¡¡¡¡Derelict cars began to appear with greater frequency as Mallory crossed over the river and into downtown Dayton. Rusted-out artifacts shoved to one side of the road decades ago, after the Ejection had fried their electronics. Over time they seemed to be gradually fusing with the cracked, washed-out blacktop.
¡¡¡¡The shop was a three-story brown brick building on the north end of downtown. The pawls on her bike clicked slower as she pulled up in front of it. Block letters in faded gold paint proclaimed REVERTE REPAIRS on the front window. Beneath that, in smaller letters: WE FIX YOUR BROKEN THINGS. And beneath that, a hanging sign that said CLOSED. She fished her keys from her rucksack and unlocked the door, then nudged it open with her foot and dragged her bike up the three steps leading inside.
¡¡¡¡The front room was empty. ¡°Hola,¡± she announced.
¡¡¡¡Two counters took up most of the center of the room, and behind each was a workbench. She leaned her bike against a wall and dropped her rucksack on the floor by her workbench, one of two littered with tools, spare parts, works in various states of progress, and other miscellany.
¡¡¡¡Reverte emerged from a door between the workbenches that led to the back, two narrow cardboard tubes in one hand. ¡°Mallory, good morning.¡± He had a neatly groomed beard gone mostly white, and slicked-back hair the same color. Brown eyes peered down at her above the top of chunky black glasses. The top of a faded black Fugazi T-shirt was visible under his partially unbuttoned Oxford shirt.
¡¡¡¡¡°That time again, huh,¡± she said, indicating the tubes with a nod.
¡¡¡¡The Ejection was the day the sun had erupted and ejected a torrent of plasma and magnetic fields that washed over the Earth like so much solar vomit.
¡¡¡¡¡°Indeed it is.¡± He walked over to the wall where a rectangular marquee-style frame made of gold-finished steel hung. Behind the glass was a poster for a movie she had watched for the first time the month before: The Planet of the Apes. It was weird and goofy, but she¡¯d liked the costumes and makeup, and the act of watching moving pictures on a screen was still a novel enough experience to delight her.
¡¡¡¡Reverte opened the frame and removed the poster, then carefully rolled it up and stuck it in one of the tubes. From the other tube he took out another poster, unrolled it, and placed it inside the frame. It was one she¡¯d never heard of before, but that wasn¡¯t a surprise. The few movies she¡¯d seen were ones Reverte had shown her.
¡¡¡¡The Ejection, Reverte had once explained while extremely drunk on cheap red wine, the day the sun had erupted and ejected a torrent of plasma and powerful magnetic fields that washed over the Earth like so much solar vomit, took out most of the electrical grid and fried three-quarters of all electronics in the world. Movie discs became pretty coasters overnight because nothing could play them. Over the years, Reverte had managed to get a few players into working order, and movie nights became a regular thing.
¡¡¡¡¡°I dig the art. Do you have this one?¡± she asked.
¡¡¡¡¡°Alas, I do not.¡± Reverte maintained a library of movies, but it was small, since so many of the discs had been trashed in the angry early days after the Ejection.
¡¡¡¡They tended to stick to sci-fi and fantasy. The few dramas and comedies she¡¯d seen that took place just before the Ejection were surreal to her¡ªwindows into a world of waste and frivolous concerns, with characters always staring at the screens in their hand, and she just couldn¡¯t relate.
¡¡¡¡Reverte regarded the poster for another moment, then went to the door and flipped the CLOSED sign to OPEN.
¡¡¡¡She was one hour into tearing apart an ancient IBM Model B typewriter when the day went to shit.
¡¡¡¡The guts of the red machine were spread out on the workbench, each piece carefully arranged so she would know later how to reassemble it. Though she¡¯d never worked on a Model B before, she was reasonably confident she could figure it out. And if she couldn¡¯t, there was a veritable library in the back of the shop full of old manuals and repair guides that Reverte had amassed over the years.
¡¡¡¡The door chime jangled, and she looked up. A white man of indeterminate middle age backed into the shop, pulling behind him a limping shopping cart, the contents of which were concealed by a yellow tarp. Reverte offered a greeting as he met the man at the counter.
¡¡¡¡¡°How can I help you?¡±
¡¡¡¡The guy said his name was Donovan. He was wearing a navy nylon jacket despite it being hot as balls outside.
