Excerpt from “Collapse Theory”
As promised, here is excerpt from my yet to be published short story “Collapse Theory”. Enjoy:
The air felt warm for October and the patron’s of O’Hare’s Pub obviously approved. The bar looked half-full with the usual crowd of this working-class, smoked filled watering hole. Poor laborers blew away their weekly salary and proles spent the dole President Loeb’s Social-Democrats provided to the unemployed masses.
The Cubs were losing to New Orleans, once again on the barside television. One of the patrons swore loudly after another Cubs player struck out and his friends ridiculed him for his mistaken faith. The farside wall screen ran the local news channel, showcasing the death of six Yugoslavian UN Peacekeepers in Arizona while discussing the continued threat of the Pacific Socialist States or Texas intervening to end the Arizona insurgency.
Angela swung away from the farside screen, sleeking down her short black hair with a slight moue at the amount of smoke. The fifth, or was it the sixth? leering patron walked too near her, but had enough sense to stare at her eyes instead of her breasts. She looked him in the eye; indifference and the lazy unconcern of somebody easily able to defend herself gave him pause. He hesitated and then swerved for the bathroom.
Angela gave a sniff of disgust as he retreated, and immediately regretted it. Whatever happened to the Anglo-American Timeline prejudice against smoking tobacco?
A light haze of cigarette smoke interfered with Angela’s vision. It almost looks like the haze from…No! Do not go there! Just stay by the bar. The contact is expected to find a woman seated at the bar watching the news.
The news channel played part of a speech by the President of the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics, promising to increase financial aid to the United States if they allowed UN weapons inspectors back into the country. The crowd booed and hissed. Barbarians. Their timeline is on the verge of Collapse and all they care about is their petty feuds. She shook her head internally as she observed them with their coarse language, shabby clothes and vile liquor. Maybe we should unleash the Psych Bureau on this timeline. Long stay in a reeducation camp is what these animals need.
The chimes over the door interrupted her thoughts. She looked over and forced herself not to scowl.
She knew the arrogant young man in a faded leather jacket and jeans standing in the door. The white smudge lines on his left sleeve marked him as Angela’s contact. A five-o’clock shadow and small scar just under his lower lip did not disguise him from her. He waved at some men who greeted him, but scanned the bar. Spying Angela, he sauntered over to her.
Crap. Control should have warned me it was Jake. She stayed in character, tossing her head and giving him a cold shoulder. To calm herself she recited the Technocratic Creed: I am a cog. I am a piece of the machine. I work for the greater good.
“Hello, Angela,” the man said, smirking. “It’s been a long time.”
Angela sipped from her glass. “Do I have to say, it’s good to see you Jake; but you could have shaved. Or are you trying to hide the scar?”
Deliberately she traced the scar with her index finger. Her smile cruel and her eyes hard. Jake flinched and Angela continued to smile. Good, as long as you remember who put it there. Maybe we can get through this quickly . . . without your stupid nonsense.
Jake turned to the bar and quickly ordered a beer. Angela watched as he took the mug and felt her eyes narrow in satisfaction at the carefully controlled grip, the tremble that didn’t quite make it out. He gestured with the mug and she shrugged and walked to an empty booth at the far end of the bar. She noticed the men who’d spoken to him coming in watching them. They didn’t know if Jake had scored or not and she felt some grim satisfaction. Jake liked to build on a reputation of being the “Slavic Sensation;” the man who could take any woman for a ride.
“So when did you get in?”
“Two hours ago,” Angela replied. “I broke the brane in a clearing over on the Eggers Woods forest preserve. A parallel of it actually exists on 01-02-1891 so the transition was easy.”
Jake nodded and took a healthy swig. He took a moment to look at Angela. “You still look beautiful by the way.”
“I will castrate you, Jakub Tillich.”
He flinched for a second time and laughed uneasily, covering his momentary lapse. “You still don’t swear like a normal person. Crap, when we broke up . . . you were so much the model technocrat; I didn’t really believe you.
Jake fingered his scar. “Well . . . until the end.”
“I do not have time for this,” Angela said. “Remember that cultures can be wildly different. You tripped over a hidden trap and nearly died in it. Bait me and you could still die.”
She took a moment to let her threat sink in then continued. “This is business. The Time Stream Protection Task Force has assigned me a clean-up mission in this timeline and if you are not going to help me I am sure Odin’s Hell Hole would love to have a new inmate.”
Jake held up his hands. “Sorry, you are right…as usual. You do not have to threaten to feed me to the Vikings. I promise to cooperate.”
Jake leaned forward and put his hands on table. “Also I had nothing to do with us being paired again. I just passed on what I learned and then got orders to meet an agent here. So let’s forget about our . . . past relationship and get on with this.”
