The first six chapters of ‘Hard Reset.’

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Here they are, the first six chapters of Hard Reset, in which we are introduced to the book’s two main characters, Cat and Cadence.

Hard Reset is a science fiction thriller set in the near future, and is a standalone sequel to my previous novel The Anomaly Problem.

Purchase links for Hard Reset are here.

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Hard Reset – Preview

ONE

The utopian dream was over.

Chilliness stung her shins as she hurriedly splashed through another puddle, still halfway between the bus stop and her office. No one on the bus or on the street had seemed terribly worried about that morning’s news, but Cat had known with a sickening certainty, as soon as she’d read the headlines, that war was coming, or more bombs, or maybe worse, and it would all be gone, everything she loved, burned up and blown away.

And things had been going so well, she thought as she shoved through her building’s front door, stepping from cold dampness into arid warmth. Crossing the lobby, she closed her umbrella, letting it drip on to the ancient tile floor. She paused at the elevator, closing her eyes and trying a little pranayama to slow her heart, one hand on her stomach, one slow, deep inhale, a long, slow exhale. After hurrying to get ready and skipping breakfast, something she’d regret later, she’d power-walked to work, trying to limit her time in the pouring rain. And maybe she wanted to get herself somewhere familiar, around familiar faces, to help distract her from the news.

She opened her eyes and slapped the elevator call button.

The war hadn’t come after they bombed Chicago, and she knew, in the more rational sectors of her brain, it wouldn’t come after that morning’s news about the terror threat. And anyway, there were always whispers of terror, rumors that Anomaly had some diabolical plan in motion. It kept people scared, and that had been the point, because scared people did stupid things, made them vote for the wrong leaders or cash in their retirement and join one of those cults she’d read about, the ones that believed the end of the world was approaching and, rather than preaching repentance, encouraged their followers to live like tomorrow would never arrive. Killing sprees or drug binges, she figured, or junk food and orgies, all the guilt-free pleasures of a classic sci-fi utopia, but likely without the matching uniforms. She had her own utopia, her life with Liz, their home, their time together. And some ultra-violent terrorist organization wanted to take it all away, rip the foundation out from under their feet and replace it with their own version of America, whatever that was, while another ultra-violent, government-funded organization worked to stop them, at any cost.

She shook her head. “Motherfuckers.”

The elevator door squeaked open and she stepped in, pressing the button for the sixth floor. She took her phone out of her pocket, woke it up, navigated to one of her usual newsstreams, watched it refresh, and saw new stories under the same trending category that had greeted her when she woke up that morning: “BREAKING: Homeland Security Closes Airspace.” She scrolled through quickly, but it was still too early for real answers.

She put the phone away and listened to the rattle of the elevator as it ascended, rocking on the balls of her feet and tapping her wet umbrella on the peeling vinyl floor. Taking another deep breath, she pulled her phone out again to check the time. Somehow, after the hurried morning and the quick walk, she wasn’t early by much.

The elevator stopped and she got out, walking past the other tenants’ offices to her own place of employment. RESTORING BALANCE NEW ORLEANS was neatly painted on the frosted glass window set into the heavy wooden door. An anemic bell rang as she pushed the door open.

Inside, in the office’s waiting area, she put her dripping umbrella in the corner, dropped her bag down next to it, and hung her coat on one of the bronze hooks near the front door. She headed for the kitchen, a small room with a stainless-steel dorm-style refrigerator, a microwave on an old particleboard stand, and a round lunch table.

Riley, one of the other therapists, was sitting at the table, drinking coffee, her feet wrapped in an oversize heating pad. Riley was in her forties and wore a colorful, form-fitting tank-top and yoga tights. Her blond hair was always in a high ponytail, secured with a wide band of colorful elastic. She did a style of massage called Ashiatsu, done barefoot while standing on the table with the client. Cat didn’t have the grace to try that.  

“Hey,” Riley said. She was staring at her phone and didn’t look up.

“Hey.” Cat took a ceramic mug from a shelf on the microwave stand and carried it to the tiny bathroom off the waiting area, where she filled it with water from the sink. Back in the kitchen, she set the mug in the ancient microwave. She turned it on, causing the lights to dim. Listening to the ominous hum from the guts of the microwave, she imagined her mug being bombarded with gamma rays, imagined her own chromosomes being scrambled. The thing had to be beyond its intended lifespan. Budget appliances were being made exclusively from plastic and had been for years, but their museum-grade microwave was clad in dented white sheet metal.

She went into the bathroom and closed the door, then sat on the toilet and untied her boots and pulled them off. Standing, and making sure her socks didn’t get wet, she pulled her rain-soaked jeans off. Underneath, she wore black tights with full-color images from the old Hubble telescope printed on them. She hung her jeans on the towel rack, then patted the bottoms of her tights with paper towels. She left her boots on the floor under her jeans and stepped into the plastic slippers she kept at the office. Her coat had kept her T-shirt dry. It was from the merch table at the Becca Marx show she and Liz had gone to the previous summer, black cotton with Becca and her guitar on the front and the tour dates on the back. That had been a great show, she remembered. And it was a pretty good shirt, too.

She checked her hair in the mirror. Still wet, but from the morning’s shower and not from the rain. It was short enough that it didn’t need much tinkering. She ran her hands through it, slicking it back, knowing it’d stay that way when it dried. Or close enough, anyway.

Her phone chimed. She fished it out of her jeans.

A message from Liz:

Just got out of a partner meeting. Saw the news. It’ll be okay, promise. xo

Cat smiled. Liz knew.

