TBD

[Estimated reading time: 35 minutes]

[This is a work in progress.]

Author's note:
Spider Jerusalem does not give his permission to be featured in this work of fiction. He is, in fact, currently suing the author of this drivel and any readers of said drivel. Spider will see you covered in pig shit before the week is through!

Curious happenstance, hanging out on the docks, fliers and such

The truth is, there's something terribly wrong with this world, isn't there? Daily, people are jumping into the Acid Pit, or are diving off skyscrapers and as they fall they shoot any MedAssist drone that comes near, or they go for a swim in the Thames. They all die, and they are happy as they are doing so.

What the hell is going on? Where is everyone going?!

My investigation begins in my own backyard, the City. I go for a walk, pound the pavement, kick a wailing Nazi down to the wild applause of my adoring public, enjoy running from a mob of terribly-transformed Hitler clones (how else do I get cardio in?!), and eventually find myself on the bank of the inter-city canal. What occupies the canal would fascinate any scientists still left in the City, seeing as how it's neither liquid nor solid, moves at a constant rate and keeps muttering boy-band lyrics, but thankfully no scientists are around.

"The City doesn't call out to the curious nerd, it calls out to the unwashed masses who spend 23.75 hours in front of the mediatron, a tube of constantly-moving HealthyGoo squirming down a tube from the InstaMaker3000 straight into their mouths." Yeah, that sounds good.

I sit at the edge of the canal, my feet dangle two hundred feet over the glow-in-the-night migrating surface, and I type up the research for my next column. Half a mile across the canal, a procession of red-clad singers (or is it sinners?) are shuffling slowly toward the great precipice. My glasses zoom in on the smiling faces of the congregants, I take a picture of every one of them. The line is orderly, there's little wait, and three purple-hatted priests are greeting and saying the last rights quickly enough that the whole process takes about thirty seconds per congregant, who in turn transform into some sort of red bird as they make their final plunge into the canal. Smoke marks their resting place for a few breaths (as each suicide is digested by the canal, I breathe in the cancer-filled air and pretend that their smokey presence is entering my lungs) but by and large the City politely ignores these Christians. They come and go, and all that the City does is to collect a toll.

I call down a drone and use it to hop across the canal. The Christians see me approaching and high-tail it out of there. They've got jet units under those red robes!

Lunch is a dolphin blow-hole with fried lizard tails. The suicides at the canal made me all nostalgic and I was hankering for some home cooking, so of course I stop off at the Frying Dutchman. (Ad money please!)

Munching on the lizard tails, I run the photos through the various databases. They take a while to respond and I know that they won't find anything. On any of the dozen photos I took. How?

Many millions call this place home, so even a low rate of suicides will result in a semi-constant stream of humans diving into the canal. Suicide is inevitable in such a large place, but we're seeing the red-robed congregants virtually run throngs through the suicide venues. And apparently this is not localized to the City.

I send the suicide photos to my editor, ask him to run down their identities. He has connections with some government types and frequently gets called by the WH.

Houston and its transit system, immigration details, hotel dry-by, What's on the Radio?

The next leg of my investigation is down south, to Houston. I take an old-fashioned puddle jumper, spend most of my time at the upstairs strip bar, pay for a semester of criminology for a promising conjoined pair (two for one kind of deal, this flight only!), and just like that we're there. I'm barely sober enough to stumble out into the airport before the jumper is on its way to wherever.

In Houston they kill themselves in droves by diving off the nearest overpass. The vehicles around here are blood-spattered metal hedgehogs, made to withstand 500 pound bags of entrails slamming into them at 300 miles per. I pull myself into the front seat of the taxi much against the driver's wishes (teleshop on your own time!), and watch as the stainless steel wipers remove some happy bastard's lower intestines from the windshield. I know the bastard is happy because his smiling head is stuck on one of the spikes. That's a 10-point landing!

They're all smiling as they leave this mortal plane. What do they know that I don't?! I hate it here, I hate all of you, and yet I still haven't punched my ticket. What's going on?!

I try to approach some of the red-robed Christians but they cut and run quickly. No law against suicide, not these days, not across any of the North American polities, so they're not doing anything illegal. I just want to talk to them, but they keep fleeing.

Houston has been overtaken by religious zealots who cannibalize sinners. If you're moving here, you've already attested under oath that you've studied the mortality reports and here are the mandatory masses for your next 4 Sundays at the mega-church, just basic immigration stuff. No one is surprised by the intra-neighborhood soccer and lynching leagues. The sheriff shows up to make sure no one swears while they're setting up the burning cross at the mandatory practices.

It's the kind of place that exports young punks and imports their older Saved Again versions by the train car. None of them are leaving this place alive, and that is kind of the appeal of this spot.

The roving Morality Gangs are a nuisance, nothing more, my cabbie says in between barrages of bullets. He's chewing on a foot-long hot wing, the vinegar fumes have blasted off whatever nose hairs I still possessed. I feel safe as a cross-shaped napalm charge bursts against the diamondoid windows. Don't slow down, don't open your door after sundown, and the Morality Gangs will eventually find a real target, the cabbie's bored voice speaks from around bites of spicy ostrich.

"Is it illegal to drive here? Why are they after you?"

"Power-trip. They'll find a real sinner soon enough."

The cabbie doesn't bother stopping at my hotel, The Verdant Fields, which I commend him for. For what use is there to try and check into a crater?

The Morality Squad is JV to InQuiSiTors' varsity. InQuiSiTors don't fuck around. They've got mechanized armor, Jesus Vision 4XL, unlimited surface to surface missiles, and the blanket permission of the community. No sinner can hide from them, that's the motto.

The cabbie drives me back to the airport and tunes into the InQuiSiTors' radio channel, because of course there's one. We learn that due to a clerical error on a wedding certificate, Persona 1 had indeed entered into an illicit relationship with Persona 2, and had taken temporary residence at The Verdant Fields, which for its part failed to ensure that parties sharing a common space were properly wed and documented. Four surface to surface missiles delivered the offending parties to their eternal fate. There's a pause as the radio personality prays for the souls of the lost, and during this time the cabbie has a chance to commend the government for keeping such infidels from infesting the rest of the community.

