FFFF #12: Dangerous Thoughts 2.1

Even though I’ve completed serializing the first episode here on First Friday Free Fiction, I’m still behind in putting together posts so I’m going to continue right on doing it until I catch up.

What follows is Chapter 1 of Episode 2: Street. If you haven’t read all of the chapters from Episode 1: Hive, you need to go here and do that now or you’ll be totally confused. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I’m going to stop serializing when I’m done putting Episode 2 up. If you want to read the whole story, go here and roll me some gold to buy the books.

As usual, all of this is my intellectual property so don’t reproduce this without attribution.

Text Copyright © 2015 Jake MacMillan

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 1.

 

1. He was outside. He was on the street. And it was nothing like the way Main Street had been rendered online. There were people everywhere, so many that the sight of them made him feel crowded. Gone were Main Street’s clutches of idle shoppers, replaced by two lines of desultory people in threadbare clothing, one line marching to his left and the other to his right, their gray faces slack and pointed at the ground.

The street beyond the curb was six lanes of insanely gnarled traffic made up of ground cars, mostly taxis with faded yellow paintjobs marred by sprays of rust colored acne, caught in bumper to bumper gridlock. All the cars, personal and livery, had been heavily modified with add-on devices attached to their roofs. Whatever these devices were, they were connected to the engine through the hood and to the exhaust pipe by long flex hoses.

Unlike the brightly lit, sunshiny exterior of Main Street, the light here was dim and the color of dried mustard. The buildings that faced the street on both sides were in ramshackle shape at best and boarded up at worst. When he followed their facades up from the ground floor, taking in their depleted and heavily patched exteriors on the way, he saw why the light was so dim and the air so foul. A preternaturally thick smog bank hovered just above sixth floor level, one that looked like it was made of dirty cotton swabs infected with nicotine stains and mustard gas. It gave the whole place a pressed feeling of claustrophobic closeness as if the unnatural ceiling that lowered overhead could simply collapse at any moment.

He found himself reconsidering his plan. He had expected to find a paradise beyond the walls of the hive, his thinking being that anything other than life inside that cloister would necessarily have to be better, but the world outside turned out to be alien and sick and overcrowded. The sidewalk teemed with people whose dour expressions indicated they were well past hope. They appeared to be little more than robots out to feed themselves and their families. Were these joyless zombies so different from the Primitives who resisted any expression of happiness inside the hive?

He reminded himself that this was not his destination. He needed to get to Baltimore, to Baker Street, and collect his money. Shortly after that, he would get Mary and they would fly away to Canada and never have to deal with the poverty and oppression of Pax Americana again.

But how to actually get to Baltimore? He looked around for clues as to how the people who crowded the sidewalk traveled to faraway places. Surely they didn’t all work and live in the shoddy buildings that made up this block.

He noticed a wide steel stairway that led to a platform attached to the crumbling exterior of a nearby building. There were people lined up on metal steps that turned back on themselves to break the climb into two flights. As he watched, a thing like a floating double-decker bus skimmed along the underside of the mustard cloud and dropped down to dock at the platform.

A short, wiry kid of maybe fifteen kept the embarking passengers at bay while the riders piled out. This ginger boy covered with tattoos and pimples then allowed travelers to embark until the interior was full, each passenger shaking his hand exactly three times before boarding. When the interior was full to bursting, the bus lowered itself so the seats welded onto its roof were level with the platform. The top level riders, all of whom wore face covering hoods or gas masks, disembarked before he repeated the boarding sequence, including the oddly automatic handshake, until the bus was full.

Paul watched the heavily laden vehicle sag, noting how the driver played with the thrust to account for the changing weight. Then when the bus was full, it turned in the air and rose high enough to skim the underbelly of the smog layer as it headed away out view. The people in the embarkation line moved up a few steps and waited for the next bus to come.

This was good news. It was apparently quite easy, if not efficient or quick or comfortable, to get around outside the hive after all. You just had to find the right bus and then get in line for it. He was already half way home. All he had to do was get up the stairs until he was close enough to ask the ginger boy where he might find a bus that was going to Baltimore.

