September 2010


The last acting job Lydia had gotten wasn’t even worthy of the title; it was more of a thinly veiled con. They’d thrown her in a dress and heels next to a guy in a suit on a newsroom set and had them do a fake story, complete with cutting to a “reporter in the field” one set over. The whole production was designed to look like a regional newscast, complete with realistic if generic logos and animations added in postproduction.

Some company out of Encino arranged the whole deal; they were willing to pay good–well, modest–money to put Lydia’s “newscast” in pop-up ads. People with low IQ’s or short attention spans might mistake it for the real thing and try out the product extolled in the spot. Lydia had to memorize a dozen lines about how recession-addled people were paying to bid on so-called penny auctions and at 75¢per bid wound up walking away with an iPod or something at 80% off the asking price.

Austin’s company had handled some of the postproduction work, and Lydia had watched him whip up a faux “Channel 9 News” screen tag after the shoot. Lydia had been toying with the idea of rolling a little of her paycheck into the auctions she was shilling.

“Don’t,” Austin said. “It’s the nearest thing to absolute evil I’ve ever seen in a business plan.”

“Why?” Lydia asked, watching the screen dance with colorful counterfeit news branding. “If you have to pay to bid, it means fewer bidders and it’s in everyone’s best interest to see the auction end quick and cheap.”

“It’s a brinksmanship game that preys and the darkest angels of human nature,” Austin said. He took a sip from his coffee while running the mouse with two fingers. “Once someone pays money to bid they’re invested in the outcome, which means they’ll bid long past the point of profitability. You might lose $700 before winning an iPod, which you still have to pay for and which they just buy from Amazon and ship to you.”

“I think I could beat the system,” said Lydia.

“So does everyone else. And as long as you just take the money for their stupid commercials and run, you will.”

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Miranda had an impressive interview, and her resume and references had been beyond reproach. So she’d been hired. But, as is so often the case, the glowing reviews and impressive accomplishments hid a simple truth: the good people at Iowa Northwestern had been trying desperately, hungrily, to rid themselves of her.

And it was easy to see why.

She was absolutely batshit insane crazy.

The warning signs had been there for anyone who cared to look, but it wasn’t until the deal was sealed that worrying things came to light. Miranda had assured Burroughs that Elvis and Lennon were alive and well over coffee one morning, for instance. When prodded, she’d said they were on the same spacecraft in the shadow of the moon. She had an utterly unnerving habit of cutting faces out of the paper and adding them to a collage–of obituary columns. Faces of Irish Lottery winners grinned cheerily from a bulletin board in Miranda’s cube; if pressed, she said they made her feel more alive.

But none of it was enough to terminate her five-year contract early, at least not in the eyes of anybody upstairs. So she was shuffled from project to project, contributing vociferously to derailing discussion and never assigned any deliverables for fear they’d arrive in lavender ink (as had once happened on an official memo to the mayor).

That was the state of her when I was assigned team as Miranda’s team leader.

But Harrington wasn’t a doctor, or a nurse, or a paramedic, or even pre-med. She simply wore scrubs in public.

There were plenty of reasons to do so, at least there were according to her. Scrubs were extraordinarily cheap; the patterns were carried in most sewing stores and convincing-looking fabric could be had for 10¢. They were appropriate, or at least accepted, in a wide variety of contexts. The local climate was such that their thinness wasn’t an issue.

Harrington wouldn’t have admitted it, but she also thrilled to the response scrubs got from people. Attired in scrubs, one would always find the checkout line a little faster, other drivers more forgiving, and pedestrians more willing to smile. If pressed Harrington would admit that she wasn’t any kind of medical person, but people seldom pressed.

And that was that, until the accident outside of Metromart on June 15th.

Benedict was seated on an ammo crate, feet up. The tropical sun reflected off his Ray-Bans and the foil highlights on the Metallica shirt that peeked out from under his body armor.

“I don’t get it. The sunglasses, the t-shirt, the sneakers,” Cameron said. “You’re a professional. Why don’t you dress like one?”

“Does it really matter what I wear as long as they’re dead?” said Benedict. Seeing that wasn’t going to satisfy Cameron, he continued. “There are exactly two kinds of fighters out there. Those that’re intimidated by a uniform, and those that aren’t.”

“I…don’t follow.” Cameron said.

“I’m not here to intimidate anyone. You want to pay me for intimidation, fine. I’ll pour myself into a uniform, but it won’t come cheap. Otherwise, it’s better for my peace of mind and your bottom line if you let me dress however I please.” The sneer on Benedict’s face said that he’d given that speech before, and enjoyed it.

Cameron swallowed. “Point taken.”

“You think Lassiter’s out there wearing some itchy uniform instead of fighting comfortably?” Benedict said. He picked up a nearby magazine and began filling it with 9mm rounds. “Not bloody likely.”

“You’re got to be very careful of the open sky,” Tugu said. “Step out in the open, and they’ll have your position in ten to twenty seconds.”

“Satellites?” Richard said.

“Yes. Anything line of sight will give them a lock, and fast.”

Richard felt sweat prickle along the back of his hands. “What about inside? Or in a car? Hell, this tree can’t be much of a shield.”

Tugu nodded. “Cover only delays the lock. Doesn’t stop it. Stay in any one place too long–twenty-four to forty-eight hours–and they’ll get a lock. Once that happens…well, I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Can’t we get the tag removed?” Richard said.

“Surgery takes time, and you’ll more than likely be caught by then. Of course a few people have tried, but it’s tied into your central nervous system in a rough way. Most of the time, if you’re lucky, you’ll be quadriplegic. If you’re lucky.”

The best way to sooth restive passengers, Kayleigh had found, was with a little humor. A quick internet search was enough to turn up dozens of corny lines which she jotted down on notecards and trotted out whenever the occasion demanded.

The run to Santa Mayo was always rough due to the crosswinds that constantly buffeted the island’s airport and Trans-Pac’s refusal to bring in smaller planes. Santa Mayo was increasingly popular with tourists, so a smaller jet or turboprop wouldn’t have been economically feasible, or so they said. But it wasn’t Trans-Pac suits enduring the bone-crushing landing and braking on every hop, either.

That day the flight had been particularly vicious, with heavy turbulence caused by an incoming weather front buffeting the plane as it made the trip. Kayleigh had gone through almost her entire stash of notecard air travel jokes to calm alarmed mutters from the passengers, winding up with her very last card as the jet came in for a landing which rattled her to the teeth.

“Welcome to the Santa Mayo Regional Airport.” she said, fumbling with a card. “S-sorry about the bouncy landing; it’s not the captain’s fault. It’s not the co-pilot’s fault. It’s the asphalt.”

A few snickers, but the tension in the air was still high. Kayleigh pulled out another rough-landing card. “We ask you to please remain seated as Captain Kangaroo bounces us to the terminal.”

The sheet was parchment-thin and brittle to the touch; my great-grandfather’s signature was barely visible at the bottom and half of the dedication to my great-grandmother had broken away.

Was that ever me?
The shining eyes, the boundless energy I see?
The playful spirit, wide-eyed innocence
I see in the little ones over the fence.
It could have been, long ago.
But is it now? I do not know.
Are we the same person as we grow?
Or do we change, and does it show?
If I were there now, over the gate
Would I play, or simply wait
Showing my age, and all that’s gone by
As the years between me and they did fly

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