A Cyber Punk, Pt. 4

Read the last part here!


“The shotgun.” “Oh.” He looks over at the gun and reads the message painted on its side. It takes him a second, then he lets out an ugly chortle. Through his vocal modulation, what’s supposed to be a laugh sounds more like a wasp nest inside of an industrial grinder. The debt collector I remember as Casino raises an eyebrow, her cyan eyes flamelike with intensity. “What’s so funny?” Her voice crackles with electronic rage, but she keeps her distance. Probably remembering my sweet pants. I stretch my leathered leg as a taunt, also because I’ve got some serious cramping going on. Before she can do anything, a hand grabs her shoulder. Each finger a cinderblock, each nail a saw. The owner steps aside her: it’s the skyscraper from before. He extends his index finger – the tip of which a hypnotising swirl.

“That your man?” he asks. I break free from the hypnosis, blushing heavily. “We just met!” Cyborg’s visor flicks to ‘:|’ and looks at me with computerised disdain. Skyscraper grunts a gutteral ugh. “Not you, gratis.” That means ‘freeloader’ in the racketeering business, someone who evades corporate tax by moving around a lot.

“For an insult, it’s not that cutting. Could’ve gone with, I don’t know, leech, or sapper, or society blighter. Someone on Third Life called me a ‘pantaloser’ once. That really hurt my feelings. These pants mean a lot to me, you know. You gotta get personal with these insults, I’m just saying.”

From behind Casino strides in a third member and joins motley duo, now a motlier crew. His leather jacket is covered in grime, and banana peels and empty tin cans are sticking to his chrome: two bulky arms with cogs and clockwork designs. His silver hair is gelled into a frictionless pompadour, like a lumpia of grease and grunge. God, I’m starving. His expression is unamused, his head tilted back to glare at Cyborg and I from the bottom of his sockets. He parts his dry lips.
“That’s him, yeah.” “Hey. ‘Them’, not ‘him’,” I object. The trio close their eyes in sudden shame and retroactive respect. Skyscraper repeats himself, “this the scumbag you were looking for?” “That’s them, yeah.” I nod in approval.

Pompadour forces his eyes wide open. “Yeah. That’s the one who stole my drop.” He’s struggling to keep a cool composure. Steam is blowing from his arm vents. A single hair flicks out of the formation of his perfect pompadour. “Jumped from a few floors lower than me so…” A vein on his forehead bulges, “he could be grabbed instead of me.” His bloodshot eyes jut at Cyborg. His visor switches to an alarmed red ‘!’.

“Wait… Don’t tell me. YOU’RE Caesar?” “Yeah, that’s me. Mind tellin’ me ’bout that poser you hooked up with?” I can feel both their burning stares plus an uncomfortable heat from a very, very angry visor. I look away and whistle an inconspicuous tune. Namely, Trish Rigs’s least-known song, ‘Silence after an Unsuccessful Surgery’, released on a 100-copy EP before her first major hit. “That song is rumoured to be autobiographical but she hasn’t confirmed or denied this yet so–” Four voices command me to “Shut up!” and I oblige.

Skyscraper steps forward and makes a cracking motion with his flawless metal neck, mimicking what that would sound like with his mouth — very unconvincingly I might add. He addresses the boy I’ve admittedly rudely imposed on and probably manipulated to a degree. “Here’s the situation, halfbot. You did your job wrong, snatched the wrong dropper. They ain’t even got the right data. Just a dog, called Data.” Cyborg shrugs, Data barks. “In fact,” he continues, “we were already chasing ’em. They’s a freeloader.” He looks at me with electrifying, condescending eyes, “A society blighter.” He lets out a chuckle, Casino follows suit with an equally forced one. “Now Caesar here,” he pats his leather jacket to wipe off some of the grime, “we met him on our way down. Told us about this shirtless freak that stole his drop. So, you see, our interests… they were… uh…” “Similar?” “Yeah, ‘similar’. Shut the jack up.” I do so! “So it was only natural we teamed up. That way, we can all have some fun with ’em, the three of us.” He cracks his knuckles, again doing the mouth thing. Ugh.

