When the monitor went bleep-bleep and then waaahh, Mike knew his career was pretty much over. With his brief stint as a software programmer and his miserable failure as a TV writer back at the beginning of the century, it was only logical that he would end up taking care of old people. What else was there to do, anyway? Isn't life just like a sushi roll--a delicate, skillfully crafted masterpiece to be devoured in one eager, undiscerning bite? Or is it rather like taking a good dump, getting it all over with, the miasma generated in the process proof of a successful transaction? But, perhaps, life is just the endless search for a convenient metaphor... Thus Mike pondered earlier, attempting to smile looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. His soft gray hair was fading to naught, skin cancer laser-removal scars pockmarked his nose, chin and neck. Dark pits and valleys in the uncertain light of the early morning.
“Merry Christmas,” he said to his reflected image.
He checked which one of his hanging scrubs looked wearable. Then scavenged for socks, rummaging through the pile of clothes he kept in the tiny storage closet that separated the bathroom door from his bedroom, kitchen and living room area. He took off a pile of clothes, all a uniform gray color and dropped them on the floor. At the bottom of the closet he found what he was looking for: a battered and dusty cardboard box that had maybe once held sneakers.
Finally, he pinned his security badge on his lapel. “Michael G. Giuliano, Nurse,” it read in really small print. It didn't really matter how small the print was, of course, or what it said, or if he wore it at all. All personal documents had long been made obsolete by biochip identification. Still he found the object somewhat comforting. He liked to hold that insignificant piece of golden metal in his hands, the engraved letters under his fingertips, feeling it warming beneath his touch. It connected his self to an imaginary cog that still slowly turned, a piece of the puzzle that had not yet been razed, burned or irremediably lost.
At about this time thirty years earlier Mike would be leaving home in his leased beemer, headed for his cubicle in the industrial park just north of town. “Where the cool things are,” read the company promo, quotes and all, the next Google clone incubator. He’d be stopping along the way to pick up a latte, then merge back on the 101, maybe make some calls while negotiating the stop-and-go traffic. Mike would enjoy the taste of the rich, scalding liquid, caffeine and fat heaven. He’d burn off the first in the early few hours of work. The second he’d make a mental note to melt that very weekend, racing his cycling buddies up and down the foothills.
Now Mike closed his eyes, focusing on the image of that paper cup of latte, then took a sip from the warm mug he had been holding. His most recent experimental brew had toasted soy beans and twenty year old non-dairy creamer, an entire box of which he had rescued from a basement. It had tasted positively like shit.
He heard a light knock. It was the new guy, Sandeep, nervously looking around.
"Your neighbors don't seem to like me much," he said, after Mike cracked open the door.
"Merry Christmas," answered Mike, yawning, looking at the unusually chubby, bearded figure. A can flew from somewhere, and came clanking by his visitor’s feet. Sandeep made a face like he had been hit on the head.
"Don’t worry, it’s not about you," said Mike, kicking the can out of his path, "they are X-ers, right? They smoked their brains out long ago. No job, no HMO, nothing."
They stepped outside in the gray December light, and Mike padlocked the door shut. They walked out through the space once occupied by the garden of the subdivided Victorian house. They saw faces, vanishing quickly behind window panes held together by duct tape. Mike could hear the ocean, now, beating incessantly at the shoreline. It was not far off, and getting closer every year. His eyes fell on the remains of a stone and saltillo staircase, and quickly compared the rubble with the ageless snapshot of the street the way it was the first morning he walked out sleepily to pick up the paper. Palm trees had flanked the parade of immaculate white stucco houses with red tile roofs.
“Doesn’t look too good,” Sandeep commented, following Mike’s gaze.
“No, it used to look much better. Most of the building structures and tree stumps were ripped apart long ago for fuel. And the buildings have taken a beating from the winter storm waves. Look at my place. It’s just about to become oceanfront property. That unfortunately does not qualify any longer as a bonus for the resale value.”
“Is it yours?” asked Sandeep.
“No, just a rental. I lost my house back in ’09, like everyone else. It’s just a shitty room, but it’s cheaper than an HMO unit. I don’t have that much stuff anyway. Not anymore.”
