The Ride: Fiction from CG Inglis, Part 3
Sci-Fi-O-Rama is back with the third installment of “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, a series of interlocked stories from Toronto writer CG Inglis.
This month’s story takes us out of the cloistered spaces of the Institute and onto the hard streets of the Capital, where a teenage boy is taking his first ride with his step-sister’s crew of bikers. More than anything he wants to prove he belongs, but to do so he’ll have to ride harder and faster than he ever thought possible.
CG Inglis guns the throttle with “The Ride“.
The canal’s dark face is cut with diamonds, a reflected glare of highway lights and floodlit brilliance from the factory loading docks on the opposite side. Perched on a gleaming motorcycle, a teenage boy is staring at the water. His reflection atop the bike is a rippling distortion, foreshortened and almost unrecognizable. Lightly, he runs a hand over the front cowl. A Vision Mark 1, painfully new, its ink-black frame is unmarred, the chrome edging immaculate. Up front is a liquid-cooled, 998cc, 16-valve engine with a compact supercharger capable of reaching max speeds of 300km/h in a face-tearing 10.6 seconds. A lavish gift for his 16th birthday, it was also one the boy knew was coming. His father had promised, and no matter how grudging or reluctant it might have been, his father was a man who’d built a reputation by delivering on his promises. The boy spent months agonizing over the model and specs before finally settling on the perfect ride. Even now he can’t believe it belongs to him. He is an impostor, a fraud, a nervous kid seated on far too much machine.
His step-sister’s voice causes him to start. Helmet slung under one arm, her nightshade jacket a tailored shadow, Aida is everything the boy hopes one day to become. With a crew of her own, a half-shaved scalp, and that thin, mysterious scar at her jaw – when Tann’s father introduced her after the marriage to her mother, his third wife, it was like meeting a creature from another world. She belonged to a realm Tann had only ever dreamed about before, far removed from the tamed and toothless opulence he’d been raised in. Standing in front of him now, she is the road personified, and he is not aware of staring, only of his dry throat, and the small, knowing smile that has materialized on his step-sister’s mouth.
“You’re good?” she asks him. Tann nods. He has developed the habit of speaking as little as possible around her. He finds he makes fewer mistakes this way.
“I need to hear you say it.”
“I’m good,” he tells her, flushing at the unsteadiness he can hear in his voice. Aida sighs.
“I’m going out on a limb here,” she continues. “I don’t have time to babysit, and neither does anyone else.”
“Relax.” The boy risks a smile. “What could go wrong?”
This produces a laugh, and Tann sits up straighter, a warm shot of adrenaline working through him.
“Just follow the instructions and meet us back here by dawn. Got it?”
Again he nods, and for the first time in memory he is gifted her touch; momentary, sisterly, her gloved hand is on his shoulder. Before he has a chance to react, she is already walking away. Tann permits himself to breathe.
Lowering his helmet, he looks once more at the canal. Through his tinted visor the reflected lights are deadened somewhat, purplish and wavering. The bike, and Tann’s reflection, could belong to anyone. With a vicious swipe he pulls the clutch and hits the ignition, the Vision Mark 1 roaring into life.
Aida has mounted her own machine, a red Mark 2. Scattered nearby are the rest of the crew: Gin (Sword AX, black), Maj (Vision Mark 1, yellow) and Lukas (Rise 100x, green), all of them helmeted and waiting. Aida swings her black face panel in Tann’s direction. One of the others revs an engine.
No words are spoken. None are needed. They start, and Tann follows, the vacant stretch of concrete they’d occupied falling away and the canal receding in his mirrors. Aida pulls ahead, her bike’s red tail light streaming, then it’s Maj and Gin and Lukas (Tann lets them go, savouring it, each wheel a silver black blur, every body fused to its machine). Thunderous, ecstatic, their passage is like a saw ripping through the night.
It was this sound that hooked him, years ago, when as a child he’d sit awake and listen to the bikes passing on some distant highway, dreaming of what it would be like to ride as a member of a crew, the rush of it, the brotherhood of the pack. Now that sound is his own, the Mark 1 singing as Tann settles forward over the throttle, a single, silent node within a searing thrust of sonic violence.
