Hubert, Etc was too old to be at that Communist party.
After watching the breakdown of modern society, 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—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 Dotcorow’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 first chapter below, and check back for additional excerpts before the book’s release.
Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wiley Marvin Ellis Espinoza was too old to be at a Communist party. At twenty-seven, he had seven years on the next oldest partier. He felt the demographic void. He wanted to hide behind one of the enormous filthy machines that dotted the floor of the derelict factory. Anything to escape the frank, flat looks from the beautiful children of every shade and size who couldn’t understand why an old man was creepering around.
“Let’s go,” he said to Seth, who’d dragged him to the party. Seth was terrified of aging out of the beautiful children demographic and entering the world of non-work. He had an instinct for finding the most outré, cutting edge, transgressive goings-on among the children who’d been receding in their rearview mirrors. Hubert, Etc, Espinoza only hung out with Seth because part of his thing about not letting go of his childhood was also not letting go of childhood friends. He was insistent on the subject, and Hubert, Etc was a pushover.
“This is about to get real,” Seth said. “Why don’t you get us beers?”
That was exactly what Hubert, Etc didn’t want to do. The beer was where the most insouciant adolescents congregated, merry and weird as tropical fishes. Each more elfin and tragic than the last. Hubert, Etc remembered that age, the certainty that the world was so broken that only an idiot would deign to acknowledge it or its inevitability. Hubert, Etc often confronted his reflection in his bathroom screen, stared into his eyes in their nest of bruisey bags, and remembered being someone who spent every minute denying the world’s legitimacy, and now he was enmeshed in it. Hubert, Etc couldn’t self-delude the knowledge away. Anyone under twenty would spot it in a second.
“Go on, man, come on. I got you into this party. Least you can do.”
Hubert, Etc didn’t say any obvious things about not wanting to come in the first place and not wanting beer in the second place. There were lots of pointless places an argument with Seth could go. He had his Peter Pan face on, prepared to be ha-ha-only-serious until you wore down, and Hubert, Etc started the night worn.
“I don’t have any money,” Hubert, Etc said.
Seth gave him a look.
“Oh, yeah,” Hubert, Etc said. “Communist party.”
Seth passed him two red party cups, their color surely no accident.
As Hubert, Etc drew up to the taps—spoodged onto a vertical piece of structural steel that shot out of the floor and up to the rafters, skinned with checkered safety-yellow bar codes and smudges of entropy and dancing lights of the DJ—and tried to figure out which of the beautiful children was bartender, factum factotum, or commissar. No one moved to help him or block him as he edged closer, though three of the children stopped to watch with intense expressions.
All three wore Marx glasses with the huge, bushy beards hanging, like in the vocoder videos, full of surreal menace. These ones were dyed bright colors, and one had something in it—memory wire?—that made it crawl like tentacles.
Hubert, Etc clumsily filled a cup, and the girl held it while he filled the other. The beer was incandescent, or bioluminescent, and Hubert, Etc worried about what might be in the transgenic jesus microbes that could turn water into beer, but the girl was looking at him from behind those glasses, her eyes unreadable in the flickering dance-lights. He drank.
“Not bad.” He burped, burped again. “Fizzy, though?”
“Because it’s fast-acting. It was ditch water an hour ago. We sieved it, brought it up to room temp, dumped in the culture. It’s live, too—add some precursor, it’ll come back. Survives in your urine. Just save some, you want to make more.”
“Communist beer?” Hubert, Etc said. The best bon mot he could scrounge. He was better when he had time to think.
“Nazdarovya.” She clicked her cup against his and drained it, loosing a bone-rattling belch when she finished. She gave her chest a thump and scared out smaller burps, refilled the glass.
“If it comes out in pee,” Hubert, Etc said, “what happens if someone adds the precursor to the sewers? Will it turn to beer?”