“So what’s in the box you are carrying?” asked Sandeep.
“Christmas spirit,” smiled Mike, but the other looked increasingly worried.
They followed the new oceanside road walking south. The morning was overcast, as usual. May gray, they had always called it here, but now it lasted year-round. Not that it was necessarily bad, just a few miles inland it was scorching sun and dust clouds sweeping the land that had once been National Forest. Or so Mike had heard, anyway, no one really moved much from town anymore.
“So where are you from, Sandeep?”
“And how’s life down there?”
Sandeep considered the question for a moment. There were voices from up ahead, where the road crossed Mission Creek.
“Not that good.” Sandeep finally said.“There are just not enough supplies coming in. Each night we’d watch a column of smoke, a different part of town going up in ashes. Every day I wondered if I’d find my house coming back after work. I have family, you know?”
“No shit,” Mike replied, distracted, looking ahead at what the trouble was.
“Yes, two young ones. So I told Mira, my wife, I’d take the pay cut and move up here. We came on yesterday’s supply train.”
“Hey you! Keep your hands off… that!” Mike shouted at the kids ahead. Half a dozen of them were surrounding an unusual three-wheeled, pedal-powered vehicle. It had been rigged together with old bicycle frames and wood, but sported a solar cell canopy over its cargo. One was rocking the vehicle, rattling whatever content was in the cargo box. A woman had her back against the bridge’s railing. She was perhaps in her thirties, dark, sun-burned skin, and quite attractive, Mike noted.
The tallest of the kids, perhaps eleven, some scrawny and dirty thing wearing blue and white, the East Side colors, turned around to face the new arrivals. One of his eyes had been replaced with a cheap senso-enhancer, the other appeared gray and lifeless. Gill-like initiation scars marked his cheeks.
“You need help old man?” Some of the boys laughed, others stared straight at Mike.
“Can’t we just go around it?” Sandeep whispered. Mike ignored him.
“You can help me by getting the hell out of my street,” said Mike, “or this old man here is kicking your scrawny asses uptown to Central.”
The gills kid just smirked, defiant. The others stopped rocking the tricycle lining up behind their leader.
Mike put a finger to his temple, that glowed blue for a moment. “Three-two-five here, reporting a disturbance, Yanonali at Mission Creek.” An unintelligible response hummed through Mike’s skull bones.
A smaller boy pulled on the leader’s rags: “He’s HMO, man!” The tall kid smacked the other kid’s hand away, spitting on the ground in Mike’s direction. Then they turned around in unison and they were gone.
“Did you really call Central?” The woman said. She had a nice, deep voice, and sounded worried.
“Nah,” Mike responded, “I just downloaded the weather forecasts, and it looks like overcast for the next week, pretty much like the last.” He smiled, trying to be reassuring, “They’d never come out for something like this anyway, but I figured those kids were way out of their territory, what would they know?”
Sandeep fidgeted nervously, looking in the direction where the kids had disappeared.
“What’s up with your rig?”
“Just a flat” said the woman, “I was about to patch it up when they started harassing me. Thank you, by the way, this does not happen often.”
“And what do you carry in the back, if I may ask?”
“Gifts,” she answered smiling, pulling a corner of the canopy “what else would it be today?” The cargo box was full of plastic toys, old dolls, cars, spaceships. They were all used of course, probably dug up from the Tajiguas landfill, which, as Mike had heard, had recently become quite a profitable source of recyclable artifacts.
“Of course, what else could it be?” said Mike, his eyes on the woman’s smile.
“Maybe you should join us, sometime,” she suggested.
“Well, up there, of course,” the woman replied, moving her head in the general direction of the mountains.
“Maybe I should, and Merry Christmas,” said Mike, with Sandeep fidgeting in the background.
“Can we go now?” Sandeep asked.
Mike sighed and waved at the woman, slowly pedaling away.
“Here is were the farmer’s market used to be,” Mike told Sandeep, making a vague gesture encompassing State street. “Family outfits carted their produce into town to sell or barter for technology.”
