Behold, the conclusion of the killer post-cyperpunk epic just perfect for our ever-bleakening moment of accelerating automation, lowering wages, and disaster capitalism. Hit part 1 here, then get your final dose below. Enjoy. -the ed
Tandy scanned Noor, trying to figure out where she kept the thing that popped off J’s head— when? Day before last? Noor wasn’t as smart as she thought she was, but she was paranoid as shit. Switch was on her, somewhere. Probably in that filthy jean jacket combo, or strapped to her lower back.
Noor was in their Bigurl, using their data. She was out of personal and couldn't reup for another few days, so she said. Good luck they was on the same route, same resstop schedule, some good luck, sure. Tablet cocked close to her face, Noor figuring it out.
“You are not currently registered to have a secondary operator, please enter code.”
Tandy slapped the dash once, hard, as they commanded the Bigurl to take a fucking nap. Noor staring at them. Tandy chuckled a little too pretty and ducked their head into their coat. “She likes it.”
Noor put her feet back on the dashboard, levering her weight up off the seat. Lot mud was already smeared on the dash from her cut and taped sneakers. “Bitch still feel me?”
Tandy blanked out on the dash. Waited some beats. Tandy cleared their throat. “All good. But I gotta get. On schedule. How long this gonna take, Noor?”
“As long as it fucking takes.” She snorted three times, and Tandy didn’t know what that meant. They kicked at the remains of a resstop sushi blister pack spilling across the floor of the box, with a wet sneaker.
Noor tapped the screen, comparing figures, looking for loads.
“How far is it to Imperial County from Yuma?”
“Shit, I don’t know. After they turned 8 into the border wall? I dunno, four hours?”
She kept tapping. “Gotta be long enough that we can compound that hour delay. Make it think delays are manageable, until it miss the window. Last run, was, uh 5 hours, 41 minutes, 15 seconds. More than an hour, more than.”
Tandy wished they could see what Noor was doing on the screen, but also glad they couldn’t. Noor wasn’t as smart as she thought she was. Think it again: girl not as smart as she supposed. Yeah, fuck, keep thinking it, maybe it won’t be true.
“Why not just do a whole coast route? That’s about as long as it gets.”
Noor looked at them, eyes cleared, reflecting white light from Tablet like open holes through her head.
“Yer fucking chitterchat. Gotta be short enough that there can’t be a re-route from another pax, or else it’s fucked. Gotta be this load, so we can get the delay credit.”
Noor tapped again. “Write this down.”
“With yer fucking drooling saliva, fucker!”
Tandy wiped their chin, not really sure if she was serious or not. Their whole face was numb. They scanned the floor, found a crushed drink cup, and ripped it open, and pulled a pen off the dash.
“Cheyenne, 8AF2, Sacramento 1294, Ft. Worth AEC5, San A, DD32.”
Tandy scrawled the digits, and handed it to Noor. She opened a new window on Tablet and fed the numbers and letters back in. Tandy noticed that at some point Noor had slapped her feet down, slid her small self back into the seat.
“Shit. None of these pax are worth shit. Not enough anyway. Gotta find one that makes it worth it.”
"It say what's in them?"
"You know it don't… it's hashed. But you know the value, if you look at the rate codes."
“You are not currently registered to have a secondary operator, please enter code.”
Noor kicked at the glasshield. “Shut yer Bigurl the fuck up Tandy!”
Tandy touched Noor on the shoulder, one as surprised as the other by the contact. “She don’t like to be kicked, N. Gotta slap her. With love.” Tandy demonstrated. Noor stared into their eyes, as the flesh-on-plastic smack echoed in the small compartment.
Noor opened her mouth as if she was going to divulge something that was gonna make everything sacred and sweet. But all she said was, “Give me a bump, Tandy.”
She was staring at them, her eyes reflecting the light from the screen again.
“I’m running low as it is Noor, otherwise—”
“Give me a fucking bump.”
Tandy opened their hand, looking at the vial that they had been clutching, warm to the touch.
“Don’t worry, T. We do this deal, you’re gonna live in a vial, rather than a mouthy fucking Bigurl like this one.” Noor flicked her fingers at the cave around them, as if the walls bore moldy, leaking sores.
Tandy extended their hand, offering the vial.
“Drop it for me,” Noor said, quietly.
They leaned over, cautiously, not exactly desiring of being that close to Noor again. They held the dropper out, but their arm was tired, drooping, and so they had to get nearer.
They leaned close, Noor's red eyes looking up, through them, devoid of light now in the dim cab. They could smell her. The way they smelled. That thin ammonia smell, maybe in the sweat, maybe from elsewhere. Her hair was greasy, slicked over her forehead. Tandy looked away from her eyes, trying to focus on Noor's one black tooth out in front. But they had to look back to her eye, so they didn’t miss. A quick look at her hands, make sure she didn’t have the switch pointed at their neck. Noor was still gripping Tablet, displaying rows of numbers and quantities and amounts. Tandy pinched the drop, and it landed on her eye like a wet sheet of plastic, coating the membrane, causing the iris to instantly retract. They did the other, and then watched as she blinked.
“Now get the fuck away from me and let me work, Tandy.”
Breathing again, Tandy sat back and just blanked.
Noor called them back, tap-tap-tapping the screen. “Yeah, yeah. This is the shit, right here. This is the shit.” She grabbed the cup, and jotted down the numbers herself. Then she tossed it to Tandy.
