Moses Garrett sat on a rusted pipe, watching the sun dip below the jagged horizon of the town’s rooftops. Off to the south, cylindrical monsters of glass and chrome loomed and tilted into the reddened sky, their shadows stretching before them like shackled dogs, lacking the will for a final pull to an impossible freedom.
The creamy orb of Venus poked like a searchlight behind ribbons of cloud and between the twin spires of the Church of the Second World. The building was minimalist and ugly, jutting from the blacktop like the prongs of a divining rod. Moses shook his head. Those religious types, they always found something to worship. The Venus Revival was what they’d called it. A wasted effort and a damned tragedy. Moses had wanted to go but lacked the funds – and the credentials – to join the exodus.
Good job, too. Poor, dead bastards.
But that was ten years past; no sense in dwelling on what was lost.
The open Dumpster next to Moses belonged to the Chinese restaurant around the front. As the breeze changed, he caught a waft of decay; something had died in there, or been stuffed inside while still alive, trapped and alone. Moses shrugged; it wasn’t his problem.
He lifted a smoked-down Noxytine cigarette to his lips and took a final pull, curling the smoke around his tongue before the oxygen killed it, then sucking the pure oxy into his lungs. The bitter taste of rotting waste and putrescent flesh drifted in, following the oxy down his throat. He grimaced; the moment was ruined.
Nice choice for a quiet smoking spot, Moses. Are there any corners left in this town without dead things in them? No, I suppose there aren’t.
If the world wore a scent, he reckoned it’d be called Corruption.
Moses threw the spent cigarette to the ground. It bounced once, then lay still. A lazy wisp of smoke drifted towards the reaching shadows. He pushed himself to his feet and brushed flakes of grit from the seat of his jeans. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he moved away from the pipe to negotiate a route down the alley. A rivulet of cans, wrappers and remnants of kebabs dotted the ground like flotsam; the waste of nights past, discarded by the nameless, faceless masses marking their territories with futile gestures. Sure, the trash was still emptied these days. There were still garbage men around, but it just delayed the inevitable, prolonging the agony of a tired and dying world.
“’Hey, man. Got a smoke?”
The voice was deep, slow, with just a touch of electro-synth. Moses cursed inwardly. A Helix user. He lifted his gaze to see three of them heading towards him, silhouetted by the evening sun and the neon of the distant street at the end of the alley. They must’ve turned in without him noticing. He narrowed his eyes and stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets. Just his luck to get the gutter rats.
Each wore a hoodie. They always did. It was like their mantle of initiation. The hoods were up, billowing out to the sides and hanging over their brows. Strips of holo draped through shoulder epaulettes and hung to their waists as bandoleers of diffused light. Dirty and torn baggy jeans hung to the tops of Chameleoflage boots that blended with the alley’s filth. Three pairs of glinting eyes focused on him from beneath the cowls, waiting for a response. It was an all-too-familiar sight, and the warning signs were enough for Moses to see trouble brewing.
Ignore it. Keep walking. Haven’t got time for this shit.
They stopped and moved to the side, feigning politeness in giving him space to pass them by. As he drew parallel, another voice said, “Retro boy, you got a cig? Or a H-cap?”
Moses pressed his lips together, breathed slowly, frowned towards the shine of activity at the end of the alleyway. He continued to take one unhurried step after another.
“Hey, feller. He axed you summink.”
Moses stopped, closed his eyes for a moment.
Calm, Moses. Play it easy.
He turned and faced them, flicking his gaze from one to the next, pausing a moment on each to size them up. They’re all younger than him by at least several years. Probably all still teens, though the H had worked its subtle corruption on the eyes; the rainbow tint welled from their tear-ducts in a liquid arc across each lower eyelid, like oily tears on the verge of falling.
The kid on Moses’ left was the same height as Moses. The one in the middle a head taller, his hood pushed slightly back to reveal hair shorn close to the scalp. The last lingered behind; when Moses caught his gaze the kid lowered his head and turned away.
“Got a smoke?” the tall kid in the middle repeated.
