In a Rustwreck
Tony and Samuel both stood.
“Crap,” Tony said. “That’s Frank.”
The boys began stuffing carrots in their blue overalls. Samuel knew they lasted better than peas, which just made mush in his pocket.
“If Frank asks,” Tony said, “it’s the first time we ever been here.”
“Course,” said Samuel. “This is the Abbey? What’s an Abbey? That’s what I’ll say.”
Frank’s face appeared over the stone wall. They had been found. Frank scowled at them. “You shouldn’t eat the stuff out of the Abbey garden,” he said. “You been told before. The ground’s polluted.”
Samuel just kept his mouth shut. He knew better than say garden crops tasted better than the manufactured foodstuffs DetroitCon gave them. Frank was Mike’s lieutenant and wasn’t afraid to throw that around. You know: You mess with me, you mess with Mike! That sort of crap. Tony, however, stood up, tightened his lips into a snarl. “The food’s good,” he said. “You just say it’s polluted `cause we can get something without having to do any favors for anybody.”
Tony was two years older than Samuel and had begun talking like that. He was daring Frank to hit him with something.
Frank just laughed. “You’ll think different if you see one of them big, honking Klurji come out. Then you’ll run.”
Tony wasn’t giving up yet. “Samuel said them Klurji don’t even care.”
Frank showed Tony his palms, leaned into Tony’s face. “Like, how would Samuel know? He’s just a little kid!”
That’s right, Samuel thought. How would I know? I don’t know nothing about the Abbey.
“Better move sharp,” Frank told them. “Mike wants you.”
Samuel looked directed at the older boy for the first time. “Mike wants me?”
“No – just Tony here. He’s got his first big sleep tonight. C’mon”
Frank disappeared behind the wall. Tony and Samuel ran to the garden gate after him. He was probably nine years older than either one of them and he wasn’t waiting. By the time they got around the Abbey’s wall, they had to trot to keep his blue shirt in sight. They chased that blue shirt through old yards filled with bushes, over broken fences, through alleyways where buildings were crumbling, red and grey brick falling into the trash and debris. Frank kept to a route that had lots of cover until they came to the big parkenlot. There they found Frank. He had hunkered down, looking, scanning over the parkenlot’s hard, open ground and listening intently.
“Get down,” he said. “Someone coming.”
They crouched beside him. They could hear the sound too. Then they saw them, wending their way through the rustwrecks of the parkenlot, five boys and two girls, all old enough to be empowered. None of them wore blue, but strangely enough, green.
“NorthTech,” Frank hissed.
Even Samuel knew that. Samuel watched them. NorthTech lived to their south, so their name was a puzzler to Samuel. The front one, the biggest, had a bow in his left hand and an arrow already in place. All of their clothes were green. It was so weird. Even the girls’ kerchiefs were green. Not a bit of blue anywhere. If anyone was colorblind, each of their left legs had NORTHTECH printed in black block letters. For those who couldn’t read, the NorthTech logo was emblazoned on their T-shirts, a thick black circle with an arrow pointing up.
“Mike’ll be interested in hearing about this! NorthTech marching right through our blox!”
They waited until the NorthTech were gone, then till they were good and gone, and then Frank moved. This time there was no keeping up with him.
Tony and Samuel ran hard, but eventually they saw there was no hope of catching up. They collapsed. Tony leaned against Samuel; Samuel’s chest heaved.
“They’re going to be gone by the time we get there,” Samuel said. “As soon as Mike gets the word, he’ll head out with all the guys to meet them.”
That gave Tony an idea.
“C’mon – I know where they’re goin’: down to the old canal. It’d be the shortest way for NorthTech guys to get back to their own blox.”
The DetroitCon crew was just where Tony said they’d be. The canal ran under the freeway. Someone had almost blocked it up with rustwrecks, but a guy could still get through. It was the obvious spot to get to the other side, NorthTech territory. The canal was dry, with two sloping cement sides. At the bottom, a dozen or more DetroitCon guys stood, a circle of blue on the canal’s dry cement bottom. Inside the circle was one lonely NorthTech. He looked desperately to the faces around him, but no one around was wearing the slightest bit of green. Here there was no help, no escape. Samuel and Tony burst in on the scene: Mike and his guys looked to them. Mike was a head taller than any other guy there, with shaggy black hair hanging in his eyes.
“You’re just in time,” Mike said. “I’m about to do him.”
Samuel wondered what sort of powers Mike had, how he would “do” him. He had heard of people who could inflict great pain with their minds.
Mike’s lieutenants grabbed the guy in green and then Mike stepped up to the poor fool. He grabbed his face, looked into his eyes for a long time. Everyone was quiet. Then Mike let him go.
