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

Chapter 3: Tabula Rasa

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

Chapter 3: Tabula Rasa

     The man sitting on the torn sofa in the shitty two-bedroom ‘gubmint’ housing flat was Richie, and there were many things he didn’t know anymore. Once, he knew more things than any other human in existence, but not now. He had been raped, and just as the pedestrian form of rape tears away intangible things, so were intangible things torn away from him.

     Richie was pasty-white and doughy, but with a good build — the dough was packed into the right shape. His face could be called handsome, with a straight nose, dark eyebrows that nearly touched, a firm chin. It was the eyes that killed it. His eyes were constantly terror-white, eyelids peeled back as if in a state of constant surprise. Thin black hair, cut short, retreated from his forehead, as if surprised as well. On the rare occasions when he looked at another person Richie gave the impression that there was something terrible just behind them. Something they couldn’t see.

     He sat in his underwear, eating spoonfuls of sugar-coated cereal from a cold bowl, carefully watching the face of a rectangular box: an antique viewscreen. It was an old pre-war plasma display jury-rigged by the Priest to show TG feed. On either side, small cubes with diaphragms vibrated, moving air to make sound. The images were striped white with age, the audio crackled and popped. Cartoons danced there.

     He sat and ate and watched, careful to keep what was left of his mind focused on sitting and eating and watching. There were many things he didn’t know anymore, and only a few things he knew for sure, and those were things he never, ever wanted to think of again. He remembered the single life he took, the thing with razor-blade thoughts, and the sounds Dave made. But that was all — cartoons danced there now, trampling the darker things down.

     He no longer knew that his Momma, whom he lived with, was once a Holy Vessel for the Brethren of the New Enlightenment. She was one of the thousands of women rounded up from the refugee camps and held prisoner in a burnt-out Las Vegas casino, gang-raped by the Avatars in the hope of bringing God to flesh. His Momma was pure and blessed with child and so did not suffer the burning of the barren witch-whores. He no longer knew of her liberation at the hands of the ESC, the purge she witnessed, people without uniforms killing people without uniforms, black ponds of coagulating blood beneath the rugged tires of the guillotine-trucks. Clouds of supping flies. Horror turned back on the horror-makers.

     In the hospital she begged for an abortion, and was, of course, denied. She attempted the procedure herself. They strapped her to her bed for those long months of gestation, and it was there that her amazingly resilient mind finally broke. When Richie was born, she belonged to Chuck Christ, every broken shard of her. She gave Richie a name fit for a king: Lars Richard Whiteburn III.

     Richie didn’t know that she worked as a meat-packer for a time, or that she was married briefly to a man who was as cruel as she was broken. His step-father couldn’t pass his genes down to Richie, so he passed his memes down instead. He did the things to Richie that were done to him when he was a child — and so on back to the dawn of time. Pedophilia was a very successful meme.

     But of course, Richie knew none of this anymore.

     He knew sitting and watching and eating; he knew cartoons and pornfeed. He knew his Momma was addicted to Chuck.

     The doorlocks rattled for a moment, then the door swung open, revealing his Momma, arms full of plastic bags of food from Loaves for Lepers. Behind her, the graffiti-sprayed stairwell flickered. Momma was wearing her gray housecoat, gray because all the color had been rubbed out of it; her oily, gray-streaked hair was stuffed under a faded blue ball cap that said STANDARD MEATS. The cig in her mouth was mostly drooping ash. She liked to smoke the really long menthols — Fantasy Wife 800s.

     “A little help,” she said out of the side of her mouth.

     “Yes, Momma.” Richie set his bowl down carefully on the scorched coffee table and rose to help her. As he crossed the threadbare carpet, he was careful to keep an eye on the antique TV. He didn’t know what it stood for, televiewer, probably. It was old and 2D but it was better than the headaches. He took a heavy bag of food packets from his Momma.

     “You scan for a job today?” She tapped her ash to the floor.

     “Yes, Momma.”

     She walked with him to the kitchenette. “And?”

     He set his bag on the counter, eyes on the TV.

     She sighed. “You just need to pray more, Richie. I’m worried ’bout you not praying enough.”

     Everybody had to pray, just before bed, until Chuck said you were done. But Richie never prayed. When he thought of Chuck, He had big black eyes. Nothing but pupil, nothing but void space, sucking at Richie’s head. And His halo, His halo was the static tear of a migraine aura. Richie never had to go back in there again; the Priest punched his ticket for him. Richie got to watch pornfeed instead.

     “Yes, Momma.”

     She began to put the packets in the cupboards. “Chuck was so… wonderful last night, wasn’t He?”

     “Yes, Momma.”

     She stared into the ether. “So… clean.”

     “Yes, Momma.” In his empty head, cartoons danced there.

     They ate dinner on the couch, silent but for the shrill vibrations of the TV’s membranes. His Momma’s eyes were wide and glassy with holy communion. But for Richie there were only the smashed-flat 2D images of cartoons, painted on glass with fire.

     Suddenly, an announcement scrolled across the bottom of the screen: WE INTERRUPT YOUR NORMAL FEEDS TO BRING YOU A SPECIAL PRAYER SESSION. PLEASE BE SEATED, OR LIE DOWN.

