“I need another drink”, I announce.
“Hit you in a second”, Casey says from down the bar, where he’s mixing a martini for Rita. He slides the cocktail glass across the old oak bar to her, and collects the money she’s laid out on the counter in front of her. He walks down and asks, “Another?”
“Yeah”, I confirm. I glance around and say, “Busy tonight.”
“Has been since the arrival”, he says, taking a glass down from the shelf behind him. He holds it under the draft tap, fills it slowly.
“Makes sense”, I concede. “No offence, dude, but why’s the air so clear if it’s so busy?”
Casey snorts. “Can’t smoke no more, Phil.”
“Seriously. Have a look at Richie”, he says, placing the beer in front of me.
I hand him a fiver and look at Richie, parked in his usual booth over on the far side. He’s a chain smoker, has been since he was a teenager, but his hands are empty and fidgety now. I see the reason quickly enough; there’s a forest green sponge, eight inches by four by two, stuck to the front of his shirt, directly over the pocket where his pack is. “When did that start?”, I ask.
“About four or so”, Richie replies, moving along to take an order from two unfamiliar older women.
Jay-sus. I survey the room and conclude that almost a third of the people inside are in a similar situation to Richie. They’re all quitting, whether they like it or not, cold turkey, courtesy of the sponges.
They started appearing three days ago, early morning. Now, as I look up at one of the televisions hanging from the ceiling, I see that they’ve effectively stopped war on planet Earth. NATO’s efforts to bomb Gaddafi out of Libya have failed because every bomb they drop is surrounded by a cloud of sponges that completely absorbs the explosion. Coalition forces in Afghanistan can mark the position of Taliban IEDs by the mats of sponges lying on roads or along embankments; they are now intentionally disturbing them in the knowledge that they won’t be harmed by the detonations. Meanwhile, soldiers, insurgents, and rebels with small arms can’t shoot each other because there are sponges stuck to their barrels and sights.
What are these things? Aliens, or some device deployed by aliens? Angels, sent by God? All we’ve got are the opinions of talking heads who really don’t know any more than the rest of us. There has certainly been no announcement on behalf of the sponges.
What does their arrival mean for places like Libya and Afghanistan? Damned if I know. Probably some kind of stalemate, until somebody figures out effective non-violent ways to win conflicts. Seiges and embargos might make a comeback – no sign yet the sponges know how to deal with mass starvation.
I finish my beer and wave to Casey. He hands another newcomer a draft and comes back to me. “How much longer do I have to watch that shit?”, I ask, nodding at the television.
“I’ll change it to the game in a moment”, he says. He pours another one for me and sets it on the counter.
I hand him a fiver and reach for the glass. A sponge materializes across the top as I grasp it. It disappears when I let go, and returns when I touch the glass again.
“Looks like you’re cut off”, Casey says.
“You can’t be serious”, I reply, more to the foamy object on my beer than to Casey. “I’ve only had two so far!”
“Just sit tight. They go away after a while. I guess when they think you’re able to handle another one”, he says with a shrug. He looks about the bar and locates his remote. He flicks the channel over to the game just as the Packers and Bears are lining up for the opening kick-off. The Bears’ kicker runs forward and sends the football hurtling towards Packers’ receivers. The two teams surge towards each other and as they converge, circular shields of green sponges interpose themselves between players. It’s difficult to see what’s happening for a few seconds, but the sponge masses soon disappear, revealing a bunch of confused players milling about. The referee whistles the play dead.
A collective groan goes up around the bar as the crowd on the television voice their displeasure. Bad enough that we’ve lost auto racing. Now football? Is baseball next?
Forget it. If I can’t drink and can’t watch football, there’s not much point in hanging around here. I wave at Casey, adjust my jacket, and make my way out of the bar.
The night is dark and cool, but the streets are noisier than normal for late on Monday Lot of sirens up in the shopping district to the north. It’s not normally my scene, but I’m curious to know what the fuss is about, so I walk that way. As I get closer, people start passing by with clothes, televisions, and other stuff in their hands. It dawns on me as I reach the main drag that there’s a riot in progress, and all these happy folks heading out are looters.
It’s the strangest riot I’ve ever seen. People can and do throw stuff at windows, and those objects are blocked by sponges. Others can walk up to the window and just knock glass out with their hands or a rock, and the sponges instead materialize over the glass shards on the ground.
There are cops trying to stop things, but sponges interpose themselves between their tasers and the rioters. A tear gas canister tossed into a crowd is quickly smothered by more sponges. The police have lost their monopoly on use of force, and their ability to enforce the law has been weakened. One officer has holstered his weapons and is just taking photographs of people with his cellphone.
I watch what would normally be a fatal accident turn into a laugh as an inattentive rioter is enveloped by a web of sponges just before being struck by a Chevy Tahoe. The green mass bounces over the SUV, rolls over to the sidewalk, and disperses, leaving the rioter to whoop with amusement. The cop with the camera takes a picture.
I think I understand now. The sponges are here to stop us from getting hurt. But too much of our society relies on use of force to maintain its status quo. How do I protect my property? How do we arrest and punish criminals? How do we keep what we have from the millions and billions of poorer people out there with nothing of their own?
I leave the shopping district, heading north. I enter the downtown, passing by smiling young women and older people walking in completely safety on these city streets. Good for them, I guess. Some people can enjoy that.
I can’t. My life is about living hard. I drink and smoke and fight and playing rugby. If I can’t do any of that – if I can’t blow off steam, if I’m trapped in a life without risk, well, where’s the joy in that? I’m just going to be stuck in this bland reality until I die decades from now from some degenerative disease that slowly strips me of everything I am. They won’t even be able to euthanize me before it becomes unbearable.
I’m not going to have any of that. As a wise man once said, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
Up ahead there’s a bridge over the river. Traffic is light and there are no pedestrians in sight. I begin to puff as I start up the incline of this great steel arch, but finally reach the central peak. I look at my city for one last time, noting all the flashing blue and red lights out there. Sighing, I clamber up over the guard rail and pause for a just a moment, straining to see the dark waters far below.
Then I push off and begin to fall to my death.
A shield of green sponges erupt around me. They cushion the force of what should have been a crippling impact with the water. I bounce three times and come to rest on the pliable surface. Rather than being unconscious and drowning, I am alive and unharmed, drifting downstream on a raft created by some unknown force.
I guess I should have seen that coming.
As I float past the lights of the downtown, I recognize that burning out is no longer an option. I can only fade away.