May 25, 2003
New story text:
We got some diffs confused between my copy and Cory's copy, so this is a merge of changes between the two versions. No new material here.
Whole story to date:
The cops caught Roscoe as he was tightening the butterfly bolts on the dish antenna he'd pitoned into the rock-face opposite the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. They were State Troopers, not Fed radio cops, and they pulled their cruiser onto the soft shoulder of the freeway, braking a few feet short of the soles of his boots. It took Roscoe a moment to tighten the bolts down properly before he could let go of the dish and roll over to face the cops, but he knew from the crunch of their boots on the road-salt and the creak of their cold holsters that they were the law.
"Be right with you, officers," he hollered into the gale-force winds that whipped along the rockface. The antenna was made from a surplus pizza-dish satellite rig, a polished tomato soup can and a length of co-ax that descended to a pigtail with the right fitting for a wireless card. All perfectly legal, mostly.
He tightened the last of the bolts, squirted them with lock-tite, and slid back on his belly, off the insulated thermarest he'd laid between his chesthim and the frozen ground. The cops' heads were wreathed in the steam of their exhalations, and one of them was nervously flicking his -- no, *her* -- handcuffs around on her belt.
"Everything all right, sir?" the other one said, in a flat upstate New York accent. A townie. He stretched his gloved hand out and pulled Roscoe to his feet.
"Yeah, just fine," he said. "I like to watch winter birds on the river. Forgot my binox today, but I still got some good sightings."
"Winter birds, huh?" The cop was giving him a bemused look.
The cop leaned over the railing and took a long look down. "Huh. Better you shouldn't do it by the roadside, sir," he said. "Never know when someone's going to skid out and drive off onto the shoulder -- you could be crushed." He waved at his partner, who retreated into the steamy warmth of the cruiser. "All right, then," he said. "When does your node go up?"
Roscoe smiled and dared a wink. "I'll be finished aligning the dish in about an hour. I've got line of sight from here to a repeater on a support on the Rainbow Bridge, and from there down the Rainbow Street corridor. Some good tall buildings there, line of sight to most of downtown, at least when the trees are bare. Leaves and wireless don't mix."
"My place is 4th and Walnut. Think you'll get there?" Roscoe relaxed imperceptibly, certain now that this wasn't a bust.
"Hope so. Sooner rather than later."
"That'd be great. My kids are emailing me out of house and home." The cop looked uncomfortable and cleared his throat. "Still, you might want to finish this one then go home and stay there for a while. DA's office, they've got some kind of hot shot from the FCC in town preaching the gospel and, uh, getting heavy on bird watchers. That sort of thing."
Roscoe sucked in his lower lip. "I may do just that," he conceded. "And thank you for the warning."
The cop waved as he turned away. "My pleasure, sir."
Roscoe drove home slowly, and not just because of the snow and compacted slush on the roads. *A hot shot from the FCC* sounded like the inquisition come to town. Roscoe's lifelong mistrust of radio cops had metastaized into surging hatred three years ago, when they busted him behind a Federal telecoms rap.
He'd lost his job and spent the best part of six months inside, though he'd originally been looking at a from a five year contributory infringement stretch -- compounded to twenty by the crypto running on the access-point under the "use a cypher, go to jail" statute -- to second degree tarriff evasion. His public defender had been worse than useless, but the ACLU had filed an amicus on his behalf, which led the judge to knock the beef down to criminal trespass and unlawful emission, six months and two years' probation, two years in which he wasn't allowed to program a goddamn microwave oven, let alone admin the networks that had been his trade. Prison hadn't been as bad for him as it could have been -- unwirers got respect -- but while he was inside Janice filed for divorce, and by the time he got out he'd lost everything he'd spent the last decade building -- his marriage, his house, his savings, his career. Everything except for the unwiring.
It was this experience that had turned him from a freewheeling geek into what FCC Chairman Valenti called "one of the copyright crooks whose illegal pirate networks provide safe havens to terroristswithin the homeland and abroad."across the homeland." And so it was with a shudder and a glance over his shoulder that he climbed the front steps and put his key in the lock of the house he and Marcel rented.
Marcel looked up from his laptop as Roscoe stamped through the living-room.
"Slushy boots! For chrissakes, Roscoe, I just cleaned."
Roscoe turned to look at the salty brown slush he'd tracked over the painted floor and shook his head.
"Sorry," he said, lamely, and sat down on the floor to take his heavy steel-shank Kodiaks off. He carried them back to the doormat and then grabbed a roll of paper towels from the kitchen and started wiping up the mess. The landlord used cheap enamel paint on the floor and the road-salt could eat through to the scuffed wood in half an hour.
"And paper towels, God, it's like you've got a personal vendetta against the forests. There's a rag-bag under the sink, as you'd know if you ever did any cleaning around this place."
