City of Thorns
by Portland NaNo
Abe doesn’t know anything about space. Abe doesn’t work well with others. Abe doesn’t like being told what to do and would be much happier if everyone left him alone. Yet here he sits in a public bathroom off Block 30 on the street of Portland, with a man 20 years his junior. He probably would have been just sitting in his hovel waiting for his eventual death, if he had not allowed himself to be recruited by the PLA a week ago. It was a minor annoyance that his shop had been burned down in a riot, mostly because it gave him little to do with his days. He’d taken to wandering the street and he’d bumped into Thor.
Thor was an absolutely ridiculous name for an individual and Abe suspected that it was a name he had given to himself. Underling of the PLA, or Portland Liberation Army, the god of thunder had high aspirations. Sadly he was not that bright. It had been his idea to meet here of all places. The stench was enough to render anyone unconscious. Abe was relieved he hadn’t eaten yet today, or else he would certainly have thrown up all over thunder-boy’s retro sweater.
“We’re going to meet under the bridge, tonight at 11:00pm,” Thor said.
“Alright,” Abe said.
“You know what I mean right? Under the bridge,” Thunder-boy said.
“Yes,” he said, impatience mounting. The PLA was in trouble if Thunder-boy was their ace recruiter. Portland would certainly be massacred. Oh well, survival of the fittest and all that.
Thor’s brow furrowed. “You know I don’t actually mean–”
“Yes. I got it.” Abe said. Thunder-boy was alluding to the back room at the pub on 90 block. There was no under the bridge. Nothing but solid concrete filled the space underneath the bridge. Some planner had decided long ago that Portland should be a bridge, regardless of the fact that it was not actually bridging anything.
“So you’ll be there?”
“Yes.” Abe desperately wanted out of this filth closet. He grabbed the handle and stumbled out into the street. Heaving in deep breaths of clean non-maloderous air he turned back towards his home. He was starting to regret his involvement with the PLA.
“Be patient,” he said to himself.
Walking with the purposeful stride that took years of practice and meditation to achieve, Abe moved with ease to Market No. 36. Fear was strangling the street. People scurried, always looking over their shoulders. Nervous, twitchy, stumbling. Much the same way a guilty person would walk. Certainly a look to be avoided in these times.
The market was brightly lit. Almost blindingly so. He gave the proprietor a slight nod as he made his way to the far wall where the coolers were. Opening the case he smiled. Not one of those old toothpaste commercial smiles, no nothing like that. This looked more like an involuntary twitch at the corner of his mouth. It was the brilliant cold that gave him the smile. Abe did not care for the climate control on Portland Street. It was much too warm in his opinion. He took a bottle of water. Acque Brillanti, and in tiny print on the label: Bottled at the source. The source would be filter processed sewage from Rome Street. The name translated, ‘the brilliant waters’. Sure they were.
After paying for his brilliant sewage he sat at one of the small tables in the market. From his table he had a good view, not only of the street outside the front window but also the interior of the store. A young kid, about 12 walked in. 12 or 17. A kid was a kid, he couldn’t tell the difference, they all looked the same to him. Abe’s eyes tracked the kid as he wandered through the aisles. For some reason uneasiness crept into the pit of his gut. After 56 years, seeing all that he’d seen, his gut was the highest authority. A few beats later the kid started semi-discreetly pocketing things. First a few candy bars, then meal replacement.
Without moving his head, he checked the counter. The proprietor wasn’t noticing. Then there were the footsteps. Almost imperceptible but Abe heard them. Looking back at the kid, the proprietor was the least of the kid’s worries. Abe wanted to warn him, but there was no way to, not without signing his own death warrant in the process. The Suit waited patiently, stock still in the middle of the market. The proprietor looked up from his paper, fear registered for the first time in his eyes. Welcome to the club buddy. The kid finally turned around and color drained instantly from his face.
The gun was aimed at the kid’s head in a blur of movement. The carbon fiber barrel had been buffed and polished to a mirrored finish. It caught the light as it moved through the air. Abe was trapped. His entire body screaming that he couldn’t see this. Muscles in his calves and thighs tightening. Breath becoming trapped in his chest. If he moved he could be next. Fear traveled up his spine and refused to let his eyes close.
“No, please, my family.” the kid began in an uneven voice.
The Suit said nothing for a moment. “No thorns in the Rose City.”
The trigger was pulled. There was a tiny puff of smoke. Then the kid’s skin began to sag, then fall off. Slowly, as if he was an ice cube out in the sun. Abe wanted to look away, but couldn’t. Tissue and bone were next. Nothing in the store moved as the kid turned into liquid. Heart fluttering, stomach turning, skin clammy, liquid. Right there on the linoleum floor. Satisfied with his handiwork the Suit looked at Abe briefly and then gave a polite nod to the proprietor before walking back out the door and onto the street.