Cyborg looks lost in thought. I can tell ’cause his visor’s displaying a big blue ‘?’. “So, what undertaking would you have me do?” Caesar traipses forward and puts a disgusting, steampunkish arm on his shoulder, in clear violation of personal space laws. “You’re a smart kid. This is probably your first drop and this glitch took advantage of that. So, here’s how’s it gonna work. I give you the data, you give us the leech. And… I’ll be taking that with me, to cover for the inconveniences, mm?” He points at the terranium in the back of the room. If he was seriously considering Pompadour’s offer, he sure as cyber isn’t anymore now. Gripping Caesar’s hand and pulling it away with his real(?) arm, his visor turns a blood red, displaying a furious ‘>:(‘. His actual mouth clenches, too. Pompadour struggles to break free, pulling at Cyborg’s arm, gnawing at it with fake teeth, but fails so hard. Never get retroware installed. It’s weak and I mean, at no point was steampunk cool.

He clutches my arm with his robot hand. Huh? “I don’t think so,” a chilling femme voice fills the room. All falls quiet, all feels quiet, and the world rushes past me as I’m hurled at the debt collectors, pants-first.

A Cyber Punk, Pt. 3

Read part 2 here!


 

Hanging outside a window, some 40 stories high, I see the city for the first time in weeks. Not, like, literally, although I did have the blinds drawn. No, I’m looking at a city, naked and exposed. A neon sprawl, covered in an oppressive haze (read that on a tourist BBS one time). Skyscrapers of corporations stand out like machine parts: each a cog in something we don’t understand. Sunlight hits their sickeningly spotless chrome exteriors, even in the dead of night. Corporations control the weather, after all.

Any sunlight dies before it gets to bounce off to the rest of town, let some light in that isn’t from a neon sign. The corps have unlimited renewable energy that way; monopoly on solar panels. They need to power The Shell, after all. Rest of the town, though? Not so much! Electro’s rationed for cityplayers and it is expensive. Ten days of earnest pay is worth an hour of computer a day, one laundry tour, and maybe a light or two (or two Trish Rigs virtual displays) for a week. Nooo thank you, I’ll take my sweet chances with running from debt collectors.

My urban soliloquy is rudely interrupted by the rooftop gestalt plummeting down. They pass me, too fast for me to really catch any details other than the shocked realisation on their face. I hear a scream, followed by a small ker-ploff into a garbage dumpster, concluded by a series of words I’d rather not process. I feel a heavy tug on my leg. My face slams against the window as I’m pulled into the apartment with Data. “Jesusch Hacking Chrfist, thanksh for catchig me but show soum restrainpt, woldya?” I’m clutching my nose in pain, blood running like an Android W.K. album cover. “You signed up for this job, datadropper. Get used to it.” A lightly-modulated femme voice tells me off and I’m sort of into it.

I slowly get up. “D’you hab like a servette or somthing? I bink my noes is brokem.” Before I get a good look, they suddenly storm off into the bathroom. “Uh, you okay?” “You stay there,” a mechanical snarl commands me and I obey. “You’re BLEEDING. I can’t stand that, that red stuff.” I take a look around the apartment – no tissue around, save for the bits from my nose. Black sofa, black table, black paint. A ceiling fan missing half a blade whirs softly. The only remarkable, colourful thing in here is a terrarium under ugly, fluorescent lighting. The fan and lights hum softly together; a sad, generator-powered post-ambient seems like a fitting soundtrack for this place. I wipe my nose on the black curtains, blow a bit. Hurts like hell.

“Okay, I’m coming out. You better not be phlebotomising all over my apartment anymore.” “What?” “Bleeding.” “Oh. No, I’m not.” I make sure I stand in front of the bloodstain.

My saviour reemerges from the bathroom. The only applicable word I can think of is “surprising”. Plain tanktop and pants, dyed a faded purple and green. Their shoulder-length black hair, as they’re tying it into a knot, is almost invisible against the paintjob of the walls. But what strikes me and my fancy are their hardware: a chrome throat-plate, similar to the debt collector’s, used for voice modulation; a disproportionately-sized robotic arm where most folk would have dangling an organic limb; and a triangular glass visor covering most of their head, both sides ending in a sharp angle just above the mouth. It’s got one of those fancy, built-in emotion displayers, a great invention for the disabled and socially awkward. Right now it’s showing an unimpressed ’:-|’ face.

