stay tuned for a temporary flash preview
of my latest foray beyond flash fiction '33 1/3rd rpm'
(2,467 words)
© 2017
by Shaun Lawton

Sick Story Time

The Three Brazen Cowards



illustration by jesse stevens





A lone car skated on the edge of oblivion.

It was a wood-paneled PT Cruiser with three burros in it.

The elder burro was driving. His right hoof pressed against the steering wheel, with his left elbow resting on the open window sill. The stub of a lit Cuban cigar was wedged between two lower side teeth.

Vultures circled slowly in the skies beyond, forming a lazy halo, targeting yet another dead thing below.

The lead burro could barely keep the car on the road. Skidding out of control every now and again, he yanked hard on the steering wheel in an attempt to avoid some jackhammers left lying next to newly dug potholes.

"Where's the damn music in this tin machine?" barked the distracted driver through the slot between his huge front teeth.

The burro in the passenger seat—a gray, forlorn looking jack—leaned forward and began twisting the radio knob, seeking through static and white noise, pausing at each new song or jingle that came warbling through, until he had completed a full round of all three available stations.

"Use tha FM signal jackstump—"

The donkey in the back seat just stared ahead through the windshield at the oncoming scenery slowly washing over them.

The voice behind the one lone working speaker morphed into a porcine squeal.

"—Rifefullamatics in a French regime intransigence maneuvers..."

The jack in the front seat twisted a knob.

*static*

"...uprising in Southwesthamshire..."

*yawing—*

He twisted the knob again.

*—warble* "...introducing a constant and noble...

*knob-twist* ...city of lost knowledge—".

Barkey slapped the radio off himself with a cuff and a bray, knockin' the jack's hoof off the dashboard.

"Where's the Rolling Stones when ya need em? Got any of that wild Willy Wonkastic left? We gotta find us some mares."

He clenched the Cuban cigar between his teeth and drove on.

Cornrows began passing by on either side of them.

Two police cruisers could be seen parked a quarter mile ahead on the left shoulder—each with their own snared victim.

Barkey pressed a hoof against the accelerator—it was a matter of chance, but the timing was crucial in a situation like this.

Either one of those Clydesdales could be finishing his business and ready to spring-release himself on the next passing vehicle.

It was a matter of perfect timing to avoid getting nabbed, on account of the fact that every commuter without exception was speeding—and well over twenty miles past the limit, mind you.

For the Clydesdales, it was shooting fish in a barrel.

Better speed now and get past them, or with their luck—Woot—they'd be nabbed sure as shingles.

Rain began pattering against the windshield. Smoke whipped out of the driver's window in steadily vacuumed gusts.

They were cruising along at around an even ninety miles an hour. It was high summer alongside a midwestern mountain range.

No one was prepared to die that day. Least of all, the Clydesdales.

The PT Cruiser with the three burros slipped past both parked police vehicles while the Clydesdales were mounting back into them.

The rain stopped. Barkey switched off the wipers. He crushed out his cigar butt in the pop-out ashtray.

"Strap on." He accelerated the vehicle up to 100mph.

Blue lights flashed on behind them, accompanied by the familiar yowling of the police sirens.

Both of them cruisers were in the rearview mirror now.

How'd they nab us so suddenly?

Barkey looked over at his jackmate in the passenger seat.

All three burros stared straight ahead through the bug spattered windshield.

"You pullin' over boss?" asked the jack in the passenger seat.

After a quick verification in the rearview, Barkey grit his large teeth and hissed through them.

"Ya damn straight I'm pullin' over. Now both of ya shaddup and lemme do the talkin'."

He eased the vehicle nice and steadily down to 90mph, and with a practiced self assurance, slowly brought her down to 80...until he reached the speed limit of 75mph, at which point he put on his right blinker, and began easing over into the next lane, in preparation to pull over onto the shoulder.

Directly ahead lay the entrance to a bridge. There wasn't enough distance to pull over safely. He'd have to wait until they were passed the bridge, now.

A 55mph sign flashed by. Barkey eased his rear right hoof off the gas. Another glance in the rearview revealed the Clydesdale at the wheel to be frantically gesturing with his hooves for him to pull over.

At that moment they plunged through and onto the bridge. The last opportunity to pull over disappeared behind them in an instant. The Clydesdale chasing them behind the wheel only seemed to become more agitated and flamboyant, he could be seen in the rearview gesturing rudely with his right hoof.

