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Semiotics for Wolves

by Vladimir Hernández

It is midnight and Onyx is on the streets once more.

She has cemented her position with sperm and blood; a beautiful Afro girl with fiery hair, living at the edge of her own humanity, diving nightly into an endless déjà vu which leads into the dark recesses of her soul.

Today she woke with a fluttering of butterflies in her stomach; a dark wave of premonition stirring a sense of apprehension inside her, but which met with only silence from the beads of her saints. Her survival depends on the special attention which she pays to the hidden signifiers of social context. The only protocol she knows: semiotics for wolves. In the suburbs, those who ignore these signifiers perish.

While Onyx walks toward the subway station, the moonlight diffracting across the membrane of the distant Hassler collectors activates sudden polarizations in her Kodak retinal grafts. This uncomfortable optical effect punctuates the surreal impact which nighttime in the Pit provokes. Her skin, black like burning ebony, shines through beneath the fine piezoplastic scales of the tailored kiwem which covers it, the transparent elastomers activating on contact with her personal myoelectric field, intermittently displaying her nudity and the generous tattooed pubis underneath her dress.

The Pit’s subway terminal was boarded up by the government years ago. The people of the margin have no legal access to the city’s peripheral subway. But Onyx knows how to cheat the barriers, and digs a path between piles of industrial discards wrapped in discolored green plastic covers until she reaches the hidden trapdoor of a dark passageway between enormous polystyrene panels caked in a brilliant patina of grayish powder that seems to be alive. Three hundred claustrophobic meters of narrow channelway infested with phosphorescent insects lead her to the old station.

The site appears to be an experiment in Art Nouveau and one sees in it the arrogance of The Undersea Palace: colors faded by the years and a perennial smell of catalysis in the air. The maintenance conduits along the walls appear abandoned.

“Damned train, I hope you show up soon,” Onyx mumbles, studying the solitude of the track. She feels exposed in this place, and the hangover from last night’s revelry jumbles her nerves, forcing her to search in her bag for a capsule of DA stimulants.

The chant surges suddenly through the tunnel, threateningly.

Surprise slices through her hangover. It is the chant of the Orisha clan; voices that resonate in deep harmonies, a cavernous mantra strangely amplified by the rarefied air in the station corridors. Onyx forgets the stimulant and searches in her bag, finding a tiny Glock with neurotoxin darts. The weapon, bluish ceramic with an opaque gel butt and a chamber loaded with microbial lethality, offers her a certain measure of security.

She cautiously approaches the tunnel and, from the corner, looks down in the direction of the sound of the voices.

From the distance she can make out the Orishas. Several dozen people, seated in a ritual position, clustered around the deathly purplish light of a thermo-luminescence conversion lamp; they intone their chant with closed eyes and ecstatic faces. Cables from a shiny black machine mounted on a tripod lead to strange connectors implanted in the crania of all the participants of this ritual. The Orisha clan is in neuratal phase, communing with their Yoruba idols through low-intensity electronic current applied to their cerebral pleasure centers. This means a cease-fire, at least for the moment. From some corner which Onyx can not manage to pick out, the lookouts stand guard.

The girl retires, her attention now riveted on the perfect smile of the singer of the virtual band Dogma Latino, which announces the submarine habitat Disney-Atlantica in an interactive poster affixed to the wall. Onyx understands the Orisha rituals; she shares with them an ancestral connection going back to the ancient tribes of Nigeria. But, just as with the other folkloric militancies which have flourished in this country in recent years, the post-civil-war climate had transformed the Orishas into a demented sectarian fauna spilling over like a cancer of territoriality throughout the gray zones of CH. The clan’s style had turned decadent; their bodies saturated with tribal tattoos, displaying new beads of discarded silicon which bite into their flesh, loaded up with chains and poisoned leaves with which they kill each other in battle, performing rituals which are a mere amalgam of religion, hallucinogenic culture and predatory instincts.

The roar of the underground train arriving at the terminal reminds her that it was time to get away from all this. The vehicle is a blunt-headed bullet of white polymer guided by the network AI of the peripheral system. The on-board Thinker detects no hostile activity and opens its doors. She enters and the train speeds off.

Outside, everything turns to black. The tunnel is a feverish dream, meandering freely, falling through a spiral of superposed nightmares and consuming hope.

