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Short Stories by Peter Dabbene

“Consumption Blues”

  

“Dino! Adman at 2 o’clock!”

I swung around to look, dropping the limp body of the adman I’d just fed my fists. Sure enough, Solly was right, with pinpoint accuracy. I let fly with an interruptor that struck the adman right in the chest, and he dropped the flyers he’d been pasting to the sides of the building. I went over to see what it was he’d been hawking. Cautiously raising my visor I picked up a flyer and, squinting in the moonlight, read:

 

“AJAX PRODUCTS!! THE BEST BLEND OF QUALITY, FUN, AND WHOLESOMENESS AT THE LOWEST PRICE! BUY SOME NOW! BUY SOME LATER! BUY! BUY! BUY!”

 

Strictly low-tech, I thought. Wouldn’t snag any but a few low IQ’ers. These guys were probably just scouts. The real attacks would begin later.

“Looks like Ajax is launching another offensive. This could get ugly,” I said.

“Naturally. Our hideyhole is right in the thick of things, as usual,” Solly replied.

“What do you expect? We’re in a strategic location,” I said. “With control of the Nederland, Ajax could send its admen to the surrounding areas much more quickly. As it is now, their nearest base is probably a good hour from here.”

“Acme’s not going to stand back and let them take it, you know.”

“What do you mean, Acme’s not going to let them take it? We’re not going to let them take it!”

Solly smiled weakly. “Oh yeah.” He was tired, I could see, and so was I. Admen never let up, never seemed to rest, and always had two replacements for a casualty. Plus, stuck in the Nederland, we were subject to dangerous crossfires from opposing firms.

This latest attack was part of Ajax’s ongoing offensive, retaliation for Acme’s intrusion into their territory. Admen vs. admen are nasty battles, and lord help any non-admen who happen into the fray. Like, say, Solly and myself.

“It’s getting right dangerous to walk the streets at night,” Solly observed.

 

Solly’s understatement had been proven during our last attempt at foraging a week earlier, when our Clan was reduced by four in a single day. Four good people picked off by admen, in front of our eyes and barely outside of our front yard.

The spokesmodels struck first, and Nicholas and Behin, who were unlucky enough to be in front, were captured easily. Solly and I pulled back in time, averting our eyes from the parade of legs, breasts, and artificially blond hair. Mei Lu and Cynthia reacted capably, moving in to meet the spokesmodels’ attack, trampling their signs and slapping permatape across their eyes and mouths.

That was two casualties for the Clan. For most men (and some women), once spokesmodels make eye contact it’s all over but the buying. I’m still not even sure what those models were selling.

A few minutes later, the allied clothiers, Lauren, Hilfiger, and KMars, staged a quick-hit fashion show. By the time Solly and I nailed them all with interruptors, they had snagged both Mei Lu and Cynthia. It was no fun putting Clanmembers out of misery once they’d been “taken.” But they were better off this way—when faced with a quick death or a lifetime of slavery, I’ll take the former every time.

One Clanmember who was supposed to accompany Solly and me succumbed to non-public television a couple of days ago, which left just Solly and me available for the mission. Being only two did at least give us a mobility advantage, and after our encounter with the Ajax admen, we decided to pick up the pace. As we jogged, Solly talked.

“Let’s bring back a lot of supplies so we won’t have to do this again for a while. Do you think Ajax knows where we are? I didn’t see any communications devices on those admen. I hate this. It makes me nervous.”

“It makes you chatty, too, Solly,” I admonished. “Be quiet and keep moving. As far as stocking up, we’ve only got two backs to carry stuff, and we can’t weigh ourselves down too much or we won’t be able to move. I’d rather be alive and poor than well-stocked and dead.”

My hand instinctively went to my belt. Relief—all the empty supply bags were intact. We couldn’t afford to lose even one.

“And let’s not forget—Hettie needs new batteries for her latest project. If she doesn’t get paid, we may not have cash for supplies after today.”

