Thursday, September 27, 2012
Jack Newman shouldered past the six-inch reinforced alloy frame of the self-driving armored personnel carrier into SoMa town, San Francisco, shards of glass and crumbling asphalt crunching beneath his tactical boots like the rib cages of small mammals. He squinted through mean wind that tasted of burning batteries, to take in the broken majesty of AT&T park. Half of the Giants’ stadium had collapsed like some 20th century rendition of the Roman Colosseum, its steel bones digested by the stomach acid of Pacific sea salt and the floor-by-floor demolition of state budgets. The more obscure consumption of the United States by its financial elite, that infestation of white-shoed tapeworms who devoured all legitimate business, all productivity, leaving nothing but stinking piles of economic feces and fraudulent bank paper where metropoli once boomed. The Bay itself had gone the color of bile, the ocean heaving nauseous from a trillion tons of anthropocentric carbon, vomiting itself across South Beach Harbor parking lot and playground, washing wrecked yachts across the highway against bent street signs and abandoned cars and the dark windowless husks of skyscrapers. Shoals of trash and untreated sewage festered and smothered whatever remained of the coastal ecosystem. The bodies of poisoned fish, seals and whales were left to fester, the fly-ridden flesh thin and grey and everywhere, like black and white photographs of Nazi camp mass-graves.
It’d been ages since Jack had actually seen un-mediated, unpolished urban decay in meatspace, let alone actually had to wallow in it, and it made Jack’s skin crawl with a kind of ambient tension and Rousseau-esque guilt. It made his head hurt more to think about what it meant that he felt such revulsion toward reality. Visions of the Agent Smith-Morpheus showdown asserted themselves like popup ads into his mind’s eye.
“I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it.” The smell, that’s what it was. The smell of burning ash and rotting garbage and dead mammals. All of this un-targeted, un-personalized stimuli, all this terrible ‘serendipity’, this unprogrammed experience. It was viscerally repulsive to Jack. He closed his eyes, nudged the microprocessors in his corneas awake with a three-thought Ideocode sequence -- envisioning his mother's face, the melody to All Along The Watchtower, and the memory of his first successful assassination with a humanoid drone. He clicked his heels together for good measure. An Encephalock reader membraned over the tissue of his cerebral cortex scanned the chain of neural firings in his brain, unlocking a transparent cerulean HUD of timestamp, taskbar, and compass that crept into his peripheral vision. With a wink at a virtual tab, Jack papered over the sight of disgusting reality with the clinical rectilinearity of his AR-overlayed email inbox. He felt instantly better. Even if it was a wall of X-Pandgen penis enargement gene-therapy spam and messages from his wife hounding him over some birthday party planning he couldn't be bothered with. Even the ubiquitous marquee ads for depleted uranium flechette pistols that kept chasing him across the net were a comfort as they scrolled over the tangled snarl of a sixteen car pile-up in South Beach playground. No place like home.
It was unusual, to say the least. The heavy brass had called Jack and his team of Troubleshooters out of the bunker arcology down into San Fran, demanding in-person oversight of the investigation. That never happened, especially not beyond the Ameribank City barrier. RPLCNTS and air drones were teleoperated in the field from climate controlled C&C hubs, or programmed for autonomous detective-mode as the primary means of on-the-ground actual police work. That was the CyberSec M.O. If human beings were called out of the green zone into the battlefield it meant someone very high up was personally pulling strings. Strings such as the fat end-of-the-year bonus that had suddenly appeared in Jack’s bank account, one which his immediate supervisor would never authorize, not even for cluster-bombing an abandoned Costco full of World Class War jobless insurgents. Not that Jack had an argument with the money, per se.
The Emergency medical drones made it in time to stop the bleeding but the kid had slipped into a coma, and all the king’s nanites couldn’t put his prefrontal cortex back together again. Multiple cerebral contusions, face smashed unrecognizable- Jack hadn’t seen that kind of gutty gore since the Compton prison guard robots went AWOL from a bad firmware update, pounded the inmate’s skulls into corned beef with fire extinguishers. That incident had been a bitch to cover up. It took the cleaners six hours to scrub the goopy chunks of brain and hemoglobin from the cell walls and bars. The cover story about a facility-wide prisoner revolt had been a stretch, but necessary to ward off all the Human Rights and Anti-Robot organization limpdicks salivating at the chance to score political points against the big-box automated prison industry. Jack had pulled multiple Red Bull-powered all-nighters taking down whistleblower blogs and humanitarian sites using DDoS hacking attacks, shouting down activists in forums and chatrooms with an army of AI-run counter-poster accounts. Jack nipped all attempts to expose the incident in the bud. The spin team CGed black faces onto all the released security footage; the undying fear of the angry black man could always be counted on to sway public opinion in a pinch.
But this wasn’t an airbrush job for the corporate Elite; for the first time in months, Jack was actually being asked to solve an honest-to-Gnossis crime.
“I’m feeling like a real police officer, I think I need to up my dosage,” Jack bantered into his earpiece.
“Book’em, Dano.” Stasia laughed back, exiting the vehicle beside Jack, ballistic leather-analog creaking as she slapped him on the shoulder.
“The boy, one Justin Diamond. Stable condition. Son of Alistair and Margaret Diamond. Divorced. Father is a senior executive at Vitanet Medical. Former governer of New Hampshire and New Jersey. On the board of the American Medical Association. Duck hunting buddy of President Vanderlyle’s old man.”
“Vitanet? Jesus. That explains, well, everything. Of course the trillionaires can afford to buy their own personal investigation into their son’s near-murder.”
Jack pulled up the boy’s files into an unused section of retina real estate, thankful for the overlay’s breakup of the real-world overload. The brick and mortar was starting to grate on his eyeballs.
“Last connectivity, today, 9:34 AM. Via a dVice Ubiq.” Jack fiddled through the kid’s pockets, coming up with only lint and date-rape pills.
“No dVice on him. Looks like someone out there is running around with stolen hardware. Let’s run it by the registries.”
Jack examined the area surrounding the chalked outline, stepping over the metal column of a fallen street lamp, fluted green metal blistering with rust. There was another dead body, thirty feet away. A spider crawled over to the mess, scanned the face and took a DNA sample. A tiny hooked implement like a dentist’s scraper ejected from the forensic bot’s mandibular area. It used the scraper to extract a dollop from the pool of blood beneath the corpse’ head. The blood had congealed solid in a pothole like strawberry Jell-O.
The results for the second victim were instantaneous, and the dossier tabbed itself like a playing card beside the primary’s file.
“Amit Garcia. Ex-accountant. Former Ameribank City citizen till a few months ago when his citizenship was revoked due to consecutive delinquent payments.”
“Double homicide? Or a separate incident?” Stasia hypothesized.
“Maybe. Hard to say. It’s dangerous, chaotic out here in the Bay Area. Life expectancy rates aren’t so great.”
“Chaotic? Aren’t we going to at least look into it?”
“He had his citizenship taken away for failing to make payments. That means this guy’s a Deadweight. An Unemployed. He doesn’t count as a person as far as we’re concerned.” Jack pointed to Amit’s former white collar office shirt turned grey from living in the street as if it was QED.
“As far as we’re concerned? So we’re going to look the other way?”
“As far as our bosses are concerned. We’re not being paid to investigate deaths of unimportant individuals.”
Stasia performed a Premium Internet search with Amit’s facial biometrics.
“Look, there’s a video of Amit and some other jobless San Franciscan tearing at each other’s throats. A human dogfight. It’s got fifty thousand hits on the ‘Tube and is circulating semi-viral on Friendbook. It looks like Justin here wasn’t exactly innocent.” Stasia held the jittery clip up in Jack’s face. Jack feigned incredulity.
“We don’t know that. It could’ve been anyone filming the brawl.” Jack said.
“’San Fran Food Fite to Teh Deth’, uploaded 9:34 AM today by Darkshado, registered name: Justin Diamond.” Stasia held up the streaming video of the soon-to-be-dead Amit having his head crushed against the point of a fire hydrant by another unemployed Deadweight bum. A cracking teen voice laughed and wagged a bag of fast food at the starving Deadweights, egging them into killing one another in sick gladiatorial fashion.
“It’s just high schoolers being stupid high schoolers, that’s what they do. Things got carried away.” Jack brushed the video aside.
“Jesus, somebody is dead, Jack! And this rich little silver spoon brat was directly responsible. We have to do something.”
Jack sighed, pulled an Altoid tin from the inner pocket of his double-breasted trenchcoat, one of the few pieces of dumbware he kept on him for sentimental value.
“I said I feel like a police officer, Stas. But that’s not what we are. Police don’t exist anymore. We’re Troubleshooters. Sooner or later you’re going to learn what that means.” He offered her one of the flat white cylinders. She turned away.
Jack waved away the autotriage, which beeped subserviently. Attached by braided wires, a blood pressure monitor self-strapped itself to the arm of the brutalized teen’s unconscious body as the self-driving stretcher wheeled up into the loading bay of the awaiting Valkyrie drone. Jack sheltered his eyes as the drone’s four swimming-pool-sized rotors spun up, blowing a typhoon of dirt and trash up from the San Fran sidewalk. En route back to Ameribank City, polished crystalline skyline shuddering through the grimy atmosphere like a hallucination. To Justin Diamond’s mega-rich parents, soon to be devastated mega-rich parents, then vindictive mega-rich parents. A very dangerous combination.
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m tired and this unpurified air is bad for my asthma. Let’s just get through this, yeah?” Jack touched Stasia’s back. The smell of her apple cider washed hair was a refreshing oasis in the blunt reek of the necropolis. Her frazzled business-punk do made her seem younger than she already was.
“Yeah. Maybe I’ll let you buy me a drink, explain to me the dark riveting history of how you became such an asshole,” She took the piss out, batting Jack in the head as she ran through juxtaposed charts of either victim’s vitals, intersections of their social graphs, teasing out potential connections. She was fetchingly smart, impossibly passionate, a fireball, a shooting star, and she reminded Jack so much of himself, of his wife, twenty years ago, before he’d burned all his naïve idealism out in the suffocating atmosphere of the hardball, neo-feudal world. Which might’ve been why he’d given into the nepotism and pulled strings to make sure Stasia survived whenever the monthly Layoff Games came around and management looked for more “fat” to be trimmed from the already bleeding bone, to be fed to robots and automation. Nothing unforgivable had happened yet between them, but Jack wondered if there would be anything to forgive, given that his marriage had deteriorated precariously close to emotional bankruptcy. The thought would be a useful talisman against guilt if anything did happen, Jack mentally noted.
Concentric yellow semicircles surrounding an antiquated phone symbol radiated from the corner of Jack’s eye. Not a text, not a voicechat, an honest-to-Gnossis telephonic request. It was Jack’s wife, he knew, before even glancing at the caller ID.
“Hold on, Joy’s on the line, need to take this,” Jack said. Stasia didn’t frown, but Jack could tell she was trying not to. With her light freckles and Bjorkish nose it made her look sad but also achingly cute, and Jack looked away. He walked back to the APC, tapped the blinking face of his wife, initiating the voice convo, steeled up his nerves.
“What the hell is your problem?”
“Jesus, Jack, again? Really? You forgot again? I’ve already put the kids to bed. We had to run to Bake Boss to pick up the birthday cake. I told you I needed eggs for the recipe, and I know you got the message. I know because I’m looking at the confirmation email that I added the wall note into your Life Planner, which is the only thing you ever check.” Jack had indeed accidentally-on-purpose dragged the message to the trashcan, but he’d already blocked the incident out of his memory so well that he almost convinced himself he hadn’t.
“Well, honey, maybe if you didn’t let the cat get into the chicken coop, you’d have- Look, I know you’re really on this urban farming kick, but not everyone is meant to be an Amish hippy and raise their own food.”
“No. You can’t make this about me. If you’re going to miss your daughter’s birthday party, again, at least have the goddamn decency to own up to it.”
“That’s not fair. You know I’m out here working my ass off just so she can *have* cakes and parties and running water. They laid off another two Troubleshooters today, replaced’em with the new Mach 9s. Citizenship fees are up 10% from last month and we’re an inch from slipping underwater on the mortgage. You know that? Of course not. Because I do all the worrying in this family. Me. The cross is all on my fucking shoulders.”
