Keep The Candle Burning 2 – Quinton

In the heart of Slummer Paradise, where the pollution-to-air ratio was widely acknowledged to be the worst on the planet, Marv Quinton fitfully tossed and turned on a rented rotten wood floor.

Why he opted to lay his sleepmat there was obvious. Being hazardzone, the Paradise offered excellent cover because it was as dark, grimy and ominous as the rumor suggested. The persistent stinging smog created by makeshift power stations and chemical plants, hovered over the tiny region and cut resident life expectancy short by sixty percent with cancer, heart disease and emphysema. The drawn faces of the locals took on the grays and browns of the cityscape. Acrid smoke from rows of chimneys darkened the streets. Lignite and coal, used to fuel the mechanix of the area, was primitive, cheap and abundant. It was also high in sulfur and ash and intensely dirty.

All in all, it was a small price to pay for a rest to the endless running.

The area was originally named Alphabet City in the PreCollapse Days, but that was before the FlatFall of ’92, when the Eurasian Alliances established the Global Commodities Barter Systems which succeeded in destroying the economies of the former superpowers. All plans for the commercial and residential redevelopment of Alphabet City were scrapped in the depression that followed.

After years of neglect and decrepitude, after sewage, factory discharge and poorly stored toxic waste had contaminated most of the surrounding areas, the residents who could afford it began moving away in droves and a dome was constructed to contain the area’s pollutants. It became a scarred and battered, lost part of Manhat, rumored to be inhabited by freaks and misfits. A place where acts of depravity and violence were the social norm.

An exaggeration on the truth. The area was inhabited by travelers and squatters mostly, with a few neurobikers, ‘Rinthjocks, and down-n-outters tossed into the pot to add flavor. Even though many of the babies were born with deformities, asthma, bronchitis, and eye and skin ailments, due to the high level of toxic metals collecting in their parent’s tissues, they were not misfits. They were pioneers that saw a home in a lifeless place. It was their sweat and muscle that rebuilt the area, some were even cunning enough to devise independent air-filtration, sewage and electrical systems. And as for the acts of violence and depravity, well, they happened no more in the Paradise than anywhere else. Both factions of segregated Manhat gave the Paradise wide berth just the same.

Rising fear from the rumors eventually led to the area being legally designated Hazardzone. That was when Alphabet City’s concrete and steel skeleton became Slummer Paradise. Home to those who had nothing to lose by becoming lost in the bureaucracy. Visited by no one in the mainstream, except for slamtrackers, who came to collect either police or private bounties.

And in the center of this asphalt and tar prairie, Marv Quinton hid in a one-room coffin, equipped with the barest of essentials needed to continue his existence.

Nighttime stressed him the most. He was used to being mobile until daybreak. The hysteria, brought on by the restlessness he usually managed to beat down, was just about to bust its cap. The rathole he took refuge in suddenly began to close in on him. He yanked the interface cables from his head shunts and shoved his cybermodem violently aside. Not even being online in the Labyrinth contented him any longer. He paced the room, chain-smoked and flicked stations on the vid monitor until nothing was on the screen but the subliminal psychedelics of the non-broadcast channels that were meant to lull the viewer into a passive, consumable state, which had no effect on Marv. For inspiration, he worked on his agenda and list of priorities until they became so sophisticated and scrambled, he had to stop before he lost his mind. Funny thought, that, since he was surely crazy already.

Sleep deprivation made him this hunted animal, addicted to fear and sometimes murder. He would have done Strega blotter, mescaphine tabs, hyperpyridinium Jell-0 shots, anything to put himself under, but his metabolism had been altered to make him immune to stims. So he forced himself to stretch out on the hard, unyielding sleepmat. He was certain he understood what Hell really was; lying down, tired enough to sleep through his entire lifetime, times three , yet not able to close his burning, bloodshot eyes.

Dreaming, perchance to sleep.

That was a curse he acquired while on the run. He never had dreams anymore, the dreams had him. Clutching him in a two-fisted chokehold of rudimentary panic that was beyond the realm of his comprehension, yet so basic in structure that it was ingrained in the very foundation of his nature. The fear, or the dream, he wasn’t sure which, had turned his cramped room into a vast black canvas, stretched to opposite sides of infinity. And his childhood phobia of the dark bubbled to the surface from that place buried by years of conditioning, logic and maturity, deep within the sub-sub-sub-regions of his mind. That tiny concrete and steel room, wrapped in wrecking ball chains, with the huge reinforced padlocks that held all the real horrors of the world: the deranged and deformed Prometheus, cybervampires, hellhounds, the CribDeath Man, Geriatric Rabid Killer Teddy Bears. Somehow they were all free again. Some nosey bastard just had to find out what was in that room, just had to pick the padlocks. And now they were coming for him, to exact their revenge, to toss his into that tiny prison. But not before they had their fun. Rule Number 101 in the Horrors’ Ethics Handbook: Always Enjoy Yourself At The Expense Of Others.

