28 Jul

Saturday Morning Serial: Subdomain, Chapter 6

Subdomain

<< back to Chapter 5

VI.

We cruised the streets further and further from the beltway, closer and closer to home, until I picked up an invitation-only burst from a substreet club I never quite managed to outgrow. It had been a while since I dropped into Rubberneck, so either the crowd started off thin, or the poli-punks had already started calling it a night. After being away so long, I imagined I was low on the guest list, low enough that I rarely even got the invites before the place was packed to the point where people started thinking of the fire marshal’s occupancy limit as more than just a suggestion.

The pylons that supported the network of overpasses above the sprawling warehouse made Rubberneck seem like a grand, sprawling temple. The first time I saw it, at twelve years old, the place might as well have been the Taj Mahal. But it was a Taj Mahal that was tossed off one of the bridges overhead, discarded out a car window, and nestled among half-crushed cans and plastic wrappers whipping in the wind. Back then, it didn’t matter to me that it was a gutted storage facility that probably hadn’t been swept out since the turn of the century. For a kid, it was easy access to cheap liquor, fringe music, and radical ideas.

As my teenage years drew to a close, though, I told my girlfriend at the time, “We all grow up, I guess.” And I left her and Rubberneck behind for a long time. Nearly everyone there eventually outgrows the place. Suddenly holding down a job becomes more important than a night out discussing the failure of government over too much house whiskey. A look around reveals that, instead of colluding with like-minded political souls, fueled by that same whiskey, you’re just sitting in a bar with different shit hung on the walls.

If you do you homework for real, and not just spout stilted facts from third-hand accounts, you realize that the same man who owns Rubberneck, owns seven other clubs between DC and Baltimore. Two of those clubs are tucked high up inside the Beltway. The men in those clubs know that their kids are down here, talking revolution, but they know those kids will realize the same thing I did. We all grow up. The difference is that those kids are bound for the clubs where their fathers smoke cigars and pretend they don’t know what house whiskey is. When I grew up, I was bound for a lot less.

But I realized a lot sooner than most. And I did my homework.

A few kids lingered at the fire door near the Crouch, a low concrete shelf jutting from one of the pillars that was a hook-up pad since I was their age, probably even before. The toughs smoked with a couple of dishwashers wearing dirty, white aprons. They wore retro suit jackets, vintage threads with their red ties unknotted, some sort of ironic statement, I supposed. One had drawn the classic anarchy A, but the red clashed with his necktie, and that symbol played itself out decades ago. Anarchy failed. He apparently missed the broadcast.

They all put on their best hard faces the moment I stepped out of the sedan that Walt had parked in the middle of the open lot. They sized up my suit, my age, tried to look harder. Walt swung his legs out of the car, stood up to his full height, and put the width of his frame on display. The kids went for broke, tried to stay hard. “The fuck are you?”

They hadn’t done their homework, not like I had when I was doing this same routine. My homework gave me names, names I dropped like precision munitions. “The guy Anders sent to tell you two For-Foods-in-waiting to get back to loading the dishwashers.”

“This guy for real?” Dishwasher One asked Two.

Two scowled, shook his head, but took a last drag like he was holding back spite. Sometimes, one name puts hard out of fashion. He ducked through the propped open door. “Whatever. I’m done anyhow.”

The three toughs stayed, but their feet shuffled. I remembered how hard it was to back down. But you have to know when enough is enough, and you want to learn that lesson without swallowing too many of your teeth. “Youth is bravery. Right, Walt?”

“S’what made me a monster.” I watched the nervous faces, but behind me I knew that the flecks were stirring across Walt’s skin.

I stepped through the middle of the group, through the doorway, and into a dark space filled with bass echoes. I glanced back. “We’re going to catch a different ride home, I think.”

Walt tossed the car remote at one of the punks. “It’s probably got ‘til daylight. Burn it down.”

The one face I could still see through the open door stared wide-eyed at the forged remote. Walt stiff armed him into the doorframe, on the boy with terrifying quickness, their faces separated by scant inches. “And stay outta the fuckin’ Services.”

He spun the kid out the door, kicking the doorstop out into the lot as part of the motion. The door slammed shut and, as my eyes adjusted, I picked up the gleam of the flecks in Walt’s eyes. “Really, man? Didn’t feel like doing the “stay in school” jingle for him, too?”

I heard Walt exhale lightly. “Sometimes bravery never learns.”

“Well, they’ll remember that, for sure. Think they’ll joyride it first or just head straight to a chop for the money?”

“I’m hoping it’s barely holding together when it rolls into a garage for stripping. Those punks earned a good time. Nobody pissed himself. Think I’m losing my edge, Mr. Cooper?”

“Your fleck batch is past it’s prime, sure. But that stopped being your edge a long time ago. Your edge is knowing that bravery never learns and still coming home to collect your due anyway, whether they’re intending to give it to you or not.”

“You softening me up for something?” As the darkness began dissolving into gray outlines I could see Walt looming over me, already scanning, probably seeing shades color in the darkness I’d never know.

“Yeah, you’re getting the night off so you don’t cramp my style with the ladies.”

“You find a lady here, and my ride home’ll probably be an ambulance.”

on to chapter 7 >>

14 Jul

Saturday Morning Serial: Subdomain, Chapter 5

Subdomain

<< back to Chapter 4

V.