“That’s because you never tell me anything, asshole. I have to crawl my way up the ladder through your friends, coworkers and boss just to get a dead-end number that you never answer. And then I reach you, and it’s just some chatbot-encapsulated version of you that I’m supposed to ‘relate with’? What, you need machines to live your life for you too, now? God, sometimes I feel like I’m married to a drone.”
“Look, I can’t deal with this right now, I’m working. I’ll be home later. Sometime.”
“Fine. Bye.” Jack hung up, recomposed himself. Thought of solving Rubik’s cubes and Stasia’s hair.
“Everything ok?” Stasia asked. Jack just waggled his head ambiguously, like a Mumbai Taxi Driver.
“Let’s just get this done.”
As Jack wandered over to some of the nearby crumbling apartments, he saw that women in hennaed head wraps and hand-dyed, quilted hemp fleece sarongs were out, hanging clothes up to dry. They joked, laughing over some small talk as if to spite the withering collapse surrounding them. The clothes lines of reclaimed, unbraided telephone wire were strung across the branches of young dogwood trees, cracking their way through the sidewalk strips. Without illegal-immigrant landscapers paid to keep hedges and shrubbery suppressed in fashionable rectilinear shapes, nature had begun to redeem the prodigal urbanity.
A father in his early twenties and his waist-high daughter climbed a ladder made of welded park railings canted against a row of Matson containers, gathering rust and moss in the street like the lost luggage of a civilization’s cancelled flight. The containers had most likely been helicoptered across King Street as barricades during battles between anti-austerity insurgents and the corporate militaries, left to sit for years. Atop the industrial metal prisms were planted rooftop gardens, which the father and daughter tended. The girl scuttled about, gathering Thai basil, tomatoes, bok choi, sweet lettuce while the father adjusted settings on a notebook computer, rainproofed with a modified Gap raincoat. The decade-obsolete paleoware bloomed with recycled hardware components. Cables, temperature, humidity, and pH sensors, automatic watering apparati, monitoring cameras, all wired into an ecological nervous system, the brain of some sort of self-regulating aquaponic setup. The man illustrated for the girl how to select ripe Polynesian taro, cutting the stem an inch above the soft earth, pulling the corm, replanting the cutting, renewing the cycle. Some fleeting memory of a ‘high tech-high-touch’ lecture from an eternally Birkenstocked professor surfaced in Jack’s mind then descended as quickly. The man was patient, so patient, as the girl accidentally cut too close to the heart-shaped leaves, spoiling several harvestings. He demonstrated again and again till she got it right, and Jack thought of himself lobbing ten-second canned explanations of trigonometric functions to his daughter’s eager requests for math homework help, and he felt a hot burning in his face like contempt but he knew not of what. On arrival, Jack had been too caught up in the urban decay of the necropolis to notice, but upon closer inspection, one could see that many of the balconies of nearby uncollapsed apartments were adorned with similar vertical gardens, solar cells popping up like mushrooms from a dead log. Green shoots of self-sustainable life sprouting from the ash of the forest FIRE. The economy of Finance Insurance and Real Estate.
The women froze like deer when they saw Jack and his fellow CyberSec Troubleshooters, the dreadlocked man in the container-top garden grabbing his daughter’s arm, pulling her in close. Jack approached them, cautiously, but not so much so as to suggest a defensive stance.
“Hi. Nice weather we’re having,” Jack said, regretting the joke in poor taste, choking on the Beijing-flavored swamp passing as atmosphere.
“Take your Tin Men and leave, Wraith. We have done nothing wrong,” said the gardener.
“We mean you no harm, just want to ask you a few questions. I like what you’ve done with the place.”
“How can we trust your serpent tongue? You are the harbinger of pain and death,” the gardener said, pointing a gnarled wand of olive branch at Jack, as if the immutable magic of peace and love might vanquish or at least ward off “The Corporatist State” or whatever hegemonic evil these neo-hippies saw when they perceived Troubleshooters. The man climbed down off the Matson container, lifting his daughter before she reached the rung fourth from the pavement, though she protested.
“Look, I don’t want to be here anymore than you want me to be here,” Jack said, changing strategy to appeal to mutually assured beneficence. “I’m Jack.” Jack stretched out his hand. A gull shrieked, plummeted into the bay, dead of some new, unnamed and unforeseen ecological calamity.
“East,” said the dreadlocked leader of the ‘cargo cult’.
“Have you seen this boy around? This morning perhaps?” Jack said, offering a picture. Jack tried to gauge the man’s reaction as he examined the digital portrait. Jack’s Oracles read the man’s facial expression, ultrasonics detected his heart rate, crunched the biometrics in a kind of distance-polygraph.
“No, I haven’t. He looks like one of the Bent Ones, not from our community.” The man named East said. The Oracles completed their analysis. Probability of truth: 62%. Unreassuring. Jack didn’t know whether to trust his intuition or his technology, either was liable to fail, he being so out of practice at this real-life police detective shtick. Jack scratched his chin reflexively and tried to ignore the smell of undisguised human body odor and mulch. The stink of reality. And what was this word, “Community?”. A rusted memory sunk deep into the floorboards of Jack’s frontal lobe struggled into his mind’s eye, a whirling miasma of sandalwood incense and shared living rooms and Afro-Celtic drumming and unflinching spiritual and emotional honesty. Even more than the visceral stench of nature, it was this abominable adherence to truth that most repulsed Jack. The thought of facing the ugly minefield that was Jack’s relationship with his wife was too much to bear, and it was that thought that broke the mirror of Jack’s reflection. This dirty savage named after a compass direction. Jack couldn’t wait for this mindless Fortune 500 vendetta chase to be over, get home, luxuriate recumbent in the serendipity-free saccharine media bath of his CyberSec office. Watch his perfectly scripted reality TV shows, listen to his computer-generated Bob Dylan songs without meanings, amongst the prefabbed pristine marble swept only by the sweet zephyrs of climate control and skirtsuit perfume.
“Is that your daughter, there?” Jack said, eyeing the young girl who was tethered to one of the two women, trying to pull away to get to her daddy. They hissed something to her and the girl frowned, but relented.
East’s sun-dried forehead flattened ambiguously, smile lines at the corners of his mouth erased by a closed stoic stare.
“Yes, that is my daughter.”
“See, this picture here, that was somebody’s child too. And that boy’s parents, well, they’re not happy at all about what happened to their son, right here on your street, earlier this morning. These people, they have great power.”
“They hold your leash, Wraith? And the Tin Men?”
“I would put it in other terms, but yes, essentially, I am on the payroll. What you need to know is that you need to tell me everything that you know, if you care at all about your daughter.” Jack said, popping another Altoid into his mouth. East seemed to weigh the thought carefully, as if considering which betrayal was the lesser of two evils.
“There was a… quarrel this morning, yes, although I do not know who was involved. These happen often, here, you understand. I was out harvesting copper wire and plastic bottles to melt down, at the time.”
“Is there anyone else who might’ve gotten a good look at them?” Jack picked up the slightest twitch in East’s right eye. He could see the skin over the man’s jaw ripple slightly. The Oracles captioned: ‘severe distress’.
“My daughter. She was out straining the catchment this morning.”
Jack crouched down to her eye level.
“What did you see honey? Who attacked the kid?” Her hair was matted the way border collie fur clumps into thick layered scales when they’re allowed to roam freely, roll about in the dirt. Her eyes were hot green embers, fierce with a precocious intelligence. She glanced at Jack’s armored carrier, at the light-absorbing, pristine black leather of his CyberSec uniform. Clucked her tongue.
“He looked like you.” The girl said, pointing to Jack’s goggles. Jack smiled.
“Of course he did. Of course he did.” The little crunchy-granola Deadweight imp was toying with him. This little green-thumbed urchin.
Then the Oracle’s polygraph results chimed in: 93% probability of truth. Now that was interesting.
“It’s her birthday tomorrow. She’s going to have her first birthday cake. Almost all the sugar cane was eaten in the machine plagues and it’s taken us months to collect the ingredients.” East said. Jack almost said it was his own daughter’s birthday today, then it hit him how he’d completely neglected to even remember it let alone expend energy collecting cake ingredients. He filled with an intoxicating cocktail of disgust, guilt, and infantile hatred that felt like a puffer fish in his stomach.
“She’s very excited, aren’t you, Sunrise?” East said. The girl nodded her head, popping a cherry tomagranite into her mouth. A genespliced variant, highly resistant to hydra rust. Also a copyrighted strain, owned by Demetric, and it was vanishingly unlikely these jobless Deadweights were paying the monthly thousand dollar rent to lawfully grow the tomato-pomegranate hybrid. Jack could’ve taken them all in for agricultural piracy, if he were in a bad mood. Rich, pink soup spurted from Sunrise’ lips as the hybrid fruit burst its sweet tartness. Her father snatched the remaining tomagranites from her thatched satchel before she could toss another of the plum-sized juice bombs in her mouth.
“Sunrise, now you know it’s not polite to eat in front of guests.” East said. She scowled her complaint but didn’t attempt to steal them back. Jack smiled with half his face.
These people reminded Jack of his wife and her bizarrely renewed nonconformity. He could see her, here, amongst these apocalypse gardeners, dipping her fragile, post-industrial hands into the rough, tarry soil of a boulevard parkway, mouthing something about reclaiming the soil for Gaia. She would reset, retrace the song line of a Steely Dan anthem back to the dreamtime of liberal undergraduate California, carved out of the austerity rubble. Her lips accepting the Earthy gift of kava drink, languishing in the incensed ambiance of didgeridoo and sitar strung with frayed bridge cables. Here, she would forget her nursing career truncated by quasi-sentient blood pressure machines. She would forget her underwater and soon-to-be-repossessed home, the private school tuition she could no longer afford. She would forget her distant husband whom she’d forgotten how to love. She would forget about being stuck, and worrying about being stuck.
Her neon batik silk whirling dreamlike under bioluminescent lighting would strike sparks off the eye of a djembe virtuoso. He would court her with black Hindu magic, say he’d seen her through a third eye. She would want to and then would believe him, riding the velvet crest of a lungfull of cannabis. They would make love in the back seat of a permanently stalled VW Bus, make love like Jack hadn’t since before he’d taken the CyberSec job, and she would feel nothing but the hot flare of youth and bliss uninterrupted by guilt, uncomplicated. Guilt could wait, could be postponed, like a refinanced mortgage. The image expanded to fill Jack’s mind like a computer virus, compromising his every thought, and the immune reaction was a tremendous and impotent hatred.
Jack knew these things, because he could see his wife’s song lines, traced in time and space like snail trails, on the GPS tracking window he’d obtained from her wireless provider’s database. Jack, through his privileged access as a corporate security officer, had been monitoring his wife’s every credit card purchase, every email, had watched her through a thousand intelligent surveillance cameras stationed throughout the city. He knew that Joy had been lying to him for months. Every weekday yoga class, every visit to her sister in Red Wood, every morning when he would kiss her goodbye and they would both do their best to soften their lips like sponges, as if to soak up the mess with pleasantry into the trajectory of the past. Jack knew. And he never said anything, would never say anything. Because Jack was a grown up, unlike all of these frolicking, crunchy, nymph-like children, and that is what grown ups do. They keep quiet about systemic problems and double down. Bailout. They refinance.
“Well, better run the place through the wash,” Jack mumbled, cracking the remaining sliver of Altoid, thin as communion host, against the roof of his mouth. It was a comforting and familiar sensation.
