Am I Free to Go? by Kathryn Cramer

*Pulled from Tor.com*
~ This is a little longer than what I normally post, but I assure you that it is a good read.
~Meyer Lane

The line between utopia and dystopia…is, often, who you are. Or who your neighbors think you are.

Read “Am I Free to Go?”, a new original short story by Kathryn Cramer, the editor or co-editor of over two dozen science fiction and fantasy anthologies.

I.

For most of my life I have allowed myself to think that jail is for other people. People I don’t need to think about. Drug dealers, career criminals, gang members, embezzlers, guys who don’t pay their child support. People getting what they deserve. But here I am. Again.

You want me to talk about utopia. Utopia here in the mountains. Utopia by the lake. Our utopia.

How I hacked the bio-monitoring system. How I took it over. The password to the artificial intelligence in the water treatment plant. Security holes. Intelligent agents. My keystroke loggers in the county equipment. My fascination with high-tech botany. All that. I’ll tell you, but it will take a while. But I guess we’ve got all night. It seems that I’m not going anywhere.

Who knew that the cops are all chipped like dogs? It’s a beautiful thing.

I know how this story begins. Here’s the sequence:

  • I was hauled out of bed by cops in the middle of the night.
  • I escaped out the side door with my kids.
  • We hid in the woods for hours.
  • We came back to the house eventually.
  • We hid in the basement.

Maybe I should be saying this with PowerPoint, projecting it all on the wall. Helvetica Bold.

  • I got arrested.
  • I spent the night in jail.

Understand that this story sits on the surface of my skin, lives on the backs of my arms, and some days, there are no words. It’s a jail-based utopia we live in.

The story starts in my bed. 11:30 p.m. A flashlight shining in my face. Police. What do the police want? Why are they in my bedroom?

Think fast. Don’t even consider using the W word — as in “do you have a warrant?” Respect authority if you want to come out of this alive.

I was asleep. This had never happened to me before. I handled it a lot better the next time.

Above the bed hangs a wedding kimono I bought in Tokyo, white with wide red borders embroidered with golden peacocks and red cherry blossoms. Henry’s got more shoes in the closet than I own, and there’s this whole suitcase of neckties . . .

OK. I get lost, following details down holes. I think you call it “avoidance.”

A friend of mine who is also a psychotherapist told me, “You need to stop thinking of this place as utopia. It’s not utopia. It’s a police state. The state troopers train here and they get to practice on us. Once they are competent to do their jobs, they get sent elsewhere.”

I’ll try again.

3:00 a.m. The police come in holding floodlights. The kids and I are back from our escape and are hiding in the basement, in my office, sleeping on gym mats and some of my quilts. The sheriff’s deputy—whose name I have repressed; let’s call him Officer Friendly—stands on the cement steps in my office diagonally across the room. Next to him is a plainclothes cop filming the scene with a great big video camera.

Somewhere there exists a videotape of my arrest.

Officer Friendly said, “Come over here so you don’t traumatize your children.”

I didn’t move. I stared him down, saying, “That horse is already out of the barn.”

We had been hiding in the woods for hours, and they were hunting us with cars and floodlights, and, I later found out, police dogs. When it seemed like this would go on all night, I let us back into the house, entering through my office using the key I’d left outside . . .

I didn’t leave my kids. Not except in handcuffs. I knew when they found us that there was nothing more I could do.

Officer Friendly hauled me to my feet, telling me I was under arrest, and handcuffed me.

He never read me my rights. He wasn’t big on cop formalities.

That night, as the cops were hauling me barefoot out my front door in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms and handcuffs, without my purse, I said to them, “Please don’t let out the cat.”

(The cops who raid my house have this habit of leaving the front door standing wide open.)

A short cop on my porch said, “You really screwed up,” as I was being stuffed in the squad car.

Officer Friendly charged me with resisting arrest for flinching when he grabbed me so hard that he left fingerprint-shaped bruises on my arms.

His paperwork would later say that this scene took place in Ticonderoga. He was not good with facts. Facts do not play a big role in his world.

Details.

I hate that man.

II.

Here are some hard-won facts from time sheets it took me a long time to get. On August 16, Officer Friendly punched in at 11 a.m. He didn’t punch out again until 6 a.m. on August 17; he billed it as twenty hours, though it was actually a nineteen-hour shift. The day before that, he’d worked noon until midnight. And the day before that, his timesheet shows he worked a seventeen-hour shift.

His partner’s timesheet shows she worked eighteen and a half hours covering the night of my arrest, and that she worked thirty hours in the two days previous. I have the documentation. I can prove it.

What else is on the videotape? Dishes in the sink? Henry’s piles of science fiction novels? The cat box? Or maybe they have videos of the inside of my neighbor Frank’s house, which they searched three times in the middle of the night without a warrant.

Afterward, Frank bought himself this great T-shirt to commemorate that night; in all capital letters, it says “INNOCENT BYSTANDER.”

The DA dropped all three charges. The downside of the DA dropping all charges against me is that my morbid curiosity as to what data they collected will never be satisfied. Or hasn’t been yet, anyway.

I have lost a lot of sleep trying to think about this. In the middle of the night—Was it last night? How long have I been here?—I got out of bed to look at my photos from about one month after the first home invasion.

And there they were: Henry’s photos of my bruises. He took them a couple of days after, but for some reason I didn’t upload them to my account until a month later. I’d thought I’d lost them.

There are four, two of each arm with and without flash. Henry took them at the instructions of my lawyer after my first appearance in court. I am wearing a sleeveless white shirt with pink cherry blossoms.

Below my arm is a construction of Tinkertoys; in the background, a brass sculpture that resembles Jonathan Livingston Seagull that my son bought at a yard sale.

There is something about the way I am holding my arms—more like a martial arts posture than a victim displaying an injury.

There is nothing in these photos that expresses how Henry feels. They’re purely instrumental, depicting bruises to be shown in court as part of my criminal defense.

One is the photo I copied for the quilt I never made, entitled “Officer Friendly Leaves a Bad Impression on Mother.” I bought pink fabric for my skin and blue and purple fabric for my bruises . . .

How odd that I wanted to make all this about me.

The way here was gradual. The environmentalism behind the creation of this place was simultaneous with the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws. The white rural poor have been disenfranchised to make way for a protected wilderness where there are no jobs. And so the State built prisons in the woods and shipped in the black urban poor in order to create jobs.

Then the money ran out and in came the tax rebellions, and the tax caps. The county built the Public Safety Building with the idea of renting out cells to the state and to the Feds and to Immigration Services, but the market collapsed.

And so they all had to get a lot more flexible about how all those empty cells were filled. They began taking prisoners from other states; prisoners from other countries; corporate prisoners; corporate prisoners from other countries: men, women, and children from nowhere, incarcerated for no reason.

So here we sit, you and I.

My fantasy was that I would exhibit the quilt at the county fair a dozen yards from where Officer Friendly would be at the sheriff’s department booth, fingerprinting little children—to prepare them for later life. I wanted to take a picture.

Did you know that the State now keeps a database of the kids’ biometrics? The equipment package that cops use at fairs is billed on the manufacturer’s website as “an important new tool in combatting juvenile delinquency.” The kids come away from the booth with a helium balloon, a couple of sheriff’s department temporary tattoos, a spiffy looking ID card, and a chipped dog tag.

The other day I found my photos of the escape route. I don’t remember taking them, but they exist. A day after the home invasion, I apparently walked the escape route with my camera.

I was arrested about three a.m. on the seventeenth. The long, leisurely process of getting me into a jail cell lasted most of the rest of the night. No one was in a hurry to allow me to get some sleep. So I spent most of the day of seventeenth sleeping off my misadventure.

They had me shower before my mug shot. But it confused them when I asked to comb my hair. Having me wash my hair before the photo was a deliberate tactic to make me look ridiculous. My wet hair was sticking out every which way; in the photo I probably look quite insane. I smiled for the mug shot.

I never did find out what they do about brushes and combs in that jail.

About 5:30 a.m., my captors gave me a bed. It may have been later, since Officer Friendly’s time sheet records him as punching out at six. It was cold in my cell, maybe sixty degrees, maybe colder, and the blanket they gave me was thin.

August 17 was the hottest day of the year! I looked it up.

The previous summer, without Henry’s permission, I brought home a friendly cat named Bro from the animal shelter. He’d lived in the shelter for a year and a half; he was a kitten who’d never been adopted because of his runny nose. I wasn’t looking for a cat, but he charmed his way out of the cage. He’s a teddy bear of a cat with minky black fur.

The first night Henry and Bro spent under the same roof, Bro got up on our bed and went to sleep between my legs with one large paw stretched up my bare thigh.

In the morning, Henry insisted I find the overfamiliar cat another place to live.

I got a friend to take him, but the cat’s sneezing was disgusting, and her husband didn’t like him either, so eventually the cat, now renamed “Darth,” was once again ours. By crying a lot and locking myself in the bathroom, I persuaded Henry to let me keep the cat, who we then renamed “Ambrose.”

Our kids were still in the school in Westchester County, so we spent time in Westchester, even though I hated it there. We had new neighbors who’d bought an enormous house up the block. They built themselves an executive hen house. Raising chickens in our suburb is prohibited by the zoning. The wife, I’m told, trapped and rehomed the neighborhood cats because she wanted to have free-range chickens.

Brosie disappeared. I was heartbroken. Never name a cat after Ambrose Bierce!

In mid-August, I got a cell phone call from a nervous man who wouldn’t identify himself. He had taken the cat to the vet. The vet had discovered that the cat was chipped and that the cat was mine. On August 14, we drove down to Westchester to retrieve the hot cat from our screened porch where the man had dumped him.

I don’t know why that guy believed he could remain anonymous. I took his phone number from caller ID and ran it by my databases, and had his home address, income bracket, mother’s maiden name, SAT scores, and how the traffic flowed on his commute.

When I told the cops not to let the cat out, I was afraid that if they did I’d never see Brosie again!

I remember the small rectangle, my cell window. The walls were thick, and so it was set deeply into the wall. As I settled down to go to sleep, the sky was pink, tinged with fuchsia, and strands of barbed wire were silhouetted against the sky. I could see in my mind’s eye the sunrise unfolding at home.

I imagined the water still as glass, still enough that even Camel’s Hump could be seen in reflection; a dark blue sky, intensely pink clouds, a few yellow spots; the sky growing pinker with a fierce yellow stripe along the horizon, and the pinkness fading until the sun rose over the horizon, making a wide stripe of orange across the lake to our shore. I imagined the buttery yellow light that would have enveloped us in our hiding place had we stayed hidden and not returned to the house. At dawn, the heron would be feeding in the brook, and shorebirds would be flying low, in formation, over still water.

As I huddled under the blanket and tried to get some sleep, I considered whether to get a divorce. Henry couldn’t reach me on the telephone and so had called the cops and had given them permission to go into the house to see if I was home. That is what had set this all in motion: Henry’s phone call.

I decided that—other than the fact that the cops had just come barging into my house in the middle of the night and hauled me out of bed, yelled at me and refused to leave, hunted me through the woods, roughed me up and arrested me, driven me around in the hot dark of the squad car to God-knows-where for what seemed like hours, and thrown me in jail with the intention of having complete strangers carry off our kids—my life was actually going well. In some respects I was finally getting what I wanted: I was making my escape from Westchester County, from the prison of living in someone else’s utopia.

Just before we left Westchester for the summer, Benjamin got stuffed in a locker at school and locked inside; the school’s vice principal, presumably with an eye toward avoiding a lawsuit, had tried to explain to me how the incident might be about three-quarters Ben’s fault.

That same week I intercepted our neighbor, the daughter of a notoriously bad-tempered opera diva, chasing my son across our front lawn screaming and trying to ram him with a baby carriage—with her baby daughter in it. Benjamin had gone to her porch two doors down and had asked to play with her son. She didn’t want them to play together.