He joined the end of the line and took his place among the other corporate serfs, pretending to be just another face in the crowd. The people around him paid neither him nor anything else any mind. Their faces obscured by soiled surgical masks, their eyes lacking any kind of light, they ogled the middle distance of some unseen world with the cockeyed weariness of a lazy eye.

Their shoddy clothes and mussed hair and dirty faces made them look like the discarded action figures of cubicle workers. Their dresses and suits bore the ugly signs of rough patching with a darning needle and stains that couldn’t be removed even after several vigorous attempts. The men wore hats inherited from their fathers or scrounged from charity bins. The women wore plastic flowers that, against all odds, were old enough to appear wilted. And everyone, to the last man and woman, had the beaten look of those who toil to the last of their strength just to earn a wage that would only serve to keep them slightly above starvation level.

He stood in the line unmolested until the next bus came and went and the crowd of zombies advanced a few steps. He was actually on the stairs, whose sloppy welding and slapdash construction reminded him of the hive catwalks, when he heard a voice rise above the general din. “Oh, no, boyee! You got to be affiliated, son!”

Paul looked around to see who had become so agitated and was surprised to see that it was the red headed kid on the top platform.

“Hey, boyee, you can’t be on my plank if you ain’t affiliated. Feel me?”

Paul looked around to see who this ginger gate guard was talking to.

“You, hey,” the kid said and let out a harsh whistle. “I’m talking to you, white collar.”

Paul looked up the line and down again but saw no one in a white collared shirt. Apart from himself. He was wearing the same clothes he wore every day: a white shirt, a pair of black cotton pants that fit so poorly they stopped just above his ankles, and a pair of black leather shoes with hard leather soles. “Me?” he said.

“Yeah, you, dim son,” the ginger boy said. “I don’t cog your jolly. Either affiliate or kick off.”

Paul began to panic. He heard every word that came out of the ginger’s mouth but didn’t understand their meaning. “I’m just going to Baltimore to…” His voice caught in his throat and he was only able to eke out, “Gawain.”

“The G’Ways? I thought they was all dead.” The ginger boy appraised Paul for a moment and then flexed his right bicep to show off a tattoo of a hand dangling a dead rabbit by its ears. “It don’t matter, boyee, the G’Ways got no treaty with the Rabbits. Kick off or get cut.”

Paul didn’t understand what the boy was talking about but he wasn’t stupid. He was obviously being told he wasn’t allowed to use the bus for some reason. He made his way down the stairway, pushing through working people who treated him with a mixture of disgust and repulsion as he passed.

When he reached the sidewalk, the ginger boy leaned over the railing and shouted down at him, “Hey, boyee, I got no hard stick against the G’Ways, never fought ‘em in any struggles or nuttin’, just making my bones here, feel? The Dead Rabbits is set on this. Go down two blocks and scope the Warrior line. They do business with anybody as long as you got the geld.” He winked at Paul and then went back to the business of shaking down the people waiting for the bus.

The Warrior line? Blaylock had told him to take the Red line. He supposed it didn’t matter how he got to Baltimore as long as he somehow managed to arrive at Baker Street with most of his parts in the right places. He mixed in with the people who were headed in the direction the ginger boy had pointed while searching for some sign indicating he had reached the Warrior line.

 

2. When he had traveled two blocks and had seen no indication that there was anything called the Warrior line anywhere, he got into the first air-bus line he came to. The boy collecting fares on this platform was a muscular kid with a Mohawk haircut wearing a loose tank top over his muscles and the tattoo of a tomahawk on his right bicep. Paul got within shouting distance and said, “Excuse me, do you know where I can find the Warrior line?”

The boy, who was at least two years older than Paul, glared down at him. “What is this? A push? Are you pushing at me?” He then produced a knife only an inch short of being a sword. “Come at me, boyee. See who pushes who.”

The crowd of potential passengers clammed up, lowered their heads, and looked at their feet. Paul knew he had messed up but wasn’t sure how. As far as he could tell, he had only asked a simple question. “I’m not pushing. I just need to get to Baltimore.”

The Mohawk boy relaxed and put away his knife. “What’s your affiliation?”