Wait! What was that at his ankle? Felt like teeth. Long, sharp, metal…

Only then, when he choked down a scream that made his throat raw, was he beset with the meat of the nutshell. The dream.

Flash-card remembrances assaulted his senses, of different things and different times, but ail in order, as if they had been carefully filed in some sort of mental card catalogue and plucked out by a librarian and thrust into his face, one at a time.

MEMORY of the rough feel of his father’s hands as they brushed his own, accepting his third year birthday gift. The hand-me-down IBM keyboard, one megabyte ram, forty megabytes hard drive with a built-in VGA holoplate that weighed a ton in his tiny grip.

MEMORY of the sweat that poured down his face and stung his eyes, at age nine, when he battled the school computer’s AI for supremacy and rewrote the comp literacy program to upscale the daily lesson plans to something a bit more challenging.

MEMORY of the wonderfully dirty, used smell of the money he made changing grades after he cracked the Board of Education’s mainframe.

MEMORY of the coy smile that played at the corners of his mother’s mouth when she announced, on his twelfth birthday, that she would finance his first set of chrome interface sockets.

MEMORY of the first time he jacked into the Labyrinth, the way the computer data reached out to him, into him, and tickled his nervous system. He reached his first orgasm at that moment, and was embarrassed at the time. Now he wished he could go back and re-experience that sensation. No other orgasm had come close since.

MEMORY of his father’s chalky brown face on the day of the funeral. The facial expression wasn’t right, wasn’t natural. The person that handled the cosmetics obviously never met his father while he was alive.

MEMORY of the scratchy white tissue in his mother’s hand that wiped the tears from his swollen eyes, as she tried to explain in a hushed and frightened tone, that his father hadn’t died of a stroke as she led everyone to believe.  His father had actually been part of a rebel group named “The Midnight Raiders” who punched into the Labyrinth and attempted an illegal data raid on the Polygenom Corporation. Somewhere something went wrong and they tripped over an anti-intrusion program that wiped their brains clean and stopped their hearts cold.

MEMORY of his stomach churning savagely on the night before his fifteenth birthday, when he woke to the sound of his mother’s screams. The ‘Rinth police had violated the sanctity of their home and yanked her from bed with a gun to her head, dragging her struggling body into the street. She was still in her nightgown.

MEMORY of the mixed look of terror and anger on his mother’s bruised and bloodied face, as they shoved her into a dark nondescript van. He knew that was the last time he’d ever see her again.

MEMORY of the helplessness he felt, handcuffed in the backseat of the squad car, overhearing the conversation of the two ‘Rinth cops up front. They discussed sticking him in a foster home until further orders were received. Their casual tone of voice, like they were dropping off clothes at the cleaners, made him kick at the wire mesh partition until he wore himself out. The cops just laughed as he cried in frustration.

MEMORY of him breaking out of the foster care system two days after his arrival. If there was any justice in the world, he hoped somebody snatched the stupid ‘Rinth cops’ families out of bed at gunpoint and shoved the lot of them into a van, never to be seen again. How hard would they laugh then?

MEMORY of learning how to hustle on the streets to avoid eating out of restaurant dumpsters.

MEMORY of faces. Thirty-five screaming faces of strangers, slamtrackers, each characteristically unique and detailed. Faces burned on the insides of his eyelids forever. Thirty-five people, women and men alike, who probably had families that depended on ‘Rinth police bounties. Money that would never be collected. Families that needed to find a new provider.

So many memories, tiny shard images and hollow voices. He supposed, in its own way, it was a form of rest, a sort of OEM sleep. Open Eye Movement. His eyes darted around the bleak room, tracking the images that ran at ultraliminal speeds. The same way tonight as every other time he tried to sleep since he was fifteen. The dream made him a captive audience to a personalized home movie that he was powerless to stop when it came over him. Unable to sleep until the dream ran its course. When it was finally done, so was he.

Just as he was about to settle into that brief and fragile thing that passed for sleep, Marv Quinton woke hard, clothes clinging to his sweat-spackled body. Grabbing the Browning Hi-Power beneath his pillow, he racked the slide, chambering a 9mm shell and covered the door. The act was a smooth reflex, practiced so much, he could have done it in his sleep. Many times he had. The room was windowless and pitch to human vision, but he twisted his head back and forth anyway, scanning. His heart hammered. The remnants of the dream shrieked through his mind. An eddy of pure panic swept over him when he realized he had company.

Someone was in the hallway, just outside his room door.

To Be Continued…

Text and audio ©2002-2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys