Author’s Note: It’s #MachinaeMondays, and this week there’s another bit of fiction inspired by my favourite band. This one’s a bit longer than the usual posts, being part one of an origin story that this time covers a man named Steve. So, under the cut, is 4k~ words of music-inspired sci-fi, from one of the myriad settings floating around in my brain.
A normal daily post should come up later on. Until then… Origin.
Everyone and everything has one. A singular point of time from which events progresses in a linear fashion towards increasing entropy.
Heroes, villains, nations, religions, technologies, settlements and planets. They all had a moment of conception somewhere in the fabric of the universe.
Three people come together, perhaps united by fate or driven by some higher power of destiny.
This is their origin.
Part One: Steve
Dark City stood in the frozen wastes of Northern Europe, a bastion built from thick stone and metal. The large circular complex reached high into the sky, giving it a prominence in the landscape easily visible to any travelling in the region. Inside the high walls of the city were a network of suspended walkways and high-rise buildings, served by floating vehicles moving from the lowest and darkest points to the highest peaks reserved for the elite and the affluent.
The young man stood on the corner of one of the walkways, a battered acoustic guitar in his arms as he plied his talent for coin, physical or digital. Bundled up warm in a thick black jacket, insulated jeans and padded boots, his fingers still nimbly danced across the strings as he sang in time to the tune.
It was a slow song, sung from the perspective of someone searching for something lost in the darkness that he just wishes to guide once again. Maybe it was the girl with the violin who used to play along with him that went missing one day. Perhaps it was the kindly old man who used to operate a now-vacant stall.
There was always the chance that he just didn’t know who he sought, or that it was just a song crafted to part people from their money. He nodded his head in appreciation as a woman waved her hand, a small deposit of money flashing up in a vision notification. As much as he appreciated digital donations, there was something so very satisfying about the clink of coins joining their fellows in the battered hat that laid on the floor in front of him.
Flicking his head back to rid his eyes of one of the stray locks of red hair that had fallen in the way, he finished his song with a flourish. People had always told him he had a talent for singing, a voice that drew attention and made audiences rapt. Perhaps it was the thick earmuffs and crisp, ventilated air that was keeping him from being swarmed by people eager to pay for his song.
Slinging his guitar over his back, he collected the hat and made his way through the tight streets of his home-town, past neon signs and vibrantly animated LED advertising boards. He’d made enough to pay the grocery bills, and his stomach had started to protest the lack of a good, hot meal.
“Hey there, Steve, is it?” A woman asked, quickly falling into step alongside him. From the perfectly set blonde hairstyle, mass-produced business attire and the soulless look in her eyes, it was obvious that she was a gynoid.
“That’s my name.” Steve smiled slightly, giving the barest of nods. “Who’s asking?”
“I represent the AdverNet Agency. We’ve seen your busking online and were wondering if you would like to make more than pocket change?” Her head tilted as she asked, a quirk of the Washington Engineering product lines.
“I don’t sing for products, Miss. I sing for people.” He said, quickening his pace.
She easily kept up with him. “But you would be singing for people. The product is not swayed by song, and in the twenty-four-seven always connected world, gifted performers can really help brand awareness.”
“I’m not interested.” He came to a stop, turning to face the woman. “So if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and spend my ‘pocket change’ on food.”
Her hand lashed out, grabbing the front of his jacket as her other hand procured a business card. She easily lifted him up, only to slip the card into one of his pockets. “You have our card now, Steve. Think about it.” As soon as he was set down, she sunk back into the crowds, moving through the mass of bodies until she was out of sight.
Grumbling as he smoothed his jacket out, Steve hurried on towards the EuroMart with his mind preoccupied. That was the fifth agency this week trying to recruit him, and it had grown tiresome the first time. “Still,” he muttered as he ducked into the large grocery store with a basket in hand, “at least I’m getting some exposure online.”
For Steve to say his apartment was small would be to redefine the meaning of the word. It was tiny. In Dark City, space was everything, and as a nobody that meant the cube he called home had everything built into the wall, ready to fold out. His kitchen was his living room which was his bedroom and bathroom. It was currently a living room, with him sat on the bed in its sofa configuration, sat watching the TV on the screen in the wall opposite him.
