The autocab crests the hilltop at the forefront of a dust cloud, the environmental monitors screeching angrily at the profusion of microbes and heavy metals present in the roiling dust. Ahead, the mine crawls into view. It fills a valley twenty minutes northwest of the city, rising up in mounds and hillocks of detritus which march away to the base of the next mountain, some five miles distant. Once, during the brief desperate days between the fall of old school environmentalism and the ascent of modern cohabitualist techniques, this whole valley was employed as a landfill. It was a natural fit. The valley had been the site of a pit mine in the early twentieth century, when caring for the earth meant that you were careful to stomp out your cigarette butts lest they start a forest fire. Its trees had been hauled away for timber and the land beneath flensed open to gouge out the rich seams of coal beneath, leaving a hole as deep as the surrounding mountains were high. No streams ran through the valley and geological surveys indicated that none of the groundwater in the region would be contaminated if the valley were filled with garbage, and so for half a century the valley imported garbage from throughout the region.
A patch of smog drifting along the road lifts, turns against the wind, and flits towards us like a flock of angry crows. As they approach, the constituent parts resolve themselves into a swarm of drones, their black bodies composed not of feathers, but aluminum and carbon composite. The drone cloud drops to surround the car, playing havoc with the collision avoidance systems so it slows to a crawl. Cameras peer in through the windows beneath whirling blades and I’m convinced that I spot the telltale lines of flechette launchers mounted on several of the drones. Not technically illegal here on the vague borders of the corporate administration zone, but certainly cause for investigation should any Federal agents notice them. Not that that is likely to happen.
The cab pulls to a stop behind a battered pickup truck and chirps the sickeningly joyful tone which announces that I’ve arrived at my destination. I tap at the screen, acknowledging that I take full responsibility for exiting the car in such a biologically dubious region, requesting that the car stay put for a return journey within the next three hours, and agreeing the usurious charges for such a waiting period. Ethie came through last night with the promised transit fare token, and now my Samara AutoCab account is flagged with a lovely little badge that marks me as traveling for free. The user software is too dumb to recognize that, but all of the charges are marked as paid on my handy before the cost is deducted from my account, so I have to assume that the token is working.
The mine offices are housed in a couple of dilapidated doublewide trailers near the edge of the landfill. Least, that’s what any paperwork says. It’s a rundown spot that should have been blown away several hurricanes back, but the trailers are anchored deep into the mountainside. The door to one of the trailers creaks open as I approach, revealing a woman with scraggly grey hair pulled back into a librarian bun at the back of her head. She keeps it pinned in place with an honest to got pair of chopsticks, as if always prepared for her next meal. Despite that, she is rail thin. Probably because her only bodily vice is smoking at least half a kilogram of tobacco a week, supplementing that on weekends with several grams of marijuana cured from the potted plants she keeps in the sunroom of her brick home halfway up the next mountain.
“Talbot Liu. Well, god damn. I didn’t expect to see you poking around here again after what happened last time.”
“Good to see you too, Miriam.”
It is not really that good. I would be just as happy if Miriam dropped dead there in the trailer doorway, but she has been running this place for close to fifteen years, ever since the county folded in the wake of the plague and she managed to secure the deed to the whole valley.
“You don’t need to be here.”
“I need to talk to George.”
“George doesn’t need you here,” she says, stepping out onto the porch. She’s carrying a double barreled shotgun and her right finger is already wrapped around the trigger.
“Didn’t say she did,” I reply, raising my hands. Best I keep them visible. “I need to talk to her.”
“Last time you talked to George she ended up in the hospital with ravagers disassembling her leg.”
Technically, that was not true. I had talked to George while she was in the hospital, on the few quick visits I could sneak in while Miriam was out getting dinner, and we had traded messages occasionally since then. Her wife might still carry a grudge, but George knows as well as I do that it was her carelessness as much as my greed that nearly got us both killed.
“That wasn’t my fault.”
“It’s never your damn fault.”
I spread my arms and shout to the sky over Miriam’s head. “Give it up already. I didn’t mean to get her involved in anything dangerous. I just wanted to help y’all out.”
