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Paper

Owning a book in the New World Order meant death. It didn’t stop enterprising young men from trying to make a buck.

The Newer-Net has a monopoly on all information. Paper, once plentiful, has now been outlawed, both its production or its use as a means to transmit information. But to an enterprising young man like Desi, paper and its secrets could make him fabulously rich, if it doesn’t get him killed first…

Desi Roberto Santiago was a slacker. There is nothing wrong with being a slacker, except if you owe people money. Desi owed very few people, but the people he owed money were the kind of folks who would break one or both of your legs if you were late paying up.

Unfortunately for him, slacking was his avowed lifestyle. He learned early in life, nothing was ever worth rushing for, or worse, putting in hard time and effort. It’s always disappointing and never worth the time you spend getting it. He had a form of perpetual buyer’s remorse. So Desi’s motto was “want not, work not.” But he never lived up to it. He always spent more than he had and now had borrowed money from the local máfia boss, Don Milagro, to keep himself up on the latest tech. But Desi had a plan.

Desi was a bit skinny and asthmatic. His black hair was perpetually uncombed and more often than not, a bit dirty. He had a bit of chin hair and a line on his lip that wanted to be a mustache, unsuccessfully. His clothing reflected his overall attempts at looking prosperous, all second hand clothing that used to belong to rich tourists. None of it matched, and most of it was ill-fitting, only making it more apparent that he was poor.

He left his day job with the same rage he felt every day, after two hours of work on the phone providing technical support to some pendejo in India, and then went home. It wasn’t even work anymore. Two hours? It took him longer to get to work than he was there. No matter, after his next score, he was going to quit that job and maybe even come in and piss on his boss’ desk before leaving.

He hated climbing the stairs to his fifteenth story apartment on the Southside of what was left of Mexico City. He stepped over Antonio on the ninth floor, passed out in a puddle of the latest pharmaceutical mierda being put out by Pharmacon. The man reeked something awful; the mix of body odor, urine, and vomit might have caused Desi to throw up, if he had anything to eat for the last few days. Instead, a burning sensation filled the pit of his stomach and he clenched his nose and jumped over the prone body on the stairs. When Antonio sobered up, he would probably be looking for a bath. He was not the only person squatting here with a pungent aroma of soaplessness.

In the Ivory Tower, a partially completed tenement abandoned by a construction company after the earthquake, water was in short supply past the fifth floor. Beyond that, water pressure had to be created using mechanical tools. Desi’s solution was to use a salvaged bicycle and a roommate to help bring up enough water from the street. When Desi could spare some water or get some extra time on the bike, he would help Tony clean up, but today wasn’t going to be one of those days. Desi had work to do.

It had rained all last week and Desi’s catch basins on the roof were full. He had made them several months ago after finding an old printed copy of Home Designers Quarterly, one of the last prints made before paper became illegal to produce. He found them in, of all places, the burned out quarter of the barrio, hidden in a cache of thousands of magazines, buried deep after Mexico City’s great quake of 2052. Whole sections of the city were off limits, too dangerous they said, but despite his asthma, Desi loved to explore. He used the magazine to create catch basins from plastic containers all over the city, and set them up on the top of the roof to capture the ever decreasing rainwater. Engineering a distribution system and a water-cranked dynamo with old auto batteries allowed Desi to power his electronics.

Pumping water was never something Desi enjoyed doing, so his catch basins were a way of letting nature work for him instead. But when nature wasn’t feeling generous, Desi had rigged up a bicycle in his apartment to act as his pump, and he could fill his bathtub in about fifteen minutes with vigorous riding. And that was the catch. It had to be vigorous. Which means he needed help. Hence his less than perfect room-mate.

“Hermano, it’s good to see you. What did you bring me?”

“Nothing, the same thing I bring you every day. I got some extra work today and I need to get started. Go back to your bootleg cable.” The freemium directed receiver array gave a grainy picture, in high definition, no less.

“Why you got to be like that?” Nicolas was half Russian and half Mexican, so he was a giant in tan.

