Chapter 14 (counting down to 0)
Hello and welcome to the Texas news hour from Fox local service coming to you live from Upper City Houston. I’m Travis Marshall. Coming up we will have the latest from the coastal weather service on how long the rains will last this period. Also in today’s program a look at the past 10 years of phenomenal service by our president and commander in chief. But first we bring you to the scene live where a chase for fugitive Larissa Patience Weiss is wrapping up in Lower City. Wanted in connection to the death of an unknown male victim, Ms. Weiss was sighted in the early morning hours at popular lower city nightclub Noctsuoh owned by ward police chief Noren Scott Grey. Let’s go to the director of communications BeBe who is narrating the drone footage live from Upper City.
On the translucent screen a halo of light searched through water and trash till it encircled a wire of a woman struggling to breathe as she was lifted from the ground by her neck. Her arms, pinned back behind her body, exposed thin white skin that stretched across her breasts as she was choked unconscious by a black masked militia member. He arched backward as Patience’s deflated sack of flesh fell limp. He tossed her to another unidentifiable member and waved up to the drone.
A spotted hand still agile with age, but as fragile as the lifeless woman, swiped the screen to bisect the view with another channel displaying a grid. The fingers nimbly wrote data points into a linear equation as the newscast continued with the week’s erosion and radiation warnings. After a moment the electricity popped several times.
.--. --- .-- . .-. / ..-. .- .. .-.. ..- .-. . / -... .- -.-. -.- ..- .--. / .. -. .. - .. .- - .
The ginny would start automatically but the code was reminiscent of something. Alerts. Teaching children emergency systems from a century when alerts only meant bombs and guns. Time had not changed the need for warnings but normalized them.
Outside, it was darker than usual for morning. The bluish emergency lighting system flickered above Michael and Sonja, sending out warning codes to area scanners. Rain pummeled their bodies as Michael led the way through calf-high water. Sonja found a curb hovering just below the waterline and she stepped up to avoid immersing her feet too long in the slick rainbows of runoff. Michael glanced back to check on her. If the water came up past their knees they were at risk of being knocked down or carried by the unpredictable swells or, worse yet, the infections. He needed to get them to higher ground. They passed several rowhouses when three small faces caught Michael’s eye. Each set of brown eyes were wide with confusion and interest as the two drenched figures fought through the street. Michael smiled and pointed the kids out to Sonja who looked to the window and found it empty.
Sonja was not concerned with prying eyes. She worried over prying hands that grabbed and tore at the woman’s clothes like rabid animals. Michael’s form muscled indelicately through the street, his mass displacing the water for only a brief moment. Despite the storm around them she couldn’t escape the desire she felt to touch him. From the day she met him, their love was as visceral as it was abstract.
In 0-39 at the age of twelve, Sonja left her mother, three brothers and Horatio, the baby the neighbors hid in the floorboards, when they were executed by the Sinaloa. She begged her mother to let her take Horatio but Doña Karen knew what she was sending her only daughter to. After thirty-five years, Karen knew more than she wanted to and prayed so hard that her rosary beads shattered between her thumb and forefinger, leaving little plastic pieces in her hands. Letting Sonja go on that journey was the hardest thing she had ever done, but after their father disappeared, there was little hope anymore in the mountains of Chilapa. Sonja would never see her mother, brothers, or baby, Horatio, again. In some ways, she expected they were dead, but in that small secret place a human holds for their most private of hearts, she kept her family alive. In that safe space, they would live free forever.
“Sonja!” Michael was yelling back to where she was staring out at the drones in the distance. They looked like birds flying in close formation. He waved for her to follow him behind a fence to a boarded up townhome with plastic security seals over the entrance. She watched as Michael used a garden tool to open a narrow slot window. He lifted her up easily and she crawled inside, tumbling to the floor of a white-tiled shower. Stepping lightly into the living quarters she saw why Michael picked this house. It was completed but in some level of vacancy. Cheap furniture was covered with plastic in some areas and uncovered in others. Towards the living room, she went to a window and pried off the loose slats of wood. Michael came around the side and climbed in behind her. They sat wet and exhausted on the floor listening to the rain for a few moments. There was a 50-50 chance there would be an alarm system, but anyone caring that much for a property in lower city was rare.