As Abe stood, he heard the proprietor vomiting behind the counter.
“That pretty much sums it up,” he said. His chair scraped on the floor as he stood up. He took a long last swallow of his water in a vain attempt to wash the bile back down his throat. He tossed the container into the bin by the counter. He did not look at the proprietor. He did not look at Liquid Kid. He merely used his purposeful stride to take him back out onto the street and straight to his home.
Abe strolled into the back room of The Bitter End. The corner of his mouth twitched at the irony. The dim room was tightly packed with Portland’s best and brightest. Sizing up the crowd, he didn’t hold much hope for the survival of Portland. Most of the street’s best thinkers had been eliminated in the past 10 years. His eyes hovered on Sam Green. Definitely an exception to the rule. Sam had run the local paper for 15 years, the last 5 completely in secret.
Nervous eyes watched the door while Abe busied himself by clearing invisible dirt from underneath his fingernails. Occasionally his eyes would casually pan to the door and then back to the front of the room where he wished these idiots would hurry the hell up. Certainly the details of their last stand were already decided, now it was simply a matter of communicating them to the rest of us. His eyes narrowed on the small table up front with Sam and sidekick extraordinaire Thunder-boy Thor.
Thor was decidedly lacking in finesse. His body movements were exaggerated. Wild gesticulations cut through the air around him. His face in a constant state of animation. Sam looked pained and mildly impatient. Abe began to lose patience and it showed in the simple gesture of him switching his weight from one foot to another.
“The plan is this,” Sam began. The room hushed. “Tomorrow night, beginning at 6pm we leave our homes in shifts. We are doing this by month of birth every 20 minutes. January, 6pm. February, 6:20pm. March, 6:40pm, and so on.” He took a breath. “This is not a peaceful protest ladies and gentlemen. Bring your weapons. Those of you that have cloaking devices raise your hands.” Hands began popping up all over the room. Abe was surprised so many people had them. So did he, but his hand did not go up. He wasn’t going to risk having his cloak re-appropriated by the PLA.
“I need 10 cloaks total,” Sam continued. “I know no one wants to give up their cloak, but I’m asking for volunteers for the greater good of the cause.” Hands slowly slid down. The room was silent as his request hung in the air. “I will not ask again. I expect you all to do the right thing.”
Just as Sam was, Abe was also waiting for the suckers to come forward. It didn’t take long. Once the required number of cloaks had been surrendered to the “cause” Sam continued.
“I thank you all for your bravery. For those of you still with cloaks please remember the timing. You have exactly 3 minutes of coverage and a 15 second recharge/reset. If you do not stick to the 3 minute rule you will emit a frequency burst that is easily recognizable to the Suits. Increased Suit presence before we have reached Block 3 will jeopardize our cause.”
Sam leaned forward. “That is all. Good luck to everyone.”
Back in his apartment he stared out the window. The street below was empty. The last of the Portlanders were no doubt spending what little time they had left with their families. His mind drifted back to Carly. The family that he hadn’t seen for a lifetime. Abe didn’t believe in heaven. Or any other version of an afterlife for that matter. Once you were dead, that was it. Momentarily he wished for the kind of comfort that the idea he would see his family again would give him. His throat tightened a lump forming blocking out air. He shook his head of the thoughts and focused on solidifying his timeline.
He sat in the chair in the corner of his room. Eyes drifting shut he began his meditation practice, as he did every night. Being able to focus on the task at hand, clear his mind of unwanted thoughts and slow his breathing and heartbeat were essential skills that he had been cultivating all his life. Carly returned to his mind.
He stomped his feet and refused to budge.
“You are not the boss of me, Carly!”
“Whatever, squirtwad,” she yelled back. “Dad said I had to get you to school and that’s what I’m going to do.”
She grabbed his arm and pulled.
“Let me go! Let me go!”
He dropped to his knees so she’d have to drag him out the door to his room. She continued to tug for a second, then suddenly gave up and dropped his arm. He hit the ground hard, his nose connecting squarely with the raised metal doorjamb attached to the floor separating his red and yellow carpet from the hardwood in the hallway.
He whimpered at first, startled by the bright sensation of pain spreading from his nose to his eyes and down his cheekbones to his jaw, and just lay there.
“Gah! Seriously Abemeister, you are not worth the trouble,” she said, almost under her breath.
But he heard and tried to sniffle, to keep the tears from coming. The pain flared and he gasped and cried out, a squealing warble of unidentified fears.
His sister let out a long and exaggerated sigh and poked her bony fingers under his arms to lift him up.
“Oh! Abe, I’m so sorry!” she said, and when he looked at the frightened expression on her face he started sobbing inconsolably.