¡¡¡¡¡°I need you to fix something. It¡¯s an emergency.¡± Donovan removed the tarp, revealing something that looked kind of like a portable heater. It was about two feet tall, a foot wide. Beige plastic that had aged into a sickly yellow. A control panel at the top. He picked up the thing by a handle and set it on the counter.
¡¡¡¡¡°This is ¡ an oxygen machine?¡± asked Reverte.
¡¡¡¡Donovan looked visibly relieved. ¡°Yes, an oxygen concentrator. It¡¯s my wife¡¯s. It stopped working early this morning. She has COPD and needs a constant supply of oxygen to breathe. How fast can you fix it?¡±
¡¡¡¡Reverte began to examine the concentrator. ¡°What¡¯s wrong with it?¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°I¡¯m not sure. The air just stopped flowing and it started to smell like something was burning inside. It¡¯s never happened before.¡±
¡¡¡¡Not good, Mallory thought. A burning smell coming from a piece of electronics this old usually meant a board had flamed out or the power supply was bad. Not an easy fix. Speaking of power ¡
¡¡¡¡¡°If your wife needs constant oxygen, how do you run this thing all day?¡± she asked.
¡¡¡¡¡°I¡¯m a supervisor at the power plant. Get eight hours a day as part of my salary. The rest of the time, we have several small generators, which we charge when the power¡¯s on. Thank God we always keep a couple extra charged, just in case. Otherwise we¡¯d be fucked right now.¡±
¡¡¡¡Eight hours of juice, she thought, a day? Most folks she knew, herself included, would be lucky to afford that much over a couple weeks. One of many reasons she loved her job. The shop was powered by camouflaged solar panels on the roof. The skin on the panels reflected the brick roof while letting light through to the cells below. If you were above it, looking down, it just looked like tan brick. Came in handy for the occasional drone that might fly by. Reverte was conservative with their use, but they generally had power most of the day.
¡¡¡¡Eight hours of juice, she thought, a day?
¡¡¡¡Reverte carefully set the concentrator back down on the counter. ¡°I am sorry,¡± he said, ¡°but I¡¯m not going to be able to fix this. This kind of medical equipment is very delicate, very complicated, and falls outside my realm of expertise. You need to take this to a hospital.¡±
¡¡¡¡Donovan made a sound of disgust. ¡°Yeah, right. I can¡¯t afford that kind of money.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°I have a friend whose wife does the books for a medical equipment repair place at Valley North. I¡¯ll write you a note. Take it there, and they may be able¡ª¡±
¡¡¡¡Donovan slammed a fist down on the counter, rattling a screwdriver.
¡¡¡¡¡°You don¡¯t understand. I don¡¯t have that kind of time. I need you to fix it.¡± Sweat was running down his forehead.
¡¡¡¡¡°I¡¯m sorry, but¡ª¡±
¡¡¡¡In a jerky motion, Donovan reached under his jacket and produced a large revolver. His soft, pale hand was trembling. The gun was pointed at Reverte. Mallory froze.
¡¡¡¡Reverte said nothing for a moment, then: ¡°This is not necessary.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°You just made it necessary. Now, I don¡¯t want to hurt anyone. But if that machine isn¡¯t fixed tonight, my¡±¡ªDonovan¡¯s voice cracked¡ª¡°my wife will die.¡± A pause as he visibly pulled himself together. The gun swiveled to point at Mallory. ¡°So your choices are fix this thing or watch her die.¡±
¡¡¡¡Her legs suddenly seemed incapable of holding her weight, and she felt lightheaded. She gripped the edge of the counter. This was a first, having a gun aimed at her. A terrifying first.
¡¡¡¡¡°Enough,¡± Reverte spat. ¡°I will try to fix your machine. But only if you stop pointing that thing at her. Now.¡±
¡¡¡¡Donovan nodded, relaxed his arm. Somewhat. The gun now pointed vaguely between her and Reverte. Mallory found she could breathe again. Somewhat.
¡¡¡¡Reverte squinted at the object in his hands. ¡°The compressor is fucked. It¡¯s getting no current.¡±
¡¡¡¡It had been a tense 10 minutes. The concentrator lay dismantled on the counter. Reverte had systematically observed and tested multiple components. The capacitor was bad, but they had extras. Reverte had to hunt for one in the back, and Mallory again experienced the pleasure of having a gun aimed at her. But once the capacitor was replaced, the machine still wouldn¡¯t produce any air. Then Reverte had tested the compressor.
¡¡¡¡¡°Do you have another one of those in the back?¡± asked Donovan, with an air of cautious hope.
