Ryan Kelley 日 11/12/2023 · admin No comments

SCRAPE RUNNER

They call him Bug Man, though his flat is polished to sterility, all in place arranged the shelves, in main centred on his Okuno ZN70 flatscreen and the space it takes up which he keeps on aquarium mode as he stumbles through his flat. Through that same screen hacked long ago I can see him groping as if for balance. Thanks to the dossier I know he’s really trying to prise for skullmoths that’ve burrowed and tunneled into his body.

Day by day he lives, he breathes, he survives. When he goes out the lurch is gone; with will he straightens his spine, keeps his hands in the pockets of his dusty jeans. The moths aren’t real. That’s why he only tries to dig them out when no one else is around.

We call them Typals, the schizophrenic wraithform in them choosing to hide itself rather than suffer Sanitization. Sanitization is mandated in the effect you trigger blue on the SchizoTuring, the standard test that detects the wraithform. Typals beat the ST by saying the sky is blue or paveshredders roll on wheels or whatever. Then they emerge from gaunt grey facades or hovels and see dragons and skies of blood.

That Bug Man’s got a nickname is bad news for him. I myself tunnel, burrow, through the infogrid for Typals when there is no dossier; investigate when there is. I first got into Mental Health Administration to be a compassionate voice within it. I soon found the system is full of compassionate voices. As the years drag out, we are all subject to endless directives from above from men who stand elevated with wide-rimmed glasses, opaque lenses, in shadows or in places far away or both. They too were compassionate voices once. But it has become Enshrined Policy that the Typal is the newer model, the threat model, and represents the latest evolution of the schizophrenic wraithform which must be wiped from the greater thoughtgeist of 206X Earth.

I am a Scrape Runner. My job is to hunt the wraithform. My job is to hunt Typals.

From beyond my office, my wife calls to me. Wants to know what I want for breakfast. It’s our joke. On our budget we’re down to a single Physical Health Administration-approved option: fried eggs, bacon, cold-cut veg sandwiches. The bread is so starchy I could use it as a weapon. Each foodstuff excels at its PHA-charted role. The point of bread is: carbos. Carbos matter; under PHA law, any federal employee should be active, always moving. Healthy. When I’m not buried at my terminal I’m running around, chasing Typals, and no matter how many carbos I consume, I’m always tired.

I enter the kitchen. Scrape Runner salary is half currency, half life insurance. Scrape running is a career like high sails piracy or exploring circa the 11th century. It’s a career in that it’s possible to survive and prosper. But you have to do one to do the other.

So when my wife stares at me, her eyes, set off by framing curling tresses, flaxen the way light streaks straw, are quiet. They don’t sparkle. They don’t move. She holds me in her gaze as if every time she sees me will be the last time. This gaze infiltrates even shallow morning breakfast rituals. It makes me feel like I’m a Typal, always feeling watched because in their heads they commit thoughtcrime: the crime of delusion, of believing you are always being watched. When we get a bead on them we watch them, pretending we aren’t there; they pretend we aren’t there, and so their lives become plays. Actions directed by their dreamt-up sanity scripts. I could be in a play, right now, and how cheap the set; turn-of-century frilled curtains, white walls decorated here and there by photographs of my dead mother, her dead mother, I no longer remember.

Even as I kiss her goodbye I’m palming my adrenaline syringe in my pocket. Mandate: a hunter needs the thrill of the chase. Sometimes Typals don’t spark it. The Bug Man won’t: a pot-bellied tank tee of a man whose gut slopes his jeans. He lives in the slums near the Port. My paveshredder is a 4-tyre beast that slags the road molten, standard Scrape issue, but comes with a default Officer paint scheme. This is like a hornet imitating a fly. People out in the slums hate Officers, but they hate Scrape Runners more. The slums produce lots of Typals. Even as I’m cruising I note intervals between bullet pops off the armourglass. They remind me of popping popcorn in the PHA anti-obesity PSAs. I wonder what it would be like to have my gut sink like a stone, like the Bug Man’s. Liberating, I figure. Sugar and sodium can be attained in the slums in vast quantities. PHA has not yet managed to outlaw these substances for the greater pop. For a federal employee, though, they’re pipe fantasy; the regimen of food testing is thorough; not a molecule of the stuff would elude them.

