He could feel his hand shaking as he held the note out across the bar.
‘Same again mate?’
He could just manage a muttered assent.
Well there’s fuck all else to do, he thought.
A calm, almost humorous resignation came with the drink and the music - an added bonus maybe, but attached to a growing expense, which was slowly, but determinedly hammering out a gaping fissure in his severance payment.
That day still hung over him like a lost weekend in the New City - I mean, they informed him by email for Christ’s sake!
Yet there it was; the world had changed and he was out of a job. He had to assume Jerome had received something similar - perhaps even before he had - and must be going through the same shit, asking the same stupid questions.
He wasn’t alone then...but he felt it. He had changed.
Times past he kidded himself he was some kind of warrior - a sentry, a sentinel, sitting in his tower, keeping vigil over the eastern border. Reality was - he was nothing more than an, albeit high-flying and successful, bureaucrat. A bright boy with an even brighter future, and (unlike old Jerome, decaying in the malodorous marches alone) his position was active, eventful - things were happening in the east, exciting things which MEANT something!
Still...no point dwelling on the past as they say, but what else did he have? These stints in these bars - so many bars there are now! - were an easy way to access it.
Τι να κάνουμε?
What a passive way of looking at the situation. Passivity or resignation?
And so, after the great collapse, bars were pretty much all he occupied himself with. He had been provided with just enough currency to drink himself out of corporeality, and he wanted no part of no part of them, and they, in turn, wanted nothing from him but silence and acquiescence.
All this would have done for him too if he hadn’t met Venn.
Venn is the kind of person he, Gregor, had spent his life despising. Venn was an opportunist, an inveterate nomad who believed the system worked, but worked solely for their benefit. Venn was admirable, and quite possibly insane.
They met one night in one roadside bar while Gregor was drifting into the customary reminiscences. They fell into conversation, or more accurately, Gregor had wanted to talk and Venn was willing to listen, about bad luck, past conquests, financial penury - all delivered with the drunken, resigned lack of agency of a man half on, half off a bar stool. Gregor had tried to extract a drink from the stranger by means of a bet on the only, somewhat pathetic, magic trick he knew; the standard “pick a card” gambit. Venn dutifully listened, chose and Gregor elaborately, and somewhat overdramatically proceeded to the prestige.
‘Never odd or even’, said Gregor, smiling.
'Double or nothing?' asked Venn, and proceeded to perform the most complicated, dazzling array of card tricks Gregor had ever seen, leaving both bemused and elated. 'Drawn onward' said Venn, 'drawn I sit, serene rest is inward.'
Venn bought him a drink anyway, and pretty soon they had formed the kind of tentative friendship made by two drunken people on the road. Gregor lamented about his wife Mir who had left him after his redundancy - can love even exist in this climate? Her name meant 'peace' but Gregor had always guessed they had named her after the space station ‘cos she was pretty ‘out there’, but she was no satellite - didn’t even hang around a week. Venn told him of his life on the road - there was always a deal to be done, and he knew how to make them. This was his time, he said, ‘they’re filling worlds with me now!’ he said, taking a large gulp of drink, ‘they’re building cities from me now!’, and raised his glass high, ‘here’s to all you beautiful dispossessed! Disinvest! Disinvest!’
As the two of them grew steadily intoxicated in the screen light of the bar, Gregor realised that his existence, or at least the chance of his being in a state to call it such, would most likely involve the prospect of joining Venn on the road. He comprehended, as they talked, that Venn, despite his pretence at solitude, was feeling a lack of company. He had started talking about someone...his great love...
And that’s about as much as he could remember of the evening.
As Gregor awoke the next morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a nomad, the same as Venn, an exile from the society and politics he knew, cast upon the trail and heading who knew where. It didn’t even matter that much he guessed. Venn had some plan to head for the Bright New City in the south, intent on causing trouble - some kind of outburst, causing a riot or two. There’s no place like the big city to raise some eyebrows, he said, ‘call it vanity but I like to let them know I exist once in a while’. Gregor agreed, but on the condition they could pass through the Marches first to check on Jerome. Something told him Jerome would be heading south anyway - Gregor was fairly sure that he would rather take shelter with Marco than wait to see what Seth had planned for him, but he wasn’t all that certain that Jerome would find life in the city entirely easy to adapt to after so many years of solitude. In fact, these days, there was probably no place for solitude anywhere. He had heard that Marco had eyes all over the city, and that Seth had eyes everywhere else. The two of them had made the world a battleground; a war zone, and as far as he could tell Seth would almost certainly come out on top.
So Gregor and Venn set off together in this indeterminate topography on their quest to nothing - demanding nothing and getting what they could. Venn knew the land, and how to swindle the best out of it in a way Gregor could never have envisaged, or ever have hoped to learn. He would have been truly lost without him. They camped outside, Venn slept easily and Gregor was fitfully wakeful, counting his losses under the endless sky. He valued the authentic insignificance it brought him. Yet still he couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that their pathetic expedition might go down on record as the last great journey in real space, and frankly, he felt embarrassed.
It hadn't occurred to him that Venn might have an agenda of his own. He had never thought to look past the studied form of the periplanetic he portrayed, but there was something; some dusty memory of that night in the bar where they met that came back to him months later. The nomad was not an aimless wanderer, no, he saw it now as they approached the gates of the Bright New City. He was here for a reason, and it was to see Ennio. Of course! Venn, the outsider, was reveling in the cycle of destruction and insecurity she was casting down. The end of the city; the world full of nomads like him. This was what he meant when they had first met. He was following Ennio on her unstoppable artery of urban demise, and he, himself was part of it too.
Gregor followed Venn, Venn followed Ennio, she followed Seth, and Seth was no longer capable of making decisions, just responding to automated systems; they were a procession of fools dancing to the industrial tune of whirring circuit boards.