Y2K threatened to destroy the world, all computers to go mad when the year ticked over to 2000, but a solution was found! Now the nineties play over and over again, and things just keep getting better! The guns are off the streets, the ozone hole is patched, the cops are tough on drugs, and competitive recycling is the number one sport in the world.
Life should’ve been perfect for one of its star players, Joey ‘Kanga’ Reuben, but after his best friend was taken from him in the middle of a match he could think of nothing else. It was all the work of those superhuman terrorists, the dastardly Millennials…
(reading time: 1 hour, 6 minutes) (reading time for entire novel: 5 hours, 16 minutes)
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Competitive Recycling in the Fifth 1990s
With a robotically chauffeured limousine and enough free soda to raise the Titanic from the depths, nobody could call it a young man’s average Friday night. It was to be the fantastic Friday night characteristic of the reborn Rockford Rendezvous, and this trial run would culminate with the latest tour stop of the sexiest and most fashionable hologram to ever grace the stage and the drifting dust in the beams of the spotlight.
Five young men were beset by swarms of their young fans as they stepped out one by one, even though they were supposed to be members of the audience like all the others. Members of the audience with a private front row box of course, just to make sure none of that squealing became the sobbing scream of the overly invested team fan that happened to ‘fall’ into one of their laps.
Four of them had never been treated this way before, yet they took to it masterfully, as if the attention was a possession: a song on the radio that they could order the robot chauffeur to tape and replay endlessly. They were Raffy Lavenil, Barson Kombo, Samuel ‘Bottleneck’ Wenzhong, and Rigan Armando. They each had a winning smile and a victorious wave, with their fans hoping they would be pulled out again after their upcoming match in just three days.
The fifth member of their elite group wasn’t quite sure he could remember their names yet as he stepped out and winced against the flashes of disposable cameras. He had been in this life for three years now, so there really wasn’t any excuse for his timidity. In his head his teammates were still known as India, Virgin Islands, China, and Paraguay. That was how his coach had described them, back when they were mere prospects instead of teammates.
Diversity was in, and the Rockford pool of players was far too milky for the sponsors’ liking. Even after you skimmed the cream off the top you didn’t find anything darker. So, with the 5-95 recruits freshly minted around the world, the owners of the Rendezvous went in search of some suitably shaded new athletes.
They all had to move to Rockford, Illinois permanently if they were to stay qualified for the team, so the fifth passenger, and the only Rockford native among them, was supposed to be their ticket to naturalization, assisting them with socializing and smoothing out any bumps in the Oriental carpet of their lingo.
“Kanga! Over here! I have your poster! The light-up one that winks! You keep the nightmares away!” a young fan screamed at him, but he didn’t have the energy to look over. The smile was all Joey ‘Kanga’ Reuben could manage that night. His friendly wave was shoved in both his jacket pockets.
So far that jacket was the only thing uniting the five, the bright red leather on the back emblazoned with their team logo: a double helix of crossing paths ending in two figures face to face and holding hands. None but Kanga, not even the fans who wanted a crayon called ‘Kanga-eyes blue’ added to the box, knew that there was one small difference on his logo; he had peeled off the tiniest white pieces representing the ends of the hands. There was now a tiny gap between the two figures, a gulf he found entirely necessary for this new version of the team. Their togetherness was gone, and it was never coming back.
The limo’s horn beeped at him so he would shuffle forward enough for the door to slam shut. He checked his faux-tortoiseshell Beltout multi-function pager, clicking until it displayed the day’s schedule. The car would be back in four hours, after the show and any encores. He wasn’t sure if holograms tended to do them more than the archaic musicians that still had to fret about sweat. All it should’ve taken for this new and improved version of her was the flip of a reset switch.
The other jackets were disappearing in the crowd, even with two hulking bodyguards, so Joey had to keep moving and keep his head down. When they got through the VIP entrance the atmosphere became considerably more serene. Blasting air conditioning. A smell like trendy sneakers busting out of their cardboard cocoons. The forecast called for a light drizzle, but no stadium had worried about such atmospheric trivialities since they’d all installed retractable acrylic domes.
That way the fun never had to end, be it a sporting event or a concert like that night’s. Cities around the world found the remodeling absolutely vital, otherwise people might talk about the incongruence between the old structures and the joys of the present day, the only day, the nineteen nineties.
Their box was also made of acrylic, and many loving messages had already been written on it in sparkling gel pens of all colors, some fans even intelligent enough to write it backwards so it would appear correct from within. Some of the gels had special qualities, such pens usually reserved for the writing of love notes. As the athletes walked along the row of plush velvet seats, hearts on the wall lit up and throbbed in purple, orange, red, and pink.
Their guards took up position at both entrances, donning massive headphones and activating their pocket CD players. It seemed there was no accounting for musical taste in men of such a position. Anyone sensitive enough to shed a tear positively adored the catchy melodies of Juicy Stardrop, both those produced before and after her untimely demise. Barson nudged Samuel.
“Yeah, uhh… Hey Kanga, how did this girl die again? We don’t really listen to her back in Hong Kong.” Without waiting for the answer he pulled out a refrigerated drawer from under his seat and started helping himself to the frozen treats within: peanut cluster ice cream bombs and raspberry-lemon squeeze pops. The others demanded he share, so they were tossed back and forth. A cluster bomb landed in Joey’s lap, but he let it sit there as the cold sensation crept across his thigh.
“I thought everybody knew the story,” he said dryly. “It was on every news channel for a week. Some for two.”
“I don’t watch the news,” Sammy snapped. “So much good news in my own life that I don’t need any more.” He sucked on his pop with a wet slurp: thfluuuuch! “What I do know is that she was your favorite, so you’ll tell it better than any newscaster anyway.”
“Obviously she wasn’t born named Juicy. She was Noel Rivierra, and her birthday was just six days before mine. That’s really why she’s my favorite; I think we were born on the same wavelength. Not that I believe in anything like that literally, it just always felt like her songs were about whatever I was feeling when I was a teenager.” At twenty he was the oldest in the limo, guards discounted of course, so how he managed to feel so far from his teens already was a mystery.
“She made her stage name Juicy because one of her high notes made her singing coach spit out his OJ,” Raffy added.
“No, that’s just an urban legend,” Kanga quickly corrected. “She never revealed how she picked the name. She never revealed anything really, except her music. She was very private.”
“Hey, there any snow cones in there?” Armando asked, leaning over Kanga. There was one, of sorts, and it went ahead and responded. Out popped a colorful plastic cylinder, trailing the icy vapor of the drawer. Its distinctive humming came from the magnetic hover-pad that allowed such small robots to float like butterflies.
It chirped cheerily, its two halves spinning in opposite directions. From unseen pores more chilled vapor emerged, and in a matter of seconds the cylinder was covered by two colorful snowballs arranged one on top of the other, the miniature snowman complete with syrupy dollops for eyes and a stretching grin.
“Man that’s cool,” Armando said, grabbing at the snow cone, but it playfully dodged his hand a few times. “Hey, give it over! Bad bot! Somebody make you Y2Krazed?” The machine’s giggle was its only response. Perhaps programmed to maximize the happiness of the box’s occupants, it wanted the only sour face in the bunch to be the one to taste its sweetness. Kanga swatted it away, but it hovered just beyond his reach, waiting quietly for him to change his mind.
“She was going to be so much bigger than she was,” he went on, “and she was already the biggest personality in the world. After her third album the songs started getting a lot more aware of the rest of the world. They weren’t just about summer vacation or pool parties anymore. There was one about oil spills even.”
“Don’t sing that one,” Barson warned the others. “It makes me cry. Oh god, you don’t think the hologram’s going to pick that one do you? I can’t handle hologram birds covered in oil waddling around.”
