So raise your fists
And march around
Don’t dare take what you need
I’ll jail and bury those committed
And smother the rest in greed
Crawl with me into tomorrow
Or I’ll drag you to your grave
I’m deep inside your children
They’ll betray you in my name
Rage Against the Machine – Sleep Now in the Fire
Call me Jackson. Occasionally, someone asked if that was my first or last name. My response was always the same: “Does that even matter these days? It’s what I answer to.”
I poked unenthusiastically at the algae cube on the tray in front of me. No doubt it was nutritious, but I couldn’t get past the fact that it looked and smelled like something pulled out of a shower drain. Unfortunately, my credit balance wasn’t healthy, and even the vat-grown meat was out of my price range. That was going to change soon. Tonight’s tag and tail job in Old Town would earn me a pile of credits; it wouldn’t make me rich, but it would be enough to keep me in the sweet spot between the haves and the have-nots for a while longer.
A few others were scattered around the resident worker’s dining hall. Most were maintenance workers and techs, just off work or killing time before their shifts started. Several feet away, a lone service worker wore an indentured collar and listlessly moved a mop across the floor. He was small, worn, and still had enough of the wasteland rat look to show he was a recent arrival. Back in the day, the city had a steady stream of refugees – people desperate enough to wear the collar for the five years it took to earn the right of citizenship. That stream had almost dried up, but we still got the occasional few like this worker – worn down and aged before their time. People who finally realized that all freedom had to offer was hunger gnawing at their bellies.
I threw down my fork and pushed the tray away. There was a stash of protein wafers in my quarters, and, for better or worse, I could buy something at one of the food carts in Old Town. The feral cats were getting a little too wily to be caught, but the rats were numerous enough to be on the menu at most of them. Yeah, I know. I could say it tasted like chicken, but that would be a lie. At least it was cheap. The indentured eyed the algae cube as I carried my tray past him to the trash can. Over the years, I’d seen that look more times than I could count and left the tray on one of the nearby empty tables. It was a small gesture, but it would save him the indignity of digging the cube out of the trash.
My quarters were on this level and were the typical one-room cubby assigned to single workers. Once there, I logged into the security database, entered the name of tonight’s target, and studied his ID photo and bio when they came up. Karl Moore was a short, pot-bellied maintenance tech on the swing shift that night. I would be waiting for him outside the factory gates when he got off work in a few hours.
Our economic model was great, provided, of course, that you already owned everything. For everyone else, it pretty much sucked, and people had caught on to that fact. As worker unrest increased, acts of industrial sabotage became more common. One group had claimed responsibility for some of the more egregious acts of late. In defiance of all common sense and discretion, my target had hinted to his friends that he had some connection to the group. One of those friends accepted far less than thirty pieces of silver to sell him out to me.
As I studied Karl’s bio, the tremors in my right prosthetic started again. I was augmented and enhanced, but it was Pre-Burn military tech and, after 30 years, more antique than cutting-edge. To be honest, tonight’s job had been bothering me, but I needed the credits. Replacement parts were both expensive and hard to find. While the shades of grey I felt comfortable working in had gotten darker over the years, this job would make my eventual meeting with St. Peter ugly and short. When the final reckoning came, all I could say was that here and now, it was better to be the butcher than the cattle.
I thought about apples as I left the elevator, worked my way through security screening, and walked up the brightly lit corridor toward the north exit. A trade caravan had brought back several wagonloads of apples last week. While most of them had ended up in the larders of the wealthy, there were still a few available on the black market. After tonight, I’d be able to buy at least one of them. A man should always have dreams.
The heavy blast doors to the complex have remained open for a generation. I stood just outside them and stared at the older, partially rebuilt city sprawled out in the distance. A small tactical nuke had taken out the eastern section years ago, and, despite cleanup efforts, the crater and surrounding blast damage were still visible to the naked eye. The western section was the industrial center. As if they were middle fingers to Mother Nature, tall smokestacks rose throughout that area and belched out acrid clouds of smoke and industrial pollutants. The rest ran the gamut from shantytowns near the industrial center to decent apartment complexes the closer you got to this hilltop complex, Grubville.
