"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
by Lancer Kind
LANCER KIND grew up on a farm in Montana where he learned to ride a horse at the age of five and shoot varmints by the age of fourteen. In the nineties he lived north of Denver where he studied big city life and ski areas while working for a large high tech firm. Today, Lancer lives in the Pacific Northwest with his lovely wife Shelli and their imaginary rooster Jimmy.
Fiber 1 Thaumaturgy
Mylz sits at his desk and fiddles with his keyboard, waiting for his test score. It’s been two months since the last time he took it. He had stretched it as long as he could without risking reprimand. It was a test score that saved him from getting canned, and now it’s a test score he needs to stay employed.
Mylz feels hot so he removes his jacket and drops it on the floor. The shiny silver COPS© badge flashes its animated logo along with the Thaumaturgy department sigil. The department is new and small, only three other officers, and every day they come in an hour early and train, and every month they are supposed to take this test.
Bored, he stares at his keyboard, focusing on the gap between ‘G’ and ‘H’, and softly exhales. From nowhere a burst of air blasts beneath the keys, but no detritus flies out. His keyboard is very clean.
He needs to do well on this test or they’ll think he’s losing it. A year ago he tested positive, and that’s the only reason they didn’t fire him after his big fuckup. He shouldn’t be in this position. He shouldn’t have challenged management. He should have just done his job. But he couldn’t ignore what was going on in his old hood. Satan’s Crotch was lousy with bad rich guys who were popular with management. His career should have been switched off, but he got a raise and a transfer instead because so few people have metaphysical potential.
Activity flickers across the holo-terminal. An image of paper hovers into view. His score, an ‘F’. Shit—flunked another one.
He closes the test and stares at the terminal screen, mad that the test is so hard. The medias make it look easy in their movies of metaphysicists destroying buildings. Utter fiction. It takes months of learning to read and write runes, daily practice to be able to manipulate enough energy to cause even a simple ephect, and with that behind him, it still took two weeks to learn to clean his keyboard.
He closes his eyes and tries to relax, but his thoughts wander to the test.
"Should be open book." He shoves his chair back and stands.
Mylz looks over the five-foot cube wall between his office and his partner Olwaski. Olwaski sits at his desk looking back.
"It was over forensic rituals! Is the crime scene going to get up and move while I look something up?"
Olwaski pumps the brim of his regs-violating cowboy hat up and down, like he’s priming his mind for the answer.
"Getting some air," Mylz says to his partner and puts his jacket on. Olwaski can’t understand. He’s a Thaumaturgical assistant. He’s inephectual, inephective, or dephective. Or any of the other slang terms for the ninety-nine percent who can’t tap into metaphysical energy. But Olwaski doesn’t have to worry about causing ephects, he just helps out with the physicals—the people involved.
Olwaski says something but Mylz ignores him and heads for the elevator. All the way to the exit, he uses his anger like a tool, letting it shape his face into a warning that holds everyone at bay, as he rides down and exits the building. He stops near the entrance of the three-story cylinder that interrupts the straight paths of streets like an abandoned tire. The building walls are slightly convex so that it shadows over passers-by. Smoked glass stretches around its face and gives it the feeling it is watching. It’s overbearing. Like the building wants to frisk anyone in reach.
It’s this feeling from the building that inspires his theory on how metaphysics works. It’s about energy. The energy comes from people at extreme emotional states and it takes a lot of them to create a usable amount. It keeps getting more crowded. Always more people packed into smaller places, more people starving, alienated, or kicked out of their homes. The energy comes from despair. Until the past few years, there wasn’t enough desperation in the world to fuel an ephect. Now, despair is stored up and presses against the dike of physical reality so hard that some can uncork a hole, and for a moment, let it flow, shape it, and put it to work.
"We’re all fucked up," Mylz says to himself. "That’s how it works." Everyone in the Thaumaturgy department. Only those most familiar with despair can tap the energy that causes ephects. It can’t be a coincidence that he tested positive after what happened in the Crotch. Things have to go horrible before you can become a metaphysicist. That’s the catch.
