Edition 10: That Blasts the Roots of Trees Is My Destroyer by David Halpert
Charlie is determined to breathe easy. He wants to create a new life for himself, away from the daily struggles. Information is always the key to power and everything has its price. A great piece of dystopian science fiction. SY
Charlie Glassman has $3.82 left in his tank. As a result he walks the streets with the same precision as a laser cutting a diamond. On quiet nights you can hear the distant echoes of large-scale industrial pumps all the way from Port Credit extracting oxygen from Lake Ontario, churning, grinding, set along the waterfront like the overgrown placentae of some botched laboratory experiment.
Tenement apartments hugging the Green Zone show their true colors in the sober light of day. Moss and climbing ferns hide the cracked foundations and graffiti courtesy of resident syndicates. Charlie’s disposable Sanyo reads yellow for this district, advising citizens to express caution when venturing out in broad daylight. Still he carries a small arsenal: his taser, his collapsible baton. He finds guns crude even in these disparate times and never ventures past curfew.
The sky is its own membrane, a hazy orange, veined with smoke. Charlie wipes a thin layer of grime off a pane of bulletproof Lucite. In the windowed glare of a William Sonoma he checks his mask is firmly clamped over his face for the third time since leaving his apartment, halting momentarily, but not before being threatened by the turbaned shop-owner, a sawed-off shotgun in his hands followed by a string of Hindi obscenities. The bastard even has the gall to step out his storefront before pressure equalizes. Charlie is suddenly blasted with a wall of cool air—try explaining that one to the Federal Reserve come tax time.
The metallic glint of an AirPur booth tempts Charlie approximately five blocks from border checkpoints, as the aroma of evergreen premium blend masks the ever-present smell of vinyl. His throat remains scratchy, dry from the synthetic air. The LED reads vacant and the blistering sun offers no reprieve. He guides a water spout into his mouth with just his tongue and takes a refreshing sip. Charlie scoops out the requisite change but decides against it even though he’s in the red. The booths—those of OxyGen, AirPur, and FreshTek—haven’t been refueled in months anyway. Unlike the stations, they’re just for show, venerable hunting grounds for those vulnerable and stupid enough to expose themselves like that.
Klaxons blare in the distance and are approaching quickly. Charlie ducks into the closest alley hiding behind a brimming dumpster before the Yellow Jackets spot him. Their sudden appearance brings his supply dangerously close to empty, burning more oxygen than he can muster. His breathing staggers. The sound of his EKG spiking is like his own personal swansong. He claws the walls to his destination, the back alley entrance of a dilapidated pawn shop.
Charlie knocks three times and a security camera whirs above, catching him in its sights.
“Password?” says a disembodied voice, just as synthetic as the oxygen Charlie breathes. He activates his intercom draining power fast and recites the Sh’ma hoping it’s enough to gain access. Several seconds pass. “Meet me at the front entrance.”
Illegitimi non carborundum! The words are spray-painted along water-stained brick and garbage rolls at his feet like tumbleweeds.
Charlie grips the barred storefront struggling to breathe. Newspapers along its windows read like Byzantine paintings, ancient and faded, blanketing the shop’s interior. Once Charlie’s buzzed in he stumbles to the main antechamber like a drunkard and the bald, Mediterranean-looking man’s face behind bulletproof glass turns to disgust, already regretting his decision.
“Please place any weapons you have into the chamber,” he commands. A steel box slides out. Charlie rips off his face mask the second the front door magnetizes and breathes in sweet, supple intakes of AirPur Classic just as the fluorescence above jump-start a migraine.
Charlie deposits his small arsenal into the box. The man wears a soiled wifebeater and torn fatigues but it’s the Fleur-de-Lis tattoo on his left forearm that catches his eye. Weren’t all the Legionnaire mercs killed in the Quebec City bombings?
“I’m here to see the Rebbe,” says Charlie. The man’s shoulders tense but he says nothing. He hands Charlie a numbered ticket and leads him into the store. The place smells of plaster and Brasso. His beat-up loafers scuff linoleum as he surveys the relics of a lost age: toys, musical instruments, vinyl records, sports equipment.
