Archipelago is my latest science fiction story. I love it, I’m working on re-writing it to make it better, but I won’t spoil the story by discussing what I’m re-writing for until we’re done.
Across the table, over Assistant Chief Burton kept on about some ridiculous staffing issue that somehow tied the police union together with some obscure new OSHA workplace guidelines. Seattle Police Department Chief Scott couldn’t bring himself to pay attention. He’d been on the clock bomb chasing for over two days. Every day, all through the city, these things would turn up. Budweiser cans painted red, with a battery-powered alarm clock. Bowling balls with a fuse. Replicas of Big Boy, Little Boy, with tiny action figures riding. Tile reproductions of video game icons.
Dozens a day, each with a cheerful label that read “fake bomb”. When they’d determined the coffee shop was unthreatened by two water bottles and glued on drawing of an old-fashioned round alarm clock, they ordered a drink each and sat.
“Sometimes I feel like they’re not even trying,” Scott said.
“Chief, can I ask you something?”
“Who did you cross?”
“I don’t think this about me,” Scott said.
On the sidewalk outside the store, a man wheeling a dolly stacked with soda caught a wheel and the whole tower went down, cans spraying everywhere, rolling downhill.
“Heh. Dork,” Burton said. People stopped, gathered, trying to help. “In LA, they’d be fighting already.”
A short kid walked by with an aluminum bat and smashed the light bar on Scott’s cruiser and ran. The cops didn’t budge.
“I like this coffee,” Scott said. “How come it took a bomb threat to get me in here?”
Two huge tall kids came from the other direction and nailed the tail lights. Both Burton and Scott rushed to the door, fought their way through the stalled crowd trying to exit the shop, then slipped on loose cans, picked themselves up, and started down Jackson after the kids. A block away, looking both ways down the street, there was no one.
Burton toggled his radio. “This is Burton, I’m on first and Jackson.”
“Burton, go ahead,” the smooth fake voice of dispatch replied.
“Tag as: Informational, warning, wanted. All downtown units, be on the lookout for two male Caucasians carrying aluminum baseball bat, wanted for destruction of police property, fleeing the scene of a crime…”
Scott took a look through the windows of banks and shops, walking further up the street. Nothing.
“Dammit,” Scott muttered, and turned back.
They returned to find the cruiser missing tires, hood, light bar, crash bar including the uplink rig, and mirrors.
“At least they didn’t get into the trunk,” Burton said.
Scott checked. “I don’t think they tried.”
They towed the car back to the central garage.
“I’m going to have to check all the gear back in,” Scott said.
“You want help?”
Scott shrugged. He thumbed for a cart and ran it over to the cruiser.
Scott expected to find in the trunk one Remington tactical police shotgun, one compact assault rifle, one riot gear suit minus the bulky shield, emergency medical equipment, roadside assistance gear, and a series of horrible pain-inflicting sonic and microwave weapons for use on crowds.
“Holy shit,” Burton said, voice cracking.
Also in the trunk sat a block of molded plastic explosives, wired to a tiny black box. Attached was a the helpful label. It read “real bomb”.
“Go,” he told Burton, who ran. Scott toggled his radio. “Dispatch, override: I’m in the garage, second level,” he said. “There is an explosive device at my current location. Evacuate the building, call the bomb squad back.”
“Acknowledged, Chief Scott.”
Scott took a deep breath, turned on heel, and ran.
The bomb went off when the building was clear but before any of the bomb squads or robots could get back from Capital Hill, SPU, Magnolia. Standing down the block, Scott didn’t feel it. Dispatch reported minor damage, no structural harm. Black smoke started to pour out of the ventilation stacks.
This would be difficult to cover up, Scott thought. Electrical fire?
Camera feeds were blotted by smoke in visual and fire in the infrared. Scott shook his head. Replacing those cruisers would cost over a million dollars each. Or he could report this to the insurance company. That would be a fun report.
Cause of claim: police department head drove bomb into city garage. Bomb exploded.
The press worried at the cordon. They were probably already running overhead feeds fed from orbit, Scott thought. I might as well go talk to them.
“Chief, can I ask you something?” Burton said softly.
“Who did you cross?”
Scott didn’t answer.
