactyls and the squid.”
“Oh, yeah?” Miss Katrina made a note in her teacher’s book and smiled at Cody. “How’d you make it?”
“Turned out it was easy,” Cody admitted with a sheepish grin. “I just had to subtract to find their pattern integer, and then when I was jumping I put in the answers and timed it just right! I was adding before,” he admitted, “but I get it now.” He gave Miss Katrina a sunny smile and then glued his eyes back on the video game screen, where the digital Cody was asking NPCs for their opinions on the fall of Russian democracy so that he could properly advise his NPC feudal lord and thereby complete a quest.
“That’s good to hear! You’re going to be up to 30 in no time,” Miss Katrina praised Cody, making notations and circling his progress in red. Cody had come a long way, and when she punched up the game readout, it indicated his grades were up to high Bs and low As in areas where he’d only been scraping by before. It seemed he’d finally gotten the hang of the interface.
“You bet,” Cody agreed, his eyes now focused entirely on the screen as his lips moved, memorizing and synthesizing data.
“Good work,” Miss Katrina told her student, and moved on to the next. This was one Darrell Sumpter, whose experience point gain had been lagging lately, but Miss Katrina was sure that with the proper mentoring he’d be the same level as his peers in no time.
“I got it!” Dave cried, exuberant, brandishing a cheap plastic comb as he burst into the dorm room. “Jake! I finally got it!”
Jake looked up from his fuel cell textbook and eyed Dave, unimpressed. “So your hair will finally stop looking like a rat’s next. Great. The world will rejoice.” He didn’t budge from his reclining position on his bed.
“No, you numbskull, not the comb. It’s what’s on the comb,” Dave corrected. He brought it over to his desk and fumbled in the top drawer for tweezers and a small Ziploc bag, still holding the comb carefully, almost reverently, between thumb and forefinger.
“I don’t get it,” Jake said flatly, watching Dave’s antics only because they were slightly more entertaining than his homework.
“The hair on the comb,” Dave elaborated, holding the plastic piece up to the light while he carefully tweezed a single strand of gold from between the comb’s tines, then sealed it up in the plastic bag.
Jake sat up, frowning, and let his textbook fall back against his chest. “Whose hair is it?”
“Arnold’s,” Dave answered, his lit-up eyes never leaving the bag. “It took a while, but I finally got it. Now I can go to that place in the Slats and give this fucker what he deserves.”
“You mean the revenge business?” Jake’s attention was how fully focused on Dave. “I thought you were joking about that.”
“No way. I told you, I’ve been saving up for this for month.”
Jake watched Dave gloat over the hair with a growing sense of unease. “Why don’t you just commission a hologram?” he asked. “Hell of a lot faster, and cheaper, too.”
“I did that last year. It’s worthless. Holograms don’t have bones to break.” Dave began searching his desk for an envelope and pen.
Jake flinched, though he knew Dave was too distracted to notice, and a few seconds passed before he could form his reply. “By the time they finish growing that thing, you won’t give a shit about Arnold anymore, so what’s the point?”
“Shows what you know. They’ve got speed vats now. If I put in my order today, I can have him in two weeks.” Dave labeled the envelope, then slid the plastic bag in and sealed it tight.
“Is not. They’ve got all the documentation at the lab. It’s legal as long as you grow the clone without a functional brain stem. Hereâ€”” Dave rummaged through the papers on his desk and tossed a glossy brochure onto the bed next to Jake. “Read it yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Jake didn’t move. He stayed silent for several minutes as Dave pulled out a stack of forms and began filling in information. At last, Jake looked up at Dave’s back and asked, “Soâ€¦ what are you going to do with it once they grow it?”
“Well, you only get one hour,” Dave replied without turning around. “I haven’t decided exactlyâ€¦” Jake could see Dave’s eyes narrow in profile as his roommate’s hand clenched on the pen. “But he’s going to be sorry he ever thought about touching Julia.” The bitterness in Dave’s voice sent a shiver down Jake’s spine.
“How can it be sorry without a functional brainstem?” Jake asked, his voice oddly thick.
“Oh, well he can’t, of course,” Dave said with an embarrassed laugh. He turned to face Jake for the first time since he’d come in and flashed a sheepish grin. “But close enough, right?”
Jake didn’t answer, and after a moment Dave turned back to the desk. “Well, I’m gonna go put my order in. Wish me luck.” He didn’t wait for an answer before he left, which was fortuitous because Jake didn’t have one.
In the wake of Dave’s departure, the rushing in Jake’s ears seemed even louder. He stared at the brochure for several minutes without touching it. At last he stood up, letting the fuel cell textbook fall harmlessly on the bed, and moved over to open the window. For a few moments he stood still, breathing in the chill. Then he picked up the small comb from his dresser and threw it out the window as hard as he possibly could.
“You’re being irrational.”
“I know.” Sandra’s grey-green eyes matched the sight below her, mesmerized by the crashing of waves against one of the few beaches left in the world. She didn’t look away, not even to meet the irritated gaze of her husband across the restaurant table. “But doesn’t it get to you, too? It’s soâ€¦ huge.”
Mark rolled his eyes and took his annoyance out on a dinner roll that didn’t really deserve it. “Sandy, do you have any idea how much I paid for this view? The least you could do is try to enjoy it-or tolerate it, for the sake of our anniversary.”
