The catwalk was narrow, rusty, and in violation of at least four safety codes, but Juan didn’t care. When he stepped from the concrete landing by the elevator onto the precarious metal walkway, he grinned. It was a good day.
“Eight pounds seven ounces,” he told his coworker for the sixth time. Still, Jamal afforded him a hearty chuckle as he dragged the heavy light-box from the elevator. “Juanita. I like the sound of that. It’s a good, solid name, right?”
Jamal grunted an affirmation. “Get the other end of this, would you?”
Juan returned to the landing and grabbed the handle without breaking from his train of thought. Together, they hauled the metal crate onto the catwalk. Nine thousand feet beneath them, the light-studded skeleton of San Diego was recumbent with sleep, twinkling lazily in the hours before artificial dawn. Somewhere, in the more twilit area to the south, Carmen and Juanita were sound asleep in the concrete cradle of their home.
“She’s smart, you can tell already. Her eyes are all open and she keeps looking at stuff. She’ll be a city planner, I bet, if I can get the money for taxes. Or a doctor. Doctor Juanita Del Rosa. She’ll live on the upside.”
Again, Jamal grunted. “How much was the hospital bill?”
“Four thousand,” Juan said. “That included registration, though. And taxes aren’t due for a month. If we sell the car, we’ll be class A next year and everything’ll be covered.”
“We’ve been planning for years,” he said. Juan swung his end of the light box over the edge of the railing and hopped down to the broad, flat surface of the sun panel. Jamal lowered his end slowly, but it still fell the last six inches with a shuddering clatter.
“Christ!” Jamal yelled. “Pay attention!”
Juan dragged the crate to section 34-b, where the carbon-copied orders directed him. “Doctor Juanita Del Rosa,” he repeated with a smile.
“Ain’t no maintenance-worker’s kid gonna be a doctor,” Jamal snapped, now irritated at his partner’s lack of focus. Juan was unfazed. He popped the latch of the light box and Jamal leaned in, checking the massive LED panel for cracks.
“She will. You watch.”
“So what are you going to tell her, then, when she comes home crying because all the scientists’ kids are making fun of her? Daddy’s an ‘illumination technology specialist?'”
“I’ll tell her the truth,” Juan said as he slid the black and silver pane into its slot. “I’ll tell her I keep the sun from burning out.”
The cards were set down on the table, shuffled up, and dealt out. Somewhere in a little back room on the U.S.S. Horizon, a dangerous deal was being made. Reuger was sitting with his suitcase held on his lap, watching in the dim light as the dealer tossed out the five cards. There were three others there: highly decorated generals, and an off-color presidential hopeful standing around a titanium table on a space cruiser on course for Delphi 3.
The cards were dealt and the deal was made. For all intents and purposes, the man with the suitcase should never have existed. He prevented war just as much as he started it; he fed the poor as often as he starved them. If it were to get out that he existed, people would view change as something orchestrated rather than an act of fate.
â€œGentlemen, the offer for this gamble is Delphi 3. The Ethoian Royalty has squandered its time in office and the position is now up for grabs.â€ He nodded slowly to the dealer, who began reading the terms of poker.
Each man stepped up towards the table and took their cards, viewing them with stone-cold faces. Every twitch of a brow, every muscle that dared move in an opponentâ€™s faces was like a storm drifting over the plains and mountains of Delphi 3. A single flinch could mean that the Radical Fascists dictated the future of the planet.
The bets were placed. Each man had something to lose and the world to gain. Families were placed next to sports cars, which were set upon documents for military weapons. The dealer need not make out the worth of every piece, because there were no rounds, no second chances. You went all in, or you folded before the betting began.
Reuger sat in and watched intently. His interest was purely morbid, as he knew exactly what the others would give him when one became the victor. The time to call was now.
Two kings, two fives for the General of the Republic of Luna.
Three jacks for the High Lord of the Outer Rings.
Andâ€¦ Full House for the President of the United States of Earth.