NorthTech Guy looked surprised. His jaw went rather slack and his hands hung stupidly in front of him as he stumbled around looking for an opening in the circle.
Samuel said a little too loudly: “What happened?”
“Mr. NorthTech, there – used to be a real smart guy,” Frank said, “a real valuable to the NorthTech boss. Smarts are gone now. He was talented too: a searcher, could find anybody, anytime. You know what he can do now? Send messages.”
The crew laughed again.
“Everybody can do that,” Frank said.
“When he had the power of being a searcher, he made good credits, but when he goes loan-sleep tonight, he’ll only be getting a quarter the credits he used to.”
“Won’t he be surprised,” Tony said.
“No, he won’t be. Only those who were here will remember anything. Even his own people won’t remember. When I change someone’s status, I change `em good! Understand?”
Samuel understood. He understood better than Mike, and Samuel had no powers at all. Mike called them his “powers,” but he didn’t know why he had them; he didn’t know why the Machine had given those powers to him. Mike had turned his abilities to his own corrupt, violent, and personal aims. Mike didn’t understand, but Samuel understood. The Abbey had educated him.
Two hundred years ago, after everyone’s brains were plugged in, the great corporations like DetroitCon turned everything over to the Great Machine. With everyone linked in, the Machine had to authorize, limit, and control individuals’ access. Samuel knew that if things still functioned, Mike would have worked in the records department. What Mike had just done was to delete files, both files in the system and files in that poor sap’s brain. Since all brains were linked to net, the network saw a memory as just another record.
“Mike! One of them Klurji is comin’!”
The circle shifted immediately.
A Klurji was coming to bring aid and assistance to DetroitCon’s victim. It shuffled along as if unaware of them, its three-hundred pound bulk bent over, but still taller than any human. Its weighty, faded cloak hid all but its great, heavy face and the hand that held the staff. Samuel could hear it chanting to itself as it shambled along.
The DetroitCon crew broke and scattered. Those with the mental powers flung stings against the Klurji. The Klurji winced and shuttered under the assault of their weapons, but the outlandish ogre continued its arduous advance without breaking its slow stride.
Samuel turned to go as well, but as he did, he recognized the Klurji. It was Old Eli, who had raised and educated him at the Abbey. For an instant, Samuel almost dashed to him, ran to his side, and embraced the long, horsey neck.
He scampered away instead, and Samuel looked back again as he ran. Almost as quickly, he looked to his fleeing comrades. He wondered if any of them had seen him look back. If any of the DCs knew, they would throw him out of the crew, or worse.
They celebrated that night, celebrated Tony’s first big sleep. There was food for everyone, and Samuel and Tony were allowed to hang out with the big guys, who were actually nice to them.
“Ah, now you can start racking up some credits yourself,” Mike said to Tony. “No more doing this and doing that for someone just to get dinner an’ a pair of used overalls. In the morning, we’ll see what toy you’ve got.”
What “toy” Mike said – what power, of course. The power DetroitCon gave Tony would determine his place in the crew.
“Now Samuel here,” Mike said, “he’s gonna get some good toy – I can tell.”
Samuel looked down. Mike had never talked directly to him before. Now it seemed that Mike had been watching him. “I’ve learned how to tell,” Mike said. “You’ve got powerful spirit kid. I don’t know how you got it, but you did.”
twilight turned to darkness, and the DetroitCon folk ushered Tony to a loansleep alcove. Tony lay down in the machine and was immediately unconscious.
Samuel alone knew what occurred beyond the surface image of sleep. The Great Machine had just linked to Tony’s brain and was using it. Tony’s synapses became part of DetroitCon’s great computer, a great conglomeration of millions of human synapses currently connected to it, necessities for the Great Machine’s continued operation.
In return for loaning the Machine braintime, DetroitCon clocked up credits in Tony’s favor. Later, in exchange for the credits, Tony would be doled out health care, food, clothes, and weapons. Samuel knew, however, that the stuffs the Machine gave out were substandard: the food was prepackaged, factory-made, and often old; the clothing was always identical, always marked with large logos, and always contained tracking devices.
Loaning braintime was the bread-and-butter source of any crew’s credits. The other means of acquiring credit with DetroitCon was to march with the crew when the Machine gave the call for battle. When DetroitCon decided to expand its territory or curtail the growth of a neighbor, a great many credits could be logged. To be crew and not go was to lose all.
The next morning they crowded around the black ceramic sarcophagus and looked through the lid. Inside, beside Tony, lay new clothes folded and blue.
“When he wakes up, then we’ll know,” Mike said.
Samuel pointed to the digital display. “It says File Examiner.”
“It does eh?” Mike narrowed his eyes at Samuel. “That’s reading, that is.”
