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The Fabulous Yesterdays

by Arthur Goldstuck

Welcome to Hell, Gloria Mundi thought at the man in the fourpiece as he stepped wide-eyed from the Gotel doorway in the alley.

It had to be his first time in the city. She flashed a mild tot of sympathy for he and his – country kids with ambitions of making it big in the big town. It always amazed her how the legend of Johannesburg’s Hillbrow lived on for the smalltowners who grew up on tales of technological paradise and easy wealth.

Instead of which, they found in the most densely populated square mile in Africa a vicious, violent interface of cultures and colours, technologies and traditions.

Many took the immigration train at 16, the legal age for a ticket. And they arrived dressed for the legend.

It was not every day Gloria could watch the dream burst in front of her eyes. Cheap thrills for a retropunk hireling on her night off.

She decided to follow Fourpiece out of the bleak, deserted canyon of the alleyway into the human river of Pretoria Street. Lurid waterfalls of light and sharp, hard rocks of sound pummelled the street.

Fourpiece’s eyes ODeed on the highrises with neon Hypesigns flashing up their 200-floor lengths. He walked face-first into a KrishnaTech rep.

His entire body spoke his apology but the rep didn’t notice and launched automatically into its pitch. Gloria moved closer to hear the variation on a theme.

„… harmony in the next life, and dinner in this one. Experience the totality of pure food, interface with the Krishnaware Net of Brotherhood, no tricks, no obligation. Low low accommodation rates for our country friends.“

Fourpiece looked shocked, as much by the appearance of the rep, as by the datarush from its mouthgrill. Gloria had grown up being pestered by these unsexed once-human mechanised preachers, but had never been far down enough to fall for their jive.

The rep forced a fluorescent card into Fourpiece’s hand. An invitation to a wholefood dinner.

If he didn’t find what he was looking for within the month, all the while watching his credit melt into the ‚Brow, the card would become a magnet. It would draw him first to a free meal, and then into whatever techno-religious snare fitted his psych profile.

Fourpiece carefully pocketed the card, and hungrily eyed the throng. A million colours were welded together by the people, the Hypesigns, the shopwindow holograms, the carefully lit displays in the streetfeeders‘ tiny kiosks, the robot preachers and human speakers on pulpits and podiums…

The siren song of the street called him, and he followed.

In the crowd, Gloria found she could keep almost on his heels without him noticing. He thought he was streetwise. He kept nothing in his outside pockets – they’d warned him of legions of pickpockets awaiting his arrival. Well, eventually he’d find that inside pockets were a thief’s playground. Now he was safe. No pickpocket would tumble new immigrants – what could they have that was worth a shit in the ‚Brow?

„… father had me hooked when I was six! He said it would teach me to read! But does it stop there? No! Then came the drugs! Then came the dreams! Then came the madness!“

It was just another soapie, but Fourpiece was transfixed. The orator in his luminous skysuit ranted out his message from the street pulpit, his passion enough for a thousand mothers. But it was paid Hype, and the small semi-circle in front of the pulpit included only pop-sociologists with their compu-clipboards, Comics journalists trying to catch new hype trends before they were born, tourists stopping to snigger at the primitives – their hype back home was far more sophisticated – and the occasional immigrant.

Fourpiece joined them in front of the neon-decked podium. The sides were covered in hype, rhythmically flashing as if in echo of the orator’s words.

„When that headplug connects, and those pages turn, another child is sold into slavery! Say to me, they are only Comics! You know why they are called Comics? Do you? Comics! Communism! Propaganda!“

Fourpiece lapped it up. It was the same message that went out into the country, in slightly more sober language.

„I have seen a young life smashed on the sidewalk! Minutes before, she dreamed she owned the world! She stood at the edge of the world! She flew off the edge of the world! She dreamed she could fly! She couldn’t! God clipped her wings!“

He was a mercenary Street Orator – a soapie – selling his voice to the best offer of the day. Today the client was TV-Syn – the state-run TV syndicate – and the target was Interactive Comics. Just plug in, and the action is inside your head. Add this little hallucinogen, that little stimulant, and you are part of the action. Just don’t fly off any buildings.

Tomorrow the Comics networks might hire the same man to attack the evils of Interactive TV – Sedative of the Masses! Turns People Into Potatoes!

Both media operated on the same principles, and some immigrants eventually realised the battle was not moral, but commercial. Others joined the crusade, their original ambitions as hopelessly lost as if they’d gone for dinner with the KrishnaTechs.

