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Excerpt for Ghosts of Los Hellas by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Ghosts of Los Hellas


Copyright 2018 Will Perks

Published by Will Perks at Smashwords

Cover Art by Rob McCue



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The sharp drop to Los Hellas Airstrip reminded Gig of 'Nam. Not the real war, of course, but the twentieth century celluloid reproductions he often surfed past on late-night cable. Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket. Topographically it was a fair comparison. Cradled in the sweaty palm of the Pacific, you could easily mistake tropical Los Hellas for some outlying Vietnamese atoll. Lush palms fringed flat beaches speckled with shells and narrow-skulled gulls. Beyond them lay a limitless green stratified by shadow and a heat as intense as anaesthesia.

The plane was a decommissioned military jet and the pilot was a decommissioned military Lieutenant in a sweat-patched airline uniform that bulged grossly at the belly and chest. Gig had hated the man at first sight and felt vindicated, later, when the pilot started cracking crude jokes. Disgusted, Gig spent the duration of the flight staring dreamlessly out the window. Even from several hundred feet he could still see the pale outlines of the new SWIFTWATER cables surrounding Los Hellas' jagged coastline.

Lucas had mentioned the cables in his correspondence about the project, referring to them by the name coined by the Los Hellan natives. Gusano de agua - waterworms. Which was a fitting term, especially when you considered the burrowing intestinal waterworms you could contract in these parts, those thick fleshy invertebrates that snuck up your asshole in shallow water and could only be flushed out surgically.

That was the SWIFTWATER Corporation all over: tenacious and unashamedly parasitic.

Los Hellas customs was a skinny guy with a Hitler moustache and a one-eyed Alsatian called Rambo. Gig filled in a declaration form (No drugs, No alcohol, No weaponry) while the dog pushed its wet nose insistently into the back of his knees. By the time Skinny Hitler had processed his papers, Gig was certain of one thing. This project - whatever it was - had a strong public relations element to it. He'd been called here in part because of his face. The Los Hellans were Mexican-European half-breeds, but they looked like him.

Lucas Carter was waiting for Gig in the airstrip cafeteria, one hand on his wallet, the other marking jukebox time with a curly plastic straw. At nineteen the kid had transformed into a little corporate drone, his stiff suit fringed with the primary yellows, reds and blues of SWIFTWATER. Handsome, though - handsome in a small, neat way, with his button nose, cream skin, dark hair and brilliant green eyes. Gig was relieved to discover that Lucas had grown up to look absolutely nothing like his mother. Except, perhaps, for his mouth, which was wide and tender and somehow cynical, and made Gig's heart stop - just for a moment - in a not-so-distant memory of Regina Carter's kiss.

"I'm here," he said, and slung his duffle bag - his only luggage - onto the fraying cotton seat to Lucas' left.

The kid swivelled in his chair and stared up coyly from beneath thick eyelashes. "Barely. I saw you stagger in. You've a face as white as a mime. What happened, you loose your lunch to turbulence? Don't tell me the flight in was that bad."

"I've had better. Jesus, this weather. How do you cope?"

"You get used to it. You have to. The Los Hellans don't believe in air-conditioning. If you're too hot, they say, go jump in the sea. I've been on site now for eight months, since they finished laying the waterworms. After the first week you stop noticing the heat. Since acclimatising I've hiked seven ways across the island, biked its perimeter, even jogged a 'fun run' for a local charity." Lucas dug out a soft pack of American cigarettes - not Regina's brand - and tapped impatiently on the base. "And of course I'm responsible for the digital encoding of virtual Los Hellas. Which sounds more impressive than it really is - the whole thing is just algorithms and global positioning co-ordinates. Did I ever explain the project to you?"

"No. Never." Conspicuously, never. But that was nothing unusual. The Carters - both mother and son - liked to conduct their business on-the-spot; it gave their far-fetched requests a convincing urgency. Made it so you couldn't refuse them. Gig scanned the cafeteria's patrons warily: raisin-brown Los Hellan natives, fat Anglo-American tourists, a handful of sloe-eyed East Asian suits. "Do you want to talk somewhere more private?"

Lucas inclined his chair on its back legs and puffed cigarette smoke. Aiming for adult cool, Gig supposed, but succeeding only in cutesy teenage chic. "I've got nothing to tell you that you can't read yourself in the Los Hellas dailies," he said. 'SWIFTWATER is putting a brand new spin on virtual reality. Instead of plugging into a digitalised world, you get to plug right into Los Hellas. Trot your virtual ass through the muck and filth of it. Pry and prod all you like. I mean these are real people, baby—"

"I'm almost twice your age. Don't call me baby."

"These are real people and these are real lives, McGuiggen. We're going to put you, the SWIFTWATER public, right in the heart of something that matters. Something that has consequence. It takes virtual reality to a whole new level - call it virtual tourism." Lucas' fingers lingered momentarily over the SWIFTWATER emblem sewn on his breast pocket, sorting the individual threads like the beads of a rosary. "Naturally you can't interact per se. No touching, no talking to the real people. But you can see. It's a voyeur's dream."

