Chapter 15 (counting down to 0)
“Most basic premises stem from a set of assumptions because it is very difficult to test a first premise without these assumptions. After an agreement is reached on certain assumptions, an intelligent argument can follow, for then logic and consistency are all that is required to reach a valid conclusion. Tonight I ask you to assume that an external world exists. An external world that exists independently of us.” - Speech at Boston College; Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense and Supreme Commander of the Black Panther Party, November 18, 1970
Ria opened first her green eye then the brown one, adjusting to the light. She was laid out on the floor of a room with pine wood floors and stone walls. It was hard to see where the light was entering, so she sat up.
It was effortless.
Looking down on her body she saw an unfamiliar familiarity in her limbs. She lifted her pant leg and saw the scar from when she fell off a fence some 25 years earlier. These were her legs, her hands, but something felt strange. She was smaller, thinner like she was a decade ago. Without a mirror she could only touch her face and hair to feel the reversal of age. A tear escaped her eyes and she wiped it away angrily. This was her dream. She was not particularly heavy, but every new inch of skin became a mile to cross. Ria would always be beautiful, but the world was not kind to a woman that could not fit into the thin cloth of fantasy. She became her own albatross constantly hating and fighting the part of herself that refused to remember anything but the failure of her conformity. So many emotions flowed through her that she heaved a dry, racking breath and wept.
Ria swept her long black hair to one side and braided it loosely to get it out of her way. It was useless to cry. Somehow she was in this place and it had reversed her age to approximately 19 or 20. It was important that she pull herself together, take note of her surroundings and get back…
To that body.
The thought flashed through her mind and she felt a spasm in her chest. She needed to get home. She needed to figure out what was happening; how she got there. Moving quickly she stood up and went to the only window in the room. It seemed to shrink in size as she approached. Through the small opening she could see a field, neon blue sky, and a thick forest in the distance. Her pulse rapped violently against her veins. There was light and real grass! She turned to see another window, but it also shrank when she drew closer to it. Looking up in frustration she saw wooden beams too high up to reach. There are six sides to every box she remembered. The floorboards looked secure.
“Hello? Is someone there?” She asked out loud. Silence followed. “Why did you bring me here? Where am I?” Silence filled the small room. Ria was not claustrophobic, but something wasn’t right and triggered a sense of urgency. She needed to escape if only to see the outside world that seemed so alluring through the window. Kneeling down she found a sliver of wood with a screw where a nail should be. She felt around her neck for the coin that hung at the end of a silver chain. Pulling hard, it ripped and she stuck the coin in the slot to turn it manually. Little by little, the screw moved, allowing her to leverage the wood floorboard. She dug her fingers under the board painfully and pulled with all her strength. It broke and revealed a subfloor beneath. Frustrated, she threw the nail against the window and realized it didn’t shrink. Testing her theory, she crossed the floor and watched the glass change size as she approached. Quickly, Ria pulled the board up and threw it with all her strength at the glass. It shattered easily and she wasted no time running and leaping through it, praying it wouldn’t close in around her frame.
Rolling, twisting, and falling without the grace of athleticism she came to a stop in a tangle of switchgrass three feet tall. Sunlight warmed her face and she instinctively turned towards it. Her lean, youthful body was enveloped in the clear, clean scent of oxygen and earth telling her that this was not the Earth she knew. She caught her breath and listened intently for the sound of movement or urban life. She felt something. It was fleeting. She turned her ear towards the rustle like an owl pinpointing its prey among the brush. After a few more seconds her eyes shot open to see a coyote standing 30 yards away. It panted slowly, eyeing her movement without much concern. She sat up and the coyote sat down. It was waiting for her, she presumed. Whatever this place was, Ria knew she was not alone.
June 18th 2059
Scale is a delusory and intangible ratio. Equal in one aspect to an exact and quantifiable amount. The other side of which elicits deeply uncertain emotions. A human body standing erect will always be the marker for understanding space in relationship to self. Each roof on a street rises and falls in height dependent on the floors in the house and needs of the inhabitants. Houston, like many cities built out of the collage of time and wealth or lack thereof, managed to mock these tenants soaring and falling in sub-urbane conflict.
“Lynx? Hey….Lynx. Did you find it?”