Lately he has been having trouble causing anything other than simple ephects. He must be living too well. Things have to get worse before his test scores will improve. It’s fucked up in a self-mutilating way. But it pays pretty good.
He walks on the sidewalk that circles the building and wills his frustration to lessen, imagining it contributing to the pool of despair.
When he doesn’t feel any better, he slides his Patrol Buddies® shades from his forehead to his face and cranks the darkness up to reflect his mood. He takes a deep breath, but something oily and carbon tasting coats his lungs and makes him cough. He spits to get the taste out.
He looks at the watching building. He’s not ready to go back in. He’s had enough of sitting, waiting to be called to investigate some metaphysical incident. He needs to stretch his legs. Go on patrol like he did before the Crotch. If his manager needs him, the COPS© city-wide messaging system, Center, can find him. He starts walking, and tries to cheer up.
An hour later he’s standing in the shadow of a shop entryway in the financial district, watching the crowded street, his eyes sweeping over each passing body. For each face he focuses upon, his Patrol Buddies™ image processing hardware digitizes and transmits the profile to a mainframe in an air conditioned basement somewhere in the city. Within a tenth of a second a green or red dot is painted on the subject’s head.
He busts the red dots.
As people flow by, a red dot paints on a woman’s head. Placing his hand on his gun, he squints triggering the shades to electronically frisk her records. As he steps out of the shadows, a bubble forms above the woman’s head in comic book thought: 50,000 Bucks in parking fines. He knows the type. Her suit and her long gazelle strides are that of a mover whose fortune five-hundred heels stomp all over shakers. Her time too important to burn the two seconds it takes to press the button on her Buck card and squirt money into a meter. She’s a CEO or CTO or something else that suffers from the delusion common to those with titles that start with ‘C’—they think because they are highly paid, they are like royalty and the sun revolves around their schedules.
Through speakers built into Patrol Buddies™, Mylz hears his PM’s voice and thinks he’s busted for going AWOL.
"There’s bigger fish, Officer Cleft. We’ve just received notification of a physicist perp in your area. Check your queue."
Figures…she probably knows someone on the COPS© Board of Directors.
He backs into the shadowed doorway and watches people move and socialize through their comm devices. Mylz thinks of his desktop at the office and his Patrol Buddies™ project a mock-up that floats in his vision. In his message queue is a ten-minute old video stream transmitted to the COPS© mainframe by a store camera. He opens the file and watches a convenience store clerk shout at two gangers. One with loop earrings running the entire edge of his ear, grabs snacks while the other sporting a big-do Mohawk serrated like a circular saw, does something that makes the clerk’s head catch fire despite being behind a sheet of ballistic glass. The video ends with the perps running out of the store with drinks and armfuls of snack cakes.
Shit. One percent of the population can cause ephects and this red-tard is using metaphysics to steal fat-filled goodies. Typical. Give someone a lever long enough and they’ll find a way to rob someone with it. It’s the sort of crap that has been happening for thousands of years. The perp’s Cro-Magnon ancestor lived in a trailer house of a hole until he discovered fire, then used it to kick some old codger out of his comfortable waterfront cave. It’s about disruptive technologies—new technologies that disturb the status quo. The first caveman with fire was a really powerful guy. Thousands of years later the microchip made new millionaires and destroyed old ones. Then biotech did it again. Now metaphysics is the new roughneck on the block.
Mylz spots the perps before the recognition system red dots them. The two swagger down the sidewalk dumping glucose-loaded snacks into their mouths while video plays on their T-shirts, showing loops of stabbings, beatings, and other favorite hobbies. As the pair move past his shadow, the violence on the shirts stop in simultaneous muting of visual noise, then their gang affiliation banners across their shirts—‘KillerTs, We kick ass!’