“-illions of items for miles and miles at ShopCit-” Steve blinked, changing the channel.
“Make them crazy for you with Gimme More, the new fragrance fr-” Another blink, another channel.
“-tense standoff today between forces of the Empire and that of the Grand Link on the Eurasian DMZ, thankfully resolved diplo-” It was a roll of the eyes that switched programs this time. While a ceasefire had been signed between the two superpowers, these were hardly rare occasions.
“~Baby Baby, you’re the one, Baby Baby gonna give me som-” Steve clenched his eyes shut, turning off the assault of music television on his senses. Honeytrap was the latest pop sensation. Given how fast the public and record companies went through them, he wondered how long it would be before some new starlet was born.
Setting his finished bowl of beef and vegetable noodles to one side, he downed the last of his glass of water before beginning to get undressed. With nothing worth watching and no one worth talking to online, a hot shower and bed seemed like the best option. A single thought shifted the configuration of his cube, a small shower cubical, sink, mirror and toilet emerged from where the TV used to be.
And it was in the mirror that he caught the reflection from the back of his neck. Stripes of thin and thick black lines on the back of his neck, unlike the ones on his arms and wrists. This was no Citizen ID. A shiver ran through him, his blue irises constricting his pupils as a surge of adrenaline pumped through his veins. He eagerly jumped into the cubical to rid himself of the cold memories of the past, letting the steam build around him as streams of water flowed down his chest.
He was not in bad shape, all things considered. He always thought he could use a bit more definition, and a bit more muscle mass, but the will to exercise more for such always got in the way of his music. And the music would always win.
It was with the uttermost care that he washed the the area to the sides of his neck tattoo, mindful of the cybernetic ports there. Waterproof as they were, better to be safe than sorry. His scrubbing was interrupted though by a knock at the door.
“Steve?” A woman called from the other side. “It’s Anya.”
Shutting the shower off, he was already towelling himself dry. “Give me a minute, Anya. I’m just getting decent.” He replied, chuckling as he hurriedly dried himself off and searched for some slacks and a top to wear.
The door slid open to reveal his neighbour from across the corridor. In her late thirties, Anya was a slightly stocky woman who ran the laundrette downstairs. She smiled apologetically, fingers running through her short brown hair. “Sorry to disturb you, Steve, just… the kids won’t go to sleep and they begged me to get you to do a bedtime song.”
“Well, if it’s for the kids…” Steve trailed off, before grinning hopefully. “Will you take my washing down tomorrow in exchange?”
“Yes. Absolutely yes.” Anya sighed with relief. “You know how they get sometimes.” She spoke from the doorway as Steve collected his guitar, the pair soon walking across to the larger, two bedroom apartment she owned.
Compared to Steve’s place, Anya’s home had a warmer feel to it, with crayon sketches on the walls and a few toys scattered here and there. Also it had actual bedrooms as opposed to his multi-purpose room.
“Watch out for Mister Fluffles.” Anya noted as she made her way to the kid’s bedroom.
Barefooted, Steve easily picked the plush caterpillar up between his toes to stow to one side. “Fluffles is fine.” He said, before sticking his head around the door. “Hey Alton, Marjorie. This better be some epic sleeplessness to haul me out of the shower.” He joked, mopping his damp hair back.
“Steve!” Alton beamed, his head just visible from the bed covers. “It’s super epic sleeplessness.” He said earnestly, nodding rapidly.
“Sing us the song of the flagman!” Marjorie added, peeking out from under her duvet.
“Super epic sleeplessness?” Steve laughed. “Well, if it’s that bad…” He sat with crossed legs, guitar to hand. With his fingers taking up a slow, melodic tune, he started to sing the tale of a man wandering through the snow, separated from his army while bearing the standard of their unit. Through snow and storms the man wandered, his limbs starting to fail but his spirit never faltering.
It came from a dream he had once, when he was a very small boy in a strange and dangerous place. Yet he did not let his thoughts turn back to those dark times, and just focused on the imagery that came to mind. Someone had watched over the man in that dream, protecting him as his tired body rested. And as he sung of the flagman never resting alone, the children were lulled into slumber.
He’d play on until the song was done though. It would do it a disservice to interrupt.
