If it hadn’t been for the bright green signs calling out the exits for the city of Holliday, Trace Butler might have driven right past what appeared to her as an endless black prairie with hardly enough evercrete and glass to reflect the bright moon hanging overhead. Driving west out of Wichita Falls had been like watching the brightness go out on a display, until the only lights left were those in the sky and the occasional set of headlights coming at her in the opposite direction.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
The radio was playing a crackling mix of Outlaw Country and the so-called Bro-country that had been so popular in the 20s. Trace tapped along with the beat of drums and belted out the familiar lyrics anytime there was a key change. The music streamed from the car directly into her ears, allowing her to keep all the windows rolled down. The roar of the passing wind drowned out her own voice, which to her eternal dismay, had never been able to carry a tune.
Trace pulled off the highway shortly after midnight, and as she waited at a stoplight, she eyed the wrinkled HEB bag on the passenger side floor. The white plastic had been wrapped tightly around a rectangular box that deserved a fancier vessel. But then, had she been stopped, an ornate box of brushed titanium with the words here be treasure etched on its lid might have garnered some attention.
Most people wouldn’t bat an eye at a grocery bag on the floorboard. Trace was hoping a cop wouldn’t either. When the light turned green, she took a left under the highway and entered the city proper.
It wouldn’t have been accurate to say Holliday didn’t have any streetlights. The poles were there, dotting the streets two to a block, and atop them sat dingy globes shaped like old-style Christmas bulbs, but the light that emanated was weak and inconsistent. It rose and fell like the breath of the dying animal, hardly able to produce enough light to announce its presence, let alone illuminate the street and sidewalk around it.
Trace didn’t mind the low light. It meant the cameras would only register her visit in grainy green-on-black swirls that basically screamed shadow of a doubt. Her Mazda was a common car, one of the most reliably built electric cars to hit the market before the Realignment.
The MESH broke through the crackle of Brooks and Dunn’s Neon Moon. Despite the static, Rider Argento’s voice was clear and deep.
“You’re lucky I found the place at all,” said Trace, murmuring aloud as the words repeated through the MESH. “I almost drove right by this shit hole. Where are you anyway?”
South side of the city. Bar’s called Streets Ahead, next to the high school.
“Be there soon. Order me a beer.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The MESH quieted and Randy Travis picked up the rest of the conversation.
Every street in Holliday looked the same. Beyond the storefronts on College Avenue, she could see shadows of neighborhoods stretching into the black, one house after another. She wondered what kind of people lived in Holliday, what they did with their time when they weren’t thinking of ways to kill themselves.
Holliday High School passed her on the left. Trace turned off the music and slowed the car to a crawl. She could barely make out the small building standing alone in a field. High trees behind it blotted out any light that would have cast it into silhouette. Trace tried to switch to her night eyes, but the image bloomed as sharp yellow lines called out doors and windows.
She switched back to normal vision as the Mazda left the road and crunched its tires into loose gravel. Trace parked away from the other two cars in the lot. Again, her eyes fell on the wrapped box on the floorboards. She picked it up and pulled it into her lap. Pulling the plastic handles apart, she made sure the white box was still inside.
Waiting, said Rider.
Trace wrapped the box again and stepped out of the car. Muted Rock music pounded behind the tall double doors of Streets Ahead. When she opened the door to go in, the music seemed to dim, resuming full volume only after she’d shut the door behind her.
The bar smelled of spilt alcohol, which all bars did to some extent, but then none of the ones she frequented were this small. Trace had visited small businesses that had chosen to office in converted homes—electronics shops, arts and crafts, that sort of thing—but she had never seen a shotgun home gutted until it resembled a barn and then filled with a sprinkling of tables and chairs and one long serving counter.
Standing behind the counter was an older organic with graying hair and a general unease about him. There was only one other patron in the bar, and yet the old man stood at the counter mindlessly drying the same glass over and over again, ostensibly watching a palette he’d propped up on some coasters but actually trying to keep an eye on Rider at the back table.
Trace lifted a hand in greeting, but Rider merely gestured with his head to a brown bottle sitting in front of an empty chair. With a polite nod to the bartender, she crossed the small sitting area and dropped into the chair opposite rider. She examined the bottle.
“Tecate Original,” said Rider, his voice a little softer than its MESH counterpart.
“No shit? They haven’t made this since the 40s. How did this place get its hands on some?”
Rider scratched his beard. His cheeks were flecked in gray, but it was all cosmetic, part and parcel with the clipped black hair and ominous scar near his ear.
Trace didn’t wait for an answer. She ripped the cap off and took a pull. Had she been organic, she might have spit. She felt her face twist up anyway.
“That’s how,” said Rider. “My guess is it’s a combination of expired stock and low traffic. That shit’s probably been sitting in the cooler for thirty years.”
“It tastes like its been sitting in a rotting donkey’s asshole for thirty years.” She pushed the bottle away and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “I’m not paying for that.”
