“They’re right to be afraid,” said Natalie. “This world, if you aren’t a success, you’re a failure. If you’re not on top, you’re on the bottom. If you’re in between, you’re hanging on by your fingernails, hoping you can get a better grip before your strength gives out. Everyone holding on is too scared to let go. Everyone on the bottom is too worn down to try. The people on the top? They’re the ones who depend on things staying the way they are.”
“So what do you call your philosophy then? Post-fear?” asked Hubert, Etc.
She shrugged. “Don’t care. Lots of names for it. None of that matters. That’s what I care about.” She pointed to the dancers and the beds. Another line of machines was online and folding table-and-chair sets were piling up.
“What about ‘communist’?”
“What about it?”
“That’s a label with a lot of history. You could be communists.”
She waved her beard at him. “Communist party. That doesn’t make us ‘communists’ any more than throwing a birthday party makes us ‘birthdayists.’ Communism is an interesting thing to do, nothing I ever want to be.”
The ladder clanged and the catwalk vibrated like a tuning fork. They looked over the edge just as Seth’s head came into view. “Hello, lovebirds!” he said. He was sloppy and jittery, high on something interesting. Hubert, Etc, grabbed him before he could reel over the guard-rail. Another person popped over the edge, one of the bearded threesome that had been by the beer.
“Hey-hey!” He seemed stoned, too, but it was hard for Hubert, Etc to tell.
“This is the guy,” Seth said. “The guy with the names.”
“You’re Etcetera!” the new guy said, arms wide like he was greeting a lost brother. “I’m Billiam.” He gave Hubert, Etc a lingering drunkard’s embrace. Hubert, Etc had dated guys, was open to the idea, but Billiam, beautiful tilted eyes aside, was not his type and too high to consider in any event. Hubert, Etc firmly peeled him off, and the girl helped.
“Billiam,” she said, “what have you two been up to?”
Billiam and Seth locked eyes and dissolved into hysterical giggles.
She gave Billiam a playful shove that sent him sprawling, one foot dangling over the catwalk.
“Meta,” she said. “Or something like it.”
He’d heard of it. It gave you ironic distance – a very now kind of high. Conspiracy people thought it was too zeitgeisty to be a coincidence, claimed it was spread to soften the population for its miserable lot. In his day – eight years before – the scourge had been called “Now,” something they gave to source-code auditors and drone pilots to give them robotic focus. He’d eaten a shit-ton of it while working on zepps. It made him feel like a happy android. The conspiracy people had said the same thing about Now that they said about Meta. End of the day, anything that made you discount objective reality and assign a premium to some kind of internal mental state was going to be both pro-survival and pro-status quo.
“What’s your name?” Hubert, Etc said.
“Does it matter?” she said.
“It’s driving me nuts,” he admitted.
“You’ve got it in your address-book,” she said.
He rolled his eyes. Of course he did. He rubbed the interface patch on his cuff and fingered it for a moment. “Natalie Redwater?” he said. “As in the Redwaters?”
“There are a lot of Redwaters,” she said. “We’re some of them. Not the ones you’re thinking of, though.”
“Close to them,” Billiam said from his stoned, prone ironic world. “Cousins?”
“Cousins,” she said.
Hubert, Etc tried hard not to let phrases like “trustafarian” and “fauxhemian” cross his mind. He probably failed. She didn’t look happy about having her name out.
“Cousins as in ‘poor country relations,’” Seth said, from his fetal position, “or cousins as in ‘get to use the small airplane’?”
Hubert, Etc felt bad, not just because he was crushing on her. He’d known people born to privilege, plenty in the zepp scene, and they could be nice people whose salient facts extended beyond unearned privilege. Seth wouldn’t have normally been a dick about this kind of thing – it was precisely the sort of thing he wasn’t normally a dick about – but he was high.
“Cousins as in ‘enough to worry about kidnapping’ and ‘not enough to pay the ransom,’” she said, with the air of someone repeating a timeworn phrase.
The arrival of the two stoned boys sucked the magic out of the night. Below, the machines found a steady rhythm, and Rule 34 spun again, blending witch house and New Romantic, automatically syncing with the machines’ beat. It wasn’t pulling a lot of dancers, but a few die hards were out, being beautiful and in motion. Hubert, Etc stared at them.
