In an effort to get people interested in my book, I thought I’d post the first section. Technically Amazon does this for you, but Amazon’s system is broken and goofy. It only shows the first seven pages if you’re trying to preview the paperback version. It gives you more if you’re looking at the kindle version, but then it cuts off at a dumb spot.
I know I promised we’d do a spoiler thread on the book, but apparently a lot of people are still working their way through it. So let’s save the spoilers for later. This week I’ll post the opening. Next week I’ll post a section from later in the book. Then we can do spoilers.
Here is the introduction:
After a long career of scams, heists, counterfeiting, and cons, the city finally managed to put him away for a crime he didn’t commit. As of today, he’s done serving his sentence. Deep down, he knows he technically shouldn’t be mad about it. The crimes he got away with would add up to a lot more than the three years he just served. He always said that Rivergate is a city incapable of justice.
Max is standing in the middle of the deck of the ferry. He heard that you get more seasick if you stay near the side of the boat where the vertical motion is strongest so he’s up against the wall of the bridge, clinging to some metal pipes or columns or whatever. He’s trying to look casual like he’s just leaning, but he’s gripping the pipes with white-knuckle ferocity. He’s staring through the barbed-wire fence that encloses the entire deck and trying to keep his eyes fixed on the horizon. One of the other inmates told him that watching the horizon was good for avoiding seasickness, but now he’s wondering if they were just fucking with him.
All the other guys are at the front of the boat, as if standing closer to the shore would somehow bring them to freedom that much sooner. A couple of prison heavies are on the deck with the prisoners, clad in black tactical armor and casually fidgeting with the bone-shattering billy clubs hanging from their wrists. Up above are perches where a couple of guards are standing with one hand resting on their imposing crowd shredders. Max tries to imagine how much stronger the motion of the ship must be at that height and his eyes begin watering. The guards all have their eyes to the front, where the prisoners have gathered in clusters according to their social / criminal class.
It’s strange seeing the other inmates in their street clothes. For the last three years everyone here has been wearing bright yellow jumpsuits. In their society of transients there was only one class of person: an inmate. The only social status was how long you’d been around. But now everyone is wearing indicators of their station in life. Some guys are dressed in gang leathers. Some are in rags. Some are dressed in gaudy tourist T shirts and denim. Max is the only one in a suit.
What is he supposed to do if he needs to puke? The fencing means you can’t lean over the side. Max takes comfort in the fact that nobody seems to be looking in his direction. If he does throw up, he won’t have to do it with everyone staring at him.
He reflexively sticks his right hand into his pocket for cigarettes. He doesn’t find any because the cops swiped his smokes when they picked him up. Instead he finds an unfamiliar soft object. He pulls it out to discover it’s his wadded-up necktie. He starts to put it on, but halfway through the process he starts feeling green again and he decides he really doesn’t want anything around his neck right now.
Cigarette, coffee, cheeseburger, whore, revenge. He closes his eyes for a moment and thinks about his plan. It gives his brain something to hold onto so he can shut out the chaotic rocking.
“Hey man, you got a cigarette?”
Max opens his eyes to see one of the other inmates has come over to strike up a conversation by asking the stupidest question possible. Of course he doesn’t have any cigarettes.
Max ignores him and keeps his eyes straight ahead. He’s not feeling very social at the moment and he’s afraid if he opens his mouth the only thing that will come out is his dinner.
The other prisoners are all rubbing their bare scalps and stroking their chins, and Max can tell everyone is talking about what kind of hair and beards they’re going to grow now that they’re allowed. A couple of them snuck in a day of stubble as a head start. Max didn’t want to do anything to piss off his captors and risk staying another week, so he’s still smooth. He absent-mindedly rubs the top of his head as he wonders where his hairline is these days. It had already moved back on him a couple of inches before he went to prison.
The guys dressed as tourists aren’t actually tourists, of course. Rivergate doesn’t throw tourists in prison without a spectacularly good reason. These guys were arrested while disguised as tourists, probably as part of a scheme to rip them off. Rivergate is merciless with criminals who muck with the city’s tourist trade, which is why Max stopped targeting foreigners back when he was a teenager. It’s much easier and safer to steal from the bloated dysfunctional factions within the city, who probably won’t notice they’ve been ripped off until he’s long gone. This is another reason he’s so pissed off about getting caught. Not only was he wrongfully convicted, but he was convicted of a stupid, amateuer-level crime.
“Hey. C’mon. Just one.”
Max turns slightly to one side to face this guy. He’s older. Maybe fifty. Scars. Replacement teeth. Crooked nose. Twitchy movements. Threadbare clothes about fifteen years out of style. This guy’s a scrapper. The lowest possible tier of criminal. In a world where you can steal millions through surveillance and subterfuge, it takes a special breed of willful idiocy to get into street fights over the contents of someone’s wallet. Max needs to play this just right because this is the kind of guy who’s willing to fight even when it goes against his own self-interest.
“Nobody has any cigarettes,” Max says in a flat voice. He can’t show contempt or it might provoke him. Showing fear would do the same thing. He goes back to watching the horizon.
“Some guys hide them,” the scrapper says.
“Some guys,” Max nods. “And if anyone on this boat had cigarettes, they’d be smoking them right now. Nobody’s smoking, so nobody has any cigarettes.”
“You look like you think you’re clever. I know you got some cigarettes. Gimme one.” The scrapper is pissed off now. His eyes are open wide and his jaw is clenched. He’s priming himself for an assault.
Max pushes off from the wall and stands up straight so he’s got control of his weight. This guy is hard to read and Max isn’t sure when he might pounce.
The scrapper has noticed Max’s suit and concluded he’s a soft white-collar criminal. He’s wrong, but there’s no point in trying to change his mind. Max is going to have to deal with this. Adrenaline hits his bloodstream and takes the edge off the seasickness.
The two of them are about even in terms of height and body mass. The scrapper’s facial wreckage suggests he’s not a particularly cunning fighter. If Max was betting on this fight, he’d feel reasonably safe betting on himself. The problem is that if he gets into a fight now then they won’t let him off the boat when it reaches shore. Even if the fight is obviously not his fault, both of them will get dragged back to prison. If that happens, Max won’t have another shot at freedom until the ferry makes another run. The ferry only runs on Sundays. Max needs to somehow beat this guy without fighting him.