“Be like what? You are always mooching. Why don’t you run out and find something to eat for us today? You could always go back to work.” Nicolas’ exotic appearance made him a hit with the ladies, and all of the screaming meant they liked his… assets. Desi despised him most of the time, when he wasn’t wanting to be him. Nicolas went back to his room and a few minutes later, giggling could be heard through the closed door. Desi grimaced, shook his head, and picked up his Nakatomi 3270 integrated OS datadeck. It was sleek and tiny; Desi may have shoes with holes, but it was clear this piece of state-of-the-art technology was his real priority.

Desi pulled out his oversized rig from under the sofa and plugged his deck into it. His rig was twice the size of a standard unit because of all of his extended non-standard adaptations. Numerous cards of different colors were clipped onto his primary databoard in an unsightly and precariously balanced array.

He looked at the series of readouts and saw that with the amount of water he had on the roof, he could run his deck for about eight hours. He set up the piping so he could redirect water to his bathtub and to his internal storage containers in the apartment. He would be able to capture nearly half of the water from the roof. He tapped on the pipe in a series of warning tones to alert anyone downstream that he would be opening his water supply, and to let them know in thirty minutes water would flow until it was gone. He received three taps back from three different people, so he knew most of the water would find a home.

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The deck’s internal battery was already nearly fully powered, and he did his best to keep it that way, because he never knew when he would have work, and he wanted to always have the option to work, even if there wasn’t any water or electricity where he might be staying. The deck, in power-saving mode, might last twenty hours, but it took half that time just to find a buyer these days. Paper is lucrative, but the fines and penalties were high if you were caught trafficking in paper products or infodrops of paper from older magazines from the last century.

His initial diagnostic of his deck said the software was as up to date as it could be, and there was no traffic that resembled los ángeles at his current connection. That would change, the more suspicious his traffic got. In los ángeles, low Turing AI’s monitored the NewerNet and kept track of any packets whose pedigree they could not easily identify. Desi’s greatest hack was his ability to make his packets look completely innocent and resemble the multitude of datastreams out there already.

The NewerNet was not like the old Internet that collapsed in 2027 in the media explosion of the late 2020’s. It was designed from the ground up to be completely under the control of the founding governments of the United States and Europe, the primary investors. As other countries were allowed to buy their way in, strict regulation of the traffic and content was established. Since media crashed the Internet, there were multiple control systems on media, ensuring smoother traffic and better management. This also meant the worldwide internet agency chartered by the United Nations became the impromptu police of the NewerNet. This new stricter internet was one of the most policed and controlled systems in the world. Using pre-Turing AI’s, the network was constantly patrolled, regulated, data managed, and operating system upgraded piece of technology ever to exist.

And the most souless, thought Desi. Once the NewerNet was established three years after the collapse of the Old Internet, big money kept the network the playground of the elite and the superwealthy. The OlderNet was restored as a shadow of itself, but because so many people were forced to use it, it was unstable and unfriendly, not to mention filled with a variety of spyware, malware, and rogue viruses. The insecurity of the Oldernet allowed Desi to use it to enter the NewerNet and meet his clients using specialized hacks Desi had created when he was just a child of nine or ten.

Desi activated his rainwater power system and his rig hummed to life. “Gotta work fast; ten hours will vanish like magic.” Indeed they did. He did not find his next buyer for almost nine hours after starting. The data his buyer was looking for was information regarding private solar technology development. Information of this nature had become government owned during the economic collapse of big business when the internet failed. Energy companies were the first services absorbed by the government.

All of their attendant information was also absorbed. The cache of publications Desi had found had to be a library extension, because his database linked two dozen articles, and five of them were specifically about the processes used to make advanced solar cells. Desi was able to convince his client to pay the astronomical finder fee of five hundred thousand New Pesos . That would be enough to pay off Don Milago and get the price off of his head. There would still be enough to get a new deck and upgrade this shitty old rig to something more state of the art, maybe even new. He might even share the wealth with his stupid roommate for all the times he spent riding water into the bathtub when Desi couldn’t. He would blow through his fifty thousand in putas and tequila, but that would be his business.

