Read Honey to Soothe the Itch Online

Authors: Kris Austen Radcliffe

Honey to Soothe the Itch

Talon One Science Fiction presents:

 

Honey to Soothe the Itch

A short story

 

by

Kris Austen Radcliffe

 

 

 

Published by
Talon One Science Fiction

Copyright 2013 Kris Austen Radcliffe

 

 

Cover designed by Kris Austen Radcliffe for
Six Talon Sign Media
LLC

 

 

 

The world
used to be a beautiful place. 

It’s all gone. 
It changed in one split second five months, eighteen days, four hours, and twenty-five minutes ago.  Just like that.  And before I die—before the cancer riddling my body and my bones finishes metastasizing and the pain becomes too much—I’m going to bring it all back.

Because I can.

Birds used to sing.  Butterflies fluttered.  Chai lattes presented themselves for consumption with both the correct flare of cinnamon and the perfect balance of bitter and sweet.  I played hard and worked even harder, riding a hundred miles a week on my state-of-the-art graphite mountain bike in the wind, rain, or fog, until my muscles hummed and my blood pumped the right endorphins into my brain.  Then I’d go back to my twelve hour days of building the invisible infrastructure of the modern world.

I miss it.  We used to have air with
smells.  You don’t notice it until it’s gone—the faint hints of the apple trees down the street.  The neighbor’s roses.  The differences between old cars and new.  Wind carries all sorts of scents.  Sometimes, if you’d just sit there and breathe, you’d get moments of the Rockies floating down, and you’d smell the West.  Dust, maybe a wildfire.  Bears.  Snowcapped mountains.

The world used to give us history with every action we took.  Our noses filled with land and industry.  O
ur eyes with reds too garish to be real, and greens too bright to
not
.  I remember touching flower petals and feeling silk under the pads of my fingers.  At the time, it just seemed the thing to do.  Now, it’s the one memory I cherish above all the others.

I’m going to take away the homogenization and give the world back its life.  The plants are only one shade of green now—
that vivid, easily printable color of fully saturated grass.  The flowers are exactly blue, or exactly red.  Everything moves with ease.  The thunderstorms sound hollow.  Out in the flat gray buildings and the straight lines of the asphalt roads and the manicured trees, it’s all fake.

Even the zombies
all wear the same clothes.

I
’m clad in the few garments we can scrounge up.  The rest of my enclave, the same.  Finding food that doesn’t taste like white kindergarten paste is near impossible. 

But I’m going to fix it.
  Out there, somewhere, is one special zombie.  One who is the key to cracking open what’s left and spreading the world’s candy center over its cinder crust, and I’m going to find that zombie.  I’m one of the implanted.  I’m a walking, talking generator, and I’m still able to work the invisible technology of the world. 

But
now, my skin crawls and no one will touch me.  My body disintegrates because of the tech inside me.  Five months ago it marked me as one of the privileged—one of the geeky ultra-rich who could afford the toys and the implants and the medical support necessary to maintain it.

We weren’t useless.  We designed.  We programmed and refined and built.  The world stood rapt at the beauty
we created and I ran triathlons and posed for magazine covers because I was gorgeous, rich, and special.   

The implants made it possible—instant connection, total bandwidth.  We collaborated and the paparazzi snapped our photos as we literally glimmered our way through
life and restaurants and airport security.  We made the invisible technology permeating human space possible.  It collects data, analyzes streams, optimizes potentials.  We did what we set out to do:  made an efficient biosphere. 

One afternoon, as a stunt, I downshifted my temporal lobe and jacked one of the
Mars rovers. 
Me
became more than me—I gained more body.  What I breathed, what I saw, it all stayed the same, except I tasted more, saw more.  Under my wheels, Mars felt smaller, weaker.  In my cameras, the horizon too close.  The world gawked as I tasted the old and expired chemistry of another planet and used my infrared eyes to gaze upon its dead spaces.  

Then the million-dollar IV
ran out and my senses snapped back to Earth and the cyber screams of the others like myself. 

