Our story begins with a series of extraordinary events. The first involved a small mouse that burrowed through an inch of steel at the base of a street lamp. After biting its way through, the mouse leapt up a series of wires and, reaching the top, rewarded itself by nibbling away on a juicy red wire. The mouse was electrocuted and died instantly.
Its death had not gone unnoticed. A bird flew past the street lamp just as it experienced an unusual, however brief, surge of energy. Frightened by the surge, the bird quickly swooped to the left and into a tree branch. Sitting on the branch was a squirrel.
Two things shocked the squirrel: the first being the bird that nose-dived into its feet and the second being the fall that would inevitably kill it. This squirrel had been very ambitious and traveled with no less than fifteen nuts stuffed into its mouth. It spit all of the nuts out.
A shocked squirrel, a dazed bird, and fifteen assorted nuts fell and landed on the neck of a street cleaner named VIN. VIN was bent over at the time, reaching for a piece of discarded paper. All of the things hit VIN, who lost his balance and fell straight onto his forehead.
Falling on your forehead is a hard thing to deal with. VIN had never done it before, so he wasn‘t sure what to do. He touched his head to see if the fall had left a dent. Finding none, he tried to rub the pain away.
“Holy crap,” VIN said, looking at the squirrel, the bird, and the nuts. “Are you guys okay?”
They weren’t okay. They were quite dead, nuts included.
VIN sat up and saw his coworker LIZ a few feet behind him, scrubbing the sidewalks clean. “Did you see what just happened?”
Without looking up from her sidewalk scrubber, LIZ shook her head.
“Animals hit me,” VIN said. When he saw LIZ was more focused on cleaning the sidewalks than she was about mysterious falling animals, he added, “Animals fell from the sky and hit me in the head.” Then he pointed at the animals to prove they did indeed fall from the sky.
LIZ looked at the broken animals briefly, shuffled over to them, and swept them and the nuts into her trash bin. “Are you going to get up and finish work?” she asked.
“I don’t know. In a second. I just got hit in the head with animals. I need to recoup.”
“We have to keep the streets clean because of the Pink Goo,” she said.
“If the Pink Goo finds you sitting around, you will be disciplined.”
“Pink Goo likes cleanliness and order.”
“Okay, all right!” VIN pushed himself to his feet, a dizzy wave washing over his body.
That fall had been a bad one. It really knocked things around in his head. He looked at LIZ and – no, wait – this wasn’t the LIZ he worked beside for the last ten years. That LIZ, who swept trash seven days a week, was ordinary. This LIZ, however, had substance. She had beauty. She had a subtle way of flicking her wrist when she swept up trash that was elegant and captivating.
“LIZ, you know what? You’re very beautiful.”
“Get back to work.”
“I only now realized how beautiful you are. Pardon me for being so forward, but would you like to do something after work?”
“Work doesn’t end. We have to work forever for the Pink Goo.”
“Aw, I guess you’re right,” VIN said. Working for Pink Goo was their mantra. It was embedded in every action and thought of the worker class, which seemed to be the entire population of the city. Everyone worked tirelessly day and night, while the Pink Goo settled in cushioned corridors beneath the city’s surface. Come to think of it, which VIN never had, he never saw Pink Goo before.
“Hey, what makes Pink Goo so great?” VIN asked.
LIZ stopped sweeping for a moment. Her eyes looked fantastic. “I never thought of it,” she said. “But you need to start working.”
“I just don’t understand why we have to work so much for Pink Goo. We’re people! We deserve some freedom!” VIN said.
“VIN, you can’t say things like that,” LIZ whispered. She immediately regarded her broom and swept a few flyers off the pavement. “Please get back to work. You’ve been without working for too long. Pink Goo isn’t going to like that.”
“Sucks for Pink Goo. I mean, look at how beautiful this day is. Are you taking time to enjoy the clear blue sky? The perfect temperature? And you know what, LIZ? I love you. What do you think of that?”
LIZ didn’t answer him. Not because she was unsure of her feelings for VIN, but because piercing sirens and alarms drowned out her voice. The sky darkened with police enforcer robots. They looked like black marbles with strips of red lights running across their tops. The police enforcers moved like a flock of birds and all at once dived towards VIN.
“Warning, civilian!” the police enforcers screamed. “You are required by Federal Law to have a lobotomy!”
VIN dropped his broom and proceeded to run for his life.
He darted up the newly cleaned sidewalk, dodging drone-like workers. He ran into the street and was almost hit by cyclist, but managed to leap over the tires.
