Chapter 16 (Counting down to 0)
They stood there, sucking in the sweat, dirt, and crash particles through flared nostrils; each man equidistant from the biological anomaly. The bayou at night, disturbed from its routine, now hummed with life. Dragonflies trembled, toads trilled, and owls hungry for survival prowled the shadows. Texas enjoyed both the allure and the reality of its reputation; harsh, unforgiving, and wild. Everyone that grew up along the edges of urban development knew just how thin the line between enchanting and terrifying really was. Some called it God's country. Others, the Devil's yard.
Patience and Sonja joined the guys standing farther back. It took one of them. A man couldn't understand on that level. Their kinship was locked in the shared, unspoken memories of too many big hands stroking skin that wasn't theirs. No one spoke for a moment. Sounds of the splitting oak branches filled the gap and created a staccato rhythm they unconsciously assimilated into the urban symphony.
"It's infinite," Dev said finally.
"No," Sonja replied. "Everything begin and everything end."
"I'm sorry, I meant the definitions. The rules. I'm Dev." He took a step forward and extended his hand to shake. Sonja looked him over before taking it with her own. At 5ft 10inches he appeared less threatening and had a wild energy about him that reminded her of Michael. Dev was a man of rare curiosity and he wore it openly.
"I am Sonja. This is Patience."
"What rules?" Patience asked narrowing her blue-green eyes slightly. Dev looked back at the oak disappearing inside his head for a moment.
"It's possible to build a mathematical model according to the regular pattern of how the height of the tree is proportional to its growth rate, but portions of the model would be dependent on assumptions pertaining to known tree heights and a myriad of factors."
"Myriad, like many?" Michael asked.
"Well," Dev started, "Environmental factors. I could quantify them in a normal plant, but this." He said indicating the massive trunk with his long fingers. "This is beyond what we have documented in our history. The data for this type of model isn't downloadable because it hasn't been observed."
"I thought an architect's training was in design not biology." Michael was growing uninterested and beginning to peel apart the substrate on a piece of fiberglass. These parts were useful and he was already constructing ways to utilize it.
"Math's a hobby, but we all have to know a great deal about biological systems for extreme habitation."
Lynx longed to be in that room with Ria. She was in there alone and he felt responsible. He was standing the closest to her. He could have grabbed her, he could have gone in. For the millionth time in Lynx's 34 years he watched as something happened around him that he couldn't or wouldn't participate in. Ria could find a whisper in a whirlwind. The fact that she refused to leave the house seemed less out of fear than out of knowledge that she'd plowed a long enough row. Lynx heard her crying in her room sometimes. He wanted to catch each drop of water and pin it to the wall. Show her in some way that her pain was real, catalogued, finite and not endless. That was perhaps why she remained so elusive to him. Her tears continued to water the floor and flood his mind.
"I'm going to get Ria," Lynx said softly. His statement instantly exposed everyone's fear of the unknown entity. Everyone except Dev, who looked from one to the other in confusion.
"What is it? Was she down here when I fell?"
"No. Not like that. Ria's…"Patience trailed off searching for the words to describe It. Sonja furrowed her brow and looked down at her only pair of sandals now thick with coastal mud.
"Michael," she pushed.
"She's in there. In the tree. In the room. We don't know." Michael sighed.
"I don't know what's in there, but I saw it," Lynx countered. "Don't act like whatever it was…didn't just lock here inside that room."
"What was it, animal?" Dev asked.
"It talked," Patience said, her voice dropping to a shaky pitch.
"You're kidding!" Dev's face was half grin and half open-mouthed surprise. His question hung between them in the thick night connecting tenuous thoughts. "Tell me from the beginning."
"We're wasting time." Lynx rumbled on the verge of something akin to anger.
Michael made a sound with his throat indicating his frustration. "So what? What should we do, Lynx?" He pressed the familiar bruise of Lynx's indecision in the intimate way only brothers can. It was hurtful but effective and Lynx deflated slightly staring up at the tree. Sonja stepped forward and placed a hand on Michael's arm, calming him instantly.
"I tooked Michael to the Biopark tonight. Just to see that the new vines coming in from the bayou. But when we get there, something eat through the rope. Something very big. Maybe alligator. We don't know." Sonja picked up English on the road and like her heart, the scars left marks that most people noticed but never mentioned.
"Those are delicate systems. Did you go inside?" Dev asked. Sonja and Michael shared a look. "Of course you went inside. What then? What was it like? Did you see It?" Dev couldn't hide his excitement. He knew there were entrances to the remediation park because he worked on them right after graduating. They were miles away and built only for the team of engineers to enter. He often wondered what it was like and wished he had time to study biological science more.
