Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Timeshare Chapter Two - Ghettobelly.

(Continued directly from Timeshare Chapter One - Moscow in the Summer)
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Chapter Two:  Ghettobelly

Proteus became a circus.  Even before the public pointed fingers and asked questions and demanded answers, the decision was made not to retrieve any more of the bodies until medical experts could convene and agree on a cause of death.  This infuriated the victims’ families, who went so far as to attempt to bribe every harbormaster on every reachable titan to bring the bodies home for a proper burial.  They understood the logic: had the vacationers caught some fatal illness, bringing them home could spread the disease and kill an entire city.  But the thought of the birds picking at their relatives was too much to bear.  Wild accusations were made about one tourist or another losing their minds and killing everyone on the vacation.  Communication from one colossus to another limited to mail boxes.  These had been constructed on as many structures as possible that rose above the fog and were passed closely by several colossi.  It took months for any order to come at all. 

In the meantime, several doctors and two police detectives (along with the detectives’ apprentices) met on Proteus to examine the body the dock workers had retrieved.  It was first determined that no malicious intent had been involved – there was no mass murderer among them.  In fact any wounds to the exterior of the body seemed to have happened post-mortem, likely from the sparrowhawks.  After some crude blood tests and an autopsy of the vital organs, the team of doctors noted the majority of damage had been in the lungs.  There was some panic for a brief moment that Red Lung, the fatal disease that was inhaled on the surface through the fog, had crept up to the clean air atop the colossi.  However, Galatea’s general practitioner, a Dr. Iweala, finally cracked it.  From a couch in the medical office he spoke up.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” he cried out, his African accent calling even more attention to him than his long frame.  “This woman did not die of Red Lung.  None of you have considered the role our flying friends have played in this tragedy.”

Iweala scratched his well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, eyeing the dried clothes that the victim had been wearing, which had since been cast aside in a corner of the room.  He rose from his seat and walked slowly towards the clothes, continuing to speak as he pointed one finger at the victim’s dress.

“What has happened to the birds since we came to live on these creatures?  We see that the avian world survives despite its dependence on materials from the surface.  But who can tell me why?”

The room fell silent.

“It is because the parents sacrifice.  Yes.  They dive down, knowing the danger inherent in the mist, and retrieve what they need in order to provide for their nest.  This shortens their lifespans grievously, and why?”

A young detective spoke up.  “Does someone want to speed the wildlife lesson up and tell us what the Hell killed these folks?”  He was met with sharp glances and short words.  Dr. Iweala chuckled and addressed the apprentice, little more than a boy.

“Young sir, an ounce of patience saves a pound of grief.  Please, wait.

“The birds die young because they expose their lungs to the mist.  Miners in the old world would bring small birds – canaries – into caves with them, in cages.  If the air in the mines were toxic, the bird would die and the miners would flee before they too fell victim.  The birds atop the towers in Moscow sacrificed much of their lifespan for their babies, becoming quickly infected with the so-called ‘Red Lung’ upon their first foraging for food or supplies.”

Another doctor spoke.

“Dr. Iweala, you told us these people didn’t catch Red Lung from the birds.”

“I maintain that they did not.  The fecal matter of the birds still living throughout the world carries up to 80 diseases in it, does it not?”

There was a murmur of agreement in the room.

“Three of those diseases are potentially fatal to humans in the long-term, yes?  In fact this woman’s autopsy has shown that her symptoms align closely to one form of histoplasmosis, regularly found in the birds’ feces.  Further inspection will determine which kind, I am sure of it.”

“But doctor, even acute cases of histoplasmosis didn’t kill within three weeks on the surface.  They don’t even show symptoms that quickly.”

Another doctor spoke up.  “But the fog is known to accelerate illnesses and their effects, as we were told happened on the surface with untreatable forms of cancer.”

Dr. Iweala pointed at the new speaker. on the surface with the terminally ill."rrified that there were no more lands to conquer.“Exactly!  How rapidly did the terminally ill back on the ground meet their demise following exposure to that Hellish mist?  The epidemic of Red Lung combined with the sudden rapid fatality of other illnesses was too much to analyze in such a short time.  In the rush to escape the surface, our predecessors never absolutely determined whether it was always a compromised body that simply couldn’t bear exposure or if the other way around also occurred – that sometimes, the fog could affect the disease itself instead of the body, catalyzing fatality from whichever disease a person already suffered.

“I ask you, my colleagues,” Dr. Iweala continued, “to consider these birds as carriers of not only the histoplasmosis that killed these poor souls but also small doses of the damned red-orange killer that wiped the surface of the planet clean.  Birds are so porous; the creeping fog would have little trouble invading the rest of their bodies.  Eventually, before their deaths, these birds could void their bowels with a new killer inside their waste: a rapidly fatal mutation of histoplasmosis.”

With that, Dr. Iweala sat back in his chair.  “Disseminated histoplasmosis, specifically, would be my guess.”

The assembly of medical practitioners exploded into shouts and arguments, but in the end they arrived at his conclusion. 

