Cobalt Imperium

by Kek-w


Story Copyright (C) 2009, Kek-W.
Images Copyright (C) 2009, Rudy Rucker.
2,600 Words.




When Ignatz Cleery dumped her for a Coal Gurl, Clementine Hawk went out and bought a gun.

The man behind the counter checked her biometrix against a Right-to-Bear-Arms flatform, looking from her face to the form and back again several times, making sure he got a good look at her breasts with every pass. “This is, uh, a pretty good side-arm,” he said, avoiding eye-contact as he passed her a pistol. “It’s very popular with the, uh, ladies. No recoil. Good ergonomics. Made from a soft ceramic…it comes in white or a number of pastel shades.”

She held it in both hands and squinted down the barrel at a display-stand on the other side of the shop. The targeting was switched off. “Takes a standard 500megawatt battery,” continued the assistant, but Clementine wasn’t really listening. She squeezed the soft, rubberised trigger-button and tried to imagine a stream of superheated mercury globules punching a hole through Ignatz’s face. “That normally comes separately, but we’re doing a special this week: you can take ‘em both away for $899. Just use the sim-card from your old gun.”

“I don’t have one,” she said, blushing, but unsure why.

“O-kaaaay,” said the assistant. He smiled tightly. “That’s cool. We can configure the sighting for you here. Cost you another twenty bucks, though.”

She lowered the gun and tried to smile back at him. His ID-badge caught her Eyz. It read: “Hi. My Name Is Andy. I’m Here To Help” in a cheerful orange font over a red-and-white target-shaped logo. “Have you got anything cheaper?” she asked.

The assistant - Andy - tried really hard not to stare at her breasts. “Waaaal…you won’t get a bigger bang for your buck than the SRL-270, if you, uh, know what I mean…” He reached out and carefully took the gun from her, pointing the slim ceramic barrel away from them both, as if she was just another neurotic woman who couldn’t even be trusted with an unloaded fire-arm.

Andy unlocked a wooden display-unit on the wall behind him. “We’ve got some old second-hand reconditioned stuff here, but most of them fire bullets…” He looked back over his shoulder at her and pulled a face.

“Oh,” said Clementine, suddenly interested. “Can I see them, please?”

It was drizzling at the firing-range. Above the makeshift perspex roof, the sky was the colour of an inky meringue. The Colt Snork .63 bucked in her hand, tearing a hole in the side of a mauve octopus-shaped target that dangled, wobbling, on a wire 80 metres away.

The man next to her turned and smiled. She stared back at him for a moment, uncertain what the smile meant or whether she should even respond. And then he compounded her confusion by winking at her. Why is he doing that? she wondered, angrily.


Boarding a zip-tram back from Columbus Out-Borough, she set her Eyz to shuffle mode. On Slamcast-3, a line of Coal Gurls cavorted to a skeletal rhythm-track, their Prussian Blue complexions heavily dusted with Kabuki-like pancake. Incomprehensible graphics scrolled rapidly down through the image, too fast for her to lock onto. The thin, hissing percussion irritated her.

Raoul Forty, Biggie Winks or Lil’ Cornell: she was no longer sure which of them was which, not that it mattered anyway. They just sang-talked slightly different versions of the same endless song: “Big’n mi p, gurl! Big’n mi p, gurl! Big’n mi p, gurl!” Meta-Pop is all very well, she thought, but who’s got the time to keep up with all the fucking theories?

But, as she watched their de-choreographed ‘naturalistic’ dance-routines, she felt the awkward touch of an emotion that she couldn’t quite identify. It didn’t matter that they weren’t real, that their wide-lipped mouths had been designed for maximum demographic appeal or their bodies were just digitally-airbrushed wireframes animated by some Indonesian media-hub. What rankled was the fact that they were alive in some way that she wasn’t. Suddenly, the gun felt very heavy in her shoulder-bag.

At the station, a man was vomiting violently on the platform. “He’s got Contingency Sickness,” said an onlooker to no one in particular, or perhaps he was a freelance Social Commentator for one of the Local Talk:Nets. “An irrational fear of cultural acceleration. Some people just can’t handle the pace of modern life.” He made a vaguely dismissive sucking sound which she guessed was nonverbal shorthand for some non-aligned sub-category of disgust.

A middle-aged woman, possibly a relative, sympathetically rubbed the afflicted man’s back, but looked away from him as she did it, her face stiff with embarrassment.


The buildings were coated in an oily, dull violet light. They appeared soft and velveteen, almost organic, like the back of an enormous purple horse. Clementine felt a wave of inverse vertigo as she tried to track their impossible trajectories back out into some imaginary vanishing-point.

Pointless Nouveau Art Nouveau flourishes had been added in an attempt to feminise the buildings on Unimax Square - swirling curves and overlapping helical lines that suggested flowers or the female form. Apparently, Architectural Archetypes were back in vogue this month. Using polymer add-ons and intelligent semi-perm mouldings, the exterior of a 250 floor cloudscraper could be redecorated in less than 36 hours, but, in the wrong hands, the technology was a recipe for disaster. Retro-Modernist renegades expelled from the Little Boston School of Design had recently attacked the Spanish Embassy with a monstrous, self-assembling façade in the shape of a Neo-Deco vulva.

The buildings on Unimax Square made her feel fat. Their queasy perspectives and needle-thin geometries punctured the indigo sky like hypodermics. Clouds seethed and swarmed around the sky-piercing spires, sullen and bloated like black marshmallows.

She adjusted her Eyz, toggling them down through the visible spectrum until she viewed the world through a veil of soporific optical filters and finally felt her temples relax.

Clementine was on East Waldrose, two blocks from Ignatz’s work-place when her Eyz were attacked by a swarm of Visual Spam.

A series of abstract text-squirts flashed up in front of her and self-organised themselves into a literary migraine of cyrillics and strobe-fonts: “Black onions beckon from The Other Shore. Waiters draped a red checkerboard tablecloth over the parking-lot, then sat down and wept. “To the North Pole, quickly!” Swaziland’s King Msuti III performed at an AIDS charity event in front of 70,000 traditionally dressed virgins and a sniper. A. F. P. Hlonga, aged 24, vanished while shopping for ghosts in Rapid Shares, Ohio. “Oh! And a fleet of luxury cars just exploded in The Cocoa Lounge. Another success for The Hollow Pixie Continuum,” whistled Lucy Torture in her 56 x 56 preface to the 1970 Dover Thrift Edition of Human Shape Storm #7…”

Clementine’s visual-field pixelated and flew apart, collapsing under an avalanche of VDML redirects to assorted HardPorn Sight-Sites. Vertigo sent her stumbling into the doorway of a nearby store, where she inadvertently caused a bottle-neck in the outbound foot-traffic contraflow. Grunts of disapproval and mumbled insults came from irritated shoppers. Someone elbowed her aside. “Hey! Watch where you’re going, moron!” She caught a glimpse of a face horribly transfigured into a spiral mandela of blow-jobs and penile prosthetics.

She leaned against the store window while her filters flushed out a virulent info-bacillus infection. A security-guard appeared in amongst the cascading text and bit-maps, as if he were walking through a waterfall. “Take a hike, lady,” he said and read out her rights from a script embedded in the SmartGlass of his crash-visor: “These premises are recognised as an intelligent, self-regulating Data-Entity by the 96 th Amendment of The Constitution. Any attempt to introduce an electronic disease into their CPU shall be considered an infringement of their civil rights and will result in immediate litigation.”

But it was too late, the spam:meme had already auto-mailed itself into his comms-rig and his throat-mic began reciting abstract poetry in the style of C. Lucas O’Doyle.


“Clementine,” said Ignatz, flatly, from behind his work-station, “this is what could be termed a disproportionate response.” He seemed disinterested, almost bored, despite the fact she was aiming the Colt at his head. “Have you been taking mood elevators?”

She glared at him like a wayward child. “Don’t patronise me.”

“I wasn’t.” He looked genuinely hurt. She wondered if he had one of the new disassociative, non-lethal prions like Asperger’s variant-D or whether he was just socially inept. Her Faux-Gay friend Jerome had described him as “a classic underwhelmer.” Perhaps that’s what had attracted her to him in the first place. “What I meant,” said Ignatz, almost sighing, “is that I think you need help. You’re obviously depressed and pointing that – that…” He waved a hand loosely in the direction of the gun and wrinkled up his face, unable to even say the word. “…thing at me is an obvious cry for help.”

Anger boiled up inside her. “Help? I don’t want your help! I just want…” The concept eluded her. “I don’t know what it is I want.” Suddenly weary, she angled the gun downwards slightly, then thought better of it and shot him in the face.

He had told her more than once what it was he did for a living, but she had never quite figured it out. Something to do with Media Debt Management, but exactly what that entailed, she was unsure. Instead of cowering under their desks his colleagues were already uploading video-clips of his death to a NewsBay auction-house. Some were even swapping footage, roughly editing it together to create a multiple point-of-view narrative that would attract a higher bid.

Shit, shit, shit , she thought as she walked back through the mezzanine of the C. L. Moore Building. Her hands had started shaking as soon as the significance of her actions had sunk in. She shook her head with a mixture of sadness and numb self-loathing, acutely aware of how this would be interpreted by the CCTV cameras whirring overhead. My God, what have I done?I’m not thinking straight. I should have organised a media-deal before I killed him. Now no one will want to represent me.

Clementine checked into a Bu-Tee Shoppe® clinic on Cashmere and Q, spending the last of her savings on a tint-job. She lay back in the oxygenated hue-pool, letting the dermal dyes and the haunting, pitch-shifted whalesong wash over her. As she emerged from the pool she appraised herself in a full-length mirror, her spanking new blue-black complexion glistening under the recessed lighting like asphalt or blueberry treacle. But there was something not quite right: it struck Clementine that her skin might be a couple Pantone shades too bright, though it was probably just a trick of the lighting or something.

A Bu-Titian appeared, her heels clicking on the cream-coloured faux-marble floor veneer. She handed Clementine a white towelling dressing-gown monogrammed with Bu-Tee’s lip-shaped logo. “The sub-dermals will gradually fade over about four months,” she explained, “they get broken-down by sun-light and digested by phagocytes.” She smiled so that Clementine could see her dental engravings. Her teeth seemed almost as false as her demeanour. “Well, look at you,” she squealed in mock delight, “a proper little Coal Gurl!”

But there was something about the way that she hesitated as she said it. The Bu-Titian’s voice carried an undertone or a half-exposed subtext that told Clementine that things were not exactly as they should be.

Clementine studied the girl’s face, trying to read past her palsied rictus. “Is there…something wrong?

“Oh my God, no…no, of course not.” But it was obvious that there was. Her expression made it seem as if her blonde page-boy bob had somehow separated from her scalp and was now hovering a few millimetres above it. “It’s just that – and please don’t take offence at me for saying this, but – well, for another $399 you could have had the Princess Oil Upgrade.”

Clementine looked at her blankly. “The what - ?”

The Bu-Titian’s eyebrows registered genuine surprise. “Oh my God, you really don’t know, do you? It’s been all over Slamcasts -8 and -9 for the last two hours…” Clementine shuddered – those were the edgier, more outré channels, crammed with frisky conceptual bricolage – and where they led, everyone else eventually followed. Her Eyz recalibrated themselves in response to Clementine’s sub-vocal cues, auto-tuning themselves into Slamcast-8, even though it normally sat outside her personal viewing demographic by at least 2.1° on the Goodman-Leiber Scale.

She watched in mute dismay as a cadre of inky-skinned madonnas in naval uniforms marched in a tight Stechschritt style formation in time to clipped, militaristic beats by Cutty Shark. They called themselves The Jonestown Naval Reservists and a flotilla of retro-looking cruise-missiles patrolled the digitised skies behind them like cartoon phalluses. She immediately saw that they had a different Look, that their skin-tones were noticeably darker than her own. The world had moved on without her at some point during the lunch-hour.

She felt her heart sink. It was as she feared: some sort of paradigm shift had occurred when she shot Ignatz and now she was cast adrift in a micro-fashion limbo with insufficient funds to recalibrate her appearance. “Princess Oil! Princess Oil!” proclaimed the stylised pictograms as they fast-scrolled diagonally cross the vision track. “Princess Oil! Princess Oil!” chanted the Reservists as they stormed Hollywood Babylon in their skin-tight tunics and crotch-boots. She felt the remains of her crumbling Ego collapse in the face of their aggressive self-confidence. They seemed to be mocking her in some non-specific manner.

“Okay, so that’ll be $4999.99, plus EcoTax and a 5% gratuity,” said the Bu-Tician, her pink, claw-like nails already tapping away at a flatform. But Clementine was no longer listening. She felt like she’d just done 250 ab-crunches and a green-tea flush. The bill - along with a minute representation of the Bu-Tee Shoppe® logo - appeared in the top left-hand side of her field of vision. She acknowledged it with a rapid six-blink sequence in Nu-Morse, then emptied the cash from her account and drag ‘n’ dropped it into theirs with a discrete leftwards roll of her Eyz.

As the International Payment Symbol flashed green to confirm the transaction a Police Patrol vehicle pulled up outside the clinic. It resembled an oversized Go-Kart whose bucket-seats were suspended between an enormous set of vulcanised All-Terrain wheels. A pair of Patrolmen dismounted in casual short-sleeved navy-blue shirts, knee-length cargo-pants and neoprene sneakers. One of them checked an official-looking flatform as they crossed the road. He nodded to his partner, who slid a pole-gun from his leg-holster, the memory-metal telescoping out into combat-mode.

Without even thinking or understanding why, she reached into her bag for the Colt, finding the touch of its hand-grip oddly comforting. She caught a glimpse of her freshly tinted arm, but it felt as if it belonged to someone else now. Somehow it had detached itself from her spine and taken the rest of her body with it.

The base-tint was called Cobalt Imperium. She remembered how much she’d liked the shape of the words when she had first read them in the brochure, but now they were stripped of any significance. Their meaning had completely evaporated, along with every other aspect of her life. A sense of weightlessness - and relief - swept over her, as if some terrible burden had finally been discarded.

She switched off her Eyz, walked outside into the street and opened fire.



About the Author



Kek-w lives in Yeovil, deep in the dark rural heart of England’s West Country. He works as a music journalist and cultural commentator for various UK magazines such as Dazed & Confused and FACT, and has written comic-scripts for 2000AD. Recent short stories have appeared in the Nemonymous, Read by Dawn and Avant Garde for the New Millennium anthologies. His story “Blue Raspberries” was nominated for a Best Short Fiction of 2007 award by the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association). He blogs as Kid Shirt and is one half of the Psychedelic-Surrealist noise-duo Ice Bird Spiral.


Post a comment on this story!

Back To Flurb Home Page...