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By M. M. Buckner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 M. M. Buckner
All rights reserved.
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"Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Though wise men at their end know dark is right ..." –DYLAN THOMAS
Life is addictive. Too much just makes you want more— though it never quite matches your hope. I know. I'm 248 years old. And Sheeba? She wasn't even twenty when we met. Perhaps I craved her sparkle, her innocent faith in tomorrow, her playfulness, her spicy thighs. Or perhaps it was simply tuning. We connected at the ragged end of my life and the dewy beginning of hers. And now, because of Sheeba, this is my final war surf. I'm waiting here in this battle zone to die.
The gunfire has stopped. I'm shivering under a table in a cold, deserted anteroom. Broken benches litter the floor, and a scummy film of mold covers everything. Overhead, one fluorescent light blinks off and on like alien code. That's the worst, that light. It's unzipping my rationality. I could get out of here. There's still time. But I stay and wait (calmly?) for the end. I have four hours left. Four hours to tell you about Sheeba.
Sheeba who fixes my pain.
Let's say this began six months ago, on a Tuesday afternoon, early January 2253—the afternoon Sheeba first watched me surf a war zone. We were surfing the Copia.Com drug factory in Thule that day, a small feisty worker rebellion, seventeen levels underground.
Our surf crew, we were the best. We held top rank in the northern hemisphere, and the five of us had been surfing wars together for decades—Verinne, Kat, Winston, Grunze and me. All beautiful people, strong and rich and well past our second century, all addicted to war surfing. We'd grown up together during the grisly twenty-first century, and we'd grown wealthy during the twenty-second. I'd had sex with every one of them. I'd lived off and on with Kat. And once I'd been in love with Verinne. Maybe we were friends. Maybe rivals. The fact is, I treasured what we were together.
We called our crew the Agonists—in the sense of contenders, pro and anti—though we liked the connotations of death struggle, too. Let's say we shared a disdain for the commonplace. Let's say we chose to defy the moribund limits of ordinary life. We were senior execs, semiretired, all taking telomerase treatments and recloning our organs and pumping our cells full of bioNEMs to extend our youth. Pain was easy to kill. Work we delegated to others. Feasting, free sex, flash drugs, everything grows tedious after a while. Except war surfing.
"Nasir, you're too bloody slow," Grunze yelled over the crack of exploding concrete. "You missed the window."
I counted explosions and smiled at him across a corridor filled with dust. The Copia factory guards were using pulse lasers, and their noisy beams ricocheted down the corridor walls, drilling craters and punishing my eardrums. Across from me, Grunze waited in the opposite doorway, shaking his head. I was supposed to cross the corridor without getting hit. Picture me squatting in the subterranean doorjamb, breathing concrete dust and massaging my inflamed right hip.
Grunze yelled, "What're you doing? Taking a piss?"
"I'm savoring the moment," I yelled back.
"No time-outs." Verinne's dry voice scratched through my helmet earphone, as if she were coughing the words. "You have sixty seconds, Nasir. Otherwise, you forfeit."
Her camera buzzed in front of me, a thumb-sized blur of mechanical wings. While Grunze and I raced through this underground factory, Verinne watched everything from her car, parked on the surface. I checked my helmet camera. Grunze and I were documenting, too.
Grunzie smirked at me from the opposite doorway. He'd crossed earlier, before the lasers started firing. His white body armor accentuated his massive shoulders, and the tight-fitting sports helmet outlined his boulder head. Grunze believed I wouldn't do this because, compared to him, I'm a small man, thin and wiry, and Grunze equated that with weakness. He'd bet half a million deutsch that I would freeze up and fail to run through the line of fire.
The laser barrage grew sporadic, unpredictable. Zzt-zzl. Bam! Imagine a razor-sharp reek of sweat and burnt plastic. And let's assume I felt fear. Salty, tight, deep-muscle anguish. The taste of iron dissolving in my mourn. Delectable terror. Let's imagine how I sank into it and let the shivers ride up my neck. Let's suppose I fantasized searing agony.
When and if I ran through the laser beams, Verinne would upload the live video to Kat and Winston back in Nordvik. Through the earphone, I could hear their wisecracks. They were placing bets, how many steps I would take, how many seconds, whether I would make a noise. Later, we would drink tequila and settle our wagers, and that dickhead Grunze would pay me half a million deutsch. Because I would do this. There was no doubt. Moments like this were the reason I stayed alive.
"Be here now," I whispered under my breath. And I thought of Sheeba. The clean scent of her soap, the sweet flesh under her chin.
As the lasers hissed, concrete shards flew up and stung my jaw. The floor looked like a map of the moon. But my sleek new quantum dot body armor changed colors when I moved, and the user's guide claimed it would deflect laser fire. I was getting ready to test the money-back guarantee.
"C'mon. It's almost time for lunch." Grunze gave me that taunting smile, wide blunt jaw and white teeth, and he crooked his index finger, come hither. It was part of his game.
