Prism City Blues
By Naim Kabir
Illustration by Bernard Dumaine & Janelle McKain
Welcome to Prism City,
Original home of the Retrovirus!
―Sign outside Gallo, California
Noah could tell it was the dealer when he saw the plume of blue smoke curve from his lips and float into the wet night air. Only rich men could afford to let their lungs tar and their teeth yellow: the cheap cigarettes would shave years off their life but they could just pop RV and add a few more.
A flutter in the night spooked the smoker and he coughed a sour puff of gray, looking this way and that at the tiled roofs and weather-beaten crucifixes. The upper crust never came around here — they’d left it to the crumbs a long time ago — but everyone knew that Churchtown was home to the birds, too.
Noah didn’t care. The birds wouldn’t claw you unless you got near their roosts, and they wouldn’t break you and beak you unless they were on the hunt. And they only ever hunted when the sun was up. So without a flutter of fear, he walked onto the open street and got on his knees at the dealer’s feet.
“Not today,” the smoker growled, tugging out his half-burnt cigarette and flicking the orange sunspot into the dark. He put his hands on the shoulders of Noah’s patched jacket and got him to rise and look him in the eye. “Today you get a free dose — a good one from the best supplier.”
Noah laughed in a burst of disbelief-turned-joy, but the smoker said, “This charitable spirit ain’t going to last forever. Next time better be twice as good,” and shoved a box into his arms. The dealer gave him a greasy, yellow smile and slinked into the distance.
Noah shook and clutched the box of retro to his chest. He’d stay at healthy twenty-five for another five months: another five months to paint or sculpt and make something new, another five months to learn more and gain more and funnel more into his work. Mom always said that time and experience made you more successful — and that made sense. Why else would the richest people all be so old?
All Noah needed was time. Soon he wouldn’t have to deal with cigarette-sucking street-slingers and could buy retro on his own, but first he needed to sell his pieces. He needed to become a star.
The hovel Noah called home was built into the side of an old, gray church, and it only took a few moments through back alleys filled with trash and broken glass to hit it. A few days before, he’d managed to steal paint from a renovation project at the very edge of the Upper West Side, and had started work on a mural on the church’s eastern wall.
He’d get back to it as soon as he popped the lid off the RV box and stuck himself with that silver needle in its bed of black foam. The chrome lid came undone and an automated voice sounded from the speaker on the box’s side.
The dealer was right about his source being good. That voice only spoke when retro came in its original company packaging. It seemed that the only foolproof insurance against a hot-coffee lawsuit was a set of crystal-clear instructions and a honey-gold voice:
Welcome to immortality! In a few moments I will give you instructions on how to apply your dose of the Retrovirus, but first I’d like to take a moment to inform you on what’s inside.
Noah slipped his fingers around the needle and tossed the talking box onto the floor, flexing and relaxing his right arm to force the blood into his swelling veins. He rolled up the sleeve of his jacket and watched for the telltale sliver of blue in the nook of his elbow.
The needle you see there has a special solution of retrovirus and adrenaline, along with a few inactive chemicals that help to stabilize the ingredients.
A nub of blue finally showed itself and he jabbed the needle into his arm and pressed down the plunger. Air exploded from his lungs in a single crystal breath and he shivered in place.
Retrovirus is a special biological machine that helps us edit your DNA. It’ll take care of all the pesky damage done by time and aging. The adrenaline is there to make sure your blood pressure is high enough to spread the virus to all the cells of your body!
His muscles seized and his pupils swallowed brown-gold iris, his fingers crushed into a fist and his heart rattled his ribcage.
Now, any injection comes with the risk of infection. The bottle and swab above the needle are there to sterilize your arm before you treat yourself. It’s very important that you do this!
The voice faded to a drone in the background and Noah ripped open his stolen cans of paint. He’d only been able to steal two: one gallon of white and one gallon of deep black-blue. But he made do with what he had and set about painting his mural of the city.
The prism at the top of the Murrow Building centered the piece in sapphire bordered by navy and shaded in tinted gray. A near-white light shone from the top of the periwinkle Zubin Tower and broke into seven shades from celeste to indigo as it crashed through lucite prism and spilled over the cornflower city, a body of royal blue buildings held up by the arms of citizens traced in aqua and cobalt.
Far left was the looming threat of the Japanese, with rockets shaded midnight and ultramarine, the turquoise flames licking at a powder Pacific and dead set on blowing apart Gallo, California with its flying flags done up in denim and cyan.
Topping it all was a bright and shining Dr. Murrow, her hands on her hips and her glacier hair fluttering over eyes as deep as the Gulf of Mexico.
Noah didn’t have a brush, so he did it all with his hands.