The route from the private room to the parking garage was a parade of “Goodnight, Mr. Cooper.” The whiskey slowed me down just a little, and the hallway tipped in unexpected directions whenever I turned my head. The carpet felt like it had more give, or my footsteps were heavier now. A dip of the chin from the doorman and another “Goodnight, Mr. Cooper.” This time I imagined I’d reached a new level of status and prestige. I imagined the doorman could sense the change, as if my posture had further straightened or I had a telltale gleam of wealth in my eyes.

The second doorman held the door as I stepped onto the concrete of the parking garage. The first strike of my heel against the floor echoed in a way that made me smile. The doorman took it as if it was meant for him, smiled back. Once more, “Goodnight, Mr. Cooper.”

“Goodnight to you, young man.” He looked only a few years younger than me. But now I had the money of old men. My attention and my interest felt like gifts I could give away or withhold. I clumsily thumbed at my touchpad in my pocket and opened a quick-tip channel, when it vibrated once I confirmed a transaction using a digit I had never touched before. I swelled with the thrill of knowing I had never had so much money flow out of an account that was my own. It wasn’t money handled on someone else’s behalf, but money from a credit line that was remained untouched by such an excess. I probably tripled his wages for the year.

The doorman wouldn’t know the amount until he was out of sight and I was gone, but the vibration in his pocket told him there was a tip waiting. The stock goodnight I’d heard following every visit to the Other Coast was appended with “I hope we’ll see you again soon, sir.”

I felt giddy. No other word would suffice. Walt stood alongside the car, swept his eyes over the garage again as I covered the four steps to the sedan, and boxed me in as I opened the door. I tugged it shut and he was already turning to get in front, no doubt scanning again. We surged into motion quickly, and Walt had us merging into a swift traffic flow in less than two minutes. When he was confidant that no one was tailing us, his grip eased up on the steering wheel. Through the rearview mirror, I could see the headlights reflecting off the flecks in his eyes.

“Relax, Walt. It’s a done deal.” I searched the back of the sedan, wondering if I would suddenly discover a mini-bar that I’d missed earlier in the night.

“You don’t pay me to relax. I do that on my own time.” His tone was brusque and he continued to scan for threats, car by car and street by street. But the upward line of his lips belied a thin smile. Walt knew what the deal meant for us. Maybe later, “on his own time,” as he often put it, he would feel as overwhelmed as I did. Now, though, there was joy in duty. Joy and purpose.

The biggest misconception people have about soldiers is that they are machines. It might be what helps them distance themselves from the Deployed Service when the sad stories make it home. And, after all, a man who can’t experience joy also can’t feel homesick, can he?

But Walt was smiling, completely now.

“Obviously, you’ll be getting a raise Walt.” The swelling thrill returned as I imagined the credit at my disposal. “And I think we’re going to relocate. New clothes, too. I felt a little behind the scene after seeing the Senator. A good suit never goes out of style, but… we need a sharper look, I think.”

“You gonna dress me up like your own private Secret Service?”

“I’m thinking a cross between that goon in the dining room and a bouncer at flashy, inside the beltway rub and tug.” My eyes started to scan the side streets as well. But while Walt was tuned in to out of place cars, people, and debris, I scanned for a good spot for a celebratory drink.

“I don’t think they call them rub an’ tugs inside the beltway, Mr. Cooper.”

“I meant the Baltimore beltway, Walt. Get you something shiny an’ purple, put some high-end brand patches up and down the sleeves so people know who you’re representing for. Sound good?”

Walt gave a low chuckle, a rare privilege to hear. “Only if I get a big, gold savior to hang from my neck, too. Gotta complete the look.”

“For you, Walt, any saviors you feel you need. We’ll dip them in gold and hang them from a chain that you could pull a tank with.”

He chuckled once more, then the sound faded into silence. I listened to the wheels thump their way through potholes and the rush of air that accompanied the cars we passed. Bands of yellow light slashed the length of the car at intervals with each passing streetlamp, as if we were being scanned like a barcode. At nearly two o’clock in the morning, no one walked the sidewalks. A handful of businesses remained open at this hour, mostly fast food bunkers, but the harsh white light spilling from them as we sped past only highlighted how empty they were.

The thrill and giddiness slipped away in an instant. They were replaced by a cold vacancy and a formless dread. The next street we crossed seemed to stretch on impossibly far, disappearing into the glittering haze of the dome. It struck me that I didn’t know the name of the street, didn’t know what businesses were on it, or who claimed it as theirs. I didn’t know what substreets ran under it. And if I had been able to see it from the high road earlier that night, I couldn’t say. Down here the city sprawled away in every direction, immense. And suddenly I was unbearably small.

on to chapter 6 >>

7 Jul

Saturday Morning Serial: Subdomain, Chapter 4

Subdomain

<< back to Chapter 3

IV.

“I’ve been here on several occasions now, Mr. Cooper, and I must confess I was unaware the Other Coast had a house whiskey.” The senator nudged his dinner plate slightly and a waiter immediately spirited away. Another one of the staff scooped the crumbs from the table with an impossibly unobtrusive effort. When the senator reached forward, his hand settled around a newly arrived after dinner cocktail.