“Civilian VIN ANDROMA,” an enforcer blared. “You have deviated from work for a longer than allotted period of time. Halt, so we can lobotomize you.”
“That only makes me want to run faster!” VIN screamed, as he proceeded to run faster.
The enforcers gaining, VIN cut into an alley lined with dumpsters. At the far end was a tall fence topped with electric wires that danced with blue energy. One touch of those wires, he’d be cooked. The whining sirens of the enforcers were growing closer, and VIN had nowhere to run. All was hopeless, so he said every curse word he knew.
Just then a door at the end of the alley opened. A man unlike anything VIN had ever seen stepped out. He had strange colored skin, and hair that was thick and tangled into braids. His clothing swirled with colors and on his feet he wore simple sandals. The man was startled to see VIN, and even more startled when the police enforcers swarmed into the alley.
“Holy crap!” said VIN and the strange man, simultaneously.
VIN ran for the door and collided with the man. Tangled, they both grabbed the doorknob and slammed it shut. They fought for balance, but fell as the enforcers slammed into the door, leaving bowling ball sized dents in the metal.
“Is that door going to hold?” VIN asked.
“Ahhh!” said the strange man. A bad sign, most definitely. VIN jumped to his feet and wretched the strange man up. The two ran into the bowels of the building. The halls were bare and dark, with small bulbs fixed on the walls every ten feet.
“Where did you come from?” called the strange man, panting.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“Not quite sure!”
“Why are the enforcers chasing you?”
“I broke the law, I guess!”
“You didn’t kill anyone, right?” said the strange man.
“What? No! What do I look like, a sicko?” said VIN.
A door at the end of the hallway burst opened, and a strange woman peered out. She looked similar to the strange man, except her hair was wiry and stood out in all directions, as if shocked.
“What the hell, Barney?” she said.
“I don’t know! Either they found us, or this joker led them here!”
“Who is this guy?” she asked.
But before anyone could answer, VIN ran into the room, followed by Barney. The woman slammed the door shut, and latched it locked with a long metal bar.
* * *
Smoke lingered along the ceiling of the room. The place stank of incense and body odor. Along the walls was colorful art VIN had never seen before. Pictures of people holding one another, only they were made entirely of strands of energy and fractal light. Seated on opposite sides of the room were two other strange men. One was black with no hair and a round belly. He had a pink scar along his face that went down his neck and hid behind his shirt. The other was bigger than any man VIN had ever seen, all muscle, his torso strangled by a thin green tank top.
“There are cops outside,” the strong man said, his voice slow and steady.
“And an unwelcome guest inside. Such an untimely event,” said the black man.
“We will continue with the plan,” the strong man said.
“I only went out to dumpster dive. I wasn’t going to be more than a minute. I just needed some calories for the mission. And this dude ran at me. Had a swarm of enforcers on his tail. They almost got in–”
“They did get in,” the strong man said in a steady pace. “The robots are designed to find fugitives. They do so very effectively.”
“Then why are we sitting around? We have to split,” said the woman.
“We leave according to plan,” said the strong man. He glanced at the clock. “The enforcers may be aware of our presence, but they may not be aware of what we have done, or what we plan to do. In short, it is not us they are after.” He looked at VIN. “I do know that we will not travel with a fugitive we know nothing about.”
“Leave the fugitive to rot,” said the black man.
“Too risky. He knows so little, and that’s already too much. The fugitive comes with us or dies.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m not a fugitive,” VIN said. “It was a misunderstanding, really. And I know nothing, so I’m harmless.”
“What was a misunderstanding?” said the strong man.
Speaking fast as if his life depended on it – because it did – VIN told the four strange people the events that led up to that very moment, including his newfound love for LIZ, and his questioning of the Pink Goo. The strong man listened, leaning forward with this index fingers forming a steeple.
“What you say is true?” he asked.
“Yes,” VIN said.
“He’s in,“ the strong man said, much to the others’ shock. “My name is Gulliver. My friends are Barney, Trap, and Lindsey.”
“I’m VIN. You know, I’ve never seen people like you before.”
“That’s because people like us no longer exist. We are The Free Radicals, and our goal is to obliterate the world as we know it.”
And just like that, the momentary relief VIN felt from being accepted into the group vanished. Glancing at a clock, he said, “Is it really 2:04? I completely lost track of time and should go because you guys don’t want to be hanging around a guy like me anyway.”
