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Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wiley Marvin Ellis Espinoza was too old to be at a Communist party. At twenty-seven, he had seven years on the next oldest partier. He felt the demographic void. He wanted to hide behind one of the enormous filthy machines that dotted the floor of the derelict factory. Anything to escape the frank, flat looks from the beautiful children of every shade and size who couldn’t understand why an old man was creepering around.
“Let’s go,” he said to Seth, who’d dragged him to the party. Seth was terrified of aging out of the beautiful children demographic and entering the world of non-work. He had an instinct for finding the most outré, cutting edge, transgressive goings-on among the children who’d been receding in their rearview mirrors. Hubert, Etc, Espinoza only hung out with Seth because part of his thing about not letting go of his childhood was also not letting go of childhood friends. He was insistent on the subject, and Hubert, Etc was a pushover.
“This is about to get real,” Seth said. “Why don’t you get us beers?”
That was exactly what Hubert, Etc didn’t want to do. The beer was where the most insouciant adolescents congregated, merry and weird as tropical fishes. Each more elfin and tragic than the last. Hubert, Etc remembered that age, the certainty that the world was so broken that only an idiot would deign to acknowledge it or its inevitability. Hubert, Etc often confronted his reflection in his bathroom screen, stared into his eyes in their nest of bruisey bags, and remembered being someone who spent every minute denying the world’s legitimacy, and now he was enmeshed in it. Hubert, Etc couldn’t self-delude the knowledge away. Anyone under twenty would spot it in a second.
“Go on, man, come on. I got you into this party. Least you can do.”
Hubert, Etc didn’t say any obvious things about not wanting to come in the first place and not wanting beer in the second place. There were lots of pointless places an argument with Seth could go. He had his Peter Pan face on, prepared to be ha-ha-only-serious until you wore down, and Hubert, Etc started the night worn.
“I don’t have any money,” Hubert, Etc said.
Seth gave him a look.
“Oh, yeah,” Hubert, Etc said. “Communist party.”
Seth passed him two red party cups, their color surely no accident.
As Hubert, Etc drew up to the taps—spoodged onto a vertical piece of structural steel that shot out of the floor and up to the rafters, skinned with checkered safety-yellow bar codes and smudges of entropy and dancing lights of the DJ—and tried to figure out which of the beautiful children was bartender, factum factotum, or commissar. No one moved to help him or block him as he edged closer, though three of the children stopped to watch with intense expressions.
All three wore Marx glasses with the huge, bushy beards hanging, like in the vocoder videos, full of surreal menace. These ones were dyed bright colors, and one had something in it—memory wire?—that made it crawl like tentacles.
Hubert, Etc clumsily filled a cup, and the girl held it while he filled the other. The beer was incandescent, or bioluminescent, and Hubert, Etc worried about what might be in the transgenic jesus microbes that could turn water into beer, but the girl was looking at him from behind those glasses, her eyes unreadable in the flickering dance-lights. He drank.
“Not bad.” He burped, burped again. “Fizzy, though?”
“Because it’s fast-acting. It was ditch water an hour ago. We sieved it, brought it up to room temp, dumped in the culture. It’s live, too—add some precursor, it’ll come back. Survives in your urine. Just save some, you want to make more.”
“Communist beer?” Hubert, Etc said. The best bon mot he could scrounge. He was better when he had time to think.
“Nazdarovya.” She clicked her cup against his and drained it, loosing a bone-rattling belch when she finished. She gave her chest a thump and scared out smaller burps, refilled the glass.
“If it comes out in pee,” Hubert, Etc said, “what happens if someone adds the precursor to the sewers? Will it turn to beer?”
She gave him a look of adolescent scorn. “That would be stupid. Once it’s diluted it can’t metabolize precursor. Flush and it’s just pee. The critters die in an hour or two, so a latrine won’t turn into a reservoir of long-lived existential threats to the water supply. It’s just beer.” Burp. “Fizzy beer.”
Hubert, Etc sipped. It was really good. Didn’t taste like piss at all. “All beer is rented, right?” he said.
“Most beer is rented. This is free. You know: ‘free as in free beer.’” She drank half the cup, spilling into her beard. It beaded on the crinkly refugee stuff. “You don’t come to a lot of Communist parties.”
Hubert, Etc shrugged. “I don’t,” he said. “I’m old and boring. Eight years ago, we weren’t doing this.”
“What were you doing, Gramps?” Not in a mean way, but her two friends—a girl the same shade as Seth and a guy with beautiful cat-eyes—sniggered.
“Hoping to get jobs on the zeppelins!” Seth said, slinging an arm around Hubert, Etc’s neck. “I’m Seth, by the way. This is Hubert, Etc.”
“Etcetera?” the girl said. Just a little smile. Hubert, Etc liked her. He thought that she was probably secretly nice, probably didn’t think he was a dork just because he was a few years older, and hadn’t heard of her favorite kind of synthetic beer. He recognized this belief was driven by a theory of humanity that most people were good, but also by a horrible, oppressive loneliness and nonspecific horniness. Hubert, Etc was bright, which wasn’t always easy, and had a moderate handle on his psyche that made it hard to bullshit himself.
“Tell her, dude,” Seth said. “Come on, it’s a great story.”
“It’s not a great story,” Hubert, Etc said. “My parents gave me a lot of middle names is all.”
“How many is a lot?”
“Twenty,” he said. “The top twenty names from the 1890 census.”
“That’s only nineteen,” she said, quickly. “And one first name.”
Seth laughed like this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Even Hubert, Etc smiled. “Most people don’t get that. Technically, I have nineteen middle names and one first name.”
“Why did your parents give you nineteen middle names and one first name?” she asked. “And are you sure it’s nineteen middle names? Maybe you have ten first names and ten middle names.”
“I think that it’s hard to claim to have more than one first name, because first has a specificity that middle lacks. Notwithstanding your Mary Anns and Jean Marcs and such, which are hyphenated by convention.”
“Fair point,” she said. “Though, come on, if Mary Ann is a first name, why isn’t Mary Ann Tanya Jessie Banana Pants Monkey Vomit etc?”
“My parents would agree. They were making a statement about names, after Anonymous brought in its Real Name Policy. They’d both been active, worked to make it a political party, so they were really fucked off. Thought it was obvious that if you were ‘Anonymous’ you couldn’t have a ‘Real Name Policy.’ They decided to give their kid a unique name that never fit into any database and would give him the right to legally use a whole bunch of sub-names.
“By the time I got all this, I was used to ‘Hubert,’ and I stuck to it.”
Seth took Hubert’s beer cup, swilled from it, burped. “I’ve always called you Hubert, Etc, though. It’s cool, and it’s easier to say.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Do it, though, okay?”
“What?” Hubert, Etc knew the answer.
“The names. You’ve got to hear this.”
“You don’t have to,” she said.
“I do, probably, or you’ll wonder.” He’d made peace with it. It was part of growing up. “Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wiley Marvin Ellis Espinoza.”
She cocked her head, nodded. “Needs more Banana Pants.”
“Bet you got teased like hell at school though, right?” Seth said.
This pissed Hubert, Etc off. It was stupid, and it was a recurring stupidity. “Come on, really? You think that names are why kids get teased? The causal arrow points the other way. If the kids are making fun of your name, it’s because you’re unpopular—you’re not unpopular because of your name. If the coolest kid in school was called ‘Harry Balls’ they’d call him Harold. If the school goat was called ‘Lisa Brown,’ they’d call her ‘Shitstain.’” He nearly said, Seriously, don’t be an asshole, but didn’t. He was invested in being an adult. Seth paid no attention to the possibility that he was being an asshole.
“What’s your name?” Seth said to the girl.
“Lisa Brown,” she replied.
Hubert, Etc snickered.
He waited to see if she’d offer her name, shrugged. “I’m Seth.” He went to her friends, who’d inched closer. One of them did a fancy handshake, which he faked with totally unselfconscious enthusiasm that Hubert, Etc envied and was embarrassed by.
The dance music got louder. Seth refilled Hubert, Etc’s cup and took it to the dance floor. Hubert was the only one without a cup. The girl refilled hers and passed it.
“Good stuff,” she shouted, her breath tickling his cheek. The music was really loud, an automated mix, tied into DJ stuff that used lidar and heat-mapping to characterize crowd-responses to musical mixes and optimized them to get everyone on the floor. They’d had it back when Hubert, Etc was young enough to go clubbing, called it Rule 34 for all the different mixes, but it had been cheesy then. Now it was the business.
“Kinda hoppy, though.”
“Not the taste. The enzymes. Stuff in it helps you break it down, stops it from turning into formaldehyde in your blood. Good for reducing hangovers. It’s Turkish.”
“Well, Turkish-ish. Came out of refus in Syria. They’ve got a lab. It’s called Gezi. If you’re interested, I can send you stuff about it.”
Was she hitting on him? Eight years ago, giving someone your contact details was an invitation. Maybe they’d swung into a time of more promiscuous name-space management and less promiscuous socio-sexual norms. Hubert, Etc wished he’d skimmed a précis of current sociology of twenty-year-olds. He rubbed the interface strip on his ring finger and muttered “contact details,” held out his hand. Her hand was warm, rough, and small. She touched a strip she wore as a choker and whispered, and he felt a confirming buzz from his system, then a double-buzz that meant that she’d reciprocated.
“So you can white-list me.”
Hubert, Etc wondered if she was used to sharing contacts so widely that she had to worry about spam or—
“You’ve never been to one of these,” she said, her face right up to his ear again.
“No,” he shouted. Her hair smelled like burning tires and licorice.
“You’ll love this, come on, let’s get in close, they’re going to start soon.”
