I’ve been writing a novel for the past ten years. Once again I am motivated to kick it into gear again. Even though current events have validated some of my bleak futurist vision there are still plenty of surprises in this near future sci-fi. I don’t have a quick summary even though I have about 40 short chapters. I thought I’d like to share this one with you all.
Chapter One - The Rabbit
2055-04-27 - New York City - Lower East Side
Dane considered the futility of human memory with a sigh of resignation. Once again, he was trying to remember the moment. Once again all he could see was mental static. He placed his digital tablet on the table in the New York City cafe where he sat alone drinking tea, then put his head in his hands and tried to rub the tension out of his temples.
He wanted to recall the precise moment the disaster happening all around him became that relentless beast that chased him into his own lonely oblivion. Like everyone who listened to the news from London and Dubai and Atlanta, he figured it was airports. He was only 17 years old at the time and had never flown on a plane, but his father was a traveling consultant. He could remember the videos of people in the streets outside of hospitals puking up blood, he felt a tightening in his stomach alone in his father’s Brooklyn condominium. School had been out for a week and his mother didn’t dare walk the streets to come fetch him. His phone had no bars. Only this old cable flat screen functioned properly as Dane finally worked his way through to the last frozen dinner in the fridge. It was Thursday afternoon when they announced that JFK was closing. Was that the moment? Dad was still in Toronto. Perhaps he would drive back early. Drive back, Dad. Drive back.
His father did not drive back. His mother did not come or call. For three weeks Dane wept, sheltered in place, not daring to leave the shelter of the condo, orphaned by anonymous death, watching television for the news. Searching the web for a connection. Waiting for the National Guard to move him out. Wondering where everybody was. Everyone in civilization had abandoned him. Civilization didn’t have a cure, worse still, civilization did not have a reason. Civilization did not have an excuse.
Dane looked down at his tablet again, scowling. Now in his computer’s memory, the answers were clear, in his own memory were only feelings. Sour feelings that showed on his pocked, bearded face. From his table in the cafe on the corner of Houston and Avenue A, Dane observed the street scene like a New Yorker observes, with casual disdain. Anywhere else such a look of contempt would be considered anti-social in the new normal. Dane needed New York City. He needed its crowds and its anonymity. He required its attitudes of helplessness before the juggernaut of the city. It made every struggling move to safety seem like a triumph. He liked the way it squished people down close to nothing. He could do without them. The posture of being able to do without people was a necessity Dane associated with civilization. Everywhere else that had been depopulated, the people became too clingy and personal. He calculated that the average handshake, which became the classic hug, had already morphed into something unduly familiar. It’s as if nobody who survived the plague wanted personal space any longer. Dane had speculated about how humanity would be transformed. Everybody did. Everyone wanted a new beginning. He wanted an old beginning, the same old beginning. He didn’t think the planet needed a reboot and a scrub. It just needed more people, especially old people. He could stand old people, even admire them if they were grumpy, irascible and impatient. And so it was in that moment of reflection, like so many others, that his mind drifted back to find a particular moment of change. Once again, he had that gnawing feeling that he couldn’t know for sure.
His reveries were interrupted by Max Moreno on the tablet. Shit. Back to work. Max understood the underside of things. Max, the man who understood where to look was a perfect employer for Dane who knew how to look. As he came back into sharp focus in this present moment, Dane continued looking for a pattern in the street that would help him give the word to Max whose voice and icon were now displayed on Dane’s tablet. The time was 11:42AM and the weather was still brisk. Dane indicated that nothing had changed. He poked the button labeled ’negatory’. When he looked up from his tablet, Dane could see people beginning to fill the sidewalks for early lunch. He watched the construction workers in their luminescence ripping and patching the macadam. He could see the police SUV parked on the kitty corner curb with its blacked out windows and drone carrier perched on the roof rack. The hex drone was up. Dane switched his tablet to hack and steal the hex drone’s perspective, a simple birds-eye without the overlays. Then he switched to the security cameras of the police van itself, that also a simple hack.
He took another sip of tea and scanned the news alerts from his subscriptions chirping in at the low setting. He decided to drop in a couple overlays. He turned on the beacon overlay. Because of his relationship with Max Moreno, Dane had access to certain data facilities the ordinary Joe could never get and hardly even imagine. But this time, just looking at beacons would tell him enough. Now on his tablet every individual passerby showed up as an amber dot in the drone view. Dane had gotten pretty good at recognizing if the dots on the map matched the people he could eyeball in the street. Still, like any other human, his eyes were drawn to those events his brain processed instinctively. Flashes of light, a swift movement, a single different color in contrast with a background. Now his attention was drawn to a man in an overcoat running across Houston, but there was no corresponding beacon on his table. Shit, this was too easy.
