‘Getting Down and Dirty’, Michael Johnson

Illustration © 2008 Cécile Matthey

 [ Skull fracture, © 2008, Cécile Matthey ]

One hundred is a nice round number, isn't it? When you get to be 100 years old it seems significant. You spend some time sitting thinking, and usually you reach some conclusion, not life-shattering exactly, but it translates into a permanent shift of values. Actually the process begins at 98 but you don't notice it.

My old friend Jason invited me round to join him in this practice, although I am older than he is (he would be shocked if he knew by how much). Sometimes you can think better with somebody to talk to.

"You won't remember how I got this scar," he said, pointing to the ones on his forehead.

I thought I did. The long sepia-crimson one was where they'd hit him with a stone axe, fracturing his skull and causing quite a bit of brain damage. The other, which he wore as a magenta-orchid dot with a faint pink circle around it, had been a bullet hole. He was quite proud of that one because it was perfectly round, so you could see that the bullet had gone right into the brain (and also because they really are not supposed to have guns down there in the wasteland—some of us are still keeping an eye out for that).

"Not the ones you can see," he quickly explained. "This one is inside, in my oft-reconstructed brain, and the self that is always reconstructed along with it. I don't know if this has ever happened to you, or anybody else, but I'll tell you about it now. Maybe it will remind you of something."

A psychological scar? No, you surely don't want to carry any of those into your third set of 7 times 7. The slate has to be wiped clean.

"It was the time we went down in the southern continent, somewhere in the middle. I think they burned you alive that time."

"Not me, Jason, but thanks anyway," I was quick to correct. "I'm still not up to that one."

Of course Jason had done this, and had a yellow-orange scar on one foot to prove it, usually visible through a transparent circle in his shoe, or a gold ring on his sandal. No thanks. It's a cute little flame-shaped scar that they leave you with since they have to reconstruct a lot of skin—very nice, but I'm definitely not up to it.

"Maybe it was just Frederick then, but you left it quite late to pass out. I only saw them lighting the fire, and then they bundled me into one of the huts. They kept me alive for days, you know, in a sort of cage that they'd built for animals."

Now I remembered which trip he was talking about. Frederick and Jason were the experienced ones, and they'd chosen this area as being one of the most inhabited parts of wasteland, with a number of tribes fighting for supremacy. Samuel and I were invited along to see what could happen when primitive evolution was at play. They promised us a more sophisticated form of violence than usual, whatever that meant.

The transporter came in silently out of the sky at night and dumped us in a small clearing, leaving us to suffer some mild inconveniences and wait for the dawn. There was always an initial shock to overcome, at the heat or cold, or thirst or dirt, after our regulated and optimized lives in the city. When the sun arose to shine through the trees, we must have looked like European hunters from an ancient time, dressed in cotton shirts and shorts, and wearing ridiculous pith helmets on our heads. I think that was Jason's idea. We had some sort of nets in our hands, which he assured us were used for catching colorful insects, and on our backs we had rifles—simulations of course.

Let me tell you, that feeling of being outside the city, that shock of vulnerability in the first morning light, for me that is a terrific rush of reality in itself. I could be lifted back home after that and it would make my day. Unfortunately the others were looking for more than feelings of reality.

We didn't have to wait long. The clearing had been chosen carefully, and the warriors had already left their village. They arrived looking remarkably like a team of ball players, but with weapons instead of hurley-sticks. They had the same mixture of skin colors that always looks odd to me at first—each of them being more or less all the same color himself, but different from the others. Of course they had the same fierce expressions on their faces—same as each other and same as a team of ball-players, although in their case it was due more to a lack of imagination than to any cloning process.

Howls of pleasure and derision as they leaped forward to claim some easy prey, but not much change in their expressions—I think that's what took Samuel by surprise. He didn't even turn to run, probably just fascinated by those faces. One of them hit him on the side of the head with a metal axe, and I saw his skull split open. I saw brains and blood in the split-second before the tiny monitoring dots in his body took over and dry-froze every cell. Nothing could harm him now. He toppled over and hit the ground like a statue. They could take his clothes and possessions, but his body would stay like that, intact and invulnerable, until a transporter came during the night to take him back for reconstruction. One blow and the expedition was over for Samuel, but it was a hefty enough blow, and he would remember it.

