by JA Howe
She'd been walking for a long time, and it was cold for this part of the year. Finally, Cherryn gave in and knocked on the door of a rather run-down looking box house. All around her was country area; she'd headed north from Black Worm and through the piney wood up there, and finally come to this. First sign of civilization in a couple days.
The door swung open. "Yes? We're filming, y'know, can't you see the durned sign?" The door banged shut.
Cherryn backed up. The small furry man hadn't looked like much, but who knew these days if he were android, human, or something in between that could hurt her. Then she spotted the security camera. Without thinking a second, she pulled out the little pistol she'd snagged downtown on her way out and shot it, sending sparks flying.
Instantly, she was surrounded. People poured out of the house, came out of nowhere, all excited looking, all holding cameras or microphones. They pushed, they pulled at each other.
"Who are you?"
"Where'd you come from, now?"
"What's your story?"
"How do you feel about sliced bread?"
"Are you an anti-governementada person?"
Cherryn felt claustrophobic. A dog barked off in the distance. "Listen, I'm sorry about the camera…"
"Is that a real gun?"
"Where did you get it?"
"Are you part of a gang?"
She wracked her brain for anything comparable to this mayhem and found nothing. So she decided to play along, thinking the best way to talk to loonies was to tell the truth, which was usually so much stranger than fiction that nobody would believe it.
"I'm actually a murderer," she explained. "I'm on the run from the government, yes, and NutriCorp; you see they faked the story about having captured the killer."
Amazed murmurs ran around the crowd. More microphones were shoved in her face. "How did you do it?"
"Have you come here to kill us?"
"Imagine that, a show about a murderer… that would be neat."
"I wanna be a murderer."
"Not till you're older, dear…."
A man pushed his way through the crowd, and she saw that it was none other than the fuzzy-faced man. "Hi, I'm her agent, and -- The Lady -- is not making any comments right now," he said. A groan went through the crowd as he pulled Cherryn into his house and locked the door.
It was shabby but homey, she thought, looking around. So now I've finally seen one of the old single-family homes. Huh. She sat down on the ragged red couch. There was camera equipment all around her. She really had interrupted a taping of something. "Thanks for the help," she said. "I'll be out of your way in a bit. They'll leave soon."
"You have to be kidding! You're the biggest story around in ages!" he cried, as he sat down across from her. He regarded her thoughtfully, as if framing her.
He slapped a hand to his forehead. "Of course, I should have introduced myself. Weird Gary, from The Gary Show. I'm the one who likes to bring a little chaos to society…"
"I'm afraid I don't know that. A show, you said? You mean like on the enet?"
"Bite your tongue! There's no 'net out here, and that's the way it's going to stay," Gary said firmly. "Now for you, well of course we'll have to ask the cops to come and talk to you…."
"Okay, that's enough…" Cherryn said as she got up to leave but he pulled her down again.
"Don't worry about the cops, my dear; they've got their own show too. They'll be thrilled to meet you! You're famous! Even more so than anyone else here!"
"This is RealTown. We've all got our own shows, you see. On the television."
Cherryn stared at him. She'd heard of television, but only as a thing of the past, some thirty-odd years before she was born. It had been killed off by -- reality shows, she suddenly realized with an ironic pang. They just became stupider and stupider till nobody wanted to watch anymore. Obviously, though, in some sections of the country, reality shows had survived, and even developed to new and unforeseen heights. She should get out of here soon.
"Well, that's nice," she said. "I wish you luck with it. But really, I'm not here to do anything. Just passing through."
Gary grinned at her maliciously. "I hear the site workers are on the lookout for you, if you are who you say."
She stared at him. "Listen, I need to get as far away from the city and Black Worm and all fast as possible."
"We'll come." He kept grinning. "Otherwise they'll hear about it and I guarantee that won't be purty!"
Cherryn groaned to herself. She was going to be famous, like it or not, it seemed. Then again, she realized, she already was.
The Cherryn Show premiered later that week, telling the tale of a famous murderer. She had the magical powers of being able to disappear at will and she did some swishing thing with her cloak to confound enemies. Harry Underwold, who lived up the street, taught her how to do it "so it'd be purty and fantasmatico at the same time, y'know." She gave interviews with local people, and each week was supposed to be trying to kill one or the other, for some slight. Perhaps she was a bit tapped in the head because of her history back home, people figured, or maybe it was something more sinister. They liked to speculate on what that might be.
It became the number 2 site on the local television that people wanted to see, she was told, and people had branched out as the story leaked; now there really were sites on the enet devoted to Cherryn.
She was in the basement room that her captor had given her one night, when she smelled smoke. She looked up and decided without doubt that she'd be in trouble if she stayed down here. The door was unlocked up at the top of the stairs, she found and was instantly on her guard.
"Oh, good, you came up." It was Gary. He had a videocam trained on her.
"What are you doing?!"
"Well, there's a Nutri guy here who'd like your head in a bucket," he explained as if it were all very normal. "So we made a deal -- I get to film it!"
