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 scanned the loading dock and adjacent warehouse. A group of human-replicant hybrids moved with mechanical purpose between the building and trucks, probably loading up black market water and reflective tunics bound for rich districts beyond the Blast Lands. Nothing to worry about there.
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, isolated and 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. Once an oasis of succulents, date palms, and blue streams, it 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.
Sweat spread out in musty semicircles from under Jack’s arms. The skyrider’s cooling unit rattled with ominous inconsistency. He had run it hard to make his meeting with The Magician. If it died in the Blast Lands, so would he. Fleeting fear of death melted into gratitude for the second moon, extra light made an ambush unlikely. 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 called night either
Jack knew about the cameras and that The Magician hated his runners to get high, but the crawl of need crushed better judgment. He had snatched the skyrider as a special order, so if The Magician didn’t want him getting high by the docks, then he could steal his own shit. 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 clawed at 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 marrow glowing white through flesh and started to scream.
Oracle Jack jerked awake in a 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. He was in a large gray-walled room, perhaps some kind of metal. In fact, everything – the floor, ceiling, sheets, the twin sinks – was the same antiseptic shade of gunmetal gray. A cloth divider separated him from what? The question bloomed with an instinct to run his hands over his head. He was bald. Someone had shaved him bald.
“What the fuck?” Jack lurched from the bed in a clumsy frenzy. His feet tangled in the sheets, and he snatched at the dividing cloth tearing it loose 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, who was also wearing grey flannel pajamas had edged back towards him.
“You okay?” he whispered.
“Fuck no, I’m not okay! Where the hell am I? Who shaved my fucking head?”
“I think it was scorch-proof hybrids,” he said in a loud whisper, half-covering his mouth with one hand. “They call me The Hanged Man.” He paused, looked over his shoulder then stared back at Jack, watery pink eyeballs trembling in his head. Saliva glittered at the corner of his lips. His words erupted in a stammered rush. “I guess they could be human. They look human, but there’s something … I don’t know, not human. They don’t talk. Well sometimes they talk. It’s weird man, I – ”
“Dude, calm down. Please.” Jack waved a hand in the air as though he might diffuse The Hanged Man’s mania. “Where the hell are we?”
The man lowered his voice until it was barely audible, “You tell me, then we’ll both know.”
Oh, God, thought Jack – the skyrider, all his dope, The Magician. Everything was completely fucked up. “How long have I been here?”
“Three maybe four days, not sure,” he said. “Not sure where here is exactly. No, not too sure. I’m The Hanged Man.”
“Yeah, you said that. Oracle Jack.”
“Yeah, yeah. Nice to meet you. Yeah, you been here 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 wasted rave mix and no buzz. The Hanged Man kept looking over his shoulder like he was trying to catch something or someone sneaking up behind him. His eyes skittered from one corner of the room locked on a spot then moved to another. Jack wished he would stop. The movement was giving him motion sickness, and he looked down at the floor to steady himself. Jack’s face began to twitch, his hands trembled. He clutched his head and managed to say, “Do you have any dope?” just as the chatters descended. With flesh ache and sudden fury, he was sucked into a tunnel of blinding sound, immersed in the disembodied teeth click, click cracking over and over again.
The Hanged Man scampered to the floor and tried to lift him, “You better get back to bed.” He was smaller than Jack and lost his balance trying to steady both of their weight so he half-yanked, half-dropped Jack into a writhing heap on the bed. The Hanged Man glanced at the door and with a look of pure fright said, “They’ll bring you some mix. Don’t worry they’ll bring it. Push the white button on the side of the bed.”
Oracle Jack dragged the sheets and blankets away from the metal bed frame, and found half a dozen buttons. He mashed them all five or six times and his empty insides rattled as the bed jerked up and down, alternately raising and lowering his feet, head, and midsection.
“No, the white button! Hit the white button!”
Jack forced himself to focus, found the right button, and pressed it so hard his finger cramped. He managed to slow his breathing and burrow into the tangle of bedclothes. Warmth chased down the chatters to low level ticking which, combined with the hum of the cooling system, stabilized his body to a tolerable level of discomfort. This was just the beginning, he had maybe an hour maybe two before another avalanche of chatters descended. Over the next day, acute withdrawal symptoms would lengthen until they gathered into a ceaseless noise storm followed by hallucinations. Jack jabbed the button one more time and stared hungrily at the door. Maybe he could find where the mix was stored.
“Forget about it, man. We’re locked in,” The Hanged Man’s voice came as flat echo bulging in the air around him. “I’ve tried a bunch of times to get out. I don’t know … I was waiting for the Magician in block nineteen. You know The Magician?”
Jack nodded. Everyone knew The Magician.
“I had just boosted this skyrider and I guess the guy was a dope fiend because I found substrate cake and shit ton of Red Penance in the console.” Both of them stared at the door as The Hanged Man sped through his tale squeezing his bald head and rocking back and forth. “There were some works so I decided to bang it.” Jack caught The Hanged Man’s eyes and a jagged silence descended. “I don’t usually do that, I-I like I’m not super into that … you know banging.”
Right, thought Jack. Nobody just decided to bang mix. Needle users were executed, no trial, no jury. Just dragged out behind the black boulders and shot. Jack hated selling to them. They spent big money, but they were also notoriously and unpredictably violent. Bangers didn’t live long in the Blast Lands.
“I only did a little, at least it seemed like just a little, but I od’d. Wicked, wicked overdose, worst I’ve ever had.” The Hanged Man’s voice shook, and for a moment Jack thought he might cry. “But the bones… I saw bones, I saw my own bones through the skin. Now look at this, look at us.” He clutched the sheets, twisting and untwisting them, twisting and untwisting. Then he yelled, “Look at us! We’re fucked up, man. We’re really fucked up and we’re locked in.”
Out of the sudden silence after The Hanged Man’s, came footsteps. Oracle Jack tensed and The Hanged Man’s eyes widened with fright. He could hear the door unlatch then it slid sideways into the wall with a slow grinding sound. It was made of metal and very thick. No escape. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have rushed the door or been waiting with a weapon. He had no compunction about beating someone beyond recognition to get out of a bad situation. Bangers risked immediate execution, but so did traffickers. After six years in the Blast Lands, he understood survival on a level that most people could never conceive. All that maniac bravado now narrowed to a single point – to stave off the chatters.