A week after meeting the Dragon I wake from my bed to the noise of a stranger in my house in the middle of the night.
This time I grab the gun first.
As I creep down the stairs I notice one of my screen windows has been cut out. Slimy bastard. The basement door is open and the smell of weed is pouring out. Too easy. I take up a position at the side of the door and wait for footsteps. Just as the intruder approaches the top of the stairs, I spin around and point a loaded gun at his face.
He trembles with stalks of weed in his arms and eyes as wide as dinner plates.
“DROP ‘EM, NOW!”
“What’s your name?”
He looks down, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
I back up to give him some space.
“Ok Jason, listen carefully. You are going to keep your hands up and walk out the front door. If your hands go down, I shoot. If you run, I shoot. Understand?”
I follow him outside to a pickup truck in the driveway.
“What did you take? Don’t lie to me.”
“Nothing, not yet.”
“Beatlock your car to me.”
“Your car, it’s mine now. Or I could shoot you here and call a scrapper to throw your body in the back and tow it away.”
“Ok, fine. Can I move my hands?”
“Just for that.”
He makes a few motions with his hands and I get a Bionet notification that I am now the proud owner of a seven year old Ford. With a flick of my wrist, all of the doors are unlocked.
“I want you to take everything out of the car. Show it to me.”
He meanders to the driver’s seat.
“I’m sorry, man. Look, this is all I have.”
I keep the gun trained on his forehead as I look over the mess of crumpled candy bar wrappers, an empty pack of smokes, and a $2 bill, worthless to anybody but a collector. I let myself seethe for a moment, and take a breath to calm down.
“I could kill you.”
He glances up at my eyes for a moment, ashamed and afraid, then looks back down.
“You’re on my property and we’re outside of city limits. The only thing the Ithaca Police Department is gonna do is tell me to stop wasting their time and redirect me to a corpse-removal service.”
I lower the gun just slightly and growl at him.
“Look me in the eye.”
The thief complies.
“I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, but my parents didn’t raise me to be a murderer. So this is the only chance you’re gonna get.”
I beatlock the car back to him.
“Get out of here. If I ever see you near my house again, I’m pulling the trigger till I hear it go ‘click, click, click,’ then I’m leaving your body for the wolves.”
“Yeah, ok man, I got it. I’m sorry. I’ll never come here again.”
“Like Hell. Now get out.”
I keep my aim up until he’s far in the distance, then finally let my guard down. Frontier justice.
It’s early enough to start the day and there’s no way I’m getting back to sleep now, so I guess I’ll tend to the ganja garden.
Once I’m done with that I get the feeling like I had last week with the Dragon: insecurity. If someone is willing to cut through a screen, they’ll break glass. Then I make a stupid mistake: by searching for full property reinforced glass replacements, the only results I see are ads for contractors to handle the whole thing. The prices are enormous but the discounts make them seem reasonable. Little blurbs to the side telling me the frequency of a break-in for houses in my kind of location don’t go away, even if I close my eyes. You’d have to bleed out before enough Bionet bots would be out of your body for the system to stop working. I settle for the contractors.
Meanwhile, I close the window over the broken screen and lock it. Still doesn’t feel secure, but I don’t care. I have my gun. Actually, I could use a few more, maybe even a concealed carrier. I put in an online order and there’s a drone with the package at my door by noon. I pocket the revolver and stuff the semi-auto in my new hidden holster. Now I feel much better, safer, safe enough for a spliff, so I roll one the size of my middle finger and smoke it down in my living room chair. The adrenaline rush from the morning finally blows over, and I pass out.
Quarter after four I get a text from Perlman.
[Are we still meeting today?]
I don’t respond. Then I get another, ten minutes later.
[Look Wade, I know we’ve had our differences. You were doing your job, I was doing mine. It all worked out in the end, right? I’ve got a condo in Cuse, and you, well, you’re still doing your thing. So what do you say we bury the hatchet? For new times’ sake?]
[Fine, we still doing Geneva On The Lake?]
[Booked for a private event. There’s a place a little out of town we can go to. It’ll be quick, five minutes tops, I promise]
[Any reason we can’t do this over Bionet?]
[I want to keep this off the record. My new bosses might not approve. You got yours and I’ll get mine, we square?]
[Yeah, square. Just give me a few]
Maybe I was wrong about Perlman. Maybe Jeremy’s wrong too. Screw it, he’s wrong and I’m right. If the only thing people care about is money, then at least in one way, they’re easy to work with.
