by Suzanne van Rooyen
Blood, with a mouthful of dirt, tastes like rancid coffee, like the cheap stuff sold at the 24-hr scoff-spots in the Bilges.
Trip’s tongue tried but failed to expel the earth trapped between his teeth. A molar wobbled in its socket, kicked loose by a well-aimed warden’s boot. They mashed his face into the ground again. His shoulders burned, arms twisted and hands bound behind his back, clamped in pneumatically sealed manacles.
“Dissident restrained and ready for transport,” the policebot said, clipping the consonants with a metallic buzz. Trip winced as it hauled him to his feet, dragging him towards the open maw of the police van.
He didn’t regret getting caught, another misdemeanor added to his rapsheet; he didn’t regret the tooth he’d lost, now rolling side to side on his tongue, or that he’d be spending the Sabbath in Scoria sector-7 lock-up.
What Kyle Tripton regretted most was losing his brand new can of spray paint, Chemlak fluorescent red. He’d waited 4 months to get his hands on the contraband and it had cost as many month’s worth of salary. Damn hoverdrone! Ten more minutes and he would have completed his mural covering the grinning face of Dekon, the god to which Scoria bowed.
Grinding tyres on gravel, the van surged along the rutted path winding away from the bridge and the can of paint lying in the dark. Discarded, wasted.
Trip clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes, squirming in the manacles as neon-lit minibots swarmed over the graffiti; fastidious cleaners and wreckers of art.
Sector-7 lock-up. White tiles and chrome bars, the smell of astringent making it more like a surgery than jail. Trip’s eyes watered in the glare from LEDs in ceiling pockets above his head. The wrist manacles had been replaced by a thin collar around his neck, set to constrict should he move beyond the confines of his cell, or whenever the warden felt like activating the choke.
He probed the raw molar-missing socket with the tip of his tongue and tasted copper. The gray, rubbery breakfast, which might have contained eggs, remained untouched on the tray. Lying on the thin pallet, there wasn’t much to do but think. He rolled onto his side, tracing patterns across the tiles, imagining them in swaths of Chemlak fluorescent red.
The waiting was the worst.
The clip-clop of robotic feet accompanied the heavy-boot steps of a warden.
“Kyle Tripton, welcome back. Been busy I see.” The warden held his thumb against the panel on the wall and the chrome gate hissed open, admitting both man and robot to the cell.
Trip rolled up his left sleeve, knowing the drill. He extended his arm toward the policebot crouched beside the pallet, casting the metal android a wary glance as its spinning phalanges switched from humanoid finger to needle. He flinched as the needle pierced flesh, just below the elbow crease.
Black ink coursed into his skin, adding yet another neat row of numbers denoting his most recent crime. From elbow to wrist, his skin bore the marks of rebellion.
“I try, sir,” Trip said through clenched teeth, looking up at the warden. The olive green uniform strained to contain the man’s paunch. Disapproval cut grooves into his face, around dark eyes. Three words emblazoned in white on the left pocket of the man’s uniform caused Trip’s stomach to somersault.
Superior Warden Sawyer.
The man had a personal vendetta against Trip, ever since that incident involving his daughter. Sex out of union was highest on god Dekon’s list of reasons-you’re-going-to-hell. That Trip had seduced the then virginal daughter of a warden had seemed a great victory, a round-house kick in the teeth to the government. He’d been charming, she’d been innocent and stupid. Now she was damaged goods, unfit for union, fated to spend her days a spinster. He’d ruined her life and her father wanted blood, and rightly so.
“You are formally charged with deliberate damage to government property, possession of illegal goods and intent to promulgate defamatory propaganda.”
“I reckon it’s just graffiti.” Trip met the warden’s steely gaze.
Sawyer chortled, “You’ve done it this time, Tripton. Game over. You’re headed for nixation.”
“What?” Trip asked, his mouth a sudden desert, his blood turned liquid nitrogen.
“You heard me.”
The policebot finished, retracted the needle and swabbed the raised welt of skin with disinfectant. Job done, the machine left Trip alone with the warden.
