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Lincoln Center. Still looks good, you know, even with all the stone and concrete washed with pigeonshit and acid rain. Several craters have been blown in the outer walls of Alice Tully Hall, and the Metropolitan Opera House is missing most of its grand glass panels. The shape, however, is the same, and nothing large enough to destroy the fantasy lurks if you squint at it upwards and imagine the crowds and light and life Before.
I wish for a cigarette, but perhaps this time I'm lucky, and none will turn up. Then I can quit. The Steyr is a weight against my side on its sling, a slightly different weight than its predecessor, which throws off the almost unconscious rhythm I've adopted to prevent the gun from bruising my side or making noise when walking.
Near the subway entrance at Sixty-sixth, there's a bench that has survived. I move to it wearily, sit, rest my legs. Around me there are a few inhabitants; a family of five sits beneath a makeshift lean-to and watches something cook atop a fire. Squab, most likely. At least the damn things are plentiful, and we seem to be killing them fast enough that disease hasn't been a problem in the pigeon population. Also, they're stupid. Which means that it doesn't take precious ammunition or fuel to catch them; just patience and a decent throwing arm will do the trick. I see, however, that the father has a longbow slung across his shoulders. The fiberglass and steel, once emerald green, still has the legend of the manufacturer spelled across it in white lacquer. It contrasts with the ragged jacket he wears, which falls across his arms as he rests them on the shoulders of his children who stand at his side and watch the flames.
At least they look well-fed. Starvation isn't really a problem, not as long as we have Park and the urban wildlife to live on. Even spices, condiments and other dry goods are still in fairly good supply; there are so painfully few of us that those goods left in the city when It began still offer choices for our meals these years later.
I'd kill for an orange, though.
Across the plaza, several people cluster around the broken front of what was once a record store, apparently just socializing. I can hear laughter and the sound of metal as they trade toasts and jest. Humans are amazing.
The sound, when it comes, is unexpected, freezing my chest and bringing the Steyr up in a vicious snap of motion that arouses a twinge of pain in my arm. I force it to relax, and search. Others in the plaza heard it, too- the rending shriek of metal stressed beyond its limits. People are drifting into open areas near the center of the street, weapons in hand, and - damn it - they're looking at me. I have the gun, I'm wearing black, I'm a protector.
I motion for silence, and wave the father back. He nods, bundles up his children and his wife and they silently run for the building on the east side of the street. Perhaps twenty others stop as they come near me, holding items ranging from a hunting rifle to jagged makeshift short swords. One boy has an aluminum baseball bat.
The noise has not repeated. We scan the plaza, carefully; then the boy with the bat whistles softly, tremblingly, and points. Following his gaze, we turn to the subway entrance, shut and buried- except now, it's twitching, pieces of concrete and steel pushed up from below and moving. There must be fifty tons of rubbish there, the pieces moving weighing in at a ton or so each. That's not good.
I wave everyone back, and they flow away towards Lincoln Center and the buildings. I strip a round from the Steyr's magazine to check the feed, catch it in the air from force of habit and need and place it in a pouch on my belt. The concrete continues to flex, and I wait and watch it.
This never gets any easier. Things that once meant luxury and safety and freedom now mean violence and killing and death; the palaces we built have come to take our lives, and every time it comes to me like this I stand in its path and shiver, clutching the gun to my chest in benediction as I wait to destroy.
Can I call it killing? Are they alive? Who knows. All I know is that we've gone from builders to renders, and the fruits of both labors surround us all the time now.
A large chunk of concrete, on the surface, shifts and rolls, exposing blackness below before rubble falls into the edges of the hole. There is no sign of steel or plastic or other bot-like materials, and I stare fixedly into the hole, waiting for it to appear.