He arranged for a meeting place with the client with a time delay activation. The client would only get the key to break the encryption twenty minutes before the drop. No military or police can mobilize in that kind of time. At the first hint of betrayal, Desi would vanish into the crowds and never be seen. Desi could hear the knocking of the pipes and see the pressure timer indicating he had used up eight hours of water and was about to run out of pressure. He turned off the pipe, leaving thirty or so minutes of extra water to spare. He tapped the pipes again, and everyone responded with thanks and shutting off their valves until the next time.

Exhausted, Desi fell into a dreamless sleep.

“Salir, puta, vete a casa de tu madre.” Nicolas was drunk and threw the woman’s clothes out of the apartment door. As she ran by in disgust, she snatched the money from his hands as she passed him. He in return smacked her on the ass and lifted the heavy door back into the locked position. Nicky stank of sex and went into the bathroom and noticed the tub was more than half full of water. He considered just jumping into the water, but not completely crazy, Nicky drew a small bucket from the wall and filled it with water. Using this, he cleaned himself up and admired himself in the mirror again.

Nicky hated the putas. They always thought they were better than him. Selling your ass is not a job, he would say, but they would just laugh and take his money. Nicky noted sunrise had just taken place as he left the bathroom, and it lit up the eastern side of the building without a completed face. Feeling better after his washing up, he grabbed the last of the cheese and stale bread from their refrigerating pantry.

“ We need to score soon; there ain’t shit in here to eat now.” As he chewed the tough bread and slightly dessicated cheese, Nicky had an idea. He had been following Desi a few days ago and knew he had found a new cache of paper. Nicky mentioned idly to Desi they could sell the whole lot at a black market paper pulper and make some good money. Nicky had sold stockpiles that size for easily fifty thousand New Pesos. Desi had told him to wait until he had finished his survey, but well, he ain’t the boss. He could get that money and give Desi his fifty percent and be in hookers, booze, and money for weeks, if he managed it right. Nicky went to his closet and put on a good suit. It was never a good idea to meet Don Milago looking anything less than perfect.

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Desi woke hungry and feeling just a bit sick. The sun shining through the open east face of the building was hot, very hot. He was sweating and knew this would be another one of those three digit days. Washing off the stink of his sweaty night’s sleep, Desi had wanted to be up and out before it go this hot, and now he would have to be climbing in the heat of the day. The drop was tomorrow, so he couldn’t let it wait.

He opened the pantry in the partially complete kitchen. The cheese and bread were both gone. “ Cabrón. That was enough cheese and bread that he could have left half for me. Why do I deal with him? It isn’t like we are even friends anymore. After tomorrow, I will just move out try and rent a small house closer to the center of town near my job. I will be able to pay the rent for a year, giving me time to figure out my next move. Even after I give Don Milago his cut and interest, I will be set for months. I could even take my time with my next project.”

Desi’s stomach rumbled, breaking his reverie . “Okay, mijo, we have fifteen pesos left, just enough to grab something to eat and get over to the zone.” This would be his last meal for a while if this drop didn’t work. He changed out of his good clothing and put on some tan khakis and a backpack. In the pack were his deck, water, rope, duct tape, a filter mask, gloves, and waterproof folders to move the product in.

The climb down did nothing to improve his state of mind. It seemed everyone had the same idea, to sit in the stairwell, because it was fifteen degrees cooler in the concrete isolated tube. By the time he reached the street, he was hot, annoyed and more tired than when he woke up. The five miles to the zone was thankfully uneventful other than a few nu-chickens waddling down the road, their oversized breasts making it nearly impossible for them to escape the children chasing them.