Max locks eyes with him saying, “Now’s a good time to quit anyway. We’ve already gone through withdrawal.” He needs to keep the scrapper talking until he comes up with a plan.
“I don’t want to quit. I want your cigarettes.”
Max begins going through his pockets as if he’s looking for cigarettes. He’s actually taking inventory to see what he’s got to work with. In his right pocket is his silver lighter, a gift from a colleague after a successful heist. In his left pocket is his plastic lighter, which he uses in neighborhoods or situations where flashing a silver lighter would be imprudent. Aside from his handheld and the necktie draped over his shoulders, this is a complete list of the items in his possession.
Max tries to keep his tone detached as he says, “Cigarettes are really bad for you. That’s why they don’t let us smoke inside. If you quit now you might live longer.” Max actually thinks the regulations are stupid and counterproductive. Sure, outside of prison it’s a good idea to give up smoking. But if you’re looking to increase your lifespan then the last thing you want is to be locked in a steel box with a bunch of criminals who are all restless and agitated on account of nicotine withdrawal.
“You want to live longer? Gimme your cigarettes. Right now.”
This is it. No more stalling. He has to move here or he’ll be in a fight that will cost him another week of his life even if he wins. Max lowers his shoulders as if giving up. He plunges his hand into his left pocket.
“Okay, you want my cigarettes? Take them.” Max pulls the lighter out of his pocket and whips it in the direction of one of the heavies.
Predictably, the scrapper watches the object as it sails through the air, stopping when it hits one of the guards right in the ear. Max resists the urge to smile. Good throw. By the time the scrapper and the guard lock eyes, Max has already resumed his position holding onto the wall. He does his best to keep his eyes forward, looking as bored as possible.
The impact is harmless, but the heavy lets out a curse in surprise. The posture of everyone on the deck changes in the space of a few seconds. The guards were ignoring them, but now all eyes are on the scrapper. The heavies are brandishing their clubs and the guards overhead have brought their weapons into some sort of ready position.
To the west, the city is a silhouette against an orange sunset. The dark jagged buildings stretch out to the north and south. The clouds (or maybe it’s the smog; he rarely sees the city at a distance like this) catch the light and make it look like the city is backlit with fire.
Cigarette, coffee, cheeseburger, whore, revenge. The people who framed him would get what they deserved once he’d settled the other stuff. He’s spent the last three years debating the details and ordering of these tasks. Maybe he should have the smoke after the cheeseburger so it doesn’t kill his taste buds? Maybe the cigarette would be more thematically appropriate after the whore? Maybe he shouldn’t take up smoking again, since he already went through withdrawal when he was locked up? Maybe he’ll end up released on a hot day when he won’t want coffee? And so on. Eventually he decided that logic be damned, this was the order. If that meant he was going to sit there in the hot August sun and drink his piping hot coffee, then that’s what he was going to do because that was how he planned it. The plan kept him going inside, and he needs to follow through.
It’s going well enough so far. It’s a chilly September 2nd, and a fine evening for coffee.
“Is this your lighter?”
Max turns his attention back to the action at hand. One of the heavies is holding up the plastic lighter. The scrapper is shaking his head and pointing in Max’s direction.
“Is this your lighter?” the heavy asks again.
Max pulls out his silver lighter and flips it open. Obviously that can’t be his lighter. Why would a white-collar criminal like himself carry a cheap plastic lighter?
The scrapper starts to say something, but is cut short when the heavies go to work. He starts out screaming profanities, but he’s all squeals and grunts once the air is knocked out of him.
Max shuffles to the side so the assault isn’t in the center of his field of vision. Guards can be a little volatile once you get them worked up and nobody wants to do anything to draw attention to themselves. All of the prisoners go silent and focus their attention on the shore. The only safe way to deal with this is to pretend it isn’t happening.
The ship begins to turn and he slams his eyes shut in response. He loses track of which way the ship is moving and he can’t even tell when the turn is over. When he opens them again Lady Halona has swung into view.
If you include her elaborate headpiece, Halona stands 200 feet high. She’s mostly made of white bronze. Some people claim plastics were used around her arms to enable them to maintain their outstretched position. She’s wearing an ankle-length robe that’s flowing in the breeze, although the wind is depicted as coming from the east, which goes against how things actually work around here. The robe leaves very little to the imagination. You can see both her belly button and her clavicle through the fabric, although not her nipples since that would have been taboo back when she was made. At high tide it looks like she’s standing on the water, but it’s low tide now and you can see the dreary slab of slime-covered concrete supporting her.
She was a “gift” from The Republic of Kasaran about 150 years ago, during a decades-long occupation. She’s posed with her back to the city, facing eastward towards where Kasaran trade ships headed with all the trade goods they’d bought. She’s standing with her chin held high, back arched, offering two enormous platters to the east. On the right platter is food, and on the left platter is a ball of fire, which is supposed to represent the fossil fuel exports the city was so famous for at the time. These days the city runs on tourism and opiate exports, but nobody is interested in updating the statue with that information. When Max was a kid he thought she looked kind of like a waitress that was just about to stumble forward and spill everything.
Her original name was “Avanacenda”, which is a tricky word from the Kasaran language that means, “Person who is incredibly rich, but also very generous with their wealth”. It’s supposed to be a compliment, but if someone breaks into your house and “buys” your stuff for prices negotiated at gunpoint, then having them award you a trophy labeled “World’s Most Generous Person” will probably come off as a little hollow and patronizing. Making the compliment even more uncomfortable is the fact that “Avanacenda” also means, “really attractive but easy woman”. (Or in some informal uses, “really pretty whore”.) Her creators really did intend her to be a gift and a compliment, but it wasn’t taken that way.
