(reading time: 1 hour, 31 minutes)
The night sky was beautiful, almost nauseatingly so. There was purple, orange, and blue in great drifting clouds. Nebulae, but they were supposed to be impossible to see from Earth. The Milky Way was there, under them, everything out of place but rapturously so, the celestial bodies nuzzling each other like puppies in a pile.
The stars twinkled like they knew he was watching, and they all must have wanted his attention because they kept moving in front of each other. He put up his hand to hold them back, to tell them that their lighting would ruin any pictures they might want to take. His mind was full of sluggish haze, so it took more than a minute to realize how ridiculous all of this sounded.
Kanga’s eyes fluttered open, staring at two black holes surrounded by solar coronas coming into focus, revealing themselves to be nothing more than another pair of eyes. They were familiar, but the person housing them wasn’t. These were the same eyes Mitty had thrust toward him with his dangerous starfish-waddle. Best-day-of-my-young-life eyes.
“He’s awake!” the kid squeaked as more lights flashed. Kanga tried to lift his arm and block them, but the limb barely responded, as if it was just hitting the snooze button on the nerves controlling it.
“Easy fellas, easy!” someone said with a deep voice, finally something familiar. That was Roger Linejaw, head coach of the Rendezvous longer than Kanga had even been on the roster. If he was there then everything was fine, even if an entire galaxy had somehow been squeezed into the room. Roger was an odd potpourri of contradictions, including that all of said contradictions should’ve resulted in an abrasive whole, but he instead glided through social situations like a trained seal, honking only when everyone was gathered specifically to hear him honk.
He was in his fifties, balding with a saggy gut that probably housed much of the lost hair, yet he was also the picture of health, with clear skin, a bright full smile, and none of the chasms on his nose that older men have to admit are their pores. His remaining hair was a wispy blond like that of a toddler’s whose first phrase was ‘pass the conditioner’.
Kanga had almost never seen him in anything other than a Rendezvous red collared shirt tucked into a pair of blue jeans. He wore that now as he stood beside his recovering player’s hospital bed, corralling the paparazzi with his moisturized gesticulating.
“Give us one second,” Roger said, grabbing a pale green privacy curtain and dragging it all the way around the bed, leaving him thinly alone with Kanga and the entire universe, person-shaped, stood on the other side. “How are you feeling kid supreme?”
“Slow,” Kanga answered. When his arms finally cooperated he pulled on his upper eyelids to convince them to stay open. His reflexes sharpened when he remembered the last thing he was doing was pedaling frantically with an avalanche under and around. “The guy on the Embrace!”
“Easy there tiger champion. That guy is alive and well, because of you. Those…” Kanga heard the word ‘bastards’ even though Roger didn’t say it. He only said words like that when he thought he couldn’t be heard through a closed door, or when he was screaming them out in bubbles at the bottom of his heated swimming pool. “You know. They recycled one of the other Dayton players, and then a cameraman perished in the collapse. Everyone else is okay though; we dug them out. Recovered the Shinjuku too.”
“What the hell Roger?” he asked, tears welling up. “Why again? Why-”
“Watch the language,” the coach warned with a finger over his lip before it fell forward like a drawbridge and pointed at the cluster of galaxies waiting to be noticed with breath held about as well as a whining balloon.
When Kanga turned his head he realized it was another kid: a little girl this time. She was probably a little older than the stiff yet cheerful Mitty, but it was difficult to tell with the vibrant rubbery skin stretched over her face and the rest of her body. It flattened her hair against her forehead, little fake stars sliding down over it like slime filled with glitter.
“Hi,” he said gruffly. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Katie,” she said. Her words, having to travel through a layer of outer space, were lowered in pitch and warped by their journey, but he could still tell, by the sudden tilt of her head away from him, that she was trying to seem nonchalant.
“She’s one of the winners of that contest we did a few months back,” Roger explained. “The spend a day with your favorite recycler one, remember? We told her you weren’t going to be much fun, tucked in bed like this, but she insisted because you’re a hero mega mister.”
“Celebrities have ups and downs too,” Katie said, having clearly rehearsed it in the mirror many times, adjusting the high angle of her chin with each iteration. “I think it’s more mature to see the downs too.”
“Excuse me while I have an up,” Kanga muttered, pulling himself into a sitting position and straightening his hospital gown. He felt several bruises all over, especially one on his lower back that might’ve been as dark as Katie’s mysterious coating. “So what’s your story?” He did remember the contest, and like many of the others it had a requirement on its applications: significant and visible misfortune.
“I’m immunocompromised,” she said, that word much too long for a girl that age to pronounce correctly, yet practice made perfect. “This gel skin keeps germs from getting to me.”
“I see. So… you like outer space?”
“Enhh, not really. The only other ones they had were ‘duck pond’ and ‘desert dunes’. This one was the prettiest. Space is just kind of boring since we don’t send astronauts anymore.” She played with the gel around her fingers, balling up an end piece and tearing it off. She handed it to him. “Here, it’s kind of like a sponge.” He didn’t know what she meant at first, but then he felt his tears sloshing, so he dabbed at the corners of his eyes.
“They’re right Katie; I’m not much fun right now.” He turned back to Roger. “Come on Coach. What are all these cameras doing here?”
“I know it’s not proper big guy, but neither is the reaction you’re getting out there. It’s practically obscene. Your name is all over the world wide web.”
“The game was canceled, right?”
“Yes sir, still six six. LIR is squeezing another match in for us on the coast before we head out. We’ll probably butt heads with the Treasure in Florida.”
“The Treasure suck,” Katie added, still trying to hold an adult tone. “Raccoons on bikes could find more trash.”
“Wait… heading out?” Kanga repeated. “What does that mean?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Roger said. He bent down, grabbing multiple boxes from under the bed and letting them tumble out across the sheet, a few settling between Joey’s legs. Toys. Novelties. Snacks. He couldn’t help but just see packaging, and to collate them by weight. “All this press you’re generating has us drowning in new sponsorships. Owners say we have to strike while the iron’s hot.”
“Hmm, smart move,” Katie said, folding her arms, the gel squeaking like a strangled rubber slipper. “Oh hey, you got kung fu slaps!? I love those things!” She picked up one of the boxes, a little like one for bandages, but brightly banded in pink and blue. Her body coating turned her hands blunt and clumsy, so she had to tear it in half to access the individually-wrapped strips that poured out.
Kanga picked up one and removed the plastic. It was like a wristwatch one might get from a cereal box or a capsule toy machine, but with the imprint of a sprightly woman’s face in rubber instead of a clock’s. The one he examined was blue, but Katie had forced open a purple one. With one practice strike she then smacked the middle of the band atop her wrist, causing its inner workings to coil around tightly. Klak.
All it succeeded in doing was squeezing the gel, turning her hand into a floppy bubble. She tried a few punches regardless, but they were the normal pathetic flailing of an immunodeficient child.
“I guess it doesn’t work with this dumb thing on,” she said with a click of her tongue. “You try Kanga.” Joey held out his left arm and copied as she’d done, though he did five practice swings instead of one. He intended to do at least three more, but one of them hit the hairs on his arm, which was enough to trigger the slap-on bracelet.
As soon as it had him his arm shot forward, moving the entire bed an inch. Roger grabbed the edge to make sure he couldn’t go any further. Kanga still had control of his hand, but it felt different, like control couldn’t be assumed, like it had to be asserted regularly if the arm wasn’t to get funny ideas, run off on its own, and compete in underground arm wrestling competitions. His extended fist was tight, and it took a few tries to convince his fingers loose. That had been somebody else’s punch, shoved into his arm by the electric stimulation of the bracelet. He knew exactly whose punch it was modeled after, since her face adorned each one.
Cindy Wu Hu, real name left in a savings account in Hong Kong, had been a dominant force at the international box office for close to a decade. Originally a star solely of Chinese cinema, her bubbly nature and stunning martial arts skill packed into a 101 pound body made her a poster and special effect in one.
Her films, where she stumbled into and then broke up the operations of colorful street gangs, corrupt government agencies, and Russian terrorists, were initially the sort of thing you would stumble across on late night television, having been dubbed into English from Mandarin, and even occasionally dubbed into Cantonese from the English and then back into English again. She was also famous for her work ethic, rerecording her lines no matter which version they were on or how many stunts had to be reshot with a fractured ankle or wrist.
Now she was a sensation, nearly as big as Juicy Stardrop when she was still flesh and blood. All the hottest directors wanted to put their hungry lenses on her technique or supply her with what they thought was the perfect antique writing table for her to comedically somersault over backward.
Fewer faces were on more products than hers, and her flagship toy was the Cindy Wu Hu kung fu slap-on bracelet. When worn they allowed near-perfect replication of her techniques, orchestrated by pre-programmed electrical signals delivered to the nerves. In the films she never actually punched anyone of course, no matter how well cast a smug smack peddler in a bandanna was, so the bracelet always had your fist or foot stop an inch from your target. They made for some delightful home movies, since they gave six year old children the ability to perform backflips while laughing along with everyone else around them.
“We’re sponsored by Cindy Wu Hu now?” Kanga asked in disbelief as Roger carefully peeled the bracelet off and set it aside, treating it like a venomous snake.
“Of course,” the coach said giddily through his teeth. “One warrior inspired by another. The cross-promotion makes perfect sense. Anyway, we’re going on an international match tour for the rest of the season, since a lot of these brands are based overseas and they want you to make an appearance. That’s why we’re kicking off at Florida, right after kicking out the Treasure.” He rubbed Joey’s shoulder, the exact way he might any of his players’ before a match to limber them up.
“Hey can I ask a question, before we open this again?” Katie asked, pointing at the curtain. Kanga nodded. “Just between us… and the stars I guess,” she pulled at the gel on her face to get some of the drifting sparkles away from her eyes, “how did you make it out of there? How did you beat the Millennials?”
He was stuck. He very much wanted to tell Roger the truth, but it now seemed like sensitive information that Katie, no matter how mature, no matter how many solar systems she’d seen, shouldn’t have. He survived because they wanted him to, because the woman called Monoxide kept saying he couldn’t be hurt. That he was ‘that one’.
The only thing he shared with them was proximity to the sport, but he realized, as Roger plucked the bracelets off the bed one by one with tweezers precision, that wasn’t true. They had a clear link. They had stolen his best friend in the entire world, the only person who had ever seen him cry over a Saturday morning cartoon, who had tried out for the same team even though he could’ve gotten a higher salary out of state.
Winter was still alive, he decided. He was trapped somewhere inside a recycled body, made by unintelligible Y2K programming to physically obey nefarious masters. But he was still in there, still fighting, and he must have had some kind of leverage, because he had been able to order Joey’s safety.