Mike turned to face Samuel full on. “Where did you learn to read?”
Samuel looked down and away, knowing that he tipped his hand, too eager to impress big Mike. “Just did,” he said.
Tony’s eyes opened and the crew oohed. Tony flinched to see so many looking down on him, and Samuel was spared any further questioning. Instead, he was pushed aside as all the big guys crowded around the new DC crewman.
Later, Samuel and Tony were able to sit together to eat. Samuel pulled one of yesterday’s carrots from his overall and began munching.
“So how does it feel to be empowered?” Samuel asked. “Does it feel any different?”
Tony turned to his old friend, eyeing the carrot.
“You shouldn’t eat crap from that garden,” Tony said. “Only eat what DetroitCon gives us. It’s safe. That garden’s soil is polluted.”
Samuel stopped chewing. “Are you kidding?”
“You’ve been told before. Why don’t you ever listen? Is it because you were educated in the Abbey?”
Samuel’s mouth dropped open. “I never told anybody…”
Tony nodded. “Yeah, but I can read people. That’s my power. I can also know things about buildings, how they’re laid out and such. I’ll never get lost in one of `em.” He pointed. “That building was built in 2054.”
Samuel nodded. A file examiner, that’s what his sleep alcove said.
“What do you think about me being educated in the Abbey?”
Tony shrugged. “You left didn’t you? Eli’s sons, Hopper and Phineas, they bothered you?”
Samuel paused here. “They just made the Abbey a lie.”
Tony shrugged again. “I guess it doesn’t hurt DetroitCon none.”
Samuel stared ahead, stopped chewing.
He thought, This is my friend? And what happens when he thinks it does?
Tony stood and walked away without saying anything more. He didn’t even look back at Samuel. Samuel paused only a moment and then stood quietly as well, and headed out away from the DCs. He didn’t have a direction in mind, just away.
Heads began turning toward him. They were all watching him.
Everybody can send messages.
Samuel turned the corner and bolted, trying to keep the sound of his footsteps light. A dozen sets of footsteps began falling hard behind him. Samuel threw a glance behind him and saw the crew. A few flung mental nips that tore at his flesh, but the crew were running hard and couldn’t focus enough to aim well. He bled a trickle down his right bicep to his elbow. He ducked between the broken slats of a yard fence.
He arrived at the rustwrecks of the parkenlot and discovered that he was running toward the Abbey. Of course, to the Abby – he had nowhere else to go.
The parkenlot was open ground; it was impossible to avoid line-of-sight. Frank appeared. He leapt atop one of the rustwrecks and raised his right arm high above him. Looking intently out at Samuel, he flung his arm, his empty hand clenched as if holding something.
Samuel glanced behind him and saw Frank throw. Halfway between Frank’s outstretched arm and the place where Samuel stood, Tangles appeared. The rubbery, three-branched cord spun toward him. Samuel felt them wrap around his ankles. His knees and palms hit the broken asphalt, stinging.
Samuel looked to his feet and knew that there were no cords on him, knew that the Tangles existed only in his mind, a file downloaded to him against his will. He saw the Tangles nevertheless. He looked to Frank and thought: a mall cop. If the world had remained as it was planned, Frank would have been a mall cop.
Just beside him were the remains of a van. Its doors had long ago fallen away. On his hands and knees, Samuel struggled inside. A half dozen DC guys were now bouncing over and between the rustwrecks behind him. Mike was among those in the lead. Samuel looked forward, out the shattered windshield, toward the Abbey complex.
Down the street stood the Klurji – all of them. The Klurji were out of the Abbey and plodding in his direction, arrayed in a flanking line. They seemed ancient with their long, stringy gray hair hanging onto their vestments. Their wise eyes peered out at him, concerned. His breath stopped. Hopper and Phineas were there as well.
The alley behind him released a torrent of DetroitCon guys into the street. They stumbled from a run to a walk, breathing heavily from the chase. With hands outstretched, they slowly began to form a half circle behind Samuel. They were much closer to him than the Klurji were, close enough for him to hear Frank calling out to the others.
Samuel tore at the Tangles, but then stopped. Even if he could remove them, he didn’t dare make a dash for it. The DCs would have him long before Samuel could reach the slow-moving giants in the street.
“You should have told us you were raised Sayent,” Frank called.
“I never became Sayent,” Samuel answered. “Never took the oath.”
Mike looked to Tony.
“That is correct,” Tony said. “Samuel left on his own.”
“You gotta come back to us, now,” Frank said. “No one leaves their crew.”
“Yeah – right, so you can do me like the NorthTech guy?”
“Mike will not allow anyone to hurt you,” Tony said.
“You belong to DetroitCon,” Mike said.
“I never took an oath to you guys either,” Samuel said.
