I was bored. Even as I wandered through the parched ruins of Queen Street, past burning barrels and past lost souls, alive but rotting on the side of the street, I was bored. Even as a man’s agonized screams rang out from an abandoned sports bar, and I decided to sneak into the darkness to follow those screams, I didn’t feel much.
And when I saw a woman — a fiendish drug addict — operating on a man while he was still awake, I didn’t really give it much thought. I simply pulled out my magnum, put it right at the nape of her neck and fired.
As the gun muzzle flashed, my heart may have jumped a little, but it was hard to notice. Even when supercharged fragments of bone and cranial matter flew at me like shrapnel, and her blood — warm and ink-like — splattered into my eyes and mouth, it felt innocuous — could have been a morning shower for all I cared.
Rebar was hell. They said it changed you, and I was starting to believe them.
Now her body, this eighty pound fiend’s body, was crumpled in a twitching pile by my feet, and I was down there rummaging through her pockets. A naked man, this unwilling patient, screamed just above my head. He was stretched out on a billiard table where the fiend had him strapped down with barbed wire. He had a long incision in his side, and his entrails lay splayed on the rotten felt top. Blood dripped in steady trickles from the pool ball pockets like rain coming down from a bunged up eavestrough. He was screwed.
But he still screamed. Could I please help him? Why wasn’t I helping him? For the love of God... Obviously, he was unfamiliar with the order of things here. Guns, bullets, drugs, precious metals, water, food, livestock, and books, in that order, came first. Then humanity -- if there was time.
It was a shitty world, a cruel bitch, a hard case. But that was Rebar, and we were here by choice.
“Yeah, yeah. Hold on a moment.” I called out to him, reaching into the fiend’s pocket and pulling out a vial filled with beige slime. I held it out to the man on the pool table and asked, “Is this yours, buddy?”
He looked towards the ceiling and screamed until his face went white.
I ignored him, rummaging through the corpse until I found a photograph of a happy family sitting on a dock with their feet in the water. I never saw the fiend-woman’s face, it was disfigured now, but I was pretty sure that was her in the photo. She was the young mother of two. Or maybe she was the teenage daughter. I couldn’t tell; It didn’t really matter.
The man was still screaming, but I was more focused on the valuables the junkie woman left on the table. There was one thing, it looked like forceps tied to a vial -- an adreno-extractor -- a device junkies used to milk the adrenaline from their living adreno-cows. They were beyond valuable. She had it rammed underneath the man’s rib cage and looped to his adrenal glands. Then there was the hunting knife she used to cut him open, which could probably fetch me a box of bullets, if I was trading right.
I placed a gentle hand on the screaming man’s forehead. His face had gone purple. I smiled and looked down into his teary eyes. “Screams are a dime a dozen, pal. They ain’t worth a damn. Not here.”
But his screams would earn him some mercy. I gave him a long, motherly shush and rolled his head to the side. Then the hunting knife was in his temple, and I was twisting it, finishing the poor guy off as fast as possible. After that, all I could hear was blood trickling down the billiard ball pockets, like a serene little river in the woods.
I packed the loot in a gym bag, watching the sun set behind crumbling towers through a blasted out hole in the wall. I took it in, Rebar in all its glory. The birds nesting in the raw steel frames of skyscrapers, the junkies chortling and cackling from the dark alleyways, the barrels burning garbage in the road — it was beautiful in a way.
Or maybe I was happy because I had an adreno-extractor in my bag. A gadget like that could fetch me food and fresh water for a month. They say one hit of that stuff was like a thousand orgasms singing in unison, like diving naked into a bottomless pit of vanilla mousse. Heavenly pleasure for the user brought to you by the unfathomable pain of the donor. And maybe it was, but who really knew?
Who needs drugs when you have nuclear sunsets?
When I had the gym bag zipped, I heard a loud screech from the bar’s back door to the parking lot. There were two fiends coming up the stairs. I could hear them laughing, chuckling, unaware that I killed their friend and their prize drug-cow. I could have left. These men sounded big. Even their girlish giggles sounded big. But I couldn’t help wonder what goodies they held. Meds? Food? Guns? A shotgun. Shotguns were as good as gold — jesus, if they had a shotgun, I’d just about lose my shit.
So I stood behind the bar, resting my arms on the warped mahogany for stability. I watched the door knob spin down the iron sights of my nickel-plated magnum.
When the door opened, the first guy — the guy holding the shiny double barrel twelve gauge — caught one of my dum-dums in the chest. The other goon behind him was a big dude with a mohawk, and he was looking pretty sheepish standing there with a spiked club. My sights were on him. And I would have put one right up his nose had the magnum’s mechanism not jammed.
Mr. Mohawk just blinked. I fiddled with the gun, but it was no use. There was something wrong with the alignment, the hammer wasn’t hitting the cartridges. When I looked back, Mr. Mohawk had the shotgun raised and pointed in my direction, a big grin on his scabbed, junkie lips. I fell down behind the bar and felt the buckshot rip into the mahogany behind me.
Now he was giggling again. And why wouldn’t he giggle? All I had was a broken pistol, and he had a shotgun with a round ready to go in the upper chamber. I unzipped the gym bag and found the hunting knife. If only I could get Mohawk to use his other round, then we’d be square. But Mohawk wasn’t an idiot. I could hear him circling around the bar, keeping his distance. He was going to hold the gun steady. He was going to make that last shot count. He had all the time in the world.
