As the northern hemisphere continues to bake in the extreme heat our neoliberal clients had nothing to do with causing, we thought this might be a good moment to take a break from the political satire our in-house satirist has been forcing us to publish, and post an excerpt from his dystopian novel, ZONE 23, which has been garnering rave reviews from readers, and which is available from both CIA-affiliated and non-CIA-affiliated online booksellers … or you can order a copy at your local bookstore, that is, assuming you still have a local bookstore, and that you can make it across the parking lot and into the mall without passing out. Anyway, here’s the excerpt … enjoy!
an excerpt from Zone 23 by C. J. Hopkins
Meanwhile, approximately four months later, so back where we originally started, or shortly thereafter, in any event, Taylor was still on his way to Cassandra’s, or rather, he was on his way there again. He was sticking to his usual route, as ordered, because despite that fire, or conflagration, which appeared to be spreading throughout the Southeast Quadrant, and those choppers swirling through the dirty plume of thick black smoke that was rising up out of it, and whatever, or whoever, had temporarily blown the entire Content grid, no one was coming after him. No one was even tailing him. He hadn’t seen Community Watcher one, which was kind of unsettling, but he shrugged that off. The sky to the north, his current bearing, was quiet, as in dark, or relatively dark, as in there weren’t any choppers, and nothing was burning. He could make out the glow of the massive Klieg lights they used at the markets in the early mornings, and the Public Viewers, and video billboards, and the corporate stores that lined one side of Jefferson Avenue, which was where he was going.
Cassandra Passwaters lived in this little cul-de-sac alley right off the avenue. It was back behind the big TōFish tent, which, thanks to some secret olfactory additive that mimicked the breakdown of triethylamine oxide, reeked like real decaying fish. During the pre-dawn shopping frenzy, if you didn’t already know it was there, you’d never find it, hidden as it was behind the tables stacked with mounds of assorted brands of slimy TōFish. There was some kind of makeshift garage back there where two old guys with Yakuza tattoos repaired the scooters, beat-up old cars, work vans, golf carts and other such vehicles, that the A.S.P. 1s were allowed to drive, which, along with their jobs, better housing, and slightly expanded access to Content, was one of the 1s’ most cherished privileges. 1s with Out-of-Zone Travel-to-Work passes drove their cherished motor vehicles up to the boom arms of Gate 15, submitted to extensive Security procedures, and then drove out to the specially-designated “A.S.P. Only” commuter stations, where they boarded the specially-designated shuttles that took them to their specially-designated jobs, mostly as sanitation technicians. 1s who worked for IntraZone Waste, and were not allowed out, but were nonetheless privileged, drove around the Zone all night, putting down poison for the rats and pigeons, mutant insects, collecting garbage, tagging unidentified bodies, and basically doing whatever they were told. The rest just drove up and down the avenue, not really going anywhere in particular, mostly just showing off their vehicles and clogging up traffic something awful. They did this after sunset, of course, but also in the predawn hours, inching, jerking and honking their way through the sea of pedestrians, rickshaws, bikes, wagons, wheelbarrows, trolleys, carts, people shoving their way to the stalls, vendors lugging crates of TōEggs, MREs, spoiling produce, gangs of scoliotic old women, some of them cloaked in tattered burkas, assless old men in their slippers and bathrobes, Transplants in their Transplant whites, Plasto junkies, night-shift zombies, and pretty much every other variety of Anti-Social human being, everyone dangling plastic bags of groceries, one from each bleeding finger, or pushing or pulling their wobbly-wheeled carts, or balancing bags of rice on their heads, all of them streaming obliviously past the mouth of Cassandra Passwaters’ alley, which, once you’d made it through the throng of bodies, and through the labyrinth of stacks of crates of stinking TōFish, was like an oasis.
Taylor’s usual route to Cassandra’s was north on Mulberry, west on Jamesway, north up Ohlsson to Gillie’s Tavern, where he’d typically stop in and grab a quick beer. After which he’d shoot up Collins, which ran all the way through Sector B, take a left onto Transammonia, bear right onto CostCo Place, cut up Speedway Motorsports Alley, and come out right on Jefferson Avenue. The whole trip took about ninety minutes, typically, that is, on a normal morning, when unidentified person or persons hadn’t blown the whole IntraZone Content grid, and IntraZone Waste & Security choppers weren’t swarming all over the Southeast Quadrant … and possibly into the Southwest Quadrant. Taylor thought he could hear them back there, their rotors, off in the distance behind him, but he didn’t want to turn around to confirm, as you never knew when the BirdsEye was watching.1 He turned onto Jamesway, and kept on walking.
