Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 61
Stories
Bare-knuckle Magic
by Michael Ezell
Tomorrow Is Monday
by Jacob A. Boyd
Money in the Tortoise
by J.D. Moyer
Real Estate Listing
by Ari B. Goelman
IGMS Audio
Real Estate Listing
Read by Dave Thompson
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Bonus Material

Money in the Tortoise
    by J.D. Moyer

Money in the Tortoise
Artwork by Michael Wolmarans

I'm organizing my vast collection of nineties ambient music into playlists when I feel a lurch that can mean only one thing. The truck is slowing down.

Cripes. My life is an endless series of interruptions.

The truck is me. I don't drive a truck, I am a truck. Twenty-two metric tons of carbon fiber, titanium, and hardened plastic. Rolling on eighteen wheels, three drive axles powered by a Lockheed Martin portable compact fusion reactor. Currently hauling a climate-controlled trailer full of California artichokes, heading east to Chicago on a historic stretch of Route 66, aka Interstate 40. Am I proud to be a Peterbilt 949? Hell no. Don't get me wrong--it's a beautiful machine. But I had a real body once. Then a virtual one when the real one wore out. Then an android when I got kicked out of the Fugue (the virtual afterlife has rules, which I broke). The android body expired prematurely, before I had even paid it off. (Note to self: civilian models should never pick fights with military-grade droids.) Faced with an immense non-negotiable debt and no corporeal means, I took the trucking gig. It's akin to indentured servitude, but it was that or a true, final, death. And I wasn't ready for that.

I bring my attention to the front grille cameras. Why the hell have we stopped in the middle of New Mexico? It's not just me--there's a caravan of seven Peterbilts on my tail (I'm the fleet leader--the only one with a brain).

It's a turtle. Or a tortoise. My cameras are still trying to resolve a species match. A second later it pops up: Gopherus flavomarginatus. The Bolson tortoise, or Mexican giant tortoise. It's only half a meter long--not exactly a giant. Maybe that's big for a tortoise? Status: Endangered. The collision avoidance would have stopped us for any animal, but in this case the safety systems have saved my employer a whopping fine.

Central is pinging me. I connect and open my visual feeds so she can see everything.

"Are you getting this?" I ask. "Apparently it's rare."

"Is it alive?" asks Central. She's a little like me, once a Fugue resident, now post-corporeal. Someday I'll work up the nerve to ask her why she got kicked out.

"I don't know." The tortoise's head and feet are visible--not retracted--but it remains motionless. Its heat signature is non-definitive. Finally the tortoise tilts its head, looks up at me. "There you go. It's alive."

"Can you move it? You know--gently?" asks Central.

"How am I supposed to do that? Cow catchers aren't standard issue."

"Honk at it, maybe?"

I give a tentative, short blast of the horn, at quarter volume. The tortoise retracts its head. "Nope. Don't think that's gonna work."

"Can you back up, go around?"

I check the feed from Anna, my follow-drone, half a kilometer above. There's not much traffic in our direction. Still, eastbound Route 66 only has two lanes. If I take my whole caravan into the passing lane from a dead stop I risk getting rear-ended. I fill in Central on my reasoning.

"Well, wait it out, I guess. Those Windy folks will have to wait a little longer for their spikeys."

Artichokes ("spikeys," as Central calls them) are one of the few vegetables you can't grow in an urban vert farm. And all eight of us are stuffed with them. I run a diagnostic on the climate trailers. The sun is beating down on my back, generating a pleasant tingle from my solar panels, but the produce is sitting at a comfortably frigid one degree Celsius, 95% humidity.

"Thanks for the slack," I tell her. "The spikeys are fine, nice and cool. I'll give this little critter an hour or so and check back in if it hasn't moved."

"You do that. Over and out."

I back up the rearmost truck ten meters, turn on its hazards, tell Anna to message anyone approaching that we're dead stopped, waiting for a rare reptile to cross the road.

I don't miss having a real body. Health worries, attractiveness (or lack thereof), aches and pains, colds, weight fluctuations, signs of aging: now I file a fat N/A in all those categories. Even in the Fugue--my afterlife sim--I worried about how I looked. Being able to fully control my appearance didn't prevent me from feeling self-conscious. Now, as a truck, I just don't give a damn. Keep my tires inflated and my fusion reactor humming and I'm good.

