“Can we listen to those two for a while?” Racer said. “This is going to be funny.”
“Are you sure you want to hear this?” Julie said. “I listened to some of your private discussions lately, and let me tell you—some things are better left unheard.”
Jokes aside, they knew that KeyStroke wouldn’t leave his bunker for just anything, and it had been years since he’d left the base.
“I know,” said Racer. “But Stroke’s been behaving weird lately. I need to find out what is he up to.”
“Suit yourself.” Julie pulled a new interface from a row of icons with a quick gesture and attached it to the bottom of the screen. She then circled the restaurant with her index finger and zoomed in on it. Suddenly, the lab was full of the noises in Providence.
KeyStroke was walking and breathing noisily, intentionally stomping his feet and rubbing his shoulders on the walls and corners, signaling that he was coming.
Inside, realizing that Greg was still asleep despite all the racket he’d made, KeyStroke dropped a heavy object on the floor—something like a bag—making Greg jump up in his bed.
“Yo, sunshine, wake up!” Stroke bellowed.
“What?” Greg said, and then, after not getting any answers, he asked, “Oh. Who the hell are you?”
“Don’t you recognize me, partner?” Stroke said in a loud and obnoxious voice. “You bought something from me.”
“It’s Captain KeyStroke to you. Get up.”
“Here’s a bright idea, Captain. Go fuck yourself.”
There was a short pause. KeyStoke was probably repositioning his body while using the time to rethink his strategy.
“Yo, sleeping beauty, do you know who you’re talking to?”
“To the chief of over there on the base and not over here in the prairie?”
“So you know I’m the new chief. Good job. How did you find out?”
“Racer told me,” Greg said.
“Racer? As in NightRacer? Is Colonel NightRacer your drinking buddy now?”
“He’s just another human out here, and he told me to stop calling him Chief, not that it matters.”
“You want to see a simulation of the room?” Julie asked.
“You can do that?”
“It’s something new I’m learning to use here. I found a tool for simulating 3D spaces based on echolocation. I can use it to recreate that place.”
Julie gestured with both hands, like she was lifting something, and a small stage grew up from the floor and solidified in front of them. First, she pointed with her finger to a few places on the stage, and clear bubbles grew from those places, outlining four walls and a couple of objects. Then she spread her fingers like she was sprinkling some invisible water drops on the stage, and six or seven bubbles simultaneously grew and crossed each other’s paths. The resulting outline started looking very much like two people in a room. After that, she started pointing at the room’s walls, and every time another bubble crossed the room, it defined some new details. Greg was in his bed, and KeyStroke was leaning on a wall, breathing hard. Julie stopped for a second and searched in a virtual drawer that popped out when she reached in its direction. She grabbed what looked like a stack of very thin coats of transparent film. She peeled two layers off the top and threw one of them on Greg and another on Stroke. The gelatinous thing stretched, enveloping the human bodies, and after trying two or three different color combinations, it settled on the right one and then got absorbed into the replicas “skin.” The transparent shapes now looked like humans. Another few layers changed the colors in the room, separating the colors of the bar from those of the floor and the walls from the ceiling.
“That’s very neat,” Racer said. He put his left hand on his chest in an exaggerated theatrical motion. “You’re like a…a chef slicing carrots in a primordial soup.”
“Oh, thank you, darling! Please don’t stop,” Julie replied, playing along, but then she switched to a normal tone of voice. “These maps are still learning the right color scheme. They’ll stop doing that after a couple of simulations.”
As Julie and Racer watched the events in the replicated room, Greg slowly put his pants on, jumping awkwardly on one leg. A stream of bubbles crossed the room, and Greg’s movements flickered rapidly, looking like animation.
“So, you want to talk to Racer?” Greg asked. “He’s not here.”
“Screw that! Greg Van Der Aart, I’m here to ask you some questions. Are you ready to answer?”
“You came here to interrogate me?”
“Interrogate? You? Relax, dimwit. You’re not so important. Just answer my questions.”
“What do you want to know? Do you want to know what I ate yesterday? Garbage. And the day before yesterday? Garbage again. Do you know where I get my water? From a dirty creek. You didn’t send one food package to the addicts in this town, although you were supposed to. You were fast to send food to your colonel, though.”