Taylor, since he’d “settled down” with Cassandra and officially retired as a part-time robber of Plasto dealers, pimps, rapers, and assorted other unsavory scumbags, had done a fair amount of walking. It was mostly just a recreational thing, but it also helped him clear his head and kept him from getting drunk too often. He walked at night, while Cassandra was working, usually around the English Quarter, but sometimes out to the far West Side, or along the bank of the Dell Street Canal, which snaked down into the Southwest Quadrant … but, generally, he stuck to the Northwest Quadrant. Not that there was any ordinance against crossing into other sectors or quadrants. The Zone was only eighteen kilometers across, so you could walk the whole thing from end to end in three or four hours, but no one did. It wasn’t exactly scenic or anything, and you were liable to get egregiously violated. The gangs came out around sunset, mostly, some of whom were rather territorial. Most people stayed inside their sectors, except in the mornings, when they went out to shop, or occasionally went for a beer or three at some makeshift bar like Gillie’s Tavern.
Beer, liquor (i.e. full-strength liquor, not the stuff the Normals drank), tobacco, candy and other foodstuffs containing harmful processed sugar, real caffeine or dangerous trans-fats, although banned throughout the United Territories, were still manufactured and sold in the Zones. Groceries, drugs, items of clothing, Content discs, and other such essentials, were all for sale at the stores and markets. The quality of everything was crap, of course, but you could get whatever you needed, basically. You paid for it all with paper money, which hadn’t been used outside the Zone for three or four hundred years, at least. The notes, which were issued by whatever company ran whatever Zone you were in, had pictures of famous CEOs, CFOs, COOs and other illustrious Normals on them, industry titans like Vladimir Chiba, Theodore Hadley and “Jimbo” Cartwright. IntraZone Dollars is what they were called. The 1s and the 2s, who worked in the factories, could earn up to IZD 2000, monthly, most of which they spent on rent, food and drugs, and the rest on Content. The 3s, who wouldn’t dream of working, were issued a basic subsistence allotment of IZD 486.20, all of which they spent on food, which meager income they were forced to supplement by stealing, robbing, dealing in substances, weapons, and other items of contraband, murder-for-hire, the occasional kidnapping, and other such Anti-Social enterprises.
According to people like Meyer Jimenez, the corporations that supplied the Zone had some kind of deal where they all got paid directly by the Local Territorial Authority, which was technically still the municipal government, but nobody really knew for certain. It was possible they all got paid directly by the Hadley Corporation of Menomonie, Wisconsin, which billed the Local Territorial Authority as part of their contract to administrate the Zone. According to Meyer, the L.T.A. (and presumably the rest of the so-called government) was nothing more than a virtual entity the corporations used to stockpile taxes, which were paid back out to the corporations in the form of contracts and service agreements. Which meant, if Taylor had gotten that right, that the Hadley Corporation of Menomonie, Wisconsin was paying him 486.20 a month for nothing, which made no sense. Apparently it did to Meyer Jimenez, who’d repeatedly explained how the whole thing worked (it was something to do with taxes or fees), but Taylor, who didn’t really give a shit anyway, hadn’t really listened, and couldn’t remember.
In any event, there was cheap booze aplenty, and as long as you didn’t mind too much that the beer, which came in aluminum barrels, was hot and flat and tasted like piss and the liquor burned your throat going down, you could drink yourself into a bellowing stupor, which most people did on a nightly basis. The produce they sold at the outdoor markets was invariably bruised and wilted and spoiling, but at least it was actual food from somewhere.2 You couldn’t grow anything edible in the Zone. People tried, but it was always the same. Either nothing sprouted at all, or whatever did was all weird and wrong … bright pink squash that had no skin, tomatoes in cloves that resembled garlic, mutant ears of toxic corn, glowing broccoli … you get the idea. The markets, as well as the indoor stores, carried a decent range of TōFood … artificial soy-based meat-like products, which sometimes smelled like, but never quite tasted like, whatever meat it was trying to be. The stuff in cans, the MRE packs, the boxes of milk and flavored juice drinks, were totally synthetic and full of preservatives, so none of them really tasted like anything. The rice and the beans were usually OK, genetically modified, but real, technically. People made do with what they got, and washed it all down with beer, mostly.
