Axe in hand, Julian lit off the stage and ran into the hallway before the crowd made it through the electric fencing. He couldn’t tell if the faceless mob thrashing everything in their path loved or hated his music. They only wanted to destroy something, anything, to satisfy the urge. So he ran through the darkened corridor and straight into the largest man he had ever seen.
Well dressed, the dark skinned mammoth, possibly Samoan, pushed a wheelchair to the only handicapped exit in the Pipeline. Julian nearly dropped his Les Paul and stumbled back. The huge man turned around and scowled.
“Bashi, my blanket. It’s cold out.” The feminine voice from the wheelchair sounded young, though her words and tone were scholarly.
Bashi, the behemoth, obliged the cripple and left the building.
Julian sank against the wall, waiting for the rest of the band, and swore. The Pipeline, an upper-class rock pit, served those in pursuit of real beer and a venue with liberal attitudes towards synthetics. With the riot booming from the front, he waited for his band and drifted into daydream: The lush voices and perfect curves of synthetics dancing amongst the humans. As always, reality struck: A modernized inflate-a-mate couldn’t carry a good conversation.
Julian clenched his left hand, half-cocked the stun gun trigger with his middle finger. He waited until the stranger walked into the light and let down his guard. “Carlos. What’s real?”
Carlos, the bassist for Julian’s band, Gabrielle’s Trumpet, dropped his axe next to Julian’s. “Garcia’s hive fused a Model A.”
“Chrix!” Julian said.
Garcia’s hive, a swarm of New Seattle Latinos, cut their mark by targeting Model A synthetics and overloading the magnetic emotion receptor. The Model A’s advertised, writ in market spiel, Peace To The Humans. Except technology had yet to invent artificial emotion: The model sampled emotional state from people nearby. An angry human with a Model A made the synthetic angry. When too many people stood around it, a fatal processor flaw caused the receptor to burn the pattern. Garcia’s hive did this for cred.
“Gloria got knocked around and her drums got sixed.” Carlos slapped his hands together. “Bang!” He shook his head, sat down in the hallway with Julian. “All screwed up.”
“I body checked this beefsteak, he didn’t give a shiver. Scanned me like a free download, pushing out some crip.” The bite about Garcia’s hive swarmed Julian’s head, more social pull than Brahma-man. Screaming echoed from the main room.
“No tu grokas?” Carlos kicked Julian’s boot. “That’s body armor for the chica on the bit. ” Carlos looked to see if Gloria made it free of the ruckus. “She squats on your lawn. Tu grokas? “
“No yo shiver, Carlosito, but I don’t drop armor. That black dude’s hive is swarmin’. They don’t say nothing like human, just bang-bang kiss-bye fido.”
Again, Carlos kicked Julian’s boot. “Stank dope make you stupid? They’re no hive. A gang of Model A’s Garcia made. They’re mimicking Garcia and trashing your vector. Cops’ll run an AS on ‘em. “
New Seattle’s law enforcement existed as service non-gratis. Julian imprinted a release form stating: You are entitled to call the police, but they may not be held liable for what transpires. Glorified trash collector. Brutal hive that’d x-bomb first and, and that’s it. X-bomb. Oddly, ironically, iconoclastically, no one died. Police academy training: Chuck the x-bomb, fire the x-rifle, graduate. X-weapons suck. Mix rioters and an x-bomb or x-rifle and really effing fast they aren’t so uppity anymore.
Carlos snapped his fingers in front of Julian’s face. “Sound check. Probe la chica’s nest. Prolly have – something. Get down and low with that crip stank, she’ll play for you.”
Julian, annoyed with being kicked, glowered. “You snortin’ that Aqua-Velva sauce? Body armor says, No Jules, eff off. You think she’s dealing shop from a metal bed?”
Carlos said, “Effects. Any chica on the bit spins high-tone ‘rics. Kick it. We’d be the hardest-smokin’ gig to hit the Pipe.”
“Bobble.” Julian nodded towards the hall and grabbed his axe. “It’s Gloria, let’s go. Promised to cut stank.” Carlos hefted his bass and snorted. “That’s worn and mangy tail. Dress for rain.”