It was close to curfew, and traffic on the main road that led up to Grubville was sparse. The last shuttle had left over two hours ago, and the assorted beasties that pulled it were probably bedded down for the night. I needed alternate transportation; the hillside was scabbed with outbuildings and fenced-off compounds. What passed for the motor pool was a klick away, located along a stretch of highway at the base of the hill. Though, to be accurate, it was more stable now.
The sun burned crimson through the haze, and it would probably be a beautiful sunset in an hour or so. It was also stifling hot. Rivulets of sweat ran down my back, and the highway appeared to ripple in the heat haze like a tapestry in a breeze. Over the last few weeks, an inversion layer had seared the city and blanketed it in a fetid cloud. The air quality was terrible today, and my lungs burned from the chemicals with every breath. The jacket quickly became uncomfortable, so I pulled it off, stashed it in my backpack, and made my way down the hill to the motor pool.
“Nothing with a pulse,” I told the recom on duty. He was mute and stared uncomprehendingly at me. “Nothing that shits. I want old. Old like me.”
He grinned and led me past the stables to a dilapidated garage in the far corner of the motor pool. The area by the garage was cluttered with wrecked vehicles and piles of discarded tech. The cracked concrete around the refuse piles was stained with reddish streaks from the rust that had bled down on it. The garage itself was dark and sweltering. Most overhead lights were burned out, and dust motes performed a complicated dance in the spotlight formed by a hole in the middle of the ceiling. A few electric vehicles were scattered about, but this was primarily where old fossil fuel vehicles had come to die. I found a grimy motorcycle near a trio of partially dismantled personnel carriers. It was freckled with rust, and a lattice of spider webs connected it to the wall it leaned on. Fortunately, the power pack still had 3/4ths of a charge, and it hummed softly when I switched it on. I gave him a thumbs-up and waited while he fumbled with his tablet. As he struggled to sign the motorcycle out to me, I tried to guess what was used in his genetic cocktail but quickly gave up. There was something vaguely simian about him, but he wasn’t one of the splicers’ better efforts. The recombinants were our manufactured underclass. They did our scutwork and gave our poor somebody to look down on so they wouldn’t notice how shitty their lives were. Unlike my indentured friend downstairs, their collars would never come off.
I rolled the bike out of the garage. Since I had time to kill, I stretched out across the hood and windshield of a nearby wreck and waited for the sun to set. Behind me, the ground sloped up to the concrete and steel entrance to Grubville. Its real name was pretentious, but Grubville was what the poor slobs in Old Town called it now.
In the middle of the last century, underground bunkers for the filthy rich became all the rage. The rich burrowed down and lived under a ceiling of steel and concrete while the little people scrabbled around in the dirt and heat above. Grubville was one of the largest, with restaurants, shopping malls, and a private security force. And when the end times finally came, and the waves of the hungry and desperate arrived, those heavy steel doors did what they were designed to do: they swung closed and became the rocks those waves of humanity broke against. And me? I was on the right side of the door during those days. I was part of that private security force, sickened and ashamed but relieved I wasn’t one of those poor bastards on the outside, scratching their fingers bloody and raw against a cold sheet of steel. I suppose people have sold their souls for less.
The sunset was beautiful. Bands of scarlet striated the sky, and the sun was a crimson drop of blood that slowly slid down the face of Heaven. When the last glow of the setting sun faded and darkness seized the world, I climbed down and wheeled the bike toward the exit. After a few moments, the floodlights throughout the compound sputtered on, and the darkness was chased back to the far corners where it crouched and waited.
A loud snuffle from one of the larger pens made me pause and peer in. Something big and hairy looked back, something with four legs and large, mournful eyes that had too much self-awareness in them. The splicers used far too much human DNA in their concoctions for my comfort level. I stuck my arm through the gate and waited while it tentatively came close enough for me to reach up and scratch its forehead. Its hair was coarse, and its skin felt rough and leathery. A dry, raspy tongue gave my arm a quick lick, and Yeats’s poetry popped into my mind: “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” After I gave my new friend a final scratch behind the ears, I made my way to the exit. We were a long way from Bethlehem or anywhere else remotely holy, but I passed a whole menagerie of rough beasts on the way out.
