Oracle Jack in the Blast Lands by Yma Johnson
For the month of February, our YouNiversity students will be contributing new works to be critiqued. After receiving their critiques from our readers and the mentors, the students will re-post their newly edited works. We ask that your critiques be helpful and honest. Abusive critiques will be deleted.
The Magician was late so Oracle Jack reached beneath the stolen skyrider’s seat and pulled out a box of Red Penance. He needed to get high and make sure no one saw him. Jack absorbed every detail of the loading dock and adjacent warehouse. A teaming mass of human-replicant hybrids, probably loading black market water and reflective tunics into trucks bound for rich districts beyond the Blast Lands. Only hucants could work in the scorch, humans bubbled like skin on a griddle. Although recently, rumors of mass malfunctions among the hucants were sifting like dust through the Leftover Cities. Jack was getting hot, face damp with sweat and the console’s cooling unit had a strange rattle going. He had run the skyrider hard to make it in time to meet The Magician. If the cooling unit died in the Blast Lands, so would he.
The police had stopped coming here once Earth blew off-orbit frying half of humanity and most of the planet to hell. The Blast Lands rose from the ashes, completely lawless. A perfect place, the only place to dump a stolen skyrider. Also a perfect place to get dragged into the sun and have your dope stolen. The oasis of succulents, date palms, and blue streams had become a parched obscenity littered with black craters, outcroppings and boulders. An occasional tree twisted in the landscape, white and waiting to ignite in the relentless heat.
Jack was grateful for the light of the second moon because he could make sure no one snuck up on him. It wasn’t always visible, but it was inextricably linked to the new Earth, the desiccated Earth, a planet with a stringy pulse ringed whose atmosphere had been replaced with viscous globs of pollutants. Oracle Jack jerked a test tube caked with Iridium 5 substrate from his tunic pocket and stirred in six drops of Red Penance. He shook the tube until its contents liquefied and glowed phosphorescent magenta in the peculiar light which wasn’t daylight, but couldn’t be described as night either.
Jack knew about the cameras everywhere and that The Magician hated his runners to get high, but the crawl of need crushed better judgment. His guts clenched and steamed, with trembling fingers, he shoved one end of the straw in the liquid and the other in his nostril then inhaled. Too hard, too greedy. He choked on the burn as it cut corrosive lines down the back of his throat. Before the drug blew back from stomach to brain he knew he had taken too much. Oracle Jack’s skin glowed magenta. He tried to grab the skyrider’s steering control, and as the drug crested he thought, I don’t want to die like this. Legs jerked, arms flailed of their own accord; his whole world shook with the percussive ricochet of gun on bone. In the seizure’s empty afterglow, chin dangling to chest he saw his bones glowing white through flesh. That’s when he started to scream.
Oracle Jack woke in a blazing horizon of pain which expanded as he became more alert. His eyes shifted into focus and the sting of his flesh on unfamiliar fabric alerted him that he was no longer in the skyrider. The bed with thick sheets would have been comfortable to anyone but a rave fiend in the belly of withdrawal, comfortable to anyone who didn’t want to peel their own skin off with a knife. The room was large with gray walls, perhaps some kind of metal. In fact, everything – the floor, ceiling, sheets, the matching sinks – was the same antiseptic shade of gunmetal gray. A cloth divider separated him from what? The question bloomed with a simultaneous instinct to run his hands over his head. His fingers still pink from the overdose scrambled across his scalp. Someone had shaved him bald.
“What the fuck?” He lurched out of bed in a clumsy frenzy. Jack’s feet tangled in the sheets and he clawed at the dividing cloth which tore from the ceiling as he lost his balance and thudded to the floor. A thin bald man, his skin also magenta from a recent overdose, scrambled to the other side of his bed, eyes luminous with terror. Oracle Jack’s heart throbbed in errant beats as he tried to rub away the pain where his knees had struck the ground.
The junkie spun in and out of focus as Jack willed his eyes to work. Somewhat recovered from Jack’s startling entry, the man had edged back towards him.
“You okay?” he whispered.
“Fuck no, I’m not okay! Where the hell am I?”
“You tell me then will both know.” The man, who wore the same grey flannel pajamas as Jack, was still whispering and his eyes jerked in paranoid little arcs around the room. “They call me The Hanged Man,” he said giving his street name.
Jack touched his scalp and his face, which for the first time in months was free of rough stubble. “Who shaved us?”
“I don’t know. I’m freaking out.”
“Do you know how long I’ve been here?” Jack wished The Hanged Man would stop swinging his head from side to side, the movement was giving him motion sickness and he looked down at the floor to steady himself. He was dope sick and very scared, but tried to hide it.
“Three days, maybe four – it was a bad overdose.”
There was no such thing as a good overdose. You blew past the high and woke up sick, crazy sick, a ton of mix wasted and no buzz.
“Are we in jail?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Oracle Jack cocked his head at The Hanged Man who, upon second appraisal, looked younger than he’d first thought. In fact, with his raggedy thinness, light magenta skin, and shaved head he looked almost fetal. “This is definitely not jail. For starters, it’s clean and we have matching pajamas and sheets.”
“Then how come we’re locked in?” The Hanged Man pointed to the door which had one tiny opaque window cross-hatched with some kind of copperish material and no handle.