A yawn escaped his lips as he stood, nodding to Anya. The mother nodded in reply, mouthing a thank you as he left to find his own bed for the night, memories of twilight-touched fields of snow coming to mind as he slipped under the covers and towards sleep.
When the streets were quiet, Steve found time to gaze upwards. Through walkways and hovering traffic, buildings hung in mid-air and complexes clung to the mighty walls of Dark City. He had no reason to go up to those levels, and they would probably not care much for him being up there either.
The reason why the streets were quiet was due to the commotion currently happening on the major broadcasts. A terrorist hacker group known collectively as The Wired had caused chaos in another city complex, known as the Concrete Garden to the far south of Dark City. Their demands were ludicrous, untenable and unlikely to ever occur.
It never seemed to stop them though.
“Steve?” A man inquired softly from behind.
Startled, he spun around to face an android in business attire. “What agency are you from?”
“The Exposure Experts.” The man replied, dipping a hand into his pocket to procure a business card.
“Leave the card and get moving, I’ll add it to the other five.” Steve said, palm extended to receive it.
“Fair enough. Have a good day.” The android nodded, before strolling off down the walkway towards the elevators.
“At least he was concise.” Steve shrugged, slipping the card into his pocket with the other five. As long as he had the cards, it was unlikely they’d approach him again. For a little while, in any case.
With no one to perform to, Steve found himself wandering in to the bar nearby. It was a cosy looking place, with comfortable seats at the bar and a few booths around the room. The bartender, a bald woman with a rather flat nose and numerous tattoos running along her bare arms gave a slight nod as greeting.
“Beer and a burger, please.” He asked after checking his change. With the money exchanged, he turned his head towards the TV that detailed the current situation in the CG complex. A frown crossed his brow. The entire infrastructure had been messed with, leading to numerous injuries from out of control elevator cars to crashes of floating vehicles after the guidance systems were overloaded.
He spared the bartender his views on their M.O when she returned with his order, merely gulping from the bottle and taking large bites as he watched. Dark City News Network was his preferred station if he had to watch the news. Empire News Network was so biased it was almost unbelievable at times, and the less said about the newscasts from the Grand Link, the better.
The screen changed reporting though as a more pertinent story came up. “Fire crews have been called to a blaze in the Fielding Apartment Block on level seven of Dark City-”
The burger tumbled from his hand as his chest tightened. “I need to get home.” He said with shaking hands, leaving his order on the counter as he sprinted away from the bar and towards the place he called home, currently burning brightly on TV.
Plumes of acrid black smoke rose from the building, flames licking at some of the windows easily visible from the walkway and the surrounding plaza where the tenants had gathered. A number of smaller fire-fighting appliance vehicles had arrived to try and combat the blaze, but the inferno was beyond their power. The sight of the fire had Steve feeling sick to his stomach, even as the dancing flames tugged at something inside of him.
“Steve! Steve!” A young girl cried as she pushed through the crowds. Before he knew anything Marjorie was flinging herself against him, gasping as she tried to speak. “Mother’s inside, she was down in the laundrette and-”
“And you can’t find her anywhere out here?” Steve tried his best to comfort her. “Maybe she popped out to the EuroMart to grab some more washing powder or-”
“She promised she’d take us with her.” Alton replied, the little boy’s face bearing a haunted expression that made Steve’s chest ache.
Pulling his thoughts together, he set the girl down. “You two stay here and look after my guitar.” He asked, passing the instrument to them. “I’m going to speak to the fire marshal. Stay here, away from the building.” He insisted, looking at the pair. “No running off or trying to go back in the building.”
Watching the pair nod, Steve headed through the crowds to the beleaguered member of the fire department fending off the tenants. “-larger appliances are on their way to-”
“You!” Steve shouted, shoving past a burly looking man with angry eyes. “Anya, the laundrette operator, is still in there in the lower levels. How soon can you get someone in to extract her?”
“Not until the larger appliances are here, to secure the building and ensure it’s safe to enter.” He replied, his arms raised trying to pacify the man who had accosted him.
Steve bit off the retort on his lips as he glanced back to see Alton and Marjorie staring up at him, fear in their young eyes. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “I’ll go in and find her.”