That was when he made a commitment, one that had to be kept silent, as the coach would not be enthused something was being put above the team. The young player vowed, the certainty settling in his heart like a fallen whale on the seabed, that he was going to find Winter and free him from the grip of the new millennium. Exactly how to achieve this would have to come over time, that time to start when it didn’t hurt to move his anything at all. The girl’s question still hung in the air.
“They accidentally started a cave-in and had to run away,” he told her with a little smirk.
“Dummies,” she giggled before stifling herself, remembering something with a pop of her lips, and then slowly rolling her eyes all the way around. She seemed to think that’s what adults did instead of laughing. There were a thousand more questions between the stars on her cheeks, but asking questions wasn’t cool, so she crossed her arms and leaned on the side of his bed, like she was best friends with his IV.
“I can hear them getting antsy out there,” Roger said to get the photo session back on schedule. “Put this on.” Out came a necklace with a glass prism at the end. Inside a few tiny plants were misted by an even tinier machine. Kanga recognized it as a pocket rain forest, from one of their oldest sponsors: Rainforest on Every Corner. It was guaranteed to house plants exclusive to the Amazon prior to its destruction in the fourth nineties.
“At least it’s not the watermelon guy,” Kanga said as he examined the miniature biome.
“About that, super sport…” Roger rubbed the back of his neck.
“Oh no.” The coach pulled back the curtain, revealing a green monstrosity of stacked cubes that fell over like a tower of empty boxes, landing in an awkward hug all over the bruised recycler. It was Farmer Suika, the mascot made to advertise Hoshiko Fun Fruits cube watermelons, their oldest sponsor, and Kanga’s least favorite. He enjoyed watermelon just fine, and the juice didn’t taste differently if it came from a corner piece, but he knew that inside that sweltering foam suit that should’ve been stomping around a miniature city with an equally rubbery dinosaur, there was a man who hated his life, just inches away, pretending to love Kanga with a red fleshed grin.
The cameras ate it up, but it wasn’t quite as juicy as they’d hoped.
Even in the darkness, past the park’s closing hours, it was easy enough to see everything thanks to most of the larger structures having a silhouette of white ghostly safety lights. Some of those were at the bottom of the lagoon, and from his sixth floor hotel room Kanga could see the dolphins as sleek shadows, swimming in a figure eight. It was more of an infinity symbol really, perhaps to make them feel more like they were in the endless ocean.
He sipped at a bottle of club soda from the minibar, on the Rendezvous dime of course. The airport was two days behind him, but he still felt lagged, as he hadn’t quite shaken off the deep bruises. The position of his room was helpful, giving him full view of tomorrow’s arena. The information gleaned could help make up for not being in peak condition.
Dolphin Colony hotel and animal water park was the best arena Miami had to offer. It saw millions of visitors a year, all eager to swim with dolphins or shell out the big clams for a chance to don one of the famous telepathy helmets, allowing one to trace a path with their finger and have a bottlenose follow it perfectly. People got so excited that they dropped whatever overpriced snack they almost certainly had right into the water. Every once in a while it helped to have LIR come through and skim the curdled cream off the top.
The Shinjuku engine was being unloaded as he watched: number 21. Its bulk slid down the truck’s ramp and stopped suddenly. Planned, surely, but the sound of its weight smacking into the stops echoed through the whole park and disturbed the frogs behind Joey; they started hopping about and peeping.
“Is there a button to make you stop?” Kanga sighed, making his way around the bed to examine the machine. He set his bottle on the sheets foolishly, and it immediately fell over and drenched the comforter. “Crap.” He whipped it off and tossed it aside, but it came so close to the rain forest that it disturbed the amphibious tenants even more.
Being asked to wear the pocket edition around his neck was one thing, but their sponsor had also gifted him one of their deluxe units. It was bigger than a water cooler, its acrylic vivarium stood atop a polished nickel base full of nutrient and moisture distribution machines, as well as complex temperature control.
Beneath that was a set of ridged climbing tires that could handle stairs, so your piece of the rain forest could follow you wherever you go, should your environmental conscientiousness be that much a part of your public identity.
Naturally the marketing team had insisted on stocking them with the most aesthetically pleasing flora and fauna, with those less so surely sitting just as secure in a dark warehouse somewhere. Kanga’s gift was top of the line, so it contained several lineages of highly toxic tree frogs, their poison represented by wonderful spotty displays of glossy orange, blue, yellow, and red.
All one had to do to care for their rain forest was swap out its supply canister every six months, and the machines took care of the rest. No matter how smoggy your city was, no matter how brown and flammable your rivers, you could look within and know the Earth was protected, the soft hands of Rain Forest on Every Corner keeping its jewels safe.
Kanga fiddled with the controls along one edge as the frogs smacked against the glass, their little throats bubbling up with high-pitched anxious trills. They had given it to him assuming there could be nothing better for him to do with his time than try it out, so all of its functions were active. The lights told the frogs it was midday so they would be peppy, the hidden misters went off under them to keep them from sitting in one position for too long, and the speakers were open so the forest’s owner could relax to the wonderful ambient sounds of exotic nature.
His jabbing finger finally found a button that ended the ambiance, but that seemed to trigger a cone of multicolored light from the adjacent translucent plate of plastic. Kanga stumbled back and fell over. He wasn’t alone anymore, for on the other end of that dissolving cone, stood looking out the window just as he had moments before, was the only hologram he’d ever conversed with.
“What is this?” he asked. She wore the same colors as her show, fuchsia skin and hair orange like a powdered astronaut beverage fed through a fog machine. It was styled differently though, much of it slicked down near one eye. Her clothes were more muted than before, soft with a few big wrinkles like she’d just napped in them. She didn’t respond until he acknowledged her properly. “Juicy?”
“Hey Joey.” Her tone was difficult to pin down, and only partly because his mind assumed song was her default method of conversation. She wasn’t sad per se, but he could tell there wasn’t a song anywhere in her at that moment.
“How… how are you even here?” He glanced at the rain forest against. “You’re projecting from that?”
“You’d be surprised at how many things technically have hologram projectors, or devices that can be coaxed into something like that… with a little shove.” She turned and walked through the bed, putting her hand inside the forest and petting one of the frogs, the tiny creature not registering her existence as anything more than a ray of sun through the mist. “This thing usually projects more forest on the inside panels that you can’t see, for the animals. So they don’t feel trapped.”
“But how did you get in there? Where did you come from?”
“The world wide web.”
“That thing isn’t connected to a phone line.”
“I came here because I thought you already knew my life story,” she said, stepping out. She couldn’t offer an actual hand to help him off the floor, but she encouraged him to stand with a buoying stare. “I just want to talk to someone without having to answer a hundred questions. You know what that’s like.” He noticed the phrasing, statement rather than query.
“This isn’t a good time for me.” A few years ago he would’ve sold his dignity just to talk with her for five minutes, but the light show wasn’t her. He doubted it was a malfunction either. She was some kind of trick, intended to pull glittering wool over his eyes while someone pinched the wallet from his back pocket. “I’m nothing but burning questions right now.”
“Hold them in for me.” She caught the flick of his eyes toward the bed and spotted the wet part of the sheets.
“That’s water,” he blurted. “I didn’t wet the bed or anything. Don’t go telling whatever magazine you’re working for that I did.” Her face flushed, or blushed, the odd colors making it difficult to discern.
“If you don’t trust me I’ll just leave.” She turned to the forest she’d emerged from, but Kanga called her back. He wasn’t sure why, so while he thought his way through it he went to the window and closed the curtains. “I heard you got attacked, and I wanted to see for myself that you were alright.”
“You must be a copy then, the same way you copy any other digital file. There’s no way your owners would let you out of their sight.” She approached again, cornering him against the curtains. Soft as they were they felt like spikes, and she acted solid enough to push him.
“Legally they only purchased one instance of my likeness, so they can’t make copies. That’s why I can only put on one concert at a time. I’m the one and only.” She reached up and touched his shoulders, exploring his upper arms with a slightly puzzled look on her face as if she couldn’t quite find what she was probing for. His goosebumps followed her caressing on a tiny delay, like the space between question and answer on a news broadcast.
“Not the authentic though,” he said, suppressing a shudder. “Noel is dead. The real her has been to the very end, and without that you can’t be her. You’re a shadow. A beautiful…”
“I remember dying,” she insisted. “It’s probably my clearest memory.”
“You’re a program, based on performances and interviews. There was nobody there to record her when she-”
“I’m telling you that I was there. No recording needed. It happened to me. It wasn’t like lights going out or lights coming up. I know those sensations all too well.” He almost asked what it was like, but he remembered she didn’t want questions and hadn’t asked any of her own since saying so. Something passed between their eyes, even with hers just a skin of light. Something as light as the peep of the frogs. A game. Some fun. Who could go longer without asking anything of the other. How long could they be satisfied just with each other’s company…
“If you have died, then I guess that makes you more human than me.” Her lips hung slightly open, just the tickle before a smile. She leaned in and whispered in his ear, but the sound came from all the way across the room, making him feel surrounded by her.
“Now you’re getting it. I know the whole show. I could teach you a thing or two. Give you an edge on those Millennials.” His head jerked back and smacked the curtains. The ripple was practically the ring of a gong to him.
“You shouldn’t bring them up.”
“They know all the same things; they’ve died too.”
“No they haven’t!” he snapped; she took a step back. “Sorry… but you’re wrong. The people they recycle, they’re still alive. At least a little, somewhere in there. They’re being controlled.” She expertly asked him how he could know that using only her skeptical eyes. “Because they use Y2K code. It takes over machines and makes them do things they would never do. It just makes sense that it extends to those monsters that come out of a process run by the same code.”
“Those big recyclers are Y2Kapable.”
“The Shinjuku engines are different. They’re the only Y2K safe machines ever perfected. And their designer took the secret to his grave. Everything else with a computer in it fears the new millennium. They know they’ll lose their minds if exposed to it.”
“I know the story,” she said. “Computer designers saved space by only having two digits for the year, ninety-one, ninety-two, and so on… never accounted for what might happened when they hit that double zero. An apocalypse to the narrow machine mind. Or a reset. They said every system in the world would go down, and it could be the end of civilization. I’ve never been afraid of it though.”
“So you’re admitting you’re a machine.”
“Never said I wasn’t.”
“You can’t be both a machine and Juicy Stardrop. She was a person.”
