THE RIVER, THE AXE AND THE OPTIONS
by Michael M. Rader
A river is not its water, but it needs moving water to be a river. With that in mind, Naveed jumped across the flat stones set in the shallow, stagnant waters of what could maybe still be called the Colorado River. His backpack swung as he jumped, the C HOPKINS rods inside clacking together like loose marbles. He landed on the eastern side of the river, his worn boots kicked up miniature mushroom clouds of dust, rising and falling like empires. He had crossed the dividing line, from the Luddites’ territory into the land claimed by the Compound. The peace pact between the two sides was solid enough, but dealing with the Compound still made Naveed nervous.
He pulled himself up the steep bank, gloved hands grabbing at the shaggy Joshua Trees and scrub brush growing out of the red earth. He stood at the top of the bank, looking across the rocky wasteland. The FedMet called it Arizona, still thinking they owned the damn place. Naveed took a drink of flat-water and wiped his cracked lips. He wanted real water, water with impurities. The water that came from the compound was too perfect, every necessary mineral and electrolyte added in precise proportion. Flavor came from the flaws and the compound didn’t manufacture anything with flaws–nothing they’d admit to, anyway.
He walked past sunbaked Luddite children digging for mineral-rich rocks in the soil at the top of the bank. They waved to Naveed. Soon he’d be giving them red plastic whistles and tops and action figures from his printer in exchange for the rocks they dug up. Especially the whistles, the kids loved their little, red whistles; It drove their parents crazy. None of the children spoke, wanting instead to get their rocks and get back to their side of the river as quickly as possible. Naveed smiled at a little girl using the leg of an old Barbie doll to pry up stones. It was impossible to stop children from creating new tools and technology no matter how hard you tried to run from it.
He kept on, aiming towards the fortress of rock in the distance and the haphazardly stacked tower of parallel processors rising from its center. It’d only been a few months since he last visited the compound, but it looked like the tower had already grown a good ten or twenty feet since then. Crude, wooden palisades stretching across the opening of the rock fortress greeted Naveed as he drew closer to the compound.
Two guards appeared from fissures around the fortress, flanking Naveed and keeping in step with him. This was a new protocol. He’d traded easily with the compound in the past and had never had a guard look at him twice. He sized the two men up without turning his head, not letting them know how much he knew. One of the men was a Rip. He was a good seven feet tall, limbs as thick as lumber with wickedly sharp keratin protrusions jutting out from his knuckles. The other man was shorter and Naveed could tell from his single-colored eyes he was Unrooted. Although the organic curves of the printed, automatic pistol in his hand looked just as nasty as the Rip’s claws.
“State your business, ‘phobe,” said the Unrooted guard.
“Trade,” said Naveed, still staring ahead.
“Trading what?” growled the Rip, his voice modified to a bass just below thunderclaps.
“Rods. Mostly Carbon but a few HOPKINS.”
“No calcium?” asked the Rip. Naveed’s chest rattled when the giant spoke.
“I’ll take it up with your trademaster,” said Naveed.
“Can’t,” said the Unrooted guard, “He’s gone Untouchable.”
Naveed’s chest tightened. The trademaster was a good man and one of the few friends he had left in the compound after leaving. Naveed stopped walking and turned to the man, forcing a cool calm into his voice, “Bad filter?”
The Unrooted guard nodded, “Tried to crack regeneration, hacked himself with some kinda’ worm. Real nasty stuff. And Samuel here wonders why I keep myself pure.” He gave the Rip a pointed look.
“Get off your pulpit, Len,” said the Rip called Samuel, “I went with the tried and true.” He held up a fist the size of a baby to demonstrate his clawed knuckles. Samuel leaned in and stared at Naveed’s shifting eyes that roiled like muddy water.
“Hey Len,” said Samuel, “Speaking of. You ever seen a Rooted ‘phobe?”
“Nope,” said Len, “Pretty suspicious if you ask me.”
“I used to live here,” said Naveed, “A long time ago.”
Len walked ahead to pull the gate to the compound open, “I’m keeping an eye on you, ‘phobe. Look at us funny and Sammy here can either snap you in half or dig your lunch outta’ your belly. Either way, it’ll hurt.”
Naveed nodded and walked into the shadow of the fortress. Orderly stacks of whitesmoke colored houses lined the jagged cliff faces within. Each house was identical, made of aluminum-strength organic plastic, molded into clean, seamless planes intersecting at perfect angles. He walked past a larger building with a short stack of processors slouching nearby, it churned raggedly and Naveed could feel the heat radiating off of it. The compound manufacturers were working hard.