     “Richie!” his Momma cried, “Richie, get your hat! It’s time to pray — and it’s special! Special!

     His induction helm was in his bedroom. His stink hat. Nanitis nearly killed him as a child; he didn’t have a built-in TG node. Just a stink hat, a virtual migraine generator. The Priest made sure he never had to wear it, gave him the TV in exchange for favors.

     His eyes never wavered. “No, Momma.”

     “But Richie, it’s special!” She was on her knees now, in the middle of the floor. Hands outstretched toward him. “Come unto me!”

     He went to her, knelt and held hands, eyes never leaving the TV.

     AND NOW, YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR, JUST CHUCK.

     His Momma stiffened. “Oh yes Lord!”

     On the TV, nothing but flesh and flesh and rhythm. Wet sounds and curves and open mouths. It was not nearly as narcotic as cartoons, but it would do. Porn filled his empty head, keeping his few memories neatly compressed.

     “Oh yes Lord!” his Momma cried again. She fell back, dragging Richie down with her, on top of her, his eyes pulled from the TV. Her face — eyes white and large, rolled back, teeth clenched beneath curled lips, her head nodding back and forth, back and forth, thudding the floor again and again. Her seizure was a key, opening him; her face was suddenly Dave’s face, and the thing that thought razorblades was working him, thrusting itself against him, into him, pulling noises and memories from his head —

     No!

     He tore away and scrabbled for the couch, blinking and looking for the pornfeed to squeeze him back down inside himself. The TV showed only static, then nothing as the power dropped out. Just a big, dead eye.

     Gone. Dead gone.

     The TG was out. Richie began to sweat. His lips twitched. He squeezed his eyes shut, squeezed small tears from them. He opened them and whimpered. It was still a big dead eye —

     He tried not to think, because all thought is memory. Memory. Remember the last day? The gun made a sound like a purring kitten, a smell like fireworks, the lowballer fell down a long spiral of blood, his face saying I thought you were different, you son-of-a-bitch.

     “No, no!

     He thumbed the remote with a palsied hand.

     Remember the trip to the hive? He saw Dave’s smiling face, his hands on the wheel of the bus. Remember? Dave’s face making the horrible animal sounds as the thing worked him. And their dead eyes.

     He bent double on the couch, pressed his knees into his eyesockets, hugged his shins and moaned. Memory.

     Nothing to kill it, to fill his big empty skull. Nothing but these few, small memories. They were all he had. And without the narcotic pressure of cartoons and pornfeed they expanded to fill him; he became them again. Behind his haggard face, nothing but gray wrinkled skin and big dead eyes.

* * *

     Simmons had no one to go home to. He had thought to the point of exhaustion — research, analysis, culling — and when the thoughts ceased making sense, when window-manipulation took seconds instead of instants, he gave in and reclined on the cot in his office. He lay there, under the starless night sky, a sky with new constellations like Nike-Coke-PDM. He wanted to smoke, but he was out. He’d have to wait until the coffee boy brought him another carton in the morning. Simmons could have gone home, but leaving the Office 4 complex, even for a single night’s sleep, presented its own problems…

     The mission probables list was almost compiled for his presentation tomorrow. He was happy to report that it would involve only one overt kidnapping — the sycophant. Easy enough — of the four options two had committed suicide, and one was stark raving nuts. The leftover was docile enough, with no police contact after his abduction. They could snatch him at will. There, at least, Simmons found some hope. One-third of the team, the navigator, was as good as done.

     As long as Goldstein’s men don’t treat him like Skinny when they snatch him, he thought ruefully. At least they can’t kill the GI, or the brick.

     Operation Freefall mission parameters called for a navigator, an information weapon, and a brick. A small team, tight, easy to infiltrate, easy to hide. Quiet. A large force would be obvious, and bring down a counter-attack. Too much confusion to work properly. Too many lines of fire. But a small team, with a large distraction…

     Simmons called up a music feed, some low-grade pop from his secondary school days. Self-indulgent comfort music. It brought with it bittersweet memories of girls he dated, girls he never wanted. He never wanted them, but he needed them. It was that, or suffer summary execution. The girls liked him well enough — he looked them in the eye, and kept his hands to himself. Bittersweet, but for some reason, comforting. There was a warmth in him he hadn’t felt for a long time.

     He scanned the geneered intelligence selection. The current probable was code-named Thor, a dutiful and business-like GI; but his vast intelligence seemed to be encased in neutronium. It was harder than hell to get through to him, to communicate — Thor came across as autistic. You could never be sure he was listening to you. Of all the INFOWAR GIs, Thor had the lowest personality index.

     The brick. Simmons gritted his teeth. It was going to be Luthor, the cyborg. That mad, crazy cyborg they kept crated in the basement — unexploded ordnance from the war. Simmons shuddered, and wished it wasn’t so. Not him. Last time they used him, they found his TG node all screwed up. Luthor was watching big tiles of static, with nothing but a little peep hole into reality. And he never even complained. Luthor was all clicks and no blinks. If he wasn’t killing something, he was looking right through you, waiting for the next thing to kill. Not Luthor. Anybody, anything, but Luthor.

     Far above, the constellations slowly spun, almost aligning into stepping stones to heaven.

     Almost.

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