by Alistair Rennie
Painting by Gilbert Calleja
Dirty Boy Macnee was a Napper. He was the kind of guy you could admire, so Aurora B. did. Dirty Boy had told him a lot of stories, about how most of them carried knives, some of them guns.
“Talk about baby killers,” Dirty Boy would say, and laugh the way that people do when it just wasn’t funny.
But by the time they reached Aurora B. they were as tame as the edible livestock he’d seen on some of his favourite Global Network shows. So he was happy being a Lugger. He didn’t want to be a man of action like Dirty Boy Macnee.
“I take a lot of pleasure in rounding up the little fucks,” Dirty Boy once said–sober, so you knew he wasn’t making it up. “They’re like insects, really–like mosquitoes or wasps. And we’re like a kind of pesticide.”
Aurora B. didn’t know what a pesticide was. But it must have been something morally worthwhile. Otherwise, Dirty Boy wouldn’t have said it.
Dirty Boy was the kind of guy who said it like it really was.
Aurora B. flew a solar-driven lugger to the disposal complex just as the haze was beginning to lift. The sun was falling in a smoggy red pool of light over the arid summit of Brimmond Hill. Wind whipped up from under the stilts of the blocks and rocked the lugger violently.
It was a good night for an EPR. A full moon threw a languid slick of brightness over the sea which was thick and radiant with luminous secretions of algae. Waves flopped over the beach, turning green the florescent pink of chemically purified sands. Rotten groins rocked back and forth on timbers lagging loose at the foundations. A thin haar nudged the shorewall. The incoming tide came drearily in its wake.
Aurora B. pressed himself into his seat, enjoying the silicon moulds of the headrest softening around his temples. The satellite navigation homed in, acknowledging the fact with an encoded series of high-pitched bleeps.
But Aurora B. wasn’t listening. He was fumbling under his seat for a bottle of MacReady’s Nocturnal Special Reserve.
Not easy to get your hands on, this. So he dragged it out between his feet, unplugged the cork, raised the bottle up to his lips, and sighed.
In The Dinge one night swigging whisks with Dirty Boy Macnee. Dirty Boy, letting his jaw run loose, said:
“. . . And no wonder. Results went well. See, there was an incubation period of monitored growth lasting up to the age of eleven or twelve. That was in the special nurseries. Post-incubation, and Prospects were sent to foster parents to become indigenous parts of the family group. It was unprecedented shit, almost like optimism.” Dirty Boy, making the point, downed a whisk, head cocked back like it was sprung on a hinge.
Aurora B. slipped a whisk across the table, pulling it under his chest. “So what went wrong?” He whisked the whisk, bracing himself for the impact. When it came, his vision glowed.
“Neurological anomalies.” Dirty Boy sniffed.
“No.” Aurora B. shook his head. “I mean, what went wrong?”
Dirty Boy looked up, startled, then started to compute.
“Right,” he nodded, and broke into a knowledgeable grin. “Well, that’s the thing, see? Cause nobody knows. Grapevine says it’s all down to alchemy.” He tapped the side of his head. “You can’t make gold, see? Gold just is.”
Aurora B. blinked. “But what does that mean?”
“Means,” said Dirty Boy, “they aren’t wired up. Or maybe they’re wired up too strong.”
“You mean, like a . . .” Aurora B. didn’t know.
“Yeah,” said Dirty Boy. “It’s like training a rat to be a dog so you can train the dog to be a monkey.”
Aurora B. bent his eyebrows inward. “But what about the chemicals?”
“Chemicals?” Dirty Boy shrugged. “You ask me, it’s better just to shoot the fuckers like they do in Brazil.”
“But the Programme gives them a chance.”
“A better life.”
Dirty Boy laughed so hard that bits of spit came flying from his mouth.
Aurora B. glared. “So what does that mean?”
“Means,” said Dirty Boy, “the fucking Programme makes them worse than they already are.”
And that’s how it was. And that’s why Aurora B. had a job. And that’s why he was starting to feel grateful.
Then the effects of the whisks wore off and Dirty Boy was blackening out. Aurora B. sat juggling a mixture of truth and rumour in his head until he, finally, let himself fall into the drop zone with Dirty Boy Macnee…
The Excessive Percentage Reduction procedure was easy. Basic knowledge of meteorology and low-grade piloting skills were the only job requirements.