Flight to Rio, Christ, interview with-, relaxation

Next up is Rio. The flight attendant jabs a sedative into the right side of my neck, while I jab a matching syringe of Daddy's Cocktail into my left side. The flight attendant ignores my attempts to communicate, possibly because I now only recall how to speak Esperanto, and slams the OPEN ONLY 4 EMERGENCY protective shield around my sleep pad. Had she just waited a second, just a second, my monstrous priapism would have gotten stuck in the doorway and I'd have passed out from the incredible pain. But now I have to take care of things the old-fashioned way. I hate these cramped Mormon flights. The Mormons operate the transmetropolitan flights because they work really hard not to piss off anyone, hence the mandatory sedative (but not mandatory sedation, of course we're exploiting a loophole).

The jumper lets us out at the Redeemer. It looks like Josh the Carpenter holds two zeppelins, like two balloons in separate outstretched arms, and I slide down the elevator shaft to the left outstretched hand. There's a lot of traffic around here as travelers execute a merge maneuver with the divers. The Rio happy suicides unironically dive right off Christ.

"Perfect opportunity", I think, start figuring out what to ask the next white-robed maniac, when I finally notice that these guys are armed. Each one that walks past me is packing a .357 replica with a full twenty bullet capacity cylinder. The dark black handle of each gun is super-glued to one of the loyal Christian's hands.

I stand in front of one, a nice old man with white close-cropped hair and a smile from ear to ear. "Pops, what are you up to here?" I ask and hold up my notepad, like I'm interviewing an astronaut after a successful mission. The old geezer looks at me with some sadness in his eyes, shifts on one leg and looks behind me, to his waiting friends, and sighs.

"Suicide is suicide, you know?" The .357 comes up to his chin and suddenly grandpa's head is no more. The back of my notepad is covered in brain matter.

I step out of the way of the next robed figure and just kind of watch the splatterfest for a while, take a few selfies, get plenty of images of the attendees. The aerostat where I docked is of course a hotel (LEFT HAND OF CHRIST by Marriott, ad money please!), so I check into a room and soak in the hot tub, watch the news and a stream of a few fellas of acidic leanings as they experiment programming their industrial makers with various mind-expanding new creations, and then I smoke some of these newly discovered and not-yet-illegal hydrocarbons.

I do this for a few hours, until I can peel a layer of skin off. The maker prints out a replica of the Declaration of Independence while I pulverize the skin in a small hand-powered grinder. Muscle memory takes off and I roll the skin flakes inside the Declaration into a foot-long joint in just about twenty seconds. As I smoke this most perfect stogie, I go through the photos of congregants from today, look over their faces, their smiles.

Then I sleep for a while.

Gauss and politics, Seattle Conclave, more docks, a hand from the state

On the other side of Houston on the Gaussian distribution for "political leaning" (and a dozen more that are somehow related) there lies the Northern Prefecture of Frisco District, or the Seattle Conclave, as it is commonly referred to. Frisco in general takes a much gentler stance and only executes lost cases, preferring instead to treat when at all possible.

I'm flying in under slightly fake press credentials, but that's just to avoid the roving mobs of loyal fans. Thirteen of whom, in Frisco, have pledged their souls to me, should I ever ask. That's a tough one to pass up, especially in Frisco, where that is actually legal.

I consider it important to visit the extremes, and there are few places in this world more different than Houston and Seattle Conclave.

The local suicide spot is the classic Pier in downtown. At some point they processed fish, by the ship-load, in huge containers full of spinning gears and sharp knives. The equipment looks old enough, so who knows, maybe they did have an open-air abattoir. No time to debate historic authenticity.

The cab from the airport drops me off in the mid-heights. There's about four stories below, but the fog blocks out most of these. I follow the cabby's directions across the grown path as it meanders close to one building then juts out to connect with another. I follow the branching sidewalk for a few blocks to the Pier.

There's of course a line to throw yourself into the abattoir. A bored-looking cop in bulging, discolored, and scratched up armor stands at the edge, his back against a beam.

Correction, there are two lines. Right one leads straight to a ledge, the left one leads to the ledge with the cop. I stand and watch.

Some of the assembled red-robed congregants walk up to the right ledge and, after a moment's of thought, dive off into the loud doom below.

Others stand a bit too long at the ledge, without jumping, and are silently judged by those behind them. It's embarrassing. So the coward walks up to the cop, slaps the officer halfheartedly across the face, and is promptly tossed down to their death.

There isn't a line for the cop option. Everyone thinks they can do it, but not everyone can, so lots of people need that last assistance of the state.

Death at the hands of the authority, apparently it "counts" for them.

They're smiling, even when the cop pushes them, so it accomplishes something.

An interview over hibachi

I approach a group of half a dozen purple-hatted priests. There's so many of these red-robed Christians that the priests are reading last rights in shifts. These guys look like they just got done with a shift and are getting majorly chemically fucked up before their next one.

"Can any of you tell me what's going on here?" I ask, spreading my arms a bit to encompass the suicidal mass around us. My press credentials are on my chest, and the digital versions are being broadcast for anyone who's interested.

Nobody talks at first, the purple-hatted elders exchange a look, then one of them steps forward. "I'm Jarn, I'll explain things to you. Meet me outside, I won't be long." And just like that he is back with his group of priests.

I don't understand it, but I'll listen to this Christian priest, Jarn. I exit the abattoir section of the pier. A short wide man is selling poorly-printed waffle puppies, so I order a bucket of misshapen treats, with pureed roach spread. Just like mom would make.

Jarn eventually comes out and we hit up the nearest safflower restaurant. Bio-engineered prawns wield onion swords against us, an army of fried okra is launching carrots, so for a bit we focus on slicing up our dinner. We're victorious, of course, and two Buddhas show up to refill our beer from their breasts.

Over the course of the evening, Jarn tells me a lot of interesting things.

The faith, God's plan, missing friends, sex?

