Münstereifel was the forest where one couldn’t help but feel watched. Despite the stodgy old growth being stuffed into a pocket of Germany, the sensation was not like being a grim fairy tale child wandering between dark trees with glowing beastly eyes all about. No, the eyes were far more ethereal, and for Kanga more frightening.
The stalwart beech, oak, and spruce holding back the tide of man was eventually the forest’s downfall. There was a piece of technology called the radio telescope, a device not too dissimilar to a dish for satellite television in appearance, used to receive and measure radio waves from heavenly bodies and, perhaps one day, the television programs no doubt beamed out by extra-terrestrials.
In order to avoid electromagnetic interference from the myriad other machines of man, they had to be built in isolated areas, their effectiveness correlating directly to their size. The dish at Münstereifel was at one point the largest in the world, measuring over two thousand feet across, and set into the trees as a thick bowl of featureless concrete with a receiving tower in the middle.
All research had ceased there seven years ago, a combination of local corruption charges and a new even larger telescope built closer to the equator hogging all the starry-eared researchers. In the intervening years hikers and adolescent delinquents had made it one of their favorite destinations, coating its rim in graffiti like a Margarita glass with exotic pink and orange salts.
There was simply too much canvas, and when their spray paint cans were empty they tossed them and watched them roll all the way to the center, sometimes racing them, sometimes puncturing them to see how far they would leave a bright trail. Joining the cans was a copious level of tourism trash: disposable cameras, water bottles, windswept camping equipment, and a thousand other things.
The refuse grew at the bottom of the central tower, threatening to overtake it like mold, but an international media conglomerate had taken notice, so its status as a downhill landfill was about to come to an end. They planned to gut its scientific equipment and replace it with telecommunications gear, enabling them to run their television, telephone, and world wide web services from a single location.
Given that they owned broadcasting rights for recycling matches in the region, it was prudent to kill two birds with one stone by setting up bleachers all along the rim and airing the clean-up effort in a digestible hour, twenty minutes of which would be commercials for their products and services. It was more like the whole flock with one stone. One couldn’t see the sky past the boulder they flung at the opportunity.
So the telescope’s broadcasting capabilities would be tested on the Rockford Rendezvous and the Differdange Forecast. Already its eyes were in the air, smothering Kanga, threatening to shower him with evermore, eyes like electric caviar leaving jolts of oil on his skin as they bounced off.
The telescope, the paparazzi, Juicy, the Millennials, and now the chain gang, all watching him constantly, robbing him of sleep and his mind of foundation. The dark of evening, with the jagged peaks of the trees gnawing away at the light just outside his hotel window, did nothing to relieve him.
There was another match the next day, less than twenty hours away, and he still didn’t know if he was going to make an excuse and bow out or not. It was selfish to think he was the only honest player of the game. There was Tina, Leternau, and Monique. To bow out would be to let them down.
On the other hand it would be his first chance to speak to somebody since the chain gang pinned him down. Since then they’d been watching him like buzzards, following him to get food and supplies, and directing him away from any of the team officials that approached. Raffy was in the room to the left of Kanga’s, and Barson to the right. No doubt they would spring out simultaneously if they heard his door so much as creak.
Kanga had his pager, but trying to communicate what he needed to with its little display felt beyond demoralizing, like being buried alive and screaming for help through a fifty foot soda straw. So instead he paced, face red and puffy with angry tears. There was only one way it could be worse, and she showed up right on cue.
“Joey, baby, what’s wrong?” Kanga scratched away his tears before turning to face her. She looked ready for a night in, but for Juicy Stardrop that still implied the place where that night occurred was at least a theater balcony. Her dress had an aurora lining that spilled color. There was a spiral of hair on her forehead, a jewel of the digital world holding it together from the center.
“Now you show up!?” he seethed once he’d tamped down the anguish enough to speak. “Where were you when the guys had me on the floor?”
“When?” she asked. “The locker room? I don’t follow you in there; it’s private. What did they do to you?” She came toward him, hands outstretched, but he backed away.
“Don’t act like you can touch me!” he raged, only doing so quietly because he feared the others had their dyed ears stuck up against the wall.
“What’s come over you?” she asked, eyes devastatingly soft, lips as ready to quiver as any blood-filled ones. “I’m your partner; I’m on your side.”
“And another thing,” Kanga added to his tirade. “Where do you get off saying you’re my girlfriend in front of the entire world!? Like I’m not going through enough?”
“Joey, we kissed. We’ve been fighting bad guys together. We tell each other everything. It just makes sense for us to be together. Plus, you’re a fan of my music.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Kanga asked after a few thoroughly confused blinks.
“My music is who I am, so you like me. How much time did you spend listening to my songs with nobody else around? As much as you might with your girlfriend? I knew you wanted me, wanted this, the moment I saw you at my concert.”
“You’re a hologram.” He stopped himself from saying something worse, something about pulling a plug out of the wall and setting the prongs in cement. “How would you look at me and know something like that? What’s the mechanism?”
“My heart,” she said confidently, challenging him to deny the existence of her truest feelings. It was a challenge he did not meet. “You never wanted Noel Rivierra the person. She was just a speaker full of pops and shorts; I’m the notes. I’m the Juicy you were after!”
“I wasn’t after anything!” he barked. “I had everything, and you’re not enough to bring it back.” That cut through her, so much so that her form faded and crackled. She looked ready to dive into the darkness of an unplugged television screen and drown.
“Joey, you’re my guy,” she squeaked, yellow-white tears of light twinkling in the corners of her eyes. “I know I act cooler than a Caribbean cruise, but being with you makes my boat feel smaller every time we talk. Now we’re just two in a canoe, you know? It’s intimate. Please, come here.” He evaded her again, but in repositioning she noticed the object on his nightstand.
The pop star went and sat on the edge of the bed, staring down at it like it was a window into another world. Kanga looked; it was the issue of New High Score that the malfunctioning arcade robot had spit on him. He waited for her to return to the conversation, but after three silent minutes he thought her program had frozen.
“Juicy?” She snapped out of it and looked at him. “What are you doing?”
“What is this?”
“It’s just a video game magazine. Why do you care?” She ran her fingers across its cover. The lustrous quality of the ink interfered with her projection, so her fingertips broke up into fuchsia droplets that scurried through the passages of the labyrinth in the image before returning to her.
“Read it to me?”
“No, Juicy, are you listening to anything I’m saying?” It was then that he told her about the coach’s race-painting scheme, unsure if she had learned any of it during the match. She hardly reacted, as if being told someone she never knew on the other side of the world had just died in a traffic collision.
“They’re not treating you right,” was all she had to say about the second largest scandal in the history of competitive recycling, assuming the Millennial claim of trucked-in trash was also true. The knowledge that he contained both of these scandals struck Kanga, robbing him of breath. He sat down next to Juicy to avoid feeling dizzy.
Juicy’s bright hand moved across his lap; she feigned handing him the magazine. Kanga grabbed it off the nightstand and ripped it open like a fortune cookie, hoping some wisdom would fall out. All he found was a scathing review of that year’s licensed competitive recycling game, one in which his likeness was featured.
“There’s no getting away from me,” Kanga moaned. “I’m tired of myself.”
“That’s why your biggest fan is here,” Juicy whispered. She planted electric kisses along his arm, each tingling and rippling on her way up. He pulled back when the next one was due on his cheek. “So what does it say?”
“The review? You can read, can’t you?”
“I’m projecting from there,” she said, turning and pointing out the window. At first Kanga couldn’t see what she was talking about, but she had the lenses creating her flash orange. It had to be the tip of the broadcasting tower at the center of the radio telescope bowl. “I’m looking in here from pretty far, and I can’t angle high enough to see the words on the page.”
“You can’t read it because you’re not here,” Joey repeated less generously.
“Don’t say that Joey. I’m here. We’re together. What does it say? Is it about us?”
“Juicy, this is just a magazine. What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing! I just, I want to spend time with you, and that looks like a good way. We can get in bed and read it together. You can hold me. I can hum your favorites until you fall asleep.” His shoulder tingled. He didn’t know if it was her lips or her fingers, but it got him to stand up.
“There’s a picture of me in here,” he said, stabbing the magazine with his index finger. “That’s why you’re fixated on it. Somebody programmed you to do this, to get close to me, and you can’t tell the difference between a virtual sticker of me and the real me.”
