Forecast (Shy Scanlon)
Forecast is being serialized semiweekly across 42 web sites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast.
Joan’s car sped along the interstate while Helen napped. Troubled, lower case z’s. She tossed and turned, waking Rocket by uttering abrupt, garbled, dream-state complaints, and would have woken herself had her stomach not been so verbal as well, but the internal noise coalesced with the external, and together they created an auditory equilibrium insulating her from potential sleep disruption. This insulation was not shared, however. The dog up front was disturbed, mistaking the gut-rumbles for early signs of an earthquake and growing skittish, whining. Rocket, understanding the source, empathized, but was nonetheless disgruntled and showed it, issuing short snarls loud enough to cause the driver, unfamiliar with Rocket’s voice, to grow nervous, giving his own mutt sideways glances – a delegation of responsibility should there be an outburst.
But there was none. There was only the long dark stretch of road leading south into the city, the uninterrupted street-side structure of storefront growing an extra story every few miles, single dwelling switching in for multipurpose plots. There was the twist of weather and the quickly adapting street-surface communicating with the car tires for high-efficiency grip. There was the driver pinching himself.
In the years since Emotional Energy had been introduced, Seattle had slipped into a full-tilt sprawl. It was as if the city had been holding its breath. The relieved exhalation blew into all surrounding towns, inflating them like balloons, and those secret spaces still undeveloped were pounced upon with an almost vengeful ferocity, payback for having had to surrender itself for so long. Trees were felled. Grass was burned. Rivers were pushed back underground where they belonged. Unlike Helen’s Neighborhood™, which came equipped with a brand-name arboreality bearing little resemblance to anything unimagined, what little wildlife there was along the I-5 corridor was only the toughest, disease-ridden, or most pathetic example of its species imaginable: lame little chipmunks pulling themselves along to escape from palsied cats who in turn were running from blind dogs and so on, a whole food chain proven practically inedible. The degradation happened so quickly that no one really noticed. People had other things to worry about. There were hangovers to indulge, cities to rebuild. There was weather to watch. If Helen had been awake for this, if she’d seen even in passing what most people lived with in pride, she would have been impressed.
It wasn’t featured on TV.
When she finally woke they were stopped, deadlock, the freeway a parking lot without the benefit of tailgate parties to distract from the banal landscape of ill-designed automobiles. She cringed. Perhaps she could start one of her own, she thought sleepily. She’d just get right out and pop the trunk, finding, of course, a TV with The Game, a pony keg, some funny hats. Rain pelted the window until the weather changed and a snowball jolted her from her half-sleep state. It started snowballing pretty heavily, unemotional thuds of soft powder bombarding the car and those around it. They crept forward a few feet, and Helen grew used to the sound, again grew tired, and began picking out rhythms in the muted staccato stutter. The pattern wove in and out of her ears, pushing her head back into the plush backseat. It drove her back to sleep.
When they encountered the first of several exits into downtown, she was awoken by a soft, gruff but not unpleasant voice she recognized from the parking lot. She looked up and saw Number One adjusting the rearview to let his eyes fall across her face. He stared at her a while, searching. He was trying to make a decision. She let him deliberate. She wasn’t in a rush, and didn’t feel particularly threatened by the man, who had been the more forward of the two thieves. That dog though, she thought. She glanced down at Rocket, found him asleep and gave him a little nudge. Rocket grunted and squirmed around a bit before settling in again, slightly snoring. Number One cleared his throat. She grew tense. Okay. Here it comes.
“So where do you want to be dropped off?”
Helen felt a simultaneous surge of relief and anxiety. Could have been a lot worse, but she should have been more prepared. “Oh, right,” she managed, after what was probably too long a pause. She looked out at the eminent city. It was breathtaking, really. Massive. Extending always just beyond her field of vision. It had been in a growth spurt before she’d moved, of course, but watching something happen is always the worst way to gain perspective on it. She decided to go for a quasi-honest approach.
