The Meaning of Steel
By Hugh Spencer
“So what do the good people at Progressive Apparatus want to talk to me about?”
Most days of the week PA wouldn’t acknowledge that a micro-operator like me even existed.
“Nothing as complicated as your last assignment.”
Fuchs seemed like the usual corporate lifer: Round glasses, bowtie slicked back hair and too much gray flannel. I figured that Fuchs didn’t like “complicated” very much. Fine, neither did I.
“So what’s the gig?”
“Location and delivery,” Fuchs said.
“What and where?”
“Ah, Hamilton then.”
Our food arrived.
I was having my favourite, mutated exo-bass-liver. Fuchs tried not to look disgusted.
Karx’s Digital Archaeological and Meta-Cultural Consulting Services, looks like somebody took a museum of historical electronics and dropped it from a great height. But what could I do? With so much new tech and apps slipping into our brains from the Great Ether, it was hard to keep stuff organized.
“Pull up your pants, Milton.”
“These are an aesthetic statement. Hipsters. They’re supposed to ride that way.”
“When they’re down to your knees, I imagine I’ll be seeing you on the cover of GQ.”
Milton took another swig of ‘coffee’.
“So what does a swanky outfit like PA want with a shitload of steel?”
“Irradiated steel,” I said. “And watch the language.”
“Fuck yeah, sorry,” Milton said. “Radiation? That’s even weirder.”
“It’s just that steel…”
“… is a little too terrestrial for PA, isn’t it?”
“I can only assume that they’re acquiring the stuff on behalf of one of their clients.”
“Sound dodgy to me.”
Stan (my shotgun) was digging into a plastic bag of synthetic meat strings.
“Why do you eat that crap?” I asked as I eased up a little on the accelerator. Milton had fixed me up with a custom-made eighteen-wheeler with a couple of huge moveable storage tanks. It had a custom-made cab that looked like an old Apollo command module lying on its side.
“Got to stay strong.” Stan slapped one of his biceps which was about the size of the trunk of a red wood tree.
Stan was a nice kid but he was perpetually angry. His parents kept getting laid off, getting new physio and skill mods (courtesy of our ever-so-subtle exo-friends) and then getting laid off again so they had to get more mods.
As he grew up Stan’s parents kept getting weirder and weirder. The more you got your body altered, the less human your psychology got.
“How’s your sister doing?” I asked.
Stan stuffed another mass of pseudo-protein in his mouth and looked out the window.
“Sorry,” I said eventually.
“Transformation isn’t going well?” Maybe it would do Stan some good to talk about it.
“She’s mostly neural tissue now.”
“Like a big brain?”
Just after I asked that question, it occurred to me that it might be just a little insensitive.
“They have to inject her with this suspension fluid just to keep her physically integrated.”
Physically integrated?! “That sounds pretty serious,” I said.
On the up side, the traffic was improving.
“Is there any possibility that…they…might…” I realized that I was venturing into dangerously sensitive territory. “…consider…” I hesitated.
“Termination?” Stan finished the sentence for me.
“I wish they would.”
Another long pause.
“But she’s the best systems-analyst they’ve ever had.”
Now there was some kind of fighter-sedan trying to pass me on the slow lane. I resisted the urge to ram him off the road.
“Trouble is….” Now he started aiming his rifle out the window in the general direction of the sedan, checking the sights.
“Careful buddy,” I said softly.
“Trouble is she can access my cell phone. She calls me up. Talks to me for hours.”
A very big, very armoured burb-wagon rolled by. I bet Stan would have really enjoyed putting a hole in the side of it at that moment.
“Most of it doesn’t make a lot sense, but I understand enough to know that she’s in a lot of pain.”
Stan put down the rifle. This was probably a good idea.
“So what do you think?” Stan asked me finally.
“What the hell does a bunch of desk-sucking dorks like PA want with half a tonne of hot steel?”
“Haven’t a clue,” I replied as we passed an RCMP tank.
“Do you have any ideas?” I asked.
“Silver bullet,” Stan said.
“You mean somebody has werewolf problems?” I’m not afraid to ask the occasional stupid question.
“I figure that the aliens have finally showed up in person.”
“The ETs must have said or done something, or are threatening to do something, that’s really p-o’d the government. And some idiot scientist has told the moron politicians that the only way to off these aliens is to shoot them with radioactive bullets.”
“One hundred thousand science fiction movies can’t be wrong.
Salt water is the only thing that really kills monsters and aliens.”
I looked out at the darkening sky. Didn’t look like anybody was going to be landing soon.
The methane station smelled like pig shit.
