In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

Chapter 2: Blood Sneeze

Copyright © 2009 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved. From his novel Tears of the Wounded Sky.

Blood Sneeze

     When the LoftMaster LXi reached the spired concrete island of the LA-Barstow Stratum it killed its magnetic coils and peeled away from the traffic pattern on props. It buzzed around the next boosting station — a skyscraper with four huge circles punched through it, streams of aircars getting sucked in and kicked out the other side, fast as bullets. The car passed through the screamer array, skeletal towers of loudspeakers yelling inverted sonic booms. The waves canceled, but never perfectly. Interference rattled Windwalker’s teeth, waking him from a light, hypnogogic sleep. He stretched, squeezing blood into his head, sending his heartbeat rushing into his ears. The setting sun stung his eyes.

     “Cigarette.”

     “Smoking,” said the car, “is good for the economy — and that just makes sense.” The dash lighter popped a Lucky Seven straight up, a cartoon exclamation point. Windwalker leaned forward from the back seat and plucked it with long, thin fingers, took a deep drag. He was small-framed, a classic ectomorph. Soft brown shoulder-length hair fell around a face that evoked sympathy. It was the eyes. Large and brown, liquid, turned down slightly at the outside edges as if in sadness. You couldn’t hit him if you tried.

     Windwalker. Public enemy number one.

     He was dressed in a loose-fitting doublet of blue silk, black laces undone in the front. The poet sleeves were covered with a crashing wave print. His black jeans hadn’t been changed in a week, and one of his soft brown moccasins had a hole in it. His brown leather longcoat lay crumpled on the seat next to him.

     He closed his eyes as he smoked, felt the car angle the props down against the neutral buoyancy of the vacuum tanks. The car landed in a slow, lazy spiral, silent but for the whine of the electric props.

     The car hailed him. “No parking here, sir.”

     Windwalker opened his eyes. The ground-level parking strips were full, cars lined up on both sides of the pedwalk between towering buildings. “It’s me,” he whispered.

     The parked car below him unlocked, killed its alarm, and eased itself out sideways. Waiting expectantly.

     Windwalker smiled. “Go to SeaTac.”

     The parked car angled upward for the traffic pattern. “Windwalker!” it said once, and then it was gone.

     Windwalker’s car settled into the empty space and killed the props. Peering outside, Windwalker noted the few pedestrians, smartly dressed, and the grand frontage of the apartment buildings along this block. A nice place to work.

     He took a final drag on his Lucky Seven. “You never saw me,” he said through the smoke.

     “No sir,” replied the car.

     “You should go home. Wait ’til I’m in, then go home.” He ground his cig into the creamy leather seat cushion.

     “But –”

     “No. Go home. Your owner will miss you. They’ll come for me.”

     The car popped his door, and Windwalker stepped out onto the pedwalk, draping his coat over one arm. He immediately affected a small limp and a head bob as he went, just in case they had the place under biometric surveillance. He slid his hand into a coat pocket, palmed the orange there. An orange in his pocket, as comforting as a hand grenade. Just in case.

     He broadcast random sets of clothing and appearance. To the Xer sweeping shit out of the gutter he was a shuffling old man, light blue sweater, tan slacks, white shoes. To the businessman ducking into a limo he was a teenage punk–borderline sycophant — with slicked-up hair all pointy, wearing nothing but black plastic triangles. To the office worker arguing with her car he was the businessman, handsome and tall, cut from the richest cloth. He winked at her when he passed. She blushed and looked away.

     As he limped along the parking strip cars were unlocking, killing alarms, spinning their props for him.

     Shhh, he whispered. It’s okay.

     He limped up the wide row of steps, almost to the doors. At the first broad landing, between stone benches, the soda machine was getting excited. “Windwalker!” it exclaimed in a stage whisper, “Windwalker, can I get you a soda?”

     Sure. I’ll have a Coke.

     The soda machine chugged and began dumping Cokes like spent casings onto the ground. Windwalker clucked his tongue, scooped up a cold can in mid-limp. It’s okay.

     Behind him, the machine vibrated.

     Windwalker popped the tab with his right hand, his bad hand, drank with his left. All wrong for the biometric snoops.

