Steamtalk 1: An interlude

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Click here for a recap of the previous chapter

 

Trust me when I say the mean-ass streets of this city ain’t no place for a young boy, especially after nightfall.

Years past, the city had enforced a strict curfew. Any poor sap found on the streets who wasn’t on their way to or from work was shot there and then, no questions asked, no excuses accepted.

The zero tolerance policy had made all but those with balls like melons (or brains like fuckin oatmeal, I guess) stay indoors.

Now, cutbacks in the Cull Crews, Gods blight ’em, left too few boots on the ground and the armed psychos in uniform are now a thing of the past in these parts.

The criminal element – yours truly among ’em, I ain’t gonna bullshit ya here – came to appreciate this and took the opportunity to help ourselves to an all-you-can-beat frenzy from dusk till the ever-loving dawn.

Those lucky folks who ain’t screwed in the head or a slave to the hooch or the medicine deemed it much safer to stay indoors after dark.

But still, a late night trip out for extra food or some illegally obtained alcohol (no one is allowed to drink now, due to changes in employment law. All employees were to be at peak performance levels at all times) was deemed worth the risk by many who would later come to rue the day.

The back alleys were a haven for the Hoochmen, Gods bless ’em – the peddlers of the bootlegged liquor that so many people, myself included, craved.

In recent years, they also started dealing in what us street folks called medicine; new, mind-bending drugs perfect for anyone wanting to escape the monotony of life in this over-regulated hellhole where you pretty much have to check with the Mayor and his cronies if it’s ok for you to take a shit.

The levels of us City Hall-wouldn’t-piss-on-us-if-we-were-on-fire homeless fucks were rising due to one of the major food factories going bust. A shortage of some grain or another had put this company out of business and even the millionaire playboy owner, Max Williams, was out on his ear.

If you didn’t work you didn’t get to live indoors, it was as simple as that. Consequently most people lived like sheep, obeying the rules regarding alcohol and drugs and followed the City Hall-prescribed sleeping routine in order to keep their performance levels at their maximum.

Losing your job due to, say, a failed hooch/medicine test (most companies employed a team of jobsworthy motherfuckers to perform random checks at least once a fortnight), a short period of sickness or a series of messed up sleep/work calculations, or simply not hitting your ‘Productivity’ (whatever the fuck that means) target for a few consecutive days was sure as shit gonna land you on the streets by the start of the following week.

In exchange for their time and their right to think freely, most workers were given weekly rations of some basic foodstuffs – getting cold hard cash for an honest day’s graft is a thing of the past now too, I’m afraid to say – but this stopped in a real hurry if your job went out the window.

No food was given to the unemployed.

And you became top of the list for the Cull Crew’s next visit.

Some extra food was available to buy for a vastly inflated price, but most made do with what they had – so to be out of work was to be starving, as the only other means of getting your grubby mitts on some snap was either raking through the dumpsters, or turning to illegal methods like breaking into other houses and stealing their food.

Remind me to tell you another time about Baz Sheil and Gaz Dobson, and their attempt at knocking off the food wagon that supplies the workers’ rations. It’s real good for a hoot, I can tell ya.

Like the weird new breed of flies that now roam these parts, us homeless are violent and desperate.

Anyone on the streets after dark is asking to have their belongings removed forcibly from their person.

And that’s just if they’re lucky.

Us derelicts wear black hooded robes that, when combined with our pale, emaciated appearances, make us look like the Grim Reaper.

For this reason, regular folks call us Grims.

Any money that we can steal – getting harder and harder these days as those pricks in charge con the working man out of pretty much everything he works himself into an early grave for – goes on either food or bootleg liquor as this serves to make life on these brutal streets slightly more bearable.

The amount of Grims is still rising, even though the factories are struggling to operate and some of their workforce are practically dropping dead through exhaustion.

No one wants to hire us Grims and us Grims are happier free-wheelin’ than we ever were getting shafted day in day out by those supposed to be looking out for our best interests, regardless of the dangers we face every hour of the ever-loving day.