Four years ago, Scott offered the protestors free speech areas, located away from the federal buildings, but that wasn’t good enough, no, and every morning they’d shown up and sat down in the streets, the hippies and the freaks and all the people he recognized from Hempfest and crowd control at concerts, the churchies and the crazies, the college kids and their professors. And among them, the ones who wanted a chance at a fight.
Scott could scan the crowd and pick them out, and so could the other cops with experience. Scott wanted to search them, see if they had baclavas, hammers for window smashing, gas masks for breathing, but unfortunately they’d received a restraining order the day before they hadn’t managed to overturn that night, though they were still judge-shopping.
The mayor wanted the downtown core cleared for commerce. The mayor, however, wasn’t in full riot gear, outnumbered six to one. He wasn’t sleeping for four hours between double shifts in Key Arena, or on the floor of a luxury suite in one of the stadiums.
“What’s the overhead look like?” Scott asked control.
“Port of Seattle Police say they’re quote all over the fucking levees goddammit unquote.”
“Fuck the levees,” Scott said. “How are we?”
“We are in a major shitstorm, they’re stacked up north to Seneca, south to the stadiums.”
Scott shook his head.
“It gets worse.”
“No, no it doesn’t,” Scott said.
“There’s maybe six thousand at the U, they’re going south on I-5.”
“Yeah, on foot.”
This meant that the UW police and the King County Sheriff’s Department failed to keep campus clear, but also that no one told Scott of their total collapse, which scared him more. If there’d been any troops left undeployed in Tacoma, Scott knew they’d be piling into trucks and trains and helicopters and speeding north as fast as they could.
“Are there casualties?”
“Unclear. Probably. More importantly, something’s going on at the Army National Guard station in Magnolia,” control said. “They may have gotten orders.”
“Yeah, well, fortunately for everyone involved, it looks they’re as fucked for transportation as we are.”
Plus, Scott didn’t say, if he’d come home from rotation and got the call, he’d either pretend he couldn’t make it in that day or he’d already be down here, with the vegetarians and the peaceniks and sensitive artists. They Guard had been called in Portland, sided with the protestors, and the Feds still hadn’t regained control. Scott would as much liked to see them not show up instead of showing up armed and then flipping a coin on whether they stuck with the program or not.
A low thump of a launch, a scream, someone falling backwards, and gas rose from the crowd. The protesters moved away, pushing others back, ripples in a pond.
Scott toggled his radio. “Who the fuck did that? I haven’t even given the disperse order!”
“You see that?” Brown radioed back. “I hit her right in the forehead. What a shot. Accidental shot.”
“Officer Brown,” came Officer Fielding, “I’m placing you under arrest for unauthorized use of deadly force-“
Scott stepped forward and looked down the line to see two cops facing off, helmet to helmet.
“Fuck you,” Brown yelled at Fielding.
“You have the right to remain silent. If you—“
“You will secure that shit, Fielding,” Scott yelled, jogging down the line. “This is not the time.”
“–if you cannot afford an attorney –“
“Give the order,” Scott said over his shoulder, grabbing Fielding by the vest and yanking him backwards.
“You must move back,” the cop with the bullhorn said. Scott glanced to the crowd while hauling the struggling Fielding to the other end of the line. The protesters in the street were broken, people dragging the unlucky inhalers, everyone hustling from the line, and then lobbed back came the canister, tailing smoke in a white arch across the gray sky, and hissing, bounced off Scott’s helmet.
“Now we have to move. Push everyone north towards Queen Anne, or south out of the core. The guys moving down from the U- put teams on the ramps and screen them with gas, force that crowd to keep going south, we’ll roll them up later.”
They used the new triple-action, CN, CS, and an ultraviolet dye for easy tag-and-bag later. They’d tried the sonic weapons, and they were great in that they inflicted ridiculous but court-upheld pain, but they didn’t provide any visual cues to others. Everyone knew to run from gas, and no one ran towards the cops. And if they couldn’t run because they were doubled over vomiting, just as good, you one-hit them in the back of the head with a baton and knocked them out.
Fire the gas, move forward, club anyone that doesn’t run back a block, the line behind you ties them up for processing, stop at the next cross street. Fire the gas, move forward, club anyone that doesn’t run. Two thousand badged border collies in heavy armor, gas masks, with guns and big sticks.