Apart from that, there were three cubicles in the back of the lugger divided by fibreglass partitions with a single Prospect confined to each. So your standard load was always three. The Prospects had been injected with a passivity solution, meaning you could lead them out by the hand or shoulder, with no strenuous manhandling or lifting involved.
Then you led them into the drop pod and fixed them into the foot-clamps. Then you slid the door shut and released the gauge. Then you heard the inverted whoosh of the pneumatic suction. Then the drop pod dropped and, when it came back, it was empty.
Aurora B. was leading the last one out of lugger, going through the motions with a careless attention to detail that bordered on nonchalance. Most of the time, Luggers would keep an eye on their feet, just to make sure they weren’t tripping up or anything.
So it was strange that, this time, something made him look up at the Prospect’s face, some flicker of instinct that forced his head to bend suddenly upwards with an impertinent jolt.
And when he looked into the eyes of the last one out, he stood and stared. Because the eyes he was staring into…
They were his own.
Aurora B. was staring into his own eyes, standing there, both of him, like he was miming some kind of inanimate object. He had stopped walking, so the Prospect had stopped walking. His mouth had dropped open. He–the Prospect–had his mouth closed.
Younger, of course, and fitter-looking than he’d ever been, but the likeness was indelible.
And why shouldn’t it be? Aurora B. had been a lonely man for most his life who had done the things that lonely men do. With women. Of no fixed abode. Most of them illegal cits.. Some of them junkies. And it was conceivable that–well, it was conceivable that maybe there’d been certain consequences he was unaware of.
And now, it seems, he would have to face up to them.
The centre of the old city was made of locally quarried granite blocks, originally grey in colour, now ingrained with fossil fuel emissions that had turned them sickly black.
Aurora B. lived in a tenement apartment owned by the Security Blanket Housing Association. The amber contractions of flowglow lamps lit the rooms to a barely penetrable pitch of gloom. Only the kitchen had a window. It looked out onto the charred gable of a derelict hypermarket that Aurora B. would gaze upon with a yearning for something that wasn’t there.
But now that Aurora P.–that’s how he called him, thinking it was a good enough name–now that Aurora P. had been smuggled here safely beside him, the thing that wasn’t there was gone.
First few nights, and Aurora B. began teaching Aurora P. some basic life-management skills. So he taught him how to cook. Dwight Merton was Aurora B.’s favourite chef on the Network Cookery Channel. So he started him off on a Merton’s meat and cabbage pie.
Aurora B. extracted the recommended measure of processed meat from a reinforced plastic enduro tin and re-stuck the seal. Lying there in the aluminium bowl, the thick block of meat was congealed and unworkable. So Aurora B. calibrated the rechargeable processed meat emulsifier, an implement resembling an armoured egg whisker with razor-sharp blades that curved inwards like petals on a rosebud and met at the tips without actually touching. Then he pressed the trigger-switch, blades whirring powerfully, and began churning the meat with forceful rotary movements of the wrist.
“You must keep revolving the blades to make sure the meat is emulsified evenly,” he told Aurora P.. “Like this, you see?”
After a few moments of demonstration, he handed Aurora P. the processed meat emulsifier and went over to the cooler to search for some ingredients.
Aurora P. tried the trigger-switch. The blades whirred, a soft metallic blur. “Fuck it,” he murmured, gazing intently at the blades.
Aurora B. glanced up from the cooler. He was raking around for some phosphoric additives to help soften up the meat. “Did you say something, P.?”
P. reeled round like a thief caught in the act of stealing.
“No!” he claimed, and swallowed hard.
“Oh,” said Aurora B.. “Well, just you carry on the good work there, son. Looks to me like you’re doing just fine.”
Over the weeks that followed, Aurora B. and P.’s relationship went from strength to strength. Aurora P. seemed to be content to remain at home alone all day. He enjoyed cooking to such an extent that meals were often ready for Aurora B. whenever he came home from another night’s lugging.
They would sit at the table to eat, like a family, and Aurora B. would ask:
“Did you have a nice day?”
And Aurora P. would answer:
“Yes, I did. I was cleaning up.”
“Yes, I did. I was watching some real life celebrity chat shows.”
And Aurora B. would reply, “That’s just fine,” and couldn’t have known that Aurora P. had sat for the whole day in the armchair, the plasma screen on standby, his body revolving in imperfect circles like some kind of badly tuned precision instrument.
