by Brian Trent
She's getting to her feet, retracting her parachute into her backpack, when the junkpunk
materializes beside her.
He's a frightful apparition. Snout-like mask and rubber-rimmed goggles appearing in a
pixelating rainbow, his spectarmor dulling to pewter gray to distinguish him from the eye-melting
colors of trash around them. "Welcome to the Pile, arky. I'm Neil Rix, corporate crow."
"Vanessa Roderigo," she manages, still breathless from the exhilarating paradrop. "World
Tree Arcology and… did you say corporate crow?"
His laugh is tinny in his rebreather. "My formal title is Perimeter Security Officer. The title
of crow, well, that's what we call each other."
Vanessa can see why. There are real crows about, alighting on the Pile's undulating slopes
of junk and flapping, half-buried newspapers. And the junkpunks patrolling the peaks and valleys
have a decidedly avian quality to them, too; with their beak-like masks and black goggles, they
make her think of medieval plague doctor costumes. Even Neil's bulky armor gives him the
hooded appearance of a carrion bird.
She wonders what he looks like beneath the armor.
"Well, Vanessa," he says. "Follow me."
She obliges, trailing him up the nearest slope. They halt at the precipice, and she gasps at
the viewpoint it affords. The Pile contains two centuries of valuable crap, a veritable fossil shale
of specimens from bygone consumer epochs compressed into a layer cake of metal, paper, and
plastic. A landscape of tin cans and corrugated steel, appliances and upended couches, with plastic
goop marbling it like fat in a lamb shank.
"I studied your list," the corporate crow says. "How's this for your first shot?"
Vanessa sends out a cloud of her angels to snap pictures of this moment--her and the
junkpunk atop this jutting pinnacle, the Pile rolling in all directions beneath them. Her angels are
invisible, as angels should be. Tiny spycams riding the viscosity of air, always recording and
transmitting information to the arcology cloud.
Neil Rix watches her. "What news agency will this be going to?"
"Not sure yet," Vanessa says.
His single word is laced with subtle emotional threads. Vanessa's sniffer program quickly
breaks it down into a color-coded chart, based on millions of vocal analyses. There's a strong
orange undercurrent of suspicion in his voice--he worries she is lying about her motivations for
coming here today. Indigo threads of fear, too--RER is not the only excavation company
working the Pile and competition is fierce, brutal, and lethal.
Hope resonates through his voice like a seismograph reading in bright yellow. Hope, that
by agreeing to allow this exposé into the lives of junkpunk families, good things might come of it.
A better life.
"Good things will come of it," Vanessa assures him. "I'm sure I can interest one of the
media agencies in this piece. It's completely unplowed territory. No one from the arcologies
comes here. Most don't even--"
"Don't even know we exist." Her guide nods in his freakish mask and looks away, to the
misty, predawn horizon where arcologies rise as pyramids and ziggurats. Vanessa can see her own
arcology, designed to resemble a massive tree, the various districts supported by enormous
nanosteel branches. Her angels take another volley of shots, with her and the junkpunk standing
together on this mountain of garbage, civilization as a hazy dream in the distance. It's a
spectacular image. Maybe the one she'll use for the article's splash page.
"Can we go into the tunnels now?" she asks.