Mike hadn’t seen the market for how long, now? Sparse group of Chinese tourist strolled by, inching towards the waterfront, each in the blue and gray shade of the umbrellas in their hands. They crossed under the vigilant eyes of Central Force men, whizzing up and down the street on two-wheeled gyroscopic vehicles. Kids used to call the officers Mr. Yao, after the cartoon character who routinely saved the day on his yellow-on red star branded gyroscooter. Everything had happened so fast. The panic, the sinking dollar after the credit crisis. There were the riots, violence in the streets. Somebody simply had to step in to restore order, and thankfully foreign cooperation could be easily acquired by the wholesale of once prized real estate.
At the breakwater some of the ladies pointed to a vague point in the brown crashing waters. Sandeep turned to look.
“At low tide, they say you can see the dolphins,” Mike explained.
“I’d rather remember it as it was. On summer weekends the city would be invaded by tourists from the southland, from abroad. They’d be walking up and down the beach, buying crappy artwork from local vendors. And they would be tossing coins in the dolphin fountain, the one that now is sunk down there somewhere. Look at them, not one is tossing a single jiao in there.”
“Well, that’s probably why they have the money now, and we no longer do.”
“You are a wise and funny man, Sandeep”.
They started walking up the hill that lead to a once exclusive residential area. Still safe from the tides, Tuscan-style villas and faux adobes had been enclosed by cinder block walls, topped by broken glass held with mortar. Jagged teeth like those of the sharks that once swam on the other side of the Channel Islands. Just a few of the rich people's houses still looked nice, some even had lights at night. Sometimes one could hear music or amplified voices over the low rumble of the generators. They marched uphill for less than fifteen minutes, in silence, then turned into a cul-de-sac that Mike remembered was originally lined by eucalyptus trees. It was an average sized house, the square lines more reminiscent of Southwestern influences than the once popular Spanish Colonial and Tuscan Villa. Barbed wire and a tall metal gate secured the perimeter. Inside the garden was overgrown and littered with the trash of previous generations of caretakers.
“It doesn’t look like much,” muttered Sandeep.
“Yeah, well, maybe compared with the others around it. But it’s nice and cozy inside, a great place to work, really.”
“So what’s so important about this one?”
“Nothing really. Just an old lady like many. But this property, see how it sits on the corner of the hill?” Mike pointed at the dry shrubs behind the house, “The house is right on a property formerly known as Agua Caliente, Hot Springs. There used to be a Hotel here in the late 1800s. The HMO wants the water rights, so they are keeping a close watch on the lady.”
“So why two caretakers?”
“I think they want everything clean, the lady’s estate is already so indebted with the HMO that even the deed to the house would never pay them back. Perhaps they want to make it so expensive that no unlikely inheritor would fight them in court. So paradoxically, we need to give excellent care to a lady they’d rather see dead soon. But she’s a real fighter, she’ll live to be two hundred,” Mike winked at Sandeep, “nothing to worry about.”
They stopped by the entrance gate. An avatar came up, the hologram of a woman this time. A perfectly coded melange of ethnic features made her stunningly and yet insignificantly beautiful. Mike could see the small orifice of the projector's sensor tracking the position of his eyes and emitting high frequency pictures phased to give the illusion of 3-D. Anyone looking from another angle would just have seen scattered colored lights. The sound too was encrypted, somehow, directed in a way to be heard just by the person immediately in front of the projector. Both Sandeep and Mike touched their right temple lightly, agreeing to the biochip credential scan.
The gate clicked open and they stepped in, up the short stairwell to the main door, Sandeep following closely, as he did not yet have full HMO clearance. They continued through a series of empty rooms and hallways, their steps echoing against the vaulted ceilings. Other noises started to emerge, whirring and beeping rhythmical sounds coming from what had probably been the living room. The center of the white, once grandiose space was now occupied by an assemblage of monitoring equipment, pumps, IV drips, electrical massagers and a massive array of backup batteries. A cat scurried away, the last of a long line of Siamese that traditionally disappeared in their prime, Mike suspected eaten by squatters from some encampment nearby. There was no other furniture in the room, except for a couple of old padded aluminum stools. Cans and discarded food wrappers littered the corners, sharing the space with an entire tribe of dust bunnies.
