Tuesday 23 December 2014

Tuesday Tease - Face/Mask by Gabriel Boutros

This week's Tuesday Tease is provided by Gabriel Boutros from his thriller 'Face/Mask'. Discover more below:

Click on image to buy from Amazon
by Gabriel Boutros


October 17, 2039:
When the time came Richard knew there would be a high probability of serious injury, not only to the Cons, but also to innocent by-standers. He’d told them he didn't want anybody to get hurt, and that, despite his big talk a few days earlier, he believed they should remain a non-violent movement.
But Suzanne had spoken to him quietly the night before in her kitchen. She held his hand and gazed into his eyes as she told him how proud she’d been when he’d spoken up at the last meeting. She was glad he understood that some pain was necessary, or else people wouldn’t react.

“The sheep,” she said, “will keep walking down the chute unless something scares them. Only then will they open their eyes and see where they’re headed.”

Richard didn’t respond. He knew that even scared sheep couldn’t stop themselves from going to slaughter, but he didn’t want to contradict her. She saw his hesitation and asked him if he was afraid, with a look that told him she would only accept one answer.

“Of course not,” he lied, looking down to avoid her searching gaze. “I just want to make sure I’m doing the right thing.”

“What else can we do, Richard? The public is so apathetic they can’t be shaken out of their torpor with clever slogans and colourful signs.”

She brushed the hair out of his eyes and bent her head to look into his face.

“Without some pain they’ll never see that the administration is run by militarists and elite industrialists who are happily enriching themselves while families are poisoned by the very air and water around them.”

Now Richard stood inside the library’s entrance, remembering her words, and smelling her perfume like she was still holding his hand. He watched as his fellow students trudged in and out of the building. Most carried small waist-packs containing their study discs and maybe some nutri-snacks under their slickers. He worried that somebody would wonder why his pack looked bulkier than everybody else’s. Surely nobody would expect him to be carrying an actual textbook around. But nobody gave him a second look.

In the street, in front of the RCMP station that was next door to the library, several patrol cars were parked. He watched as two Cons, their air-masks hanging from their belts, chatted amiably while they leaned against their cruisers. They were happy about something: one of them laughing out loud while squeezing his colleague’s arm, before they both strolled into the station.

Richard wanted to imagine that they were laughing about an arrest they’d made, maybe some innocent and harmless old man, but he couldn’t. It was easier to hate a faceless administration than it was two buddies sharing a laugh. Whatever passion he’d felt in Suzanne’s apartment had dissipated. This would have been easier for him if his heart was still full of anger, but there was no turning back.
He looked at the antique digital clock on the library wall: it was 9:45 AM. They’d told him to plant the bomb at 10 o’clock, five minutes before the planned detonation, to minimize the risk of discovery. But his heart was beating too rapidly, and he could feel the sweat pouring down his face. He was sure he’d faint if he had to wait much longer.

Nobody’s going to find it anyway, he told himself, as he placed the waist-pack behind a bench near an exterior wall. 

The detonation was set to expand outward, toward the police detachment, and not inward where the students were crowded into a tight space. Still, the chances of some of them being seriously injured, maybe even dying, were fairly high. 

He repeated to himself some of Suzanne’s arguments that he’d memorized as a mantra: All shortages are tools of the administration; hungry people must pay more for food; there’s always someone else to blame.

He took a deep breath and told himself that it had to be done. After this act of defiance the administration would have to take them seriously. And Suzanne would know that he was a real man.
He just hoped that nobody he knew would get hurt.

Chapter one

June 6, 2039
Nobody said a word. The people gathered as they did every weekday morning, starting at the corner nearest to his house, then in a line that snaked down the block to the next street. In a matter of minutes there were two hundred of them, their faces hidden behind the rubber and glass masks that kept them alive.

