Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

An Inflexible Truth

As the commuter jet descended toward the ruins of Las Vegas, Roland Zhang craned his neck at the window, watching the skeleton towers grow nearer. Billowing clouds of dust clogged the air, and wind-blown dunes partially buried the filthy, abandoned buildings. He’d viewed footage from the far corners of the Earth, every remote hellhole imaginable, but this was the first time he’d ever seen the real deal in person. He tugged at his collar, sweating in spite of the air conditioning.

“Your first citywreck?”

Roland oriented on the voice: a fifty-something woman in the seat facing him, Hispanic, streaking black hair cropped short. She looked very much at home in her weathered filter gear, and the backpack strapped to the seat beside her had the look of heavy use. “I’m afraid so,” he allowed, mustering a smile. “I’ve heard stories.”

“You’ll do fine,” the woman said. “And you’re just in time. I hear this tour is packing it in soon. May be the last run.”

“Oh?” Roland said. Nervously he retrieved a cloth from his pocket and started polishing his glasses. “Why?”

“Feds are sending the RRC back in,” she said. “Guess they’re gonna squeeze a few more raw materials out of these old hulks.”

“Is that right?” Roland said. He wondered if she saw through his act. He knew the Resource Reclamation Corps was returning, even though everything he’d read suggested they’d mined Vegas for everything they could salvage already. They’d moved out two years ago, and the city had been declared a historic Limited Access Zone. “Waste of time, isn’t it?”

“My thoughts exactly. I mean, plenty of interesting old junk in this city. Heck, that’s why I’m here. But exploitable resources?” She quirked an eyebrow at him. “I’m sorry, old lady brain. You told me before. What’s your name again?”

“Roland,” he said, pushing his glasses back on.

“Mia Quintero,” the woman said, reaching over to shake his hand. Her palm was firm and leathery.

“You’ve done this tour before?”

“Yes,” Mia said, glancing toward the window as the wheels touched down with a screech. “I’m a historian.”

“You study citywrecks . . . professionally?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “Wreck-mining’s just a hobby. But I’m kind of passionate about it. I prefer coastal dives, but these desertification cases make for an interesting change of pace. This is my third Vegas run. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a few relics, or drives for the archives. What about you? You don’t look like an adventure tourist . . .?”

Roland was saved from answering by the tour leader, John Sparkman, who stood at the front of the cabin while the jet slowed to a stop. Sparkman was two hundred pounds of solid muscle; the cabin couldn’t accommodate his height, so his head was cocked at a comical angle, cording the tendons of his neck. “Okay, suit up! Full seals for now. The worst of the dust storm’s over, but it’s still a lungripper out there. Your escorts will perform a respirator check before we open the door.”

By the time the cabin door opened, Roland was suited up and ready. The stairs lowered, and with a burst of adrenaline he followed Sparkman, Mia, and the rest of the tour group out onto the scorching, windswept tarmac of McCarran International.

He felt it right away as he emerged from the privilege and comfort of the jet onto the tortured landscape of the desert: the folly of his decision to come to this godforsaken place. He was a desk jockey, a coddled northern media analyst, not a field-tested reporter or a combat veteran or even an adventure tourist. He belonged in civilization, not its recent aftermath.

Besides, if Troy Mackowiak couldn’t crack this story, what chance did he have?

• • • •

The trail that led him to Nevada had started five months earlier, in the downtown Buffalo offices of the Neutral News Institute. From the eighth-floor conference room windows, he watched bulldozers pushing massive piles of snow out onto frozen Lake Erie, while ominous clouds amassed in the distance, a winter blast streaking in from Canada. Another northeastern deep freeze had struck, earlier than usual, and the local government had mobilized its army of blizzard-battling city employees. The chill bit right through the window glass.

It was the morning of the Institute’s monthly staff meeting. As usual, he’d set up the teleconference in advance of everyone’s arrival, and was still waiting for the others when Troy Mackowiak arrived. Troy’s shaggy brown hair was a windblown catastrophe, and his wrinkled, street-casual clothes clung to his wiry frame for dear life. He carried a steaming mug of Coffaux in one hand, a stack of file folders in the other, and a heavy-looking travel bag over his shoulder. “Roland Zhang,” he said cheerfully. “Mr. Dependable, ready to roll fifteen minutes early. You know, someone told me this isn’t even technically your job.”

“It’s not.”

“What a guy. How’s it looking out there?”

“We’re going to get socked in again,” Roland said, checking the hot mug of tea in his hand to see if it had steeped enough. “Expecting another ten inches tonight.”

“Shit,” Troy said, unburdening himself at his usual seat by the door. “I’ve got a flight in three hours.”

“Airport’s still open,” Roland said. “You’ll probably beat the storm.”

Troy joined him by the window, downing a huge gulp of his steaming beverage. “This weather’s enough to make me miss Houston. And Houston is, well, it’s Houston.”

“Where you headed this time?”

“The Great Southwest,” he said, perverse grin lighting up.

Roland rounded on him. “For God’s sake, why?”

Uncharacteristically, Troy averted his eyes as he responded. “The story, of course. Always the story.”

“Where exactly? Not New Mexico again? You almost didn’t make it back from that one.”

“Listen,” Troy said, clearly to change the subject. “I’m glad you’re here, actually. You got any vacay coming up?”

“No, I burned all my PTO,” Roland said. “Why?”

Troy’s eyes darted toward the open door of the conference room. “I need someone sharp vetting my feeds for the next couple weeks. And as you know I’m a keen admirer of your eye.”