"Got visual," Mylz reports as he enters the flow behind them. The scenario isn’t ideal—he doesn’t have backup. But between the wireless combat-network linked holographic HUD in his Patrol Buddies™, the ballistic armored jacket with electronic counter measures, and a gyroscopic stabilized Havoc™ that fires smart bullets, he has enough target acquisition and defense technology to make a combat pilot jizz his flight suit.
Besides, they’re just gangers.
Pulling the Havoc™ out of his holster turns the red dots into red crosshairs. He grips the gun, feeling minute vibrations as internal gyroscopes spin, nudging the weapon level at the nearest target.
Where the guy came from—behind or the side, no idea, but the clueless sapien steps right in front and points a finger at the thaumaturgy glyph on his badge.
"Cursed!" Clueless shouts. "Cursed are those who practice the powers of Satan!"
The crosshairs are gone, snuffed out like the Salem witches this joker would have burned. Mylz grabs Clueless to yank him out of the way. There is a bang and something smacks his armored chest. Clueless stands still, a hole spurting red over Mylz’s jacket while everyone runs.
"Shots," Mylz shouts to his wired coworkers as Clueless collapses. In the scattering panic the gangers drop chocolate and crème filled snack cakes. He sits low and checks Clueless’ pulse. Mylz’s jacket collar vibrates, signaling it has scented targeting radar. He looks around and sees the ear-ringed ganger pull the trigger. His jacket screams electronic counter measures over the radio spectrum, breaking every FCC restriction. It works. The bullets whiz past his ear. Dropping prone he aims the Havoc™ at the ganger while Patrol Buddies™ crash in a static fit as the counter measure blast kicks nearby network routers in the nads. No electronic assistance; the gun is now stupid.
Pedestrians press themselves into anything concave along the street. He places the metal bead of the gun’s nose over the ganger so it is framed in the aiming V and squeezes the trigger.
It won’t move.
Mylz squeezes harder. Ear Ring looks unhappy about the gun pointing at him and runs, firing bullets that whine off the sidewalk. Mylz’s hand shakes as he pulls the trigger harder. The trigger doesn’t budge and Ear Ring moves around a street corner and out of view.
Mylz looks for the metaphysicist, but he’s gone too.
He triggers the Havoc™’s diagnostics mode then checks out Clueless making a mess on the sidewalk as more alarms than usual wail in traffic. The suited woman crawls to him.
"My messaging systems ARE OUT!" she yells. "What are you going to do to fix it?"
Mylz looks at the royalty who owes 50,000 Bucks in parking violations and slides his unconscious Patrol Buddies™ down his nose. "Are you a doctor?" The woman just looks at him. "If this sape doesn’t get one soon, he will be OUT too."
She looks like she doesn’t get it.
He gives the official answer: "The neighborhood routers should recover in the next five to twenty minutes."
Ignoring any further whining, he opens his jacket and slips a tube of synthetic skin out of a pocket. Something wet slaps his head while he’s plugging the bullet hole in Clueless, and his hair becomes melting hot as if a dryer has focused on it too long. Runes stitched into the inside of his jacket flare, grounding the ephect before his head turns into a melted mess. He spots the gang physicist standing at a street corner spitting a gob of saliva into a cupped hand. Mylz rushes, yelling at the physicist and jerks the defective trigger. The gun doesn’t fire. The physicist steps around the corner.
Mylz watches the obstructing building’s edge, and moves along its side. A hand swings around the edge, throwing a stream of fluid that flows light-as-air. With the Havoc™ he bats at the floating trickle, but the viscous stuff glops to the weapon. He tries to shake it free. The physicist steps around the corner with a lighter and touches one end of the hoving stream. Fire flares down the globule crick. Mylz aims and pulls the trigger. Fire engulfs his gun and explodes, knocking him on his ass.
Through watering eyes he sees the surprise on the ganger’s face. With one hand he cups metaphysical energy and tosses it at the ganger, his mind fixed on metaphysical symbols to burn the fucker. But like during tests, he loses focus and the physicist’s face turns sunburned. The ganger retreats around the corner.
