2018-12-31 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Machines

Millr lowered the heavy, slatted wooden partitions over the two exposed sides of his kiosk, then secured them with several thick, weighty iron locks. He was lucky to have gotten this kiosk at the end of the block—a triangular space where the two major foot paths merged. He'd won the space in the lottery, and he'd won the lottery by a very generous payment to the man running the lottery. Business was good.

He took a couple of small bags of trash and placed them in the cart attached to his bicycle. Everything would be reused, recycled or composted. He said goodnight to his neighbor who responded without turning around, thrusting a waving hand up into the air.

There were plenty of shops that stayed open at night. The market lit up with paper cages full of fireflies and strings of recycled diodes that lacked any consistent hue. Big, graphic banners offered food and drink, or semi-legal repair jobs, or black market recombinations.

You will not create more machines. The third Shrub law.

Recombiners brazenly ignored the thousands of pages of guidelines by the provisional government about how to follow the law. Their argument, when they were occasionally arrested, was that nothing new was invented, nothing new came into existence, they were merely swapping, repurposing, reconditioning. And yet there wasn't much they couldn't make if the parts were available.

The slabs that ReeLs were put on were different—complex micro-circuitry built by a multi-national before Surrender and designed with every intention of thwarting reverse engineering. But it was only a matter of time, Millr thought, before the Recombiners make something that works out of old broken toasters and antique handsets. It won't be pretty but he bet somebody would get it done. Then what would he do? He made a nice income this way, everybody came to him, maybe he'd have to start over, maybe he'd have to negotiate with the Recombiners and that little shit Willm. That kid was viciously smart, and maybe nuts, but that could just be age talking. He didn't know what would happen, but he knew he had to expect change. Twenty years ago he thought he had it all planned out, then the Shrubs happened.

Millr pulled his bike, hauling the trash, up to the market bins. This was part of the agreement of market business, you gave them your trash and they got everything out of it they could. Trash was gold. There was always someone watching over the bins, the people in charge doled this job out as a coveted reward to the low level denizens of the system. It was an easy job and you could get first pick.

Today Blly was the guy watching over the bins. Blly had no front teeth and consequently tended to spit on you if you were standing closely, particularly if he was worked up by any number of constant inequities.

"Millr," Blly said.

"Blly," Millr said.

"That new ReeL, Millr," Blly said.

"Yes, Blly," said Millr.

"Anymore like that?" Blly asked.

"Oh, I don't know, I get what I can. You like it?" Millr said.

"Yeah. I like it. A lot. You seen it?" Blly asked.

"A couple minutes. Pretty busy, can't see them all," Millr said.

"A lot. I liked it a lot. You should see it," Blly said.

"OK Blly, I will."

Millr emptied the cart with Blly's help.

As he rode home he thought about this brief exchange. Blly wasn't, how you'd say, a connoisseur. He preferred guffawing at Heckle, those short ReeLs with dumb, repetitive jokes or footage of people doing painfully stupid things. Often Heckle was simply a rearrangement of stuff already in other Heckles. They were very popular. Millr was surprised Blly had this latest ReeL, he was even more surprised Blly liked it enough to say something. Millr told himself he would watch the entire thing when he got home.

As he neared the outer edge of the market he had to navigate through clusters of incoming crowds. Night people coming in, day people going out. He walked his bicycle and tried to keep the pedals from snagging on other bicycles or peoples' bags. Yeah, business was good, plenty of people came to the market. When he was a child there used to be shopping malls and his memory of them was of strange, vast sterility, places that were abandoned financially but had yet to become actually decrepit. You could wander in the large, climate controlled halls and hear the echo of your own footsteps, maybe punctuated by an electronic ping from a lonely, nearby machine. These places would've disappeared one way or another, Shrubs or no Shrubs, he thought.

Once the market faded behind him he could get some more speed on the bike, feel the wind in what was left of his hair. There were copious properties on either side of him, empty, vines and trees having taken over the land and the buildings so that they looked like noble, ancient creatures, moving slower than could be perceived, towards spawning grounds somewhere far up the street.

The buildings thinned out and there were fields. Probably houses were once here, he thought, but now the land was used to grow food. He passed a few then turned off onto his road.

At the front of his own house was ample evidence of at least three unfinished projects. He saw Taryn in the back, moving compost. Trash was gold.

He went into the house and put his bag down. He'd traded for a decent bottle of wine and he opened it. He had work to do, to prepare things for market tomorrow, but he was eager to see the ReeL, the newest one he'd gotten from Willm that Blly liked. He took the bottle of wine to the basement. In the back, next to his work bench, he stooped down and removed a section of the uneven flooring. Inside were dozens of ReeLs, leaning together neatly. He extracted one at nearest edge. Yup, that was it. He always copied the latest ReeLs that came through, for himself. Copying was relatively straightforward. You placed the source at the bottom, then an identically sized, proprietary copier slab on top of it, which was black, not gray. Then the destination slab was put on top of that. Press the appropriate corners and the top slab will match the bottom one—whatever ReeL that was on top will be replaced, gone. Copier slabs were uncommon. He had two. One he kept locked in the kiosk, the other here. He constantly worried about losing them or them breaking.

Of course the harder part was producing the ReeLs in the first place. You needed special, old, pre-Surrender equipment for that. It was still a mystery to him who did actual production. He knew there were three, maybe four, crews that produced the black market ReeLs. The ReeLs created by the government weren't worth consideration, they were consistently terrible, laughably awful.

He placed the ReeL on the table, turned it on and sat back. He'd seen the first minute or two when Willm gave it to him. His initial impression was negative because the lighting was so dark, he preferred ReeLs that were big and bright. But as he watched, there was something about this one, a closeness, a richness. It quickly drew him in. Perhaps it was relative contrast but the few colors here were intense. He suspected immediately that they had shot this with a different rig. A couple minutes after this, he was positive. His pulse quickened. Where had they gotten it? Was it one of the old indie rigs or had they actually figured out how to make their own? Visually it was more impressive than anything he'd seen in forever. And nobody else would've seen anything like this in decades. He remembered the early ReeLs, the ones that were art, the great ones, but that kid Willm wouldn't know about anything like those, they were all gone, almost all gone. Only the most insipid, crowd pleasing junk had survived on the dwindling set of hardware, an unfortunate devolution.

The atmosphere here is dense, I can taste it, I can feel the texture of it. And where was it set? It looked like they were in a Shrub field. A power field. The rocking motion of the tall, huge solar leaves created an oscillating effect, giving it a disquieting impression of being underwater. Things swooshed, back and forth. The sound, he realized, was loud, but in the background almost pure droning.

We followed a girl through the field, at dusk. Was she running from someone? There was an urgency in her movement, she weaved and dodged. She came up out of the field onto a hill. The ascent had a revelatory feeling. In the distance he could see a Shrub citadel—the green, jagged, amorphous mound likely a hundred feet high at its peak, as if a giant gardener had dumped a huge pile of sticks and leaves on the horizon. Parts of it glistened with wetness. Other parts seemed to move slowly, a time-lapse of creeping vines, the slow motion of an opening flower which you're internally aware of but hesitant to declare as motion. It changed, it shifted.

The girl stood there. We were standing to one side of her, but slightly behind. So far we haven't seen her face. The human dwellings around the citadel stretch almost to the hill. The girl raises her arms, holding them to the sky, which has become darkly clouded. In the distance we can see something on the Shrub citadel. A spark. Then fire. The citadel begins to burn.

When the ReeL ended Millr realized he was covered in sweat. He heard Taryn's voice at the top of the stairs.

"You down there? Awful quiet," she said.

"Yeah," Millr said.

"You OK?" she asked.

"Yeah," Millr said.

"Ah. OK. Really?" she asked.

"I think you should see this," Millr said.