Roland hadn’t known, and warmed to the respect. Troy Mackowiak was an NNI legend: smart, tenacious, utterly fearless. Unlike some field reporters, he didn’t dismiss the analysts as cube-farm flunkies. He treated them as needed collaborators. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll tag your files, if I can . . .”

“Actually, I was hoping I could send them to you directly.”

Roland shook his head reflexively. “That’s against protocol, Troy. Besides, Susan has me swimming in feeds from the Mediterranean unrest. I may not be available.”

“Look, I know it sounds sketchy. I’d just rather keep this material off the books. They don’t need to see this upstairs yet. If at all.”

“What are you into, Troy?” Roland asked. This wasn’t the first time Troy had gotten cryptic about a story he was chasing, but normally he was grandstanding, going for laughs or building his persona. This felt different, like genuine dissembling. It went against the NNI tradition of transparency.

“Honestly, I don’t know yet,” Troy said. “Could be nothing. Look, I just need preliminary eyes-on from a pro, that’s all. I’ll encrypt it to your home system. You won’t need the full office toolset. Can I count on you?”

Roland couldn’t help but hesitate. NNI’s internal chain-of-custody policies were part of why he had landed here, a system of checks and balances against spin. But it was Troy, so he relented. “Fine, but yeah, keep it off the company servers. I’ll handle it on my own time.”

“You’re so lawful,” Troy said. Then his manner tensed as he glanced toward the hallway, where a group of well-dressed professionals had amassed in the common area. “Well, I’ll be damned. The new boss is in town.”

Roland spun to observe the arrivals, a war party of Institute bigwigs. They hovered around the newly appointed President, Kathryn Poole. The face of the NNI, she looked polished and perfectly coifed, as if ready for a press conference. “I thought she was still in Philly.”

“She never slows down, that one,” Troy said, pitching his voice lower as they neared the door. “Remember what I said, okay? Much appreciated.”

“You bet,” Roland said, pushing down a nervous flutter in his stomach.

An hour later, Troy Mackowiak raced out of the meeting to catch his plane, and nobody ever saw him again.

• • • •

Pushing into the ruins felt like a military deployment—not that Roland had ever been on one. Sparkman clearly had, and took point with a matte black assault rifle at the ready. His looming shape was easy to follow. Occasionally he spun around, belting in unselfconscious basso profundo through the speakers of his mask: safety reminders, local history, famous buildings. On the flight, Roland had found Sparkman’s bearing unpleasant and intimidating, but now he saw how it made him good at his job: he possessed an easy confidence that put everyone at ease, made them feel in good hands in a dangerous landscape.

Sparkman had two assistants. Patrolling the left flank was Rico Guardarrama, a wiry, middle-aged veteran with an easy manner behind his chiseled, dusky features; he and Sparkman were clearly old squad mates. On the right was Devon Easley, Roland’s escort. She was athletic and short, with smooth ebony skin and close-shaved hair. She possessed the same military bearing as the other escorts, but lacked the comfortable rapport. Rico wielded an assault rifle like his boss, but Devon only carried a compact machine pistol, which she left holstered. For some reason, this made her seem more formidable, not less.

“So, Roland,” said the nearest fellow tourist. His name was Perry Hammond, a California marketing VP of something or other. Fiftyish, graying hair, but well preserved, with sun-baked skin. “What’s your line?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your line,” Perry said. His voice was muted through the filter mask. “Job. Thing you do for a living.”

“Ah. I work for the NNI.”

“The what?”

“NNI. The Neutral News Institute.”

“Oh!” Perry said. “Got you. Doing?”

“I’m a media analyst.”

“Got you.”

“Sorry to eavesdrop, but what did you say?” This from Perry’s wife Alix, a beautiful, athletic woman twenty years Perry’s junior, with golden hair artfully arranged around her filter mask straps. She and Perry were Rico’s responsibility. “Did you say the Neutral Nudes Institute? I’m like, ‘there’s an institute for that? Where do I sign up?’”

“Get your mind out of the gutter!” Perry laughed, holding his old-school camera like a trophy. It was a thirty-five-millimeter contraption with a telephoto lens, a retro affectation.

“What’s your institute do?” Alix pressed.

“We’re a news organization.” Now he was really sweating, and it wasn’t just the heat; he’d been hoping to keep to himself. He tugged at his collar, craving a breeze. “Information outside the mainstream,” he soldiered on. “We, uh, analyze raw feeds, visuals and audio, citizen journalism . . . types of stuff. Data mining, Internet scans, you know, vetting it all for authenticity. So as to contrast it with mainstream media, and, you know, report. Purely objective reporting.”

“Wow, you’ve got quite the vocabulary,” Alix joked.

“Bless you, Roland,” Mia said from up where she walked alongside Sparkman. “NNI is what the news was supposed to be, before it got bought.”

“Liberal news,” Perry said. It might have been an epithet, but from him it sounded like online dictionary pronunciation.

“Oh, not technically,” Roland said. “We’re apolitical as a matter of policy. No ads or commercials, no sponsorships, everything citizen-funded. Our only agenda is to inform.”

Mia chuckled. “What Roland is politely not saying,” she said mischievously, “is that NNI reports the truth. And since liberals have the truth on their side, NNI is liberal news.”

“I’m a Republican,” Perry said easily.

“Oh,” Mia said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I can tell,” Perry said. “But don’t sweat it. I’m on vacation.”

This brought a laugh from everyone.

“Well, that sounds cool,” Alix said, her tone suggesting she felt otherwise. “Not as fun as an institute full of nudes!”