Jack dialed in directives to the intra-cloud network, twitches of his finger tips, read as input by his haptic gloves. A team of RPLCNTS fanned out like an oil slick from the rear loading bay of the carbon-black, behemothian CyberSec vehicle. The roboSWAT team grouped organically into squads following a flocking algorithm that Jack had personally helped develop during a contracting project for the US Department of Defense. Mostly the software was used to automate the slaughter of Kenyans and Kazakstanis who, it was revealed, were sitting on caches of lithium and copper the size of the Himalayan mountain range. Lithium and copper’s vital role in electronics having replaced long-peaked oil as the fulcrum for the next resource war, of course. The ability of the human race to find new reasons to kill one another in the face of insurmountable abundance was truly commendable. The advent of the machinized ground troop solved the PR problem of Flag-wrapped coffins coming back from warzones, the bleeding-heart journalist fodder created when Predator drones accidentally blew up hospitals full of Pakistani children went away. With those moral safeties clicked off, half of Asia and most of Africa was leveled and strip-mined in less than a decade by US robo-military campaigns.
The RPLCNTS immediately began securing the perimeter. Green zone was demarcated on Jack’s heads-up-display by a film of lime-colored territory spreading across an aerial map like algae in a pond. Through an adjacent matrix of livestreaming troop feeds, Jack could see that the bottom three floors of the San Francisco Giants building, even the interiors, were blanketed in graffiti and gunshot holes. Primate pissing matches played out in neon red and vomit-green street kanji, then diplomacy continued by other means. Esoteric Kurt Vonnegut quotes and six-foot-wide stenciled portraits of Che Guevara cried truths against the wall of violence and misspelled inanity. These political art seemed to post-date the rest, suggesting the gangs had either moved on or had mutually assured one anothers’ destruction. The building was mostly filled with countless grey-collars, the overeducated poor who’d either been replaced in their office by a robot or who were enslaved to their 200k student loans, and for whom no job outside prostitution and unpaid social work would ever come. They tended to their shoebox shitakes, absorbed themselves in dead media like paper books and sculpture. Some even played those face-to-face roleplaying video games called “theater". Jack and Stasia remotely questioned the denizens, most of whom either had not seen the event or were too numb to care. The drone SWAT teams encountered a few wyrehead junkies spewing braindead strings of cursewords. One attempted to attack a soldrone with a ball peen hammer. The audio feed roared as what remained of the junkie's brain was splattered all over his non-functioning refrigerator by the bot's hollow point rounds. The sight made him feel uneasy, so Jack changed channels.
“No one else home,” Stasia said, double checking a satellite-based body heat scan of the building.
The arachnoid forensics bots continued the arduous task of scrubbing the vicinity for evidence –marks, tracks, blood, DNA -- crawling physical reality for every last byte of data, aggregating it in CyberSec’s servers. What the Troubleshooters discovered was, well, troubling.
“Christ, it’s like they edited out a slice of reality. All of the security footage from CCTV cams, even the spydrones flying over during the incident apparently came down with temporary cases of anterograde amnesia. All our audiovisual records of that five minute period are blank,” Stasia said.
“Yeah. Curious, isn’t it? Winklemann’s not going to be happy with this.”
Other than the corpse of the Deadweight accountant, the only real piece of evidence were two Tyr X2 bodyguard robots. One had been mowed down, so many bullet holes perforating its chrome chassis that it resembled a cheese grater. Jack knelt down beside the collapsed humanoid, its secret-service windbreaker ripped to shreds, its plastoid skin peeling from its face like a third-degree sunburn.
“That’s heavy weaponry they were carrying,” Stasia commented. Jack aimed his dVice’ camera at the QR barcode on the neck of the android.
“Assuming the assailant was carrying it. Let’s run these serial numbers.”
The other Tyr had a small puncture at the nape of its neck. Jack examined the hole, inserting an arthroscopic microcam into the ‘wound’ and fished around.
“The central processor is fried,” he added.
“You thinking another bot glitch SNAFU?” Stasia asked.
“Maybe. A coincidental malfunction is certainly what they’d want us to think happened, anyway. Hold on, Winklemann’s on the line.” Jack looked at the flashing avatar of his boss, expanding a videoconference that occluded the charts and informatics of the investigation's augmented reality overlays.
“What have you got for me, Jack,” Winklemann cut to it with his eternally hurried, upper-managerial inflection.
“The kid’s still unconscious but stable. Prognosis uncertain, it’s 50-50 whether he’ll snap out of the coma. We’ve got two body guards, both owned by his parents. Where it gets interesting is we just cross checked the Tyrs, and the bullets that Swiss cheesed the bodyguard match up with the .50 cal subdermal forearm cannon of its counterpart.”
“So the guard robot went Hal 9000, short circuited and started shooting at friendlies. Wouldn’t be the first time, and at least since this was bot-on-bot homicide we won’t have to blackout the story from the internets like the School Bus incident down in Gnossis Plaza.”
“That’s possible but I highly doubt the culprit was buggy software. For one, we just finished patching up the targeting systems heuristics and enemy acquisition AIs for the entire drone fleet this morning. Then there’s the fact that the BIOS clocks of the totaled Tyr and its counterpart are frozen within seconds of each other, as if once the puppeteer was done, he cut the strings from his marionette and made off.”
“Puppeteer. That’s your diagnosis? Ok, fine, Mr. Conspiracy Theory. Roll it out for me.”
“I checked out the stab wound at the back of the other guard’s neck. It’s bull’s-eye within a half-inch sized target, a backdoor port into the Tyr’s system used for debugging purposes during beta testing. Whoever struck the blow, it wasn’t just a reactionary defensive stab, it was a calculated hostile takeover attack. These are not your run of the mill necropolis street punks. They had intimate knowledge of Totech android anatomy. Knew just the right switch to flip.”
“They could’ve gotten lucky, went for the bot’s head and scored the central processor.”
“Highly unlikely. Residue analysis of the exposed wire and CPU suggests that whatever the foreign object was, it was electrical. Perhaps some kind of spine-based remote operation ice pick. There are no signs of other firearms discharged in any of the visual or audio CCTV feeds suggesting this guy was unarmed. These were professionals, black hat hackers.”
“Fantastic, just what we need. Unwashed masses with brains. I thought we had that problem kicked with reality TV and Angry Hamsters. Goddamnit, times like these I wish we still had paper books so we could torch them all like Fahrenheit 451. Who do you think is behind it, assuming your theory is true?”
“There’s the usual suspects, the Washingtonians, but they spend too much time bleating on about how government is trampling the US constitution to reach that level of technical sophistication. And they’re more about giving their lives for God and Country M16 in hand, blaze of patriotic glory and all that. They’d probably view such an attack as vaguely dishonorable commy-tactics. We can’t rule out a covert strike by Pfeiffer Pharmaceutical or one of Vitanet’s other major competitors looking to take out a VIP then use the circumstances to frame the murder on jobless necropolis slumdogs. But if I had to, I’d put my money on Hex Gen.”
“Generation Hex. Those V For Vendetta-guzzling hacktivists, of course. Fine. Whoever the culprit, what we need to do right now is pin the murder on World Class War. Hex Gen and WCW have had loose associations and it’s going to be guilt by association 24/7.”
“Won’t that be a little challenging to spin? I mean we don’t even know who the assailant is.”
“Nah, it’s no problem. Hell, since we’ve acquired MediaVerse, we’ve got every major news channel, e-newspaper, and network on a tight leash and the President is doing his part to declare all the whistleblowers terrorists and have them disappeared systematically, no sweat off our backs. Elections are coming up and it’s crucial that we crush popular support of this underclass movement ASAP. Gnossis and our other generous employers have dumped hundreds of billions of dollars into President Vanderlyle’s campaign and it is absolutely imperative that he is sworn into office for another term. Or it’s all of our heads, it goes without saying. If we can just get that American Anti-Piracy Act passed we could file all of the web censorship and attacks like this airstrike under the blanket immunity clause of ‘defending US cybersecurity’. Make this all so much easier.”
“Airstrike? What airstrike?” Jack felt his temperature drop two degrees, his stomach suddenly became a cold, sinking stone.
"Oh, right, you’re not in on this loop yet. Our ‘generous benefactors’, the ones personally funding this operation, seems they need a certain sense of closure. A sub-nuclear, multi-block leveling, megaton sense of closure.”
An ill wind descended, drawing cryptic runes in the red desert of the San Francisco sky, like the mark of some terrible and ancient alien race, aroused from its epochal slumber. Bloated corpses drifted like unprocessed lumps of sewage through the grey tide beneath the gaping ruins of the Golden Gate. Omens. Preambles to the indiscriminate wrath of infantile gods.
“You’re serious,” Jack mouthed. He felt his heart rate spike, microscopic nanomed machines swimming in his arteries synthesized angiotensin blockers automatically to counteract his heightened blood pressure.
“Am I affecting a humorous tone? Yes. I have an executive order straight from the top to do a 426 on the entire area code.” The usual static from wireless communications borne by sketchy necropolis cell towers suddenly cut out, as if emphasizing the message.
“A 426? Nuke the site from orbit? Isn’t that kind of overkill? I thought this was a crime scene, not a re-enactment of the Hell’s Kitchen Predator drone massacre.”
“Hey, that wasn’t our fault, we had bad intel from the CIA. Besides, it was a festering sore of jobless insurgents. The World Class War mobs had publicly executed the CEO of Nationwide Bank, hung him by his own tie from the Wall Street Bull. For fucks sake, they nearly took down a fifty story corporate tower with explosives concocted from nothing but gene-hacked ammonia-rich algae and pinesol. Fucking algae bombs! You ever heard of that shit? An example had to be made. Top it off, yeah, come on you stingy whore.” Jack could hear the tinkle of crystal champagne flutes through Winkleman’s phone, the oceanic burble of a party crowd, live smooth jazz.
“Carpet bombing fourteen city blocks worth of apartments full of families who had nothing to do with the movement at all? That was setting an example?”
“Jack, Jack. My boy. Of course I don’t want to see innocent people killed any more than you do. Of course we’d prefer to control the hoi polloi with hope. It’s much more efficient in the cost-benefit analysis to have people believing, falsely, that they can Be Whatever They Want When They Grow Up in America, satisfied with their McDonald’s shit-shoveling job limping along on foodstamps and Wal Mart as long as they can turn on their ‘Tubevisions and strive to be American Idols and Jersey Shore Playgirls one day. But with this… extent to which things have managed to deteriorate, it’s becoming harder and harder to sell the shit sandwiches as caviar, convince the people that their debt shackles are their tickets to a better life. So now we’ve got to rely on good old fashioned People’s Republic of China-style fear of Authority with an itchy trigger finger. It’s – what do those World Class War lefty financial journalists call it? Moral Hazard. That’s it. This Is about reinstating moral hazard. There’s got to be an equal and opposite deterrent to the degree of outrage in the general population. They start getting the cahones up to cut the heads off the royalty, well, we’ve got to fire an ion cannon at the poorer half of Manhattan. Now they know the hazard of being moral. One day you will understand how business actually works, son.”
“Alright. Fine. You need to put shock and awe back into the hearts of the irreverent peasants. I just don’t see how indiscriminately blowing up random swaths of population, many of whom are not necessarily active World Class War members or part of any other resistance movements is going to draw down support for WCW. Cause it just seems like we’re going to have another World Trade Center’s worth of unemployed martyrs, all of whom will have mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who will be filled with firey jihad, devoting the rest of their lives to taking down the ‘Plutocrats’, the Great Satans who stole their loved ones and destroyed their lives. Why not just go after the extremists? The insurgents who are doing actual damage taking out Ameribank City financial towers, assassinating hedge fund managers and actively plotting to bring down the global financial system. I mean these people here, they’re just human beings who got the short end of the stick.” Jack could feel his inner lawyer suddenly flipping to the side of the smelly hippies he’d silently despised minutes ago, once he was asked to massacre them.
“Christ, don’t refer to them as ‘human beings’. Don’t do that to yourself; it’s bad for your psyche, all this humanizing of your victims. Unbecoming of a Troubleshooter. No, thank you Sylvia, I’m fine. Tell the governor I’ll be out in a minute.” Winkleman said to someone at whatever $10 million-a-plate dinner function or economics conference he was attending, slurping down what sounded like some kind of chilled shellfish on the line. He cleared his throat, continued.