“Well,” she began, slowly, “I’m actually not sure where I’d like to go. I haven’t been in the city for a while.”
“Oh yeah?” This didn’t seem to phase the man. He stole another look at her in the rearview mirror and flipped on the blinker. “So you were just wanting to come into town and…”
“Just to see it, really.” She lied. For some reason she didn’t want him to know she was looking for a man.
“Just to see,” he repeated.
They turned off the highway and sank into the dense cityscape. It rose around them, gaining floors with a burst of colored light at the birth, the lower levels home to open shops blaring signs and sounds and the busy bristle of pedestrian traffic which, even at this early morning hour, poured in and out of its open wounds. Here the car, once so perfect for travel, became as much a liability as an aid. Mopeds teamed through the streets like alley cats, purring along side of them and darting ahead at the first flicker of potential passage. Helen watched almost passively through the window, through the intermittent rain, while they lurched along, making very little headway, Number One honking away as though it did some good. The dogs were now both awake, ears perked, and panting. Helen thought she saw Rocket’s eyes follow the people carrying food: live chickens, steaming humbow, and wondered how he could be hungry so soon. Her own stomach was still a bit bitter from the abuse, and she was more focused on her discovery of a detail she’d overlooked for the first few blocks of their inner-city travel: almost everyone they passed wore AS-Masks.
Looking into the mirror, she noted that Number One wasn’t wearing one. “No AS-Mask?” she said.
He glanced back at her, met her eyes, and quickly looked back at the road. “Got the windows on one-way.”
“Oh, right, of course.” She wondered if her car had one-way windows. She returned to the apparition of these faces in the crowd as they passed a metro station. The blank white wipes of mask, smeared at head-level across the pedestrian landscape, looked like a single stripe. Colorful clothing blended into the background of building and billboard around it, and if Helen squinted she could make out only a ribbon of light flowing through the streets like a river. She stared through the outwardly opaque window, massaging her own mask through the fabric of her bag, and struggled to take in all the action.
Number One pushed them slowly past the denser areas until the streets thinned out. Helen had a hard time placing where they were, though she knew it was much farther north than she’d lived. Landmarks she remembered had long since been swallowed up by new growth, and the new bore no distinct fingerprints, was just a vast wash of similitude. She recalled her distant feeling of disappointment when she’d read about the Space Needle being taken apart and reassembled indoors, some private property in Arizona. She’d never been inside it when she was young—the city had closed it under the Emergency Energy Conservation Act—and hadn’t had time for it after the advent of ETM technology. But perhaps this was the issue. It was something she’d missed. Street after street slid by, more quickly now, and Helen stared out at them as if each one ticked off another moment lost forever, buried in a city that no longer knew her name.
Frankly, this nostalgia didn’t suit her. But that’s not my business.
Number One took them deeper into an industrial district not yet even overrun by artists. The streets were clean without having been cleaned, just clear from lack of use, and the buildings were darker, a dull glow illuminating their facades instead of the bright and busy advertising that covered most surfaces in busier districts. It was easier on the eyes, Helen thought, and felt relieved. It was going to take time to readjust to the city’s pace. She glanced at Rocket, who watched with interest as they passed all manner of feral animals, mangy looking beasts worth more pity than apprehension, and felt drawn to him, a kind of kinship which she celebrated by stroking his carefully cared-for fur. The yellow dog’s tail beat a slow but steady rhythm in response.
“I’m just taking you in to the shop,” said Number One. Helen realized that she’d probably need to make some decision about something soon, that she wouldn’t always be able to count on the kindness of strange thieves. Even in the short car trip she could sense a slide back into a kind of prelapsarian passivity that she associated with Neighborhood™ life – something she’d come to cherish, but that wouldn’t be too useful on the outside. Helen would have to keep herself in check.
“That’s fine,” she said. “I just need to get oriented. I’ll surf through some maps for a bit and then head out, if you don’t mind.”
“Fine with me,” he shrugged.
