Under the 'net

It was a Wednesday and there were recruiters down out on the football pitch. That surprised Cat. Not the fact that they were at a school – they were always rounding on the schools in the flatlands, in the great sprawl of concrete spreading out beyond the horizon to the invisible sea – but the fact that they were here, at this school, at her school. Hawthorn, with its brownstone bulk perched high above the valley and the indifferent ocean of Los Angeles. Hawthorn, with its avenues of plane and stands of silver ash. Hawthorn, with its ten thousand dollar tuition and its tearaway teens in the green and grey. Not, Cat considered, a traditional recruiting ground.
They drove Hummers. From the science bloc she watched as they drew up in a neat little congaline convoy – wide, low, powerful things; black, with the gunmetal spearhead of the Lancers outstanding on their roofs. Impressive, in their own way, but Hawthorn kids were hard to impress – there were two dozen of those selfsame environmental menaces out in the student car park, in cooler colours with better stereos. Four jet black Humvees just didn’t cut it in the first impression stakes.
Down in the ghetto it would. Down in the ghetto it’d blow them away – leave them begging for a chance to join the Forces, to strap themselves in behind a .20 cal cannon ‘over there’ and find their way back home sans a leg… Anything, if they could end up with a car like that. But the recruiters probably considered such incentives overkill, because, face it, the kids would do it for less. Down in the land below the hills the sale of a soldiering life piggybacked on boredom; that sort of high-octane boredom that grows from a constant immersion in the viscera of a great Bad City like LA. Kids in the country reached for the Forces like a lifeline, but back in the Flatlands the teens just called it ‘the Exit.’ “Show me something cool before I die,” they’d say, and the Recruiters would seize on that, and there’d be a video shot on the Tigris’ bank, all reaching bulrushes and silent mirror-water, and it would pull back and pan right to reveal the incinerated bodies of three – maybe more, it’d be hard to tell – jihadists.
“Used to be in the Al-Whatever Martyrs Brigade,” the Recruiter would intone. Then they’d smile – they’d have to, it was down in the spiel – and up the resolution. “White Phosphor,” they’d add. “We call it shake and bake…” A pause – the camera lingering on the blackened husks of Mohamed’s warriors, smiling their purewhite rictus smiles – and then they’d add “…but I think we overdid these ones.”
That always got a laugh. It was meant to; all part of the careful choreography of the sale, the ineffable mystery of coercion known only to a handful of marketing gurus. Yet even the gurus were at a loss to explain why the kids laughed. They reasoned that ‘morbid humour demonstrates desensitization to violent or horrific stimuli’ – they called the kids ‘good little monsters’ and marked them down as perfect killers. They were wrong. The kids didn’t laugh because they couldn’t feel; they laughed because they got the joke. The Mujahadeen and the Marines, and, yes, even their selfsame selves, these no-hopers from the Barrio, from the Ghettos and the projects and the tenement estates – they were all the same. Each one of them would die because someone invisible – far away or long ago – had pushed them toward it. The kids knew that those mutilated bodies up on the on-loan plasma could be theirs in two, three years time. They didn’t have a choice, they knew it, and so they laughed, and when the Recruiter, intent on their fat, juicy commission, finally shut up, they just signed up.
Then they’d be shown something cool, and then they’d die – perhaps not immediately, perhaps later, when their pension dropped and they were old and cold and hungry in the midst of their own country – and that was how it went, that was how it transpired.
Cat, who’d been around the world but never come down from the Hills, didn’t know this, and certainly, wouldn’t have gotten the Joke. No-one at her school – no-one in her world – would have, although the dark-eyed Emo crowd, with their expensive tastes in self mortification, maintained a pretence of comprehension. No. All that the critic knew was that this was irregular, novel, and that the clean-cut west-pointers setting up base-camp would be looking to impress.
Cat thought it would be rather amusing to watch them try.

