Network Outage Engineer
By Erin Lale
THE PUDGY CAMERAMAN CIRCLED carefully around the treads. He angled up at the turret gun, framing it pointing toward the sun, which rayed beautifully even without a star filter.
The reporter set himself up next to Joe in front of the tank, waiting for the cameraman to get to the two-shot. Then he smiled like a used Snovus Mover salesman. With slick blonde hair and bony frame, the salesman description was more than apt. “In the Zoe the NOE game, the NOE truck looks like a normal truck, with a ladder and some lights and gadgets attached. This, this is a tank.”
“Well,” replied Joe, “that’s a game, and this is real life.”
Joe was older, swarthier, and unshaven. Joe foiled the reporter’s attempts to draw him out by popping the hatch and climbing in.
The reporter commented, “Looks like they’ll have to add another level to the game. Network Outage Engineer: Anarchy Zone Edition.” He narrated the decon procedure as the cameraman crammed in with him, recording and subcasting to She-Bear’s subscribers.
As the four of them trundled off down the road and out into the ruins, cutting across country, the reporter kept up a steady patter until they reached the edge of Colina Verde’s Will coverage. He warned the viewers they were about to go silent, and then he himself became quiet. From now on they were recording only, and would assemble it into a nice subcast once they returned.
There were not many places in the Anarchy Zone that got Will reception at all. Until Colina Verde had risen on the shoulders of Black Mountain, fruit of Lucian’s vision and drive, the whole Anarchy Zone was a big dark spot on the Will map, terra incognita, Here Be Dragons. Or at least gamblers, whores, and cage fighters.
The cameraman completed a series of establishing shots of the interior of the NOE tank and set up for a close-up on She-Bear. Her facial tattoos of a bear, other wild animals, flames flickering toward her hairline and icicles hanging from her jawline down her neck posed particular lighting challenges in the dim interior with the winter sunlight coming only from the tank’s narrow front viewing window.
The reporter got She-Bear to read off a prepared script. “Today our target is the northernmost Will tower in the Anarchy Zone, which blankets the north tip of old Green Valley, and part of the lower Strip. The towers here have a shorter range than they do anywhere else, because of the radiation. For a long time, the Will couldn’t get here at all. Then the Road Guys built Colina Verde, very near the pre-Spill antenna cluster on the peak of Black Mountain. They reused some of the antennae to receive laser pulse from a satellite. From there, the signal runs under the ground in wires to Colina Verde and to a trunk point in old Green Valley, where it branches off to different towers. All the towers in the Anarchy Zone broadcast to Will users and then route their communications through the underground lines to Black Mountain and up to a dedicated geosynchronous satellite.”
She-Bear turned the plastic sheet over, expecting it to continue with information about how jacked-in users accessed the Will, but the other side was blank.
The sound of the tank rose in pitch, like an ancient motor vehicle shifting gears, as it ground to the top of a steep hill of debris. “You know,” She-Bear commented, “I’m only along on this trip because Alansgirl recommended it. I was thinking of the future, about what I might do when I retire from the cage. This was all arranged and everything before you two stopped talking.”
Joe grunted, eyes on the ground in front of his tank.
“What’s the matter with you, anyway?” She-Bear snapped. “Everybody at SCAT is ignoring her, and she’s right, it must be a conspiracy. But you don’t work for SCAT.”
“I might as well, for the way everything works,” Joe said. “If I got to pick and choose, I wouldn’t be stuck doing goddamned install work just because Posseman decided he was too old and switched to customer service. I only raise a stink when it really matters. You know what they tried to do to me yesterday? I got a mass-commo notice that because I’ve been doing install I’m supposed to bring my truck in for service at the end of every shift. This thing goes 30 kph at top speed. You know how far away Ellay is? And besides, I own this Snovus Mover, and nobody works on it but me and KorKor. So I got on the horn and screamed until they told me it wasn’t meant to apply to NOEs at all, which I already knew.”
