Index

Upstate

Previous: Prologue - The Grey Death

Chapter 1 - Wake Up

Mercenaries are chasing me through the woods at night. If they find me, they’ll kill me.

I see a house and go in to hide, but the mercs are in there too!

I run out the back and the mercenaries are having a barbecue on the patio. They’re drinking beer and a few are swimming in the pool. One at the grill notices me and says, “Hey, you want two burgers or three?”

BAM. BAM. BAM.

“Wade Foster?”

A man is at the door. I’m in bed.

“Coming!”

I scramble for sweatpants and a t-shirt. Before I reach the hall I remember to grab my gun from the nightstand. Tucked it in back, just in case.

“Be right there!”

I run to the door and peek out the peephole. Male, 40s, Latino, American accent, short Mohawk, head shaved, black multiform, gold and violet collar - DRAGON!

“OH F-“

“Foster if I was going to hurt you I would have done it by now.”

I reach for the gun. Frozen at the waist. Frozen all over. Should I open the door? What’s stopping him from attacking me? I could shoot for the door, preemptive strike.

“And c’mon man, it’s like 10:30 in the morning, shouldn’t you be awake at this hour?”

“Yeah, about that.”

Unlock and open.

“I’m Wade, but I’m guessing you’ve heard of me. Yourself?”

He extends his palm. Good handshake. Must’ve been an MBA.

“Franshesco Caliez, Centurion of personnel for the Auroran Dragons, at your service.”

“At my service?”

“Absolutely, do you mind if I come in?”

“No, welcome.”

He takes off his shoes and I make for the kitchen.

“You want any coffee?”

“Sure, milk and sugar, please.”

I set the pot to brew.

“You have a nice house.”

“Thanks, it was my parents’.”

“They retire?”

“Gray Death.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.”

“Yours?”

“Still kicking. Again, I’m sorry.”

“Wasn’t your fault.”

I’m doing my best to look normal to this trained killer. There is something off about his relaxed demeanor. I know mercs - worked with plenty - but these guys have a rep. If the guy has a scalp scrapbook in his car I wouldn’t be surprised. In fact, if he shows it to me it I might be more at ease. It’s the normality that gets under my skin, like when you hear people complain about a corrupt politician and when you meet them in person they’re all smiles and kind words, and you’re left not knowing what to feel, except maybe a little self-contempt for being so easy.

I don’t like this. As I prep breakfast I keep one hand to my side in a tight fist to channel my energy. The more I feel my fingernails dig into my skin, the calmer I am. I should talk about him, get the focus off me.

“I recall you guys started by quitting the Army-?“

“Navy. We were SEALs.”

“Yeah, well, every government gets owned by the rich at one point or the other. At least in a town like this you can see the mayor at a bar and call her out on her policies without being escorted away by a brigade of cops. So it seems like you guys had the right idea about the feds, just earlier.”

“We did some good work. Other things…it’s just hard to defend after a while. A lot of these places we meddled in had plenty of their own problems, their own histories, things we couldn’t see from our back porches. The U.S. was lucky to have friends to the north and south and fish to the east and west. We could afford to be idealistic…for a while. Anyway, I’m not here to talk about the past, I’m here to offer you a job.”

Good thing that coffee isn’t ready yet. If I were drinking I would have spat.

“Uh, sorry, I don’t think I’m your guy.”

“You’re a good infoteer, almost as good as Gabriel Cain.”

“Yeah, uh, Gabriel Cain and Meredith Burns saved humanity. I just deal in secrets. Nothing close to that.”

“You’re an excellent link. People trust you. But you still know how to play the game to your advantage. That’s how Cain helped Burns make the cure. We have a lot of intelligence people, but they’re old-school, they don’t know how to sell. They just think information is about operational advantage, but we scoop up tons of stuff we’ll never use and in a week it’s worthless.”

“Bit rot.”

“Exactly! You understand the game, you’d be great here.”

“Coffee’s ready.”

“Great, oh, and happy birthday, by the way!”

“Funny….” I roll my head around my shoulders. “I don’t recall putting up a calendar anywhere. You’d’ve had to look to that up. Sounds like you don’t need my help after all.” I say it with a smirk. Guy doesn’t look mad. Maybe he’s all right and I’m just getting myself worked up about nothing.