She gave him a look of adolescent scorn. “That would be stupid. Once it’s diluted it can’t metabolize precursor. Flush and it’s just pee. The critters die in an hour or two, so a latrine won’t turn into a reservoir of long-lived existential threats to the water supply. It’s just beer.” Burp. “Fizzy beer.”
Hubert, Etc sipped. It was really good. Didn’t taste like piss at all. “All beer is rented, right?” he said.
“Most beer is rented. This is free. You know: ‘free as in free beer.’” She drank half the cup, spilling into her beard. It beaded on the crinkly refugee stuff. “You don’t come to a lot of Communist parties.”
Hubert, Etc shrugged. “I don’t,” he said. “I’m old and boring. Eight years ago, we weren’t doing this.”
“What were you doing, Gramps?” Not in a mean way, but her two friends—a girl the same shade as Seth and a guy with beautiful cat-eyes—sniggered.
“Hoping to get jobs on the zeppelins!” Seth said, slinging an arm around Hubert, Etc’s neck. “I’m Seth, by the way. This is Hubert, Etc.”
“Etcetera?” the girl said. Just a little smile. Hubert, Etc liked her. He thought that she was probably secretly nice, probably didn’t think he was a dork just because he was a few years older, and hadn’t heard of her favorite kind of synthetic beer. He recognized this belief was driven by a theory of humanity that most people were good, but also by a horrible, oppressive loneliness and nonspecific horniness. Hubert, Etc was bright, which wasn’t always easy, and had a moderate handle on his psyche that made it hard to bullshit himself.
“Tell her, dude,” Seth said. “Come on, it’s a great story.”
“It’s not a great story,” Hubert, Etc said. “My parents gave me a lot of middle names is all.”
“How many is a lot?”
“Twenty,” he said. “The top twenty names from the 1890 census.”
“That’s only nineteen,” she said, quickly. “And one first name.”
Seth laughed like this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Even Hubert, Etc smiled. “Most people don’t get that. Technically, I have nineteen middle names and one first name.”
“Why did your parents give you nineteen middle names and one first name?” she asked. “And are you sure it’s nineteen middle names? Maybe you have ten first names and ten middle names.”
“I think that it’s hard to claim to have more than one first name, because first has a specificity that middle lacks. Notwithstanding your Mary Anns and Jean Marcs and such, which are hyphenated by convention.”
“Fair point,” she said. “Though, come on, if Mary Ann is a first name, why isn’t Mary Ann Tanya Jessie Banana Pants Monkey Vomit etc?”
“My parents would agree. They were making a statement about names, after Anonymous brought in its Real Name Policy. They’d both been active, worked to make it a political party, so they were really fucked off. Thought it was obvious that if you were ‘Anonymous’ you couldn’t have a ‘Real Name Policy.’ They decided to give their kid a unique name that never fit into any database and would give him the right to legally use a whole bunch of sub-names.
“By the time I got all this, I was used to ‘Hubert,’ and I stuck to it.”
Seth took Hubert’s beer cup, swilled from it, burped. “I’ve always called you Hubert, Etc, though. It’s cool, and it’s easier to say.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Do it, though, okay?”
“What?” Hubert, Etc knew the answer.
“The names. You’ve got to hear this.”
“You don’t have to,” she said.
“I do, probably, or you’ll wonder.” He’d made peace with it. It was part of growing up. “Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wiley Marvin Ellis Espinoza.”
She cocked her head, nodded. “Needs more Banana Pants.”
“Bet you got teased like hell at school though, right?” Seth said.
This pissed Hubert, Etc off. It was stupid, and it was a recurring stupidity. “Come on, really? You think that names are why kids get teased? The causal arrow points the other way. If the kids are making fun of your name, it’s because you’re unpopular—you’re not unpopular because of your name. If the coolest kid in school was called ‘Harry Balls’ they’d call him Harold. If the school goat was called ‘Lisa Brown,’ they’d call her ‘Shitstain.’” He nearly said, Seriously, don’t be an asshole, but didn’t. He was invested in being an adult. Seth paid no attention to the possibility that he was being an asshole.