¡¡¡¡Reverte shook his head. ¡°No. This unit requires a specialized compressor. I can¡¯t fix it either, not if it isn¡¯t getting current. Beyond what I can do.¡± A pause. ¡°We cannot help you here.¡±
¡¡¡¡Donovan¡¯s voice was even, but his eyes shined with desperation. ¡°No, no, no.¡± The gun was gripped tightly in his hand again. ¡°I need you to do something.¡± He raised his arm, pointing the gun at Reverte¡¯s chest.
¡¡¡¡Reverte spoke carefully. ¡°I understand your concern.¡± The click of the hammer being pulled back. ¡°However, I¡ª¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Wait,¡± Mallory said. ¡°What about the Cove? They might have one there.¡±
¡¡¡¡Donovan glanced at her but kept the gun trained on Reverte. ¡°The Cove? The black market?¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°It¡¯s more of a gray market, really,¡± she said.
¡¡¡¡Reverte shook his head. ¡°Mallory, you are not going there. It¡¯s too far, too dangerous.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°I¡¯ll be fine,¡± she said, to Reverte. Probably, she added silently, having never actually been to the Cove before. ¡°It¡¯s our best chance to replace that busted ass thing.¡±
¡¡¡¡Reverte made a face as though he¡¯d smelled a fart. ¡°OK,¡± he said, sighing. ¡°But take the Puch.¡±
¡¡¡¡Despite the gravity of the situation, she smiled. The Puch.
¡¡¡¡¡°You have two hours,¡± Donovan said.
¡¡¡¡Mallory cinched the chin strap on her helmet. Caught her reflection in the door¡ªit looked like she had half of a black egg on top of her head. Reverte had insisted she wear both it and the oversized leather jacket adorned with patches of punk bands whose songs she¡¯d only ever heard performed live by other bands.
¡¡¡¡The Puch, 90 pounds of black moped, had been dragged up from the back. Its chrome exhaust and trim were clean but unpolished.
¡¡¡¡¡°Two hours?¡± she said. ¡°You shitting me?¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Mallory ¡ ¡± Reverte warned. He glanced at Donovan, whose jaw was shifting around.
¡¡¡¡She took a breath, exhaled. ¡°It¡¯s 30-plus miles from here. Gonna take me at least an hour to get down there and another to get back.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Fine. You have three hours to be back here. And if you¡¯re late ¡ ¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Yeah. I know.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Be careful,¡± Reverte said. ¡°Stop for no one.¡± She nodded.
¡¡¡¡The Puch topped out at 30 mph. Reverte had let her take the bike out before on several occasions, usually for special jobs. Nothing quite so fraught as this one, though.
¡¡¡¡She opted to take the highway over the low way, even though she¡¯d have to dodge corpsec. On the low way she was less likely to get accidentally murdered by a tractor-trailer, but there was too much shit that could go wrong, like being accosted by bandits, or worse, small-town law enforcement.
¡¡¡¡Infrastructure had not been a priority for the government¡ªany of them¡ªfor a long time, so it was only by the self-interested grace of the corporations that still needed to move product and materiel that the highways were maintained at all. The corporations ¡°sponsored¡± the interstate system, turning them into toll roads that required a special license to use. A license she did not possess, but there were ways around that.
¡¡¡¡She white-knuckled the handlebars for most of the ride, expecting to encounter corpsec or some other asshole around every bend.
¡¡¡¡When she got to the highway¡¯s on-ramp, she rode past it and the attendant toll drone and went down the road to an underpass. Walked the Puch up the underpass¡¯s grassy embankment, and like that she was on the median of the highway. There was little traffic for the moment. The sky was also empty: no corpsec frogs on patrol. She kick-started the bike and darted across the median to the southbound side, staying to the edge.
¡¡¡¡A little blob of color in the Puch¡¯s side mirror grew rapidly larger, becoming a massive slate blue semi overtaking her at a computer-controlled 60 mph. The ubiquitous white, curved arrow logo, painted on plastic aluminum armor, smiled at her as the truck passed by. An armored ronin was standing up, at hip level, through the sentry hole in the top of the cabin, watching her through goggles, likely assessing whether she was a threat to their cargo. Mallory resisted the urge to give them the finger.
¡¡¡¡She white-knuckled the handlebars for most of the ride, expecting to encounter corpsec or some other asshole around every bend. Traffic, though, was light and mostly commercial, and no one hassled her. There was one exciting moment when she a caught a shadow moving from the corner of her eye and thought it was a corpsec frog, but it turned out to be a hawk, gliding through the air.