And there she was, looking tiny in her bed, surrounded by all the expensive equipment. Right there, in the same place where she had rested for exactly the twenty one years and seven months of Mike's impeccable service record. Plastic tubes and wires going in and out of seemingly every inch of her body. There slept Gloria McInerney, 127, possibly the last of the baby boomers. The nighttime nurse was apparently already gone. Weird and highly irregular, Mike thought.
"Good morning Ms. Gloria," said Mike, as usual, looking directly at the machine display area. Every morning he would come in, do a quick perfunctory check, then go sit on the toilet, fully enjoying the luxury of indoor plumbing. But this morning was special.
“Look what I have here for you,” he sang, opening the box for Ms. Gloria to see. Her eyes did not move. Mike put down the box on the equipment tray, and extracted a long line of colored lights. He draped them quickly around the bed, then plugged them in with the life support equipment. The monitor flickered for a second, then the lights came up, blinking colors reflecting on the bare walls.
“Merry Xmas Ms. Gloria.”
“You can’t really say that anymore.” Said Sandeep.
“Don’t you watch FluxTube?”
“Never believed in it.”
“Well, everybody knows, really. We have sold the rights to Christmas. Not any related religious belief, of course, just the rights to the celebration.”
"Gibbrwtzzzz.... Bzzzzz. Sshtx" protested the old lady.
"bzfgheeeeee, scrtszzz" she added. And that's when the green line on the monitor went flat.
"Oh, fuck me!" Mike wailed. He quickly unplugged the Christmas lights, pulled up the transparent swiveling cover and hit the big red button to run the emergency procedure. "Oh Fuck fuck fuck."
Sandeep looked around helpless “What can we do? What can we do?”
“Just stay out of the way!” Mike powered the defibrillator, "Live, goddammit, live!"
The little frail body arched in a spasm, as to inhale one last sip of air, spending the final few cents of her incredible will to live. But live she no longer did. Flat lines ran parallel on the overhanging monitors, only dull periodical beeps breaking the silence in the room.
Mike knew well what this meant. It meant it was over, he was out. No sense hoping for anything, the house, the few remaining pieces of furniture, even the bedpans and IV drips were owned by the HMO. Back to the line by the train depot like all the others. Back to shitting in the rubble by the waterfront.
The old fashioned comm device rang. And rang. Mike picked up.
"Hello, here is Xuan, HMO employee zero one nine four dash BBAC," the tiny Chinese man on the screen spoke in perfect English. "We are not receiving vital signs from customer ... McInerney. Please identify yourself and relate the circumstances of her...demise."
Mike approached the screen "Mike Giuliano, nurse nine-o-david-sixty four. There was no... demise, it's just a mistake."
"A mistake? Please clarify the term. We received a flatline type 056A report, then nothing else."
"It's... it's all my fault, I must apologize Sir. I believe I disconnected a sensor while washing Ms. Gloria, and somehow I couldn't get a reading afterwards, so I'm rebooting the machine." It all made perfect sense. It had to.
"Nurse, can I remind you that in our contract it is clearly stated that interruptions of more than..."
"I know the goddamned contract... Sir!" Mike protested, almost starting to feel real outrage, "I know the terms very well, and I can assure you that I would have fixed everything by now had I not been interrupted by your call. It's all going to be back in less than two minutes."
"I'll call back to verify."
"You do that Sir."
"Mr. Giuliano..." said the man before Mike hung up, plunging him into some deep hole in cyberspace.
“We are fucked,” Mike lamented, falling back on the stool, his fingers tearing at his hair.
Sandeep looked like he was about to cry, his face screwed up, lower lip trembling, “There must be something we can do.” He said, almost pleading.
Mike shook his head. One minute forty-two seconds to the end of his life career. One minute-thirty one.
One minute zero-seven.
"Where's the fucking cat?” asked Mike.
“Sandeep, do you hear me?" Mike was shaking Sandeep by the shoulders.
“I don’t know, I saw it running outside, who cares about the cat, now."
