Sitting in a booth, leaning his back against the wall, Crusher watched the ebb and flow of people in The Vat. It was fairly empty tonight, with only a scattering of people in evidence. All synthetics, as usual. Nami was pushing dust around, also as usual, while Roy stacked cups and glasses and carefully washed empty bottles for eventual refilling. The patrons were a mixed lot. A corpie executive might have described them as a mix of abandoned domestic models, escorts, security types and a few pleasure synthetics from the Entertainment District. Crusher didn't think of them that way.
Taking a pull from his beer, Crusher leaned back against the rough cinder-block wall, eyes almost closed. It was warm in The Vat, finally. Roy had gotten the solar panels hooked up to the electric space heaters someone had 'found'. Crusher thought to himself that he ought to ask Roy if he could try 'finding' something the bar needed. Until he got a job he had a lot of free time on his hands, and nothing useful to do.
The heavy tread of Troll's footsteps and the hard creaking of the door broke through Crusher's drowse. He heard vague voices and then Troll's deep grunt of approval. A moment later a woman walked into his field of vision.
She was a Nat, and alone. That was quite unusual. She was tall for a normal, with a lean but attractive build. Her blond hair was thick, falling into her eyes and over her shoulders. She wore a tattered black t-shirt, a green leather jacket, tight black jeans and green boots that had been firmly buckled just under the knee. In one hand she carried a guitar case, in the other the blocky shape of an amp.
Stopping in front of the bar, the woman nodded to Roy and spoke a few words. Roy grinned and gestured to the back of the room. A crude stage sat there; basically a foot-high raised section of rough wood. The woman took her equipment over to the stage.
Sitting up, Crusher took a better look at the proceedings. He'd seen the woman before. She was known as Dawn, a musician who often played at 93 Underground. She was, he'd been told once, the meanest axe-player in the Zone. Upon asking what sort of axe did she use and what style she used it with, his informant simply looked at him oddly and quickly thought better of laughing. Instead he'd been sent to one of her sessions at the Underground where he discovered that 'axe' was a fairly ancient term for an electric synthguitar, which Dawn played at ear-splitting levels.
Pulling a chair around, Dawn dropped into it, setting the amp beside her. Her guitar case was placed gently on the floor and opened carefully to produce a brilliant green and gold instrument. Snapping one hanging cable into her synthrig, Dawn popped another into the amp. Fishing around in her jacket, she then drew out a headset and mike, which was also hooked up to the faintly rumbling speaker.
Crusher wondered if Roy knew how loud the woman played her 'axe'.
A hiss and pop drew his attention back to where Dawn was tuning her guitar. The fingers on one hand wandered up and down the strings, while the other tightened knobs out at the end of the thin neck. The amp muttered and whined in response.
Finished, Dawn shifted the guitar down into her lap and glanced out at the tiny crowd. "Hiya," she said in a husky rasp, "Roy said it would be okay if I came in outta the rain. I've got some new stuff I want to try out, and when ya gotta play, ya gotta play."
There was a series of notes as her hand dropped to the strings. Crusher noted that instead of a pic, she used the thin carbide blade implanted in her thumb.
Dawn looked up again, "Okay, I lied, this first piece is pretty old, older than me in fact, but my dad always liked it... It's called "Closer to the Heart".
Duty Officer Matthew Shirow walked down the hall lost in thought. He had been promoted to commander of the Puma Security Team at Mitsumi a little over a year ago and he still wasn't certain how he liked it. Oh, the pay was good, and the hours weren't bad and as Duty Officer he had certain perks - like a nice office and a bigger than normal apartment - but...
The problem was, Shirow had long since decided, was that he liked Pumas. Oh, not in a sexual sense; well-muscled women six and-a-half feet tall just didn't do it for him, regardless how large their breasts were. Lynxes were more to his liking, since he could at least look one in the eye. But Lee ran the Lynxes, and last Shirow heard he was getting some every night. Joke was he'd started at the top of the roster and was working his way down, one every night and two-at-a-time on weekends.
Shirow realized he couldn't work that way. To him the Pumas were... well.. if not people, they were at least personalities. He wasn't their commander, he was their... den mother, nursemaid, keeper... He couldn't treat them as the world's most combat-effective fuck-toy. He wanted to treat them as employees... and possible friends, except that they were too disposable to upper management for him to try and become closely attached to any one Puma.
The sounds of loud and angry voices interrupted Shirow's reasoning. He glanced around, finally locating the door that seemed to be hiding the cause of the disturbance. Walking over he took a moment to read the squad number, stopped and shook his head in disgust. Not them again, he thought.
Throwing the door open, Shirow was greeted by a deafening "OFFICER ON DECK!!!" Blinking at the volume, he looked to his left where a Puma dressed in black and red stood at attention, dark purple hair in disarray, an open can of beer in her off-hand.
Shirow sighed. "At ease, Misato."
"Yeshshir." The purple-haired Puma flashed him a grin, took a swig from her beer and sat down.
In Shirow's opinion Puma Squad 02 was a disaster waiting to happen. It has made up of nothing but misfits, which, all things considered, was saying something.
