The Masters of Creation were on patrol at Eden Towers – a housing block on the Southeast side of the metropolis. Back in some ancient boom era it walls had been erected as a testament to inner-city progress, and families had flocked  to the promised land of global connection and domestic convenience. Now, though, after decades of slow erosion by human traffic, it was a shadow of its former conceptual design. The dreams of its residents, what dreams there were, had become obscured beneath a film of pollution, graffiti and gangland machinations. At least it gave the politicians something to point an accusing finger at while they upped the SecCom budget for another year running.

      In reality the cancerous seeds of this estate’s demise were sewn at the point of its creation. It was the design of the place that was flawed, that made its shadowed subways a gravitation point for the lost, the dispossessed and the criminally minded. Eden Towers had fallen a long way from  architectural grace, but that didn’t matter to the Masters of Creation, it was all fuel to the gunfire of street-level existence as far as they were concerned.

      Coza stopped mid stride, turned and peered at his disciples through his retractorlite shades. He twitched his coffee-coloured nose twice and the shadowed lenses fanned up into the frame, leaving two alert blue eyes above carved but pockmarked cheeks. His crew looked hot, sluggish and bored.

      Things had been quiet on the estate ever since Papa Axom had been shot while resisting arrest – which had been a mighty sight indeed with about a litre of Kaleidoscope splashed across the road and three SecCom officers in intensive care. Now the old boy was under guard in the infirmary and heading for re-education unless he decided to shop his suppliers. All of which was good news for Coza, as the rest of Papa’s crew dealt with themselves struggling for the top slot. A new problem had arisen for him, however, with the Master’s sole domination of the towers. Without an opposing force to get fractious with, Coza’s boys were starting to relax, getting fat on the profits and bitching at each other all day long. They needed something to distract them, to get their minds back on the game.

      They stood in a loose huddle, squinting at each other in the midday sun. Kast, the youngest of the group, balanced, tracing semi circles on the ground with one foot.

      “What we stoppin’ here for?” A wiry Teech clapped his hands at the pavement.

      A smart kid, even got himself some qualifications before Kaleidoscope screwed his life. These days he spent his time questioning  everything Coza chose to do. Not so smart. Perhaps he’d have to put him straight soon, but at least he wasn’t a pain as big as Popeye.

      “Yeah. Knuckle shuffle’s right.” Popeye barked.

      “Who ya callin’ a shuffler you unblinkin’ freak!”

      “Shut it!” Coza wasn’t in the mood for this crap, “It’s too hot out here. Let’s go cool down in an underpass and pick up the gear later.”

      “Yah, I’m wid you.” Diet stuffed a large hand down the back of his XXL shorts and gave them a hoist. The manoeuvre launched aspray of Cranberry Kick from the carton he was holding onto the baked ground. As everyone looked down at the pattern the droplets left, Coza quickly twitched his lenses back down and headed for the shadows on the far side of the plaza. He knew if he stayed another round of crap would start, only this time it might get ugly. At least in the shade, with some shaded heads around him, he’d have more  control.

      On days like this he found himself dreaming of jacking it all in, getting clean, trading his canon and taking his credit somewhere far  from here. He’d start over, get himself a job, perhaps on a boat or something, and a girl who knew nothing of the city. He might even…

      “Hey Coza! Where you goin’?” Popeye’s voice drifted behind him. Inevitable resistance, but his plan still worked. One by one the crew left Popeye and Diet looking stupidly at the spilt drink and tagged along behind. They still snapped among themselves, but were heading for the shadows at least.

      As they entered the underpass a breeze, channelled by the surrounding complex, blew across their baking faces. It’s fresh touch dried the sweat on Coza’s skin and almost managed to overpower the stench of piss that seemed to permeate every corner of the lower levels. He found a relatively uncluttered patch of ground and let his back slide down the corroded plasticrete wall. Moments later Teech arrived, pulling up his safety specs and quickly rubbing at the sore spot on his nose. Replacing his glasses he ran a hand through his messed up hair and moved to Coza’s side bringing a sultry Kast with him. As if in recognition of their leader having a good idea they let their bodies sink down beside his own. Good boys, Coza thought.

      Diet arrived next still slurping on the remains of the Kick and blocking out a big chunk of sun from the tunnel’s mouth. Only Popeye  remained out in the plaza, rigid and fuming. He flapped his arms once and finally loped towards the tunnel entrance.

      “You not hear me?” Popeye craned his neck forward and shouted at Coza. “I said, you not hear me?” Coza opened one eye and gave his irate companion the full force of his mirrored lenses before letting his head fall back against the cool wall. Like a lot of people who spoke too loudly, Popeye had got into the habit of repeating himself when others switched off.

      “You and me,” he continued. “One of these days, we’re gonna do this right!”