“You mentioned ‘datadroppers’ earlier, mixter–” “Mister,” he cuts me off and I dare not speak again. “It’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” They turn to me and gesture at my dog. “This the data?” I nod diffidently, “this is Data, yes.” Data modulates a bark. “Sooo, my name’s–” “I know who you are. You’re Caesar, expert datadropper. 32 independent jumps, 13 corporate. An impressive record.” The visor flicks to a ’:-)’. I’m pretty confident that I’m not, but that emotion displayer is making it real hard to disagree.

“I, yeah. Sure.” I nervously scratch the back of my neck, pulling at the spot my dataport once was. He crouches down and lets Data sniff his alloyed hand. “I think it’s genius, using a pup as a datastorage. I’m still going to need to check his hard drive, though, if that’s OK with you.” I slowly nod and tell Data it’s okay, my face clammy with sweat. What do I have on there again? Educational/inspiration kung-fu videos, some Third Life ’emergency’ contacts, blurry .bmp files of Trish Rigs from her live concert at the Technope Drome last Tuesday… Aw jammit, this is bad.

As the cyborg moves to plug in his USB jack – he has to flip it around twice – the door busts open. A familiar cocking sound fills the apartment. I look up, hesitantly, realise this just got a lot worse, and whisper. “Ask me about cock…”

“…excuse me?”

A Cyber Punk, Pt. 2

Read part 1 here


 

It may as well have been a sniper shot. The pellets from the shotgun virtually have no time to spread, and inject themselves into my leg like a hacker lunges at a dataport. I crumble to the ground, screaming in pain – what else is there to do? I look up at the debt collector with tears and sweat in my eyes – not a single drop of mercy in hers. Her bright cyan lenses shine pure condescension on me. Like, actually. For real. “Could you maybe turn those down, love?” Her artificial pupils widen, obviously unsure why the hell I’m talking instead of doing the screaming and bleeding.

I inform her politely, “bulletproof pants with kick boosters.” I jump up on my right leg and rapidly pivot on my heel, slamming my shin into her side. Oh, how the airhockey tables have turned! She stumbles against the west wall, dropping her shotgun. I pick it up – lasered into its side it says, in bright magenta, “ASK ME ABOUT COCK”. Datadamn, I would’ve loved to take this muscle girl to a bar instead of Painzone, population: uh, her, I guess.

I hop backwards into my apartment, snatching as much Trish Rigs memorabilia and downloadables as I can, also gently nudging Data awake. “Time to go, little one.” His voice modulators emit a yawn and he stretches a bit. His joints really need an oiling or two. I put in my earbuds again; now it’s playing ‘Let’s Fall from the Control Spire Together, Baybee’.

“Definitely one of her darker, more experimental songs – her producer for that album was being blackmailed by this neondim bloke. He found some ‘saucy pictures’ of her, the producer, which he meant literally. He found some camsnaps covered in sauce at this restaurant and he let her know and she took it the wrong way? Offered to let him compose like four tracks on that album.” Done updating Data’s knowledge on Trish Rigs trivia, I start hurrying towards the door, carefully stepping over the now-passed out debt collectress.

“You alright in there, Casino?“ The sudden voice stops me dead in my tracks, and also bumping into the corporate headquarters of a man does. He’s wearing one of those gimmicky suits, the ones that are mostly transparent as to show off muscles or mechanics. “Uh, hoi. I’m gonna assume that’s Casino over there?” I look over and gesture at the lady gracing my carpet. I try to level my shotgun with any organic part of his mostly-cybernetic body but I’m guessing he has a fine set of wired reflexes in him, because that was an insanely fast punch.

I fly backwards, crashing into the radiator, knocking off most of my figurines from the windowsill. “I don’t care about your damn debts. You’ll be paying with your life for this.” Datadamn, are all debt collectors this witty? I get up, feeling not so sweet, especially in my ribcage area. I raise my arm to allign the shotgun with this jake, which goes significantly easier than before. Then again, lifting your arm up is way easier when you’re not actually holding a shotgun. “Aw, jammit.”