Miriam scowls at me. Works her jaw. She’s never liked me, but her wife and I have been friends ever since I helped them sort out a little trouble involving reclamation contracts. Not my specialty, nothing that a private party hosted by Tamar and her manikins couldn’t grease along. Everyone came out of that deal happy, drunk, and just a little bit richer.
A flatbed truck rumbles up the gravel road from the mine, stirring up a plume of red dust from the dry clay beneath the roadway. As the cloud clears, Miriam is still glaring at me, but she’s set the shotgun against the doorframe.
“She’s down at the nest, fixing some of the drones. You know the way?”
“Thanks,” I say, turning away towards a walking path between the trailers which I know will lead me towards the nest while avoiding the main road, where flatbeds packed with reclaimed rare earth metals crawl along at irregular intervals, destined for one of the corporate recycling facilities closer to the city.
“I’ll be watching you.”
“I’ll make sure to give you a good show.”
The trail meanders through a forest of scrubby trees, many of which are twisted or oddly colored. The soil here is good enough for stubborn chestnut and dogwood trees to grow untended, but not without imparting some damage from the high concentration of heavy metals. I hurry from one marker pole to the next, being careful to remain on the path so I do not risk falling into a sinkhole. The markers themselves are tall metal rods, each painted a lurid orange to mark the location of a polymer vent driven deep into the earth to allow gases to escape the mountain of rotting garbage beneath my feet.
Breaking through the trees, I find George swearing at a drone as it wobbles unevenly in the air for a moment, then crashes into the trimmed grass beside the concrete pad of the nest. Three small drones are hovering nearby, their cameras turned to watch all around George. In the distance, a flock of worker drones carries tangles of extracted industrial detritus from an open pit towards a mobile recompiler, where swarms of industrial nanites will decompile the matter, gathering the useful materials into homogenous blocks and dumping carbon and other abundant elements into a slag heap.
“Surprised the old lady let you down here,” she grunts as I approach. She flips the errant drone over atop a mount on the work table and attacks its guts with a hex driver.
“She knows I’m good for business.”
“You’re not alone. She’s got a minder trailing you and,” George pauses and taps at the screen of a batted tablet resting on the table, still not looking at me. “Yeah, that’s one of the armed buggers.”
I walk around to the far side of the work bench and lean against it, watching George work. She rips out a module from the underside of the drone, holds it up to inspect against the gray sky, the shakes her head and throws it into a bin.
She looks over to me, her short brown hair falling on front of one eye. “Damn thing got caught in a lightning storm last week. Fried the gyroscopic stabilizer. Not the only one either. You’d think with all of these lightning rods the drones would be safe, but sometimes you just have a bit of bad luck.”
“You ready for the storm?” I ask, eyeing the racks of drones, each one docked to a charging station. The racks are anchored into the concrete pad, at the end of which stands a cinder brick shack topped with solar cells. A segmented metal shelter is attached to the side of the blockhouse, curved sides pressed in on one another like the plates of an armadillo.
“We should be fine. I’ll pull out the shelter to cover the racks. Solars have survived the last few storms just fine.”
“What about the other workers? How are they going to weather the storm?”
George stops fidgeting with the broken drone. She glances at me, then looks down again and returns to her work. Bits of plastic click into one another. Batteries get laid aside. Cables are connected between the drone and the tablet.
“I’m sorry about the leg,” I say, after several minutes of tense silence.
“I don’t give a damn about the leg.” George puts down her tablet and leans across the table to scowl at me. “I know you Tal, and I can’t think what my little operation has to do with your work.”
“I’m looking for a girl.”
“You think one of your dancers would come out here? Hell, Miriam would just as soon shoot any of those sexy young things as let them stay with us.”
I shake my head and lift one of the battery packs to examine it, looking for signs of lightning damage as I say, “I’m not looking for a dancing girl. I’m looking for a kid. About twelve. She went missing from her foster home.”
“And what’s that got to do with me?” George asks. She snatches the battery from me and places it out of reach on the table. “She’s not here.”