“You listen to me, make sure your comm is on, and sit at the security console right now.” Sandeep tried to protest but Mike was already forcing open the sliding door to the old security post, then disappeared through the sliding door to the patio. His head flashed back through the opening for an instant.
“I mean now!” Mike shouted at Sandeep. Then he was gone.
Forty four seconds.
“Sandeep, do you copy? Do you have the infrared monitor on?"
"Yeah, sure, I can't see much outside of the house perimeter. Look, I’m not good at this, I’m a nurse, not a…"
"I want a position on the cat. Now."
"Ok, ok, calm now, let me look, I see you and the machines down there, but nothing else in the house. Wait, there's a small green spot in the garage area, could be the cat, I guess, or some other critter. "
Mike was already running across the house, in the opposite direction from where they came just a few minutes earlier. Thirty two seconds left, and Mike came running in from the main door, nose bleeding profusely. A furry Tasmanian devil-like creature struggling in his hands, newly tattooed with a web of blood-red marks. The cat’s paws caught on a tray sending medical supplies all over the floor. Sandeep stared, aghast.
“Sandeep, I’m gonna say this just once: unplug the old bag.”
“Pull out all the electrodes. Do it now!”
Seventeen seconds, Gloria McInerney, her body frozen in her last spasm, eyes and mouth wide open laid contorted on the floor, naked, skinny and brown like an old tree root. Mike had secured the cat on her bed with a strap and surgical tape tying its deadly paws to the body.
“It won’t work!” cried Sandeep.
“We’ll get a heartbeat, shit, we should have shaved this animal, a heartbeat and a brainwave.” Answered Mike frantically planting electrodes in the meowing creature We’ll tell them the system is coming up slowly, or something.”
“And then what? What will we do?”
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it. Now, what the hell?” the old fashioned heart monitor beeped an acid house rhythm.
“How fast is a cat’s heartbeat?” asked Sandeep.
“How would I know? Do I look like a vet?” answered Mike, nose swelling red.
The comm rang. Mike pointed the screen towards the entrance and ran around the bad to place himself in front of it.
“Nurse Giuliano, Xuan here, HMO nine zero one three four 01934 dash BBAC. We are checking back and detecting out of range values…”
“I know, we’re having an emergency.”
"I see" said the operator, his tone clearly expressing that he did not see that happening at all.
"All the readings are wrong, Mr. Giuliano"
"Well, I'm not a hardware technician. I am a licensed nurse, right? It's not my fault your expensive machinery is misbehaving. Would you like me to slap the monitor by any chance?"
"Mr. Nurse, please follow the code and do not harm the equipment."
"It's just a figure of speech. What would you like me to do?"
“Why are we not receiving a full datafeed?”
“Listen, Ms. Gloria is having a heart crisis, it’s nothing too bad, and I have not been able to bring the whole system back up yet.”
“Mr. Giuliano, I have to notify you that…”
Mike hung up. “We need to slow it down. Way down. Sandeep, unlock the dispensary, fast,” Mike said, “Anything to slow the animal’s heartbeat, a minimal dose of digitalis, barbiturates, hypnotics, any shit you can find.”
Mike kept holding the cat, being careful not to smother it. The creature bared its fangs in a futile hiss. “You still have a good fight in you. We can sure use that.”
“What about this one?” With his free hand Mike caught the box Sandeep tossed across the bed. “Mike, you must realize that this is utterly insane, and probably highly illegal.”
“What choice have we got? Do you want today to be your last day on the job? Yeah, this might work. Might have some hallucinogenic effects, bad trip for the poor kitty.” He opened the box with his teeth, and pulled out a single dose syringe, tossing the rest on the bed once occupied by the lady of the house.
“I’ve just been transferred, Mike, they’ll send me somewhere else.”
“Well, I don’t wanna go somewhere else, I’ve hung to this place tooth and nail, I’m not gonna let it go now.”
Mike injected the mix slowly, one drop at a time, keeping the monitor in check and watching the cat’s heartbeat slowing down on the screen. He gently opened the cat’s left eye with thumb and forefinger, checking on pupil dilation.
“Good shit but quite strong” said the cat, smacking its lips, “and with a distinct licorice aftertaste.”