Charlie instinctively brings his mask to his face. As he proceeds into the basement, the hallway is redolent with the sickly aroma of flavored sheesha. It’s an unassuming venue, lit by a few hanging bulbs and, ironically of all things, Christmas lights. Booths of scarlet velour occupied by a robust cadre of patrons: gentiles, French ex-patriots, South Asian mercenaries, miscellaneous swindlers, and a few drunken refugees.
Coin-operated dispensaries siphon nitrous-oxide from inside the walls as the brave few partake in huffing heaps the anesthetic through archaic dental equipment. Otherwise they’re drinking, smoking. Charlie takes delight in their avarice. There are so few places to smoke freely nowadays. Charlie senses the watchful eyes gazing sullenly in his direction. He is out of place, unwanted and unwelcome. Customers halt mid-toke from their Syrian hoses just to mark his progress as he follows his guide deeper into the speakeasy. Along the upper part of the doorframe in front of him is a mezuzah, enough grounds to get its owner thrown in jail.
The Rebbe Holstrum would be a walking stereotype if he wasn’t suffering from advanced osteoporosis. His eagle nose and dark rabbinic garb are dead giveaways, however, the eye patch covering his right eye makes him stick out like a sore thumb. Rumor has it several AirPur “employees” removed it when he refused to give the location of their latest high-jacked shipment. Others say it was glaucoma, but the former sounds better for an up-and-coming don. How he’s managed to survive this long Charlie will never know. The escort frisks him for weapons as the Rebbe takes intermittent puffs of OxyGen Premium, a formula so pure any other person would keel over at the first intake.
“Forgive me for the precaution but you can never be too careful these days.” He offers Charlie a seat while the man stands guard behind the Rebbe. “What can I do for you my son?”
“I need to ask a favor of you, several in fact.”
“Is that so?” he says inquisitively, topping off his pipe. The Mediterranean man doesn’t even look at Charlie but stares blankly, eyes forward.
“How did you know where to find me?” He speaks frankly, directly.
“I was told so by a very reliable source.”
“The fact that you’re here only proves I should be more selective about who I allow into my inner circle.” The Rebbe remains silent after a few seconds. Charlie finds it odd he doesn’t question further. He’s more than mindful of the .9mm tucked in his escort’s backside and could easily coax it into the open but instead Holstrum plays it cool. Perhaps he doesn’t see Charlie as a threat.
“What is it you need?”
“Firstly, procurement papers inside the Green Zone. And I’ll need them within a week. I have money.” Charlie removes a roll of bills from his pocket.
“What makes you think I can get you these things so quickly?”
“It’s no secret a lot of money passes hands between elected officials and the private sector just to keep things in check. Your enterprise is no different when it comes to operations running smoothly and a steady stream of money pouring in.”
“And how do you know this?”
“You don’t spend ten years in the Department of Energy without learning a thing or two.”
“What else do you need?”
“Your best suit, the finer quality the better, but only as a loaner, as well as some petty cash. Once I’m done with the suit I’ll return it in excellent condition and pay back the loan eventually within a few months.” The Rebbe drums his fingers but there are two missing from his right hand. The hacked stumps just hang there every time his hand drops.
“And what do I get in return…besides the money?”
“Insider knowledge of AirPur’s operations: shipping routes, delivery schedules, how much, when, plus anything from their R&D department before it hits the market.”
Before answering, the Rebbe takes a long suckle of air from his oxygen mask. “I think I already have all those I need on the inside,” he says dismissively, waving his hand. Before he knows it Charlie is hoisted out of the Holstrum’s office by the hulking arms of his bodyguard.
“Wait, listen to me. You’re getting screwed. Money’s being taken right under your nose.”
“Stop,” he commands. The guard’s arms unclench, “What do you mean?”
Charlie cautiously slinks back into his chair, leaning close. “When I left the Department they’d just completed a battery of tests on a new prototype extractor that not only required less fuel to run but was also four times more energy efficient. All they needed was the green light from the Environment Minister to begin implementing them along the shoreline.”
“Our job is based on a simple premise, extraction costs money. Most MNCs have a hard time balancing their carbon offsets against just getting things done. The energy needed is compounded by the amount of fuel required to do the task. It’s a vicious cycle, expensive too. Nine times out of ten demand outweighs supply.”
The Rebbe coughs hoarsely. “So where am I getting screwed?’”