“No down-vote, but my cup is dry.”
“Tu grokas, amigo. Wise up. Be, like, romantic and hunt the wild. Grep smart conversation the way you replay.” Carlos helped Gloria with the remains of her drum, all of it trashed, and the three left into the alley.
After clearing the back exit, Gloria held up her reddened forearm and said, “Damn, got burned. Bouncer pulled an x-piece and mopped the Model A’s and humans.”
Julian led Gloria and Carlos out of the alley. On the street, a tactical squad surrounded the front door and pitched four or five x-grenades inside. Julian cringed: Mob’s got no foresight. Here comes the X. Gloria started walking away and Julian hurried on her footsteps.
Carlos said, “Smell up? They’re smoking a bad batch. I’d rather be shot than get X’d alongside that crap.” Julian winced against a bright flash bleeding onto the street. A crowd thickened around them, and he fought through the ranks to catch up with Gloria. He slung his arm around her waist.
“Jules,” she said, and pushed his hand off her hip, “Gotta shutdown. My chakra is all, like, misaligned. Another time?”
“Si, bobble.” Julian shrugged, waved her off, and coded a sign to Carlos. The laser clock etching the night sky showed a late hour. The neighborhood hives would be swarming, so Julian hailed a mag-cab.
The cab’s skids screeched over a curbside landing plate and the backdoor slid open. Julian climbed in, laid his axe across his lap, and pulled the padded flight harness over his shoulders.
“Where? Donde?” The voice came from somewhere in the front, behind an inch of Kevlar and high impact ceramic.
Julian wheezed: A mildewed aroma infused the cabin with rotting plastic, the seats upholstered in mold-crusted spills. A new series came to mind, Dirtiest Cab in USNA. Someone probably thought of that before. “Capitol Hill, 12th at Madison. Tres Terrace.”
The mag-cab lurched upwards, drifting in and out of a sky lane demarked with hovering buoys. The flight corridor took them to a safe height, but still at window level, so the occasional voyeur leered from the safety of reinforced glass.
When the mag-cab descended to a strip near Madison, Julian slid his thumb over a payment terminal and punched his twelve-digit password. A computerized voice bid him buenos noches and a blinking red light over an x-gun invited him to promptly exit the vehicle.
Julian’s house, willed to him by his parents, once occupied a decent neighborhood. No longer: Now, hives roamed the streets. As he walked to his front door he saw the mammoth wheeling the child into the house next to his. He stopped and watched, wondering why, in the fourteen years he had lived there, had he never met his neighbors. When did the Alvarez’s move out? He had no idea. No house on the block showed transparent windows. Armored shutters covered the glass, and he suspected that those who could afford them installed nature scene viewers.
The mammoth turned towards him, grunted. Julian briskly walked past and the huge man turned, followed him. He wondered if the stun gun in his pocket could talk beefsteak body armor.
Julian stopped walking, shifted his axe to his left hand, and clenched the stun gun in his right.
“Excuse me,” Bashi said with a thick Indian accent.
Julian felt his blood curdle. “No yo shiver. That’s real. Truth. I didn’t scan nothing.”
Bashi laughed and the sound of his gay, lively chuckling surprised Julian. Gentle laughter. “Mi amigo, my friend, requests: Play for her?”
Julian turned around, holding his axe against his leg, and released the x-grenade. He opened his mouth, ready to speak, and looked past Bashi at the girl. A pitiful child hunched over in a bundle of blankets. Cool rain drizzled silver rivulets on the fabric. “No hive queen, that’ve been bit-wise. You skulk for her?”
“I make sure she is safe from you,” Bashi said with the same warm, deep tone.
Julian glanced at his front door, rain dripping through his hair and rolling across his face. Try a new song, scan for effects, and kick it home. No big deal. He nodded.
Bashi returned to the girl’s side and pushed her into the house. He beckoned Julian to follow. Inside, humid warm air stirred throughout the house. For some reason, it reminded him of Christmas. Foreign statues and art decorated the hallway and adjacent rooms. Bashi wheeled the girl into the living room and then left her alone.