The second police car nudged up alongside them. This second driver was casually loading a gigantic-muzzled old fashioned snub-nosed revolver in his lap, with one hoof on the wheel and a sardonic grin on his muzzle.

Panic flashed through Barkey's mind—but after flaring out, it dissolved away into so much acrid smoke streaming out the window—and grim resolve set itself in its place.

The dogged donkey continued to drive 55mph, determined to complete the 12-mile bridge's distance without breaking a sweat nor going over the speed limit.

The second cruiser with the revolver fell back alongside his partner. Now both police cars appeared almost frantic in their chase, lights flashing and sirens blaring into the distance.

The burro in the back seat of the escape car coughed.

"I'm feeling nauseous again—d'ya think—"

Before he could finish his sentence, pink bubblegum-like tendrils whiplashed from both police cars behind them, ensnaring their speeding vehicle in a giant sticky-stringed spiderweb netting.

The next thing any of the burros knew, the cruisers continued on a trajectory above and over them, pulling the pink and semi-elastic webbing taut until it hauled their moving PT cruiser up off the road and into the blinding blue of the afternoon sky.

Over the radio station, wind blasted through the lowered windows in the escape car. All three burros stared directly ahead through the windshield into the glaring sunlight.

They couldn't even see the helicops ahead and above them, hauling their asses back to the Grain Compound.

The two sidekick burros were nothing more than mules, really. They didn't even know they were—that was the sad and funny thing. They were no hinnies, that's for sure. Barkey brayed out with sudden laughter.

All he wanted, all he dreamed of, his entire life while incarcerated in the Moonshine Pits over at the Grain Compound, was to eat heated-up beans out of a can. Over a real campfire.

To wake up alongside the rails of the tracks turned blood red by the setting sun. To learn how to play the drums. Or the banjo.

Barkey looked up one last time at the overhead sprawled out clouds, reeling by on their journey back Home.

This is what we get for attempting to go against the Grain.

He sighed. A burro can always dream.

CITIwakes





The meshPasser undergoes an a priori examination of its insular membrane and various obverse mechanisms, momentarily recharging in the twi-dulled murk of the Arcasm Ritual Building, sarcastically referred to as the A.R.B. by weary tenants. Heliocentric memory eraser plasma-pulse frequencies sporadically annihilate thirty percent of the sprawling community's immediate recollections. The rest soak in the ultraviolet neon sponsorship of causal determinism, relishing in the uplift throughout the megalopolis, introduced by the incessantly gnawing away thrash dancebeats subliminalized by endorphin-spiked electromagnetic rhythms incorporated into the Systemic Periodic Elemental Reactionist Multiplex sound system—injected citywide by the Corporate Inquisition Terminal Interface.

The Heberin Collective are wired for a night out on the town. Their Moderator has cc'd them clownWhite, a neopurgative pulse enhancer designed to work out the stress from the hardbeats of the daily grind. Heberin moves through the CITIscape with the ease of an octopus in stealth locomotion, under cover of the hyper-neon polylit continuum scarved about them in perpetuity. Embedded headphones, most designed after compound insect eyes, fit snug like iridescent bottlecaps over the eartunnels. The earlobe itself had long dropped away from an overripened humanity in its latter-era stages of evolution amidst the frequency lanes.

Aesthetic tribal bodily piercing gradually mutated to a far more utilitarian scope. Die hard implants sunken into key skullpoints have the firmly rooted tenacity of mountain climbing spikes left driven into cliff fissures. Whether for the commuter Ziplines, or for more extreme recreational sports, is left to the individual CITIzen to convey. Ever since the dawning of this new age of neoExpressionism, the will of the populace is no longer such a concern to government, as is the controlling of the overwhelming urge to self-express or otherwise create in a manner suitable for the background and influential exploits of the middle class—a middle class driven to a frenzy of consumption, perpetuated by a similar motivation from an industry that caters to personal excess.

Through various means of interface and a veritable wide-angled spectrum of choices by which to administer a myriad of perception-enhancing and/or -distorting drugs to an all-too compliant citizenship, the CITI itself has been quite successful in organizing a sort of nocturnal emission exorcism ritual, effectively banishing the shed demons every night in an orgy of nightclub catharsis, highlit by strobing lights synchronized to an unfathomably monstrous beat keeping the ongoing crowd moving and shaking out on the viewscreen dance floors.

