In The Slip preview


Loop 15.6

 Want is the greatest crime we ever commit against ourselves, I reckon. Which don’t mean I’m a tempo sceever, I ain’t saying choice is a problem. But you spend enough time in the slip, you get to thinking a certain way.

That’s the thing about jumping, see. You come to realize that the past ain’t so much different from the present, that people ain’t changed. The whole lot of ’em are no-good, money-grabbing, cheating, lying sceevers now, and they were no-good, money-grabbing, cheating, lying sceevers then. You get ’em all the way through the slip, pasttimewise and futuretimewise, same as you ever did before the slip was invented and folk like me called in to keep everything orderly.

Take this kid in front of me.

Dirty, scared, and rag-wearing. Lips wobbling likes he’s about to burst into tears. Yeah, this kid has a want, sure as silver. But that’s an easy call, on account of him being in the slip, right where he shouldn’t be, trying to change the future to his own benefit.

I see it, right enough. What most other operatives won’t account for is the fact that this kid had it all anyway, just thought he ought to have more. All the factors are there, if they bothered to look at his design:

Factor one: Symmetrical face. Factor two: Shoulders straight, legs long, torso wide. He stands at least one-ninety-eight, unnaturally tall. Factor three: His skin, pale like processed sugar, has just a few little lines across his forehead and around his eyes. Tasteful, expensive; giving him some character, showing he’s been lived in without giving away quite how long for.

But his eyes are the biggest tell. They’re yellow, and not yellow like he’s had work done, neither. Eye-dyes are too clean. His eyes are yellow with little flecks of silver and red. The kind of coloring that only comes from genetics. This kid’s had invit work done, and that don’t come cheap. Parents are probably patent holders to afford something like that for their fetus.

Kinda hard to have any sympathy for him, once you know that. Also makes him easy to spot, for all his tatty costumry.

“You better come quietly,” I tell him, knowing he won’t.

“What do you want with me, brother? I haven’t done anything wrong,” he whines in a shitty version of the local dialect, fire eyes dancing in his head as he tries to watch me and reach, surreptitious, for the bootleg Holo on his wrist. Idiot. His hand’s shaking so much he might as well have shouted his intentions.

“Sure. And yet here you are, somewhen you ain’t got no call to be, and here I am, and oh, look,” I make a show of looking at my official Holo, “Here’s something ’bout someone trying to alter who owns the dioxomorphinate patent. Diox, ain’t that the chemical they use to treat the water?”

We both know it is.

“Big business, that. Lots of capital.”

We both know that, too.

The kid’s made a mistake, sure enough, and now he’s dealing with a Company operative. Sweat’s beading on his pretty, pale invit skin, and his chest, for all its genetic superiority, is rising and falling in short bursts, his lungs struggling to fill. Pressure’s getting to him.

He tries to jump.

It’s over quick, him laying out on the sidewalk, bleeding some, clutching at his side, wheezing through his red-smeared teeth. He don’t try to stand, just blubbers that he ain’t done nothing wrong, that he’s on the side of right, that we’re all sceevers and criminals and the world just ain’t fair.

“That’s what they all say,” I tell him as I cuff him, fixing the bar in place that stops him from reaching the knock-off Holo on his wrist. “You ready to sign?”

Kid makes some kind of noise, which is good enough for me. Leastways, when I get the TnCs up from my Holo he gives it a good go at reading ’em. Lasts about five minutes before he accepts. He’s got no choice, but I gotta say I’m impressed he has a go at understanding ’em, ’specially given the state of him. Can’t send him back to the One True unless he’s processed right, which means until he signs he’s stuck in the past, the weight of time on him; leastways ’til the pressure pops him.

Admin done, I open the slip, ready to send him back futuretimewise for processing.

“It wouldn’t have worked,” I say, once I get confirmation from the Company that they’re ready for him. “Diox is one of the biggest patents they got. Why’d you bother, anyways? You got money, right?”

“Listen, brother,” the kid gasps, looking at me all soulful, eyes starting to bruise, as if I’m supposed to be shocked or angry or moved or something. “I forgive you. You don’t know any better. You’re just a cog in the machine.”