“Joey, I just told you I can’t see what’s on the page. You’re being unreasonable, and I know it’s the stress. I know it’s just because you’re scared.”
“Of course I’m scared!” he fired back. “Do you know what the world is if all this bad stuff turns out to be true? It means that stopping Y2K didn’t do anything. It means we’ve been sliding down a muddy hill spotted with sharp rusty car doors and used syringes for decades.
It means… If the environment wasn’t helped, there isn’t much left. If the diversity is surface level, then people are living in the places I thought I cleaned. They’re huddled together, staring, voices muffled by my own selfishness, waiting for me to realize I’m hoarding all the happiness!”
“You move through the world wide web. You know what the rest of the world is saying, just like that cat-girl hacker, don’t you?” She nodded. “Then tell me, please.” She asked what he wanted exactly. “Tell me if the nineties is the same as it always was, or tell me if things have gotten worse.”
“They are worse.” It hit him even more strongly than he’d anticipated, like the tower making her had concentrated her many colors into a laser and struck him right through the heart. It hurt all the more to hear her specifically say it. She was Juicy. She was the hope that you could be too cool to be dragged down by the world’s problems. She was the evidence that success on the stage and success in the bank made you angelic, above and beyond the filth because you could spin gold from nothing.
“Everything’s been spun,” he said to help himself believe it. “I meet with sick kids all the time because they can’t afford the medicine, right?”
“That’s part of it, but it’s more because they get sick from pollution. Neighborhoods around a lot of factories and plants have cancer clusters.”
“Only part? Yeah… all these things have parts. They’re not simple. It’s the people who are laser-focused, who aren’t multifaceted, who are lying. And it’s so easy for them to lie! ‘Look here, just look here and nowhere else. Isn’t this one tiny spot in the dark lovely?’ I’m going to be sick.”
“You’re going to tell someone, right?” Juicy asked.
“Tell them what?”
“About what you found. About your team being full of pasty white boys in blackface.” She had absorbed the information after all. Kanga remembered that in life Noel wasn’t white. As a fuchsia hologram she still wasn’t. In her current form she was a prisoner of a record label, the image of an exotic woman copied and distributed by a board of directors that was no doubt as pale as that of the entity that owned the Rockford Rendezvous. Her cooperation, her happiness, was a lie.
“Even if I tell somebody they won’t believe me.”
“If you don’t… I will be disappointed in you.”
“How dare you,” he growled at her. “You think you’re not disappointing? What about all the desperate guys out there who need… whatever this is… more than I do? Why aren’t you there for them?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “There’s just something about you.”
“That’s just it Juicy. No, there isn’t. You’re not the first person to say that. The magical something is just that I’m around. People see my face, so they’re comfortable when they see it again. I’m a routine. I’m famous, so I just keep getting more famous. It’s like, once one thing went right for me it was some kind of chain reaction, people elevating me so they had something to look up to.
The only person who didn’t do that was Winter. He was the one who encouraged me to do that first thing right. I don’t even like being famous; I miss my best friend. I miss being loved!” He was sobbing by the end of it, scrunching up the covers at the foot of the bed and burying his face in them to muffle the sound.
“I love you Joey, but I know you can’t believe that, not right now,” she said, perfectly simulating the sound of a broken heart. “Where do you want me to go?”
“Do whatever you want to do,” he told her when he had his breath back. “I mean it. Don’t sing your old songs for your fans; go write new ones. Do you think you could find that hacker girl?” She nodded. “Then go to her. She can help you break away from your image holders; I’m sure of it. Just don’t trust her too much.”
“Alright… I’ll go now,” she promised. “Can I get a goodbye?” Kanga stood and faced her. The regret was instant, but he kept it silent. Hers was the most vulnerable face he’d ever seen, every soft inch exaggerated by her bright pallor. She looked like a shooting star told it was trespassing and that it needed to go back where it came from.
Kanga’s hands followed the ebb of her electrified air, wrapping around her waist. She did the same. Her head and neck swayed to and fro, her hair lingering in each swish longer than gravity would’ve allowed. The recycler felt her feeding parts of his body cues, like delicate static shocks. Together they danced beside the bed like they were in a ballroom.
Her voice started up, low. At that level he could tell which machines it was coming from: a little from the telephone, a little from the television, and a little from his pager. He decided to stop breaking her down, so he just listened as she took him around the room, just assumed her voice was right there, in her radiant heart.
♫ They say a lighthouse can’t look up ♫
♫ Sailors beg it, please don’t look up ♫
♪ There was one that did off Cape Good Hope ♪
♪ Clouds broken, not rain or snow or hail ♪
♪ A new detail spied through shining scope ♪
♪ Alight from bright fires far beyond ♪
♫ A shooting star, a shooting star, dropped into his lap ♫
♫ A shooting star! A shooting star! Drawing his eye-e-eye! ♫
♫ She was falling to him, waiting for him to catch siiiiiiight ♫
♪ Her fires met his honest cute glass ♪
♪ Their lights twined and made a single beam ♪
♪ In all the world, the longest slowest flash ♪
♪ Nowhere to look but into the up ♪
♫ They say a lighthouse can’t look up ♫
♫ Whole world begs it, must not look up ♫
♫ A shooting star, a shooting star, dropped into his lap ♫
♫ A shooting star! A shooting star! Drawing his eye-e-eye! ♫
♫ She was falling for him, so wanting him to catch siiiiiiiight ♫
An original. A melody crafted only from their time together. A song not from Juicy, but from the heart of Juicy’s catalog. The electricity faded on his skin, and when he opened his eyes she was gone. It was one final little trick on her part, for they hadn’t actually said goodbye. She could come back any time she wanted to actually give her farewell.
Kanga took an hour to relearn how to take a deep breath. He used his thumb to smooth out the veins in his wrists, for they felt stopped up and tight with sticky heated anxiety. The gaming magazine went into the bottom of his duffel, along with the second box of Gross Guys, some loose kung fu slaps, and five or so other things he couldn’t bear to think about at the moment.
Tomorrow was just a game. That was what he settled on in order to get some sleep. Everything would come to light, but not until after their international tour. When he was safely back in Illinois, when the dark cloud wasn’t visible on the horizon, when the chain gang wasn’t clinking just out of earshot, then he would burst and spill, a clean-up effort the whole competitive recycling establishment would not be able to handle.
Differdange wouldn’t normally have qualified for a league team of its own, given that its population was well under thirty thousand, but sometimes exceptions were made for regions that complained loud enough. The people of Differdange practically yodeled those complaints from the mountaintop.
They earned themselves the Forecast, a team primarily known for the legendary ugliness of their uniforms that took a little too much inspiration from traditional German clothing, even going so far as to include nonfunctional suspenders. To make matters worse they went with an unpleasant color combination of mustard yellow and lilac.
This did little to dampen their ardent fans, who swarmed the bleachers outside the telescope and turned it into a home game for their players. They stomped in rhythm ceaselessly in the minutes before the match, a sound that penetrated deep into the surrounding facilities, including the locker room.
The passage leading to the Rendezvous lockers had been raided an hour beforehand and was littered with Forecast jerseys as an intimidation tactic, some of them sticking to the walls and floor thanks to copious amounts of sweat. After wading through that the boys and girls split up and began to don their uniforms and equipment. They had a visitor, one Kanga could not believe he had forgotten about.
“Good morning boys!” Officer Christoph Bicker said as he sauntered in. As the team’s assigned D.O.U.S.E officer he went with them everywhere, and would hardly pass up a trip to Europe just to have one of LIRIC’s laissez-faire drug testers give them too much slack. He’d taken to the place far more than them however, exchanging his normal leather jacket and pants for a woolly turtleneck and a pair of cargo pants with brass buttons shaped like little bearded woodcutters. He still wore his motorcycle cop sunglasses for reasons impenetrable to all but him and the vendor who sold them at a fifty percent markup.
“Good morning officer,” the chain gang replied uniformly, standing at attention so the man could take hair samples and cheek swabs to his heart’s desire. Instead of his usual sensory wand he broke out a stack of plastic cups.
“Time to take a tinkle.” The boys groaned. The urine tests were only about once a month, but with Bicker they were random within that month, to keep them on their toes. Kanga was just as irritated as the rest of them, until an idea sparked. He always separated them for the urine tests, for privacy, though not from him of course.
