reel

2019-03-09 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Isolation

Once in a while he wondered how long he'd been down here. At first he kept very close track of time, but then it became exhausting. There were small, thin, rectangular windows along the edges of two walls which let in light and could be cracked open in the summer. All he could see out of them at eye level was bushes and grass. The windows were solidly placed, well built. He was positive he couldn't fit through them, but he thought about it often. When it was warm he would stand on boxes and stretch his arm out, tossing crumbs so that he could watch the birds and squirrels.

He never wanted to be involved with ReeLs. His father was from Taiwan and helped create them. Although he wasn't sure his captors knew this—he looked Asian so he must know how these things worked right? Unfortunately he did. His father had taught him electrical engineering, but he'd really wanted to be a musician.

The wrong people found out he was doing ReeL repairs. Worse, that he'd been making improvements. After Surrender it had become dull but consistent work, so he started altering the hardware—out of boredom mostly.

He remembered his father's rigid stoicism. That's what the hardware was like, inflexible. What if it was a bit more like jazz? He listened to John Coltrane and he made the ReeL hardware better. One night his door was kicked in and he was dragged out of bed. He didn't see them, they wore masks, he never saw their faces.

Once in a while he wondered how long he'd been down here. Whoever was keeping him here certainly had a lot of ReeL parts. Some looked brand new, which was impossible. He ignored this. He had a quota to fill. If he met the quota he got better food, he was given beer. If he missed the quota, food got shitty, there was no more beer. Building ReeLs was the last thing in the world he wanted to be spending his time on, but at least he'd convinced them to give him some music. They brought him a vintage Japanese record player and vinyl records. Whoever they jacked for it had kept everything in beautiful condition. There was more classical than he cared for in the crate of records, but there was some real jazz too. Coltrane, Monk, Miles, Mingus. He put on "Bitches Brew" and wept.

His captors rarely communicated. There wasn't much need to. He'd get his quota for the week. It didn't matter if he finished in the first day or the seventh as long as he finished. Shipping day was the only time he saw them. Although not their faces, they were consistent about keeping the masks on. There was a tall one and a short one. He would help them load boxes onto a primitive elevator. The building must've been an old factory, this was the only way up. A third person was up there working the pulley and rope driven platform. The two trusted him enough now to let him help with the boxes—it took a long time to be trusted and he knew he could use it to his advantage. Every day he told himself he would get out of here.

Until then he had to build ReeLs, and this took great care and attention, especially with the primitive tools he'd been given. He'd learned in a well equipped workshop so he knew he was spoiled.

He had to remain sane. This was important. He decided months ago, was it months?, that he would change the way ReeLs worked. He'd been thinking about it for a long time. His little tweaks in the past didn't compare, this would be a fundamental change. The ReeL would rely on organic routines, asyncopation, cognitive improvisation. Over time this would alter the viewer, it would make reality more interesting and ReeLs less interesting. Eventually nobody would want ReeLs anymore. One way or another he'd be free.

2019-02-24 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Roots

Millr took out the second ReeL, placed it down and opened it.

Then he was somewhere outside, but he couldn't see very far because of fog. No—it was smoke. He smelled smoke. Was it a forest fire? It tasted like that. It wasn't nighttime yet, he could make out a pale circle of sun on the horizon. But it would be night soon.

He heard two things. In front of him he heard the roar of fire. It was large enough to suck in air, he could feel it, whipping flames and bursts of wind. It must be a large, he thought. And behind him he heard voices, farther away at first, then closer. He couldn't hear what they were saying but he could hear a tone of urgency. He waited, assuming he was supposed to meet them to advance the story.

A moment later out of the haze he saw three people approach. Two men and a woman, sweating, wearing t-shirts or bandanas over their faces. One of the men was bare-chested. They were moving quickly. When they saw Millr one of them said "Hey! Don't just stand there, come on!" leading him along.

A first person ReeL. That's an unusual choice, Millr thought, except for porn and retros. All those decades of the same, repetitive games people had gobbled up had created low expectations, any deviance from the format would be met with disappointment. He expected this one to deviate. Like the first ReeL this too had something special and substantive that he noticed immediately. It wasn't merely production values, he thought, there was a distinct aura of subversion and anxiety. He couldn't place it, he didn't know how it was achieving this, but it drew him in. He felt compelled to follow these people.