Brown caught up to a straggler and swept her legs with one swing and then nailed her again on the ground, taking big big bouncy strides ahead.
Scott found a teenager in front of him, crouching to help a woman lying flat on her back, a perfect red ‘O’ of the canister hit in the center of her forehead. As he stood, startled from his concentration, his eyes went wide in recognition.
“Mr. Scott!” the kid yelled with glee. It was Craig, his babysitter.
Scott checked his swing. Seventeen, unformed, too thin, badly cut hair, watering eyes. He didn’t look relieved that he might be spared but smiled and shook his head. He started to laugh, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“This is the last time we’ll make this convenient for you,” Craig said.
Scott hit Craig in the head with his baton, and he went down like all the rest of them, into the pavement, coughing, choking on CS, CN, ultraviolet dye, and then vomiting them back up.
Scott stepped over his limp babysitter and moved forward.
“Cleared north to Spring,” the call came. The crowd had stopped, sat down again, twice as dense.
Scott pulled the line together. “Are we ready?”
“No,” Fielding said. He pulled off his helmet, set down his baton, laid his huge rubber pellet gun and service revolver next to it, then pulled the armored vest off with its detachable badge and let it drop to the street. He took five steps forward, turned, and sat down in the street with the protestors, facing the line of police.
“Give the order,” Scott said, and the cop with the bullhorn yelled something lost in the chanting, they fired the canisters, and Brown ran forward to club Fielding in the head.
Walking a visibility patrol with four other officers all happy to be off bomb chasing duty, Scott caught a kid spray-painting a peace sign at the intersection of second and Blanchard. They pulled him off, peace sign half-completed.
“What the hell are you doing?” Scott asked.
The kid managed to shrug. “What, that? It was a job.”
“Who gave you the job?”
Kid shrugged again. “I don’t know, I was bored, I didn’t have any money, I was hoping there would be an errand I could run, I looked it up, said ‘look between two parked cars between 3rd and vine and 3rd and Wall Street, pick up spray paint, blah blah blah, 10 reputation points.”
“The paint’s there, I take it, walk down the street, some guys are there for lookouts, I start painting, I get points.”
Scott let go of the kid’s shoulders and looked to the sky. “It’s a game?”
“I don’t know, I guess, sort of, except it’s not like ‘go kill fourteen sewer rats for a gold piece or some shit.”
“What do you do with these points?”
“I don’t know, whatever.”
“Why aren’t there any cars?”
“I don’t know, look around, maybe someone else is blocking the streets, I don’t know. Can I finish know? It looks pretty dumb as a big Q.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so happy,” Scott said. “I’m about to arrest you.”
“No you’re not,” the kid said. “Jails are all full, where are you going to put me? There’s no way I score high enough to overnight. And dude, come on, I’ve got reps to burn.” His face fell. “Actually, if you could let me complete that, it would really be helpful in keeping me out of jail.”
Scott patted him down and pulled the kid’s tablet.
“That is not cool,” the kid said.
“Get out of here.”
“Give me my pad back, you dickhead.”
Scott looked at him. That line always worked.
“First, I’m the chief of police of Seattle, not dickhead.”
“You’re both, is what.”
“Second, this tablet is evidence in a criminal conspiracy case, which is why I’m taking it.”
“Fine, whatever, steal my tablet, have fun, I hope you enjoy it, can I go now?”
“I don’t want to see you again.”
“I guess you better leave town, because I am Queen Anne, bitch!” the kid yelled, walking backwards.
“Is it just me, or don’t they usually run?” Scott asked the quartet of backup.
“Fucking kids,” one said.
Scott started the tablet, found the history. Over and over, he saw that the kid checked an address that looked like a keyboard had barfed into a domain registrar. Scott pulled it up.
“No listings available. Police presence.”
Scott called to dispatch. “I need to consult with an officer that has computer forensics experience,” he said. “Pull them off patrol if you have to.”
“Excuse me,” a woman asked, her voice quivering. “Can you tell me how to get to Westlake Mall from here?”
“Sure,” one of the cops answered, freeing one arm from the gun strap to gesture. “You go up this street–”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” a man asked one of the other cops. “I need to get back to Bellevue, and I’m really confused about the buses.”