“It all comes down to one word: mark-up. My sources tell me construction finished six weeks ago for all plants along the Golden Horseshoe. And we’re not talking minor tweaks here. We’re talking serious overhaul, complete infrastructure revamp. Since then the Big Three’s been paying off the government to keep their mouths shut, not wanting to explain to their stakeholders the price of production has gone way down, otherwise costs would plummet.”
“Yeah, but nothing so crude. They call them ‘procurement licenses’, otherwise the Yellow Jackets would be on their asses in no time. One-hundred percent legal as far as the law is concerned, and whoever you’ve been paying under the table has been skimming profits for the past year. If my numbers are correct the losses on your part are…substantial. Otherwise they’d be producing more product without you ever realizing it.” Holstrum rubs his chin nervously, once again taking sporadic huffs of air. He can’t decide whether to trust Charlie or if it’s all part of an elaborate ploy.
“What proof do you have of this?”
“This,” says Charlie, reaching into his jacket. The guard takes a step forward believing Charlie to have a weapon but all he brandishes is a sheet of paper folded twice. He slides it towards the Rebbe, a photocopied spreadsheet with Department the Energy letterhead. “These numbers show energy outputs over the past five years. If you look closely up until three years everything remains relatively consistent, but from then on energy output levels drop off dramatically. That’s where you’re hurting the most, that’s where you’re getting screwed.”
The Rebbe appears betrayed the way he holds the gas mask to his chest, his face downcast. He’s a protector first but at heart he’s just like the rest of us, a salt-of-the-earth businessman trying to make ends meet. Without warning he swipes his arm across his Napoleonic desk knocking its contents over in a boisterous fit of rage. A bulb pops.
In darkness the Rebbe tells his unperturbed bodyguard, “Give the man whatever he wants,” and Charlie is soon escorted out of the establishment. Charlie, however, isn’t greedy, but lists his demands in explicit detail. Holstrum’s guard (who he comes to know as Julian) requisitions him a new watch, a full tank of bootlegged AirPur Classic, a new suit, a thousand dollars in small bills, and releases his weapons back to him.
Outside he waves to a passing mailman holstering a full load and a government-issue AK-47.
When Charlie quit his job, it was completely voluntary but didn’t come lightly. A risk, granted, but one he felt justified in making. How exciting was fact-checking government reports supposed to be anyway? He couldn’t complain though. He was surviving after all, and his private investment portfolio was outperforming every year. Should that mean he should suffer for one innocent, albeit misguided, mistake?
Charlie regrets, in hindsight, opting out of his condominium’s energy plan in exchange for the savings and exclusivity of a leading competitor. His premiums were substantially higher than what was being offered to him by OxyGen. At the time it seemed too good to pass up, even if it meant being the local pariah. Free gas mask, free installation, first three months free if he bought into a two-year contract. How could he lose?
The least it could’ve done was buy him some time.
Charlie, however, is a diligent hoarder and in the past five years of working for the Department of Energy he devoted ten percent of his paycheck to stockpiling reserves of air. Now his electricity’s gone, his water’s turned off, his rent is three weeks past due and he’s threatened with eviction.
In the end Charlie only blames himself.
The camping tent in his living room begins to take on womb-like attributes. With the aid of an ultraviolet light he rechecks to see there are no ruptures, no leaks in the ripstop nylon for air to escape through. Inside the tent are what little provisions he can spare: a sleeping bag, a small generator, a handcrank flashlight that doubles as a lantern, bottled water, a cache of non-perishables, and of course, his gas mask. He hasn’t showered in a week and the infrequent trips he does make to the filing station across the street is a matter of emptying his bowels.
He has to be careful though. Deprivation is an easy ticket to pulmonary edema, more suited for recreationalists and hotheaded denizens looking for an angry fix. On the flip side stick with OxyGen’s premium select for too long and you’re likely to get the Bends. In its place Charlie produces oxygen using a handcrank extractor from rainwater basins collected on the roof but it takes more joules than it’s worth. Most of the water is irradiated anyway.
One thing his lease stipulates is as long as he pays rent he gets his precious air. As a result Charlie now gnaws the foil off a government-rationed granola bar from inside a makeshift camping tent.