Lynx heard Dev, but was stationary, glowering back at the fragmented house. Every component felt tenuous. Wood slumped over piers, frames sagged, studs buckled, and the roof captured an explosion in stop motion. Asphalt shingles stretched backwards in an architectural yoga that recalled Havel Ruck art and halted demolition orders. Perhaps the collapse was necessary and this hesitation wouldn’t matter in the end. Like 9/11, the event was only a point remembered as a photograph of an explosion stopped in time. Life crescendoed in a contradiction of both action and existence.
1. A gradual increase in the volume or intensity of sound in a passage.
2. The climactic point or moment after such a progression
“They should be back by now,” said Lynx, finally. Dev popped up from behind the wreckage of his upper city home, hands full of neoprene pipe, hair askew and sleeves rolled up. The ever-threatening sky answered with a crack. Suddenly, unceremoniously, the sky released a deluge of rain. Lynx sprang into action, grabbing the knife and drill he found. “Over here!” He yelled over the sound of thunder, sprinting for the warehouse. The old industrial building was laid out in 12 bays with elevated loading docks. The roll top doors were all locked to the lower hitch and rusted in place. Water quickly began to flow over the parking lot and puddle at the eroded edge between street and lot. In a matter of seconds, Lynx and Dev were drenched to the bone.
At bay 9 Lynx quickly removed the lock he left attached to deter the average passersby. A few months before, Michael and he explored the inside of the distribution center looking for anything they could use to prop up the “east wing” as they liked to call the shotgun that slid up against their house and now remained there as a barnacle. The new friends entered the darkness together and looked out at the mess before them.
“A city is a place of availabilities.” Dev smiled as he shook out his hair. The house shuddered.
Rain would not deter Patience from her goal. Sirens and lights flickered near the front of the club covering the noise of kicking in Noren’s back warehouse doors with her boot. Drones were still buzzing above the roof and surrounding area causing her to slam the door shut behind her. It was almost morning when the drone heat sensors would begin to bug with the spikes from solar radiation. Surely, day was breaking somewhere less vertical than here, she thought. Time is a strange thing. Its passage is marked by places and bodies too distant to touch and counted in increments of decay.
Three fingers closed around a pack of matches in her jacket. It would be a miracle if anything was dry enough to light, but she might find something. It was imperative she remain positive or at least focused on all possible options. In a few minutes the whole compound would be sealed and she wouldn’t be able to get back to the bikes or to the house.
The air had a stench of ripe chemicals improperly stored and long since forgotten. Outside a crash of thunder was followed by lightning that brightened the warehouse through the clearstory glass for a brief moment. It was enough for her to see the unmistakable form of Isaak three yards away watching her stumble in the dark. Each of his irises was tinted red by night ray contacts that no doubt illuminated the room in a rainbow of heat radiating shapes. His hands were slipped loosely inside his pockets. Gendered fashion slowly tightened around the female form eliminating pockets to carry things like identification, money, and weapons. Men’s fashion retained space in their clothing and the power of his stance was not lost on his prey. Isaak had a place for his weapons.
“You should feel lucky to escape that mess in there.” He snorted. Patience couldn’t hear or see him, but she couldn’t risk lighting the few matches she had. “Truly, I didn’t think Noren would give it to you. On credit, no less.” Isaak’s voice was further left and closer. Patience couldn’t see him in the dark, but his slippery voice was too close. Tiny hairs on her arms stood on end.
“Did she send you to make sure I didn’t get lost?”
“Something like that,” he whispered. “To be fair, she cares very little for you, Patience. It’s about product. She sent me to find out why you need a category 1 systemic pesticide.”
“That’s not why you’re here,” Patience tested. The longer she kept him talking the more distracted he would be. She felt for the edges of the boxes with the toe of her boot.
“You didn’t ask why I was here. In fact, Patience, you test me.”
“Do I?” She kept her reply short to force him to talk. It didn’t work and a hot, wet silence enveloped them. Her mind raced forward. If I could see my prey and they were standing still…
He’s behind you
Patience squatted down at that exact moment that Isaak leapt from behind. She heard his grunt upon hitting the floor and knew she had only three seconds before he would be up and back on her. She scaled several boxes nimbly and jumped to the top of a storage barrel.
