• The Caregivers (continued)
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with Episode 1.
Whoops and cheers carry up from the lower levels, and, faintly, down the tunnel from the walkways outside. “Is it some kind of celebration?” she finally asks, mopping up ketchup with the last French fry.
“Oh, but it’s always party time here in Robadu.”
“Robadu. Aren’t there other cities in this world?”
Kelley has only been sipping her vodka. Now, she downs the entire glass in one long, loud slurp. Smacking her lips, she holds up her glass, Lenno hurries over with his wand, and it is instantly full again. Behind her eyes, a mere hint of crawling blackness. “There is only one city, and over the centuries it’s covered the entire core of this world. Above that? The Roof—protecting everything down here. Folks here have no concept of sky, or clouds, or weather. Nothing gets out, nothing gets in, without my say.” Kelley snaps her fingers in the air. A few seconds pass. Her smile widens as she snaps again.
Lenno rushes to their booth. “Beer her.” Marissa’s mug is instantly full to the brim, and he backs warily away.
“Oh, don’t run off now, we’re not through with you.” Kelley lowers her hand. Looking like he might throw up, Lenno approaches their table again. Kelley pushes four crisp twenty-dollar bills to the edge. It’s the first thing with any lettering Marissa has seen here. Lenno looks about to object to her paying, thinks better of it. “Keep the change. Have a little extra fun on me tonight.”
Lenno cautiously accepts the cash. “Th-thank you, Miss Robadu. Thank you.”
Kelley’s expression softens. “Sweetie, how much do you owe the Bank?”
Lenno flinches, his eyes flitting around the room. “Three paychecks,” he all but sobs.
“Three’s the limit, you know.” Lenno nods miserably. “After that…” Her fingers snap again, then point downward. Now, the waiter really is crying, quietly. “Oh, I hate to see that after you’ve been such a good sport tonight. How much dolla have you got on you right now?”
Reluctantly, he reaches under his top hat and pulls out a stack of orange, pink, and blue bills, all emblazoned with a smiley face in the middle.
Kelley whistles. “You must be planning on a good time tonight. Look—just this once, what do you say I buy ’em all off ya?” Lenno looks up, dumbfounded. “What’s that, about a hundred dolla? Put it all on the table. Here you go.” She hands him a couple more American twenties.
“My—my life is yours.” He actually begins to kneel.
“Oh, fuck that, get outta here,” Kelley says kindly, aiming a playful kick at him. He utters a strained giggle and hurries away, cramming the twenties under his hat. “Dolla,” Kelley says in response to Marissa’s curious expression. “You can get it from any Bank if you’re hard up for cash to buy your candy or booze. The company stores accept it—and all the stores are company stores, including the Banks. Of course, real commerce—actual food, housing, all Factory business—still uses the good ol’ American dollar. A great lot of which we spend all across the great U-S of A, shipping in everything from dry goods, to food, to industrial supplies.”
“What’s the exchange rate on real dollars?” Below their balcony, in a corner of the ballroom, a glowing, peach-colored machine twinkles dreamily as a steady stream of people extract brightly colored bills from it. This, then, is a “Bank.”
Kelley grins, saying nothing.
Marissa considers for a moment. “Jack shit?” Despite the sadness and horror of her new reality, her circuits are firing up, the way they always have when it comes to mathematics and logic.
“Damn, you are sharp!”
“So, let me get this straight.” Marissa pauses to take a deep swig. “You save on labor by turning people into robot slaves. You sell your parts to customers who—just a guess—don’t have a clue how you keep prices so low.”
“Don’t care, either.” Kelley nods encouragingly for her to go on.
“DimCor owns every business in Robadu, and the people here are endlessly in its debt. But you make sure the party never ends, and there’s always plenty of fake money to loan for more drugs and alcohol. Where do all the drugs and alcohol come from, anyhow?”