“Mind if I take a look? Not that I don’t trust you, but I’ve come a long way and I’ve got a distraught mother breathing down my neck.”
George scowls again, though rightly speaking a scowl has been her default expression since I’ve known her, and for a moment I wonder if she is about to stab me with her hex driver. Then she shrugs and drops the driver into her toolkit. “I need the check on them anyway.”
She turns and lurches away from the workbench, around behind the drone nest to a battered old four wheeler resting in the tall grass beside the block house. I follow, swallowing a lump of guilt at the sight of George’s limp. The leg loss of her leg might be partly my fault, but she can afford a better prosthetic.
A couple years back I asked George to help me lift a shipment of industrial scrap from a factory out in the mire. It was supposed to be an easy job, and I figured that George’s reputation and connections in the scrap industry would be helpful in moving everything without raising any eyebrows. The job proper went fine, and we were fixed to make a good haul, until we spotted the top of a nanite vat poking up from the floorboards of the partially collapsed factory. George want over to take a look and accidentally breached containment on the vat. That, or maybe containment had been breached for a while and she was just unlucky enough to attract the swarm’s attention. Turns out that if you take a swarm of poorly regulated industrial nanites and leave them to their own devices for a decade, they can develop a taste for flesh. We lost a couple of day hires, half of the scrap load, and George’s leg to the bastards before I managed to trigger the empulse and disable much of the swarm.
I climb on the back of her four wheeler and we set off across the rolling field. Above us, her three drones skitter across the sky like angry guardian angels, keeping watch for invaders, sinkholes, or horrific beasts rising up from the toxic earth to destroy what remains of humanity. I suppose. Or maybe George just likes having an entourage. Meanwhile, the drone that Miriam deployed to keep watch on me trails behind us buzzing like a gigantic enraged wasp.
George guides the vehicle around a broad sinkhole warded by tattered rows of orange plastic fencing. She twists her head and calls over her shoulder, “Gotta be careful here. On still days you get a bit of a gas pocket down there. Can be explosive.”
“What sort of gas?” I ask, my nose wrinkling as a foul stench rolls over us, propelled by the rising breeze whipping over the rim of the sinkhole.
“Mostly methane. Back when they were filling the valley there was a half-assed effort to sort the garbage by type. Guess they figured it’d be easier to deal with any contamination issues if they could isolate particular types of waste to specific areas.”
George laughs and guns the four wheeler through a patch of tall weeds, their stalks bulbous with cancerous mutations. “Don’t get me wrong, that sorting policy helps me out tremendously. We’re working a rich vein of consumer electronics right now and the worst I’m having to deal with is the occasional pocket of flame retardant children’s toys. Did you know that breakdown vats don’t get along with some of those old flame retardant compounds? Too many crude nanoscale compounds impregnated in the fibers, starts to gum up the works. Nothing the vats can’t handle by replicating their nanites, but it puts a real damper on efficiency and processing speed.”
“What’s that have to do with explosions?”
George grunts and hesitates for a moment as the bike lurches through a particularly thick patch of brush. I’m about to ask her why we don’t stick to the main road when she manages to reel her mind back through to the beginning of her story. “Yeah, methane. That section back there is packed with biological waste. Mostly disposable diapers. All the shit decomposes and releases methane. Sometimes you get a sinkhole and the methane seeps out through the dirt and fills up the bottom of the hole.”
“Yeah. I’ve lost a couple workers to it over the years. Had to add a subroutine to the survey drones to dip down into any hollows and check them for outgassing every few days, just to make sure none of the shorties get asphyxiated.”
And there it is: the first time I’ve heard George acknowledge her human workers. I figure that it is safe to press the topic. “You sure you haven’t picked up any new shorties, George? Maybe some what slipped your mind back at the nest?”
George says nothing, just shakes her head as the four wheeler crawls over a low ridge.