Fourpiece resisted his second temptation. Gloria followed him further into the ‚Brow.

And the street exploded.

The lazy animal of people writhing through the ‚Brow shattered into its million parts. People ran screaming in every direction.

„The Boer! The Boer!“

The cry went from one end of the street to the other.

It was a police raid.

Fourpiece’s body jerked like a marionette as the crowd surged round him, buffeting him in a dozen directions. Gloria plunged after him, grabbed his shoulder and pulled him along the street.

He panicked, and desperately wrenched himself out of her grasp. She grabbed him again, slapped him in the face.

„I’m helping you, idiot!“ she shouted into his eyes. „If you want to be trampled by the Boer, you’re welcome to park yourself right here!“

Meekly, he stumbled after her. Already they could smell the faint whiff of teargas and the CLACK! as iron batons fell on human bone. As if on a signal, the hundreds of streetfeeder kiosks closed with a clang of steel shutters.

She pulled Fourpiece into an alley criss-crossed with running people, and led him up a fire escape. She pushed open a door and they leaped into a room furnished in gloom. Empty tables and chairs pierced the murk. A large shape moved behind a barcounter, silhouetted in front of an obsolete Homebrew hypesign.

„Ey, Glory com! What it is! Wanna be jobbing on your night off?“

It was Gloria’s boss, Big Khumalo.

„Ey, Mr Big. The Boer is on the rampage in the ‚Brow. I saved this immigrant’s skull and I don’t think he’s too happy about it.“

Fourpiece held out his hand to Gloria.

„I am very grateful. I am new from the country. Jabulani Nkosi is my name. I am looking for a job.“

Gloria took his hand.

„Gloria Mundi. If you want a fair shake, get rid of that suit, com. You’re a rip-off waiting to happen. Got to have cred.“

He stared at her get-up. Black plastic shorts, red plastic vest, plas-tin boots to her knees, sunshades in red plas-tin frames. Red-dyed close-cropped hair. Interact plugs running down her cheekbones. He shivered.

„And that is cred?“

„Hell, no, com. This is me. You make your own cred. If you could wear your fourpiece like you owned Pretoria Street, that’d be cred. Right now, you look like your mother dressed you.“

Even in the gloom, she saw him flush. His mother had dressed him. She winced.

Mr Big had seen it a million times.

„Ey Jabu com you don’t mind if I call you Jabu course you don’t. Let me give you your first real taste of Hillbrow.“

With practised hands, Mr Big poured several brightly coloured liquids into a cup, stirred it, and added a curl of foamed cream.

Gloria led Jabu to a seat at the bar. He eyed the drink suspiciously.

She spoke to cover his discomfort.

„So, Mr Big. Got any word on what’s given the Boer the paras this time? They were totally O.T.T.“

„They missed the Yesterdays again. C’mon Jabu give it a try it won’t kill you not soon anyway. Same old story Glory. The band plugs in takes ten minutes to grab the throng’s attention rock them out of their daze and after they leave someone remembers to call the Boer. The cops react in seconds but they’re half-an-hour late.“

„So they can’t arrest the whole throng, so they bust as many heads as they can. That’s not going to get anyone calling on the splab lines.“

„Hell no the Yesterdays belong to the street. I think their music stinks it’s just another way of saying I can make a louder racket than you but they’re not about their music y’know.

„Take it easy, com!“

Jabu spluttered as he tried to swallow a mouthful of the brew.

„You got to sip that stuff com. I got a surprise for you Glory.“

„I don’t think you can surprise me anymore, Mr Big. Not with your body or your mind.“

„Try me you’ll like me. Plug in you’ll freak out. Ho! Nothing like that com. I got some refugees.“

He glanced meaningfully at a curtain that hid a back room.

„So? You always got refugees.“

„G’on. Have a look. G’on. G’on.“

He tried to make seductive noises with his growl. She was intrigued.

„Watch Jabu, huh? He hasn’t got his mother to tell him what to do.“

Gloria Mundi pulled the curtain aside and peered into the even-deeper gloom of the cramped backroom. Vaguely she made out four figures huddled at a table.

„Ey. You guys being looked after?“

They muttered greetings but didn’t pay her any attention.

It wasn’t as if she was inconspicuous. Maybe they couldn’t see her retropunk outfit in the gloom. For that matter, she could hardly see it herself.

She lowered her plastin shades. A light flashed in her head.

