Excerpt from Chapter 1 of my novel Augmented Nation

You could always hear the train before you saw it; you could always feel the train before you heard it. They would ride the trains at night when the express would roar to life and race toward to the end of the city where it would come to a screeching halt under the faint glow of the Federation’s Red City. It was the normal routine for them on those nights: shoot up, get on, and ride until the moment right before the brakes threw you off to your death.

At 1AM the train cars resembled phantoms that had digested the few somnambulant city denizens whose glazed, red eyes looked out into the seemingly artificial darkness of the outside world. One such car swept by as Akio, whose piercing, black eyes seemed to see in the darkness, lied on the gravel and held his arm out. Another punk wrapped a band around his arm, his veins immediately bulging. He wore a leather bomber jacket, a plain white undershirt, and dirty jeans whose fabric was torn at the knees. With his slicked back hair and long face, he resembled a finely groomed broom.

The small rocks dug into his back, but he tried not to squirm as they prepared the needle that would inject Black Blood. The red liquid dribbled out of its tip. Trying not to look at his bulging vein, he winced as he felt the pinch on his arm, the rush suddenly engulfing him, igniting his blood. Trembling on the floor, he couldn’t tell if it was the rumblings of a train along the tracks or his own writhing body.

The voices droned and Akio thought Q or one of the other gang members shook him while saying, “He’s good. He’s flying.” But it could have easily have been the high talking.

Their mouths were all moving slowly just like the smoke that billowed out of trains’ smoke stacks. The smoke had been a face that grinned at him before dissipating into the thicket that skyscrapers dwarfed. Yes, that was it- the cells were trembling, convulsing, unable to communicate with each other. Or perhaps they quivered as the foreign substance flooded their membranes. He let the high engulf him, exhaled, and tried to look for the stars he knew were in that blank sky.

Akio jumped up from where he was lying on the ground, inhaled deeply, and listened to the distant city sounds- honks and chatter that the wind bore to them through the forest that divided City 2087 from Federation land. When the ground shook under him, he was at first uncertain of whether it was the high or another train. Like the rest of City 2087, the empty platform had been vandalized, spray-painted with bright paint, and dirtied with trash. He saw the lone headlight of the steam train coming toward them from the City 2087, its faint light barely able to stay lit in the chilly evening breeze. As the body of steam materialized from the mist on the tracks, its bulking frame made Akio think of a workhorse that continues to plow even though there is no seed and farmer.

He readied himself but his head was reeling from the high. Just as it was swooping past him, the crank cracking like old joints, he jumped and threw his arms out, holding on to the rails as firmly as he could. Hoisting himself up, he looked ahead at Red City whose neon lights quickly acquired more detail. After he climbed to the top of the train, he took the wooden drumsticks, smooth in his hands, and banged them up against the steel.

“Budap, pap, bsh,” he sung to himself as he paradiddled, like some crazed subway musician performing for an invisible audience. Or perhaps he was simply rehearsing for his true public- the stars up above, always watching over the forgotten neon city. He knew they would appear suddenly, all together, like a large canvass whose back light had just been turned on. It was all red brick of tunnels burrowing through the city but soon it would emerge. And sure enough- there they were- all of them- like jewels no one had ever been able to steal from the universe. He liked seeing with his own two eyes, the ones whatever Mother he had never met had given him.

It didn’t matter to Akio that his torn up jeans were getting dirty with soot or that his green hair blackened with each breath the train exhaled as it heaved its nearly empty body forward. For Akio, life was that brief rush of being high and playing music on the last train going to the last stop. The whistle blew, but he only half-registered it as he continued to drum on the express to the Dungai District.

He looked behind him and saw the other punks hooting and hollering on another car. Like a racehorse that suddenly turns the final curve before the last stretch, the train lurched forward as they prepared for the final stretch of the journey. When the trains reached this high speed, the wind’s force was so strong Akio shut his eyes. The pounding of the crank reverberated in his head and core, shattering all sense of time. When he saw glow from the neon lights of the Federation’s sprawling cities, he knew instinctively it was time to jump since the train was seconds from braking.

As he ran toward the edge, a thought ripped through the fog of the high: Marie. Where’s Marie? He hadn’t seen her go to the roof of the train with the rest of them.

If he had been plugged in to the Spec network like the Federation, he might have been able to yell at her and she might have heard him: “Marie, are you okay?

But none of the punks were connected. On his way down, he howled her name even though he knew she wouldn’t be able to hear him in the cacophony of the passing train. His descent seemed to last a thousand years and for a moment, he was suspended in the steam. Gravity was pulling him down; it just didn’t seem fast enough.

When the punks regrouped and giggled about their rushes, Akio asked, “Where’s Marie? Has anyone seen her?”

Z, the mousey one of the group, simply said that he had lost track of her when they started shooting Juice.

“We have to look for her,” Akio said, knowing he was breaking the mood.

