Feature: Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

Azrael: Year 7
Luke Guidici

Leather shoe. Plastic bag. Glass bottle.

#

Daniel Anders noted the items as he grabbed them off the conveyor belt. Without wasting a motion he dropped each into the appropriate chute. Shoe into carbon. Bag into plastic. Bottle into glass. He paused and looked down the line. Along each side, men and women dressed in simple blue coveralls and wearing heavy gloves combed through the refuse, grabbing whatever salvage they could. At 28 years of age, Anders was one of the younger ones.

He exhaled, watching his breath condense. The metal walls and concrete floors of the warehouse did little to keep out the cold winter air. Anders inhaled. For months he’d worked twelve hour days, seven days a week, a constant flow of garbage rolling past. He looked for carbon, metals, plastics, and glass: anything that the automated sorter missed, he and the other workers endeavored to find and send for reclamation. It was mind numbing, but at least it was a distraction.

“I’m not paying you to daydream, Anders.”

Anders snapped to attention. In front of him was Williams, a portly man dressed in a dark jacket that hung loosely across his narrow shoulders and a brightly colored tie that rolled over his gut. He jabbed a finger into Anders’ chest.

“You’ve got a quota and I expect it to be filled or, by Azrael, you’ll be out with the Pickers.”

“Don’t worry.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry, sir. I’ll make my quota.”

“You better.”

Williams smirked and headed off down the line. As he walked, the other workers dropped their eyes, hoping to avoid his attention. Williams stopped next to a grey-haired woman and began to berate her.

Anders clenched his jaw and looked away. He’d never cared much for Williams. How could he? The man hadn’t served.

#

Just three years earlier, Anders was halfway around the world, fighting in the Trans-Pacific War. He’d volunteered, not because he was especially patriotic, but because the United North American government had promised post-war jobs to all volunteers.

But no one expected the Free Chinese to be defeated so thoroughly—or so quickly. And no one expected the casualties to be so low. After only two years of combat, the combined Sino-North American armies had destroyed all major resistance. The victory was so complete that they didn’t even bother with a puppet government. They just secured the borders and let the Free Chinese fend for themselves.

As veterans flooded back to UNA, the promised government jobs were quickly filled. By the time that Anders returned, there was nothing left. After a year of searching, he was willing to do almost anything.

#

Anders grabbed a piece of newspaper, then a plastic milk jug. His eyes scanned the approaching trash until he found the next item: a leather boot. In one smooth motion he grabbed it, flipped it over, and carried it toward the carbon chute. As he did, debris spilled out of the boot and landed on his foot. There was something solid in there.

He smiled. Maybe he’d gotten lucky and it was ferrous. Some iron would really help his quota, but probably it was just a rock. He crouched down.

A trio of small rocks sat by his foot. He frowned. Then something further under the belt caught his eye. It was a small, grey cellular telephone. He gasped.

What the hell?

Anders leaned out from under the belt and looked around. None of the workers had noticed. He checked the second floor. Standing on the metal catwalk was Williams. A coffee cup in one hand, he was gesticulating wildly as he talked to two officers of the Terran Survivability Bureau. These TSB guards were part of the contingent permanently stationed at the mine.

Who has coffee everyday? No way he isn’t skimming.

Anders ducked back under. He grabbed the rocks with one hand and the cell phone with the other. As he stood he slipped the phone into a pocket, then tossed the rocks onto the belt. He glanced at his coworkers; it didn’t seem like any of them had noticed.

But that didn’t mean no one saw. If they did, Anders’ only hope would be a bribe. And the chance of that working was 50–50. It wasn’t unheard of for TSB spies to be in industries related to “Terran survival,” which this close to Azrael’s arrival was basically anywhere they wanted to be. Not only that, but failure to report a crime often carried a penalty as stiff as the crime. All this meant it was hard to trust anyone anymore.

Anders pushed the fear aside. He still had time to figure out what to do. If he didn’t, he could drop the phone on the line and let someone else deal with it.

#

A bowl of thick green sludge landed on the table next to Anders. A tall, wiry man with thinning black hair sat down with a sigh. Carlos Rodriguez might have been handsome once, but the strains of a hard life had taken their toll.

“Solidarity green. Glad they’re serving this again.”

“At least they feed us. I heard night shift doesn’t get a meal anymore.”

Rodriguez glared up at Williams’ office.