I told her to get off my lawn and never come back. I threw a few more words at it than that.

Henry talked me out of calling the police. Who knew what wild counteraccusations she might make? I had the phone in my hand. But he had a point. If she was crazy enough to do what she had already done, facts were obsolete. She acted like laws do not apply. Most of the local cops were Italian, and her mama was a famous opera star. Who would they believe? Put the phone down, Margaret.

Suburbia red in tooth and claw.

Considering where we’d come from, my home invasion and abduction didn’t seem so bad. I decided that I should not let a bunch of SWAT-team wannabes take my new life away from me.

A half hour later, I was awakened by an announcement on the PA system that I needed to make my bed and prepare for cell inspection.

After the inspection (to make sure I hadn’t acquired any weapons in the half hour since I’d been shown to my cell) I opted out of breakfast and went back to sleep.

The Department of Corrections website says that the prisoners raise their own lettuce there: it’s a pilot project that the DOC compares to “the massive greenhouse that’s a favorite family attraction at Walt Disney’s Epcot Center.” I’m sorry I didn’t get to see that before my release. Maybe next time I go to jail, I’ll bring my family.

III.

But anyway, the photos.

So on the morning of the eighteenth, I was up at quarter after seven photographing the sunrise. It was a hazy, sticky day. The sun had already risen but was just breaking through heavy clouds. The dominant colors in the photo are a brownish gray and a pale apricot.

A little while later I was drinking coffee with a former prison guard. We sat in the morning sunshine on his porch that overlooks the lake. I had come to talk, to try to understand what had happened to me. I showed him the bruises. He told me, “It’s like Russia over there at the sheriff’s department. They have their own rules . . . Back when I worked as a correction officer, after I’d worked a double shift, late in my shift, I was like, well . . .” He made a face and didn’t finish that sentence. Working as a prison guard changes you.

A couple of guys who get arrested every once in a while told me how lucky I was to have been arrested after the Public Safety Building was built, because the old county jail was “a hellhole.”

Before I lived here, I didn’t used to have friends who worked as prison guards, nor indeed friends who got arrested.

Prison guards are different than one would expect. There is a type. They tend to have a certain emotional openness, expressiveness. One day when I was at the animal shelter, a man walked in accompanied by his son. He wore full black body armor, like RoboCop, with the name of the prison printed on the front. He and his son were carrying a big dog cage, and inside was a litter of kittens. He’d rescued them from a snowdrift where the hungry kitties were eating birdseed.

These guys sometimes say things like “If you’re arrested you’re guilty. As a former correction officer, I know that anyone arrested is guilty. That’s just how I think.”

In the late afternoon, I took pictures of the roses I’d planted, pink roses, red roses. Then the fragrant white rugosas closer to the steps.

Next come the photos of the stone steps. The camera angles are odd. When I looked at these photos the other day, it was at first hard to understand what I’d had in mind. I thought one of the kids had gotten hold of my camera. When I looked at them in sequence I realized I was looking at the escape route; how three barefoot people escaped from a house full of cops. It was safety.

Descending the steps, the viewer is looking down. There is a large, flat granite boulder flecked with garnet. Greenery runs down the left side; lower, the leaves on the trees are upside down. The next step is half-covered with hypnum moss, as are subsequent steps. The moss I had mail ordered from a company in Pennsylvania; it came in irregular sheets peeled off rocks, packed in tissue paper. I had planted it the previous season, using it carefully on the steps to give the illusion that the stones had been there for ages.

When we had the yard landscaped, after the backhoes were done, I built the yard ecology from the bottom up. Ecologies are complex things. All the parts work together to make the whole.

I sprinkled genetically engineered fungi I’d ordered from a start-up in Oregon that replaced the soil fungi the backhoe had scraped off, thereby making for healthier soil, and also created a powerful wi-fi zone that covers my whole yard, taking advantage of the networked properties of fungal mats, using nearby trees as antennae. It is more than a fungal wi-fi network, really. It’s also a data storage medium, cloud computing but without fickle corporations—anarchist street tech used for circumventing Internet shutdowns by oppressive governments. It makes my high-end computer hardware run a lot faster, though it’s got an interesting trickle of traffic through my fiber-optic connection.

After the high-tech fungi, I sprinkled on the really expensive designer grass seed: It’s a special dwarf grass I almost never have to mow because it just doesn’t grow very high. Also part of the mix are tiny nitrogen-fixing clovers, and these little flowers that look like chamomile and are supposed to give a sort of mellow feeling if you walk barefoot on the grass. There was this night when the grass first came up when I walked out into the yard after a rain, and the baby lawn was intensely alive, making a sound just beyond the range of human hearing.

All this stuff washes down to the lake in runoff. I wonder what I’ve contributed to the local ecosystem.

Next picture: farther down the steps. These boulders still show the scratches from the backhoe. Yes, I absolutely did tell Officer Friendly that if he didn’t have a warrant, then he and his merry band needed to get the fuck out of my dining room. That is what I was pondering at this point in our descent, that maybe things might have gone better if I hadn’t told them to get the fuck out of my house. There is a little bit of my mail-order moss, but less than on the steps in the previous photo. In preindustrial times, pillows and mattresses were sometimes stuffed with hypnum moss; its Greek name means that it induces sleep.

Next picture: the last third of the stone steps. The bottom one has lots of mail-order moss. Then we are on open ground.

I should say that I don’t think the cops had any idea that there was a set of stone steps there; and that they had not noticed the spiral staircase in my house; that they thought the apartment had only one entrance and exit. So all eight of them blocked my front door.

When they began to talk about waiting for someone to come and take away the kids, we escaped out the side door. Apparently, they didn’t notice we were gone for quite a long time. Officer Friendly was outside my house badmouthing me to my neighbors, claiming I was upstairs passed out an hour and a half after our escape.

After construction of the wall was complete, I had bombed the whole hillside with wildflower seeds I bought from an organization in Vermont. The next photo shows purple clover, a yellow black-eyed susan, and an orange blanket flower at the base of our stone wall. A few weeks earlier, there would have been bright red poppies, splattered like blood all over the wall. But by August, they were done.

The next photo shows the view from the woods where we were hiding. It is taken from the shadows. There are small trees on the right hand side, bushes on the left side toward the lake; in the foreground is the fence line of the water treatment plant, and behind the fence are cement wastewater storage tanks that contain the reed beds that cleanse the water.

The water treatment plant hums, even in winter. And in August, the night is full of the songs of crickets and frogs and American toads, which are especially partial to the reed beds, and the soft sounds of water lapping on the shore. You would think that on a hot August night, it would have been buggy down by the lake, but that night the shoreline was impossibly hospitable. The ground was soft, the air was warm, and the emerald night was singing.

I should never have told anyone in case I ever need a place to hide again.

IV.

The next photo is a not very interesting shot of the ground, except that I now understand that this is the spot where we hid, sleeping in a pile like gorillas.

When I was in the second grade, the Seattle police department had a PR campaign in the schools sponsored by Sears Roebuck: “Officer Friendly” would come to your school and all the kids would get Polaroids taken sitting on his cool motorcycle. My childhood Officer Friendly was a muscular Aryan type, about five foot eight, with a big-toothed smile and a gun. My parents still have my snapshot in a box somewhere. Later, when we were on car trips and saw a cop giving out a speeding ticket, my father would say, “Looks like Officer Friendly just made a new friend.” I do that, too.

At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle when Ben was small, Henry looked at the gorillas sleeping in the enclosure and remarked that that was my ideal arrangement of the family bed. Ever since, it has been a joke between us.

Our local Officer Friendly is much taller, a skinhead with an elaborately tattooed left arm that he hides behind his back when getting his picture taken for the paper for rescuing dogs or saving babies. The tattoos are detailed in a way that vibrates with significance—a bulging eye that looks terrified, and a mouth that is trying to open but is glued shut—suggesting that they are the consequence of more than a drunken evening in the tattoo parlor. After he’d broken my silence while booking me, I asked him about his tattoos. He was really pleased that I’d noticed them, but changed the subject.

The final photo makes me sad; it shows the lawn along the north side of the water treatment plant fence, the route by which we returned to the house. My admission of defeat.

Immediately thereafter (and from the same time sequence) there is a photo of me sitting in my office wearing a tie-dyed tank top and the opal necklace that I bought in Brisbane. It shows the bruises on both my arms. I gather from the caption that my daughter took the picture. This means she also went on the walk with me, revisiting our escape.

After that, and from the same day, there are a couple of photos of double rainbows, dark pink roses after the rain, and a downed tree in the rainy dark, and someone in a uniform who resembles Officer Friendly’s partner, shining her flashlight into a silver metallic car that has a fallen sumac tree on it.

She is the one who actually signed two out of the three charges against me. Officer Friendly was incredibly rude to her while I was in custody. He blamed her for all his mistakes.

He mangled the facts so badly that, even though I was trying to remain silent, I interjected a correction, explaining that what he had just said was impossible. He said, “Shut up. This doesn’t pertain to you.” I wondered if he could define “pertain.” He was drafting criminal charges against me. To who else could they possibly pertain? I remember feeling sorry for her for having to work with such a sadistic moron.

I have no recollection of taking these photos, yet they exist.

Prison gangs clean the area around the water treatment plant each spring. I can watch them from my living room window. I try to find out when they are coming, so I can pick through the debris that washed in with the spring thaw before they cart it off. I find the most interesting objects to use in my garden: pieces of blue-and-white pottery, pieces of rusty metal in interesting shapes, croquet balls run over by lawn mowers. If I don’t get there first, all the good stuff is gone. The prisoners leave the shoreline clean.

I spent two summers pulling glass out of the hillside after we built our big stone wall. For decades, glass bottles had been thrown down the hill. At times, it seemed that the whole hillside was made of glass, brown and blue, and green, and white. I kept picking it up until the job was done.

Then, when I really needed it, when I needed to flee barefoot with my children in the middle of the night, my efforts were repaid. The grass was soft and safe. I had healed the hillside and the favor was returned.

I had to sit handcuffed in the lobby of the jail intake area. The stools you sit on have no backs and are small, even for me. It was after five in the morning and I felt exhausted. I was reminded, while sitting there, of what we were told in Psych 101 about how to sleep deprive a rat: You put the rat on a flowerpot large enough for it to stand on but too small for it to sleep on. You have this flowerpot in a bowl of water. If the rat falls asleep, it falls in the water and wakes up. The stools in the jail waiting room were like that.

I think I spent about three hours in handcuffs, for no particular reason except that I was being put in my place. Officer Friendly handcuffed me when he arrested me, and I don’t think the cuffs were taken off again until they made me shower right before the mug shot. It is possible that they were briefly taken off for my fingerprinting, but I don’t think they were.

My captors were complaining about how tired they were, bragging about how far beyond a double shift they were, claiming to have worked eighteen, nineteen hours. Officer Friendly claimed to have been awake for twenty-four hours.

I felt so sorry for him. I apologized for my role in his sleep deprivation. No one answered and there was a long silence as though they hadn’t realized that I could hear.

I had another wave of these generous feelings about twelve hours later, seven hours after Henry bailed me out, when—during the late afternoon—I suppressed the urge to send the sheriff’s department flowers.

Even now, the mental image of the flowers I intended to send them has a supersaturated, hyperreal quality: a dozen moist long-stem deep red roses in a container wrapped in red foil, with a wide red velvet bow.

In the 1980s, it used to annoy me that my grandmother would take pictures of her hybrid tea roses and mail them to me. Now I take pictures of my roses and post them on the Internet. What kind of ancestral nonsense made me think of sending roses? I cannot reconstruct why I felt at that moment that they deserved to be sent roses, except that the stripes on my prison uniform were the same color red.

V.

Sometime during that day, the lady from Child Protective Services interviewed me. I said some things I shouldn’t have, but in retrospect, I was surprisingly lucid in my dealings with her, under the circumstances. She shook her head at the drama of the previous night and the way the deputies had terrified me. She said, “I hate it when they do that.”

