Part 1: The Lives of Machines
Garfield Purdy knew he was in for trouble when he had to ask the mud room door to lock two times before it complied. There were days things worked and days he was sure the zipper on his pants would fail catastrophically in front of his clients. This was an open-zipper day.
The car turbine wouldn't crank when he asked it to. The garage door stopped on its track and hung half-opened like a tentative child taking its first steps.
"Go on," he said to the door. "Go on, keep going." The door opened another inch and the motor shut itself off. "Fucking door," Purdy said, and the door reacted to the insult by closing. He got out of his car and went back to the mud room door to get into his flat.
"Open door," he said. But the door sat on its hinges, silently mocking him. "Open door, goddamnit!" The lock motor whirred a little, then decided to take the day off. He was locked in the garage. He prayed the car phone would have mercy on him and allow him to contact the authorities.
The car turbine was another matter. He had mastered the manual override to voice control only weeks after he had purchased the expensive high-performance vehicle. It was a necessity. The voice command systems never operated correctly. While the salesman patted the bumper and assured him the car represented the absolute acme of automotive technology, Garfield had trouble starting the engine on the dealership lot.
During the test drive, the car hesitated on acceleration and enabled all the poor-driver safeties. Computerized governors throttled back the mighty turbine while Garfield mashed the accellerator with all the stomping pressure he could summon to the soles of his feet. The road levelers softened the ride from Indy-500-formula-stiff to granny's soft-shock pothole absorbers. The car refused to pull more than a half-g on the corners and wouldn't accelerate past 100 kilometers per hour.
"This is a feature," the salesman had said as old piston-powered jalopies passed them on the highway, their drivers smiling as they slid by the impotent road shark. "Say you want to let your nineteen-year-old daughter drive your Land-Zero to school and you're worried someone will convince her to go drag racing. Well, this car is smart enough to slow itself down. You can even teach it to find its way home. It will come loping in from anywhere you wish just like a trail horse at a dude ranch."
"I don't have a daughter. I want to go fast. Tell it to let me go fast," said Garfield.
The salesman swallowed and said, "Override poor-driver safties, please." A light on the dashboard flashed "Bag Wrap" at Garfield.
"Bag wrap? What is this bag wrap business?" he asked.
A look of alarm came over the salesman's face. He ran a fingertip around the inside of his shirt collar. "Um. Some people really like this."
The synthesized voice of a popular female super-model said, "Initiating driver bag wrap," and a spark of familiarity hit him. Garfield had read about it in one of the slick automobile monthlies. An editor had called it the "Iron Maiden of the Byways. . .a safety device discovered by engineers rooting in the torture cellars of the Marquis De Sade." There was a sound like a pillow being sucked through a soda-straw and Garfield was mummified in a case of thick foam with tiny slits for his eyes and mouth.
"EEEYAA," Garfield shrieked as he steered toward the side of the road. "I can't breathe." He struggled with the wheel as the wrapping hampered his movement.
"Deactivate driver's-side bag wrap," said the salesman, but the Land-Zero would have nothing to do with him.
"How come it's not doing this to you? Garfield yelled as he tried to bring the car to the highway shoulder.
"What's that, Mr. Purdy?" the salesman asked.
"I said, HOW COME IT'S NOT DOING THIS TO YOU!"
"Thanks, it's kind of hard to hear you in there," said the salesman. "This model is only equipped with driver's-side bag-wrapping. The passenger bag-wrap is an option we can add."
"I can't breathe," said Garfield. "I'm suffocating."
"Impossible," said the salesman. "You're climate controlled in there."
"I'm sweating. I'm dying. I can't drive like this."
The vehicle's radar activated the safety interlock, fixed on the roadway radar dots, and deactivated the steering wheel. "Disabling driver control," said the sexy voice.
The wheel turned freely in Garfield's hands as the car disengaged the hydraulically assisted steering and switched to full internal guidance. Garfield spun the steering wheel and let it go. It twirled like the wheel of a battered ship in maw of a mighty hurricane. "EEEYA," he shrieked.
"I know what's happening here," said the salesman. "This is the safety demo. The car's set for demo mode. I forgot to shut it off before we got in. It's controlled by home base. We'll just get back to the dealership and I'll have you out of there. In the meantime, let me explain a little about these features. You're bag wrapped in the finest synthetic polymers. Just think, Mr. Purdy, you could have a head-on crash at 200 kilometers per hour and survive both impact and the ensuing hydrazine explosion in that suit. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if the government mandates bag-wrapping for all automobile passengers within the decade."