They went ahead of him, almost running. The temperature was rising. "Why are we going towards the fire?" he yelled. They ignored him.

Suddenly out of the haze a burning Shrub crop staggered forward, moving obscenely, lurching, while fire burned away the upper half. It made a disturbing wheezing noise, like it was painfully gasping for air. He wasn't sure which crop this was, but he assumed it was one of the lesser known, dangerous species that could be found deep in the countryside.

He moved out of the way. The shambling, burning mass stumbled forward a few feet more then collapsed, exuding a burst of sparks.

He'd lost sight of the men and woman, but he heard shouting nearby. He ran towards the voices. Figures emerged out of the smoke, there were people standing in a circle around another plant, this one different than the last, taller, at least ten feet tall. It had a large, thick stalk ending in a flanged opening, out of which hung a vine-like appendage. Without warning the vine whipped around in an arc, creating a snapping sound and catching one of the people on the side of the head with a loud thwack. The person grunted and was thrown to the ground, unconscious. "Look out!" the others yelled.

Each person was holding something—a pitch fork, a spear-like piece of fencing, a long pointed shovel, a machete, an old pole saw. The people adjusted themselves, tightening their circle around the plant. Without a word, or seemingly any other coordination, they rushed forward, closing the circle and attacking the plant with the various implements. The plant struggled. The whip-like tentacle quivered and flailed, but the attackers were too close for it to be effective. They struck, hacked, and cut into the plant, chopping away parts of it, skewering other areas. The people acted silently with oddly precise violence. The plant made no sound. Soon it stopped moving.

The circle relaxed, people backing away then disbanding. He saw them fade into the smoke. He followed one of them as well as he could given how little he could reliably see. He heard more shouting from various directions. He went towards an outburst, wondering if this were another scene like the last. He knew that if the makers of the ReeL were good they would add sufficient variation to keep him interested. And he was interested. He found himself breathing heavily, his heart was pounding.

But he couldn't locate the source of the voices, he was ascending a hill and the smoke was clearing.

That's when he saw her. She was huge, a dozen times the size of a normal person. She was immediately recognizable, but it couldn't be her. She was made of leaves and sticks, she was constructed from hay bales and ears of corn. There were squash and soybeans, there were tomatoes and grapes and hops and cannabis. Her hair was great rolling swaths of seeding grasses. Her arms and legs were covered in bark. Her eyes were pools of clear water topped by beds of flowers. And birds flew around her, pecking occasionally, hovering sentinels. As she stepped forward slowly she became part of the soil, it merging and transforming into fertile land, tendrils of growth spreading out from each point of contact.

He saw more of her, copies of her—he saw maybe twenty along the horizon. They were moving slowly in the same direction across the landscape, towards the Shrub citadel, the gigantic mound of alien vegetation that punctured the Earth. And he saw fields around it burning, Shrub fields.

2019-02-05 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Friendly

Willm knew he was close to the trailer park because of the smell of rubbish. Since it was comparatively cramped, all the normal things saved and composted, the collected refuse, was piled, scattered and hoarded in great quantities and in close proximity. The inhabitants of the town, many whose grandparents had also lived here, loved the odor because it reminded them of their abundance of resources.

Willm reached the edge of town and was greeted by a half dozen scrawny barking dogs. One might nip at him but it was only bluster. He saw a thin column of black, acrid smoke in the distance, probably someone melting something down. You weren't supposed to do that, the Shrubs didn't like it—at least that's what the provisional government claimed. To his left was a cluster of small log buildings, right at the edge of a sparse forest that they were probably cut from a generation ago. This is where the trailer people did their town meetings, their tax collection, their dispensing of rudimentary justice. In front of him was a level plot of land with a patchwork of muted colors from a couple hundred trailers that had been repaired and re-repaired over the decades. A few people moved around, coming or going. Nobody paid attention to him other than the dogs who had gone from territorial to excitedly jumping and tail wagging.

He was here to see Bug. He knew where Bug lived because when they were little their parents were friends. At least Willm assumed Bug still lived here. Since they both started doing business in ReeLs, they didn't hang out anymore, they met at different places to do business but that was it. This is what it must feel like to be an adult, he thought.

