You are aware that you are reading a story. You are aware of the texture of the back of your teeth. You are aware that you are breathing through only one nostril. You are aware that the tip of your nose never really disappears from view. You are aware that you’ve started breathing through your mouth. You are aware that you will die. You are aware that when you die, you will face the Unknown alone. You are aware that you probably haven’t prepared for your inevitable mortality with the due diligence the task requires. In the world as she once was, you could have probably counted on heart disease or cancer to do you in. Comfortable and dry in your clapboard suburban home, death drops in unannounced, ignoring your No Soliciting signs almost as if their feeble warding power held no suasion over the Final Caller. You are aware of a crawling dread.
My people were once familiar with death, that old friend. We kept our boneyards close. We brought gifts to the fallen. We gathered round the corpse, painted it together, put ferry-coins on its eyes, and sang the dirge melody with all the weight of six feet of damp loam. We slowly forgot. We kicked death out like a naughty puppy that piddled on the hardwood floor. We shuttled mortal remains around hospitals in false-bottom gurneys laden with prop tech gear so that the tender eyes of the living wouldn’t have to taste the horror of the final beyond, even briefly, even by proxy. We cut back on funeral processions. We outsourced burial, granting exceptional rents, both political and cultural, to those few merchants who remained to tend mortal debris. Casket manufacturers, for example, had long since successfully petitioned the state for special exemptions from anti-trust measures and could freely collude with local monopolist mortuaries to bilk grieving, distracted survivors who just wanted all this unpleasantness to be over. No better time to make an upsale than when the customer’s eyes are blinded by tears, after all.
But then we lost our faith and with it our pretty little aversions. We didn’t just unlock the doggy door to death back in, tail still wagging. No, we bulldozed the back wall of the house. There was no longer anything to separate the tender affectations of the living from the brutal work of turning mankind’s lights out one by one. There were too many to bury, after all.
Me: “Your farm had electricity, right? I can’t remember.”
Anika: “A little. We had an electric pump for the well and a few other little things. Why?”
Me: “Do you know what an ‘EMP’ is?”
I could swear I heard the little hard drive in her head whirring, scanning for some mention on the bookshelves of her young memory.
Anika: “I…” she hesitated, perhaps thinking this was some sort of test of character or something, “I don’t think so, but maybe I just forgot. What is it?”
Me: “EMP is short for ‘electro-magnetic pulse.’ Though there are ways to mimic the effect, the original occurred during the old Los Alamos above-ground nuke tests. A nuclear detonation releases a lot of stuff, from the pressure wave to a wall of angry neutrons to broad-spectrum high-energy gamma radiation. And that includes a storm of magnetism.”
I paused both for dramatic effect and to peek under the bandage around my ankle to see if that angry purple hue had begun to diminish. It hadn’t.
Anika: “Magnetism? I used to have a compass, but Jim Secondis ruined it with a magnet. You mean like that?”
Me: “That’s right. Same idea, only the magnetism doesn’t last long and it’s super powerful. The way an electric motor or generator works is to convert back and forth between motion, electricity, and magnetism. An electric current through a copper wire creates a tiny little magnetic field. Like you saw with your compass, a magnetic field can push things. If you want to push things heavier than a compass needle, you have to add up all those magnetic fields. To do that, you wind up a really thin, really long wire.”
Anika: “So it’s like a copper rope?”
Me: “More like a, uh, what’s it called when you store yarn but you don’t want to ruin it by having it an a ball?”
Anika: “A skein.”
Me: “Yeah. It’s a copper skein, and you wind it around a metal core, or maybe sometimes it’s hollow. Whatever. You put a few of these around a moving spindle called a rotor and a bunch more in a stationary array around the rotor called a stator. When you run electricity to it, the rotor spins around and you can use that motion to run a pump or whatever you need it for. That’s an electric motor.”
Anika: “What does that have to do with an EMP?”
Me: “Well, to keep the electricity from skipping from wire to wire in a winding, it has to be lacquered. This acts as insulation, you see. There’s actually not a whole lot of current going through a winding, so the lacquer doesn’t have to be super thick. But when there’s a big magnetic pulse, that lacquer gets compromised. It’s like putting too much water in a balloon. Once it pops, there’s no unpopping it, not without rewinding the thing from scratch with a fresh coat of lacquer.”
Anika: “What’s a balloon?”
For this, she earned enough stinkeye to make her drop the act and start giggling. I don’t care if the world already ended, there’s no way an eight year old kid didn’t know what a balloon was.
Me: “Getting a backhoe up and running after an EMP takes more than jiggling the keys a few times. You have to replace the starter, tear out all the old electronics, probably swap out the battery, I don’t even know what else. EMP kills lots of stuff, more yet for newer things that always seem to have computers in them somewhere. PCB varnish gets fried the same as winding lacquer.”
Anika: “Why’d they put computers in everything?”
Me: “Data management, maybe? When you’re designing new products, it helps to know what tends to break out in the field. Also, it’s easier, faster, and more precise to tune things digitally. And it was cheaper. In the 70s, a computer chip would cost you an arm and a leg, so carburetors made economic sense. Once computing got cheap enough, you’d be crazy not to switch to computerized fuel injectors. Plus, politics got involved along the way too.”
Anika: “How are cars political?”
Me: “Well, automobiles were big business in old America. Big business and big politics make for cozy friends.”
She snorted at that.
Anika: “Not anymore.”
Me: “Not anymore.”
