by George Potter
Old Spider is having trouble. The car just died on him, with neither complaint nor shout of warning, and sits refusing to start on the shoulder of this great wide highway that runs from Somewhere to Somewhere, right through the middle of Nowhere.
Old Spider is not a patient being. He is not willing to wait for help as the universe spins its mad dance around him. He gathers his rucksack and its bounty, and prepares to head west on the path he was taking. It was a stolen car. He can steal another, even in this age that makes a damn hard thing of stealing. He wont mind a little footwork until then. The night is beautiful and the stars hang above him in their web. He smiles at them.
Before he leaves, Old Spider shoots the car twice with the blunt and powerful pistol he carries on his left hip. It’s not clear if he is murdering the beast or putting it out of its misery. Knowing Old Spider, he could just be shooting to hear the report or to see the fake glass windshield turn into an oddly beautiful web of clinging sharpness, or just to savor the sound rushing away from him there on the flat expanse of desert.
Old Spider is a few miles up the road when a coyote finds him, and growls a respectful hello. Old Spider invites it to walk with him a stretch. He and the coyote swap stories for a while. Before they part, the coyote whispers that his kind can feel the Mother approaching. His kind are happy. They tire of the old stories and long to feel her gleaming presence, if only briefly. She is moving with great speed, they know, in a flat out run, and will only pass them by. Still, it is a moment much anticipated.
Old Spider smiles at this news, for his own reasons.
The coyote has never heard of Los Angeles, though.
Sometimes when Meline got the headaches she did stupid crazy shit.
This, it appears, is one of those times.
Vegas is boring, she thinks lying in bed and holding her head in both hands. It’s too freakin’ gaudy. And she wants suddenly — unexpectedly — to see her mother.
She packs the quick way, tried and true by grifters and little rich girls in a snit since Babylon. Open suitcase, dump contents of hotel room drawers into suitcase, add whatever you might like from the mini-bar and top it with a soap as a souvenir. Crumple and batter said mess until suitcase encloses it.
Then she’s off, out the door that refuses to slam, toting a grossly distorted bioplastic imitative suitcase trying diligently to conform its contents into something a bit more seemly as she strides. She’s a slight blond girl, with absolute zero cozsurgery. Pretty but plain, guys who didn’t know how much she was worth usually judged her. All her mods are on the inside. She has no taste for the currently extreme faddish body alterations.
They always remind her of people trying to be someone else.
Her brain and nervous system are a different story. A few million dollars worth of state of the art was spread out through the thinkfeel. But that was business.
Meline emerges from the maze of drop and lift tubes in the old fashioned lobby, all natty oak framing and mollydeep replicas of antiques. On the trip from her room to lobby, she has taken care of the details — paid the bills and left a note for her father. She bypasses the clerk with a wave and holds her breath until she makes it through the looking glass iris that opens and closes for her in the hotels diamond facade.
She gulps the hot dry air, and it seems to make her head pound a little less. She wakes up Amelia and sets her to work getting out of the city, into her car, and down the road through nowhere.
An airbus drops down into a public slot and she makes her way to it, prodded by her familiar. From here on out she can let Amelia handle the details, and try not to remember that her head feels like a rotted tooth.
The airbus is only half full, and its turbines hum happily as they fling their cargo over the City Of Shows.
Meline Kennaly stares out the window at the strip flowing along below her. Her head hurts.
She is sixteen, worth seven billion standard dollars, and is considered a full Sovereign entity by the World Court. Technically, she could start a freaking war. Not that she knows how.
It would be pretty easy to start one between Zimbabwe and Charleston. Amelia tells her in the deadly serious tone that means she is joking. The High Redeemer is still holding three Rothbardite missionaries and threatening to hang them. You have a lot of pull in Charleston.
Meline mimes disgust in her sensorium. You mean my scarily mutating and engorging trust fund has a lot of pull in Charleston, she corrects.
Honey, I’ve told you a million times. Don’t think of it as a big black cloud that hovers over you. Think of it as a big black viciously sharp axe that hovers over you, ready for anyone who wants to fuck with you.
Meline smiles at the old joke despite the pain.
She can do anything she wants to do, and what she wants to do right now is talk to her mommy.
The bus trip is short. Ten minutes later she is deposited in a drop spot in Beulahland, one of the vast parking spaces that now surround Las Vegas like a fortress. Private vehicle use is forbidden in the city. The not-really-private airbus and autocab services rule the streets and skies of the city proper.
Like most American cities east of the Mississippi and north of the Mas-Dix, Vegas has a strong state apparatus running it, and the only capitalism they believe in is the crony kind. None of that laissez-faire shit here. Vegas is actually more of a committee based aristocracy, with some of the most bewildering and jungle like estate laws in the world, making sure the economic power the Showbiz city generates stays in a carefully maintained pool of families. It is said that the Vegas Independence Constitution is one of the thickest and most rigidly adhered to documents in history.
