Chapter One – XDATA

“Fucking niggers.”

Words from Jonas, cross-legged on an upturned tabletop, blending, sliver of shade against the only wall of a dead restaurant. Half his rifle receiver in one hand, a tiny brush in the other. Exorcising imaginary grit. Busy work.

Waiting for the solar cells to charge my uplink. Rain-burned gum-stuck chipboard exuding the imperceptible breath of dead tourists; little grey splotches of half-life decay; greasy food, vacation stress, and subsidized dental work. I hadn’t pegged him for a racist. Sort of gave me the willies, made me wonder what else I’d missed, if I’d been slipping.

“You killed him because he was black?”

Jonas, jaw working, looking up at me from under his old patrol cap, filthy and a size too small, like his head’d bulged since his discharge. Maybe it had. Maybe he just needed a haircut. Maybe it wasn’t even his cap. Hard to tell. Psi-ops guys are weird that way. Fucking mutants. Rumors.

Wondered if maybe we could make a couple bucks selling the bunnies on the idea of dirtying up their camo pattern…save them the trouble of doing it in the field, blend in better with reality, they ever poked their heads up long enough to actually see any. Ask my Jilly later, if I remembered.

“Don’t be dense, man. My girl is half black. The president.”

Utterly calm, like the words coming out of his mouth made sense. Batshit.

“What?”

“Prez and the first lady, talking about them, man, he called ’em fucking niggers.”

“But she was Thai or something, right, Vietnamese?”

Patient sigh, like he’d had to explain it all too many times. “No man, the first one.”

“Oh. Gotcha. Shit, that was a while ago then. But that’s it, he’s racist, and mouthy with it, so you just offed him?”

“Well, basically. Ain’t that enough? Commander in chief, man. We didn’t have enough fucking problems already without people bringing up all that old shit? I was having a lousy day anyway.”

Off from the direction of that wood pile that’d been a church, maybe, couple of blocks North, picking it up on a remote sensor, the screaming again. Woman this time; angry. Not that normal angry though, goes back in the box after you both throw some shit around and maybe make up later, take her out for Chinese food, smoke some good hash, go down on her in a clean bunk behind a solid perimeter.

More like Top, apeshit back in Mexico City, after that kid dropped a dud grenade through the top hatch. Mad bull rage, hurting ’cause she’d jumped on the thing and busted her hand on an ammo rack, shame at breaking regs and leaving the hatch open because it was just so fucking hot and there wasn’t any more coolant, hating everything but the Joes in her Stryker, hating that little girl even though she was zoned out on better living; hypnotics and starvation, couldn’t have known a grenade from a goose egg.

Hating the city, the job, the Clowns, the world, herself… Screaming, not even words at the end, wearing herself down, until she just ran out of whatever it was she’d been burning. Had to call in a nine-line but they wouldn’t evac, just gave Top something to wake her up, gave the kid something to eat and something to put her out. Two-hour wait on EOD to pop that shitty little Argentinian grenade. Too bad about Top. She was good people.

“Yeah. Well, lousy days are going around. I’m not judging, Jonas. Seen people wasted for a lot less.”

Clicks and scrapes. Jonas grinding into gear, rifle twisted back into shape for a loud, messy death; grunting himself to his feet. Shiny wad of nipple-pink gum stuck to the table he’d been sitting on, only thing in blocks, aside from coms gear and gunmetal, that hadn’t had the shit stomped out of it by entropy, economic collapse, methamphetamine, or high explosives.

“Gonna go see what the noise is about?”

“Might as well, Cap wants it quiet. You don’t wanna leave that there, Jonas.” Chin nudge toward the gum. “DNA bro, who knows what they’d get up to with that shit, now they got the power back on up there.”

“Antibacterial. No worries. Nothin’ll live in it longer than a couple seconds. Money back, man.”

Shrugging, tiny servo whir as ruck straps tightened.

“Your ass, bro. Money back don’t help much, you catch a black bag ’cause some pissed off Carolina Creeper ran your number with the bunnies and sent a hitter down to visit.”

Rumors and superstition. No word out of Carolina for six years, just bunnies yammering SAM sites and cannibal voodoo, spooks wrote off the airspace like it maybe didn’t exist anymore. Get too close to the Savannah and somebody over on the north bank lights your chest up with a ranging laser or pops a parachute flare, starts up that weird-ass hooting.

Picking our way down the sidewalks, spaced out five paces, taking the long way, safer way, maybe, back towards the church. Slower going than the streets, bricks and cinder block, impacted trash and leaves.

Trees all weird, crazy angles after the storms and the drought, some still hanging on, nature too stubborn to die.

Something to learn there.

Power lines down all over, fat strands of god-size spider web, abandoned cars with broken eyes and empty tanks, heat-haze and safety glass; Diamonds, if you squinted, like you could just pick ’em up and retire. Blacktop isn’t safe here though.

Crazies came through a few years ago with a big tar heater and a truckload of land mines they dug out of a bunker at Fort Gordon, drove around and filled in a bunch of potholes all over the place, then fucked off down to the Gulf and took over an oil rig.

Paid the spooks to run a Sikorsky out there with a howitzer slung under it and now they just sit around all day chewing qat and making DMT and taking potshots at whatever’s left of the Coasties; better living. Nobody with the right gear ever cared enough to run a real scan and see if the mines were there or not.

That’s the rumor, anyway. Hard to know what the truth is, these days. Never use the streets in Augusta. Joes are superstitious. Ex-Joes are worse.

Like Cap, won’t park his scoot on blacktop anywhere, but not ’cause of mines, calls that a bullshit tweaker story, even though he sticks to the sidewalks just like the rest of us. Won’t do it ’cause it just laid itself down one day, too hot and the blacktop melted and the kickstand sank, and over his baby went, paint and chrome and saddlebags, just laying there, sinking in, about half an inch. All fucked up, when he came out around midnight for a ride and the stuff had cooled and the scoot was just plain stuck.

Told us that story at a gated strip club in LA, two days of leave, expensive beer and expensive tits and dumb jokes about dinosaurs and La Brea, a few months before everything went completely to shit and they started building border fences for real, every state that could afford them.

Colorado built the best one, saw the triple A up at Four Corners, but they could afford to do it right, only legal hash in the country for nearly a decade before it all fell down, raking it in, precious metals only, no paper, no credit.

Filled the Titan silos full of salt water and krill and opted out early; just stopped voting, stopped importing, tore up the interstates, localized the national guard, sent D.C. a Dear John letter. NORAD didn’t like it much, but they cut a deal with the sparkies at Martin Drake, got their juice for free in perpetuity and all the Angus they could eat onsite as long as the weather was good. So it worked out okay and nobody got killed much.

“Heads up, man, locals, eleven o’clock, not hostile.”

“No guns, either. Lemme get a capture.”

Two kids, early teens, straddling bikes. Down the street about thirty yards from the intersection, Not moving, just standing there, owning the road, watching us, maybe. Maybe not even seeing us. Not mined there.

20x on the monocle, too-close focus and nerves, blur-buzzer, back off and try to relax. Frame it up. No gang flash in sight, but the dope-slack faces and the dirty clothes and the bikes with that crazy tin can tire armor all go up and out, digital squirt to some heavy spook comsat, private for a percentage, down to Lilly’s vault on Cape Breton, dated and geo-tagged; she’ll set a price and if anyone ever wants ’em, me and Jonas might see beer money.

“Good upload. Let’s wait for ’em to leave and go find that screamer.”

“Man, they ain’t going anywhere, Look at ’em. Might as well be statues. BL, man, Ketamine or some shit. Cut through the block, quiet-like; keep moving or we’ll be here all day, unless you wanna get closer, maybe have a chat.”

“Fuck that. If there’s two, there’s more, and they’re quiet, not bugging anybody. Cap said keep the place quiet. Yeah, we cut through. Between buildings though, Doc warned me about that black mold shit they got down here in the empties, I don’t want that crap in my lungs.”

Affirmative grunt from Jonas, scanning high points and patches of dead lawn, sagging wooden fences.

“Yeah. No sight line though. I’ll climb that pole and cover, you go through slow and lock it down, I’ll follow.”

Watching, Jonas up the pole, easy, lineman’s boots and grip-gloves digging in, no hurry, like he’d done it all before and it’s barely work, just another battle drill. Sharp snick as he cut a line out of his way, tension pulling it off out of sight, catching the wheel of a zero-turn rusting out, color of dried blood.

Top of the pole, strapped, leaning back. Scanning over the empties, down into the next street. Eye glued to the scope, smooth arc of detached focus.