“Terran dogs.”

Anders nodded as he ate a spoonful of soup.

“Hey, you’re old. You ever have one?”

“One what?”

“A dog.”

“No. But, my Abuela did. Little thing, like a mop with eyes. She called it…”

He paused to take a bite.

“Can’t remember.”

“What was it like?”

“First, it would bark like hell, then it’d just sit in your lap and nap.”

“Sounds nice?”

“I can think of a few things I’d rather have in my lap.”

He nodded toward the base of the stairs.

A group of women had arrived. Young and old, they wore short, tight skirts, and an odd assortment of layers that struggled to provide warmth while at the same time show enough flesh. Clinging to the hand rail they teetered on impractically high heels as they climbed.

The last, a pretty Latina woman in her early thirties, looked out across the cafeteria, searching. Her eyes met Anders and stopped. They held each other’s gaze for a moment, then she glanced away.

Rodriguez noticed.

“Don’t be getting any ideas.”

But Anders already had.

“I’ll be right back.” He pushed away his bowl and slid out from the table.

As Anders walked across the floor, he touched his pocket, fingers tracing the outline of the phone. It wasn’t too late. He could go back.

#

To hell with it.

#

At the top of the stairs Anders saw the women crowded around Williams. Giggling, they vied to be the next one into his arms. Anders wiped the disgust from his face and pushed his way through the women.

Williams didn’t notice; a blonde in one arm, he was busy nuzzling the neck of a brunette.

“Mr. Williams, sir?”

Startled, Williams looked up, “What are you doing away from the floor?”

“I wanted to tell you that I’m on track to meet my quota.”

“Can’t you see I have guests?”

“I thought you’d want to know, you—”

“—I don’t give a damn. Get back to work before I give your shift away!”

“Very sorry, sir.”

With a look of defeat on his face, Anders’ shoulders dropped. He turned and walked back through the women toward the stairs.

#

Red stop. Green step. Red stop.

#

With a loud buzz, the light changed back to green. Anders, Rodriguez, and the rest of the day shift took a step forward. Tired and dirty, they made their way through a series of security checks. The last, a scanner for rare earth elements, was just in front of them.

“Everyday, the same old shit,” Rodriguez muttered.

“Quiet in line,” said the nearest TSB guard.

Rodriguez gave Anders a look.

“Face forward.”

Rodriguez turned and smiled “Yes, sir.”

The light turned and he moved into the scanner.

Anders stared up at the red light. It was almost his turn.

With a loud buzz it changed to green, but Anders stayed frozen.

“Into the scanner!”

Anders jerked to attention and shuffled forward. He held his arms out as a low whirring sound passed from his toes to his head as the machine searched for any illicit materials. It seemed like an eternity… finally, the scanner beeped, the buzzer sounded, and the light turned back to green.

Stepping out of the scanner, Anders headed for the exit. As he pulled a wool stocking cap onto his head, he began to smile.

#

Almost there…

#

Outside, Rodriguez waited. Rubbing his hands against the cold he noticed Anders’ grin.

“What’s with you?”

“Nothing.”

“Sure.” Rodriguez shrugged his shoulders and they joined the other workers walking through the ramshackle town to the mag-lev station.

Back when the landfill was still a dump, there was nothing here. But once the mine went into operation, a town began to form. Now you could find whatever vice called your name, be it prostitution, alcohol, or gambling, all were only steps away.                 

As they got deeper into town, the crowd began to thin in search of just those things. Anders was no different.

“I got to go see this woman about a book,” Anders said.

Rodriguez smiled and slapped him on the back. “You have a good ‘read’.”

Anders nodded goodbye, then turned down an alley.

He passed rows of small buildings all made from the same scrap wood and salvaged metal. Only hanging signs marked their differences: a red dragon, a pair of dice, an empty glass. Anders found the one he was looking for: a stack of books.

#

Anders was three steps inside before his eyes adjusted. Soft light revealed plush furniture, thick carpet, and oil paintings on dark-stained walls. Music drifted from down the hall. Anders removed his hat and waited.

To his side, a narrow door opened and an elegant woman in her mid-forties emerged. She reached out, her finger tips brushing against his arm.

“Hello, Daniel.”

“Hello, Miss Sarah.”

“You here to see Maria?”

Anders nodded.

“Have a seat and I’ll check on her. Would you like something to drink?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Please.” She motioned to the nearest chair.