She looked outside and could see her "audience" already clamoring for a view. To the left, the house was smoking a bit. "You're crazy."
"Make a nice bit outta this one, I'd say!"
She pushed past him towards a door, and found them all open. They wanted her to run, she realized; they wanted the show. Outside, she ran into a couple of Dwarfs. "You's the girl." They flicked switchblades open.
Cherryn had no choice. She ran. From behind her, she could hear the Dwarves on their bikes, and the people of the town yelling "Don't lose her now; we've got good feed!" and "this is great! Better than when they had the public electric chair!"
The woods swallowed her, though she could still hear the faint sounds of people yelling and the occasional Dwarf bike. Cherryn ran on, though she was getting tired. Up ahead she saw signs of a road and soon enough she found it, dashed across and found herself in another town.
This place was dead as the last town had seemed, though. Behind her the sound of revving engines told her she didn't have that much time. There were no dumpsters or anything like that here to hide behind, unfortunately. Instead she dashed behind one house and moved into back streets, not that there really were that many of these. Suburbia, she thought. But all the homes were run down, the paint on their walls actually peeling visibly. Many had signs on them which she took at first for businesses, and then with a closer look she realized what it was.
This was a Reader town. Cherryn had heard of them. There were whole areas of the country where Readers lived, never leaving their homes, constantly plugged into the enet and Nutri feeds to keep them alive. They did research for anyone who requested, and who'd pay. In return, they advertised on the sides of their homes for any other type of person who might pass by, who could be interested in the sites the Readers looked at constantly.
"She's in here somewhere!" Cherryn could hear the voice of her former captor, and she ducked into the shadows of a porch in time. Dwarves passed by a block farther off. She wondered if any of the Readers inside were hearing this, wondering what was going on. She'd heard that dedicated Readers eventually reached a point mentally where they were unconcerned with the world outside. From the looks of the homes in this town, Cherryn decided that must be the way of it here. She would have a hard time convincing anyone to help her here then. Still, she had to try.
"We're coming to you live, hot on the trail of one of the state's most notorious killers. In case you're just tuning in, this is the Cherryn Show, the grim tale of a murderer -- or murderess, we should say. She was last seen in RealTown, but she seems determined to run! What stamina! Of course we'll give you constant updates…"
Cherryn shut the screen door carefully and sneaked inside where she was assaulted on the instant.
The stench was horrible. She stared around. The house had been converted to many rooms, each housing a Reader who obviously didn't plan on leaving. But the smell -- she knew that smell. They were all dead.
Cherryn leaned over in the hall and threw up. She knew suddenly that she'd probably find all the other homes in this town in the same condition. All dead, all gone. Their bodies had not been moved or touched; out here there were no firemen. The enet crash of two and a half years before had done it, she realized in a panic, and threw up again. Outside people were screaming as they found the same thing. Maybe, she thought dizzily, the town covered in death would actually work in her favor, as a deterrent.
She stayed crouched in the hallway for a long time, as darkness fell outside, casting shadows on the rooms in here. She was busily blocking out the memory of that horrible night, trying not to invoke the images of people going crazy in the streets as their brains fried. Rainbow Gallagher, she repeated to herself over and over, her mantra. Rainbow is hard as stone, she doesn't fear a thing, doesn't feel.
Cherryn, however, was afraid. Eventually she cried, quietly, for a long time.
When it was truly dark outside, she crept to the door, covering her mouth and nose, not that it did much good. She didn't hear a thing.
"How does it feel to be on the run?" a brilliant light shone into her face, the instant she opened the door. It was Gary again, the bastard, she thought, trying to block her eyes. "People, we're live."
"Please, just let me go!"
"See that, folks? What a deal -- a killer with feelings! This is great stuff! Ed, you still got that feed! Listen, girl, you realize you're on 24 hours? Cherryn on the run again, this is great…."
"You know what's in there? In that house?" she asked, losing her temper. "Dead bodies, all of them. Where were you guys during the storm and the enet crash two years ago? Huh? Did you film that? I was there, I saw it happen."
"Keep it rolling; this is great! Cherryn spilling her guts!" Gary slapped her on the back. "Great stuff, girl. The killer talks, shows us she's a human being with feelings and all…."
She slapped him. "You're loathsome, you and your people." She pushed away from him and dashed off into the darkness. Nobody made a move to stop her.
"Did you get that? Keep on her!"
Five hours later, she boarded a site worker bus, her cloak wrapped around her. She could hear them whispering in the back, could hear speculations as to who it could be -- that Cherryn wanna-be, some wondered. Don't go near her; she's dangerous, delusional. She could hear from outside Dwarves trying to follow, and didn't doubt that Underwold and his folk were trying the same.
"An exclusive, deep look into the lives of site workers!" she heard faintly as the bus rode away, soon going too fast for either of them. Somehow, she had no doubt that the tenacious man would catch up to her again, though, no matter what, or how far she ran. In a way, he and his people were worse than the Nutri jerks, or even the White Dwarves.
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