“When it matters,” She-Bear sneered. “You drive around in this tank all day, mostly out of communication of the Will and out of reach of any orders or interference from on high, usually totally alone. It sounds like freedom. I thought it must be great to be so alone. I had to bring the cameras with me today, but usually, you’re in your own little world out here. But you let SCAT tell you who to be friends with.”
“Don’t confuse friends with work colleagues,” Joe said. “I used to be a colleague of Posseman, when he was still out constructing things. Now he’s Alansgirl’s SCAT mentor. That’s it. What on earth made her think we were ever friends?”
She-Bear huffed, “Men.”
“Hey,” Joe muttered, not looking away from the thick window of the tank, “don’t blame me for your life.” But he sounded distracted, and in the next moment he made a sharp turn and shouted, “Look alive on that gun!”
Joe switched on the Dazzle Attack Lights.
A series of popping noises came from outside. She-Bear grabbed the tank turret controls, but she could not see the enemy. “Where the fart are they?”
“There, there!” Joe pointed as he slewed the tank around with his other hand. “But for godssakes don’t shoot the tower!”
She-Bear sighted the turret. It was a manual sight, and took no chances with any jammable, malfunction-prone electronic jimcrackery. She lined up on a stretch of ruins where she had seen muzzle flash—what the fart were they shooting, pre-Spill rifles with bullets? The turret gun controls were like a pilot’s yoke, and she squeezed the trigger with both thumbs. She felt more than heard the shell leave the barrel above her in a blast of recoil. The muffled whump did nothing to stop the firing in her sights. She realized her hands were shaking with the berserker rage. “I can’t shoot this farting thing!” she screamed. She tried to pull her hands away and give the controls to Joe, but her hands had clawed up, and she could not let go.
“Don’t you be going farting berserk in here!” Joe yelled.
She-Bear worked to get in control of her breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, and the red rush in her vision. But she had no time, no time. She made herself take the time to get her aim straight, even while the enemy broke from cover and came running at the tank, ominous grey balls in hand.
She lined up and fired again, and the ground exploded in front of the running enemy, sending cement chunks and bodies flying.
“Good shot,” Joe breathed in relief.
“Who the farting hell are those guys?” She-Bear asked.
“Copper thieves,” Joe said. “Probably. They’re attacking the towers. Let’s make sure they’re dead. Then we can start repairs.”
She-Bear stood up panting and shaking her hands, and then sat back down heavily. “Give me a minute,” she panted.
For the first time in an hour, Joe glanced at her. “Sure. This is all maneuvering here for a while. Take a break. Wishing you had brought your coach along?”
“Yeah, kind of. He’d put a Chi drink in my hand right about now. Hey, I brought some along. I forgot.” She-Bear stood up unsteadily as the tank ground loudly up to the tower, crunching over the bodies of the enemy along with all the other detritus on the hill. She maneuvered past the cameraman and the reporter, who was wisely silent, and dug into her cooler. She popped a sports drink, eyes closed and ribs heaving like a cheetah after a successful hunt.
In a few minutes, they were making repairs. It looked complicated, and Joe had all his attention in the open access panel of the tower, while for all they knew, there were still enemies out there. She-Bear scanned the crumbling walls around them, and as far out into the truncated white horizon as visibility allowed. She kept trying to scratch her nose through the mask of her radi-suit.
The air turned crisp. It was like something just sucked all the moisture right out of it. She-Bear felt it right through the suit, which made her wonder how well the stiff, awkward thing was really protecting her.
Then white flakes fell from the sky. Silently, they touched down, and melted on contact with the chunky debris field.
Joe hummed as he worked.
“What’s that song?” She-Bear asked, her voice subdued and drained of emotion, and slightly muffled by her mask.
“It’s an old Anarchy Zone song. Predates the Empire, they say. White Christmas. My mother’s family sings it sometimes when it snows like this. They’re Christians, you see.”
“Post-Apocalyptics? Like in China?” She-Bear asked.
“No, the old kind. Not even polygamists, Old Order Unitarians, still keeping the old ways.”
“Huh. That’s kind of vip, I guess. The Anarchy Zone is all about freedom, after all,” She-Bear said.