Her father always says that constitutions are far better devices to encourage states rather than limit them. Vegas proved that he was right. The bastard usually is.
Like its fellow suburbs, Beulahland resembles a small town devoted to the business of parking vehicles. The same people who work here live here, deep below the flat stacked pancake rises of car and flyer ports. She wonders idly if, in a few generations, the families that remained would start giving themselves names like Valet and Gatekeep.
Meline follows Amelias gentle prompting down rows and ‘vators and finally to her car. Each step she takes makes her head scream at her.
Get in, slap the safeties, turn over control to me and close your eyes, baby doll. Amelia tells her. I’m going to dope you up. You need to sleep. Soon as we hit LA you are hiring a good medlab, sweetie. These headaches are getting ridiculous.
Meline’s car of the month is a Ferrari McQueen. All the Italians do now is build ridiculously fast cars. It’s a niche market, sure, but a niche market with vast pockets. They only make groudcars. ‘No Fly’ is the unofficial motto of the weak AI that functions as the Italian state. Of course, the AI says it in Italian, and it is orders of magnitudes prettier than the English statement.
It’s an anomaly that annoys her father, Meline knows. That the Italian people happily converted to a society where only 16% of the population work for a living creating a fine product beloved the world over. The rest are given the barely missed largesse of that 16% and live fine lives. Such a thing seemed unnatural to a raving plutarchist like James Kennaly.
It is a wide, sleek, muscular machine. Meline herself views it only as transport. Amelia, on the other hand, is something of a car nut. She likes power and luxury. The Ferrari has both in spades. The induction drive is axle-less and friction free. The Firestones are guaranteed puncture free for a half-million miles. It can do 0 to 120 km in under 3 seconds. Its cruising speed is 260 km per hour.
It is, of course, black.
Meline is barely in the car before the safeties engage. Amelia floods her with opiate analogs from the pharmacopeia implant. The pain muttered into silence. Meline smiles, and is asleep in moments.
Amelia takes control. She pumps the engine, enjoying the sensory link to the crackling power plant. She slams out of the carport, makes the slows and turns necessary, and exits Beulahland in a near silent thrum of speed. The gate clocks her at 300 km, and tickets her accordingly.
The landscape a blur, Amelia orients and heads for Los Angeles, giving into the rush of the speed and the roar of the road passing below.
Sleeping, Meline dreams of a gleaming coyote, running down the center of a black highway, sparks screaming from her feet as she lopes, the howl of the hunt all around her.
Eric Lancaster came up from unconsciousness in layers; gently managed stages designed to reduce shock and disorientation. Godiva, the familiar he had carefully designed and built since the age of six, was an old hand at this. She’d certainly gotten enough practice. A youth spent on the rougher streets of Houston and a long decade as a Charleston soldier for hire had given her the experience to manage something as simple as unconsciousness.
The final stage before full waking was a pleasantly dim space filled with soothing music and warm memories. He called it The Lobby.
Eric, love, I may as well be blunt. Godiva told him. You’re a prisoner.
“Shit.” he muttered.
Calm down. Deseret Union is well known for humane prisoner policies. They’re more interested in ransoms than honor killings. Godiva chuckled. Some claim that’s the main reason they bother with fighting. But I suspect that’s mainly anti-Mormon prejudice.
Eric smiled, but shook his head. “May not be a ransom this time.” he reminded her. “I’ve let my dues to MidAmerican slip in the past month. And Charleston hasn’t bothered insuring grunts since the fuckin’ union insisted on combat bonuses in lieu.”
I said calm down, laddie!
Eric sighed. He hadn’t programmed the stern motherly tone Godiva often adopted, but that was the price for high functioning individual cognitive software: random variations in the personality were a given. Things could be worse, he knew. He had a friend who’s familiar often went off into hour long rants about the Masons. And he knew a gal who’s proxy often did impressions in moments of stress. A little mothering, he figured, was a small price to pay.
I was allowed a half hour of full access, in order to make bond arrangements. she explained. I contacted Meline.
Eric groaned. “You mean you contacted Amelia.”
Godiva’s voice could barely conceal her smirk. Of course. Meline was sleeping. Amelia promised she’d arrange your release as soon as she got the go ahead from her girly.
“Are you two ever going to stop scheming to get us back together?” Eric asked her,knowing the answer.
Certainly not. Godiva said, rather insulted at the suggestion. Are you two ever going to admit that your familiars know what’s good for you and let what’s been obvious since you were both toddlers happen?
“I’m currently at the mercy of Mormons.” he reminded her, darkly. “Can we talk about this later?”
