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Unnamed Novel

This is the tip of a novel I am attempting to write. I'm not sure how many Canadian readers we have here at Oort-Cloud, but if you live in Toronto, the place names will mean something to you.

My aim is to focus more on my characters and on digital rights than on ray guns and spaceships. Feedback appreciated.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

-Chapter 1-

It’s three AM or so now, and quiet. I’m listening to the rhythmic scrape of a bent fan blade as it brushes air from somewhere to somewhere. My eyes are closed, light-bruised. My mind makes the room rotate, pushing me into the couch.

There comes a tired voice from one of the consoles.

“Ugh. Hey, Félix?”

“Yeah?” I say.

“Need a drink,” she says.

“Okay.”

I stand up, my eyes still closed. Open eyes.

I look into a sea of white plastic and recliners. Alice is somewhere on the other shore.

The floor is carpeted with cables. Generally, they’re lashed down and bundled with duct tape, but plenty of people trip anyway. We’ve been asking the school to clean this lab for a long time.

Other people have, anyway. I don’t bother. I like it, even. I couldn’t tell you why.

I navigate my way over to Alice’s right hand, which is waving around in the air as she sits in a recliner. Her left is typing furiously.

I catch hold of her wrist before it collides with me.

“Any requests?” I ask.

“Caffeinated,” she says, smiles. The sincerity of the smile is tempered by a wraparound monitor, which hides her eyes and the top of her head from view. I don’t mind too much.

She fumbles out two five dollar bills.

“Get yourself something, too.”

I take the money, and her hand returns to the arm of the recliner, the clatter of her keys increases in tempo.

The hallway outside is very, very quiet. Nearby lights dim themselves on as I move towards the Journalism lounge. It used to be Tuesday, I think.

It was Tuesday when I got here. Ten hours ago, maybe.
That explains some of the quiet.

The lounge is empty, for perhaps the first time in all my memories of it. Completely and utterly deserted. Tuesday doesn’t account for that, and I can’t think of any other reasons right now.

An old headache is waking up, aroused by the lights. It starts to swim upward, slowly. Coffee hasn’t helped.

The TV turns itself up a little as I pass in front of it.
News, naturally. In Mandarin. My Mandarin is crappy and I’m not taking it this year, now that I have the option.

An old, old Chinese businessman is being led away in handcuffs. Camera flashes glance off of his sweating head. The woman announcer says something about fraud, I think.

It’s nothing unusual and doesn’t deserve airtime, even at three in the morning. The bottom right-hand corner is a mess of watermarks-- not uncommon on old-blood network news. Recycled footage; The feeds and aggregators have moved on.

Slow day for the CBC, maybe. Night. Morning.

The machine is out of everything but cherry coffees, which I hate and Alice hates.

So I give it the two fives, and sigh when it pukes out two cans of Cherry Reflux Hot Cherry-Espresso Energy Drink. It chimes, which means that it’s now out of everything.

I pick up the cans and hold them for a minute, absently squishing and releasing the plastic.

I open mine on the way back to the lab, and I jump a little at how loud it sounds in an empty hallway. It’s warm by the time I reach the door. It smells vile.

“Here.”

“What’d you get?”

“Cherry Reflux,” I say.

“Ugh. Smells like shit.”

Journalists don’t mince words, we’re sure. We’ve been told, anyway. So we try not to, either; most of our conversations end up sounding like haiku. Because we really, really want to be journalists. We’re sure.
We’ve been told, anyway.

“The machine was out of everything else. Sorry,” I say, and, seeing her hand groping toward the latch on her monitor, I release it.

I’m greeted by a very tired pair of dark brown eyes. Alice’s lids stay closed for a little bit, and she slides herself to a sitting position. Her first blink is a little out of synch, the left eye following the right.

I move out of the way of her legs as they swing over the side of the recliner. She’s a small girl. Only the toes of her sneakers make contact with the linoleum.

I pass her the can, and she opens it while looking into the cable vineworks on the ground.

“How’d it go?” I ask.

“The final edit’s done, spelling and stuff. I like it, I think. We’ll get a text when somebody picks it up. Do you think anybody will?”

“I hope so.”

She rubs her face, looks up at me.

