The dirty, dystopian future of cyberpunk writers is quite popular now. But if the future ends up looking more like Leave it to Beaver than Neuromancer, should we consider ourselves lucky or cursed?
Jeez. Finally. As I enter the white room alone, three short, uniformed men display practiced grins, gleaming straight teeth framed by dark, oily skin. My luggage has preceded me, and lies apparently unopened on the plastic table -- the only furniture. Two video cameras glare ostentatiously from the eaves like Poe's ravens.
"Anything to declare?" One agent opens my suitcase and deftly upends the contents on the table. The next employs a metal detector like a kitchen tool, stirring my egg white socks and flipping my sausages. A similar metal detector was needed to eliminate the threat of the brass rivets on my 501's when I wasn't able to pass the walk- thru test a second time.
"Are you taking any prescription medications?" Another agent devours my overnight bag, snorting my talc, drinking my shampoo, chewing my aspirin, and gnawing my hairbrush. Finally, sniffing my Speed Stick and giving my shaving cream Indian rug burn in an attempt to unscrew either end, he turns his attention to his clipboard.
"Please turn your pockets inside out." The third agent seems especially interested in my pens, taking them apart and flexing the springs suspiciously. I find nothing at all in my pockets, having already emptied them before the metal detector and EPD scan, and having vacuumed them carefully before this trip.
EPD (Emotional Photograph Detectography) is an emerging science wherein a selection of emotional elementals, the basic components of all emotions, are measured. Some of the more elusive emotional components exist for mere nanoseconds, and can only be detected using EPD. The resulting measurements are then interpreted as a concrete report of the subject's psychic personality. For example, violent criminals should show exaggerated hatred and pain elementals, while the ideal, bovine citizen displays a healthy mix of happiness, sadness, and fear.
The EPD scan had encouraged me with its accurate reading of my normally cool emotional complexion. EPD, despised in the West but employed in Newtopia, leaves much to be desired in a psychic evaluator for one simple reason: criminals are commonly more together than straight folk. But I had needed the recommendation -- my long hair is a serious warning sign to these people. This fact is duly noted on several pages of my passport in large red letters: "S.H.I.T." (Suspected Hippie In Transit.)
Notice the way my hands shake when I tell you this. A typically heavy storm thrashes the hotel windows rhythmically with its wrinkled fingers. I'm on the 60th floor of this 72-floor steel and glass monster, slowly getting sick from the motion -- the hotel is a giant pine branch stuck in the old tar of a derelict rolling gas station. My makeshift pendulum, a pencil suspended from the lamp by a complimentary piece of thread, nervously etches a widening oval on hotel stationery. Huge, horizontal claws of lightening, no longer shy to be seen by my bloodshot eyes, scratch the paint off my retinas, leaving the white of true power etched into my vision.
I'm jet-lag wired. My watch delivers its one-liner with a straight face, "Sixteen thirty-three."
"Stop, you're killin' me!" I chuckle rhythmically, like a woodpecker finding lunch. My gaze turns to the bathroom and I stop giggling abruptly.
A flash of lightening lasts mere nanoseconds, but this one turns from white to yellow as it lights up the shower curtain like a Las Vegas night. I whip around, jaw snapping into place a bit late, and gape. I've seen plenty of esses blow in the past, but this one flares into a screaming white magnesium celebration of the universe and my small brain. Hallelujah! The red neon tubes explode, exhaling their precious cargo like an ejaculation. Tiny bits of burning sign dive off toward the street below in a shower of sparks like space flotsam entering the atmosphere. The skin on my chest tingles with electricity.
The storm is eerily over and the building rests, perhaps sleeping, exhausted from its dance in the primal rain.
"Sixteen thirty-two?" I check my watch again. Then my stomach checks in with me, hunger overpowering my nausea. I find the thought of a food-finding mission risky, but room service is downright inhospitable.
" 'Adventure' is my middle name," I say as I grab my card key and sunglasses.
Outside the hotel, the hot, thick air presses against my face like a wet blanket. The jungle doesn't stop at the city limits like a timid forest creature, but spills out of cement troughs throughout the city. Youths on motor scooters choke the streets, buzzing from mall to mall with their T-shirts on backward. Police adorn every corner, shouting nonsense over cellular phones, 9mm handguns and black batons painfully visible. Three million people slap the sidewalk with floppy sandals -- a percussive symphony in the heavy air.
