You learn how to deal with Dickheads.
They’re big, they’re tough, and they’re the sort that never question. They know they’re in the right, and all power flows through them. They killed my brother, like they killed more than anyone can count, and more every day. They hunt our sort, we’re less than vermin to the guys up in the light, which is why we have to learn how to deal with them. Them and the Foilwraps.
We call them Dickheads because of the shape of their helmets, seen from behind. That’s just what they look like. Somebody noticed about thirty years ago, and the name stuck. It really suits them.
The day is hot, but it’s always hot in the city. Filthy brick and concrete soar away above us, making canyons the sun pours into like molten lead, and the air con systems that make buildings habitable, all over the outside of old towers, are a mockery to those who have never benefited from them. This is the low end of town, these are the ruins, the failed projects, abandoned when society changed its mind, decided we didn’t matter. The Great Change, we sometimes call it, though none of us was born then. Sweat sticks to my back under my dirty, threadbare clothes, as I hang around the corner of an alley and a yard where trash rots in the heat. Jenna, my closest friend, is on the other side, while Emilio and Big Dan are pretending to be bums, lying among trash and empty bottles. They’ll move when the time is right. It’s all a trap, see?
They say when our parents were our age, there were cool days still, and the rain didn’t burn you. There were all kinds of rights, and people had hope for the future, even ways to stop being so poor. Of course, there were lots more people in the world then, they say overpopulation was the cause of it all, too many people trying to live too big. I don’t understand that, nobody lives bigger than the ones up in the light right now, and they breed hard. But the Dickheads have sure cut back the population down deep.
Jenna can see along the alley, she flashes me a smile, all white teeth in her dirty face, surrounded with a halo of dreads, then she looks away, as if uninterested. That’s the signal. They’re coming, and we want them right here; we know there’s an APC out of sight around the corner at the end of the alley with backup ready to move. It’s the backup we want. Ten seconds later a blur of figures go by, Johnny and Sarah, doing what they do best, they run like the wind. They don’t need to commit a crime, any teen running is a target, and they take their lives in their hands because bullets are the first resort, not the last. A quick burst of fire thuds in the air as they disappear around a corner into a yard further on where we know there’s a broken cellar window giving them their way out.
At the nearest CCTV covering the alley, others of our kind are waiting, and when the troopers in their black combat suits have gone by, balls of mud are flung at the cam cover dome, enough to mean there will be no identifying images. The moment coverage is cut the squad deploy the Foilwrap — their combat robot — to follow the troopers, and that’s our cue. The machine is eight feet tall, weighs 400 pounds, it’s a black, armored killing machine that comes pounding up the alley on massive hydraulic legs, its steps making the ground shake, but it has weak spots we’ve learned to exploit. There’s a wonderful irony in turning the enemy’s machines against them, and as the robot goes by me I whirl up double bolos on their braided steel cable and cast them low, to wrap around the pumping legs and bring the metal beast down.
It’ll be up in seconds, of course, and this is the crucial moment. Big Dan is the striker of the team, he’s big as an ox and needs to be for the role he plays. He moves in a blur, shifts his filthy rags and grabs up his trademark sledgehammer, steps in and brings it down on the robot’s angular head. It’s like stunning steers in an old-time kill factory, only he keeps pounding it, like an anvil, the sun glistening on the sweat of his dark brow, until the robot’s gyros trip and the main comp goes into reset mode. Then Emilio steps in with a six-foot steel prybar that goes into the access slot at the back of the head and springs the casing. A stolen tool goes in and unlatches a locking shackle, then the prybar levers the head clear in a smooth glide. Power and data connections part at twist-locks, and the head goes into a lead-foil-lined sack, the whole thing practiced endlessly and taking no more than ten seconds.
The troopers have already penetrated the next floor down after Johnny and Sarah, it takes them nearly thirty seconds to get back out when the APC recalls them to check the robot, and by then we’re all gone. Cross-alleys, basements, walkways leading down into the cool darkness where people hide from the day. We know them all. We have to — local knowledge, how and where to go to ground, is the only edge we have.
Old Sally is the keeper of the memories.
She knows things, remembers stuff from generations ago. We’re not sure how old she is, she says she’s near-on seventy but that’s hard to believe. She lives where they can’t find her, she hasn’t seen the sun in years. In the fifth sub-basement of the ruined tower above–it was torched in the famine riots in ’43 and left to rot, now only we rats live in it — Sally has a nice place, she squared away a whole apartment down in the dark; she pirated city electricity, and folks come to her for healing and advice.