“Just chill it, braw. She’s probably tripping balls in a corner of the station,” Q said. With his short, squat body and the spiked leather thrown on his shoulders, he resembled a porcupine biker. One wasn’t sure whether to smile at his cuteness or run away at the danger of one of his thorns pricking you.

“Everyone’s high is different,” Z chimed in to educate the group. “If she chooses to be alone, it’s probably because her high is heightened in solitude.” The other punks pondered this as much as they could in their dazed states. “When the chemical-”

“-We gotta find her. Now,” Akio said as he fought the veil of sleepiness that fell over your eyes after a high. His heart was struggling to restrain itself to a more normal speed. The lightness was thickening into the normal heaviness of carrying a body. To him, it was strange the way Black Blood altered his body while still making him more aware of it.

Trying to look for her nappy, red hair, they searched the platforms and inside the empty cars whose floors were littered with trash. She couldn’t have still been on the train because the brakes would have thrown her off, but Akio had to check just in case; he wasn’t going to leave her. He ran to the end of the train and climbed up the ladder to get a view of the last cars.

Marie was sitting on top of the last train car, only one of her legs thrown out to the side of her, almost as if she were stretching or meditating or doing yoga. She was naked from the waist up. Akio could only see her long ponytail whose length traced the indention of her spine and whose tip dangled just above her military khaki pants.

Though Akio tried calling to her, her gaze was glued to the blinking neon lights. Bursts of gunfire rattled in the distance. Afraid that perhaps she had broken something when the train had braked, Akio clambered atop the train and ran to her. Her eyes had a sorry look to them, as if they had gazed into the other side of the galaxy and had seen only the neon towers of the Federation. Her arms, bedappled with freckles, were firmly holding on to the front ladder of the car.

Grabbing her shoulders, Akio shook her gently and said, “You okay? You’re supposed to jump,” Akio said. Inside her eyes, the glows from the city were bursting in her green eyes.

He looked down at her naked chest and took off his bomber jacket to put it over her. She was beautiful, more than any of them, so that she was like a goddess among minions from hell. Her almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones revealed nothing to him; he was as much of a mystery to him as the first day he met her in school.

She suddenly awoke from wherever she was, and stared at him like an alien observing a human for the first time. Her arms loosened and she let go of the ladder. A bang fell across her forehead and she didn’t bother to push it back to place. If he had been augmented, her body heat signatures might have given Akio some indication of her mood. But since he was not and neither was she, they both just walked off the train and waited on the platform until the other punks caught up with them.

“Marie, that must have been some high,” Q said in his deep voice as soon as he was within hearing distance. “You’ve become a daredevil,” he opened is arms like he was soaring bird, “Let’s hope it doesn’t kill you.”

“Did you take more than recommended,” Z asked her, but Marie didn’t respond. Her gaze was still distant, as if still fixed on some distant point that no one else could identify.

They exited the train station and started walking away from the Red City. Q kicked a can with his feet, so that it clanged as it skipped along the concrete. As their highs were wearing off, life and its dull weight had them searching for another shock of exhilaration and excitement. Or maybe it was the fact that they were walking away from that carnival of lights toward the dilapidated buildings of their own existence in City 2087 that burdened them. They dragged their feet and kept silent, acknowledging with their silence that their night was done.

For the first time since they got off the trains, Marie spoke, “You want to sneak in to Red City?”

They stopped and stood for a moment, trying to register what Marie had just proposed. Entering the Federation was strictly forbidden, and they had all heard stories about the people caught on the other side of the wall: arrest, deportation, and a criminal record. A criminal record didn’t scare them as much as what the Federation soldiers did to you once you were at the mercy of their hands.

“You’re kidding, right,” Akio said.

“Our chances of actually making it through and coming back are, I’d say, about one in a hundred thousand.

Q was the only one of the gang who had no qualms about crossing into Red City, but he was usually the most reckless out of the group so that was to be expected. He glared at Akio and Z for not being willing to take a risk. “I say we DO it! What do we have to lose?”

Marie, though, didn’t try to convince them; rather she looked at the gray skies above their decaying city whose red-bricked buildings were stains, blood that someone had spilled and never cleaned. Akio tried to find some hint in her eyes of what she was thinking, but her countenanced seemed made of stone.

“I’m going, with or without you guys,” Q said, suddenly pulling Marie away from them and walking away from the circle.

Z looked to Akio and then shrugged his shoulders, as if he could give no rational explanation for Q’s and Marie’s behavior. If he had stated the probability of them getting captured, then they had all the information they needed to make an informed decision. It was one thing to do drugs, and another entirely different one to trespass into the forbidden Red City, where they would surely be noticed because of their lack of augmentation. They would be the only ones on that side with real eyes, whose vision would only be blinded in the bright lights and speeding sounds. The louder speakers were shouting about the latest cosmetics, a kind of prayer for that brave world the men of the Federation had erected.