¡¡¡¡The Cove¡ªofficially Pirate¡¯s Cove, though Mallory had never heard anyone call it that¡ªhad once been a legitimate market with a kitschy name. Over the decades, though, it had transitioned into something that operated on the extralegal side of the law.
¡¡¡¡A wooden sign out front had the Cove¡¯s name painted on in swashbuckling white script. Next to the sign was a yellowed human skeleton. A tricorn hat adorned with the skull and crossbones was affixed to its head. Mallory couldn¡¯t tell if the skeleton was real.
¡¡¡¡She rode up a gravel road to the entrance, which was blocked by a red-and-white swing arm gate. She pulled up to a small shack next to the gate. An old woman was inside. Two younger men, both with the same nose as the old woman, stood outside. They carried powerful-looking automatic rifles.
¡¡¡¡¡°Hi there, dearie,¡± said the old woman. She smiled at Mallory, showing a mouth of straight white teeth. ¡°Your bike is lovely. Haven¡¯t seen a Puch in years. Admission is $50.¡±
¡¡¡¡Less than the cost of a meal at the diner. Relieved, Mallory paid with the money Reverte had given her.
¡¡¡¡¡°Be careful in there, dearie. It can get a bit rowdy at times.¡± One of the men pulled open the arm gate, and Mallory rode inside.
¡¡¡¡The Cove was a sprawling complex of long buildings arrayed in a seemingly haphazard manner. Each building had multiple entrances and exits. She rode past a parking lot containing an assortment of antediluvian cars and trucks, some so old they still had steering wheels, real ones, not the cosmetic kind. Then a smaller roped-off space that had a handful of vehicles of more recent vintage. This area was guarded by several serious-looking men with big rifles.
¡¡¡¡Mallory pulled up to a station where a bunch of bicycles and motorcycles were parked in a row. She found an empty space in the middle and parked. Dismounted the Puch and did a few quick stretches. An armed attendant approached. Mallory gave the woman some cash, the woman gave her a ticket, and then the Puch was secured to a metal bar.
¡¡¡¡Like hitching her horse to a post.
¡¡¡¡The inside of Building 7 was an overwhelming assortment of sights, smells, sounds, and possibly other senses if Mallory had been able to focus enough to recognize them. She felt the beginnings of a panic attack coming on and had to suppress the urge to bolt. Her claustrophobia wasn¡¯t so much triggered by small spaces as it was by crowds of people crushed together, and goddamn was it crammed with people arguing, laughing, haggling, and generally making a ruckus. Kids were playing, darting in and around people. A young Black girl was busking, eyes closed, strumming a languid reggae country song on a guitar.
¡¡¡¡Mallory closed her eyes for a moment, taking deep breaths, focusing on the busker¡¯s syncopated beat. Mallory opened her eyes and felt a bit more centered. She checked her watch. The Seiko¡¯s yellow face told her she had less than an hour to acquire the shit and get out.
¡¡¡¡The building was one long hall, sellers lining both sides in designated spaces partitioned off by metal fencing and plywood. Some of the spaces were barely more than closets; others ran hundreds of feet. And everywhere: people.
¡¡¡¡She passed another busker, this one rapping oldies. Wu-Tang Clan, she believed.
¡¡¡¡The humidity and heat from all the warm bodies were making Mallory sweat inside her leather jacket. The sellers were arranged in no discernible order, and she was not sure where to start. She wandered by a shop that had stacks of pornography and sex toys, a large space with multiple curtained-off stations that advertised discreet medical services, a place called Jean Therapy that sold pre-Ejection denim clothing, and several shops selling an assortment of gun and knives under the wary eye of proprietors armed with guns and knives. After a few moments of unsuccessful browsing, she said fuck it and decided to just start asking people.
¡¡¡¡She checked out six shops before finding one that looked promising. It was stuffed with tables covered in hardware, including a few compressors. None looked like the one she needed, though. She removed the broken compressor in her backpack and showed it to the shopkeeper, a portly guy around her age in denim overalls. He shook his head and directed her to a seller in Building 9. ¡°Jannie¡¯s got all sorts of shit for medical equipment. If she doesn¡¯t have it, no one will.¡±
¡¡¡¡This last statement not filling her with optimism, Mallory thanked the seller and moved in the direction she was reasonably confident would take her to Building 9. She passed another busker, this one rapping oldies. Wu-Tang Clan, she believed.