Mohawk spoke in disjointed phrases, the pitch changing at irregular intervals. “Come on out, little man.” He said, laughing. “I’m not going to kill you. I want you alive. You’re going to be our new milker. Yee-haw!”
I gripped the knife’s blade in my hand and when he peeked around the corner, shotgun ready, I threw it. But I’d never thrown a knife before, so when it went loose from my hand, it just flipped and flopped, the handle bumping into the side of his arm. But Mr. Mohawk lost his cool and shot the last round into the ceiling.
Then I was running towards the other side of the bar where the rusty old beer taps were. I jumped up over the mahogany surface and leapt towards him. My hands were clenched as I flew through the air. I imagined myself bringing him down to the ground, my thumbs already in his eye sockets, pushing until they were poking holes in his mushy, junkie brain. But Mohawk had plans of his own.
He swung the butt of the shotgun into my jaw, swinging like a batter knocking a curve ball into the bleachers. I felt my jaw dislocate and could even hear some of my molars ricochet off the adjacent wall. Then he had the steel toes of his cowboy boots into my back. Mohawk stepped down to my ankles, his shotgun raised in the air, ready to swing it down and break one of my legs.
That’s when I noticed the eight ball under the billiards table. I rolled underneath its oak legs. The butt of the shotgun erupted in splinters near my feet.
“Come on now. Don’t make this difficult,” he said, tossing the broken gun aside.
Mohawk walked up to the pool table, and before he had a chance to bend over and grab me, I brought the eight ball down on his knee cap.
Now, I was into it.
I climbed over top of him and drooled blood into his eyes. Then I rapped him with the eight ball, hard in the nose, and it splattered like an old tomato. I hit him again, this time in the forehead. Mr. Mohawk was squealing, but I repeated the process until I could see the bone under his brow. And when the structural integrity of his skull gave way, I stood up and took a breath.
For a moment, I was lost.
What happened next surprised me. The ball felt lighter in my hand. It was no longer the indestructible orb of phenolic resin. Now it felt cheap and plastic — like a toy. And that’s exactly what it changed to, a toy. One the kids used to divine their futures with.
Everything stopped. The blood running from pool table, the birds chirping from the skyscrapers, the junkies in the alleyway, everything except for me. I shrugged and shook the ball.
The fortune read: Demo complete.
I came to in the living room of my thirty-first floor condo on a different type of Queen street. This was Toronto in the year 2029, and civilization hadn’t collapsed yet. All my teeth were back in my head and my jaw was fine. The lights were on. Displayed on a screen in my living room was the logo for Rebar, the game of the year, the new all-immersive experience taking the world by storm.
I took the neural net off my head and blinked a couple times, already debating whether I should buy the full membership. The graphics were magnificent, completely indiscernible from real life. And Jesus, did I love that nuclear sunset. But the subscription fee was thirteen steem a month, which was more than I payed for rent.
I thought about my Rebar experience over a cigarette on the balcony. Even though the demo was only three hours long, I almost forgot how Toronto looked at night. It was bathed in light, LED’s placed everywhere on everything. Almost every kinetic motion was automated, working in unison like the inner workings of some grand machine. Mag-lev trains zipped down vacuum tubes like flashing apparitions, and the drones were omnipresent. Drones beside you, drones around you, drones above you.
I could see why people wanted to escape.
But the game was a problem too. If you didn’t know that, then you hadn’t read a news article in the last year. People were going in and getting high off virtual adreno-juice and never coming back. The people who did return were zombies, husks who seemed bored with everything. The mental health facilities were already packed with patients, each of them suffering from a new condition, Post-Rebar Trauma Disorder. We even had a name for these head-cases, milkers.
And the milkers said Rebar was Hell. It changed you. I was beginning to get the point.
Sure, it wasn’t real, but it’s the next best thing. When Mr. Mohawk knocked my teeth out, the pain was almost too much to contemplate. And what about that junkie-woman’s old polaroid? That tugged at the heartstrings a little; it was a nice touch. Then, there was also that look in Mr. Mohawk’s eyes right before he died. He gave up, knowing what came next, embracing death — and can software do that? He died; he actually died. Mr. Mohawk may have been nothing more than a couple algorithms, but he certainly didn’t know it.
And what did that make us? Murderers? Marauders using their world to get our daily jollies? What if we were algorithms in our own world and all the psychopaths and serial killers were from somewhere else, here to get their fix?
Not wanting to finish that thought, I walked into the kitchen and told WallChef to make me a steaming bowl of wonton soup and a pilsner. And for a few hours I paced in my kitchen, pious, outraged that such a game existed. What the hell was the purpose? Why couldn’t they design a better world instead?
But then the boredom set in.
I walked back to the living room and the Rebar logo was shining on the screen. I stared at the cartoon fist holding a length of ribbed iron, silhouetted in black and placed over a red background. Underneath were barbed wire statuettes made to look like laurel leaves. The awards -- game of the year, best art, best sound design, best game design 2029 -- gloating, enticing me back into the soft sofa cushion.
I was thinking about the gym bag filled with goodies and the smashed up shotgun next to Mr. Mohawk’s pink bubblegum brains. Once I had the experience, I could repair it. As the silky smooth neural net went back over my head, I thought about the junkies and how killing them wasn’t so bad.
They were lost, purposeless, irrelevant in a paradise where human life was wasn’t worth a damn and screams were just a dime a dozen.
*** Author's note: