By Marc-Anthony Taylor
My sister had me boxed when I was four. She said she would have had it done to herself but she didn’t want to risk losing me, that it was the only way. I think she just hated the idea of renting her body out to the rich folk in the domes. Don’t get me wrong, she did good by me, I didn’t have to work till I was nine and in that time she studied hard and became a data-pimp herself.
It was the only way she could keep us housed and fed after mum and dad had died.
It must have been hard for her, if mum and dad had made it she might have made something of herself. If she hadn’t have had to look after me she would probably be in a dome herself by now.
She once told me she had big plans; that she wanted to make things better. My only plan was to make enough cash to get us both out of the business.
I never noticed the tiny implant at the base of my skull, the nano circuitry must be some of the best though, the tattoo circling my right eye is almost perfect.
Kara controlled who, what, when and where. She made sure we got paid, and that I didn’t do anything too bad. She was a clever cookie.
My sister looked after me. She did good.
Black leaves hung limply from the trees, refusing to fall despite the time of year. We were lucky to have trees at all; there were places on the other side of the city that had nothing living, except perhaps the odd person. Or so I was told, I had never ventured that far out and thankfully none of my clients had ever requested it.
Kara didn’t think it was right to use vehicles. Even if they were meant to be eco friendly now. We would only ever use them if it was an emergency, she said. Everywhere I went, I went by foot, and I had come to know the city just as well as the grubby little apartment that my sister and I shared.
My boots left imprints in the fine black powder that coated everything. The sky ships were under way again, every six months they would come out for a week, their massive air scrubbers extracting the carbon from the CO², supposedly leaving us with fresher air. Most people believed they took the oxygen and pumped it into the Eden-domes. The carbon was probably used to construct whatever they needed. The dust was excess that happened to shake loose from the giant machines.
Already a couple of people were out with their vacuum cleaners, sucking up what they could of the carbon to sell on the black market. One or two had even rushed out with brush and pan in hand, carefully shaking their winnings into plastic bags.
Kara had never done that, she said once we started collecting that stuff, it wouldn’t be long till we started getting sloppy and before you know it our lungs would be coated in gunk, bringing us that much closer to death. My sister, always the optimist.
The mask I was wearing was about three years old, long past its renewal date but Kara had kept it in good working order, another one of her many talents. She knew how to break the manufacturing codes so she could regulate the functions. She would probably have been some big-shot programmer or hacker back in the old days. Now, she was just a skin-flint.
“We gotta save our cash kid. Money doesn’t fall from the sky, no matter what the carbon monkeys think. And besides, we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past Nate, that’s what got us all into this mess. Recycling is the way to go baby bro, and if I can fix it, you’ll use it. ‘K?” She was always coming out with stuff like that. It might have helped if I had gone to school like her, but they stopped taking boxed kids not long after I got mine. Bad influence supposedly.
Still, I could feel a rasp starting in my throat, if I didn’t get a fresh mask soon I’d end up sounding as if my vocal chords had been attacked by a cheese grater. Dad’s voice had gone that way before the end, it was one of the few memories I had of him. It was not a pleasant one.
Kara had worked her magic, getting me a tight contract with some young Edenite who wanted something in the centre of town. Part of the contract was that I was to stay in the dark about it till we got started. I always tried to shut part of me off when I did jobs, what did I care how the rich got their kicks?
It didn’t really matter. I never could work out why people who lived in those clean, safe domes would want to slum it with us left outside.
My first job was in a brothel on the south side. Kara had arranged it with the group of data-pimps running the joint that she would have veto over my jobs. The cash wasn’t great but I was safe as I learned my trade.
The place was called Perfect Fit, from the outside it just looked like a run down tenement – no point in letting the bad boys know there was cash in there – but inside the walls were draped in fabrics, expensive air cleaners ran non-stop giving each lung full a cold, crisp feel. Vids ran on the wall screens, everything from cartoons to porno. The only sure thing was that none of it would be available in an Eden-dome.
The entire building, all four floors of it, was used for the brothel. There were at least twenty rooms, although I didn’t have to see all of them, thanks to Kara’s veto.
