In the belly of the beast

In the world of 2081 our main protagonist, Raefe Epstein-Miller, works to connect the billions of people who are no longer part of official society. Often, he is dependent on the kindness of strangers, in this case Claire, an Afro-Scot from Newcastle who’s part of the Urban Gypsies. They’ work to survive by organizing a new economy, safety and other services insides the shell of the cities left behind by financial ruin. Here, he is on the run in the British Isles from bad weather and corporate agents.

Raefe stood at the front of the ferry, watching Ilfracombe come closer. The rocky peninsula that rose 50 meters out of the ocean was a natural sea wall for the harbor, preserving the docks from flooding. Behind the docks, hills rose steeply into the North Devon countryside. After a week of traipsing around the North and Wales, he had made it to South England, Ltd. He felt a sense of excitement — he would be entering the belly of the beast, one of the largest and richest corporate states in the world.

He wandered down to the vehicle deck to find the car and Claire. She had stuck with him through the trip, his guide and protector. The blizzard had hit Newcastle only hours after they left and hadn’t stopped yet. She had become much quieter as the week wore on.

“Fancy a pint when we land?” he asked. “I figure you could use one.”

“If you’re buying, guv,” she said. “Want to keep my wits about me down here.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “I’d say knock off the ‘guv,’ but down here they’ll like that you say it.”

“Just a habit, really,” she said. “Been in the Urban Gypsies for years now, but them’s giving the orders, still’s the guv. And with all due, guv, you’re not just some office boss. We’ve all got a lot riding on what you’re up to.”

“Well, I’ll try not to disappoint.”

They had swapped Claire’s Northern Electric truck for one of Vietnam’s finest, a Peach three-wheeled fuel celler. With its plug-in conversion kit for rainy days and optional solar panels for sunny ones, it was probably the most popular car on the entire island of Britain. And there’s was painted in default Buddha Orange — their car would not give them away.

“I’ll connect my puter to the car so we know where we’re going,” Raefe said. Claire had used the onboard puter with the truck, but he suspected she was a typical Urban Gypsy when it came to being unable to afford net fees for her own puter. “Kayam, take us to the Tunnel Beaches.”

“Kayam?” Claire laughed. “Why’d you call it that?”

“Long story,” he said, watching the patchwork of lively streets and derelict neighborhoods out the window. “He was a guy I knew when I was a kid. Used to hang with my girlfriend at his coffee stand. He was an early fugee, he always wanted to know what the news was. I was always saying, ‘Computer, what happened in the Caliphate last night? Kayam wants to know.’ So when full AI interfaces came in a few years later, it was my own little joke to say ‘Kayam, what’s happening in the news.’

Claire pulled up in front of a tavern. The pub was vibrating with dark pulses at a fierce volume. Some pop star was on the vids wearing a rugby helmet with large horns, like some deranged Viking athlete.

“Just like my local,” Claire said. “Feel right at home here.”

“If you’re home is in an underground mine,” Raefe said. “You like this music?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard Debris?” Claire said.

“That’s who this is?”

“Yeah. That’s him up on the vid wall — Johnny Debrise.”

Raefe switched his ‘puter to the vid channel to get the sound. The host was attempting to interview Debrise.

“Johnny, we’re showing the fans an early picture of you and Black Mark Debree and Yellow Jay Debry. Tell us about it.”

“Not much to say, mate. We were kids with a passion for the music. Right place at the right time — end of the world and all that.”

“Our sponsors won’t like that Johnny — still so many things left to sell! But here’s something interesting I want to get your opinion on. We did a deep search and we can’t actually find any record of any of you before this picture. The whole Debris thing — is it all just a put on, Johnny? The Asian guy named Black Mark, the white guy Yellow Jay, and you, you might be mistaken for African. Take us back to when you were all born, the real people.”

“Born, you think we were born? Plenty of people been made in factories these days, don’t you know that?”

“Are you saying you’re a biohack, Johnny?”

“Not me, mate. Maybe you?”

