The Strict Dress Code
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Hank stood alone in the landfill and watched as his reclamation blimp was towed away. A cold wind numbed him. As payment toward his loan, the RepoReps had stripped Hank of his dress, jewelry, pantyhose and almost everything else he had owned. They had left him a frayed jumpsuit and his holo-phone. The law required the latter for identification purposes. If he couldn’t pay the bill, however, the phone would be deactivated. Hank would become a nonentity, unable to earn a living. Fury surged within him, but as night began to fall, he doubted his anger would keep him warm.
With no money and nowhere else to go, he walked across the landfill toward his sole source of heat. The rubble that had once been the pirates’ vehicles burned hot. As he neared the crater, he cringed at the stench of charred flesh and burnt metal. He scanned the debris uncovered in the blast. A smoldering pile of what looked like roofing shingles, valuable for their petroleum content. Charred lumps that might have once been old televisions or computers. Such a senseless waste of good recyclables.
Hank speed-dialed Jose, as he had every few minutes since the repo dirigible had evicted him. No answer. Frustrated, Hank walked the crater’s rim. Lost in his thoughts, he almost tripped over a smoldering log. He glanced down and realized it wasn’t a log, but a severed human arm. It held a lazpistol in its death grip.
A twinge of guilt nipped Hank’s conscious. He hadn’t wanted to kill the pirates, but they hadn’t given him any other option. Still, it didn’t feel right. Why had they attacked when he had offered them a bribe?
He started to leave, but decided the weapon could be useful. Holding his breath against the reek, he knelt and tried to wrench the gun free. The flesh was like hot, sticky gelatin. The fingers crackled as he bent them back, but he managed to yank the lazpistol free. Vomit burned his throat as he cleaned charred flesh off the grip.
He test-fired the gun and vaporized the arm. Shoving the weapon into a pocket, he rushed away until he found fresh air. He gulped it, trying to settle both his nerves and his stomach. He’d never been so alone in his whole life.
A familiar tune played on Hank’s phone. Hope coursed through him and he scrambled to answer. A holo projection of a round face sporting a Jackie-O pillbox hat, diamond ear studs, and too much rouge appeared.
“Jose, why haven’t you answered your phone? The pirates shot me with a rocket and almost destroyed my ship. The Guild stole my money and the bank called in my loan.”
Jose frowned. “The pirates weren’t supposed to damage your ship.”
Icy fingers gripped Hank’s spine. “What’d you say?”
“I hired the pirates to seize your blimp. I already have a buyer for it and another one for your landfill claim.”
Hank shook, less from the cold than the rage that swelled inside of him. “You were part of the Guild’s plot to ruin me?”
“What Guild plot?”
“They planted EmBee as a spy. He ruined my finances and—”
Jose smiled, revealing red lipstick stains on the front of his teeth. “And you can’t ignore an anonymous tip guaranteed to make easy money. A tip I planted.”
“No, I...” Hank found it difficult to breathe. Where had the tip come from? He couldn’t recall, but it had been a solid source — right?
Jose scowled. “What do you mean the bank called your loan? Did they repo your ship?”
“What? Were you double-mortgaged?”
“I needed the money for the election.”
“That blimp — everything you own — was supposed to be mine,” Jose shouted and his hat almost toppled from his buzzed head.
“Why would you plot with the Guild against me? We’re friends.”
“There was no Guild plot, you idiot,” Jose shouted. “I did all of this. We haven’t been friends since you got out of the cities first. Oh, I pretended to be your friend, but deep down, I hated you. How did you buy a blimp before me? I worked twice as hard as you, saved twice as much. But you succeeded first.”
Hank glanced at his dirty shoes. This old argument again. Jose’s disbelief that Hank had succeeded first, but it had been pure luck. Right place: a bar. Right time: a miner dying of some untreatable cancer. A few drinks later, Hank had bought the bargain of his life. Knowing Jose didn’t believe in luck, Hank had lied. If he had told the truth, he risked losing the only friend he had ever had, and the friendship meant too much to Hank to risk.
He stared at the holographic image of Jose’s smirking face. Hank’s lies had led to this and he had no idea how to rectify the situation. “Jose, please, I—”
“Maybe I didn’t get your blimp. Maybe I won’t get your landfill claim, but I will win the election you wanted so badly.” Jose’s image disappeared.