“Same place your nightly intravenous used to come from. None other than DimCor’s chymistry labs.” Marissa, who was about to take another drink, sets her beer down apprehensively. Kelley chuckles, waving a hand, which she then holds out, palm up. On it are four brightly colored capsules. “Not the booze, actually. Just the hard stuff—the candy. Orange for coke. Pink for meth. Blue for ecstasy. And green, da-dada-dum…heroin. Our labs can engineer new and improved versions of damn near anything. All we need are samples from World Two.” She pauses. “Doesn’t seem to work so well with living organisms, but we’ll figure them out too, eventually.”
“But why go to the trouble of stealing people from my world? There’re lots of warm bodies right here.”
Kelley leans across the table until Marissa can feel the heat of her gaze. “Don’t ever let me hear those words come out of your mouth again, Kelvin. The bots don’t come from your world. They come from World Two. Your world is here now. You are home.” She settles back, taking another gulp of vodka. “Keeping ‘em drunk and high only goes so far. We can’t have word getting around we’re harvesting our own people. A revolt would definitely slow down business. And the more business I can get in good ol’ Lincoln, Nebraska, the wider the door opens between me…” Kelley drops a chilling wink. “…and blowing this dump of a world. Right now, I can only visit World Two for short stretches, and only like this.” She gestures in frustration at her petite body. “But I’m winning friends over there. Sooner or later, somebody with enough power will figure out how to set me free. And then…hello, universe!”
Marissa’s stomach is crawling. “But why are you telling me all of this? Why am I so special?”
“You tell me, Kelvin. We were just out scouting, Tyler and me, nothing special. You were just another stray, like all the others. I’ve been around since before humans even existed, and I have never seen anything like you. It would be a waste—maybe even dangerous—to just kill you.
“The potion’s very powerful, and with a regular dose every twenty-four hours, the bots generally stay under, no problem. But you…Marissa.” She savors the name that in the end was its owner’s undoing. “You’ve overcome some of the most powerful magic. Labor that eventually kills most Organics, you thrive on.”
“Speaking of the koolaid…”
Kelley’s eyes brim with sudden merriment. “That’s your name for it?”
“The potion. Yeah. I’ve thought of it that way ever since I started waking up.”
“I gave you enough to last you another day at least. Don’t tell me you’re jonesin’ already.”
“It’s not that. It’s just…how do I get more when I need it?” Saying it out loud makes her feel naked, ashamed.
“And that would be our cue to move on.” Kelley grabs the second towering cylinder of pure vodka and dumps it down her throat, pointing at Marissa with the other hand. “I’m gonna hook you up, don’t you worry about that. But for now, we’ve got some partying to do!” She slides out of the booth and disappears before Marissa can even drain her mug and stand up. She is walking, a bit unsteadily, toward the narrow, spiral staircase that brought them up here when Kelley’s voice comes out of the darkness behind her. “Hey, chief.”
At the back of this shadowy upstairs bar, Kelley is holding open a narrow door. From beyond the door, whooshing, and rumbling echoes. Stepping outside, Marissa finds herself standing next to Kelley on a stone ledge above a yawning chasm. The distant lights of trains race up and down the cliff face and dart in and out of tunnels. Colorful bursts of light can be seen on faraway balconies.
One floor below their platform, there are shouts of drunken laughter. The lights of a small train approach. Behind the windows of the lighted train cars, drinks splash and sparkle, bright jewelry and costumes flash, people laugh and call to one another. “Whoa, let’s catch the next one.” Kelley catches Marissa’s arm as she is about to step into the nearest car. Grinning, she tilts her head at the commotion going on just below them.
The train slides away, and Kelley leans out over the chasm, motioning for Marissa to do the same. “Watch this. This is gonna to be fucking hilarious.”
At one end of a narrow balcony, someone is backed up against the railing. The purple flicker of a nearby torch momentarily illuminates a face twisted with fright. His hair is spiked and glittering, and two small devil horns are glued to his temples. The shadows of several people fall over him, and as he raises his arms protectively, satin bat wings unfurl, one fluttering in the updraft where it has been slashed by something. “Get away!” he gasps.
The others continue advancing. “You get away,” someone says.
“C’mon, we wanna see you do it,” says another.