¡¡¡¡Jannie¡¯s shop was, surprisingly, easy enough to find. Five shops down from the entrance to Building 9, and on the right. A large Black woman was seated on a wooden stool. Behind her were tables covered in a m¨¦lange of things electrical and mechanical, all neatly organized. A couple of small children were running around the shop, playing and laughing.
¡¡¡¡¡°Are you Jannie?¡± asked Mallory.
¡¡¡¡¡°Perfect.¡± Mallory set her rucksack down and took out the compressor. ¡°Do you have one of these? It¡¯s for an oxygen concentrator.¡±
¡¡¡¡Jannie took the part from Mallory and studied it. After a moment, she nodded. ¡°You know, I think I do. Let me check in the back.¡± Jannie started into the depths of her shop. ¡°Come on in,¡± she called over her shoulder.
¡¡¡¡Mallory wandered around the tables, looking at the bits and bobs. On one table, sandwiched between a bin of screwdrivers and a cardboard display of ornamental chopsticks, was a stack of little round discs. Etched into the top disc were the words MY FAIR LADY. Movies, she realized. She flipped through the stack, recognizing nearly none of the titles. Paused on one. The same title as the one on the poster Reverte had installed that morning.
¡¡¡¡One of the kids, a little girl with long braids, came up to her. ¡°I like your jacket,¡± the girl said. Her left forearm was a white and silver prosthesis. A lavender unicorn was painted on it.
¡¡¡¡¡°Thanks. I dig your unicorn.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°What¡¯s a Screeching Weasel?¡± The girl pointed a prosthetic finger at one of the patches on her jacket. Her plastic fingernails were painted a cerulean blue.
¡¡¡¡¡°They¡¯re a band. A very old, but very good band.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Yep, I got one,¡± Jannie said, emerging from the back of the shop. In her left hand was the new compressor, in her right the old one, and tucked in her armpit was a meter. She set the things down on a clear space on one of the tables. ¡°Now let¡¯s make sure it works.¡± She pressed the meter¡¯s red and black probes to the compressor. The needle jumped. ¡°We have power, ladies and gentlemen.¡±
¡¡¡¡Mallory let out a deep breath she hadn¡¯t realized she¡¯d been holding. ¡°What do I owe you?¡± She wasn¡¯t sure what she would do if Jannie quoted a price greater than the cash she had in her rucksack. It would probably involve grabbing and fleeing.
¡¡¡¡¡°We have power, ladies and gentlemen.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Four hundred for the compressor,¡± Jannie said, regarding Mallory evenly. Mallory realized the woman had positioned herself between Mallory and the exit. Thankfully, she still had $550 in her rucksack, so they wouldn¡¯t have to see how things might have played out.
¡¡¡¡¡°Deal. Will you also throw in this?¡± Mallory held up the disc she¡¯d singled out.
¡¡¡¡¡°Sure, why not. You seen it before? It¡¯s a classic.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°So I hear.¡±
¡¡¡¡Donovan¡¯s deadline expired in a little over an hour and a half, so Mallory had time, but she didn¡¯t want to push it either.
¡¡¡¡She made one more stop, a big pink poster board catching her eye. Something here could be ¡ useful, she thought, reading over the things sold inside. The seller, a person of indeterminate gender with a buzzed head and piercing gray eyes, approached and asked if they could help her. Mallory quickly told them her needs, and the seller nodded and beckoned her inside.
¡¡¡¡Five minutes later and another $100 lighter, Mallory was back on the move. The seller had been very helpful.
¡¡¡¡An armada of clouds had moved in, obscuring the worst of the sun¡¯s rays, dropping the temperature a bit. It could almost have been a pleasant ride, had she not been consumed with worry about Reverte the entire time.
¡¡¡¡What if he¡¯d tried to escape and been shot? Or what if Donovan had lost his cool and just killed Reverte? A lot could happen when an agitated man ready to kill to save a loved one, a stubborn old punk with a slightly wonky code of honor, and a gun were stuck in a locked room together for four hours.
¡¡¡¡Lost in anxious thought, she didn¡¯t notice the large shadow that appeared on her left and was rapidly moving to intercept her until it was almost on top of her. She looked up, her brain only having time to register something big and white. She slammed on the brake, bringing the Puch to a hard stop, its front tire kicking up dust.
