Among the Metal People

“…4…3…2…1, Happy New Year!” Confetti covers my signature fedora. Paper pieces swirl in my lungs. I choke.

I hate meaningless holiday–and the people who love them.  Sounds like one of those ancient daytime trash talk shows.

But my disdain casts no shadow on the merriment. Chatter, piercing paperhorns, and streetlights converge on my drug-influenced mind.

The world is surreal. People are few; ParaHumans are many.

“More Juice?” slurs a squat girl shoving her extended arm against my nose. I notice her tattooed skin peels away, exposing her metal frame. “More!” She points to a rusted hole in the bend of her arm. 

“She’s already gone,” I say, overturning my breast-shaped flask careful to keep my finger securely over its spout, protecting its prized liquid. 

I lie. Of course I have more. Just not for some pre-revolutionary series. Had she been one of those new statuesque Geth-LC200s, I’d have let her drink it all–with a more than generous side of that too. 

She’s not beautiful or interesting or innovative, and she’s not my target. So, I deny her. She’ll move to the next human man or sloshed A.I. for her fix. 

My vision blurs. “Too much Juice,” I say before flooding my mouth again with lime-colored liquid fire. 

“When will you learn, you damn fool? Keep your head! Find the girl. Take the birdcage,” says Mr. Crusty, the parasitic voice dwelling within my brain. He’s always more belligerent when I drown him in bargain-counter Juice–Brutal Major brand–the cheap stuff.

“Yeah. Yeah, I know. Girl. Birdcage. Then,” I try to stare him down deep inside my muddled brain. My eyes cross, “I’ll spring—-“

“–for Tarragon Tremor? I’d like that!” 

“Maybe then I’d be rid of you!” I jab my forehead violently.

“Better move,” he warns. “There she is.”

Dana Steelmark clutched her black cage, striding with masterful command of sultry hips, while teetering on tiny feet and spiked heels.

With a final smack–and a barrage of four-letter words to my interloper–I approach.

“I oughta kill you,” I say stepping in front of the femme fatale.

“Would you come to my funeral?”

“Sister, I’d be in the coffin with you.”

Her red lips pout; she cuts her eyes knowingly. “Is that so, Stan Sharpe?”

“I see my reputation proceeds me.”

“Not at all. Your dry cleaning tag’s still pinned to your collar.” She flicks her cigarette.

“Smooth, Meatwallet,” Mr. Crusty says. “She thinks you’re a dunce–she’s not wrong–but you can use that.”

“I’m no meatwallet!” I mistakenly say aloud, rather than screaming it in my brain.

“No?” she asks. “But I like my burgers and I love my addiction–shopping, you know?” Dana winked and puckered a kiss to the air.

Got her!

My hand sneaks between the bars that are oddly too wide to cage anything. I yank entrapping my arm as it dangles like an old woman’s purse. 

 “You could’ve asked for it,” she says depressing a hidden button that releases my ensnared appendage.

I flush. “Do you Juice?” I hold out my novelty flask. 

Dana raises an eyebrow. “Does my body look like I do?”

I give her a once–and then a twice–over. Her black dress clings to her like a fabric night to a killing moon. Smiling, she spreads her fingers revealing Juicing eyelets–not corroded like the junky’s but rimmed in gold.

“Three. Impressive.”

“I have more.” She leans in, her breath tickling my neck. “Assuming you know where to look.”

Everything stood on end.

“Stan!” Mr. Crusty was mad…really mad. “Your mission!”

“All this for a metal dome with bars,” I say, lifting the cage. 

 “It’s a shame, really.” Dana pulls out a miniature pistol. “You’re kinda cute. The stupid kind of cute–”

I nod. “I get that.”

“–but mostly stupid.”

I crumple to my knees, awaiting her fatal bullet.

“Commence termination.” The corners of her mouth turned down.

Obnoxious partyers emerge from shadowed streets, saluting and snapping into militant goons, guns drawn.

Dana looks down at me with pity? Or regret? 

“BIRDCAGE…It’s an anagram!” I jump to my feet. “ACIDER? No, leaves an unaccounted ‘B’ and a ‘G.’ Or RIBCAGE D.? Doesn’t make sense.”

Inexplicably, my thumb twitches in staccato spasms.


Dana lowers her weapon and lifts her chin.

“There’s a ‘C’ leftover.” Letters flash before my eyes. “What about that damn thing?” It hits me. “Not ‘C’ but ‘S-E-A!’ BIRDCAGE is the code name for the Sea Brigade’s list of kill sites.”

The cage melts into a congealed puddle, shrinking into an electronic board no bigger than a chocolate chip.

“She’s astounded by your intellect, Juicehead,” Mr. Crusty says. 

“He’s working it out! Abort!”

“Can’t do that, Sergeant Steelmark,” a brawny solider says to Dana. “Commander Crusty’s orders.”

She tensed. “Run, Stan Sharpe!”

I dart without thought, as if under her control, but my feet tangle in a potpourri of party supplies and alley loiterers.

A bullet slices my body. My hat falls to the ground. Lime liquid spills from the gaping hole in my side; I stem its flow. 

I sputter. 

The pavement soaks in green glaze. My eyes widen as my hand meets the cool metal beneath my skin. Memory returns and I understand.

“Fitting end,” says Mr. Crusty aloud, “for a damn STAY-SHARPE model.” No longer a disembodied voice in my head, he steps forward, his gun smoking. “Goodbye, Dana.”

“I can’t leave,” she says.

He turns from her.

“Stan passed your test.”

“The STAY-SHARPE series has always been…faulty,” he says.

“Willful, you mean.” She spat.

“This one failed to follow its drone operator’s–that is my–directions to a satisfactory level,” Mr. Crusty says. 

He snatches my fedora. “Always hated this thing!” With glee, he stamps “Ausegespielt” across its brim and smacks it onto my head, denting its crown.

 “I’m finally rid of you.” I cough a laugh, my life force slipping. “But did you have to ruin my hat?”

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