“If I have to touch a bowl of ramen in the next month, I’m going to run a warm bath and slit my wrists,” she says. “Assuming, of course, that I have enough money to pay my water bill.”

I laugh.

“Same here.”

“Oooh, suicide pact. Get another ten people in on this, and we’ll almost make the news!” She laughs.

A minute passes as we search for something to say. Her coffee pops and fizzes a little as it heats up, and I take a sip of mine.

Hateful. Overpoweringly sweet and artificial. And thick.

“There’s really no way to be sure that this isn’t cough syrup,” I say. “Other than waiting until we go blind.”

We both check to make sure our computers are in our pockets.

“Are you hungry?” She asks.

“Yes. Very.”

“Did you see anything in the lounge?”

“I think there was a pizza box.”

Alice smiles a very tired smile.

“Are you a gambling man, Mr. Pierrot?”
Snake eyes. Nothing but crumbs. Alice sits down heavily on the lounge’s battered couch.

“I had an odd dream last night,” I say.

She rolls her eyes.

“More dreams.”

“Well, if you’d prefer--”

“Go ahead,” she says.

I sit down on the couch next to her. The lounge’s TV counts hurricane deaths quietly, three-dimensional pie-graphs expanding within it like mushrooms.

“Well, have you seen 2001 before?”

“Er, I don’t think so,” she says.

“Kubrick, late 1960’s.” I hum the first strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

“No bells,” Alice says. She looks over at the on-the-ground footage of the hurricane, grabbed off of some stringer. Some stringer who can pay his rent now.

“Well anyways,” I say. “I had this dream, right?”

“Un,” says Alice.

“It was about a penny, eventually.”

“I liked pennies. I still have a few, you know. Is that illegal?” She asks.

“I have a bunch in a jar somewhere. I don’t know what the penalty is, but I think withholding obsolete currency is a felony or something.”

“What a joke. Everybody has at least one penny.” She sets her Cherry Reflux on the ground by her feet.

“There’s probably a lot of money just lying around, er, pennified.”

“Not taking my pennies,” she says through her lips, quietly. Her finger traces a spiral on the couch’s fuzzy arm.

A flash of blue and white from the TV catches the corner of my eye. Sovereigntists, angry about something. The small bits of French that I can see are obliterated by giant insect-like Chinese characters.

I know what the issue is, though.

Give us back our Premier! Referendum! Referendum, again!

You had your time, you dumb bastards. You had your chance, and the Plan didn’t work. Not for me, not for my friends or family, not even for you. Non.

“What happened to that penny?” Says Alice suddenly.

“Oh. It flipped.”

“All on its own?”

“Yeah,” I say.

More heat blackouts in California. In a supermarket aisle, a child dances in a puddle of melted ice cream. Characters scroll along slowly.

Alice’s eyes flick back and forth across the screen. She’s from Hong Kong, and speaks Cantonese and much more Mandarin than I do. Being bilingual is no great feat anymore. Especially in something as useless as French. Poor me.

“It was... really terrifying, actually,” I say. “Really, really loud.”

“I had a dream once like that. Inexplicably frightening, I mean.”

“Yeah?” I say.

She turns and looks at me, frowns.

“I just remembered it. I must have been... nine, ten, somewhere around there. We’d just moved here,” she says.

“I was in the kitchen, and no-one else was around. In my dream,” she says. “And I was holding, in both hands, this fish.”

“A fish,” I say.

“Yeah, a really big fish. A trout or something. It was dead,” she says. “I could feel its scales on my skin, and my arms started to itch. So I tried to put it down, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move.”

A commercial, in English, opens itself in a section of the TV. Some kind of cleaning product. Alice glances at it, then back to me.

“While I was trying to put it down, I looked into its eye. A dead yellow eye,” she says. “That’s when I woke up screaming.” A short pause. “I’ve never really told anyone about that. Stupid, eh?”

“No.”

After a few minutes, Newsworld switches from Mandarin to English. Alice waves up the volume.

--but first, some local news. The verdict is out, Toronto: the ferns are here to stay. Record-breaking temperatures and high humidity this fall have ensured that several species of temperate-climate--

“I like those ferns,” says Alice. “They make for beautiful alleys.” Her hand rubs her computer through her pocket.