I just wish he scheduled this for a different time. Once I’m in town I get stuck with rush hour traffic, as in, more than usual. All the urban planning in the world and it can’t change the fact that there are like five necessary roads to get anywhere through Ithaca. I remember when I was around eleven years old and New York became the first state to legalize fully autonomous cars for personal and commercial use. Everyone thought it meant cars would get people around as efficiently as possible, but all it did was add more cars. Didn’t take long until people were going in and out of town on the slightest whim: dinner, shopping, coffee, bars, nightclubs, they did it all - while drunk.
Nowadays we have the most efficient auto transport system in the world. Every car and traffic light is coordinated for optimal transport, making a trip from Danby to Lansing take five minutes where it used to take twenty. Thing is, now that smart roads are crammed with perfect cars, the same drive still takes twenty minutes. Sometimes I wonder if the brainiacs in Silicon Valley or MIT or wherever they made this stuff honestly thought things would be different. Tech is a tool, not a goal.
But, in true Ithaca fashion, by the time I’m out of town the traffic disappears. One of the nice things about Ithaca that can be hard to appreciate if you’re not from a major city is that it rarely takes more than twenty minutes to get anywhere in town, and you can drive fifteen minutes in any direction and hit nature. Cuse Cartel may be the biggest bullies in Upstate, but at least they respect the land. Or maybe they just learned the lesson the Midwest ignored, which is why we’re a breadbasket and they’re back in the Dust Bowl. With the Ogallala Aquifer bone-dry, and the prospect of a Great Lakes pipeline a joke that got old years ago, you couldn’t pay me to live west of, well, Buffalo. I suppose the Rockies are all right, but the West Coast is an earthquake and wildfire away from vanishing off the face of the Earth, but that’s just my opinion. Call me in twenty years and we’ll see who’s right.
Speaking of being right, I’m starting to think I should’ve listened to Jeremy earlier. Perlman’s black sedan is the only car in the lot, and the roadside diner looks like it closed years ago. I feel my Multiform for my guns and make sure I’m locked, loaded, and concealed before I step out of the car.
Tobias Perlman isn’t a bad-looking fellow. Pushing sixty and he’s still got a full head of hair. He’s about the only guy I know with money who doesn’t wear a Multiform in some way or another. Instead he sticks with an old farmer look: flannel, jeans, and a tan, weather-worn leather jacket. And, of course, the aviators. Looks like the kindly uncle that’ll sit you on his lap and read to you as a kid, then when you grow old enough to drink with the man he’ll lean in close and tell you some of the hard truths in life. He’s got grandkids - I kinda feel bad about screwing him over.
No turning back now. Once I’m out of the car he approaches with his characteristically wide smile and arms to match.
“Wade! I’m sorry we had to change location, I’m sure you’ll understand.”
We share a big bear hug and for a moment I think everything’s gonna be all right.
“Well, Tobias, just like we said, no hard feelings, right?”
He puts his hand on my shoulder and gives me the your-dog-was-too-sick-so-we-had-to-put-him-to-sleep look.
“Sorry, Wade, just one.”
A pair of armed thugs emerge from the car. Before I can reach for my weapons I get a taser to the neck and I fall to the pavement. As they yank me up and drag me to the car, I taste blood.
“Funny thing, Wade, I remember telling you if I ever saw you again I’d cut your head off. Never thought I’d get the chance.”
Dammit, Jeremy was right.
“The Hell is this about? Settling a grudge?”
“More than that. Remember that thing you told me the day y’almost bankrupted me and my family? Win some lose some.”
“I’m sorry, Tobias. What do you want?”
“More than you can give me. Grab him.”
After they take my guns they seat me in the center back and drive off. My heart is racing. My mind twists into a focus that drowns out everything else. It’s surprising how much thinking you can do when your only thought is survival. With my hands between my legs I carefully slide my thumb from my index finger down to my pinky and flick it towards my palm: emergency Bionet unlock. Thanks Synthia. I try firing off a call to Franshesco but it keeps going to voicemail. So much for safety. Dammit, I’ll have to take things into my own hands.
There is one other Bionet hack Synthia got for me a while back: car control. While we get onto the onramp heading east, I take control of my car, moving my thumb against my fingers like a joystick. My vision drowns out into a view from my car’s driver’s seat and I zoom through back roads towards the next onramp in Waterloo.