¡¡¡¡The car-sized corpsec drone descended silently, until it was 10 feet in front of her, hovering just above the ground. The drone¡¯s squat body resembled a frog being held aloft by four hydrogen-fueled quad engines. The yellow star and blue logo of its corporate master were emblazoned on the frog¡¯s white ¡°head.¡±
¡¡¡¡The frog addressed her through a recessed loudspeaker, in a voice lacking human inflection. ¡°You are being detained on suspicion of unsanctioned passage on Interstate WM-Seven-Five. Place your hands behind your head.¡±
¡¡¡¡The frog addressed her through a recessed loudspeaker, in a voice lacking human inflection.
¡¡¡¡Mallory complied, her arms feeling heavy. No, she thought. Not now. If they seized the Puch as punitive compensation, Reverte¡¯s fate was as good as sealed.
¡¡¡¡The frog spoke again, but the voice was different. The person behind the curtain, probably talking to her from some call center several hundred miles away. ¡°I¡¯m not picking up any transponder signal coming from your bike. Care to explain?¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°This thing ¡ ¡± Her throat was dry. She swallowed, then tried again. ¡°This thing is old. It doesn¡¯t have a transponder.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°You have heard of the aftermarket, haven¡¯t you? I don¡¯t suppose you have anything showing you¡¯re licensed to travel on 75?¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Look, it¡¯s an emergency. I¡¯m just trying ¡ It was only for a couple of miles.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°There are other roads open to public use.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Yeah,¡± she said, ¡°if I wanna get murdered, or worse. Please. Just let me go. I won¡¯t do it again.¡±
¡¡¡¡The frog was silent for a moment. ¡°I understand, but you¡¯re still in violation of corporate policy.¡±
¡¡¡¡That was it, she thought. She closed her eyes, waiting for the frog¡¯s net gun to fire and tangle her and the Puch up till a corpsec wagon could show up and take them away.
¡¡¡¡¡°OK, on the count of three I will¡ª¡±
¡¡¡¡A roar of sound came from behind her. In the Puch¡¯s mirror she saw a group of biker teens attired in brightly multicolored nylon come tearing along, loudly whooping as they zipped by her and the Puch. One of them threw something that shattered against the side of the frog.
¡¡¡¡The frog sighed, then said, ¡°Stay off this highway in the future.¡± It quickly ascended and zipped off after the bikers.
¡¡¡¡Just like that, Mallory was alone again, her heart beating on overdrive, wondering what in the fuck had just happened. She checked the Seiko. Donovan¡¯s deadline expired in 15 minutes, giving her just enough time to get back to the shop. She fired up the Puch.
¡¡¡¡The shop had not burnt down in her absence, which she thought was promising. She parked and attempted to enter through the front entrance, but the door was locked. The shade was drawn, and she couldn¡¯t see inside. She heard a clunk as the door was unlocked from the inside. She slowly pushed the door open.
¡¡¡¡The scene inside had changed a little. Reverte was now bound to a wooden chair. Donovan stared at her with a mixture of suspicion and hope. Another chair was now placed opposite Reverte, and their old chess table, a square of oak on top of an ornately carved pedestal stand, was situated between the two chairs. One of the table¡¯s claw feet was partially missing, so an old cellphone was used to level it.
¡¡¡¡She saw a game was in progress, and almost laughed. ¡°You guys get bored?¡±
¡¡¡¡Donovan ignored her. ¡°Stay right there.¡± The gun was pointed at the floor between them. ¡°Did you get it?¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Thank God.¡± Donovan¡¯s shoulders slumped with relief.
¡¡¡¡¡°You OK?¡± she asked Reverte.
¡¡¡¡¡°Today will not be in my top 10 days of all time, but I will survive,¡± Reverte said. ¡°Though I do have to pee.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°There¡¯ll be time enough for that later,¡± Donovan said. He gestured at the ground with his gun. ¡°Empty your bag out. For your sake, a gun better not fall out.¡±
¡¡¡¡Mallory complied, removing the good and bad compressors, a slim book of erotic poetry, and a couple of other bits of junk, onto the floor. Donovan carefully watched her movements. He told her to take her coat off, to make sure she had no weapons stashed in it either. Then he ordered her to stand over in front of her counter. She was relieved that he did not tie her to a piece of furniture. That would have thrown off her already flimsy plan.
¡¡¡¡Donovan used a pocketknife to free Reverte, then instructed him to get started. Reverte glared at him, then slowly went over to pick up the new compressor.
¡¡¡¡¡°How long will it take?¡± Donovan asked.