“There must be some mistake. Nixation is for hard crime.” He sat up slowly, running a hand through his matted hair.
“True, but Scoria Central feel you’ve proven a liability to society, one that’s better removed since rehabilitation seems impossible.”
The warden’s words were drowned out by the rising tide of panic. Nixation. If it had just been death by electrocution, lethal injection, even hanging, Trip wouldn’t have minded so much. But nixation involved complete eradication. He’d be dismantled, limbs severed and organs removed, until only the nucleotides of individual cells remained, and then they’d unravel his DNA, strand for strand, using his scraps in scientific experiments. But it wouldn’t stop there.
They’d track down his family and friends, performing brain-purges on everyone he’d ever known until not a single soul remembered him. They’d destroy all trace of his existence, deleting every record, even the final transcript of the nixation itself.
“You’re scheduled for transfer Monday, 7am.”
Trip looked at his timekeep. Just over 20 hours. “Is there nothing I can do?” He asked, balling his hands into fists.
“Should’ve thought of that before racking up that rapsheet, eh?”
Trip stared at the trail of ink down his arm, almost ten years worth of sticking it to the government and what had his anti-establishment escapades ever accomplished? Scoria Central still held the people in a clenched iron fist, denying them the simplest pleasures in the name of a draconian god. He was an idiot for ever thinking he could change the world with a few spray painted murals.
“Please, there must be something…” Trip turned to the warden. Sawyer folded his arms, smug satisfaction rearranging his face into a smile.
“The only way out of nixation is to file for absolution.”
“How do I do that?”
“Fill in a form and pay a hundred thousand marks. That’ll buy you clemency.”
Trip gasped, battling to contemplate such a vast sum of money.
“That would absolve you of the crimes and get you out of nixation.”
“You know I don’t have that kind of cash.” His hands were sweating.
Sawyer tapped his chin, sucking saliva through his teeth. “The law does grant one other option.”
“Well, what is it?”
The warden’s mouth twisted as if the words were sour on his tongue, “Scoria Central will overturn your nixation if you pay ten thousand marks and agree to a stint in Farkeep.”
Farkeep Prison, the ninth circle of hell made real, seemed a delightful alternative but ten thousand marks was still more money than Trip had ever dreamed of.
“If I can get the cash to you, I don’t get nixed?”
“Nope, we’ll make sure you live a good long while in Farkeep.” The warden’s face split into a gleeful rictus.
“Fifteen years with good behavior, longer if you can’t follow rules.”
Fifteen years. He’d be 35 when he got out, if he ever did. Seemed a lifetime but at least that’s what he’d have, a life. Even if he died in the pits of Farkeep, at least he’d be remembered.
“I’ll do it.” Trip rubbed his hands over his face, “I’ll have the money for you by 7am Monday morning.”
Sawyer leaned against the gate, “Where you going to get cash like that?”
“That’s my problem.” A huge problem.
“You bring it in cash to me, personally. Got it?”
“Got it,” Trip said, rising slowly to his feet, and turned around, anticipating the removal of the collar.
“Hell no, boy. We’re leaving that on. Just in case you try something smart, like running.”
“Fine,” Trip bit down hard on his tongue, the blossom of pain silencing a vitriolic retort.
The warden fingered a datapad in his hand, and the collar beeped in confirmation of adjusted settings, allowing Trip to breathe outside the cell.
“Good luck, Tripton.” Sawyer herded him down the corridor and out the emergency exit into a back alley. “See you Monday.”
Trip faked a saunter until out of Sawyer’s view, then pitched to the side and puked.
Sabbath afternoons in the Bilges possessed the atmosphere of a funeral, only less lively. Trip checked his timekeep, 18 hours and 22 minutes. There were few people he could go to for help. His parents might have been top of the list were his dad not a warden in sector-4 and his mom not a secretary for the Scoria Central administrative division. They’d force him to pray for forgiveness, his mom would cry and dad would start, “Now son…” Perhaps being purged of their elder son would be a blessing.