“They’ll know,” he whispers, and his voice is filled with terror. “They’ll know.”
“Nah, nah, just do it quick.”
“He does it for five dolla.” A new voice. “Did it last night!”
“I was drunk.” The first guy is practically sobbing now. “You can’t make me do it again!”
“Don’t stop now!” The second guy grabs his arm, motioning for the others to join in. He thrashes wildly as they lift him up and over the rail. “Can’t stop now!” In an instant, he is gone. Awash in the fire’s purple glow, their faces are sweaty and grinning, all hanging over the railing now, whooping and cheering. And then, Marissa sees why.
About four stories down, the guy with the glittery hair and devil horns (one horn now hanging askew) has stopped in midair. At first, he’s still upside-down, limbs flailing, but slowly, he rights himself, floating there and looking around frantically. He starts kicking, froglike, breast-stroking toward the nearest walkway in the side of the cliff, countless stories above the canyon floor. His progress is exhaustingly slow.
Suddenly, the laughter stops. All the balconies and walkways have, in fact, gone silent. In another second, they are empty of people, leaving behind only one: the floater, who has begun to sob in earnest, grasping desperately for the handrail that is hopelessly out of reach.
Far away, where the walls of the chasm seem to meet in the distance, a dim, pink dot is gliding down the face of the cliff like a tear drop. The softly glowing object swells gradually in size as it approaches in lazy zigzags, rising and falling, a luminous rosebud drifting across the night sky of Robadu. The levitating man cries out in despair, redoubling his efforts to reach the cliffside.
The thing is nearly upon him. Still vaguely bud-shaped but now the size of a Volkswagen, with mottled skin that seems both metal and flesh, it pulsates a hideous scarlet from deep within. On its bulbous, veined grille, pink lids roll back to expose a wet, black eyeball swarming with red irises, globular pupils expanding and contracting, bathing every surface in their bloody glow, most of which are trained on the hapless floater.
“You—have—been—very…bad.” The crawling, malignant voice seems to slither into the brain. With every word, the red glow throbs like a bloody organ. On every wall and lamppost, the crystal globes throb too, syncing the music with this new beat.
Like ants drawn to rotten fruit, little black boxes scramble on spindly legs in the direction of the cliff, zooming in to capture every detail. “Please!” The guy is sobbing. “I had to. They were gonna kill me!”
“Tsk—tsk—tsk. That…is incorrect,” soothes the voice. Whatever is about to happen, Marissa knows she must remain calm and follow Kelley’s cues. She is being tested, and failure is not an option. “With the exception of specific tasks assigned in your workplace, practicing magic in any form is…strictly prohibited.” Marissa’s heart shudders, wanting to throb with the music.
“No! No. No!” the floater howls. The Transducers crowd the balconies and walkways, jostling one another for the money shot. The gleaming globes are suddenly filled with a neon image of his open mouth, the music ratcheting: No! No! No!
“Ssh-shhh. I—am—here—to—take…care.” The softly slobbering voice infects the mind like a parasite, squirming deeper, savoring every quivering dendrite. The cyclopean eye blinks slowly, sensuously, gummy lashes brushing the floater, who begins to scream. From the machine’s undercarriage, ropy, black and purple tendrils unfurl, yards and yards, like animated intestines. In a second, they have ensnared the floating man, drawing him up through a trapdoor that has opened in its abdomen. “Everything—will—be all right now.” The prisoner’s cries are cut off with a liquid, gargling sound.
As the machine rises, preparing to depart, Kelley reaches out to place one hand on its surface. The eye floods their small platform in glaring red light, and the machine comes to rest next to them on the ledge. “Stroke it. Go ahead.” Marissa caresses its side and the flying machine shimmers and becomes, for a split second, a dented gold Subaru wagon, before reassuming its actual form. The surface is hard and smooth, but perversely alive. It shudders, uttering a ghastly sound that could almost be a purr.
“What is it?” Marissa asks.
