90 Deg. 5 H II – I

At the top of the stacks the air seemed slightly less salty. The pods were larger and cleaner. You got used to the way they swayed. People hanged themselves less. The briefcase, now empty, sat in a corner. The bank had been understandably sceptical, but the man on the other side of the glass had, with the kind of calm only a person who is used to dealing with significant sums of money can, looked over the card inside the case and made a call. He spoke perhaps three sentences interspersed between a brief series of contemplative noises and affirmatives. Then the man on the other side of the glass had smiled, nodded, and processed the deposit and then asked if that would be all. Caleb had nodded, thanked him, and left.

Now he went over to the briefcase, picked it up, weighed it in his hand. He put the briefcase down, put the kettle on, went back to the briefcase, picked it up, looked at it. Plain black, leather, stippled finish, silver fittings, high quality, reassuring weight. The kettle finished boiling. He put the briefcase down again, want back to the kettle, made a cup of tea in an untarnished stainless-steel mug, and watched the steam rise. He set the mug on the desk, picked up the briefcase, put it on the desk, unlatched it, opened it. It was empty. Nothing but black velvet lining. He frowned to himself – what else had he expected? He sat drinking his tea, staring at the open briefcase, waiting for the metal voice to order him to get out. It didn’t happen.

He checked the news. Timber prices had risen. Construction costs had risen. Industrial accidents had risen. Healthcare costs had risen. Politician Lindsey Nettle was under scrutiny after being found having an affair with her secretary. Her husband had booked in ten separate interviews already. Pod prices had risen 25% in a year. Income had decreased 10% in real terms over a 2-year time period. Executive pay had increased 20% over the same time. Mass layoffs had increased competition in the job market and employers were employing new methods of candidate selection to deal with the increase in applications.  

There was a 13% increase in bodies washing up month on month. Landlords complained about taxes. Building contractors complained about regulations. A 5% increase in luxury pod building year-on-year, a 7% increase in student accommodation buildings year-on-year, a think piece on patent law, a dispute over toothpaste copyright.

Singer Timothy Maguire was found dead in a pod – the coroner confirmed it as a heroin overdose. His label’s spokesperson announced a limited edition run of commemorative hoodies. Actor Alan Hope was found disembowelled under the bridge on Cockle Street. The estate agents who owned the property rights to the street announced the erection of a low-cost memorial in his honour. 

MorningCorp’s security department had acquired an unknown amount of SoothingBio’s latest nerve agent, Mew Mew Fluffkins.

A man had written to Help Me Linda. He had a 1-2-1 on Sunday, and wanted to know what the best knife for slitting his employee’s throat was, and also how far the minimum acceptable distance and volume of arterial spray was? Did she have any advice on angles and technique?

Linda advised a blade between 12 and 18-inches, made of Damascus steel, and only ever above a four-figure price tag. Anything less would damage his trophy. She reassured him that the distance was not important, rather he should focus on enjoying the experience. Bonus points if he could later repurpose it as a teachable moment. That kind of thing was great for content metrics on InTiers. She did, however, specify that volume was important.

There was a networking event at the Norbert Petrovski building.

The clock on the wall told him it was ‘11:57’. He got up and went into the bathroom, examined himself in a mirror. Threw some water on his face. Walked out, examined himself in a full-length mirror. Then he closed the briefcase, picked it up, and headed for the door.

In the hallway every single door was open. This was, almost without exception, always the case. People came and went at all hours, but always left their doors conspicuously ajar when out. As he turned to close his own door, a woman in a navy crepe couture dress regarded him with an ill-concealed sneer as she strode past, clutching a new key card in one hand. He watched her walk to a door, tap the panel with the card, and open it. She bent down, shifted a small black wedge and straightened. She kicked the stop under the door and, turning, headed past him back towards the lobby.  

The Samuel Hackett station was an uninspiring heap of shabby tiled halls and cracked granite platforms, situated a few levels down from his pod. A sheet metal roof leaked filthy water onto the grime-smeared surfaces. The hollow central hall was still damp, despite the sun. His footsteps echoed dully in the bare clammy space. Above one of the entrance tunnels, a huge poster encouraged him to ‘remember the ant’. 

