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Different Times (Installment 7)


Great London's dome is umber, a false sunset. A recording from over a hundred years ago. And true to history, the false sun is as ignored as the real one is now. Above the thick dust storms, the original sun remains. From its perspective, the Earth is a gray swirling ball prickling with space towers. Even now, the AI's load the towers with Helium 3 (H3) for transport to the surface. Once the loading is complete, the AI’s turn for the moon. It's the heart of their operation and the home of their lesser god: the Integration.

Above Great London, murky clouds obscure the air-train on its final approach. Vid-feeds in the passenger compartment expose the vague city below. The railways of Waterloo Station come into focus now. Bathed in lights beneath the green energy dome it resembles a series of spiders’ webs. To the east of the webs, the London Bridge, now embraced by the space tower, is bustling with activity. Huge land trucks load the H3 pods and scurry away. Soon the city proper will button up for the evening. It is there, at the London Bridge space tower, that Louis needs to be.

The rest of Great London is sealing in for the night. Metallic shutters envelop whole parks. Oversized panels arrange themselves into origamic blankets over vacant streets and buildings. Once the transition is complete, the new humans hunker down and the augments forget within their virtual realms.

It's a perfect time for Louis and his team. Not so perfect for the slummers beyond the city. They are dragging the tarps and makeshift chain-curtains over their walls. Walls constructed of ancient cars and trucks fitted here and there with rusting washing machines and bathtubs. All of it either cemented or welded into place.

As the air-train penetrates the dust-clouds, the weather changes. Turbulence slams the craft. A moment of shaking followed by vibration, then silence as the heavy air-train noses over. Beneath the energy dome, all is calm, except for the whistling wind. Outside, in the slums, the riot of weather threatens to dislodge the junk laden walls and crumble the feeble structures in between.

Star's harness is tight but her eyes are jittering marbles--always online. To the uninitiated, she’s asleep. In a manner, she is, not having felt the rough ride in.

Kojak is without a harness. He doesn't trust Myra. But she's strapped in and ready for the landing.

Louis is keeping an eye on them all and Waterloo Station, below. Landings are never soft in air-trains.

The signal lights at Waterloo Station flash yellow now. Again, the air-train shakes violently. Still, Star remains engaged with her online apps, monitoring their progress, and watching for telltale signs that they’ve been discovered.

The engines go to full throttle and the roar increases. To Myra, it seems they cannot get any louder. There comes a feeling of weightlessness next and Louis knows that they are descending rapidly. It seems that Kojak has drifted off, lulled to sleep in the violent rolling.

At long last, the mammoth machine makes contact with the rails. The roaring reaches its screeching crescendo and abruptly, it tapers off. As the engines stop, the air-train suddenly slams down. But the jarring ride isn’t over.

Kojak wakes as the forward momentum carries the beast along in a shower of sparks. Until and at last, the air-train slows and comes to a complete halt on the rails. As if in homage to the engines of old, steam issues from beneath the air-train as the deck cleansers spray away the acidic grime collected from the atmosphere.

The engines wind down now and the cabin lights brighten. Avatar passengers, meant only as advertisements for the latest new-human fashions, flicker away. The air-train is now quiet, save for the ticking of the cooling engines.

The avatar conductor rises, bows, and vanishes. In his place is a floating message: Welcome to Great London. The doors swish open to an empty walkway.

Louis turns to Myra. "We're leaving." Louis steps to Star and Kojak now. Both stand.

“It’s been good to know you,” he says.

Both nod. Louis hustles away without further ado. Myra watches him go. Her eyes are moist.

"Nice meeting you, Ma'am," Kojak says to Myra. He pats his pack and steps from the train.

Star hesitates, turns at the threshold. "If you need to reach him, let me know."

Myra cocks her head, confused.

Star says, "Just go online, I'll find you."

“Things are going to change, aren’t they?” Myra asks as Star steps off the air-train.

“I hope so.”

Star steps onto the walkway. A moment later a bell rings and the air-train lifts off for New Paris. Online, Star sees Myra put her head in her hands.

The atmosphere in the Great London dome is stale. For augments and new-humans, it's not an issue. They can filter the air. But Star is immediately uncomfortable. She turns to Kojak who is walking beside her, "I'm using sups.”

Kojak nods in understanding. He pops an air pill too. He pats his prize machine-liver in his pack, "You know, I'm thinking that I'll never get to sell this thing now."

Star glances at the space tower from the walkway. It's empty of people. "Money isn't everything," she says. "Ready?"

"This is gonna piss a whole lot of them off," Kojak answers.

“Just keep watch. If any avatar stops to look at me, warn me."

They stop on the walkway, look down. Great London sprawls out, ultra-modern and sleek. A futurist's dream, if he is on drugs and plugged into a psychedelic virtual world, without gravity. New-humans pad along spiraling footpaths, tended to by augments--because they hate the AI’s. Dinner crowds thin as the air machines begin to shut down. Tall buildings begin to retract, sinking slowly. Some furl like flags. A kaleidoscope of color twisting into its trap door.

"The eyeball, please," Star says.

Kojak hands her the mini-nuke he took from the late John Kremel. "It was something, huh?"

"What?" Star says as she works.

“How we got the nuke.”

“Augs shouldn’t have them in the first place,” she answers. “But John Kremel was special. Myra should have suspected we’d go after it.”

“Maybe she did.”

Star realizes that Kojak is more than meets the eye.

“Maybe,” she answers.

He shakes his head now. "And to think that Louis' mother was a robot. I never knew."

"Not a bot." Star stands. She makes quick work with the nuke. "Louis' mother was an augment, but she had brains. That's where the Party screwed up.”

“How?” Kojak asks.

“Because his mother wasn’t a natural. She was a hybrid.” Star snaps her pack closed. “When they force augmented her, she fought back--mentally.”

“You mean she was a half-breed?”

Star gives him a sharp look. “Don’t say that.” She starts to walk away. “She was new-human and natural. Her mother was raped by a new-human.”

“Wait a minute,” he says, following. “So are you a hybrid?”

She doesn’t answer.

“That’s why you can go online so easily, right. It’s not only your augments. Was your mother—"

“I will kill you where you stand,” Star says, stopping to make a point of it. She walks away now.

© 2020 Jack Shorebird

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