“I can’t let you do that!” The marshal nearly shrieked. “One more person going in is just another to rescue.” He declared with his arms spread, keeping Steve away from the entrance to the building.
Helplessness settling on his mind, Steve stalked away from the official back to the kids, their faces anguished. “He won’t let me enter the building.” He said with eyes downcast, a small, dark part of his mind grateful for not having to confront what laid within. Even now his body thrummed with anxious energy at the prospect of facing the fire.
“Then ignore him!” Alton cried, wiping the tears from his eyes with his sleeves. “You always told us that laws can be stupid, rigid! That sometimes you need to break the law to be good! Why are you listening to him?! Mother’s in there and-”
Blood trickled from Steve’s lips, his lower lip caught between his teeth as he fought with the conflict inside. As fire licked through broken windows, his heart skipped a beat as a primal force pulsed within.
“Please, Steve… we need you. Our mother needs you… ” Marjorie sobbed.
“Get me a bottle of water. Several.” Steve ordered, already slipping his jacket off. As the two departed to beg, buy or take what bottles of water they could from the crowd of tenants, he slipped his t-shirt over his head.
Taking one of the bottles brought to him, he doused the black tee in water before wrapping it around his face. The others were used to pour all over himself, in his hair, on his trousers and over his torso.
“Hey, what are you doing?” The fire marshal called, trying to peek over the top of the crowd.
Removing Alton and Marjorie’s scarves, he doused them too before wrapping one each around his fist and forearm. “Something.” He called back, voice muffled through the shirt.
Nodding to the children with his eyes distant, distracted, Steve started to run towards the apartment block. Leaping over one of the concrete barriers his fist solidly struck a window, shattering the glass with surprising ease. Kicking back off the wall, he leap from the barrier once again, diving through the jagged-edged hole he’d made with forearms up to defend himself.
The shouts from the marshal and the crowd he heard on entering were soon drowned by the roar of flames, thick smoke filling the room. It was by memory that he moved, keeping low to avoid as much of the smoke as possible. Still, even with the wet cloth over his mouth and his crouched position, he could feel his lungs burn from the hot air.
Willing himself on, he descended the staircase to the utilities level of the apartment building, t-shirt wrapped hand sizzling as he started to open the door- His eyes widened as he realized his mistake. In an instant, the door was flung open sending him backwards as the flash-fire engulfed him.
Fighting desperately for one more breath in the middle of the inferno, Steve stumbled on into the flames beyond the door, mind slow to process one major fact; the blaze did not char his skin or render the fat deposits underneath.
As he recognized this, the power within exploded. For a split second, the fires roared intensely before dying away, accepting his order to cease. His pulse was rapid as he ran forwards to the laundrette, the flames dying down as he passed. Barging into the door, he burst through to find water on the floor, Anya wrapped up in damp sheets that were blackened in places with smoke.
“Anya!” He shouted, voice hoarse from the environment. Rushing to her side, she could only splutter weakly in response. “It’s okay, Alton and Marjorie are fine,” he growled, his back protesting as he pushed himself up with her in his arms. The building rumbled as the extreme heat brought parts of the structure to their falter point, support structures buckling above.
A metallic snap sounded as one of the support girders slid down outside, jamming into the scorched floor. “I’ll get you out, Anya, I promise. I just need…” His blue eyes darted about the room, looking for some point of escape, something of potential to get them out alive.
It came in the form of the ventilation grate for the dryers, pipes running from each to the network of exhausts pressed against the outside of the building. Shifting her weight to one arm, he stumbled forwards to start tearing each pipe out, leaving the metallic mounting point screwed to the grill behind.
Gripping the centre piece, he gave a solid tug, the vent moving a little. Teeth gritted, he started to jerk the vent some more, condensation-rusted screws giving more of a gap with each yank.
Another rumble from above intensified his actions, blood seeping from his hand as the metal mounts dug into his palm. With the adrenaline pumping through his body though, his brain simply shut out the pain. With one final pull, Steve snarled with strain as the vent came free. Flung to one side, he redoubled his efforts to carry Anya as he swung his boot at the grill, easily denting it with each kick.
Ominous crashes and groans of strained metal drove him onwards, kicking away as the flames began to encroach on the room once more with Anya’s weak coughs only just audible, even as close as she was to him. And then it happened, the grate was cast off from the wall with his final kick.