Seeing those children put him in mind of Nicolas. When they were younger, they were just like these kids, chasing chickens for dinner, just like their mother asked them to. Nicky was fun back then, reckless, wild, completely fearless. Those same traits make him an irresponsible adult. His transformation was a gradual one, and it didn’t seem to be complete until after their mother died. “Mom told Nicky to take care of me because of my asthma, and because he was the man of the house. But right after Mom died, we lost our home in the quake, and we lived on the street until we found a place at the Ivory Towers. Falling in with Don Milago and his mafia was the worst thing Nicky ever did. The worst thing I did was to listen and join with him. But today, that ends.” Desi’s mental ramblings had distracted him from the distance and the heat. He came to the edge of the earthquake zone, still marked with orange traffic cones and concrete dividers at the edge of the sinkhole.

The center of Mexico City sat on an underground aquifer which had existed for millions of years. As the city grew and demanded more water for its twenty million inhabitants, the aquifer slowly lost water faster than it gained it from rainwater and mountain run off. The day of the great quake, a 9.3, one of the greatest quakes of all time, teamed up with the collapse of the aquifer cavity and caused one of the worst natural disasters in history. Nine million people died in the initial collapse. The poorest quarters of town outside of the city proper, the barrios, survived with collapsed buildings, but without the catastrophic loss of life.

The edges of the city farthest from the sinkhole were still relatively accessible if you were careful and tied very good knots. He saw something wrong with the area as he approached. The cones had been moved from their normal positions, and the concrete barriers were parted as if to allow a vehicle past. Slipping down behind rubble, Desi followed the road, determined to find out what anyone in a vehicle could possibly want down here. The road was unstable, and a truck was simply the stupidest thing you could do.

When Nicolas showed up at Don Milagro’s villa, it was still early in the morning, with only the slightest hint of the coming heat. The gate guards let Nicolas through with only a cursory glance and a quick pat down. Nicky was, of course, unarmed. Very few people could afford a firearm. Two guards waved Nicky toward the house, and he made his way up to the side of the pool where the Don was having breakfast in the shade of a tree that blocked the morning sun.

The Don smiled as Nicolas came into view and stood up to greet him. He was a huge man, still vigorous-looking despite his age and salt and pepper hair. “Nicky, sit down with me and have breakfast.”

Nicolas thought to refuse, but the Don’s tone left him with the impression he did not have a choice. “Si, Don Milagro, gracias.”

“Now tell me about your project, Nicky.”

“Well, I need a truck and some men to help me move some paper. I found a large stockpile of it in Old New Mexico City.”

“Really?” Don Milagro’s face was smiling, but his dark eyes weren’t. His eyes were all business.

Nicolas continued, “It’s near the edge of the collapse zone, and I believe there are several tons of it. I have a buyer lined up willing to convert it at his own facility. So, all we have to do is pick up the load, move it and drop it, and they are promising me $175,000 New Pesos for the shipment.”

“What would you want from me, Nicky? You sound as if everything is already worked out.”

“I need manpower and a truck, Don Milago. To move that much paper, quickly, will take at least four to six men.”

“And what is my percentage of this endeavor if I provide you with fast manpower and a vehicle?” The Don had stopped eating and fixed Nicolas with his complete attention. Nicolas suddenly felt hot, and sweat burst out underneath his shirt, a cold sweat, decidedly uncomfortable.

“I was thinking of splitting it, 60/40. With the sixty going to you, of course.”

“It seems a bit one-sided to me, mijo. I am providing the truck, and up to six men to work in the heat of the day, near a dangerous sinkhole. I certainly hope you can do better than that.”

“Of course, Don Milagro. What was I thinking? I meant to say 80/20, seeing how generous you are being with your men and your overall support.”

“Now you know that you and your brother are in deep debt to me at the moment. But I think of you like family. I would like to think you would want to help out your younger brother in his time of need. He owes me enough money, at this point, for me to have his kneecaps shattered. I like you, Nicky. I understand you. Greed and avarice are things near to me. Your brother, not so much. I do not understand his motivations and what I don’t understand, I don’t have any use for.”

“I don’t follow you, señor.” Nicolas did not like where this conversation was heading.

“Your brother is in debt to me for nearly 250,000 New Pesos. I have not tried to call that debt in for some time, because he is usually good about paying me, but now the word has gotten out that he owes me this money. I cannot have my reputation being damaged, having anyone saying that I am weak, and I cannot control my men. I need you to make the problem of your brother go away. Necesito que a desaparecer.”