Willm walked down and around the thin streets that once had meandering electric carts but now was traveled by foot and bicycles. He remembered where Bug's trailer was, his memory was pretty good with things like that. He found it quickly. The trailer hadn't changed much—the miscellaneous, old lighting was still strung around the edges of the roof. Bug's father put up Christmas lights one year and never took then down, over the years adding to it, savoring the municipal notoriety it gave him. On the free side and at the small frontage of the trailer there was a common mix of detritus and gardening. Half of it looked like marijuana, the other half maybe badly tended vegetables. He didn't remember Bug's folks being big smokers. The steps and the sides of the trailer were bright green with mildew, several of the windows were cracked and fixed with tape that was now dirty and peeling.

As he went up the steps he listened but didn't hear any activity inside. There was a large spiderweb and a single fat spider in the corner of the awning. He knocked on the door and waited. Then he heard someone inside moving. The door opened half way and he saw Elln, Bug's mother. She was older of course. Her eyes were red and she looked puffy like she was smoking and drinking a lot. They stared at each other for a moment.

"Does Bug still live here?" he asked.

"Do I know you?" Elln squinted at him.

Did she normally wear glasses? He couldn't recall. Bug wore big, thick glasses, always had, and this combined with his bony, ant-like skull was how he acquired the nickname. Willm assumed poor vision must've been genetic.

"My name is Willm, you knew my parents..."

"Oh!" she said, eyes widening with recognition. "I was so sorry to hear about your parents!" She flung the door open wider. "Come in!" She grabbed his arm lightly, pulling him into the trailer.

"Thanks."

"You want a beer? Local, real good," she asked.

"OK."

He knew the beer they made in town, it was strong. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it had a whiff of burning tires.

She reached for a tall, already opened bottle close to the edge of a cluttered kitchen counter. Willm sat at a round table near the window. He carefully pushed at a pile of dishes, paper, and accumulation of little bits and pieces to make room for the beer glass. The place was a mess.

"How's..." Willm suddenly struggled to recall Bug's father's name, "...Jm."

She poured obviously flat beer into two glasses, one dirty, one clean.

"Jm moved out years ago," she didn't miss a beat. "And Bug moved out recently. So it's just me now." She smiled at him wearily. "But tell me about you. You've grown up!"

She sat at the table opposite him, also pushing stuff out of the way. "Hey, you want some weed? Goes with the beer."

"No, thanks, the beer is good," he said. The beer wasn't good.

"So what are you doing with yourself these days?" A wisp of graying hair fell down and she pushed it back behind her ear.

"I do a little business, here and there," he said.

"I see. You work with Bug sometimes?"

She called him Bug too, he thought, calling him by his real name, Alln, would've been strange at this point.

"Un-hunh. You know where he's living now?" he asked.

Under the table he shifted, moving one leg up, bumping into her.

"Oh, sorry," he said. He blushed slightly.

"That's OK Willm," she said, smiling. "I always asked Bug what he did, and he would say the same thing, here and there, that kind of stuff."

Under the table she moved her foot forward next to his, touching with a calculated pressure. He didn't move. He coughed.

"Bug lives pretty far outside of town now," she said. "I don't know if it's a commune or what," she added, "artists I guess. I think they're artists of some sort."

The pressure of her foot against his increased. He coughed again then raised the glass and drained the rest of the beer hoping it would prompt her.

"Want some more beer?" she asked.

"Yeah, that'd be great," he said.

She stood, reaching over to grab his glass but without taking her eyes off of him, then she went to the counter where the bottle was. He stood too, moving quickly over to the counter in pretense of politeness, but really to be closer to the door, ready to leave. She smiled at him.

"So do you know where they live out there? Bug and the rest of them," he asked.

"Well I've never been there," she said, pouring out the last of the beer which looked syrupy with yeast, "but it's a place out by the Shrub fields. I don't know why they'd be out there, it would give me the creeps." Then she lowered he voice, "I was told sometimes you can hear them talking, the plants I mean."

"You don't know which house do you?"

"You're too young to remember, but I'm pretty sure it's what used to be Ynder Farms. The family disappeared around the time of Surrender."

"Probably got melted by Shrubs for those fields," he said.

"Probably, yeah," she said. She looked a little sad, staring at the beer in her glass.

"OK, it was great seeing you again," Willm said, slugging down the rest of the beer and suppressing a grimace.

"Aw, gotta go? You sure you don't want any weed?" she said.

"I'm good, thanks."