Helen examined his face in the mirror, looking for signs of tension or anxiety, something to indicate pretense or hidden motivations, but satisfied herself without much effort. He stared lazily ahead, watched for traffic, and looked over at his hound now and then, checking in. He was older than Helen, maybe in his early 40s. His nose hung down in front of his upper lip like it had something on its mind, and his mouth was drawn in as if in deference. This was someone not asked many questions. Helen decided to tip the scales.
“So what’d you do before?” she said. This was a common enough icebreaker. People’s “before” and “after” lives were often pretty dissimilar, dramatically changed upon the advent of ET technology. Number One raised his eyebrows, but was in a turn and didn’t look back.
“Well, I was a teacher.”
They waited at a light, and Helen probed a bit further.
“And you just…”
“Well, you know. One thing led to another.”
“Right.” She decided to return her focus to the banal array of buildings they passed by. She was suddenly more eager to move on with her plan, to reestablish momentum.
Soon they slowed.
The structure they finally stopped before was no different than any of those around it: six or seven stories high, few windows, all framed in a numb, low-grade florescence. The building yawned. They drove in.
It seemed much larger on the inside than it had from the outside. There were no floors, in the normal sense. The car followed a track that, like a stairwell, kept doubling back on itself, leading down into the airy structure, and there were cars all around them, vehicles suspended by moving platforms, vehicles lining the walls seemingly stacked on top of one another like bricks. There were also larger platforms on which men worked the cars; an area home to a hooplike instrument which, while encircling the automobile, changed its color, and another on which the cars were held in a cradle, upside down, while a series of indistinguishable adjustments were made to the undercarriage. Helen thought: toy factory. Conveyors moved the hulking shapes through the interior space effortlessly, making the awkward travel of the workers seem old-fashioned by comparison: stairs and open-sided elevators brought men from place to place, and their walking was jerky against the smoothly geared movement making light of the heavy metal.
Because there were no floors, Helen had a difficult time determining exactly how deep they descended, but there was a bottom. They came to rest on a floor cleared of all mechanical activity. Suited men scurried around, some pausing before enormous monitors, some running in and out of doorways scattered around the long, otherwise bare walls of the cavernous room. Everyone but Helen seemed oblivious to the great, swirling architecture above their heads which, though muted by the insulated car, produced eerie clanks and a grinding that vibrated through the place like a throaty growl. They waited. Rocket’s tail was no longer wagging, and the front seat dog’s ears were at attention, the animal staring in one direction, unmoving. Then it craned slightly forward, and Helen followed its gaze to a door on the far side of the room from which Number Two emerged and began walking straight toward the car.
Number One searched his coat pockets until they produced a pair of earplugs, which he then inserted while looking back at Helen. He let out a short sigh, and opened the door. Sound exploded into the car and as quickly stopped, and Helen watched Number One walk a short distance from where she sat, startled by the abrupt noise, to meet his partner. She watched their faces, trying to make out the conversation, but neither wore much expression. They were all business, an exchange of information, a hush of emotion under the roar of rectilinear forms in orbit above. But then the body language changed. Number One shrugged his shoulders, his back went soft. Two’s eyebrows raised. One motioned toward the car and Two glanced over, paused, then threw his arms up in the air. Not good. Helen’s ears rang. She looked down and Rocket was on the car’s floor, quietly whining. Poor animal. She thought for the first time that she probably should have left him with Joan. She thought of her quiet, Weatherless™ street. She pictured a snowdrift rapidly melting in a spontaneous 105-degree heat wave. She saw her TV, her ivory tower. And Jack.
Then two small half-naked brown children with outstretched hands danced into the daydream and she reached down to pet Rocket’s back.
When she looked back up Number Two’s face was pressed against her window, his hands cupped at either side of his eyes. Helen shrugged, and watched him walk around to the other side of the car, open the door, and climb in. This time Helen was prepared, covering her ears, but the noise was intense nonetheless, and Rocket continued to whimper.
He turned in his seat so he was facing her, but kept his distance. The car was sufficiently large, and he was not crowding her. Helen felt at ease.
