Thursday, July 1, 2010

Prolog for Part Two (draft)

The monsoon has pooled refuse and dirt into stinking lakes along every street in the Queen City.  Some will be impassable until the sullen water gives up its soul to the sun and to sluggish sewers.  The gutters are gorged and the drains regurgitate putrid secrets. The city swims in its own filth, and even the high ground west of uptown is not immune from the cloying humid embrace of Mother Summer, whose breath reeks of vegetation, decay, and broiled concrete.  Only the crowns of the skyscrapers are truly above the inundation: heavenly in contrast to the profane pools and lost hope in the hell below.

Hope has not entirely fled from the city, but it has become doubtful, more modest in its ambition, looking for a dry bed without parasites or a full stomach or a day without violence visiting.  Those are the terrestrial horizons of optimism.  On the highest floors, one can perhaps find a great imagination, a real Hope.  But it stays there in its aerie because down all those stairs hope looks just like madness.

Sevens is fourteen years old, and has found that there is money in madness.  The city Maintenance of Order administration has enlisted hundreds to patrol its streets and buildings looking for cats and insanity. Everyone prefers the former.

Some gene hacker on the other side of the globe is to blame for WESTCOTT.  The hack is a devilshly clever modification to the genome of Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan that passes through our feline friends and infects humans.  The wild version can produce behavioral changes in humans, some pathological.  The new microbe delivers a heavier punch of the same.  By now it's everywhere.  Most of the scum-layered water that Sevens splashes probably has the stuff swimming in it.  But cats were the problem, the story goes, so the cats must go.  It makes the Maintenance of Order unit look like it's doing something constructive.  Never mind that removing cats will cause the mouse and rat populations to boom, making the problem worse.  Sevens has heard the older men speculate that MO doesn't care about the cats at all, and that's why they pay by the hour and not by the cat.

For Sevens, being a squad member with five other boys is a meal ticket.  He doesn't like the job, but the food is plentiful.
  After the GRAMPS Wave tore into the DNA of a quarter of the citizens, leaving many prematurely aged with mangled telomeres, young faces seem rare and precious.  Or to be envied and hated.  It's better to travel in packs.

The squad walks along East Boulevard, each boy taking a house to inspect.  This is risky, all the more so because the whistles they were given are next to useless when one is wearing a mask that covers one's nose and mouth. At least his eyes are unaffected by the breathers.  And Sevens carries a large stick he's grown fond of.  It has tipped an argument in his favor more than once.  He shared his enthusiasm for his inert companion with Two-Tooth, calling it The Convincer, but the other boy seems to lack imagination: he has no name for the aluminum baseball bat he twirls. 

Sevens steps onto the porch of a house that was once grand, as the others fan out.  Mosquitoes have been waiting there in the shade for him, and lite on his pants, hungry for a taste of ankle. 

He pops the seal on his mask, and pushes back his ball cap.

"Hello!" he yells inside.  "Maintenance of Order inspection!"  He hears Two-Tooth doing the same across the street. 

The front door rests on one hinge as if it's leaning against the frame to catch its breath.  Sevens edges around it and peers into the ruins of an antebellum foyer.  It's a sog--a swamp of trash and profaned treasure, dewy with drops that still fall from the breached roof, through the second floor filter of hardwood and plaster.  The water darkens the ceiling in pools, fights the gravity with its surface tension and finally falls in fat drops, separating from each other in the eleven foot dive to the floor. Spat! Spat!

Sevens can smell the black mold. He checks and adjusts the straps on the mask. 

Only an insane cat would live here, he tells himself.  The game is to wait inside the door long enough to be credible, and then on to the next sham inspection.  His single glance has told him there's nothing left here worth looting.

The scream floats to him, not piercing his consciousness until it stops abruptly.  The sound of the aluminum bat is unique.  Two-Tooth has wasted its fine construction by denting it on any suitable target, often a mailbox or sign.  But this sounds like hitting something that resonates well.  Something stiff and hollow. 