His signature would be his fingerprints, pressed into the paint and smeared across the shapes, feverishly pushed into the pored gray wall and quick-dried even in the humidity. He punched in those Prism City blues till he felt an ache tear through his belly, and the heat and sweat at his forehead.
He hunched over, burped fumes, and fell onto his side as the shakes wracked his body.
At this time you will feel something very much like a fever, so make sure to lie down somewhere you can rest. In the morning, we guarantee you’ll feel good as new!
where the birds bugs and brutes
are the knot and the noose
but the tension is tension
and the rope is not caring.
―Street art seen at the edge of Poshtown
Jai tapped the plated vest under his uniform blues and knocked at the door.
It opened and a man with a cigarette between his purple lips raised an unimpressed brow and said, “Yes?”
“I’m Officer Jaimon White of Gallo’s Special Operations, and I’m not going to ask to come inside.” Jai thumbed the latch of his holster and rested his palm on the handle of his gun.
The officer knew that this ass in his bathrobe was Matthew Schulman, and he knew that the bastard stole retro en route between the labs and the packaging facilities, but the guy never so much as blinked in fear. He just raised his hands in the air, let his dick swing free of his untied robe, and pursed his lips with his eyes half drooped.
Jai shouldered his way into the house and welcomed himself to a couch in the living room. The place was a mess, but you couldn’t really expect much else from someone like this. He grabbed an unopened beer on the table before kicking up his feet.
“How’ve you been, Matt?” He popped open the bottle.
“I’ve been better. I’ve recently come down with a case of assholes in my living room.”
Jai gave a single Ha! before cocking his head and flashing a smile. “So. You remember that mountain of cocaine you snorted last weekend?”
Schulman’s eyes narrowed. “What, at the Lounge? Yeah, I remember.” He ashed his cigarette on a bare tabletop and picked his nose with a pinky. “Who gives a shit?”
“It was good, right?”
“No, it wasn’t. Probably some of the worst coke I’ve ever had.”
“Oh, well that’s too bad.” Schulman raised an eyebrow and Jai spoke up. “You know what ‘dust’ is, Matt?”
Schulman rubbed a sausage finger on a nearby lampshade and showed Jai the gray smear on his fingertip. “This?”
Jai’s nostrils flared, but then he grinned. “No. Dust is what smart folk call ‘swarm-core sensor-transmitters’.” He pulled out a vial filled with sand, an hourglass without the hourglass figure. “This is dust. I could drop this in a dog’s fur and track it for a hundred miles in rain, sleet, or snow.”
Schulman slouched into a chair and gave an uninterested “Uh-huh.”
“I could get a decent view of what it sees, a pretty good recording of the sounds nearby — and I could even snatch the smells and tastes right out of the air.”
Schulman squinted and put out his cigarette. His breathing got a little faster.
Jai leaned forward in his chair and growled, “You’re that dog, you stupid son of a bitch. It was in the cocaine.” He threw Schulman an acid glare and finished, “I have a warrant for your arrest.” For a moment there was calm silence.
Then the retro-dealer leapt out of his chair, but Jai had already pulled out his gauss cannon and thumbed the primer for the electromagnet. One squeeze of the trigger and a bolt of iron would launch through the bastard’s hairy chest. He knew it, too. Jai could see Schulman’s Adam’s apple bob over the gulp crawling down his throat. Good. Jai always liked to give them a little scare. Set them straight the way a prison couldn’t.
He holstered his gun.
“Lucky for you,” he said, “I’m not here to arrest you. I’m here to give you a job.”
Schulman dropped into his seat.
Jai gestured at the door and the two went out to his police vehicle. Schulman tied the robe’s belt around his waist and rubbed his arms as they stood by the trunk.
“Right now you deal shit that hasn’t even been quality checked by the RV testers. You snatch it right up, defects and all, and then you give it to people who can’t afford the real deal. And then who knows what happens?” Schulman looked away from Jai’s face, in what was actually a pretty convincing performance of guilt.
“I’d love nothing more than to put a crater in your face, but my boss has this heart of gold, and enough kindness to sometimes sidestep the law. So I’m giving you these.” Jai popped the trunk with the press of a button and shiny chrome boxes of the Retrovirus sat pretty under the fluorescent light. All in pristine packaging.
Schulman’s jaw dropped and he stepped towards the car, but Jai stopped him cold with the barrel of his gun. “You’re going to give these out to all the people who need them — and you’ll ask for nothing in return. Do you understand?” He dug the gun deeper into the son-of-a-bitch’s chest and said, “Nothing.”
