Flesh Moves

Take a front row seat to the ugly future of automation.

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Jun 1 2018, 2:30pm

Glenn Harvey

Whatever future comes, one thing is fairly certain, excepting total American collapse—the goods will continue to flow. By human, by vehicle, by automaton, or by some combination of the three,stuff will be distributed, sold, and speculated upon across the land. This story, an exceptionally vivid, harrowing, and potent vision of one such tomorrow from two of our leading arthouse dystopians, charts that flow, up close and personal, alongside the poor souls who make it possible. I'd call it cyberpunk, but we're way past that now; this is whatever comes next, or after that. And it's just part one, so stay tuned next week for the finale. Enjoy the ride. -the ed


J’s eyes pop open as Bigurl downshifts, some forty tons of steel and composite sucking through a tank of rarefied earth pus, muscling up the grade over the mountains. Passed the border between Great Basin and the Unified Plains States some seventy miles back, forty-five minutes ago according to Tablet in the glasshield mount. Used to be a river, or a city, or some shit.

J’s not supposed to sleep of course, but withdrawal is starting to clench up his neck, and he’s got his googly eye on. The randomized headband reflector pushed up his sweaty forehead fools Bigurl into thinking he’s paying attention so he can close his eyes for more than a blink. Cost one scrap in the lot. The headband hurts, even the subtle hint of elastic feels like it’s squeezing his brain. J rips it off and adjusts the seat back to get his blood flowing.

Just one bump would do it right now, push everything that’s coming back down his spine. Big Clock on Tablet is counting down to resstop: another two hours in the box, another two hours until scrap and score.

Fuuuuuck.

Maybe Tablet will make a stop sooner, have Bigurl swap out cargo pax, at least let him get out the fucking chair. Out of the box. But, learned long time ago never to try and hope on Tablet.

Hope for anything, hope to get hijacked, hope for drone strike, hope for one of those system failures they talk about where Bigurl starts to unload its pax at cruising speed and the change in the center of gravity of the loading arm causes the inertial sensors to turn the rig into a tight barrel roll across oncoming lanes. But don’t hope against Big Clock, Tablet and time, because when you’re in the box there’s no real time.

Just box time.

Colored squares, rippling across the glasshield like oil in a puddle. Machine vision. Sometimes they were cars. Most of the time they were Bigurls, tagged trucks hauling pax across the continent. From SLC to Denny, Denny down to Sante Fe, Sante Fe back to the Nix, Nix clear cross to Port of Long Beach, or back across the desert to border-dock in Juarez. Big security border there, not the little ones between independent commerce States. Red flashing line on the glasshield in Juarez and Tablet warnings of imminent vehicle scan, not the yellow line, like J just passed. One more regional border, one more notation on Tablet of toll fee assessed, one more cut to the union levied, as Bigurl continued on past the passenger vehicles waiting for little border agents to do their little border dance.

Flashing by at 90 miles an hour the silhouette of a Bigurl, no colored square. Brain disabled, burned out, glassshield entropied, dead off the shoulder, whatever remnants of pax removed. J registered the image like a ghost in the glass. For a minute, his body in that husk, transported, head free of pain, mind blank. And then it was gone.

Paws at Tablet, looking for a minute at his wages. A meter ticking by, creeping upward, slower than the mileage. Fee deducted. Fee deducted. Percentage for the IUATO dues. Bigurl graphs the weak slope on the glasshield, and in anger J switches back to the Big Clock.

So it’s just him. Just him the Big Clock, the Tablet, the colored squares.

J lets his eyes blur out against the colors, the proximity indicators projected on the shield, the numbers, the letters. Bigurl sees he’s not focusing and gives him a chime.

chime chime chime

Struggling with his right hand down on the floor, scrabbling for the googly eye.

Screaming at the squares on the glass.

Not words, just sounds.

Otherwise Bigurl would think he’s trying to give it commands.

*

The water streaming off the rooftop is sewage, leaking from the overhead reclamation pipes heading into the squat. But in the rain she can't tell. Just more foul-smelling liquid, looking for the quickest way to the center of the earth.

"Bad one last week, yeah? Heard two bodies."

Fucking new guy, some fucking ideo, straight off the web. At least it wasn't the 'socialism with post-crash American tendencies' speech again. Yeah, bodies. Just like yours.

"Cops are shooting green tips again. 9th Circuit must have swung back the other way."