Aida has already reached the ramp, and one by one the crew leans into it; ascending the slope to the highway, the city is revealed by degrees, and as Tann tracks the stuttering high-rises whipping past he knows that he is here, finally, right where he was meant to be. The muscles in his legs are like coiled springs, and his head sits light on his shoulders. The bike’s heat courses through him like a consecration. He releases a single, whooping call, his voice raucous inside the helmet. The elevated highway narrows to the horizon, a river of pavement sprayed orange by the soaring lamp posts. Accelerating just hard enough to catch up to Aida, for an instant her helmet is tilted in his direction, and then she is hurtling forward, head down. Tann glances again at the skyline, the endless sea of towers and the horizon-wide stretch of clouds, a distant helicopter running parallel to the road, one searchlight forcibly seeking.
Aida has her arms upraised, and Tann can almost hear her brief, girlish laugh. Gin swerves to the left, edging the median. Ahead a car appears, heavy and lumbering, and then there is another and another and another. Tann darts between the traffic, drifting in and out of the spaces that are always there, expanding and contracting. Unfurling, the highway is a neural net, and he is a synapse, firing.
As the highway burns away, Aida takes the exit for the Avenue of Parades. Drifting forward, the crew descends to street level. On either side, granite buildings are slashed by tree limbs, statues of important men standing at intervals in the strip of grass between the lanes. One intersection flies past, and then the next, but the third halts them. Tann pulls up to Aida and the three others fall into a neat line at his right.
The light changes. Tann surges forward, shoulders arched, back a rigid curve. He is in the lead now, the bike responding to every twitch of muscle. Laughter comes to him a moment before he knows it as his own. He risks a look over his shoulder and is greeted by a row of cars. Frowning, he swings his gaze forward and then back in the next breath. Aida and her friends are gone.
The boy slows the bike and pulls up at the side of the road. Fumbling, he succeeds in removing the phone from his jacket. Aida’s text is waiting for him.
[A cut from the Capital’s finest.]
Tann’s eyes have shut. In the closeness of the helmet his breath is very loud. The trial is part of joining a crew. They’d all been through one in their time, even Aida. What he’d been offered on highway was only a taste. If he wants more, he will have to pay the toll. But to demand this? It’s not like they grew up together, but Aida is family, at least in name, and Tann wanted to believe she would protect him as her brother. Instead, this is what she asks for, a trophy from a cop. Maybe it was because they were family. She could not afford to go easy on him.
Eyes opening, he releases the air from his lungs. The street is unchanged, the night indifferent. There is nothing to do but go on.
Drifting back into the flow of traffic, he scans the road for any sign of police, or of Aida and her crew, but all he can see in every direction are cars, cars, cars. More than a dozen are idling at the next set of lights. As red blinks to green, Tann finds himself trapped behind a black sedan. It can’t even be doing the speed limit, and the boy slams a palm to his knee, cursing under his breath. There is an urgency to move, to do something. Each second ticking by is another lost forever. He edges to the right, but there is no space to pass the sedan. He grinds his teeth, his hands tight on the throttle.
Ahead, the Avenue of Parades broadens in a long ellipse around the Governing Seat. Floodlit, the massive structure rises into the night, cutting off any view of the oncoming lanes. Marble columns flicker past, and then the outgrowth of scaffolding on the building’s east wing. Tann is sweating freely now, an acidic tension churning in his guts; even if he finds a cop, what can he hope to accomplish? He told Aida he was ready, but the truth is that he is still a child, a spoiled brat with a shiny new toy. He will never be one of them.
He would spit if he could. Instead he cracks his neck. The black sedan is making a turn, and Tann pushes forward, leaving it at last behind. The road ahead is clear, and it could take him home. There will be other chances. Aida’s is not the only crew.
The denial arrives from his core. He won’t give up so easily. A trophy or a call to his father from jail. For him, those are the only options. He might get arrested, sure, but the cops would never go too hard on a kid like him, and his father could have him out by morning. There is apprehension at the thought, but no fear. The only question is how to start. Even if he happens to run into the police he’d have to get inside a car to grab anything. Maybe he’ll get lucky and stumble on a flunky writing parking tickets.
