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No one, dick. It’s the end of the world.
—from The Grifter’s Guide to the Territories FKA USA
“There.” Jared Lee, the first of my two and a half friends, pointed past the stubby line of waste-treatment plants. “Right there. See? Refugees.”
I raised a hand to shield my eyes from the sun. All I could make out were colored blobs. Across the river, Burns Park glowed in the morning light, its two-headed plants and stunted chemical trees all lit a violent shade of purple.
I shook my head. “Nada.”
“Try your visor again,” Jared said, and sneezed half a dozen times. Even his allergies were nervy.
“I told you, the color’s crapped,” I said. But I notched my visor down over my eyes anyway, and the world molted a mucus color where it touched my feed. Everything was shades of green and yellow—had been since last night, when in the middle of a rub-and-tug my VR porn star had suddenly blanked off into dots and zeroes. A virus from the illegal download, probably. And I couldn’t exactly go to HR.
“I put my resolution up to twenty,” Annalee Kimball, the second of my two and a half friends, said helpfully.
I did some fussing around with my scope app, which came free with the Crunch company software. When we were twelve, Jared and I discovered this function and spent a solid week staring at girls’ boobs at resolution ten and then cracking up afterward. You can make technology as smart as you want, but you can bet bank humans will be stupid about it.
At resolution fifteen, patterns of algae made hieroglyphs on the Arkansas River. President and CEO Mark J. Burnham had pledged to clean the river by 2090 and there was even chatter of trying to breed fish, but we all knew it for empty talk.1
Finally, after another tweak or two, the whole of the Crunch 407 complex came into focus: the gridlock slum of Low Hill, the shipping plants and incinerators, the admin complex and chemical-waste drums, the water cisterns and sewage plants, the solar panels glimmering greenly, and the wind-powered tram that spanned the river and took the fat cats back to Uphill at the end of their workday. The Human Resources complex, dark and evil as a mold. Miles and miles of smokestacks, solar panels, water-treatment facilities, pipes—and beyond those, the splintered pinwheel of highways that went nowhere, at least nowhere you’d want to go.
I could just pick out a person working his or her way through the maze of ancient-model rigs on the highway just east of Ext 42A.
“A refugee,” Jared said again.
“Or just backlander,” Annalee said, tugging a crinkle of bangs out of her visor.
Jared shook his head. He wouldn’t let it drop. “What backlander you know would make a run on Crunchtown in broad daylight?”
“A backlander with the runs,” I said, and Annalee rolled her eyes. But almost every week HR stunned a backwoods camper sneaking in to poop in our toilets or steal toilet paper from supply. I once cranked open the shower to find a woman, butt-naked, sloughing about four years of grit down the drain. The only woman I’ve ever seen naked in real life, and she was a sixty-five-year-old hillbilly with dirt in her crack.
“Nah. Refugee.” Jared sneezed again. The same month Jared was born, Crunch Snacks and Pharmaceuticals had its worst enviro disaster in history, flooding the river with two hundred tons of toxic chemicals. You could always tell Riverside babies from the sound they made when they breathed, as if they were sucking air through a wet sock.2 “What do you want to bet we get a run of foreigners from the Federation? The Commonwealth’s been rolling blackouts from Chicago to Winnipeg because of the new Security Resolution.”3
“The Commonwealth’s always threatening blackouts,” Annalee pointed out.
“This time, it isn’t just a threat,” Jared insisted. “Half the Federation is dark right now. The servers are going haywire.”
“Spam,” I said. “You can’t trust everything you read on the news. Didn’t anyone tell you that?”
Jared shrugged, like Just wait and see.
“Besides, HR would of pulled the alarm,” I said, but mostly to convince myself. I wasn’t worried about raiders—no one, no matter how strung out on shiver, would dream of attacking Crunchtown, not with its security force and the watchtowers and the HR goons strutting the streets showing off their ammunition (but remembering to smile!).
The problem with foreigners was simple: they carried disease. When I was a kid, a few hundred desperate backlanders, fleeing violence at the border of Sinopec-TeMaRex Affiliated, made it to Crunch 407. The board of directors stuck them down in Low Hill, and a week later half of us were laid flat by the C-1 virus, one of the worst superflus that ever hit. Two thousand crumbs died in less than a week. Now foreigners had to go through quarantine, even if they were just passing through.
“There are two of them,” Annalee said suddenly. “A tall one, and a short one.”
I notched my zoom a little further. She was right: as I watched, the shadow fissured in two and then globbed together again.
“Maybe a dwarf,” Jared said.
“Or a hobbit,” I put in. A few years ago, Billy Lou Ropes had somehow rounded up a few old books—real ones, made of paper—and one of them was called The Hobbit. I’d never gotten used to reading—the text didn’t move or scroll or link to videos; it couldn’t read itself out loud, even—but I liked the picture on the cover, and the smell of the pages, which reminded me of my mom’s old maps.
“Or a child,” Annalee said.
The idea hovered uneasily between us: a little kid, maybe sick with something, maybe starving or thirsty for water or slashed up by the roadslicks who made their living taking tolls from travelers.
Then our SmartBands pulsed a light warning through our wrists. Fifteen minutes to daily login.
“I guess that’s our cue,” Annalee said.
“Hustle and shake,” Jared said, and sighed. “Another day in paradise.”
Copyright © 2019 by Reed King