“What’s your name?” Seth said to the girl.
“Lisa Brown,” she replied.
Hubert, Etc snickered.
He waited to see if she’d offer her name, shrugged. “I’m Seth.” He went to her friends, who’d inched closer. One of them did a fancy handshake, which he faked with totally unselfconscious enthusiasm that Hubert, Etc envied and was embarrassed by.
The dance music got louder. Seth refilled Hubert, Etc’s cup and took it to the dance floor. Hubert was the only one without a cup. The girl refilled hers and passed it.
“Good stuff,” she shouted, her breath tickling his cheek. The music was really loud, an automated mix, tied into DJ stuff that used lidar and heatmapping to characterize crowd-responses to musical mixes and optimized them to get everyone on the floor. They’d had it back when Hubert, Etc was young enough to go clubbing, called it Rule 34 for all the different mixes, but it had been cheesy then. Now it was the business.
“Kinda hoppy, though.”
“Not the taste. The enzymes. Stuff in it helps you break it down, stops it from turning into formaldehyde in your blood. Good for reducing hangovers. It’s Turkish.”
“Well, Turkish-ish. Came out of refus in Syria. They’ve got a lab. It’s called Gezi. If you’re interested, I can send you stuff about it.”
Was she hitting on him? Eight years ago, giving someone your contact details was an invitation. Maybe they’d swung into a time of more promiscuous name-space management and less promiscuous socio-sexual norms. Hubert, Etc wished he’d skimmed a précis of current sociology of twenty-year-olds. He rubbed the interface strip on his ring finger and muttered “contact details,” held out his hand. Her hand was warm, rough, and small. She touched a strip she wore as a choker and whispered, and he felt a confirming buzz from his system, then a double-buzz that meant that she’d reciprocated.
“So you can white-list me.”
Hubert, Etc wondered if she was used to sharing contacts so widely that she had to worry about spam or—
“You’ve never been to one of these,” she said, her face right up to his ear again.
“No,” he shouted. Her hair smelled like burning tires and licorice.
“You’ll love this, come on, let’s get in close, they’re going to start soon.”
She took his hand again, and as her calluses rasped over his skin, he felt another buzz. It was endogenous and hadn’t originated with his interface stuff.
They skirted the dancers, kicking through leaves and puffs of dust that swirled in the lights. There were glittering motes in the dust that made the air seem laden with fairy-glitter. Hubert, Etc caught sight of Seth. Seth looked back and clocked the scene—the girl, the hands, the scramble through dark spaces for private vantage, and his face creased with passing envy before turning into a fratty leer to which he added a thumbs-up. The automatic music thudded, Cantopop and rumba that Rule 34 tumbled out of its directed random-walk through music-space.
“Here’s good,” she said, as they yanked themselves onto a catwalk. The gritty service-ladder left rust streaks on Hubert, Etc’s palms. Out of the music’s blast, they could hear each other, and Hubert, Etc was aware of his breath and pulse.
“Keep your eye on that.” She pointed at a machine to one side. Hubert, Etc squinted and saw her friends from before moving around it. “They do furniture, mostly shelving. There was a ton of feedstock in the storeroom.”
“Did you help put this”—a sweep of his arm to take in the factory, the dancers—“together?”
She laid one finger alongside the rubber nose, winked slowly. “Supreme Soviet,” she said. She tapped the temple of her glasses, and he caught a shimmer as their magnification kicked in with false color and stabilization. “They’ve got it.” The music cut off mid-note.
A rumble in the bones of the factory vibrated the catwalk. The dancers looked around for its source, then a wave of attention propagated through them as gaze followed gaze and they focused on the machine, which moved, dust shaking down, dance-lights skewering it, lighting more motes. A new smell now, woodsy, full of dangerous volatiles that boiled off the machine’s elements as they glowed to life. The hush in the room broke when the first composite plank dropped onto the assembly bed, nudged by thousands of infinitesimal fingers that corrected its alignment just as the next plank dropped. Now they fell at regular intervals, a ladder of thin, strong, supple cellulosic boards, swiftly joined by crosspieces, also swept into position, lining up the prefabricated joinery elements that clicked together with a snick. The fingers lifted the grid, moved it down the line, and a new grid was assembled just as quickly, then they mated and clicked together.