As one block bleeds into the next, the city changes its face. Government mansions give way to apartment complexes, rows of shuttered restaurants. The flowing air cools the boy, settling his thoughts. There is the road, the precision growl of the bike’s engine, and in the space between one breath and the next, an answer comes to him.
The artery, he thinks, the great canal. The city’s neon-drenched heart, it is the place where nights are born, and where they go to die. Fueled by drink and amphetamines, it can also be rough. Uniformed police are often assigned to patrol the crowds. There, Tann could approach a cop on foot, swipe their badge or hat, and hope to lose himself in a torrent of drunken humanity before being arrested.
Glancing over his shoulder, he swerves sharply to the left. A sudden u-turn causes a horn to blare, but the boy laughs, raising his fist. Call the cops! He should call them himself, and he wonders now if Aida did him a favour. In forcing him to hunt the police, he has been freed of consequence. He’ll be sure to thank her, once he’s returned with his prize and can look her in the eye as an equal.
Cutting through a trash-strewn alley, Tann passes over the Wine-Seller’s Bridge and into the low town. The buildings here are older, the concrete smog-blackened, splotchy with mold. Electrical lines hang over the street in shallow arcs. Hundreds of locked bikes in jumbled rows flash by, and as many people. Tann slows, weaving his way through the gathering crowd. Soon enough he is forced to dismount and walk. Leaving his helmet in place, he imagines himself as he must look to everyone else. A figure shrouded in black, he is the reaper, stalking, and the crowd parts in front of him.
The first rumour of the artery is in its smell, a low, organic murmur like a damp animal. The streets grow narrow, discount shopping centers and 24 hour eateries cramming up against each other for space. Touts stalk the crowd, pushing everything from host bars to gambling dens. Bales of trash are humped at every corner, the humid air diffuse with refracted light. Parking his bike at the foot of a crumbling staircase, Tann ascends to the embankment and the great canal at last comes into view.
A broad incision of water, the artery is razor-straight, its surface painted in neon. Towering entertainment blocks rise in either direction, every free inch of space encrusted with the flashing, blinking logos of restaurant chains, beer companies, confectioneries. Along both banks, docked in an unbroken, kilometer-long chain, are the famous dining skiffs. The artery’s most storied attraction, these converted fishing boats act as floating restaurants, serving up cheap food and a respite from the district’s more harried entertainments. Smoke and the fragrant scent of grilling meat waft along the embankment. Mouth watering, Tann removes his helmet. The dawn seems far off, and he could spend half the night combing the streets without running into the police. Burning half an hour in a skiff and heading out with a full stomach suddenly seems like a good idea. If he’s lucky, some beat cop might even wander by while he’s eating.
Descending a rusting ladder, he boards the nearest skiff. Behind a counter of salvaged wood is the cook. A young man only a few years older than Tann, he smiles in welcome as he sets a glass of water on the counter.
“What can I get you?” he asks. His voice is lightly accented, his dark eyes kind. Behind him, lashed to a pole at the skiff’s bow, is the symbol of his religion, a simple wooden mask. Living in the city’s affluent suburbs, Tann has rarely had the chance to speak with anyone from the low continent. Though obviously lower class, the young cook holds himself with an easy confidence that Tann looks on with envy. In his pristine jacket and designer jeans, the boy now feels like a fool. The police wouldn’t hesitate to pull a gun on the cook if he tried what Tann has planned. With his brown skin and foreign eyes, they wouldn’t think twice about pulling the trigger. Carried on a wave of guilt, an urge to impress this calm, pleasant cook wells up in Tann.
“The soup,” he announces. “With rare beef.”
He read somewhere that this is the most authentic version of the low continent’s beloved dish, and is rewarded with a grin from the cook. Turning to his work, flames leap up from the gas stove as the young man expertly tosses handfuls of ingredients into a pan; meat hisses on hot metal, a tang of potent spices prickling Tann’s nose. He reaches for the glass of water, downing it in several long swallows. In what seems like no time at all, a steaming bowl of soup has been set in front of him, a generous portion of noodles and beef glistening under the oil-spotted broth.
“It’s hot,” the cook warns, but Tann is already lifting the bowl and taking a scalding mouthful. He laughs, spluttering, pleased to hear the cook laughing with him. At his back, a brief buck and dip of the skiff announces the arrival of more customers.
