Red was a big man, a redbone from the sea-infested swamps of Calcasieu parish Louisiana. Wasn’t much left of his people now, most had migrated to one place or another as the tides had risen over the past twenty-years or so. The world wasn’t what it used to be by any means.
As a kid I watched the holofeeds on my HogVR 121. Boy that brings back memories… but that’s another story, before things fell apart. This one’s built out of fragments of death and misery; well, that and people trying to actually live and get on together. What else could we do? The pejorative of ‘outsider’ actually means something now, cause we’re all Outsiders here in the Grunge, a buffer zone between the Island City of Consilience and the Wildlings. One could say the Grunge is a sort of open prison, a place you could leave at anytime, with one catch: there’d be no return trip. Once you left the barriers into the Wildlings your id-chip would be permanent erased, your pattern stricken from the Book of Memory forever. You’d be legally dead.
Matt stood to the side after we entered the shop. I’d told him to have a seat, grab a cup of java or some biscuits and jam. Red’s old lady, Maria arrived promptly every morning with a big batch of biscuits, gravy, and her own concoction of marmalade. Not much grew on the surface anymore, but the Consilient gave us access to the Grove – a domed agri-fab where many of the Grunge worked long hours planting, collecting, and tending the sharecrops for the Consilience. For their efforts they were given the basics on a day to day basis as they came available.
The Grunge was an update to the oldest form of serfdom known to man: slavery is slavery anyway you look at it, only difference now was the technology. Nothing really ever changes with humankind in that respect. Oh, sure we all wanted to break free, run away, enter the Wildling. But the truth is there wasn’t anything out there but gangs of hybrid machines, dregs of roving bands of the walking dead, were-creatures, the mad, cannibals… I guess you get the picture? Not the kinda place you really want to raise kids in even if you could. Oh, yea, that’d been outlawed for us Outties… we were caught between a rock and a hard place for sure. Nothing much to be done but ride out my sentence without causing any more infractions. Compromise? Sure it is. But life is one long compromise if you ask me… go ahead, be a radical, live in freedom, the door is always open, walk on through. Truth is that’s not freedom out there in the Wildling; it’s hell, pure and simple. No thank you I’ll work hard, finish my sentence, and regain freedom another way.
Red was hammering on what looked like a broken sligrac – a cutting tool for stripping concrete and other crap the boys gathered in the ruins. He turned and said: “Dam, Jesse, don’t sneak up on a fellah like that, I almost threw this hammer between your eyes.” He frowned and squinted his eyes, then let out a deep belly laugh that almost knocked poor Matt off his feet.
“Where’s Beau and the boys, Red?”
“Oh, their out collecting some grapple for Benny. Got a contract for some iron.” He seemed nonplussed. Yea, Red was more the shop foremen for the outfit. Did most of the repairs, kept the books, wrote the contracts, set the times and schedules. Well, in truth, it was his daughter, Louisa did most of that for him, he just took credit for it. Made him feel important. I let him. Even though I let Louisa know she was the real boss. She’d always laugh at that. Her father’d look mean and angry and say he was going to quit the Outfit someday. I’d say: “Go for it! Find a better job! Plenty of them around, you know!” He’d pout a moment then come back: “What would you do without me, Jesse? I mean dang, who’d fix up that old beater of yours, anyway?” I’d laugh: “Old beater, is that what my Chevy is now?” He’d snicker: “Well, you knows what I mean…”. Yeah, I knew.
“Good! Yea, I got to take care of a couple of things out in the Dead Zone, Red…”
“Whoah! What the hell…” He spit his tobacco all over the table. “Dam, Jesse, what you talking about, Dead Zone?”
I hadn’t seen him so upset since Louisa broke up with the Turner boy. “Well Matt over there found something, and I think it might be something to make all our lives a little easier if you know what I mean.”
“Yea, I know what you mean. That kind of thinking could get you killed, Jesse. That’s no place for you, no sireee…” He shook his head, kept on hammering. “What’s Betsy thing about this business?”
That was a good one, she’d kick me up and down the street if she found out. “I’m not going tell her quite yet, Red.”
“What? You a fool or something? Leave that girl homeless and all if you die out there?” He looked hard at me then. “What, you mama raise a fool? Boy, what a world, can’t even count on your boss to be sane. No, sireee, it’s going to be a cold day in hell before Beauregard let’s you live this one down.”
He was right of course. Beau was an Alsakan, come down south after the ice-melt when things got just too weird up there. He didn’t like this place at all, but like Red and I was pretty sure to remain a neuroserf for at least the rest of his natural born life. The Grunge was all we had, and to take a chance of entering the Dead Zone was almost certain suicide. If the Mechnoids didn’t get you then either the biogens or the critters would. And, even though in my younger days I’d wandered there with the other boys during our final military exercise I’d almost died. There were things in there I didn’t want to remember. Yet, it had to be done. It was in there that I’d have to sooner or later find Talia. Tol Glavin was smack in the middle of it, an old ComSat military base where the ghosts ran the snakes across the planet.
Matt may be a hybrid idiot, but the neuralsoft running what was left of his skullpan knew what it was about even if the man and his personality were squibbed. “Red, he’s got the soft that tells him he’s on to something, but he’s half-there, you know that. I got to go check it out. It might be our ticket to a better life, even a way to cross out the contracts, set us free, let us enter the Consilient enclave for good.”
His eyes grew wide. “Really? It’s that big?”
“Yea, Red, I think it is…” At least that’s what I hoped.
(Note: This is the end of Chapter One… that’s all I’m publishing for now. Hopefully the second rewrite will be done by summer, and the final by mid-summer. Going to try to get it to press either with a small publisher or self-published indie. Not sure which angle to take, yet. But that’s all I’m going to offer for a while… hope you enjoyed!)
– Steven Craig Hickman ©2016 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.