The highway is paved with the bodies of musicians. Their bones crunch under the weight of our motorcycles, a staccato of shattering, every once awhile a cleft-shaped sigh or a note or two of an ancient number one hit. The concentration of dead musicians is heavy here: lots of bleached hair, thick makeup, torn jeans, fake diamonds glinting in the fading light, and tattered venue posters with bright band names, colorful and forgotten.
Not to us. We haven’t forgotten. We’re collectors, by any means necessary, of long lost things. Art, film, writing, music, all that was lost in the Crash and the wars and the famine and the suffering that followed. We sell what we find on the black market for money. Yes, like the cockroach, money survived.
The front bike slows and so do the other five, wheezy engines and clattering brakes kicking up an ominous intro.
“Got something on the sensors,” says Burr, up at the front. He lets one meaty paw off his handles and lifts his sensor doohickey to show me. As if I could read the tiny screen from my bike. As if he already knows I’m not going to trust him.
“I don’t hear nothing,” I say.
We all cut our engines, a song rudely interrupted mid-track, and listen. There’s the wind, the tin of our bikes cooling down, and the far off cry of a person or animal dying.
Then I hear it. A guitar, just the faintest hint of reverb, strings angling like a harp.
I look back at my people. As silent as we can, we get off our bikes and grab our weapons.
Burr, a big beast of a man, points towards a collection of towers a few minutes walk from the highway. We get into a loose defensive formation and start towards it, two men staying behind with the bikes.
On the side of the road, away from the clutter of the highway, is only grey rock. Trees are of the dying or on-the-floor variety. As we get closer to the towers, the clutter underfoot resumes with pieces of ancient equipment: keyboards and mice, splintered cabling and even some old telephones. We try to avoid making noise. We want it to be quiet so we can hear if there’s any-
There it is again. The guitar, this time accompanied by a beat. Just a classic Casio pre-reset but it’s enough to get our spirits up. We give each other genuine smiles before continuing forward, our guns out.
“Watch for lurkers,” I warn as we enter the area of shadows.
The towers are really server racks full of computers with crisscrossing multi-colored cables. Some are large like statues, others are half-destroyed and leaning like Pisa. The equipment within are in varying stages of destruction. Once this collection of computers ran the world or hosted some banking software or porn website, all the rows full of blinking green and yellow lights. Those lights have been out for decades now, the domain names long forgotten jokes ending with a dot NET or dot COM.
My pirate crew stalks silently through the debris. The music is steady now, as if someone settled on the right station in a sea of static. I can hear vocals, a whispery female voice, sadness in the inflection.
Someone behind me releases a sharp intake of breath. It’s Whizz, a long haired, long bearded, long legged dude who never shed a tear in his life. He looks away from me.
“Move!” I shout into the wind.
We all rush forward as if someone rang a dinner bell.
Behind one of the towers, huddled together in a loose semi-circle, is a group of three teenagers around the glow of a monitor. One tries to run. Whizz tackles him to the ground.
It gets very noisy. One of the teenagers, a girl, starts crying. I’m shouting something about raising their hands. The one that tried to run is fighting back. Whizz is having fun, dodging punches and doing a little dance.
That music is still going on but I can’t hear it.
“Just shoot him!” I shout. Whizz shrugs, pulls out the smallest of his pistols, and shoots the kid in the face.
A sudden return to silence, louder somehow than the music, thicker.
I look over at my techie, Genie, short with pink pixie hair and spikes around her neck, wrists, and ankles. She pushes aside the teenagers and sits in front of the screen. She slides her finger across the screen a few times.
“What we got?”
“Sweetness,” she responds with a smile. “Kids must have found the one live port in this fucking toilet, hacked in and found a cache of MP3s in a backup.”
She looks at me with a grin. “At least fifty… albums.”
“Let me see.” I scrunch down and watch the screen as she scrolls through. Lots of obscure trance shit from the 20’s, some heavy techno, some pop. I stand up.
This is the first decent catch we’ve had in a while. I look around at the quiet world around us, the decaying towers, the electronic debris. I close my eyes and listen to the music coming from the screen and decades ago.
I look back at Genie. “Do a database search, see if you can find anything else hidden away. Copy to a flash and then destroy the tower.”
“Boss.” Burr, big and hairy and smelling like sweat, is standing behind me. “We should go.”
“We can’t be the only ones who heard it.”
I turn around to face him. He’s tall and bulky, but so am I, with at least one hundred pounds on him. I get up into his face. “You got a problem?”