“Look, Mother Theresa, I’m not going to spend all day arguing asymmetric warfare ethics with you. This is a direct order and you WILL execute. Diamond wants someone, anyone to pay for his son’s death. Maybe he’s overreacting; whatever, it’s moot. Alistair Diamond is one of our largest and most well-connected shareholders, and happens to be the brother of the Cybersecurity Senate Subcommittee head, the group that will make or break the American Anti-Piracy Act. I don’t care if Diamond asks CyberSec to assassinate the President of China or mow down a Catholic school full of Canadian children with Panzer tanks or open up a singularity at Earth’s core just so he can laugh at the poor below, martini in hand, from his low-orbit ISS villa’s swimming pool. You will execute, Jack, or you will find yourself, very soon, jobless, cowering in one of these decrepit Plebian sinkholes without running water, imagining your wife and kid kissing some other man with steelier balls than you that took your job, wondering with your last breath why you ever for one moment had second thoughts about your vocation’s duties both to CyberSec and to Ameribank City. And then your life will end, horribly and without even an acknowledgement in your former friends’ status updates, beneath the great vengeance and furious anger of a drone-fired CyberSec lead zeppelin, just like the one you’re about to call down on the tens of thousands of people eeking out their pathetic, gutter-moss-and-cardboard-box lives in that wasteland called San Francisco.” Serious as bioengineered, weapons-grade cancer.
“Oh, I should add. There’s a juicy forty-k bonus tied to this mission as well, plus a week-long paid junket in Switzerland for you and your wife upon completion. The President Wilson Hotel, Imperial Suite. Only the best for Ameribank City’s Finest. The monk seal sashimi there is mind boggling. You’ve gotta try it.”
The endangered cuisine wasn’t exactly Jack’s cup of tea, but the $40,000 would be enough to keep their daughter in private school another semester, maybe pull them above water in their mortgage payments long enough for Jack and his wife to spend a few dinner table conversations not fighting about money. Jack could feel his angels and demons being shouted off his shoulders by the megaphone of Darwinian survival. There were breadlines of double PhD’s and former IT workers gunning for Jack’s position. Jack didn’t have the luxury of not working. He couldn’t think about what would happen if he’d lost his job and he and his family fell behind in their citizenship payments.
“Well, hey, Jack! It’s been great chatting, but I’ve got a couple of hundred thousand dollar human trafficked Yugoslavian sex slaves here that I need to ruin before the night is over, followed by 18 holes with the governor of Texas and the CEO of Caco Cola on board his two-mile-wide airship. Insider trading tips, brainstorming ways to get students and homeowners deeper in debt, reversing progressive labor rights, oh and there’s that damned Financial Fraud Protection Act that we need to have congress defang now that their election season is over. All that boring stuff I know you don’t like hearing about. Get this, the airship’s zeppelins are built entirely with paper recycled from back issues of Atlas Shrugged! Who knew you could make fricking blimps out of paper? You learn something new everyday. Anyway, I’ll leave you to your mass murdering now. Do try to enjoy your work, Jack. It’s important to take joy in your work. Remember, you’re one of our best. I have faith in you, my boy. Sylvia! Jesus, that’s my ballsa-” The signal cut out.
Muther fucking vindictive mega-rich parents. That acquired sociopathy born when a hundred floors of money are placed between the rich and their fellow human beings, running their Starbucks coffee and polishing their thousand dollar shoes below. What were simple butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers with feelings and lives and families, from two thousand feet in an autopiloted Gulfstream, suddenly became nothing but ants, insects. To be crushed beneath boot heels. Jack discovered that familiar and burning hatred for Winkleman, for the Diamond family who’d ordered him here to commit their war crimes free of the “cognitive load”, outsourcing the heavy crucifix onto Jack’s shoulders. Jack insulated himself in that hot membrane of hate and blame, and it assuaged any sense of guilt long enough for him to carry out what he had to carry out.
“Stasia, I need you to de-activate all 3G + spectrums and cut all landline connections in and out of District 8, sectors A-F.”
“Why, Jack? What’s going on? What did Winkleman say?”
Jack strode briskly toward the CyberSec APC, jumped into the front seat, and grabbed the intercom mic on the dashboard of the cockpit. It was too quiet out. No bombshells rumbling in the distance, no gunshots tapping off. Not even the screams of domestic violence and meth-induced Tourette syndrome. One of those peculiar moments of peace when a hundred simultaneous Plebland skirmishes reach the same brief lull. As if all of San Francisco was holding its breath in anticipation, awaiting the market correction, the return to the equilibrium level of violence. Jack switched on the loudspeaker, static and feedback piercing the silent night, ricocheting off the concrete squalor.
"Everyone, get out of here. Now. Get as far away as you can.”
“Why? What’s happening?” East shouted back from his Matson container garden.
“Look, trust me, just get out of here. The drones are going to retaliate.”
“But, we have done nothing wrong! We have sowed no evil. Why would they attack us?”
“It doesn’t matter. The reaping is coming, either way. Old Testament style. The hellfire and the brimstone.”
“I don’t trust him. Look at him, he’s got one of them special agent rent-a-cops uniforms on. What they call them?” Someone shouted from an apartment window.
“Yeah. We ain’t listening to you, you goddamn Troubleshooter thug. You just trying to smoke us out.”
“We ain’t going nowhere.” A small crowd had gathered now in the street, perhaps a few dozen, outside of the Giants Museum. East stepped forward from the group, approached the front door of the APC where Jack sat holding the mic. His dreadlocks were dancing burnt-gold vines as the wind picked up, sang through the abandoned buildings like the haunting wail of a seashell. East examined the light absorbing hull of the vehicle’s urban camo finish.
“Harbinger of death.” East said, crossing his arms.
“I’m sorry, East, this isn’t my fault. They would’ve just called in someone else,” Jack protested.
“Save your words, Wraith. I knew you cared about nothing the moment you arrived.”
“Whatever you think of me, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to tell them.” Jack said. “They won’t listen to me.”
East shook his head. “You said I could trust you, Jack. We cooperated, gave you what you wanted. You said we’d be ok. You asked me to trust you and now you are bringing the great flood of fire upon our home, upon our community. Now I understand, Wraith man. You are indeed the rider of the final machine. Terminus Machina. But you are not a Bent One, Wraith. You are merely empty. You are hollow as the Tin Men whom you command like clockwork figurines, toy soldiers who kill and enslave my people. You are a master of gadgets, yet you yourself are a gadget, a gadget of the truly Bent. For unlike the Bent, you understand what you do, but you do it anyway. I will pray to all the gods for your soul, Jack the Wraith, for I cannot imagine a worse fate. You are an emptiness unlike any that I have ever known. I will pray for you.” Jack could see the dark smile lines branching beneath East’s eyes begin to fill with water, could see the sadness pull at his face. A man of action, like Jack, East forced emotion aside, steeled himself and took the microphone.
"Everyone, please, get out of here. Get as far as you can. Do not waste time with belongings. Run.“ East’s amplified voice reverberated against the city, echoes rising like a tide, and the people, hearing one of their leaders proclaim the end times, began to flee like scattering ants.
“Stasia, I need you to black out all internet traffic in a twelve block radius,” Jack summoned a map of the Bay Area, toggled off markers for all drone units except heavy aircraft.
“What are you talking about, Jack? What’s going on?” Stasia asked, voice trilling with hysteria, like a canary descending, against its will, into a coal mine.
“Just shut down the land lines and cell towers, now. We need to get a head start on the damage control, minimize the chance of word getting out.” Jack pinpointed the nearest suitable drone, a monster annihilator like an F-16 on steroids, carrying enough firepower to turn Manhattan into the Yucatan crater.
“Control damage from what? Jack? Tell me!” Jack ignored her demands, knowing that she might object to the order if she understood what it was she was doing.
A few decades ago, nuking a national landmark sports stadium in a major US city would've been immediately branded a cataclysmic terrorist attack at best, and the kindling for World War III at worst. Today it was de rigeur cost-of-doing-business, a meteorological process, a bad thunderstorm, and everyone would whip out their umbrellas till the shower of retaliatory tit-for-tats, news reports passed. Barely worthy of a front page trending topic.
"Alright, Jack, it's done. All relays, hubs are off, no packets leaving the space, not even the faintest HAM radio signal. There's an effective Faraday cage enclosing all of SoHA. Now can you clue me in to what the hell this is about?"
“Look, I can’t believe we’re being forced to do this either, but they've ordered a thermonuclear facelift of everything within two miles of the crime scene. A grudge-nuke special requested by the Diamond family. And our bosses are finding their own uses for the bombing. They’re asking us to wipe this entire area code off the face of the Earth, and then they're going to frame World Class War as the perpetrators. 'The heat seeking mechanisms on those stinger missiles degrade rapidly in this humid climate.' 'They should've asked the Russians for an extended warranty on that warhead.' 'Seems they forgot to RTFM on that suitcase antimatter bomb. Detonated that tactical city-buster on themselves. Shame.' That's the official story they're going to put out."
“Jesus Christ, Jack! Think of all those people! There’s no way they’ll be able to evacuate in time, you’re talking about blowing up dozens of blocks worth of people leading peaceful lives. Families."
“Don’t humanize them, like that. It doesn’t suit you, Us, as Troubleshooters.” Jack repeated his boss’ words that he’d so despised mere minutes earlier. Stasia’s eyes crumpled up into that Scandinavian grimace of universal pain, that frowning Siberian husky look flowing from an overgrown sense of altruism. He could see the bright light of innocent passion in her eyes being torn apart by the tidal forces of market reality. He remembered how it had felt that first time executing the death warrant on an innocent, and it hurt him to see her hurt like that, but everyone had to grow up some time.
“Jack! We can’t do this! We… I can’t do this. We might mow down armed insurgents marching into Gnossis Plaza, even take out key leaders and fomenters of populist resistance. But I can’t allow all these innocent people to be slaughtered so needlessly, just to sate some insane, power-drunk Plutocrat’s infantile need for vengeance. I just can’t allow it.” Stasia’s hand had unconsciously begun to reach for the .45 caliber slung from her hip. Jack frowned, made a cat's cradle around her blip in his heads-up display. A pair of roboSWAT drew together on Stasia’s flank, a swarm of red laser dots converging on her head like a disco ball. Stasia choked, eyeing the black cold barrels of a dozen rifles surrounding her. She lowered her hand, and lowered her head in defeat and shame.
“I’m sorry. I won’t tell anyone about this. Imagine that this never happened, if you can. Close your eyes.” He caught her as she collapsed into him. He held her, feeling her hot young tears burning along his neck like holy water. But it did not, he would not allow it to phase him. He continued to work even as she broke down, typing commands into his interface, fixing these ‘bugs’ in the Ameribank system. Troubleshooting. His skull throbbed with adrenaline and conflict, his hands shook as he began the process of programming the drone attack, but if he kept his head just in the right headspace, he could spin the guilt in his head as bravery and valiance, and he held onto that moment like an alcoholic wife beater to a Sunday sermon.
Jack dialed in latitude, longitude, anchored the crosshair on the corner of King Street and 3rd. Drew a blast radius with his pinky, as if wiping a smudge from a blemished hardwood table. Is this nuclear strike acceptable? (Yes/No) Yes. Would you like to include _chemical _biological agents in this attack? (Check all that apply) Would you like Atrocity Cleanser Version 6.0 to establish internet traffic censors and pre-emptive buy up of search engine keywords associated with this airstrike? (Yes/No) Yes. Would you like SMS alerts of escalating death toll? (Yes/No) No. Please enter your user name and launch codes now.
An investigative journalist was detected in the vicinity by a patrolling stealth-drone running facial rec examinations on the panicked crowd running from the site. Jack entered a console command and one of the RPLCNTs hounded the journalist’s GPS, sprayed him with fully automatic fire till his body stopped twitching, tossed the corpse in a dumpster. A mother and child were hit by stray bullets, but the RPLCNTS did not waver from their predesignated courses sweeping up 'lose ends'. The father was left to sit on his knees, wail over his young dead family at ground zero, waiting to be put out of his misery by the cleansing fire of the behemoth-class bomber drone.
“The Archangel is inbound. Time for us to leave.” Jack said. Stasia sobbed, made no eye contact as she climbed into the rear of the APC. Jack slammed the heavy reinforced door shut, ignored the screaming and pounding on the bullet proof glass as the Deadweights tried desperately to get in, to save themselves from the coming tactical apocalypse. Toddlers were held up to the window by parents, pleading that their children might be spared.