Three things happened: the music changed (psychobilly and dubstep), he opened his mouth to say something, and Billiam said, in a tittering sing-song: “Buuuusted!” and pointed at the ceiling.
They followed his finger and saw the flock of drones detach from the ceiling, fold back their wings, and plunge into a scream¬ing drop. Natalie pulled her beard back on and Billiam made sure his was on too.
“Seth, masks!” Hubert, Etc shook his friend. There had been a good reason for Seth to carry both of their masks, but he couldn’t remember it. Seth sat up with his eyebrows raised and a smirk on his face. Tucking chin to chest, Hubert, Etc swarmed over Seth and roughly turned out his pockets. He slapped his mask to his face and felt the fabric adhere in bunches and whorls as his breath teased it out and the oils in his skin were wicked through its weave. He did Seth.
“You don’t need to do this,” Seth said.
“Right,” said Hubert, Etc. “It’s out of the goodness of my heart.”
“You’re worried they’ll walk my social graph and find you in the one-hop/high-intensity zone.” Seth’s smile, glowing in the darkness of his face, was infuriatingly calm. It vanished behind the mask. That was the stupid Meta. “You’d be screwed then. They’ll run your data going back years, dude, until they find something. They always find something. They’ll put the screws to you, threaten you with every horrible unless you turn narc. Room 101 all the way, baby—”
Hubert, Etc gave Seth a harder-than-necessary slap upside the head. Seth said “Ow,” mildly, stopped talking. The drones flew a coverage pattern, like pigeons on crank. Hubert, Etc’s interface surfaces shivered as they detected attempted incursions and shut down. Hubert, Etc downloaded countermeasures regularly, if only to fight off drive-by identity thief creeps, but he shivered back, wondering if he was more up-to-date than the cop-bots.
The party had broken up. Dancers fled, some holding furniture. The music leapt to offensive-capability volume, a sound so loud it made your eyes hurt. Hubert, Etc clapped his hands over his ears just as one of the drones clipped an I-beam and spun out, smashing to the ground. A drone dive-bombed the sound-system’s control unit, knocked it to the ground. The sound went on.
Hubert, Etc pulled Seth to sit, pointed at the ladder. They let go of their ears to climb down. It was torture: the brutal sound, the painful vibrations of the metal under their hands and feet. Natalie came down, pointed at a doorway.
Something heavy and painful clipped Hubert, Etc in the head and shoulder, knocking him to his knees. He got to all fours, then to his feet, seeing stars behind the mask.
He looked for whatever had hit him. It took him a second to make sense of what he saw. Billiam lay on the floor, limbs in a strange swastika, head visibly misshapen, an inky pool of blood spread around it in the dimness. Fighting dizziness and pain from the sound, he bent over Billiam and gingerly peeled the beard. It was saturated with blood. Billiam’s face was smashed into a parody of human features; his forehead had an ugly dent encompassing one eye. Hubert, Etc tried for a pulse at Billiam’s wrist and then his throat, but all he felt was the thunder of the music. He put his hand on Billiam’s chest to feel for the rise and fall of breath, but couldn’t tell.
He looked up, but Seth and Natalie had already reached the door. They must not have seen Billiam fall, must not have seen him crash into Hubert, Etc. A drone ruffled Hubert, Etc’s hair. Hubert, Etc wanted to cry. He pushed the feeling down, remembering first aid. He shouldn’t move Billiam. But if he stayed, he’d be nabbed. It might be too late. The part of his brain in charge of cowardly self-justification chattered: Why not just go? It’s not like you can do anything. He might even be dead. He looks dead.
Hubert, Etc had made a concerted study of that voice and had concluded that it was an asshole. He tried to think past the self-serving rationalizations. He grabbed a bag someone left behind and, working gently, rolled Billiam into recovery position and put the bag under his head. He was propping Billiam up with a broken chair and a length of pipe, eyes squinted, head hammer¬ing, when someone grabbed him by his sore shoulder. He almost vomited. This was the day he’d known was coming all his life, when he ended up in prison.
But it wasn’t a cop – it was Natalie. She said something inaudible over the music. He pointed at Billiam. She knelt down and made a light. She threw up, having the presence of mind to do so in her purse. Hubert, Etc noted distantly that she was thinking of esophageal cells and DNA. That distant part admired her foresight. She got to her feet, grabbed him again by his bad arm, yanked hard. He screamed in pain, the sound lost in the roar, and went, leaving Billiam behind.