It was another orange alert. Eight straight days. Allen Janus couldn’t remember it ever being this bad.
He waited for the metro-bus, trying to ignore the cries of a baby in a plastic-covered basket carried by the woman behind him. Every time she slid her hand through the vent-slot to comfort the colicky child the basket jostled Janus, who stared up at the murky sky and thought of blue skies and open fields. His own plastic cover-all, zipped up to his neck, pinched him at the waist. It had begun fitting him quite snugly due to his sedentary lifestyle and the fact that exercise was not recommended for people over forty.

Janus sniffed at the heavy air out of habit. Odours couldn’t get through the administration-issue air-mask protecting him from the floating poisons that hung over the city. He regretted getting his hair cut so close over the weekend, leaving the back of his neck with little protection from the chafing caused by the mask’s rubber straps. He resisted a nagging desire to stick a finger underneath and rub his sore scalp. There would be no getting over the irritation until he got to work. 

The discomfort he felt was nothing compared to what would happen if his air-mask stopped functioning. He thought of the clean white gauze he’d placed into its filter that morning. By the time he got to work it would be shit-brown and need to be replaced. The orange-flashing signs above the exits of his office building reminded all employees to make sure the gauze in their mask-filters was regularly replaced.

He remembered a middle-management type named John something who hadn’t bothered to clean the filter for two days during an orange alert. On his way home on the metro-bus he began having difficulty breathing because no air was getting through. The old gauze had solidified, clogging the mask’s air passages. In a panic, he’d pulled his mask off and taken in great gulps of the toxic air.
He ended up dying on a gurney in the hallway of the Montreal Super-Hospital’s over-crowded emergency ward, his lungs full of puss from the infection that had rapidly spread through-out his body. All because he had ignored administration regulations that filter-gauze be replaced at least twice a day during orange alerts.

On red alert days there was no question about replacing gauze. Everyone simply stayed inside their sealed homes, filtered air piped in via the neighbourhood vacu-pumps. House-sized diesel generators were set up every three blocks as ready back-ups for the frequent power failures caused by the city’s crumbling infrastructure. All across North America, the most successful start-up businesses specialized in residential vacuum-sealants and industrial-sized generators, as the air in every urban center was often unbreathable. Green alerts were merely a memory from years gone by.
Janus thought of the spacious, five bedroom cottage that was home for him and his family. It was much larger than the humble farmhouse his parents had owned, but at least the soil there hadn’t been too toxic to grow real vegetables. Now his children read about fresh vegetables in history class.
Richard, the eldest, was constantly questioning how things had gotten so bad, looking for someone to blame with the wide-eyed zeal that was the privilege of all young men. Janus felt a mixture of pride and sadness at the idealism of his son, aware that it would surely die out as he grew older.
Janus’s thoughts turned, as they often did, to happier days spent on his parents’ farm, and of his older brother, Frank, with whom he’d shared a bedroom. They’d spent their summer days running through the fields, unaware that such a simple joy would be almost unknown to future generations. Frank had died from emphysema shortly after graduating from college, at a time when the mass-production of air-masks had not yet begun. A picture jumped into Janus’s mind: Frank in a hospital bed, under an oxygen tent, his young eyes showing fear and confusion over his inevitable fate.

So much for happier days, he told himself, trying to push his thoughts away from his brother’s death.
It was too late to avoid the wave of sadness that passed through him. This wasn’t something he wanted to think about while waiting in line to get on the metro-bus. Even behind the air-mask’s anonymity he worried that his emotions might be visible to the people around him. He cleared his throat and turned his thoughts back to the present.

