“Connection Lost”

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— I was in an office. Can you believe that, Bert? Sometimes, when I sit alone upstairs in the Palladium, sometimes I think about back then, and I’m overwhelmed by the irony. I see myself, in a past moment in time, a younger myself, and everything seems the same. A desk, an ergonomic chair, an intercom, surrounded by walls painted in eggshell white, the colour of bureaucracy. More than twenty years have passed, and yet time looks at me from behind all the reflections, and makes jokes at me, in languages I barely understand but in tones I can feel shattering my bones.

I was in an office, eager to show my skills, to show my technical prowess, the degree of control and coordination I could manage despite the young age. And I just sat and stared at the holoscreen, I remember I had never seen it so… inert. I was ahead of many colleagues because I practically could read the code behind the interface — oh yes, believe me — and at the time there I was, sitting and staring at the only two words appearing on that screen: CONNECTION LOST. I couldn’t even hear what my section chief was shouting, coming and going from an office to another in a frenzy of — how could I call it? — incomprehension. Connection Lost sounded like the writing of an ancient, foreign bard, biding farewell to the populace. I kept staring at those two words, almost as if I wanted to annihilate them with my mind, digging beneath them to make them fall into the pit of meaninglessness.

And again, irony struck back, because for the following eleven days, everyone was falling exactly into that same pit. Everything felt… still. Still and distant. People seemed to develop an aura of unfriendliness and mistrust, suspicion and caution. Those were the eleven days when Connection Lost was king, and its name was also its meaning, and the meaning an acute, surgical description of the whole world outside everybody’s windows. Connection Lost: where had it gone? Its name was also a sort of epitaph for everyone to read: on our entscreens, holoscreens, streetpanels, comdevs. But of course you remember that too, Bert. You were around. I never asked you where you were when it happened, when King Connection Lost the First came, saw and conquered, when all the e-ads about ‘interconnectedness’ ‘virtual shawareness’ and ‘commimplication’ crumbled down all at once, not even leaving a faint echo of their original vacuousness and vapidity…

— If I told you where I was, I’m sure your ramblings about irony would keep on with renewed strength…

— Oh no, I’m aware that time’s of the essence and you need my authorisation to access that facility at… [reads] Bunyan. But try me.

— All right, but you sign that first.

Munro hints at a smile. Then signs without reading any of the request’s specifics. Implicit trust, as often between them. Then he stands and puts the folded sheet in Bert’s hands as he accompanies him outside the office.

Bert puts the authorised request in the inside pocket of his jacket. Munro gives him a final look of expectancy.

— All right. At the time I was fifteen, and I was visiting the Historic Library in Northwest Arslan.

Now Munro is really smiling.

— The irony, my man, the irony!

Bert is already at the end of the corridor, calling the executive lift.

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In the Library — II

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It’s been raining incessantly for three days. Bert leaves the desk with the microform reader to stretch his legs. He tells Mr Lindner he’s going for a cup of tea and asks him if he wants something from the cafeteria downstairs.

– I’m fine, Mr Kay. But thank you.

Bert produces a doc-card with an atypical crossword code stamped on it. Mr Lindner raises his left eyebrow slightly, then looks at Bert.

– I know. Not the usual request. But I need that stack of microfiches, and you’ve enough clearance to ask for the decoder monocle.
– I see.
– They’ll send you one down, just call extension 9969.
– All right, then.
– Thank you again. I mean it.

Bert heads for the stairs. No point in taking the lift — after sitting down for hours, he needs a bit of exercise. HLD’s cafeteria is another well-lit big room, but the light has a smoother temperature here, calibrated to be more pleasant and soothing for the eyes. It’s a quarter past seven PM, yet there are more people than Bert expected. He orders a cup of steaming water. The new girl behind the counter is mildly puzzled, but one of her coworkers — who knows Bert’s habits better — points out that “he brings his own tea”. Bert smiles and goes to one of the standing tables near the huge windows of the east wall with his cup. From his jacket pocket, he takes out an orange capsule and puts it in the hot water, where it rapidly dissolves, giving the water a dark emerald hue.

As he looks out of the window, at that slice of city under the dark rain, he remembers an old song and some words resurface, like pieces of a half-forgotten stream of consciousness: Some stillness, like a break in the weather, and the morning goes away… Being less torturing with the help of the memory of joy in colours… For there was carelessness and young hope among the notes of the songs… Days were complex and clueless and blindfolded, but I had time to catch my breath.

That last part, he could swear, is from an old journal of his. The tea gives him the warmth he was seeking.

When Bert returns to the Library, Mr Lindner hands him two matte dark grey sealed envelopes with the materials requested.

– You were right, Mr Kay, I was able to obtain everything without problems. I apologise if I appeared all too wary before…
– It’s fine, really. Department policies tend to make all of us a bit paranoid, I suppose.
– Oh, and the monocle is a really nice piece of technology.

Bert nods and returns to the microform reader. A note has been left on Bert’s notebook. A beautiful, ornate handwriting he has never seen before. The note reads:

Enthusiasm — It furthers one to install helpers. / JF

Bert is tempted to go back to Mr Lindner and ask him if he saw someone enter the Library and leave that note, but somehow he already knows the answer would be no.

