A red sourform gas truck had broken down in the slow lane of the Seven Hills interchange, turning the whole roadway slow. The driver proved to be as doddery as his rig.
‘Mornin’, Mac! What can I do you for?’
He could show me his ID, I said. He chuckled and advised me that the registration plates were on his truck. I advised him that the plates had fallen off.
‘Oh. Well here you go.’ He passed me a tattered licence.
‘This has expired,’ I told the old guy. ‘As has this.’ I slapped the truck and the front bumper sagged. The driver (Eric O’Ross, from his ID) wheezed a laugh.
‘Sorry, Mac! Might be overdue for a service. Memory’s going to pieces too, ha ha!’
I didn’t much care for the chummy ‘Mac’, accurate though it might be. The Mac division forms part of the old Guard. Some say it stands for Monitor and Correct, others that it’s short for ‘eliminate with Maximum prejudice’, which is anyway a large part of the job description. Widely revered at one time, recently not so much. Nevertheless we could still inspire fear, and old Eric was now face to face with one unamused Mac.
‘I’ll book ’er in, pronto,’ he promised me. ‘Right after this job. But it’s an urgent one officer, so if you’ll excuse – hey, hang about, you can’t do that!’
I peeled away the loose bumper and tossed it into the Cyto’s boot. A wonky nearside wing mirror also twisted off easily. The outer lanes of the interchange streamed on past us, gas trucks flowing in a stop-start rhythm.
‘Mac, please… the truck! I said I’ll fix it up! This is vandalism!’ Eric ricocheted between raging and pleading. ‘She’s like a home to me.’
‘Which will now be recycled for the greater good of Soma. You can be proud.’ The driver’s door came free in my grip and I chucked it into the Cyto with the other junk.
‘What’s your number?’ he spluttered. ‘I’ll report you to the Legion!’
‘Be my guest.’ I pointed to my ID badge. ‘As you see, they’re not my department.’
‘No surprise there,’ the driver grunted, following up with mutterings at a plausibly deniable volume. The usual rant: I was a thug, a has-been, I’d soon be replaced, the White Legion respected hard-working citizens. Yes, I thought, if you’re canny enough to display their stickers on your cab. Eric O’Ross had one in the window: Honk if you think the Legion’s ALL WHITE! Witty.
‘Why d’you pick on me?’ He waved at the passing lanes of red trucks. ‘There’s hundreds out there in worse nick than mine!’
He had a point. In bygone times I might have had a hundred other White Guards working my section of the highway, marshalling three times as many trucks through the interchange. Lately, it was mostly just me.
‘Got to start somewhere,’ I told him. Having detached all the rig’s obviously broken components, I reached for my cutter. That was when the console lit up: incoming beacon. You develop a sense for these things. Rarely did the little red light trigger this kind of foreboding. Still, hindsight.
‘Officer, pity a poor working citizen…’ The fight had gone out of Eric. ‘This truck, she’s all I’ve got. I’m hauling vital sourform stocks for Customs and Excise…’
‘Shut up,’ I instructed him. Galling though it was, the beacon took priority. ‘I’m letting you off with a warning, this time. Stay in the slow lane and try not to block it.’
The old guy re-perked with amazing speed. He slammed the truck into gear and cast a smirk my way, as if he thought he’d weaselled out of this on wits alone. I would have thumped his door as a parting shot, but I’d already torn it off. Eric pulled away in a dangerous skid, now piloting a worse wreck than ever.
‘Drive safe, citizen.’ What were the worlds coming to?
I proceeded along the interchange, overtaking the convoys so fast that the red trucks seemed to be driving backwards as I wove in and out. I’ve said it before and I will again: the Cyto is a miracle of engineering. A single spinning wheel in crystal clear bodywork, the cockpit poised static at the hub, suspended like a bubble inside a hull that’s practically impregnable, a top speed that’ll outpace almost anything, a convertible chassis able to squeeze through the tightest gaps, and a holding cell roomy enough for a whole gang of felons. And available in any colour, so long as it’s white.
My lane split from the interchange, ducked under a flyover, threaded a viaduct and merged into the lower, slower levels. Windows blurred by. Folks will live anywhere in Soma, and they do. The sliproad whooshed me through canyons of tenements, crammed close as prison cells to become the very walls of the underpass. Apartments clung beneath the arches of bridges, the pillars of which were themselves residential towers. No nook or cranny was so outlandish that someone couldn’t call it home. As many lived on the roadways as inhabited the main districts, which rose out of the humid haze in the distance: the towers of the Rhine. Beyond those impossibly tall pinnacles ran the hyperways and megaways, the major arterial routes to… but that wasn’t my department. Not for nothing was Soma known as the Cosm of ten trillion citizens. That’s a big ask for a law enforcer.