Fortunately, the restaurant had its own air supply and the food was reasonably good. Almost like real fish and meat.
“So what’s your theory?”
“About the irradiated steel?”
“Don’t know,” I tried and failed to pick up some tofu cubes with my chopsticks. “Don’t care.”
Just to irritate me, Stan picked up one of his tofu cubes and ate it. “You care about everything.”
I gave up and scooped the remaining cubes with the emergency plastic spoon they leave out for incurable wilos.
“How about quantum computers?”
“You mean the computers that are supposed to calculate at faster than light speeds?”
A kid Stan’s age probably had nine or ten of the damned things in his bedroom.
“Well, maybe the radiation has changed the molecular structure of the alloy…”
“Can radiation do that?” Stan was starting to look bored as he started foraging around in his bowl of bean sprouts.
I decided to skip any of the scientific details, which I would have been making up anyway.
“…and makes the steel useful as possible circuit components?”
“But what do a bunch of bozos like PA want quantum computers for?”
“One of the things my brother was working on, before…” All of the sudden I found myself feeling very sad.
“It’s okay,” Stan said quietly. We had some similar family issues.
This dose of understanding allowed me to recover some. “He was looking at Earth-based equivalents to extraterrestrial technology, in case–”
“– Somebody at Galactic Central, or the Ghost Planet, or whatever, decides to shut off the magic data tap?” Stan was smiling but it wasn’t a happy smile.
Most people I knew had a similar expression when they considered the fact that the most innovative period in human history was the result of various interstellar daydreams leaking into our brains through a myriad of subliminal wavelengths.
Somebody else’s idle thoughts.
“Andrew figured that quantum tech was our best bet so far,” I said.
“How’s he doing these days? Stan pushed his chopsticks through a layer cake of many colours.
“He’s okay.” I answered as I leaned back in my seat and looked over at a pack of subnormals pushing a load of crates onto the back of an automatic cargo blimp. Robots work a lot faster but the price of two-digit IQ labour was definitely more competitive.
“His controller says he might be able to live in a dorm soon. Work off some of his debt.”
I stuffed a piece of cake into my mouth. “Andy knew that the gig was dangerous when he took it. So did I.”
“I was lucky, Andy wasn’t.”
Some kind of nanotech leak onto a mild patch of Wild.
We copped a freebie at the Regional Temple of Mentotechnology and Personal Transcendence at the outermost outskirts of Hamilton. If you show up, you aren’t allowed to leave hungry and you’re made aware of your right to access the “hardware to heaven” process that made Mentotechnics the leading faith of the last century’s leading celebrities. You also got to wear shiny silver hat and they play a lot of vintage synthesizer music.
Kind of fun.
Besides, we weren’t freeloading. We had been mugged that night and were definitely in need of a bit of aid.
The problem was that unless your vehicle is registered as high-priority automated industrial traffic, you’ll never get anything like a direct route.
We weren’t, so we didn’t.
I swear we must have orbited Hamilton 50 times that night.
So at about three in the morning we were in this holding pattern and even with the filtered methane engines we must have been pumping out a massive carbon footprint.
Suddenly there was a big “THUMP!” Then there’s a bigger “BUMP!” and then this really huge net drops over us.
I figured that it was a good idea to stop the vehicle at that point.
More than 30 guys decked out in crash helmets, hockey pads and baseball bats walked up and started hammering on the sides of Space Truck. Stan rolled down the window and pointed his shotgun in the direction of our new acquaintances:
“What do you want?!”
“What do you got?!”
Obviously these guys didn’t think Stan was going to shoot them. Or maybe they didn’t care.
“Nothing!” I yelled out into the darkness.
The pounding on the sides of the truck resumed. I didn’t think they could rupture the storage tanks but the noise was irritating.
Another voice cried out in disbelief.
“We’re going in for a pick-up!” I replied.
“A pick-up?” It was the same voice, sounding even more skeptical. “In Hamilton?”
An isolated batter took a swing and smashed one of our headlights.
“If we ever get there!”
I knew that the residents of this particular ideological zone didn’t think random violence and destruction were big deals. In fact they were almost expected forms of interaction. But our truck was a rental and my damage deposit had just flown out the window.
“What’s there to pick up in Hamilton?”
Most of the guys were getting bored, and so they got back to work with their bats.
The hammering on the tanks got louder.
“Stop that!” yelled Stan. “You want your skin to melt?!”
It was the lead guy.
One of the batters stopped just before he connected with one tank’s containment valves.
“What the hell are you talking about?!”
This batter was not as smart as the lead.