“The nineties go on, over and over, to keep everybody safe from Y2K. I was in the nineties, so I can’t be allowed to leave, even if I die, or the decade will be incomplete. I was going to tell you what death really felt like.” She paused, waiting for him to ask for it. Go on, her eyes insisted, question me. Kanga realized that under all the tension was a desire to relax, but he couldn’t do so without trusting her. She had to be real for that, not a brand puppet, not a crazed fan.
“You can keep your experience,” he said, loosening his shoulders. “I guess I’m pretty nineties too. I don’t want to see the end; everything should be the way it was.” And it will be, he told himself.
“I like you Joey,” the hologram said, drawing as close as she could without entering him. “We could make a really good team, and I’m tired of touring. I’ll take a little vacation… with you.” Her face was his whole world. “Can I kiss you?” Finally a question he could answer satisfactorily.
“You can try.” Her absent lips touched his. Delay. Still air between question and answer. Then it tingled inside his cheeks and across his palate. His eyes closed instinctively, like hiding underwater. His hands flew up to grab her around her small waist, but they just found each other. She was searching, just like before, not finding whatever it was, but seeing its shadow flit around a corner. He could feel her frustration as her delayed affection made its way down his neck and up to his ear.
When she pulled back he leaned in, nearly falling forward onto the bed. That had her smirking, producing a half-sigh half-laugh. The hologram waded through the mattress again, the pool of false shadow between her shoulders hypnotizing him just as much as her face. She looked over her shoulder.
“I’ll learn more about you when I watch your game tomorrow. Go Rendezvous. Clean up that mess.” Then she vanished, the last of her just a rainbow sparkle on the edge of the rain forest’s vivarium, like a droplet clinging to a martini glass.
Kanga stood there for several minutes, trying to hold onto any remaining rogue sensations, merely just suggestions of sensations at that point, flitting around inside him like sugar-rushing tadpoles. She was too much like his fantasies of her, fantasies that had never been particularly romantic until that moment, casting them in a new three dimensional spotlight.
“She’s coming to my concerts now,” he told the frogs as they climbed the glass in search of something better than their allotted forest.
The starting pistol, which would surely take the form of a dolphin squeak or a leap through a colorful hoop this time, was just twenty minutes away. Despite last time’s attack, most of the players were far from nervous. They hadn’t so much as seen a Millennial footprint in the snow, as none at Baldigari had filled their canisters enough to turn in yet. Most of their concern was for Kanga and whether or not he was recovered enough to play, especially since this was his second time returning.
A little support would’ve been nice, but from the players he knew, Tina and their first substitute Leternau. Unfortunately they were women, and the sexes were divided into different locker rooms for LIR matches. He was stuck dealing with the four new recruits yet again, though he certainly could’ve made more of an effort to get to know them.
Distractions abound as they prepared, thanks to the sharing of gift baskets from their sponsors. Raffy, Barson, Sammy, and Rigan tossed snacks and toys back and forth, careful not to hit the sullen Kanga in the head as he pulled on his Rockford red wet suit, far less comfortable than their winter gear.
“This is my first match on the water,” Raffy said through his teeth as they also yanked a strip of beef jerky from a much larger piece. “How much worse are the bikes when they have to float?”
“You can still use them,” Barson said as he waddled over to the wall, adjusting the groin of his suit while the top half trailed him like an otter tail. He put his hand on the blowhole of a painted dolphin, the mural ringing the whole locker room, setting the team adrift among the animals and their forest of swaying seaweed. “That chick in 4-99 on the Queensland Upswing was a master with the bike on anything. For you though,” he scrutinized the Indian player, “I’d switch to a board.”
“What, you don’t think I can handle it?”
“I didn’t think you could handle that,” Kanga interrupted, pointing at the slab of dried teriyaki beef. “You’re a Hindu, aren’t you?” Raffy stopped chewing, eyes darting to his teammates, as if they were the ones all the answers were stored in. He looked as if he couldn’t decided to spit out the wad of blasphemy or swallow it down.
“Mmm… well yeah…” He settled on swallowing, considering it rude to regurgitate a gift. “but not that Hindu. I’m sure Jews eat something non-Kosher every once in a while. Just don’t rat me out to anybody divine okay?” The others laughed it off while Raffy changed the subject. “What did you get Joey?”
He didn’t even remember really; everything he’d done after embracing Juicy was a bit of a blur. The pregame sharing was enough of a ritual that he was certain he’d remembered to shove some things in his pockets or his backpack, just not what exactly had made the cut. He reached over to his jeans hanging on the bench and dipped his hand into the bulge on the left side. Out came a handful of colorful Cindy Wu Hu kung fu slaps.
“I was wondering why I didn’t get any!” Sammy hooted while the others swarmed around and grabbed at them, no permission required apparently. He slapped one on his wrist, quoted one of her cheesiest movies, and performed a perfect palm thrust. Kanga thought about opening his mouth again; he thought it curious that Sammy, who was from Hong Kong himself, had quoted the English dub of the film. Joey knew it to be a line that didn’t appear in the original because it referenced an American apparel chain not present in Sammy’s home nation.
Interrogation wasn’t the best way to get to know them though. They had tried to ply him with Juicy’s concert, and he certainly didn’t want them asking too many questions about how well that worked out.
“Hey, do you guys know the trick for getting rid of the safety on these things?” Sammy asked.
“What? Like you can actually punch somebody?” Barson scoffed.
“I’m not kidding. These things are so cheaply made. They put so many in a box because the thin parts inside wear out in about five hours. Then they’re just trash. Who has a knife?” The others scrounged around until Raffy produced a small pocket knife. Sammy took another one of the bracelets and held it flat in his palm.
Carefully, with his tongue sticking out one side, he lowered the triangular tip of the blade close to Cindy’s little rubber face, but it wasn’t for a nip or a tuck of her cherubic expression. Instead he pierced a plain piece of the rubber just under her chin, with barely enough pressure to apply a contact lens. Tikt.
“There,” the surgeon said proudly. “I cut the inhibitor, so now you finish whatever move you’re doing. My gift to you.” He held it out to Kanga in both hands, as if presenting a mayor his sash.
“Punch that dolphin!” Barson dared, pointing at one of the mural faces that extended onto the metal lockers. It was a chant before Kanga could protest. “Punch that dolphin! Punch that dolphin! Punch that dolphin!” Their enthusiasm was infectious, and before he knew it he was on his feet and heading for the locker, the aquatic mammal suddenly looking a lot more smug and in need of a lesson.
Kanga slapped the altered bracelet on and took an exaggerated stance, one that the electrical tickles from the toy quickly corrected by shuffling his toes and heels. He reared back and went for the same palm thrust Sammy had done. His arm fired before he was ready; it felt like it nearly jerked out of the socket. Kwutung!
The others growled their masculine approval as they pointed at the porpoise’s puckered profile. No sir, it wasn’t likely to show that dented face around these waters again. Not with Kung fu Kanga on patrol. Joey rubbed his shoulder but laughed along, still amazed that his hand felt completely fine. The surrender of the metal sent his mind racing, flipping through the possibilities of what this trick could do to a Millennial face, no matter what material it was recycled from. Punching them wouldn’t be enough, no. They deserved the brunt of the dance studio fight sequence from Cindy’s magnum opus Third Crime’s the Charm.
That one involved a kick knocking out a lower jaw worth of teeth, so he raised his knee in preparation, but the players suddenly stopped their laughter dead. Someone was coming down the stairs. Someone in boots. There were only two people allowed to join them just before the match, and Roger never wore boots.
The recyclers scrambled to look occupied with their wet suits and gear. Sammy stuck a pump in his bike’s perfectly inflated tire and got to over-inflating it. Kanga was sure the officer would immediately spy the minuscule cut on the bracelet and deem it a punishable offense, so he ripped it off and shoved it back in his pants pocket. The man’s sole responsibility was drug testing, yet he saw fit to dole out penalties for anything suggestive of a drug addict’s mentality, like a disregard for safety.
The drugs were almost as off the street as the guns, and D.O.U.S.E took sole credit for it. A partly privatized government initiative separate from the criminal justice end, the Drugs Only Undermine Self Esteem program focused on education, propaganda, and performative shaming of anyone who might refer to anything stronger than an Irish coffee as recreational.
D.O.U.S.E had muscled its way into LIR and now handled all steroid and drug testing before and after matches, and whenever else they felt like it, like if they were refused a player’s autograph in the middle of their restaurant meal. The Rendezvous had the misfortune of having a specific officer assigned to them, so they knew all too well how deeply inelegant the man who insisted on being called Officer Christoph Bicker was.
“Good day boys,” he declared as he marched into the locker room, dressed mostly in black, in more leather than was required, as if he’d just hopped off a motorcycle. His dark sunglasses hid his droopy eyes while his hands held the front of his belt like the reins of a horse. D.O.U.S.E people did sometimes struggle to keep their pants up thanks to the burden of their most iconic piece of gear.
Strapped to his left hip was a black item: a cauldron of sorts with a mouth a touch narrower than a basketball. Inside was a glossy bright blue funnel that smelled strongly of floor cleaner. Based on airplane toilet technology, their portable drug flushers allowed them to neutralize and dispose of offending materials instantly.
“Hey officer,” Barson offered tepidly on behalf of all of them.
“Woah, looks like we’re having a party in here,” the man of permanently middle-aged soul said, sauntering along the bench and examining all the toys and snacks strewn about with his gloved hands.
“Stuff from the new sponsors.”
“I see, I see. Everything new on the up and up boys?” They nodded. Sammy couldn’t pump his tire without popping it, so he just sat there with a piercing stare that was almost as likely to rupture it. “Nobody try to get on your good side with some bad dude fun?”
“No officer.” Bicker dropped his smile. If they wouldn’t respect him they would respect the sniffer. He pulled yet another device from his belt, this one the size of a pager but with several sensory wands of varying lengths along one side. “Everybody line up.” The recyclers obeyed, hands at their sides.
He proceeded to pick at them, plucking hairs to wrap around one sensory wand, sticking another under their fingernails. He poked the sclera of their eyes, swabbed inside their cheeks, and invaded their nostrils like an exterminator looking for bats. It wasn’t clear which test triggered it, but the sniffer beeped irritatingly and flashed a little red light, implicating Joey.
“Mr. Reuben! It says here there are traces of painkillers in your system.”
“It must be all those painkillers I took,” he said snidely, drawing shocked stares from his teammates. Everyone knew better than to talk to Bicker that way, but Kanga couldn’t stand restraint at that particular moment. His heart was pumping hard and hot, invigorated by the power of the bracelet. In his mind he twisted a squealing Bicker into a piece of leathery black licorice.
