Fire Punk – Michael Ezell
Being born in Gravity City equated to a life sentence in a prison a bunch of rich assholes built in space.
That’s how Henry saw it, anyway. It wasn’t like he could up and move to a neighboring planet or something. He couldn’t afford to take the tube across the Westie, much less put together the money to hitch offworld. Even in a technological heaven like the Grav, some people are inevitably going to settle to the bottom. Like Henry’s parents. And Henry.
Born here, die here. That was the unofficial city motto.
— Alpha Four, assist in quadrant three. Blowout imminent.
It felt like he heard the words, but they really buzzed straight into his brain. And then Henry was out of his head and into the fire. Glorious fire.
A flare-up burned white in his peripheral vision, and he charged through a burning lake of chemicals, his skin glowing red-hot. A storage tank ruptured to his left, spouting a plume of blue flame into the insanity of the inferno consuming the processing plant. The facility covered three full blocks, and the raging conflagration had grown so large it generated its own airflow by pulling in oxygen to feed itself. If it burned long enough, a fire this size could overcome Gravity City’s oxygen generators and kill everyone here along with itself by eating all the air like a greedy puppy that doesn’t know when to stop.
Swiveling a forward tube, Henry laid down Running Foam across the top of the burning lake and leaped forward to fire a melon-sized ball of sealant at the ruptured tank. The ball struck true and expanded to patch the jagged wound in the metal. The floor still burned, but the blue jet from the tank died out with a pop. Triumphant, Henry threw a fist in the air and gave the fire his best punk sneer. He didn’t stop. He attacked his weakened opponent, beat the fire back, exerted his will on it, ate it alive.
He tracked left and right, but saw nothing in the wavering heat shimmer.
“Henry! Face to face.”
Understanding cooled his heat-raging brain. He pulled out his contact jack, but only a quarter-click. The room around him became visible again. With his cortical jack still partially engaged, he could feel the Firecat out there, twitching on the end of his nervous system, anxious, ready to fight.
His eyes, however, registered the rest of his team in real time. Cortical Operators, all jacked into their individual Firecats. Their machines were half a sector away from this mobile control trailer, fighting in a hell that was once a chemical processing facility owned by Pantheon. Greedy corporate fuckers hadn’t put the right safety measures in place and it blew up in their faces.
Eighteen of the twenty-four Operators in the room with Henry were dedicated Gravity City Fire Suppression Corps members. If one thing remained true throughout the galaxy, it was that firefighters always have strong unions. The droids would never—could never— take over that job.
The other six operators, including Henry, were freelancers, brought in because the fire got too big and Eastern Sector Brigade couldn’t afford the overtime for six additional FSCOs. The union overtime rate for one Corps Operator easily cost more than hiring Henry and his five fellow freelancers.
Henry’s fire-wild eyes finally recognized Captain Pontu. He wore the formal red jacket of the Gravity City Fire Suppression Corps, with black sleeves denoting a staff officer.
“You hear me?” Pontu said.
“Yeah, what?” Henry said.
An unhappy man with a face like a clenched fist, Captain Pontu was there to make sure everyone stuck to regulations. “You’re eight minutes past your break time,” Pontu said.
“I’m cool. I don’t mind, sir.” Henry was a handful of hours away from having enough freelance time to make the Corps’ “Hire” list. He knew Pontu didn’t care for his green mohawk and face piercings, so he thought working extra hard and not taking all those mandated breaks might crack Pontu’s armor.
“Corps regulations require all Cortical Operators to take a twenty minute break after every two hours online,” Pontu said. Clearly a miss. Armor intact.
“Yes, sir. My mistake. I’ll take my break now.”
Pontu’s mouth twitched in a tiny sneer, but he left Henry’s station. He stepped out of the Operator room and Henry touched the gold stud that would put him back inside the mind of his Firecat. He felt the spark from the near contact, the ghost-presence of the ‘cat, flexing its muscles in the beautiful, shimmering waves of fire.
His whole body ached to be back inside the cocoon of flames. Sweat rolled down his forehead like a junkie who’d spotted a free bag of White Noize. He looked at the other Operators, their faces hanging slack, still plugged into their machines. To them, it was a job. To Henry, the fire was life itself. Even though he knew he shouldn’t, he couldn’t stop his finger from touching the power stud.