The rest of the story was put together by the detectives in attendance.  Politicians focused on damage control.  They had copies of the liability waivers, but 27 people were dead and somebody had to pay for it.  The general consensus was to place the blame on whoever the party in question had heard the idea from.  Law enforcement traced their line of questioning back one interview at a time.

“My darling Beatrice only went because she heard from Mayor Pulaski it was totally safe.”

“I was assured by my colleagues that this abominable idea was foolproof.  Ask them.”

“If you want to know about all matters of inter-titan travel, talk to the harbormasters at the points of departure and arrival.”

“Hey, I just get the people from Point A to Point B.  My orders came from Mayor Staps here on Triton.  He got this lunacy off the ground; you’d have to ask him.”

Finally, a pair of detectives – including the boy who’d spoken up at Dr. Iweala while the doctors determined the cause of death – arrived at Sean Bellamy’s rented tent.  He heard them coming and gave himself up with no resistance.  He had barely eaten and his neighbor, Jeffrey Johns, had turned him a cold shoulder.  He offered his wrists for the cuffs and silently walked with them to jail.  The blank expression on his face had been there since shortly after the discovery of the bodies in Moscow; the waivers the tourists had signed seemed written on air by now.  In his naiveté he thought for a while that the city officials who had supported the vacation would stand by him and take some of the blame.  After all, he had promised Triton’s city council that he’d thought of everything, but wasn’t it their responsibility to take safety precautions against such an atrocity?

Sean was extradited back to Triton to stand trial.  Here, his city councilmen abandoned him.  Mayor Staps and Triton’s deputy mayor, Greg Davis, were conspicuously quiet; the detectives’ and doctors’ testimonies shaped Sean into an ice-hearted monster who was only too happy to throw lives away to feed himself.  The worst came at the end.  It was a cold bastard of a night in an even colder city hall.  The sky was a dark purple and rain spattered on Triton in sheets when the senior detective on the case – who doubled as the prosecution in Sean’s trial – reconstructed the events of July 15th to August 3rd on OKO South Tower.

“27 innocent souls gathered at Triton Port Costal Harbor, excitedly awaiting…what did you call it, Bellamy?  Oh yes, ‘some time away from it all.’  They rode the line from Triton onto OKO South Tower in Moscow – where so many of them still remain, I might add – carrying only the supplies which you yourself had prepared for them before handing them off to your assistant, a Mr. Vaughn.”

Sean wasn’t angry with Alan.  When word reached him that the young Vaughn had opted not to testify on his behalf, he understood it was a matter of looking out for his family’s reputation.  Life on the theriopolis was like that.  The meaning of the family name had seen resurgence like it hadn’t for centuries prior.

“These 27 people then unhooked the ropeway from the tower, tossing it back to be reeled in by the mid-day shift of the Triton Port Costal crew, according to the testimony here signed and seconded by said crew.

“Shortly after that, these folks must have tucked into their first meal.  Ryan Fields and Josie Daly and Mr. and Mrs. Akira Takahashi and all the rest of your ‘vacationers’ got hungry and sat down to eat.  And when they did, that food attracted some guests.”

Sean never thought the birds would be a problem.  He figured everyone would just shoo them away and they’d get the hint.  He was starting to dislike the detective and his grandstanding.  Everyone knew Sean was going away; there was no use kicking him while he was down.  He looked up to the bench for support, but the officials – including Mayor Staps, with whom he’d designed the vacation program – wouldn’t meet his eyes.  Sean realized they wouldn’t step in, lest they appear to the public like they were protecting him.

“These avian guests, however, didn’t want to leave.  They saw an opportunity to feed themselves and their families for weeks.  Who’d give up free fruits and veggies delivered straight to their doorstep for free?  I’m sure all 27 of your tourists fought hard to keep those birds at bay, Mr. Bellamy, and that ruckus attracted other birds who wanted a piece of the buffet.  It became a problem for your tourists, fighting to keep their every meal, but over the next week or so the real dilemma – the one that ultimately cost them their lives – was the shit.

“Birds shit everywhere.  Flying a wide radius around the city, they could’ve plopped them down anywhere they wanted and our colossi would’ve just stepped on them on their way – they’ve probably been doing it since we moved up here.  But you give those birds one small spot on which to focus, in which to live, to find plentiful amounts of food, and they are gonna crap all over that little area.  And this summer, sir, that area was OKO South Tower.  Several months ago, a convention of doctors was able to determine that birds carry 80 diseases in their feces.  One of those diseases is called…” the detective checked his notes.  “…histoplasmosis, which was likely accelerated by Red Lung residue in the droppings of these birds.  Do you know what the symptoms of histoplasmosis are, Mr. Bellamy?”

Sean stared daggers at the detective.  “You know that I don’t.”

“Well if you did, maybe you wouldn’t have shipped over two dozen people to their graves last summer.  Histoplasmosis, according to a medical text provided to me by a Dr. Iweala of Galatea, first causes fever and coughing, followed by chest pains, mouth sores and skin lesions…eventually leading to coughing up blood and a risk of death.  It’s especially dangerous to infants and the elderly, Mr. Bellamy, so we can assume that the widower and grandfather of seven, Rupert Singh, was one of the first to go.”