“You’re wily, pussycat,” Isaak oozed, not bothering to hide his excitement. From her perch, Patience located the containers of anthrocelyn on the opposite end from where she’d entered. Between her and the liters of chemicals stood Isaak moving panther slow in the darkness. Her only option was to get higher. Above her another five feet was the bottom of an underhung bridge crane mottled with peeling yellow paint. She jumped as quietly as she could, throwing her body upwards to the crane’s arm. She pushed and pulled knocking the box out from underneath her in the process. Isaak looked up and immediately began searching for possible tools to pull her down.
“How much longer do I seek you, house by house, door to door?” Isaak called out in an uncharacteristically singsong voice that chilled her blood.
“Is that what it’s come to, Isaak? You have to quote someone else because you have nothing left to annoy me with.” Patience swung her torso up with agile grace, but bruised her ribs along the way. She straddled the crane and paused to let her eyes adjust to the ground far below.
“What else is there is to say except the self-reflexive reveries of others? No one has original post-millennial thoughts. Think about it. Every word, poem, and film catalogued and accessible on the internet. We were born to be replicas…speaking in pantomimed emoticons.” Isaak was stalling. Patience balanced carefully along the beam and began to walk across the 10” wide steel rail. Placing each foot one in front of the other, she concentrated on the motion. She glanced down and her chest constricted. Involuntarily, her core started shaking in terror. Below, Isaak continued his nonsense about modern paradigms of communication.
I will not die here. I will not let him touch me. I will not die here. I will not let him touch me.
Patience chanted in her mind the only words she could think. Perhaps that was all he wanted: a way to demonstrate his power. It could be over if she just let him have whatever he wanted. It was insane and she knew it. As with all brushes with death, her mind sought viable roads to survival, even if it could kill her soul. She was almost to the other edge now, but there was nothing from which to climb down. Her eyes swept the darkness until she focused on the crane. It appear stopped in mid-motion over 100 years before. If she could get over the bulk of the machinery at the top and slide down the rusted shaft she could jump the last ten feet. By the time she would get to the bottom, it would be a sprint to the chemicals and all that was assuming she would be able to do it fast enough to evade Isaak. Playing it over in her head, Patience knew that it wouldn’t be enough time, but there was no other option.
She jolted into awareness that the room was filled with silence. He was probably waiting below, but she had to take her chance. Patience stepped the last three steps on the rail quickly throwing her balance forward before squatting down to hug a large square metal box. She swung her lower torso around the front and gently let her arms lower her to the chain. Wrapping her legs around the rusted mass she let go above and came crashing down much faster than anticipated. Something caught her skin and ripped flesh on her forearm and chest. Patience hit the ground in a pile and took no time to check if she was truly injured. She popped up, shooting towards the chemicals.
I can…Maybe I can….
Isaak’s body slammed her mercilessly, checking her small frame into a stack of wooden pallets. He pulled her, flipped her around, and cracked her nose on the pallets. Patience smelled the stink of mold, rubber, and blood.
“Think for a moment, that you are me. What do you think you would want in this situation?” He whispered in her ear.
“I imagine you want the only thing your filthy, pathetic self can’t get without force.” She snorted spitting blood from her nose on the ground. Outside the storm whipped up, forcing him to scream above it.
“Funny, you think I’m the one who is dirty when you’re the one I found in a rat hole in Seguin! You danced for me then, you don’t want to dance for me now?” Holding her hostage with one hand, he slid the other inside her thin shirt.
“You,” Patience struggled, “Never get to talk to me about Seguin.” She butted her head back, surprising him to drop his hands. She dove to the side and grabbed a handful of whatever dirt or grime she could palm and threw it into his face.
“Make up your mind, Isaak. You want to rape me or kill me or are both actions the same to you?” He scrambled to rub his eyes and clear the contacts of dirt. Seizing the opportunity, she leaned into the pallets, pushing with an inhuman, rage-filled strength. After the initial momentum shifted, the whole stack toppled down on him. Isaak wailed in surprise, then stopped. Patience came back around and saw one hand sticking out from the scattered pile. She felt for a pulse, but couldn’t find one. She wasn’t exactly a doctor. He viciously seized her by the wrist, and pulled her to the ground. Patience kicked the edge, making him cry out.
“Shit, you’re alive,” she said, standing up. She picked up two liter packs of anthrocelyn and started to leave, before continuing, “Save your energy. Men worse than you tried to steal from me.”
“You’re…stealing.” Isaak was barely audible above the storm.