“Getting in people’s heads isn’t as easy as looking up a blockchain.”

The Dragon gazes at the ceramic jug I pull from the fridge.

“Easier than considering that I’m a year away from thirty.”

His eyes widen at the remark.

“Now you’re making me feel old.”

Milk and sugar, just like he asked. He takes a sip, raises his eyebrows.

“This is good. What’s in that milk?”

“Milk. Unpasteurized. From a hippie commune in Dryden. Used to buy it at the farmer’s market till I told them I sold acid on the side. Now I deliver. Good customers, I’ll tell you that.”

“You sell info and acid?”

“Whatever I can get my hands on. Cocaine, source code, molly, blackmail - I’ve got a ganja garden in the basement.”

“Not afraid about getting robbed with all of that?”

“Eh, I’m all right and I’m basically within the perimeter. Ithaca has pretty good border mercs. HawkSec - heard of them?”

“Of course I’ve heard of them I’m a m-“

This is why I rehearse my smug face.

“Haha, ok Wade, not bad. So, let’s talk business.”

“What’s up?”

“We do go through an awful lot of Genesis Gel, patches those wounds right up. But our supply is unreliable, and demand is through the roof, especially since the Adriatic War broke out. So we just need…a little stability.”

I chuckle and try not to spill my coffee.

“Thanks, I think I needed a laugh. So, what, you want me to steal the secret formula? Good luck with that, unless you have enough sperm and eggs to make the embryos, you know, just lying around.”

“We’re not looking to steal from Synthia. We’ve been hearing about a possible donor strike and we want to make sure our people will be safe. You may think we’re all just a bunch of amoral killers but we treat our allies and suppliers with respect.”

“But priority access? She has a lot of customers.”

“We want you to deal for a discount. We’ll give you more information than other contractors get access to. Be creative.”

“And if I start handing out secrets like they’re Halloween candy?”

“You won’t. You’re too afraid to.”

He’s right.

“Not saying yes or anything, but let’s say I do it. Then what?”

“Then you’ll get a million Yuan and maybe understand why you should come work for us full-time.”

“I don’t know if that’s gonna fly. If people know I worked with the Dragons, even once, they’ll be afraid of me. Well, they’ll be afraid of their association with me. Either way it’s bad for business, so this has to be all or nothing. I choose nothing.”

“Why not?”

“You guys are scary. Please don’t kill me, but, like, really, you creep me out. Like Evisceration. How do you…I mean, have you done it?”

“Yes.”

He looks at me plainly like I’m asking for directions to the bathroom.

“How do you justify that? Seriously? How do you sleep at night?”

“Dragons in that situation would fight to the death. Anyone who surrenders or tries to run away deserves to die. A mercenary without loyalty to their mission shouldn’t be a mercenary.”

“See, that’s the thing that I can’t do. I want to be…what’s the word…sovereign, I suppose? I just don’t know if I can be in lockstep with you guys.”

“Ok.” He finishes his coffee and stands up. “I’m not going to force you. But here’s my number anyway. If you ever change your mind. It’s a dangerous world out there. If you ever need anything, call me. Don’t worry about what it’ll cost. I just want to make sure you’re safe.”

“I’ll let you know.”

I see him out the door and start cleaning up. That talk about acid reminds me to take inventory. I’m usually pretty good with this stuff but whenever I sell at parties I’m usually tripping to begin with, and nobody parties like a bootstrapped startup getting ready to go public.

I make my way down to the basement. Front and center is my ganja garden, but the good stuff is well-hidden: right underneath. Nobody thinks to move the hydroponics to the side and get at the safe in the floor. On reflection, I barely remember putting this stuff back last night, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see my cash haul for the night along with the rest of my stash: LSD, MDMA, DMT, 2C-B, magic mushrooms, the good stuff. Clean out of coke, but that’s all right, I hardly ever touch it. I’m less about feeling high and more about leaving my body. Some drugs I never sell, like crystal meth or heroin. That stuff ruins lives. I’m just looking to enjoy the one I have.

After I take stock I decide to check the time. I pinch my elbow and slide my fingers to the wrist. I hear a calm chime between my ears as the Bionet display appears over my vision. Right up top:

10:58 AM, October 23, 2042.