“Uh-huh. Oh, the O.O.U. is perfectly legal in the Empire. That’s not why the family moved to the Zone. Biological refugees, way back when the Zone was still surrounded by the United States. Hand me that splicer there, will you? Thanks.”
She-Bear looked in Joe’s large tool box. “What’s this card file thing? I’ve only seen these in Will dramas.”
“That,” Joe said in a storytelling voice, “is my Personal Non-Deletable Database.”
“Oh,” She-Bear snorted. “Even NOEs get stuff erased on them, huh?”
Joe shrugged without looking away from his work. “The nature of my work brings me where nobody can connect to the Will until I’m done, but even when I can connect, it’s the Snovus Mover that communicates, not me. And I have to come out here to fix stuff. The ancient people used to have this thing they called a ‘personal computer’, which was like an external Will implant you could carry around, and it had internal memory storage. I’ve run across one a couple of times in the pawn shop, and I thought about using one. But this works, and it never needs to be charged, and I don’t have to worry about dropping it. The ancients’ computer systems were delicate. There, all set. Let’s test it.”
He turned it on, and checked it with a hand held device that turned on a green light. He nodded and packed up his toolbox, and they all trooped through the falling snow back into the tank.
After they ran the decontamination vacuum cycle and stowed the suits and Joe’s multi-pocketed NOE vest in the locker inside the airlock, Joe connected to the Will from inside the tank, to double check the repairs. He dropped into a Will teahouse where people were chatting, but they did not see him.
Several people and their tables and chairs were holographically represented in miniature on Joe’s dashboard. Someone was saying, “Sappy’s son formed a retro heavy metal tribute band called Strontium-90.”
Joe shut it off, and the holograms disappeared. “They don’t see me when I test,” he explained to the camera.
The reporter asked, “Ooh, NOEs can be anywhere, invisible, anytime? How cool is that?”
Joe shrugged. “If you like peoples’ gossip better than you like fixing machines, you don’t become a NOE in the first place. I like machines.”
The reporter asked, “Do you have to be a little antisocial to want to be a Natural, a person without Will implants? Joe, She-Bear, both your jobs go only to Naturals, Joe, what do you think?”
“I guess,” said Joe. “Heck, I’m a geek. We had that reputation before there was any such thing as the double-you ell.”
“What’s that?” asked the reporter.
“The Will. WireLess, that’s what WL stands for. Network Outage Engineers still call it by initials instead of pronouncing the acronym like a name. Remember, gEEk is spelled with a double E.” He smiled slightly at the in-joke referring to an Electronic Engineer.
“You’ve got to have your geek jargon I guess,” said the reporter. “She-Bear, how about you?”
“I always knew I was going to be a cage fighter, since I was sponsored from childhood, so I never considered Implants. The Berserker Fighting Association forbids body modifications except for the required tattoos.” She gestured to the bear standing upright on her cheek, surrounded by berserker flames.
Joe said, “You’re Naturals yourselves. You reporters. You have to be, or you would have become disoriented when we left the Will coverage zone. NOEs have to be Naturals for that reason. And reporters who cover natural disasters and combat zones, and Imperial Marines, and anyone else who needs to be able to do their jobs without the Will.” Joe started up the tank. “We’re going to check some previous work on the way back to the city.” The tank ground up over a hill of debris.
They spotted someone running, and then someone threw a grey sphere, but it turned out to be a dud, or maybe just a rock. There was no sound or vibration of explosion.
Annoyed, Joe took off after the running rock thrower, and suddenly the ground under the tank split and turned dark, and the Snovus Mover’s treads sank in some kind of muck.
“Oh, dammyboy,” Joe swore. “Get on the gun!”
She-Bear was already moving. “What are we stuck in?”
“I don’t know, but we’ll have to go out there to get unstuck. We’re in a coverage hole, and couldn’t call for help even if there was help to call for. Dammit, they suckered us. Ten’ll get you four they’re waiting til I pop the hatch.”
“Not taking that bet. How do we get out?”
“I need to put some kind of flat, dry debris under the treads.”
