Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]

Redshift: Greenstreem
An excerpt from a micro-novel to be published by CBR Press in January, 2001.

By Rod Clark
[It's a new millennium. Inflation and the company store "Greenet" rule most of planet Earth. The boy Jem is undergoing an initiation rite to join the Savers, virtually the only people on the planet that have not fallen into the debt-ridden existence called "redshift." To weather his rite of passage, Jem must walk several blocks into a redshift neighborhood of LA with a hundred dollar bill, and return with both milk and change. Some things aren't as easy as they look... -- Rod Clark ]

"Thrift forbid that desire should wash over me, Thrift forbid that desire should wash over me," Jem mumbled as he strode forward with determination, keeping his eyes pinned to the safe Saver pave. Towering interactive billboards beckoned him toward sin in the Redshift distance. "Buy!," they whispered. "Purchase... Dream..."

The heat and the dust were terrible at this hour, and by the time he had reached the rim of Redshift, he was already beginning to sweat under his black hood. Defiantly he stepped across the red line painted on the pavement and stood inches within the forbidden land, only a half dozen blocks from where Wong Abdoul's surely blazed under its cool neon halos, waiting especially for him. I'm going to do this, he told himself. Face the money now. Face it today. Glancing down at the bill in his hand through grey-tinted goggles, he saw with dismay that digital monetary decay was already in rapid progress. The inflationary readout on what had been a hundred dollar bill only a few minutes ago was now down to 96 bucks and dropping. Already, the picture on the bill was changing. Oh so gradually, Clinton's chubby naiveté was shriveling into the pious profile of Gary Bauer whose beaming image adorned the 75 dollar bill. Smiling, sincere, so very, very Christian Gary who had ridden smugly into the White House in the year 2016 on the slogan "DEBT IS PUNISHMENT FOR OUR SINS," inching past born-again Dixiecrat Trent Lott on the strength of electoral college votes gathered from the newly acquired fundamentalist Hispanic states to the south. Sunny spots, those Hispanic states, thought Jem. Very pretty girls. Yes. Good food there too. Come to think of it a few tacos would taste good right now. Mmmm -- yes!

TACOS?? What the hell was a taco?

The image leapt into his mind with dazzling speed and power -- a yellow golden shell of corn the size of a bus filled his mind's eye, while its fragrant filling beckoned him, a bonanza of beans, onions, tomato, ground beef. Mmmm -- looked good! He sure wanted one of those.... Unconsciously, standing there on the street, he licked his lips and rubbed his tummy and -- Wait a minute, he thought. GROUND BEEF?? Savers never ate meat! Where had that idea come from?? With a dawning sense of horror, he whirled about to spot the nose of a Taco Tremendo blimp sticking out from behind a decaying warehouse beyon the ghetto rim, its SALESKAN beamers dilating toward him like the suckers on an octopus he had once seen in the Encyclopedia Electronica. YIKES! Cursing a green streak to ward off additional spending impulses, Jem shook off his stupor and sprinted into Redshift, zigging down the mouth of an alley, zagging down another, heading toward what the map in his head told him was Happy Ivory Park, an ancient dental complex that still scraped and extracted a living from Redshift clientele. Damnation! In the five seconds he'd taken to pause in the street -- he'd been tagged with an IPC fix. Smacking his lips and rubbing his tummy in response to the Taco Tremendo projection (events now undoubtedly documented on Greenet holofilm) had almost certainly sealed the mandatory purchase agreement. Normally, an IPC (implied purchase consent) lock could not be easily broken, but sometimes, if you moved fast enough-the net would abandon a small, confirmed sale. Unfortunately this time it was not to be. As he raced toward Happy Ivory -- A cheery Mexican greeting blared a few yards overhead.

"¿Tiene hambre hijo?"

Looking up in terror, he saw a demon descending from the sky. A magfloat disk crafted in the shape of an orange sombrero hovered over him, its delicate pilot thread snaking back behind it through the hot smoggy air. Yanking down his nanocyte filter mask to breath more freely, he raced into the heart of the small park with its playground equipment resembling giant dental work. As he paused to gasp for breath by a six foot ceramic molar, he found the orange sombrero affectionately nudging his elbow.

