Next chapter of The Border. My article at its usual 7AM.
He his gear into his bugout bag. The pistol, three spare magazines, fully loaded. Combat knife. Compass. Small pry bar. Flashlight and police scanner. A loaf of bread. Peanut butter. Two liters of water. He put on the dead man’s uniform. It was dirty. It smelled like nightmare. He noticed tiny spots of blood on the sleeve. “Robertson”, the tag above the pocket said. Was that the same name on the forms, the ID? It didn’t matter yet. For a moment he thought about leaving his paintings at the Major’s door. But someone would steal them, and he didn’t want to knock. The Major would be up. Betts decided he would write him later, if it was safe. He shut off the lights. In the dark he went to the window and peeked out, watching carefully. Night was hard down. An ocean of lights was burning, flowing to edges of blackness. He wondered how he would take the night wilderness. The rumors started coming to his memory again, the mutant animals out there.
He came down the stairs with an extra gallon of water in his hand. As he passed the Major’s door he heard “La Putanesca” playing on his old phonograph. The alley was clear. Quickly he crossed and checked around the car. No one had bothered it. He withdrew his knife from his ruck and turned to the sky, looking for Sirius. But the molido was too thick. So he faced where he thought it was, and held the knife to the star, and prayed:
“Mighty Wodan, show me the path. Grant me courage. Grant me force.”
It was a brutal prayer to a brutal god, appropriate for his world. He said it softly. It sounded loud as a bomb. He started the engine, let it warm one minute, and drove off.
He kept the car dark as he twisted down the alleys towards Market Street, taking a route different from the one he took in. As he was crossing Arch Street a figure materialized in front of him and he jammed the brakes. The man seemed not to care; he continued hobbling across, dragging a foot like an animal escaped from a trap. Betts watched him. The man stopped, turned to Betts. His face was twisted behind a matt of beard hair, his skin burned by years of exposure to the elements. He stood there, watching Betts, then came towards the car. People of the Old City knew him as “Mr. Matrix”—and little more. He never asked for anything. He was moving, or he would come stand before you and wait. And you would do something. His aura gained him respect, like a holy beggar of the Hindus. Betts dug out coins and dropped them in Mr. Matrix’s hand. Mr. Matrix let them roll off; they rang on the pavement. Then Betts gave him his apartment key. Mr. Matrix closed his fist on it. Betts pulled away.
On Market he cut his headlights on and turned on the police scanner. He drove west a few blocks, then south on 10th Street. On the seat beside him the scanner, turned low, was running its probes. The net was relatively quiet this night. Next to it was the compass. As Betts drove he listened carefully for mention of his car, or any police scramble. He came to South Street and turned west.
He came into the downtown, a canyon illuminated day bright. It made him uneasy. He continued to drive in a casual maner. On the public telescreen above Warburg Square was the face of Magdalena Voz. She was talking; there was no audio. This was a rebroadcast of yesterday’s news feed. She was the System’s most effective female propagandist. He turned on the broadcast radio but didn’t find her voice. Her lips were moving and that alone was enough to seize the attention of any heterosexual man. Most people thought her a dolly news presenter, but she was far more—very smart, a first-rate operative and a sub-minister in the Ministry Of Information. Her beauty was shocking. She was said to be a former butterfly, a daughter of a Venezuelan diplomat, who had set up capos in Latin America. It was said she sucked the oxygen out of a room when she entered; she literally arrested the most powerful men in the world in mid-sentence. The Major had spoken of her, although she came after his time. Magdalena kept hundreds of millions of men in line. If she told them they should not complain about higher taxes on tobacco and liquor, they wouldn’t. If she told young men that the Army needed more patriotic volunteers, recruiting would go up. If she suggested to men that they take faster showers, and save water, they did. If she told them to be more polite to the police, they would. And so on.
Betts went on, anxious to be out of the canyons of light. Lots of cops were around. He felt their glances and he turned increasingly nervous. If he was pulled over he would have to hide the scanner, the compass, his bag. They’d search his car and it would be over for him. He shut the scanner off, hid it under the seat. He turned on the two-way radio instead. He was medical inspector George Robertson, or Robinson, on his way to Conshohocken Jail to conduct a predawn inspection of prisoners for tuberculosis. The illegible photo ID dangled from his neck.
He felt enormous pumps and generators working beneath the streets. His car busting through clouds of steam pouring from the grates, and being practically alone on these streets. Altogether the city was an alienscape. A concrete Hades where the dead go. Still, the temperature was muggy and he wondered how steam made its way up. What weird shit was going on down there? He rolled the window further down. One good thing about night in New Philly—maybe the only thing—the air was relatively clean. The dust settled a bit. He rolled on through without incident. The towers receded in his rearview. His destination was a certain, minor access gate in the wall along the Western Freeway. He wondered again if the chip would pass him through the access gates and plazas. Well, he couldn’t worry any more. If the alarm sounded he would back up if he could, and go for his second route. Or he would simply plead that the chip in his car was defective. He also fretted that the car’s chip might not override the chip in his body. What then? He didn’t know… He continued on South Street, and came to the Schuylkill bridge. He crossed and went around the psych prison, feeling the place; it gave him the creeps. He listened to the chatter on the two-way. All irrelevant to him. He brought the scanner and compass back out. He didn’t know the name of this road now, but it was going in the direction he wanted. He kept on. He turned off only once, when he saw an ambulance and several squad cars ahead. He looped around them and then he was approaching the Cobbs Creek projects, notoriously violent and a drug center. He skirted the scene also, and came back out.
He listened carefully to the two way, turning the freaks manually. There wasn’t much going on. He glanced at his compass to make sure he was heading right; though he knew his route by memory, sometimes you could be disoriented by the night. Anyone could. The buildings began to thin; he was entering the older suburbs. He thought the houses beautiful, constructed with imagination and skill. Mid-level ministry workers lived in most; some homes even had lawns.
The streets began to rise; he was leaving the river plain. The buildings were dark, their occupants sleeping. As he drove on, alert but remembering too, he recalled that one gate along the freeway, named W1.5S, his first choice to enter the Buffer Zone. It was the closest to the river. He hoped, oh he hoped like hell, the thing was open. He came to Merritt Avenue and turned. The ground rose further. Sometimes he saw the dome of light of the downtown rise in his rearview mirror, then sink away as he went over the brow of the hill. Betts kept alert for cop cars in the shadows. Not that he could do anything if one came after him. The hell he couldn’t. He could shoot the bastard. But he kept watching, for the tiny comfort of avoiding surprise. He passed one cruiser, and against his willpower his knuckles went white. But nothing happened. The cop was probably napping. It was a cynical, exhausted night in New Philadelphia.
He came into an old industrial strip. Huge brick factories and stacks, cranes and gantries stood black and heavy against the sky. He slowed to cross many railroad tracks shot with weeds. He clattered over a narrow steel bridge, a small tributary to the Schuylkill. The river was nothing like its natural form. Over the centuries it had been embanked and diverted, toxified and recovered and murdered again. Few people had much use for a river any more except as a source of water, and a reason to build a bridge. And though the Schuylkill was running it too was a mutant. Like everything. Maybe, Betts was thinking, somewhere out in the Free Zone he could find someone competent to cut off the extra small toe on his left foot. And maybe, maybe, remove this cursed chip…
He heard a rumble he knew very well, coming from south. Nothing he could do except keep on; he was in the open. The DPS helicopter passed over, lights blinking in the black sky, thundering and vibrating the earth. He couldn’t see much of it. He waited for the spotlight, but it didn’t come. They had seen him—of course—but they kept on. Maybe they weren’t patrolling; maybe they were running some personnel. The beam from a DPS chopper could turn you into daylight. Betts had been spotlighted and it made you feel like an insect pinned to a board. The sounds and lights faded and were gone.
He came to the decisive intersection—he thought of it as his Rubicon—turned right, and there was the wall. He drove along it. The Western Freeway was on the other side. He passed minor streets, open lots, the sites of demolished houses. The security architects had cleared this area for the freeway construction. He covered another mile. Two miles. He turned onto Sunset Mill Road. He crossed another old bridge, climbed the opposite slope. At the top were trees, lots of trees, large and healthy. The freeway was off to the left now; he couldn’t hear it. He pulled over, cut the lights, bumped across the field to a tree with low branches. He checked carefully, saw no lights anywhere near him, heard no dogs, sirens. There were no structures. It was a remarkable oasis and he wondered what happened here in daylight. Surely someone used this place for something. The air was cool and sweet; the canopy was filtering the air. He got out with his flashlight under a red lens and opened the trunk and removed the foil from the transponder. He sat with his back against the bole and looked at the city.
