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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Cyb Fi
Excerpt from D-Line
by Pete Sniegowski
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Back on Union Pier, a year later, Sal plucked at his tight, iridescent body suit, all of a sudden wondering what he was doing here. What was it that made him want to risk it all like this? It was not an understandable situation.
      3 gave him a steady look as the three liners snapped their bronze ear plugs into the sockets in their ears, the implanted mics coming alive in their mouths.
      "What about my D-line?" Sal asked.
      "Here's your ear plug and your viz," said 3, handing him a bronze tube and visor without acknowledging his question. "Put them on."
      Sal did as he was told and immediately it all changed. So this was D-line, he thought, but it was merely the warping of the high density plastic in the glasses as they sensed the exact shape of his eyeballs and formed themselves into a perfect match, providing near 20/10 vision for the wearer, then solidified.
      As if reading his mind, 3 said, "No, you're not on the Line yet. The line is in your ear plug, and that patch I put under your arm is synthesized Sea Snake poison."
      Sal twisted his arm back to see where 3 had grabbed him. A small, flat grey disc had burned through his suit and clung to his skin, pulsing. Symbiotic snuff trigger.
      "Sorry about that little fuck over," said 3 rolling to Sal, "but you know tails can't quit. There's a timer on that pad; when three hours are up the pad releases the poison. If you don't make it through the Breach, the patch will release its contents and you won't get the antidote. The pad doesn't come off." 3 twisted her own arm back to show the fabric of her body suit stretching over a small, pulsing disc. "Now you know why tails either make it or die, invariably." Sal said nothing and 3 didn't move from in front of him.
      "This is D-line, Sal." She tapped his talk twice and slid her hand over one of his leg vents. He saw it happening. 13 and 15 were solid, expressionless, but 3 was blurry. She was moving, then she was. Visual coils running hands around, covering vents, smoothing, rubbing legs. Heavy weakness, covered vents and a fan of voices, a digital row your boat of 3 saying: This is D-line.
      3 touched Sal's talk once more, her voice centered but the visual string stayed. "You've heard all the talk, all the speculation, well this is it, you are now on D-line. This is our greatest secret." She took her hands from his vents and stood still, only the parts of her face still blurring.
      "What you are seeing is a little bit of the future and a little bit of the past." All three liners remained still. "D-line gives you about four seconds future side, or a four second 'foreflash,' and four seconds back slide, or a backflash. Right now no one has moved, is moving or will be moving in the next four seconds, so we look solid; you don't see the shade of what we might be about to do because we are not about to do anything."
      13 blurred slightly, but never actually moved, having noticed the slip and corrected it before it actually happened. This schoolbook lecture thing was not his speed.
      3 continued, "There's a director on the Line which allows it to affect only your vision and hearing. The audio distortion gets cut by your talk, it centers the voice-remember, the voice is always now, no matter what's happening with your eyes. The voice is at the center, present tense."
      3 began to blur within her own vicinity. "After four seconds forward the probabilities vary too much. You'll notice my future forms dissolve into what looks like a mist at the front of the foreflash. That's what happens. Too many probabilities, too far ahead and the foreflash dissolves. Get it?
      "So that's D-line. That's how we cut through crowds-you pick the spot with the least blurs and slice it as fast as you can make the cuts." Sal was uneasy, seeing the ghost of his arm move, then moving and snapping into solidity.
      3 continued. "You know the best skims see their line; well, they visualize their line. Whatever that means. But with us-we actually do see the fucking thing." She paused. "It may sound really twisted, but the future is attached directly to your consciousness; well, everything's consciousness, anyway, 1 will explain all this stuff later. I'm not the brains of the outfit," she said, rolling up to him. "I'm the muscle."
      3 began to spin on her two front wheels. "So let's get this lecture thing over with and get it on. Picture the three-dimensional graph, Izen. Line A: the vertical first dimension." She was now a solid black tube. "Line B: the horizontal second dimension." She began to move laterally, creating a shadow wall. "Line C: depth, the third dimension." Her wall was full black to Sal as if she'd created some sort of portal against the bright hull of the city. 13 and 15 began to spin on either end of her wall, flowing into and bending it until on every side Sal could see nothing but black, interspersed with the whip-flash of their visors as they spun.
      3 spoke in his head. "Three dimensions, that's where most people live. Now Sal, with all that crap blacked out can you see the three lines? The graph?"