Outside the sky is the colour of mustard gas and broken into by the slumtowers which in the distance above serrate it, carve it up. Slumtowers are high because they need to fit so many people. The Decline of the nascent twenty-first sank teeming scores of people to the low end of economic duality. At the same time property rates downtown rose as high as those towers would. A mass-architecture project by Mehserle-Barela, all the towers look the same. The skyline at first was sliced and diced by the towers; now the slums are chains of them; grim and dark, they look like some leviathanic bird has gathered them for a nest, a giant for a crown. I can’t admire them through the glaze of high-grade armourglass. They blend into a dark smear that hems in the paveshredder; this deep inside I am subject to a fallen darkness that is weathered only by cheap, dying neon, and that is flushed away by the tint of the armourglass into faint, fine bleeds of fire.

Parking as a Scrape Runner is a professional job requiring precision. Top-notch driving skills are required to time the parking job itself, to make it accurate within legality but fast enough so you can get out without being swarmed. With a simple map app I’ve scouted out the whole area; my mind is on an alley off what looks like a makeshift pavilion. There’s a healthy spacing between bullet pops now; the shooters are waiting for me to stop and get out. This deep in Slum territory shooters become a monolithic mass, an abstract beast: a factor designated as a single entity. In the Slums you can’t shoot everyone who shoots at you. There aren’t enough bullets and they know the shadows like their own minds. Instead, slow your breathing. You’re going to want to be calm. The paveshredder corners like a dreidel and I cut the engine with one hand while the other has already hit the button that triggers the sliding door. With my body I’m twisting out of my seat.

A fire escape takes me to higher ground. I slide through a window and into someone’s washroom. Someone’s grandmother in the living room outside regards me with hostile eyes. The second I’m gone I know she’ll be on her pager or whatever these people use. Scraper, scraper. He was just here.

I pause for a second. I could threaten her. At least draw a hand across my lips in pantomime. Even as I’m closing the door, carefully, how thoughtful, I hear the lurch of her from her armchair, the rustling of her feet over her living room carpet.

I think about my quota.

Scrape Runners are supposed to Sanitize Typals at a rate of three a month. Bug Man is my last, with five days to go. First was some gangly kid with freckles and poufy red hair. It’s hard to Sanitize the young ones, and in fact you’re supposed to reason with them. But this kid was determined to stay Typal. Only after a battery of in-persons did he finally admit he thought aliens from alternate dimension Neptune were running the show.

But I knew he was Typal from the beginning, or would’ve, even if I hadn’t been monitoring him. His flaw was scoring high on hierarchical resistance. They think it’s safe; who likes hierarchies?

Yet over the course of the interview, the hierarchy morphed like it always did. Starts as rich lineage brats and corrupt politicos, and by the end of the interview they’re vampires, they’re ghouls, monsters; the Typal says this with tears in their eyes, usually. He cried, tears dimpling his freckles, because he knew that was it for him; he had revealed the truth the schizophrenic wraithform wanted the whole world to know, that he had tried, himself, to suppress.

My second was a woman.

It wasn’t that she looked exactly like my wife. Her hair was darker, ringed by braid; her nose was flat, her jaw soft. Yet I couldn’t shake it… I prayed for her to pass the in-person ST. Just say it, I willed her. Everything’s normal. People are people. This had been on the final question, with her score shaky, yet passable. All she had to do was hold it together.

She couldn’t. Typals can’t beat an In-Person ST administered by a pro Scrape Runner. She asked why couldn’t anyone do anything about the dog-sized spiders occupying her walls that had climbed from the centre of the earth. What she meant was: why can’t anyone do anything about my blatant continued Typality. I had to. Got home late. When I got home I studied the sleeping form of my wife. Tried to pick out differences from the Typal in my head. In the morning I couldn’t face her gaze as she held me in it.

Now my 2nd’s face fills my mind, but not in Typality; Sanitized, still. Eyes blank. I make my way down the hall. Bug Man is on the fourth floor. To get there I’ll need to take the stairs. Doors open in my wake. Clack, clack, clack. People step out into the hall. I vanish into a stairwell at the end, hearing shouts ring out as the heavy-grade door slams shut. Cut short by the thunk of the door, it’s as if the stairwell has swallowed me. The walls are painted; lo-class heroes like Che and Malcolm glare at me, political sloganeering spewing from pearl white teeth, cutting across their eyes, spooling everywhere in finer strokes of black felt. The lighting is a whitewash from bolted halogen above that pulses, flickers, hums in static, unceasing low staccato.