But Aurora B. began to suspect that the inactivity of life at home was having an effect on Aurora P.’s emotional status. P. had began to demonstrate certain responses to situations that, as far as Aurora B. could see, didn’t really require them.
They used to sit together in the evening to watch the World Information Showcase on Global Network 4, an event which had become a kind of family ritual. One night, Aurora P. quite suddenly decided that he didn’t want to view the Showcase, insisting that they switched over to GN 2 to watch Global Network’s International Wrestling Forum.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to watch the International Wrestling Forum,” advised Aurora B.. “It’s just a show where they discuss all the latest controversies in the context of a sport that doesn’t really affect our everyday lives. It’s important we know what’s going on in the world, P.. There are all sorts of things going on in other countries that may concern us.”
Aurora P. slumped back in his chair, mumbling, “Fuck it! Fuck it!”; but Aurora B. just let it pass. Best let the boy get it out of his system, let his feelings out.
And he would remember all that stuff that Dirty Boy Macnee had talked about in The Dinge and think, Well, so what if there are some neurological anomalies? It’s not half as bad as he made out.
There was an Auditor waiting for him as soon as he stepped through the entrance of the EPR sector.
“Aurora Brunt.” It wasn’t a question. “Please follow me.”
So Aurora B. followed him.
They made their way to the nearest Special Staff elevator. It took them to level minus six, a level Aurora B. had never heard of before. The elevator was luxuriously fitted with black chrome insets framed in mirrored gold. Nothing like the corrugated Plexiglas coffins that took you up to the departure quay.
They stepped out into the near blackness of a long corridor with organic strobes casting an intermittent glare between aluminium sheathes spaced evenly along the walls. About halfway down, they stopped at one of the sheathes. The Auditor pressed his palm against it. The sheathe shot upwards with a deafening swish.
The Auditor gestured for Aurora B. to step inside. He did. It was completely dark except for a spotlight on a table in the centre of the room. There were two seats on either side of the table, the spotlight pointing directly at one, the other in shadow.
Aurora B. sat down in a wash of brightness. The Auditor sat opposite, a shadow within shadows, nothing more than a voice.
“My name is Fenimore,” the Auditor assured him.
Aurora B. shuffled nervously on his seat, attempting a smile that was more of a spasm.
Fenimore exhaled deeply before continuing. “We have discovered a discrepancy in your schedule. A Prospect designated for Excessive Percentage Reduction failed to show up on our systems tracking.”
It wasn’t a question. Aurora B. stared. Fenimore leaned forward. Aurora B. could hear him breathing hard through heavily impaired nostrils.
“Do you have any explanations?” prompted Fenimore.
Now it was a question, but Aurora B. couldn’t give an answer. Not the answer.
So he lied. “I don’t understand,” and tried to look blank and scared, figuring that that would be the natural response of someone convinced of their own innocence.
Fenimore also looked blank. But he didn’t look scared.
“Systems checks,” he declared.
Aurora B. allowed his mouth to fall open. “Uh?”
Fenimore planted his elbows on the table, hands thrust into light, veins on his fingers pulsing like worms under leprous-coloured skin. “The disposal procedure is monitored by an autonomous numerator that records the total amount of Prospects passing through the disposal apparatus. In your case, we’ve discovered a discrepancy.” Fenimore reached inside his jacket and produced an electro-organic pocket organiser. The jacket was made of an antistatic pseudo-tweed polyester that couldn’t decide which colour it was. Fenimore flipped open the organiser. A soft sheen threw his face into mottled relief. “Prospect NJM8904. Sex: male. Life-status: denied.” He looked up at Aurora B.. “The disposal did not register.”
Aurora B. let his eyebrows sag. “But that’s impossible,” he suggested.
Fenimore folded the organiser and straightened his back. There was a mute crack of settling vertebrae. “Are you suggesting that there’s been some kind of . . . error?”
The edges of Aurora B.’s mouth twitched. “Maybe. When did you say this was?”
“Well–” Aurora B. shifted awkwardly in his seat– “when was it exactly? I mean, there could be a plausible explanation.”
Fenimore stared. “October 15th. Exactly forty-four days ago.”
Aurora B. made out like he was giving it deep and serious consideration. “Well, I think I remember that one. It was a pretty rough night. Lots of atmospheric interference and stuff. My CPU came down pretty bad. So, well, maybe it could’ve affected the electronics of the systems tracking.” Fenimore nodded. “I mean, you could always check the backups in my CPU. They’ll probably give you a pretty good reading of just how bad it was.”