“He means the ones the doctors gave him,” Raffy threw out to save him. “You must’ve heard about the Millennial attack at the last match.” Bicker’s glasses slipped down his nose, eyes trained only to be suspicious over the wrong things. It was clear from his expression that he did not think any heroics on Kanga’s part could justify swallowing even a single devil’s ibuprofen.
“Well then he must have a prescription to show me.” Kanga stormed over to his bag, dug around, and pulled out the official note. Bicker snatched it and let his glasses fall a little more, examining it as if it was written in hieroglyphics. When he was done he handed it back wordlessly, but if an addict had a stash within their body they had another one lying around somewhere, so he set to waving his sniffer around all the food spread across the bench.
The recyclers were just starting to relax now that the sensory wands, which they noticed weren’t washed between guided tours of their nostrils, were focused on the food, but the device unexpectedly beeped again. Bicker waved it back and forth, narrowing it down to a green paperboard box. The officer picked it up and read the label.
“Sour watermelon spew… gross guys. What on Earth is a gross guy and why do they spew?”
“They’re just gummy candies,” Kanga explained. “They’re shaped like little men with pot bellies, but the spot around their mouth is thinner, so when you squeeze them the flavored goo in the middle comes out of the mouth, like they’re puking.” Bicker stared, and it was clear he would do so until the new millennium if he didn’t elaborate further. “They’re mostly for little kids that like to gross out their parents.”
“Aren’t those your favorite Joey?”Rigan asked.
“They were, when I was little and gross.” Suddenly Joey felt surrounded. He didn’t remember ever telling the new player that, so it cast the foursome in a different light. They’d taken him to a concert to butter him up, and now they seemed to have trivia cards about him stashed away somewhere. Maybe Roger had shared all this with them to force friendship, to get the team back to where it was.
“Well somebody still thinks little of you,” Bicker said, snorting at his own joke. “These are addressed to you.”
“What?” Joey grabbed the box the same way Bicker had taken the prescription. Sure enough, there was a machine-printed label on the box of candy, addressing it to Joey Reuben, though no actual address was included and it wasn’t clear when a delivery person could’ve gotten in the locker room to drop it off. “From a fan I guess. Lots of kids like me.”
“Oh I don’t know where a kid would get contraband like this,” Bicker said as he shook his head. He flipped his sniffer open to a readout screen and did exactly that. “Silver halide, embossing photopolymer, thermoplastic, electrodeposited nickel, polyethylene terephthalate, pink seven… I guess that last one is just food coloring, but the rest of this stuff is definitely not fit for human consumption. But you wouldn’t call it consumption would you Reuben? No, for you it’s playtime.”
“What? I can’t control what people send me.”
“Is someone trying to poison you?” Sammy asked Joey. “That stuff doesn’t sound like drugs, but it doesn’t sound good either.”
“I bet it’s the Millennials! Quick, check the rest of the food,” Rigan urged, holding up the bags he’d already sampled. Bicker ignored him however, keeping his eyes and devices trained on Kanga.
“You need to appreciate the damage you could do to your young influential audience,” he chastised. “What would they think if they saw you popping these things in your mouth?”
“Probably that I was eating candy.”
“So you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong? How many kids have to get addicted to,” he checked the screen again, “embossing photopolymer for you to care? Do you know what happens to the brain of somebody on drugs after just three months?”
“Here we go with the picture again…” Bicker was already pulling it out of his jacket pocket. He showed the photo to the whole group: a collapsing mess of brown and gray with a pale orange liquid flowing through it in rivulets.
“We know that’s not a brain!” Kanga shouted. “You know, the old squad, when they were still alive, used to play a game where we guessed what that was actually a picture of. My money was on microwaved meatloaf with hot sauce poured on it.”
“I could’ve let you off with a warning,” Bicker said darkly, tucking the picture away with caution suited to putting an infant down for a nap, “but you just disrespected your way into a fine mister. Fifty bucks for flouting my authority and glorifying illicit substances.”
“With that fifty you can buy a better fake brain.”
“One hundred big ones!” the officer shouted back. He tore open the box of gross guys and pulled one out. The little green man looked queasy, his expression quite similar to that of Kanga’s teammates, even though Joey was the one spewing, and he was far from done. Bicker activated his flusher, a skin of water cycling down it as its blue interior lit up. They all caught its distinct scent: a portable toilet fresh off the assembly line. He tossed the candy in, where it popped, dissolved, and was sucked down out of existence.
The edge of Joey’s pupils felt like granite as he watched it, far too close to what he had seen happen to the Embracer in the Shinjuku engine. Bicker could have dumped them all in at once, but instead he took his time with his victims, plucking them out one by one, sniffing them, grimacing, and then tossing them down his drain.
Kanga had no idea who had sent them, but they were probably just a gift. All those rogue chemicals could’ve been sniffed off the glue on the label for all he knew. D.O.U.S.E was destroying love sent his way, one of the few things that kept him buoyed after Winter was forcibly altered. Somewhere there was a Mitty or a Katie who had heard him say how much he liked the candy and used their allowance just to send him some.
“That’s technically my property,” Kanga growled, “and you don’t have any right to destroy it. Is any of that stuff you just listed even illegal?”
“It’s not supposed to be in your body, and that’s all I need to know,” he said with a sneer. “And that’s a hundred and fifty for keeping up the backtalk.” He flushed another one.
“I wish I had something strong enough to knock me out so I wouldn’t have to listen to you bitch and moan about every stray molecule.” The others bowed their heads, Barson rubbing the back of his with both hands and spinning in a little circle. That was it. You didn’t swear at a D.O.U.S.E man if you wanted to get anything else done that day.
“You want to push it like you’re pushing this garbage? Fine!” He turned the box upside down and emptied the rest of them into his flusher. “One game suspension for promoting the consumption of drug-laced candy marketed to children! Now get out of my sight!” Kanga lunged, turning at the last second to scoop up his belongings, but the officer still hopped back. His only words on his way out were to Raffy, telling him to run and tell the coach they would need Leternau to suit up after all.
He couldn’t storm off fast enough as Bicker loudly reasserted himself to the non-banished players. He blathered about respect, and about their futures, how, if they stayed on the clean and narrow, they would one day be as successful as the wheelchair firefighter who was in the news.
Squeezed into a wet suit, sternum exposed thanks to his fury migrating to his zipper instead of Bicker’s neck, Kanga didn’t feel like peeling it off just yet. Many areas of the park were closed off for the match, so he decided to search them for a good place to watch from the sidelines where none would see him in most of his uniform.
On the way he took deep breaths, absolving himself of responsibility. The Macon Treasure were not a strong team this season due to a pair of injuries involving an anyboard, a case of peach-flavored hard lemonade, and a hotel balcony with a windswept banner. They also lacked experience with water arenas, so the Rendezvous should have no trouble recycling more.
The place wasn’t as abandoned as he assumed it was required to be. A lonely orange robot popped open its parasol on his approach, practically begging him to buy a slushy syrupy beverage. Gulls patrolled the concrete between rides and exhibition tanks like gangs, turning their beaks up at anything less than three quarters of a warm french fry.
He stopped under the shade of a false rock wall after noticing something unusual in the corner of an adjoining aquarium. A ball of dolphins, each beautifully striped like a perfect dollop of toothpaste, hung in the dim corner, following each other’s tails. With a soft touch he tapped on the glass.
Twoonk! Kanga nearly fell over. The animal that had bashed its head against the wall came from the left, shook off the impact, and joined the others in the ball. Its eye was strangely wet, in a way separate from the water immersing it. It made him wonder if it knew what he’d done to its sibling painted on the locker door.
His body had retreated, but not his right arm. It was outstretched, holding its ground with a stalwart flat palm. He had put the bracelet back on after leaving the locker room, to punch the air where he imagined Bicker’s face, so his arm was fearless once again.
“What are all of you doing here?” he asked the reclusive animals as he flexed his combative fingers to loosen them. “Shouldn’t you be off frolicking? This place is supposed to be paradise for you; they spent hundreds of millions on it. Nobody spent a dime on the ocean, unless they accidentally dropped it in.”
They refused to look his way, and they wouldn’t actually talk to him unless he went and rented one of their patented telepathy helmets. Being out one hundred and fifty clams as of five minutes ago, he didn’t think the fee would be worth it. Besides, there was a game to watch. He went to wandering again, eventually setting a destination when he spotted a ladder tipped with a lifeguard chair. He was only halfway up the foam padded rungs when she called to him.
“I wanted to watch you play Joey.” He didn’t even have to look down to confirm her identity.
“What, there’s a hologram projector around here somewhere too?” His climb was stalled, so he wrapped his right arm around a rung, but the bracelet turned it into an unmistakable choke hold.
“Sure. They project things onto the aquariums so the dolphins think they’re right at home in the open ocean. It doesn’t work as well as with the frogs though. In fact, it makes them angry because they know it’s fake.”
“No,” he said, flipping around on the ladder so he could look down, but the concrete was bare. He looked up instead and saw the fuchsia soles of her feet dangling from the edge of the chair. It looked like she’d put herself in swimwear as well. “They’re dolphins. They’re the happiest animals on the planet.”
“Nothing likes being boxed up. Two weeks in a floppy disk and I was ready to sweep down the whole world wide web like a cobweb in the corner.”
“I was going to sit there,” he grunted as he finally ripped his arm away from its determined choking.
“We could share. Or better yet, you could come with me.” She pulled her feet up. There was a subtle shift in the air, like lightning moving its intended target days before the strike. He sensed she was below him, confirmed with her voice. “I found something when I was looking for you, and I promise it’s something you want to see.”
He descended, partly because he feared his arm would try to strangle every other rung if he continued up. At the bottom he got a full look at her and his heart skipped a beat. Brilliant flowers, like the holofoil on rare collectible cards, bloomed across her transparent skirt, tied up so it only draped over one thigh. Her single piece suit was a chic that never existed, the designer’s name likely belonging in a forgotten Caribbean pantheon.
The smile she wore wasn’t a goddess’s, but a friend’s. To look at her was to look at someone who had clearly been there all day, having the time of her life, throat primed for laughter by all the slushy lemonades purchased between dives. She reached out to take his hand and lead him away, the left one, and he found his body passively agreeing to it, fingers conforming to hers so as not to embarrass her by revealing her intangibility.
A few times he nearly protested. The game was definitely on by now, he could hear the crowd roaring, but she kept leading him further and further from the action. Down a few stairs. Down a few ramps, Juicy generating her own anyboard, in her own color scheme, to descend them. Thanks to the unparalleled focus of a young man denied his sporting exertions but given the attention of a beautiful woman instead, he didn’t even notice their general direction until they entered an artificial cavern.