The ripple in the pavement ten feet to the right of the hole nearly escapes my notice, but my heart sees it and suddenly the fear is back, familiar, cold and hard. I raise my face to the heavens, sound the warning-
"CHROMAN!" Shit, my voice isn't up to this any more. I'm not up to this, please, let me out- but there's no hope for that, and I think of Scot with his insides out and the rage returns to fill the void. The flicker was moving, slowly, downtown; it has stopped at my shout. There is a rustle form around the plaza as humans flee behind cover, and then the eyes open in midair to look at me in burnt gold liquid stares of implacability.
The Steyr is leaping, a live thing, and the cyclic rate is so high that I cannot control the gun as it sweeps upwards. The eyes vanish, air around their position flickering, and the bullets scythe through-nothing. He's moved. Shit. I jump and roll, landing behind a low ragged line of concrete that might once have been a wall in the middle of Broadway. Looking over the top, I see nothing; so I brace the Steyr and wait, there, for the flicker to return.
When it does, it's behind me. Naturally.
The bland has seen me, heard me, felt me- I know not which, but his proscription speaks to me as he speaks to the sky, the old scream of fear/hate/warning/release. Mode dances me sideways, flicker washes cool and firm, the broken concrete flows about me, the bullets stop. I freeze, waiting, and see the human vanishing over a broken section of City's bones- I flow after. He cannot see me. He looks in the wrong place. I cannot feel him. I ache in the wrong place. The proscription quests, searching, sniffing, feeling, back and forth; I watch from behind as he scans the open spaces. This one is experienced; he has hunted others like me-
I realize, then, that he has hunted me. Scream of warning as Mode recognizes him too, the bland who followed into the underdark, into the tunnels, whom City could not kill because he was too quick. Danger, Mode wails, This one knows you knows us sees flow kills. Flicker, unsure of what to do, washes slightly, and although I know Flicker is utterly silent, I watch the back of the bland's head freeze, his (gun) stop moving. He knows I am here. He knows. How. How how how could he, the concrete grey and black and white that drapes me from his view remains, flicker, still and quiet now, hiding me. I wait for Lockdown, but nothing comes; Mode is frightened, a new and terrible thing- it waits for me. I wait for it. We wait for him. He turns, slowly, stares past me, searches the area-
Shit. I know he's back there, I can feel the fucker. There's nothing to be seen, though; he must not be moving. I can see a few people furtively sliding out of the plaza at the edges of my vision, stragglers in the hunt for safety; the Steyr complains, I imagine, denied a target, it wobbles back and forth across my vision, floating, lost. Wait-
Mode break please please break now save me move me work me heal me-
There is no answer; Mode is cowering, deep within! What has happened? This is new and strange, and fear takes its place, and perhaps a hint of anticipation- it will not break, he will not die, Mode will not kill, perhaps then I-? Unable to move, not Locked but still for fright, I blink slowly-
He blinked. I can see him. There, right in front of me- why isn't he moving? His eyes are open now, gold, and I can see them, and he's four feet away and not moving and no-one's ever been this close to one and seen him and not died and I don't want to die and I need to shoot I'm close enough and the Steyr is fast enough I might get enough kinetics and mass onto him to punch through that damned armor before I go down but if I don't shoot then maybe he won't kill me although there's no good goddamn reason why not-
Strange. My eyes are open, and flicker has not washed them; I see the bland staring at me, in my eye, eye to eye, contact! The fear, the colors of the pain and fright, flicker ripples in shuddering empathy to the sweat pouring form him and the slight quiver of overstressed muscles and adrenaline. I cannot die. I cannot hate. I cannot heal. I cannot-
Holy shit. His eyes, they're so still- I still can't see the rest of him. I really have no idea what to do now, so I do the last thing I expect-
I lower the gun.
