“Hanging On,” a little action piece for Dave Payne.

Here is a scene from a book I’ve been working on, Elwood’s Poem. I’m trying to do some dystopian world building through character. Let me know what you think.

“Hanging on.”

“Hey! Old man!” A rough voice called from the dark of the alley Mike Riley just passed. He hadn’t heard ‘tough guy’ voices calling from alleys in a long time. He turned his gray.white stubbled face to the dark to find the voice’s source. Since USAco took over the country ten years ago, there were no more homeless on the streets—at least not for long. Coppers took them in for retraining, or worse. Mike had just left the Retraining Center—a polite term for prison—a day ago.  Worried about the guy, he stopped and turned back to the dark opening, deciding not to take issue with the ‘old man’ comment. He was old, sixty five, but he wasn’t weak.

“Man, I saw a Copper or two back aways,” Mike called into the alley. “They were lookin’ hard at me, but I’m a legal spender now.  If you aren’t, you’d better scram, while you can.”

“Need me a fuckin’ coat, though, and your’s’ ll do. Gimme that stupid ass hat, too,” the low voice growled.  He came out into enough of the light on the street for Mike to get a look at him: over six feet, big bellied heavy.  The smell of the guy came after that: months without a shower. Mike took off his coat and handed it to him at arms length.

“Take this, Jimmy,” Mike said, using the name bums used to use for each other.  “It’ll fit, almost, and it’s pretty warm. Then, you should split, unless you fancy gettin’ the shit kicked outta you and sent in for reprogramming.  I’m tellin’ you, the Coppers are only a block away, and—“

“Gimme that hat,” the guy said, shrugging into the coat.  Mike stood only five eight, but he still carried a solid two hundred pounds, made harder than ever by the weights in the Retraining Center.  The coat fit fine over the big guy’s shoulders..

“No,” Mike said. “I’ll get another coat for next to nothin’ but you can’t have the hat.  My ex-wife gave it to me. Now, beat it.”

But the big guy, Jimmy, Mike saw, was too far gone. Mike figured he’d been on the run for a long time and had avoided USAco’s Coppers by staying away from urban centers.  Mike thought this guy had probably used up most of the family he had and was now forced into town to get some free meals. Those he could still get from churches. USAco liked churches.  They helped people spend. This Jimmy had been feeding pretty well off the guilt of the highly traded folks who still had a conscience, from what Mike could tell.

“Just gimme the fuckin’ hat, man, and I won’t kick your ass,” Jimmy said, his rough voice full of confidence.

“I said no,” Mike replied, and Jimmy rushed him. Mike’s ex, Claire, gave him the hat in Ireland, long, long ago, before USAco got rid of the Constitution and set this country up like a corporation. When Mike and others had protested too hard, USAco branded him a dissident and stripped him of everything, including Claire. Those losses left a flame in Mike Riley that burned blue and could cut steel.

Mike let him come, stepped inside Jimmy’s outstretched arms and ducked low, letting the big fellow’s weight go around his center, over his back. The big guy let out a yelp as he toppled over and slammed down on his back in a wet puddle. 

“Now, look,” Mike whispered, bending over him. “You got wet. You’re just gonna get colder, but it’s better than letting those juiced Coppers take you in. You fight them, you’re as good as dead. That coat is wool, so it’ll still keep you warm, but you gotta—“

Mike hadn’t seen the slim blade in the guy’s right hand, but it flashed up from the ground, aimed at Mike’s neck. It nicked him in the gray stubble on his chin as he tossed his head to one side. Mike moved back two steps as the man rose and lunged at him again.  A straight overhand right to the big man’s nose stopped him. Blood gushed and tears flowed, but Jimmy kept swinging, though he couldn’t see. Mike waited for his foe to swing and overbalance, stepped close, and boxed both of Jimmy’s ears. Disoriented for a second, his hands on his head, and his nose and eyes flowing, Jimmy dropped his shiv and reeled back into the street, into the full light, into the searching eyes of the surveillance cameras.

The flashing strobes of a Copper vehicle turned onto the street, so Mike moved in and sent a palm heel strike up under the big guy’s chin. Jimmy’s knees buckled.  Mike caught him under the arms and pulled him back into the dark of the alley, near choking with the stink of the guy. Jimmy’s weight, a good fifty pounds more than Mike’s, was no problem.  Mike’s back, legs, and core could take it. “Nothing like dead lifts,” Mike murmured, hauling the limp hulk into the dark. 

