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Authors: Gabriel Boutros

Face/Mask

BOOK: Face/Mask
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Face
/
Mask

 

By

 

Gabriel Boutros

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2014, Gabriel Boutros

All rights reserved

 

Prologue

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 17, 2039:

 

When the time came Richard knew there would be a high probability of serious injury, not only to the
Cons
, but also to innocent by-standers. He’d told them he didn’t want anybody to get hurt, and that, despite his big talk a few days earlier, he believed they should remain a non-violent movement.

But Suzanne had spoken to him quietly the night before in her kitchen. She held his hand and gazed into his eyes as she told him how proud she’d been when he’d spoken up at the last meeting. She was glad he understood that some pain was necessary, or else people wouldn’t react.

“The sheep,” she said, “will keep walking down the chute unless something scares them. Only then will they open their eyes and see where they’re headed.”

Richard didn’t respond. He knew that even scared sheep couldn’t stop themselves from going to slaughter, but he didn’t want to contradict her. She saw his hesitation and asked him if he was afraid, with a look that told him she would only accept one answer.

“Of course not,” he lied, looking down to avoid her searching gaze. “I just want to make sure I’m doing the right thing.”

“What else can we do, Richard? The public is so apathetic they can’t be shaken out of their torpor with clever slogans and colourful signs.”

She brushed the hair out of his eyes and bent her head to look into his face.

“Without some pain they’ll never see that the administration is run by militarists and elite industrialists who are happily enriching themselves while families are poisoned by the very air and water around them.”

Now Richard stood inside the library’s entrance, remembering her words, and smelling her perfume like she was still holding his hand.  He watched as his fellow students trudged in and out of the building. Most carried small waist-packs containing their study discs and some nutri-snacks under their coats. He worried that somebody would wonder why his pack looked bulkier than everybody else’s. Surely nobody would expect him to be carrying an actual textbook around. But nobody gave him a second look.

In the street, in front of the RCMP station that was next door to the library, several patrol cars were parked. He watched as two
Cons
, their air-masks hanging from their belts, chatted amiably while they leaned against their cruisers. They were happy about something: one of them laughing out loud while squeezing his colleague’s arm, before they both strolled into the station.

Richard wanted to imagine that they were laughing about an arrest they’d made, maybe some innocent and harmless old man, but he couldn’t. It was easier to hate a faceless administration than it was two buddies sharing a laugh. Whatever passion he’d felt in Suzanne’s apartment had dissipated. This would have been easier for him if his heart was still full of anger, but there was no turning back.

He looked at the antique digital clock on the library wall: it was 9:45 AM. They’d told him to plant the bomb at 10 o’clock, five minutes before the planned detonation, to minimize the risk of discovery. But his heart was beating too rapidly, and he could feel the sweat pouring down his face. He was sure he’d faint if he had to wait much longer.

Nobody’s going to find it anyway
, he told himself, as he placed the waist-pack behind a bench near an exterior wall.

The detonation was set to expand outward, toward the police detachment, and not inward where the students were crowded into a tight space. Still, the chances of some of them being seriously injured, maybe even dying, were fairly high.

He repeated to himself some of Suzanne’s arguments that he’d memorized as a mantra:
All shortages are tools of the administration; hungry people pay more for food; there’s always someone else to blame
.

He took a deep breath and told himself that it had to be done. After this act of defiance the administration would have to take them seriously. And Suzanne would know that he was a real man.

He just hoped that nobody he knew would get hurt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part I:

 

 

Two Faces

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter one

 

 

Canadian Environment Service Fact-sheet, published October 12, 2027:
Hydrocarbons contribute to the formation of ozone and the resulting smog problem. Several forms of hydrocarbons found in the atmosphere today are considered poisonous air pollutants, or air toxins. Combustion engine exhaust, oil refineries, and oil-fueled power plants have historically been the primary sources of hydrocarbons. High levels of flammable hydrocarbons in the atmosphere can interfere with oxygen intake by reducing the amount of available oxygen through displacement.

                                         

 

June 6, 2039

 

Nobody said a word. The people gathered as they did every weekday morning, starting at the corner nearest to his house, then in a line that snaked down the block to the next street. In a matter of minutes there were two hundred of them, their faces hidden behind the rubber and glass masks that kept them alive.

It was another orange alert. Eight straight days. Allen Janus couldn’t remember it ever being this bad.

He waited for the metro-bus, trying to ignore the cries of a baby in a plastic-covered basket carried by the woman behind him. Every time she slid her hand through the vent-slot to comfort the colicky child the basket jostled Janus, who stared up at the murky sky and thought of blue skies and open fields. His own plastic cover-all, zipped up to his neck, pinched him at the waist. It had begun fitting him quite snugly due to his sedentary lifestyle and the fact that exercise was not recommended for people over forty.