“We should try to dry off.” Michael said kissing Sonja lightly on the neck before standing and wandering up the central staircase. Each one of his footsteps was amplified by the emptiness of the house. She went to the kitchen hoping for food, but finding only new appliances still wrapped in their packaging. Michael entered the dark room and found Sonja standing with her back to the wall.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Michael stepped towards her, but was stopped with the lash of her quiet voice.
“What then?” he asked.
“Why you not wanna help?” she asserted without prelude.
“Oh. The bartender?” He shook his head without clarification.
“They’re different. They mean different things.”
“Stop fixing my words. You not think is your job to help?”
“I don’t know.” Michael hated when she was agitated this way. Her eyes flamed like cobras and she became unapproachable, untouchable.
“You know.” Her response was ice in the suffocating darkness.
“Why does it matter? She’s just some bartender at a shit nightclub run by a corrupt chief enforcer.”
“Michael, everything matter.”
“No, it doesn’t, Sonja.” It always amazed him that she would rage about the ways things were, as though someone could just wave their hand and erase the last four decades. “Nothing matters. Not you, not me. We are nothing to them. You think that bartender would waste one second to help you?”
“I thought everything mattered,” he shot back.
“You always have to move my words to make you right. Que me tratas como burra.”
“I’m not making fun of you.”
“I am my language!” she yelled as a roll of thunder crashed less than a mile away.
“I’m just angry, Sonja.”
“You angry with me? I’m right. You knowed I’m right.”
“Right? You haven’t made a point!”
He leaned forward on the granite island letting it absorb his weight. A deep, familiar silence was taking root in the short distance between them. Michael knew that she was about to say something, so he waited, giving her time to make the words first in her native tongue then in the road-taught language of imprisonment.
“They rip her clothes off and kick at her. Those men, kicked at her.”
“Sonja, don’t you think she knew what she signed up for when she worked there? She doesn’t have to do that. Or wear that. I certainly wouldn’t be wearing something that could be ripped off of me easily if I worked at that hell hole.”
She listened without breaking her stare from his face as he spoke.
“I’m not going to apologize for caring more about your safety and my own when the militia is coming.” They were both still wet and the stink of their sweat and adrenaline clung to the air.
“You know,” she began slowly, “the problem with predators? Los depredadores make us forget all the things coming to eat us while we hide from them.”
“So, I’m a predator, now?” Michael moved around the side of the island towards her. She didn’t move a muscle, but followed his body with her eyes.
“You do nothing to help because she not yours,” she said. “Not mother, not sister, not me. You not own her so she not matter.” The last words were a knife lobbed out of bounds. She said them as though every conversation they shared about his Syrian and Black American history were some manufactured fiction by an alt-America attempting to justify the means. Michael didn’t have a response prepared. She crossed a line he didn’t know how to come back from so he recoiled slightly.
“I don’t own you,” he said more to himself than to her.
“You not the first man think he has right to me. But no, you not own me. No one ever own me.”
She stepped forward towards him instead of around the other side. Michael backed up and let her pass.
“It’s still flooding. We should stay till it lets up,” he called after her.
“The flood never stop.” Those were the last words Michael heard before the slide of the window and a scrape of the wall let him know he was alone.
He did not hear her jaw pop as she was shot with a rubber bullet in the cheek; the gurgle of help that wouldn’t come from her mouth as a black steel boot stepped down on her back; the mechanical release of a drone lowering a coffin sized cage that she was dragged to by her hair; her last breath as she lost consciousness, nor the subtle friction of skin on skin as the three fugitive hunters each took turns reaching inside her.
Nobody asked Patience what she wanted. Not even Patience. What did she need? How was she going to survive? Growing up a shout and a holler from Seguin was like winning a two buck lotto. Girls that grew up bruised before they walked had an infinite tolerance for pain and a limited ability to sell that skill.