Ignoring the twinges from his knees and back, he ducked out of the building with her in his arms, stumbling towards the crowds and sirens. “Ambulance!” He called out, throat tight. “I need an ambulance here!”
“Well,” the android doctor smiled, “you are in much better shape than anyone would have expected.”
Steve still had the oxygen mask pressed to his face as the android gave his opinion. They were a common enough sight in hospitals, loaded with all the latest medical diagnostic and treatment programs, they freed up human physicians for more ‘important’ tasks.
“Your lungs are fine, your skin unblemished from the flames, and as for the soreness of your throat, a simple spray taken before you sleep and when you wake up for a week should resolve that.”
“Thanks,” Steve muttered. “And Anya?”
“The woman you brought in? Well, she is currently in an induced coma as we treat her injuries, her children are in the room with her and the nursing staff now.” The doctor said, before his lips pursed. While some androids had a limited range of facial expressions, someone had gone to the trouble to program in all the traditional features a doctor might express. Steve found it ridiculous that there was a protocol for a shake of the head when informing someone of a death.
“There is the issue of the cost of treatment though… your bill will be limited compared to hers…”
“Can I see her? And her children?” He asked, pulling the mask off his face. “I’ll take care of the payment, I just need a bit of time. Surely-”
“Oh, I would not be so heartless.” The android laughed. “The finance department on the other hand… well, you may wish to talk with them to find out just how much her stay will cost.” Offering Steve a hand up, he pointed in the direction of one of the enclosed treatment rooms. “They can be found in there.”
“Thanks.” He nodded, stretching a little stiffly as he started off in the indicated direction.
“Oh, you may wish to purchase a shirt from the hospital’s shop before you leave. You could catch a chill.”
Chuckling briefly, he took slow steps towards the room, the window blinds closed. Poking his head around the door, he spotted the android and gynoid nursing team at work, with one of the gynoids checking over the two children.
“Hey.” He called out softly, moving to sit by them. “I spoke with one of the doctors, your mother’s in a special kind of sleep while she heals up. But it won’t be too long before she’s nagging you to put your clothes away.”
Marjorie shuffled in close, wrapping her arms around his torso. She was very quiet, refusing to take her eyes off the intubated woman on the bed. Alton, on the other hand, was looking up at him.
“How’s she going to afford this?” He asked, his tone subdued. “I’ve seen the shows about medical care, how much it costs…”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Steve whispered, looking him in the eyes. “You’re too young to worry about things like that, and you’re overdue already. I’m going to take care of it.”
“How?!” Alton said incredulously. “You’ve no job, you just play and sing for change in the streets! You-”
“Will take care of it. I promise.” Steve said with a note of finality, picking his jacket up. “I want you two to stay here for now, I’ll be back tonight.”
Hot Legs was a dive bar in the lowest levels of Dark City, its name coming from the support struts for the geothermal heating pipes that ran up from the depths of the earth, through the club and into the city above. Acid punk came from the frenetically performing band on stage, past the long strip of bar towards the side booth where six suited individuals were sat around a table, staring at each other suspiciously.
“Thanks for coming,” Steve grinned tightly, appearing at the table with a bottle of beer in one hand.
“You? What is the meaning of this?” One of them, a blonde gynoid who had approached him the other day asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, you’ve all been so busy tracking me down, handing me your little business cards I decided… well, why not let you make your offer?” Steve chuckled. “You all seem to want a bit of me. The Exposure Experts, AdverNet Agency, Prime Entertainment and Advertising, Sachiko, EyeTime and Novastar.” He said with a gesture to each company representative. “A bidding war as it were.”
“Why?” The Exposure Experts android said, staring intently at the red-haired man.
“Money?” Steve shrugged. “Not wanting to freeze my ass off on a street anymore performing? Fame? What’s your offer? And keep in mind,” he grinned, “A nice, juicy advance might make selling out a little easier.”
The advertisers looked to each other, before back to Steve.
“We need to make a call.” They said in unison.
Steve simply sipped from his bottle of beer while waiting for the bidding to begin, trying not to let the hollow feeling in his chest show on his face.
Next Time – Gimme More