She’d gone out there during the Midday break, along with that half of the school that was either too cool, or too outcast, to stress and obsess about expressing curiosity. Kirsten and Tamara had tagged along, but, like the divine untouchables they were, they’d declined to mingle with the crowd. Instead, they came to rest at the foot of the old ash at the southern edge of the field, distinct and distinguished, watching as jocks and nerds alike were sold on the soldiers’ life. Tamara and Kirsten, golden lithe forms drawn up against the mottled trunk, were scoping the jocks, and Cat was scoping the guns.
That’s what they’d done, those west-pointers – set up a firing range, aimed out east, over the flatlands, where no-one would care if a round went wild. Which they were, rather frequently, because no-one was taking this very seriously and everyone was having fun. Hawthorn kids had money, and Hawthorn kids had class, but like any human, their response to the sheer, stupid power of a gunshot was one of pure, childish giggling glee. So while Tamara and Kirsten watched the jocks positively ejaculate at the chance to devastate polythene target and the expanse of flatland alike, Cat amused herself by watching the guns, or, more specifically, the Gun, the one; out on its lonesome in the middle of the field, spitting fire between proximate pauses.
It was a sleek sliver of a weapon; a rifle, calibre unknown, but the barrel was as wide as her forearm, and at that bore it’d be bound to be a bad mothafucka. That’s what they’d call it out in the field, the bad mothafucka; she imagined a pair of dust-covered operatives in the foothills of the Kush, perched stock-still on a bluff, watching a convoy snake its way up the dry desert canyon. “Time for the bad Mothafucka,” one would say, and the other would nod, and add, ‘Time for the BM…’ One would level the gun and sight down it and…
She didn’t dare imagine what’d ensue. It didn’t seem right; she was undercover, and those thoughts belonged to a different person, to a girl called the Critic. So she sank the thought, and sat tight on it, sat tight on the very idea of such profligate firepower. She was a princess, she told herself, a princess perving on the quarterbacks and daydreaming about erotically charged liaisons in the aftermath of the prom.
It didn’t work. How could it, with the gun down there, screaming out with each shot. God! There was some goon manhandling the poor thing, firing off round after round for the gratification of a milling herd of males.
“Oh, just look at Nic!’ That was Tamara, breathless, exhaling the words and slumping delicately forward to clasp her knees. There was another thundershot from the rifle; a poor shot that flew wide off over the valley, off over the flatlands.
“Head’s up, povs!” A jock yelled, and the rest laughed.
‘Look at the kick on that thing,’ Cat thought, as the goon chambered another round. She flexed her arms experimentally; tanned, flawless, bound by friendship bracelets but, yes, a suggestion of muscle, of strength potential. Sure, yeah, she could handle it.
“I think I’m in love.” Kirsten, this time, sighing as Nic, all bronze limbs and blonde hair, took the rifle from the goon and sighted down the field. It settled at his shoulder like a desperate sophomore, but, when he pulled the trigger… well… Cat heard the bone shatter from across the field…
“I think I’m in love,” she said, quite softly, as Nic, face suddenly pale with pain and surprise, fell slowly toward the turf, and Tamara and Kirsten sprang forward to his aide.

Later, when they’d carted Nic off the field on a stretcher – oh, he could walk, wanted to walk, but Hawthorn weren’t the type of school to leave themselves wide open to litigation – and the crowd, suddenly sobered, had dispersed, she’d gone down and asked one of the officers about the gun. They were worried – she could see that, see it in the spooked set of their beautiful, bright blue eyes, in the agitated movement their clean-shaven, crew-cut heads – and perfectly conscious of the scope of their failure. They were glad to have someone to talk to, someone interested, and they told her rather more than they would have in less extenuating circumstances. It was a good gun, a very good gun, the best, in fact, and it made the drugynov rifle she had hidden away at Xavier’s place look like… well… a vastly inferior rifle. The SPARK, they’d called it.
Those thoughts and those facts were semi-there that evening, as she sat by the pool and wrote in her blog. Her personal blog, not the Critical one. Her blog, in her name, in green and grey, the Hawthorn colours.