Liz would have been one of the unworried people on the bus, the ones that could easily go about their day without letting the news turn their stomachs to acid. The bombing in Chicago had triggered sadness and outrage in Liz, but it hadn’t lasted, not like it had for Cat. And the capture of that Goddard woman hadn’t done much to calm her mind, but she’d noticed that most people took it as a sign that they were safe again, that the government was on top of it. Cat wasn’t so sure. Eve Goddard was just one person. Anomaly was huge. They were everywhere.

In the kitchen, the microwave beeped, a shrill, broken sound from the aging electronics. She pulled the mug out, holding it between both her hands, warming them. One of her instructors used to say that a massage therapist with cold hands is a massage therapist with no clients. After her morning walk in the rain, she knew her hands were less-than-ideal for bodywork.

She sat at the table across from Riley, who was still staring at her phone with a pleasant half-smile on her face. Another of the unworried, Cat thought as she clutched her warm mug. She was pretty sure her first client was due in fifteen minutes. Setting the mug down, she brought her schedule up on her phone to double-check.

Her client had canceled. She’d been afraid of that, afraid that the news was going to put people off the idea of a relaxing massage. She herself couldn’t imagine getting a massage with her body as knotted up with anxiety as it was. Massage could do a lot, but it’d be a tall order to ask a bodyworker to cut through that kind of tension.

She shook her head. She needed to work, needed to be busy. She’d heard other massage therapists say that their mind wandered during a session, but Cat had always found herself focused, thinking about nothing but muscles and blood flow and her own technique. It was the only thing she’d ever done in her life that worked like that. And on that morning, she would’ve been truly grateful for the opportunity.

Of course, she had no idea why her client had actually canceled. It could’ve been anything. Unexpected meeting, sudden illness, kidnapped by aliens. She hoped there were no more cancellations.

Riley looked up from her phone. “You see the news?”

“Sure did,” Cat said.

“My sister and her kids are stuck in San Francisco.”

“Sucks.” Cat had never been to San Francisco, but from what she’d heard, it wasn’t a bad place to be stuck.

The front door opened. From the kitchen, Cat watched as Riley’s first client, Mr. Roberts, stepped in and took his coat off.

Riley stood, bending to pick up the heating pad. Cat held the mug and listened as Riley exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Roberts in the waiting room. Soon, they were in one of the treatment rooms, behind a heavy, closed door, leaving Cat in silence. She wondered what she should do until her next scheduled appointment, assuming the client showed up.

“Hungry,” she said, and stood to pick through the cabinet under the microwave, looking for junk food.

TWO

Through the open windows, Cadence heard the uneven engine and bad exhaust of Harsh’s big Cadillac approaching. The thing was ancient, a huge, natural gas-converted dinosaur that Harsh managed to keep looking pretty good, though he never did anything about the engine. Light flickered on the window frame as the car skidded violently to a stop in front of her trailer. The engine coughed and went silent.

She sat up, listening and trying to guess the time. There was a bit of orange in the sky through the filthy windows. Nearly dawn. The Cadillac’s door opened, triggering a string of low, fast electronic chimes. Footsteps shuffled in the gravel. The gate in front of his place opened, but didn’t close. More shuffling footsteps, and his trailer’s door slammed shut. The chimes apparently weren’t stopping anytime soon.

“Goddamn.” She threw the blanket on the floor and stood. At the window, she pushed a torn section of dirty screen aside. The breeze carried in the rotten-fish stench of the Sea, tinged with the smell of bonfires. Harsh’s place was across the street, a square plot of gravel and dirt with a double-wide trailer, a garage made of concrete block with a dented, dirty door, and a rusty, collapsed garden shed, all behind a ten-foot-high chain-link fence with a mostly-intact strand of barbed wire along the top.

Every light in his trailer was on. He’d left his gate open. He never did that. The Cadillac was parked crookedly on the street, the door open and the interior lights on, behind the little Toyota that Cadence used for her runs. Harsh didn’t mind keeping the Toyota on the street because, according to him, no one would want it. The Cadillac, however, always went in the garage, safe and secure.

“Shit.” She slid her feet into her boots and left her trailer. Outside, there was muffled, pounding music in every direction, from every corner of Bombay Beach. Sparks rose into the sky from a bonfire a couple blocks away. Echoing pops in the distance could’ve been fireworks or gunshots. There was a sort of path that ran behind her trailer and the other trailers and houses on her street, connecting one popular party spot to another a block away. There was a group of men and women back there, yelling at each other in a mix of English and Spanish.

Ahead, the car was still chiming away. She crossed the street and looked inside. There were streaks of blood on the door and the leather driver’s seat. Careful not to touch the blood, she reached inside and took the key out of the ignition. The chiming stopped. She shut the door and walked through the open gate.

In the light from the fancy round fixture next to the front door, she could see more blood, a few wet dribbles on the patch of dirt in front of the single concrete step.

Cadence stepped over the blood on the ground and reached forward, tapping on the door. “Harsh?” She tapped again, then tried the knob, finding it unlocked and slippery with blood. She pushed the door open. “You in here?”

“Yeah.” Harsh’s voice, low and shaky.

Cadence stepped inside. His trailer was laid out like hers, but the rooms were bigger and cleaner. The living room had gray carpet, a nice L-shaped couch, a big TV, and shelves full of books. The kitchen had shiny appliances and marble countertops. Fake marble, he’d once told her, like he was embarrassed or something.

She liked it there. It smelled better and had air conditioning.