It was not hard to understand why Patience liked her current career as a cook. She got to keep her clothes on and it wielded a fair amount of power. There was also the most important factor; important in all forms of business from chicken farming to stock trading. Demand.
They called her the cook and most knew well enough to leave her alone. If anyone had the passing thought of rocking the boat to edge in on her market, they quickly remembered that she worked for the lower city ward chief. Noren held contacts in enough offices to put anyone in a foreign jail for half a century and Isaak had a finger on every thug for hire within Harris county. Most of them were family in one-way or the other. Blood really had nothing to do with it.
None of this made any difference to Patience who cared little for money. There was food, a house and enough to distract her from the wait. Enough to distract her from the slow passage of time. The endless waiting.
It isn’t wise to sample your own product. Crow told her. Find someone you trust who weighs over seventy-two kilos. The bigger the person, the slower the metabolism and the safer to test. Never test on a female. Hormones are more susceptible to irregularity. They also tend to be more high-strung. Crow and Ming always seemed to follow her. It was four years and eight months since they’d left. They would be back she told herself.
Patience’s easy expression was instantly contorted to pain as she was shot with phenadreno. All her muscles spasmed hard as she came to attention in the cold dead white room known as ‘the box’. After this phase completed, about an hour, her body began to feel enhanced sensitivity to sound, touch and taste. Vision was sometimes affected though not in all cases. This lasted for many hours in some, and only a short while in others. It depended on body weight and tolerance to the drug. Patience had heard a story of a man who was shot with adreno and his heart exploded after nearly fifteen hours of spasm.
“She doesn’t care about a thing in the world right now except making this stop,” the technician chuckled. Patience snapped her eyelids open. Thick, round bubbles were floating all around her. Then the voice came again.
“She’s set. If you need a clarification just ring me. I’m going to be down here all day. They brought in a bunch of those rats from fifth ward and they have to be cleaned and read.”
Four clicks trailed after the voice and Patience felt her body shudder before loosening out of the spasm. Every part of her ached in a silent scream that echoed beyond her body and into the hundreds of boxes down the hall that held silently screaming bodies. Isolation was required. She wished that Crow and Ming would come for her. That morning when they promised... How long ago had they promised to return…years ago…how long…how long?
Why are you thinking of that again? Ming stretched gracefully on the white banquette next to her, his charcoal eyes searching for understanding. As usual Ming was perfect, belonging everywhere and yet to no one particular era. His slick ponytail fell down to his waist and he had one linen-slacked leg crossed over the other. Lounging as one might at a friend’s house he rubbed the arch of her foot in smooth circles. It was easy to see why he was an apex species.
In contrast Crow sat across the low table from them looking more than usual like his namesake. His flesh stretched across the bones, revealing every vein. A strand of straight camel colored hair fell across his eyes, but he made no move to push it away. Crow with a hard jaw and pointed limbs, could have been Patience’s brother. He was taller than she was, though, and quiet. A trait Patience could never manage. Crow was a silencing person; someone that hushed crowds and animals and even babies wailing for a drop of milk off their mother’s breast. Exceptionally gifted in the art of meditation, Ming once said.
“Do you remember the night you found me?” Patience asked indiscriminately to both of them. They looked at each other and then out into the room.
Ming took her hand in his and she was electrified by the power. “You were so thin and scraggly it seemed like the wind could have blown you beyond the mesosphere.”
“I remember that. She had on that horrible skirt, the black one that was too short.” Crow continued. “Tell us again why you were there?”
“Where?” Patience asked.
“In the park.”
“I don’t know exactly. I was lost I suppose.”
Ming looked at her sharply. “You’re lying. I know you’re lying because her skin turns cold.”
He let go of her hand. Patience breathed for a moment before leaning onto Ming’s warm shoulder.
“I didn’t mean to lie. I just don’t like thinking about Seguin anymore. I’ll tell you about it if you want.”