“We’re just off the Rochester hovercraft with a fresh load.”
“Thought you were here to pick up?”
“We got an exchange going,” Stan said. “Whole load of stuff from the old Kodak plant. Don’t know what it is, but it sure smells weird.”
At this point most of the bats were leaning on the shoulders and their owners stated wandering away.
“That convinced them,” I said quietly.
“Not completely,” said another voice.
He was an old guy (about my age) and he was standing next to the front wheel well Instead of a bat he was holding a three-foot length of metal pipe.
“You two look way too healthy to be toxic-loaders.”
“We work out a lot.”.
“You must be after irradiated steel, “the old guy said.
“Now why would you think that?”
“Only thing they got left that ain’t nailed down in there is steel.” The old bastard peered at us. “What the do you guys want with a truckload of irradiated steel?”
“Wish we knew.”
The old guy nodded his head. “You probably don’t.”
I shrugged. “What can you do, eh?”
“Probably got something to do with construction,” the old guy said. “That’s what they used to do with most of their steel.”
“Good solid stuff, steel.”.
“They probably need it to be radioactive so they can build up north.”.
“Up north?” asked Stan.
The old guy nodded. “The hot steel will melt into the permafrost; it’ll let ’em build really deep down.”
“You think?” Stan was impressed by this theory.
“Sounds pretty plausible to me,” I said.
Actually I wasn’t sure about the physics of that proposition but I was not about to disagree with a man who was culturally-habituated to violence and has a metal pipe in his hand.
“You two had better be careful. It won’t be an easy pick-up in there.”
“Thanks for your concern.”
Then the old bastard took our wallets.
Just anti-radiation capsules this morning. We didn’t have much appetite. I wasn’t sure if it was nerves or the steadily rising Geiger clicks on the dashboard.
Not many people would describe the former Municipality of Hamilton as beautiful but that’s always how I’ve thought of the city. When I moved to Hamilton to study at the university back before it converted itself into a cluster of self-aware AI complexes. I was just pumped to rent my first bed-sit in the academic district. I had to tutor engineering students but I never went near their department and I never would have even considered venturing into the industrial core.
How times change.
I guess my naive country-mouse ways must had some charm because Lucy, who was easily the coolest and sexiest grad students in our department, had decided to talk to me at one of the departmental parties.
“You don’t have a clue, do you?” she asked.
“Clue about what?” My response must have confirmed her remark.
“About Hamilton.” Lucy laughed and sucked back on her bottle of beer.
“I’m pretty new here.” I was clutching a can of fizzy something which the bartender at the Student Union pub looked embarrassed to serve me.
I felt like I was eleven years old.
“Let me take you for a ride.” Yes, Lucy’s blood alcohol level was probably over the legal limit but I was not going to turn down an opportunity like this because I wasn’t really eleven years old.
We stumbled out of the pub, piled into her boyfriend’s prehistoric Volvo wagon and thundered off into the night.
I had kind of hoped that Lucy would suggest a change in plans that we might end up at her place without her boyfriend around. But no, I wasn’t exuding that much charm. She really did want to show me what she found interesting about her home town.
The steel furnace, firing away against the night sky was definitely the highlight of the tour. Imagine Fritz Lang working in Technicolor and Cinerama. Or maybe 3D IMAX. The whole plant looked like a monstrously complex machine city with a metal volcano at its heart.
Talk about your prophetic visions.
Sometimes we don’t like to think about how little control we have as the ol’ Cosmic Paradigm Shift “progresses”. Toronto got the Wild. And people, like my ex-gf’s son, got good money by going into the old city centre and trying to blast out all the beasties that live there.
On the other side of the lake like Buffalo and Rochester, it got very weird and toxic and the life expectancy dropped to age 32. But at least part of that was due to the state laws about extreme sports and roller derby eligibility.
Hamilton, like Saskatchewan, got robots and automatons. Lots and lots of automatons that were always busy doing something. It would have been reassuring if we actually knew what they were doing all the time.
If you had any kind of industrial aesthetic you would have agree that Hamilton got the best out of the new developments. The place was bizarre, totally de-humanized and absolutely amazing. I could still recognize many of the spaces and structures of the City. Except that the parks and streets were now filed with metal and plastic pods rolling around on huge inflatable wheels or ambulating about on jointed tripods.
I remember reading somewhere that some Paradimists believed that these were these were apparently the best mobility configurations for materials handling.
We saw a couple of human-controlled vehicles crawling along those big one-way streets. The automaton pods would occasionally roll up beside the drivers, extend some sensors and peer at them. Eventually the pods would go away and let the humans go about their business.
