WE GOT THE JUMP because we lived near the square. Walking distance. Slade was like most small Texas towns—it radiated outward from the old courthouse. At some point, someone had paved the original hitching yards and erected a cenotaph for the Civil War dead. There were water fountains on each pillar, each with its own inscription: WHITE. COLORED. They both still worked. There were pecan trees with dubious histories.
Livery posts, hardware stores, and hotels had clustered slowly around the squared avenue—the buildings still stared at the courthouse-turned-museum, the remnants of their painted-brick signs now protected by city codes. Those businesses were all something else now—candy shops, bars, high-end boutiques. But they had several signs each. Meyer's Pawn was the most important to us. Guitars and drum sets and stereos filled its storefront windows—the ejecta of the nearby university. Its bread-and-butter music program, mostly. Slade still lived because the university owned most of it. Sweet Pine, Siwash, and Minnie Falls, all nearby, had dried up when they were supposed to, half a century before. When Slade should've gone.
But we didn't care about instruments. Meyer's had tools, too.
We got the jump. We'd been watching Salvage for months, so we knew what to do.
We knew enough.
After television broadcasts went fully digital, people began to Salvage the analog waves. The low-end frequencies the F.C.C. didn't sell off, or restrict for their Nationwide Public Safety Network. Which was just for first responders, emergency personnel. The police.
At first, the public air was monitored, regulated in a dying-grandfather sort-of-way. Special needs. Suicide watch. The F.C.C. called it The Citizens' Television Band.
In the early days, 'casts were still pirate. It took a year or so before the waves went Salvage, and you could do whatever you wanted with a broadcast antennae and a video phone. It was shortwave television. Narrow-band. Retro-hip all the way from the mechanical TVs of the Great Depression.
Modders stopped retooling old eight-bit video game consoles and mini-fridges and started finding ways to improve the Salvage band. We were lucky—we didn't have to mod anything to tune in. My father's old garage TV never stopped working. Black-and-white. Eight-inch screen. It doubled as a radio.
Slade had more Salvage than most cities around it. It had college kids with plenty of money, plenty of equipment, and plenty of paranoia. They'd all been raised by the American Dream. Their teachers had told them they'd be astronauts and presidents and famous actors. They were middle class, mostly white, in a public education system that might as well have been private—they didn't know then how the property taxes on their parents' multi-storey homes determined their share of "equal education for all." They'd followed the rules, earned the grades, dreamed big and endless. And then in Slade, people handed them beer and hash pipes, had sex with them, told them it was all right not to know what the hell was going on. They Grouped themselves without knowing it—a hive mind that kept them from being alone, that told them the bottom was about to fall out of everything they'd ever been told. Told them to expect it, to get ready. To learn about Salvage. To trust no one.
Even with all their money—all their equipment—it was the paranoia that served them best.
Some days, the Salvage was too thick—the anxiety, the hurriedly wired amps throbbing more power into each 'cast. Every panicked 'caster doing his best to get his truth through all the others.' They ended up jamming each other, like Cold War cryptographers. Numbers and catchphrases and cardinal directions squealed in and out of each other on the bad days. Some modders did nothing but jam, and their squealing tech made paranormal sounds through the TV's tiny speaker.
They were making noise. 'Casting themselves into the drone. Because it was nice not to be alone . . .
We had favorites. 'Casts that were stronger than others. And their owners left graffiti all over town. Stencils like stenographs on municipal servo boxes and in bathroom stalls. Wildstyle graffiti in the bar that was once a bank. Eventually, for those of us on the inside, we learned the jammers' habits, their schedules, so we knew when to listen for the real warnings—the real reports on what was happening. More importantly, what wasn't happening. With the whole country. Before the Event.
You could match graffiti to frequencies and parse new messages all across town. A sort of patchwork bulletin board that couldn't be hacked, couldn't be shut down or traced. Which is how we knew.
We had pieced together our first Plan. Knew how to get started. How to get the jump. We couldn't afford most things—guns or food or medical supplies. We planned to Forage for these, after the Event.
If we tried to steal everything, we would've just been arrested and thrown in jail. We'd be fucked when things Collapsed.
But we were going to need things. Primarily, we were going to need to get out of Slade. To get out of everything. After the Collapse, the town would get hungry. And other people would have guns.