Uncomfortable in the foreignness of his neighbor’s home, he pointed at his chest and spoke first, “Julian.” By way of compliment he added, “You can drape a cage.” But, the words echoed empty, insincere.
“Thank you,” she softly spoke. Her sickly voice carried from a head too large for its small body. Moderately attractive, Julian supposed, though mousy. With her legs strapped to the base of the wheel chair, she only seemed to move her head and right arm. She folded her hands in her lap. A belt cinched her waist and buckled a strap holding up her left shoulder.
Julian swallowed. Don’t shiver. “Never scratched an ear solo.”
She smiled. “I’m Lee, and I’ve never been bold enough to ask, so we’re even.” Her lips were thin, dry and a sickly gray color. “Please, sit down.” She pointed to a chair on the other side of the room.
Julian set his axe near the chair and sat, looked about the room. “Your tail still waggin’?”
Her lips twitched, and she said, “I live with Bashi, my husband.”
“Truth?” Julian asked in disbelief.
Lee touched the ring on her left hand. “Call it necessity. I had to leave India, and Bashi wouldn’t let me leave alone. Besides, since the war, India must follow Sharia Law and won’t grant exit visas to single women.”
Julian scanned the room, peeled back the layers of art and culture from the drywall canvas. Glancing at Lee in his peripheral vision, he thought, Twisted: She hardly moves. An advertisement blared in the back of his head: Get out. Across the room, a sketch dominated the wall. A female silhouette, possibly a synthetic, drawn in a demur pose. Julian made out shadows suggesting liquid or glass. Unreal. Not a picture – A blueprint.
He swallowed, fumbled with the guitar case and set the Les Paul on his knee. “Vote to scratch?” He tweaked the tuning.
Lee said, “Honestly, I wanted the company, but a song will suffice. Bashi told me there was trouble at the club. What happened? I was lucky not to get caught between the police and gang.” Although her body remained still, her eyes darted over him, watching his every movement.
Julian finished the adjustments. He shrugged. “Someone choked on some funk and shivered.” Another shrug. “Take an x-bath, dry, get wet. Replay.” Rocking the guitar on his knee, no song came to mind. Did she really want to hear speed flamenco metal? Their songs sucked. Why would she want to hear amplified angst?
She cocked her head and said, “I suppose its good the x-series weapons keep the peace.”
Julian fingered a chord, warmed-up. “You grok an x-bomb is right? Burn your hair, your clothes, your skin? Infrasonic, you know? Too low.”
Lee looked blankly at Julian. “The x-series weapons prevented World War III. You do know that, right?”
Julian shrugged. “Bobble. Truth. That’s real, I guess.”
Lee laughed softly, but not in a way Julian thought condescending. “They’re chemical laizers with super-cooled xenon gas to induce a harmless radiation burn. Mostly harmless. Most fabrics and body hair disintegrate, and your skin gets a bad suntan. The person loses their individuality, and with it goes their anger.”
“Psycho gun.” He made a pistol with his fingers and pointed it at the wall. “Zap.”
Lee nodded, only slightly. “The psychological effect passes, but at the time is quite devastating. The physical attributes are so ingrained that their brain is unable to respond to aggressive stimulation.”
Julian looked back down at his guitar. “It’s a bust-up idea if the hives keep swarming.”
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, and the freedom of learning right from wrong.”
“Que? No tu grokas? You hearing me?”
She nodded. “I understand. I grok you. The learned reaction is to accept the x-weapon, so they only work as a deterrent.”
Julian reclined, swished his tongue over his teeth. He pointed the guitar neck at the picture on the wall. “Some tropical synthetic tail.” Glassy ‘ric tail might cut sound.
“A dream. A silly dream. I’m a synthetic scientist.” She watched Julian for a moment. “It’s a fiber optic chassis. Transparent camouflage, fast. Very fast. I still have a lot to do. The programming is not finished.” She shifted her right hand. “Hard to work on things like this.”
“Does it work?”
She shook her head, tilted it. “Almost. Without the software it only operates on remote.”
Julian glanced up from the guitar. “You talk like a scientist.”