First, Jarn and the others are members of the Virginia Tech/Royal Academy, Christ the Lamb, West Coast Delegation. VTRACTLWCD, for short. Or simply Tract. Jarn is a Tracter. (Nope, he doesn't hear it.) They're definitely not Christians, he emphasizes a dozen times over the course of the evening.

Tracters believe that all humans are sinners and all of us, without exception, will go to Hell. Tracters just happen to believe that they're going to be the wardens in Hell, the foot soldiers who crush spines and dreams under their steel-toed boots.

Tracters aren't exactly Amish, but they do reject reliance on most tech conveniences. They're OK with bio-tech, mind you (even if it was engineered on a swarm of computer), so the safflower restaurant of bioengineered veggies is right up Jarn's alley.

Jarn is playing with his food, dunking the prawns in the Special Sauce as some sort of water-torture technique. Little bubbles escape the prawn's bio-engineered mouth, added no doubt for just such a situation. Then he continues his story.

Tracters believe that polarized and "maximized" cities like Houston and Seattle Conclave produce such specific Hell-bound humans. And to "properly" punish these sinners, the Tracters must integrate themselves into these lions dens. Thus Tracters can be typically found in the more extreme concentrations of humanity. They live, observe, take notes, and make up torture scenarios for every person they interact with.

I imagine a progression of cities from Houston to the Seattle Conclave, all on the spectrum from one extreme to the other, but each just that much closer to Seattle Conclave, that much further from Houston. A parade of cities. Seattle Conclave, Portland, LA, six hundred cities in between, Austin, Leavenworth, Houston. From anarchist stoners to armed psychos, and everything in between.

Jarn describes making thick hand-written diaries of sinners and their punishments, in the same tones as a hobbyist may describe building a ship in a bottle. I get a feeling that every Tracter has a small library in their home, dedicated to volume upon volume of torture porn.

In my youth, the early years were cold and hungry. Then somebody flipped a switch on a zillion square miles of mirrors on Mercury, and Earth had free energy for all. A maker on every corner, then in every house. A post-scarcity society finally offered people a chance to leave, a chance to drop all of their concerns and most of their obligations, and just get the fuck out. So many of us did that. We left the familiar and boring world and exchanged it for the new world. Then we found out that it was all shit, but that's not the point. The point is that we could.

We were the first society of humans where people were not constrained by location. And so we found our own ways over the cultural and geographic landscape. We became the New Standard. Cities changed overnight, as they always do in the wake of great wars or plagues or similar transformations.

"And the suicides? Why are you people killing yourselves in droves?" I try to get Jarn back on topic.

"God is calling many of us home. There is work to be done."

I stop and watch this Jarn fellow for a few minutes. In the middle of it, and without taking my eyes off him, I light up three cigarettes and smoke them all. One inhale gets them down to the halfway point! I still got it!

Jarn can obviously see the gears spinning inside my head. "I don't trust any-one so much that I would die for them." I blow smoke in his direction.

"Maybe you'll be called, one day," Jarn says, hanging his head.

"I'll let it go to voicemail, done. Why are you Tracters so secretive about this?"

"Would you advertise that your best friends are spending an eternity in Hell?" Jarn looks up at me with tears in his eyes.

"Being Satan's boots on the ground is quite different from spending an eternity in Hell", I reply. "Hey, fuck you, man! Your friends chose to impose infinite punishment onto others, you're not getting much sympathy from me!"

"I still miss them," he says from behind the tears. "And I can't sleep! I keep thinking that tonight will be the night, when Satan comes to me and says that my services are required."

I don't bother pointing out that this is what his religion tells him is right. This is their fucking plan! I'll write about him.

Jarn is a mess, the fried okra is sizing him up, trying to aim a carrot straight up his nose, and I'm done with my glass, now I'm just sucking the beer out of the Beer Buddha's left nipple. It's a work night.

It's been a long time since I've had sex, with another human or otherwise. I proposition Jarn. He only has sex with other Tracters, but asks if I am interested in becoming a follower. He's willing to skip his shift, if I commit and get a lobotomy at the mall. That's his best offer.

Fuuuck.

I wish him good luck, then go back to the hotel and continue my lonely quest through the five thousand TV channels, a bucket of lizard from the maker, and four types of opiates injected into my eye. Casual night in.

A dream, TV, The Ad, what if

I wake up coughing in a dark and smoke-filled cavern. A fire of actual undulating flames burns to the side of me. I climb out of the strange bed I find myself in and rush outside. Having neglected to think about clothing, just trying to get away from the smokey confines, I'm now standing in snow up to and including my gonads. It's cold and I'm steaming, the snow around my member starts to melt into its shape, and I think "That's a collectible!" before I ever start to feel cold. I look around and note that it's night, but I can see the snowbank and the strange ancient trees without any trouble. I look up into a dark but rusted through-and-through colander and marvel at the million stars that shine down upon me. The great Milky Way galaxy is a flattened disk that I'm seeing from the inside, it is a band of stars through the sky, from horizon to horizon.

"Gorm, it is your time," a voice speaks from behind.

I turn toward the voice and see a red-horned old codger, half bent-over with age, propping himself onto an old gnarled branch. He offers a bucket of caribou eye-balls, my favorite.

I wake up to a pair of huge breasts talking about SectCon, the largest religious festival of the year, happening this week in London. The nipples have teeth. It's very confusing and arousing.

I'm still watching the mediatron in my Seattle Conclave hotel room. Lizard and other remains of last night's feast are scattered all around me.

The mediatron is flipping through channels randomly with a 20 second period. Blood-spattered clowns fight over a golden phallus, an anchor stands in the middle of a filthy apartment and delivers the news in between bites of left-over and cold fried lizard. Then The Ad comes on-

"TV, stay!"

A suave young man in a glittering suit rushes past a fountain in a packed plaza, dodging around and through groups of thrashers, punks, Turks, Amazons, and actual nuns. The camera moves in on his eyes and we see less and less of the young man's surroundings, just the slowly tightening shot of two steady irises, zeroing in on the upcoming destination. You can see the smile lines crease into canyons in the young man's skin.

Then the camera suddenly pans out and the young man has been transformed into a doctor. The camera keeps moving back and we see that the young man is operating on someone.