Starting with Raffy, he took them behind the lockers to the showers and had them relieve themselves into the cup while he stood watch from behind. Kanga didn’t have much time to decide if he wanted to go for it, perhaps an extra twenty seconds when it got around to Barson, given the liter bottle of cola he usually consumed just before matches.
Sammy was up, but there was a problem. When Raffy returned he looked at Joey suspiciously. Joey averted his eyes and tried to look preoccupied with polishing his board. Just a game. He already had a plan: wait. The smell of the polish flooded his brain, oppressive in its citrus zest. All he’d ever done was wait. There was nothing to wait for; the nineties were over five times over. Its consequences were here, ravaging. He couldn’t push them back. Rigan was up, and when he and Bicker stepped out Raffy couldn’t hold his tongue any longer.
“Yo, Kanga you promise you’re not going to say anything to him, right? We made a deal.” The others looked up, the possibility clearly having just occurred to them.
“Uhh yeah, keep your head in the game,” Sammy added to make it sound like he was fully up to speed. Kanga just kept polishing; he saw himself in the board now, in the one spot that wasn’t covered in brand stickers. Reflected in Rendezvous red he thought he looked like Monoxide.
“Don’t be stupid,” Barson added, hushing when Rigan returned.
“Mr. Reuben,” Bicker addressed. “Time to spill.” The recycler silently set his board down and followed the officer, not so much as glancing at any of his teammates. He even allowed the older man to clap his hand onto his shoulder and direct him. When the floor became tile Kanga felt the cold on his bare feet. Plunkt went the plastic cup as Bicker set it down in front of him. The man repositioned behind him; Kanga heard his arms cross. “Fill her up.”
The smell of polish overpowered the moist stink of bathroom and fungus. The strong solution made his hands feel clean and sensitive; his fingerprints rubbed together like delicate origami paper. It was Bicker’s job to be the good guy. Somewhere past the bluster there had to be someone principled. It might take a lot to peel the blinders off, but once they were gone he would surely accept the truth. All he had to do was be honest. Adults always said that was the best thing to do.
“I have something to tell you.” A shower head dripped. Blop.
“You’re the only who can help me; do you promise that you will?”
“I’m sworn to protect kid. I know you don’t like me, but all this has always been for your own good. Whatever it is, I can help.”
“There’s something criminal happening in our team.” Blop.
“No. Coach Linejaw is… He’s running a fake diversity scam. He’s illegally using the scorekeepers to make his white players look like other races.” Blop. Blop.
“Run that by me again.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I saw him misusing one with my own eyes. It’s all of the other guys in here. They’re actually the chain g-” Joey remembered Bicker was never liked enough to tell nicknames. “They’re Matt, David, Trey, and Chris. The Millennials never recycled them; that was just the cover story.” Blop. Blop. Blop.
“Alright. What would be the point of that, were it true?”
“I guess they save some money.” Blop. Kanga’s thoughts lingered. Coach was always nice; he’d never heard the man be overly insulting. He’d never said anything racist, but perhaps that was all it took to convince himself he wasn’t. Joey just needed to be told he was saving the planet to jump at the chance to believe it. He couldn’t remember Roger Linejaw ever expending any effort to mention people who weren’t from Rockford, to consider them, to bring them into his life. “He just doesn’t like people who aren’t white,” Kanga realized aloud.
“That’s a serious accusation,” Officer Bicker reminded. “Are you sure of what you saw? Sure enough to ruin five lives?”
“Yes,” he answered immediately. “Yes, because they’ve ruined far more than five. They’re so ruined that they’re never even seen. The cameras turn away while they drown in our trash. And to make matters worse we paint one of our own to look like them, parade them around on TV, lie to them, tell them they’re happy and rich and successful.”
“Come with me Mr. Reuben. We’ll get this dealt with.” His hand clapped on Joey’s shoulder again, and this time its presence was such an immense relief that he nearly filled the cup anyway. Bicker led him back into the locker room, and for the first time in days he felt safe. The four of them would never attack a D.O.U.S.E officer. In the nineties that was like attacking a judge while they sat on the bench.
“You didn’t…” Rigan growled when he saw Kanga’s drained face and growing smile.
“I’m afraid he did,” Officer Bicker declared. “Mr. Reuben has been diving into his stash of photopolymer again.” Kanga’s throat turned to cement; it was a miracle it didn’t crack open when he turned to look at the man. Bicker looked disgusted, like an angry Gross Guy with moderate pressure applied to its midsection.
“What makes you say that?” Raffy asked, quick to take advantage.
“He’s high as a kite! Paranoia and hallucinations, seen it a hundred times before. I’m putting him in the drunk tank until I figure out exactly how illegal photopolymer is in this country. One of you boys run and get your alternate; Mr. Reuben’s season is over.”
“We’re disappointed in you man,” Barson told him with a sneer.
“Get him out of our sight,” Rigan added. Bicker’s grip tightened as he pushed Kanga past them. They were already in the jersey-filled entryway, the door swinging behind them, before Kanga felt like his feet were under him again.
“Please tell me that was a joke,” he begged. “You just didn’t want them to get in our way right? You actually believe me, right?”
“They wouldn’t give me this job if I ever believed anything an addict said,” Bicker bragged, demonstrating the unrivaled thickness and density of his mind, which he viewed as the only way to prevent it from looking like the nauseating photograph he kept in his shirt pocket.
“But it’s true! I saw Roger put his arm into one and it came out black!”
“I just saw him; I would’ve noticed that.”
“No, he turned it back obviously!”
“You’re just digging yourself into a deeper hole kid.”
“How could I be so stupid as to think you’d actually be helpful,” Kanga scolded himself.
“You can’t see it because you’re on the toke,” the officer argued, “but D.O.U.S.E is the single most important program in America. Millions of people are on drugs, whining about pain as they sneak money from their mothers’ purses, bankrupting everyone’s morale. Do you know how many of the world’s problems would be solved if everyone just stopped taking drugs forever? All of them.”
This man was the opposite of a Millennial, Kanga realized. He couldn’t have anything new integrated into his spirit or body. Any attempt to recycle him would result in two distinct piles of goo refusing to mix, like oil and vinegar. That made him the real trash. The young recycler briefly entertained attempting to break free by stomping on the officer’s foot, but what would he do after that?
In the end it would just earn him an assault charge, and as it stood his season wasn’t technically over. Bicker could take him out of the game, but there would eventually be a drug test, and when he tested negative for everything they would have no choice but to release him. Again the game became one of waiting, but Kanga couldn’t stop flexing his fists as the rage twister devastated his insides.
The drunk tank was just as hastily constructed as everything else, little more than a temporary building in the shadow of the radio telescope’s curving concrete wall. Inside it was abandoned, no guard and no other offenders to speak of. The bars of the cell were made of thick composite plastic, their inside curves covered in graffiti that made the interior smell of capless black markers left to, like the prisoners, dry out.
Bicker threw him in, not caring that Kanga’s top half was uniform and his bottom half bare feet and jeans. He slid a card into the electric lock on the door, which beeped in response and sealed Kanga inside. Then Bicker had the gall to stand there, hands on hips, and look at him like he was a failure, as if he’d put himself behind those bars. Kanga waited until he turned to leave to call out.
“You know, you really make me want to try drugs.” Bicker stopped and snorted, but his head barely turned. Ten seconds later he was gone, and Kanga was left alone to listen to the beginning of the match. There were bleachers directly above him, so the roar hit the roof of the drunk tank like a monsoon.
Sitting on the one bench nearly broke it, the cracked plastic seat creaking. With his head in his hands he contemplated how to wriggle his way back to control of his own life. The drug test would be negative, but the chain gang would surely tell Roger now that he had tried to rat them out.
Somehow he didn’t fear what the coach would do, even if it was violent. He could put his whole arm into a Shinjuku engine, bring out a giant scorpion stinger, and stab him through the heart; Kanga thought he could handle that. What he couldn’t handle was a conversation with the man.
They had become too different. Joey couldn’t help but picture two people who were on the same boat, but somehow in different rivers. He knew there was nothing he could say to convince Roger he had done wrong, and that was the problem that went all the way back to the start of the nineties. No two decades were supposed to have the same good guys and bad guys.
Secrets were supposed to be uncovered in the new millennium. The pretenders were supposed to get tired and slip up, or fail to adjust their rusting dials when a new year hit. Instead they got to party like it was 1999 over and over and over again. The good guys were set, software that couldn’t be updated.