Moses pulled a twenty-deck of Noxytines from his jacket pocket. Eyes locked with those of the tall gutter rat, he cracked the lid open and pulled a beige cylinder from the front row, then thumbed the lid closed again. With deliberate slowness, he lifted the Noxytine tube to his lips. The kid watched him from behind a mantle of pseudo-machismo, the glint of H in his eyes fuelled further by undisguised greed and unsated addiction.
Moses dropped the pack back in his pocket and pulled out a lighter. It wasn’t the ten-kayer this time, but the Zippo – the one he saved for poignant occasions. And he was guessing this would be one of those moments. The face of a bronze, bas-relief bulldog adorned the Zippo’s front, and under the spiked collar were the words Bosnia Bulldogs – a relic from a bygone age that no one alive remembered. With the side of his thumb he flicked the Zippo’s lid open. None of that fancy clicking stuff. He could – sure, he could – but there was no one here worth the show. There rarely was. His thumb rotated the wheel. Sparks spat and a flame blossomed into life. The amber wisp faltered as an errant breeze eddied around Moses, but it stayed. It always stayed. He touched the flame to the tip of the Noxytine, keeping his eyes trained on the kid.
He exhaled a slow spume, pocketing the lighter as he did so. The smoke reached the kid’s face.
Kid. Ain’t that the truth?
These days it was difficult to tell the difference between a boy and a man – from a casual glance, at least. If they act like alphas, treat ‘em like betas; that was Moses’ motto when he was forced to choose. Life was a tough gig, and the road to manhood was a gauntlet run of defeated dreams.
A ghost of a smile twitched the corners of Moses’ lips. “I don’t smoke,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Fuckin’ comedian, in’tcha?”
Moses silently regarded them. The third kid stayed a grey figure in the background, turning this way and that, kicking at the crumbling asphalt.
“Give us the Noxes, or you’ll procure yourself a veritable slap, retro boy.” The tall one pushed his shoulders back, his chest out. His head pecked forward, first left, then right. Moses sighed inwardly, having to look up slightly to hold the kid’s liquid gaze. The display was supposed to intimidate, but it reminded Moses of a parrot bobbing back and forth, like he’d seen on some of the old V-cubes. The second kid loomed closer beside the tall one.
Yeah. Inevitable. They never leave it alone.
“Okay.” Moses kept his voice quiet, friendly-like. “Where are my manners?” He took a long pull on the cigarette, then blew the smoke into their faces. “You want a smoke? Here—have this one.” He pinches the butt of the cylinder between thumb and forefinger. Wielding it like a fencer’s foil, he pointed the glowing tip at the tall kid.
An image came to him: Moses as a headmaster, showing cane to an unruly child. Such was the way of it around here. If lessons weren’t learned early, they were learned far too late.
With his empty hand he snatched hold of the kid’s scrawny neck, and thrust his other hand forward. Sparks spat and there was a hiss as Moses rammed the hot tip into the kid’s tear duct.
The kid squealed and brought his hands up to his injured face, then he began to squat up and down as if taking a difficult shit, all the while a stream of unintelligible curses spewed from his mouth.
The kid’s a strutting chicken, flapping his wings about, cackling nonsense. Not so tall now, are you?
Moses grinned, suppressing a chuckle. He’d used more force than intended on that eye.
Sure I got my fingernail in there a bit.
The second kid stepped around his squatting compatriot, shouted, “Fucker!” and swung a fist at Moses’ face.
He didn’t bother blocking the blow. His head jerked to the side, just an inch, and he gave the kid a smile over clenched teeth. The cigarette in his hand was bent but still burning, its butt sandwiched between Moses’ index and middle finger of his clenched fist. He lashed out at the second kid, his arm whipping forward like a striking snake. With a resounding crack, sparks exploded from the kid’s face, and a spume of blood arced from the hoodie. He pirouetted gracefully across the alley: Step, turn, step, turn, then gravity took over and he crumpled like a marionette, its strings cut.
That sparked him out, well and truly!
Moses’ grin widened. He was thoroughly enjoying this, and for all the wrong reasons.
A flutter from the side, and a glance told him the third kid had turned tail and ran.
Kid’s got potential. Not much, but still. There’s a gutter rat who’s learned a lesson today. He’ll see tomorrow, at least.