The ideo nodded, teething on a vape pen. Roosevelt. He was trying too hard. "We going out tonight?"

"If we get the call." Front pouch, in between kevlar layers, waterproof zipper. Tablet, sleeping. Until they decided.

He nodded, thin goatee humping the pen around. The recruits were always bad, but they were getting worse.

"Bad night for it. This used to be the desert, right? Now it's all this nasty fucking rain."

"Money ain't got no weather, and rev don't roll for free."

Like it heard her, Tablet jolted to life. Interstate 25, westbound. Some roadside cesspit called San Simon. 3-5 hour delay, to begin no later than 2330. Smart contracts were authenticated. Only 75% of the usual price. Well, they get what they fucking pay for.

The noob's pen was stashed, he was tightening his straps, looking at her eyes expectantly.

"It's freeway. Tell Therault."

"Fires? We'll need to use the napalm to get 'em started in this weather."

She snorted. "Fuck fires. They want us to fight climate change, they can pay for it. Caltrops. Bring them all."

*

It smells clean to Tandy. Clean as they had imagined the ocean, clean as the Oxygen Minute down at the farmer’s market, clean as third day off junk when you’ve already gone down seventy or eighty layers of longing and just chill, alive and empty and alone, before the descent begins again.

Tandy had been surprised the ocean did look like a form of a sky: smooth, unruffled, rough and continuous, just flowing. But it didn't smell that way. When they’d gone down to the late winter Roanoke romantic getaway, Tandy squealed with disgust and hatred when they’d looked down the scruffy sandbanks at the churning, opaque oceanfront, the same gunmetal as the dozens of container ships squatting on the horizon. Where the pax came from. The used condoms tangled in flinty seaweed, refusing to glint in the tarnished silver sunlight; the cancer-hobbled gulls screaming for food like old homeless gunks. The pair of po who’d eye-fucked them from the modular steel unit a quarter of a mile away. Dima had bent over laughing, her thin little-boy’s form shaking, her ribs visible through the skinsuit. Tandy had been in love tho, and clean, didn’t have it in them to make war, so they had pouted until Dima came over and put their mind to rest, wiping it like a classroom whiteboard, empty of content but smeared with the streaks of what had come before.

Tandy doesn’t know why it smells clean. It's just another place that Bigurl is at. No ocean here. This was something they’d learned, up and down and clean and not-clean and in the box and out of the box, everywhere was just somewhere else, and they strove, in general, not to notice shit.

Just a hospital loading dock, near resstop south of Rouge, long abandoned, out in the back of beyond, named after some dead saint or billionaire or whathaveyew; the kind of nonincorporated municipality that long ago lost whatever right it had to medical care, the docs just did remote and dropped pharmaceuticals from a great height, and if you needed sutures or something you went down to the town hall and had the bot do it. Either that or hitch to the coast and flag down the navy for some charity.

Tandy twigs, slightly. Someone is yelping their name.

The figure is coming at them from across the lot. Emanating out of the loading dock. Just the outline of a figure, something about the overcast day, the cheap shit rain, and the rancid streaks left in their system from the bigbox downers they’d scarfed this morning, something about all that shit keeps it just an outline until the figure is pretty fucking close, like thirty feet away, and then Tandy realizes it's Noor, that she's covered in liquid dark and dried, and that she isn’t screaming Tandy’s name at all.

WHY WEREN’T YOU HERE?

Now pounding on the sheet metal side of the Bigurl box

again and again and again and again

*

#

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: check-in SAF UTC 01:48:32:11 12.12.21

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: content verification SAF UTC 01:48:32:54 12.12.21

Product Code: REDACTED

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: new destination route SAF UTC 01:48:32:57 12.12.21

SAF - LRU - TUS - YUM xfer count: 2

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: on-board SAF UTC 01:53:35:01 12.12.21

Truck Code: [67ed:0:ade2:271f:c3a7:a21b:9754:01ad]

Operator Code: [ae39:56d1:320a:5de7:182f:ab5f:f82e:adba]

Contract Code: [HASHED] SIGNED

“Onboard, baby. Onboard, honey. Santer Fey, Las Crux. We’re talking 85 all the way, we’re talking ontime. 3 hours, 21. That’s all I’m gonna say. Mandatory resstop, mandatory. Pax touchdown, pax liftoff. Tucson, Great Basin. Situation normal. When you hear that last, bro?”