"They're letting you do this?"

"The Los Hellas economy is weak. And by weak I mean utterly pathetic. SWIFTWATER came to this place - this third world dump - and invested a hell of a lot of money. We improved their healthcare and their standard of living. We donated to their charities and we gave their tourism department the marketing boost it sorely needed. We're like guardian angels, McGuiggen. We can do what we want here. We can do no wrong."

It was a lousy speech, real ad-copy bullshit, an insult to Gig's intelligence and his experience in the field. The kid had some nerve to lay that on him. The hype only served to highlight the too obvious question: If you can do no wrong, then why am I here…? But that was the Carter way, Gig remembered. They told the story and let people fill in the gaps themselves. They built themselves unsteady empires then hired some poor dogsbody off the streets to cement the cracks.

"You're having problems with the natives, aren't you?" he said. "Let me guess--something blew up messily and you've brought me here to smooth things out with the locals. Maybe investigate a little, offer some public proof that SWIFTWATER means well. And of course if I'm an independent contractor, it'll be harder for them to claim a bias—"

"Close enough." Lucas waved a hand airily, limp-wristed. "PR, McGuiggen. It isn't my strong suit."

"My base rate is fifteen thousand a week plus expenses. I don't guarantee results."

"You undersell yourself," said the kid, grinning. "But we'll hire you anyway."


***


The road to SWIFTWATER headquarters was totally M.A.S.H. - this tunnel of tattered foliage opening to green tents, chemical smells, white dust and brush tumbleweeds. Smocked employees strolled the area, smoking, chatting. For verisimilitude their travelling car was a jeep, but non-army standard, a hulking black beast of a thing, its engine exposed in glistening chrome. Flashy, expensive, and thoroughly tacky. Gig guessed the car had been Lucas' choice. No - not guessed, knew. The car was an image thing. It said all the things about Lucas that Lucas couldn't say himself.

Gig said, "You lost weight, huh? Regina mentioned you'd started some new diet-"

Lucas killed the jeep's engine and looked around. "This is our base site,' he explained. "Direct access to the waterworm's networks. We run all our virtual tourism walk-throughs from here. Or at least we used to, before the trouble started. Foreign politics, you know how it is. They're all so bloody superstitious here. God, I hate America. The place was a shit hole even before the north annexed the south, and the people are impossible to work with. Little guys with big attitudes."

"Kid, your mother's an American expatriate."

"Looks like they still haven't cleared out the latest round of rabble-rousers," Lucas said loudly. "Get out, McGuiggen, and I'll show you what this Los Hellan mess is all about."

Together they walked through two adjacent tents filled with bubble-wrapped hardware and liquid-crystal consoles lit up like electric bunting. A trestle of monitors displayed island landmarks, their feeds tagged simply in longitude and latitude. No cables, Gig noticed. Which was surprising, because any project of this size that required extreme detail was rarely wireless. Wireless was prone to interference and delays, and had the tendency to muck up other signals. Evidently Lucas thought he was too damn good to abide by the limitative laws of technology.

But hell, if SWIFTWATER had okayed the project, maybe the kid actually was that good.

Beyond the tents twelve Los Hellans sat cross legged in the dirt. Sweaty, t-shirt-and-shorts-wearing types, what Lucas's mother (and maybe Lucas too) referred to as riff raff. Two of the Los Hellans were playing cards. The rest stared distrustfully at Lucas as they walked up. Just the shift in their postures - not exactly aggressive, just prepared - gave Gig the weird feeling that he'd walked into the latest outbreak of an ongoing domestic.

"This, boys and girls, is Mr Felix McGuiggen," said Lucas. Enunciating like a pre-school teacher. "Who wants to tell Mr McGuiggen what's going on here?"

"You can call me Gig, if you want, everyone else—"

A big Los Hellan, ripped with muscle, interrupted in careful, broken English: "Demons. You SWIFTWATER people bring demons here."

"And nasty old ghosts too," Lucas teased, actually simpering. "Big ghosties and evil things. Because we laid down the waterworms, the gusano de agua, and in laying them down we managed to rouse - oh, I don't know how precisely, and neither do they - a host of nasty beasts, beasts that are now haunting the streets of Los Hellas. Terrifically scary creatures they are too. Big nasty teeth. And long claws. And some even shaped like sexy she-devils - these people have such imagination, McGuiggen…"

It was sickening the way he talked to these people but sickening also the way they did not talk back, and sat dumbly there, tight-lipped, wet-eyed, just taking it. Gig thought of Easter Island statues: these huge inscrutable dark faces filled with silent suffering, with silent pride. And remembered something Regina had told him once, a little slice of her childhood in redneck America. At school, she'd said to him, we always wore flat faces when the white kids teased us. Flat faces like mirrors. You let nothing out and you let nothing in either, and that made us stronger. In a weird way it gave us power. Sometimes silence is the path of most resistance.


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