I was never a religious person. My parents took me to church as a kid but it didn’t do anything for me. I just went through the motions. Now I don’t have a choice. God, if you’re listening…
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name-
“Hey Wade, you’re pretty quiet. Sure you don’t want to get some last words in?”
-thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
One of the thugs nudges me.
“Hey! He’s talking to you!”
I lose focus for a moment, and my car narrowly misses a child on a bike as it whips through an intersection
-on earth as it is in heaven.
“Let him go, Tobias, you’ll get what you want soon enough.”
Give us this day our daily bread,
“Hey my cat plays with the mice before she kills them, why can’t I?”
-and forgive us our trespasses,
My car is just approaching the exit. It blows past a toll booth that hasn’t been manned in years.
-as we forgive those who trespass against us.
“Hey do you guys see that?”
“I think someone’s following us.”
And lead us not into temptation,
I steer my car straight through the center grass and it leaps at the divider on our side of the road.
but deliver us from evil.
My car smashes into the driver’s side windows, crushing him and the bodyguard instantly. As the car spins out of control, the bodyguard on the right who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt gets flung out the window and gets his spine wrapped around a tree. Once we hit the side of the road the car flips a few times before it settles down.
I take stock.
Tobias is dead.
The others are too.
I’m bruised but ok.
I gotta get out of here, RIGHT NOW!
I have to pull the dead guy out of his seat to get out through his door. Just before I run off I grab my gun and his from the back seat. Every step is a limp but I have to get to my car. Cuse Cartel will be here soon. Once I’m in my car, I plot a course for Watkins Glen, where the Dragons took over years ago. Then I call Franshesco and by the grace of God he picks up.
[Wade, are you safe?]
[For now. Cuse Cartel thugs tried to kill me. Three are dead and I think they’ll send more]
[We can pick you up in an hour but you need to lay low for a while. Do you have a place you can hide out?]
[Yeah, I’ve got some friends in Hiawatha]
[Good, that’s safe. Keep us informed and we’ll get you when we can]
Now it’s time to call a friend.
[Hey Patrick I need to cool my heels in Hiawatha, that ok?]
[Are you in danger?]
[Nothing immediate but I don’t know if I’m gonna be followed]
[Cuse Cartel thugs. I’ll explain more when I get there]
[Ok. Know where my family’s longhouse is?]
[I was thinking somewhere more secure]
[Got it. Meet me at my bunker]
As I drive off to Hiawatha I can’t help but replay what happened in my head. Every time I get to the collision, I wince. Then it keeps cycling through my thoughts, no matter what I do to get my mind off it. I have to put the car in automatic, I’m shaking so Goddamn much. I try to think of anything else: names of flowers, childhood friends, death - dammit! I squeeze my fingers to a fist and they draw blood. Then the scene returns in rapid fire: crash, wince, death, twitch, body out the window, double-twitch, crawling out of the car with bodies in it. I can’t stop, so I put my head between my legs, squeeze my eyes shut, and put all of my focus into my destination.
The brief history of Upstate as a part of the U.S. is that it was given to vets who fought the British without concern for the Haudenosaunee already living there. In school we were taught to call them Iroquois - a French word - as we shunted them into reservations. But when the United States collapsed, Upstate became their sovereign land again, wherever they could take it. Some enterprising individuals took the opportunity to seek better places to live, and on the northeast hills of Seneca Lake, they found one - in the remains of an abandoned army depot. Hiawatha started as a guarded settlement in the heart of the depot, surrounded by forest. No longer hemmed in by reservations dictated by other people, they could return to living as they had before.
Most Hiawathans use modern technology like Bionets and Multiforms, but a few still prefer to hunt. It lets them feel closer to the land. A typical hunter goes out with a bow for prey and a pistol for predators. The city itself is mostly underground, bunkers rebuilt as homes and places of business. Quite a few longhouses have been built up top as well, for those who like it that way. Last time I was here Patrick lived in a longhouse with his family. Must be moving up in this world.
Patrick is the result of a long history of actively forgetting Native American history and culture. He himself only has a quarter of native blood, and spent most of his life with what I guess you could call a white family until the Gray Death did away with them. He wandered the countryside for a bit until he heard that a new enclave was being formed, and he suddenly remembered that part of his ancestry, washed away by so much television. He didn’t overdo the neo-native thing, changing his name and whatnot. A few go a bit overboard, in my opinion, with them going all technology-free, but I guess the point of this town is that it’s not my place to judge.