He takes a step back. Shakes his head. “No,” he says then looks over at the teenagers. “What do you want do wit’ them hackers?”
I walk over to them while Genie is inserting a skull-and-bones flash drive into a port on the side of the screen. One girl, one boy. They could be siblings, maybe even twins. All these techies look the same: white skin with a greenish tint, black glasses, some form of patchy jeans jacket and black-as-soot pants. My eyes linger on the girl, her dark hair unwashed, skin full of pimples. She keeps her head down and I admire her tits under her tight white shirt rising and falling with her tension.
I’m talking to Burr, but for their benefit. “We probably should just off ‘em here, save us some trouble.” They scrim a little, the boy especially is thinking of some escape. My guys got pistols at the back of their heads and they looking like they ain’t had no fun for a while. “But… This is a pretty nice stash of sweet they found on some pencilpusher’s hard drive. Could fetch some serious cash, assuming there’s a NOH in there somewhere.” I take a deep breath, exhale like a God. “We do owe them for that.”
Burr is getting antsy, I can tell. He wants blood, I suppose.
I get down on my sizeable haunches. They’re afraid to make eye contact. I reach out to the girl, who flinches at my touch, but I squeeze her chin just enough to get her to look at me. She’s pretty for a vagabond. She’s frightened, shaking, but in those green bespectacled eyes I see something lacking in my pirate crew: intelligence.
I guess I’m feeling generous today.
I ask them, “You kids need a job?”
There’s the World Above, dead, quiet, sad if you’re prone to thinking too much, and then there’s the World Below, loud, crowded, smells like shit and piss yet preferable to the desert above.
We roll down the big dirt ramp into the underground city, my bike in the lead, destitutes crowding the road, carrying sacks of food or family heirlooms. The masses scuttle aside for us, clutching their belongings and young girls. We set up the two hackers in a wagon side-hitched to my bike. They’re holding each other tight and staring at everything with infant eyes.
I call out to them, “You ever been down here before?” They shake their heads. I assume they speak, but I still haven’t heard a word. “Whole life on the surface, huh?” I laugh. “You’re missing the party.”
At the bottom of the ramp, we round the corner onto the first flat street of the underground. The drumbeat is the first thing I hear. It seems to be coming from all directions. Syncopated to the rhythm of the city, the beats are ever present. Pedestrians, most covered in a brown dirt, shuffle from one open doorway to another, their footsteps in time. Hand-painted signs, like Grocer or Weapons, hang over every other doorway. Ladies in windows open their shutters and then close them again. A couple argues in hushed tones, their arm movements like a dance.
The sound of our bikes, so clear in the desert above, is lost in the din of everything around us. We ride slowly, our engines barely a whisper, towards the center of the city.
“This is all housing,” I say, feeling the need to educate. I motion to the mudbrick buildings. “Not much to look at, but these structures can hold dozens of people. They sleep twenty or thirty to a room. It smells bad, but it’s safe.” As we go deeper , the streets get thinner and the sounds more erratic. No longer the steady beating heart of a city, but instead the occasional shriek or heavy breathing, a window slammed closed, or the muffled scream of a baby.
“We’re getting close to the Hub now,” I tell them. I can see it through the break in the small buildings. The tallest structure in this quote-unquote city, a piecemeal hovel that somehow stretches five or six stories high, made of a latticework pattern of different building materials, the center of all roads and commerce in this place. We don’t go any closer than we need to.
I slow down in front of a small building, some walls actual brick, most just ash-colored clay. Above the door, a printed sign in a flowery font reads, Wanderers.
The place brings a white smile to my black heart. Inside it’s straight out of a make-believe fantasy inn. Big wooden bar at the back with animal heads hanging from the rafters. Tables full of gruff-looking sonofabitchs huddled over steel pitchers, planning and gossiping. Genie goes straight to the barkeep to make arrangements. Some of my guys see long lost friends and disappear into the corners.
Burr and the kids stay with me near the entrance. The eyes of the patrons are on me. I let them soak me in forawhile. Finally, I move towards a nearby table. Two sad sacks are sharing a single beer. I wait, wordlessly, until they scuffle away and I move in to claim a seat at the table. It’s a good table with a view of the front door and the bar. I nod at the two hackers and they sit down across from me.
Burr, full of nervous energy, is still standing. “Boss,” he says. I ignore him. “Boss!” he says again, loud. “It’s been too long, Boss.”
“Fine!” I say, throwing a hand up. “Have fun.”
