I Am One of You • Escape • Whoosh: August 2000 • Jambi the Angel
NOTE: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
I am One of You
White-clad figures are streaming through the six great doors of the hexagonal auditorium, gossiping, laughing, finding seats, steadily amassing into a vast, curving semicircle of snowy white rising around the central stage. A colorful hologram of a 3-D bar chart towers above the stage, spilling light across hundreds of faces. Across each bar is a graphic of a top-selling DimCor product: wands, capillary tubing, lituuses, potions, charm modules, augur-sondes, circuit boards, etc. Legs clicking, a Transducer hurries to the edge of the stage, opening its metal flap.
Kelley Robadu stands upon the stage, beaming up at the sea of white. “Ladies and gentlemen!” Her amplified voice rings out over the assemblage without the aid of a microphone. “Welcome to DimCor’s inaugural quarterly meeting! Now, before I start, we need to get a couple things out of the way.” Kelley’s voice is light and bouncy, but somehow the entire auditorium has become as somber as a mausoleum. “First: as y’all have been taught from birth, you, the Divine, are of pure heritage. That means we do not engage in the disgusting acts of reading or writing. We keep our minds clean. People who choose to pollute their heads with that shit are self-serving trub, and they can’t be trusted.” There are nods and grunts of angry assent from around the room. “It’s come to our attention that someone’s got hold of a book from World Two.” Now the room is filled with gasps and snarls of outrage. “Whoever can find this book and bring it to me gets their debt wiped clean, no questions asked. And if you can give me the names of whoever had it? Bonus of free booze for a year.” The room is swept by a tide of excited whispers that quickly dies under Kelley’s hot gaze. “Second. Outside of the Factory, no surprise, the trub can get up to no good, and the Caregivers sometimes have to bring ’em back under control. Their latest stunt is this little song they’ve come up with.” The words twist derisively from Kelley’s lips, and the blackness that crawls ceaselessly behind her robin’s-egg eyes seems to fill the room. “Only gonna say this once. Anyone from the Factory caught singing this song, anyone who even hears someone singing it and doesn’t report it to myself or Tyler—you’re gone, I’m afraid. Not fired. Not Rehabbed.” She pauses a heartbeat. “Gone, as in bot-food-gone.” No one moves. No one breathes.
Suddenly, Kelley laughs, clapping her hands, and just like that, the entire room brightens and expands with a vast sigh. “But fuck all that, right? Now, let’s get on with the good stuff!” With a flourish, Kelley produces a slender wand that emits a kaleidoscope of colors as she points it at the bar graph. “As you can see from the electric blue line on the fuchsia segment of the graph…” She pauses, leaning forward and frowning. “Or perhaps it’s more of a candy-ass pink…” Appreciative laughter. “Anyhow, our overall performance has risen significantly since the end of last quarter.” Kelley twirls her wand, and the hologram rotates slowly. “Our biggest seller is Zarchite. Thanks to a greater concentration of mining bots, production has increased by six percent over just the past eight weeks.” As she speaks, images of black crystals, all shapes and sizes, appear in the air, followed by diagrams of flying machines and the intricate devices built by the Organics on the assembly lines. “Zarchite is used to power our vehicles, to run motors in instruments large and small. We’re even working with the NFMA to develop a Zarchite-driven technology that will increase the levitation and speed of flying carpets!”
A 3-D grid appears, with bands representing the last three fiscal quarters. Within each band are three rows of generic human figures, the top row white, the middle gray, the bottom black. “Now, as you can see, we’ve greatly reduced our monthly scrap. For every hundred Organics we acquire—” (The wand becomes a laser pointer, indicating the white rows) “we’re now averaging only thirty snappers per month—” (gray rows) “and only about fifty bots kick the bucket—” (black rows) “Excuse me, age out, for those of you with more politically correct sensibilities.” Laughter. “Why’re we suddenly so much more efficient? Well, lemme tell ya. As some of you might recall, we had a little breakdown here awhile back.”
People are stirring, whispering, nudging one another. From her position in the front row, Marissa can feel many pairs of eyes turning in her direction. Opposite her, on the other side of the stage, Tyler sits perfectly still, his face expressionless.