“Now we’re cooking with gas!”
Now where had Stan picked up an ancient expression like that? Somehow he’d managed to negotiate through all the construction and we were now on what used to be Barton Street.
Not too far now.
The warehouse was essentially a big black box, sort of like a Wal-Mart that had gone over to the Dark Side.
“You sure this is the place?” Stan pulled on the brake handle and eased the truck to a stop.
We must have activated some kind of sensor because there was a sudden burst of light and now the big black box was a big silver box. A shape was visible in front of the silver box. Then there was some movement.
We could make out what looked like an inflated heavily-articulated trench coat. It got closer, and we saw that the trench coat was wearing a multi-valved gas mask with bulbous lenses topped off with a wide-brimmed rain/radiation resistant hat.
Whatever it was — was now standing next to the passenger door.
“Progressive Apparatus?” it asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
Trenchcoat was growling those words out through some kind of speaker. It was holding what looked like a nuclear-powered TV remote in rubber-gloved hand. It pointed the unit at the ID chip in our truck’s front wheel-well.
“You seem to be who you say you are,” Trenchcoat said.
“We’re just contractors,” Stan spat out. “We’re not a part of that organization.”
Trenchcoat shrugged its tube lined shoulders. It turned and pointed the remote at the warehouse door.
The irradiated steel was sitting there, waiting for us: A big semi-regular pyramid of irregularly sized girders. Somebody had dropped a translucent sheet over the stack. I sincerely hoped that the tarpaulin was made of some kind of lead-impregnated fabric.
We skipped it.
I prayed that the lack of appetite wasn’t an early symptom of radiation poisoning. Stan and I were encased in surplus EVA suits as we used a manually-powered forklift to load the steel into the containment tanks. Fortunately the battering-boys hadn’t managed to crack the tank.
“Ever wonder how this stuff got contaminated in the first place?”
“Must have been an industrial accident.”
Stan was grunting and sweating up his visor as he pushed one of girders towards the back of the tank.
“With all those bots and mechs rolling around out there, there’s bound to be some screw-ups.”
Chances were that Stan was correct. If there were constant ambient radiation levels here that meant that the wireless control systems were probably breaking down fairly regularly.
We were down to the last girder.
“How are we doing on weight?” I asked. We did not want our truck’s suspension to go when where halfway down the I97.
Stan leaned his helmet down so he could check the meter on the rear hydraulic spring.
“We’re good,” he said. “Gauge says we could manage at least another 2500.”
2500? That sounded like a lot.
I used the last iota of my muscular energy to slam the containment tank shut and seal it.
My face plate was almost completely fogged up.
“Are we done yet?” Stan asked.
“Almost.” I twisted open one of the valves at the base of my helmet. At that point I was so hot and uncomfortable that I didn’t care if the air was toxic.
We divested ourselves of the EVA suits and found Trenchcoat in an office at the back of the warehouse. It was sitting perfectly still, behind a desk, ram-rod straight.
You couldn’t even tell if it was breathing.
“Somebody stole our wallets.” I thought I might as well try to communicate. “We don’t have any ID.”
Trenchcoat stared at me with those huge glass lenses. “Why is this my problem?”
“We have to take this load across the border.” I swear I could hear something clicking inside its head. “We need paperwork to do that.”
A heavy sigh sounds pretty weird through a vocoder.
Trenchcoat plugged some jacks into its palms, made a few sharp gestures, and paper started scrolling out of a printer. There was a lot of paper involved so we had to wait around for a while.
“Say, are you one of those humanoid robots?” Stan sat on the edge of Trenchcoat’s desk.
“What?” Trenchcoat asked without turning towards Stan,
“Or are you some kind of radiation accident survivor who has to stay in that suit to stay alive?”
“Stan–” I began.
“That’s a pretty personal question.” Trenchcoat pulled the jacks out of its palms.
For a second I wondered if Trenchcoat was got to fasten a chain saw on the end of its arm and use it to explain how it felt about Stan’s lapse in manners. Fortunately, no.
“But the answer is yes.” Trenchcoat pulled the mass of paper out of the printer. “And get off my desk.”
Stan wiped his nose and walked out of the office,
“Young people these days,” I said. “So high strung.”
There was another, this time quieter, sigh from Trenchcoat’s speaker. It reminded me of deep space static from a radio telescope.
I flipped through the print-out and spotted a few Ottawa addresses and the Fedgov logo here and there. “Any idea what they want all that hot steel for?”
“Yeah.” Trenchcoat was putting more jacks into the sides of its head.