The young man blinks and the shot changes: as the young man's eyes close, they are replaced with the eyes of a tourist from the plaza, which are now opening wide in surprise as the tourist finds a VacCard in their back pocket.

Blink and we're back to the surgery. Blink, and it's another "victim" from the plaza, another confused person digging out a "You've Been Vaccinated courtesy of City Hall" card out of one crevice or another.

"Medical Students vaccinate the City!" the tagline reads, and that was almost enough to get me into med-school. Wasn't enough to keep me there, but that's a different story. I really wanted to be a doctor, get to be one of those undercover stabbers. That ad really spoke to me! Now, however, I stab you fuckers with the truth. It's satisfactory.

Waking up, work, disappointment, packing

I get a coffee from the maker and wander out onto the balcony. It's a bleak and dreary day here in the Emerald City and I can't wait to leave.

"Messages," I grumble at my glasses after finishing the first cup and starting in on the second.

There is the usual litany of invitations to speak or be probed for science, or both (the zoos are quite insistent!), and these go straight to trash. My editor's response to my earlier id request is too-short and annoyingly tantalizing: "call me!"

I go back to the media room, find a long strip of peel-off stickers, get one and slap it right on my ass, then kill a few minutes news-surfing until the acid kicks in. Then I call my editor.

"Got news on those ids?" I jump straight into business.

"Yes and no," he replies. "Yes, I heard back from our official and unofficial sources. But you're not going to like it. The Federales are claiming state security and they're blocking all information requests. The non-too-subtle message here, man, is that someone really doesn't want you looking into these suicides."

Fuuuck. I throw the phone and it goes sailing into the fog. Eventually its journey will come to an end and the whole thing will shatter into a zillion pieces, then evaporate like a dream. The smart molecules know when their job is done and go into the atmosphere, seek out a repair and recycle station, and start their lives anew.

Before I became a journalist, I really wanted to be a doctor. Learning about the layers upon layers of goop that makes us up, the complex interactions of all these systems. Now, I study the complex interactions of other systems, not meat-ware. I remember watching the droves of med students running amok through a festival, rifles set to spray and loaded with vials of vaccine cocktails, goggles hooked up into the City medical database to mark the unvaccinated targets with big red outlines. They set a standard of professionalism and "Not To Be Fucked With". They are the front line of defensive medicine within the city. I love living in the City because I never get sick! I think on what kind of life I could have had, as a doctor. Then I go back to the journalism gig.

I spend the rest of the morning programming the maker: new phone, clothes, backup glasses, mandatory vaccines for the British Isles, two thermoses of DoubleCocaineEspresso for the trip. Then I let the thing chug away as I arrange flight and SectCon tickets. Let's go see some weird religions.

England, here I come!

Modern flight, landing, more TV

England, I can't come!

The airplane carrying my body is still en route from the City to London, so I'll be there soon. But not soon enough.

So far, I've had sixteen uninterruptible dreams where I have tasted of every sick and twisted sexual desire I have, but in all cases I have been unable to... take things to completion. I've got blue balls the size of mutated lizard heads. I'm strangely reminded of Thanksgiving back when we caught a few escapees from the science lab up the street.

Hungry and horny dreams can get weird. Some sick fuck kept appearing with a bucket of Long Pig, kept offering it to me, but it was JalapenoAss-flavored, and I'm just tired of that taste on everything.

Somebody (likely my filthy assistants!) must have modified the sleep mediator settings for this flight and stranded me in hell for the duration of the flight.

The cab ride from the airport to the convention center is mercifully quiet and accident-free. It's midnight, so I check into a suite, run cocaine into my eyeballs, set the mediatron to SkipMode, and dig into a bucket of lizards. Daddy's home and he needs to know!

First impressions, observing, Plague

I wake up sometime in the middle afternoon, wrap a sheet around myself according to the diagrams I wrote up last night, swallow a nuclear cocktail of wake-up pills and long-lasting liquid energy, and head out.

I take the elevator up to the observatory, a circular bar atop the hotel, and look out over London. Big Ben is to the far left. What lies in front of me is a dark green mega-fauna. It pulses all at once, miles of tissue spasming in stomach-twisting synchrony. The constant rains coat the mass in a reflective layer, which twitches and bends light in slow, languid measurements of a breathing behemoth.

A blinding pulse of light erupts from deep within the mass, a phase-weapon discharging against a carbon-based life form. The London Plague, eighty years later. The observatory is only ten years old, it says in animated text on the wall, just ten short years since the Plague covered this spot. Just ten years since this land was uninhabitable and impassable.

"Did you serve?" a voice comes from the side. It's a skeletor wired up inside a clear suit of muscle, he's got press credentials, same as mine. He's also from the City, a magazine for astrology fans.

I shake my head. "No, but I was embedded with the 56th, a few years back, when the limeys took Cardiff back."

"Ugly business," the old timer replies and nods.

I leave him to his memories and come back down to sea level.

Reception, weak drinks, old friends

The main event, the keynote speech and the official kick-off of SectCon, is tomorrow morning. Tonight it's just the prep crews, setting up the booths, putting up displays of books, pamphlets, marital aids, crystals, the usual stuff. And then there's the reception in the hotel bar. My press credentials are good for four drinks, but sadly for nothing psychoactive. The waitress is surprised at that, guess this is a code she doesn't see that often. Who do I have to thank for that? My assistants?!

The drink is a Virgin MindDiver and comes in a pink mermaid-themed sippy cup, and I wear this proudly around my head as I walk a counter-clockwise path along the outside boundary of the bar. The main motif of the evening and of the hotel is circles and spheres, so the convention center is a large circular complex, composed of many smaller circles that make up some individual exhibits or smaller halls. The bar we are in is half of a sphere and I'm orbiting just at the edge.

Someone in the center of the bar is talking to the assembled, their voice carries through the entire area by hidden speakers. Of course the first remarks are concerning the Plague. As usual, they quote statistics, both good and bad: 62% of the city is now reclaimed, but this month we've lost 3,200 soldiers to the enemy. Thoughts and prayers, as we always say, even this many decades into this conflict.