"Then we find a plant moving," she continued.
"Vibrating," Michael clarified.
"Yes. But is the only one. So I tooked a leaf to compare in the journal of my mother."
"We brought it here. I mean, when we got home. It was like the whole house was vibrating. Everything just shimmied. That's when Lynx got here and It just came out of Ria's room." Michael finished the story.
"It's hard to describe. We were just in this moment when everything stopped. And this thing," Lynx whispered, "grew through the house and pulled Ria into the room with It."
Dev was thoughtful for a second. "I'm not saying I'm an expert, but I've read studies from the end of the last century to now that imply plants can in a way have cognitive responses to stimuli. They release toxins to protect themselves as a chemical defense. Tree groups like those in forests are connected through underground mycorrhizal networks. They send each other nutrients to protect the strength of the whole group."
Historically speaking, there were numerous outlier events marking a step closer to the end of sustainable life. The heat of 0-31 scorched the ground drying up lakes and tributaries. Fires on the west coast of the United States charred the cities and rural zones alike pushing predator species into the urban centers. Wildlife everywhere was thirsty. Detroit and Chicago seceded from their states and effectively the US, while the US-Mexican border fell to the militias. By the mid 0-40's the public was desperate to find answers in space technology but the increased pressure only heightened the frequency of explosions and accidents among the private sector programs. No one expected Orbital Sciences to succeed, but after quietly joining with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration they left Houston for a facility 2 klicks off the shore of New Caracas.
They needed it. Humans needed space. The wealthy were nervous.
Everyone hoped there was a better life somewhere off this slow cooking rock. Dev was not Texan but having grown up during the romantic dystopia era dreamed of being the one to make living in space a reality. Beginning in his youth as a lunar scout leader and taking him all the way to his post-graduate studies in cybernetic housing modules at the University of Houston, Dev was uncommonly curious and privileged enough to pursue his dreams. Astronauts were living on stations in the habitable zone already. It was 0-52 when Dr. Aibek Reyes launched the first GEB mission to the Lyra constellation in search of the planet Keplar-62f. They would land some 1200 light years from Earth, but it would take 8 years to arrive and reconnect with the intermediary stations orbiting Mars. The world waited and died.
"We have to go after Ria," Lynx said more strongly than before.
"Right. If this entity is biological as you suggest," Dev began, "We will need a way to disconnect its root network from the other plants and then cut it off from a food source. That's first. Then we can figure out how to free your friend if she's in It or not."
"She's in It," Lynx stated.
"How do we cut its roots?" Michael asked.
"We don't. We feed it." The group looked at Patience who stood apart from them. Her bone-thin frame was clad in leather and ripped black denim.
"What do you mean, Patience?" Lynx asked.
"Poison," she said. "We choke it with poison."
"We can't just dump a few cans of Raid on it." Michael countered.
"No, she's right." Dev added. "It doesn't have to be poison. Just something it doesn't like. What do you have down here?" He began scanning the area as though a poison food truck was parked on the corner nearby.
"I'll go to Noctsuoh. They have something I can use." Patience sucked in her breath. She disliked going to see her boss. Unlike the bohemian entertainment venue downtown that was a well-known den for artists, Noctsuoh in 2nd ward was a den of a different kind. "I'll need water." Her words hung in the air uneasily.
"I have water in the pod," Dev offered. Inside the padded teal walls he retrieved two rubber pouches filled with liquid.
"Are you sure you don't need it?" Patience asked, packing the gift into her backpack.
"I know a place I can get more. It's far but it's in lower city." He shrugged.
"Patience, Michael, and I goes too." Sonja knew what credit meant and didn't want Patience to have to pay more than water if she didn't have to.
"Fine. But watch your mouth, Prince. The only one who will suffer is me." Michael rolled his eyes and went to the shed to unlatch their motorbike.
"What do we do?" Lynx asked no one in particular.
"We build a delivery system," Dev replied, rolling back his shirt sleeves.
Morning was coming, but the clouds meant it wouldn't be dawn for several hours, yet. Patience rode in front of Michael and Sonja. Her bike was faster. Crossing the onramp and heading up the incline that would bring them over the bayou brought a spectacular view of the downtown skyscrapers woven together by the skyrail's blueish haze. Turn of the new century cars lay abandoned in the road wherever the fuel dried up creating an obstacle course that was now a common system of transit. Some areas were so cluttered that they formed ramps over and around the metal dinosaurs. Newer model cars were lined up neatly in the car parks along the highway waiting for the daylight to absorb what little solar energy filtered through the city above.