“Jack…” Stasia began.
“We can’t. They’d overrun us if we opened that door.” There was nothing to be done. No one would bail them out.
The APC rolled out, post-haste, towards the Bay Bridge, as the Archangel reared its self-piloted head. Wingspan twice the width of the bridge itself, the nuclear drone was like a fissure in the heavens, an ebon maw, grinning wider as it approached. An array of oblong metal raked white stripes across the bloody sky, howling at a supersonic clip in the direction of the Golden Gate. Jack blocked out the irony.
The nuke's marigold blast wave wiped skyscrapers away like cardboard boxes in a hurricane. It reminded Jack of watching footage from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, being glued to the screen despite the ineffably terrible event transpiring, unable to look away. Seeing it now, Jack knew no one could’ve escaped the bomb. Why did he tell the people to run, why didn’t he tell them to spend their last moments saying goodbye to one another? East, his daughter, the hippy girls hanging their clothes, they might’ve made it out of the kill zone in time, if they had wheels. Maybe they managed to get that VW bus’ engine to turn. Maybe there’d be gas. Jack needed to believe that they survived, though a part of him, the part of him that debugged paramilitary AI firmware, knew that they were all dead, every last one. Jack’s mind’s eye rendered them now, three tall and one short, a family of nuclear shadows, stenciled on the incinerated flank of a Starbucks. Too much reality. Jack could taste the stink.
Jack disliked violence. Just thinking about all the immolated innocents and wailing mothers clinging to lifeless bloody messes that used to be their children outside his APC window made Jack queasy. He pulled an abstracted wireframe overlay like a curtain over reality, transforming the flying body parts into little gold arcade game coins. Adding up to a $40,000 bonus. This was why Jack preferred to work from office, have the robots do all the dirty work; it was all so uncivilized, this war stuff. It made things much easier, seeing destroyed communities as housing statistics. Debugged code. Figures in a spreadsheet. He could handle that. Jack wondered how anyone ever got any work done before computers. Jack told himself that he was doing all of this for his wife and daughter, to float their teetering middle class existence, that he had no choice, but to double down, to refinance. Jack opened a fluffy talkshow in the upper right corner, tried to focus on the topic which was the hipness or tastelessness Lord Dada’s dildo-shaped speedo at the Grammys. Jack felt better already.
The trick, Jack reminded himself, always lay in depersonalization, complication, obfuscation of the massacre into financial numerology. Market efficiency, supply and demand, and that’s all this was. The demand for extermination of unwanted humans was skyrocketing, and Jack was merely filling the niche before someone else did. The holocaust was simple rational self-interest; what makes the world go round, get off your high moral horse. Maximized profit in a spreadsheet column. Jack could feel the thoughts absolving his conscience already, ensconcing his mind like a warm balm, like Pontius Pilate’s spa and cucumber mask. Jack checked his Friendbook feeds; smiled as he commented on a picture of some cousin stuffing jell-o shots in a drunken fiance’s mouth. Jack fired up a game of Angry Hamsters. He imagined the megaton missiles screaming overhead toward the San Francisco ground zero as slingshot rodents, crashing humorously into 8-bit wooden castles. The mounting dead were cartoon pigs with ‘x’s on their eyes, each adding points to Jack’s high score. Within seconds of playing, East and his daughter, the squatter community, the airstrike, all that unmediated, untargeted reality ceased to exist, and there was only the flash and bleep of the rectangular screen, the soothing reptilian dreamstate of the video game.
Sunrise dabs a ripped square of brown paper bag into a tube of bowstring wax. She’d only had time to salvage the wax, a box of Muscle Man protein bars, and some waterproof matches before the crushing heat and smoke became too much for her to stand. Her eyes got all watery and gross like the day her mom got shot by the Tin Men for taking the special seeds that keep on giving. Mom said stealing was wrong but you can’t steal what’s already been stolen. But still, don’t steal unless you have to.
Sunrise really, really had to.
Sunrise likes how the soft wax rolls onto the black string and makes it all shiny like the skin of a mambo snake. Snake is ok to eat but candy bars taste better sometimes. Sunrise coughs. She has a hard time breathing sometimes. Mom said, “Don’t be a baby. Thirty million people lived with worse air in Beijing for decades and they survived.”
Sunrise tries hard not to be a baby, she really does. Her lungs burned bad, like the time she got the lung-glass disease. “Gentic Enigeering” mom said is what caused it.
Sunrise grips the handles at either end of the crossbow, pressing them together like she is trying to snap a piece of firewood in half. When she was littler, she wasn’t strong enough to cock the crossbow, but now Sunrise can fire and reload in three Mississippis. She’s stronger in other ways too. East says Sunrise is, “A real survivor.”
The Tin Men came by earlier, looking for something with bright lights like white suns. The Tin Men are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. The Shadow Men come sometimes too. The Shadow Men are always bad. The Shadow Men make Sunrise feel funny inside, like she’s going to pop, like the pee pee bags in a pheasant. It’s very bad to pop the pee pee bag in the pheasant when you are cleaning it up after you have shot it. If you pop the pee pee bag, you will taint the meat, and it will taste like sour milk and sadness when you eat it. Sunrise hopes not, but she feels that the Shadow Men might be popping her pee pee bag when they make her feel funny. She is afraid that now she is tainted meat, and that she tastes like sadness too. She feels sad a lot, anyway.
The Tin Men come at any time. They ride on the big giant thunder pheasants. Sunrise thinks maybe these are actually the condors. Mom used to read to Sunrise on the smartfone the stories of the condor, the great spirit of the America in the time before the Sick Men, the time before The Debt. Mom says the Sick Men created The Debt to get more wealths, but the Sick Men make the small people pay The Debt back. Mom says The Debt will never be repaid, but that it will never be forgiven either. The Debt will grind and chew the small people forever, it will cause pain and suffering, but the Sick Men, they will never let it go away. Until all have fallen, the small, the big, even the too big to fall. All will be consumed by the Debt, eventually. “It is the sickness of our time. It is the cancer of post-industrial civilization. It is the answer to the Fermi Paradox.” Sunrise doesn’t understand all of that, but she does understand forgiveness. She forgives mom for leaving. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. That is the prayer Sunrise prayed with mom every night before bed. That is the prayer Sunrise still prays, every night. She hopes that one day she will be able to forgive the Shadow Men, too. Sunrise thinks that debt will be hard to forgive, though.
Sunrise’ tummy hurts and makes her stop thinking the head thoughts. Sunrise must think of the body now, she has not eaten in three sunsets since the last Muscle Man bar. She selects a six inch nail from her crossbow bolt strap that is Velcroed around her forearm. The nail is covered in soot like black baby powder that comes off on Sunrise’ small fingers. Sunrise ran out of the plastic Mega Mart bolts a long time ago. Her bolt holster contains two wooden bolts whittled from cut segments of a small American flag pole. It also contains two other nails that Sunrise unburied from the ash pile of a church that had burnt to the ground. There were many big nails, but so many were bent and crooked and would make for poor shooting. Sunrise chose only the straightest three nails. Nails were like people, Sunrise thinks; you must search hard to find people who are not Bent.
The metal shaft runs up the guide rails, the filed nock clinking against the trigger mechanism of the crossbow. Sunrise likes this sound and it makes her smile.
The wrist holster is made from a trimmed ribbon of sparkly headband, sewn into a dozen pencil-sized loops upon a strip of tote bag strap. The holster is fastened to Sunrise’ wrist with a Velcro strap from an infant’s shoe. Sunrise did not take the shoe from a baby, and Sunrise has never had a little sister or brother, none that had shoes anyway. Mom had a little brother for Sunrise growing inside her tummy, once, and Sunrise liked to listen to her baby brother’s heart beat. Sunrise liked to play with the iPad and e-dollies back then, and she couldn’t wait to show her little brother how to bake a cake on the Baker Bash video game. Now Sunrise thinks that was stupid. Who cares about fake screen-cakes, what about real food? Sunrise tried cake once and didn’t like it. It tasted like emptiness, like food without food in it, just filled up with fake tooth-hurting sweetness. Mom smiled and took the slice of cake back and said, “The grown-up world, it is just like the cake.” Mom cried very much when Sunrise’ brother died inside mom’s tummy. The hospital had closed down a week earlier, because it ran out of money. The Debt ate the hospital. The Debt killed Sunrise’ brother.
The gulls scream as the smoke strangles them like the rough, greasy hands of one of the Shadow Men. Today, it is Roosevelt Street’s turn to burn. Last week it was Market Street and before that San Diego Avenue, but the sour rain put out the flames before San Diego was all gone. Half of the houses on Roosevelt Street have finished burning down, and the big black piles of ash lie down in a row like dominoes. The fire is pretty and hot as it burns the houses down. The fire is red, orange, and yellow, like half a rainbow. Sunrise has never seen a real rainbow, but she knows her colors. Roy G Biv. Rainbows are forgiveness. After God got mad at people and flooded the Earth, God gave a rainbow to the people of Noah as a sign of forgiveness. Feyn says there are no rainbows in the Ashlands because the dense city of ash and other carbom partickles in the air is too high for the sunlight to reflect off the humity, or something. Feyn is smart and talks funny. Sunrise thinks maybe there are no rainbows in the Ashlands because God is not ready to forgive the people of Earth for what they have done, not ready to forgive their debts. Sunrise can understand how God feels.
Sunrise squints, looking around for an animal to hunt for dinner. There are less and less birds all the time. Before, you could throw seeds out and birds would rush down like a carpet bomb of feathers to eat the seeds. Before that, there were McSwifts, and mom would buy Sunrise a 4-piece chicken bites meal with the little plastic buckets of sweet sour sauce to dip and a small fries and a princess toy to play with. Now there are no seeds for Sunrise to throw because the terminator seeds killed them, and even if Sunrise wanted to, the birds are mostly too scared to fly down. Or mostly they’re dead. The Bay is green and thick and gross. It looks like a big giant bucket of sweet sour sauce. Sunrise suspects it is not good for the birds to dip in the Bay, though.
The wind changes, the smoke gets in Sunrise’ eyes and they get watery again. She runs through a yard with a treehouse in it to get away from the smoke. There is a car crashed into the tree and the hood of the car is bent like the top of a can of Spam after you pry it open with a pliers.
Sunrise is worried now because it is getting dark and Shadow Men come out when it gets dark. It is hard to tell when it is sunset, because the fires never go out in the Ashlands, and they make the sky red and pink and full of smoke all the time. It’s also hard to tell when it is sunrise, too. It’s hard to tell when it’s Sunrise. Hahaha, Sunrise laughs inside her head. It’s hard for the birds to tell when it’s Sunrise, because she is sneaky and quiet and moves like a ninja fox. Sunrise has wandered many many blocks but has not yet found a bird. Sunrise feels faint and really really wishes there was a bird for her to eat now. She prays that God will send her a dove, like the dove with the olive branch that God sent to Noah after the flood. Please, God, send me a dove to eat. Amen.
Sunrise comes back to the house with the treehouse and the crashed car. She slings her crossbow over her back with the seatbelt strap she made. Sunrise buckles her seatbelt and adjusts it tight so the crossbow doesn’t fall off. The car has crushed the first two rungs of the wooden ladder nailed into the tree, so Sunrise jumps up onto the car hood and begins climbing the ladder from there. Inside the tree house there are some Transformers toys, a plastic ninja sword, and an AK-47 rifle. The walls of the tree house are made of wood boards, doors, pieces of wavy roof metal and curtains of carpet that smell funny. There is also an Avengers poster stapled up on the carpet, but it is old and scratched up and Captain America’s red white and blue shield is now orange brown and green. Sunrise knows her colors good. There are many bullet holes in the wood and carpet. Rays of red light pour in through the bullet holes and make the dust motes dance in the spotlight. Sunrise remembers watching “America’s Next Dance Diva” and “Dance For Your Food Stamps” on her old fone, remembers wanting to be pretty and famous. Iron man has a chest full of bullet holes and Hawkeye has a jaggedy tear where his eye used to be. It is sad but also it makes Sunrise laugh, out loud. Lol.