      Yeah bring it, Coza thought his face impassive to the threats. I’ve had a gut full of your shit Popeye, you and your spaced-out witchbitch. Always egging you on, pushing you to be the ‘big man’. You wanna get it on? I’ll be more than happy to shunt those freakish eyes of yours down your throat.

      Popeye stood waiting for some kind of response, realised that none was coming and stomped away to the opposite wall, his face a mass of twitches.

      As soon as Coza felt the presence of the tall man move away, he let the his anger fade and made himself think about expensive boats, disco island girls, clean air and sand.

*****

      The old man knew he shouldn’t be down here at ground level, but the servo assists in his Helping Knee had been playing up lately. As a result, climbing the access ramps, even with his designer stick, had become a nightmare. He reckoned it would take four pension deposits and another month of frugal living before he had enough to get the components serviced. Until then, the path back to his building lay down here among the dregs of the estate.

      He made slow and painful progress across another walled expanse of plasticrete, the mechanism whining beneath his trousers with each laboured step. He came to a halt and peeked briefly at the blazing sun. Just four short weeks, he told himself as he retrieved a handkerchief from his jacket pocket. His hand brushed against the freshly charged pension card before pulling the square of cloth free to mop his brow.

      He glanced at the pillars around the open courtyard, each of their vertical faces marked by the multi-coloured hieroglyphs of the local gangs. An access stair led up to his left and, for a moment, he considered taking the time and effort to reach higher ground. Then he spotted the underpass.

      The cool dark shadows beckoned, and even through the stench of the draft coming from its maw left a taste in his mouth, he began to walk into the cooling breeze. It was only a short passage and he doubted that anyone else would be wandering around down here on a day like this.

      The entrance passed behind him and, supporting himself on his stick, he descended the shallow ramp into the dimly lit tunnel. A few paces on and the floor levelled out, the curving walls leading off into the distance. The old man hesitated. Steady, you old fool, you’ve seen worse than this in your time, he said to himself and moved on, the three steel studs at the end of his customised cane thudding dully against the cable and telecommunication covers that scattered the floor. Each had their own logo emblazoned on the moulded steel, and each hid a viper’s pit of wires and broadband data flows. He felt a sense of reassurance emanate from their black fascias. If service engineers could handle it down here, then so could he.

      The distraction of his thoughts were rudely shaken by the sight of a dead rat in one of the drainage gutters that ran the length of the tunnel. Its fur was matted and half its face had been eaten making it seem as though its teeth were bared in perpetual agony. He suppressed a shudder of disgust, looked away and moved on further into the shadows, his eyes nervously scanning the floor looking for other vermin.

      A few metres of spray-canned wall slowly passed and then there, opposite him, stood the barred entrance to a derelict public convenience. Old clothes and litter were pilled against the inside of the rusted gate, the detritus of life filtering down from the upper floors to collect here. He recognise the odd fast food brand and fragment of labelled cloth – once the height of fashion, now forgotten – and moved closer to the wall on his left. Above the refuse he caught a glimpse of dirty blue tiles – ancient, web cracked – and with them came a sudden backwash of memory.

      He was on holiday with his parents, getting changed in some rundown resort pool, when a trio of bigger kids took the wrong kind of notice of him. They grabbed his clothes off the peg and stamped them into the water around a hairball-clogged drain.

      He rode the outrage, just stood there saying over and over again, “You shouldn’t have done that,” praying that one of them would swallow the feed line. Thankfully, one did.

      “Why? You’re asking me why?” accompanied by the most shocked, guilty and terrified expression he could muster, “Because the clinic’s dermatologist told me I shouldn’t come into contact with anyone until my tests returned.”

      Was this weird little freak bullshitting them? It didn’t matter. The fact that they couldn’t be one hundred percent sure was enough for him to dodge a probable beating.

      He’d been smarter, braver and faster back then. Not now.

      He gingerly skirted the dark and reeking orifice, his nerves conjuring up unwanted images of something lying crippled inside. It was watching him, calling to his decrepit flesh to come and join its decay. A painful shiver ran from the base of his spine down through his legs, his hairs sparking into electrified life. With a massive effort he turned his back on the opening and moved quickly away.

*****

      Things began to brighten after the toilet was lost from view, both emotionally and physically as there were less blown lights in this section of the tunnel. A few metres more and the old man realised that the floor was starting to rise to meet the exit in the distance. At the same time the sickly orange glow of the bulbs were now supplemented by the increasing light of the outside world. If his ruined knee had let him, he would have jogged those last few metres.

      Then he saw them.