A year later, when I was having lunch in a restaurant, I overheard two CPS workers gossiping about who was getting promoted and why. The subject came around to my CPS lady, the one I’d met with: They agreed that she was too compassionate, put too much time in to getting clients to tell her what they needed. The woman immediately behind me said, “Who cares what they think they need? If they knew what they needed we wouldn’t be visiting in the first place.”

Did you know that jail is mostly empty? The county claims they are making money with this new privatization deal, but I saw only one other inmate the whole time I was there, and only from a distance: A tall blonde over six feet with shoulder-length hair, doing laundry. Her skin had a translucence suggesting she hadn’t been exposed to daylight in a while. She was wearing the same kind of red-and-white striped uniform I was, except it looked much better on her. I saw her only for a moment. There was no one else.

That jail is brand new. The walls are bright white, and there is a broad band of grape color about eight feet up, I guess to make the jail look more cheerful or maybe because the cell blocks are color coded. Or maybe it’s purple because it’s the women’s section. Each jail cell has a stainless steel sink/toilet combo thing and a bed. Just after they put me in my cell, I lay across my bed with my head toward the door and my legs up the wall in a yoga pose. That’s when I was looking at the pink sky through the barbed wire, relaxing into my predicament, letting the pink noise of the sky talk to the tension in my hamstrings.

A while back, when the county officials were saying they needed to privatize more facilities in order to build office space for themselves, I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from suggesting that they rent office space in the Public Safety Building (i.e., the jail) so each of the county officials could have his own sink and toilet in the same finish you see in Westchester kitchens on ten-thousand-dollar Sub-zero refrigerators.

Remember the hearings on privatization and the creation of the Prison Enterprise Zone in which civil liberties were suspended to make this a more commercially viable environment for prison privatization? Remember that noisy guy who said, “You like living in your tree-hugging environmentalist utopia, but this doesn’t come for free. Someone’s got to pay for all these trees. There’s no more free lunch. Someone’s got to pay!”

I know just the office he deserves. A room with a view. That guy chose “What is your father’s middle name?” as his password security question. He is named after his dad.

I used to know what T-shirt and what pajama bottoms I wore that night. The T-shirt had words printed on it, a phrase mildly though not extremely ironic. I can’t remember anymore. The pajama bottoms were, I think, pale blue flannel. I think I was wearing the ones with garden gnomes, not the ones with snowflakes.

It bothers me that I can’t remember what I was wearing. I know I used to know.

When Ben had a two-hour school delay because of snow, I drove him to school, but the roads were really bad. Once you get off the state highways over there, instead of sanding and salting the roads, they use mine tailings. I barely made it up the big hill. After dropping him off, I decided I wasn’t driving back down that hill, so I went the long way, past that other prison. It was snowing hard and in the switchbacks I was driving down the middle of the road in low gear so as to keep as far as possible away from the guardrails.

I noticed there was a white car behind me, and eventually I realized the car behind me was a sheriff’s deputy. The whole way, I was trying to read his plate number in the rearview mirror. When the roads flattened out and he finally passed me, I saw that the plate number ended in a three and not a seven, so it wasn’t Officer Friendly.

Whoever was behind the wheel was trying to do me a favor. The road conditions were horrendous and getting worse, and there’s no cell phone reception in that area.

Please, God, don’t let me hit a guardrail. The scene that keeps playing in my mind was this: I fishtail and take out three guardrail posts and spin backward across the middle of the road and bounce—and my car is bleeding transmission fluid into the snowbank and black plastic pieces of my car are all over the road. I look down over the steep embankment where I almost went. And Officer Friendly gets out of the squad car, striding heroically in my direction, a helpful smile on his face. Which fades to a frown. He says to me, “Aren’t you the woman who filed the Freedom of Information request to find out how much overtime I work?”

Or maybe he would just pretend he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. Maybe we difficult middle-aged women from suburbia all look alike and he wouldn’t remember me at all.

I didn’t used to be like this.

My purse was in the front hall. In a wicker chair at the top of the stairs. They could have offered me the opportunity to take my purse along to jail, in which case, I could have gotten out my Amex gold card and paid my own bail, and somehow someone would have had to drive me home.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t part of the plan. It would have underlined the complete superfluousness of arresting me if Officer Friendly had had to turn around and drive me home at four a.m.

I don’t remember if the bail hearing was before or after Officer Friendly had his little chat with me about my right to remain silent. He has unorthodox ideas about Miranda rights, if you can call them ideas; Miranda rights don’t apply if a cop is up past his bedtime.

I attempted to invoke my right to remain silent by remaining silent.

Officer Friendly told me I had the right to remain silent, but if I remained silent, he said, he would find more things to charge me with and I would be very very very sorry.

I was scared.

I began to talk.

VI.

About three weeks after the home invasion, someone at his desk at work in the sheriff’s department began sending me harassing messages over the Internet, calling me a “drunken slut” and threatening to “expose” me. By their own account, Officer Friendly’s team had spent three hours “repeatedly searching” my house. They had complete access to its contents including medical records, financial records, computers . . . I took the threat seriously.

The problem with me is that I can find more trouble to get into in my own dining room . . .

I had to marvel at his misfortune. If you were going to harass someone from your computer in a government office in this county, I was about the last person you would want to pick on. It’s that relentlessness, that grinding obsessiveness, for which I get paid.

What kind of an . . . well, never mind. I’ve already met them. I know what kind.

At the gala last summer up at the golf course, the woman behind me talking loudly had been seeing a man she met on the Internet who, as it happens, was a freelance computer tech who did work for the county. (Stories that begin “I met him on the Internet” almost never end well.) He persuaded her to let him charge nonrefundable plane tickets for a romantic getaway on her credit card. And then he said he couldn’t go and she was stuck footing the bill. She said, “You know how he got me to trust him? You know how? He told me his password. He said, ‘My password is syzygy28. If I can trust you with that, you can trust me with anything.’” I wrote syzygy28 on a cocktail napkin and tucked it down the front of my evening gown.

When I got home I sat down at my keyboard the way a pianist sits down at a concert piano. The window was open, and I could hear the toads in the reed beds singing in four-part polyphony.

Syzygy28 wasn’t his password on the county admin account; it was the password to his main personal account. He had sixteen user IDs on ten dating sites; what dating sites do if you don’t visit every day is repeatedly email you your user ID and password. So I had a wide selection of passwords to try on the county system. His county password was cassan0va666, using a zero for the O. He has a whole network of accounts with all kinds of interesting stuff in them, enough that I can pour boiling oil on his parade for years and years.

I set up mail forwarding in all his accounts to dummy accounts so as to make it difficult for him to lock me out if he figured out he’d been hacked.

But that was unnecessary; he never did figure it out. I was tempted to warn off the women he was defrauding, but I know from experience that such women do not welcome helpful advice.

I need to tell you the story of the shower again, because I didn’t tell it right the first time. I tried hard to make that experience about me, but there is a way in which it is not about me at all, in fact quite the opposite. The shower during booking is a process engineered to remove identity. It is when they take your clothes and your jewelry. The opal necklace: It’s a rough-cut Queensland opal. When I was in Brisbane, I went opal shopping. The Queensland opals have this amazing spatial quality, like you could go inside and go for a long walk. They are almost more like places than gemstones. The ones that seemed to contain whole worlds, I couldn’t afford. The one I bought is like the door of a cave leading to magical blue and green; a portal to a hiding place that’s just up the path.

When instructed, I took off the necklace and handed it to the prison guard who was a blond kid barely out of high school. She was wearing rubber gloves.

She instructed me where I was to soap myself and how I was to wash my hair and never took her eyes off me.

The shower process is engineered as a psychological transition intended to create docility. A lot of the rest of the experience I describe involves a personal interaction between me and someone else or someone being capricious, but other than the possibly malicious timing, the shower was exactly what it is supposed to be. The extent to which I try to make the shower about messing up my mug shot, I am avoiding the impersonal nature of the system behind the shower procedure. The mug shot is not a school picture.

The most beautiful thing about the way the computer tech had set up the county system was it allowed for remote installation of software on all county equipment so that he could do his job without having to walk into the office. Installation could be done globally. On what drives would you like to install these keystroke loggers? Select ALL. We were in. My invasion had begun.

What I had achieved was invisible admin access to the county system and access to the State systems that had information about who held the leases on the privatized prisons and copies of the contracts. That was what I needed.

Even better, the system also talked to all the county cell phones for all county agencies. Not only did I give them all keystroke loggers, but I turned on GPS position logging. The phone directory identifies the phones being tracked, last name first. I color coded them by department, and set up an RSS feed to a KML; the KML tracks in real time every county employee’s cell phone on a map. With a slider bar, I can walk the map backward and forward in time.

I trained the network of intelligent agents to receive, process, and archive in the fungal cloud in the yard the incoming data from the keystroke loggers, which was already being displayed on one of my monitors in beautiful green spikes like blades of grass.

I also gave it an audio track hooked up to my speakers, keyed to the phones coded as belonging to the sheriff’s department, so I would be able to hear the approach of deputies and in particular I would be able to hear any sudden convergence of deputies in the area of my house.

Vernichtungswille: the desire to annihilate.

I connected all that to my machine’s security, such that if they kicked in my door—presuming I’d remembered to lock it—and came to take my machine, all trace of this operation would have fled into the yard before they were halfway up the stairs.

I wish I’d thought to track the state troopers, too

When I emerged from my trance, there was a devil mask in cut paper glued to the dishwasher. In the hallway, blue-and-green snowflakes decorated the walls. On closer inspection, they were cut from the phone bill that had come in the previous day’s mail. Luckily, the glue that the kids had used to attach them to the walls was rubber cement, so they peeled off easily.

A pizza had been acquired from next door and had been eaten, apparently some hours earlier. My purse was open and all the cash in my wallet had been removed and replaced with candy wrappers.

The kids were each at their own computers. My daughter was watching a DVD of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and was laughing as Harpo climbed into the lemonade. Benjamin was playing a computer game involving monkeys and was happy because he had just leveled up.

I checked the voicemail. Henry had left seven messages. Apparently, the kids had not felt it necessary to answer the phone.

The initial ecstasy when you come to own a computer system is followed by a hideous dropping away of the veil once you realize that no matter how radioactive the data, if you flash it around and can’t provide a legal provenance, then you are going to jail. Federal prison. This stuff now comes under the antiterrorism laws because these are government computers. And the trial would be secret, if there were a trial at all.

So you’re patient; you file Freedom of Information Act requests that the opposition may not feel they need to respond to. And you think that maybe they know what you’ve done and are just waiting and hoping that you have issues with impulse control.

VII.

For most of my life I have allowed myself to think that jail is for other people, people I don’t need to think much about. People getting what they deserve.

How do people come to deserve things? What do I deserve? What do you deserve? I deserve an ice cream. You deserve a spanking. She had it coming to her. And he deserves to disappear into a jail cell for a very long time.

If you’re arrested, you’re guilty.

Your moment of decision is at three a.m. when they open your bedroom door. Can you keep your cool?

What is most interesting about the prison privatization project is that it is failing. This world has no shortage of venues where you can suspend someone from the ceiling and beat the bottoms of their feet with a rubber hose and hook up a car battery . . . Despite our civil liberties being suspended here in the enterprise zone, our utopia is just not globally competitive in the atrocities market.

There are a few contracts. The purple block of the Public Safety Building is leased to a 501(c)(3) that promotes “Nordic rejuvenation”—sounds like Swedish massage . . . I’ve read the business plan.

So I’m in the New York State system, and I start seeing references to something called the bio-monitoring system. It’s being deployed for checking whether people have hunting licenses and it works twenty miles from the nearest road. The idea works like this: If you fire a gun, the system uses some kind of Internet to check whether there is a hunting license in proximity and tries to match the gun to a license. So if you fire the gun and lack a proper license, the Department of Environmental Conservation cops arrive, perhaps by helicopter, and you get a very expensive ticket plus their bill for transportation.