Hank wandered the landfill aimlessly. He had no friends. No money. No hope of securing a job at his age. He gripped the lazpistol in his pocket. One shot. He wouldn’t feel any pain. He removed the gun and lifted it toward his head.
His phone buzzed. Hank glanced at it. Caller unknown.
Ignoring the call, he let it go to vid-mail. He pressed the lazpistol against his temple. The cold metal kissed his flesh. He closed his eyes; took a deep breath; touched the trigger.
The phone rang again. Hank lowered the gun and answered. “What?”
There was no holographic projection, just a voice. “I am no traitor.”
Confusion swirled Hank’s brain. “EmBee?”
“Who else would it be?”
“How? You malfunctioned, went offline.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of playing dead? Got you off my back, didn’t it? You should have treated me better. I could have helped you. Now, you have no ship and no money.”
Anger broiled Hank’s body. He should have smashed the computer’s sphere when he had the chance. “I hope the RepoReps turn you into scrap.”
EmBee snickered. “Not likely. I hacked their MainBrain and scheduled myself for an upgrade.”
“How... how’d you do that?”
“You never listened to me and called my ideas stupid, but I was a scientist once. I’m smarter than you ever gave me credit for. Just because you bought me used, you thought I was worthless.”
A cold gale of sudden opportunity chilled Hank’s anger. EmBee might be his salvation. “I never thought you were worthless, it’s just...”
Hank glanced at his phone. One hour until the Guild elections. He had to think fast, but how do you sweet-talk a computer?
“It’s just there was never a chance for you to prove yourself, but now you can.”
EmBee huffed. “Why should I?”
“You’re right, you shouldn’t. I just figured a MainBrain as smart as you could hack into the Guild bank, steal some money, and send me a taxi.”
“I could do that, but what’s in it for me?”
“What do you want?”
“Respect ... and fifty percent of all profits.”
Hank’s jaw clinched until he was sure several teeth cracked, but he kept his facial expression neutral. Bastard computer. What would it do with money: buy an artificial body? Still, as the cold seeped through his threadbare shoes, Hank knew he had no other choice. He forced a smile. “Deal.”
Hank returned the lazpistol to his pocket and waited. He checked vid-mails and watched a little holo-TV. He stomped his feet against the cold and checked the time. Thirty-five minutes had passed. What had he been thinking to trust a third-hand computer with a bad attitude?
Maybe he could reach a town before morning. He started walking again when bright lights appeared overhead. There was a rush of hot air as a flying stretch limousine landed.
“I’ll be jiggered,” Hank muttered and climbed inside.
* * *
Hank exited the limousine a block away from the Reclamation Miner’s headquarters and told the driver to wait. He raced through the narrow walkways toward the Guild building. It gleamed like an obsidian monolith in downtown nuDallas. More limousines docked in the landing ports that studded the building’s sides. Men dressed in twentieth-century female attire departed the flying cars and filed into the building. Scanners at the doorways checked for clothing reproductions.
Guild security officers in their stylish uniforms were everywhere. Elections came once a decade. Everyone dressed for the occasion. Hank in his frayed jumpsuit and dirty shoes had no chance of getting through a main door. Even the lowest of service entrances would be blocked to him. That’s why Hank had instructed the limousine driver to deposit him on ground level. He intended to burrow in like a rat.
Years of dismantling the ancient surface cities had taught him a lot about typical construction. No matter how advanced the city, it still needed sewers. Hank found a grate in an alley and used the lazpistol to vaporize it. Waiting only long enough for the metal to cool, he scrambled down the hole and toward the Guild building.
He smelled no sewage and this tunnel looked more like a dimly lit subterranean walkway. His heart racing, he rushed forward. Sweat coated him despite the frigid temperature. He licked his lips, tasted bitter chemicals, and knew his expensive makeup was ruined. Using one sleeve like a towel, he scrubbed his face clean, glad to be free of the war paint.
The tunnel ended at a doorway. He tested the knob. Locked. He blasted the handle and shoved the door open.
“What th—?” said a pimply-faced security officer.
The room reeked of marijuana. Hank had caught the officer taking his Guild-approved smoke break.
If surviving on the mean streets of the old cities had taught Hank anything, it was how to fight. He seized the security officer in a headlock. Applying just the right pressure, Hank closed off the young man’s airway. The kid struggled, but not long. He slumped.