I was quite cool that time. I took off my toy rifle and pointed it at my own murderers, noting there was no hesitation as they raced towards me. It should have been realistic enough to be recognized, and I think I was holding it properly, but they smacked it aside with no fear. I was ready for the spear that I saw being raised for me.

At that moment, with a smile almost forming on my face as I met once again with that exquisite fear of death mixed with the crazy randomness of violence, a loud roar echoed around the clearing and time seemed to slow down for it. It was the perfect augmentation for my heightened senses. I was reveling in that stretched-out quivering moment. A commander emerged, pushing the others aside in order to walk a straight line through the midst of them—their commanders always do that for some reason. I had a glimpse of him, big and muscular by their standards, striding towards me babbling orders that presumably resulted in my being knocked unconscious.

"They had some kind of leader," Jason's voice both confirmed and dispelled my memory. "Bigger and tougher than the rest, which is not saying much, but I think he was more intelligent as well."

In fact there was little else for me to remember. I woke up with a terrible headache, inhaling and instantly coughing out the smoke from the fire. The heat was already unbearable. When they noticed that I was conscious they threw me straight on to the fire beside Frederick, who was fairly writhing in agony. I had often wondered why they do that—burning us alive—but seeing Frederick and hearing his screams, along with their attempts to imitate him, I could guess that it just amuses them. He was going to need a lot of reconstruction for this, but he would be greatly admired, especially by me. I couldn't do that. The dots in my blood knew it, and they reacted immediately. I passed out and became a statue myself, which must have been quite a disappointment to the audience.

"For some reason," said Jason, "he singled me out for special treatment, this leader. Do I look different from the rest of you? Why me?"

"You're the obvious leader, Jason," I replied. "Every leader recognizes another one."

"My colors you mean? I don't think they even notice our scar colors. Anyway he started asking me questions, repeating everything about five times, the way they do. With every question I got a smack across the face. Pretty soon I learned to shout the answer as quick as possible, also repeating it the requisite five times."

"Wait a minute," I said. "Do you mean to say you speak their language? When did you learn that?"

"Oh they don't exactly have a language. If you listen to them closely it's our words that they use, but you would hardly recognize them. Still I knew what he was asking—basically who we were and where we came from."

"That's interesting," I said. "I've never heard of that before, but I suppose they were bound to become curious about us sooner or later. But what could you possibly tell him, that he could understand?"

"I told him the truth—that we came from the sky and were gods who couldn't die. He didn't believe it of course. These people are not all stupid. In their own way they evolve a kind of intelligence, competing for what little food the wasteland might produce, as well as whatever they can take from us. No, he didn't believe it, and so he had to torture me to get the truth."

"You were tortured?"

Once again I had to admit that Jason was way ahead of the rest of us. Being tortured was something we could only dream about or simulate, because the wasteland people had no use for it. Evidently Jason had stumbled into being one of the first victims, and he hadn't even bothered to mention it.

"It was nothing much," he said. "Just more beatings—that's all they were up to I'm afraid. No excruciating pain, no ingenious devices to make something intolerable last forever. They don't have much imagination, and I suppose it was a new thing for them, but they did manage to keep me alive for more beatings."

"Now," he continued, finally getting to the point of the story. "At the end of the day I was lying there with a lot of bruises and a few cracked bones, quite a lot of pain really and almost unconscious, when one of their women came into the hut and gave me a cup of water to drink and a few dried berries to eat. When I saw her face I forgot everything."

I almost had to laugh. If he was going to tell me that he'd had an affair with one of those wretched creatures it would be typical of Jason, but his story suddenly branched off at a tangent.

"Did you see Julie-Francine's exhibition last autumn? Do you remember 'The Fading Pangs of Culmination', the one that they used for the Hodnett campaign?"

Of course I remembered. That expression flashing over a thousand faces on a thousand displays, until finally you had to buy a Hodnett without knowing why. It was very cleverly done. Somehow it wormed its way past our collective resistance to such campaigns, and I think it deserved to succeed for that reason alone. But how had a Hodnett managed to infiltrate the wasteland? Same way as the guns, I supposed.