"Ease the fuck off, kid, you sound like my goddamned ex-wife," Roscoe said, giving the floor a vicious swipe. "Just ease back and let me do my thing, all right? It didn't go so good."
Marcel set his machine down reverently on the small hearthrug beside his Goodwill recliner. "What happened?"
Roscoe related his run-in with the law quickly. Marcel shook his head slowly.
"I bet it's bullshit. Ever since Tijuana, everyone's seeing spooks." The ISPs on the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro border-crossing had been making good coin off of unwirer-symptathizers who'd pointed their antennae across the chain-link fence. La Migra tried tightening the fence-gauge up to act as a Faraday cage, but they just went over it with point-to-point links that were resistent to the noise from the 2.4GHz light-standards that the INS erected at its toll-booths. Finally, the radio cops got tired of ferretting out the high-gain antennae on the San Diego side and they'd Ruby-Ridged the whole operation, killing ten "terrorists" in a simultaneous strike with Mexican narcs who'd raided the ISPs under the rubric of shutting down narcotraficante activity. TELMEX had screamed blue murder when their fiber had been cut by the simple expedient of driving a backhoe through the main conduit, and had pulled lineage all along the Rio Grande.
Roscoe shook his head. "Bullshit or not, you going to take any chances?" He straightened up slowly. "Believe me, there's one place you don't want to go."
"Okay, okay, take it easy man." Marcel waved his hands at Roscoe placatingly. "I hear what you're saying."
"I hope you do." Roscoe dumped the wad of towels in the kitchen trash and stomped back into the living room, then dropped himself on the sofa. "Listen, when I was your age I thought it couldn't happen to me, neither. Now look at me." He started thumbing his way through the stack of old magazines on the coffee table.
"I'm looking at you." Marcel grinned. "Listen, there was a call while you were out."
"A call?" Roscoe paused with his hand on a collector's copy of *2600: The Hacker Quarterly*.
"Some woman, said she wanted to talk to you. I took her number."
"Uh-huh." Roscoe put the magazine back down. *Heads it's Janice, tails it's her lawyer*, he thought. It was shaping up to be that kind of day; a tire-slashing and an hour of alimonial recriminations would complete it neatly. Marcel pointed at the yellow pad next to the elderly dial phone. "Ah, shit. I suppose I should find out what it's about."
The number, when he looked at it, wasn't familar. That didn't mean much -- Janice was capable of moving and her frothingly aggro lawyer seemed to carry a new mobile every time he saw her -- but it was hopeful. Roscoe dialed. "Hello? Roscoe. Who am I talking to?"
A stranger's voice: "hi there! I was talking to your roommate about an hour ago? I'm Sylvie Smith. I was given your name by a guy called Buzz who told me you put him on the backbone."
Roscoe tensed. Odds were that this Sylvie Smith was just another innocent kiddee looking to leech a first-mile feed, but after this morning's run-in with the law he was taking nothing for granted.
"Are you a law enforcement officer federal employee police officer lawyer FCC or FBI agent?" he asked, running the words together, knowing that if she was any of the above she'd probably lie -- but it might help sway a jury towards letting him off if he was targeted by a sting.
"No." She sounded almost amused. "I'm a journalist."
"Then you should be familiar with CALEA," he said, bridling at the condecension in her voice. CALEA was the wiretap bill, required switch-vendors to put snoopware into every hop in the phone network. It was bad enough in and of itself, but it made the noncompliant routing code that was built into the BeOS. access-points he had hidden in a bus-locker doubly illegal and hence even harder to lay hands on.
"Paranoid, much?" she said.
"I have nothing to be paranoid about," he said, spelling it out like he was talking to a child. "I am a law-abiding citizen, complying with the terms of my parole. If you *are* a journalist, I'd be happy to chat. In person."
"I'm staying at the Days Inn on Main Street," she said. "It's a dump, but it's got a *view of the Falls*," she said in a hokey secret-agent voice, making it plain that she meant, "It's line of sight to a repeater for a Canadian wireless router."
"I can be there in twenty," he said.
"Room 208," she said. "Knock twice, then once, then three times." Then she giggled. "Or just send me an SMS."
"See you then," he said.
Marcel looked up from his machine, an IBM box manufactured for the US market. It was the size of a family bible, and styled for the corporate market. They both lusted furiously after the brushed-aluminium slivers that Be was cranking out in France, but they were *way* too conspicuous here.
Roscoe pointed at the wireless card protruding from the slot on the side nearest him. "You're violating security," he said. "I could get sent up again just for being in the same room as that." He was past being angry, though. In the joint, he'd met real crooks who could maintain real project secrecy. The cowboy kids he worked with on the outside thought that secrecy meant talking out of the side of your mouth in conspiratorial whispers while winking tourretically.
