Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Gears and Mud

by William Jang



The cold wind shook me out of sleep. I lay on my back and for a moment the bullet holes in the tin roof above me looked like blurry stars. The casement windows had been knocking rhythmically against the walls for hours, but noise never wakes me up. It was the damn cold.

I rolled off the groaning box spring, and slammed the windows shut. Voila, no more wind; if only every problem could be solved so easily.

I opened my fridge only to see the stained back wall of the blasted machine. What was the point in stealing one if I never filled it up?

I had no idea what time it was. It could have been the morning, the night, or the afternoon. One thing I did know, my most expensive habit needed to be fed: I needed a smoke. And, trained young to be civilized, I still had the absurd habit of stepping outside.

I kicked open the plywood door and stepped out under the slate-grey sky. The streets were as muddy as ever. You needed to tie your boots to your legs if you wanted to keep them. The bar across the street was sinking into the soft mud of the slums, only so slowly you couldn't tell.

Soot from the slum lords' toxic bonfires streaked the outer walls of my shanty, huddled in that sea of lopsided shanties, a world of temporary shelters slipping imperceptibly into the mudflats. You could find all sorts of things in the mud of the Wallows, but none of it smelled good when it burned.

In the distance, Wallowers were crawling along the edges of the mudflows. Some of them had hooks, others nets. Stuff from the city often came flowing in that sludge. We were lucky that way, in the Wallows. We had premium access to city sludge.

I made it a point of resisting the curiosity that drew my fellow inhabitants of the slums to the shores of the mudflow. Instead, I leaned back against my shack, and watched. But that morning, some kind of flotsam and jetsam from the city was coming my way, whether I wanted it or not.

His clothes were the first things that marked him out: carnelian-red suit beneath a frivolous white shirt topped off with a tilted purple bowtie, set off against black pants and black dress shoes. I had seen a few lightheaded fools from the capitol come to these parts. Mostly, they wanted chem 13. Lucky for him, I did not want a suit that day.

I pulled out my knife. He didn't care. He was still smiling, and gosh damn his teeth were whiter than a bright light in your night vision. "Ruphus," he said, looking me in the eye. It wasn't a question.

"That's a dangerous name. Sometimes city-folk disappear here in the Wallows."

"Yes," he raised his brows. "Conveniently."

I looked him over. "Who are you and how'd you find me?"

He nodded toward the door.

I took a last, long drag, then crushed my cigarette butt under my heel and opened the door.

He strolled on in, his eyes darting about. He ran his fingers along the soot-covered walls and even peeked inside the dented kettle to see if there was anything boiling, even though the stove was off.

These Beauvilleans, I had to laugh. They're so used to that clean electric hum, they get mighty curious about the way we live in the slums, like we're aliens from another planet or creatures in a zoo.

Craning his neck, he took in the holes in the ceiling. "You know, you're very well furnished for someone living in the slums," he said, arching an eyebrow. "You have electrical appliances and, heck, even a generator to power them. Where did you get all these things?"

If I thought he was implying I dealt chem 13, I'd have thrown him out on his ass. "Time has a mysterious way of bringing things downstream, if one's patient."

The kid scoffed and looked me in the eye, "Well, it seems you're a patient man, Ruphus. Patient enough to win your hand."

I walked over to the stove, turned on the burner. "Nothing like a nice cuppa Bru. Makes you piss battery acid, but the buzz is worth it. Now, what's the hand, and who's dealing?"

The kid let out a particular laugh that sounded like a squeal of some sort. I guessed that it was some sort of happiness. He was gawking at my table, an old piece of plywood balanced on a rotten crate, with two old crates for chairs. I kicked one of them over to him. Anyways, as the Bru was brewing, he began to share the sort of plan that I had not heard of since my days with my old mentor, Villovous.

####

The Capital Paper flew down the Pneumatic tube with a low-pitched hissing sound, and came to a halt at the end of the tube. I tapped out the rolled up document, and the rubber band flew off into the pigsty of my cubicle. Nobody visited me anymore, because I neglected one of the chief Virtues: cleanliness. Idiots, a little messiness never killed anybody.

The paper still wanted to retain its rolled up position. I had to bend it the other way multiple times just to keep it flat. How annoying. I read the date, although I was perfectly aware of what day it was. The mail gears only moved on Saturday, with utmost precision and punctuality. My eyes scanned the front-page. The headline read, "Villovous! Arrested!"

Now this was not your plain old news. It was not a headline about an engineer messing up a gear, or about the increase of garbage by a measly 0.02%. This was the real deal. This Villovous fellow had stood in the central square for the past week, his salt-grey hair blowing in the ocean breeze, as he ranted on and on about the current Elect Belphen's move to eliminate the election process. But why would they arrest him for only ranting? It was a democracy after all.

The bells tolled, signaling breakfast time. I stood up and realized, with my first step, that my legs were asleep. I managed to hop and shuffle, feet buzzing like an angry hive, towards the kitchen across the hallway. The intricate gear system had already gotten my kettle burning, and the conveyor belt leading out of my cubicle was already silently moving a medium sized container towards my table. Just as I picked up the container, the kettle screamed.

As I set about eating eggs, toast, bacon, and coffee, a booming shook the city. I peered out the window to see a black cloud billowing upwards from the Elect Building. Fire was dancing along its fašade and people were pouring out like dazed ants through its smoke-belching doors. Others were rushing out onto the street from the Research Building and Engineers Building, to take in the spectacle. Some of them may have been old enough to remember the war and the chaos it caused, but personally I was unconcerned. No doubt the gear system would extinguish the flames and repair the damage. I went back to my breakfast. A half an hour passed as I quietly read the paper. Footsteps. Quick footsteps. Running.