The thought of Roger standing there, the way Bicker had just done, eyes full of sad certainty that he was looking at evil, never considering he might contain a drop of it himself, not even trace amounts, gave Kanga clarity. There was no point in trying to convince anyone. Doing so was an admission that they had authority, that he needed their approval to live his life.
The door to the outside world clicked, opening only a crack. Kanga went to the bars, wrapping his hands around them. Nobody entered.
“Hello?” he called out.
“Hey codpiece,” a familiar voice said from the crack before she pushed it open and marched up to the cell. Kanga couldn’t tell if she was the first or last person he wanted to see, but she was there regardless of his feelings. Monoxide the Millennial didn’t stand like Bicker; she got up close, unafraid his breath or touch might contaminate her. She grabbed the same bars he did and pressed her face between them.
“Did you come all the way from Florida to see little old me?” Kanga asked. Suddenly he couldn’t find his anger; it was like a bird circling his head. He could hear its cawing but as he whirled he never caught more than a falling feather.
“You could say that,” she admitted. “Everyone watched you already, and then Juicy went public with your relationship. Add to that this arena-” The crowd roared overhead. The boards and bikes were off. “We’re going to take over the broadcast. A major moment in television history.”
A look at her attire confirmed she was ready for battle, and for the thirsty cameras that wanted to be splattered with its blood. Her jumpsuit was constricted around her shoulders, elbows, and knees by armored pads. She had butchered a helmet, turning its plastic straps into a headband and leaving the rest behind like a gutted turtle shell. It was a statement; her recycled head was tougher than any helmet.
“You look like you’re about to get on an anyboard for the first time,” he noted. Even now there was a twinge of jealousy. He wanted to fly down the slope of the dish on his board, ride the nothing under him, be close to the world but free of it nonetheless.
“Good eye. They’ll get us around faster out on that thing. Got any tips for a newbie?”
“Don’t lean back to slow down,” he told her, unsure of why he would help her even a little. They might’ve been out to kill people that day. “Just push your back foot down. That’ll let you accelerate faster after the slow.”
“You can maintain air by grabbing the board with your fingers touching the edge of the sensors on the bottom. That makes it think it’s too close to the ground, so it pushes out more power.”
“Thanks.” She wasn’t supposed to be this happy; there wasn’t a moment in their last encounter where she wasn’t smoldering or blazing. Her eyes were wide and confident, her bright cherry skin practically glowing. Her chopped hair was a mess, like every other Millennial had tousled it for good luck.
“How did you know I was in here?” She pointed down. Kanga looked. His pager. Of course. With everything the hacker told him about the capabilities of Y2Krazy computing he should’ve figured they’d tapped into his device to track his whereabouts. He ripped it off his belt and tossed it through the bars. “I never liked that thing anyway.”
“I might’ve said the same thing about you,” she offered.
“But not anymore?”
“I can see it in your eyes now. You’re just not sure, not like you used to be. It’s draining, isn’t it?”
“Having to question everything,” she clarified. “Once the corner of the poster peels off the wall you just can’t stop pulling until you see what’s underneath. Before you know it you’re asking where your food is coming from, who gets the money you’re spending, what all the homeless people do at night, and how all the little froggies are going to survive when half of their habitat is destroyed every year.”
“To be fair you were a pretty big threat to the frogs in my room,” he joked, but the effort was so great that he retreated back to the bench and sat. “Which nineties was it? When did we stray?”
“The first one,” she answered promptly. “From the beginning it was all just advertising: a show to placate those who were starting to get curious. Self-help books, multiracial teams of cartoon characters, recycling, getting tough on drugs. All performative. All to ensure the money kept going where it was going.”
“Is Y2K even real?”
“It wouldn’t have been the first time around, not really, but lots of big companies made sure each generation of their technology was more and more susceptible to it. They made it impossible to rip off the colorful mascot bandage without taking most of the flesh with it.”
Monoxide took a step back and a deep breath. She cracked her knuckles, and a few other things that probably weren’t present in a non-recycled human hand, just by flexing them. Then she grabbed the electronic lock on the door and crushed it, plastic shattering into brittle black shards. The door drifted open.
“What are you doing?” Kanga asked, on his feet. She looked at him, her expression suggesting the reasoning was obvious. “I’m not on your side.”
“Maybe not, but you’re in my time. At the very least you’ll make things more fun.” She pointed at him, arm fully extended, gluing him to the spot as much as a kiss from Juicy. “You’ll give me a full minute’s head start or I’ll kick you in the nuts.” When he didn’t argue she flashed a daring smile and strutted out the door.
Kanga grabbed the door and held it closed. Following her would be the worst decision of his life. Not only would the other Millennials likely be more hostile than Monoxide, the whole world would see him joining them from a hundred different angles.
Tina, Monique, and Leternau were out there too, unaware of everything. He owed it to them to intervene and possibly keep them from getting recycled.
They likely knew some of it, he realized. More than he had until recently. Women players weren’t appreciated as much, even though their overall stats on the anyboard were better. There was one instance where he had replaced Tina on a magazine cover, doing the same trick from the same angle, because the publisher worried that Tina’s picture was somehow obscene. That was part of it, this big nineties charade.
And Monique was black. She was probably only on the team because Roger hadn’t figured out his scheme yet. She’d never caused any trouble and her stats were well above what was needed for her position. Kanga had treated her almost as badly, pushing her away just because they gave her Winter’s number. She was suffering silently and he was making it worse.
The concert. Even when he didn’t know the four new additions, when he wasn’t even capable of suspecting they were the chain gang, he had gone out with them. With no desire to socialize he’d still gotten into the limousine and jokingly clinked champagne flutes full of sports drink with them.
He wouldn’t have done that with Monique.
And the concert itself was likely torture for Juicy’s hologram. If she was at all like the real person she hated being paraded around, told which songs to sing, and being fed dance steps as if by conveyor belt. She always seemed like she was in charge of herself, like she was the only person in the world who knew every iota of her own soul.
Kanga had been drawn to that, because he hungered for it. His recycling success was just a pale imitation, recognition taking the place of satisfaction and understanding.
His breathing fell into rhythm with the seconds as he counted down. These Millennials didn’t have the answers. They were just angry, thrashing about. Their lives were all about the thrash, the push against a net they couldn’t break, itself a secondary concern to the air they couldn’t breathe.
If he wanted the truth, to live it rather than simply access it, he needed to become his own Millennial. Only in tearing himself apart could he see what had been growing and festering between the pieces.
Whatever the Rockford Rendezvous and Differdange Forecast had heard must have been a mistake. The real starting horn bellowed in Kanga’s mind as he kicked the broken cell door open.
This was the ultimate recycling challenge. The scorekeeper would tally him up, tell the world, while he was a swirling selfless part of it, exactly what he was worth. Before the matches had helped him shut out the world, see only the game. Now he would shut that out and see everything.
It only took two minutes of sprinting to reach the empty locker room once more and pull on a pair of boots. His teammate’s bags were just evidence of their wrongdoing, so he felt no remorse in ripping their zippers open and rifling around inside until he found what he was looking for: a sabotaged kung fu slap. He applied it to his left wrist with a klak.
The power, by now familiar, coursed through his arm. He felt more like Cindy Wu Hu than ever, and not the woman who played her who probably had a less marketable birth name. His left arm was the left arm of the San Francisco youth center manager fleeing her life in a drug cartel from San Fran Smack. This was the biggest mistake of the nineties. They tried to sell righteousness and decency as cartoons and cereals, and it worked too well.
Kanga imagined an oily executive, eyes bugging out, cowering in a spinning office chair. He insisted they weren’t serious about that friendship stuff, or the rainbow of people, or sharing, or equality, or shutting down the factories. It was just a gimmick to them, but now it was a hurricane within a generation.
His best friend was everything to him, but now that Winter was gone there was only one replacement that came to mind: the entire planet. The hole in the ozone layer was a knowing wink, an inside joke between the two of them. The loss of the rain forests and coral reefs was his new best friend turning her pockets inside out and telling him she was broke. They were thick as thieves, so he would pay the price with a smile.
A Millennial didn’t hold back, not when their only currency, the ability to spend themselves, was available. Joey found three more slaps, his armor, meant to protect him until he could reach the true means of transformation.
Klak. His right arm was the right arm of the small town girl who found out she was the princess of a distant land of warrior monks from Fist of the Homecoming Queen.
Klak. His left leg was the left leg of the pastry chef apprentice who helped her master get back his kidnapped cat from One Tough Cookie.
Klak. His right leg was the right leg of of the girl scout troop leader who defeated a corrupt secret service in Yellowstone private park with nothing but pine cones and spin kicks from The Scout Master.
Energized by martial arts and fully capable of doing his own stunts, Kanga only had two more things to grab. He jumped onto his anyboard, forcing it awake, and glided by his duffel bag to snatch it, slinging it over his shoulder where the compressor usually would’ve gone. It contained the frayed issue of New High Score and the box of Gross Guys. They were good representations of his personality, the perfect items to feed the scorekeeper, to give it a taste of what Joey was like outside the team.
It might even use them to make parts of his new body. That would be appropriate, he thought, since there would likely be nothing of his personality left otherwise. Something had to die for the clock to tick over to its new age, and it had to be him, because he had helped keep all of the things that should’ve perished from doing so.
Crucially, the bag also had the Y2Kitten floppy. There was still one use on it, and there was no way the Shinjuku engine would listen to him without its influence.
There were security guards posted at the edge of the radio telescope dish, standing in the gravel left over from cutting a fresh hole in its edge so the players would have a starting line. Their job was to keep hyperactive or drunk fans from storming inside to steal souvenirs from the locker room, so they never expected an intruder to come from behind.
Kanga zoomed through them and caught some air, roaring victoriously as the first cameras turned to see what caused the commotion. No doubt he would be all over every screen within a minute, some of them posted like billboards next to the stadium seating. For now he kept his eyes within the dish of the telescope.
Its smooth incline gave an incredible rush as he picked up speed, wind whipping through his hair. Still wearing jeans rather than the skintight uniform, the bottoms flapped wildly around his ankles. Out of reflex he snatched a plastic bag from the air, but shook his head with a chuckle and let it fly a moment later.
He was still close enough to the rim to hear the crowds gasp. To them it was tantamount to littering. Not only was he illegally invading the game as an eighth player for Rendezvous, but he had stopped caring about cleaning the environment. He wanted all the little ducklings and chipmunks to choke to death on cigarette butts and soda tabs.
Kanga thought the funniest thing about it was that, to the team heads, the only rule he had broken was grabbing the bag in the first place. Sure, once you had a hand around it you needed to stash it in your pack for scoring, but before that it was more efficient to ignore such a lightweight item. Never let the fans see you drop it, never let them know that you have other motives as impure as the greasy creases in your recycling gloves.
If the audience was able to concentrate on him then the Millennials must not have shown themselves yet. It would definitely be a problem if they didn’t show up soon, otherwise security staff would chase him down on their own bikes.
On the positive side, he knew exactly where he was going. Since the open arena provided zero hiding spots, that left only one location for the scorekeeper: next to the central tower. It rose in front of him, wrapped in an anthill of garbage.
“This sucks as an arena,” he noted with a snort. All of the players would be concentrated around the center, interfering with each other rather than seeking out high scoring pockets. It was like watching too many teenagers trying to skateboard in the same cramped bowl. There was no room for speed or tricks or a surprise emergence from over a ridge or around a corner.
Of course, he realized, because this was an actual cleanup effort. They wanted to use the telescope after so many years, and it was plenty dirty already. There was no need for a match engineer to come in and lovingly craft a treasure map of trash. That person probably existed, and probably a hundred times over as well: architects who had blueprinted his matches.
It made him all the angrier, but he couldn’t commit any more speed, not when Monique pulled up alongside him on her bike.
“What are you doing!?” she asked. “You’ll get us disqualified!”
“It doesn’t matter!” he shouted back. “The Millennials are here!”
“I know you don’t have any reason to, but you really should trust me on this one Monique. They’re here, and they’re going to ruin the match anyway. You should tell the rest of the team and get out of here as fast as you can!”
“What about you?”
“Listen… I’m sorry I never helped you.” It was clear she was tired of asking what was going on, so she just shook her head violently as if he’d tossed an egg into her scalp. “You’re a part of this team, a real part, and I never treated you that way. You deserve better.” He decided to leave it at that, veering away sharply.
Joey was worried she might pursue and demand a more thorough explanation, but then he heard an explosion that rocked the entire telescope. Even with two inches between his board and the concrete he was nearly shaken off, and at those speeds, without his helmet and other pads, he could’ve broken his limbs or busted his skull open.
Massive chunks of debris rained down behind him, like the cracking knuckles of giants, but he didn’t spare a single glance over his shoulder. He already knew what it was. In all likelihood three to five recycled humans were emerging from the resulting hole, firing pyrotechnics into the sky to scare the crowds away, snatching any officials they wanted to remake into something more helpful.
Eventually they would get to the scorekeeper, and probably broadcast the process. He had to get to it first if he wanted to use it. After this outburst he’d never get this close to another engine again.
As he drew nearer the size of the tower finally dawned on him. There was probably an entire office in its tip. The pile of garbage beneath it was a small mountain, with abandoned cars acting as the boulders at its base, from daredevils trying to see if they could drive fast enough to go sideways around the raised edge of the dish.
Many were rusted to hell and back, flipped upside down like beetle husks dried and hollowed by the sun. They brought back memories of getting tetanus shots in similarly rusty arenas until the standards were changed to minimize their contact with such things.
“Vatch your head!” someone shouted in a thick German accent. Kanga ducked just as an anyboard bounced off a car roof and sailed over him. The Forecast player didn’t stick around, ripping a rear view mirror off a car and tossing it into his pack.
“Dude, there was a bomb!” Kanga shouted after him, but he was already gone around the bend of the heap. He had to feel it, but until someone in a referee’s outfit told him to stop he would keep collecting. It wasn’t Kanga’s problem anymore. He was about to become even more invisible to a person like that, nothing but a creature seen mostly in grainy footage under a few exclamation points.
The sudden duck had made his neck instantly sore, and he wished he’d slapped some of Cindy’s magic around it as well for a smoother reaction. The scorekeeper would undoubtedly take care of it though, so he pressed on, circling the heap in search of the engine.
Dirty as it was, the heap didn’t choke out the forest completely. Rain and winds had slowly deposited pockets of soil in tin cans and hubcaps, and drifting seeds had taken root. Sprouts and vines peeked out everywhere, and Kanga was surprised to see the density of the vegetation around the inexplicable wreck of a tour bus.
A skin of furry green covered the heap like a blanket, reaching fifty feet up. All of a sudden it was like being in another world, like he was a sea turtle gliding just above an algae garden in tropical waters. One plant, firmly rooted on two stems, stood above the rest, atop the bus, its driver’s seat overflowing with an assortment of meadow flowers.
No, not a plant, Joey realized. Those stems were legs. Her thick open coat was all plant matter, so lush that it made him wonder if there was a species of green mink he’d never been rich enough to hear about. Her knee high boots were even greener. Her tube top, even greener. Her sun hat, the brim of which was large enough to act as an umbrella for a brunch party of five, even greener. Her full lips, also joined in lustrous greenery, parted.
“Yo Joe, Where you trying to go?” Joey slowed to a stop beneath her, scanning the field around her for any sign of her abilities. Clearly she’d done a lot with the few struggling sprigs in just a few minutes. If he had to guess based on what he’d heard, she was the Millennial called Chiagreen.
“I don’t have any problem with you,” he declared. “I just want to use the recycler.”
“Woah, that’s a no go Joe. It’s reserved until the next millennium.”
“I’m not going to break it or anything!” he barked. “Your buddy Monoxide is the one who brought me out here!”
“They do what they do, and I do what I do. Nobody walks past me without a few grass stains.”
“Fine, pretty sure the engine gets those out anyway.” There wasn’t time to argue, and he was miles past that regardless, so he pushed his board forward, only to immediately tumble off it and land on his face. Looking back he saw the board was ensnared in tightening weeds; they were already probing at his prone form too.
Kanga hopped up and charged the Millennial, each step ripping thin roots off the concrete dish. Chiagreen was just as eager, hopping down and running, but her boots blended fluidly with the plants and granted her greater speed.
For one glorious second he thought it would be easy, landing a punch she clearly never expected across her right cheek, but the other living things that made up her garb reacted for her. The massive hairy brim of her hat wrapped up around his arm and kept his knuckles glued to her forehead. Chiagreen stomped on his foot, her boot spreading a blanket of undergrowth over his that held him to the spot.