“I don’t think the hologram picks what it sings,” Sammy scoffed. “It’s just a randomized CD backstage somewhere.”
“Her plane crashed.” The others went silent, with even the little sugar-dispensing robot backing away and hanging its frozen head. “It was a tiny little state of the art plane, but it still had a pilot, and he made some mistake when looking at the report of the most recent repairs. They lost pressure over the Pacific Ocean and it broke up on the water. They didn’t find any remains, but nobody could have survived.”
“It’s a bummer,” Barson added. He was at that particularly irritating age where everything ranging from a misplaced sock to genocide was ‘a bummer’.
“When she died she stopped aging, so we weren’t the same wavelength anymore,” Kanga said. “So when I’m fifty she’ll still be eighteen.”
“We’re about to watch her man,” Armando countered, “so don’t be a downer. Besides, it’s the nineties. You’ll never be fifty, just…” he counted on his fingers, “3-18. There, still the same age.” The music blared behind them, horns better suited to introducing an Olympic team or perhaps a squad of gladiators. Hidden fog machines spewed clouds into the crowds, colorful lasers being the only thing to shine through as they glided across the acrylic far above.
The sounds drew closer and closer, suddenly putting Kanga on edge. It felt like it was right behind him, like a raptor sneaking up on him in the jungle, but when he whipped his head around there was nothing there but the rest of the stadium and a sea of screaming concertgoers. Still, he could’ve sworn that whatever it was passed right through him, not as a chill or a thrill, but like something hand-sized and electric using his spine as a roller coaster track.
The hair on his neck and arms stood on end and his tongue retracted like it had forgotten how to swallow. He wasn’t the only victim of the charged phantom, as when the invisible thing passed through the little snow cone its two sections spun around, popping its own head off and sending it wetly to the floor where the syrupy smile melted into a frown. Armando snagged what was left and stuck the entire thing in his mouth, treating the robot as nothing more than a wooden stick.
Even the jellied praise left smeared on the front glass of their box was affected, some of the drawn lip and heart shapes swelling back up and peeling off. They left behind a lank silhouette, more than vaguely human, specific enough to be a young woman.
“She’s back!” someone shrieked loud enough to penetrate the box. “She’s coming back to life!” Kanga didn’t believe that. Heat swelled in his neck, for he wanted to shout at whoever had declared it. People could be reshaped, if they were in the right exclusive place, could confuse themselves for someone else, but the dead were dead, gone from the nineties no matter how many times they rewound the VHS and played the decade again.
Neon footprints, bare and supple, appeared on the side of the stage, stepping out from the fog and making their way to the center. The lasers from beneath them switched to lasers from above without the moment of change being clear. Beams of every color crossed where a microphone should’ve stood, and out from that gorgeous nexus stepped a light and data recreation of the world’s biggest pop star, so big that she couldn’t be allowed to leave the stage.
Kanga’s breath caught. He’d seen the illusion on television before, but never in person. Instantly he was a believer, if not in the ethics of it then in the efficacy. It was Juicy, much more than it was Noel. In her first performances, before these encores beyond the mortal coil, she painted her body in bold colors that she said matched her mood each night, with the most common being fuchsia, which she declared to represent the feeling of transparency: the knowledge that everyone truly saw the light inside her.
This time it wasn’t paint. The fuchsia was her skin, down to the folds around her eyes shining even brighter and the dip of her navel being a little darker. Her skin prickled not with perspiration but with the dew of fresh technology, the inexperienced brightness of 1.0. Her short hair was hottest orange, standing like a flame cast in wax. Her sideburns were cut into bars, like the light-up decibels bouncing back and forth in the darkness of the control center.
Her face was enthusiasm incarnate, and no matter how long she held her smile it never looked false or stiff as Kanga assumed it would. Her eyes were nothing but light, but try as he did he couldn’t see through them. She was the one seeing, her fans, her stadium, her nineties world. Then, unmistakably, she looked right at him. He wasn’t the only one to notice, for suddenly he felt the hands of his teammates on his shoulders, rubbing and slapping. They hooted and shook him, telling him they hadn’t arranged it, that it was just the luck of the draw. Whatever program was running her made her give him that sparkling look. Then she spoke, and her voice was everywhere.
“Hello Rockford! I see a lot of stars out there tonight. What am I even here for?” The roar could’ve drowned out a tsunami, yet her affable tone overpowered it. “Okay! I’ll just make the music while all of you do the hard work of being so beautiful.” The voice was as it had always been, only now it jumped out from her old recordings like never before. She was in the air, in the breath of her adoring public, and filling the canals of their ears like the waters of Venice.
The audience shouted titles at her, pleas, as she walked back and forth across the stage and waved: Meet Me, Back in my Dreams, Party at the Bottom of the Beach… There were so many for the program to choose from, yet her eyes kept glancing back at Kanga. He didn’t even have a song he wanted to hear in particular, at least not one he would reveal out loud. When she was back at the center she pointed at him, the tip of her finger strong as any of the dancing lasers about her.
“Excellent suggestion,” she said with a wink.
“What did you say?” Raffy asked.
“Nothing, I swear,” Kanga said in the middle of a shocked swallow. “I didn’t even mouth it. I was just thinking-”
“Do all of you remember a number called Leapfrog Rules?” There was a cheering wave, but it was much quieter than the last. “No? It wasn’t one of my biggest, but this boy in the front remembers. Those stuffed shirts in the ticket office want me to stick to the number ones and the number ones-for-the-whole-summer, but a girl has to do what’s in her heart, right?” The roar was back at full strength. It had to be a tactic. The stuffed shirts insulting themselves just to make it believable, as long as it didn’t stop people from buying tickets.
Kanga’s deductive mind didn’t get that far; it was still skipping across the song title like a record needle. Leapfrog Rules was the song he’d thought of. It was the song that convinced him to try out for his school’s team, his first step onto a trail that would become a carpet wearing Rockford Rendezvous red. To most it was a song about breaking the rules, but he knew better. It was about being above the rules, about playing a bigger game, about flicking those shouting at your disrespect of their rules off your shoulder.
The hologram sang it like she still believed it, like the stuffed shirts could pull her plug behind the stage at that moment and nothing would happen.
♪ Remember Leapfrog’s strict ♪
♪ We’re all in line, have fun at the right time ♪
♪ What if I broke the chain? ♪
♪ Can it handle that strain? ♪
♪ It might need little old me feeling tricked ♪
♫ Or is it about… ♫
♫ Make time to ask… ♫
♫I bet it’s so… ♫
♫ I hop next! ♫
♪ Nothing wrong with this jump ♪
♪ Make any frog proud, any strong bird too
♪ Leapfrog rules don’t apply ♪
♪ When you learn how to fly ♪
♪ Oops I broke it, oh well, the pool’s a dump! ♪
♫ Totally about… ♫
♫ no need to ask… ♫
♫ confirmed it’s so… ♫
♫ With the rest! ♫
Kanga’s heart thundered in his chest, despite understanding his situation. She was a hologram: literally harmless. He was at a concert, so the team heads and the sponsors weren’t listening. Even if they were they weren’t likely to discern how those lyrics connected with him. His feelings about the game, about it all, were still private. Perhaps that was what he feared, that Juicy was only getting started and by the time she was done he would be turned inside out on stage like a sweaty sock for the world to see.
Whatever she was, she gave him a chance to recover by paying attention to the thousand others surrounding him. With other song requests, ones that were actually voiced, came incredible hologram backdrops that mimicked the cover art of her albums. Now she could do what only photo editing could accomplish before: drifting by lounging on a giant bubble, making her way down stairs that had been the keys on a keytar moments before…
The whole concert passed with him barely moving an inch. The one step he took, toward the glass, had him nearly slip on the melting remains of the little sugary snowman. Certainly more than two hours had gone by, and the audience could no longer hop as enthusiastically as the performer, not with actual tendons and soles getting sore. They all stayed on their feet though, trying not to disappoint her.
