We've got an incredible short story for you to read, called "System Reset," written by Arctic Rising author Tobias Buckell. It's taken from the pre-apocalypse anthology The End is Nigh, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey. It's a smart thriller about hacker bounty hunters on a world-ending job.
The End is Nigh is the first book in Adams and Howey's "Apocalypse Triptych" series, whose three books deal with pre-apocalypse, apocalypse, and post-apocalypse respectively. Find out more about the series on the Apocalypse Triptych website.
By Tobias S. Buckell
Toto's waiting for me in the old rust-red Corolla with tinted windows and the oh-so-not street legal nitrous system I know is hidden away under the hood. The only external hint that the car's a getaway-special comes from the thick tires.
He rolls a window down as I walk out under the shadow of the imposing concrete and glass corporate facade I've just been politely rebuffed from. "Charlie?"
I keep walking along the sidewalk, so he starts the car up with that belch/rumble that lets the car's secret out. Like Toto, the car isn't nearly as camouflaged as he thinks; a nearby cop on foot eyes us as Toto creeps the car along to pace me.
"You look funny in a suit, Charlie," Toto says, leaning an arm out and giving me a puppy-dog sort of look. He has a three dimensional splay of barbwire tattooed on his arm, complete with streaks of blood where it appears to cinch his bicep. "They know you don't belong. They sniffed you out, huh?"
He knows my moods well enough. I'm angry, hurt, frustrated. Walking fast, leaning forward, my hands pushed deep into the pockets. I'm sweating in the black suit, and the tie is choking me, but I'm thinking maybe I can get used to it. Maybe I can ignore the seams riding up hard against my crotch and the ill-fitted, scratchy fabric.
"You look hot in that shit, man. Come on, hop in the AC. Let me give you a ride back to the apartment."
We both stop at the intersection. The car's brakes squeal slightly. I stand still, my toes pinched in the dress shoes. The light turns green. A split second passes, and someone behind us lays into their horn. Toto leans out the window and flips them off.
"Damn it, Toto." I move to the other side of the car, open the door and slide onto the cold leather passenger's seat. Because I know Toto's not going anywhere, I want to save the guy behind us the trouble.
Toto hits the gas, and we growl across the intersection with a bounce of stiff suspension. "They didn't give you the job, did they?"
I shake my head, looking in the mirror at the corporate monolith behind us with a forced wistfulness.
"Fuck 'em," Toto says, hitting the wheel. "Fuck. Them. You would have kicked ass at handling their corporate firewall. You'd have kept their secrets lock-tight."
"I know," I say, squinting through the scattered sunlight bounced off the sea of buildings around us.
"They don't know what they're missing," Toto says. "But you know what, I got something for you."
"No," I tell him. "I just want to go back to my apartment." Get back to my job searches, hang the suit up in the bag and seal it up until I could try again.
"Look, what happened in Florida: That shit wasn't your fault. That was on me. That was on him. You can't let it get to you."
I don't reply, just lean tiredly back into the seat.
"I got a good one, Charlie. It's right by you."
* * *
Toto's from Kansas. And he's loyal. Knew him from a message board where he sold stolen credit card numbers online. That was back in high school, when I first dipped my toe into the other side of the internet. He takes to wearing cut-off shirts and ironic trucker hats, which is doubly ironic given that he calls himself trailer-trash-reared and city-ambitious. He likes layered jokes like that.
Back then we'd both been illegitimate. I used the cards to get some equipment shipped to a dead drop in a nearby county, then had a fifth grader bicycle to the mailbox center to pick the stuff up. He would hand it off to another kid, and once I was sure that kid hadn't been followed, I was rocking some serious gigaflops for my part-time, personal server farm.
Every kid needs a hobby, right?
Most others liked creating botnets, but I had a soft spot for my own gear. It made me feel in control.
Toto moved out to the city when I told him where I lived. "You need muscle," he had said.
And he was that. Spent most of his spare time in the gym, though I didn't think he stuck himself with any needles to get that kind of beef.
He odd-jobbed. Wheelman, dealer, enforcer, but for the last couple years we'd been working together. Skiptracing. Like he'd always wanted. Toto couldn't get a license as a bounty hunter—his record was shit—but I'd always kept my fingers clean. Toto knew the shit-side of the city; he grabbed the runaways, the strays, while I sat in the Corolla. I was the one that hunted them down. Sniffing through their digital scat, spotting the broken twig here and there, or the absence of a bark, and then putting the clues together.
