1 – Coming Down to Earth
As a means to an end, the present had become the future – and perfect it was not. Death was unacceptable. Slater wanted to avoid the social stigma. He fought to resist gravity and pull out of its grip. He was attempting to right his course. But lasers from hostile aircraft kept strafing at him and interfering with his trajectory. He was used to adversity. He could survive this, he reasoned, unreasonably, as the engine of his QuantumStarXS burst into flames.
Suddenly he was plummeting, his optimism too, worthless, like stock in a panicked market with no bottom in sight. His vision was obscured by black smoke swirling backwards into the path of his descent. The force of frigid air extinguished the fire and exposed the intricate grid of the city enlarging fast. His wings were failing to hold him aloft. He felt like Icarus, a fool made of feathers and wax, melting to pieces, transformed back from a technological wonder to a chunk of debris dropping to Earth.
Life was so precious. A lesson learned too late. Irreversible, was time. His lungs compressing. Warning lights flashing panic. Air screaming through the faltering seams of his carapace as he gripped the control stick shuddering chaotically. His shouts were diminished by a roar of static that overwhelmed his senses – inarticulate and mesmerizing like a sea breeze of sparkling mist, a crescendo of waves, a Siren’s song.
Kaleidoscopic visions formed a flickering dream he could almost touch. He knew these places, these people. But where… when? His running lights and windshield became tumbling chips of broken glass. They rose and fell into a twirling mandala of memories. A tunnel of light.
The fall was indefinite, a warp in time, a neurological black-out, prior to his autonomic brake-jets igniting, jolting his senses back into cognition. His desire for self-preservation rebooted. He renewed his fight with gravity and managed to pull out of his dive. With ferocious speed he landed on a vacant freeway. Tires howled and skidded as he sideswiped a barrier wall that tore into his metal frame igniting sparks. He broke free and plunged down an off-ramp. With brakes burning and tires screeching, his QuantumStar crashed into a cement pillar.
It was a transcendental moment. His mind-body-spirit was jabbering all at once. Slater remained seated, soaked in sweat, bathed in a haze of twilight, amazed he was still whole. He was disoriented by the noise in his brain. A reverberating roar that conjured images of disembodied souls frantic and lost within a chamber maze. He stared at the column that had stopped him. It was an ancient artifact, discolored with stains, as if submerged once beneath the sea, and belonging to a minimalistic period of architecture. The shaft had no fluting, no ornamentation at its crown, only iron bars that were rusting and exposed like veins poking through its crumbling concrete skin.
The internal residue of noise subsided. So did the pounding of his heart and head. He determined his location. The column belonged to a transportation system. It supported an overpass linked to pathways and bridges. Systems that were now relics and systematically being demolished globally. Those remaining, like the span of freeway he had crashed into, were retrofitted with a cats-cradle of metal bracing.
A minor epiphany: A realization of where and who.
He was John Lazard Slater III, known simply as John, or Slater (or Satyr to his fans and foes, once upon a time), a man who had fallen ignominiously from the sky to crash-land on a freeway overpass that once transported travelers to and from the once heralded city of New Francisco, formerly known as San Francisco, now just called Frank.
Slater frowned at his reflection in the side window. Forty-five years of life had chipped away at his face, now ruggedly handsome. Dark penetrating eyes and a vertical scar down the left side of his face competed to be his most prominent feature. Providing one didn’t first notice his neurocircuit, a metallic bulge, like a third eye emerging at the peak of his forehead. No longer could he cover this goose-egg protrusion with his black hair. It had receded like an outgoing tide into diminished swells of streaked grey.
Slater opened the cockpit. Emerging from his QuantumStar he felt vulnerable, like a crustacean, naked, about to encounter the world unshelled. The concrete landscape was void of snow. It glistened with patches of ice. A distance away, inhabitants of this shadowy netherworld were standing around a burning trash can. One bearded man was wearing a ragged Santa Claus hat. Liquor bottles and cigarettes were being passed and shared.
“Merry Christmas,” said Slater. He pretended to be unfazed from his ordeal. He tossed them the key to his flight. It was the spirit of holiday giving and sharing. “You’re welcome to it.”