“Could use some help,” Harsh said, stepping out from the bathroom. He was shirtless, smooth, brown skin over wiry muscle. A trail of blood ran down his chest from his nose and from a slash above his left eyebrow. His eyes and forehead and upper lip were dark and swollen.

“Fuck, man.” She stepped closer, reaching to help steady him. Something was on his chest, up near his shoulder. Some kind of symbol the size of her hand, like a capital C with a cross through it, in pale, puffy lines. The skin was red all around it. “The fuck is that?” she asked him.

“There’s a kit in here,” he said. He swayed, hanging on to the door frame.

“Maybe you should sit.” Cadence took his arm and helped him to the kitchen table. He sat down hard in the chair. “What happened?”

“You need the kit.”

“Kit?”

He was holding his breath. “First aid kit,” he said, coughing the words out. He clenched his teeth, kept his eyes shut. “In there. Somewhere. The bathroom.”

Cadence went to find it. She dug in the cabinet under the sink and found a white plastic box with a red cross on the lid. “This it?” she asked as she exited the bathroom.

“That’s it.” He looked up at her, wiping blood from his eye. “You know anything about this stuff?”

She put the kit on the table. “A little. I watched my friend patch up some people back in New York. Stab wounds, bullet wounds.” She looked at Harsh. “Most of them made it.” She dug through the kit, remembering the last time someone on their crew had gotten hurt, the way Eve had fought to save his life, the blood on her hands and forearms, the way she talked so calmly and quietly to him while she worked.

“Was your friend a doctor or something?” he asked.

“Not exactly.” Cadence never told Harsh that she knew Eve Goddard. He didn’t need to know he was working with a friend of Homeland Security’s most infamous detainee.

“This really hurts.” He touched his chest with a shaky hand.

“It’ll be okay.” The kit had most of the usual stuff. Bandages, iodine, tape, alcohol wipes. She picked up a white plastic envelope with green lettering on one side. “What’s this?” It said 2/0 NYLON on it.

“Suture kit.” He was gripping the edge of the table. Hard. He squeezed his eyes shut.

“Stitches.” Cadence had watched Eve use stitches before. She set the envelope aside. “So what is this thing?” she asked, looking at the thing on his chest.

He opened his right eye to look up at her, then closed it. “It’s a brand. It fucking hurts.”

“Brand?”

“Like a bad fucking burn.” He pointed at the fridge. “Pour some cold water on it, please.”

She went to the fridge, opened it, and took out two clear bottles. At the table, she opened both and passed one to Harsh. “Drink.”

He took the bottle.

She poured water on the burn. She’d seen people get brands at tattoo shops, but they never looked like the thing on Harsh’s chest. It was swollen, the lines of the design blistered, the skin yellow. It looked charred in some places. The char washed away in the stream of water. “Does that help?” she asked, emptying the bottle.

He nodded, then drank some water.

“How’d this happen?” She tossed the empty bottle aside. “Who fucking did this?”

“Will you please just help me?” He looked up at her, both eyes wide. He was clearly in pain, but he was also piss-scared, more than usual.

She nodded, slowly. “Just take it easy.”

He closed his eyes. “Stop asking questions.”

She rooted through the kit again, looking for something to put on the burn. Some kind of cream, maybe. “Don’t know much about burns. I’ll let it dry, then cover it.”

He nodded.

She found antibiotic ointment, tape, and a paper envelope with gauze in it. She set those aside, then looked at the gash above his eye. “Gonna clean this out.”

“Do it.”

She poured a bit of water over it, washing the blood away, then tore open an envelope of gauze. “This is gonna hurt.” She caught the sharp smell of the iodine as she opened the bottle and soaked a corner of the gauze in it. “Ready?” She dabbed at the cut with the gauze.

Harsh let out a squeak and kicked at the floor, then sat with his eyes closed for a few moments while he tried to catch his breath.

“You okay?”

He nodded.

“This’ll definitely need stitches.” She reached for the suture kit. Water was pooling around Harsh’s chair, making the floor slippery.

“Can you do that?”

“Probably. Can’t be that hard.”

Harsh reached into his pocket for his phone. “We can maybe find a video.”

“Might be a good idea.” She wasn’t sure how much she remembered.

“Need ice,” he said. “For the swelling.”

“You have any?”

“No. You’ll need to get some. At Maxine’s.”

“Okay.” Maxine’s was a convenience store. They took her Mexican cash there. Cadence dabbed at the cut with a dry section of the gauze and looked down at the brand on his chest. “What’s it mean?”

“What?”

“The brand,” she said. “The symbol.”

He didn’t answer.

“Okay. Whatever.” She walked over to the sink and washed her hands with the dish soap from the dispenser. “Asshole,” she said, under her breath. And then, for some reason, she felt bad about saying it.

“Better this way.” His eyes were closed again. “Better you don’t know.”

“Sure,” she said. She shut off the water and grabbed a towel. Poor guy. He didn’t deserve it, whatever had happened. One of their fun-loving neighbors, maybe.

Goddamn tweakers.

THREE

Some of her clients liked to talk. Cat didn’t mind. She’d been a massage therapist for four years, and she’d learned how to keep part of her brain engaged enough to offer benign inquiries or interjections to avoid uncomfortable silences. It was part of the job.

But after the morning’s heightened exposure to the news, she would have preferred not to talk current events, and sadly, that was where her client’s mind had been.