She gathered him up into her lap and rocked him back and forth, kissing the top of his head and patting his shoulder like he was a baby. He wiggled free and stood defiantly before her.
“I’m not a baby,” he stated. He raised his hand to wipe the gunk away from his nose and when he pulled his sleeve away he saw bright red mixed in with his snot. He looked into his sister’s pouty face with a sneer.
“I hate you.”
He turned away from her, looking back on his messy bedroom. The red and yellow zigzag carpet, the blue bedspread with the giant superman S, the comic book printed curtains. This is a baby’s room, he thought. He looked down at himself, not even dressed yet. He was wearing the Thor underoos he’d slept in last night and a matching t-shirt with Thor’s hammer on it, thunderbolts spreading out from the center. Baby clothes.
He heard Carly stand up behind him and the floorboards squeaked when she took a forward step.
“I’m coming, ok? Just leave me alone.”
Four minutes later, he emerged from his room fully dressed and bright red book bag in hand. He stomped past Carly, seated on the bar stool next to the hole in the wall that led from the dining nook into the kitchen, and came to a stop next to the front door of the apartment the three of them shared.
He heard her grab some change from the bowl they kept on the bar for bus fare. She took her house key off the hook by the front door.
“Abe,” she said in a small pitiful voice. She put a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off. “Come on, we gotta stay positive right?”
He glowered at the doorknob.
“You know what Dad said,” she persisted. “We stick together, no matter what the letter says. We’re a family. Right?”
He swung his angry gaze in her direction but refused to say a word.
“I… hang on,” she bounced away down the hallway and returned with a wet cloth from the bathroom. She knelt in front of him and brought the cloth toward his face. He jerked away.
“Hey, settle down,” she said. “I can’t let you leave looking like that.”
“Yeah, because you’ll get in trouble,” he said.
She looked him in the eye, their foreheads almost touching and she smiled at him. Dad says that Carly got their mom’s good looks. But Abe’s only ever seen his mom’s picture, and to him they only have slight similarities. The same color hair, but Carly’s is way more curly. The same color eyes, but completely different shape.
“I just don’t want you to look like those gross Tiberson twins,” she said and snickered.
“Jimmy and Timmy get nosebleeds, they don’t beat each other up,” he said.
“As far as you know,” she countered, eyebrow raised conspiratorially.
She wiped him clean and tossed the wet and slightly bloody cloth onto the counter.
“Anyway, I won’t get in trouble,” she said.
“Because you won’t tell.”
“Yeah. Because you know how stressed Dad is already and you know you don’t want to add to it. Right?”
He looked down at his feet, the little lights in his sneakers blinking as he shuffled them around. She scruffed his hair and opened the door.
Abe broke away from the memory with a swift intake of breath. The last thing he needed was all this ancient history rattling around in his brain. He settled himself again, breathing in slow and deep, attempting to return to his practice.
It was Carly that met Abe at school at the end of the day that day. Usually he’d ride to the sitter’s with Mrs. Tiberson and Jimmy and Timmy, while his sister went to her after-school job. Their dad worked second shift at the machine shop and would pick Abe up from the sitter’s on his way home. Abe used to love the smell of metal on his clothes, and liked to trace the dark lines on his carharts where stray sparks had singed him. His train trips with Dad in the early evening were the highlight of his day during the week. Every day his Dad would point out something new. Last week he’d pointed up as they went past a blue building downtown and Abe saw a giant metal woman leaning down with her giant hand outstretched as if to haul him up from the depths of the ocean, her trident rising behind her and anchoring her firmly into the building for support. The kind but strong smile on her face had felt instantly protective.
“That’s Portlandia,” his Dad had said. “Goddess of the sea.”
Abe had looked up in wonder, his face pressed to the scratched window of the train.
“She’s going up in space,” he said. “We’re putting her on the top of the Fremont bridge. She’ll be the centerpiece of Portland Street. Protecting us all.”
“Cool,” Abe had breathed.
The thin paper rustled in Dad’s hands like dead fallen leaves. Abe watched his eyes scan back and forth as he read down the page. Carly chewed on the sides of her fingers, biting off and spitting out little bits of skin.
Violently, Dad threw the paper at the dining table. Carly yelped.
“You put your whole life into something,” Dad mumbled. “And this is how they repay you.”
“What? What is it, Dad?” Carly asked, her voice shaking. Abe just sat staring at the piece of paper in front of him. It was slightly crumpled, but along the bottom he could see a picture of a rose and the words “No thorns in the Rose City.”
Later, curled in his bed staring at his spiderman curtains, Abe tried to understand his uncertain future. His bed springs creaked as his dad tried to lower himself lightly onto the bed beside his son. He rubbed his son’s back.