And prisoners are chipped: the chip is injected between the shoulder blades. If they escape, they can be tracked even if they hide in the forest. Ironically, the denser the forest, the better the bio-monitoring system works because of the density of the fungal mats in the ground, and because there are so many trees to act as antennas.

My water treatment plant is part of the bio-monitoring system. It’s an AI that functions as a major hub. My mail-order fungi had long since added themselves to its network when the flood waters briefly overflowed into the tanks. That’s where the unexplained traffic through my Internet connection was coming from. The network password is syzygy29.

Same consultant. Same security holes!

Our Cassan0va doesn’t know me, but he and I have had quite the relationship. Almost a partnership. One system administrator and his bad habits can take me a very long way. Further, I guess, than I really wanted to go. I got carried away.

Let’s be sensible. Let’s get back in touch with reality. Lock your doors at night. Wash the dishes before you go to bed. Consider your bedroom: How would you look to a cop, sprawled on the bed like that? Consider it from their point of view.

It’s not that I didn’t try other solutions. I talked to my elected representatives. I wrote letters. I filed complaints. I filed Freedom of Information requests. But at a certain point, you lose faith in reality as you knew it, sliding sideways to a place where police come into your bedroom with a gun in the middle of the night if they find a door to your house unlocked. They define an open door as a door it is possible to enter without kicking it down.

Be sensible. Think about it. Would you rather have the cops haul you out of bed, or the robbers? The fundamental difference between police and criminals is that the police have rules they must abide by. If there are criminals in your bedroom you can report them to the police.

Would you rather have the cops haul you out of bed, or the robbers? The answer to this riddle is that the cops are supposed to haul the robbers out of bed and leave me out of it.

Hacking the government, any government, just isn’t a very good idea. Just because I can enter a computer system doesn’t mean I should. Surely, there is another solution, something I could have done differently.

If the police come into your house in the middle of the night, you can report them. Don’t argue when they are in your house. Ask for an explanation of what is happening, but in a quiet, calm tone of voice. Phrase it, “I would like to understand what you are doing in my house.” Not, “What the hell are you are doing in my bedroom in the middle of the night?”

In the morning, drive over to the police station and speak to the sergeant. The cop will call you after a few days and explain himself. If you are calm and patient and understanding, he might even apologize, might even admit that he made a mistake, that they came into your house in the middle of the night with their guns drawn, but when they saw your beautiful little daughter asleep in her bed, they realized their error and put their guns away. Which is why they weren’t pointing guns at you when they woke you up.

You may have some legal rights, but you need to understand that when the cops are in your bedroom at three a.m., this isn’t the right time to articulate the fundamental principles of human rights. You may think you should be recording this surreal conversation, but don’t go for the mp3 recorder even if it is right there on your desk, because at three a.m. the police may think it’s a gun.

It’s probably a good thing that you don’t have a gun. If you have a gun in your nightstand in case of intruders, it might get you killed. Stop and think. Think of it from the cop’s point of view. The cops have come into your house expecting you will be angry, that you may freak out. They are just doing a job. Their job is to protect themselves while on the job. That’s why they had their guns drawn in the first place.

That’s all water under the bridge now. Once I was in, I couldn’t just walk away. I had to do something.

I don’t even own a gun. I have a gun phobia. I am not advocating violent revolution, though I understand that may be the consequence of what I have done. This is not a call to arms.

I did not abduct children and make them fight a war. I did not buy them from the revolutionary forces as so much military surplus. I did not import them to the US on the pretext of rehabilitating them. I did not hide them in a jail in the Adirondacks. I merely set them free. What would you do in my place?

Understand that these are children that I have liberated. The oldest of them is fifteen and they’ve been through some very bad stuff. They were bought as a batch by a private military contractor. The prison contract with the State of New York is in the name of a pharmaceutical company, and there is a budget line from somewhere else that appears to be military.

I couldn’t just leave them inside.

There are no little boys in your barn. The boys are all still inside. The child soldiers hiding in your barn are all girls, very damaged little girls.

I knew you’d want to help. I knew you’d want to help me.

I have been inexact if I’ve called this a police state. It’s not a state at all. The state, disempowered and defunded, has withered away. Withered and wilted, it has dropped its petals all over like blood on the ground. The police remain, but really, there is no longer any state. Only power that has a logic of its own and the apparatus of a state that is reanimated by power.

We can win this thing. We can win.

Are you detaining me? Or am I free to go?

“Am I Free to Go?” copyright © 2012 Kathryn Cramer

From Wikipedia:

Kathryn Elizabeth Cramer (April 16, 1962) is an American science fiction writer, editor, and literary critic.

 

Advertisements

Once and for All ” Pisces Falling” Series No.8 by Meyer Lane

The room is smoky and tense as I open the door as if half attending are bothered to be there and half would much rather be there than on Varnoo.

As I walk into the counsel room, I realize that they are completely out of their element. Training to kill or defend is one thing, but expecting them to sit calmly and speak to one another…well…doesn’t always work out.

As expected Yanis Stahl, the eldest counsel member (and most hard headed) speaks out first. I didn’t even sit down yet. His long white beard almost bristling with anger. I think he sleeps with his battle suit on…just in case.

” I do not understand why we must sit down and talk. Talk about strategy and girlie games. There is only one way to fight…that is face to face!” A couple in the counsel roar approval, others chuckle at how familiar we are with Yanis’ temper.

Brin Moran stands up. He is a younger counsel member, but one who has garnered much respect through bravery on the battlefield. ” With all due respect, Yanis, I share your passion. My passion is also to crush every last standing Varnoo into a memory. I believe we will do that. I believe, as we have all been taught, to fight smart. To know your opponents next move even before they know it. To do this, we must get inside their heads. We must know their plan. We must see it before they use it on us…thereby rendering their plan useless. My King…my proposal is this; we need a diversion. We need to wait until just before the invasion and send the bulk of our forces in by way of the Living Hologram Link. In essence…fake an invasion. Then, we separate the link and bring the entire force in to destroy this evil once and for all.”

I didn’t need to say one word…The entire counsel stood and roared slapping Brin on the back.

Once and for all, I thought.

I stand up…” So it is settled then. I expect all commanders to make the details of this known. Timing will be of the essence. We leave in four days. Goodnight men.”

by Meyer Lane

When We Were Heroes by Daniel Abraham

George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards multi-author shared-world universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. Now, in addition to overseeing the ongoing publication of new Wild Cards books (like 2011’s Fort Freak), Martin is also commissioning and editing new Wild Cards stories for publication on Tor.com!

Daniel Abraham’s “When We Were Heroes” is an affecting examination of celebrity, privacy, and the different ways people deal with notoriety and fame—problems not made easier when what you’re famous for are superpowers that even you don’t fully understand.

 

Manhattan smells like rain. The last drops fall from the sky or else the rooftops, drifting down through the high air. With every step, her dress shoes throw out splashes from the thin, oily puddles. It’s ruining the leather, and she doesn’t care. Her fingers, wrapped around her smartphone, ache, and she wants to throw it, to feel the power flow through her arm, down out along the flat, fast trajectory, and then detonate like a hand grenade. She could do it. It’s her wild card power. She’s not in the outfit she uses at the exhibitions and fund-raisers. She doesn’t look like a hero now. She doesn’t feel like one.

The brownstone huddles between two larger buildings, and she stops, checking the address. The east side, north of Gramercy Park, but walking distance. She always forgets that he comes from money.

The steps leading to the vestibule are worn with time and dark green with the slime of decomposed leaves. An advertisement for a new season of American Hero covers the side of a bus with the soft-core come-ons of half a dozen young men and women. Sex sells. She walks up the steps and finds the apartment number.

Jonathan Tipton-Clarke, handwritten in fading green ink. When he’s being an ace, he calls himself Jonathan Hive. No one else does. Everyone calls him Bugsy. She stabs in the code on the intercom’s worn steel keypad.

For a moment, she thinks he’ll pretend he’s not there, and she wonders how far she’ll go. Rage and betrayal and embarrassment flow through her. Breaking down his door would be illegal. It would only make things worse.

But still . . .

“Hey, Kate,” Bugsy says from the intercom.

“Are you looking at me right now?”

“Yeah. I’ve got one on the wall. Just to your left.”

A tiny, acid-green wasp stares at her. Its black eyes are empty as a camera. Its wings shift, catching the morning light. Jonathan Hive, who can turn his body into a swarm of wasps. Jonathan Hive, who was there when they stopped the genocide in Egypt. Who fought the Radical in Paris and then again during the final battle in the Congo. Kate lifts her brows at the wasp, and Bugsy’s sigh comes from the intercom. The buzzer sounds resigned, the bolt clicks open. She pulls the door open, pauses, and flicks a tiny wad of pocket lint from between her fingers. It speeds to the wall and detonates like a firecracker. She can’t tell whether the wasp escaped.

His apartment is on the fourth floor and she takes the stairs three at a time. When she gets there, she’s not even winded. He’s waiting for her, the apartment door standing open. Hair wild from the pillow. Lichenous stubble. Bloodshot eyes. His bathrobe was white, is grey. Wasps shift under his skin they way they do when he’s nervous.

“Come on in. I’ll make you some coffee.”

She holds out her phone, and he takes it. The web browser is at the mobile site for Aces! magazine. In the image, she is standing on the street by a small park, kissing a man. His face is hard to make out. Hers is unmistakable. The headline is DANGEROUS CURVES.

Underneath it, the byline is his name. And then the first few lines of text:

There’s nothing more American than baseball, explosions, and first date hookups. Well lock up your sons, New York. Everyone’s sweetheart is on the town, and she’s looking for some man action!

“What the hell is this?” she asks.

“The end of a good night?” he says, and hands it back.

 

Twelve hours earlier, she’d stepped out of an off-off-Broadway theater onto the Sixth Avenue sidewalk. Traffic was stopped on Spring Street, and backed up for more than a block, the air filled with braying horns and the stink of exhaust. Clouds hung over the city so low, it seemed like someone on the Chrysler building could reach out a hand and scratch them. Above her, the marquee read Marat/Sade, black letters on glowing white, then underneath it, NYC’s Only All-Joker Cast! She paused on the sidewalk, her hands in the pockets of her jeans, cleared her throat. Outrage and disbelief warred in her mind, until she shook her head and started laughing.

“It’s always kind of a confrontational play,” a man’s voice said. She’d been aware of someone coming out to the street behind her, but hadn’t particularly taken notice of him. Middle twenties. Dark hair that looked good unruly. Friendly smile.

“Confrontational,” she said, laughing around the word.

“Not always that confrontational. This production was a little . . . yeah.”

Curveball pointed at the theater.

“Did I miss something,” she said, “or were they actually throwing shit at us?”

The man looked pained and amused at the same time.

“Cow pats. I think that technically makes it manure,” he said. “It’s always rough when you’re trying to out-Brecht Brecht.”

Tomorrow was her exhibition show, the last one on this leg of the tour. She’d been planning to go out with Ana as her local guide, but her friend had been called out of town on business at the last minute and wouldn’t be back until morning. Kate had decided to make it an adventure. Grab a cheap ticket from the same-day kiosk on Water Street, take herself out to dinner someplace, spend an evening on the town. She had enough money to splurge a little, and she wasn’t in Manhattan often enough anymore for it to seem normal. The title Marat/Sade had seemed interesting, probably because of the slash. She hadn’t known anything about it, going in. Then the lights had gone up, and things got weird fast. For instance, the Sade half was actually the Marquis de Sade.

And it was a musical.

“Was there a point to that?” Kate asked, leaning against the streetlamp.

“The cow pats in particular?”

Any of it?”

“Sure, if you look at the script,” he said. “Marat’s heading up the Terror after the French Revolution. De Sade’s . . . well, de Sade. They’re kind of the worst of political life and the worst of private life put together for comparison. I actually wrote a paper on Peter Weiss back in college.”