“People get annoyed because they keep finding them in their basements.”

“They should be glad. There wasn’t any green left in this city before.”

We watch the beginnings of a report on Asian and Middle Eastern nuclear proliferation.

--committee has decided that it’s now two minutes to midnight, which is the closest that we’ve come to--

She waves the TV to sleep.

“I’m still hungry. Want to pick something up?” She says.
I agree. We gather our things, and the door hisses quietly behind us on the way out.

The city is blanketed in heat and the ground feels spongy under my exhausted feet. I light a cigarette and Alice makes a point of coughing.

We walk north on Yonge, looking for something fried and cheap. I am startled over and over by the silhouettes of ferns in alleyways and dark corners as they wave at me slowly from the shadows like thousands of hands.

Hello, I think, and chuckle nervously.

“What?” Says Alice.

“Nothing. Just tired.”

A subway passes underneath us loudly, producing a blast of mechanical air that punches up through the metal grating.

My computer beeps from my bag. I stop walking.

“Who is it?” Alice prepares a grin, and I take it out and open the mail.

“Registrar,” I sigh.

“Fuck.”

A homeless man points at me from the concrete porch of a pizzeria.

“Brother, you throw that out. You throw that phone out. S’dangerous,” he says. Orange neon reflects off of his skin, his face is shiny with sweat. He shifts his weight forward.

“Gives you cancer. Brain cancer!” He looks at me, makes a fist. “Tumour big as this,” he says.

I put the computer back in my pocket and he frowns.
“I’ll, er, throw it out tomorrow,” I say.

He looks at me accusingly.

“Fuck you, you dumb nigga,” he says and lies back on the concrete. His eyes follow us as we keep walking.

We pass a dollar store and a second pizzeria. A small amount of time passes in ambient silence.

“You have your heart set on anything in particular?” I ask.

“Mediterranean?” She offers.

“We just passed a kebab place like two minutes ago.”

“I don’t like it there.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t,” she says. “Can we look for one further up?”

“Fine.”

We keep walking and I say nothing. I think about my tuition, growing quietly heavier in a rack of servers somewhere.

“How’s Blaire?” Alice asks at length.

“I dunno, good? She seems happy, anyways. At least, I think she’s happy,” I say. “She’s got a boyfriend now. Kyle? Kevin? Something like that.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” I say, and hold the kebab shop’s door open for her. “I guess we were just drunk after all.”

Alice shrugs.

The air in the shop is compressed and hot and full of stale spice. The guy behind the counter is fiddling with a computer and talking loudly on a headset to someone in a language I don’t understand. The green formica tables shine with condensation. Alice orders us dinner.

At the table, she pulls out a tech magazine from her backpack. Mastering Microsoft Hotel™: 101 Ways To Make Subscription OS Work For You.

We eat in relative quiet. She looks at the magazine. Her eyes move back and forth across the same spot on the same page. I finish quickly and manage to spill hummus on myself.

My brain jumps at the prospect of something to do and I attack the hummus with a napkin until nothing is left of it. Alice still isn’t finished her meal, so I pick out minute details in the people in the room to pass the
time, practicing for when school starts.

The ruins of a gregarious man sits in the corner under the air conditioner. His cap is pulled down hard around his head, and the conditioner ruffles the greying hair that peeks out from under its brim. His face is creased from some mixture of cigarettes and alcohol and misery. Large sweat stains mark the underarms of his dark shirt.

A short, bespectacled Asian man in his late twenties or early thirties crumples the paper wrapper of his departed pita and opens a styrofoam food container. He contemplates whatever’s inside, then pushes the container away. He has an action-movie scar under one eye, and very long hair, which spills over the shoulders of his black Libertines T-shirt. He takes out a computer and an expensive-looking camera from his bag and puts a pair of headphones into his ears. I hear licks of tinny, fast rhythm guitar.

A young girl and a younger boy sit motionlessly, clasping each other’s hands. The girl is wearing a wraparound monitor. The boy is bowing his head. He’s speaking softly; I can’t hear what he’s saying.

“Félix?” Asks Alice. The man in the cap makes to leave.

“Yeah?”

“Come over?”