Nickname: Cat Nine
Real Name: Catharine ‘Cat’ Helena Moorcroft
Age: 17
Study, Fashion, Music, Art, Photography, Being Seen, Friends, Religion, World Issues, Volunteering, French Movies

Preprally, Angelique, Silverfarce, Microcosmos, ElleFourty, Dentonator, MrCheese, Kimit, IchiKnee, Semioticgrrl, SambadelMuetre, Hummerking, Dervish, Pinbacker, SensibleSeth, Seraphim, FashionVictim, Hardlylikely, Mutuality, GeraldtheGiraffe, Yey4kate, Jooooorsh, Sartresayswhat?


There were recruiters at school today. Which is odd. I mean, our school (for anyone who doesn’t know, that’s Hawthorn…) isn’t the best place for them to be. The sons and daughters of socialites and stars and senators do not good soldiers make. Maybe they were looking for officer material? Who knows… all I know is that it went reaaaaaly badly for them, because Nic got his shoulder broken (in two places, that’s what Diana was saying) after some silly gun misfired or something. No-one else wanted to hang around after that so I don’t think they even got anyone’s name down, which is no surprise. I mean, we’re all off to college, am I right? Only no-hopers hit the khaki life….
Anyway, just thought you should know about Nic – I hope he gets better soon, in time for the finals. Love you guys!
CAT out!

She closed the browser and killed the connection and swung the laptop shut, waiting a moment before collapsing back into the pool chair. Being Cat was a headache, but that was all, thank-god, for today – her work was done and she could put her cover to bed. She lay there, as princess Cat ebbed away and her familiar, wellworn Critical faculties returned.
Overhead the sky was darkening, black-blue but still too light for all but the greatest stars. Two bright points, one out on the southern horizon – Canopus, although Cat would never have known that – and Venus, hanging high above the downtown smog line, pinned up in splendid isolation. Watching it, she felt suddenly, terribly alone, terribly empty; as if something had broken inside of her, broken and gone.
She often felt this way when she was between the Cat and the Critic, and so she lay there until the ennui subsided, and when she finally rose she was the Critic once more, a girl on a mission; heading down into the valley, down on out to Xavier’s place.

There was a Ghostwriter billsheet strung up on the southbound overpass – Luc Welson, black jumpsuit and blank stare; impassive, looking out over the wavelets of cars heading home – the city’s crepuscular ejecta. The cold blue flames behind him were dancing in the twilight, dancing as the trillions of tiny inkules switched and span and swam across the sheet.
‘Looks shit,’ she thought, as she passed beneath the banner. It wasn’t just a knee-jerk statement, it was categorical, verifiable. She’d seen the vlickr previews, been PM’d by incensed fans of the comic, by Steve Lohmann himself, who’d been disenfranchised ever since the studio optioned to the rights to Ghostwriter – she knew what a mess it was. Take Welson – obvious miscast there. She liked him, would never consider him as a prospective mark, but there was no-denying that the only character he ever played was Luc Welson – laid-back, sweetly charming photogenic Luc Welson. He wasn’t the Ghostwriter – wasn’t the brooding melancholiac that Lohmann had imagined and sketched so wonderfully in his sparse prose and ghostly ink-wash illustrations.
She wondered who was directing it. An unknown, probably – it always was, on a monstrous project like that; an unknown as an unknowing butcher. She’d have to find out who he was and then she’d have to kill him. But not tonight. Friday, maybe – Friday evening, after Elle’s party… after she’d caught the SPARK. It’d be a chance to try it out, take the thing for a spin.

