Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
I dragged my knife down the stone wall over and over until a nice fat divot formed in the crust. Villie stood at the alley entrance keeping watch and bounced around like an elf on meth. It was a loud process, carving poetry into stone, but the tiny sparks and rock dust that scattered around my feet were pretty satisfying in a primal way. I scraped and scratched and Villie paced with anxiety until finally the words Blue sunrise in the cheap black morning sky were scrawled the whole length of the wall.
“Looks like shit,” Villie said, squinting. “Does that say ‘surprise?’”
“Sunrise,” I said. “Blue sunrise.”
“What’s a blue sunrise?”
I waved the knife around. “I don’t know. It’s poetry, who cares?”
Villie rolled her eyes. “This is why I stick to VR.”
“Good for you. You can go yiff yourself when we get back, you critic.”
She slipped her arm through mine. If she weren’t my best friend, and if this weren’t insanely dangerous, I’d be annoyed.
“Shall we?” Villie asked.
“We shall,” I said, our stupid ritual.
We walked back out onto the street. The post-industrial nu-wave hit Philly hard during the climate crisis two decades back and now the normally trash-choked streets were clean and packed with electric busses, private vehicles being outlawed. They crawled along like massive beetles packed to the chitin with commuters.
Villie led the way. Her short dark hair, pretty wide eyes, and the bright purple jumpsuit drew more attention than I was comfortable with. She called it “hiding in plain sight” and I called it “being careless.”
The trek back north to the hideout was a pain. We passed City Hall with its ceaseless scaffolding, hiked up along Broad, cut right through Temple’s campus, and slid into north Kensington. The collective had a bombed-out house on a quiet, weed-strewn block.
It smelled like mold and solder. Villie pushed aside the plywood door and went inside.
“Did you do it?” Camron asked from on the steps to the right. Long dark hair in his face and a frown so deep it could’ve been a medical condition.
“Of course,” Villie said. “Pectach’s a pro.”
“Poetry,” I said.
“That’ll piss him off.” Camron almost smiled. God, almost.
Villie leaned up against the peeling wallpaper. “Why are we baiting him again?” she asked, her voice gone soft.
“He can’t keep hunting us,” Camron said.
Before The Censor, we had a thriving group of twenty.
Now we were down to a rotten eight.
“He’ll come here,” Villie said. “Too many cams downtown to avoid getting caught.”
“Good.” Camron stormed upstairs.
I leaned next to Villie. The other anarcho-kids squatted out back, probably jacked into their scavenged VR. “You okay?” I asked her.
“Fine,” she said. “I know why we’re doing this, it’s just—“
“You’re worried,” I finished.
She squeezed her eyes shut and her face screwed up. I hated when her face looked like that. “I don’t want anyone else to disappear.”
“Camron’s got a plan,” I said.
“I hope so.” She let out a breath then forced a smile. “Come on. I want to go get my yif on.”
“Sicko,” I said as she skipped into the back of the house.
Scattered brushfire in bloom on backcountry road. I tapped the tip of my knife against my tooth. “Too impressionist,” I said.
“What’s a hackcounty?” Villie asked.
She gestured back to the street. “I’m exhausted. Can we just go?”
“Sure,” I said, and we headed back toward home. It was late, past midnight. Villie was early to bed, early to rise, despite the tendency in the collective to stay up all night. Vampire hours, Villie called it. Never worked for her.
The lights came out of nowhere. Red and blue sirens blared like hydrogen bombs. Villie released a yelp and looked at me wild-eyed.
“Go,” I shouted, and we went, sprinting down the block. The cop drones kept pace. Hard to lose a cop drone in Old City—the streets were too clean and empty.
Villie was fast but short. I caught up to her, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her along. “Did they see?” Villie gasped, breathing hard.
“Don’t know,” I said, sprinting across Broad, angling north. “Took the fuckers long enough.”
“Ten bad poems,” Villie heaved. “Ten bad poems!”
Ten good poems, but fine. We skittered down Girard and reached thirteenth.The cop drones followed, but flew high enough that I almost lost sight of them.