I stop off at the bar to get another soul-less MindDiver and a woman in a form-fitting black dress sidles up to me. "Is the world's most critical thinker looking for some opiate?"

"I'm looking for the truth, Simone. Heard of the concept?"

"Truth, in this place? Didn't you-"

"I want truth about religious types, not their definition of truth. Keep up." I look at her and she smiles back.

Tracters 4-1-1, investigation, proposal

"Have you heard of the Tracters?" I ask her.

"Virginia Tech...", Simone winds up but I placate her with a look and we both agree that we know who we're talking about. "They're a New Age collective Christian-like sect. They believe most of the early stuff in the Bible, but they reject most of the New Testament. They're kind of Old School fundamentalists who see this world as full of sinners, all of whom are destined for Hell. Tracters think they'll end up the Wardens of Hell - that's official terminology, apparently - and the rest of humanity will be their bitches. Roughly."

"OK, so that takes care of the after-life. That's what happens later. What about before that?"

"'Everyone is destined to hell' has a lot of fall-out. First and foremost, they have a list of twenty-four sins. Committing these is easy, of course, and so Tracters believe that humans are in a constant state of sin."

"Sadistic fuckers, aren't they? Probably not too much fun at parties." I get a Cuban cigar out and light up. These Tracters are fascinating, I need to mark the occasion.

"You'd be surprised," Simone replies with a smirk. "Since sin is inevitable and will land you in Hell anyway, the sect doesn't preach a sin-less existence. These are some sick fuckers, you might say. Tracter services start out with a couple thousand salivating to the kinds of splendid torture their beliefs promise them, and tend to quickly devolve into screaming matches, fights, orgies, glutenous feasts, and all manner of depravity. You might like it, at least until the hate-fucking got old."

I just now notice the privacy shield around us, a matte region of air that makes the rest of the room look fuzzy and out of focus. I can't hear anyone other than Simone. When she stops talking, there's a strange silence in the air.

"So what's their end-game? No New Testament means no Jesus, no salvation, all that. Is their Messiah just sitting around? Waiting for something?"

"Tracters believe that a Golden Child will come from the mortal world, and this Child will lead the teeming armies of Hell against God, with the Tracters as generals. It's not too clear what's in store after that, when God and Heaven fall, but I don't imagine anyone wants to be around after that happens."

I wave that last bit away, "Not relevant, their belief is all bullshit anyway, nothing to fear." Simone gives me a frosty glare and I ignore it. "They're killing themselves in droves. In Houston, in Rio, the Seattle Conclave. Here in London?" She nods. "What's going on? What do you know?"

Simone is involved with the local government, in some strenuous and complicated fashion.

"We know surprisingly little. A lot of Tracters are being called, but we don't know anything more about it. Nothing relevant is showing up on the surveillance. We're not sure where this energy is coming from."

Energy. Simone is one of those people who attempts to interpret every unknown in scientific terms she understands. So in this case, she observes that members of a sect start to have similar dreams, and attributes the dreams to a common influence on the members. She chooses to call that energy. Once she does, it makes sense to discuss rerouting energy, or negating energy, or even doubling energy.

Simone is looking for the external source of weird dreams and suicidal tendencies in the Tracters.

I'm curious about this, of course. "I'll look into it."

"Good. Do so. Now." Simone's eyes are very insistent.

I get on the phone and call my assistants. They are finally back in the City and are asking what's up. After a brief run-down, I ask them to look into the City suicides, the photos that my editor couldn't run down due to Federales intervention.

I hang up and Simone is still there. What could she want?

"Sex?" I offer, or ask, or plead or beg or whatever.

Reply, dream, prep

Simone drop-kicks me in the crotch on the door mat right outside of my hotel room. It is so kind of her. I crawl into bed, chew on a slew of pain meds and hallucinogenics, and imagine a saner world. I'm anticipating tomorrow's thousands upon thousands of booths.

The dreams bring the snow, the cold and the ice, the clear skies and dark days. I stand in a frozen field, my skin steams in the chill air, the full moon illuminates the world to an unnatural degree. Everything is so bright. The man with the bucket of chicken steps out from behind-

I wake up to cocaine-fueled ninjas performing surprise appendectomies on unsuspecting park statues. Then the TV turns to the next channel and I'm looking at two bank vaults having sex. I look around and note that I'm mostly sober, mostly not hallucinating.

First real day of the con. This is going to take a bit of prep.

I create a potent almond paste of cocaine and caffeine in destructive amounts (or the "#3 special", as the maker at home knows it) and shape it into a red-and-white candy cane. I bite off a finger's worth and start chewing. Breakfast of champions!

Next up is clothing, of course, so I type in the starting outfit, pick the sexiest rendition of it, add random touches and bullet- and stab-protection to the costume's already lengthy list of features, and the maker starts producing it.

The maker takes a while to print authentic coals, but I've got time, and the company is forking the maker bill. While that's happening, I go through the list of booths and cross off the boring ones, the established shit that's as old as humanity, and stick with the more recent sects, like the Reformed Houstonians, Church of Bob, Virginia Tech/Royal Academy, Christ the Scientist, West Coast Delegation (probably the result of a schism), and so on.

Conference, coals, auld acquaintance, angels and demons, Tracters

The steel-toed boots are a personal addition, but I think they go real well with the rest of the ensemble. I swagger through the hotel lobby in my seasonal reds, a wispy and obviously fake white beard hangs just below my chin, and a red sack of real coals is on my back. I saunter into the conference and a drone scans my name tag, then drops off some literature on the conference. I flip through it as I walk around. There's no one I want to talk to in these early aisles, so I just wonder in a constantly-forward direction, but with many deviations.

Priests and imams and shamans and pastors all look up and after a moment the wave of realization hits, and they recall that we're not in the City, and that restraining orders aren't limitless, and they hide beneath weathered tables. I stroll through memory lane and recall the good old days of blasting the truth at the peddlers.

I leave coals for the obviously-ridiculous sects, like the Church of Bob (they're delighted to be included in anything), the Lutheran Declarationists, FSM fanatics, The Church of Gravitas and Culture, the Mormon stand, and others.

