by Wongoon Cha
Tarek looked at the projection before him. It read, “Engineering Fourth Class” and “Infantry.”
Tarek knew that he would be wearing a red shirt on board whichever vessel he was assigned. Officers wore white, blue, or black shirts.
The above were his choices. Engineering Assistant or Infantry. A couple choices of fate, set upon a plate. Red shirt guys were typically paid the least and killed the most often. Infantry served in the front lines and often were massacred with a psi attack, stridulation, impaling, or crunching by the beetles. Engineering workers were spared the aforementioned, but typically died a slow, painful death of radiation poisoning from the reactors.
Tarek had heard that there were early 21st century movie spoofs about being the “red shirt” guy. But apparently it had come to pass. The power of imagination was truly remarkable, he scoffed.
He did not bother to pursue the Officer Training Program. His family was not politically connected and/or rich, and didn’t have hookups with the Agency or the Academy. And he didn’t excel on standardized tests. If an unconnected individual posted an extraordinary score, then officer training became possible. But that wasn’t Tarek.
Tarek grunted. He still had to study even to get into red shirt level programs.
His stomach grumbled. Damn I’m hungry, and I’m sick of s.g. noodles, he thought. He had been eating too many green soy-lentil noodles as of late, and was developing an unpleasant rash, and his hands were starting to shake. But there was little else he could eat at the moment, that he could afford, anyway.
He pulled up the “Depressing_Spreadsheet.xls” on his KamaGway-4.
account balance: 13 credits
He stared at the paltry numbers as they twirled slowly in the three dimensional hologram projected by the KamaGway-4. So it was going to be one of those months, he thought. Once again, just a credit short.
So in his mind, these were the choices:
a) kill himself
c) collect the shells of dead space beetles
So instead of studying, or committing suicide, Tarek decided to go with “c” and venture outside to forage for beetle parts. Each segment was worth 5 credits, and a whole beetle was worth 50. Capturing a live beetle would be worth thousands, but it was hardly worth the trouble if you valued your life. The beetles were fairly intelligent and quite psychic, more psychic than most humans. They could detect your intentions if you were close enough.
No one was sure why the Agency was purchasing beetle parts. Research was the obvious reason; but some whispered others; and beetle parts were being used outside of the Agency walls as well; some being melted into weirdly iridescent underground bug-jewels, some being distilled into longevity serums.
Downtown should still be empty from the last attack, he thought. For some reason, the prospect of running into a live beetle didn’t terrify Tarek. He didn’t know why, because he should be terrified. Without armament, an individual human doesn’t stand a chance against a beetle. Absolutely no chance. Naturally, the Agency controlled access to armament. So it was always best to avoid live beetles if possible.
Tarek didn’t know much about the beetles. It seemed like no one did, except for a few people at the Agency. When people discovered beetle behavior and history on their own and publicized it, then they were scooped up and taken for processing by the Agency, or probably murdered, for all they knew. That was the conventional wisdom, anyway (whatever “conventional” meant these days). They come from another planet, they are psychic, they are physically strong, some of them fly, they can project odors and stridulate. And their body parts are worth a lot. That was the extent of Tarek’s knowledge, which was greater than most people’s.
Which path downtown would be the safest? The freeway might be a little crowded with abandoned ‘mobiles from the attack. International Ave. might be dangerous still, probably with live beetles hanging around. Tarek didn’t fear them, but he had selected “c,” and not “a.” Downtown shouldn’t have live beetles, because he was pretty sure that Agency autonomous drones dropped a neutron bomb there a few days ago, killing everything and everyone in the neighborhood.
He decided to ride his bicycle. His bioelectric wattage probably wouldn’t be detected by Agency drones, which had a tendency to attack anything and everything, despite their supposed orders to attack beetles only. And if he rode on MacArthur Avenue, there was a good chance that flying beetle patrols wouldn’t pick him up either. It seemed like their psi was good for up to fifty feet or so, but less if there is a lot of foliage.
And a lot of stubborn trees were rooted along MacArthur, thankfully. It was one of the last consistent sections of trees left in the city.
