Authors: Darin Bradley
Tags: #Fiction - Espionage, #General, #Regression (Civilization), #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction - General, #Broadcasting, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Thriller
For Ally, who waited
Many people had a part in the creation of this story. First, there are those without whose company the story simply wouldn’t have come together. Aaron Leis, Ryan Cornelius, Maxwell Cozad, Michael McConnell, Tom Preston, Haj Ross, Srdjan Smajić, Barth Anderson, Mark Teppo, Berrien Henderson, and my parents, Layne and Jamye Bradley, all contributed to the collection of my ideas, and I owe them a tremendous debt for doing so.
Then there are those without whose criticism and feedback I simply couldn’t have articulated the story. Liz Cornelius and Kip Nettles both deserve my special thanks.
And then there are those without whom the story simply wouldn’t have seen print. My agent, Kristopher O’Higgins, and my editors, David Pomerico and Juliet Ulman, all worked vigorously to see the full realization of the story. Without them, there would be nothing.
And finally there is one who did all of these things, without whom none of it would matter. My wife, Rima Abunasser, who believed.
e got the jump because we lived near the square. Walking distance. Slade was like most small Texas towns—it radiated outward from the old courthouse. At some point, someone had paved the original hitching yards and erected a cenotaph for the Civil War dead. There were water fountains on each pillar, each with its own inscription:
. They both still worked. There were pecan trees with dubious histories.
Livery posts, hardware stores, and hotels had clustered slowly around the squared avenue—the buildings still stared at the courthouse-turned-museum, the remnants of their painted-brick signs now protected by city codes. Those businesses were all something else now—candy shops, bars, high-end boutiques. But they had several signs each. Meyer’s Pawn was the most important to us. Guitars and drum sets and stereos filled its storefront windows—the ejecta of the nearby university. Its bread-and-butter music program, mostly. Slade still lived because the university owned most of it. Sweet Pine, Siwash, and Minnie Falls, all nearby, had dried up when they were supposed to, half a century before. When Slade should’ve gone.
But we didn’t care about instruments. Meyer’s had tools, too.
We got the jump. We’d been watching Salvage for months, so we knew what to do.
We knew enough.
After television broadcasts went fully digital, people began to Salvage the analog waves. The low-end frequencies the FCC didn’t sell off or restrict for their Nationwide Public Safety Network. Which was just for first responders, emergency personnel. The police.
At first, the public air was monitored, regulated in a dying-grandfather sort of way. Special needs. Suicide watch. The FCC called it the Citizens’ Television Band.
In the early days, ’casts were still pirate. It took a year or so before the waves went Salvage, and you could do whatever you wanted with a broadcast antenna and a video phone. It was shortwave television. Narrow-band. Retro-hip all the way from the mechanical TVs of the Great Depression.
Modders stopped retooling old eight-bit video game consoles and mini fridges and started finding ways to improve the Salvage band. We were lucky—we didn’t have to mod anything to tune in. My father’s old garage TV never stopped working. Black-and-white. Eight-inch screen. It doubled as a radio.
Slade had more Salvage than most cities around it. It had college kids with plenty of money, plenty of equipment, and plenty of paranoia. They’d all been raised by the American Dream. Their teachers had told them they’d be astronauts and presidents and famous actors. They were middle class, mostly white, in a public education system that might as well have been private—they didn’t know then how the property taxes on their parents’ multistory homes determined their share of “equal education for all.”
They’d followed the rules, earned the grades, dreamed big and endless. And then in Slade, people handed them beer and hash pipes, had sex with them, told them it was all right not to know what the hell was going on. They Grouped themselves without knowing it—a hive-mind that kept them from being alone, that told them the bottom was about to fall out of everything they’d ever been told. Told them to expect it, to get ready. To learn about Salvage. To
trust no one
Even with all their money—all their equipment—it was the paranoia that served them best.
Some days, the Salvage was too thick—the anxiety, the hurriedly wired amps throbbing more power into each ’cast. Every panicked ’caster doing his best to get
truth through all the others’. They ended up jamming one another, like Cold War cryptographers. Numbers and catchphrases and cardinal directions squealed in and out of one another on the bad days. Some modders did nothing but jam, and their squealing tech made paranormal sounds through the TV’s tiny speaker.
They were making noise. ’Casting themselves into the drone. Because it was nice not to be alone.
