No pictures this time – Sorry. Here’s the title piece from the second installment of “The Clar1ty Wars – Under Strange Stars”
UNDER STRANGE STARS
“Versace,” the suave man nodded. A pair of impossibly beautiful women writhed on either side.
He could see pores on their tanned skin, artful stubble, rippling silk, the swell of breasts… The entire side of the building was a hi-def screen.
He tore his gaze away.
Cross the plaza, then up the stairs…
The man in the ad leaned forward. Winked. “There’s no pleasure quite like being envied.”
“I envy you, brother.” The young man embraced him, kissed both cheeks.
“Call me ‘Tenuk’.”
The young man bowed his head in apology. “Please stand still then, Tenuk.” He undid the top button so the jacket hung open casually. Patterned wool, the colors of slate and mint, showed through. The vest was tight. Smooth.
The young man frowned then looked back at the elderly man perched on the edge of the couch. “Relaxed is better, don’t you think?” he offered.
The older man had arrived by car after breakfast. Brown and gnarled, faded kufi on his grizzled hair, he was mukhtar – one of the chosen who had stood beside the Prophet during his years in exile. Such was the honor, the gravity of the occasion.
The elder scrutinized Tenuk’s suit with his good eye. After a minute, he grunted. Satisfied.
“You must not hurry,” he rasped. “Their machines look for faces, yes. But behavior too. Anything suspicious.”
He lifted his clawed hand with its three fingers. “A man in your position does not run.”
“Right. There’s no rush,” the younger one chimed in. “Just get inside. Through the first set of doors into the building. Once you’re past the outer perimeter, it will be easy.”
“God willing,” Tenuk had breathed automatically.
“He is,” the mukhtar declared.
Tenuk wished he had a reply, something inspired – devout. But no.
The Prophet taught there were times faith had no words. It must be so now; his mind was empty as the space between stars.
Arriving at the safe house the previous evening, he’d been shocked at its size, the art, furniture, the technology in every room. In a gated neighborhood with perfect lawns and private security, it was —
The younger man had met him at the door, read his face. “It is necessary,” he explained. “Our struggle takes many forms, wears many masks. We must blend in.”
He merely nodded. It was late and he felt submerged. Carried along.
The younger man seemed to understand, had picked up his suitcase and showed him to his room in silence. They padded down long halls with deep carpet and moonlight silvering framed art. At the end of one wing, a door opened on a huge chamber. Empty, save a bed in the center and a small dresser. A wall of glass overlooked the ocean.
He stepped in, heard the door click shut behind him. The proportions made him abruptly small. Off-balance. It was as large as the Executive Lounge.
He’d gone to the glass wall and stared for a long time – an hour, maybe more – watching the ocean shimmer and breathe. At some point, he fell into the bed, deep and dreamless, until they woke him that morning.
In the living room, the younger man handed him the briefcase. “Walk around. Get used to the weight.”
He had hefted the case, felt the strain in his shoulder. He paced back and forth.
“Straighten your back,” the older one coached.”Swing your arms slightly, as if it were full of papers. Good.”
After several circuits, both had made approving noises. He stopped in front of them. The younger one handed him his Movado Charm, then pinned a laminated ID on his lapel. A veri-chip waf0er winked beside the photo; his serious face. A tiny corporate holo-logo with the name in black print along the bottom. Tenuk Jumaat. E-con Biosystems.
“The car will drop you off inside the downtown cordon.” The young brother patted the ID. “This is authentic, registered in the company database. It’ll get you past any security you meet on the street.”
“But you must act the part,” the old man urged him. The puckered scar around his missing eye tightened as he frowned. “There must be no doubt you belong there. Can you do that?”
He had nodded, sucked in his stomach. Turning to the younger man, “What about detectors? With the threat level up, surely the added security will–”
He had cut him off, boasting like a child about a new toy. “CL20 is very stable. Super low emissions. Plus, I sprayed them with a poly-vinyl membrane. It forms an air-tight seal, even on fabric. I tested it myself,” he added proudly.
The young man stopped, suddenly embarrassed. There was an awkward pause, then he brushed the front of Tenuk’s jacket, straightened the lapels with a weak smile. “Make it past the first ring and no one will even notice you.”