He jacked back in and ate fire.
The braided metal cords in his mighty arms sang with the tension of fifty-seven tons of payload. His neck ached from it. Gravity City’s high and mighty didn’t exactly go out of their way to maintain the decrepit housing units in the Western Sector, so the air conditioning was out again and a stream of sweat slid down Henry’s riveted steel back. He stayed focused, though, and tried real hard not to smash the puny lives scurrying around the loading docks below him. It would be only too easy to grind those mortals to paste, since he was a machine-god with diesel in his fiery lungs and bones made of titanium, swinging thousands of pounds at once off the Pantheon barge sent down from Northern Sector.
For a machine-god, the pay sucked. He might make enough to cover half the rent this month. (And that was due yesterday.) The only reason he took crappy freelancing jobs like this was the ability to work from home.
Organizations like the Fire Suppression Corps and most private corporations insisted Cortical Operators work under onsite supervision at all times. But the GC Harbor Authority had scaled back their hard-site locations in an effort to cut government costs. This meant Henry could unload two thousand tons of merchandise while dressed in baggy underwear and a faded XYZ-1 Sat-Rad tee shirt he bought for next to nothin’ in a thrift store.
Soon enough, he wouldn’t have to take shit jobs at the harbor. His hours on the chemical fire allowed him to finally accrue enough freelance time to get on the Hire list. He had emailed his background package the second he logged out from the commander center. That was the last step to becoming official Gravity City Fire Suppression Corps, baby. Full bennies and all. The job would rocket him and his mother out of this dank hole with its epileptic air conditioning and into the upper floors of a decent mall for once. Not in Northie, mind you, but at least somewhere in Eastern.
The steady work and money would be great… but late at night, alone in his sweltering room, he could openly admit that thinking of those soft fingers of fire caressing his skin made him hard, yes it did.
Sounding his backup alarm, he trundled away from the cargo barge, his colossal arms carrying two automated harvesting combines. They’d get trucked into the Southern sector where all the hicks worked in the soy-wheat fields. The food they harvested would come back through, and some shmuck like Henry would load it onto different barges to be sent back up North so the rich assholes could package, puree it all, and spit it back out to the masses as a bunch of overpriced shit.
Camera drones appeared in the fisheye view of his camera eyes, white squares drifting against the artificial blue sky. Probably kids making stupid videos for their friends. The drones circled the top of his metal skull and one of them called out, “Henry!”
He flinched and nearly slammed the load of tractors into a ship maintenance robot the size of a dump truck. Cold sweat poured down his steel hide and Henry—
—Slid the cortical jack out a quarter-click.
“Mom, what the hell? I’m working.”
He glared at his mother, but her glassy eyes didn’t register his anger. She stood in the doorway of the glorified closet he called his room, with one hand clutching her robe to keep it closed across her bony chest. He knew she wouldn’t get out of the robe all day. She’d talk about it as she slowly got blitzed on apricot shine bought from the kids who distilled it on the fortieth floor. Talk about getting dressed and going out. Talk about doing something with her life.
She hadn’t left the apartment since Henry’s dad walked out ten years back. At fourteen, Henry had shouldered a burden no kid should have to carry. He was still the only one who kept food on the table.
“The air’s out,” she said.
The whine in her voice made Henry taste metal. “No shit, Ma. It’s been out two days.”
“Well, are you gonna do anything about it?”
“Ma, there’s nothing I can do about it. You know what I am doing? Keeping food on the table, and making the rent on this freaking dump. So gimme a break and let me work.”
His mother sipped her shine from a clear plastic thermos. Henry saw apricot pulp, which meant the stuff was unfiltered. He hoped it didn’t make her blind. No way was he guiding her to the shitter every day.
Slurred by alcohol, the whine became twice as pitiful. “No need to curse at your mother.”
Henry bit back an acid response. His digital therapist said he should try to channel his anger into positive reservoirs. And really, what the fuck did that even mean? Taking in her slack face, oily gray hair, and dull eyes faded from years of homemade shine and anti-depressants from the government dispensary, Henry felt his white flash of anger quench under a wave of guilt. He sighed and managed a smile.