“Now, that is one thing I did learn in Seguin,” she said, “Everything is mine when I take it.”
It was over an hour since the storm started and the streets were deep with water. Lynx hadn’t seen torrential rain like this in several years, but that didn’t set it apart as particularly interesting. Dev, however, was mesmerized.
“This is quite biblical,” he said, tossing an old nail into the water.
“How’s that?” Lynx said from his perch on the edge of a scissor lift. He gave off an air of ambivalence that masked his fearful thoughts about Ria.
“You can’t tell me this is a normal meteorological event, Lynx.”
“Depends on what you call ‘normal’.”
“Your friends might be waiting for the storm to stop.”
“Dev, down here, we don’t wait on rain to do nothin’.” Referencing the lower city, Lynx noted an immediate change in Dev’s demeanor. He became self-conscious and shy.
“I’m sorry Lynx. I didn’t really--”
“Don’t worry about it, Dev. We’re not ashamed to live here.”
Dev joined him on the scissor lift and for a while they listened to the storm in silence.
“You must think we’re awful,” Dev finally said.
“What? You and all those people hiding in the sky?” Lynx looked sideways at Dev before breaking into a grin. “Ya’ll not all bad. I guess it would be pretty limiting if I thought ya’ll were all the same.”
“I appreciate that. I suppose I’ve always used science to distance myself from a more critical analysis of the social stratification between upper and lower city. My work was always for the success of humanity, not an individual group.”
“Well, somebody’s gotta keep ya’ll from burnin’ down the ranch.” Lynx laughed at the confusion on Dev’s face. They heard a distant motor cut through the rain. Jumping down, they ran to the door and saw Patience speeding down the road, spraying a fountain of water as she cut through. She lost control suddenly and half jumped and half fell off the bike as it skidded to a stop on its side. Lynx and Dev ran through the flooded parking lot to greet her.
Lightning lit up the sky with thunder fast behind it. As they got closer, they saw that one of her eyes was swollen and blood ran out from her nose and several wounds on her hands. The left side of her shirt was ripped open, exposing her chest, but she didn’t seem to notice or care.
“What happened to you?!” Lynx asked. He wanted to reach out and comfort her, but knew in her current state that would be as helpful as cuddling a king cobra. Patience ran to the bike and ripped open the seat compartment.
“You’re bleeding,” Dev said, indifferent to the obviousness of his statement out of fear and confusion. She snarled an unintelligible response and pulled out a liter of anthrocelyn.
“This is all I could get. You have to do it now!” she yelled, thrusting the chemical towards Dev.
“Bring it to that window by the back wall that’s splitting,” Dev called over his shoulder, racing back to the warehouse. “I’ve got something to…” His voice was lost in the furious wind and sheets of rain.
“What the hell is this, Patience?”
“I dunno, Lynx, a hurricane? Do I look like a weatherman?”
“I meant what happened to you? Where is Sonja and Michael?”
“We got separated. I…I just had to get back with that stuff.” She was shaking visibly, despite the humidity in the air. Lynx looked down at the bike.
“That’s not your bike.”
“It is now,” she replied, coldly. Lynx didn’t really want to know what happened, but he also wanted to help.
“Your shirt,” he said, gently. For the first time, she looked down to see herself hanging out of her shirt. She zipped up her leather jacket matter-of-factly, without saying a word. Dev scurried back, running past them towards the house.
“What are you two waiting for?! The queen’s guard?!” Springing to action, they all converged at the structure. Dev twisted an auger with two long metal spades attached to the spur. They were tethered by metal zip ties attached to an open clamp on the shank. He stopped for a moment and Lynx made quick work of the rest. It was buried up to the neck in the ground. Dev dug into the ground searching for the clamp and released it. “The spades will make a little space, we need to just pour it directly if that’s all you’ve got. It’s the best shot for taking out the central root system.”
Patience didn’t hesitate. She clipped the cap safety and dumped it down the hole.
“Be careful, I think it’s a cancer-carrying agent,” Dev cautioned.
“Everything gives ya cancer.” Patience responded. The rain abruptly stopped and they all turned to look at the neon rails above.
“Damn, that’s strange,” Lynx said.