In his head, Sean pictured the kindly old Indian man with the soft hands who he’d met the previous spring before leaving Triton.  He then imagined him keeling over on the rooftop.  Sean looked at the floor in shame.  Nobody spoke up for him.  He was starting to believe he didn’t deserve for them to.  The detective continued showboating for anyone who would listen.

“One after another, they dropped like leaves off a tree.  Our dock workers say they found the body of Sheila Woodbine still clutching her infant son, Mr. Bellamy.  A baby boy dies in his mother’s arms and, later, she dies holding him, coughing up blood onto his cold body while the birds fight over scraps, raining pestilent filth on them both.

“And finally, their tears ran dry and their lives were snuffed out, all these men and women from nearly every city we have left.  But that wasn’t a cruel enough twist of fate, because some of the birds attracted to OKO South Tower – that is, after the initial squabble over the tourists’ crumbs – those new birds were carnivores.  Did you know that Eurasian Sparrowhawks eat dead animals, Mr. Bellamy?”

Sean was unable to lift his head.  He softly shook his head “no.”

“Did you know that Eurasian Sparrowhawks are native to Moscow, sir?”

Sean shook his head again.

“Did you know that upon seeing the aftermath of your little trip, one dock worker – a Mr. Meyers of Proteus – was so unable to reconcile the gore before him with human life that he himself vomited over the edge of the tower?”

“Yes.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yes, I was there.”

“Oh, that’s right, Mr. Bellamy; you were there.  Standing next to Mayor Pulaski of Proteus, you were there to receive your tourists and claim your fame and fortune.  Riding high and mighty towards a skyscraper topped with bloodied corpses and bird effluence, a…a macabre ice cream sundae topped with whipped cream and cherries, you were there waiting.

“My hero…Topper.”

*  *  *

Sean awaited sentencing in a quiet cell.  The rain abated and he had just one visitor:  Triton’s mayor, Will Staps, had come to check on him.

“They hit you pretty hard in there, kid.  They even gave you a nickname.”

Sean raised his head and locked eyes with Mayor Staps.  The mayor fought back chills; the man who sat before him now was but a shell of the ambitious salesman he’d contracted 18 months ago to sell a vacation in Moscow to the tourists whose deaths now bloodied his hands.  Sean had always been thin but now he seemed positively gaunt.  The bags under his eyes said he hadn’t slept.  His cheeks were sunken in and hollow, contrasting sharply with his high, protruding cheekbones.  His eyes were the worst.  They were glazed over, reddened from crying and unfocused.  Sean was utterly lost, like a leaf blowing in the wind.  Staps knew he had to choose his words carefully.

“Listen, Sean…”

“Save it.”

“What happened in that tower – “

“I said save it!”

Mayor Staps took a breath and tried a different approach.

“What do you think you’re looking at tomorrow?  In sentencing?”

“Death.”

Staps chuckled a little despite himself.  “Nobody’s gonna kill you, kid.  I think we’ve seen enough death to last us all the rest of our lives.”

“But…I deserve it.”

“It’s not always our job to give you what you deserve.  Sometimes it’s our job to make our people feel better.  And this ain’t the dark ages, kid; you’re not swinging from a noose or being shut in the stocks in town square with people throwing cabbage at you.

“But they do want to make an example of you.  27 people paid the highest price there is.  Shit, just in terms of the remaining number of humans on Earth that’s a considerable number, waivers or not.  27 is probably 10% of the goddamn population flying around on Psamanthe right now, wherever she’s perched.”

Sean thought of Psamanthe, the 500-foot raven-like leviathan, flying and nesting and taking care of the humans who strapped themselves onto her back.  He got choked up again.

“Aw Hell; I’m sorry kid.  It was a bad choice of words.  Look, I still haven’t told you why I’m here.  None of us could throw ourselves in front of the firing squad for you in trial.  I think you know why.  If people thought the leaders of their cities were so in…“  The word “incompetent” caught in Staps’s throat and he did his best to backpedal before insulting the broken man sitting in the cell.  “…If they thought we could make this kind of mistake, there’d be chaos!  And though they’d be so unforgiving, you and I know it was just a mistake.  As do the other bigwigs in charge of keeping the human race going, and they’re not going to forget that. 

“Sean, sometimes making a mistake means you forget your anniversary.  Sometimes making a mistake means forgetting to read up on local wildlife.  Unfortunately, the first one means you sleep on the couch tonight and the second means you stand trial for negligent mass homicide.

“What the public will remember is that some guy did time for a colossal fuck-up.  Justice served, everything goes back to normal.  What the mayors of Triton, Proteus, Naiad and the others will remember is…our guy Sean fell on his sword for the greater good.  And having friends in our offices can buy you a lot – starting tomorrow.”

Sean took a moment to process what Mayor Staps was saying.  His mind was an angry sea, wrestling with guilt, fear, anger, denial and extremes of wanting or avoiding punishment.  He looked up to ask Staps a question but the mayor was already gone.  At length, he fell into a restless sleep.