Standing by the open door, Shirow did a slow scan of the squard's rec room. It was, as he expected, a mess. Chairs were scattered, clothing was on the floor, the table was on its side, and standing in the center of the room was the red-maned tower of fury known as Asuka. She, as usual, looked utterly pissed off.
"Something wrong, Asuka?"
"Ja!" Asuka snapped, "Dieser Idiot Shinji traute sich, meine Gewehrkampffähigkeiten zu beleidigen!"
"In English, Asuka."
"What was that?"
"Fine!" she spat. "Shinji," she gestured at the Puma in question, a black haired male, "said I need to spend more time at the firing range!"
"Yo, Shinji," he said after digesting Asuka's complaint.
"Yes, Officer Shirow?"
"What did you tell Asuka?"
The Puma held up a tattered scrap of paper. "That she's slipped on the overall marksmanship rankings. She's now ranked fourth."
Shirow stared. He could feel a headache coming on.
"I suggest you spend some extra time on the firing range, it wouldn't do for you to loose your edge."
"Sofort mein Kommandant!" And with that, Asuka saluted and left.
Trust Asuka to take a request so literally. Shirow glanced around the room. Misato had gone back to her beer and was grinning. Shinji was still standing at attention and Rei was in the corner reading. Well, first things first.
"Hey, Shinji, how's it hanging?"
"Skip it." Shirow figured life had to be tough for the only male Puma currently on the roster, especially teamed up with these three whackos, and he didn't need to make things any worse. "At ease."
Yessir." Shinji relaxed and started standing the table back up.
Stepping to the far corner of the room, Shirow stopped by Rei, a pale-skinned blue-haired Puma with the oddest red eyes. Word was it as a side effect of bioware IR filters or something.
"Good afternoon, commander."
"Things going well?"
"Everything all right?"
"You do know your hair is on fire, right?'
Shirow paused, had Rei just made a joke? Shaking his head yet again, he decided that now was the time to leave. Love his charges as he did, he still found them to be the most nerve-wracking bunch of two-year olds anyone ever had to ride herd on.
Raven was sitting at her table, looking close at the piece she was working at. Pressing the tiny sliver of metal in the shape she wanted it to be—in this case, a tiny bird feather—was the hard part, but if she screwed up all she had to do was toss the failure and try again. Sliding the completed feather in the rest of the piece, a metallic raven done in relief over a disk of wood, was comparatively easier—but she ran the risk of wrecking all her previous work if she put too much pressure.
The door's sonorous chime did not break her concentration. "Come in," she said softly. The door's control pad caught the command and opened the door, but she ignored her visitor for a moment as she slowly nudged the piece in place, hairbreadth by hairbreadth. So focussed was she that even Tara Shimisu's whirlwind entrance did not make her blink.
"Konnbonwa Raven-san, would you like to... Ooooh! That's beautiful!"
With the feather's location at long last meeting her exacting standards, Raven lightly pressed the piece to lock it in place. She looked over at the piece, then looked up at Tara. "Yeah, it'll look all right, once it's finished. This is a new form for me, I wasn't sure how it'd turn out."
"It looks lovely."
"You like it? You can have it once I'm done."
"Oh, Raven! I can't accept that. You worked so hard on it."
"So?" Raven shrugged and waved at all the ravens in the room, perched on coffee tables and dressers, or hanging from the walls, "I've got plenty of others."
"Oooh, thank you so much."
"Just don't get impatient. At the rate I'm going I think there's still about a week to do on it."
Tara looked disbelievingly at the nearly-completed piece. "So long? I wouldn't have the patience."
"Patience was all I could do back when I started doing these things." Raven laughed; it wasn't a bitter laugh, it remembered a hard past from the view of a brighter future. "It helps me relax, take my mind off the rough stuff. I think it keeps me sane with all the stress I'm going through lately." She shrugged. "I think it's a lot more productive than shoveling gravel."
"Don't you go dissing Mom's rock garden," Tara riposted.
"So, you were going to try to get me to...?"
The Japanese girl smiled. "Wanna relieve some stress? It's opening night at the Edge of Night. Buzz says they have a big-name band on stage but everyone's hush-hush as to who."
Raven glanced at the clock. "So early?"
"Opening night and a mystery band? There's gonna be a three-block lineup." Tara grinned. "Maybe we can convince a couple of cute guys to let us cut in."
Raven looked up at her friend. They'd met as roommates in the medical section, right after Raven had gone through her transformation and Tara had gotten the initial treatment for her genetic upgrade. Since then, besides the expected increased in her athletic abilities, Tara had gone from plain to pretty. A transformation that, while not nearly as dramatic as Raven's, seemed at least as enjoyable to her. "More guys? Don't you already have three boyfriends?"
"Prospects. Right." Raven shook her head. "I think that upgrade did something to your hormones."
"And I think you're way too prim. You need a boyfriend really bad." She walked to the closet and pulled out Raven's dull gray coat. "Go put on some of those things we picked last week at Leslie's. Let's see if we can get you hooked up with one of these guys who keep looking at you."