When I opened the door to investigate, a bearded man shoved his way past me into the room, and, gripping his left side, gasped, "Close the door, sir. Quickly."

Seconds later, I heard his pursuers stampeding past my door. I was still holding onto the knob . The unkempt man before me was, naturally, the man from the square. Villovous.

His lips pursed and his bushy grey brows arched high in an expression of fierce interest as he took in the countless galley proofs pegged, indiscriminately, to every inch of wall-space. Dire as his straits were, he was courteous. "How interesting that I would escape my pursuers in the cubicle of a man as well known as you, Mr. Publisher. That, my new friend, is fate."

I believe I was trembling. A moment ago, I had been eating my breakfast and reading the paper. Now I was harboring a fugitive and anarchist. As a young (and hardly famous) publisher of books that forecast the future of the global gear system and the challenge posed to the capitol cities by the 'slum problem', I had done what I could to glean gossip about the 'central square ranter'. The rumors were as mixed and many as the wind. Some said he had been an upper-echelon engineer, others that he had spent ten years in prison, others that he was the mad genius inventor of chem 13, others that he was all of these, and had somehow outwitted the gears, so that they gave him citizen-clearance though he was from the slums. Though I had dismissed all of these ideas outright, I was nevertheless struck, painfully, by the fact that our city did indeed harbor secret prisons. Now and then, people were detained, without explanation. Discomfited, I had begun to print a small pamphlet entitled The Future of the Penal System. It was these pamphlets that caught Villovous' gaze.

"I can see that I am not the only one who holds what some would call, the views of a heretic," he groaned as he picked a pamphlet up off the floor. "Can you not feel it as I do, Mr. Publisher? Fate demands change. The gears demand homeostasis. Fate is no preordained end, but the contrary. Fate is the overturning of every state of affairs that has grown stale. The gears strive to create unity but create division; fate celebrates division to create unity. That is why I was driven to change the cityscape by blowing up the building you now see up in smoke."

"You blew up the building."

"Bah, you weren't listening to me, Mr. Publisher."

I was still standing by the door, trembling.

He continued, "Know this, Mr. Publisher. This city is as much a prison for those who live within it as for those it excludes. The gear system has simply made you reliant sheep. Only when the Capitol Cities are brought down to the level of the Slums will there be unity. When we are all down at that level, it will no longer be the bottom."

I can tell you little more about that morning. Suffice it to say, I harbored him, a fugitive, in my cubicle until nightfall, when he made his escape. The next morning, all the papers shouted word of his arrest. I did not doubt it. But, then, I was wrong. I was wrong about many things. There were, certainly, far more secret detentions that month than normal. It never occurred to me that they were hunting for Villovous' accomplices, though I did break into strange night sweats, plagued by dreams that my arrest was next.

The secret police never came for me, though. Villovous did. One afternoon, two months after his first visit, he knocked politely at my door. I recognized him of course, though he had taken pains to be presentable. We spent several hours in pleasant conversation, and three months later he visited me again.

By then, I was ready. I had finally found the nerve to circulate my pamphlet on the prison system, and I knew my time was short. Villovous, however, knew a secret means of exit from the city, outside of which he had a mud-buggy ready. Even in our Perspex cockpits, it was a noisy, bumpy drive to the shanty in the outskirts of a slum twenty miles from Beauville.

I asked him, "You live here?"

"I was an engineer," he said quietly, seating himself in an old chair.

Foolishly, I checked the kettle with a childlike hope that I would find some coffee inside. Instead, it bubbled with a crude oily liquid. Villovous gestured me over to the table fixture and I sat down on a crate. He told me about his plan: a concoction of various ideas. He planned on hindering Beauville to near ruin. That way, the city would collapse inward as it realized its melancholy static state.

At random intervals, we would go to Beauville and steal, vandalize, or destroy Capitol City property Villovous knew the gear tunnels underneath the city inside and out. He guided us through the maze of metal and steam, a graveyard for those foolish enough to mess around in it. We would steal things as small as tiny gears. However, these miniscule scores would create a hole in the gear system thus creating a blackout in an entire sector of the city. We would severely damage the surrounding gears in order to prevent any quick patch jobs. It would take months to fix the problems we created, problems that in our eyes were solutions to the stagnancy and injustice of society.

Everything was going so well. However, one starry night as we made our way back to the Slums, I told Villovous to stay in the shanty while I went to the vacant building nearby, an old bar, to stash the new educational-technology prototype we had stolen (with its blueprints) from a revered scientist. Decades of that man's research, thieved for the greater good. When I returned, I found Villovous lying on his bed, head tilted back, eyes gazing at the ceiling. Bullet holes dotted the ceiling.

That night, when Villovous died, so did his dream.

####

The kid -- Darian -- had studied everything Villovous had done, alone, and later with my help. His plan had been a bit more -- ambitious, backed by his family's resources -- without their knowledge of course. They promised greater impact than anything Villovous and I had done, but also greater risk. And those promises have been fulfilled.

Bullets are whizzing past my head. I can barely stand up for fear of getting hit. The sounds of the projectiles are like hissing snakes, followed by terrifying snaps. We both dive into the sea bordering Beauville as the city erupts in flames. Darian just smiles at me and says, "Villovous did not think big enough, that's all."

From the sea, it looks like the flames of the city are licking the stars in the night sky. The numbness from the cold is making everything slow down.

Darian seems content with the way things have turned out. And so am I.

THE END


© 2012 William Jang

Bio: William Jang is a Seoul-born high school student from Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada, for the geographically challenged) whose interests include art, film, and graphic novels (presumably including, but not limited to, the manga favored by Aphelion's McCamy Taylor).

E-mail: William Jang

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