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Image: Kuldar Leement

Excuses

Joseph Mackinnon

A train ride gives way to a hallucinatory and grisly news interview in this excerpt from the upcoming sci-fi sequel 'Archetypal.'

Image: Kuldar Leement

Cypulchre is the name of author Joseph MacKinnon 's twisted sci-fi noir from 2014 and his similarly cyberpunky Tumblr . The novel takes readers on a mad scientist's journey through a hellish future in and around Los Angeles, now dominated by Outland, a massive computing company peddling hyper-addictive VR. Archetypal , MacKinnon's sequel, is due out June 1st and can be pre-ordered here. Based on the first except he shared exclusively with Motherboard, it will be a trip. — the editor.


There's no excuse, Lyle decides; no excuse whatsoever for letting oneself go like that. The man in question—sitting on the other side of the aisle in a seat that would scream if it could—looks more like a deli counter than a human being. On his head sits a ball cap, which does a poor job of damming back the putrefied sweat shining his temples. He is a poor advertisement for the defunct team whose avian symbol it evokes. Knotted together over his heaving belly are nine blotchy sausage fingers, the absent tenth a likely victim of diabetes. Someone who can't avoid mutilation on account of an illness now as preventable as polio doesn't care about himself, and someone who doesn't care about himself is a danger to everyone around them.

Lyle convinces himself he can smell the man unwittingly awaiting his extrajudicial verdict. Now, it is all he can smell. Rotten meat, skunky body odour, and a faint touch of mint. Why bother with the mint? Funereal incense? No excuse. I'd help him with his problem if I wasn't already running late.

Disgusted to the point of anger, Lyle gets up, gathers his belongings from the overhead bins, and shuffles down the aisle of the train wallpapered with colonial propaganda. He looks down in anger as he passes the inexcusable mass, telepathically summoning a change. No result, of course.

The door to the next car is blasted by outside light, mediated by the blue-tinted emergency-hatch window. At this speed, Seattle is nothing more than a rainbow blur framed by red letters: "DO NOT PULL IF POD IS IN MOTION." Lyle grins, pleased to have escaped the Emerald City's jurisdiction un-cuffed and unblemished. Would be even easier without these goddamn headaches. Enticing though it may be, Lyle elects not to spice things up by releasing the hatch while averaging 850 miles an hour. The inexcusable mass would no doubt shed some weight. The act, although in clear violation of the red letters, would produce a net gain for humanity. But then Lyle Badegger would also be dead, spread like bacon grease over the South Cascades. Marius Tyndale or some other wet-nosed junior partner would take his law practice and his clients, and Dorota, his confidant and muse, would realize her true potential and escape. He would have surrendered to impulse at his penultimate peak, when godliness was just within reach.

Someone who doesn't care about himself is a danger to everyone around them.

Lyle motions to the door to the next car. It is locked, access contingent on digitally-accredited sociability. He runs his wrist over the scanner, and in so doing makes a farce out of their precious system with a fake ID.

"Welcome back, Mr. Rinsler," sounds a box embedded in the wall above the scanner. The AI mimicking these human sounds and meanings is the same system that runs life support and archives on Titan—a neutered version of the CLOUD's search AI, Minerva. Talk about picking the short stick. To have such an exceptional mind trapped in a box, greeting mortal meat as it waddles from compartment to compartment…Shame, shame, shame. Lyle smiles, and whispers to the scanner: "Better you than me."

The door to the dining car opens up. Warm air sullied by the smell of minty waste rushes past Lyle, quick and forceful as if the unwelcome spirit of the human luggage behind was exorcised and appointed a new host yonder.

"Have a good day!" chirps the wall-mounted tragedy.

Lyle looks askew at the speaker and mutters: "Don't tell me what do to."

As soon as Lyle is through the threshold, the door whooshes shut. If he had a tail, it would have been clipped off, and left to coil and bleed in the other car to the tune of the ferryman's "Hellos" and "Good days." "Good day, Mr. Rinsler's severed tail! I envy your ability to die! Good day!"

A few eyes dart up, scrutinizing the new inductee into this car stocked with prefabricated and vacuum-sealed lunch items. Lyle tries to smile, but gives up before hooking both cheeks. Fuck-em; these valueless non-entities' opinions, desires, wants, and needs, ought all be recycled with their hosts back to helium and hydrogen, and put to work lighting the fringes of space.

Intuiting a throwaway sum into his swipe, Lyle purchases a sponge-like confection with a frill of brown along the inner-seam—so-called "Real roasted beef." Real as in not imaginary, beef as in vaguely resembling brown, salty meat.