Ka-thum! Ka-thum-thum! Her hips shook with the booming percussion, which sounded like drums with skins big enough to dance on. She always loved to end with drums, as if the performance made the colorful paint peel off the music and reveal the compelling heartbeat at its core. When the last beat sounded she threw up her arms, rainbow waves breaking between her fingers and sprinkling the crowds below in ephemeral glitter.
They even made her chest heave, as if her breaths were big. When she spoke there was air in her voice like she’d run a marathon, and like she’d seen something amazing at the halfway point and been unable to stop and properly witness it. There it was again though, at the finish line. She pointed at Kanga.
“Come on up here.” The right door to their box opened on its own, catching the associated guard by surprise. The other large man rushed over, and together the two of them improvised a gate with their arms that could let Kanga out but keep the fans from coming in. It was clear they didn’t like surprises, so he hurried out to assist them. Lots of hands brushed his shoulders and back on the short jaunt to the stage and up its stairs, but with one swoop of his hand his mussed hair was returned to perfection.
Melting worse on the inside than any snow, man or cone, it didn’t show through his experience. He’d been on hundreds of stages and centered in nearly as many arenas, so the posture, the smile, and the wave were all reflexes at that point. The camera tends to add ten pounds, but for him those ten were all muscle and swagger.
The most disarming thing was the look in her eyes. Juicy was breaking her own rules, taking her attention away from the audience and looking at him as if he was the only other being in existence. Her pupils, blue and sparkling like a galaxy, or like a handful of glitter dropped in a show floor hot tub, searched him. He didn’t have a microphone and neither did she. Her voice was in every speaker, so anything he said would have to be relayed through her.
“What am I doing up here?” he asked.
“You’re a local boy, aren’t you?” she asked, impossibly quiet. Her voice had moved and shrunk; those words were just for him. Where was it coming from? Another speaker in the floor? No, even closer. Was it, could it be, his pager? It was multi-function, but that felt like a few functions too many.
“Rockford born and raised. I’ve been a lot of other places… and the best part is coming home.”
“He says the best part of leaving Rockford is coming home!” she repeated to the crowd. They exploded in approval. His teammates, shrewder than their antics let on, leaned out of the box, pushing their heads around the elbows of their frustrated guards, and started a chant that the stadium quickly took up like a dropped hundred dollar bill: ‘roll out the red for the Rendezvous!’ Juicy reacted oddly to the chant, something in her body language he’d never seen in the living woman. It was like a ball bearing had dropped somewhere inside her and was slowly making its way down all manner of spiraling ramps and elevators.
“The Rendezvous? What’s that?” she asked just him.
“The Rockford team. My team.”
“Team for what, local boy?”
“Competitive recycling.” It was strange that she didn’t know, given that she seemed to inherently know everything else. He had started thinking the world wide web was the equivalent of her blood, that the number of times he was mentioned on it drew her to him in an effort to make the concert even more of a spectacle. It made sense from a business perspective to take advantage of any celebrities in the audience, pressuring them into an appearance alongside the false Juicy without having to pay them.
Competitive recycling had been the trendy sporting event to both witness and participate in since the second nineties. It was everyone’s responsibility to help clean the Earth, and there was no reason they couldn’t have buckets of fun while doing it.
“They really seem to like you around here,” Juicy said, cutting away from the subject as if it upset her. “What’s your name?”
“Joey, but everybody calls me Kanga.”
“Glad to meet you Joey. I’m Juicy.”
“I know,” he said with a snort. “I’ve known you, erh, Noel, for a long time… and I didn’t know her know her. The real you I mean.”
“I am the real me,” she insisted. “Are you the real you?” He was about to answer that of course he was, there were no holograms of him running around, but he couldn’t get the words out. Something in her question pinned him down, flat. She used that moment to lean in and kiss him on the cheek. He shouldn’t have felt anything, but he did. It was impossible to tell if it was the explosion in the crowd at the sight of it, the adrenaline of her face being so close, or some bolt of static jumping between her and his pager.
Regardless, the lights went out with her lips on him. The stadium lights were big enough to raft on, so the mere act of shutting down was quite loud, like all the metal shutters in a mall dropping together. The quiet of the blinding moment lasted less than a second; the lights returned. They weren’t the carefully curated colors of the show, but all the ordinary ones. Pale little safety lights between the rows of seats. Lights buzzing over the snack bars behind them. Lights that had never known what they could be.
His bodyguards were halfway up the stage in the darkness, and they forcefully but carefully guided him back to the box. The crowd was shouting for an encore, and she always did one, but the milquetoast lighting all but assured she wasn’t coming back. Kanga looked over his shoulder and saw a few combinations of tucked shirts and glasses examining a projecting machine just behind one of the curtains. They were swearing at each other, trying to decide whether to slap the projector or their coworkers.
The rest of the evening was a blur. Somehow, the guards no doubt, he made it back to the limo, back to the team house, and then back to his own apartment. Someone was messing with him, or after his money, had to be. The team head warned him this might happen after the attack. People would see him as even better than a hologram; he was a survivor. Everyone had witnessed the deaths, so they felt they were entitled to explanations, to everything in Kanga’s head as he had watched it the closest.
Sleep. Supposed to get eight hours the day before a game. In his contract that he had to be comfortable. In his puffy white bedding, like the snowy hills he was about to board down. Wrapped tightly like the embrace of an avalanche, wound up like a squeezed cube of salmon in a sushi roll, he finally forced sleep.
“Mom told me to pretend it was just one picture, like for school picture day, because… because it’ll only take that long.” The cherubic child was difficult to understand, but there was a handful of ways in which it wasn’t his fault. First was the structure of his nine-year-old face: round, small teeth, and the tiniest banana-bruise of a chin dimple forming. It was an extremely photogenic face, almost designed that way, though he certainly wouldn’t be so adorable as an adult.
Such a face, with cheeks looking permanently pinched and teeth too tiny to compete with the tongue, tended to slur the words, but that was fine, for they weren’t going to record anything he said. He was only there because his face was doubly squeezed by his mechanically jointed and robotically operated full body cast.
Even after the double squeezing his speech then had to contend with the cold and the ongoing drift of the artificial snow blowers positioned far above them. His numb little face soldiered through, but then the painkilling drugs got to it. Kanga wasn’t sure how aware the child was of the things he was saying. He responded as if they were having a lucid conversation anyway.
“Yeah, they’ll all flash at once, they’ll ask a couple of questions, and then they’ll move on.” He was referring to the photographers from Recycling Bin Monthly, SBS News, Hollywood Hissyfit, and a few other smaller outlets. These kinds of publicity stunts were common. The team head would arrange for some unfortunate but television-ready victim to meet their favorite recycling player for a few pictures and a free autograph.
He wondered if the kid’s cast could handle trudging through snow, but it couldn’t have been that bad given how much he was smiling. He had a camera of his own, gripped in his swollen pink fingers, a little disposable number from the nearby gift shop for the subterranean slopes. He asked Kanga for a picture, and he obliged. It was the last shot on the roll, so the kid took the film canister out afterward and tossed the camera itself as far as he could.
“That one’s for you when the game starts,” he huffed excitedly, the toss making it just far enough to pass the turnstiles that kept people from falling off the side of the mountain. Without the ability to bend his arm the throw had sent his whole body spinning, so Kanga had to catch him to keep him upright. A few warning lights on the cast’s joints flashed.
“What happened to you anyway kid?” Kanga asked. Though the robotics gave him mobility it was still a sorry sight, like watching a lamp-dried starfish waddle around upright.
