Rubbish: part 3
How to make all your problems go away
The Triverse is
Mid-Earth, an alternate 1970s London
Max-Earth, a vision of the 26th century
Palinor, where magic is real
Previously: Detective Lola Styles is assigned to be liaison to the city state of Bruglia, on the other side of the London portal. Having witnessed the immense garbage piles next to a refugee camp, she’s now trying to track down who is responsible for the illegal dumping…
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Lola gave the clerk her best death stare. The one she reserved for people who had severely, unforgivably let her down. The man was just doing his job, she knew, but that wouldn’t save him from her wrath. He was part of The System, him and his brown, dusty office on the edge of the Bruglia portal station, which meant he had to pay.
“What do you mean it’s perfectly legal?” She planted both fists on the man’s desk and leaned in close to his face.
In return he looked at her dispassionately, with dull, little bureaucratic eyes that had probably never seen joy. “I mean what I said, lady. I’m not making this up as I go. That particular shipment was labelled, listed, booked and cleared for transit. It was assessed at customs this side of the portal and approved for arrival.”
“What? Why?” Lola stood straight and ran a hand through her hair. “Don’t you get it? It was rubbish! A load of trash. Garbage. Whatever. It was a container full of shit! Not just one, either! This has been going on for a while.”
“Lady,” the man said, pushing his glasses down his nose with one finger, “at this point I’m thinking it’s not the only thing full of shit.” He paused for effect, then pointed at the open folder before him. “I’m reading you what it says right here. Stamped, approved, signed by the customs officer and the duty manager. Both ends of the portal. The people your end gave it the all-clear as well.” He leaned back and crossed his arms in from of his portly chest. “Me, I’m just doing my job. And I’m quite good at it.”
Somehow it had been easier trying to stop a kid from bleeding out in the camp than it was extracting useful information from this guy.
One of Bruglia’s canyon refugee camps.
The previous day.
Lola pulled at the debris, ignoring tiny cuts to her arms and fingers. The guards hesitated, then two of them jumped up the pile of rubbish to assist. The aen’fa child squealed in pain as the compacted waste shifted, tugging and pulling and scraping at her leg.
“Hold on, we’re going to get you out,” Lola said, smiling at the child what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Try not to move.”
The girl whimpered. “Kau puloupa!”
Lola didn’t understand but got the general idea. “I know, I know. Stay still, we’re not going to leave you.”
Finally there was movement and there was a horrid sucking sound as the mound released its hold on the child and the leg came free. It was bloodied and torn, the green skin a mess below the knee. Lola picked the child up, not thinking to ask one of the guards, and stumbled her way back down the slope to ground level.
Jyna took hold of the child’s chin, demanding her attention. “Where are your parents? Le’u are’v hi kumake?”
The child pointed, her face streaked with tears, her eyes rolling as if she couldn’t focus properly. “Stay awake,” Lola said, moving in the indicated direction. “Keep talking. What’s your favourite game?”
Jyna translated. “Ku paupa hi mope aehoi?”
The girl talked, her voice shifting between faint and strong, describing something elaborate that was entirely incomprehensible to Lola, occasionally pausing to direct them down a particular row of tents. The camp was huge, and Lola’s back and arms began to burn at the weight of the child, who would have been at least eight years old by human appearances. Lola was strong and fit, she knew, but holding a dead weight for an extended period of time wasn’t her forté.
A shout went up from somewhere up ahead and two adult aen’fa, a man and a woman, leaped up from where they had been huddled around a fire and ran to meet them. “She fell into the pile of rubbish,” Lola said, pointing needlessly back the way they had come as the father lifted the child away. The parents laid her down at the entrance to their small tent, its canvas covered with red dust and torn in multiple places.
Ignoring the hand that Jyna put on her arm, Lola approached the parents. “Her leg is pretty bad,” she said. “She needs medical attention.”
“Thank you,” the mother said, her accent thick. She clearly wasn’t interested in a conversation and was instead waving at another nearby child, a boy. “Go fetch the doctor. Hukonai!”
As the boy ran off into the camp, Lola turned back to Jyna. “Can we get the girl top-side? Get her to the doctors at the university? They’d be able to patch her up in no time, right?”