      "Bisect all the angles. Run a diagonal through the center. Do you see that line, Sal? The diagonal?"
      "That's our line, Sal. That's the D-line and it's ours." A whirring, black pause followed by a dying whisper, "Let's go."
      Already, the wall thinning into a funnel down the pier toward the city, vortexing into a ghost line streaking into the dark. Sal was on them, instinctively tailing tight. His heart, wracked by fear, tore his chest cavity to shreds. He bumped the liner in front of him. It must have been 15, although he couldn't tell through the blur.
      "I'm solid, you'll notice," said a voice Sal thought might have been 15's. "Our bodies are real time, they look solid; learn to notice this."
      D-line didn't hurt his ability to skim like some synths did. In fact, he felt sharper. 3 spoke through the talk. He tried to pick out her solid form from the forward blur. "We use a synaptic booster with the Line. You should feel lighter and faster."
      "Yes." Sal grinned into the motion. "Stronger, too."
      "That's adrenalin. Try to push that down or you'll fry too early. Try to feel adroit." Her teeth flashed a sparkling streak.
      Normal street-level skims don't chase Seam Runs for three reasons. One, a skim is lucky to even see one happening. Two, no skim could stay with one, even a skim with vents. Without D-line and the right training, it was impossible. Three, D-lines didn't like it. It's okay to chase D-lines alone, but not a Seam Run. If they see an iridescent suit, they back off.
      Sal couldn't believe it. Their foreflash at fifty was a good hundred yards long. He watched and followed its swerve, slight air over cracks, holes and trash. Some skims could keep this kind of speed for a while, but not long. It was too difficult to keep the pace and avoid a grind. But with the benefit of foreflashes Sal could concentrate on his strokes; he could get down on his legs, pushing out farther and harder. This was as fast as anything Sal had seen.
      "Spread! Here we go."
      3's foreflash shot over the railing of the overpass. Sal saw his own flash make the jump and so he leapt with the others. At the tail there isn't much disturbance. Sal's flight was soundless, deft. He caught the power plant's glow and the fore and backflash of long red tail lights below. 3 pushed the landing out, cutting hard to the left. Sal hauled over, waiting for a tendon to snap. When nothing bad happened, he spoke.
      "That was Ollie's Gap." He was obviously rattled. "Nobody's ever done Ollie's Gap."
      3 just laughed, then she snapped, "Bone toy head on! Over the top, now!" Sal's left skim just nicked the top of the oncoming car, pushing his leg back. He landed clean on his right skim, but sparks flew from his left before he could pull it into a stroke.
      "I'm okay," he said over the talk.
      "We saw the foreflash, we know. Pretty sparks."
      Sal was embarrassed and silent. It wouldn't have mattered if he'd ground out, they wouldn't stop. They would trigger his poison and call a detail out to grab his body. His leg vents would be removed, they'd repo his tail skims, strip his iridescent suit, pull his ear jack and viz, then dump him into the power plant's intake. Certain jellification. Before the Seam Run, the D-lines had made sure he knew exactly how he would die. Sal could still hear 8 saying it:
      "The dying's easier than the Run, less painful. There's a touch of the sublime to it. That melancholy drop from the foil into the intake. It's the strangest thing I've ever seen. No splash, you're just gone."
      "Concentrate," said the talk as Sal's shoulder nicked the corner of a building. "Watch the flashes. You're not watching."
      "Shut up." The voice was 3's. "You had four seconds to adjust to that and you still cut yourself. Put a lock on that cut or your heart'll pump you dry in minutes-and next time watch where the fuck you're going. I've never seen a tail die from hitting a building on the Line." There was mute chuckling over the talk.
      Enraged, Sal tore his suit away from the cut and slapped a grey patch from his belt over the bloody spot. The patch began to pulse. Sal leaned into his anger, half accidentally shoving 15 into 13 into 3.
      "You little bastard! I wondered what the hell that flash was all about." 3 pushed it faster, then faster, then... faster. In minutes Sal's anger was replaced by the bad euphoria of oxygen deprivation. Even with the vents his legs began to split apart. 3 was relentless; she'd just picked a five mile stretch of Lake Shore Drive and gunned it the whole way. If Sal could've seen, he would have noticed 13 and 15 struggling just a little bit, not much, but a little nonetheless.
