Walkaway: “Takeoff”

Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wiley Marvin Ellis Espinoza—known to his friends as Hubert, Etc—was too old to be at that Communist party.

But after watching the breakdown of modern society, he really has no where left to be—except amongst the dregs of disaffected youth who party all night and heap scorn on the sheep they see on the morning commute. After falling in with Natalie, an ultra-rich heiress trying to escape the clutches of her repressive father, the two decide to give up fully on formal society—and walk away.

After all, now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—from a computer, there seems to be little reason to toil within the system.

It’s still a dangerous world out there, the empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human alike. Still, when the initial pioneer walkaways flourish, more people join them. Then the walkaways discover the one thing the ultra-rich have never been able to buy: how to beat death. Now it’s war – a war that will turn the world upside down.

Fascinating, moving, and darkly humorous, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway is a multi-generation SF thriller about the wrenching changes of the next hundred years, and the very human people who will live their consequences—available April 25th from Tor Books! Read a selection from the third chapter below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one.

 

 

3
Takeoff

[i]

The ashes of Walkaway U were around Iceweasel. It was an unsettled climate-ish day, when cloudbursts swung up out of nowhere, drenched everything, and disappeared, leaving blazing sun and the rising note of mosquitoes. The ashes were soaked and now baked into a brick-like slag of nanofiber insulation and heat sinks, structural cardboard doped with long-chain molecules that off-gassed something alarmingly, and undifferentiated black soot of things that had gotten so hot in the blaze that you could no longer tell what they’d been.

There were people in that slag. The sensor network at WU had survived long enough to get alarmed about passed-out humans dotted around, trapped by blazes or gases. There was charred bone in the stuff that crept around her mask and left a burnt toast taste on her tongue. She’d have gagged if it hadn’t been for the Meta she’d printed before she hit the road.

The Banana and Bongo was bigger than the Belt and Braces had ever been— seven stories, three workshops, and real stables for a variety of vehicles from A.T.V. trikes to mecha-walkers to zepp bumblers, which consumed Etcetera for more than two years, as he flitted through the sky, couch-surfing at walkaway camps and settlements across the continent. She’d thought about taking a mecha to the uni, because it was amazing to eat the countryside in one, the suit’s wayfinders and lidar finding just the right place to plant each of its mighty feet, gyros and ballast dancing with gravity to keep it upright over the kilometers.

But mechas had no cargo space, so she’d taken a trike with balloon tires as big as tractor wheels, tugging a train of all-terrain cargo pods of emergency gear. It took four hours to reach the university, by which time, the survivors had scattered. She lofted network-node bumblers on a coverage pattern, looking for survivors’ radio emissions. The bumblers self-inflated, but it was still sweaty work getting them out of their pod and into the air, and even though she worked quickly—precise Meta-quick, like a marine assembling a rifle blindfolded—everything was smeared with blowing soot by the time they were in the sky.

“Fuck this,” she said into her breather, and turned the A.T.V. and its cargotrain around in a rumbling donut. The survivors would be nearby, upwind of the ash plume, and out of range of the heat that must have risen as the campus burned. She’d seen a demo of a heat-sunk building going up before. It had been terrifying. In theory, graphene-doped walls wicked away the heat, bringing it to the surface in a shimmer, keeping the area around the fire below its flash point. The heat sink was itself less flammable than everything else they used for building materials, so if the fire went on too long, the heat sinks heated up to the flash point of the walls, and the entire building went up in a near-simultaneous whoom. In theory, you couldn’t get to those temperatures unless eight countermeasures all failed, strictly state-actor-level arson stuff.

She tried not to think about state actors and why they’d want to reduce the Niagara Peninsula’s Walkaway U campus to char.

The bumblers reported in. Something had used them to connect to the walkaway net, a couple klicks upwind, just as she’d thought. With luck, it would be refugees and not other would-be relief workers, or worse, looter-ghouls.

The bumblers used their low-powered impellers and ballast to opportunistically maneuver themselves into a stable triangle over the zone, then used signal timing to generate coordinates. They got pictures, but all she saw was canopy, a distance away from the burn. It was hard to tell, but she thought there may be clearings in there that served as firebreaks.

She kicked the trike and headed that way, rolling her tongue around her mouth to escape the bitter taste.