“We sent him food?” KeyStroke said, puzzled.
There was some commotion in the room. Julie created a series of new bubbles and they showed Stroke dragging a chair across the floor and then sitting on it.
“Do you have some of that food, by the way, from Racer?” Stroke said.
“You hungry, fatso?”
“Hey, do I laugh at your disabilities? Like, do I laugh at you being retarded?”
Greg moved around the bed, doing something. After some time, a fuzzy object flew through the air, like something was getting tossed and caught.
“This simulation is lousy at getting moving objects,” Racer said.
Julie nodded. “I see that. It can’t guess the size and shape of an object if it didn’t define it previously.”
In the virtual room, Greg asked, “Did you forget to bring your own food, or something?”
A bubble defined the shape of the food rations in Stroke’s hands. “Left in a hurry,” he said, ripping the package with his teeth. “Had to find Racer.”
The simulation was showing something amorphous and discolored inside the food package.
“Well, tough luck. Racer’s gone,” Greg said.
“I can see that,” Stroke said, with his mouth already full.
“Any other questions?”
“Yeah.” More chewing, swallowing, and breathing hard. “Who the hell are you? I mean, I searched all the databases for a Greg Van Der Aart, and you don’t exist. There were a few Greggs and Greggorys here and there, lost on stations and stuff, but you are not one of them. And what kind of name is Van Der Aart anyway?
“It’s not Chinese,” Greg said, mocking Stroke.
“I know it’s not. We don’t have weird names like that.” There was a pause. He was probably searching for something on his com. “There are no Aarts on any stations. None survived.”
Greg didn’t respond, probably just trying to ignore KeyStroke.
“So, who are you, really?”
“Greg Van Der Aart. Born in Belgium, Europe, family moved to Mars when I was three. Parents died in an accident. I attended a trade school, left, lived with my grandparents on NAZ ever since.”
“What, you don’t believe me?”
“No, you’re telling the truth. Some of it is the truth, at least.”
“And you still don’t believe me? Suit yourself.”
“Trade school, eh? Lived on Mars, attended a trade school. What kind of trade?”
“Underwater basket weaving.”
When Stroke moved, two bubbles popped simultaneously and intersected on his hands, bringing his com into better definition.
“Could you stop fidgeting for a second and look into my camera, please?”
“Screw you. What part of ‘not over here, but over there’ didn’t you understand? Put that shit away or I’ll break it.”
“Oh, you’re pretty aggressive for a…what, sixteen-year-old? Are you really sixteen?”
“Damn! He’s telling the truth again,” Stroke mumbled. He was scanning Greg, and running deception analysis on his com. “Wait a second, seventeen standard years? Oh, here you are, fidgeting again. Seventeen years where, on which planet?”
There was a stomping sound, and then a series of struggle noises—like Greg was jumping from his bed and trying to take something from Stroke. A number of bubbles popped in rapid succession and showed Greg’s body in transition, charging forward. The struggle ended with the sound of a punch.
“Easy, tiger,” said Stroke.
Greg retreated. The next bubble showed him slouching in pain, holding his ribs. Seemed like Stroke managed to stop his attack.
Stroke sighed. “I may be bloated, but I can still throw a punch. Get back to your bed and stay there.”
Greg withdrew, defeated, and the echolocation bubbles showed him again in his bed, cradling the sore spot on his ribcage.
“Here’s what we’re going to do, Greg Van der Farts, born on Earth, lived on Mars.”
“Aarts,” said Greg.
“Here’s what we’re going to do, Faarts. When I get home, I’m going to search on some big and smart computers for your story. Anything that my app showed was true will get compiled and cross-referenced with other data. I’ll find everything about you, don’t worry. So whoever you are, better tell me now. I’m the chief of this planet’s security now, and you’re supposed to tell me if you are here…you know…on some official business, sent by somebody and stuff. If you don’t tell me, or if you’re a liar or a thief, I’ll come back with a team of guys and arrest your ass. This of course, if you’re not an addict by then.”
“Didn’t I tell you nicely to go fuck yourself?” Greg said.
“What was that trade school you attended? Was it military by any chance? A piloting school on Mars? There seems to have been a Greg, your age, good at sports, born on Earth, lived on Mars, parents died. He supposedly died himself in a shuttle exercise soon after getting promoted. Was alone on the shuttle at the moment. No body found. Sound familiar?”