Rooms for fighting and rooms for making love. Rooms for smoking and rooms for pain. Rooms where woman could give birth and people could breathe filthy unfiltered air. Rooms where you could take any of a thousand kinds of drugs, where you could do anything and, almost, everything you couldn’t do inside a dome. Rooms where you could watch all of the above. Whatever the client wanted.
Age ranged from four years old to around sixty, there were no death or murder options, no child abuse allowed. It was a pretty clean place.
Believe me, I have seen worse.
My first time freaked me right out. It was a fairly simple job, no longer than fifteen minutes. It was another boy about the same age as me, I felt him settle into the back of my head, felt the feedback of emotions. I freaked out, so he freaked. It was his first time too I think. It was arranged that there would be no verbal communication between us. I shouldn’t have felt anything from him, it should all have been one way but it rarely works without some feedback.
Brought up in a dome it must have been even stranger for him than for me. The sights he could see, the vulgar colours, the dirt. All I had to do was play for a while in some unfiltered air, run around and get tired.
When I was done, I puked, not until the client had logged out of course. They stuck me on a machine to clean my lungs out, a couple of grams of brown slime came out and that was after only fifteen minutes. At the time, I didn’t know about the people who lived without masks.
Later I found out that the job had been a punishment for a school boy, a lesson he was to be taught.
It must have worked well because I started to get a reputation as a smooth ride.
The town centre was a hazardous place, the police and military had long since withdrawn leaving it to the homeless, the gangs and the sick. Every few blocks I would see someone with a cheap box tattoo, usually these were weak looking specimens at least two of them were branded as having HIV:III. Open sores covered what was visible of their skin, their hair was thin and they walked as if the world really did lie on their shoulders. Pity welled up in me at the sight of them, but what could I do? My priority was to get Kara and me enough cash to blow this town, maybe even – if the rumours were true – get us into a dome. My sister was in charge of the money and for some reason I never quite knew how much we had or needed.
The hollowed out shells of vehicles, starved of the fossil fuels they so badly needed, littered the streets and squares of the centre. Street kids ran amok, screaming and shouting, I wasn’t afraid though, we had paid our dues for the month and no one would touch me. Besides, Kara had got me some of the best martial arts training she could find.
One feral looking youth stared at me through the broken window of a wreck. He was filthy, his hair matted and cut unevenly with a serrated knife. His teeth, or what was left of them, were blackened stumps, the gums an unhealthy red. He keened, as I looked his way.
I reached slowly into my pocket, my eyes never leaving his, and drew out the sandwich I had planned on eating for my lunch. With a flick of my wrist I tossed it at him, his hands snatched at it hungrily and he was gone.
A small electric buzz from the stud on my earlobe alerted me to Kara’s call.
“What up baby bro?” I could hear the smugness in her voice, my sister loved to gloat.
“The sky, big sis. What you got for me?”
“I just got the final negotiations tucked outta the way, and get this; we might be up for a bonus.” I could almost feel the excitement in her voice tickle my ear.
“Bonus?” I replied a brother knows when he has a duty to fulfil.
“One mil’ straight up.” She guffawed loudly, making me wince. “You just gotta satisfy a coupl’a conditions.”
“Which would be?”
“Sorry bro I’m sworn to secrecy, but trust me, I wouldn’t sign you up for anything you wouldn’t want to do. Even if we don’t get the bonus we still get the half mil’ fee. She wants full sensory and verbal contact with you so you had better polish up your conversation skills bro.” She sounded so confident I had to smile. “Look I managed to book us some time on one of the gps satellites the Grey Boys got goin’ so I’ll know where you are all the time.”
My palms were starting to get clammy, I trusted my sister but when so much money was involved, it tended to make me nervous. Where was the catch?
“Okay you got a name for me Kara?” This wasn’t always necessary, but with a full contact it would be useful.
“That’s the other thing, the chicks called Amanda Hartridge.” She almost cackled at this. Hartridge was the name of the nearest dome, named for the guy that built it. His family weren’t just rolling in it; they were practically drowning in it. “She’s young and has booked you for four hours my boy. If you go over time it is a quarter mil’ per hour.” This last was almost screamed.
“Anything else?” I asked once she had calmed down.
“Don’t you understand baby bro? If you get the fee, the bonus, plus say two hours over-time we can blow this popsicle stand!”