Trip hurried past the scoff-spots, ignoring the tempting aroma of coffee and hot dogs. He headed for a narrow staircase that lead down off the street to a basement squat. His pounding was eventually answered by a girl dressed in pleather pants and a man’s dress shirt.
“For Dekon’s sake, give it a rest,” she blasphemed, waving him in with red nailed fingers. A motley lot of disheveled youths greeted Trip with varying degrees of apathy as he snaked through the haze of contraband cigarette smoke to Bell’s personal chamber.
“Hey, Trip.” Greg perched on the edge of the bed, strumming the three remaining strings of his guitar, sucking on the stump of a joint. The dope must’ve cost a fortune.
“I am in deepest shit,” Trip said, rolling up the sleeve of his hoodie. The tattoo still smarted.
“You go boy, wear it with pride,” Bell said, sitting beside Greg, and humming over the makeshift chords. Trip’s homemade drum kit slouched in the corner. Music was forbidden, deemed sordid and ungodly, so they’d formed a band.
“No, really. Listen to me, listen!” He tore the guitar from his brother’s hands sending it smashing into the wall. He grabbed the collar around his throat with both hands, shaking it in their faces.
“Interesting jewelery?” Bell raised a thin eyebrow as Greg retrieved the broken instrument.
“Didn’t have to hurt my guitar, man.”
“I have to come up with ten grand or I’m getting nixed,” Trip said.
Bell and Greg stared at him with bloodshot eyes, the silence stretching for several painful moments. Bell blinked first and took a swig from a hip-flask.
“That’s…not good.” Greg astounded with his usual eloquent insight.
“Where the hell you gonna get ten thousand marks?” Bell reached for Trip’s hand, pulling him down beside her.
“No idea. I was hoping you could help me.”
“Like I have cash?” An unpleasant noise gurgled in her throat.
“Don’t look at me either,” Greg said, shaking his head.
“Money for dope but not to save your brother?”
Greg paled and swallowed. “Yeah, bro, nasty spot you’re in. It’s not like I want Scoria Central dabbling in my brain but I don’t have that kinda cash.” He looked down, stroking the splintered guitar.
Trip seethed, his brother was as useful as a turd. Turning to Bell he said, “You have contacts,” scumbag money lenders, the family business, “somebody must be able to help me.”
“Able, maybe. But willing? Doubtful,” Greg added, pupils so dilated his eyes were almost black.
“Thanks little brother,” Trip snarled.
“Hey, not our fault you got caught. Bet you lost that new paint can too.” Greg plucked at the remaining string, his eyes boring into Trip’s as if he could see the can of Chemlak fluorescent red lying in the dust, the bright declarations of freedom vanishing as minibots scrubbed the wall.
“You been to Madison?” Bell asked.
Trip buried his face in his hands, “I was hoping to avoid it.”
“She’ll be able to get this collar off and then maybe you can make a run for it.”
“Yeah, run for it.” Greg nodded, sucking on the joint, which numbed his senses.
“And go where?” Trip sighed, wondering what they’d use his tissue for once he was nixed. Perhaps they’d use his organs for transplant patients, in that way he’d live on, or maybe it would be more like partial reincarnation.
“Madison’s your best option.”
“She’s your only option,” Greg added. Bell shrugged thin shoulders beneath a curling mass of orange hair, apology in her eyes.
“Hey, bro, I’m really sorry.” Greg would care more when he was sober.
Dismissed, Trip stomped up the stairs, out onto the cold, unwelcoming street. He could’ve stayed, getting hammered, marinading in self-pity and alcohol until the wardens dragged him off.
He zipped up his hoodie and squared his shoulders, wishing there were more people to see the collar, his Scarlet Letter. Exuding the stoicism of a martyr, his shaking hands buried deep within pockets, he trudged through the Bilges, down into the foetid bowels of Scoria.
17 hours and 56 minutes.
Madison’s apartment nestled on the top floor of a thirteen storey building that had once been a proud phallus towering above its neighbors. It sagged now, blistered and crumbling as if succumbing to the clap. The elevator was out-of-order again, forcing Trip up the stairs. He emerged breathless and sweaty on the landing.