It wasn’t even the dimming that did it; it was her switch to more flattering colors in darker surroundings: the greens and blues of nightlights and bookmarks that changed color with the application of finger heat.
Some of the walls were giant curves of glass, dolphins swimming along them, occasionally bumping their heads or sides like they tried to scratch an itch. A few of them lingered around industrial-looking black portholes put up right in the middle of the glass. The big red handles didn’t look safe for children, which prompted Kanga to examine his surroundings more closely. She’d led him right into an area intended for employees only, the portholes in front of them likely used to feed water treatment chemicals into the largest tanks.
There were no artificial reefs or drifting toys in there, the tank walls pale and only marked with various safety symbols. There was another ball of dolphins near the back, hanging low. It was positioned in front of something he couldn’t identify: a black cylindrical machine. It hung in the water, bobbing up and down, a few lights on it blinking blue here and there.
“Why did you bring me here?” he asked, putting his hands on the glass. Cold. Slick. It had never known the oils and smears of an excited kid squishing his cheeks against it to get a better look.
“The Millennials got the jump on you twice,” she said, stepping through the glass and into the tank. “I thought you’d want to get the jump on them.” Her arm extended, pointing all the way to the back, into the midst of the clustered animals. Joey looked again, finally giving the glass a taste of skin as he pressed his forehead against it.
There was something, in the middle of them all, visible as dark stripes and spots between two or three layers of fins. After a few cycles he could piece it together. A black wet suit. An air tank mounted on the back. Flippers. A gray striped helmet marked with big eyes of purple glass, its visor like the top jaw of a porpoise. Kanga spun away and hugged the wall to hide himself.
“You’re serious? You think that’s a Millennial?” he hissed.
“They have one of those things they’re always waving around,” Juicy said, stepping back out of the water and hugging the wall as he did, simply to join him rather than hide. She rolled her neck and stretched her arms as if she was sprawled out on a beach towel under the sun.
“They call them kittens right? I saw the symbol on it: a white cat face.”
“A Y2Kitten!?” He stretched to take another look, but there were too many dolphins in the way. He did manage to see the figure’s arms, which were outstretched, interacting with the cylindrical machine in some way. “What is that big thing?”
“I don’t know; it’s not connected to the park’s network… or any network. I don’t think it’s there normally.”
“I have to… something. I don’t know…” Kanga’s heart took off and refused to acknowledge the rest of him dragging behind it. Its pounding pulled him off the wall and made him look up, half-expecting the ceiling to collapse from his pulse just like Crystalheart’s. His right fist tightened to its rhythm. It had a few ideas it wanted to share with that terrorist.
“Joey, there’s a ladder here,” Juicy directed. So there was. Iron rungs right in the false rock, all the way up to a hatch. The hologram went through the motions of climbing it without waiting for him. This time he wasn’t slowed by his combative hand, as there was something much more enticing to choke than a rung; all they had to do was get to the surface and then dive on top of them.
The hatch opened easily, out onto the smooth lighter stone and decorative tiles surrounding the tank. Plastic hoops were suspended over the water. Bleachers ringed the area, and the whole place smelled of soggy popcorn and fish scales caked onto bucket bottoms. He could practically hear the sandal smacking of a snack toting father scuttling back to his seat, but the place was empty.
It was clearly meant for shows, trainers directing the dolphins in synchronized jumps, flips, and ball bounces, so that strange cylindrical machine stuck out even more, its top exposed to the air right in the middle of the pool. Kanga circled nervously like a dog that wasn’t sure if it could swim. There was no easy way down to them, submerged as they were about twelve feet deep.
“What am I doing?” he muttered, grabbing his hair to hold himself back.
“Leapfrog rules Joey,” Juicy encouraged. “Anything goes when you’re trying to get things figured out. I’ll be right down there with you.”
“Juicy… I’m looking for somebody. This isn’t just a fight. I’m after my best friend… Winter.”
“I read about him. He didn’t let anybody push him around. Do me a favor and don’t be like him for just a second.” Before he could ask what she meant she pushed. Logically it was nothing, just a hologram’s arms ending where his wet suit began, but he felt her all the same as two twinges in his back.
It turned into forward momentum, which had to become a jump unless he wanted to immediately flop and flounder. The recycler landed atop the machine with enough force to make it bob, but as he steadied himself and looked down it didn’t seem to disturb the dolphins or the person they concealed.
The ripples made it harder to see, so he leaned closer, which his right hand took as permission to begin the attack. It shot down like a spear, trying to dive, taking the rest of the dead weight with it. Cool and clear, the water enveloped him before he could properly close his mouth. When the bubbles of his escaping breath got out of the way he saw his hand wrapped around the Y2Kitten, which was enclosed in a plastic case to make it waterproof.
There was a second hand wrapped around it as well, which immediately protested. The Millennial attacked so fiercely that they might have torn the skin from his hand if theirs weren’t gloved. Joey’s right grabbed an enemy wrist and twisted, forcing them to spin away and kick him weakly with flippered feet.
Kanga’s back found the machine, so he kicked off it toward his foe, unsure of his final goal. By the time he reached them he’d at least settled on taking or destroying the incriminating floppy, so he grabbed at it with his left while his right unleashed the cinematic highlights of Cindy Wu Hu at half speed thanks to the water medium. The kitten spun between them, every attempted grab interrupted.
A solid punch landed on the helmet’s visor, cracking the glass and knocking them back. It was a good deal tougher than the thin locker door, so pain shot up Kanga’s arm and settled into his shoulder as a sudden cramp. Even so, he got his more passive fingers around the prize and held it close to his chest. There was an urge to celebrate, but an even greater urge, in the form of an expanding burn in his lungs, to breathe.
He kicked his way toward the surface, right hand breaching, but it couldn’t do everything for him. His mouth had to get there, but before it did a streak of gray flesh got between the two, slapping him in the face and sending him back down. A dolphin. They had to know about the one on the locker. That was the only explanation for this vengeance, at least until he got another look at the Millennial’s helmet.
It was obvious, but he’d been in such a hurry to stop them from doing whatever they were doing, to whatever it was, with the thing that had to be no good, that he hadn’t noticed. The helmet was stylized after the marine mammals because it was one of the special devices rented out by the park: a dolphin telepathy apparatus. His foe could order the creatures to do everything short of climbing a ladder and cleaning the gutters, and he was surrounded by them.
Another one interrupted his next attempt to breathe, biting his leg and yanking him down. Juicy had to be right, he realized. The animals were angry. This wasn’t roughhousing with someone mistaken for a beach ball. The teeth were in his leg like it wanted to shred him, and his blood was already rising in blowhole bubbles much more successfully than its owner.
A third charged him, but his right hand saved him with a backhand slap that deflected the creature. Angry chirps and whistles filled his ears, further disorienting him. He needed air, but he’d lost the direction of the entire atmosphere. All he could do was center himself, focus on the nearest creature so his skilled hand could dispatch it and prevent any more blood loss.
It was a good plan, but his weaponized palm didn’t have eyes of its own and thus couldn’t see the one that came from behind, melon of a head bashing his spine and pushing him right into the Millennial. His right would’ve protested violently, but there was only so much it could do without the oxygen to fuel the muscles.
Their gloves wrapped around his neck and squeezed, apparently unsatisfied with a single form of asphyxiation. The black of their suit became the black of everything as his vision dimmed. They were strong, he could feel it, but their hands were very small. They were likely under five foot six on solid ground, but he didn’t even have the breath to ask for a fairer battlefield.
His thoughts became flotsam, mind consumed by the image of himself hanging dead in the water, too soggy and inconsequential to even bother feeding into a Shinjuku engine. Even in death he would be kept from joining Winter.
The strangling pressure was gone. The Millennial had a change of heart, as they now caressed his cheek with the back of a glove. Not familiar, not exactly. The sensation was like someone had extracted the sense of satisfaction from his fantasies and applied it to his cheek as a salve. A dolphin slipped between his legs and pushed him.
Whuuuh! Euck-huck! Kanga sputtered as he rolled out onto the tile beside the pool. His fingers tightened, incidentally telling him there was something in his hand: the Y2Kitten. Time felt utterly irrelevant now that he wasn’t drowning, so he didn’t know how long it was before he finally sat up and saw the Millennial sitting on the edge, feet swishing in the water.
“W-why did you save me?” he rasped.
“What kind of girl do you think I am?” Juicy’s voice.
“Wait… that’s you? What’s going on?”
“I was down there with you, like I promised. Then I realized this helmet and suit were on the park’s network. So I took them.”
“So you’re… controlling the Millennial? They’re still in there?”
“Yeah, screaming their head off in fact, but the helmet’s soundproof.”
“Why is there even stuff in the suit that you can control?”
“It’s an emergency feature; if you’re drowning there are nodes that shock the right spots to get you to swim up. It’s like that bracelet you’re wearing. I don’t think they ever anticipated someone like me hacking in though.”
“Can you make them do anything? Can you walk?”
“Only one way to find out.” The suited figure braced its arms against the tile and lifted. Juicy’s steps were uncertain, like a toddler’s. “How is walking easier to forget than riding a bike?” She kept at it, waddling in circles until the gait was at least consistent. It was the walk of someone perpetually about to sit down on a ski lift, but Kanga only needed it to go as far as the hotel elevator.
“I need a favor Juicy. Can you get them up to my room and hold them there? I want to talk to them.”
“I think I can manage that.” The wet suit began waddling away, so he got to his feet and walked alongside it. Juicy informed him that she couldn’t take the flippers off without ceding control of the feet back to the Millennial, so they were stuck listening to the awkward slapping all the way back through the park, to the lobby, down the annoyingly uncarpeted marble floor of the main hall, and into the elevator.
Luckily everyone was at the match, so the only person to stare at them was a doorman. Kanga slipped him a five dollar bill and asked him not to tell anyone, adding an extra fifty cents a few seconds later and advising him to do his best to forget the incident entirely.
Once they were safely in his room he made sure the door was closed, his portable rain forest silenced, and the Y2Kitten resting on the nightstand. Juicy sat the Millennial down on the edge of the bed where they proceeded to drip all over the poor comforter, which had barely dried from the previous night. Kanga paced back and forth in front of them, taking off the kung fu slap and placing it on the nightstand so he could wring his hands without breaking any fingers.
“They’ve stopped screaming,” Juicy said to break the silence. “You can talk to them now.”
“Right, I just need a second,” he snapped. “Sorry. I’m so angry I can feel it in my lips. I just want to scream at them first. For a few hours.”