Next to the wagon’s rear door there is a couple: a man, clearly a zombie from the mark of his eyes, tattered and with the symptomatic tremors of a psychoactive virus; and a woman, nearly naked, rigid, sitting on a seat stained in blood, the congealed spasm of a corpse on her face. Onyx spots the ancient hypodermic in her arm, and concludes overdose. The zombie is another illustration of the collateral damage produced in the human genome by the RNA viral war; he is now just a macabre parody of humanity, his gaze fixed on the eyes of the woman, as if trying to reach her empty mind through this drug.

Onyx moves away from them and takes a seat to their side. She does not dare to turn her back on the zombie. The train climbs an incline and Onyx quietly studies the radiant holographic splendor of the titanic enclaves emerging from the edges of Havana City; the ostentatious NeoDeco of the arcologies, the tail lights marking off air traffic, the luminous colors of the skycars flying between the glass- and ceramic-skinned towers which rise in the center of the city; glamorous Edenic refuges for the powerful and well-to-do. A fairy-tale land, kept out of her reach behind an impermeable barrier of walls and corporate guards.

She longs for the sea, for the salt breath of the surf embracing the breakers. It seems like a lifetime since she has seen the coast. Somebody told her during last night’s revelry that they are building an inland sea in the middle of CH, a gigantic artificial basin which they would fill with saltwater; its entire edge lined with beaches, islands for development, and pleasure ships. She doesn’t want to believe this, and her mind flies nostalgically to the past, and she thinks of her mother. Long before the civil war, before the bacteriological plagues would turn her city into a contaminated zone and drive her mad, her mother took Onyx to the ocean.

The door of the rear cabin opens and a tall man with broad shoulders and curly hair enters. He embodies an overwhelming weariness, as if he carried the entire weight of the city on his shoulders. As if he has lost everything tonight. She can read this sort of thing in people. He doesn’t seem dangerous to her, but she senses that he has no interest in sex.

Now her ulcer heats up, reminding her of the excesses of the night before. An unfortunate combination of alcohol and neuropeptide sleep inhibitors kept her off balance and robbed her of a normal night’s income. Occupational hazard. Now her brain feels muddled, like the last days of her childhood, at age seven, when her brother stole her innocence and then sold her off to a child brothel.

Her thoughts are interrupted by the sight of the zombie rising from his seat and advancing down the aisle. She goes into alert. From his seat, the stranger scrutinizes the zombie with an icy stare, but remains still. She does not have a lot of patience, so when the junkie stops a short distance away, she sits up as if sprung by an invisible coil, the Glock’s ceramic butt shining in her hand.

“What the hell do you want, burnout?” she warns.

The other man seems to hesitate for an instant. The zombie looks at them both, probably sizing up which one to attack. He opts for her and gets a lethal dart in the throat. He crumbles. Onyx does not wait for the agonized convulsions of the zombie to cease and starts to empty out the contents of his pockets onto the floor. She doesn’t find much: an MDK dose in a sofgel capsule, strips of ephedrine mixed with neutroplasma, the standard tiny enzyme time bombs of the braindead. At the end of her search, a tiny jackpot elicits a smile: several bills of European money tied to a well-worn plastic opticard. The euros are elegant plastex bills, the latest series, with integrated mitochondrial memory, as thin as a page of scripture.

The train stops and the stranger with the tired face gets up from his seat, passes by her, and gets off at the Santa Sofía station, into the free air. She watches him leave, a shadow pressing on through the night in The Sink.

Onyx decides that her newly-won spoils aren’t much, but at least the money will buy her something to eat. She remembers that she has not eaten in days, living off anabolic dermos and black coffee.

Onyx gets out at the next stop, Cienfuegos terminal, and departs the labyrinth of alleyways that make up the bioindustrial zone, a slag heap that the traffickers jokingly call MacBiznis: fast businesses, bottled businesses; banned technology for every budget; another sea of semiotics that floods the zone between the giant wall which shelters CH and the chaotic network of suburbs making up The Sink.

The night lights her up with holooptic ads, interactive visual sequences designed to siphon away attention from the advertising logos, while she walks through the marketplace of flesh; human flesh, exposed in a witches’ coven of shamans who practice the alchemy of transhumanism and bioengineering, who exercise genetic witchcraft. There are Armenian stalls that sell live watches, organic polymer food and clothing synthesizers at laughable prices; porcelain domes inside of which gray-market surgeons perform autoimmunological reprogramming and biochip implantation surgery; Korean shacks that emit syncopated morph music and sell modified cellular machines and domestic mechas with altered protocols.