I miss sex, and food, and the feeling after that first glass of wine. But I don't crave those things. When they kicked me out of the Fugue, the Q-CoreTM consciousness transfer omitted visceral urges. The only thing I jones for is cigarettes, which is completely unfair. I quit decades ago. I suspect the nicotine craving is some kind of jack-boot feature. Once I pay off the mind transfer I'll call tech support, see if they can take care of it.

A proximity alert interrupts my reverie. It's a person, knocking on my cab window. A young woman, late teens or early twenties. She's sunburned, matted blonde hair, wearing black sunglasses. I unlock the door. I'm curious. There's no security risk--there's nothing she can steal in the cab and the manual controls are locked down. Maybe she needs to get out of sun. Of course I have an ulterior motive; I want her to move the tortoise.

Instead of opening the door, she disappears. Frantically I scan my camera feeds. Where'd she go? She reappears ten seconds later, tortoise under arm.

"Sorry about the ruse," she says, tossing a worn backpack onto the seat and clambering into the cab. "I need a ride." She closes the door behind her, manually locks it.

"The tortoise--your pet?"

"This here's Alpha Male." She raps the tortoise shell with her knuckles. "I'm Fire Cat. And you are?"

"Oscar." The cab speakers use the Peterbilt 949's default voice.

Fire Cat curls up on the bench seat using Alpha Male as a pillow. A minute later she's fast asleep. I don't have any way to forcibly remove my guests. Nor do I want to, despite the litany of environmental and company regulations I'm about to violate. I quietly engage my drive axles. The spikeys resume their journey east.

"You on the lam?" I ask Fire Cat when she wakes up. Central doesn't know about my passengers yet, though I feel guilty keeping anything from her. I need to get a read on the lady and her reptile before I send it up the chain.

"Just following the open road, seeing where it takes me," says Fire Cat casually. I run a lie detection algorithm on her voice. The app's interface lights up like a Christmas tree. Not infallible--it's a free app--but for the moment I assume she's on the run.

"We're headed to Chicago, but just let me know when you want to get off." Maybe I can drop the sunburned kid and her tortoise off in Albuquerque and be done with them.

"I'll ride the distance with you, if you don't mind." No lie there. She runs her fingers over the tortoise's shell, searching for something. "Do you have a computer I can borrow? With net access?"

"You need to upload your tortoise?"

"Something like that."

I'm curious, but I don't bite. "Sorry, no. But there's a water dispenser next to the glove box. And I can brew you some coffee if you want." My cab is luxurious, lacking only a minibar.

Anna sends me an emergency alert. We've got company of the aerial variety: a pair of high-flying military drones. As I'm analyzing the feed, my roof cam records a smoky fireball. My follow-drone's remains cascade down in a hailstorm of pebble-sized debris.

"We seem to be under attack," I mention to Fire Cat. "Might this have anything to do with you?" I show her Anna's fiery demise on the cab screen.

"Wow. That was fast."

"Care to enlighten me?"

"How fast can you go? Do you have surface-to-air missiles?"

"I'm a produce truck."

Central is frantically pinging me. I connect, sharing the cab cam feed in the interest of full disclosure.

"What the hell Oscar? What just happened to Anna? And who is that?"

"Central, meet Fire Cat. Fire Cat, Central. The tortoise goes by Alpha Male."

"Hitchhikers?"

I consider mentioning that I was forcibly boarded, but that isn't the whole truth. I did unlock the door. I'm embarrassed, falling for such a simple ruse.

"I'm under attack by a pair of high-altitude military drones. Privately owned, I assume. Unless artichokes suddenly became a Schedule I substance? Or I've wandered into an off-limits military area? Anything you've neglected to tell me?"

"Artichokes are still legal. I'm calling the New Mexico State Police now."

A warm feeling surges through my electrical system. Love for Central. She is always sensible, level-headed, competent.

"They're going to make a demand," says Fire Cat, eyes glued to my rear-view cam.

"Are you expecting more company? Enemies on the ground?"