Then three days later it happens. His disposable cell rings inside his denim jeans. There is exactly seventeen prepaid minutes left. Their meeting couldn’t come fast enough.
“Listen to me carefully because I’m only going to say this once. Meet me on the corner of Bathurst and Dupont in one hour. Bring the suit but don’t wear it, as well as any other provisions you’ll need. You have one hour.” The monotonous voice on the other end of the line hangs up.
Sure enough there’s an eviction notice on his door when Charlie exits his apartment, taser at the ready. The elevator hasn’t worked in forever. Meanwhile the stairwell is so clogged with garbage Charlie nearly slips on the final flight. A weather-beaten billboard across the street bears the face of a pudgy ten-year old child, reputably the founder’s grandson, enticing people to buy AirPur products. A BREATH OF FRESH AIR! it reads, his face is bullet-ridden like Napoleon to the Sphinx.
On Shabbat cars stupid enough to leave the Green Zone during daylight hours get stoned beyond repair by youth gangs and Semitic instigators. Any given Sunday you can walk outside (gas mask in tow) and see contrails from military jets in the sky, the whirr of BlueStrike helicopters darting overhead.
There’s always a war taking place on home soil, but when people speak of wars today they’re latently referring to the Oxygen Wars, the triumvirate monopolies whose laissez-faire greed and dogmatic business practices are all part of an effort to get a larger slice of the market share pie.
Charlie shakes the thought. He’s got bigger fish to fry.
It’s a balmy ninety degrees outside the streetcar but inside it feels more like triple digits, air quality non-existent. The fallout trade winds from Wichita still have another three days before reaching the city according to wire broadcasts, leaving Charlie less than two days to get inside their fortified walls. OxyGen’s flavored blend pumps through his mask with the light-fresh aroma of peppermint. The streetcar jostles to a halt at the next streetlight.
Between the windmilled spokes of a spray-painted Swastika Charlie watches a man being beaten, the resident Gestapo woodworking their daily routes. Most Strikers don’t even leave the safety and security of the Green Zone, not anymore. Occasionally, you’ll see the silver glint of their patrol cars at night but more often it’s just for show, to keep up appearances. They stage these demonstrations periodically in the hopes that a sympathetic kike will present themselves before they haul the victim—also a possible plant—into an unmarked van parked alongside the road.
With each menacing blow Charlie clutches his carry-on tighter. He lowers the temperature inside his mask to cool himself off but it does little to help. The streetcar rambles forward.
On the corner of Bathurst and Dupont Charlie looks horribly out of place. The streets are sparsely populated as the dusty winds pick up, giving the withered landscape a saffron tinge. He grips his taser tightly in his hands awaiting neighboring gangs to jump him and takes another nervous sip from his water pouch.
By then it is too late. His right knee meets the violent jab of a collapsible baton. His arms are quickly lassoed. He’s dragged into a nearby alley by two gloved hands as a fist makes contact with his cheek. Blood escapes his lips but it is quickly vacuumed into its own chamber. The mask, however, still holds firm.
The soles of his loafers drag rough against asphalt as the backdoors of a GMC van click open. Before Charlie has a chance to react, the white whale swallows him whole. As panic sets in faint recollections enter his mind: a black hood blanketing his face, the sound of a latch locking, cabin pressure equalizing. Instinct is rescinded as his wrists are bound with duct tape and his EKG spikes off the charts. Deep breaths ring harshly in his ear.
After ten minutes of driving the van comes to a halt, the cabin doors burst open. Gravity does most of the work as Charlie falls to the ground; the metallic thunk upon impact, slamming hard against the cement floor. His hood is removed. Unlike the elephantine countenance of a matte tube hanging from his face, his captors wear full-blown helmets with reflective visors attached.
The warehouse is a hollowed-out brick factory settled in a nearby ravine, far from civilization. Weeds and other plant life burst forth through minute cracks in the foundation. Steel rafters and aluminum siding above are spotted with corroded patches. He imagines the smell to be a mixture between sulfur and cat urine.
With one upward thrust Charlie’s right-hand assailant manages to jerk the air hose clear from its socket just above the air tank’s spigot. His throat and lungs suddenly experience the spastic convulsions of a rapidly deflating weather balloon. His legs fall slack with the fear of encroaching death and his sinuses explode like a breached shuttlecraft upon reentry.