"I can't breathe," said Garfield.
The car turned around and headed back to the dealership.
"No destination directives given," said the car voice. "Returning home."
"Lookee how smart she is," said the salesman.
When they got to the lot mechanics had to use bolt cutters and air-driven wrenches to extracate Garfield from the driver's-side safety restraints. He said, "I have to go to the bathroom," as he bolted from the car and through the showroom.
"You could have gone in the bag wrap," said the salesman. "It was designed for long duration space flights."
While he stood before the urinal Garfield contemplated the machine that would compromise his retirement fund and make every road trip as pleasant as live burial. As hard as he tried to reason with himself, the allure of a vehicle that would do zero-to-200 in 4.6 seconds was far too visceral for him to ignore. He could feel it. He could taste it. Its image burned into his mind like the promise of life itself--the long low silouhette piercing the air as the blue flame turbine propelled low profile tires over plains of concrete and asphalt. Red. He would want it bright red to match the color of the metal when it glowed with the heat of the friction of passing air. He imagined himself driving to single's bars, picking up a beautiful woman, and avoiding the shift knob while they made love at two hundred miles per hour while the car navigated itself to a nude beach in Venezuela.
The dream was intense. As he walked back to the showroom the machine seemed to exude genetically encoded Garfield Purdy pheromones. He wanted to be in it. He wanted to mate with it. He wanted to feel himself pressed backward into the Spanish leather seats by man-made g-force as he made love to its controls with his feet and hands. They would be partners in motion.
He promised himself he would be sly on the price negotiation. He fancied himself a fencer as he heard himself say, "What kind of down payment are we talking about?" The salesman named his price. Garfield parried by stipulating they remove the bag wrap system and add manual override to all controls. The salesman agreed provided Garfield paid for all the features he would have them remove. Garfield jabbed the sword into the salesman's heart and wrote the check. It sounded a fair exchange for the freedom of such a fair maiden from the bondage of slavery. They had slapped a bank-ownership module onto the car's central processor, loaded the synthesized voice of Garfield's favorite movie-star, and keyed the car to Garfield's voiceprint.
Thus he had become the bank note holder to a car that would take a lifetime to pay for. When Garfield's financial counseler saw the withdrawl from Garfield's retirement queue, he quit and wrote Garfield a check for the paltry balance. He hit a few numbers on his financial systems keyboard, and attached the bank's money-drain to Garfield's primary cash-queue, and called Garfield to turn in his resignation.
"What are you quitting for?" Garfield asked.
"Math," said the financial counseler.
"I can afford this car. If you look at the numbers you'll see."
"Do you like to eat every now and then? Say once in a while--just to sustain life. Do you ever eat to live or have you found some cost-free method of caloric intake?"
"I have enough money to eat. . ."
"Cabbage. I believe cabbage is the cheapest food in this country. You'll be eating cabbage forever."
"Come on, now."
"No. You 'come on' Mr. Purdy," said the counselor. "You have a good job. You've got a high-volume money-pump pouring funds into your cash-queues. But a queue is only a temporary storage device. Think of it as a kitchen sink. There are faucets on the top pouring money in from your job. If you had any investments, interest payments would be another faucet.
"On the bottom of the sink are drains. These are the payments we have to make: rent on our apartments, grocery bills, medical bills--each one is a tiny drain that sucks the money from our sink. The trick is to keep the funds pouring from the faucets at an equal or higher rate than they're being sucked out the bottom. You have lots of drains already, Mr. Purdy. This one is the size of the Marianas Trench."
"I can handle this. I'll be getting a raise. . ."
"I can't protect you, Mr. Purdy. I can't help you anymore. If you were to lose your job, you'd be on the outside within minutes. The OUTSIDE Mr. Purdy. Do you understand? A gai-jin. It would be a death sentence. You've signed your death warrant."
"It can't be that bad. . ." Garfield pleaded.
"Have a nice life, Mr. Purdy. Don't get old."
And then the car began to generate monthly repair bills that rivaled his income. At first they thought the car had been programmed incorrectly at the factory, so the mechanics swapped out all the car's memory and replaced it with factory fresh, custom programmed, memory chips. Garfield heard Jill Ackburn's silky voice when the car decided it would drive back to the dealership lot instead of allowing him to go to work in the morning.