“Mr. Card seemed to have something to say on the subject earlier, perhaps I’ll bow to his expertise.” I gestured toward the sullen man seated at the end of the table. He had remained unconscious for only a minute after the Secret Service agent yanked him away from me. I took the minute to apologize to the senator. I assured him the unpleasantness was not my intention. I made sure I was done acting sorry before Card came around.

Throughout the meal he tried to play off his demeanor as grogginess, but he glowered at me every chance he got. His silence quickly saw him boxed out of any conversation at the table. The stubbornness showed which one of us was the sort to give up easily. Once again, I’m sure the point was not lost on the senator. If this meal represented my only moment in front of some real, inside the Beltway power, I decided to go for broke. My performance needed to make a lasting impression.

“House whiskey is rotgut,” muttered Card as he took only the third bite of his barely addressed meal. He clearly wanted to be polite and not speak while chewing.

“Exactly.” I shot him a condescending smile. “It’s homemade alcohol. Usually it gets cooked up from whatever is around. A substreet tradition. And one I still embrace from time to time. They keep some on-hand here at the Coast for visitors like me.”

“Another way to remind me who I’m dealing with?” There was a fraction less humor in Senator Forsythe’s tone. I could bully a man like Card, but the senator wanted it clear that Card and I were on the same level compared to him.

“Not at all, senator. I just want the staff to know one of their own is in the building.” When the senator cocked an eyebrow, I continued. “You said yourself that you’d never heard of the stuff. But some of the waitstaff? A barback? Kitchen staff? They know. And they know the sort of person who orders it. Seeing it head up to a private room like this, well, there’s a little hope in that for them. It’s just a little bit of proof about the ‘potential of upward mobility’ they hear so much about but never seem to see.”

“Interesting.” The senator sounded unconvinced.

“Besides, someone in the kitchen probably provides the stuff from their own batches. Trickle down economics in action, senator. And, I’ll add, thank you for your part in it, as well as your hospitality.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Dom had no compunctions about talking around the food in his mouth. He chewed like a horse but it went unnoticed because the senator’s business associate fared marginally worse in the manners department. The idea that you could order a double portion of prime rib clearly escaped the man until Dom placed his own order. A moment later the business associate was happy to co-opt the idea. The two of them ate like animals from the moment the plates arrived, and they were only just slowing down. “It’s been a great meal, Jack.”

Senator Forsythe waved an accepting hand. He knew who could never afford a meal like this in their life and who could pay for a half dozen plates and never even remember the expense. The casual hand gesture also made it clear that we should know, and recognize it, too. The wave also seemed to be a sign for Chao, who leaned forward and steepled his fingers. “To business, Mr. Cooper.”

In conversation, clearly Chao was the sort who saw no value in minced words. Even during the senator’s anecdotes his attention clearly wandered. Chao was done biding his time and eager to get on with matters. It was time to prove my value to him. “I’ve amassed nearly 100,000 Participants in my Subdomain. If you’re interested, I can also provide you with another 50,000 For-Foods and a like number of Absentees.”

I’ll give him this, Chao tried to keep that stone cold face fixed firmly in place. But his eyes widened. His jaw moved as if he’d caught himself before he could lick his lips. I didn’t bother to watch anyone else’s reactions, from the moment he spoke, it was clear that Chao would be the one conducting business. His stoic composure returned quickly, though, and Chao ignored Card’s audible gasp. “This is a single, interrelated database?”

“Interrelated, yes. But culled from over a hundred Domains with no detected incursions. And the Absentees are valid, not cooked up by some last minute political maneuver.” I bit my tongue and involuntarily glanced at Senator Forsythe. A small wash of heat played across my face.

He let me sweat it out for a full minute. “Some of my supporters just haven’t been born yet, Mr. Cooper. But rest assured, when they are, they’ll see the wisdom of my policies.”

I couldn’t tell if the senator was making a joke.

Chao could clearly care less. “What kind of depth do you have with these?”

“I’d say about a quarter are between four and six, mostly the Absentees. About thirty-five percent are in the seven to nine range, the remaining forty percent are tens.”

“Bullshit!” Card looked to the senator. “There’s no way he has that depth if they’re undetected. If the database isn’t an outright forgery, it’s going to be scorching hot. You don’t want to touch this, Jack!”

“You’re here to verify, right Card?” I tossed a hard link across the table and he fumbled it into his lap before setting it down next to his barely touched meal. “Why don’t you do your job?”

Although they were bent from his rough handling earlier, Card’s blue data-specs appeared up to the task of reviewing the limited data the hard link allowed access to. We all sat in silence as Card worked. Chao drew a narrow-screened set of data-specs of his own from a case in his vest pocket. Looking like little more than old-fashioned wire-framed glasses, they matched Card’s cutting edge flash with refined style. Chao also focused on the hard link, then scowled.

“I see nothing Mr. Cooper.” His tone had gone from stone to steel.

“As a precaution, it’s reinforced against multiple users. While Card has access, even I can’t view the data, I can only shut him out.” I swiped the pattern over the touchpad in my pocket and Card’s head shot up from the hard link as his eyes refocused beyond the interior of his data-specs. I gestured to Chao. “By all means.”

The telltale glow of the specs flickered over Chao’s eyes, but his specs didn’t reveal any trace of light on the exterior of the lenses. Refined style jumped up to cutting edge, then past it. People wanted specs to do that for a long time. It looked like somebody had succeeded, but they’d done it in private. Card interrupted my plans to try to get a pair out of this deal.

