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By John Shirley
Start Publishing LLCCopyright © 1996 John Shirley
All rights reserved.
His Head, His Head
Only about—what?—two thousand years after Yeshua's chat with Peter on the mountain. About when you'd think it would be: the twenty-first century is still in its early twenties.
* * *
Quinn Helden was driving south down the California coastal highway, slowing now for the roadblock. A whitebread young man, gaunt and stringy blond, Quinn squinted through the sudden wash of sunlight as they emerged from the bluff's shadow. Was it a military roadblock?
Riding with Quinn in the old Volvo sedan was a small woman, pierced and tattooed Zizz; and the black guy Qarma, mid-thirties, scowling; and the fortyish, black-bearded, German-lrish Mahler, and no one else.
Up ahead were two jeeps parked sideways across the road. The dented and dirty green US Army jeeps were back to back, and mounted in the rear of one of the jeeps was a 16MM machinegun. It looked polished, and appallingly functional.
There was a shaggy slack-mouthed gunner in a US Army uniform sitting on a stool behind the machinegun, squinting at them in the slant of the afternoon sun off the gunmetal sea. One side of the Pacific Coast Highway was sheer cliff down to black rocks and indigo ocean; the other side was a steep muddy hill, rising to a bluff. There was no way around. And Quinn figured, looking at these guys, that there was no going back North. These pricks would follow—they looked too interested. When people were interested in you, now, along the fractal frontiers of the Second American Civil War, they hunted you.
There were guns in the trunk of the Volvo, of course, but Mahler had insisted they carry only the one pistol in the front of the car. For a guy who styled himself a revolutionary, Mahler could be a candyass, Quinn thought.
Buy with his beard and shaggy brows and eyes with all the warmth of digital readouts, Mahler looked the part of the postmodern Bolshevik; the apotheosis of the early-mid twenty-first century's doomed revival of Communism. Quinn thought Mahler's face should go on a postage stamp under a red star.
Zizz, now, was a cultural chimera. She was with them only because her Dad was one of the directors of the Alternative Media Channel; Zizz with her slowly rotating nose rings and neopunk animated tattoos—one of the tattoos showed smirking dancers kicking at 3D words:
BORN TO BE IRONIC
Zizz: with her crossgender bodystylings, vintage poodle skirt and heels, labia polymorphously pierced; but she had ladyparts and the soldiers would want them. Whether or not they were really soldiers. Whatever the fuck they were.
Qarma was a black drifter who'd deserted from the Muslim Militia. He'd claimed to have worked "side by side" with Black Betty, the so-called Media Terrorist, but Quinn suspected Qarma was full of shit. He wore the tatters of a Farrakhan suit, and he had gone from grateful that Mahler had talked them into taking him along when they left the South San Francisco Muslim Nation Refugee Camp, to sulky and increasingly imperious in his demands as they'd traveled together. It was he, he kept reminding them, who got them the car. Who stole it.
And Quinn ...
Quinn, used to have some kind of media-franchised cultural identity, thought of himself as a child of filmmaking, the arts, since his mom had been a moderately successful movie actress, his absentee dad a flame-out rock star. Quinn had been an underground witch-rap artist, with a "substantial dark-internet following." And now all that seemed ridiculous. Now he was just trying not to get killed crossing the Syria-style social fracture-lines of a California outside the FedControl umbrella of the Consolidated United States. Trying to survive and keep his smudgy dignity was all that concerned him, at the moment. He had a small beard and long hair only by default, and he had the leathers, but he was just trying not to grovel to his fear of being beaten to death or set on fire or something; he was trying to be a mensch for Zizz and trying not to hate Mahler and right now trying not to whip the car into a U-turn in panic because the guys at the roadblock could start shooting any time, they could open up the car and blood and gas would mingle—
But Quinn pulled up at the roadblock. "Hey fellas," he said. "Whuzzahaps?"
He thought about the fact that the car was stolen. But these guys—seven of them, looked like, seven scraggly-ass half starved soldiers in grimy uniforms—these guys were not going to be hooking up into any relevant law enforcement computer-cloud in the first place and in the second place there was no real law enforcement south of Sacramento in 2027, with the Famine and the new American Civil War, Separatists tearing California into shifting shreds along racial and religious lines—the Christian Funs and the Islamic Funs and the Hispanic Nation ripping at each other's scrotums and in between all the warlords gnawing on the leavings—and law was open to armed interpretation, and—
"Get out th' car, sir," said the guy in the officer's outfit. He had red eyes and a pint of something in his coat pocket. The wind snapped at his beard.
Were they really military, Quinn wondered again, or were they scraggers who'd ambushed some military patrol and taken their gear? Probably didn't matter; most of the supposed military peacekeeping forces in California had devolved into gangs. It was probably all the same.
Quinn tried to figure out how to get the other weapons out of the trunk. But no, these guys wouldn't let them get anywhere close to that trunk.
Qarma muttered, "Gonna have to shoot some motherfuckers, Zizz ..."
Zizz reached into her purse for the pistol.
"Don't be stupid," Mahler, in the back seat, muttered to her. And he glared at Qarma.
Her hand froze on the gun. "Quinn?" she asked.
Here it was again. He was supposed to be the mast for their sail; he was supposed to stand up and catch the wind and get them through this.
He felt like he wasn't there enough to stand up to it anymore. It was all unreal except for the fear. After the San Francisco Food Riots; the bodies folded into the shopping carts, bleeding through the silvery metal mesh. Since then, he'd felt like he was caught up in some inexorable, unconquerable current ...
"You going to get out of that car, sir?" the officer asked. Quinn decided this dude probably had been real military, once. The shell of the behavior was there.
"What we wanted to do," Quinn said, having trouble talking with his mouth so suddenly dry, "is go to Long Beach, find some friends of ours, get some transportation for back East. We're journalists."
"Journalists," snorted the guy at the machine gun. "Who the fuck cares."
Quinn swallowed. Should he tell the officer-type some more? Sometimes it was better to tell a hostile interrogator at least some of the truth.
And the truth was mostly innocuous: He and Mahler and Zizz had been up in Portland, for the Alternative Media Channel, and from there gone down to the Northern California warzone ostensibly to try and interview some refugees from San Francisco, actually to find out if the rumor was true that the activist "Black Betty," a black woman of potent charisma, had been kidnapped by CIAD for FedControl; the Central Intelligence Agency Domestic had taken her for some kind of closed-door prosecution out of the public eye ...
... And then a push from the Christian Fundamentalist Army had cut them off, trapped outside the refugee camp, and there was no place north or east to go—not without getting shot—and the only way out had been south of the Bay Area. There they'd picked up some drone-driven wi-fi sources claiming the roads to Los Angeles were open along the coast. The drone-wi sources had apparently been totally full of shit. Or they'd been carefully misled by cadres like this one.
Quinn decided against trying to explain all this to these uniformed. For one thing, these guys, if they had any residual loyalty to the Pentagon, might well be hostile to the AltMed channel.
"We heard PCH was unsecured," Quinn said, "but I guess that was wrong, so I figure we ... we oughta turn around, head back to, uh, Monterey ..."
"Yank it and U-turn us now, Quinn," Qarma hissed.
"What's that he said?" the officer asked, looked sharply at Qarma.
"I dunno, he's kinda out of his head from being tired," Quinn said. He turned and mouthed, "Shut up" at Qarma.
"How come these weasels here ain't in the Army?" said a red-faced soldier, shuffling up beside the officer; guy who looked like he'd scraped his beard off with a pocketknife. His hair was short but patchy, like he'd hand-cut that too. His eyes were flat as prison paint. "Got a federal crisis, young able-bodied fuckers like this supposed to be all in the Service."
"Just get out the car," said the guy at the machinegun. "All of you. Hey—Lowry?" The guy at the machinegun was talking to the officer now. "Me first. You said I could be first next time."
He was looking at Zizz.
"Big fucking deal," said the officer, shrugging wearily.
Now some of the soldiers had moved up from the jeeps, sort of drifted around the car, were looking through the windows at Zizz, leering mossy teeth. "What we got here, we got two recruits," the machine-gunner said, "and one comfort girl for the barracks—if we pull out all that piercing shit so we don't get caught on it—" They laughed at that. "And—" he looked at Qarma. "—one hard-labor draftee to help build walls over at the base."
"Fuck this shit," Qarma said.
At this point, Quinn had to agree.
Quinn had the car in reverse; he didn't remember putting it in reverse. "Go ahead, Zizz," he said.
She pulled the gun and fired point-blank through the windshield at a leering pseudo-soldier. Same moment, he hit the accelerator. Blood and broken glass and screams followed them backwards down the road. Quinn did what he thought might be history's fastest three-point turn. He accelerated so quick back down the road, the car fishtailing, he almost went over the cliff.
Then the machine gun ... Qarma's head ... his head ... Blood splashing onto the back of Quinn's neck.
Don't look. Drive, head north, just go.
The jeeps followed them north a ways, but they were slow, and the soldiers couldn't get a good shot after that, and finally they gave it up because of the fuel. It was so hard to get fuel in California now, they didn't want to waste it just for a rape and a few indentured workers. Most military vehicles hadn't gone solar or hydrogen yet. Gas or diesel.
But after the Volvo had lost the jeep, they were down to about an eighth tank themselves, and they had blood all over the car, and pieces of Qarma's skull pasted with bloody gray matter to their clothes and they didn't know what they were going to do or where they were going to go. They couldn't go south, there was no getting through that roadblock ...
They stopped to bury Qarma's body, and to clean out the car, and that's when Quinn spotted the camouflaged entrance to the private road. He didn't know the road was there, for certain. But he could feel it: hidden access, the feeling said. Hidden access ...
* * *
Faraday suspected it was important to give the appearance of not being scared.
He was being escorted by two immaculately uniformed Marines with patent-leather shoes, each one carrying an M18 through an underground base that Congress, what was left of Congress, didn't know about; through a series of high security checkpoints where he was required to offer up first his thumbprint, then his retinal pattern, finally his quavering voice-ID, to match the identity markers Herrick had taken earlier and sent on ahead.
Faraday's every step was videoed; his heartbeat was monitored and his breathing analyzed.
Was all this necessary? Perhaps, he thought, its real purpose was to do just what it had succeeded in doing: to make him afraid. To scare him into ... not divulging something, presumably, which was absurd, since his only skill, really, his whole raison d'etre was divulging, exposing. But then again, his trade also involved downplaying things, even concealment, at times.
Faraday was a PR man. He was a forty-five year old Public Relations man, hired from the glass towers of Chicago by the United States government under the auspices of the Air Force Chief of Staff; brought by a USMC chopper to Wright-Patterson, from there flown on a surprisingly comfortable troopjet to Nevada. Brought to a Top Secret base so he could plan a promotional campaign, which made no sense, none at all. It was a contradiction in terms.
Well. The military was famous for its glaze-eyed, deadpan absurdities.
He was aware that, marching along between the two Marines, (not asked to march, but finding himself doing it), he was trying to thread together some pattern of familiarity in all this, to ease his fears.
He thought about his wife, Lyn, and the application for childbearing in the offing; he thought about his home on the lake, in Chicago. He tried not to panic.
They passed sliding steel doors, thick as a bank vault, and strode out into a vast hangar nearly the size of a coliseum, and Faraday had to wonder again how they fit all this into a Nevada mountainside without the vast majority of the government catching on.
Herrick, anyway, claimed that most of the government didn't know about this place: Will Herrick, Colonel, USMC, the older black guy who'd recruited him. The guy who knew too much about him, and let him know it.
* * *
"You've been married eighteen years, got one kid in college, her name's Della, named after some black nanny you had as a kid," Herrick had said, the day Faraday had been recruited. "Your kid Della, she's a Liberal Arts major. Your other kid, your son, died of a drug overdose five years ago. You've got an application in to have a new baby, maybe because of the one you lost to drugs."
Herrick had reeled off all this, over lunch, a month before.
And at the same lunch, somewhere between entree and dessert, Herrick had blithely reminded Faraday about the secretary he'd gotten pregnant and the behind-the-scenes hassle he'd had in keeping Lyn from finding out, and getting the baby illegally adopted out, and paying off the girl.
Herrick recounted everything with an unnervingly jovial cynicism. He was a white-haired African-American man of maybe sixty, maybe sixty-five, vigorous, trim, his eyes yellowing but his teeth like ivory, his uniform spit and polish, a big gold fraternity ring on a thick pinky.
Lunch had been no-expense-spared, paid for by Washington, at Supermodel, a high-toned restaurant in Chicago—one of the few luxury restaurants to survive the economic downturn that followed in the wake of the Second American Civil War.
"Your knowing all that is pretty impressive," Faraday had said blandly, trying to seem unimpressed. That was the first time they'd made him afraid, and he tried not to show it then either.
"I could talk about your psyche profiles all the way back to the third grade."
"Only third grade?"
"We didn't get much on the first and second grade, except for the report cards and the basic records, a few interviews. Congratulations, by the way, on getting two gold stars on that second grade oral report about Thanksgiving."
"Thanks very much. I couldn't be prouder."
"As for the psyche profiles ... Did you know they decided you were a 'seven-point expulsive'—you hide some things by exposing others. Sort of like a magician distracting with one hand while palming the coin with the other. Makes your motivation for your choice of professions kind of obvious, doesn't it?"
"I didn't know all that." He had known he had that tendency—but he hadn't known the school counselor knew it. "Is it really necessary to do this much research into tired, discouraged, slightly overweight tax-paying Mike Faraday?"
"You do pay your taxes—except for that money that Georgie Harris paid you so you'd drop out of the Death Monkey Vodka account. You never did declare that nine grand."
"You trying to scare me?"
"Trying to let you know out front where you stand with us," Colonel Herrick said, taking a cigar from a jacket pocket, and looking at it longingly. Not a chance they'd let him smoke in here.
Excerpted from Silicon Embrace by John Shirley. Copyright © 1996 John Shirley. Excerpted by permission of Start Publishing LLC.
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