PNS - 00d2
It read, in Noor's scratch.
“So tell me what you do, T. So I can make sure you don’t fuck it up.”
Tandy watched the numbers swim on the wax-coated paper. “So in Pensacola, I find the pax with the number, and I put Bigurl next to it. I wait, as long as it takes, until the swap comes through, and Bigurl on-boards that pax. I set off on the route, and then I take the first resstop that comes.”
Noor smiled, cracked lips over the black tooth. “That’s right. You use a pay4phone, you tell me where you at. And you wait there. No matter how Bigurl screams, no matter what sort of shit you see in the lot, no matter if Tibetan Santa comes with a gift-wrapped key for your addled ass. You take the fucking dock, and you wait for me to get there. Someone wants to ask you what's your problem? ‘Oh Mister, I got a substance abuse issue.’ Then we’ll have it swap to me. I do the same thing at next resstop and have it swap to Heart Attack. Then he waits, and then delivers. Three swaps, five hours behind on a four-and-a-half-hour route, that’s greater than 100% delay credit on express drop ship on the most expensive rate code there is. Fucking military grade processors, gold bars, new organs. Who knows what, but fucking money, Tandy.”
They watched the digits swim, trying to imagine the feel of possessing actual cash.
“You are not currently registered to have a secondary operator, please enter code.”
Noor stashed Tablet and kicked at the sphincter to exit.
“Yer Bigurl smells worse than the fucking lavs.”
The sphincter pulled shut, leaving Tandy and Bigurl alone again.
Being outside Bigurl is like having an outer layer of flesh flensed off. Sick twitches hitting thick now, nothing makes sense. Everything painful. But still: gotta scrap. No choice in the matter. Only way to score. The thought of climbing back in Bigurl without a reup is enough to make Tandy want to leap in front of one.
Here stands Tandy, blanking in the concrete light, under the unblinking eye of the gray sky and the thirteen bashed-in CCTV cameras, each drooping from a different perch of the orange plastic resstop walls. Seven-and-a-half hours more of mandatory safety resstop here. Enough time to scrap and score with the lot connect, before the hussle off to meet Noor's precious pax.
Body slumps. Meat, hanging off the spine, easily plucked, but the Bigurl still gives them customary three beeps, then the aperture sphincters closed. She'll hustle off and fuel and chitterchat with the other rigs and drink bad diner coffee and flirt with the waitress or whatever it is Bigurl does when the operator is out of the box and in the air. She got no sense of a person’s brain having an inside, away from somatic stimulus response time. Or she just don't care.
Which will be scrap metal first? Tandy or their Bigurl? Every op dearly wishes to see their Bigurl in the junkyard, to feel that very human superiority over mere matter. To have won at least that backwards race of endurance, if nothing else. Even if there’s nowhere else to go. Nowhere else to live. Like a worm in the blood, whose only natural home is a hot shrinking vein. But Tandy, some days, these days, they don’t know.
Five minutes of blanked out on the tarmac, unsure if they can make it inside the resstop, Tandy remembers the 15 mL of medical grade cocaine (liquid). Scrabbling for it, with grubby, bug hands, but there’s no pockets, just empty holes. Cut them all out, the pockets, because the zippers could have been— some sort of wallet bag? The coke’s back in the in the rig, must be.
Runs towards Bigurl but she gone. Slumping, well past despair, that particular emotion tapped out about seventeen hours into the current haul. A cold, hard pressure in the left hand. Fuck, the vial! Awful drama between human and object for the past god knows how many hours, alternately gripping it or tearing the box apart to find it, terrified it got lifted by some resstop junkie, last place.
Struggles through the resstop door sphincter. Don’t wanna fix out on the tarmac; some Bigurl make you a stain. Now, barely breathing, dropper shakes above the right eye. Always right first. Please please please don’t miss. A single tear rolling down the cheek, worth a scrap a piece, gone into the black footprints of rain and smeared box sewage, tracked into the lav from the tarmac. It hits. Thank the fuck to christ buddha allah. Hand steadies slightly. And then left eye. Liquid is cold burning.
They’re someone else for a time. Fucking monster of rage, searching for cameras, lights, any fixture intact enough to rip and smash. No… more… with the looking, you fucks! Beating against the stainless steel sheet in place of lav mirror, they scream to god to tell him not to fucking touch them anymore.
And that’s fine.
Shit that’s normal.
Settling down now. A couple ops, huddled together by the burnt out toilets, occasionally glancing over in terror. Fucking hypocritical scum, didn’t do nothing to them. All this went fine. That sure as shit isn’t cocaine, they remember now. But it’ll be fine, if it isn’t already.
The Big Clock, which manages to drag itself into view, counts down departure time from 1:21. Somehow six hours of resstop just evaporated. But no problem. Plenty of time. It’s all fine.
Three beeps. An aperture sphincters open in the plastic wall, orange briefly browning at the center of the swirl. Another driver, a big guy with no shirt and strange asymmetrical surface wounds to his otherwise chiseled chest and only one shoe on droops into the lav, in much worse shape than Tandy was, six odd hours ago. They scramble over him, three beeps sound again, bug hands claw open the aperture as it tries to shut. Head first wriggling out onto the scorching blacktop as the aperture tries to decide what to do with their legs. Luckily, it disgorges them, and Tandy tumbles out.