We were nearing the mouth of the stream. I could see a silvery sliver of the Pacific in the glare of the weird sun. I had been putting off a difficult decision for too long. Should I hobble up to Crescent City under my own wind or send the kid in to do my scouting for me? Faith may have died when the bombs fell, but honor was only wounded. I’ve done horrific things, but sending a child into danger was beneath even my fallen standards. Still, children have always enjoyed the mixed blessing of general invisibility. Kids grow up fast, and it could be that maybe that’s actually Jim and Martha’s daughter and you haven’t seen her since the picnic a few years ago and maybe that’s her but maybe not and eh, it’s not that important anyway so why bother and I’m busy today anyway so who really cares? I, contrarily, enjoy no such special privilege. To hide my presence, I am obliged to skulk in the dead of night.
Anika: “Like a robber.”
Anika: “Robbers sneak around at night. That’s what you were mumbling to yourself, wasn’t it? You want to be a robber.”
Me: “I… I wasn’t talking to you. And you’re wrong. Robbers don’t sneak around. You’re thinking of burglars.”
Anika: “What’s the difference?”
Me: “The difference is everything. After the EMP, after we couldn’t bury our dead anymore, information security changed.”
Anika: “Okay, I think you need to sit down and have a drink of water. You’re not making any sense.”
Me: “The reason we can’t just take someone’s chit is because they’re coded.”
Me: “Coded. Yes. Have you seen one before?”
Anika: “Those guys with the wagons in Sacramento had one. It’s just a piece of wood with some holes in it and some weird writing on it.”
Me: “Exactly. Those holes and the weird writing line up with one of a couple dozen decoder plates carried by the NPFTPA patrols. You speak your password, then the patrol leader fits the plate pegs into the chit holes. If your password matches the completed phrase, you’re good to go. If not…”
Anika: “If not, what?”
Me: “Do you know what ‘abacination’ is?”
Anika: “You just made that up.”
Me: “Lye is easy enough to make using nothing but the ashes from a campfire. It is also incredibly corrosive. If you get lye on your skin, you better have something acidic to wash it off or it’ll eat clean through you.”
Anika: “Yeah, so?”
Me: “Applied to the eyes, lye does more than just blind you, it eats the eyes clean out of your skull and if the one punishing you is too generous with the dose, it can run right straight into your brain, making you blind and semi-vegetative. That’s what they do to people who’ve been caught with a stolen chit.”
Anika gasped. As in she literally gasped for breath, and found herself unable to speak clearly.
Me: “Haven’t you wondered why we’re carrying orange powder and why we didn’t bother getting a chit? This stuff is contraband up here. People like us, well like me, used to be called ‘smugglers’ or ‘drug mules.’ I’m a criminal, and you are my accomplice.”
She looked thoughtful for a moment.
Anika: “It seems like we’re doing the right thing. Maybe being a smuggler isn’t so bad.”
Me: “Enjoy the feeling you’re experiencing right now. That’s what wisdom feels like.” I spotted a good snarl for us to camp under and pointed. “That’s what I mean about the difference between robbery and theft. Robbery is face-to-face, up close and personal. Theft is surreptitious.”
Anika: “You make up a lot of funny words, you know.”
Me: “It means ‘sneaky.’ Anyone can be sneaky and steal a chit, so the NPFTPA used an old opsec trick to get around that.”
Anika: “What trick?”
Me: “There are three types of security: something you know, something you have, and something you are.”
Anika: “Okay, so what?”
Me: “The cannibal gangs in Texas were the ‘something you are’ with the Mark ov Kane on their foreheads. That’s a key you can’t put down and one you can’t pick up easily. The chits themselves are something you have, and the password is something you know. It’s two layers. Two layers are better than one layer.”
Anika: “I don’t know, I think the Texas ghouls’ one layer was pretty effective.”
Me: “Yeah, you got me there. Still, it’s a fairly secure system here. There’s some hijacking and kidnapping from time to time to get around it, but stealing a chit is basically the same as painting a bullseye on your chest and begging to be shot.”
Anika: “I thought you said they blinded them.” She knew what I meant.
Me: “You know what I mean. Anyway, it’s funny you mention it. It makes me think of the old robber barons.”
Anika: “What’s a robber baron?”
Me: “19th century titans of industry. They were into lumber, oil, steel, copper, all sorts of big commodities like that. They owned huge firms, often monopolies, and they were extremely reviled by the journalists and academic elite of the day. At least one of them bought a bunch of favor with the urban aristocracy by founding museums, libraries, universities, and that sort of stuff.”
Anika: “So how were they robbers?”
Me: “Good question. One way to look at it is that they bought up politicians to do their dirty work for them: push rivals out of business, make it too expensive for new companies to start up, that sort of thing. That’s a kind of robbery, I think. Another way to think of it is that all the forests they cut down, all the oil they drilled from the earth, all the land they harvested is an endowment to all of humanity, and by claiming it, they robbed others from the opportunity to do the same.”
Anika: “But that’s silly. If others wanted to cut down trees, why didn’t they just do it?”
Me: “It probably didn’t occur to them. Anyway, the way I like to think about it is that the robber baron stole something extremely precious from the men with the flowery pens: they stole status. they proved that you don’t have to be quick with your words, refined in your mannerisms, or gentle in your disposition to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They shattered the lie that dilettante aristocrats and their scribes were the pinnacle of human achievement. And they were reviled for it.”
Anika: “You’re weird sometimes.”
Me: “No fire tonight. And no more talking. I have some thinking to do.”
I could swear the tide was laughing at me, mocking me as if it knew what was coming.