 

Solly and I were the grunts of our Clan: the foragers. The Clan survived by plying its trade on the net, providing services to employers without ever leaving the hideyhole; anonymity was our only requirement. We could get paid over the networks, even order most necessities, but delivery charges to go to a known admen stomping ground like the Nederland were prohibitive.

So, to make ends meet, we ventured out every so often to stock up on supplies, usually at night. We tried to stick with the generics, since they were the cheapest and least dangerous to obtain. But it still wasn’t as easy as it might sound—not with admen on the prowl.

 

It was pitch black as we walked, except for the brief scatterings of moonlight. The electricity still worked fine in most places; the admen weren’t about to abandon radio, TV, and net ads from their arsenal. But streetlights cost money and didn’t sell product, so once a bulb burned out, it was probably going to stay burned out.

“There’s light up ahead,” Solly said.

“Who?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the moon?”

I gave Solly my ‘Who are you kidding?’ look. “It’s not the moon,” I said.

We heard movement, and I crouched down behind a set of low concrete walls. The walls bordered a residential garden which had long ago overgrown into a miniature jungle. I could see over the top of the wall, through the overgrowth. Solly had disappeared from sight.

There were four of them, and they were coming our way. I’d heard tales of door-to-door admen, but everyone said that they were extinct. As the four approached, I ducked down.      

Their attire was identical: white T-shirts and caps, white sweatpants and black sneakers, all bearing the mark of the swoosh. Sarto-slaves! Three male, one female. I breathed a sigh of relief. Sarto-slaves were harmless; supposedly they could create a powerful subliminal effect, but nothing that was immediately dangerous. Additionally, the fact that they wore the swoosh meant Acme and Ajax hadn’t fully penetrated this corner of Nederland yet.

I emerged from my hiding place and greeted the sarto-slaves, giving them quite a start as I did.

“Hello, friends. I see you bear the mark of the swoosh.”

Their only response was a collective blank stare. They turned around and began walking back the way they came.

Solly emerged from an old plastic garbage container on the sidewalk.

“How were you planning to fight from in there?” I teased him. It was getting colder. I sniffed the air; it felt like winter.

Solly noticed it too. “Xmas will be here soon,” he said softly, with more than a touch of apprehension.

“But it’s not here now!” I cried, taking him by the shoulders; this was not the time to lose one’s nerve. “By the time the admen declare Xmas, we’ll have enough supplies to hibernate and not see them again till spring.”

“How do you know when they’ll declare Xmas? It gets earlier and earlier every year.”

“Solly,” I bit my tongue to keep from screaming at his paranoia, although maybe the reason I was so upset was because he was right. “Solly, we’re gonna be fine.”

“Hey, I’m right behind you all the way. I just don’t like Xmas too much, that’s all.”

“Yeah, me neither,” I said.

 

After a while walking, I was beginning to get a headache from the interference shield; it does a great job of blocking out ads, but it’s not meant for extended use.

“Solly, let’s take five. I’ve gotta take off this gear for a bit. See if you can find an alleyway for us to spot up in.”

            Most of the narrow alleyways between buildings were either filled up with garbage or occupied by some kind of animal. I was having no luck finding an empty one, so I decided to check in with Solly and see how he was doing. He suddenly sprung from an alley that seemed too narrow for him to squeeze through.

“I don’t think you should see it,” he warned, gently pushing me away from the shadowed alleyway. As soon as he said it, a picture formed in my mind of the worst rat-eaten corpse I’d ever seen, and I knew reality couldn’t be any worse.

“It’s OK, I can handle it. Let me see.”

Reluctantly, Solly moved aside, and I stepped into the dark, pausing to allow my eyes to adjust. I crunched miscellaneous debris underfoot. Finding the body in question, I kneeled down and lifted the visor on the corpse’s interference helmet.

It looked to be the remains of a middle-aged man. The rats hadn’t done too much damage because of the heavy armor, but the body was badly decomposed; this was not a casualty of the current Acme-Ajax conflict. I poked the body a few times to spring any adtraps that might’ve been set—all clear, it seemed. I began to search the jacket. Anything of trading value would likely have been taken long ago, but if the admen hadn’t bothered with the body, then maybe nobody had.