Jai glanced in disgust at the dealer’s half-open robe and said, “If I find out that you made those poor suckers out there do anything for you, I will find you, and I will put a slug right between your balls.”
“Yes, a lot of people have asked me that.
How does it feel getting the Zubin Prize for High Art?
Where did you get the inspiration for the Greenery Project?
But I tell them all the same thing. It’s not a piece of art.
It’s a conservatory for the things we’ve lost.”
The top floor of the Murrow Building was a museum with an office sneakily packed into the northwest corner. It was all hardwood and lacquer, with glass displays and soft beds of red velvet where the exhibits could rest their heads. The walls were heavy with uncountable colored wings from moths and butterflies gathered from the world over; the floors were filled with the bones and stuffed bodies of monkeys, sloths, and birds of paradise from continents away.
A single photograph had a wall to itself, framing an old man with wild gray hair in silly safari shorts and a frayed olive hat, his arm around a little girl in red-and-gray cotton who was smiling so wide her eyes had squinted shut. The two were in a rainforest greener than anyone from Gallo could imagine, with birds of every color peeking out from under leaves and perched on nearby branches.
Dr. Shreeya Murrow stared at that brilliant smiling man for as long as she could, with a glass of scotch to her right and a postcard to her left. The card had a generic scene of a rainforest at noon, but across the front were the words from Manuel Antonio scribbled in a messy cursive. The scotch went down as smooth as soft leather and she let herself loose just one tear — before the elevator dinged and her son crashed into the room.
“Last word from the analysts say it’s a Japanese bioweapon,” said Lieutenant Sharif Murrow, black gloves stuffed into the pockets of his uniform. “We still don’t know why they’d choose this method to make their first attack on the continental United States.”
“Shock and awe,” said the doctor, her syllables smeared together by alcohol. “We set up an embargo of retrovir to the islands, and now they want to show us they don’t need it. They want to demonstrate that they can restitch genes just fine on their own, thankyouverymuch.”
Sharif scratched the back of his head. “I suppose it could just be a show of force, but—”
“Trust me, it is. These squabbles between countries always come down to a contest of whose dick is bigger, always. This is just Japan whipping it out and slapping it down on the ruler.” She twirled a finger through the air, “After genetically modifying it, I mean.”
Lt. Murrow shifted uncomfortably and asked, “Sure. But how did they target so selectively? It’s almost baffling to me.”
Dr. Murrow sipped from her glass. “Target selectively? What do you mean?”
“It’s only affecting people in certain spots. We definitely know the bugs have a hive on 6th and Burroughs. We’re not exactly sure where the birds are, but they seem to be coming out of somewhere in Churchtown. The brutes are still a mystery — but we know they like those trees of yours.”
She stood at her desk and turned to stare out of the window. “That doesn’t mean that the bioweapon’s targeting is selective. It could just mean that these creatures — I mean, people — tend to gather after they’ve metamorphosed. They may migrate.” From the thirty-first story of the building she could see the trees of her Greenery Project ripple as wind squeezed into the grid of the city. There was more green than gray down there, nowadays. An elevated network of landscaped blocks filled with tilled soil and broadleaf trees could do that to a city.
“Migration. Hm. I’ll let the techs know that may be a possibility. But why would they only be targeting the poor? Not a single upscale apartment has been hit by this thing.”
“Maybe they aren’t trying to make that much of a fuss. Attack a politician’s daughter and you’ve got a fight on your hands — but a few beggars out in the slums? That’s not enough to start a war over.”
Sharif sharply inhaled, but guarded his tongue. “Okay, fair point. For now I’ve set up more boarding houses for the homeless to settle down in — they should be safe there.” Sharif looked at the back of his mother’s head and waited patiently for a reply.
Seconds ticked down before the words finally got to her. “Oh, thank you,” she said, absently. “I,” she hesitated, “I do need you to do me one more favor, though. Is that alright?” Her voice was wispy and uncertain, and when she turned around her eyes were pleading.
He bit his lip and nodded, “Yes, of course.”
“I want you to give out more of my RV. It’s in the labs at home. You’re going to need a team, just like last time. Let them sort out how they want to deliver it to the people.”
“Don’t you dare tell me that you can’t, Sharif. Street dealers are stealing and selling unchecked Retrovirus out there, and people might be dying.” She gulped down another finger of whiskey. “I want no more deaths, do you understand me? We still haven’t even got coverage of Stouffer or Churchtown. You want to just leave them?”
“I’ve done enough, Mom. Enough.” He rocked on his heels and furrowed his brow. “It’s illegal to just hand it out like candy, and now I know why. Most of the needlers out there just do it for the adrenaline rush — they go retro and lie in the streets shaking. A lot of them die right then and there.”