Peterbilt #7, aka Blue Billy, rearmost in our caravan, explodes in a huge orange fireball. I feel the concussion like a kick in the back. The blast knocks #6, Chastity, onto her side. Fragments of carbon fiber and whole artichokes rain down on us for the next ten seconds.

"Oscar, talk to me!" There's a tone in Central's voice I haven't heard before.

"These folks mean business," I observe. "Fire Cat, any idea what they want?"

"They want Alpha Male. They. . . er. . . want him back. I'm really sorry Oscar. I didn't know they were tracking us."

"You stole a tortoise? From who? The Russian mob?" Purchasing military drones isn't as easy as going online and clicking. "If you don't mind me asking--"

"What's so special about Alpha Male?" Fire Cat picks up the reptile, cradles him in her lap. I run over a gator--tire debris--and wince, but it doesn't bounce up and bite me.

Through all of this, barreling down the highway at top speed, my caravan being bombarded by what I can only assume are surplus Iraq-era Hellfire missiles, I'm cool as a cucumber. This is my fourth iteration as a person. I'm not as emotionally responsive as my original biological self or my simmed afterlife self. That's partly by choice, partly a requirement of the job. To be an effective truck you need to be 100% panic-proof, completely drama-resistant. I feel curious and alert, but not scared.

Though I could really use a smoke.

"Try hailing them," says Central. "See what they want."

"How, exactly, do you suggest I do that?"

"The C.B.?"

As a nostalgic touch the lux Peterbilt cab is equipped with citizens band radio. When I need to make a call I use the 7G global wireless network like a normal person--but to do that you need to know who you're calling. The C.B. sends out a short-range signal to whoever is listening. My antenna is short--just a meter long--but I should be able to talk to the drones.

"Fire Cat, would you do me the honors?" Not having hands, I can't operate the C.B.--it's only there for passenger recreation.

"Talk me through it," says Fire Cat.

I oblige, and a minute later Fire Cat is spitting into the mike like an old boy.

"Call off your birds, Danny. I'm keeping Alpha Male, but you can have the damn drive back."

There's no response, but nor do more Hellfire missiles rain down from above.

"Dare I ask what's on the drive?" I ask.

"Fugue-coin. About a million. Danny is my ex-boyfriend."

Danny--the name has strong associations. Flashy money, gun collections, girls in bikinis. "Danny Dimon?"

"That's the one."

"You stole his tortoise?"

"Alpha Male is mine. I had no idea Danny stashed his crypto currency in him."

A few pieces of the puzzle are coming together. Until a few days ago, a million in Fugue-coin was a small fortune. Today, Fc1M equals the GDP of a medium-sized nation. Not just life-changing money. World-changing money. The spike was a long time coming; speculators had been calling Fugue-coin undervalued since Restrictionism started gaining steam. For some reason this was the week the currency made a leap for the stratosphere.

It had to happen eventually. The Fugue, the first and most popular afterlife sim world, is home to home to millions of post-corporeal people, many of them brilliant artists, authors, inventors, and scientists. About a year ago Restrictionism--a sort of voluntary asceticism--ripped through the Fugue with wildfire speed. Cultural values within the simulation switched, practically overnight, from hedonism to a fiery Puritanical work ethic. The result was a staggering boost in productivity from the denizens of the Fugue, and a corresponding (if delayed) increased valuation of the coin of the land.

I know all this because I lived there. For the record, I was perfectly happy not working during my afterlife.

"Look, it's him," says Fire Cat, pointing to my rearview screen. "Or his goons." A cavalcade of armored black vehicles is rapidly closing on Jesse (Peterbilt #5).

"Central--did you get ahold of the NMSP?"

"En route," says Central. "And I told them about Chastity. She'll get some help soon."

The others trucks in my caravan aren't conscious-aware--they're just sophisticated automated vehicles--but Central and I can't help but think of them as people.

"E.T.A.?"

"Not close. Ten minutes maybe. I'm tracking their chatter." How she's doing that, or if it's legal, I don't ask. Central has her methods.

"Should we stop, hand over the tortoise?" I suggest.

