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DULL CARE

stanley.lieber's picture

DULL CARE
2032 words by Stanley Lieber

"Well well, I've not seen one of these in quite a while."

Our cell was crammed floor to ceiling with the things, box upon box, but for some reason the weathered newsprint of this particular comic book held singular importance. He was being very careful with it, and I had to cough into my shirt-sleeve to mask an involuntary guffaw. He stowed the comic's bag and backing board before he continued.

"Just look at it. I'd grade this as at least a VF/NM. Unfortunately it wasn't slabbed. You see, there once existed any number of companies that would take a comic book and grade it meticulously before sealing it permanently in archival grade plastic, which would guarantee--"

"I know what 'slabbing' means," I said.

He was talking in captions now.

Volume_1 had the largest comic book collection in the entire cell block. This was significant as, in our facility, comic books were traded as currency. In point of fact, these specific comic books were valued as well above average reads. I don't mean to pun: they were literally encoded with information critical to the continuity of the New American government.

This was all he managed to tell me before we were interrupted.

"Sssh! Someone's coming!"

Volume_1 was desperate to get the issue back into its bag, board and longbox. I couldn't figure out why; there were plenty of comics in our cell to go around.

We could hear them talking.

"Productivity is down."

"Have you thought about reducing headcount?"

"Ha ha ha ha ha!"

After the guards had passed, I turned back to Volume_1. "I don't think I ever asked you why you were in here."

"I kept sending these instant messages. My manager was monitoring. Frequently, I guess. Evidently, the content of my messages offended his protected sensibilities. Based on his religion. Felony Insensitivity."

"I see. Which heresy?"

"Chicago Cubs."

Nothing more needed to be said.

Volume_1 went back to his comic book and I watched him flip through it, gingerly supporting its spine on the flat of his hand.

 

Soft chimes surfaced slowly at the periphery of my awareness, progressively drawing into focus. It was time for Volume_1's shift. He stopped extracting comics from yet another longbox and scooted it back under his bunk. Bushed, I stretched out for a short nap.

At least, that's how I made it look to Volume_1.

As soon as he was out of the cell I pounced back to the floor, where I removed the false panel and pulled out my kit and belt. I tore open a new packet of FalseHand, deposited the wrapper, and in the same motion pressed the delete button on my trash bin. I waved my hand in front of the cell door and exited onto the balcony. I was greeted with quite a lot of hustle and bustle as most of the workers were scattering about between shifts. Volume_1 would return within sixteen hours, so my timetable had to be executed with precision, not skipping any beats. Fortunately, as a professional, I had been expertly trained. There would be no problem meeting (or perhaps exceeding) the requirements of my schedule.

My ride was idling on the roof. As I approached the air vehicle, rotor backwash batted my hair around my face like a dying squirrel. Annoyed, I tied it back. A man strapped to a gurney was removed from the back seat before I boarded. He looked to be in bad shape.

I observed the red cross of the landing pad shrinking into nothingness as we pulled away from the complex. The pilot of the helicopter gave me a thumbs up and I stared past him, lacking awareness of his gesture. Outside of the building, my implants had kicked in and I was sorting mail via HUD display.

Zoom.

 

Half an hour later they put me down near Monte Rio. By this time I'd changed into a sweater and khakis. A Mercedes idled ponderously about a hundred yards down the road, trickling oil onto the pavement. I lugged my duffel behind me, finally heaving it into the car's trunk. Off to one side, the driver stood, motionless, grinning. Clearly he was amused at my efforts to avoid breaking a sweat. He kept standing there and eventually I figured out that he was waiting for some sort of a tip. This remarkable audacity gave me a chuckle, and so I dug around in my bag and passed him an old, rolled-up comic book from the collection in my cell. He jammed it into his back pocket, quickly, quietly, betraying no reaction, so as not to be observed by the departing chopper pilot. Seemingly satisfied, he then took his place behind the wheel of the Mercedes and we sped off through the countryside.

We accelerated into a steady incline, and on through many stands of trees before finally arriving at a very small entryway that branched off the main highway.

The driver navigated his Mercedes through a series of security checkpoints, and soon I was deposited into one of the "new member" parking lots of the Green. Presently, a small, open-roof shuttle appeared, ready to escort me through the main gates of the encampment.

 

The trees of the Green were monstrous. I mean to say that literally: I was half-way convinced they were moving. Of course, they weren't. I did not detect any other signs of life in the general vicinity. No animals. The trails were deserted.

Not all was dead: I rounded a curve in the path and spotted my first vantage point, glowing yellow, centered in my field of vision.

The tree was quite large. It would do.

I hoisted my bags up, onto my perch, then setup the comms package before unjacking myself and turning on the beacon. I waited for the trigger.

Nothing.

The by-laws of the Green forbade surveillance equipment of any kind. I now surmised that this policy was enforced through active intervention, jamming of a sort I was not familiar with. My watch didn't even work. I would have to go manual.

I got down from the tree just as the sun was creeping below the horizon, and began wandering along paths, searching for Bannister Colon.

When I found him, he was pulling on a Hawaiian mouth cigar and waxing political to a few friends in front of a large, gas bonfire. The Eagle's Nest loomed beyond, wavering in and out of coherency through the flames and smoke. The trees seemed to be swallowing it and spitting it back out again, unsure of whether or not it was toxic.