"Come here," she said. She held out her arms. Reluctantly he stepped in and she hugged him, saying "All grown up." He let her strenuously squeeze him for a few moments then he shifted his weight forcing her to let go.

2019-01-25 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Star

The seeds came out of the bag with a pop. She sawed back and forth with the bow, which spun the distributor at the bottom of the bag. It was inelegant, she thought, this walking and swaying, like a drunk, invariably she moved her head with the sawing of the bow, like she was listening to some invisible ground song. She would glance occasionally at the seeds as they landed. Soon they would sprout, maybe, if they weren't eaten by birds, if they fell onto amenable land, with sufficient sun, not too much, and the right amount of water. It was a matter of odds, put down enough seeds over enough time and the plants would grow, they would grow everywhere. Once there were plenty of them, across every town, lot, vacant road, and next to every Shrub field, then they would flower. Not until then.

She started to sweat with exertion, pausing to tie a bandanna over her head. Her canteen was almost empty. In the distance she saw the rusty carapace of a house roof. She'd ask them for water, if anyone was there, she'd done it before. Likely the house was abandoned. She was pretty far out, the town was miles behind her, she didn't know how many. She was always careful. But she believed there was a recognition of her ordained task, that down deep, wherever it was people knew these things, they would realize her and she would be safe.

She slung her seed bag back and started across a rolling, wild field. As she got closer she sensed activity, although not yet seeing anyone, she vaguely felt movement, the way birds and cows can feel true north, she thought. Her mother taught her this, her mother-sister, the older her, the other her.

There they were—she saw people come around the corner of the house. She was some distance away, and she crouched behind a low bush. The people were a little older than her, but young. There were six of them and they each carried a piece of equipment—black and boxy things, a few with dangling wires like spilled innards. This was technology of some sort, it had to be expensive since nobody made that stuff anymore. They were taking these things into the house. Then a seventh person came around the corner. He was wearing a contraption. It was a kind of black cage around his torso with bars that went up above his head and curved outwards, each terminating in a small glass orb. Instead of walking into the house he stood for a moment, turning, looking out over the fields. She remained absolutely still. She wondered what he was doing, was he looking for her? No, he moved on, walking in an arc around the house. He was looking, in a special way, technological witchcraft maybe.

When he passed she quickly moved out from behind the bush to a corner by the porch and the slanted, rotting basement doors. She heard voices down there.

She was thirsty. She looked for a spigot on this side of the house but didn't see one. She'd have to chance going into the house, there was probably a bathroom near the front, there usually was. She'd be in and out before anyone knew she was there. It would be easier that way, they seemed busy.

The front door was cracked open. The handle and lock were broken a long time ago. The house had a familiar smell like most of them did—emptiness, mildew, mice, maybe the tang of a dead thing. This one wasn't bad though, and it might not even leak much. But why were these people here? If they could afford tech like that then they had to be rich. Or maybe they stole that stuff. Perhaps she should've been scared, but she wasn't.

There was a bathroom, the door didn't open all the way, she squeezed in. She took off her old army-green canteen from the place on her belt. There was a slight sloshing sound from the tiny amount of water left in the heavy plastic container. She looked at the sink. If she turned on the faucet they would hear it in the basement. But, she thought, they would assume this was their friend, the one that went around the side of the house.

The window next to her in the bathroom looked out across a Shrub field, closest to where she was seeding. She was seeding along its edge, that's what she always tried to do. In the Shrub field she saw tall, studded stalks ending in clusters of large, sharp leaves. There was no comparison with anything from the area—in fact there was no comparison with anything from Earth. These plants were from somewhere else, maybe where the Shrubs came from, no one knew. People had eventually come to identify the purposes of Shrub field, there were different kinds—one species generates power, one generates fruit, but this one nobody really understood. She knew that in the autumn, before the Shrubs took the crop away overnight quickly and quietly, these plants uprooted themselves and milled around in groups making a low, wheezing sound, as if they were compressing air in anticipation. It was only then that they were dangerous. If you happened into the field you would be cut to pieces by the razor sharp, stiff leaves which they collectively lowered to protect themselves.

If the farmer and his family who used to live here weren't killed by protein bombs, they certainly would've fled after the Shrubs started growing their crops here. That doesn't explain these people, she thought, why were they in the house?

She turned the tap on slowly, hearing gurgling from pipes below. Water suddenly evacuated from the faucet, then became a predictable stream. She waited a moment for the water to clear the pipes then she put the canteen under it. When it was full she capped it and turned off the tap which squeaked.

