Machines toiled for ninety years to rebuild the metropolis the Germans had inked over two centuries before. Next York on the hot move. The Slitherway functioned as their main thoroughfare, resource, bridge, and seawall, a cantankerous aerosteel tube along a flat connector of buckytubes with rising and descending plates to control the seething tides. Lights cerise and aqua shone every twenty meters, highlighting mammoth industrial printers, arthropodal tower drones welding new plates. In the distance, the crater of Manhattan had become a horseshoe dome of seacrete under a perplexity of native trees and those new polyhedral housing units so popular along the flooded Eastern Shore.
A Ducayne Flat ’79 Swift passed through, powered by benumbed battery jockeys, Jersey’s lowest. Swift tracked at over one hundred and five mph as it scraped a Machine waterproofing the seawall. It pulsed orange, copper, chartreuse as the three jockeys inside, windows down, screamed victorious. Next York, right ahead, represented escape.
The Machines didn’t expect the Swift.
Fine. Jockeys weren’t expecting Bet.
Bet’s old-school Afro blew back in the torrential wind. Teeth bared, profound dark eyes barely visible behind neon yellow Carver break-lenses. The wind beat his face up good, but it took this jump flycycle to play catch up. Jockeys were live-fast-die-young mercs, but they knew when to turn spirit. Bet came up behind the rectangular Swift with its aerodynamic cuts, its pinpoint taillights, and clicked his teeth. Flycycle pumped an air jet, hopping onto the Swift’s minimalist trunk. He gauged forty seconds to get the box and turn spirit before Next’s buffer screen made him a bug on a force windshield.
The jockeys were frothing. The Swift angled left from the weight, narrowly missing the cylindrical wall. But Bet pushed harder. That was his set. Air jet forward plus downward thrust sent him and the cycle into the slit of a rear windshield. Crash. Hologlass pixelated into a scrambled network of webbed lines. The Swift dove. Jockey behind the wheel lost control. Vehicle scraped bottom. Sunshine metallic powder-coated Machines dusted the wall. Flycycle took a nasty swipe left as Bet flew forward. He waited for the artificial ground to meet him. Thank the House for good gear. The Vantablack military jacket, mandarin collar, roving digital ticker tape reading GET BACK along the upper back, spit out hundreds of inflated coils.
Instead of crunching bones and wetware on the deck, Bet rolled with something approaching grace. Fingers found the Pulse-12 and inspired the arm to reach out for firing. Bet estimated he needed six shots due to the roll. He let off eight. Pop-bangs to remove what was left of the window. Concussion caps to put battered, foaming-at-the-mouth jockeys one step closer to Lalaland. As the roll ended, his knee struck the edge of a printer. Not a good feel. Knee lacked wetware. Should have worn the padded jeans. Bet hopped up, limping, ripping off the impact coils on the move toward the Swift. He reached it, looking down at this slender, compact, ridiculous piece of tech from when the United States was a thing, and kicked glass out of the way. Jockey driver groaned in sleepytime slowmo.
Bet knelt down, reaching between driver and controls, searching, grunting. Soon he felt the box, smooth, slippery, pulled it out, and tucked it into the jacket.
“Sorry, guys. In case you never heard, the House always wins.”
Aqua lights began to blink hard. Signal to clear the way. Next York Troubleshooters were on their way, full lethal. Bet hobbled off for the printer. Crawling fast under the legs and cables, looking back for safety, he found the circular access hatch and flipped it up. Blackness and the sound of the Hudson.
He fell into its black-ice hold. Somewhere in the dark, an awaiting skiff would pick up his bio and zoom in.
Stockton Wood, Maryland
Two days’ reflection and a hospital stay did the job. Black-Eyed Susan, the sole casino in the region, provided the premier visual. Bet loved the grand window in Game’s twelfth-floor office. Huge and bulging, like the bay window in Dad’s house growing up over on Lot’s Isle. Stone’s throw away from here, across from tranquil Stockton Wood. Good times. Simple days.
