Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction

Climbing Jacob's Ladder

[Originally published in Planet Magazine and reprinted in Figment.]

The sun never shone in Hell, and folks never saw the stars. That was what they missed more than anything, why they hated it so much. Three-quarters of the luminary panels had been shattered by punks or juicers, leaving the leprous metal skin of the place in perpetual dusk. Except, of course, during sleep-cycle, when the wary fled the glowtube-speckled darkness to cower in their apartments until it passed; when demon-boys and blackhearts lurked in hungry shadows, swallowing the foolish, the unlucky, and each other. During day-cycle a homeboy could move around if he knew which areas were DMZ, if he crossed the turf borders in the right places and could afford the tolls. It was still a dangerous place, day or night. Food, clothes, medicine, tronix - Hell got the worst of everything, shoddy discards from up the Ladder. Still, what bothered most folks was not seeing the sun.

Raghib Jones could scam his way out of Hell. At least once a week he tubed up the Ladder, through the nether levels all the way to Paradise: Chicago Metro Level Five. Up there, above the stratified metal shell of the city, he could walk under an open sky beside the Topsiders. Sometimes he stayed past sunset, ignoring sublevel curfews so he could watch the stars sparkle above Lake Michigan, watch the moon glow overhead like a wedge of ripened honeydew. Being the best hacker on the nets bought him that precious breath of freedom. If the Ladder cops caught him, they'd toss his ass in the juvie Hellpits for sure. He didn't give a damn. Everybody deserved a taste of sunshine, and it wasn't fair that folks buried on Level One couldn't afford it. Besides, there were worse things to worry about than Ladder cops.

One of those worse things hacked into Raghib's net session without warning. The Netware Engineering classroom of Virtual University dissolved around him, replaced with a swirling fractal fog. Raghib cursed as the image of an immense dragon filled his goggles, its armored body covered with scales the color of jade, its tail bristling with bony spikes dripping blood. Leathery wings billowed like sails above a serpentine neck that ended in a human face. Akuma, leader of the Helldragons, his slanted eyes glowing like hot slag.

Akuma's lips parted in a razor smile. "Hey, Raw, how you got time to link into that sweet little Topside college when you so busy fucking with my Dragons?"

Raghib juiced up his own virtual image: a proud black warrior with bulging biceps and a glittering afro sculpted into the sleek outline of a spaceplane. A righteous look, kind of an astral Malcolm X on steroids. "I'm takin' them classes 'cause they my ticket outa here, Akuma. I just wanna stay clean and get my family up the Ladder. I don' mess with nobody, 'specially not your Dragons."

Akuma's spiny tail twitched. "Ninja Storm hit our Stoney Island dojo last night. Killed ten soldiers, left five more scrambled. Cut through our guard-dog netware like it not there. Word is no way they do that without Raw."

Raghib winced. "Man, that's rat shit an' you know it! I don' soldier for no Ninja Storm, and I don' soldier for no Helldragons. I just do my classes and stay outa y'alls way. I don' want no part o' no gang war!"

"You sing sweet, Raw, like mockingbird. But mockingbird lies. I want proof you not Storm's boy. You hack for Dragons. Then I know you not my enemy."

Raghib shook his head. "No way, man. I'll send you just like I did Shibo an' the Storm. I don' hack for hire. I don' do gang biz."

A tongue of flame flicked from Akuma's mouth. "Hey, kage, you play game with me. How you like if I play nasty with your woolly old Mama-san? Maybe your sweet little kage brother?"

Raghib's realtime fists clenched inside his gloves, glove sensors translating the movements into digital pulses that caused his virtual image to mirror the gesture. The racial slur didn't bother him. Kage - Japanese for 'shadow.' Who gave a shit. But threatening Mama and Jamaal? Man, this squint was begging for a giga-jolt of juice in his wetware! Raghib's temper sizzled like a pissed-on powerpack.

"You mess with my blood an' you’ll see how nasty the game can get. I'll kick your skinny yellow ass, an' I won't need no Ninja Storm to help!"

Akuma's dragon roar shook the nets. "You gone, kage, you hear? You yurei! You a fucking ghost!"

"That's right. I walk through walls an' slip through your greasy fingers like smoke. Just don' be steppin' on my grave."

Raghib purged the Helldragon simulacrum from his netspace before the crazy Jap could rant at him again. Level One was getting too hot for someone who refused to choose sides. He had to finish his degree so he could get his family up to Level Two. Level Two could still bleed you, but at least folks there kept trying. They kept their eyes up. Not much left in Hell but fog-eyed zombies with no hope. And bloodsuckers like Akuma who kept them that way. Damn, he hated the gangs! He wouldn’t let them drain the life out of Mama and Jamaal. He stripped off his interface gear, trembling with rage.