Behind the market lies a rat’s nest of alleyways which lead to old Hugh’s club. The transgenic sugarcane seedlings have adapted perfectly, where the forest marabu brushwood would have fallen prey to the viral plagues. Up above, the structure of low modular buildings from the early 20s dominates the ruined skeleton of a military platform which dates from the island’s Marxist era. This very site is cursed. Eighty years before, a battery of Soviet nuclear missiles located here brought the world to the brink of holocaust. Now the ancient naked silos resemble enormous monolithic tombs.

For a moment, Onyx feels the roar of the transports flying too low in the direction of the city lodging in her guts, amplifying her hunger.

Aroma of sex in the alleyway. A light haired pimp, tall, dressed in military night camouflage, tends his small flock of Seiko madonnas: genomic dolls, bearing faces with a manga aesthetic; enormous eyes of jade and the exquisite programming of geishas. Onyx watches them with disdain. The madonnas are sexual artifacts, flesh toys; sick clones which started out as vectors for personalized DHL messengers, with the underground markets eventually converting them into pleasure pets.

The beggars gather around, the gene chasers, and the alley merchants of hypercaloric bars and energy cells. Some Thai girls, squalid adolescents dressed in clothes of translucent plastic, walk the street under the close scrutiny of a guild servocam. Onyx feels the sudden drop in temperature, and lifts her gaze in time to catch the grayish scoops of ice descending from above. The people nearby open their small cellulose umbrellas to shelter themselves. The final microclimatic aberration in The Sink: “tropical snow”, they call it; the ice is an exotic crystallized combination of halogenated hydrocarbons and drippings from the nanofermenters located in the city walls.

This perversion forces her to alter her path, taking a longer route through a roofed alleyway which shelters her from the iceflakes. The cold soaks her to the bone. The alley is dark and treacherous, but she is comforted to know that Hugh’s place is nearby, and that she will feel safer there. The club is a sort of oasis of sexual emanations that supplies her with clients.

But this road is not without surprises, as Onyx stumbles upon several Felines executing two members of a rival clan. Their eyes fix on her; phosphorescent slits focus on her. The Felines are formidable warriors of the night, neurocabled for combat. All of them have traded their epidermis for striped xenotransplant tissue. One of them stretches out to her full height.

“Get on your damn way, bitch,” she hisses.

Onyx pauses for a second. She studies these jittery warriors, tightly holding on to their prey but still ready to leap, and she considers firing at them to plunder them later. But tonight does not seem to be a good time to tempt her fate. They are too many and they look too limber, so she continues on her way, accelerating her pace. She regrets her own caution, but she cannot afford to get herself burned on Feline turf.

Onyx already had a brief and bitter experience, two months ago near the exhaust fans at the south holodrome, when she allowed one of them to “rent” her. She was drawn to the girl’s style, her tuft of lacquered hair and the arty tattoos on her skin, but, when she started to caress her in the servotaxi, the first scratches and light bites aroused her suspicions. After renting a motel room the stranger popped some pills, and while lazily watching the nude and voluptuous body of the black girl, she pulled out a set of straps, flexors, and part of some exotic device. Onyx jumped for her bag, but was intercepted by the hair-trigger reflexes of this Amazon, who sent her flying, dazed, against a corner with a blow to the head. Then, the chemical climax started to take over the Feline. She crawled, meowing, and began to lick the blood which flowed from the injured face of Onyx, who then sprang into action. With a sudden uncontrollable panic she managed to dig her hard plastic beveled fingernails into the eyes of her assailant, and while the Feline screamed, groping for her, she drove the metallic point of a flexor into the base of her skull. She grabbed the Feline’s money and disappeared into the street, swearing never to fall into such a trap again.

Hugh’s had traded its name for one with more folkloric resonance: the Feathered Serpent. It is an enormous geodesic cavern mounted on an industrial framework of galvanized steel and covered with carbon fiber, hermetic like a bubble of mercury in a swamp. Inside, the dance floor is surrounded by scaffolding seven meters high, where its two jockeys have their setups. A few circles of biofluorescent light fall from the roof, produced by military spotlights imported from Peru.

The floor is crowded. The jock at the controls of the synesthetic rig is blasting the partiers’ brains with a neuroactive SAC which manipulates their metabolic serotonin. The other one is a Sony Systems specialist who handles the holographic cycles, the fractal projections, and the algorithms that generate the randox music. Onyx’s hunting radar is on full alert. She is accustomed to picking up occasional clients without having to split her take with Hugh, and he usually gives her free reign to work on the drinkers. But she notices that there are tons of junkies tonight; beings that deliberately ignore the festival of flesh in favor of chemical pleasure.