A stocky blond man emerges backwards from a doorway in an office building. His soiled cotton slacks and sweat-stained shirt distinguish him from the throng as much as his fair complexion and relative stature. The stubble on this rube's cheeks is days old. An irate woman, a madam with white pancake and rouge, follows him out onto the sidewalk, ranting incoherently. A tan micro-van screeches to a halt in the middle of the street, pig-tail radio antennae wagging, halting traffic in both directions. The front and back doors pop open and steady streams of small, uniformed men pour impossibly from the tiny vehicle, like circus clowns. A captain, adorned with gold buttons and megaphone, becomes ringmaster of this grotesque circus, as the acrobatic constables perform fearless feats of brutality, quickly subduing the golden-maned lion. More cops rush needlessly to the scene from adjacent corners, knuckles white on their batons.
"Bad foreigner! Get in van!" shouts the ringmaster. "Everything OK now. Nothing to look at. Everybody scram!"
"Baby crocodile crawled out of the sewer yesterday, damned if it didn't bite my landlady!" says a nonplussed pedestrian, continuing his broken stride.
"Don't say. Good things come in small packages. Remember that guy with 93 outstanding parking tickets? Just got nipped for 36 grand and three visits!"
"Smile when you say that."
Newtopia employs corporal punishment to achieve its rigid social order. Miscreants and nogoodniks are dealt with swiftly and effectively according to a graduated scale of evil-doing. Jaywalking, spitting, and littering bring a quick five hundred dollar fine, as does the use of a public toilet without flushing afterwards. More serious crimes are punished by fining and beating the guilty individual. Tampering with a telephone on the subway, peeing in an elevator, and bad-mouthing a police officer all result in a fine and a beating. Counterfeiting results in a $10,000 fine and five beatings.
A beating is an organized affair, in which an appointment is made for the sentenced offender to appear at an office, rather like a visit to the dentist. Appointments are rarely missed, due to the ten- fold nature of escalating punishments. Paperwork is required to officiate the event, "Please sign here and here in triplicate...and here..." Awaiting the soon-to-be-reformed criminal are two police officers and a government doctor in an examination room, completely bare of furniture except for a small stainless steel table on which sits a clipboard and a medical bag. The penitent citizen is checked for sobriety, directed to strip down to his/her underwear, and advised to assume a stance of attention in the center of the room.
The two officers proceed to administer the beating, which I will describe sparingly, using no scathing adjectives or graphic similies.
Using weathered bamboo canes three feet long, both officers brutally deliver slicing blows from far overhead, like lumberjacks chopping wood. The hapless recipient generally falls quickly to the linoleum floor, but the beating continues relentlessly. The two officers trade blows like Chinese slaves building an American railroad. Each blow raises a discoloring welt or breaks the skin, and crimson tears flow from the shallow wounds. The antidoctor, assigned to prevent death from excessive abuse, determines the merciful end of the beating when the victim is suitably reprimanded. After a few minutes, most citizens walk out under their own power.
If the criminal has been sentenced to more than one beating, an interval of time is prescribed between beatings for the wounds to heal. Some persons convicted of multiple crimes are suffered to endure the lesser punishments, i.e. beatings, before the ultimate penalty, namely, hanging to death. Smugglers, pushers, and users are all sentenced to death, as are all perpetrators of violent crimes. Participants in shootouts with police are never tried -- anyone stupid enough to point a gun at a cop is immediately shot to death.
Allow me to state the obvious: cops in Newtopia engender no small amount of respect. All males are required to serve a two-year term in the service of their country when they are 18. It's no wonder most elect to become police officers. What comes around, goes around.
Subversive behavior is not tolerated. Dissenting opinion and left- wing blasphemy are not tolerated. Anyone caught voicing such revolutionary rhetoric disappears. "The Government is all-powerful, my son, and Thou Shalt Not Mess Wid It."
All news of any kind, that is, newspapers and TV news, is carefully censored by the state. Editorials do not exist. Late-night TV stations run the following spots: A figure in silhouette is shown standing, noose around neck. Next to the figure is displayed a name and a crime. Trapdoor opens, figure falls against taut rope, struggles for a moment, then swings silently.
McDonald's sprouts everywhere like a shit-eating fungus. The thought of a Big Mac turns my guts, but the food park in the broad alley attracts me like a dump attracts seagulls -- a pungent smell on the air miles away. Ramshackle shops offer steamed rice, noodles, and a variety of animal parts. The flat eyes of whole, dead fish flick towards me in my peripheral vision, but stay put when I stare at them. I order noodles and fish by pointing and begin to eat.
The sounds of commerce break apart like someone singing through the blades of a moving fan. Thin yellow and orange spots blinking little neon lamps. Throbbing stroboscopic flash scene. My camera works at twelve frames per second. Now, only four frames every second. Step forward. Flash. Fumble bowl. Flash. Bowl crashes to street, chopsticks chasing madly after. Flash. Next step forward lands on noodles. Flash. I'm somehow happy to be earthward bound as my feet then my legs become egg noodle.
Three Russians with five cars full of TVs, radios, VCRs, furs, blank tapes, and pornography search docks for a homeward-bound ferry for hire.
I wake up in a hotel room with a bad hangover and a pulsing ache in my side. I discover a wound there carefully sewn with black thread -- twenty-three stitches. Here's the routine: hooker snares white- faced John dupe, fucks him in prearranged hotel room. Antidoctor joins femme fatale after John gets all squashed on dope from doctored booze. Antidoc, he remove excess baggage from Johnny's inventory. Kidney and pancreas sell well on black market. Antidoc, he patch John Boy up nice: "Get yer hands offa me! I'm a wholesaler, not a murderer!"
A smooth, circular pool set in the center of the room stirs restlessly under my gaze. Glass water on top protects gossamer cloud below. Iridescent cream color cloud swirls when disturbed, flipping clear opals flashing green orange red blue sparks. Swells and ripples of opal chips cascade away from droplets of sweat falling off my nose.
The opals fall crystalline, tinkling, echoing. More sounds come from every corner. My mother calls my name clearly. A trumpet plays a raceway overture. Bells and whistles are interrupted by a radio news report. "Thirty-one degrees at twenty-three twenty. Humidity a low 97. Rainfall totals two-point-seven centimeters..." All these sounds from my memory coming clearly, yet projected on an auditory movie screen. I summon more sounds by name -- earthen blocks thudding together, rusty old roller skate wheels spinning, clips from a million unrecorded symphonies composed in my head. Each sound is as clear and unprocessed as spring water, and on tap for instant playback in this auditory theater.
"I'll be damned if it doesn't look like a free-flowing parking garage," Zan confides.
Allow me to describe this amazing structure. Each level undulates like a sine wave, exactly one cycle from east to west extremes of the building. A second wave, exactly out of phase with the other, sits adjacent to the first, so that the two waves share a common point exactly in the center of the entire structure. By traversing from one wave to the next via one of the aforementioned nodes, the intrepid parking garage spelunker can achieve the uppermost bounds of this Sinusoidal Time Antenna (STA).
Each wave segment is frozen in time -- anchored in the stream, if you will. Time is frozen, and we move freely through it. An artificial light source provides the illumination here. Photons cannot travel in the STA, so imaginary light is used. Each quadrant of each wave bears an identifying scheme of colors, applied to the white enamel supports. You cannot get lost; out is always down, and up is always out.
We arrive at the focus of the STA on the top level. The red and green markers on the top floor create turbulence at the antinode where we stand. We are looking for the boat with a hand-held EPD scanner. Newtopia stretches out before us, playing at three-quarter speed.
"I think I've got it pegged in this frame, but it's bein' bitchy," glowers Mike, his eyes searching the harbor below, ninety berths wide.
"Play it again, and I'll watch the right half."
The night colors bleed into each other as Mike subtly shifts his weight and posture. Then the waterfront resolves itself and resumes three-quarter action.
"I think... by the Hilton," I say, holding the scanner at arm's length. A pale, blue-white globe winks furtively from the river's shore -- it could be the moonlight. No, it's growing brighter as the scanner pulls it in.
"Aahhh yyyesssss," soothes Mike, exing his map, "Mister Tung."
We exit the parking garage on foot, as we entered, at two twenty in the morning, Newtime.
The docks are cool and quiet. My sweat evaporates in the breeze, leaving my skin sticky. We stand staring at the fishing boat in berth 32. The rickety vessel bobs gently, partially revealing a magic word just under the waterline, written in green slime. A weathered brown hand pulls the cabin's curtain aside soundlessly, fingernails yellow and cracked at the edges. Long white threads grow erratically from Mr. Tung's chin. A small blue bow tidies the braided whiskers. The rest of the man's body and face, save the unmistakably Asian eyes, is that of a swarthy forty-year-old, utterly covered in tattoos. A fat drop of rain glances off my cheek, startling me. Mr. Tung disappears and we step aboard.