It was exciting but I had to work. “Thanks Kara. I’ve got ten till the drop and I still have a bit to walk. We’ll talk when it’s done.” With a rub of my earlobe, I cut her off.
It wasn’t till after I had hung-up I thought to ask if the client had wanted to eat while she was here. My stomach growled in response.
When I was eight Kara allowed me to play outside for the very first time, she knew that soon I would have to start working and she wanted me to have what childhood I could. There was a girl who lived on the floor below us, she was ten I think, and we often played on the stairs between floors.
On the day I was allowed out the lifts were broken, again, so Amy – that was the girl’s name – and I walked the thirty-two flights, talking and playing all the way. Our imaginations ran wild as they do in children of that age. We were astronauts, police, and soldiers. We were kings and queens; we even played at being domers.
At some point, she asked me why I didn’t go to school with the other kids in the building.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “My sister says I don’t have too.” We were nearing the end of the stairs.
“Well school is really good,” I remember her thin, drawn cheeks lighting up. “You get to meet lots of people and learn stuff. Like reading. Did you learn to read?”
The question was a strange one for me, boxed kids can read, and speak, several different languages automatically. You never know where a client will come from.
“No, I just can.”
She paused for a moment, at the top of the flight of stairs leading to the ground floor. Her eyes fixed on my tattoo. “My mum says you can’t go to school ‘cause you’ve got something dirty inside you.” With that she started taking the steps two at a time almost running for the close door.
I hurried to catch up, wondering why her mum would say that. What was dirty inside me?
Making sure my mask was on properly as Kara had told me, I waited as the wheezing air-lock recycled, swirls of dust dancing in the fluorescent light. With a hiss and a sigh the doors slid open, pure bright sunlight fell on my face, dazzling me. It was so beautiful to see.
I didn’t notice the cricket bat till it had struck my stomach. I doubled over with a pain I cannot describe; I was too young to take it in. Boots and trainers rained in on me, spittle landed on my face and shoulders, I could hear the savage cries of other children, Amy included.
When the blows stopped I looked up to the semi-circle of dirty, angelic faces, in the centre were two boys fifteen years old or so, one had an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip, the other boasted a scar from forehead to chin that gave him a mean demeanour.
“We don’t want no poncy hookers playin’ on our patch, ye get me boxer? Run off to your dome-boys and play with them.” Scar kicked me for punctuation.
I had no idea why they did this, why anyone would want too, but I nodded quickly nonetheless, grasping that my only way out was to agree wholeheartedly. Another kick, and one or two wads of spit later, I was pulling myself into the old air-lock to the sound of childish laughter. Pulling myself to the safety of the building security system, it would call my sister, maybe even the police for all the good it would have done.
That was the only time I went outside to play.
The heart of the city was a triangle formed by three shopping centres, a shrine to the consumer society that was. The concrete slabs of the triangle were clear of carbon dust, – and people – probably some antiquated cleaning protocol. At each corner stood a tree black, decaying leaves clinging to the emaciated branches as with every other tree I had ever seen.
I made my way to the centre of the triangle and sat myself down cross legged, facing north, exactly as I was told to. Before me was the largest of the three malls. Its glass front shattered in places leaving it looking as if it had suffered the architectural version of the chicken pox. The other two weren’t much better.
The distant thrum of a sky ship caused me to check the time; they were regular as clockwork when they were out. My client was late.
The triangle was silent but for the whisper of a wind forced through the narrow passes between buildings. I started to relax, ignoring the gnawing that was starting to worry my stomach, if she didn’t drop in I still got paid.
And then she was there.
We never get to see our clients, we are like horses that are blinkered when their riders mount. Like the horses though we feel how they mount, how they seat themselves, how they move. I get images in my head of certain customers. Someone leaking fear back to me seems small and young. Feelings that are more savage bring forth images of lean and mean or corpulent and snide. I liked to think I was fairly good at judging my clients.
She was different. It sounds cheesy, I know.
As Amanda Hartridge took her place in the back of my skull, I felt a diffuse warmth flood my mind, I calmed to the point of chill, and that without any drugs. I could detect no meanness, no pretension, no disdain. She did not go riding for a kick or to forget, she had a purpose.