Naveed was surprised to see nearly everyone around him was Rooted. The Unrooted guard was in the minority. Even more surprising, nearly half of them were Ripped. He was surrounded by unnatural frames, organic armor, spidery limbs, ornamental wings and ears, prehensile tails and bioluminescent strips.
“Hell of a lot of Rips, huh?” said Naveed.
Samuel and Len glared at him but said nothing. It used to be only the most daring and crazy hackers Rooted themselves, tweaking their DNA through the filters installed in their stolen FastTrav chambers. It ended in nightmares and nasty messes more often than it worked. Fear of consequence was never enough to stifle innovation, though, and they kept pushing the boundaries of what they could do. After all, that’s why the people of the compound ran to the Interstitial Spaces in the first place–to create, to push against the Metro laws insisting teleportation could only be used by the sanctioned few. And now the Compound was all but forgotten, along with the technophobic villages and the rural communities that withered as the infrastructure between the Mets collapsed.
A sociologist from DenMet visited once, a decade earlier. Her name was Dolly Gilshannon–although she went by Shannon. She was there working on her Master’s thesis on people of the Interstitial Spaces. Naveed was her guide, showing her around the compound and explaining the ethos and community and their uneasy relationship with the technophobes across the river. At the time, Naveed thought he’d loved her. That was a long time ago, though. His life was on the other side of the river now, stripping minerals and bartering with the Compound. He doubted anyone here remembered him now, what he’d done for them. No one, except maybe for Smyth.
They walked on, passing beneath the long shadow of the droning tower of processors. Naveed saw the old two-story ripping house lurking nearby, looking as drab and dismal as ever. It was one of the oldest structures in the Compound, a chimeric eyesore slapped together from building material stolen off of abandoned houses.
He’d spent thousands of hours in the ripping house, tweaking and modifying the FastTrav chambers he and Smyth had stolen and designing new filters. He could still remember the exhilaration after a successful experiment, climbing into the chamber on the first floor, vanishing, and appearing in the chamber upstairs with a different eye color or texture of hair. That exhilaration of discovery faded when Smyth started pushing the experiments too far and encouraging the more radical hackers to explore more extreme modifications.
They reached the far end of the compound and the long, unfurnished huts housing Untouchables. Swirling eyes of varying color stared at them from the hut. Naveed could hear them moaning within and screaming animal screams. Shadowy and grotesque figures lurched around in the shadows of the unlit interior. Something wet and slithering passed the doorway, withered limbs jutting out from between segmented ridges in its body. It paused in the doorway, turning briefly towards the group, staring with unseen eyes. Naveed shuddered.
“So, who am I meeting with?” asked Naveed.
Len shrugged, “Figured I’d just leave ya’ at the trading house and you’d figure it out.”
“I’ll meet with Smyth, then.” said Naveed.
The two guards moved in front of him.
“The Administrator is not receiving visitors.” said Samuel, his calm voice a dull roar.
“The Administrator? Sounds like Smyth could use a lecture about humility,” said Naveed.
“You will refer to The Administrator as The Administrator,” shouted the Rip.
Naveed’s ears rang. He stepped up to Samuel, his face coming up to the Rip’s chest. He craned his neck up and stared deeply into the man’s shifting blue-green eyes.
“Listen to me, freakshow. I worked with Smyth back when you were a ninety-pound nothing. I wrote the base code for the filter that Ripped you and all your nightmare buddies. And I’ve got the elements you need to keep this operation going, bik?”
Samuel’s eyes swirled with color as he processed Naveed’s words. Len nodded at the giant and Samuel shrugged, picking Naveed up by his leg. Naveed’s backpack slipped off of his shoulders and hit the ground. Len picked up the backpack and Samuel threw Naveed over his shoulder, walking down the street.
“Where are we going?” asked Naveed, wheezing through bruised ribs.
“I think we need to meet with The Administrator.” said Samuel.
Samuel went in first, Naveed could hear his voice through the soundproofed walls of Smyth’s sprawling home like a distant grinding of stone on stone. He came out and held the door open for Naveed, ushering him in. The door closed behind him. It took a while for his eyes to adjust in the darkness. He could hear his old friend’s labored breathing somewhere nearby.
Naveed turned towards the thin voice. There was a simple sheet spread across an open doorway. He started pushing it aside.
Naveed lowered his hand, letting the sheet fall back in place, “Is that you, Smyth?”
“Smyth. The Administrator. God,” Smyth sighed and it turned into a bronchial rattle, “Yes. I’m he. We’re it.”
“What’s going on around here?” asked Naveed.
They stood in silence as Smyth caught his breath. As Naveed’s eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw the walls were covered with relics, ancient things he’d only ever read about. Model airplanes dangled from the ceiling, stuffed replicas of animals Naveed couldn’t name lined the shelves and bumper stickers with inscrutable phrases like 10,000 MILES TO WALL DRUG adhered to every empty spot on the wall.