“Sure, kid.” I haul him up, shove him back into the future. “Ain’t we all?”

That’s the other thing about traveling in the slip. You learn pretty quick that nothing anyone does matters anyways.

 

 

The bar is God-awful.

Noisy, dark, sticky. Kind of place you don’t wanna touch with your bare skin, on account of all the people previous who’ve touched it with theirs. But this particular cog wants to stop turning for a spell. Wants to see its friend.

Besides, this bar ain’t the worst place I’ve been. That honor goes to a corporate meeting room in what was, at that point in the slip, the center of the world. Some nut thought she’d upset the salt routes, destabilize the region, negate the need for the Sino-Amek International Trade Duty Alliance, and with it the refueling bill that underscored the Arctic mining. Which, as it turns out, meant her company lost millions betting on the wrong horse, or, in this case, the wrong mine.

Same, same, same, sure as silver, alltimewise.

I scan the bar for Lois. I ain’t sure she’ll be here, but I like to take the chance when I can. And then my whole slip, the whole damn spaghetti mess of it, turns on itself.

Lois ain’t here, but someone is. Someone I… someone I know, I reckon. Familiar. A man, sitting at the bar in the spot I was hoping to find Lois, nursing a beer.

He’s got Latin heritage, hair black as midnight from a time when the night was allowed to be such, falling against skin golden and dark as wet sand. Sitting there, frowning at nothing, shoulders forward. A sense that he ain’t really where he wants to be, like a tourist come to the wrong part of town but trying to fit in anyway. But then, I ain’t exactly one to talk on that count.

I ain’t never seen this guy before, I’d swear to it, but I recognize him in a way that hits you physical before your brain can even register the thought, like a memory built into your bones.

This ain’t right.

There ain’t no way I know this guy, so why do I feel sick with nerves all of a sudden? Has something gone wrong with the slip? It happens. Things get turned around, people turning up where they shouldn’t, an aberration somewhen changing their course.

But that can’t be right, on account of the fact I should know where I met him. Shit. Is there something wrong with me? Did that tempo kid do something to me?

The pressure’s getting to me, sending me screwy. Must be. I grab the tub of chloros from my pocket, pop a pill, try to think over the pain in my temples. Least there’s one problem I can always solve.

There… that’s it. Warmth building in my joints, working its way to my aching skull.

OK.

Breathe in and out.

Gather the factors, look for the want. 

Factor one: There’s nothing about this guy that marks him as being in the wrong part of the slip – he’s the right height and build, presenttimewise. No invit work I can see from here, though that tends to be harder to spot from a distance.

Factor two: He’s turned out nice for such a shitty place, wearing a pair of light pants and a button-up with long sleeves, tie loose around his neck, and the cut and material of the suit fit the time.

Factor three: There’s a scar on his lip, running down to his chin; but being mussed up ain’t a crime.

Factor four: No obvious tech on him, but Holos can be hidden. Hell, they can be removed if you’re good enough with a knife and the wires and don’t mind pain over much.

Factor five: He’s nervous, his big, soft body curled over his beer, fingertips whitening on the glass.

Want: He’s waiting on someone – a date, maybe?

That would explain why he’s dolled up so fine, but it don’t explain the vibe I’m getting from him. The knot in my stomach could some kind of sympathetic reaction – that’s a thing I’ve read about, sure enough – but it don’t chime right. My Holo ain’t got much to offer. It seems a bit confused, lights blinking all over the place like it’s having trouble fixing on me, but that’s probably nothing. The damn thing is connected to my chip, so there ain’t that much can go wrong with it. Roll my sleeve down to cover it, stand, think.

Best thing is to get back to the One True. Get checked over by the white coats. Hah. Get some sleep, have a few days off the chloros, get refreshed, clear out my head. God knows how many slips I’ve got rattling ’round.