“And I know it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that the cause of all that ruckus happens to be sitting right down here.” Kelley turns her blazing grin towards Marissa, nodding. The auditorium stills as Marissa rises from her seat, walks to the stage, and ascends the steps to join Kelley in the spotlight. Kelley goes on: “Since the day she broke free from enchantment, Marissa Kelvin has paid us back a hundred times over by coming up with totally new financial strategies that are increasing our wealth at a rate beyond our wildest dreams. Because of Marissa, DimCor is actually considering the addition of a second shift, and who knows—maybe even a third! She might’ve come here from World Two…” Kelley puts an arm around Marissa, squeezing her shoulder. “But she’s no longer of that world. She belongs here with us now, makin’ money and kickin’ ass!”
Heartier applause now, as Kelley backs away, giving Marissa center stage. Marissa looks up at the sea of curious faces, jaw set, small smile in place. “Hey man, sorry I broke your Jukebox.” She shrugs as tentative laughter washes over her. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Tyler is now staring at her intently. “But since my first day on the job when I helped save your asses, well, it’s been one hell of a ride, wouldn’t you say?” Now, she’s getting some applause. “You came back even stronger than before. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because you are superior to the trub from which you came, lifted up from the trash of the streets to become the chosen. Better than all those poor slobs outside these walls, wishing they could come in. It’s the reason you’re trained in skills like chymistry or mechanics when you’re hired, why your home is now the Division instead of the gutter.” The applause has begun to swell, punctuated by hoots and whistles. “I mean, come on. Production’s up, scrap’s down—heck, we’re all in this together, right? I gave you some ideas, you ran with ’em. And because we all worked together, the Factory’s now in a position…” Marissa pauses, looking around. “To give every last one of you a ten percent raise!”
This time, the thunder of their approval is nearly deafening. Marissa smiles up at the crowd as her fellow employees pump their fists and high-five each other. One guy even dances a little jig. She catches fragments of excited conversations about all the drugs the extra money will buy. The atmosphere has become buoyant, smiling faces shining down upon her with admiration and gratitude.
Marissa spreads her hands, and the Transducer zooms in for a close-up. “You see? It’s like my friend Kelley here said. I’m here to serve.” She places one hand on her chest. “And right here…in my heart…I am now truly one of you.”
The great room rings with hooting and stomping as Marissa and Kelley share a hearty handshake. Then Marissa steps down from the stage, but instead of taking her seat again, she makes her way toward the nearest exit, pausing several times along the way to high-five her many admirers. She cannot escape fast enough.
Traversing the manufacturing areas, she tries to see only generic figures on a chart instead of the ragged human forms churning out product. Tries not to wonder what their names were, where they came from. Tries not to see them, but can see nothing else. In a crowded bar after work, the girl looking down from the balcony could be the one who’d had JR tattooed on her wrist. Maybe she had liked heavy metal; had a boyfriend or girlfriend whose initials were JR; wanted to be a mechanic, a rock star, a writer. Down below, on a narrow, glittering street, the black woman leaning out of a window could be the one with the braid, before it had unraveled; before she had aged five decades in one month. From the beginning, there’d been laugh lines around her wide mouth. She had looked earnest, sincere. Her smile would have been knowing, ironic. This entire world is a killing floor.
Wherever Marissa turns, their faces haunt her, but the off hours are the worst, before she reaches for the gas.
She has quit using several times, forcing herself to flush the contents of the glowing tank that magically refills itself every night, imagining herself free of its bonds. But as the potion begins to ebb from her system, her body burns in agony, and white-hot flames fill her vision. So far, she hasn’t been able to make it past day two before fleeing back to the dark embrace of that ol’ Forty-Five.
The faces fade at last as the potion enters her bloodstream, and then she is falling up, up to some impossible height, becoming vast, black wings as, deep in the interstellar darkness of a drug-fueled dream, a solitary sun glimmers, a distant promise, beautiful and deadly: the skudder coil.
The hyphistasis chambers gleam faintly in the dim after-hours lighting. Within the holding area behind them, faint sounds emanate: sobs of despair, screams of terror, endless strings of nonsensical babble. Often, they are left here for hours, until the pen is filled to capacity.