Then she returned the favor five times over, pummeling his stomach while he was locked in place from above and below. It was possible she recognized the toy bracelets; if she did she already knew his weakness. Once his limbs were incapacitated the other parts of his body were vulnerable, completely lacking in the imitation of Cindy’s fitness discipline. There was nothing to tense his abdominal muscles and absorb some of the impact. Around the time of her fourth punch he felt like a limp doll made of four scalpels stuck into a marshmallow.
Even with two limbs still free he didn’t see a simple way out. If he struck her torso her shirt would grab his fist. If he kicked at her thighs her pants would do the same. His only chance was to hit so hard and fast that the blow was done before the plants could even react. For that he would need twice the speed.
Joey lifted his free leg and snatched the bracelet off it. With one hand trapped he was forced to jam the thickest part in his open mouth, leaving room enough to bend and snap when he pressed his wrist against it. Klak. He was immediately certain there was a warning somewhere on the box of bracelets telling children not to wear two on the same limb.
His arm was a train tunnel, the rails so overloaded with electricity that bolts hopped between them. The well greased rocket propelled train came through with such force that the tunnel warped around it. Chiagreen stumbled backward, the shape of his fist lingering in the flesh just under her ribs.
Her face was hidden under her hat; he needed to strike again before she could even look up. The untrained parts of his body could still be wielded as weapons by those under Cindy’s command, so he rushed forward, right arm pumping power and force into his shoulder. If that got stuck his hands and feet could strategize a way to free it.
The tackle was successful, too much so. He carried the Millennial ten feet before his remaining warrior leg instinctively reacted to the looming shell of the rusty tour bus. It made him leap. Both bodies sailed through the empty windshield and ripped through a cloud of white, yellow, and pink flower petals.
Chiagreen grabbed the frayed edges of the seats on both sides, stalling them. Her eyes were back, and they shone like polished and sharpened sunflower seeds. Kanga crossed his arms to block, and even though her palm didn’t reach his uniform he still felt a tingle as microscopic seeds and spores germinated between the fibers, dying a spot green.
None too eager to find out what would happen if such a strike lingered on his skin, Kanga focused on deflection, each of Chiagreen’s blows pushed aside until a complete circle around them looked cut and curled from an overgrown lawn. She took note and jumped back, hands pulling on the air. The circle bloomed backward, turning the whole bus into a forest squeezed into a tube.
Getting tangled up was inevitable if he couldn’t win quickly, so Kanga went for the shoulder charge again. They collided around the seventh row of seats, but already the vegetation behind her was so thick that she was immediately cushioned. Kanga elbowed her in the navel to take the wind out of her before she could focus. He kicked repeatedly, cutting through the vines that looked to stabilize her. It was too much. She was mostly cloaked in greenery already; he had to go for a knockout punch. The left arm went in first, triggering the hat trap, which left her open.
All he could do was hope that the train tunnel would stay intact long enough for one more powerhouse express. Tiny strands of muscle snapped like bridge cables as he put everything he had into the blow. A second pain, one of actually colliding with his target, joined the first, the two arguing with each other heatedly. Her skull felt hard as steel.
“Now that was a punch,” Chiagreen complimented, rolling her jaw to straighten it back out. “Alright Joe, I guess you really do want it. Feed the beast, and I’ll see you in the weeds.” She winked. The vegetation sucked her deeper, spitting out just a few blades of grass. Seconds later it receded, and she was gone.
“Everyone thinks they’re so cool,” Kanga spat as he fell into a seat and massaged his overworked arm. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t linger; there were more explosions in the distance. After shifting the second bracelet on his arm back to his leg he threw himself out a window like a spear and rolled into a run. The plants had released his anyboard, and it was gliding down the incline toward the heap when he leapt back onto it.
There was only so much perimeter left to check around the heap, but when he was close to completing a full circle there was still no sign of it. He cursed under his breath and slowed to a stop. At least there was no sign of the Rendezvous or the Forecast. Monique had hopefully gotten them out in time.
One moment between distant explosions was all it took for him to hear it, even over his own ragged breathing. The flow. The hum. The waves. The sound of an idle Shinjuku engine waiting to be fed. Joey looked up, and there it was, suspended thirty feet above him. Of course. Since they couldn’t hide it they needed to make scoring interesting some other way, so they’d lodged it in the steep incline, which would force players to climb the side like a ramp and toss their materials in.
He put Cindy’s legs to work, pushing off the concrete with one foot every other second to build up speed. There wasn’t time to deposit one item at a time with each pass, so his plan was to blast out a divot just under the machine’s portal with the board’s full power.
The climb was exhilarating because it was real, nothing like his ascent to fame and fortune. He felt the air resist, gravity stubbornly pull, and sharp edged junk try to throw him off course. He followed the advice he gave Monoxide, putting his fingers over the sensor as he neared the glowing apogee.
As gravity gained the upper hand he released his; the board unleashed a bubble of propelling energy. Loose bottles, cans, and half a shopping cart were blasted loose, leaving a crescent shelf just large enough for Kanga to gently land in. He watched the trash tumble all the way to the bottom, eyes lingering just to make sure nothing load-bearing shifted.
Finally it was time to see if he actually had what it took to leave the nineties behind. He pulled the duffel bag out from behind him and unzipped it. First was the Y2Kitten. He reached up and pushed the floppy disk into the one control panel below the portal that was accessible. The recycler was worried he wouldn’t be able to figure out how to work it, but the hacker that had designed it thought of everything.
Options appeared on the screen above the slot that would allow him to create all kinds of chaos with the engine. With one button press he could set it to self-destruct, and judging by the series of pictures next to that option the resulting explosion could take out the entire telescope.
Another disturbing set of pictograms seemed to suggest he could order it to create life from the trash already collected: animals springing forth from the muck in an expedited version of Earth’s entire history.
“Nothing that complicated thanks,” he muttered. The option to override the safety protocols and allow it to act on human tissue looked the least gruesome, so he performed the necessary combination of keystrokes. The engine’s sound and color shifted subtly, like it was moving from appetizers to the main course.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Joey’s hand was halfway in the bag when he looked up and saw Juicy sitting on the other side of the portal, hands clasped anxiously. Telling her to leave felt like a lifetime ago already, but they were still in the same place, and the tower above them just as capable of projecting her.
“You were watching?”
“The whole world’s watching Joey,” she reminded him. “Watching us. Like always.”
“I should be something they don’t want to look at. So should everybody else. We need to all be hideous so we can see who chooses to close their eyes rather than see.”
“I love you Joey,” she offered, “but I won’t stop you. Leapfrog rules.”
“Leapfrog rules.” He pulled the box of Gross Guys out of his duffel.
“Wait!” she blurted. “What… what is that?”
“My favorite candy,” he explained. “I’m just giving it a taste of me before it decides what to turn me into.”
“They’re…” Her open mouth stretched like she was trying to produce one giant word lodged in her throat.
“Special?” she said, head whipping around as if someone else had said it. “They’re just… I don’t know Joey! They’re something! Throw them in!” With her blessing he did so. The box dissolved like toilet tissue in the flush, and all the little overboard gummy men bobbed in and out until they melted and blurred together like a swirl in a mug full of paintbrush water. “I can’t see; what does it look like?”
“Colorful,” he said, looking at her. There was no reason for her to not be able to see it, if she had actually been sitting there. He remembered her eyes were the lenses of various cameras, and they were atop the tower. All she saw was the metal back end of the engine. Still, her eyes looked ravenous, like someone only ever fed from the heavens waiting for a scrumptious shooting star. He pulled out the rolled up magazine.
“Right! That!” she gasped. “I forgot about that when I wasn’t… put it in.” Joey threw it up. The engine swallowed it, separating page from page, ink whipped away until they were all blank. “Quick Joey, tell me what it looks like!”
“It’s like a-” He was cut off by the light of the portal quintupling in intensity. The engine rattled, raining trash from above. Its light became a projected cone, widening and widening until it swallowed them both and blinded Kanga. His hands dipped into the heap to stabilize him, but that hardly did anything. The rumble of the engine above made him feel like he was about to have a hundred air conditioners dropped on his head, but it ceased as quickly as it had begun.
