Ring City, a base, materialistic city on an asteroid straddling civilization and wild space is tame compared to the maniacal war between the Anhydrous and the Hecubats.

The slimy intemperance one could find in a place like Ring City had its appeal to daredevils and those seeking “adult” entertainment. But with the glamorous lifestyle of neon lights and beautiful people ingesting feel-good chemicals came the essence, the flipside of the coin: the lights reflecting in pools of piss, haggard people puking up their guts in the shadows, people who have long fried their brains collapsing dead of one symptom or another of powerful chemical burns to the cerebral cortex. The charm in Ring City’s siren call beckoned these poor souls, until her addictive nastiness sunk its claws in them until they couldn’t get out.
For one raised in such degradation, a level of understanding of such things becomes innate, but the desire to find bigger and better, more salubrious living conditions grew ever evident as one approached adulthood, to leave behind the trivial, superficial banality that Ring City had to offer, and find something else, regardless of what it was. So when Melanie Brooke came to Ring City to be a star some twenty years ago, and ended up a body worker, and then gave birth to her son Saginaw, this would be his fate: the longing for somewhere else, anywhere that wasn’t the decrepit asteroid which was Ring City, the anonymous floating place with no jurisdiction, no direction, and no morality.
Saginaw’s childhood friend, Rack Franconia, was in a similar boat. His dad was hired as a cop in Ring City, but was killed when Rack was five years old. He was raised by his mother, who was forced to become a joia distributor. With a dead father and drug dealing mother, Rack identified with Saginaw, whose father was unknown and whose mother was a burned out dealer of self. They confided in each other that they hated Ring City, and surely this was not the end-all-be-all to the universe. What lie beyond the boundaries of the asteroid, they would often ask each other. Perhaps their fortune was there, in the stars. They spent their youth devising subversive ways to topple local landmarks, make fools of the thrill seeking idiots who came to visit, or find some way to really bring down the twisted Ring City culture. Their favorite that they had come up with was going to the seamiest, yet most popular skin lab on the rock, Playdates Unlimited, after recruiting twenty or so less intelligent, cruder young boys who were in the same plight as Saginaw and Rack but were too dumb to know or care. Then they synchronized their watches, each of them going to a bathroom, and at the same time, they flushed every toilet simultaneously, causing a rush of water pressure that blew out the pipes and sent a smattering of pathetic naked men and their dates running out into the streets, to be ridiculed by the ridiculous dealers, drinkers, and gamblers. The recruited boys enjoyed the toilet aspect of flooding the skin lab and watching the weirdoes run out in a panic, but the subtle underlying meaning planted by Saginaw and Rack was lost on all but them, creating an inside joke on these pathetic people between these two, too old for their age.
As time went on, the gags and events lost their appeal, and the sheer humor that they provided was no longer sufficient remuneration for the recruited boys; now they wanted to be paid in cold hard cash, just like the base peddlers of filth that lined the streets of the city they despised so much. The events were instantly abandoned, and now Sag and Rack had to think of something else to do with their time. Nothing seemed to placate for long, not even the tattoos they got on their arms together, that said “Down with the Ring”. It was one night, about 1 a.m., as they rambled aimlessly on Gold Light Avenue, as they walked past an appliance store, they saw the crystal images on the television, that bastion of societal mores peddling from time immemorial, flickering an image of a well-dressed man, well-groomed, with an important message. It had been so long since Sag and Rack had seen anyone so well put-together, it caught their attention immediately. The man spoke with authority: “Are you tired of your life in the doldrums? Have an existence steeped in purposelessness, vacuity, and self-gratification? Are you in desperate need of a cause? Then join the new thing! Vacu-link to FIGHT FOR RIGHT, and learn how you can become a part of the Anhydrous Freedom Movement! Do it today!”
“Wanna give it a try?” Sag asked Rack.
“Might as well,” he replied. The two walked to the nearest Vacu-link and stuck their PointCard into the slot. They dialed the link and the points were deducted from their account. A jerky robot appeared on the screen, chrome polished, with a flashing string of lights on its faceplate.
“Welcome to the Anhydrous Freedom Movement. Thank you for expressing an interest in our cause, SAGINAW BROOKE. Are there any other parties with you?”