¡¡¡¡Back now behind his counter, Reverte said, ¡°To replace the compressor, a couple of minutes. To reassemble the thing, a few minutes more.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Good, good.¡± Almost to himself, Donovan added, ¡°I¡¯ll have time to get home and get Kenzie hooked up to it.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°What is your plan,¡± Reverte said, plugging the compressor back into its home inside the concentrator, ¡°when the repair is complete?¡±
¡¡¡¡She watched a flurry of thoughts flash across Donovan¡¯s face. ¡°Our business will be done. I¡¯ll take the device and leave.¡± A slight hesitation. ¡°Then you two can go about your day.¡±
¡¡¡¡Reverte¡¯s eyes found hers. They both arrived at the same conclusion.
¡¡¡¡¡°Fair enough,¡± Reverte said, going back to work.
¡¡¡¡Very slowly, trying to move as little as possible, Mallory lowered her right hand to her waist, grasping the handle of the thing wrapped around her waist that was not a belt, and began to pull it through the belt loops of her black jeans, one loop at a time. Eyes not moving from Donovan, whose attention was focused entirely on Reverte¡¯s work.
¡¡¡¡Once fully unfurled, the not-a-belt thing was about a foot and a half long, and heavy. Her hand was sweaty, but she had a firm grip on the thing¡¯s plastic handle. She exhaled, took one long step toward Donovan, and brought the tactical whip down on his right forearm with as much force as she could muster.
¡¡¡¡Donovan shrieked and crumpled forward. The gun clattered to the ground. Mallory raised the whip above her left shoulder, ready to bring it down in a backhand against Donovan¡¯s back¡ª
¡¡¡¡¡°Mal!¡± said Reverte. ¡°It¡¯s OK.¡±
¡¡¡¡Arm still raised, adrenaline coursing through her body, she looked wildly over at Reverte. Who was holding a shotgun, sighting down the single stainless steel barrel on Donovan. Reverte¡¯s old Snake Charmer.
¡¡¡¡¡°His gun, please.¡±
¡¡¡¡She went and grabbed the revolver from the floor, carefully watching Donovan to make sure he wasn¡¯t faking. Donovan was on the floor, alternately whimpering and swearing, which struck her as sincere.
¡¡¡¡Reverte ordered Donovan to get up, who complied, slowly, clutching his arm. His face was sweaty and white and scrunched up in agony. Tears streamed down his cheeks. Mallory wondered if she¡¯d broken his arm.
¡¡¡¡¡°Please,¡± Donovan said, ¡°I don¡¯t care if you kill me, but please ¡ fix the machine and get it to my wife. Kenzie¡ªshe¡¯ll die without it.¡±
¡¡¡¡Mallory was silent for a moment, fury warring with empathy inside her. At the end of the day, though, she just didn¡¯t have it in her. ¡°We could kill you. But I don¡¯t want your wife¡¯s death on my conscience. And I really don¡¯t want to have to tell her, ¡®Hey, your asshole husband is dead, by the way. Here¡¯s your oxygen machine.¡¯ ¡± She looked at Reverte.
¡¡¡¡Reverte sighed, resignation on his face. ¡°Fine, fine. Whatever.¡± To Donovan: ¡°You, take a fucking seat.¡± He motioned with the Snake Charmer toward the chair to which he had previously been tied. Donovan collapsed into it.
¡¡¡¡¡°Mallory, get over here and take the gun. Before I fix this thing, I have to pee like a banshee.¡±
¡¡¡¡She took the Snake Charmer from him, wrapping her right hand around the plastic molding of the pistol-like grip. It felt clumsy in her hands. She wasn¡¯t a fan of guns, but she trained it on Donovan. ¡°Diego,¡± she said to Reverte, ¡°how does a banshee pee?¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°With great urgency.¡± He winked at her.
¡¡¡¡The now-functioning oxygen concentrator was back in Donovan¡¯s shopping cart. He awkwardly draped the yellow plastic tarp over it, like a one-armed paramedic covering a dead body.
¡¡¡¡Before sending Donovan on his way, Reverte told him he would be making monthly payments until he had repaid the cost of the part, along with a ¡°you were going to kill us¡± fee, plus interest. Since Reverte had said he would immediately kill Donovan on sight if he ever showed up at the shop again, the payments would be made through an intermediary.
