It took me an hour to go to the gym through the canyons of concrete and glass, straight down 13th Street, by the old Logan Boulet Arena, nestled in midst the sky-risers as an architectural oasis of the past, where people built wide instead of high.
I passed the countless storefronts of specialized Exchange-Shops, where you could leave used clothes, furniture or small household appliances and take a similar item, for a week, a month or forever. There was a lot of bartering going on, sometimes loud, but never rude, because then a SUCU would come, and nobody wanted that. At one store you could trade your cutlery, next door men's pants, and so on, all the way until the Village Centre Gym—eight floors high stretching to Stafford Drive like a giant rubber boot box; the graphitey building surrounded by the illuminated and shiny downtown towers, swallowed from the 40th floor on by the rain and the clouds.
A man made eye-contact with me, a little too long for my taste, and before I could dodge him, he stopped and approached me, slinging elegantly his wet mustache over his shoulder, «Excuse me, do you have a second?»
«Do I have a choice?»
«Not really», he flashed his organ-agent ID, «Let's cut to the chase, you have good eyes! Would you be interested in donating them and ...»
«No, thank you.»
«You'd get a free guard dog...»
«No, honestly, thank you! I have to get to the gym, my shift starts.»
«And half the gym-time...»
«What? Last time your colleague quoted me no gym-time!»
«You should have taken that offer! Times are getting tougher.»
A rat bounced into my foot.
«One eye?», he asked.
«I have to go now.»
«No, sorry, thanks for the generous offer», I slowly motioned by him.
«Here's my contact, in case you change your mind.»
I left him behind me, my 55 vibrated with the received business card of the organ-agent, the third offer this month, twice my eyes, eyes must be in demand.
The constant swooshing of drenched coats and plastic hoodies from the thousands of people around me coming from their gyms or going to their shifts, most of them holding their devices in front of them, pouring cold light into their frozen faces. Seldom a faint smile, today once, when two people were alerted by their match-app. One person wished them sarcastically good luck.
First thing I wanted to do, when I came to work, was showing my boss my tattoo, but he was busy talking to a fellow gymmer who sat sunken in his seat, a cast around his left leg.
I waited next to the open door, I couldn't help eavesdropping on their conversation.
My boss' nasal voice whined, «Man, I totally get you, I am the first one to understand, see, you have to understand, too, where I am coming from, do you?!»
«A broken ankle is no joke. You will have pain, when you come back, you will never deliver the watts you did before the accident.»
«I can train my upper body.»
«You never outperform your legs. I can offer you a 1A reference letter of recommendation and with that if I were you, I would go to Afterlife and ask for their prime treatment programme and then you walk the plank like a champ.»
«You want to limp around for the rest of your life?»
«I wouldn't mind...»
«Imagine, just imagine for a moment, the royal treatment up there in the hotel! And that's all I can do for you now. But if you want to blow it, when you come back, then my hands are tied.»
«If you put it this way.»
«Yeah. You know what, sleep on it, I don't want to rush you into anything.»
«No, sure, thanks.»
«You're welcome, what is a good boss otherwise there for?! And tell nobody about the reference.»
«No, no, thanks.» The legs of the chair rubbed over the linoleum.
«Yeah, no worry, just text me tomorrow.»
«Will do, boss, will do, bye.»
He limped out of the office and silently by me.
I knocked against the wood of the door frame.
I swung around, «Hi, look what I got!», I pulled up my shirt, so he could see the Noddy.
He said, «Belly button fluff the size of a beaver tail.»
«Gotcha», he said less emotionally than me, «I change your schedule and send it to you.»
«Thanks, one hour less a day.»
«I know. Hey, are those snooze scars!?», he looked at me and pointed to his left cheek with his hand missing the thumb. Like so many he lost it during the brief period where thumbs were scanned to open your studio doors, but too many people were knocked out by thieves, then chopping off their thumbs and robbing their place.
«Probably, I slept long.»
«Congratulation. You must be well rested then.»
«So what the truck are you waiting for?»
: : :
My work buddy Juan next to me on the elliptical congratulated me to my Noddy. We've been working out beside each other for over a year now, whenever our shifts overlapped. Chatting with him was always nice, made the time go by faster. With the changing shifts, chances were one in three that we ended up working together.