“They’d only die with multiple doses. Make sure they only get one each.” She nursed her glass and licked her teeth.
“I didn’t raise you to be a quitter, Lieutenant. You will do this because you’ve done it before.” And if you don’t do it again, I will get you fired.
He bit his tongue. “Yes ma’am. I’ll get my best people on it.” He bowed his head and turned to leave.
“And Sharif,” she said, almost at a shout.
“Yes, mother?” He could’ve spat and it wouldn’t have looked out of place.
She sighed and shook her head. “Be careful out there. I know I don’t say that enough.”
His face softened. “Of course. And you — maybe you should stop working so hard.” He peered at her desk, crowded with bright screens brimming with florid schematics and computer programs.
“I do it to keep the virus flowing, you know. I’m keeping things alive.”
“Yeah, and a design team can do just as well if you’d hire one.” He wiped his hand on the side of his face and said,
“Look, there’s a gallery opening this Wednesday. Vanessa owns the place, remember? She asked me to invite you over. It’d mean a lot to her if you could make it.”
She downed the rest of scotch in a single gulp and smiled, her head lolling.
“Ah, another one of her openings. Should be quite beautiful.” She glanced into space as if some old memory had hiccuped into her brain; then she turned to her postcard and moved to pour herself another glass.
Sharif put a hand on the bottle and shook his head no. “Whenever you see that postcard, all you do is drink.” He took a look at the painted rainforest and monochrome sky and said, “You never told me who Manuel Antonio was, but you need to get over him. Or you’ll end up in a hospital.” He capped the bottle and set it aside. “I’m worried about you.”
The words bubbled out of her mouth. “Have you ever looked out there and realized that it’s never what you wanted?”
“What? What do you mean?”
She turned her chair towards the window and stared out at the city.
“Nothing. Just that you shouldn’t worry about me.”
Liberty Mall at
6th and Burroughs
―Vandalized notice outside of the Cirrus Center
Noah woke on the street to find he had grown a monstrous exoskeleton.
The olive gray chitin jutted from his skin like shards of ceramic glued to a mosaic and antennae had sprouted from his forehead like bristled pipe cleaners from some third grader’s grisly arts-and-crafts project.
The world was broken into prismatic shards with the same street split ten thousand times and its white line fractured and refracted into rainbows without color. The stressed sensory overload jumped his muscles, launched him off the ground and slammed him into a wall where he leaned with hard hands on his spiky head.
He mumbled a What? and his mandibles clicked to accent the word in some odd noisy language he couldn’t understand. His abdomen had swollen and a vast bag of organs seemed to hang from his tailbone and trail along the floor.
His scream came loud and long before he ran with a click of clawed toes bursting from his shoes and tapping at the asphalt. He lurched along and eventually fell to his hands, skittering quickly on four legs and making good time.
He scurried like vermin and a memory of the smoker skimmed off the top of his boiling brain. The smoker did this, didn’t he? Free samples? Who gives out free samples? The smoker knew Noah would go on to become something great. He wanted to sabotage him. Bring him down before he became a star.
He weaved this way and that until he reached the edge of Poshtown. He’d once bought retrovir just outside the smoker’s house, here. He needed to go back to see if he knew anything. He crawled up the steps of the stoop. He curled up, knocked on the door.
The smoker opened and screamed, leaned to shut it but not quick enough. Noah blocked the door. He looked at the smoker. He choked up words.
“Why did you do this? To me? Me?”
Clicks came from his mouthparts.
Smoker went inside, Noah heard big shotgun. Big bang came from the room.
Noah caught in the side. He ran and scurried away, left behind some hard-plate shell pieces.
Then came the smell, a good smell. Bakery-cinnamon. Citrus-grass & strawberry-heat. Hearth smell, home-smell. Drifted from someplace far, but close enough. Said, ‘come, now.’
“The only jobs anymore are in design or street-sweeping, if that.
Maybe a lucky few get to become police officers or firemen.
So, is it any real wonder our kids still live at home?
We’ve got all the damned work!”
―David Humboldt during the Late Night With Dave livestream
The birds screeched and the brutes roared as claw met fist and fur met feather.
Black haired and thickly muscled, the brutes beat their chests and dove headfirst into the fray with gnashing teeth and heaving shoulders. The lithe birds and their feather-scales twisted like ballerinas past the hulking apes and jumped with their clawed feet aimed at eyes and mouths.
Jai White drove the first Active Response truck to the border of Churchtown, and told his team to hold off on firing. He kissed his fingers and touched them to a framed photo of an old woman with a face wrinkled by too many smiles, and he made a silent angry promise. Then he shouted to his crew.