With his excuse for riding in the dining car tucked under his arm, Lyle looks for a vacant seat. There are two: one between two children, undoubtedly related judging by their unfortunate commonalities. Their blotchy skin and massive foreheads gives their zonage away: RIM ticks. Any responsible Blue Zone parent would have given them the advantage of prenatal gene therapy. The other vacant seat is on the far side of the car, just around the corner from taped-off and defunct CLOUD-synchronization stations.

Lyle mopes over to the far side, out of earshot of the little brats. He sits and sets down his sandwich, turning it to find its best face. Pleased with the glint he has managed to give the maroon rind, he clicks on his projector pad. Better eat this with my eyes closed. His Monocle picks up the otherwise invisible projection—a subdued prism to the naked eye—and he reflexively switches to his personalized newsfeed.

Better eat this with my eyes closed.

A villain's photo album of gruesome thumbnails soars into view. Los Angelian scandals feature prominently: "'Archetypals siphon power from nuclear plant, then destroy it…', 'Non-violent rainouts being arrested en mass…', 'Minerva, the world's most-trusted search engine, remains down for the twentieth week after CLOUD crash…', 'BiAnima stocks continue to plummet…', 'Post-trauma memory wipes face federal ban…', 'Citadel bomber, Oni Matsui still at large'…" Among the options, one piques Lyle's interest: Saturn, pale yellow and potbellied, rotates with "TRAGEDY" written in a crisp Serif bolded in the foreground. Monocle registers Lyle's intention to tune in to the extra-terrestrial drama, fades out his vision, and throws him into a shiny, minimalistic news studio. Infographics and 3D models of Outland's Olympus Outpost on Saturn's most profitable moon, Titan, monopolize the wings of the stage.

Two men sit at centre stage, surrounded by 3D-capture units. A projected nametag identifies the man trembling beside the show's host as Serge Demidov. The host is, of course, NewsLink's Tom Tinrod.

"Mr. Demidov," says Tinrod, trying to connect with the disheveled figure on his left, "Would you please tell our viewers what it is you saw on that fateful day?"

Serge looks out at the immaterial audience, a field of ambivalent avatars gaping at him, keen to hear the details of his personal misfortune. His skin and muscle droop. Earth's atmosphere is crushing him. Very slowly, he answers: "Days."

"Sorry?" says Tinrod.

"Fateful days…It was bad for a while before it ended. They are calling it 'space madness'..."

The audience murmurs.

"Outland, I mean; Outland is calling it space madness…But I think we were poisoned."

Two-million-thousand virtual knees jerk. Everywhere gasps are digitally archived. A torrent of indignant texts and telegraphed comms sent in by doubting viewers roll down either side of the stage. None of them is censored. Half of them are self-promotional. The other half advocate for Serge to face a dark-CLOUD interrogation at the hands of the government or the Outland Corporation.

Smiling, the jaunty host—his hair striped black and silver liked magnesium—grips Serge's hand reassuringly, pretending to be something more than a parasite attempting to extort ratings. "Poisoned, Mr. Demidov?"

"Everything was going well," answers Serge with watery eyes, trying his best not to 'vah' when pronouncing his 'w's,' "Both in Olympus and in the greater colonies. We did not have an accident in months. Just about everybody was working their fingers to the bone and then camping out in the CLOUD the rest of the time. "

The host sneaks a knowing look to the audience. Lyle can see through Tinrod's flash-paper exterior. He has immaturity wrapped around his eyes. There are still some men—this host included—who have avoided the wrinkles and nightmares borne by those not exempted from either the War of the Americas or the so-called Unholy War. They either have a knack for it or a privilege to it. Like growth rings on a tree stump—detailing age and the climate in which it rose—the eyes tell all. Tinrod's thinly-barked bachelor eyes speak of nothing but fair weather. His face's resultant brightness and tightness inspire relaxation: a trap for those without the knack or the privilege. While he is hoisted above the wreckage, his confiders lay tangled in rebar twist ties beneath mountains of cinders or, in the case of this interview, defamed and damned on the great American stage.

Tom Tinrod silently bids Serge continue with a slight turn of his hand.

Serge catches the host's returning wink, and grimaces. The man is no fool, unless the social awareness hinted at by his facial expressions should be an extra-mental phenomenon. Before an amphitheatre of soulless, virtual eyes, it must be clear to Serge that he has already been judged and that his fate is predetermined. After all, the law is silent when the drums beat, and the drums are beating—one-million viewers banging their keyboards and tablets like mad apes. When found guilty by the emotional and Netted mob, you better hope you have a lawyer like Lyle Badegger defending you, otherwise you are finished. Even with Lyle on your side, if you have been appointed the Company's scapegoat, you best bleat your way onto the altar.