It’s got me breathing hard just thinking about the working man’s lifestyle – thirteen hour days in most places.

Go home, eat, sleep and come back and do it all again.

And expect to be fucking grateful for the privilege.

Not for us Grims.

Fuck that.

‘More to life than work,’ I always said, even before it happened.

The workers keep on digging their own graves through fear of what will happen if they lose their jobs and thus their homes, but us Grims long stopped caring about that shit.

There’s food and places to sleep all around, if you know where to look.

Us Grims tend to band together – safety in numbers or something like that – in big groups sometimes a hundred strong. We call these clouds, cos we just kinda drift wherever the hell we feel like going.

Clouds of rival Grims have been known to have wars in which many of them die horrible deaths.

Ain’t no one more desperate than someone who’s hungry, mark my words.

Sometimes clouds turn on themselves, causing civil wars between previously friendly Grims.

It’s always a fucking hoot when that happens.

Life is on a knife edge out here on the streets; any moment could be your last.

The main place for regular folk to avoid is under the old freeway.

The largest concentration of Grims live down there and it’s a vast maze of wooden and metal shacks lit by the light from hundreds of fires, big and small.

It seems welcoming down there, for sure.

I can see why the lost and the lonely might think that.

But it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, I can tell ya.

Some people wander down there and don’t ever find their way back out again.

Solomon King – known as King Solomon to his loyal followers – is the leader of the Freeway band of Grims (or Freelands as he calls it with huge, technicoloured spraypaint murals on the walls of the shacks and the concrete sides of the freeway walls).

And, out on the streets, Solomon is as powerful as the city’s mayor.

In his prime he had been nearly seven feet tall and tipping the scales at almost twenty stone of muscle, but all the years of hooch and medicine have taken their toll on him.

He’s shrunk a little in recent years – that he has thrived on these streets for years should tell you a lot about him too – but is still a man of huge physical and material power.

Pretty much everything that happens between the rival factions of Grims goes through Solomon.

He’d been a worker at one of the farms out in the country when the production of milk had stopped.

Some dickhead had created an artificial milk that was capable of being mass-produced for much cheaper than cow’s milk and, just like that, the farms were closed.

No nutrients in it, just cheap and nasty shit.

No one ever took the time to properly test it, but it’s rumoured to have some pretty shitty side effects.

That’s if any of us live long enough to develop ’em of course.

Livestock was slaughtered and burnt – back in those days there had been a surplus of food, but how that extra meat would have come in handy now.

Farms were bulldozed and the remains turned to ashes to ensure nothing ever came out of them again.

The maker of the milk powder had been a friend of the mayor, hence how he managed to get away with this bullshittery.

I’m sure one day Solomon is gonna make that sack of shit hurt for what he did, but he seems to be enjoying his life as king of the streets so much that he can wait.

The flames were barely extinguished by the time Solomon was adapting to his change in circumstances to avoid going the way of the farm’s butchered livestock.

With his farm-worker strength and the rage that burnt in him due to the sudden ending of a life that had been pretty damned good, it wasn’t long before he worked his way to the top of the food chain.

Back then there had only been a couple of hundred Grims – even I was gainfully employed back then, when they still gave you a wage instead of just some milk powder, bread and fucking potatoes – and the top dog at the time had been a man called Wayne Cross, a psychotic ex-preacher who had been removed from his post for getting a bit too fire and brimstone with his confession penances.

Word had spread of this new kid on the streets; a red-haired, bushy bearded, raging ball of muscle who was starting to influence the Grims enough for them to challenge Cross’s way of doing things.

Cross, you see, was working the system very much like cocksuckers in City Hall ran things – doling out meagre rations (enough to keep you ticking over but not enough to banish that blazing in the belly that kept you working to obtain more) and forcing them to work long hours setting up camp, foraging (an all-purpose word we have for mugging, food runs into the apartment blocks and a few other thing unsavoury processes which I won’t go into here), and whatever else he decided he wanted doing.

It must’ve been his religious background that made him so prohibitive, skimming the majority of supplies for himself and starving his people.