More of them, then a loop of fastening fabric thrown, caught, and cinched around the framework, and the completed piece was tossed to one side. Another was a minute behind it on the line. A dancer sauntered over to the output file and lifted the finished piece easily, brought it one-handed onto the dance floor, sliced through the fastening with a knife that gleamed in the dance-lights. The bed—that’s what it was—click-clacked into place, yawning back, ready for a mattress. The dancer climbed up onto the bed’s grid of slats and started jumping up and down. It was as springy as a trampoline, and in moments she was doing midair splits, butt drops, even a somersault.
The girl sat back and ran a finger around her beard. “Good stuff.” Hubert, Etc was sure she was smiling.
“That’s a cool bed frame,” Hubert, Etc said, for lack of something better to say.
“One of the best,” she said. “They had a ton of profitable lines, but bed frames were the best. Big with hotels, because they’re practically indestructible and they’re featherlight.”
“Why aren’t they making them anymore?”
“Oh, they are. Muji shut down the plant and moved to Alberta six months ago. Got a huge subsidy to relocate—Ontario couldn’t match the deal. They’d only been here for a couple of years, only employed twenty people all told, their two-year tax holiday was ending. Place has been empty since then. We can do the whole line from here, all Muji’s furniture, including white-label stuff they do for Nestlé and Standard & Poors & Möet & Chandon. Chairs, tables, bookcases, shelving. There’s an empty feedstock plant in Orangeville we’re hitting for the next party, raw material for the supply chain. If we don’t get caught, we can do enough furnishings for a couple thousand families.”
“You don’t charge for them or anything?”
A long look. “Communist party, remember?”
“Yeah, but, how do you eat and stuff?”
She shrugged. “Here and there. This and that. Kindness of strangers.”
“So people bring you food and you give them this stuff?”
“No,” she said. “We don’t do barter. This is gifts, the gift economy. Everything freely given, nothing sought in return.”
It was Hubert, Etc’s turn. “How often do you get a gift around the same time as you’re giving one of these away? Who doesn’t show up with something to leave behind when they take something?”
“Of course. It’s hard to get people out of the scarcity quid-pro-quo habit. But we know they don’t have to bring anything. Did you bring anything tonight?”
He patted his pockets. “I’ve got a couple million bucks, nothing much.”
“Keep it. Money is the one thing we don’t take. My mom always said money was the crappiest present. Anyone trying to give or get money around here, we sling ’em out on their butts, no second chances.”
“I’ll keep my wallet in my pants.”
“Good idea.” She was kind enough not to notice the double entendre that made Hubert, Etc blush. “I’m Pranksterella, by the way.”
“And I thought my parents were screwed up.”
The beard wiggled inscrutably: “My parents didn’t give me that one,” she said. “It’s my party name.”
“Like Trotsky,” he said. “He was Lev Davidovich. Did an independent history unit on Bolshevism in the eleventh grade. This is much more interesting.”
“They say Old Karl had the right diagnosis and the wrong prescription.” She shrugged. “Putting the ‘party’ back into Communist party makes a difference. Jury’s still out. We’ll probably implode. You guys did, right? The zeppelins?”
“Zeppelins explode,” he said.
“Har. De. Har.”
“Sorry.” He stuck his legs out and rested against a guardrail that creaked, then held. He realized that he could have gone over and fallen ten meters to the concrete floor. “But yeah, the zepps didn’t work out.” They’d made perfect sense on paper. All these time-rich, cash-poor people with friends all over the world. Zepps were cheap as hell to run, if you didn’t care where or how fast you went. There’d been hundreds of startups, talking big about climateappropriate transport and the “new age of aviation.” Despite all that, there was the inescapable sense that they were in a gold rush, a game of musical chairs that would end with a few lucky souls sitting on enough money to stop pretending to give a shit about any kind of aviation except for the kind that came with champagne and a warm eye mask after takeoff. A lot of money sloshed around, a lot of talk from governments about nurturing local talent and new industrial reality. The talk came with huge R&D tax credits and more investment money.