Next floor up are the well-known but ill-attended sects. These may be actively recruiting, or at least more-so than their larger siblings. I speed-walk through these booths to the escalators. The up and down escalators are on the opposite sides of each level, of course, forcing you to zig-zag like a fucking rat in a maze!

A holographic devil and angel begin to follow me at some point. The devil is a gruff fella, his red beard probably holds equal measures of blood and beer. The angel is a vision in white, a young woman with sharp obsidian cheekbones and white feathery wings the impossible size of sky-scrapers, though both are tiny, no bigger than a standard bar glass.

"Fuck these bozos up, they're preying on the vulnerable!" the devil growls out and every remaining hair stands up on my body.

"They help people find their purpose, they are saving lives!" the angel retorts and suddenly the world is just a bit happier, and a tad slower, and I'm just incapacitated by her voice. Like seeing a perfect pair hanging right in your face, just at the eye level. I'm getting lost.

She's an angel straight from hell, some part of me says.

Who do I trust? And who, may I ask, is this other voice in my head?!

All of these thoughts cross my head in the handful of seconds it takes to ride the escalators up another floor. The devil and angel holograms don't follow along, they're limited to the area around their booth, whatever that happens to be. Our Mother of Inescapable Guilt? Fans of Italian Opera, Del Coronado Chapter?

On this next floor, I remember, the Tracters have a small booth. I make my way past ten-foot tall gods, five-headed dogs, some fetching succubi (both of whom are abstaining from sex for the next four eons, of course), and four different sects based on the postal mail system.

Then I see the Nealists. The nerds with green pocket-protectors are trying to explain that this reality is just a story, being told by a convict to a judge. And at the end of all the stories, after the convict has described to the judge the lives of every person in our reality, the officer of the court (of a country none of us have heard of) will decide if the convict should be executed or not. And when the convict is executed, all of our individual stories will abruptly come to an end. Our world is an existential crisis of a convict.

That's a fascinating faith that I've studied for a few months. That was a glorious time of fried lizards, glowing drugs, and the consumption of television, all as I tried in vain to understand: will my life, seen from outside reality, be enough to sentence a man to death? I fucking hope so!

I keep moving on. The Tracters are a breath of fresh air after that fascinating journey through the B-list religions. The Tracters are boring in the extreme.

Their booth is all doom and damnation. Tracters believe that all humans end up in hell, the only difference is who wears the chains and who holds the whips. The Tracters believe they are the foot soldiers in hell and it is their duty to stomp the infidels and the greater sinners into the ground, day in and day out for all eternity. No time off for good behavior. The pamphlets describe the Good Hell in such glowing terms as "endless ecstasy and burn" and "eternity of blue-balls". I skip over the Bad Hell descriptors and start reading the long and very erotic descriptions of the various weapons the foot soldiers will utilize in Hell when I'm rudely interrupted.

Tracter in person, dreams, friends, views

"Would you like to hear about our faith?" The speaker is a woman in her thirties, full red lips, porcelain white skin like it's her first time aboveground, a classic low-cut red sexy nun dress. A gold-plated name tag reading "Antilla" hangs in between her magnificent breasts and for a moment all I can do is roll that name around in my mouth and ponder at its strange edges and curlicues.

"Uh, yeah, sure, please, tell me," I reply hazily, but all I can think about is disappointing Miss Antilla for about two minutes, right here, inside this Tracter booth. My mind traces her curves.

Antilla starts in on the usual spiel, gives some background on the Tracters, the same stuff I've already heard, when I interrupt her: "Have you been having the dreams? Of the devil?"

"Hmm, yes! Just a few weeks ago. I was asked to come here, to London. And I can see why! This city is amazing and sin-filled..." She goes on and talks about the Plague and the Parliament Warriors, the ideological meaning behind it all and how every person here is destined to pain and eternal damnation, blah blah blah. She bounces up and down excitedly as she talks, and various parts of her behave as jello. I'm mesmerized.

We eventually get talking about the dreams. Antilla hasn't had a recent dream of the devil. But her friends have!

"Are they around? Think I can talk with them?"

"Sure, sure. They're flying in, will be getting to the con tomorrow. We're renting out the penthouse at The Royal Flush Palace. The views from the balcony are amazing! You should let me show you..."

Dream, breakfast, report

I'm once again under the dark clear skies, barefoot in freezing snow. My breath clouds the air around and I can't see very far. Faint light is coming from the window of the old cabin house. It has a very "Viking" vibe around it, at least for me.

An old man steps out of the shadows into the light, right in front of me. In his out-stretched hands is a bucket of vat-grown lizard tails, the Gary variety. The devil knows his audience. I reach out and snag one, munch on it, find happiness in lizard juices running down my face and dripping onto the virgin-white snow.

"I require your services, you need to come home and fullfil your destiny," the old man says.

I wake up in a large bed. A bucket of lizard tails sits on the nearby table. I hear someone snoring. It's dark and I can only see faint shapes. I get my phone and go out into what turns out to be the penthouse living room. In the kitchen I get the maker to assemble me a coffee, some wake-up coke, crepes, cream. In the mean time I get a small bunsen burner and light up some of last night's herbs.

"Your dead City fellas are business owners, two retired majors, a pastor, some other randoms. Most were in their twilight years and had occupied positions of authority. Big wigs, in some sense. All mention of their deaths has been scrubbed from the web, but we've managed to dig up some archives," my assistants blather on as I assemble my drug regimen and pump a few hits into my temporarily-paralyzed eyeball. "...doesn't want them found, of course. We've been finding similar patterns with the red robes from Houston, Rio, and Seattle Conclave."

"Fuuuck." Come on!

"The families have been unresponsive, the companies are denying everything, but we'll keep digging over here."

"So the jumpers are all a dead end?" I'm angry.

"Yeah, so far. Are you getting anything over there?"

I glance through the closed balcony window at the still-sleeping form in bed. "Yeah, bits and pieces. Gonna find out some more about the dreams these people are talking about."

"Do you need us in London?"

The assistants are looking wary, they clearly don't want the hassle of international flight.