The kid we hunted down in Florida was a straight-up runaway. Toto said finding him was a paid favor for an old friend. Child services was worried about the kid.
We drove all the way to Florida—that retired syphilitic wang of the country—trading places every couple hours at the wheel, then found him in a shelter in Boca Raton. We were tired. Which is why neither of us noticed that we'd been followed.
Kid's name was Ryan. His biological father, Emry, came after us in a damn parking lot with a giant fucking pistol and a ski mask. Cameras didn't have anything on him, and the car he used was stolen. But Toto recognized the voice and stature. Emry had dragged the kid away from us. Shot him four times and left him for dead in a ditch in Georgia.
Kid was ten.
Ten years old.
Can you imagine?
* * *
"Look," Toto's saying. "I fucked us both up on that. I feel your pain. It's been keeping me up all night, trying to think about how I can make it right."
"You can't," I tell him. He grimaces, holds the wheel tight. Corded arms flex as he bites his lip to stop the snarl.
"I got a job for you." He's excited, because he thinks he's got everything fixed. And that it's going to go back to the way it was between us. "A job that's right. No, it's better than right. It's righteous."
"I'm done," I tell him for the hundredth time this week. Toto comes to a stop in front of my building, puts the car into park.
He sighs. "You sure?"
"I can't fucking sleep without pills," I tell him as I open the door, kicking it out with my gleaming dress shoes. "I'm out."
"Hundred grand," Toto says.
I'm unbuckled and half out of the car. But I stop. "What . . ."
He pulls a folded up printed sheet of paper from his back pocket. "I was at the post office, right? And I'm looking at these 'most wanted' posters. So I get online, and I find out they're hot for some guy they think is the new Unabomber. Only he's a hacker type. And the reward is—well, it's not just the reward."
Toto shoves the paper at me. I unfold it, sitting in the barrier between the cold air of the Corolla and the muggy, garbage-reeking heat of the sidewalk
"You want to get right with the universe after Florida, this is how you do it."
* * *
Toto's at the wheel, his natural element, pointing us out West toward the last place I sniffed out a trace of our quarry. There's something Zen in the long drive for him. His hands rest at a perfect ten and two on the wheel; he almost never lets go. He refuses to eat while driving, and has a camelback filled with purified water and the straw dangling over his left shoulder.
He doesn't expect the same of me, but he only ever hands over the wheel when he believes his reflexes are in danger and can't be complemented with those uppers they hand out to Air Force pilots for extended missions.
A year ago, I offered him some pretzel rods after he took a fierce nap, aided by downers, but he shook his head. "You know how you pass out after Thanksgiving? Ain't tryptophan, that's bullshit. It's the blood sugar crash that comes from eating so much stuffing, potatoes, and pie—shit like that."
On trips like this, he mainlines protein bars and nuts.
"This guy," Toto says. "I spent two days on background before I came out for you. I wanted to make sure this wasn't some kind of thing where this guy is just getting sit on by the feds because he's digging up stuff they don't like."
I've got a palm-sized WiFi hotspot plugged into the lighter and stuck to the dashboard with double-sided tape. My go-laptop is cradled between my thighs as I fight motion sickness. I'm using it to monitor active search results and IM pings from people on the dark net I'm using to help my hunt.
Of course, they don't know how they're actually helping me. They think they're hacking a bank for numbers; I just want to know if there's activity in any of our quarry's false personas.
"I read his manifesto," I tell Toto. "You're right. He sounds like a real asshole."
"I was worried. At first, he sounded kinda like you when you would talk about Snowden, how the whistleblowers and leakers were genuine heroes. You know, how it's bullshit that the hacker who exposed the Steubenville rapists is being charged with more jail time than the actual rapists? This guy seems cut from darker shit, though."
Norton Haswell. Born in California. Nice, sunny suburbs. School with a nice computer lab. Honor student. Rich parents. His choice of colleges. Companies lined up to show off their pool tables and "alternate" working environments.
"You'd think, the sort of life he had," Toto says, "that he'd relax and enjoy it."