Against the backdrop of withered trees and the spindly access road winding up to the interstate (the sound of autoshifting, faint, as if in dreams) is a sight that looks weird from the outside four generic, same uncolor, equally worn Bigurls, lined up next to one another, making the rest of the lot seem even more vacant than if it had been completely empty. They call it flocking, the way the Bigurls choose to park together, in small groups spread out across the lot. Some sort of preference, makes sense to them, but not to ops. Maybe to them marketmakers, is what Noor was trying to say, Tandy guesses. Which one which one which one is theirs? Bigurls all look the same, exact. It stalks Tandy, sometimes, in their woke dreams, that if they lost their Bigurl, and any old one came a’nuzzling, they’d have to take it on some kind of faith, until climbing inside. (No stink of home can be bottled, only boxed.)
Creeping respectfully forward, wondering if they'll be recognized by their own first, or if the strange Bigurls might spring forward and tread, snatch body up, and mash mash mash. But Bigurls just wait patiently. Get ten feet away when they’re in security mode, they'll rear up and do some damage, but before that, you solid. Ten feet, ten feet, on repeat. Stalking forward (the Big Clock no longer heads up, a deep anxiety, sweating in places without requisite glands), Tandy thinks how many times they've done this, how many times they gonna do it again. Seems like Zero. They roll right, they bupping to bliss. They roll wrong, they get bodypawn.
At least, this shit, no more.
But there's a roar, and they hop back, take a bad step, go halfway down. Just another Bigurl coming down the access road. Looking up from tarmac, Tandy can finally see that the numbers along the sides of the Bigurls. Last four digits of each new flocking rig around their own. First: 4ADC. Second: 654D. Third: 1DEC. Three together in the lot plus their own Bigurl is enough to trade for a fix. Off the tarmac, favoring the sharp-ached ankle, hopping toward the aperture already opening for the incoming rig.
Run. Try not to think about how close the moving rig is behind. (How far is ten feet, anyway? Could you feel the windtunnel forming around you before you went down?) Going through the aperture is easypeasy, with the soundtrack of the incoming rig's defensive systems switching on inside Tandy's head, a series of metal clicks and a 10K volt capacitor charge, and then back in the lav again.
Spine against the plastic. Check the clock. Only about twenty minutes to go. Lot connect nowhere in sight. A junkie could always tell who it is. And they ain't here.
Taking the nub of a pencil from behind their right ear, Tandy writes 1DEC very slowly on the scrap of paper. Slowly. How to form an E, it takes them a while to remember. Then to the right, 654D, pretty quick. And then, longer, in the next position, 4ADC. And last, their own Bigurl code, 1AD3, under a wavering line of demarcation, the standard scrapper format. Somewhere in bare background, the op who’s aperture-slot they skimmed is beating against the plastic otherside. Eventually, the noise ceases. Tandy don’t wanna speculate on the cause of that.
Tandy knows they gotta go, or Bigurl gonna get fined. They gotta go, or they gonna miss Noor's pax at the meeting-place. But if they go now, no scrap. No scrap means no score. No score, they pull into meeting-place, they ain’t gonna be able to get out the box.
So Tandy waits. Waits till the Big Clock starts chiming, then it starts screaming, then the wail and they turn it off. They watch the two former lav-huddlers taking turns orally serving a too-generic probable pighead wearing a slightly malfunctioning smearmask which switches on and off every twenty seconds. When it's down the red gorge rises, and he smiles a little bashfully. Tandy watches this for a while, too long actually, but nobody comes over and demands either spectator fee or for them to join in. This drama ends after surprisingly long, and a vial is exchanged. Nothing happens for a while, but Tandy blank, so it don’t matter. Just time. A little later, more drama. On the other side of the aperture, an incoming op is struggling against the orange plastic which won’t sphincter. Who knows why. Who gives a fuck. Better to lean against the outside and shit, if they can.
The orange sphincter. A big woman with a raw-boned face climbs through. Recognizable, but from where? Chi-town? Des? Another lav, another scrap, split from continuity by the peaks and chasms of highs and withdrawal. She walks directly over, ignoring the continual nodding and conspiratorial winking. She snatches the scrap, without ever actually really looking at it, or at Tandy.
Woman disappears off into the lav labyrinth, or maybe the resstop on the otherside of the internal sphincter. Tandy struggles up. Now they’ve got the vial everything begins to hurt, that endless drip burning behind the eyes. Blinking, they feel the way to the sphincter. Turning, full of dread, and joy, to be back in the box, to look at the resstop one last time. Last last last. Everything's only just begun. In this case, of course, that includes possible dismemberment.
But maybe more, real money, the fuck out of this job in a way that isn’t selling it off to hijackers and earning a life sentence or bullet. More than the small tinfoil packet the raw-boned woman dropped onto the lav floor for Tandy to bend and snatch up, sixteen to twenty four hours of immersion in painlessness waiting under the googly eye, emotional opacity looking out the glasshield.
Pass through the sphincter, and it’s out the fuck of Dodge.
If they make it in time.