He walks over to the other side of the table and whispers something to the hacker girl. Then he pulls one of his huge arms around her chest and lifts her up. She tries to struggles, her 90ish pounds against Burr’s two hundred plus and fails very quickly. She looks at me for help.
“Calm down, baby,” I tell her with a wink. “You may enjoy it.”
The boy moves to stand up. I stare at him. “Sit. Down.” He does, as Burr throws the girl over his shoulder and walks towards the back of the bar, upstairs to the rooms. “Don’t worry,” I tell the kid, “he’s not going to hurt her.” I can’t help but smile. “Well, not that much.”
Genie comes to the table, carrying some drinks. “Arrangements made, Boss,” she says. “We got the whole top floor.”
“Perfect!” I say, grabbing one of the steel mugs. At the top is brown foam, a good sign. I take a long deep drink, finishing at least half of the cup. It’s good beer, fresh. Genie grins and walks away.
The kid is staring at me, his eyes like fire.
“Don’t be such a fucking prude,” I tell him, finishing my first drink. I reach for another. “Is she your girlfriend?”
“No,” he says.
He sighs. “No.”
“So what’s the problem?”
He doesn’t have an answer. I smile, buzzing. I ask him, “You have a name or should I make one up for you?”
“Tim,” he deadpans.
I laugh and tighten an imaginary necktie. “Tim. Serious name for a serious guy. How old are you, Timmy?”
A little bit of compassion fills me. “Ah. Born post-Crash. You have no idea about what the world used to be like.”
“I’ve seen pictures.”
“Hmmpf! I’m sure you have.” I look away at the sad faces of the other people in this place. “You have no idea what we’ve lost.” Inspired, I reach into my jacket, into one of the many crudely stitched inner-pockets and pull out a worn paperback. Its pages are yellow with age, the cover is secured with scotch tape.
“Do you see this book?” I ask the kid. “Do you know how many people, all over the world, have read this book? Could you even imagine a number so high? Millions of people, in hundreds of language, all across this planet, have read this book. There will never be another book like this ever again. It’s like the music we salvage. It’s special because it’s the last of an extinct species.”
“But,” says Timmy, “People can still write. People can still make music.”
“Yes. But no one does.”
Later, I stumble my way up the creaky wooden stairs to the top floor. It’s late and I’m vaguely aware that I may be waking up the building with my drunken footsteps, but I don’t care.
Up at the top floor, in the shadows at the end of the hall, Whirr stands up, nods to me. He’s “on watch”, making sure no thieves come by our rooms, but his cheeks are red and his eyes a bit more cloudy than usual. He’s been drinking.
I walk to the only room with an open door. My bags, a half dozen tattered shells that usually hang on my bike, are set up carefully on a desk. I rummage through them, through yellow newspapers and bullet casings and tar-smelling clothes, until I find an ancient cassette player. It’s just a black box, scratched up like crazy, but it means everything to me. I rummage again, this time pulling out small in-ear headphones that were once white, now dirty beige. I go into my bags once again, shoving my hands in the stickiest corners, until I pull out two small cylinders. I push open a slot on the back of the player with my thumb and insert the batteries into the player one at a time.
Exhausted by the search, I fall into the tired structure this place calls a bed. It seems to be made of straw and wood, but it’s more comfortable than bare rock, which I know from painful experience. I clutch the box in my hand. Slowly, I reach into my jacket and grab a scratched up cassette, a souvenir from one of my first raids, a derelict record store, and place it carefully into the player. I put the headphones in my ears and close my eyes.
Music fills my world. I feel like I can touch it.
The next day. And my head hurts like a bitch.
I drink two cups of coffee downstairs before going back up for a powernap.
My guys get the bikes loaded up and ready in an alley beside the Wanderers Inn. Timmy and the hacker girl stay close together. She looks tired.
Genie, Whirr, and Burr surround me as I walk outside. They’re full of questions.
“What ya takin’?
See, the Hub is like an exclusive club from back when society was segmented by class. Only certain people can enter the Hub and they can bring only one or two guests. It keeps the riff-raff out and the goingson behind the doors a mystery to the normal people. Every underground city has a Hub and they’re all connected through whats left of the world’s Internet.
That last part is kind-of a secret. Most people think the Internet’s been dead since the Crash. People better off that way, my opinion.
I’ve taken each of my pirates to different Hubs throughout our journeys, but I’m still feeling generous. I silence the three of them with a look and say, “I’m taking the newbies.”
“What?!” they shout as one and follow up with some choice expletives about me and my mother and something about a dog.