The discomfort he felt was nothing compared to what would happen if his air-mask stopped functioning. He thought of the clean white gauze he’d placed into its filter that morning. By the time he got to work it would be shit-brown and need to be replaced. The orange-flashing signs above the exits of his office building reminded all employees to make sure the gauze in their mask-filters was regularly replaced.

He remembered a middle-management type named John something who hadn’t bothered to clean the filter for two days during an orange alert. On his way home on the metro-bus he began having difficulty breathing because no air was getting through. The old gauze had solidified, clogging the mask’s air passages. In a panic, he’d pulled his mask off and taken in great gulps of the toxic air.

He ended up dying on a gurney in the hallway of the New Montreal General Hospital’s over-crowded emergency ward, his lungs full of puss from the infection that had rapidly spread through-out his body. All because he had ignored administration regulations that filter-gauze be replaced at least twice a day during orange alerts.

A soft, but growing, rumble in the distance brought Janus out of his reverie. Some of the people in the usually silent line began whispering nervously. He looked down the road, trying to see what was making the sound which came from behind a squat apartment building two blocks away.

After a few seconds he saw a multi-track approaching; it was the RCMP’s preferred vehicle for urban patrols. Several agents hung off the sides of the lumbering grey truck, holding small wooden bats in their free hands.

What the hell’re they up to?

There was the sound of scuffling behind him, followed by a muffled yell. He turned and saw two people, their faces and shapes hidden under their protective clothing, pushing through the crowd and heading away from the multi-track. The sudden roar of the vehicle’s engines announced its acceleration toward the pair, and they burst away from the crowd, running frantically in the opposite direction. One of them slipped a package out from underneath his topcoat and threw it away as he rounded a corner.

Nobody tried to stop them, nor yelled out in their direction. As the multi-track approached the metro-bus line several people turned their heads away instinctively, or averted their eyes. Janus, though, found his attention drawn to the nearest agent, hanging off the passenger door. The glass shield of the agent’s air-mask was mirrored, making it impossible to see his eyes, unlike the masks worn by civilians. Yet the man seemed to be staring right at Janus, who couldn’t pull his own eyes away. As the vehicle rumbled past their intersection, the agent’s mask remained fixed on Janus, who suddenly felt sweat soaking his shirt.

With the multi-track about 50 meters away the agent turned his head and pointed his bat in the direction that the two runners had disappeared. The vehicle turned the corner and the sound of its engines took a long time to fade away. Janus’s heart beat rapidly. He was unsure why he’d felt compelled to stare at the agent, yet wondered why such a simple act should be so terrifying.

He took a deep breath and reassured himself that the RCMP had no interest in someone like him. That obviously wasn’t the case for the poor bastards they were chasing. Perhaps they were criminals or radicals; maybe even enviro-terrorists. He wondered what would happen when they were caught, never doubting that they would be. Few people ever got away.

Once the half-track was gone there was some furtive whispering among the people in line, but this quickly died down. Soon, everything was back to normal. Some people coughed lightly or cleared their throats, and several, trying to behave casually, gently touched the timer on the coms in their ears. Janus did so as well. It was 8 AM.

 

Janus spent the day slumped behind the melamine desk in his office, sipping the tepid dishwater that passed for coffee and trying to ignore the constant hum of voices outside the thin walls that enclosed him. The barely functioning P-screen that was standard-issue municipal equipment struggled to keep up with the reports that were streamed to him. He sat in what had become his default position, resting his chin on the palm of one hand while tapping an impatient finger on the binder in front of him, waiting for the screen to change. Against the background of rolling green hills of an Ireland that existed only in fairy tales, a small clock-face flashed repeatedly.

Although the over-worked server ran at the speed of molasses, Janus eventually received the over-night reports of several major intersections that were clogged due to malfunctioning traffic lights. Janus’s job for the previous eight years was heading the Department of Municipal Infrastructure which monitored Montreal’s electrical grid. Once upon a time, Janus enjoyed telling his younger subordinates, blown transformers and melted switches were rare occurrences, and didn’t require two dozen repair crews to be out on the road around the clock.

He keyed in the codes on his screen to see which crews would be available next, and then sent them the co-ordinates of the trouble-spots. Day after day, the complaints came in, and day after day he had to make sure there were enough crews and functioning equipment to handle the latest breakdowns. Each day he sat behind his desk and the mind-numbing boredom of his work slowly ground him down. He supposed that being jobless and lining up at food banks was a worse fate, especially for a man with family responsibilities, but that didn’t make him feel any better.

His thoughts turned briefly to his family: his wife, Terry, their three boys and Uncle Joe. Richard and Francis, aged 17 and 16 respectively, were on the verge of becoming young men, with all the problems and complications that entailed. Their youngest son, Rollie, had lost a school year after spending six months in hospital due to recurring emphysema, the same disease that had taken Janus’s brother, Frank. The treatment he’d received had, for the most part, repaired the alveoli in his lungs, although the doctors had told Janus that the boy would always be at risk.