Greg kept quiet.
There were some more eating sounds, combined with heavy breathing, and Stroke’s chair squeaked and moved a couple of times.
“Yo, how was the wine?” KeyStroke asked after a couple minute.
“Better than you expected, fatso!”
“So why are you still here and not in a strawberry freaking field?”
“Why do you think?”
“I think you’re royally screwed, boy. You know you’re a talker, right? I’m supposed to kill you on sight.”
“So kill me.”
“You wish. That would be too humane. I want to see you eat that strawberry crap and smile like an idiot and then dig your own grave and die with a thorn in your chest. Smiling.”
“Really? Why do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you. You’re just…let’s say you’re somebody who got in the way, that’s all.”
“I got in the way? In the way of what? In your way? Wait a second. Did you like Hellen or something?
“You know she would never go out with a weirdo like you.”
“How the hell would you know that?”
“She told me.”
“No she didn’t.”
“How would you know she didn’t? Did you spy on her? You spied on her, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t spy on her. I just happen to know. As a security officer, I’m entitled to some info, that’s all.”
“Did Racer know about your happening to know things about his daughter? I’m guessing no.”
“Racer? Racer who? That old fart never knew anything. All he did was run around and yell.”
“He’ll slap you silly, you know. I know he will.”
“Well, he knows what you did.”
“How? Wait, are you bugged or something?”
“No, but let me ask you this. Did you ever spy on his wife?”
“What did you find?”
“She was crazy like a bat.”
“This whole town is sitting on top of a receptor, fatso. And Ms. Julie is in charge of it.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I would never shit you. You’re too big to shit.”
“You mean fat?”
“I mean big, as in important. Stop twisting my words.”
“I know what you said.”
Both guys stood quiet for some time, probably thinking about what they just found. A crumbling sound followed. The next sequence of bubbles showed KeyStroke discarding the food package into a corner.
“So what did you do with the money?” Greg asked.
“The money I gave you for the wine? That was all the money I had.”
“I bought candy with it.”
“Well, I hope you enjoyed it.”
“That was some good candy!” Stroke said, laughing and slapping himself on the belly.
There was silence again. Stroke shifted in his chair a few times, unaccustomed to sitting on anything that wasn’t designed for his oversized butt.
“So you listened to Hellen all the time?” Greg asked.
“I’m not a pervert. I just needed some info.”
“You know who else is listening to our conversation? The Host.”
“Who the hell is the Host?”
“You call it Grass.”
“You mean grass as in Devil’s Grass?”
“Yeah, Hellen’s mother created it from DNA data in her memory.”
“You’re crazy! Why would she do something like that?”
“Careful. She’s listening right now.”
“I don’t give a shit. Why would anybody do something like that?”
“So, Captain, how old are you?” Greg asked.
“Twenty-something. Twenty-two. Why? You can’t tell?” KeyStroke seemed amused.
“No, it’s just…you’re one of the original station kids, right?”
“Yup. Went through all the circles of hell, too.”
“Did all of you…you know?”
“Get bloated? Yup. And there aren’t a lot of us left, by the way. Most died. So, enjoy.”
“You’re keeping in touch with them?”
“Yeah, with the live ones.” KeyStroke smirked again.
“How did they die?”
“Committed suicide and shit. Some went down to Earth and walked into the Grass, others got spaced. I almost got spaced twice.”
“Wow! Did you commit a crime or something?”
The chair moved again. Julie generated a series of new bubbles and they watched KeyStroke get off the chair and sit on the floor.
“Crime on the station? Every freaking day. Just never got caught. When the Grass was getting close to Beijing, I was a wunderkind. You know, a little wonder kid. I was six years old then, almost seven, and there were twenty of us preschoolers in training. All day long we’d work with computers—assemble, install operating systems, and then do encryption, decryption, and hacking. That’s all we did: assemble, install, encryption, decryption, and hacking. And again: assemble, install, and so on. And we had to fight for our food. Everybody had to carry a bamboo staff all the time, and before lunch we’d put on our little pads and helmets and fight. If you lost, you skipped lunch.”
“That sucks. Why did you have to fight?” Greg asked.