Xavier Kilmore lived with his parents in a quiet street in a leafy enclave a few minutes east of the city. It was nice – not rich, certainly not by the Critic’s stratospheric standards, but comfortable. She cruised past the trappings of this careful class – the streetline elm trees and the hunkered bungalows and the frontyard lawns half hidden by lazy chest-high walls and hedges and palings. Her pale-red wrangler shot down the elm-tunnel, past shadowed streets with just-glimpsed names; Jacaranda Close, Aspen Court – tiny doses of botanical efflorescence. That was all she ever saw – the streets and the signs and the trees and the dark houses gliding on by.
God, it was silent – like she driving in a vacuum, an emptiness unacknowledged by all the warm little houses tripping past. Up in the hills people lived public lives because they were afraid of being alone, and down in the flatlands they lived public lives out of sheer necessity, but here, in the middle ground, they shunned it. The rich shaped the world and the poor had no escape, but the middleworlder… they were the quiet type, the retiring type, the type that would care less what you did than what you thought. Thinkers. Dangerous people.
Naw. Fuckit. She thought, as she eased the wrangler up on to the curb outside Xavier’s place. You’re starting to sound like Ayn Rand. We’re all just as profligate as each other. She swung herself out the door and turned to survey her handiwork – a stereotyped ditzy park, jack-knifed up onto the verge. An excellent piece of deep cover, Ms Critic, she thought.
“Nice parking…”
The critic turned. It was Emmy, Xavier’s little kid sister; pink, pig-tailed super-cynic and sometime extrovert, standing in shaft of porchlight spilling out onto the driveway.
“Thanks, sweetie” the Critic replied, bits of Catharine – vocal inflexion, the shoulder driven hair-flick – rising rapidly though spectral alert stages and shunting into readiness.
“Cut it out,” Emmy said, levelly. “You’re not fooling anybody…”
The Critic relaxed – it was this game, then, and she could ditch the cover. “It works with your parents,” she offered.
“We’re not our parents.” Emmy declared, folding her arms at her chest.
“You’d hope not, wouldn’t you?” The critic set off up the drive, Emmy falling into skipalong step as she passed.
“Trevor’s been mooning over you all week.” Trevor was Xavier’s real name – but you’d never know if you hadn’t spent time around his family.
“Really?” It was always a little confronting, being reminded of how much he liked her.
“You haven’t been round in ages…”
“Sorry, honey. Things’ve been real hectic.” The Critic said, eyes ahead, trying to ignore that little note of reproach in Emmy’s voice. The girl liked her as well – as most people did – which intrigued the Critic because, as far as she could tell, she didn’t actually like anyone. She kept up a pretence of affection – mainly because, on an intellectual level, this was how she knew normal people behaved – but she’d never felt, deep down, a like or a love or an anything. When she wasn’t playing Cat she tended to shy away from society, to shy away from that glaring internal emptiness. She was, on reflection, very possibly a sociopath. That’d at least explain the killing, which had always troubled her, because she hadn’t felt a skerricking twinge of anything when that was going down. Yet she wasn’t a total freak because she knew something was awry; knew that there was something broken inside of her. A conscientious sociopath, then?
Emmy led her indoors, into the kitchen. Mr and Mrs Kilmore were home, over by the counter, engaged in that conversational frivol that the Critic imagined was a happy marriage’s stock in trade. They pretended not to see her – that was part of the game, too; the whole family was in on it, a friendly game of ‘FU rich girl.’
“…it’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it?” Mr Kilmore, pointedly ignoring his wife as she poured herself a monstrous, meniscus level glass of wine.
“We’ve done all we can.” Mrs Kilmore, eyes on the glass. “They can’t say we haven’t helped…”
“That’s the point. We’ve still got the capacity to help, so they’re saying ‘why don’t you?’”
“They don’t understand other people. They think we’re all robots – that we don’t actually think. That we don’t actually feel.” Mrs Kilmore took a deep draught – so at odds with her deportment it seemed almost obscene – and smiled. The Critic admired the way her teeth stayed so white.
“That’s it, isn’t it,” Mrs Kilmore continued. “People don’t know where to draw the line. We think we’ve done enough and they think we’ve hardly scratched the surface…”
“It shouldn’t be about drawing lines,” her husband muttered.
“But since it is, since it unavoidably is, it should be very clear and very precise. On paper, if necessary. Everybody goes on about pre-nups and so-one – why not have a contract with your friends.”
“Because it’s selfish. It’s not a bloody business transaction. It’s not about give and take. It’s…”
“…it’s about knowing where to draw the line?”
Mr Kilmore shrugged. Mrs Kilmore shot him a cheerfully withering look.
“… this ‘help’ is harming your own family by omission, and I don’t see…”
“Mom! Dad!” Emmy shouted, springing into the fray, dashing their conversation against the rocky shoal of a nine-year olds’ enthusiasm. “Cat’s here!”
“Ah,” Mr Kilmore syllabised.
“We hadn’t noticed,” Mrs Kilmore added. She swung about to face the Critic, wineglass cupped in salute. “Are you staying for dinner, Catharine?”
“Mu-uhm!” Little spiky Emmy, voice laden with scorn. “Of course she is….”