She crosses a corridor that takes her away from the dance floor, closer to the bar. The walls of the corridor are lined with flatscreens that project digitized versions of mythic noir films in black and white. She passes along the teledildonic booths where groups of teenagers plugged into virtual immersion: potential clients gone to waste.

Hugh is behind the bar, watching the InfoVision news on an enormous wall screen. She orders an espresso and sits at the bar, looking for a victim. Few faces at the bar: drunk, disinterested. Looks like a tough night. At the corner of the bar is a Mashenka madonna with sky-blue eyes; it is a cheap knock-off of the Japanese Seikos, but in a Slavic version. The Mashenka has the skin of a nymph and is soaked in synthetic pheromones. Onyx is about to ask Hugh why he would let a doll enter his bar, but then realizes that Hugh probably ordered her himself from the Moscow genomics factories to supplement his monthly cut.

While she is pondering, Onyx’s attention is drawn to the InfoVision report. Television has become an esoteric event, divorced from reality. For her it is like watching another dimension: the European Union has adopted a planned economy, administered by AI networks which focus the dynamics of production like a simple optimization problem involving genetic code. The US has repealed its Bill of Rights as it makes its way towards a meritocratic system. The Chinese Lunar colony New Beijing is experimenting with a social program of Open Sourcing, eliminating all intellectual property rights within its community. The leader of the terrorist organization Group for the Integrity of Human Physiology has been detained in Kiev. The Chamber of Geneva has granted full legal identity and full civil rights, as well as European citizenship, to the AI Thinker Cassandra. Mining drones have found relics of an alien life form in the asteroid belt. The Mbutu epidemic is gaining ground in central Africa. Brazil has won the Soccer World Cup. There’s been a strike at the orbital station Mars Express.

“May I buy you a drink?” comes a voice from behind her.

Onyx turns around. It is a man, handsome, fortyish, wearing a Versace suit and flannel gray shirt, and he smiles at her shyly. He seems to have just arrived at the bar, and it is clear that he has an eye for the authentic: he is ignoring the Mashenka and has come for her. He has brown, inexpressive eyes behind his antiquated wire-rims. His style of dress catches her off balance: sober, nearly elegant. What’s he doing in this dump?

“Yes, certainly,” she replies, showing off her best smile. “I am always open to invitations, sweetie.”

“The name is Vázquez. You can call me Pablo.” He takes a seat, somewhat awkwardly, and adds, turning toward Hugh, “Please serve the woman whatever she wants. A martini for me.”

He is a classic. She looks him over more carefully. He doesn’t look like a nutcase to her, or a drug addict. More likely a rookie who has never been in a joint like this. Maybe a frustrated burgher who has decided to try his luck outside the mega-enclave.

“Double vodka with ice, Hugh,” she says, expressing interest as she seductively spreads her thighs. “Are you new here, sweetie? I can’t recall ever having seen you around.”

“Yes,” is his very timid response. “I’ve been to clubs in the city, but I felt like I needed to get out for some fresh air and to make some new friends…” His gaze slips smoothly towards her hips. “And you, what’s your name?”

“I have a thousand names, lover, but you’ll have to make do with Onyx.”

“Onyx? Like the stone?” he replies.

“Exactly, darling. Like a striped agate. A jewel that conceals many secrets. My mother gave me that name in order to strengthen my connection with the saint whose sign I was born under. She said that there was no better name for a girl than that of her saint’s stone. And as you already know, I am a mystical jewel,” she sips her vodka and continues. “I have powers.”

“What an unusual child, protected by a saint,” he teases.

“No, sweetheart,” she shakes her head, amused, “protected by several saints. But trust me, I’m not going to tell you about my saints, because to begin with, they’ve been giving me a bad day today. They didn’t warn me that I’d be meeting a gentleman like you.” Onyx draws closer to his face, and caresses him between his legs. “Where do you suppose we should go? I could get us a room from the owner for a nice low price.”

“I’d prefer my house,” Pablo says, very cautiously. He is obviously nervous. It is clear that he is unfamiliar with the protocols of the margins. He is the perfect client for Onyx.

“And I’d prefer that you buy me a meal first,” she interrupts. “If we’re going to party, I have to recharge my batteries.”

“How can you eat anything of such shady origin?” he asks, pointing at the remains of the food on the plates at other tables and visibly shocked. “You don’t even know what it’s made of.”

“Maybe you can catch decent food in the enclave, Pablo,” Onyx says as she leans forward. “But down here, things are very different. You may think it’s a primitive need, even humiliating, but down here, hunger is constant and you have to feed it.” She emphasizes, “It is a top priority.”