“Rack Franconia, 77-292-SDB441,” Rack answered. The computer paused for a moment, then the robot continued.
“Welcome. In a moment, an AFM agent will meet you at your location where you will be shown our introductory film. Please hold for Agent BELMONT AMPER.” The text “Please hold for Agent BELMONT AMPER” appeared on the screen. After thirty seconds, the boys heard a WarnerCar arrive, and out came a man of obvious Asian descent, about 30 years old.
“You guys Saginaw and Rack?” he asked.
“That’s us,” Rack answered.
“Here are my credentials,” Agent Amper said, showing several laminated documents and three or four carbon copies of forms. “Satisfied?”
“Yes sir.”
“Good, get in the Warner. You boys have a movie to watch.” The car broke through the asteroid’s artificial atmosphere and transported them to the nearest planet, Hecuba, in the Gamma Riper system. “You guys ever been off that godforsaken rock?”
“No,” they both said together.
“Congrats. Let’s hope you never have to go back there. You must have just seen the commercial with Colonel Winslow.”
“The really nicely dressed guy?”
“That’s him. It’s a big hit. Very convincing. He has an air of authority about him, yeah? Not like the laissez-faire mentality you get down in Ring City.”
“You’ve got a fast Warner here,” Sag complimented.
“Thanks. I need it fast to do this.” Just then, Amper dropped altitude, then within a few seconds stopped, turned around, and pressed the button on top of his gearshift. A loud “bow-romp” noise came from underneath the Warner, then a high-pitched “Fshee-ew” popped through the cockpit. After a plume of smoke momentarily occluded their view, the boys saw a missile hurtling fast through space and striking a craft, blowing it to smithereens. Amper did another 180, and gunned it to 600 mph. “Sometimes, enemy combatants anticipate us bringing in new recruits, and they try to stop the process before it starts. But we have our ways of knowing.” The corner of Amper’s mouth crooked up in a half-smile.
“What’s up with that robot on the Vacu-link?” Sag asked.
“Oh, Carl? He’s great. I used to work with him back in the old days, when I first started. That guy is a laugh a minute,” he said with a wistful chuckle.
“Was that a robot or a man?” Rack asked, now confused.
“Carl’s a robot. Okay, here we are.” The building was a massive metal construction, dwarfing the boys as if they were ants to a skyscraper. “Nat will take you the rest of the way.” Amper disappeared into a hall, just as a spindly, caterpillar-tracked robot emerged seemingly from out of nowhere to address Sag and Rack in the typical monotonous robotic voice.
“Welcome to Planet Hecuba, new recruits. You are now in Receiving Headquarters Building 7224816, in the City of Clydesburg. Follow me to your first tutorial: ‘A Background on the Anhydrous Freedom Movement.’ We hope you enjoy your stay.” Sag and Rack were treated to a movie depicting the poor inhabitants of Hecuba and their struggle to attain freedom from the water tortures inflicted by Alofos, an invading race from nearby Planet Sombra. Sag became instantly bored with the show and felt none of the emotions the film was meant to elicit. When Sag felt he could no longer endure anymore of the propaganda and was about ready to leave, the film was over. As Nat approached the two again, Sag was going to give the robot a piece of his mind, but he was cut off by Rack.
“When I can sign up?” Rack said desperately. Apparently, the brainwashing had worked.
“Just come with me, and we will begin your preparations,” Nat said robotically.
“You’re buying into this?” Sag wondered aloud at his friend, disappointed that he wasn’t as deep as he had hoped.
“Yeah, didn’t you see that, those poor Hecubats? What, don’t you agree?”
“No, I don’t,” Sag answered. He turned to Nat. “Hey, I think I’d rather take my chances with the familiar communicable diseases in Ring City than take part in this madness.”
“Regrettably, you are obligated to serve your two-year term to the Hecubat Armed Forces, a division of the Anhydrous Freedom Movement.”