“This is all very interesting,” Sparkman said. “But you might want to save some wind. We’ve got a hell of a hike to the first campsite.”

“Now, now, boss, these are paying customers,” Rico said. “Not recruits you can just order around.”

“I should have left you in the jungle,” Sparkman said, which made Rico cackle.

Roland was happy to change the subject. He didn’t want these people thinking too hard on why he was here.

They neared a stretch of the Vegas Strip where fancy, massive casinos and resort hotels of yesteryear lined the boulevard. Now they were empty husks, windows agape, glass shattered, drifts of sand layering every paved surface. Roland absorbed it all, trying to imagine what life had been like before the water had run out, waiting for some profound insight. This was first-hand, not a secondary feed. Surely after all these years, reviewing images from a safe, digital distance, he would get something out of seeing the harsh reality in person.

But for all the guns and filter-masks and brutal heat, he still sensed a protective layer between him and any real danger. This was a historic Limited Access Zone, after all, not a collapse-in-progress. It was a curiously . . . cleansed reality. Maybe he was kidding himself. Maybe he would find nothing here but more spin, and the crumbling relics of departed civilization.

Devon Easley dropped back to walk beside him. “I admire what you guys are doing,” she said. “You tell it straight.”

“Thanks,” Roland said. He wished he could see her face, or anyone’s, for that matter. He was surrounded by people, something he wasn’t used to, but they were also masked people, strangers he couldn’t hope to read. He couldn’t authenticate the contents of their minds, and right now that was as unnerving than any external threat, if not more so.

• • • •

They hiked north into the city, and it took hours, factoring in rest breaks and detours to explore nearby ruins. Roland did his best to muster an aura of curiosity, listening to Sparkman’s informed banter as they negotiated the oddly sanitized debris of Caesar’s Palace. But he felt like an awkward poser. He couldn’t possibly keep up with the energy of Mia, who searched vigorously for overlooked scraps of recent human history, or the Hammonds, who ricocheted around taking tasteless selfies next to fallen monuments of the past.

At one point, while the others were off spelunking an old hotel, Roland parked in the shade of a building and peeled off his filter mask to cool his face. The air quality had improved.

Devon walked over. “Looks like I pulled the easy duty,” she said, peeling off her own mask.

Roland glanced up from polishing his glasses, happy to see a face. Devon’s was pleasant, high cheekbones and firm jaw. A tiny slash of a scar crossed both lips. “What do you mean?”

“You’re clearly not in this for the exercise.”

Roland felt his face grow hot. “Probably just a sign that I need some.”

“I’m just saying, not something you usually do.”

“No.”

“The Hammonds do,” Devon said. “Not this particular tour, but different ones. I know the type. They get off on this.”

“Uh, how so?”

“Well, they feel superior by virtue of circumstance,” Devon said. “Their city didn’t collapse, after all. Plus they can afford to come out here and pay for some first-hand schadenfreude. Makes them feel good about themselves.”

So far Roland didn’t think very highly of the Hammonds, but this struck him as harsh judgment on such short exposure. “What about Mia?”

“Oh, she’s just a geek for the relics.” Devon shrugged. “What about you? This work-related?”

“Not really,” Roland said, mopping sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. “I mean, in a way, yes. I spend a lot of time looking at video of this kind of place. Thought it was time to see for myself. Get a different perspective.”

Devon ran a finger along her brow. “Got you. Hope it’s not too disappointing.”

“Why would it be?”

“The reality is pretty boring,” Devon said. “This used to be a more dangerous detail. Armed squatters, for instance. Refugees, outlaws. We even took fire a few times. But these last few runs? I feel a little silly arming up. Place is turning into a museum.”

“I guess that’s good for Mia.”

“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve still got dogs and scorpions to worry about, and we’ll stumble across the odd corpse. And of course the weather can still kill you: heat exhaustion, sun stroke, dehydration. Sparkman’ll play that up for the adventurists over there, make sure they think they’re getting their money’s worth. But it’s not like it was a few years back, when the feds were still cleaning it out.” Devon smiled. “Sorry if these are spoilers. You don’t seem like an adrenaline junkie.”

Roland tried to read her expression. People didn’t open up to him often; he was, as Troy had once put it, off-puttingly introverted. Was this why he distrusted her friendliness toward him, or was it something more specific in her manner? Maybe she was onto him, trying to draw him out. Maybe he wasn’t fooling anybody. “No daredevil here,” he said. “Actually, it’s, uh, reassuring to hear you think it’s safe.”

“Just don’t tell the guys I said anything,” Devon said. “Sparkman lives for jeopardy, even if he has to imagine it.”

“Masks on!” Sparkman called from across the street, voice booming through the speaker. “Time to move out! We’re pushing farther away from the airport this time so our repeat customer here can see some new turf. So buckle down those boots!”

• • • •

Shortly after nightfall, they reached the campsite, a small patch of unpaved ground in the shadow of a towering, derelict resort. The escorts had used this site before, but not for a while, according to Sparkman. The fire pit was full of sand, and the gunmetal supply cache stowed here was so buried that Devon had to excavate it. Rico built a cooking fire while the rest unburdened themselves, picking out plots of land to colonize.

The Hammonds had schlepped their own deluxe dometent, but the others inflated tour-provided ones from the cache: small, solo units that were little more than glorified sleeping bags, designed to keep the dust out. Desert chill descended quickly in the sun’s absence, and soon they’d clustered around the fire to eat Rico’s skewers and relax after the day’s exertions. Sparkman took first watch, propping himself atop a nearby terrace wall where he could oversee the group and watch for dog packs.

