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New Decameron Sixty-Four: Peter Watts

The Last of the Redmond Billionaires

Peter Watts

Silently, majestically, the crane topples from atop the distant control tower: descends like ten tonnes of metal origami onto the roof of the FAA office hunkered in its shadow. Reseda Melik watches dust and wreckage billow from the impact. It's already subsiding by the time the sound reaches her: a groan of tortured metal, a concussion of glass and concrete.

Metal fatigue, maybe. The machinery of repair grown worn and fragile from overuse. Or maybe, in their haste to clean up from the last disaster before the next one hits, they just cut corners during installation.

Not that it really matters. Nobody flies much these days anyway. 

Her next patient in line— a middle-aged refugee with a face full of weeping blisters and a microcephalic babe clutched to her chest— bears witness with a grunt. "At least you still try to fix things up here." Her voice is a hoarse rasp, a legacy of years spent in the smokestream. "Down in Phoenix they ran out of money years ago. We all just— live in the ruins."

She shifts the baby in her arms, exposing a No-Breeders logo emblazoned across the front of her t-shirt. (Reseda doesn't remark on the irony. When your clothes come out of a bin, you take what you can get.) Reseda palpates the woman's lymph nodes with latex hands. "Monkeypox. I can give you something for the lesions but I'm afraid you'll just have to let it run its course. It should go away in a few weeks."

"Uh huh."

"I can vaccinate your baby if you like. He may already have it, but—"

"Vaccinations." The refugee spits the word. "I got myself vaccinated, you know? For Zika." She holds out the child, just in case Reseda hasn't noticed the tiny head, the cloudy eyes. "Fat lot of good it did."

Reseda sighs. "It used to work." Before the antinatalists and the biohackers made the damn thing almost unkillable. If you can’t talk ’em out of breeding, scare ’em out of breeding. And make damn sure they pay the price if they aren't scared enough.

She blinks against a chronic stinging in her eyes. Out past the parks and the parkades— past the tents in their hundreds and the refugees in their thousands, past the coast and across the sound— the prevailing westerlies kindle the Olympic Forest and blow its ashes inland in a fine eye-watering haze. Ribbons of smoke trail across the sky like the contrails of low-flying jets— back in the days when jets still filled the skies, at least. Back before carbon ceilings and imploding economies shut down the airlines and turned eighty hectares of airport property into another squalid tent city, baking in the heat before the next hurricane season tears it up by the roots. Only two seasons matter anymore, here in the Pacific Northwest: Flood and Fire. This whole encampment has maybe five months to live.

Of course, none of these people were planning on hanging around that long. They'd just been passing through. Most of them would be gone already if Canada hadn't slammed the border shut.

"—ula?" Monkeypox Mom is saying.

Reseda shakes her head. "I'm sorry?"

"I said, any idea when the caravan arrives? I was over in the other line and they…" She trails off, shrugs. "Even some formula, if you got it."

Reseda checks the time. Shit. "Food's really not my department—" And adds, at the other's expression, "but let me call in anyway."

She lifts the VisoR to her eyes and quickdials Takshaka. A default newscrawl scrolls across her eyeline as the call sniffs its way through failing infrastructure. Mediterranean now DOA, courtesy of a seasonal anoxic zone stretching from Cyprus to Gibraltar. Ongoing rebound of Greenland's freshly ice-free crust has birthed another tsunami off the east coast. The Water Wars have officially spread to Central Europe. Oh, and some good news for a change: from a scabby little islet off the shoulder of Australia, where a few ragged corals have just been discovered hanging on against all— 

Tak's likeness eclipses the feed, a jumble of pixels and static. "Hey. How's the flock?"

"Hungry. What's the hold up?" 

"Driver called in sick. Backup called in sick. We're trying to round up a backup for the backup."

Monkeypox again. It's actually a win, all things considered; at least monkeypox doesn't kill you. Half the cities from Cairo to Calgary have been hollowed out by encephalitis or malaria or whatever drug-resistant monster H5N1has mutated into this week.

Reseda snorts, disgusted. "We shouldn't even need a driver." Only the lead truck has hands on the wheel as it is; the rest are slaved and self-driving. If it wasn't for some stupid bylaw…

A thought occurs to her. "Hey. Is it my imagination, or has it been especially hard to get drivers since—" She catches herself, mindful of nearby ears— "um, last Thursday?" Which is when they ran out of rubber bullets. For the better part of a week now, the caravans have been doing their rounds with empty turrets. Put that together with the chronic delays and all these empty stomachs, probably just a matter of time before they've got another food riot on their hands.

Of course, head office hasn't exactly spread that particular bit of news. Still. When you ask people to walk unarmed into the Lion's Den, you can't really blame them for being conveniently indisposed. Especially when the lions are half-starved.

Tak shrugs. "What can I say?"

"You can tell me when the trucks are coming."

"I think we got Elana to come in on her day off. Give us another hour or two. And, Res…"

"Yeah?"

"Load might be a little light. Everyone's scared of wheat rust."

"You mean overseas?" They say it could take out the global grain supply, but not for another decade or so. These days, that's an eternity.

"There was some scary headline. Everyone's hoarding."

"Tak. We got twenty thousand mouths here. "

"Tell me about it. Maybe it's time to try that thing with the loaves and fishes."

She shakes her head. "Is there any good news?"

"Well…" The feed stutters, holds. "They found some live corals."

"Heard that one already. What else you got?"

"Um, okay— oh, we're officially doomed. Turns out we passed the last tipping point in November."

"How is that good news, exactly?"

"Means we're off the hook, kid." He gives her a thumbs-up. "Can't fix it now no matter what we do, so we might as well just— kick back and relax until the ceiling crashes in." He coughs— "Gotta go. Something in my throat."— and disconnects.

She drops the VisoR. Monkeypox Mom has wandered off; an emaciated black man stands next in line, coughing softly into a bloody rag. He lifts his eyes as Reseda returns to the here and now, spies something past her shoulder, heaves a sigh: "Here come the jackboots again…"

She turns.

They boil out of D Gate like a procession of army ants, swarm past Departure's larger-than-life statue of Greta Thunberg (erected, Reseda remembers, on the very spot she was gunned down not ten years ago). They're a mix of meat and mech, one breed moving on two legs, the other on four, both armed to the teeth and loaded for bear. The sun bounces off their helmets, their carapaces, the muzzles protruding from their muzzles. They clatter across the tarmac and across the road, move to the edge of the tents and form a phalanx.

They advance: a meter, ten, twenty. The refugees fall back. Most of them have already been pushed a thousand miles, after all; what's a few more yards? The phalanx locks down and holds position, the edge of their formation just a few paces from Reseda's Clinic on Wheels.

They leave her alone. Even now, there are optics to consider when humanitarians are involved. It's the kind of immunity that— to Reseda Melik's mind, at least— carries with it a certain moral responsibility. 

Fuck.

She sighs, composes herself, strips the gloves from her hands and drops them into the garbage. She forces herself to approach the nearest uniform: a big man, almost two meters from heels to helmet, face hidden behind a tinted bulletproof visor. BoDyne urban-pacification robots flank him to either side like mechanical hounds. They whir and tremble at her approach, restless and alert and waiting for any excuse at all.

"Excuse me, officer." She holds out the ID lanyarded around her neck: SeaTac Refugee Authority, Medical Corps. "Could you tell me what's going on?"

His eyes glint, barely visible. The armor, the helmet, his very posture seem to say Just Another Robot. And yet it's almost a relief, this interaction. Those visored eyes are still human, after all. Flesh and blood of any kind is so rarely in the mix these days. When Authority puts its foot down, it's usually just gears and guns and graphene.

The black knight regards her for a moment. (A few meters away, the next human in line shakes her head and pointedly turns her attention forward.) "Private VIP flight outgoing," he says finally. "Actual plane on the runway for a change. They want a buffer zone." He sounds almost human. Pleasant, even.

Reseda takes in the roads and ramps, the overpasses, a towering concave escarpment of glass and steel. Hundreds of meters beyond all that, she knows, SeaTac International's mostly-deserted runways bake in splendid isolation.

She returns her gaze to the black knight. "Really."

"A bigger buffer zone." His shoulders rise and fall in something that might be a sigh. "Ma'am, I just follow orders."

That's exactly the problem. That's always been the problem. Aloud: "I thought all those people had left already." Off to their fortresses in New Zealand, or their refitted luxury missile silos in the Rockies, or their personal nuclear subs to wait out the collapse of a world bled dry with no remaining market share.

"The zero-pointers, sure. Maybe these guys are only One Percent. Maybe it took 'em a while to scrape up the travel funds."

She can't tell if he's joking.

He points to a spot above the horizon. "There." Barely visible along that bearing, a dark speck shimmers in the haze.

"You know," he remarks, "I used to work for them."

You still do. "Really?" A dot now, a tiny shadow just hinting at an outline.

"Not those guys specifically. But I know the type."

"I didn't even know they still used human security. I thought it was all drones these days. Cheaper."

"Uh huh." Something in the tilt of his helmet conveys a faint sense of— amusement, maybe? "Also you don't have to worry about drones taking over your compound when civilization collapses and your money's no good any more."

She risks it. "You sound bitter."