Tarek grabbed a mask, gloves, his toolkit, and checked the tires on his fixed gear bicycle.
He took out his KamaGway-4 and scrolled through his multiple playlists, looking for the most appropriate. He found the acronym I.H.I.D.G.S. (I Hope I Don’t Get Smoked) and selected it. The first track was 병든 여정 후쿠오카 골목에서 오줌 싸다 (“Sick Fairy Pissing in a Fukuoka Alley” ) by 지하 핵무기 (Underground Nuke Device). It was a very practical track. It reminded him of maintaining a “cool” vibe. And it spoke of impending death. Tarek didn’t fear death, it wasn’t so bad, he thought. Everyone had to die. There were no exceptions. At least he was pretty sure there were no exceptions.
With the proper combination of ideas in his brain—keeping cool and a certain understanding with impending death—Tarek proceeded, confident that he wouldn’t attract attention with his wattage and thoughts.
He zig zagged and skid slowly down the hill on his fixie and headed northwest on MacArthur. Once he found level ground, he increased his speed, accelerating quickly, steadily and silently.
At 35th Avenue he heard a crashing sound to the west, towards the Bay. It appeared that beetles and drones had found each other and enjoyed a conversation of physical confrontation. Pretty soon the beetle scents would cover the neighborhoods, and more beetles would show up. Tarek adjusted his mask and kept riding. That skirmish was just what he needed! Maybe his luck was improving after all. He would continue to zoom across the ghost bloodied country. What had he to lose?
Tarek arrived in the downtown area. He made a left on Franklin Street and cruised slowly. He found 10th St. and made another left. He saw the dragon sculpture park where the older folks used to gather to do tai chi in the morning. To his right he saw some residences that had been destroyed and partially rebuilt several times. He stopped for a moment and took his mask off. He caught the faint scent of the beetles distress signal. Tarek was closer to the Bay now, so the scent wouldn’t be as strong. Interesting that the scent could make it this far though, against the breeze.
Like he thought, the neighborhood was empty. All covered with sleep.
He saw purple lights in the distance, in the parking lot of what used to be the community college. They seemed a bit faint, but shortly after he thought that, he became entranced, and began riding more rapidly to the source.
Had he not been entranced, Tarek surely would have avoided the purple lights. It was the technique of a beetle to lure in a human, to munch on them. Such a tasty snack humans had become.
He approached on his bicycle. 산보하는 성난 문어 (“Agitated Walking Octopus”) by the Underground Nuclear Device played on the KamaGway-4. Tarek could see the lights overhead, but couldn’t yet see the source. There were piles of rubble about the parking lot. They were neat piles, like grave mounds.
He finally spotted the source: a crippled beetle, about five feet long, missing half of its legs. Its red eyes shown a little more brightly as Tarek approached. It did not appear startled.
“I’m scared out of my mind, and the beetle shut off the trance,” Tarek thought, “But I cannot stop walking towards this beetle.”
Tarek stood about five yards away from the beetle, which appeared to be dying. Suddenly his vision ceased, as if hacked, and a user interface of sorts appeared. This was a first for Tarek. Of course he had heard of psi attacks from the beetles that drove people mad, causing them to tear their hair out, gouge out their eyes, shoot themselves and their companions, etc. But this was different. It seemed that the beetle was actually trying to communicate something.
An image of Tarek appeared on one side, and an image of the beetle appeared on the other. Three stripes of color appeared over the image of the beetle. A red, a blue, and a blue. Red Blue Blue. That was its name, or its emblem, RedBlueBlue. Then Tarek literally saw his life flash before him. The beetle was reviewing his memories.
Suddenly the black disappeared, the montage of his life disappeared, and he was back in the parking lot, looking at the dying alien. Its red eyes were growing fainter.