She was an engineer when she was young, she says, that’s how she knows how to do stuff. She has computers–laptops, piles of them, she takes parts from some to keep others working. We scavenge for her, bring her everything that might be of use. Tablets, widescreens, all manner of electrojunk. It’s magic to us and she’s the magician. We can’t use them much, but the old info is in them. Discs and stuff — since they closed the libraries and book shops went out of business nobody’s seen a real book in many years. Oh, there are private collections, but they’re frowned on. Word is they’re impounded from time to time as “contrary to the public interest,” and burned.
The old tunnels are booby-trapped. We have them rigged to cave in if the wrong pairs of feet come down here. We know what to step over and what to press to keep it all up. Corridors old as the city, service tunnels for wiring a hundred years out of date, sewers and water mains, a forest of pipe and cable that used to support all the life above; now we use it, it hides us in the welcoming darkness of the earth.
Guards watch the way, pass us through, all dozen of us that sprang the trap, and an hour after we took the head we’re through the last locked doors into Sally’s world. It’s a scatter of parts and gear, tools and manuals, the scrapyard from hell, or heaven, as she’d say. She’s waiting at the door of the prefab partitions that mark her workshop, her wide girth and straggling silver hair marking her as surely as her leather apron and tool belt. She mends things, keeps this cocoon working, grows herbs under daylight LEDs to make medicine, grows food. She says the guys up in the light would call her public enemy number one, and that’s fine with us. If we’re street pirates, she’s the pirate queen, and the thought makes her laugh, crinkling her old eyes.
Big Dan presents her the lead-sheathed sack and she beams a great smile. “Well done,” she muses, her voice grating and rough with congestion. “This is the last piece of the puzzle, kids.” She takes us into the workshop and prepares leads from a special terminal, brings a program online and, very quickly, opens the sack, inserting the leads in the open cranium. The terminal screen shows a negotiation as one CPU talks to the other, and she rattles keys. In moments, the disembodied low-level AI in the robot accepts command input and is taken offline, shut down to idling behind its own firewalls. Now it’s safe to remove the head from the shielding, it can no longer call out or interfere with tech around it.
Sally opens a toolkit and soon takes the head apart. She physically isolates the computer by destroying its integral transmitter, then systematically butchers it, ransacks the unit for parts, circuit boards and memory, peripheral chips of all kinds. “Treasure trove,” she muses as she works, snapping units into place on a rig on a work table, soldering iron flying in her stiff old fingers. “You kids out-did yourselves this time.”
“Will it work?” Jenna asks softly, her young-old features lit in ghostly blues from the screen.
“It’ll work,” Old Sally says with a confident wink. “We’ve waited a long time for this.” She grins at us as she works. “That’s the secret with the world they built. It was too complex to destroy, too big, wide and deep. Everything was recorded redundantly, millions, billions of times. They’d like us to forget there was ever a world before the one they set up, they’re waiting for we who remember to just pass on, so they can tell you kids it was always as it is. But it wasn’t, and I’m going to show you.” We all hang close, staring at the incomprehensible maze of parts as she assembles them, and for the hundredth time I feel the urge to ask her to teach me how to do this. At last she’s done and runs a circuit-tester over one thing after another, nodding her satisfaction. “Cross fingers and touch wood, kids,â€ she whispers as she opens a plastic sleeve and brings out a silvery disc, drops it into a tray that retracts inside a housing, and after a while things change on the screen.
A new window opens and we can just read the big letters. Encyclopaedia Britannica — whatever that means. “This is the Britannica for 2028, the very last one ever made,” Sally whispers, and pulls up the master menu. “It’s all in here, half the important facts in the world. I know you don’t read well enough to just skim through it, but I can and I’ll read it to you. And I’ll teach you to read better so you can soak up everything here.” She was speaking softly, almost like a prayer, or a promise, a hope.
Keys crackle, the disc spins, and a pane of images appears. We gasp at the colors, and she pulls up one picture after another. Green forests, blue oceans, a clean sky, a beauty so deep and special its absence from the world is a pain inside us. In that moment each of us knows, more clearly than ever before, that the world they swept away will never be lost, we will resist their fictional realities to our last breaths, and work in whatever way providence allows us, to find a way back to the beautiful world that burned along with tolerance, compassion and common sense.
I smile thinly as Jenna comes to lean close against me, inviting a hug as we stare at the screen, and I lift a finger, posing a thought. “Sally, would a whole robot be of any use? It might take us a few jobs but we can probably get it down here. You’d need to put it back together, of course. Imagine that, a Foilwrap that fights for us!”
Sally grins like I never saw her grin before. The others laugh at my audacity, and, just for a moment, it feels like we have a purpose beyond surviving.