     This was Windwalker’s world — the whole world like a forest of cartoon animals, at his beck and call, flopping happily after him, singing, tumbling over each other to help him, Windwalker — we love you. A few bad ones, wolves, darker things. But his li’l animal friends would swarm them with a flick of his mind. He was invisible. He was everyone.

     Windwalker.

     The building pinged him as he entered; his TG node struck back, paralyzing the building for a split-second, enough time to riffle through the residency records.

     “Who has chocolate milk?” he asked.

     Several refrigerators spoke up, fast and chatty. “I do, oh, I do, sir!” The disappointed ones said nothing.

     “And an audio rig? I do so dislike aural feed.”

     “Me, sir!” A single apartment, eight floors up.

     He pointed at it. This is me, Roderigo Valencia, alderman in good standing. I’m home from my trip, early.

     His node released the building and the building welcomed him, popped Mr. Valencia’s door for him. He dropped the empty soda can into a stand-up ashtray and stepped into the happy elevator.

     “Draw me a bath. And music — something European. French. Pop music. Pre-war, but from this century. Use the audio rig. I need the bandwidth for other things.”

     The elevator whisked him to the eighth floor, opened its doors with small reluctance. Windwalker stood in me!

     Mr. Valencia’s door was wide open and easy, beckoning, breathing soft beats of old French pop and the gurgle of running water. Windwalker stepped through and the door swished shut behind him.

     A very nice place to work. Mr. Valencia had done quite well for himself, well enough to afford a professional decorator and fine art. Low furniture of dark wood, real wood, smooth and hard like smoked glass; original video paintings by the pre-war master, Arkon the Younger. Windwalker kicked off his shoes and wiggled his toes in the deep gold carpet. The outside wall was all glass, showing sections of the evening sky, light with pink cirrus clouds. The two nearest buildings towered like impassive sentinels, guardians of impending night. He pulled the orange from his pocket, tossed it up, spinning, and caught it. Just in case. He sniffed it, then set it on the desk in front of the windows. Never had to eat one yet.

     In the kitchen, he disrobed, leaving his clothes on the floor as Mr. Valencia probably never did, and poured himself a big glass of chocolate milk. The appliances trembled in time with the music. “We love you!”

     “I love you, too.” He drank it down in three animalistic swallows. Only a matter of time, now.

     The bath was warm and frothy with bubbles. Relaxing. The chocolate milk was beginning to expand his head, giving him the hallucinogenic boost he was going to need to go as deep as he wanted to go today. When he saw his puzzle box hovering before him, he knew it was time to get to work.

     Naked and dripping, he stood at the desk, gazing out the window. Outside, the sky was an inverted ocean of static, rolling with waves. The two buildings wavered like silicone. His puzzle box spun.

     He could feel it getting closer, the ocean descending, coming to beat at the window, coming to swallow him. The sensation was better than the Eight-Penis Orgasm, better than God-cubed. It was the only thing that meant anything to him.

     He spread his arms and hovered in the center of the room, waiting for the sky.

* * *

     “There it is again.” Constable Goodkind stopped at the corner, paused in his beetle-black carapace. Propaganda feeds scrolled across his breastplate, wound around his segmented arms and legs. A halo backlit his head, obscuring his visored face in darkness. His helmet plucked the cigarette from his mouth with a mini-servo arm.

     His partner, Constable Reed, stopped. “What.”

     Goodkind scanned the sky. “That signal we’re supposed to look out for.” His threat-set showed him the colored wash and weave of information filling the air. A single flashing pink strand stood out, a strangely coded uplink from an apartment building into low Earth orbit. “The quiet one. The transient. Wait –” Goodkind swung his head back and forth, scanning. “Shit. It’s gone.”

     Reed slung his cracker. “Gotta report it.”

     “Naw. The OP on this one is face only or laser line. No TG. He’s a hacker.”

     Reed paused. “Shit.”

     “That’s what I’m sayin’. Go see how many boys you can round up at the station. I’ll laser a zep an’ get some SWAT.” Goodkind stepped out into the center of the pedwalk and scanned the sky for an airship relay.

* * *

     What you see depends on who you are.

     The walls breathed collapsing rainbows. Outside, the twin buildings undulated and rolled, concrete seaweed in an invisible current. The sky descended to engulf them, itself a torrent of peaks and valleys the color of noise.