“Of course he will make it,” the older man admonished.”God protects the faithful.” He squinted. “You are steadfast, aren’t you brother?”
Tenuk bowed his head. “Of course.”
“Then God will smile on your efforts.”
Last of all, the young man handed him the pen. Heavy, shiny gold with an infinity symbol etched near the top. “Two clicks.”
“Two clicks,” he echoed, then slid it gently inside his jacket pocket.
When it was time to leave, the three of them stood in the hall, him at the open door, the two of them a pace back. A long pearl-white car gleamed in the driveway.
He had turned to them. “Everything you’ve done—”
“Is nothing compared to you, brother,” the younger one smiled.
“All in the Prophet’s service,” the mukhtar intoned.
“How can I thank you? I don’t even know your names.”
The older one had taken him by the elbow, turned him toward the purring limousine. “We will recognize each other in Paradise.”
The image on the building shifted: a white catamaran skipped across crystal-cut azure waves. Palms swayed in a luminous sky. He caught his breath. He swore he could step onto the beach. “Book your reservations now.”
He glanced around to see if anyone noticed his hesitation, but the younger brother was right; no one gave him a second look.
Back at the curb, his skin had itched. The limo’s rear door had popped open to reveal a huge blue and gray armored vehicle crouched on the sidewalk beside the concrete barricades. The gold Central Enforcement shield flashed in its flank, a fat-muzzle gun in its top turret. The limousine lingered as he queued up at the barriers, then, once he was deep in line, slipped into traffic and disappeared.
There were soldiers everywhere, bulked out in body armor, muttering into throat mikes, cradling stubby, complicated rifles that looked like monstrous folded insects. The aluminum tree of a surveillance mast sprouted over the checkpoint, limbs heavy with black-bulb cameras, antennae and tiny radar dishes. The line was moving fast, people filing through. His mind boiled. To step out now, push, run, would ruin everything.
Three people, then two, then one. A soldier waved him forward. He was at the turnstile.
He wondered how quickly he could reach into his jacket, if he would have a split-second warning before they grabbed him… A gloved hand came up with a scanner, blinked his ID. The hulking trooper waited for confirmation, perfectly still.
He could see himself, distorted in the mirror-shade visor: new suit, thin face, eyebrows raised impatiently.
A green light lit overhead, then the soldier and the cameras swiveled to the woman behind him. No one even glanced at his briefcase.
The turnstile click-clacked and Tenuk Jumaat strode into the heart of the Profligate.
He’d been warned Government Plaza was hectic mid-morning. His arrival was timed precisely for that reason. He simply wasn’t prepared for what that meant.
The square actually seethed with humanity. Officials and functionaries swarmed in the open space like feverish, well-dressed ants, funneling in and out of government offices. Tiny scrolling holo-spheres bobbed in the crowd – hundreds of personal Charm-displays – glowing, moving like mythical will-o’-wisps among the clamor of thousand disconnected voices.
The buildings surrounding the plaza flashed more of the massive video ads; a skyline montage of designer gene-tech, exotic cybernetics, specialized bio-software for any and every whim. Clothes, luxury cruises, yachts, implant jewelry… all hawked by a parade of the sleek and beautiful: icons of opulence presiding over the bedlam of avarice.
He surveyed the crowd. The people here even dressed like the models. In the image of their gods, he thought. Thronging at their feet.
On the far side of the plaza, the black glass spire of the Trade and Transit Authority pierced the rinsed blue sky. His goal.
He stepped into a flow of foot traffic, pacing himself, intent but unhurried. The Parliament Dome gleamed on his right, white and jewel-like in the pale sun. He spied the jade tower of Central Enforcement Headquarters ten blocks away, dogs never far from their masters. Dozens of black-clad soldiers clustered at the square’s six access points. Spindly pacification drones stalked the perimeter like steel spiders.
Before he left, he wouldn’t have been allowed within five blocks of this place. His family had been Fugees, Earth’s scraps risking the long sleep across the void hoping for a better life only to find they had dropped even lower than second-class citizens.
Yet drape tailored cloth over his dark skin, code in a different name and number, and suddenly he was acceptable. Those things weren’t him, didn’t make him any more or less a human being, but here he was.
