Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Original Suicide Artist

This story went through many rejections and revisions before finally finding a home in the final issue of Helix SF. One editor liked it because it has a reference to the Mau-Mau's. But he still didn't publish it. Finally it found a home at Helix, only to have Helix announce it's demise. The Helix SF website will soon be taken down, so here is my tale.

The only drawback to these business symposiums in Nairobi was that everybody played golf, despite the frequent thunderstorms and the constant threat of Neo-Mau-Mau attacks. Even though he hated golf, Jake was not a bad golfer. He just wished they wouldn't schedule these symposiums during the rainy season, except that during the dry season he would be forced to play even more golf. His natural athleticism, his sense of style, quiet demeanor, and soft, heavy eyelashes also made him attractive to other men. So when he awoke on his back on the golf course and found Farah, his Somali golfing partner, leaning over him, lips pursed, he wondered if he had been shot with a rohypnol dart again.

"You were struck by lightning, my friend," Farah said with relief. "Lie still. An ambulatory unit has already been dispatched from the Scottish hospital." Other than golf, Nairobi was a welcome escape. He had already purchased three intriguing books on yogic flying at the Hindu market.

The medics soon arrived — two grimly professional Finns on loan from the UN mission. One attached monitors to Jake's chest and forehead. The other asked his name. "Jake Horne. World Bank. My Identification Dossier is in the golf hover. There's no reason to take me to the hospital." He didn't like using up his medical coverage unless there was no other choice.

"He was struck by lightning," Farah explained, "as I prepared to putt for birdie."

"It must have been a near miss," Jake insisted calmly.

"Mr. Horne, you have second degree burns to your scalp," the medic said, "as well as superficial burns covering approximately twenty percent of your body. Your nose is severely burned, third degree or worse."

"My nose?" Jake crossed his eyes. His nose looked like the end of an exploded cigar. He tried to touch it, but the medic pushed his arm down. Jake peered at the Finn in his tight-fitting urban camo and powder-blue UN helmet. Strangely, the man's face was perfectly clear. "My glasses," he said. He wasn't wearing them, but he could see perfectly well without them. He couldn't remember a time when he didn't need glasses even to look at his watch.

"I'll call your hotel," Farah said as he hurried away.

"I'll be there for the eight-thirty suborbital!" Jake was worried his supervisor might think he was trying to extend the business conference into a real vacation.

As a strident beeping alarm began to sound, the UN medics shifted into rapid care mode, barking at one another in Finnish. One ripped open Jake's shirt, the other pressed the cold paddles of a cardiac defibrillator against his chest. "What's wrong?" Jake asked.

"Ah, it's this monitor. It's gone out again," the first medic declared with disgust.

"No, it hasn't," the second said as he set the paddles aside. He lifted a broken lead. "The wire's burned through."

"I assume that a pocket of gas…that is, a genetic defect of the cartilage…" the tall, thin WaKikuyu doctor tried to explain while maintaining his brilliant smile. "That is to say, a pocket of gas in the cartilage due to an unsuspected genetic defect must have exploded as a result of the lightning bolt coursing through your magnificent body. Plastic surgery will straighten your nose up in a jiffy. You are a remarkably lucky man."

Jake fingered the numb tatters of his nose, not feeling especially lucky. He might have been killed, in Nairobi of all places.

"Of course, your exquisite physical conditioning probably had more to do with saving your life than anything else, unless you are believing in karma," the doctor continued, smiling as he paced around the examination table. "I declare, you have the heart of a rhinoceros. Do you know that cloned rhinoceros horn is very good for the libido? I have an article from the University of Calcutta in my office, if you'd care to…"

"May I leave now?" Jake asked. "I have an eight-thirty."

"Yes, of course. The nurse will be here in a moment to bandage that nose, and you can be off. Good day." Obviously offended, the doctor strode out of the examination room like a Marabou stork.

The trip home was intolerable. Jake's reading light kept switching off and his laptop power supply was dead because he hadn't been able find a decent hydrogen recharge fitting at the hotel in Nairobi. Things there were still running on alternating current, after all. His podmates slept the entire two-hour trip, not that he relished the idea of conversation, and he was in a claustrophobic tizzy half the time because he'd been booked in Third World Passage by mistake. Then the subgrav descent gave him motion sickness.