City planners didn't foresee the darkness brought by building above the city. Every year there were renewed calls for the mayor to create sun slots in the built pads above, but no one really cared that much and the debate about water rights between the upper and lower city was more pressing. The motorbikes cruised down Navigation through the townhomes and hotels. Just past the logistics shipping site the city milieu abruptly ended revealing 1 story bungalows, row houses and steel factories. Noctsuoh was off N. York street in the remains of a fan manufacturing complex. Though renovated, it hardly qualified as ‘adaptive reuse'. Mechanical parts still held court in various stages of rust around the entry yard and sharp metal pieces shimmered in the mud.
They parked the motorbikes, removed the power cells and stuck them in the tall prairie grass in the field across the street. A drone of syncopated dance music permeated the air skipping once or twice every few seconds. Two gargoyles sat outside at a makeshift table ashing cigarettes and cleaning guns. One of them was chewing a piece of something that might have been the last person who tried to enter the compound. Unimpressed, Patience flashed a smile.
"Tell Isaak 2276 is here."
"Scan them, Grey." The bouncer indicated to his partner.
"No. I'm not wearing my eyepiece," Patience said. "Tell Isaak 2276 is here." The bouncer rolled his eyes, but made no move to argue. He was distracted now by a couple of girls in painted clothes that were hanging drunkenly out of an open window.
The bouncer spoke into his wireless mic. After a pause he indicated that Michael and Sonja should step aside to wait. A group of girls came up readily sticking their necks out to be scanned. It took only a few seconds for them to eye scan, pay with their implanted credit card numbers and then flounce inside.
"It's too bad the system can't keep track of who's going to drug those idiots tonight," Michael said under his breath.
"Well, if they're lucky it will be me." One of the big men drawled and turned back to the girls in the window. "That okay with you? I'm going to come up there and drug the shit out of you." The girls smiled back and blew kisses to the two men. Michael burned inside. He could feel Sonja's small hand in his, but it only made him angrier and more ashamed that he brought her there. In his gut he knew he needed to protect Patience even if she acted like a wildcat, but this wasn't a place Sonja was safe. It was the stress of worrying about finding a way to protect them both that made him anxious. A needle of fear quickly followed, pricking his mind. He loved Sonja with every part of himself and knew that he could kill if he needed to. What if she had to go back? He would die. There was no way they would make it past the militia or the wall.
Isaak stepped outside, lighting a green sage scented cigarette. He wrinkled his nose at the stench of plastic and looked over to the factory down the road. Bathed in blue light he made a hawkish Elvis. After a long drag on the cigarette, he turned his attention on Patience.
"I know you think my industry is entertaining but you're misinformed, Patience. It is entertainment. Must you insist on using inane code names every time you come here?"
Patience stood with her legs apart, taking up space. She stepped forward and took the cigarette from his mouth, dragging deeply. When she exhaled she said, "If you didn't keep changing your help I wouldn't have to play so many games. They'd remember me."
"You are hard to forget." This was not a compliment, but Patience mockingly curtsied anyways. "Why did you bring them?" Isaak didn't bother looking at Michael or Sonja when he said this. They were nothing to him and he made sure they knew that. Without waiting for a response, he turned his attention on the bouncers. He spoke in quiet Arabic and they both went back to cleaning the guns. "There are more Spanish speakers than any other language in the world yet I can't get security that speaks anything other than Arabic and English. Goddamn wars." He muttered the last part and spit in the dirt. He turned quickly and strode back through the courtyard to the door with Patience, Michael and Sonja following. Before opening the door, he turned and looked at Patience, intensely.
"Noren wants to see you." He started to open the door and Patience slammed it shut from behind him. Her hands still on the door, she held his glare.
"They are my friends. You mess with them, I have trouble cooking. Are we clear?"
Isaak looked at Michael and Sonja for the first time. He said something in Arabic.
"Bukra inshallah," Michael replied, visibly annoyed at the man's acknowledgement of his lineage.
Isaak smiled and stroked Patience's arm, jerking it free from the door. "See, everybody's fine."
Passing unscathed into the cold dark enclave of the factory, Michael, Sonja and Patience waited for their eyes to adjust. In front of them opened a large clear dance floor reflecting light off an enormous aquarium hanging above. Numerous types of tropical fish and sea life swam around a giant Barracuda that was suspiciously at ease in the clear water. Her cold emotionless eyes crossed in patterns through the room.