“I never signed up for—”
“You have been pressed into service.” Stunned, Sag followed Rack, who tried to cheer him up by extolling the virtues of fighting for anhydrous freedom. Rack’s exuberant ravings came to an abrupt halt when Russell, a hulking, seventeen-foot tall behemoth of a robot admonished them to silence, and to remove their clothes. With the precision of a laser, Russell removed Sag and Rack’s hair from their heads, then blasted their bodies with high pressure 4% soap solution. They were then issued their uniforms: gray sleeveless jumpsuits with black boots and gray helmets. The weapons issued were one 145-volt carbolizer, one service pak leveler side-arm, and one 11-inch dual-bladed hunting knife. The two were then shuffled along into a Bussy transporter, along with hundreds of other recruits, huddled together. The door was shut and in darkness the clueless new soldiers stood in confusion. Ka-lunk! was the sound of a spotlight being turned on; Ve-reow! was a massive crystal screen turning on. An image of robot similar to Carl appeared on the screen.
“Recruits, welcome. My name is Commander Barry. Here you will receive your orders. We are being transported to the asteroid Tinprit, where the Alofos have gained a strategic location. Upon landing you will move toward the Pelalve Tower.” Suddenly a dank tower, covered in decaying vines, set against a raging maroon sky with blood-colored clouds rolling across the scene, appeared on the crystal screen. “You must enter the tower, and somewhere inside, the Alofos have stored Spirin, a critical dietary staple for the Hecubats. The Alofos, in the early stages of the war, managed to invade and confiscate the entire Hecubat supply of Spirin, save for a few hundred bushels that have since been depleted. Your mission is to infiltrate this tower, and retrieve the Spirin, which is kept on one or more of its 650 to 700 floors. Find out what you can about the tower. Take out as many Alofos as you can. Save the day for Hecuba. In six hours, we land on Tinprit.  You must remain aboard the ship, but are otherwise free to move about it. You are dismissed.”
The men continued to shudder once the spotlight and screen were turned off. Then a light in the far side of room: a door was opened. Sag and Rack finally made their way out after wading through hundreds of men. They saw a cafeteria and went in; they were starving. They sat at the bar with a plop. A skinny robot appeared behind the counter. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, is there a place we can crash before we land? I’m exhausted,” Sag answered.
“Crash where you stand, soldier. What are you eating?”
“What have you got?”
“What’s that?”
“Ground-up bones and dried blood, served in a porridge consistency. The military feels that it is the most nutritious food item soldiers can eat.”
“Ugh – that’s nasty sounding.”
“Don’t knock it til you try it.” The robot threw two plates before the friends. They ate it and agreed it wasn’t that bad. Soon they had licked their plates clean.
“Is that bloodmeal?” someone behind Rack asked.
“Yeah, that’s what they serve here,” Rack answered.
“Can I get a plate of that?” It was a soldier who had approached the counter too. “I’m Truss, from Mandula.”
“Hi Truss, I’m Saginaw, you can call me Sag, and this is my friend Rack. We’re from Ring City.”
“Actually from Ring City? Wow, you guys must see famous people all the time. I’ve always wanted to go to Ring City.”
“Ring City’s an armpit,” Rack countered. “I’d much rather be fighting for Hecuba than be stuck on that corroded island of waste.”
“You actually want to fight for Hecuba? They’re nothing but robots there. And hostile too. I wouldn’t want to hang out in Hecuba.”
Rack had a look of betrayal on his face. “What about the movie they showed us?”
“Come on, dude. That was a total commercial. There aren’t any people on Hecuba.”
“What about Agent Amper?”
“I don’t know. If you say you saw a human on Hecuba, I’m sure he didn’t stay there for long.”
“But he said he was an Anhydrous Freedom Movement Agent.”
“I would be very surprised to see humans working for the AFM.”
“Wait, go back a little,” Sag interrupted. “Are you saying you’re here against your will? Did you Vacu-link that message on the TV?”
“No, I was kidnapped. I was going to school down in Mandula by Petit Riper, minding my own business. And zap! They got me.” Truss finished his bloodmeal. “It was nice chatting, but I have to see if I can manage a way out of this place.” Truss disappeared into the swarm of soldiers crowding the halls of the Bussy transporter. Suddenly, one of those ubiquitous spindly robots tracked into the cafeteria.