Ithaca, NY.

Partly cloudy, 57 degrees Fahrenheit.

When’s my meeting with Synthia? I press my hands into a talking motion. Then my calendar peels off to the side of my vision. It scrolls down to my first appointment: Lunch with Synthia Burns. I poke at it and it opens a chat box.

[Hey Synth I’m gonna be a little late, that ok?]

[Sure, I’m in Tiger Village all day. Grab whatever you want. You know where to find me]

[Sounds great, I’ll let you know when I’m close]

No response for a couple of minutes so I slide from the wrist to the elbow and get all that crap out of my eyes. Having a Bionet is a hell of a lot better than doing everything with a phone, but all of that information becomes so distracting it’s hard to think outside my own head.

In fact I’m still so out of it that on the way to the shower I meander through the open door into my parents’ room. It still looks the same after all these years. After Mom died, Dad was too weak to keep the place in order, and once he passed away, I couldn’t bring myself to clean up the room. For a while we thought we were gonna survive as a family: I caught the Gray Death in my appendix, then my gallbladder, and removing them bought me some time. We figured after it hit my Dad’s liver and my Mom’s spleen we might have a chance of making it out alive, but the plague had other ideas: first Mom’s heart got hit, then Dad’s lungs. Decades spent on fighting cancer and we were hopeless when bacteria tried to play the same game.

Sometimes I go in here, from time to time, whenever I’m feeling lonely. It happens pretty often. I work to keep my mind off of it and let enough time pass before I can throttle my brain with drugs until I forget completely. But I still come back to look at old photos, the jar of my baby teeth, my mother’s certificate of ten years working at Cornell. Sometimes I think if I cry hard enough, I won’t have to anymore.

It’s why I like to shower: it’s loud and I can’t taste the tears from the water. Something about that merc shook me. Nothing like facing power to make you feel powerless.

After my shower I take my Multiform out of its case. I love that smell of a clean Multiform: just like new, every morning. Jacket, pants, shirt - the only thing I change is underwear. That, and the temperature: 57 degrees is way too cold, I’m turning it up to 75. Ah, much better. Eh, maybe a little warm on my skin, I’ll stick with 70.

Next step is to figure out how it should look. Yesterday I was wearing an animation of trees flying away while grounded birds look grumpy in the snow. It got a few laughs at the party. Personally I think Multiform animations are awesome and anyone who does solid patterns day after day is stuck in the 20th century.

But after meeting that Dragon I want to dress in something that won’t draw as much attention. In an unusual move, I look up a design shop from outside Pittsburgh that has some pretty cool patterns. Mostly plaid tops and plain bottoms. I don’t know why but I feel like looking a little boring today. I get a few of their patterns from time to time, and there’s a really nice blue and smokey gray that I can’t back down from. I go ahead and buy it, and the pattern applies itself immediately.

Time to go. I have a few moments of driving my Subaru by myself down in Danby but by the time it reaches the Ithaca city limits it has to drive itself by law so we don’t have accidents or the need to pay an arm and leg for auto insurance. I don’t mind cars driving themselves, but A to B for me means one hand on the wheel and the other on the stick.

It does makes sense: Ithaca drivers are a weird combination of aloof and polite, so you’d otherwise end up at a four-way standoff where everyone is letting someone else go first. It’s the academic-hippie influence: people are so caught up in their thoughts that they sometimes don’t notice where they’re going. Cornell and Ithaca College have been here since like forever, but it wasn’t always this way. Cayuga Lake - long even by the standards of the Finger Lakes - got Ithaca started off as a trade hub. People trekking through Upstate’s hills would make their way to this lovely little hemmed-in valley at the southern tip of the lake so they could sail north and head west towards Buffalo. This was back when the western frontier was Detroit, so Ithaca was pretty much unavoidable. It made a lot of people pretty rich along the way, but the thing about trade towns is they only last as long as the route stays relevant, and once the Erie Canal made the trip as easy as up and to the left, there wasn’t much sense in taking the overland route to Ithaca anymore. It could have gone by the wayside as another Upstate backwater, but instead it became an educational powerhouse.