There are many empty bullet shells on the wooden floor of the tree house. They look like little copper lipstick tubes, like the ones Sunrise stole from mom to make videos of herself being pretty, like Bella Flair on America’s Next Dance Diva. Many nice men on the internet gave her Thumbs Up and comments and she watched her video views go up on her fone like points in a video game, and Sunrise felt good. Some of the nice men even wanted to come and meet her. Mom got mad when she found out and made Sunrise delete her ‘Tube account. Mom said Sunrise would thank her one day, but it only made Sunrise cry. It felt like half of herself died. Only the string of “comment approval” and “forgotten password” emails remained in her inbox, like the ghost of Famous Sunrise, haunting her forever. Sunrise just wanted a nice man to be with and walk on red carpets with, like Bella Flair had Lord Dada. Talk with on talk shows and make her feel good. Not like the Shadow Men who only make her feel funny and sad.
Transformers and ninja swords are toys for kids. Sunrise leaves them. Glacia says Sunrise is too grown up to be a kid, and Sunrise knows this is true. Sunrise forgets how old she is because she does not have birthdays with cakes to remind her, just like adults. Sunrise is not a kid but not an adult. Feyn would say that she is a “kidult”. Feyn talks funny. He sticks his words together sometimes. He is good at making new things with old things.
The AK-47 is a strong gun to hunt dogs, bears, and kill people with. The AK-47 makes a big thunder, too, and this is not good when you want to be sneaky and quiet. Bad people might hear you and come looking, bad people like the Shadow Men. This is why the condor is exstink. The thunder bird made a big thunder and the bad people came looking. This is why Sunrise uses her crossbow, because it is quiet and you cannot run out of ammo because everything can be ammo for a crossbow. Sunrise loves her crossbow and hugs it like a teddy. She loves it as much as she used to love her smartfone when it still had internet.
It is hard to find ammo for things in the real world. If this were Zombie Apocalypse Mania video game, Sunrise would be able to open any mailbox and there would be ammo in there. Maybe a health pack. Inside of the hood of a car there might be an RPG. An RPG could even blow up one of the Tin Men’s thunder birds. Tin Men cannot die, though, even if you blow them up with stinger missiles or shoot them full of holes with an AK-47. They do not bleed, because they have no heart. They are made of metal and wires and algorillas. They are like Transformers toys, but used by very bad adults. Mostly they are used for killing and arresting.
Sunrise picks up the AK-47. It is heavy and cold and has some blood on it, but the blood is old and black like Oreo McFlurry crumbs. The magazine comes out with a “shick”. There are some bullets still inside of the magazine, and Sunrise counts them. One, two, three, four, five, six. Sunrise can do counting, plus, minus, times, and divide with not too big numbers. Sunrise’ mom taught her these maths because the public schools got closed down. Schools got eaten up by The Debt, just like the hospitals. Later, when Glacia taught Sunrise about guns and shooting, she said, “Always put two in the heart, one in the head.” Two bullets plus one bullet, that is three bullets to kill a person. Sunrise has six bullets. Six divided by three, that is two. Sunrise can kill two people dead. Who needs school? Sunrise is so smart.
The crossbow can also kill people, but not as easy as the AK-47. This is why Sunrise chooses to take the big heavy machine gun with her, because it is dangerous in the Ashlands, and Sunrise is smart. Sunrise wants to stop thinking about killing people now, though, because it makes her feel sad and scared, like there are worms in her heart. Sunrise is afraid that if she thinks about killing people too much the worms will eat her heart all up and there will be nothing left but a shadow in her chest. Since she has been separated from her Second Family, Sunrise has sometimes had to do bad things. She misses East and Feyn and Glacia and the others very much. This is why she tries to think about them in her head thoughts, because it makes her feel like they are half-there, haunting her. Like Famous Internet Sunrise, but in a good way.
Sunrise has been trying to go home for a long time now, but the way is difficult. The magic Pathfinder in Sunrise’ smartfone is dead. The jee-pee-ess app that used to guide her down every block to school and malls and VR movie theaters, across every street, like an invisible mommy holding Sunrise’ hand. The Pathfinder is dead, along with all her music, games, online friends, the wizard in her fone that answered all her questions. Now there are only street signs, many bent the wrong way, the words boiling away with rust. Maps speak a foreign language anyway, they are like math that is above Sunrise’ grade, like extra credit. School said Sunrise did not need to know about maps because no people would ever need to find their own way again thanks to smartfones. There are no paper maps anyway because there is no paper anymore. Paper was all burned up, too, but in a different fire from the housefires, an invisible fire in the Cloud, that started with a Kindle. Feyn calls this, “Digital Fahrenheit 451”.
The fire has now burned down Roosevelt Street up to mailbox number 1349. The wind blows flaming pieces of Oak tree and roof from 1349 onto 1351, and now it is house with mailbox 1351’s turn to burn down. Mom explained once that this is like how The Debt ate the world. The Sick Men soaked the world in Debt like flammable gasoline, but they didn’t care because they made money from the gasoline. One day a spark happened in Greece and it caught on fire. Then some pieces of Greece’ flaming roof flew onto Italy and Spain, and then pieces of Italy and Spain blew onto France and the UK, like marathon runners handing on torches in the Olympics. Then the fire did a big pole-jump over the Atlantic Ocean to the USA, and we started burning down too. 1351 is a big mansion with many levels and fancy pillars and a big yard with a pool. 1351 is like the USA. It is big and will take a long time, but eventually it will burn down, like all the other houses.
Sunrise looks at the Avengers poster. She likes Black Widow the Best. Black Widow is very pretty with her red hair and tight black clothes. Black Widow is Russian, though, and so this is normal. Black Widow is very smart and strong, and knows how to trick people into doing what she wants, like how she tricks the Russian mob guys and even Loki, the god of trickery. Black Widow could beat the Shadow Men easy with a pretty look and a scorpion kick. Black Widow’s mom would never make her delete her internet videos of herself dancing. Black Widow has a nice man named Hawkeye to text with and share ice cream sundaes and fight evil doers.
It is very dark now. Sunrise has been talking to Black Widow for a long time about how she wishes she could have a nice juicy tomagranite with East and listen to Feyn mix together his funny words and play hide-n-assassinate with Glacia. Sunrise is so hungry now and her tummy yells at her to give it food and Sunrise says sorry, I have none yet. Sunrise wishes all the houses had not already been looted or Sunrise would run in to 1353 and gather up as many pork and beans and expired Oreos and rancid peanut butter as she could hold in her backpack and arms and run back out before 1353 burns down. But all the food from the old America before the Sick Men is gone now. All you can do is hunt or gather. And Sunrise cannot grow any tomagranites or super algae, not here in the Ashlands where everything burns down before it can be allowed to live and where the Shadow Men take the rest. Sunrise prays again for the dove, doing it extra hard this time with her eyes shut tight. Please, God, send me a dove and I will never skip out of my chores ever again.
And then, it’s there. A bird lands in the street. It is small, not a dove. Sunrise thinks it is a swallow. It is hard to tell in the dark but it looks like a swallow with a white belly and black back like a tiny orca whale with wings. It is not a dove, but it is something. It is something. Beggars can’t be choosers, mom would say, and Sunrise did just beg God.
The night sky is big and dark, a black red, like the inside of a man’s mouth when he opens it to kiss you badly or yell at you to shut the fuck up. It will be difficult to take a good shot, but Sunrise must take it. In the tree house, she is too far to have a good chance of hitting the swallow with the crossbow. She could use the AK-47, but that would be messy and dangerous and a waste. Sunrise moves silent like Black Widow down the ladder, and does not step on the car hood because creaking car springs might scare the swallow. Sunrise places one foot in front of the other, heel to toe, just like Glacia taught her in the hide-and-assassinate game, just before she would stab Sunrise in the kidney with a Sharpie. The grass is overgrown to Sunrise’ thighs and whispers against Sunrise’ patchwork skirt and makes her ankles itchy. She crouches down behind a plastic kid’s slide in the yard. Sunrise guesses she is thirty feet from the swallow which is within the crossbow’s good range.
The wind has died and so the red yellow orange blaze stops walking down Roosevelt Street, almost like the neighborhood fire is watching Sunrise and the swallow, waiting. Cars, streetlights, the sparrow, all have dancing orange shadows taller than they are, as if the souls of things are trying to run away from the fire before the bodies are consumed. The bird is a small target, smaller than the head of a man, and it walks around pecking at something on the ground. It is like shooting a needle in a haystack, but Sunrise must make this shot, she must, or she will starve. She will surely starve. Her head fills with pictures of a dog pecking livers from human rib cages like she’d seen on 8th Avenue a month ago before she killed and ate the same dog and this makes her heart loud. Glacia taught Sunrise that a loud heart is bad for the aim and so she forces herself to think of happy thoughts like helping East clean the tilapia tank and gather tomagranites from the aquaponic garden. She thinks of mom. There’s no place like home. Sunrise breathes like ocean waves as she locks the crossbow’s iron sights onto the sparrow. She recalibrates her aim upward, just the thickness of a fingernail to compensate for distance. She is thankful again that the wind has stopped.
The bowstring snaps as loud as a snapping twig. The bow does not punch Sunrise in the shoulder like the AK-47.
The bird shoots away leaving a puff of feathers.
Sunrise jumps! She is so happy that she almost pees. She does not actually pee because this would be a waste of water and also stinky. She can almost taste the taste of tender oily swallow breast in her mouth as she slings the crossbow on her back and goes to harvest the kill. Like KFC. She has no special herbs and spices to batter the meat with but she will use a flaming piece of doghouse from the yard of 1357 as a hibachi to cook on. California Fried Swallow, fried with a real piece of California. In the back of Sunrise’ head thoughts she thinks, “Why did I take the matches from the Sports Czar store when the fire is everywhere?” What is it that Feyn says all the time… “Inflammation wants to be free.” Inflammation is free, in the Ashlands. You can have anything burned at no cost.
As Sunrise is about to pick up her bird, she sees a tall shadow. The tall shadow dances, grows taller. Other tall shadows gather, lines of bright and dark rake the street, like the teeth of an angler fish or the bars of a prison cell. Sunrise looks up and sees that the tall shadows come from people. Sunrise knows instantly that these are Shadow Men. She cannot yet see their faces for they are like black construction paper cutouts against the bright inflammation of Roosevelt Street, but Sunrise knows from something about the way they’re standing, not moving there, that they are Shadow Men.
Shadow Men are not ghosts and they are not dark like shadows, although some of them are African or Tongan. East says they are like the black clouds that cover the Ashland sky like an oil spill that no one wants to clean up. Instead of cleaning up the gross oil that turns the ocean and beaches black, the Sick Men build their own private oceans and beaches inside of their private cities, guarded by the Tin Men and missile-shooter drones. “’Supposedly, austerity and privatization solves all things. Big government is bad, including police departments.’ The proliferation of crime and anarchy are just the externalized cost of The Debt.”
Sunrise counts one, two, three, four shadows. Sunrise has six bullets, which is enough to kill two people dead, or three kids. None of the shadows are small enough to be kids. Sunrise could use one or two bullets on each man, but that would be stretching it thin, overleveraging. Overleveraging is what killed the global finachal system. It would also probably kill Sunrise. Sunrise grasps the dying bird by its hard rough feet that feel like wiggling number 2 pencils in her fist. Sunrise grabs the swallow’s neck and twists like opening a bottle of Mountain Dew. There is a little snap, just like when the plastic safety seal breaks on the Mountain Dew. Sunrise likes this sound, it is comforting, but also she is sorry for the bird. Sorry bird. But I really, really have to.
Sunrise does not take her eyes off of the shadows as she does this, even as she unzips her My Little Pony backpack to stick the bird carcass in. She begins to back up, and the shadows crawl up the sidewalk toward her. Perhaps the Shadow Men do not yet know that she has a gun, and definitely they do not know how many bullets she has. Also, the Shadow Men will think that Sunrise is weak because she is a small girl. Black Widow would use this to her advantage, and so does Sunrise. The word for this is called “disarming”, it is a big special word that Sunrise’ mom taught her, and Sunrise is proud of herself to have remembered it.