Marcel blushed. "It was a mistake, OK?" He popped the card. "I'll stash it."
The Days Inn was indeed a dump and doubt nagged at Roscoe as he reached for the front door. If she was a Fed there might be more ways she could nail him than just by arresting him in the same room as an illegal wireless card. So Roscoe turned around and drove to a diner along the block from the motel, then went inside to look for a wired phone.
"Room 208, please ... hi there. If you'd care to come outside, there's a diner about fifty yards down the road. Just turn left out of the lobby. I'm already there." He hung up before she could ask any awkward questions, then headed for a booth by the window. Almost as an afterthought, he pulled the copy of *2600* out of his pocket. The hacker magazine (shut down by a court injunction last year) was, he'd found, a really good recognition signal -- plus, having it didn't violate the letter of his parole.
Roscoe was halfway down his first mug of coffee when someone leaned over him. "Hi," she said.
"You must be Sylvie." He registered a confused impression of bleached blonde hair, brown eyes, freckles. *Must be straight out of J-school*. "Have a seat. Coffee?"
"Yes please." She put something like a keyring down then waved a hand, trying to catch the waitress's eye. Roscoe looked at the keyring. Very black, very small, very Nokia. Rumour said they were giving them away in cereal packets in France.
"Suppose you tell me why you wanted to meet up," Roscoe said quietly. "Up front. I can tell you right now that I'm out on parole, and I've got no intention of doing anything that puts me back inside."
The waitress ambled over, pad in hand. Sylvie ordered a coffee. "What were you charged with?" she said. "If you don't mind me asking."
Roscoe snorted. *Score one for the cool lady* -- some folks he'd met ran a mile the instant he mentioned being a con. "I was *accused* of infringement with a side order of black crypto, but plea bargained it down to unlawful emissions." *Score two* -- she smiled. It was a weak joke, but it took some of the sting out of it. "Strictly no-collar crime." He took another mouthful of coffee. "So what is it you're doing up here?"
"I'm working on a story about some aspects of unwiring that don't usually make the national press," she said, as the waitress came over, empty mug in one hand and jug in the other. Roscoe held his up for a refill.
"I could give you a phone number, but would you trust it?"
"Point." Roscoe leaned back against the elderly vinyl seat. *Young, but cynical.*
"Well," she added, "I can do better." She pulled out a notepad and began scribbling. "*This* is my editor's name and address. *You* can look up his number. If you place a call and ask for him you'll get put through -- you're on the list of interview subjects I left him. Next, here's my -- no, an -- email address." Roscoe blinked -- it was a handle on a famous Finnish anonymous remixer. "Get a friend to ping it and ask me something." It was worth five to twenty for black crypto -- anonymity was the FCC's worst nightmare about the uncontrolled net. "Finally, here's my press pass."
"Okay, I'll check these out." He met her eyes. "Now, why don't you tell me why the Wall Street Journal is interested in a burned out ex-con and ex-unwirer, and we can take it from there?"
She closed her eyes for a moment. Then she dangled her keyring again, just a flash of matte black plastic. "These are everywhere in Europe these days, along with these," she opened her purse and he caught a glimpse of a sliver of curved metal, like a boomerang, in the shape of the Motorola batwing logo-mark. "They're meshing wireless repeaters. Once you've got a critical mass, you can relay data from anywhere to anywhere. Teenagers are whacking them up on the sides of buildings, tangling them in tree-branches, sticking them to their windows. The telcos there are screaming blue murder, of course. Business is down 40 percent in Finland, sixty in France. They're using the net for telephone calls, instant messaging, file-sharing -- the wireline infrastructure is looking more and more obsolete every day. Even the ISPs are getting nervous."
Roscoe tried to hide his grin. To be an unwirer in the streets of Paris, operating with impunity, putting the telcos, the Hollywood studios and the ISPs on notice that there was no longer any such thing as a "consumer" -- that yesterday's couch potatoes are today's *participants*!
"We've got ten years' worth of editorials in our morgue about the destruction of the European entertainment and telco market and the wisdom of our National Information Infrastructure here in the US, but it's starting to ring hollow. The European governments are *ignoring* the telcos! The device and services market being built on top of the freenets is accounting for nearly half the GDP in France. To hear *my* paper describe it, though, you'd think they were starving in the streets: it's like the received wisdom about Canadian socialized healthcare. Everyone *knows* it doesn't work -- except for the Canadians, who think we're goddamned *barbarians* for not adopting it.
"I just got back from a month in the field in the EU. I've got interviews in the can with CEOs, with street-thugs, with grandmothers and with regulators, all saying the same thing: unmetered communications are the secret engine of the economy, of liberty. The highest-quality 'content' isn't 100-million-dollar movies, it's conversations with other people. Crypto is a tool of 'privacy'" -- she pronounced it in the British way, prihv-icy, making the word seem even more alien to his ears -- "not piracy.