Well, I could play the game, too. I nonchalantly lifted off my helmet, drew out a travel mirror and checked my hair. Handsome young Euro features reflected back at me—surgically standardized. Gene therapy had lightened my complexion. Only the droopy, almond shape of my eyes betrayed Hindu ancestry. Poetic eyes, some women called them. Amorous eyes, the color of smoke. Over the years, my droopy Far-Eastern eyes had served me well.
Kat buzzed through my earphone with her hypertensive whine. "Nasir, you're grandstanding."
"Katherine, take a pill and settle down." I calmly zipped the mirror back inside my pocket and replaced my helmet.
"Nass is doing a Zen dung," Winston said. His words over the phone were so slurred, he seemed to be drowning—in tequila, most likely.
"Thirty seconds," said Verinne.
A sudden whiff of smoke made me gag. Somewhere, Pharmaceuticals were burning. I would have worn a hazard suit, but Grunze said no, that was a pussy move. Breathe the local air, he said. Be one with the war zone.
I leaned against the doorjamb, coughing on the chemical smoke and recalling with grim humor that my pal Grunze owned those burning medicines. His family held a large stake in this drug company, and for a hundred years, they'd earned solid returns—until out of nowhere last month, their employees trashed the production line and sent tons of expensive Pharmaceuticals up in flames. Small labor disputes like this were cropping up everywhere, like a fad on the Net. And the battle cry was always the same: "Gimme what you got."
At least, these new war zones made for variety—we surfers craved fresh playing fields. But this fight was already winding down. Grunze's security guards were encircling the last few agitators. This might be Copia's final battle. As the floor and walls erupted in shards, I caught my breath and let the fear build. My heart was hammering. My eyesight sharpened. My brain picked up speed.
'Ten seconds," Verinne rasped.
"Shit." I stood up and dove across the corridor.
The laser guns exploded. For an instant, I may or may not have seen a wall of light flying toward me. Perhaps this occurred in slow motion. Or perhaps the seconds compressed into a single flash. I landed just shy of the open door and rolled to cover, slamming my hip and laughing hysterically. Safe behind the wall, the tremendous shivering release hit me like an orgasm.
'Well done," Verinne said.
"About time," said Kat.
"Okay, enough clowning. Let's get out of here." Grunze was pissed. Though he outweighed me by a good twenty-five kilos, I'd proved once again he couldn't top me in sheer nerve.
Blood pulsed through my limbs like a drumbeat. I swept damp black curls out of my eyes and spoke to the Bumblebee camera. "Verinne, how many seconds?"
"Point-eight-nine," she announced with her gruff cough. "Grunze's time was point-ninetwo."
"Hear that? I beat your time, burly boy." I punched his shoulder and dodged when he tried to hit back. "Sore loser, ha."
Then a concussion knocked us both to the floor. "PBW!" we both yelled.
The particle beam weapon incinerated the wall across the corridor—exactly where I'd been standing seconds ago. My lungs fluttered like a pair of mistimed rockets. Two beats later, Grunze and I rolled in unison away from the door, then belly-crawled toward the shelter of an overturned metal desk. Another walloping particle beam struck farther down the corridor, and we hunkered together, panting and rubbing our aches and grinning at each other.
As soon as Grunze caught his breath, he yelled, "Surf the moment!"
"Molto perilous!" I yelled back. We were both blissed to the max on battle stress.
"What's a PBW7' Winston said through the phone, but no one bothered to answer.
"You Freds act like you just cruised Heaven," said Kat.
Grunze laughed. "No, it's not that sweet."
Heaven, ha. Everybody kept yakking about Heaven, the so-called "holy grail of war surfs." It was just an old orbiting sugar factory nicknamed for its sweet smell, but ever since the war broke out there nine months ago, Heaven had grown freaking legendary. Curling Earth in high polar orbit, the place was so rigorously guarded that no crew had attempted it yet. A virgin zone. It had a difficulty rating of Class Ten—the highest.
"Katherine, you're jealous," I said, affectionately butting helmets with Grunze. "You could be here now if you hadn't wimped out."
"I had a heart attack yesterday, you bimbus." Kat was touchy about her health.
Too soon after the rush, we felt the letdown. My side started throbbing where the lasers hit, and fiery pain shot down my right leg. Grunze's muscles locked up so badly, he had trouble bending his knees. I tugged off my helmet, flipped out my travel mirror and checked my hair. Then I whispered a private code to speed-call Sheeba.
Sheeba Zee, my physical therapist. Barely past adolescence, Shee had the most miraculous healer's touch I'd ever known. Only Shee could work this kink out of my hip. Waiting for her answer, I massaged my hamstring. My artificial right hip joint never had performed to spec. But Sheeba would know what to do. Shee knew the brands and models of all my artificial parts. She even knew about my bioNEMs, though we didn't speak of them. Sheeba didn't approve of Nano-Electronic Machines inside the human body. She didn't believe they were "natural."
NEMs were mega cutting-edge, and I had a thousand different kinds of the tiny buggers crabwalking through my cells. Complex silicon molecules, they ran on blood sugar, moved like proteins, and performed all the specialized functions my 248-year-old body could no longer handle. They didn't itch or make a noise, but in an uncanny way, I could sense them moving, like an exotic hive entity buzzing inside my skin. Maybe Shee was right about NEMs.