“I know you want to shoot these ugly sons of bitches, but hold fire! HOLD FIRE!” he yelled, telling them to stow their guns and get on the IR cannons and tear-gas launchers. “Just hold off this one time, and we can go get them where they live. We wait for more trucks, and then get ready to make ’em pay!”
A brute bodily threw a bird screaming into the side of the truck, and for a moment it stood on two wheels before thumping back to the ground with a bounce of thick tires. Another ape swung by and pounded the bird’s neck into a pulp, grabbed it by the spine, and viciously beat another to death with the limp body.
Some of the birds had managed to sink their toothy beaks into the primate shoulders and cause fountains of blood to spurt through the air, and still others jumped in flocks and ripped skin and muscle with talons as sharp as knives.
Jai and the officers gaped as the communications sergeant dialed desperately for backup, and finally two more boxy blue trucks swerved by to set up a U-shaped perimeter. Jai found the mic and yelled through the outboard speakers: “Infrared cannons! Prime!”
Electric engines thrummed and the truck-top IR cannons charged red-hot, and he yelled, “EN-GAGE!”
Waves of heat spilled over the fighting beasts and they covered their eyes and gritted their teeth, if they had any teeth.
“Tear gas, load!”
Some of the stronger brutes had begun to charge at the nearest truck but Jai yelled, “FIRE!” and the scene exploded into eye-tearing white mist that stopped them in their tracks.
Jai personally loaded the next launcher with what looked like a mason jar filled with golden sand, and dialed the launch angle up at the sky. With the birds and brutes immobilized, he flipped a switch and watched as tracking dust burst into the air and snowed into heavy fur and light feathers, tagging them in Spec Ops computers and lighting up a map in some basement-bound operational HQ.
“Dial IR to seven!” Jai shouted.
The animals moaned and crooned, running away from the cutting heat and scurrying back home. Back home, to where Jai would find them.
“It was my father, always my father.
He was a zoologist working in Central America while I was doing my research.
He’s the only reason I ever started work on RV. I thought I could keep him forever.
But he died before I could go see him.
He died before I could finish.”
Dr. Murrow swallowed champagne as she toured the maze of the open gallery, all white walls and black frames filled with abstract art and postmodern forms papier mâché’d into obnoxious sculptures of circus-tent genitalia and contortionist faces.
She sighed and shook her head just as Hanzo Raj and Martha Ayoame sauntered over in tailored clothes and happy spirits, skeptical of her disgust. “What, you don’t like Zubin?”
Murrow traded her empty glass for a full one when a waiter walked by, and said, “Not really. The Gallo Prism was a nice project, but all this isn’t quite my flavor.”
Hanzo laughed, “The most famous artist this side of the Rockies, and she’s not your ‘flavor’?” He guided her to a painting of black on white and said, “Are you telling me this isn’t moving?”
“Just as moving as when I first saw a Rothko,” said the doctor, drinking more of the sparkling wine from her crystal flute.
Martha took her to the red paint plastered to a white wall, spelling out:
LOVE ME FOR ME
It dripped like it was done in blood, with white fingerprints hidden in the lines. Murrow was utterly unimpressed, and it showed.
“Do you even get it?” said Martha, as she waved her hands at the text. Dr. Murrow narrowed her eyes. “It’s—”
“It’s a meditation on how Zubin’s fame has catapulted her into a position where critics will love her work just for the sake of being her work.” Murrow spoke from over the top of her crystal flute. “A perversion of that classic whisper traded by insecure lovers in times of ‘I-want-to-sleep-with-other-men’ stress or ‘I-gained-fifteen-pounds’ self-esteem.” Murrow took another gulp. “It’s… a childish command, scribbled in a medium best suited for a kindergartener with finger-paint. And she has people drinking it up through a sippy cup.” Murrow snatched a tart from a nearby platter and popped it into her mouth. “Which, I suppose, is exactly the point.”
Hanzo and Martha traded a glance and stared at her.
“Like I said, it’s just not my flavor.” She gave the gallery a final gaze and said, “This postmodern shit has been around for a hundred years now, and we still love it. I hate that.” She sneered at the people milling about the blank canvases and amorphous black marble and laughed to herself, swaying in place. “But that’s our problem. We will love the same shit for as long as we live.”
Martha raised an eyebrow. “What, and you think you’re ‘above’ all that, Doctor?”
“No. I’m almost a hundred and fifty years old.” She dropped her glass and it smashed against the floor as she stumbled on her high heels. “I can guarantee that I’m worse. You all might die for Zubin, but you have no idea what I’d do, for—”
“For what, Mom?” Someone had gotten Sharif and he grabbed his mother by the crook of her arm. She whispered a name but he hissed in her face, “You got dressed up and finally got out of the house, and for what?”
