The Ghosts of Cloud City (Excerpt)
Don’t get your head stuck in the Clouds,” my dad would say. I used to think that was why our home was miles below the Earth’s surface, cocooned down near the mantle, the warm bosom of Gaia. I thought dad kept us down there to keep us safe, away from the pollution-sickened silver nitrate skies of the surface. But the Cloud was everywhere, no matter how deep you shoved your head in the sand.
The metal slug squishes out of me with a nauseating movie-quality slurp. My vision fuzzes white with pain and I hold back the scream, clenching my jaw so tight I feel it pop. We’re pretty sure the fucks who attacked us lost our tail but we’re not taking any chances. Cyclops douses the gory hole in my arm with hydrogen peroxide, and the bubble of sizzling white foam and syrupy red blood on my tan skin makes me think of strawberry pancakes. This pisses my stomach off more, on top of the peroxide stinging like a centiscorpion. Getting shot sucks.
Cyclops and I bunker down behind the counter of a Starbeans Coffee, getting a nose and mouth full of dust and cobwebs. The cold is chewing its way to my bones, my empty stomach is eating its way out, and my arm is killing me. Figuratively of course; the 9mm round lodged in my tricep we can dig out, and granted it doesn’t infect, I’ve got a good chance in this hell of surviving. My NeuroArm, on the other hand, is literally and definitely going to kill me, and is the reason Cyclops is fishing for bullets in my nature-issue flesh arm with a long-nose pliers. It’s been acting up lately, started glitching spastic while we were in a shootout with some raiders. It’s tough to hit anything when you’ve got cybernetic Parkinson’s disease.
“We should get you to a doctor,” Cyclops finds a tray of non-recycled napkins, dyed brown to appear eco-friendly, back when such things mattered to anyone. He tosses off the top dozen moldy sheets, and uses a fresh napkin to dab at the injury.
“It’s just a flesh wound, I’ll be fine.” But not if we don’t get this AWOL prosthetic fixed, I subvocalize. Cyclops appears unconvinced.
“We’ll be at Ebayzaar in a few days if we make decent time. They’ll have a doc there for sure.” I reassure.
The peroxide we scavved up from the carcass of a MegaMart. Most the aisles were picked clean as the ribcage of a dead whale, so we were surprised to find the bottles of disinfectant floating in a mud puddle in the pharmaceutical department. As hazardous and unpredictable as they are, you can always count on raiders and cannibals to fail to think things through. Guess you can’t blame them, they are mostly the descendants of the infamously infantile Chattering Class that went extinct when the internet and everything else went bye-bye.
The MegaMart had completely computerized self-checkout registers with RFID and biometric scanners for security purposes, having decided to do away completely with human clerks just before the world went belly-up. Now, I’m no urban archaeologist, but I heard that before The Silence, the MegaMarts sold cheap, Earth-killing, slave-labor goods to people who didn’t have the economic luxury of superficial presentation, so eventually they thought why bother with the flair of a human clerk?
Starbeans, on the other hand, was targeted toward the spoiled upper classes who sipped over-designed cups of this stuff kinda like weak stims in liquid form called “coffee”, while checking their “Twitters” and “Portfolios” and discussing “The Teabaggers” and “Fawksnews”. Not that the Starbeans’ supply chain was any less karma-negative, but patrons were paying for the feeling of sophistication and moral high ground. Fancy names like Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappacino, fancy cups. They needed this thing called “experience” or “story”, which I could never understand no matter how many times old-timers explained it. I have plenty of experience, lots of stories to tell, nobody ever paid me. Sometimes I think The Ancients were all insane, maybe that’s what dad meant about getting your head stuck in the Cloud.
But the primary reason we’re in Starbeans is every Starbeans, unlike MegaMart, had several humanoid robots. Part of the simulated cafe ‘experience’ was having a human barista mix your ten dollar chai latte, but I guess the profit margin was much better if you didn’t have to pay real people once the robots got convincing enough. Lucky for me, the CLERCs (Cyber-Linguistic Empathic Relations Colleague) all come with the same line of robotic NeuroArms as the one attached to the stump where my right arm used to be. It’s a long story.
There’s one CLERC face down in the store room. It’s corroded and covered in silt, a rat's nest lined with shredded napkins and artificial sweetener packets is carved out of the android’s stomach cavity. Another is at the cashier counter, standing, hand outstretched as if patiently awaiting payment or a Starbeans Rewards Card. Frozen instantly, along with all other robots and androids as their CPUs were fried by EMPs in the Intellectual Property Wars decades ago.
Her synthetic skin is dusty and slightly sallow, but remains remarkably intact. Her face is locked in an eternal smile of a lightheartedness utterly alien in the wasteland. Creepily ironic how the only remains of the real humans, including her customer, are heaps of rag and bone on the floor while this replicant appears she might resume her conversation any moment. A fossil token of a vanished culture, caught in the amber of electromagnetic pulse. Her name tag reads, ‘Cynthia’.
“Hello Cynthia. Yes, you can take my order. One Venti Mochaccino, made with those Urban-Aggro beans please. A name for the order? Make it out to ‘Jericho’.” Cyclops laughs at my little skit even though he’s seen it before. I like to pretend. Maybe it’s my way of thanking them for letting me use their limbs. Besides, you’ve got to learn to enjoy the little things, even when you’re being pursued by psychotic sub-humans for your flesh, water, and ammunition. Otherwise what’s the point, right?
Cynthia’s ancient sleeve comes apart like tissue paper.
“Do you want the dermis too?” Cyclops holds up the naked arm.
“Fuck no. Just help me cut it open, funny man.”