She took his hand again, and as her calluses rasped over his skin, he felt another buzz. It was endogenous and hadn’t originated with his interface stuff.
* * *
They skirted the dancers, kicking through leaves and puffs of dust that swirled in the lights. There were glittering motes in the dust that made the air seem laden with fairy-glitter. Hubert, Etc caught sight of Seth. Seth looked back and clocked the scene—the girl, the hands, the scramble through dark spaces for private vantage, and his face creased with passing envy before turning into a fratty leer to which he added a thumbs-up. The automatic music thudded, Cantopop and rumba that Rule 34 tumbled out of its directed random-walk through music-space.
“Here’s good,” she said, as they yanked themselves onto a catwalk. The gritty service-ladder left rust streaks on Hubert, Etc’s palms. Out of the music’s blast, they could hear each other, and Hubert, Etc was aware of his breath and pulse.
“Keep your eye on that.” She pointed at a machine to one side. Hubert, Etc squinted and saw her friends from before moving around it. “They do furniture, mostly shelving. There was a ton of feedstock in the storeroom.”
“Did you help put this”—a sweep of his arm to take in the factory, the dancers—“together?”
She laid one finger alongside the rubber nose, winked slowly. “Supreme Soviet,” she said. She tapped the temple of her glasses, and he caught a shimmer as their magnification kicked in with false color and stabilization. “They’ve got it.” The music cut off mid-note.
A rumble in the bones of the factory vibrated the catwalk. The dancers looked around for its source, then a wave of attention propagated through them as gaze followed gaze and they focused on the machine, which moved, dust shaking down, dance-lights skewering it, lighting more motes. A new smell now, woodsy, full of dangerous volatiles that boiled off the machine’s elements as they glowed to life. The hush in the room broke when the first composite plank dropped onto the assembly bed, nudged by thousands of infinitesimal fingers that corrected its alignment just as the next plank dropped. Now they fell at regular intervals, a ladder of thin, strong, supple cellulosic boards, swiftly joined by crosspieces, also swept into position, lining up the prefabricated joinery elements that clicked together with a snick. The fingers lifted the grid, moved it down the line, and a new grid was assembled just as quickly, then they mated and clicked together.
More of them, then a loop of fastening fabric thrown, caught, and cinched around the framework, and the completed piece was tossed to one side. Another was a minute behind it on the line. A dancer sauntered over to the output file and lifted the finished piece easily, brought it one-handed onto the dance floor, sliced through the fastening with a knife that gleamed in the dance-lights. The bed—that’s what it was—click-clacked into place, yawning back, ready for a mattress. The dancer climbed up onto the bed’s grid of slats and started jumping up and down. It was as springy as a trampoline, and in moments she was doing midair splits, butt drops, even a somersault.
The girl sat back and ran a finger around her beard. “Good stuff.” Hubert, Etc was sure she was smiling.
“That’s a cool bed frame,” Hubert, Etc said, for lack of something better to say.
“One of the best,” she said. “They had a ton of profitable lines, but bed frames were the best. Big with hotels, because they’re practically indestructible and they’re featherlight.”
“Why aren’t they making them anymore?”
“Oh, they are. Muji shut down the plant and moved to Alberta six months ago. Got a huge subsidy to relocate—Ontario couldn’t match the deal. They’d only been here for a couple of years, only employed twenty people all told, their two-year tax holiday was ending. Place has been empty since then. We can do the whole line from here, all Muji’s furniture, including white-label stuff they do for Nestlé and Standard & Poors & Möet & Chandon. Chairs, tables, bookcases, shelving. There’s an empty feedstock plant in Orangeville we’re hitting for the next party, raw material for the supply chain. If we don’t get caught, we can do enough furnishings for a couple thousand families.”
“You don’t charge for them or anything?”
A long look. “Communist party, remember?”
“Yeah, but, how do you eat and stuff?”
She shrugged. “Here and there. This and that. Kindness of strangers.”
“So people bring you food and you give them this stuff?”
“No,” she said. “We don’t do barter. This is gifts, the gift economy. Everything freely given, nothing sought in return.”
It was Hubert, Etc’s turn. “How often do you get a gift around the same time as you’re giving one of these away? Who doesn’t show up with something to leave behind when they take something?”
“Of course. It’s hard to get people out of the scarcity quid-pro-quo habit. But we know they don’t have to bring anything. Did you bring anything tonight?”
He patted his pockets. “I’ve got a couple million bucks, nothing much.”
“Keep it. Money is the one thing we don’t take. My mom always said money was the crappiest present. Anyone trying to give or get money around here, we sling ’em out on their butts, no second chances.”
“I’ll keep my wallet in my pants.”
“Good idea.” She was kind enough not to notice the double entendre that made Hubert, Etc blush. “I’m Pranksterella, by the way.”
“And I thought my parents were screwed up.”
The beard wiggled inscrutably: “My parents didn’t give me that one,” she said. “It’s my party name.”
“Like Trotsky,” he said. “He was Lev Davidovich. Did an independent history unit on Bolshevism in the eleventh grade. This is much more interesting.”
“They say Old Karl had the right diagnosis and the wrong prescription.” She shrugged. “Putting the ‘party’ back into Communist party makes a difference. Jury’s still out. We’ll probably implode. You guys did, right? The zeppelins?”
“Zeppelins explode,” he said.
“Har. De. Har.”
“Sorry.” He stuck his legs out and rested against a guardrail that creaked, then held. He realized that he could have gone over and fallen ten meters to the concrete floor. “But yeah, the zepps didn’t work out.” They’d made perfect sense on paper. All these time-rich, cash-poor people with friends all over the world. Zepps were cheap as hell to run, if you didn’t care where or how fast you went. There’d been hundreds of startups, talking big about climate-appropriate transport and the “new age of aviation.” Despite all that, there was the inescapable sense that they were in a gold rush, a game of musical chairs that would end with a few lucky souls sitting on enough money to stop pretending to give a shit about any kind of aviation except for the kind that came with champagne and a warm eye mask after takeoff. A lot of money sloshed around, a lot of talk from governments about nurturing local talent and new industrial reality. The talk came with huge R&D tax credits and more investment money.
Three years into it—during which Hubert, Etc and everyone he knew gave up everything to scramble to put huge, floating cigars into the sky—the thing imploded. Just a few years on, it was retro-chic. Hubert, Etc had seen a “genuine Mark II zeppelin comfort suite” in a clip on super-fashionable decor. A painstakingly restored set of flying dormitory furniture was refitted for two rich, stationary people, not dozens of itinerant flying hobos. Hubert, Etc once spent three months in a co-op that was building the prefab suites, ready to slot into airship platforms. His sweat-equity was supposed to entitle him to a certain amount of time every year in the sky on board any ship carrying a co-op unit, bumbling through the world’s prevailing winds to wherever.
“Wasn’t your fault. It’s the nature of the beast to believe in bubbles and think you can just entrepreneur your way out.” She unclipped her beard and her glasses. She had a fox face, lots of points, grooved where the heavy glasses had rested, sheened with sweat. She wiped the sweat with her shirttail, giving him a glimpse of her pale stomach, a mole by her navel.
“And your people here?” He wished for more beer, realized he needed a piss, wondered if he should hold it in to make more.
“We’re not going to entrepreneur our way out of anything. This isn’t entrepreneurship.”
“Anti-entrepreneurship’s been tried, too—slacking doesn’t get you anywhere.”
“We’re not anti-entrepreneur, either. We’re not entrepreneurial in the way that baseball isn’t tic-tac-toe. We’re playing a different game.”
“Post-scarcity,” said with near-religious solemnity.
He didn’t succeed at keeping his face still, because she looked pissed off. “Sorry.” Hubert, Etc was one of nature’s apologizers. A housemate once made a set of cardboard tombstones for Halloween, hung like bunting across the kitchen cabinets. Hubert, Etc’s read “Sorry.”
“Don’t sorry me. Look, Etcetera, at all this. On paper, this place is useless, the stuff coming off that line has to be destroyed. It’s a trademark violation; even though it came off an official Muji line, using Muji’s feedstock, it doesn’t have Muji’s license, so that configuration of cellulose and glue is a crime. That’s so manifestly fucked up and shit that anyone who pays attention to it is playing the wrong game and doesn’t deserve consideration. Anyone who says the world is a better place with this building left to rot—”
“I don’t think that’s the argument,” Hubert, Etc said. He’d once had this kind of discussion a lot. He wasn’t young and avant-garde, but he understood this. “It’s that telling people what they can do with their stuff produces worse outcomes than letting them do stupid things and letting the market sort out the good ideas from—”
“You think anyone believes that anymore? You know why people who need furniture don’t just break down the door of this place? It’s not market orthodoxy.”
“Of course not. It’s fear.”
“They’re right to be afraid. This world, if you aren’t a success, you’re a failure. If you’re not on top, you’re on the bottom. If you’re in between, you’re hanging on by your fingernails, hoping you can get a better grip before your strength gives out. Everyone holding on is too scared to let go. Everyone on the bottom is too worn down to try. The people on the top? They’re the ones who depend on things staying the way they are.”
“So what do you call your philosophy then? Post-fear?”
She shrugged. “Don’t care. Lots of names for it. None of that matters. That’s what I care about.” She pointed to the dancers and the beds. Another line of machines was online and folding-table-and-chair sets were piling up.
“What about ‘communist’?”
“What about it?”
“That’s a label with a lot of history. You could be communists.”
She waved her beard at him. “Communist party. That doesn’t make us ‘communists’ any more than throwing a birthday party makes us ‘birthdayists.’ Communism is an interesting thing to do, nothing I ever want to be.”