“Sorry, Ma. Look, I’ll call maintenance and give ‘em hell as soon as I get this ship unloaded, okay?”
She smiled. Her perfect dentures were an oddity in the worn out face they fronted. “Thank you, Henry-baby. You’re a good boy.”
He didn’t hear her. He already had his finger on the input jack—
His braided steel muscles groaned and diesel vapors filled his fiery lungs.
When the door chime ponged, Henry wiped his underarms with the damp sponge and buttoned his shirt. He would’ve preferred a full shower, but his mother already used up the day’s allotment of bathing water. No way was he gonna pull a shower from their drinking water ration. Among Cortical Operators, only the most hardcore, the true professionals, prided themselves on their ability to function for a week on a whore’s bath and three shots of Rocket City espresso.
He thumbed the security pad and the door opened for the squat delivery drone. Its armored sides were tagged with endless layers of squirrelly graffiti and dented by street people stupid enough to try and take its contents. A singsong female voice with an undercurrent of tin said, “Here is your food, Mr. Carter.”
The top of the drone’s armored carapace popped up and slid to the side. Henry took the warm foil bags from the storage box and waved his credit fob past the drone’s reader.
“Beat it,” Henry said.
The robot would leave regardless of what he said. In fact, if it didn’t leave in three minutes, he would find himself ass-deep in mall cops. Still, it somehow made him feel better to think he’d dismissed the stupid thing.
The “dining area” was just a folding table hidden in a rectangular dent in the wall behind their couch. His mother currently occupied the couch. She was rarely anywhere else, except her bed. In fact, her narrow ass had cut a permanent groove in the center cushion. Robe still in place, she watched her afternoon soaps on their apartment’s built-in flat screen.
Henry folded the tabletop out of the wall and separated his foil bags from his mother’s. He knew she wouldn’t eat at the table. “Dinner’s up.”
Her eyes stayed locked on the flickering screen. “I’ll take it here.”
“I’m not opening this smelly shit, so if you wanna eat in front of the tube, you’ll have to get it.” Those horrific krill dumplings she loved smelled like a space miner’s ass after he’d lived in his suit for a month. His mother sighed and made a production of pushing herself off the couch and shuffling to the table. She reeked of apricot fumes and the cloying lotion she used on her scaly shins.
“I’ll eat later.” Henry grabbed a jacket and headed for the door.
As she opened the zip on the bag of dumplings, his mother said, “Oh, you got a certified e-mail while you were working.”
“Fire Suppression something or other.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me?” Henry rushed over to the TV and thumbed the email icon in the corner of the screen.
“After you screamed at me for interrupting you?”
“I did not scream. I only—” Henry broke off when he saw the Fire Suppression Corps’ icon and the subject line: Disciplinary Review.
His stomach clenched. Disciplinary Review? He hadn’t given the incident with Captain Pontu a second thought, figuring the old guy would write it off to working with smart-ass civilians. He scanned the bullshit jargon until he saw the word “regret” in the last sentence. His mother sprayed a mouthful of krill when he punched the TV screen.
“Are you crazy, Henry? What if my stories don’t work?”
He was already out the door.
Henry hadn’t put glue in his mohawk and it hung to one side like the ratty mane of an old horse, so he drew the hood of his jacket tight. The herd of people leaving the mall that contained his apartment building engulfed him like an outgoing tide of flesh. Office workers, janitors, security guards, drone maintenance guys, all the people who couldn’t afford to eat in the mall’s restaurants were headed out to find lunch. Their momentum propelled Henry into the street, but as soon as he cleared the doors, he jammed his fists in his jacket pockets and stalked into the night, away from the warmth of people.
We regret to inform you that you are permanently barred from participating in the Gravity City Fire Suppression Corps’ freelance Cortical Operator program.
Pontu, the sour-faced son of a bitch, pressed the issue to the point of an Official Complaint of Sub-standard Behavior. Henry knew a protest would be useless. A single organism didn’t stand a chance against the bureaucratic hive. They’d beat you to death with attorney costs before you even got to your first hearing date.
He slapped a bitter tear off his cheek and ground his teeth to still his quivering chin. The sheer hope of getting on permanently with full FSC benefits had pulled Henry through many a dark night. It allowed him to dream of getting his mom out of their stinking residence mall apartment with its rationed shower water.