*  *  *

Due to Triton’s height, his belly cleared the fog with room to spare.  Decades ago, one of Triton’s more outlandish mayors developed a housing project for the poor and a prison system for the incarcerated that people flocked to see from all over the world.  The low-income housing project was a small shantytown resting on a raft-like platform of materials salvaged from the surface over a number of years.  The platform itself was 40,000 square feet of ramshackle wood, plastic and sheet metal.  The whole thing was suspended by industrial chain lengths harnessed to Triton’s body.  Since Triton’s legs went out from his body before they went straight down – like a crab – there was room to spare under his belly without it being kicked by his enormous legs.  They lowered the poverty-stricken and the homeless onto the platform after constructing crude shacks for them and told them to fend for themselves.  There was virtually no contact between the upper city and the one that swung under Triton so precariously close to the fog, save for water deliveries.  The prisoners didn’t have it so easy.

Gibbets – solitary confinement prison cages in medieval times – inspired Triton’s prison system.  Prisoners remained alone in their cages 24 hours a day.  A guard watched over the prisoners from a 100-square-foot platform above them, carefully lowering food to them.  Gravity was their toilet.  Prison sentences were doled out in lengths of chain, not years.  The more severe a crime, the longer the prisoner’s chain dangled from Triton’s carapace.  The more severe the crime, the closer to the fog they swung.  Prisoners had two options to finish their interment: First, they could wait out the time.  For every full year of imprisonment they served, a guard raised the gibbet by 10 feet.  When the chain became short enough to meet the winch from which it hung, the prisoner went free.  The second option was to reduce one’s sentence by going fishing.

When a prisoner called for a fishing trip, the guard raised him up to the guard’s platform and escorted him from his cell back up to the city.  The mayor, the harbormaster and anyone who wanted to watch gathered at the pier where the prisoner was fitted with rappelling gear over a radiation suit as well as a duffel bag and several carabiners.  When the prisoner was ready he rappelled down the side of Triton as quickly as he could via a large spool leading his rope.  He disappeared down through the fog to the surface.  He then had mere moments to grab whatever supplies he could (or lock them onto his rope via his carabiners) before Triton walked past him and began dragging him along the streets.  When the prisoner was ready, he climbed several feet off the ground and tugged the rope thrice.  The dock workers at either Triton Port Costal or Triton Starboard Costal – depending on which side the prisoner fished from – would reel him back in.  Since both the prisoner and his supplies would have remnants of the fog clinging to them, they were then kept under quarantine until they were determined to be safe to the public, at which time the mayor would sift through the treasures and determine their worth.  The more valuable the haul, the more time was taken from the prisoner’s sentence, so prisoners would often try to estimate the time it took to set up a fishing trip and call for one that far away from an approaching city skyline.  Smash-and-grabs in major metropolitan areas offered a higher likelihood of success and higher-priced goods.

The risks were high.  For one, the radiation suit only provided limited protection from the fog and ex-convicts often died of Red Lung years before their life expectancy anyway.  Fishing trips also happened so rarely, nobody really knew what to expect from the surface.  Buildings could have become unstable or fires could have recently started.  Once, a convict who still had 200 feet left on his sentence smuggled a kitchen knife down with him on his fishing trip.  He reached the surface and cut the rope from his waist.  By the time the harbormaster and the mayor realized something was wrong and reeled the rope in, it came up so easily they feared what was waiting on the other end.  When it came up, it was just the duffel bag secured to the line with the radiation suit inside.

“At least he was nice enough to give us back the suit,” the old mayor had remarked sarcastically.  The crowd roared with laughter.  There was no turning back; the titans waited for no one.  At some point the con must’ve succumbed to the haze.  The old mayor leaned over the edge of the docks and cupped his hand next to his mouth.  “Hope you enjoy dying from Red Lung, ya fuckin’ scumbag!”

Sean Bellamy knew of all this when they called him in for sentencing.

“Sean Bellamy, you’ve been found guilty of 27 counts of criminal negligence resulting in homicide.  Before carrying out your sentence, do you have anything to say in your defense?”

He cast a glance at Mayor Staps, the boy detective and the lead detective before looking back down at his own feet.  “What happened to those men and women I carry on my shoulders every day unto my grave.  Nothing can bring them back, but perhaps they and their loved ones can find peace in my punishment.  I’m ready.”

He was ready for death.  He got just 150 feet.  15 years if he didn’t fish.  His eyes shot straight to Mayor Staps, who he swore gave him a quick wink before they took Sean away.  He didn’t know whether to feel relieved that he could one day walk the streets of his hometown again or cheated out of paying for the tourists’ lives with his own.

Inevitably, some cried foul.  A couple people even arrived at the very conclusion the mayor tried to hide – that 150 feet for “Topper” was a slap on the wrist in exchange for taking the fall of the worst tragedy in recent memory to befall the last humans on Earth.  Publicly, however, it was made known that Sean Bellamy’s record had been clean prior to the Moscow Tower incident, as it came to be known, and the waivers the vacationers signed cleared anyone involved with it from virtually all legal recourse.  They all but said Sean was a scapegoat and a patsy but the public was lucky they got what they did out of him.