Not long after, she had to dismount. The brush was too thick for the A.T.V. to doze, let alone the cargo-train. She stretched, touched her toes, swung her arms. The drive had punished her butt and back. Her hands ached from gripping the handlebars. She thought about vaping, maybe a little crack, but when she moved her mask aside a fraction of a millimeter, her mouth and nose flooded with bitter air blowing from the ash field. Fuck it, Meta would be plenty, even if the dose was wearing off. She should have made it in patch form, so she could slap more on without breathing the toxic mix of plastic, carbon, and barbecued human.

The walk into the woods relieved her muscles and mind. The birds sang alarmed but reassuring songs as they assessed the fire damage. She used to go out on the rooftop of her dad’s place listen to the birds calling in the Don Valley. The sound was primally reassuring.

As she got closer, she looked and listened for signs of human activity, but it was weirdly pristine. She was about to turn back to the trike to re-task the bumblers, assuming they’d glitched, when she spotted the antenna.

It was an artificial tree, not a good one, but hidden amidst others so she didn’t spot it immediately. It was a pine, like a plastic Christmas tree. Amidst its arms were the characteristic protrusions of a phased-array, the same as you’d find around the Banana and Bongo. She kicked where its roots should be, and saw it was solidly in the soil.

“Hello?” Where there were antennas, there’d be cameras, if only to send pictures when things went blooey. They’d be pinheads she couldn’t spot, but nearby. “Hello?” she said again.

“This way,” a woman said. She was wrinkled and slender with skin the color of teak and gray hair in a ragged bob. She’d come out of the woods on the antenna’s other side, and she was wearing a breather, but looked friendly. Maybe that was the Meta.

Iceweasel crossed to her as she walked into the bush. Iceweasel followed. They came to a granite protrusion, Canadian shield thrusting through the soil. The woman gave it a shove and it slid aside on a cantilever. It was silent, and spoke of talented engineering. It weighed a fucking ton, as Iceweasel discovered when she didn’t get out of the way and was nearly knocked on her ass when it brushed her.

“Come on,” the older woman said. Behind the rock was a narrow corridor with rammed-earth walls, lit by LED globes punched straight into the dirt with crumbly impact craters around each one. The woman squashed past her—Iceweasel saw that her wrinkles were dusted with soot, making them seem darker than they really were—and shut the door with a thud that resonated through the soles of Iceweasel’s boots.

“Up ahead,” the woman said. Iceweasel pressed on. Around a bend, she stepped unexpectedly into a perfectly round tunnel, taller than her, with smooth walls and tooling marks from a boring machine. The walls were hard and clear, the lighting here more thought-through, spaced with machine precision.

The strange woman removed her mask. She was a beautiful woman of Indian—or Desi—descent, gray in her eyebrows and a fine dark mustache. She smiled, her teeth white and even. “Welcome to Walkaway U’s secondary campus.”

 


[ii]

Her name was Sita. She gave Iceweasel a hug. Iceweasel explained that she’d brought supplies.

“We have a lot here,” she said, “but there are things we’ll need to rebuild.”

They walked the corridor, towards distant voices. “We’re grieving, of course, but the important thing is all the work got out—samples, cultures. The data was always backed up, so no risk there.”

“How many died?”

Sita stopped. “We don’t know. Either a very large number or none at all.”

Iceweasel wondered if Sita had lost her mind, through grief or smoke poisoning or an exotic bio-agent. Sita’s mask dangled around her neck and Iceweasel’s own mask pulled her hair and chafed her face so she pushed it up her forehead, clunking her forgotten goggles, which ended up in her hair.

Even with these annoyances, the relief of breathing freely and seeing without smudged lenses brought up her spirits.

“Can you explain?”

“Probably,” she said. “But maybe later. Meantime, let’s get a work gang and unload your supplies.”

The subterranean corridors turned into a subterranean amphitheater supported by pillars and roof-trusses and something more substantial than aerosol to keep the ground from caving in.