“You stay with us or you die,” Gulliver said. “No matter where you would go, the enforcers would find you and conduct their lobotomy.”
“Make you into a fine, upstanding citizen,” Trap said. “One who doesn’t question things like the beauty in nature or Pink Goo.”
“You will work with us,” Gulliver said. “We need someone with your skills.”
“As a street cleaner?” VIN asked.
“Er… yes, as a street cleaner. If you help us out, there will be no more Pink Goo. You and others like you will be freed of your endless servitude. We will lift the veil from the eyes of the workers. Allow them to appreciate the beauty of the world and the beauty in one another.”
“So LIZ would see the beauty in me?” VIN asked.
“She would be blind to miss it,” Lindsey said.
“What do we do?”
“It’s very simple. Pay attention because time is fleeting.” Gulliver walked over to a computer terminal, which looked like a floating slice of metal. He touched the metal to awaken the system. A holographic monitor appeared, along with a series of buttons projected in the air. Gulliver typed in a password, causing an image of a building to appear.
“This is the McHighland Building. Do you see that long antenna at the top?”
“That antenna is the very reason Pink Goo exists. Once we destroy it, we destroy the Goo.”
“Pardon my ignorance, but how?”
Gulliver glanced at the clock. “We’ve almost run out of time. Walk and talk.” He clapped his hands and briskly walked out of the room through a smaller door that VIN had not noticed. Trap followed quickly behind Gulliver, with Barney. Last to go was Lindsey. She turned to VIN and waved her hand for him to follow. He did.
They ran through a long hallway, past moaning wood and dripping water.
“Pink Goo is a living thing,” Gulliver said. “Despite its appearance, it is highly intelligent and riddled with technology. This technology provides it with food and stimulation. The stimulation at first was provided as a pleasurable incentive. A quick pick-me-up. But as time went on, the Pink Goo became dependent on the feelings.”
“Sex feels good because it rewards the species for surviving,” Barney said. “Simulate the feeling of sex with the flick of a button, you’ll have a population of things hitting buttons all day long.”
“McHighland houses the largest neurotransmitter in the city. We destroy that, we break the pleasure button,” Gulliver said.
“And Pink Goo will die?” VIN asked, running as fast as he could.
“Yes, Pink Goo will die. Because they’ve grown dependent on the feeling,” Gulliver said, adding, “And you and LIZ can live happily ever after.”
They arrived at a staircase and went down into the building’s cool underbelly. It was dark and stank of empty, forgotten places. Trap slapped the wall, awakening blue lights. They were in an empty parking lot that contained a lonely mid-sized vehicle. As they approached, the vehicle rose off the ground and its doors opened.
VIN waited for everyone to get in, and then crawled into the backseat.
A garage door ahead of the vehicle opened, letting the light of day spill in. The engine whined, VIN put on his safety belt, and the car zoomed into the daylight. The vehicle reared and flew up the side of the building, towards the sun. It cleared the top of the building and leveled out.
* * *
VIN had never seen the city from this view before. Below him were rows of metal buildings. Cleaners equipped with jetpacks scrubbed buildings and small swarms of black police enforcers weaved through the sky. Ahead, in the distance, they saw the antenna.
“We enter from the sewers,” Gulliver said.
“Sewers? But the antenna is right out there in the open.”
“So are the police enforcers. We go in the sewers and enter through the building’s basement. We launch an EMP attack from inside a small force field to protect our equipment. With electricity down, we take the stairs. There are ten flights–”
“We’ve been running a lot to prep,” Barney said.
“–We run up ten flights and plant this little rose in the neurotransmitter garden.” Gulliver held up a red glass disk with a large button in its center. “And boom. No more Pink Goo suppressing the way we think and live.”
“Sounds like a solid plan,” VIN scoffed.
“Didn’t think street cleaners knew sarcasm,” Trap replied.
The vehicle dipped down three blocks shy of the McHighland building. The side of the street was lined with vehicles, except for one empty spot, beside a manhole. They parked and the doors opened. Gulliver reached under his seat for a crowbar and pried open the manhole cover. A stench lingered from the city’s guts, like salt and sea.
“Twenty minutes,” he said. He waited as Barney, Trap, and Lindsey climbed down the manhole.
“What’s my role in all this?” VIN asked. “I want to help and free the people, but this is all moving so fast.”
“You’ll know your role when it comes. Or maybe you won’t. It depends on how well the plan goes,” Gulliver said. “Now jump in, no slacking.”