"Are you telling me that she used a Hodnett to make your food?" Now I really was laughing, but he was quite serious.

"No no," he said. "That was before the campaign. Back then Julie-Francine was still working on the concept, and she couldn't quite get it right. There was adoration in the eyes, but more—a mystical union that was about to be granted, but not quite yet—just the last moments before realizing it, before giving up the normal human perception. She'd sent me the early proofs and I thought I could see what she was aiming for. The models were quite intrigued, and her customer clique was catching on to it. Nobody could get it exactly, but you could feel quite a buzz building around it."

"The pangs that faded with their own culmination?" I mused, but Jason was returning from his tangent.

"This wasteland woman, you see, had exactly that expression on her face. She did, I swear it."

"Impossible," I said. "That's impossible. You were probably hallucinating in the heat. Their range of emotions is far too limited, and they don't have the cranial muscles for it."

"That's what I thought, but it wasn't my imagination. Probably she was just born with features like that. I don't think there was an emotional configuration behind it, because it never really changed. I drank the water and ate the food—it wasn't much, and my body was crying out for it—and all the time I couldn't take my eyes off her face. When she turned to go out, I remembered where I was and the pains came back"

"Did you see her again?"

"Yes. She came every day after the beatings, and always with that same expression, giving me the same cup of water and the same food, such as it was. I always meant to say something to her, but I was too weak, and I really needed that drink. Her face was just incredible, and you know the effect of that expression—I don't know what I would have said to her anyway."

He sipped his present-day drink, possibly expecting to quench the remembered thirst with it.

"On the third day the big guy came in just as she was giving me the water. They were both surprised, shocked in fact. She let out a squeal and dropped the cup, which would have been quite a disappointment to me if I'd had time to think about it, but he drowned her out with a terrible yell of outrage, like it was some kind of blasphemy that she was committing. He looked at me, at the cup, and then he just launched himself across the hut and sent her flying to the floor with one mighty punch in the face."

He shook his head, and I could almost see a wave of deep sadness flash across his eyes. It was very unlike Jason to have an expression like that. He was almost grimacing.

"I won't tell you what he did with her. I had never seen anything like it. I was up on my feet trying to break the bars of the cage, and I did manage to break one of them. All my own injuries were forgotten. Every time he did something to her, he turned and looked into my eyes. Every despicable thing he did, he dragged her around to make sure I got a good look at it. By the time he was finished she was in much the same shape as I was, lying naked and muddy in a corner. No broken bones maybe, but a huge swollen eye, blood coming out of her mouth and elsewhere, a few bites here and there, some hair ripped out, scrapes all over, and she was unconscious. I was shaking the cage, shouting mad myself, and the doorway was jammed full of gawping spectators. Then I collapsed, and the big guy laughed his head off. Then he just yawned and pushed his way out."

"I suppose I had assumed that she'd been sent in by him to keep me alive. It never occurred to me that she was breaking some kind of law to do that. She certainly got no sympathy from the other women. They came in a few times and poked at her, nothing else—no water for her. At least they threw her clothes on top of her, so she looked like a heap of rags. After a while she woke up and put them on, taking ages, moving very slowly. She didn't look at me until she'd managed to get to her feet, at which point she swiveled her one good eye at me, just for a moment. Then she hobbled outside, to be greeted with jeers and howls of laughter."

"I thought that was the end of it, but no. After a few minutes the big guy came back into the hut, looking like he'd just had a brilliant idea, and he kicked open the cage and dragged me outside. He got them to hold her while he took out a knife, and I could see what his brilliant idea was—he would cut my throat and make her watch. I suppose he'd given up on getting information out of me, too carried away with this burst of mental creativity, and so I was finally going to get something out of the expedition. It was this one here."

He indicated one of the glowing cyan-turquoise lines on his throat. He'd had his throat cut four times altogether.

"But I got something else from her, something that I wasn't expecting at all and it took me completely by surprise. Her face took on another very complex expression, and the swollen eye was part of it. She was screaming too, and that was part of it. Julie-Francine would have given a million for an expression like that, all nostrils and teeth and the one eye rolling upwards and down again as if she was on the edge of consciousness, willing herself back again to recoil helplessly from the unspeakable."