As soon as he landed at the jump-port, he made an appointment with his health benefits advisor to see about his exploded nose. Then he took the Tube home, paying with Sub-Saharan hard currency that he had, by sheer chance, left in his luggage instead of crediting back to his account at the hotel before leaving. His credit pass had apparently been erased by the lightning strike, so without currency, he would've been stuck at the jump port. He arrived at his apartment, dropped his bags and shrugged out of his clothes, asleep almost before he reached the bed. The next morning he woke at 8:02, already late for work because his alarm clock had stopped during the night.

With a spare credit pass, he hit the Tube at 8:27, the gray bandage from the Scottish hospital still clinging to the end of his nose. He sat in his usual lemon yellow seat as the Tube whispered down the tunnel toward the river. At this time of day, the Tube was nearly empty. He was able to spread out, set his laptop on the seat next to him and cross his legs while he sipped Carb Condensate, careful not to dip his bandage in the steaming black liquid. He opened a newsfilm and switched off the vocals, as he preferred to do the reading himself. Only this time he was able to read without his glasses. He had decided not to mention the miracle of his restored vision to his health benefits advisor, as he didn't want to lose his vision coverage. It was an almost pleasant 85-second trip to the island, except for the annoying flickering of the light above his head. He didn't even have his usual Tube-collapsing panic. In fact, he felt rather marvelous, except for his nose, as he pondered his astonishing survival.

He sat in the Tube and looked out the window at the colored section markers flashing by his own reflection, and at the elaborate advertising graffiti painted on the tube walls. The graffiti used a style of commercial art called speed-stretch, meaning that it was painted in such a way that, when viewed at the speed of a moving Tube, it would appear as a normal image. Jake's first job had been selling speed-stretch advertising in the old sub-Atlantic Tube. Seen whole and motionless, a speed-stretch ad was an incomprehensible smudge of colors. All three advertising firms in the city made use of a technique first invented by suicide artists twenty years ago. The original suicide artists were the last surviving prisoners from the Eugenics Rebellion. They would sometimes escape to spray paint their agit-prop and die in the Tubes for the sake of their art, in the mistaken belief their altered genomes gave them supernatural powers, including immortality.

Jake gathered his things and stood by the door as the Tube hover-slipped toward Freedom Tower Station. He looked at his watch and saw that it was 8:27. He'd entered the Tube at 8:27. His watch had stopped, but he didn't know when. Maybe he was later to work than he thought. Maybe that was why the Tube was empty.

The interior lights winked out. He felt the hover-slip brakes release and watched the station, bright with lights and surprised faces waiting along the platform, strobe past the door.
Emergency mags clanged against the rails and the Tube juggered to a stop three hundred meters beyond the station. Jake collected himself from the wall and forced open the doors just as frightened transit workers rushed up, asking in Arabic if he was hurt.

"I'm late for work," Jake responded as he looked past them at the long dark walk through the tunnel back to the station.

Jake hurried into the empty Grand Lobby, pushing open the automatic doors that had failed to open automatically at his approach. Everyone was already at their desks. He hated being late to work, hated to walk past everyone looking at him. Now he would have to walk by them with his nose swaddled in dingy white African bandages that he hadn't had time to change, because he was late to work.

He hated riding in the elevator, but it would take him 23 minutes to climb the stairs. That was his best time, and he was already tired from his adventures. That would put him to work at… he glanced at the old fashioned dial clock above the elevator. Unbelievably, it had stopped at 8:53, but how long ago had 8:53 been? He hurried to the express elevator and pressed the up button. The doors slid open and he stepped inside.

As the doors closed, the elevator exploded.

The building was evacuated as they loaded Jake onto a hoverstretcher and slid him into the upper berth of the ambulatory unit. "I'm not dead?" he groaned in surprise as the aquamarine quarantine shield popped into place around him. The static charge lifted goosepimples on his arms.

The ambulatory hover took him to a State Security hospital, where he was placed in solitary confinement and denied access to newsfilms, books, even a window. After a few days under the care of robotic doctors, he was led, still a bit bruised, battered and scorched, into a cavernous room the size of a suborbital hangar. There he found all his possessions carefully laid out on the floor and meticulously tagged, including the things from his mother's old house in Pennsylvania which he rented to a pair of lesbian art students from Lisbon. He wore an orange jumpsuit that didn't fit him very well, and paper stockings on his feet. Atop a gray metal table lay everything he'd been carrying when he entered the elevator — his Carb Condensate thermos, a scorched and erased newsfilm, a tattered umbrella, his clothes (now nicely shredded), even the burned bandage from his nose. His laptop, however, was nowhere to be seen. He was alone in the echoing hangar with everything he owned. He walked through it, absently picked up a book by Hindu mystic Abdul ben Rajneesh and flipped through the pages while he wondered how he was going to get all his stuff home again. He didn't own a transport. He didn't need one in the city.

"Not much to see, is there, Mr. Horne?" said a voice behind him. A man entered through a security auto-door. Broad shoulders, dark suit, polished black shoes. Jake recognized him as the building manager from the World Bank Building.

"What's my stuff doing here?" Jake asked as the man approached.

"Evidence," the building manager said.

"Evidence? Of what?" Jake asked.

"Of the failed and miserable life of a failed suicide artist," the man said with a coy smile.

"A what? I have no idea what you're talking about, but I'm feeling OK now, and I can't afford this much hospitalization. May I leave?" Jake said.

"Don't you think two acts of terrorism are enough for one failed lifetime?" the building manager asked.

Jake started. "Two what?"

"The bomb in your laptop, sabotage to the hover-slip brakes of the Forbes Tube. Surely you aren't suggesting these were coincidences."

"Bomb! What bomb?"

"And look at your paltry number of material possessions. Are you sure you aren't an Anarcho-Republican?"

"I'm Cabalist-Hindu. I try to live simply," Jake protested.

"You are a dinosaur, Mr. Horne. An anachronism. The others of your kind have died out, in accordance with the natural order of things. Why are you still here?"

"Am I free to go, then?" Jake asked.

The agent picked up the scorched newsfilm and rolled it tightly in his massive fist as he stared hard at Jake. Jake wondered if he was preparing to hit him with it. "What were you doing in Nairobi?" the manager asked.

"I was representing my corporate clients at the Debt Relief Conference. Listen, I'm a patriot. I've never voted…"

"How did you injure your nose?" He pointed with the newsfilm at Jake's unbandaged nose.

"I was struck by lightning."

"On the nose?" The agent cleared his throat. "Answer me truthfully. Have you ever lain with a man?"

"What?" Jake asked, surprised by the sudden and bizarre segue.

"Have you ever lain with a man?" the building manager repeated, his tone Biblical.

"Not on purpose," Jake reluctantly answered.

"What do you mean, not on purpose?"

"I was darted," Jake said. "I am considered attractive. Or, I was until Nairobi. I doubt I'll be in any danger now with my nose like this." Jake paused, his eyes narrowing. "Oh, I see. That's what this is all about, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"This is about me, isn't it? That's why you abducted me."

"I didn't abduct you, Mr. Horne," the building manager said. "You're being held as a material witness in connection to a terrorist plot. This is State Security."

"Yes, I've heard about State Security," Jake mumbled.

"Was Hugh Workling your cell leader?"

"My what?"

"Hugh Workling. The previous building manager. The man who planted the demolition charges at the World Bank. The whole building was rigged with explosives, and the control switch was located in your 73rd floor office. Don't try to deny it."

"In my office?" Jake asked. "Where in my office?"

"You tell me."

Jake thought for a moment. "Behind the new wall?"

The building manager nodded. "So how were you planning to cover the explosion? Drive a hovertruck bomb into the lobby? Remotely hijacked suborbital? You are the suicide artist of your cell. It was your job to push the button after it hit, take down the whole building with everyone in it, including you. We know this. You were among the first to promote speed-stretch advertising…"

"But you installed the new wall," Jake interrupted. "You moved me out of my office to repair the elevators and the elevators aren't even near my office. When I returned, your new wall was a meter closer to my desk."