Three years into it—during which Hubert, Etc and everyone he knew gave up everything to scramble to put huge, floating cigars into the sky—the thing imploded. Just a few years on, it was retro-chic. Hubert, Etc had seen a “genuine Mark II zeppelin comfort suite” in a clip on super-fashionable decor. A painstakingly restored set of flying dormitory furniture was refitted for two rich, stationary people, not dozens of itinerant flying hobos. Hubert, Etc once spent three months in a co-op that was building the prefab suites, ready to slot into airship platforms. His sweat-equity was supposed to entitle him to a certain amount of time every year in the sky on board any ship carrying a co-op unit, bumbling through the world’s prevailing winds to wherever.
“Wasn’t your fault. It’s the nature of the beast to believe in bubbles and think you can just entrepreneur your way out.” She unclipped her beard and her glasses. She had a fox face, lots of points, grooved where the heavy glasses had rested, sheened with sweat. She wiped the sweat with her shirttail, giving him a glimpse of her pale stomach, a mole by her navel.
“And your people here?” He wished for more beer, realized he needed a piss, wondered if he should hold it in to make more.
“We’re not going to entrepreneur our way out of anything. This isn’t entrepreneurship.”
“Anti-entrepreneurship’s been tried, too—slacking doesn’t get you anywhere.”
“We’re not anti-entrepreneur, either. We’re not entrepreneurial in the way that baseball isn’t tic-tac-toe. We’re playing a different game.”
“Post-scarcity,” said with near-religious solemnity.
He didn’t succeed at keeping his face still, because she looked pissed off. “Sorry.” Hubert, Etc was one of nature’s apologizers. A housemate once made a set of cardboard tombstones for Halloween, hung like bunting across the kitchen cabinets. Hubert, Etc’s read “Sorry.”
“Don’t sorry me. Look, Etcetera, at all this. On paper, this place is useless, the stuff coming off that line has to be destroyed. It’s a trademark violation; even though it came off an official Muji line, using Muji’s feedstock, it doesn’t have Muji’s license, so that configuration of cellulose and glue is a crime. That’s so manifestly fucked up and shit that anyone who pays attention to it is playing the wrong game and doesn’t deserve consideration. Anyone who says the world is a better place with this building left to rot—”
“I don’t think that’s the argument,” Hubert, Etc said. He’d once had this kind of discussion a lot. He wasn’t young and avant-garde, but he understood this. “It’s that telling people what they can do with their stuff produces worse outcomes than letting them do stupid things and letting the market sort out the good ideas from—”
“You think anyone believes that anymore? You know why people who need furniture don’t just break down the door of this place? It’s not market orthodoxy.”
“Of course not. It’s fear.”
“They’re right to be afraid. This world, if you aren’t a success, you’re a failure. If you’re not on top, you’re on the bottom. If you’re in between, you’re hanging on by your fingernails, hoping you can get a better grip before your strength gives out. Everyone holding on is too scared to let go. Everyone on the bottom is too worn down to try. The people on the top? They’re the ones who depend on things staying the way they are.”
“So what do you call your philosophy then? Post-fear?”
She shrugged. “Don’t care. Lots of names for it. None of that matters. That’s what I care about.” She pointed to the dancers and the beds. Another line of machines was online and folding-table-and-chair sets were piling up.
“What about ‘communist’?”
“What about it?”
“That’s a label with a lot of history. You could be communists.”
She waved her beard at him. “Communist party. That doesn’t make us ‘communists’ any more than throwing a birthday party makes us ‘birthdayists.’ Communism is an interesting thing to do, nothing I ever want to be.”