“Er, all right. If it’s not too much trouble, I mean.” I say. She puts down her magazine, pulls her glasses down the bridge of her nose and looks out over the frames at me, smiles with an eyebrow raised.

“Stop that,” she says. “It’s boring.”

Peering over her glasses is Alice’s new routine, and to me it still looks like a tic. I find watching her integrating it into her personality to be mildly distressing. I guess I don’t like to see people in the process of Mask Construction.

“Sorry.”

She rolls up the magazine, stuffs it back into her bag.

“I’m having trouble adjusting to my apartment after living in Rez,” she says.

I make commiseration noises, we pay, and we leave.

A detour onto Church. I blow sixty bucks on a pack of Gitanes at Mr. Tobacconist, and light one as we walk towards the subway.

“That’s really disgusting. It doesn’t even have a filter on it. Are you committed to becoming a statistic?” Says Alice.

I exaggerate a cough at the top of my lungs. She pouts and I laugh.

A leatherdaddy whistles in our direction from across the street. He looks about to say something when a MSO with a shaved head rounds the corner. The MSO’s rifle bounces noiselessly on his back.

The leatherdaddy turns and walks the other way.

Alice looks at the MSO as he continues on his beat. He’s wearing sunglasses. Conversations stop around him.

“They’re never going away, are they?” Alice asks.

“No,” I say. I look to the skyline, try to find the exact place where the CN Tower stood.

-Chapter 2-

We make our way underground. The light is yellow and loud compared to the night above us.

The gates to the subway proper are watched by another MSO. We nod to each other and we’re greenlighted through.

The subway smells like things happening. I feel less tired.

“I feel like I’m being watched all the time,” says Alice. “Jingjing and Chacha are embedded in all versions of Hotel after 4.0, did you know that?”

“No.”

“They’re part of the ‘Regional Options,’ and the administrator for the server region can enable or disable them. They’re enabled in China, obviously.”

“I hate them,” I say.

I’ve seen videos of Jingjing and Chacha. They sit on your desktop and watch what you watch and remind you of who they work for and what could happen to you. Cute totalitarianism turns my stomach.

“Me too. I guess Microsoft doesn’t. If you want to do business in China, you do China’s business.”

“Where’d you find all this out?” I ask.

“There’s buzz in the feeds, and it’s snowballed a little through left-leaning or digital rights-focused aggregators. People have been peeking around in the source.”

“Uh oh.”

“Arrests to follow, I’m sure.” The train slows, chimes. We make our way outside, past two more MSOs.

The apartment is a short walk away. It’s an old place, from the late eighties, maybe earlier. It’s been renovated and cleaned recently, and the plaster on the sides is white like a new sneaker. More ferns wave from the lawn and the entrance to the parkade.

I hold the door open for Alice. She leans close to the monitor on the wall.

“903. Alice Liu,” she says. Her name appears at the top of the screen, and the inner doors click open. We push through them and take the elevator-- the stairwell is locked unless there’s a fire.

The elevator is a hold-over from before the renovation, probably original to the building, so it’s almost forty years old. It’s surprisingly quiet, even with elevator music; early century minimal techno. The *ding* it makes as we reach our floor is made by an actual physical mechanism.

Alice’s apartment is white and empty and shockingly cold.
The lights bring themselves up as we enter. The right wall is almost entirely occupied by a window and immense expanses of yellow glass and black concrete swim outside in the heat and darkness. The ferns look like shadowed stubble on the sides of older buildings.

“How did you afford this?”

“Look around. See any furniture?” She snorts. “I sleep on an air mattress. My fridge is pretty much it for appliances, and I can barely afford to stock it most of the time.”

“It’s a nice room,” I say lamely. “There’s space.”

“Space there is,” she says. “All space, all the time.
Seriously, though, it’s not that bad. It’s kind of relaxing, really.”

“Easy to clean.” We snort.

“I’m sweaty and gross. I’m gonna take a shower,” she says. My brain infers a flash in her eyes that I’ll bet isn’t really there. “There’s beer in the fridge, if you want. Help yourself.”

She hurries back to her room, gathers a bundle of clothes up in her arms, shuttles them to the bathroom, and closes the door.