Wired for more than just sound and purple-laced visions, the Heberin Collective voluntarily assign themselves the bearers of an ultimately unregistered, and therefore potentially dangerous, form of psyche-enhancement known as Lady Salvation, an often copied (yet never replicated) chemical Psionic Communion Wafer. One taste of its mnemonic circuitry triggers a placebo domino effect. Illegally peddled and inferior substitutes have been known to induce lurid visions of a Salivating Lady perpetually coming at the user with hooked fingers under a drooling rictus, as if caught in an infinite loop of nightmarish attack. Such slogans or half-believed stories as the "Lady in Waiting", which are passed among schoolchildren to this day, are generated by these replicating motifs as expressed through constant generations of aloof and disenfranchised collegiates in the throes of shedding their own personal angst. Visualized and embodied under the boosted effects of synthesized cultigens combined with MemErase (necessarily every Rager's beverage of choice), these cautionary myths eventually took root.

Under the auspices of a normal Heberin outing, there cannot be an individual's comprehension of one's own role in the undertaking, for the nature of the Collective is to forego individuality itself in favor of the enhancement of a groupsoma experience—something that only the groupMind can know and even begin to understand. Which is precisely the reason many CITIzens volunteer for such an enterprise in the first place. Human consciousness has explored the lonely peripheries of isolation to its ultimate limits, again and again and again. Such deadening of that nerve seemed bound for no good reason or destiny, and although it took humanity many failed generations of missing the mark of opportunity, eventually the time arrived when its constituents began ceasing to think so much of themselves, and turn to wondering, what's out there, so immense and hollow and sprawling and vibrant?

So has ritual continued to form the behaviors of young persons. Riticen, a bisexed Caucasian from a gender-specific, postSchool colony in the American Pacific Northwest, reflects on his most recent, nocturnal sojourn from Dutyfree. Such a widespread feeling—that is, tingling from all the nerve centers clustered from head to toe—of exultant liberation shoots through Riticen, that he shakes his hair free rapidly of the steamshower droplets, and steps out of the hydroslot, to stand dripping before the two-way mirror. He reaches over and nudges the door open a few inches, letting the circulation from the rest of the apartment enter the washroom. Wiping the steamed looking glass clear with a towel, Riticen waits for his image to gain focus in the heated conditions before him. Gradually, his haggard features reveal themselves through the clearing mist. Reflected in the humid mirror Riticen sees the meshPasser mask, hanging limp from a peg behind him. He reaches back for it without turning his head, and grabs its familiar, comforting form in his right hand. For a moment, the neural connectivity breaches the impasse he'd left off with, sending dim sparks of reassurance up through the nerves of his arm.

Riticen slips the meshPasser mask on over his head, and grins as it reinforces his facial physique. Its perfectly balanced endorphin enhancers motivate Riticen with the exact amount of chemical inspiration needed to face the Collective's quest for the evening. Wide-eyed and staring at himself in the mirror, a complete stranger reflects back behind a flesh-toned, featureless mask with all the blank expression of a department store mannequin. Search as he might for any memory of Heberin's past nocturnal activities that may lie concealed behind the reflections of his darkened eyes, Riticen emerges empty-headed from the washroom, having entirely forgotten, or perhaps merely not ever having been in a position to know first-hand anyhow, the oblique details of completed excursions. Whatever cloaked activities the group of mysterious co-benefactors had committed itself to, it was impossible for each individual to consciously recall them. Riticen turns and slips out of his CITIcube, then just as quickly, out of the tenement complex and into the night.

The Merging is a process that takes anywhere from mere moments, to hours, or even, on rare occasions (such as attempted mergers with new or distant Collectives), days. Riticen cannot imagine waiting any longer than the few minutes it usually takes him to begin Merging. Most of the volunteers in his Collective, he imagines, must dwell somewhere within or near the sprawling perimeters of his own CITIcube. Otherwise, the etherConduits' electroconnectivity surpassed his capacity to imagine. Normally, after turning the second or third CITIblock, the merger begins to take effect.