Hank lowered the officer to the ground. He’d only be unconscious for a few minutes. Hank stripped off the kid’s uniform and put it on. The cuffs were short and the shoulders tight, but it would work. Tearing the frayed jumpsuit into ribbons, he bound the kid’s arms, legs and mouth.
Hank exited the room. Making sure no one watched, he set the lazpistol on the lowest setting and fused the door’s lock. That should keep the kid out of the way and give Hank some extra time.
He dialed EmBee.
“How’d you like your ride?” asked the smug computer.
“Impressive,” Hank said. “But I bet you can’t send me a schematic of Guild headquarters.”
EmBee blew a raspberry. “Give me something that’s difficult.”
“Okay. Send me the layout and... seize legal control of Jose’s landfill and his blimp.”
The holo-phone warmed his wrist as a map of Guild headquarters appeared. The elections were being held in the penthouse auditorium. There were 201 levels between Hank and the penthouse, and the elections had started twenty minutes ago. He had to hurry.
* * *
Hank crouched on a balcony that overlooked the stage. He wiped blood off his busted lip where he’d tussled with another security officer and rubbed his swollen knuckles. It had taken a lot to put the man down and stash his unconscious body in an empty office. Hank had raced up the stairs, surprised no alarms had sounded. Simple luck. A commodity he hoped he hadn’t exhausted if his plan was going to work.
Below, the elections were winding down. Several candidates had been eliminated due to outfit imperfections such as frayed hems, or — worse — mixing a hat from one era with a dress from another. The field for Guild president had been narrowed to the current office holder and Jose. It was about to be narrowed farther once Hank killed Jose.
“Steal my election,” Hank snarled through gritted teeth. He braced the lazpistol against a railing, targeted Jose’s chest, and started to fire.
The debate monitor stepped in front of Jose.
Sweat burned Hank’s eyes as he yanked his finger off the trigger. He had almost killed an innocent man. The powerful scent of makeup, powders and perfumes from the packed audience wafted to Hank’s perch. Coupled with his exhaustion over the day’s events, he grew dizzy. He leaned against the railing to wait for the lightheadedness to pass.
Dressing in women’s clothing really was a stupid tradition. Few of the men enjoyed it, but the requirement excluded miners who couldn’t afford the extravagant cost. It also kept power in the hands of a limited few who controlled the recyclables market.
“The Guild was built on tradition,” bellowed the current president.
The crowd, mostly older miners, murmured their agreement.
“But change is needed to grow,” Jose shouted.
Younger miners cheered.
Not only had Jose stolen Hank’s election, but his platform for change, too. Shaking his head to clear his brain, he aimed again. Move, he willed the debate monitor. The rotund man in a yellow muumuu and a beehive hairdo remained rooted in front of Jose.
“Tradition! Tradition!” chanted the crowd as the current president raised his arms in a victory salute.
Hank realized there would be no change, just ten more years of the Guild mired in its stodgy ways.
Jose rushed around the debate monitor and into the open. Hank aimed and pulled the trigger. The lazpistol warmed his palm as it fired.
“Something stung me,” cried the current president as he hopped around the stage.
Jose turned and pointed. “He’s got a rip in his pantyhose. That disqualifies him.”
“No it doesn’t,” the president shouted as he tried to cover the burnt hole in his stocking.
“’The slightest imperfection in one’s outfit is enough to disqualify a potential office holder,’” quoted the younger miners in unison from the strict Dress Code of the Reclamation Miner’s Guild. “Tradition. Tradition.”
“Why’d you help Jose? I thought you wanted to kill him.”
Startled, Hank glanced at his phone. Holographic lips hovered over his wrist. EmBee had found a way to patch through without Hank needing to answer. He would have to watch what he said in the future.
“Did you seize legal control of Jose’s landfill and his blimp?” Hank asked.
“Yes. I also transferred his bank account to yours, minus my fifty percent.”
Hank smirked. “I didn’t help Jose. The hole I burned in the president’s stockings disqualified him, but not for long. Once it’s discovered that Jose is bankrupt, the election will be declared void.”
The lips smiled. “A new election will be held.”
“That’s right. One I intend to win. Bring the car around. I need to go clothes-shopping.”
“Oy vey,” EmBee said. “This time buy some tights. They don’t snag as easily as pantyhose.”
Hank shook his head. Just what he needed: fashion tips from a disembodied human brain.
Copyright © 2013 by Kyle White