The newest-appeared debt collector cocks the shotgun that I rightfully looted and goes for the shot. His metal finger crawls around the trigger. I’m sweating beads, trying to come up with gnarly acrobatics that could let my pants block the shot without also doing things to my spine. “You shit mutt!” I open my eyes, still in a fetal position, and see Data chewing on his expensive electronics. I also see Data getting flung right over my head, out the window. Without even a scrap of cogency I jump out after him, which has the neat corollary of narrowly keeping me from getting ventilised by an angry cyborg with a shotgun.

Jumping out of a 68-story apartment window to save a dog doesn’t really have the same death-preventing effect, though. I can make out a faint, faintly purple outlined figure standing on top of the roof two stories above me. “Hey, don’t do it man. Life’s pretty sweet.” I really do believe that, even now. As gravity does its thing, I begin to sing along to the final chorus of ‘Let’s Fall from the Control Spire Together, Baybee’. Data modulates along. We practiced.

You and I are ether and inter

nether regions, yellow tape to pieces

soaring down but babe we’re uploading

heaven’s waiting, let’s get downloaded

I suddenly stop. Soaring, that is, not singing. “Probably won’t make it as a singer, ace.” The very straightforward person who’s got me grabbed by my ankle pulls me into their apartment.

Yeah, life is pretty sweet.

A Cyber Punk, Pt. 1

“I’ve never done this sort of thing before.” She unlocks the hotel room door and creeps in. Smiling like a streetlight, she pulls me in. In for a kiss, in for more. We exchange spit like politicians trade in lies. Our hands move on bodies not our own, trying to open locks to secrets begging for taking. Her shirt dissipates. My tongue leaves a trail from her lower lip to her neck, her shoulder, her chest, her stomach. She grabs my head and hisses, “you’re an awful liar.” I move to unequip her leather pants–

She starts blurring. The hotel room melts. My body doesn’t feel my own. I am lunged backwards. The world races past me, faster than I can comprehend. Everything is a haze, is in front of me. Complete darkness envelops as I get more and more removed from the place I wish I could stay in. In that place, now less than a speck of bright in the distance, I know she’s just as disappointed and frustrated as I am.

“Just as it started to get good.“ I chuckle to myself and shake my head to no one in particular. Stark naked in a leather office chair, wearing only an older model VirtuCom helmet… Sure am glad no one’s watching me right now, not that I’d care. I unplug my headgear, saunter over to my bed where I put my clothes and begrudgingly redress myself.

As I struggle to get into my tight brown leather pants, the ones with bright-magenta strips on the back, I notice the A/C’s off. I’m beading with sweat, the choking urban heat instantly noticable. I look at my computer. Third Life didn’t crash, the power was cut off. “Ah, jammit.”

My door flies off its hinges. I fall on the bed and narrowly dodge it. Like a grenade went off, the door explodes against the north window, into a googol oakwood splinters. My desktop becomes a pin cushion, my prized digital display of E-rockstar Trish Rigs is skewered and glitches out. It starts displaying an ad for nerdcore act The Angry AIs and I begin to scream. My dog looks up to see what all the commotion is and goes back to sleep.

I roll off the bed and blindly grab under it, taking the first things I get my hands on. Electrum knuckles with integrated music player? Why do I even have these? I slide them on my left hand, put in the earbuds, and take cover against the south wall.

“You’re overdue on your debts, Mx. Cureleathers.“ I can hear the thick, gutteral voice booming over Trish Rigs’s 2087 hit single ‘Let Me Hack Your Soul, Baybee’. That one’s so good, I’m crying a bit. “And like cyberhell that’s your real name! Now you gotta pay up twice – once for the debts, and another to change that two-bit pseudonym of yours. Unless you want it listed in tomorrow’s obituaries.“

She bellows like a maniac at her own joke, which was actually pretty good. I’m laughing too, despite my situation. “Mate, you interrupted something real sweet. Come back tomorrow, alright?” I glance around the corner: the debt collector’s size isn’t as impressive as her boombox of a voice, but she’s still pretty big. Oh, gray plate on the throat. Of course, voice modulation. She also has a shotgun. That’s like, bad for me.