"Eh chico! -- ¿Deseas salsa caliente, o medio?" it purred. Swiftly, Jem dove under some massive and expensive looking bridgework and around the edge of a giant bicuspid, with the sombrero at his heels. In an instant the delicate pilot thread looped the obstruction, snarled and snapped. With a fading cry of "Ay ca-ar-r-rumb-a-a-a!" the sombrero skittered across the parkturf like an ancient Frisbee and lay still.

Was there a chance for escape now? Just barely -- but it was not to be. Jem was scrambling to reach the edge of the park -- when the backup sombrero swooping in from the west zapped him to the turf with a needle in the neck. Rolling groggily on his side, he pulled out the dart, and with already fuzzing vision he tried to read the required label: 2 ccs of appetite enhancer -- 10 ccs of stims, some cheap narrative hallucinogens (at least no nanocytes -- too costly for this score) -- the rest was already unreadable. As he dizzily attempted to rise, the $100 bill was plucked deftly from his fingers for devaluation.

"One Taco Tremendo for you, señor," broadcast the backup sombrero, " -- medium hot sauce, IPC log 23819a, $18.75 at moment of purchase, automatic fine for illegal IPC evasion, and sombrero repair, $14.29. IPC total is $43.04. Here is your change. Will there be anything else? Fried ice cream, perhaps? Ensalada?"

The words marched into his brain like an army of occupation, but on a conscious level, Jem was barely aware of them. Inside his skull, bright Hispanic canvases were unfolding. A chorus of red chili peppers cascaded in front of a lemony yellow sunset, while a twenty foot high nortena band gyrating in costumes of embroidered purple satin sang of love that would somehow never be denied if a host of delicacies from the Taco Tremendo à la carte menu were on the table. One of the young women singing appealed to him in particular, with her lithe brown body and small perfect breasts (each in this scale a yard in diameter) filling her flowered white blouse to perfection. Their eyes met. She ceased to sing. Her moist lips mouthed his name. She stepped from the stage and diminished to almost human scale as she descended toward him with a smile on her face as bright as yellow corn. Out of nowhere a Taco Tremendo appeared in her small hand -- a trickle of sauce adorning her perfect wrist. With a giggle, she lifted her arm, balancing the taco, and licked it off with a cool pink tongue.

"NO THANKS! I DON'T WANT ANYTHING ELSE," Jem shouted, loud enough for the IPC nets to digest the negative morphemes without legal ambiguity -- and the illusion vanished. Snatching up his considerably depleted bill, he leapt to his feet and raced past the sign at the parks edge that read: "The tooth will make you free!" Heart pumping and chest heaving, he made a beeline back to the maze of alleys, leaving the Taco Tremendo askew on its plastic thermaplate, drooling an orange stain onto the parkturf.

His ears burned with shame as he ran through the maze of grim alleys that led through the heart of Redshift, averting his eyes from its seductive billboards and storefronts, clutching the bill which now bore only a rapidly vanishing hint of Gary Bauer's piety on the dark and somehow sad complexion of Jesse Jackson Jr. that adorned the fifty dollar bill. Never in his short life had Jem been so exhausted. Under the hot sun he was perspiring heavily, cursing the black suit that weighed on his limbs like blankets of iron. Although perilously short of breath, he dared not stop to rest. Not now. His head swirled from the unaccustomed stims that made his testicles pulse at the memory of the Taco Tremendo girl and embroidered the Redshift sidewalks with unending processions of tiny plump Aztec-like figures raising an endless train of offerings of corn to a sunny taco toasting diety above. Not an auspicious beginning, he thought. Not at all. After only a few minutes of being "out there," he had lost nearly half of his capital in the first block of Redshift, displaying a carelessness even a smaller child might have avoided -- and weakening his system against further attempts. Secret terror filled him as he raced along the filthy narrow streets that constituted the contingency route to the Arab/Chinese grocery known as Wong Abdoul's. Was it just possible that a piece of him (surely only a very small piece of him, a very small piece) wanted him to fail? Some flawed trait inherited from his father perhaps, a secret part of him that wanted to plunge into a world of consumer illusions while his body served greenstreem as a walking/talking factory for some exotic protein or neurotransmitter? Served greenstreem that is, until the day when he grew too old, and his value as a "free running" asset would be over, and he would be sent to the chopshops of Redwind to have his body deconstructed by creditors, his brain consigned to the Greenet neurobanks, and his flesh oxidized to the dusty skies of Lower LA.