There
are fifteen of us left.  The zombies got everyone else. 

We tried to warn the world.  We sent out a glaring cacophony that should have stopped
all the information and industry in its tracks, but it didn’t.  The seamless invisible tech of the world “fixed” the problem we created before either humans or machines knew anything was wrong. 

No diagnostics r
an.  No one blinked.  Nothing burned.  Sometimes I wonder if the zombies even realize they’re zombies.

Though, honestly, we’re not sure if they’re zombies.  I suppose it depends on which definition of “zombie” you use. 
They somehow manage to operate in the solidified ruins of the world even though we struggle to find what little food’s left.  And they do have a single-minded determination to kill.

I think the free humans
roaming the hidden spaces of the cities add too many eddies to the new order.  We’re little points of chaos and change.  Free humans need to eat and sleep and take a crap.  We need to pet our dogs and touch each other and sometimes die.

Like me.
  Like I’m dying.  Every moment I stand up and stick my brain into where they don’t want me anymore I bring some of that dying with me.  And it makes me itch.

Not the tingly itch I used to get after turning my face to the sun or my sculpted and well-tanned boyfriend tickled the nape of my neck with his stubble.  No, this is a deep itch, the kind that starts in the bones where
my cancer pounds on shields with swords and spears. 

My nerves load a trebuchet with boiling oil and fling it toward my skin, just to make sure I’m paying attention.

A lesion appeared on my wrist yesterday.  It will fester soon.  I curl my fingers and pull back my hand when I realize my body wants to do something about it.  If I rake my nails over the weld, the itch will stop for a brief, brilliant moment.  I’ll breathe as calm hits my blood.  The world will gain color again and for that one shining second, I’ll swear white sandy beaches and sea breezes still exist. 

They
don’t.  Nothing exists but efficient fractals and the solidified currents of what used to be a living planet.  Cities still stand, but nothing grows.  Nothing decays.  It’s like the game’s been paused. 

We don’t have monitoring equipment—not the old-school stuff with screens or displays.  I’m the only one who can see the nets.

Which is why I’m still special.  I used to be important, a sweet example of what you could be if you stayed in school but did your own thing, because that’s what true pioneers did.  Now I’m special because I’m the only one who can see where the food is, or if the zombies are getting close, or if there’s a group of free humans who need to be brought in. 

I’ve become functional, even if it’s eating me from the inside out and making my skin crawl like a full colony of ants is tunneling toward my bones.
  And I’ll be damned if my last breath leaves me before I serve my function.

Two hours ago, there were sixteen of us special ones.  Sixteen free humans with full implants scattered across the
globe, until we lost Jefferies when zombies overran the St. Petersburg enclave.  He’d broadcast one final message:  Thirty-six people out.  They were running—he took them west toward the Baltic and was asking for help from the London group to get them across to Britain.  Then he vanished.  Gone, no ghost, no signal, not even a hole.  Nothing of his sensations—no haptic moments of cold Artic air or increased adrenalin flow because he ran.  The world swallowed his soul and now only fifteen of us implanted remain.

Fifteen who felt each other every moment of every second, sleeping, awake, fucking, eat
ing, or dying.  Our itches are surprisingly similar. 

I wait for a spy satellite to cross over northern Europe.  The group
fights, the zombies amassing, but without Jeffries they will be dead as soon as their ammo runs out.  Randall, doing his damnedest not to send the sensory feedback of his knotted guts and need to scream, sent his remaining fighter jet and a cargo helicopter from London, praying he’d get at least a few out alive. 

Now we wait and I
sit here in my dark room, technically alone but feeling my stomach churn because there are people we need to save.  And I can’t.  I can’t save Jeffries’ group and I can’t save myself, so I try not to scratch open the welt on my arm.

Yesterday, m
y hunters brought in another family—a mother with a ten-year-old girl and a teenaged boy she found after the world ended.  The boy’s jittery and my nurse, Amanda, thinks he’s going to go over, but his immune system is still keeping it under control.  She’s checking him for antibodies, and if it’s true, it’s only a matter of time.  But until it happens, he’s with us, and he can work. 