“My dad did it,” he said, smile fading. “Pushed me down the stairs. The D.O.U.S.E people said he was on drugs, and that it was a real good thing all the guns are off the streets, because I wouldn’t be here otherwise.” Kanga suppressed an eye roll. It was the duty of D.O.U.S.E officers to protect children, yet they never even learned how to talk to them without scaring them witless.
“I’m sorry kid, that’s rough… but hey, it looks like you’ve got a lot of friends taking care of you.” He pointed out the copious marker illustrations and signatures all across the cast: wolves howling at the moon across his chest, with each having a name sliding down their backs and dangling off their tails, video game characters racing a marathon along his arm, and a purple tiger roaring between his shoulders.
“Yeah!” he said, laughing at a passing snowflake. “Umm… Mr. Kanga? Would you sign it too?”
“Sure kid, no problem.” There was a felt-tipped pen jammed in the collar of the cast, and since the child could do nothing but jab his eyes toward it, Kanga pulled it free and put his John Hancock, super star right next to a sticker of a fellow recycler. Feeling extra generous, especially since the cameras weren’t there yet, he turned and pulled his board out from his large red supply duffel. “Do you want to sign my board?”
Perhaps it was a mistake, for his face got even redder and tears of joy welled up in his eyes. He couldn’t nod, but Kanga could see by the alternately scrunching skin on his forehead and chin that he was trying to. He handed the pen over quickly before the kid had a chance to hyperventilate.
“I didn’t think I could even see it,” he squeaked between sniffles. The athletic device was elegantly engineered, though the effect was almost completely ruined by the sponsors’ logos plastered all over it. The most coveted spot was the middle of the underside, for his Rad Machines Anyboard was capable of landing jumps from more than fifty feet in the air. Any logo seen at the center of a spinning board mid-trick was sure to stick in a viewer’s mind.
“Yeah, she’s a beauty,” Kanga said with a smile as the kid squeezed his squiggly signature between the colorful names of Hoshiko Fun Fruit and Rainforest on Every Corner. “Sixty-five inches long. Encased in impact and scratch resistant resin. Rounded hover-hubs based on the wheel wells of the 3-91 Smooth Operator convertible.”
Its most obvious characteristic under all the advertising was its bright red color, matching the Rockford Rendezvous long-sleeved winter jersey he wore. His number, 45, took up most of his chest. There was already talk that the Rendezvous might retire that number when he left the game, as a monument to his continuing after the attack. Kanga thought that perversely backward.
The numbers killed in action should’ve been the ones honored: 33, 12, 68, and 64. Yet they were there that day, on the jerseys of Raffy, Barson, Sam, and Rigan, absorbing all those flashbulbs before they made their way over to the star player. Then there was 44. Right next to Kanga’s. Nobody in League Intersectional Recycling should’ve dared to touch that one.
“I think you’ll break your record today,” the kid said, bringing him back to the moment. “One ton of recycling!” Kanga chuckled. The kid, when not under the influence of stardom and tranquilizing syrup, knew full well that his current record for a single game was 106 pounds and seven ounces.
Big helicopters, each capable of carrying the whole team, had taken them up the mountain to the Baldigari starting gate, and along the way he had a really good look at the opening descent. Mixed in with the snow was a fair amount of refuse, likely enough to break the three pound mark before they even hit the main body of the course, but that was only if he didn’t face stiff interference from the opposition.
Their opponent that day was the Dayton Embrace, embraced by uniforms of dark gray and gold, though their fans were quick to point out that the shades were actually called industrial crystal and king’s patina. Kanga spotted them on the other side of the photographers, all seven of them, mugging for the crowd squeezed into the one bleacher box that fit at that altitude.
The Embrace was an aggressively defensive team, their coach purposefully drafting players with muscles like the exterior of bumper cars. Their strategy for five seasons straight now was cutting other players off before they could make a collection and forcing a shoulder collision, usually resulting in a tumble for the smaller player.
Tumbles cost time, and there was no penalty for defensive positioning around a collection, thus punishing the player who had the greater speed going in. It was a brutal board-snapping and tire-popping technique that really got the fans jumping out of the stands and hurting themselves almost as much.
Dayton’s aggression earned them ratings, but it had proven difficult to convert into victories. The season was a third over already and they were sitting on a paltry 3-9 record. When it came down to it, it was still better to be faster and collect more. That was supposed to be the whole point after all, cleaning up that poor mountain.
“Here they come,” the kid squeaked, waddling to complete half a turn toward the cluster of approaching photographers. Kanga took his anyboard back and propped it up next to him, so he would have something to lean on if the kid suddenly leaned on him. The flashes got there before they did, and so did the questions. The first one asked was done so completely out of breath. The chattering of their teeth was certainly audible wherever their microphone was broadcasting.
“Kanga! If I may! How does it feel to know you give children like Mitty here someone to look up to?”
“They have to look up to me way up here,” he joked, deflecting the question as he silently shamed himself for never asking little cocooned Mitty’s name.
“Are you ready for your first game with a rebuilt Rendezvous?”
“Yes.” He couldn’t leave it at that. Terse wasn’t relatable; it wasn’t marketable. “Leternau was nice enough to sub in for me while I took some time off. She got us to six-six and I’m confident we can make it seven-six today.”
“I’m confident too!” Mitty squeaked. “Kanga’s the best!” He tried to give a thumbs up to the cameras, but with the thumb a tall island in a sea of plaster the gesture looked no different from its resting position.
“That’s great,” one of them said as they snapped again. “Hey you’re going to sign his cast right? Let’s get a shot of that.” The others voiced their agreement.
“I already signed it guys,” Kanga said with a strained smile. “Let’s not make him stand out in the cold any more than he has to.”
“You can sign it again for Juicy,” one of them said. He tried to find which face the words had spewed from, but it was already lost, only the lens it held exposed.
“Why would I do that?”
“So you’re saying it’s not true?” A different voice. The same thread. The kid wasn’t the meal they gorged on; that honor belonged to Joey Reuben’s facial expression after that question.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, or what most of you write down for that matter.” He had to tamp down his temper again; it was never a problem before. The team head would surely have words for him already.
“We saw how she warmed up to you on that stage.” Yet another voice, another outlet. “Those holograms are based on the personalities of the original. There’s been speculation that the two of you were in a secret relationship before her death, and that the hologram sensed it.”
“That’s nonsense,” he said reflexively. “A stunt by the people programming that thing I think.”
“That thing is no way to talk about your girlfriend. Maybe you didn’t like her when she was flesh and blood, but how about now? Are you going to be the first man in a cross-reality relationship?” The worst part was that he couldn’t even look away. Mitty’s face was off to the side, brimming with freezing tears and a smile missing a tooth, enrapt in the possibility of such a thing being true.
Kanga was saved by the arrival of three women, two of whom wore Rendezvous red, and one who wore an expression suggesting she’d just realized that artificial snow required very real cold. She hustled over to her drugged starfish of a son, rubbing his pink fingers and wrapping her own jacket around him. Only standing behind him with her hands on his stiff shoulders, pushing back and forth as if working the handlebars of an exercise bike, succeeded in getting him moving toward shelter.
“We’re starting and you guys are all in the way,” one of his teammates told the photographers. “Get back to the stands with everybody else.” They weren’t happy, but the Baldigari Mountain audio system kicked in, blaring music like a cough from god that sent them scurrying. Patterns of light moved along the front of the bleachers. The lingering helicopters far above made colored spotlights dance across the snow.
Tina and Monique were the only women on the starting lineup of seven, and only Tina had been with them before. She put a hand on his shoulder and walked with him to the turnstiles while she pulled her bounce bike along with the other. There were squares painted onto the packed snow, one for each of the fourteen players. They slotted into theirs and prepared their equipment.
“Thanks for saving me,” Kanga mentioned as he put his board down and locked his boots into position.