"Irrational destination given. Initiating home-seeking," said Jill Ackburn, superstar.
"Fuck you, Jill," said Garfield.
"You can't think of this machine as simply a CAR," the salesman said when Garfield threw his keys on the man's desk in disgust and demanded satisfaction. "Think of it as a small child. It needs love. It needs care. It needs frequent trips to the doctor." Garfield left the salesman's office as satisfied as he had entered it, but thinking of setting up a trust fund for the automobile's future.
Though he had been into the dealership repeatedly for voice printing, there were days the car would not accept his commands. His Land-Zero continued to seek refuge in the dealership parking lot as if it could convince someone there to sell it to someone else. The mechanics got used to seeing Garfield sitting in his car, his arms folded, his face drawn stern with prune-like wrinkles as the car came to a halt in its accustomed spot.
"We can fix this in a jiffy," said Maxwell, the chief mechanic.
"Max," Garfield would say, "I really need to get to work."
"It still thinks this is its home. Haven't you taught it how to get to your house yet?"
"I've followed all the instructions," said Garfield.
"You have to be patient with these machine-learning systems. They're very temperamental."
"If I had wanted a child, I would have made one. It would have been a lot cheaper and I would have at least gotten an orgasm for my trouble. Instead, I have Jill Ackburn telling me how to run my life," said Garfield. Maxwell made some tweaks under the hood with a hand-held programming device.
"You know we have the new Nancy Yamanote voice signature," said Max.
"I'll stick with Jill," said Garfield. "I don't think I could accept this car sounding like Nancy Yamanote. I hated her in 'Cellophane Commandos.'"
Maxwell worked his usual temporary magic that day, and Garfield was on his way. Stuck in the garage, Garfield wished for a way to get Max in his permanent employ. He figured if he left the environmental control in his flat turned off all year he might be able to afford the master mechanic's salary.
He was still thinking about it when the car phone worked and the garage door people forced the door wide with a crowbar while Garfield slid his manually operated Land-Zero from its berth and into the daytime sun.
"What's it like to drive one of those?" the garage door man asked while he took Garfield's cash-queue card and radioed a two hundred universal-credit withdrawl from Garfield's dwindling retirement fund to the company account. "I've only seen one other one on the road."
"It's like nothing you could imagine," Garfield answered. "Why does my garage door keep breaking?"
"It does break a lot, doesn't it?" said the man.
"Can't say as I know," the man said, handing the bank card back to Garfield. "But I've seen this kind of thing before. Sometimes the door gets a little unhappy in its work."
"Unhappy? A garage door gets unhappy?" Garfield got into his car. "Can't you make sure it stays happy this time?"
"I can't make guarantees like that," said the garage door man. "Door's a complex mechanism. Besides, I can't always be around when it needs me. You're the parent, you should be seeing to its welfare."
"Seeing to a garage door's welfare? Thanks for nothing," said Garfield as he drove away. As he cruised down the highway toward the office. The bag wrap light flashed on the dashboard and the voice of Garfield's favorite actress announced, "Activating driver's side bag wrap." He heard the sound of the actuators clicking harmlessly under his seat, finding nothing to actuate.
"Fuck you, Jill," Garfield said. "You've had a bag-wrap-ectomy." He punched a button at the side of his seat. "Call Lisa," he said.
The phone rang and an answering machine answered. "Hello, you've reached Lisa Farrell. I'm not home right now, but if you leave a message I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks." Lisa's image flashed on the heads-up display forming a translucent window through which Garfield saw the oncoming road.
There was a beep and Garfield spoke. "Ah, Lisa, this is Gary Purdy. I wanted to remind you about tonight. You pick the show you want to see, I have no preference. I'll be by around eight to get you. See you tonight. Love you." He made a kissing sound with his lips and hung up.
When Garfield walked into his office the Adminotron reminded him he was late for a meeting with his boss.
"Did your car take you to the dealership again?" the synthetic voice asked from the speaker hidden in Garfield's desk.
"No, it didn't take me to the dealership again," Garfield said. "It was my garage door. The motor failed again."
"Very good, I'll tell Mr.Croswell you couldn't get out of your garage this morning."
"No wait," said Garfield, but it was too late. He could hear the computer's voice coming from the desk two doors down. The bustle of office conversation hushed suddenly. He knew Croswell was coming for him.