      Somewhere in the fourth minute of the drive Sal blew his left string. He grabbed the prongs from his belt and spiked the back of his leg.
      "Hamstring," said 3, not easing up. Sal had to slack off for three or four strokes until the prongs kicked in. He couldn't catch up. His right leg started to flutter.
      "Ready to stop?" came 3's voice, the same time her foreflash changed completely, snapping off to the right, 13 and 15 just nanoseconds behind. Sal's foreflash flopped right like a dying fish. He met it half a second before the railing over which the backflash of the others draped. He leapt into the gaping maw--his fear ripping through him.
      The three liners had slammed to a dead, upright stop on the up-sloped parking ramp. Everyone including Sal watched as his foreflash smashed shoulder first into the pavement. Airborne, forcing his shoulder up and around, watching the foreflash change until he met it on the pavement. One skim slipped, one leg gave and he crushed down sideways, his head smashing the hand he put down to save it.
      He looked to 3's foreflash in front of him, then to her, "Get up. Get up! You might as well die trying."
      Sal struggled up. His legs were ground up a bit, generally okay, but his hand was mulched inside.
      "A little respect. Get it?" 3 rolled away.
      "Your flash changed." Sal gasped, hunching over his hand.
      "I changed my mind," said 3 as she fell into a sprint down the parking ramp. "If you change your mind and it's completely spontaneous, you can change the foreflash."
      Her voice sank to a whisper and Sal knew why. Despite his hand he'd been trying to count how many ramps they'd gone down. It was either twelve or thirteen. The rule was: don't go down past ten. Ten was the dividing line between safe and not safe, between people and slates.
      Slates occupied the lower levels of the Reservoir, and whatever they were they weren't safe even to themselves.
      After water cars were put on the market, and cities still had massive suburbs, every city in America hit the worst parking crunch in history. Chicago's answer was to dig out massive parking garages under the city. With the financial aid of the car companies who were making a killing off of the unregulated production of water cars, Chicago managed to hollow out an area that stretched as far south as Hyde Park, east past the Loop and north to Broadway. Under center city the thing was as deep as thirty-five levels. The slates took over while it was still being built. And as the suburbs were slowly swallowed by the encroaching desert from the southwest, forcing people into the city Block as it came to be known, the slates, led by certain elements being hunted by the powers that were and are, took over the entire thing, save the top few levels.
      It was always warm that far down, and now it was completely safe from the police. No cop ever went below level ten; they were waiting for them down there, but the cops never came.
      The rumor was that the slates got their nickname and their leadership from a group of renegade scientists, mainly genetic engineers and biotechs whose branch of research went out of legal fashion after the Weirding.
      Sal shuddered, thinking of the 'all leg' creature that chased him in his nightmares, how it hovered over him silent and desperate. The worst part was that he didn't know if it just needed help. Could it even hurt him without arms or a head? Or could it only chase and run away? He had shrieking dreams, unable to determine the evil, trapped under heaps of arms, legs and rounded molds of flesh.
      He shook the terror out.
      Might as well die trying.
      On the next ramp they punched through a warm wall of human scent. 3 cut the descent, shooting straight onto a dark plane. There were people here; Sal knew it, his panic knew it. He could feel their presence like oiled skin on skin.
      3 whispered over the talk, "Go to reds and touch."
      Sal tapped his visor, kicking in the infrared, and laid his hand in 15's palm, which 15 then placed on his lower back.
      Sal choked on the red--couldn't see what it was. Ahead, their foreflash blazed dull red, eerily punching its way into the black. That was fine, he understood that, but to each side ran hard red rivers he didn't understand. It had to be heat of some kind. But if they were slates, why weren't they moving, chasing anything? As if to torture him, the talk said something.
      "This is wrong, right?"

©Lynne Douglass

"Izen, get behind me. 13 right. 15 left."
      "Weave," came the next command and 13 and 15's flashes changed, whipping into symmetrical waves with Sal and 3 blazing a straight line down the middle.
      "Something--" but the talk stopped. From around the corner came three skims moving to intercept. But they weren't just three skims with three foreflashes; they were three skims with thirty foreflashes--ten each. Like crimson flowers of hate they spread, blooming forward into flickering adversity, sealing every avenue.