"We received our monthly Terran shipment from Outland…"

Tinrod addresses the disembodied audience. "For the sake of our subscribers just joining us now, let me catch you up. I'm sitting with one of seven survivors of last year's Olympus massacre who returned to us via the Hermes."

Tinrod's interruption forces Serge to bow his head and pre-chew his reply. Following an impotent point, Serge continues: "It was actually the Hermes that brought over our EFeed, vapor resupply, and energy cells. It had made a stopover on the Orpheus settlement on Hyperion first, then came over with the essentials plus extra cargo— a body. Docket said he was an Orphean miner. There were specific instructions to run an open-air autopsy on him. Thing is, I know the entire Orpheus crew, and this body was nobody—nobody I knew, anyway. Mr. Tinrod, I do not know why they did it, but I know that they did do it. Outland sent us a booby-trapped corpse…It is the only thing I can think of…"

An infographic watermarked with a question mark soars across the stage, simulating an astronaut choking. They've gotten awfully efficient at generating these damned animations off the cuff.

"What made fathers cut up their own children? Huh!? What made blood run down the commons like a river? "

"I find it difficult to believe, as I'm sure our audience does, that Outland—who financed the majority of this operation from EME—would sabotage Olympus, pay postage on corpses, or attack their own employees with what I presume you're insinuating was a biological weapon. Never mind that they'd have nothing to gain; corporate masochism at the level and of the degree you're suggesting would jeopardize both the Company and its holdings. Forgive my skepticism Mr. Demidov, but I don't think you returned to Earth with all your senses intact, and to be quite honest, I think these kinds of conspiracy theories do those less fortunate than you a second disservice."

The comment feed lights up with vindictive messages.

Crimson fires into Serge's sweaty, pale cheeks. Staring up at Tinrod through his barbwire eyebrows, he offs a barrage: "I never said it was a biological weapon."

More gasps from the bodiless crowd.

"No, the body was charged. The Chief Medical Examiner performed an autopsy. Body exploded. Lights clicked, and—"

Spreading his legs and drooping in his seat, Tinrod focuses on the chattering in his ear. He parrots his producer's feed: "Huh...Mr. Demidov, the Chief Examiner reported nothing unusual in his declassified report. The body's torso ruptured because of 'Saturnian gravitational stress and space-accelerated tissue decay'. There is no mention anywhere of him having found any explosive material."

"Nonsense! He's lying! There was a magnetic disturbance—and the CLOUD shut down!"

"The CLOUD shut down everywhere, I'm afraid," Tinrod jabs back. He claps his knees together and stretches his fingers out overtop of them.

"Months before the CLOUD crashed on Earth," Serge quickly rejoinds. "Olympus had a private cypulchre and server bank. We couldn't connect with Outland's Terran Network on account of cosmic rays and the like. They were totally separate. It took me a year to get home, and the Olympus crash is what sent me."

"I hate to have to keep recapping, but there is just too much sense here for me to confuse…Outland sent a body full of invisible magnets to crash Titan's CLOUD all in order to accomplish what?" Tinrod's eyes are aglow with updates on his viewership.

Demidov looks just about ready to murder Tinrod. "If not Outland, than who or what? What made fathers cut up their own children? Huh!? What made blood run down the commons like a river? All these people—my friends, my family—they were all cleared by BiAnima's quacks. How do good people turn into animals overnight?"

"Mr. Demidov…"

"They don't!" Serge looks like he is going to have an aneurism. Tomato red and shaking, he continues: "We built them a base and when they didn't need us anymore, they experimented on us. They wanted to see what would happen if their CLOUD moneymaker stopped working...The timing was perfect too! Saturn wasn't going to keep protecting us from solar flares, so they used us to test a theory while still covered by their insurers."

"Mr. Demidov?"

Noticing more and more viewers entering the viewing introjection field, Serge tries to restrain himself. He takes a deep breath and firms up.

Tinrod leans in, mind on the viewer traffic and face a druxy dressed in false sympathy. "Could you tell us a little bit more about fathers cutting up their children?"

Olympus is last quarter's accident, but unfortunately for Serge, it is today's news. And Serge missed his opportunity to carry the Company flag into branded legend. If he will not be their hero, he will be their villain.

Without the CLOUD, he cannot show the world the truth by shoving his memories up their spines and into their minds. That means Serge will have to evidence his victimization with scars or wounds, neither of which he has on the outside. He is royally screwed.