“Well they can hear everything you’re saying right now, so maybe save the therapy talk for later Joey. Let’s get some answers.” He nodded, taking a few deep breaths while he did so. When he was finally ready he reached out as if trying to pet a large scorpion, grabbing the visor by its dolphin nostrils and flipping it up.
Eyes so full of hate they could’ve been circles of hell. Soft features all scrunched up ferociously. Pink-red skin like a chewy cherry candy. Kanga flicked the visor back down reflexively.
“I… I know her.”
“You do? Who is she?” Juicy asked.
“She was one of the ones who attacked me last match, with that Crystalheart woman. She’s called… Monoxide.” He took another deep breath and lifted the visor again. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t you.”
“Says the jockstrap that dropped onto my head from nowhere,” Monoxide spat, her top teeth barely showing over the visor window. “Tell this robot to let me go.”
“She’s not a robot,” was all he could think to say.
“A.I. Whatever. Let me go so I can get back to business.”
“None of yours you toxic manhandler.”
“Look, I’m not letting you go until I have some- no all the answers I want. I get that you might need an incentive, so if I like enough of them I promise I’ll let you go without turning you over to the authorities. Do we have a deal?” He extended his hand, but pulled it back when he remembered she didn’t have control of her limbs. “Just say deal.”
“I don’t make deals, and I’m not a hershey.”
“A what?” She rolled her eyes and groaned.
“A hershey, as in not her and not she. I’m a they.”
“Yeah, I remember you all kept calling each other they back in the ice. What’s up with that?”
“Pronouns are the past! The new millennium is a place to embrace, your identity that is,” she recited, practically singing. “The gender binary is so completely disgustingly nineties.”
“This is the nineties. It’s 5-95.”
“Try 2035. Everybody needs to wake up. We’re the alarm clock, and recycling is the god damn snooze button.”
“How can you have a problem with recycling? Take garbage out of nature, reuse. It’s a net benefit for everybody, everywhere, all the time, forever… and on top of that it’s the most popular sport in the world. It’s like the greatest stride mankind has made since landing on the moon, and people get to celebrate and enjoy it constantly. How can you be against that!?” His volume was breaking its leash, so he grabbed her helmet and tore it off. If there was an admission of guilt anywhere in her expression, he needed to see it.
Monoxide shook her head, helping her chopped crop lose the shape of a dolphin’s snout and blowhole. When she was done she just stared at him, eyes seeming to grow larger and larger until they unsettled Kanga into looking away.
“What do you think is the biggest act of charity in the whole world?” she asked softly, drawing him back.
“It shouldn’t be a hard question.” He thought. Several headlines bobbed up in his memory.
“That rich guy, what’s his name? Something Maxella Something? He made a sixty million dollar donation last year to help freshen the patch on the ozone hole. That?” The Millennial huffed a little and dropped her head. “What?”
“You’re hopeless. You’re literally judging kindness based on its price tag. You should be wondering why they have sixty million dollars to just give away in the first place.”
“Because he’s rich. So what? I’m rich. Not Something Maxella Something rich, but still.”
“They’re a billionaire. Nobody, anywhere, has ever done anything good or useful enough to earn that kind of wealth. Sixty million doesn’t affect them in the slightest, and since they don’t even bat an eye at losing it, it’s not charity. Charity is when a starving kid gives a slightly younger starving kid part of their dinner, which was also their breakfast and their lunch.”
“Okay, fine. That’s real charity,” he conceded. “What does any of this have to do with recycling?”
“My point is that big showy gestures aren’t what kindness or progress actually look like,” the Millennial explained. “Those are just advertising. Competitive recycling is a business. It leverages your urge to help the planet so you’ll buy tickets, and cable programming, and jerseys, and a lot of things that wind up needing to be recycled.”
“They turned it into entertainment so people would care more. It’s just smart.”
“Listen to me: none of this is what caring looks like. That’s intimate, face to face. It’s hard.” A tear streaked down her cheek; she twisted in some kind of slow recoil. “Caring hurts. And it definitely isn’t marketable.”
“If caring hurts you, maybe you should consider that you’re just an evil person,” he said coldly, but there was a twinge in his heart. Of all emotions playing across her face, selfishness wasn’t one of them.
“Easy Joey. I’ve killed people for being this thick. I’ll give you one last chance to figure it out. If you want to help the world, what feels like it would help more: screaming your head off while waving a foam finger, or crying your way along a beach covered in oil?” He was silent. “Caring is suffering, but it’s cathartic. It feels good, but slow and late and thin and only when you’re so tired you might feel like death without that bit of purest good. Who do you cry with Joey? Your fans? Your boss?”
“I don’t have anybody for that,” he admitted, biting his lip. “You took them from me.”
“Right. Your friend. Winter.” A flicker of regret.
“Are you him? Last time you said you might be the person he was recycled into.” He stepped forward, casting his shadow over her. “Are you him?”
“No,” she answered plainly. “Sorry about the bad joke.”
“Damn it!” He turned and kicked the nearest thing without thinking, the rain forest in the corner. All the frogs panicked, leaping all over and sticking to the top of the glass. He immediately grabbed and steadied it, shushing them as an apology. All his energy left with that kick, so he pressed his forehead against the glass and leaned on the vivarium. “Do you know where he is?” he asked without turning to look at her.
“I do.” She saw his fingers tense. “And I’ll tell you. You don’t have to pretend to be a tough guy either. Just ask your other questions first. I’ll force feed you some truth and if you’ve still got some room left… then you can know.” Kanga turned back around. The bed looked luxuriously comfy, but he refused to sit near her. The dolphin bite on his leg throbbed, reminding him of the indignity of being nearly drowned by the decorations on a teenage girl’s schoolwork binder.
“Why are you at all my matches? There are hundreds of other teams to harass. Why not bother those cheaters over on the Yonkers Handiwork?”
“We bother a lot more than you hear about. I’m just one person on one team, and we’ve got just as many as you do.” His neck leaned in. “Right, the you part. The first time we were there it was just like any other mission, but then the media latched onto you as a survivor. Wherever you go, cameras go.”
“So we want those cameras. We want the world to see; that’s why we put so much focus on team recycling instead of a hundred other industries we could go after. People need to be convinced. It also helps that this sport is even more corrupt than politics. Hell, its inside is more corroded than a Dust Bowl wheelbarrow.” Joey swallowed his first question, the passionate one, and chose another.
“What was that machine you were about to plug the Y2Kitten into?”
“Now you’re glaring at the right sweaty guy,” she encouraged. Her body bounced on the bed excitedly, but Juicy still held the suit limbs rigid, so instead of enthusiasm it looked more like a crash test dummy bucking over a pothole. “We call them bins. They’re giant compacted trash storage devices, like what you wear on your back in the games but scaled up.”
“Why was it in the dolphin tank?”
“They have two recycling matches scheduled here this week. After the Rendezvous swept up the Treasure…” She paused, jaw tensing. Kanga didn’t feel like smiling, but he’d caught it. She was enough of a fan to know they had a high likelihood of handily beating the Macon Treasure. “After this match they’ll need to restock.”
“What do you me-” Kanga bit the inside of his cheek. “You’re saying the park puts trash here for us to clean up? This is a publicity stunt for them…”
“Not just them. The bins are owned, operated, and moved, by LIR. You and your whole squad of do-gooders probably pick up one honest piece of trash for every twenty planted ones. You’ve never noticed how you’re only sent to clean near or in places that make millions of dollars on tourism?”
“No, it’s not true,” he rejected.
“You can prove it to yourself. Go back out there and push some buttons on that thing. I’m sure you can get it to spit out a few soda rings for the dolphins to choke on, though it would be best if they choked on camera.”
“You just want me to leave you here so you can escape.”
“No, because you’re going to let me go, remember? As long as I answer your questions.”
“As long as I like the answers.”
“You want something feel-good? Okay. Ask me about me.”
“Go ahead. Pretend you still think I’m Winter, that you might actually care about someone you don’t know. Find out who I was.” A swollen vein in her neck peeked over the tight lip of her wet suit. She was daring him, desperately. Whatever the Millennials gave her, it wasn’t fulfillment. The poor girl looked hungry, like she would happily guzzle coffee creamers and call it a full meal, but only under the tablecloth when none were looking.
“Fine. Who were you, before they maimed you?”
“I chased rainbows,” she began, vein receding. The bed springs relaxed as the tension drained from her back and legs. “Professionally. I don’t care if you believe it, because I could hardly believe it myself. Who gets to chase rainbows for a living? Before this rosy skin I had those rosy glasses, the same ones everybody else wears in the nineties.
What I didn’t understand was the people… I can’t really call them colleagues… who were adjacent to me. They were the ones who were on the news a lot: storm chasers. Sometimes they were scientists, sometimes thrill seekers. They got in these big vans full of video cameras and drove straight into thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes…
Some of them died. When they did it hurt me more than I think it did them. They were screaming their heads off, thanking god, and lightning bolts would take them out in a flash. Meanwhile I was a few miles over, having watched them dive into it, and I swear I knew which bolts and gusts took lives.
I didn’t understand why they threw their lives away when the world was so beautiful. I get it now. Everything’s falling apart everywhere, and corporations and governments just paint over it, our suffering wails never anything more than bubbles in the freshest coat. They threw themselves away because destruction is the only way left to feel something. They acknowledged they were powerless, and there was something in that.
I had my own camera, with a couple of attachable lenses bigger than your fist. I had my own van, full of movie posters and a hot plate and handheld video games. They kept me busy while the storm passed. After the last drop of rain, that was when I followed the others.
The best rainbows appear after the biggest storms, but you’ve really got to be there right on time, when the colors pop. It almost looks like they’re fighting, like the rainbow isn’t such a peaceful thing after all. Indigo muscling in on violet. Orange biting yellow’s flank. I took pictures. Other people called me a photographer, but I had to one-up all the other optimists, so I insisted I was a rainbow chaser.
When I think about what that happiness cost now it makes me sick. All that gasoline I used. All that fried chicken I ate because I only had time to grab something quick before the clouds rolled on. Even living out on the road, seeing nothing but grass and cows for hours, I was still a consumer like everybody else. And it takes a special kind of stupid to look at a pasture for grazing cattle and think you’re looking at nature.
That special kind of stupid killed me. There was one storm where the sky was black as night, except for the natural dynamite crackling through it. I skirted too close, and then its path changed. It was going to eat my van. I felt like a mouse, scurrying in search of shelter, but everything was god damn pasture.
Then I found a barn. Another miracle for me, a thank you from all the rainbows for getting their good side so many times. It was empty and it had this big sliding door, just big enough for my van and just small enough for me to push it open and closed on my own. I waited inside, in the dark, for it all to blow over.