Trenchcoat looked at me. “The price of mercury has gone up 20.23%.”
And yes, Trenchcoat did have a bunch of wires stuck in its head.
Trenchcoat turned away from me. The jacks were probably providing video feed so he was watching something much more interesting than me. Most likely extreme curling or naked roller derby girls.
There wasn’t much between us and the outskirts of the city. I noticed a few subs in their yellow rubber coveralls poking their heads inside some overturned mechs. Sub-normals and Trenchcoat were probably the only humans who didn’t object working long-term among all that ambient R. That is if Trenchcoat was human.
There was something about mercury…
We were both eating something that had been deep-fried and freeze-dried in the last century when we drove up to the massive wall at the other end of the Peace Bridge.
“Can I ask you a personal question, Stan?”
He hadn’t said much since he left Trenchcoat’s office. The kid was probably getting very bored with this gig.
“Do they think your sister’s transformation was a success?”
“I guess so.”
“My brother’s process didn’t pan out too well.”
“Did they ever tell your sister what they do when they decide to terminate a transformation?”
“Company’s legal position is that since they invested in the technology they own all the results.”
“Even if the transformation doesn’t provide them with any profit?”
“And how do they protect their investment?” I was as much taking myself through an unwelcome chain of thought as I was asking Stan questions.
“They inject the subject with…” Stan began.
“…mercury,” I finished. “
We stopped at the customs booth. The officer was a sub-normal because the Americans considered border patrol work to be particularly hazardous.
I handed him the stack of print outs. The poor sap obviously couldn’t read but he was able to see the big arrow on the cover sheet and that told him that he needed to feed the sheets into the big ugly machine next to him.
“And of course, those mercury injections…”
The customs officer must have sensed something because he looked up and gave us a big goofy smile.
“Do you know the price of mercury has gone up 20.23%?”
Neither of us said anything for a while. Eventually the officer handed us a pair of US entry passes and gave us another one of those tragic smiles.
We didn’t start talking again until we’d cleared the Buffalo Burn-Out Zone.
Stan finally spoke: “So you figure that PA has been contracted to…”
“…find a cheaper alternative.”
There was more silence.
Then: “I have an idea.”
We kept on driving.
A ‘power breakfast’ as our lawyer liked to call them. We figured that was because Ms. Ruby likes to eat a lot in the mornings. Since she always seemed pretty sharp, it seemed to be working for her. Getting us out on bail was nothing short of brilliant.
“Let’s review this once more.” Ms. Ruby speared some honeydew cubes with a small fork. First fresh fruit we’ve had in town in five years. “You claim you had no criminal intent in mind when you launched the containment tanks?”
“Absolutely none,” I replied. “I had personally supervised the truck’s spring release system because it was essential to the aesthetics of the creative project.”
Ms. Ruby took a sip of her smoothie and looked over at Stan. “You can confirm this?”
Stan pointed his thumb at me. “This guy’s a real perfectionist.”
“So when the two tanks flew through the front window of the corporate headquarters of Progressive Apparatus…”
“I prefer to call the experience as Impact Art…”
“…you meant no harm to any of the employees of said organization.”
“Of course not. I didn’t want to hurt my audience.” I said. “Simply engage their imagination and aesthetic sensibilities.”
“What about all that radioactive steel inside the tanks?” Ms. Ruby looked at us skeptically.
“We’re really familiar with the tolerances of the tanks,” Stan said.
“As long as no one attempts to touch them there should be no leakage,” I finished. “At least for the foreseeable future.”
Of course, I hadn’t been sure at all. Not with all that hammering from the baseball bats.
“And we blew the horn real loud before we released the tanks,” Stan added. “So everybody could get out of the way.”
Ms. Ruby finished her smoothie and set the glass aside. She glanced down at her notes before she spoke again. “I don’t have a note of this…I suppose I should have asked earlier.”
“What is the name of this work of performance art?”
“Impact Art, please.”
“Whatever. What do you call it?’
I looked at Stan.
“Brother and Sister.”
Two-time Aurora nominee, Hugh’s work can be found in On Spec, three Tesseracts anthologies, Interzone, Descant and New Writings in the Fantastic. Hugh loves heroic heritage electronic media, so he is a regular contributor to Shoestring Radio Theatre in San Francisco and writes much of his fiction on a vintage Tandy WP-2 portable word processor. His novel Extreme Dentistry was released in 2014 and his collection, Why I Hunt Flying Saucers & Other Fantasticals launched in 2016. Both books are available from Brain Lag Publishing (www.brain-lag.com).