Raven grumbled as she headed for her room. The door slid closed behind her, and she mumbled, "Keep this up and I'll get you hooked up—on the arc's comm tower..."
"The greatest limitation of human society is that we still have to support the meat." Betty gestures with her fork for emphasis, "If we could get rid of this," with her other hand she grabbed Joe's forearm, "we wouldn't need any of that."
By 'that', Betty referred to the immense wheat field that grew to the horizon, visible from the window of the diner, in which they had stopped for lunch. Joe looked out the window and rubbed his eye, weary from driving. It was Betty's idea to drive to the west coast. She had wanted to see the country and this was it.
Joe watched as the massive harvester crept across the plain. He guessed it to be about 300m across. It was pulled by three tractors that reminded him of the heavy siege tanks he'd seen in Kazakhstan years ago. "So, we're on this again," he gave Betty a tired look. "This idea that the human spirit would accelerate its evolution if it was freed from the prison of flesh."
Betty perked up at the opportunity to debate her pet topic again, "Yes! Absolutely. The technology exists to map human personality into data, thus reincarnating a person as a coherent virtual intelligence. Without the body to slow things down, human thought accelerates dramatically, thus allowing human culture to reach its next evolutionary stage."
Joe swallowed a bite of his roast beef sandwich, "You seemed to be quite happy with your physical body last night." Joe pulled open the collar of his shirt to display the bite marks on his neck and shoulder.
Betty frowned and punched his shoulder, "Don't be an asshole, I'm serious." She noticed a man with calloused hands sitting at the lunch counter looking at her. He had a rigger jack behind his ear. He nodded, smiled and turned back to his lunch.
"Okay, okay," Joe raised his hands defensively, "So the meat is the physical body and is slowing down human evolution." Betty's fork stabbed a French fry, dipped it in some gravy and raised itself to her mouth. Betty grabbed the fork from the air, "Joe, quick screwing around! God, you're like a little kid."
"No," Joe leaned back and crossed his arms, "I'm making a point about evolution. Here I am, physical body that needs to eat, likes to fuck, all that. But I'm different from everyone born a generation before me. My dad served in Quebec, my grandfather served in Yugoslavia, and his father served in France and none of them ever had a PK in their unit, did they?"
Betty leaned in close, "Joe, I'm sorry to prick your ego, but you do not represent the next phase of human evolution, you are the product of a secret government genetic manipulation project."
"Bullshit!" Joe had said it louder than he'd intended. "Paranoid conspiracy theory bullshit."
"Regardless," said Betty, "I'm talking about the rest of us. No matter how you came to be what you are, by act of man,god or corp, we have the ability to move the rest humanity to the next level. We can do it on our own terms and not wait for nature to get around to it. See, without meat, without physical bodies, we don't need food, thus we don't need farms or giant farm machinery or farmers. There would be no food riots or physical crime of any kind, thus no physical cops, prisons or armies. All we need is giant data pools and bots to tend to them. Don't you see? We code heaven."
Joe had heard this before. It all started as a term paper in some sociology course from Betty's days at Waterloo, now it was her pet crusade, "What about those of us who want to hang on to our bodies or don't trust the corps who own the hardware or don't believe in the chimera named 'crash-proof code'?" Joe paused long enough for Betty to answer but received none, "What about those who believe that human life is about more than behavioral algorithms? Some of us radicals think that there's something sacred in nature and that we are a part of something that does not need to be fucked with? Nope, I prefer to let nature take its course."
There was a moment of awkward silence, suddenly broken by a stranger's voice, "Pardon me, I don't mean to interrupt, but I just wanted to point out something that you all seemed to have missed. There is no nature any more." Joe and Betty looked up the man curiously. "Even here, miles from the Calgary Sprawl and even further from Toronto the Fat, the sky here is full of byproduct chemicals, antipollutants, electromagnetic fields, pesticides, herbicides and light pollution. On a genetic level, that wheat you see there looks more like kelp than the wheat this land produced in the last century." He leaned in a little closer, "Buddy, I'm sure you're a stand up guy but it's a sure bet that God didn't make you to kill with your mind and miss, if you think there's life inside a computer, I suggest that you might have forgotten what life really is." He gestured with his head out the window. "Farmer is the oldest profession in the world, close to the land and all that, but look..." He turned his head and fingered the jack behind his ear. "Now you can't operate the harvester properly without wiring right into the beast." He smiled a broad smile, touched the brim of his Massey Ferguson ball cap and said, "Now, if you'll excuse me, my shift starts in a half hour. Good day to you both."
Betty and Joe watched the man wave at the waitress as he left the diner. Finally Betty started to get her things together and lit a cigarette, "Let's get back on the road. This place is too weird for me."
Dawn stopped, letting the echos die in the confines of the small room. Playing a hall like 93 Underground was fine, but every now and then she felt the need to go somewhere smaller, where the crowds were quieter and she could feel free to express herself in her own way. To play the ancient classics - Hendrix, Clapton, Gilmore - as well as more personal compositions. And here, in The Vat, she felt both at ease and at peace. The patrons asked nothing more from her than that she play and she asked nothing more from them than that they listen.
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