RedBlueBlue started to scrape two of its legs together. At first the sound grated Tarek’s ears, but gradually a musicality enveloped his consciousness, and the sounds started to convey meaning. So this is the stridulation that he had heard about. Let us bargain, the beetle stridulated. You can have my body, if you download my consciousness to your electric artifice. The thing that you carry around with you. You can find a cord in my ship, which is close by, near the building that reads “Paramount” on the exterior. Get the cord and bring it here. Place the cord near my underbody, and I will interface with your artifice.
Tarek wondered if anyone had communicated with a beetle outside of a torture situation. The beetle stridulated a message, a business proposition even, and I am still standing here, and my eyeballs are still intact. What an interesting, lucky day.
“Uh… I’ll do it. It’s…uh… a pleasure, interesting to speak with you. This isn’t uh a trap is it?”
“No…Time. Time—>Short for me, us…”
Tarek hopped on his fixie and started to pedal slowly. If he could reach the minimum safe distance… “30 feet and still no desire to tear out my own throat… fifty feet and I still don’t wish to gouge out my eyes… things are going well…”
Unbelievable, Tarek thought. I am fetching a cord from a spaceship for a dying space beetle. “But I’ve got bills to pay, and this beats studying… “
Tarek reached the Lake and picked up some speed. He could make out the top of an alien craft, it was partially submerged. It was smooth and black, but not shiny, as if it absorbed light. He turned left on Grand and approached Broadway. He could see the craft, it had slid and taken out the ticket booth in front of the Paramount. It was fifty feet long and shaped like a cockroach. He leaned his bike against the chassis and stuck his head in the large gash on the port side. Suddenly he found himself hanging from a light post, swaying back and forth, looking at Broadway Avenue. He couldn’t breathe. He lifted up his arms to try to untie the noose or whatever held his neck. Black crowded his field of vision and Tarek knew that his time once again was running short. He grabbed at the slippery noose, it looked like it was made of intestine. As he wrestled with the intestine, Tarek noticed that he was wearing a white shirt from the Academy, the kind that he had dreamt about (while sleeping) and fantasized about (while awake). A fantasy. This was a fantasy, not real…
Tarek found himself on the floor of the cockroach-craft. He had a slimy cord wrapped tightly around his neck, as if he were choking himself with it. He loosened the cord and turned over, coughing up spittle and blood. He assumed that he had encountered a tangle of the ship’s psychic defense system. Forgetting the pain, he stood up and looked at the slimy cord in his hand. It matched the image that RedBlueBlue had stridulated.
“I must have grabbed this off the wall while I was…” he said out loud. “Sheesh.”
He exited the craft through the gash and reached for the bicycle. He pedaled slowly, still a little woozy from almost strangling himself to death. He rode back the way he came, gradually picking up speed, thinking more of the future destination, because the present was a little tough to bear at the moment. He wove rapidly around the mounds , almost out of control. He spotted the few purple lights that RedBlueBlue was still projecting. It was obvious that there wasn’t much time left.
Tarek almost ran over the alien beetle. He fell off the bike and crawled the last few meters to where RedBlueBlue lay. He found a nearby rock and used it to keep RedBlueBlue’s body tilted. Its underbody appeared to be gold plated, and was hot to the touch. Tarek placed the cord near the point where the three main segments converged, the only exposed place on the underbody. The end of the cord grew bright red, and gold particles began to descend from the body into the red light of the cord. Tarek quickly placed the KamaGway-4 on the ground, and put the other end of the cord near it. The other end of the cord turned bright red also, and golden light particles entered the KamaGway. The cord began to writhe slightly, so Tarek gathered some dirt and rubble to hold it in place.
RedBlueBlue began to stridulate again, more slowly this time.
RedBlueBlue’s eyes went dark, and little rhythmic arcs of pulsating red spilled from its body.
Tarek regarded the beetle. What a strange experience, he thought. Yet another one. The last few years have been so bizarre, Tarek thought. And it hasn’t just been the arrival of the beetles. It has mostly been horrible, but every once in a while, something wonderful...
He unplugged his KamaGway-4 and checked it. Nothing had changed. It was getting dark out, and Tarek still wasn’t ready to die. He knew that in the dark he would be screwed, so to speak. Death by a drone, or death by a beetle. It would be harder to hide his bio-wattage in the dark.