With his voice muffled by the face cradle, the client talked about where he had been when the bombs went off in Chicago, how he had been sitting in his car at a red light with the window down, and had heard people screaming and crying. Cat wondered how long the news had taken to get to New Orleans. Minutes, at the most, she guessed. Even with the breakdown of the net in Chicago, news would have traveled out of the city quickly, spreading, multiplying, until people were screaming and crying everywhere.

She remembered those first pictures, the smoke, the crater, those uncensored images of blood and carnage that had come from private citizens and not the newsstreams. She herself had been in session during the actual bombing. The news had been waiting for her, as had several messages from her parents, checking in. Liz had called minutes later to tell her that she had canceled the rest of her day and was on her way to Cat’s office.

And Cat had been glad for that. Unbelievably glad.

“You know what they said?” her client asked.

Cat was working on his calf muscles, the sheet pulled up to expose his lower leg. “What?”

“None of those planes in the air were allowed to land here. You believe that?”

“Really? Why?” she asked.

“They didn’t say. I just heard it before I got here. Weird, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” She hoped it’d had something to do with the weather. But jets could still land in the rain, she knew. Maybe there were storms, or wind.

“I mean,” the client continued, “if it’s just an exercise, why not let the planes land wherever was closest?”

“They think it’s just an exercise?” There’d been many theories about why the airspace had been closed, but that wasn’t one many people favored.

“No.” He sighed. “Guess we’ll just have to wait and see what they say.”

“Guess so.”

“If you believe them.”

“Right.”

“I don’t.”

“Can’t blame you.” She covered his lower leg with the sheet and walked around the table to work his other calf.

***

After her client left, Cat sat at the table in the kitchen, checking the news. She brought up one of the better-curated newsstreams.

“—as of an hour ago.” The video came from a woman whose work regularly appeared on the newsstreams. Cat recognized her name in the bottom corner, above the tag indicating that the view was of LaGuardia Airport in New York. Over images of status boards with the word CANCELED next to every flight, she spoke briskly in behind-the-phone clarity, her voice blotting out the noise of the airport terminal. “There was no indication from Secretary Rusak or from Lead Inspector Cyrus that any specific city was named in this terror threat, despite the increased presence of the SID in the city of New Orleans.”

“What?” Cat said, sitting forward in the empty kitchen.

The woman continued as her face filled the screen, the airport terminal out of focus behind her. “Airline personnel at the counters said that every flight in the air when this order came down was forced to make an immediate emergency landing at whichever airport was closest, but no flights were permitted to land at Louis Armstrong airport in New Orleans. They wouldn’t say why.”

The video ended, and the newsstream moved on to the next one. She paused it before it could start, the still image showing a sharply-dressed woman standing at a podium.

Her client had been right. Flights weren’t being allowed to land in New Orleans.

She set her phone aside. She hadn’t seen any of the SID’s people in town on her way to work, those robots with their rifles and their slick armor, all of it designed by someone with a serious sci-fi fetish, chunky armor plates trimmed in red, matching weapons, streamlined helmet. The SID robots could’ve come out of a cheap movie, one where the costumes were all made from papier-mâché, aesthetically pleasing but vulnerable to impacts and moisture.

“Better stay out of here,” she said, looking toward the window and smiling. “Armor’s gonna melt.” It felt good to smile. Normal people could make light of that kind of mess. She could, too.

She picked up her phone and resumed the video. The woman, who she recognized as the White House press secretary, spoke into the camera. “The president has condemned the actions of the SID and of Homeland Security secretary Rusak, and he is working to get the airspace opened back up. It’s clear that with these actions, the SID is compensating for their failure in Chicago. This shutdown amounts to nothing but an attempt to flex their muscle.”

“Flex their muscle,” Cat repeated, mimicking the voice of the press secretary, and stopped the newsstream. The president was no fan of the SID, and he never missed an opportunity to twist the knife over their failure to protect Chicago. But it really wasn’t up to him whether the airspace was opened or not. After the attacks on D.C. ten years before, the government, unable to handle the task themselves, handed control of the country’s security to a private company, or rather, one particular division of a very large and very powerful conglomerate, the Vecidio Corporation. Their Security and Intelligence Division had started out as military contractors in the Middle East, a security agency made up of trigger-happy mercenaries from America and the UK. Vecidio had been an ordinary online retailer when they bought the agency and turned it into their own private security force, ostensibly to guard their vast warehouses. It was that force, the SID, that was calling the shots when it came to America’s security, via their poster boy Jeremy Cyrus. The rest of the country, including the president, was just going to have to wait and see what happened.

She brought up another newsstream, one that tended to curate a more entertaining look at the news. The video started with the head and shoulders of an aging comedian in a suit next to that same photo of Eve Goddard they always used, the one where she’s smiling into the camera as a Minneapolis policeman handed her over to the SID. Cat never understood the newsstreams’ fascination with her. Everyone talked about her, every day, and they loved that goddamn photo. Cat didn’t. She closed the newsstream.

Eve Goddard was a monster. Eighty people had died when that bomb went off in the middle of Chicago. Close to three hundred were injured, a lot of them badly. But they loved her fucking smile. They’ll put her photo up even if they’re not talking about her.

It was sick. There had been stories about Anomaly factions who had taken to worshiping Eve Goddard as a hero. Which made sense, with her being the mastermind of a major act of terrorism, just the sort of thing to lather up a bunch of fanatics. And the newsstreams had made her a fucking star when they could have just let her go to prison without so much as a description of her appearance.

She searched the newsstreams for anything about New Orleans. There were still no definitive answers as to why planes weren’t allowed to land there, just a lot of speculation. But speculation was enough to keep people watching, which made the advertisers happy. And anyway, if a particular user wanted to keep seeing their videos and stories curated into newsstreams, they couldn’t afford to be silent.

Standing, she stretched her back and checked the time. She had one more client before lunch, then a few after that. Plenty to keep her mind occupied.

As long as they didn’t cancel.

FOUR

Cadence switched on Harsh’s coffeemaker, a heavy plastic and stainless-steel cube, and stood leaning on the counter, waiting for it to brew.

Harsh’s place was so goddamn clean. Her own place was a shithole. She’d stay at Harsh’s if she could, and she knew Harsh would let her.

But no. Not a good idea.

They’d made a mess of his table patching him up, and Cadence had promised him she’d clean it, otherwise he would’ve done it and probably hurt himself. She helped him to his bed and went to work on the table and floor with Windex and a ton of paper towels. To her, it looked spotless.

“Making coffee?” Harsh limped into the living room. He leaned over the back of the couch and pulled the curtains aside, spending a few moments looking up and down the street. He glanced at Cadence, put the curtains back in place, and turned and sat on the couch.

“You’re supposed to be resting,” she said.

“I am.” He reached for the remote. “You’ve still got a job to do.”

“I know.” Cadence checked on the coffee. She took two mugs from the cabinet. “Take yours black, don’t you?”

“Yes.” Harsh had gotten dressed, gym shorts and some kind of sports jersey, a team called the Dodgers, white fabric with blue lettering. The swelling in his face had gone down a bit. Usually, Harsh was actually sort of cute. His family was from India, his skin a shade or two lighter than her own. He had short, messy jet-black hair, and big, dark eyes. They’d fooled around once, about a month after they started working together, and she was into it at first, but he got nervous halfway through and she sort of lost interest. Since that night, he’d been looking for a second chance with her.

She didn’t think it was a good idea, though. If there was anywhere else she could go, anything else she could do, she would, and she didn’t want to be attached to anything if she got the chance.

The microwave’s clock said it was just after ten in the morning. She’d spent a good hour cleaning him up, then another half-hour cleaning the mess in the kitchen, then she had to go to Maxine’s to get ice. She’d put his Cadillac in the garage for him and locked the gate, and he never even thanked her. But she’d stuck around, not so much to keep an eye on him, but because she didn’t feel like walking back to her own trailer. It got hot quickly once the sun came up, but Harsh’s place would stay cool.

The coffee machine beeped. She filled the mugs and carried one to the living room. “Coffee,” she said, and set it down on the shiny table in front of Harsh.

“Thanks.” He reached for the mug. His hand was shaking. “You really should get going,” he said. He dug in his pocket and pushed a plastic data key across the table.

She took the key and put it in her pocket. “I will.”

“Seriously.” He looked up at her. Behind her, the sound of some old cartoon blared from the TV. “Don’t piss these guys off. Not today.”

“I’m going,” she said. “Soon as I have some coffee.”

“There’s a to-go cup up there. In the cabinet.”

“Okay, fine.” She found it, an orange plastic thing with a gas station’s logo on it. “Sure you’ll be okay?” she asked Harsh, transferring her coffee from the mug to the to-go cup.

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

As she crossed the living room, Harsh didn’t look up at her, just stared down at his coffee. She undid the deadbolt and stepped out into sunlight and dry heat, running her thumb over the Toyota’s key fob in her pocket. She was still wearing the same t-shirt and knee-length cut-off shorts from the previous day, and she felt grimy, like she needed a shower. Her place had running water, sort of, but there was no way to heat it, and she didn’t have the filters like Harsh did, so the water always tasted and smelled rusty.

Overhead, the sky was more of an ugly yellow-gray than blue. She’d always thought California was supposed to have blue skies and palm trees. The only palm trees she’d seen were miles away from Bombay Beach.

A couple of kids on bikes rode past as she headed down to the gate, a third running after them. School around there was done over the net, Harsh had told her, during whatever hours were convenient for the parents. He told her it was cheaper for the state to do it that way, and Cadence had wondered who was checking to make sure the kids were actually taking the classes. No one, probably.

Mouse, the neighborhood’s dog, had been sitting in the middle of the road, chewing on his back and paying no attention to the kids. Most of their tweaker neighbors had claimed ownership of Mouse at some point, so he wasn’t really a stray. Strangely, Cadence hadn’t seen any other dogs around there, just Mouse. There were clumps of fur missing all over his body, and he had scars on his muzzle and head. As soon as he saw Cadence step through the gate, he ran over to her, his tongue hanging out. Cadence knelt down to scratch his head.

“Careful with him,” someone said. Cadence looked up to see Kinzie walking down the street toward her. “Get bugs in your hair.” Kinzie nudged Mouse with her foot. “Go on.”

Mouse trotted away, no change in his mood.

“Shouldn’t be so mean to him,” Cadence said.

Kinzie shrugged. “I didn’t hurt him. Besides, he’ll be back.” She smiled. “He stinks anyway.”

Cadence stood up. “You stink.” Kinzie was, Cadence guessed, maybe twenty years old, and was white with a deep suntan that brought out freckles on her cheeks and arms. She was thin like a lot of Bombay Beach’s residents, but Kinzie was no tweaker. She had short, unnaturally red hair and wore a lemon-yellow t-shirt, dark blue jeans, and dusty, ragged sneakers. Her mom ran the area’s only hair salon, which doubled as the area’s only secondhand clothing store, in the site of an old service station on the road to the one-eleven. Kinzie got free clothes from the store, but they didn’t sell shoes.