"What are you trying to say, Mr. Horne? You'd better be careful what you say from this point forward."

"And you replaced Hugh Workling after he was killed."

"Mr. Horne, I think you had better not say anything at all. For your own good," the building manager said as he removed a small black pistol from the pocket of his dark suit. He aimed it at Jake's stomach.

"Where's my laptop?" Jake asked, looking at the gun.

"The bomb you planted in it blew it to smithereens."

"I didn't plant a bomb. What have you done with my laptop?"

The building manager pointed to a small pile of labeled bits of plastic and metal lying on the floor under the table. "There is the evidence, or what's left of it," he said. "Microscopic surface pitting proves there was a bomb in your laptop."

"You blew up my laptop!" Jake said.

"I won't warn you again, Mr. Horne."

"I'm not supposed to defend myself?" Jake asked.

"You are trying to confuse the matter of your guilt. The evidence against you has already been established. You are a suicide artist. There is no longer any question. We simply want to know the names of the other members of your cell."

"My cell? What cell?" Jake asked angrily.

The lights in the hangar winked out. "Stand where you are, Mr. Horne," the building manager said in the sudden darkness. "If you move, I'll be forced to shoot you."

A voice came through the air loud and echoing, like an announcer in a stadium. "We'll have the lights in a moment-ent-ent-ent. There is a problem with the video-oh-oh-oh… stand by-eye-eye-eye."

"So, Mr. Horne," the building manager said in the darkness. "Tell me about this darting."
Jake sighed. "There's nothing to tell, really. It happened in Beijing, at Disney: Forbidden City behind the Great Wall of China Hover-Coaster. I was in speed-stretch advertising then."

"Did you enjoy it?"

"Not really. It was a job."

"Not that. The other," the agent said. He shuffled closer. Jake smelled his heavy aftershave and the chemical odor of his synthetic clothing.

"The darting?"

"No. After."

"I don't remember it," Jake said. "I woke up in a maintenance shed, and there it was. Does this have anything to do with my case?"

"You don't have a case, Mr. Horne. Your case has already been closed. But I can help you. I can be your friend, Mr. Horne. You need a friend." Jake felt a warm hand caress the back of his neck. He didn't pull away. Then the hard muzzle of the pistol pressed against the inside of his left thigh.

"Why am I here?" Jake asked. He wasn't afraid. He was used to this. He just sighed, because nothing ever changed. Men were animals.

"Your purchases are minimal, your investments largely in low-risk/low-yield accounts, your debt load way below normal. When they picked you out of the lobby rubble, they found a blank credit pass in your pocket — obviously a forgery. It was broadcast to all Post-Times newsfilms within an hour. Maurice Dickerson wrote a story about you — mild-mannered office worker, little did his coworkers know he was the original suicide artist…"

"The what?"

"…of the art form known as speed stretch, nearly killed while spraying graffiti in the old subAtlantic years ago, suffered massive brain trauma, amnesia, finally rehabilitated and trained in commercial sales of the subversive art form he pioneered…"

"That's impossible," Jake said. "I'm not…"

"Completely rehabilitated, your betrayal broke the back of the radical Neo-Luddite movement of Eugenics War rebels you helped to found… or so everyone thought. Then you accidentally blow yourself up as part of a plot to bring down the World Bank building. Now you're dead. The whole world thinks so."

"This is crazy. Why are you telling me this?" Jake asked. At the far end of the hangar, a red exit sign glowed above a steel door. Next to the door, he saw a tiny green square of light, probably a keypad for a security lock. The building manager was clearly insane, but what he said made a strange sort of sense. It was like when he read his first book on yogic flying — it was all new, yet familiar, as though he had always known and was only being reminded. Something like past life regression, or reincarnation, or déjà vu, or maybe just an undigested bit of tofu.