Due to the curfew, the road was empty, so I left the headlights off and opened the bike up. I relished the feeling of speed and power as I hurdled headlong through the darkness. One of the sentry drones paced me for a mile while it pinged my ID chip and verified my security clearance. It flew off in search of other prey when everything came back valid. I slowed down as I hit the city’s edge and weaved through evening streets packed with pedestrians and public transportation beasties. I got more than a few stares as I did so. After a bit, the streets became meaner, and the looks became harder. The pedestrians were replaced with small clusters of disaffected youths and assorted junkies who were either after a high or on the way down from one.
Soon, the buildings I passed were marred by graffiti. There were the usual gang symbols here and there, but anti-Grub slogans far outnumbered anything else that had been scrawled on the walls. Tempers had heated up in this part of the city, and we had our first honest-to-God protest march a few months ago. It started a few miles away on a bright, sunny afternoon and was a throwback to the old days with chants, signs, and heartfelt speeches. The authorities were able to wash away most of the blood by nightfall.
On a quiet side street near my destination, I pulled the bike into an alley, leaned it against a wall, and slapped a holoprojector on it. The motorcycle disappeared, replaced by a projected image of the empty wall. It could still be tripped over, but this was as safe as I could make it. I put my jacket on and ghosted. As the stealth circuits embedded in the jacket activated, I faded out of sight like a Cheshire cat. Not even my boyish grin remained. There was enough charge left in the batteries to keep me hidden from view for at least 3 hours—more than enough time to tail my talkative terrorist and see what turned up.
Once I got to the factory, I waited on the steps of an abandoned, semi-demolished house across from the factory exit. My right eye was prosthetic, and its facial recognition software worked overtime as the swing shift workers streamed through the gates. After their shifts, the recom workers returned to kennels inside the factory. There were enough displaced human workers in the area to make it dangerous for the recoms to leave the factory grounds.
The software got a hit. Karl walked out of the factory and stopped outside the gates, glad-handing quite a few people as they walked by. Then, like a hawk on a field mouse, he swooped down on a petite woman in the crowd. She looked to the left and right as he walked towards her as if she wanted somewhere to bolt. They talked for a few moments, and when she walked away, he gave her the same look the indentured had given my tray. I wondered how long it would be before he dropped clumsy hints to her that he was in the resistant movement. He left the factory grounds, and I was right behind him.
The shift change had put a ridiculous amount of people on the street, and while I kept as close to the buildings as I could get, I still had to weave and dodge to keep up with him as he made his way through the crowds. He had told my source that there was something big on for tonight. All I needed was a few scans of his accomplices to score big.
The crowds eventually thinned out, and the buildings became increasingly squalid and decrepit as we entered the city’s eastern section. Nicknamed the Fester, this section was the underbelly of the city. The place riffraff, junkies, and malcontents gravitated to and where anything could be bought if the price was right. We soon reached the Ghost Walk, our little version of Pompeii. Down this section of the street, the nuclear shadows of some of the bomb’s victims could be made out on the nearby walls; dark, human-shaped blotches surrounded by the lighter-colored brick the thermal radiation had bleached. Maybe it was the eeriness of these traces of the long-dead or the late hour combined with the silence of the surroundings, but Karl started to act spooked. He looked over his shoulder frequently and paused at one point to listen. Or maybe, even though I tried to be quiet, he could still make out another set of footsteps on a deserted street. I stopped when he stopped and made sure to walk softer when he started again.
At the end of the next block, a dilapidated warehouse squatted forlornly. The vacant lots surrounding it were choked with weeds, and a palpable sense of desolation clung to everything. A faint glow shone through the warehouse’s glassless windows. Nothing suspicious about that. All it needed was a banner stretched across the front of the building proclaiming, “Clandestine things are happening here.” Karl went in through a hole in one of the walls. I waited a few moments and carefully followed him in. At least ten or twelve people stood in the center of the warehouse, bathed in the feeble green light of glow sticks tossed on the ground. The glow sticks struggled to beat back the darkness, and their green light made the entire tableau look like it took place in some underwater cave. A legion of rats was disturbed by our presence, and their eyes were pinpricks of light dancing among the surrounding rubble and trash.