He arrived on platform three where a shuttle already waited. The imposing doors held ajar between metallic pings gave him a brief look at the packed crowd of grey manikins inside, before slamming shut with a noise that reverberated off the walls. He watched the huge machine grind its way out of the station leaving the broad steel spine of track stretching off to disappear around a curve. He waited. People slowly trickled onto the platform. The station announced a train cancellation. People swore and muttered to themselves.

The next shuttle, when it came, was a heavy storm grey steel goliath, all edges and angles. The front of the thing was a grim notched wedge somewhere between a blast door and a snowplough. The doors themselves could have better served a vault and the thick windows were covered in solid grates secured by heavy bolts. The double decker mass of metal growled into the platform on howling brakes and an engine that roared like it wanted the passengers to throw themselves in front of it. It imposed itself without apology on the spare expanse of cracked tiling, grime-coated strip lights, and graffiti scrawled train line maps.

The usual reedy voice crackled over the tannoy requesting people allow passengers off the train. The doors dragged themselves open with a dull groan. Everybody rushed the opening. A minor scrum manifested, shoulders cracked into sternums, elbows slammed into kidneys, insults snarled from passenger to passenger. Caleb shouldered his way forward until he was at the centre of the shuttle and then stood gripping the pole, hunched forward while the rest of the crowd shunted past him. He got off lucky with a couple of digs in the ribs. A man tripped on someone’s foot, almost kissed the surprised woman in front of him as he reached out to the pole for balance. He righted himself, mortified. People averted their eyes, suppressing laughter. He babbled out a stream of apology, she began to laugh it off, but someone pushed past followed close by another and she was shunted further back into the crowd with a squawk of indignation. The driver requested that people let passengers off the train. Somebody told the speaker to fuck off. Out of sight, someone wimpered.

Caleb stared between the commuters in front of him. Simon Hicks raised a shaped eyebrow at him from a curdled vomit background and asked if he were really going to the beach looking like that? A bikini-clad model pawed at him with a perfectly manicured hand. She also raised an eyebrow at Caleb.

The jostling subsided. The doors hammered shut, the dull noise rolled across their massed meat.  The familiar lurch, pressure on his arm as he leaned into someone beside him. A flat realisation that he could have climbed into a taxi from outside the pods. He could do that now. Old habits died hard. He wondered if Simon Hicks would question his physique from the back of a taxi chair. Silence in the shuttle, underwritten by the shrill scrape of metal wheels on metal tracks interspersed by the scream of brakes. He fixed his eyes on the collar of the man in front. The wrinkle of fabric. The stray hair on the back of the neck near the left shoulder. The familiar practice of losing yourself in strangers.

Then there was thin tinny blipping and whining. A song or video piping through a phone. The arrogant crassness of oblivious selfishness. Who was it? He couldn’t see. It sounded close. People nearby shifted in place. The train rolled on. They passed through two stations, people got on, nobody got off. The tinny music continued. As the train started to slow as it approached a third station, people shifted noticeably, someone was nervous, moving towards the doors ahead of time. Less need to fight through heaped shoulders. The brakes shrieked again, the train came to a sluggish stop. The doors heaved apart.

There was commotion. A grunt and a cry. The crowd jostled. Someone, a man yelled out for his phone. A second someone told him to fuck off. The first voice demanded it back. More jostling. A demand to get out of the way. Caleb craned his neck. Through the sea of heads, someone was battering their way through the crowd towards the door clutching a silver phone blaring tinny music. The second someone followed. A bizarre, stunted chase occurred. A third person grabbed at the phone snatcher; others grabbed at the phone owner. The owner yelled after the snatcher. The snatcher headbutted the person grasping his arm, ripped himself free of the crowd, sprang through the doors and onto the platform. He spun, triumphantly, held the phone aloft in the sunlight and grinned back into the shuttle. The owner tried to follow demanding the phone. People latched onto his shoulders. He struggled. An arm encircled his torso. He yelled to be let go. They ignored him. He shoved his way free of the hands and progressed to the door. Someone moved into his way, someone grabbed him around the neck. He gurgled out something, still struggling. The man on the platform chuckled, span and hurled the phone over the railings into the air. The owner redoubled his efforts to get out of the carriage. The phone arced upwards, a technojewel glinting through the air. The owner ripped the arm from around his throat, snarled something and started forwards. The person in front stood their ground. The phone began to descend. The doors chimed and rumbled closed. The owner made to move through the people. A dozen people grabbed at the owner and bodily dragged him back, screaming for his phone, into the carriage.  