Down below, on a stretch of flat, dusty land, lies the true heart of the mine operation. Three long silver camping trailers parked in an equilateral triangle, with a smaller cargo hauler parked to one side. A dozen or so kids are playing in the space between the campers. Beyond the camp, an open pit is minded by a flock of drones, each of them flitting between the pit and one of several piles of detritus. A winding road leads back around a copse of sickly trees, between piles of recompiler slag. That dirt road leads eventually to the offices, but the overland path George and I have taken is more direct.
“This close enough for you?” she asks.
“I’d like to take look inside, if you don’t mind. Maybe show some of them a picture of the girl. See if any of them recognize her.”
George leans back and crosses her arms over her tattered denim work shirt. She taps a finger irritably on her elbow as she chews on my request. I know she’s reluctant to even acknowledge that the kids exist, let alone to allow anyone to talk to them, but I figure that if she has let me come this far she might allow me a little more leeway.
Down below, three of the kids peel off from the pack and scamper into the pit, following a brightly marked drone. They emerge a few minutes later, each carrying a collection of what appear to be dirt clods in their arms. As the three approach the encampment, the other children notice them and begin to call out, waving at their newly enriched companions to deliver their findings to one group or another.
“Looks like we’ve got a discovery,” George says. She hits the throttle and we plunge downhill towards the compound, the four wheeler lurching on its suspension as the massive wheels chew through brush and slam into soft patches in the earth. At least we don’t have to worry about rocks here, where all stone is buried under dozens of feet of garbage. Approaching the compound, some of the kids look up from the clods of dirt they are playing with and wave to us.
“Listen, try not to scare the kids,” she says.
“Why would I scare them?”
“Just, don’t be too much of yourself. Keep quiet, but don’t scowl at them.”
People say that sort of thing to me sometimes. I don’t think of myself as especially dour, but some folks seem to think that I can kill the mood in a room. Personally, I just think that I’m level headed. Sure, I haven’t had many laughs since Seth died, but I have my moments. Just last week Tamar found me laughing helplessly at a collection of pre-collapse video dramas set in a global utopian society that had managed to actually leave the planet.
She didn’t see the humor in it at all.
“I’m not that scary. Am I?”
“Do I need to answer that? People like me get on with you just fine, but normal people… kids… yeah, you can come across as a bit creepy.” George parks beside the cargo trailer and climbs off the four wheeler.
Approaching the compound, she is swarmed by screaming children. They appear genuinely glad to see her, despite the fact that she uses them as cheap labor to search a literal mountain of garbage for scraps of technology and art which she can sell to collectors in the city.
I climb off the rider and follow in George’s wake, keeping an eye open for the missing girl.
George is crouching at the center of the dusty triangle, her chrome leg glinting in the dust storm stirred up by the kids prancing around her. She is holding up one of the dirt clods, brushing away brown and gray until she reveals a splash of color. One of the kids pushes to the front of the gang and waves a battered tablet, exclaiming that he was the one who found the gadget.
“What is it?” I call to George.
The kids turn and look at me, standing at the edge of the crowd a dozen feet away from George.
“Who’s that?” one of them says. She’s a scrappy thing, with a shaved head, worn corduroy pants, and a tattered shirt bearing the image of some off-brand princess character.
George glanced back at me, then gives the girl a reassuring smile and says, “He’s a friend of mine. Came to ask y’all some questions, if that’s all right.”
The kids are all staring at me now. I try to smile at them, but I am not sure it is successful as an ingratiation tactic. The girl who had asked about me puts on the sort of expression of pure sarcasm only a teenager can conjure. “He looks like some sort of hobo murderer. What’s with the jacket? Haven’t you heard of global warming?”
I shrug, feeling the sleeves of my coat pull conspicuously at my elbows. I like this coat. I got it off the first man I had to kill, out there along the mire roads. It looked a bit ridiculous on him, but it fit me just fine and the color, somewhere between pea green and black, matches my complexion nicely. It’s also got a lot of pockets on the inside, which are perfect for concealing data chips, knives, and other necessaries.
“Don’t be mean to Talbot, Keiva. He’s got a sensitive soul.”
“Oh, you one of the those religious freaks?”