I triggered the scanning software and carefully walked around the group. I got full facial scans and voice recordings as I went. An assortment of factory workers and mid-level techs, with at least three or four women scattered among the men, most of the group appeared to be in their 20s – obviously, the prime age group for being outraged at social and economic injustice. Give them a few years, I thought, and they’ll get over it. That was when, like stray dogs that scratched and clawed to come in from the cold, guilt and moral revulsion made themselves a nuisance. What I planned to do would give them only a few days or weeks left to live. Leading the cattle down the chute to the slaughterhouse would be harder than I thought.
With these thoughts in my head, I glanced at one of the conspirators…and made eye contact. The ghosting tech had failed, and I had just enough time to think, Well, this is going to suck before all hell broke loose. He threw a wild punch that I easily dodged. I punched him once in the kidneys, pulled out a stun wand, and slapped it against his head. There was a crackle and the smell of ozone. His eyes rolled back into his head. As he fell, I grabbed him and threw him into the others. I ghosted again and sprinted past the hands that reached out to catch me.
At least two of them had weapons. I went after the closest one, a slightly built man who looked barely past puberty. The tech began to cycle on and off as I ran, causing me to appear and disappear erratically every few steps. One of the times I appeared, Junior was in his shooter’s stance and ready. Our eyes met, and he hesitated long enough to give me a brief smirk. The gloat cost him the kill. Mid-step, I ghosted again and threw myself to the right. He repeatedly fired into empty space. The tech stayed on this time, and I circled the group to come up on him from behind. I stunned four at the edges as I ran by. When I got behind him, I pushed the wand against the base of his skull and kicked the gun into the darkness when he crumpled to the ground.
As I ran towards the last one with a gun, I tapped everyone I passed with the wand to stun them unconscious. The last man standing was tall and stooped-shouldered. He had a look of absolute panic in his eyes and wildly squeezed off shot after shot as he backed up to the wall behind him. I came upon him from the right, grabbed the gun out of his hand, and threw it over my shoulder. I started to strobe then; the tech cycled so rapidly that I flashed into and out of view with every heartbeat. He stood there transfixed, overwhelmed by what he saw. Finally, the ghosting tech failed utterly with the smell of burnt circuits.
“Boo,” I said as I tapped him on the forehead with the wand. He crumpled at my feet.
Near the edge of the pool of cool green light, I leaned over, tried to catch my breath, and reflected on how I was too old for this shit. Then, someone slammed something hard and heavy against the back of my head, and I was sprawled face down on the ground. While I lay there dazed, I did a fair imitation of a piñata as he swung his weapon down on me repeatedly. There was enough soft tissue left for it to hurt like Hell.
I rolled over onto my side and lashed out with one of my legs. I caught him just below the knees and swept him off his feet. We both got up quickly and crouched warily away from each other. The “he” was she. The ass-kicker was a middle-aged woman with short red hair. She was tall and lean, with a look of murderous fury that would have shriveled braver men than me. She held a piece of rebar in her hands.
“Whoa, batting practice is over,” I said as she took a few steps towards me, the rebar raised as if she planned to hit one out of the park. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to.”
“You can try.”
“You’re feisty, Red, but that isn’t working for me right now. Drop it, and maybe we can figure a way out of this.”
She looked away from me, and I followed her gaze to one of the guns. It was a distance away, and when she looked back, I could see the wheels turn as she estimated if she could get to it first. She threw the rebar at me and made her move, but I was already in motion and had the gun before she got halfway there. I kept the gun on her as I walked around and found the other one.
The stun wand’s effects were starting to wear off by then. I soon had a group of groggy and pissed-off revolutionaries grouped by one of the intact walls while I sat on a nearby pile of rubble and tried to figure out what to do with them. I checked the wand, just in case. It had just enough charge left to give someone an enthusiastic tickle. Fuck it. I knew I was going to let them go. Maybe I was getting soft, but if I turned over my scans and recordings, it would be like turning over a box of puppies to be clubbed to death.