Not just three coins

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2:37 AM. A gentle knock at the door.

— Come in.
— Mr Kay, the enlargements of the footage stills you requested.
— Terry, what are you doing here at this unholy hour?

Bert Kay’s smile is the only thing the young man carrying a large brown envelope can see in the light of the desk lamp.

— I changed my shift last week. I work nights now.

Bert takes the envelope and puts it down on his desk, before him, without opening it. The young man lingers. Bert remains silent for a long moment. A quick, quiet study is taking place, and both of them know that. It’s like a staring contest in the darkness of a place that can get lonely and claustrophobic at night. A contest Terry Browne knows will lose, so he decides to take leave. As he breathes in to start talking, Bert exhales meditatively.

— You developed and enlarged these yourself, right?
— Y-yes Mr Kay.
— You’re interested in this case.

Bert relaxes on his chair. Terry Browne feels a bit exposed in his half-hidden enthusiasm. He chose the night shift because he knew Bert would remain until the early hours to work the case. Bert continues:

— Good, because I may need your photographic expertise.

Now it’s Terry Browne’s turn to relax.

— Have you noticed something strange in the stills you’ve enlarged?
— Yes Mr Kay. And I believe your suspicions were correct.

Bert opens the envelope and starts browsing the photos. Some are enlargements of enlargements, and are very grainy. Bert tries to adjust the distance between his eyes and those bizarre black & white pointillist pictures, but soon sees what Terry Browne means.

— The three coins again.
— Yes, here, here, and… there again. I circled them in this image as well. At least, where I believe they should be based on the previous positions of the men in the room. And there’s more…

Terry Brown’s enthusiasm starts warming up again. Bert is definitely engrossed, and lets him pull up one of the last photos of the stack.

— Do you recognise this, Mr Kay?
— Christ almighty.
— How old can it be? 60 years?
— Nah. Portable computers with that screen size are even older. That thing could very well be 80 years old.
— What’s going on?
— I don’t know for sure yet, Terry, but this is definitely a break. Go downstairs and set up a monitor where we can take another look at the footage. I have to make a phone call.

Coffee and an unexpected death

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Soup explodes in one of his most typical laughs, a hail of gunfire with bass sforzatos that can be disturbing to untrained ears. Bert reaches the desk, which is flooded with white sheets, thick notebooks densely annotated, newspaper clippings, road maps, plans, slides and various other signs of someone who has been relentlessly at work for weeks. Bert tries to clear some desk space, and asks Soup if he wants a cup of coffee. He nods, but doubts that Bert can clear even half a metre of that table… Bert closes the rolodex and motions Soup to follow him in the kitchen.

From the cabinet above the stove Bert takes the coffee jar and the Moka pot. While putting a few tablespoons of coffee in the Moka, he asks Soup: – You still need sixteen to twenty espressos per day to function, like you used to, or…?

– Nah, my heart started pumpin’ at full throttle a bit too often, damn it! Now it’s nine, ten cups at the most!

– Wow, a big step forward.

Bert looks around now. The kitchen is a mess. The flat is a mess. His life is a mess. Actually no, strike that. His life is made of so few components that it’s impossible to determine whether there is order in it or not. In his mind, the phrase “a step forward” is often associated with life, with “prospects.” He takes two cups from the drainer and places them next to the sink. There’s silence, as if they were both waiting for the usual signs of life from the Moka pot, like parents waiting for the cries of their newborn in the delivery room.

Soup is standing near the window, enjoying a fragmented panoramic view of the metropolis, but grumbles: the more he observes, the more he disapproves, and as the coffee slowly brews, Soup captions his grumbling with his classic commentary: – What a shitty city… I just don’t know how in hell you endure this, Bert… Look there, look at them, all in their cars, or walking in the street… All chasing their own stupid shit…

Bert puts the cup of steaming coffee under Soup’s nose. Soup caught a glimpse of the gesture reflected in the glass so he’s not surprised and immediately stretches out his hand to grab the cup. He turns to look at Bert, but he is already disappearing in the living room. – Sooner or later I’m going to give it all up and leave this rotten place! Mark my words!

Bert’s tone is sarcastic: – Yes, of course! Say hello to the white beaches when you see them. Drive carefully and write often, please!

Soup joins him in the living room. – Fuck’s that supposed to mean?

– Nothing at all, but it’s like the fiftieth time I’ve heard you say that you’ll give it all up, and yet you’re still here…

– Yeah, but this time I’m this close. I’ve really had enough of this city.

Bert lowers the copy of the Crossview Weekly he is browsing and takes a sip of coffee. Soup has already finished his in a couple of swigs, maybe one, like drunkards do with their ‘shots.’ Bert lowers the paper and looks Soup in the eyes: – You are always this close to leaving. But you’re always on the move, Soup, when you work and when you help me. You’re constantly travelling, perhaps so much that you don’t even realise it.

– Your mind trips ain’t no fucking joke either, mate.