“Do you know the parable of the ax?” asked Smyth.
“Remind me,” said Naveed.
“A man buys a new axe. While using it, he breaks the head. He brings it to a repairman who replaces the head of the ax–“
“Right. Then he breaks the handle and you ask if it’s the same axe,” said Naveed, “I guess I do know that one.”
“I don’t know if I’m the same man, Navi. I don’t look like Smyth. I don’t feel like Smyth. I make…moral decision Smyth never would have. I don’t know if that’s age or the, the, the…alterations I’ve made to my mind, the capacity changes. They don’t even call me Smyth anymore.”
“Whose fault is that?” asked Naveed.
Silence, it seemed as if Smyth had stopped breathing for a moment.
“How long has it been, Navi?”
“Since you left.”
“About ten years.”
“When did I see you last?”
“About ten years ago.”
“Hm. I know you’re…you’re Rooted. Did you ever rip, Navi?”
Naveed shook his head, realized Smyth couldn’t see him and said, “No. Nothing more than our little cosmetic experiments”
“They’re all doing it now,” said Smyth, “I think we’ve reached a…a tipping point.”
Naveed could hear Smyth moving around behind the door, rustling and scratching. He saw a thin shadow pass over the curtain.
“What was the tipping point, Smyth?” asked Naveed.
“Smyth,” said the rasping, hollow voice from behind the curtain, “Smyth was the tipping point. He…I…went too far. I’ve become an icon in here, The Administrator, ruling secondhand from behind a curtain and…and…losing touch. It’s out of my control, Navi.”
Naveed could sense Smyth standing just behind the curtain now, the form of his shadow was something unrecognizable.
“The Administrator is out of control, Navi.”
Naveed backed away from the doorway. Fingers as long and rigid as shin bones slipped from behind the folds of the curtain..
“We move soon, Naveed. We fight soon. I need you.”
Naveed turned and ran. He could hear Smyth shuffling across the floor behind him.
“We need your help!” Screamed Smyth, his voice an eerie high pitch, “Smyth needs your help!”
Naveed pushed the door open, stumbling out into the light, momentarily blinding him. He didn’t stop, though. Naveed ran, blind and reckless.
“I need him!” Shrieked Smyth.
Samuel and Len ran after him, Samuel’s tree-trunk legs shaking the ground. Naveed’s vision returned and he realized that he was running in the wrong direction, away from the Compound gates. He heard Samuel drawing heavy, snorting breaths just behind him. The only good news was people were leaping out of Naveed’s way in anticipation of the giant. The Rip was gaining on him, there was no way Naveed could compete with the man’s unnaturally long and muscular legs. He dodged around a Joshua Tree and heard a splintering crack as Samuel crashed through it. So much for using agility. He had to think.
He was being chased by a large mass moving at a high speed–p=mv…momentum. Naveed fell to his knees and curled inward, rolling. He kicked up a cloud of dust as he skidded to a stop. Samuel overshot, trying to turn and stop. He lost his balance and tumbled, crashing through the side of a house and leaving a jagged tear. Naveed got to his feet and ran in the opposite direction.
Naveed was in the shadow of the processor stack when he saw Len who was breathing hard and jogging slowly. The backpack full of rods was still slung around the guard’s back. Before Len could react, Naveed jumped and drove his heavy boots into Len’s chest like a battering ram. The two men fell to the ground. Naveed rolled, grabbed his backpack and stood up. The ground shook and Naveed turned.
Samuel had already recovered and was running back towards him. He was too far from the gate to outrun the Rip. He looked around and saw that the door to the ripping house was standing open. At least there he had a chance of making a stand, finding something to defend himself with. He dashed for the entryway. There was a short, sharp crack and Naveed felt cold fire pierce his side. He twisted and saw Len holding up his gun. Naveed forgot about the gun. Another bullet hit his shoulder, embedding in the bone.
With the last of his energy, Naveed fell through the open door, kicking it shut behind him as he collapsed to the floor.
Clutching his side, Naveed reached up and slid the locking bar shut on the door. His vision blurred, darkness eating away at the edges. He slumped down to his stomach and looked around the sparse room. There was only a plastic table and chairs, the flight of stairs up to the second floor and a doorway in the back to where the FastTrav chamber was kept. Naveed tried to stand but everything went dark and he heard the sound of rushing water in his ears. He collapsed. Naveed pulled himself across the floor, dragging with his one good arm and pushing with the little strength left in his legs. His backpack dragged heavily, sagging to the side. Samuel bellowed and pounded on the door. Naveed could hear Len telling Samuel to be careful. They couldn’t risk damaging the equipment.