At the time, the peasants of Rivergate – who were just barely more than slave labor and had no understanding of the political implications of this statue – decided it must be an image of Halona, who was their goddess of harvests and hearths. To their minds, who else could she be? She’s holding both fire and food! Their perception of Halona was gradually warped by the statue. Halona’s “hearth” aspect had to do with cooking, but once the statue went up the faithful decided she was in charge of everything fire-based, including building fires and gathering resources to make them. Eventually the women started facing the statue when they prayed for her to provide a good harvest and protect their husbands from mine collapse.
A decade after the statue went up, Kasaranians had to withdraw because they were getting their asses kicked by some other country. They wound up getting occupied themselves for a generation or so. Once word got around regarding the real meaning and intent of the statue, the people of Rivergate began to view her as a grave insult from a conquering nation. She might have been torn down, but at the same time the Rivergate tourist industry was just starting to take off. Rich foreigners were showing up with their heads full of stories about the city’s exotic foods, cheap opiates, attractive women, and their unconventional monotheism built around a female deity. Rivergate had a dozen religions and none of them were remotely monotheistic, but they weren’t ones to ruin a good story with the truth. Rather than tear down Avanacenda, they embraced her as Halona and went on to mythologize the shit out of her.
Occasionally some idiot tourist will get wind of this and try to explain to a tour guide what Halona’s original meaning was. (As if the locals were ignorant of their own city.) Usually, the tour guide (or whoever) will explain that the statue was still part of “Halona’s plan”. Everything feeds back into the mythology, because that’s how you keep the tourists interested. Sure, you can tell the ignorant dumbass that you know perfectly well where the fucking statue came from, but if you play dumb then their pity and guilt will keep those foreign dollars flowing.
As the ship passes, Max dares a sideways glance at Halona. He doesn’t usually get to see her up close like this. Someone has spray painted “KASEREN KILLER ROB-” on the north-facing side of the statue, which is the outside of Halona’s left foot. The vandal was, unsurprisingly, not good at planning ahead. They evidently ran out of room and so the rest of the message wraps around to the backside of the foot, which Max can’t see from this vantage point. Still, it’s not hard to figure out that the last word must be “ROBBER”. Or possibly “ROBBERS”. Either way, it makes for an odd message. The lettering is runny and the spacing is terrible (not to mention the spelling) but Max is still impressed that someone managed to get out here and do all of this without getting caught. A boat would probably get noticed before it got close, and it’s a long swim.
Max wants to read the rest of the message. Someone evidently put a lot of effort into it and he’s curious what they were trying to say. At the same time, he’s not eager to let go of his spot on the heaving boat. Finally his curiosity gets the better of him and he gently pushes off from the wall, aiming for the fence on the port side. He has to walk past the limp body of the scrapper to get there. The guards have relented and staggered away to catch their breath. Max is pretty sure the guy is still breathing, but he doesn’t care enough to stop and check.
Max lunges the final two steps and his fingers clamp onto the chain-link fence to keep him upright. As the boat passes the statue, he presses his face against the fence to see what the vandal had to say about “Kaseran killer robbers”.
On this side, a city robot is standing on the concrete platform, sandblasting the message. The only bit remaining is the letter O. Which means the message currently says “Kaseren killer robo”. Max stares at the letter O as it gradually vanishes, trying to make sense of it. Killer robot? Robots? Neither one makes sense. Did the vandal turn the corner and forget what they were writing about?
The robot itself is also scrawled with graffiti. Max can’t read it at this distance, but he can see the it’s been dented up for some reason. That’s unexpected. These things are expensive, and the city is usually pretty good about taking care of them.
He turns around, leans against the fence, and curses himself as he reflexively reaches for cigarettes he doesn’t have. It’s been three years since his last smoke, but wearing his old clothes has reignited all the old mannerisms. He realizes that since he doesn’t have any cash, he won’t be able to buy smokes until he recovers his money.
When he went in, he rented a drop box near the docks and told his bank to clear out his account and have everything sent to the box. He did this on his handheld while sitting in police custody. Eventually one of the cops saw this and took his device away. He was literally thumbing the big green “APPROVE” button as they yanked it out of his hand. He’s got five thousand bucks, which should now be waiting for him in box #6641. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to get him his smokes, coffee, cheeseburger, whore, and a place to stay for a couple weeks so he can get his feet under him and start earning again. Taking down cops isn’t a thing to be done lightly and he’s going to need some real capital to make it happen.
He pulls out his handheld, thinking he might check his accounts on the off chance he’s got some forgotten spare change stored in one of them. But of course the battery discharged two years and eleven months ago. He stuffs it back in his breast pocket, looks again for cigarettes, and then jams his right hand into his pants pocket just to keep it still. The left one is still busy keeping him upright.
The ship moves into the shadow of the city and the lights fade into view. Down on street level is the pale signage of the shabby storefronts that serve locals. Above that is the tourist deck (called “The Promenade”, which sounds better to foreigners) and all of the leering neon billboards soliciting their custom. Above that is the sea of dark concrete and pale blue light that makes up all of the non-tourist parts of the city. Rivergate is wedged into a spot that makes expansion difficult, so the city has needed to build up rather than out. The buildings are staggered along the coast to increase the number of windows with a view of the ocean, but once you get a few blocks inland Rivergate becomes a crisscrossing network of sheer canyons. She isn’t anywhere near the richest city in the world and she’s far from the most technologically advanced. She doesn’t have any of the top ten tallest buildings in the world. But her tight footprint and dense population mean she’s among the tallest cities in the world in terms of average building height.
Overhead he can see the wandering searchlights of the night patrol drones. Above those, some of the mobile billboards have begun their nightly cruise around the city. Above that, the orange sky is fading to a weak and starless grey.
The ferry docks. The guys stand up straight like they’re going to walk off right now. Technically they were “released” from prison three hours ago, but this is a bureaucratic operation to the core and there’s at least another half hour of dicking around before anyone can walk through the metal gate and down the gangplank.
The scrapper is dragged off below decks so he won’t get in the way of the proceedings, although nobody seems to be in a hurry to clean up the bloody puddle he left behind. Max steps over it and takes his place in line. It doesn’t look like anyone here was friends with the scrapper and nobody is glaring at him, which means nobody is blaming him for what happened. Probably. Still, a lot of these guys are from different cell blocks and are unfamiliar to him. It’s risky to make assumptions about loyalties and group structures. It’s possible he’s just made an enemy and he doesn’t even know it yet.