The ladder clanged and the catwalk vibrated like a tuning fork. They looked over the edge just as Seth’s head came into view. “Hello, lovebirds!” he said. He was sloppy and jittery, high on something interesting. Hubert, Etc grabbed him before he could reel over the guardrail. Another person popped over the edge, one of the bearded threesome that had been by the beer.
“Hey-hey!” He seemed stoned, too, but it was hard for Hubert, Etc to tell.
“This is the guy,” Seth said. “The guy with the names.”
“You’re Etcetera!” the new guy said, arms wide like he was greeting a lost brother. “I’m Billiam.” He gave Hubert, Etc a lingering drunkard’s embrace. Hubert, Etc had dated guys, was open to the idea, but Billiam, beautiful tilted eyes aside, was not his type and too high to consider in any event. Hubert, Etc firmly peeled him off, and the girl helped.
“Billiam,” she said, “what have you two been up to?”
Billiam and Seth locked eyes and dissolved into hysterical giggles.
She gave Billiam a playful shove that sent him sprawling, one foot dangling over the catwalk.
“Meta,” she said. “Or something like it.”
He’d heard of it. It gave you ironic distance—a very now kind of high. Conspiracy people thought it was too zeitgeisty to be a coincidence, claimed it was spread to soften the population for its miserable lot. In his day—eight years before—the scourge had been called “Now,” something they gave to source-code auditors and drone pilots to give them robotic focus. He’d eaten a shit-ton of it while working on zepps. It made him feel like a happy android. The conspiracy people had said the same thing about Now that they said about Meta. End of the day, anything that made you discount objective reality and assign a premium to some kind of internal mental state was going to be both pro-survival and pro–status-quo.
“What’s your name?” Hubert, Etc said.
“Does it matter?” she said.
“It’s driving me nuts,” he admitted.
“You’ve got it in your address book,” she said.
He rolled his eyes. Of course he did. He rubbed the interface patch on his cuff and fingered it for a moment. “Natalie Redwater?” he said. “As in the Redwaters?”
“There are a lot of Redwaters,” she said. “We’re some of them. Not the ones you’re thinking of, though.”
“Close to them,” Billiam said from his stoned, prone, ironic world. “Cousins?”
“Cousins,” she said.
Hubert, Etc tried hard not to let phrases like “trustafarian” and “fauxhemian” cross his mind. He probably failed. She didn’t look happy about having her name out.
“Cousins as in ‘poor country relations,’” Seth said, from his fetal position, “or cousins as in ‘get to use the small airplane?’”
Hubert, Etc felt bad, not just because he was crushing on her. He’d known people born to privilege, plenty in the zepp scene, and they could be nice people whose salient facts extended beyond unearned privilege. Seth wouldn’t have normally been a dick about this kind of thing—it was precisely the sort of thing he wasn’t normally a dick about—but he was high.
“Cousins as in ‘enough to worry about kidnapping’ and ‘not enough to pay the ransom,’ she said, with the air of someone repeating a timeworn phrase.
The arrival of the two stoned boys sucked the magic out of the night. Below, the machines found a steady rhythm, and Rule 34 spun again, blending witch house and New Romantic, automatically syncing with the machines’ beat. It wasn’t pulling a lot of dancers, but a few diehards were out, being beautiful and in motion. Hubert, Etc stared at them.
Three things happened: the music changed (psychobilly and dubstep), he opened his mouth to say something, and Billiam said, in a tittering singsong: “Buuuu-sted!” and pointed at the ceiling.
They followed his finger and saw the flock of drones detach from the ceiling, fold back their wings, and plunge into a screaming drop. Natalie pulled her beard back on and Billiam made sure his was on, too.
“Seth, masks!” Hubert, Etc shook his friend. There had been a good reason for Seth to carry both of their masks, but he couldn’t remember it. Seth sat up with his eyebrows raised and a smirk on his face. Tucking chin to chest, Hubert, Etc swarmed over Seth and roughly turned out his pockets. He slapped his mask to his face and felt the fabric adhere in bunches and whorls as his breath teased it out and the oils in his skin were wicked through its weave. He did Seth.
“You don’t need to do this,” Seth said.
“Right,” said Hubert, Etc. “It’s out of the goodness of my heart.”
“You’re worried they’ll walk my social graph and find you in the one-hop/high-intensity zone.” Seth’s smile, glowing in the darkness of his face, was infuriatingly calm. It vanished behind the mask. That was the stupid Meta. “You’d be screwed then. They’ll run your data going back years, dude, until they find something. They always find something. They’ll put the screws to you, threaten you with every horrible unless you turn narc. Room 101 all the way, baby—”
Hubert, Etc gave Seth a harder-than-necessary slap upside the head. Seth said “Ow,” mildly, stopped talking. The drones flew a coverage pattern, like pigeons on crank. Hubert, Etc’s interface surfaces shivered as they detected attempted incursions and shut down. Hubert, Etc downloaded countermeasures regularly, if only to fight off drive-by identity thief creeps, but he shivered back, wondering if he was more up-to-date than the cop-bots.
The party had broken up. Dancers fled, some holding furniture. The music leapt to offensive-capability volume, a sound so loud it made your eyes hurt. Hubert, Etc clapped his hands over his ears just as one of the drones clipped an I-beam and spun out, smashing to the ground. A drone dive-bombed the sound-system’s control unit, knocked it to the ground. The sound went on.
Hubert, Etc pulled Seth to sit, pointed at the ladder. They let go of their ears to climb down. It was torture: the brutal sound, the painful vibrations of the metal under their hands and feet. Natalie came down, pointed at a doorway.
Something heavy and painful clipped Hubert, Etc in the head and shoulder, knocking him to his knees. He got to all fours, then to his feet, seeing stars behind the mask.
He looked for whatever had hit him. It took him a second to make sense of what he saw. Billiam lay on the floor, limbs in a strange swastika, head visibly misshapen, an inky pool of blood spread around it in the dimness. Fighting dizziness and pain from the sound, he bent over Billiam and gingerly peeled the beard. It was saturated with blood. Billiam’s face was smashed into a parody of human features; his forehead had an ugly dent encompassing one eye. Hubert, Etc tried for a pulse at Billiam’s wrist and then his throat, but all he felt was the thunder of the music. He put his hand on Billiam’s chest to feel for the rise and fall of breath, but couldn’t tell.
He looked up, but Seth and Natalie had already reached the door. They must not have seen Billiam fall, must not have seen him crash into Hubert, Etc. A drone ruffled Hubert, Etc’s hair. Hubert, Etc wanted to cry. He pushed the feeling down, remembering first aid. He shouldn’t move Billiam. But if he stayed, he’d be nabbed. It might be too late. The part of his brain in charge of cowardly self-justification chattered: Why not just go? It’s not like you can do anything. He might even be dead. He looks dead.
Hubert, Etc had made a concerted study of that voice and had concluded that it was an asshole. He tried to think past the self-serving rationalizations. He grabbed a bag someone left behind and, working gently, rolled Billiam into recovery position and put the bag under his head. He was propping Billiam up with a broken chair and a length of pipe, eyes squinted, head hammering, when someone grabbed him by his sore shoulder. He almost vomited. This was the day he’d known was coming all his life, when he ended up in prison.
But it wasn’t a cop—it was Natalie. She said something inaudible over the music. He pointed at Billiam. She knelt down and made a light. She threw up, having the presence of mind to do so in her purse. Hubert, Etc noted distantly that she was thinking of esophageal cells and DNA. That distant part admired her foresight. She got to her feet, grabbed him again by his bad arm, yanked hard. He screamed in pain, the sound lost in the roar, and went, leaving Billiam behind.
Seth came off of Meta hard, around 4:00 A.M., as they sat in a ravine, listening to their ears ring and water below them burble, listening to the efficient whooshing of passing law enforcement vehicles on the road above. He sat on a log with that superior grin, then he was weeping, head in hands, bent between his knees, with the unselfconscious bray of a toddler.
Hubert, Etc and Natalie looked at him from their spots against tree trunks, braced against the ravine’s slope. They went to him. Hubert, Etc awkwardly embraced him, and Seth buried his face in Hubert, Etc’s chest. Natalie stroked his arm, murmured things that Hubert, Etc thought of as feminine in some comforting sense. Hubert, Etc was conscious of Seth’s crying and the possibility it might be detected by law-enforcement apparatus. This interfered with his empathy, which wasn’t so extensive to begin with, because Seth was fucked up because he’d taken a stupid drug at a trendy party they’d had no business attending, and now Hubert, Etc was covered in dried blood he hadn’t been able to wipe away on dew-dampened leaves and rocks.
Hubert, Etc squashed Seth’s face harder against his chest, partly to muffle him. Hubert, Etc’s ears still rang, his head throbbed with his pulse, his fingertips tingled with the soft wreck of Billiam’s face. He was sure Billiam was dead when they left. And because he was Hubert, Etc, he was suspicious of that certainty because if Billiam had already been dead, then they hadn’t left him to die alone on the floor.
Natalie patted Seth’s arm.
“Come on, buddy,” she said. “That’s the comedown. Think it out with me, you can do that with a Meta comedown, it’s part of the package. Come on, Steve.”
“Seth,” Hubert, Etc said.
“Seth,” she said. She was just as impatient with Seth as he was. “Come on. Think it out. It’s terrible, it’s awful, but this isn’t your real reaction, it’s just dope. Come on, Seth, think it out.” She kept on repeating “think it out.” This must be what you said to people who had a hard time with Meta. He said it, too, and Seth’s sobs subsided. He was quiet for a time, then snored softly.