VIN stepped into the dark manhole and found the ladder rods. He descended into the stench until his foot touched hard cement.
“Start running!” Gulliver’s voice said.
VIN ran through the sewers. He caught up with Lindsey quickly. The others weren’t too far ahead of her.
They ran until Barney slammed into a door. He retrieved a device that looked a lot like a fork from his pocket and jammed it into the keyhole. For a moment, the door glowed red, and then it turned into black ash, collapsing into a pile. They ran through the door and up the stairs.
“Force field up! Get the EMP ready!” Gulliver called.
Trap wrestled something that looked like blue umbrella off his back and held it over his head. “Street cleaner, you stand close by!” he said. VIN easily caught up to Trap and ran beside him. He was very good at running, he discovered. While he saw the sweat glisten on the others faces, he felt no fatigue.
Trap yelled, “Field ready in three, two, one!”
A low hum resonated from the umbrella. It glowed a powerful blue that formed into a growing sphere that engulfed the five radicals. When everyone was safely within the blue, Trap yelled, “Safe for EMP!”
“EMP ready!” said Lindsey. She held a canister in her left hand. An ominous red light blinked on the head of the device. “Tossing it!”
“Toss it!” Gulliver confirmed.
Lindsey hurled the EMP bomb down the stairs. It floated down, almost too slow, and exploded as it hit the concrete. A cloud of green and yellow energy formed in the explosion that surged in all directions. VIN watched the energy surround the blue force field and disburse in all directions. It left nothing but darkness in its wake.
“Lights!” said Gulliver. The Free Radicals took flashlights out of their pockets or bags and strapped them securely over their foreheads. The flashlights on, VIN saw dancing, illuminated orbs in front of him, with which he estimated the footing of his next steps. Up they ran, four stories before they all started to slow their pace. All except VIN, who wasn’t nearly winded.
“We have two minutes,” Gulliver gasped. “Then the EMP fades and the enforcers come in droves.” As if finding power in his own words, he ran faster, and the others kept pace.
The next three stories were far more difficult, but it would be the very next story, the eighth floor, that proved to be the most challenging. It was on the eighth floor where VIN heard the strange groan of an engine. The others hadn’t heard the noise, or if they had, they paid it no mind. So VIN didn’t think much about it. That is, until he was halfway to the ninth floor, and the engine groaned so loudly it shook him off his step.
“What is that?” VIN asked.
“Keep running!” Gulliver yelled. He ran further up, so VIN followed. The engine groaned again.
“That sounds like a gas engine,” VIN said.
“This building doesn’t run on gas!” Gulliver said. “It’s all electric.”
The engine groaned once more, and suddenly the stairs beneath VIN’s feet vanished. Just like that. To make sure he wasn’t mistaken in that he was indeed falling, he looked down and saw orbs from flashlights tumbling down below. He reached out and grabbed the handrail. He held on as tightly as he could, dangling in the dark. With a moment to collect himself, VIN saw that the flashlights weren’t falling, they were being jumbled down. The stairs had come to life, like wagging fingers.
“That’s most definitely a gas engine!” VIN said.
Gulliver called out a whole string of curses. Then he said, “Is anyone able to stand up?”
The others hardly replied, because the stairs rattled their bodies around so roughly.
“I can’t stand, but I don’t seem to be going anywhere!” called VIN.
“Street cleaner, can you climb up to the top?”
Recognizing that the pole he had grabbed onto was a handrail, VIN knew that it would surely loop around the to tenth floor. “Yeah, probably!” VIN said.
“I’m wrapping my flashlight around the bomb. And then I’m throwing it to you!”
“Throwing me a bomb sounds like a terrible idea!”
“I’m throwing you the bomb!”
Before VIN could say, “No, wait, let’s think about this like rational beings,” he saw a shuffling ball of light hurled in his direction. Having little say in the matter, VIN snatched it midair and brought it to his chest like a prized treasure. Then he realized he was pressing a bomb against his chest and held it away from him, as far as he possibly could.
“You’ll detonate it on the tenth floor, right?” Gulliver yelled from darkness. “Say you will!”
“What does it matter what I say?” VIN asked.
“Because street cleaners can’t lie!” Gulliver said, his voice swallowed in the black abyss.
VIN tucked the strap under his chin and grabbed onto the handrail. He swung himself sideways, catching the rail with his right hand and pulling himself up. VIN pulled himself past the ninth floor and approached the tenth when bright spotlights shone on him.