As the train rolled out of the platform, the owner roared for people to get off him. They ignored him. He bucked and struggled, they clawed at him, latched onto any spare space like a ball of leeches. Eventually he subsided, exhausted and slumped under their weight. Silence resumed.

At station four the doors opened. The platform was empty. A woman moved towards the doors. Heads turned. Eyes followed. As she got within two strides of exiting the shuttle, she jerked to halt and yelled out in surprise. Someone had grabbed her by the bicep. She tore her arm out of their grip and pushed towards the door. People blocked the way. More hands snaked out of the crowd. She screamed, struggled. It played out the same way. Caleb moved slowly towards the doors. Eyes followed him. He kept his movements sluggish and calm.

The woman struggled, screamed. More people latched onto her. Caleb supressed a shudder. Wild eyed, she tore towards the doors, but the effort was futile. The phone owner lurched out of the crowd, “give me back my phone!” She twisted in place terror mixing with confusion. “Let me off!” he screamed into her face. She recoiled, screaming in turn, and flailed towards the exit. He closed a fist around a handful of hair and hauled. Sobbing, she was dragged back. She disappeared, still screaming, into a pile of stone-faced commuters. Something chimed. The doors groaned and slammed shut. Caleb could hear here sobbing from somewhere in the mass. The phone owner had also disappeared into the crowd. The shuttle rolled on. Silence resumed.

He took a long look through the dirty grated windows. The sun shone. The sea looked calm. The sky was clear. He slid past two people. Someone latched a claw around his wrist. He stiffened, inhaled. And caught it. He let it out slowly, forced himself to stay still, remain as calm as possible. The train rolled forwards. Past an industrial fabrication plant, a series of electrical pylons that arced off behind a tower, and a small commercial district. The claw slackened but did not let go.

The shuttle started to slow. Rustoak sprawled. The ophidian mating ball of track and bridge and underpass and arcade wrapped around itself in incomprehensible knots. It was a wonder anybody ever escaped. Cranes pivoted in the gaps. New platforms ascended as old platforms were stripped. The brakes screamed again. The shuttle started to slow. Caleb worked to keep his breathing steady. He needed to get the timing right, he needed to hold his nerve, or whoever was hanging onto his wrist would cause problems. The shuttle rolled into the station. People crowded the platform. The door ping sounded. They opened. People on the platform started to board. The crowded shuttle started to move to accommodate them. More jostling. The person gripping his wrist attempting tightened their grip as people shoved at them, but they were forced away and their grip slackened further. Caleb didn’t move, fought to remain where he was without moving. The crowd finished pushing in. Caleb sprang towards the doors.

There was havoc. The new passengers found themselves in between a slow idiot trying to get off at the last second, and a shuttle full of suddenly very agitated lunatics. He shouldered his way forward, ignored complaints. The new people moved. Someone grabbed at him, he batted the hand away, shoved a confused man to the side. Squawks of indignation followed him. Someone lurched out of the crowd into his path and reached for him. He threw both hands out, they staggered into a wall of onlookers. He was two steps away. Just a few people to get through.

The doors pinged. Someone grabbed his shoulder. Then another person, he flicked his head around. “Give me back my phone!” the owner bellowed at him; tears running down his face now. Caleb flung the briefcase at the gap in the doors, people dived out of the way as he twisted and came face to face with the woman who had tried to get off at the previous stop. She was also weeping. She grabbed a fist full of his shirt, “let me go!” she howled, dragging at him. He hurled himself towards the doors. Someone grabbed at his jacket. They started to grind closed. Hands clutched at him. He bellowed desperately at the opening. Jerked as someone else grabbed at his shoulder again. He twisted, let the bastard have his jacket, ripped his arm out of the sleeve and threw himself at the platform. The doors slammed into his torso winding him. A hand grabbed his arm. Someone new shoved the person trying to restrain him. They shrieked and let go of his arm. He ripped himself through the crowd onto the platform, staggered forwards into the wall and twisted. They didn’t follow. Someone was staring after him locked somewhere between rage and sorrow, while another ripped at the person who’d helped him. The doors slammed shut. Breathing hard, he watched the shuttle pull out of the platform. He watched it disappear and stared at the empty space after it had gone. Finally, the rumble of a new shuttle jerked him out of his stupor, and he transferred his gaze to the discarded briefcase.

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