«So what are you doing with the extra hour?», he asked.
«Frankly, I have no idea», I kept my eyes on the news ticker on one of the movie theater-sized projection screens hanging from the ceiling of the gym. They showed live online battles of the best ZZ-gamers and PSAs in the breaks, the screen close to us right now suggested to vote for the Penguin Party in the next election. It would mean their eighth term.
Next came the news headlines: 'First Kangaroo made it over the swimming plastic carpet to Indonesia', '81% of Saudi Arabia swallowed by collapsing oil hole' and 'Extreme mood swings due to increased solar flare. If you feel better, it will pass soon'.
Our gym was the second-largest in Lethbridge: each floor with 240 rows of 60 ellipticals and treadmills, running permanently in changing shifts 24/7. Most of my colleagues followed the fights and stories on the flatscreens, others were connected to their devices and entertained themselves privately.
Last year there was a guy in front of us learning one of the old languages: French. Juan asked him why he would try to learn a dead language if he didn't plan to become a time traveller, and he answered it would make as much sense as anything else. He was halfway there, we figured, at the hotel, he would see the sun soon. And we were right, by Christmas he had left for the plank.
Juan spoke without looking at me, «I tell you what you will do with your extra hour: you will play Justine one more hour a day!»
He referred to my favorite game, an online open world, open source game, where Justine, a detective, had to solve crimes.
«I don't know.»
«I know! I know that for you. You have a crush on Justine.»
«Then tell me why most of your cases take place in the past?»
«At least I see the sun.»
«Not the actual sun.»
«Better than no sunshine, ever!»
He smirked, «Your Justine shines in shorts and shirt on a beach on fantasy island.»
«Shorts and shirt, in black and white.»
«And still better than no sun...»
«Justine...hmmmh», he took one hand off the handlebar and hugged himself.
We could go on forever like that, sometimes I couldn't believe we didn't meet earlier, in school, like old buddies, that's how close we were.
The screens switched to the Lethbridge court, where a judge was about to deliver his sentence. Live scenes from the court drew the attention of pretty much everybody in the gym, our heads turned to the most conveniently placed screen.
The judge spoke to the defendant who stood in front of him, two meters below his desk, «This is your third time here.»
«Louder. I can't hear you.»
«Tell me now, why should the society keep you in their midst?»
«I am a good person, I...»
«A good person? Have you heard me what I just said? Are you even aware why you are here?»
«Louder. I can't hear you.»
«Louder. I can't hear you.»
«Doubling your answer, I think you are getting cocky. Cocky reminds me of your history. Hmh? Isn't it?», he checked his device lying in front of him on the desk, «Your history, your browser history, last year you liked and shared some pretty wacky stuff.»
«You know! You should be ashamed of yourself. And the time for questions has passed. You also commented positively on some...»
«That's not forbidden!»
The judge screamed, a vein bulged out in his forehead, «But it is forbidden to interrupt a judge in court!»
«I am sorry.»
«Louder. I can't hear you!»
«I am sorry.»
«I am sorry», he mocked the man, «Not that you will ever have a gravestone, but that should be written on it: I am sorry. How pathetic, you are pathetic», he corrected his collar, his voice had calmed down again, «And you watched 7% conspiracy theory on the lethnet.»
Some people in the gym groaned, others laughed.
The judge continued, «The rest was porn.»
The gym broke out in laughter, and it was as if the judge waited for everybody to calm down in Lethbridge, what took its time, too long actually, until the last jokester cracked his joke at the expense of the defendant who was shoe gazing by now.
With a little wooden hammer, the judge knocked on his desk demanding quiet because the courtroom was reeling, too. He laid the hammer aside, «Well, did you hear that. They are laughing at you, every Lethbian laughs at you. You are a laugh, a laugh, not a contributing member of society.»
«I... I can go back to the gym!»
«I... I can go back to the gym», the judge imitated him again, then he grew stern, «No, you can't. Why should you change your behaviour when nothing changed before?!»
Juan whispered, «The Goo, man, he's going to the Goo.»