She has returned many times since that first tour of the plant, to watch as the “snappers” are sent home. Observing the whitecoats working the controls.
If she can escape back to World Two, she will make her way back to Lincoln, to the Nebraska Foundation for Magical Arts, she will walk straight up to the front door, as she and Tori always used to dare each other to do as kids. She will make someone listen, make someone believe.
Only after convincing the wizards of the NFMA their business partner and biggest parts supplier is fortified by mass genocide will she beg for some charm or curse that will free her from her addiction. With any luck, before it kills her.
It is the end of the workday. The last batch of snappers is shuffling down the loading chute to one of the chambers. Marissa glances around. The only Supervisors nearby are intent upon the control panels. She drops into the chute amongst the prisoners, securing the gate behind her. From the chamber’s dim interior, a low hum can be heard as the magical sensors begin to charge.
Marissa slips into their midst just as the hatch closes, sealing them all inside. “Where are we?” The voice comes from beside her, and she turns to look into the face of a middle-aged woman.
“We’re going home,” she tells the woman.
“I have no home,” the woman says. “I’m no one.”
Before Marissa can say more, a hand is touching her. This time, a boy. “Who am I?” His eyes are earnest, full of hope she will have his answer.
“I can’t,” a man behind him is sobbing. “I can’t. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
The hum of the chamber is building as she stands consumed in their sorrow. Some cover their ears, moaning in terror. Now she can see through them as, one by one, they begin to vanish. Now they are all fading, and as the humming expands inside her head, the room is erased in blinding whiteness and she is forced to shut her eyes against it.
Suddenly, the humming is gone. In its place, the warble of a meadowlark. A breeze lifts her hair, carrying with it the scents of sagebrush and sunflowers. She lifts her face, feeling the warmth of the sun. She knows exactly where she is standing: at the curve of U.S. 40 in Kansas. At last, she opens her eyes.
“Hey, girlfriend.” Instead of wind and sunshine, subterranean gloom. Instead of fence posts and yucca plants, here is Kelley Robadu, kicked back on a familiar stone balustrade. Beside her is Tyler, red-lipped smile, arms crossed. She is once more on the outer landing of the Factory, the dark city spread out below, the invisible roof concealing its secrets.
“I’m surprised it took her this long to make a break for it,” Tyler says.
“It took a little convincing,” Kelley says. “I kept telling Tyler you were good to go, you were one of us, that you had—drunk the koolaid, so to speak.” Wink. “But he convinced me to put you to the test, so we included the hyphistasis chambers in the new employee tour, made sure you got a real good look, and then pretty much gave you free rein. So, how was your trip? I mean, the snappers are just a riot, aren’t they?”
Marissa stares back at her, smiling her tiny smile. “Ever want to do something, feel something…just one last time?” She shrugs. “That’s all it was, I promise you. Heck, what’ve I got to go back to? My dad, who was literally trying to kill me when you came along? Ha! I wasn’t trying to escape, even if I thought it was possible.” A glance at Tyler, who doesn’t know about the koolaid. “I just wanted to see Nebraska one time. To say good-bye.”
Tyler rolls his eyes, but Kelley is studying her. “Tell you what,” she says after a minute. “I like you, Marissa. I don’t just want you on my side. I also want you happy. You’ve just been promoted to Chief Financial Officer.”
“What?” Tyler is aghast. “But she just—”
“Just what?” Kelley grins up at him, lips splitting to display a gaping nest of fangs, row upon jagged row, her irises going stark white for a second. Tyler’s mouth snaps shut. Kelley’s bubblegum smile returns as she looks back at Marissa. “You’re going to have so much more here than you could ever have had there. I need to know you’ve put all that behind you.” Tyler looks very much like he wants to say something but does not. “You’ve proven your abilities. Now you’re going to prove your loyalty.”
Still smiling, promising herself she will not fuck up again, Marissa replies: “You’ll get your proof.”
Kelley’s smile is brilliant, her eyes blue fire. “Rock and roll.”
Whoosh: August 2000
When I came back into the dining area, I saw things had started to pick up. I already had four tables and a booth. Earthquakes in Nebraska are uncommon to say the least, and usually not very strong. In this case, it appeared to have made folks hungrier. The benches in the waiting area were crammed full of people, all chattering excitedly about it.
