Gentlemen Loser

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Chapter 1

It was cold that night, too. A cold that clamps your breath inside your chest until it hurts. Deep breath in. Crisp wet air spills in displacing hot carbon dioxide, a giggle of exhaust said the mouth.

I stepped expertly over a gash of frozen puddle, it's hair-thin layers of ice, air and impurities delicately suspended over wet cigarette butts and pigeon shit. Wisps of miniature crystalline snowflakes collect in small pocks across the sandy asphalt walkway toward the road.

Intersection ahead, City Park behind. No cars moved about the barren roadways, nor were any parked in sight. No people stirred. The trees rubbed in thousands of small ways, its singing static wrapped the skull.

Wind bit sharp pits through the cheeks, swaying depleted branches cast the only motion save for the giggling breath. On the inhale I thought about the aching cold in my shins. Exhale brought me to focus on the path ahead.

An inert traffic light hung limply from the cable between the ornate oversized Victorian-era street light post and the squat stone church. No smoke rose from the chimney. No lights within. A halo of monosodium ions cast sickly yellow to the collecting cover of snow, crunching beneath each careful step.

A row of muted finery shops add to the concrete stillness of the narrow downtown street, the openness of the park a softening hiss decaying behind.

The air seemed to stiffen and close in. Dull brick facades of last century stood defiantly in the face of their obsolescence. Their clean bay windows reflecting silent snow, glistening licked stamps settling to envelope-white sidewalk.

Around the corner where midnight drunks puked in line for kebabs, only silent snow claimed the streets. Absent the clouds of diesel and tangy-sweet alcohol fumes from lines of cabs hoping to rob the ladies before the drunks finish them off.

A sign wailed a soft protest to a gust spiralling down from the mini office blocks: MetroBranding Social Consultants in an annoyingly brand-familiar font.

Grey slate stacked by expert craftspeople a century before my birth towered at the corner. Incandescence back-lit the hand-painted art-deco “156” on frosted glass above the door. A bank originally, now home to a division of the Department; a skeleton crew inside. During active outbreaks they tend to keep to themselves, if you keep to yours.

Cold hands searching pockets come up with the piece of paper from two days ago. It was cold two days ago, too. The address of my destination was a given, but the door code I need was written in street scrawl no Father could decipher without a committee. It's on the next block, next to the Wrestling memorabilia shop and Zucchini Jake's cafe, I remembered, stuffing the paper back into my pocket.

You can leave your home town, but you can never truly return.

The wrestling shop windows shimmered like insect wings in the streetlight, catching the polycarbon armature of the display windows, inert, dead, beyond which a layer of dust coats discarded display stands and construction debris, polystyrene coffee cups.

A sound, but far off. You can hear a car door 40 blocks away on a night like tonight. Not that anyone is out slamming car doors while under orders. Anyone out tonight would be walking, and probably just their dog to the nearest community green and back. Zip, out, in.

Between the entrance and the cafe was a small alley where I once slept as a teen, running away from my parents who voted for the Company on that hot June election night.

I hit the code. Electromagnets silently displaced a slug of metal, allowing the door to open at my pull.

Black. Two steps forward, there's the desk. Slide down to the end. I feel the opening to the counter with my foot and hook a right. Acrid smell of ancient rancid deep frying fat singed the nose, as I pulled up a waft of dull mildew, descending the hatch to the pantry.

I know the way. I don't need a light at all. It always creeped the hell out of everyone I came through with. “Can't you turn on a damned light? How the hell do you see?” All this time and they still aren't comfortable walking around in the dark. How will they ever...

Light warms out around the frame of a doorway, though the door is barely that – 4 slabs of wood slated across with boards and a peppering of nails. The wet ancient concrete underfoot gives the impression of being dangerously slippery, even in my good walking-about shoes. Great on the snow, not so good on oil. You can't win a mall.

The tunnel is lit at 3 metre intervals with blue LED lights that always remind me of subway trains arriving at station when I was a kid, though back then the platforms were lit flat white. If you bothered to look just beyond, down the endless tunnels like the arms of Gods connecting this place to that, you'd see the impossible blue glow of the bioLEDs, softly pulsating at the rate of rotation of the earth times 2Pi, or something like that. “Sing soft of Blue Monday”, my mother would sometimes sing when she though she was alone – staring into some nostalgia that probably wasn't hers – that probably predated her.

They were already pouring the coffee, and the whiskey when I stepped into the sanctuary.


Chapter 2

The grommet on the door-side of the tarp let go again, the corner snapping up wildly, guy wire licking through the cold damp air. A dusting of snow had already collected on the tarp, but not enough to warrant getting out of the sleeping bag and crawling across all the shit on the floor to get the boots on and go out there and do something about it.

He thought about how annoyed he would be in twenty minutes if he didn't go out and fix it. He decided it wasn't enough, grabbed a handful of bag and blanket, and rolled over into the temperfoam. The Company issue stuff really is the best, and right now, he was really happy to have it.