“How abouts I drag your broken body back to office, wrangle some Cybucks out of your pathetic ass?“ “Only if you’re plugging the USB in, doll.” The unmistakable sound of a shotgun getting cocked sends shivers down my spine. Or it’s that freakin’ draft from the window. I’m not wearing a shirt, just these sweet, sweet pants. A muffled footstep on my cheap carpet – I take a quick look at Data; still in her box, whew – the collector’s coming closer.

I take a deep breath and let Trish guide me to sweet survival, baybee. I sway around the corner and rush at the collector, singing the lyrics with full voice. I hit the SHOCK MODE button on my knuckles and prepare for the meanest left hook, ruder than social media. Right before my fist connects with her admittedly very fair face, the song abruptly stops, and a robotic voice nowhere as lovely as Trish’s informs me, “INSUFFICIENT BATTERY FOR SHOCK MODE”.

My fist on her face, a sheepish smile on mine. “Ah… jammit.” She aims her shotgun at my leg and pulls the trigger.

Protagonist

Today is the first day of my life and the town elder tells me I have to leave.

I did a wrong thing, or was chosen, but I have to go away. People who I think are my parents are saying things to me. A lot of strange symbols come from their mouths and I do not understand them. I can look back on any mouth symbols people have said to me whenever I want but it’s not very useful. For the most part I say YES or NO. It works fine. Those are the only words I know but it’s very easy and I like that. The elder gives me ’$\/\/0RD’ and ‘l*07i0N’. One I can use to attack and the other I can use to ‘heal’. I think that word means the opposite of attack, which is also good? There’s another YES/NO option and I say YES and I leave the village forever. I know it’s forever because I bump against the entrance and it won’t let me back in. I guess this is what adulthood’s like.

Travelling is fun. It’s very dangerous and many animals (and sometimes people?) attack me but that’s what $\/\/0RD is for. If ’|-|l*’ is low I use ‘l*07i0N’ to feel better again. ’|-|l*’ must be how happy I am. When the ’|-|l*’ of something that doesn’t like me reaches 0 it leaves me alone which is good because I like being happy and when things attack me I get less happy. When I attack a lot of things I get to be tougher by exactly one in how strong, smart, or fast I am. I’m not very smart yet but maybe later I will be. I have already learned many things already but not what ’60lD’ is yet. It has been a long time since I left the village but there is another up ahead! Maybe I get to stay for longer than a day.

It is very pleasant here, although my first day was very tough. I managed to figure out the secret all by myself! You must give a lot of ’60lD’ to people and they give you gifts even if they don’t know you. In a building filled with beds I said NO to a man the first time we spoke and nothing happened but then I said YES and it made me happy. I gave a lot of ’60lD’ to a man selling things to put on your body and he gave me ’|-|4T’. Wearing it makes some numbers go up and makes me feel safer, which is a good thing. No one in the village is attacking me, though, which is also a good thing? I can stand close to small animals and they make sounds but I don’t understand the sounds. I hope they are saying nice things about me or the people that live here.

There is a tree in the square that’s very tall and pretty. There is a group of people underneath it making music and dancing. I want to join them but I don’t think I can move my body in more than two ways. The dancing boy has a lot of animations which makes me a bit upset even though ’|-|l*’ is still the same. He makes weird signs appear and I say YES and suddenly I am dancing with him. We dance until night happens and suddenly it is morning and the boy is there. We now are together which is very nice. I still don’t understand his mouth symbols so I just say YES because he is very smart and knows what to do. He does not need ’$\/\/0RD’ to fight and instead uses ’/\/\461C’. Maybe I need to get smarter so I can do that too. We talked with the village elder – well, I just said YES – and now we are headed for a cave. This is the second time I’ve been sent me away but I don’t think I mind because ’|-|l*’ is all the way full.

The cave is very dark. Thankfully there are many glowing drawings on the wall. They look a lot like the strange symbols that pour from people’s mouths so I guess I learned another thing but I still don’t understand. The dancing boy and I attack a lot of things which makes the both of us tougher – I secretly put ones into being smart because I want ’/\/\461C’, too. At the end of the cave there is a very strong animal that makes the dancing boy unhappy. He is lying on the floor which is no place to sleep (I know this because a bed is where you sleep!). I give him the last ‘l*07i0N’ but nothing happens so I attack the animal until it leaves us alone. I get tougher again.