“Private Rack Franconia: report to Room 6741993 on floor 29 for further orders. Private Saginaw Brooke, come with me.” A pincher protruded from the robot’s torso and took tight hold of Sag, dragging him along. Fear began to enter Sag’s heart, as now he was truly by himself, wondering what they were going to do to him and Rack. Finally at the end of the dragging session, Sag was at an elaborately decorated office with lush plants, mahogany doors, carefully etched glass, belying the motif of the rest of the ship, which was cold hard steel. “You may proceed,” the robot pestered, pushing him into the ornate office. Inside was a man facing a series of crystal screens. Ah, what Sag wouldn’t do to watch that stupid TV show “Hustlers on the Ring,” showing how to play the different gambling games on Ring City. The man watching the screens turned around to face Sag. It was Agent Amper.
“Amper! It’s you!” Sag shouted excitedly. “You need to get me out of here.”
“Ah, no…” the man said. “You think I’m some Agent Amper, right? I get that all the time. My name is Commodore Rye Scott.”
“You’re not Amper? You look exactly like him.”
“Yeah, so I hear. You don’t want to be here?” the Commodore asked.
“No, I want to go back to Ring City.”
“Well, kid, who doesn’t want to go to Ring City, but you’re a little young, no? Anyway, you’ve been selected for a top-secret mission. Based on your blood type, height and weight—”
“Wait, how do you know my blood type? I never gave blood to anyone.”
“Oh, we have scanners that take everyone’s blood type,” the Commodore said with a proud half-smile, just like Agent Amper’s. “We also saw that your blood joia content is less than .02%, which is perfect for our purposes, with those scanners. Anyway, this top-secret project, it’s going to be great. You and about 25 other soldiers of similar criteria as you are going to be brought up to the top of Pelalve Tower. Surveillance has detected a breach in their defenses, a hole about 10 feet wide, just wide enough to send some soldiers down there to kick some tail. We’re going to airlift you guys up on a Remmez craft and drop you on top of Pelalve Tower. Don’t look down! Once you’re on there, work your way down. We’re hoping you guys can find a way to undo the security codes from within.”
“This is all a huge amount to take in, sir.”
“Fear not,” he said with a reassuring smile. “The good people of Hecuba have the fullest confidence in you.” The Commodore turned back around and was looking at the crystal screens again. Then the doors closed, and Sag was back in the ornate lobby. Quickly, the spindly robot appeared again.
“Private Saginaw Brooke: proceed to the Remmez craft port, located at the top floor of this Bussy transport vehicle. Follow me to the elevator.” Sag followed the robot to the elevator, and rode to the top. He saw a collection of other soldiers gathering on the roof from other elevators, and saw the tiny Remmez, in a bright orange paint job, waiting to be boarded. The men sprinted to the craft and boarded, tightly cramped inside. They all stayed quiet for the lofty trip. Sag tried to count the stories in the tower, but they were too many for him and he lost count around 146. Finally, the Remmez hovered dizzingly over the Babelic tower, even more sinister than the image displayed in the Bussy transport. The craft remained a good hundred yards above the top, fearing any closer would be a security threat. The men had to jump down on top of the tower without the benefit of parachutes or anything else. About twenty men jumped out before Sag, and he saw that several of them had missed the mark and descended the 700 stories down to the base of the tower to their deaths. Unnerved, Sag gulped hard and looked hard for his target, crossed his fingers, and leapt. He landed within five feet of the hole, but as soon as he landed, a hideous creature attacked him. It was tall, gaunt, with skin as white as alabaster and a shock of black hair. His harrowing red eyes felt as though they pierced through Sag, and his fangs dripped freshly spilled blood. Sag felt his knees begin to buckle, but resisted the urge faint, because he knew his life was on the line: he was in the presence of the Alofos, who were nothing more than a race of vampires.