And what the people of the cities hadn’t counted on, that had proved itself time and time again since the draconian prison system was enacted all those decades past, was something Mayor Staps, Mayor Pulaski and the other theriopolis officials had learned from their time in office:  Out of sight was truly out of mind.  Staps had told Sean as much the night before his sentencing.  Once Sean was led to his gibbet, everyone felt a sense of closure whose absence had plagued them for nearly a year.  They’d taken their boogeyman, locked him up and thrown away the key.  Life truly went back to normal.

Sean promised himself never to go fishing.  He deserved the years he got and he’d serve them without exception.  He had plenty of time, then, and spoke occasionally with the other prisoners in the gibbets who came and went during his 15 years under Triton.  Just after the first shortening of Sean’s chain, he met one.  This convict, a slender middle-aged woman, had returned home early from work only to find her wife in bed with another woman.  She grabbed her wife and flung her against the wall, knocking her out, and she beat the other woman to death with her bare hands.  By the time the wife came to, there was little left of her lover but a pile of meat.  At least that’s what the wife testified – the convict didn’t remember a moment of it.  “Temporary insanity,” they called it.  She’d broken her hands in five places tenderizing this other woman; she was still bandaged up when they put her in her cage.

Another man hanging from Triton, who was imprisoned near Sean for several years, was said to have had such a rift with his neighbor that he broke into the neighbor’s house while the neighbor was at work and destroyed every crop in his hydroponic garden.  The neighbor rationed what he’d already harvested to last an extra week or two, but had other townspeople not chipped in he would’ve starved to death before he could grow a new harvest.  “Attempted murder my hairy ass,” the convict said.  “If I really wanted to kill the sumbitch I’d a thrown his ass off.  Pewwwwwww KER-SPLAT.”  He spit outwards between the bars of his gibbet and watched his oblong ball of saliva fall down, lost in the fog.

“Ker-splat.”

But mostly Sean was left to his own devices.  He stared down at the red orange mist that had made barren all the Earth’s surface.  It was thick; Sean noticed whenever he passed near a skyscraper that he couldn’t see more than two or three stories below the highest point that the fog touched the building.  Sometimes he listened to the silent pauses between the distant booming noises of Triton’s stride.  He heard the wind blow and sometimes he could hear the sounds of city life going on without him hundreds of feet above.  He got more and more used to the sight of a large roof over his head.  He never got wet when it rained.  Sometimes the other prisoners would try to harass the guards.  They insulted them, cursed at them or teased them for hours on end, hoping to provoke a reaction.  Some of the woolier cons even threw their food at the guards but that never made sense to Sean.  You’re only going to go hungry, he thought.  Sean left the guards alone and they left him alone.  They reeled his chain in another 10 feet every year and he said “Thank you” when they gave him his meals.  The only personal items he had were a pair of nail clippers and a toothbrush.  Whenever he reached the last sip of his drinking water, he dipped the brush in and ran it along his teeth as best he could.  He trimmed his nails when he needed to do so and his gibbet was raised to the guards’ office every six weeks or so for a shave and a haircut.

More years passed.  Sean grew pale.  He grieved for each of the 27 tourists who died on the tower because of him.  He recalled their names and faces over and over again in his mind like a chant.  As the years rolled by, however, his pain faded and he felt more and more ready to rejoin society.  He put more effort into keeping himself hygienic and he used the bars in his gibbet to do pull-ups and sit-ups after meals.  He didn’t know what he’d do when his 15 years were up, but he knew Triton’s belly was getting closer.

Finally the day came.  Sean waited in the guards’ office quietly, his belongings in a small sack in his lap.  It was the winter of 97 P.A. and the deputy mayor rappelled down to finalize his release.  Sean greeted him.

“Ah, but it’s Mayor Davis now, Mr. Bellamy.”

“What happened to Mayor Staps?”

“William Staps retired, I’m afraid,” Greg Davis said.  He couldn’t be bothered to hide his excitement at bearing the news, either.  “He’s moved in with his son and daughter-in-law on Naiad, if memory serves.”

Sean remained quiet as he was outfitted with his own climbing harness.  Every man, woman and child on a theriopolis knew how to equip rope ascension gear and secure his or her lifeline to a ropeway.  Using locking carabiners, foot ascenders and the rest of the gear was second nature to everyone on one of the colossi and Sean found that despite being 15 years out of practice, he could pick it right back up like it were yesterday.  He joined Davis at the bottom of the main rope that ran from the prison guards’ office up to the docks.  Davis stopped him.

“Staps asked me to give you these.”

A pair of tinted goggles was shoved against Sean’s chest.  He grabbed them, fumbling a bit as he put them on, and asked what he’d need them for.  He realized the answer as soon as he asked the question, but before he could tell Davis not to bother, the mayor had already started ascending the rope and talking – and Greg Davis loved to hear his own voice.

“When’s the last time you were exposed to direct sunlight, Mr. Bellamy?  I’m sure some peeked in for a few minutes around sunrise and sunset as the sun squeaked past the fog to or from your roof here,” he said while patting Triton’s hide, “but judging by the tone of your skin I’d say you haven’t seen a sunny day in…my God, has it been 15 years?”