“You know I’ve got your back,” she said as she straddled her seat. One of her hands worked the pump that looked like an old fashioned bicycle bell, inflating her giant tires bit by bit. “Monique does too, so stop giving her the cold shoulder.”
“It’s not her fault… It’s just that she’s-”
“Wearing 44 I know. Wasn’t her choice. You’ve got to keep your head off his number and in the game. Leternau was more fun than you, but she couldn’t snatch tinfoil out of the wind to save her life.” The new guys took up their positions, and their opponents followed until all fourteen players were chomping at the bit to be unleashed on the mountain in desperate need of a good sweeping.
“For Baldigari it’s winter all year round!” the announcer boomed. “That means spring cleaning never came. This resort and ice park sees thousands of visitors a year from all over the world, and we’re happy to pitch in from time to time to make sure it’s still looking pristine.”
“Remember all the good stuff will be in the tunnels,” Tina reminded him when the announcer took a breath. “Don’t try to pull anything out of the powder that’ll slow you down.”
“You act like this is my first community service,” Kanga said with a chuckle, using the insider’s lingo for the sport.
“Just remember you’ve still got a community,” she said. He couldn’t ask what she meant, for the spirited announcing kicked back in.
“For today’s match we have, in the radical red, the Rockfoooooord Rendezvoooouuuus!” Raucous applause. “And in the gilded gray we must have the Daaaaaaayton Embraaaaaaace!” There was surely applause for them as well, the jerseys in the stands were evenly distributed across the two color schemes, but Kanga’s focus dropped down the slope in front of him. He didn’t hear the prerecorded promo either, just the last word of it.
“Baldigari Mountain is an eco-engineering wonder with over twenty trails, many of which terminate in gigantic tunnels bored into the ice and rock, polished to a marvelous blue like you’ve never seen… unless you hold one of our season passes that is. Good luck to the recyclers down there. We’re counting on you! On your mark, buckle up, and go!”
The turnstiles flew open, all fourteen vehicles springing forward and beginning their descent. Two types of extreme sport transportation were sanctioned for official league recycling: the anyboard and the bounce bike. The former, strongly resembling a snowboard, could handle oh so much more thanks to its pinch of constant hovering, like the breath under an air hockey puck. Snow, sand, dirt, rock, rails, still water, waves, boiling bubbles, and perhaps even the jealousy of all those without one. All surfaces were fair game to its impressive moves. Any surface.
Bounce bikes were the bellowing shield maidens to the anyboard’s slick scouts. Their inflatable wheels, more like inner tubes than true tires, were similarly resilient, but a touch slower and better at absorbing the impacts that the previously mentioned jealous were bound to attempt. When a rider was so inclined they could bounce back and forth, sending their bronco bucking, leaping over huge obstacles with all the grace of a hare trained in classical ballet.
Athletes were free to use their vehicles of choice, but they were all bound by the same regulation backpack compressor. Self-tightening straps held in place a metal canister with a funnel opening on top, like a tall ashtray for the strolling smoker. Inside its dark maw advanced compression technology went to work crushing all the extra anything out of recyclables. A tin can could be reduced to a hundredth of its original size. The weight of course did not respond to exercise or the trendy pills that kept some recyclers trim; every beast carted every burden they collected from the opening bell to the closing applause.
A single player would have difficulty carrying more than a hundred compressed pounds on their back, so it served them well to fill up and pass anything else collected to those still running on light and breezy empty. One was also free to drop off their collection with the scorekeeper for tallying and go back out, as long as time remained, but it was usually a significant detour.
The team to collect the greatest recyclable weight within each unique arena’s confines after forty minutes was declared the winner. Your support of the victors was a double victory, for you threw in with those who were in the better graces of vivacious Mother Earth. The winners could be held up as thoroughly of the nineties: healers, menders, and forward soldiers. The losers could embody the black and bottomless gorging gorge of 1980s consumption.
If the winners had been around in the frantic cocaine-fueled madness of 1-89, perhaps none of those awful craters would have been left in society. The guns wouldn’t have to be off the street, ripped from the hands of every gang member. The rain forests wouldn’t be reduced to one on every corner. And their backyards wouldn’t be so full of the blowing tumbleweeds that were the last decade’s trash.
Candy wrappers could be left to the fans; they were worth essentially nothing since they were thin and heavy as leaves. Kanga let them whip by as he crouched lower, encouraging his board to adopt lethal speed. With so much time left he could afford to be picky, saving his strength for the most reliable source of points: glass bottles. Metal cans and tins were next on the totem pole after that.
There was one now, its tab sticking out of the snow and approaching rapidly. He still knew all the colors of all the labels, so its splash of icy blue meant it had originally held some of that ‘astronaut ice cream’ that had been such a sensation a few years back. He snatched it like a hawk, even scooping in the right direction so the snow would fall out of it rather than weigh him down for a fraction of a second.
Over his shoulder it went, a single tinny bounce off the rim before his pack sucked it down and flattened any dreams of space travel right out of it. His wrist watch indicator beeped and displayed the item’s weight.
He entered a corridor of cheering, as more bleachers were set up on either side at the manageable elevations. Despite the crowd’s elation they were making things more dangerous for the Rendezvous, as the attention-hungry slavering Embrace saw it as their cue to assert themselves. One of the their bounce bikes swerved, cutting off Kombo on his anyboard. The bike bounced at the last second, detonating the snow in its wake so that a chunk of it smacked against the red recycler’s face.
The end result was Kombo violently flattened against the front of some of the bleachers, conveniently covering an exorbitant price in an advertisement. Helping him would just be a waste of time, so Kanga blew by. If a player couldn’t get back up on their own the medics would be along shortly.
The entrance to the tunnels loomed. They were a feat indeed, like looking down a glacier’s throat. That throat was an excellent singer, the distortions of the sound outside fascinating the recyclers as soon as they barreled in. The cheering was quieted, but far from gone, like it was being spread across the ice the same way one would ice a cake.
Friendlier inclines presaged a split in the path ahead. One tunnel became four, and which contained the most tempting trash was any participant’s guess. Radios were not part of their gear, so all communication had to be handled with hand signals. Monique, leading both packs on her anyboard, used one to declare that the leftmost path belonged to her.
Kanga was enjoying himself more than anticipated, the ice in his lungs invigorating his whole body in a way he hadn’t felt in months. How could he have forgotten that he loved the game this much? The subterranean singing of the ice was like the hymn of a pipe organ breaking against a cathedral ceiling, and he simply had to slow down and take it in.
Letting his teammates pick the tunnels they liked was pretense enough; he would do his best with the least-populated path. Three red figures took the left center path, and another the rightmost. That left one free of Rendezvous energy, and they couldn’t have that. Even his slight turn faced heavy opposition, with two Embrace recyclers coming up alongside him on anyboards. They boxed him in, adjusting to his speed, with the intent of running him into one of the walls dividing the tunnels.
Cameras were mounted in the ice, relaying the action to screens all over the resort. There would be too many to account for, so slipping in a body check foul to free himself some space was out of the question. It was always out, as he’d never been justly penalized for one before, but the smugness on his opponents’ faces tempted him sorely.
Instead he changed his technique, spinning his board forty-five degrees so he was gliding along as if on skis. The wider profile forced them to give a few inches on each side, but that wasn’t the only purpose of the maneuver. Kanga was able to stand tall, giving him a better angle to view both the approaching tunnel and his foes.
The Embracers couldn’t stand to be at a disadvantage in any capacity, so they turned to match his profile. Anyboards hovered less than two inches off the ground most of the time, and many athletes made the mistake of thinking they could spin it like a propeller without consequences, for it made most calculations based on its center of mass.