The second kid might, too, but he’d be off to hospital with that jaw, at best. No mistake. Or not; H-users – especially gutter rats – were far below the social standing necessary for receiving medical treatment. Hell, they were barely human any more; their sort secured the first accepted sapiens-split a century ago after the NEET Street Uprisings of the late 2020s. Homo sapiens specus was hardly pejorative enough a term for low-lives such as these, but Moses was proud enough to belong to the h s vetus half of the split. The distinction was more than necessary, and not just restricted to the uneducated and violent, but applying equally to the dangerous religious groups across the globe. Right now, on the other side of the world in central Eurasia, a mini post-apocalyptic Dark Ages raged on like a blister of Hell on Earth. It was almost enough to make Moses happy to live in this shit-hole instead. Almost.
Jaw can stay broken. Fucking gutter rat.
One-Eye was still strutting around, his hands stuffed inside his hanging hood. A babble of muffled curses screeched from somewhere inside the Helixed mess.
Moses rubbed at a smear of ash across his knuckles. The skin had split and a blister was forming from using One Eye as an ashtray. Or maybe it was from laying Jaw Boy on the deck. He shrugged as he stood over the floundering One Eye, and frowned down at the kid’s ridiculous theatrics. It was funny at first, but it had gotten annoying fast. Moses drew his boot back and punted One Eye in the stomach. The kid grunted and the cursing stopped. He flopped to his back, one hand still pressed to his face, the other arm moving to protect his guts. On his back with his legs bent to his chest, the semi-transparent Chameleoflage boots kicking about pointlessly, the kid looked like an upended shit-beetle.
Parrot to chicken to beetle. The impersonations are coming in thick and fast today.
Moses shook his head and crouched next to One Eye. His grin atrophied to a mirthless rictus, and he placed a hand on the kid’s shoulder.
“You know, you probably ought to consider quitting smoking. I remember viewing some Link node about how that shit can seriously damage you.” He patted One Eye’s shoulder as gutter rat mewled in the dirt. With a sigh, he rose to his feet, raised an eyebrow, shrugged, then stomped hard onto One Eye’s hooded face – once, twice – and there was a snap like a taekwondo board shattering, and Moses felt something give under his heel. The mewling stopped. The legs dropped to the ground, and One Eye lay still. Very still. “Looks like the powers-that-be got it right this time,” Moses told the prone figure.
Lifting his gaze, he scanned the alley up and down. No one else around, just him, One Eye and Jaw Boy. Not that it would matter if anyone was watching. In this town there were more walking abortions than respectable sorts, and these two were just filthy gutter rats lying in an alley in the piss of strangers.
All Moses had done was score one for the good guys – the minority in this dark age of enlightenment, in these Divided States, these days united only by the intangible Link.
He straightened his jacket, brushed himself down. A thought came to him – quite unbidden – and he glanced at the motionless mess that was One Eye, then flicked a glance at the laid-out Jaw Boy. Quiet murmurs drifted from beneath the gutter rat’s cowl. Moses stroked a thumb against his stubbled chin, and regarded the scene…
Moses tightened the self-modding of his new Chameleoflage boots, then pulled a Noxytine tube from the packet, lighting it with the Zippo. He inhaled deeply and blew out a plume of smoke. With a final glance around the calmed arena, he set off for the neon street ahead. His emotions were awash in a double-edged blade of nostalgia for two worlds he never had the chance to know – shining, aborted Venus, and squandered, lost Earth.
He doubted a corner was left anywhere that could be called Paradise. Eden was flooded, and not even the doomed god of the Second World could save it.
Divided States, Damned Nations. Vespucci’s Novus Mundus going to Hell in a hoodie. Reusche’s Eurasia going to Hell in a hijab.
Fuck that. We’re not going to Hell.
We’re already there.
Something was dead in the Dumpster. Soon it’d be emptied into the compressor, blended into paste, and dumped elsewhere in this ever-growing wasteland. Just a couple of Helixers out of millions, a pair of wasters out of billions.
But, for Moses Garrett, it was a start.
Read Moses Garrett‘s poetic twin, Angerland, here
Moses Garrett © Copyright 2014 Scott Kaelen