It was the band.

„You’re the Yesterdays!“

„Shuttup man why don’t you plug into the hypenet and just say Hey Boer Yesterdays Here?“

She clamped her hand over her mouth.

„It’s not every day…“ she whispered uncertainly. Then she had a line: „That I see yesterday!“

„Ho.“

So it wasn’t exactly a laugh, but the ice was almost broken.

„Take a seat, uh…“

„Gloria Mundi. Glory. Thanks.“

It was her first chance to see the group up close, and she felt the heat of the hunt behind her eyes as she gawped at their wayout gear. She knew they all had their own looks and personalities, but even up close, they looked like the same person. In their black two-piece suits, white shirts and black ties, they looked like they’d stepped right out of the previous century. Their moptop wigs were so sublimely uncred, they were the ultimate in cred. So retro they were proto.

„I won’t even ask who is who,“ she said brightly.

Behind their cred cool, they enjoyed the enthusiasm of this up-to-the-minute techno-retropunk.

„So it’d be safe to introduce you. I’m Griffin. On stage I’m John. This weirdo here is sometimes Paul, but mostly Ol‘ Barrel. He wears a stolen 19th century corset to hide his blubber.“

„Ey,“ Ol‘ Barrel raised his hand vaguely.

„Fluffy here is our friendly neighbourhood beat king. Beats the drums as good as he used to beat the Boer. He used to be a Robot Rasta. Now he’s Ringo.“

„Ey.“

She couldn’t imagine his moptop transformed into plas-tin dreadlocks, but then, everyone had a past to cover up.

„An‘ Rudi. Short for Rude Boy. He hates to be called George. Don’t laugh. He’ll show you how he got his name.“ Rudi showed her his middle finger. She raised hers in return.

„And yours,“ she said.

„Sincerely,“ he replied.

This time they all laughed easily. Glory felt a vague thrill run through her stomach. She had finally joined the drinking club.

Whenever a Comics journalist tracked down – or was allowed to track down – the Yesterdays, the foursome insisted they were just a drinking club. They cruised the pubs – the legal ones as well as the alley shebeens – picking up friends as they went. When the moving party got big enough, and wild enough, they hit the street.

The old powernet still had thousands of unplugged outlets on the street. Each time the Boer shut off another cluster, more would be discovered by illegal users who couldn’t run their operations on the State-monitored Compunet. Users like the Yesterdays. Their equipment, built in the same era as the old net, was not only illegal, but also incompatible with Compunet.

„What happens one day when you plug into the street and the Boer is in the crowd?“

Griffin smiled.

„Ever seen one in convincing cred? They stand out a mile among the millions. If they’re too short to see, you can still smell them. Being Boer’s got nothing to do with the way you dress, it’s the mind, the attitude, the eyes, the halitosis.“

Ol‘ Barrel spoke up. „And if they do get a deprogrammed sleeper into the crowd, we’ll rock his badge right out of his head.“

„For sure!“ the others echoed.

„Haven’t they ever had a lead on you?“

„Often, often, man,“ Griffen shrugged.

„There are two bands called the Yesterdays. One is us, the real people you see here. The other is the legend. That’s the band the Boer cannot touch. The legend is cool, man, but it’s not real. We’ve been cornered upon a time. We’ve been on the run with fear breathing down our asses, man.“

„Are you just going to keep running?“

„You sound like a Comics journalist. They’re always trying to write us into their Interactives. But they end up writing the legend. The real stories don’t work too well in the kiddies‘ brains. Keep running? It’s not a choice, man, it’s a life. If your soul tells you to run with the pack, no ways you can go loner. And if it tells you to form a 20th century pop group, no ways you can go Interactive Rock.“

„I can go head to head on that, com. But it doesn’t answer my question. So, because of what music turns you on, you have to be an outlaw?“

„Nothing unusual about that!“ Fluffy chanted in a sing-song tone.

„Before I met Griffen I was a Rasta robot. This plug in my head wasn’t for Comics, man. I used to pour Jah directly into my braincells. But we had to interface with Compunet to use the software. The Boer busted us in the act every time. By now all the Rastas have skipped into the country. The word is, they’ve found a herbal substitute for software. Me, I like it out here in the cold.“

„The Yesterdays have been on the street for how long? Almost a year? You guys have survived longer than the dinosaurs! Do you just go on surviving?“

There was silence. Gloria bit her lip. Maybe she’d said too much. It was true: she did sound like a Comics journalist. Then Ol‘ Barrel spoke up.