"They suggested I direct my question to you."
Inside the tiny cabin, the walls are unexpectedly bare. A bunk and a wooden desk are lit by a small incandescent bulb in the ceiling. Mike nearly crawls in after me, and sits on the bed rather than standing with his neck crooked. Mr. Tung sits on a crate at the desk and motions, "Sit on the bed," clearly. My eyes follow his pictorial arm as it swings by, leaving a trail of runes like an Egyptian cartouche. Rain drums on the roof rhythmically.
Tung addresses his desk, "Everyone gets to ask a question. Everyone gets to ask one question. You have never asked a question."
"No..." I blither uselessly.
"I... I don't know the words."
"Ahhhh," Tung's eyes swing to mine. "You do have a question!"
"You don't have to tell me any words." His face calms.
Tung just stares at me. My brain goes nowhere, stupidly echoing, "I don't?" over and over. The air in the room begins to vibrate with the rain drops hitting the ceiling like a thousand tiny cops beating winos.
"Okay, then try to tell me your question in words," Tung says, shifting in his seat so his knees point at mine.
"There's-- something --" Something making it hard for me to think -- a horrible buzzing vibration in the air. Acid electric taste of ground aluminum in the back of my head. Pale blue-white light sucks the red from the walls, leaving a thin black-light sheen. Mike is asleep on the bunk behind me. The boat begins to pitch on the rising ocean water.
"Don't fear! Tell me!" Tung grabs my shoulders. I can see his bright eyes peering through an increasingly opaque neon cloud around me. The rocking cabin makes me queasy, and I want to go to sleep.
Tung notices my fluttering eyes and shakes me. "Don't sleep. Pay attention."
The storm drones loudly, evenly, monotonously. The room continues fading, except for Tung's clear eyes, like the Cheshire Cat. These eyes, animated with concern, appear warm against an increasingly freezing background.
"You see!" Tung shakes me gently. "Tell me!"
"There's-- Your eyes-- "
"They're-- " The room swims. I grip the edge of the bunk for dear life. I must focus! His eyes are--
"Red!" I shout.
"Yessssssssss," Tung hisses, spinning around and jerking open his desk drawer. His hand plunges in and removes two cylindrical sticks and a black glass bottle. Turning back to face me, he notices my pale, sweaty skin. "Quick, remove your shirt!"
The effort pushes me over the edge, and as I fumble with my shirt I wretch convulsively, hitting my forehead on the wastebasket Tung holds in front of me. The room is again lit by the weak ceiling bulb.
"Lie down now." Tung helps me straighten out on my back next to Mike, his usually awesome snoring dwarfed by the storm, and my nausea passes.
"You now know the answer to your question. I will write it for you. You must never forget. Hold this."
Tung places the black bottle in my hand and dips the pointed end of one stick into the ink. Placing the heel of his hand on my chest over my heart, he holds the stick poised, dripping indigo. My eyes widen, and I imagine him tacking me to the bed like a vampire.
Instead, he taps the sharpened stick sharply with the other, pricking my chest with the point. A brilliant flash of blue-white lightening blinds me momentarily. Thunder cracks clearly like a series of two-by-fours. Now I get the point. He's tattooing me! Small beads of crimson blood rise through the black ink, warm and red like the deepest sunset.
"Red!" Tung sings, and he is finished.
We are ushered out to the dock so fast I hardly remember moving. My shirt in my hand, I can see the rune on my chest, wet and shining black in the moonlight.
Tung stands in the doorway of the cabin, as if waiting for me to meet his eyes. "Aka. It means 'red' in Japanese," he says, disappearing into the cabin.
"You got the answer?" asks Mike, still groggy and blinking.
"I'm sure I did," I say. "But I'm not sure I understand it completely."
Aaron Lyon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graphic designer who is dangerously addicted to music, and is a guitarist, vocalist, writer, husband and father. He would like to thank all those whose experiences he has abused, and acknowledge William H. Burroughs for his influence.
Newtopia is an excerpt from Two Tone Tangle, a fictional autobiography based on the life of painter Hieronymus Bosch. While many passages contain real names and events, it does not purport to be factual.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Aaron Lyon.