"The unwirers are heroes in Europe. You hear them talk, it's like listening to a course in *US* constitutional freedoms. But here, you people are crooks, cable-thieves, pirates, abetters of terrorists. I want to change that."
That evening, Marcel picked a fight with Roscoe over supper. It started low key, as Roscoe sliced up the pizza. "What are you planning this week?"
Roscoe shifted two slices onto his plate before he answered. "More dishes. Got a couple of folks to splice in downtown if I want to hook up East Aurora -- there're some black spots there, but I figure with some QOS-based routing and a few more repeaters we can clear them up. Why?"
Marcel toyed with a strand of cooling cheese. "It's, like, boring. When are you going to run a new fat pipe in?"
"When the current one's full." Roscoe rolled a slice into a tube and bit into an end, deftly turning the roll to keep the cheese and sauce on the other end from oozing over his hand. "You know damn well the feds would like nothing better than to drive a ditch-witch through a fiber drop from the border. 'Sides, got the journalist to think about."
"I could take over part of the fiber-pull," Marcel said.
"I don't think so." Roscoe put his plate down.
"But I could --" Marcel looked at him. "What's wrong?"
"Security," Roscoe grunted. "Goddamnit, you can't just waltz up to some guy who's looking at 20-to-life and say 'Hi, Roscoe sent me, howzabout you and me run some dark fiber over the border, huh?' Some of the guys in this game are, huh, you wouldn't want to meet them on a dark night. Are you with me? And others are just plain paranoid. They wouldn't want to meet *you*. Fastest way to convince 'em the DA's office is trying to shut them down."
"You could introduce me," Marcel said after a brief pause.
Roscoe laughed, a short bark. "In your dreams, son."
Marcel dropped his fork, clattering. "You're going to take your pet blonde on a repeater splice and show her everything and you're afraid to let me help you run a new fat pipe in? What's the matter, I don't smell good enough?"
"Listen." Roscoe stood up, and Marcel tensed -- but rather than move towards him, Roscoe turned to the pizza box. "Get the *Wall Street Journal* on our side and we have some credibility. A crack in the wall. Legitimacy. Do you know what that means, kid? You can't buy it. But run another fat pipe into town and we have a idle capacity, upstream dealers who want to know what the hell we're pissing around with, another fiber or laser link to lose to cop-induced backhoe fade, and about fifty percent higher probability of the whole network getting kicked over because the mundanes will rat us out to the FCC over their TV reception. Do you want that?" He picked another cooling pizza slice out of the box. "Do you really want that?"
"What I want isn't important, is it, Ross? Not as important as you getting a chance to fuck that reporter, right?"
"Up yours." Roscoe returned to his seat, shoulders set defensively. "Fuck you very much." They finished the meal in silence, then Roscoe headed out to his evening class in conversational French. Marcel, he figured, was just jealous because he wasn't getting to do any of the secret agent stuff. Being an unwirer was a lot less romantic than it sounded, and the first rule of unwiring was *nobody talks about unwiring*. Maybe Marcel would get there one day, assuming his big mouth didn't get everyone around him arrested first.
Sylvie's hotel-room had a cigarette-burns-and-must squalor that reminded Roscoe of jail. "Bonjour, M'sieu," she said as she admitted him.
"Bon soir, madame," he said. "Commentava?"
"Oy," she said. "My granmother woulda said, 'you've got a no-accent on you like a Litvak.' Lookee here, the treasures of the Left Bank." She handed him the Motorola batarang he'd glimpsed earlier. The underside had a waxed-paper peel-off strip and when he lifted a corner, his thumb stuck so hard to the tackiness beneath that he lost the top layer of skin when he pulled it loose. He turned it over in his hands.
"How's it powered?"
"Dirt-cheap photovoltaics charging a polymer cell -- they're printed in layers, the entire case is a slab of battery plus solar cell. It doesn't draw too many amps, only sucks juice when it's transmitting. Put one in a subway car and you've got an instant ad-hoc network that everyone in the car can use. Put one in the next car and they'll mesh. Put one on the platform and you'll get connectivity with the train when it pulls in. Sure it won't run for more than a few hours in total darkness -- but how often do folks network in the blackout?"
"Shitfire," he said, stroking the matte finish in a way that bordered on the erotic.
She grinned. She was slightly snaggletoothed, and he noticed a scar on her upper lip from a cleft-palate operation that must have been covered up with concealer earlier. It made her seem more human, more vulnerable. "Total cost of goods is about three Euros, and Moto's margin is five hundred percent. But some Taiwanese knock-offs have already appeared that slice that in half. Moto'll have to invent something new next year if it wants to keep that profit."
