Darkness falls to compliment my bland, if bedraggled appearance. I blend with a new crowd who aren’t aware of my altercation across the way. Following them blindly, I know where they are headed. Ever since the free mass transit system was presented to us, ninety-nine percent of the population use it.
My shoulders slump into a defeated posture; it has a worn-in feel. Occasionally I use a paint-splashed wall for support. All the while I am orientating myself, using the larger, more recognisable landmarks as guides.
My displacement is proven by a spindly communications spire, weighted on every side with dishes. When facing the setting sun it should be on my left instead of my right. And a distant, fifty metre high statue of Chang, scoured by spotlights. Tellingly, Chang’s back is towards me. My usual route to and from work would never escape its disapproving gaze.
Perversely, I chuckle at the artistic license employed to present an obsequious rendition to the world. The real Chang is fat in real life. Fatter than me.
Evidently I have wandered a marathon’s route during my fugue; crossing the Khaolin River and drifting in a wide arc towards the Red Zone. I’m sincerely grateful to be waylaid before getting any closer to that particular bad-land.
I walk to the beat of a persistent internal re-education program. As each life-lesson is returned to me I begin to fully comprehend what a terrible, ugly place this is. Even the utopian-sounding gift of free transportation is soon stripped of its sheen.
The upshot is this: many years ago we; the workers; reached a state of poverty where transportation costs were impossible to meet, and the country almost ground to a halt. The Chang Government solved the problem by massively restructuring public transportation, and waiving all fees to access it.
Then, when we could no longer afford to own houses, an orgy of construction followed. Self-sufficient cities of thousands of identical accommodation blocks were built and split into regimented sectors. These slim high rise blocks, or ‘dominos’, as they came to be called, were set in concentric semi-circles around commercial districts that employed and fed us.
To consume our minimal free time, disposable 3D communications systems were issued. Addictive levelling games were created, calculated to inflame us with tiny rewards that barely equalled the cost of playing. For the truly mindless, violent reality shows catered to a variety of fetishes.
So thusly we were cleverly enslaved, without even realising it was happening. Instead of owning of our country, the country now owned us.
But, for all the charms of Socialism, people are Capitalists at heart. And greed will not be conquered if a service provider can make a net gain. Given the smallest amount of power, some people will always be more equal than others.
Therefore, the Quit Station; officially known as the CityWide Terminal, or the CWT, has a free ride in two categories. The first involves transacting a small bribe with certain guards who allow the person to jump the queue.
Penniless and late, I’ve got no choice but to take the second choice. Line up like the rest. Our transport is colloquially known as ‘crush buses’, for the good reason that the bus’ capacity is only restricted by the inventiveness of the passengers trying to get on.
The CWT is easy to find once you get somewhat nearer. It covers an entire city block with acres of parked and waiting buses. I feel my toxic element levels rise with every breath. A rising smog and steam haze vomits forth from colossal roof vents in the terminal’s roof.
The terminal itself is a gargantuan, open-ended warehouse. Buses crawl in, nose to tail, at one end, and roar out at speed from the other, in a continuous stream. Some bus routes need fast, light-armoured escorts to chase after. Several are overloaded to the point where desperados are hanging from the window sills, knowing their fingers risk being bashed by someone inside as they run the ‘gang-land gauntlet’. It happens regularly, whether to lighten the bus and gain speed, or for someone’s vicious amusement.
I feel nothing for the poor bastard left in that particular zone; I just make sure I’m not one of them.
Now that I am acceptably dressed, and behaving within the tolerable norms of strangeness, I receive my share of comradely jostling and elbowing. People jog past me to gain a few positions before joining the line’s end. I resist the urge to demand more from my exhausted body. My steps are measured, my collar popped and my eyes are down.
The line is long and moves at a snail’s pace. I bump my stomach against the rear-most person and in seconds I’m sandwiched from behind. The compacting bodies are good camouflage for someone with a bashed up face and hobbled walk, so I docilely shoulder a yoke of conformity.