Blowing out vape smoke against the PayPax terminal, the suited man turned over his shoulder to look at his trading partner, but only caught the back of her head against the glow of her own screen. He shook his head. Fucking college chick. Betting pax was a gut thing. Took a sip of Cortashine, vape against wet lips, eyes on the ticker. Pax transfer insurance index hovering lazily round, like a fly over the hot garbage of continental commerce.

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: check-in LRU UTC 04:14:17:23 12.12.21

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: content verification LRU UTC 04:14:17:52 12.12.21

Product Code: REDACTED

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: destination route LRU UTC 04:14:20:05 12.12.21

LRU - TUS - YUM xfer count: 1

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: on-board LRU UTC 04:17:32:43 12.12.21

Truck Code: [67ed:0:ade2:271f:c3a7:a21b:9754:01ad]

Operator Code: [ae39:56d1:320a:5de7:182f:ab5f:f82e:adba]

Contract Code: [HASHED] COMPLETE

Truck Code [9da7:ae47:0921:2aed:acaf:4731:0:1947]

Operator Code: [a73f:d927:a293:48d9:201ae:ef83:18cb]

Contract Code: [HASHED] SIGNED

“You like the atmosphere here? Is that it? Cuz what’s the other reason, can’t think of one, why you ain’t putting no moneydown. This pax? Heading all smooth and San Simon gets, y’know, 'what the what happened there we shall never know,' because see-something, say-something. Border incident, I do think we can guess, at least. Re-route? Instantaneous.”

Fuck her then, don't want to banter, she can sit in silence. Gonna call it like he sees it. No sense in arbitrage tonight, just straight bets. Turn clock hours to cash. Veins on the map turned amber to red, trouble in the Central Valley routes. The index wavered, and spiked as some dark algos made a move. There is money on the road tonight.

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: flash TX UTC 04:59:53:43 12.12.21

[84ea:ec1a:5731:0:da13:0:829c:f76f]: new destination TX UTC 04:59:53:45 12.12.21

DMN - LRU - ELP - SAT - IAH - BTR - MSY xfer count: 4

“HOLD UP. Our friends in San Simon? Two minutes roadside, load transfer imminent. RLS hit up...pull new pax outta Chico-Redding. Who holding that scrap? Put it up, son! Let's finesse that shit!”

The bald guy was back, sat at an identical PayPax terminal across the stained carpet of the co-work trade floor. Had himself a Beef Something from the cart outside. Eat that shit? Either he wants to die or he's barely making enough to cover his leverage. Greasy grey loafers on him, like a bureaucrat.

[543a:ca93:20bc:da12:00ae:012e:fe99:0]: flash TX UTC 8:59:54:21 12.12.21

[543a:ca93:20bc:da12:00ae:012e:fe99:0]: new destination TX 8:59:54:24 12.12.21

CIC - SMF - FAT - BFL - ONT - PSP - IPL - YUM xfer count: 3

“Gentlepeople, bets are closed on San Simon. Swap good, swap cool. Four minute loss - no, in-play minute-by-minute is Charlie, and he’s in the shitter, just - thankyew - Pax reroute successful, mouth of the muddy Mississip. 10 hours, 2 minutes, 35 seconds. Including your oh-so necessary three-ex 15-min resstops. Cargo in at Yuma. Average speed of 79.06, and, I repeat myself, see Charlie if you’re betting mph in-play.”

Pighead. Pighead. That’s what Ortiz said they called us when he went down to scout out the resstop. Hilarious, so they’d made up matching polos, him and Greto and Ortiz, screenburn orange, with a severed hog’s head, its eyes crosses and its tongue lolling out, where the horsehumper would be. That was years ago, and Ortiz was long gone, bodypawn backroom meat. Why’d you gotta go and remember for? That buzz was shaking off; he went for the Corteshine again. Gotta keep it rolling. 18 hours in this shit, and it's not even a bad night. No time for happy memories.

[543a:ca93:20bc:da12:00ae:012e:fe99:0]: check-in YUM UTC 11:06:54:19 12.12.21

[543a:ca93:20bc:da12:00ae:012e:fe99:0]: content verification YUM UTC 11:06:54:51 12.12.21

Product Code: REDACTED

[543a:ca93:20bc:da12:00ae:012e:fe99:0]: delivery complete

Time overage: + 5:41:15:17

Chargeback rate: REDACTED

“Shit on my face and tell me about Yuma? Time delay? 5 hours, 41 minutes, 15 seconds late. That's late. And they wanna say terror vandalism, they wanna say routing swap, oh yeah they wanna say OD, they wanna say border activity, they wanna say security. I say, 5 hours, 41 minutes, 15 seconds. 5 hours, 41 minutes, 15 seconds."

