+J.M.J.+

Runnin' Loose on the Streets of Rouge City

By "Matrix Refugee"

Author's Note:

This is neither a smut piece (except maybe to a prude!), nor anti-Catholic gack; if it's anti-anything, it's probably anti-prudishness. I happen to be a devout Catholic virgin myself. The two girls who appear in the story are loosely based on some friends of mine who will remain nameless, but whose prudishness drove me slightly nuts. Dedicated to Laurie E. Smith, who is undoubtedly the William Gibson of the "A.I." fanfiction; to everyone who read and reviewed my previous "A.I." outing the "Zenon Eyes" triptych, thanks for all the compliments and encouragement!; to "fom4life", for sending me somewhat into orbit with his Gigolo Joe impersonations; and to my unidentified prudish friends, if you ever read this, which you possibly won't, thanks (really!) for the inspiration. Also, in memory of Walker Percy (1916—1990), self-proclaimed "bad Catholic" and great author; I wish I could write about bawdy stuff as well as you did, Doc.

Disclaimer:

I do not own "A.I., Artificial Intelligence", its characters, settings, concepts or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, of DreamWorks SKG, Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, et al.

Monday Night

"I thought you had the brakes checked before we left Albany!" Bernadette Connelly cried to her cousin Philomena. Their cruiser had nearly skidded off the highway into an embankment, thanks to the rain pounded on the roof. Bad time for the brakes to fail. Philomena steered it and let off on the accelerator until they coasted to a stop in the breakdown lane. She breathed a prayer of relief before putting the cruiser in park and breathing a sigh of relief.

"I thought for sure we were going to crash," Bernadette groused. "And I need to go to confession."

"Didn't you confess before we left Albany this morning?" Philomena asked.

"I did, but I started thinking impure thoughts since then."

"Were you thinking about…there?"

Bernadette dodged. "Why did Cecie have to move to a place like that?"

"It was her decision; let's hope the climate there didn't corrupt her."

Philomena flicked on the hazard blinkers and then pressed the switch for the dashboard speakerphone. She pressed the speed dial number for Triple A and waited while the line rang.

"Triple A Roadside Assistance, can I help you?"

"Yes, we need to be towed because our brakes failed. We're driving a forest green Saturn cruiser, license plate number PRY HRD."

"Can I have your location?"

"We're on Route 101 West, just above Exit 69, for Rouge City." She felt her face burn as she named their destination.

Fifteen minutes later, a tow truck picked them up and the girls rode the rest of the way to the city. At least the truck driver was a normal human.

"Ain't you girls a little young to be goin' to Rouge?" he asked, clearly trying to keep an insinuating tone out of his voice.

"We're just passing through," Philomena replied coolly, not looking at him even though she sat next to him.

"We're on our way to St. Louis," Bernadette added. Rather, they were going to what was left of St. Louis, now that the rising waters had turned the Mississippi into a seaway. Philomena elbowed her for letting out too much information; this stranger might know how to track them.

At length the tow truck started up the span of cantilever bridge spanning the Delaware, which seemed to be sucked into a vast gate built in the form of a woman's head, mouth agape in a silent rictus of delight, all draped in pink and blue neon. Without any signals toward each other, Philomena and Bernadette both began to pray they wouldn't be swallowed up by the City.

Later, the two girls sat in the waiting room of a service station cum convenience store, sipping water they hoped didn't have any weird additives.

At length, a fresh-faced, sturdy built young mechanic—thankfully also a human—came to them. Philomena let herself acknowledge the young man's auburn hair and gray eyes, but little else.

"I've got some bad news and some good news," he announced. "The bad news is the discs are almost destroyed, but the good news is, they can be easily replaced."

"How long will it take?" Philomena asked.

"We'll have to order the parts, and since your cruiser is an older model, it could take, oh, maybe four days to get them in. Are you in a hurry?"

"No," Philomena replied.

"Good, I know of a decent hotel where—"

"Thanks, but we'll be staying with a friend."

"Okay, can we have a number where we can reach you when the cruiser's ready?"

"No, we'll come by in five days," Philomena said. She pulled Bernadette off her seat and led her out.

"Well, I'm sorry," the young man said, baffled.

The girls used the convenience store's pay vidphone, which for some strange reason was located near several shelves of bottled ginseng in various forms. Philomena decided this was the least offensive stuff she had to look at while she waited for Cecie to pick up.

No picture appeared on screen when she finally picked up, but a line of print appeared: "Video blocked".

"Hello?" Cecie's husky alto replied.

"Hello, Cecie? It's Phila and Bernie. We're on our way over."

"So, you made it into the city in one piece. How's the trip going so far?"

"Not bad, but the brakes broke on the cruiser and we had to have it towed. It's gonna take four days to get it fixed, so could you put up with us for a few days more?"

"Of course. What's mine is yours."

"We'll be over in a little while."

"See you then."

"God bless you."

"God bless you even more."

Phila hung up the phone.

Once they left the service station, Phila consulted the printout of directions Cecie had mailed them a few days before. She led Bernie to the vast escalators that connected the lower level of the city with the upper level open to the sky.

Bernie had never seen so much neon lighting in her life. There must have been a thousand miles of tubing draping the strangely shaped buildings.

"Don't look up," Phila ordered, taking her head and pushing it down onto her chest before taking her by her free hand as she carried her half-grav luggage in the other. Bernie barely heard her over the pulsing music that blared from every open doorway and animated billboard around them, but the gesture was unquestionable.

They threaded their way through the crowds that thronged the plazas and boulevards. Bernie followed Phila blindly, not daring to look up from the polymer paving at their feet. She felt the crowd press in and knew when a possible threat approached: Phila pulled her closer to herself until they seemed conjoined at the hip.