Her eyes glazed and her voice was hoarse. “I would do anything to go back…”
“You are going back. I’m taking you home.”
The crowd hushed as Lieutenant Murrow shouldered his way to the exit with his stumbling mother trailing behind, and exploded with talk as the door closed shut.
―Department store sign inside Liberty Mall
Silk & gossamer trailed Noah’s arms.
Patterned webs & fractal lights filled inside the hexagon hive.
He munched on the floor-boxes & shelf-packets.
Smelled the signs of more bugs through the glass doors.
He said hello with fresh-cut grass & they said hi with lemon-slices ground up.
He danced the sixstep past more shelves & molted shells.
His heart stopped, skipped & hopped when he saw the moving eggs.
His abdomen heaved, boiled, roiled, & settled on the waxy floor.
A hole yawned wide & drooled fresh white pearls in strings across the ground.
In rafters he saw ropes with shifting knots, popped & popping open.
Out rolled wings in fifty colors & textures.
They unfurled & flapped & flew a colored cloud around him.
His bristles thrummed & shook & he was happy.
“We’ve just been informed that the city’s own response team is on the job.
Mobilization of national guard troops from DC has been slow, but it may prove unnecessary in the end.”
―Eric Schelter on The Eye Newstream
Jai was the stabbing point of a roving V that moved deep into Liberty Mall. The operatives were equipped with live ammo, but they were only the first feelers of Gallo’s Active Response Force sent into the hive at 6th and Burroughs.
The soldier-bugs came quick and many, their oversized mandibles rushing through the shafts of the flashlights and flitting in and out of the darkness. A man’s arm was crushed at the elbow but Jai and the rest of the team put them down fast with hot slugs of steel.
As they moved deeper the V bent and closed into a diamond, with men laying down fire in every direction. There were twenty of them now. Four had taken the injured man back to the exit to be cared for. The soldier-bugs were too limited in their range to pose a lethal threat, but they still gave each man plenty of targets.
With every shot, Jai’s furrowed brow creased a little bit less, until finally he became a humming monk in combat gear and a shrouded helmet. He used to light candles to remember his mother by, but this was a better.
Each bullet was a little vengeance, and every squeeze and kill was closure.
Finally the number of bugs petered out, and the team split in four and made their way to the many hearts of the thrumming hive. That’s where Jai saw the eggs.
They’d just entered a department store, and he could see the little things shining white on every surface. Leaves and food had been gathered inside, and they were writhing with hungry caterpillars. The sound of popping paper drew Jai’s gaze towards the chrysalises in the rafters and the butterfly wings that slinked wet and weak into the world.
Some bug shuddered in between the shelves of Aisle 6 with its bristles humming loud and a trail of eggs behind it, before Jai absentmindedly drew his pistol and shot it in the head. He signaled to the team’s demolitions experts, who went ahead and set makeshift bombs designed to spread poison aerosol throughout the mall’s airways.
Jai rounded them all up, went to other caterpillar nurseries, and set more gas-bombs in the corners there. By now the air was rustling with new wings and a dozen different colors. Jai wasn’t even sure if those eggs would grow into more big bugs, or if they’d all just become these little butterflies. But it didn’t matter.
His team left the building along with a puff of blue and purple iridescence, and called for the detonator to be primed. His men just stood and stared at the new color in the skies, but he only had to yell one more time before the hammer came down.
Poison steam leaked from the building and when it was done, Jai drove home with a quiet grin.
“Sometimes people tell me that, yes.
They say I must be the greatest philanthropist of all time.
You have to be, they say. You let people live forever!
I don’t know how I feel about that.”
Her son’s voice came like thunder.
“My sergeants are telling me that they saw eggs. Insect eggs, caterpillars, and what sounds like little cocoons.” Dr. Murrow sat silent at her desk, not registering the words. “And bird’s eggs too, all throughout Churchtown. Like it was a giant nest. They even saw fledglings, and birds ready to fly.” Dr. Murrow didn’t say a word.
“In the thickest parts of the Greenery Project, they found forty dens of brutes — and something else.” Lieutenant Murrow leaned his arms on her desk, and stared her down. “They all had children, but not like them.” He bared his teeth in something between a snarl and a grimace. “D’you know what they were like?”
The doctor looked on ahead.
“They were like that.” The lieutenant pointed to the gray sloths in their glass boxes. “They were like them.” He swept his hand through the air, showing off the exhibits of black anteaters and brown raccoons who had died off decades back. “And the birds. These weren’t human hybrids. They were all birds of paradise, Mom. Doctor.”