There it was, miles off, a vast slag pile with a billion lights. Even through the molido, which was moderate tonight, the city burned with a fantastic intensity. The sight engaged him beyond a healthy detachment; he started thinking that there must be some oasis in there for people like himself. Certainly there was, if you gave yourself to serve the System. And like many people he wondered how something so big could hold together. He decided that it was a colony mentality. When millions of people operate as though a situation is normal and right, the result works. The carpet of light stretched down to the black line of the Delaware River. On the other side it continued less intense. It was too much.
He was not so concerned about time. His operational window was large. Looking at the city below he thought again of a subject he and the Major had discussed many times: population. They had agreed that the most decent way to reduce the birthrate was to de-populate the mega cities—disperse the populations. In effect, reverse the Federation’s policy. Concentration facilitates increased birth rates. The populations should be removed to clusters of small settlements with three to five miles of agricultural land between. The populations would not have personal transportation, and public transportation between the towns would be limited. They would work within bicycle or foot distance from their homes. This system would work. It would reduce the number of sexual liaisons. But two obstacles blocked this: the System wanted everyone in one hive, to better to control them and milk their money; and the dispersed plan would cost more than the concentrated plan. Those two factors alone negated the Major’s township idea. It wasn’t going to happen, ever—not under this System.
And the System was inoculating the mobs with immune-deficiency causators anyway. But they weren’t dying fast enough. Well, thought Betts, Nature’s hand would eventually cull them, and the elites.
A breeze rolled in, scented with flowers and new green. He could still smell the city, but the wild smells entered his head and the inside filled with super-oxygenated air. The objects before him shook a microsecond, and clarified into sharp outlines. He found himself thinking about the so-called elite. They lived out there, most of them, in the Free Zone. Close in to the border, so they could fly or drive to their jobs. “Maybe I’ll get lucky out there,” he muttered to himself. Which meant what? He wasn’t sure.
The propagandists had perfected the art of zoological fantasms. They had lied to the masses about mutant animals, which were present, they were told, in the Buffer Zone and Free Zone, to keep them frightened and in the cities. The masses, huddled for generations in the cities, with no contact with wild nature, did not understand animals. They watched animal documentaries but the shows lied, to frighten and awe them, to make them superstitious. The first motive of animal “documentaries” was, like that of every program, political control. In food stores they bought meat, but they didn’t associate it with breathing animals. It was food, in plastic. There was no blood or hide. The vegetables were synthetic, without smells of earth or nectar. The masses’ contact with the natural world was sanitized. The city parks were beaten down caricatures of forests. After multiple generations in cities the people didn’t know what a wild animal is, nor even a domestic farm animal. The total effect was a distorted idea of wild nature. The occasional urban fox or raccoon they encountered had an awful effect.
Betts himself had been influenced by this campaign. He was glad he had a pistol. He wasn’t looking forward to traversing that wilderness along the Buffer Zone. And his fate in the wider Free Zone—the world—was another dimension.
He gazed a final time at the lesion called New Philadelphia, imagining the riots and fires that would take it down. Heartily he wished they would come soon and burn the foul place to the stones. He drove off. He continued down Sunset Mill Road until it dead ended at the wall. He heard the freeway roaring on the other side, felt the energy of it. This was it.
He turned right and came to the access ramp. This gate was unmanned. He tensed as he approached the sensor gantry. The red light changed to yellow, to green. The gate raised. He drove through, watching his rearview with his heart in his throat, for the explosion of lights that signalled a transponder violation. But it stayed quiet. He came down the ramp and joined the stream of vehicles.
The volume wasn’t bad now. In a few hours it would resemble Calcutta in the 20th century. But he would be long gone by then. Most of the traffic was inbound, most of it supply trucks. Industrial vehicles had their own lanes down the center, segregated by barriers. In the civilian lanes Betts was seeing the first of the daily communters—people from the Free Zone. They drove powerful vehicles—called “stalkers” for some reason—loaded with electronics. They could do everything but fly, and had universal transponders. They, too, had lanes dedicated to them, and if a vehicle not equipped with a universal chip entered their lanes, the nearest DPS station would receive an alert. The stalkers passed in a blur and a whoosh that bespoke the arrogance of the Elite.