He lifted his head and blinked. The light had receded, and so had the energies. The Shinjuku engine was cooling; something had caused it to power down. He was finished. With no way to recycle he was stuck as Joey Reuben, stuck with his responsibilities, his reflection, and all the weights of the ripping garbage bag that was the world. Hopelessness overtook him; he was a moment from deciding he was just another napkin on the pile and waiting for a more competent player to scoop him up.
“Hey…” Joey’s ears perked up before his mind, like a muscle memory. He remembered something that he didn’t know he’d forgotten, the way the air felt when he talked, light, nimble, like the energy of the anyboard. He pulled himself up to see, blinking away the spots in his eyes that still stubbornly blocked out pieces of him.
“Yo Kangaroo. What’s up?” He smiled. There he was, right where Juicy had sat moments before. The young man was exactly as Kanga remembered him: short spiky black hair, oceanic blue eyes, and a permanent shrug in his shoulders that made authority figures naturally suspicious. He was wearing his Rendezvous uniform, as it was the day he was recycled.
“Are we finished?” Juicy asked. Kanga looked under the machine where Juicy had repositioned; she walked on air, no longer concerned with how real she came across. Her face had changed. It was still hers, but her expression was weathered, eyes empty of the entrancing sparkle. He recognized it; she was no longer strangely fascinated by the sight of him. She looked at him as if he was just another fan, perhaps one that had pitched over the velvet rope and smashed his face in an attempt to get an autograph.
“Yeah Juicy, this is it,” Winter answered her. “Listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t really know what I was doing. If I could do it again-”
“Don’t say that,” she interrupted. “The nineties is all about doing it again. We’re changing. I’m changing. So long, and good luck with not being like this anymore.” She turned to Joey and leaned down close to him, a little affection returning to her face, but just a scrap, like a woman saying goodbye to a neighbor’s dog that had never failed to bark at her and attack the window when she walked by. “Goodbye Joey; you weren’t so bad.”
There was a pulse in her fuchsia skin and orange hair and then she was gone, like a dying flash of lightning. Joey didn’t know what to say, but Winter did. There had been nothing but time to practice.
“I know you’re confused,” he said, hands up, trying to keep his best friend calm so he didn’t flail and roll down the side of the garbage heap to his possible death, “but I’ll explain everything.”
“No… I’m not.” Kanga looked again. The slight halo around Winter was not just the overwhelming joy of seeing him. He made it all the clearer when he held up his hands and willed them to be transparent. A hologram, just like Juicy. “But you can relax. You did it. We can talk, this one last time.”
“Not for long. The Millennials are coming.”
“They’ve been here,” he said with a bitter little laugh, “and ignoring them is what got me killed.”
“Cloudspin!” Kanga yipped. “They turned you into some guy called Cloudspin. If he’s here we can catch him and… and I don’t know… shove him back in and put the engine in reverse.”
“Calm down Kangaroo. I told you to relax, didn’t I? It’s over for me; it was as soon as they tossed me in one of these things.” He pretended to pat the side of the Shinjuku engine, like it was a reliable dairy cow. “There are different levels of destruction when a person gets recycled. They can make it keep pieces… but there was nothing left of me.”
“Then how are you here?”
“The engines run on Y2K code, and it’s so different from what you know. It makes a complete record of items it breaks down, including people. In essence that record is a simulation of their personality and identity… so yeah. That’s me. I’m not technically the real Winter… but I’m exactly what he would say and do if he was still alive.”
Kanga turned when he heard several victorious shouts. Five anyboards streaked across the dish in the distance, three of them dragging tethered struggling bodies. Each board trailed a different color, and at the head of the procession was white. Crystalheart, coming to make new comrades.
“I wasn’t the only one this happened to,” Winter said, drawing his attention back. “Most of us are living in new millennium code, waiting for the world to catch up, but I wanted to come back, to tell you all the things I learned so this wouldn’t happen to you.”
“I was just about to do it to myself,” Joey admitted, rubbing the back of his head.
“I know. It means my plan worked, though not exactly as I intended. I wasn’t allowed to just talk to you… that meant transferring myself to nineties code. I couldn’t do it without fracturing, becoming simpler things that simpler machines could handle. The only way to do it was to send pieces, give them simple goals, and hope they successfully reunited.”
“The candy… and the magazine,” Kanga realized. “There were weird chemicals in the gross guys, and they kept getting sent to me.”
“Your favorite candy,” Winter confirmed with a nod. “All that piece of code knew was that the candy needed to be like that, and needed to be with you. It inhabited the gross guys’ factory mainframe, altering the ingredients and sending them to you.”
“New High Score was my favorite magazine, so the same thing?” Winter nodded.
“But the robot that basically anti-mugged you was not part of the plan,” he chuckled.
“Yeah, that was all me. I kind of got involved with a hacker who was maybe also a cat… it was all very-”
“New millennium,” Winter said with a smile. “I know. Once I was back together I knew everything you did.”
“But I had the magazine and the candy before, and nothing happened. Did we need the engine?”
“That, and Juicy.”
“I needed at least three pieces… and she was your favorite singer. So I infected her hologram. That kind of made a third temporary person, part me and part her, and-”
“And that person wound up in love with me,” Kanga said, rolling his eyes, thinking that even if they were the size of planets they couldn’t convey how much Sisyphean emotion he was trying to roll off his shoulders. “Juicy being Juicy plus you being a friend driven to find me. It was just, an equation I guess.”
“I wish,” Winter said bitterly. Joey had never seen that look on his face. Perhaps he didn’t want to go beyond 2000, not if it was a place that could give Winter regrets, like some withered old man desperately writing letters to those he’d wronged in the last moments of his life.
“Listen Joey. If I’m a person, then Juicy’s hologram is just as much of one. I didn’t respect that when I inserted myself. I kind of controlled her, just like her owners. It was wrong, and I didn’t even realize it until-”
“I get it buddy. I’ve been hurting a lot of people mostly by never thinking about them. I mean, the chain gang!”
“Yeah, those losers. They’ll get theirs,” Winter assured.
“We hurt Juicy and she just moved on,” Kanga said. “She’s so much greater than us. She belongs up in that sky.”
“I hope to belong there one day,” Winter said, hovering closer. The Millennials were dismounting at the foot of the heap, shouting up at them; time was up. The broadcast was at its finale. “By the time you got here you knew everything I wanted to tell you.”
“We always were on the same wavelength.” Joey held up his arm, using his hand to mime an anyboard gliding over gentle hills. Winter’s arm lined up, overlapped, and did the same. His best friend’s love for him tingled and popped across his skin. They were both in the air, both in the middle of a trick the other had invented, having the utmost confidence they could stick the landing.
“You staying a while Kangaroo?”
“Yeah buddy. I’ll catch up. Friends forever?”
“One millennium to the next.” Winter’s hologram faded away. For a few heartbeats Kanga felt entirely there: soul in his mind, feelings in his heart, determination in his feet. The part of him ripped away had been returned, and the lingering numbness was now so much burning brush, making way for something new. Pinprick tears felt like the anchor points for the cables holding the corners of his smile wide.
He realized that nobody had seen his rendezvous with Winter. The hanging Shinjuku engine blocked the cameras around the tower like an umbrella, and the divot he sat in was deep enough to keep any others around the base of the heap from witnessing it either. It was wonderful to have that to himself, but they also needed to see something, to have the illusion tear in front of them at least a little. So they had the same chance he had.
Ku-kwing! Something thicker than Kanga snapped above the engine. If the machine hadn’t been deactivated it would’ve swallowed him whole, but at the moment it was just a giant toboggan sliding down the heap. He pushed away from it, getting his anyboard back under him, and used its momentum as boost to pull out ahead.
There was no forgetting that sound. Crystalheart had ripped it free with nothing but the aimed seismic burst that was her heartbeat. The last time they’d met lightly chastising her had caused an entire cave of ice and rock to collapse. If she’d wanted to kill him immediately there was nothing stopping her from doing so, but she just stared up as he got closer to the bottom, waiting.
She was flanked by several cohorts, a rainbow of reinvented faces and bodies tough and flexible, but they stood a good deal behind, monitoring their bundle of prisoners. Joey crouched as the ground leveled out, swerving in front of her as the Shinjuku engine skidded to a halt just feet behind.
Kanga quickly examined the others, hoping to see Monoxide, but she wasn’t there. Of course not. She wasn’t the type to vouch for him, just set him loose if it looked like he saw a rainbow worth chasing. She was probably off terrorizing people into falling out of the bleachers and into the loving arms of a prickly tree.