Fenimore continued nodding, his expression lost in a smear of gloom. Aurora B. wrung his hands under the table.
“Well,” Fenimore sighed, “I suppose you could be right. We’ll run a check on your backups and–well–that should be enough. I think, from our point of view, we’ll have to run a diagnostic on our autonomous numerator, just in case.”
Aurora B. blurted out, too eagerly, “OK,” and squeezed his thumbs.
Fenimore seemed to study him for a moment. “Well, Mr Brunt, I think we can leave it at that. Will you manage to find your own way up to level zero?”
Aurora B. said that he would.
Then spent the next twenty minutes in a desperate search for the aluminium sheathe that was the elevator to level zero.
Aurora P. lay on the kitchen floor and was rubbing his face in films of grit. The edge of the cooler dug into his ribs with painful regularity. Tears mixed with the grit on the floor to form a filthy paste which he started to lick like he was worshipping an idol.
“Fuck it. Fuck it,” he said between sobs. “Fuck it. Fuck it. Fuck it. Fuck it.”
And, slowly, he stopped rocking, until at last his body lay still. He turned his head to one side, his cheek pressed flat against sodden grit.
Stepping out of black chrome, Aurora B. darted warily through the foyer, ran a swipe card through the security check and slipped outside. His head was ablaze with crazed ideas about what to do and how to do it. But a plan like a warm fluid began to spill into place. Like it had seeped through tiny perforations in his skull, through porous canals of knotted brain tissue.
Aurora P. would have to be disposed of.
And it would have to be done quick.
Before a Random Action Military Squad was called in to make a search of his apartment. Because no matter what Fenimore really believed about him, a search would come as a matter of course.
Millicent Mark–that was his name. He was caught selling Prospects on the black market to porn merchants and illegal combat clubs. They put a RAM Squad on his back and worked him undercover for a couple of days. No one ever saw him again after that. Rumour is he became part of the Programme. Rumour is that the drop pod dropped and, when it came back, it was empty.
Lights on the stairwell flashed randomly like radiostatic scuff. Aurora B. had already climbed up and was down the corridor with his auto-key in hand. He stopped when he heard a door slam shut with hydraulic precision.
Footsteps falling sluggishly sent a dull reverberation through spools of darkness. A figure emerged, black against the transparency of gloom. Silence. The sound of breathing.
“Aurora P.!” B. stepped forward, enthralled with relief. “Aurora P..” Another step forward. “What are you doing?”
Aurora P. cocked his head like a dog, straightened it up. “Get out of my way–” He stiffened– “motherfucker.”
Aurora B. sensed the irony. “P..” Another step forward. “We don’t have much time. Please. You must come with me.”
P. approached. Something flashed in his hand. “Get out of my way.”
It was the processed meat emulsifier.
Well, Aurora B. decided, the boy means business.
And he remembered Dirty Boy Macnee, all whisked-up and wordy, a layer of dry sweat pasting his forehead, rasping: “They’re not wired up. Or maybe they’re wired up too strong.”
Aurora B. sighed. “P.,” he reasoned, “put that down.”
Aurora P. swung the processed meat emulsifier and held it before Aurora B.’s face. There was a dull click. The blades whirred. Aurora P. stared.
Aurora B. did not move.
Aurora P.’s hand shook, but it was nothing to do with nerves.
“Fuck it!” he said.
A silence followed. Aurora P.’s hand still shook. The blades whirred. Aurora B. did not breathe.
“P.,” he said, finally, “I want you to listen to me. I’m your father…”
Watching the blades as they were pushed towards his face, Aurora B. was struck by a sudden thought.
He understood it now.
The boy had taken after his mother.
“Fuck it!” cried Aurora P.. “Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it!”
Alistair Rennie is from the North of Scotland and has published short fiction in The New Weird anthology, Weird Tales, Electric Velocipede, Pevnost, and others. He is also a creator of music (alistairrennie.com) and a member of musical ensemble 2000 Ancient Tombs (2000ancienttombs.com).
Gilbert Calleja graduated in drawing and painting from the Malta School of Arts, holds a BA (Hons) Art from the University of Malta and a ‘Licence’ and ‘Maitrise d’Arts Plastiques’ (Fine Arts) from the University of Paris, Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne. His works were featured in a number of local and foreign magazines and newspapers such as Newsweek Russia, the Guardian and Ottar magazine (Swedish queer publication).