I smile at them and walk over to the kids.
“Timmy,” I say. He straightens up, looks at me with those small frightened eyes. The girl, whose name I learn is Emma, looks at the floor. “You and the girl are with me.”
They share an infectious smile.
They follow me back to my bike. They position themselves into the cab and I jump on my bike, revving the engine to get it going. The Hub casts no shadow in this subterranean world, but I can feel its pull from here.
On the short ride over, I’m quiet.
The guards at the gate raise their hands in greeting. They’re wearing helmets with dark visors that obscure their features. They’ve each got pistols on their hips and the two guards nearest the door look to be carrying pulse rifles.
“Business?” inquires the nearest guard.
“Music,” I reply in the typical shortclip of these situations.
“Cred,” he commands while the other guards keep their hands near their pistols.
I pull out a small lacquered card, bequeathed to me by a former colleague who went up in flames (it still smells faintly of blood and gas) and show it to the guard. He nods and his minions relax.
“Off,” Mr. One Word intones.
I shut down the bike and nod at the kids to step out of the cab. The guards move in closer, some raising their guns up at us, the others with old-fashioned metal detectors. At every beep, Mr. One Word reaches into my clothes and pulls out a gun or a knife. One hand comes very close to the crack of my ass.
“Careful there, buddy. Nothing goes in there.”
I smirk at him and then look over at the kids. The guards are padding them down and they look disappointed when they don’t find anything.
Mr. One Word appears to be tired of us and breaks his usual routine to spit out a sentence. “You’ll get all your weapons back when your business is concluded.”
The doors start to open with a loud crunching and squealing sound. One Word continues his screed about decorum and business practices while in the Hub but I stop listening. I rev the engines and pull forward into the Hub.
The first room is a garage. There’s small clusters of people huddled around cheap tables. Motorcycles and small cars line the walls. I pull into an empty space and nod at the kids to get out.
“Stay close,” I tell them.
Near the elevators, there’s boards filled with chalk scribblings. Only some of it makes sense to me, certain acronyms highlighted in my mind’s eye, a small pond of sanity in an insane display. There’s five elevator banks but each one only goes to certain areas of the building. By following the lines of chalk from the bold NOH to a corresponding floor number, I see we need to go the fourth floor, second section.
I stare at the rotating numbers over the elevators, a revolving game where the elevator goes to a different floor based on the number. There’s a pattern, though, a “base” number each elevator reaches after a few random revolutions.
Emma brushes past me, “This way,” she says.
I almost protest, but realize a second later she’s heading to the right elevator. I give her a long stare while waiting for the next car to arrive. She shrugs at me. “I like codes,” she says.
The elevator door opens and a dozen people step out, some smiling, some downtrodden. Twice that amount of people, myself included, push ourselves into the large steel box. It’s cramped and the air is thin. Emma and Timmy are right up against my belly, they have to bend their backs to fit in the space. When the elevator lurches upwards, the lights flicker and threaten to die, but don’t.
After a short ride, the door opens again. Inside the heart of the Hub, it’s like a Vegas Casino from the world that was. There’s activity everywhere, lights and sounds and smells. Girls in tight bodices walk around smiling at strangers, guys in suits that show their muscles move slowly about the crowds, and hanging from the ceiling, screens full of fast-moving codes and numbers, a stock ticker for antiques. This is the most active and colorful of all the Hubs I’ve been too. It’s like a party, where everybody is toasting the past.
Every few feet is a large oval-shaped table with four or five screens spaced judiciously apart. In the center of the oval, a stern looking individual stares at passerbys: Overseers. They’re the judges of the deals, they decide what’s fair or not and finish off the deal. They always take 10%.
Emma and Timmy are frozen in place, wide-eyed like children.
“Come on,” I tell them, pushing past them. “This way.”
Each oval is themed in a certain way. Some trade in movies, those ancient forms of entertainment that seemed to fill up most people’s lives, some trade in TV, the equivalent of food for the previous generations, they gobbled up hours of the stuff every day. But the most exclusive ovals, those that interest me the most, deal in music. Music is sound of nature as translated by the human experience, it has no equal.
The music oval is off near the edge of the floor. The mass of the crowds is thinner here, although it’s still a little too busy for my tastes. I sit at an unoccupied screen, the hacker kids hanging out behind me, scoping out the area like they’re my bodyguards. I pull the skull and bones stick from my jacket and insert it into one of the many hidden ports behind the screen.
The Overseer walks over to me. They all look so much alike, it may be a robot, but it seems like a man with a thick Texan accent. “Buying or selling?” he asks.