The outdoor markets, where they sold the produce, along with most of the In-Zone stores, were located out on the very edge of Sector A, right across from Wall. One of the bigger ones was Jefferson Avenue. It stretched from Gates 15 to 16, and serviced the entire Northeast Quadrant. Weekday mornings, from 0500 to just before the sun came up, the 2s and 3s would make their way out there from wherever they lived in the inner sectors, do their shopping, and walk back home. The 1s, who were already there, of course, stayed inside the Sector A ring, none of them having any reason or desire to venture any deeper into the Zone.
IntraZone Waste & Security Services maintained cleanliness and civic order with a regiment of Waste & Security Specialists armed with UltraLite automatic rifles. Most of them were stationed in Sector A, to protect the corporate stores and property, and also to protect the A.S.P. 1s, who worked at the In-Zone plants and factories, and while they weren’t officially corporate property, were close enough to it to warrant protection. Units of Waste & Security Specialists, clad in helmets and puncture-proof armor, occasionally patrolled the inner sectors in their APCs and MRAPs, but mostly it was just the Community Watchers. The Community Watchers were A.S.P. 3s who’d turned Cooperator, and been issued truncheons, and in some cases cans of mace and stun guns, and answered to IntraZone Waste & Security, and were the lowest forms of life on Earth. At night, in Sectors B and C, you were constantly getting hassled by Watchers, but they didn’t come out much during the day. And neither did anyone else for that matter, apart from totally burnt-out geeks, Plasto fiends, suicide freaks, and the Transplants, who, for some sadistic reason, they delivered just before dawn each morning. Sadistic, because at that time of morning, you had about an hour to get inside, and the Transplants, of course, had no idea where they were, or where they were going. You would see them out there on a daily basis, staggering down the desolate streets in their Transplant whites with their rolled up bedding, desperately trying to find their housing before their brain cells fried completely and they sat down on a curb somewhere, passed out, and promptly died of exposure. The thing was … it was really hot.
Unlike up in the northern latitudes, where the weather was … OK, unpredictable, snowing one day, scorching the next, but was often quite pleasant, and generally mild, the average temperature in Zone 23 was 46 Celsius. In the shade. Out in the sun, your skin just sizzled. Your brain stopped working. Then you died. At night it got down into the upper 30s. Still, everyone sweated like pigs. You fell asleep in a pool of sweat and woke up in that same pool of sweat. Everything, everywhere, stank of sweat, human sweat, and mold and mildew. Your skin was coated with a film of sweat that never washed off, no matter what you did. Your mattress stank and was stained with sweat, and various other bodily fluids, which due to the unrelenting humidity never really completely dried. A steaming river of human excrement coursed through the sewers, which were open in places. It tasted like you were breathing in shit, or some kind of shit-scented air-freshener spray that was squirted out of some sensor-activated shit-scented air-freshener sprinkler system. A stifling heat haze hung in the air, viscous and thick, like petroleum jelly, distorting anything you saw at a distance. It looked like there were pools of water up ahead at the end of every street, but then, when you got there, there was no water. It was just a mirage, an inferior image, hot air rising off the molten asphalt. Clouds of filthy sweltering steam shot up out of the sidewalk grates, coming from … no one exactly knew where, some vast infernal heating network that was somehow impossible to ever turn off. The iron railings on the stoops of buildings, the rusted-out gates of old underground stations, the metal chassis of stripped-down cars, anything metal burned to the touch. Everything trapped and radiated heat, which heat built up and trapped more heat, which process then repeated itself, creating this kind of multi-layered oven-inside-an-oven effect that never abated because there were no seasons …
Basically, it was fucking hot.