They threw him away like yesterday’s trash. For what? Because he wanted to work hard instead of taking a freaking break?
Because you love the fire. He bashed a fist against his head and the little whispering voice shut right up.
Despair brought on dark thoughts he normally only had after coming down off a night on Noize. He could take a face-time job on the docks. Once his probationary period was up, he would step in front of a ship maintenance robot. Those things had notoriously bad detection systems for objects as small as people. His mother would get a nice payout, and Henry… well, Henry would be flat. At the moment, he didn’t see a drawback.
The rumble of bio-diesel engines made him look up. He had wandered into an Automated Industry Zone, mostly because people avoided these areas. Automated machinery was allowed to operate on any street or sidewalk in the AIZ. If you got run over, it was your fault for ignoring the warning signs.
A two car Auto-Train pulled to the curb down the block. The thing looked like two big green rectangles fitted with oversized rubber wheels. An AI housed in an armored bubble on the lead car drove the contraption and communicated with computers running most warehouse facilities in the AIZ. Within a few seconds, a massive door on a nearby warehouse rolled up. Three towing drones the size of small cars exited the door. They lined up behind the Auto-Train like kids going to recess.
The first drone trundled into the back of the delivery train and came out—Holy Shit!—towing a Firecat on a rolling platform. The machine of Henry’s fever dreams. The gleaming chrome spider legs and brilliant red body that doubled as a foam tank held him mesmerized. The Gravity City Fire Suppression Corps’ trident hologram logo danced under the streetlights.
Every trace of abject misery fled Henry’s heart. A calm flowed through him. Not a warm, pleasant wave, but a focused chill. While he watched the drones tow seven new Firecats into a staging warehouse, a thought formed.
A bad thought.
Was it really bad, though? Hadn’t they dealt him the low blow? The uncaring blow any large organization gives to a single struggling cell it decides it can do without.
With no conscious thought of it, Henry discovered he had moved across the street. The last drone pulled a Firecat’s delivery platform past him and a biting-tinfoil thrill made his legs weak. Before he could think himself out of it, he hopped on the platform and slid into the narrow space between the platform and the Firecat’s belly.
Once inside the warehouse, Henry waited while the drones arranged all the Firecats in a long row. He heard the roll-up door close and the sounds of the towing drones powering down.
Time to go to work.
Wriggling under the Firecat he came in with, he popped the manual maintenance hatch on the machine’s belly. Glowing lights told him the ‘cat held a full order of Running Foam, and the CO2 cannons were at max charge. Henry had worked with Firecats since he got his Operator’s license at eighteen. He knew as much about their vital organs as he knew about his own. It didn’t take long to tap the software package and pull up the selection screen for Authorized Signal Input.
Just before dawn, another delivery activated the towing drones. His modifications finished, Henry slipped out into the gray light on the street. Mercifully, his mother was passed out when he got home. He flopped onto his mattress pad like a corpse, still wearing his jacket and all, and plummeted into a deep well of exhaustion.
In his dark fever dream, he ate fire, taking it into the hollow pit of his belly and letting it burn there, bright and pure.
His rubber tank treads went squeakity-squeak on the clean concrete floor. Henry shrugged his massive shoulders to the left. The Haz-Chem transport tank slewed around in response and inched up to the payload—eighteen chrome cylinders, each about a meter tall. The cylinders would fit precisely inside his specially lined belly. It’s what he was made for.
He extended a grabber and pulled the cargo inside, slow and careful. The repaired air conditioning system in this crappy residence mall had lasted a grand total of seventeen hours before conking out again. Maintenance notification said at least a week before they’d be able to make it out this far in the Western. Assholes. Sometimes it felt like a personal war between him and Gravity City. Could he make it out, or would the Grav kill him with indifference first?
Then again, maybe he’d kill the Grav. Yeah, maybe. If he was slick enough.
And the fire burned oh-so-bright enough.
He loaded the final cylinder and closed the armored door to seal his belly tight. Even miles away, the nasty cargo made Henry sweat through his shirt. The lining of the Haz-Chem tank’s belly was designed to hold in the energy of any explosion up to a quarter kiloton.