      Five slumped figures lay across the exit, their crumpled bodies silhouetted against the elongated hexagon of light. He stopped and looked back down the tunnel. A graffiti strewn lamp buzzed and flickered making feeble shadows hop across the floor, the stench of human waste flicking in and out of his nostrils. He gently hefted the polycarbon stick, his hand clutching tightly to the rubberised handle, his fingers communicating the reassuring weight of the Taser hidden inside. Well, at least he had this. Once he’d spent an age debating the moral implications of such a purchase, now he was simply glad of its company.

      Resolve, decorum, dignity… He straightened himself as much as his knee and back would allow. If he kept up an even pace, moved straight through the middle of them, he doubted they’d even notice his passing. Just then a chilling image of the barricaded toilet flashed into his mind and, before he realised, he had begun to climb the ramp towards the youths.

      As his eyes adjusted to the approaching glare details of the group became manifest. A profile, a trainered foot, a heavy ring…. He scanned each furtively, his senses heightened by the adrenaline pumping through his frail form.

*****

      Initially they all appeared to be Black, or possibly Hispanic or maybe even Asian, but in a land where colour could be defined by the type of pigment cream you used, trying to fix an origin was the pointless activity of a dying generation.

      He was closing on them now. On one side a youth appeared asleep behind his sunglasses, the two boys next to him also seemingly unconscious – one spiky haired and packed with sinew, the other with his head bent down between his arms. Opposite them slumped a fourth who seemed large beyond his years alongside an awkward looking teenager who was staring out across the plaza beyond. The pensioner kept his sight fixed on this last figure as he neared. Just three more metres, he thought to himself, and they’ll be behind me and I’ll be minutes from home. The boy by the entrance turned his head and looked straight at the old man Damn it! He found himself held by the wild stare of this boy’s overly large eyes.

      “What choo lookin’ at gramps?” Open hostility seethed around every syllable.

      Breaking the gaze he strode as fast as he could towards the sun splashed exit, only to witness the tall youth snap himself like a switch blade and stand blocking his passage.

      “I said what ya lookin’ at?”

      “Nothing,” he mumbled trying to step around the tall figure in front of him.

      “What ya sayin’? You think I’m nothing? You think this is nothing standing here talkin’ to you?” The old man retreated a few paces,
assessing the situation and thinking back to a time when youths like this held no fear for him. A time when he was younger and more clever and strong. The others had begun to stir, slowly curious about the scene unfolding in front of them.

      “So what are you?” the old man launched on the offensive finally sick of the cowardice that age had forced upon him, “Some kinda gang-star?”

      The tall figure sneered. “I, grandpa, am what’s gonna screw you up for good.” The boy stepped forward full of slow, calculating malice. He was unfazed by the frail figure before of him, but he kept a wary eye on the stick.

      “Back in my day,” the old man spat venomously, “punks like you would never get to run with the boys. Dada Shurn wouldn’t even use you to deliver messages. You’d be yapping round his ankles askin’ for deals, askin’ for jobs and he’d come to me and say, ‘Max, what am I gonna do with these little pricks? They’re drivin’ me nuts!’ And I’d tell him to keep his cool and we’d send one to get us some beers then chill out at laugh at how pathetically grateful they were.” He sneered at the boy who looked confused, and eased his weight back onto one leg. Old men weren’t supposed to hold their ground and start telling tales. The others had all got to their feet by this point and were looking on with puzzled expressions.

      Realising that he now had an audience, Popeye lunged towards the ancient figure.

      “Gimme that stick,” he said making to grab for the cane. There was a click and the seemingly harmless support snapped towards the boy’s face, the metal studs at the end alive with licks of blue light. “Take another step and I’ll fry you till your teeth pop.” The old man took a pace away from the group. Regardless of his previous fears, he was heading back down the tunnel.

      “What was that name you said?” Coza asked from behind his hi-tech shades.

      “What, my name? Max Davis, what’s it to you?”

      “No the other one.”

      “What ya doin’ Coza?” Popeye cut in, “Don’t stand there yappin’. Jump the cripple, mash him and drag his ass to the nearest cash machine.”

      “Dada Shurn.” The old man said still keeping his eyes and cane directed at Popeye, “You ever hear of him?”

      “Heard plenty ’bout the man. You ever run with him?”

      “Did some time with Dada back in ’98. When we got out he set me up as a courier.”

      “Running what?” Coza made a minute hand gesture to Diet who was starting to move behind the old man. Obediently the big youth stopped in his tracks.

      “That was back in the dark days of Hyper MDMA, way before Kaleidoscope hit the streets. ‘People’s dreams’, Dada said to me once, ‘are small and surprising similar. It’s up to us to capitalise on this.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”

      “Whadda ya doin’ standing there Diet?” Popeye looked like he was about to have a fit, “Take his freakin’ head off!”

      Diet pointed his flat-topped head briefly towards Popeye, then returned his attention to the old man.

      “You and Dada close then?” Coza continued calmly.