I snort. "He thinks he's an original thinker, but the stuff he posts is all the usual techno-libertarian talking points. Until he invested in that offshore floating haven cruise ship—some kind of techno-utopia away from 'interference and regulation'—he was safe and comfy in his nice offices. But after he lost all his money, he blamed anything else but his own dumb decisions."
"Well, he didn't have to bother mixing with riffraff like me on public transportation. Had a company shuttle pick him up at his sidewalk every day so he could code on his way to work." Toto sounds bitter. "Someone like me says the things he does with a drawl—drives a pickup and stocks up too many guns—you get raided. For sure. But you nerd up and say the same anti-government shit, and people toss venture capital at you."
"I don't know," I say. "He's probably a mirror image of me if I hadn't grown up in the cold." Shivering away with a mother who literally drank herself to death one winter when we couldn't seal the gaps to keep its icy fingers out. A lot of free lunch and foster care later and here I was. No vested stock options. "There's a lot of stuff in his manifesto I could have written."
"You're not Norton Haswell. You're not trying to kill people you disagree with," Toto says.
"Point," I say. I had never hacked the lane-keeping and pre-crash emergency functions of a senator's luxury car to try and kill him. Haswell, though, had. It was the act that led to him getting tagged with that fat, juicy FBI reward.
Toto points at the road ahead. "It's all politics and bullshit, and we all have the right to get as worked up as we want. This is fucking America. It's what we do, man. But ain't nothing worth killing people over until people's being killed on your side. You make the first move, it ain't disagreement, it ain't the mess of democracy—you're a fucking traitor. A terrorist. And that always leads to the response coming back in kind. And then, basically, you've just shit your own bed."
I grunt. "Okay. Let's find the mealy little fucker before he does something really newsworthy like actually killing a senator."
And Toto's right. I'm feeling kinda righteous about this hunt.
* * *
The Jitters Cafe in a small town in Nebraska offers free WiFi with purchase. They print a temporary, one-hour password out on the receipt, which I have to squint at as I type the long string into my laptop because the nines and sixes, zeros and Os, all look the same.
This gets me onto their internal network.
Toto sits over by the door, carefully eating a ham and cheese breakfast bagel (no bagel please) with knife and fork, an oversized never-ending mug of coffee steaming behind it.
"You really think he's posting anonymous rage-comments on news articles from a coffee shop in Nebraska?" he'd asked earlier as we'd eased down the small main street, huddled against the plains like a modern version of some old west movie set.
"The linguistic fingerprints match up."
It's the little, stupid things that get us, isn't it? Haswell ranting away in his free time. He could be holed up in any of the small apartments on the second story of the old brick buildings. Or in one of the trailers on the edge of town. He was coming into town to use the free internet to argue.
And maybe other things.
He'd only been here a couple days. Probably moving soon. Toto'd gotten us here faster than we could have flown, with the connections and delays.
Packet sniffer up and running, I texted Toto.
After a casual minute, Toto checks his phone and taps a reply.
Don't need it.
I look up from my screen at Toto, and he nods toward the bathroom at the end of a hallway. Someone's just come out and sat back down at a laptop. I frown. Really? It doesn't look like our guy, but Toto nods at him again.
Go on, Toto texts.
I walk over to our quarry, who is thoroughly glued to his screen. He's grown out his hair, has a Huskers cap skewed off to the side, and is sporting a green flannel shirt under dirty overalls that belong to a local utility company. Apparently his bathroom break has dammed up a flurry of thoughts, because he's typing at top speed, face scrunched up, attacking the keyboard.
"Norton Haswell, I'm—"
I never really get too far along introducing myself. He rabbits quicker than I would have thought for a fellow keyboarder, slamming his shoulder into my stomach to get around me.
Coughing, my lungs flattened, I stagger half-heartedly along the hallway after him. People stand up, concerned. This is open carry territory, and I don't figure Toto wants to get shot, so I shout "Bounty hunters! He's wanted for skipping bail and is on the wanted list."
As I shout—more like wheeze—all that, Toto steps up and clotheslines Haswell in the chest, then, just as expertly, catches him on the way down like a dancer doing a romantic dip. He casually bear hugs the man to him so I can put the cuffs on.
Toto leads him to the back of the car while I leave my card with the baristas. We don't need the local cops coming in hot and bothered.