A wallet was nestled in a hidden pocket; I removed it and began to rifle through assorted family pictures taken in a place far from here, long ago. A driver’s license told me his name: Jorge Wallace. The expiration date on the license was three years ago.

Further examination revealed the cause of the man’s death: hidden in a compartment of his wallet was his employer ID—the guy had been a Pep-Sci runner.

The cola wars were now just a memory, the red having overpowered the blue after a long and bitter conflict. Looking back at Solly standing guard in the doorway, I realized why he’d tried so hard to shield me from the body. He’d gone through Jorge Wallace’s pockets already, came to the same conclusion I did, and, knowing that my pop was killed in the cola wars, tried to move on without my seeing the body.

I replaced the wallet and left the body as it was.

 

My pop told me most of what I know about the admen; after all, he’d been around when they were just getting started. It was kind of Solly to try to protect me. I guess he knows that my pop’s disappearance during the cola wars was the spark that got me involved with the Clan, and that every time I take out an adman I consider it one small step toward paying them back. I don’t just blame the red either, because it wasn’t just them; the burger wars actually caused just as many casualties. It was more like blue vs.red was the best-known example of a disease that hit everyone, everywhere, all at once.

I looked around the streets of Nederland—sterile; deserted. I still remember Pop’s stories of the “halcyon days,” when the streets were “vibrant with activity,” and admen were kept in place by some unwritten code of society. Pop used a lot of big words and imagery—I never did understand why he was just a truck driver.

“It’s funny, the whole way it all happened,” Pop would say. “Used to be, the best beat the rest, and the rest went out of business. Maybe give it another go, but later.

“Somewhere along the line, defeated businesses started to fight back. They got more intrusive—even violent—with their sales tactics, and production increased in response. Browbeatings and extortion pushed former laggards to the heights of their industries. Companies leapfrogged back and forth, defeater and defeated, mostly ravaging not each other—that would ensure the eventual death of one—but instead the masses they marketed to. There were always more people to sell to, and if your prospective client base shrunk a bit in the process of seeking new sales, well, that was what had to be done.”

Pop was sort of a proto-adman, I guess, but only because he worked for a cola company. Anyway, that was how it started, and a few years later, you were either an adman or the target of an adman. Admen lived well, but paid for it with their overriding devotion to the company; or rather, the company’s products. There was no loyalty to corporations per se for the admen, but once they were hired to sell something, they meant to sell it. It was a credo for them, maybe even a religion.

Nederland used to be a hub of activity, but there’s virtually no manufacturing left anymore; a factory would serve no purpose but to create an irresistable target for admen. I suppose with the proper security it could be done, but no one’s got that kind of cash anymore—except the admen. They must realize that at this rate there eventually won’t be anyone left to buy, but they don’t seem to care. All that seems to matter is the sale.

The population in and about Nederland these days divvies up roughly fifty/fifty, admen to non, though it seems like the admen are adding more all the time. With less money in the hands of potential customers, sales have fallen. When sales fall enough, admen tend to cannibalize each other, and that’s been our salvation.

Right now, it’s pretty much every man for himself.

There are no such things as robberies, or holdups. They’re now lumped with assorted other crimes, under the label “sales.”

There are no police anymore, or firefighters, or much of anything else. If a disaster poses a possible threat to profits, the admen take action. Otherwise it’s not their problem.

There’s no in between. Admen vs. non-admen. Seller vs. buyer.

            Them against us.

 

The source of the light was still up ahead of us, creating silhouettes of the buildings; it might not be what we were looking for, but it was sure as hell something. As we walked toward the light, one of us must have tripped something, because all at once a series of hidden loudspeakers began to crow:

“CITIZENS! COME TO THE MARKET! EVERYTHING YOU COULD EVER WANT IS HERE!”

I noticed that the message didn’t specify any particular brand. It probably wasn’t worth it for the admen; if Acme mentioned its products through loudspeakers, Ajax would rip them down, and vice versa.