“Nothing so exotic. So you weren’t born to a mother and you weren’t raised in glass dish. What then?”

“When them meteors crash into earth, new lifeforms arise. Just listen.”
He turned around and the band was behind them.He snapped his fingers and a deafening roar arose from the band, like boulders tumbling down a mountain.
“See, when the meteors crash into Earth, life arises from the Debris. That’s our life story.”

Claire was laughing heartily.”No one can play electric asteroid like Debris.”

“Thanks for cheering me up!” Raefe laughed, raising his beer in a mock toast to Debris.

“So you never finished telling me what ever happened to Kayam.” Claire said.

“Don’t know. It was turbulent times. We were all moving around. He and his partner, Kiko, they lost their stand to one of the first big coastal floods in the US that never receeded, back in 2048. We were all scattered to the winds.” He stopped, realizing he was talking about his first life. Every now and then, random memories from that past emerged as if they were part of this life. Shit, he hoped Claire wouldn’t go to the trouble of looking it up. Still only Lina knew about that, but he suspected the twins had figured it out. Not much got by them.

“How have you kept your wits about you through all of this?” Claire wondered.

“I’m only 35 and it wears me down. And you’ve been fighting this fight almost as long as I’ve been alive.”

“No, I wasn’t conscious back then. Just a victim, like everyone else. Only we didn’t even know it back then. We were like drunks with a hangover — felt terrible but remembered the party from the night before. Still thought there would be more parties than hangovers. Have you been to Trafalgar or Picadilly in London?”

“Yeah, sure, back in the old UK days.”

“Even then, right, certain streets would have these massive streams of bicycles, motorbikes, three wheelers, taxis and the occasional big old auto. And if you had to cross, it was just bewildering. You wound up just wandering through it, trusting no one would hit you. Only that’s where the metaphor breaks down: no one was actually steering the ‘cars’ in life and you could get run over very easily. Just bad luck.”

“Is that why you got involved with the Free?” sahe asked, eyeing him as if she was waiting for a misstep.

“Yes and no. There was no Free yet. There were people like Goodstuff Benjamin, who started the New Voodo Army way back in the 2040s. Citizens of Nowhere goes back into the ‘30s. But I didn’t know about any of that. I was just a kid, a software grunt, and then I began to feel these connections to other people. Not in some poetic way, but real connections. I could feel people’s emotions, and that meant I knew who I could trust. And with fugees, that’s huge. Every fugee mistrusts everyone around them, and everywhere they go, everyone mistrusts them. And between the weather and the corpos, fugees were fast becoming the world’s leading product. And it was starting to get ugly — riots, killings, you know all of that. And I realized I had a chance to help stop it. Maybe even to find a way forward. Nothing else felt important at that point.”

This was the narrative he had crafted over the years to explain himself but also to hide his first life and the Guardians. In the old days, he and Lina had talked with Diver many times about that. She had strongly urged them to never reveal that, and they had acceded to her in that. In his heart, he still felt that humanity would be much better off knowing about the Guardians and the broad history of intelligent life in the Galaxy. But maybe it would be another thousand or two years before that would be truly helpful to human beings. He had to trust Diver on that.

“Fair weather on you for that, mate,” Claire said. “So where we headed in little Ilfracombe?”

“I’ve set up a meet with a contact who can help us evade the corpo police in the South. He’s got us meeting in an old changing house where there used to be a beach on a small inlet. There’s tunnels under the cliffs from the changing house to where the beach was — that’s all washed away now, but the tunnels are still there. Should be safe and quiet.”

“Had to give up the artillery when we ditched the truck, but I still got these,” she said, raising her hands in the air. “In case it’s not all sunshine.”

“If it’s going to go bad, it’s going to go bad and we’re just fucked. Besides, it would be better if he doesn’t see you. I’ll know if he’s with other people. If he’s alone, you can stand watch on the road. You’ve got your Voice?”

“Yeah, I’ll let you know if trouble’s coming.”