"Got lucky," I murmur as we tear out of town.
"We were due," Toto says.
"Still think we should dump him off with the locals." I look up the mirror, where Haswell glowers at us but says nothing.
"No." Toto shakes his head. "You know they'll just as likely lose our processing paperwork and try to hand the claim over to a buddy. Trust me."
"Just because you grew up in one good-ole-boy small town doesn't mean you know how they all work," I tell him.
But he doesn't answer. He's done hashing this one out. We argued about this on the way: Toto doesn't trust the feds to give us the reward in a timely manner. Haswell's a double win. He's got the FBI reward on him, but he has a substantial bond as well. When he tried to kill that senator by hacking his car, he was jailed. Got out on bond, then skipped.
If we return him to the county he skipped out from, then no matter how long the FBI paperwork takes, no matter what actually happens, we get the percentage of the bond we're due.
Toto settles into his comfortable altered driving state while I sit and fidget. My work is done. There's nothing to do but wait for the long drive to pass. I load up an old, favored RPG on the laptop and start working through a side quest.
After hours of frosty silence, interrupted only by the wail of my vanquished enemies from the laptop, Haswell finally breaks the car's quiet. His voice is guttural, laced with rage, and a little confusion. "How'd you find me?"
I smile and pause the game.
One master to another. But as I open my mouth, Toto looks over, his eyes ungluing as he comes out of his drive trance, and he shakes his head. Don't reveal our methods. Don't offer anything.
"We're prisoners of our habits," I say. But even that gets me a death glare from Toto. He glowers at me until he's sure I get the point, then turns his focus back to driving. I lapse back into the game.
But Haswell's not done with us. Like a terrier with a bone, he wants to keep chewing at this. "I've been sitting back here, going over where I might've made a mistake, and I can't think of anything." Our eyes meet in the mirror, and Haswell has moved from anger to respect. "Whatever you did, it was impressive."
I really, really wish I could preen. Instead, I shrug. "Nothing special. Just look for weaknesses."
"No," Haswell says with messianic certainty. "It's not nothing special. It was something very special. I'm impressed. Don't be full of shit. You and I both know that whatever you did, it was clever. And very few people can do it. You're one of the select."
Well . . . he's not wrong. But I'm still not giving him anything.
Haswell leans back, his handcuffs clinking. "Does it ever bug you?" he asks.
"Does what bug me?"
"The bullshit. This job of yours. When you could be doing something superior. I was sunk the moment they noticed me, long before I went after the senator. You remember those kids from Steubenville, Ohio? They passed that drunk girl around and fingered her, took pictures and laughed because they were the jocks? You know the hacker who got the pictures? He faces more jail time than the rapists got. Because corporations wrote those laws, you can get in more trouble for copying a DVD than raping someone." Haswell leans forward between us. "Doesn't that make you just want to get out on the street and rage?"
"It makes me want to send donations to politicians who aren't idiots," I lie.
Haswell sighs and slumps dramatically into the back seat. "You mean the same kind of people who can't even remember their password properly unless they call tech support or have it on the back of a sticky note on the side of a monitor? You think they're fit to pass laws about technology? Are half the other useless empty-headed illiterates out there fit to have an opinion on technology and law? You know, most people can't even explain how a light bulb works." He hits the back of Toto's chair. "Either of you know how a light bulb works?"
Toto, jolted out of his trance, sets his jaw. We can't bring our marks back to their county of residence with any bruises, but Toto knows how to fuck them up without leaving a trace. I wait for him to hit the brakes and pull over. But he doesn't want to lose time. "I usually just flip the switch," he says.
Haswell doesn't think that's funny. "Sure. So do they. But they don't even know what that really means. Yet they're going to explain to me how evolution is fake and climate change isn't real. Give them half a moment, and they can't even disprove the dark-sucker theory of how a light bulb works. It's just magic. Flip a switch, there it is, you're right. Send them back in time, they'd never be able to recreate it. They'd be lucky to figure out fire. Because they're parasites that live off the largesse of the greater minds that came before them."
"So it's time to kill them, like that senator? You think that will solve things? Seems to have just ended with you handcuffed in our back seat."
"Okay," Haswell says. "I wasn't thinking, then, just lashing out. I wanted people to realize that the internet was under attack. Literally. And that if war had been declared, people online needed to realize it. Before the internet could fight back, it needed to realize a war had started. I thought I could get some attention to this. But I wasn't thinking clearly. Not like I am now."