“This seems like a fun place.”
Tann looks up. A man the size of a boulder is lowering himself onto the bench. Despite the mid-summer heat, he is bundled in a knee-length jacket. Black as oil, the synthetic material creaks as the man settles himself, its folds catching the light from overhead billboards in streams of sinuous colour. Above the neck of his jacket, the man’s pale head has been scraped mercilessly bald, and strapped to his face are a pair of goggles so dark the eyepieces are like holes bored into his skull. Tann has never seen this kind of tech up close, but there’s no mistaking it. Both goggles and jacket are the mark of an agent. He is sitting on a bench with the strong arm of the Institute for Applied Research.
Along with him is another man. In his mid to late 20s, he is dressed in a crumpled dress-shirt and slacks. His lower lip is split and swollen, the collar of his shirt spattered with blood. One arm, his right, is crossed tightly over his narrow chest, the hand buried in the opposite armpit. Hesitant, he stands to one side like an uninvited house guest. Sighing heavily, the agent takes him by the shoulder hauls him onto the bench.
“A beer,” the agent says. “Nothing for my friend. He’s had enough.”
The cook’s face has gone blank. Wordlessly, he turns to the skiff’s fridge. Next to Tann, the agent is pulling something hard and flat from his jacket pocket. As the big man sets this down on the counter, Tann examines it from the corner of his eye. Ugly as a squat beetle, the rectangular device ends in a curving pair of metal tines. It is an Institute taser, the preferred instrument of their agents, and it rests less than an arm’s length away.
Making no mention of the weapon on his counter, the cook returns with an open beer and a cold mug. Pouring carefully, he sets a stream of amber liquid frothing and swirling up the glass, his motions as deft and precise as any ritual. As soon as he’s finished, the agent sweeps up the mug and sets into drinking with force. Foam trickles from the corner of the big man’s mouth and along his jaw. With a bang he sets the empty mug on the counter.
“Something on your mind kid?”
The pits of his lenses are trained on Tann. Hastily, the boy looks away. At the far end of the counter the bloodied man has bowed his head over his arms. Both are visible now, the one he’d been taking pains to hide culminating in a blunt stump. Tann’s brow curls; there is no mark on the man’s flesh, no scar. A birth defect? But the line of demarcation at his wrist is too perfect, too straight, almost as if the hand had been surgically removed. The man is muttering to himself, head rolling on the counter. Casually, the agent cuffs him with the back of his hand. There is a brief moan, and the man falls silent.
Tann has no idea who this person is or what he’s done to anger the Institute, but the smart thing to do would be to pay his bill and leave. On any ordinary night he would, but this is the night of his trial, and beside him is a member of the city’s most notorious security agency. The police are amateurs by comparison, and Aida’s instructions were very clear: a trophy from the city’s finest. That isn’t the cops, and now Tann has the chance to pull an agent’s taser. Returning with that would make him a legend.
Affecting a confidence he doesn’t feel, Tann pushes the bowl of soup to one side and nods at the one-handed man.
“What’d he do?”
The big man is signaling the cook for another beer.
“Took something that didn’t belong to him,” he says, after a pause. The other man’s head is turned to the side. If he is aware of being discussed he makes no sign. A fresh mug has materialized on the counter, and the cook once more enacts his long, flawless pour.
“See kid,” the agent goes on. “The problem with people nowadays is they all want something for nothing. Think they’re entitled to it. Take this idiot.”
He jabs a thumb in the direction of his prisoner.
“He’s got a nice job. Nicer than mine anyway. A clean lab to run tests in all day, comfy chair. Never has to work in the heat, never has to get rough with anyone. But it isn’t enough. Gets it in his head he deserves something more. Right?”
A beefy elbow to the ribs causes the man beside him to gasp.
“Sit up straight when someone’s talking to you,” the agent instructs, but without malice; a parent admonishing his wayward child. “Where was I?”
“He wanted something more,” Tann manages.