As things started falling apart from the Gray Death, Ithaca had it relatively easy. First off, the water and farmland meant people weren’t rioting over food. Second was income distribution: in neighbor towns like Lansing you were either rich or poor, but a lot of people in Ithaca were middle class, so we didn’t have the spiteful us-vs-them mentality that ruined a lot of countries. Well, it was us the city versus them, the global 1% who had more in common with each other’s shared hobbies of tropical vacations and tax evasion than they had with their fellow citizens, that’s what did us in. Hell, I believed it for a while, that the rich made the Gray Death to exterminate the poor and paid off the government to wait it out until the inconvenient class was gone. We all did, it was hard not to. So people went on tax strikes. The state’s reaction was as predictable as it was futile: they used the military to collect taxes. Everywhere this happened, from America to Thailand, and it only reinforced the idea that the poor were being killed off and anything they had was up for grabs.

Everywhere had its own story, but the death knell of the U.S. came when a wealthy developer fast-tracked eviction and demolishment of a poor neighborhood in Harlem after most of the residents died. People protested for days, threw rocks at construction workers, everything. The NYPD came to pummel the protestors and it wasn’t long until most of us saw the videos of officers breaking fingers of kids as young as eight who were throwing rocks, or the expecting single mother beaten so hard she miscarried on the street. A few days later, the New York Stock Exchange was bombed with nerve gas made out of the stuff from under the sink. Martial law only brought more hate.

There was no Civil War like the one about slavery. People didn’t rise up in uniform opposition as one side fighting the other. They simply fought any sign of national government until it couldn’t keep itself propped up. Then people started asking things like: “If I’m not sending my tax dollars to Washington, why would I do the same to Albany?” In the end, only local communities survived. If you could keep the people fed and the water running, that was good enough. Anyone more than a county away was looked at with suspicion. What’s in it for them and their town?

That’s the third reason I think Ithaca survived: things still worked. We had a really great mayor back when I was too young to remember, and he pushed for a lot of infrastructure projects. I remember learning in class that it was a time when America’s borrowing costs were the lowest in history but for some reason everyone was worried about national debt. Well, Congress and their rich backers were worried, but most of us wanted to go to work without hitting a pothole or their water tasting like it came out of a swimming pool. So once the crisis set in, Ithaca was well off because the basic things didn’t cost much. That meant we could afford decent security, and people felt safe living here.

The best part about Ithaca is that it wasn’t just the city itself that survived, but the culture. After all the years, the hippies never really left. And I mean legit, dreadlocks-and-hemp-clothing-wearing hippies. Free love, shared community, all those ideals people from more miserable places say are silly, they’re still alive and well in Ithaca. Everywhere you go, there’s music, dancing, artwork, floral arrangements, name it. The gorges and waterfalls flowing through town are like none other, and even the richest of cities could never compete with what nature made. People born to higher ed-employed parents study at Cornell or IC, get jobs there, meet their soulmates, and then have kids to repeat the cycle. Ithaca may not have the size or excitement of a major city, but the people are nice, the food is good, the shops are quality, the traffic isn’t too bad too often and you can be yourself here without judgement, but acceptance. It is the most good enough place in the world.

Gliding through Ithaca in an autonomous car is like going on a carnival ride. The downside of being squeezed by hills and the lake is that the few main routes also go through the densest parts of town, and you see all sorts of people: academics, hippies, musicians, college students, stoners, entrepreneurs, drunk college students who are also stoned. Usually you’ll see a friend or two on the street and say hi then pick up the conversation via Bionet. People here aren’t so caught up in lame jobs to make other people rich that they can’t spare a moment for a laugh with a friend. I wouldn’t give up this city for the world.

It’s not long until I’m driving up the west side of Cayuga Lake with full control. The only thing I lose by driving myself is an hour of staring across the lake and all of the trees changing colors. Winter sucks and I hate the days getting colder, but for me autumn is Upstate’s best season.

A day like this is sunny by Upstate standards but I can tell I’m close to Rochester just by looking up: the sky ahead is dark with clouds. Rochester isn’t a terrible place, it’s just got terrible weather and it makes people miserable. The winter has wind that knocks you on your ass — all the easier for the snow to pummel you down and let you freeze to death. You don’t quite understand cold until you spend six months not being able to spot the sun through the clouds while ice and snow blow exclusively in the direction of your face. Then once the sun comes out, Flower City may as well be Wasp City, if you can face the humidity for longer than your walk to the car. If you’re a living thing in Rochester, nature itself hates you. It can get to people.