“We won’t hurt you,” Mike said, but then pointed toward Eli and the other Klurji. “But you come back or we’ll hurt one of those things.”
Samuel made no sound, made no move.
“Time to decide,” Mike said. “You know what power I have.”
Samuel looked over his head. Old Eli had lumbered up beside the van in which Samuel lay. “You don’t need to worry about them,” Eli said, his voice booming, grumbling. “He has nothing we cannot block.”
“But I saw you being hit,” Samuel said. “I saw them hurting you when you went to help the NorthTech boy.”
Eli shook his head. “Minor stings. Not worth blocking. Better to just absorb them.” Eli waved his hand toward Samuel. The Tangles about his ankles melted to vapors. His feet free, Samuel’s stood. He looked behind him, out the back of the van. Frank raised him arm again, threw in Samuel’s direction. This time, nothing appeared. Frank was astounded. Blocked.
Samuel turned to Mike, realizing: “You ran when you saw the Klurji coming!” he said. “Out there on the dry canal, you ran Just like everyone else!”
“Get him!” Mike shouted.
Samuel bolted out of the van. He ducked under the arms of some DC guy. The robes of the Klurji seemed to flutter up from the asphalt, and they were all around him. He was with the Klurji. He was safe, but perplexed. It seemed impossible that they could close that distance.
Samuel looked out from the circle of robes. The DetroitCons had scattered.
The Klurji turned about, headed back to the Abbey. Samuel walked with them. The Klurji began humming, masses of voices rising and falling in a complex chorus.
Samuel looked up to Old Eli. “Why are they doing that?”
Old Eli smiled.
“They are singing praise. Today ended well. We didn’t have to hurt anyone.”
“Tony read my files,” Samuel explained, “knew where I was going. There was no way I could lose him.”
The great Klurji placed his two left arms over the boy. “That’s OK,” Eli reassured him. “We can teach you to keep him out – and to take off Tangles, and many other things.”
Samuel followed the Klurji inside the stone walls of the Abbey.
“I guess I’m ready to come back,” he said.
Concept: A In this future, all people are equipped with technological links in their brains. The Machines – descendants of our corporations – control the economy of their world. Individuals are associated with specific corporations: “We are its crew; it is our Machine.” In a sleep mode evocative of the borg’s regeneration alcoves, individuals must “Loan” the machines braintime. This is the only means of procuring credit with a machine, which then dole out health care, food, clothes, and weapons. The stuffs dealt out by the Machines, however, are substandard: the food is factory-food, the clothing is identical, always marked with large logos, and always contain tracking devices. Sometimes the machines make their crews fight the Crews of other machines. The machines, however, also give out mental powers. Beings called the Klurji are the only resistance to the machines, but teens mock them and their human followers, the Sayents. The Klurji are hunched and slower moving, reminiscent of the UrRu of The Dark Crystal.
Samuel and Tony are raiding a garden. Mike’s lieutenant Frank comes to fetch them. Frank tells them that they shouldn’t raid the gardens of the Klurji – they grow crops on polluted soil. Frank tells Tony that Mike wants to see him and Samuel is glad he’s not Tony.
Bullying: Samuel, a weak character following in the wake of Mike, a populist bully, must hide his origin in the Abbeys of the Klurji. He assists Mike in assaults, but during one crime, a member of the Klurji interrupts them. The Klurji comes to bring aid and assistance to a weak person who was one of their victims. The Klurji are hunched and slower moving. The teens fling mental weapons against him; it appears vulnerable to the stings of the characters’ minor powers. As they flee, their only thought not to be caught, Samuel recognizes one of the Klurji.
Tony’s Initiation: Mike initiates Tony in his first Loan; they are all eager to find out what powers the machine will bless Tony with. Mike has a conversation with Samuel. He is certain that Samuel’s will be powerful: “I have learned how to tell. You’ve got powerful spirit kid– I don’t know how you got it, but you did.”
As Mike explains their logo and colors to Samuel, he reveals that he is illiterate. That‘s when he mentions K’Presshon wars. He shows that he has some suspicions when he learns that Samuel can read, and Samuel knows that he has tipped his hand; being with the big gun overwhelmed his caution.
The Next Day: After his first sleep with his K’Presshon, Tony refuses to eat from the garden, now repeating the story about polluted soil. Samuel tries to bring Tony to the Abbey to be cured. The Klurji welcome Samuel back. At the gates of the Abbey, Mike’s Crew attacks them. Samuel discovers that they have great resistance to the more serious attacks and merely tolerate and absorb the minor stings. It is then that Samuel reveals that he was raised as a Sayent one of the humans who align themselves with the Klurji. He knows that he too can become a member of the Klurji, but he will have to give up his powers and his supply.