"They will," Roscoe said, still stroking the batarang. He transferred it to his armpit and unslung his luggable laptop. "Innovation is still legal there." The laptop sank into the orange bedspread and the soft mattress beneath it.
"You could do some real damage with one of these, I bet," she said.
"With a thousand of them, maybe," he said. "If they were a little less conspicuous."
Her chest began to buzz. She slipped a wee phone from her breast-pocket and answered it. "Yes?" She handed the phone to Roscoe. "It's for you." She made a curious face at him.
He clamped it to his ear. "Who is this?"
"Eet eez eye, zee masked avenger, doer of naughty deeds and wooer of reporters' hearts."
"You shouldn't be calling me on this number." He remembered the yellow pad, sitting on his bedside table. Marcel did all the dusting.
"Sorry, boss," he said. He giggled.
"Have you been drinking?" Marcel and he had bonded over many, many beers since they'd met in a bar in Utica, but Roscoe didn't drink these days. Drinking made you sloppy.
"No, no," he said. "Just in a good mood is all. I'm sorry we fought, darlin', can we kiss and make up?"
"What do you want, Marcel?"
"I want to be in the story, dude. Hook me up! I want to be famous!"
He grinned despite himself. Marcel was good at fonzing dishes into place with one well-placed whack, could crack him up when the winter slush was turning his mood to pitch. He was a good kid, basically. Hot head. Like Roscoe, once.
"C'mon c'mon c'mon," Marcel said, and he could picture the kid pogoing up and down in a phone-booth, heard his boots crunching on rock-salt.
He covered the receiver and turned to Sylvie, who had a bemused smirk that wasn't half cute on her. "You wanna hit the road, right?" She nodded. "You wanna write about how unwirers get made? I could bring along the kid I'm 'prenticing-up, you like." Through the cellphone, he heard Marcel shouting "Yes! Yes! YES!" and imagined the kid punching the air and pounding the booth's walls triumphantly.
"It's a good angle," she said. "*You* want him along, right?"
He held the receiver in the air so that they could both hear the hollers coming down the line. "I don't think I could live with him if I didn't take him," he said, "so yeah."
She nodded and bit her upper lip, just where the scar was, an oddly canine gesture that thrust her chin forward and made her look slightly belligerent. "Let's do it."
He clamped the phone back to his head. "Marcel! Calm down, twerp! Breathe. OK. You gonna be good if I take you along?"
"So good, man, so very very very very good, you won't believe --"
"You gonna be *safe*, I bring you along?"
"Safe as houses. Won't breathe without your permission. Man, you are the *best* --"
"Yeah, I am. Four PM. Bring the stuff."
They hit the road closer to five than to four. It was chilly, and the gathering clouds and intermittent breeze promised more snow after dark when Roscoe parked outside the apartment. Marcel was ready and waiting, positively jumping up and down as soon as Roscoe opened the door. "Let's go, man!"
Back in the cab Sylvie was making notes on a palmtop. "Hi," she said guardedly, making eye contact with Marcel.
"Hi yourself." Marcel smiled. "Where we going tonight, man? I brought the stuff." He dumped Roscoe's toolbox and a bag containing a bunch of passive repeaters on the bench seat next to him.
"We're heading for East Aurora." Roscoe looked over his shoulder as he backed the truck into the street, barely noticing Sylvie watching him. "There's a low hill there that's blocking signal to the mesh near Chestnut Hill, and we're going to do something about that."
"Great!" Marcel shuffled about to get comfortable as Roscoe cautiously drove along the icy road. "Hey, isn't there a microwave mast up there?"
"Yeah." Roscoe saw Sylvie was making notes. "By the way, if you could keep from saying exactly where we're placing the repeaters? In your article? Otherwise FCC'll just take 'em straight down."
"Okay." Sylvie put her pocket computer down. It was one of those weird Brit designs with the folding keyboards and built-in wireless that had trashed Palm all over Europe. "So you're going to, what? String a bunch of repeaters along a road around the hillside?"
"Pretty much that, exactly. Should only need two or three at the most, and it's wooded around there. I figure an hour for each and we can be home by nine, grab some Chinese on the way."
"Why don't we use the microwave mast?" Marcel chipped in.
"The microwave mast," Marcel repeated. "We go up there, we put one repeater on it, and we bounce signal *over* the kill, no need to go 'round the bushes."
"I don't think so," Roscoe said absently. "Criminal tresspass."
"But it'd save time! And they'd never look up there, it'll look just like any other phone company dish --"
Roscoe sighed. "I am so not hearing this." He paused for a few seconds, merging with another lane of traffic. "Listen, if we get caught climbing a tree by the roadside I can drop the cans and say I was bird-spotting. They'll never find them. But if I get caught climbing a phone company microwave tower that is criminal tresspass, *and* they'll probably nail me for felony theft of service, and going equipped for a felony -- they'll find the cans for sure, it's like a parking lot around the base of those things -- and parole breach. I'll be back in prison while you're still figuring out how to hitch-hike home. So enough about saving time, okay? I'm not putting my ass on the line to save time."