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: check-in PNS UTC 09:12:12:41 12.16.21
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: content verification PNS UTC 09:12:13:02 12.16.21
Product Code: REDACTED
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: new destination route PNS UTC 09:12:15:43 12.16.21
PNS - MOB - MSY - LFT - BMT xfer count: 3
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: on-board PNS UTC 09:15:59:05 12.16.21
Truck Code: [88b1:1292:44cc:01d3:21aa:6b87:0:1ad3]
Operator Code: [9932:caed:cc3e:ad3a:21bc:bf4e:fa92:1928]
Contract Code: [HASHED] SIGNED
"Onboard, baby. Onboard, honey. Cash is the only prescription, and the doctor is snappin’ on her gloves! What’d you think she’s gonna find in there? Polls closing in Plymouth, superweather scuddin’ in over the Rockies, pyracy in the pandhandles! Put your money down or bite asphalt, there’s a nice little patch I had installed in the unisex. Tastes like the last guy’s teeth.”
Beef-chin was back again, idly typing someone else's figures into the terminal. The suited man pulled up the map, letting his eyes flutter at the speed of light, as he waited for inspiration to hit. There were all kinds of options on the road, but they were big. Too big. The markets would be all over that storm like flies on shit. The smart man, the rich man, looked to the unseen opportunity. His eyes drifted down to the Southeast. Nice n’quiet.
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: stop-scheduled UTC 09:59:28:11 12.16.21
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: content verification UTC 09:59:34:07 12.16.21
Product Code: REDACTED
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: hot-swap UTC 10:54:54:41 12.16.21
MOB - MSY - LFT - BMT xfer count: 3
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: hot-swap complete UTC 10:57:17:18 12.16.21
Truck Code: [88b1:1292:44cc:01d3:21aa:6b87:0:1ad3]
Operator Code: [9932:caed:cc3e:ad3a:21bc:bf4e:fa92:1928]
Contract Code: [HASHED] COMPLETE
Truck Code [6ad6:30de:b3c8:0:33e2:3ea1:c8cd:f650]
Operator Code: [cade:2109:56ba:aedc:292f:4051:388a:307b]
Contract Code: [HASHED] SIGNED
Little flickers of yellow in New Orleans, around the Mississippi archipelago. He checked the weather: no rain, not even a remist. Dry as a fucking bone. Just strain in the system. The human weakness, taking their sweet time wading through the resstop sewers. Garbage in, garbage out.
Looking up through Texas, slowness there too. But wait wait wait: artificially depressed speed limits due to construction. Now there's a problem you can fix. He keyed Tablet, and started making trades. Then, hit the button for a voice call.
"Cheeky— whassup, go fuck yourself. Nah I kid, man. Hey. Hey! Keep your fucking shirt on, maybe I make you some dinero tonight. You still got that contact over at TexDOT? I know you do. You tell him to speed things up, in the corridor between Dallas and Houston clear to the state line. Fucking advisory speeds, man. Gotta give me some juice, tonight.
"What do you mean, Federal safety standards? I'm just asking for 20 more fucking miles an hour! Like they give a shit about a couple of concrete bots and a handful of ops. I know he can do it. Tell him the usual rate, and your fee too. He makes my lines turn green and I make it rain green. You know how we do."
He disconnected, swigged from the nearest bottle, which was a mistake, and waited for the map to refresh.
[66e3:dae3:210a:987d:cea8:455b:21d0:214f]: flash TX UTC 11:11:52:07 12.16.21
[66e3:dae3:210a:987d:cea8:455b:21d0:214f]: new destination TX UTC 11:12:23:29 12.16.21
DFW - OCH - BMT xfer count: 1
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: flash TX UTC 11:12:53:36 12.12.21
[90ed:add1:f6d9:0:4bd3:34ae:e22c:00d2]: new destination TX UTC 11:13:14:45 12.12.21
MOB - TCL - BHM - BNA xfer count: 2
“Weekend warriors? That what I’m seeing here? You all wanna be home jerking off over cryptobets like it’s 2017? I’m crying. Look at my face. But but... but. I am seeing, I am SEEING something coming to life, something rolling, like a great V-HICK-LE over this great Sea To Shining, and it’s green lines, endless, children of a lesser monetary system, endless green lines! Get on the road or get under the wheels.”
The first retribution of excised junk: the realization that all time is now box time.
Heart Attack Joe can’t think too good no more. And he don’t feel too great either. Things Heart Attack Joe knows: he should’ve waited till the Job was over, he should’ve waited till he was back in that beachtown shack, changing his ma’s oxygen tanks, with plenty of structure. But: couldn’t find veins, couldn’t find credit, couldn’t find out why he kept coughing up that chalky white stuff. And, somewhere between Richmond and the border-switch to Savannah, Joe turned 35. It was time to get clean.
So Joe went turkey.
The second retribution of excised junk: the realization that all time has always been box time.
Mud-smudged plastic gallon jug shoved under the dash. Potscheen brewed by a Sovereign Citizens clade based in the ruins of a Shirlington mall. Tastes like nickels. Joe has no idea if the hootch is legal wherever the hell the box is now, but he knows it’s sure as shit not legal to have it in the box. Probably even less legal than horse, depending on the evangelical infiltration of whatever statelet Bigurl’s ramming through at 90 plus right now. But fuck it, put me on that chain-gang, sez Heart Attack Joe, pluck out mine eyes, crucifix me by the side of I-95.
Cuz this shit ain’t ending.
The third retribution of excised junk: the realization that you could never think too good in the first place.