It was a travesty. Blasphemy.
He walked on, head down, feeling the weight of that thought, of the briefcase, the tightness of the vest with each breath. Hundreds jostled him, flowed past without meeting his eyes, without a murmur of apology. Holo-spheres shattered and reassembled as he passed through, barely a flicker of annoyance registering on the user’s face.
All these people, yet each was utterly alone. The crowd wasn’t a mosaic, but a mass of oblivious fragments.
Oblivious not just to the person beside them he realized, but to primal things. These aristos had exploited, squandered so much for so long, they took the sun’s warmth on their skin for granted, the fresh, un-recycled air, the bright space over their heads. All the things they denied the thousands consigned to off-world mines, to low-g factories and cramped Belt habs, huddled in the fragile colonies that worked the craters and asteroids, straining to meet their quotas in rusty ships held together with wire, bootleg software, aluminum tape and prayer. All those who made their indolence possible.
Half way across the plaza now.
Twelve stories up, the latest Ero-Tech doll sprawled across the face of an office tower. “Svetlana Series Nine. Upgrade your sex drive, comrade.”
He couldn’t help but stare. The cyborg’s sensuality was so brazen, so perfect. So unreal.
How can they make such things?
The answer struck him like a blow: they have even lost the capacity for intimacy. With themselves, with each other, with God. Gorged on resources, they have to twist technology to sate their appetites.
It was beyond cruelty or callousness, as if they had traded their humanity away. Sold it for a bump in their next quarterly report.
After all, what good is a soul if you’re not using it?
He suddenly felt like the only true person in the city, a man surrounded by a legion of doppelgangers. Shades from some mirror dimension.
The Prophet was right: they were beyond wicked. Beyond redemption.
The cabbie yesterday spoke of Abraham, the old man begging for the city of Sodom. Would the Almighty spare it if there were found fifty righteous residing within? Naive, Abraham pleaded his way to forty, thirty, twenty, down to ten.
The city burned.
He looked around. Here in a crowd this size, were there not even nine others?
He moved through the press, listening. No alarms whopped, no soldiers ran toward him waving rifles or shock sticks. The skies remained silent.
The TTA building loomed ahead. He could see the stairs up to the entrance.
Scanning the sea of faces, he bit back his scorn. Humanity can harness the power of the sun to power space ships, send crew and cargo sleeping through the silent depths between stars – a seed in the vast night. We span the gulf of centuries and light years only to see the same old hatreds, fears, and squalor take root under strange stars.
We bring ourselves with us.
Sin is in our bones and only the fire of God can burn it out.
Nearly there now.
He understood he had died all those years ago when people like these had subtracted him and his parents like numbers on their efficiency reports. Downsizing. Restructuring. Positions surplus to requirements. He had survived the voyage out to the Belt, but the severance notice might as well have been a death warrant. They had taken everything.
A bench sat to one side of the central staircase, empty, brown and smooth. Three birds pecked at crumbs in a foil wrapper near one of its curled feet. With a logic more urge than articulate, he veered toward them, drew close in quick steps.
At the bench, he stamped his foot and stood to watch the birds flutter into the sky. They winged over the rooftops and vanished.
He realized a man in a black suit was staring at him. He smiled and mounted the steps to the TTA Administration.
The wall of black glass windows rose before him, reflections moving across the framed expanse like slabs of deep ocean. He took a breath and plunged through the door.
Air-conditioning chilled the perspiration on his face. He was inside, in a tiled foyer: desks, flatscreen directories, a row of full-spectrum scanners.
A large, polite man in a blue uniform stepped forward. “Good morning, sir. Do you have an appointment?”
“Fine, sir. Step this way and I’ll log you in. I just need to scan your ID, get your thumbprint and signature. Then we’ll get you on your way.”
He reached inside his jacket. “Of course.”
A flash of light and heat like a sliver of sun. Then a rumble of thunder – approaching hoof beats – echoing down the canyons of concrete and steel. Those not vaporized drown in a deluge of glass. Tongues of fire begin to lick twisted beams, claw through the rubble. Ashes and choking dust swirl on a hot wind as sirens begin to sound across the city, their chorus rising with the vast shroud of smoke, wailing like the ghosts of the newly dead.