“They knew what was happening on the stations. Everybody knew. They were preparing us for life in hell. I figured out we were running out of time when our helmets and pads disappeared. We were preschoolers fighting for food with bamboo sticks. One day a shuttle landed in the backyard, burned all the grass too. Our combat teacher, Mr. Wei, gave each one of us a hug, then he walked us through the ash into the shuttle. When you’re walking on ash, you can’t hear your steps, you know. It was like we were walking in our sleep. One teacher was crying, and she kissed me, and I remember thinking ‘Her lips are salty.’ Our computer teacher gave everybody a computer part. When put together, all the parts would make one tough little machine. Mr. Wei said if somebody died or was wounded, we should leave them, but we should take their computer part. He gave me a small knife that looked like a memory stick, and then he went out and killed himself in the ash with a sword. I remember looking at his blood melting the ashes. Mr. Wei did the one thing he could still do for us—prepare us for what was coming.
“On our way up, we used the knife to sharpen our staffs. Bamboo has these long strands, you know. I remember running my fingers over the strands, asking myself if this was a curse or a blessing. It was both. On the station, people were everywhere, sleeping on the floor, walking around, fighting. Dirty, smelly people with crazy hair and long beards. There were many children of all ages—skinny, desperate, with wild eyes. We were escorted by armed men into a room. Our teacher, a young woman—don’t remember her name—ventured outside to search for food. She disappeared. Maybe she was killed, maybe abducted, or maybe she just ran away. In any case, she couldn’t help us. I managed to isolate the door with some electrical tape, and we connected it to the wall socket. That gave us at least some security. That night we heard people screaming. Some were fighting; some were dying. Shit! A few were screaming because they tried to open our door. By midnight our computer broke the station’s first firewall and we found a map of the living quarters. We didn’t risk going outside until four in the morning. The cafeteria trash had been raided a number of times already, but we still managed to find some scraps. I used a wrapper with some cheese on it to gather bread crumbs from the floor. On our way back, we had a scuffle with a group of older boys. We used our sharp staffs and they backed up.
“There were other computer-savvy people on board. The next day we found a message in our inbox—a trader needed small people to crawl through the air ducts. He had food, and we had small people. We brought him a couple of computers from an abandoned lab, and he gave us three cans of protein powder. That evening we had a party. I held the cans. Everybody formed a line, put their index fingers in their mouths, then stuck them in the powder and licked them. I ate what was left in the cans. We stayed inside for some time after that.
“In two days we went back to the trash dump, but our enemies were already there, waiting. They ambushed us, and I had to use my knife. Cutting human flesh doesn’t feel different from cutting cardboard or air ducts. Once you get over that, the tactics are simple. You can go for the skin to create panic, or you can go for the muscle to inflict damage. Just stay away from the bones. I decided to make a statement and slit some skin in quick diagonal slashes. A strong guy who looked like their leader tried to grab me, and I plunged the blade into his side. My knife broke between his ribs. Suddenly all I had in my hand was a blood-soaked handle. The screaming was terrible. We found more food that morning. I got punched in the face, and I had blood in my mouth. Looking at my hands, covered in blood, I was tempted to lick them, but the smell was weird.
“I wasn’t the only one hurt. We had multiple bruises and scrapes, but the big prize of that morning was a whole backed potato. Any real food from Earth was a prize. That potato was probably worth ten or fifteen cans of powder. I carried it in my shirt, and three of our strongest protected me. It was so tempting to just shove it in my mouth and enjoy its taste. I would open my shirt and inhale the sweet aroma of the potato, and then I would secretly touch its skin. God, I was in love with that potato! We exchanged it for a big kitchen knife the same evening.
“Next morning our adversaries brought with them a team of Indian kids—skinny, tough, and wiry—carrying pieces of broken glass. Bottle shards leave some really weird scars. I had the knife taped to the staff, to use it both as a sword and as a spear. We lost two people and many got wounded that morning, but we didn’t lose any computer parts.
“They lost people too. I would pretend I was stabbing them in the face, and they would raise their arms. Arms are easy to slash, as long as you stay away from the fingers. One of them tried to grab the knife with his bare hands, and I had to stab him in the face for real. I think I punctured his cheek. It felt rubbery. We were getting hungry by then and ate everything that tasted or smelled like food in that trash. I found a napkin that smelled like fries and put it into my pocket. I sniffed it probably a hundred times before I went to sleep.