Proscription drops! I will not die, a sad and listless wail from deep within, and with its passing Mode leaps forward, reassured, and screams for Lockdown- cut off from City, it has been disoriented, confused, but here, a target! A purpose, the blands who must be hunted killed and driven from the City for proscribing and for death and pain and want. Mode freezes my limbs, my eyes, flicker, my organs, my colors and my fear, and waits, tasting death-
I will not let you. The words are rusty, forgotten and tasting of moth wings and slowly sliding algae; they rise within, stand, tower, tall, Mode turns inside me, faces them, breaks-
There's no warning at all. His eyes are looking at me, and I've lowered the Steyr to point at the pavement, I don't know why, but it's too late. A quick flicker of a blink, then, and suddenly I'm thrown backwards, my eyes watering and dazzled from the sudden cycle of pure intense primaries, and I can't find the damn gun as I struggle in the dirt and rock and grass and weeds. My right hand, scrabbling wildly, touches plastic; I grab, and pull, and the gun leaps to me, and I blink water from my eyes as I stare upwards from my knees, searching for a target. The chroman is there, in front of me, slightly contorted, on one knee, arms lifted as though over a beam running behind his neck. One droops to the ground, the other points skyward; his body is twisted at the waist and he is weeping colors, red and gold and blue and green and cyan and magenta and pale, pale yellow all flowing from his eyes to the street, but he's not moving. As I watch, the flow of color slows and ceases. He shudders, once, then, and freezes in place, a neutral bronze, but slightly indistinct, out of focus; a forgotten photograph in a memory, resting just outside the focal point.
A moment's pause.
Then I vomit. Again. Damn it.
The world grows still and cold, and bland, the colors leaching from it into my eyes and through the parted hands of flicker to run slowly down my body and pool on the
pavement, Mode angrily standing, beaten, over the shattered landscapes inside me. I cannot even see what my eyes do not face; they are only passing one color to me now,
the remnants of the color photograph of the world, drained of all but the sepia of daguerrotype and the white of the sun. Mode snarls within me, shakes me from inside; I retreat, further, into Shell, displacing flicker entirely, and Mode shakes its head in fury and takes to wings of electron aether, flowing off into the air from within my head and returning to the broken open arms of City via a half-destroyed cellular tower still forlornly wailing from the top of the Weather Star, which when last seen working was showing
the orange of a perpetually rainy day-
Standing up, wiping my mouth, I hear the cheers of the people swarming back into the plaza, and I shake my head to clear it while reaching for the Steyr. Its metal weight is comfort; I hold it against my cheek and revel in the coolness of the metal before turning to examine the chroman. He's still there. Reaching, almost, for the earth and the sky, eyes turned slightly sideways to stare in the dirt. The colorful pool of his holosystems is fading now; I'm not sure what to make of that, but he shows no sign of arousing.
Gingerly, I reach forward and touch his face on the cheek. There's nothing there; he might as well be the bronze metal he's mimicking, except that the surface of his skin (or whatever) is precisely ambient temperature. Not even an energy gradient to announce him.
"Jeeesus, man, that was sweet!" The voice is young but weary, unable to work up the enthusiasm it wants. I turn; it's the father, his bow slung over his back and his children waiting near the edges of the square with a woman (their mother? I can hope) knelt over them. He has stopped perhaps five feet away, the nearest of the returning thin crowd, and is examining the chroman.
"No, it fucking well wasn't sweet, it was fucking vile is what it was." I'm tired, as well; the bitter tone in my voice makes him draw back, slightly.
"Look, man, you got him. You got him. He ain't going to kill nobody, any more; not my kids, not me, not you. That's sweet, all right? That's life, and that's sweet." He unlimbers the bow as he talks, but doesn't string it. He reaches across the space and touches the chroman's flesh, poking him in the side. There is no reaction whatsoever. Shrugging, he retrieves the bow and reslings it across his broad shoulders.
"Yeah, I guess, although I didn't do it. He just stopped."
"Ain't never heard of none of them stopping, not unless they were dead."
"He look dead to you?"
The other cocked his head professionally, and examined the still form again. "Well, he sure ain't alive."
"He's not dead. I've seen them dead. I've made them dead. This one isn't dead."