Instinctively, Sag grabbed his AFM-issued hunting knife, with chrome-polished double blade, from its sheath strapped to his ankle. Risking life and blood, Sag sunk his knife into the neck of his opponent, then dragged it clean across to the other side, severing his head from the rest of his body. The vampire was dead. All around, the other vampires feasted on his fellow soldiers, and Sag had to wonder if this was merely a suicide mission. He also had to wonder how useful the AMF-issued carbolizer and sidearm would be against this vampire race. But the thinking was fast, as he sprung into action, lunging at the ferocious Alofos and killing them with brutal efficiency. “Use your hunting knives and cut their heads off!” he shouted at his teammates. “Decapitation is your best bet.” Some of the soldiers tried to throw the vampires off the roof but this was unsuccessful. Finally, after all the rooftop bloodsuckers were relieved of their heads, Sag rounded up the remaining soldiers, eight altogether, and jumped down the hole. The towers were deserted; there were no vampires until they reached 18 floors below. There, a whole host of vampires swarmed around them, picking three more soldiers off, before the humans regained their advantage and continued the head removal service. They acted fast, and Sag was right along with them. They passed the doors this brood of disgusting beasts were guarding and saw it, vast quantities of Spirin, the valuable load they were looking for.
“What do we do?” one of the guys said. “Do we take it with us, or do we bring back word?”
“It’s obvious, yeah?” Sag answered. “There’s too much of it here for us to take back. Maybe bring what you can, but the mission is to bring back word with how much is here and where in the tower it’s located. So this is the 18th floor, do you all agree?”
“I don’t believe you should be going anywhere,” a horrendous voice from the direction of the doors said. The voice was high pitched, like the wails of the vampires on the roof. “I think you are trespassing, and that you all now are my property.” Sag didn’t want to turn around and look to see who was talking, but his sense of duty compelled him. He turned around, and saw the most hideous of all things, worse than anything he’d seen in Ring City. It was a vampire, and by the looks of it, the queen of the place. “You must all kneel before your new king. I am Urguul Phobphot II. They call me the Ambitious.” Phobphot had the torso of the other vampires, but his thorax was bulbous and distended, with four legs carrying him about. “You are my subjects now, and I shall do with you as I please. And I say that it will please me greatly to eat you all.” The massive, repugnant vampire sovereign moved quickly, lithely, and with his arachnidian legs, he captured and devoured three more men. Sag and another ran down the labyrinthine halls for their lives, with legs, fists and heart pumping as desperately as they could. Phobphot followed gamely, easily maneuvering the corridors so obviously familiar to him. Sag happened to turn down one hallway that had a steep incline down; he slipped and rolled down the hilly hall. He managed to look up but did not see his Anhydrous compatriot behind him, so he wasn’t sure if Phobphot got a hold of him or if he slipped down another tunnel. The tubular path that Sag traveled began to incline in the opposite direction, as if he were traveling in an arc. For a brief moment, he was even freefalling in the tunnel. Another hallway merged with Sag’s, and emerging from that one was Phobphot, who stationed himself directly in front of the last soldier. Sag repositioned himself so that he was falling headfirst, then thrust his hunting knife in front of him, at arm’s length, so that he effectively took the shape of a spear, with the knife as the head. With the momentum afforded by gravity, Sag plunged his blade into the joint where Phobphot’s abdomen met its thorax, then drove down and sliced the monster’s belly in two. The vampire sovereign screeched in pain as his entrails vacated his thoracic cavity. Sag was covered in the fluorescent green mucous liquid, and it nearly made him throw up. He finally came upon some flatter section of the tube, where it merged with another, looked up and saw that the head vampire was truly dead. He took the tube out, and with pacing, regained his breath on the flatter hall.
At last, he reached an opening that offered some of the abnormal red daylight. He looked up and was happy to see he was only fifty or so stories up. This gave him the resolve to continue going. On the thirty-second floor, he came upon a massive pit, crawling with hundreds of the spindly robots, pushing countless numbers of dead soldiers or severed parts. He hid behind a cargo container, and watched as a group of robots stopped what they were doing and greeted a man on the other side of the pit. He tried to get a closer look, lying low so the robots wouldn’t detect him. It was the Commodore, the one who gave him his orders who looked just like Agent Amper. He was getting a tour from the robots, observing the proceedings. Were the AFM and the Alofos working together? Sag was stunned at the possibility.