Natalie and Hubert, Etc looked at each other. “What now?” Natalie said.
Hubert, Etc shrugged. “Seth had the car-tokens to get home. We could wake him up.”
Natalie squeezed her eyes tight. “I don’t want to do any messaging from here. You came in lockdown, right?”
Hubert, Etc didn’t roll his eyes. His generation perfected lockdown, getting their systems to go fully dark on their way to parties. It hadn’t been easy, but everyone too lazy to bother ended up in jail, sometimes with their friends, so it became widespread.
“We came in lockdown,” he said. They’d carred to a place with a thousand statistically probable destinations within a short walk, walked a long way to the party. They weren’t stupid.
“Well, do you think it’s safe to light up?”
“Safe for what?”
He could see her suppressing an eye roll. “To be an acceptable risk. And if you say, ‘acceptable in what way,’ I’ll slug you. Do you think it’s a good idea to light up?”
“I want to say, ‘good compared to what?’ I don’t know, Natalie. I think—” He swallowed. “I’m pretty sure Billiam is—” He swallowed. “I think he’s dead.” Neither of them looked at the other. Such a stupid accident. “Whatever else, I think it means that the cops’ll be brutal, because a dead person puts the thing in a different category. On the other hand, our DNA is all over that place, and with the deal they’ll make, they’ll come after us no matter what. On the other hand, I mean, in addition to that, or with that in mind, if we light up now, we’re adding corroboration to any inference that says that we were there, which means that—”
“Enough paranoid rat-holing. We can’t light up.”
“How did you get here?”
“A friend,” she said. “I’m sure she got herself home; she’s warm and cozy under a blanket with a cup of tea waiting for her when she gets up.” Natalie sounded bitter for the first time. Hubert, Etc realized he was half frozen and half starving, so thirsty it was like the inside of his mouth had been painted with starch.
“We’ve got to go.” He looked at himself. In the gray dawn light, the dried blood looked like mud. “Do you think I could get onto the subway like this?”
She craned her neck, shoving stray elements of Seth off her lap. “Not like that. Maybe in Steve’s jacket, though.”
“Seth,” he said.
“Whatever.” She shook Seth by the shoulder, a little roughly. “Come on, Seth, time to go.”
* * *
They arrived at the station at 5:30, Hubert, Etc wearing Seth’s jacket, which was big on him, carrying his jacket under his arm. The first train rolled in and they shuffled in with bleary morning-shifters and wincing partiers. The people with jobs glared at the partiers. The people with jobs smelled good; the partiers did not, not even to Hubert, Etc’s deadened nose. During the zeppelin bubble, he’d had early mornings as they crunched on meaningless deadlines with the urgency of a car crash for no discernible reason. He’d ridden the first train into work. Hell, he’d slept in the office.
Seth’s comedown had plateaued. He was a perfect oil painting of Man with Drug Hangover, in grubby colors, a lot of shadow and cross-hatching. The cold air had turned his bare arms the color of corned beef, but Hubert, Etc didn’t feel bad about having commandeered his jacket. “Look at ’em,” Seth said in a stagey whisper. “So well-behaved.” They were Desi, Persian, white-bread, but all the same, all in their working peoples’ uniforms of respectability. A couple of the employed gave them shitty looks. Seth noticed, getting ready to pick a fight.
“Don’t,” Hubert, Etc said, as Seth said, “It’s the ultimate self-deception. Like they’re going to be able to change anything with a paycheck. If a paycheck could change your life, do you think they’d let you have one?”
It was a good line. Seth had used it before. “Seth,” he said, in a firmer tone.
“What?” Seth sat up straighter, looked belligerent. Toronto’s subways, like most subways, were places of civil inattention. It took a lot to get other people to overtly acknowledge you. Seth had done it. People stared.
Natalie leaned over and cupped her hand to Seth’s ear, hissed something. He clamped his mouth shut and glared, then looked at his feet. She gave Hubert, Etc a half smile.
“Where are we going?” she said. Hubert, Etc was cheered by that “we.” They’d been comrades-in-arms for the night and he had her contact details, but he’d been half expecting her to say that she was going home and leaving him with Seth.
“Fran’s?” he said.
She made a face.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s twenty-four hours, it’s warm, they don’t throw you out—”
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s a pit, though.”
He shrugged. He remembered when the last Fran’s had shut, when he was a teenager, and when the chain was rebooted as a hobby business by a lesser Weston, amid fanfare about the family and its connection to the city’s institutions. The new Fran’s felt haunted, and the feeling was, ironically, most intense during special events with live servers instead of automats. Live humans bearing trays of food highlighted the fact that the restaurant was designed for free-ranging, dumb robots and a minimum of human oversight. But it was cheap, and you could sit there a long time.
He wished he’d suggested somewhere cool. When he’d cared about this stuff, he’d had a continuous list of places where he would go if he had the money and someone to go with. Seth had that kind of list on tap, but he didn’t want to talk to Seth. He wished Seth would volunteer to go home and sleep off his trauma and drug residue. Which wasn’t going to happen, because this was Seth.
“Fine,” she said.
Her eyes glazed over and she looked at her lap, cupped her hand over the interaction surface on her thigh, checking her messages. This reminded Hubert, Etc to light up, and his own interface surfaces buzzed, letting him know about the things he should be doing. He dewormed his inboxes, flushing the junk and spum. He snooze-barred messages to bug him again later—something from his parents, an old girlfriend, some work he’d chased at a caterer’s.
They were almost at St Clair station now, and as they stood, one of the morning-shift people got into Seth’s space. He was a big guy, fair-skinned, freckled with a large, beaky nose and a conservative collar-length haircut. He wore a cheap overcoat with some kind of uniform under it, maybe medical. “You,” he said, leaning in, “are a mouthy little fuck, for someone who’s sponging welfare and partying all night. Why don’t you go get a fucking job?”
Seth leaned away, but the guy followed him, everyone swaying with the motion of the slowing train. Hubert, Etc’s adrenals found an unsuspected reservoir and goosed. His heart thundered. Someone was going to get hit. The guy was big, smelled of soap. There were cameras on the people and on the train, but he didn’t look like he gave a shit.
Natalie put a hand on the guy’s chest and pushed. He looked down in surprise at the slim, female hand on his chest, clamped his huge hand over her wrist. She whipped her free hand around, bashing him in the chest with her purse, which sprang open and sloshed cold vomit down his chest. She looked as disgusted as he did, but when he let go and stumbled back, she leaped through the closing subway doors, Hubert, Etc and Seth on her heels. They turned in time to see the guy sniffing his hand incredulously, his body language telegraphing I can’t believe you dumped a bag full of barf on me—
“Natalie,” Seth said on the escalators—the other passengers who’d gotten off gave them a wide berth. “Why was your purse full of sick?”
She shook her head. “I’d forgotten about it. I got sick when I saw—” She closed her eyes. “When I saw Billiam.”
“I’d forgotten it, too,” Hubert, Etc said.
“I hope nothing important fell out when I hit the guy,” she said. Her purse—medium-sized with a gitchy abstract pattern printed on its exterior vinyl—was slung across her body. She gingerly opened it, made a face, peered at its revolting depths. “I don’t know how the hell you start to clean this up. I’d throw it away except it’s got some stuff that should be washable.”
Seth wrinkled his nose. “Gloves and a mask. And someone else’s sink. Dude, what did you eat?”
She glared at him, but a little grin played at her lips. “Came in handy, didn’t it? Steve, we’ve had a shitty night. Do you think you could keep it low-key? Not picking fights?”
He had the grace to look ashamed. Hubert, Etc felt a spurt of jealousy jet from asshole to appetite, wanted to shove Seth down the escalator. He said, “None of us’re in the best shape. Some food will help. And coffium.”
Seth and Natalie both jolted at the mention of coffium. “Yesss,” Natalie said. “Come on.” She vaulted up, two big steps at a time. They cleared the turnstiles, stepped out into a blinking-bright morning, bustling with turned-out people doing Saturday morning shopping in turned-out showrooms. The rebuilt Fran’s had a narrow glass frontage between a bathroom remodeler’s salon and a place that sold giant concrete sculptures.
“Remember the Fran’s neon?” Hubert, Etc said. “It was such an amazing color, wild red.” He pointed to the LED-lit tube. “Never looks right to me. Makes me want to tweak reality’s gamma slider.”
Natalie gave him a funny look. They found a booth, the table lighting up with menus as they sat. The menus in front of each of them grew speech-bubbles as the automat’s biometrics recognized them and highlit their last orders, welcoming them back. Hubert, Etc saw Natalie had ordered lasagna with double garlic bread the last time, and it had been four years since she’d placed that order. “You don’t eat here often?”
“Just once,” she said. “Opening day.” She tapped the menu for a while, ordering a double chocolate malt, corned beef hash, hash browns, extra HP Sauce and mayo, and a half grapefruit with brown sugar. “I was a guest of the Weston’s. It was a family thing.” She looked him square in the eye, daring him to make a deal out of her privilege. “The neon sign? My dad bought it. It’s hanging in our cottage in the Muskokas.”
Hubert, Etc kept his face still. “I’d like to see it someday,” he said, evenly. He waited for Seth to say something.
“My name’s Seth, not Steve.” The shit-eating grin was unmistakable. He reached across the table and twiddled Natalie’s order, dragging a copy of it over to his place setting.
“What the hell.” Hubert, Etc grabbed Seth’s order and copied it to his place setting, too. He tapped the large-sized coffium-pot, and Natalie smacked her palm down on the submit.
“Come on,” Natalie said. “Say it.”