“Hello Nathan,” her voice whispered across my mind. “My name is Amanda. I suppose it’s time I tell you what I want.”
People derive pleasure from the strangest things.
I knew people who made a fairly good living from smoking. Just normal tobacco, nothing special. It was considered something of a luxury in the domes to pay someone outside to smoke for them, some of the richer citizens would have someone smoke up to eighty a day just to prove how unimportant money was to them. Most of the pros that took that sort of work usually died early of some sort of cancer, but at least their families didn’t go hungry.
From the mundane to the perverse domers wanted it all.
A friend of mine went under the knife for a sex change. A customer had asked for it promising a big pay day, enough to let her get out of the trade. She died on the table. Her family got nothing. Not everyone had a pimp as good as Kara.
I have shared fat, greasy, unhealthy food with little old women who have never seen anything unhealthy in their real lives. I have showered in the hard water available to us on the outside with countless men and women sharing the experience, like needles on my face, chest and back. Swimming in the filthy river is always a favourite with kids whose parents buy them a ride for their birthdays. And getting clean afterwards is usually a treat for the mothers or fathers.
Every disease I ever went through – and I was exposed to more than my fair share – was witnessed and experienced by voyeurs with more money than sense, desperate to get a feeling of something other than the disinfected cotton wool they had wrapped themselves up in. The itchiness and discomfort of the chicken-pox was accompanied by a twenty-two year old heiress in some dome in the former US. My first flu, by the grandson of a former first minister of Scotland.
There were rumours that some desperate toms, probably those dying of the Virus, allowed johns to witness their suicides from inside their heads. The full death experience from the comfort of your armchair/bathtub/bed/car/school/whatever.
Some said it was all in preparation for the day they would walk out of the Eden-domes bringing with them their precious sterile research and unsullied bodies to save the unwashed masses.
I have had enough of them in my head to know that the only outside life they would ever voluntarily lead is vicariously through idiots like me that let them.
My breath caught as I waited for her to tell me what she wanted. I almost couldn’t bear to think of her wanting something base or perverse; I didn’t want her to spoil the image I had formed.
“I want you to undertake a little journey for me. I want to see what you see.” Her voice held a maturity that belied her youth.
“A journey? My sister mentioned some conditions.” I never got the hang of sub vocalising so everything I wanted to convey I had to say aloud. Which could be embarrassing at times.
“Yes, there are. They shall become apparent as they arise. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, you may terminate the liaison or merely deny a request. It is entirely in your hands.”
This was the sort of mark everyone in the business dreamed of, there had to be a catch but if Kara couldn’t catch it, I certainly couldn’t.
“Okay, sounds good. And where would you like to walk to first?” I started to rise.
“Wait.” It came over as if she was used to being obeyed. “Please, run your hand over the gravel for me. Not hard, just so you can feel it.”
Perplexed I did as I was asked, paying attention to the sensation of the chipped concrete and dust as my palm dragged slowly over it. My finger tips acknowledged every dip and bump in the concrete. I could have sworn she shivered with pleasure.
“Tactile sensations like that are wonderful. Thank you Nathan.”
“You’re welcome ma’am.” She must have sensed the confusion in my voice.
“You seem confused Nathan.” There was a smile in her tone. “You have no idea how smooth, and clean, and sterile everything in here is.” She made it sound as if it were a bad thing. “Yes, it is beautiful, but it is unnatural. It is as if our nerves wear padding. No, it’s more like our minds are clouded when they receive sensations, they are dulled somehow. It is no wonder that we make use of people in your profession so often. When something as simple as touching concrete can bring a thrill. And as to your question, I do not require you to walk anywhere. An automated flyer will be here to pick you up in a moment or two.”
In my astonishment, I almost missed the whine of the engines. I looked up as its shadow fell over me, the sleek shiny body looked beautiful to eyes accustomed to hollowed out, rusted wrecks.
Once it had landed the door hinged upward and a small step down, allowing me access to a three metre by three cabin, with two comfortable looking soft seats, each accompanied by a knee high fridge. On the side opposite the door was a large view screen, similar to the wall screens I knew but with much higher definition. I hauled myself in by the handles, and seated myself near the view screen, which at that moment showed a perfect picture of our surroundings, with my hand I could move it through 360°.