“Credit given, life progresses.”

Baldy chewed as he made eye contact. This fucking guy. Someone Greto sent in to run his calls. A fucking errand boy at forty-five. Bury you with the Beef on your chin. Not sure if he was more disgusted by the master or the servant; last time Greto’d been in the joint was last summer, right after the Milwaukee Secession riots. Had refused to even made eye-contact. Just a little smirk and a swish of the tail.

“Credit to customer, not to the betting man. And you’re...you’re gonna fucking shrug at me!?!”

Shrug again he did, eyes escaping conflict back to the ticker. He looked at the college chick, eyes still on her terminal, but with the faintest look of a shake to her head. Or was it the Corteshine, shaking his retinas from the backside? He let it go, with an inhale to steady his hand as he went back to the fresh pax list.

“Hey Beefsteak! DMs are open to everyone, you should know. Now. Now, tell me what does it say on the backbar door, son? There. Are. No. Refunds. ON FUCKING LIFE. So sit down and make your fucking play, unless you strive to be devalued in the face.”

*

The four figures stood in the dark amid trucks on the stinking asphalt, wet under sparse LED floods. Unable to maintain a standstill, they shuffled back and forth, talking at each other.

"What the fuck does fungible mean, boss-lady?" Tandy asked.

The light of a Tablet illuminated the face of the one able to stand most still. "It means like 'stickable'. Like sticks to shit. Like shit sticks to shit.”

"Use it in a sentence.”

J's googly eye was still on his head, pushed up through greasy hair, swiveling around and surveying the lot, coming off as only slightly more paranoid than his meat eyes. "She just did."

Tandy wasn't convinced. "It don't mean what she said it meant tho."

Noor held her scratched screen up, its light harsh in Tandy's face. “Just... Wait for Tablet."

"Tablet Tablet Tablet. Always gotta hold for Tablet," the fourth muttered. Heart Attack Joe, oddly calm. He took another swig from his plastic 2-liter, coughed and spat.

Noor held up Tablet screen facing her, her visage showing pomp and circumstance as she read from Webster. "'Of goods contracted for without an individual specimen being specified, able to replace or be replaced by another identical item; mutually interchangeable.'"

J scratched at his scabs. “Okay, so shit is…”

“Shit is the same as the other shit,” Noor pronounced, flipping back through her screens. "'Cause it's in pax."

"Okay. So, ehm, what?"

Noor heave-sighed, tried to roll her eyes: they barely moved. "So say you running pax from LAX to, like, Des Moines."

Another swig from the 2-liter. "Good luck getting through 'Braska. Fires on the road, fires at night." Spat.

"Bigurl just route you through Kansas, you know," J's third eye rolled around with the nods of his head. There was an smudge of unidentified origin on the right edge of his mouth; it was cherry-red and crusty, like a screenshot of a bubbling wound.

" Shut up," Noor was losing what little patience she had. "This is a hypothetical, chowderfuckers. No more chitterchat. We only got like five minutes till Tandy's gotta load up, so no more blah blah bullshit. Listen to me."

Noor held up Tablet, other way. Its tired, scarred face showed a children’s educational map of the continent. Noor’s thin, knobby finger jabbed nonsensical lines of transit.

"Say, for purpose of explanation, that Tandy scoops up pax in LAX. Pax have IAW bits or something, gotta go to Des Moines. Say 'Braska and Kansas is on impermeable and they gotta run up to the Dakota? Gotta resstop along the way. In like, okay, say Wy. Meanwhile, J is running a pax of IAW bits, the same bits right, in from Texas, heading toward Wy, before Poundland. But Wy's already taken care of right? So he reroutes to the Rillo, then to KC, then to Des Moines. Tandy up in Wy reroutes to Poundland, drops their load. They swap Bigurls, when it's the same pax. Or they swap pax between Bigurls, when that makes sense. Thousands of times a day, from sea to shining. So everybody gets what they want even quicker, and we don't even know it man. Why? 'Cause Tablet sez. We're in the damn box. Just load in and load out. Stand in the fuckin' resstop, buy some stuff man, that's all you get. You're like, huh, I guess I'm in Fargo, huh I guess this is the Carolinas?"