There was a good chance the man was a billy, short for hillbilly. Someone who decided to not be tracked by his neighbors in the new normal, post-apocalyptic present where everybody wants to be intimate. Dane estimated the spot where he crossed out of his view, poked his finger on the map and commanded the network to track his heat signature where there were no beacons currently pointcasting. He pinged Max and assigned a jade rabbit icon to the man in the overcoat. Billies are easy suspects and generally regarded as the homeless people they are, given even more enmity for surviving the Plague without the decency to take all of the new benefits, but Dane hadn’t given all of that much thought. Here was easy money. The man turned into a shoe repair shop on Avenue A. Dane only had to turn 90 degrees to his right to see his actions clearly. He pushed his spoon off the table. As it clattered to the concrete floor, he mumbled a faked curse, stood and moved his tea to the seat facing the shoe store, then unwrapping the service in that seat put a clean spoon into his demitasse. Seated in the new position he began pulling up information about Avenue A Cobblers.
Dane was a forensic data scientist, if there was a such thing. In the post-plague world, it was an arcane science due to a combination of advances in artificial intelligence and simple disinterest. Dane often thought himself as a stone mason in a world of glass office buildings. Only called upon by academic historians and wealthy eccentrics. Dane inherited his father’s clients. Of those who survived and actually paid, Max was the most mysterious. This was his third year taking contracts, mostly in New York, but sometimes DC and elsewhere. Tracking a billy in gridspace wasn’t his favorite kind of gig, but this should be over quickly. Wait. There was no realtime video feed available inside the shoe shop. Not a good sign.
There were usually two officers who crewed the powerful SUVs typical of patrol work these days. The senior officer could be armed but the junior partner would stay unarmed in the bulletproof van and work the drone. More than just about everyone except celebrities, police officers were the most highly scrutinized people in society. Most resented it, but they were the old school. New younger cops did the job, which was never less dangerous, as lightweight movie stars. They enjoyed the spotlight, especially female cops doing interventions. It was because of the success of panoptic surveillance that the popularity of police reversed from the bad old days of ‘Dead Cops Don’t Matter’. Now that police work was the new realtime interactive reality TV, and everybody got to be their own 911 dispatcher, it was a whole new ballgame. Some genius figured out that if policing could be turned into a reality game show where the audience got to choose if the perpetrator got a warning or a beatdown it would save a lot of cities a lot of money in brutality lawsuits. It turned out that after a few years, Americans got accustomed to their bloodlust and bleeding hearts. Especially when it came to female ‘bunny cops’. It took a lot of rethinking of police tactics to get to this point, but people dropping like flies all over the world turns out to be a good catalyst for new thinking. The simple idea that the public would almost always side with female police officers if they could see criminals or mobs fighting against them turned out to be revolutionary. Once upon a time, Dirty Harry, was the archetype. Now it was ‘Mum’.
‘Mum’ was the nickname of a London constable out on patrol assaulted by a gang of roughnecks in the process of robbing a convenience store. She, a middle aged lumpy woman with sad eyes and rubbish blonde hair was having a coffee break at the local charging station. The punks came in and in the middle of harassing the man behind the cashier, Mum started correcting them like they were her own bratty kids. Abashed, they started to back off, until one of them told her ‘Piss off cunt, you’re not me mum’, and walloped her with a baseball bat. Then all four jumped her, yanked off her shoes and pants and proceeded in the most cruel way imaginable to violate her with their boots and bats. The cameras were on, the neighbors came out, and revenge was had. It made worldwide news that so shortly after a world crisis that such barbarity could persist. Londoners were scandalized, for the woman had lost all of her children during the dark pestilence. She wanted nothing more than to be a care taking mother once again. Shortly after her recovery she became the world’s Mum. The short cutting of the Justice System was not forgotten, nor was the power of realtime camera surveillance. While the UK took some time to implement a new system, the idea caught on rabidly in the States. Except in the US, there was a twist.
There was no bunny cop this morning on Houston. But like most nosy neighbors watching realtime in Alphabet City, Dane watched the cop, the streets and the hex drone cameras, swiping through the angles like a movie director. Dane wasn’t a part of the local Eyeballer Network of Alphabet City and therefore not authorized to use the municipal camera system. But for him, it was an easy hack. Unfortunately for the non-bunny cop, he was unarmed and one of the first to hit the pavement when the bullets started to fly.