“They are the Caregivers. We don’t have lots of laws, but there’re two things not allowed here. No books or writing, and no tricks—big or small. C’mon.” Kelley reaches underneath the machine and a hatch whispers open. She climbs up inside, motioning for Marissa to follow. Inside the cabin, the windshield displays the cliff face and walkways from several different angles, in high resolution.
“Welcome, Kelley Robadu—and Guest.” The mercury voice oozes around them. “It—is—my pleasure to serve you. Where shall we go today?” Instead of replying, Kelley switches to manual control.
“Are we taking him to jail?” Marissa asks as they zoom up and out over the glittering city.
“We don’t have jails. We have Rehabilitation centers.” Kelley yanks the controls and they bank left, then right, then loop upside-down. “And, no. We’re just having ourselves a little joyride.” There is a thud from inside the hull behind them. A wet whimper, quickly stifled. “Hold on to your knickers!” The machine blasts up the canyon, and lights wink out in the distance, ledges and cliffs emptying in their path, before they angle straight up, bursting out above the rooftops, dodging fluidly between twisting monorail tracks.
Ahead, a jagged, black tower juts up from a distant valley floor, and as they race through the bedazzled night, it swells to fill the window. Now, Marissa can see that, unlike the other gayly glittering structures of Robadu, its many floors are unlit. As Kelley guns the Caregiver in ever-climbing spirals around the tower, flooding its dark and pitted windows and stairways with bloody radiance, people spill out of the openings like ants flushed from their colony, fleeing down stairs, swinging out on ropes, forming human chains, helping one another in their desperation to escape. None are in costume.
“What is it?” Marissa asks.
“Skidmor House,” Kelley says. “I set up shop here a few generations back, while DimCor was under construction. Now it’s a rathole.” The last word comes out in a thick, wet grunt. After one last divebomb for good measure (people are scattering into the streets, picking up whatever discarded carnival finery they can find and dressing themselves as they run), Kelley emits a whoop, her face clearing, and they zoom back out over the metropolis.
High atop a spiraling tower with a giant, pink Ferris wheel on its face, Kelley brings the Caregiver in for a smooth landing, switching back to autopilot. They climb out, and she turns to slap the hull. “Thanks for showin’ us a good time!”
“It—was—my…pleasure.” The thing lifts off and zooms away.
“So?” Kelley skips to the edge of the rooftop. “Was that fun, or what?”
“Fuck, yeah!” Marissa is swaying a bit.
“You’ll get used to it. All you need is a little more practice. Next time, I’ll let you drive!”
“Really?” Something sparks inside Marissa—only a glimmer, really. “You’ll teach me how?”
A monorail is racing up the side of the tower. In a moment, it slides to a stop. Kelley pulls the clown mask back down over her face, seeming to relish the anonymity. The vessel’s inner walls are a blinding fuchsia, and electric music fills the air, purple bubbles pogoing across the surfaces of the crystal globes overhead. Within each bubble flickers the image of a man ensnared in a mass of slithering tentacles. As they step into the midst of a glitter-choked, neon-splattered mosh pit, the club music screeches to a stop and a sparkling, painted face smiles down from every curving surface. “Hey, everybody! Some assholes are planning to steal all the candy for themselves! Wanna know where they are?!” The crowd aboard the train car erupts in vicious caws and snarls of anger. “They’re down in Ward Four! Ward Four, ya hear me?” The figure holds up a tall, twisting glass flute filled with glowing purple fluid in one hand, and what appears to be the fattest joint Marissa has ever seen in the other. “Whatcha all waitin’ for? Go – go – go!” The music blasts out again, and now the bubbles contain the flailing outlines of people engaged in a drunken brawl.
“Whaddya say we beat some ass down in Four?” Kelley hollers, forking the devil-horns of victory with both hands as if this were a heavy metal concert. “Who’s partyin’ with us!”
The car fills with whoops and war cries, drinks and devil-horns jabbing the air. The party explodes again, Marissa finds herself swallowed up in a haze of alcohol and smoke, and in another instant, they are spiraling through tunnels carved into the dead rock, streaking through light, darkness, fire, and color beyond description.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.