Hubert, Etc said, “Nothing to say. Your family knows the Westons.”
“Yeah,” she said. “We do. We’re foofs.”
Hubert, Etc nodded as if he knew what that meant, but Seth had no shame. “What’s a foof?”
“Fine old Ontario family,” she said.
“Never heard the term,” Seth said.
She shrugged. “You probably have to be a foof to know what a foof is. I got a lot of it at summer camp.”
The food arrived then, atop a trundling robot that docked with their table. They cleared its top layer, and it rotated its carousel for the next tray, then a third. The fourth had the coffium. Natalie set it on their table, and Hubert, Etc couldn’t help but admire her arm muscles as she set it down. He noticed she didn’t shave her armpits and felt unaccountably intimate in that knowledge. They sorted out the dishes and poured the coffee.
He plucked the nuclear-red cherry from the top of the whipped-cream mountain on his shake and ate it stem and all. Natalie did the same. Seth scalded his tongue on the coffium and spilled ice water in his haste.
Natalie used the edge of her plate as a palette and swirled together a beige mixture of HP Sauce and mayo. She forked up small mouthfuls of food swirled in the mixture.
“That looks vile.” Seth said it, not him, because he didn’t want to be a jerk. Seth was a portable, external id. Not always comfortable or appropriate, but handy nevertheless.
“It’s called the brown love.” She dabbed with a red-and-white striped napkin, waited for Seth to make an innuendo, which didn’t come. “Invented it in high school. You don’t want to try it, your loss.” She forked up more hash and pointed it at them. On impulse, Hubert, Etc let her feed it to him. It was surprisingly good, and the clink of the fork on his tooth made him shiver like an amazing piss.
“Fantastic.” He meant it. He prepared his own smear, using Natalie’s for color reference.
Seth refused to try, to Hubert, Etc’s secret delight. The food was better than he remembered, and more expensive. He hadn’t budgeted for the meal and it was going to hurt.
He pondered this, standing at the urinal and smelling his asparagus-y active-culture piss. Thinking of money, smelling the smell, he almost clamped down and ran out to get a cup to save some. Free beer was free beer, even if it did start out as used beer. All water was used beer. But it was down the drain before the thought was complete.
When he got back to the table, an older man sat next to Natalie.
He had shaggy hair, well cut, and skin with the luster of good leather. He wore a fabric-dyed cement-colored knit cardigan, with mottled horn buttons sewn on with hot pink thread. Beneath it, a tight black t-shirt revealed his muscular chest and flat stomach. He wore a simple wedding band and had short, clean, even fingernails, a kind of ostentatious no-manicure.
“Hi there,” he said. Hubert, Etc sat down opposite him. He extended a hand. “I’m Jacob. Natalie’s father.”
They shook. “I’m Hubert,” he said, as Seth said, “Call him ‘Etcetera.’”
“Call me Hubert,” he said, again. His external id was a pain in the ass.
“Nice to meet you, Hubert.”
“My father spies on me,” Natalie said. “That’s why he’s here.”
Jacob shrugged. “It could be worse. It’s not like I have your phone tapped. It’s just public sources.”
Natalie put her fork down and pushed her plate away. “He buys cam-feeds, real-time credit reports, market analytics. Like a background check on a new hire. But all the time.”
Seth said, “That’s creepy. And expensive.”
“Not so expensive. I can afford it.”
“Dad’s made the transition to old rich,” Natalie said. “He isn’t embarrassed by money. Not like my grandparents were. He knows he’s practically a member of a different species and can’t see why he should hide it.”
“My daughter is making a game of trying to embarrass me in public, something she’s been working on since she was ten. I don’t embarrass easy.”
“Why should you be embarrassed? You’d have to care what other people think of you in order to be embarrassed. You don’t, so you aren’t.”
Hubert, Etc felt embarrassed for them, felt like he should say something, if only so that Seth didn’t get all the mindshare. “I bet he cares what you think of him,” he risked.
They both grinned and the family resemblance was uncanny, down to the identical double dimple on the right side. “That’s why I do it. I’m proxy for every human beneath his notice. It’s not fun, either, despite what he thinks.”
“I don’t see you rejecting the privilege, Natty,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulders. She let him keep it there for a measured moment, then shrugged it off.
“Not yet,” she said.
His silence was eloquently skeptical. He moved her plate over to his place setting, tapped the table’s NO SHARING message and waved a contact on his sleeve over it, tapped out a pattern with his thumb and forefinger. He polished off the last of the corned beef hash and then reached for her shake. She stopped him and said, “Mine.” He settled for the dregs of her coffium.
“Are you going to invite your little friends over for a playdate, then?” He wiped his mouth and loaded the plates on the robot that re-docked with the table.
“You guys want a shower?”
Seth pounded the table, making the menu dance as it tried to interpret his instructions. “Come on, brother, we eat tonight!”
Hubert, Etc gave him an elbow jab. “Better count the spoons,” he said.
“They count themselves,” Jacob said. He did something with his sleeve and said, “The car’ll be around in a sec.”
It wasn’t a carshare car, of course. The Redwaters were one of the big names—there’d been a Redwater mayor, Redwater MPs, a Redwater Finance Minister, any number of Redwater CEOs. The car was still small, not a stretch, but it was indefinably solid, skirted with matte rubber that covered the wheels. Hubert, Etc thought that there was something interesting underneath it. There were intriguing somethings about this car, and an inconspicuous Longines logo worked into the corner of the window glass. The suspension did something clever to compensate for his weight, actively dampening it, not like stone-age springs. He sat in a rear-facing jump seat, saw the windows weren’t windows at all. They were thick armor, coated with hi-rez screens. Jacob took the other jump seat and said, “Home.” The car waited until they were all seated securely and buckled in before it leapt into traffic. From his vantage the cars around them were melting out of their way.
“I don’t think I’ve ever traveled this fast in city traffic,” he said.
Jacob gave him a fatherly wink.
Natalie reached across the large internal compartment and gave her dad a sock in the thigh. “He’s showing off. There’s custom firmware in these, lets them cut the clearance envelope in half, which makes the other cars back off because we’re driving like unpredictable assholes.”
“Is that legal?” Hubert, Etc said.
“It’s a civil offense,” Jacob said. “The fines are paid by direct-debit.”
“What if you kill someone?” Seth got to the point.
“That’s a criminal matter, more serious. Won’t happen, though. There’s a lot of game theory stuff going on in the car’s lookahead, modeling likely outs and defectors and injecting a huge margin of safety. Really, we’re playing it safer than the stock firmware, but only because the car itself has got much better braking and acceleration and handling characteristics than a stock car.”
“And because you’re terrifying other cars’ systems into getting out of your way,” Seth said.
“Right,” Natalie said, before her dad could object. He shrugged and Hubert, Etc remembered what she’d said about his being “old rich,” unconcerned by the idea that anyone would resent his buying his way through traffic.
They raced through city streets. Natalie closed her eyes and reclined. There were dark circles under her eyes and she was tense, had been since her dad turned up. Hubert, Etc tried not to stare.
“Where do you live?” Seth asked.
“Eglinton Ravine, by the Parkway,” Jacob said. “I had it built about ten years ago.”
Hubert, Etc remembered school trips to the Ontario Science Centre, tried to remember the ravine, but could only recall a deep forested zone glimpsed from the window of a speeding school bus.
The food he’d had from Fran’s weighed in his gut like a cannonball. He thought about the blood on his clothes and under his fingernails, mud on his shoes, crumbling to the upholstery. The car surged, his guts complained. They braked hard, and then merged with another lane of traffic, a whisper between them and the car behind, a tiny carshare whose passenger, an elegant Arabic-looking woman in office makeup, looked at them with alarm before they skipped to the next lane.
The house was one of three in a row overlooking the ravine’s edge, at the end of a winding, rutted road overhung with leafy trees. The garage door slid aside as they pulled into the rightmost house. It shut and locked into place with huge, shining round rods sunk deep into the floor and ceiling and walls. The car doors gasped open and he was in a vast space beneath all three houses, brightly lit and dotted with vehicles. Jacob held his hand out to Natalie and she ignored him, then stumbled a little as she twisted to avoid him taking her elbow.
“Come on,” she said to Hubert, Etc and Seth and set off for the garage’s other end.
“Thanks for the ride,” Hubert, Etc called as he quickstepped after her. Jacob leaned against the car, watching them go. Hubert, Etc couldn’t make out his expression.
She took them up a narrow staircase to a large, messy room with sofas and a panoramic window overlooking the ravine—a green, steep drop-off with the Don River below, white and frothing as it cascaded to Lake Ontario. It smelled funky, old laundry and unwashed dishes, an overlay of scented candles. One wall was finger-painted from floor to ceiling and scribbled on with Sharpies and glitter and ballpoint.
“The kids’ wing,” she said. “My sister’s away at university in Rio, so it’s mine for now. I don’t think my parents have been in here five times since the house was built.”
“The whole thing is one house?” Hubert, Etc said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Doesn’t seem like the way you’d build a house if you didn’t care about how rich you seemed to other people,” he said.
She shook her head. “It was a zoning thing. The people on the other side of the ravine”—she gestured at the picture window—“didn’t want to have to look at a ‘monster house’ over breakfast. They’re rich people, we’re rich people, the zoning board didn’t know what to do. Dad settled for building a giant house that looked like three houses.” She swept a sofa free of clutter. “Food’s in the pantry. I’m gonna use the upstairs bathroom. The downstairs one is there, help yourself to toiletries.” She went up the stairs and disappeared around a corner.