A voice called, “Fugitive VIN ANDROMA, you are hereby sentenced by the New York Police Department to yield your weapons and give yourself up!”
Red and blue lights flashed in the darkest corridors, ten stories below.
“I’d yield my weapon, but it would be a terrible thing to drop!” VIN yelled.
“Fugitive VIN ANDROMA is to yield and be prepped for recycling,” an enforcer blared.
“Recycling?!” VIN said. That was slightly more alarming than being lobotomized, but not by very much.
VIN swung himself along the handrails as the enforcers flew up the center of the stairwell. They moved ten feet for every half-foot VIN shimmied. He yelped and shimmied faster.
The door to the tenth floor was only a foot away. The enforcers were nearly at his feet, with their hot blue, electric prods ready to zap. With a crazed burst of power, VIN threw his weight and legs into the door. The metal gave way to his knees. With another swing, he was in the room.
VIN raced to his feet. The controls for the neurotransmitter stood in front of him. A series of terminals flashed color codes and displayed holographic images of its usage around the city.
Wrestling the bomb from under his chin, VIN sprinted towards the center console with the explosive ready in hand.
“VIN ANDROMA, freeze!” the enforcer yelled, its voice deafening. The low whirls of enforcers’ engines were in his ear. They couldn’t be more than a foot behind him, but he was too frightened to look.
VIN did all he could, which involved screaming very loudly, running, and holding the bomb away from him as far as he possibly could. The bomb clicked when it touched the terminal. Without a moment’s pause, VIN touched the smooth glass to set the detonation.
A cheery voice announced, “Detonation will commence in three seconds. Thank you!”
Running towards the window, VIN came to two grievous conclusions. First, The Free Radicals just used him as their pawn, and now he will die for their cause. Second, it was humanly impossible to escape the blast, so The Free Radicals didn’t expect to survive this mission.
VIN leaped through the window.
* * *
He hadn’t thought through the whole jumping out the window thing, but he did notice that the enforcers hadn’t followed him. That was something. The enforcers stayed put and the bomb exploded, blowing the windows out on nearly all floors of the building and causing the antenna to tumble to the ground.
VIN fell helplessly to earth in a cloud of broken glass. Bent pieces of metal jutted out of the building. Figuring his grip was strong for a street cleaner, he grabbed the metal when he could. This slowed his descent, until the metal broke under his weight. He grabbed a piece on the eighth floor, and one on the seventh. The piece he grabbed on the sixth floor nearly held his weight, but it eventually snapped like the others, causing him to fall and grab a piece on the fifth floor. It continued like this until he got to the second floor. The windows of the second floor had stayed in tact, so there was nothing to grab. VIN fell the rest of the way down.
If I’m going out, I might as well go out with style, he thought. He positioned his body like a diver, falling feet first. The ground rushed towards him. At the last possible moment, he spread his legs and bent over, to land on all fours.
And he did. It didn’t even hurt that badly. It did, however, leave some nasty dents on the bottom of his feet.
He wiggled one foot, and then the other. It wasn’t anything bad. VIN would live. He jumped and gave a loud, “Hurrah!”
He noticed someone had been watching him. It stood just across the street. The thing looked like one of The Free Radicals, which is to say it had hair on the top of its head and pink flesh. Only, unlike The Free Radicals, this thing was plump, round, and very gooey, with rolls of fatty flesh wrapped around its torso and appendages.
The thing looked at VIN with its beady eyes and blinked.
“Pink Goo?” VIN whispered.
It opened its wise and mighty mouth and graced VIN with its majestic voice and knowledge. It said, “Jesus Christ, robot, that was the coolest freaking thing I’ve seen in my entire goddamn life. Margie, come out here! Check out this bitching robot!”
Not much long after, more Pink Goo seeped into the streets. Agreeing VIN was the coolest freaking thing they’ve ever seen, they decided to start appreciating, respecting, and spending more time with the robots.
This brings us to the conclusion. The story ends similar to how it began, and that’s with a series of extraordinary events. The only one you should bother yourself with involves VIN, LIZ, a well-deserved day off from work, and a picnic beneath a clear, bright sky. *
About the Author: Steven Lombardi received a BA in screenwriting from the School of Visual Arts. He has published various short stories in magazines you’ve never heard of, and a book about a financial market nobody has heard of. He works as a copywriter in Manhattan. He has two dogs named Loki and Odin.
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago derives pleasure, if not financial sustenance, from creating illustrations.