The look of tired frustration that passed over Jyna’s face told Lola the answer. “You don’t get it, Lola,” she said, unable to disguise a somewhat patronising tone. “There’s no way the medics at the university would take in a random child from the camp. Who is going to pay for the treatment? You?”
“Don’t be silly. You couldn’t afford it. Besides, you get one kid going up and into the city, you’re going to have people injuring themselves left, right and centre to get a free trip up top. One step closer to the portal, right?”
“You can’t refuse treatment just because you’re worried about that—”
“It’s not my policy. But I happen to agree with it. Camps like this are primed to explode. One small thing could light the fuse. You have to think bigger picture.”
There was a tug on Lola’s shoulder and she turned to see the aen’fa mother, clearly worried and upset but also full of anger. “No city,” she said, waggling her finger. “She stays here with us. You’re not taking her.”
Lola held up her hands. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to help.”
The mother stared, her big eyes unblinking. “You are not helping.”
The clerk’s office was cramped and stuffed full of shelves and cabinets. To be fair to him, he had found the relevant records remarkably quickly, considering it was all paper and card. There were no computers or regular electricity, none of the microfiche systems of Mid-Earth, let alone the advanced tech of Max-Earth.
“Sit down, lady, and let me explain,” the clerk said. He gestured at a chair, then waited for her to sit. His apparent patience irritated her. He spread out the papers on the desk, pointing at each one in turn. “Here’s the filing for the cargo contents. Here’s the customs approval. Here’s the dockworkers signature signing off the actual transit. You can see it’s signed by the London side and the Bruglian side. There’s a certificate here proving that the company in question is authorised to transport these materials through the portal. It’s all above board.”
Lola grabbed at the page listing the shipment’s contents. It was a mixture of industrial waste, household refuse, faulty manufacturing - all of Mid-Earth’s unwanted items, packaged up and shoved through a portal. Sent to Palinor so it could be someone else’s problem. “Why is this being approved, though? Why is Palinor agreeing to take all of our old crap?”
“Beats me,” the clerk said, shrugging with an unnecessary flourish. “Presumably it made sense to someone. You produce a lot of shit, we’ve got a lot of space. But the main reason will be that someone, somewhere, along the way, is making a lot of money.”
“Where is it supposed to go? I’m guessing the idea isn’t to just dump it off the edge of a cliff.”
Pointing a finger, the clerk nodded. “Now, there you may have a point. These records go as far as a warehouse in the south-western quarter of the city. But if it’s ending up being dumped illegally, well…that’s illegal. But it’s outside of my purview. It’s someone else’s problem. ”
“Yeah, all the people living in the camp next to the rubbish,” Lola muttered.
A torn piece of paper was slid across the desk. “Here’s the address. Knock yourself out.”
The doctor was an elderly koth, shorter than average and with small, shrunken wings. They hurried over, the boy urging them to move faster. Leaning over the injured girl, the koth clicked their jaw disapprovingly.
“I’ve told you not to clamber about on that death trap,” they said, speaking clear English. Perhaps it was a conveniently common language among the various regions and dialects that were represented in the compressed space of the camp.
The mother threw up her hands. “We find things, sell things, get money, buy food. The death trap is how we can eat.”
“Hold here,” the koth said, placing the mother’s hand on the child’s leg just above the knee. They opened a bag and pulled out bandages and other medical gear, then proceeded to start cleaning the wound. To Lola’s eyes it seemed woefully inadequate for the damage inflicted. She thought back to the remarkable reconstruction of Yvette Field at the university hospital, a procedure funded primarily as a promotional exercise by the Joint Council.
The child would be only one of many injured and sick refugees.
Something was fundamentally broken.
Beyond the Bruglia portal station were bridges leading to other mesas: into the city, but also to a district of warehouses and factory units, where cargo was prepared for ongoing journeys beyond the city state’s borders. It was a part of Bruglia that never slept, always in motion, constantly processing and packaging and shipping and transferring, always keeping the trade routes open and in motion.
Lola checked the address and compared it to the number on the warehouse door. It was time to find out how Mid-Earth’s detritus was somehow making its way from inside the warehouse to the depths of the canyons on the edge of the city.
Thanks for reading!