Mylz stands and kicks what’s left of his gun. With hands cupped together he fills them. He steps around the corner, focusing on symbols of burning, but the two gangers are a block ahead and running.
Mylz drops the energy and runs after the fleeing KillerTs. The whole situation is embarrassing. Now he needs to punishingly demonstrate why COPS© are at the top of the street’s food chain. He runs after them, keeping them insight until they run down a stairway that leads to a train tube. He pushes through commuters as he runs down the stairs. At the bottom he stops in the underground station with no idea where they went.
He pushes through and around confused groups of people who press reset buttons, poke pinkies into ears, or tap their heads, trying to get their electronics to resurrect from his jacket’s ECM blast. He gets to the first track and looks around while brushing smoldering shrapnel from his jacket.
But no physicist or flashing video T.
They could try to use the crowd as cover and run back up the stairs or they could try to escape onto a train at any of the three tracks. Which one, is the question.
He stands at the first track looking for the KillerTs among the suits and business casual. Everyone suddenly starts chatting as electronic connectivity starts working again, their voices echoing off walls like the home team has scored. He doesn’t think they will leave the way they came, the stairway is too exposed. They’re going to try for one of the trains.
A train thrums to a stop behind him when he decides to move to a different track. A heavy guy talking loudly into his comm bumps into him in a rush to get onto the train. Mylz trips into a roller case whose wheels run over his heels and almost falls. The crowd tightens, holding him up but dragging him towards the train. He stops his momentum, and stands obstinate against the shoving humanity that rushes to make their train. Before the train doors close, he changes his mind and pushes his way on. The perps could have boarded by any of the passenger cars.
Inside, he wedges through aisleways crowded with men and women from the financial district, standing in suits and suit skirts, hanging onto overhead hand rails, all politely ignoring his passage while carrying on conversations over electronics. As the train starts moving, he passes through the first car and moves into the next. It takes some time squeezing around passengers, but he reaches the last car. The KillerTs are not on the train. They must still be in the station or have slipped onto one of the other two trains. He stops before a kid in his late teens taking up a row of two seats, his hair dyed yellow with striations of dark orange and black in a lacquered wood grain effect. Mylz shifts his Patrol Buddies™ to mirrored, and stares at the punk with his arms folded and his chest puffed, pretending the bits of metal embedded in his jacket are supposed to be there. Woodhead develops interest in his bag and slides it off the window seat and onto the floor. Mylz eases into the vacated position.
And pounds on his Kevlar armored thigh—The KillerTs attacked him like he was some civilian. They should know better. COPS© is a team that can’t lose—they can always radio in more reinforcements. But the physicist not only dropped the gauntlet, but smacked him in the mouth with it—gangers are supposed to run, not attack him with ephects.
He messages his status to Center, telling them he lost the perps, then unzips his jacket and uses its liner to wipe at the cuts on his face. The train accelerates as it shoots out of the tunnel and up an elevated rail. The standing passengers strain to keep balance, though the car is packed too tight for anyone to fall. An elderly woman grips a sack of groceries in one hand, hanging onto the ceiling handle with the other. Her knees flex for balance as the train corners a skyscraper.
Mylz stands to offer her his seat but before he opens his mouth, he pictures what it’d look like, and sits. A while back he’d have done it, but now he’s a twenty-six-year-old veteran who knows better. Doing things unrelated to corporate earnings will brand you pussy. And people in this city will screw you if you are weak. If there isn’t a red dot on it, he doesn’t deal with it. Thumping red dots drives his job performance, not being a nice guy. She did it to herself—bad planning, and he’s had it with people who can’t plan—they don’t have their ID, they didn’t know that ephect was illegal, or that they didn’t know their metaphysical license expired. On and on. Heard it all. She should’ve hailed a cab. Hell, if anyone should give up his seat, it should be Woodhead.