The ladder clanged and the catwalk vibrated like a tuning fork. They looked over the edge just as Seth’s head came into view. “Hello, lovebirds!” he said. He was sloppy and jittery, high on something interesting. Hubert, Etc grabbed him before he could reel over the guardrail. Another person popped over the edge, one of the bearded threesome that had been by the beer.
“Hey-hey!” He seemed stoned, too, but it was hard for Hubert, Etc to tell.
“This is the guy,” Seth said. “The guy with the names.”
“You’re Etcetera!” the new guy said, arms wide like he was greeting a lost brother. “I’m Billiam.” He gave Hubert, Etc a lingering drunkard’s embrace. Hubert, Etc had dated guys, was open to the idea, but Billiam, beautiful tilted eyes aside, was not his type and too high to consider in any event. Hubert, Etc firmly peeled him off, and the girl helped.
“Billiam,” she said, “what have you two been up to?”
Billiam and Seth locked eyes and dissolved into hysterical giggles.
She gave Billiam a playful shove that sent him sprawling, one foot dangling over the catwalk.
“Meta,” she said. “Or something like it.”
He’d heard of it. It gave you ironic distance—a very now kind of high. Conspiracy people thought it was too zeitgeisty to be a coincidence, claimed it was spread to soften the population for its miserable lot. In his day—eight years before—the scourge had been called “Now,” something they gave to source-code auditors and drone pilots to give them robotic focus. He’d eaten a shit-ton of it while working on zepps. It made him feel like a happy android. The conspiracy people had said the same thing about Now that they said about Meta. End of the day, anything that made you discount objective reality and assign a premium to some kind of internal mental state was going to be both pro-survival and pro–status-quo.
“What’s your name?” Hubert, Etc said.
“Does it matter?” she said.
“It’s driving me nuts,” he admitted.
“You’ve got it in your address book,” she said.
He rolled his eyes. Of course he did. He rubbed the interface patch on his cuff and fingered it for a moment. “Natalie Redwater?” he said. “As in the Redwaters?”
“There are a lot of Redwaters,” she said. “We’re some of them. Not the ones you’re thinking of, though.”
“Close to them,” Billiam said from his stoned, prone, ironic world. “Cousins?”
“Cousins,” she said.
Hubert, Etc tried hard not to let phrases like “trustafarian” and “fauxhemian” cross his mind. He probably failed. She didn’t look happy about having her name out.
“Cousins as in ‘poor country relations,’ ” Seth said, from his fetal position, “or cousins as in ‘get to use the small airplane?’”
Hubert, Etc felt bad, not just because he was crushing on her. He’d known people born to privilege, plenty in the zepp scene, and they could be nice people whose salient facts extended beyond unearned privilege. Seth wouldn’t have normally been a dick about this kind of thing—it was precisely the sort of thing he wasn’t normally a dick about—but he was high.
“Cousins as in ‘enough to worry about kidnapping’ and ‘not enough to pay the ransom,’ she said, with the air of someone repeating a timeworn phrase.
The arrival of the two stoned boys sucked the magic out of the night. Below, the machines found a steady rhythm, and Rule 34 spun again, blending witch house and New Romantic, automatically syncing with the machines’ beat. It wasn’t pulling a lot of dancers, but a few diehards were out, being beautiful and in motion. Hubert, Etc stared at them.
Three things happened: the music changed (psychobilly and dubstep), he opened his mouth to say something, and Billiam said, in a tittering singsong: “Buuuu-sted!” and pointed at the ceiling.
They followed his finger and saw the flock of drones detach from the ceiling, fold back their wings, and plunge into a screaming drop. Natalie pulled her beard back on and Billiam made sure his was on, too.