“I’m twenty,” she said and rolled her eyes. “Twenty six. Cursed in body, gifted in mind.”
“A genius,” Julian said.
Her expression darkened. “Some think so. I’d like to hear a song if you’re ready.”
Julian switched the guitar to broadcast to a practice amp built into the case. Eff metal flamenco. Scratch it old school. No distortion, nylon and wood body resonation. He turned the distortion off and adjusted the effects processor. He picked the strings as his father had taught him years before, so the guitar sung hollow, empty notes. The notes and words he had in mind made no sense, but nonetheless weighed down his chest.
Down bit dreams you’re there
Cos’ no skank tail cares
Or groks what I’ve done
Since the download begun
He let the notes slip into a brief flamenco flutter and bit his lip. As he did, Lee’s expression softened.
So real is a chance
Charm a woman of glass
Burn her fantasy
He swallowed a cough, singing the words to the simple, but what he thought poignant, beat.
This woman of glass
Who wants to live this way
Empty day to day
When he finished, Lee smiled and closed her eyes. “Thank you. It’s late, I should be sleeping now.” Julian tucked his axe into the case. Then, he remembered how much he wanted to leave when Bashi entered the room. He stood, glanced at Lee, and quickly left the room.
From the front room, with the front door open, he heard Lee say, “Bashi, bring me the spine tap.”
“It’s late. Tomorrow is better.”
Julian closed the front door and returned home.
That strange night faded into memory, and four months later he remembered little but the haunting sketch on the wall. He never told Carlos or Gloria what happened, and never saw Bashi or Lee again. But, he dwelled on the woman of glass, and convinced the band to try the song.
The first night they played it, they knew they had a hit. The audience went rabid and The Pipeline management met them backstage to extend their contract. They hurried from the back office before the crowd broke the fencing, and exited into the alley.
“Bang!” Carlos said, smiling widely. “We kicked!” He slapped Gloria’s and Julian’s shoulders.
“You’re huffin’ , Carlos,” Gloria said, sounding relieved behind the sarcasm.
Julian started walking to the end of the alley. “Fly. Bit’s got Garcia’s scrapin’ the Pipe this week.”
Carlos laughed. “Que? The pop-tarts kicked hard, sprayed his hive. X-bombs don’t burn p-tarts.”
“Bobble,” Julian said. “Carbon burns.”
Near the end of the alley, Julian heard metal grind and wood splinter. He turned and saw two hardscrabble men laughing and walking towards them. Julian identified Garcia’s hive lines on their jackets.
“Don’t leave, chicas,” the smaller one sang. “So lonely.”
“Wag that stank tail,” the other sang along.
Gloria tried to push ahead of Julian and Carlos, but stumbled back.
“No retcon,” Carlos said. “No swarmin’ dead color.”
A crowd gathered around the alley entrance. Julian bit his lip and felt for his x-grenade, twisted the thumb catch with his index finger.
“Rewind,” the smaller man said to Julian and pointed an x-pistol.
“I don’t shiver,” Julian said.
Carlos took a step back. Two more men wearing Garcia’s colors pushed him back into the alley.
“Fuse it!” A voice shouted.
And Gloria said, “Call my synth again. I’ll x-bomb…” But others shouted over her, “Fuse it!”
Something stirred in the shadows behind the two men, a silver streak in the night air. Something stirred in the shadows behind the two crib boys, a silver streak in the night air. The shadow struck the smaller man, knocked the pistol from his hand and threw him against the wall. Then it rammed into the larger man and drove him to the ground.
“Rogue,” several gasped. Another said, “Synth gone stack.”
Gloria screamed, “Madre de Dios!”
She pointed at what, to Julian, had only been a dream: A feminine synthetic, glass melding with the night’s shadows, stood at the far end of the alley. Threads of light flashed through the body along a translucent neural network.
Carlos hit Julian’s shoulder. “From the song.”
The synthetic turned and immersed itself into the shadows. Traces of light rose along the length of the wall and then to the rooftop. Julian took two steps towards the departing synthetic when a strong hand gripped his shoulder. He turned and saw Bashi’s face, calmly smiling.
“Someone wants to see you.”