According to folks like Meyer Jimenez, the Zone had only been the Zone for two, maybe three hundred years, and before that it had been part of the city, which must have been built back when there were still seasons and the cold was a bigger problem than the heat. Taylor subscribed to this particular theory. A person would have to be a drooling idiot to build this way in this type of climate. These narrow streets lined with old brick tenements, built maybe seven, eight hundred years ago, jammed together side by side, their chimneys bricked up to keep out the pigeons, the ruins of an underground network of trains, the ancient radiators, the sidewalk grates … everywhere traces of a colder age. This desolate patch of dirt and sawgrass (the one he was just now passing on Jamesway) strewn with garbage and crawling with rats, its crumbling stumps infested with woodlice, had once been a square where people sat, talking, he imagined, or smoking, or reading, or maybe just dozing on the long wooden benches that ran alongside this winding path here. The wood had rotted away long ago, or had been consumed by mutant termites. All that remained were the iron frames, snaking through the yellow sawgrass like the petrified spine of some giant serpent.
Back when Taylor and Alice Williams and Rusty Braynard were all just kids, there used to be a rainy season when it seemed like almost every day, usually during the late afternoons, you’d get these freak torrential rainstorms, where the sky would go black and crack with thunder, and the rain would beat down hot and hard, pounding down onto the streets and rooftops, blowing sideways into the windows, and sometimes the gutters would overflow and the rats would pour out into the streets and run around in mindless circles, and up onto the stoops of buildings, but you couldn’t hear them shrieking or anything, because all you could hear was the sound of the rain hammering down on the tar and stone and plastic awnings and sheets of metal, hammering like a million fists, and it seemed to Taylor and Alice Williams and Rusty Braynard, and all the other little kids, like maybe the world was finally coming to an end, and they’d run out into the street to see it, because who’d want to miss a thing like that, shouting, squealing, peeling clothes off, heads turned up, mouths wide open, to drink in the rain and the end of it all, their mothers shouting down out of windows to get back into the fucking house before they got hit by fucking lightning or bitten by one of those fucking rats … then, just like that, it would stop, as if God or someone had turned off a spigot, and two minutes later the sun would be out and …
Here was Taylor’s turn up Ohlsson.
He zig-zagged through the clots of shoppers coming the other way down the street, pushing and dragging their rickety trolleys, or schlepping plastic bags of groceries. They trudged along silently, soaked with sweat, shirts and dresses sticking to their backs, staring intently down at their feet, determined to beat the sun to their houses. A saggy-titted old Chinese lady who Taylor passed nearly every morning shuffled toward him, raised her head, and gave him that “what are you crazy?” look, like she did pretty much every time she saw him walking in the wrong direction like that. Taylor smiled and walked on past her …
The Public Viewers were all back online. They were running the standard standby feed … synthesized strings and a glockenspiel, or something, over a montage of Security professionals protecting various innocent civilians from some unspecified, imminent threat. One of the talking heads came on … a silver-haired man, looking “serious.” The following, he said, was a Security Advisory.
The Security Advisory theme music played.
Due to an incident of civil unrest in the Southeast Quadrant of Sector C, all Class 3 Anti-Social Persons were advised to return to their homes immediately. Class 3 Anti-Social Persons remaining outdoors in Sector C after 0630 would be deemed “uncooperative,” and subject to immediate detention. Class 3 Anti-Social Persons unable to reach to their homes by that time were advised to remain outside the Sector, move indoors, shelter in place, and await the issuance of further advisories. IntraZone Waste & Security Services regretted any inconvenience this caused and thanked you for your cooperation.
Shoppers dropped their bags in the street, abandoned their carts, ran, walked, hobbled, limped, shuffled, skipped, hopstepped, and otherwise ambulated, as fast as they could toward their homes. Taylor turned and looked to the east. That column of thick black smoke was still rising, growing … the fire was obviously spreading. Choppers were circling, swooping, and banking. He turned to the south. Choppers there too. Sweeping the streets with their NiteSun beams. They hadn’t made it to the English Quarter, but now it was just a matter of time. This was not some random firebomb set off by a bunch of bozos. He wondered whether … no, fuck it … there wasn’t any time to wonder. According to the silver-haired talking head, he had, he guessed, about nine minutes to make it to Gillie’s and out of the Sector.
1 The BirdsEye was what the Anti-Socials called the network of UAVs, satellites, and other forms of technology, that provided the corporate Security Services with Real-Time footage of pretty much everything happening everywhere, all the time. Their cameras pointed straight down, of course, so as long as you didn’t look up like an idiot, they couldn’t biometrically ID your face.
2 Actually, most of the produce was cultivated in the Normals’ indoor Agri-factories, but had been rejected for aesthetic reasons, or had passed its optimal sell-by date.