She moved to leave the way she came in. She paused. She could hear voices in the basement through the door in the hallway. Creeping up next to the door she leaned in and listened. They were setting up equipment. Hand me that wire, someone said. That doesn't go there, someone else said.

She walked down the hall and left the way she came in. She'd go back to seeding. When she was past the stairs and walking towards the brush she'd previously hidden under, she heard a voice behind her. She turned.

"Hey you!" It was the guy wearing the black metal cage.

She didn't say anything, she stared, feeling the fresh weight of the full canteen hanging on her belt.

"I know who you are, you're that girl, the resistance farmer," he said. He flipped a couple of latches on the cage and took it off himself more nimbly than she expected.

"Yes," she said. She didn't move any closer. There was no point in lying, everybody knew who she was.

"See this thing here?" He crouched down pointed at the black contraption. "Know what it is?"

"No," she said.

"It's a rig, to make ReeLs," he said.

"Oh," she said. She didn't know what that was, although she'd heard the word before.

He stood there smiling, looking at her, and said "How would you like to star in a ReeL?"

2019-01-12 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Market

"There has to be more than one girl. It can't be the same one we saw here in the market years ago, she was so young," Taryn said.

Millr straightened some of the things on the shelves behind them. All of it antique. Radios, miscellaneous appliances, a few tools like drills and popular repair kits, manual typewriters, some cleaned up, early era electronics, eye glasses, and an array of worn, weathered boots. If you wanted a ReeL, which many people did, you had to ask, all of that was done in the back.

"I can't explain it, it's her though," Millr said.

"I'm not disagreeing with you," Taryn said.

"Maybe mothers and daughters? I'm at a loss to explain it. You remember her, at the market, with the bag, the what do you call it—"

"A seed fiddle. A newer kind of seed fiddle anyway," Taryn said.

"And there was a bounty on her," Millr said.

"I'm surprised she showed up here, everybody knew she was wanted," Taryn said, "maybe she needed to be seen."

"I'm even more surprised she showed up in a ReeL," Millr added.

"Where'd you get it from?" she asked.

"Usual place. That kid Willm. I guess he has a new source. He seemed excited about how much he could get for them," Millr said.

"There's more than one?" Taryn asked.

"Yeah, but I haven't brought it in yet, I wanted to see how the first one did to figure out if I could charge more," Millr said.

"And you haven't watched it yet?"

"Not yet," he said.

Millr and Taryn heard a large crash, then the descending clattering of objects settling. They stuck their heads out of the kiosk, looking down the lane which was crowded with shops on both sides. Deputies were hovering over the contents of several shelves of stuff from Mr Wlkrsun's place. The sheriff stood in front of Mr Wlkrsun, between him and the deputies, with his hands on his hips, his uniform a bit grubby, a bit ill fitting, his gun belt drooping drastically, held up perhaps only by stubbornness.

"They're early this month," Millr said.

Taryn groaned. "How much will it cost this time?" she said.

They could hear the sheriff progressing up the lane, small rustling, a few tense words but no more torn down shelves.

"Millr," the sheriff said as he and his deputies came to his kiosk, the last on the end, before they would proceed up the opposite lane.

"Dck," Millr said. He'd known Dck since high school. They didn't get along then, and they didn't now, however time and age siloed their dislike of each other into relatively moderate exchanges. Dck never addressed Taryn, this would've jeopardized this sufficiency.

"Governor's undies are in a twist," Dck said.

"Well ain't that sumptin," Millr said.

"There's a ReeL going around that has people worried. Inflammatory. Anti-Shrub," Dck declared.

"An illegal ReeL?" Millr said, mocking surprise.

"You wouldn't happen to know where something like that comes from, would you Millr?"

"No sir, I would not." Millr slid a billfold across the counter towards the sheriff. Dck reached out with familiarity and confidence, examining the contents of the wallet. A deputy behind him yawned.

"Good man. I can always count on you Millr," the sheriff said, removing the bills and stuffing them into his pocket. "But let's just say, if I was the kind of guy distributing stuff that gets the governor agitated, I'd probably try to avoid it and go back to selling Heckle."

"That's good advice," Millr said.

The sheriff gave Millr a final noncommittal glance then summoned his deputies with a lazy wave and moved around the corner.