“No problem,” another cop said. “Eastbound buses-“
“I need everyone to take one big step back from the officers,” Scott said in the loudest voice he could use without barking. The two people and the third and fourth approaching all moved back. Scott scanned down the sidewalks. Many singles making a beeline, couples. A car stopped in the street, a man hanging out the passenger side window.
“I’m sorry, but you can you –“
“Keep driving,” Scott said, and they did. There were already dozens of people on the street, blocking the crosswalks, jogging over to them.
The tablet bonged, then again, and again.
“Everyone, please hang on for just a moment,” Scott said.
“New job listings meeting your criteria,” the message said. Was Scott interested? Scott was.
“Hand this computer to anyone not employed by the Seattle Police Department,” it read. “One reputation point.
“Answer citizen questions, one reputation point.”
Scott declined to take either job and pocketed the tablet.
“Well, this is what the visibility patrols are about,” he told the other officers. He held out a hand to the nearest person. “Hi,” Scott said. “I’m police chief Scott, did you have a question?”
“We’ve seen it in Japan, except it’s different,” the police tech told Scott. She yawned, and blinked slowly through discolored eyes.
“When was the last time you slept?” Scott asked.
“I have no idea,” the tech said. “I’ve been doing robot control for the bomb squad for I don’t know how long. I would estimate that there’s a 50% I’m asleep right now.”
“You’re not. What did you get?”
“It’s a disposasite,” the tech said, “already abandoned, but that’s not what I’m trying to tell you.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“We’ve seen it in Japan, except it’s different.”
“You said that already.”
“It’s great you take shifts with patrols and stuff,” the tech said. “Now you’re talking to me about some computer thing, that’s kind of cool.”
“You have to try to focus,” Scott said. “What about Japan?”
“It’s in Japan, but it’s all gifts, geek culture favors, social circles, cooperation. This is something we haven’t seen yet. You said he got paid?”
The tablet bonged, bonged, bonged.
“I thought the site was down,” Scott said.
“Disposasites, it doesn’t matter, it comes back up, sends out a notification of its new,” the tech said. “It’s pretty cool.”
The tech woke the tablet.
“Hey, I get a reputation point if I wave.” The tech turned to the window and flapped her free arm. “Hi! How cool, I just earned my first reputation point. I wonder who else is on this server.”
“There’s more than one?”
“Uh, well, I don’t know, obviously, but it’s logical. Let me explain what we know about Japan. We’ve seen this in Japan, except it’s different.
“Get some sleep,” Scott said. “Seriously, that’s an order, find a cot or a couch and get at least six hours of sleep. Put a sign on your head that I need to be called before anyone wakes you up.”
“Thanks, boss, that’s really nice of you. I’m giving you my reputation point.”
“Chief Scott,” the soft voice of dispatch cooed, “we’re receiving calls of a bomb in the Fairmont Lobby, the Four Seasons Lobby…” he turned his radio off.
“Get some sleep,” Scott told the tech, and made for the stairs.
There were no known or rumored mass protests the next morning, and Scott sent his officers home to their beds to return to regular schedules, and put cautionary details on small rallies and group prayers at City Center, Westlake, Volunteer Park, where crowds could turn to marches.
Around lunch, he started to pick up on weird rumors. All the good lunch places near the federal building were packed with hippies, commies, college students, business people, all the nearby cafes sold out of food.
“Are they trying to starve you out?” he asked one of the U.S. Marshals, who laughed.
“Maybe running away from you every day made them hungry,” the marshal said.
At two, traffic stopped. Every street in the city, pedestrians jaywalked continuously with and against the lights, circling intersections. There was no point to running them over, because there was no place to go. Intersections would have to be cleared one by one to get traffic going.
“Start with intersections near onramps,” Scott said. “Work out.”
He swung by the tech.
“Did you find anything?” he asked. “I’ve been thinking, they’ve declared anti-war protests a national security threat, we should be able to call the alphabet agencies in to help us trace this shit, right? They probably know, and if they don’t we can show them some traffic, they’re already tapping the hubs —“
He looked at his tech, who wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“No,” the tech said. “I won’t. I’m sorry.” She looked up at him. “Sir, I quit, effective immediately.”