Sevens turns and squints back out into the sun-seared street.  The silence seems to anticipate its own violent end, but only the whine of a mosquito fills the void.

He sees the soles of Two-Tooth's shoes first, a lazy inverted V pointing up into the dark maw of the house across.  That door shuts as Sevens watches, and dread scales his spine.

Two-Tooth isn't moving.  Those are his shoes.  He's still in the shoes.  He's not moving.  The shouts begin now.

The squad drags and pulls Two-Tooth's limp form off the porch and lays him in the shade of a sweet gum.  The boy takes quick shallow breaths.  There's a dark dent in his hair, betraying violation and the ending of things for Two-Tooth.  Maybe everything.  Kidder, the squad leader, has the only mask with a working comm unit.  He walks off by himself and calls the boss.  Sevens can guess that the odds are low, but he doesn't say anything.  He watches the house.

Movement in the window beside the front door catches his eye.  Then he sees the face staring out.  It's a man, tall, thin, impassive.  He sees Sevens too, and they lock gazes.  The eyes are intense and hypnotic.  The old fear wells up in a tide--the fear of the things that can go wrong.  Things that go bump in the afternoon.  There's the normal and the explainable, and then there's that fringe beyond, the Fear where whispers and superstition reign over science and reason.   The terror of immediacy, of intimate contact with this madness holds him transfixed until the face fades into shadow and vanishes inside the house.  Sevens remembers to breathe again.

The boys rage and say they want revenge, but Sevens understands that they want release from all reason, to act out their anger against the Fear that no one mentions. 
They  are not supposed to take on psychos, only the cats that cause the paranoia and rage by passing on their uninvited guests.  Five teens against a WESTCOTT psycho with a baseball bat is not good odds.  Sevens feels it too, the grating helplessness and the hurt.  But he's seen enough violence to know the bitter aftertaste.  He tells himself he's not afraid, but it's a lie.

There will be no ambulance.  They load Two-Tooth onto Sevens' shoulders in a fireman's carry, and then they leave him and begin to conspire.  He walks heavily, deliberately choosing each footfall to avoid obstructions and pools, his mask dangling around his neck, slapping him with every step.  It's exhausting, and his limbs and back begin to ache.  Two-Tooth gurgles, causing Sevens skin to prickle in sudden dread. 

He makes it about halfway before his legs give out.  He picks a shady spot and leaves the boy there, as comfortable as he can arrange the limbs.  He checks Two-Tooth's pulse, but it's hard to find.  He sits in the shade with the boy, helpless.  There are probably people around, skulking, looting, surviving, but finding the wrong sort could make the situation worse.  He checks for a pulse again, but can't be sure.  Places his hand on the chest of his burden--not yet a man's chest--and finds no movement.  But he can't be sure.  Sevens spits out the most potent curses he knows.

His ears prickle and his scalp crawls at some small noise.  He turns, feeling watched.  One final curse and he decides.  He takes off his treasured Giants ball cap and places it over Two-Tooth's face.  It's a promise.

"I'll come back." 

Damn Two-Tooth and his damned baseball bat, he tells himself.  The lesson bites: if you carry a weapon, it may be used against you. 

Mud spatters Sevens' knees by the time he reaches the mess hall at a staggering jog.  He raises the attention of a sergeant Lyons.

"Not breathing?"

"I can't be sure."

"Is he kin to anyone?"

Sevens' gut churns at the question.  Is this one important enough, is the real question.  Lyons sees the answer in his eyes.  Another orphan.  May as well have lunch first, while it's hot.  Sevens realizes how long it's been since he's had a decent meal.  His stomach betrays him.  Betrays Two-Tooth and the illusion of loyalty.  The food tastes like sog, but hunger tastes worse so he eats until he is full and then stuffs bread into his pockets for later.