The mother’s got programming skills.  Tony put her to work as soon as they walked through the fence. 

The girl sits in the corner behind her mother, rocking back and forth.  She won’t let anyone touch her, not even Amanda.

On the net,
Lin-We reported a break in the cloud deck over Brisbane.  The sun shines in Australia, even as we watch Jefferies vanish.

Just under two hundred thousand
free humans remain, spread out over the globe.  It’s enough—they could come back from this.  But fifteen implanted might not be enough to guide them through the end of the world.

And it might not be enough to hold them together.

It will be fourteen, soon.  Another lesion opened on my calf when we lost Jefferies.  I don’t pull up my dirty jeans to look at it, but it’s itching in that deep, cracking way.  Amanda would see if I looked, and she’d make me lie down.  I’ve tried to tell her lying down doesn’t do squat but she’s a nurse and she knows best. 

A flash drops into my head
—Randall got fifteen out.  The relief of exhausted adrenalin floods my systems.  I’m suddenly too tired to scratch my itches, but I can’t rest.  He lost two of his own.  Six of the rescued have programming skills.  One was a young woman with pre-implants. 

He’s hopef
ul, but he needs to fly them out.

The door cracks and light floods my little room.  Real light, diffuse and dull from filtering through the
fractal clouds, but it comes from a real sun in a physical world.  Motion sickness sets in, partly from the jarring use of my eyes and partly from Randall’s exhaustion, and I lift my hand to shield my face.

Amanda steps in.

She’s this perky thing, tall and thin but she stands up straight and wears her soul like a huge, silly hat meant to scream support for the home team she won’t let the end of the world crush.  I suspect she used to keep her hair in a nice-but-utilitarian cut, one that said I’m friendly but I’m your nurse so shut up.  Now, it’s a mass of ordinary curls pulled back and tied with a piece of twine.

She’s the only thing keeping me alive.

“I brought broth.”  Amanda walks across the squeaky floor, carefully staying within the shaft of light thrown into the room by the sun outside.  “You need to eat.”

I nod and take the bowl, knowing full well that the new family
needed the food, too.  And that I needed extra, to power my revved metabolism.  Have to power the implants somehow.

I told
her to just give me candy bars, but the hunters cleared out all the stores and warehouses a month ago.  Now I eat like the rest of them—broth from the bones of the few deer and rabbits they manage to catch, and the flat bread Amanda figured out how to make from stale flour. 

At this point, I don’t think I could keep down anything other than broth and a little bread, anyway. 
Cancer’s a cruel bitch. 

I taste the broth.  It’s got a sting to it—someone must have found a can of chili peppers. 

Amanda smiles when I make a face.  “We need to use what we have, you know.”

I nod and take another sip.  The broth should help the nausea.  I hope.

Amanda squats, still inside the square of light thrown by the sun outside, her body tossing its own shadow over me.  But I see her face clearly in the light reflected off my noisy floor.  She’s concerned.

Amanda’s always concerned.  She takes her role as seriously as I take mine, which gives me hope.  If anyone’s going to keep my body alive until I see this through, it’s her.

“News?” she asks.

I take another sip of the broth before answering.  “We lost Jefferies.  Randall got out about a third of his people.  They’re on their way to London right now.”

Her facial muscles do a little dance and I can see that she wants to frown and bite her lip.  But she stays calm.  “What’s that mean?” 

I shrug.  Other than losing a good chunk of the remaining viable human genetics and one of the implanted, I don’t really know.  It’s a battle lost in a war without strategy.

“What does this mean for your… side project?”  She sits now, dropping cross-legged onto the dirty floor next to me, and the metal panel under her behind groans.  Nothing stealthy at all about my little container box hovel.  I told them I needed it because it “acts like an antenna,” which is total bullshit, but it keeps them from putting me in a safer place instead of the kids. 

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