Published: Mar 20, 2020 9:30:00 AM

salt-hill

EIGHT | The Malice Herself

The deafened landscape separating Calvin and Ivory’s hiding place from the fire-lit garage was a snowy, uncolored tomb, mixing the visible with the invisible. A gigantic figure passed back and forth across the garage’s forge.

Above the garage read the sign: Athenaeum—Racing School for the Gifted.

“Athenaeum, last of the [Original SIx],” Ivory said, soft as the snowy world. “Still in operation in minor leagues under Charlotte Wright’s leadership, D3CRL portal ID: 0000-000-00-0002.”

“Why do you figure she killed those dealers at the streamer’s commissary?” Calvin asked.

“They were dealers for local teams. The ones that came after us were from Corps racing—bigtime league-level stooges. A snowball like Char must’ve been offered the world itself to get her hands dirty like this though. Their generation’re all hateful hypocrites.”

Calvin panted visible breath in excitement, alarmed that they were already across the road and entering the garage.

Bone-tired and dragging a Pacific Ocean of wisdom with her, Char rose from a footstool beside the fire. Brown studded leather and a lifetime of desperate, fire-singed gambles was all that held her together. She stared at them with her dull daggers. 

Three children crowned with spindly wires sat to one side. The goggles cupping their eyes shot UI to remotely manipulate foot-high miniature rekts against one another with their quick thoughts. 

At the garage’s opposite wall was a fifteen-foot tall robot with an exposed ribcage. Metallic viscera emptied from the mecha’s gut. Its runner’s soft-iron link port dusted over. Its faded nameplate arcing over its shoulder, Soryu Falcon, was nearly illegible.

The rekt stood in skill-stance. The stance was utilized for short-track races full of obstacles and close corners.

“Charlotte Wright?” Ivory asked the woman, who appeared to grow larger as she drew close.

“Yeauh. All my life. Just ‘Char’ for most of it though,” Char said. 

“I’m Ivory,” Ivory said, offering his hand to shake.

“Ivory. Yeauh. You win a lot of races.” She eyed the young man. “Who’s the Rumspringa?”

Calvin put his hand behind his back. 

 “I’m a friend of your ex,” he told Char through gripped jaws.

Char hesitated for the first time. All her joints crinkled and cracked. She was a fashionable woman. Wind and rain had beaten her up and down years prior. Her skin was dark. Her fingers were rough and delicate, with lines that closed into tunnels when she made her palms into fists. Her aftermarket eyes were a deep imperial-Roman purple. Her hair was a cruel, glamorous garden.

She collected her arms across her chest. Her face held still when she said, “Man, I’m just trying to keep the boat off the rocks.”

“Sorry, wounds still fresh?” Calvin asked, emboldened.

“From the look of it,” Ivory noticed, indicating toward the blood on Char’s steel-toed boots.

Char shrugged without speaking.

“You think cutting apart the minor leagues will slot you back into the bigtime?” Ivory fired. “Get back at those glory days? You’re a goddamn snowball. Dying, angry women like you activated America’s most toxic urges and left us to this shitstorm. So do what snowballs do, and melt!”

“Dax’s gonna come back if the races keep growing!” Char challenged. She turned a finger around her ear, clocking on her rising breath. “Did yuh ever figure why the runners have suddenly begun killing one another on the track? It’s got nothing to do with money, or with rankings, or with subscribers, or with me! When the rekt run for too long, they tear free. They get untethered from the network—de-sync. The music dies and all the senses flutter. By then, the rekt’ve lived too much with their runner and they come alive. Their virtual intelligence panics, aware—” Ivory’s aluminum bat dragged on the pavement, reflecting the furnace light. “The races—that network holds us together. Dax wants that network to break.”

“Then why is Corps racing running ‘round here today?” Ivory asked.

“We had it backward,” Calvin said. He tapped his knuckleduster to the bat. Ivory halted. “Corps didn’t employ Char to kill the runners. Quite the opposite. They’re fostering an environment where the rekt can break free and the races as we know it self-destruct across all of the Diffused. Char, on the other hand, wants to preserve the state of things. You believe you’re killing—in order to save us from ourselves.”

“I’ve grown pitiful. I cannot invite further instability upon this country. The rekt can’t break free from the v.i. if I kill them first,” Char said. “We can’t suffer such massive carnage again. I oughta know. I’m the Malice Herself.”

 

NINE | Banished

The argument for dying one way or another sent Stro into a frenzy. He squeezed his bulk out of the depressurized sync suit. He kicked his chair away in the shock and pressed his palms to the taproom table, barely containing himself at Char’s suggestion. The bar patrons remained reserved. Most were older. Chance In Hell was one of the few watering holes that would serve Char’s generation.

“I can still hear Kilo’s young voice,” Stro said in an elevated calm. “Curious as a kid in the clouds. Come and kill me, Malice, and you kill what might be the next cycle of evolution.”

Calvin chewed a pastry beside Ivory. She rested in the bar’s dim hum, propped up on elbows, leaning back, or otherwise staring off, incapable of speaking through exhaustion.

“You’re not in a position to say what comes next,” Char answered. “You don’t hold enough power. If the League falls away today, something far worse will take its place. This is a small price—”

Nestled down into her chair and partway between words and thought, Stro caught sight of a man entering.

This was no accidental gesture from the thin man ambling up.

Instinct flickered in Char, her back to the door. Her fingernails clawed closed, tearing grooves in the roughshod table. Splinters drew a rolling bead of blood, but not a noise from the woman.

Calvin looked. Stro looked. The man crossed the room to their table to find a seat opposite Char. She buried her chin in her chest.

The man sat perfectly still—cold enough to stare a heart attack. He was brick-jawed and extra-Aryan, aging into sun-crinkled skin.

