Following on from where I left off a couple of weeks ago because…well…I couldn’t just leave Connor standing there on the street! Also, to those readers and friends who were mad at me for killing off Oz — that part of the story ain’t over yet!
Did the sky look different?
Connor didn’t particularly want to think about that. Things like sky and weather and horizons had been bad enough while still inside the structured environment of the prison. On the outside, where chaos and confusion reigned? Where everything — every thought, every emotion — seemed just that much more intense? On the outside, those concepts became downright threatening. They were things Connor didn’t want to think about, not at that particular moment, not standing just outside the exit he had never expected to see.
There was a strange sense of loss as he stood there, and of vulnerability. You didn’t have to think in prison, didn’t have to deal with complications. You didn’t have to do anything in prison. You just had to survive. That was why, he had long ago decided, so many inmates were so terrified of actually getting out.
Oh, they would talk about getting out. They would say all the right things about what they would do when they got out. But as soon as release began to loom as a real possibility? It was then that they would intentionally screw up and guarantee themselves another year or two inside. In prison they could find the sanity and security of knowing exactly where they stood. On the outside they would find nothing but uncertainty and complication.
The front of Chapman Pen was large, but not nearly so big as you would think, given the prison’s true size. And around that front? A whole lot of nothing, Connor noted.
Weed covered plots, for the most part, and a few rundown buildings housing what he could only assume were warehouses and small manufacturers. A couple of hundred feet away, just down the road from the prison, were parked two of the autonomous taxis that were the planet’s only real option for personal, independent transportation for the vast majority of Redux’s population.
A sigh, then, and he took up his guitar and started to walk. You had to have an account and an implant to use those taxis, and Connor had neither. Connor, in fact, had no desire for either. Connor wanted to fly under the radar, to disappear into the crowds and independence of the city’s east side. He wanted, at the heart of it, to live again in the anonymity that had been his lot for so long.
The sun was out, and the clouds receding, as the planet offered the closest thing it had to a nice evening. The weather was the final straw, the last incomprehensible in a day that had been full of them. It was too much for Connor, too much to process. Four years early…why had they let him out four years early? What the hell was going on?
He could think of nothing to explain it. Nothing, at least, that did not involve him ending up dead in a ditch somewhere. Someone, somewhere had pulled strings to release him, and something like that came with a price. A very, very high price.
He worried, and he thought. That was nothing new, the worry or the thought. Those had, in fact, been his habits since most of Dockside had decided the universe would be a better place if it were Connor-free. Another part of him, however, a part far more primal and basic, could not escape the surge of joy that came with seeing that sky. He was free. Everything else aside — all the bullshit and danger, all the demons of his past — he was free.
Freedom meant everything. Day after day in that prison, night after night in his cell, thoughts and dreams of freedom had been things to avoid, things to fear. Freedom was…intoxicating. Worse then the drugs he had been addicted to as an ikiryo, worse than the booze that still was a part of his life, the very thought of freedom set his mind to reeling and spinning.
Freedom was also dangerous. That was the other part of the joy, the very real fear that asked just what the hell he was going to do now?
For the moment, Connor walked. No matter what, he knew, he had to keep moving. If he stopped, it was all too likely he would never again be able to start.
Most of the time, as he walked, he stared at the concrete under his feet. Bare and cracked and dark it was…crumbling and decayed. The neighborhood around Chapman Pen hadn’t seen better days, it had never seen so much as a single good day. Amidst all the confusion and uncertainty, that concrete gave Connor something on which he could focus, so he stared.
What if he stumbled? What if he fell? He was smart enough, and remembered enough of Oz’s teachings about philosophy, and about life, to understand the symbolism in that particular fear, but it was very real nonetheless. If he fell, he wasn’t sure he would ever again find his feet.
Almost a half-mile it was, from the prison to the nearest street corner. Just what the hell that corner meant, Connor had no idea, but he had to have some kind of goal. A goal he could see. A goal he could hold to while the universe around him spun and whirled in the purest chaos and confusion. So he walked. He walked toward that corner. He walked with his eyes fixed on the decrepit concrete and his mind working desperately to make sense of something that should never have been possible.
Connor had lived a life where the smallest detail, the tiniest clue, could mean the difference between survival and starvation. He did not miss things. To miss things, in his life, meant death, and he was still very much alive.
Still, he missed the hum of an engine. The whoosh of air. Even the squeal and complaint from its tires as the van turned sharply around. The smell and noise as that same van swerved in front of him and slammed to a stop? That he did not miss.
Wait…what aho with a private vehicle that would be interested in him? That was a question unpleasantly easy to answer. That answer brought a cold, quiet chuckle that told of fatalism, and of reality.
“It won’t be long now, Oz,” he whispered under his breath. A bit melodramatic, he knew, but fuck it…if Dockside’s Families were going to kill him, he might as well go overboard while he still had the chance.
It was black, that vehicle. Black and large, with heavily tinted windows. And that observation brought its own laugh, sardonic and all-too-knowing. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, can we skip the cliches?” he complained in that same low voice. Then he started to laugh.
“Jesus Christ, Spog,” he could almost hear Oz’s voice, almost see his smile. “If you’re laughing when the gurentai come to kill you, how are they supposed to take you seriously?”
A grinding sound, like an airlock hatch poorly balanced and out of its track, and the broad side door of the vehicle slide open. Two men stepped out, their eyes fixed solely on Connor.
One was indeed the proverbial gurentai: big, athletic, and with eyes that said every other human was something he would prefer to scrape off the bottom of his shoe. The second, on the other hand, was someone completely different.
Oh, he was just as tall — as was everyone on this world, so far as Connor could tell — but his tight, closely-tailored suit hugged and defined a body as rail-thin as Connor’s used to be. Brown hair turning grey, and faded blue eyes, said that slenderness had nothing to do with youth, while the expensive suit said it had nothing to do with the ravages of starvation.
Why the hell would anyone want to look an underfed adolescent? Connor shook his head and refrained — barely — from laughing out loud. In a short life that had seen and known far too much, this had to be the most ridiculously surreal scene he had ever experienced.
When that slender man spoke, however, his clear voice carried a tone and accent that everything Connor had learned of Redux said belonged only to the rich and powerful. “Mr. Spogelse, it’s good to see you finally free. My employer would like to speak with you, if it’s convenient.”
This time there was no stopping Connor’s chuckle, as bitter and cynical as it was. No, sir, it’s not convenient, he wanted to say. The eyes of that gurentai, however, were answer enough. Connor was getting into that vehicle one way or the other. Shou ga nai.
Oh, very definitely, shou ga nai.
Connor shrugged to show his acceptance and stepped forward to sit where the looming thug pointed.
Freedom had been nice while it lasted.