Kanga was on perfectly flat ice, but the Embracer to the right was on the tunnel’s left curve, so when he turned his board snagged the edge of the ice and he tumbled straight into the wrong tunnel, howling as he slid away. That left one more, but Kombo reappeared from behind and got between them, flashing a thumbs up at Kanga as he forced the remaining opponent down the same tunnel as the other.
The walls cut off the friendly gesture before he could return it, leaving him alone with the ice and its song, now reduced to an echoing whisper. The ice dropped sharply; he leaned into it. Occasionally the wall was painted with markings indicating the difficulty, so he followed the pairs of black diamonds whenever he saw them, even as the ice sheared the shapes themselves on its way down.
Some passages were so tight and steep that he could loop around them entirely. It was such a wonder to be that deep in the mountain, like the mirror of a mountaineer nearing the summit, but there was one nagging problem. The passage was clean as a bleached whistle. He checked his indicator: three minutes in and only a cold and lonely tin to his name. That wasn’t what the equally cold Mitty was shouting his little lungs out for.
The temperature dropped as he boarded deeper, necessitating his goggles just to keep his eyes warm. The only lights were planted under the ice’s surface, giving the blue surroundings an eerie glow. The song was gone, and all he heard was the occasional drip. The indicator would beep at him if he got so low that he was out of bounds, so abandoned as this passage seemed it had be included for a reason, and it had to include a way to the scorekeeper.
The first thing that wasn’t ice in over five minutes caught his eye. There was an embankment of snow, a hidden blower spraying more of it in a lazy geyser. He slowed down and went through the chilly curtain, finding an idyllic scene perfect for a painting: thermal picnic blanket, plastic wineglasses stuck in the snow and empty except for icy purple rings in the bottom, and an assortment of containers for string cheese, beef jerky, and cheap salmon caviar from a squeeze tube.
The grand prizes were the blanket and the wine bottle, both of which generated the loudest noises when his pack sucked them down and compressed them. He grabbed the rest of it as well, watching his indicator number swell to over seven pounds. What a boon someone’s messy romantic outing turned out to be, and not just because they’d run off to a hotel bed without stopping for some not-so-seductive sanitation duties.
Further back, hidden tightly in the shadows, was a pit in the ice flooded with discarded goods. Someone must have told those picnickers about that spot, a someone who was told by someone else, who was told by yet another person who would never ruin the moment by loudly flapping some air into a trash bag.
Kanga disengaged from his board, fully within the rules but inadvisable if an enemy was near enough to coax it into moving on its own and stranding its owner. He jumped into the pit, bottles and cans rolling with a clatter. Here was the sweaty armpit of the mountain, long neglected, perfectly filthy for his needs. Ten pounds. Twelve. Fifteen.
His pack started to sag, but it wasn’t alone. Kanga stopped when the pit itself drooped. He was still knee deep in refuse, so he froze, hands out, waiting to see what would happen. Unfortunately the mountain was not subject to the same ticking clock, so the recycler had to blink his frozen lashes first.
Leaping toward his board put a little too much empty air in the pile; it collapsed. In doing so it took off sliding as a single mass, revealing a circular hole on one end of the pit. This was a trail after all, long stopped up by visitors testing and discarding aphrodisiacs in the drift of the snowblower. The momentum was enough to pull his board along with the pile, but he was stuck climbing against the clattering current and reaching for it.
The tunnel swerved left, and then right, and then declared that it didn’t much care for swerving at all, turning into a vertical chute that dumped everything into a snowbank. A bottle, seeming aware of how much it was worth in the game of recycling, defended itself by dropping directly onto the crown of Kanga’s head and shattering.
His ears and thoughts rang as more and more piled on top of him. In moments he was completely buried, the greatest shift in the refuse caused by the swelling purple goose egg on the top of his head.
“What was that?” The voice wasn’t that close, but everything echoed in the domed chamber. A few manufactured ice columns held the ceiling up, trophies and ribbons and gift store goods locked inside as if a tidal wave through the Winter Olympics had frozen in a camera flash. The metal base of a ski lift stood on the far side, but it had just stopped running, one of its cars still bouncing back and forth on its hook.
“It’s just a pile of trash,” someone else said, close enough to make Kanga flinch. Luckily he was too numb and sore to do so. Whoever they were kicked one of the bottles, sending it spinning across ice that had been machine-textured to prevent slipping.
Kanga swallowed, the sharp touch of a soda can’s pop tab on his Adam’s apple helping him ground his thoughts. Both voices were female, unfamiliar. There were others, but they weren’t talking. It was the sounds of panic, the glue of sniveling holding together all the groveling. His eyes focused and opened in the wrong order, his vision mostly obscured by three layers of bottles, each dyeing the scene before him a different color through their glass. One tiny window, the shape of a star, showed him the plain truth. Through it he saw a number, printed in green, across a circular metal hatch: 96.
The last time he’d heard it was the briefing the night before. Ninety-six was the designation of the assigned scorekeeper for the match. He’d accidentally dropped right into the end of the course. No matter how much recycling was sequestered away in a pack, none of it counted for a single point if it wasn’t fed into the scorekeeper by game’s end.
Incredible inventions they were, the limited edition Y2Kapable all-purpose recyclers out of Shinjuku, of which only ninety-nine were ever produced. That meant only ninety-nine recycling matches could happen around the world simultaneously, as nothing else was capable of such feats of matter rearrangement as well as the instantaneous spitting out of fun and notable statistics.
They were strictly controlled by League Intersectional Recycling, LIR, and the League Intersectional Recycling International Council, LIRIC. As the only sanctioned machines capable of operating soundly on new millennium code, the scorekeepers saw the current year as 2035 rather than the more sensible 5-95, they were arguably the single most valuable items in existence.
Yet this one had clearly fallen in with a bad crowd. As the match’s endpoint, the domed chamber should have been populated only by referees, team officials, select film crew, and any players dumping off their collections. Kanga quickly judged all the bound and gagged figures, only a few capable of righting themselves on their knees, to be all of those sanctioned people.
Ninety-six could only be in the clutches of one group; nobody else had ever attacked a match in progress. Judging by the empty lift, they had successfully isolated the chamber, meaning they had control of all nearby machines that could allow anyone else access. That meant every potential exit for Kanga was unsafe, Y2Krazy as they come, nihilistic and ready to self-destruct as soon as it looked like they could take someone else with them.
“If I find out you didn’t film every second of this,” the first woman said, drawing his attention away from the hostages, “I’ll listen really close for that heartbeat of yours, I know them all, and I’ll show up when it’s calm and slow… when you’re asleep. Then I’ll make it beat to a different rhythm. Do you understand?” Kanga could barely make out the camera man; he was green and curled like a string bean thanks to the bottom of the bottle he was looking through. An equally bent film camera stood on a tripod next to him. His beret-wearing head disappeared behind it after he nodded.
There was another distorted figure, but the green couldn’t suppress her aura fully. He knew her clothes were white even without seeing them clearly. They weren’t normal by any means, fabulously evil even from behind, like she was finishing the catwalk in her secret layer. Fiercer than that. A tiger’s walk. The shoulders were sharp, the cape barely more than a hood dangling behind her neck.
Were the boots high-heeled, or did she just insist on standing that much taller than the peons beneath her? Her head was encased in a skintight cowl that rose to a curled point, like a cresting wave in a saucer of heavy cream.
“Monoxide, where’s Lavabox? We’re a hundred beats behind schedule. The camera person’s just wet themselves and it’ll freeze before we even have anything to show their lens.”
“They say give them ten seconds,” the second voice answered, stepping away from the pile that contained the woozy recycler. He got a much better look at her: short, hair to match, wearing far too little for such temperatures, and skin a soft cherry red, but that was just the red bottle she stepped in front of, or so he thought until she moved into the clear star and he saw the shade carry over unchanged. That absolutely settled it. These were the recycled people that ruined everything, the terrorists threatening the sport and even the world upholding it… the Millennials.