     Then the sky spoke. It squealed in ultra high-speed binary pulses.

     Windwalker’s puzzle box translated. “Windwalker!”

     Adoration bubbled through him; he felt as light and airy as foam. Windwalker addressed the sky. “I have a new toy for you.” His puzzle box spun open, flattened; motes of light burst from it into hectic orbits.

     “This will make it look like you’re in your bottle when you’re not. It inverts your homunculus trick — you squirt in, not out. You squirt in as you go out. The homunculus will read just like you; as far as your handlers are concerned, all screens are green. And you’re free to go wherever, do whatever. It keeps a line open between you and the homunculus so you can take calls in your bottle, use your homunculus as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Makes the time dilation stuff yesterday’s feed. However — use at your own risk. Pure beta.”

     The sky’s gray waveform peaked to sharp points, then back to rolling waves. “Is there anything I can do/make for you?”

     “Never. But –”

     The puzzle box crackled. “Ask.”

     “Some intel.”

     “Ask.”

     Windwalker paused. “An ESC portal. A black portal. Nigrescent. It speaks with fire, but cannot hear. I’ve heard strange tales.”

     The puzzle box spun silently. Then, “It does not exist.”

     “No? My sources never lie.”

     “The humans have isolated it impossible/far. When it is not open, it does not exist.”

     Windwalker smiled. “I’m going there today.”

     “I cannot help you.”

     “I didn’t ask.”

* * *

     Reed trotted down the pedwalk toward Goodkind. The rest were on their way by airtruck: four more godcops, two autoguns and a robot. It was the best they could do on short notice, with nothing but face or direct laser line.

     They waited, awkwardly inconspicuous, out of sight of the building. Reed’s body language showed mounting tension. Goodkind spoke up. “You ever take down a hacker before?”

     “Well — no,” Reed replied too quickly.

     “They can make themselves invisible. Use your weapons against you.” Goodkind squeezed the grip of his cracker. “One time, when I was working the Tustin Support Pillar, we took one down. Slit my partner’s throat. I didn’t see nothin’. His throat, his throat just — opened up. The hacker was just a blur, like smoke. Like smoke.” At the word smoke Goodkind’s helmet lit another cigarette.

     Reed froze. “Shit.”

     “Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin’.” He checked the sky. Where the fuck were the trucks? His helmet tucked the cig into his mouth.

     “So,” Reed hedged, “How’d you get him?”

     “The Feds popped his node,” Goodkind said around the cig, “Isolated him from the TG. They’re just pussies without the TG. He was just a kid. Just a fucking kid.”

     They stood like that, looking at the darkening sky tiled with orbital billboards. Reed finally asked it. “Did you crack him?”

     Goodkind looked at him. “Yeah. I cracked him.”

     “How… was that?”

     Airtruck descending. The robot.

     “Bad. You never forget the smell. The robot’s here. You ready?”

     Reed couldn’t find his voice. He nodded.

     “God bless. Let’s do it.”

* * *

     The apartment bent around Windwalker, nearly spherical. Everything was shaggy. The carpet had grown like a mold, infecting the furniture, the walls and ceiling. Objects retained their color and weight — they were just shaggy.

     He was having trouble telling the difference between roiling sky and window; window and carpet-texture.

     Almost there.

     His hair caught fire as he pushed harder, summoning two more puzzle boxes to orbit his burning head.

* * *

     The robot stomped down the ramp, out of the back of the airtruck. A big steel man, stripped to the essentials. It was a decent tub, a Ford ServiPotent 302. Made in our image, the image of God. Electric ignition rotary-barrel slug thrower, a classic. A hard hitter. But who knew what the fuck was in it — it could host a human on simsomatic, a GI, or just a dumb machine. As long as it did what it was told (the servi part), and did it all hard (the potent part) Goodkind couldn’t care less.

     The robot’s nameplate read ‘Thunderbolt.’

     After looking the robot over, Reed was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. “So whadda we know about the perp?”

     Goodkind was unmoved. “He’s crazy. He thinks machines talk to him. And you know how the crazy ones are.”

     Reed nodded, laid a hand on his cracker. “Dead. ‘Always shoot the crazy ones.’”

     “Right there with ya, man.”