A skinny man with gray hair and an MO officer's uniform sits at an angle to him.  The lastfour on his name ribbon reads 0405.  He looks like a GRAMPS survivor, which could make him not many years older than Sevens, but he's tuned differently.  When he speaks others meet his eye and listen.  Something from a children's book strikes at Sevens' imagination.  The Engineer of Souls.  This man is a soul engineer.  The others call him Colt or Lieutenant.

Sevens eats and leaves with two adults assigned by the sergeant.  They carry a collapsible stretcher.  He retraces his steps down muddy paths, but Two-Tooth's body is gone.  His hat is gone too.  Sevens stares at the spot for a long time, while the men curse, do a perfunctory search, and finally leave him. 

There's no doubt that this is the place.  Is there?  His mind plays tricks on him now.  He wanders, broadening the search. His thoughts orbit that singularity pole of human understanding:  WHY?

The answer appears in the form of a large young man, dirty, torn clothing, holding a sharpened aluminum stake and wearing a Giants baseball cap.  He's unnaturally developed, probably the results of genehacking by his parents when that was still legal.  They probably wanted a football player or weightlifter.  Sevens has his own augments, but nothing like this.

The four others, younger and smaller, appear from the edges of walls and doors, surrounding Sevens.  His heart races.  This is bad.

These are not WESTCOTT psychos, just a street gang.  Ordinary lords of flies.  There is an expectancy here, a growing of roles to be filled as in a play.  Sevens feels the eyes on him, and the weight of each breath.  He knows what he has to do, and it terrifies him. 

The five are still spread out, and Sevens seizes the instant, charging straight at the biggest of them, the one wearing his hat.  The name sails to Sevens as the gang shouts a warning:

"Look out, Mackie!"

"Hammer him, Mackie!"

Mackie raises the stake to slash at Sevens.  The sharp end of the metal would cut deep, maybe lethally.  Sevens finds his footing as if in a dream, powering his tired legs over the broken glass, boards, and bricks.  A scream builds in his chest.  It's an outcry of terror, but it sounds like insane rage, garbled and inchoate.  Sevens sees that one instant of of doubt in Mackie's eyes, and the swing is too slow, bouncing off Sevens' shoulder, and then Sevens is there driving his head into the gut of the man and screaming like a psycho--like one of the really far gone WESTCOTTs who tear and bite their own flesh and break the night's silence with their inhuman cries.  The blows are quick and precise, but with all the channeled fury Sevens has dammed up from Waves and the deep meanness of human beings.  Mackie reacts defensively, dropping his weapon and covering his face.

Sevens knows he will lose if he stays.  Mackie is too big and strong for a fair fight.  Sevens snatches the baseball cap and runs, leaving a dazed and cursing opponent.  Attack the strongest one first.  That bit of advice may have saved him.  And Mackie did have his cap.

The adrenaline surge and relief at having survived impel Sevens to do something he knows is foolish.  He circles around and watches them, hoping to find out what they've done with Two-Tooth.  They gaggle around their leader, whose hurt pride rebounds into shouts and anger directed at the witnesses. 

Soon the damage to Sevens' shoulder begins to tell.  It HURTS.  In the end, his better judgment wins out, and he slips into the growing shadows and away.

The next day, the squad reunites.  Sevens is surprised to see them still all there.  He hears fragments of the story about setting the psycho's house ablaze and then throwing bricks at the man when he tried to leave.  There's a fire in their eyes that turns on and off, remembering bravery and comradeship and victory, but remembering also things that are dark and festering, that violate even the most tenuous bonds of shared humanity.  Those things will not be spoken of, but Sevens has seen it and lived it.  The memories land like crows, unwelcome portents.

Sevens and the other squadies search most of the day, but Two-Tooth has disappeared into the gulf where millions of others have vanished, swallowed up by events bigger than a man.  Maybe bigger than a whole civilization.  In the end, they carve the boy's initials into the live oak where Sevens left him.  No one knows his real name, so the letters chiseled into the bark are TT, with the date underneath.  It's the best anyone can hope for.

-by Calli0xE