«You had your chance, you had your three chances, fool me once, shame on you, fool me three times, it is the Goozonx. It is time for you to serve in the Goozonx. For life», he snatched the hammer and hit the desk once, hard, and stood up, «Case closed, let's get some lunch...»
The screens switched to an advertisement.
Some gymmers erupted in cheers, others applauded.
«See, I knew it, he had it coming», Juan said.
«How could he find conspiracy stuff in the lethnet? Wasn't that the whole point of the local internet?», I asked. It was slowly introduced a long time ago with local advertisements and news dominating the feeds, the final switch to a local internet was a small step.
«No idea. Maybe he cracked it. Although they would have charged him with that, too, then.»
To Juan's right, a woman got off of her elliptical and walked by in front of us. Her skin was shimmering, reminding me of the dew on the grass in the early morning sun in Justine.
Sweat glued black streaks of hair down her neck.
As soon she was out of sight, Juan blurted, «Next time I asked her out.»
«You say that every day! You'll never pull through with that.»
«She's really… I swear, really, next time...»
«Oh, and you? For you, Justine is more real.»
He yawned and pointed behind him, «She is a class of her own. I don't even know what she's doing here. She should be hired by some company, I would hire her, or… She should be with somebody… even be married. She is easily in the top 10%.»
«Yes, yes she is», he was right, I couldn't deny that, and being in the top 10% should mean she could be able to choose a decent guy since the men-women ratio hovered around 1 to 5. Men were simply more prone to walk the plank.
«She sure is», Juan said.
«Okay, now seriously, she is probably gay.»
«I don't think so.»
«You don't wish so.»
I didn't want to let him hang like that, «Last option: She is just plain weird.»
«What's weird about her?»
«Can't put my finger on it.»
«Then shut up.»
«She won't be married to you, my friend. What do you want to do with her on a date? All you can do is take her for a hike in the rain. Or did you win a free coffee card somewhere?»
«You want to take her home for a bowl of chicken paste?»
He cleared his throat.
«Exactly», I said as if he had silently agreed with me, and maybe he did.
: : :
An old guy took her place, although his hair was trimmed short, you could see the salt-and-pepper, and his foot-long mustache fell like a dirty waterfall. Before he started, he took a deep breath and wiped invisible sweat off his forehead as if he had just finished his shift.
«Arth, did you see?», Juan nodded behind us, «Four rows down… empty.»
I let one hand go as I turned around, and I needed a few seconds to catch a proper glance at the empty treadmill since I had to peer through the moving gaps between the exercising men and women behind us. «Since when?»
«Didn't show up at all today.»
«And nobody else instead? An abandoned treadmill?»
«Wasn't that the fella with the round glasses?»
«Yeah», Juan blew his mustache to the side, «I heard he walked the plank.»
«How would you know? Maybe he's just sick.»
«That's what they say.»
«Pfh, 'they' said that with Kevin, too, and he had twisted his knee, remember?»
«My source is solid.»
«Listen to you: my source!» I looked up to the big screen, where yesterday's watts number of our Village Centre Gym flickered in a white stroboscopic light: '576,007,381 Watts Congratulation!' Only the gym motto at the bottom of every screen never changed: 'Live healthy, Die healthy!'
«Our boss», Juan said.
«As if! Sure he is like: Hey Juan, my old buddy, come on over, can I pour you a coffee, would you like a real cookie with it? I wanna share a secret with my best friend...»
«No, no, no, the boss did this, when I asked him», Juan took one hand off the handle and let his index finger and middle finger march across armatures, «On his desk.»
The common gesture for walking the plank.
«Okay. Respect. Why did you meet the boss?!»
«He wanted to talk to me about my watts.»
«I guess my production dropped slightly under average last month.»
Juan was stronger built than me, however at the end of this shift his face was red, and he wheezed like an asthma patient in an asbestos mine.
«So what's the solution?», I asked.
«He told me I should do a little better, or a little longer, and of course he offered me a Cloud Hotel brochure.»
«Of course he did.»
«Hey look!», he motioned toward the projection on the big screen, «They did it again, man, third time traveller!»