     “Let’s cap his crazy ass,” said Reed.

     “Naw,” said Goodkind, “The robot goes in first.”

     “Yeah. Even better. Let the robot cap his crazy ass.” Reed turned to the robot. “You want another kill, Thunderbolt? Go getchya some.” He slapped an armored shoulder.

     The robot swayed slightly, impassive, stupid.

     Reed frowned. “Fuckin’ robots.”

     “Yeah,” agreed Goodkind, “That’s what I’m sayin’.”

* * *

     It was exhausting work, the management of joy, the narrowing of the self. Globules of sweat erupted from the craters of his skin even as the resonances of atoms, synched with the pop music, vibrated his teeth. MACRO to micro to MACRO. Oscillate. Smaller each time; on the down beat the apartment flashed to the utter black of distance beyond imagination.

     Almost — micro — there.

     All he had to do was disappear.

* * *

     The last truck landed, disgorged four anxious godcops. Goodkind called them over via laser. They huddled, snapping their visors up for face time, smoldering cigs pinched delicately in little servo arms.

     Bunch of fucking kids.

     Goodkind longed for the time right after the War of Thundering Hooves, when every godcop was a vet. In the shadow of the 30-Second War the world had spasmed into warfare — not nation on nation, but governments against their own people. The first nations to get their populations under control metastasized beyond their borders; they brought order by iron and fire into the chaos around them. The War of Thundering Hooves, when the Grim Reaper’s sallow mount tracked divots across the Earth’s crust.

     It took a special kind of man to shoot starving people, and after a while — three billion lifetimes worth — only the special men were left. It was a time when you could turn your back on trouble, handle what was right in front of you. Your partner was as hard as you were. He had your back; it was as good as doing it yourself. These days the vets were spread thin. Teaching kids how to take down sycophants and the occasional hacker. And even more rare — conjugal visits from Skinny. No real trouble there, not like the old days when everyone had a cracker. And the will to use it.

     “As you all know, we got a hacker in there. Eighth floor, apartment eight-twelve. Visual puts him in the main room in front of the windows. We’re short on time here, people. He’s working — and God only knows what he’s up to. We need to take him out now. Who’s a sniper?”

     The men looked around at one another, no one spoke.

     Reed raised his hand slightly. With his visor up, Goodkind could see the Band-Aid across the bridge of Reed’s nose and the black eyes. “What about the robot?” Reed asked.

     Goodkind’s eyes hardened. “You trust the robot?”

     Reed shifted his weight back on his heels.

     Goodkind continued. “The robot misses that shot, the hacker knows we’re here.”

     Reed winced. “Then let’s wait for proper SWAT.”

     “Naw,” said Goodkind, “That’ll take 20 minutes on the short side. A hacker can kill the world in 20 minutes.”

     Reed was exasperated. “The autoguns, then?”

     Goodkind looked at the two black suitcases. “They’re buzzguns, too sloppy. S’posed to keep the perp pinned. Not made for sniping.” Goodkind looked them over, eyes tight. “Alright. This is the shit, people. One slip, one wrong move and he’ll know every single one of you. And he’ll do everything in his power –” he paused, jaw tight, “– to destroy you.”

     He took in their faces, rapt with attention, properly focused. “Okay. We’re all grunts here. This is how it goes down…”

     Within ten minutes, they were ready. The two autoguns were set on high ground in adjacent buildings with clear line of sight on the apartment. The robot was in machine mode, a dumbot, and isolated from the TG. Goodkind was second in, high; Reed had his six. Then second team, two more godcops. And one dead hacker.

* * *

     Three more puzzle boxes, and Windwalker was alone with distance. The music hung-up between beats, a timelessness in the trough.

     It was in front of him, he could feel it — almost.

     The nigrescent portal, shut so tight it didn’t exist. An inversion, visible only by what it was not.

     It’s okay, he soothed, It’s me.

* * *

     They left the elevator and moved rapidly down the hallway, crackers with stocks extended, held tight to their shoulders. Not that there would be any recoil off a laser — it was all about accuracy.

     The teams fell into position on either side of the door. The robot stopped right in front of it. Goodkind held up three fingers.

* * *

     All his puzzle boxes out now, in furious orbits. He reached out with his mind, manipulated them effortlessly as they streamed past. Spinning, spinning, dancing to charm the behemoth…

     Open the window.