“It’s real,” he muttered, probably not even sure himself if he was asking me or telling everyone seated at the table.

“It is.” I didn’t condescend. I stayed matter of fact. “And, even if I could forge a database like that, I imagine you’d still want me on the payroll.”

“Mr. Cooper,” Chao’s eyes were darting back and forth as he read the information displayed just in front of his eyes. “It appears that some of these entries go back nearly a decade.”

“I began my Subdomain that long ago.” I could tell Chao was readying the questions I had prepared for, the obvious questions. These were the questions that fed right into my sales pitch. And I I knew that the answers –even ten years ago as a teenager, scraping data off the swipes at a fast food bunker – would deliver me to where I belonged.

“But your Subdomain is still updating on these entries.”

I gave a single nod. “It is.”

“But the Domains that they are sourced in,” he paused to read something, then continued, “they appear . . . uncompromised.”

“Because they are.”

Chao removed his data-specs and fixed me with an unexpectedly terrifying gaze. “Then, if you’ll forgive my apparent technological ignorance, how exactly is that possible?”

I had waited a decade to say the words, rehearsed them more times than I could ever hope to remember, and still my hands trembled under the table. “Because I broke the System. I broke it ten years ago. And I’ve waited, all that time, to sell what I’ve done to the right person. Senator, are you the right person?”

on to chapter 5 >>

30 Jun

Saturday Morning Serial: Subdomain, Chapter 3

Subdomain

<< back to Chapter 2

III.

The Other Coast isn’t a restaurant to be seen at. It’s a restaurant to be glimpsed at. Patrons want their names in the mix of the “connected,” but it’s certainly bad business to show off how you’re connected. Names just swirl together until a chain of them links together the people who want a certain thing with the people who can provide a certain thing. And it’s a rare thing that those two links in the chain are ever directly connected. I’d been to the Other Coast before, but sitting down with Senator Forsythe and his people is what called for the high road celebration and the stolen sedan.

After Walt parked us in the underground garage, alongside a dozen other nondescript dark sedans, he stood by while I checked my suit in the window’s reflection. The well-tailored lines spoke of more money than I had in my accounts. A doorman stood discreetly by the entrance, pretending we were invisible until we crossed some imaginary line of his area of responsibility. Then he swept the door aside with a crisp, “Good evening, Mr. Cooper.”

I returned a polite nod as I walked by and into the foyer, where the exhaust and oil smell of the garage was already gone. A second door man opened the inner door, just as the previous door slipped shut with the slightest thump. With a deferential smile, the other doorman motioned me towards the thin, black podium where the hostess stood ready. “Good evening, Mr. Cooper. A meeting this evening?”

“Yes. A private room.” The restaurant was constructed around privacy and patrons were carefully corralled by crisply dressed doormen and formal, yet understated reception areas. Other than a single barroom, there were no public spaces to mingle. It defeated the purpose.

“Of course, Mr. Cooper. Let me just make sure that everything is ready for you.” There was no doubt that everything was ready for me, just the same way there was no doubt about who I was there to meet. The senator’s people arranged everything with the restaurant, and the hostess was merely allowing the slate on the podium time to pull up the biometric information on Walt and me. “Ahh, and there we are. It seems the other members of your party have already arrived. Just follow Chloe, if you would please.”

Chloe appeared through the frosted glass doors that led deeper into the restaurant the moment the hostess had finished speaking. Over the four years since my first visit, the nameless hostess had remained the same. And, for an equal length of time, the role of Chloe was always played by a new woman. In fact, I would be the only person she would escort to a dining room for the entire night and, presumably, ever.

A local executive I met at the restaurant claimed that management hired one girl per expected guest each night. She assumed the girls were flown in from elsewhere, dosed with modified serotonin compounds, and paid exceedingly well for a night of permanently hazy phantom memories. I maintained a doubtful stance at the time, believing such efforts to be prohibitively expensive. But I also believed that I had seen all there was to see of the Other Coast. Looking back to a time when I swelled with greed, I realize now that I had no inkling of the levels of wealth and excess that were truly possible in America.

Chloe led us down the hallway along a carpet of crimson and gold. Wooden doors interrupted the cream colored walls at intervals. Pausing at one of them, there was only a moment’s pause as she waited for the click of the locks to be triggered remotely from elsewhere in the restaurant. With a broad smile, she swung the door into the private dining room. “Enjoy your meal, Mr. Cooper.”

The senator held court in a smaller sitting room to the side of the dining room. He stood, glass in hand, surrounded by four other men in suits. Beyond him, a Secret Service agent lurked by the door used by the waitstaff. I noted Walt settling into a similar posture by the door we came in through as I walked toward the Senator and his entourage. Dominic smiled and raised a glass in my direction, “And here he is now, senator.”

As I stepped into the circle, the senator reached out his hand and we exchanged a solid grip. “Dom’s told me a great deal about you, Mr. Cooper.”

“That’s very kind of you to say, senator, but I’m sure Dom’s done no such thing.” I kept a playful smile on my face and watched the faces of the other three suits, and Dom’s as well, fall in shock. “But, I promise, it’s for the best.”