"She was so horrified at seeing you killed? How could you possibly have meant so much to her?"

"I have no idea. I don't understand any of it. The knife cut in, much more slowly than usual so that I had to make gurgling noises, blood spurted out, and then I was out of it. No more pain. I woke up in recon and was released the next day, reminiscing with the rest of you while we waited for Frederick. You had all been wondering what was taking me so long."

"Yes that's right. You seemed a bit distracted on the first day, when Samuel and I were guessing what might have happened to you. You said you were unconscious a long time. But you were fine when Frederick came out, and then we were busy planning the next one. Frederick got all the glory that time."

"It's another world, the wasteland," he said, sounding distracted again. "When we adjust back to our lives here in the city it's gone. We forget the details. We forget until something suddenly reminds us, just a flash of something iconic here in the city and we're back there for a second, wondering how we could ever have forgotten. Then we just fall to pieces. Maybe we're remembering who we really are."

It was a strangely perceptive thing to say, for such a man of action, but when I glanced at his face he was just squinting at his drink, which was now too cool, so he rotated the base slightly with his little finger to warm it up again.

"Something happened to remind you?"

"Yes. The party at Julie-Francine's last night. She was rehearsing her summer exhibition and she showed us a couple of clips that she hadn't quite perfected, and there it was. I swear it. It was that face that she'd given me, one eye closed and swollen, the other one rolling, and the mouth open in a scream that you couldn't hear. It was exactly the same face, and I cracked up. Nobody noticed, but the fact is I burst into tears like a child. Luckily Seb-Sebbo had just made one of his hilarious comments and most of them were cracking up anyway, with tears of laughter. I got away with it."

I thought about this for a while. It was too much of a coincidence, surely too blatant for him to ignore.

"Did you find out who the model was? Or was it Julie-Francine playing some ingenious trick on you?"

"I got away with it," he said. "I'm not going to investigate anything. What am I going to find? Some kind of conspiracy involving Julie-Francine and the wasteland, set up just to make me cry like a baby? I don't think so."

We both sipped our drinks, which were by now at exactly the right temperature, and we gazed at the lakes and the rivers below, a landscape which had once borne the weight of a sheet of ice two miles thick.

"Am I going mad, Cartin?" he asked simply. "Is this what happens when you get to 100? Am I seeing things that aren't there?"

In my right ear there is a dot cluster which is a dedicated communication channel that I reserve for Joy, and it burst into life at that moment. Joy is her name and her voice lives up to it. The communication works both ways, allowing her to hear what I hear, if she happens to be listening.

"That was me, Cartin! It was me both times!" she shouted with glee, sounding as if she couldn't be happier, but this was her usual way. "I made him cry. What do you think of it?"

Very clever, I thought, but I also thought of the sounds of these two words, in such a way that they were picked up and translated into real sound, which was transmitted to her over this same channel. I could imagine her clapping her hands in two-three rhythm, wherever she was sitting, maybe sipping a drink herself against the stars in a viewport of one of the orbiting platforms, or taking a break from her research work in the bunkers under the wasteland.

I had often commented that she spent too much time passively observing the great domed cities, as if they were insect colonies in glass cases performing for her amusement. At least now she had begun to mingle with the inhabitants, but did she have to start with my friends?

We shouldn't do this again, Joy. This must be a one-off experiment. These people should not be toyed with. They are advanced enough in their own way, and if we can't help them we should leave them alone.

"Yes," she agreed. "They seek their pain and horror deliberately, but they know why—it's like to free themselves from it. They see beyond beauty and begin to turn their facial expressions into an art form, and they know also why they do that—it's like to cultivate a more sophisticated communication protocol. Don't you think they should move on though? Masochism is so limited in its benefits."

Are you sure about this? Some of them don't seem so self-aware to me, but then again you are the expert, my ubiquitous Joy. So congratulations, you've baffled Jason. He has been tagged. Now it's my turn. Watch this!