"What are you thinking now?" I ask.
"It's time to reboot," Haswell says. "Time to put in a clean operating system. No more patches. No trying to get old buggy code to work. A fresh upgrade. Everything has to be wiped out for it to work properly. Now that I know you all are getting close, it's time to hurry and press the power switch."
"Societies aren't computers," I say, but I have to admit that his metaphor is chilling.
Haswell wants to argue that, but Toto looks up. "Potty break!" We take an exit quickly, getting off the ramp and pulling into a small gas station. The bathroom keys are attached to a giant wooden canoe paddle.
We refill the car with gas, Toto's camelback with bottled water, and get back in the car and on the road. Toto pauses at the stoplights before the ramp, waiting for the light to change.
"Huh," Toto mutters, right before a white electric company truck emblazoned with a familiar logo blows through the red lights and slams into us.
* * *
"It's not your fault," Toto tells me later. After we had been stunned by the impact, our faces covered in airbags. After Haswell's two overall-wearing friends smashed in the window and spirited him off before we'd had time to register what had happened.
Who would have expected the crazy loner in the cabin to have a posse?
"Shut the fuck up." I wince as I say it, feeling bad. But I don't apologize. I'm on my phone, typing with my thumbs like a possessed demon because the laptop's screen is cracked and useless.
"We should get you to the hospital to have someone look at your eye."
"Fuck my eye," I say. The bandage over the cut to my eyebrow has stopped the bleeding. It just throbs now. As does the rest of my head. I can still taste the smoke from the airbag in the back of my sinuses. There's a slight tremble to my fingers.
"You might have a concussion," Toto starts.
"Happens to the best. We couldn't have known what he was doing."
I look up at Toto. I've brushed most of the glass out of my hair, and the adrenaline has long since faded and left me with the jitters. "I should've thought to check for other signals. Like a small GPS pip hidden somewhere. Can't we go faster?"
The Corolla is vibrating and shimmying around. Wind whistles through cracks and warps in the doors. Toto shakes his head. "Barely in one piece," he says. "We'll shake apart."
"We go back to where he lives, and we find his gear. I want to strip out every password, every user account, every one and zero he's ever touched," I tell Toto. "There's going to be a mistake in there somewhere, and then we're going to pick the bastard up again."
I'm so full of fury. I feel like a bell that was rung when our car got hit; and that I haven't stopped vibrating. That fury builds as we show Haswell's photo around town to ferret out where he'd hunkered down. And that fury bleeds away into a dull sense of confusion when we find, waiting for us at Haswell's apartment door, three FBI agents, a SWAT team with really big guns, two Department of Homeland Security officers, a local sheriff, and last but not least: the barista from the coffee shop.
"That's them!" the barista says.
And all hell really breaks loose.
When it's all settled, Toto and me are zip-tied to a table, and one of the blue-suited FBI agents eases into a chair across from us. Until they ran our info and realized we were skiptracers, they'd assumed we were working with Haswell. Coming back to pick up his computers for him. Now they were just pissed.
"We finally had Haswell staked out, and you got him right out of town under our noses."
"Jesus," one of the FBI suits keeps saying, rubbing her forehead and sighing as she paces around us. Then she grabs Toto's shirt, and shouts into his face. "Do you have any idea what this man is currently into? When you created this algorithm to look for his writing, did you stop and read it?"
"I didn't have time!" I protest, trying to get her away from Toto. "I was working on the match possibilities. I basically cobbled together a bunch of scripts . . ."
Her attention is on me, and I flinch. "So you didn't bother to stop and read?"
"No," I say. "Like I said . . ."
"He's openly talking about trying to crack fucking nuclear missile codes. Sure, he did it under a handle, but you're not the only one running text analysis. We found him as well. Only unlike you amateurs we actually stopped to read him."
I remember snatches of text. Reactionary, rich Silicon Valley stuff floating around the net. Nothing I didn't see in most anonymous forums. Between that and the anarchists, I mostly just tuned it all out as the background static that came with interfacing with a hacker community.
"Lot of idiots say a lot of stupid things," Toto says. "Do you chase down every idiot calling for armed overthrow online? Because you'd end up wasting a lot of time at certain news sites . . ."