"No. Stay in the City, go through the stuff I send you. I'll be back soon."

Hanging with Tracters, dreams, drugs, rock and roll

Antilla's friends arrive in in waves, as jumpers land at Heathrow from their different connections and I meet the various contingencies. The Parisians are the first and they're the assholes you'd imagine. The Indian Tracters are a lovely bunch, all meched out with augmented arms and legs like it's a silly movie from my childhood (they're following in the City's culture, but at a much more leisurely pace, heard that they're getting into lizard underwear just now!). The City delegation brings some familiar faces: I recognize two Tracters as the purple-hatted priests who ran away from me. Snap snap and the pictures are sent to the assistants.

Everyone's giving me sidelong glances and I get the feeling that Antilla is being chastised behind closed doors, but whatever, I'm assembling my hookah from its various components that I always carry with me. Especially to a hotel room full of Tracters. The US Army, when that was still a thing, happened to run the world's third most-profitable drug empire in existence, and developed this strain of greenery especially for high-powered socialites. I'd heard that some of the Army's assassins found the drugs to be particularly helpful on missions, and this I can completely understand.

I load up the hookah onto a floating tray, fire it up and start passing it around. Pretty soon more trays laden with exquisite drugs begin to float around the penthouse living room and patio. I partake of most, then all.

The Tracters are doing lines off each others' not-so-private parts and are sacrificing a brain-dead goat out on the patio. It's a fun party!

I make my way around and get everyone's names, stories, etc. People filter in and out, rotate through their post down at the con booth, then come back and get properly fucked and fucked up, and go downstairs to claim more souls. I catch them either coming down off the biggest high or just starting one up, and we use this time to talk about the dreams.

Towards the end of the day, the penthouse is clearly delineated, as if large swaths of living-room space have been cleared away by napalm strikes and all that's left are the isolated cliques of drug users:
the stoners are by the window, sleepily gazing out at the Plague, no doubt having "whoa" moments, they've brought their best crops;
the coke-heads have claimed the mediatron and have split it into about 256 smaller screens through which they view the world, through 256 different channels, switching at random frequencies;
the hallucinogen aficionados have of course brought strange toad-like amphibians with them and enough liquid base to drown us all (the amphibians act as limited biological makers);
a gorgeous Tracter pastor from Brazil brought the opiates and that congregation is partying out on the balcony, with about two dozen first-response drones on "catch em'!" duty of saving the poor Tracters who accidentally jump the railing.

As the night deepens, every surface that isn't covered with drugs is now being used by some exhibitionists for all manner of sexual acts.
Antilla takes me in the back, we try to find an unoccupied bedroom, but of course all of them are full (literally!), so we find an empty bathroom.

Bathroom encounter, rules, forward

The bathroom is very small.

"Hmm, this is gonna get interesting," I say as I try to figure out positions and where the various extremities need to end up.

But the look Antilla gives me is quite withering:
"Nope, not happening.
Look, last night was... well, anyway, we were both there.
But that can't happen again.
I'm already on thin ice with the congregation..."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Tracters are not supposed to get together with the heathens," she explains slowly.
"So last night... nothing... happened...
You got it?"
Antilla's eyebrows are up, her arms are crossed, her head is tilted at an angle.

"Sure," I reply and hang my head.
Of course that's the case!
"You're still going to hell, does it matter that you break some human rules?"
I look at her over my shades.

"It's the Bad Hell for breaking these rules," she replies, plants a wet kiss on my forehead, and leaves the bathroom.
"And you're not worth it, pal," she calls out.

I stay in the bathroom for a while and talk to myself.
A pep talk, before I go back out there and do my fucking job.
"You can do it, big guy!"

I slip a slow-release coke capsule under the tongue and get back to the party.

Devilish delivery

"The devil came to me in a dream with a bucket of chicken, about a month back."

"We dreamed of Satan and his offer, BBQ from Long Pig, last week, it was very sensual!"

"Evil came to me - and in! - last week, and he brought lizard tails!"

"The Unclean One brought caribou eye-balls to our seance just two days ago!"

They all have the same sort of experience.
I walk around and catalog the Tracters I've interviewed and their drug of choice.
The drugs, that's what clicks it all for me.

I grab my things, including the hookah, and go for the elevator.

Newp!, cops, a fall

I am walking towards the elevator, carrying my bag of goodies, including the passed-around hookah, when the doors open up and out directly into the pesthouse steps a Police Riot Addresser.
This is a 10-foot tall (3 meters, for these fucks) Bobby in indestructible blue riot gear.
He'd fit right in on the field of an American Testosterone and Football League.

The fuzz is here and they're screaming at the Tracters.
I eye the patio and decide to go for it.

I sprint across the living room, past the various writhing and spewing bodies, grab a baked good (to go!), slap a particularly annoying Tracter who's committed the cardinal sin of falling asleep, and...
I'm onto the patio!

The red and blue lights are shining from beneath.
I lean over the closest ledge and it's a sea of police vehicles, it looks like they have the entire hotel surrounded.

"What the fuck is going?" a voice speaks up behind me.
I recognize it as one of the acid-freak Tracters.
I start playing around with my bowel-disruptor.

"At a guess, they know a good party when they see one," I say and take a jump off the building.

The first-response drone catches up to me after two exceedingly-long seconds.
A web wraps up my upper torso and the drone is stuck to my back.
I raise the bowel-disruptor and point it at the drone.
Its sensors register the threat and blink red.
The drone is now in emergency mode.

It gets us down as quickly as possible, which is not far from free fall. I end up sprawled on a strip of grass some two blocks from the hotel.

It's night, the cops don't see me, and I disappear into a semi-familiar London.

Rogers, a dark basement, Scanner

Emilia Rogers is an alias of an old friend of mine.
We first met when the 56th attacked the Plague.
I was embedded with Flying Helions but was interviewing the local reserve forces and she was one of the gear-heads involved in the assault.
Against the Plague, she supplied the local forces with top-of-the-line support and attack drones.
She created a workshop that for the past three decades has been producing a steady wave of automated machinery of war.
I've always thought of Miss Rogers as our Q.