“Amazing,” Alix said, tipping back a silver flask of something alcoholic. She was using her husband as a backstop, staring skyward. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many stars.”

“No light pollution out here,” Mia said.

“It’s a far cry from Santa Barbara. Right, hon?”

Perry grunted, distracted by his eyeset, which illuminated the upper half of his face with flashing visuals.

“Heh.” Alix handed the flask to Roland. “Even out here, can’t pry his eyes off the screens.”

Roland sniffed the booze, winced at the odor. “What’s this?”

“Twelve-year-old Scotch, baby!”

“How are all Scotches twelve years old?” Rico asked, inspiring a laugh. “Seriously? All of them!”

“It is,” Alix protested.

“Uh, no thank you,” Roland said. “I don’t drink much.”

“I’ll take some,” Rico said. He took a slug, closed his eyes, and exhaled. “Ho! Good stuff. Devon?”

“I got the middle watch,” Devon said, turning over a spit. “You’ll want me good and sober for that.”

“Easy on that stuff!” Sparkman called from his elevated vantage. “You’ll dry up and blow away on me. How’s everyone doing? Seeing what you came to see?”

“Hell yeah, Mr. Sparkman!” Alix called.

Sergeant Sparkman,” Sparkman said. “Sorry we cut through the Strip so fast. You can blame Mia for that one!”

“We can always hit the casinos again on the way back,” Mia said. “It’s just that they’re so picked over. Thanks for letting us go off the beaten path.”

“It’s all off the beaten path to us!” Alix said.

“Check this out, hon,” Perry said, handing her the eyeset.

“You’re not getting a signal?”

“No, it’s that program I downloaded before we left.”

“Oh, that,” Alix said, dismissively. “No thanks. I’m too in the moment.”

“Here, Roland, give it a go.”

Roland took the eyeset and fit it over his glasses. It was like flicking down a shade, a reality-warping filter of vivid computer graphics transforming the landscape around him. The simulation altered his immediate surroundings so that they looked exactly as they had back in the old days. The dead hulk of a hotel behind them was lit up like a Christmas tree, its windows now gleaming and intact. The streets were clear and clean, cars racing along them. Bright streetlights, flashing neon billboards, and three-dimensional hologram ads lit up the night, while pedestrians strode along nearby sidewalks. As impressive as it was, Roland felt an instinctive Uncanny Valley repulsion. He pulled the eyeset off and handed it back. The grungy reality of post-collapse Vegas returned. “Pretty cool.”

“Hard to imagine how it used to be, looking at it now, huh?” Perry said, putting his toy back on.

“You kidding?” Rico said. “Even now, this place has a better school system than Long Beach.”

The others laughed as the conversation continued, but Roland leaned back, feeling weariness in his limbs and a pleasant weight in his belly. He peered up at the stars, resisting exhaustion.

High above, something faint drifted across the sky.

For a moment he thought he’d hallucinated it, but then he spied it again, further along the same trajectory: a hovering glimmer like heat haze, slowly moving. Whatever it was, his eyes couldn’t track it. He couldn’t tell its size, what it was made out of, how far away it was. When it vanished moments later, he questioned whether anything had even been there.

“Did you see that?” Devon asked.

Roland glanced at her. “That . . . shimmer? What was it?”

Devon shook her head. “Not sure,” she said hesitantly.

Did she have a theory she wasn’t sharing? Roland couldn’t tell.

They fell silent, but after a moment, it came to him. That was a cloaked drone, he thought. Suddenly it seemed obvious. He’d analyzed so much eye-in-the-sky footage that his brain naturally reverse-engineered the blurry motion. Someone was watching them from above.

This revelation alleviated his doubt. Maybe something was going on out here. Troy had been onto something after all.

And Roland had put himself right in the middle of it.

• • • •

Sleeping on the ground didn’t suit him, but he did manage to drift off, huddled in the warmth of his mini-tent. Bizarre dreams woke him, their details vanishing from memory moments after opening his eyes, replaced by the crackle of the fire and the eerie silence of the dead city. One vision did remain: huge, robotic machines pushing towering mounds of lake effect snow into downtown Las Vegas, a dream-logic transposition of place, perhaps his brain subconsciously trying to solve both cities’ problems.

As he woke from the dream, the knowledge of where he was reasserted itself: Las Vegas, March, morning, the overnight chill lingering, the smell of wood smoke still potent in his nostrils. But also, an incongruity: the sounds of heavy machinery in the distance, as if the snow-moving automatons of his dreamscape had materialized in the real world.

He unzipped the flap and peered out. Alix and Perry could be heard moving about within their tent, but the immediate area was quiet and empty. He found his glasses and fumbled them up his nose. About twenty yards away, Sparkman spoke fervently into a satellite phone, while Mia eavesdropped. Farther away, Rico jogged toward the camp as if returning from patrol.

Devon came around from behind his tent and crouched beside him. “Good, you’re up.”

“What’s that noise?”

“Sparkman’s trying to find out,” Devon said. “Nobody’s supposed to be in this sector.”

Alix and Perry emerged from their tent just as Sparkman, Mia, and Rico all returned. The group convened around the smoldering embers of the campfire. “I called the office,” Sparkman said. “They think it’s the RRC.”

“They think?” Devon asked.

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Sparkman said. “Someone’s going to call me back.”

“I thought this place was still an LAZ until the end of the month,” Roland said.

“It is, legally,” Sparkman said. “They know we’re still running tours. Granted, we haven’t been in this particular patch of the city for a while, but still.”