The agent's attention is back on Toto. "This one is for real, has already struck, and you let him get away!"
One of the other agents pulls her away from us and tells her to calm down. The entire environment is really hostile.
This is feeling electric, and scary. Haswell has been getting into some seriously stupidly high level dangerous stuff online.
"He had a GPS chip on him, so his friends could find him," I defend myself. "And he had some way of triggering it. Maybe a simple check-in sequence online. I don't know. Maybe you can back trace that." I'm trying to help clean up. But no one looks happy. I'm grasping at straws.
"You let him get away," the agent repeats, and kicks a chair.
"Is it even possible?" Toto asks. "You can't really think he's able to hack into our nuclear launch system?"
His eyes widen as he reads the room. Everyone in here believes it.
"To get into the nuke codes." I look at them, following Toto's thinking. "Aren't there, like, daily changes of the code. Security. Chain of command. Two people to turn the switch and all that?"
The FBI agent stares down at me. "Well, Haswell thinks he's found a way around it. And seeing as that he was able to take over someone's car to try and kill them, we can't afford to take the chance he's bluffing, can we?"
Haswell had said he was going to push the power switch. System reset. What kind of system reset do you think a guy like Haswell's planning if the FBI says he's trying to get his hands on nuke launch codes?
A chill runs down my spine.
* * *
They cut us loose a few hours later. We flee town, tails tucked between our legs.
"Goddamnit, Toto. This is worse than Florida," I shout. My laptop's been seized, as well as my phone. I'm probably going to have a criminal record. The suits ensconced in their air-conditioned, glass palaces would throw me out the door twice as hard now. No normal office job life on the table now, not even as a back up.
And that didn't even matter, did it? I'm freaking about the wrong shit. Because Haswell might be trying to launch nukes. Or sell the codes. Hold us all hostage. Or something horrific. Whatever he's going to do once he gets them, it can't be good.
"I'm sorry," Toto says softly.
"Fuck!" I hit the dashboard. "Why'd you have to try and fix everything? If you'd just left it alone. Let me keep trying for an office job."
"I'm sorry," Toto says again. He looks beat, head bowed and shoulders slumped.
I soften. "No, I'm not being fair. Not your fault. I should have scanned for signals. Should have . . ." I stop. I've been thinking about how to track him. How to hunt down his trail. I want to stop this from fucking everything up even more.
But now I'm thinking we need to find where he's going. We need to skate to the puck.
"Overalls," I say to Toto. "Overalls."
* * *
We don't have a phone. We don't have a computer. We have a car, and I make Toto spin us back around. There are ICBMs hiding underground around the small town in concrete silos, scattered between the farms. Strange crops. Blank spots in the map. "Since budget cuts, they've been outsourcing some plant maintenance for the military. Risky, so the background checks on it are high, but the money is good. No one gets to touch the missiles, but obviously Haswell's found a way in. He was wearing overalls for one of the companies handling silo maintenance."
Toto speeds up. Something falls off the Corolla and bounces into the ditch. We're wobbling like a bad amusement ride but making good time.
"No one's gonna listen to us, a couple of crazies showing up at a secure military installation. We should go into town and tell the feds."
"We forced Haswell's hand. He's going to hurry now." Reboot the machine, he had said. "Let me talk to the guards when we get there."
"They're gonna shoot you," Toto predicts.
I'm quiet for a while. They'll be armed. Won't take any kind of threat peaceably. Hell, they'll kill Haswell if they realize what he is up to.
Which is why, I realize, Haswell isn't going to be trapped in the silo when the damn thing surprisingly launches.
"Stop. Stop! Now!"
Toto obliges. "What?"
"He doesn't want to get shot." I kick the door open, as it doesn't want to swing on its warped hinges. Toto has stopped on the shoulder of the road.
I clamber onto the back of the Corolla and onto the roof, surveying the flat horizon of land stretching away. It's approaching dusk. I'm looking for something tall enough Haswell can broadcast from.
I spot blinking aircraft hazard lights hanging in the air.
I jump down to the ground. "There."
Haswell needs line of sight, and somewhere to swamp the world with a powerful wireless signal to access the electronics he's snuck into the missile silo . . . or silos. Haswell needs a tower. I start trying to wave down passing cars, and up begging to borrow a phone for a second off a wary looking older man in a minivan.