Most people have no idea how loud big caliber pistols can be. Not even the most expensive home theater systems available capture the dynamic range of their deafening crack. When the cacophony erupts in a public place, the effect is immediate. People first freeze in place, spin wildly around to see where the noise is coming from, then scramble madly in the opposite direction. In the brick and mortar canyons of Houston and Avenue A, opposite was not a direction easily identified. Two shots rang out. Pedestrians scattered like ants blown upon, not even stopping to look where others were running, slamming into each other, dropping parcels and packages, ducking and dodging. Dane immediately hopped behind the bar and wedged himself behind the ice box with his back to the street. His fingers flew over the tablet arranging several video windows into a 3D view of the street. He readied his software agents to triangulate the location of the shots. 2 meters inside the front door, bullets traveling west. The plate glass windows of the shoe shop exploded with a booming crash. Shotgun. The billy stumbled out backwards into the street clutching his groin with his left hand, pistol in his right. Dane could identify with a quick analysis that there was something weighty in his coat pocket the way it swung with its own pendulous momentum despite his jaggy steps. The outside cop at this point started running towards the shop ordering the billy to drop his weapon. The billy turned his weapon briefly towards the cop and then back towards the shop and fired three more shots into its dark interior. The cop slowed up, crossing Houston through the same crosswalk the billy had earlier only to take cover behind a large metal public trashcan. An elderly man, Asian looking came out of the shop, mortally wounded. He squeezed off one more boom of the shotgun that went wide of the billy peppering parked cars in front of the cafe as the billy hobbled northward, angling across the Avenue towards the sidewalk on the cafe side. A young woman came out of the shoe shop, and the cop, peering around the corner to see the toppled over man moved up with more confidence. She picked up the shotgun from the bloody sidewalk and stepped off the green zone curb in front of the shop scanning up and down Avenue A for the billy who was now groaning loudly behind a parked car. She yelled something unintelligible and racked the shotgun. Immediately the billy popped up his shooting arm and fired blind. Four shots. Now the cop froze and hastened back to cover.
Dane was able to take all this in rapidly from his position of relative safety within the cafe. The bartender had been crawling on his hands and knees across the rubber matted floor freezing in place at the sound of every explosive shot. He finally reached the far end of the bar and slammed a button at eye level. The building’s metal security shutters now began rolling down. Dane could hear Max in his ear-set, and for the first time recognized the captioned words below his tablet icon. “Get the package!”
Shit. Shit. Shit. As Dane recognized the import of that statement, he realized he had to get outside of the cafe before the shutters reached the ground. He checked his tablet, ran out the door on Houston and over towards the police van. As long as there were bullets and shot flying, behind the van would be the safest place out of doors. He wasn’t the only one with that idea. Several pedestrians were there already, one woman in a blue skirt banging on the black tinted windows of the van for the drone pilot to let her in, dammit. The whoop of a distant siren could be heard; Dane could see a couple of red beacons coming up from the south, and the drone pilot had just now put tags on the shooters. Rookie, Dane thought.
Everybody in Alphabet City is going to be eyeballing this deadly drama, and clearly the billy is going to be lynched. There was no way Dane thought he could get to that dying man after the time he runs out of ammo, and before more cops arrived. These were not going to be bunny cops, these were going to be the robocops, namely the NYPD Interdiction Squad. This was the American twist. Along with Mum were the uncles from hell. The Eyeball Network had already made up its mind, they were calling in the big guns. A quick look at his tablet verified that 87% of the residents have already approved unlimited lethal force. Time was short.
Another shotgun blast made the crowd behind the police SUV jump. The woman in blue screamed. She pulled a large inhaler out of her purse, turned a couple dials on the bottom of its canister and snorted a blast. She then shook her head, sneezed and then stormed off in a rage, cursing. “Damn”, somebody said “I wish I had me some 88. I’d take the bastards down myself.” Nervous titters, and then another two rapid pistol shots. This time the silence was eerie. Dane could see from a quick replay that the billy had waited for the young woman with the shotgun, and then ambushed her. Something about the quickness of the pistol shots told Dane that this billy had training. He could hear the clatter of the shotgun falling from her arms and the melon smack of her head on the pavement.
Dane felt futility crawling down his spine in a cold sweat that dampened his shorts. This was not going well at all. He had never been this close to a firefight. He wasn’t in a panic but he was breathing like he was. He glanced down at the tablet one last time. The Interdiction Squad was 2 minutes away. The outside cop was still peering from his safe space behind the recycle bin. The Rookie was reporting to the incoming responders. The billy was dragging his bloody ass up Avenue A and preparing to meet his maker. Whatever the package was swaying in the billy’s coat pocket, it was going to be confiscated. That means the billy is going to have to communicate its whereabouts or stash it somewhere. It was worth killing and ultimately dying for. Shit. Shit. Shit.
“Max! You haven’t told me enough. I found your rabbit, where did you expect me to follow him?”
“I can’t tell you because I don’t know. The contact is already spooked. It would have been the second stop. I don’t know if it’s here in the city or Timbucktoo. “
“Well what’s the billy’s name?”. It was a desperate question. Billies are often used as drug couriers or cutouts in gridspace precisely because they have no ID. One as coherent and deadly as this one is no joke. “Did you even expect this to go lethal? You didn’t tell me anything about that.”
“Calm down Dane. Calm down. I need you to get that package and I’m willing to take a chance on you. But you’re going to have to trust me. “
“Yes?” Dane said it slowly as if he knew he shouldn’t have answered so quickly in the affirmative. But in his gut, he trusted Max Moreno. The problem was that saying ‘yes’ to Max Moreno was like saying yes to William Tell. You were putting an apple on your head. Today it felt like Max was saying “Hold my beer”, but the beer was a hand grenade. Dane felt like he couldn’t simply say OK, to something like this. There had to be some proviso. He thought of an old action movie. “Yes.” He said more decisively, “but I want triple my fee.”