"I want to be your friend, Mr. Horne. Jake. May I call you Jake?" His hand gently massaged the back of Jake's neck. Jake felt him move closer. "Don't worry. They can't record us with the lights off. And you do need a friend, Jake. You don't want to spend the rest of your life in a zero-G orbital brig, do you?"

"No," Jake said, even though his experiences in zero-G at the Atlantis GSOrb were the closest thing to yogic flying he'd ever experienced. He'd been saving for years so he could retire to the Atlantis GSOrb, which cost even more than living on the island.

"Of course you don't," the building manager—slash—state security agent mumbled into his ear as he leaned against him, pressing his hardness against Jake's hip. The medicinal odor of the man's aftershave made Jake gag. "They never turn off the lights in the brig, never activate the gravity. You'd be all alone. No one allowed to speak to you. It's limbo, no existence at all."

"I just want to go back to my job," Jake sighed.

"You can't go back to your…" the building manager's voice trailed off, dying in a grunt. His hand left Jake's neck. The lights at the far end of the hangar winked on.

A voice said over an intercom, echoing, "We'll have the others on in a moment-ent-ent-ent."
The building manager stepped away from Jake and sagged against the table of bomb evidence. Droplets of sweat formed a wet moustache across his chiseled, clean-shaven upper lip. He massaged his left arm, then began to unbutton his shirt, his face as white as his shirt. Pulling it open, he peeled a thin foil patch off the skin above his heart and tossed it aside. He opened his wallet, removed a similar patch, placed it over his heart and rubbed it vigorously to set the adhesive. Then he waited, obviously making an effort to breathe normally.

With a cry, he sank to one knee. "My pacemaker patch," he gasped, clutching at his left shoulder. His head sank slowly to the floor at Jake's feet. Jake saw him fumbling with his pistol.

"Are you dying?" Jake asked as he backed away.

"Don't…" the man groaned.

"Stay where you are-are-are-are!" the voice ordered over the loudspeaker. "Do not attempt to escape-ape-ape-ape." The building manager lifted the pistol in a wavering hand and pointed it at Jake.

Jake ran toward the far end of the hangar. As he approached the security door, the exit sign above it winked out. He pushed against the door. It was locked, but at his touch, the illuminated keypad next to the door went dark and the door's magnetic lock clanged open.

Outside, he spotted a huge white suborbital taxiing to its launch position, escorted by a swarm of black security hovers. Jake thought he might like to see it explode, and this thought frightened him more than all the State Security in the world. He was supposed to be a pacifist. He didn't even eat meat. He ran through the cold rain hissing across the tarmac, away from the suborbital and away from the lies, the betrayals, the mendacity and mediocrity of his eternal victimhood. His paper stockings quickly fell apart as he splashed through rain-dimpled puddles. The suborbital coasted to a stop at the end of the jump-port, its red and green lights flashing like buoys far out to sea.

One of the security hovers peeled off from the escort and flew toward Jake, its blue lights twitching in the slanting rain. A beam of white light shot out from underneath the vehicle as it passed overhead, pinning him like an insect. Jake lifted his hand to shade his eyes. "Stay where you are. Do not attempt to escape," it blared at him from a loudspeaker.

"Leave me alone!" Jake shouted back. The beam flickered and died. The blue lights stopped flashing, the roar of the hover engine slowed to a dying whine, the vehicle rolled over and nosed into the wet tarmac twenty meters away. Its tank of hydrogen fuel erupted in a white ball hot and bright as the sun, expanding and passing through and over Jake with a cleansing, healing fire.

His charred jumpsuit sloughed off his naked body in the slashing rain. His skin was pink and new as the day he was born, his hair ran down his face in gray tears of ash. "All I ever wanted was to be left alone," he said as he walked among the burning wreckage, each step lighter than the last. Flickering blue lights began to converge from every direction. He no longer cared. Exulting in his transfiguration, he kicked free of the earth as thunder ripped the sky big as God. The rain danced across the tarmac in gossamer sheets like fairy veils, and the hiss of the drops whispered his forgotten name.

©2008 Jeff Crook

1 comment:

uncaring _chimp said...

You're good.