“G’Ways?” Paul said hopefully. He didn’t even know what it meant but it had seemed to calm the ginger boy at the first bus stop.

“Yeah? I thought they was all dead.”

Paul shrugged noncommittally.

“Okay, well, you can ride the Warrior line. No treaties here, just pony up the 20 geld.”

Paul had no idea what a geld was or how he could possibly manage to get twenty of them. “What if I don’t have all twenty of the geld?”

Mohawk boy produced the knife again. “Gotta cut you, boyee.”

Once more, Paul found himself slinking shamefacedly down the up staircase while the gray faces in the line pretended not to notice him. Somehow, their refusal to see him was worse than if they had burst out in a rebuking round of laughter and applause.

He moved closer to the wall to get out of the way of the never ending line of people mindlessly marching, marching, marching without looking up or passing a word of conversation. It was creepy. They were like ghosts doomed to walk this street for eternity, isolated in silent crowds.

He took a deep breath, trying for a cleansing sigh that quickly devolved into a coughing fit. It felt like the air was laced with granules of burning sulfur that raked at his lungs and left a raw feeling at the back of his throat. Obviously this was the reason everyone were wearing surgical masks. He would have to look into getting one of those for himself. In the meantime, he would dispense with the deep breathing.

From the quick Trinity searches he had done before bolting the hive, he knew it was around 45 miles in a northeasterly direction from the DC heart to the Baltimore heart, information that would have been helpful if only he knew where he was or which direction was northeast. There was no sun visible in the sky, the smog bank saw to that, and the compass he had relied on all those years in Demon Hunter was obviously no longer displayed at the lower right corner of his vision.

He made several unsuccessful attempts at asking passersby for directions only to be shrugged off without even a look. Then when he had been standing there for ten minutes, he remembered Blaylock’s admonishment to take the Red Line. That was a reference to the Metro. It didn’t really matter if he was going in the right direction. He could just walk until he came across a Metro station and then catch the Red Line all the way to Baltimore. His real problem would come when he tried to find Baker Street from wherever the Metro let him off.

This one piece of knowledge clicking into place after he had wasted so much time being confused worked to settle him down a bit. It was like Demon Hunter in a way. You started weak and stupid but by turns you managed to gather information and weapons. He reminded himself that Gawain had spent much of his early time in the game floundering around – sometimes literally – in circles before he figured out the rules.

So even though he had to admit he didn’t really know much about the Metro beyond what he had seen in his Trinity search results, it was, at the very least, information he could use to begin building the knowledge-base that would eventually allow him to beat this game.

From those searches, he knew that the Metro was a mostly underground railway system that ran between Baltimore heart and DC heart and between DC heart and Richmond heart. The lines were color coded to make it easy to figure out which trains went to which destinations. The pictures of clean, orderly stations and well maintained train cars had been reassuring. It would certainly be a relief to get off the dirty, depressing streets clogged as they were with dirty, depressing redlegs.

He cautioned himself against using that word. That was a Primitive word, his father’s word. The people on the street were human beings who were so tired their spirits had been broken. They deserved his pity more than his disgust. Humility is the final lesson, he reminded himself.

Covering his mouth with his hand as partial protection, he took a breath and set out walking again. If he was lucky, it wouldn’t be more than a few blocks until he came across a Metro station.

 

3. It turned out to be sixteen blocks before he finally spotted a Metro sign above a functioning station, though he suspected several other boarded up buildings might have once also been stations. It wasn’t very impressive to look at, certainly nothing like the images that had come back from his Trinity searches, a rectangular hole in the sidewalk that looked like a mouth in the process of vomiting up a pair of rusty escalators.

It wasn’t the broken escalators that caused him to stop, however. It was the six guys hanging around in front of the opening, accosting every person who approached. The ritual was strangely similar to the ginger boy on the rickety air-bus platform except that the people approaching the escalators didn’t seem automatically predisposed to perform the 1-2-3 handshake.

They didn’t want to fight, that much was obvious from the way they didn’t struggle or make eye contact with the boys that they didn’t want to fight, they just tried to force their way through only to be repulsed when the boys closed ranks and demanded the handshake that Paul assumed was a sign of respect.