“What are you going to do if you get caught,” Akio called to Q and Marie, but they didn’t turn around to answer him. With their back to him, they decreased in size, getting closer and closer with each step to the woods that divided City 2087 from the Federation.

“I suppose it wouldn’t be the worst thing if we went with them,” Z submitted to the situation.

Grumbling at what his friends forced him to do, Akio ran after Q and Marie, telling them, “Wait up. If you’re going to get killed, we might as well do it together.”

Even though they knew that if they got busted, they would surely go to jail again, they entered the woods with their gaze glued on the shimmering building in the distance, suddenly fragmented behind branches and leaves of the forest. The city, Akio admitted to himself, was too enticing not to go into it, with its large Neon Buddha meditating on the meaning of this future and Geishas winking at you on plasma screens. How could he deny its allure when compared to the lightless districts of their ancient city?

The moonlight (or perhaps the city lights) poured its pallid glow on their bodies, and a thin, cool mist floated along the paths, like some spirit leading them toward their doom. There were no animals; the only roaring they discerned was from the cars speeding on the other side of the forest. Though Akio could feel his tennis shoes sinking into the earth, he could not see his feet in the mist. It seemed like the rest of the gang also sensed the unnatural atmosphere because they were just as quiet as Akio. Strange, the way no nightingales or other birds seemed to call out to one another in that thick vegetation. The forest had no smell, as if the cedars and elms were made of plastic, and the leaves shook without making a sound.

As they emerged out of the woods, the artificial red and green lights flashed, bidding them welcome. Akio had heard so many stories about Red City- the way people constantly lived with their eyes turned on, even when the rest of their body slept, so that in the morning they had processed more information. It was a life of speed and high stakes while theirs was one of drugs and no stakes.

The exhaust fumes seemed to sing Akio’s nose hairs as the cars swept past them. Honks, chatter, and loudspeaker advertisements blared at them- a cacophonous welcome. Akio instinctively ducked low at the roar of a car speeding past them on the other side of the fence, but the others just gawked at the electric circus before them. Why had they insisted on staying in their dreary dreams of City 2089?

Crouching and looking to the left and right for any soldiers, Akio slipped through the fence first, even though he was terrified of getting caught. His mind raced with the images of their bodies lined against a wall, their bodies electrified by a different kind of fire that wasn’t from the signs and screens. He hoped, however foolishly, that by leading them, he would prevent Marie from getting hurt. But the heaviness that made his bones feel too hard to carry revealed that his bravery was undermined by his bodily reactions. Whenever he got too nervous, he would feel the urge to defecate, so he tried to think that those lights were like candy, that the city was welcoming them, not with a sinister aura, but rather with a ravishing one. He wasn’t convinced he was convincing himself.

Red City was divided into an old and new quarter: the old, a network of rivers that divided parks and parterres like some lonely Paris; the new, a towering line of skyscrapers that stretched up into the heavens.

As soon as they crossed the streets, Akio noticed that the headlights were not only from the cars but also the Specs people had on as they went about their nightly routine. Like another, smaller street of cars, the bodies stopped and went, their eyes like headlights that peered into the darkness. The cigarette burn rightly along the banks of the luminescent rivers whose currents bore the trash and gondolas toward some unknown destination, the tight leather on women gleamed as they strutted back and forth in front of storefronts, calling out to them. It was a city yet something else entirely, an unsettling panorama of a future where the mechanical melded with the human passions and urges.

The small shops and bars funneled into a park with a parterre in the middle. As they walked through a parterre, they observed the marble statues with grotesque red smiles other hooligans had spray-painted. Akio figured that other gangs that had snuck into Red City had vandalized park thinking that the authorities would notice, but not a soul seemed to visit the park. The shadows shifted in the passing breeze, sometimes getting longer, so that they seemed to grasp at them before receding back to their sources. Akio imagined that the garden had been beautiful once, when the Federation had first built it and imagined that thousands of people would sit and admire a Venus statue. Now, the only admirers were the bums that were sleeping on benches, grumbling at such a late hour of the night.

They exited the park through its rusted gates that creaked as the wind passed through them. As they walked along the quay toward a small bridge connecting two neighborhoods, the distant voices of other night owls bounced off the walls of the bridges. The city was in a lot of ways beautifully tragic, just like Marie, just like the rest of its people. It was a city whose rotten appearance cankered its insides, so that both body and spirit mirrored each other. Through the windows, Akio could see people pacing back and forth, seemingly speaking to themselves, except with their eyes aglow. Akio had never observed people using their Specs, but that was the only way to describe the uncanny sight of a human expressing sadness in their countenance without ever saying a word because it is being said inside, on those screens they were viewing and never revealing to the observer: a furrowed brow without a preface or warning, a smile or a burst of laughter without a joke to go along with it.


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