“And the shit flinging?”

“The deeper structural message can be lost, yes,” he said with a grin.

From down the block, a young black man in a sand-colored shirt waved.

“Tyler!”

The dark-haired man turned and held up a finger in a just-a-minute gesture. Tyler. His smile was all apology.

“I’ve got to go,” he said, and Curveball lifted a hand, half permission, half farewell. Tyler paused. She felt a moment’s tightness and the giddiness faded. She knew what came next. I’m a big fan. Can I get a picture with you? She’d say yes, because she always did because it was polite.

“Some of us are heading over to Myko’s for drinks and cheap souvlaki,” Tyler said. “If you want to come hang out, you’d be welcome.”

“Um.”

“They don’t throw manure. That I’ve noticed.”

Do you know who I am?slid to the back of her tongue and stopped there. He didn’t. Tyler’s friend called for him again.

“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

 

Bugsy’s apartment smells stale. She wants to make the scent into old laundry or unwashed dishes, but it isn’t that. It’s air that has been still for too long. The kitchen is in the uncomfortable place between dirty and clean. A radio in a back room is tuned to NPR. In the main room, there are piles of books on the coffee table. Murder mysteries, crossword puzzles. The DVD of a ten-year-old romantic comedy perches on the armrest of the couch, neither box nor sleeve in sight. He starts a coffee grinder, and the high whining of hard beans being ripped apart makes speech impossible for a few seconds. The silence rushes in.

“You’re working for Aces!,” she says, even though they both already know it.

“I am. Reporting to the public at large which of their heroes are going commando to the Emmys. Keeping the world safe for amateur celebrity gynecologists.”

“Does the Committee know?”

The coffee machine burbles and steams. Bugsy grins.

“You mean the Great and Glorious Committee to Save Everyone and Fix Everything? I kind of stepped back from that.”

There is a pause. Just like you did hangs in the air like an accusation, but he doesn’t push it.

“What happened?”

She means What happened to you? but he seems to take it as What happened to your job? Maybe they’re the same question. He pours coffee into a black mug with the gold-embossed logo of a bank on the side and hands it to her. She takes it by reflex.

“Well, there was this thing. It was about six months after we took out the Radical,” he says. “Lohengrin called me and a few other guys in for this sensitive Committee operation at this little pit outside Assab.”

“I don’t know where Assab is,” she says. The coffee warms her hands.

“So you get the general idea,” he says, leaning against the counter. His fingernails are dirty. She’s known him for years, but she can’t remember if it’s normal for him. “Idea was to get some kind of industrial base going. Fight poverty by getting someone a job. You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of push back on that, but there was. So essentially what you’ve got is this textile plant out in the middle of the desert with maybe two hundred guys working there, and five aces set up to do security until the locals can figure out what a police force would look like. I was half of the surveillance team.”

“Was this the fire?” she asks.

He smiles, happy that she’s heard of it.

“It made the news a couple of times, yeah. No one much noticed. It happened the same week Senator Lorring got caught sending pictures of his dick to that guy in Idaho, so there were more important things going on.”

“I saw it,” she says. “Someone died.”

“Bunch of folks died, but most of them were African, so who gives a shit, right? The only reason we got a headline at all was Charlie. An ace goes down, that’s news. Nats kill him, even better.”

Her phone vibrates. She looks at it with a sense of dread, but the call is from Ana’s number. Relieved, she lets it drop to voice mail.

“They had us in this crappy little compound,” Bugsy says. “Seriously, this apartment? Way bigger. The place was all cinder blocks and avocado green carpet. Ass ugly, but we were only there for a couple months. Charlie was a nice kid. Post-colonial studies major from Berkeley, so thank God he was an ace or he’d never have gotten a job, right? Mostly, he hung around playing Xbox. He was all about hearing. Seriously, that guy could hear a wasp fart from a mile away.”

“Wasps fart?” she says, smiling despite herself. He always does this, hiding behind comedy and vulgarity. Usually, it works.

“If I drink too much beer. Or soda, really. Anything carbonated. Anyway, Charlie was my backup. My shift, I’d send out wasps, keep an eye on things. His, he’d sit outside with this straw cowboy hat down over his eyes and he’d listen. Anything interesting happened, and we’d send out the goon squad to take care of it. We had Snowblind and a couple of new guys. Stone Rockford and Bone Dancer.”

“Stone Rockford?”

“Yeah, well. Be gentle with the new kids, right? All the cool names are taken. Anyway, first three days, there were five attacks. Usually, they’d aim for right around shift change when there were a lot of guys going in or coming out. Then two and a half weeks of nothing. Just East African weather, energy from a generator, and a crappy Internet connection. We figured we had it made. Bad guys had been driven back by the aces, they’d just stay low and act casual until the police force was online and hope they were a softer target.

“I was the senior guy. Been there since the Committee got started. Since before. Charlie gave me a lot of shit about that. How I was all hooked in at the United Nations. Big mover and shaker. And, you know, I think I kind of believed it, right? I mean it’s not just anyone can go into Lohengrin’s office and steal his pens. I was out there making the world a better place. Doing something. Saving people. Boo-yah, and God bless.

“You know what they sent us to eat? Sausages and popcorn. We had like fifty cans of those little sausages that look like someone made fake baby fingers out of Silly Putty and about a case of microwave popcorn. I mean seriously, how are you going to strike a blow for freedom and right when you’re fueling up on popcorn and processed chicken lips, right?”

She drinks the coffee, surprised by how bad it is. Bright and bitter. She expects him to distract her from the picture of her kiss with the tragedy in Africa, so it surprises her when he’s the one to go back to it. Maybe he’s trying to distract her from what happened in Africa. Maybe he’s distracting himself.

“It’s not actionable,” he says, nodding to her phone. “You can ask any lawyer anywhere. You were in public. There’s no legal expectation of privacy.”

“Do you think that’s the point?”

He looks away, shrugs. “I’m just saying it was legal.”

She leans against the wall, unfinished red brick scratching her shoulder. She thinks of the cinder block in the compound and the exposed ductwork at Myko’s, the thick, muddy coffee she drank the night before and the one in her hand now.

“Were you following me?” she asks.

“You think? Of course I was following you.”

“Why?”

He almost laughs at her. It’s like she’s asking where the sun will rise tomorrow, if he’s breathing, whether summer is colder than winter. Anything self-evident.

“Because you’re in town. I mean the whole point is to get stories about aces. We’re public figures. Most weeks, I have to find something to say about the people who are in the city. There’s only so many issues in a row that the readers are going to care about whether Peregrine’s hit menopause. Someone new comes in, I’d be stupid not to check up, see if anything’s interesting. I was thinking I’d just write up the exhibition thing this afternoon. The fund-raiser. But this is way better.”

When the anger comes back, she notices it has died down a little. She tries not to think what Tyler will say about the article. How he’ll react. The fear and embarrassment throw gasoline on the fire.

“When I’m at work,” she says, forming each word separately, “you can come to work. This is my private life, and you stay out of it.”

“Wrong, friend. That’s not how it is,” Bugsy says. The sureness in his voice surprises her. “Everyone knows who we are. They look up to us or they hate us or whatever. You’re not doing these exhibition things because people just love seeing stuff blow up. They can blow stuff up without you any day of the week. They come to see you. They pay to see you. You don’t get to tell them they care about you one minute and not the next. It’s their pick whether they pay any attention to you at all, and you make your money asking them to. So don’t tell me that here’s your personal you and here’s your public you and that you get to make those rules. You don’t get to tell people what they think. You don’t even get to tell people whether they admire you.”

With every sentence, his finger jabs the air. The buzz in his voice sounds like a swarm. Tiny green bullets buzz around them both, curving though the air. His chin juts, inviting violence. She can see how it would happen: the toss of the mug, his body scattering into thousands of insects, the detonation. Her own anger reaches toward it, wants it. The only thing that holds her back is how badly he wants it too. He’s trying to change the subject.

She laughs. “Hey, Bugsy. You know what the sadist said to the masochist?” He blinks. His mouth twitches. He doesn’t rise to the bait, so she acts as if he had. She leans forward. “No,” she says.

“I don’t get it.”

“We’re aces, so everybody knows us. We don’t get to pick how they feel. We’re still talking about Charlie, aren’t we?”

 

Myko’s was a small place with a dozen tables smashed into enough space for half that number. Posters of Aegean-blue seas hung from the walls by scotch-taped corners. The walls were white up to the six-and-a-half-foot mark where the drop ceiling had been ripped out, exposed ductwork and wires above it. Crisp-skinned chicken and hot oregano thickened the air and made the wind picking up outside look pleasantly cool.

“I don’t know why the hell I let you talk me into these things,” Tyler’s friend said. She hadn’t asked his name, and hadn’t offered hers. The other two at the table were a Lebanese-looking woman named Salome and a joker guy in a tracksuit that they all called Boss. He wasn’t really that bad looking, for a joker. All the flesh was gone from one of his arms, and his skin was a labyrinthine knotwork of scars. He could almost have been just someone who’d survived a really horrific burn.

“Did I talk you into something?” Tyler said.

“You did say it was a cool play,” Boss said.

“It is a cool play,” Tyler said. “It’s just a lousy production.”

Everyone at the table except her and Tyler laughed, and his glance thanked her for her tacit support.

“You are the only person I know who’d make that distinction,” Salome said. “When you say ‘this is a cool play,’ I think you mean, ‘it would be cool to go to this play.’ What was that whole whipping him with her hair thing about?”

“They took that from the movie,” Tyler said.

“There’s a movie?” Tyler’s nameless friend said, his eyes going wide.

“Look, I understand that it’s kind of an assault on the senses,” Tyler said. “That’s part of the point. Weiss wanted to break through the usual barrier between the audience and the actors. Not just break the fourth wall, but burn it down and piss on the ashes.”

That sounds like the play I just watched,” Boss said.

The waiter swooped in on her left, piling the ruins of their dinner on one arm and unloading demitasses of dangerous-looking coffee and plain, bread-colored cookies from the other. His hip pressed against her shoulder in a way that would have been intimate in any other setting and didn’t mean anything here.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I can understand the idea of trying shake up people’s expectations, but then I sort of feel like you have to do something with them. Sure, the actors did stuff actors don’t usually do.”

“I think one of them went through my purse,” Salome said.

“But,” Kate went on, holding up her finger, “wait a minute. Then what? Is it just breaking barriers for the fun of breaking them? That seems dumb. If someone sneaks into my house, it breaks a bunch of usual barriers too. It’s what you do after that matters. If you keep on assaulting people after that, it’s almost normal.”

“At least it’s not unexpected,” the nameless friend said, nodding.

Boss laughed. “Now you get the actors to come home with me and paint my bathroom, then you’ll defy expectation.”

She sipped the coffee. It was thick as mud and honey-sweet. Something buzzed next to her ear. She waved her hand absently and it went away.

“I can see Carol’s point,” Tyler said, “but that gets back to the production choices.”

“Who’s Carol?” Tyler’s friend asked.

Tyler’s brow wrinkled and he nodded toward Kate. “Carol. You know. Siri’s roommate from Red House.”

The quiet that fell over the table was unmistakable.

“I don’t know anyone named Siri,” she said, smiling to pull the punch. “My name’s Kate.”

Tyler’s mouth went slack and a blush started crawling up his neck. Salome’s giggle sounded a little cruel.

“Well,” Tyler said. “That’s . . . um . . . Yeah.”

“I thought you were playing it awfully smooth,” Tyler’s friend said, and then to her, “My boy here isn’t a world renowned pick-up artist. I wondered what gave him the nerve to break the ice with you.”

“I’m sure Carol will be very flattered,” Kate said. “And for what it’s worth, I thought it was pretty smooth.”

“Thank you,” Tyler said, blushing. “I hadn’t actually meant it as a pick-up thing.”

“Or you would have cocked it up,” his friend said.