“What?” said Mike.
“I got family, Mike” the cat added. No, that could not be right. Mike’s knees were rubbery, and he felt with some surprise that he could bend them backwards. That would be a really interesting experiment, but not nearly as interesting as the man staring at him, needle still in hand. The whole room started to melt, voices in his head slowing down like an ancient tape recorder running out of batteries.
“Sorry Mike, I had to do it.” The man’s voice sounded like a bassoon. Mike nodded in time with the music, the movement of his head digging a soft cavity on the floor. He thought about sinking right there, in that deep coolness. Things moved above him, giant worn out sneakers attached to trunk-like legs and a round, elongated body with an incredibly tiny head on top. The head looked like Sandeep or perhaps a weather balloon eight miles or so up in the stratosphere on which someone had painted Sandeep’s face. Mike waved at his colleague, his hand bumping into the bed. There were mountains and valleys on that floor, as his hand soon found out taking a long trek around, hunting dust bunnies with some old surgical knife. There was clicking and beeping, then voices came from above.
“Mr. Xuan, Sandeep Dutta here, yes, yes, he has been subdued…”
The crème walls of the ancient living room caved inwards, sensually rubbing against each other. The monitor meowed rhythmically, a groovy, slow catbeat. Mike was on the floor curled up in a fetal position, mirroring Ms. Gloria, whom he could see on the floor on other side of the bed, eyes still wide open in surprise, or perhaps in disgust for such undignified treatment.
“They’ll be here soon,” she croaked, barely moving her beef jerky lips.
“Yeah, it’s over, it’s all over.”
“It’s not over 'til the fat lady sings,” she admonished, “and look at me, now, all skin and bones.”
“Get up, you idiot,” said Ms. Gloria.
“I need some coffee first.” Mike complained, rubbing his eyes with his free hand. He felt coffee being poured down his ear, it felt good, his head filling slowly with clear liquid, cold, salty, but good. Mike turned around to see the IV dripping in his face. There were sneakers now on the other side of the bed. A linen mercifully fell over Gloria. Mike looked at his right hand, the blade of the surgical knife he was holding was rusty but still sharp. There was stuff all over the floor, probably the tray he had upturned while fighting the wild cat. The room was acquiring again a solid look and feel, but Mike was still on the ground. He breathed deeply, hoped that whatever drug was still running in his system would help with the pain.
It did not. He dug the blade in his right temple, cutting an L shape, like he had seen done on the surgical table. The contours where easy to guess even without visuals. He had been feeling them under his fingers for the last fifteen years or so. The blade touched something hard. Mike dropped the knife on the floor, and fingered the little square of silicates now protruding slightly from his skin. He felt a warm liquid trickling down to his ear. He put his left hand in his mouth, bit down, and pulled the biochip out. His guts clenched, so he bit harder, tasting his own blood. He looked at the chip, it had little probes, like tentacles, still moving, no, it must still be the drugs, he decided, dropping it in the pocket of his scrubs.
“Help me up Sandeep,” he whined “please, man, come on”.
Sandeep walked around the bed. “What’s with all the blood?”.
“I hit my head falling. I feel sick, man, please help me.”
“They are coming, Mike, it’s all out of my hands, I’m sorry.”
“I understand, I know, I was an idiot, OK? No hard feelings, but please help me to the bathroom. Don’t make me wait here lying in my own vomit. Guess who would be cleaning, later.”
Sandeep stepped back, then shook his head and offered Mike his hand. Mike stood up, briefly hugging his colleague. They walked across the room, slowly, Mike breathing deeply every few steps.
“I have to throw up,” Mike announced, not three steps from destination “Don’t worry, I think I can get there by myself.”
Sandeep nodded, and Mike disappeared into the bathroom.
It was porcelain heaven, and running water paradise, something Mike would never again enjoy. His hand softly caressed the curve of the shell-shaped coral colored sink. Then he let some water run and enacted his best retching show.
“You OK in there?” Sandeep asked.
“Yeah, sure, just need to breathe for a minute,” Mike answered, washing his wound and pressing a towel to his head, “that stuff was nasty, man, what was it?”