"He's going to start asking for more," Taryn said.

"Yup," Millr said.

"Because of that ReeL," Taryn added.

Millr said, "If it wasn't that, it would be something else, he won't change."

That was it, he thought, people needed to see the ReeL because it would change them. He was sure of this, but without precisely understanding why. Instinct, he supposed.

"You're not going to stop selling them are you?"

"Nope," he said.

2019-01-02 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Popular

"You got any ham today?" Willm asked.

"Yup," the owner said.

"Ham and cheese sandwich. Mustard. No mayo," Willm said.

"Good, we're out of mayo," she replied.

Finally, what has it been, two months? Willm thought. As he waited for his sandwich he heard the door open behind him but he didn't look around. Two men sat down, one on either side of him. He knew one better than the other.

"Willm," Mrko said.

Mrko was only slightly older than Willm but he got the sense that Mrko had lived hard. Mrko ran one of the smaller ReeL teams.

"And you know my associate Lrz," Mrko said, gesturing to the large man on the opposite side of Willm. Lrz said nothing, he did not smile.

Willm looked around nervously.

"Don't worry, don't worry, no exchange of goods today. We would never do business here. This is more of a social visit," Mrko said.

"Oh?" Willm said. The owner of the diner put a plate with a ham sandwich on it down in front of him. He looked at the sandwich with regret.

"Yeah," said Mrko, "so how's the ReeL trade these days—you sell stuff to that guy at the market? Millr?"

"That's right, Millr," Willm said.

"Newest ReeL is popular, very popular I hear," Mrko said. He ran his finger down the five or six items on the menu in front of him.

"Oh yeah? Didn't know that," Willm said, glancing sideways at Lrz, who remained expressionless.

"That's the word. Problem is, from my point of view anyway, is that it's not one of ours," Mrko was grinning.

Willm felt uncomfortable. Lrz reached over and picked up half of Willm's sandwich. Willm didn't look but he could hear Lrz biting and chewing.

"Lrz is hungry I guess," Marko said offhandedly. "I'd love to meet this new ReeL maker, something this popular. There are probably a ton of things I could learn from them. Who did you get the ReeL from?"

"Bug," Willm said after a brief pause. He considered lying, but realized it was futile. Mrko would find out eventually, and if Willm lied he'd get a bad rep. Everybody knew what everybody else was up to.

"Bug," Mrko repeated.

"Yeah I'm guessing he knows the makers, he seems to know a lot of people," Willm said, glancing down at his plate.

"He does. We know Bug too," Mrko said. He tapped the menu absentmindedly. "Well, thanks Willm. We'll ask Bug about this rising star. There aren't many of us that do this, you know? We've got to stick together."

Mrko stood, slapping Willm on the back. Lrz stood, and placed unfinished crusts from the sandwich back onto Willm's plate.

"Lrz thanks you for lunch," Mrko said. "Alright Willm, we'll see you soon I'm sure, have got some great stuff in the pipeline."

"OK, see you," Willm said.

After they left he mechanically ate the remaining half sandwich and paid. The owner raised her eyebrows at him.

He knew that ReeL was something special, just like he told Millr. The price would go up, maybe a lot. He wondered if he could find Bug before Mrko did. He'd see if there were any more ReeLs, he didn't have any idea about how quickly these new makers worked. And he wondered what Mrko would do. He had resources, maybe he'd buy all the new ReeLs that he thought were competition and sit on them. Certainly wouldn't be the first time something like that happened. But this one was special. Willm couldn't explain it. He wanted everybody to see it. He didn't want these kinds of ReeLs to disappear. He didn't know why it was important, but it was important.

Outside the diner he sat on the stairs and retied his sneakers, securing the laces tightly.

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.

2018-12-25 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Blank

Willm darted around the corner, the crunching sound of dry scrub and gravel from this his shoes dampened by the building's white-washed wall. He built up some speed and made a running jump at the tall wooden fence next to the building, flinging himself up and over it. This was a game he would play when he was little, navigating through town by unusual paths as quickly as he could. He didn't want to be seen coming from Millr's. He didn't necessarily think anybody was following him, who would really. But it was fun, he could move across obstacles faster than he ever had, he was bigger and stronger, the patterns he'd performed a thousand times came naturally. Up, over, under, across. It made him feel alive.