Seth grinned at Hubert, Etc meaningfully, a silent comment on his romantic feelings for Natalie. He wasn’t in the mood. He’d held a dead man in his arms. He was bloody, tired, and nauseated.
“I’m going to stand under the shower for an hour,” he said. “So you’d better go first.”
“How do you know I won’t stand under the shower for an hour?” Seth’s maddening grin.
“Don’t.” He’d spotted towels on the ground by the stone fireplace. He passed one to Seth and shook the other one out and put it on the mantel.
There was kindling and newspaper and split logs. He built a fire. He found a large t-shirt that didn’t smell bad, with fake burn-holes all over it, a pair of track-bottoms he thought would fit. He stripped off his shirt, pants, and jacket and threw them in the fire. He didn’t know what forensics could do about identifying blood on clothing after laundering but he was sure they could do less with ash. The woven interaction surfaces melted and released acrid smoke. He padded around in a stranger’s clothes, wondering whose they’d been. Maybe Billiam’s.
Natalie came around the corner and stood on the landing, contemplating him and the mess. “Steve in the bathroom?”
“You can use mine, come on.” Just like that, he was in a strange girl’s bedroom.
It was the bedroom of someone who’d been a student until recently: framed certificates, shelves full of books and trophies, thumbtacked posters for bands and causes, but overlaid with political posters, desk piled with broken interaction surfaces, elaborate homemade vapers that could turn titanium into inhalable smoke. A scattering of paper money, bespeaking illicit transactions, and clunky, semi-functional caging around the walls, floors, and ceiling—a kid’s attempt to block parental spyware. It was better opsec than Hubert, Etc practiced, but he wasn’t sure it’d work.
Natalie wore loose pajamas, black-and-white striped, and no bra, and he did not stare or even peek. She ran her hand down the bathroom door’s edge, a spot smeared with years of hand prints beyond any ever-clean surface, and it sighed open. “All yours.”
He passed through the door and turned to close it. She stared at him. “Keep the clothes,” she said. There were tears in her eyes.
“I’m—” He faltered. “I’m very sorry about Billiam.”
“Me too.” A tear slipped down her cheek. “He was an asshole, but he was our asshole. He got fucked up too early at the parties. It was his fault. I miss him.” Another tear.
“Do you want a hug?”
“No thank you. Just go shower.”
The bathroom was the kind you saw in showrooms. Active noise-cancellation ate the sound of the water; smart jets’ algorithms increased and decreased the pressure, predicting what he wanted sprayed and how hard; interactive surfaces turned anything into a mirror at a double-tap, giving him an unnerving look at his ass and the back of his head; air-circulators bathed him in warm breezes after he turned down the water, simultaneously drying the bathroom’s surfaces of condensate.
She was waiting in the doorway. “Sorry,” she said. Her eyes were dry. He held out his towel and made a questioning face. She took it from him and threw it on the floor.
“Let’s see what Steve’s up to.”
Seth had found the pantry and cleared a coffee table, done a neat job of it, folding and organizing things, piling them in a clear patch of floor. He’d cleared three chairs. On the table: a platter of fruit, teapot and cups, croissants. They smelled good.
“Good work, Steve.” Natalie sounded like she meant it.
“Any time.” Seth didn’t correct her.
They snacked in silence. Hubert, Etc wanted to ask about the house, about the food. About Billiam, the party, the third person with a beard, the other girl who’d been their partner-in-crime. But sleep was heavy in his limbs. His eyelids drooped. Natalie looked from him to Seth—who also looked like he could nod off in his chair—and said, “Okay, boys, hit the couches. I’m going to bed.”
She staggered upstairs and Hubert, Etc stretched out on the least-cluttered sofa, eyes closing as he pressed his face into the cushions’ seam. In the brief moment before sleep, he saw the twisted body of Billiam, felt a phantom sensation of the pulp of Billiam’s skull in his fingers. He had a toe-to-scalp shiver, up and down twice before it subsided and he mercifully slept.
* * *
He woke to muttered voices. He looked blearily, trying to orient himself: Seth’s back on the sofa opposite him, the finger-painted wall. He lifted his head—a hungover throb—and located the voices. Natalie, standing in a doorway at the far end, arguing through a crack in the door in a hushed voice. The answer was male, older, maddeningly calm. Jacob. His head slumped. He was going to have to get up. His bladder was painfully full.
As awkward as ever in his life, dressed in a stranger’s clothes, hungover, in a strange room where a strange—attractive—girl argued with her rich father, he padded as inconspicuously as he could to the toilet. Natalie looked at him, made an unreadable face, turned to her argument.
When Hubert, Etc came back, drying his hands on the ass of his borrowed track-bottoms, Natalie and her father sat stone-faced across from each other. Jacob sat on the sofa that Hubert, Etc had vacated and she in a chair. Seth slept.
Hubert, Etc went to the pantry—soft lights within came on and he saw a door on the other side, understood that some servant refilled it during the day—brought out carrot sticks, celery, and hummus on a tray and set it down between the two Redwaters. They glared at each other.
“Thank you, Hubert,” Jacob Redwater said. He dipped a carrot in hummus, didn’t eat.
Hubert, Etc sat down next to him, because there was nowhere else.
Natalie said, “Hubert, what’s more important, human rights or property rights?”
Hubert, Etc turned the question over. It was loaded. “Are property rights a human right?”
Jacob smiled and crunched his carrot stick, and Hubert, Etc sensed he’d said the wrong thing.
Natalie looked grim. “You tell me. That factory we switched on last night. It was worth more as a write-off than it was as a going concern. Some entity that owned it demanded that it sit rotting and useless, even though there were people who wanted what it could make.”
“If they wanted the factory, they could buy the factory,” Jacob said. “Then make things and sell them.”
“I don’t think those people could afford to buy a factory,” Hubert, Etc said, glancing at Natalie for approval. She nodded minutely.
“That’s what capital markets are for,” Jacob said. “If you’ve got a plan for profitably using an asset someone else isn’t using, then you draw up a business plan and take it to investors. If you’re right, one of them will fund you—maybe more than one. Then you sell what you make.”
“What if no one invests?” Hubert, Etc said. “I know a ton of zepp startups that died because they couldn’t get money, even though they were making amazing stuff.”
Jacob took on the air of someone explaining a complex subject to a child. “If no one wants to invest, that means that you don’t have an idea worth investing in, or you aren’t the right person to execute that idea because you don’t know how to convince people to invest.”
“Don’t you see the circularity there?” Natalie said. “If you can’t convince someone to pay to turn on the factory to make things that people need, then the factory shouldn’t be turned on?”
“As opposed to what? A free-for-all? Just smash down the doors, walk in and take over?”
“Why not, if no one else is doing anything with it?”
The talking-to-a-toddler look: “Because it’s not yours.”
“You wouldn’t be happy if a mob busted in here and carried all your precious things out, would you, Natty?”
With less than a day’s experience, Hubert, Etc could tell that Natalie didn’t want to be called “Natty.” Jacob knew it, was baiting his daughter. It was cheating.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Hubert, Etc said. “I don’t have much, most of what matters is backed up. I mean, so long as I could find a bed and some clothes the next day, it wouldn’t make a difference.”
“Natty’s got plenty more than a change of clothes and a bed here in her nest,” Jacob said. “Natty likes nice things.”
“I do. I want everyone else to have them.” Her look could have sliced steel.
“Let them work for it, the way we have.”
Jacob looked at Hubert, Etc. “You were at the party last night?”
It was dusk outside the picture window, pinky-orange light sweeping down the ravine, staining the river’s rippling surface.
“What do you think about breaking into private property and stealing what you find there?”
Hubert, Etc wished that he’d pretended to be asleep. He was pretty sure Seth was faking it.
“No one was using it.” He looked at Natalie. “The hydrogen cells’d filled up, so the windmills were going to waste. The feedstock was worth practically nothing.”
Natalie said, “What’s the point of having private property if all does is rot?”
“Oh, please. Private property is the most productive property. Temporary inefficiencies don’t change that. Only kooks and crooks think that stealing other property is a valid form of political action.”
“Only kleptocrats use terms like ‘temporary inefficiencies’ for wasteful abominations like that Muji factory.”
“It’s easy to talk about kleptocrats when Daddy pulls strings to keep the cops off your lazy ass. They’ll arrest a hell of a lot of people today, Natty, but not you or your friends.”
“Don’t pretend your political embarrassment is generosity. Let ’em put me away.”
“Maybe I will. Maybe a couple of years of hard work in prison will make you appreciate what you’ve got.”
She looked at Hubert, Etc. “He’s been threatening to send me to a prison since I was ten. It used to be those scared-straight places on private islands, until they were all busted for ‘corrective rape.’ Now it’s adult prison. Why the fuck not, Dad? You’re a major shareholder in most of ’em—they’d give you a discount. I could get inside perspective on the family business.”
Jacob gave a showy laugh. “Like I’d trust you to run anything. Business is a meritocracy, child. You think you’re going to walk into some fat job just because you’re my kid—”
“I don’t. Because there aren’t any ‘jobs’ left. Just financial engineering and politics. I’m not qualified for either. For one thing, I can’t say ‘meritocracy’ with a straight face.”
Hubert, Etc saw that one land. It emboldened him. “It’s the height of self-serving circular bullshit, isn’t it? ‘We’re the best people we know, we’re on top, therefore we have a meritocracy. How do we know we’re the best? Because we’re on top. QED.’ The most amazing thing about ‘meritocracy’ is that so many brilliant captains of industry haven’t noticed that it’s made of such radioactively obvious bullshit you could spot it orbit.” He snuck another look at Natalie. She gave him a minute nod that thrilled him.