Of course she wasn’t.
‘Come and listen to me play, Cat,’ the little girl had asked. ‘It’s a Toccata. In B. I can almost play it the whole way through, Cat! Come and listen!’ But she’d said no, and Emmy had gone very quiet, and slunk away into the mysterious depths of the house to tend to her wounds.
“That was rather mean…” Xavier suggested, as he bolted his bedroom door.
“Unavoidable.” The Critic said. “I needed to talk to you. Really.”
She was sitting cross-legged on his bed midst a tangled knot of sheets, the drugynov’s guitar case open on her lap.
“Another piece of work?” He asked, his back to the door.
“A personal project. Something happened at school today…”
“Not to me,” she added quickly, catching his eye. “I just saw something that I liked the look of.”
“So why do we need that?” He asked, indicating the drugynov, which had been dissected and strewn across the duvet. “We said we’d never get involved in something martial for personal gain…”
“I know that,” she said, sighting down the silencer. “You’ve kept this all nice and spick and span, Xavier. Good work.”
“You didn’t answer me. Why are we treating this like a mark?”
“The Jedi’s were up my school today. I don’t know why, don’t really care why. But they brought this equipment, you know, to wow us?”
“All sorts of heavy artillery – showing it off to the jocks, sort of saying, ‘here, this could be yours….’ Boring stuff. But there was this one gun – Xavier, you should have seen it. I wish I could’ve traced a few rounds with it, but… well, you know how Cat behaves.”
“Not really. I don’t see her very often.”
“Anyway, Cat was up there watching this gun, and some idiot shoulders it and fires it and she swears she heard his clavicle break. This is from, like, a hundred yards away. It was so profligate!”
“Is that your word for the week?”
“Ye-ha. So, after everyone had freaked and cleared off Cat went down there and had a chat to one of the Force gimps. You know why that kid broke his shoulder?”
“Because he closed the reaction exhaust. This gun, Xavier – get this – this gun is a recoilless rifle.”
“Like a rocket-launcher?”
“Yes! Just, you know, with bullets, and faster. It’s a recoilless sniper rifle, Xavier! It’s got, what, maybe six or seven miles range…”
“And the accurate range?”
“That is the accurate range…” She waited a moment, waited for it to percolate.
“If we get this, we can do more and we can do it safer…”
“You’ve got to stop being so monosyllabic, Xavier. It doesn’t do your brilliant mind justice.”
“Sorry. Just a little overwhelmed. I meant; so, how does this tie into tonight’s work?”
“It is tonight’s work. We’re going to nick it.”
“Oh.” Then, at length. “Does it have a name?”
“The S.P.A.R.K.”
“Cute. What does it mean?”
“Cat asked one of the Jedi, and Cat said it meant ‘the SuPersonic Anti Rocket Killer’”
“Even cuter. It’s like the Force has a department just devoted to inventing cool acronyms.”
“I think they come up with the name before they come up with the device.”
“Like T.H.U.N.D.E.R.”
“Like that, yeah…”

Under the 'net


Joined January 2008

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