Tandy screwed up their eyes, squinting at Tablet. "That's what fungible mean?"

"That's what fungible means."

"Pretty dumb way to be a business. Like, these businesspeople? This what they do?"

Noor scratched at something scuttling across herself. “The fuck do you know about biz, Tandy? The computers do it, man, and Tablet sez. That’s why it’s pax. Like packets, remember grade school? Or was you scrappin before then?"

" Fuck Tablet, Noor." Tandy squeezed their hands into fists. "What I wanna know is how does this get us off continent to Seastead Exclusive, bupping to bliss."

"When yer shit swaps, and the LAX-to-Des time changes on the order, that's what they call latency net. They get chargeback when it's late, they pay more when it's early. Big shippers, IAW and the rest, it don't matter, it averages out. For smaller guys, it's risk, and a bigger risk the more valuable the bits in the pax. So they got insurance, derivatives, all that market shit in the system. They the market makers. Don't even need to ship to bet on the pax. You bet on the bet."

Noor smiled, revealing one bad, black tooth nestled among the others, so clean they had to be steel. "Now, here's what I know, what you don't. I know why we scrappin."

Joe, Tandy, and J just stared at her, six red wet eyes under LED floods.

"C'mon we all scrap, just nod your heads. Good boy, J. What you write down on that paper about pax in the lot and give to Georgetown or Hatem or Rosie or whomthefuckever? Why you think they pay out for that? What's so valuable about the location of a particular pax on a particular Bigurl in the lot, if it could be swapped out at any minute? Well I tell you what. They feed that shit like licketsplit to businesspeople who run the exchanges. Now, what the real players do, the ones that make loot? They know where the Bigurls are, and they bump 'em. Make 'em late or early, just a bit, to up their cash take. They feed where you at and what your pax into a computer and it tells them how to make a little change on it. And then suddenly like your route is two hours late? Suddenly some fire in the roadway in 'Braska, some road closed, some oh-fish-all is calling up your Bigurl's brain for compulsory upgrade? I don’t know how it happens, don’t wanna know. But they make it. Big express runner, two hours late— that's a big fucking payday, shit-for-brains."

J fingered the minor curly-cues of his beardling, idly confused, like a wet rat just sprayed with a hose. "How's that work?"

"Again: computers. So then, they hire some motherfucker to come out and blow a hole in the Central road. Suddenly there's a mob in the 'Nix, torching overpasses. Borders closed in Mid-A. What they call them razor balls, Bigurl sensors don't see 'em and they turn her tires to ribbons? I heard they put them out on the road last night, somewhere in New Mexico. Jackknifed 4 Bigurls, blocked up 25 for four hours. But you don't know. You're in your Bigurl, Tablet say some shit out in the Churi-cow-as. Reroutes happen, resstop and everyone is swapping pax at once for some reason, Bigurls line up and you ain't moving when you should be and then you get yelled at?"

Tandy looked down. "Them ops get hurt in New Mexico?"

Noor looked annoyed. "You don't even know, because you in the box, right?"

Joe drained his bottle, coughed, and intoned the invocation: "There’s real time and there’s box time."

“‘Zactly.”

Tandy blinked, trying to get their brain to process. "How you know this shit, Noor?"

"I got my sources."

"The sources, they got any skin in the game?"

“Game like this? It’s all skin. Point is: we short 'em. Them businesspeople? The guys taking scrap and making bank? They rely on us to make their moves. They need our info on pax in the lot that we give 'em through the scrap. But we already got the info. So we gonna make a bet. We gonna make a big bet."

J was shaking his head; the googly eye was bouncing like a broken antenna. "And how we gonna do that?"

Noor looked at the wet rat impatiently, her hand in her pocket. "You just gotta say yes or no. Right now. We got like two minutes before Tandy's out."

"Yeah, and I ain't gonna get docked and deckered again. On time for life."

J was strangely still, though he was blinking very rapidly. "See man, here's the thing: I might be no good? But I ain’t no hood. I don’t get this shit.”

Noor spoke quietly. "But I do."

"Yeah man see but the thing is, no no no, no you don't."

J pawed at Noor's sleeve, and her arm tensed, Tablet loose in her non-pocket hand by her side. She regarded J like a used prophylactic stuck to her sneaker.