The loudspeakers always unnerved me—sibilance leaked through the distortion and gave me the chills. “CITIZENSSS!! I HAVE AN IMPORTANT SSSALESSSS ANNOUNCEMENT!” the fuzzbox would say. The loudspeakers themselves weren’t especially hard to resist, and if you wanted to, you could easily disable them. What bothered me was that any other admen in the area would hear them and come a-runnin’, ready to take advantage of the speakers’ free publicity and do their best to talk you into another company’s alternative. It was like a herald at the start of battle.

The street was about ten feet across, as deserted as the rest of Nederland. Solly and I walked on opposite sides, keeping each other in sight, so we couldn’t both be attacked at once. I kept an eye on Solly, because he had excellent night vision; I figured he’d spot an adman sooner than I would. Plus, I didn’t want to lose track of him, maybe make a wrong turn or something.

We sighted the supermarket and scoped it out in detail; supermarkets were one of the most common ambush sites. It was beckoning and forbidding, at once. The ad-noise was unbearable. One side or the other had constructed a vidscreen above the market’s roof for ‘mercials, and the opposing side had largely destroyed it, causing it to crackle and hum loudly and incoherently as it beamed random flares into the sky. Apparently this was the source of the light we saw.

Even at night, the market was abuzz. Recorded announcements recited sales specials round-the-clock, and there were always a few admen around, waiting to pick off anyone who happened by.

I crept over to Solly on the right side of the street; the market loomed from across the intersection, with its repository of food and sundries.

There were two admen on the roof, apparently lost in their efforts to repair the vidscreen. Scanning the perimeter of the market, then the inside through the huge pane glass windows, neither of us saw more admen. I hesitantly tracked forward, motioning for Solly to follow me. I quietly disconnected the bell attached to the entrance doors, and, unscathed, we slipped inside.

The interior was mind-numbing. There were ads everywhere.

We each opened our sacks and began to fill them. “Don’t forget,” I whispered, “necessities only.”

Solly turned to head for the dry goods and was attacked.

“HI LITTLE BOY! HAVE SOME PEZ! HAVE SOME CANDY! HAVE SOME—”                             

Smack! came the sound as Solly punched the adman squarely in the nose. “Cig . . . ar . . . ettes . . .” The adman fell unconscious. Solly fanned his hand, in obvious pain from the pitchman’s solid skull.

The adman’s fall backwards landed him among the merchandise and created quite a stir. We stood still as statues, the only sounds our own breathing and the buzz of old fluorescent lighting.

We heard footsteps on the roof.

“Damn! Sorry!” Solly said, realizing he’d alerted them to our presence.

Turning, I saw the admen from the roof land on the ground and enter the market. Wide grins were on their faces, and their eyes were as wide as their smiles.

“HAPPY HAPPY! CUSTOMERS WELCOME!” They rushed us, grabbing merchandise from the shelves as they came. They thrust the products at us, and I rewarded the one nearest me with a kick to the groin. He backed off a short distance, and began pelting me with canned goods. I ran to the end of the aisle; Solly was already there.

We grabbed generics off the shelf and threw them back, depositing a few in our bags when the opportunity allowed. It was a stalemate for a couple of minutes, generics flying one way, Acme products the other; yeah, these were Acme admen all right. Acme wasn’t known for subtlety, and assaulting the client base with canned goods could only strengthen that reputation.

“Work your way to the next aisle! We need cereal!” I yelled to Solly.

We scooted to the next aisle over, followed by the relentless admen, and proceeded about halfway down its length. Solly was stocking his bag with Fruit Stars when the attack came again. I felt a brief shock as a can of Acme corn impacted with my interference shield generator. Turning, I saw that the admen had a good position—they were at the end of the aisle, with access to the generics we’d just used. They were hurling them at us now, and all we had to match them were boxes of cereal, unwieldy and thoroughly harmless weapons.

“BUY! LESS SALT! LESS FAT! HEALTHIER! BETTER TASTING! BUY!”

Seeing we were at a disadvantage, I climbed onto the bottom shelf and began to crawl toward the opposite end, pushing boxes and rows of cereal out into the aisle to clear a path. Solly followed me, and the rows of cereal behind us provided cover. I knew the admen would advance for a better throwing angle, but our maneuver would buy us a few seconds.