He looked down the street and wondered if the metro-bus was ever going to show up. At this rate, he’d have to start leaving the house by six to get to work on time. Not that he slept much anyway; a wide yawn inside his mask confirmed his sleepy state. Still, there was little reason to stay awake these days: the Vid-bots mostly ran reruns of docu-dramas and reality shows, except for the 24-hour porn stations. Between the poisonous air and the strictures against large public gatherings hardly anybody went out any more. And it had been years since a book of any quality had been written.
Several people waiting in the queue looked like they too were ready to fall asleep. On more than one occasion he’d seen fellow riders sleep while standing; held up by the bodies that squeezed onto the metro-bus, barely getting sufficient oxygen into their lungs through the filters of their masks.
Janus occasionally made up for his own sleepless nights by grabbing a cat-nap at work, the only way he could get through the day in a job he found dull and unrewarding. He told people, those who bothered to inquire, that he was the head of a major municipal department. This was true, although purposely vague, and sounded impressive as long as nobody asked him to specify exactly what it meant.

What he did, and had been doing for over eight years, was head the Department of Municipal Infrastructure which monitored Montreal’s electrical grid. They made sure that traffic lights changed when they were supposed to, and that street lights came on each night when the sky dimmed.
Dimmed, Janus thought despondently. There was a time when night and day were easy to tell apart.
Now, according to administration-approved scientists, the toxins just beyond the atmosphere barely let any sunshine in during the day, and reflected light from the sun at night. The night sky was never quite black anymore, nor were the days particularly bright.

Janus didn’t believe the administration’s explanations. He’d read once that the glow in the night sky was caused by the constant burning of hydro-carbons at the uppermost level of the atmosphere. That burning never stopped, but was less obvious when the sun crept up past the horizon and took its place behind the clouds and swirls of dust that resided perpetually in the sky. But nobody talked about that other than those independent bloggers who still functioned on the net. The sky being permanently on fire was something that you didn’t bring up in casual conversation.

Turning his attention to his surroundings he noticed it had gotten quiet: the baby had fallen asleep inside its protective bubble. With the crying silenced, Janus could hear the cheerful twittering of the robins that once populated the trees in his neighbourhood. The recorded morning-song, played over speakers on every corner of the city, was the brainchild of Janus’s predecessor at Infrastructure. At the time it was a charming and welcome addition to people’s daily routine, an audible reminder of happier times. Now it was generally ignored. But the recordings played on every morning, one of the few city services that wasn’t constantly breaking down.

A soft, but growing, rumble could be heard over the fake chirping, and several people in the usually silent line began whispering nervously. He looked around, trying to see what was making the sound coming from behind a squat apartment building two blocks away.

After a few seconds he saw a multi-track approaching; it was the RCMP’s preferred vehicle for urban patrols. Several agents hung off the sides of the lumbering grey truck, holding small wooden bats in their free hands.

What the hell’re they up to? 

There was the sound of scuffling behind him, followed by a muffled yell. He turned and saw two people, their faces and shapes hidden under their protective clothing, pushing through the crowd and heading away from the multi-track. The sudden roar of the vehicle’s engines announced its acceleration toward the pair, and they burst away from the crowd, running frantically in the opposite direction. One of them slipped a package out from underneath his topcoat and threw it away as he rounded a corner.

Nobody tried to stop them, nor yelled out in their direction. As the multi-track approached the metro-bus line several people turned their heads instinctively, or averted their eyes. Janus, though, found his attention drawn to the nearest agent, hanging off the passenger door. The glass shield of his air-mask was mirrored, making it impossible to see the agent’s eyes, unlike the masks worn by civilians. Yet the man seemed to be staring right at Janus, who couldn’t pull his own eyes away. As the vehicle rumbled past their intersection, the agent’s mask remained fixed on Janus, who suddenly felt sweat soaking his shirt.

With the multi-track about 50 meters away the agent turned his head and pointed his bat toward the corner where the two runners had disappeared. The vehicle turned the corner; the slowly-fading sound of its engines indicated that the RCMP agents were getting a run for their money. Janus’s heart was beating rapidly. He was unsure why he’d felt compelled to stare at the agent, yet wondered why such a simple act should be so terrifying.