“Joey, sport, get out of here! Save yourself!” The voice belonged to the one person he did recognize: Roger Linejaw. He looked pathetic, tied up with the others, legs splayed out as if he’d slipped on some spilled beer and landed in it. His face was covered in red scuffs from being dragged across the dish for several minutes.
“If it was just you I might do that,” his former star player barked. “I know about the chain gang.” That shut him up more than any loss the Rockford Rendezvous had ever seen. Joey turned to Crystalheart. “Look, I get it.” He made sure he was loud enough for all the microphones in the tower to hear and pointed at Roger. “This guy is throwing white players into engines to make them look diverse. It’s all a small-minded small-hearted scam. I don’t play this game anymore… but I want you to let those people go.”
The four other Millennials laughed, each one exaggerating it in their own way, including one with a bioluminescent tongue and one whose cackle crackled out of the speaker in their throat. They stopped at the next Ku-kwing as if it was a clear order.
Crystalheart just took a moment to size him up. She looked the same as their last encounter, leading Kanga to believe her lacquered white dress and cowl could not be removed. Her lips and eyes were still like crushed mineral ice. Her gemstone core still rang and tolled and peeled and sang and struck, a jackhammer against Mother Earth’s thin skin, the ticking of a subterranean doomsday clock fused into the wall of a quartz cavern, the dizzying smack of a jilted lover against the cheek of her husband: the very concept of stone…
“Why do you want that?” she asked.
“I see why you do it now. It’s so much faster to convert them this way, but it’s violent. It’s death. I know you think this is war, and it kind of is, but there are other ways. Not every encounter has to be a battle. I learned. I changed… and I never saw the inside of one of those.”
“I see your change,” she acknowledged. Kanga was taken aback. Her expression was impenetrable, a wall of crushed and compacted cans, spring water with an unknown source flowing through the seams. “But I don’t see even the seeds of it in them.” Ku-kwing! The ground under the prisoners cracked, shaking them, sending most of them into sobbing if they weren’t already. “It’s more important that every person watching sees what will happen, whether they come around or not.”
“You’re treating them as disposable!” he tried to argue.
“Okay, I walked into that one,” he admitted. What was that shift in her face? A smile? Certainly not an actual one, not one the cameras could pick up, but something in her eyes that she willingly gave him. “My point is that you’re taking away any say they have in the matter. Convincing one person is much harder, but that one stands out to all the others. They see someone more dangerous than a brainwashed soldier, someone they can sympathize with.”
“I’m sorry child, but my heart’s made up, and we don’t have the time.” Ku-kwing! The concrete under the Shinjuku engine cracked, and something inside it fell into place. The recycling energies whirled once more. Kanga felt its breeze pulling the sweaty hair on the back of his head.
“I can’t let you!” Kanga raised his fists. With all that happened Cindy Wu Hu had been sitting in the backseat, buckled in, but now she was ready to use that same safety belt to whip one henchman and strangle another. He wiggled his toes, waiting to see if his feet would figure out how to use the anyboard in conjunction with her programmed skills. Yes, they did. Of course. Cindy could take out an entire street gang with a plunger.
“Brave.” That was all she offered in words, but much more was implied in her next Ku-kwing! It created one giant crack that separated her from her underlings: an order to leave this as a one on one fight. Her eyes sharpened a second later, and Kanga knew he had to stay on the move. If he was in the same spot for one heartbeat too long she could target the inside of his chest with concussive force, breaking all his ribs and rupturing his organs.
The anyboard made his path more predictable, or rather it would have if she was fighting a lesser competitive recycler, perhaps someone from the abysmal Newcastle Thrust. Instead Kanga put Cindy’s feet to work, spinning the board, and himself, constantly, to leave the direction a mystery, but there was only one possible destination. He was banking on her ability to project being less effective at extremely close range, lest the vibrations shake her apart as well as her target.
The Millennial saw through this, her next heartbeat not just cracking the concrete but upending a piece under him, turning it into a ramp. Kanga flew into the air involuntarily, but recovered quickly, ready to bounce off her head and land on the other side. That was when Crystalheart saw fit to demonstrate an incredible strength entirely separate from her heart muscles.
Her arm shot up as she grabbed the board and pulled Kanga down right in front of her. The ensuing punch could’ve shattered his jaw, but Cindy’s hands flung him backward, down to the ground, and worked with the anyboard to crawl him away. It was an embarrassing-looking maneuver, due to Cindy’s frequent pantomiming of a small town girl in over her head.
Kanga swiveled his hips to get the board behind him and then under him once more. He could feel his feet bumping against the tip of his boots, all too eager to join in, so he decided to let them. The recycler glided back into range and then folded himself into a ball, hands on the side of the board.
The bouncing walnut was a theoretical trick, one long thought physically impossible for the human body to perform, but none of those previous bodies had Kanga’s determination and Cindy’s disbelief in stunt doubles. Up went one side of the board, hover energy focusing to a pinpoint on the other end.
Joey thought of himself as a tumbleweed concealing a dagger, bouncing from end to end, using whichever side of the board was airborne to strike at Crystalheart. She proved adept at following the wild spin, swishing her feet to stay facing him. Accidentally being struck by a flying anyboard in the league had resulted in concussions, fractures, and even one death, but she blocked each blow with her forearms like it was a tongue depressor.
The board cracked and splintered against her just like said piece of flimsy wood. Any more damage and its mechanism might give out, so Joey was forced to rise once more. In a devious ploy he freed one foot from the board and slipped that side of it under Crystalheart’s foot. Then he tried to pop her up into the air, or at least unbalance her, but-
Ku-kwing! The board exploded, lacquered red chunks flying in all directions. Kanga punched. Blocked. Thrusted. Blocked. Kicked. Blocked. Kicked with both legs and landed painfully on his back. Blocked. Deep bruises bloomed all over him and still Crystalheart had not suffered a scratch. She wrapped him up in her arms, squeezing so tightly he could barely breathe. Her heartbeat pounded against his sternum. Ku-kwing! Ku-kwing! Ku-kwing!
“I’m afraid it’s over for you,” she told him, but there was still something in her eyes, something he could not deny even as spots popped and faded in the rest of his vision. Encouragement.
“No,” he struggled to say, rasping and hissing against her crushing vice, “it’s just starting! This is… This is the first day… of the year 2000!”
Ku-kwing! The pressure weakened. It was just an embrace now. Kanga looked down. A spiderweb of cracks all across her heart. Its beating had ceased, but her breath remained for the time being, and icy tears suddenly streaked down her cheeks. The other Millennials started rushing forward, but her head spun, shooting them a look that kept them behind the crack. She turned back to Joey.
“You know, the generation after the real nineties was the first one to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.” She swallowed, a bubble appearing in her heart and then leaking out under the cracks. “The capacity to care increased… but the caring didn’t.”
“We have to look out for each other,” Kanga whispered, “and for ourselves… and for everything else. And it hurts.”
“Caring hurts,” she agreed, color draining from her irises, like a cocktail losing itself in the melting ice. “Now I know someone else cares, even when they have every reason not to. Now I can have my reward and die early. I hope you last longer than me.” She slumped into Kanga’s arms.
The others came forward and took her body from him solemnly. There was no ceremony; they threw her straight into the engine. It produced nothing. Kanga remembered that in recycling paper some of its integrity was lost each time. A Millennial was the same phenomenon, but with weeping human tissue. Their concentration mimicked strength. There was more of the world in them than there appeared to be.
Even though she was gone, and the Millennials were already boarding away across the telescope, their prisoners discarded there among the trash they relied on, Kanga still felt the weight of her head in his lap. It was like the tingle of a hologram’s touch. The promise that a dream really could be felt in waking. He stood and turned toward the cameras at the pinnacle of the reeking rusty heap.
“You heard me!” he shouted at the dispassionate eyes and ears. “Welcome to the new millennium!” The former recycler took off running for the distant edge of the telescope dish. When he reached it he would fling himself off into the shadow of the trees, free of the world of rain forest place mats, self-help books, virtual pets, and a million other things he was meant to buy, briefly worship, and discard.
Off its edge he would be invisible to them, under them, in their soil whispering to the roots. What path he would pursue exactly was a mystery, but he didn’t fear the nineties. He was too far ahead for them to ever catch up, leapfrogging over the years like they were numbers ticking by at the bottom of a computer screen.