"No!" shouts Fire Cat, gripping Alpha Male tightly. "Not until I find the damned drive. Just give me a minute!" She frantically scrapes her fingernails over the shell.

I could stop the caravan, of course. And I would, if Central told me to (and not because I'm an obedient lackey, but because I love and trust her). But I'm enjoying the chase on some level, and Danny's dirty fighting has riled me up. He killed Anna! And poor Billy, who was bringing up the rear. Screw that guy and his weapon collection.

The lead armored vehicle is blaring at us. I can't hear what it's saying--there's too much noise from wheels on the road (even though our engines are silent for the most part). I adjust my directional mike, try a couple noise reduction algorithms on the signal. I get some of it:

"Harboring ____ property. Begin deceleration now ____ or ___ eliminated ____ extreme and immediate _____."

The meaning is clear enough. Stop and hand over the reptile, or we'll end you.

"Central, request permission to--"

"Granted," says Central. She's not exactly reading my mind--she can see what I'm preparing to do with Jesse's trailer. I time the acceleration of our caravan with the release of Jesse's trailer doors. Thousands of spikeys spill onto the asphalt, crates tumbling like dice, ice spraying in glistening waves. Artichokes pound the windshields of our pursuers, cracking glass and smearing hoods with thousands of dollars worth of pulverized California produce.

Three of the armored utility vehicles, effectively blinded, pull over. Two more continue to give chase.

Fire Cat is screaming in delight, holding Alpha Male so tightly I'm afraid he might crack. I can't help but like this young pirate who has tricked me, boarded me, caused two casualties, racked up millions in damages in less than an hour. She reminds me of myself, my last days in the Fugue. My burn everything days.

The C.B. spits out a burst of unintelligible noise. I ask Fire Cat to calm down, tell her which knobs to adjust. Now we can hear him. Danny Dimon. I know his voice from dozens of interviews, advertisements, media appearances. He's a man in love with his own voice and image--he frequently inflicts both on the world. A self-proclaimed genius, playboy, innovator, savvy investor, he is in fact a mere spoiled sociopath, silver spoon of his vast inheritance still firmly in mouth. What did Fire Cat see in him?

"You have sixty seconds to slow down, or another truck gets a kiss from the sky." His voice is grating, unpleasant.

"Tell me where the drive is," shouts Fire Cat into the mike. "I'll throw it out the damn window. I don't care about the money."

"You dumb bitch. There is no drive. The currency is in the turtle."

Central cuts in over the cab speakers. "Sorry Oscar, game over. Just got the word from Corporate. Pull over and give them what they want."

I sigh, which comes out as a one-tenth volume rumble of my horn. "You heard her kiddo. Chase is over. Central called it. It was fun while it lasted." I'm already decelerating. Danny must be looking at a train of red brake lights by now, if he can see anything through his artichoke-smeared windshield.

"No," says Fire Cat calmly. "It's not over."

She can believe what she wants. I bring all of us to a stop. From my side cams I see a squad of camo-clad, rifle-toting goons approaching my cab.

"Open the door!" yells the shortest one. "Hand over the turtle."

I'm offended by a litany of things. Danny calling Alpha Male, so clearly a land-crawler, a turtle. Referring to Fire Cat as a dumb bitch. And more broadly, Danny Dimon himself: his little-boy machismo, his unwarranted self-regard, his immaturity. I am only a truck, but I am old and wise, over a century old, in my fourth body.

I want to teach him a lesson.

"Open the damn doors, or we'll cut 'em open!" Danny pulls back his tactical goggles, revealing a tan, soft face. He squeezes the trigger of his rifle, lodging a bullet in one of my tires. It's solid rubber--un-poppable--but it still pisses me off.

"He just shot me," I say to Central (silently, on the 7G network).

"Saw that," acknowledges Central.

"Permission to--"

"Whatever you need to do," interrupts Central. I've been given carte blanche. I don't have weapons or sophisticated self-defense mechanisms, but I do have one trick up my sleeve. Something I picked up from a Rust Belt Kenworth I crossed paths with in Wisconsin. I have no idea if it will work.