Maker Street formed a halo around the casino grounds as the setting sun cast a fiery spotlight on the region. A day like this, he could forget half of Lot’s was subaquatic. This view, a glass of Bacardi in hand, almost made up for the tenderness in the knee. Life was complacent. The op a success. He turned, raised his shot glass to the statue of a brother in antiquated clothing standing valiantly on the crumbled word MANIFEST.
“Another notch on the belt, Chance.” Success felt like closure. Bet could exhale.
Until the door slammed shut.
“Mr. Athanasius Wynne. So glad you decided to show your face after the dumpster fire you left for me in Next.” Game, supervisor for Black-Eyed Susan, director of the House, nestled here inside the casino. She clipped across a paneled floor of red oak in seven-inch spiked heels that slithered up elegant high-yellow legs. Game moved the way a lioness prowled, straight back but with the head forward, shoulders hunched, gray eyes piercing Wynne’s placid expression for signs of weakness. In her hand, a collection of files from the archives whose beige fade clashed with her form-fit violet dress and gilded silk poncho. A dozen broad platinum bracelets on each arm made windchime melodies. Her hair in ram’s horn braids under gold and silver netting.
“It’s still Bet, right? Have we stopped using assigned names in House?”
“I mean, I wasn’t gone for that long, now, was I?” He approached Game’s holographic war table. She called it a desk. “Injuries. And the job’s click so--”
“Wynne!” She gave him the once-over. Quilted black pullover turtleneck. Personal comm of cold green triangular holo hovering over the left-hand personal avatar. Tailored forest-green slacks. Six silver rings on six fingers. A bit taller. Must be sporting boots, yet still a shade under Game’s six-foot-three.
“Fine. I jettisoned. But Troubleshooters were clipping me. No time to bring back one of the mercs or tap a mem.” He stared up, Bacardi swirling in the glass.
Game withheld a snarl. “Your op was twofold. Retrieve the box. Bring back one, count them, one jockey so we can figure out what new form of Wither Jersey’s putting into them these days. The lab boys need samples. The box gets us to our next lead, but right now those mumbling battery boys are killing our people.” Files hit the desk. She hugged herself as she sat down. “Sometimes literally. I received word. Fold blanked.” Game closed her eyes.
Bet heaved. “Fold? I told you his op was a bad idea.” He paced the office, gave the Chance statue another look. “Listen, nobody knows more than me how hard it is to infiltrate Jersey, not to mention the cost. But it can’t be a top priority, right? What are we having a co-op with Delaware for then? It’s our buffer from Jersey’s intel gathering. Can’t even recall when I last encountered one of their special Ops anyways. It’s all jockeys now.”
“That’s the problem you’re clearly not seeing.” She flicked an index finger. The desk emitted a solidified holo of what was known as the tri-state area, though the term seemed to float around a few of the eastern states before the States of America nixed the United part. “Every East Coast Solo is running on some form of illicit commerce to make ends meet. Delaware infiltrates false currency. Pennsylvania operates on alcohol, Jersey uses these simpering, amped-up jockeys to run Wither, Freeline, and God knows what else through the river tolls. They don’t really need Ops anymore. Secretive data is sent on a jockey’s back, we believe in the form of atomic data placed on the body. Poor little drugged pawns don’t even know.”
“Okay. So, since Maryland became a Solo, our once-inconspicuous cadre that helped Black people with powers who were victims of the old regime is now working for them. But you don’t think dear, sweet Mary is laying fog behind the scenes like the rest, Game?”
Her kill glare returned to meet his irascible gaze. “Ours is not to dissect the hand that feeds us but to keep the outside from dealing a crippling blow. Listen, you know the lore as much as I do. To the rest of the Solo, we’re small-time, nothing more than a curious historic town built by Black hands with people who stay to themselves. They don’t know us because it works to our advantage. The greatest hero Old United ever had delivered our ancestors from that experimental hellhole up on Hillman Hill, showed us how to use our gifts without the forced traumas. To be discreet. We owe it to the memory of everyone who came before us to keep things together, even as the tide rises and more people tick-tock their agenda closer to nihilism.”
Muscular arms folded over the chest. “Uh-huh. Fine. I dropped. There’s more to it. Give it to me, then. That box I brought back is important. What’s my next move?”
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