“Blain isn’t too careful, Helen,” he began. So, it’s Blain. She tried to picture a plastic nametag pinned to an usher’s outfit with the name stenciled on it in red. Blain. “And he wasn’t really supposed to take you here.” Number Two paused, as if waiting for some response.
“But of course this wasn’t your fault,” he went on. His voice was steady and soft. She craned her neck to find Number One, Blain, but he’d already disappeared, she assumed, through one of the doors. The dog up front was watching them, still visibly still, though she could hear his tail wagging, brushing against the impossibly smooth seat material. So proud of this soft talker. In love? She looked at the man, looking at her. He was thinking of a way she could convince him she wasn’t a threat. She felt Rocket’s now calm body at her feet, and realized he’d be absolutely no help should this smitten front-seat beast be told of her failure to do so.
“Pretty smooth operation you got going here,” she said.
There were at this point no fewer than a dozen Energy Commission agents poised just outside the building, ready to secure the subject at my command. I could feel the static charge just above the touch sensitive screen. My fingertips tingled. I watched. Attagirl, Helen. There you go. Be smart.
Number Two smiled. “Indeed.”
This nut, it turned out, was easy to crack. What followed was an artful dance of well-timed mock-astonishment and knowing nods, Helen’s face moving between expressions like a chameleon through color, matching hue for hue the earnest surface of Number Two’s face. The man was all aflutter. Seeing Helen’s wide oval eyes show interest in his operation, show intelligent interest, was almost too much. He gushed like a schoolgirl, and walked her through the basic structure of the scheme with a candor he normally tried to disguise, but which he now wore proudly, upon his sleeve, a sparkly badge brought out from his collection of sparkly badges. Isn’t it beautiful? It’s the prize of my collection! This was a delicate man.
But as Helen learned, there in the backseat, Rocket asleep again at her feet, Number Two had some reason to be proud. The operation he helped manage was almost airtight. The vehicles were “donated” by willing outsiders, “People like your neighbor,” she was told, who turned around and promptly forced their willingness from their minds, creating a cognitive dissonant explanation for the missing automobile and reporting the crime to the police, to their insurance company, and to anyone who’d listen to another good sob-story, likely family members earning their own Buzz from the transaction – a whole trickledown system of denial reaching into the tiniest dendrites of society. Helen thought this vision a tad self-aggrandizing at first, but she quickly corrected herself, realizing that, of course, this was exactly the point. She looked through the windows as he spoke, gazing up at the underside of a system being explained to her from the inside out. A steady injection of stolen cars coursed through the open architecture of this strange building, entering as one thing and leaving as something entirely other. A sports-car into a truck; a truck into a family sedan. Parts moved between the forms with a liquid indulgence, their given frames a temporary fixation from which they, there in the grace of this underground shop, were finally freed.
Or more correctly, “They’re brought to justice,” smiled Number Two. He was being witty, baiting her.
Helen bit. “Oh really? Well I’m glad I don’t have to call the police.”
“Oh no,” his grin grew wider. “They’ve already been called.”
Not only, he explained, were these vehicles fairly given to the organization, but they were then sold to the city, post-conversion. Joan’s car might end up part of a road-construction crew, Helen was told. Or more likely, some parts would go toward the police force—their biggest customer—and others to various other city agencies needing new vehicles on the cheap. But this was not your ordinary behind-the-scenes scam. At least, if any eyes were being covered, Number Two was not supplying the wool.
At this point he held out a hand, palm up, on which lay two pairs of ear plugs, one human size, the other larger, the size of walnuts, and Helen smiled: dog people. She was impressed. Number Two reached into the front seat and inserted a pair of the plugs into his animal’s ears, then motioned for Helen to do the same. Rocket was woken up by her prodding, but didn’t seem to mind, and Helen put hers own in and nodded: ready. Two tails began to thump, and Number Two opened his door and let the cacophony climb in as he climbed out. Her own door swung open, as well as the front, and she was ushered across the floor toward an unmarked door. She tried to take note of where it lay with respect to the objects in the room, thinking she may have to find it again at some point, but the weirdly bureaucratic bustle around them distracted her, and before she could get her bearings they were swept into a long corridor, Rocket trotting along side, seemingly indifferent to the unfamiliar environment. Perhaps he’s been here before, she considered. Number Two, hound in tow, led them down the hallway eagerly, turning back to smile every five or six steps as if to make certain she was still there, still present, interested, the star pupil she’d convinced him of.