Jamaal punched him in the arm, a good shot for a bony ten-year-old, and stared at him with pleading eyes. "Hey, man, you din't forget?"

Raghib grinned, his ill temper fading. "Nah, I din't forget. Come on, monkey."

Mama raised her tired head from the gel-couch, silver hair bristling like steel wool. A lifetime in Hell had etched deep fissures into her face. "Where you boys off to?"

Raghib sighed, knowing Mama would hassle him. "Promised I'd take Jam tubin' today, let him breathe a little rich man's air. The boy ain't never seen Heaven, Mama. I 'spect it's time he did."

Mama's eyes flashed. "The boy's name ain't Jam, it's Jamaal. And your name ain't Raw, it's Raw-heeb. You use it, boy. Your Daddy gave you that 'fore this place ate him. That's a freedom name, gonna take you straight up the Ladder someday, if you don' get yourself thrown in the Hellpits 'fore that can happen!"

Jamaal's wide brown eyes narrowed in disgust. "Ah, Mama, Raw promised! I just gotta see the sky with my own eyes, not in no vid. Even the rats too scared to come out in this smelly ol' dump."

Mama waved a gnarled finger at both of them. "Maybe them rats got more sense than both of you. There's a lot of evil 'tween here an' the tubes!"

Raghib spoke quietly enough to smother her anger. "The boy's tired of suckin' soot down here. He needs real air an' sunshine. I swear I'll take care of him."

Mama seemed to age several decades before Raghib's eyes. He hated to pain her, to play on her guilt, but she had to face the truth. She busted her ass - did the best she could for them - but the best of Level One was still shit, and she couldn't turn it into gold. She sank back into the gooey gel-couch with a sigh. "You feed him while you up there, an' make damn sure he wears plenty of UV blocker. 'An you get back 'fore curfew, or I'll beat both your black butts 'til they purple!"

Raghib and Jamaal raced down the hall, laughing too loud, acting dopey. Raghib checked the lobby monitors carefully before palming through the flophouse exit into the gray twilight of Hell's day-cycle. Mama was right about one thing: evil ruled the streets, and Jamaal was just a kid. Raghib scanned the shadows for trouble as he hauled his little brother through the skeletal remains of Old Downtown toward the Michigan Ave Tube. Jamaal jittered and jived like a juicer at the top of his buzz.

They hurried down Grand, dodging a pack of tattooed, depilated blackhearts cooking a slab of ribs over a heating vent at the corner of Michigan Ave. Raghib's stomach lurched. Only the craziest blackhearts came out during day-cycle. He wondered which poor dumb juicer had been butchered in an alley so this bunch could have their little picnic. Raghib tried to block Jamaal's view, but he couldn't block out the reek of smoking flesh. As they hustled to put some pavement between themselves and the blackhearts, the battered entrance to the CTA Tubeline came into view - the gateway to blue sky and green grass and cotton-ball clouds. The gateway to a ten-year-old's dreams.

A street freak lumbered out of the alley beside them, the smell reaching them before he got within five meters. His toothless mouth dribbled spittle across a ruined face cratered with radiation scars. He mumbled something that sounded like a plea as he stretched two scabrous hands toward Jamaal. Raghib grabbed his brother with both arms and backed away, Jamaal's little-boy scream jabbing into his eardrums. The freak distracted him only for a moment.

A moment too long.

Four lean teenagers slipped out of an abandoned flophouse between him and the Tube, silver jackets shimmering with jade dragons that seemed to dance inside their chests. Akuma's boys. Shit! Raghib watched in horror as two of them raised stingers to their mirrored eyes and sighted, numbly realizing he still held Jamaal in his arms. He ducked under the palsied swipe of the street freak and hurled Jamaal toward the mouth of the alley. A beam of ruby light scorched across his back and he heard the freak's gurgling scream. Two more beams exploded at chest-level, dropping Raghib into a vat of agony.

Long minutes passed as he struggled through an ocean of liquid fire. He lay on his stomach on the filthy pavement, his head turned toward the alley. Jamaal sprawled a few meters away, limbs akimbo like a broken doll. Two grinning Helldragons loomed over him, stingers bulging inside their silver jackets. One of them pulled a crystal dagger from his belt and knelt beside Jamaal, burying the blade in what remained of the boy’s chest to claim the kill. Raghib fought to move, to scream, but could do nothing. His traitorous body would not even let him pour out the grief that welled behind his eyes. When the second Dragon bent to thrust a dagger into Raghib's own back, Raghib welcomed it. Still he felt nothing. Where was the pain? He wanted it, wanted something to fill the void. Please, God, let me die. I promised. I promised to take Jam to Heaven.

As the world faded into midnight, Raghib Jones stared at the wreckage of his brother, searching for the boy's departed spirit. And for the strength to cry.