The boys guarding the Metro station were tall and slim and Latino in appearance. They wore black leather motorcycle jackets over white tee shirts and skinny jeans rolled up to the ankle to expose their white socks. They wore black penny loafers on their feet and pulled their long black hair back in exaggerated waves. Though definitely teenagers, they appeared to be older than Paul.

He was suddenly aware of someone standing beside him. Something that had not happened all day. From the moment he had put shoe leather on concrete, everyone around him had been in constant motion and perfect isolation. It had become such a universal truth that it had begun to make him nervous to stand still, superstitiously wondering if it might bring bad luck. But now there was someone a good eight inches shorter than him standing right there next to him watching the goons in front of the Metro station shake down potential passengers.

“Presley Punks,” the boy said and spit into the gutter. “Two geld just to get into the station where you get shook down for another three geld just for the right to buy a ticket. Same happens in reverse at your stop. Makes riding the tube-snake an expensive proposition.”

Paul turned to look at this newcomer. He was slight of build and had his hair cut very short and greased back. He wore a gray fatigue shirt made from heavy cotton under a thick utility vest and black fatigue pants tucked into black combat boots. After a moment of looking at her face, he realized it was a girl. For some reason he would never understand, his first words to the first person who had recognized the fact of his existence all day were: “What’s a geld?”

She turned her boyish face up to him and said, “What’s a geld? A dub. A buck. Money.”

“Oh,” Paul said, nodding. “I don’t have any of that.”

She smothered a laugh and stuck out her hand. “Izumi.”

When she said her name, he realized there was something vaguely Asian about her features. “Oh, you’re… you don’t look…”

“And you’re the whitest guy I’ve seen in a long time, boyee,” she said, still smiling and shaking her head. Then she retrieved her hand and patted his chest and lightly squeezed his biceps. “You’re a strapper for an urchin, ain’t’cha?”

“Paul,” he said, not understanding her question.

“Yeah, you’re a real strapper, new friend Paul. What’s your affiliation?”

“G’Ways,” he said, automatically responding to that question with the only answer that seemed appropriate even though he had no idea what the question or the answer meant.

She shook her head. “Nah, they’re all dead. Got killed in the struggles with the Jim Crow Clan.” She took particular interest in his biceps again, staring at first the left and then the right. “And, unless the G’Ways have a new policy where you don’t got to mark up to affiliate, I’m guessing you’re not connected to any crew.”

“Mark up?” he asked, pulling up his shirt sleeve and ogling the outside of his own bicep.

“The G’Ways, which was short for the Go Aways, had a No Soliciting sign tatted on their right billboard. You got nothing on either billboard so I’m guessing you’re a solo of some kind.”

“Yeah, I’m a solo,” he said. He wanted to excuse himself and go bang his head against the nearest wall. Gangs. Of course. The Dead Rabbits, the Warriors, the G’Ways, the Presley Punks. They were gangs and they showed their affiliation by sporting a particular tattoo on their bicep. Geld was money. Even if you had money you couldn’t use the Dead Rabbit air-bus platform unless your gang had a treaty with the Rabbits. He felt stupid and embarrassed and really just wanted to stick his fingers in his own eyes.

“You look like you’re having some kind of seizure,” Izumi said.

“No, I’m just… I’m kind of mad at myself for being so stupid.”

“Yeah, happens to me all the time. Say, you want to mine some geld?”

“Huh?” Don’t be stupid, he told himself. Mine some geld obviously means make some money. He needed money to pay the tolls so he could ride the train to Baltimore. “I mean, how?”

“Just stand up and look tough for, like, five minutes,” she said. “I need to make a delivery and they’re expecting two people but my partner bailed on me so I need a plus one on this deal. You know how it is, I can’t show up alone or they’ll squirt what’s left of me and my package down the sewer.”

“Just stand someplace and look tough?” he asked.

She put her hand on his chest again and said, “You can do it. You look bad. As long as you don’t talk, no one will know what a teddy bear you are.” She looked up at his face and said, “You can look mean, right?”

“Sure,” Paul said.

“Are you doing it now? Because, it’s not working.”