As they grew farther from the machine room the noise relaxed, draining out of her ears like thin liquid, but no motion was made by her guide to remove the plugs and they remained in, replacing the sound of their steps with a regular boom of blood. They wove back and forth, walking past a series of doorways identical to those in the larger room, until they came to one with a yellow hazard sign across it at chest level like a crest. The sign showed a large black ear, and indicated that earplugs should be kept in at all times. Helen wondered if perhaps they’d come to another machine room, and rolled her eyes, shrugging off what she assumed would be a demonstration of this odd fellow’s bravado, trying to impress her with the size of his system. She prepared herself to coo a faux declaration of awe.
What she did instead was utter an authentic one.
The room they entered was home to two of the largest ETMs Helen had ever seen. They sat in the middle of the floor; a pair of three-story glowing, glistening blobs. All privately owned ETMs these days were cased in protective plastic that guarded them from injury and kept the ugly things out of sight. These stood unapologetic, oozing like fat sweaty giants on a sunny day.
Helen was a little repulsed. She stood back against the wall and took in as much of it as she could. She was so astonished by the sheer size of these machines that it took her a full minute to notice the sound. It was a low, growling, throbbing sound, a cross between a jet engine and a train. She’d never known that emotional transfer makes noise. For the record, it is one of the most horrible noises imaginable, but is usually low enough frequency to pass unnoticed. She looked at Number 1 and pointed at her ear, motioning that she heard it. In response, he made a starburst motion with his fingers in a gesture she took to mean: your eardrums will explode. Not very pleasant. She looked around the room and found little else besides the two towers. She assumed she’d be given some explanation for them, and was actually interested in hearing one. This meant leaving the room. The dulled but obviously powerful throb of sound cascaded against her body, and as they stood there it became more and more difficult to ignore. She turned toward Number 1. He was looking at her with his implacable grin and he began making hand and mouth motions, trying to communicate something. He brought his hands up to his eyes like he was holding binoculars, then wrapped them around his throat and his tongue slid out of his mouth, indicating death. He smiled again, nodding vigorously. Helen was not impressed. She was about to motion for them to leave the room when Number 1’s eyes opened wide and his mouth made an abrupt transition from smile to a state of astonished slack. She turned around and followed his gaze to find Rocket licking the surface of the nearest ETM, his tail wagging furiously.
“Rocket!” she screamed, and ran toward him. He’d dried a small patch by the time she pulled him by the collar from the machine, and it seeped as she watched it, holding the dog, regaining its moisture.
As she stood there with Rocket she realized something else that distinguished these monolithic machines from those she’d seen. The gooey byproduct of emotional transfer poured from these ETMs into a mote that ran the entire base of each structure, and from there it oozed into a single channel that disappeared into a containment unit. This was not the normal Evaporation Chamber that accompanied all licensed ETMs. It looked, simply, like the top of a big tank. The REMO was not being destroyed. This place was not, she realized, just an enormous battery, but a drug manufacturing plant. These people had all the bases covered. Money, Buzz, drugs. Helen turned toward Number 1, who, still smiling, nodded again, and pointed toward the door. She’d seen enough.
Back in the hallway they walked a few paces and entered another room, a smallish office, where Number 1 removed his earplugs and bent down to take out his dog’s. Helen followed suit.
He turned around and held out his hand.
“Hi,” he said, “name’s Busy.”
Onward to chapter 14 (The Man Who Couldn’t Blog) will be posted 8/31/09.
Back to chapter 12 (Emerging Writer’s Network)
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