Sonja followed Patience through the dark interior side stepping boxes, art installations and pool tables propped up by barrels. Near the back of the open floor, a steel spiral staircase led up to a catwalk that disappeared above the tank. At the bottom of the stairs Isaak let Patience go first then turned to block Michael and Sonja.
"She's fine. She just needs to talk to Noren," Isaak purred, "then she'll be back down."
"I'll be back in 30 minutes." Patience said beginning to ascend to the office she knew far too well. Patience strode down the catwalk ignoring the tank below and pushed the office door.
"29 minutes," Sonja said.
The office loft was a box within a box. The interior chamber further insulated the music below and contained three neat rows of paper-thin screens. Each screen played different areas of the main floor and a few rooms that Patience didn't recognize. She stuck her finger inside the box on the wall and let it prick her for a blood sample.
"Patience Unknown," The electronic voice read. She smiled slightly, then entered the office. Inside it was modern in contrast to the frenetic industrial playground of the club. A tall, elegant woman lay stretched out on a white couch, her feet propped on a pillow. Each manicured nail was painted a precise blood red. Her black hair was cropped short, accentuating her equine face and the cut of the gold dress that hung loose around her breasts. She moved lazily, like a sleepy lion.
"Good morning," Patience said as she entered. Noren, the owner of Noctsuoh, sat behind a vintage Eames desk. Young at 48, she had a sullen look that drew her nose down to her chin as though it were moored there.
"I abhor unannounced visits, my love," Noren said, closing the screens in front of her. Isaak entered and crossed to the woman on the couch. He whispered in her ear, and picked up her abandoned heels from the floor in a move that was more pejorative than helpful. He guided her barefoot to the door, letting his hand slip down the inside of her dress to stroke her skin before escorting her out. The door locked with a soft whirring of keyed entries.
"Are you well?" Noren asked, getting up and moving her muscular body to the couch. She moved lightly but her strength was obvious.
"Of course. Why?" Patience asked, sitting opposite her in a sleek chair.
"You're thinner than usual. Don't you think, Isaak?"
"She always looks wain. I've tried to take her to dinner. She refuses me." He smiled coyly.
"Mmmm. Not many refuse Isaak. I can't say I'm shocked though. Your dance card is a bit full these days, isn't it?"
Patience's heartrate picked up and she flushed a deep shade of red. "I will let you know when my dance card will be of concern to you, Noren." She narrowed her eyes and dropped her voice. "While I always enjoy these visits to your little shop of horrors, I am actually here about business."
"Well, I should hope so," Noren drawled. "Otherwise I would be forced to remind you of the rules we laid out when I brought you into this little shop."
"Noren, I'm just a cook. You can have any cook in Houston, but you want what I'm selling. Listen, I'm not going to sit here and drag this out. I came because I need anthrocelyn. I can pay for it."
Her boss sat silent for a moment, enjoying the uncomfortable position Patience was now in.
"What do you want with that? You don't use Schedule 1 drugs in your recipe." Noren pulled out a vapor cigarette from a small leather box on the table between them and turned it on. "And what would make you think, that I could get that for you?"
Patience was dreading this question, but she knew it was inevitable. "I know you have it because I saw you unloading it a few months ago off the ship channel. I'm not stupid. A shipment ‘exploded' off shore but strangely no news cycles picked it up." Patience rushed on. "I don't care. I only need a liter. I brought 2 liters of water and I'm good for the rest." The silence filled the office. Isaak crossed the room and sat on the arm of the couch to look Patience in the face with a calculating stare.
"Good….for the rest…" Noren said slowly, rolling the words around on her tongue.
She carefully placed her vapor cigarette down and rose from the couch. A thin wisp of smoke poured from her nose. She walked until she stood frighteningly close, but Patience didn't flinch or look up. Any sign of weakness now would be the end of the deal and possibly the end of her business as a cook. Noren slid down to the ground, kneeling in front of her in a demure move that threw Patience off balance. She ran her hands up Patience's legs to her waist before violently pulling her down while Isaak removed the chair out from under her. He had her arms pinned before Patience knew what was happening and Noren was straddling her torso with her fingers curled around her throat.
"Do not forget, Patience, that I can take everything away from you in a heartbeat. You are nothing to me but an employee and a source of mild entertainment. Isaak, take her to Building 4 and give her what she wants. I will take my payment when I want it," she hissed, releasing Patience. Bruises were already forming around her pale neck as she sat up and got to her feet. Isaak grabbed her by the back of her jacket and pushed her back towards the door. As he unlocked it he whispered, "Whether you like it or not, we are all in the entertainment business Patience."