Sunrise turns, begins running toward the nearest house, which is 1368. 1368 has barbed wire all around the top of its green picket fence like the frosting on a birthday cake. There is an ess-you-vee in the driveway that has a black, green, and yellow camouflage paintjob. In the yard there are scarecrows stuffed with pillow fluff and packing peanuts with heads made of coconuts painted the colors of bruises to look like zombies. The coconut zombie heads have bullet holes, ninja stars, crossbow bolts, machetes, wakizashis, and other weapons stuck in them. Sunrise takes the crossbow bolts which are factory-made aluminum shaft. They are super cylindrical and shiny, not like she’s used to. The windows of 1368 all have metal blinds on them. There are two rubber zombie heads on spikes hanging on either side of the front door. There is a sign on the front door that says, “Zombie Apocalypse Keep Out”. There is lots of armor on the door and windows but the door latch is small and weak and is unlocked. There are two dead bodies on the ‘Welcome!’ carpet dressed in black boots, bullet-stopper vests, gas masks, nightvision goggles, and other tactical gear. Looks like they were prepared, just prepared for the wrong apocalypse. They should’ve prepared for an undead economy rather than undead people. Sunrise has seen these zombie apocalypse types before. They are sad but also funny.
Sunrise checks the two bodies for useful objects. They smell like pig jerky when you don’t cure the meat right and it starts getting bad. There are no guns or good things on the bodies. Sunrise takes two of the fake grenades from the shiny black utility belt of one of the preppers. She carefully balances one of the grenades on the door knob of the front door, then runs to the back and does the same on the rear door. If anyone opens the doors to 1368, Sunrise will know.
Revlon is the most popular brand of lipstick, with Bed of Roses the most popular shade. Sunrise knows this from going on Cosmo fashion tips back when her smartfone had internet. Sunrise knows many colors, but Bed of Roses is a funny color. It is like pink, except more pink than pink. Adults find ways to make simple things complicated. Adults are funny. Bed of Roses pink is the color of the sky when it is day time. The white clouds and black smoke mix together into a gray paste and then the red fires reach up like fingers to fingerpaint the sky pink like Bed of Roses. Some of the clouds are big and round like lips, too. Someday, Sunrise will escape the Ashlands, take a metal thunder bird up to Ameribank City, to New Lacuna, where the beautiful people are. There she will have a doctor give her collajin to make her lips big and round like Bella Flair’s.
Sunrise hides behind a refrigerator, which has posters for movies like Resident Evil 7 and Bob Dylan: Vampire Slayer on it. She does not bother to open the refrigerator because she knows its coldness is gone and everything in it is gone. She double checks the AK-47 to make sure that it is loaded and that the safety is off. If she can get close enough, she may be able to kill the Shadow Men with just six bullets. She does not want to feel bad and funny inside again. She does not want to be tainted meat. Maybe these Shadow Men will keep her, like a pig in a pen, like a farm animal. She has seen other young girls chained up, like the last time the Shadow Men got her. They threw Sunrise in a jail cell in a police station, put a leash on her and fed her doggie food. Sunrise was smart, gouged the Shadow Man’s eyes out with a sharpened piece of toothbrush when he came the second time to kiss her badly. She got away. Maybe she will be less lucky this time. She is scared and feels like crying. Sunrise wants her mommy. But she makes her eye waters go away. There will be time for crying later. Now she must be hard and strong like Black Widow.
Time passes, the smell of smoke gets stronger, there is a heat now and the white window curtains light up like spirit lamps floating to the sea in an Asian festival. Perhaps the Shadow Men have given up, don’t think Sunrise is worth it?
Then there is a thud. Heavy, and rolling, like a giant marble. The Shadow Men are inside, now. Their footsteps are slow, but not quiet enough. Sunrise counts: one, two, three pairs of feet. Maybe one is waiting outside. Two sets of footsteps are getting louder, one is going up the stairs. Six divided by three, that is two bullets for each, if the other has left. Maybe if she waits for the upstairs one to go far away, she can take out the two coming towards her and make a run. Sunrise hears the sound of a machete scraping a wall. She does not want to be chopped up, but this is good because it means that one doesn’t have a gun. There are many things to think about in a short time. This is much harder than any of the school tests. Sunrise misses school.
Sunrise can still hear the upstairs one but only soft now. The other two are in the room with her. She can smell the smell of old peepee and rotten meat and vodka and cancer smoke. Not the smoke from the inflammation housefires, but the smoke from the small sticks that used to kill millions of people every year, but now no one can afford to die from black lungs. Now mostly you die of starvation or fighting over food, unless you are very, very beautiful and have holograms to sing your concerts and go to awards shows for you. Sunrise wishes she could have Famous Sunrise take her place and fight the Shadow Men now. Famous Sunrise was too beautiful to be hurt.
The footsteps of the Shadow Men have stopped now, but Sunrise knows, somehow, that they are right there, almost inside of her personal bubble of space like Feyn always tells Sunrise to get out of when she jumps on his lap. She must do it now.
Sunrise jumps out from behind the fridge. The closest is wearing a face mask and has a machete in his hand. The other has a hand gun. Sunrise shoots hand gun in his chest two times before he has a chance to raise his weapon. The AK-47 kicks Sunrise so hard she almost flies out a window and the sound is so loud and sets off angry grasshoppers in Sunrise’ ears. Blood shoots out all over a gold-framed poster for Mad Max 2, the one where he has that funny one-armed jacket. Now Max is red in the face. The machete man has raised his machete and is about to bring the dull rusty blade down on Sunrise and she takes a snap shot that hits him in the crotch. The machete comes down and slashes her arm which cuts through her sleeve and hurts a lot but is only shallow. The Shadow Man screams high, like Bella Flair showing off her super high notes with autotune and autotrill on. Blood comes down like a waterfall from between his legs and puddles out under him so fast that it scares Sunrise. She runs past the two fallen Shadow Men. The third is yelling and flying down the stairs. His mouth is a cavern of red and black as he calls Sunrise a filthy bitch cunt whore and tells her all the bad things he is going to do to her. He has a club made from a baseball bat and nails, and is missing some teeth. Sunrise shoots him in the kneecap, then in an arm and he goes tumbling down the stairs.
Three plus two, that is five. Six minus five, that is one. Sunrise has one more bullet. Sunrise hopes that she is lucky and that the fourth Shadow Man did not come with the others and is gone. Glacia would say that you should never rely on luck. “You must have really, really bad luck if you were born in San Francisco and not Ameribank City or New Pigalle.” You need to always prepare for the worst, especially with bad luck like Sunrise’.
Sunrise was so busy shooting people that she did not notice that it is now Roosevelt Street 1368’s turn to burn down. The heat bounces out of the walls in waves and presses down on Sunrise and it feels like being underneath a large hot sweaty man. The paint peels from the walls like bok choi dying from hydra rust. Bubbling up and melting. Sunrise runs for the back door but dark smoke slithers in like snakes under the back door, and she cannot go that way. Flames stare in at Sunrise through the front door’s windows as well. The fire is now in the living room and is crawling across the rug, exploding glass, and Sunrise can see the fake zombie heads melting like wasted candles. Sunrise can see the Shadow Man she shot in the kneecap crawling around the staircase. He is on fire and screaming for help as his hair burns off and he becomes bald.
The smoke begins to fill the kitchen where the other two Shadow Men are probably dead, hopefully. They are not moving, but Sunrise stays far away from them anyway. There is one way out and that is the window. Sunrise runs to the window. Sunrise lifts as hard as she can but the window is nailed down shut.
A loud sound like rolling thunder and fat dubstep bass on stadium speakers shakes the house. The windows flash white like strobe lights, lights that are not the color of fire. Sunrise looks out the window to see the big giant metal condors flying against the black-red sky. They have white suns inside them that shoot out bright daylight like spotlights that rake across the burning block. The lights are so bright they are light blue and it looks like the thunderbirds are hosing water across the housefires, but the Tin Men inside of the metal thunderbirds are not going to put out any fires, Sunrise knows. Platinum. This is the color of the lights. Sunrise thinks she can almost see the Tin Men inside of the condors when one of them comes close and she can see the sapphire blue fires shooting out of the condors wings that make it float. The Tin Men are also platinum colored. Platinum is a very fancy lipstick that Bella Flair might use in a music video where she’s a robot with sparkly metal boobies, or probably the anime imaginary-popstar Ai would use it on her cartoon hologram lips for a concert in Tokyo.
“Help! Help me! Help!” Sunrise yells out the window at the Tin Men in the condor as their Platinum sun stops on Sunrise. She is blind a second then holds her hand to shield her face. The Tin Men see her, she is sure of it. They watch her for a little bit as the condor hangs in the air, its jets blowing the overgrown grass down into a green bowl as 1368 get eaten by the flames with Sunrise inside it. Then the platinum sun shifts away and the Tin Men fly their metal condor up and into the night, leaving sunrise to die in the fire. The Tin Men were supposed to replace the policemens and the firestoppers, but they do not stop the bad Shadow Men nor do they stop the fires, or save little girls from fires. The Tin Men are not good or bad, Sunrise knows now. The Tin Men have no heart with which to care. They only do the algorillas that the Sick Men give them.
The fire grows and Sunrise must save herself now. There is a giant titanium spork the size of a baseball bat on the kitchen counter. Sunrise grabs it, and hits the window as hard as she can. The glass breaks, but there are still the metal blinds there. There is a label on them that says, “Zombies Beware: Apocalypse Prepared”. Sunrise says a bad word at the preppers’ house and wishes it was never ever cool to prepare for zombie apocalypses. Bloody Mad Max gets eaten by the fire along with the empty fridge, and a happy family picture with a kid and a dog, hanging on a wall. The two Shadow Men on the ground don’t make sounds when the fire washes over them. Sunrise coughs and her eyes blur and burn bad. She does not want to use her last bullet but there is only one way. She runs over to pick up the handgun from the Shadow Man who is on fire, and screams as the fire bites her arm like a rattlesnake. She shoots the gun twice at the window where it is nailed down, spraying wood pieces everywhere. She shoves the giant spork under the window and jumps on top of the handle with all her might. The window cracks open, and Sunrise slides it up, smoke shooting out like a fountain. She cannot breath and cannot see now, and her lungs are filled with pain and death, they feel like what she imagined it felt like to have the black tumorous lungs of cancer smokers that she saw at the hospital during her drug education class for homeschoolers. Sunrise’ head is out the window now, but she is having trouble getting her shoulders through, like mom said when she was born, and the doctors said they had to do a C-section, but mom yelled at the doctors. Sunrise’ mom told Sunrise she’d rather have a ripped vagina than be pumped full of drugs and fake hormones and have an artificial birth with brainhead male doctors who’d never had their own kids. “The adult world is fake, Sunrise. The adults, they put on pretty clothes, nice ties, make promises they can’t keep with money that isn’t theirs. One day, we will run out of disguises, and we will not be able to hide our wretchedness, our bankruptcy of spirit anymore. All of the fakeness, it will burn down to the ground. The Debt will eat everything. Hopefully your generation will know better what is real.”
Strong hands pull Sunrise through the opening. The hands wear a red and yellow shiny jacket. Sunrise coughs and coughs but slowly catches her breath. It is an angel, a guardian angel who has come to save her. It is a man, who has a hat like a baseball cap but bigger and red. Sunrise knows this is the clothes of the firestoppers. The firestoppers used to have jobs stopping the fires. They had to come if you were bad and played with matches like Sunrise did when she was four or like cousin Julian did when he tried to light Chase Bank on fire and make a video of it for his finachul activism theesis, but then was taken away to the military re-education camp for American citizens. A fire would grow up from eating the curtains and walls, then the firestoppers would come in on their red trucks with sirens and climb up with their hoses and put out all the fires with water.
Sunrise coughs all the smoke out of her lungs and the cool night air tastes like a nice cold mango chai Zamba Juice slushie. It is so good to breath. It is the best thing in life.