This Friday would be Rollie’s eighth birthday, a celebration Janus and Terry had feared they’d never see. They planned a party with all his school friends for that Saturday, an innocent distraction from the outside world that should have provided Janus with some pleasure. Instead he knew that, with Uncle Joe’s involvement, it was certain to cause him more than a little aggravation
.

 

December 12, 2036:

 

On a Friday morning, almost three years earlier, Normand Leblanc walked into Allen Janus’s office without knocking. He sat down uninvited, despite his Department Head’s frown of disapproval, and stretched out his long legs. Several inches taller than Janus and rake-thin, he looked like he was about to slide out of the low chair. Behind his thick glasses there was a playful twinkle in his small brown eyes.

“Sorry,” he said sarcastically, with a hint of a
Québecois
accent. “I hope I’m not disturbing your porn-surfing.”

Janus rolled his eyes at his friend’s sarcasm and touched a soft pad on his desk so that his P-screen’s contents became visible from where Leblanc was sitting.

“You know I’d never do that,” Janus answered, “on a Department P-screen.” He pointed to a newsflash about the latest insurgent attacks along the Pakistani-Indian border.

“God, Allen,” Leblanc said. “Why do you bother reading about that?”

“What? You don’t read the news?”

“I’ll start believing the news when they report that Quebec City was an inside job.”

Janus raised his eyebrows in exasperation, but decided to ignore Leblanc’s attempt to shock him.

“We happen to be at war,” Janus said. “Don’t you care how it’s going?”

Leblanc lifted his feet up onto Janus’s desk and crossed them at the ankles.

“How can you care about a war that’s been going on for forty years and will probably continue for forty more? You must be the only person who isn’t in the administration that still gives a rat’s ass about it.”

“Uh, Normand, we are in the administration, in case you forgot.”

Leblanc raised one eyebrow. “The administration? This? Of course, Allen. The Department of Traffic Lights
is
the administration. And we’re running the whole circus from your office, aren’t we?”

Janus keyed the screen off. He knew he should have been angrier at Leblanc’s insolence, but getting angry required more effort than he was willing to put out. At least Leblanc only behaved this way in the privacy of Janus’s office, out of view from the rest of the workers in the Department. Officially, this kind of loose familiarity with anyone in management wasn’t tolerated.

“You hear about the food riots over in the east end?”

“What?” Janus almost jumped out of his seat in surprise. A second look at Leblanc’s face told him that no such riots had occurred. “Funny guy!”

Leblanc shrugged amiably. “People actually rioting about something; now that would have been news.”

Janus’s continued silence was acknowledgement of the truth of Leblanc’s words. Nobody ever got upset about anything anymore. “Resistance was futile,” Janus’s father used to say, repeating a line from some corny old movie. Sadly, that line was the unofficial motto of this generation.

Nobody he knew ever protested about anything, be it the soaring food prices or the worsening air quality, both of which were the responsibility of the administration. His generation had long ago stopped writing letters to the editors. And it wasn’t because things were going so swimmingly, at home or overseas.

On the other side of the planet the various wars on terrorism had taken the lives of four thousand Canadian soldiers. Janus knew that this number of dead paled in comparison to the number of American casualties in the perpetual conflict. Not to mention the generations of dead Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and Pakistanis killed in the war’s various theatres.

Enthusiasm for the never-ending war on terror had almost died out before the Quebec City nuke in 2018. The Americans weren’t thrilled about a nuclear bomb going off just outside their front door, and feared that Canada was a giant welcome mat for terrorists looking for an easy in-road into the U.S.

They set up a Military Advisory Council in Ottawa shortly after the explosion that had killed 100,000
Québecois,
and soon there were few differences between Canadian and U.S. policies, domestic or foreign. The Enhanced Homeland Security Act of 2020 recognized no national border along the forty-ninth parallel. An entire section of the populace was designated as “Enemy Residents” based on their religion, and had their civil rights suspended. The suspension was supposed to be temporary, lasting for a five year term that was renewable at Parliament’s discretion.

“Ahem, Mr. Secretary-General,” Leblanc’s playful voice interrupted Janus’s free-flowing thoughts. “You had me feeling left out there. Did you forget I was here?”

“No. How could I ever forget
that
? By the way, was there a reason you came in here?”

“You know the reason.”

Janus tried to act like he hadn’t heard. He’d been dreading this day since he’d made the mistake of confiding to Leblanc about the boredom and frustration that threatened to overwhelm him. Little had he known then that Leblanc had an outlet for his own disenchantment and that Janus would be invited along for the thrill ride.

“What?” Leblanc asked in the face of Janus’s silence. “Are you changing your mind?”

“No, no,” Janus answered, all the while wishing he had never agreed to it. “I just forgot, that’s all.”

Leblanc laughed. “Yeah.
Forgot
. I bet you haven’t stopped fretting over it for the past week.”

“You’re not exactly doing a great job of selling it, you know.”

BOOK: Face/Mask
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