Charlie struggles against an invisible enemy trying to secure the air hose back into its holster but he can’t reach it with his arms restrained. His body continues to twist and jeer, hoping against hope that death will be quick with a minimum of pain.
Seconds pass—minutes, eons—when he finally comes to. His vision is blurry, his gas mask is removed, and the motorized whir of a genny reaches his eardrums. Charlie relaxes. A man’s voice speaks.
“The cartels aren’t going to accept a smaller piece. If anything they’ll demand more. Now we can’t leverage as much as the unions but AirPur’s going to find it that much harder to push their product around all this bureaucratic red tape.”
“Well, we can’t hold onto this wait-and-see mentality much longer,” responds another man, older, gruffer. “The longer we wait the longer our investors sit on their own hands. It’s the perfect time to send them a message.”
“No, not just yet,” says a woman. Her voice is reminiscent of a time and place Charlie can’t quite put his finger on.
“Izzy?” he sputters, coughing.
He lays eyes on the speaking woman, lifting his head. The once ebony curls that reached down to her shoulders are now straight and bleached-blond. The dark pools that once shone brown in sunlight are now a light shade of Aryan blue. “Hello, Charlie.”
“Jesus Christ Izzy, you scared the shit out of me.”
“Sorry for the theatrics but it was the only way to ensure your capture. Untie him.” There are two men in the room. “This is Logan and Raj. They’ve been assigned to get you inside the Green Zone safe and sound.”
Logan heads behind the chair and cuts away the twine binding Charlie with a serrated butterfly knife. He is dark-skinned, hard-edged, like a well-carved slab of obsidian. His stained T-shirt is a size too small, barely containing the muscles within. As he passes, Charlie notices his ripped camouflage pants and a heavy vertical scar across his face. He’s seen combat, perhaps local. Raj, on the other hand, is lanky and uncoordinated in his white Nehru jacket. The fact that he’s half the size of Logan doesn’t help much either.
“Did Holstrum get what I wanted?” asks Charlie, kneading his recently-punched cheek.
“Almost, not quite,” begins Logan. “It seems the Immigration Minister has suspended new entrants until the fallout winds have passed, strictly a precautionary measure. Whenever a fresh one drops on the Mainland people are quick to react. For us that means tighter security, Strikers everywhere.”
“You know as well as I do that if the public gets even a whiff of fallout the Green Zone goes into lockdown.”
Izzy studies Charlie with what could only be described as subdued rapture. The black jumpsuit she wears is unzipped down to her navel revealing a Nike sports bra underneath. She removes her arms from the thing and lets the top section hang like a discarded snake skin.
“But you wouldn’t have gone to such lengths if you didn’t already have a plan,” continues Charlie.
Logan reaches into his pocket, tossing a thin piece of plastic about the size of a credit card.
“Are these authentic?”
“The Rebbe had his guys recheck your numbers personally, guys he could trust. They found there was some validity to what you were saying,” continues Izzy. “It’s simple really. Holstrum wants an inside man he can rely on.”
“You do realize posing as a Yellow Jacket is grounds for life in prison?”
“You’re saying it’s a suicide mission?” asks Logan. He bites into an engineered apple and the crunch unnerves everyone. The weight of the question hangs in the air, bringing the inside tension to a simmer.
“I’m saying it’s never been done,” answers Charlie.
“I wish to speak with Charlie alone,” Izzy says sharply. Raj and Logan eye her suspiciously but then hasten their way into the next room without a peep. The safe house is a rudimentary design, made up of bland stucco walls and low-grade linoleum that could be found in the backlots of ransacked Ikeas, fitting together perfectly like the parquet tiles of a dance floor.
“It’s good to see you Izzy but seriously, why are you here? Last I knew you were with the Underground in Cali.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Didn’t, saw your picture in The Chronicle during the Bakersfield riots.”
“Bakersfield,” she repeats, sighing, “The Underground’s gone soft in my opinion. Things are no better south of the border than they are here. Makes you wonder what the hell we were fighting for anyway.”
Charlie takes off his jacket, tossing it over the beat-up swivel chair. He sits back down fiddling with the forged access pass between his fingers.