Tarek was still dazed from the ship’s psi defenses. He wondered how he was going to transport a whole beetle on his bicycle. He hadn’t anticipated this problem. A whole beetle body. He certainly couldn’t carry it in his backpack. He couldn’t drag it either; he would move too slowly and would certainly be picked off by the aforementioned.
“Tarek —> …..”
Tarek jumped, and dropped his KamaGway-4. A 3d hologram appeared. It was RedBlueBlue, now a symbol, pulsating horizontal stripes. Red, blue, blue. Red Blue Blue’s stripes began to stridulate (another “first,” Tarek thought):
Here—> I —> explore
We—>Go—>your hive room
Your—>Spatial Relationship Ability—>Underdeveloped
Unbelievable, Tarek thought, shaking his head and almost-smiling.
RedBlueBlue disappeared, and the maps app launched—a hijacked version. The region displayed was Oakland; over the topography was a series of nodes, each appearing to launch red lasers in various directions. An animation showed a red laser shooting from a node near the community college directly to Tarek’s apartment building. The map app closed, and the holospace was replaced by an arrow pointing northwest, with RedBlueBlue’s icon floating above it, blinking very slowly.
Tarek took the hint and trudged northwest. RedBlueBlue’s icon started blinking more rapidly. When he reached the largest mound, RedBlueBlue began to stridulate.
The network—>being developed, constructed.
Alley network —> We are building —> You —> I —> Use
The alley will transport everything easily —> One point to the other.
The spatial relationship —> Is folded.
You’ll see —> You’ll study, understand. Your—>Spatial Relationship Ability —> Underdeveloped —> Improving.
Tarek thought he understood. Drag everything to the top of the mound, and something would happen that would allow us to be transported back to my neighborhood. It was worth a try, he had come this far, and every moment provided something new and interesting. Well, maybe a little horrific and painful too. But that was to be expected, at least in doses.
He grabbed the beetle body and tried to drag it. It was pretty heavy, but manageable. But the bio-wattage to drag it up the mound would certainly tip off the drones and other beetles. And it was almost completely dark. This was a dangerous time to be out. The body was still warm though.
“RedBlueBlue… Is your old body still usable?”
Most systems gone—> But your beetle merchants can be convinced otherwise. Worth more alive, if I read your thoughts. If correctly I read —> Your thoughts.
“Can you control your body still… remotely?”
Possibly, possible. —> Attach cord. —> Again.
Tarek found some handlebar tape in his bag and taped the cord to the underbody, with the end close enough to the opening in the armor. He held up the KamaGway as RedBlueBlue attempted to reacquaint itself with the old body.
Some pathways remain.—>Still.
Cold feeling, but pathways remain.
The damaged legs began to move, slowly. Tarek steadied the beetle body by holding it up with his right arm and walking alongside. It was still heavy, but much easier this way. And more importantly, he could maintain a relaxed disposition as they walked up the mound. Never had cultivating inner calm been more important than in this day and age.
They reached the top of the mound. Tarek carefully let go of the beetle and set the device on the ground. He scampered down the mound, grabbed the fixie and brought it up to the top. That was his prized possession, no way he was going to leave it behind!
Reach up high with your appendage and touch the alley network.
Tarek reached up as high as he could and scratched the invisible Alley, which felt like hot water. He visualized the empty part of his bedroom, and thought only on that. He found himself in a red alley, about two meters wide. The red walls rumbled with plasma fury, and it was over before he could really look around. They were in his bedroom—Tarek, KamaGway-4, fixie, and a mostly dead space beetle body.
“Fucking amazing,” he said. “I wonder where else we could go. And what else can come through the alley?”
RedBlueBlue silently pulsated.
About the Author
Wongoon Cha lives in Oakland, California at the moment. He studied visual anthropology and explores palimpsests in various art forms. He posts things that are worthy of memory and sharing on his blog.
Post a comment on this story!
Back To Flurb Home Page...