There was a noise at the house entrance gate. Mike leaned against the bathroom door, clicking it closed.
“Coming,” Sandeep announced.
Mike heard his footsteps away from the bathroom. He took a deep breath, looked towards the bathroom window. A long time ago he had replaced the broken glass pane with cardboard.
“Mr. Giuliano, you are under arrest” said someone.
“No, I’m Mr. Dutta, Mr. Giuliano is…”
“Mr. Giuliano do not try to resist arrest.”
“You don’t understand, I am…” the rest of Sandeep’s sentence was marred by what sounded like an endless scream, interrupted only by the noise of a body convulsing on the hard wood floor.
“Sandeep, are you happy to be me, or is that just my biochip in your pocket?” Mike whispered to himself.
It was time to go. Carefully, dragging his hand over the smooth tiles he climbed up on the edge of the bathtub, punched out the cardboard pane, and wriggled through the window, turning to push himself into a sitting position on the window sill. Mike had a moment of dizziness, and gently collapsed against the wall. He needed to get one foot out, then the other, then slowly crawl down into the yard. Six feet at most, but in his current condition it looked like a major athletic undertaking, and he intended to plan each and every move. One foot was dangling when the bathroom door opened and the Chinese officer walked in, immediately pointing his lethal stubby black shocker.
“Hey you!” he shouted. Mike pushed his hands against the external wall and fell backwards on a pile of old boxes and gardening tools. It hurt, badly, but the pain woke him up completely. Mike briefly saw the officer’s eyes appear in the window, then heard him shout something in Chinese. He had to move, and move fast. He’d worry later about the pain and the bleeding. He heard footsteps around the house and ran the other way, not thinking, moving purely on instinct, disappearing behind the overgrown ivy to open the back door to the garage. He had been there, not an hour earlier, cornering the cat. When he spotted the old bike he knew why his feet had taken him there.
He had been looking at the old racing bike for years, even pumping up the tires once in a while, sitting on it during work pauses or turning the wheels to hear the familiar ticking of the chain. It never failed to bring him back to happier times. But he had never dared to take it out for a spin. He was not afraid to use his employer’s dilapidated properties. It was something deeper, he had decided, there were memories that were better off locked up in the realm of the time that was, and could never be again.
The officers’ voices interrupted his reverie. They were trying to open the main garage door, probably missed the side entrance. He pulled the bike down carefully. The tires were still OK from the last time he'd played with it. He just hoped it would not collapse in a rusty heap under him. He sat on it. The saddle was worn, or perhaps his buttocks were, but it did not feel half bad. Then he hit the electrical switch, and the garage door opened in front of the astonished policemen. Faster than their eyes could get used to the dark interior, he was pedaling out. He heard voices, then a whistle. Mike flew through the security gate the officers had propped open, hit the asphalt. It felt great to be back in the saddle.
With a familiar whirrrr the officers started their gyroscopic two-wheelers to give chase, and the stars on the red wheels blurred in a yellow streak. They were twenty yards or so behind him, Mike had to make sure they would not get a clean line to shock him or, worse, shoot him. He dove past the first right turn, approaching the end of the private driveway that led out of the McInerney mansion. The driveway t-boned the road coming up from the waterfront, the one he had walked up with Sandeep earlier. He had less than a second to make a decision--drop down the incline towards the crowds and perhaps other Central Force patrols or turn towards the mountainside and pedal up. Mike did not even brake, took a deep breath, then pointed the wheel uphill. He mashed the pedals, felt the bike squeak below him, but it started to slowly gain momentum. He still knew the moves well, he had biked up and down these hills thirty years earlier to keep in shape. Back then the problem had been the actual excess of calories rather than the amount of chalk powder in the daily rations of tofu. The network of narrow, steep foothill roads was still printed in his head. They had been built for a pre-mechanized civilization, invaded by cars for over a century, then abandoned once more to sparse pedestrian traffic. Mike negotiated the holes in the asphalt, picked up rhythm on a switchback, then started pedaling up again. He still felt dizzy, but it wasn’t the residual drugs, it was something else. A burning sensation at the bottom of his lungs, a tug at his heart, his head joining in the taiko drum concert that played out in his chest.