"I'm talking like a mil here, J. More. Real-fucking-crypto. This ain't no lav scam here, steal your vial and kick in your ribs. This is serious money that you are passing up. We all about to leave box time, for good."

J blinked, blinked, blinked. Regarded the three figures before him. Heart Attack Joe, as rotund as a picked plumb. Noor, just layers of stuff on her, a mobile nest, two jean jackets, one over the other, mangled bits merging, even in this endless October heat. And Tandy being Tandy being Tandy. J sucked his teeth for courage.

"I might be wrong. I'm wrong about a lotta shit. But I ain't just gonna place my gonads in your hands. These businesspeople just gonna let you take their money? You think that's how they rich, letting some trash fuck 'em? You, me, all us ops? We the fuckin' help."

"Well J, that's your decision." Noor looked around. "Everybody else in?"

Tandy and Joe looked at each other, and Noor. They didn't get it, that much was plain. But for the amount of money Noor was talking, they didn't have to understand shit. They nodded, and looked at J.

Noor was satisfied. "Well, we split three ways then. Thankyew. Hey, J.? Do me a favor?”

“What?”

Noor's hand came out of her pocket. With a flick of her wrist, the switch flipped out, catching J in the neck. A mist of blood settled soft and quick across the exposed surfaces of the others’ personal space.

"OH SHIT!"

Joe instinctively ducked, several seconds too late to do any good, if Noor had pointed the switch at him. Tandy could only stare.

Joe came back up to standing position. The former contents of his 2-liter were now distributed around and on his feet. It was almost all liquid. "I didn't know a head came off like that." He squatted back down again, reaching for his mouth.

"His legs flippin'."

"Aw this is the yuck."

Noor kicked at Joe, shoved Tandy. "Get up, ain't like you never seen blood before. Pull them fingers out that mouth."

"What do we do with him now?"

“Shit man, this the first time you seen a body at a resstop? Like, this the first time you've seen a body at a resstop this month?"

Tandy slid towards their Bigurl, keeping their eyes on the mess. "Box time, shit. I gotta get."

Noor nodded. "Tandy, I'll be in touch. Scrappin' it in SLC, ok?"

"I await your brief, chief."

Joe spat, looking at his lost liquor, running through the tarmac seams, meeting J's blood. "Question, Noor? I think, I like speak for us all? Like the both? Why'd you hafta kill him?"

"You’re not with us? You might get pangs of conscience or like pants-shitting terror and squeal. J was a dumbshit, but he right. They businesspeople. We just the ops. They'd 'knife your Bigurl to make a buck. But what you think they do to a junkie like you?”

Tandy whispered over their shoulder, "Point.”

"And let me ask you what money you got by which to make your investment, Mister-Heart-Attack-Joe? You know an op ain't got shit but a body and what's currently sloshing around inside it. Only one way to turn up the cash. You, me, Tandy's bodies on Tablet somewhere now too, ready for some Shenzhen billionaire’s third son or whatever, backup kidneys, lungs, liver. They our backers, and we they markers. J? Shit, J's the bet we all just placed. And now our asses cover the margin.”

Tandy stopped, their toes curling. “Bodypawn? You bodypawn us without our consent?”

Heart-Attack Joe spoke with his head still down. “Didn’t even ask?”

“You said you in. What the fuck you think that meant? You want out now too? Or are we Square?"

"Square."

"Square."

Noor put the switch back in her pocket, put her Tablet down where there wasn’t so much blood. She pulled out a bag and started muscling J's torso into it. "You wanna give me a hand, Joe? These organs don't get cold fast, they won't be worth the shit leaking out of 'em. We still gonna have time to scrap and bump up we better move him now."

*

Snuggled into the sweat-stained microfiber plush of the big-thoraxed Friendly she kept in her Bigurl, Noor tried to force her body to relax using only brain chemicals. She hadn’t fixed, wanted to be sharp. Straight time sent her a million fucking miles an hour too many, but that’s what she needed for plan-hatching: to anxiety over every possibility until she sussed out the only possible through-route. Day to day, it set her teeth on edge, made her an impossibility even to herself: why she started fixing in the first place. But now straight time was exactly what she needed: sit back, fly out ahead, and process.

Or it should've been. But for some reason she couldn't process shit.

She’d fucking done J., just hit him with the switch like it said on the wiki, and his head had done that thing. Previously, Noor hadn’t had an opinion one way or another about J. They said J was smart, but J was just another junkie, another slumped collection of flesh, a sucker of air, a chiseler at her authority.