Reuger was pleased that weapons were not allowed in the chamber, though he knew the losers would need only one bullet each. The losing parties hung their heads and left with barely enough motivation to find the nearest airlock. The President wiped sweat from his brow as he smiled at Reuger, who returned the gesture with a stony glare.
â€œDelphi 3, Mr. President. Enjoy the mead.â€
Cory pressed his foot on the rubber accelerator so hard that the car began to smell like peanuts from the oil it ran on. The couple in the back seat started making out viciously, tearing at each otherâ€™s clothes. They were middle aged, sixty or so, horny on a cocktail of uppers and hormones. They didnâ€™t care where Cory took them; they were only there because the cab was cheaper than a hotel room. Cory laughed to himself, delighted at the coupleâ€™s enthusiasm. He slapped the plastic window on the back seat closed and inserted the womanâ€™s credit line into his car. The car accessed her account, withdrawing money as the seconds flipped by on his red digital display.
Cory drove like a madman, like a bat on fire, like a gamer with a thousand lives. He accelerated around corners, trusting his system to warn him about oncoming vehicles. The woman began to moan in the back seat, and Cory smiled, a little turned on despite himself. It was the perfect backdrop for his show. Cory touched the broadsword on the seat beside him for good luck and pressed a button on his neck, connecting him to his personal server. In a few seconds he felt the network buzz inside him, warmth rushing down his spine.
â€œStreaming.â€ He said, and about four hundred people locked to his signal â€œIâ€™m live.â€ Flags popped up on the inside of his vision, greetings and questions from his regulars. He dismissed them with a hard blink. He would deal with them later. Now, now was for the show.
â€œIâ€™m Cory, and this is Backseat Metro, where I talk about my life as a cabbie in the big Eastern Sea City, from New York all the way down to DC. Right now Iâ€™m driving on the Clinton Bridge which is still stained black from the poison cloud that killed all those people last year.” Cory’s fans liked it when he put a bit of news into his show.
“They say that the black doesnâ€™t make the bridge dangerous, itâ€™s just a residue from the non-lethal part of the cloud, but I still put my filters on when I drive over the damned thing. Whether or not the black is toxic, the vampire gangs sure like it, hanging out on the viewing sites, trading their narcotic bites to junkies for blood. Part of me wishes that they would sandblast the thing white again, and part of me just loves the retro 17th century thing the kids have going on here.â€
The woman in the back screamed passionately, her naked back pressed against the plastic divider between the front and back seat.
Cory glanced back at the couple. â€œSay hello to Roy and Michelle everyone. They are celebrating their first retirement into their second careers. Right now Iâ€™m taking them to the drive through Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the homeless bohemians are working on painting the front steps. It looks like they are painting giant self-portraits. I heard that Police have tried to pull them off, but the college kids surround them in protest. Personally, I think the whole thing is good publicity for the museum.â€
Michelle and Roy were rhythmically slamming their bodies against the back window.
â€œRoy and Michelle arenâ€™t particularly interested in destinations folks, not physical destination anyway, so right now Iâ€™m taking them where I want to go, and recently Iâ€™ve had this hankering to see this painting. I donâ€™t know what itâ€™s called, but itâ€™s near the end of the drive through tour, and itâ€™s of a man standing on stairs, in a dark corridor wearing a long white robe. There is something in his eyes that just says strength to me. Heâ€™s clearly a warrior, and of all the scenes of romance and religious stuff in that museum, he really stands out. I like to think that someday, Iâ€™m going to be like that guy in the painting.â€ Cory patted the electric broadsword on the seat beside him, his baby.
â€œWhen I retire, Iâ€™ll leave the cab and feel the cement of the Metro highway under my feet. I wonâ€™t ride but Iâ€™ll walk the entire length of it, Iâ€™ll meet every face and landmark I speed by, and Iâ€™ll know the whole thing like a lover.â€
The backseat was suddenly quiet; Roy and Michelle were slumped over each other, exhausted.