Jacob looked more pissed. Distantly, Hubert, Etc wondered how such a powerful man could be so thin-skinned. Jacob stood and glared. “Easy to say, but last time I looked, you two hadn’t done a fucking thing that mattered to anyone, and were depending on ‘bullshit’ to keep your asses out of jail.”
“There he goes with the jail stuff again. I suppose prison is one way to win an argument if you can’t think of a better one.”
“It’s traditional,” Seth said, lifting his face from the pillows. “Spanish Inquisition. USSR. Saudi Arabia. Gitmo.”
Jacob walked out, closing the connecting door with a dignified click. It was more pissed than a slam. Hubert, Etc felt victorious.
“This hotel is goddamned noisy.” Seth rolled onto his back, stretching to expose his hairy stomach, gone soft since the last time Hubert, Etc saw it.
“The room service is awesome, though,” Hubert, Etc said. “And you can’t beat the price.”
Seth sat up. “That’s your dad, huh?”
“I know that it’s a cliché to hate your old man when you’re twenty, but he’s such an asshole,” Natalie said. “He really believes that meritocracy stuff. Seriously believes in it. He’s one step away from talking about having the blood of kings in his veins.”
“The thing I’ve never understood,” Hubert, Etc said, “is how someone can be delusional and still manage to own half the planet? I get how having some delusions would be useful when you’re bossing people around and ripping everyone off, but doesn’t that break down eventually? It’s still capitalism out there. If your competitor brings in some person who isn’t delusional, wouldn’t that person end up bankrupting you?”
Natalie said, “There’s more than one way to be smart. People like my dad assume that because they’re smart about being evil bastards, they’re smart about everything—”
“And because they’re smart at everything,” Seth said, “that makes it okay for them to be evil bastards?”
“Exactly,” she said. “So people like my dad are good at figuring out how to take your company with its ‘smart people’ and get it declared illegal, poach its best ideas, or just buy it and leverage it and financialize it until it doesn’t make anything except for exotic derivatives and tax credits. And the thing is, that’s not good enough for him! He wants to be the one percent of the one percent of the one percent because of his inherent virtue, not because the system is rigged. His whole identity rests on the idea that the system is legit and that he earned his position into it fair and square and everyone else is a whiner.”
“If they didn’t want to be poor, they shoulda had the sense to be born rich,” Seth said.
“No offense,” Hubert, Etc added.
“None taken.” She picked through a pile of laundry, producing a loose-knit eggplant colored cardigan, a pair of twisted underwear hanging off a sleeve. She slingshotted them toward the stairs. “I know my family is richer than Scrooge McDuck, but I don’t pretend we got that way by doing anything except getting lucky a long time ago and using graft, corruption, and sleaze to build that luck up to this tacky place and a dozen more like it.”
“And what about last night?” Hubert, Etc asked, emboldened by her frankness. “What about that party and all?”
“What about it?” she said, her tone playful and challenging.
“What about being richer than Scrooge McDuck and staging a Communist party?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“It’s not like you need to—”
“But I can. Remember, it’s not just ‘to each according to her need,’ it’s ‘from each according to her ability.’ I know how to find factories that are perfect for direct action. I know how to get into them. I know how to pwnify their machines. I know how to throw a hell of a party. I have all this unearned, undeserved privilege. Apart from killing myself as an enemy of the human species, can you think of anything better for me to do with it?”
“You could give money to—”
She froze him with a look. “Haven’t you figured it out? Giving money away doesn’t solve anything. Asking the zottarich to redeem themselves by giving money away acknowledges that they deserve it all, should be in charge of deciding where it goes. It’s pretending that you can get rich without being a bandit. Letting them decide what gets funded declares the planet to be a giant corporation that the major shareholders get to direct. It says that government is just middle-management, hired or fired on the whim of the directors.”
“Plus, if you believe all that, you don’t have to give all your money away,” Seth said. She didn’t seem pissed.
“What the fuck do we need money for? So long as you keep on pretending that money is anything but a consensus hallucination induced by the ruling elite to convince you to let them hoard the best stuff, you’re never going to make a difference. Steve, the problem isn’t that people spend their money the wrong way, or that the wrong people have money. The problem is money. Money only works if there isn’t enough to go around—if you’re convinced scarce things are fairly allocated—but it’s the same circular meritocratic argument that Etcetera annihilated for my dad: markets are the fairest way to figure out who should get what, and the markets have produced the current terrible allocation, therefore the current terrible allocation is the best solution to a hard problem.”
“Every time I hear someone saying that money is bullshit, I check to see how much money they have. No offense, Natty, but it’s a lot easier to talk about money being bullshit when you have it.” Seth sat up and rubbed vigorously at his legs. Dried mud flaked off his jeans.
She snorted. “Is that all you’ve got? ‘Champagne socialist?’ You think the fact that I was born into a lot of money—a lot of money, more money than you’ll ever see or even imagine—disqualifies me from having an opinion about it?”
Seth wandered over to the larder and pulled out food—fresh fruit, royal jelly rehydration drink, pizza in a M.R.E. box whose tab he pulled and pitched. The silence stretched. Hubert, Etc was about to speak, then Seth said, “I’ve met a lot of cops with bullshit theories about crime and human nature. Generals clearly have batshit opinions about the gravity of ending human life. Every priest, rabbi, and imam seems to know a lot about an invisible, all-powerful being who appears be a fairy tale. So yeah, having a lot of money probably does disqualify you from knowing a single fucking thing about it.” He unboxed the pizza, avoided the rising steam. “Slice?” he said, the smell of garlic, tomato, corn niblets, and anchovies swirled like an oregano dust devil.
Hubert, Etc hunkered down for Natalie’s eruption. Seth was a master of provocation. But it didn’t come.
“That’s not entirely stupid. Let’s say that we’ve got different perspectives on money. Tell me, Steve, do you think you can spend and redistribute your way to a better world?”
“Damned if I know.”
Hubert, Etc took the pizza box and had a slice. It was good for flash-baked M.R.E. The sauce was tangy and spicy and might be addictive as crack. When he realized that there were as many pizzas as he could eat lurking in potentia in the Redwater estate, he took two more.
“I’m suspicious of any plan to fix unfairness that starts with ‘step one, dismantle the entire system and replace it with a better one,’ especially if you can’t do anything else until step one is done. Of all the ways that people kid themselves into doing nothing, that one is the most self-serving.”
“What about walkaways?” Hubert, Etc said. “Seems to me that they’re doing something that makes a difference. No money, no pretending money matters, and they’re doing it right now.”
Natalie and Seth looked at him. He finished his third slice. “They’re weird and sketchy, but that goes with the territory whenever you’re talking destroying the world as we know it and putting another one in its place.”
“He’s kidding, right?” Natalie said.
“Damned if I know,” Seth said. “He’s strange. Etcetera, you’re kidding, right?”
Hubert, Etc warmed to being the center of attention. “I’m totally serious. Look, I’ve heard the stories, too, I don’t know if they’re true, and if you two are serious about all this change-the-world stuff, I don’t think you can pretend that a couple million weirdos who have exactly that mission don’t exist because you’re uncomfortable with their lifestyle. It’s not like self-heating pizzas are an innate human institution we’ve enjoyed as a species for thousands of years.”
“What are you proposing?”
“Not proposing, exactly. But if you wanted, you could have all the info you needed to go walkaway in about ten minutes’ time, could be on the road tomorrow, living like it was the first days of a better nation—or a weirder one.”
Natalie looked at the darkening sky for a long time. “Billiam used to joke about walkaways. There’d always be a couple who’d show up at the Communist parties the next day and tweak this and that to make it run better. Didn’t talk to us at all, wouldn’t make eye contact, but they always left stuff running better than they found it. Billiam said we were all going to end up as walkaways.”
“He was a good friend of yours, huh?” Hubert, Etc felt stupid.
“I’d known him off and on for three years. He wasn’t my best friend, but we’d had fun together. He was a good person, though I’d seen him be a flaming asshole.”
Seth surprised Hubert, Etc by saying, “That’s not very nice.”
She made an impatient noise. “Bullshit. I’ve got zero tolerance for not speaking ill of the dead. Billiam was sixty percent good guy, forty percent utter prick. That puts him in the middle of humanity’s bell curve. He hated bullshit with heat from the center of the sun. He was my friend, not yours.”
Hubert, Etc felt tears, didn’t know why. He went into the bathroom, sat on the toilet lid with his eyes closed, then stared into the mirror screen, letting it cycle through his profiles and the back and top of his head. He looked like shit. His second thought, which came in a bolt of clarity, was that he looked like a normal human, among billions of humans, no more or less good or bad than anyone. He thought about Natalie’s talk of the bell curve and thought that he was within a sigma or two of normal on every axis.
He splashed cold water on his face and stepped out, trailing his hands along the finger-painted wall. Natalie and Seth looked at him with guilt or concern.
“You okay, buddy?” Seth said.
“Natalie,” he said, “I don’t think that the average person is sixty percent good and forty percent prick. I think that the average person sometimes kids himself that he’s the center of the universe, and it’s okay if he does something that he’d be pissed about if someone else did it to him, and tries not to think about it too hard.”
“Uh, okay—” Natalie said.
“And I think that the tragedy of human existence is our world is run by people who are really good at kidding themselves, like your father. Your dad manages to kid himself that he’s rich and powerful because he’s the cream and has risen to the top. But he’s not stupid. He knows he’s kidding himself. So underneath that top layer of bullshit is another, more aware belief system: the belief that everyone else would kid themselves the same way he does, if they had the chance.”
“That’s exactly right,” she said.