But not Synthia. Nothing gets to her. Growing up poor, black, deaf, and having your mother murdered before you’ve even finished college would be enough for people to understand your descent into depression and alcoholism, but for her it was all the more reason to be alive. It helps that she inherited a fortune you wouldn’t even find on a lottery ticket. If you asked me to pick out the one thing that shows how much good she’s done for the people of Rochester, it would be to come to the city of Rochester, and see the people. The city got hit hard by white flight in the last century and Kodak going bust only made things even worse. Nobody wanted to walk the streets during the day, much less at night. But Synthia grew up in the hood, and if she couldn’t leave the city she pretty much ran, then she may as well make it worth staying in. And it all began with the crown jewel in central Rochester.

Tiger Village started as a wedge in Rochester’s inner city, sprinkled with graduates from the Rochester Institute of Technology, whose mascot is the tiger. A lot of people who go to RIT were the weird kid in high school, but once they arrive they see a community that is proud to be nerdy, and for the first time in many of their lives, it feels like home. Most graduates go off to work in Silicon Valley or New York, but a good number stay behind. So when Synthia proposed to buy out blocks where the original campus used to be in the 19th century, back when it was the much more awesomely named Atheneum, and turn it into geek city, rich nerds started buying condos in droves.

Still, Tiger Village is a weird place. It’s cool, if you’re into that kind of thing, but definitely weird. You’ll see a lot of people wearing cat ears. Bike lanes are strewn with unicycles. Neckbeards stroll down the sidewalk with their anime hologram waifus. A couple furries every once in a while in case you think you can come through here without being at least a little creeped out.

On the way to the meeting I almost miss my turn when I get distracted by a man in his mid twenties who has never shaved a day in his life barreling through Rochester’s malicious wind holding a homemade cardboard shield covered in World of Warcraft posters.

Synthia’s office is in a mixed-use building with the first two floors devoted to a combo of a cosplay cafe and sports bar. Wings, garbage plates, spiedies, all the good stuff, served to you by girls dressed like anime characters wearing the shortest skirts allowed by Rochester law. Now that part, I don’t mind. They also have a pretty snazzy app: uses your location and travel method to know exactly when to put in your order so it’s hot and ready for you when you arrive. I let ‘em know to take it to Synthia’s office, and they happily reply that it’s on the house. Once I get to the penthouse floor, I’ll have a steaming garbage plate with my name on it waiting for me.

The garbage plate is Rochester’s best claim for local cuisine: an extra-American-sized pile of hash browns, macaroni salad, cheeseburgers, topped with a dollop of chili. It is the greatest hangover prevention and cure I have ever known, and when it gets so cold for weeks that the only double digit temperatures you see are in the negatives, the garbage plate becomes essential for survival.

The elevator doors open and I am greeted by a smiling waitress wearing a black sailor’s uniform with what looks like half of a red scissor blade strapped to her back. She’s holding a garbage plate in each hand.

“Just in time, Mr. Foster! Synthia will meet you now.”

The doors open in front of us and Synthia quickly looks up for an excited wave.

Wade! Finally you’re here, I’m starving!

Yeah, me too, I haven’t eaten since yesterday.

Sign language is more than just another language, it’s a different way of communication altogether. There’s no voice to raise or lower so you do it with your arms and eyes. Doing the sign for hunger along with the facial expression makes it feel more genuine.

“Thank you, could I also get a Coke?” She asks the waitress. Synthia, like a lot of deaf people, uses a cochlear implant to hear. It’s sort of like a hearing aid that goes directly past your ear to make a sensation like sound, but isn’t quite the same. It isn’t perfect and deafness isn’t uniform, so it’s understandable that they can have trouble speaking when they can’t really hear their own voice. To someone who doesn’t hang out with deaf people, they sound slurred, like someone drunk or mentally impaired, and that’s probably why some people think they’re “disabled.” Just watch a deaf musical and you’ll see they can be as brilliant as the rest of us.

So, how has your day been?

Weird. Woke up to a Dragon offering me a job. They want me to get a Genny Gel discount from you.