Factor six… Could be I’m hording timelines? I’ll have seen someone like him in in another slip and now I’m getting it all sideways. It happens sometimes, even with the chloros. If ain’t the pressure that gets ya, it’s the loose memories; hence why the Company cleans us out every so often, wipes us down and gets us shiny again. Stupid not to have thought of that sooner. In which case, I can have a beer, unwind in the dark and the dirt before heading back.

Besides, if I’m up next to him I can check him out for invit work. I’ll stay a spell, one beer, and then head back. If my Holo pipes up that something’s wrong, I’ll haul ass. The Company won’t even know I was here if I’m quick in the slip, and I’m always quick in the slip.

I walk up to the bar, sit down next to the man, confident, order a beer. Robot brings me my drink, takes my currency, and wobbles off to the back of the bar. Can’t see anything unusual about the man. No signs of invit, but it’s hard to tell properly, peering at him surreptitious.

Turn on my stool to fix him dead in the eyes – brown, like mine, but his are flecked with spots of amber. Invit or real? Hard to say, the color ain’t wild like invit tends to be. Lucky boy if they’re real.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I say in Bay Korean.

“Hello. I fine. Am fine. Me,” he replies, his accent untidy but still sounding, somehow, familiar. The inflection maybe. His BayKay, however, is shocking bad. I switch to CenSpan, a good catchall tongue for most places in the slip since the Fracture.

“We’ve met before, I think? I can’t recall your name…”

There’s a flicker of something in his expression, something odd I can’t place, ’cept to say it makes me feel like I made the right choice to check him out. He drops his gaze, hands tighten on his beer, lower lip pulls against his teeth. Then he faces up to me again.

“It’s Joe. Joe Crain.”

He looks like a Joe, seems like a Joe. What the fuck? Who cares what he’s called? Calm down. Focus on the factors.

“Right, yeah. I’m no good at names,” I say. “Saw you sitting here, thought I’d say hi.”

Joe smiles, but he don’t look at all happy to see me. Ruining his date, or ruining his plans for the slip? He don’t speak the local good, but that could be a failing of his education rather than an indicator he ain’t from the presenttime. Sip my beer, play it easy. Hah. Remember I’m a cog. Just keep turning. Find the want, solve the problem.

“Hey, did you, uh… did you…” I shake my brains up, searching for a piece of news from this part of the slip, something to converse over. But all I can think of is the sceever tempo kid. Can’t talk about him. Shit. Joe’s watching me, frowning, no doubt thinking who’s this idiot man talking to me, which ain’t an unfair thing to be thinking. If only I could check my Holo for a Joe Crain, but I can’t, not now he’s watching me.

Ahhhh! I got it, a case I worked on, pasttimewise – presentimewise, for Joe.

“…did you hear about that research company, the one that just bought the university debt from Barnes Int? Heard they own almost all the science debt now, ain’t that something?”

He makes a face like he’s eating something rotten. “Everything’s for sale, nowadays.”

“‘Sure as silver, good as gold, debt and profit never gets old’. That’s what they say, ain’t it?”

“There’s a saying for everything, I guess.” He stands. “Anyway, I've got to go. Good to see you-”

“Kong! Uh. Kong. My name.”

He looks me up and down, frowning. “You don’t sound, uh, local?”

“No one’s from anywhere, where I’m from. But I got some Chinese in my blood,” I explain, though the reason ain’t so clear to me why. “A few gen back on my Pop’s side.”

“Well… it was, is, nice to meet you, Kong. Maybe we’ll meet again some time.”

“In actual fact, my first name’s King. Kong’s my family name. My Pop’s idea. It’s supposed to be funny. Stupid.”

What am I saying all this for?

“Really?” Joe asks, pausing in his escape.  There’s something in his face that weren’t there a moment before. And then he bursts out laughing. “So, you’re telling me your actual name is King Kong?”

OK. Good. He was wanting to leave and I got him staying. Roll with the slip. Two seconds is two seconds long enough. I make my face into an expression that feels like it could be the very dictionary definition of encouragement. “Well, I usually say it the Sino way: Kong King. But yeah, that’s me. It’s a stupid name, don’t you think?”