He doesn’t want to spend the whole night looking over his shoulder. He decides to put himself last in line so he’s got everyone else in front of him.
The group is subjected to another round of facial ID just to make sure the right people are leaving. Then they have to sign a receipt for themselves so the city can’t be blamed if they go missing later. They also have to certify that they were given back all of their possessions. This isn’t true for anyone, but raising a fuss about stolen cigarettes, jewelry, and pocket money would require optimism that borders on delusional. The fastest way to get free of the state is to just forget about whatever they took from you and move on.
It’s a long wait, and so his stomach has calmed by the time his turn comes around. As he’s going through the procedure of face-scanning and paper-signing, he gives a few sideways glances at the docks. Two guys in tourist outfits are lingering there.
“Don’t forget your lighter.”
Max turns to see one of the heavies standing behind him, offering him his plastic lighter. This is the same guy he hit in the ear earlier. Max freezes. Did someone see him make the throw? Or is this guy just looking for an excuse? The other heavy is standing in front of the exit, and there’s no way Max could get past him.
Keeping his voice as even as possible he says, “Not mine.”
The heavy steps forward and Max flinches slightly. He tucks the lighter into Max’s breast pocket and pats him on the shoulder. “It’s yours now. I don’t think the other guy is gonna need it anytime soon.”
Everything relaxes again. Max signs the papers and gets the fuck out of there. When he’s on dry land he has a careful look around, but the tourist guys are gone. He doesn’t know if they were waiting for him or not, which means he’s going to need to look over his shoulder until he finds his way back to the right side of town.
He puts on the tie and draws in a deep breath. It’s strange to be standing here on the streets of Rivergate in his old suit. Aside from being temporarily bald, nothing has really changed. He could almost pretend the last three years were just a bad dream.
He gets his bearings. This isn’t really his part of town. This is south-side territory, and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for a discriminating criminal to work with here. The people are poor, the businesses are low-yield and service-based, and the neighborhoods are kind of close-knit and insular. The only criminal opportunities involve stealing from the shipping warehouses. Messing with the warehouses means messing with exports and tourist trade, which is risky and there are already a lot of other, dumber criminals working that angle. Max hasn’t been in this part of the city since he was twenty.
He ducks into the closest business – a bar he’s never seen before – and takes a booth. He slaps his handheld down on the faded, beer-stained rectangle at the end of the table. After a few seconds the screen blinks to life and announces it’s charging.
It’s oddly quiet for 8PM. Then again, it’s Sunday night and the tourists usually stay on the other side of the river. It’s all locals this close to the south waterfront.
Max looks up to see the hard face of a middle-aged woman. She is not smiling. “What do?” is short for “What do you need?”, but it’s incredibly informal and not something you expect to hear from wait staff. Mixed with her flat tone, it’s the equivalent of, “I hope you don’t need anything, but if you do I suppose I can get it for you.”
Max shakes his head. “Nothing, thanks.”
“Then don’t take up my booth. Order something or get out.” She’s got a thick south-sider accent. She’s most likely pegged him as a northerner based on his accent. She probably doesn’t like his suit either. Southerners are descendants of miners and farmers. They have no patience for foreigners and even less for the people who serve them, such as northerners. He could have worked a local accent when he came in, but he didn’t think he’d need to win anyone’s favor just to sit in a booth for five minutes.
Max stops himself midway through reaching for cigarettes again. His clothes smell of cigarettes and it’s making him crazy. He nods at his phone. “Dead battery. I’ll order something once my wallet’s functioning again.”
“I’ll be back in a couple minutes to take your order.” She glares at him like she knows this is a ruse, but she’s willing to humor him for now.
Max watches his phone battery indicator tick upwards. As soon as it hits 10% he walks out the door. He doesn’t actually have any money in his wallet, because it’s all sitting in a drop box on the other side of the river. He’s a little uneasy being in an unfamiliar part of town like this. Things get pretty dangerous this far from the tourist hubs, and the streets seem to be designed to shunt foot traffic into blind alleys. Nothing is marked. He checks his handheld, but it only knows about the official streets and has no idea how to navigate the network of gaps between buildings. It doesn’t know which ones lead through and which ones might dead-end in a dark corner. He hears someone yelling in the distance. He doesn’t know if someone is calling to him or if it’s just a couple of drunken jackasses hooting at each other, but he knows enough to keep his eyes front and keep moving.
He finds a road sign that hasn’t been stolen or vandalized into illegibility, and that points him towards the Great Street Bridge. He knows he’s relatively safe once he crosses the bridge.
The Great Street Bridge is not actually a particularly great bridge. In the time of his grandfather there were only two bridges in town: The West Bridge and the Great Bridge. These days there are a dozen other bridges and all of them are more impressive than the Great Bridge. They’re all wider, taller, and more elaborately lit. The one interesting feature of the Great Bridge is that this is where the subway crosses the river. The White Train leaps from out of the depths and howls across the bridge between the two opposing lanes of traffic before disappearing into the ground on the other side. The train makes this two-tone vibrating sound that Max always found fascinating at a distance, like a banshee duet. But now that he’s on the bridge he’s discovered that the thing is as loud as a punch in the ear. There’s a low wall on either side of the train, and Max always assumed that, in addition to keeping idiot motorists off the tracks, it was there to take the edge off the sound. Maybe it does, but it’s still loud enough to make him stagger as it rushes by.
Max is still nursing his ear when a police scout glides by. It reaches a point a few car lengths ahead of him and then slows down to match his walking speed. After years of experience and discipline, he’s able to notice the police vehicle without self-consciously breaking stride or looking around nervously. Then he remembers he just got out of prison and he’s completely clean, which makes him wonder why this police drone is giving him a second look, which makes his steps falter as he nervously looks behind him. He realizes this makes him look incredibly guilty.