In my right eye there is a dot cluster which allows me to see what Joy is seeing, if ever I want to know, and I could see her looking at Jason's profile at that moment. That was luck, or was it a coincidence handed to me by the real gods? She was in a submarine research unit looking at his encephalo-chip with a heightened magnification drill, and I could see, like her, every synapse and axon of his cerebral network, especially the memories of these two incidents of expression recognition. She was very proud of her work, my precious incandescent Joy, admiring it highlighted there in the diagrams, but she was inadvertently giving me the means to undo it.

"I'll tell you what I think, Jason," I said, "but it's just an idea that springs to mind."

[I jump to the side, time-wise. I link to the orthogonal time-line of the cells in my own body, because I need to get down to that level to do this work. My cells welcome me in their little capsules of sideways time. It's great to be micro-programming again. I'm really good at this, but I rarely get the chance these days. Spark-like worker-dots within dots, nano-dots really, and they carry within them the logic to simulate those city-tech dots while we're here, but they also have the power to replicate themselves much faster, and nudge those clumsy city-tech dots out of the way. They can replace them in a matter of seconds. But first they have to be programmed with a very specific task. That's what I'm good at. It's what I do.]

"What if there are civilizations around that are as far ahead of our cities as we are ahead of the wasteland?"

[I take a snapshot from the dot cluster in my eye, and feed it to a group of worker-dots. I do this with just a sequence of directed thoughts in the spaces between the words that I speak. My speech may have slowed down slightly, but Jason just thinks that I'm speaking deliberately. Joy has already highlighted those two incidents for me. I indicate that these neural configurations should be erased, and only these two.]

"What if they drop in on us occasionally and do something for their own obscure purposes?"

[Those clever little worker-dots are suggesting that I should also erase the reference memories—the times when he thought about this, or spoke about it. What if he remembers remembering? It's unlikely. People don't normally remember the times they were remembering something else. Still, he spoke to me just now. Probably that was the only time he spoke about it to anyone. Interesting. I wonder if he can cope with that? My speech becomes slightly slower, but I need to decide on this quickly, and there may be ethical considerations.]

"How could we possibly make sense of them, their sciences, their art-forms?"

[All right, I'll take a chance on it. It would be too difficult to find those short-term memories. We'll erase just the highlighted ones and forget the references. The worker-dots convert my command to their own specific low-level instructions, and they are ready. They replicate and position themselves as I speak even more slowly and deliberately, sounding quite dramatic, and I hope Jason doesn't think I've gone catatonic. Nobody talks this slowly.]

"What if they do things to us just to measure our reactions?"

[I cough, I sneeze violently. The worker-dots disperse themselves in the air. He thinks I was slowing down to sneeze. Good. Sneezing is not very common in the cities, but our high-level minds are still programmed to ignore it.]

I coughed again, apologizing, politely turning away from Jason, as the breeze was blowing in his direction (which it had to be for a guaranteed dot transfer—more luck) (or a gift from the real gods?).

"Gods from the sky you mean?" he laughed. "Gods from the sky who cannot die? Do they then have their own gods coming from their own sky? I don't think so Cartin—there is only one sky."

He inhaled after laughing, and I think the timing was perfect. We sat with our drinks for a while, looking at the sun which was not exactly setting but reaching its lowest point as midnight approached. It appeared to be setting behind a magnificently colored cloud, which would probably have been a depressing gray if the sun hadn't been behind it.

"So how was it at Julie-Francine's last night?" I asked.

"Good crack," he said, a slight frown coming to his face. "Seb-Sebbo was in great form—had us in tears at times. But didn't I just say that? Didn't you just ask me that?"

"Um, I don't know Jason—did I?"

"Are we both going mad, Cartin?" he asked, his frown deepening. "Is this what happens when you get to 100? Do you start repeating things and forgetting what you just said?"

"Maybe you do," I said, getting up to stretch my arms. "Maybe you do."

"Ah what the hell," he sighed, his frown disappearing. "I'm still looking forward to the next 100. No more trips to the wasteland though—I think I've done enough of that. There must surely be something better we can do with our time."

I was facing away from him, so he didn't see me smiling and clapping my hands in two-three rhythm.

Did you hear that? You made him cry, but I made him sigh. That was the sound of Jason's slate being wiped clean, and now he's moving on. You see, Joy? A little help from us and they might make it yet.

© 2008 Michael Johnson

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