He took a deep breath and reassured himself that the RCMP had no interest in someone like him. It was obviously different for the poor bastards they were chasing. Perhaps they were criminals or radicals; maybe even enviro-terrorists. There had been reports that groups like that were becoming more active in town. He wondered what would happen when they were caught, never doubting that they would. Few people ever got away. 

The unexpected events had shaken him. In his youth nobody ever got chased down city streets by paramilitary squads. And middle-aged civil servants had little reason to fear being noticed by police. He thought of Richard’s adolescent idealism, and wondered if one day his son might become an activist, protesting against the administration’s policies and getting into trouble. He tried to protect his children from the harsh realities of their world, but this could no longer be done with a curious and opinionated 17-year old.

Irritated by what he’d just seen, he turned to say something to the woman with the basket, but then thought better of it. He had no way of knowing who she was, nor her opinion on any administration policies, so why risk any problems? Besides, the street cameras could make out faces even through the air-masks, and he didn’t want anybody at work questioning him about any conversations he might have had in the queue. 

There was some furtive whispering among the people in line, but this quickly died down. Soon, everything was back to normal. Some people coughed lightly or cleared their throats, and several, trying to behave casually, gently touched the timer on the coms in their ears. Janus did so as well. It was 8 AM. 

The metro-buses are getting later every day, he thought, pushing his thoughts into less dangerous territory. I wonder what the hold-up is. And just like that, he pushed the multi-track and the fate of the two runners into the deepest recesses of his mind. 

He tried to rub the sore spot on his neck through the mask’s rubber again, but it was hopeless. Technological advances should have resulted in smaller, lighter masks by now, but that wasn’t the case.

He remembered archival photos he’d seen of World War One soldiers wearing gas masks in the trenches. Over 120 years later the mask he wore was even bulkier. The administration distribution centre claimed there were many more things to be protected from than plain old mustard gas, so the masks had to be much larger. But Janus had never been convinced by this argument. Having to replace those gauze pads in the filter proved that technology wasn’t always advancing, that some things were becoming less sophisticated with time.

The rumble of an approaching metro-bus’s multiple engines drew his attention. He studied the six attached cars riding atop large rubber tires, as they rolled past him to the front of the line. Each car was powered by a diesel-electric hybrid engine in order to move the whole train more efficiently, although the technology hadn’t been updated for thirty years. 

Somehow, despite all the fears about the environment, electric motors hadn’t caught on. A cheap method of extracting oil from the tar sands had lessened dependence on foreign oil reserves, driving a boom in heavy industries in the late teens. The combustion engines that still dominated the world’s roads and airways were only marginally more efficient than those of a few decades earlier.
Along with everyone else, Janus shuffled to his right, closer to the vehicle’s front door.
Six cars, yet only one door to get on and one to get off. How’s that for modern efficiency?
The outside of the metro-bus showed the vehicle’s age, with large spots of rust competing with random patches of paint. Most of the windows sported cracks of varying sizes, not that it would matter to the passengers: nobody would chance taking off their air-masks inside the metro-bus.
Once he was up the three steps into the metro-bus a cold, electronic eye scanned his lapel pin to make sure his monthly transportation allowance was paid in full. As far as Janus knew nobody ever tried to cheat the eye, even if there was no security on the metro-bus. People knew it just wasn’t worth the trouble. 

He would stand for the duration of the trip, his car having been stripped of the twisted metal and torn vinyl that passed for seats on other metro-buses. Finding a spot where the crush of the crowd wasn’t overly painful he allowed his thoughts to drift along until he was lulled into a near-comatose state by the vehicle’s rocking motion, the rumbling of its engines and the heat of the bodies around him.
It occurred to him that reliance on general apathy was a fairly effective way to control a population. The military ran all police operations in the city, with the RCMP long ago evolving into the Re-Constituted Military Police. Tanks and multi-tracks like the one he’d seen that morning were a rare sight now, no longer stationed at every major intersection as they’d been when the American “advisers” had first been brought in, after the mini-nuke hit Quebec City in 2018.

