Friday, August 6, 2010

Before We All Burn Out

Oh hey there, internet! I almost forgot you existed for a little while there. (This is a baldfaced lie.)

As usual, I got caught up in this last month. Thus, more empty promises for more content and my lowest content month for the year on here. In the last, you shouldn't have any more Julys to dread here - content WILL increase again yet, I swear. Anyway, here's my late July story - late as usual. I was hoping to have it up late last week, before the beginning of August and technically on time for once. That obviously didn't work out.

This one's a little different in that I've spent about four days working on it rather than the usual one or two, and I've invested more time into proofreading and revising, so maybe there'll be some evidence of something more than the first draft that my short stories here usually are. Maybe not. Regardless, dig in. It's time to get strange.

Before We All Burn Out
You've gotta have a place to think. This sentiment was impressed upon me by a philosophy professor back in college. He wasn't the first to suggest the idea, but he was the first from whom the idea made sense. Prior to college, I'd look at the cleaned up material presented in the classroom and wonder, "Think about what?" There was too much concern about causing political offense for educators at those levels to be allowed to teach anything resembling truth.

My thinking places varied from then on. There were a few nice spots in the campus garden where I could lie back and lose myself in the labyrinth of my thoughts. Neurons fired, synapses connected, and youthful idealism soon gave way to world-weary cynicism like every other college kid who thinks they're enlightened and cool. As with many others, I carried this with me further into adulthood and found myself presented with a choice: to let cynicism's fangs end me and climb that ladder to join the sociopathic upper crust or remain mired in the muck to which those sincerely concerned with the human condition are condemned. Submitting to my conscience, I became a power grid technician here in Baton Rouge and devoted my next ten years to watching blinking lights on monitors; going on maintenance runs a few times a year. The scrubs didn't get to do much else.

Eventually, I was promoted to supervisor-a ceremonial title at best-and my job from then on entailed waiting for news from my technicians and occasionally reporting to the higher-ups and the city council. With a lot of free time to kill, I took up virtual jai alai. I'm not any good, but there's a reliable adrenaline rush in it.

These days, my parents' front porch is my favorite place to think. When I drop by, they love nothing more than to distract me with aimless stories from their personal lives, but they'll usually grant me ten or fifteen minutes to myself after dinner. The shifting colors of the half-dead grass on their lawn have been something of a comfort to me since childhood, even though I've never seen grass fully alive. Half the world's oxygen supply was gone generations before my birth.

It was one of those nights when I got the call. A dying firefly flickered achingly on the grass below. A struggling heartbeat. Thunk. And then another. Badunk. Summer was almost over. The city had gone dark only a minute ago. Without the usual light pollution, the cosmos above was a breathtaking panorama of stars, nebulae, and atmospheric chemicals. My mother handed me the phone. They knew where to reach me when my portable was off.

"Power's off," I said.

"Sure is," said Bentley. Decent kid. Usually reliable.

"What's the damage?"

"Generators C, F, and G hiccuped. Auto-reset's no good. I'm out at G, got it purring again."

"Who else is working tonight?" I asked, feeling like I should know. I didn't really have an excuse for not knowing.

"Beck and Higgins. Higgins handled C-just got off the wire. Beck's incommunicado. Been trying to call him. I think something's happened." A tone of worry crept into Bentley's voice.

"So you got me on the line. Couldn't reach anyone else?"

"Nick's phone's off. Idris told me to go to hell. I didn't have a choice."

"Guess it's time to take a walk," I said, ending the call and getting to my feet.

Back inside, my parents were doing the dishes by battery powered lantern light. I returned the phone to its cradle, rooted around in the hall closet for a spare pair of waders, and took off with flashlight and lantern in hand. I disconnected the charger from the Niron and the car immediately whirred to life, scanning the area. Once it confirmed my identity, the engine began to hum and the lock mechanisms released. As government cars go, there's worse out there.

The silent suburban sprawl unfolded around me as I oriented myself toward the southwestern bayou near the city limits. The streets were empty. During states of emergency, only government employees are permitted to get behind the wheel. These outages would happen less often if not for the gutless legislators. Anytime an ordinance is proposed to upgrade and rework the city's power grid network and reinforce the generators' tenuous connections, some asshole pipes up and calls it 'pork.' Then another few million dollars disappear into some dirty contractor's pocket. It's only a matter of time until the city goes down permanently. A few days high and dry could be just what this city needs.