But his organs sold just as good as any other junkie’s. It only took two days for the scavengers to move the organs on the bodypawn and for the seed crypto-shares to Tablet-chime in her trade ledger. She checked once again to make sure, and all 100K were there, like they said. She thought about it, briefly, about transferring and splitting, just body-sell on J’s ugly ass. But they were in it now too. Price was 25K a piece. One body up front, three bodies collateral. Purg-a-loan, they called it. Can’t run from no scavengers, that’s for damn sure.

They were in it too now.

They were in it, and none of those junkie fucks would dime. They were in it, and she was bigass lot boss. They were in it, and they would finally make some fucking money, and all that box trash would shut the fuck up. Like a mantra, like mom used to say when she’d preach her Prag-napara-miter TV sutra crap.

But she’d felt him, as the switch hit. Like it was her own body, shudder and then relax.

It was like she’d touched him, and she hadn’t touched no one in a while. Last time was Ina, five, six years ago (what year was it now, what year was it then) so her mind wasn’t out there on the road ahead, the right road, the only road, but instead just cycling through the fractured images, bad sensory inputs, vague but powerful emotions she thought she’d strangled with their own entrails long ago, and, of course, throbbing, dull needs. That road was running out, she was sure, and she knew she has to get the fuck off it. She shoved the Friendly plush against the bulkhead, flipped its sickhappy-emoji face off and rooted around in its head-meat for her backup- backup stash. Twenty seconds of pure-ass panic while her nails met nothing but stuffing (she could feel the ghost-return of the cold turkey shits rumble her bowels) and then relief, her sweat cold on highway miles of skin, as nails closed around the pillbox.

they were in it they were in it they were in it now

Noor was that kind of junkie that couldn't remember the last seconds of fixing. She just remembers the floating suddenness, like a sensory deprivation tank, dark and calm and solo.

The plan the plan the fuckin plan. She got hard and all just thinking about it.

Getting it. Her finger shivered just with the adrenaline of the memory. The rest of her could barely twitch. The last time she’d had an idea this good, she’d been fifteen, and it had been how to run away so her bf couldn't find her. Way back then she’d had good ideas all the time. She couldn’t remember the last one, and she certainly couldn’t remember having been that person who had good ideas all the time. Her ex, she still remembered.

But this was a good idea. A real good idea, and it makes her stop and find a way to breathe again, even now.

It was the sight of one of the pigheads trying to score at the Wichita resstop that done it. He was tall and thin, with platform Wellingtons ( very fash) and a lizard-embryo skinny-skin tie, half-stooped like there was a wind. (A twister had just taken Derby’s sewage system offline for a few weeks.) His thin vicious sneer was a hastily deployed mask. Ops, junk-gifted, could see the skull beneath the skin and this pighead was scared. He must’ve been new to trading, new to junk, convinced his backroom buddies that he’d go down to the local resstop, see what the situation on the ground was like, as if flesh moves mattered at all anymore, when he was really just hoping to fucking score.

Under the big blue sick sky, slick with greasy heat, Noor watched him caroom from op to op, all of whom were holding, of course, but all of whom stonefucked his entreaties, of course. Noor let him get close enough to see the hope in his eyes flicker out before shaking her head once, sharply, looking away.

She enjoyed that. But it was even better watching the pighead approach Seecha and then seeing her beat him to death there in the dust. Some length of rusty pipe she used to keep under her torn coat.

Noor didn’t have the slimmest what the pighead said to her or maybe it was the sneer or maybe Seecha was just on something particularly potent that early afternoon but after only about fifty seconds of blunt force, Seecha was so exhausted she collapsed next to the corpse.

Noor ambled over, observed the slight woman, dappled with slick, huffing in the dust, trying to lobster-crawl while still on her side. Noor poured the last of her open-source soylent over Seecha’s face; the op lapped at it ineffectually, eyes still shut against the sun, the only LED that never went out, never had the juice sluiced off to some corner crypto shack.

Seecha didn’t try to get up, and Noor didn’t try to help her. Instead, she stripped the pighead of the little cash he had on his person and walked back to the slight shade afforded by the twisting metal eaves. She was wishing hard that she’d been able to take this pighead, any pighead, for more than a couple hundred bucks, and then it had come to her, so sudden and serendipitous she almost fell down herself.

Flesh moves mattered all right, or she would make it that they did.

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