“Seth, masks!” Hubert, Etc shook his friend. There had been a good reason for Seth to carry both of their masks, but he couldn’t remember it. Seth sat up with his eyebrows raised and a smirk on his face. Tucking chin to chest, Hubert, Etc swarmed over Seth and roughly turned out his pockets. He slapped his mask to his face and felt the fabric adhere in bunches and whorls as his breath teased it out and the oils in his skin were wicked through its weave. He did Seth.
“You don’t need to do this,” Seth said.
“Right,” said Hubert, Etc. “It’s out of the goodness of my heart.”
“You’re worried they’ll walk my social graph and find you in the one-hop/high-intensity zone.” Seth’s smile, glowing in the darkness of his face, was infuriatingly calm. It vanished behind the mask. That was the stupid Meta. “You’d be screwed then. They’ll run your data going back years, dude, until they find something. They always find something. They’ll put the screws to you, threaten you with every horrible unless you turn narc. Room 101 all the way, baby—”
Hubert, Etc gave Seth a harder-than-necessary slap upside the head. Seth said “Ow,” mildly, stopped talking. The drones flew a coverage pattern, like pigeons on crank. Hubert, Etc’s interface surfaces shivered as they detected attempted incursions and shut down. Hubert, Etc downloaded countermeasures regularly, if only to fight off drive-by identity thief creeps, but he shivered back, wondering if he was more up-to-date than the cop-bots.
The party had broken up. Dancers fled, some holding furniture. The music leapt to offensive-capability volume, a sound so loud it made your eyes hurt. Hubert, Etc clapped his hands over his ears just as one of the drones clipped an I-beam and spun out, smashing to the ground. A drone dive-bombed the sound-system’s control unit, knocked it to the ground. The sound went on.
Hubert, Etc pulled Seth to sit, pointed at the ladder. They let go of their ears to climb down. It was torture: the brutal sound, the painful vibrations of the metal under their hands and feet. Natalie came down, pointed at a doorway.
Something heavy and painful clipped Hubert, Etc in the head and shoulder, knocking him to his knees. He got to all fours, then to his feet, seeing stars behind the mask.
He looked for whatever had hit him. It took him a second to make sense of what he saw. Billiam lay on the floor, limbs in a strange swastika, head visibly misshapen, an inky pool of blood spread around it in the dimness. Fighting dizziness and pain from the sound, he bent over Billiam and gingerly peeled the beard. It was saturated with blood. Billiam’s face was smashed into a parody of human features; his forehead had an ugly dent encompassing one eye. Hubert, Etc tried for a pulse at Billiam’s wrist and then his throat, but all he felt was the thunder of the music. He put his hand on Billiam’s chest to feel for the rise and fall of breath, but couldn’t tell.
He looked up, but Seth and Natalie had already reached the door. They must not have seen Billiam fall, must not have seen him crash into Hubert, Etc. A drone ruffled Hubert, Etc’s hair. Hubert, Etc wanted to cry. He pushed the feeling down, remembering first aid. He shouldn’t move Billiam. But if he stayed, he’d be nabbed. It might be too late. The part of his brain in charge of cowardly self-justification chattered: Why not just go? It’s not like you can do anything. He might even be dead. He looks dead.
Hubert, Etc had made a concerted study of that voice and had concluded that it was an asshole. He tried to think past the self-serving rationalizations. He grabbed a bag someone left behind and, working gently, rolled Billiam into recovery position and put the bag under his head. He was propping Billiam up with a broken chair and a length of pipe, eyes squinted, head hammering, when someone grabbed him by his sore shoulder. He almost vomited. This was the day he’d known was coming all his life, when he ended up in prison.
But it wasn’t a cop—it was Natalie. She said something inaudible over the music. He pointed at Billiam. She knelt down and made a light. She threw up, having the presence of mind to do so in her purse. Hubert, Etc noted distantly that she was thinking of esophageal cells and DNA. That distant part admired her foresight. She got to her feet, grabbed him again by his bad arm, yanked hard. He screamed in pain, the sound lost in the roar, and went, leaving Billiam behind.
Excerpted from Walkaway, copyright © 2017 by Cory Doctorow