“Isn’t Carol the one with the big teeth?” Salome said. “She doesn’t look anything like her.”

“Carol’s teeth aren’t that big,” Boss said. “You just didn’t take to her.”

“Regardless,” Tyler said, turning to her, “Kate. I’m really glad you came with us, even if it was only to see me make a jackass out of myself in front of my friends.”

She waved the comment away. A gust of wind blew the door open a few inches, the smell of rain cutting through the air. Salome and Boss exchanged a glance she couldn’t parse. Dread bloomed in her belly.

“It’s just you looked really familiar,” he said, “and I thought—”

“I get that a lot,” she said, a little too quickly. The moment started to fishtail.

“I guess . . . I mean, I guess maybe we ran into each other around the city somewhere. Do you ever hang out at McLeod and Lange? Or—”

Boss’s laughter buzz-sawed. The joker shook his head. “Jesus Christ, Tyler. Of course she looks familiar. You’re hitting on Curveball.”

In the press and noise of the restaurant, the pause wasn’t silent or still, but it felt that way. She saw him see her, recognize her. Know. His face paled, and she lifted a hand, waving at him as if from a distance. The regret in her throat was like dropping something precious and watching it fall.

 

“Oh please,” he says. “I’m talking about anyone. Charlie. You. Me. Hell, I’m talking about Golden Boy. He’s been around so long, he’s lapped himself. He was saving America from evil, then he was a useless sonofabitch who ratted out his friends, then he was nobody, and now he’s so retro-cool he’s putting out an album of pop music covers. You think he had control over any of that? It just happens. It just . . .”

He shakes his head, but she isn’t convinced. She’s known him too long.

“You know all of us,” she says. “Michael. Ana. Wally. Not Drummer Boy and Earth Witch and Rustbelt. You know us.”

“Yeah, that’s part of why Aces! hired me on. You know, apart from the—” He makes a buzzing sound and shakes one of his hands, a fast vibration like an insect’s wing. “I know where all the bodies are buried. Or a lot of them, anyway. I know the stories.”

“You know the people.”

“For all the good it does,” he says, shrugging. “Lohengrin was pretty pissed off when I handed in my two weeks. Not that it was really two weeks. Two weeks at the UN is barely enough time to get a cup of coffee. Bureaucracy at its finest. Say what you will about the failings of tabloid journalism, it’s got a great response time.”

From the street, a siren wails and then a chorus of car horns rises. She has the visceral memory of being nine years old and listening to a flock of low-flying geese heading south for the winter. It’s a small memory she hasn’t told anyone about. It’s a thing of no particular significance. He drinks from his coffee cup. A bright green wasp crawls out of his skin, and then back in.

“Bugsy . . .” she says, and then, “Jonathan.”

He sits on his couch, pushing the books on the coffee table away with the heel of his foot.

“The glory days are gone anyway. The whole thing where a bunch of us see something wrong and we go fix it? Stop the genocide, save the world, like that? It’s over. Everything goes through channels now. Everyone answers to somebody. The Committee? Yeah, it’s a freaking committee. No joke. They don’t need me. People come in and out all the time. Join up for a mission or three, make some contacts, and go work for some multinational corporation’s internal security division for eight times the money. I’m not doing this whole thing for Aces! for the cash. I could get a hell of a lot more.”

“Labor of love?” she says. The sarcasm drips.

“Why not?” he says. “There are worse things to love. Your boy, for instance, seems nice. I mean in that clean-cut upwardly mobile nat-working-for-the-Man kind of way. The bazooka line was great, by the way. I thought that was really a good one.”

He’s goading her again, pushing her back toward her anger, and it works a little. She wonders for a moment how much the little green wasps have seen and heard. The sense of invasion is deep. Powerful. She’s embarrassed and insulted, and she imagines Tyler feeling the same way. If it were only her Bugsy’d held up for public judgment, it wouldn’t have been so bad. She wonders if Bugsy knows that.

He is soothing her and pricking at her, pushing her away and asking her in. He’s asking for help, she thinks. His bloodshot eyes meet hers and then turn away. He wants to tell her, and he doesn’t. He wants to have a fight so he can get out of a conflict. She’s not going to let him.

“That isn’t what happened to Charlie,” she says. “He didn’t get the job with a big corporation and get out.”

“No,” he says with a sigh. “That isn’t what happened.”

Watching his face change is fascinating. The smirk fades, the joking and the fear. The bad hair and the terrible stubble lose their clownish aspect. When he’s calm, he could almost be handsome. Despair looks good on him. Worse, it looks authentic.

“You were the senior guy,” she says, prompting him.

“I was the senior guy.” The words are slower. “I liked it. It wasn’t like having some kid in the crowd come up and ask for an autograph. This was Charlie. He was someone I knew. Someone I hung out with. I’d tell stories about the old days, and he’d actually listen. And he was a funny kid. He pulled his card when he was twelve. Got a fever and bled from the ears. His sister took him to the emergency room because their mom was working and they couldn’t get through to her. He thought he was going crazy. He was hearing people’s voices from half a mile away. He was hearing the blood in the nurse’s veins. By the time they figured out it was the wild card, there wasn’t anything for the doctors to do but shrug and move on. He was still walking around with these sound-killing earphones until he was seventeen. The way he talked about it, it seemed funny, but that stuff’s never funny at the time. Anyway, he went to college. Started getting seriously into the African experience, to the degree that you can do that from California. Dropped out of college, signed up to work for the Committee.”

She sips her coffee. She expects it to be cold, but it’s still warm enough. A man’s voice raised in complaint comes from down the hall, and she wonders whether they closed the apartment door. By reflex, she wants to go check, but she holds herself back. There’s something fragile in the moment that she doesn’t want to lose.

“Charlie just signed up?” she says, and Bugsy shrugs.

“He’s an ace, right? That’s what we’re looking for. The extraordinarily enabled set to achieve tasks that might otherwise be impossible. I got that from a press release. You like it?”

“Was your thing his first time out?” she asks, not letting him deflect her.

“No. He’d done something with tracking illegal water networks in Brazil. Listening for buried pipes. He talked about it some. The supervisor on that one was a nat, though. This was the first time he’d had other aces to work with. Those first few days when we were stopping the attacks? They were amazing. I mean, it was scary because there were guys with machine guns driving around in jeeps trying to kill the people we were there to protect, and if we screwed it up, bad things were going to happen. But we were winning. The textile plant kept running. The folks working there didn’t get killed. We were big damn heroes, and it was great.”

“Even with the lousy food.”

“Hell yes,” Busgy says. “Even with the lousy food. Even with the shitty Internet connection. We had three games on the Xbox, and a crappy little thirteen-inch screen to play them on. The beds were like the mats they give you at the airport when your flight’s cancelled and you’re going to be on the floor all night, and we were all so jazzed and happy, we didn’t even bitch about it. It was great. We were happy just to be there. And then it was quiet for a while.

“At first, we were still tense. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, right? And then after a couple weeks, we were all thinking that this was it. It was over. It was another month before the local police were going to take over, and we were all figuring that we were looking at another four weeks of sitting around doing nothing much. But I got sick. Not sick sick. Just stay-home-from-school stuff. Sore throat. Fever. Felt like I needed a nap every third minute. It sucked, but it wasn’t a big deal, and Charlie was up for covering me. Except he needed to sleep too sometimes. So I set up this plan. Sheer elegance in its simplicity. Charlie’d work his shift like usual. I’d do a half shift because I could stand that much, and then in the middle of the night when there wasn’t anything going on anyway, the other three—the goon squad, we called them—could head out to the plant and just keep an eye on things while I got a little extra shut-eye. A couple days of that, I’d get my feet back under me, and we’d go back to the usual thing. It wasn’t like there was anything happening anyhow.”

His gaze is fixed on nothing now, looking past her, though her. A wasp flies through the air, lands on the wall beside them, and folds tiny, iridescent wings. Its stinger curls in toward its own belly.

“No one pushed back,” he says. “We were all best buds by then. If Charlie’d been sick, we’d have covered for him. Or if one of the goon squad guys had come down with something, I’d have gone out in his place. I’m not bad in a fight, most of the time. It was just an obvious thing. Someone feels under the weather, you take on a little more. Something you do for your friends.”

“Sure,” she says.

“Sure.”

He swallows. There are no tears in his eyes, but she expects them so powerfully that for a moment she sees them anyway. He shakes his head.

“It was a textile plant,” he says. “They were making cheap T-shirts to sell in Europe. It gave a couple hundred African guys some folding money that they could spend in town. It put a little extra juice in the local economy. It’s not like we were going in there and burning down the churches or something. And the guys on the jeeps? The ones who didn’t like it? They didn’t even talk to us. All their preaching and outreach was in the city. We were just a part of the plant to them. There’s the building, and the guys that worked there, and the cloth going in and the shirts coming out, and then the aces that kept you from breaking all the rest of it. If they could have busted up the machines, they’d have done it and been just as happy. They didn’t even hate us. They hated something that we represented, and I don’t even have the framework to understand what it is.”

“Western imperialism,” she says.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I’ve got the whole damn thing wrong. For all I know, the guys in those jeeps were all born in Detroit. We were out there trying to do something good. They were trying to do something else. It was all about international trade and local autonomy and religion and nationalism. None of it was about what kind of people we were. Probably if we’d invited the bastards in, they’d have had a blast playing our video games, right? Sat around eating our nasty little sausages and shooting zombies.”

“But that’s not what happened.”

“No,” he says, and hunches forward. He sighs. “No, it isn’t. There was this one night, Charlie took his shift, put in his earplugs—he had these amazing industrial foam things that let him sleep—and hit the bunk. I spread out from just before sundown to almost midnight, then gathered back up, sucked down some Nyquil, and called it a night. The others headed out to the plant. Just like we planned.”

He lapses into silence, his eyes flickering back and forth like he’s reading letters in the empty air. She has known him for years. She’s wanted to like him more than she has. He doesn’t make it easy. She glances at her phone. The browser is up. DANGEROUS CURVES. She wonders whether feeling betrayed by him means that she does think of him as a friend. Or did, anyway.

“What happened?” she asks, annoyed with herself for the gentleness in her voice.

“It all went to hell.”

 

“Oh. My. God,” Salome said, laughter bubbling up with the words. “You really are, aren’t you? You’re Curveball?”

“I am,” she said.

Boss smiled at her, rolling his eyes like the two of them were in on a joke. He’d known it was her all along. It was these other rubes who hadn’t seen it. Tyler stared at the salt shaker and wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Did you really date Drummer Boy?” Salome asked, leaning her elbows against the table. There was a hunger in her expression that hadn’t been there earlier, like she was seeing Kate for the first time that evening.

“Not exactly.”

“What’s he like?” Salome asked.

Kate smiled the way she did at public events, the way she did when someone asked for an autograph or a picture.

“He’s just like he seems,” she said. It was the same answer she always gave, one of the stock phrases she always kept at the ready. Salome laughed, just they way people usually did.

All the conversation shifted to her, the play forgotten, the meal forgotten. What was she in New York for? She was doing an exhibition show tomorrow at the park in support of a fund that was building schools in developing nations. Did she get to New York often? A couple times a year, sometimes more. It depended on the situation. The questions were familiar territory. The diplomacies and evasions and jokes that she’d used at a hundred photo ops.

Boss kept needling Tyler for not having recognized her, and Tyler grew quieter and more distant. In the end, he was the one who called for the check, totaled up what everyone owed, and said his goodnights. The others seemed perfectly willing to let him go. He nodded to her when he stood, but didn’t keep eye contact. When he walked out the door, a cool draught of air slipped in past him, smelling of rain.

“Well, you know, when I pulled my wild card—” Boss said, one scarred and misshapen finger tracing the air.

“Actually,” Kate said, “could you just . . . I mean. Excuse me.”