“Don Milagro, you know I will do anything you ask me to. But he is my brother.”

“He is your problem, then. He has my money or you make him disappear. I shall show you my generosity. Keep all the money from your little paper excursion. I will call it your fee. Feel better, now? I will have the men and truck ready within the hour. Finish your breakfast.”

Nicky could barely eat anything, and he was starving. His stomach felt like a pool of bubbling acid. What in the hell was he going to do?

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Desi could not believe anyone could be this stupid. The truck was parked backward on a steep slope, with the back door open. But this whole area was unstable and could slide into the sinkhole at any time. As it was, the repository was nearer to the edge than he would have liked. He used his line to tie himself off and began to pay it out behind him, watching his every step until he came to the drop point. As he got closer, he could hear the voices of the men and a couple of them sounded familiar.

Alfredo? What’s he doing here? Is that Nicky? Desi slips out of line of sight of the van. Alfredo, Nicky, and two others come around the corner pulling dollies with containers filled to the brim with paper from his stockpile!

“Tú pendejo!” Desi ran out and drew back with all his strength and knocked Nicky flat on his ass. “What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”

“What? Do you know how much this is worth?” Nicky clutched his bleeding lip and jaw. He sat up, but did not move.

“Do you? How much do you think you are going to get for this?”

“I have been promised 175,000 New Peso, cabrón. Now you need to get out of my face, so I can get back to work.”

Desi’s rage grew ten times stronger and made him reckless. He kicked Nicky in the chin and screamed at him. “Estupido. I will make more money from a single page than you would for this entire lot.”

The remainder of Don Milagro’s men lifted not a finger to interfere. This was a family matter, and they turned around and found a nickstik to smoke and share while the two worked out their issues. They would follow whoever came out on top.

Desi’s rage tightened his chest and his breathing became labored. He started wheezing and fell to his knees.

Nicky shook off the kick and got to his knees. “Mijo, slow down. Calm down.” He hefted Desi to his chest and held him close. “Breathe slower. You are always so over-excited. Mama was right to leave me in charge.”

Desi weakly struck out at Nicky, and then turned into his chest as his breath slowly came back to him. He began to cry. “Why Nicky, why do you always want to screw up my things?”

“I don’t know, Desi. I’m always jealous of you. You can do so many things with your mind. I’m just a dumb jock. Selling your paper was petty. I just wanted to make some quick cash. I’m sorry.”

The four men from Don Milago’s villa had finished their nickstik and turned to look at the two men. “Is this love-fest over? Can we get back to work?”

Nicky looked at Desi with inquiry in his eyes. “Wait here. Hold this rope. I will be right back.” Desi moved into the partially collapsed building and dropped off a floor adjacent to the stairwell Nicky had been using. The paper Desi needed was several levels below. He could tell from the covers of the books he was seeing that they had not reached the information he planned to sell. Working quickly, he grabbed the publications he had already set aside and put them into his pack.

He tugged the rope and shouted up, “Okay, pull me up.”

Nicky and his men pulled Desi back to the first floor. “Go ahead, do what you need to. Be careful, this area is less stable than it looks. Don’t go beyond the second floor.”

“Okay, you heard the man. Let’s get moving.” As Alfredo and his team moved out, Nicky turned Desi towards him and knocked some of the dust off of him. “Desi, Don Milagro is really pissed about the money you owe him. Can you pay him?”

“I think so. If my buy goes down tomorrow, we will be all right. I will buy us out, free and clear.”

“That’s great. Is everything in the bag?” Nicky turned away for a second while Desi started wrapping his line. When he turned back, he brandished a gun pointed toward Desi. “Give me the bag, Desi.”

“What are you doing, Nicolas?”

“I promised Don Milagro that I would make you disappear. You have caused him to lose face, and I want to move up in his organization. So you give me the bag, I sell what you have in it, move this paper, and I get it all. A promotion, money, status.”