Joe tries to get deep into the darkness on the other side of his eyes, tries to see what was always on the other side of a hit, tries to see that nothingness and emptiness aren’t the same shit. It’s the dark, but it ain’t just the dark. It’s fingers, long and sharp, ready for slipping into your eyes. Joe could melt into the dark, but for Tablet up there on the mount, reading the infrared-only topography of his face, squirting metrics back to whatever company owns Bigurl today, plus IUATO.
The Tablet don’t scream when Joe attacks its face with the multi-tool.
The fourth retribution of excised junk: the realization that landscape ain’t real.
Heart Attack Joe knows: there’s nothing outside the box. The shattered spruce on the side of the highway, the sudden plunge into the valley of a deserted townlet, the scavenger-cleaned Model X in the Educational Center parking lot. All as unreal as the machine vision he tries to release out of the Tablet, like render ghosts.
Joe passes endlessly through the colon of the former United States, sweating and alone.
Then Joe sees what’s on Tablet, and he wants be alone. Pretty much for fucking ever.
Somewhere, sometime later after the liquor runs out, Joe is alone no more:
"The fuck you message me on Tablet for? Lost your fucking mind, Joe? Joe. Joe!"
The boss-lady had jacked open the aperture with something, prised apart the sphincter with her hands, and is now half-hung inside the box.
“Are you fucking... drunk?”
Bob the head: the head bobs.
“I came up from NoLA on fob, motherfucker! I had to infect yer Bigurl to not get fucking electrocuted! You remember how much that cost? Do you remember anyshit? Do you remember the Job? Why the hell weren't you there to take the swap? Some other rig came and got it 'cause your ass wasn't there!”
Boss-lady’s vibrating there. Pulled herself out of the aperture, looks ready to haul Joe out the chair, plant him curbwise, do some stomping.
“Shreveport.” Joe moves his mouth; he’s got the face of a fish. One of the big basa you see struggling at the edges of the feedponds. Working the air like it’s chaw.
“You say Shreveport to me?”
“I didn't get a call to go swap. Fucking, says, Shreveport.”
Boss-lady swipes the Tablet. Fingers it. Sucks her teeth at the unbreakaglass, smeared with horse-hoof residue. Rates, percentage. dues. And the Big Fee, to go with the Big Clock, both flipping past in the top corner.
“Slagshit,” she murmurs. "The fuck you do, Joe?"
Boss-lady pulls out her own Tablet, shaking. Fingers trying to stab at the information. Light on her face like a road ghost over Donner 80. Shaking her head before she can barely read a line.
She holds Tablet held over him, to either let him read or bludgeon him. “Look at fucking Tablet. Read that. Says fucking delivered. You missed the swap, and so it rerouted on us, bringing another pax in from Dallas via Nacogdoches. It's gonna arrive early to Beaumont . We owe money, Joe. So much fucking money.”
“I did… did what you said.”
“No. No,” she says. “I told you, to take the fine and wait in NoLA until it tells you to swap! If you done like what I said, we wouldn’t be in Rouge! You had enough time to make the swap, and get close enough to Beaumont before resstop so it wouldn't reroute. I planned it with extra.” She picks up the empty jug. Sniffs. “Ain’t that hard, Joe. Why you so lost? Couldn’t find a vein? Couldn’t score? Shit, I’d have given you my shit, keep you straight for the duration.”
“Sick of it.”
Boss-lady nods once, like she don’t wanna understand. Algorithm couldn’t read that shit in her face. Junkie can though.
“Need to get back on the road,” fish say.
“You say you sick of it.”
“You sick of it, Joe. So just be that and don’t be nothin’ more.”
Something in her hand. Something Joe has seen before.
And that’s when the switch goes out, like the long tongue of a crane, and licks the chest of Heart Attack Joe.
“IF YOU WERE HERE WE’D HAVE BEEN ABLE TO SAVE HIS HEART”
...is the first thing Tandy heard out of the box, blinking in the tarmac sun. Bigurl wailing behind them, fines coming thick and fast into Tablet, and Tandy looking around at some kind of abandoned industrial park, the frontages of former outlet stores turned into empty frames by scavengers.
“His heart, Tandy,” said Noor, gasping. “His heart.”
“Why didn’t you just stick it in one of them dry-freeze boxes?” asked Tandy. “They gave you one, right? In your Bigurl?”
Noor had been crying violently, though her face still had the frieze of the infuriated. Now she went dry. While she kept her bloodied hands on Tandy’s shoulders, she no longer leaned on them for support, but rather squeezed slowly, tightening an already uncomfortable grip. “You dumb shit. Joe fucked up, and his Bigurl wants to go to Shreveport now, not NoLA. I had to fob a ride North off Iltie. Meanwhile, our pax is god knows where, and the delivery is gonna go through. Early. We owe the broker, the bodypawn, even fucking IUATO on our fucking late pickups. We are fucking deader than dead.”
“So I opened him up, and now he’s all rotten. We’ll never be able to... Hours late, Tandy, you’re hours late.”
Tandy shrugged. “Box time.”
Noor was shaking her head. “We’re fucked, Tandy. So fucked. Might as well just stroll out into the lanes now, and get finished. Ain’t no way we getting clear of this.”