The suits looked to the senator for their cues. The senator’s pale blue eyes spent a minute searching my face, his jaw stayed rigid. The ice in his glass shifted with a tiny clinking sound. Then his handshake hand came back up, hard, and clapped my shoulder. Then, with a firm hold, he gave a slight shake. His chuckle restored the sycophant grins to the other suits after a slight pause. “True enough, Mr. Cooper. In fact, I was just threatening Dom with some genuinely terrible prospects if he didn’t start filling me in some. Isn’t that right?”

“You’re too much, Jack.” Dom gave a polite laugh. But I saw the anxiety on his face dissolved into relief now that I was the new object under scrutiny. And Dom, the Rockville Rat, was on a first name basis with the senator; I saw that, too. It was quite the surprise. I knew I’d have to reevaluate my opinion of the small-time hustler when I was done here. Seeing him quickly edged out of the circle as I joined, however, reestablished the foundations of my opinion of Dom.

“Mr. Cooper, this is one of my advisors, Chao.” The broad-faced Chinese man offered up a handshake similar to his boss’ firm grip but said nothing. “And this is Mr. Card.”

Another handshake, bony and trying too hard, came from the lean, balding suit. He had brown eyes that darted not so much over me, as over my suit. He wore high end data-specs with a light blue tint to them, and he dipped his head a little to make sure I could see he was getting feeds even though he was meeting with a senator. I had his number before he opened his mouth. “Maybe you’ve heard of me?”

“Nope.” I let it hang in the air like a challenge. I knew exactly who he was. I wasn’t about to walk into a meet like this and not have an inkling of who the senator was working with. But this guy could get his ego stroked elsewhere. A smile might have played across Jack’s lips at that point. He wasn’t the kind of guy to miss much.

“And this is a business associate.” He indicated the last suit, a much older man who gave a double-handed shake, like he was confiding something and trusting you with it. Jack didn’t give him a name. He didn’t offer it. He remained the business associate. Apparently, a lot of senators have them.

“A pleasure, gentlemen.” I nodded my head towards the senator and his advisor, then separately to the business associate. I gently pivoted on one heel to put Card in the same neglected quadrant as Dom. “And I apologize, senator, for having you at such a disadvantage. Although there’s not much of me out there, you are certainly not concealed from the public eye.”

“Life of public office, Mr. Cooper. Always in the limelight.” He took a hearty tug off his drink and motioned at the close space of the sitting room. “Except when I choose not to be, I suppose.”

A waitress opened the door near the Secret Service agent. He remained stock still as she carried her small silver tray over. She exchanged one glass on the tray for the one that was nearly finished in the senator’s hand, offered a glass of red wine to the business associate, and something layered to Card. Chao had a glass of wine, as well, but he never drank from it. And Dom had apparently reached his one drink limit, and she deftly plucked his glass of melted ice without providing a replacement. She proffered a stylized mason jar, “And a house whiskey for you, Mr. Cooper.”

“Thank you, dear.” The odor was sharp, but inviting. Jack eyed me with an inquisitive look, but it was Card who couldn’t resist.

“Apparently, it’s true. You can take the man out of the substreets, but—”

“But you should never take a boy outside the Beltway,” I finished. I raised the jar. “To progress, gentlemen.”

“Progress and profit,” the business associate seconded.

“Cheers, gentlemen.” The senator already seemed pleased as we toasted.

Card was the last to chime in but it was only overshadowed by Dom’s uncertainty of what to do without a drink in his hand. He settled on taking an interest in the crystal chandelier above the dining room table.

“I have to ask, Mr. Cooper, is that,” Card indicated Walt, “going to loom over us during our meal?”

“Walter can await my return at the car if he frightens you.” I turned my back toward Card and nodded to Walt. “I feel perfectly safe here. Thank you, Walter.”

As Walt let himself out, a feigned an apologetic tone. “Very sorry, senator. As the astute Mr. Card noticed, my substreet upbringing can sometimes get the best of me.”

“It’s a shame what happens to them. I have to say, it genuinely hurts me inside to know what’s become of our boys overseas. But they can rest assured –and you go ahead and tell your boy Walt this– we’re doing everything we can to develop an effective battery of treatments so we can bring ‘em all home.” The senator waved a dismissive hand. “And his secret’s safe here. I think it’s a testament to his love of his country that he found a way back. And, frankly, I know keeping him like you do isn’t cheap. You’re a patriot to me, Cooper!”

He clapped my shoulder again and I started to grind my teeth behind my tight smile. Then I remembered that this was all part of the climb, and Walt wanted to be a part of it, too. The business associate cleared his throat, and once he started talking, I picked up on the oil country accent. “If you don’t mind me sayin’, you let your security man leave you here pretty easily.”

“Well, sir, I’ve learned that if powerful men want to hurt you, there’s not much you can do to keep that from happening. It will just turn into a matter of time.” I indicated the agent in the corner. “The Secret Service puts the best in the world around our leaders. I’m not going to squander Walt on a fight he can’t win.”

“So you give up easy, huh?” Card was smirking into his drink.

“No, I just have to retain my value. Or, failing that, I have to carry a cost.” I sipped at my own drink, savoring that burn down my throat that exploded in my stomach.

“How so?” The business associate leaned closer.

“Well, I’d like to think I have value to the senator. But I also think he doesn’t care about me enough to need to rid me of my security and do something unpleasant, let alone do it in person. I hope I’m right, sir.” I looked at Jack who wore a thoughtful look and twirled his finger, encouraging me to continue. “Mr. Card, though. He’s the one who wanted me to get rid of Walt. And I don’t have any value to you, do I?”