“What’s going to happen to us, dad?” Abe asked without turning around. He couldn’t bear to look into his father’s fallen face.
“We’ll stay together,” Dad said. “We’ll be a family, no matter what.”
Abe turned over awkwardly, nudging away stuffed animals and plastic toys all of which he’d gathered around to protect him in the dark.
“But Timmy says everyone that stays will burn up.”
“And Timmy’s an expert is he?”
“No, I guess not.”
Dad leaned forward and brushed Abe’s unruly hair away from his forehead.
“I know it’s a scary thing, son,” he said. “But the truth is, nobody’s an expert on things this time. Nobody knows any more than anyone else. And those people getting shot into space in that big dome they’re building, are not better or worse off than anyone left here.”
Dad pulled the blanket up under Abe’s chin and tapped it into place around his shoulders.
“Snug as a bug,” he said.
Abe turned his head away sharply.
“That’s baby stuff, Dad,” he pouted.
“Oh, you the big man now?”
Abe tried to shrug under the tightly tucked blanket.
“I want to be like you daddy,” Abe said.
Dad turned his head away fighting back tears. He forced himself to turn a sob into a chuckle.
“Is that right?” he whispers. “One day, little man, let’s hope you’re better.”
Abe had not thought about his father in years. Any thoughts that dared to intrude were quickly pushed right out of his mind. He busied himself by preparing for his almost certain demise. Readying his gear, testing the cloaking device attached to his wrist. Having run out of things to do Abe returned to his chair facing the door. He took one last look around his tiny apartment. Purposefully it was not a lot to leave behind. Life had taught him to live light. No attachments, energy should be spent on surviving not sentimentality. He stood and stretched. It was time.
On the street he casually eyed the others. Walking to their death. Twitchy. Too twitchy. This was not good. All it took was one Suit to notice. Just one. It didn’t even have to be a Suit that was all that observant either. Irritated Abe broke away from the crowd. He leaned up against the brick facade of the old courthouse and waited. Sure enough there they were. They came from the East following the last wave of PLA. He counted the Suits. Silently reaching 33 he broke off down the street cloaked. He hadn’t cloaked outside his home in years. Back in the day it was 25 years in a hard labor camp. Now it was certainly a death sentence.
The government did periodic sweeps for such contraband. Abe had hidden his in the molding of his small apartment. Since the device emitted a burst of frequency every 3 minutes he had to follow his timeline very carefully. Portland Street was lined with cameras, hell, the whole country was juiced up like old time reality television. The Suits were always watching.
The first cameras were installed nearly 40 years ago. Turn of the era technology was a bit spotty in quality. The turning mechanisms were old and required frequent maintenance to run optimally. Cue the Great Engineer Strike of 35. Most cameras hadn’t been serviced since then. If the sweep on the camera degraded below 90 degrees Suits would be dispatched to fix them up. Now Suits aren’t Engineers. Far from it. Engineers are smart, thorough, honorable even. Suits do what it takes to get by. From what Abe could gather, they didn’t take their maintenance too seriously. This is what he would exploit.
Pulling out his MicroTap he ran the program he had written to access the camera grid for Portland. It was insanely easy to hack the system. The Suits had relied on the idea that they had removed everyone from society that knew how to even operate a computer, or at the very least had them in custody. Modern day slaves, chained up in stainless steel cubicles, monitoring ancient code. Poor bastards. Abe had planned his route meticulously for over 2 years. Checking the camera system was merely a precaution. He did not expect that anything had been serviced since he last checked, but better safe than liquified. Everything checked out, he checked his watch. 30 more seconds. His stomach began to stage a minor revolt. Abe refocused on his timeline, but it was short lived as unwanted memories continued to plague him.
The day after they got the letter was Saturday. Their usual weekend routine of pancakes and hot chocolate and cartoons was reduced to cold cereal and silence. Abe plopped another spoonful of soggy crunch berries into his bowl of pink milk. Carly stared out the window, her untouched cup of tea now cold, the milk in it curdled. Their dad cleared his throat, shook the newspaper into folded submission and placed his hands on the table.
“Well, got to go to work,” he said gruffly. “You kids don’t get into any trouble.”
Carly scoffed, coming out of her daze to roll her eyes in Dad’s direction.
“Right, like anything matters now. Why even bother going to work? Let them build their own bridge to nowhere.”
Dad cleared his throat again.
“Now listen here, Carline. I’ve still got a job to do. How else am I supposed to provide for us?”
“I will not be talked to like that young lady.”
Carly shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Oh? Seems the committee can treat you any way they want, why shouldn’t I? They wouldn’t have that bridge if it weren’t for you! It was your proposal! Your design that got selected by the world committee! How can they do this to you?” she screamed.
“Now Carly, there’s nothing I can…”
“How can you let them do this to us?” she whined.