“That’s right,” the agent replies. “His life wasn’t enough for him. Too small maybe, or too easy. He gets tired of it, and he starts to skim a little off the top. Not money, you understand. He wouldn’t be here with us now enjoying a companionable drink if he’d gone for money. No, this guy’s skimming product. Getting high on his own supply, dipping into that high grade Institute mystery that punks like you go creamy for. We were happy to have him do it. Somebody’s got to test the stuff, and normally we have to pay. This guy’s doing it for free. But then he had to go and take it too far. That’s the lesson in all this kid.”
The agent is nodding, clearly enjoying himself.
“Don’t let things get out of hand.”
He bellows a laugh before returning to his beer, the muscles in his jaw working like pistons. With a luxurious belch he sets the mug down, wiping his mouth with the back of a hand.
“You gotta know when to quit,” he says. “That’s what you’ve got to -”
The rest of his words are drowned in a strangled cry; the one-handed man is lunging forward. The big man twists, grabbing him by the lapel. Tann leaps up as the bench tips over, the two men landing in a tangled heap at his feet. With a dry clatter, the taser falls with them.
The cook is shouting, rushing forward in a vain bid to forestall the violence. Tann reaches for the taser and feels his heart sink as it is knocked behind the counter in the scuffle. The big agent has the other man by the throat; eyes straining, face turning a vivid shade of red, the one-handed man struggles to reach the mug on the counter. Grasping the handle, he brings it down with swift brutality. An arc of beer sails as glass cracks against bone. The big man folds inwards, and the other is on his feet. Dazed, but still functioning, the agent manages to grab an ankle, taking him down. In a confusion of flailing limbs, the goggles are ripped from the agent’s head.
A small crowd has coagulated on the embankment above them. There is laughter and scattered cheers, exhortations to get the bastard, to kill him; the scene stutters madly in the flash of camera phones. Tann’s eyes land on the goggles. In the same breath he is scooping them from the beer-slick floor and hauling himself up the ladder. The big man roars behind him, either in frustration or triumph, but Tann is already running, darting between dozens of blurred faces heading in the opposite direction. The goggles swing in his grip, light as cloth.
He flings himself along the embankment and down the flight of stairs. Several other bikes are now parked alongside the Mark 1. Straddling a red Vision XL is a female rider with a cell phone pressed to one ear. Middle-aged, her bleached hair wound in a tight bun, the woman gapes at Tann.
“You alright?” she asks.
“Never better,” Tann replies, mounting the bike and shoving his key in the ignition.
The agent is rounding the corner, lumbering toward him in a mad rush. Pedestrians scream as the big man barrels through the crowd.
Pulling the goggles down and around his neck, Tann pops the clutch and guns the throttle. The bike shoots over the curb and into the street. Tires squealing, burnt rubber fills the boy’s lungs. Standing in the middle of the road is a wide-eyed girl in a miniskirt. Veering wildly to avoid her, Tann plows through a mountain of garbage and emerges in a blast of plastic bags and foul-smelling water. Behind him, more panicked cries: in Tann’s mirror the agent is shoving the female rider to the ground, stealing her ride. From her knees, the woman raises a fist as the agent pulls away.
To Tann’s right is an incline of concrete, mercifully free of human traffic. He jumps it, the Mark 1 a loosed arrow, and for a single, glorious moment, the boy is soaring, stomach lodged in his throat. With a bone shaking-thud, he returns to earth. Speeding down an alley, water streams from the corners of his eyes as he first careens past an overflowing dumpster and then an open door where a man in a white apron is smoking in a column of light.
Spit from the alley into a blare of oncoming headlights, he hops the median and pierces the far lanes. There is a chorus of horns and screeching brakes and in his mirrors the near-miss of a mass collision as traffic scatters to avoid him.
“Shit,” he says, the wind ripping the curse from his lips. His grin flares and dies when a second backwards glance reveals the agent gaining on him. The boy blinks, half-blind, as a burst of acceleration causes more water to spurt from his eyes. With one hand he reaches for the goggles and drags them into place.
The world is gone. In its place is a devastating emptiness. Tann’s mind reels under a flood of incoherent sensation. He lacks the tools to process what he’s seeing. Consciousness does not deal in negatives: the boy is not here, the road is not beneath him. Imagine a face with its skin peeled back. Two bulbous eyes peer out from a mass of bloody pulp. That’s all there is, the universe reduced to a hideous pair of staring eyes. Its unflinching gaze is as sharp as a tanner’s knife; inch by inch, second by second, Tann is being flayed. He rides over the surface of a void. Gasping, he rips the goggles from his eyes.