Still, they rely on us.
My console flashed. The beacon had opened a two-way comlink. I patched in.
‘You’re through to Captain Luke S. Zeit, how may I direct your call? Press one to be put on hold, press two to hear these messages again –’
‘Captain, what’s your current?’
I recognised the signature of Lieutenant Dietrich Langerhans, a senior Warden in my guard-ream, Xi-Nu.
‘Seven Hills, one rust-and-dust, which you interrupted,’ I sniped. ‘You got a hot spike?’
‘That Code Five-Four is back.’ The intelligence officer’s voice crackled over the connection. ‘The one you said we’d put to bed. Divert to Tonsville L-City border control and report. The Phils can fill you in. You need to go now.’
‘I need to do a lot of things.’ Tapping the route into the Gol-Box as I spoke. Arguing with Dietrich was a job for the retired. ‘How’s progress coming along on that ranking system for emergencies? So we know which ones are emergencies? Hello, Dee?’
He had unplugged. Was it me, or was the humour even more than usually absent? No matter. A Mac’s gotta do. The assignment wasn’t a million dimes away but the trip was a fiddly one, off the main routes. I flipped the Cyto from mono to macro mode and the silvery carapace remorphed, transforming from a monowheel to a pod that leapt, climbed and bounded on its multiple telescopic limbs. In this manner I descended the industrial blocks that cascaded from the Rhine district in nearly sheer crags, and soon the console’s virtual horizon bulged with the twin headland cities of Tonsville.
Once upon a time I would have considered this outside my jurisdiction. Times change. Tonsville was one of Soma’s busiest immigration hubs, making it a notorious flashpoint for trouble. This was partly intentional, controlled explosions being preferable to wildfires. Border controls sat cheek-by-jowl with interrogation centres, and a short ride from those lay the Crypts: vast subterranean prison camps in which languished those unfortunate enough to lack valid ID. I had never seen the inside of a Crypt, nor wanted to.
Taking the Epiglow flyover I bypassed Tonsville R-Town to approach L-City from the east. Converting the Cyto one last time, I continued on foot up the Palatine Way towards the Isthmus of the Forked Pillars, home of the city’s immigration centre. A cursory scan showed the boundary wires still intact and the centre itself relatively peaceable – rammed, yes, but not yet rioting. The Phils seemed to have the situation in hand. I recognised an ID.
‘Granley! Gimme a temp.’
Sergeant Jo Granley flourished her whitestick and half-raised her riot shield in lieu of a salute.
‘You’re a sight for sore. Welcome to the party.’
‘The Warden suggested you lot couldn’t handle it.’
‘Did he now.’ Granley’s visor showed a token scowl – this was mere banter. Wardens think Phils are plods, while Phils see them as pen-pushers. Don’t ask what either of them think of Macs.
‘The usual SNIF?’ Meaning, situation normal, incredibly frustrating.
‘Right,’ said Granley. ‘Immigration processing is logjammed. There’s a humungous crowd out there, turning ugly. Regular migrants all mixed up with undesirables, because of what happened with Ivory Silence.’
Ivory Silence was one of the Crypts, a detention camp for stateless repatriates. You didn’t want to wind up as a stateless repatriate – a ‘Strep’ – because the very concept was a double-bind. Migrants lacking valid ID faced deportation from Soma, but without details of their place of origin, they couldn’t be repatriated either. We eliminated any that posed an immediate threat but the rest, unable to settle or to leave, were stuck in limbo. It’s where we get the word ‘cryptic’, so I heard.
‘There was a security lapse,’ Granley explained. ‘A Strep chain-gang managed to beat the Labyrinth and overpower the perimeter guard. The situation got pretty inflamed.’
‘What division? I butted in. ‘Who was handling the perimeter?’
Granley wilted. ‘That’s the big puzzle. The guard had just been replaced by a White Legion platoon.’
‘You’re kidding. The Legion dropped the ball?’
‘No. They deny it absolutely. They insist it was the fault of the Phils who preceded them. Apparently there’s evidence that they failed to change the codes.’ The sergeant’s whitestick made angry flicks. ‘Damn them if it’s true. We have a shabby image as it is.’
‘Not with everyone,’ I assured her. The implications were clear. The Strep would have mingled with the incoming migrants to try and evade detection till they were over the border. A mass incursion that the Imperial Municipal Corps of White Guards could do without right now.
‘You’d like some Macs to sift the crowds,’ I said.
‘If that’s, uh, feasible.’
‘I’m fresh off a traffic duty.’ Meaning, nothing was beneath me.