We reached the house flushed and dripping. Villie slammed aside the plywood. “Camron!” she screamed.
He emerged from the back wearing a light blue silk kimono that showed off his hairless legs. “Time?” he asked.
“Fucking time,” I said.
The cop drones hovered, lights blazing. Sirens screamed in the distance. Camron nodded, all calm-like.
“Get everything ready,” he said, shedding the kimono. Beneath, he wore black boxer-briefs. His chest was covered in deer tattoos.
Villie gave me a look like she might be sick.
In the back, the anarcho-kids were stacked like plywood on the ground plugged into VR. I shut down the system and they came up for air. “The fuck man?” Lareth said, bald head gleaming.
Villie said, “He’s coming.”
Oss leapt to her feet. “Right now?” Broad shoulders, real nervous.
“Camron says to get ready.”
Burst of activity as the anarchos scrambled to get into position.
I had one last job. The long banner I’d spent so long scrawling with big neon markers. I unfurled it out front of the house while the cop drones flitted around me, trying to get a good view of my face, the fuckers. I admired my handiwork: Wind eats water even when its cold.
Bastard can’t resist bad poetry.
The Censor stepped through the door wreathed in a halo of light from the cars out front. It was some Terminator shit. He had black eyes and a shock of red hair scraped back over his pale skull. A long leather jacket trailed along the ground behind him. Keys jingled in pockets. Villie huddled next to me up on the roof watching on the monitors as The Censor stepped down our hallway into the back room where another banner waited for him:
Put your light
In my mouth, little
Drone kin, your
Pale skin sleeps
On my floor, safe
In recording, transmitting
Relayed through air.
He didn’t love that. Rage stretched across his freckled face as he tore down the banner and ripped it in a frenzy. The Censor hated, that was his prime directive—hate anything unapproved, non-standard, unlyrical, free verisimilitude, remotely seditious. Nothing triggered him more than bad poetry.
Camron sprung the trap. The house lights came up brighter than a college campus. It was like a summer afternoon blazing. The Censor let out a strangled shout as Camron sprinted into the room still mostly naked wearing a pair of wrap-around mirrored sunglasses and smashed a VR helmet down over The Censor’s head. The Censor lashed out with a stun-baton and caught Camron on the side, knocking the poor asshole sideways.
Behind me, Oss started the program.
The Censor shouted once then dropped sideways. He crumpled onto the floor like saggy bread.
“Stay here,” I said and ran to the fire escape. Villie followed, because of course she did. We climbed down the side, went in through a downstairs bedroom window, and crept into the living room.
Villie kicked the stun-baton away. The Censor was a rigid mess. Up close, he looked like a kid: no more than twenty at most.
Camron groaned. Villie helped him up and his dark eyes met mine. I reached out toward the helmet, tempted to peel it back, tempted to talk to my adversary, the man that had been hunting us for months and only now came out of the shadows, unable to resist our ceaseless poetic goading—
“Don’t,” Camron said.
I sucked in a breath through my teeth. “What’s it doing to him?”
“Deprogramming,” Camron said. “Boro and Doves cooked it up. Scrambling his brain so the PPD’s conditioning won’t work anymore.”
I nudged The Censor with my boot. He looked oddly peaceful. I hoped Boro and Doves didn’t make it hurt. “They’ll train another one,” I said.
“Not for a few years,” Camron said. “Easy to break, hard to make.” Villie helped him to his feet. A big, wicked grin slashed his face. “Shall we escape now, my darlings?”
Villie gave me a look and rolled her eyes. I shrugged a little, still staring down at The Censor.
In some ways, I’d miss him. For all the grief, all the night time raids, all the deleted net posts, all the burned books and torn pages and covered-over graffiti and long weeks spent hiding out from his goons, I’d miss having someone that really, truly responded to my work.
Nobody else gave a shit. It was poetry.
“Let’s go,” I said and helped Villie carry Camron out back.
ps, Something a little campy/goofy today. Who doesn’t love bad poetry? I sure do! If you enjoyed this, please share it, and have a great week. - DC