I roll up my plainclothes tee and spike home the adrenaline syringe before kicking through the fourth-floor exit as the world accelerates. With my other I’ve drawn my Peace Thrower, standard issue for any Officer but modified for Scrape service. The point is personalized bliss. Someone could be about to make the inside of your skull look like the inside of your stomach. Zen heaven. An advance ticket to Zoro-Astrarium Valhalla before they even do anything. Scraper models are modified with mild Sanitation as a side effect. This results in mild hypnotic compliancy in addition to oft-debated changes to brain signal structure.

There’s a gaggle of hoods on the other side. “Nice seeing you, Scraper,” their leader says. “You think you can just come in here? Take our own?”

“It’s my job,” I say. It’s a paycheque. It’s a way to visit here professionally as opposed to living here permanently. I don’t say all this. I don’t say it because I’m striding forward instead. Bug Man lives down the hall, to the right. The door thunks behind me, cutting off the whitewash that had been spilling out, in the halls the light a more sombre orange. This light sets off all hairdos in the area, sending streaks of sorbet-hued glaze through them, like an army of bleached vampire perms.

The first mope takes a swing. They’re not packing, I notice while reflex has me ducking and getting him in the ribs with the Peace Thrower. Despite the name it’s more reliable up close. He backs away, a beatific grin spreading across his face. The other goons are startled, drop the one-at-a-time approach. They rush en masse, a half dozen left.

My body is honed from a decade of PHA regulation. My Peace Thrower arm holds the gun steady for each shot as my lips begin murmuring hypnotic commands. To the goons, watching in confusion as they begin to subdue their own, pushing each other in the way of the Thrower, it would resemble speaking in tongues, Babelic language. The words are there, but they’re smushed together, and I keep them low as to defy conscious comprehension. They snake their way to the subconscious like heat-seeking missiles.

After, I’m bruised and battered. The mopes are all sitting cross-legged in bodhisattva poses, eyeing me with a mild interest. This would use ten percent of their brainpower, the rest blunted with zen clarity. They’ve laid themselves out, a tad symmetrically, on either side of the hall behind me. My left eye swells. I wrench my working eye from the sight of the lotus-posed gangers, who remind me of a terracotta army, guarding their patron in watchful silence, a twinkle of life in each unmoving, painted pupil.

“If you lived here,” says the Bug Man’s rasping voice, “you’d be home by now. Do you feel at home?”

I stare. He’s stepped out into the hall to check out what the fuss was. I notice he didn’t call me Scraper, will pretend he doesn’t know. If they could hang on to that enforced doubt… but of course they never can.

“I’m a Scraper,” I say. Like it’s not obvious from his neighbours’ newfound spirituality. “I’m here to administer an in-person ST on your… person.” I’m breathing hard, and as I walk towards him I can tell I’m staggering, leaning to the side, my head pounding with the adrenaline.

“You look rough,” the Bug Man says, with a hint of a sneer that is more than hint as I get closer. “I guess you’d better come inside.” Before I can say anything, he’s gone; his door thuds shut, but the latch bar clanks, keeping it open.

I have to muscle it all the way. Bug Man stands in the living room mained to his left by the wall-mounted Okuno ZN70, though this last is obscured by the entry cleft, revealed as I finish my entrance to section a small kitchenette. I pause, then latch the door shut. The terracotta warriors will blink into life at first, then into movement, then into war. Though I know his layout intimately, on entrance it is jarring; the doormat leads to the lacquered porcelain tiling of the living room, and the space is free of furnishings but for the Okuno. The light switch to my left as I pass it is a gradient, set halfway, and the bleak, sallow indoor light mixes with the blue glow of the aquarium screensaver in shifting play over the Bug Man’s face.

“You can skip the ST,” he says, in his rasping voice. “That’s not what you’re really here for, is it?”

“It isn’t?” I say. Trying to get my breathing back.

“No, no,” he says. “You’re here to find out who you really are.”