We had favorites. ’Casts that were stronger than others. And their owners left graffiti all over town. Stencils like stenographs on municipal servo boxes and in bathroom stalls. Wildstyle graffiti in the bar that was once a bank. Eventually, for those of us on the inside, we learned the jammers’ habits, their schedules, so we knew when to listen for the
warnings—the real reports on what was happening. More importantly, what
happening. With the whole country. Before the Event.
You could match graffiti to frequencies and parse new messages all across town. A sort of patchwork bulletin board that
couldn’t be hacked, couldn’t be shut down or traced. Which is how we knew.
We had pieced together our first Plan. Knew how to get started. How to get the jump. We couldn’t afford most things—guns or food or medical supplies. We planned to Forage for these, after the Event.
If we tried to steal everything, we would’ve just been arrested and thrown in jail. We’d be fucked when things Collapsed.
But we were going to need things. Primarily, we were going to need to get out of Slade. To get out of everything. After the Collapse, the town would get hungry. And other people would have guns.
The Collapse was like a Renaissance Faire. In my mind, they were the same. Some years before, my best friend Adam and I had gone together. Turkey legs, incense, cornets of roasted almonds. That sort of thing. We’d spent most of our adolescence playing Dungeons & Dragons—old school. Second editions from the 1980s that had been my uncle’s. So we knew about trebuchets and scorpions—the difference between a glaive-guisarme and a fauchard fork. The numbers of another generation, of the Gen Xers with their hybrid engines and text messages. 14 16 15 17 17: saving throws for a first-level fighter. The unforgettable code of every Silicon Valley headcase who’d gone from twelve-sided dice to stock options and copyrights. We knew these things. We bought swords at the Ren Faire. Unsharpened things that had to be peace-bound while we stomped around the fields in the mud, paying older kids to buy us beer. They were carbon steel, which was important. They would take an edge, but that would nullify the warranty.
• • •
When word came through Salvage about the bank runs and the riots—long before it slipped through the FCC feed, before it interrupted programs and slid semi-transparently, like a snake’s skin, across the bottom of every digital display in the country—we got the jump. Before anybody panicked. Salvage had been watching the silent bank runs, the electronic ones, for weeks. It knew who was going to start throwing things, in which cities, almost before the demonstrators themselves did. It knew who had been out of a job, and for how long. Who couldn’t buy bread. Who had sick children.
Salvage had long since silenced the hobbyists—the ’casters who weren’t up to anything more than teaching people to play the guitar, or crochet, or to understand the Bible. If you hadn’t found a way in, if you hadn’t cracked our codes, it was just noise. Nonsense. The only integrity behind jamming had been to silence the Outsiders first.
Salvage had become self-aware.
There were only two of us, Adam and me, but we’d need others, to grow strong, to be safe. And we’d have to either recruit them or intimidate them. So we began with swords. With getting edges.
When word came through, when the jamming stopped and everything harmonized into a layered fugue chanting the one mantra that meant the same thing to every conspiracy-head, deviant, and tagger, we ran to the square. To Meyer’s.
This assumes that you will kill other people…
We left our swords on the kitchen counter—
the Faire was just beginning
—because they didn’t have edges. There wouldn’t be disorder, not yet, so they would just get in the way. We threw a cinder block through the front window of the pawnshop, and it lodged at a slow angle through the skin of a kick-drum on display.
It assumes that a new competition for resources has begun…
fifteen years old again
, a wall of old toasters and secondhand TVs and abandoned jewelry an
open stall before us
. We were standing on broken glass
wrapped in Faire smells—sautéed onions and garlic
. We listened to broken music from the bar next door …
that there are resources yet available …
while we were stealing a bench grinder. We were thinking in numbers and obscure acronyms.
We were thinking 14 16 15 17 17, THACO, hit points
. We were thinking,
What are the numbers for a good strike with a sword? Which dice do we roll?
Nothing had fully Collapsed yet. We got the jump. But it was Before, so we were just criminals. We were running, as best we could, with a bench grinder, back to our duplex near campus. The first step was to put edges on our swords, so we would be strong.
primarily, the Event involved
(or has since developed) an economic revolution …
We didn’t need a generator at that point because the electrical grid was still alive then. The Northern Lights would come later.
We were running. We were several ages at once, the present-and future-past. Stealing a bench grinder was many things at once—Ren Faires and running only two of the more obvious.
 (i) This Book assumes many things. (ii) Among them, that you are still alive. (iii) It assumes that the world has not been destroyed by fire, that it has not developed radiation flats and a meteorology of fallout. (iv) It assumes there has been a breakdown. (v) It assumes that a new competition for resources has begun; that there are resources yet available; and that primarily, the Event involved
(or has since developed) an economic revolution.