Jonas in the ear-bug: “Clear, man. Do it. Watch out for the second yard, tall grass, looks like a swimming pool, maybe snakes, if there’s enough water. No chain-link, I’ll squawk if anything moves.”

Soldier-as-sensor, that was the plan. Worked out okay for a while. Sounded catchy, too, which seemed to be way more important than actually making any sense, at the end there. But just too much data, too many sensors. And then there wasn’t anyone left to look at it, sift it, use it as directed, except for the spooks, and the bunker-bunnies.

Who knows why the bunnies do anything anymore, down there in their holes, standing parade inspections by flashlight, buying up pictures of Old Glory, writing press releases and stupid jingles and making speeches the rest of the world mostly ignores, background hum of off-brand patriotism that just doesn’t fly off the shelves the way it used to.

The spooks at least want product that makes sense, most of the time, but they pay up so slow, weird dead currencies, hand-delivered under clichéd glasses by dudes with shoulder-drones and suits with interesting lumps. Heavy coinage, color of old forks, worn out profiles; guys who couldn’t even have imagined what we’re buying and selling, these days.

Always try to get that two-thirds, one-third thing into my own product though, when I have time to think, figure the best angles, frame the subject, fuck around with manual settings.  Art of war, and all that.

Ansel Adams with an automatic, Top said, but I bet ol’ Ansel never got a shot of an incoming RPG, looking through a cathedral window, stained glass like busted teeth. Nobody ever bought that one, ’cause it just looks like a shitty window with a round blur in it, dead candles all over the sill, but I printed it out full size. Jilly says it’s morbid, makes her sad, but she’s got the damn stars and stripes on the wall in her office, so we’re even, I guess.

“Open windows, Jonas. My one.”

“On it. Hold… Clear.”

“Moving.”

Funny how the market grew back, intel-turned-culture. All the old data just gone, and all those users, hungry, hooked on it like junk, still in shock from the breakdown and the commercial sats getting murdered in orbit, no more news at eleven or friend requests, 500 channels of no signal ’cause everything went digital, net going to shit while the cyberwar was burning down the battlefield.

Operators rebuilt connections with packet radio and HAM, eventually, better than nothing, but people actually had to talk to each other again, listen. You couldn’t just rant or be an asshole anymore, way it was before, ’cause people would just tune you out. Radio was the only way to go, once the bunnies cut out the jamming and fucked off down into their holes, unless you were connected like Lilly, had a lock on both ends of a dark fiber trunk and something higher tech than a flashlight to shine through it.

So it was just us Joes left with serious capture and broadcast gear, stuff EMP’s hadn’t been able to fry, because even survivalists hadn’t thought much beyond the tactical, walkie talkies and CB’s. Just a few smart civvies from Auntie and Al Jazeera with dusty factory-sealed camera rigs and defunct sat phones piled up in Faraday cage panic rooms, no point in reporting anything at first, no one receiving, just bad shit everywhere and nobody needed another helping.

“Basement window, my ten, nine when I hit the gate.”

“No line from here, man. Have to chance it.”

Up at the first fence, one eye on that window. Slow, cam-staff up and over; no tripwires on the gate latch, double vision from the monocle feed. Disorienting still, after all these years.

“Gate’s clear.”

“Yard’s clear. Go, man. Flyover in six mikes, east to west, Chinook, neutrals.”

Chinook. Fuel run then, or another raid on Gordon. Spooks with a fire team maybe, still trying to un-fuck the place enough to get into the sub-levels at the NSA complex, for some spook-reason you tried not to think about, no dice asking, they’d just point those glasses at you, make a note of who was asking, maybe, check you against a mystery list, file your numbers away in a vault somewhere with the rest of the terminally curious.

“Second fence. Solid, but I got a gap, loose boards. I’ll pull, my left. Scope it, your three count.”

“Got it. Wait for go, something in there… Pull on one, two, three.”

Muscle strain, creaks like giant crickets when the nails let go, splinters, tiny studs in the grip-gloves elongating, tearing the boards off, wait, take a breather, let Jonas do his witch routine.

So we sensed, and they bought, the public, at least the ones who could afford something more than clean water and food. And chemistry, of course, medical and otherwise. My Jilly got a pretty good price from a guy who used to own a circus, so she said, for some of the shots I took in Mexico, before loyalty was just a punchline.

Up on that big-ass tower, Top calling targets and laughing, beauty sniper positions and smog filters for the telephoto, sweating it out in MOPP gear because half the fucking city was on fire, raining death on ex-Salvadoran Angelinos in crazy clown makeup, overwatch for the dope show.