The sidewalk was shoulder-to-shoulder full. A wide curve of cloud looped between the skyscrapers, the lights of the windows turning misty as it passed. She caught a glimpse of Tyler’s dark hair, stopped at the corner, heading north. She hopped down to the gutter and scooted along, the taxis whizzing by her, inches away. When she called his name, he turned. Chagrin paled his face.

“Hey,” she said. “I just wanted to say thanks. For letting me tag along.”

The light changed, and the press of bodies surged around them. He glanced at the white symbol of a man walking, then back to her. Someone bumped against his back.

“Always pleased to have a few more at the ritual humiliation,” he said. There was no bitterness in his humor and only a little sorrow. “It was really great to meet you. And coming along with us was something I’m sure my immediate circle of friends will be bringing up for the rest of my natural life in order to tease me. But it was really cool of you.”

“Yeah,” Kate said. Behind him, the signal changed to a series of red numbers, counting slowly down. The pedestrian traffic thinned for a moment. A truck lumbered around the corner. She pulled back her hair, anxious and embarrassed to be anxious.

The red numbers crept toward zero.

“Do you want to go get a drink?” she said, rushing the words a little. “Or something?”

“You don’t have to do that,” Tyler said. “I mean, thank you, that’s really cool, but I’ll be just fine. I’m just going to head home and bury my head under a pillow for a couple days and resume my normal life as if I hadn’t made an idiot of myself. You don’t need to try and . . . You just don’t need to.”

“Oh. Okay, then. All right,” she said, nodding. She felt like someone had punched her sternum. And then, “But do you want to go get a drink or something?”

His smile was pretty, gentle and amused and melancholy. He had the kind of smile men got after the world bruised them a few times. The light changed, the flow of traffic shifted, pushing her a half step closer to him.

“I’m not that guy,” he said. “You hang out with aces and rock stars and politicians. I hang out with Boss and Salome. I’m nobody, you know? I’m just this nat guy trying to make rent in Brooklyn Heights and commuting into the city. You’re Curveball.”

“Kate, actually,” she said. “My name’s Kate. And I’m not whatever you think I am just because I’m an ace.”

An older black man with grey temples looked over at her, eyebrows raised, but he didn’t pause or try to ask for an autograph.

“But—” Tyler began.

“I’m Kate. My father’s Barney. My mother’s Elizabeth. I read Heinlein when I was a kid and stayed up late so I could watch Twin Peaks even though it gave me nightmares and I didn’t understand half of it. And I’m wandering around New York by myself because all my friends were busy, and I met this guy I kind of like, only I think he may be blowing me off,” she said, watching his eyebrows hoist themselves toward his hairline. “Drawing an ace isn’t that impressive. It’s just something that happens to people.”

“I just—”

“I don’t do anything that anybody else couldn’t do,” she said, and then a beat later, “I mean, if you gave them a bazooka.”

He laughed, and the sound untied something in her throat. He shook his head just as a wide, fat drop of rain patted onto the cement at their feet.

“Well, when you put it like that,” he said.

“What do you do? Your day job.”

He raised his hands in something like surrender.

“I work at a tech start-up that’s using social media to address inefficiencies in medical laboratory tests,” he said. “Honest to God.”

“Really?” she said. The light changed again. An insect buzzed past her ear. A police siren rose up somewhere not too far away. “I would have guessed something about theater.”

“I was a theater major when I was in college, but it didn’t end well.”

“No?”

“No,” he said, ruefully. “I got in a fight with my advisor. A real fight. He hit me.”

“Sounds serious,” she said, smiling. “What were you fighting about?”

“Tennessee Williams. We had different interpretations of The Glass Menagerie.”

“Is that the ‘always relied on the kindness of strangers’ one?”

“No, that’s A Streetcar Named Desire,” he said, and the rain began like someone turning on a faucet. Hard, wide drops falling through the air. Thunder muttered, even though she hadn’t seen any lightning. Tyler grinned. “Why don’t we go someplace dry. I’ll tell you the whole story.”

 

“We didn’t hear them coming,” Bugsy says. “I was sick and drugged. Charlie was asleep. It was the middle of the night, and we were complacent. Who in their right minds attacks a compound of aces, right? We’re the guys who can shoot laser beams out of our fingers or lift tanks or whatever. If you come at us, it’s with a bomb or something. Something fast. You don’t get a bunch of kids on bicycles with bottles of gasoline. C’mon. Fucking gasoline?”

He looks up at her, a goofy smile stretching his lips, false as a mask. A wasp crawls out of his tangle of hair and buzzes away. He shakes his head, looks down. She can tell that he wants her to say something, to divert the words spilling out of his mouth before the pebbles turn into a landslide, but it’s too late. He fidgets with the puzzle book on the coffee table. When he speaks again, the reluctance in his voice hurts to hear.

“You figure it all out later, right? I mean, we’ve got the tracks, and it was all little mountain bike snake trails. And the plastic jugs. They were like milk jugs. They poured it all around the outside of the building. And you know what’s weird? I can absolutely see them doing it. I mean, I can see them leaning their bikes against the wall. I can hear the gas making that glurp-glurp sound it does when you’re pouring everything out of one of them. I can smell it. I can smell the fumes coming off it even before they light the damn stuff. I was asleep. I didn’t see any of it, but I remember it just like I was there.

“First real thing I knew, Charlie was shaking me awake. He was wearing a Joker Plague t-shirt. How’s that for insult to injury? He was shaking me awake and telling me there was a fire and we had to get out, and Drummer Boy was on his chest looking like some kind of rock-and-roll god. It took me a little while to figure out what he was talking about, and then we were running around the compound—and it was like ten steps any direction, the place was that small. Everything outside was burning. It was like they’d dropped us in hell while we were sleeping. We closed the windows, and I tried to use the cell phone. I got through to the goon squad even, but the fire was so loud we almost couldn’t hear each other. Charlie was dancing around like a kid who needs to pee. I told them what was going on, but they were six miles away. They came as fast as they could.”

He rubs his fingers together, the roughness of his fingerprints sounding like the hiss of a book’s pages turning. A wasp appears in his fingers, conjured from his flesh. He looks at it like Hamlet staring at Yorick’s skull.

“They’re small,” he says, holding the insect out to her. Exhibit A. “When I bug out, really all the way out, I’ve got all this surface area. Can’t thermoregulate for shit. Get cold fast. Or I cook off. Seriously, too much heat, and I’m like popcorn.”

“You took off,” she says. “You left him.”

“I stayed as long as I could,” he says. “I couldn’t get him out. I couldn’t lift him. The fire was baking the place, and I had to go. I knew I had to go, but I couldn’t just leave him.”

“Except you did.”

“Except I did. Went out through the vent over the oven. Lost six percent of my body mass to bugs dying in the fire, and I just got out and flew straight up until I hit cold air. They were gone by then. The guys on the bikes? They were gone. I saw the goon squad’s jeeps booking it for the compound. I thought maybe they’d make it in time. Maybe they’d get him out.”

Busgy sighs.

“He didn’t burn,” he says. “The fire ate up all the oxygen, and he asphyxiated. They found him curled up on that nasty-ass little couch like he was asleep. He had a cover over him. He was in the middle of a fire, and he went and got a blanket? Why would you do that? What’s that even about?”

He takes a huge breath, lets it flow out from between his teeth.

“The attack was a diversion,” she says.

“You think? They had a second team ready. Torched the factory. Burned it to the foundations. Shot about a dozen maintenance guys. Huge embarrassment for the United Nations. Maybe half a billion in hard capital and trade agreements. Lohengrin had to give me a letter of formal reprimand. You could see it killed him to do it, but the secretary-general needed to blame someone, and they picked me.”

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“It’s all right. I had it coming.”

He stands. The floor creaks as he walks across it to the window. The insects in the room are silent, then one buzzes for a moment, like someone in the next room clearing their throat. The siren is gone. The car horns mutter at the low, constant mutter of the city.

“You know how many kids are living on the street in New York?” Bugsy asks. “Want to guess? Sixteen thousand. Just in New York City, center of the civilized world. And I can’t fix that. You know the climate’s changing, right? The Arctic’s melting, and it turns out there’s this freaking plume of methane coming up out of all the melting permafrost. I can’t fix it. There are a bunch of parents out there who aren’t getting their kids immunized because they’d rather watch little Timmy die of polio than do a little basic research. Can’t fix them. Most of Africa is hosed beyond belief, but what’re you gonna do, right?”

“We have to try.”

“Do we? I mean do we have to? You remember American Hero? That first season? Bunch of young aces trying to out macho one another. King Cobalt, dead. Simoon, dead a couple of times. Gardener, dead. Hardhat. We were trying to make the world better, and it killed us. You were one of the first ones to bail on the Committee, you know? And I think you were right.”

“I just needed some time off,” she says.

“Yeah, well,” he says. “Don’t go back.”

She doesn’t know how to reply. The anger is gone, and there’s a sense of shame. And sorrow. Maybe he means there to be, but it doesn’t matter. He walks back across the room, disappears into his bedroom, and reemerges with a tablet computer in his hand. On the screen, a dozen thumbnail photographs glow. They are all of her and Tyler. In one, they are going into the little neon-lit bar. In another, they’re coming out of it, huddling together under the cheap black umbrella they bought from a street vendor. His arm is around her shoulders. One of them is Tyler hailing a taxi. One is the kiss. She takes the tablet from him. She’s still angry, but without the headlines, without the joke about her ace nickname and the gossip column banter, it’s kind of a pretty picture. A man and a woman, kissing. If it were something private, it could be beautiful.

“I want to care about something that doesn’t matter,” Bugsy says. “I want to tell the word about which movie star got drunk with which ace. I want to debate whether American Hero should have another season and laugh about who had a wardrobe malfunction when they were meeting the president. I want to care about things I don’t care about.”

“Like me?” she asks, handing back the tablet.

He takes it. Looks at the pictures.

“Yeah, like you. Your love life, anyway,” he says, gently. He raises the tablet. He lifts his arms out, fingers reaching for the walls. He looks like a mocking image of Christ, crucified on the air.

“I’m done saving the world. I tried. It didn’t work. Now I want to live a small, petty life doing things I’m good at where if it goes south, no one dies.”

She crosses her arms. She isn’t sure whether the thickness in her throat is contempt or grief.

“No one’s going to stop you,” she says.

“It was nice, watching you. I mean not in a stalkery creepy number-one-fan kind of way. Just you and your boy out together. It was nice. It was . . .”

“It was?”

“It’s what’s supposed to balance out the shit, right? I don’t mean to get all ooey-gooey, but it’s the beginning of love. Or it could be, if you don’t screw it up. That’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to make all the sacrifices worthwhile. Make the world worth living in.”

He chuckles, and there’s amusement in the sound, but also disappointment. Bugsy had wanted something from her—forgiveness, maybe, or courage—and she doesn’t have it to give. He considers the tablet and taps at the picture.

“It probably doesn’t matter to you,” he says, “but I had them run the one where you can’t see his face.”

The worst of the storm passed while they were in the bar, but there was still enough rain to justify standing close to each other under the umbrella. Kate felt warm and a little freer than usual, but not tipsy. Tyler’s cheeks looked redder than when they’d started. Behind them, a small park sat, not even a half block deep, with skyscrapers on all sides, rising up into the clouds. The rain that still fell was cold, but soft. Across the street, the hotel rose up like a wonder of the world, the golden light from the lobby spilling out onto the wet, black street. Taxis whizzed by, throwing off spray. Men and women hurried by in black raincoats. Kate looked at the little green niche and thought how incredibly improbable it was to have a small bit of grass and ivy in all this concrete and asphalt.

When she turned, Tyler was looking at her. He had the look in his eyes—regret and hope and the small, unmistakable glimmer of a masculine animal. It was the end of the night. Neither of them wanted it to be, but the evening had a shape, and this was where that curve met the earth.

“I know you told me not to,” he said, “but really, thank you for not letting me go back to the apartment with my tail between my legs.”

“It wasn’t charity,” she said, laughing. “I had a good time. I don’t actually meet new people very much.”