At the time many people fought against the imposition of the draconian rules that were supposed to govern their lives in the name of collective security. The government ordered Canadian soldiers into the streets to battle citizens who were more concerned about their stolen freedoms than any terrorist threats.

But 21 years had passed since Quebec City and there were few true activists left. Like the two who’d been in the line that morning, he thought. Were they really activists, or just petty thieves? Maybe I’m projecting my feelings about how crappy everything is.

Janus couldn’t imagine the men and women around him, standing slumped under the weight of their air-masks, their fears and their redundant jobs, taking to the streets to protest terrible living conditions and their generally meaningless lives. His own method of surviving in this crumbling world was through borderline illegal distractions that he kept hidden from his family.

He wondered how many passengers had parents who’d fought and died in the urban riots that now seemed like ancient history. 

Imagine dying so that your children could have a life like this. Maybe they preferred dying than living in a decaying world. 

Janus’s rambling thoughts occupied his mind enough to keep him half-awake throughout the ride, until the metro-bus pulled up in front of the administration building where he worked. The squat, square building had once been a rich brick-red in colour, but now was orange-beige, not far different from the colour of the rusty fence that surrounded it.

Half of the passengers disembarked along with Janus, moving as a single slow wave toward the lone gate that would lead them to their jobs, inside the inner workings of the municipal government that was tasked to run, as best it could, their city.

Janus spent the day slumped behind the melamine desk in his office, sipping the tepid dishwater that passed for coffee and trying to ignore the constant hum of voices outside the thin walls that enclosed him. The barely functioning P-screen that was standard-issue municipal equipment struggled to keep up with the reports that were streamed to him. He sat in what had become his default position, resting his chin on the palm of one hand while tapping an impatient finger on the binder in front of him, waiting for the screen to change. Against the background of rolling green hills of an Ireland that existed only in fairy tales, a small clock-face flashed repeatedly.

Although the over-worked server ran at the speed of molasses, Janus eventually received the over-night reports of several major intersections that were clogged due to malfunctioning traffic lights. He pictured frustrated drivers trapped in the congestion and honking their horns. He doubted if anybody would ever get out of their cars to confront other drivers, though, at least not while the poison air hung low over the city.

The potential for damaging one’s mask in a road-side scuffle had cut the cases of road rage down to a fraction of what they were back in the teens. It was another example of how little there was to gain by putting up a fight or taking chances. Those who did were looked upon as extremists.

Some days, mixed in with the traffic updates, Janus also received reports about damage caused by enviro-activists: small groups of brave, or foolish, people who risked arrest to protest what was being done to the planet in the name of military and economic progress. He wouldn’t have been surprised if they were responsible for knocking out traffic lights, although so few of them worked properly nowadays there seemed little point to sabotaging any part of the city’s grid. There were no reports of arrests so far today, despite the chase he’d witnessed that morning.

Maybe the Mounties hadn’t gotten their man, he mused.

A faint ping brought Janus’s attention back to the screen which now displayed the Sector M site map, flashing yellow at several spots to indicate blown transformers. Once upon a time, Janus enjoyed telling his younger subordinates, blown transformers and melted switches were rare occurrences, and didn’t require two dozen repair crews to be out on the road around the clock.

Two decades earlier there had been an influx of refugees from the eastern half of the province after the attack on Quebec City. Combined with a high birth-rate among immigrants, the population of the Island of Montreal had grown to four million people, although the electrical grid was built for a city half that size. Little had been done since the late teens to upgrade the grid, resulting in frequent power failures and equipment breakdowns. Problems with any kind of electrical equipment on a public street came under the jurisdiction of Janus’s department.

He keyed in the codes on his screen to see which crews would be available next, and then sent them the co-ordinates of the trouble-spots. The men who joined these crews were among the most desperate of the city’s unemployed, taking a job that required them to work outdoors in all conditions, risking their health if not their lives. Eventually, even the best body-protection suits got infiltrated by long exposure to the toxic air, and the suits that the city could afford to buy were far from the best.