Mylz looks over at the punk. His eyes are closed, head dropped back like he’s relaxing in his living room. Pinky-nail-sized trodes sit on his temples. A cord runs from them to a plastic box sitting in his lap. An inducer. It pulls pre-recorded first hand experiences off a chip and induces it onto the user. The trodes on his head funnel the playback into all six of his senses. It must be educational material. Woodhead’s eyes roll behind closed lids as his hand rubs against his crotch.
Mylz looks up. It’s Andy, he thinks. Andy’s here and he’s pushing peep-sheets.
The boy pulls a plastic sheet out of a bundle and holds it out.
… his sister’s son, his nephew, is dead. It was his fuckup in Satan’s Crotch that killed him. A ‘distribution manager’ in a Yakuza operated company shot him.
Mylz takes the sheet and whatever’s screwing with his head stops because it’s not Andy. He no longer sees sandy hair and a dimpled smile. Instead it’s a boy with pokey black hair and brown-green eyes who looks like he’s not too excited to be talking to a cop. The kid reaches into a grimy coat and holds a Buck card.
"Costs t-two," says the kid.
It’s catching up with him, he decides. He hasn’t slept worth a shit in a long time. He slips his Buck card out. The kid is near Andy’s age but looks like any other street kid. Close enough to be confusing if he’s not paying attention.
Mylz taps at the card’s membrane buttons entering his PIN, two Bucks, and twenty extra. He aims and electronically squirts the amount into the kid’s card. It’s the least he can do, like a monument to Andy, except more useful than a piece of stone for pigeons to crap on.
"Thanks," says the streeter, "it’s g-good for six hours."
"Thanks kid. Here," Mylz slides a card out of his wallet and scrawls his name onto the scribbleable back with a finger-nail. "If you need a place to stay for the night. I know these people, they’ll put you up."
"Are you a Jih-Jesus spouter?" The kid looks worried and backs into a passenger. "One of those places k-kept me for days until I s-said I f-found the Lord."
"It’s not religious. You can bed a night a week if you show them my name on the back."
The kid grins, displaying his crooked teeth, then moves past.
Mylz turns on the network enabled sheet of plastic. It’s more comfortable than watching the video streams through Patrol Buddies™. He checks the local news for the location he was patrolling. It’s been twenty minutes and already he can see footage of Ear Ring shooting at him while he was helping Clueless. Some of it is from his own Patrol Buddies™. COPS© doesn’t take very long to turn anything into Bucks. The feedback loop keeps getting shorter. Soon he’ll be able to watch the stock drop because he has gotten up to use the bathroom.
Mylz looks up at a reflection flickering on his window like candlelight. He rolls into Woodhead’s lap as his old seat turns into a column of flames. Woodhead pushes back which helps to stand up. Mylz turns and Ear Ring is standing in a swirling shirt of video hell. The ganger shoots and Mylz feels it slam into his chest like the mean end of a car bumper, laying him out in the aisle between the seats as the train thrums to a stop, his ECM jacket breaking-up connectivity.
Lying on his back, he stares into the barrel of a gun inches from his face. There’s despair puddled on the floor. He throws a handful at the ganger’s face and imagines the invisible stuff splashing, running down the face staring over the gun. Mylz focuses on the ganger’s nose willing a that dribble of the metaphysical stuff slides into the left nostril. He causes the percussion ephect, the easy one he uses to clean his keyboard. The air blast blows half of the ganger’s face free like he snorted firecrackers.
The gun drops to Mylz chest as Ear Ring screams. Mylz pushes to a sitting position. He grabs the gun and points it at the physicist standing behind his screaming buddy. He’s about to pull the trigger when Woodhead runs into the aisle and tries to jump by, but trips and lands on him.