Then again, we don't seem to have learned much. Old Baton Rouge was almost completely wiped out during the Suffocation. And that was after the carelessness with the fossil fuels. The same old people, the same old argument-they don't want us doing our job. Deregulation sure as hell didn't fix anything before. Money does funny things to a person's thinking.

I radioed Bentley through the car's system.

"Any word from Beck?"

"Nope. Higgins's been trying too. There's rumors about that bayou. Ghosts. The usual. There's been some rapes there. Murders too."

"Maybe old Beck got the willies and took off."

"Maybe. He would."

"Maybe not." I pulled into the parking lot at the bottom of the hill and saw Beck's Mica parked a couple of spaces its away. The cars immediately identified one another. "His ride's here."

"D'you got a gun or anything?" Bentley asked.

"Don't need one. According to my display, there's some nests around here. If things get ugly, I can call for help." I reached into my glove compartment for a gas mask.

"Keep an eye out for Beck, will ya? He owes me ten bucks." Bentley disconnected.

I slammed the Niron's door behind me and it settled back into its sleep mode, sounding to indicate that its signal scanner was still active.

Gravel steps led to the top of the hill, where a hand-carved wooden sign displayed a single word in red paint. Carne. The sign had appeared there years before I was born. The bayou was officially nameless, but locals had come up with all sorts of half-assed ones. None of them really stuck but Carne. Nobody knew who'd put the sign up, either. Urban legends were more interesting than the truth could have been. Popular belief was that it was the doing of a serial killer who'd drowned his victims in the polluted shallows. Something-or someone-perhaps not human. Louisiana hadn't seen a single serial killer in at least sixty years. Cryptids were another matter, but they were old hat by now.

I descended the hill and unlocked the gate around the chain-link fence that Public Safety Services had put up a few years back. The bayou was heavily polluted-not that this was abnormal-but that in itself didn't serve as quite the deterrent that most had hoped it would for children. Probably doesn't help that the public park a couple of miles down's one of the more popular ones in the area, either. "Oh honey, don't go wandering off into the toxic swamp of mystery!" probably won't stop most kids. Considering the PSS's choice of solution, you have to wonder if nobody told them that kids can climb.

Once I was past the gate, trees flanked the dark dirt path into the bayou itself. A wooden dock jutted out over the shallow sludge below. Standing at the end, I switched my flashlight off and turned on my lantern to get a better look at my surroundings. No sign of Beck.

It couldn't have been an alligator or anything like that. Most life on Earth was wiped out during the Suffocation. Not a good time for those of us dependent on aerobic respiration. Few creatures mutated to live on. Human beings couldn't, so we sealed ourselves off in artificial environments and the few hundred thousand to survive received adaptive implants. 'Human' ceased to be the self-identifying term for the human race many decades before my birth, as new generations began to describe themselves as 'Alters,' in hopes of putting some distance between themselves and the human race that was.

The differences between humans and Alters are outwardly indistinguishable. While developing in the womb, embryos have artificial endoskeletons attached that facilitate both healthy development to reduce the defect rate and the directed development of a modified respiratory system utilizing oxygen amplification and reduction technology-not my field, so I can't explain the exact science. Suffice to say, we have technology in our lungs and throats that allow human beings to survive and communicate with only a tiny fraction of the oxygen we used to consume, which has allowed us to create the controlled semi-open city environments of today. It was the first generation that boldly stepped outside of the shelters that took it upon themselves to reject the human name upon first laying eyes on the dead ocean.

Truthfully, we Alters're a lonely bunch. We're perhaps too aware of the fact that there's only a few million of us spread out across the globe now. So for companionship, dogs and cats have undergone a similar biological redesign with their own reduced respiration. They're among the only animals left in the world, and many of us have never even seen one of either. You'd be hard pressed to go a day without seeing a few roaches.