Thank goodness: the dancing boy gets up again after the fight. He says something and I say YES and he opens the treasure chest the animal was guarding. He grabs what’s inside and turns to me, holding a very strange device. Now we can go back to the village. But, for some reason, I suddenly become a lot less happy. The dancing boy is happy, though, which is good, and he walks away. I can’t move. I can’t ‘heal’. I can’t make myself happy. I put another one into smart. The glowing symbols on the wall – I understand them now. They read, “BEWARE THE BEAST THAT GUARDS THE TREASURE, BUT BEWARE THE TREASURE MORE…” I think this means I can understand mouth symbols, too.

I think I will take a look at what people have said to me.

 

Mistake

You made a mistake.

Red stains on an icy floor, you are biting your bloody nails. When an antagonist says “now it’s your turn,” you’re usually used to an accompanying murderous intent. But the only things here are chilling silence and a notable lack of villains. Your nails are running out. You grind the old blood from underneath with your teeth, sharpened by the rocks and sand you use for sustenance. The blood not yours mixes with a solution of spit and hate deluging from your wizened mouth. Rinsed clean of proof of sin, you are slightly less disgusted by your own hands. About two units of disgust less. That’s 48 more to go, to be precise. Precision has always been your forte. It has killed many women.

A fragile man, a pile of assorted bones, had tasked you with the destruction of a place hated only by him. “The cold is bad for my bones. Ice can turn into water, which is bad for my bones. Rid the world of ICE DUNGEON PLUS and I will reward you with SKULL TREASURES.” You were reluctant at first, having so many good memories of refrigeration. Your dog lasted long hours longer, thanks to the cold. But the promise of SKULL TREASURES convinced you, the exact tier of treasure you care to make an effort for.

ICE DUNGEON PLUS was full of traps, but those can’t hurt you. You only take action when it is necessary. There is no room for error, no room for mistakes. Death is unnecessary; you don’t take any action towards it. It’s surprising how much time you spend staring at blank walls, listening to the crackle of your own skin. A lot of the things you do can lead to death. All this inaction hasn’t done much for your body heat. You once froze a dog by petting it.

Entering the final room of ICE DUNGEON PLUS, you expected a boss, certainly. You had it all figured out: how to kill it, how to escape, how to inform the pile of bones it was done, how to spend hours telling yourself it was necessary. But you did not expect her. Unlike the bosses you’d encountered before, she did not try to kill you. Not a single action performed was towards your death.

This was the first time nothing tried to kill you; you felt less cold. Instead of ICE III, she cast you a look like transparent icicles, sharp and clear with intention. Your lips and fingers knew exactly where to go. Dry, cold skin can be surprisingly warm when acted upon. This was necessary, she was necessary. Then, a low chuckle scared you. “Now it’s your turn.” Fear, panic, health bars running low, no action can lead to death.

This was necessary, you tell yourself, biting your bloody nails. It has been hours and you still don’t believe a word of it. You eagerly activate pressure plates, expecting to be skewered; you can’t help but dodge the cold spikes jutting from the ground. You unintentionally dodge the boulder rolling towards you. You dance through a fire trap, hoping that flames can melt a body as cold and barren as yours. None of it works.

You made a mistake and you can’t help but live with it.

Joshua

A# – glide to A. “Joshua. Joshua. This is your new father,” is what the words meant. A smile like Orion’s belt: askance, far away. A touch on my cheek – calloused palms, unintended chafing. “Indeed, your new father.” Words I already knew were repeated. I was told he is my father. I am told things to remember. He brought money. Animal skin suitcase, father never hunted before. Seven paper stacks bound by paper strips. I am paper, I was told; a document. Ink cascades down my forehead, down my face – an ovoid blank. Words appear, words I remembered: “Stars” “Heavens” “Orion’s belt” “Beautiful” “Fuck!” “Shit!” “HELP” “Help” “help”