“Hey, asshole, do you hear that?” the redhead finally asked.
“Hear what?” I answered, dumb enough to play the straight man.
“Exactly. If you’re Security, where’s your backup? Why aren’t Enforcers pouring in here right now? I’m guessing you’re a freelancer, some little pissant looking to kiss up to the grubs.”
“There’s no reason to be mean,” I said with a smile as I kept the gun pointed steadily at the space between her eyes.
“Is that your gun, Bryce?” the redhead asked.
“Yeah,” the smirk answered.
“How many rounds does he have left?”
“Not enough,” he answered and gave me another smirk that guaranteed he’d be the first person I’d shoot if things went south.
They exchanged looks and started to spread out in preparation to rush me. Some of them bent down and picked up bricks and other pieces of rubble as weapons. Karl hung back and looked like he would bolt the first chance he got. Figures.
“Enough of that, boys and girls,” I said as I took a few steps back to keep them all in sight. “I’ll drop the first person who steps towards me.”
“You won’t be able to shoot all of us,” Bryce said.
“Willing to bet your life on that, son?” I said as I reached up, pulled my hood down, and tapped the implant under my ear. “Before any of you can lay a hand on me, I’ll have the scans uploaded to Security. Don’t make me do something we’ll all regret.”
“You’ll do it anyway,” Red said in a tone razor-sharp with bitterness.
“Yeah, if I were smart, I would. You’re right; I’ve been freelancing for a while now. Doing the odd job now and then to keep credits in my bank account. That factory you managed to shut down a few months ago. The people who own it took that personally. They got sick of the bumblers in Security and hired me to track you down.”
“You’re not doing yourself any favors right now,” Red said.
“Well, the thing is, the people who hired me are dicks. And I get all this,” I said with a vague wave encompassing the group. “The city is a shitshow, and you want to do something about it. It’s futile, and it’s gonna get you killed, but I get it.”
“So, what are you trying to say?” she asked.
“We all leave and go our separate ways. I’ll delete the scans and recordings, and you live to raise a ruckus another day.”
“He’s a fucking junkpile, Rachel. Maybe his implant is as crappy as his stealth tech.” the smirk blurted out. Yep, he was going to be the first one I shot.
“Shut up, Bryce,” she said, her eyes never leaving mine. After a moment, she said, “I don’t trust you.”
“You shouldn’t, but it’s a legit offer. One last thing, though. Karl over there won’t be leaving with you.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I didn’t just accidentally wander into here. Karl likes to talk. He’s told more than a few people he has something to do with your group. I was sold that tidbit of info and followed him here. Seriously, you people need a better recruitment process.”
“He’s lying, Rachel.” Karl cried out, his eyes filled with fear as he realized how badly he had screwed up.
I started recording as soon as the facial recognition software registered a hit and projected the playback on the nearby wall. After a moment or two, I sped it up until it resembled one of those old Benny Hill skits I watched on late-night cable when I was a kid. For some reason, it struck me as funny, and I suppressed a laugh. There was no reason to give off a psychotic vibe right then. While the star of our late-night movie screening continued to protest, the rest of the group watched the playback and saw him walk from the factory gates, through the Eastern section, and finally end up at this squalid and abandoned factory.
“You have a problem, Red, and it ain’t me,” I said once the playback was over.
“Quit fucking calling me Red,” Rachel snapped.
“Fair enough. You have a problem, Rachel. He’s told people, and that makes him a liability. Someone else will talk. They’ll get arrested and will give him up to get reduced charges. Or they’ll sell him out to get the credits. Either way, Karl will be pulled in for interrogation. A few harsh words will make him spill his guts. And if I let him go, he’ll be a danger to you and me. Look, sometimes you need to cross a few lines to survive.”
“I’m not letting you kill him.” She said as she moved to stand between Karl and me.
“Then it would be an act of mercy if I shot all of you and saved you from the pain coming.”
“How many lines do I need to cross before I end up like you?” Rachel demanded angrily.
“Not as many as you’d think, Rachel. But if this is a line you won’t cross, you’ll at least have a clear conscience when you die screaming.”