This week I shared a note on Notes which turned out to be rather popular:
Thirty-six interesting comments (and counting). Proper discussion. I don’t remember that happening on Twitter (or anywhere else, really) for years. Not without it being a ‘witty’ put-down of someone, at least. If you’re a writer and you’re not on Notes, get thee hence.
But yes: hello to all new readers! It’s exciting to see new readers digging into Triverse, and even going back to the very beginning to see how it started. Remember, if you really want to catch-up and binge the whole thing, the quickest and neatest way is to grab the ebook by upgrading your subscription. Even just grabbing a single month gets you the ebook. 📖
This made for an interesting read today:
This is very much the feeling I had while producing the No Adults Allowed paperback and ebook. I’d always expected the book to be the ultimate form of that story. Making my stories into ‘a book’ felt like the final step. Now that I’ve done it (and the thing hasn’t sold much), I'm realising that this newsletter is, in fact, the main event. The book is a bonus - a fun creative exercise and a wonderful artifact, but it is not the core offering.
If you would like to read No Adults Allowed, you can of course still…
This made for an interesting read over at The Verge, although I disagree with a fair amount of it. It purports to be about the ‘end’ of Google, which is where it is most tenuous, but it works very well as a potted history of Google and Search in general. Why is this relevant? Well, Google and social media have been wrestling for cultural superiority online for decades, and that factors into what we do as writers and readers. Substack, which I use for this newsletter, feels like something new and slightly different, but it’s not immune to the changing winds on the wider net. Always worth keeping at least one eye on the future.
Finally, rather pleased with this cheeky sketch, altered from an Unsplash original to be more Triversey:
I’ve got a couple of freebie ebook promos for you today, as well. If you’re looking to expand your bookshelves, take a look:
This storyline continues to be about Lola taking off her rose-tinted spectacles and seeing the world for what it is. Her ‘escape’ to Palinor, which she’d dreamt about her entire life, isn’t as simple as she’d imagined. She’s still a tourist, and the problems of the people who really live there, who have always lived there, run deep.
We also have Lola facing up to the reality that not everything can be ‘fixed’. As a detective she’s used to arriving on a scene after something awful has happened, but she sees it as her job to then resolve the situation in some manner, such as finding a perpetrator. The difference with this storyline is that the problems are too wicked, too pernicious, to simply ‘fix’. It’s a whack-a-mole of complex issues.
On a lighter note, I had fun with The Clerk in this chapter. He’s an archetype of the harried, patronising, slightly lazy bureaucrat. If this wasn’t set on Palinor, I’d imagine him with a wisecracking New York accent.1 There’s always something satisfying about these bit-part characters, the ones who pop up for a single chapter with a specific purpose, and who probably won’t return or be otherwise important. There aren’t many words available to imbue them with personality, so it ends up being a lot of broad strokes.
Oh, I should touch upon structure. This chapter is told in a loose, non-linear fashion, swapping between the clerk’s office (Lola’s present) and the camp (her past). As a chapter that is very light on plot, this seemed like an engaging way to make it more interesting, introducing a slight tension at the beginning during which we don’t know the fate of the child, and then intercutting between the scenes - with Lola frustrated in both. Hopefully it still flowed and made sense: having the crutch of the scene location intros at the start of each section helps.
I’ve always been fascinated by non-linear storytelling, and how juggling a story’s components can make it far more interesting, even if the plot doesn’t change. It really emphasises the importance of context and juxtaposition: Pulp Fiction would be just that if it were told in a more liner style: pulpy. By shifting the stories around and playing with time, Tarantino gave it more meaning and emotional resonance - even though the actual events depicted remain quite simple. A lot of Christopher Nolan’s films hinge around non-linearity.
Then, of course, there is Arrival. An all-time classic and perhaps the ultimate in non-linear storytelling. That it is also about storytelling makes it even more delicious. If you haven’t seen it, make a point of watching it ASAP - and don’t read anything about it ahead of time. Trust me on this one.
Right, with it being the tail end of the summer holidays here in the UK I have been tasked with making pancakes for three 10 year olds, so I’d better wrap this up.
Thanks for reading!
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Countless American TV shows and movies have ingrained in me an understanding that a thick Noo Yoik accent is the mark of clever, witty people.