A chill ran down my spine as I lowered my left foot down into the sludge. Only my gas mask and a few millimeters of reinforced rubber stood between me and more toxic chemicals than I could identify. Some idiot decided we'd be safer from terrorist attack if we built a generator out here, but I'm not sure what terrorists we were expected to be afraid of. After the Suffocation, violent acts among humans became more isolated. There hasn't been an organized conflict since. We may not like each other, but we can't afford to lose anyone.

Sometime after I'd lost sight of the dock, the trees all around began to glow. Dim at first, the light soon brightened to the point at which I had to switch to my gas mask's darkened lenses to avoid being blinded. Once my eyes adjusted, it became clear that the surrounding trees lining the way to the generator were covered  in fireflies, like lights on world's gaudiest Christmas tree.

The fireflies were among the insects to mutate and adapt to low-oxygen Earth-in general, insects handled the Suffocation better than most higher and more complex lifeforms. I'd seen a TV special some years back about research on developing intelligence and the communal behaviors that had fireflies developed in response to the changed world and emergence of outdoor Alter civilization, but I was only half paying attention at the time.

Focus! This is no time to get distracted.

The generator platform soon came into view, midway into the bog. Still no sign of Beck. I climbed up out of the muck and onto the steel platform and revealed the control terminal after inputting my identification signal. A quick reboot later, the generator awoke from its brief nap with a groan, restoring light and power to the area. Light pollution immediately sent the stars back into hiding. Searchlights danced across the visible sky not far off, drawing attention to a new local restaurant that had its seafood flown in fresh from the Great Lakes every morning.

A slurping sound drew my attention back to the muck below, where it had begun to shift. The fireflies' light began to oscillate in color as thousands if not millions of the bugs began to beat their wings in unison. A person's frame rose up from the ooze, looking like something from a movie hundreds of years back. Enough sludge slipped off the body to reveal the man's face - it was Beck. He coughed a couple times, spitting out some of the disgusting soup. He wasn't dead yet. His eyes had rolled back into his head. More of the muck dripped away. He was covered with fireflies. They manipulated his body like a puppet, now holding it an inch or so above the goo. In a shaky, stunted motion, they extended his right arm in my direction, and then his index finger. The other fireflies began to leave the trees and form glittering clouds around the platform.

I cleared my throat, suddenly uneasy. This was not something I'd ever had to deal with, but I had to keep calm. If faced with an unfamiliar mutant, we were supposed to call for help. At this point, I had no choice but to signal to the nests. This would be my first time reaching out to those.

I swallowed nervously and raised my head up, closed my eyes. I just had to focus. At first, there was nothing. Then a slight warmth in my throat. The feeling grew, and calmed, I reopened my eyes. My throat glowed as brightly as the fireflies' abdomens.

There was no telling what direction they came from. Only that moments later, I had a gigantic moth attached to each arm, each with its beady eyes fixated on my throat. We'd learned to connect with the moths initially by accident, researchers having discovered a light frequency they were particularly fond of. Since then, people began raising these mutants, training them as the humans once had falcons, and with the proper throat modification, we could signal to any in the area that we had prey for them. This was probably the best defense mechanism I could have hoped for against the encroaching swarm of fireflies.

I raised the moths like shields and steeled myself. There was no telling what the fireflies were capable of, and I had no idea what they were trying to communicate, but I had to break through and get Beck out of here alive. He wasn't the best of my technicians, but still, we can't afford to lose anybody. With our respective bioluminescences, we were speaking separate languages and neither could understand the other.

If they blamed us Alters for what had become of the world, I didn't have an apology for them. I've never known a world other than this one as it stands, and I'm not sorry for being born after humanity destroyed the world. If there's anything that still bonds us, it's the mutual will to survive.


Erin said...

You probably don't remember me. My name's Erin. We used to talk a lot on-line. For some reason, you were on my mind tonight and I googled you...found this. I'm really glad to know you're still writing prolifically.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Nah, I still remember. I don't forget people. Things didn't end well. Writing's my life, though. As much so as ever.

*T-Abby* said...

Hey, took me a while to read this as I've taken a hiatus from my blog. Good one though. Not what I expected from reading the beginning.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Glad to've pulled off some surprise twists with this one. I wanted to take it some strange places. Trying to finish up my ultra-late posting of my end-of-August/end-of-summer story now before I get more fully into my more regular autumn blogging season now, what with the autumnal equinox approaching this week.