Technically, this drone shouldn’t care about body language or looking guilty. It’s got a pair of seats and can autodrive cops around the city if they order it to, but usually they send these things out to cruise the city autonomously and call in if the face scanner picks up a person of interest. It can’t detain people by itself, but it can call for help and follow you around until the meat-based cops show up. Max stands there nervously like a complete dumbass while this scout gives him a nice, long look.
He’s knocked out of his trance when the White Train blasts by again, giving him another punch in the ear.
“What? What the fuck is your problem?” he shouts at the rubbernecking drone. It doesn’t answer, but after another ten seconds of cryptic silence it glides away.
Then he remembers. He’s still bald and beardless. The scout was probably checking him out, making sure he’s not a fugitive. He practically runs the rest of the way across the bridge. It’s uncomfortable to run in a suit, but he doesn’t want to be anywhere near the next time the White Train passes.
Once he’s across the bridge and a few blocks into the North Side, he’s basically in his old neighborhood. He turns right and heads back towards the ocean. He’s sweating. He’s only walked a few miles, but he’s been sitting around a prison cell and he’s hopelessly out of shape. He passes by some of the noodle shops and his mouth starts watering. He hasn’t smelled noodles in three years and now it’s the only thing in the world he wants to eat. He even knows a few of the shop owners. They would probably spot him a free bowl to celebrate his release.
No. He shakes his head. He didn’t spend three years fantasizing about cigarette, coffee, cheeseburger, whore, revenge just so he could toss the entire plan aside the moment he’s home. He doggedly hikes past the noodle stands and donut shops to his goal.
He encounters a robot walking with a sandwich board sign. He can’t tell what the sign is supposed to say or who it’s advertising for, because someone has painted “I AM A SCAB” over the original content. Judging by the uneven writing, they must have done this while the robot was in motion.
It’s a standard worker robot, the kind you might find in a fancy hotel to carry around people’s luggage or deliver room service. No effort has been spent to make it look human. It’s got a capsule-shaped head and rigid white plastic for skin. It’s wearing a pinstripe dress shirt that Max recognizes as belonging to one of the Kasaranian hotel franchises.
Foreigners will pay hundreds of dollars a night to stay someplace where they don’t have to worry about tipping the bellhop an extra ten bucks. For them it’s not the money, it’s the social stress. Assuming you’re from a wealthy nation, then you’re going to be more comfortable with a robot. It can understand and speak your language without difficulty, will answer all of your questions without getting impatient, and won’t gossip about you to the other staff. It might get confused and it’s more likely than a human to get your order wrong, but it’s not going to get offended, laugh at you, or mock your attempts to speak Local. You’re free to treat it like an appliance and get on with your vacation.
A good robot is worth a fortune, and Max has no idea why this one is wandering the streets alone on a Sunday night. If he had the connections, he’d seriously think about grabbing this thing and stripping it for parts. As it passes, Max sees that the left side of its plastic head has been bashed in and crudely repaired. The paint is cracked and the surface is wrinkled. One of the glowing blue eyes looks off at a slight angle. It doesn’t speak to him, and it doesn’t care if he stares at it.
He reaches the Stardance, which is the whorehouse he’s going to visit later tonight. But the sign says Moon Shot and the overpowering purple neon lights have been replaced with overpowering red neon lights. The glowing star logo is gone, and instead the sign shows a rather sad and vaguely phallic rocket ship. The first-floor windows are now mirrors and the second floor windows have become a facade of glowing window-shaped rectangles. There aren’t any signs of construction, which means all of this happened months ago.
This really screws up his plans.
He’s got five thousand dollars, which is enough to bankroll the steps of the plan from cigarette to whore. Except now he’s got to vet this new whorehouse (or find another one) because he can’t afford to wander in like some dumb tourist. For all he knows this place could be owned by an enemy. Or maybe they’ve got cameras in the walls and they’re running a blackmail business. Max isn’t susceptible to blackmail, but he still doesn’t want to worry that there might be videos of his most private moments on some creep’s computer. Or maybe the place is run poorly and the girls carry diseases. You just don’t know. A lot of guys are happy to roll the dice and go to whatever whorehouse looks nice and has pretty girls, but to Max this is an indicator of the sort of carelessness that leads to death or prison. Max believes that taking care of your own life requires some due diligence, even if it makes you uncomfortable in the short term.
Sixteen years ago, at the age of 17, he made his first set of fake IDs and went to the Stardance with some friends. For a few of them, this was how they lost their virginity. Raff – the youngest of the group at just 16 – couldn’t afford the sex and had to settle for a lapdance. Afterward he claimed she’d given him sex anyway, which the rest of the crew magnanimously pretended to believe. Looking across the street at the former Stardance, he remembers that Raff was killed seven years ago when a job went wrong. He was trying to blow open a security door and mis-handled the explosives.
Max hangs his head, sighs, and reaches into his pocket to grab the empty spot where he expects to find cigarettes.
“Fuck!” he shouts at the pavement. He stamps his foot, shouts “fuck” one more time, and begins heading east again. He can smell the ocean now.
During his first and last visit to the Stardance as a customer, the girl had gone out of her way to talk about how much she wanted him and what a sexy stud he was. Except, he knew he was paying her, and he knew that her saying these things was part of the service. This ruined the whole experience by exposing the artifice behind it. She was saying this stuff because he was paying her to, and she was having sex with him for the same reason. When it was over he felt even less like a stud than when he walked in the door. He concluded that, regardless of what his friends thought of the experience, whorehouses were not for him.
In contrast to most of his colleagues, Max favors monogamy. This is not out of the desire to adhere to a moral code, but a matter of simple practicality and convenience. Over the years he’s observed how much time, effort, and money his friends have dedicated to their pursuit of women. It takes a lot of lies, patience, and capital to maintain more than one girl. You’ve got to keep your stories straight and establish alibis with your buddies, because they talk to their girlfriends and everyone’s girlfriends all know each other. You’ve got to work twice as hard to keep her happy, because if you’re running around on her then she probably spends a lot of time alone and bored. You certainly don’t want to give her a reason to go snooping around to figure out where you’ve been. Worse, if your girlfriend is feeling lonely and neglected, that makes her more likely to take on a lover of her own. Once you find out about it you’re supposedly honor-bound to track him down and have your buddies hold him still while you kick his ass until your sense of self-worth recovers. And then you’ve got to watch your back just in case he comes back looking for revenge. And of course now you’ve got to look for a new girlfriend because your current one will be crushed to find out you’ve smashed up the guy she was seeing while you were fooling around on her.