“What does this mean?” Alix asked. “Do we need to go back?”

Sparkman ran a hand over thick stubble. “No. Fuck them. We have every right to be here.”

“RRC runs with a military escort, though,” Rico said. “What if we run into them?”

“Sling your rifle,” Sparkman said. “Last thing we need is some green recruit panicking and throwing shots at us.”

“I don’t know,” Perry said. “Sounds kind of dangerous.”

“Maybe we should keep this as a base camp,” Rico said. “In case the office needs to tell ’em where we are.”

“Good idea,” Sparkman said. “We can spike our excursions out from here. Sorry, Mia, I know you’d prefer we run a circuit.”

“I understand,” Mia said. “Probably safer this way.”

Soon thereafter it was business as usual. They ate breakfast and planned the day’s hike. More than once, though, Roland peered skyward in search of ghostly aircraft, or half-heard the sounds of engines in the distance. For such an empty place, it was starting to feel awfully busy.

• • • •

That afternoon they split off to explore the citywreck in smaller groups. Once Mia and the Hammonds had departed, Roland set off in a third direction with Devon.

This was his chance. Without others driving the decisions, he could set a course for the coordinates Troy had emailed him—an email that had turned up in his spam filter two weeks after he vanished from the face of the Earth. It was a terrifying prospect, but he had come this far. He triggered the map program in his glasses to lead the way. It wasn’t real-time positioning, but the software was robust enough that he could follow the maps old-school. He figured it was about forty-five minutes’ hike to the northeast.

A cloud front rolled in from the west, obscuring the sun and making the walk more pleasant. Occasionally Roland made a show of pausing to feign interest in some rubble, or poke his nose into a hollowed-out storefront; in one of them, he even dug around long enough to inspect abandoned items, including a discarded laptop from which he liberated the hard drive.

“Picking up a new hobby, are you?” Devon asked.

“Wreck-diving?” Roland asked, securing the drive in a pocket as they resumed their hike. “Not really. I just thought I’d grab this for Mia . . .” He chuckled. “To be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing here.” Not entirely a lie.

“Not much of a field man for the NNI, then.”

“Somebody has to put their boots on their ground,” Roland said. “But I’ve never been that guy. My job is just making sure what gets to people’s screens hasn’t been doctored. And, you know, edit it into something that tells the story.”

“So you do spin things.” Devon flashed her teeth, revealing an incisor gap Roland hadn’t noticed before.

“What? No.”

“You said tell a story. You telling me that’s not spin?”

“Well, you got to give the data shape,” Roland said. He took a breath; he felt like he was sputtering opinions. “The Institute really is neutral. We make sure the full visual context is available. We make sure the language isn’t loaded. But that doesn’t mean the information doesn’t have to be coherent.”

“Relax, Roland. I’m just messing with you.”

“Oh,” Roland said. “Sorry, this stuff is important to me.”

“Clearly!” Devon laughed. “I respect that. I worked Homeland Security in Florida during the evacs. What I saw in Miami, you wouldn’t believe this shit. Then I get back to Pittsburgh and the news is either playing the fear card—immigrant invasion!—or they’re glossing it over, making it all PG-13 to sell shampoo.” She sighed. “When NNI came along, it was like, finally I can see what the fuck is happening.”

Roland kept one eye on the route software to make sure they were on track. “Before she retired,” he said, “the Institute’s founder always used to say there’s one true reality, an inflexible truth. And everything went to hell when people learned how to condition each other into developing their own realities.”

Devon laughed. “When did that start? The Bible?”

“Uh, she meant, in the context of media . . .”

“I hear you,” Devon said. “Like Perry with his glasses. Walking through one reality, seeing another.”

“Yes, exactly. A psychological version of that . . . like a virus or something, that keeps you from seeing outside your comfortable contexts . . .”

“What’s gotten into you?” Devon said. “Entering a marathon?”

Roland realized how fast he was walking, bee-lining toward the coordinates. Emboldened by the conversation, perhaps, he’d stepped up the pace. A head-on collision with the truth, he thought, feeling silly. “Sorry. Guess I’m distracted.”

Devon chuckled. “You aren’t much of a liar.”

“What do you mean?”

“You keep checking that map on your prescription specs. Like I’m not going to notice. Are we on a scavenger hunt?”

Roland’s stride faltered, and he glanced at Devon. She still had a relaxed expression on her face, her voice a tone of friendly ribbing. But her eyes were penetrating. If she really was former Homeland Security, he was probably kidding himself that he could pitch a story past her. “It’s . . . well, it may be better for you, if you don’t know.”

“That doesn’t sound very NNI to me. How about a little of that ‘inflexible truth?’”

Roland exhaled a half-laugh. “Walked into that one.”

“So?”

Roland stopped, looked Devon in the eye, and took the plunge. “Hell. I’m in over my head, here.”

Devon’s smile faded. “Is that right?”

“Quite possibly.”

Devon looked around. “Over here,” she said, striding toward a shaded spot in the lee of an old car dealership.

“Where we going?”

“If you got me sneaking up on something,” she said, “you better get me in the fucking loop.”

• • • •

Calm overcast soon turned to early darkness, and the air grew cloudy with the stirred grit of a dust storm. They donned goggles and filter masks. “Better to cover up anyway,” Devon said as they strapped on their gear.

“Why?”

“Facial recognition.”

“You think we’re being watched?” Roland asked, his mind recalling the low-flying drone, hovering over the camp.

Devon shrugged. “Standard security precaution.”

They resumed the hike. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I know,” Devon said. “But now you got me curious.”

She sold the line, but Roland was uncertain. Did she have a hidden agenda he couldn’t detect? He’d told her everything, risked everything on a hunch, and she hadn’t flinched. She’d just listened, nodded, and asked clarifying questions, and when his explanation was complete, she told him to lead the way. He was so grateful not to be thwarted that he’d gone along with it. He needed to know—what Troy had found, why he’d disappeared, and why he’d sent the cryptic email.

It was only later, after they dropped into silence to finish the hike, that he mused about her motives. She’d seen the drone, too. Why hadn’t she mentioned it? She had manipulated him into telling her everything without giving up any data in return.

The air thickened with each gust of wind. Roland cursed it for obscuring his view, even as he thanked it for covering their approach. As they trekked the last few hundred yards, edging close to low buildings that lined the boulevard, he thought he heard machinery again. He remembered the sounds earlier, and Sparkman’s sat-phone call, and wondered if the tour’s office man had been right that the RRC was back. Troy’s email had given him nothing but coordinates.

Suddenly Devon grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him through the open doorway of a burned-out convenience store. When Roland looked up from the cover of the building interior, heart hammering, he saw a truck emerge from the dust and darkness to rumble up the road. A rig, carrying a heavy load of large, cylindrical metal tubing. Ductwork? Industrial cabling? Moving slowly in poor visibility, the truck rolled past to vanish again into the drifting fog of dust.

Moments later they were moving again, this time with Devon leading. They huddled low against a high, concrete fence, an unforgiving architecture that Roland had seen cordoning residential zones from the city’s major thoroughfares.

Roland squinted to focus, wishing he could lift his goggles long enough to push his glasses up his sweat-slickened nose.

Floodlights ignited ahead.

High, penetrating beams that cut through the thick air, they were suspended from cranes, and Roland was relieved to see that they weren’t trained his way. They pointed down, illuminating a construction site. There was the truck they’d seen, along with other heavy vehicles: a trencher, a backhoe, larger machines Roland couldn’t identify. Industrious workers in envirosuits surrounded the machines.

Something was being built out here.

“What the fu—?” Devon asked, and then slumped sideways against the wall. She slid down it, collapsing.

“Devon?” Roland asked, darting over to her. Her body had gone limp, and she was clearly unconscious.

Too late he sensed a presence behind him. He spun around, just in time to glimpse a fully envirosuited figure aiming a sinister-looking pistol at him. He felt a sharp impact on his chest, and everything went dark.

• • • •

He woke to a pins-and-needles sensation in his wrists and hands, which were clipped behind him to a cool, metallic chair. His shoulders and lower back weren’t much better off, stiff and bent out of position, and a spot on his left temple was sore and swollen. The drug was wearing off, but he still felt groggy.

He opened his eyes and panicked when he couldn’t see. But his next intake of breath calmed him. A hood obscured his vision; he could smell and taste its synthetic cloth.

That left hearing as his lone sense, but the only sound was the white-noise drone of an HVAC system. “Devon?” he called, to test his voice. Normal volume, but the tone was off, muffled by the fabric of the hood.

“He’s up,” a nearby male voice said in surprise.

“Shhh,” said another, indistinct voice, possibly female.

The male voice had been generic, a relaxed baritone that sounded vaguely familiar. “Who’s there?” Roland asked, hoping to inspire a response, but the man didn’t take the bait.

A door opened and shut with a loud clack. Then, silence.

Roland cursed himself under his breath. Every sign had pointed to this being a dangerous, foolhardy escapade, but he’d ignored every warning. What had possessed him? His faith in the mission of the Institute? Some misguided admiration for Troy? Right now, no reason seemed rational. And yet, somewhere in the back of his mind, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it had been important for him to take this risk, even if no outcome could justify the trouble he’d gotten himself into. He needed to see.

Minutes passed. He waited, flexing his hands to get some circulation going. Someone was in the room, he thought; he sensed a breathing presence nearby. The room was cold. Other discomforts had distracted him from noticing.

The door finally opened again. “Uncuff him!” a stern, female voice said. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Sorry.” The man again, his utterance followed by footsteps. The tight, plastic zipcuffs were undone, and Roland’s arms snapped forward, wound muscles unkinking.

“The hood, too.”

The shroud was removed. Finally he could see, but he didn’t have his glasses. Faint LED light fixtures overhead illuminated what appeared to be a small office; a quick look around revealed standard cubicle workstations. Squinting, Roland tried to identify the three people in the room, but his myopic eyes weren’t up to the task. Based on the voice, he guessed the woman in the middle was in charge; her blurry, dark blue skirt-suit contrasted with the muted surroundings. She was flanked by the man and woman Roland presumed were his captors.

“Out,” the woman ordered. “Get going.”

The guards made for the door. Roland watched them retreat. Something about the body language, coupled with the voice . . .

Alix and Perry Hammond? The ditzy adventure tourists? Without his glasses, he couldn’t confirm the hunch, but . . .

The woman strode over, dragging a chair. She sat down across from him. “Give me your hand, Roland.”

Roland extended his hand, and found his glasses pressed into it. He slid them up his nose.

Kathryn Poole sat across from him.

The President of the Neutral News Institute sat primly, as polished and professional as ever. Roland waited for shock, but all he felt was baffled numbness. “You . . .”

“We were hoping you wouldn’t come.”

Roland shook his head. “What’s going on here? Who’s we?”

“Listen very carefully,” Poole said. “It’s unfortunate you made it this far. But now that you’re here, for the good of the Institute, we need you to answer a question. It’s very, very important that you’re honest with me, understand?”

