Friday, May 5, 2017

Chapter Fiction by Josh Wagner: Jackie Zhao, A Case Study

Today I'd like to take a different tack and share with you one of the five interrelated pieces of chapter fiction written by my friend, travel-seasoned author, and Gathox guinea pig, Josh Wagner.

JACKIE ZHAO (A Case Study)

His cough won't go away. It started eleven weeks ago with a tickle at the base of the throat, a dry palate, and a scratchiness under the tongue. Only mild coughing, no other symptoms. But it wouldn’t go away. Two weeks later he stopped by Kin's clinic on the sixth floor, sat for twenty minutes with a big view of the Kettle out her waiting room window. She called him in and blasted flood lights down his throat and told him everything looked normal. “You feel a fever you come back,” she said.

Jackie’s family lives at 349H on level 8, Quarter East. By coincidence he was born at 3:49am, which his mother always corrects his brother when he uses that word--coincidence. “It's a miracle,” she insists. “Jamie's little miracle.” But Jackie can no longer afford to believe in synchronicity. First he lost his last job over a misunderstanding. Now his health. What next?

He doesn't actually feel all that bad. Coughs like the devil first thing in the morning, but during the day his energy is high and his throat is fine. Jackie doesn’t drag himself out of bed until he gets so hungry he can't stand it. But once he's up and moving everything is back to normal.

A month after his visit to Kin, Jackie has a fit so intense it literally throws him out of bed. He runs to the bathroom sink and hacks until something comes up. A little thing he catches in his hand before it can vanish down the drain, just to look, just a need to see what's coming out of the body. Blood and phlegm, spotty and thick--but something else in there, too. Something black. Old blood from deep down maybe?

He drops it in a glass. A loud, clinking sound. He fills it a quarter with water and swishes and strains it and what's left over is like a flat, black plastic ring with a tab at one end. He's just wondering what the actual fuck when another fit takes him to his knees. His eyes are watering. He can't keep steady enough to get back to the sink so it all comes out on the peeling tile. A thick, yellow wad. And then more blood. It sprays forth from way back like his throat's a high pressure valve and someone just cracked it with a spike. When the stream stops there's a puddle big enough to make a handprint.

Jackie sifts through the bile and finds a dozen tiny machine parts: a metal pinion, a cog, and a rubber seal. The next day there's more of the same, along with plastic valves, sockets and wee springs. He washes them all off and puts them on a little shelf in the sunlight.

The coughing gets worse every day from then on. Hurts like hell. What’s nice is the fifteen minutes or so after things come up and out, when Jackie can feel a warmish kind of glow in his stomach. In these moments his breath comes easy and slow, like pure spring water filling his body with light, and always follows this sketchy vision in the head of some giant, writhing, interconnected structure of spiraling machinery far out in the desert. It makes him understand the whole city of Gathox is but a fragment in some vast and tangled system whose purpose, Jackie can tell, is to bind a bridge from the core of the planet to the power of the sun.

Jackie trades in a few old things he inherited from his mother for a small space in the Dregs. Here he sets up his table and covers it with the tiny machine parts hacked up over the previous three weeks, some too small to see without a magnifying lens. At first people buy them for the novelty. What adorable little trinkets, so precisely made, will you take five silver for this one? It doesn't cost Jackie anything but discomfort, so he lets them name their price. By the time they come back the following week to complain, he's already spent it all on shitty anti-starvation noodle machines.

“I put it under glass, the little spring,” a customer says. “Now it's gone. And my neighbor bought one of the pinions and she says that vanished too.”

Jackie explains he's not responsible for what's lost or stolen, but the old man tells him nothing's lost or stolen—he'd kept it safe and now it's gone. Besides, he's asked around and it's happened to everyone. Like these things are just evaporating into thin air.