Don’t they know a donor strike could be right around the corner? What did they offer in return?

I don’t know, I turned them down.

Why?

They creep me out. I feel like it’s the kind of place where I’d make a mistake and get shot for it.

I can’t speak for all of them, but at least they’re good customers. Always polite, and they don’t try to bully us.

Yeah, I’m sure they’re great until someone gives them a better offer and they turn their backs.

I don’t know. Anyway, what do you have for me today?

Ah, right. Well, you’re going to like this: photos of a party in Seoul that got pretty out of hand. Kids of big executives snorting coke, buying hookers, things like that. I’m sure you could persuade some of your rivals to push back their releases a month or two. My contact beatlocked them and sent them to me. Nobody else has seen them yet. Here’s a few of the tamer shots.

Infoteering couldn’t be what it is today without beatlocking. Basically, it uses the heart’s electricity like a fingerprint. Those little squiggles you see on a hospital heart monitor? They’re unique for every person, so it’s like a key to everything you own. It’s important for me because I can put copy restrictions on beatlocked files so clients know they’re the only ones who get access - for the right price.

I’ll take them all. What’s your price?

You can have them for forty thousand Yuan.

Forty thousand? The second I let them know I have these they’ll be on damage control. I only get to use them once. Twenty-five.

Thirty, and what’s good with your research these days?

Fine, and we made a few breakthroughs on total ear repair.

Close enough to reverse deafness?

If things keep up.

Would you ever reverse your deafness?

She pauses to think, shifts her tongue behind clenched teeth and shakes her head. No, I’m happy as I am. A cochlear implant is enough to talk with hearing people. It’s not perfect, but at least I can take it off. The noise is too much sometimes.

So then if other deaf people like you think the same, who would buy it?

Hearing people who damage their ears. There’s a big market in Millenials who tore their eardrums apart listening to loud music before they could hear it through a Bionet. That and soldiers. I sure would like to know what Dragons might need it; they pay top dollar without batting an eyelash, and it’s always in cash.

Ok, ok…so in that case you must have a lot of dead end data I can flip to another pharma. If you’re already ahead you wouldn’t mind them paying for a little catch-up.

That’s fine. I’ll give you just enough to be worth something, but nothing that sets them in the right direction.

Good deal.

We take a few moments to finish our meals. Neither of us say we’ll do it in silence, but that’s how it happens. It’s nice, having friend to be in tune with. After I’m done I exhale with exhaustion. I’ll have to work that off later.

So, Wade, how are things at home? Meeting any girls?

A few, sorta, you know it’s always been hard since Kathy died. I’ll meet girls and they’ll invite me back to their place but the connection was so perfect with her…it just reminds me that I’ll never feel like I belong with someone as well as I used to.

I understand, but sometimes the future has ideas for you that you’ll never expect. Once you find someone that really cares for you, you won’t regret a thing about your past.

Yeah…I’ve been alone for a while. I can handle being alone a little while longer.

A few other meetings in Rochester later, and I’m watching the sun set just as I get back to Ithaca. It’s that indeterminate time in the day when I’m not quite sure whether I want to go back to the house and play a video game until the sun comes up, or go out for a few drinks and crash when I get home.

Bars.

The Quill and Trigger is post-plague. It stands on the grounds of a place that used to be called “The Chapter House” that was apparently a big deal for Cornellians till a fire took care of that a little after I was born. Switched hands every few years until the Gray Death. When things started breaking down people had to think about security like never before: without any law and order past i-town’s borders, the city, like most, turned to mercenaries. They weren’t exactly revered in a hippie college town, but they became necessary, and that made them kind of cool. At least to the people from more stable places like New York or China who come here to study. Then they see this bar and think it’s where all the mercs hang out, but Quill and Trigger is nothing more than a pretty simulation. Mercenary life brought to you by the Walt Disney Corporation. But, in spite of the setting, it’s a decent bar. Guns are checked at the door and fights are never tolerated. Mostly I go to see the only two friends the Gray Death didn’t rip from my hands: Natalia Mizenova and Jeremy Grant. The two of them had been dating since high school, and they have always been a perfect couple. Natalia’s parents were from Russia, which of course makes her gorgeous and tough as nails. Jeremy is tall, handsome, charismatic, everything you’d want to be if you were Ithaca’s most well-known infoteer.

