The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood)

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Shades

“This is where I waited for you,” says Toby. “During the Waterless Flood. Up here on the rooftop. I kept expecting you’d stroll out of those woods at any moment.”

The Crakers are all around them, sleeping peacefully. How trusting they are, thinks Toby. They’ve never learned real fear. Maybe they can’t learn it.

“So you didn’t think I was dead?” says Zeb.

“I was counting on you,” says Toby. “I thought, if anyone knew how to stay alive through all of that, it would be you. Some days I did tell myself you were dead, though. I called that ‘realism.’ But the rest of the time I was waiting.”

“Worth it?” says Zeb. Invisible grin in the darkness.

“You’re having a failure of confidence? You need to ask?”

“Yeah, I kind of do,” says Zeb. “Used to think I was God’s gift, but that gets rubbed off a guy. From the first time I knew you, back at the Gardeners, I could see you were smarter than me, what with the mushrooms and the potions and all of that.”

“But you were craftier,” says Toby.

“Granted. Though I outcraftied myself sometimes. Now where was I?”

“You were living with the Snake Women,” says Toby. “At Scales and Tails. Keeping yourself to yourself, your eyes open, your hands in your pockets, and your lip zipped.”

“Right.”

They made Zeb a bouncer. It was a fine disguise. He got the shaved head, the black suit, the shades, and the gold tooth that broadcast right into his mouth. Also the tasteful enamelled lapel pin in the shape of a snake eating its own tail: an ancient motif that meant regeneration, said Adam, though you could have fooled Zeb.

He rearranged his face parsley in the deep-pleeb bouncer fuzzdo of the day, which involved a very narrow shaver used to carve a crisscross design into a light layer of stubble, with an effect like a hairy waffle. It was at that time, too, that he got his ears recontoured, at the suggestion of Adam. They were using ears more in identities, said Adam, and it would be as well if Zeb were to rearrange his own so they couldn’t be matched with some ear photo of yore, supposing anyone was looking. The actual plasti-cosmi job was courtesy of Katrina WooWoo, who had access to some Grade A flesh-and-fat sculptors. Zeb opted for a more pointy look at the top of the ear and a droopier blob of lobe.

“Don’t look now,” he says. “I got them done a couple of times after that. But for a while there I was sort of a pixie Buddha.”

“It’s how I think of you,” says Toby.

Zeb’s job was to stand around the bar area, not smiling broadly but not actively threatening: just more or less looming. His partner was a large black guy called – at that moment – Jebediah, though when he joined MaddAddam he became Black Rhino. Zeb and Jeb was how Zeb linked the two of them in his head.

Though he was not Zeb to those at Scales, nor was he Hector the Vector. He had yet another name, which was Smokey. Smokey the Bear, like the old mascot for the so-called Forest Service. It was a fitting name. “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” had been the slogan, and that was what he was supposed to do: prevent wildfires.

When there were signs of petulance among the clientele – glowering and scowling, verbal unpleasantness, unseemly grabbing and ripping of the feathery or scaly or petal-shaped fabrics decorating the floorshow, or the chimp-display shaking of beer cans that signalled an exchange of foam-streams followed by can-tossing, bottle-smashing, and punches – Zeb and Jeb would step in. They’d switch their passive looming to active surgical intervention, the goal being to take the aggressors out smoothly and cleanly without triggering an all-in brawl. So prompt action was a must, though of course you didn’t want to piss off the clients unnecessarily: a clobbered client was not often a repeat client.

Also – increasingly – a lot of the customers were from the top layers of the Corps layer cake, and those guys liked to go slumming in the pleebs, though not in any life-endangering ways. Just enough so you could feel a little rebellious, a little cool, a little sexually functional. Scales and Tails was gaining a reputation as a sanitary and discreet place in which to get shitfaced and indiscreet, and you could take a prospective business partner there as a complicated form of bribery without fear of exposure.

Thus the light touch was essential when it came to conflict resolution. The best way was to drape a companionable arm around the shoulders of the dickhead in question and to growl warmly into the ear: “House Special, just for you, sir. Compliments of the management.” Overjoyed to be getting something for free and doubtless already suffering from nano-brain-death due to what he’d already guzzled, the guy would be shepherded down a few hallways and around a few corners with his tongue hanging out a yard. He’d be ushered into a large room with feather decorations and a green satin bedspread, and invisible video surveillance. There he would be lovingly undressed by a couple of the Snake Women, those with the knack of making an actuarial report sound like hot porn, while Zeb or Jeb loomed in the middle distance just out of sight, to keep the guy civil.

Then in would come a lurid mixture in a cocktail glass that might be orange or purple or blue depending on what had been ordered, topped with a green cherry that had a green plastic snake stuck into it. This would be hand-delivered by an orchid or a gardenia or a flamingo or a fluorescent blue skink on stilts, shimmering all over with sequins and tiny LED lights and scales or petals or feathers, with huge tits and a lip-licking smile. Itchy-kitchy-coo, this hallucination would say, or words to that effect. Drinkie-poo! What red-blooded hominid could say no? Down the hatch would go the mystery liquid, followed quickly by sweet dreams for Mr. Self-Styled Alpha Male, with minimal wear and tear on the hired help.