“Keiva!” George snaps.
“Don’t mind the girl,” I say to George. Then, to the girl: “You have a problem if I am?”
Another kid, a boy dressed in a shabby night shirt, interjects, “She don’t mean nothing by it, man. Her dad—”
“My dad ain’t your business, Leo,” Keiva snaps.
I take advantage of the distraction to reach inside the controversial coat and extract a folded eper. I shake it to life and pass it to the Keiva. “You seen this girl? Not just here at the mine. I mean anywhere.”
“Bleed off, cop.”
George lunges to her feet and points at Keiva with the dirty gadget clutched in his hand. “Don’t talk like that, girl. You want me to send you back to the mire?”
She starts back, afraid. The other kids grow silent and stare towards George with wide eyes.
I give the tension a few beats, then hold up the eper like a flag of truce. “No need for all this trouble, guys. I am not a cop. My name is Talbot Liu. I help people, especially people who can’t go to the cops. This girl is missing and I need to find her before something bad happens.”
“And what are you going to do with her when you find her?” Keiva asks, finding her courage again and turning on me.
I push the eper towards her and offer a toothy smile. She shrinks back at first, and then, hesitantly, takes the eper and looks at it.
“No idea where she came from before going to her foster home. I thought, maybe, some of you might have seen her on the streets in the city, or in camp out in the mire.”
Keiva shakes her head and passes the eper to another kid. It quickly makes a circle of the encampment before George snatches it from one of the children and inspects the image for herself. She shakes her head and offers the eper back to me.
“What you want with her anyway?” she asks.
I wave the eper off. The thought of touching it again after so many unwashed little hands have soiled it makes my stomach churn.
“Like I said, she’s missing. Her foster mom is paying me to help find her. Any ideas where she might hide might find her? Places where you liked to hide before you came here.”
Keiva scoffs and moves back away from me, shaking her head. The other children shrink back as well. “You’re crazy. I’m not ratting out my boltholes.”
“He’s not asking to you to rat,” George says. “And he’s not police.”
“Don’t care. I’m not telling him anything.”
With that Keiva turns and darts out of the triangle of bare ground between the trailers, trailed by several of the younger children and a single large survey drone. They sprint across the grass and disappear into the pit.
“Anyone else have an idea who the girl in the photo is?” I ask, raising my voice and turning slowly to look at the remaining children. “I am just trying to help her. She might be in danger. The city can be a harsh place for kids and there’s a storm coming.”
The children look at me suspiciously and then, doubtless following Keiva’s lead, begin to scatter. Some slip off between the trailers, others ascend the metal steps into their mobile homes, disappearing for an instant before their wide-eyed faces reappear, pressed against the tinted glass windows. Within a minute they have all cleared out, leaving George and me alone amid the trailers.
“They’re spooked now Tal. You’re not going to get them back on your side today,” George says, looking from one watching window to another, then turning to face me.
“Skittish bunch of slaves you’ve got here.”
“First, they’re not slaves. I find them out there in the mire, scraping for food and credit however they can get it. Half of them have been through more shit than the two of us put together. They’re bent as far as a person can get, but they haven’t broken yet.”
“So you put them to work in a garbage mine.”
George turns away and sets off in the same direction Keiva and her band fled. After a moment I get her hint and follow. We leave the triad and set out across the patchy grass, heading towards an open pit some hundred meters away. A hot wind gusts across the valley, pushing our shepherding drones out of configuration for a moment. A momentary break appears in the clouds, allowing the sun to shine down upon George’s empire of filth, but before we even reach the edge of the pit the clouds have closed again. The storm will be here soon. Once it arrives, my search will have to be put on hold until it is safe to go outside, and by then it will likely be too late.
“These trailers going to be safe in the storm?” I ask.
“We’ll move them to higher ground and anchor them. It’s on the task list for the crawlers this afternoon.”
“You going just leave the children out here on their own or bring them up to stay with you and Miriam?”
“Miriam doesn’t like them much. Worries about inspections, Security drones. Prefers to keep them away from prying eyes.”