“I’ll go,” said She-Bear. “And bring them.” She jerked a thumb at the reporter and cameraman.
“Right. I stay on the gun. But this isn’t a cage fight, She-Bear. Don’t go getting into it hand to hand out there. They pull your mask off, you take a big-ass lungful of whatever’s out there.”
“Right.” She-Bear dropped from the hatch as soon as it swung open, anticipating a hail of fire. It didn’t come. Instead, as she rolled away from the tank and scuttled toward cover, she was aware of two things: one, someone had popped up behind what must once have been a window with a shoulder-fired missile, and two, she was already getting a lungful of something despite the mask, and she guessed that something was sewage.
The cameraman banged the hatch closed just as the rocket detonated against the tank’s armor with a brilliant flash. The reporter was already outside, and he would spout sponsors’ propaganda no more. His body lay tilted at an odd angle, and it did not look entirely complete.
She-Bear tried to run toward the rocketeer, and slipped on the ice. She slid on her hands and scuttled butt-upward; her last coherent thought before the bersarkrgangr took over was that she probably looked silly on camera doing this.
Then she was in the bear trance, and had no more human self-consciousness. She loped across the thin ice that had broken under the tank’s weight.
The rocket man was not where he had been when she reached the area, but the snow was still falling, and now it was sticking. The attacker left footprints even a city-dweller could follow. But She-Bear did not follow them. Instead she circled around the ruins of the building where he had gone, looking to turn the tables on the ambusher. But once he had gotten out of the open, there was no more sign of him.
She-Bear growled in frustrated fury and turned back, her head turning from side to side like a grizzly scenting the wind, although she was actually peering through her mask, which limited her peripheral vision, just watching for movement anywhere around her.
She was halfway back to human, but chose to extend the berserker trance instead of suppress it. She searched the ruins for suitable flat debris, and hauled back some unrecognizable thing that would have been very heavy to pull across the frozen ground if she had not been channeling the strength of a fine fury.
She heaved what was left of the reporter’s body into the hatch, but did not bothering vacuuming it. It did not need to come into the interior compartment with the rest of them. The tank got moving again.
She-Bear barely registered the rest of the trip. The next time she noticed anything, it was the chime indicating her subcast was about to come on. She was at home, and she and Joe were about to watch the edited version of their day. It looked odd from this angle, on the flat communication screen. Those who had Will implants were watching it in 3D, as if they were the cameraman.
Watching, She-Bear commented, “I don’t know why the second group of attackers didn’t press their advantage.”
Joe opened his second beer and replied, “Maybe they had only had one missile.”
She-Bear sat up and blinked in confusion at the part where she had asked Joe who their attackers had been. Where Joe had said “copper thieves”, now he seemed to have said “Khanti terrorists.”
There was a sidebar on the screen from Sportswire with a link that said, “Is your Will connection safe? What you can do to help Imperial Security spot potential Khanti saboteurs. Details at 11.”
She-Bear shut it off and turned on some snovus music, a dijeridu recording on a shiny plastic disk that reflected rainbows from the artificial light of the fake chandelier. The drone was entrancing, in a completely opposite way from the berserker trance. It was like entering a dark cave, like hibernating.
“Not bad for loot,” Joe commented. “From the pawn shop?”
“Yeah, the player, too,” She-Bear said. “Who were they really?”
“The second attackers? I don’t know. People looking to steal a tank, probably. If I’d been by myself like usual it would only have taken killing one person and unlocking the security codes. The risk would be worth it to a snovus miner who lives out in the ruins, digging up stuff like that music thing to sell to citizens.”
“One person or not, they’d find me hard to kill,” She-Bear said.
“So you think you want to be a NOE when your fighting career is over? It’s not all shooting and tank driving, you know. You’d have to become a geek too.”
She-Bear handed Joe another beer. “Geek with a double E.”
Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Damnation Books, was the owner of The Science Fiction Store in Las Vegas, and has been a freelance writer since 1985. She wrote Network Outage Engineer while working in the tech department at Sprint-Nextel.