“No, no. It’s… unique. I’m happy you told me that, Kong. God – sorry, yes. It’s just…”

He don’t finish whatever it was he was saying, he just bursts out laughing. I don’t think he’s laughing at me, though I ain’t got a clue what else it might be. And, to speak plain, I don’t care if he is laughing at me.

It’s a stupid name I got landed with, I know that. But it’s the one I got and for some reason I’ve always been partial to it, ain’t never looked into buying a new one. Like it does for Joe, it strikes me somehow as being funny, and I guess that’s why I kept it, that and the fact it’s mine, mine since I was born, it weren’t sold to me nor did it come with the job. And it seems right, somehow, that this thing that is mine, my name, is the very same thing that put a spark into Joe’s amber flecked eyes and has him sitting back down on his seat.

“Your Pop sounds like an ass,” he says. “Do you… how can I ask this… do you get on with him?”

“He had a sharp sense of humor on him, that’s a fact. But he was my Pop and you gotta love family.”

His laughter dies away, which I’m guessing is on account of the fact he’s clocked that Pop’s done the same – died, I mean, not stopped laughing.

Joe don’t say nothing on it, though. Instead, he asks, “What’s your business, Kong?”

“Ah, well, see… I’m a… a…”

I get ready to tell Joe the same lie I told Lois when she first asked me what I do, but somehow it don’t feel as easy on my tongue as it did with her. Dunno. Just, I got a sense he’ll know it ain’t the truth and he’ll hate me for it, and that don’t sit right.

Take a mouthful of my beer.

Am I gonna go all the way with him? I wanna check my Holo, see if anything’s come on the wave, but that really would be a step too far, somewhere crowded like this, in front of a native.

“Kong?” Joe asks.

What harm can it do to tell him? Besides, there has to be something wrong with my timelines. Yeah. That’s the only way to explain this sense that I’ve met him before, that we already know each other. In which case, the Company will clean me up and this conversation won’t ever have happened anyway.

“I’m a cop,” I say, sitting myself up on the bar stool, making myself look all real and solid. “Pretty important one, too.”

“A cop, huh? Do you have a badge?”

Madness for a moment as I consider showing him my Holo, the very thing I just ruled out doing on accident. What’s wrong with me, presentimewise?

“Nah, ain’t got a badge. I guess… well, ‘cop’ may be too, uh, too simple a term. There ain’t no police where I’m from. Not as you’d recognize ’em, anyway. I’m from the future, see. It’s my job to come back in time and catch temporal terrorists.”

“I see,” he replies, stretching out the ‘ee’ like he’s sucking spaghetti. “I have to say, I didn’t expect to meet a time traveling cop in a shitty bar like this.”

He thinks I’m joking. Probably that’s luck, him not taking me so serious. Then something changes in the way he’s looking at me. His smile shifts, his grin taking on a sharpness that ain’t aggressive, not as such, but sure as hell ain’t friendly, neither.

“And am I on your hit list, then? Is that why you came over to me? Am I in trouble, officer?”

“Maybe you are, maybe you ain’t.”

“Are you worried I’m going to do some temporal terrorism?”

“Who knows what you might do?”

“Who, indeed?” He winks at me – the Goddamn man winks at me. Then, cool as you like, as if nothing just passed between us, he returns his attention to his beer.

“So then, what’s the future like?”

“What’s it like… Well… See… It’s….”

I look around, taking in the factors, presenttimewise:

…Two women playing pool, laughing with each other and not seeming to mind that they ain’t looking their best. Cheap teasers on the wall, some of them not even really selling nothing, just letting folks know there’s a neighborhood band here in a couple of weeks’ time. Robot working the bar is behind the current trend, but it’s doing well enough, serving up beers, whirling and clunking away in a restful manner. Dirty walls, the paint scuffed up from God knows what. Musak playing out of hidden speakers, some of it with real voices doing the singing. The bar, sticky with old beer, has writing scratched into it: mff loves ffm.

Factor: It’s a shit-hole in need of upgrading, lived in and used up by too many people, all of them in some way leaving a piece of themselves on the surroundings.