      The D-lines were handicapped to the point of helplessness. Some slates moved alongside, and Sal heard 13 go down with a sickening thump and skid. 15 cut in towards the middle only to be taken out by the solidified form of one of the skims. He and 3 blasted through somehow and before he knew it 3 had him by the neck and was slinging him in front of her.
      "Go!" And he got manic, stomping his strokes out like a thresher, pushing every muscle strand to its limit.
      "Keep going!" 3 yelled. "If you turn around I'll kill you." This said, 3 cut to a stop and Sal heard what sounded like a snarl as she went for the nearest skim. Despite the multiple flashes, she got to the solid form of that skim and latched hold, slinging him into the nearest concrete post, giving off an unusually gratifying sound, the bone-toy sound. Another thud came and then tumult as the slates devoured her form in their mass.
      Sal never stopped, 3's last threat being pointless. If he didn't make it to Home Stone he'd die anyway. Around the corner he cut and shot toward the first exit ramp he found. Ten eerie foreflashes faded up to his left side, closer together now and all grinning sick grins. Before reaching the flat surface, Sal cut in front of them, leaping the partition on to the next ramp, beating the pavement with his wheels, violently kicking the spiral, uphill chase. In this there was no pain, only fear. Fear and the strength it brings in motion. Adrenalin soaked his muscles to the boiling point and they exploded on command.
      The skim wasn't far behind--Sal caught glimpses of his multiple flashes while careening over the partitions.
      Suddenly, two single flashes appeared in front, laying a dirty smear which led back behind a pillar ahead and to the right. Sal cut right hard, pulled one of the blades from his belt and, slipping in behind them as they sprang out, sliced the backs of their thighs--his only sense a vicious realism. The screams cleared his mind like a nuclear blast, sudden and complete; only white hot ash and air still as neutrons remained.
      This was not Sal's act or behavior, it was his reaction. There is no action on this level, only reaction.
      Sal learned this during his escape. He studied it like an artist might be said to be studying as they paint, thinking, this line here, an extra shove here, a stroke, a dab imbued with every scrap of will. Every reaction driven by an impetus that is either irresistible or dead.
      A new thing--no more ramps. Sal clicked off the infrared and began to scan for another exit, all the while picking up speed on the flats. Glancing back he acknowledged his pursuer with a loud "Get fucked!" and stepped up the pace, thinking no skim could hold that speed for long. He was mistaken. Again, ten leering flashes flanked him, this time on the right. Sal looked at them amazed, hating it but still in control.
      It was obvious: this wasn't just any skim, not just some punk off the stone. He wasn't good, he was great. And why the multiple foreflashes? Why the slates waiting like held-back blood?
      Not just some skim and Sal was seeing the amoeba. The amoeba comes near a collapse, seething into the field of vision like floating hell. First the peripherals fade and then the amoeba swims in, sick and slow, confusing, confused. Sal ground his teeth until their slip and catch made a popping sound. Watch the flash.
      All of a sudden his talk crackled.
      "Ease up, my friend. You'll never--" Sal slapped the talk dead, consecutive waves of audio distortion began blowing through him. He tried to cut it, to center everything into his vision and then forward to the furthest flash. Without any sense, his foremost form arched back and fell--Sal made a brutal cut, his new flash streaking just under the falling form of the old, now weaving in between the concrete pillars.
      This changed things. That skim had a pulse. Why hadn't he used it before?
      Slowly, Sal came to understand the nightmare. They wanted him alive. And they definitely weren't just some dit slates or skims; they were the ones at the bottom of the Reservoir. The skim hadn't wanted to use the pulse because that might kill him; he might fall, veer into a pillar, anything. Lots of ways to die like that. No. They wanted his living tissue.
      A ramp! Sal jumped a clean line for the incline, spinning backwards and throwing one of his blades for the center of the skim's flashes. Missed, but bought him the time to jump the ramp wall and put a full ramp's distance between the two of them. As he cut the next corner a pulse hit the pillar next to him, chipping away some concrete. Three more inclines and they were on the fourth level. A few cars here and there. The sulfur lights blared rudely after the murky lower levels.