“I told you I was afraid of water.” Sandra didn’t look up. The ocean was far below them, but she could still see the waves, reckless and unconstrained by the neat, sanitary conveniences of human life. Once there had been many oceans, covering the majority of the planet’s surface. Now most of that had dried up, which in Sandra’s eyes made life tolerable-but this one still persisted, and here she was confronted with it. She couldn’t look away.
“I didn’t think you were this serious,” Mark muttered, putting the maligned roll aside on a china plate. “I mean-” He picked up his glass of purified, recycled table-water, the highest quality. “Look at this.” He waved it in her face. “That doesn’t bother you, does it?”
Sandra finally glanced up, then frowned and flinched away from the glass. “No, not as much,” she conceded. “But that’s different. The oceanâ€¦” Her eyes strayed to the window again, caught in the billowing waves. “It’s so huge. Soâ€¦ violent. People used to die at sea, you know.”
“Sure, in the dark ages,” Mark scoffed. “And it’s not huge. It’s miniscule; barely a tenth of what it was when our great grandparents were around.” He pulled out his cellphone. “I can punch it up on satellite and prove it.”
“No-Mark, it’s okay.” Sandra sighed and tore her eyes away from the ocean view. “I’m sorry. Let’s just enjoy our meal.” She smiled wanly at her husband, who finally put away the cellphone, though not without much grumbling.
Throughout dinner, Sandra was careful not to look out the window. But she could feel it, crashing silently just outside her vision, a malignant and uncontrollable force-perhaps the last uncontrollable force that the world held. Sandra kept her eyes on her plate, but when she and Mark finally left the restaurant, her expensive glass of water remained untouched.
“Iljek, it’s time for another piece.”
The Interplanetary Artist Laureate, holder of the Sigil of Creativity, founder of the Union of Visionary Crafters, chair of the Board of Humanities at Reykjavik University of the Arts, leaned back in his lounge chair and put his porn on mute, giving his assistant a long-suffering sigh. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Elarii bit her lip and tried to hold Iljek’s upside-down gaze without letting stress get the better of her. Breathe. Breathe. That was what her therapist had told her. Deep, calming breaths. Elarii took a quick sniff of oxygen from the decorative tube affixed to her robes at the shoulder. Calming breaths. “No, Iljek, I’m not. It’s been almost four months since you produced any new art.”
Iljek snorted and glanced back at the holo-dish projecting his entertainment. “So the creative spirit hasn’t hit me yet. Tell the papers I’m sequestered in meditation or whatever.”
“That’s what we told them last month,” Elarii told Iljek, reaching down to surreptitiously turn off the alarm on her blood pressure meter. “Last time it was three months. We can’t just keep stringing them along without anything to show for it. You need product.”
Iljek sighed and sat up in his chair, scratching his head with one hand and his balls with the other. Elarii had been on him for several weeks about this, but the tone in her voice told him she was getting desperate, and that meant it really was time for him to earn his keep. “All right. Bring me a recorder.”
Relief thrumming through her body, Elarii came around to the front of the chair and set down the silver cube she’d had prepared for the last two months. Hesitant to do anything that might break the fitful spell of productivity, she didn’t speak, just turned on the device and backed away. Iljek held out his hand and she pressed a baton into it, the sophisticated tool that would tell the three-dimensional recorder what to paint in the air in response to Iljek’s creative vision.
Standing slowly, Iljek faced the recorder. He was silent for several moments, and the hush over the room was only accented by the soundless ecstasy of the porn star writhing doggie-style in front of the dish. Elarii stayed absolutely still. She wasn’t worried about disturbing Iljek’s ‘creative process,’ but if he got distracted, there might never be anything to show for this brief moment of responsibility.
Suddenly, Iljek’s hand shot out, and a splash of colour appeared in the air in response to the movement and angle of the baton. A quick twist and the shape took on a metallic sheen. With gyrations almost as complicated and random as the image itself, Iljek soon produced a visual cacophony that closely resembled the regurgitated spleen of a Geritenal llama. The artist grinned and stuck the baton into an empty beer can, chucking the contraption through the recording area with a final flourish, creating a puce-gold splotch through the center of the image. “There,” he said triumphantly, putting his hands on his hips and then flopping back into his chair. “How d’ya like that, huh?”
Elarii smiled with pure relief. “It’s perfect, Iljek. True creative vision.” She moved forward and carefully disentangled the baton, turning it off and setting the recorder to freeze.
Iljek grinned like a madman and resettled his underwear over his skinny artist’s stomach. “Now where’s the remote…? Ah, thanks.” He took the device as Elarii offered it and hit the dish back on, settling in with a happy sigh.
Elarii shook her head and carried the recorder away, leaving Iljek to his holo-women and ‘creative juices.’ She locked herself in her office, a room used only once every few months–if she was lucky–and placed the recorder on her desk. When she pressed the button, Iljek’s creation sprang to life, in all its three-dimensional glory. Elarii frowned at it for a few moments, deeply considering the swirls and splotches arrayed chaotically across the canvas of air. Everything was still.
At last, her eyes brightened, and Elarii picked up a stylus and turned on her computer monitor. Across the top of her screen, she scrawled Inverted Innocence–the suffering of the Ternean meteor disaster. Sinking back in her desk chair, Elarii smirked. This one would be easy; the art institutions of the galaxy would have her heart-wrenching interpretation of Iljek’s scribbles within the next forty-eight hours. She’d have to clear her schedule to accommodate the coming lecture circuit.
Stylus in hand, Elarii bent over her tablet, scribbling away. Now the real art could begin.