The whole thing creates this never-ending hurricane of pointless drama and complication. Girls calling the cops on their boyfriends out of spite. Guys picking fights with romantic rivals. Girls calling at inopportune times to check up on their boyfriends. Guys asking you to memorize complex lies before you’re allowed to have a conversation with their girlfriends. It’s gotten to the point where Max will pass over otherwise dependable guys for a job if he knows they do a lot of womanizing. He understands the basic concept that variety is the spice of life, but there’s no way the fun could possibly be worth the number of headaches it creates. Even if you don’t get caught, just the threat of having your side-chick discovered adds a bunch of stress to a line of work that really doesn’t need more. When he’s planning on robbing someone who will kill him and his whole crew if they’re discovered, he at least wants to know he can go home in the morning and not have to deal with someone throwing dishes around and screaming at him.
Under ideal circumstances, he would simply get a girlfriend. But it takes money and patience to find a suitable girl, woo her, and bring the relationship into the sort of stability where she won’t freak out if he needs to be out all night or if he vanishes for a few days. A project like that takes months, he doesn’t have the money to pull it off, and even if he did have the money he needs to be investing it into his revenge plan. Depending on how things go, it could be half a year before he’s in a position to have a girlfriend again. He’s not going to wait another six months to get this particular frustration out of his system, even if he finds the whole “money for sex” thing to be mildly sad and unsatisfying.
He reaches Riverside Storage, which is an open-air maze of lockers of different sizes at the foot of the transit building. It’s right across from the shuttle station. If you go two blocks closer to the ocean from here it’s all hotels and shopping, and if you go two more blocks you’re swimming.
RIVERSIDE STORAGE – A HOTEL FOR YOUR STUFF
Thus proclaims the glowing sign, which bathes the entire area in blue light. Every few seconds the sign switches to a new language, and he assumes the slogan sounds less stupid in one of languages he doesn’t speak. On the right side of the sign is a picture of a smiling woman, because a smiling woman is more interesting than blank space and cheaper than a company logo. It’s animated, so her face goes from gentle smile to enthusiastic smile about once every ten seconds, and the process makes the patterns of blue and white light flicker as Max walks the aisles looking for box #6641.
Max had rented one of the deluxe boxes (for four years, just in case something went wrong and he was released late) which has a mail slot in it and can be used as a mailing address. When he finds it, he holds his handheld up to the sensor on the front of the door. It identifies him as Maxwell Law. He would have rented it under one of his alternate identities, but he wasn’t in a position to do that while sitting in the police station. The locker accepts his credentials and dutifully pops open.
He finds himself looking at a perfectly empty space. Like a dumbass, he sticks his arm into the locker, as if his hand refuses to believe what his eyes are showing him. He gropes around the interior, rubbing the smooth metal walls and trying to imagine where the plan went wrong. Finally he slams the door and bangs his forehead against it while trying to decide what to do next.
Once he’s done feeling sorry for himself, he heads for the tourist deck. There’s an elevator nearby, along with a very carefully-worded sign insisting that the promenade is “not for Local foot traffic”. This is the city’s polite way of saying they don’t want riff-raff wandering around topside, bothering the tourists. The city has a “guide” posted at the top of the elevator. He’s ostensibly there to help tourists find their way around and to steer them away from the unkempt bits of the city, but his real job is to police the flow of traffic and make sure troublemakers don’t get in.
A lot of dumb criminals complain about the injustice of being barred from certain parts of their own city. They resent the city for keeping them out and they act like the tourists are bigots for being afraid of them. (Despite the fact that the only reason these guys want in is to prey on them.) This mindset drives Max crazy. He wants to grab these guys by the shoulders and scream, “Go home and put on a suit you fucking imbecile!” On the other hand, he’s glad there are rules keeping the dumbasses off the promenade so criminals like himself have more room to operate.
Despite what the sign says, the city doesn’t care if you’re a local or not. They just don’t want you roaming around in gang jackets or rags, spoiling the fiction that the city is safe, prosperous, and peaceful. The guide is a great litmus test for would-be criminals. If you’re not smart enough to get past the guide, then you are not qualified to operate on the tourist deck. Max hasn’t stolen from tourists since he was a teenager, but he still comes up here from time to time because the hotels themselves are fantastic targets.
Max tightens up his tie and smooths out the wrinkles in his suit as the elevator carries him up. The doors glide open and he gives a polite nod to the guide on duty. He’s on the promenade now. This walkway goes between the hotels, shopping, and the scenic bits of the city, and only offers access to the tourist-friendly bits of the lower streets. The walkway is spotless white stone, framed on either side with planters overflowing with greenery.
He finds a donut shop and drops himself into the closest seat. Everything is ten times more expensive up here, but he felt like he wanted to think about this problem from somewhere above street level. He checks his bank account on his handheld – which he realizes he should probably have done the moment the battery came to life – and finds a series of messages.
Dear Mr. Law, we recently received a request to have your funds sent to you. However, the address you provided is a public box and not a residential address. For security reasons, we can only send cash to residences. Please update your profile and try again.
Dear Mr. Law, Good news! We're rolling out the new SecurCard 6. This new handheld offers more security, more customization, and more convenience than ever before. As part of your existing support plan, we will be issuing your new card in 30 days and you will be billed accordingly next month. If you do not wish to upgrade your SecurCard at this time, please notify us within the next 7 days.
Dear Mr. Law, We have issued your new SecurCard 6. However, the address we have on record is a public box and not a residential address. For security reasons, we can only send transaction devices to residences. Please update your profile and try again.
Dear Mr. Law, According to our records you are still using the SecurCard 5. This device is being deprecated and we strongly urge you to upgrade as soon as possible.