The punk squirms to get off and Mylz’s losses the gun. The physicist pushes the screaming ganger out of his way, then stomps on Woodhead’s back, pressing the kid on top of Mylz, forcing the two of them into the sticky floor in a two-ply doormat. The physicist walks on them, using Mylz’s forehead as a step down, and moves down the aisle to the train door.
Woodhead’s crying for mercy. Mylz shoves the kid off in time to see the physicist force the door open and look over the naked air of the elevated track. The ganger bends over the empty expanse, his video shirt showing explosions and body parts flying in bloody confetti.
Then he spits.
Tremendous throat-clearing loogies drop from the physicist’s mouth as Mylz stands. He is up for a second, and then the other ganger tramples him and continues stumbling down the aisle with half his face swinging free on a skin flap attached at his ear. The bleeding ganger smacks his skin-bare skull into a pole beside the door and stumbles into the physicist who grabs a handhold to keep from tumbling.
"Get off!" the physicist shouts, pushing his partner who wobbles and falls through the doorway.
The ganger says something while focusing out the door, and then steps through the opening.
Woodhead carries on like he’s been gutted.
"Plug in your chip and shut up," Mylz says, following the blood splatter to the door. He stands in the doorway and looks out over a traffic-backed street from his higher-than-light pole perch. Below, the physicist pulls first one leg, then the other out of the street top like he’s stepping out of muck. Like pudding, blacktop oozes back into the leg holes. The other ganger lies unmoving, a hood-ornament for hydrogen-fueled Honda.
Black smoke billows out the door and stings Mylz’s eyes as he watches the physicist run down the traffic-choked street. He stands and tries to fathom how he can continue pursuit. He is watching the physicist run out of sight when he loses balance and falls out the train. He twists while he falls out the opening feet first. He grabs the leg of a handrail and shoves his other hand against the doorway and hangs, feet kicking in the air.
"Shit!" Woodhead yells. "Holy Shit!"
Mylz starts to pull himself back in, but his arms feel lazy and unmotivated. Falling from the train doesn’t seem scary. He just feels tired.
Woodhead walks to the doorway. "Sape, you unplugged?" Carefully he braces his hands on both sides of the opening and peeks over, gauging the drop. "You’re not surviving that."
"No shit." Mylz tries again, but it’s like his arms don’t think it’s the effort. "Give a hand." A few other passengers move near the door to get away from the smoke.
Woodhead steps back. "Hell, you kiddin’? I help you and you still fall, there’s going to be a lawsuit. I know better than get tied up in liability shit."
Mylz looks up at the others. They quickly look away and pretend he isn’t there. Wireless must have recovered because some of them are getting in touch with someone.
"You fucking jumped," says Woodhead as he moves back to his seat. "You better know what you’re doing."
Mylz sees the punk’s feet swing to rest on a seatback. He hangs there, his arms getting more tired and listens to snippets of conversation over the coughing.
"… it just happened…"
"… thick smoke…"
"…he’s hanging…out the entrance…"
"…this officer jumped…"
He gets pissed and pulls on the railing leg with his right and pushes his left against the opening. He gets his chest in and someone grabs his shoulder and helps him flop the rest of the way onto the floor. He lies there, breathing heavily, resting in sweaty ballistic armor and looks up at…Andy?
The kid stays next to the opening, gasping in deep breaths of outside air. It’s the sheeter. Mylz lies there and sends a status report to Center—one ganger apprehended, the physicist just got away. They can pull his video log if they want details.
He lies for a bit longer until the smell of burning carcinogens motivates him to get an extinguisher and spray the burning seat. Passing through the haze, he accidentally bumps Woodhead’s inducer onto the floor. It’s a pity that the case cracks open after a couple of grinds of his boot heel. A woman standing near the doorway breaks from gossiping over her comm and glares at him as he sits her blood-free, unburned chair.
Mylz unzips his jacket to cool off, and tries to understand how he almost kamikazed into the street. When he was hanging out there, it felt like falling wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Maybe it’s a sign that he’ll do better on his next test.
Copyright © 2004 Lancer Kind