The Collapse was like a Renaissance Faire. In my mind, they were the same. Some years before, my best friend Adam and I had gone together. Turkey legs, incense, cornets of roasted almonds. That sort of thing. We'd spent most of our adolescence playing Dungeons & Dragons—old school. 1980s second editions that had been my uncle's. So we knew about trebuchets and scorpions—the difference between a glaive-guisarme and a fauchard fork. The numbers of another generation, of the Gen X'ers with their hybrid engines and text messages. 14 16 15 17 17: saving throws for a first-level fighter. The unforgettable code of every Silicon Valley headcase who'd gone from twelve-sided dice to stock options and copyrights. We knew these things. We bought swords at the Ren Faire. Unsharpened things that had to be peace-bound while we stomped around the fields in the mud, paying older kids to buy us beer. They were carbon steel, which was important. They would take an edge, but that would nullify the warranty.
When word came through Salvage about the bank runs and the riots—long before it slipped through the F.C.C. feed, before it interrupted programs and slid semi-transparently, like a snake's skin, across the bottom of every digital display in the country—we got the jump. Before anybody panicked. Salvage had been watching the silent bank runs, the electronic ones, for weeks. It knew who was going to start throwing things, in which cities, almost before the demonstrators themselves did. It knew who had been out of a job, and for how long. Who couldn't buy bread. Who had sick children.
Salvage had long since silenced the hobbyists—the 'casters who weren't up to anything more than teaching people to play the guitar, or crochet, or to understand the Bible. If you hadn't found a way in, if you hadn't cracked our codes, it was just noise. Nonsense. The only integrity behind jamming had been to silence the Outsiders first.
Salvage had become self-aware.
There were only two of us, Adam and me, but we'd need others, to grow strong, to be safe. And we'd either have to recruit them or intimidate them. So we began with swords. With getting edges.
When word came through, when the jamming stopped and everything harmonized into a layered fugue chanting the one mantra that meant the same thing to every conspiracy-head, deviant, and tagger, we ran to the square. To Meyer's.
. . . This assumes that you will kill other people. . . .
We left our swords on the kitchen counter—the Faire was just beginning—because they didn't have edges. There wouldn't be disorder, not yet, so they would just get in the way. We threw a cinderblock through the front window of the pawn shop, and it lodged at a slow angle through the skin of a kick-drum on display.
. . . It assumes that a new competition for resources has begun. . .
We were fifteen years old again, a wall of old toasters and secondhand TVs and abandoned jewelry an open stall before us. We were standing on broken glass wrapped in Faire smells—sautéed onions and garlic. We listened to broken music from the bar next door . . . that there are resources yet available . . . while we were stealing a bench grinder. We were thinking in numbers and obscure acronyms. We were thinking 14 16 15 17 17, THAC0, hit points. We were thinking, what are the numbers for a good strike with a sword? Which dice do we roll?
Nothing had fully Collapsed yet. We got the jump. But it was Before, so we were just criminals. We were running, as best we could, with a bench grinder, back to our duplex near campus. The first step was to put edges on our swords, so we would be strong.
. . . primarily, the Event involved ab initio (or has since developed) an economic revolution . . . We didn't need a generator at that point because the electrical grid was still alive then. The Northern Lights would come later.
We were running. We were several ages at once, the present- and future-past. Stealing a bench grinder was many things at once—Ren Faires and running only two of the more obvious.
From Chapter Nine
I WASN'T SENIOR PATROL LEADER THEN. I think I might have been an Assistant Patrol Leader. I might have just been in a patrol. I can't remember.
We were lost. Doing our duty to God and our country. Remembering the Boy Scout Law. Being Prepared. But we were on the wrong trail. Our dads had gone ahead, driving the pickup trucks and vans and SUVs to the campsite off the state park road. They had set up their camp, percolated coffee over the fire in blue-enameled steel pots. Sat in camp chairs in Boy Scout cargo shorts. They wore their socks up to their shins. It was regulation. They were setting good examples.
There were twenty-three of us, and we each carried a compass. There was only one map, however. One SPL, two Assistant SPLs, four Patrol Leaders, four Assistant Patrol Leaders. I was one of these, somewhere in the ranks, one of the youngest in the troop. I'd been allowed in early because of my Arrow of Light. Earning the Arrow of Light, in the Webelos, got you in early. Got you the training earlier than others.
We had aluminum-frame packs, hiking boots, Sierra cups on our belts. Pocket knives, waterproof matches, flashlights with belt clips and buttons for signaling in Morse code. We had all these things lost with us, standing in a mob on the hiking trail. We were earning our Orienteering Merit Badges, arguing directions beneath black oaks. Among creepers and ferns and tiny signs identifying other plants.
The SPL's name was an anagram. All things were anagrams, some without vowels. I'd learned this from the back-page puzzles in Boys' Life magazine. A subscription came with your dues to the troop, and it told stories of loyalty, Christianity, and service. The magazines featured pictures of concept cars and kits for turning vacuums into hovercrafts. There were ads for throwing-knife targets, for air rifles, for gun camps. There were articles on how to make bridges out of rope.
I didn't speak into the mob. Into the noise. Everyone else was older than me. We were tired. We were lost. One of the boys was crying. I couldn't do orienteering. Not well. I could do fires. I won awards for starting fires with wet wood, for starting them at competitions in artificial winds blown from rented industrial fans.
I stuck with what I knew. I learned how to make all kinds of fires all kinds of ways. To do my duty to God and my Country.
We were walking to the square. That was something. I didn't want to chance the Mulberry Mob again, though they'd likely dispersed when the Guard rolled through. Those that Mary hadn't burned. The Oak Street intersection wasn't much farther down Broadway. We stayed away from the road, moving when we could through office buildings and parking garages. I didn't want to chance the truck, or the car. There was too high a chance that we wouldn't have open roads. We'd be an obvious target, and if we hit a roadblock, we didn't have the artillery to get ourselves out.
Four had helped Levi rig some more cocktails, with motor oil and gas from a can that we used to fill the lawnmower. We carried two each, on lariats I'd tied for the purpose. Four carried six. She would replace what we used. I assigned the .38 to Mary because she couldn't use a sword.
Later, when I was SPL, when everyone was younger than me, after the troop's first Eagle Scout had gone to prison, after the second had joined the police force, I told them that we weren't lost. There wasn't any discussion. I only allowed Patrol Leaders to carry compasses. Everyone had jobs. Orient, read. Carry the matches. Be important to the troop. We need you to do this. I had my Assistant SPLs run checks, talk with Patrol Leaders about fatigue, morale, backaches. I called stops for rest before the others had to ask. They voted me into the Order of the Arrow for this, and I spent a weekend without talking, among other Order initiates, sleeping on the ground without a tent. I kept the secrets from the rest of the troop. Like I was supposed to. When someone cried, I put him in charge of something. Made him responsible to something other than being twelve-years-old and tired. Made him somebody. Promised him I'd show him how to make fire. I'd call him Prometheus, like calling him "Sport." I'd learned it at his age, reading Mythology. They didn't know what it meant, but they liked taking a new name.
On Oak Street, we moved in Z-file, staggered. Mary followed me, Four followed her. Levi walked last. Without street lights, without flashlights and campfires, we could see the stars. The blurry band of the Milky Way. On Scout campouts, we couldn't even see any constellations—they were too polluted by their own stars, and our dads had to bend the rules to get us our Astronomy Merit Badges, out west at summer camp.
Even Mary, in her white, was hard to see in the dark, when I turned around. I led them straight down the center of the road, between parked and abandoned cars. I wouldn't take them right up against the historic homes that lined the street because I didn't want to alarm anyone. I didn't want to give anyone a reason to think we had come for their things.
At one house, we heard people talking in the side yard, behind a fence. Male voices.
. . . Take no chances . . .
I stopped us. Pulled us into a crouching cluster in the middle of the road.
"Mary," I ordered. "Cocktail."
I couldn't let this bunch, talking into the dark, get the jump on us.
She pulled loose a cocktail and set it on the asphalt. Four handed her another to fill the empty lariat.
"Light it," I told Four.
She did, hiding the mostly blue flame with her cupped hands.
"Levi," Prometheus, "divert their attention."
I looked at Mary. Grabbed her shoulder. "You and Four, thirty yards ahead. Get the jump."
She grabbed Four, and they took off, sprinting low and quiet. Practicing ninjutsu without the tall grass. You were supposed to run like your hands were holding rails.
I stood up with Levi, and he threw the cocktail.
On my twenty-first birthday, Adam and I went bar-hopping around the Strip. On the way home, down Oak Street, with its better sidewalks than Mulberry, I bummed cigarette after cigarette from Adam. I'd been smoking them with him that night, which was something new to do—together—since returning from the west. From the university in Lubbock, that first year. From weekend visits to my cousin's farm.
Later, I convinced him to quit.
The Strip-rat was not in the street anymore. When I looked at the Wailing Wall, I was tired. It showed something that couldn't have been real, so I looked away. It was dark.
It couldn't have been real.
I didn't look back, in case it was.
From Chapter Sixteen
IN THE DESERT, you think about water. About the fields of dew-traps these Outsiders, these "moles," had dug, to harvest moisture from the air. Alongside the farming plots they'd tilled. The moles whose Place this had been. Now, the traps were just funnels of dust in the earth, the collectors under the obscured tarps like so many ant-lions, waiting. The soil rigs in the plots were being re-duned in different directions that better suited the wind, caused by the storm we had finally caught, driving west. The rains had been slight—the clouds weren't ready—but it had been dragging a dust storm.
They were idiots. This shouldn't have been their Place. The storms were no good. It should only have been a stop on the way.