Dad slammed his hands down on the table rattling the dishes and scaring Abe, who’d been ignoring the fighting, ignoring the noise.
Carly collapsed into her chair again, dropping her head into her hands, her sobs shaking her shoulders. Dad stood behind his chair, gripping the back, his knuckles turning white, his eyes closed. Abe looked from one to the other scared to move, to draw attention to himself in the tense silence.
Dad was barely gone for 10 minutes before Carly threw Abe his coat.
“Let’s go, boogerbutt!” she said, her voice coarse from crying.
“Where are we going?” Abe asked, annoyed to be disturbed, afraid of getting in trouble. Sometimes Carly was unpredictable and rebellious. She’d gotten in big trouble before for leaving the house and leaving Abe alone, or bringing friends over when she was supposed to be watching him.
“Out,” she said. And mumbled, “I can’t just do nothing.”
On the train, Carly busy texting, Abe swinging his feet.
“Chill out, terminaber,” she said distractedly.
“This is boring,” Abe whined. “Let’s go home.”
“Why didn’t you bring your backpack? You could have had some crayons to chew on or something.”
“Never mind. We shouldn’t be out here, Carly. What if Dad finds out?”
“Ha! What’s he going to do? Ground us?”
She laughed out loudly, drawing looks from some of the other riders. She nudged Abe in the ribs through his rain coat.
“Get it? Ha! We can’t get any more grounded, squirmbuster.”
She turned away from him to stare out the window as they passed over the river across the Steel Bridge. Abe followed her gaze to the reflection of the trees along waterfront park waving in the rippling water below. Down river there were concrete legs sticking out of the water where the Burnside, Morrison and Hawthorne bridges used to be.
“How will we cross the river if they take all the bridges to space?” Abe asked.
Carly wrinkled her brow and looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. She crinkled her nose and scrunched her face up into a mischievous grin.
“Don’t you worry about that, wormbucket,” she said, turning to gaze out the window again. “If I have anything to say about it, it won’t matter.”
Abe shook his head to clear it. Deep breath. A hand through his hair, eyes darting from one block away to two blocks away, squinting to see farther. He had forgotten that these bridges had all once had separate names, separate purposes, now all mashed together in one long chain of dingy metal. 10 seconds. He turned West. 5 seconds. Another breath. 2 seconds. It had to be now.
He began rushing towards the riot that had begun. His lungs started to burn by Block 40. He wasn’t 25 anymore. He could feel every one of his 56 years.
Checkpoint 1, Block 37. He uncloaked in the blind spot of a street camera and started his 15 second count. He could hear chanting in the distance. Abe ran a hand through his thick gray hair and waited. 3, 2, 1. He cloaked again and began sprinting towards Block 30.
All of the sudden a Suit appeared at his right. He had to make a quick decision. Try to outrun the suit or hang back and return to the blind spot at Block 37. There was no way he could outrun the suit. He had no choice but to go back. In the safety of the camera’s 5×8 blind spot he tried to catch his breath. He checked his watch. Behind schedule and panicking a little he forced himself to calm down. He listened to the distant chanting, the hum of the gears turning beneath the city street, his own breathing.
Abe’s mind became quiet. He was the noises he heard. The shadows and streetlights he saw. He depressed the cloaking button and ran. It took all the lessons learned in his 40 years of meditation to keep on running, especially when he started hearing the screams.
“Zack!” Carly shrieked, raising her hand in the air and waving it vigorously. She started to jog across the park toward a group of people gathered around some large boulders surrounded by skeleton-like cherry trees. They were a dark and brooding bunch and Abe stopped in his tracks when he saw them, pulling down on Carly’s hand that held his and jerking her to a halt beside him.
“Come on, Abe.”
“I won’t go, Carly. Take me home.”
“No, come on. You’ll like Zack. He works with Dad. He’s cool.”
Abe stood rooted in place, a growing stubbornness taking hold of him.
Carly bent at the waist, leaning forward to look in Abe’s eyes.
“I need to do this, Abe. You’re too little to fully understand, but…”
“I’m not a baby!” Abe said angrily. “Stop treating me like a baby!”
Carly backed up, hands in the air in surrender.
“Then stop acting like one, stinkdrain.”
Carly reached for Abe’s arm again, but he yanked it away, taking a step back away from her.
“If you won’t take me home, I’m going back by myself.”
“Oh yeah right, big man. Where’s your bus fare?”
“I don’t need any.”
“Yeah, you know all about how the world really works don’t you. You stay right here then. I’m going to go talk to Zack. I won’t be long and then we can go home ok?”
Abe stood still, neither giving in or resisting for just a moment, his six-year-old brain trying to process his limited options. Carly thought she had him. She turned away and sauntered off toward the group, who were all watching the exchange. She waved at them, friendly, without a care about him any more. That was it. He turned away from the river and ran.
He heard shouts behind him and knew they had seen him. Knew they’d follow. And he didn’t know where to go. He crossed street after street, nearly empty of vehicles since most everyone rode the bus or train. He almost crashed into a cyclist turning a corner and veered down a side street. The closer he got to the square the thicker the sidewalks got with pedestrians. He zigged and zagged around them as the red brick of the square came into view. He made straight for the glass doors in the center and ran past the wall of pamphlets and magazines into the public men’s room around the corner. He crashed into an empty stall and stood panting, trying desperately to regain control of his breath.
A few quiet minutes later, thinking the coast was clear, Abe opened the stall door and poked his head out. But he wasn’t alone. A young man stood in the corner, just where his feet wouldn’t have been seen when Abe looked beneath the stall door. Abe froze.
“Hey,” the man said. “I’m Zack.”
Abe stared at the man, taking him in. He wore black jeans and a black leather jacket. His dark hair was slicked back and his face was clean-shaven. He had a thick silver ring in his nose and wide holes in his earlobes. Abe had seen tons of people in town that looked just like Zack, but still something about the man scared Abe. His kid senses were screaming with little alarm bells in his head. This man was not safe.
“Where’s my sister.”
“You scared the crap outta her, kid,” Zack said. “She’s only trying to protect you, you know?”
“She should be protecting me from you,” Abe said.
Zack shook his head and his shoulders rose and fell with little rumbles of laughter.
“Kid, you have no idea.”
Zack stopped laughing abruptly and walked swiftly toward Abe, grabbing him by the collar before he could escape. Abe tried to dig his fingers between Zack’s big hands and his collar unsuccessfully, wiggling and struggling for all he was worth as Zack lifted him up from where he stood. Zack deposited Abe in the middle of the bathroom floor, still holding firm to the boy’s collar. He stared down at Abe with contempt.
“I don’t give a shit what happens to you, kid. But for now, you’re part of the deal. So you do what I say or you suffer the consequences. Right now, you will go out there and apologize to your sister for runnin’ off. And then you will sit your ass down while us older folk discuss your brief little future.”
Zack removed one hand from Abe’s collar and made his hand into the shape of a gun, tapping his pointer finger between Abe’s eyes. One tap for each of the next three words.
“Don’t. Fuck. Up.”
Checkpoint 2, Block 32. Abe pressed himself against a lamppost compacting his body as tightly as he could. His fingers shook as he hit the cloaking button. Visible again to the naked eye, nothing was keeping him safe in this blind spot. All it took was one Suit to see him and it was over. Seconds ticked by slower than he thought they could. His legs were cramping from the accumulative running and act of contortion that he was currently executing. 10 more seconds. Breathe. Cloak. Run.
Checkpoint 3, Block 20. He crouched in the shadow of a security gate at the bottom of a housing complex. Uncloaked and leaning against the steel bars he gasped for air. He quickly shut his mouth when he heard fast approaching footsteps. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed himself harder against the gate. The footsteps came to an abrupt halt 5 feet away. Abe braced himself. He’d lived a good life. Well maybe not a good life. He’d lived a life.
“No thorns in the Rose City,” said the voice.
Seconds ticked by. Footsteps heading West. He put a hand to his face. Exhaling sharply he opened his eyes. It wasn’t him. Shaking himself out of his daze he cloaked and rose to his feet. He turned the corner and looked at the ground. There was no time for this but he had to see. At the edge of his shoes oozed human goo. No time. He leaped over the puddle and ran faster than he thought he could.
Checkpoint 4, Block 13. People were running East. Trying to escape. Abe could see them scattering, trying to hide. Foolishness. There was no place to hide. Well except where he stood, of course. He had counted on this. His plan depended on it. Suits following targets in all directions. Occupied with hunting down the PLA. When his 15 seconds were up he was cloaked and back on the street.
Checkpoint 5, Block 4. Portland street was covered in liquid PLA. The stench caused his eyes to water. Bile in the back of his throat. Eyes on the prize. Only 3 minutes and 10 seconds away. He stood hidden behind a stack of chairs outside a cafe. Suits running. Abe coveted their speed. His speed implant was over 20 years old. It worked sporadically, and he’d learned not to rely on it. 5 more seconds and the real trouble began.
Launch Day. Those two words had been splattered all over the city as the day fast approached. Newspaper headlines, banners, posters in business windows. Farewell to our best and brightest, they said. Meaning what about those left below? The dingy and the dull?
Abe had watched his father work himself into a stupor. The man seemed hollow, a film of sadness covering his eyes. He’d seen all but the Steel Bridge disappear from the city’s silhouette. It would be the only one to stay, so the trains could still cross the river.
For the past several weeks Carly had lived two lives. While Dad was home she was as sweet and efficient as she’d ever been. She made dinner, did dishes, cleaned house, all before she was told to. But as soon as Dad left for work she started scheming. She had been hoarding things. There was a month’s supply of breakfast bars, protein powder, and vitamin-enhanced water in a duffel bag in the back of Abe’s closet. Carly had assured him that Dad wouldn’t find it there. Abe believed her, but wasn’t comforted. He saw how little attention their father paid to them these days. He put everything he had into building Portland Street and there was nothing left for them. So much for sticking together.
And now it was Launch Day. Abe took one last look around his room. He’d turned the curtain rod around in the holders so the comic book print was on the outside. He’d turned the bedspread over, so the giant S was buried and hid, smothered between the weight of the blanket and the sheets covered with sound effect words in jagged bubbles. He still had his bright red backpack, filled with a few changes of clothes and water and pills and food. It pulled heavily on his small shoulders and he tucked his thumbs underneath the straps to relieve the pressure.
Carly was waiting for him by the front door. She carried the duffel bag and had a backpack of her own slung over one shoulder. Her eyes were ringed with darkness, her hair pulled back tight into a braid. She tried to smile at Abe but it looked ghastly on her, stretching her pale taut skin and never reaching her tired sad eyes. Abe looked down at his feet.
Even though the launch ceremony didn’t begin for several hours, the trains were packed with people heading to the launch site. All of them left behind, standing elbow to elbow, not saying a word. Abe clutched his sister’s hand, but stood apart from her, back against a partition near the exit. He could just see the tips of the giant rockets, each with a bridge strapped to its back. They’d be welded together in orbit, joined into one long street, and placed in the grid of the world city. The whole thing was supposed to blast away from the planet and travel through space hopefully fast enough to clear the area before the giant asteroid hit. Nobody knew what would happen on the surface, though massive underground shelters were being constructed.
Dad was down there with the bridges, overseeing some final adjustments. When the time came he’d be standing with the design and build team while speeches were made and applause was given. They probably wouldn’t even say Dad designed it, Abe thought. His stomach roiled.
They met Zack at the platform. Abe gritted his teeth watching them kiss, Zack’s hands pawing his sister’s body. Zack was wild eyed with excitement. This was all about jacking the power, pissin’ in the mouth of authority, Zack said in his many tirades. Abe had witnessed him holding court in the park several times over the last few weeks. Abe hated him. It was becoming a familiar feeling. Abe hated everything these days.
Crouched underneath a flight of stairs Abe dug his finger tips into his arm to pull him into the now. He was ankle deep in PLA sludge on Block 2. The Suits had given them quite a beating, but more were still standing than he had imagined. Good for them. It was pointless, they would eventually lose, but it was an honorable way to go out. Fighting. Life, liberty and the pursuit, all that stuff. Under the watchful eye of the Portlandia statue, Abe broke into the concrete building before him with a stolen passkey and the retina of a man he knew briefly several years ago. Gus. A man’s man. No retro sweaters. No thick framed glasses. A working stiff in blue coveralls. Honorable. Was he a sucker? Certainly, Abe thought, but that made Gus no less honorable in his eyes. To his relief the retina hadn’t been damaged over time and the interior door slid open.
He took off his shoes and hid them behind a garbage can in the corner of the room. Walking quickly he headed to the far wall and down a short flight of stairs to the sub-basement. He pulled out his flashlight and MicroTap and set them on the floor. Staring at the vault his mouth broke into a full wide smile. Inside was more money than he had stolen in any other job previous, combined.
It took Abe one and a half minutes to break into the vault. Adrenaline pumping and hands shaking he looked at his watch. He was 30 seconds over. His jaw set faced with the truth that he would have to uncloak and hope that this didn’t trip the silent alarm. He stood in the corner of the vault and pressed the button. The time went by quicker now that he had something to distract him. That something being money, and lots of it. Suits would be here by now if he had tripped the alarm. Holding his breath momentarily he listened. Nothing. He moved quickly to the stacks of money and unfolded a duffel. Keeping an eye on the vault door, he moved the piles of red and green into the bag.
Satisfied that he had collected all he could carry, he zipped the bag and hoisted it over his shoulder. Cloaked again he closed the vault and locked everything back up the way he had found it. It took 30 seconds longer to re-arm the door. 30 seconds that he didn’t have to spare. It was a gamble. 20 years ago he would have just ran, believing that the way to win was to put as much distance between him and the bank as possible. Age had brought patience and planning to his life. It was worth the time to close up the vault. It was the difference between having to fight one Suit or a whole mess of Suits. If the interior door closed and the vault wasn’t properly secure, the alarm would sound, and not the preferable silent one. The alarm set off would be the loud everyone-come-running-to-the-bank alarm. Bringing lights and sirens and laser guards that he didn’t have the time nor the flexibility to outmaneuver.
Abe hustled up the stairs and through the main floor of the bank. He had less than 30 seconds to put his shoes on and reach the door. 5 feet before the trash can he tripped. His head crashed on the marble floor, momentarily stunning him.
Zack led Carly and Abe behind the stages and the curtains for the launch ceremony and onto the massive work floor. Sparks were flying everywhere and Abe caught himself breathing in the smell. He forced himself to stop being a child and watched as Zack picked up a portable torch and face shield and headed down a corridor.
They climbed a ladder, going up several levels of scaffolding before Abe saw their destination. The Hawthorne Bridge had been the first bridge removed from the river, and Abe hardly recognized it now. The basic structure was still there, but along the length of the bridge on either side giant metal boxes were welded onto it, and out from it, and on top of each other. These were the places where people would live in space.
Zack led them down the bridge and into one of the boxes. It had a holes cut in the sheet metal where doors and windows would be placed during the build out.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Carly asked.
She sounded younger to Abe than she had in weeks, scared to finally be coming to the execution of her grand plan. Zack turned to her in the dark metal room and touched her cheek.
“Don’t you worry,” he smiled confidently. “It’s foolproof.”
Zack walked over to a corner of the room and started setting up the torch.
“It’s simple,” he said. “On the other side of this panel is a little crawl space. Just big enough for the three of us lay down. It’s completely sealed. I got plenty of oxygen tanks. We’ll knock ourselves out with the meds, strap ourselves in and when we wake up we’ll be in space.”
“Won’t it be hot during launch? And in space, it’s freezing right?” Carly asked. “How is this metal going to protect us?”
“Did you do your homework, smart girl?” he said. “This whole thing will be insulated. They created this crazy foam their going to spray all over everything. We’ll be perfectly safe.”
“Where are the tanks? The meds?,” Carly said.
An impatient look crossed Zack’s face and he scowled at Carly.
“Look, chickadee, I got it all under control. Just sit your pretty ass down and let Zack handle it.”
Carly paced the room while Zack cut a hole in panel. She completed a circuit from the door to the window to Abe in the corner and back to the door.
“Someone’s coming,” she hissed, backing away from the door slowly. Abe stood. Zack cut the torch and lifted the face shield.
“That’s my man, Byron,” Zack said. “He’s going to seal us in, but he’s a few minutes early…”
Zack walked out the door, and Abe heard his footsteps echo. He counted 15 slow and steady strides. Then they stopped.
“Oh fuck,” Zack screamed. Then Abe heard two quick sharp sounds. Carly covered her mouth with her hands and looked wild eyed around the room, her gaze landing on the half open hole in the wall. She grabbed Abe’s shoulder and pushed him toward the hole.
“Quick,” Carly whispered. “Get in.”
Abe squeezed through the opening, his coat catching and ripping on the jagged edges of the hole. He turned and Carly passed him the torch and face shield. Abe set them aside and reached a hand toward her. It was dark and he could barely see her, but she was crying. He could hear that, and he saw her shake her head slightly and look toward the door of the little metal room.
And then she was gone. He heard her scream, heard her running, heard more shots fired. He saw a flashlight beam search the room and he scuttled back away from the rip in the metal through which he’d crawled.
“What do you think?” a deep male voice. “Prank? Sabotage?”
“No idea,” a second voice. “They didn’t do much damage, though. Let’s clean this up. Call the lead. Have him send someone back here to close up that hole.”
Abe heard grunts and imagined the men lifting the bodies of his sister and Zack and carrying them away. He listened to the sound of their heavy footsteps recede until there was silence. He wanted to curl up into a ball and cry, but he was not a baby. Instead he waited until his eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness and began to explore his little room.
The small space was long and narrow. He couldn’t stand up in it, and from a sitting position against the wall his hair scraped the rough metal ceiling. He felt around the edges of the space and discovered the coarse cloth of a bag of supplies, the round metal tanks he assumed to be the oxygen and long smooth straps with buckles on the ends that seemed to be bolted to the wall. Rummaging through the bags of supplies he found water and food and a small bag of pills that looked different from the supplements his sister had packed. Sleep, thought Abe.
No. Not sleep. Focus.
That’s all it took. His time was up. Uncloak or die. 3 seconds to decide. He punched the button on his wrist. 15 seconds. Struggling with his shoes. Adjusting his bag. 5 seconds. He got to his feet, finger hovering over the button.
“No thorns in the Rose City.” said a voice from the shadows.
© 2011 Heather Ohana and Laura Bromley
Filed under: 2011 Sledgehammer |