The Rebbe is Izzy’s only local connection to the Underground and somehow he must’ve put two and two together. Holstrum’s influence spreads far and wide, and when Izzy caught wind of their sordid operation Charlie imagines she had no choice but to enlist. You never leave the Underground, not officially anyway, but in this case all she had to do was walk away.
“Seriously Chuck, what do you hope to get out of this?”
“What I want is to get inside the Green Zone by Monday afternoon. What I hope is that you’ll come with me.”
Izzy strolls to the other side of the room facing the wall. “Holstrum would never allow it. This trip was meant to be a one-way ticket,” she says, “They’d come after me, come after us.” Izzy cups her face into her hands, weeping, an onslaught of tears brought on by a sudden wash of memories. “I’m sorry I missed your parents’ funeral.”
Charlie shrugs it off, heading to the sink. He dowses his face with water and lets the cold wetness sink into his skin.
“I didn’t expect you to show. Besides it’s not like my parents were the only ones. A lot of people died that day.”
The Atonement bombings, he remembers them well. A systematic operation carried out on none other than the holiest days of the year, a hard and fast message sent to everyone willing to listen.
Charlie walks over and wraps his arms around Izzy’s waist, tenderly, lovingly. He spins her around, pushing back feelings of regret about how things got to the way they are: losing his job, the subsequent alcoholism, her later abandonment and the later depression. Charlie holds her head in his hands, their foreheads touch. He takes in her scent, how he missed the smell of her hair.
“You know I’d never let that happen. We’ll find a way. All right?”
Izzy nods sheepishly and they kiss. He only says this to reassure her. From there it’s an avalanche of emotion as Izzy tugs at his belt and Charlie pushes her jumpsuit down to her ankles. In the other room Logan sharpens his hunting knife while Raj prays towards Mecca.
The expanse is one of scorched earth. Charlie sifts his fingers through irradiated soil. Though his hands are covered in thick canary latex it’s the first real sensation he’s felt in a long time. The GMC van is parked out of sight. From an elevated embankment the four of them have a clear overview, crouched in bramble and rotted undergrowth. It’s been over an hour and not a single vehicle has passed through, though Logan is certain their schedules run like clockwork.
Each of them wears a government-issue HazMat suit. Izzy hands Charlie the binoculars, however the image is wonky from the plastic covering his face. His high-end satchel and pistol are always within arm’s reach. Raj meanwhile holds the EMP blaster at the ready while Logan scans the weeded highway through the scope of his sniper rifle, sitting pretty. He’s hot as hell. It’s a miracle if he doesn’t suffer from heat stroke before things really start to pick up.
Suddenly the low-level rumble of a Yellow Jacket truck presents itself even though it’s only a faint whisper upon the horizon. Nevertheless Raj takes aim. He only has one chance for this. If the vehicle wasn’t yellow, it’d blend perfectly with the freeway’s asphalt. He pulls the trigger as the vehicle comes fast on approach. Logan gauges his sights on the driver through the bulletproof windshield and waits. After a few seconds of Raj firing the engine sputters, bringing the truck to a stop.
The driver—donning the same—kicks open the door and inspects the front engine for damage, leaks. Logan lets one go in his right lung being careful not to hit the truck. The splintered cartridge eviscerates his insides but the thick fabric of the HazMat contains his viscera within. The shot rings out like an A-bomb in Charlie’s ears. Two more exit the carriage and Logan makes short work of them.
It’s go time.
The four scuttle down the hill towards the overpass, weapons in hand, hoping that the worst is over. Izzy takes point up front while Raj lays down his weapon replacing the truck’s battery with a fresh one. Logan lays waste to the remaining occupant in the cabin and gives Charlie the thumbs up. For the next five minutes Logan and Charlie toss corpses over the embankment, out of sight. On their way back for the driver several shots blast into the sky.
Izzy’s body lies still next to the driver’s, Raj’s pistol firmly clasped in his gloved hand. There’s nothing either of them could’ve done. Even so they take her body into the carriage, praying an injured officer will get them past security checkpoints faster.
Once cabin pressure equalizes Charlie removes her mask but it’s too late. He’s probably better off this way but can’t help thinking of the life they could’ve had, how he sacrificed everything to get to this point. The concrete walls that make up the Green Zone rise ten storeys before tapering off towards the roof, thick and daunting. Charlie overhears the intercom’s approval of the Strikers as the officer hands back Logan’s ID. The steel gates rise before them.