Betts kept to the innermost lane, observing the rules carefully. He kept his speed to sixty. His next danger would come at the plaza. Plazas were positioned every mile. They served as a thorough security screen. The first plaza he would hit was converted from a toll plaza built more than a century ago by the old state government of Pennsylvania. This freeway in fact was originally the old Pennsylvania Turnpike, called I-76, an allusion to the Declaration of Independence of 1776 of the Old United States, signed in Philadelphia I.
He couldn’t fight down the shakes. As he came closer and closer he found himself doubting the wisdom of this affair, calling himself names, berating himself. But had he not asked for Wodan’s help? He had. And Wodan would help him. He calmed a little. He went on down the freeway and the lanes narrowed, the warning signs appeared. The vehicles started jockeying. The plaza rose into view, a mass of gantries and lights, with the vehicles piling up in lines. Betts slowed up and joined. Department of Public Safety and the Internal Security Directorate ran the plazas jointly. The arrangement did not work well, which the oligarchs intended in order to keep the security organizations feuding to prevent any from growing too powerful. ISD was much higher caliber than DPS. Most ISD troopers were combat veterans of the overseas wars. ISD and DPS didn’t like each other. Usually ISD took the night shifts. Everyone was nervous in the plazas. ISD troopers were notorious for hating civilians.
The line crawled along. A rhythm was there, a rhythm both morose and mundane—with a subtle terror. He could almost feel the drivers around him whacky with both emotions, boredom and fear. This, too, was an effect the System intended. The operations center appeared on his left: the headquarters building with its holding cells and interrogation rooms in the cellar, bristling with antennae and dishes, cruisers, a helicopter on a pad. The place was ablaze with high intensity lights, reflective glass. On the right, a watchtower. Machine guns used to be mounted there until the System’s security analysts pronounced the masses suffiently cowed and diverted; no longer might they turn violent. The guns were removed. It turned out to be a good ploy; it caused the people to think the System was loosening. Betts couldn’t see the guards in the tower through the mirrored glass.
Troopers hated plaza duty. It was terribly dull, like airport security, and went nowhere for their careers. The young ones got plaza duty, which was higher pay, but still both organizations had a hard time getting enough volunteers. It assigned plaza duty as punishment. DPS patrolmen just out of the academy were usually posted to plaza duty. Duty there was hated especially by former soldiers who had joined to evade the lethal boredom of civilian life. Security was one of the very few action jobs left—and one in which the chances of being wounded or killed were low. And these energetic veterans of the foreign wars were the worst ones to cross. Everyone knew that a plaza guard was one you didn’t want to anger.
Back in the old days, when Betts was working as a DPS monitor in the Rittenhouse Station, he saw a co-worker arrested and led away by internal security. The man was looking around like some animal jerked out of hibernation. Later they learned why he’d been arrested: he was masturbating to pornography while on duty. To Betts that had seemed a likely outcome for a career DPS civilian employee. The incident helped him decide he should get out, fast.
Two cars from the gate now. The line was creeping forward. Betts saw a ISD guard crossing the front lanes. Pouncing the curbs, dressed in black with an Arminius sub-machinegun over his shoulder, he looked like something that lived to kill. He raked his glance over every driver. Betts looked straight ahead, then watched the retreating back, thinking here was a soldier who hated the Elite—the decadent trash who ruled the world. Betts thought he was the sort who one day would plunder them, kill them, take their women and form a military aristocracy.
Now it was Betts’ turn at the gate. The advance buzzer sounded. He pulled up to the rubber bumper and stopped. His nervous hands were crushing the steering wheel, he was gushing sweat as the sensor arms swept his car. He glanced again at the guard, wishing he had that sub machinegun, wishing he was crashing into the bush and some beautiful heathen girl was waiting for him out there... Then the sensor lights turned green, the two-ton gate lifted, and he was through. As he drove off he glanced in the rearview and saw the trooper. He had stopped, was watching something down the freeway—like maybe Betts’ car. His breath caught until he saw the trooper move on, bored. Already he felt exhausted. He wondered what the night would throw at him next. And he wondered, too, which would wear out first: man or machine?