"Merciful heavens! There's actually a church here in all this mess!" Phila exclaimed, pausing. Bernie looked up at a storefront that had clearly been converted into a chapel. Over the door poised a Michelangelo Madonna over a cross in blue neon, Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart over the doors.

They went in. Inside was simple to the point of being antiseptic: plain white pews ranked before a simple white stone altar, surmounted with a silver tabernacle, a gilt cross on its door. On the wall above hung a crucifix strangely modeled after Grunewald's contorted Crucifixion.

They knelt in a pew at the back to say a few words of thanksgiving to the All Mighty. Bernie prayed the last two lines of the Our Father with a passion that she feared might be inappropriate. She added this to the list of sins she had to confess, including anything she may have incurred walking along the streets. She hoped they could find a priest at this hour, but at this late hour it was out of the question, but in the morning she might get her chance to come back.

At length, Phila got up and led her out of the chapel. They consulted the Mass schedule posted on a bulletin board in the entryway: what blessings! There were confessions before the two morning Masses, as well as the later Mass in the afternoon. Phila jotted this down on the printout before they headed out.

Once they got out onto the street, almost before Bernie could avert her eyes, she noticed a tall, dark figure standing nearby, leaning casually against a lamppost. She dropped her gaze, hopefully before he spotted them, but not soon enough. He stepped away from his post, spread hands on hips, the tails of his long black leather jacket flipped back, and started to approach them.

"Bernie, do you see that man?" Phila hissed, pulling Bernie to herself.

"Yeah."

Phila started walking faster, following the map on the printout and dragging Bernie along till she had to run to keep up.

Somewhere nearby a tinny song from the far-distant 1940s started to play, absurdly innocent compared to the raucous blaring that scourged their ears. If they could get past it, maybe they'd be safe, Phila thought.

Phila scanned the street signs with slitted eyes, trying to filter out the suggestive displays in the storefronts. Added to this, she had to keep them ahead of their pursuer and elbow her way through the crowd. And worst of all, their path led through occasional patches of blackness: who knew what further perils lurked there, or if this shadow behind them might not have an accomplice he herded them towards.

She hazarded a glance back. He had lost ground. For that matter, he wasn't pursuing them as relentlessly as she had anticipated. He walked with long graceful strides alternated with…dancing. Gene Kelly meet Fred Astaire in the old 2-D films dancing!

He was gaining on them. He didn't look like a threat: he carried himself far too jauntily. But it might be a disarming tactic. And where on earth was that music coming from?!

She spotted the sign for Avenue J up ahead. In a quick burst of speed, Phila dragged Bernie up the street and around the corner. She scanned the buildings with eyes crossed, looking for the Hotel Graceley. At length, they came up before a five-story molded concrete structure with "Hotel Graceley" in tasteful Art Deco white neon over the front.

She focused and hauled Bernie through the revolving front doors and up to the front desk.

"Could you…call Room 503…and tell Cecilia Martin…that Phila and Bernie are on their way up?" she asked the clerk between puffs.

"Yes, Miss," the clerk replied, reaching for the phone.

At least the foyer here looked sanitary, even classic, but Phila took little notice. She watched the door for anything that looked like their pursuer.

"She's expecting you both; you can go up now," the clerk said, hanging up the phone.

"Thanks," Phila said. She grabbed Bernie's hand and ran for the graceful curved staircase that swept up to the mezzanine level and then up to the fifth floor.

Suite 503 gleamed in brass on a door to their left. With her last burst of energy, Phila flung herself and Bernie at the door and banged on it.

"Wait up, I have to key the door; it's on smart," Cecie's voice replied, behind the door. Something buzzed and the door swung in.

A tall lean girl with ear length brown hair and antique metal-rimmed glasses, wearing a short-sleeved white jersey and khaki pants—thankfully loose-cut; why did she have to wear them anyway?—opened the door and swung it aside for them.

"You girls been running?" Cecie asked.

Phila limped into the small front room and collapsed on the couch that stood in the middle of the floor. Bernie half sprawled on the floor before pulling herself up onto the cushion beside her. "There was a man following us!" Phila cried.

"A man following you?" Cecie repeated, closing the door and keying it. "What did he look like?"

"I don't know; I didn't get a good look at him."

"He was tall, kinda dark, I couldn't tell; it's dark out there," Bernie said.

Phila nailed Bernie to the couch with a glare. "You looked at him?"

"I didn't look right at him."

Cecie rolled her eyes. "Tall and dark; well, that narrows it down to about ten thousand guys. What was he wearing?"

"Black, maybe, I think he had something on a chain around his neck," Bernie said.

"I guess you do need to go to confession," Phila said.

"Okay, where did you first meet him?" Cecie asked.

"It was in front of that little storefront chapel, Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart," Phila said.

"And you met him on the way out?"

"Yes."

"Aw, that was probably just Joe."

"Joe? Who's Joe?!" Phila cried, trying not to squeak.

"Don't worry, he's absolutely harmless."

"If he's so harmless, why was he following us?" Phila demanded.

"You're new in town, and he just wanted to introduce himself."

"It couldn't hurt just to have said hello," Bernie ventured

Phila glared at her. "In this town? Are you crazy?!"

"Maybe we hurt his feelings."

Cecie smiled astutely. "If he has any," she murmured.

"What's that?" Phila asked.

"Well, he isn't exactly a man, you see."

Bernie looked horrified. "Then what is he?"

"He's Mecha."

"You mean he's one of…those?" Phila said.

"He's been used that way, but there's a good deal more to him than 'that'."

To be continued…