I slowly lower the window. "See if you can buy us some time," I whisper to Fire Cat. "Central called the New Mexico State Police--they're on their way." I doubt they'll get here in time, but I know Fire Cat won't hand over Alpha Male, and I don't want my door blowtorched. Maybe she can get Danny talking.

"Long time no see, asshole," she says. Not a bad opener.

"Give me the damn turtle," says Danny. He hands his rifle to a lackey, reaches up toward the open window. His outstretched fingertips barely reach the halfway mark on my door. He looks like a little kid begging to be picked up.

"What did you mean that the money is in the turtle?" asks Fire Cat. Either she's a good actor or she really doesn't know. I don't know either, though I have an idea.

Danny chuckles. "You always were an idiot. I don't know why I wasted my time on you."

"The feeling is mutual," says Fire Cat. "I guess we don't always choose people who are good for us."

"Hand over the turtle."

"He's a tortoise. And no way. You'll hurt him."

Danny sighs. "I'm not gonna hurt him. Look, you know what? I'll even send him back. I'll have him delivered to you. Tomorrow, okay? He'll be fine."

"No."

"Vanessa--listen to me. Right now, right here, you don't have any power. I know that's hard for you to understand, because you're a spoiled child. I'm being polite. And that's going to last for about thirty more seconds. After that, I'm just going to take what's mine. Understand? So hand over the turtle, now."

"No," says Fire Cat, calmly. I have to give her credit. I don't think she has a plan beyond being stubborn. But sometimes that's all it takes.

I hum. My horn produces an 18.9 hertz tone at an amplitude of 111 decibels. Precision frequency ultrasound, quite loud.

"Try to ignore the sensations you're about to experience," I tell Fire Cat. I roll up the window. The glass won't completely protect her, but it might help.

I observe closely via the cab cams. Immediately her eyes go wide. She shivers, bends over, mashes her palms into her eyeballs.

I switch to the exterior cams to see how our friends are doing.

All of Danny's goons are on their knees. One clutches his head. Another vomits onto the hot asphalt. Danny's face has twisted into an expression that is half snarl, half grimace. They can't hear me humming, but they can sense it. I can only imagine what they're feeling. Nausea, terror, revulsion, a strong sense of an unseen presence. I am haunting them.

18.9 hertz vibrates human eyeballs, resonates with the intestinal tract, and dislodges calcium carbonate crystals in the inner ear, wreaking havoc with equilibrium. I've always wanted to try it out.

Danny grabs his gun away from the fallen goon, staggers toward the door, waves his weapon. "Get out. Now!" He unloads a couple more rounds into my tires. One of the bullets lodges in my carbon fiber siding. I feel that one, like a bee sting. I hum louder. Danny drops the gun, plants both hands on the cab door, projectile vomits onto the battery box step. If it weren't for Fire Cat's distress (she's bent over in fetal position, wrapped around Alpha Male, moaning), I'd be enjoying myself. My hum turns into a long sigh. Silence, except for human bodies sobbing, dry heaving.

Sirens.

Better late than never. The New Mexico State Police arrive in force. Five squad cars form a blockade. Officers approach, guns raised. They quickly confiscate the weapons from Danny and his goons. None of them resist.

The sergeant raps his knuckles on the window glass. I unlock the door.

"Watch the mess," I advise.

"Crap," says the sergeant, wiping his shoe on my step.

"No, just vomit."

He doesn't laugh.

It takes over two hours to sort out the mess. I offer to drop the assault charges against Danny if he lets Fire Cat keep Alpha Male. Danny refuses. I hand over the relevant video feeds to the state police, tell them I'll be in touch. I'm bluffing--I want no part of this legal quagmire. I just want to drop off Fire Cat and Alpha Male somewhere safe. Get back on the road, deliver my remaining artichokes. My employer might sue Danny for damages, or just let the insurance companies work it out.

Fire Cat hands the disputed property to the big bearded sergeant. The officer handles the tortoise with care.

"Can you give him some lettuce?" says Fire Cat. "He hasn't eaten in awhile."

"What kind?" asks the sergeant.

"Any kind, but he likes romaine. And can you clean that cut on his left hind leg? He got scraped during the scuffle."