      “Not really. I worked for the man and made myself some good cash, but I know he’d spin in his grave to see me go out like this.” Coza moved a step closer to the old man and leant forward to examine the cane.

      “Nice piece of kit you got there. Imported?”

      Popeye shot Coza a scathing glance, “Gone soft. That’s what it is. Can’t cut the sight of the dangerous juices no more.”

      The old man glanced nervously at Coza, then down at the cane. “German,” he said.

      Coza held out his hand towards the modified walking stick.

      “You are one dead welfare case now father time!” Popeye tensed himself as the old man looked again at Coza’s open hand and then up to his face. The boy twitched his nose and the polished lenses zipped up and away. For a moment the old man stared into the world-weary eyes of this manchild and saw a strength and conviction there that he could never know. He felt oddly humbled by the flash of understanding that seemed to pass between them. What exactly did he have to lose in the here and now? When the stakes were as low as this, the risk seemed weirdly massive and yet negligible all at once. The old man hung his head and quickly passed the still crackling cane over.

      There was an instant blur of movement, a loud electrical crack and the old man found himself spun against the wall and down, the acidic stench of ozone caught in his olfactory passages. His eyes quickly focused on the ground in front of him. He tensed waiting for the pain of the shock to register across his muscles – but none came.

      The servo assists around his knee complained noisily as, hand over hand, he pushed himself upright and turned to face the gang once more. Everyone stood as they had in a lose huddle around his prone body, all except Popeye who lay twitching on the floor, his arms and knees curled up against his chest. The boys breath was laboured, his teeth gritted in agonising pain.

      The old man turned away from the scene and gingerly pulled his legs up to support his weight. As soon as he was back onto his feet, he turned to look at the gang again. No one had moved. One looked surprised, another curious, another shot nervous glances at the boy who still held his cane. With a press of a finger and a flick of his wrist, the young man twirled the stick deftly round and passed it back to the old man handle first.

      “Nice piece o’ workmanship.” Was all the boy said before twitching his lenses back into place and striding back out into the sun.

      The rest of the gang looked about themselves as if uncertain what to do next. Finally one of them called after the figure moving casually across the plaza, “Hey Coza! Where you heading?”

      “Away,” was all that drifted back through the lazy air.

      There was a moment of confusion, a rapid exchange of glances among the remaining boys, a loss of cohesion and purpose. Then one of them called, “Wait up!” and jogged out into the sunshine. Another, then another followed, running to catch up with their leader. The last to leave was the thickset boy with the blond crew cut. Fumbling in a huge pocket he pulled out a can of Cranberry Kick, cracked its lid and ambled after the others, slurping loudly.

      The old man put his weight back onto his stick and glanced down at the now helpless boy. Tears were squeezed across his tanned cheeks, his big eyes clenched shut, a pool of liquid on the plasticrete evidence of an emptied bladder. It was a sad sight but one the old man couldn’t afford to dwell upon. He had no idea how long it would take the boy to recover, and so he moved to put as much distance as he could between himself and the tunnel mouth.

*****

      Some time later he finally made it up one of the access stairs to the walkways above. His knee burnt and the sweaty skin jarred against the synthetic pins and braces. He pulled himself onto the broad path and leant a hand against the guard wall. A mother pushing a food-smeared child in a stroller hurried quickly by doing her best to avoid eye contact with this sickly looking apparition. He weakly waved an apology at her and laboured to catch his breath.

      Gradually standing upright once more he surveyed the estate and then looked out towards the city beyond. New asymmetrical spires and towers littered the smoggy horizon, but there, off in the distance he could just make out a cluster of low ugly buildings that had once been his place of work. Seeing the college again made him shake with recognition of just how lucky he had been. Imagine what might have happened if he hadn’t taken that job as a drama teacher over 25 years ago, if he hadn’t shown an interest in the local gangs that plagued his students, if he’d never heard the names of Max Davis and Dada Shurn… The grim reality of where he might be now lie doubled up somewhere way below him.

      He let this thought of the helpless youth fall away, fearful that the fragile sequence of good luck was about to run out.

      Rubbing his damaged joint until it warmed in a healthy kind of way, Donald Baxter – for that was the name his mother and father had given him – set about making his way home, thanking his lucky stars with every painful step he took. Perhaps he’d take on the role of Max Davis one more time and call a medical team to check on that kid. Or perhaps he’d stop by the prosthetic repair store and put a down payment on that service. Or perhaps he’d splash out and celebrate with a lottery ticket. Yeah, that sounded good. A chance to become a multi-millionaire and turn his back on all this pain and squalor. A chance to live out all those fading dreams he’d ever had of expensive boats, disco island girls, clean air and sand.

 

— THE END —

(Copyright © 2004 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights
Reserved.
)