The world as he has known it returns. The road is beneath him. Cars surround him. The bike and his body are both real things, cut from the same stuff as everything else. This is reality, and Tann’s head is swimming. He takes one lungful of air, and then another. Behind him, the agent continues to gain. A compulsion has Tann reaching for the goggles. Swallowing in a dry throat, he slips them over his eyes.
Instantly he is plunged back into emptiness, but this time, as if inoculated by that first brief encounter, he is able to sift through the deluge. There is the flattened road, and the lines of traffic like trails of shivering smoke. Buildings as faceless as architectural sketches rise into a matte-black sky. The bike he rides and his own body could be sculpted from wax. In his mirrors, the pursuing agent is a slick simulacrum, a caricature. Sickened, Tann averts his eyes, but everywhere it’s the same thing. Reality is a lie, and his own life is a cheap parody. The spoiled rich boy who dreamed of being a rider – it’s a joke, and the laughter comes from deep in his chest. At least he finally gets it. Breathing freely, he settles in over the throttle. Every joke needs a punchline.
The boy’s thoughts are floating an inch over his head. Viewed through the Institute’s lenses, everything takes on an odd clarity; Tann will never lose the agent. That much is obvious. The goggles are important enough that the man abandoned his prisoner to get them back. If Tann wants to keep them, he has to go farther. He needs to let it all go.
Ahead, the Avenue of Parades unrolls like a long, black tongue. In the distance looms the Governing Seat. The scaffolding on its east wing looks as flimsy as a pile of sticks. A hard push would bring it down.
Already Tann is veering from the road. His grip is seared on the throttle. The bike is a furnace between his legs. As he leans over the cowl, a snarl erupts at his mouth. The agent is meters behind as the boy surges into the thicket of scaffolding. Without slowing, his body arced against the onslaught of air, Tann raises his arms. Cold metal slaps his hands; he grabs hold, swings back, and abandons his ride.
He watches his bike, reveling in the frozen moment. It is truly his now, possessed in the instant he gave it up. For a heartbeat the perfect machine maintains its course, and then a shudder through the front wheel sends it skidding to the pavement. With a nauseating scream of metal and a shower of sparks it slams into the first support column.
Shoulders straining, Tann releases his grip from the overhead bar and lands in a heap on the concrete. Looking up, he peers into a single, burning eye – a headlight, and his death. He jumps just as the agent races past; for an instant the air is cut with oil and gasoline. Inches from his face is the frame of the Vision XL, and above it is the agent, his mouth pried open, brow twisted in rage. A dull boom follows, and the groan of twisting metal. The scaffold is collapsing.
Aida stares at the canal without seeing it. A trembling sliver of light edges the horizon. It is almost dawn. She has been waiting for hours, her crew long since returned home. Once more she checks the time, resolved to give Tann until sunrise. She promised him that much.
There is a thorn of worry lodged in her chest. She has kept the boy at a distance over the years, but she won’t forgive herself if something went wrong. Protecting him was the whole reason she agreed to the trial in the first place. There was no keeping Tann from the road. It was useless to try, and Aida did her best to make her stepfather understand that. The kid was a born rider. At least as a member of her crew she’d be able to look out for him. He might be a pain in the ass, but he is also the only brother she’ll ever have. One day he might even see her as a sister.
At first she takes him for someone else, Gin maybe, or Lukas. His back is straight, his steps even. The thorn in Aida’s chest burrows deeper as her brother’s blood-smeared face comes into view. Knuckles popping ominously, her hands curl into fists.
“Where’s your ride?” she asks.
“Couldn’t keep it,” he replies. His voice is steady, the tremble she is used to hearing it in missing. Her eyes widen as she spots what he’s holding.
With a broad smile, the boy offers her the goggles.
“You’ve got to try these,” he says.
Visit us again next month for “A Seer“, the next installment in “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, by CG Inglis.
Follow CG Inglis on Twitter: @viscereal