Her personal office is located in the basement of one of the oldest untouched buildings of London.
I wonder if this is a coincidence and consider that maybe even the Plague knows not to fuck with Miss Rogers.

The black taxi drops me off and for a few seconds I let London's acid rain eat at my flesh.
I wipe it away and the repair nanites get to their work.
More acid drips on the nanites and washes away a tiny river of silver, only for the nanites to be replaced by new soldiers, which stream to the site of damage out of the multiple dispensary locations in my skin.

The nanites within me are still functional. They repair damage and they destroy invaders.

The basement location is still dark and claustrophobic.
I walk between full bookshelves of old-style books.
Not a mech in site!

"A bastard's work is never done?"
She appears from behind a book shelf.

"Emilia.
It's been too long.
You... uh, don't want to touch me."

"VD?"

"Dunno.
Still got the Scanner?"
My eyes widen a bit when I say the last word.

Emilia understands and leads us down, deeper into the building, into the core of the basement.

The Scanner is an illegal and dangerous device, and it's the only thing in the world that will tell me what's happening.
I remember my bag and hand it to Emilia, then rush into the scanner before I lose my nerve.

"The hookah captured plenty of cells, we should look at them as well."
Emilia just nods.

A thick diamondoid shield shuts and it's suddenly very quiet in here.

Examination, discovery, confusion

"You are pretty much... a petri dish. You have it all!
There are chemicals here that I've never heard of.
And... ahem... all the samples are cross-contaminated..."

"SectCon, Tracter party."

"Ah, right on.
The hookah samples and your scan lead me to conclude...
All of you have been infected with undetectable nanites."

"Undetectable?"

Emilia waves at the large screen at the other end of the room.
I can see it clearly through the diamondoid shell.
Emilia's voice comes to me through hidden speakers.

On the screen Emilia highlights two medites in red, and a smaller nanite in blue.
Smaller cells move around the trio.
Once in a while, so every few seconds with the current flow, when a small cell passes by one of the red medites, the passing cell is destroyed.
The passing cells often do not look like typical cells, they are larger or smaller, they have a different shape.
Whatever it is, whenever such a misshapen cell passes by one of the medites, it is destroyed.

The blue nanite passes by the two red medites and nothing happens.

"They're unlabeled nanites that don't respond to standard instructions, which is illegal.
And all official scanners are instructed to ignore these buggers because of how they identify."
My eyebrows go up.
"All scanners have blocks on them, blocks that the G-men have placed there.
G-men force their proprietary shit everywhere, so they can put huge blinders on the world.
But not in here," she pats the highly-illegal Scanner.
Emilia is passionate about clean printing, or lack thereof in much of the modern world.

"And these undetectable nanites are causing the dreams and the suicides?"

"That's the current theory.
What little evidence we have, supports it.
The undetectable nanites are present in every one of the samples.
The ages of the nanites vary between each individual, but not within individuals."

"They're creating these a bunch at a time, and injecting them into hosts." I'm sure Emilia is dumbing this shit down for me.

"Yeah.
And the nanites are capable of... interfering with brain function."
The image on the screen zooms into the small blue nanite and a section of the nanite lights up in yellow.
"This is how they're doing it.
Same tech as impulse-inhibitors, strangely, but they seem to have figured out how to get data into the brain."

"OK, so that's the 'how'.
What about the 'why'?
Who benefits from dead Tracters?"

"Based on what I've heard... the world benefits."
Emilia gives me a rueful smile and opens the scanner.

Hotel, jail, hang and watch, plane, conversation

I make it within half a block of the hotel and they arrest me.
Half a block is great!

They tag and register me and then I'm loose in general.
And that's great, cause I haven't gotten properly fucked up on half a dozen different drugs in a few hours!

Then there's some meddling by my editor and I'm promptly ejected from the country, fuck you very much!
Two gorillas pick me up and carry me through London, to Heathrow, through the airport and into the jumper. It's the first time in four hours that two gorillas aren't manhandling me on the way out of England.

I sit in the first-class seat and the fucking phone rings. It's my editor.

"Thanks, asshole!
I'm heading home on the next thing smokin'.
And I'm out of drugs!"

"The cabin crew are holding, we're arranged for the regular Traveling Writer deal.
And... you'll be met by Sec Services when you're stateside."

"Say what?"
This was news.
Certainly the Brits don't want the likes of a riotous sex-freak.
But why are Federales after me?

"Routine, after one is ejected from a country."

"There was a riot!
It wasn't my fault!"

"Yeah, you've said.
Whatever.
It's done, England doesn't want you back, and now the Federales just need to have a talk with you."

The dream, the plane, the choice, the fall

On the jumper home, after take-off and after negotiating a mind-shaker cocktail from the crew, I'm flying high and rolling in happiness.

I dream of sun-lit beaches and white dunes that take over small wooden structures and fences.
The waves come crashing and the summer is always ahead.

The plane shudders and I wake up, come out of the dream into a terrifying reality.
The sleeping pad's cover is off, partially.
Pieces of it are sticking out weird angles.

I push the cover out of the way and climb out.
Around me are corpses.
The jumper is full of death.
I turn toward the emergency exit handle.

It's suicide to turn it, a voice speaks from within.

"I know. But I have to do it. Even, and because, it will kill so many."
I wave my hand to the thirty or forty thousand rows of seats behind me.

The handle is cold to the touch, but I push through.
It swings, the door pops open, and I am thrown into the sky.
I fly away from the jumper at some phenomenal rate.

Well, this is novel.
I've never sky-dived towards the Atlantic before.
It's... not all that great.
The blue sky is infinite and motion seems so insignificant and non-existent.

The fall feels like it's been hours, the consistent wall of wind is now a surface, and I'm sitting cross-legged on top of it.
The world has become frozen.

The jumper actually shakes and I wake up.
The jumper is full of living people.
The cabin crew is walking around, refilling empty glasses, syringes, and pipes.

Next steps

My assistants have looked into the City suicides and have uploaded their findings into my account.
While I spoke with my editor on the jumper, the laptop was connected to the airport's journalist web service.
I have the data on my laptop now.

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