A smug look crossed his face as he saw the opportunity to parrot my tone from earlier. “Nope.”

“That’s why I also come with a cost. If Mr. Card gets any untoward ideas in his head and he acts on them, he feels safe in the knowledge that the Secret Service agent will take care of him. And, I’m sure, rightfully so.” If it was true, the agent gave no outward indication when I glanced his way. “Instead, I need Mr. Card to know what it will cost him, if he acts out of line.”

“Interesting, Cooper,” quipped Jack, his voice shifting towards doubt. “But, Mr. Card has worked with me a great deal in the past. He’s been paid well. Cost is much less of a concern for him than I think you believe it is.”

“Of course, he’s well paid, sir. That’s the very reason I’m here, in fact.” I spared him a quick smile. “No, I’m talking about a personal cost. Walt’s not going to wait in the parking lot for me. I’m taking a hired cab home this evening. Walt should already be on his way to the Columbia Enclave. He’s a bit of a lead foot, so he may already be on foot in full tactical mode by the time we finish our discussion.”

 I watched Card’s eyes narrow slightly. He tapped at the sensors on his data-specs. He was probably trying to get a view of the parking garage, but there was no way he had easy access to the Other Coast’s security data.

“The personal cost to Mr. Card, would be Carol, along with little June and April.” His mouth worked, open but without any words yet. “Go ahead and bring up your home feeds, but you might want to turn them off before things get serious.”

“Fucker!” He lunged at me and his one hand flailed over my arm, knocking my drink to the floor. My sleeve got soaked as I brought my other hand up to shield my head from another wild blow.

Then the agent was there. The concrete gray of his jacket sleeve wrapped under Card’s neck faster than I could see. The blue data-specs fell to the floor while his face ran a deepening spectrum of red. I looked at my damp sleeve with mock surprise before turning to the stony-faced senator. “That’s what I would do, anyway. If I thought Mr. Card had any reason to want to do me harm, I mean. But we’re all civilized men, here, talking hypothetically before we talk real world business. Preparing for the worst case doesn’t mean those are at all the sorts of things I expect from our upcoming endeavors. There’s little money in violence, senator, that’s why I’m here.”

Card was choked unconscious before he could hear me making my point out loud.

on to Chapter 4 >>

23 Jun

Saturday Morning Serial: Subdomain, Chapter 2

Subdomain

<< back to Chapter 1

II.

Walt took the high road, just so we could city lights glittering across the dome. We were still outside the beltway, but from up here you could see the good life. Just taking the high road could be considered part of the good life for some. The extra debits would sting most folks’ accounts. I think he wanted to show off the prize, a poetic “this is the first drive on a road to great things” gesture. He even stole an understated yet distinguished-looking sedan just for the occasion.

People think he’s rough muscle, and he is. But he has imagination. He decided pretty early on who he wanted to back. Then, once he realized the Deployed Service wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, he snuck back home and decided to back me. Walt remained the dutiful soldier, but the long road home helped him redefine loyalty.

His eyes didn’t stop scanning the broad swath of priority commuter highway as he tapped a broad knuckle against the interior window. His accent, the product of a culture perpetually immersed in foreign languages, was unmistakable. “Hell of a sight, yah?”

“Certainly is, Walt. I’m glad you took us this way.” The high-rises brushed the ceiling of the atmospheric dome, obscuring all of the capital’s historic landmarks. But spikes of white light punched skyward from within the dome, letting you know that monuments to long gone presidents were not forgotten. Nope, those stayed lit to remind the nation, and the world, of our proud history. Never mind that outside the dome those beams of light yellowed and disappeared in the filthy atmosphere. “That’s where we’re headed, huh? Not tonight, but soon enough.”

“Never thought I was gonna see it again. Other than the pics they always had posted for us, I mean. And those never looked like home. All the parts I knew were cropped, you know?”

Yeah, I knew. Everything unsightly gets cropped. Riding up here, you couldn’t even try to see the place Walt called home. Even the highways cropped out the ugly side of life for the people above it. “Did you even see the dome as a kid?”

“From my mom’s apartment?” Walt gave a short, guttural bark, his idea of a laugh. “Hell, no. Me and my boys would scale the overpasses, free climb all the way up, and just sit here in the middle of the highway.”

Go high enough and there was never enough traffic to justify what had been built. We were the only car I’d seen for fifteen minutes. “So, what? You’d sit up here, look down on everybody, and think ‘someday my car could be the one to run some kid down,’ is that it?”

“Nah. We’d drink beer and piss over the side.”

“How about now?”

“Don’t have time for it now.” Walt’s gaze darted to meet mine in the rearview for an instant. “Doesn’t mean I still  wouldn’t, though.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “No, man. What do you think of being up here now?”

The tires thumped once as Walt steered onto the ramp, a steep plunge toward the bypasses that led to the supra-surface streets. He pretended to mind the route while he thought for a few minutes. “Guess, I just think that I’m finally getting what I was promised, the chance to come home and have something.”

“Did you really believe them? When you joined, I mean.”

“Hard to say, Mr. Cooper. I think I wanted to believe more than I really did.” His neck rippled as the flecks surged for a minute, knowing he was agitated but not certain what to do about it yet. He massaged the bulging down with a practiced motion of his fingers.