Tandy idly picked Tablet out of Noor’s hand. Noor let it go, a surprise in retrospect, and just kept talking. Tandy stared at the icons on the screen, bright and cheerful against the plaid mapspace and the corporate-source adbots. Something about their comedown, and the small fix they’d had box time, opened up a channel in their brain, a real linear, neat path through clusters of cells that didn’t usually work in concert no more, and they held it up and said, “Joe’s going to Mobile.”
Noor was already laughing in the crazy, cackling way about something else, but now she had to stop, straightface, and stare Tandy for a second before starting to laugh all over again. “My friend, Heart Attack ain’t going nowheres, unless it’s in a couple plastic bags, but I figured we’d just leave him here? Who cares?”
She would have gone on, but Tandy shook their head, forceful and calm enough to shut her up. They tapped the Bigurl icon in the lot, parked next to hers. “His Bigurl? She ready. That’s why she all red. She wanna get going to Mobile.” Tandy waved a gnawed-at stub of a fingernail vaguely at the hacked taggings Noor had cued up.
"He said Shreveport."
“Mobile, now. Look, it's moving. And look at them digits: 00d2. That's our pax. The one I swapped to you. It rerouted East to back to Mobile instead of West on Beaumont. And then on to Loosa, and then Nashville.”
Noor grabbed Tablet, and studied it. "Joe's Bigurl is tracking to meet a fucking runner. Express direct. His Bigurl is still up for it, just in a different place, different destination."
“We could still get the pax back, maybe delay it again and make up the money? You infect Heart Attack’s Bigurl right? So she kinda woozy, probably take us, thinking we her op. Worth a fucking go, leastwise. Then when it swaps we—”
Noor leaned in and kissed Tandy on the lips. That was uncomfortable, especially considering how bloody her face was. "Most expensive route code there is. Fucking gold bars and shit, Tandy. We find it, and we break the seal!” Noor exclaimed in their ear. “An express direct runner, you fucking know that has gotta be some expensive shit in that pax! They don't want it in Beaumont, but they want it bad in Nashville. They not gonna get it though... that pax is ours. We can sell the bits, whatever they are, and we use it to pay off." When she leaned back out, Noor was smiling that badtooth smile.
"We break it? Why the fuck would we do that, Noor? You make a new bet. We swap it take it real close, I try to pick up a maintenance in Birmingham, that's at least four hours late, make up some story for Tablet like resstop fire, and…"
"That's not enough Tandy. None of the usual shit could make up what we owe now. Except those juicy, pricey bits in the pax."
Tandy tried not to think about all the ops they'd ever heard about trying to bust open a pax. Like when you were real hard up. Not just like junkie hard up. Like for money you owed to someone so dark and dire, you were ready to throw yourself off a crossover bridge, because you knew that would be the easier argument. Ready to sell your own organs, generate enough capital to save the leftover bits, maybe they’d still add up to you. Like that.
It was suicide, they said. Maybe you got lucky, found some bits worth selling. Maybe you were real lucky, and got enough money to pay off whoever was after you. But the company always found you in the end, and there was just one way that story finished. When the seal was broken, the company charged the op for the loss of cargo in full— and there were only so many ways of extracting that sort of payment.
Occasionally, a black market gang would hijack a Bigurl for whatever was in the pax. Some million dollar load, something worth the risk and the effort. They had the tech to know what was inside, and how to find and deactivate the trackers. During the hit, a smart op would ask the jackers to put a bullet in their head. Because they knew it was better than the company's way.
Normally the jackers would oblige them.
They sat in Joe’s box, oil-slick machine vision streaming across the glasshield. Noor was staring at Tablet, their Tablet, clucking and muttering to herself, head bobbing back and forth. Her neckveins were all strained out, and she was sweating pretty heavy. Joe wasn’t using, and all Tandy’s junk was back in their Bigurl, and they hadn’t had time to go back for it.
Noor’s security infection seemed to have done its work on Joe’s Bigurl. She’d spluttered a little, wasn’t too pleased with the new meat, but she wanted to get to Mobile something desperate, so she didn’t put up too much of a fuss. Company bots were no doubt clearing the infection up, working down the fiber. They had time though. Bigurls were known to be hardened, but not exactly responsive. All the same, they were racing a new Big Clock to Mobile.
All Tandy was thinking on, however, was the last time they stroked the flank of their Bigurl. Long and, beneath the accumulated slime and shit of the road, smooth. Their Bigurl had responded, lights on and engine running through initial stages of power up; it was almost like the big beast had been excited to see them. Tandy hadn’t had too many opportunities to see her from the outside, but they felt, stroking that hide, that she was actually theirs.
Tandy hadn't taken Bigurl off automatic much. Off grid. Off box time. They didn’t know how long it be before whichever company owned her today decided remote seizure of control was worth the bandwidth and human hours.
Pretty soon, probably. When Tandy got back, if they ever got back, their Bigurl would almost certainly be gone, and that seemed sadder now then the loss of the little junk in her.
Home was home, whether you recognized it or not.
“Come on come on come on come on!” Noor kept up the litany, rocking back and forth above the shaking Tablet, as if involved in some obscure ritual. Tandy had stopped trying to touch her, or even talk to her. Noor was now past despair, real real far down whatever highway she was on.
On the run to Mobile, Noor's Tablet had froze up for almost forty minutes. Some sort of crash in her hacked-as-shit scripts. Then it caught up with itself, showing massively advanced positions of both Joe’s Bigurl and the runner. The runner had already swapped. Noor’d screamed and thrown Tablet at Tandy like a discus. Tandy’d caught it against their chest like a startled pigeon released from a cage, clutched it there, almost cooing at it.