“Thought I’d find you two here.”

“Wade! How’s it going, buddy?”

“I’m good.” I look and see they’re both sharing a bottle of champagne. “What’s the occasion?”

“My acting visa to South California was accepted.”

“Ha! Nine years late they finally got you. Still going?”

“Hell no, I’m not eighteen anymore. And freelance merc stuff is good enough for me. If I go there, I’m just another girl. I’d have to start over.”

“Not to mention,” Jeremy interjects, “We both have roots here and it would be hard to start infoteering from scratch like that.”

“All right, guys, when’s the wedding?”

They laugh and give each other sweet looks. I can’t help but smile. The Gray Death took a lot of happiness from people, but the two of them fought through it side by side.

“We’re still figuring things out, but when we have a date we’ll let you know. So, Wade, we haven’t seen you in a while, what’s up?”

“Uh, well, the Auroran Dragons offered me a job this morning.”

Jeremy huffs and tenses up.

“I hope you said no, unless you can honestly get along with monsters that make you cut your friends’ throats before they gouge your eyes out.”

“You won’t be disappointed.”

“Good. Of all the places in the world why did they have to come here? I swear it’ll just be a matter of days before they start using us as target practice.”

“I don’t know if it will be that bad, but I definitely don’t trust them.”

“Me neither,” Natalia says. “But I stopped trusting companies and governments a long time ago. They’re both out for themselves, and that makes them twice as bad.”

“Same here,” I reply. “I’m happy as is working for myself and living on the Edge.”

“Ok.” Jeremy sets his drink down. “I’m going to have to stop you right there. You really need to move into the city. It’s safe here.”

“I have a gun and good neighbors, and it’s my house, man. I can’t just leave that.”

“Yes you can. Even if you sell it at a loss you could get a nice apartment in Ithaca like we have.”

“Look, guys, I’ve heard it before, and my answer’s still the same: I’m not leaving that house. Besides, where am I gonna grow my weed?”

“Oh my God, Wade, you don’t need to grow twenty different strains. Even with an apartment here you could still have a few plants.”

“I get bored if I just smoke the same stuff over and over. Some strains are better for relaxing, others for music, some make cleaner honey oil, so I’ll stick with my ganja garden.”

“Yeah how’s that gonna help when Tobias Perlman kicks down your door?”

“Please, small-fry like him doesn’t have it in him.”

“He has the Cuse Cartel.”

“What?”

“They bought him out a day ago.”

“Damn.”

Jeremy grumbles.

“What was the first thing I taught you when you got into infoteering?”

“Info is gold and gold is useless?”

“Exactly, and what would have happened if I hadn’t told you about Tobias?”

“Hell, I don’t know. I’m meeting with him in a week. I’ll be careful, I guess.”

“You’ll be careful?”

“Hey, back off, man. I’ve done well enough for myself that I don’t need my hand held everywhere.”

“I understand, Wade, it’s just…we’re the only three that’s left. Everyone else died in the plague. If you died from something stupid then…I don’t know what I’d do. The world sucks now, and nobody knows it. This is all they know anymore.”

“Remember the end of junior year, like right before things got crappy, when we all went up to the Adirondacks for the weekend?”

Natalia lights up.

“That was so much fun! I miss camping. Can’t do that anymore.”

Jeremy puts his arm around her.

“Sure you can! Just drive out somewhere remote and set up a tent.”

“No it’s too easy to be tracked. Set up a few sensors and fly a drone when one of them gets tripped. Come at night. I’ve done it a dozen times for work.”

“So then you know how to counter it, right?” I ask.

“No! There is no way to ‘counter’ anything, just lots of mercs or law and order.”

“Not gonna see that anytime soon.”

“Wade might, if he sees his soul going for a good price.”

“I’m not joining the Dragons, ok? I’ve got no reason.”

“Just be careful they don’t give you one.”

After the third round of drinks I can see pretty clearly that this couple wants to conclude their celebration in private. Kinda sucks to chug half a glass of good beer but I’m only being polite. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from living through the end of times, it’s that life is short, and you should enjoy yourself first.

Next: Chapter 2 - Where Did It All Go Wrong?

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