In the end, they left. What other choice did they have? I’ll spare you the details of what happened after. Suffice it to say; it was ugly and quick. I didn’t think much of Karl, but he didn’t deserve to die alone amidst the rubble and the rats. After I deleted the scans and recordings I took of the group, I uploaded the earlier footage of Karl to Security and put a beacon on his body for retrieval. I also worked on the story needed to explain why Karl was the only one that would be tagged and bagged. With luck, I’d still get a few credits for him.
I wasn’t alone when I left the factory. Melancholy was my companion as I walked down wounded streets. Up ahead, an extensive greenbelt stretched off to the right. Pre-Burn, it was probably peaceful and pretty, but now it was overgrown with weeds and trash. Used condoms and empty Bliss vials were scattered everywhere. At the start of it, a skinny, mangy tomcat crouched low underneath some bushes. He watched me warily, his tail slowly twitching. I’ve never been fond of cats, but my daughter loved them, so I knelt and tried to coax him to me. If I had any rations with me, I might have been able to get him to come closer, but after a bit, the cat slunk away into the underbrush. Time had taught him to be wary of all predators, the four-legged and two-legged variety. My daughter had always tried to smuggle flea-bitten strays like him into the house, taking the screen off her bedroom window so the cats could enter and exit without us knowing.
I lost it years ago, but I used to carry a picture of her in my shirt pocket, a photo from some family gathering that I thought captured her essence perfectly. She looked six or seven and must have been at a tea party because she was wearing a dress, fake pearls, and a big, floppy hat. She was sitting on some steps, her hands clasped in her lap, and the photographer had caught her in mid-laugh, with her head thrown back and her eyes filled with joy. My one job had been to keep her safe, but now she was just a collection of fraying and fading memories. After a while, I rubbed my sleeve across my eyes and got up.
The bike was where I had left it. The rolling blackouts had hit this section of the city, and it was late enough that all the drunks and druggies had found doorways and abandoned squats to sleep it off in. It was too late for even the hard cases to stalk the night. I felt like the last man left alive as I rode through darkened and deserted streets. After a bit, I reached the beginning of the highway. I turned off the headlight and rushed through the night, cocooned in darkness and accompanied only by my thoughts and memories.
A few miles out, there was an old exit leading up to a Vista Point/Lover’s Lane in simpler, more innocent times. I pulled the bike off the highway and rode up to the top of the hill. I was able to avoid most of the potholes as I did so. Once there, I sat and stared out into the night. The blood-red moon dangled above me like a piece of rotten fruit that waited to be plucked. I sat and thought of the courage Rachel and her friends showed, the courage it took to get off their knees and try to change things. I also thought about my life and wondered how I had ended up like this. How dark can a shade of grey get and still be considered grey? While Lucifer could rightly claim he’d been cast down, my long and spiraling fall from Grace had been freely taken.
I sat on that hill for a long time before silently cursing and returning to the highway. I made my choices long ago, and it was time to return home. Once I reached the freeway’s edge, I stopped and checked if the bike’s sound system still worked and if any music files were left in its memory. I gave out a small whistle of appreciation when I found a treasure trove of late 20th Century Rock. I queued up my favorite Classic Rock song for some traveling music. It was a fitting choice. The music was as much a relic as the bike and I.
I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder
Racin’ with the wind
And the feelin’ that I’m under
As John Kay’s vocals growled in my ears, I slid the bike to a stop. In the distance, I could see the glow of the compounds surrounding Grubville. The air would be cool inside the underground city, and the corridors would be safe. Giving all of that up would be a stupid thing to do, so, true to form, I crossed the median and started back. I was headed back to the squalor and filth of Old Town, hoping it would one day make me feel clean again.
This story was previously published as Prayers to Broken Stone in Bewildering Stories, 2022.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Writing in the third person always makes the author feel like he's writing his obituary, but here goes: a lover of alt-rock, Akira Kurosawa movies, and craft beer, the author lives in Northern California with his wife and two kids. His beautiful wife definitely could do better, but, luckily for him, she hasn't caught on to that fact yet. Rage Against the Machine, the Black Keys, and the Warlocks are in heavy rotation on Spotify for writing inspiration.