"Then why're we still here, mister?" A new voice, from the crowd. There are perhaps thirty of them, in a ring centered on the chroman, perhaps ten yards in radius.
"Yeah, why? He isn't dead, then what is he?" Bowman chimes back in.
"Look, I don't know. That's what scares me. This could all be an act. He could be waiting for all of us to get close enough to grab," -a subconscious shuffle back, all around- "-or he might just be recharging or whatever it is they do." I found my hands automatically reloading and recharging the Steyr for want of a task. Habitually, I looked about me for the brass to collect, but remembered then the caseless ammo in the Steyr and forced my nervous hands to sling it at my side. I examined the chroman again. He hadn't moved.
"So what d'we do?" Another member of the crowd.
"Fuck that; he's dead. Where's my family?" Bowman turned and made his way through the ring, heading for the ruins of the ASCAP building where his children and companion waited. I wondered if she was his wife, disturbed that I didn't know and couldn't assume. I addressed the remaining crowd.
"We don't touch him. I'm calling it in; the boffins'll be out to collect him. I don't think we've ever gotten one that wasn't blown apart before it stopped trying to kill us." I pulled my link from my pants as I finished, and waved everyone back to emphasize the point. They began to drift away towards their bonfires and campsites, with frequent looks over their shoulders. I opened the link, and called it in.
After a few seconds making the comm op on duty understand what I had, a very excited voice came on and ordered me to stay right where I was and await pickup. I said "Yessir" but really meant and where the fuck would I go? Closing the link, I sat on the remains of the median wall and contemplated my frozen opponent, trying to decide if that'd been luck or skill.
I couldn't in any way make the answer come out, skill, and then I saw the red and white paper winking from the trashed car behind the chroman. Unwillingly drawn, I moved over, hoping it wasn't.
It was. Shit.
Sighing, I worked the twisted door off the car, wincing at the squeal, and reached in to pull out a plastic bag still mostly covering what turned out to be some half a case of Marlboros, with only the outer two packs ruined by damp.
Cursing bastard chance, I lit his offering and stared at the ruined sky.
That was exciting. I promptly forgot the sheer bowel-watering fear, and retained only the sense of something new in my life, when thinking of the memory. That's all I had; after the frantically gesticulating brainiacs snatched the chroman from his statuesque pose on Broadway, I was sent back to wall duty at 57th, where I guess the whole episode started. Life became boring once more, which viewed from one point of view was a good thing. There were fewer chances to get myself killed. On the other hand, nothing
interesting happened, either; and I found myself sitting atop a mound of ruins, detritus and trash, staring intently into the flickering night while waiting for something manmade and familiar to come and kill me.
It wasn't fun.
Not like I've expected 'fun' out of my life. I don't really think I'd even thought about my life as anything other than 'something I stood to lose if I screw up' for quite some time; and then, of course, is when I lost it, just to make the point to me in my small wrecked corner of the world, with the cosmos laughing.
Wall duty; atop the barrier, looking, waiting, watching. Nothing moving on the cracked asphalt killing zone of the street, save some rats and other living hunted vermin which existed in strange kinship with man for the first time undoubtedly. I watched the pop-pop scurrying of the rats as they moved about on their eternal errands of food and sex, seeing traffic patterns in their movement along the gutters, and was busily lighting one of the last Marlboros from the Lincoln Center find when the dark amorphous presence
settled from the nighttime sky and folded itself about me quickly enough that I'm not sure if anyone heard my scream.
Then I was pulled, muffled, across the surface of the street and felt myself fall down a drop which could only be a too-familiar manhole, and the knives came out of the blanket which surrounded me to take my blood and disjoint my body and I think the last thing I did was feel cheated that I didn't even get the fabled replay of my life to date before the rushing black closed in and my last word was a resigned and quiet
Then it was dark and quiet save for the eager snapping of the knives and the sucking rips of my flesh, and not even I was there to hear.
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