In fact, a doctor once showed me an MRI of the scary living lattice the NEMs wove through my tissues—like a second Nasir Deepra made of glass dust. Can you visualize it, a Nasir-shaped crystal man? If all my flesh and gristle were stripped away, I had a whimsical notion mat this glass man would get up and walk around and tell you the same lies I'm telling now.
What I knew for sure was, the bloody NEMs cost a fortune—only the very wealthiest execs could pay the price. The doctor-inventors guarded their medical patents with a vengeance, and if you were caught sharing a copyrighted NEM, they'd stick you with the big D. Yeah, the Death penalty. (The doctors claimed moral issues about longevity—dwindling resources, problems with overcrowding, rights of the next generation, etc. Fear-mongering greed if you ask me.)
In any case, I'd been collecting different kinds of NEMs since my two hundredth birthday, paying full retail because there wasn't any alternative, and each time the docs invented something new, I added that to my cocktail. My NEMs repaired the inconveniences of aging. They gave me smooth skin, tight buns, curly black hair and all the traits of a swaggering young stud. But sometimes they were damned slow to act, I thought, massaging my right hip.
Then we saw flames in the corridor.
"Fuck, they're using a thermal gun. I'll phone the squad leader." Grunze touched the microphone mounted on his throat collar.
"Pussy move." I laughed, stowing my mirror. "One million says you can't get out of here without help."
"You're on, sweetheart." He gripped my helmet chin strap and tried to kiss me on the mouth. There'd been a time when I used to like that, but Grunze knew I wasn't into guys anymore. I was into girls again. One girl.
"Nasir? Do you need me?"
Sheeba. That fresh, dewy voice in my earphone made me forget the flames. "Sheeba," I whispered, cinching my helmet tighter, "can you squeeze me in for a session this afternoon?"
"Nass, you sound stressed. Are you hurting?"
"Yes. I'm hurting all over." Hurting for you, dear Shee. I fantasized her slanting cheekbones and the large luscious pillows of her lips.
Her laughter sparkled through my earphone. "I keep telling you, beau. Your extra soul layers need sympathic care." Delightful girl, she was always bubbling over with mystical healing gibberish. I could see her rocking from side to side, tossing her head back and effervescing cheerful nonsense, like a shaken bottle of underaged champagne. "Nasir, it's true. Your spiritual multiplexity makes you tender."
"This way." Grunze's voice sounded muffled. He'd closed his helmet visor.
Flames were spreading toward us like an orange wind, cutting us off from the elevators, and the heat penetrated through my armor. The room was filling with smoke, so I closed my visor and activated metavision so I could see. I also brought my emergency air supply online. Nasir Deepra was nobody's fool—I'd stowed a pony-bottle of filtered air in my backpack. Grunzie had one, too. For all our bravado, we never completely trusted war zone air. Down the hall, we heard screaming.
"Get down!" Grunze yelled. A plume of thermal energy exploded toward us through the door, and I barely had time to duck behind the metal desk. People say I'm quick and lithe, but the truth is, I don't move as fast as I once did. One whole side of my body armor glistened like melting plastic.
'This way, Nass." Grunze waved his arm.
His hulking form disappeared through a rear door, so I sprinted after him, favoring my right hip. The heat pushed against my back like a giant hand, but as soon as the door slammed behind us, the noise went mute. Our steps echoed. This room felt cavernous. The bare concrete ceiling must have been twenty meters high, and rows of metal shelves towered over us, stacked with white plastic crates. As we trotted down an aisle between two rows, I read the labels. Analgesics, antibiotics, psychotropics—all Copia.Com brand names. This was Copia's main warehouse.
Kat spoke in her taut soprano over the phone. "You don't have a clue where you're going. Absolutely no sense of style." I could picture her curled up tight on my sofa in Nordvik, biting a strand of red hair between her teeth, her nerves jangled with cardiac meds as she watched our live video.
And somewhere in the background, Winston would be mixing margaritas. "I forgot our last bet," he said in a thickening drawl.
"You'll find a freight chute four hundred meters north-northeast of your position. Two lefts. Then a right." Verinne's dry logical wheeze seemed to echo from a crypt.
"Hey, no fair giving directions," I said. "Grunzie has to escape without help. We've got an active wager."
Grunze flexed his stiff elbows. "I know tins place inside out. Who says I need help?" Winston said something in the background, and Kat laughed. They were making a new side bet.
A deep, waffling roar told us the fire was spreading into the warehouse. One stack of crates lit up like a wax candle, and the highest crate tumbled to the floor, spreading flames. A vibrant point of fear tickled my nerves.
Kat said, "Does Grunzie have a time limit?"
"Nothing specified," said Verirme, faithful to facts.
"Lame," said Kat. "I'll lay odds they run out of air in fifteen minutes. Who's in?"
"Me." Winston hiccuped.
Excerpted from War Surf by M. M. Buckner. Copyright © 2005 M. M. Buckner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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