"Okay," Marcel said patiently, "we'll do it your way." He crossed his arms and stared out the window at the passing trees under their winter caul of snow.
"How many unwirers are there working in the area?" Sylvie said, breaking the silence.
Marcel said, "Just us," at the same moment as Roscoe said, "dozens." Sylvie laughed.
"We're solo," Roscoe said, "but there are lots of other solos in the area. It's not a *conspiracy*, you know -- more like an emergent form of democracy."
Sylvie looked up from her palmtop. "That's from a manifesto, isn't it?"
Roscoe pinked. "Guilty as charged. Got it from Barlow's *Letters from Prison.* I read a lot of prison-lit. Before I went into the joint."
"Amateurs plagiarize, artists steal," she said. "Might as well steal from the best. Barlow talks a mean stick. You know he wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead?"
"Yeah," Roscoe said. "I got into unwiring through some deadhead tape-traders who were importing open recorders from Germany to tape to shows. One of them hooked me up with -- someone -- who could get French networking gear. It was just a few steps from there to fun-loving criminal, undermining the body politic."
Marcel came out of his sulk when they got to the site. He loaded up his backpack and a surveyor's tripod and was the model of efficiency as he lined up the bank-shot around the hill that would get their signal out and about.
Sylvie hung back with Roscoe, who was taking all the gear through a series of tests, using his unweildy laptop and two home-made antennae to measure signal-strength. "Got to get it right the first time. Don't like to revisit a site after it's set up. Dog returning to its vomit and all."
She took out her keychain and dangled it in the path of the business-end of the repeater Roscoe was testing. "I'm getting good directional signal," she said, turning the keychain so he could see the glowing blue LEDs arranged to form the distinctive Nokia "N."
Roscoe reached for the fob. "These are just *wicked*," he said.
"Keep it," she said. "I've got a few more in my room. They had a fishbowl full of them on the reception desk in Helsinki. The more lights, the better the signal."
Roscoe felt an obscure species of embarassment, like he was a primitive, tacking up tin cans and string around a provincial backwater of a country. "Thanks," he said, gruffly. "Hey, Marcel, you got us all lined up?"
Only he didn't. They lined up the first repeater and tested it, but the signal drop-off was near-total. Bad solder joints, interference from the microwave tower, gremlins... Who knew? Sometimes a shot just didn't work and debugging it in the frigid winter dusk wasn't anyone's idea of a fun time.
"Okay, pass me the next." Roscoe breathed deeply as Marcel went back to the truck for the other repeater. *This* one worked fine. But it still left them with a problem. "Didn't you bring a third?" Roscoe asked.
"What for?" Marcel shrugged. "I swear I tested them both back home -- maybe it's the cold or something?"
"Shit." Roscoe stamped his feet and looked back at the road. Sylvie was standing close to the truck, hands in her pockets, looking interested. He glanced at the hill and the microwave mast on top of it. A light blinked regularly, warm and red like an invitation.
"Why'n't we try the hill?" Marcel asked. "We could do the shot with only one repeater from that high up."
Roscoe stared at the mast. "Let me think." He picked up the working repeater and shambled back to the truck cab absent-mindedly, weighing the options. "Come on."
"What now?" asked Sylvie, climbing in the passenger seat.
"I think." Roscoe turned the ignition key. "Kid has half a point. We've only got the one unit, if we can stick it on the mast it'll do the job." He turned half-round in his seat to stare at Marcel. "But we are *not* going to get caught, y'hear?" He glanced at Sylvie. "If you think it's not safe, I'll give you a lift home first. Or bail. It's your call. Everyone gets a veto."
Sylvie stared at him through slitted eyes. Then she whistled tunelessly. "It's your ass. Don't get into this just because I'm watching."
"Okay." Roscoe put the truck in gear. "You guys keep an eye out behind for any sign of anything at all, anyone following us." He pulled away slowly, driving with excruciating care. "Marcel? Stick that bag under my seat, will you?"
The side-road up to the crest of the hill was dark, shadowed by snow-laden trees to either side. Roscoe took it slowly; a couple of times there was a whine as the all-wheel drive cut in on the uncleared snow. "No fast getaways," Sylvie noted quietly.
"We're not bank robbers." Roscoe shifted down a gear and turned in to the driveway leading to the mast. There was an empty parking lot at the end, surrounded by a chain-link fence with a gate in it. On the other side, the mast rose from a concrete plinth, towering above them like a giant intrusion from another world. Roscoe pulled up and killed the lights. "Anyone see anything?"
"No," said Marcel from the back seat.