As Riticen steps toward an intersection of busily bypassing electromagnet Cushion Cars, the prerecorded digital soundbytes of lions roaring fades away to be replaced by the insistent chirruping of tropical birds—an indication that intersection crosswalks are primed for safe pedestrian crossing. An electronic amalgamation of coyote yips morphing into wolf howls segue the moments before the crosswalks' pedestrian safety is heralded as coming to an imminent end. The lion roars are reserved for the actual passing of lethal traffic, itself synchronized so that no intersecting spokes of the roadways' oncoming traffic must wait their turn. Instead, mass multi-directional pedestrian crossings take turns consistently with multiple and simultaneous vehicular crossings—the various, advancing minicars themselves interpenetrating with exact timing and zero collisions—just one example of the many flowered patterns in the pulse and flow of CITIlife.

As Riticen steps back up to a CITIblock curb, his viewpoint of the funneling crowd forges against him and in a dizzying, panoramic moment, blends along with him into the slipstream, suddenly giving way to an unfamiliar pressure of heavy gloaming, as if the velvet underside of the city's streaming haze had become an oppressive inversion, and he staggers beneath its weight as if he'd donned a lead apron, and then a whistling overture of white noise reductionism formulated a wind snapping latticework, as of a tightly woven superfabric buffeted by an overpowering gale from behind. A blinding sensation of whiteout spread over the meshPasser's tinted lenses, dialed to protect the retina and subsequent ganglion cells which serve as an inlet to the superimpositioning of the holographic laser light injection.

Vague, distant impressions of slapped, woven metal cordons against outstretched palms rushed in on eddies of reviving consciousness, each subsequent wave of which poured down in a funneling stained glass tunnel over the mendicant's hoods...surfers of oblivion blinded by the white gales of blasted time...lapping distant waves of licked drops of laughter flung off the tips of tongues...dissolving in a hushed babelogue of interpenetrative chanting accorded from the arabesques of yesterday's desires, and dusted off the forgotten relics of all antecedent dreams.

Winnowing in winterlight, through minnowguts, translucent and underlined with waterproof mascara, blinking false displays of chameleonic spots for eyes, thorned with disarrays and first-night-out-ever thighs, slumped to glittering scales both wide-angled and magnified, the compound vision in mimicked reflection of tiny repeated forms stretched out to radialize a centrifugal stage upon which ardent hopes yet promised to materialize. A beckoning, much like a mating ritual dance, performed by plumed lizards or feathered raptors in a trance. An unvisualized soaring...the letting go of a ship from its sails... perfunctorily grinding to a halt against the backwashed turbulence of the roiling waves...temporarily cast off against a stomach churning impasse. As if to say, or at least suggest, that there is no way one could pass this test.


Images strip from the silver screen of his mind's eye in such quick succession, that only a blur of associations is left in Riticen's fading recollection. And these, in and of themselves, are each captured by surging wavecrests from out of the depths, snatched from quiescence by a vulgar demand they be eaten by the collective unconscious wallowing beneath like a great, undulating blister of foul, decompressed air just wafting upwards for its inevitable venting toward an unsuspecting yet all-too-deserving surface.

Riticen's eyes snap open in an underground oxygen bar. A patron dipped in synthetic, glow-in-the-dark latex brandishes a knowing look in his direction, before disappearing into the depths amid strobes of pulsing black light. Refreshed to a point distinguished by every pixel in his eyes, Riticen sips generously from his ninety-ounce staff drink, held firmly as a cane in his stable right hand. The drink holder rather resembles a faintly glowing, fungus-patched oaken branch, sanded down and varnished to a well-protected finish. From a sheared-off bole emerges a microcircuit drinking straw—or so the imagistic software suggests, through manipulated photoreceptors.

As the cool, lime-green and slightly radioactive flavor of the Benzylamine-laced drink passes through his taste buds and down his throat and into his stomach, Riticen slowly realizes the latest Collective mergerQuest has come to another, rather abrupt, end. Leaving him exactly where within the sprawling confines of the CITIplex, he can only guess. None of the establishment's artistry or neon sloganeering provokes any stirring of memory from him in the least. A hazy recollection of being in the A.R.B. surfaces momentarily. There is a sense of anesthetic cushioning to his memory; a gauzy sort of tunnel vision, limned with a dusty, brightening light, like that which precedes the onset of a migraine headache, when all attention is brought to a central spot of glaring incandescence which otherwise obscures what might be glimpsed directly ahead. When this ravaged hole of radiance begins to expand and eat up the entire range of Riticen's field of vision, that is when the blinding pain of a migraine splits through, and the world reels about spasmodically as his locomotive escape from the O2Club is engendered, and a section of the CITIcurb rises from the fog and acclimates itself resolutely against his fallen body.