Dear Mr. Law, Starting next month, customers still using the SecurCard 5 will be charged an extra $20 monthly handling fee. If you wish to upgrade (or have already upgraded through a third-party seller) then please contact support as soon as possible to have your credentials moved to your new device.
Dear Mr. Law, Good news! We're rolling out the new SecurCard 7. This new handheld offers more security, more customization, and more convenience than ever before. As part of your existing support plan, we will be issuing your new card in 30 days and you will be billed accordingly next month. If you do not wish to upgrade your SecurCard at this time, please notify us within the next 7 days.
Max pages through the rest of the messages, discards them, and then looks at the final balance: $156. The bank nibbled away at his account for three years until they turned five thousand dollars into pocket change. Somewhere at the bank is a stack of three handhelds of increasingly recent vintage with his name on them. If he’d gotten out of jail two months later the account would be dead.
He’s not even angry at this point. He knew they would do this, which is why he tried to get the funds out. If he’d had more time he could have handled this properly. In reality, he was lucky he even got the chance. The police usually confiscate your handheld as soon as they get the cuffs on.
He tries to buy cigarettes, but there isn’t any place nearby that sells them. The hotel guild has an exclusive contract for cigarettes here on the tourist deck and he doesn’t want to walk to a hotel, so he heads back down to street level.
He needs money. A job – a real job, like boosting a safe or running a scam – takes some sort of up-front investment. You need names, clothes, intel, and a place to stay. This means he’s going to have to take a job working for someone else until he can support himself again. He hasn’t been in this position since he was a kid. It’s frustrating and mildly humiliating.
He figures the best thing he can do is kill two birds with one stone. He messages a guy called Blackbeard, who used to own the Stardance. Even if Blackbeard doesn’t have any jobs for him, he can still find out what happened with the Stardance. Less than thirty seconds later his handheld beeps with the reply:
come to moon shot
It’s a good thing Max walked by the place earlier, or he would have no idea what the fuck Blackbeard was talking about. The place has evidently been Moon Shot for so long that it didn’t occur to Blackbeard that Max might not know about it.
Inside, the Moon Shot looks just enough like the Stardance to be confusing. The lobby looks the same, but the door that should lead to the manager’s office is now the restrooms and there’s a little cluster of soft couches where the bar should be. Max stands there, turning around in circles like a dumbass, trying to get his bearings.
A girl gets his attention by running her hand across his shoulder, which he does not like.
“Let me guess,” she coos. “You just got out and you’re looking to celebrate?”
He resists the urge to shove her away. She’s just doing her job, and this is how they train the girls to behave.
“Looking for Blackbeard.”
Her fake smile melts away and she loses interest in him. “Just past the couches, make a left.”
The terrible thing is, the moment the mask of insincerity is gone he finds her unbelievably attractive. Aside from the waitress he talked to a couple of hours ago, he hasn’t heard a woman’s voice in three years and he’s suddenly aware of just painfully horny he is. As she walks back to the couches he pulls his eyes away and heads for the back.
He finds Blackbeard in an overlit office. A few of the old purple fixtures from the Stardance have been set up in here and it gives the room an otherworldly look. Blackbeard is sitting in a desk that’s a bit too large for the tiny space. Max has no idea how they got it in here.
“Max. Nice haircut.”
Max shrugs. “You know how it is. The barber always cuts it too short.”
Blackbeard gives this a half-hearted laugh just to be polite. He looks the same as three years ago, except he’s a little heavier and the streaks of grey have now taken over his beard. He’s wearing the same stupid threadbare denim vest he’s been wearing for as long as Max has known him, but underneath it he’s wearing a bright red “Moon Shot” branded T-shirt, just like all the bouncers.
The office is technically in the same exact spot where it was a decade and a half ago, but now it’s a little smaller and you have to walk around a new kitchen area to reach it. They serve food now. At a brothel. Max shakes his head in disbelief. It’s like his home has been replaced with a foreign country.
“What’s the deal with changing the place?”
Blackbeard shrugs. “It’s a franchise, man. Moon Shot has global recognition. Even if they don’t speak the language, everyone knows what that rocket ship stands for. We’re trying to get the tourists to give us some of those foreign dollars. The top-deckers are fighting us the whole way. They’ve been trying to keep all the money upstairs. They’re even threatening to set up their own whorehouses. It’s not legal yet, but it’s only a matter of time. We have to get a brand name if we want those pale fat bastards to venture all the way down to street level.”
Max clears his throat nervously. He hates starting with nothing. “So anyway, I wanted to talk to you about money.”
Blackbeard nods with sarcastic enthusiasm. “That’s good. I wanted to talk to you about money too.” He’s been idly poking at his handheld this whole time, but now he drops it on the desk in front of him. “Have a seat.” He gestures to the shabby wooden chair in front of his desk.
One of the bouncers steps through the black curtain that serves as a door and stands right beside Max. The office is very small, so the room is basically full at this point.
“Where’s my money?”
Max has been in this exact situation a lot of times over the years: Some guy thinks you owe him money. You’re trapped in a room with him. He’s got some hired muscle on hand in case you do something stupid. Max has done this enough times that he knows that asking “What money?” is always the wrong answer. Maybe you’ve got it, maybe you don’t, but pretending like it slipped your mind is just going to get you a punch in the face. The Other Guy probably wants to talk anyway, so just shut your mouth and he’ll explain without you needing to ask.
Max doesn’t say anything. The room is very quiet. Blackbeard raises his eyebrows. Max can see the bouncer in the corner of his vision, moving his arms around to loosen up his shoulders.
So he’s going to have to take a punch in the face to find out why Blackbeard thinks he owes him money. On top of everything else, he really doesn’t need this. He gives a resigned shrug. “What money?”
The impact nearly sends him out of his seat. He was expecting an introductory punch to get him to take this seriously, but instead this bouncer pulled his arm back and put his weight into it. Max is dazed for a few seconds after the impact and doesn’t hear what Blackbeard says. He prods the side of his face to make sure he didn’t lose any teeth.