      A new audio distortion bled into Sal's head. A car. Engines, it had to be, this late-definitely engines. Sal jumped the ramp wall again, but instead of heading up the next hill he leapt over the other wall and caught the dying flash of a slow-cruising cop car. Yes! Sal never thought he'd be glad to see an engine, never. Another pulse slammed into a nearby pillar; he ignored it and set his pursuit. The engines were barely moving, not even interested in trouble; hiding from it, most likely. By increasing his speed, Sal could come around the corner and meet the car head on with at least three to four hundred feet to spare. That would give him enough time.
      He executed this move and when the car saw him, its hood began to flash in warning.
      The monitor squawked, "Okay skim, the Reservoir's off limits after two. Pull it up, you're goin' down."
      Good enough that they couldn't see the tiny D-line insignia on his chest. D-line wouldn't get blamed for what he was about to do. Without slowing up, Sal snatched his other blade and threw it at the oncoming car. It clanged harmlessly off the windshield and ricocheted into the dark. Sal looked back to the flash of his pursuer; the closest form was only feet away, and the face looked confused and scared. Turning back to the engines, Sal watched the grate between the headlights fold down and the weak glow of a charging pulse seep from under the hood. He maintained his course until he saw his front flash creamed by the pulse. Still he held, watching consecutive flashes topple in a wave toward him. In the last split second he went down, getting as low as possible, grinding the outside of his leg badly but missing the pulse by what must have been millimeters. The skim behind him caught the full brunt, was stopped cold and thrown back a good ten feet. Definitely unconscious. Probably dead. The engines slammed to a stop as Sal used his momentum to rise, push a few strokes and then leap, rolling rough over the flashing hood, then windshield and finally off, disappearing up the nearest ramp. Concrete flew as pulses were fired after him but Sal was gone, heading for the final stretch to Home Stone. The timer on his left skim told him he had fifteen minutes until his three hours expired. His left hip was ragged and throbbing in time with his smashed hand, an injury he'd forgotten about in the melee.
      The pain accompanied thoughts of giving up. Strange, now that the immediate danger was gone so was the drive. Just to slump here against a nameless abuttment; to stretch one leg out, pull one leg up and rest, waiting for the poison to char his neural pathways. The amoeba came slinking in, weak and irresistible. Sal thought...
      No. Too much the perfect tragedy in my own head. Too much the monstrous upper city. Not enough stone covered by me.
      He came up from the Reservoir on the northwestern edge of the block, about six miles from the Breach. Six miles in fifteen minutes wasn't usually a problem. But Sal was all out. He started off evenly, avoiding the usual engine spots. By now a call would be out on him and he couldn't deal with any more trouble. He'd be lucky if they weren't blocking the Breach. The Breach; hell, even if he could reach it, could he cross it? Blood began to push through the fresh clot on his hip.
      He was losing it.
      Ten minutes to go.
      Now under the upper city he felt thin, pale, weak. The artificial light giving him nothing. Nothing. And the amoeba dancing rudely, like some vicious little primitive.
      He could use the gun he'd sequestered. No telling how it would mix with D-line, but it didn't much matter. He pulled it from under his belt where he'd stashed it and rammed it into his neck. In seconds he could feel his heart going mad-pumping blood from his hip faster and faster, and he himself bereft of pain, clumsy but strong again, at least for a while.
      With one minute to go he broke from under the block. The Breach was in sight and he celebrated with a terrible crackling sound from his crusted throat. The gun was still there but the amoeba had come back, swimming upstream and stopping for a jig, zooming in, then backing up, then zooming in... His left leg was soaked in blood and he held his broken hand up to keep it from throbbing, to keep it from feeling like it would blow with every heartbeat. One last push and he was on the overpass, climbing to the Breach. No time to stop. Nothing left to focus on the foreflash. He just dropped his head and gunned it, his legs quivering at the end of every stroke, dragging up to his gut and pushing again. It wasn't a matter of caring, it was continuance, continuity, the seam and only one last stitch.
      Amidst the pounding overture of his body's mutiny the crucible melody smoothed the ragged edges of his composure until there was nothing left but meted abandonment. Alone he was quiet, calm, on-line and yet beautifully varied, sublime. Ten feet before the Breech his eyes closed and he leapt, seemingly unconscious in flight, only to be roused slightly by the smashing feel of his shoulder catching one of the bars. It spun him like a rag and he skidded to a stop, catching a few lavender clouds in his open eye. The melody faded with consciousness and Sal was done--the seam run complete and his own bone-snapping risk infatuation sated.


©Lynne Douglass

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