“It’s on me. Worth it to see the look on your face.” He nodded to the grocery bag in her lap. “Is that mine? Can I see it?”
“Half to see it. Half to take it home with you.”
Rider grinned and pushed $2,500 through the MESH to Trace. It landed with an audible chime in the back of her head.
She placed the bag on the table, avoiding the ring of condensation left by the sweating beer. “They didn’t have the exact model your buyer was asking for, so I went one up. Same price because that’s all they had.”
Rider sighed, pulled the box from the bag. “You scared me for a second.” He ran his fingers of the embossed WO logo along the top side. Then, with a severance usually reserved for holy relics, he carefully lifted the top of the box to reveal a bed of gray foam on which lie a single metallic cylinder like an inanimate Sleeping Beauty.
“Last gen Perion-Katsumi systems integrator,” said Trace. “You could control a bulldozer with your mind if you hooked it up correctly. List price is north of fifty large. And I’m selling it to you for five.”
Rider nodded. “It’s a fair price. Nobody wants the heat associated with PK gear these days. I’m definitely not retiring on this transaction, believe you me.” He rolled the cylinder around in his hand. “It’s beautiful.”
“You really don’t want to know what I had to do to get that out.”
“You’re right, I—“
“I smuggled it in my vaginal canal. Just, you know, right up in there.”
Rider smirked. “Box too?”
“That’s a trade secret. You pay extra for that.”
“Uh huh. Well, it looks good to me.” He paused, sent another chunk of money across the MESH. “I guess this concludes our business unless there’s anything else you wanted to discuss.”
“I…” Trace had tried to get the words out before the emotions overwhelmed her, but couldn’t. She took another sip of the beer before remembering how horrible it tasted. “I can’t keep doing this piecemeal shit, Rider. Five grand is barely a month’s salary. Between that and the job, I’m barely making rent, and that doesn’t even begin to cover maintenance on this sleeve. Do you know how long it’s been since I had a diagnostic? Three years.”
Rider raised his eyebrows. “Three years on a Kirkland chassis? That’s bad, Trace. Doesn’t your job provide any health insurance?”
“Organics and salaried only, not the hourlies. They’re paying us minimum wage; you think they’re gonna cover repairs too? Not when any synny off the street can just come in and take my place. Plenty of MX expats would kill for a steady hourly position.”
“Sucks,” said Rider, shaking his head. “I wish there was something I could do, but the market for luxury chassis accessories isn’t that hot right now. If you could score me something big, something like a cerebral matrix unit, then that would be be different.”
“Yeah, right. A, I can’t smuggle something like that out in my vagina, and B, why don’t I just steal an entire blank chassis while I’m at it? You don’t understand how things work there. The CMUs aren’t even brought to the building until a new synthetic is ready to be turned up. I’ve seen them run armored cars from the back loading dock to a fence we share with the Air Force base and they do some kind of handoff. A dozen armed synthetics go with the cars, on foot.”
Rider’s laughter filled the bar. “Sounds like you’ve already given this some thought.”
“My chassis is dying. I know it.”
“Look…” He trailed off, shifted in his chair. “How about I foot the cost of a scan? I have a cousin up in Lawton who won’t overcharge you.”
“I don’t want your charity.”
“It’s not charity.” Rider took a swig of his beer. “The way I see it, we’ve had a working relationship going on five years now. I feel like I’ve always paid you well, but maybe it’s time for a bonus.”
Trace shook her head. “I don’t need more debt.”
“It’s not a loan.”
“I didn’t mean that kind of debt.”
“Fine,” said Rider, shrugging. “You don’t have to decide today. But now that you mention the whole three years thing, I’ve noticed you’ve been on edge for awhile. It’s not my place to tell you, but that’s no way to live.”
“Well…” Trace spread her hands on the table. “I’m pretty sure I stopped living the day I woke up in this chassis. Since then I’ve been existing.” She chuckled. “People used to fantasize about being immortal. They never thought they’d have to live out eternity as a literal bag of bolts.”
“You are harshing my buzz, Tracy.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Rider lifted a hand. “My apologies. Look, you keep bringing me what you can, and I’ll move it, and we’ll both get paid. In the meantime, you think about my offer. If there’s something wrong with your chassis, you should know about it.”
“What does it matter?” asked Trace. She’d longed stop caring about the taste of the pisswater in the Tecate bottle. She emptied it in one pull. “Whether it’s one thing or a dozen, I still wouldn’t have the money to get anything fixed. All it changes is that now I’d know exactly why I was going to do, and possibly when.”
“Well that’s one less thing, right?” Rider raised a single eyebrow. His cheek twitched as if he were trying to hide a smile.
“Alright.” Trace pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. “I’ve decided to let you buy me a real beer.”
He looked her up and down.
“In exchange for what?” he asked.
“I have the hot goss on why we haven’t done a Vinestead install in more than a year.”
Rider jumped out of his chair and practically ran to the bar.