As things come back into focus Blackbeard is already halfway into his speech, “…that was over six months before you went into prison. You had plenty of time to pay me back. I didn’t say anything because I figured you just needed some time and we’re friends. I figured you’d pay me back when you had the money.”
Max sighs. He knows what Blackbeard is talking about now. He knows that Blackbeard is wrong. Max does not, technically, owe him a single shiny coin. He knows that if he tries to explain this to Blackbeard he’s going to earn himself another punch in the face. He can’t do his job if his face is wrecked. He’s horny, hungry, footsore, he needs a cigarette, and his face hurts. It might not be the smart way, but he wants to deal with this head-on. He leans forward like he’s about to say something profound.
“I don’t owe you a fucking cent,” Max says, and then jerks his head back and grabs the big meaty arm that passes through the space where his head was a second ago. This guy has a few pounds on him, but he’s probably not expecting any resistance, either.
What Max wanted to do was yank the guy off-balance, trip him, then pounce on him and hurt him before he can recover. That’s kind of how it goes, but the office is a very tight space and there’s not a lot of room for fancy maneuvers in here. The bouncer goes face-first into the wall. Since the chair is in his way anyway, Max picks it up and bashes the bouncer with it. He feels it break, then looks down to see the chair itself isn’t broken. The bouncer is crumpled up on the floor and has stopped trying to fight back.
Blackbeard has drawn a gun. He’s pointing it at Max with one hand while he works his handheld with the other. Max isn’t sure just how serious this is going to get, so he puts his hands up a little ways to make sure Blackbeard understands he’s not about to leap across the desk. Blackbeard hasn’t told him to stop, or sit down, or answer the question. He’s just tapping away at his device like he lost interest. Max doesn’t do anything, figuring he’s not going to get shot for standing still.
The curtain parts again and a couple of kitchen guys appear, still wearing their grease-stained aprons. The first one clears his throat and looks at the gun nervously. “Yes, Boss?”
The other kitchen guy can’t even tell what’s going on. There’s not enough room for him to enter.
Blackbeard drops his device on the desk again. “Get him out of here.” When the kid looks confused Blackbeard clarifies, “Randy. Take him to the nurse.”
They have to jam Max into the corner so the kitchen guys can help Randy out of the room. This is hard, because the kitchen guys are skinny and Randy has more muscle mass than both of them put together. His left arm is pointing at an unhealthy angle that makes Max wince.
Once Randy is out, Blackbeard finally shows some outrage. “What did you do that for?”
“He was hitting way too hard, man.” Max rubs the side of his face and spits out some blood to make his point.
Blackbeard sighs and gives an apologetic shrug as if to say, “It’s hard to find good help.” He gestures with the gun for Max to sit down.
Max straightens out his suit. He’s actually in a worse position now than a minute ago. Now if he gives a wrong answer he might get shot instead of punched. He doesn’t know where the kitchen guys will drag him if he gets shot, but he’s willing to bet it won’t be the nurse.
“You’re talking about the fifty grand you gave me?”
“That was an investment.”
“Yeah. You said you were going to pull a job with it and I’d get a hundred thousand.”
“If it panned out. It obviously didn’t.”
“Obviously. So give me the money back.”
“If you lend someone money, they have to pay you back. If you invest in a venture, there’s no guarantee of a return. You can lose some or all of your investment.” Max is trying to keep this friendly and educational. It’s looking less and less like he’s going to get shot tonight, but the more he can placate Blackbeard the better this will go for him. He knows full well Blackbeard is going to insist he wants his money back, but Max wants to make his case anyway.
He continues, “With a loan, you’re only entitled to the loan amount plus interest. When you invest, you get a share of the profits. That can turn out to be a lot more rewarding than a loan. With greater potential reward comes greater risk.”
Blackbeard sniffs and looks down at his desk thoughtfully like he’s thinking this over. Then he says, “I want my fifty thousand back. Plus another fifty thousand for, you know, making me wait for three and a half years. And let’s say another ten for what you just did to Randy.”
“Five. That was mostly his fault. Is he new or something?”
“Five.” Blackbeard nods gladly.
Max realizes he just haggled with the wrong part of the deal. He sort of implicitly accepted the fifty thousand in interest – or whatever Blackbeard thinks it is – and got distracted by the part that irritated him. He’s not thinking clearly and now the mistakes are piling up.
“Any questions?” Blackbeard asks.
Max realizes it would basically be suicide to ask if Blackbeard has any jobs. “Do you have a cigarette?”
Blackbeard puts the gun back in a drawer and goes back to messing with his handheld. “Sorry. Franchise rules. No smoking outside of the service rooms. I’m trying to get everyone to quit.”
Max shows himself out. He stands on the corner outside the Stardance – or the Moon Shot, or whatever the fuck the place is called – and stares down the street. A lot of stuff is closed at this point in the evening and he’s wondering where he can buy some smokes. He doesn’t have a place to sleep and he’s suddenly a hundred and five thousand dollars poorer than he was an hour ago, when he was broke. He doesn’t know how to fix this, but he figures it’ll be easier to solve once his head is clear.
Another police scout does one of those slow drive-by things and he starts thinking maybe he should invest in a hat or a wig.
There’s a blackjack parlor a few blocks from here. The owner knows all the dirt on what the unions are doing and is usually a pretty good source of jobs and leads. Even if Max can’t find a job, he should at least be able to find cigarettes there.
Three blocks later he arrives to find the blackjack parlor is now an automotive charging station. There’s no shop. You can’t buy smokes or coffee here. It’s just a bunch of parking spots and a single robotic attendant. It’s another plastic-skinned laborer like the one he saw earlier.
An expensive sedan moves silently into view. It’s one of the models where the wheels are tucked in underneath so it looks like it’s floating. Max is standing in one of the parking spots, where he’s been staring into space and wondering where to go next. The car stops right in front of him, like it wants to use his spot in particular. He’s not sure why this idiot doesn’t use any of the other dozen or so empty spots, but he steps out of the way. The doors pop open, and a couple of private security goons hop out and shove him into the back seat.
“Come the fuck on,” he shouts as the door slams shut.
Yes, we’re still working on an epub version.
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The Best of 2012
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