„We’re thinking of going legit.“

He might have told her he was Boer. She jumped in her seat.

„Legit? Legit? Are you crazy?“

„What’s the prob?“

„You guys are a symbol on the street, com! What everyone else wishes, you guys do!“

„That’s the legend, man,“ Griffen said quietly, used to this kind of reaction. „We’re about as outlaw as the KrishnaTechs, if you get right down to it. It’s just that we make so much more noise while we’re about it. And the Boer hates old-time pop, so they want us bad.“

„So you just one day up and announce you’re going legit, and the Boer leaves you alone? No way, grey day.“

„We got options. Like everybody in the ‚Brow, we got options.“

„Like, you could skip the city?“

„Maybe, but then we just go outlaw in the country. No point. We’d have to get a little further away. We could get a Green Card.“

„You mean, America?“

„Sure.“

„But, who, I mean, how… Would the government let you in?“

„You think we’re mad? No ways we ask the Evangelist White House for a ticket to ride. The Independent Cities might take us. They’re not too fond of the Evangelists, and the Boer trades with the Evangelists. Any enemy of a friend of the White House is a friend of the Independents. Just prove Boer harassment, and we’re in.“

Gloria pretended to be polishing her shades. For the first time, she’d fallen in with the street’s godfathers of cred, and she’d barely begun congratulating herself when they were telling her it was a thing of the past.

Fluffy shrugged.

„Eh, nothing lasts forever, y’know. Said it yourself.“

„But it sounds almost like you’re selling out. If you take a Card from the Cities, you have to work for them.“

„Selling out, buying in, what’s it all mean? But no prob, that’s our last option. We’ve also heard Mister Jones is looking for us.“

„Mister Jones!“

„Eh, I think we got an echo in here,“ said Griffen. „Mister Jones, the One And Only Sultan of Sound.“

„That’s TV-Syn hype, com. They throw Mister Jones at the kiddies just to prove they’re in touch with the proles. There’s not a comrade that’ll touch you if you go near Mister Jones.“

„When last did you watch Mister Jones?“

„When I was a kiddie myself, but I…“

„You mean like last year?“

Ol‘ Barrel guffawed, and Gloria felt the heat behind her eyes. Before she could give him the finger, he held up his hand.

„Even TV-Syn can go cred by accident, man. Mister Jones has been going closer to the edge every week for the last two years, and his ratings have shot into the hypersphere. You mean you never noticed? They even run his character in the Comics now.“

„I couldn’t care less about the media. They just keep turning in on themselves, eating their own shit.“

„We care, man. We care a lot. We’re tired of running. And if Mister Jones thinks TV-Syn will tolerate us, maybe things are changing. Maybe we can make them change further, if we’re legit. „

Change? Legit? The two words wouldn’t fit together in Gloria’s head. But the Yesterday’s were making a weird kind of sense.

„So you got a point. But isn’t that like giving the proles, like a safety valve, y’know? Give them the feeling the revolution’s for real, but it doesn’t need them? Stop them taking it into the street, ‚cos they can get it pumped right into their heads?“

„You’ve been spending too much time with the comrades, man. Is a revolution more real ‚cos the proles don’t know about it? They’ve been waiting for the revolution for a hundred years, man. It’s never going to happen. We all got to make our small private revolutions.“

„That’s exactly what we all thought the Yesterdays were doing.“

„We were just stirring the shit, man. Getting onto TV-Syn is the real revolution.“

Mr Big pushed through the curtain with a tray of drinks.

„Refills for the rebels, Homebrew for the heroes,“ he growled.

„Better give me a double, Mr Big,“ Gloria muttered.

„The Yesterdays too much for you com? Get to know them better they’re pussycats.“

„They’re going for Mister Jones.“

„Eh? That’s kiddie propaganda not com?“

„Used to be. It’s been going cred lately.“

„TV-Syn is TV-Syn and cred is cred and never the two shall bed.“

„They’re doing something with each other.“

„Mister Jones haven’t watched in years. He must be an oldie by now.“

„Maybe he’s trying to get himself offed before he really does get old. Whatever. We want to be along for the mystery tour, man.“

„Ey Gloria don’t act like you spilled your brew. It’s not like these guys are joining the government.“

„They probably would if they could. If they were pure white, they’d end up playing for the annual congress of the Party of the Nations. Too much of the mix in them. Mister Jones is just going to use them to boost his own ratings.“

„Ey, man, we didn’t ask you to sit down so you could insult us!“

Ol‘ Barrel had suddenly lost the easy manner the Yesterdays carried like a uniform. He pushed his chair back and stood up.