He emerged, sweating, onto the street near the center of town. It was almost noon and the sun was hot. Weeds coming up through the cracks in the pavement carpeted the lesser traveled areas in lush green. A few trees had grown up through the rusty skeletons of dumped, broken cars. Since the surrender they weren't allowed to build any new machines so year by year there were more that couldn't be repaired. Always more car husks.

He felt the slight weight of the blank ReeLs in his bag. He would deliver them today, after he had lunch. He walked towards the diner, he walked down main street because there was no traffic. There was rarely traffic anywhere. Sometimes trucks. Although in the distance he saw a bicycle. Was that Jynes? Looked it. Men withered in the noon day sun, old Jynes was still hale and hearty though. Some curmudgeonly secret of longevity.

The door of the diner clanged loudly behind Willm. He went to the counter and sat down. The owner, a gruff middle-aged woman with tattoos covering both arms, gave him a customary, muted greeting then asked what he wanted.

"Got any ham yet?" he asked.

"No, no ham. Chicken. Just chicken," she said.

"It was pigeon last time," he said.

She shrugged.

Muscle can eat muscle. The second Shrub law.

"OK," he said. He was ravenous. Pigeon was fine.

As he ate he kept the strap of the bag across his arm, protecting the blanks. Of course nobody knew what was in his bag, or that Willm even dealt in ReeLs, but if he was careless, he thought, he could fuck up a nice business. Like Millr kept telling, once they were gone, they were gone for good. He ate his sandwich bite by bite, it wasn't great, it was tough and had an aftertaste. French fries though, he savored them. Even with the Shrubs there was still plenty they could grow, although not enough for all the animals they used to keep and slaughter.

You must never eat from our fields. The first Shrub law.

He finished up, clearing the plate of every crumb and believing he could eat another sandwich. He paid. He was making decent money these days, he'd become used to the expense of the diner. Not like growing up, things were harder then. As he left the diner he looked over his shoulder. Who was there when he arrived and who was there when he left? The same cast of characters from town. He liked to keep track of these things. He liked to keep an eye out for change.

Being caught with blank ReeLs would be a mark against him. It was illegal to alter the slabs in any way. Only official provisional government programs could be put on them. You were supposed to bring them back to the local programming office where the new content could be imprinted. But of course there was the black market. It was too large for the government to battle, and most of the people in those offices watched illegal ReeLs off hours anyway.

He walked around the side of the diner to the back, past the garage, through the vacant lot, past the ancient gnarled tree. He started down the dirt road, fields on both sides of him. That's the way the Shrubs usually did it, cluster the undesignated fields around towns. Deep in though, far in, where the real industrial farming used to be, it was all worked by the Shrubs for themselves, for whatever they wanted to grow.

At the place where the fence looked collapsed, maybe from a car accident, Willm cut off the road and went into the field, jogging down off the shoulder, momentarily kicking up dry dirt behind himself. Even if there was traffic, they wouldn't see him. He was in a little ways and he could see the house from here. It was a brick house with wood trim once white, now rotting and abandoned. Some of the windows were intact, some weren't. He didn't know anything about who used to live there, he bet it was already abandoned before Surrender.

He avoided the front, with the leaning, cracked door and went around to the back. Wisps of torn screening dangled like flaps of skin on a sagging porch that must've once contained the usual summer activities. The porch was missing its door, and the house door was hanging open on one hinge. Willm wondered how many animals must come through the place. Maybe people did too, like himself, but they didn't stay. There was no shortage of housing. The green-skins said everybody was better off under the Shrubs, he wondered if that was true.

Willm walked through the hall to the front stairs. He heard a voice from the second floor. "I'm up here." It was Thmpsun, he was the blanks dealer.

Willm went to the top of the stairs, avoiding several treacherous gaps and saw Thmpsun in a large room to his left, the copious dust illuminated by the sun.

"Probably used to be pretty nice here. Big house," Thmpsun said.

You had to be a slightly weird to deal in blanks, Willm thought. Thmpsun dressed the same way people used to dress, his suit though had deteriorated over time, becoming a haunted kind of shabby. There was an uneasy ghostliness about him. Willm wondered if this is what Thmpsun was wearing on the day of surrender—time had stopped in his head, he was still a younger man.

"I used to do real estate," Thmpsun said.

"Yeah, you told me that before," Willm said.

"But you have to keep on top of new opportunities," Thmpsun added.