“So this was all an act? You had planned to kill me the next time you saw me, no matter what?”

“I’m sorry, Desi. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this. I can get us clear. Just trust me.”

“You have been promising me you would make a big score for the last twelve years. We have been living hand to mouth since Mama died. It’s always one more job, one more scheme, and we’ll be set. Well, I am tired of waiting. I am taking my shot now. I am so sorry.”

“Fuck you, Nicky.” Tears welled up in Desi’s eyes as he handed over his backpack.

Don Milagro came around the corner and looked at Nicky with pride. “Well done, my boy, well done.” Don Milagro put his hand out and Nicky handed him the gun.

“I will be giving you your reward today, Nicky. I told you, I respect greed and avarice, and you are a testament to the effect of money on family relationships.” Milagro had been pointing the gun at Desi, and then turned suddenly, shooting Nicky in the gut. Nicky staggeed backward and fell into the house where the last of Don Milagro’s men were rolling out the last of the paper.

“Now, my boy. I understand you were in the business of selling paper to buyers. I have been told I have been thinking too small, and there is a lucrative business arrangement we could be working out. So, to show me your renewed value, you will give me the drop coordinates and your contact codes. Work with me, and we could all be very wealthy. With that truck alone, I am confident we could become very wealthy men.”

“You lied to Nicky. To make him bring you to me.”

“So true. His greed made him easy to confuse.”

“And if I work for you, what would make me think you won’t do the same thing to me?”

“You are more valuable to me alive, of course. But only if you cooperate.”

Desi heard a pinging noise with a familiar rhythm. It happened three times before he realized he recognized the signal that the water was about to start flowing. Desi hadn’t taken the rope off from around his waist and shoulders. He began to back up toward the edge of the sinkhole. “I don’t see how I can trust you. You just killed my brother. He may have been my half-brother, but you killed him anyway, like you would kill a dog.”

“So what? To me, he was just a dog, a dog I paid to bite who I wanted him to bite. You are wasting my time. Give me the coordinates and the access codes. Otherwise, I will just shoot you and consider today a wash. I made a little money and got rid of a couple of problems.”

The tapping got louder and more insistent. “Go in there and find out what that noise is. If it Nicky, feel free to beat him to death.” The four men rushed off to comply with the Don’s order. Desi felt the shelf vibrating and realized what Nicky was doing.

“I need to key the code in myself. It will only activate with my biometric signature. Hand me the bag.” Desi put his hand out. The Don hesitated for a moment, and then gave the bag to him.

Desi reached into the bag, and the Don raised his gun and pointede it at Desi. Desi pulled out the deck and activated it. He put his key code in and began entering the twenty-four character string. His hands were shaking, so he put the backpack onto his back while he continued to enter code. Then there was a snapping, cracking sound, and the shelf shook violently, bounced once and fell away.

“Te quiero, mijo,” was the last thing he heard as he fell freely into the open sinkhole. The Don, unable to maintain his footing, slid toward the edge of the shelf and was flung into space. He turned as he fell and shot five times before he disappeared into the darkness. Desi saw the line pay out, and then there was a snap and he lost consciousness.

When Desi woke up, he was bleeding from a scalp wound. Bloody but not fatal. He climbed up the rope and realized he did not have his deck. Didn’t matter; he had activated the drop code and would meet the client on time.

When he got to the top, he saw the truck was now on the edge of the shelf, but still able to be driven. He got in and found the keys were still in the ignition. He looked back and saw the entire stockpile was now inside the truck. As he drove away, wiping the sticky blood from his face with a towel he found inside the truck, he wondered what Costa Rica looked like this time of year.

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Paper; originally published in Hayward’s Reach © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved

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Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.

Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies: Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short(2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (UK, 2012), and Possibilities (2012).

He has written two books: a collection called Hayward’s Reach (2011) and an e-book novella called Broken Glass (2013) featuring Clifford Engram, Paranormal Investigator.

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Author | Editor | Futurist | Activist | http://bit.ly/thowzebio | http://bit.ly/thpatreon

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