“To the day,” Sean replied flatly, following him up Triton’s side.  He was glad he’d been exercising; his arms were aching by the time he reached the docks and they shook forcefully as he heaved himself over the railway and back onto the surface of his city.  He collapsed on the ground and caught his breath.  He was dizzy and as he sat up he felt light-headed, but he’d never been happier to see the streets of Triton and its people going about their everyday lives, even as some of them stared at him and hurried along their way.
“Jesus wept.”

*  *  *

Sean returned to his house.  He expected the broken windows and the graffiti on the walls – enormous insults and profanities scrawled in capital letters – but he was surprised that they constituted the majority of the damage.  Some of the junk thrown through the windows had broken his mirror and scratched the paintings that hung on his walls, and there was some water damage from years of storms passing overhead and raining on his broken windows, but his domicile was otherwise intact.  Sean stepped back outside and picked up the large plastic garbage can that had collected and filtered his rainwater before the Moscow Tower incident.  He walked to a lookout on the edge of the city and emptied the can’s contents over the railing before returning with the empty garbage can to his house.

He carefully picked up the shards from the broken mirror and set them on his kitchen table – mirrors were hard enough to come by that he decided it best to reassemble the mirror later.  He broke down the ruined paintings and their frames and he placed them in the garbage can.  He added the junk thrown in by the vandals to the can.  Sean dumped the load of trash over the edge again and returned home.  He slept deeply on his bed that night, waking the next morning.

Sean needed new windows and something to mask the graffiti on his walls, but first he needed to eat and he obviously had no food growing yet.  He stopped to see Allison Mackey, the city gardener.  She tended to the tall building in town square built by The Founders to house hydroponic and aeroponic gardening systems and the city’s supply of seeds for future use.  Using those methods of farming and containers filled with soil substitutes made mostly of sand and compost, she was able to maintain dozens of hearty crops including quinoa, potatoes, onions, strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, bananas, spinach, kale, lettuce and cucumbers.  Virtually every home in the city had its own small garden inside or out, but Allison’s remained the largest and most diverse, serving as auxiliary in case of some unforeseen food shortage (or population boom).  The stock of re also soldor future useund and 5 and 20165seeds that shared space in the greenhouse was also sold to any family who wished to expand or change their own supply.
When she saw him she dropped her spray bottle.  “By the Goddess…Sean?  Sean Bellamy?”

He offered a meek smile.  “Hi, Allison.”

She wrapped her arms around him and cried tears of joy.  She was a short woman with a medium build and straight brown hair.  Her large brown eyes were always alight with wonder and a love for her work.  She was close to his age – they were both in their mid-40s now – and they’d been friends before he put together the Moscow deal.

She regained her composure and they exchanged pleasantries.  She boiled potatoes in a pot and mashed them with a fork, seasoning them with fresh oregano pulled from one of her crops.  They caught up while they ate and at the end, she sent him on his way with a wide variety of seeds, a gallon of water, a jug of coconut milk and a signed order slip for rocks and sand – both coarse and fine –  to bring to the pier.  Sean was to keep these last supplies to rebuild his water filtration system.

Bit by bit, Sean’s house became a living home again.  He lined the bottom of the garbage can with paper made of pulp from coconut fibers and he poured the fine sand on top of it.  He then added the coarse sand and several rocks on top, lining the rig up under the spout from his house’s drainpipe.  A hole in the bottom of the can fastened with a smaller drainage pipe dripped clean water into a second, small container.  He scrubbed the graffiti from his walls – it seemed to be a simple ink of vinegar and berries and came off slowly but surely.  He boarded up some of his broken windows and nailed clear hard plastic over the others.  Eventually the house was a reflection of the owner – not quite its former self, broken and reassembled in some places, but still standing.  When Sean looked at it, he couldn’t help but think of the jilted spouse in prison, her broken hands growing mostly back together.  She’d lose some functionality in them, and she would develop arthritis, but she could still open and close a fist.

*  *  *

It was almost alright.  It was almost enough.  It was almost a full life.  Mayor Staps’s promise that the city governments would remember Sean’s sacrifice proved to be little more than empty words.  Mayor Davis turned him away and his letters to the other officials were never answered.  Sean’s surprise and anger on this matter faded to complacence and acceptance.

Sean worked several part-time jobs to maintain him in Triton’s barter economy, much as he had in his youth.  He kept his head down, still fearing his own ambitions.  Nobody asked him much about his past, and he became friends with some of the younger people from his work who were too young to remember Moscow.  Some of the older residents of his neighborhood nudged each other and nodded their heads towards Sean when he passed, but he pretended not to notice.  As long as they kept it to themselves and let him move on, they could think what they wanted.  He borrowed books from the library to keep himself occupied.  A year after rejoining society, he was even asked to come out to eat with the boys after work.  They sat around a small fire in the marketplace eating their dinners and drinking the fermented cider from the apples grown in a container in a co-worker’s backyard.  Sean had a pleasant buzz going and the group shared plenty of good laughs about their boss, local girls, one another’s tolerance levels of the fermented fruit ciders concocted on Triton and so on.  Suddenly a voice pierced their personal space.

“Holy shit.”