Gloria leaped up, her eyes flashing from behind her shades.

„You gonna stomp me? The Comics would love that. Action Special! Yesterdays Stomp the Proles! Feel the Boot! Taste the Blood!“

„JUST COOL IT!“

Mr Big grabbed Ol‘ Barrel’s glass and smashed it on the floor, glass and brew splattering across the room.

„No one does any stomping in here but me! Siddown both of you!“

Ol‘ Barrel glared at Mr Big. But the friendly barman had become the mean streetgangster he’d been before his retirement from the Street. His bald bullet head was a weapon. His broad hands enough to take on the five of them.

Ol‘ Barrel sat down. Gloria sniffed and made for the curtain. Mr Big snatched her arm and pulled her back.

„Siddown. I’m going to get another drink for my com here. When I get back you’re all friends you got me?“

Gloria nodded and sat down.

She mumbled something under her breath.

„Say again?“ said Ol‘ Barrel.

„So I said sorry,“ she muttered.

„Your face don’t say it. I guess the words will do.“

„I’m just excited, is all. Over-reacting, s’pose.“

She said it with a sulk across her face, but he smiled through it. He’d also been young once. Not a year ago, in fact.

Mr Big walked through the curtain with a tray of refuels. Jabu followed nervously.

„Boys in the band meet kid from the country. Jabu here has been in the city all of thirty minutes. He wants to audition for the drinking club.“

Mr Big mock-danced out of the room, leaving Jabu to the mercy of a five-piece gang with mischief written on their faces.

Ol‘ Barrel kicked off.

„Sit down, comrade! Let the interview begin.“

Jabu looked at Glory. She nodded, and he moved carefully to the table, sitting down stiffly between her and Griffen.

„So you want to join the drinking club.“

„The … drinking club? I do not know of this.“

„Ah! He’s playing hard to get!“ Griffen was delighted at Jabu’s ignorance. „Well, then, we’ll have to expel you. Sorry, but you’ll have to leave this room.“

Jabu looked as if he’d been mangled in a Gotel transfer accident. Glory felt a pang of pity, and came to his rescue.

„They’re messing with your mentals, com. Be of cheer! Have another slurp!“

„Be merry, man,“ Fluffy chimed. „You’re with the Yesterdays! Live for today! Tomorrow is plenty time to panic.“

„The … Yesterdays?“

The whole band broke into a chorus. „The Yesterdays, yeah, yeah, yeah!“

„He’s been living off country food,“ Glory quipped helpfully. „Hasn’t tasted your wares, coms.“

Jabu still seemed hesitant.

„You’re the band, The Yesterdays?“

Repeat chorus. „The Yesterdays, yeah, yeah, yeah!“

Jabu pointed at the instruments, lying unplugged and silent in a corner.

„What are those?“

Ol‘ Barrel gritted his teeth.

„Those are our … instruments,“ he sneered.

„But… how do you play them? I don’t see inputs…“

„See those little pieces of wire? And those prongs? Those are called… plugs,“ Ol‘ Barrel said thinly.

„Plugs? What do they do?“

„You a comics journalist? They. Plug. In.“

„But in what?“

Ol‘ Barrel breathed a heavy sigh. This was worse than a Comics interview. He refused to answer the question.

Rudi leaned forward helpfully.

„Into the old powernet, com,“ he said quietly. „The better for you to hear us, com.“

„I understand,“ said Jabu, his voice suddenly firm.

He stood up.

The Yesterdays sensed the sudden change in his attitude.

Glory was still smiling brightly when Jabu let his hand slide into his coat, to emerge with a thin metal rod. She first saw the frozen expression on the Yesterdays‘ faces. Then she saw the laserod.

„Boer,“ she whispered.

For the first time since he’d emerged from the Gotel, Fourpiece smiled.

Suddenly, he had all the cred he would ever need.

First published in Playboy (South Africa), February 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Arthur Goldstuck

Arthur Goldstuck is a South African journalist, science fiction and comic writer and lives in Johannesburg. His stories have been published in the South African Playboy, in his country’s leading sf magazine Probe and in Tony Daniel’s anthology The Best of South African Science Fiction. His other interests include folklore, mythology, and urban legends on the Internet.

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