He doesn’t even care they’re well inside the Green Zone, the truck awash in artificial sunlight. Charlie numbly strips out of his HazMat to reveal an Armani suit underneath, readjusting his hair to look presentable. He kisses Izzy on her still-warm lips one last time and exits the vehicle, satchel in hand.
He takes a deep breath from the air around him but can’t help but cry, staggering to AirPur’s headquarters. There are no masks here, no oxygen turf wars. Its contrast unsettles him.
The lineups outside skyscrapers thin after one o’clock or so. Sirens, their sirens, echo along King Street as the canary truck speeds off down the avenue. Their part of the mission is over. Charlie moves forward.
Titanium airbrushes spurt decon particulates, dowsing Charlie from head to toe. After thirty seconds the green light signals the all clear and he enters the foyer. His hair is disheveled. The once pristine suit is now blotched with faint powdered spots. After a quick phone call from the front desk the on-call security guard hands him a visitor’s badge through a steel drawer. Charlie signs in, pinning the badge to his lapel. He continues towards the elevators but can’t shake get the image of Izzy’s body out of his mind.
No time for that. Got to think. Got to focus.
Mr. Chang is a tall man dressed in a navy blue jacket and cornflower blue tie. His office is unassuming and windowed, a picture of his wife and two children faces inward where he views them several times a day. He shakes Charlie’s hand, firm but not too firm, and sits down.
“So why do you want to work for AirPur?” asks Chang.
Charlie thinks back to how he ended up here: the public job boards in the district square, rerouting his IP address at the run-down cybercafé, his disposable cell; then he remembers how he was able to get within these walls: his deal with the Rebbe, the death of Izzy, the lies. Maybe they’d discover his true identity, but not today, not today.
Focusing back on Mr. Chang’s questions, Charlie is suddenly distracted by something in the distance. He tries to focus on the words but doesn’t hear all that comes out Chang’s mouth. A plume of heavy smoke trails into the sky. Even at such a distance it’s enough to render him awestruck.
Charlie’s deadpan stare soon becomes apparent. Chang looks over his shoulder and notices the pillar for himself, outside the Green Zone just beyond the urban farms. It’s enough to get the attention of city workers in the neighboring tower.
“Jesus Christ, not another effigy,” says Chang despairingly. “That’s the second one this week.”
Charlie knows them all too well: the riots, the Heils, the seething hatred. He thinks back to when he was a teenager—bootlegging second-hand oxygen from car tires and reselling them on the black market—when the media first reported them. The initial outcry was to stop the injustice of these incidents, when the air was thinning but well within tolerable limits. As time went on, however, the masks provided a safeguarded anonymity, a facelessness and power urban dwellers had never before experienced in their entire lives.
These demonstrations, now so mundane and commonplace, like the kerosene blazes of so many scorched synagogues and businesses to follow in their wake, are not suppressed. Eventually they extinguish themselves by the thrust of their own inertia, left to burn until finally they’re reduced to nothing more than a smoldering heap of embers. “Sometimes I wish the government would take them out, ya know? Get rid of them in one foul swoop.”
Chang’s sentiment doesn’t surprise Charlie. People love a good scapegoat. It’s the reason he changed his name, why he paid the mob to swap his genetic background and medical records with a fake, why thousands eventually fled to Europe, or Africa, or the U.S. Was he really going to throw away the best thing that ever happened to him only for his future AirPurians to discover they’d be working alongside a Schlemiel?
Charlie thinks not.
Loose lips, sink ships.
So Charlie keeps his closed.
Two days after the interview, checked-in at the local Marriott, Charlie meets his contact on the southwest corner of Bay and Bloor. He has little to report. They head underground into the abandoned subway tunnels beneath the city to where others like him hide out, the Underground. Though just as he heads down his disposable cell rings seconds before the reception cuts out.
It’s Mr. Chang.
He’s got the job.
The words No Mas! sprayed on dingy tiles beside him.
When he’s not working as a sales rep for a magazine publisher, David Halpert divides his time between writing science fiction shorts stories and working on his novel in the hopes of one day getting published. He currently lives in Toronto.