“Yes,” Crow said.
But what was there to tell? So much ugliness in one little town bordered on all sides by the masses that sold their future to a sideshow barker with one hand around their throat and the other in their pants.
“It was storming the night I took off. Fingers of God they called it. Water poured down and lighting lit up the plain. I’d been working a ten hour shift at the Pretty Kitty and I hurt everywhere. I lived with that big guy. He was a son of a bitch if there ever was one. I got home after working ten hours and that asshole asked me to turn a double. I just lost it. And that knife was just waiting there, stuck in that tree. I threw it at him blade first like he taught me. I’m a sucky shot, though. Got him in the thigh. He balled like a baby.”
“You came to Houston because you didn’t want to turn a trick?” Ming asked.
“A double,” she corrected. “Surely I’ve told you this story.” Of course she told them this story. She told them everything. But they were not really asking, nor were they really there. Like the memories of Seguin, Patience was trapped in the memory of her lovers. The three of them had lived for a time south of the city in a wide duplex. Every day they taught her how to cook and how to work the circuit to trade the drugs for online currency. At night, they taught her how to love. It was never discussed between them, it only came into being as such. When Ming kissed her, Crow kissed her, too. None would have suspected an abnormality since they rarely expressed such emotions freely when others kept their company. Patience often awoke in the middle of the dark night and grabbed hold of her lovers for fear of losing her grip on the fragile existence they built between the single layer sheetrock.
One teardrop multiplied to two. Then the two became four and Patience was a river cresting from the torment of too many nights pent up in silent expectation. Finally free, the weeping tore her insides, ripping all the seams that she had so carefully sewn together.
Patience’s body was racking with more spasms. A youthful man in a tight black suit took notes without noticing her convulsions.
Evasion of Bounty Militia
Failure to Surrender
Possession of Illegal Trafficked Substances
Assault on a Law Enforcer
His stylus stopped in mid-air uncertain if her capture catalogue had any images of her hitting or kicking the enforcers. The stylus scrolled quickly through the frames without success, but he didn’t really need to prove it. She was guilty of more than the list he assumed and continued writing his notes while he waited for her to finish seizing long enough to answer the questions on the screen.
As the convulsion slowed, Patience cleared her mind.
“Never let them take you,” Ming said. Crow was somber, but he understood the implication of the statement. Ming tilted Patience’s head backward and showed her how to conceal the amphetamine pill in a false molar.
Freeing the tiny capsule, Patience bit it hard allowing the foam to fill her mouth and froth visibly. The suit jumped forward yelling in surprise. He switched the table to flip her violently facedown, which dropped her weight forward on the straps. Suspended in the underslung gurney, Patience exhaled deeply allowing the drug to find its way into every part of her head. The table completed the timed rotation bringing her back to position one. With both arms free, she sat straight up grabbing the suit by his tie. She wound it around his shocked face, twirling him faster than he could react. His arms clawed the air as he gasped for oxygen.
Foam soaked the inside of her mouth, so she spit venomously onto the floor. With the strength of the altered stimulant she grabbed his hand, stretching it backwards to the emergency release. As the bonds retracted, the room fell into darkness. Red evac lights backlit the walls, distorting distances and sending radio waves through the room that instantly induced headaches. The suit fell to his knees in pain.
Patience turned towards the glass wall and steeled herself. The wall parted and several uniformed enforcers entered in a triangle formation with guns drawn.
“Larissa Weiss. Go to your knees and place your arms above your head.”
She roared in response as she ran towards the head of the group. The first rubber bullet hit her ribs and glanced off. The second missed easily by several feet. Then she was driving her body into the enforcer with a strength that threw him off balance and into the other two enforcers.
Patience scrambled over their confused bodies and tore barefoot down the long hallway. Alarms began to shriek and doors mechanically locked in quick succession behind her. Riding the drugs in her system she careened around a curve in the hallway finding a set of unlabeled stairs. She took them two at a time and ripped the exit door open to find an enormous concrete room with floor drains spaced every six feet.