“Clear, man. Go. Eyes open though, walk slow. Definitely reptile, just woke up, feels scared.”

“Okay, Jonas.” Fucking mutants.

Move through the gap, duck the top rail, rusty nails, ruck catching; pull free, stumble, and sure as shit it was long grass, and green. Jonas must’ve been right about the pool too, tiny frog noises to the left and rustling, rats or something.

“Where’s the gate?

“Far right, your two. Oh shit, don’t m–”

And then that fucking cottonmouth dumped a fat hotshot of hemotoxic junk right into the back of my neck, spasms and pain, like a baseball bat dipped in napalm, double vision and vomit. Must’ve been catching some sun on that top rail, panicked when I tore up the fence, rolled off onto my ruck, and decided to ask questions later. Not his fault. Just being a snake. Knock me out of the bunk during siesta and I come up swinging, too.

Jonas got that Chinook down somehow, but he never would talk about it much, what it cost him to get those spooks to re-route, how he did it. Wish I could have seen him come down that pole, zip-qiuck, way the cable dogs do. Couldn’t see shit though, face planted, dying and wanting it, heart trying to stop and start all at once. Never saw the snake ’til later, just grass and tunnel vision, jaw-lock and nerve fire, flashes of fence and pale Jonas-face, high-stress com chatter and tracers.

Spooks shot the shit out of all those empties; thunder, talking the guns, just flattened ’em to be on the safe side I guess; wouldn’t even land, winched me up feet-first so the crap wouldn’t spread out in my blood stream too fast. Loud-ass rotors, half-deaf, half-blind, twisting; caught that spook medic joking tourniquet into his mic, I think. Halothane kiss goodnight, and then I guess they dialed up some antivenin and got me wrapped around it before my brain had a chance to bleed out all down my back.

Nine weeks in a spook house up in Virginia: sunglasses and lumpy suits, pro medics that only ever spoke Latin or fucking Creole or something. In and out a lot, fever and dope and chopped up memories, brain-sushi. Fifteen page bill at the end, but Jilly did a deal with the bunnies and got me out a few bucks ahead, just had to change the bandages and grow a tail out to cover this crater in my neck.

Borrowed a sweet set of goggles from a little blonde spook laid up with a shattered pelvis and more dirty jokes than Cap, little stereo rig like a fifty-inch screen but you didn’t even need to move your eyes, and that was on, ’cause the swelling was so bad I couldn’t move anything much above my abs, blender breakfast through a fat red straw and that crazy bitch kept making me laugh.

Nice downtime finally, the last few weeks; did some editing, once they stopped feeding me percs and I could focus on something other than needing to piss. Contract for some Jesuits down in Tampico; fifteen black and whites from that graveyard where we got pinned down and Top took her dirt nap, mag flares and mausoleums, new moon and IR shots of Clowns behind cross-cover.

Started seeing new-dirty camo patterns a few months after I got out, but they got the colors all wrong, of course, tried to use red, white and blue. Shit hasn’t made any sense since 1914, but the bunnies are just fucking stuck.

Witchy bastard, that Jonas, all that spookland better living shit running through him and DARPA’s finest wedged into his limbic system, but it didn’t help him much up in Detroit when that big skinhead showed up on his birthday and put a homemade axe through his face. Too much booze, maybe, slowed him down. Too bad. He was good people.

Makes me wonder what it felt like to know that snake was in there, somewhere, even though he couldn’t see it. Really know it, feel it wake up, scared, maybe get angry, if snakes do that. Got a sweet capture of it through his scope cam, too, chewing hell out of my neck while I was getting ready to zero out. Pretty wild stuff.

His girl made a big trade with that shot later, full repro rights for a Pelican case full of German silver and penicillin, buyers some cult trying to drum up enough shooters to kick the mercs out and build a Confederate state, Savannah down to the Keys. Ran it off halftone on bandanas and shit, me and that damn snake got our fifteen minutes, least the back of my neck, anyway.

Spooks wouldn’t have it though, wanted that stuff in the basement at Gordon too much, I guess, whatever it was. Dunno if they got it or not, but that cult never made the grade, wound up on ropes down in the swamp with their all skin peeled off and their nuts stuffed between their teeth. Shit, maybe the Creepers did it. Rumor and superstition though. That’s how they get started.

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