My neighbor, the Time Traveller, was breaking news. Next to a picture of him waving a goodbye into the camera, it read: Another time traveller successfully launched. He signaled his safe arrival. Turn on your notifications for his Time Traveller Reports!
«Dude's my neighbor.»
«You know a celebrity, Arth!»
The picture changed to the Time Traveller standing in a metal box slightly bigger than him, supposedly the time machine, or a steampunk coffin.
Juan continued, «Why didn't you say anything? You must have known...»
«I didn't think of it. He's a weird fellow, it sounded often like he was making it up, the tests, the academy and so on.»
«Well, if I were you I would have told everybody about my neighbor hero.»
«I didn't want to brag beforehand, and later he turns out to be full of oil.»
«Now he is out of here.»
«Lucky guy, he'll be sun tanning, in the past!»
«They don't say what year yet, and where.»
«So? The sun, no matter where he is, when he is, he will see the sun! And all the colours!»
«Maybe instead of way back in time, he only made it a few years back», the thought let me snicker. You time travel, and then it is only two years back. What an oil-show.
Juan looked straight up at the ceiling to give his fantasy the room it needed, a screen-free surface, so his imagination could unfold without distraction, «Or the opposite, he finds himself surrounded by rhinosaurs.»
«I think they are called… differently.»
«Then rhinosaurs they are», he smiled, «Imagine, rhinosaurs roaming the earth.»
: : :
After my shift, I went down to the pool in the basement. Luckily, it wasn't busy at all, and whenever I had a lane to myself, I swam on my back, enjoying the partial loss of gravity, of being carried by the water, freely moving, as if an invisible weight was taken off of me.
That process started for me as soon as I entered the showers. I never showered seriously, it was more of a soap-free walk-through, literally, I merely pushed the button on the wall and took two steps, done, then—already wearing my swimming trunks—I proceeded to the pool. No soap could compete with the chlorine-mix in the water, a chemical club capable of killing every known bacteria to men.
Often I swam more than suggested, most of the time with my eyes closed. When I opened them I read the projections creeping over the ceiling of the pool and over the walls around, drifting images, quotes headlines and messages softly dissolving into each other like a fleeting dream enhanced by the ubiquitous ambient music: 'Tomorrow drizzle with a chance of showers in the afternoon, 15 degrees.'
The sole purpose of swimming was to relax the muscles strained by hours and hours of workout. I was doing the crawl, breaststroke and dolphin style, while concentrating on my breathing and the soothing gargling sounds of the water in my ears.
'It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees, Emiliano Zapata.'
When I closed my eyes, I experienced a somewhat pure moment, nearly unpolluted by my environment, a glimpse of myself, a strange state of inner peace. Maybe this was the best part of my life. Swimming blindly, I managed to think. Only here I was able to think the thoughts to the end I could not finish during the day due to all the distractions. Today, the guy four rows behind me came to my mind. He walked the plank; he took his life. He was done with everything, the worries, the guilt, the lack of perspectives, the emptiness, and he had a good time right before his way out, the best time, he even saw the sun! At the Cloud Hotel. Above the clouds. Good for him.
'The Time Traveller has landed.'
I smiled. My neighbour had a dream, and his dream became true. I was happy for him—wherever he was, whenever he was. Early on, he found his passion, the goal in life he decided to pursue.
What about me? What could I work other than the gym? Week after week, this question remained unanswered.
'There are no first and second-class citizens, life is not 21st century public transit.'
Hegesia, my advisor, expressed her serious wish to help me; at times she sounded more desperate than me. She felt as sorry for me as she did for herself, failing so miserably in her job. The day could come, she would run out of ideas about what to do with me, and I knew where our conversation would go from there. Part of the problem was my efficiency at the gym, my watt production was top, why change, she said, why do something you'd be less capable of?
'Don't take yourself too serious, most cells in your body come from a foreign organism.'
I finished my swim with two lanes underwater.
As I stepped out of the pool, shaking my trunks, so they wouldn't stick to my skin, I paused and looked down at me: maybe I should get a volley of bullet scars across my chest, too.
The light abalone pool water still rippled because of the other swimmers. The projected clock over the white glowing exit sign read 4:44 AM, and the reflected ceiling lights from the water shimmered on the door and the walls.