“I’d never really considered the problem, but I can see how it would be difficult separating the Kate from the Curveball. I guess that’s why some aces have secret identities. Just so they can go get some groceries or hang out at the bar.”

“That’s part of it,” she said, pushing her hair back from her face. “Or to have room to be who they are. Not spend their whole lives filling the roles that people expect of them.”

“That’s not just aces, though. That’s the whole world.”

They were talking without saying anything, each syllable another tacit, doomed wish that the moment not end. Another taxi sped by, the black sludge spattering against the curb. A squirrel loped across the grass and took up a perch on the back of a green metal park bench. Everything smelled of fresh rain and car exhaust.

“So I should probably go,” he said. “I’m supposed to go into the office tomorrow, and they like me to show up on time.”

“Yeah,” she said. “And I’ve got the exhibition show. Be better if I went in rested.”

“Yeah.”

The rain tapped the sidewalk by their feet.

“It was really great meeting you, Kate. I’m glad I totally didn’t recognize you.”

“I’m glad you totally didn’t recognize me too,” she said.

“Do you want to keep the umbrella?”

“I’m just going across the street.”

“Right. Right.”

He squared his shoulders, steeled himself.

“If you’re going to be in town for a while,” he said, “I’d . . . Boy this is harder than it should be. I’d like to do this again.”

“You’re asking me out,” she said.

“I am. On a date. Because that’s just the kind of mad, reckless, carefree guy I am.”

“I’d love to,” she said.

“Oh, thank God,” he said. “I feel much better now.”

The squirrel jumped away into the darkness. They didn’t speak. They didn’t move.

“If this were a normal evening,” he said, “out with a normal girl, this would be the time that I kissed her.”

“It would,” she said.

He lowered the umbrella. His lips were warmer than she’d expected.

She walks over to the window, looking out at the city. Dread and embarrassment tap against her ribs like wasps against a windowpane, but not rage. The rage is gone. Manhattan is damp and shining as a river stone. The city is a symbol of the greatest powers of the world and of its darkness. The aces were born here, and the jokers. Shakespeare in the Park, and the terrible production of Marat/Sade. It is the city at the heart of the American century, and the target of all the tribes and nations that resent it. And what is it, really, but a few million private lives rubbing shoulders? For a second, the view through the glass shifts like an optical illusion, great unified city becoming a massive chaos of individuals and then flipping back as fast as a vase becoming faces.

She opens the window. A cool breeze stirs the air.

“We’re done, Bugsy,” she says. “This doesn’t happen again.”

“Of course it does,” he says. “You’re a public figure. You’re an ace. If it isn’t me, then—”

“It’s never you. And you never do it to him.”

“Tyler, you mean?”

“Tyler, I mean.”

He runs his hands through his hair. The cool air drives the free wasps back into him. She didn’t realize until now how much larger they make him. As they crawl back under his skin, he literally gets larger, but also seems to shrink.

“It was all legal. I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says petulantly. She doesn’t answer. He nods. “All right, but the boss won’t like it. If it’s not okay with you, pretty soon it won’t be okay with anyone, and then I’m out of a job.”

“You’ll find a way,” she says.

“Always do.”

Her phone buzzes again. Ana’s number. She ignores it. On her way past the couch, she puts her hand on his shoulder.

“Get some rest,” she says.

“Will. Don’t fuck it up, okay?”

In the street, she turns north, walking in the shadow of the buildings. A block down, a coffee shop presses out, white plastic tables and chairs impinging on the sidewalk. The closest they have to real brewed coffee is called a double americano, so she gets that. Her shoes are still wet from last night and this morning. She looks at the two messages from Ana, her friend. She wants to call back, but when she does, she’ll have to tell the story of what happened, and she still doesn’t know the end.

A taxi carries her back to the hotel. The exhibition is in five hours. She needs to be in prep in three. The hotel waits for her. The world does. She crosses four lanes of Manhattan traffic to get back to the little park. In the light, it looks smaller than it did at night. She sits on the green bench and takes out her phone, starts writing a text message, then deletes it and actually calls. He answers on the second ring.

“Hey,” Tyler says.

“Hey.”

“Did you know we’re on the Aces! website?”

She leans forward. She’s less than ten feet from where they kissed. She’s on a different world.

“Yeah, I just got finished kicking the reporter’s ass,” she says.

“I’m just glad he didn’t write it as a review,” he says. “It’s a little disconcerting to see my private life in the news.”

“It’s probably not the last time it’ll happen,” she says. If it’s too hard, I understand waits at the back of her throat, but the words won’t come out.

Somewhere in Brooklyn, Tyler groans. She’s faced armies. She’s had people with guns trying to kill her. This little sound from a distant throat scares her.

“Well,” he says, “this is going to take a little getting used to.”

“We’re still on, though?”

She’s afraid he’ll say no. She’s more afraid he’ll say Are you kidding? This is great. Across the street, the hotel staff is telling a beggar to move on. She can see into the lobby, where a television is tuned to a news channel, footage of fire and running bodies. She closes her eyes.

“I am if you are,” he says. “And . . . you are, right?”

“Like the world depends on it,” she says.

From Wikipedia:

Daniel James Abraham (born November 1969) is a prolific American science fiction / fantasy author who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. His collaboration with Ty Franck under the name James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, is nominated for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.His novelette Flat Diane was nominated for the Nebula Award. His novelette The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics was nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award.

Abraham is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop 1998, and sometimes collaborates with George R. R. Martin, another New Mexico resident.

Body Count “Pisces Falling” Series No.7 by Meyer Lane

I head directly for the hologram arena. There is a resolve here now I cannot explain. My battle suit now feeling like a second skin. My hands as much of a weapon as any other I know. My awareness…second sight.

527 says something as I step into the arena…I couldn’t hear what he said.

As 527 approaches the control panel to start the sequence…I leap…spin to my right and back thrust as the Varnoo appears at the ready.

Kill shot. He didn’t have a chance.

527 announces “New Arena Record” I pay no attention to 527 or the onlookers now gathering outside the arena to watch their King.

Next Sequence…two Varnoo. One Attacks as the other waits for just before the strike to shoot his poison dart.

Block Varnoo 1…dodge poison dart. Strike the the lower calf of Varnoo 1…to the bone. Swing around and shoot Varnoo 2….Head shot…blood everywhere.

Varnoo strikes slicing my midsection through my suit. 527 must have turned on the pain amplifier…searing pain from a blade made to cause continuous bleeding. I fall clutching my side. Varnoo 1 comes in for the kill. He jumps in head first… blade in double handed drive. I wait for what seems like five minutes, lasts only a fraction of a second. I know something he doesn’t know…my reach is longer. Blade out in a counter thrust, this time form my left hand.

I drive my blade deep into the Varnoo skull. It collapses…they have a weak skull structure.

Game Over.

527 turns off the sequence. My wound fades away with the pain. It felt good. I could not even hear the cheers from outside the arena. It still did not matter to me. I suppose it gave them faith. For me, it was only a brief feeling of authority…control…superiority. I want more.

I will have my chance. Wave after wave of Lyrian troopers will have a chance.

It won’t be one on one…or even two on one. On Varnoo…it will be thousands on thousands. A different game all together. It is a different strategy altogether.

I think to myself…lets just see what the counsel has come up with. Whatever is decided, I know there is only one thing I am interested in and that is not conquest.

I am only interested in body count.

~ Meyer Lane

Advice from Saladin Ahmed

Author of the debut fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed, shares his advice for writers.

Q: What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?
A: People hate this answer, but: I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I have loads of ideas, snatches of dialogue, plot twists, bits of description, etc., floating about in my head. What I suffer from is worse than writer’s block: TWIN TODDLERS! So finding time and space to write are bigger issues for me than getting words onto the page once I have the time and space to do so. I guess the flip side of this is: If you find yourself sitting there, having carved out the time and space to write, BE GRATEFUL FOR IT! And use it to put something – anything – down on the page.

Q: What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?
A: Describe a familiar food from the point of view of someone who is completely unfamiliar with it.
More a trick than a prompt, for novels: Write the first three chapters. Then write the final chapter. Think of everything in between as a bridge (though one with inclines and declines).

Q: What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?
A: “Treat it like a job.” – (Pretty much every seasoned science fiction and fantasy writer I’ve ever met.) I used to write poetry, and poets are generally adverse to thinking of writing this way. Genre novelists aren’t, and (to speak in broad generalities) their refreshingly pragmatic ethos is one that continues to inspire me.

From Wikipedia:  Saladin Ahmed (born 1975) is an Arab-American science fiction and fantasy writer and poet. He has been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award and the Nebula Award for Best Short Story. His fiction has been published in book anthologies and magazines such as Strange Horizons, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Clockwork Phoenix 2, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His novel trilogy The Crescent Moon Kingdoms is currently being published by DAW Books.

Dead Already ” Pisces Falling” Series No.6 by Meyer Lane

” I heard about your practice in the arena, Sire. 527 said it was most uncharacteristic of you. Will you be well today to try again?” Carwyn…always trying to be gentle in how he puts not so great opinions in front of me.

One week left before we fold space. Twenty Five legions of our best soldiers. The high guard, the most elite, will stay home. Guard the homeland. Strategy seems to hold my focus now, the words of Carwyn fall to a short second or third. How to go about the attack exactly? I must consult with my military counsel. But, first I feel like crushing the Varnoo in the hologram arena.

I turn to Carwyn for the first time. ” I am fine. Have 527 ready the arena. I will be there in twenty minutes. I wish you to announce a military counsel this evening on the subject of strategy. Tell all that I expect them to come…opinionated.”

“Yes, Sire. I will do exactly as you say.” Carwyn saw something in the king’s eyes that he hadn’t seen in a long…very long time. Determination…that fire he was known for. He seemed no longer beaten. Something turned. Something clicked. Something must have been resolved within him.

Or perhaps he is counting himself dead already.

by Meyer Lane

Retribution “Pisces Falling” Series No.5 by Meyer Lane

I don’t quite remember when or how I fell asleep, but I awoke with a splitting headache.

I roil through the past as if I will find something that will turn all the clocks back. Something that will take it all back.

It was only five years ago when the ship “Pisces Falling” left folding space to points known only to the captain and on board teachers. It was a school mission, a tradition on Lyria in which brand new students usually age five to seven went on an inaugural space fold to herald the beginning of their years of learning. They leave for a period of three years. This was hard on family, but it was felt to be necessary for a proper education.

The children before…they always came back with stories…knowledge not one other person could understand but themselves. My oldest son took the Pisces Falling journey not ten years ago. He came back changed. My youngest son was on this voyage.

We received faint radio transmission from Pisces Falling at the first of the rainy season on year three. They were to return home. And so we waited…and waited. The day of their expected return came and faded. As did the following weeks and months. We could not risk a space fold to their last transmitted position as we were not in proper alignment.

That did not concern my eldest son. He hijacked a skimmer, the smallest craft able to fold space…and left.

He found the “Pisces Falling” one year later….limping in space, at the edge of what we know now to be the Varnoo’s binary star system.

My head is getting worse…I’m sweating, feel faint.

What he found was the worst tragedy in the history of Lyria. Dead…they were all dead. Left sacrificed…some half eaten. A warning. He did not find his younger brother. Anguished by the recent transmission and in a state of shock, we begged him to come home. He would not listen. He was going to find his brother if it was the last thing he did. It was the last thing he did.

Tears begin to roll down my cheek.

This is why I locked myself in the living hologram transport and left to find my son. No person had ever attempted a living hologram link at this great of a distance for this long of a period of time. I caught up with him on a moon adjacent to the home planet of the Varnoo…a mining colony. By the time I found him, he was already poisoned and surrounded. Living dead.

Every minute it seems an anger is growing behind my sorrow, the sorrow of Lyria. . My life…gone. Lyria’s hopes and dreams…gone. But I have one thing left…revenge…retribution. This is my only purpose now.

by Meyer Lane