An empty bottle crashed at his feet, thrown back in trade.
Slater deemed it fair, given his predicament.
These people were dressed in ski overalls and parkas. It was a defense against the subzero weather. Their grimy yet colorful clothes were no longer in fashion, but abundant ever since the invention of thermosuits.
Slater was wearing one himself. The fabric was soft, had a sheen, with blue-grey flecks alternating diagonally to create a pinstriped pattern. A cloth combining natural and chemical fibers woven into a tailored cut. He raised his collar and felt a wetness. He saw blood on his fingers. A laceration to his head was in need of clotting. He reached inside his autoplane and removed a hat. He placed it on his head. Tugging on the brim, he applied pressure, creating a makeshift bandage.
Mongrel dogs had sensed his presence and were growling. The humanoid faces wavered in the fire’s orange glow. They glared with a curious discontent before dismissing him. As just one more intrusive stink in the communal sewer.
To avoid a confrontation Slater gave a parting nod. In a half wave to no one in particular, he belatedly added, “And, uh, have a happy New Year.”
Slater knew from personal experience what it was like being homeless living on the streets. Memories started surging back, which strangely renewed him with a nostalgic sense of freedom. By relinquishing his QuantumStar, a possession many coveted, albeit malfunctioning, he felt an imaginary weight of bondage being released. He felt light-headed. Optimistic again. And as he walked, he was realizing he had let himself become enslaved to these electro-mechanical devices. He swore to God, prior to chastising himself, to never let it happen again.
But freedom came with dangers.
The air was bitter cold. Slater began to shiver. He increased the temperature of his thermosuit with the push of a button. To verify he hadn’t lost his cellphone he touched his coat pocket. He reached for his lasercards secured in another compartment before it occurred to him they provided little or no protection. An initial wave of panic quelled, as if calmed by tranquilizing endorphins still coursing through his veins from his near-death experience.
He proceeded with a quixotic lack of fear, though vigilant, through a wasteland of deserted streets. Noises intermittently emerged from the industrial ruins and cavernous dwellings that formed a dark jagged scape of unstable land. Slater envisioned these mountainous compositions as though they were flotsam deposited on Earth from outer space long ago.
He began imagining deposits of forgotten history.
He imagined a place void of time.
He saw himself as an astronaut, floating weightless, drawn by gravitational forces toward a distant and bedazzling galaxy. The city. It had a tug of familiarity as gentle as a hypnotic flame. It kept him moving, step by step, like a grounded moth intent on reaching this concentration of lights kilometers away.
Hours passed before he reached the city’s swarming center. The manic electricity was palpable. Sights, sounds, and smells. People bumped past him without apology or a second thought. Wafting scents of Asian, French, Mexican, African, and other cuisines battled for dominance. Glass-front stores glowed, open for business, glittering cavities with buyers bargaining for goods.
Long ago, as a child, one of debatable innocence, Slater had loved visiting the city. With its abundant diversity. Its offerings of adventure. Imagining himself as a shipwrecked survivor washed up on a pirate’s island filled with buried treasures, or as a warrior sent into space to rescue a princess held captive on a hostile planet, or as a loner-drifter born with the power to see through time.
At present, now the future, Slater knew to be wary.
There were cyberguards. Hybrid forms so humanlike they were undetectable from other DNA-based forms of intelligence, like himself. The human eye was no longer a trustworthy gauge for discerning species. It took science, building aberrant vocal tone detectors and word deconstructors, to detect the nuances. Now thought and action could be calculated – with a moderate degree of accuracy – to determine who, or what was, or wasn’t, truly human.
Paranoia had become the norm.
Slater had good reason to worry. There were many alive who wanted him dead. He needed to find a safe place to sit and reconstruct his thoughts.
Entropy, the great equalizer in a world of disorder, along with the mother of all muses, Mnemosyne, beckoning one to a place in time, brought John Lazard Slater III to rest upon a bar stool. Inside an establishment called The Metro – a bar which, decades ago, had been notorious by another name.