Anders sat. Leaning back, he shut his eyes and sighed.

#

A delicate hand reached down and gently shook Anders awake.

“I was expecting you.”

As the sleep cleared from his eyes, he saw Maria, the pretty Latina from the mine. Her dark hair now pulled back, she’d traded her skirt for a silk robe.

“So?” She crossed her arms.

“Can we talk somewhere more… ?”

Maria grabbed Anders’ hand and pulled him down the hallway. Their feet padded soundlessly past closed doors and the faint sounds of passion. Reaching the last door, Maria stopped. Her fingers traced a path across a key pad and the door opened.

#

The room was simple yet elegant, a bed, a nightstand, and a chair its only furniture. Maria turned and threw her arms around Anders’ neck, kissing him. She broke the embrace, pushed him away, and slapped him across the face.

“What was that for?”

Maria marched to the nightstand and jerked open its drawer.

“This.” She removed a small grey object and threw it on the bed—it was the cellular telephone. Hands on her hips, she glared at him.

“What if they sent me through the scanners?”

“They never do.”

“But what if they did?”

“Williams is too cheap to pay with credits.”

Maria pouted. Anders smiled and wrapped his arms around her.

“What did he give you today?”

“Copper.”

They kissed. Anders pulled away.

“You know I’d never…?”

Looking away, Maria nodded. Anders frowned. He placed a finger under her chin and brought her eyes to his.

“Honest to Azrael.”

“I know.”

They kissed again.

“If anyone asks, I was here the entire hour.” He reached into his pocket and peeled off several bills.

“Can you trade for this?” She reached back into the dresser drawer and removed a small roll of copper wire.

“What do you want?”

“Vegetables or fruit, if they have it.”

“Okay.”

Anders took the wire and the phone, tucking them inside his jacket.

“And check on Juan?”

“Of course.”

Maria took Anders’ hand and they walked to the back door.

“Be careful.”

“Always.” Anders leaned in and kissed her, then he was out the door.

#

Shivering against the cold, Anders pulled his jacket on. He started down the alley, but before he got far, he saw them. Clothes in tatters, and backs stooped from hard labor, three Pickers were coming towards him.

These poor souls spent every day digging through the mine’s discards—the trash of the trash. Just because they were outcasts, didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. In the last month, at least two of Anders’ coworkers had been beaten and robbed leaving a brothel.

No one knew for certain it was Pickers, but now that he had something worth stealing, Anders didn’t want to take the chance. He spun on his heel and headed in the opposite direction.

The Pickers noticed. And followed.

Anders turned down an empty side street and picked up his pace. From behind him, the Pickers did the same. If he ran, they’d know he had something on him. But if he didn’t, they might just as easily find it.

They were almost upon him. The time to make a decision was at hand… but before he could, two TSB guards turned the corner and headed straight for them.

Anders swallowed hard and raised a hand, greeting them.

“Excuse me, Officers?”

They stopped. One of them gave him the once over, while the other stared down the Pickers.

“Yeah?”

Anders checked over his shoulder and saw the Pickers, slinking off into the distance.

“Could you point me toward the Mag-lev.”

“What’re you, blitzed? It’s right there.”

The officer pointed past him to where the train station stood high above the buildings on an elevated track.

“Oh right! Thank you, officers.”

Without wasting time, Anders began to walk in that direction, the phone heavy inside his jacket.

#

I gotta get rid of this thing.

#

Anders exited the mag-lev train in what used to be a nice part of Tucson. If a repair wasn’t directly related to Terran Survivability, nobody cared. The years of neglect showed.

Anders walked down the crumbling sidewalk: for every shop that was open, three were boarded up. Their walls pasted over with posters that asked, “Are you ready for Azrael?”

He turned into an alley and walked to a rough metal door. Knocking twice, he stepped back and waited.

The door slid open and Anders entered a small dark room. He held out his arms as a blue light projected from the wall. Starting at his feet, it travelled up his body then clicked off.

A voice crackled over an intercom: “Clear.”

In front of him, a second door opened, revealing a dark stairwell. Anders began to descend, each step triggering a light on the next. At the bottom was the metal cage that guarded the Controller, a gaunt, grey-haired man, he wore a jeweler’s glass and the confidence of having two armed guards

“What’ve you got in trade?”

Anders slid the phone and the small coil of copper wire through the cage.