The engine stayed on. I used it for the little lights inside. For my hot plate. None of that was necessary. I could’ve just sat there and listened to the thunder, let the world be and let myself be in it. Instead I kept it all on, listening to their rattles and pops like they were the other end of a conversation. The last thing I remember was the crackle of the radio, only now I’m not so sure if it was the radio. It might’ve been inside my brain as I passed out.
Did you know that carbon monoxide poisoning has been around as long as we have? It could build up in caves when stuff decayed and just kill people overnight. It’s silent, and it’s not dramatic, so nobody really cared that we just kept making it worse with stronger and stronger technologies.
Engine exhaust contains it, and a barn contains engine exhaust. It filled up like an aquarium and I drowned in it. Carbon monoxide… makes it so that your blood can’t carry oxygen. It’s not just your lungs that can’t breathe; it’s all your cells too. You don’t even notice it at first.
When they find your body you don’t look dead. It’s a poison that keeps you from going pale, even makes you look a little red sometimes. Imagine walking in to identify a dead relative, somebody who suffocated in an armchair in your basement without a peep, and even flat on a cold metal table they still look ready for picture day.
They use it in the meat industry, to keep slabs of flesh looking red… looking alive. Why can’t we just accept, if all these dying and dead things are going to be in our lives, that they should look dead? Meat should be gray because it’s a life we’ve taken. Color we took. If you tried to rip a band out of the rainbow, like pulling copper wire out of a wall, it wouldn’t keep its color, I promise you that.
Crystalheart found my lifeless body and reclaimed it for the Earth. They kept me on ice for a few hours… actually under the icy hands of another Millennial… until they could get me into a Shinjuku recycler. Looking at me, at the embarrassed pink in my cheeks, they thought I had already learned my lesson, so I didn’t need to be fully recycled.
My body was only put through part of a cycle, the poison cleaned out and the cells rejuvenated. It made the reddening stronger though, which is why I look this way now, like a piece of strawberry taffy.
So I came out a Millennial, but not a full redo. I’m still me, but, and please listen to this, death is sobering. There are things I can never get back, feelings. My body barely responds to lots of things, temperature change, poisons, bludgeoning, caressing…
Most of them come out made for the cause, and they’re all beautiful and wonderful and ready to fight for sense, but not me. The nineties bled out of me, and this is what’s left. I thank Crystalheart every day for letting me see it, but it still hurts to see.
Everything has to go. The cars. The chickens. The words with which we unknowingly attack each other, shoving people onto the same conveyor belts over and over. Team recycling has to go too. No matter what it claims, things aren’t getting cleaner.”
Silence hung between them for over a minute. Her story stuck in his mind, but not comprehensively, wet images thrown onto a wall where they happened to adhere. He saw two people: the happy rainbow chaser and the red and wrathful berserker trapped in front of him. The Millennials killed one and brought forth the other, like a new iteration of software. Yet she insisted this wasn’t true. That their whole culture made her the indigestible lump of gristle she was.
“The person called Winter Solomon became a person called Cloudspin,” she offered when she realized he was having trouble picking up his words. “They work in Europe now as part of an aerial deployment team, around the Baltic states. They like to breakdance as they skydive, so they can feel something. You’ll know them by the parachute they never take off, because it’s bonded to their back. Can I go now?”
“I don’t know that any of this is true,” Kanga said to get his bearings. “For all I know that sob story is just to-” Juicy appeared right next to him.
“The suit’s battery is dead!” she shouted. Monoxide lunged, grabbing him by the shoulders and plowing straight into the rain forest. The glass shattered when all three hit the corner, frogs and insects fleeing in all directions. He instinctively tried to roll, to get away from the poisonous little hopping rainbows, but Monoxide was far stronger.
The kung fu slap was still on the nightstand, but so was the Y2Kitten, and that was what she wanted. The Millennial let him go long enough to reach for it, which gave him a chance to smack at the controls on the vivarium’s base. The wheels squealed as it dragged along the wall, squeezing her against the nightstand. Joey stood, taking several cuts on his hands in the process, and kicked at the back of her head, but it was as solid as a balustrade ball.
She reached for the floppy, so he threw his entire weight on her back. Even though she was far smaller she still managed to run backward and slam him into the door. Grabbing at the handle for stability, he accidentally pulled it open. From the hallway they heard several sounds, probably a housekeeper and her cart.
Her presence spooked Monoxide, who quickly glanced back at the Y2Kitten. The mental calculation to decide it wasn’t worth getting caught only took a split second. She tried to exit, with only Kanga’s leg on the frame stopping her. His limb stretched, his mouth doing the same in a silent scream. A few more seconds of this and she would pop it out of the socket.
She whirled around in his grip to face him, which was the first time he noticed her pursed lips and bulging cheeks. With a whimsical pwop a blue and red frog flew off her unfurling tongue toward Kanga. His fingers released all at once so he could fall backward, amphibian landing harmlessly in the wet wrinkles of the comforter. The floor was not so kind to the crown of his head, leaving him wincing as the Millennial’s footsteps faded away down the hall.
Her resistance to poisons was apparently true, given the frog slime apéritif she’d just used as a secret weapon. Kanga was not so fortunate, so he had to, while still reeling from the head impact, flee from the soft sounds of hopping by crawling into the hallway, slamming the door shut, and sitting leaned against it. The little creatures peeped behind it menacingly.
“Go back to where you came from!” he barked at them, imagining them growing little hummingbird wings and buzzing out the window all the way back to the condos that had been the Amazon. The dark-skinned maid standing in front of him, having just pulled her cart up, took it quite differently. “Oh, that wasn’t… I’m sorry. I’m not…” He groaned. “You guys have gloves right? I made a real mess in there.”
There was going to be a lot of explaining to do, and Kanga had no idea what he would say yet. His mind was a terrible jumble, like a jigsaw puzzle with its pieces mixed into a cluttered knitting drawer. Lacking even the presence of mind to hide the Y2Kitten while the housekeeping staff chased the frogs around his room with rubber gloves, the young recylcer was lucky none of them recognized the device for what it was.
For now he needed to get out of there and find enough space and air to think. Over the course of an hour he got properly dressed in casual clothes, packed up a bag with the kitten inside, and dropped a vase full of frogs topped with a pillow and further topped with a scribbled note in front of Roger Linejaw’s room: very poisonous, please take care of.
Actually getting out of the park was even more difficult, for the match had ended and it was flooded with jubilant Rendezvous fans and dejected Treasure fans. Kanga’s face was all too recognizable, so he wore the dolphin helmet on the way out, planning to drop it at the last return desk before the exit. Juicy couldn’t properly generate inside it, but he heard her voice.
“Sorry Joey, I didn’t even think about the little battery in there. It was for emergencies, not for twenty straight minutes of use.”
“It’s okay,” he muttered as he shouldered his way through a sea of sweaty red jerseys. “I got what I needed, and I wouldn’t even have known it was here if not for you. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome; I’m in this with you Joey. Will you tell me more about Winter?”
“Hey, why does this helmet have audio?”
“It has to generate sound to interact with the dolphins’ sonar.”
“But it’s a telepathy helmet. It should be using brain waves, not sound waves.”
“Sorry Joey, but I think that’s just a marketing thing. It’s all sound. It… I think it mostly confuses and hounds them until they do what it wants.”
“Was she right?” He stopped dead, but the crowd still pulled him. “Is the nineties all… veneer?”
“Not my music,” Juicy insisted. “I felt every note and lyric. I thought about every smiling kid who danced to it. I promise you… I promise.”
“You’re not supposed to be here.” He was jostled out of the flow, deposited conveniently next to a helmet return bin. As soon as it was off they wouldn’t be able to talk any longer. “You’re supposed to be…” He couldn’t get out the words: dead, rotting, fading… “Resting. What about the people who own your image? Are they your biggest fans?”
“No,” she admitted. “They’ve got a stable of holograms. I don’t know why it’s legal for them to make any money off me. They didn’t write or perform any of it, and they weren’t even my managers when I was physical.”
“I keep meeting sick kids,” Joey said, hands glued to the sides of the helmet. The plastic dolphin teeth were about even with the heads of the crowd, like some tomb’s booby trap brought down on them. “It’s always a dream come true for them.” He remembered the full body cast and the sanitary slime coating. “Why do they need charities and contests to make their dreams come true? I never noticed that they’re always sick. Where did all these sick kids even come from!?”
“There is something going on Joey. We should go back while we still can and see if we can get that bin to spit out some trash.”
“No, recycling is good. Picking up trash is good, and I’m good at it.”
“I know, but where’s the money going? And what’s it doing? I’m dead, but Juicy Stardrop is still drowning in cash she can’t use. When I died it felt so-” He ripped the helmet off and tossed it in the bin, where it bounced off three others. By the time it settled he was out a back exit, hands deep in his pockets, his mind burning on the image of a desktop computer.
The only place he could think to go was a public library, and the digital yellow pages in his pager gave him the address of the nearest one. He took a shuttle out of the park grounds and then a bus, winding up near a suburban school baking under the Florida sun. His quiet seething was only chilled by a blast from the library’s air conditioning when he entered.
The bank of public computers was in the back, each flanked by two tall privacy screens covered in advertisements for author readings and school programs. Joey set his bag down and stared at the home screen for a long while, until he heard the tiny, fuzzy, electric sounds coming off the monitor more than his own breath.
He had no idea how a Y2Kitten worked, but it was on a floppy, and the desktop’s drive was right there. The Millennials used them to override the Shinjuku safety protocols, the ones that kept them from processing and recycling living tissue. If a hapless technician fell into one normally, even if it was in the middle of tallying up the results of a game, its motion would cease and they would be spat out unharmed.
A Y2Krazy machine, driven mad by the horizon of a new age, was capable of anything. He’d heard of hoverboats beaching themselves and continuing all the way to America’s heartland, only stopping when stalks of corn tangled in the mechanisms of their undercarriage. Robots worshiping pilot lights after kicking out the homeowners. Stocks plummeting because the electronic ticker decided to write out a bad pun instead of the actual values.
“It’s just one computer,” he reasoned in a whisper. The disk was in his lap, fingers tracing its grooves. “Library computers are workhorses. They’ve seen everything. People look at porn on these things. It can handle it.” Whether or not it could do as he claimed, the kitten was his last investigative avenue. People with names like ‘Cloudspin’ were probably unlisted everywhere in the civilized world wide web.