There's a mob around Jackie now, mostly folks who didn't make a purchase but who want to make trouble. Then a girl rushes in screaming hallelujah. “It's a miracle,” she says, how their boiler started working again after being deemed hopelessly kaput by every mechanic in Huttimer territory, and her pops thinks it had to be the little cog he bought from Jackie. Set it on the old boiler because there was nowhere else to put it. Then it vanished. Then the AC coughed to life.

Of course everyone's skeptical at first, but Jamie clears out his stock to replace the parts that vanished for his customers. When they get home naturally they figure what could it hurt and they put them on some busted machine or other. And in no time at all every dead device is back up and running; Jackie's little miracles, they're saying. And business booms.

One morning, after a fit so severe it wipes him out for the rest of the day, Jackie has a dream. In the dream he's still coughing. Sitting on a couch on the rooftop sixteen flights above his apartment. Surrounded by pigeons and antennas, flora outgrowing their pots, raw materials for a bridge someone intends to build between this roof and the one next door. He's on the couch hacking away, in his dream, and he can feel something lodged in his throat, loosening with each gasp. Takes a deep breath and slams those lungs like a bellows and out comes a long nylon rope, whipping up into the clouds. Seems no end to it, but he can feel it unraveling somewhere in his chest. Now he's in the desert and the great structure from his vision is nearly complete. The people building it are like little turtle men, no higher than Jackie's knee, each one hunched under their hardshell backpacks. The rope still uncoils from within, flying toward the sun. The turtle men watch and sing, keeping the whole system in motion. Their song sounds like a choir of sneezes, hiccups, and wheezes. The rope has latched in some outer orbit and it’s pulling the planet up and into the sun. He panics and opens his eyes.

A few weeks later, Jackie's got the most popular shop in the Dregs. He can't cough shit out fast enough to keep up with the demand. Which on the one hand is great because it drives prices up and now Jackie's rolling in it, but of course he can't exactly force himself to produce any faster or train other people to do what he does, so every day is basically angry mobs all the time fighting for their place in line. He stops going down to the market at all, takes cash up front, and has pieces delivered to clients by bicycle until one of his kids gets bikejacked and Jackie upgrades to some muscle and an armored rickshaw.

He avoids doctors and medicine. Requires bodyguards of his own after threats from the local mechanics guild. Jackie’s sure they’re the ones that sent him anonymous envelopes dusted with dextromethorphan and various antihistamines. He's starting to get word from the top, or somewhere near the top, or the mystery that may or may not be something like a top at all, that a man with his skills could be useful in a starship reclamation project. But he's not interested. “I'm too sick to travel,” he says. “Half the day now I'm in bed.”

He’s still dreaming all the time. Now the planet hurtles toward the sun with Jackie at the helm; feels like his intestines ripping out through his face. He bites down on the rope to relieve the ache in his chest. The earth flies headlong into searing heat. The desert's mechanical gyro whirls and grinds. He sees Gathox way down under a tower of milling flywheels and pressurized valves and a complex network of coiling cable and pipework. The clans of turtle people rejoice. Jackie can't fathom it. What's to rejoice about when it’s all moments away from crisping up like Tol Zhanda’s secret recipe for fried spiders? He can feel the heat sucking moisture out of his skin. It's all over, he thinks. Wakey wakey. Time to shine. But he doesn't. He starts slipping between consciousnesses, either to wake up or never wake again in any form but ash. He feels the rope tighten and his legs leap of their own volition. Bounding as high as a wish, but doesn't come down. Dislodged from the surface of the earth. The centripetal force thrusts the planet outward far, far past the pull of the sun. Jackie floats in the void, watching the blue sphere soar away like a marble from a sling or an interstellar cruiser aimed for forever.

Jackie no longer leaves his home. Every morning the cough brings pain, then a flowering light.

His apartment is empty and dark. He keeps no machinery here. One rug, a small couch for clients and visitors, and an open window for his entertainment.

At night the wild shouts and flickering shadows from the Kettle lull him to sleep. But he startles himself awake whenever he can manage it. He no longer finds pleasure in dreams.

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