"Un-hunh."

"How many blanks do you have for me today?" Thmpsun asked.

"Two," Willm said.

"That's all?" Thmpsun sighed. "Seems like there are less in the supply these days."

"Maybe you should go back into real estate," Willm said.

Thmpsun ignored the comment, it had never been said. Willm took the two slabs out of his bag as Thmpsun futilely tried to get dirt off the lapel of his jacket.

"Thank you," Thmpsun said, taking the blanks from Willm and putting them into a large, fat, worn leather satchel. "I can give you one for both this time," he said.

"But aren't there less? You just said there are less now," Willm said.

"Ebb and flow. There are probably more ReeLs in production right now. One for both this time, more next time."

Willm frowned tightly, letting the moment of uncomfortable silence linger as evidence of his displeasure.

"Alright," Willm said.

When the exchange was complete Willm walked out into the weedy, overgrown back yard, past remnants of a metal swing set, a collapsed shed, back through the fields. Next week he would pick up new ReeLs from production, the good ones, the crazy ones.

2018-12-15 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Fresh

Willm took out two, thick, gray slabs from the old military bag slung over his shoulder. The slabs were identical in size, but each had a messy strip of off-white tape along the edge with varying handwriting in black magic marker.

"Two? That's it?" Millr said.

"Yeah," Willm said, "but they're fresh. Good. Special."

Willm, a lanky teen, held out the gray slabs with arms delineated by prominent tendons. He was covered with scratches from recent salvaging.

"Like those other ones? People complained about those," Millr said.

"No, really. New crew, new production. Very slick." Willm handed Millr the slabs.

"OK, let's see what these ReeLs have got." Millr took one and turned it sideways, he pressed with his thumbs on both ends of the colorless slab. Then he put it down on the rough, cluttered work bench in front of himself. A light inside the slab flickered, irregularly, but grew so that the entire surface glowed.

Millr stared for a few minutes, motionless, rarely blinking, looking at the ReeL playing somewhere in his head, the light from it illuminating his face. Then he placed his thumbs again on the corners, repeating the movement, until the light dimmed and disappeared.

"Yeah, it's good. Different," Millr said. "I think people probably want something different these days, whether they know it or not."

"Did you get to the part about the Shrubs?" Willm asked.

"Yes, I mean, Shrubs don't care if we make fun of them. Shrubs don't care about anything except growing," Millr said. "Was good though. I'll give you one and half each for them."

"No way, two each," Willm replied strongly.

"Come on. I'm not doing this for free. Look, you keep getting these, good ones, and they build up an audience, then I'll raise my prices and I'll give you two," Millr said.

"Alright," Willm said after a pause. He folded his arms resolutely. "But next time, two." He tried scowling but it was clear he liked the offer.

"If there's an audience." Millr took the two ReeLs and put them into a large felt pouch clearly designed for this purpose. "Also, and I've said it before, you gotta be careful with these—if you break any that's less we have in the pool. The Shrubs won't let us make anymore." Millr reached over to the side of the bench for another bag, opening it, and from a selection of seemingly identical slabs took out two and handed them to Willm. "Here's the blanks," he said.

Willm took them, mocking delicacy.

"Arsehole," Millr said, "you don't remember what it was like before Surrender."

Willm rolled his eyes. "I remember," he said.

"What? How old were you?" Millr asked.

"Five, six. I don't know," Willm said.

Millr grunted. "Things are going to fall apart. Someday soon. Won't be able to fix everything anymore. No more machines. No more ReeLs."

"That why you collect on the side?" Willm said.

"Damn straight," Millr asserted.

"I don't think the Shrubs will be here that long."

"Oh, here we go," Millr shook his head.

"Think about it. Why'd they come here in the first place?" Willm asked.

"I dunno. To grow. Cuz they couldn't grow where they were before. Nobody knows. It doesn't matter much at this point."

"Maybe they're gonna grow enough here to keep going, maybe they've got a home to go back to. Maybe they're gonna, like, flower. And then they won't be Shrubs anymore. They'll be something else," Willm said excitedly.

Millr laughed a little, "You're talking crazy."

Willm appeared offended, roughly readjusting his shoulder bag with the blanks inside. "You'll see, not always gonna be like this." Willm went to the stairs, huffing.

Millr shouted after him as he left, "Just keep getting good ReeLs."