Sag also got a better view of the production at the bottom of the pit. At the center was a large machine with a hopper at the top and an outlet at the base. The robots were dumping the dead soldiers and severed body parts into the hopper. Another robot dumped a large amount of Spirin into the hopper as well. Out of the base came a liquid resembling blood. Then Sag saw the thing that nearly shattered him. In one of the bins carrying body parts, Sag saw an arm with a familiar tattoo, that said “Down with the Ring”, just like his. It was Rack’s arm. In a panic, he bolted down to the bin to investigate further, to see if he lost his friend. He pushed the robots aside and pulled out the arm; it was Rack’s arm, no question. “What happened to my friend?” Sag screamed in unbridled anger. “What have you done to him?” In a fury, Sag pulled out his sidearm and began firing at the robots, knocking several out of commission before being pinched by other robots. They dragged Sag before the Commodore.
“Well, Private Saginaw, is it? I’m glad to see you survived,” the Commodore said in his dismissive manner.
“What happened to Rack?”
“Well, there’s a good chance that he’s alive, if all you saw was his arm. But it could be that he’s dead. Such is war, my young private.”
“War? This is no war. This is a blood farm, you’re supplying these beasts with Spirin and they take hijacked or duped humans and turn them into vampire food. And what do you get out of it?”
“Well, I am the creator of these robots. I designed them, built them all. I populated my home planet of Hecuba. But once the oil required to run their existence was depleted, the only alternative was blood, and when the inhabitants of Hecuba were consumed, well, there was nothing left. So we recruited the Vampire Race of Sombra to help teach how to get more blood for our robots. One of the main minerals in Hecuba is Spirin, a natural anticoagulant. Of course, the vampires love Spirin because it makes the blood flow freely. So there was a great war, which you have participated in the remnant. But now we have come to an accord. We have agreed to continue supplying humans and Spirin, and they have agreed to supply this asteroid Tinprit.”
“Get me off this damned rock,” Sag seethed.
“Oh, see, I don’t think I can do that,” the Commodore answered.
“I killed the vampire leader,” Sag taunted.
“I doubt it.”
“Sunk my hunting knife into his belly, and sliced him open. Can’t you smell his gooey intestines all over me?”
“You killed Phobphot?”
“Yeah I did. And I’d do it again. And I got more of the same if anyone doesn’t ask nice. Now I’m giving you one more chance to rig up a Bussy transport and take me and my friend Rack, or whatever is left of him, and take me back to Ring City, by hook or by crook.”
“And what if I say no?”
“Then I would say your life is on the line.” Sag, already street smart and keen from his days on Ring City, honed his combat skills while in battle against the vampires at the top of the tower. He jumped up faster than any clunky robot, and he positioned himself behind Commodore Scott, placing his carbolizer behind his jaw.
“Commodore Scott, if you enjoy taking part in the ability to talk, I suggest you do what I say.”
“Retrieve Private Rack,” the Commodore relented. Sag did not remove the gun from under the Commodore’s throat until he saw Rack, outfitted with a new arm, being brought over. “Get the Bussy transport ready.” Soon they were summoned, the Bussy transport having been prepared for the two surviving soldiers. The Commodore made the trip to Ring City, as Sag never took his sights off of him.
As they stepped off the transport, Sag looked the Commodore in the eye, and made a solemn vow. “Someday, I will bring an end to that war, and to those robots, and to those vampires. And never again will another human be duped by you or anyone else in your twisted plot. And that might not happen today or tomorrow, but happen it will. This I promise you.”
“You know Sag,” Commodore Scott intimated, “when I first came here under the guise of Agent Amper, it opened my eyes to just how bad it was here on Ring City. If you would rather live here than be devoured by robots and vampires, then be my guest. But maybe, in the meantime, you can do something where you live to make things better for those around you.” The Commodore stepped back on the transport and zoomed back to his headquarters.
Sag took Rack to the hospital to have his arm looked at. In the aftermath, Sag took steps to get his mother out of the body work industry, and to get Rack’s mother out of joia sales. To make wholesale changes to Ring City would be unpopular, but the right thing to do. And he never forgot his promise; every morning, Sag woke up and said “Today might be the day.” One day, it will be.

Submitted: September 21, 2010

© Copyright 2022 Peter Amaral. All rights reserved.

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