"Looks okay to -- hey, wait!" Sylvie did a double-take. "Stop! Don't open the door!"
"Why --" Marcel began.
"Stop. Just stop." Sylvie seemed agitated and right then Roscoe, his eyes recovering from headlight glare, noticed the faint shadows. "Marcel, *get down*!"
"What's up?" Marcel asked, sounding confused.
"Crouch down! Below window level!" Sylvie was insistent. She turned to Roscoe. "Looks like you were right."
"I was right?" Roscoe looked past her. The shadows were getting sharper and now he could hear the other vehicle. "Shit. We've been --" He reached towards the ignition key and Sylvie slapped his hand away. "Ouch!"
"Here." She leaned forward, sparing a glance for the back seat where Marcel was crouching down. "Make it look like you mean it."
"Mean what --" Roscoe got it a moment before she kissed him. He responded automatically, hugging her as the truck cab flooded with light.
"*You! Out of the* -- oh, geez." The amplified voice, a woman's voice, trailed off. Sylvie and Roscoe turned and blinked at the spotlights mounted on the gray Dodge van as its doors opened.
Sylvie wound down the side window and stuck her head out. "I don't know what you're playing at, but you can fuck right off!" she yelled. "Fucking voyeurs!"
"This is private property," came the voice. "You'll have to get a room." Boots crunched on the road-salt. A holster creaked. Roscoe held his breath.
"Very funny," Sylvie said. "All right, we're going."
"Not yet, you aren't," the voice said again, this time without the amplification, much closer. Roscoe looked in the rear-view at the sillhouette of the woman cop, flipping her handcuffs on her belt, stepping carefully on the ice surface. In her bulky parka, she could have been any state trooper, but the way she flipped her cuffs --
"Go go go," hissed Marcel from the back seat. "*Vite*!"
"Sit tight," Sylvie said.
From the back seat, a click. Roscoe kept his eyes on the rear- view: "Marcel, *keep down*." He rolled down his window. "Evening, officer," he said. Her face was haloed by the light bouncing off her breath's fog, but he recognized her. Had seen her, the day before, hanging off the edge of the gorge, aiming an antenna Canadawards.
"Evening sir," she said. "Evening, ma'am. Nice night, huh? Doing some bird-watching?"
Made. Roscoe's testicles shriveled up and tried to climb into his abdomen. His feet and hands weren't cold, they were *numb*. He couldn't have moved if he tried. He couldn't go back --
Another click. A flashlight. The cop shone it on Sylvie. Roscoe turned. The concealer was smudged around her scar.
"Officer, really, is this necessary?" Sylvie's voice was exasperated, and had a Manhattan accent she hadn't had before, one that made her sound aggro. "It was just the heat of the moment."
Roscoe touched his lips and his finger came back with a powdering of concealer and a smudge of lipstick.
"Yes, ma'am, it is. Sir, could you step out of the car, please?"
Another noise from the back seat, a second click. Fucking Marcel. Jesus. Moving as in a dream, Roscoe reached for the ignition. The engine coughed to life and he slammed it into gear, cranking hard on the wheel, turning away from the cop, a wide circle through the empty parking lot that he came out of in a an uncontrolled fishtail, swinging back on forth on the slick paving.
"Hey! STOP!" The amplified voice from the police car yelled after them. As the truck slid round he got a confused view of the cop reaching for something at her belt. Roscoe downshifted manually, feeling the gearbox judder as it switched traction between wheels in a barely-controlled skid. Everything happened in real-world slow-mo, like a goddamn nightmare. Marcel was sitting up yanking at the window. Sylvie yelled something and flailed at him over the bench seat and Roscoe flinched. There was a bang as the truck drifted against a fencepost, throwing Roscoe against the steering wheel: Marcel went down. Then the wheels were biting again, chewing down on fresh-fallen snow, and Roscoe heel-and-toed into the driveway.
Something cracked outside Marcel's open window. *Are they shooting?* he wondered, then hit the switch that killed all the lights, even the brake lamps. His guts cramped as he blinked at the darkness, trying to see how the path ran. His palms were slippery with fear as he nudged the wheel, hearing the high whine of first gear and feeling the judder of the wheels slipping and sliding. Another thud and he careened off a back of compacted snow. "Hey, mind where you're going!" Marcel snarled from the back seat.
"Shut the fuck up." Roscoe's knuckles were tight on the wheel. The sound of a siren rose behind them -- then there was a muffled banging sound that seemed to go on for an age, the thud of metal screeching as the police cruiser spun out into the chainlink fence at the top of the hill. "Let me explain something." *Shift into second.* "You'd better check your seat harness." *Feel the wheels skitter and begin to spin on the slick icy surface.* "Because we *are* going to run out of fucking road any moment now." Sirens rising in the background again, and Roscoe managed to keep the wheels on the road as it snaked off to the left in a treacherous curve.