Naveed reached the back room when he heard the scraping of a pry bar sliding across the slick plastic of the door, trying to find purchase. He pulled himself into the room and stopped to rest, looking around. The back room was lined with the delicate interfaces and connections that led to the stack of processors outside. Wires snaked out from the cool-blue, glowing boxes and wormholed through the wall. The interfaces connected to the terminal at the back of the room, an obsolete glass and keyboard construct, and to the FastTrav chamber lying flat on the floor in the middle of the room.
The chamber was an old one, actually made of metal. It was a corroded deathtrap with rusted out holes in the side. It always reminded Naveed of a massive bathtub, although the mess of wires and indicator lights and the folding doors that closed over the top made it hard to confuse the two. There was a box next to the chamber with cylindrical receptacles for rods, in case extra elements were needed for the user’s Rip.
He was out of options. No, that wasn’t true–he had options, they just weren’t one’s he liked. He could just die, bleed out on the floor and hope no one used him for some weird resurrection experiment. He could face Samuel and Len and maybe survive to find out what his crazed former friend wanted to do to him. Or he could risk the FastTrav.
Naveed knew the basic filter. He knew it would mend wounds and remove foreign matter because that’s what he programmed it to do. He even got it to the point where it could detect and remove cancerous growth before he left. No matter what, he’d live if he went through. He just didn’t know what he’d look like. For all he knew, the trademaster’s filter was still installed and he’d end up an Untouchable.
It would be his choice, though. That’s what mattered.
Naveed heard metal groaning and plastic splintering and Samuel panting just outside the door. He struggled to his feet and leaned over the terminal, dripping blood on the keyboard. It was already on the command line, the first good luck he’d had all day. He typed in the initialization sequence, hoping the syntax hadn’t changed in the last ten years.
The screen flashed red. Insufficient material, Carbon, HOPKINS, and CaFe rods needed.
Naveed groaned, that meant a Rip was installed, a complicated one. He opened his backpack and fed every rod into the receptacle one by one, the rods thudding and clanging as they slid down the chute to the element tanks under the floor.
The screen was still red telling him he had insufficient Calcium and Iron. He looked around the room, desperately hoping someone had left some spare CaFe rods.
Samuel ripped the door off of its tracks and the building vibrated as the guard squeezed through the opening. Naveed could hear the men shouting and the Rip was screaming curses as he moved through the building.
Naveed typed in the override command and reinitialized the FastTrav chamber. He climbed into the chamber and the folding doors closed over him. He was in darkness, the hum of servos and whine of charging capacitors surrounding him. There was a flash of light, sudden and sharp as lightning, and Naveed was ripped apart.
The FastTrav system could tear apart and reassemble anything down to individual atoms, but it couldn’t place electrons. When the folding doors of the chamber opened and Naveed sat up, he couldn’t remember anything. The building he was in was shaking. He could hear someone screaming, no, roaring in anger below him. He vaulted out of the chamber, his arms rippling with new muscle. Memory and sense of space returned as the electrical activity of his brain resettled to where it belonged.
He was on the second floor in a room that was almost identical to the one he had just left. He looked down at his abdomen, no wound. He looked at his hands, no claws or fur, so he was still moderately human. He could feel the power as he moved, though. His arms and legs were still slender, but the muscles beneath were dense and quick. Every step was one of perfect precision and speed, every movement of his arm was graceful and unfathomably fast, burning with energy.
Naveed saw the Rip’s head appear from the staircase below, pulling himself up into the second story. The floor creaked ominously beneath the giant’s feet. Samuel opened his mouth to say something, but Naveed launched forward, his feet coiling and retracting like well-engineered springs. He swung an elbow, hitting Samuel’s jaw. There was a sound like a gunshot and the Rip toppled down the stairs, the weight of his body tearing a hole through the steps on his way down. Naveed cried out in pain and clutched his broken arm.
Bone density. Of course.
His elbow and forearm had shattered on impact, breaking like a bottle across Samuel’s jaw. There was insufficient Calcium and Iron to build bones that could withstand the new force he was working with.
He felt a shifting in his arm, like insects crawling beneath his skin. Bone shards sliding back into place, mending together. Tendons and ligaments retightening and rebinding. Naveed screamed as his bones reknit in a matter of seconds. It was excruciating. Somebody had cracked the code for regeneration after all. Naveed felt hungrier than he had ever felt before in his life.
He bent and turned his arm. It was already at full function. His only way out now was the tear through the wall and jump to the ground or to fight through the guards filling up the first floor of the building.
Either way, it was going to hurt.
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