The eighteen cylinders of chemical slurry Henry loaded would be barely within limits if something set them off. The noxious soup was the byproduct of manufacturing deep core mining charges and was a horribly unstable. If the seal on a cylinder cracked and the material inside started to dry, it would go through an endothermic reaction rendering it so volatile even sneezing nearby could set it off.
His rubber treads squeaked again as he executed a slow right turn and rolled down the forty-foot wide hallway leading to the storage area. His optics picked up another tank coming toward him. Its cameras swiveled to look at Henry. Another freelancer plugged in from who-knows-where. Henry swerved toward the other tank a fraction of an inch—Hi there. His opposite number gave him a polite swerve in return.
He arrived at his offload point and pushed the cylinders out of his belly like an insect of the apocalypse, planting larvae into rotten flesh. A quick check of his flank cameras told him no other tanks were near. No one would see. He opened a slot on the carapace and extended his fine-work arm. Biofeedback from the arm’s delicate titanium fingers let him feel the cool metal of the first cylinder’s cap lock. He spun it counter-clockwise until his auditory input picked up the whistling inhale of released vacuum. That’s all it would take.
Once he had the top three cylinders opened, Henry guided his massive girth back through the hallway and out into the sunlight.
Piss-warm water ran down Henry’s body. He scrubbed away the sweat from another shift spent on the docks while sitting in his sweltering apartment. Eighteen hours loading drums of waste into the cavernous holds of two orbital barges, only coming out a quarter-click now and then to either piss, eat a soy bar, or do another bump of Noize. He had to moderate his intake. He couldn’t afford to crash tonight. Not tonight.
The allotted shower water cut off and Henry switched to drinking water without giving it a thought. He still had soap on his legs, and besides, odds were he wouldn’t need this month’s drinking ration anyway.
Earlier, he’d slipped a purple Somm tab into his mother’s apricot shine. He used those to sleep after a shift on Noize. She’d snore right through the festivities he had planned.
Arranging his favorite pillow in the middle of the living room floor, he sat on it cross-legged and centered himself. The blank TV screen reflected a skinny ghost of Henry past. Grayish skin and hollow eyes with the shine of hope smashed out of them. But his mohawk was resplendent and he had all his best steel in his face.
He gave his reflection a tight grin and jacked in to report for his last shift.
His squeaking treads and humming electric motor were the only sounds in the Haz-Chem storage bay. He had contracted for at least one run every day so he could keep track of the shining chrome cylinders he’d opened.
A bump to 10x on his optics showed Henry what he was waiting for.
Telltale wisps of smoke were visible like evil snakes rising from chrome baskets. Not enough to set off the Haz-Chem detectors yet, but very close. He had timed it perfectly.
His treads chirped on the concrete as he hit full acceleration and charged forward—
And Henry jacked out. Not a quarter-click, but all the way. He scrambled to his window and looked out over Gravity City’s hideous machined skyline and waited. The transport tank’s forward momentum should have had more than enough impact to cause— The white flare made him gasp, even though he was expecting it.
Half a sector away, it looked like a child-god had kicked a ball of light into the sky. The furious column of flame roaring after it made Henry’s scalp tingle. He ran back to his pillow and jacked in. He pulled up the service net connection he had on standby and pinged his Firecat. There it was, it waiting in its warehouse.
He wanted to lunge into the machine’s mind right away, but he played it cool and stayed out of its Op Systems so the transport crew wouldn’t get suspicious. He didn’t have to wait long. The call went out ten seconds after the seismograph in Gravity City’s heart estimated the size of the explosion.
—All hands. All equipment.
Urgency, panic even, in the transmissions following the call. This one could suck all the air out of this floating hunk of crap in space. The fire would go out, but there wouldn’t be anyone home to care. Twenty minutes later, his Firecat powered up at the site of the inferno. Before the Suppression Corps Operator could get in-system and lock controls, Henry jumped the signal.
White-hot and pure. Henry ate it alive, devoured it in molten chunks.
Foam and CO-2 blasted a swath in the all-consuming blaze as he fought his way toward the center of the Haz-Chem facility. His articulated legs automatically leveled his body as he climbed over mountains of debris with his team of fellow Firecats.