“It started as a supercollider,” Sita said as she gawped. There was a hospital in one corner, a mess, and workspaces where soot-blackened people had intense discussions that were almost fistfights. “The borer ran for months, doing its own thing. But the physicists got what they were looking for somewhere else—don’t ask me, particle physics isn’t my discipline—and moved on. By the time they left, we were done. Then when we branched into scans and sims, the old-timers worried about being blasted from the Earth and built a bolt-hole. Took a couple years, mostly automated. It’s not pretty, but it’ll do. I didn’t even know it was here until yesterday when the fire started. Surprised the hell out of me! I don’t know what was weirder, that those people had managed to build an underground city or that they’d kept it a secret.

“Or maybe it wasn’t secret? Maybe it was just me who didn’t know. That’s paranoid, though. Don’t you think?”

Whatever was going on with Sita, it wasn’t pleasant. She slumped against a rammed-earth wall snaked with thick conduit that ran along the ceiling joists and disappeared into the branching tunnels. She looked older than she had when they’d met.

“Vape?” Iceweasel said. “It’s Meta. Good for the situation.”

“Thanks.” They shared a companionable hit. A few seconds later, both of them had wry grins. “Hungry? We’ve got chow on, not much, but if we’re going to bring in your supplies, a meal is in order.”

“I’m good. Let’s get everything in before it gets nuked from orbit.”

“Don’t joke.”

The Meta had done for Sita, and she sauntered to a table of younger women and a couple of men and introduced Iceweasel. Most of the table had straight names like Sita, but there was one guy called Lamplighter, the only name she remembered ten seconds later. They gave her a cup of coffium while rounding up more porters for the work gang. Someone stomped in wearing a little mecha exo, and there were a pair of burros, too, high-stepping and swaying from side-to-side as their firmware solved and re-solved the terrain, never trusting the ground not to give way. Burros were slow, but they got the job done.

“Let’s go.” Sita pulled on her mask. Sighing, Iceweasel pulled hers down. She wished she’d said yes to food—not just because she was hungry, but because she wanted to sit and find out what the hell had happened.

They went through the swinging boulder and went single file through the thick woods to the trike and its cargo-pods. She had half-believed it would be melted to slag by another drone strike, but it was intact. The pods sighed open as the masked porters formed a bucket brigade into the woods.

Bucket brigades embodied walkaway philosophy, more emblematic than the consensus wrangle in a circle-of-chairs. Iceweasel’d participated in some default brigades, moving feedstock around for Communist parties, but never any with the gusto of walkabout brigades. Bucket brigades only ask you to work as hard as you want—rush forward to get a new load and back to pass it off, or amble between them, or vary your speed. It didn’t matter—if you went faster, it meant the people on either side of you didn’t have to walk as far, but it didn’t require them to go faster or slower. If you slowed, everyone else stayed at the same speed. Bucket brigades were a system through which everyone could do whatever they wanted—within the system—however fast you wanted to go; everything you did helped and none of it slowed down anyone else.

Back at the Banana and Bongo, she’d briefly joined the load-in bucket brigade. Limpopo had wanted to give her more safety tips and triple-check her gear and emergency kits. She’d submitted to it with grace because it was nice that someone was looking out for her ass, making sure she didn’t get into too much trouble even as she ran towards it as fast as she could. This had become her modus operandi during the B&B’s construction, first on the scene when drones spotted salvage, forging further afield with fewer supplies than anyone, counting on absolute minimum of gear and kindness of strangers and serendipity to stay alive. She’d gone from being the world’s biggest shlepper to someone who turned her nose up at taking spare underwear (that’s what hydrophobic silver-doped dirt-shedding fabrics were for).

Limpopo had expertly reviewed her kit, and pressed an extra six liters of water on her and a light-duty wet-printer that could dispense field medicines. She knew better than to object, but she did, relenting when Limpopo laid hands on her and lashed down the weight with such expertise she hardly noticed it. “You know that with all this water, I’m going to end up drinking constantly and stopping all the time to piss.”

“Piss clear.” It was a walkaway benediction, especially in nomadic mode. It was polite to offer unsolicited opinions on your neighbor’s urine. Clear was the goal. Anything darker than a daffodil was grounds for having water forced upon you. If your piss was orange or brown, you’d be passively and aggressively made to drink a tonic of rehydration salts, and endure your peers’ condescension for letting your endocrinology get the best of you. You could fab underwear that you pissed through while on the move—it wicked everything in seconds, and neutralized anything unpleasant or dangerous. It had the side benefit of noting and processing your hydration and dissolved solids, but almost no one wore them because a) pissing in your pants was gross and b) (see a).