He nods, presses a hidden key, and walks away.
On the screen, the list of the newly acquired songs scrolls by on the right side. The system checks file names versus data, verifying things like sound quality and legitimacy of titles. Slowly, numbers appear by the song titles, going-rates of songs by that artist or time period or genre on the global exchange.
This is the waiting phase. My cache is being submitted to hundreds of other consoles in other Hubs or the personal screens of rich collectors in the few remaining cities in nicer parts of the world. Near one of the titles, a small red exclamation point appears. The system has flagged the song as a NOH. Once, for a brief moment in time, this song was the Number One Hit of a world that no longer exists. Instantly, bids start to come in.
I start clicking through them, as fast as I can, ignoring everything except the top price, which keeps rising. I hear a grumble beside me. I look away from my work. Emma is staring at me with an angry look.
“You think you can do this better than me?” I challenge her.
“I know I can.
I stare at her eyes. That hungry knowledge is still back there, despite whatever my boy Burr did to her last night.
“Fine,” I say and give her my chair.
She sits down with a flourish and starts sliding her fingers across the screen like a pianist doing Mozart. Another red exclamation point appears near another song and Emma is already comboing that piece with the first one. The big number at the top of the screen, my possible profit, keeps jumping by hundreds of dollars. She’s ignoring the top bidders and pushing the middle-ground bids to drive up the demand. Other songs, not with exclamation points, but by the same artists are suddenly in the triple digits.
If there was music in this place, I’d start dancing.
I glance at the Overseer, who seems very interested in Emma. He’s hovering near her, one eye on her and one on his secret screen.
Passerby’s pause when they see the girl with the magic fingers. A few linger. I shove a couple out of the way while blocking the view of others. I don’t like the attention the girl is gathering. Even the other bidders in the oval are glancing up from their screens to peer curiously in her direction.
Then I see the number at the top of her screen. More money than I’ve ever seen in my life. Somehow she’s taken two #1’s and a handful of obscure shit and turned it into a major score. I feel my dick getting hard and my breath tightening up. I feel proud of my decision to bring the kids to the Hub and amazed to my foresight not to kill them in the desert.
The Overseer, perhaps tiring of Emma’s cleavage or the sudden crowd, chimes in: “Final bids are in. Sell or leave.”
Emma looks back at me. She’s also breathing hard, sweat pooling around her temples and dripping down below her cheeks.
I smile at her. “Let it ride, baby!”
She slaps the screen, a big red icon that says SELL in bold. There’s a bit of cheer that comes from the crowd. Even the Overseer cracks a smile.
“Your winnings are on the way,” he says, that accent morphing ‘winnings’ to ‘waaaanings’. A couple of suit muscleheads walk over with a thick white envelope.
Giddy, we walk away from the table. The kids are chatting about the bidding process, the tech and the thrill of it. My brain is riding a million miles an hour. With this much cash, my pirates can stop roaming the wilderness for antiques. We can settle down somewhere, start a local operation, start a family, be normal. The possibilities are endless. I smile as I think about sharing the good news with Burr and the others.
Emma, Timmy, and I wait for the elevator. Emma tugs at my arm. “We did okay?” she asks, sheepish grin on her pretty face.
“Better than okay,” I say as the doors open. I let the kids in first so I can hold on the envelope in front of me. I’m aware of others looking at me. The elevator quickly fills up.
There’s a lurch as it gets moving and then another as it stops and the lights go out, this time all the way. I feel the knife enter my back and I’m about to yell when a hand clutches my open mouth.
“Scream,” Emma says, her breath hot in my ear, “And I push it all the way in.”
The pain is intense, like a volcano inside me. It seems to quickly spread to my arms, which feel useless, and my legs, which buckle. I can feel Timmy, thin and quick, slink to my front in the dark and grab the envelope.
“No,” I whisper as the knife goes in further. I feel streams of lava pouring out of me.
The elevator kicks back into operation and the lights flicker on. Somehow, Emma is in front of me, her body pushing me against the wall. She’s positioned my hand on her ass. There’s a laugh from someone in the elevator.
I can taste blood in my mouth. I can’t move or speak.
The elevator stops and the crowd pushes its way out the doors. Emma leans in to me like she’s going in for a kiss. “Thanks for everything… baby.”
Before my vision disappears, I see her and Timmy rushing out towards my bike. Some dark figures appear over me. There’s some shouting followed by the loud reports of guns firing.
When the darkness comes, it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before.