Angela searched the man’s face, but she could not catch any of the tell-tale signs of deceit. Her face became fractionally more sympathetic. “Did you ever go back home and find her?”
Jake looked away. Angela momentarily regretted bringing up mention of the woman from Jake’s childhood.
“Yeah, I did, after we broke up. She’s dead. The most excellent government of Vendia was kind enough to provide a pinewood box before dumping her in an unmarked grave.” He spit on the already filthy floor of the bar.
“I am sorry. She sounded like a wonderful person.”
Jake waved Angela’s comment away and his usual jovial voice returned. “No worries. I made sure to lodge a complaint with those responsible. It was good to see someone get cut up beside me for once.”
Jake chuckled as he unconsciously fingered his scar again. “Now I have been rewarded with a date with my crazy ex-girlfriend and a chance to rat out another criminal and hopefully move in on his territory. Good times.”
Jake quickly chugged his beer and waved toward the bartender for another. Angela just recited her creed again to calm herself before continuing.
“Do you have any information for me?”
Jake reached under the table with his right hand and placed a tiny plastic zip drive, which Angela quickly pocketed.
“Let us get on with the business at hand. I have been briefed and I will review this intelligence later, but I want to hear your opinion about this world and what is happening here.”
“I heard about what happened on 07-113-1558. Grade-A clusterfuck if you ask me. You were lucky to get out alive.”
Angela face became set in stone. “That is irrelevant to the mission.”
“I heard the Community is calling it ‘Gehenna’. You know…the Jewish hell.”
Angela stared daggers at Jake, “The situation, please?”
Jake gave a slight chuckle, “I was contacted about two months ago. They told me there was a job on 04-190-1945, but it was dangerous. The natives here a restless, you saw the news.”
A waitress arrived with Jake’s new beer. He thanked her and took a healthy swig from it. “At first I didn’t believe what they were asking. Turns out condoms and other birth control are illegal here. I almost choked on my beer when I heard it, but the guys who run this shit-hole had to make a deal with some religious nut-jobs to keep them from shooting up every tax collector who came knocking.”
Angela nodded and Jake continued. “So standard procedure, we bought wholesale on Santamaria…”
“Whatever. Like I said we bought wholesale, transferred it to this abandoned steel mill, jacked up the prices and raked in the profit. I got my share and everything else went back to the group running it from Santamaría.”
“So what went wrong?”
“I got suspicious when my ‘partner’ showed up. Said his name was John. They told me they wanted one of their guys working with me just to be sure I kept our bargain.”
Jake took a large swig from his beer. “Can you think of a better way to insult a smuggler?”
“A few. Tell me about this other smuggler.”
“He wasn’t a smuggler; I figured that out really quick. Almost blew our cover when he got into a pissing contest with a potential buyer.”
Jake took another drink from his beer before he continued. “He also kept me from looking at all of the products . . . well tried to anyway. Did you know assault rifles are considered contraceptives?”
Angela rolled her eyes. Jake hesitated and stared at his half-empty beer for a moment. “He had a look in his eye as well.”
“The one that says I have seen some deep shit. You have a little of it yourself.”
Angela sighed. She began to understand her adversary. “Soldier?”
“Yep. Called in a couple of favors and found an ID. Julius Williams, New Afrikan.”
Angela unconsciously rubbed her left thigh as she spoke, remembering the time she broke up another rogue New Afrikan operation in the Confederate States of American on Earth 04-020-1861. “I have experience with them on another timeline. Let me guess, trying to export their revolutionary ideas to the local black population?”
Jake nodded. “Blacks got it rough in this timeline. There was a lot of fighting in the 60s after they came back from their war in Cuba and still found whitey lording it over them. Now it looks like they found a sympathetic ear from the New Afrikans.”
“Tell me more about Julius.”
“Veteran of the Liberian Civil War on Santamaria and participated in some of their other interventions there until the powers that be put a lid on such . . . extracurricular activities.”
A waitress approached them and Jake ordered another beer. “Does he have any accomplices?”
Jake took another long drink and finished his beer. “You sure are talkative tonight. Not from his timeline, but he has several local boys running around. Five or six of them, young hotheads eager for the revolution.”
Angela nodded. “This United States is unlikely to hold out for long. If the New Afrikans are attempting to arm the local black population then they have very fertile grounds to work with. My briefing said they have been second-class citizens for generations and they have not attempted any significant acts of social engineering to placate the populace.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “You technocrats think you can solve every Earth’s problems by walling everyone up. When was the last time your Technocracy created a painting or film anyone liked? Your culture has been stagnant for generations.”
Angela felt an old surge to argue with Jake, but suppressed it. “As much as I would love proving you wrong again, how about we just focus on this Earth. I plan to move in a few days, be ready.”
“Just go after Julius and try not to shoot me or my boys in the process.”
Angela said as she gave her first genuine smile. “No promises.”