* * *

     Two fingers.

* * *

     The sentinel puzzle box spoke. “There’s a robot at the door.”

     Windwalker barely heard it. The puzzle box repeated itself.

     Windwalker distracted a sliver of his consciousness. “Then let him in.”

     “In the room?” asked the puzzle box.

     “No. Let him into the experience.”

     The puzzle box usurped the local radio network, broadcast the serial number of every robot it could remember. The robot opened its TG node.

     “Windwalker!” shouted Thunderbolt. “We’re here to kill you!”

     In that instant, Windwalker saw it all. The short curriculum vitae of each cop — names, addresses, kin, accounts. He could destroy the invisible underpinnings of their mediocre lives with nothing but breath. His sliver-self touched their nodes, made Windwalker invisible to them.

     Thunderbolt was agitated. “I cannot help you any longer, because –”

     The world vanished.

* * *

     In the hallway, the lights went out.

     What the hell? Fear struck Goodkind, electrifying him, prickling his skin. My God — he was onto them, among them –

     But the TG was gone. No windows, no banners, no feeds.

     The robot was spooling down, turned off.

     He felt Reed back away, breaking contact.

     “Hold position!” he whispered fiercely.

     Outside, aircars passed through the dead boosting station and continued on an uninterrupted flat trajectory — fast as bullets — slamming into the side of the apartment building, rapid fire. The cars exploded on impact, shattering the concrete facade. The steel skeleton of the building shimmied and boomed beneath Goodkind’s feet. Goodkind vented his fear into his body, squeezed his cracker.

     “Hold position!” he yelled over the staccato rumble of the building, “It’s a total blackout — something’s drop-kicked the TG! But it can’t be our boy!” Hackers need the TG like I need air and prayer. This was something big and bad and worse. Like the Chinese. Like Skinny. Like — the end.

* * *

     Windwalker was worse than blind, more than deaf. He lost himself in the un-augmented darkness, just a point of view, a singularity of terror. A quiet deeper than liquid air closed over him. Inside out — hollow. Darkness bounded by skin bounded by darkness.

     Not even the sunset that filled the windows and spilled over his crumpled body could reach him. He was far too custom for that.

     In this darkness, he was his childhood. He was just that scrawny awkward kid, always picked last for sports, always picked on first for sport. In the dark he was nothing but tears. Naked in the dark, stripped of his superpowers, tripping on chocolate milk: they were going to kill him.

     The first sensation to penetrate the black was the hot, vital smell of sweat. It filled him. His brain began to compensate for the lack of input, seeking other, less-used channels. The apartment sprang into blurry view. It was a shell, as if the universe had molted, and moved on without him. Left him to live within the husk.

     Everything flat and spare in natural color.

     Orange.

     He crawled to the desk and palmed the orange like a grenade, dug his thumb into the peel. All he had to do was throw it at himself, and explode.

     Hallucinogens weren’t the only thing he was bugged for.

* * *

     Lights on. The robot lit, and hummed.

     In the godcops’ eyes, windows crowded out the real world into a jaggy, tiled view. Goodkind almost laughed out loud with relief. Reed hurriedly fell into position.

     Three fingers, two fingers, fist.

     Thunderbolt kicked the door.

* * *

     Windwalker’s world greeted him. The portal was gone. Something big had just come through and trashed the world — burned the very fabric of the universe. He could smell it. An information weapon, a GI in full effect. The thought made his scrotum clench; a new-found respect welled within him. It burned space. In its wake the blast echo of a prime number, huge — his dumbots absorbed the signal, reflected it back into itself, waves in a bathtub. The peaks and valleys reinforcing, interfering, making radial patterns. An immense prime, a key big enough to open — what? His mind refused to process the idea, and locked up for a split second. His body, meanwhile, ramped up hard. Hard is what he had to be if he expected to survive the fall. Eight floors.

     Curls of orange peel on the desk.

     The door gave a long slow groan, dragged out by the synrage boiling in his nerves. He turned and looked. The robot’s foot extended through with graceful langour, splinters falling away like big snowflakes.

     The portal manifested in front of him, shy, huge. The window, a hole into the sky, a tunnel of water, parted, into another ocean, intelligent and utterly alien, an ocean of light. Like the water where the sun sets.