They hadn’t had to coax the orphan Bigurl to do max when the runner was en route to Mobile, but now that it was northbound, she became direction-sick. She dropped to cruising speed and looped onto an access road, which deadended at a resstop.
Noor beat her fists against the dash till her skin broke. Her cry was inarticulate.
Tandy sat against the wall, as far away from the various pools of dried fluids as possible, and fought with Noor’s Tablet.
Around the time the boss-lady’s screaming stopped, as she was licking at the bloody underside of her fists, Tandy managed to convince the Bigurl to fix again on the runner, and she took a semi-legal tributary from the access-road, passing through what appeared to be the ruins of a former chemical weapons testing compound. They were heading toward Loosa, with Bigurl going even harder than before, if that was possible.
Noor rolled over against the box wall like a lost, drugged animal. She slid down it and gave Tandy her unblinking, huge eyes, her mouth shut to a slit. “What you do?” she asked, voice shaved down by abuse.
“Convinced her Heart Attack was on the runner.”
“She believe you.” It wasn’t a question, as much as an admission of doubting, the doubting of everything. Noor didn’t look like someone who believed in reality so much anymore. Tandy’d seen this shit in a few junkies going turkey, they didn’t fold up inside themselves, but unfolded into the world around them.
Tandy pushed one shoulder up, tried to look like a funny cartoon character, the kind that don’t get death by switch in the final frame. “She know what she want to believe.”
Noor leaned back against the box wall, eyes still open, but she wasn’t seeing shit.
Bigurl was exceeding legal limit, so was her love for her op. Or so Tandy imagined. They shut their eyes, imagining if their Bigurl felt the same, if it was a feel that was the thing, not just a subroutine, damaged, with an extra waypoint added out of Joe's personal allotment. Tricking the orphan Bigurl, that needed doing or Noor would’ve killed all three, but it made them feel worse than any of the shit they'd done, or seen, last couple weeks. They felt like they'd betrayed the only contract they'd ever willingly accepted.
The runner was at forty past legal limit. Tandy tried to do the math, see if they’d make it, but they couldn’t, didn’t have that energy, didn’t have the faith. Better to be hopeless. Back on the interstate, the faint screaming of the laboring Bigurl, Noor took Tablet back. They should catch up just outside of Mt. Vernon, just after the next pax-switch. There was a resstop there, and the new runner would need a fuel and a resstop, as her op would be almost passed statelet legal limitations on box time.
Tandy didn’t sleep because they were reassured. They slept because they were exhausted.
Tandy opened their eyes as they ran through the deracinated forest just off 43, just outside of Mt. Vernon. Tablet went green— the runner had already switched the pax. But resstop was just a breath away. Noor took the switch out of her jacket, looking out at the debased shapes of the debased forest, clicking the weapon against the dash.
Noor announced box time: they’d hit the resstop twenty-three minutes after the runner had arrived. No way were they gonna break open the runner there; the resstops were designed to protect Bigurls hard, and the bodies of the ops were barely factored into the calculations of that. But Noor knew the orphan Bigurl was going to have to get back on highway by way of the service corridor, a quarter-mile stretch of local road running down to the next northbound on-ramp, a slip of the local dessicated forest dividing them from the main road. There, they would have a chance. If they could catch it.
Noor explained the plan to Tandy, who stayed curled in the seat, staring at the glasshield, nodding rhythmically till she stopped speaking. Tandy wasn’t sure if Noor understood much anything anymore.
It seemed almost no time, maybe Tandy’d gone blank again, but Bigurl was decelerating down to ten to enter resstop. This was the end of their ride, and they would have to run to catch the runner from here. The two of them jacked open her door with a metal tray filthy from Heat-Em-Up stains. Tandy didn’t even feel their body leaving the box, entering the air. Their eyes were closed. There was no fall. Just the impact.
In the dark, they shook.
When Tandy stood, it seemed millennia had passed, or at least a good solid fix, and they were bent bad on the ankle, which wasn’t even causing pain. This is it, Tandy thought. That place beyond the fix. They were surprised, kinda, to see they had grabbed Tablet and even managed to still clutch it against their chest, mostly unharmed.
Out ahead, they saw the boss-lady, bloody left arm shown through torn double jacket, running, switch in the other hand, toward the treeline.
The trees were husks, shredded down to whittled nubs by the poison tributary or the hot rain or whatever was this area’s particular chemical catastrophe, but these husks still had enough height to obscure the way forward, and Noor ran blind under murky moonlight, sucking breath. Tandy tried to follow, but they were slowed by the ankle. Still no pain, but no stability. They had to relearn how to move without falling over.
It shouldn’t have been far, but when they came out onto the service corridor, Tandy had given up believing that they’d ever be moving over any other kind of terrain. Up the short access road, a Bigurl, as ugly as hers, as ugly as any of theirs; it was doing forty, coming down the road directly at them. Noor was there, hanging partially in the street. “Gimme Tablet,” she said.
Tandy tossed Tablet over, and Noor, holding the switch under her chin, ran her fingers, fierce and blunt, over it. She looked up and fixed the Bigurl with a gaze so steady Tandy knew it was definitely the runner. Then she shrugged and stepped back, off the street.
“What?” said Tandy.