"Purdy," said Croswell, sternly. "What kind of vacuum-brained excuse are you handing me this time? We've spoken about your tardiness and the importance of being on time for work."
"Jack, let me explain. My garage door wouldn't open. . ."
"I've had enough of your excuses, Purdy. Follow me." Croswell walked into the office in front of Garfield. He said, "Door closed," without looking to see if Garfield had made it through the doorway. The office door slid shut behind them.
"Other people have problems with personal electronics, Purdy. Other people have problems and they still get to work on time. Difficulty with electronics is a fact of life. Sit down."
"I know, Mr. Croswell. But I was locked in. . ." Garfield sat in the guest chair opposite his boss's desk. But Croswell didn't bother to sit down. He stood over the cowering man while he spoke ignoring Garfield's attempts at interjection.
". . .but you seem to have more trouble dealing with your problems than most people," said Croswell, ignoring him. "In fact, I'd say you have more trouble than just about anyone I know. Your car takes you to the dealer's showroom instead of to work. . ."
". . . they said it was a small problem. They forgot to tell it that it had already been sold. It's fixed now. . ."
"Your house locks you in. Your shower scalds you and sends you to the hospital. Your toaster vaporizes your bread, melts through the counter top, the floor, and starts a fire in an telephone trunk buried under your home knocking out phone service to thousand of customers. Robot messenger birds crash into your office window. The magnetic fly on your pants loses its pull and opens letting your shirt tail out the front in the middle of the most important sales-pitch of my career. Purdy, I've had enough. This is it. I want you out of here by noon."
". . .but, sir. . ."
"No buts. You are obviously ill-equipped for life in our society," said Croswell. He turned and said, "Door open."
A chill ran down Garfield's spine as the shock of Croswell's decision sunk into him like poison. He couldn't speak without screaming.
Garfield shouted, "Wait."
Croswell froze in his tracks and spun on his heels. He took a step toward Garfield. His face glowed bright red.
"Close the door," Garfield shouted. "Close the fucking door."
Croswell's knuckles turned white as he said, "Door closed," through clenched teeth. When the door shut behind him he said, "This better be good."
A tear flowed from the corner of Garfield's left eye. He wiped it away with the palm of his hand and tried to steady himself
"I've only marginal savings," Garfield managed to say. "They'll take everything if you stop my cash queue. You've got to have a severance plan for me. Don't you? There's always a severance plan."
Croswell's face melted. He blanched, realising the magnitude of what had just happened. He sighed, closed his eyes, and shook his head.
"I should have figured. . ." Croswell said.
"They'll put me out, Joe. They'll put me out tonight," said Purdy. "I need a little more than the usual severance package."
Croswell held his palm up and silenced Garfield like a conductor directing an orchestra. Purdy waited for the sentence.
"There is no severance package," Croswell said deliberately, without opening his eyes. "You were one of our top-paid employees. We simply assumed your stock and bonus plans would carry you. How can somebody who made as much as you end up with nothing so quickly? There are entire corporations in this country with operating budgets half what we paid you on an annual basis. How could you let this happen? "
Garfield bit his lip. He had sunken his golden parachute in the plush flat he rented on the west side of town. He knew that as he spoke to his boss, the money meant to keep him from total destitution was being drawn by his landlord in a continuous stream of computer bits. With his salary pump stopped, it would only be a matter of moments before the apartment and the car pulled all his accounts to zero. He'd be penniless in a cash-driven society.
"You must have something, Purdy. You must have squirrled a little away for a rainy day. Good earth, man, you're a financial consultant, an expert in world-wide monetary systems. You mean to tell me you have nothing left in any account--no family?"
Garfield shook his head. He tried to speak but the words caught in his throat. He thought of his parents. He had always imagined them smiling at him from the afterlife as he excelled in his job. What would they think of their only son now?
"Surely you have a friend who will take you in. . ."
Garfield shook his head again.
"I understand," said Croswell. "A man reaches certain plateaus in his career and finds himself alone. What more could I have expected. Of course you're a loner. It comes with the territory. I half expected you'd pull a childhood companion out of your past. Someone you keep in touch with from your school days. Still, I can't believe you've done this to me. What a position you've put me into. I didn't plan to come to work this morning and sentence a man to death." Croswell turned slowly and commanded the door open.