“Working at your mom’s place today?” Cadence asked. Kinzie ran the register for the clothing store side of the business. She wanted to work in the salon instead, and she’d cut Cadence’s hair a couple times for practice. Cadence had been meaning to ask if she could do it again.

“Yeah, later,” Kinzie said. “You working today?”

“Sure am.” Cadence unlocked the Toyota. It was an older model, not as old as the Cadillac, but old enough to use keys instead of fingerprints. She reached in and switched it on, making sure the air conditioning was set to HIGH. “Hey, you seen anyone around talking to Harsh, giving him shit?”

Kinzie shook her head. “Why?”

“Let me know if you hear anyone talking about him,” Cadence said, getting into the Toyota.

Kinzie stood by the open door. “Like, how?”

“Just let me know if you hear anything. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Okay.” She stepped back as Cadence pulled the door shut. She waved at Kinzie and swung the car around, making a u-turn in the narrow street. Mouse was at the end of the block, chewing on his back again. She drove past him and headed for her first pickup.

FIVE

At the office’s tiny kitchen table, Cat dug into a spinach salad, extra-hungry since she’d skipped breakfast. She’d had the salad delivered by a soaked teenager who’d apparently ridden his bike to her building in the pouring rain. She’d given him a good tip.

She could hear the droning, vaguely tribal-sounding music bleeding through the walls of the massage rooms. They had three rooms in the office, staffed by a rotating cadre of therapists. Riley was there, as was Lucia, the owner of Restoring Balance, both with full schedules for the rest of the day. Cat herself only had one other client. The rest had canceled. “Big fucking surprise,” she’d said to the empty kitchen when she’d seen that.

She’d gotten her screen out of her bag, thinking she could maybe watch a movie or something until her next client came in. The screen was a nice one, a gift from Liz on Cat’s last birthday to replace Cat’s old one which, although it was marketed as being crack-resistant, had an ugly crack from corner to corner. Her new screen looked like a seamless tablet of smoked glass, though it was really a tough polymer with all the electronics sealed inside. It was around twice the size of her phone, making it relatively small for a screen.

Waking it up, she paused for a moment to admire the background image on the screen’s display. It was one of her and Liz in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. Cat had taken it using Liz’s phone held at arm’s length during one of their earliest dates. They’d gone for a walk after dinner, stopping for dessert on the way, and ended up back at Liz’s. A good memory, and she smiled, as she was sure she must’ve done a million times that day.

She checked for news. Inspector Cyrus had given a press conference, so his face was everywhere. Better than seeing that Goddard woman, she thought. It was still somewhat comforting for her, seeing a gay man in such a high station. It hadn’t happened often. He’d started off as just another officer, someone who followed orders and did a good job. Once they put a red coat on him, that long red coat the SID inspectors wear, like a cowboy’s duster, they saw what a great leader and strategist he really was. He made it look easy, the way he handled politicians and military leaders, the speeches he gave to his officers for the benefit of the newsstreams. The SID had themselves a bona fide rock star, and they’d had him for years.

But in her mind, Inspector Cyrus wasn’t much of a hero. The repeated assurances from him and the SID’s public relations people didn’t do much to convince her that it was all worth it, the large-scale raids, the mass incarcerations, the stories about the interrogations those people were put through. All of that nasty shit had been stepped up since Inspector Cyrus took the top job, and she wished he could’ve done things a little differently.

Cat found a video from a press conference he’d given, pressed Play, and set the screen aside so she could eat.

“At this time, we are unable to share what we know with Washington,” Cyrus was saying on the screen. “We don’t like keeping them in the dark, but in this situation it is absolutely necessary.”

“You love it,” she said with a mouthful of greens.

“We’ve stepped up security at government facilities as a precaution, and you may see extra Security and Intelligence personnel in public transit stations and in city centers. Please be sure to comply with officers’ requests for identification, or if you are asked to move. We hope to have more information by the end of the day. And we hope to have the skies open to travel by this time tomorrow. Thank you.” He stepped out of view as the video clip ended.

“Sure you do.” Cat finished her salad, pushed the plastic tray aside, and picked up her screen. The photostreams were full of images of the SID’s robots on patrol everywhere, on college campuses, in bus stations, outside shopping malls. She searched for images taken in New Orleans, but couldn’t find many. Digging deeper, down into the less rigidly curated parts of the photostreams, she found a few rainy, hazy photos of SID officers on street corners.  

She wondered what Liz was doing. Cat would be done with her work day in a couple hours. Maybe Liz could knock off early. She sent her a message:

One more client, then heading home.

Cat cleaned up after her lunch while she waited for a reply.

Her screen chimed.

May call it a day myself soon. Partners all took off.

Liz was a paralegal. Her firm’s upscale clientele weren’t usually the type to let their lawyers take an afternoon off. It was getting harder to convince herself that things were okay in New Orleans.

She really needed a distraction.

Can pick up something for dinner. See you at home.

She locked the screen and set it aside, then headed to the treatment room, stopping to take her phone out of her coat where it hung by the door. Liz’s reply appeared as she woke it up:

See you there xo

Cat smiled at the thought of an afternoon to themselves, then a dinner of pasta and vegetables, maybe a bottle of rosé wine. Liz loved a good rosé. She couldn’t remember if they had any at home.

Tucking her phone into the waistband of her tights, she pulled the sheets off her massage table and wadded them up, putting them in the bin for the laundry service. She unfolded a clean set of sheets and put them on the table, getting it set up for the next client, the one who hadn’t canceled. When clients didn’t show up, Cat still got paid for the massage, but if she were Lucia, she’d have Restoring Balance sue the SID for the lost business.