Noctsuoh was not large in scale, but its layout made a labyrinth. The bar was placed deep inside the structure where exits were all blocked by boxes. The bartender wore a tight corset and leather leggings. Her Viking braids were lifted in a storm of purple snakes that spilled down her back. Michael and Sonja kept to the edge away from others and were noticeably not intoxicated.
"I haven't seen you in here before," the bartender said leaning her chest onto the counter.
"Well, we are hard to tell apart," Michael deadpanned, turning his back on her and leaning on the bar. Stunned by his lack of interest, she flashed a quick glance in the mirror. All around them, sweat glittering like diamonds, bodies swayed and danced out of rhythm.
Through the music, he heard his name. He turned to see a blonde man with worn fingers and forgotten muscles in a torn tee shirt pointing to his knockoff wrist scanner. "It's right there. You already scanned me." The corseted bartender went to figure out what was wrong with his account and stopped to wipe up a clear liquid on the counter.
"I don't like it here," Michael whispered in Sonja's ear.
"We not leave Patience." Sonja was afraid for her acerbic friend. Patience had a strong front, but Sonja understood what it was like to have to pretend in order to survive. Coming up from La Fronterra, she pretended to not need sleep, to not be hungry and thirsty, and to not be in love with a man who kept a shotgun between them on a long dark truck ride from nowhere to here.
"I wouldn't leave her. I just don't like this place. Lower city trash putting on airs and slipping into comas." Michael was just winding up, his anxiety registered in his shifting movements. The bartender was getting heated with the man in the torn tee shirt. He reached over the bar and grabbed her arm, slamming it onto the hard surface between them. Michael jerked to attention.
"Lay off, man. Nobody needs your agro shit here."
"What business is it of yours?" The guy said tightening his grip on the bartender.
"It's your funeral. Security is going to eat you for lunch." Michael shrugged. He honestly didn't
care what happened to the guy and the bartender was probably used to it. She chose to work there, after all. He thought to himself.
"Let's go wait in frente," Sonja said more authoritatively than she felt. She began walking through the dance floor knowing that Michael would follow. He was protective in a way she didn't understand, but appreciated on some levels. After fighting her whole life just to survive at any cost it felt good to know that there was one more line of defense before she would be eaten by the system; or eaten. Either way.
Once outside, the air enveloped them in a wet cloud of oily heat. It was going to rain hard despite the sunrise.
"You okay?" Sonja asked, searching Michael's face for an ease she didn't find.
"I don't even know why I bother. She probably has losers like that bothering her 20 times a day.
"Is not right," Sonja stated plainly.
"No. But what difference does it make. Those thugs will throw him out."
Right on cue, the main doors opened and spilled a group of people out into the yard. The blond man was pushed out with several similarly dressed guys who circled with agitation around one another. For the first time Michael really looked at the man. They were around the same age, but the man was broader in the shoulders and had a paunch around the middle. Rain began to fall in a sheet that only served to heighten the anxiety of the moment.
"The hell you mean by that?" One of the men yelled, stepping in front of a security guard.
"You don't even look at her," another security person said, pointing back at the bartender who was in the doorway. A new sample track geared up to a fast beat that drowned the rest of the voices to a dull hum. Sonja could feel the hair on her neck stand on end. This was not a typical day, but the danger was familiar. Thunder cracked the sky at the same moment that someone pushed the bartender from behind. She fell awkwardly to the mud, her corset preventing her from moving to protect herself. First one of the men pounced on her, then another. It was only seconds later that the lightning illuminated the yard and all hell broke loose.
"Help!" The bartender screamed. Men pawed at her ripping her free from her top. The security guards grabbed her like a doll and tossed her behind them back into the club while beating the men and tazing them.
"I want to check for her," Sonja said, stepping away from the safe distance between the ruckus and their spot under the long awning.
"Like hell." Michael grabbed her arm, lightly. She forcefully shook herself free.
"No! I want to check. I want to get Patience." Sonja was electrified with adrenaline.
"You can't go back in there. They are going to…" Michael didn't finish his sentence before the sound of sirens drowned him out. Michael and Sonja knew what that meant and without another word they both sprinted for the side yard where they jumped crates and metal to soar over the 8' fence to the relative darkness of the street. Sonja stopped for a split, second looking into Michael's eyes.
"Stay in place," the siren voice intoned from the drone above. "All those that run will be prosecuted for evasion of law enforcement."
"You're not registered and I have no scanner," he said, beginning to run down the street. "We have to go." When he looked back and saw Sonja standing alone at the fence he jogged back to her. "This was always a possibility. She's on her own now."
NOTE: This is the FOURTH 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.
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