"You can leave at your leisure, Garfield," he said quietly as the door slid wide. "But I'd suggest you'd get yourself off the premises before your accounts crash. Vagrancy is a crime you're probably unfamiliar with. But if what you say is true, you'll be guilty of that in a few moments. It will be too easy for them to find you here. Any idea how much time you have?"
Garfield managed to say, "No."
Croswell pulled his electronic notebook from his pocket and punched a few buttons. A magnetic strip fell from its side and Croswell held it backward toward Garfield, still refusing to face the man. "Go quickly then. Here is the name of a colleague of mine who may be able to help you. But get to him quickly. Once you're on the outside, well you know. Just because nobody's made it back in yet doesn't mean there won't be a first time. I beg the gods watch over you tonight."
Garfield took the tiny magnetic tab and put it in his pocket. He waited for Croswell to get out of sight before he left. The eyes of his office-mates followed Garfield to the elevator. Words were spoken from mouths hidden behind cupped palms.
He went to the parking lot and shouted to the Land-Zero as he crossed the striped pavement. It was dotted with the reflective bulges of the nation-wide road-based radar system. "Door open," he said.
But Jill Ackburn's voice floated toward him. The starlet proved once again she would have no mercy for him or the illusion of his ownership of the vehicle priced beyond the means of mortals.
"The Third Semiconductor Bank of San Jose would like to inform Mr. Garfield Purdy of the cessation of payments due and payable on the continuously compounded interest on loan number 729263491A712/1L for which this vehicle, serial number XG45ER5M09, is held in collateral. We urge Mr. Purdy to resume the flow of monies immediately and look forward to the time when we will once again grant him usage of this automobile."
Garfield dropped his briefcase and caressed the low roof of the car. "Door open," he pleaded. "Door open."
"Please do not touch the vehicle. Anti-theft and vandalism alarms are being activated. Step away or the authorities will be notified," said Jill Ackburn. He imagined pleasure in the synthetic voice.
"Look, I just got fired. The payments couldn't have stopped that quickly. I've got money in other cash-queues. The money pump was just turned off a minute ago. There has to be money left in my queues. I can pay. I swear. I only need to get to the address on this strip and it will all be okay. Please."
"Step away from the vehicle."
"This is what you've always wanted," he said to the car. "You never liked me. You've resented me from the time I had them remove the bag wrap."
"Step away from the vehicle."
"Hey, my sneakers are in there. My golf clubs are in the trunk."
"All personal property will be returned upon impound. The local police have been notified of your failure to step away from this vehicle. The car will now be charged."
There was a whine from under the hood Garfield had never heard before. The air around the Land-Zero crackled as it charged itself with thousands of volts of static. If he touched the car again, he would be electrocuted unconscious.
"I can't believe this," said Garfield. "How am I supposed to get home?" The air grew dense with the metallic scream of police sirens as the cops pulled up behind him.
"What's the problem, sir?" said the first uniformed officer. "My god, it's a Land-Zero. I must say, you have nice taste. Now, please move away from the car."
"But it's my car," said Garfield.
"Not since you stopped making payments," said the cop. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave the vehicle alone or I will arrest you."
"It's my car."
"All you dead-beats are the same," said the cop. "Normal cars aren't good enough for you. Well wise guy, now you see what happens when you buy things you can't afford?"
"But I just got fired. It didn't give me a chance. It hates me. My car hates me."
"That's what they all say," said the cop. "You may have been a high-paid big-shot once, but you're just another nobody like me. The closest you'll ever get to this car is a garage-shop calendar."
Garfield took a step toward the officer. The cop took a step back and put a hand on his gun. "Do you know what it takes to own something like this? Do you think it's easy? Continuous payments," Garfield said to the cop. "Do you know what that means? They put a hole in your bank account and suck the money out. Every second of every day. Rain or shine. When you're sleeping and when you're awake. They suck it out like juice--like living body juice. That's what you have to do to buy one of these. Do you think it's easy to have the living body juice sucked out of you every single day?"
"Sounds pretty dumb to me. I'd have to dig into my retirement to even imagine payments like that. Only a fool would mortgage his retirement to drive a Land-Zero for a few years. You must have had a lot of money, mister. You've taken a pretty big fall, eh?"
Garfield ignored him. "How am I supposed to get home now?"
"There's always the tram."
"The tram? Nobody takes the tram."
The cop said, "Lots of people ride the tram."
"Nobody I know rides the tram. Only beggars and criminals ride the tram."