“I’ve seen stranger things,” Dev replied. He lost his balance for a second, but regained it. “How odd I didn’t think there were faults.” The earth slid out from under him, opening up a wide mouth to swallow him whole. Lynx reacted, pushing patience away from the sinkhole, and falling flat on his stomach. He crawled on his belly to the edge and looked over. Dev was lying flat on his back in a narrow shaft.
“Dev! Hey! You okay! DEV!” Lynx yelled down to him. It was easily a 15’ drop. Patience wiggled over the edge, as well.
“Hey science guy, you okay?” she called out.
“I’m an architect,” Dev called, feebly.
“He’s alive.” Patience stood up and walked away from the edge.
“I think you almost bought it. Anything broken?” Lynx was smiling, despite the situation. In a short period of time he felt close to Dev. In another life he would have liked to pursue a path of design and engineering; learning and expanding his knowledge a little bit more every day.
‘You can wish in one hand,’ his mother said.
‘I wasn’t asking your permission,’ Lynx commented back.
‘Weren’t you, though?’ she shot back. ‘You go off and make decisions like it doesn’t reflect back on us.
‘On who, momma! You and me? Or are you referring to how I have to personally represent every black man that got sold to this country?’ His anger would only stoke the fire in his mother’s heart. She longed for her only son to fight, be a fighter she would tell him when he was little. No one is ashamed of a warrior.
“I’m okay, I think. I got the wind knocked out of me. What happened?”
“I think you fell into a sinkhole, brother. Let me find some rope or something.”
Dev sat up and surveyed the new environment. The sinkhole was wider at the top and narrower at the bottom. He inventoried his aches and pains, and found no significant damage beyond his tailbone. He contemplated the inefficiency of evolution, but quickly filed the thought away for later. To his left he saw the hard corner of grey concrete.
“You have to be kidding me,” he murmured to himself. “Lynx! Very scary friend of Lynx’s!” he called out. Their heads appeared above him with a halo of neon blue from the rails beyond. “I found something.”
“What is it?” Patience was still agitated and jumpy.
“It’s a tunnel.” Dev smiled. Lynx looked confused.
“Why is there a tunnel in flood country? And why is it under our house?”
“That is an excellent set of questions, Lynx. Uh….We built it.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“Well, we designed it really. Architects rarely build their work, but even then an engineer could...”
“Dev, who is ‘we’?”
“National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I was recruited out of school. I’ve never worked anywhere else,” he said.
“I got to tell you, boss, there is nothing space worthy under clutch city.” Patience half smiled for the first time and walked away again. Lynx was fascinated.
“So where do the tunnels lead? Why would NASA be interested in stuff grounded in the earth?”
“That’s a level 5 clearance, my friend. But I tell you what, since I’m stuck in this hole and I could sincerely use some help, I’ll tell you what I know. We were tasked with designing tunnels that would house facilities for isolated agricultural research. It leads to the Biopark.”
“What was the research?”
“Fungus, mostly. Two strains pleurotus ostreatus and some others that were spliced. I think I read. We were developing super varieties that could essentially eat waste plastic humans are bringing to the space stations. If I can get into the tunnel I can take it to the biopark and you can meet me there. We should find some answers there about this beanstalk.”
Patience re-appeared and threw a shovel, pick, book of matches, and the auger down next to him.
“I anticipated. If you see the roots start hacking.” Sirens filled the air and the sound of drone wings swept overhead. Patience looked panic stricken. “Lynx! You have to hide. I can’t explain it now! You too, scientist. Get out of site till they pass.” Lynx grabbed her hand before she took off again.
“Patience, what’s going on? I can help you.”
“There’s no time to explain now. Just hide.” She shook off his grasp and ran to the fallen bike she took off the battery cell. She shook it and re-seated it.
“Patience! How do I find you,” he yelled over the growing din.
“It will be okay, Lynx. They’re coming for me.” She sped off without a second glance.
“Lynx!” Dev called. “Meet me at 1340 Alaska street. It’s off Old Galveston Road.”
“What? Where is that?” The sirens were getting incredibly loud, forcing Lynx to shout.
“1-3-4-0 Alaska. Just go there. His name is Dr. Seff Nazari. He can help us. I’ll meet you there through the tunnel.” Dev grabbed the provisions and disappeared further into the sinkhole. Alone, Lynx realized exactly what was going to happen if he stayed to greet the enforcers. He wasn’t ready to die.
NOTE: This is the FIFTH 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.