Limpopo sent her off with a kiss that was only partly motherly. The grin it gave her lasted for an hour on the trike. She and Seth and Etcetera were like electrons orbiting around Limpopo’s nucleus, all trying to jump to higherenergy orbits. There was something gravitic about her.

This kind of reverie was easy in a bucket brigade, even wearing a mask and goggles with cremated tire-taste in your mouth. It was the combination of brainless work and efficiency, and as she worked up a sweat, the rhythms of the line settled.

The best part of a bucket brigade is that when the load finished, it naturally brought everyone together at the head-end, because you walked upstream until you got a load, and if there were no loads, everyone walked all the way. They gathered at the trike and caucused over it.

“There’s no reason to camou it,” Sita said. “Anything that flies over and spots it will figure it’s a relief vehicle, that’s natural. It’s not leaking info about the underground.”

“But a relief vehicle implies people to give relief to.” This was a guy with crazy hair, blue-green with Einsteinian frizz on the sides, and bald on top. He was maybe sixty, with an unexpectedly beautiful face, like a wood-elf. Now Iceweasel thought about it, these walkaways were a couple sigmas older than the median age walkaways. The part of her brain that tried to figure out why someone in reality would want to bomb them filed this away.

“Anything we do to it will be useless,” said another older woman, short and hippy, with the kind of hourglass figure and giant boobs that all the women Iceweasel had drawn as a child came with. “A camouflaged trike won’t look like the forest to decent image-processing. It’ll look like something hidden.”

“That settles it,” Sita said. To Iceweasel: “Gretyl’s the university’s top computational optimization person, if she says it, it’s true.”

“Argument by authority,” the other guy said good-naturedly.

“The longer we stand here, the greater chance we’ll get spotted,” Sita said.

“Self-serving bullshit.”

“There’s whisky at the mess hall,” she said.

“Now you’re talking.” They set out.


They took good care of her. There was a fresh crew who’d been asleep for the unloading who salted away all the supplies they’d brought in. The people she’d been out with adopted her, punching out a chair and assembling it for her and insisting she sit while they brought breakfast—yogurt studded with pistachios and tailored culture they assured her would moderate her stress, which explained why they were so fucking laid-back, despite being firebombed.

They gave her a glass of something sweet and bubbly, rattling with ice. She thought it might be booze, but couldn’t say. “What exactly were you people doing that caused you to be nuked from orbit?”

“That was a love tap,” said Gretyl. “Nothing compared to the Somali strike.”

Some people at the Banana and Bongo were obsessive about the global walkaways, but Iceweasel hardly followed it. She was dimly aware of the sub-Saharan walkaway contingent.

“Somali?”

Gretyl gave her more credit than she deserved: “Not exactly Somalia, I understand the debate, but the last national border the strike zone had been in was Somalia, so we call it that for convenience. This is not the time for pedantry.”

“I’m not pedantic, I just don’t know what you’re talking about.” The university walkaways looked at her like she was an idiot. That was okay: people cared about things that she never bothered with. She’d made peace with having priorities that were different from everyone else, starting with her fucking father.

Sita said, “The campus in Somalia—or in a place that used to be Somalia— was taken out last month. We don’t even know what hit them. There’s literally nothing left. The sat images show flat dirt. Not even a debris field. It’s like they never existed—ten hectares of labs and classrooms just… gone.”

Iceweasel felt prickles up on her neck. “What do you think hit them? Do you think that you might get hit with it next?”

Sita shrugged. “There’s lots of theories—it’s possible they burned them out like us, but were especially expedient about cleaning up, getting it done between satellite passes. That’s the Occam’s Razor approach, as everything else assumes fundamental technology breakthroughs. But there are some of those around, goodness knows.”

Gretyl picked up the conversation smoothly, laying her palms flat on the table. “Which brings us back to your original question: what are we working on that would make someone from default want to reduce us to a crater?”

At that, everyone shifted to look at the guy with the blue frizzy hair, whose name Iceweasel had instantly forgotten. “We’re trying to find a cure for death,” he said, and gave her that mischievous wood-elf smile. He even had a chin-dimple. “It’s kind of a big deal.”

Excerpted from Walkaway, copyright © 2017 by Cory Doctorow.

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