“Wade! What happened to your car, man?”
“A few Cuse Cartel guys tried to kill me. They’re gone, but I don’t know if more are coming.”
“Hey Wade, you’re a good friend and you’ve helped us out a lot in the past, but we’re not getting in a war for your sake.”
“It’s all right, the Auroran Dragons are picking me up.”
“The Dragons?! Thought you’d never work with them.”
“That was when I had a choice. Mind if we step inside?”
“Yeah sure thing.”
He punches in a code to open the big steel door to the bunker. The place is full of boxes and other move-in junk.
“Sorry about the mess, you can take a seat on the couch. Can I get you anything? Water?”
“Nah I’m all right.”
Before I can sit on the couch I have to move a few of its current residents: three assault rifles, a shotgun, and half a dozen pistols. Looking at the pile I start flashing back to the crash.
“You ok, man?”
“You sure? You’re blinking a lot, really hard.”
“And your arm is shaking. Sure you don’t need anything? Anti-anxiety meds?”
“No, no…I’ll be fine.”
I push the pile to the side and can’t stop staring at it.
“You guys are armed to the teeth.”
He rubs the back of his neck with a smile.
“Yeah we haven’t quite figured out what to do with all the weapons. People keep wanting to move into bunkers but we have to put the guns somewhere.”
“Hey, count your blessings, at least you don’t really need them.”
“Oh really? First time in hundreds of years our people aren’t living on a reservation and you say we don’t need to be armed?”
“Nah nah nah, you’re misreading. I mean, Upstate’s not perfect but it’s stable compared to most places. Could be Kansas. They need guns.”
“No, they have too many guns, that’s the problem. What they need is water.”
“Fat chance. They fracked and farmed it away years ago.”
“I don’t get why they even bother staying. The Dust Bowl is a bloodbath.”
“Would you rather they come here?”
“Oh God, no. Upstate’s back country may be as lawless as the rest but at least survival isn’t a day-to-day question.”
“Of course it is, Pat. We just have it good. A lot of people would kill to have security like this.”
He taps on the concrete wall.
“We don’t see many troublemakers. Nobody’s got the firepower or the balls to take us down.”
He winks and pulls out his revolver to polish. I shift my eyes around the room and blurt out the only thing that comes to mind.
“The Dragons do.”
He sets down his gun and gives me a stern look.
“Let’s hope it never comes to that. So, what’s got you involved with them?”
“They want me to run infoteering. They get a lot of data they can’t use or don’t sell, so, they came to me.”
“I can’t say I like the idea of a good guy like you joining the Dragons, but I get what they see in you.”
“Humility? Or maybe naïveté. You’re a good infoteer. We wouldn’t have gotten the bunker codes without you. But you always shrink from bigger challenges. You barely leave Upstate.”
“I’m comfortable here.”
“Yeah, and I’ll bet the Dragons will make you very comfortable.”
“I’m still shaking from frickin’ killing three people today, I don’t know how that’s comfort.”
“They’ll make you forget. All that money sloshing around there, like that info they don’t know what to do with. You’ll find meaning in your work, even if you have to make it up. You’ll get paid way too much. They’ll wash away your doubts every other Friday. After we settled Hiawatha a few Haudenosaunee took their guns with them and found merc work. They’re always bragging about how much they make, like watching a rap video. I’ll talk to them from time to time and they seem normal, but give them a trigger about their new life - ask them about firefights or client drama - and like a switch they turn into the badass they’ve always dreamed of being. The question is, will Wade Foster still be Wade Foster?”
“I don’t know. You grew up ‘white’ and came to Hiawatha, but you’re still Patrick. I only know my story.”
“Stories can change.”
My Bionet pings me with a message from a Centurion Oskar Wrocławski.
[Wade we are approaching your position via helicopter. Please be ready to leave as soon as possible. We have a show to catch]
[Got it, be right there]
“Is that them?”
I get up from the couch and extend my hand.
“Yeah. Nice seeing you, man.”
“You too. If you find yourself free for a day you should swing by, play some lacrosse.”
“Sure thing, sounds good.”
Just as I walk outside the helicopter settles on the ground like snow on a pillow. The doors stay shut, I stay standing. At this moment I wonder: could I leave? Could I find some other protection? A personal bodyguard? It would be expensive, but I could afford it, maybe, barely. But then I’ll be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life. Same with the Dragons. I guess I don’t really have a choice after all.
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