“Antique telephone. Should be full of rares. And copper.”

The Controller pushed the copper aside and grabbed the phone. Turning it in his hands, he picked a small piece of dirt out of the keypad.

“Work at a mine?”

Anders looked at him stone-faced. Neither confirming or denying.

The man smiled wryly. “Everything is from somewhere. We don’t mind so long as no one comes looking for it.”

“It won’t be missed.”

“Good.”

The Controller picked up a hand-held scanner and switched it on.

Red light projected from it as the Controller began to create a 3D map of the phone. He watched on a small monitor as the system searched through its catalogue of antiques. It didn’t take long to find a match.

“2001. Nokia brand cellular telephone. Palladium and iridium.”

He turned back to Anders.

“300 for the telephone. 10 for the copper.”

Anders nodded. “Okay.”

The Controller keyed in a series of numbers and pressed a button, dispensing a set of bills. He slid them through the cage to Anders.

“Don’t spend it all in one place.” The man laughed as Anders grabbed his payment.  Naturally, he would spend it all in one place: the credits were only good here.

#

Anders had been coming to markets every since rationing began, but he’d never had this many credits to spend. Now, thanks to the phone he had enough for a firearm, a face scrambler, or even a pair of real leather boots. As long as the TSB didn’t show up, he’d be leaving with something that he never could have afforded otherwise.

He strolled past the different vendors, past those hocking weapons, pornography, and clothing. Then a table of antiques caught his eye. He stopped and began to look at the hand-mirrors, makeup, and other items from a time gone by. The proprietor, a matronly woman with silver hair, noticed his interest. She pushed a hand against her hip and walked over

“Looking for anything particular?”

“No, not really.” Anders picked up a tortoise shell hairbrush.

“But for someone particular.” She smiled, a twinkle in her eye.

Anders nodded.

“Who is she?”

“She’s my… she’s very special.”

“I see.” The proprietor paused and sized Anders up. She reached down and picked up a small glass bottle.

“Women always appreciate this, especially if they grew up in Azrael’s shadow.” She handed Anders the bottle.

Examining it, he read the label aloud, “Number five what?”

The woman laughed. “Oh, you young ones. It’s Chanel No. 5, the most famous perfume ever sold.”

Anders raised it to his nose and sniffed.

“Perhaps you remember the famous beauty from the Golden Age, Marilyn Monroe?”

He shook his head no.

“Marilyn was once asked ‘What do you wear to bed?’ She responded ‘Why Chanel No. 5, of course.’ She was their Helen of Troy.”

“How much?”

“250.”

“150.”

“200 and not a credit lower. There isn’t much of it left and when it’s gone, well…” She trailed off.

Anders tilted the container in his hands. It was almost half empty. He looked back at the woman.

“Okay.”

He handed her credits and she began to wrap up the perfume. Had he meant to spend that much on Maria? Three hundred credits was over three months of wages, but it’s not as if he was going to save it.

She handed him the perfume. “Come back and tell me how she likes it.”

#

Anders wandered deeper into the market until he reached the food area, sparse tables with fruit, meats, and vegetables. He stopped and picked up a tomato. Inhaling its aroma he sighed. He’d almost forgotten their smell. He returned it to the table and continued.

Several stalls down he saw a sign that read “Confections & Sweets.” The last round of rationing had made sugar even more scarce, so an entire table of candy was something to behold. Anders walked over and looked longingly at the wrapped hard candies, bags of jelly beans, and ropes of taffy. But it was the small, silver wrapped squares that stopped him.

“Oh my god.”

“You found our chocolate.” A white-bearded man with a warm smile greeted Anders.

“It’s been so long since I had any.”

“Probably not since the Lunar Project.”

“Is this that old?”

The man laughed. “Chocolate wouldn’t last that long. No, this was made here in Center-west.”

“How?”

The man stroked his beard and cast an eye around the market, as if to make sure no one was listening. He beckoned Anders closer.

“I know a chocolatier. He smuggles the cocoa beans in from Central America. Very dangerous. But very, very good.”

“How much?””

“For you, 120.”

Anders frowned. After buying the perfume he only had 110 credits left.

He went low, and countered with, “60.”

“100.”

“80.”

“90, then.”

Anders nodded.