“Just asking, Walt. It’s cool.” Not everything we’re told about why Deployed Service vets can’t come home is a lie. Before he was getting regular treatments, Walt had less control. A lot less control, sometimes. You see the underground documentaries, shake your head, and call it a human tragedy. Then you see one of the “we told you so” productions, the ones that air when too much public sympathy starts to build. No matter how much you tell yourself “that’s a human being,” you’re sure you’ve seen a monster when it’s over. I actually think it’s better that they usually show doctored footage, stuff that’s been cleaned up a little, in those productions. The public doesn’t want to see what their soldiers really do. And it would probably hurt enlistment.

“It’s fine. It’s managed.” Walt put his hand back on the wheel. “I shouldn’t, but sometimes I still just feel… maybe, disappointed? That might be the word for it. And it’s not even all the lies that get you there, get you flecked, and then get you re-upping your doses until you know you’re never coming home. No, I’m disappointed because sometimes we were doing good stuff, the right things. We were doing things in other countries that you just wish the Domestic Service was doing here. Like why did we have the free food, the automedics, the dowsing rods? Meanwhile Domestic Service gets armament and defense upgrades, what, annually? Come on!

“Sure, we had our weapons, too, but there were days when I’d just stand guard by an automedic and watch it work on kid after kid. You can’t even imagine how many kids! It felt good to do that shit. I guess not everyday was like that. Way more ugly things, really, but…” And he was gone. Walt checked out of the conversation and we rode toward the meet in silence. Talking for that long was about his limit, especially when it came to the Service.

I’d known him for two years and I won’t even pretend that I brought him on as a charity case. He was getting paid because he was a terrifying man, trained for terrifying circumstances, and full of countless terrifying little machines. I wasn’t weaning him off shit. With fleck, there’s no such thing anyway. I helped him maintain. Later, I’d help him re-up, not for any Service, just for me. There’s no nobility in it, I don’t preach some kind of “greater good” rationalization. I could sleep at night by telling myself that in exchange for helping me get what I wanted, I treated him like a human being.

I can’t call it a fair trade. But, long before he signed on with the Deployed Service, back when he was a kid pissing from overpasses, Walt knew better than to ever expect a fair trade.

on to Chapter 3 >>

16 Jun

Saturday Morning Serial: Subdomain, Chapter 1

Subdomain

I.

I hate to break it to you, but I end up being the good guy of this story. You’ll eventually get over it.  I did. You may even start to like me. I’m still working on that part. It was a lot easier before—liking myself, I mean. I couldn’t get enough of myself back then. I had a lot of friends, a lot of associates, and even more acquaintances. Better still, I had people around who handled things. They’re almost all gone now, except for a few. That’s why I’m not the one beating the Senator to death here in the kitchen.

And that is precisely why you always want to have people around who do things for you. I’m trying to get out of the habit of showing up to functions with rosy knuckles. It was a comparatively new and short-lived habit. But, it’s turning out to be a hard habit to break now that I’ve started. Knowing that I’m not quite done is making it harder still. Seeing Miriam fire her bony fist into somebody’s gut yielded a lot more satisfaction when I knew it wasn’t personal. Eventually, though, you realize that everything’s personal. Then the clipped yelp that everyone has crouched inside them, the sound that gets cut off by the quick cough of air, suddenly falls somewhere short of satisfaction. Letting someone else drag that sound from a person that wronged you, it feels like someone is stealing from you, even when you told them to do it.

Little Miriam is a wonder to behold, at least when she’s working. When she isn’t lightly bouncing on her feet, ponytail swaying and bobbing as she delivers textbook boxing blows, she’s unimpressive. A too-small nose was long ago pushed out of place between her dull brown eyes. The perpetual bruise-like circles beneath them, along with her dark eyebrows and limp bangs, make her look like she’s always out of the light. And a sallow complexion makes it seem like she’s never been in it. But let her work, and suddenly her eyes come alive.

Muscles emerge out of what looks like a pre-teen boy’s physique, but only for the instant of a jab. When she darts in with an uppercut, legs that looked just a little too twiggy to be pretty abruptly reveal the calf muscles that were there all along. Working, Miriam’s frame suddenly seems too tiny to contain the energy inside it and every crisp punch looks like that energy bursting free. When I watch her at full speed I often don’t realize what she’s even done. Then, much later, I remember a combination I witnessed but could not process in real time.

Times like this, though, she can slow down, taking time to pick her shots, and demonstrate picture perfect technique. I appreciate her effort, but it almost distracts me from the satisfaction I wanted from seeing Jack’s beating.

Maybe I’ll have her start over.

I rub my knuckles. Maybe I’ll have a go. But he got blood and spit—or snot maybe—on my shoes when I was kicking his face before Walt dropped the Senator into a chair. I’ll kick a man when he’s down, especially when I’m returning a favor.

I have places to be, though, and a shoeshine is quicker than getting new suit. I watch Walt pull the man’s arms behind his slumping body to keep him in place for Miriam. She lands a cross and darts back, for no reason other than to satisfy herself. Jack is way past putting up a fight.

“Alright.” I put my hand on the small of her back. Her t-shirt is damp with sweat. She’s really been putting her all into this one. It might be her way of saying she’s sorry. Miriam steps away, her shoulders slump, and she grabs an apron off a nearby countertop to wipe her hands. Her flattened, gnarled knuckles and thick fingers are the only thing noteworthy about her now. Otherwise, slouched by the sink, she’s gone back to looking like an unremarkable, almost feeble, young woman.