Somewhere, he knew, a Suppression Corps Operator was screaming about his hijacked machine. A Firecat near him turned its optics toward him, as if it could somehow see Henry’s face in the anonymous red and chrome machinery. He raised his manipulator arm and smashed the other Firecat’s optics. Hi there.
Inside. That’s where he wanted to be. Henry strained ahead at full speed, bashing obstacles out of his way instead of angling around them. The knee joint of one front leg locked in a flexed position when a secondary explosion damaged its hydraulics, but the other five remained operational, so he fought on. He used the bent front leg as a lever to cast aside giant chunks of the facility’s concrete walls.
Stumbling past the building’s outer foundations, he entered the main gate to Hell.
A fire unlike any he’d ever experienced raged toward the night sky, stabbing the blackness with a white-hot spear of indiscriminate hate. A towering neon Fuck You to Gravity City, one and all. He lumbered toward the conflagration, his brow creasing with concentration as he brought all his systems to bear. Foam turned instantly to steam, CO-2 cannons were gnat farts up against this bellowing dragon he had raised.
A buzz at the base of his skull told him they were backtracking his signal. It didn’t matter. He was here. Home.
Both rear legs simultaneously lost hydraulics in the heat. It was like fighting a fire inside a baby sun. He dragged himself forward, ignoring the creak and flex of his armored sides as the heat exceeded maximum design tolerance. Crawling, fighting, deeper and deeper, into this plasma-hot womb where nothing could touch him. His optics went one by one, winnowing his vision down to a single fish-eye tunnel staring at a brilliant white corona.
He didn’t even bother coming out a quarter-click when he heard the police ram thumping against his apartment door.
His tiny urethane wheels squeakity-squeaked on the well-worn concrete. Rolling down the hallway, his grainy optics picked up individual numbers over the cells. He stopped at 14-B-7 and sounded a tone from his dented speaker.
A gaunt man in prison greens peered through the bars and looked down at Henry. “Yeah?”
Henry extended a tray out the top of his square steel body and selected an automated response. The delivery cart’s systems wouldn’t allow him to actually speak to another prisoner.
“Prisoner 34785, your noon meal.”
34785 reached out and took the tray. He flipped Henry’s optics the bird. Sensing the prisoner had taken the meal, the delivery cart’s automated response system took over. “Thank you. Have a nice meal.”
Henry gritted his teeth and scurried back to the kitchen. He had to figure out a hack so he could tell these assholes to bend themselves.
If he’d been smarter, he would’ve used his Firecat to fend off the responding Fire Suppression Corps machines, or something. Or even smarter, he could’ve simply disabled all the damned machines in the warehouse instead of hacking into the one he commandeered. But, no. He’d been too thirsty for the fire. Somehow, against the odds Henry laid for them, the pros in the Suppression Corps managed to control the raging blaze, and now here he was. Parking a stupid delivery drone in a shitty prison kitchen.
He jacked out of the control system and reclined on his bunk to stretch his back. Running a hand over the raggedy prison haircut they made him get, he sniffed the air and grimaced. Someone in a cell halfway down his block was using a jury-rigged hotplate to fry krill grown on the prison’s roof. Same shit his mother would be eating right about now.
The smell brought tears to his eyes, but he brushed them away. The six months’ worth of rent and grocery money he saved up during his last kamikaze work binge would help his mother. It also gave her a deadline. To do something. Either come back to life and get a job in the real world again, or go live on an Indigent Farm in the Southern Sector. Either way, she wasn’t Henry’s problem anymore.
He rubbed his eyes and saw white flashes and twisting gray smoke.
A chime in his cell signaled there was another food run if he wanted it. Technically, he was in his off hours now, but extra work scored points with the Rehabilitation Board.
Running delivery carts made him a cockroach on the ladder of life for real Operators, but what the hell? It let him build up points toward Full Trustee.
Then he’d be allowed to climb to such high stations as operating the trash truck when it came onto prison grounds. No civilian Operators were allowed to run machines inside the walls. Part security and part Gravity City Job Rehab Program, this was designed to let the prisoners know they could become trusted members of society again.
Henry decided to pass on the food run. Screw it. He closed his eyes to take a nap, instead. After all, he had years to earn his Trustee points.
Years to learn his lesson.
Years to dream of the fire, bright and pure.