“Don’t give up on me now,” he spat out, gasping for breath. He started hearing the prolonged whine of the gyroscooters. They were gaining on him. He could not stop now, he would never be able to restart on such a steep incline. He forced himself to relax his shoulder and focused on his rhythm, counting in his head, one, two, one, two. Slower, he had to consciously slow down to a speed he could steadily maintain. Mike had hoped his body would remember, or at least his mind still knew how to give orders.
He blotted out the image of the officers tailing him, then focused on the old but familiar sensations, feeling his body starting to work once more as it was supposed to, forcing his breathing to be regular, ignoring the burn in his legs. The tone of the whining electric engines fell to a low drone. Their machines were having bigger problems than his. Mike allowed himself to look to his left over the side of the road. He had not enjoyed this view in a long time. The refineries' smokestacks just down south, the gray ocean incessantly eating away at the eroding shores. Along the breakwater, an HMO supply train inched along, pumping synthetic nutrients in the bloodstream of the dying city. Even from this distance he could see the Han characters and the long pale blue moniker running across wagons: Huang Management Company. He looked up towards the hill crest. It was still far off.
He wondered what was on the other side. He had heard of people living on the other side in the sun-baked valley by the old reservoir, cultivating their own food, perhaps more. Hippies and outcasts, people with no HMO. People like him.
He kept a steady pace up, he felt light, very light now. No one was chasing him any longer. He doubted they’d send a copter after him. Fuel was expensive, and what did he matter anymore? He was out of the system for good. There were no more houses or house remains, just the occasional carcass of an old rusty vehicle abandoned on the side of the road. Right behind one Mike saw her. It was the woman from downtown, the one he had helped earlier that morning. She hid, her three-wheeled vehicle in the shadow of the old SUV. How she could have gotten so far up on that heavy trike Mike could not fathom. A wheel was once more pulled off the axle. She raised her hand, and Mike read recognition on her face, then a smile. Mike stopped, putting a foot on the ground. She was close, so close. Their eyes danced together, their lips almost brushed. Then she slapped him, repeatedly.
Mike opened his eyes to see one of the officers leaning on him, still feeling the sting on his cheeks. His heart was dancing some crazy, irregular beat. He was leaning on the mountain side of the road, the bike on the ground, a wheel still slowly spinning.
The officer didn’t offer a smile, his eyes unreadable under mirrored lenses. He pulled down a helmet-mounted camera, and a red LED came up to indicate recording and transmission was on. In a steady, mechanical tone the officer started reciting a list of codes and articles, infractions and felonies, from resisting arrest to causing accidental death, property destruction, cruelty to animals. Mike only half-listened, breathing laboriously. Then the officer clicked something, and a scroll of paper unfurled from a wearable cyber unit.
“Please acknowledge your sentence,” the officer said, handing Mike the scroll. It listed the charges, and the word “death” was clearly spelled at the bottom.
“What if I don’t agree?” panted Mike.
The officer just shrugged, and pointed his black blaster to Mike’s forehead, two tiny electrodes digging in the skin of his temporal lobes.
“Any last words you would like to have recorded?”
“Merry Xmas,” said Mike.
“You can’t really say that anymore,” said the frowning officer.
“I was talking to her,” Mike said, pointing behind the officer.
“Stop or I’ll shoot!” shouted the woman, a toy space gun in her hands. The officer turned to look, just one second. Mike went for it, pushing the black barrel of the shocker towards the officer, who struggled back, until it made contact with his leg.
Mike looked at the policeman. He was still breathing, and Mike had made sure his vitals were OK. The woman grabbed him by the arm.
“We have to go now!” she urged him, “we can help you, we can hide you, but we need to move!”
Mike nodded. He crouched for an instant next to the officer, and pressed his security badge into his hand.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Yao,” He said, before taking off after the woman.
This story is a part of the Spec the Halls contest for speculative winter holiday-themed fiction, artwork, and poetry. You may find guidelines and links to other entries at http://www.aswiebe.com/specthehalls.html