I was like a child with a new toy.
Amanda became excited too. “The energy you have, the excitement you feel! That is something we sorely miss in the domes.” I could feel her smile illuminating my thoughts, poring over my every sensation. For the first time the feedback was glorious.
The vehicle shuddered as we took off, I watched with bated breath as we leapt into the air, seeing the buildings shrink beneath me.
The height and speed astounded me. I felt like I should have been paying her for the privilege.
Once we had reached our cruising altitude, the view became more sobering. The city was falling apart, from the centre outwards. The buildings were crumbling and the parks had turned black and brown. Even the suburbs looked sick.
We began to bank and I realised I had been silent for several minutes.
“Um, ma’am, I mean Amanda. May I ask where we are going?” I felt like a traitor for daring to interrupt whatever she had planned, but how could I be of service if I didn’t know what she wanted?
“Well Nathan, we are going to fly a while. You should look at all that you can, see what has happened to our land. Then I will show you the dome.”
My heart sank. Was this some sort of trick? Fatten me up then eat me? Give me a false sense of security? Yeah they promised Kara certain things but they could pay her off after the fact. They might not even have to, their lawyers could probably argue any case at all and win.
If Amanda noticed my discomfort, she didn’t mention it.
Puberty is always a hit with the johns, they want in on all sorts of things that for normal kids remain private. My virginity was sold to the highest bidder, I have to admit, it didn’t really bother me, I was a horny-as-hell sixteen year old boy, and gagging for it. I was matched up with a girl whose name I never learned, I say girl but she was at least five years older than me and most definitely not a virgin.
The first time we did it, we had a couple riding us, for some reason I had the woman and she the man. It was a full sensory ride with no communication. Nervousness and hormones competed to make it probably the most expensive forty-five seconds the couple had ever had, nevertheless ten minutes later they were back, this time in a more traditional pairing.
Again, it was only sensory contact. I can still smell the sweat and sex, feel her slick body under mine, taste the salt of her skin. I wonder if they remember it as fondly as I do.
After that it wasn’t as much fun, they kept swapping rides but with one way communication. They directed us like actors in porn, contorting our bodies to meet their desires.
When it was done, the girl and I shook hands and thanked each other for a pleasant working environment. She was used to it, things like that were her main trick. I, however, was still torn between elation and discomfort. Discomfort at the fact that some one had watched and at how raw certain parts of my body were. Elated, well, you can guess.
Another highlight of puberty, at least to the domers, is your first fight. – What happened when I was a kid could hardly be considered a fight. – I was fifteen and those hormones that would later aid me so well in bed were pushing me to violence. Kara hooked me up with a young boy whose father wanted him to experience real combat.
It was full sensory.
That first jolt of adrenaline almost knocked him out of me, sending his fight or flight reflex reeling. His fear was palpable and had my opponent not been so obviously affected by the same, I think I might have run. As it was, the first punch to land was mine, bringing a savage bolt of feedback a thirst for blood that was infectious. Neither me nor the boy I was fighting with had much, if any, experience and our punches and kicks missed more often than hit and caused less damage than you might think.
The smells stick with me, the tang of coppery blood and salty sweat, the rubbish flooding the alley. At the end of the fight, my left eye was swollen shut, my knuckles bruised and bloody. My opponent lay at my feet.
To this day, I don’t know if the surge of joy was my customers or my own but like my very first ride it made me puke.
After that, I told Kara no more fights. No combat rides.
The golden glass-like walls of the Hartridge Eden-dome loomed before me, its austere presence overpowering the bleak landscape surrounding it.
A diamond in the rough.
The flight had been spectacular, if saddening. The extent to which the world was damaged had never been clear to me. I was stuck in my own little patch and if that was bad, well, then it had to be better elsewhere.
Packs of dogs ran in the rotten fields, while those still used for agriculture had their own clear domes and robot keepers. You could see them from miles away, glinting in the autumn sun.
Amanda had stayed silent through the entire flight, – a little over an hour – which did nothing to allay my fears. Now she seemed to uncurl in my head stretching out catlike into the beauty I first perceived.
“Sorry Nathan, I had some business to attend too. You enjoyed the flight I hope?”
The flyer was setting down vertically, the dome filling the screen.