"Me? Nah. I landed on my feet." The incoming VIP is a bug now, a fat beetle-blot against the sulfurous sky. "But are there people out there with decades of faithful service under their belts, pissed at being booted to the curb so a bunch of robots can take their jobs? Yes ma'am. There certainly are."

A dragonfly, now, gleaming blue and silver, thwup-thwup-thwupping over the assembled tents.

"In fact," he adds cryptically, "here come some now."

A shadow crosses Reseda's face. She looks up to see a drone pass overhead: a giant of its kind, a boxy octocopter with a cargo pod the size of a small car wedged between its fans. She can't see any identifying insignia.

It appears to be on an intercept course with the incoming helicopter.

The VIPs have noticed. Seams split open along the chopper's flanks: a small flock of drones spills out, spins up, assumes a defensive formation around the mothership. Targeting dots appear along the flanks of the approaching behemoth, bright crimson pinpoints visible even against the eye-watering brightness of the afternoon sun. 

A crack of thunder.

Every drone drops from the air. Every robot on the ground jerks in sudden brief tetanus and collapses. Fifty meters away, the anonymous octodrone falls along with everything else; someone beneath screams and stops as it hits.

The chopper coughs and falls silent.

It doesn't drop, exactly. It descends in a slow spin, tail rotor slewing like a rock on a string, cockpit turning on its axis, the whole vehicle losing altitude in spiral increments. The rotor continues to slice the air, swishing lazily in the wake of the stilled engine. It's enough to slow the descent to a fast wobble, to buy time enough for myriad refugees to grab children and loved ones and scramble panic-stricken from the impact zone.

It crushes a half-dozen tents like paper; its nose crumples against the tarmac. The rotor swings in a last grand arc and buries itself in the asphalt, not fifty yards from where Reseda stands frozen in place.

Suddenly, all is still.

"That was an EMP," she whispers at last.

The knight is down on one knee, checking his fallen hounds. "Looks like it."

Frantically she scans the horizon, the dome of the sky. "But where's the airburst, where's the fireball—"

"Nukes aren't the only way to make a pulse. If I had to guess—" His visor turns toward the fallen octo. "I'd say that fucker was loaded with capacitors."

She stares at him. "You knew."

"Who, me?"

Wide-eyed faces stare out through the helicopter's canopy: a middle-aged man, a woman young enough to be a daughter or a wife, an adolescent boy wracked by silent sobs. A helmeted pilot, focused with hopeless desperation on some dead control. Zero-point faces. Utterly, obviously terrified.

How does it feel, Reseda wonders, after all this time, to finally be helpless?

The pilot's efforts meet with some half-measure of success: another fuselage panel pops open, exposes two quadbots with guns where their eyes should be. They hang limp in their harnesses; the pilot releases some remote-control buckle and they tumble lifelessly onto the tarmac. A last-ditch last hope, exhausted.

Reseda looks down at the black knight. Through it all, he and his phalanx haven't moved. "Shouldn't you be helping them?"

"Orders were to maintain a buffer zone."

"Nobody's—updated them?"

He taps the side of his helmet— "Radio's down."— and pats his fallen guardbot. "Just following orders, ma'am."

Are there people out there with decades of faithful service under their belts, pissed at being booted to the curb so a bunch of robots can take their jobs?

Yes ma'am. There certainly are.

There's a clear zone around the crash site, a radius of flattened tents and scattered belongings. It begins to contract as Reseda watches. Countless souls—marginalized, homeless, herded like cattle by firestorms and hurricanes and the omnipresent invisible hand of Austerity Economics— return to reclaim this last small patch of ground left unto them. A wavefront ripples out from their epicenter, a rising groundswell: a whisper, then a murmur, then a keening sexless roar. It is the sound of horsemen riding; the sound of oceans rising and aquifers drying up and deserts spreading across the face of the planet. It's the sound of a world kicked on its side, of all the billions left scrambling for desperate purchase, and there— at the heart of it all— someone to blame.

The human tide surges over the helicopter and begins to tear it apart.

Reseda Melik is right there with them.



***********************************************

Maya shudders. "That's not what's really happening out there, is it?"

"No," he says. "That's still science fiction. I was hoping for a vaccine, not a world where everything's so awful. Still, what do you expect from Peter Watts? All his stuff is like that, absolutely brilliant but always looking on the black side. James Nicoll said you should only read him when suffering from excess joie de vivre."

"Ha. Well... we'd best not go out of the library," Maya says.

"We'd best read something to cheer us up, quick," he says. "Eat a fig, Go on. You'll feel better."

Maya pulls a fig apart, and looks at its tiny red and white tendrils, looking alien in her hand. She bites into it, and does feel better. "What else have we got to read?" she asks.

"Sue Burke, first chapter of Princess Magpie," he says.

Maya takes the book, and they read.

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