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 realise the past ain’t so different from the present, that people ain’t changed. The lot of them are no-good, money-grabbing, cheating, lying sceevers now, and they were no-good, money-grabbing, cheating, lying sceevers then.

You get them all the way through the slip, pasttimewise and futuretimewise, same as you did before the slip was invented and folks like me called in to keep everything orderly. Take this kid in front of me.

Dirty, scared, rag-wearing. Lips wobbling like 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 when he shouldn’t be, trying to change the future to his own benefit. Easy call. What most other operatives won’t account for is the fact this kid had it all anyway, only he thought he ought to have more.

It’s all there in his design, if they’d bother to see it:

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 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 colouring that only comes from genetics. This kid’s had invit work done and that don’t come cheap. Parents are probably stockholders or copyrighters, to afford something like that for their foetus.

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

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

“What do you want with me, brother? I’ve done nothing wrong,” he whines in a shitty version of the local dialect, fire eyes dancing as he tries to watch me and reach, surreptitious, for the Holo on his wrist - official, too. Hard to get hold of one of those on the black market. More evidence the kid comes from money. He’s still and idiot, even so. 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 wave my official Holo under his nose, “Here’s something ’bout someone trying to alter the dioxomorphinate patent. Dioxomorphinate, 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, right enough.

He tries to jump.

It’s over quick, him laying out on the sidewalk, bleeding some, clutching at his side, wheezing through his 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 ain’t fair.

“That’s what they all say,” I tell him as I cuff him, fixing the bar in place to stop him reaching his wrist. “You ready to consent?”

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

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

“It wouldn’t have worked,” I tell him, once the Company confirms 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 bruising, as if I’m supposed to be 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 thing about 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 honour goes to a corporate meeting room in a tall building in what was the centre of the world. Some nut thought she’d upset the salt routes, destabilise the region, negate the need for the Sino-Amek International Trade Duty Alliance, and with it the refuelling 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 spaghetti mess of it, turns on itself.

Lois ain’t here, but someone is. Someone I... someone I know, I reckon. 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 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 recognise him in a way that hits you physical before your brain can register the thought, like a memory built into your bones.

This ain’t right. There ain’t no way I know this guy. Has something gone wrong with the slip? It happens. Things get turned around, people showing up where they shouldn’t, an aberration somewhen changing their course. But even so, I should know when I met him. Shit. Is there something wrong with me? Did that tempo kid do something?

No. 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. No invit work I can see, 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. The cut and material of the suit fit the time. Factor three: there’s a scar on his lip, running down to his chin; uncommon, but being mussed up ain’t a crime. Factor four: no obvious tech on him, but Holos can be hidden easy enough. 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 something - a date, maybe?

That would go aways to explaining 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 be 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 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, 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, clear out my head. God knows how many slips I’ve got rattling around.

Factor six... could be I’m hording timelines? I’ll have seen someone like him in the past, and now I’m getting it all sideways. It happens sometimes, even with the chloros. If it ain’t the pressure that gets you, 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. Yeah. 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 obliges, takes my currency, wobbles off. Can’t see anything unusual. No signs of invit, but it’s hard to tell, 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 colour ain’t wild like invit. Lucky boy if they’re real.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I say in Bay Korean, the catchall language for this part of the slip.

“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 something I reckon he might speak better, based on his accent. “How’s this?”
He smiles, nods. “Yeah, thanks. I can never get the tones right.”
“Sure. So... we’ve met before, I think? I can’t recall your name...”

His expressions flickers, something odd I can’t place, except to say it makes me feel I made the right choice to check him out. He drops his gaze, hands tighten on his beer, lower lip pulls against his teeth.

“It’s Jose Otero.” He pauses, searching my face. Then, “But you can call me Joe.”

Jose’s a neat name, but I like Joe, too. Whatever he prefers is fine by me.

What the fuck? Who cares what he’s called? Stick to 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 seem happy. Ruining his date or ruining his plans for the slip? Sip my beer, play it easy. Hah. Remember I’m a cog. Just keep turning.

“Hey, did you, uh... did you...”

I shake my brains up, searching for a piece of news from this part of the slip but all I can think about is the sceever tempo kid. Can’t talk about him. Shit. Joe’s watching me, no doubt thinking who’s this idiot man talking to me, which ain’t unfair. If only I could check my Holo for a Jose ‘Joe’ Otero.

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 seems disappointed, somehow. “Kong’s not a local name, right?”

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

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

“In actual fact, my first name’s King. Kong’s my family name. My Pop’s idea. Stupid.”

Why am I saying all this?

“Really?” Joe pauses in his escape.  There’s something in his face that weren’t there a moment before. “Do you like it? Your name, I mean?”

“I guess it’s what I got. It’s supposed to be funny. Y’know.” I make my face into an expression that feels like it could be the very dictionary definition of encouragement. “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.” Crinkles around the corners of his eyes, good teeth. Nice smile. “God - sorry, yes. It’s just...”

He 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.

It’s a stupid name I got landed with, I know that. But it’s the one I got and I 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’ve kept it. That and the fact it’s been mine since I was born, weren’t sold to me nor did it come with the job.

It seems right that this thing that is mine 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 humour 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.

He 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 as I told Lois, but somehow the lie 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 up and this conversation won’t ever have happened, anyway.

“I’m a cop,” I say, sitting up, 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 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 recognise them, 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 travelling 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. His smile shifts, his grin taking on a sharpness that ain’t aggressive, not as such, but sure as hell ain’t innocent, neither.

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

“Maybe you are, maybe you ain’t.”

“Are you worried I’ll 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, 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 not even really selling nothing, just letting folks know there’s a neighbourhood 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. 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 leaving a piece of themselves on the surroundings.

What’s the future like, compared to this?

“It’s... clean. 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?”

“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 the 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. Just enjoy 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 realising I desperately wanna bed this man.

I hadn’t 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? It’s fine. Anyways, 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 may not be so bad. I ain’t looking to do anything wrong. There’s some might say otherwise, what with the rule about fraternising in the slip, but they’d be wrong. It’s not like I knew 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...

No one can say I broke the rule when I didn’t know this 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 it all comes back to normal, or close enough. 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 them are mine.

Joe brushes against my forearm when he reaches for his drink, and later, when I’m drunk enough, I press my hand on his shoulder. Conversation’s fast and sharp and funny. Eventually, he excuses himself, 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 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 evening? 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 them, that’s why they’re wearing off so fast.

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 rest 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 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 them.”

“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 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, 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 realise how wrong everything is.”

He’s a fucking tempo.

I’m drunk, my head’s screaming at me, and I’ve been sat 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 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 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 cold air hits me like a punch to the gut, forcing the alcohol faster through my veins. 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 a 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 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.