This and similar horrible thoughts pursued him as he fled beneath the shadows of buildings, racing with determination through the labyrinth of alleys, struggling to breathe the thick, unfiltered air. Somewhere, he knew, high over his head in the great upstairs/outstairs, beyond earth, air, and the yellow smog of LA -- wealth expanded mindlessly into realms of space and lifeless cold; driven by cheap fusion, and fractally extended nets of continuously improving nanotech macrosets.

It was said that a single "worldmaker" nanotech macroset could, say, transform the nearby Redshift quadrant into a copy of ancient Athens, with all the modern conveniences of plumbing, power, and microcommunications, in less than an afternoon. But that would never happen. Who would hire an interior decorator to please cattle, or redecorate the barns where they were kept? For that's what most human beings had become, cattle-serving the needs of a solsystem capital matrix whose only passion was to expand and recreate itself for the rest of time. Macrosets were supervised by biochip hardware, which in turn was managed by biosentient software vats whose neural juices were milked from the denizens of Redshift colonies primarily on Earth and Mars. But even with these vastly extended software nets, growth was scarcely under human control. Over the decades, thousands of decision-making control systems had had "growth is good" imperatives baked into their silicon bones, and such systems continued to manifest themselves more aggressively than Greenet could restrain them, cranking out growth without meaning and without end.

Had the macrosets gone mad? The Savers believed they had. Attempts by Greenet to discipline some macrosets by restricting their power flows had led to suspicious blackouts in Greenet headquarters on Earth and Mars. Bugs, they said -- but efforts at control thereafter had been exclusively directed toward trying to influence the direction and shape of the untameable forces of growth rippling outward toward the stars. Savers knew that it was in order to regain control of the macrosets that Greenet milked humanity of its neurotransmitters, struggling to reachieve a mastery that was now only feigned. Some day, when faster-than-light drives came into being, this dangerous growth could be safely thrust outward toward the stars -- but no such drives yet existed, and none were likely to be invented soon. What would happen, Greenetters worried in the false security of their luxury cyberdomes -- should this mindless growth reach the rim of the solar system and rebound?

Upstairs, outstairs, into the endless night, leviathans folded and unfolded on distant moons, carving labyrinths in inanimate rock, unrolling real estate on ancient asteroids, inexplicably building airless condominiums by the thousand on the uninhabitable wastes of Uranus, and the moons of Jupiter, constructing skyscrapers on Saturn and vast complexes on Venus that had no known purpose, and often did not function at all -- only to rip them down, and start again. Here were satellites of robots repairing robots, vast factories manufacturing machinery to manufacture more machinery -- a virus of metal, ceramic, composite, plastic, and silicon mindlessly pouring out into solsystem and the synthetic satellites beyond, constantly modifying, expanding, and reswallowing itself -- sometimes unfolding for decades in obscure, unmonitored quadrants without conceivable purpose, or the benefit of human review. Endless inflation, endless development, growth toward no known or dreamed of conclusion, leaving something in its distant wake on long forgotten earth what no machine could possibly experience or comprehend: crushing, infinite, and unredeemable debt -- walls closing in on the human spirit, converging to the rim of an unspeakable pit -- the vortex of a maelstrom -- a dark red hole twisting and diminishing into unimaginable space.

Read another excerpt from Redshift: Greenstreem in CBR issue #5

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Rod Clark is a life-long Wisconsin resident. A professional writer and media-consultant, he is also the editor of Rosebud, a national magazine for people who enjoy good writing.

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