The chosen one would awaken ten hours later, convinced that he’d just had the time of his life. Which he would have done, said Zeb, because all experience registered by the brain is real, no? Even if it didn’t happen in 3-D so-called real time.

This act usually worked fine with Corp exec types, a naive and trusting bunch when it came to the duplicitous mores of the pleeblands. Zeb knew their kind from the Floating World: out for thrills during their night on the town, eager for something they mistook for experience. They led sheltered lives inside their Corp Compounds and the other guarded spaces where they hung out, such as courthouses, statehouses, and religious institutions, and they were gullible about anything outside their walls. It was touching how easily they drank the Kool-Aid on offer, how rapidly they hit the hay or, in fact, the green satin bedspread, how softly they slept, and how cheerily they awoke.

But a different sort of client was establishing a presence at Scales: a less agreeable type, not easily deflected from his own angers. Hate-fuelled, hardened in the fire, bent on carnage and broken glassware. These were rockier cases, and called for an all-points alert.

“I speak of the Painballers, as you must’ve guessed,” says Zeb. “Painball had just begun back then.”

Painball Arenas were at that time highly illegal, like cockfighting and the slaughter and eating of endangered species. But, like them, Painball existed and was expanding, hidden from public view. Spectator positions were reserved for the upper echelons, who liked to watch duels to the death involving skill, cunning, ruthlessness, and cannibalism: it was Corp life in graphic terms. A lot of money was already changing hands at Painball in the form of highroller betting. So the Corps paid indirectly for the infrastructure and the upkeep of the Painball players, and those providing the locations and the services paid directly if caught, and sometimes with their lives when there were turf wars.

This arrangement suited the CorpSeCorps – in its adolescence then – as it provided ample blackmail material through which the CorpSeCorps men could tighten their hold on those considered to be the pillars of what still passed for society.

If you were already locked up in an ordinary prison, you could elect the Painball option: fight your fellow prisoners, eliminate them, and win big prizes, such as getting out of jail free and landing a stint as a pleebland grey-market enforcer. Perks all round. Of course, once you’d elected to enter Painball, the alternative to winning was death. That was why it was so much fun to watch. Those who survived it did so through guile, the ability to wrongfoot their opponents, and superior murderousness: the eating of gouged-out eyes was a favourite party trick. In a word, you had to be prepared to knife and fillet your best friend.

Once they’d graduated from a stint in Painball, the Painball vets had very high status in the deeper pleebs and also on the higher heights, as Roman gladiators must once have had. Corps wives would pay to have sex with them, Corps husbands would invite them to dinner for the thrill of astounding their friends and watching them smash up the champagne flutes, though security enforcers would always be present in case things looked like they were getting seriously out of hand. A little rampaging was acceptable on these occasions, but uncontrolled mayhem was not.

Fuelled by their greyworld celebrity position, the Painball vets were pumped full of I-won hormones and thought they could tackle anyone, and they welcomed the chance to take a poke at a large, solid-looking bouncer such as Zeb the Smokey Bear. He was warned by Jeb never to turn his back on a Painballer: they’d whack you in the kidneys, blam you on the skull with anything handy, squeeze your neck till your eyes popped out of your ears.

How to recognize them? The facial scars. The blank expressions: some of their human mirror neurons had gone missing, along with big chunks of the empathy module: show a normal person a child in pain and they’d wince, whereas these guys would smirk. According to Jeb you had to get quick at reading the signs because if you were dealing with a psycho you needed to know it. Otherwise they could mangle the female talent before you could say snapped neck, and this could be costly: trapeze dancers who could do an artistic strip while hanging from one foot high above the crowd didn’t come cheap. Or, for that matter, an orgasm-enhancing near-strangulation with a python. A Painball vet might well feel that biting off a python’s head would be an unbeatable slice of alpha-chimp display, and even if the bite were to be intercepted, a damaged python would be hard to replace.

Scales kept a regularly updated register of Painballer identities, complete with face pics and ear profiles, which Katrina WooWoo obtained through some obscure back door using God-knows-what as trading cards. She must’ve been acquainted with someone on the running end of Painball – someone who wanted something she could supply, or else could withhold. Favours and anti-favours were the most respected currency of the deeper pleeblands.

“Hit first and hit dirty, was our rule for those Painball assholes,” says Zeb. “As soon as they started to get twitchy. Sometimes we’d spike their drinks, but sometimes we took them out permanently, because if we didn’t they’d be back for revenge. We had to be careful what we did with the bodies, though. They might have affiliates.”

“What did you do with the bodies?” says Toby.

“Let’s just say there was always a demand in the deeper pleebs for condensed protein packages, to be utilized for fun, profit, or pet food. But back then, in the early days, before the CorpSeCorps decided to make Painball legal and run it on TV, there weren’t very many out-of-control Painballers, so body disposal wasn’t a regular thing. More like an improvisation.”

“You make it sound like a leisure-time amusement,” says Toby. “These were human lives, whatever they’d done.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, slap my wrist, we were bad. Though you didn’t get into Painball unless you were already a multiple killer.

“Point of this whole recital being that it wasn’t unknown for us bar guards – me and Jeb – to take a personal interest in what went into the mixed drinks. Sometimes we even mixed them.”

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  • 22. 3. 2024