I can't reach the sheriff. The FBI puts me on hold. I leave messages for them both, give back the cellphone, and head back to the car.
We're going to have to do this ourselves.
Toto sees the look on my face and knows. Once more into the breach.
I drive, hunkered down over the wheel and looking up into the dusk for the blinking lights that will guide us in. He kicks the glovebox with a knee and pulls out a thick, gray revolver with what looks like a forearm-long barrel.
As we pass from asphalt into dirt service road, the car skidding and kicking up dust, Toto flicks the chamber open and calmly, expertly, inserts six bullets.
"You can get out," I say, voice quavering slightly. "I can go in alone."
"It's my mess, too. I'm not leaving your side."
I hide my relief. A minute later I slam the car through a wire mesh fence and come skidding to a halt near the electric company truck that slammed into us earlier. The front end of it is all twisted up from the impact. There's another truck just past it, near the foot of the massive radio antenna. Thick coaxial cables snake out of the van and up to the tower's base.
There are computers lined up on folding tables, all plugged into thick bundles of fibers. They're being powered by a large bank of batteries on the ground under. It's a full mobile server setup.
The Corolla's hood starts leaking steam, obscuring everything. The engine coughs, sputters, and then dies. Sorry Toto. I'll try to make this up to you. Somehow.
But Toto doesn't seem to care. He's out through the door with that massive gun, lips pressed tight, murder in his eyes. And I'm suddenly seeing the enforcer. The guy who, if he isn't teamed up with me, lapses back to that other person. The person who causes people to step aside nervously.
"Stay behind me," Toto orders.
I do as I'm told.
"Hey!" one of the men who crashed into us yells as he steps out from around the van. He has a pistol in his hand, and Toto doesn't bother saying anything back. He aims the revolver and the world splits apart with a crack. Blood splatters the logo on the side of the white van and the man clutches his chest.
Toto keeps walking forward. He shoots him again, in the knee and yanks the man's pistol away from his trembling hands.
"Safety's still on," Toto notes in disgust. He pushes the small lever and hands me the acquired pistol. "If it moves, shoot it."
"Stop!" someone shouts. "There's no reason to hurt anyone."
Haswell steps out in the open, hands up. He looks a bit pale.
"Where's the other one," Toto growls. "Tell him to come out."
"Danny!" Haswell shouts. "Drop the gun and step out."
A young man steps around the van, holding a shotgun. He tosses it into the dirt.
"It's too late," Haswell says to us. "It's already running, so there's nothing you can do now. It's all over."
And he smiles. Wide, terrifyingly enthusiastic, and full of vision.
* * *
I'm rooting around the servers, Toto by my side, trying to figure out what I can do. Trying to figure out what the fuck Haswell has done. Toto's got both men covered by the large revolver, but he's looking over at me.
"Give me time," I mutter.
"It's too late," Haswell shouts at us.
"To undo killing that many people? I sure as hell hope not!"
There's a pause behind me. I glance back at Haswell, who looks at me like I'm an idiot. "Kill them? I'm not going to kill anyone. I've set the missiles to burst in the air."
Our eyes lock.
I get it.
Decades ago, when scientists used to test nuclear bombs out in the open, they set one off high in the atmosphere over the Pacific. And electronics died all throughout Hawaii and up to the West Coast. That's how we found out that some bombs set off an electromagnetic pulse. Not as big a deal in the 1950s.
The electromagnetic pulse will slag most consumer-grade electronics. No more iPhones. No more internet. No more fancy car with GPS and collision-avoidance. No more flatscreen TVs. No more cable.
"Those fucking anti-intellectuals, the ones who can't live without all the things the nerds invented, how will they make it now?" Haswell asks. "They decry our checking into social media; they mock our favorite shows. But they all depend on us. And you know what, we carry them no more. People like you and me, we're the natural leaders. We are the inventors, the tinkerers, the ones who should lead it all."
"Can't lead shit if all our toys are dead," I say, stepping forward. I can't recall the missiles, I can't change where they are headed. I need more time to understand how to undo it all, and time is something we don't have.
Toto pokes around at the laptops as I stare in horror at Haswell.