G. Breakfast table, new father, five men, one woman, me. Velveteen covers, embroideries of flowers I saw in the forest. Don’t know the names. I know their occupations: flower. They are laughing, yelling, roaring, cannonfire. Woman has pink lips, a ruby choker. Expensive throat slit. Scar on her lip, she smiles at me – no laugh, yell, roar, Howitzer M109 – I feel the exact same. A plate is given to me – toast and eggs, one strip of bacon. The television family ate this once. I saw them do it. They had a lot of problems. Father was abusive but laughing people made it okay. Woman was not real, couldn’t have been, fantasy on paper. Children should have been happy with a home. “Pretty quiet, that one.” Five men laugh at me, one points. I tense up. “Whoa. Relax, kid, you’re with family now.” No defence ready, but no defence necessary. I am with family. I wish I was quiet. I wish it was quiet. Loud, like hand grenades, like exploding stars. That happens, I remember it being told. Will that happen to the sun? M67, frag. Ka-BOOOOOOM! Table falls silent. “Jesus. Where the fuck did that come from?” “Where’d you even find this kid?” Silence after a bang is a good thing, I was told. ‘That’s how you know it’s safe, Joshua,’ is how I was told.

F to E. Two months ago, 0300, new father set up equipment. Not for spotting, but looking at the sky. Night raid? No. Too dark. No lights on in camp. Radio silence. “There are more stars out in the heavens than guns, Joshua. Or so I’d like to think.” The desert is cold and dry. My skin hurts when I drink. I want to drink but I don’t want to hurt. I am thirsty. “On clear nights like these, you can see Orion’s belt with the naked eye. But looking at it through a telescope is even better. Isn’t space beautiful?” I close one eye and peer through the scope. Emptiness and lights, all above me. The lights make me readable: the Joshua paper, document 77. Joshua is a part of this family, belongs to this father. Bang. C14 Timberwolf, 2500 yards northeast. No silence. Bad. “Fuck!” “Shit!” “HELP” “Help” “help”. Silence. Good.

String snaps. Another bang. I scream; I have been killed, but I don’t want to be. Silence. Breathing. No silence. Screaming. My lungs are filling with air. My blood is my blood, not a stain on the ground. Good. Mother rushes into my room. She knows what has happened. I was shot, in my head. Not a real bullet. She takes my guitar, used to be father’s, and wraps her arms around me, but not a chokehold. She makes me live again, warmth and humming. I put my arms around her and I become silent again. Not a target. Silence again. Better.

Happiness

“WHAT AN UNEXPECTED SIGHT.” The excited yells of a random stranger quake through my skull. It doesn’t do my headache any good, although I do share the sentiment. I did not expect to see this, whatever ‘this’ is, nor did I expect them to be so legged yet so fashionable. Now that I think of it, I heard their voice in the baggage claim, too. Their personal belongings hadn’t warped in properly, or something. They made such a fuss about it! Their desperate shrills resonated at such a wavelength, the head membranes of seven respected Zone 4 diplomats popped.

It was a mess, it gave me a headache, a minor political crisis ensued, and now the fool’s at it again. But fair enough, those luggage warpers are truly terrible. Some poor sod’s husband’s ashes were transmuted into a grade 3B cosmo-terror. And now HE has to pay for damages! No wonder they still transport folks with ships.

Still, I’m just glad my stuff popped up alright. Heck, it’s a miracle the package is intact at all. I’ll forget to mention to my employer I made a little sidetrip to Old Earth. It’s been a struggle for the tiniest shred of joy to thrive there for the past few centuries, and last month central authority’s confirmed that it’s impossible for the natives to grow happy anymore. Least I can do is bring some happiness from the outside. Reaching Europa B5 is always a hassle. Levels B1 to B3 have been taken over by the central governing AI’s. It’s not that they malfunctioned and became murderously evil or anything; that only happened once, on Planet AI, formerly New Old Earth.

I mean, don’t run ‘feelings.exe’ and expect them to suffer your dirty fingertips on their motherboards. No, these AI’s are actually really nice, albeit a bit talkative. Since they failed their directives to “keep at least one (1) person alive”, but lack a termination sequence, they spend their time consuming ancient media and share it with me when I’m around. B1 loves science fiction audio-books spoken by its bethrothed ‘Microsoft Sam’, Sophia is into history and critical gender theory, and B3 really likes the sound metal currency makes when placed inside of a leather bag. It’s rather incredible what those Old Earthlings came up with, despite not being able to jump very high or love one another.