Cyclops slices around the upper arm and down the length with an Xacto, pulling back like that scene in Terminator, except there’s no blood, just rubber and metal skeleton. I don’t need a womanly hand with candy apple red nail polish, and the cyborg look tends to frighten the dumber malicious riff raff. Mosquito repellant. Her NeuroArm looks factory-mint, she was probably on the job only a few months.
Cyclops unbolts it, unbolts mine. My prosthetic comes off, and there’s that disorienting feeling of soul-vertigo, that phantom-limb sense of deep wrongness. The feeling vanishes just as soon as the new arm clinks into place, somatosensory cortex settling down to luxuriate in the newfound sensory input. My personal bioelectric patterns are stored in a motor neuron implant that transcodes directly to the Neuroarm, so the new limb is operational instantly. None of that myoelectric stuff, painstakingly shrugging your shoulder, twisting your neck and squeezing your ass just to signal to your prosthetic to pick up a damn bottle.
“Better. Very much so.” I windmill the arm a bit, test the fine motor responses, pull the rifle from my backpack and take aim at the center of the peeling ‘S’ on the cracked glass storefront of the Starbeans. No jittering.
“It looks good, Jerry,” Cyclops says, putting away the Xacto and pliers.
He’s lying, of course, being a good brother. Cyclops doesn’t see the world like most people do. His eyes are blind as a cave shrimp, but he’s got some brain mod that pipes electromagnetic radiation directly into his frontal lobe from his shades, like some kind of third eye. Seriously bleeding edge tech, just before the world fell off the edge. However, a side-effect is he definitely can’t tell whether my new arm looks, “good” or not. The cortical implant bypasses subjective aesthetic valuation centers, old mammalian emotion modules buried deep, a floor above the reptilian brain stem. For him it’s pure abstraction, numerology; seeing a sunset is like reading instantly a spreadsheet on a sunset detailing the frequencies of red, yellow, and orange light due to Rayleigh scattering, seeing the pointers rather than actually experiencing all that qualia-rich, heavenly glory.
Kinda how the ancients kept their heads surgically buried in their “smart” phones, experiencing sunsets, rock concerts, sex, their newborns’ first steps, life itself through empty 70-character nibbles of text, their worlds reduced to two inch touch screens. In consolation, Cyclops’ eyes apparently facilitate sensitivity to a certain monastic, Einsteinian beauty in seeing the “superstructure of the world”. That’s what the brochure said, anyway. At any rate, he’s truly clueless as to the appeal of my latest prosthetic fashion accessory. But it’s the thought that counts.
We search the Starbeans for any other useful material, but it’s been cleared out long ago. It’s not worth it to dissect the other CLERC for the extra arm; besides the fact that it’s covered in rat shit, these Starbeans are so goddamn abundant. I mean there’s one right across the street, what is up with that?
We pop open the Reebok knapsack, empty it out on the ground. A small can of pork and beans, a twisty-tied packet of a dozen raisins. It’s almost comical, except starvation has this peculiar way of filtering all the funny out of the world, especially when it comes to food. Cyclops’ head and thin shoulders slump, the skin is draped loosely over his emaciated bones like sheets over old furniture. A gust of cold evening air blows daggers and Cyclops starts shivering, so I shake the dust out of an Armani suit left in a booth next to a briefcase and wrap him up in it.
“We’re not going to make it this time, are we?” He stares at a raisin in the palm of his hand, shriveled and stale to the point of petrifaction. Closes it.
“Hey. Hey, look at me.” I squeeze his hand tight over the raisin. “We are going to make it, I promise.” He is suddenly so small and fragile. Everyone grows up so fast out here, there are no childhoods in the wasteland. It’s easy to forget he’s just a fourteen year old kid.
“But you said it’s a few more days if we make good time and we’re stuck here with no food, and it’s cold and those raiders are out there-“
“We’ll make do. We always do. They’ve got more food than you could ever eat at Ebayzaar. I hear they even have ice cream. You remember ice cream?” The corners of his mouth pull up, and I can see the episodic memories of birthdays back in the vault spooling through his mind like a freshly opened bag of jelly candies. The smell of icing and melted wax, adults in labcoats and military brass serenading out-of-harmony, no bed times for one night.
“Remember that time dad got me a bb gun and tried to teach us how to shoot cans in the water purification room?”
“Yeah, I was still crap at using my vision mod and kept shooting you guys in the butt. At least I couldn’t shoot an eye out.” Cyclops taps his bionic eye and we both laugh.
“Remember how he used to tell us those crazy bedtime stories when we were real little?”
“I always liked the one about the people who built their city on the Clouds.”
“They forgot about the real world down below. One day the Clouds evaporated, and they came crashing back down. ‘Their ghosts still haunt the surface to this day.’”
“I miss dad.” Cyclops pulls his knees together and the Armani suit tighter around himself. His machine eyes lack the tear ducts to cry, but I know him well enough to know when he is crying inside.
“Me too, Cy.” I gather up his Italian wool-swaddled body in a hug. I’m lying, about us making it. We’re at least a week, maybe two from where this Ebayzaar “Mecca of the Wastes” supposedly is located, according to an X on a map we plucked off a vulture-pecked body in a ditch on the interstate. For all we know, Ebayzaar is a ghost town, or worse, and out here, the universe’ dice are weighted towards “worse”. Maybe we’re the ghosts, haunting the city that fell to Earth, their streets, their steel-girdered castles, their simulacra of ‘the real world’ run and barista-ed by robot actors. Maybe we’ll fade away, at last, like the faux finished signs on storefront windows.
Desperation is an acid that will eat you faster than any cannibal.
And aside from the vague glimmer of someday finding our dad, Cyclops is all I’ve got keeping me going out here.
So I lie, because I am a good brother.