What’s the future like, compared to this?

“It’s… clean,” I say. “Really, really clean. Nothing old. Most diseases got a cure. Most people got work. You can buy most anything you want.”

“You don’t sound too keen?”

“It’s fine. What’s not to like about freedom?”

Joe’s eyes dance over me, a crease forming in the space between his eyebrows.  Then he lifts his glass in a salute.

“To freedom.”

“Yeah. To freedom.”

We talk on a while, Joe drinking the beers I buy him and me drinking the ones he buys me, arguing in a friendly type manner, him showing me he won’t be pushed around on things that matter to him.

And all the while I’m throwing out as much charm as I’ve ever had, which I’ll own ain’t much, but I’m doing what I can. Here I am, sitting with this man called Joe, who I’d swear I know from somewhere, somewhen, but whenever I try to set on it my head gets to hurting, so I stop trying. Stop thinking on it. Just enjoying a beer with a man who is laughing with me, and twisting himself round on his stool so’s he can talk to me better.

Shit.

New factor, new want: I’m realizing I desperately wanna bed this man called Joe.

I hadn’t on thought on that, standing in the doorway considering what to do, but there it is. I hope he’s gay. Most people are, right? At least a little bit? No, it’s fine. Folks living after the Fracture have more important things to contend with than what kind of genitalia people like. Joe’s unlikely to get offended if I carry on as I have been, making jokes and eyes at him... although that don’t mean he feels that same way I do, either.

To be truthful, Joe not reciprocating my desires may not be so bad a thing. I ain’t looking to do anything wrong. There’s some as might say otherwise, what with the rule about fraternizing in the slip, but they’d be wrong. It’s not like I knew that Lois wouldn’t be here and this Joe would be, a person who makes me feel like I ain’t never not known him, who seems happy in my company, who hasn’t noticed all the things wrong with me...

Anyways, you can’t say I’m breaking the rule when I didn’t know it was gonna happen, is what I’m saying.

This is how it is: shit goes south pasttimewise, but the One True Timeline gets restored and all it comes back to normal, or close enough to it. But here’s the itch: pasttime and presenttime aren’t the same thing, not when you live them both, and presenttimewise, here he is. And along with him, there’s this oddness in my stomach, a sharp softness. I don’t know what’s gonna happen.

So, I ain’t breaking no rules, I reckon. Just… exploring this slip. Yeah. Gathering intel, clocking up new factors, working out new wants. Just so happens some of ’em are mine.

Joe brushes against me when he reaches for his drink, and later, when I’m drunk enough, I press my hand on his arm. Conversation’s fast and sharp and funny. Eventually, he stands and makes his way to the john. I watch him walk away, imagining – remembering almost – the feel of him on top of me. I know him, I’m sure of it. I could think better if my head weren’t hurting again, a fine, high pitched whine now joining the tension across my forehead. Time pressure, must be. How long have I been here?

Chloros, that’s what I need. Two in one eveing? Shit, three, on account of the one I took before I grabbed that tempo. But I ain’t feeling easy, and when the slip gets to you, you take a pill. One more won’t hurt, I reckon. I got a tolerance to ’em, that’s why they’re wearing off so fast. Just a half, to get me a bit more fixed in the slip.

The little plastic tub winds up in my hand, sticky hot from my pocket. I bite a pill in half, washing it down with the remainder of Joe’s beer, and get the robot to bring us two more.

Joe returns. I help him onto his seat, my hand resting on his a moment too long, luxuriating in the feel of him. His skin’s warm from the bar and the beer, fine bristles of his hair tickling my fingertips. I wanna flex my fingers, spread that feeling all the way down into the palm of my hand, my wrist, my arm, my body.

Should I? Seems to me he ain’t exactly averse to the idea, and in the dim light of the bar he probably can’t see what’s wrong with me. Perhaps he won’t notice at all?

Perhaps he will notice, but he won’t care?