We knew all about this Nike site—about all three parts of it. It was a derelict leftover from Project Nike—a Missile Defense Program from 1950, when we worried about bombers at 60,000 feet that would bring down the sky. The facilities themselves were much smaller than the larger parts.
Adam and I had traded two fifty pound bags of flour and a twenty-five pound bag of salt, which we took from L.D. Pizza, for a manifest of decommissioned facilities like this. It listed coordinates, conditions, current occupants. It used words like "kennel" and "hutch," and came with a crib sheet for decoding all the terms.
You think about finding water, about keeping it. Creating a society around the maintenance of water. The philosophies and cultures it requires. It is its own way to the underworld, another door to a different immortality—faerie, perhaps. From the Germanic Old Country, the reflecting pools and grottos and undersea realms. And of course, from Greece. The naiads and the nymphs. Water was a diviner's lens in a bowl with essential oils. Another way to find the animal that is a better you than you.
Water is the collector, the dew-trap at the bottom of the tarp-funnel—function as form, the Charybdis waiting. So many ways out. The darkness, the smoke, the holes in the earth. The mirrors and the water. The bullet from the gun in the hands of the mole who'd been ready, down here in the bunker. This was not an underworld because there were no flowers.
This site wasn't far from Amaranth, relatively speaking. It was one of our options, a second-place on our way out. In case we needed one. We knew it would be occupied, like the others, which meant that, if we needed to go there, taking it would be primarily an exercise in vigilance. We hadn't counted on the firepower we had now. We hadn't counted on the Jacks and what they had cooked.
You think about lakes and reservoirs. About fly fishing, which is hard. It's an enterprise in the water, a father's rite that sons had to learn. Over our five-day vacation, I caught one rainbow trout, which should have gotten away. In the water, the rubber waders sucked to your legs. A tight fit, a way to be in the water without it knowing, so you could take its fish.
Until, later in the summer, at the same campground, a fifteen-year-old son let the water in by accident, dipping his chest too low to the popping river, to swipe the net at the fish, and the waders became the naiad's kiss, slipping down his chest, dragging him down, down to live dead forever in places with perfect flowers.
Sometimes, it is the sons, and not the fathers, who die.
The first time I saw a dust storm, I was out west with Her. It came upon the horizon like urban smog, a brown thing displacing the sky, a stain that could not be avoided. The red farmer's earth had developed wings, moving in ways that defied normal motion. It swallowed the entire town, dragging it down. You wedged damp towels into doorjambs and window frames, but still your apartment smelled like dust. It smelled cold.
When it was gone, the dirt was piled in drifts like snow. From white to red. Something bloody on something not. Like Mary. Bloody Mary.
You think about Possum Kingdom Lake. Where my grandfather died before I met him, face down in the water. Bobbing drunk and unconscious and drowning in the hollowed-out floor of the fishing cabin at the end of the pier, under the gooseneck lamps that sucked up the moths. He had a copy of Aristotle's Poetics in his pocket. But it's not that simple. That wasn't a philosophy for keeping water.
When the storm started, Levi managed to orient us, using a map and our GPS reader. By the time we were close to the Project Nike site, the storm was upon us.
My father had grown up in the red earth, out here in oil country. He and his brothers chased dust devils and stole produce and killed time. Which is what you did in farm-and-oil country. My grandfather's truck was as silver as silicon. He was a rig man, a pumpjack man, and his truck is what kept him from the dust and the wind, circled with the other company men's trucks—like wagons—to deflect the eddies in the wind that could turn them over. There was never any paint on the trucks because the sand blasted it off. No rust, no blood. No evidence of oil.
The moles' Place housed a broadcast tower, a big, hulking digital thing—the only use that either the government or the private sector still had for the place. We picked up the 'cast on an F.C.C. radio band, and it said "Stay in your homes. Obey law enforcement instruction" over and over and over, co-opting the Salvage repeat. We followed the tower's blinking, bloody lights straight through the storm.
For Salvage, repetition was meaning. Things had to be 'cast, picked up, re-'cast, looped and digitized and taken apart. They had to be jammed and spliced and re-arranged, so that the same things reappeared, over and over, in different ways. They had to be written, spray-painted, robbed of vowels, glyphed and tattooed. They had to be burned out of their buildings, taken before they could be stolen. They had to be the very shirt off your back, so they could be given away, even if someone else had to give it for you. Salvage had to be sure that what it heard, what it said, was right. Hearing something, reading something, touching something again and again—as long as everyone else was getting it too—made it right. Made it real.
If you only said something once, then you were just talking into the darkness, sounding distance. Making noise. Talking to hear yourself speak, like watching mirrors with the lights off.