This time Bert replies without taking his eyes off the newspaper: – You ought to decrease your daily coffee intake even further. You have to calm down. And I’m not kidding. Soon we’ll work together again, I know, and I want you to be careful, precise and focussed.

Then Bert notices an article.

– Oh look here, “The Minister of Education and member of the Cultural Heritage Preservation, Mr Charles Honoff, died last night in his home in Browning East End.”

Soup reacted casually: – Was it cancer? He seemed like a young-looking guy…

– 51 years old. Heart attack. He leaves a wife and two children aged 17 and 11. Poor fellow.

– That’s life.

– I met him at the Department, less than a year ago, when those diplomats came…

Bert tries to remember Honoff’s face, his features, some detail, but everything about him becomes unforgivably elusive, and the picture in the newspaper seems to be just interfering with Bert’s memory efforts. For a moment Bert feels almost guilty. Perhaps oblivion is like that.

– Okay, I’m leaving.

What’s about Honoff that escapes Bert the most? The news of his death engulfs Bert all of a sudden, and he quickly gets lost in thoughts involving words like fate, predestination, and so on.

Then, before his eyes, an unexpected and threatening winged animal: Soup’s big hand, waving.

– Hello-o! I told you I’m leaving! Or is it that I just don’t deserve your goddamned attention anymore?

– Yeah, no I’m sorry. I was trying to remember something about that Honoff. Bah.

– I’m going home. I’ll put some clothes in a bag and sleep ’til after tomorrow.

– A long trip awaits, huh?

– No kidding. Ciao.

– See you soon, mate. Take care of yourself.

– You too.

Bert’s flat — A scattered conversation

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Andrew ‘Soup’ Campbell let himself in. Bert was on the phone.

– … no there was no one. Believe me, you did the right thing.
– So you’re positive that… okay. No — listen — I have to go to her first… in fact I’ve kept the papers here for almost two weeks now.
– Who is it?
– Later – Look… I don’t owe him anything … I had it repaired myself in the end. If I had waited for him…
– I see… Well, he told me to tell you so –
– Tomorrow I’m going to pop in and I’ll explain that to him yet again.
– What d’you mean by “yet again”?
– No, look, he went away — that’s what I was trying to tell you before… if you just let me speak.
– Okay okay but where did he go?
– Ah, I get it now — and you’re still payin’ heed to his crap? He’s an asshole.
– He may be an asshole but he was the only one who could fix the radio transmitter.
– But weren’t you just saying you fixed it yourself in the end?
– Noo… I was referring to the car — but this phone line sucks! Look… no listen, I didn’t catch that — I was talking with… — You were saying he’s gone… gone where? Aha… but isn’t that on the other side…?
– That’s right. And he’ll be back on Wednesday.
– Fuck, Wednesday’s late. I received a dispatch… yes… no, yesterday — Yesterday, and it mentioned Tuesday.
– How come, Tuesday?
– Tuesday, I’m telling you… And I can’t be there on Tuesday. I can’t be in two different places at the same time!
– I’ll do my best to take care of it myself, then. I’ll cancel every other thing I planned to do day after tomorrow and I’ll do that. And we’re cool.
– All right, thank you – There’s people here, I got to go.
– Oh Christ… what the hell he thinks he’s doin’!?
– I’ll let you know. I’ll call you Monday evening.
– Just hang up and to hell with him. I know just how he’s used to running errands…
– ’Til Monday then — … bye, bye.

– Eh, Soup, I see you’re upset.
– Christ, of course I am! You shouldn’t keep up with that guy. He’s not reliable.
– Let’s say you don’t trust him.
– Let’s say whatever the fuck you want, but it is as I say.
– You’re still mad at him. Since that time… that delivery gone wrong… You’re still not over it.
– I’ll never be.
– Just forget it.
– Anyway, what the fuck should Jasper do for you that I can’t do?
– The day after tomorrow you told me you’d be away on business.
– Oh fuck, it’s true.
– And then you don’t have the right credentials. It’s not that anyone can enter the Department at will.
– And just what the hell’s he going to do at the Department?
– I need him to retrieve some very important documents. So important, in fact, that the dispatch I received doesn’t even mention the source of the assignment.
– I bet it’s those Secret Service assholes. And by the by, who tells you it’s an assignment?
– Well! The whole situation. I mean, just look at the amount of red tape…
– And where are you next Tuesday?
– Out of town in the hope of wrapping up this goddamn case once and for all. I have to make some final comparisons to corroborate the evidence my team has been gathering for months.
– So is it true, that they’d managed to exploit those anomalies at the Fielding district archive?
– Yes. We noticed some curious cross–references that led to a vicious circle if you were to follow them one after the other very very closely.
– And the bastards were getting away with it. Until one Mr Sonofabitch…
– …That’s me…
– …Until Mr Bert Kay here got in the way!
– Thank you, thank you. No autographs, though, please.
– Hah — Fuck you!

In the Library

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– I have to stay aware. If I’m aware, I’m sane. If I’m not aware, I see monsters.

Bert Kay fixes his gaze somewhere outside the windows of the HLD’s Library. Even if the case has come to a turning point, there’s still definitely a lot of work to do.