He followed Bashi through the crowd, leaving Carlos and Gloria in the alley. Bashi led him to several blocks east to an elevated park. He told Julian to wait, and then walked away.
“Scan?” Julian asked.
“Wait,” Bashi said.
Julian sat down on a stone bench, mag-cars buzzing overhead. Some minutes later, a hand touched his shoulder. He stood and faced the synthetic, the woman of glass. “Truth rendered.”
Light flashed through its body. “You don’t know what you have done for me. How much this freedom means.” Julian shook his head, stepped back.
The synthetic advanced and placed both hands on his shoulders. It said, soft and articulate, “I thought you didn’t shiver, Julian.”
“Groko,” he said. The blueprint sketched on the wall in his neighbor’s house. The crippled scientist. “Lee.” It stepped near him, the front of the luminous body touching his chest. “I need you.”
“This is kicked. I don’t … don’t chase plastic.”
The light inside the synthetic darkened and shifted to mournful purple and somber amber. “You sang the song, to me and the world. I thought you were singing to me. I thought, somehow, you loved me.”
“Lee,” he said and pressed his palms against his forehead. “Lee. So out of tune. Bobble, why? “
The synthetic touched Julian’s cheek. “In those moments we talked and you sang, I fell in love with you.”
“No, no. Down vote.” Julian shook his head.
The synthetic took a step away. “Are you afraid of the person in the chair? Isn’t this what you want? A beautiful synthetic and an intelligent mind?”
Julian grimaced and said, “I can’t.” He turned from the synthetic and ran.
Back at his house, Julian found he couldn’t sleep. The sound of Lee’s synthetic voice and the graceful lines haunted his restless sleep. She is right. He fantasized about synthetics, and wished to talk with someone about substantial topics. Hadn’t she offered him that dream? But he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, accept it. She just dropped it on the bit. Didn’t she? She asked him. His chance arrived and departed in a fleeting moment.
He climbed out of bed and walked to the front door. He unlocked it and looked outside into the dangerous night. Replay, he thought, seeing Bashi standing on his front walk.
“You crushed her, Julian,” Bashi said.
Julian stared, his jaw slack. “I scratched. Effing scratch.” He pointed. “You skulked and scanned me for her.”
“To Lee, that was the only way. She’s doesn’t have time.”
Julian leaned against the house, bitter cold leeching through his shirt and pants.
“She’s dying, and she invented a method to transfer her mind into a synthetic body. She is very close to making it permanent.”
“When her body dies, I must return to India.”
Julian frowned. “Why’d she scan me?”
“You didn’t shiver? I can’t answer for her heart. It beats to its own rhythm. Maybe because you stayed and sang her a song.”
“If I grep plastic,” Julian said, “That tags x-bomb. “
Bashi shrugged. “Then say no and I’ll leave. But understand that young woman never had a chance. Until you sang to her, she had lost her desire to live at all. She needs you.”
Julian opened his mouth, but Bashi raised his hand. “Whatever you decide, at least tell her yourself.” Then, he walked into the night.
Why didn’t I listen and skulk her hive, give her a spin? He returned to bed and found only tumultuous sleep. Three weeks later, Lee died. That night, Julian watched the street from his doorway, replaying the scene with Bashi. I didn’t even vote, never talked. Across the street, the shadows stirred with shimmering light. He crossed the street and there found the translucent synthetic. He extended his hand and said, “Hola.”
The synthetic raised its hand and wrapped smooth fingers around his. “I am … L … Model.”
He smirked and said, “That night, I shivered.”
Lights fluttered throughout its body. “I am le … lost.”
His smirk faded. “Lee?”
The light pattern shifted and it released his hand. “Model L, Serial Number. I am … Lee … Lost.”
Something’s trashed. Fused. “Bashi cut you like this?”
The synthetic grappled with the question and didn’t respond. Why did Bashi leave her? Upgraded body, retconned your mind? Julian led it across the street to his house. Inside, he pointed to a chair and told it to sit. It stared into the distance, motionless.
He picked up his guitar and sat in a chair. After scratching about for half an hour, the synthetic turned its head and asked, “Play?”