â€œHappy Retirement folks.â€ Cory switched off the feed and took the couple home.
Her ass was blinking blue when I walked in. Thatâ€™s how I knew she wanted me. The light was only slightly diffused by her skirt, a new material that changed from black to transparent when her cheeks glowed. The whole skirt was affected, giving me a clear view of her naked thighs. I thought about luming my crotch, but that seemed to be the wrong tact with this girl. Unlike a lot of the girls at the clubâ€”and some of the guys now, I noticed–she didnâ€™t have any lumes on her thighs, only on her rear and calves. I always thought that made girls look slutty, anyway. I lit up my forearms green, and I moved closer.
She smiled a shy, pastel smile at me, the colors rippling across her teeth. I had my glow crawl up my shoulders and curl around my neck, only to jet down to my feet. Itâ€™s a pre-set routine, sure, but when you ask a girl to dance, itâ€™s best to keep in simple. I mean, I didnâ€™t even know her yet. I only just started to go through her sexual history, for cryinâ€™ out loud.
Her toenails strobed and her smile got brighter. We moved to the dance floor, her fingertips glowing blue. I lit up my fingernails and handspirals, a charged the lightning for my forearms. Her sex-hist checked clean, and I could see by the dancing lights on her temple that said mine did too. She was a angel, this girl. And then she became one, glowing holographic wings and neon halo spreading bright. My lighting was on, now, and was cracking in time with the dj. She rubbing her cheek against my arm, the sparks jumping in out of her her pink-lumed hair. Her network nudged mineâ€”forward, but I like that in a girlâ€”and I let her in. Her probes caressed my net, neurons firing as my hair intensity gained. I knew everything about her, and her eyes rolled backing into orange-and-red-strobing neurons as she savored an old memory of mine. I felt the phantom nuzzle of her last boyfriend against my chest, and felt my assured confidence as a lover enhance my arousal. I let my crotch glowâ€”nothing too flashy, just so sheâ€™d noticeâ€”and she moaned quietly at itâ€™s sight, orgasmic lumes waving across her cheeks. She clawed at my back, her fingertips leaving strobing tracking of green and blue. We kissed and the intensity of the glow of both our faces forced me to shut my eyes.
She came like fireworks, like napalm, like holy flames. Our light incinerated us both.
For all its 8 minutes, one of the best relationships I ever had. When we broke up, I was crushed, but I understood the relationship had run its course. After crying green-glowing tears in the ladiesâ€™ room for a few minutes, I adjusted my dress, re-set my eye blinkers, and went back into the club.
There was a guy at the bar who had purple leopard spots that cascaded down his back like rain. Thatâ€™s how I knew he wanted me.
The light was beginning to come to him in a haze of blues and whites. Fredrickâ€™s family stood by, smiling as they waited for him to sit up. The first thing he worried about was not knowing who was who.
â€œIâ€¦ can see.â€ Fredrick was lucky to have received such experimental treatment, and now it paid off. â€œMy eyesâ€¦ hurt, butâ€¦ everything is so, soâ€¦â€
A small girl to his right stood up and hugged him tightly. â€œBright, Daddy! Itâ€™s all bright!â€
She could have been saying it was all right, but Fredrick knew the meaning of the word and he knew that this was his daughter Rosetta. He hugged her back as the Doctors came in to tell him the results. He could barely hear them over the colors and shapes of the room. â€œâ€¦a new vision thanks to sight based on…â€
His wife was pulled aside by the doctors, and Fredrick glanced down at his little girl. Rosetta was eight years old and cute as a button. Her father had imagined her to be somewhat different, but in this initial excitement he had forgotten to care. She still clung to him as if he was going to leave, but he had no plans to go anytime soon.
â€œThe side effects have been, well, different in a few subjects, Mrs. Calter. Weâ€™ve seen some come out just fine, but others have hallucinations or become psychotic.â€ Mrs. Calter didnâ€™t look happy, but how could she not be somewhat pleased at the results? She nodded to the legally-required banter about the side effects as Fredrick smiled over at her.