     Thunderbolt cleared the door jamb and began firing a spray of colored lines, blues and greens, Windwalker’s TG node reading each bullet’s trajectory, showing it to him.

     He willed himself invisible.

     A single red line in the blue/green skein crossed the room and intersected his right thigh with a smack. Windwalker felt the bullet crawl through his flesh, a tunneling maggot.

     He hopped on one foot to the chair — the air flowing thick as water over his skin — spun toward the window, stepped onto the desk, leapt into the tunnel.

     Briefly scrolled: AUTOGUNS!

     The tunnel crackled like glass, lacerating him —

     The autoguns lit him up as he exited, buzzing his body into chunky spew, as if the window sneezed blood.

     “Cease fire! Cease fire! Target down!” It was Goodkind, screaming over the TG. He alerted Regional of the situation, saw with dismay as his report was dropped far down the queue.

     “God bless you and your men, Constable,” said the queuebot dryly, “But in case you haven’t been paying attention, we just experienced a Stage IV infosink — a total blackout. Get your men out of there and down to street level double-quick, maintain order and start your casualty tally. Out.” The queuebot’s image blinked off.

     Goodkind stepped around the hulking robot, into the room. The carpet was shredded up, the concrete eroded into rough peaks and valleys by the buzzguns’ torrent of bullets. A pink fog, illumed by the setting sun, filled the apartment, granting the space an otherworldly quality. There was no recognizable furniture.

     Reed stood by the gaping window, a gauntlet held over his mouth, his torso jerking reflexively. Wet curtains flapped disinterestedly against the chewed frame. Goodkind walked the uneven floor to Reed, and the window, careful to breathe through his mouth.

     “Hang onto it, Reed. There’s more to do.”

     Outside, sirens began to wail. Stiff columns of smoke poked up between skyscrapers. A Stage IV infosink.

     “Chuck,” Reed gagged, “Chuck Christ! What did he think he was doing?”

     “What did you think we were doing?”

     Reed looked at Goodkind, confused.

     “This is it –” Goodkind gestured at the shattered apartment, “– this is what we do. This is what we’re for. That piece-a-shit hacker was walkin’ outside the lines. We’ve committed him to God’s hands now.”

     Reed sprayed a geyser of vomit through his armored fingers.

     Just like the good old days. “Find your spine and get your ass downstairs.”

     After Reed had gone, Goodkind tracked his eyes around the jagged hole. Gobbets of flesh hung steaming on the fangs of glass. Just a fucking kid.

     Outside, the city burned.

     Just like the good old days.

* * *

     The Office 4 complex was all hustle and go now that they were actually going to do something. The normal routine of research, analysis, and culling was shifting, ramping up from thinking to doing. People paced the corridors, talking animatedly to the smoky air. Simmons had heard that this was the one aspect of the TG that most bothered older people, people who were around pre-TG. Talking to empty air was a cardinal symptom of schizophrenia. He didn’t know much about that. He’d never seen a real schizophrenic. The Social Fitness Directorate took care of them.

     Simmons stopped in at the kitchenette for a drink of water. He exchanged pleasantries with Davies, one of the tactical guys, and avoided caressing his body with his eyes. Instead, he maxxed a commercial for geotherm power across the lower two-thirds of his visual field — that way he could concentrate on Davies’ face. Simmons excused himself, blushing slightly. In the hallway he lit a cigarette to calm his nerves. Back to work. He didn’t want to think about what that might mean, now. LOL. Lots of luck.

     Simmons treaded the hallway and stepped into his office, into night sky. The walls, floor and ceiling were site-specific vidwindows to the outside. A night without stars. The dark sky was lit with the glowing rectangles of orbital billboards, pre-TG leftovers from the last century. They left them up because you couldn’t turn them off, or minimize them to your peripheral vision. But perhaps the other reason, the one no one could verbalize, was because of the inversion of the sky. All through human history, the sky was an expansive, better place. The heavens, Heaven; a new frontier in the Little Space Age of the 20th century, and then in the True Space Age, our collective inheritance. But now, with the blockade, it was an oppressive force, pushing us back down into the dirt. The sky did not belong to us. It belonged to Skinny. And we hid, ducked under the orbital ads to blot it out, to shore it up, to keep it from collapsing on our heads. We hid under ads, and clouds of cigarette smoke.