“They’re living on your land.”
“And she’s never seen them.” George stops near the edge of the mine pit and stands easy, shoving her large, scarred hands deep into the pockets of her tattered jeans. She speaks slowly, her voice weary as she surveys the work below. “This is my pet project, Tal. Miriam doesn’t want nothing to do with it and frankly I can’t blame her.”
I stand beside her and look down at the scene below.
The pit mine descends in tiers like an ancient illustration of the circles of hell. The uppermost and bottom layers are mostly packed earth, the scab of topsoil which was spread over the valley after its previous owners had finished filling it with refuse and, nearly a kilometer below, the original floor of the valley. In between, the earth gives way to layers of garbage which has been slowly compressed into a uniform mass by its own weight. It is a predominantly monochrome scene, the tens of thousands of compressed and tattered garbage bags blending together like fragmented black and white pixels on a broken screen. Flickers of color emerge from the mass: small pieces of colorful detritus showing where the bags have been ripped open by the excavation.
A flock of excavation drones flit across the scene, each grasping a small load of garbage from the mine to deposit in the recompiler. Dozens of children run up and down the circuitous roads and clamor along smaller paths cut into the layers, pausing in places to pick up some small object, or prod at the garbage to extract a prize from the compacted mass.
“What are they doing?” I ask.
“The drones are fine enough for transporting the bulk of the trash, but they’re dumb. Doesn’t matter how much intelligence I try to give them, they can’t tell the difference between a smashed terminal that’s only good for its rare metals and a curio what I can sell for a good price.”
“Thats where the kids come in.”
“Exactly. The drones know to shovel up all the true garbage: Smashed glass, crushed cans, bits of broken plastic. They’ll even shift the decomposing pulp paper and all of the sludge that used to be kitchen waste. They’re just smart enough to call for a kid if they come across any number of things that might be valuable if they are in good enough condition. Mostly old electronics, physical media, and toys, the sort of licensed crap that still gets pumped out today, but these are so old they fetch a good price from historians and nostalgia seekers with more time and credit than sense. Just last month I sold a couple old figurines of a shape shifting alien called Kenner for enough credit to keep these kids fed for a year.”
I pull my jacket more close about me, despite the wet heat of the day. Just looking at all of the filth below is enough to draw out the daemon. I vow to take a long, soapy shower when I get home. “You don’t worry about infection? This whole place has got to be seething with superbugs.”
“Fewer than you’d expect. Most of this section is from the late twentieth, back before things got really bad.”
“Still…” I shudder, feeling my bowls churn. I know, logically, that this particular hole in the ground is probably safer than your average toilet stall in the midden, but I still can’t shake the feeling of impending doom.
“The bad places are north of here, a bit west of where we drove around the sinkhole. A lot of medical waste in that region, and most if it is from the mid-twenty first, just when the scales were tipping. There’s enough antibiotic material over there that it’s probably bred some fresh strains that haven’t even been documented yet.”
“I take it you stay way from there?”
“I keep them away,” she says, sweeping a hand to indicate the children. “And we haven’t dug in there too much. Occasionally we get a request for core samples from one of the hospitals or biotech firms. If they pay well we’ll throw on hazmat suits and take a couple of drone over there, but for the most part we avoid those regions.”
“That happen often?”
“Not really. Plenty of nasty phage food in the labs and plague towns. Not much call for digging into the past for bacteria these days.”
Below, one of the children shouts and begins digging at a place in the wall of trash where a drone indicated the presence of a potential find. Half a dozen others scurry over to help their companion pull a bulky orange object out of the wall.
“Probably nothing,” George says, turning her back on the scene and studying me. “You talk to Darby? The city’s his territory, not mine.”
“Yeah. Says he doesn’t know anything but will keep an eye open.”
“You must be desperate.”
I shrug, then pull up my collar to help shield the back of my neck from the breeze so the daemon will stop digging its claws into the base of my skull. It’s only so effective.
“The mother paying you a lot?”
“It’s a favor. For Tamar.”
George nods, understanding.