She answered the door seconds after he rang the bell. An olive-skinned goddess robed in emerald green. Trip licked his lips and tried to look suave.
“Kyle,” she said. Only Madison ever called him that.
“Madison, can I come in?”
“That depends,” she said, flicking black hair from her too-blue eyes. “what do you want this time?”
Trip pointed at the collar with his index finger, pouting just a little in the hopes of appealing to the innate maternal instinct all women possess.
“You best come inside.” She bolted the door and followed him to her sitting room.
Despite the building’s squalid exterior, Madison’s apartment was pristine. A most effective disguise, operating out of decrepitville; the wardens never bothered this side of town.
Trip collapsed on the couch, Madison settling opposite him.
“What did you do this time?”
“Just my usual artwork. Except I got caught, damn hover-drone spotted me.”
“So why the collar?” She sipped from a steaming cup of tea without offering Trip any.
“I’m scheduled for nixation.”
The cup wobbled in its saucer, spattering tea on her white carpet.
“Nixation? Why? That’s reserved for the worst of the lot. Your crimes are harmless, mostly.”
“A warden’s got it in for me. I…” Trip swallowed and broke eye contact.
“The one who’s daughter you shagged? Yeah, so?”
“So he’s a superior warden now. Apparently Scoria Central thinks I’m beyond rehabilitation and would best serve society having never existed at all.”
“How come you’re out of jail then?” Madison swept her long hair up into a ponytail, fixing it in place with a rubber band, revealing silver teardrop ear-rings dangling from each lobe. Self adornment – another sin.
“If I can get ten grand to Sawyer by 7am tomorrow, then I’m off to Farkeep instead.”
Madison snorted and shook her head. Resting elbows on knees, she leaned forward to look at him. This time Trip met her gaze.
“I don’t have ten grand, Kyle. I don’t know anyone who could get that kind of cash together at short notice. I can give you a grand, maybe find another three or four through my associates.”
“That’s just not enough. Sawyer’s not going to cut me any slack.”
“You want me to try and get the collar off?”
“It’s why I’m here.”
“The only reason?” She arched a delicate eyebrow and a familiar warmth flared between Trip’s legs.
“For now. Until this thing is off me, I can’t think about anything else.”
Madison shrugged and lead him to her workroom. The room housed a myriad robotic components. Vintage models dangled from the ceiling, refurbished arms and hands gathered in one corner, legs and feet in another. Her diagnostics station was strewn with microchips and power supplies. Rows of shelving lined the walls upon which assorted screws, nuts, bolts, cogs, wheels, pipes and tubes were kept in seeming disarray. A dealer in black market robotics, Madison knew everything one person could know about mechatronics. The goddess turned grease monkey as she stepped into the workroom.
She patted the old-fashioned dentist’s chair bolted to the floor beside her work station.
“We have two options,” she said, as Trip lay back. Pumping the foot control, she activated the gears, which swiveled the chair around, lowering his head into her waiting hands.
“One – we leave the collar on but reprogram it so that it can’t be activated remotely. Means you’re fine unless they catch you and manually activate the collar.”
“What’s option two?”
“Two – I try hack this thing off and risk choke activation.”
“You can’t just get it off?”
“The lock is complicated and if I tamper with it, doing it wrong might activate it anyway. Best to either disarm or remove it some other way.”
Trip looked at his watch and then up at her, “16 hours and 53 minutes.”
“It shouldn’t take that long,” she smiled, obliterating all thought in Trip’s head. “Just try to relax and let me know if I hurt you.”
He closed his eyes as she prepared the necessary tools, eagerly anticipating liberation.
45 minutes later Madison exhaled irritation through narrow nostrils. “Crap, it’s not working. Damn Scoria Central engineering.”
“Can’t reprogram it?”
“Can’t even get into the system to start trying. Have to move on to plan B.”
“Whoa,” Trip said, raising his heads as she approached his throat with a whirring twin-bladed steel-cutter. “If you trip the choke, do you have a way of stopping it?”