To distract myself from the high probability of discovery and arrest when I enter this building, I spend some more time renewing memories. Each recollections glows brightly in my mind for a moment, as if it has just occurred. But, like deodorant sprayed over a shit-stained toilet bowl, the underlying taint quickly soon dulls each spark to a cinder.
I am entering the Quit portal and shove the awful, negative things away.
Vague signage is supposed to help us separate into the sectors we live in. Not that the final destination is ours to choose. The proximity card, or Pox-card as we call it; since having it doesn’t mean we want to talk about it; is in my pocket. Every man woman and child must carry one at all times. It holds my life and liberty in its code, and it will decide where I go. However, choosing the wrong sector gate from the start can get you noticed, and diverted to a small room to explain yourself.
And I’m rather keen to avoid an interrogation from a SPUD “masher”.
Praying my features will not flag a facial recognition scanner, I dive into my chosen lane and shut out the roar of conversation, the stink of exhaust, cigarettes and unwashed armpits. It is recommended one loosens ones-self up to accept the padded bars and hydraulic arms that shove and direct our bodies. I do so and allow the brutally efficient computerised sorting system to shuffle me through the guts of its labyrinth, coming close to a panic attack when the clicking, clattering and crashing of turnstiles and gates stops for ten full seconds. Then it reboots and starts again. We are run up and down single-file caged runs at the mercy of the machine until finally I am whacked in the kidney, and ejected into a crowded, designated waiting area.
The process is akin to being beaten by a bunch of twelve year olds. Not enough power to really hurt you but a constant battering nonetheless.
Yellow-coated, security are spread around the expansive shed. They stand over our heads, atop numbered plinths, and I assume by their obvious disinterest that they have not received a general alert. They like us to know we are being watched and one of the guards uses his gun sight camera to focus on an impressive cleavage. The woman is star struck and lifts her blouse which raises a few cheers from energetic youngsters. The nearest monitors splash the image around the shed.
I get a crick in my neck and miss the glimpse of those boobies to rub the knot of furiously. I hope the strip show will keep the attention off me for a few more minutes. The press of people in my area is ebbing and flowing more rapidly as we are herded forward from the pressure behind to fill each behemoth that approaches and departs.
They arrive, slightly staggered, across two lanes and do not stop for any reason. Reaching the front of the pack I go for the closest bus, performing a hazardous dance like a drunken monkey, but cross in front of another safely enough. This is permitted, but getting scooped up by the front mounted V-plough would see a guard using a gaff hook to drag you off to start again at the back of the line.
With an educational beating to boot.
The jostling on the slim safety island is intense and I barely lift my feet as people behind surge forward as a bus crawls by. We cram aboard through four sets of doors into an ancient Grotsvik. I have a brief second to check its steel plating instead of shatter-proof side glass, and see that the solid rubber tyres are mostly round.
Inside I inch towards the bus’ middle. Wrong positioning can make disembarking insanely difficult. It is standing room only, of course; seats were removed years ago to increase capacity. Surprisingly losses of life in the occasional crashes are minimal, isolated to the outer few layers of people, usually crushed by fellow travellers.
The trip is interminable, hot and smelly. The bus grinds and grumbles slowly across town with a familiarity that allows me to slip into a fitful, semi-doze. Ingrained routine lends confidence that I will wake at the correct time.
I resurface late. I should have been moving forward during the trip. I shout for the driver to stop and miraculously the bus does. Crowding is reduced by several stops so fortunately the ‘courtesy gap’ is easier to create. In punishment for the extra stop the driver closes the heavy hydraulic doors against my back, and the bus grumbles off.
I stumble forward, rubbing my elbows and butt, and blankly look upon the six foot tall letters on a pock-marked concrete wall in front of me. Darkness, graffiti, and the drift of garbage at its base conspire to obscure the words.
Gateways GA9 to GA11 - Road LL013.
Undeniably this where I reside.
More commonly referred to as 'an outer suburb of Hell'.