Roland felt sick to his stomach. He touched his temple, which was bleeding. He must have hit his head when he fell.

“Who knows you’re here?” Poole asked. “And why?”

The question was stated with the calm, charismatic tone of Poole’s public persona. But to Roland, the questions had the edge of threat. “What if I don’t answer?”

“Oh, you’ll answer,” Poole said, leaning back. Again, that smooth, effortless voice, blunting the menacing content. “You’re no hardcase, Roland. You’re an analyst. One of our best, I hear. Honest, objective, insane work ethic. You’re a natural fit for NNI. Always have been.”

“How do you know all this? We’ve never even met.”

“We just need to know who you’ve told about this trip.”

“Nobody asks that kind of question unless they’re trying to . . . contain something.”

“You’re not wrong. It’s still in your best interest to answer.”

“Or what? You’ll kill me?”

Poole shook her head. “I can see I’m not getting through to you,” she said, pulling a smartphone out of her suitcoat pocket. She typed a short text message, hid the phone away, and stood up, smoothing her skirt as the door opened.

A moment later, Troy Mackowiak entered. “Well, hell,” he said, stepping into the room with a sheepish look on his face.

Roland had seen double takes in his life, but he’d never felt one of his own; his head shook like an earthquake. “Troy?”

As Poole departed, Troy crossed over to take her chair. He extended a folded white handkerchief to Roland. “Roland Zhang. My man. I am so sorry. You’re bleeding, buddy.”

Roland accepted the cloth and pressed it to his temple. He had so many questions, but paralysis of choice tied his tongue.

“First I want to say, I came out here just as blind as you did,” Troy said. “More prepared, but just as blind.”

“I thought you came out here to crack a story.”

“I found one.”

“And?”

“Turns out I didn’t want to crack it.”

Roland waited, glaring.

Troy held up apologetic hands. “Right. Not long ago I was sitting in your chair. Facing down Kathryn, looking for the truth. And she gave it to me.”

“And?”

“What if I told you the NNI isn’t entirely neutral?”

Roland blinked. “Meaning . . .?”

“Meaning, without help our operation is unsustainable.” Troy took a deep breath. “We can’t go toe-to-toe with the corporates, not even with the donations we get. The playing board is just too tilted. NNI was going to die. Something needed to be done.”

“And what was that something?”

“We took on some investors.”

Roland bristled. “Investors. You mean corporate money.”

“It’s not like that,” Troy said quickly. “These aren’t your usual interests. These are . . . outsiders.”

“Outsiders.”

“They’re people who believe in NNI’s mission,” Troy said. “And who also happen to oppose the status quo. Which, as I think you know, is also unsustainable. Disastrously so.”

“What status quo? Just tell me fucking straight.”

Troy rolled his eyes, then stood up to pace as he spoke. “Come on, Roland. Predatory capitalism. Systemic inequality, debt profiteering. Bureaucratic obstructionism. Everything that’s wrong with the Western world, everything that grinds the gears to a halt. There are people who want to fight that. They’re helping us. These are the good guys.”

“And they’re, what, buying us?” Roland asked. He felt a confused mixture of anger and relief swimming around in him. Maybe his life wasn’t in danger. But something else entirely different and just as disconcerting was happening here. “What’s in it for them?”

“NNI has credibility,” Troy said. “It’s one of the few organizations in the country that still does, to the wider world. It can be an instrument of change.”

We’re selling out, Roland thought. But who to, exactly? Well-meaning philanthropists? Foreign governments looking to subvert the chronic corruption of the US? Whoever they were, Roland couldn’t see these mysterious interests as anything more than twirling moustaches, the other side of a vicious coin. “What are they building out here?”

“It’s a data center,” Troy said. “To make our cash flow look legitimate. Ramp up our resources and . . . change the narrative.”

“The narrative?” Roland said. “That’s not what we do!”

“Roland, my man, you can’t change the world with the truth any more,” Troy said, sounding a little sad as he said it. “The truth doesn’t matter when you’re up against faith and gut instinct, apathy and self interest. You need to act. And the side of truth needs an instrument, not a bunch of powerless thought leaders filling up Facebook with pithy quotes!” Troy sat back down and leaned forward. “Listen to me. I joined NNI when it was nothing, for the exact reasons you did. I passed up a much more lucrative paycheck. I thought what we were doing mattered.”

“It does matter,” Roland said, and realized he was sweating through his shirt again. His heart was racing.

“To us, sure. In an abstract, altruistic way. But it doesn’t effect change. And without change, there’s no fucking future.”

Roland closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to calm his heartbeat. There was a rationale to Troy’s rant, but even by considering it, Roland felt the integrity at his core eroding. This was stooping to evil’s level, escalating a twisted, civil cold war. It got him thinking in terms of sides, and the truth shouldn’t have sides, the truth should just be.

“I know you’re with us on this,” Troy said. “Your brain, if not your heart. You’re smart enough to see it. I know it’s ugly, but somebody needs to get ugly about this before it’s too late. If it isn’t already.”

“It’s not right.”

“We need to try, Roland. You could be a part of it.”

Roland’s head was still spinning, but he tried to piece it together. “Is that why you sent me the email? To recruit me?”

“The email was a mistake,” Troy said. “The email was a failsafe, my stupid heroic effort to pass the torch if I died uncovering an evil conspiracy. It went out before I could stop it. I convinced Poole you wouldn’t be a problem. You’re a quiet, internal guy, after all. I figured you weren’t likely to raise a stink. But if you did follow me out here? Well, then, maybe you are one of us. Maybe you do have it in you.”

“And you could also grill me to find out if I told anyone else about you,” Roland said, thinking of Devon, who must be locked in another room somewhere, being interrogated.

“That too, sorry to say. Like I said, we’re going to have to get ugly if we’re going to accomplish anything.”

Roland shook his head. “You really think you can keep this secret out here?”

“We have help in high places.”

“The government?”

“Higher.” Troy’s eyes drifted ceiling-ward.

Roland thought of the surveillance drone. Piloted by whom? Agents of the intelligence community, or the military, working against their own government? Roland realized he wouldn’t be surprised: so many calamities they had warned about had fallen on deaf ears, in recent decades.

“So, Roland,” Troy said pointedly. “Did you tell anybody?”

Roland nodded. “The woman with me, Devon Easley. She’s the only one.”

“How well do you know her?”

“I just met her. She’s with the tour. Is she hurt?”

“She’s fine.”

“Let me talk to her.”

“I’m afraid we can’t allow that.”

Troy’s buddy act, his posturing, it all seemed a cheap façade, and the man Roland had respected all these years no longer existed. But it wasn’t just disgust souring his stomach. It was fear. How ugly would they get? If they saw his trepidation would they do something to silence him, in order to keep their operation a secret?

“Roland. You okay?”

“I’m thinking.”

“We want to trust you, man. I told them, you’re one of the good ones. You’re not going to blow the whistle. Are you?”

It tore at his heart to admit it, but he knew he had to play along somehow. He wasn’t strong enough to suffer for his ideals. Not many were, these days. “I won’t,” Roland said. “But I won’t work for you either. I just want to forget this all happened.”

“Are you sure?” Troy said. “You could do a lot of good for us from Buffalo.”

“That’s not what I’m about. That’s not me.”

“Well, then, who are you?”

Roland opened his mouth to answer, but no words came.

• • • •

They moved him, blindfolded and bound, through cool, silent corridors. He smelled oil, and sweat, and electricity. Even blind, he sensed a malice to the place, a discipline and a commitment just from the noises he heard and the way he was treated. This wasn’t the NNI’s team spirit and pure vision, it was something scarier and more intense, unlike anything he’d ever felt. Even if there were black data servers being installed here, they weren’t just for leveraging the NNI to its new clandestine mission. They were part of something bigger—and suddenly it came to him. This wasn’t a cold war. This was a revolution, a coup. The idea confused and excited and terrified him, because if it was true, God knew who was spearheading it, who was financing it, or what it would do to the world.

Finally the march ended, and someone fitted a filter mask over his mouth and nose; based on the familiar fit, it was his own. They marched him through some sort of airlock, then out into the briskly whipping winds of the desert. A few more steps and he was in the back of some sort of panel transport, free to remove the veil over his eyes.

Jumpseats lined the walls of the vehicle, and when he pulled off his hood, he saw Devon Easley seated across the aisle. She looked shaken, but fine. She grimaced when she saw the shiner over his eye. “They work you over?”

“No,” Roland said as the transport rolled out, moving slowly in the poor visibility. “Hit my head when I fell.”

“You all right?”

“Fine.” Roland saw the exhaustion in Devon’s eyes. “How about you? Did they interrogate you?”

“No,” Devon said. “Just penned me up and told me to keep my mouth shut, or else.” She looked genuinely upset.

“They threatened you?”

“Close enough,” Devon said. “But they’re letting us go. Whoever they are, I’m not going to fuck with them.”

Roland studied her expression, and realized now that he’d been falling for her. That’s why he’d told her everything. But now he didn’t trust her, any more than he trusted Kathryn Poole or Troy Mackowiak. If they were letting her go, she was probably working for them. She’d probably been keeping tabs on him all along, to see what he would do.

“You okay?”

Roland rubbed his eyes. “I shouldn’t have come.”

They lapsed into silence as the transport bumped along. Finally, twenty-five minutes later, the transport jerked to a halt. “Masks on!” the driver called back.

They suited up.

“I’m going to pop the hatch,” the driver continued. “Head straight out the doors, due west for two klicks. That’ll put you at your campsite. Ready?”

Devon called an affirmative, and the doors opened.

They dropped to the street. The dust storm still raged; it was like wandering into the smoky aftermath of an explosion. The transport rolled away, leaving them in the pitch black of the night, walking blindly in the direction they’d been pointed. Devon locked her arm through Roland’s. “Stay close,” she said. “Hate to lose someone on my last tour.”

She was still selling it, Roland thought, uncertain. Half of him wanted to cling to her, while the other planned to tear loose and run for his life.

They strode against the wind, and he kept his eyes wide for signs of familiar territory, a campfire, a tent, something to guide them in. But after a few minutes, doubt set in. Were they even pointed in the right direction? He’d had no bearings at the construction site, no idea which direction they’d been traveling. Maybe they’d been ditched in the middle of nowhere, sent to wander off to their deaths. Maybe a sniper rifle was trained on them both, two quick bullets to erase the problem. If Poole and Troy were serious about the war they were joining, letting Roland and Devon walk away didn’t fit with their strategy. They would have to be more ruthless than that to win.

“You think they put us in the right place?” Devon asked. “They wiped all my software.”

“Me too,” Roland said, and suddenly he was trusting her again. “I don’t know, Devon.”

“What do we do?”

Roland grasped her arm tighter. He wished he had an answer. “Keep going,” he said, and took another blind step.

Christopher East

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.