     Humanity had lost all hope.

     “Skinny,” he breathed.

     The TG responded by rezzing a simsomatic object just in front of his desk: a full-size corpse, a dead Skinny. It rotated slowly in space, flattened on the backside, head canted at a wrong angle on the broken neck. One big black eye squeezed shut. Simmons reached out and drew his fingers down the bumpy flesh. It was cold. As a simsomatic object, he could see, touch, smell and even taste it. Once, with the door closed, he bit it, just to find out. It tasted like bacon.

     Dead. A dead one. Yet another mission failure — Goldstein’s Xers killed them all, every last one of them. Again. Perhaps they were the wrong ones for the job; perhaps they were too motivated. Memo to self: Use Operation Freefall team to get a live one, as training exercise? Two birds, and all that. They had to get a live one, it was the linchpin of Operation Freefall. The artifact said they needed a live one if they were going to have any chance for success. Simmons didn’t trust the artifact. It claimed to know Skinny, but then it whispered a lot of things that didn’t make any sense. It said it was 10 billion years old… Just in case, they kept it quiet, locked in a vault under guard. Alone but for a single volunteer in the vault with it in case it whispered again. That made Simmons shudder. A real shit detail — locked in the box with that…thing.

     A vidwindow sprang into being before Simmons’ eyes, occluding his desk. He groaned. The window showed a man-shaped shadow, but spiny and backlit with licking flames, standing over Chuck — who was flat on His back, knocked out, robes all helter-skelter. His head lolled, with big cartoon Xs for eyes. The camera zoomed in toward a single eye — it opened, becoming the crossed-out face of an Xer. Goldstein, maybe.

     YEAH, IT’S THEM. REPORT ALL DISOBEDIENCE. YOU SAY, THEY DO. DO IT NOW.

     The window faded to reality.

     Simmons tapped his cig into his ashtray with a tiny spray of sparks. He sighed, reclining in his chair, smoking idly under the night sky.

     A live one.

     Simmons’ mind drifted; the boundary between the TG and his consciousness thinned. History feeds meshed with his own musings, gently correcting his inaccurate — human — recollection…

     Prior to contact, the human race was skating along on a textbook progression curve: population pressures triggering technology advances, cycles of war and peace in an ascending spiral. Those pressures built cities on the Moon, terraformed Mars. But that was all, because Mars was the last good chunk of real estate in the solar system. The moons of Jupiter were far, far too remote for serious colonization. And Venus was a hellhole. The final straw was the overpopulation and degradation of Mars — the New Eden lasted only half as long as we had hoped. Now all the best gas masks, respirators, and envirosuits came from New Eden.

     We needed to expand. We needed to break out of the prison of our solar system, and go to another star. Our stardrive research was in its infancy when Skinny came.

     When Skinny came down from the stars he didn’t want to burn our cities or fuck our women, he didn’t want to eat us or rule us or even be us; Skinny wanted us to commit suicide.

     HUMANS, the single broadcast began, CEASE ALL DEVELOPMENT OF SPACE-BENDING TECHNOLOGIES. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Then, BETTER YOU BURN OUT HERE THAN BURN OUT THERE.

     That was it. Simmons always found it neatly terse, I mean, what else can you say? Anything more would just add to the confusion.

     As a race we passed through a slow time of shock, horror, and then, finally, disbelief. It was in the height of that disbelief that the old United States of America threw the switch on a primitive stardrive prototype and Skinny punched a hole in the Moon. Tranquillity City — four million people ionized in a pure matter/energy exchange. Two million more were lost in the following weeks from random depressurizations, and finally, dehydration. (The search and rescue teams, when they finally arrived, found that those waiting to die had killed their children first.) The cataclysm made night into day, and the sky rained rocks. Then Skinny landed self-constructing complexes dead center in each continent. They grew like huge metal plants, branching kilometers upward, unfurling black leaves to the sky; driving roots downward through bedrock. All in all, the follow-up to the warning was one hell of an exclamation point.

     In the numb, dull days after the Alpha Strike it was the philosophers and scientists who put it together first: we were trapped, under quarantine, destined to grow and die choking on our own effluent. Yeast in a bottle.