#

With sweat on his brow and a box labelled “Official TSB Rations” in his arms, Anders climbed the last few steps to the twelfth floor of a worn apartment building. After catching his breath he walked to the door marked 1246 and knocked. A moment later it opened.

“Hello, Mr. Dan.”

Juan had the same dark curly hair as his mother. He gave Anders a big hug and smiled up at him with a jack-o-lantern grin.

“Did you get food?”

“Yeah.”

Breaking the embrace, Juan headed inside. “Good, I’m hungry.”

Anders walked into the sparse apartment and to the dining room table. He dropped the box on it.

“Can you get me something to write on? A pencil and paper.”

Juan smiled and ran to the bedroom.

Anders pulled an old chair out from the table and sat. His gaze was drawn to the window sill where a small pot with a snowdrop sat. As light from the sunset filtered in, its solitary flower began to change from white to orange.

“Here, Mr. Dan.” Juan handed Anders a pencil and a leaflet.

It was propaganda for McCarthy’s Legion. Anders frowned, it didn’t matter that he agreed with them about the TSB, supporting any faction group had become too dangerous. Crimes against Terran Survival were now a capital offense. It just wasn’t worth it.

#

No sense inviting trouble.

#

He wrote a quick note, then placed the bottle of perfume and several small zucchini on the table.

“Grab your coat, we’re going to the roof.”

“Why?”

“I’ve got something for you.”

“A present?” Juan asked, excitement in his eyes.

“A special one.”

#

A door opened and Juan bounded out onto a roof crowed with antennae and satellite dishes. On one side, a large electronic billboard sat idly. Anders emerged and began to weave his way toward the edge.

“What did you get me?”

Anders smiled. “Let’s sit over there first.” He motioned to the billboard.

“Why?”

“So we can watch the sunset.”

“Why?”

“Because sometimes—you have to take a moment and appreciate something beautiful.”

Juan put a hand to his chin and considered this for a moment. Then he nodded. “I agree.”

Anders laughed. He took Juan’s hand and led him to a ledge in front of the billboard.

“Careful now.”

They climbed up and sat, their legs dangling as they looked out across the city. In front of the them, the sun burned brightly as it fell through the layers of pollution.

“Do you take Mom up here?”

“Sometimes, why?”

“‘Cause it’s pretty. She likes pretty things.”

“She does.”

Anders stared off, lost in the moment. Juan tugged at his jacket.

“Yeah?”

“My present.”

Anders smiled and opened up the box. “Have you heard of chocolate?”

The boy shook his head no.

“Well, it’s a type of candy.”

“I love candy!”

“When I was your age, this was my favorite.”

Anders took out the bar and handed it to Juan. The boy’s fingers tore into the silver wrapping, peeling it back to reveal the darkness underneath.

Juan raised it to his mouth and stopped, looking to Anders for approval.

“Go ahead.”

Juan bit in. Bittersweet, bold, and rich—the taste was strange and unfamiliar. But as he chewed, his eyes grew wide. He turned to Anders with a face full of joy.

“You like it?”

Juan nodded and continued to eat. Anders watched until his eyes grew wet. Quickly he turned away and wiped them before the boy could see.

He reached into the box and removed a small jar of clear liquid. Its label read “Starshine” and it was just what you’d expect. Anders took a big pull and gasped. It had been a while since he’d had something that strong.

“What’s that?”

“An adult drink.”

“Make sure to save some for Mom.” His attention returned to the chocolate. “I’m going to save some chaco-let for her, too.”

Anders reached an arm around Juan’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze.

“She’ll like that.”

He took another sip. This time it didn’t burn so bad.

#

By now the sun had dropped below the horizon. Reds and oranges gave way to purples, violets, and blues before finally reaching night.

There was a crackling sound as the billboard behind them came to life. Light shown down as a simple animation told the story of Azrael.

#

“Are you ready? Do your part for Terran Survival, today.” From deep in space, a large asteroid hurtled toward Earth, steadily growing closer.

#

“Azrael is coming.”

#

At the bottom a clock counted down…

7 years.

5 months.

23 days.

8 hours.

36 minutes.

6 seconds.

#

5 seconds.

#

4 seconds.

#

3 seconds.

#

2 seconds.


When he was six, Luke Guidici broke his family’s TV. Free to spend his days imaging new worlds, he grew to love storytelling. After graduating from SFSU, he moved to Los Angeles where he’s worked as an extra, grip, editor, falconer, writer, and director.