“What exactly am I doing here Amanda? I mean you said I could go whenever I wanted, right?”
If she had been there in person I am sure her hand would have been on my knee, as it was her voice alone did an admirable job of calming me down.
“We are almost done Nathan.” She still seemed a little distant. “Have you ever been to the dome?”
I had never left the confines of the city and she must have known it. Perhaps it was rhetorical.
“When the domes where created they were supposed to protect humanity from the damage we had caused. Not just the rich, everyone. Did you know that Nathan?”
I felt my head shaking. I had always assumed the rich had built them to get away from us.
“Countries all over the world built domes, each one could hold about a million people comfortably for more than three decades. There are more than fifty in Britain alone. Did you know that?
“When HIV:III turned up people like my grandfather panicked. Something so virulent, so deadly, could not be allowed to affect the rulers of our world.” The derision in her voice was obvious. I still had no Idea why I was there but the fear was gone.
“They sealed the Eden-domes with fewer than twenty-thousand people in each. Can you believe that? They wanted everything clean and pure. They didn’t take into account our need for diversity, for danger. For sensations or life. My grandfather locked me up here for my whole life. Before the domes were created, being locked up for that long would have been punishment for murder. He stole my life, my dreams. Him, and those like him stole so many lives. They are no better than thieves.” Passion filled her voice making my head throb.
I didn’t want to interrupt her monologue, but I had to know what the hell I was doing there.
“Amanda, why am I here?” She stopped for a moment.
“You are going to steal something from my grandfather.”
“I think maybe it’s time for me to go.” No matter how much passion she felt I was not going to steal anything from one of the most important people in the world.
“Your sister is a very clever woman Nathan.” That brought me up short; I wanted to know what Kara had to do with it.
“Why do you say that?” Cautious of a trick.
“First off,” she said. “Please show us what is behind us.” I traced my finger along the view screen so that it showed what was directly behind us. “She worked out how to follow us here, and how to bring a lot of people to the party.” She had me zoom in. A motley caravan of cars and bikes and trolleys rolled towards us, dust and fumes kicked up in its wake.
I swallowed hard. The door hissed and hinged open.
“Secondly, she worked out how to make that box of yours open the door to my grandfathers play pen.”
I stared out towards the dome, still over awed. My fingers absently stroked the skin at the back of my neck, over the implant.
“Go on.” She coaxed.
My feet made a crunching sound on the long dead grass, each footstep a crumble in my ears. My mind raced through what she had told me and I came to the only logical solution: either she was mad, or I was. But for some reason I kept putting one foot in front of the other.
The huge golden entrance was covered in ornate designs, the whole place emanated wealth. To the right of the small air-lock was a small podium with a glass top.
“Put your hand on it.” She whispered.
My hand moved of its own volition, fingers spreading as far as they could. The glass felt warm to touch. The caravan kept rumbling towards me, getting closer every minute.
Amanda whispered something I didn’t understand, a warm, liquid feeling spread from my box down my arm and onto the glass. A siren wailed.
I watched as the air-lock was overridden and started to cycle. As atmospheres mingled and rich men’s dreams came to nought.
About the Author
A Scottish writer living in Vienna, Marc has hitch-hiked his way from Scotland all the way through western Europe and back. And then a little more, well to Vienna anyway.
He has had a wide range of jobs, from picking fruit to managing customer care teams to running around like a mad man trying to bring people warm food without swearing at them. He is currently learning to program so he can wreak havoc with his friends computers and possibly get a job doing it. Or even writing a couple of stories about it, who knows?
Marc is now the proud father of an incarnation of the great Cthulhu currently posing as a 10 month old boy. He is sure the night terrors will at some point stop.
About the Narrator
Barry Haworth works as a statistician for the Australian Taxation Office. He holds a Masters degree in Statistics. Outside of work he is a keen reader of science fiction and enjoys choral singing and taking part in amateur theatricals, having performed such roles as Prospero in The Tempest, Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, and Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost in two different versions of A Christmas Carol.
Barry has narrated episodes of Cast of Wonders, Escape Pod, Pod Castle and also the Cheap Astronomy podcast. He lives in Brisbane, Australia with his wife Sylvia, those of his children who haven’t left home yet, and whatever the current quota of pets is.