Suddenly I heard more footsteps, ahead of us this time. I stopped my advance along the cereal aisle, turned, and saw two different admen running past us, toward the first two. Ajax!

What luck! They were after us, of course, but since admen never shared, they were going to have to fight to see who got to sell to us. Apparently, they’d decided to get that matter finished with first.

“ACME PRODUCTS ARE NUMBER ONE!”

“AJAX PRODUCTS ARE THE BEST AROUND!”

Within seconds, an Ajax adman was stuffing an Ajax toilet brush down the throat of an Acme adman. The prone adman tried to deliver his pitch, but could not. The sound of Ajax pitches delivered him to his doom. “TEN PERCENT OFF! ONE DAY SALE! NO SALES TAX!”

The other Ajax adman had dazed his opponent with a bottled water sandwich (the big gallon sizes) which, ironically, was Acme inventory. After he knocked the Acme man unconscious, he used the spilled water to clean his hands; Ajax admen were very superstitious about touching Acme admen. He seemed to soothe himself by voicing his pitches as he washed.

“BIG DISCOUNTS! TWO FOR ONE! FIVE FOR TWO! EIGHT FOR THREE!”

There were shuffling noises all around us; Ajax stock people were replacing Acme’s inventory with their own. The market belonged to Ajax now.

Solly and I were frozen; it was such a captivating spectacle, we’d neglected to make our escape. Now, we backstepped toward the door, as more Ajax admen swarmed the aisles around us. They stared us down. This was it.

“Solly,” I whispered, “cover me for a few seconds while I fill our bags. On the count of three. One . . .”

Solly found some cola bottles near the auto-cashier and began to shake them vigorously.

“Two . . .”

The admen were creeping forward. I isolated my target area, and prepared to stock our bags in record time.

“Three!”

Solly unleashed a spray of carbonation that effectively foiled the admen’s advance. He switched smoothly from one bottle to the next, but I knew they wouldn’t last long, and I hurried to dump as many goods as possible into the bags.

“TASTY TASTY!” The admen yelled.

Heaving the full bags onto the auto-cashier, I waited impatiently for the scan to finish. It finally did, and the total cost flashed on the monitor.

“That’s weird—it’s a lot more than last time.”

Solly fairly screamed at me. “This is no time to be griping about costs! Let’s get out of here!”

I paid the auto-cashier, and tapped Solly on the shoulder. He had resorted to throwing batteries at the Ajax reps. “Let’s go!” I handed him a couple of bags to carry, and we bolted out of the market. The admen followed, spouting:

“$2.00 REBATE OFFER! COUPONS INSIDE!”

 

            We escaped the admen, mainly thanks to a passing contingent of Acme supplies that they paused to destroy. As we finally neared our hideyhole, relief came over me. I looked at Solly with a grin, but he was not smiling.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “We made it!”

“Your shield isn’t working,” he said. “I can see it on the status readout.”

“Ah, don’t worry,” I assured him. “We’re out of adman range now. And if we ration well, we’ll be able to stay out of range the whole winter!”

Solly did not seem to have been put at ease. I chalked it up to tiredness, and descended the passages that led to the Clan’s hideyhole.

 

We were greeted with cheers and hugs, as always. Being a forager was nice, in some ways.

“Open the bags!” Deggett said excitedly.

“Did you get my batteries?” Hettie added.

“Plenty for everyone,” I said, magnanimously.

I glanced out of the corner of my eye and saw Solly standing back behind me. He seemed to be watching me closely. I dumped my bag’s contents onto the floor. Man, was I hungry! I had just about chalked it up to a successful mission until I examined the labels on the goods more closely. With the exception of the few generics we packed early in the heat of battle, nearly every package, whether cans or boxes or containers or whatever, was identical in one respect: they all read in large rainbow letters:

“AJAX—THE NAME YOU CAN TRUST!”

Somebody shoot me.

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "Consumption Blues." peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

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