“Rock band in seven,” Cindy muttered as she raced past me with a tray of wobbling desserts.
“He’p?” Marki offered, eyebrow raised.
I glanced out at four middle-aged men slumped in booth seven. It wasn’t so much the hair, the tattoos, or even the ripped, bleached denim, that announced “Rock Band.” It was the chronic boredom hanging around them like a gray fog. One had buried his face in his arms, not even glancing at the menu. I remembered the Journal-Star announcing the annual Rib Fest going on down in the Haymarket. These guys must have been one of the lesser-known opening acts.
“Nah, I got it.” I headed over to set their waters down. “Hey. What can I getcha?” No one even looked up. One yawned, rubbing his eyes and muttering something unintelligible. “Want a couple more minutes to decide?”
The big guy with dirty tape around his thick fingers said, “Why bother? It’s all the same.” I guessed him to be the drummer. He twirled a finger over the menu and pointed, without looking. “I’ll have that.”
“It’s all the same…” The guy whose face was hidden started to sing, a la Bon Jovi. “Only the names’ll cha-a-a-ange—”
“Shut up and order, dumbass,” muttered the drummer.
“Fuck you,” the singer replied. “I’ll have what you’re having.”
“I’m having what he’s having,” said the one with a callused right thumb, the nail almost gone. Bass player, I thought.
And that left the guitarist: “I’m having what they’re having.”
“Four chicken-fried steaks,” I said, scribbling.
“Oh god, not again,” croaked the drummer.
I glanced towards my other tables. More people were crowding in. “You can always try something else,” I said.
The bassist shrugged. “We’ve already tried everything. What’s the use?”
I shoved the ticket pad into my pocket. “Yeah. What’s the use?”
The singer finally raised his head, looking around blearily. “Hey, sorry, man. We all got jobs to do.”
I barely heard him. Lightning prowled just west of the city limits, the towering anvil slowly devouring the stars. I remembered a sky like this; tearing down a dirt road on my bike, trying to keep up with Marissa, dumping our bikes at the barbwire fence and racing hellbent-for-leather into the storm.
One by one, the tables began to empty. Not because the diners were getting up to leave. But because they were vanishing, winking out, like candles in a gust of wind. Whoosh—here went the chubby young couple in cutoffs who always squeezed together on the same side of the booth, their tongues engaged mid-French. Whoosh—there went the AA group who always met in the corner, mounds of empty sugar and cream packets swirling in their wake. Whoosh—the singer, the drummer, the bassist. And finally, the guitarist. Gone, like dust. In a moment, all the people were no more, only empty booths and tables left behind, and then these, too, were gone. The lights went next, leaving only a dirty, sulfur glare filtering in through glassless frames that gaped with age as the ceiling laths sagged to the floor and the plaster rotted away.
And then I was alone, standing in the ruin that had been Westgate Boulevard, and the earth had been torn open like a soup can, and the only sound was the mindless screaming of the wind…and laughter, ancient, full of rotten glee…
“Ma’am? Yoo-hoo.” I blinked. Diners chattered away, shoving food into their mouths. The fat couple was still making out in their booth. The AA group laughed about something they were reading. The drummer was looking from my nametag to my face, frowning. “Tori—?”
All four of them were staring up at me now. “You all right?” the singer asked.
They looked so concerned, these tired strangers who knew nothing of me, who I’d likely never see again. I think I’m losing my mind. Either that, or we’re all going to die, and then none of this will matter anyway.
I almost told them.
“I’d get back to your hotel,” I said. “Before the hail starts in.”
They watched as I turned to leave. The guitarist finally said, “You want to come party with us?”
Jambi the Angel
The “Year Without a Summer” was brought on by the Tambora eruption, which, as I already pointed out, was not my fault.
Rules were made to be broken, man, then as now! Now, more than ever, in fact. Yeah, we’ve all been told ain’t no such thang as a Seer.
But Damballah’s about crawling outta her skin (and believe me, that’s the last thing we need up here), insisting there’s a radar scanner in Your head, and it’s picking up a blip.
In other words, shit’s about to get real up in here.
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.