"There's an exclusion zone programmed into the bursts," Haswell explains. "A place that already has the facilities, the technologies, the right people to lead. We will be a beacon in the dark. Unlike the Neanderthals on the science oversight committees who are literally against the concept of science itself until it puts in their pacemakers, we will be scientists. In charge of it all. Understand? Come with me. Come to the valley. Come build the new, orderly world. There's a place for you."
"You tracked me down. Who else could have done that? But you drive a shitty econo-car. Look, document leaks show us what kind of society these old baby-boomer politicians are creating: a police state. Caged in 'free speech zones' and no-knock raids. The whole 'if you've done nothing you've got nothing to fear' bullshit. We've become a bad operating system with so many patches on some old command line interface that we can barely run. It's time to reset. I've got a van with shielded electronics and enough gasoline to get us back there. I'll bring you with me into the new age. I hate to see wasted talent."
And as he says that, I hear the rumble of a rocket motor kicking on. The ground shakes as if a giant is tearing free from the rock underneath us all. I'm about to witness the first moments of something so vast and terrible that the work of H.P. Lovecraft is a cheerful kid's book by comparison.
Toto shoots Haswell in the kneecap. The man drops to the dust, writhing and screaming. Danny looks ready to jump for his weapon, so Toto shoots him in the stomach and picks up the shotgun.
He opens the hood of the van Haswell told us was ready for the EMP blast and nods. "It'll keep working. Come on."
"But . . ."
"We don't want to be waiting around. We need to take care of our own shit, now."
All around us, on the edges of the night horizon, ICBMs glare as they begin to rise above their groundhog holes and lumber into the sky.
* * *
"Where do you want to go?" Toto asks at last. He's driving. I have my face up against the window, looking out at the contrails heading higher and higher.
"I don't know," I say. "The countryside. Somewhere with clean water and deer to hunt. Guns will still work after the pulse."
Toto grimaces. "Before my family moved out to the countryside, we lived near one of the coasts. Got hit by a hurricane. It wasn't all Hollywood and shit. People don't run around screaming; we've been making communities for hundreds of years. Mostly in disaster, we pitch in, clean up, figure out how to muddle through."
"Like the blackout," I say. When the power went out, and people came out to light things up with their phones or car headlights. Even in our shitty neighborhood.
"Those people masturbating about the end of all things? They think they're not plugged into a larger network of people who produce the things they need. That's trade. More powerful than one jackass with a piece. A hundred people who actually build the guns, they're more powerful. Besides, you can't fucking eat gold and ammo. Medics, farmers, they're always going to be needed. What you do is find a good town, with good farms, clean water near a mountain. I know a few."
"We could go to the valley," I suggest.
"I don't think they'll do as well as Haswell thought," Toto says grimly.
"What do you mean?"
"First, answer me this: Did you agree with him? I remember, when you used to talk to me in school. About how you were treated. Do you think he had the right idea?"
"What the fuck?" I stare at Toto. "I got kicked around a bit for having my nose in a book. But you know what, everyone's an expert at something. I don't know shit about making my car run, doesn't mean I think my mechanic is less of a human being because I understand TCP/IP protocols and he doesn't."
"Good." Toto nods. "You didn't ask me what I was doing on those laptops. Probably neither you or Haswell figured someone like me would know enough to change the code. We couldn't send them all into the sea, or stop them. But I could launch one more, to cover that exclusion zone. Didn't want to be made a peasant of. Figure if the apocalypse is coming, should be equally distributed."
I would laugh, if it wasn't the actual end of the world.
* * *
Toto pulls to a stop after a few minutes. We're far enough away not to worry about the feds. Hopefully Haswell is right that the truck is hardened against the pulse, which should be coming at any moment.
We get out and stand in front of the truck and look at the skies.
"I got this off the dead one," Toto says, and hands me a phone. "If there was ever someone you wanted to call and get things right with, you've got a couple minutes, I figure, before the cell network goes down."
I look down at the phone. "I'd be calling you. No one else out there gives a shit if I live or die, you know?"
I toss it back at him, and he tosses it into the bushes.
Toto looks at me. "Hey . . ."
"You're getting all sentimental."
"If it's more than the EMP. I gotta say: you know I love you, right?"
It's going to be okay, I think, as the artificial, nuclear sunrise suddenly lights up the air above the highest clouds.