“I know it’s been stressful lately, but–”
“No, I’ve slept on it, and I have to do this.” She stood, held out her hand. “I used to respect you a lot, sir, and even though this is a tough time for all of us, I want you to know that I’ve enjoyed working for you and I don’t envy you the decisions you have to make.”
Scott shook her hand. She handed him the tablet.
“My badge and keycards are there on my desk, and I checked in my gun and gear this morning, so—“
“No need. Thanks for your service.”
She nodded, and left.
The tablet chimed. Scott tapped it awake. He saw his name at the top, next to a balance of one reputation point.
“Jobs available to you!” it exclaimed. Scott browsed. Deliver a sandwich, ride share east, swap cooking lessons, transfer shows off old magnetic tapes, provide at least 5,000 rounds of 5.56mm armor-piercing ammunition, adopt a kitten- wait, what?
The listing was gone, disappeared under waves of innocuous requests filed and taken on.
The building power died again. Scott walked to the window and looked out. All the north-south streets were filled with people coming downtown, and looking up the hill, east to west down Madison, Spring, Seneca. Where had they come from?
“Everybody move!” he yelled over the sounds of confusion.
They came out of the building and moved with the crowd to the federal building, where, at the end of a hard day as cogs in the machine, employees came outside to be pelted in food and booed as they tried to walk to their bus stops, and Scott rounded the feds up and put them back in the lobby, covered in condiments and lettuce, and waited for the cavalry to arrive.
Fielding waited in the den, which is where Fielding always waited when Scott visited. In the chair, he looked bad, putting on sallow weight, jowels.
Fielding had been a star detective in part because he looked more like a graduate history student, curious, sharp, empathetic, smiling, and people trusted him, not seeing him as the cop. But then, he didn’t look a lot like an infantryman, either, and there were the pictures, and there were the medals, and there, no longer either decorated officer or honored serviceman, was Fielding.
“Is the physical therapy going well?” Scott asked. A continuing stream of badly wounded casualties meant great leaps in the physical sciences, and Fielding won enough money in his suit against Scott, Brown, the police department, the city, and assorted other local, state, and federal agencies that he could afford the best physical therapy, the best treatments, and still he sat, still, in an elegant-looking cradle for his barely responsive body.
“I’m sorry,” Scott said to Fielding. “I just always hope when I come over, that…. I don’t know what I hope.”
Scott sat down in one of the leather armchairs. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I feel like I’m a drop of water in a storm. On a good day, a really good day, I keep two people from killing each other instead of arresting a murderer, but this…” he shook his head, and looked at Fielding, who blinked.
“So you got a new cap,” Scott said. The surgeons had taken Fielding’s skull apart to try and stop the hemorrhaging, and his daughter kept him in baseball hats to conceal the massive scars that made his head appear to have a hinged lid.
Fielding’s head moved a little, his eyes staying focused on Scott.
“Stop, please,” he said. “You have to stop this. I know it’s you. Or, at least, I know you’re part of it, or you’re leading it, or something. I knew before, but today? People keep running up to Brown and hitting him over the head with a Nerf bat. He flipped out, we had to sedate him. These people get the job off the board, they think it’s a harmless prank.”
“And the food, it was pretty awesome to see that many people tossing produce at the feds. But you have to stop,” Scott said. “I’m happy no one’s dying, but we’ve gone from keeping the downtown core clear to daily bomb hysteria, a countless insane pranks, disruptions, and then when the protests do come, it’s like trying to hold back a flood, and that’s scaring people, and when people are scared, they lash out. I’m worried people are going to die.
“Bruce, you have to stop.”
And Fielding, for the first time in the years since Scott hauled him back by the vest as he tried to read Brown his Miranda rights, spoke, his broken voice barely audible over the soft hum of the chair’s power supply.
“No,” he said.
On the ferry ride back, Scott turned the tablet over and over in his hands. Every time he turned it on, the available jobs listing ran into the hundreds, but quickly narrowed to ones available in his immediate vicinity, always innocent. The site offered options to expand the search geographically, to refine, but there was never a way to make the jobs he glimpsed reappear: steal a police cruiser, for instance, which someone then pulled off an hour later, and they still hadn’t recovered the car despite all the transponders and locators stashed in it.
Acquire a master entry card into the Rainier Tower building, provide a key to the padlock to the metro grating in Freeway Park.