“Death by choke is better than nixation,” she said, slapping his hands away.
“Either way I’ll still be dead.”
“Stop talking and try not to swallow. I don’t want to cut your throat.”
Trip breathed through his nose and squeezed his eyes shut as the blades bit into the collar. The grind of cutter on collar jarred his ears and made his toes curl. Gripping the arm rests, knuckles white, he counted the seconds.
“Shit.” She dropped the steel-cutters on her table as Trip gasped, the collar tightening, constricting his windpipe. His hands flew to his throat, scratching and tearing.
“Stop it, just let me…” Madison straddled him, trying to pin his arms with her legs as she struggled with the collar.
“Kyle, just hold still. Please…”
By sheer force of will he ceased his flailing and stared at the ceiling. The burning in is lungs became an inferno. If only he could scream.
“Almost…” Her face contorted in concentration.
The white ceiling contracted, narrowed until it was only a smudge at the end of a very, long, dark tunnel.
“Got it,” she said and air rushed back into his lungs. He coughed and spluttered, drinking in the oxygen as if newborn.
“Thank you,” he managed between gasps.
“That was close,” she said, easing off the chair to stand beside him.
“What happened?” Trip rubbed his throat, massaging the cartilage that was still miraculously intact.
“It seems the setting can be overridden during activation,” she shrugged, the movement made awkward by feigned nonchalance.
“So it can’t choke me anymore? Can you cut it off now?”
“It won’t choke you but I can’t get it off. It’s not steel.” She fingered the collar. “My cutters barely left a scratch. Must be some other alloy. We don’t have the time to properly investigate. They can still track you.”
“I know. So other than eliminating the risk of asphyxiation, I’m stuck in the same problem as before.” Trip ran a hand through his hair. “My only option is to run.”
He took her trembling hands in his and squeezed them. “Out of Scoria. If I can get out of the city and far away enough maybe it’ll give me more time to figure out a way to get this collar off.”
“They’ll hunt you down.”
“Do I have another choice?”
She pursed her lips, a little girl about to throw a tantrum. Trip chewed the inside of his cheek.
“Come with me?”
“What?” Madison’s eyes stopped trembling, her body stiffening.
“Let’s get out of this damn place together, away from the wardens and Scoria Central, away from everything. Find a new place, a better one.”
“But Scoria is my home, I have a life here.” She pulled her hands free and folded her arms across her chest.
“Trading robot scraps in the most broke-down part of town? That’s not living, that’s surviving.”
“And what would we do outside of Scoria then? How would we live? We know nothing of the world beyond the city limits.”
“Please, Madison. I love…” Trip didn’t see her hand move, he only felt the force of her fingers stinging his cheek. The girl hit hard.
“No, no you don’t! Don’t say you love me when it’s convenient, when you’re trying to get me to do what you want. You didn’t love me when you were stealing components from me, selling them for dope or whatever else you dissidents are into. You didn’t love me when you were banging Sawyer’s daughter or the countless others. You don’t get to love me now.” Her blue eyes had turned to mini typhoons, floodwaters threatening to spill down her cheeks. But she blinked and the storms were gone, replaced by an ice cold resolve.
“I helped you best I could. Now get out, and do whatever the hell you want to.”
“…” Trip opened his mouth to speak but the million words tumbling through his mind refused to form coherent sentences. “I’m sorry,” he said at length and skulked out of the apartment. He turned back but she slammed the door in his face, sliding the bolt home with a definitive thunk.
Out on the street, Trip gazed up at the tiny square window of Madison’s apartment. Maybe he didn’t love her, maybe he just loved the way she made him feel when he was with her. With a sigh, he examined the contents of his wallet. 5 marks, just enough for the necessary supplies.
From the nearest scoff-spot he ordered a thermos of coffee, a megaburger and fries and invested the change in candy bars. He strode down an alley, emerging in a narrow street away from scoff-spot stares.
13 hours and 17 minutes.