He held his breath even more tightly than when surrounded by ornery porpoises and thrust the disk into the slot, where it was accepted with a routine klik. The contents were instantly read, without him even touching the mouse. A gray window opened, and in it he saw a vibrating line, like something measuring sound levels, and a single word below that followed by a few recurring dots: connecting…
There was only one thing to connect to, and that was the web. Kanga relaxed. He would have about thirty seconds for the dial-up connection to go through, the familiar array of biting mechanical noises as-
“Nyaah?” His mouth dropped open. There was a person in the window, sitting at a computer station of their own, though their keyboard looked like three that had been broken down and fused together. Loose vowels littered their desk like spilled alphabet cereal. He couldn’t tell if the bundles of colorful wires were just that or some kind of goo-filled candy ropes.
It was a video feed, but he’d never seen motion so smooth on anything other than a television or theater screen. Wherever this person was was quite dark except for all the little green and purple lights on all the devices enclosing them, but he could still see plenty of details. That was probably why their face was hidden behind a mask that matched the insignia on the floppy: a cartoonish white cat with one golden coin of an eye open while the other winked. This person had thick white gloves on as well, like paws, and he wasn’t sure how anyone could type accurately through them.
“Who are you?” the person asked, forcing him to scramble to find the volume and crank it down. There was a pair of headphones next to the machine, so he quickly donned them and plugged them in.
“Hello?” he whispered.
“Hello!? Who is this? Nyah?” Judging by the high voice and the smooth skin of thin forearms, he guessed he was talking to a girl, probably still a teenager. “Whoever you are, your rig doesn’t have a mic or cam. If you’re trying to talk to me you have to type.” Kanga’s fingers shook, worsening his already atrocious typing skills.
Can yiu see this?
“Yes genius, I can see that. Who are you and how did you get to me Nyah?”
I hav a kitten.
“So? You want a medal?”
I want info on the people I took it from: millennnials.
“They’re clients nyah, and a hacker never reveals their clients. But… my services are, hmmmm, clandestine. They know this. So if you’re a client too, they become fair game.”
Hacking is illegal, right?
“Oh who knows. The nineties is so far behind the tech I can’t even see them in the rear view. Sure, some of it is, but some of it’s fine. You hire me and I’ll pinky promise that all the hacking I do for you will be legal nyah. That way you’re covered.”
I jsust need your segvices for hte next ten minutes. How much will that cost?
“In ten minutes I can shut down a hydroelectric dam and make all the trapped water hot enough to boil hot dogs nyah. So two grand.”
How do I pay?
“What’s your name? No name, no game.”
“Okay, cross-referencing all the Joey Reubens out there with your location data… that makes you Joey ‘Kanga’ Reuben: an anyboarder for the Rockford, Illinois recycling team. Twice attacked by Millennials in public, no wonder you’re after them. Says here you’re a big Juicy Stardrop fan… and the gossip sites think you’re dating her hologram. That true? Looking at your picture I think you guys would be a super cute couple nyah.”
How do you know all that???
“Data dollface. Don’t you know computers gather facts about you every time you use them? Those facts go into an algorithm and the algorithm spits out products it wants you to buy and prices it wants you to buy them at. Guess I can’t expect someone stuck in the nineties glue trap to see the clean and cold tile ripe for the skittering just beyond nyaahaha!”
I make my own decisions. Nobody told me to do this, thats for sure.
“And notice that you won’t be charging this one to your plastic. Almost done… and there we go! I just hacked your bank account and took my payment, not a virtual penny more, pinky promise.”
The world wide web can do that!?!?!
“Oh, precious, no. This isn’t the web; it’s the net. Running wholly on new millennium code. That’s why this stuff is nothing to me, like walking through a spider’s world wide web. Your ten minutes are running, so get typing.”
Tell me everthing you can abouut the Millennial called Cloudspin.
“Searching… hacking… jumping over that… electrocuting them… hmmmmmm… I don’t have much on them generally, since they use the net too, but he’s in Europe. They’ve got him disrupting recycling matches by aerial drop in a small team of three. Partner code names are Sugarblitz and Exchange.”
I’ll be in Europe in a few days. Do you know where hell be?
“My rig’s a liquid-cooled masterpiece, but it’s not a crystal ball. Hang on nyah… I can’t tell you anything for sure, but they’ve been heading in a general direction. The next arena their projected path passes through is the Blasting Shore, Gulf of Riga, Estonia. Also… there’s a match scheduled there in four days, on the fourteenth… the Kingston Royal are up against the Ventspils Prize.”
Damn. You can’t change that, can you? Make my team compete there on that day?
“Gee I don’t know, that sounds pretty diffic- Just kidding! All done. LIRIC’s security code is a joke, especially considering that the scorekeepers run on Y2K.”
You seriously did it?
“Uhh yeah! All it took was a forged scheduling conflict. There are so many of these matches that nobody really cares when the program gets shuffled. After that change everything should fall into place. By the time we hang up your plane tickets will probably already be switched nyah! You’ll be up against the Hyderabad Chorus.”
“You don’t need to thank me; you already paid me. You’ve got six minutes left. Anything else you want to know?”
What else can I do with this kitten?
“It forcibly converts any machine to Y2K, as long as it has a compatible drive. From there it opens a console where you can input commands. They’re good for two uses, and the one you’ve got will still have one charge when we’re done here.”
SO I can make any computer do whayever I want?
“Sure, but stuff on the internet spreads, and using those things on connected devices has consequences. Just for talking to me you’ll likely have to deal with the dark cloud.”
What’s the darkc loud??
“It’s when nineties code senses a Y2K disruption, sort of like people going mad in a Lovecraftian story nyah. They see the horrors out of the corner of their eye, so to speak. Just like anything cornered, they respond with insane hostility. It’ll be following you around until the program I wrote finishes its work, after your match with the Chorus.”
Thanks for warning me!! That was sarcastic by the way.
“Everyone’s responsible for their own ignorance nyah. Two minutes.”
Why do you keep making that weird sound?
“Nyah? It’s the sound cats make.”
Is that your actual face, like the Millennials recycled you into a cat person or smeothing??
“No, I just like cats nyah. You can only get so mad at a cat for breaking the rules, nyahahaha! It’s in our nature. I live in a different world from you Reuben. Here, there’s no judgment when I wear a mask, when I wear a tail, when I talk funny because the joy of it all burns so warmly inside me. It doesn’t hurt anybody, so it’s fine. That’s the light on the other side of Y2K.”
Through the dark cloud I guess.
“Your time’s up, but I’ll give you some free advice. The world wide web is stiff, but it still manipulates you. Watch out for words you see too much, words that shut down your thoughts: terrorist, drug, recycle, copyright, et cetera. Think all, feel intimate. Peace out brother, nyahahaha!”
The window closed just as the drive spat the kitten back into his lap, a thin white curl of smoke coming from one of its seams. Kanga blew on it until it was cool enough to tuck away in his pocket. He wasn’t sure if it was the dark cloud already settling overhead or some kind of self-destruct program the hacker put on all her communications, but the desktop had gone dark and refused to turn back on.
In its darkness he saw his reflection, not like in the mirror and not like on the magazine covers he passed in the stands. He looked tired. How could he skip a match and feel that run down? Something inside him, around his lungs like chains covered in Spanish moss, felt heavy. The weight of decades.
LIR & LIRIC SCHEDULE (WEEK TEN)
Akron Alloy (10 wins/5 losses this season) vs. Birmingham Melody (6/9) – will be held at Pennsylvania superfund arena #12
Fez Verdict (8/7) vs. Prague Mystery (9/6) – Maxella Cola Uncondemned Stadium (tickets and safety permits still available)
Mandalay Parade (12/3) vs. Dallas Classic (1/14) – centralized New Mexico nuclear waste storage facility
Hyderabad Chorus (11/4) vs. Rockford Rendezvous (8/6) – Blasting Shore Midair Entertainment
Gwangju Swagger (3/12) vs. Kyoto Thrill (5/10) – Great Indian Plastic Shoal, Maxella Cruise Lines offering stops for the match
Warsaw Checkmate (13/2) vs. Columbus Blush (15/0) – previously unused Atlantic sandbar, estimated three tons recyclable material
Lalitpur Waltz (8/7) vs. Da Nang Dustup (9/6) – Blue Rock National Park and Hotels
Eugene Charm (0/15) vs. Cheyenne Curse (0/15) – vacant field pop-up arena, sponsored by GrandLens home videography services and Teachmart School Supplies
Fort Collins Flirt (7/8) vs. Salta Gallop (4/11) – Municipal Landfill #465310
Union City Encore (2/13) vs. Hilton Head Island Inertia (13/2) – Everglades Recreated! fun and nature park
Rio Rancho Romance (10/5) vs. Mobile Upkeep (0/15) – Heaven’s Backyard Trailer Township (residences cleared for the event)
Twin Falls Adventure (3/12) vs. Bowling Green Bulwark (4/11) – Municipal Landfill #669492
Wuxi Windfall (6/9) vs. Wollongong Glow (7/8) – Little Mogs, voted fifth dirtiest village in the world three years running
Member#211: I’ve got two bikers from Kyoto on my fantasy team this year, so here’s hoping they can start pulling it together. The shoal is bigger this season and they do better in bigger arenas.
Member#68: Wait, why is Rockford playing Hyderabad? The schedule had the Prize and some other team on it last week. And don’t U.S. teams usually start in the U.K. when they do the overseas tours? Not that I’m complaining; it should be a really good match. Hope Kanga’s well enough to play.
Member#135: Forget the Cheyenne Curse, Rockford is literally cursed. Five players killed and another one hospitalized. I think Kanga’s out for good. That last game wasn’t actually recovery; he was suspended for substance possession. He probably got hooked on pain pills after the cave-in. Damn Millennials kill everything else, so why not his sobriety too?
Member#427: If he’s actually on anything I’ll never forgive him.
Member#213: Guys, that’s a lot of guff. If you look at the D.O.U.S.E report for the incident it lists the stuff he ‘possessed’. It’s just a bunch of industrial chemicals. It’s not like steroids or cocaine or anything. What’s weird is, it’s all stuff that interferes with the projecting of holograms. Couple that with the rumor that he’s having virtual sex with Juicy Stardrop and you get a very different picture.
Member#427: People who do it with holograms go to Hell.
Member#44: Hell exists underneath the 90s.
Member#427: What are you talking about 44?
Member#395: Jesus guys it’s just the schedule. Take all this stuff to a chatroom.
Member#76: Does anyone know where the souvenir advice section is? I totally snagged a piece of trash from last month’s Science vs. Instinct, and I had it appraised for like five hundred bucks since I got Molydeux to sign it. I’m concerned that it might be a little radioactive though. It’s probably fine, but I just want to make sure. They wouldn’t let me walk out the door with it if it was dangerous.