Six lonely Tsingtaos stand in a chubby green-glass
regiment in the fridge, accompanied by a jug of filtered water and two shriveled carrots.

I crack open a beer on the edge of the counter and flick the bent cap into the sink. I walk around the kitchen checking the cupboards, because I’m a JSchooler, a creep, or both. I find exactly two plates and some chopsticks, and nothing else.

Sweat dries on my skin. There’s a bowl of designer fruit sitting on the fake granite countertop.

Squeaches. What an embarrassing name. I’ve had them once before; I don’t remember them tasting any better than a regular peach. The stone is square too, which is kind of impressive.

I reach for a Squeach-- someone call PR for me, I’m gonna be rich-- and notice a halo of tiny brown flies above the bowl. All of the fruit is rotten. They’re still working on that one, evidently.

Pipes in the wall behind me groan and ping with waterweight. Alice’s shower is soft Rhythm & Sound pad static. I feel a sudden, sharp ache in the middle of my chest, which quickly subsides and leaves me a little more tired and a little more lonely.

Clyde. That was his name. Blaire met him at a concert. He plays in a band. Drums? Keys? I don’t remember. I pull out my computer and open Collide. I look for him, using myself and Blaire as reference points, and 20 as a rough age.

Here’s Clyde. His Collide profile, a band page, and a few LifeCast entries, his and Blaire’s. I thumb his profile. Born in 1997, which makes him 22, two years older than me. I was right; he’s a drummer.

I walk into the living room and sit down cross-legged on the parquet. Clyde’s a big white guy with a mop of straight hair and a chin-only beard. He likes band T-Shirts. Two taps of my thumb and I’ve seen him drunk.

Fucking stupid name. Sounds like a farm labourer. I put my computer back into my pocket and focus on my beer. The dull ache in my chest mixes with the sub-stomach nervous edge of coffee withdrawal. They precipitate into a frown.

Alice’s water pressure oscillates ever so slightly, the shower a gentle sine wave behind the bathroom door.
The landlines in this room were never removed, just painted over quickly. Dried globs of white latex cover the faceplates at random, half-filling the little skull-shaped jacks.

From my place on the floor I can see through a canyon of darkened skyscrapers to an enormous mudpit, the former site of the CN tower and the CBC building. Slowly, the RCG Future Tower is emerging from the muck, pushed upwards by the subterranean pressure of something like eight billion dollars. High-intensity floodlights reflect wetly off the ground.

I can see tiny work crews and machines moving around the pit, building. Work on the tower is pretty much constant, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If they ever finish it, the RCG Future Tower will be a city practically unto itself.

The blueprints were adapted and updated from an abandoned Japanese project, a huge fuck of a building called “Sky City 1000.” The 1000 stands for 1000 metres tall. Apparently, the Future Tower is shorter by around 50 metres, but otherwise, the design-- a massive, self-contained building with room for something like 100,000 people, is the same.

The stated plan is for the tower to eventually phase itself in as the world’s first functioning arcology, with living and working space, growing some of its own food, generating its own power, processing and recycling its own waste. I can’t help but to be somewhat impressed by the scale of it all, though I guess it should be noted that Bladerunner is pretty much my favourite movie of all time.

I’ve had a lot to pique my curiosity lately: now that Canada Needs 100 Million People, the government pork-barrels huge public works projects left, right, and centre. Couple that to the population boom, and things are starting to look like 1980s Japan.

I’m curious about where the money for the tower is coming from. China’s involved, of course, but the selection of corporations that are sponsoring the project is weird. Usually, it’s a steel company or something, and there are a couple of those, but this time, I’ve heard Xinhua’s name. Not just heard, actually-- apparently, Xinhua is the next-biggest sponsor, besides RCG, the Rogers Canwest Global Media Corporation.

That’s odd, or it strikes me as odd, anyway. Xinhua must be at least one of the top four biggest media companies in the world. It’s also still state-controlled, and before now I’ve never heard of it having anything to do with the world outside of China.

The shower stops abruptly. I hear little clapping footsteps in the tub, the jingle of the curtain rings as they slide along the rod. I take a swig of my beer, and watch two METROSEC helicopters circle the rooftops, running spotlight fingers across fire escapes and top-floor gardens like a white-glove test in an army barracks. Who are they looking for?