Scott’s suspicion was that it was automatically filtering out jobs that he wasn’t eligible for as a cop with a low reputation account, but the little thing didn’t have enough computing power to do it before
He needed a tech to explain this stuff, talk it over.
Walking off into the city, he turned it back on and saw “explosives” scroll past in a job entry. He stopped, reset it, reset it again. It took him minutes to piece it together:
Help tear down the stadiums tomorrow! Bonus for construction vehicles, explosives! Thousands needed!
There was no way he was reading that right. But how to capture the listings? He wished he could call the tech.
Scott saw a sullen teen waiting impatiently for someone to come off the ferry, thumbing something out on a notepad “Hey,” Scott said, “A7072?”
The teen made a face as if he’d smelled something. “What about it?”
“Can I borrow your pad? I need to look something up.”
The teen shook his head. “I don’t think so man, I don’t know you.” He paused. “Hey, I could look up your score, right?”
“My tablet’s not working,” Scott said. “Maybe you can just tell me, is the thing with the stadium still…”
“I don’t know,” hands up in front of him. “That sounds like some scary shit, but yeah, I think I saw the thing you’re talking about. There’s no way. I mean, I’m a juvie, but they’re going to kill us.”
“Yeah, I’m a little scared the system’s failing. I mean, it’s either a hoax or something.”
The teen wiggled back and forth. “I know some people have signed up. It’s a looooot of money, a looooot of reputation.”
“Not me,” Scott said. “Thanks though.”
He had his phone out and called headquarters.
“I need everyone to assemble at the cargo terminal west of the stadiums tomorrow morning, 0600,” he said. “Anyone who can put on a patrol uniform, every state patrolman, every one of the King County Sheriffs. Everyone.”
It was clear and cold under blue morning skies, and the thousands of uniformed officers stamped their feet on the frosted concrete pad and clapped their hands together to keep warm.
“When do we move?” Burton asked.
“When they start to show up,” Scott said. “Are you impatient? This could be the turning point, we finally demonstrate we can fight them like this, plan quickly, apply overwhelming force…”
A bike messenger in a gas mask waving a white flag in one hand rode up to the echelons of police. He pulled the mask off and looked at the ranks of officers lined up along the terminals. Scott ran the mental mugshot file, came up short, but still thought the messenger looked familiar.
“Hey, uh, I have an urgent delivery for Chief Scott,” he said. He produced a tablet and a flat manila envelope.
Scott stepped up. “I’m Chief Scott. You know it’s illegal to ride without a helmet.”
“Yeah, well, I tried, and bike helmets don’t fit over gas masks.” The messenger held out the tablet, and Scott had to take off his gloves to hold the stylus to sign. “Hey, uh, if I want to stay out of trouble…”
“South,” Scott said, pulling the tab. Age him a couple years, shave the head. “Thanks, Craig.”
“No problem, Chief.” The messenger strapped his gas mask back on and pedaled away.
The envelope held a single sheet of paper.
The note smelled faintly. Scott brought it to his nose, sniffed, and his body recoiled. He’d taken a faceful as part of chemical use training, and his nerves years later all jangled in alarm at the very hint. Capsaicin, chloroacetophenone, sec-butanol, propylene glycol, cyclohexene, and dipropylene glycol methyl ether. CS, CN, and he would bet if he fluoresced it, ultraviolet dye would shine. Triple action.
Thanks to you and everyone else for showing up. Last minute change of plans, we decided to burn down all the police stations instead. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure everyone gets out in time.
P.S. Did you know that the word gullible isn’t in the dictionary? Check it out.
Chief Scott handed the note to Assistant Chief Burton. A loud high crack rang from the north, and looking in that direction, Scott saw a dust cloud rise in the gaps between buildings.
“What was that?” Burton asked.
“King County Sheriff’s office, 3rd and Yessler,” Scott said.
“We have to get moving,” Burton said. “There’s time, we start here and push north through the core—“
Scott set his rubber bullet gun down, pulled his helmet off and set it down on the concrete pad, tore the velcro straps on the vest open and let it drop, and sat down.
“No,” he said.
Here’s my non-definitive list of things I’m going to try and re-write this weekend:
– clarify locations
– clarify protests, protest history
– clarify and fix the system
– clarify Fielding’s involvement and plan
and much, much more. Still, I like it.