Three weeks ago saw the end to nearly a month of sleeping on the ground with nothing but a sheet of Tyvek he managed to rip off a building that had blown over in the last storm. He'd managed to get inside the building and have a look around, but there was nothing but office stuff in there. Nothing cool.

His knee throbbed and his left hand reached to favour it, while he sucked back the plug of mucus that never seemed to run out. He wished it were useful for more than choking on, and occasionally seeing how far you can spit it up into the air, when things are slow.

You want things to be slow. Slow is when it's time to Go. Slow = Go, see? He heard the flap snap and ruffle cartoonishly, the guy clicking against a bucket or a bin or something.

He groaned. Stiffened. Sighed. Relaxed. After slipping the second boot on his foot, he shuffled over to his good knee, braced, and pushed himself up. Zip, out, in.

Back in the bag he softened, knowing it was the last time he would have to move for some time. He fell asleep before forming any more complex though than the simple appreciation of the lack of a horrible, nagging, jarring non-sleep.

Warm, dry, as comfortable as age will allow, he couldn't much complain. Not that anyone would listen to him. Anyone left in City Park was doing very much like himself, minding his own business. Outbreaks stay out, by staying in.


She couldn't remember having ever met him before, but then again, there are too many boys in long wool coats and short brown hair to count here. Still, this one looked right at home, like he belonged, though no one seemed to pay him any mind. The fact that this wasn't raising suspicion told her she was the only one out of the loop.

“Look who's graced us with his presence,” he said.

Long hair, at least by today's standards, neatly following the curve of his ear, then defying gravity by curving back and up in a great curl, shiny and contiguous as a would receiver coil.

She grabbed the coffee pot off the Braun and sloshed a measure into a tin cup she'd half-filled with whatever the biggest bottle of rotgut was. A little honey to tamp down the fireworks. She sidled up a pew and sat behind her friend.

“It's not every day we get an original Returner in the house!” The stranger stood near the pulpit with some of the old-timers. She'd only been here for about a year. Her best friend had been here two before that.

He looked uncomfortable, having attention been brought to him. Calum seemed to know him personally. He looked like he was from here, though, not quite. His hair was all wrong and he had a bit too much tan to have spent the last few years in this shithole. His mask was unlike anything she'd ever seen in these parts. Something only available Up East, where they still make things in factories.

The stranger introduced himself as Pinot. That was a name she knew as well as the brands that built the world – she'd heard it growing up; everyone had.

“While he's here,” Calum interrupted, “we're going to make excellent use of his time. I want each of you to introduce yourselves, and show our man here what you've been working on. Let him deduce the plan himself. He likes a puzzle, doesn't he, old boy?”

“What's with the tall guy?”, she asked Anna.

“Never mind that, ” she beamed. “Did you hear about the knife fight down South? I guess a couple jackboys got themselves some fresh gills.”

“Yeah, and?” She fully expected to hear one of their friends were caught and dragged off to a division.

“And fuckin' nothing! They got away without being seen. Apparently one of 'em can only see red in his left eye. Doesn't remember seeing anything but a gent in a coat. Stupid fucks! Serves 'em right.” she crossed her arms and leaned them across the back of the pew.

Peace winced and smiled at all the key moments to following along.

“You know”, she said, craning her neck even closer, “my big brother knew Pinot back in the brand times. I guess they got into all kinds of shit together. They lost touch after getting busted blowing up a country club or some shit. My brother got conscripted and had to serve. Not sure what happened to him.” She gestured her head toward the pulpit.


Chapter 5

It's just so much easier at night. The whole little world tucks in for their predictable slumber. Even the party-drunks with close, personal chemist friends crash eventually. The air temperature and humidity forget what they were doing and run off in wild directions. Sound finds less resistance to its missions- the dark night as coffee speed, keeps sound up higher, longer. Just as the streets void of cancerous cars and trucks and tanks, the airwaves thin, confusion sublimates and electromagnetic deep-ears hear so much more.

Union Bank's landscapers interface was clearly designed, commissioned and built in an age before mass paranoia – it only required the removal of an intricate heavy steel padlock and a quick privilege escalation attack to turn on the juice.

As his computer charged, he monitored the City Grid. Quiet night. Low-load on the turbine, all the growlers were confined to their pig pens. The heat sig over City Park told him about 770 souls slept soundly in their tents and hovels, CompLogs burning dependably on makeshift stoves.

A discarded paper coffee cup blew in an oblong circuit, tapping out a percussive diminuendo, echo from the mini-towers a dying melodrama. It reminded him of his own rapidly cooling cup. He took a sip. Another.

He ping'd Leon. No up. Cecil. No up. Calum, up no answer. He finished the cup, fishing a flask from a leg pocket without changing his gaze. Twisted the black knurled tin cap off with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, left tapping a series of macros as legs pinched cup. A few glugs.

The flask back in his trousers and more in his gut than down his chin, he decided it time to turn on the GANT – Gigantic Array of Non-consenting Terminals.

Sometimes all you have to type is “fuckem – go”.