"Better ditch the gun, Marcel," Sylvie said tensely. "If they catch you with it --"
"They won't catch us," Marcel replied nonchalantly.
*A gun?* Roscoe's skin crawled. *No time, not now --* a wider darkness loomed up ahead of him and he hit the brakes, felt ABS juddering and shaking as they ground to a halt. He glanced sideways and saw a gathering light, the high beams of a car rounding the curve of the road in front of them. He closed his eyes for a couple of seconds then, as soon as the car slid past, he pulled out and set his eyes on the red glow of its tail lights. "If that's a gun you've got, you can get out and walk home," he said conversationally. "See, that's a parole violation. Good for five years in the big house if I'm caught with you. And we are probably going to be caught now, thanks to your antics."
"They won't catch us," Marcel repeated, less confidently.
"Well you can fucking throw the gear out the side window right now," Roscoe said firmly. "*All* of it. Cans, relays, batarangs. 'Fraid that goes for you too, Sylvie."
"Shit." Sylvie sounded mildly annoyed, but the blast of cold air told him she'd wound down her window. "You going to do like he says, Marcel?" She asked.
"Shit." With poor grace, Marcel wound his window down and threw something cylindrical out into the night. Roscoe flipped a mental dime then brought up the lights, running lights only, just enough to see what the hell he was doing. About twenty five, it turned out, on a mostly gritted road.
"We've got maybe two minutes," He announced. "They'll have radio'd ahead." *Slowing, slowing, gentle on the brakes.* The truck drifted to a halt. "Okay, Marcel. *Out*. Now."
"What?" Marcel's voice rose in a whine: "what you doing, man? What do you want?"
"I want you out of this truck right now," Roscoe grated. "I want *all* the gear out. If that's a fucking gun you've got I want *it* out too. You can hitch, no trouble, I'll meet you back at the apartment after the cops get through with us. But you *are* getting out now, because if they find you with the gear I'm going to cram your head so far up your ass you can see daylight. Capisce?"
"I get it." Marcel sounded sullen. "We got away but you want to take it out on --"
"We haven't gotten away," Sylvie said clearly. "They'll pick us up in the next five minutes. They've got this little thing called *radio*, Marcel, and helicopters and SWAT teams and things. They're the Man." Roscoe stared at her side profile intently. The tiny crows-foot wrinkles by the side of her eyes. "A panicky couple dating in the wrong car park they might buy. An unwirer with a trunk full of cans and an unregistered gun is another matter."
"Put it this way," Roscoe added, "one of us is walking home."
*Click*. The rear door opened. "Okay, I'm going, I'm going." Marcel slammed the door shut. "Get on with it!"
Sylvie caught Roscoe's eye, gave an imperceptible nod, and he goosed the gas pedal. Marcel stood by the road, forlorn in the tail lights, and for a moment Roscoe almost had second thoughts. Then Sylvie's low whistle brought him back to himself. "Stop the truck round the next bend. Okay?" He nodded.
When he stopped, Sylvie unfastened her harness. "Wait," she told him. He stared blindly out through the windshield as she walked round the truck, rooting in the load bed then in the back seat legwell where Marcel had been crouched. Her torch spun shards of broken light off the ceiling. A muffled curse, and she was back in the passenger seat next to him. "Okay, we're clean now," she said.
"Right." Roscoe put the truck in gear cautiously. "Find anything?"
"Does Marcel take the trash out when you ask him to? And does he hunt?" Sylvie asked.
"Huh? He doesn't hunt, but he pulls his weight on the housekeeping. Grumbles a bit. Why?"
"I found a couple of empty Pringles cans under the seat. And this." She held up a rifle cartridge for him to see, then wound down the window and threw it hard into the night. "And a dime bag of what the Brits call whacky backy."
Roscoe thumped the steering wheel and swore. "He's getting careless."
"What do you mean, getting?" Sylvie raised an eyebrow. There were lights ahead, red and blue lights just visible through the trees lining the road. "Uh huh, trouble. Slow down." Roscoe hit the brakes. "This is where we learn to bluff." She leaned over towards him. "Kiss me. No, I mean mouth to mouth. Mmm. That's better. No, don't rub it off." She fumbled with her jacket, speaking in a low monotone: "remember we didn't know it was a private car park, we just wanted some privacy as your housemate's at home and you're really sorry you panicked and your pants are undone, and you won't do it again and then I pull my press card and we try to get you off with a ticket or a caution. Okay?"
"Check." Roscoe's mouth was dry and his heart thudded. *This can't be happening*, he told himself. Sylvie's hand on his thigh told him that it was.
"He set you up," she added as she unzipped his fly. "You do realize that, don't you?"
Word count to date: 7522 wordsPosted by Charlie Stross at May 25, 2003 12:32 PM