“Thank you so much, you saved me,” Sunrise says to the firestopper. The firestopper does not say anything. He just stands there and stares at her. The fire from 1368 is bright and splashes lightning off his shiny suit.
But the Debt, it one day ate the firestoppers too. One day the govermint gave all its money to save the bank and its debts and there was no money left to pay even the firestopper to put out the fires in San Francisco. No one was left to put out the fires that people started. And since people never stop starting fires (that’s just how people are) the fires kept growing and burning down everything, one block at a time. The areas closest to the warzones are where the most fires are. This is how the Ashlands were born in San Francisco.
The firestopper grabs Sunrise by the hair and begins to drag her away. Sunrise screams and scratches at the firestopper’s hands and arms. “Kick them in their happy place,” Glacia’s ghost says in Sunrise’ head. But she can’t reach from here. The firestopper slaps Sunrise hard in the mouth. This cuts Sunrise inside her mouth and her mouth fills with the taste of the brown water that comes out of the pipes of San Francisco. It tastes of blood and old metal, which taste the same. This is what firemen used to do: drag you out of burning buildings to save you. Except now the fireman is dragging Sunrise away not to save her from a fire but to fill her with a fire, to make her feel sad and funny. To pop her peepee bag and taint her meat. This is sad and funny. Lol.
Sunrise knows now that this is not a firestopper but a Shadow Man. The fourth Shadow Man. Or maybe he used to be a firestopper, but now he has become a Shadow Man. Who knows? Sunrise is dragged through the tall grass that overgrows the yard and it itches her face. She is dragged over a slip-n-slide with a female zombie in a bikini on it. Her head bangs into an ATV kid’s jeep left in the yard and her vision turns fuzzy white a second, like the color of San Francisco sky right after a hard sour rain has just put out the fires, for a little while. Sunrise can hear her skirt rip on the patched part and her butt gets a rash as she slides on the asphalt. Her shoe Velcro comes off and she tries not to lose her shoe but does.
At last the firestopper Shadow Man stops dragging her and lets go of her hair. Sunrise immediately looks around for her AK-47 but the Shadow Man has it. The chamber clinks as he checks it. Now he knows how many bullets Sunrise has left: one. Sunrise is disarmed.
Sunrise reaches for her ginsu kitchen knife in her backpack.
“Ah, ah, ah,” the firestopper Shadow Man says, pointing the AK-47 at Sunrise’ forehead. The barrel is big and round like a zero, and it’s so close that it makes Sunrise’ eyes feel funny like when you make cross-eyes. Sunrise stops.
“Take the backpack off, slowly.” The man sounds old but does not look too old. Not older than East or Sunrise’ mom would have been. His voice sounds like the voice of guys who drink a lot of the fire water. Like he has a bad cold in his throat that he cannot kick. Sunrise takes the backpack off.
“Give it to me.”
The firestopper Shadow Man has not yet called Sunrise a fucking little cunt yet, or told her about how he is going to make her bleed inside, so that’s a good thing. Usually the Shadow Man would be saying that a lot by now, and probably touching her hard in her privates. Although, the quiet polite ones are sometimes the worst ones. They are adults, after all.
The firestopper Shadow Man empties out Sunrise’ backpack on the sidewalk and takes all the weapons including her ginsu knife, slingshot, crossbow, and all of her crossbow bolts. He makes Sunrise unvelcro her crossbow bolt holder on her arm, and takes that too. This makes Sunrise sad. She worked very hard on it.
The firestopper Shadow Man has a scruffy black face with a little pink spot where his lips are, like the butt of a laborador. He looks at Sunrise funny, like Sunrise is a very bright light and he is making his eyebrows lower to see better.
“How old are you, girl?” The firestopper Shadow Man says with his crunchy voice.
“I am eleven years old I think,” Sunrise says, without thinking.
“I am not sure how old I am. I don’t have birthday parties anymore and I forget how many days are in all the months.” Sunrise feels so embarrassed about the second part. “There is nothing more important than your own education. Invest in yourself before anything else,” mom said. The only calenders were electronic on Sunrise’ fone: there are no paper calenders. But still, how could Sunrise forget the number of days in the months? The firestopper Shadow Man’s face does not change. He still has a hard time seeing Sunrise.
The firestopper’s eyes do not look happy. They look like the way East looks at the Tin Men when they come down and set fire to the tomagranite plants or throw pieces of his hydroponics garden off the roof of the Matson containers. Sunrise is still scared, and even if he has not done anything yet, he is still a Shadow Man.
“What are you going to do with me?” Sunrise asks. The firestopper Shadow Man finds Sunrise’ pencil case that is covered in Bella Flair, My Little Pony, and Black Widow stickers. He turns the pencil case around in his big dirty fingers that are like old blackening bananas. He turns it around like he is looking for the break in the blue fuzz where you peel open a dragon orange. The pencil case has a couple pencils, but is mostly full of pills Sunrise has stolen, like candy Tylenols and pencillillin and Gene-Cleanse gels that Sunrise has to take to help her when she gets the lung-glass problem from the gentic enigeering in the food. Also, there are a couple pixie sticks that Sunrise has been saving for a special occasion.
The firestopper Shadow Man stops turning Sunrise’ pencil case around. He stops squinting for a little bit and looks like he gets a little bit sore in his face. Maybe he was burnt by the fire when he saved Sunrise and only realizes it now.
“Do you have parents?” The firestopper Shadow Man says.
“My daddy and mommy have gone away,” Sunrise says, shaking her head. “But my Second Family is in SoHA. I am not sure where that is but I have been trying to go there.”
The firestopper Shadow Man puts Sunrise’ pencil case back in her bag. He fixes his firestopper coat, which looks like it is old. It is very dirty and scratched up and has some bad tears. There is also some blood on it on the arms. The firestopper coats are supposed to be able to withstand any fire, even very hot fires, and will protect you. Maybe that’s why this Shadow Man has the coat. He picks up the AK-47 again, looks through the sights, aims at the treehouse that Sunrise was in before, that is now burning bright between the black tree limbs like a tiger in the night.
“That was my cousin you killed, in that house,” the firestopper Shadow Man says, aiming the gun at Sunrise again. Now Sunrise is very scared again, so scared that she does pee pee in her panties. It is warm and gross but she is too scared. Sunrise is so sorry that she killed the Shadow Men even though she had to. She hates killing people and now she is going to die for killing people. It is so unfair. She hates the Ashlands, she hates the world. Fuck you, world! Fuck you, world, with these people in it! God will never forgive the people of Earth, he will only give his lieing half-rainbows that burn everything. He will only pretend to bail you out, but then he will just give you more austerity and pain and suffering. And that is fine because Sunrise will never forgive the Shadow Men, and she will never forgive God. Sunrise hopes that the Debt finishes eating the small people up, then eats the big people, then the too big to fall people, and then the Debt will eat the holograms of Bella Flair and Lord Dada and eat up their ice cream sundaes, then eat them up too. Then Sunrise hopes that The Debt will come up the stairway to heaven, eat through the pearly gates just like it ate rusty holes through the Golden Gates, and eat God’s eyes right out, like a dove, pecking at a corpse on Lombard Street.
Sunrise falls down in her pee pee puddle, and begins to cry so hard that it hurts her lungs some.
Then the firestopper Shadow Man does something very strange. He lowers the gun. He looks like he is very sore again in his eyes. It could be that some ashes flew in them.
“I suppose I should thank you.” The Shadow Man’s face cracks at the edges of his eyes and on his forehead, and his laborador butt mouth shakes. Sunrise tries to stop crying but she keeps sobbing and tearing. She cannot stop crying fast, like adults can. She may be a kidult but she is still a little kid, and kids have to keep crying for some time.
“I told them. I tried to make them stop. How many times it happened before, how many girls. I told him, that bastard. But I,” His knuckles turn white on the gun barrel of the AK-47 and his jaw moves around under the skin like the shoulders of a cat. “I couldn’t do it.” Sunrise does not know what he is talking about, but she thinks the firestopper Shadow Man might have his turn to have the water in the eyes that is not from the smoke. He just bobs up and down a little bit though, like he is laughing without sound. But Sunrise knows somehow that nothing is funny. It is just sad.
“What’s your name, girl?” The firestopper Shadow Man asks after he stops bobbing.
“My name is Sunrise,” Sunrise says. She stops for a second and thinks. She has not been around other people who were not mean and yelling and wanting to do bad things to her for a long time. Sunrise has forgotten the polite things to say that you are supposed to. “What’s yours?” She remembers finally.
“Bradbury,” the firestopper Shadow Man says. Sunrise looks closely at his firestopper hat. On it, she can just read “Bradbury” in flashing orange letters as the last throes of the Roosevelt Street fire calm down in clumps of ember like giant campfires.
“This firestopper suit, it has your name on it. How did you put your name on this costume?” Sunrise asks.
“’Firestopper?’” Bradbury laughs at this. “I think you mean firefighter. Well, I used to be a firefighter, once upon a time. Back when we had real firefighters.”
“So you just kept the clothes to stay safe from the Ashland inflammations?” Sunrise asks.
“You could say that.” Bradbury scratches his furry chin with his black big nails. “I guess I wasn’t ready to give up being a firefighter just because some lobbyists convinced politicians that we didn’t need firefighters as much as we needed to pay for the bad bets and bonuses of hotshot bankers.”
“I don’t get it,” Sunrise says. “You’re wearing your work clothes even though there’s no work anymore, so that we will still have firestoppers – I mean firefighters – around? Like how even though there’s no more cowboys, people still wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats on Halloween and at cosplay meetups?”
Bradbury smiles, and this cracks his face again but different. Sunrise now knows that Bradbury is not really a Shadow Man. The Shadow Men never smile, except when they are far inside their Happy Place. And then even if they are looking at you, it is never you they are smiling at, really.
“Yeah. Firefighters, we’re the new coyboys. We should go. There’s supposed to be an NGO hub up north, maybe a days walk. They got a soup kitchen, bread lines. Real Grapes of Wrath kinda place, but it’s something.” Sunrise nods. She does not understand everything Bradbury says but she thinks maybe he is nice and she does not want to be in the Ashlands any longer. She also does not want to be alone, and she hopes she has found a friend. Sunrise understands that she now owes two debts to Bradbury. Sunrise hopes that she can one day repay the debt she owes Bradbury for saving her life. Sunrise knows that taking the life of Bradbury’s cousin Shadow Man cannot be repaid, but she hopes that one day Bradbury will forgive her this debt.
Sunrise dusts off her butt and legs which are still itchy. Her lungs feel heavy, but at least they don’t burn and hurt like lung-glass disease. Sunrise walks beside Bradbury away from the fire. Sunrise remembers that cowboys are supposed to ride into the sunset in the movies. But then those are just fake make-believe cowboys in fake make-believe movies. Firefighters are for real. Maybe if we had enough firefighters, we could put out the Ashland fires, and maybe even put out the world’s debt fires. Maybe one day people will make movies about firefighters who walk away from the sunset.
The color of Roosevelt Street is now Endless Ruby, that is a long-lasting Superstay lip stain with microflex formula. This is a color that Black Widow would probably wear on her lips after she finishes tricking Thanos into telling her where the Cosmic Cube is and getting it back with the Avengers, when Black Widow is going out to a Bella Flair hologram-concert with Hawkeye, then an orbital rave afterwards with zero-g rainbow dance floors and trode-stims to get happy. The fires have lost all of their fingers and tongues, now they just sit there and glow Endless Ruby, like throbbing cartoon hearts. These mounds of rubies will not be endless, though. Tomorrow, there will be just smoking black ash piles where the houses from 1300 to 1400 once stood. 1400 minus 1300, that is one hundred houses destroyed tonight. Maybe mom was wrong about the Debt. The inflammation of San Francisco and the world cannot last forever. Eventually the fire will run out of fuel, just like the greed of the Sick Men will run out of lies to turn into Debt. Maybe one day The Debt will eat even itself, and all of it will have to be forgiven with a big rainbow jubilee across the world. Maybe then the small people and the big people and the too big to fall people and the beautiful people and God can all get a new start to build things up.