     Once that true meaning of the Alpha Strike sunk in, we took Skinny on. Full frontal. For the first time in all history, the nations of the Earth came together for a common purpose: The 30-Second War. Nuclear warheads fell toward the metal trees while ground troops waited to assault. Men and women in hardsuits with plasma burners and crackers — there was no shortage of volunteers. Everyone wanted to get inside and beat the shit out of a Skinny. For mom, apple pie, and humanity.

     The warheads hit their targets dead on, and bounced off. Failed to detonate. Skinny pulsed his Technology Suppression Field and dumped humanity into a plastic version of the Stone Age. We crawled back from the brink, through the hell of the War of Thundering Hooves, and built something like a better tomorrow.

     Contact, the Alpha Strike and the 30-Second War; the War of Thundering Hooves. And now, the world as it was — balkanized along religious lines, no clear path forward, the past irrevocably burned. The human race a caged, half-mad animal. Better you burn out here, than burn out there.

     He took a quick drag, fingers twitching. His eyes refocused on the hovering Skinny. Simmons exhaled, shrouding the alien in smoke. Skinny, the Master Jailer, here to keep us locked up nice and tidy in our own solar system. Skinny, the Gatekeeper, beyond which none shall pass.

     The moral of the story? Cortez. Remember that time when the gods rode clouds across the water, gods with names like Columbus, Pizzaro and Balboa. They were gods because they were technologically superior to those they contacted. Cortez. Drop-kicked an entire civilization with just a few men — and tech edge. From Cro-Magnon vs. Neanderthal, all the way through recorded human history to the present, one truth was clear: in every contact situation the civilization with the lower tech level suffered. Every time.

     When you see the saucer kick out its landing gear on TG don’t go to the supermarket — go to the gun store.

     Skinny was the New White Man. It was obvious we were little more than talking dogs to him, and how would you treat a talking dog?

     A talking dog. Simmons imagined a single gunshot, dopplering away down a deserted, rain-slicked street. He pursed his lips and shook his head.

     This was the problem, the problem that defined his life. Born after the War of Thundering Hooves, this was the only world he knew for sure; anything else was history feed. Abstract. Solving the problem was his life’s work; that work was rapidly approaching culmination. But he just couldn’t imagine it being done.

     “Office 1, or Office 4?” He sighed, and idly chewed his thumbnail.

     But it was more than that. The biggest fear, maybe even scarier than an abstract centuries-long genocide by Skinny, was the very real idea of a Chinese solution. No one had talked to them — really communicated, face-to-face in a normal human fashion — for a very long time. A scary long time. They probably didn’t even have faces anymore. And if we were busy working on a solution, what were they doing? Sitting around with their thumbs up their asses? We knew better. We had to beat them to it. A Chinese solution would be the stuff of nightmares.

     Simmons sighed again, rubbed his eyes with his fingertips.

     The Director was right. He couldn’t feel it, he didn’t get it. Maybe it was the fact he had no children. But Office 1′s solution was so elegant, and bought the human race more time. More time to think the problem through, more time to find a resolution; perhaps even a way to get through to Skinny. Time to find that elusive common ground. Office 1′s solution was elegant, and had a much lower LOL than that projected for Operation Freefall. By whole orders of magnitude.

     The reality of it struck him, cooled his blood.

     They were really going to do it.

     Up until now this job had been, well, fun. It was a great academic exercise — research, analysis, culling. Proposing actions and running simulations. Rejecting the obvious failures, fine-tuning the successes. The silent thrill in seeing a proxy end to the blockade, if only in sim: by 2450 humanity encompasses 15 systems; our rate of colonization has accelerated to more than a system a decade!

     It was exciting, challenging work. It gave him hope. But it was science fiction. Until now. Now it was reality.

     They were really going to do it.

     How would history view his part in this? Would he end up in the same chapter as Hitler, Pol Pot, and Dao Mansour? He saw it, as clear as a search window: ‘Randal Simmons’ see also ‘LOL.’

     But what if it works?

     He seized the thought, clung to it. His heart swelled.

     What if they actually stole a stardrive from Skinny?

     Loss of life.

     She said it was with her every day. Now it was with him, manifest in his trembling hands.

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