“We got ourselves a real war then, and there was no going back. Intelligence was crucial. We crawled through the air ducts and found some security video cables. The station had many parts. We were in section 5B, one of the ungoverned quarters. In the cleaner sections, life was less chaotic. One video feed caught our attention. There was a juvenile detention center in section 3A. The kids there had to work hard all day long, and they received a lot of punishment, but they also received three meals a day.
“On Monday of the following week, all sharp objects were declared illegal in 5B. The punishment for disobedience was spacing without a trial. We had to dull our staffs. I remember running my fingers over the bamboo strands again and thinking, is it a curse or a blessing? It was, of course, both. The trader didn’t want to buy the knife back, but we told him who would want it, and we gave him some other info. He gave us some protein powder for the blade, but I kept the handle. A death mark was sent to our enemies—broken glass in a bloodied shirt. At the same time, a piece of text was inserted, carefully, into the security bulletin about a knife fight expected near the cafeteria on Friday morning at four.
“Nothing happened for the first ten minutes. I had the knife handle sticking out of my shirt, and their leader had a knife blade in his hands. It seemed like a stalemate. Then the police swooped in and arrested us all. They lined us up in front of the air locks and made us watch. The guy from the other gang, the one with the knife still in his hand, was spaced without mercy. Then they grabbed me and threw me in another airlock. And you know what I did?”
“What? You peed yourself?” Greg asked.
“No. I got unglued.”
“Like in completely not giving a fuck about any rules. Let’s say we meet and I say hello, and I put my hand out, and you suddenly feel like saying hello and shaking my hand. All these reactions are glued to each other in our minds, and they trigger each other, like a chain reaction, and make us do things. But when you’re unglued, you just don’t care. Somebody says hello, and you do a crazy dance or hit him or ignore him or step on his feet. The conditioning is gone. Got it? Also, with no glue, all the pleasure in your life goes bye-bye.”
“So did you do a crazy dance in the airlock?”
“In the last moments of its life, my body decided it wanted to try everything. Everything at once. It wanted to fast forward, to cram, to do all the possible actions and live all the possible emotions in a fraction of a second. I wanted to laugh and to sob and to scream and to listen to silence. I wanted to cry, to leap in joy, and to say all the words I knew, in all the languages. What I ended up doing was nothing, because every movement was cancelled by the other movements, and every emotion was cancelled by other emotions. I just stood there, didn’t even pee in my pants, because all my instincts seemed to have been cancelled by other instincts. So all I managed to do was to sit and stare and get unglued.
“And then the cop pressed the button and the outer door hissed but didn’t open. My muscles gave up, and I fell on the floor. Suddenly my body refused to do anything. I felt like I was two hundred years old. That was just a warning for me. If I got caught again, I’d die.”
“So did they send you to juvie?”
“No, they didn’t care.”
“Let me guess. You showed them, right?”
“Right. We got our hands on some important data and exchanged it for codes, and with those codes we cracked. From that day on, I committed crimes every day, just not the violent kind. We moved food around, and equipment, and we had in-between servers all over the place. By then Earth was gone, and the only food available was powder. You ever had powder?”
“Seventeen years, not standard, never had powder. Yeah, lucky. You didn’t miss much. After they stopped making it, I was left with ten boxes on my hands, each with ten cans. They started bringing real food from other planets, and nobody wanted that crap anymore.”
“What happened to it?”
“It’s still on the station—in the air ducts somewhere. Ten boxes, with ten cans each, neatly lined up, like little soldiers.”
“You couldn’t sell it, or what?”
“I could sell it, there was still time to unload that shit, but I couldn’t fit in the ducts any more. Nobody could. In four years, all the kids on the station got bloated.”
After a minute, Greg came with another question. “Do you think Racer got unglued too?”
“Shit yeah!” KeyStroke said. “These veterans—the guys that saw their friends die or walk in the Grass and got drunk every evening and high every morning—they’re all unglued. Why do you think they’re so crazy? I was lucky—got my humanity yanked out of me in one quick motion. They got theirs ripped out one little bit at a time. It’s like getting skinned alive.”