Two Coppers poured out of a sleek red vehicle onto the street, black helmets shining in the street lights, one with a muted riot gun, the other a baton. Their oiled arms stood out from their flared backs, like the hoods of twin cobras about to strike.

“Shit.  I told ya,” Mike hissed and covered Jimmy’s mouth.  He pulled him back behind a dumpster, though Jimmy began to struggle. “Shut up, asshole.  Damn, you’re a lot of work.”

”Ain’t skeered’a no police.  Lemme go!” Jimmy cried pulling one arm free from Mike’s grip.

“Man, you are from the sticks.  Where you been, last decade? Those aren’t cops.  They’re Coppers. We call’em that because they’re so jacked that their skin goes a deep red, and the ones who were black are almost purple. They are Brand Enforcement, USAco approved and trained.  Untraded ones, the Anava, like me and you, gotta stay off their radar. Now, they’re here to put down some noise, which is us, stupid. Well, you, mostly, but what’s left after they lay into us, they’ll put into reprogramming.”

Mike had fought Coppers and knew their weak spots, which were few, but he didn’t fancy tangling with them again for the sake of the stinking idiot who stood before him. In the retraining center, he’d seen men, hard men, get forced into reprogramming and knew that they weren’t themselves when released. Maybe they were troublemakers before.  After, they were sheep.

“What? Prison?” Jimmy scoffed, rubbing his chin and giving Mike a wary look.

“No, surgery, stupid,” Mike hissed back at him. “Keep your voice down, unless you’re fond of lobotomies. They take you in for the knife, and you’ll be selling pencils on the corner.” The Coppers wandered around the street, under the lights and in the camera’s eye.  If they saw motion in the alley, they’d charge it. The one with the riot gun had it to his shoulder, ready to still whatever noise had been reported. And, it wouldn’t be any sort of police brutality. It was peacekeeping, making things nice and quiet so that the traded folks, those who lived in the fine homes around them, could go out and spend more, USAco’s one clear priority.

Mike stole a glance at them over the top of the dumpster. The radio chatter that went on in their heads kept the Coppers focused on the street, where the trouble started.  They weren’t known for their smarts, just their force.

“Look, this alley makes a turn and goes back out to the main street. We stay out of sight, we might just make it,” Mike whispered, but Jimmy stood fast and ripped the hat from Mike’s head, which was too much for Mike.  Without having to consider what to do. Mike planted a swift knee inside of Jimmy’s left knee, and the big man went down hard, clutching his leg. Moaning, he dropped the hat, and Mike scooped it up and slid away, back into the blackness of the alley. 

Keeping low, ducking behind dumpsters and cans, Mike eased back into the dark, too pumped to feel the cold, hoping not to hear the two dull thumps from the ten gauge riot gun, the first going center mass, the second to the head.  “Shit,” Mike whispered, thinking of the big guy. He tried to work it out that he’d saved the guy’s life by disabling him, keep him from facing off with the Coppers. They might just thump him good, until their activation monitors were shut down.  If ol’ Jimmy was lucky, he’d wake up in a Retraining Center, where he’d have three squares and a cot for as long as it took him to realize that the Law in USAco was spending. The more you spend, the more you make for the corporation’s leaders.

The wrenching sensation in his gut preached to him, saying that he could have given Jimmy the hat, a battered old thing with twenty years of hard life worn into the tweed. But even in the dark chill of the alley, his memory cast back to the day on Aran Mhor, when Claire had bought him the hat.  It was from a tiny tourist joint at the foot of Dun Aengus, and they had been as happy as ever, even more so, as they stood in the chill air from the Atlantic and the warmth of the Sun above.

His right hand was sore from the blow he’d landed on Jimmy’s nose, but Mike didn’t think it was broken. Without his coat, he shivered a little and headed back to his flat. He breathed a little harder too, not as young as he used to be. But he was soon in the clear. The flat wasn’t home, for that wasn’t wherever they had Claire now.  Where she was, home was for Mike, and he’d fight every Copper in town, if he had to, just to see her again, For now, he had the hat and his anger, and that would have to get him through this cold night. He’d heard no gun noise. Wherever Jimmy ended up, Mike hoped he’d get that knee looked at. That had to hurt. “God help that poor bastard,” Mike mumbled under his breath. “I can’t.”

It might have been a prayer. Mike pulled the hat low over his eyes and walked out to the main street and stayed in the shadows.

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