Though he hardly needed more proof, a third one arrived, shooting out of a tunnel on a stolen bounce bike, dragging two bound Embracers behind it. It bounced to a halt, its previous owners ricocheting off the giant tire before being pulled back violently by the tightly-woven cords around their waists.
The cyclist, who Kanga guessed to be the ‘Lavabox’ the others spoke of, dismounted and grabbed a chunk of ice from the floor. He put it to the back of his neck, where it immediately hissed and melted into steam. He looked like an African-American male, but there was really no telling exactly what he was if he had been recycled.
He seemed to be in competition with the one called Monoxide over who could be the closest to nude, for he was shirtless and barefoot, wearing only a pair of red nylon pants meant for running, two luminous stripes down the sides. His face was clean and cocky, a shine to his bald head that almost matched the brightness of his smile.
“Two eggs, over easy,” he said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. “Let’s make an omelet.” He unhooked the wire, dragging the two players toward the Scorekeeper. A chilling wave, nothing at all to do with the ice, washed over Kanga. They were doing it again. What were the odds they would target a second one of his matches? Had he done something to offend them?
“Excellent,” the woman in charge said. She turned to the cameraman. “Roll film.” He obeyed, adjusting the frozen sheet of urine in his trousers with his free hand. “The new millennium is here whether your recognize it or not,” she scolded the camera. “Put down your toys, and put them in the right bin. You make it harder every day, forcing us to make it easy on you.” She nodded at Lavabox.
He grabbed a handle on the side of the number ninety-six and pulled open the hatch, revealing the glowing swirling innards of the locomotive-sized machine. The teal light of its portal was often likened to the interior curl of a wave as seen by expert surfers, in waters green with blooming algae. Nobody knew exactly what happened inside, as they were revelations of its computer mind, made distant by the downright alien changes it made to its own code.
What Kanga did know was that the Millennials couldn’t even open it without hacking it; they must’ve had a smaller device attached to it somewhere: a Y2Kitten. With one of those in place they could make it do whatever they wanted. In went a normal citizen of the nineties and out came a Millennial, a radical often given superhuman abilities.
The horrific process was never broadcast on the news, but that didn’t stop them from making anyone on hand who could film it do so. Kanga was struck by a crisis: whether or not to watch. Surely it was a sight that changed you. But it had taken him, the proud beautiful bearer of forty-four. He’d undergone every painful turn of a Shinjuku engine, so perhaps watching was the least he could do.
It was only when one of the Embracers slipped his mouth from his gag and screamed for help did Kanga understand the actual crisis. Not whether to watch. Whether to intervene. Suddenly his fingers were full of energy, clawing at something underneath him about as long as his body. His board!
He flew out of the pile, bottles clattering everywhere. Halfway to his target he got off his stomach, stepped off, and stomped on the back curl. The anyboard flew through the air toward Lavabox, enough force to easily knock out an ordinary man.
A scalding grip caught it before it was casually tossed over the shoulder into the scorekeeper, warping along its curl and vanishing down the center like a drip of red paint swirling down a sink drain. Kanga froze in place. He had to know this would happen, even if he’d gotten one of them. Was this the actual reason he’d returned to the game? A death wish he hadn’t labeled until now?
“If you’re going to kill anyone… kill me,” he croaked. Ku-kwing! The leader turned to face him and he finally saw her every detail. Ku-kwing! Eyes like the ice around them, only untamed, the glare of a bucking bronco glacier, a ship-hunting shark of a berg-shard. Ku-kwing! Round full lips striated with diamond and waxed with acrylic. Ku-kwing! A muscular feminine body, sharp in hidden ways like a folding utility knife.
Her dress, blue and white, was slit up the sides allowing for a full range of motion. Its few vertical stripes were interrupted by a porthole on the left side of her chest just above the breast. There, behind a transparent panel, it beat. Ku-kwing! No, it sang. Ku-kwing! No, he was too much of a philistine to even know the right word. It was the shattering high note of an opera wielded as a cudgel. A bell that broke every time it rang. The gong that ushered in suitors of the Queen Titania. Ku-kwing!
Her name and her claim to fame, her melodic moniker, and the focal point of the few shots the tabloids had of her: Crystalheart. Kanga watched it beat, mesmerized, but still flinching with each ku-kwing! The organ was almost entirely made of clearest quartz, valves and chambers held together by thinnest ropes of leathery crimson tissue, like a braided vellum bookmark.
Each beat was like a titanium reflex hammer within, and this was no implant. Recycling had made it part of her, and she could direct it as she pleased. Kanga felt its beat in his bones as she stared.
“Fine,” she said. “Lavabox-”
“Woah!” Monoxide interrupted in her high raspy voice. “Not them Crystal. They’re that one.”
“Inconvenient,” she grumbled, heartbeat wandering out of his joints and back into the surrounding ice.
“What? I’m not good enough for you?” Kanga blurted as the Millennials tried to turn back to their nefarious deeds. “You took my best friend! What’d you do with him huh?” Crystalheart turned back. With a foggy breath out her nose she mulled something over, and that something was the motion picture they were in the midst of making. She aimed her chest at the camera; its operator sensed the intent at the last moment and threw himself to the ground. Ku-kwing! The device crumpled in on itself and fell over, a dying snake of film emerging and writhing.
“Took?” she said as if she hadn’t done a thing other than listen. “We don’t take anybody.”
“You did what you were about to do!” he shouted. “Recycled him! I want to know where that person is. I want you to take me to them.” He realized why they were avoiding hanging sex-specific pronouns: the same reason he just did it himself. The Shinjuku engines always spat out roughly the same amount of human, but it didn’t have to be more specific than that. Men could come out as women. Women as men. Or women as beating diamonds of wrath, apparently.
“We reinvented them. That sounds much more like us. Though, killed would still be much more accurate than took. Tell me, what was their name?” The name stuck in Kanga’s mouth, dug into his palate like a dragged anchor, but he forced it out.
“…Winter Solomon. Number forty-four.”
“Doesn’t sound familiar, though I don’t doubt what you’re saying.”
“You took him and four of my teammates. Then you destroyed the place before I could even get there.”
“That’s a load of crap,” Monoxide said. Her face was scrunched up as if she could smell said load. To Kanga she looked like a rat aspiring to be a mean-spirited food critic. “We never did five on a team around here. That Winter person was the only one… and it was just because they got in the way.”
“Were you there?” he asked her. Having the question aimed at her seemed to grant some kind of obscene pleasure. She sneered, putting a hand on her collarbone as if she’d just been the subject of aggressive flirtation.
“Who me? Was I there… That’ a killer of a question. You know, maybe Winter is me now.” She swiveled toward Lavabox. “Isn’t forty-four my lucky number?”
“That’s what your fortune cookie said,” he answered with a chuckle. Without much of a stake in the conversation he went ahead and chucked one of the Embracers into the scorekeeper. There wasn’t time for him to scream before his mouth was full of the luminous compound. He disappeared under its flow and spiraled down to a state of core component silt. His teammate panicked and tried to scuttle away, Lavabox keeping him in place with a foot on his back. “Course, it came with my beef and broccoli, so maybe I’m Winter.”
“You do look familiar,” Monoxide crooned at Kanga, “but maybe that’s because your face is so boring.”
“Enough mockery,” Crystalheart admonished. There was the sound of splashing from the machine, and then two hands grasping its edge, dripping teal down the front. Out crawled a man of smaller stature than the one that went in, thinner with shorter hair. Sleeveless black athletic wear nothing like the Embrace colors.
He looked more like a plastic bottle full of lemon-lime sports drink, some energized demon from a branded commercial slinging around the word ‘electrolytes’. Clear skin, with a lively green like light through pond water flowing underneath. Sharp eyes that almost floated. Even though he was freshly minted he had the presence of mind to wipe the excess fluid from his face and use it to slick back his hair.