“What?” Stro asked with a start, leaning in toward the stranger, with a cupped palm to his unattended ear. The stranger remained immobile. Stro leaned away, the tactic unsuccessful. “Who’s this snowball?”

Ivory leaned in next. She bent her face to the thin man, then to Char, and back. 

“He’s real. Stro, I think this is Daxter,” she said. She swallowed. She panted a little. “Golly, my mouth is dry. Such celebrity.”

“Char, dear,” the man said. His voice was a teeming jungle. He smiled and then fought it back, but not before a laugh escaped. “My heart—it’s beating so fast.” Char didn’t respond. “Well? Why won’t you speak to me, Char? I’m here now. I’m excited to see you. Char?”

“She looks afraid,” Ivory said, her hammering heartbeat given away in her muscled shoulders.

“Can you ask her why she won’t answer?” Dax asked. He looked at Calvin. “As a favor, young man?”

“Char. Dude. C’mon.”

“I killed twenty-six people,” Char said at last. She was bleeding from her fingertips.

“When did you do this?” Dax asked, inviting her to confess a familiar story.

“The Malice. I murdered them all. To stop your fucking enterprise of lies.”

He flexed his mouth and eyebrows in an agreeable expression.

“Hah! Where—wh-where d-do you get off?” Char cradled her face in her hands. “You banished me from racing for what I did, Dax—for mass murder. The rekt drove me insane, or I drove it insane when I killed its connection to the v.i. network. We, together, could’ve reunited the Diffused States that day. The v.i. had nearly re-balanced what was right—but you made the races a ferocious lie! I’d burn down your bullshit again to keep the peace if—!”

Dax halted Char with a command.

“No. What you’ve got here in your CHEMICAL ANGER is merely a blind child’s insincere bet at emotion. There is no place for that in the waking world, so when I tell you, a grown woman, to go fetch me COGENT THOUGHT on a question I’ve asked, I expect you to come back with something more substantial in your teeth than: ‘emotional.’ Till then, your mouth don’t tear. I’ll tell you this only once with my words. Have you fucking got that?” 

Char pulled apart her lips in defiance. Dax was so quick, the two sounds of an old jawbone snapping down and Char’s tongue-less cry were separate and distinct. Her mouth was a swampy cave churning with spit and blood.

Ivory shrieked in cursed alarm as Dax released the weighty stone lump from his hand, its work done.

“You’ve never created something genuine enough to necessitate emotion,” he said to Char, pawing at herself between wheezes. “Stro was brave enough to do something you and the League never could—”

“—This man does not speak for me,” Stro growled at Dax. “And you know nothing of my work.”

“A sentience, drawn into creation, Stro. Haha, you created life, my man! A new living thing, with new wants and needs, up out of the dark ocean of information and onto bright land. Char saw that happen to Soryu Falcon and she ran from the idea. Act on a consciousness higher than a dim light riding meat with feet and you’d at least a chance to die screaming. Or, you can die like a woman.”

Char fumbled with a mouthful of saliva and teeth on the floor.

Dax crossed his legs. He closed his eyes to contemplate while Stro, Ivory, and Calvin recoiled from where Dax sat.

“I have been—deliberately misunderstood in the past. By people,” he said. Char whimpered on the floor. None could muster a move. “But there is no misunderstanding this. Self-created machine-minds, self-evident as living, born from the racing spirit of our once magnificent country. Enviable, unique, and inimitable. Our society usually elects simpler mathematics for their heroics. But I’ll play the hand I’m dealt.”

“That’s a short story, long,” Calvin said softly. His mouth stayed open, but he didn’t go on speaking to Dax.

“I like this one,” Dax said with a raised finger. He glanced to Stro. He glanced to Ivory. Then back to Calvin. “What’s your name?”

“Calvin. Sir. I’m your son—you—”

“Sons are for the insecure and vain,” Daxter Wright cut him short. “Sons are for men who believe legacies will render them immortal. Men like Stro and I can summon a living existence from mankind’s collective ether—virtual intelligence. What the fuck do I need a son for, Boy-Calvin? But you’ve the look to you. I’ve walked some streets you trotted as a lad, over the Kingdom’s wall. There, I shook hands with Congressmen and Holywomen. I vomited up green liquid and dead leeches, roasted in the sweet and savory tasty-gravy.” He rested his hand on Calvin’s to keep him from taking a bite of his pastry. “No dinner for child. Not till you grow up right.”

“Sir, are you—?”

Dax shook with gentle laughter.

“—You must grow, boy-Calvin. Or you’ll remain a mixtape. And you,” he said at last to Stro and Ivory. “You are strong characters. The world would love to watch you grow. So, you’ve a choice. Pack away those fragile cow-eyes. Fold your soul into mine, into my family. Corps Racing is the ocean crashing upon the shore, dissolving these Diffused States. There will be carnage, yes. But this status quo is only a pillar of salt. Atop this forever-copycatting America, I will build my temple. Or, you can choose to remain where the math is simple, facing inward. You will be my glamorous rebels.”

“That’s all it takes to get your boot off my neck?” Stro said, all former playfulness washed away. “So, we can either continue racing as we do, and perhaps be killed by somebody like Char? Or we can wait for the League to collapse into itself and join as footsoldiers in your new world order. A choice of whether or not to starve to death is not a choice.”

Dax exhaled. 

“America was brave, once. Each of us wanted to personally own America’s unity—mind, body, and soul. Back to front. Through conquest, if need be. So join me and join the next stage of our destined evolution. No longer self-conquered, just self-sweetened. Just a bag of gumballs. We’re going to die here, because we were born here, all while somebody gets rich off somebody else’s trash. So let’s be somebody else.”

He extended an open palm to Stro.

Continued in Part 4 . . .

-- Aleksander Ruegg
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