I’m sure you can see how it takes a while for me to get through these three levels alone. Just now, they had me read this work of fiction called “History of the Mighty Sovereignity of Humans Who Are the Best And Also of Non-Humans Treated as Second-Rate Citizens, Vol. 4 (2733 – 2850)”. Whoever you may be, Collective of Authors Chronicling Human History for the Good That Is Humanity, your name is weird and your novel is TERRIBLE.

Europa B4 is probably my least favourite place in the universe – and I’ve been to Planet Nightcore AND Zone 3. No offence to Zone 3’ers, but it’s no Zone 2, which is better than all the other Zones, which are not Zone 2. First time I went there, about fifty years ago, it took me forty to get through. Sophia told me that B4 was wiped out after someone who was happy had written a book about a palace. The author was so thrilled about putting her thoughts and fantasies on paper, one of her happiness crystals burst, spilling euphoria over the pages. Some kind of mold formed that rapidly expanded and absorbed all living tissue it came in contact with.

In a couple of minutes, B4 was transformed into an organic, baroque-style palace. Year forty of my wandering that exuberant hell, I had to go to the bathroom. Seated, it was there that I found a leatherbound novella titled ‘PALACE’. It was 60 consecutive pages of the selfsame sentence: “I will not wait in line for heaven, I will carve a palace from within.” Page 61, for some reason, was left blank aside for a scribbled “i sell all for heaven”. I thought that was a really weak ending, so I drew an anatomically-incorrect heart over ‘sell’. When I then left the bathroom, I was standing in front of the entrance to B5.

I’m pretty cheerful. I say this, because Europa B5 never fails to make me feel a bit hollow. Not in a ‘void of space’ kind of way, mind you. Because honestly let’s face it, the cosmos is full of life and it’s all so diverse and vibrant. It’s a rather Earthian way of thinking, that the universe is ’empty’ outside of that shitty planet. But yeah, Europa B5 depresses me. It came as no surprise that happiness can’t grow there anymore. I always visit whenever I pass by Old Earth, but I have to balance it out with an injection of euphoria or an overdosis of ataraxia. I need these crystals to live, to feel passion, to feel anything. The whole universe does. No one wants to be in a place or exist at all without happiness. But such is the case in Europa B5.

Imagine, just four unhappy kids, left to rule over 3,930,000 square miles of starless waste. From what Wesley told me, the governing AI was taught passion by his mom, the colony weaver. It tried to process that, and suddenly there was a whole lot of nothing. I showed them the package I was carrying. I could actually see crystals forming on their dried skins! OGRE-YOU-ASSHOLE produced a joyful sound that caused a minor earthquake. Joffri clapped his hands in delight. His many, many hands. Imp didn’t show any visible reaction to it, but I’m sure that, although xe is seven jet-black monoliths, it was appreciated. I said goodbye, and those emotional little critters cried an ocean that allowed me to swim back up to the surface.

Now I’m here on Planet X, with a headache and a space fashionista shining a loud and bright monochrome because they found their luggage. Five plastic cubes, filled with… weird liquids? Reality isn’t supposed to do that, I don’t think. “I’ll have you know, the universe used to be full of this stuff. It’s called ‘colour’. Here, I’ll show you.” Even though I didn’t say anything, the leggy alien starts to open a box. The liquid spills upwards into the world like it’s supposed to. Amazing! The buildings, the air, and even myself get covered with this ‘colour’. I feel the crystals growing, I can feel myself becoming happier. So very happy. Before my skin fully crystallises, I take out the package – a tiny, ornamented silver box – and open it. Apparently it’s ‘the last music note’ – I have no idea what that means, but it sure sounds nice. The crystals of my body begin to adopt a distinctly different ‘colour’ than what was poured into the world, begin to emit a distinctly different ‘music note’. I see everything becoming crystals. Not a single atom, not a single thought, not a single concept is left unhappy. The universe is happy. I am happy.