Walt takes the opportunity to stretch, keeping the Senator upright by palming the man’s blood-slicked head like a basketball while flexing his other arm. Unlike Miriam, there’s no second-guessing exactly what Walt is. Looking past the six-foot slab of meat that never moves unless it wants to, beyond the blurring lines of intermingling tattoos that trail down his neck past his collar to reemerge from his stretched sleeves, the hundreds of silver gleams in his eyes tell the story of a longtime fleck user. If Miriam’s eyes are usually dead, Walt’s are death.

“We done here, Coop?” Walt’s other hand is already wrapping around Jack’s neck. The tips of his fingers could probably reach the heel of his palm without much effort. But that effort would be the end of the Senator to be sure.

“Not yet.” I’ve still got a use or two for Jack, as much as it pains me. Walt seems less disappointed than I am. His grip eases slightly. A ripple of muscle shudders back up the length of his arm when the flecks learn that Walt has changed his mind about crushing what’s in his grasp. I see the bulge of some of the little machines pooling near his temple and he absent-mindedly massages it flat.

I dunk a rag in the dishwater and jab at the purple-black swelling on the Senator’s face and make a token effort to wipe away some blood but it only smears. He tries to flinch away but Walt’s hand on his head holds him immobile. “Any speeches for me, Jack? Something like, ‘Today we do what must be done.’ Or what about, ‘Things can always get better?’ That was personal favorite of mine. I love it when you promise us tomorrow. Guess what, Jack? Things can always get better.”

His eyes roll back in his head so I dig the rag into the gash above his eye. A gurgling wheeze lets me know I still have his attention. “Really, Jack. Maybe tomorrow things can get better. I mean, just look at today. Things certainly aren’t going to get any worse for you, right? The guy you used and, not only discarded but completely wiped, isn’t going to come get you tomorrow. No, of course not! Because he’s here today, Jack. I’m here today. And I’ve finally decided what I want to do.”

And I have. This very moment I’ve decided what I’m going to do.

“I’m not rebuilding my little domain, Jack. I’m over it. I’m over it all. I learned what you and your people never, ever seem able to learn. So I’m going to teach you. And not just you, not just like this. No, this is going to be the real lesson. Just like you showed me that my little domain could be unmade, I’m going unmake yours.” I dig at the gash again and he tries to blink the steady drizzle of blood from his eye. “And I don’t mean your estate, your accounts, your standing with the Aristocracy. Not your wife’s connections, or your kids’ school placements, or even your rationing exemptions. No, that’s already done. And, you know, I don’t think it’s even possible to fuck you over any more than this.”

A bubble stretches between his lips. A sheen of red swirls across its surface like an oil slick. He makes a sound, a sound I recognize. I made it once. It’s the sound you make when you realize there’s no return. And even though I’m standing in front of him again, after all this time, it’s true. There is no return. I’m glad he knows.

“But, if I’m being honest with you Jack—and I know honesty is important to a political figure such as yourself—it’s not just about you anymore. It’s not your fault. Do you hear me?

“Despite the fact that every single one of you believes it’s our fault, I’m letting you off the hook. I’m telling you it’s not your fault. We can probably even agree on where the real blame lies. The System. It was the System that landed you in the Aristocracy, in the Senate, and now, in this very kitchen with me. And it was the System that led to the Great Spiral. The System is the reason there’s close to a quarter-billion For-Foods across the country and another quarter-billion Absentees who are even worse off. The System is even to blame for people like me! And now, the system can be blamed for what I’m going to do, not just to you, but to everyone like you.

“Oh, another favorite speech of mine, I just remembered it. The one about sharing the burden. ‘It’s time the American people shared the burden!’ I think that was the first time we were invited to share anything with you guys. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s been quite the burden so I hope you guys are ready, because I’m going to start sharing.”

Like I said, I end up being the good guy.

on to Chapter 2 >>

15 Jun

What You’ll Wake to Find

I have too many ideas. Inevitably, while I work on some, others languish on the scraps of paper that literally swirl around my desk when I turn on the fan that adjusts the temperature in my office from Infernal down to Cambodian. Certain projects clearly get to lead the way, they represent definitively paying work. Other projects are in the “work that will eventually pay” category. But so many things, some of favorites at times, are part of the notepad tornado that likely won’t lead to checks in anything but the long term: short story ideas with no clear (paying) market, the seeds of essays with (almost absolutely) no market, and novels that are hard to justify writing when I compare time to money.

On good days, it’s like standing in a cyclone of creative ideas. I can just pluck one from the air and have material for a week. But, on the bad days, I look around and realize I’m sitting in room filled with corpses.

To address this, to make sure I get to work on something fun when the fun thing I’ve got to do turns into work, I’m picking one of these half-formed ideas and writing it. I’m taking a serial approach with it so, once a week, there will be a new episode, chapter, whatever waiting here for you. And that means I have an excuse to work on it, piece by piece. What you’ll get is the draft as I plow forward toward the finish line, so don’t expect a masterpiece. Come to think of it, never expect a masterpiece. I don’t need that kind of pressure.

Saturday Morning Serial starts in the morning. And you might want to hold off on your breakfast.