Alice steps out of the bathroom in a t-shirt and shorts, a towel over her arm. Black hair feathers out from her head in every direction.

“Any hits?” She asks.

“No dice,” I say. Her face drops.

“Crap,” she says. “What’s the average response time?”

“I think I varies from place to place, but I’ve only been published once, you know,” I say. “It goes from pretty much instant to upwards of a week, usually.”

“The suspense is going to kill me. If this drags on into school, I won’t be able to concentrate.”

“I hear you,” I say. She heads to the kitchen, grabs a Tsingtao and rummages in the drawers for a bottle opener. I hear a pop and a hiss, and another bottlecap is dropped into the sink.

She sits down beside me on the floor and draws her knees up against her chest.

“Whatcha looking at?” She asks.

“Helicopters,” I say. One of the choppers has disappeared.

“Lots to look at, then.”

“Yeah.” A short silence.

“What if we did all of that work for nothing?” She asks.

“At least we know the music scene now,” I say.

“Yeah, until it moves on next week.” Pause.

“It’s not a bad article," I say. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. The other chopper passes by the window, a few blocks away. “It’ll get noticed, sooner or later.”

“If it’s not buried by everything else. There’s so much shit out there. Have you ever just sat back and watched a raw feed go? Even for Toronto, it moves way too fast to read. That’s a lot of snow to look through to find one little article.”

“Plenty of people are paid good money to find stories like ours. Toronto is heating up,” I say. “People like the idea of Canada right now. The boom interests them.

“Hm,” she says. She holds the neck of her beer bottle and rolls the bottom back and forth across the floor.

“You remember the Acetones?” I ask.

“Er, yeah, I think so. They had the percussionist, right? The old guy?”

“That’s them. They’re releasing an album. Tomorrow, or today, I guess. Matt and I are covering the party-- you should come.”

“Can’t,” she smiles and looks out onto the city. “Dinner date-- some guy from elementary school, I Collided with him last week on the subway. It was weird, he was sitting right next to me. The last time we talked, I was too shy about my English to even try and put a real sentence together.”

“Aww,” I say. The ache spikes up, in the centre of my ribcage. “Cute. Sounds like more fun than trying to Gonzo this party with Matt.”

She frowns. “Matt’s a bad influence on you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you two together and sober at the same time.”

“This week was hot and I’m stressed out about school starting. And it's Wednesday. Wednesday is Inexplicably Wasted Day. It’s a tradition.”

She snorts. “Whatever,” she says, and looks over to me. “Don’t go too far out, okay?”

I grunt my assent and we finish our beers in a silence I can find no way to prolong.

The beer bottles are chucked in the sink and an air mattress is set up in the living room.

“’Night,” she says.

“’Night,” I say. She turns off the light. The darkness is mesozoic.

Nothing is more depressing

Nothing is more depressing than an empty vending machine in the middle of the night!

I really like this. The characters are engaging in their melancholy future world; the ferns bring global change into the story in an interesting way, and you have a great way of bringing the setting alive.

Good detail and some great descriptions, like "action-movie scar" and "The subway smells like things happening."

RCG's role seems very ominous. Looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Eager to see more

I enjoyed this quite a bit. I like the way you talk about the technological milieu, and your broad integration of China into Canadian culture. It's not too much of a stretch, especially for those of us who live in Toronto, but it's otherworldly to see it projected onto such a large scale. I also think you did really well with the conversation: it's natural sounding and just the right side of awkward. Very believable.

I'm curious about the MSO's.

Awesome

I dug it. Well written and interesting. I look foward to the next installment!

Back again

Ellipsis-

I just reread your piece, I really do like it. I enjoyed the tone of it, the wording and pacing made me feel it was late at night, and there was a definite but slight feeling of claustrophobia, or perhaps paranoia, not outright but just below the surface. Indeed, your descriptives were wonderful (mesozoic, etc), just great. Im am intrigued about the further inclusion of digital rights into the story, and look forward to your next installent. Cheers!

-alpha

Thanks! It's nice to see so

Thanks! It's nice to see so much positive feedback. Having an interested audience is good motivation, and for a procrastinator like me, motivation is worth its weight in gold.

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