Sean and his co-workers turned to see the voice’s source.  A man with his arm around a young woman’s waist had stopped in his tracks and was staring directly at Sean.

“I spend 18 months off-Triton for business and I get back and I’ve got to see this son of a bitch walking the streets again?”

Sean’s expression darkened.  His colleagues stood up and began to defend him, but he knew what was coming.

“Watch what you say about Sean, asshole; he’s our friend.”

The man laughed in disbelief.  “This man is your friend?  Sure he is, until he decides he’s all too happy to take your money and leave you for dead in the wasteland.

The young men looked to one another and to Sean with uncertainty.  Sean stared into the fire, his eyes glazing over in the same way they had in the courtroom 16 years before.

“What the Hell are you talking about?”

“Shit boys; don’t you know who this is?  Ain’t you never heard of the Moscow Tower incident back in 82?  Why the Hell you think everyone gets so goddamn quiet every time we pass that cluster of buildings in downtown Moscow?”  His eyes fixed on Sean for the rest of his speech, slowly walking towards him and leaving his girlfriend where she was.  “Some 30-odd people paid up for a vacation – three weeks relaxing in the Russian summer breeze on the roof of OKO South Tower – and when Triton dropped them off, them Russian birds fought ‘em for their food.  Ended up shittin’ some killer disease all over these folks who died coughing up blood all over each other.  The damn vultures were picking ‘em clean by the time Proteus came back around to pick ‘em up, all because the fella who came up with the plan didn’t bother to look into the local wildlife!”

One of Sean’s co-workers, Freddie Jarvis, who hadn’t said a word all this time, knit his brow.  “I…I remember hearing about that.  My old man said they locked somebody up under the city for that and he’d been hanging there ever since.”

The man concluded.  “And who do you think it was sold them 30 people their deaths?  Who was it who piled a skyscraper with bird shit and half-eaten corpses so they called him the ‘Topper’?”
Freddie turned to Sean.  “Topper?  Mr. Bellamy, he’s got you mixed up with someone else doesn’t he?”

Sean stood slowly.  He tossed the rest of his meal in the fire and took one long look at each of his co-workers, knowing this was the last time they’d see him as a friend.  Silence hung in the air like a dead man swinging from a rope; the fire crackled to remind the boys it was still there.  Finally Sean locked eyes with his accuser.  “They were 27, not 30.”  The atmosphere around the fire shifted dramatically.  Topper continued.  “And there are no vultures in Moscow.  They were sparrowhawks.  And I…I served my time.”

“They should’ve thrown your ass off this city, Topper,” the man taunted.  A long moment passed before his girlfriend pulled him away and they continued walking.  The boys stared at the ex-con, whose eyes drifted to the floor.

“How…could you do that?”

“Jesus Christ; I thought you were my friend, man.”

“Wasn’t one of them a baby or something?  What the Hell kind of man could…”

Topper turned away from them and walked home as their voices stiffened and grew angrier.  He found his front door by muscle memory alone; his vision was clouded with tears.  For the first time in over a decade, he felt a weight press down on his shoulders that led to a restless sleep.

His co-workers told everyone, as the young are prone to do.  Memories resurfaced, wounds were re-opened and Topper became a pariah.  He fumed, but to keep himself fed he held his head up and took it all in stride – the name-calling, the threats, the garbage thrown at him.  They taunted him with the nickname he’d hoped died off with his trial.  Work was harder to come by, but he managed.  Soon his anger subsided into something quieter and duller within him.  The streets looked a little narrower and darker, but he started to seem resigned, almost indifferent.  He visited Allison at the gardens a second time, and she consoled him as best she could.

“You paid what you owed, Sean,” she said.  It was nice just to hear his name; they both knew she was the only one he could count on for that.  “15 years for those talking heads in city hall.  But people are always looking for someone to hate.  To them, it’s not about what you do or don’t deserve.  They just want – “

Topper interrupted her.  “To feel better.  Yeah.  Someone told me that once.  Look, thanks Allison.  I’m…I’m headed out now.”

She mustered up the most optimistic face she could.  “Take care now.”

Some mornings Topper struggled to get out of bed.  It seemed like the world outside was poised and ready just waiting for him to step out onto the street so it could start picking away at him one stranger at a time.  He procrastinated and invented excuses to stay indoors.  He knew he could go see Allison again but couldn’t convince himself to make the trip, short as it was.  When he woke up for the day he’d look out his window with dread or stare at his breakfast in a daze for an hour.  Every day at work he looked at the floor, unable to look anyone in the eye.  Some people threw their waste buckets at him.  “How you like a taste of your own medicine, motherfucker?”  He could feel everyone glaring at him and he did his best to wait it out and hope it would all die down again, or that he could get used to it.

In late July, 99 P.A., Topper walked to the gardens to visit Allison Mackey for the third time.  He’d been living the last several months as though everything was fine, almost to the point of seeming sedated.  To his acquaintances, it seemed he’d accepted their name-calling as a gentle ribbing, no matter how hatefully they addressed him.  He didn’t seem to notice when they spit on him as he walked, or flicked their still-flaming cigarette butts at him.  Every day promised a regular schedule of ridicule and isolation.