“Do I have a name?” he asked Crystalheart.
“I wouldn’t dream of picking one for you. You’ll find it yourself. Come everyone, we’re done here.”
“What about all the suits?” Lavabox asked, pointing at the clump of mostly face-down hostages.
“Leave them. Suddenly my heart’s not in it.” The scalding Millennial kicked the remaining Embracer, sliding him toward Kanga. Their leader started to walk away, her subordinates, tested and fresh alike, followed wordlessly. Kanga couldn’t believe it. Nobody else in the world was this cruel. The pushers were locked up until 2000. Prejudice was gone. The guns were off the streets. He couldn’t let it stand, these people from another time that had been prevented.
“Don’t you care about what you’ve done!?” he screamed, center of his fists hot despite his foggy breath. Crystalheart stopped. Ku-kwing! Monoxide tried to lightly touch her arm, but she smacked it away. Ku-kwing! When her head whipped around the ice cracked, starting at her feet and jerking back and forth all the way to him.
He stumbled backward and by the time he looked up she was before him, grabbing the front of his jacket and holding him on his heels so he wouldn’t fall any further. Her frosty eyes, irises scratched white in a thousand directions like a popular ice rink, seemed to stare through his face and into his mind.
“Don’t.” Ku-kwing! A crack in the ceiling, a falling chunk bigger than his head. “You.” Ku-kwing! A vending machine embedded up to its glass in the ice shook free and fell over. “Ever.” Ku-kwing! A deeper shake. The whole chamber was rumbling. Somewhere out of sight the rock was giving up, throwing the burden off its shoulders and muttering about being too old for such things.
“What!?” he sputtered.
“Don’t you ever accuse me of not caring!” she roared. Ku-kwing! The sound was inside him again, turning his joints into pairs of dueling hammers. It was more than he could handle, and thankfully the remainders of the concussive force didn’t stick around, instead moving out from his feet in shock waves. “Can’t you see!?” The ice around them broke up, the disk holding them sinking several inches. “Can’t you feel how much I care!?”
“Crystal!” Monoxide shouted as warning. Parts of the ceiling were falling everywhere, some bouncing off the curved metal shell of Shinjuku number ninety-six. Any that fell in front of its open portal were sucked in. The Millennial looked about, as if only just realizing the damage she’d caused. Her hand opened, dropping him like a piece of garbage, and not even one of the wet sticky ones that could cling to the hand. She littered him.
It certainly didn’t feel like concern as she stalked off with her cohorts, given that he had no way out and in less than a minute wouldn’t have a chamber to escape from anyway. Lavabox bent over at the side of ninety-six and pulled a floppy disk from a slot, quickly tossing it to Monoxide before his hands melted the plastic. As it spun through the air toward her Kanga caught a glimpse of the symbol on it: the round cartoon face of a white cat, one eye a wink and the other a strange coin.
There was no time to think about how that was almost certainly the Y2Kitten that carried the human recycling program. The Millennials were already aboard the ski lift, if you could call ascending its wire hand-over-hand ‘aboard’. A boulder equally of rock and ice dropped and cut them off from view, as well as all the natural light of hope that had filtered down.
Suddenly in the dark, with only emergency lights and the flashing fruit-flavored illumination on the side of the fallen vending machine to guide him, Kanga sprang into a panicked crawl. Colliding with some debris knocked him back to two feet, but he didn’t realize where his body was taking him until his hands wrapped around the handlebars of the Embracer bounce bike.
Another snowball smacked into his leg, but it was rather insistent, doing so over and over. In the dim he spotted bands: a tightened cord. It was the remaining Embracer begging for a ride, but Kanga didn’t have time to undo his bonds or throw him over the back, so he grabbed for the hook on the end of the cord and reattached it to the back of the bike.
He would be fiercely dragged, but he might survive, assuming Kanga was as skilled with the bike as he hoped. They say you never forget how to ride them, but bounce bikes were different animals. One bounce after a long time off and the only memories flooding back would be those of a parent delivering a stinging spanking. Kanga tensed his spine and went for it anyway, unsure how much height he actually achieved in the crumbling cave.
While Winter had been equally skilled with both vehicles, most of Kanga’s experience on the bike came from their practices together when their fatigue and laughter convinced them to switch toys. It even took him a few seconds to remember that he probably didn’t have to pedal; the bikes stored excess kinetic energy from pedaling for bursts of power, the equivalent of the constant forward hover the anyboard was capable of.
Two more bounces had him smacking his already bruised head on a sharp remnant of the ceiling. Snow was coming in on all sides, filling the spaces he’d just cleared. Wincing away the pain, he leaned far forward and urged the bike toward the last sliver of light.
They broke out into one of the tunnels, and without its collapse helping them along it would’ve been too vertical to climb. As it stood, or leaned rather, Kanga had to circle the churning rising rubble repeatedly, waiting for some new stairs to fall from above that he could bounce up to. Rather than panic his mind turned to keeping the Embracer alive, loosening the tight turns so he wouldn’t be violently thrown against the icy wall. By the way his limbs dragged he looked unconscious.
After the trail flattened out he finally broke free, the quake quieting behind him. The ice wasn’t cracked here, and as his eyes followed the difficulty markers they blurred together. One never forgets how to fall off a bike either.
Good news delivered from around the globe, with the power of the world wide web
Fireman Keith Lapetty of Anklenip, Alaska is back on the brigade this month after his tragic accident three years ago in which he lost the use of both his legs. With the help of the robotics department at the Ayonaki motor company he has been fitted with an all terrain wheelchair capable of traversing a burning building. It also contains twin pressurized extinguishers and can carry more than three hundred pounds! He is the world’s first wheelchair firefighter!
A fresh patch has been positioned on the hole in the ozone layer after some minor solar radiation leaks earlier this month. The hole has not grown in size and experts say they could build and launch a patch twice as large if ever necessary. While the patch integrates it will dye the skies over several hundred miles a lovely pink this year, to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
The polar bear was officially removed from the endangered species list on Wednesday, as its in-captivity population has reached a robust six thousand. ‘They’re firmly in demand in zoos everywhere,’ says Wild Wonders zoologist Jodie Freyn. ‘Wild Wonders operates more than two hundred locations around the world and our stock is at an all-time high. Mother Nature will have to go through us first if she wants to take them.’
A Millennial attack on a recycling match was thwarted by a brave player from the Rockford Rendezvous: Joseph ‘Kanga’ Reuben. Police say they were attempting to kill key officials but, despite a cave-in, all but two victims survived, many dug out by robotic drill within hours. The hero player is recovering in the hospital, with team head Roger Linejaw saying he’s eager to let his fans know he’s alright.
The drug kingpin Oscar Gabriel, also known as ‘Weedwhacker’ has finally been sentenced this week, after his second appeal was neutralized by new DOUSE legislation. For more than a decade he was a head of the marijuana cartel terrorizing the families of the southwest United States. As is customary for heinous peddling and pushing charges he has been sentenced to be freed in the year 2000.
The oil from the Traxon Vigorous spill has finally made sand in beautiful Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Locals have been eagerly awaiting its arrival, as the area has never had occasion to submit themselves to LIR as a possible competitive recycling arena. A special oily exhibition match, as we saw in the gulf of Mexico in 4-99, in which the Chihuahua Wow scored an incredible two-hundred and thirty-nine cleaned birds, was said to generate more than a hundred million dollars in revenue for the local economy.
The results are in for the 5-95 Musical Achievement Awards, with hologram performers sweeping all the major categories, with a huge ‘best debut album’ win for the boy group Way2Real, whose individual components famously insisted on working solo during their initial careers. Juicy Stardrop’s image holders won again this year for best self-cover and best concert VHS.