Just then, a little gray being walked by. Fredrick was still in awe of his surroundings, but his face changed when huge, black opal eyes turned on him and the creatureâ€™s head tilted in an almost curious manner. No one else seemed to be reacting, and all Fredrick could do was stammer nonsense in a whispered tone. He pointed and looked around, surprised that no one else was paying attention.
After the being had examined Fredrick, it started to move over to his daughter, sliding some sort of device from a metallic knapsack. The needle-end of the device was pointed at the back of her neck, and the creature moved around the bed and towards her body as if nothing could get in its way.
By now, Fredrick was screaming bloody murder and yelling at the doctors. They glanced over to him, seeing him point into the nothingness behind his daughter who stepped back from the bed. â€œGet that thing away from my daughter! Itâ€™s going toâ€¦ oh, God! Get that out of her neck!â€
He struggled to get out of bed as one of the doctors hit a speaker panel on the wall and spoke into it urgently, â€œCode 9Z, Code 9Z in the recovery wing.â€ The rest of the staff watched Mr. Calter thrust his fist into the air behind his obviously distressed daughter. The girl was crying and screaming as loudly as Fredrick, who was the only one staring into the black void-like eyes of this creature who had taken a sample of something from the back of Rosettaâ€™s neck. Fredrickâ€™s fists did nothing aside from make shimmers and small waves in its form.
As he was injected with sedatives, Fredrick glanced around at his human attackers. His eyes glazed and the world began to spin. When Mr. Calter was unconscious, they put him in the bed and strapped him down. The creature that had taken a vial of blue fluid from Rosetta Calter jotted down some notes before walking through a wall. The note read: â€œChange our frequencyâ€.
The sound from the slums is no longer the groan of bodies. Hunger cries, cussing, gunshots, the crackle of fires in old trash barrelsâ€”all of these are gone. Our poor no longer freeze or hunger.
I hear it every day on my way home from work, from beneath the narrow steel and concrete bridge that I cut across to make the 20:41 train. Itâ€™s the reason why so few commuters take this route, even though itâ€™s a shortcut around the backlog of foot traffic in Darby Square. The noise comes from below, so far down that I canâ€™t see themâ€”not that I look. But I can hear them.
Itâ€™s a clattering noise, the metallic clicking of limbs or antennae against hard rock and metal. I hear that the streets down on the low levels arenâ€™t always steel, but it sounds like it. Sometimes I hear a low thrum, dozens of them moving at once, milling around aimlessly and hopelessly without work or power. Sometimes itâ€™s only one, and I can follow the mournful clinks as it wanders from outlet to outlet, cable extending and retracting at each one, jacking in to search for even the smallest hint of stray electricity.
Some activists claim that abandoning them is cruel, that it behooves us to care for our creations or at least to destroy them when theyâ€™ve outlived their usefulness, but the city canâ€™t be bothered with the costs. I donâ€™t think anyone pays much attention to those fringe groups, anyway. It was one thing to protest cruelty to living things, but to machines? Even the liberals thought that was taking things a little far.
Me, I donâ€™t buy into all this â€˜machine rightsâ€™ bullshit in the activist pamphlets, but I do think something should be done about those things. I know the government says itâ€™s too late, that itâ€™d take more time and manpower and money to round up all the little creeps than theyâ€™d get back from selling the recyclable parts, but hell. Itâ€™s only getting worse.
Most people donâ€™t ever hear the noise. If you stick to the main corridors, you wonâ€™t. Theyâ€™re all insulated anyway, so sounds from the lower levels donâ€™t filter through. When I have to catch the late train, though, the mournful clatter from below makes my skin crawl.
The fate of the lower classes has been a platform for re-election since history books were invented, but times have changed. Politicians say that beating poverty is our responsibility to the poor, but just between you and me? Itâ€™d be more like a service to the rest of us.