¡¡¡¡They watched Donovan depart from the front stoop, Reverte holding the Snake Charmer, Mallory holding the revolver Donovan had ¡°donated.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Was it like this,¡± she asked, ¡°before?¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°You know, before the Ejection. All this bullshit just so he could try to save his wife¡¯s life. Not saying I agree with what he did, but I get it.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°It was different then, yes, but still the same, in a way. If you had money, it was easier. If you didn¡¯t ¡ ¡±
¡¡¡¡She nodded. ¡°That¡¯s what I figured.¡±
¡¡¡¡They went back inside and closed down for the day. She carefully set the revolver on Reverte¡¯s workbench.
¡¡¡¡Reverte was in a sour mood, doing that thing where every movement he made seemed kind of angry. He eventually stopped, placing his thumbs in his pockets, hands hanging against his thighs like crab legs. ¡°Well, this day is a wash. I think I am going to read for a while and get drunk.¡± He regarded Mallory, face serious. ¡°What you did today was extraordinary. I will not forget it.¡±
¡¡¡¡Mallory felt her face heat up. Praise made her feel uncomfortable, so she did her normal thing and deflected. ¡°Actually, I¡¯ve got a surprise for you.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°This is a good surprise.¡± She went to the counter and picked up the book of erotic poetry. Took out the movie disc and handed it to Reverte. His face lit up in delight.
¡¡¡¡¡°We must watch this immediately,¡± Reverte said. ¡°Can you stay?¡±
¡¡¡¡She smiled. ¡°Yep.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Perfect. I shall heat up some popcorn and meet you in the courtyard.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°There should be enough juice in the battery for us to watch the whole thing, uninterrupted.¡± Reverte was finishing up connecting the cables to the ancient TV bolted to the hood. Mallory wiped the last spot of cleaner from the windshield and studied her work: clean as it was going to get.
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¡¡¡¡The courtyard on the side of Reverte¡¯s building was a slim space, full of yellowing vegetation, several pink flamingos, and a wheelless 1957 Chevy on cement blocks. The century-old Chevy¡¯s red paint was chipped and rusted in places but overall was in surprisingly good shape. She was sitting in front on the passenger side. A towel on top of the tan bench seat covered the cracked vinyl. The car¡¯s steering wheel had been removed eons ago.
¡¡¡¡Reverte joined her on the driver¡¯s side, the door thunking heavily as he pulled it closed. ¡°This is such a classic,¡± he said, grinning. ¡°Full of adventure, heroics ¡ You are going to love it.¡± A big bowl of popcorn was on the seat between them. Two bottles of cerveza were in the cup holders under the dash.
¡¡¡¡¡°Jesus, you better not be overselling this like you did Blade Runner,¡± she said. ¡°I¡¯m still mad I¡¯ll never get those two hours of my life back.¡±
¡¡¡¡¡°Bah, you are just a philistine. If you don¡¯t like this one, then I am afraid I will have to fire you.¡± He pointed the remote control toward the TV and pressed a button.
¡¡¡¡A logo she vaguely recalled seeing before appeared on the screen while a brassy orchestral fanfare was pumped in from speakers outside the car. Then, centered on the black screen, in blue font:
¡¡¡¡A long time ago
¡¡¡¡?in a galaxy far, far away¡.
¡¡¡¡¡°Here we go,¡± said Reverte.
¡¡¡¡Read a response essay by Damon Beres, a journalist who has covered the right to repair for years.
¡¡¡¡¡°Paciente Cero,¡± by Juan Villoro
¡¡¡¡¡°Scar Tissue,¡± by Tobias S. Buckell
¡¡¡¡¡°The Last of the Goggled Barskys,¡± by Joey Siara
¡¡¡¡¡°Legal Salvage,¡± by Holli Mintzer
¡¡¡¡¡°How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,¡± by Tochi Onyebuchi
¡¡¡¡¡°The State Machine,¡± by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
¡¡¡¡¡°Dream Soft, Dream Big,¡± by Hal Y. Zhang
¡¡¡¡¡°The Vastation,¡± by Paul Theroux
¡¡¡¡¡°Speaker,¡± by Simon Brown
¡¡¡¡¡°The Void,¡± by Leigh Alexander
¡¡¡¡¡°The Trolley Solution,¡± by Shiv Ramdas
¡¡¡¡¡°Congratulations on Your Loss,¡± by Catherine Lacey
¡¡¡¡And read 14 more Future Tense Fiction tales in our anthology, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow.
¡¡¡¡is a partnership of
¡¡¡¡New America, and
¡¡¡¡Arizona State University
¡¡¡¡that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.