“We gonna do nothin’?”
“You gonna do.”
The Bigurl pretty damn close now, and Noor bent down into linebacker and drove her shoulder into the small of Tandy’s back. Tandy stumbled out onto the little road, blinded by headlights. The Bigurl screamed as lidar locked on, downshifting automatically, tires shooting out great huffs of crystal firestone freebased off rough road. She slid to a stop a few feet from Tandy, who was still upright but too shocked to move. Wouldn't have stopped for an op in the lot. But Tandy was a pedestrian now.
Then the blare. That big, fucking blare.
"You...you...you shut your big fucking mouth!" Tandy screamed to get their muscles moving again, as much as anything. They noticed, barely, that Noor was at their side, slapping the infection code into Tablet. Then she dashed to the side as the infection twisted its way through Bigurl’s decentralized nervous system, and she slammed Tablet into the crack in the box to wedge it open.
Tandy reached out and touched the hot grill of the Bigurl, and the blare stopped. No electrical arc fried them in their sneakers. Guess the infection had worked.
Noor put her back into it and the box door slurped and wrenched open, emitting vape fog and the blare of talk broadcast, some politicast, the deep voice like marching boots frothing out over the Alabama roadway. A four-hundred pound dude wearing some faked metal jewelry retched out of the Bigurl going Wha Whaaaa and Noor hit him with the switch and he fell out and hit the road and then Noor hit him again.
"We WILL make America ONE again!" blared the politicast. “We WILL put the people back in charge, where they belong! We WILL RISE AGAIN!”
Noor hit the op another time and he came apart and then Noor was just hitting and hitting and hitting until she reached pavement underneath.
Tandy left the spectacle, went round the truck where the long, huge hind end of the Bigurl projected out from the last set of wheels. No hatch, no handle, no button to push. Just a thin plastic seal threaded between two flush steel holes. Tandy ripped it away, with a pound of their heart. And then, they realized they’d never done this, nor seen it done even. Presumably Noor had an idea of what next, but she was beyond communication. So Tandy just reached out their hand and placed it on the hull of the Bigurl.
“Open up girl,” they said, and she did, just like that. The snapped plastic seal fell into two pieces on the ground.
Inside were fifty shipping crates, standing vertical like bodies on hooks. Tandy stepped up and in, then they were alone inside the pax. In the shadows, they glanced at the back of their hand where the numbers and letters had been written in indelible marker. They paced down the crates, searching in the bad light for tags. Tandy compared with the scribble, eyes squinted. They had to look at maybe twenty or so down the aisle before they found it, and then they stood there. Was there a code needed to be punched in? Scanner? A keyhole? There was nothing there, so they just tugged on a metal handle. And the thing unfolded. Came apart, like a jaw unhinging itself, but like in seven different ways. A smell of non-human spilling out. The crate was big enough for them to walk in, so they did. Tandy flicked on their zippo, and held the little flame up to the walls, long and black.
When Tandy came back out to the road, the night was gray and humid, the atmosphere so clotted it was like breathing through a dirty mop.
“PAYDAY! PAYDAY! PAYDAY!” the politicast screaming-head was repeating. Tandy flipped the sphincter switch, and it closed. The invective was now muffled, but they could still hear the plosives through the metal.
Noor was cross-legged in the pool of fat man, bloody hands over face. She was shaking. Just slightly. The switch was at her side, still sparking. Tandy picked it up, turned it off, and tossed it down into the toxic run-off by the side of the road. They knelt down next to Noor, whose teeth were chattering. “Can’t, can’t, can’t,” she kept saying.
“Boss-lady,” said Tandy. “ Boss-lady.” Noor wasn’t coming out of it.
Tandy got their face in real close. “There ain’t nothing in there, Noor. It's empty. There's nothing to sell.”
Noor’s teeth kept chattering. Then she stopped. Her eyes went to Tandy. Small eyes now.
Slowly, Tandy helped her up. Noor remained half-hunched over herself. For a second, it looked like she would wretch, but her throat never constricted, and she never vomited. Then she looked at them. “Empty?” It was a little girl’s voice.
Noor pursed her lips like she was going to say something, then she just nodded. A suddenly wrenching of the Bigurl, and Tandy shyed back, Noor unmoving. The Bigurl was shutting her rear end, restarting her engine. The Bigurl jerked forward ten or so feet, then lurched to a pause. Tandy could almost feel it calculating: no op inside. Maybe it knew it was empty of cargo as well, though Tandy doubted that it would have felt anything because of it. More just like shit luck, shit life. Abandoned by its op, it would return to dispatch, until it got a new one. The next of how many more, before the scrap heap.
The Bigurl did a complex-angled K turn, and Noor still stood there, dead-eyeing her. Tandy dragged Noor off the road, surprised she didn’t fight. The Bigurl accelerated past them, picking up speed and churning the access road into exhaust, till she met the highway. Tandy watched the dust dissipate for a moment, and when they looked down, they were surprised to find Noor, too, was sitting on the pavement, watching the runner disappear.
Tandy sat down next to Noor, as the dull sound of massive, slow rotor blades grew louder over the poisoned woods, drowning out the sound of the highway beyond.
Ignoring the churning sound of doom approaching, Noor said, with no inflection in her voice and no expression in her face, “Where we gonna fix, Tandy.”
And so the scales were balanced, and commerce continued, just as designed.