If you please. But her voice had that infuriating Mother-knows-best shading. You ready for reality?
He sighed. “As I’ll ever be. Am I alone?”
Godiva laughed. No. These are Mormons, baby. First they’ll try to convert you. Then they’ll simply make sure your ransom will be paid — all the while making sure you’re comfortable, cheerful and aware of how disgustingly nice they are.
“Better than hot rods and bamboo skewers I guess.”
Marginally. Here we go…
The Lobby faded. Light intensified. Ambient sound intruded. Around Eric Lancaster, the world came out of hiding.
Godiva wasn’t kidding. His warden’s smiling face was looming over him as soon as his vision focused.
“Well welcome to Deseret, Mr. Lancaster!” the voice was annoyingly chipper and scarily sincere. This guy was honestly welcoming a prisoner of war to his happy little community. “I’m Brother Thaddeus. I’ll be your host and liaison.”
Eric attempted an experimental move and discovered that he was completely paralyzed.
“My captor, you mean. Or do you paralyze every guest as a matter of course?”
Thaddeus chuckled, appreciating the joke. “A security precaution, I’m afraid. We’ve had more than a few guests come up from the bed swinging. As soon as you prove you’re civil and cooperative, the stasis will be released and you’ll have full run of the guest dorm.” Thaddeus beamed in such a way that suggested he could not imagine a more enjoyable thing to have full run of.
His captor glanced at a wristcom. Mormon doctrine proscribed implants and familiars. Wearable tech was as state-of-the-art as they got. “Your ransom has actually been paid, so you have little to worry about.” Another glance. “A Miss Meline Kennaly, I see. Girlfriend?” His eyebrow raised to suggest this was a just-us-guys thing.
He took Eric’s silence as a rebuke, actually blushing a little. “None of my business I suppose.”
Eric shrugged. It wasn’t that, really. It was that he himself wasn’t sure what his relationship to Meline Kennaly actually amounted to. Friends, most certainly — they’d practically been raised together in early childhood while Eric’s father served as head of James Kennaly’s security detail. When his father was killed in an attack on headquarters, Eric had run away rather than deal with his grief and confusion. He spent five years on the streets. In that time, the only person he made contact with was Meline, who could always be counted on to lend him cash or a sympathetic ear. After his last stint in City Jail, she’d even helped him get the soldiering job in Charleston.
And, he admitted, he loved the girl. A deep down love and affection he felt for no other living thing. And no non-living thing with the possible exception of Godiva. But girlfriend? Not exactly.
Sometime during this little brood the stasis was lifted. He sat up, joints a bit cramped and skin tingling.
“Care for a bite to eat?” Thaddeus asked. “The cook here does an excellent lunch.”
Eric realized suddenly that he was starving. He thanked his captor, who muttered into the wrist com to order. While they waited, Eric asked the only real question he dreaded.
“So. How did the battle turn out?”
Thaddeus sighed. “Inconclusive, the way these ridiculous border flare ups usually go.” He cocked his head at Eric and, smile drifting a little, asked a question of his own.
“Why on earth would Charleston side with thugs like United Secular Utah? Deseret has never had anything but amiable relations with Charleston or any of the Southern Citystates.”
Lunch arrived — fried chicken and ample sides — and Eric dug in. He shook his head at Thaddeus’ question.
“I’m a grunt, my friend. We don’t get the lowdown on why or what.” He paused to use a napkin. “If I had to guess, I’d say some convoluted treaty bullshit.”
Thaddeus opened his mouth to speak, when the alarm screamed from his wrist.
At the exact moment, Godiva screamed in his head: Incoming! Down Eric!
The world exploded. Eric grabbed Thaddeus and yanked him towards him, rolling off and under the bed, his half finished lunch disintegrating in the blast that took out the facing wall.
“What the hell?” shouted Eric.
Godiva was powering up combat system, enhancing senses and searching feeds desperately for answers.
Don’t know yet, but stay down!
Eric glanced at Thaddeus. He was unconscious and bleeding from a wound on the side of his head, but seemed in decent shape. His vitals were solid and regular.
He chanced a look at the destroyed wall. Smoke and flashes kept him from seeing anything. Vague raised voices, screams, and the sound of gunfire poured in from various directions.
Frying pans and fire, he thought. The life a soldier, eh?
While Godiva swam the infostreams, Eric prepared himself for a fight. He wondered if the guest house had a weapons cache anywhere.
He gently picked his captor up in settled him over his shoulder. For psychological reasons, he grabbed a large chunk of wood. Not much of a weapon, but swingable.
Once more into the breach, he thought. Holding his breath, and cranking his eye implants to max, he stepped through the shattered wall and into bedlam.