As her eyes adjusted she saw the horror hidden in the shadowy edges of the room. More than a dozen cages lined the wall, filled with human bodies that did not look like her. Limbs and faces were indistinguishable, dented, and broken against the bars.
“Patience!” Sonja screamed. Black ribbons of blood were caked around her left ear and mouth. Patience searched for her friend and found her pressed beneath two people, her face swollen unrecognizable. She turned to see the automated attendant switched off by the admission desk.
“It’s by there! Rapida! They sending more carriers.” Sonja was struggling to stand despite the pressure of the other people in the cage. Patience went to the console and used the attendant’s swipe card to open the cages and release the secured service weapon on the desk.
Sonja was ejected forward as people screamed and cried and fought to escape the confines. Patience flew to Sonja’s side and helped her up. Sonja fought her looking around, frantically.
“Mari! Mari!” she wailed above the din. Patience saw the crushing look of sorrow pass her friends’ eyes as she located little Mari, eyes wide open in a lasting plea for help where she suffocated in the back of the cage. Other unfortunate souls were strewn about either crushed in the rush to exit or dead from suffocation in the tiny spaces.
“Sonja, we have to leave now! She’s gone.” Patience pulled her friend’s body along after her. The effects of the drug wouldn’t last much longer and she needed to get them out of the compound. They were the last to get to the exit passage and found it already mechanically locked.
“This way.” Sonja pulled Patience towards another door that went through a storeroom with metal shelves filled with supplies. They found the door in the back that adjoined the office clerk’s quarters and were shocked to find it eerily silent. Patience brought a finger to her lips and Sonja nodded. The two battered women stepped softly down the hallway gaining speed as each inch brought them closer to their freedom. Finally pushing through the door they were welcomed by a sweltering blanket of humid air that always followed the storms. They were still in lower city.
“Oh my god. We just escaped from detention. We have to get as far from here as possible,” Patience said. It was clear her energy was significantly faded and she would soon be nearly immobile with exhaustion from the drug’s effects. A row of trees was deceptively close to the parking complex.
“There,” Sonja said, pointing.
“Where do you two cut bitches think you’re going to escape to?” An enforcer without his mask was advancing towards them. His boxy face had a gleeful smile as he closed the distance quickly. Patience hesitated with the service weapon, remembering it as an afterthought. The enforcer moved to tackle her, but she stepped too quickly for his bulky armor to accommodate. Now Patience had the weapon pointed directly at his exposed face.
“Listen, you two are in some serious trouble. I can help. I’ll tell them that it wasn’t ya’ll. You want me to switch your ID’s? Something easy like trafficking? I can do that. I’m level 5 clearance.”
Patience didn’t know what to do. The stimulants were gone now and she could barely hold the weapon in her exhausted hand. The enforcer could sense her uncertainty.
“You look like a good girl stuck with a bunch of shit from all this street garbage.” He looked at Sonja with an inhumane glare of disgust. “They are the one’s taking your power, girl. We have to fight for the common good of our own country.”
“Shut up,” Patience said. “Sonja, what do we do? They are going to be here any second. We can’t just leave him here. We have to go.”
The day was hazy and still dark with a strangely even light from the trapped solar rays. Sonja did not like their chances of survival, but she knew one thing for certain. She took the weapon from Patience and without a moment of thought shot the enforcer in the cheek. The bean bag at close range knocked him out cold and he fell with a thud to the ground.
Things would never be the same.
NOTE: This is the SIXTH part of a dystopian science fiction novel entitled "Zer0:Emancipation." The 20 chapters will count down every month from 19 to 0. The book centers on the near future in Houston, Texas, after the collapse of the oil industry. Four friends live and struggle together in a shotgun house located in the Fifth Ward. The numerical entity 0 arrives and begins to live with them, eventually revealing itself to be not of this world. Time begins to collide with space, creating holes and paradoxes in reality as the numerical representation of nothing erases everything. Racism, individual identity, and governmental failure are critical themes woven throughout.