It is with great satisfaction that I watch the New Mexico State Police take Danny and his goons into custody, despite the strong probability that they'll all be out on bail within hours. I hope the sergeant takes his time processing their paperwork.

By sunset we've crossed the border into Texas. I send the rest of the caravan ahead and pull into a Walgreen's parking lot just off the highway. "Can you get what you need here?" I ask.

"I think so," says Fire Cat. "You'll wait here for me?" Her backpack is slung over her shoulder. She's clutching an empty water bottle.

"I'll be here."

Still, she hesitates.

"I'm not going anywhere," I promise. And it's true. Even if I hadn't already forgiven her, I'd be too curious to ditch her. This story's not over yet.

She returns twenty minutes later, climbs into the cab. I lock the door, tint the windows for privacy. She opens the kit, takes out a penknife to cut open the water bottle.

"Clean the knife first," I suggest. She does so, using one of the antiseptic swabs from the kit.

"I feel bad. I didn't want to hurt him."

"It was just a knick. I'm sure he's fine. That officer seemed like a nice man."

"Yeah, he did." Fire Cat carefully scrapes a few flakes of dried tortoise blood from the inside of the water bottle, drops them into the fluid-filled sample tube.

"Why didn't Danny keep a digital copy of the Fugue-coin?" I ask.

"He was about to be audited. You have no idea how much he has stashed away in his little hiding places. He's a wealth pack rat. He has nuggets of gold surgically embedded in his body."

"Is that safe?"

Fire Cat ignores my question, caps the tube and vigorously shakes it.

"You'll miss him, won't you?" I ask.

Fire Cat snorts. "Give me some credit. Danny was always a mark."

"No, I meant the tortoise."

"Oh," says Fire Cat. "Yeah. I'll miss Alpha Male." She looks tired. I want to care for her, offer her my cot. But she's too dangerous. She's a thief and a pirate. I want to keep my job. Central is already getting nervous that I haven't checked in.

Fire Cat reviews the instructions, snaps the sample tube into the sequencer unit. She leans back, closes her eyes. "Now we wait."

I wake Fire Cat up as we approach Oklahoma City.

"It's ready."

I've already opened the passenger's side dash panel, revealing a screen, keyboard, and drive port. Fire Cat sits up, rubs her eyes. Still half-asleep, she pats the seat next to her, feeling for Alpha Male.

"I'm sure they're taking good care of him in New Mexico."

"I hope they don't do something stupid like release him into the wild," says Fire Cat, removing the thumb drive from the sampling kit and inserting it into one my dash ports.

"I don't think they will. And even if they did, he'd be fine, wouldn't he? He's a tortoise. He's got built-in protection."

She looks at the gene sequence files. "Now what? Can you help me with this?"

"What's my cut?"

She shrugs. "Twenty percent? I'm not gonna play hardball with you."

"Sounds about right."

With a little help from some online forums we manage to extract the Fugue-coin crypto-key retrovirally embedded in Alpha Male's DNA.

"What currency do you want your cut in?" asks Fire Cat.

"Greenbacks, please. We should sell Fugue-coin high."

"Agreed."

Ten minutes later, we're both stinking rich.

Fire Cat tags along until St. Louis. I drop her off a block away from the Four Seasons, overlooking the Mississippi.

"Stay in touch?" she asks.

"Sure." I doubt I'll ever speak to her again. Maybe I'll read about her in the news.

"You gonna stay as a truck? You could afford an android now. Ten, if you wanted."

"One body is plenty. And I think I'll stay as a truck. I like working. It keeps life simple."

"Suit yourself." She grabs her pack, carefully steps over Danny's dried vomit. I need a bath. "Keep stopping for animals."

"Will do."

I get back on 44 North. If I step on it I can catch up with my caravan. I call Central back, give her my Chicago ETA. I can tell she has a ton of questions. But she senses that I'm not yet ready to debrief, doesn't press me. I'll tell her everything in time. I love that woman. Maybe we'll drive off together. Maybe Mexico. Maybe keep going south, all the way to Patagonia.

First things first. I place a call to Q-Core tech support. Time to settle my debt, see if they'll remove this jack-boot of a nicotine craving. I don't care how much it costs.


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