"The high ground is attained through the stacking of bodies," Bannister said blandly, as if reading from a script.

Oh yes, this was my Colon.

My man Colon.

The others cackled, extending a wave of unrestrained mirth along the necklace of fat bellies draped around the bonfire's ashen neck. Each man appeared to have modeled his physique and personal grooming upon that of President Theodore Roosevelt, patron saint of the Green. The aesthetic was an unfortunate portrait of crass largess. The body language a study in historical inaccuracy. Our former President would have been appalled at such a display. Disgusting, really. I shuddered despite myself.

Indeed, this was a strange scene: to a man, they reclined completely in the buff, from balding head to lotioned, shoeless foot.

Preverts.

 

The tradition is older than the technology that makes it possible.

Try that on for size.

I'm only aware of its existence because my grandfather (apparently) was a member of the Green. Otherwise, I would not have been selected for this mission.

Membership is not hereditary. I was never invited into the ranks of the Green myself. Not that I would have joined even if offered the chance. By the time I was of age I had long since departed for Iran, exercised my own unique will and signed on for my first tour, had trudged hip-deep into my own army of olive-skinned bodies.

Whatever, they had stopped accepting outside guests sometime in the '20s, after a breach of security that resulted in front page articles on world leaders engaging the services of boy prostitutes.

Naturally, that was only the cover story.

Things started picked up around the bonfire, activity sparking within the self-satisfied circle of fat.

From out of nowhere each man produced a small device and strapped it to his hand. Instantly, the bonfire was extinguished, and the surrounding woods fell silent. Only the sound of their chattering teeth broke the stillness, setting a steady rhythm that resonated unpleasantly in my skull.

I began to hear what sounded like an injured animal, whimpering softly from within the center of the makeshift circle. The fire was out, but I couldn't imagine how it could have cooled so quickly, or how anything living could have survived the flames that had subsided only moments before.

The men's mouths spread wide and their chattering teeth became visible, reflecting in the sickly moonlight. I felt something hard coalesce in the pit of my stomach. For some reason this was all making me nauseous. A hint of the taste of vomit trickled into my mouth.

A child had appeared. A boy.

Dumbly, he bounced between the bare bellies, clawing and scratching and kicking against the men of the circle. They didn't seem to care about his evident distress. Blood seeped from some of the scratches he was inflicting, against the men and against himself.

Oblivious, he didn't seem to care. Lacking in empathy, the men didn't seem to care.

I never cared for this part of the process, myself.

 

Preverts rape themselves.

According to legend, it goes back to Caesar. Symbolically anyway. Candidates in the world-ruling business have long been vetted through an exotic procession of pomp and ritual.

The technology I mentioned truly is remarkable. It's not exactly time travel, per se, because the men themselves, the initiators, don't actually travel through time. Remarkably, the same holds true for their victims. Rather, space is bent such that interaction with the past is non-paradoxical, symmetrical. Frankly, it's beyond me. I've seen it in action so I no longer try to make sense of it. It just works.

I shifted uncomfortably as the service continued.

As each man spit out his cigar and touched the surface of his wrist device, the boy would start, flicking toward him, drawing temporarily into his grasp. Sympathetic with this motion, the child's face could be seen to resemble that of each man who had gotten hold of him, uncannily regressed to childhood. This alternating pattern continued for some time. Accelerating. They proceeded with their observance at an unnerving pace. As each man embraced him the boy continued to whimper, weakly, and my skull tightened around my brain.

With each touch of the wrist, a different face.

My orders were clear: only interrupt them after they'd done what they came to do. Absolutely no interference. It was imperative that the ritual proceed to completion.

I always followed orders, even where inconvenient. This was my calling card. This is why I was paid so well. A simple Green mission was no exception, on either account.

Soon, it was time for me to intercede.

I checked my weapons before leaping down, into the clearing. With one fluid, sweeping motion I laid down the entire congregation of important men, nerve agent spilling all over their undulating frames and splattering the big wooden benches behind them. All over myself, as well. Sloppy. Uncharacteristically, I paused to scold myself. The organic material in the benches started to melt.

I made my way over.

The boy's features had stopped changing and it was the wrong boy. Returning to a mound of boiling fat, I fished out the proper wrist and thumbed it's button. Suddenly the correct face appeared, soldered to the boy's body. I squared him up and asked him:

"Son, what is your name?"

"T--"

"Yes?"

"T-Teddy... R-R-Roosevelt."

The face.

The Name.

Not what I was paid for.

I was disgusted.

But: Orders. Reputation. Things I cared about.

I raised my weapon, logged in and emptied a full clip.

 

To be continued...

 

creative.commons.attribution-noncommercial-noderivs.3.0

paulbhartzog's picture

great first line

I have to say, as a fan of first sentences, that yours grabbed my attention.

Nice one.

-p

stanley.lieber's picture

thank you!

thank you!

Welcome back.

Good to have you back, for this is terrific stuff. As an unfortunate Cubs fan - an English one at that! - I much enjoyed the 'heresy' gag.

stanley.lieber's picture

Thanks! Time has been

Thanks! Time has been stretched to the limit lately.