The crews were supplied with scooter-bikes that let them manoeuvre more easily in the traffic, quickly getting to the location of the problem and out again. The ones who lasted on the job learned to perform the necessary repairs in the shortest time possible, and usually within an hour any malfunctioning lights were up and running.

The Department received reports over the net, by e-message, and even on paper, and all problems were funnelled through Janus’s office via his antiquated processing apparatus. Day after day, the complaints came in, and day after day he had to make sure there were enough crews and functioning equipment to handle the latest breakdowns. Each day he sat behind his desk and the mind-numbing boredom of his work slowly ground him down. He supposed that being jobless and lining up at food banks was a worse fate, especially for a man with family responsibilities, but that didn’t make him feel any better.

His thoughts turned briefly to his family: his wife, Terry, their three boys and Uncle Joe. Richard and Francis, aged 17 and 16 respectively, were on the verge of becoming young men, with all the problems and complications that entailed. Their youngest son, Rollie, had lost a school year after spending six months in hospital due to recurring emphysema, the same disease that had taken Janus’s brother. The treatment he’d received had, for the most part, repaired the alveoli in his lungs, although the doctors had told Janus that the boy would always be at risk.

This Friday would be Rollie’s eighth birthday, a celebration Janus and Terry had feared they’d never see. They planned a party with all his school friends for that Saturday, an innocent distraction from the outside world that should have provided Janus with some pleasure. Instead he knew that, with Uncle Joe’s involvement, it was certain to cause him more than a little aggravation.

Janus allowed a sigh to escape his lips, grateful for the privacy that his office provided. He remembered his father frequently quoting some ancient playwright when faced with an unhappy truth: “Aye, there’s the rub,” his father would say ruefully.

Somehow good old Uncle Joe, Terry’s uncle to be exact, would find a way to take over this latest family occasion, as he did everything else that Janus’s family did. Aye, Joe was very much “the rub” in Janus’s life.

Giuseppe “Joe” Pizzi had been living with them for two years and was as warm and loving to Janus as he was to everyone else in the family. Barely five feet tall and with a fair-sized belly, he was seventy-three, but still healthy and active after a lifetime of physical work.

Back when he’d had hair it had been a light brown. That, and his clear blue eyes, indicated that his origins were from the northern part of Italy, just south of the border with Switzerland.

Terry’s father had died when she was five and his older brother, Giuseppe, had stepped in to help raise his “Principessa Teresa.” He never married, although there’d been the occasional whisper that he might propose to his brother’s widow, as he had clearly taken over the role of the man of the house. Such talk ended when Terry was 16, and her mother moved with the children to Montreal, where her own brothers operated a modest chain of clothing boutiques. 

Terry had recounted to Janus how her Uncle Joe cried when he’d accompanied her family to the airport, and how she felt like she was losing her father for a second time. When her own mother had died of lung cancer many years later she got it into her head that Joe could only be happy if he was reunited with his remaining family, all of whom had moved to Canada. For five years, every com-call and every e-message between Terry and her uncle included several pleas for him to join them in their spacious home.

He finally came to stay with them in August of ’37, selling the small piece of land he owned in northern Italy. That was after the third coup in a seven year span had installed yet another military regime in Rome. There was no reason why he should continue living under a permanent state of emergency rule, he told friends, when Teresa, “la preferita della mia famiglia,” was willing to sponsor his immigration to Canada. 

He’d imagined then that Canada was still America’s friendlier neighbour that Europeans had so long heard about. Well, too bad if we’re not as friendly as he’d expected, Janus found himself thinking after a few weeks.

He had honestly tried to make Joe feel welcome when he’d first arrived, but Joe’s constant paternalistic interference with every aspect of Janus and Terry’s life quickly soure.

Click here to buy Face/Mask from Amazon US / Amazon UK

No comments:

Post a Comment