Solomon was known for being brutal in battle, but looking after his loyal followers. He advocated plenty. As long as he got enough food and booze – Budweiser beer was his favourite, but he’d drink anything, even back then – the rest could be shared out fairly.

His Grims could feed until they were fit to burst and drink until they were on the verge of going blind.

He was all about abundance.

A life under the Freeway meant a life of indulgence and giving into temptation.

The Grims were beginning to revolt, seeing the inherent injustice in Cross’s method of allocating resources.

 

So what happened was Cross and his main cloud waited until they knew Solomon was partying.

When Solomon partied, everyone knew about it, let’s just put it that way.

They left it until the early hours of the morning, when they knew everyone would be three sheets to the wind, and paid a visit to Solomon’s home.

Back then it was a very modest tent commune that had been fished out of the dump (a million miles from the makeshift city he occupies under the freeway these days.)

The first few Grims who went to meet Cross’s party were sent straight up to sit beside the Gods.

The hubbub woke Solomon, who was just getting out of his bed when Cross’s men clicked ahold of him.

They told Solomon they were here to give him a message in a way that an ex-farmer would best understand.

Solomon’s brow furrowed, being woken so abruptly had messed up his perception of what was going on.

A coupla cases of Bud might have had something to do with that too.

They asked him how he had identified his cattle.

A grin crept across Cross’s lips like a rampant tumour.

Solomon didn’t have the foggiest what he was on about.

Cross smiled even more and asked him the question again.

I reckon Solomon knew what was going down at that point, but didn’t want to believe it.

Until he heard the hiss of something being poked into the flaming blowtorch in Cross’s hand.

Solomon got up out of his bed and started swinging for the fucking fences. He went absolutely apeshit.

A half-dozen of the God-botherers went down with broken jaws. One went down with a fucking broken neck, Solomon hit him that goddamned hard.

But there was another of ’em in the doorway with a tranquilliser gun. They shot him full of tranqs – enough to take down a fucking charging bull elephant, if you believe the story – and shoved him back to the bed.

Solomon went to get to his feet, but found his legs had picked one hell of a time to cry mutiny.

He could just about move his head but the waist down over was about as much use as a nun’s cooch.

As the red hot branding iron moved towards him, he actually heard the metal fizzing. He noticed it was in the shape of a crucifix.

‘It’s a cross, get it?’ Cross smiled. ‘Because now you belong to me.’

Though three of them held his head, he still managed to turn it just as the iron came in.

As a result, instead of branding him in the middle of his forehead, the red hot section of metal plunged into the poor bastard’s left eye.

He heard the crackle as it hit, smelt the flesh searing.

As the branding iron came back, Cross told them to take his eye out, as a lesson.

The iron went in deeper, the pain searing through Solomon’s eyelid and into his eyeball. He felt pressure building in there, then there was a deafening pop and hot fluid started pissing down his face, sizzling as it hit the hot metal.

Solomon was already out cold; the shock had been too much.

The man pulled it out, the skin sticking to the iron as he pulled it away.

They waited for him to wake then did his forehead too.

 

And so it came to be that King Solomon had his left eye burnt permanently shut and an inch-deep scarred indention of an X on his forehead.

There was an occasion where Solomon had doped himself up on Whizzers – the most powerful painkiller available on the streets at the time, they’ll make ya fuckin hear colours I swear to the Gods – and set one of his Cloud at the scar on his forehead with a wood plane in an attempt to remove it.

He was no one’s man but his own and he answered to no one, not even God.

And especially not some whackjob wannabe priest.

In terms of the streets, he was God.

He dictated who lived and died.

Who got married.

Who was allowed to have children – the water us Grims drink from the river is heavily polluted but, after purification through the setup they have in the Freelands, the sterilisation treatments added to keep the population down were removed, so we are able to reproduce, something we’re keen to keep a secret from City Hall.

Not that anyone on official business would dare to go down there with anything less than an army anyway.

Who in their right mind would pick a fight with a coupla thousand of us animals?

 

Next chapter here

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