Winged things in turquoise and chartreuse seemed to sing from glass cages while the scarlets and tangerines chirped from mahogany perches. “There were millions of butterflies. And they were all like yours.” He flipped a switch and wall displays of a thousand colored wings jumped into fluttering focus.
“Why did you do it?” He slammed a recorder onto the desk in front of her and waited with his arms crossed. “Why. Why did you do it?”
Her lips cracked open to say, “I would like my lawyer, please,” and then she froze back into glacier silence.
“I never thought you actually wanted to help those people, you know.” Lieutenant Murrow dug his thumbs into his pockets and glared. “I thought you just wanted to protect your image. Keep the defect RV off the streets, go out there and give the poor and homeless your own. I thought you were just covering your ass.” The wind rolled through the trees of the Greenery Project, and Murrow watched it ripple through the grid of the city. “But it’s worse than that.”
“You’re implicating yourself, Sharif. Think very carefully about what you say next.”
“You gave them your own personal RV. As if it was out of the goodness of your heart. It was RV that you made yourself. It was RV that you told your own son to go deliver.” Cords of muscle stood out on his neck. “And it turned them into fucking monsters.”
The recorder blinked red.
“And you let me believe it was some kind of goddamned Japanese bioweapon? While you — my own mother — went behind my back and turned them into animals?” His arms crashed into the desk and shook it with every word. “And for what? So you could see the fucking birds from some dead forest come back to life? There are thousands of people dead out there, and for what?”
She pretended that the narrow slit of her lips and the unfazed droop in her eyes told him I already told you, but she stayed perfectly silent.
“You don’t need to talk to me. I have officers picking up more boxes of your Retrovirus and sending it to forensics.” The doctor’s son produced a pair of silver cuffs. “Whether or not you say a goddamned word, you’re still going to rot in jail.”
Dr. Murrow turned and let her hands slide into the cuffs, never batting an eye even as the rings clinked together. Her son fumed and she walked, unhurried, behind him.
“They’re never going to let me stay in prison, you know.” She looked her son between the shoulder-blades as they walked towards the elevator. “The people will want arrests, but they’re never going to let me stay in prison.”
Now it was Sharif’s turn to give her the silent treatment.
“I make far too much money for the city, Sharif. And I let people live longer. I’ve been in this position for as long as I can remember, and they won’t just replace me.”
He punched a fist into the lobby button and waited with his eyes impassive and turned away. “What do you think will happen here? That a Gallo judge is going to throw the Dr. Murrow in jail, because a few people died in the streets?” She yanked distractedly at her cuffs. “Be realistic.”
The elevator doors parted, the staff hushed, and she walked towards the red and blue lights without a care in the world.
“The latest conflict is brewing over a series of volcanic islands in the Pacific.
In the future, using accelerated geoforming and pioneer plants like lichen, these stepstone isles and their underlying volcanoes could possibly be used for new, much-needed farmland. This has obvious value for every nation on the planet, and they’re all eyeing it with one finger on the big red button.”
―Michel Roy, narrator of the Cannes Film Festival winner, Malthus
Jai knocked at the door of Dr. Murrow’s cell and slid it open.
She was shaking in a corner, with sheets of sweat rolling down her neck and staining her orange overalls. Just one day in a holding cell, two days in Gen-Pop, and she’d suddenly started seizing from the DTs. They moved her into solitary and the med staff said to give her a daily dose of benzos to keep the symptoms down.
But sometimes Jai just forgot.
“Hey, Dr. Shakes. How’s it going down there?” Jai had pulled favors to get placed on Murrow’s Special Guard rotation, just so he could have moments like this. Where he could bring the idol-monster of Prism City down to his level, and where he could make her feel what he felt once.
When the doctor looked up he pulled a flask out of his pocket and took a long, sweet draft. She dropped her head with what he thought was a sob, and he smiled with liquor fuming through his teeth. “Mmm. Scotch. Some of the best.”
She rocked back and leaned against the wall, and he stepped inside and closed the door.
“Today is your refresh day, Murrow. I have your package of RV right here. One prick and you don’t have to worry about it for another five months.” He pulled a bottle of antiseptic from one pocket, and a silver needle from another. He laughed. “Welcome to immortality, right?”
She huddled further into the corner. “You look a little weak, though. Here, let me help with the injection.” He grabbed her forearm. She pulled away, but he easily stretched her arm out with a single tug. He upturned the bottle of antiseptic over a cotton swab, rolled up her sleeve, and dabbed at the skin on her arm.
“You know, my mother died a month ago today. She wandered too close to Sixstep Burrow on her way back from my sister’s.” His dabbing got a little coarser. “A few days later we had a closed-casket funeral, and I thought I’d never forgive the bugs.”