“His beliefs don’t start with the idea that it’s okay to kid yourself you’re a special snowflake who deserves more cookies than all the other kids. It starts with the idea that it’s human nature to kid yourself and take the last cookie, so if he doesn’t, someone else will, so he had better be the most lavishly self-deluded of all, the most prolific taker of cookies, lest someone more horrible, immoral, and greedy than he gets there first and eats all the cookies, takes the plate, and charges rent to drink the milk.”
Seth said: “Insert tragedy of the commons here.”
Natalie put her hands up. “You know, I’ve heard the term ‘tragedy of the commons’ like a thousand times and I’ve never actually looked it up. What is it? Something to do with poor people being tragic?”
“That’s commoners,” Hubert, Etc said. Something was awake and loose inside him now. He wanted to kick the pizza off the coffee table and use it for a stage. “Commons. Common land that belongs to no one. Villages had commons where anyone could bring their livestock for a day’s grazing. The tragedy part is that if the land isn’t anyone’s, then someone will come along and let their sheep eat until there’s nothing but mud. Everyone knows that that bastard is on the way, so they might as well be that bastard. Better that sheep belonging to a nice guy like you should fill their bellies than the grass going to some selfish dickhead’s sheep.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me.”
“Oh, it is,” Hubert, Etc said. The thing was moving in his guts, setting his balls and face tingling. “It’s more than mere bullshit. It’s searing, evil, world-changing bullshit. The solution to the tragedy of the commons isn’t to get a cop to make sure sociopaths aren’t overgrazing the land, or shunning anyone who does it, turning him into a pariah. The solution is to let a robber-baron own the land that used to be everyone’s, because once he’s running it for profit, he’ll take exquisite care to generate profit forever.”
“That’s the tragedy of the commons? A fairy tale about giving public assets to rich people to run as personal empires because that way they’ll make sure they’re better managed than they would be if we just made up some rules? God, my dad must love that story.”
“It’s the origin story of people like your dad,” Hubert, Etc said. “It’s obvious bullshit for anyone whose sweet deal doesn’t depend on it not being obvious.”
“Hear that, Dad?” she said, looking around the room. “Obvious to anyone whose sweet deal doesn’t depend on it not being obvious, you deluded sociopathic fuck.”
“He’s got you bugged?” Seth said.
“I’ve got an individual privacy filter on the house network. But of course the cameras are rolling, because if I get kidnapped or murdered, he’d review them. Of course that’s bullshit and he’s always been able to spoof the locks. He learned it from me, when he went through some audit logs and saw I was doing it. Now he’s locked me out but I’m goddamned certain there are times he’s gone through my footage.” She looked into the air in front of her face. “Yes, Dad, I know you’re listening. It’s pathetic.”
Hubert, Etc remembered looking at his reflection in the bathroom and wondered if there was long-term archiving of its feed. He knew plenty of people with bugged homes, but you couldn’t live as though you were being observed. When your infographics said you were fully patched, you had to trust them. That’s what made the panics about huge zero-day security ruptures such a fright: the sudden knowledge that everything might have been auto-pwned by a random crim or asshole who used a skin-detection algorithm to catch you masturbating, keywords to flag your embarrassing conversations, harvesting your biometrics for playback attacks on your finances and social nets.
Living with the knowledge that there were creeps inside your perimeter was creepy. Of all the weird things about being zottarich, this was the weirdest. So far.
“Sorry,” Hubert, Etc said. “Just getting my head around this. How often does he spy on you?”
“Who knows? I go somewhere else any time I want to have a real conversation, usually.” She looked around the huge, airy, filthy room. “I don’t come back here much.”
Hubert, Etc had assumed that the place was a dump because Natalie was a rich slob who didn’t know how good she had it, but he understood that it was a calculated gesture of contempt. This wasn’t her home, it was a perch. Hubert, Etc didn’t always have the best relationship with his parents, but this was a different level.
“What about your mom?” he said. “Does she know he spies on you?”
“Sure,” she said. “Mom doesn’t come by often, either—she’s in GMT minus eight or minus nine.” She cocked her head. “Oh, you mean is this a sex thing? No, I’m sure it isn’t. My dad gets his flesh through specialists. He’s never been that kind of perv.” She addressed the air. “See, Dad? I stuck up for you. Whatever you are, you’re not kinked for your own daughters. Bravo.”
The hair on the back of his neck rose. The thing that had come alive in him had done a slow roll in his guts.
She looked at them. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Don’t worry, get used to it. It’s no different from being out in reality, sensed and recorded all the time. What’s the worst that can happen? Dad’s not going to have you rubbed out or send mercs on your trail after we drop out.”
“After we drop out?”
“Isn’t that what we were talking about? Going walkaway? That’s where this thing was headed—some kind of prince-and-pauper thing: ‘I’ll wager I can put on vagabond’s rags and go unnoticed among the lower classes, what-ho?’”
“Don’t make me join the walkaways, Etcetera,” Seth said.
The thing inside Hubert, Etc’s guts roiled. “Was that where I was headed?”
Natalie caught his eye. Her face shone. She was beautiful. She had zits, a sprinkle of freckles, the sclerae of her eyes were pink and her lids were red-rimmed. She was brimming with life, sorrow, and whatever he’d felt when he realized that the whispered conversations about money and jobs that all the grown-ups had all the time were the outward reflection of deep, unending terror. A fear that gnawed at every grown person. A primordial terror of the tiger outside the cave.
“Sure as shit sounded like it to me,” she said.
“Seth,” he said. “What is it that keeps you from going walkaway, exactly?”
To his surprise, Seth looked genuinely distressed. “You’re joking. Those people are bananas. They’re homeless people, Hubert—” Hubert, Etc noted that Seth had called him ‘Hubert,’ always a sign that they’d tapped into a rich seam of Seth’s psyche. “They’re bums. They eat garbage—”
“Not exactly garbage,” Hubert, Etc said. “No more than the beer we were drinking last night was piss. Give me a good reason. Loyalty to your employer? Prospects of a rich and fulfilled life?” Like Hubert, Etc, the longest Seth had been employed was six months, and the first month had been classed as “training”—not paid. Neither of them had had anything like real work in months.
“How about fear of prison?”
“How about it? You dragged me to an illegal party last night. That’s more likely to get us busted than anything we’d do out in the abandoned territories—”
“The territories? Be serious, you’d be dead inside of a month.”
“It’s not the surface of the moon. It’s places where no one wants to bother arresting the population for vagrancy.”
“Yeah, they don’t arrest ’em, they incinerate ’em for being squatter-terrorists,” Seth said. “And then there’s the friendly fire. It’s a fucking gladiator pit for excess humans.”
“He’s got a point,” Natalie said. “We’d have to arm up if we went. Dad’s panic room’s full of toys, though—stuff designed to slip millimeter wave. If we brought enough matériel, we’d be the kings of the badlands. Could be fun.”
Hubert, Etc boggled. “Haven’t you two ever seen a walkaway? They’re practically Zen monks. They’re not out mowing down their rivals with resin AK-3DPs. You’ve seen too many movies.”
“I’ve seen walkaways, the people who’d visit the liberations, but who knows what they’re like in their native habitat? There’s no sense in being naïve. You’ve got to be insane if you think we’re going to stroll into Mordor with packs full of delicious M.R.E.s and be welcomed as spiritual brothers.”
Hubert, Etc was now as upset as Seth. “Have you two ever killed someone? Are you prepared to do so? Would you point a gun at another human being and gun him down?”
Natalie shrugged. “If it was me or him, fuck yeah.” Seth nodded.
“You’re both full of shit.”
He and Seth glared. Natalie was more amused than ever.
The standoff might have continued if Hubert, Etc hadn’t looked up the FAQ. They had a brief argument about which anonymizer to trust—if you were Natalie’s age, all of the proxies that Hubert and Seth used were considered false-flag ops for harvesting intel on dissidents. Natalie, meanwhile, liked an anonymizer that Seth and Hubert, Etc had heard was junk-science wishful-thinking voodoo. It turned out the two systems could be daisy chained, and so they all grudgingly set them up and started searching.
There were as many walkaway FAQs as walkaways. The impulse to walk away was bound up with the urge to write Thoreauvian memoirs about societal malaise and the tradecraft of going off-grid in the age of total information awareness. They included appendices summing things up for the tldr crowd, with videos, darknet links, shapefiles, and wetjet formulas for making your own crucial frontier enzymes and GMOs. Some of this was radioactively hot, the kind of thing that’d get you watchlisted so hard you’d have to fight through the clouds of drones to go out for milk, but there was nothing in it about weapons.
Hubert, Etc pointed this out to Natalie and Seth, trying not to be smug. Seth said, “Of course no one talks about peacemakers where spooks could see it. It’ll all be deep darknet.”
“You’re saying the fact that we can’t find anything about weapons is proof that there must be weapons because if there were weapons no one would talk about weapons?” Hubert, Etc had experience winning arguments with Seth. He noted with pleasure that Natalie agreed and basked in a moment of admiration.
Seth gave him a belligerent look, couldn’t keep it up. “Fine. No weapons.”
It dawned on Hubert, Etc that this wasn’t a thought experiment—somewhere on the way, reading FAQs and watching videos, they’d shaded from playing let’s-pretend to planning. He had screens of notes and a huge wad of cached stuff.
“Are we going to actually do this? Actually for real?”
Natalie looked around the room pointedly. Hubert, Etc thought of the parties and the fooling around that must have taken place here, weird zottarich kids who’d played whatever decadent games they favored over the years. He thought of the cameras, spooling up their planning session from different angles, dropping it into long-term archiving.
“Fuck yeah,” she whispered. “Let’s do it.”
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