“Give me a second,” he said and closed his eyes so he could remember what it was like to glare at someone. Had he ever done that? No, he hadn’t, but Gawain had. He sent his mind back to a time in the game when one of the possessed knights had done something to upset him.

“That’s it,” she said. “That’s the look. I mean, seriously, you look like you’re about to set somebody on fire.”

Paul nodded. That was very close to the truth. “How much geld will I be mining?”

“How much do you want?” she countered.

“Enough to get me to Baltimore on the Metro.”

She blanked. “Baltimore? On the Metro? There ain’t that much geld, new friend Paul. Riding the Metro local is just a matter of having enough treats to keep the dogs fed, but riding it long range? That’s a journey.”

“I can do it,” Paul said. “You pay me enough to get me on the train headed for Baltimore and I’ll do it.”

“Self-confidence,” she said, patting him on his pecs. “That’s what really killed the cat.”

“What cat?”

She laughed again and said, “Okay, you help me and I’ll pay you 25 geld. That’s enough to get you on the train here and pay your way out of the station in Baltimore – if you make it alive.”

“Deal,” he said, offering his hand.

She gave it a quizzical look even though she had just shaken hands with him not a minute ago and said, “You don’t get paid until after.”

Once again at a loss, Paul just nodded and withdrew his hand.

 

4. Paul followed Izumi back the way he had come for a block, passing by the same gaggles of zombies and boyee bands until they approached something he had not seen yet: three people in a line pushing heavily customized shopping carts. The first thing that struck him was how similar the three of them were in size and shape and manner of dress. They were all very heavyset and hunched at the shoulders. Their heads were shiny bald and they all wore trench coats that went all the way to the sidewalk. On the backs of their coats, a bright, multicolored LED array flashed animated ads for something called MushToobs.

As he and Izumi gained on these three strange creatures, Paul saw that they were wearing some sort of device over their eyes and a plastic tube was affixed to their mouths by a strap that went around their heads. It looked a little bit like a gag.

Izumi noticed him staring. “Mongers,” she said. “Seeing a lot more of their kind lately.”

“What are mongers?”

“They’re kind of checked out, I guess. They sort of live, like, just on the basic level. See the blinders? They’re Net aware 24/7, even when sleeping. Mostly they watch happy Net shows, old reruns and shopping shows.”

“Shopping?” Paul said.

“Sure. They have to have stuff to put in their PushKart, don’t they? They buy stuff online, it gets delivered to their cart, and then they sell it on an auction site when it’s not new anymore. They make the rest of their money from the ad space on their backs.”

“MushToob. What’s that?”

“It’s a tube filled with a flavored protein and fiber slurry. It’s pretty nasty but I guess you could get used to it after a while.”

Paul watched them moving slowly, nose to tail like three blind mice, the light of virtual happiness being beamed into their eyes. “Mongers. What is that tube… Oh, MushToob.”

“Strapping on the old feed bag, yep,” Izumi said.

“So they just spend their whole lives walking around the city, eating flavored mush, watching Net shows and buying stuff they don’t need?”

“You have to admire the simplicity of it,” Izumi said.

“I do not.”

She laughed and punched him on the arm. “I was being sarcastic.”

They threaded their way through the morass of humans for another block until they came to a service alley between two buildings. He stopped at the opening to the alley, thinking it didn’t look very inviting. The brick walls on either side were plastered with layers of ever more extravagant graffiti. Trashcans overflowed with refuse that seemed to act as habitrails for rats the size of small dogs. Derelict humans lay sprawled in the gutters. And everything was wet as if it had rained three days ago and all that was left from that precipitation were the small, oily pools that couldn’t quite reach the drains.

Izumi went ahead of him and ducked behind a pile of garbage. He heard her speaking softly, even reassuringly, to someone he couldn’t see and decided to follow. As he approached, he saw her lift a very pregnant woman to her feet. The woman, who was wearing a light summer dress under a long raincoat, had black skin and long hair that fell to her shoulders in cascades of tightly wound dreadlocks. She seemed to be in great physical distress.

Paul stopped. What had he gotten himself into? A black woman was about to give birth in a back alley. He didn’t even know which parts of that were against the law.