No, that’s stupid…

“So, what’s going to happen now, cop?” Joe asks, his hand all of a sudden on my knee. “You arresting me? If you’re not, I’m free to go.”

“Sure, that’s your right, presenttimewise.”

“Ah, but I could always confess. If I did, would you look after me? Make sure I get fair treatment?” His voice drops, his eyes meeting mine. “I’d be in your custody, after all.”

That’s a cheap trick, but I’ll tell you this: it lands. Lands straight in my groin and settles there, which makes it about the only thing currently settled in that region. Joe leans forward, the heat of him so strong I can almost see it, like haze on tarmac, pasttimewise. His breath smells of beer and healthy gums.

“There’s a lot of crime in this world, Kong. Perhaps you could help me? There’s this… problem… I’m trying to fix. Some bad people are doing some very bad things.”

“People always do bad things, you ain’t gonna stop ’em.”

“But I’m not a cop, am I?” Joe replies. “Don’t you want to help me?”

He smiles just the same way Lois does when she knows she’s won an argument, and for a moment I’m muddled, not sure where I am or who I am or what any of this is.

Quicker’n quick, he’s kissing me, his fingers digging into my thigh, little points of pain that keep me from falling forward. I’m giving as good as I’m getting, or leastways I think I am, until his fingers catch in my hair, scratching my scalp, while his stubble scrapes my plastic-person skin. Sure as silver, he’s got me beat, and we’re kissing for all that we can, his tongue in my mouth, hot and pliant, brushing against my own; slow, confident, caressing the inside of my lower lip. The sensation speeds the flow of blood downwards, down, down, and I have to shift on my seat or else cause myself the kind of pain that ain’t as much fun as that which Joe is causing me.

He pulls back, face flushed.

“See? I think we could work together pretty well, don’t you? You and me, Kong, we could go through time and set things right.”

“What?”

He leans forward, but not close enough for kissing, not this time.

“Kong, there’s something I need to tell you. We have met before, you were right. I shouldn’t… but I can’t, either, you know? Shit. I knew this was a bad idea.”

“I don’t – what are you talking about?”

Something’s going wrong. I can see it going wrong, a glass falling from my hand but I can’t act fast enough to catch it.

Even in the slip, I ain’t fast enough to stop what’s happening.

“Please, Kong. You must realize how wrong everything is.”

He’s a fucking tempo.

I’m drunk, my head’s screaming at me, and I’ve been sat here for hours with a fucking tempo, making gooey eyes and kissing. How the hell did I get here? Is this why I thought I knew him – God, have I seen him on case and forgotten it?

I only know I’m on my feet because suddenly I’m standing over him, and I don’t know how it is I don’t smash his face into the bar, but somehow I manage to get away without causing the kind of scene that would get me in serious shit.

Damn it, I’m already in some serious shit. Do I bring him in? What if they ask me why I came to this bar in the first place? I can’t confess to my friendship with Lois. I need to… need to think. Need air. He shouts something at me, but the whining in my head covers it.

Outside the bar, cold air hitting me like a punch to the gut and racing the alcohol faster in my veins, I hear footsteps. Joe? No. There’s a woman behind me. She’s attractive in a non-threatening way, dull and dressed neat in a black suit, dark hair tied up in ponytail, skin pale and pink: Europhile.

“Having fun with your new friend?” She smirks.

Did she follow me out? What’s going on? I can’t breathe. Chloros. The tub shakes in my hand. Get a grip. I ain’t done nothing so wrong. Flirting ain’t risking the One True. No babies. No deaths. No copyright infringements. Get rid of this woman, call it in.

“What’s it to you?”

She shrugs. “Nothing at all. If he wants to make himself miserable that’s his look out. Personally, I’m with Juliet – what’s in a name?”

“What?”

“Just my little joke. Anyway, let’s get this over with. Do you know who I am?”

“I ain’t never seen you before in my life.”

“What about the guy in the bar? You know him?”

“I – No. Course I don’t.”

She shakes her head like I just failed some kind of test so obvious even a dog could’ve done it.

“You really are a total shit, Kong.”

And then she shoots me.