“I’m a Scrape Runner,” I say. Not for him, or for myself, but for the quota. For the sunk cost of coming this far. In this life you can question yourself but it’ll never get you anywhere. “And you’re insane. You’re a Typal. I’ve been watching you. I’ve been–”

I stop then, because I see his shoulders slump. His spine slouch. As if gravity has suddenly hit him harder. He’s in motion. Shamelessly, he’s looking for the goddamn bugs that give him his name. In front of me. Like I’m a pile of rotting meat on his doorstep.

“Fuck this,” I say, or maybe think. I raise the Peace Thrower in a double grip. Set to max, the Sanitization will require a single whisper of hypnotic keycode Babelic. Then it’ll all be over. I’ll retinal scan the sudden, empty stare. I’ll see in stilled, whitened eyes, my own reflection. My own mottled face. Like I saw myself in my 2nd’s eyes, my own eyes searching hers, that emptiness, for some kind of answer. He’s showing off a clenched fist. Off to my left, schools of fish dart back and forth, smears of orange and white mixed with tropical shades exploring blue pixel pigment.

“Under Directive 056, Subsection Two, for the spectrum-crime of Typality, defined as attempting to hide the schizophrenic wraithform from proper purging, you will be Sanitized. You will experience some discomfort you will not be able to express. This has been deemed necessary by the–” and then I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.

“Will you Sanitize yourself, Scraper?” Beading in his palm, thrumming, is a skullmoth. A death’s head hawkmoth. As I face him his body ripples; bulges wriggle down his arms bared by the tank tee. I see antennae; whispering strands peering from wrinkles in skin, blending in with his arm hair, but searching the air; they move counter to his growth, writhe like swaying trees. Then mandibles, grubbing legs, heaving thorax. Emerging from pockets of his flesh; more move beneath his shirt, his jeans.

The one in his palm has since alit and started buzzing around the room. Now I see it’s affixed itself to the Okuno ZN50. More soon join it. Soon the screensaver is a mess of them, white skulls in darkness scrabbling over the faux-ocean. I see the fish as movement beneath, as distortion foregrounded by the beating insects; the blue glow is all but swallowed, shines in shifting, spidering lines like cracks in sculpture. They rose the way blizzard banks rise, in a storm of beating wings, of white sears translucent in the blue light, like diamonds hurling themselves at the screen.

“You see them, don’t you?” Bug Man says. The weakness has left his voice. Contempt replaces it. “Wish I could. Native to the African north, or was. You know when they told us about the new Typality, I didn’t believe it—didn’t understand it. How can they not know they’re pretending not to be crazy. But you see the bugs. You see them. We can’t have new variants of Typals hunting other Typals. What if you get it wrong?”

“I don’t get it,” I say. The Peace Thrower hangs loose and limp by my side. Get it wrong how? I’m shouting it. PHA-approved foods and training for the last decade. Bug Man looks at me with an expression of distaste. In his hand, where I’d seen the skullmoth, something shines—metallic. Shines from the now-sallow light. “This goddamn op,” he says, and laughs. “Maybe I’ll Sanitize myself. Maybe I’ll blow my own head off.” Then he shakes his head. “No, I’ll stick to the process. I’ll be in shape soon, and you’ll be feeling… well, you know. No sense explaining it to you.”

“I have a wife,” I say.

“You think none of them are married?” he says. “That none of the lives they hold together with such effort have any kind of point? A Typal is a Typal.”

“I have a right–” I begin, but I know where that will go. “We reserve the right to waive specific procedures upon such a clear ID,” he says. He nods at the screen. The same black heaving mess of bugs. “I had to pretend in front of this thing like I was pretending not to be crazy. Like I was only crazy when people weren’t watching. It got so I thought I was crazy for real.” He laughs again. “But of course, I’m sane; they certified me. Had to.” He pauses, then. “You goddamn Typals.”

I’m a fast draw with the Peace Thrower under the best of conditions but the adrenaline crash blows any shot I have of making it out of the water. What hits me is like getting gored by a rhino, mauled by a bear, kicked by a mule at once. Of course it is any or none of those things, but that’s what I could say, if I could talk. I’m in a room now, shut and barred. The walls are composed of grey mucous membrane chambered within my fried skull. I no longer eat and no longer sleep. I await my eventual passing with a pain I can’t express. All this you could see, if you saw behind my Sanitized eyes.

But they are empty first, and you’d never see past that.

 

@CHTHONICHELL