"That's only partially true. Only a few beggars can afford the tram. The rest of them are walking around looking for outsiders to kill for money to ride the tram. I wouldn't advise you to walk. It's too dangerous out there for someone like you."
Garfield walked away from the cop. He figured they'd have arrested him for vagrancy had all his accounts crashed. There must have been some money left in an account. Enough for a phone call. The shock of his condition vibrated his insides. He was on foot. He was alone.
"THE TRAM?" Lisa shouted to him over the phone. "You expect me to be seen on a Friday night with someone who's ridden the TRAM? What would people think?"
Gary fiddled with the money card in his pocket as he stood in front of the public phone. The call was draining precious funds from his checking account.
"The Land-Zero is in the shop, honey. Would it be possible for you to come get me at the office? Maybe we could stay at your place tonight?"
"Me come and get you? In my car? Whatever has gotten into you, Garfield? It's one thing to go to climb out of a Land-Zero, it's quite another to have to be seen in a conventional piston banger. Why don't we reschedule our evening for when your car is fixed?"
"It may take a while," said Garfield. "I was hoping we could go out anyway. . ."
"I can wait," said Lisa. "Give me a call just as soon as your little red baby is ready to take me out. Bye, honey." Click.
Garfield stared at the blank phone. He wouldn't be spending the night at Lisa's apartment. He knew he wouldn't be spending the night at his apartment either.
The continuous flow of funds into his bank account had stopped and his funds leaked unreplenished through drain holes at the bottom of his cash queues. Within fifteen milliseconds of his firing, reporting agencies had notified all of Garfield's creditors that his money pump had stopped flowing and that his cash-queues were draining. By the time Garfield had taken the first step out of his office, his creditors had made a run on his queues and drained them but for enough funds to make a single phone call. They repossesed whatever they could. When the funds ran out continuous payments on his rent stopped and the landlord's tenant maintenance systems had the voice keys changed instantly.
Garfield had arrived at his home on foot. He had managed to walk in daylight and he kept to major highways. He arrived at his flat in time to see men loading his repossessed furniture and appliances into moving vans.
"That's my refrigerator," he said to the burly man who carried the unit from the apartment on his back.
"Not anymore, buddy. Beat it."
"But my food is in there."
"I emptied everything on the kitchen floor before I took the unit. I thought the salmon-escargot casserole would go bad without refrigeration so I ate the rest of it."
"You're very considerate."
"Think nothing of it. Now, get out of the way. I have work to do."
Garfield roamed the streets of his town. He had never walked around before nor did he know anyone who actually walked around outside. He had seen people on foot and had always assumed they were simply the nameless, poverty-stricken rabble that caused most of the crime and lowered property values when they were seen. Jails were full of them.
Garfield was surprised how different things looked when they weren't flying by a car window. Tiny weeds poked between cracks in the sidewalk. There were old mail boxes on posts at the roadside, vestiges of a day before electronic mail transmission. Faded building numbers were barely readable on the concrete curbs. Nearly leafless trees strained to cast meaningful shadows against the glare of the midday sun and the blue-yellow sky.
A man approached Garfield on the sidewalk. The dark lozenge shape resolved itself into a jacketed human figure and the hackles on the back of Garfield's neck rose in anticipation of flight. Here was one of the nameless rabble. The newspapers still ran the occasional story about newly homeless people murdered on the street their first night out. He'd read them with just enough pity to last until he reached the bottom of his Sunday morning coffee cup. Then he'd switch to the animation section and watch the cartoons.
Garfield felt his heartbeat quicken. He thought of running. But where? Where could he go? Where was there to go? At that moment, Garfield Purdy realized he would be penniless and homeless anywhere he went. As the last dollars ran out of his money queues, he wouldn't be able to make a phone call to anyone. He wouldn't even be able to ride the tram.
He took a deep breath and walked purposefully toward the man. And when their travel brought them shoulder-to-shoulder, the man stopped dead. Garfield reacted and stopped too.
"Hi," said the man in the coat. He was tall and dark, but clean shaven. His long trenchcoat was clean and unwrinkled. Garfield expected beggars and criminals to look less civilized.
"Hi," said Garfield, raising his hand in a feeble wave.
"Nice day to be outside. You got a coat?"
"Aren't you the guy from up the street? The one with the Land-Zero?"
"That's me," said Garfield.
"Holy shit," said the man. "I win."
"We were casting lots, as they say. Counting the time till that car broke you. . ."