A blue moped car was parked on the curb. Mopeds only had a top-speed of 50 kays an hour but it would be faster than walking, and they were easy to hot-wire.
He scanned the street for possible witnesses but it was empty. Using the thermos to break the window, Trip fumbled with the wires beneath the dash, silencing the shrill alarm and starting the ignition. A plastic statue of Dekon bobbed on the dashboard. He tossed it out the window smiling, before he hit the gas and put-putted down the street towards freedom.
He crossed the Murky, the river slicing Scoria into sectors, left urban sprawl in the rear-view mirror and entered suburbia. Signposts lead him through a patchwork of green lawns and neat fences to the highway heading west. 12 hours and 48 minutes. He was on the open road.
Trip hung his head out the broken window, ululating glee at the straight ribbon of asphalt leading him away from Scoria. He’d never see his family again but then they’d be happier without him.
Between whoops of joy he spat invective at the billboards punctuating the roadside every couple of kays. They all bore the same stern visage of Dekon.
Dusk consumed the day, staining patches of sunlight with the blue tinged hue of bruise. Still headed west, the sun hurt his eyes as it poured orange over the horizon. He slurped from the thermos and finished the last of the fries. With only half a tank of gas, he hoped he’d get far away enough by morning. 260 kays to Ashville, the road-sign said. Even if he had to walk, he’d get there.
The night was absolute, gashed by the beam of headlights and a smattering of stars stretching across the sky. Trip stared wide-eyed. He’d never seen the stars, obscured by the smog enveloping Scoria. Out here they formed a silver lattice across the black void above.
10 hours and 32 minutes.
Caffeine battled fatigue as he drove through darkness. He zoned out, his eyes losing focus somewhere in the middle distance where parallel white lines converged.
Incessant beeping tore through Trip’s subconscious, hammering against his skull. Silencing the timekeep squawking on his wrist, he rubbed bleary eyes, blinking the world back into focus. He was still driving, still on the road.
5.30am. His alarm had been set to wake him for morning shift at the sodapop factory. How different his life would be now as he chugged towards this other city, the silhouette of high rises turned liquid in the morning sunshine.
Inverting the thermos, he lapped up the last drops of coffee, before sticking his head out the window, inhaling the scent of freedom and possibility. He squinted into the sunlight, his smile reduced to a frown and then gaping, dumbfounded horror. He was staring into the sun, driving east.
“No, no, no…” Trip drummed his hands on the steering wheel. It wasn’t possible. He’d been driving straight all night. He couldn’t have turned around and yet it was Scoria straddling the horizon. The car sputtered, the gas needle fluttering on empty.
Shaking, he pulled over as the moped expired. Leaving the vehicle, his feet crunched on gravel. How the hell had it happened? Pacing up and down along the verge, tears pricked his eyes as he bashed his fist against his forehead.
The ominous wail of sirens approaching from the city ignited panic. He ran, legs throbbing, heart hammering, feet beating against the asphalt as the sirens drew inexorably closer.
He glanced over his shoulder as the police car hurtled towards him, intent on mowing him down. Diving to the side, the vehicle skidded past and screeched to a halt as Trip scrambled to his feet, heading into the field. The hiss of piston legs meant a policebot was in pursuit.
Blood, with a mouthful of dirt, tastes like failure, stale and bitter.
He swallowed a wad of earth, retching into the gravel grating his face. Blood oozed down the back of his throat and smeared his lips, dribbling from the nose they’d broken. Sawyer mashed his face into the ground again and laughed.
“There’s no escaping Scoria, kid.”
The policebot hauled him to his feet, “Dissident apprehended. Approved for nixation. Transport confirmed.”
Trip winced as it shoved him into the back of the car. The vehicle lurched onto the road and roared towards the city. He gazed through the reinforced glass, at the western horizon streaked dark hues of violet and blue as dawn stripped away the darkness, at the fields shivering gold in the morning sunshine, at Dekon’s uncompromising face glaring from the billboards.
Trip squirmed in the manacles. The timekeep display in the dashboard blinked Chemlak fluorescent red.