Izumi put the woman’s arm around her shoulder and said to Paul, “New friend Paul, this is my package. She’s very pregnant, which should be obvious, so let’s get moving as quick as we can.”

“I don’t…” Paul said, shaking his head. “I don’t get…”

“She’s an unintentional breeder,” Izumi said, losing patience with him a little. “She had to get out of Baltimore where they knew her. I brought her to a breeder community here where she can give birth and raise her kid. Have you got a problem with this?”

Paul wasn’t even sure why this was such a secret. Why would someone have to leave their city to give birth? And, truthfully, he was so shocked at seeing a person with black skin that he had a hard time thinking straight about the rest of it.

But then the black girl, Izumi’s package, locked eyes with him in a silent plea. She didn’t have to say anything. The look in those eyes was so intense and so pure that he was simply compelled to help her. Whatever the details surrounding this messy affair, he knew that he would never sleep another night without those eyes boring into him if he failed to provide assistance. “What can I do?”

“First of all, come help me hold her up,” Izumi said.

Paul ran to them and put the girl’s free arm over his shoulder. “What now?”

“Sanctuary,” the girl said, the word escaping her lips like a dying bird.

“First, we have to get her to the end of this alley,” Izumi said and turned them so they were facing away from the street. “Let’s go.”

Grunting under the weight of their shared burden, Paul said, “What…”

“I’ll answer all your questions when this is over,” Izumi said. “For now, let’s just get to the door.”

They continued to the end of the alley and then made a shambling right turn into another alley where five bodies lay face down in their own blood. Four of the dead were black men wearing long black leather coats. The fifth was a large white man dressed in jeans, motorcycle boots, and a muscle shirt with a sunset emblazoned on the back.

“Is this your old partner and…” Paul asked.

“Just help me deliver the package,” Izumi hissed.

When they got to the next intersection, Izumi wheeled them to the left and they continued their odd, three legged race down a much narrower alley until they reached a metal door with a red light in a metal cage blinking overhead. Izumi moved to shoulder the package on her own and said, “Okay, get behind me three paces and stand with your feet slightly apart and your hands behind your back and make that ‘setting someone on fire’ look you showed me before.”

When he was in place and properly grimacing, Izumi pressed a button set in an ancient ceramic disk affixed to the brick next to the door. After the third buzz, a metal peephole slid open and a pair of angry eyes glared out at them.

“What?”

“Delivery from Baltimore,” Izumi said.

The eyes scanned her first, then the pregnant woman, and finally, Paul. The moment stretched out to the very edge of its tensile strength and then the peephole slammed shut and the door opened. A moment later, two nurses ran out into the alley with a gurney. Another moment later and the pregnant girl was gone and the steel door was closing between them. Her life story, wherever it was going, instantly broke off from his and Izumi’s own stories, wherever those were going.

Izumi stayed put after the transaction was apparently over until a very tall man with exceptionally pale skin ducked out of the door. He was wearing hospital greens marked with both fresh and aged blood stains. He removed the latex glove from his right hand and offered it to Izumi. Shaking exactly three times, he said, “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Izumi said. “Feel free to contact me again.”

The man released her hand, took a moment to dip his head in Paul’s direction, and then ducked back inside. The door clanked shut behind him and shortly there came the sound of several steel bars sliding shut and many locks being engaged.

Izumi turned to him, smiling, and said, “Okay, ready to get paid and go on your super fun trip to Baltimore?”

“I guess.”

She stuck out her hand. Paul took it and found himself going through the ritual he had witnessed so often during his first day on the street. One, two… She stopped. “I’m not getting anything.”

“Huh?” Paul said, still holding her hand.

“I can’t connect.” She grabbed his left hand, saying, “You’re not a lefty, are you?” But after rubbing her palm against his, she dropped the left hand as well. “Ear lobe? Jaw?”

Paul just shook his head, confused.

“Where is your chip?” she asked as if speaking to a child.

“I don’t… have a chip.”

Tumblers seemed to click into place inside her head. Her eyebrows raised and she looked up at the smog bank lowering overhead. “Holy shit, did you fall from the clouds?”

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