Topper brought Allison a quinoa-based risotto he’d managed to put together at home as a token of appreciation for her advice.  The gardens were a quaint, quiet place and in his increasing ambivalence towards himself, they started to look like sanctuary.  He’d hoped they could sit and eat together.  He knocked on the gardens’ front door and Allison opened it with her usual smile.

“Hey, Top –“  She clapped a hand over her mouth.  “Oh Sean; I’m so sorry!  I know how you hate that name…”

She was relieved that he was so nonchalant about it.  “It’s okay,” he said, only wincing a little.  “I’ve gotten pretty used to it.”

“Well would you like to come in?”

“Oh, no thank you,” he said.  “I was just…I was just dropping off this dinner I made for you.  When I first came back you helped me out so much and cooked for me; I just wanted to return the favor.”

Allison recovered quickly, pouring extra sugar on her voice.  “Well thank you so much!  You know you didn’t have to do that for me!”

“It’s alright; it’s not a problem at all.”

“Wouldn’t you like to come in and eat with me?”

“No thanks; I just ate,” he lied.  “I appreciate the offer though.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.  Yeah; I’m fine.”

She relented, afraid of pushing him too hard even as he politely backed off her porch.  “Well okay.  Thank you so much for the dinner; if you come by tomorrow I’ll make us something Italian.  Sound good?”

“It’s a date,” he said with a smile.  She watched him leave.  He seemed fine.  She was looking forward to their dinner together the next evening.  Allison felt bad for Topper; she’d seen how the people in the neighborhood treated him and she tried to convince them to stop, to no avail.

Topper’s smile faded as he walked down the street towards his house.  He crossed paths with the septic manager, an elderly fellow named Gary Royce, carrying his wheelbarrow of human waste down to Triton’s rear end.  Topper remembered the luck he’d felt not to have that job back on Proteus.  Here, he pitied the man.  The septic manager nodded at Topper with a smile.

“Evening,” he said.

“Good evening,” Topper said.

After a brief conversation about the thankless nature of Royce’s job, which Topper said he could relate to through his own labors, Topper offered to carry the barrow the rest of the way down Triton’s back and drop its cargo while the old man headed up to his next stop and took a rest.  Topper would then return the barrow to him further up the road.  The man thanked him profusely, agreed, shook his hand and went on his way with a spring in his step.  Topper proceeded slowly so as not to tip its foul contents.

The next morning, the septic manager reported to de by the septic manager led sogether.   ridicule and isolation.the authorities that he hadn’t seen his wheelbarrow or Topper since that moment.  He accompanied them to Topper’s house, agreeing to stay on the scene for questioning in order to clear up the matter.  Detective Leon Adler broke the front door in and entered the house.  Even at the front door the odor was an angry wife’s slap in the face.  Adler entered slowly, carefully, finally searching the bathroom.  He knelt by Topper’s bathtub with a rag held up to his face.  Adler’s low, gravelly voice cursed the visage before him.  “Dammit Bellamy,” he said.  “I thought you were going to be alright.”

The septic manager spoke up over the clamor of the growing crowd outside.  “Did you know this man?”

Adler nodded.  “He was my first case.  I was learning the business from my predecessor and we were assigned to the Moscow Tower incident.  I was just a boy.”  Detective Adler remembered interrupting Dr. Iweala and the scolding he got afterwards.  He remembered how shaken he was by his mentor’s damning testimony against Sean Bellamy in court and the anticlimax of hearing Bellamy was imprisoned.  Adler looked over the contents of the bathroom and pieced the scene back together.

Judging by the empty wheelbarrow on the floor next to the body, it looked as though Topper had returned to the house straight from meeting with Royce.  He had pushed the wheelbarrow into his bathroom, rounding the corner carefully, where he left it and went to the kitchen.  He took a paring knife – which now lay on the floor, caked with crusted bloodstains – from a drawer and returned to his bathroom. 

After Topper had returned to his bathroom with the paring knife, he must have removed his clothing and sat in his empty bathtub, resting the knife on the sink within arm’s reach, and leaned forward to grab the wheelbarrow.  It would’ve been heavy, so with both arms he’d upended it into the tub, spilling its contents around him, filling the bathtub up to his waist. 

The smell had made Topper gag; he dropped the barrow and it fell to the ground with a clang as he threw up onto the excrement and on himself.  He held the paring knife in one hand, desperately, and let himself out through his veins.  Topper joined the victims of the Moscow Tower incident in the same state as they left this world – covered in other creatures’ defecation and his own blood and sick.

“Poor Topper,” Royce said.

“The man is dead; you want to call him by his real name?”

“No,” Royce replied.  “Sean Bellamy died somewhere along the way between the OKO South Tower 17 years ago and the humiliation those people outside have been giving him since his release.” 

Adler knew he was right, but he’d never admit it.  Sean Bellamy was long gone.  All that was left in this body was Topper – and had been for some time.  As the life drained from his eyes, he’d raised his wrist and rubbed a final marking of atonement on the wall in his blood.  Adler looked at it and shook his head.

28.

*  *  *

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