Garfield said, "The car didn't break me. I lost my job."
"Oh, that's horrible. Is there a family? Do you have any children?"
"Because if there were children, I'd be able to take you up right now. No need to let the little ones suffer." The man unbuttoned his trenchcoat and put his hands in his pockets, pulling the sides of the coat apart as he did. Underneath, he wore a pressed white shirt and tie. His trousers were pleated, neat. His leather shoes reflected the sunlight. "You don't have a coat?"
"No, I don't have a coat," said Garfield. "I mean, I do have a coat but it's in the apartment I can't get into anymore. What do you mean by 'take me up right now?'"
"I suppose it's silly to ask if you have any money left," said the man. Garfield shook his head. The man pulled a small book of folded bills from his pocket. He peeled off the outermost bill and held it out to Garfield.
"Do you know what this is?"
Garfield squinted at the colored paper.
"This is currency. This is what we use on the outside. You're entitled to a little every now and then to get by. In a little while you'll need to eat something," he said. "Go to one of our restaurants and order as you usually would. Pay with this note instead of your card. This is a ten dollar note. Don't order anything that costs more or they may kill you. Understand."
Garfield shrugged and took the bill from the man. He looked it over as the man continued.
"People don't think rationally when the stomach is grinding itself to powder. And find a coat. You may want to consider not eating so much and using some of that money for one. A used one can be had for a dollar or two in one of our stores. You probably haven't been outside in a long time. It gets cold at night. Do you know where you're going to sleep?"
"No," said Garfield. He stuffed the money in his pocket. He had seen paper money in encyclopedias, but he had never held a bill in his hands. "Thank you. Why are you doing this?"
The man chuckled. "That means you need to save another dollar for a room tonight. There are first timers places all over our part of town." He took a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to Garfield.
"You'll need this document to prove you're a first timer. They won't accept you otherwise."
Garfield took the paper and stuffed it into his pocket with the ten-dollar bill.
"Where is your part of town?" he asked. "I've been all over town and I've never seen any of the places you're talking about."
The man smiled. "That's because you've never been outdoors without using one of your vehicles. The road-based radar system keeps all your motorized conveyances on designated highways. Haven't you ever noticed no one goes north east of the ringway?"
"No," said Garfield.
"That's where we are. North East of the ringway. The Trams go there. But as you folks never take the trams, you've never realized we were there."
"I can't believe it," said Garfield. "I've lived in Semiconductor Valley most of my life. I've never heard of restaurants that accept cash. Hotels for first nighters."
"That's because you've never been a first nighter before. And that's the way it is with most of you society people. You float along on the lives of machinery like children in doughnut tubes bobbing in a stream. Then the trouble starts. The machines fail, the backups crash and you call us. First, one call a year. Then two. Then three. The you call us once a month, twice a month. Your doughnut tube springs a leak and you start sinking. The water begins to move faster. Before you know it, gravity gives way to freefall as you go over the cliff engulfed in spray like flying fish. Have you thought about what you're going to do next?"
"No," said Garfield. The sidewalk below his feet seemed to grow wide and unforgiving as the ice at the north pole.
"Of course not. You're probably still in shock. Frankly, you look a little more disoriented than most. You must have taken a really big fall." The man peeled another bill from the fold and handed it to Garfield. "When you're in situations like this, it's best to find some good advice and take it. The worst has not yet begun, my friend"
"Thank you. I don't know how to thank you for your kindness. Who are you?" said Garfield.
"The illusion of civilization is buoyed by a layer of mechanical ethos. It's like broadcast entertainment. Images and sensation created by others for your experience," said the man. "There is life in mechanization, a life deep, ancient; a life as eternal as the human soul. Welcome to the new world. My name is Drake. I greet newcomers."
Garfield shook the man's outstretched hand with his right and felt the bill crumple in his left.
"You have no idea what I'm talking about--do you?" said the man.
"I. . .I. . .no."
"You must have been very high up the hierarchy of society. What a fall you've taken. This will be something to watch. We don't get many like you. In fact, I can't remember every having anyone of your stature pass my way. Stay warm, Mr. Zero. The secret to survival is knowing where and how and when to build a fire." He turned and strode away.
Garfield glanced at the bill crushed in his fist. When he looked up again, the man was gone.
The next part is Mercenaries of the oracle: part 2
The last old story is The name that lasted a million years
The first old story is The cheshire woman