Cat could hear rain hitting the windows, and behind that there was another sound, a distant, slowly-rising wail. The wail hit a high note, stayed there for a few seconds, then fell in pitch. A storm siren.

She picked up her phone to check the weather.

Nothing but errors. No connection.

“That’s not good.” She tried again, and realized she couldn’t hear the droning music through the walls anymore. She remembered the news reports after the bomb went off in Chicago, the problems they had with the net. Outside, the storm siren hit its peak again, echoing and fading in and out.

At the kitchen window, she pulled the curtains aside, nearly tearing them off the rod. By pressing her face to the glass and looking as far to the left as possible, she could almost see Liz’s office building.

No smoke, no fire, just that siren. She looked down to the street, but there were no signs of peril.

The last message Liz sent was still there, on her phone, in its little window. The salad she’d eaten was threatening to come back up.

She needed to see Liz. Her office was fifteen minutes away on foot. “I’ll do it in ten,” she said.

She went into the bathroom and pulled her jeans on, then her boots. In the kitchen, she grabbed her screen and shoved it into her bag, then grabbed her coat in the waiting room. She left the office, pulling the door shut and speed-walking down the hall. She pressed the button for the elevator, then decided the stairs would be better.

She was halfway to the ground floor when the lights went out.

SIX

Cadence did a daily route of pickups and drop-offs for Harsh, driving his tiny Toyota all over the Salton Sea area. It required very little skill, mostly driving and waiting around. The people she dealt with were the sort of people she and Eve used to rip off in New York.

She hated it.

The first stop was out at Slab City, where the cooks lived and worked, about a half hour from Harsh’s. There, she met with a man named Hugo and traded the key Harsh had given her for a canvas duffel bag. The bag, which was always heavy, went to Palm Springs, to one of a few different places, whichever one Hugo told her to go to.

Hugo liked to talk. She would always stay and listen, because it meant putting off the drive to Palm Springs. Cadence especially hated that part of the trip, with the plastic Toyota bouncing and rattling on the one-eleven’s potholes and sounding like it would fall apart if she drove too fast. Besides a few small, abandoned roadside towns, there wasn’t much to look at. And she couldn’t use the radio because it was an aftermarket addition, something Harsh had put in, and it was connected to the net. Just touching the screen would set off alarms since she was undocumented.

It took forever. And she had to do it every goddamn day, both directions.

Palm Springs itself was the nicest place around, with lots of hotels and golf courses and tourists. Everything was green up there, not dry and dusty like it was in the rest of the Sea. She had memorized the routes to the drop-offs, using maps Harsh had drawn her, since she didn’t have a phone to help her navigate.

She parked behind the restaurant, the dropoff Hugo had sent her to, next to the dumpsters, happy to stay in the air conditioning until someone came out to trade another data key for the bag. Hugo told her that only about half the shit she brought to Palm Springs stayed there. The rest of it went west, to Los Angeles and San Diego, the California from the movies.

She checked herself in the mirror, brushing the hair out of her eyes. She’d gotten her dark skin from her father, but her hair was entirely her mother’s, wavy and reddish-brown. Cadence was glad it wasn’t the other way around. Someone as pale as her mother would’ve gotten sunburned within the first ten minutes of setting foot in Bombay Beach and stayed that way. As it was, Cadence had gotten burned after spending an afternoon at a get-together in Kinzie’s backyard a week after she got to town. It wasn’t something she’d worried about in New York or D.C., since she’d rarely gone outside during the day. But she remembered getting sunburned as a kid, and she probably should’ve known better.

She rolled down the window as a man in a black apron strolled out of the restaurant, trying to look casual. He gave Cadence the data key by palming it as he shook her hand, and she passed him the duffel bag through the window. He made some small talk about the weather, then headed back inside. The key would go back to Harsh, ending her work day, hours of sitting in the car for a few Mexican Dollars, which was the only way she could get paid, since she didn’t have identification and couldn’t get a bank account. She’d had a birth certificate and a school ID when she was young, but she never got the federal ID everyone was supposed to apply for when they turned eighteen, the one card that meant she could legally vote and drive a car and get a job. She couldn’t remember where she was when she turned eighteen. Nowhere good, probably. She also didn’t have that government-issued net profile everyone else had, which meant she didn’t have a contact or a way to get or send messages. She couldn’t own or even touch a phone.

And it wasn’t like she could just walk into some government building and get an ID and a profile at age twenty-nine. A search of her records would turn up the foster home she’d run away from when she was twelve, and nothing after. With so much blank space in her life, she was worried they’d just hand her over to Homeland Security. There were stories like that, people living in parts of the country where filling out government paperwork and paying the fees weren’t exactly a priority, and whole families ended up disappearing, the adults to one facility and the kids to another. It wasn’t a chance she wanted to take. There were other people in Bombay Beach in the same situation, hiding in a place they were sure Homeland Security would never bother to visit. Cadence hoped they were right.

Halfway back from Palm Springs, she spotted a California Highway Patrol car parked on the side of the one-eleven. She wasn’t speeding, and as far as she knew, the Toyota was legal. As she passed it, she saw that there was no one in the driver’s seat or walking around outside. It was all desert around there. “Where the fuck did you go?”