Dr. Murrow’s arm was stained orange with iodine, and Jai threw the used cotton into a corner of her cell. He pulled at her arm until it stretched straight, and rubbed the crook of her elbow to look for a vein. “But then I found out they were just people who’d been turned into monsters. By you.” He saw a sliver of green pop up between his fingers and chuckled. “Oh, there we go.”
He held the needle in the air and pressed lightly at the plunger to get rid of any air bubbles. He tapped the needle twice and said, “I was thinking about what you did, and I thought: it’d be such a cruel irony if the good Dr. Murrow got a needle of her own mixed-up RV, wouldn’t it? Maybe it could happen if she picked up a switched box at the pharmacy.” He brought the needle-point close to her skin, “Or maybe it could happen on the date of a refresh, while she’s still locked up.”
Murrow wrenched up her head, eyes wide in horror.
The needle went in, and she cried and she sobbed, while his thumb pressed down on the thick black plunger.
“And then I said to myself, hey. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing.”
The virus sunk into her bloodstream as the syringe emptied its guts.
“Maybe she needs to learn what it’s like, to look herself in a mirror and see only a monster.”
Jai watched, quietly judging, as Murrow’s muscles seized with the adrenaline, and as she clawed at the floor and pushed at the walls. A wrinkled postcard fell out of her pocket and he shook his head at the idea of an old woman smuggling in love notes on a tacky photo of a bunch of trees.
From Manuel Antonio, it said, before he ripped it to pieces and shut the door.
“Well, my father took me to a rainforest in Costa Rica, once.
He spent the whole day pointing out animals where at first I could only see leaves.
He’d laugh and tell me, if I just worked at it long enough, I’d be able to see them around every corner.”
Dr. Shreeya Murrow woke in her cot to find that she had finally become a free woman.
Five months of trials had seen her exonerated of all charges — but the crying mob had their fill of punishment when the crooked sergeants Jaimon White, Harriet Sims, and Edem Roe were executed via lethal injection for distribution of a bioterrorist agent in the streets of Gallo’s slums. Lieutenant Sharif Murrow somehow ended up in a maximum security prison, instead. She still couldn’t see him, but not because she wasn’t allowed. He simply didn’t want to talk to her.
While under lock and key, she’d found that she was once again the proud recipient of a Zubin Prize for High Art, this time for what people had started to call her Rainbow Project. Butterflies had been captured around the city, and shown to have RV signatures remarkably similar to her usual product.
No one ever thought to do a similar analysis with the corpses of a bird, bug, or brute — or if they had, the findings were quickly hushed with a case of cash and a trunk of the Retrovirus.
The prison staff read her a long list of the possessions being returned to her, but all she could think about was finally going outside. She slipped into a summer dress and walked into the dappled sunlight, shaded by broad green leaves and an unbroken canopy misted by sprinklers and secret hydroponics.
The calls of howler monkeys echoed loud from miles away, and the squawk of birds noised through the trees at every street corner. She climbed a staircase and walked down an elevated stretch of dirt and trees that snaked through the city on concrete stilts and under cords of cabled steel.
When she got the edge of Poshtown, she descended and waited in line at the nearby pharmacy. One of the managers saw her, pulled her to the front of the line, and gave her a shiny chrome box and a few handshakes. They told her it was always nice to have a celebrity stop by once in a while.
She held the box against her chest and walked to where the Greenery Project had stretched while she was in prison. On the outskirts of the city, instead of elevated platforms, her engineers had just drilled out the city blocks and replaced them with black soil.
New saplings were growing nicely where were once only slums, and the old churches rose like ancient ruins out of the green and dirt. On the side of an old, gray wall she saw her own face staring back at her, painted entirely in hues of blue. It was a mural sunk into the concrete by an anonymous artist, but pieces of the wall had crumbled and she looked like some snarling monster.
The painted city was covered in lichens that hung in greens, yellows, and reds — and as they grew they ate away at the concrete and turned it into soil ripe for planting. The building would likely collapse within a month.
Bird calls sounded through the trees and a troop of monkeys squirreled through the rustling canopies behind her. She sucked in the heavy scents of the wet new forest and closed her eyes, thinking it was almost the same, but not quite.
Disappointed, she flipped a lid on her chrome box and a voice streamed from the speakers as she reached for the needle.
Welcome to immortality!
“I believe the place was called Manuel Antonio.
We never needed a guide, but our drivers always smiled.
And the local conservationists used to say ‘Pura Vida!’ when we went off into the forest.
I think it’s a farm, now. Everything’s a farm, now.”