“I have sealed packets of very high quality food back home,” he offers, trying to mend fences. “I don’t want to hold you up.”

“Of course,” she replies, “but the travel and the inconvenience are going to cost you, okay? Do you live alone?” Pablo nods, and she blows him an air kiss. ”Then why don’t you pay up, sweetie, while I touch up my makeup?”

In the restroom, she adjusts her makeup in front of a mirrored surface and then she checks her weapon. The rookie is unsuspecting and weak; a gift. The predator inside her moves, hungry, feverish with its prey so near. She thinks about her client from last week. She goes over the scene in that alleyway, and the screams of the victim as she began to strangle him in mid-climax; what a pity that there hadn’t been more cash in his pockets. On the other hand, tonight’s dish will definitely have some. And they would be in his house. There would have to be something valuable there: money, food; and maybe an entrance into CH. She studies her silhouette for a moment, then, satisfied, returns to the bar, swaying her hips.

At the exit to the Feathered Serpent a blind ramp rises from the underground parking lot where Pablo’s car awaits, a Kia Delta with a modified hydrogen cell, all magnesium and carbon fiber; a conservative line for a surface vehicle. They exit, and a minibar pops out next to the dashboard.

“Do you live far, hon?” she asks, stroking his neck.

“No. In the suburbs of the northern district. Would you like something while we drive? Maybe an aphrodisiac?”

“Aphrodisiac? Yes,” she answers. “That would be a nice prelude to tonight’s intimacy.”

The man pushes a small serving button and hands her a wide frosty glass. Outside, the bubble-cars fly along the highway like arrows.

“Sensualité,” Pablo adds, smiling, and she notes a touch of self-confidence in his attitude. “A cocktail that heightens the libido. Very popular in Europe.”

“Shit! Must be a very expensive novelty,” she says while she savors the bubbly liquid. “I see that you’ve come very well equipped. We’ll make sure that it’s worth your while. Maybe we can mix it with some good shit; we can amplify the buzz and have enough flash to keep us flying for days,” she suggests happily, then takes a sip.

Pablo seems surprised, almost alarmed, when she mentions the drug.

“Have you been taking deadly narcotics? Or are you suffering from any blood sicknesses?”

“Come on, honey,” she protests, laughing. “You sound like a doctor. Don’t worry, the only illness I have is this old stomach ulcer.” She takes a big gulp of the liquor. “And speaking of stomach, I’m dying to sit down at the dinner table.”

“Don’t worry,” Pablo answers, with a tone that strikes her as harsh and mocking. “I promise you that we will soon be sitting down at the dinner table.”

Then suddenly the light fades. Her fate splinters like a mirror into jagged pieces, and the world begins to revolve with absurd slowness. Icy chills run through her veins. Onyx feels the glass slip away between her fingers, distant. Panic begins to spread, but it is eclipsed by the bottomless pit into which her brain is falling, and the absolute conviction that her saints have finally deserted her.

“How do you like the beef, darling?” the man asks, peeking into the kitchen.

“It certainly smells very good,” his wife answers, watching the meat come out of the oven. “The tests indicate that she was a healthy woman. Her tissues were in good shape, and the levels of teratogens were tiny. Where did you find her?”

“An anonymous soul,” is the man’s answer. “No one will ever miss her.”

His wife looks him firmly in the eyes.

“I don’t see how we can keep on doing this forever,” a certain tone of remorse looms in her voice.

“And perhaps you want to give our children that artificial crap that everybody else is eating? That test tube of recycled biomass and laboratory additives,” he protests, with an edge of menace. “Don’t start on me again with your ethical dilemmas. The war changed everything, the environmental disaster, the side-effects of the bacteriological contamination. Please. There is a real hunger crisis out there, and some people are already hoarding their own protein banks. But at least for now this family will have a sufficient supply of real meat, enough to last us a long while with no worries.”

“I understand. I suppose next time it’s my turn.”

“We’ll see, darling,” he says, his tone returning to normal. “Now, let’s get to that table. I am starving.”

They exit to the dining room, where their three children wait. The wife serves the portions in silence. The children pray briefly, then dig into their meal.

“Bon appetit,” the father says.

“You, too,” they reply as one, their mouths stuffed.

Translated by Daniel W. Koon

Copyright © 2005 by Vladimir Hernández

Vladimir Hernández born in 1966, in Havana, Cuba, is a science fiction writer. He lives in Spain since 2000 and published stories in Spanish, French, Greek, American and German magazines. His science fiction novels had been awarded several times with Alberto Magno, UPC and Manuel de Pedrolo awards.



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