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Sleep State Interrupt
By T.C. Weber
See Sharp PressCopyright © 2016 T.C. Weber
All rights reserved.
"Protesters have gathered since early this morning," Waylee told her Comnet audience as she exited the Baltimore Herald's downtown building. "They won't go quietly."
Above the white rectangle delineating the camera view of her data glasses, the cloud metrics read "Live Reach 139." Even her house parties had bigger audiences. But beside the current count, the thumbs up clicker steadily increased. If she got enough upvotes, she might make the print edition and priority digital feed. Maybe impress her bosses enough to keep her on when the re-org jackals arrived.
The bone conduction transducers on the glasses' arms blasted poly-thrash from her playlist, rattling her skull with battleship guns and tortured jet engines. Her pink-calloused, black-nailed fingertips played imaginary chords on imaginary guitar strings. Her scalp pulsed with harmonics as new song lyrics and pieces of story assembled themselves, moving too fast to consciously organize.
Waylee passed from the building's shadow into midday sun, which washed out the data overlays. The paper should have sprung for a fancier model. The data glasses weren't just cheap, they were ugly, with thick obsidian frames and an obvious, intimidating camera lens. The nightlife section lived on scraps, though, and even at twenty-seven she was one of the youngest people on staff. She yanked up her hands and adjusted the brim of her stretch hat until she could see.
The Independent News Center, the region's biggest nonprofit for investigative journalism, was a few blocks south. They launched on the old Internet. After the transformation into the much faster Comnet, the new gatekeeper — Media Corporation — imposed access fees that indie media couldn't afford. INC went into debt, then made the mistake of attacking MediaCorp.
Guitar riffs broiling her inner ears, Waylee marched down a cracked sidewalk along a deserted street. Sticky heat radiated from the asphalt, autumn yet to provide any relief. Just beyond, the expressway rose on columns above the city, an apartheid scar to get suburbanites to and from downtown offices without having to interact with scary locals like her neighbors and friends.
Ahead, Baltimore police cars lined the curbs, blue-striped white sedans bristling with antennae and lights. Three slate-grey armored vehicles sat beyond. Two bore SWAT insignia. Glossy black tubes — what are those for? — rose behind the roof flashers. The third was unmarked, with a big vertical plate mounted on top.
"So far," she told her audience, "I see ... ten squad cars, two SWAT carriers, and a mystery vehicle. I'll get a full count when I'm closer."
The Live Reach jumped to 180, and upvotes — minus downvotes — reached 66.
"DG," she told her data glasses, "audio transmit off. DG, top trending stories, Baltimore."
Hottest local submission at the moment: Ravens game predictions, with a net score of 3803.
Aliens could bombard the city with carnivorous Pikachu and even that wouldn't tear people away from their sports fixations. None of the other submissions were insurmountable, though. With a little post-event coaxing, maybe some organized downvoting of the competition, the Herald would have to publish her story, and let her do more.
She passed a corner, then spotted the three-story red brick building that housed the INC's offices and studios, plus classrooms, a library, and a dozen community groups — the heart of progressive Baltimore. People were gathered outside, several holding signs, and someone had torn down the big Future Home of Charm City Condominiums banner that was hanging from the roof last week. Impatient to drive INC out of business, Media-Corp had bought their building and tripled the rent, then evicted them when they couldn't pay.
Police blocked the streets on at least two sides of the building, hemming it in. Waylee saw Baltimore Sheriff's deputies, city cops in flexible body armor, and three people in suits standing off to the side. Another mystery vehicle with a metal sail perched up the road. Both, she now saw, were manned by men in grey combat gear with no insignia.
"DG, stop music." Silence echoed through her skull. Then she heard cars racing oblivious on the overhead expressway and a din of voices up ahead.
"DG, audio transmit on." She stared at the weird vehicle and swiped a finger along one glasses arm to zoom in.
The camera had pretty decent pickup — not high-def, but good enough for vlogging. Beneath the view frame, numbers indicated exposure, focal length, and other stuff she couldn't be bothered with. "DG, identify."
A black and white circle spun in the upper right corner, then "No matches." Either she had a bad angle or the vehicle wasn't in the public databases.
She looked around and spotted two INC journalists, both twenty-somethings like her, speaking to police. Judging from the way they moved from one cop to another, they weren't getting many comments. As far as she could tell, she was the only other journalist here.
Big surprise. This story should be huge, standing up to the biggest bully in America, but MediaCorp owned every news outlet in Maryland — including, as of last month, the Herald and its subsidiaries.
The highest ranking officer was a thin, dark skinned woman with lieutenant's bars. Waylee whispered to her glasses. "DG, search Baltimore Police Department, identify."
A short bio of Lt. Janette Rixson appeared. She commanded a Special Weapons and Tactics unit. She was conferring with the second ranking BPD officer on scene, a sergeant from Central District.
Some of the police turned to look at her. The Comnet icons disappeared from her overlay, replaced by a flashing "Connection lost."
I'm press, they can't jam me! She'd have to work offline now.
Waylee approached the lieutenant and sergeant. The sergeant, a beefy man sprouting long tufts of nostril hair, scanned her with motel room eyes. Waylee wasn't a model like her sister, but had high cheekbones, full lips, and other conventions of pretty. Further down, faux-leather pants clung to athletic legs.
Waylee wasn't desperate enough to flirt with Sgt. Nosehair. She flashed her laminated press badge. "Waylee Freid, Baltimore Herald. Can you tell me what's going on here?"
The lieutenant frowned. "I'm sorry, you're going to have to talk to Media Relations."
A press badge wasn't the access key she'd fantasized about in journalism school. "And is there someone here from Media Relations?"
"No." Lt. Rixson snapped fingers in the sergeant's face and they proceeded to ignore her.
Waylee considered inserting herself between the two officers. She raised her voice instead. "Why are you jamming the wireless? The public has a right to know what's going on in their city."
The officers turned and narrowed their eyes. "This is a crime scene," the lieutenant said, "and there's potential for confrontation. The safety of my officers comes first."
"What does that have to do with the wireless signal?"
The lieutenant thrust a finger at the people surrounding the building. "It's procedure, in case they're calling reinforcements. Now if you'll excuse me." She turned away again.
If these glasses had a bullshit detector, the meter would be off the scale. Waylee strode over to the ranking Sheriff's deputy, hoping for less intransigence.
The deputy, a balding black man, glanced around as she spoke.
"Sorry," he said, "I'm not authorized to speak to the media."
She tried the armored vehicles next, but couldn't even get close before being shooed away by men with guns. That left the woman and two men in suits, whom she couldn't ID without Comnet access.
"Excuse me," she asked them, "are you with the city?"
One of the men, ginger-haired with big eyebrows, eyed her up and down. He stank of aftershave or one of those body sprays that were supposed to make women tear off their panties.
"And you are?"
"Waylee Freid, Herald."
"We're with Charm City Realty."
A subsidiary of Media Corporation. "In what capacity?"
"This building is our property. It's being unlawfully occupied." He pointed at the big windows. Angry faces stared back. "They've had thirty days to vacate, and as you can see, it looks like they have no intention to do so."
"Why did you decide to buy this building? And isn't a 200% rent increase unusually harsh?"
The man — realtor, lawyer, what? — stepped closer, his love spray making her nose twitch. "We're on the same side, you know."
"We both work for Media Corporation."
Not by choice. "I'm a journalist. I'm not supposed to take sides." She almost believed it.
The woman pulled out a comlink. Like her data glasses, the palm-sized handheld computers tied their users into the shared techno-haze of humanity, as long as they had an overpriced account with MediaCorp or one of their dwindling competitors. "You say-id" — her voice drawled Virginian — "your name was Waylee Free-id?" She typed something on her comlink. "How do you spell that?"
Trying to intimidate me? "Could you tell me your names and why you're here?"
"I'm sorry, Miss Free-id," she said, "I decline to comment." The other two looked away.
A familiar voice projected from a bullhorn over by the building's main entrance: "Whose streets?"
A semi-unified chorus responded: "Our streets!"
Waylee gave up questioning Authority, and turned her attention to the faces gathered outside the INC building. She recognized most of them, people who worked or volunteered for the media, community groups who'd also been evicted, and a handful of supporters. About a hundred altogether, many holding signs with their group affiliation, like "Food for All" or "Baltimore Workers Association." And at the windows, two dozen more.
One hundred and twenty people out of a city of 650,000.
The police lined up, helmet visors down and big plexiglass shields held in front. Restraint cables hung from their belts. Most gripped long rubber batons, but a few held shotguns and assault rifles.
Her friend Dingo, a 21-year-old self-proclaimed revolutionary with uncertain ancestry and unruly dark hair, had the bullhorn. After a couple more repetitions, they switched to another time-worn chant: "The people united, will never be defeated! El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!"
Waylee flashed her press ID again and elbowed her way through the line of cops. She pulled off her black floppy hat, folded it to pocket size, and shook her mulberry hair loose.
Dingo lowered the bullhorn and grinned. "Oh goody, the nightlife section is here."
"Go fuck yourself, Dingo. Is Pel here?"
"Your boyfriend went home after they shut off the power. What's an IT nerd gonna do without power?"
"He's not a nerd. What about Shakti?" One of her housemates, a tireless organizer for the People's Party.
"Here this morning, coming back after work."
"Anything to say to the press?"
He whipped up a hand, blocking her view. "Get that spy shit away from me."
"Your revolution won't be televised, then." She jerked a thumb toward the police. "They're serious, you know. Do you have a plan?"
Dingo shrugged. "I'm not in charge. No one should be in charge."
Waylee spotted Willard Ramsey, the grey-bearded INC director, just outside the front door. She hadn't seen him since handing off her story describing Media Corporation's secret deals with the government, which The Herald had refused to publish. That was months ago, but nothing positive ever came of it.
His lips curled down. Not happy to see her. "Hello, Ms. Freid."
"What's happening here?"
"What's happening?" Narrowed eyes transfixed her camera lens. "What's happening is this city, this country, this whole planet, are in deep shit."
No doubt Baltimore was sliding downhill with a banana peel on its ass. She saw it every time she took the bus home — the boarded-up row houses, the homeless crones pushing shopping carts full of junk, the mounds of trash and discarded needles against the curbs.
"All because of top-down fiscal crises and ideology-driven 'belt tightenings,'" the director continued. "And vicious predators like MediaCorp."
Waylee zoomed in to a head shot.
"What's happening," he said, "is the convergence of government and corporate power to benefit the wealthy elite and crush any dissent. Crush any independent, uncompromising voices like ours."
"DG, pause recording." This is a disaster. "Is this my fault? Retaliation for showing how MediaCorp co-opted Congress and the president?"
He shook his head. "We've always challenged the hierarchy. You just added an extra thorn. Your documents were fantastic and we were happy to run with them."
"It didn't propagate."
"Not many people saw the broadcast. MediaCorp blocked our Comnet access the day before it aired, and back channels are too slow. Then they turned their lawyers on us."
"All these organizations evicted. I'm really sorry."
He softened. "How about you? Pel told me The Herald put you on probation."
"Not exactly. I just got an unfavorable performance review. We're quite the bureaucracy."
Her editors were mad she 'aided a competitor,' but relieved it wasn't The Herald under attack. She'd worked hard to try to salvage her career. She'd be the number one target, though, once MediaCorp sent hatchet men to impose 'efficiency measures' on their new acquisition.
"Well I'm glad they sent someone to cover this," he said.
"Actually I sent myself. But I'm here and I'll try to get the word out."
More cops arrived, wearing full combat gear, including helmet visors and gas masks. "DG, record."
The director pointed up the street. "The police are supposed to serve the public, not MediaCorp."
"What's your plan?" Waylee asked him.
Sweat beaded on his forehead. "Honestly? ... I'm not sure." His eyes shifted back and forth. "I didn't think they'd be so heavy handed."
In the building windows, faces retreated.
Lt. Rixson spoke in a wireless mike, amplified through speakers mounted on the SWAT vehicles. "You are trespassing on private property. You must disperse immediately or you will be placed under arrest."
The building's defenders linked hands, first a few, then almost everyone. The INC director bit his lip, grabbed the bullhorn, and cleared his throat. "We're not leaving, but we're not violent. Let's keep this peaceful, please."
Waylee zoomed in to Lt. Rixson, standing behind the line of riot police. The lieutenant tapped fingers against her temple, then put the mike to her mouth again. "This is your last warning. Disperse immediately."
The building defenders murmured. An INC production assistant — Waylee couldn't remember her name — started a chant. "We won't go!"
More voices joined. "We won't go!"
The police waited through several repetitions, then pulled back, well away from the building.
In the crowd, fingers separated and faces relaxed.
"Yeah, go back to the donut shop!" Dingo shouted. A dreadlocked girl kicked his calf. Dingo grimaced and cursed.
Diesel engines grumbled. The mystery vehicles with the looming plates shuddered, then inched forward.
Waylee's stomach shrank into a pit of ice.
Smiles disappeared. Feet shuffled backward. Waylee swept her head around, trying to record as much as possible.
The vehicles halted well short of the crowd.
"What the hell are they doing?" a protestor behind her said.
Waylee heard a low buzz and a series of clicks. Black stripes streaked across her view, scrolling irregularly from top to bottom.
Now they're jamming my video. She pulled off the data glasses. Her vision cleared, but the buzzing and clicks intensified. They weren't coming from the data glasses. They were coming from the center of her skull. Her eyeballs twitched, rattling her vision like a bumpy train.
All around her, people clutched their heads and fell to their knees. Some screamed, some writhed like epileptics. Police raised thick guns and fired canisters toward the building windows. They crashed through the glass and white smoke billowed out.
The street, the building, the sky, spun in circles. Waylee fell to her knees, smacking her hands against hot asphalt. Her stomach contracted and her breakfast spewed out over the pavement, leaving the taste of bile and the stink of rancid milk. She threw up again.
Excerpted from Sleep State Interrupt by T.C. Weber. Copyright © 2016 T.C. Weber. Excerpted by permission of See Sharp Press.
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