Cops weren’t something she’d needed to worry about in Bombay Beach. There were people for that, tough guys who took care of enforcing the law and who worked for the same bosses as Cadence and Harsh. People living in Bombay Beach knew not to call the sheriff if there was a problem they couldn’t deal with themselves, like when someone notices one of their batshit neighbors abusing their kids or not feeding them. No sheriff, no Child Protective Services, no reports or paperwork. She’d seen a couple of Imperial County Sheriff’s cars around the place, but they weren’t there on official business. There were all sorts of things for sale in Bombay Beach. Even cops made good customers.

She’d never been arrested herself, but it had been cops that grabbed Eve, regular cops, not the SID, in St. Paul, a few weeks after the bombing in Chicago. The cops swarmed the building she and Eve were in, the place they’d been staying in while Eve was doing some bullshit job for a friend. They split up, and Cadence had gotten away. Or maybe they weren’t even there for her, because later she saw Eve on the news, her smiling face as the cops handed her off the SID, to that fuckhead Jeremy Cyrus. After that, he went on TV and said Eve had planned the bombing and was helping them with their investigations. But Cadence had been with Eve, in Chicago during the bombing and in D.C. the day before. Eve hadn’t had anything to do with it.

She knew that, but no one else did, which was the main reason she wanted to stay off Homeland Security’s radar. Jeremy Cyrus would be looking for her.

After the arrest, Cadence had hitched a ride from the Twin Cities to the Salton Sea, which sounded like a good place to lay low. And she’d heard there was work there, and there was, sort of. The action she found was old action, things that had been set up years before Cadence arrived, and all of it revolved around drugs. The place had nothing else going on. She’d been looking for a way out since she got there, or at least another line of work. Nothing had come up.

The only thing she really liked about the place was Harsh.

“And what the fuck happened to you?” She shook her head and drove, watching the dust blow across the road in front of her.

***

It was close to three when Cadence got back to Bombay Beach. As she turned on to their street, she spotted a black, four-door car parked in front of Harsh’s place. She didn’t know what model it was, but it looked expensive. A pale, red-haired woman stood near the back of the car, wearing jeans and a yellow and brown plaid cowboy shirt.

As Cadence approached in the Toyota, the woman turned to face her. Cadence thought about driving past her, pretending to go somewhere else, but if the woman knew Harsh, she probably knew the car.

The woman put her hand on the grip of the gunmetal-blue pistol on her hip.

“Shit,” Cadence said, slowing. She avoided making eye contact with the woman and parked the Toyota in front of the black car. As she got out, the door to Harsh’s trailer opened and a gray-haired white man stepped out. He walked at a relaxed, leisurely pace toward the gate, a stupid grin on his face. Or maybe that was just how his face always looked. “Resting sleaze face,” a friend in D.C. had called it. Lots of that around there.

“You’re the gal from New York,” the man said, closing the gate behind him like it was his own. He sounded southern and looked like he was in his sixties. He wore a brown stetson, jeans, and a tan sport coat. Together, he and the woman looked like tourists. Lost, clueless tourists.

“Am I?” Cadence said.

“What Harsh says. Says you were the one patched him up.” Up close, his stetson looked brand new, like it’d never seen the outdoors.

Cadence didn’t respond.

“Well, we’re just glad he’s in good hands,” the man said, taking a step toward her. “You know who I am?”

Cadence shook her head.

The man gave her his full smile. She saw rotten canines and missing molars. Cadence glanced at the woman, who offered her own smile. Hers, at least, looked more cheerful.

“You guys friends of Harsh’s?” Cadence asked.

“Be a lot friendlier if he did his job like he’s supposed to,” the woman said.

“What we were just talking about, matter of fact.” The man took another short step toward Cadence, the smile gone. “He could do with some reminding from time to time. I get the feeling he’d listen to you more than he’d listen to us.” He looked her up and down as he said it.

She seriously considered kicking him in the balls.

“Think you can do that for me?” And before Cadence could answer, the man smiled again, tugged at the brim of his hat, and turned away, reaching for the black car’s passenger door. “We won’t be far.” He glanced back at Cadence as he got in the car. “We never are.” He nodded at her and shut the door.

The woman took the driver’s seat, taking a second to give Cadence her own nod and smile. Cadence turned away from the dust cloud made by the car as it drove off.

Harsh had been watching from his front door. After the car was out of sight, he stepped out of his trailer in bare feet and met Cadence at the gate. “They say anything to you?” His voice was low and sort of sad.

“Not really.” She held out the data key, sticking it through the chain-link.

He didn’t seem to know what it was at first. “Right. Thanks.” He took it and looked away, then down at the road. Or maybe at Cadence’s bare shins. Blood was seeping through the bandage over his eye, the cut she’d stitched up.

“You feeling okay?” she asked.

“I guess,” he said.

There were a lot of things that could get a person beaten up in their business. Harsh hadn’t been a very big player in any of it, not that Cadence could see. He handled those data keys, kept the Toyota in working order, and no one had indicated that something had gone wrong with any of that, not Hugo, not the guy in Palm Springs. For them, it had all been business-as-usual.

The whole thing had a smell to it. Harsh was into something bigger. Eve used to do a thing where she could get close to someone and make them talk. She didn’t do it much when she was with that Trevor guy, unless she was doing it to him, too. But after she and Trevor split up, Eve had run it with lots of people, and Cadence had been watching. She was sure she could pull it off.

“You wanna get some food?” Cadence asked. “I was gonna grab something at Grumble’s.”

He met her eyes and tried to smile. “Sure,” he said, then turned to look over his shoulder at his trailer. “Yeah.” He opened the gate. “Let’s do it.”

“Put some shoes on,” Cadence said.

He looked down. “Right.”

***


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