THE PIKE

 

A revolution is brewing on the Pike…

Ben Kazmaier’s mother is in a coma, and he and his veteran father are working triple shifts at PikeCo to pay for the machines that keep her alive. When terrorists strike close to home and his mother disappears, Ben is forced to choose between his duty to his family and joining an uprising against his corporate masters. It is a decision that will tear open the wounds of the past, cause new blood to be spilled, and change life on the Pike forever.

The Pike is a near-future thriller set against a backdrop of terrorist drone attacks, corporate intrigue, and cyborg soldiers. It explores a dystopian vision of America as a fallen superpower that has been reduced to a tourist theme park and ruthlessly exploited by corporations and foreign interests. Sensitive readers are advised that the book contains adult and racially charged language and is intended for a mature audience.


 

An excerpt from The Pike

* * *

1

 

Ben needed to get away. Fast.

The floor vibrated beneath his feet. The thunder of the passing helicopter shook the walls. He yanked the restroom door open, heart hammering with nauseating intensity.

Bright tile. Gleaming mirrors.

At least it was empty, Ben thought as he shouldered his way into a stall. His fingers slipped as he struggled to twist the latch closed, but it snapped into place at last, and he fell to his knees, praying he wouldn't throw up. Another chopper roared past overhead, rattling the latch on the stall's door.

Don't throw up, don't throw up.

Ben curled his fingers in his hair, tugging hard enough to bring tears. The sirens would come next, the ambulances singing their banshee song. Nana Kate's stories, bubbling up from his childhood. Tales of fairy women keening for those doomed to die. Ben shuddered.

And they came.

The sirens' song of woe was faint at first. Ben slapped his hands over his ears, knowing it wouldn't help. Blocking the sound would do nothing to protect him. Even if he covered his ears and closed his eyes, he would still know the sirens were coming, their haunting screams echoing down the Pike, dredging up memories better left buried...

Shit.

And he was five years old again. The grass was whipping at his bare ankles—where had his shoes gone?—as helicopters descended. Uncle Cam knelt beside the twisted guard rail blocking Ben's view of his mother, shielding everything but her boots.

And her blood.

Ben remembered the streaks and splatters on the metal guard rail, remembered the intoxicating aroma of smoke and gasoline.

Somebody yanked at the stall door, wrenching Ben from his reverie.

“Fuck off,” he muttered, and got foreign gibberish in response. Chink-talk. Probably Mandarin. Apologizing for the disturbance. Fat lot of good that did.

The restroom outside the stall was no longer empty. A swell of voices and squeaking soles announced yet another tour group's arrival at the Hill Cut Service Plaza. They'd be flocking the Hot Shoppe as well. He'd be missed. His supervisor would be on the warpath.

Time to get back.

Ben rocked back on his heels, tripping the toilet's sensors, causing it to flush. He stared at the swirling water in the bowl. Water. He'd forgotten that plaza toilets still used water. Back home in the Patch they used chemical composters that PikeCo trucks came to empty every month. Probably used the waste to feed the plaza flowerbeds too.

“Every part of the buffalo,” Ben muttered, staring at the gleaming tile on the wall behind the toilet's tank full of water.

He was breathing hard, aware of the low hum of conversation outside the stall and the chemical tang rising from the bowl. At least the noise of the sirens and helicopters had faded. Ben didn't spare them another thought as he pushed to his feet. It was somebody else's problem now. His own, personal crisis had passed. At least until the shift supervisor got ahold of him.

Ben sighed, twisted the latch open and exited the stall, his eyes on the floor.

Don’t meet their gaze, don’t give them an excuse to talk to you.

He made his way past the sinks, staring at shoes. Water at the plaza wasn’t for workers. Water was for guests. Tourists. Chinks and Euro-trash. Africans and Indians flush with cash. Ben waved his hand beneath a dispenser, triggering a burst of hand sanitizer. He rubbed it into his hands, conscious of the bodies packed close around him, the cadence of oft-heard but inscrutable foreign tongues wagging, the spray of water in sinks. Ben backed away from the dispenser, still rubbing his hands, drifting into the traffic exiting the restroom.

Don’t let them see weakness. Don’t let them see fear.

The man walking in front of Ben flicked his hands, drops of water splattering on the tile below, and Ben gritted his teeth.

How could they be so careless with water?

He felt his hands balling into fists and forced his fingers to relax. There was no point getting angry. What could he do anyway? Grab the man and lecture him on the value of water conservation? Punch him for his ignorance? No point. Ben would only end up fired and the tourists would keep coming. Vultures. Pecking at the carcass of America. Museum or mausoleum, it was all the same. The United States that had once stood alone as the world’s only superpower was no more. Now she was sick, maybe dying, a beggar in need of the world’s charity. Putting on a show in pursuit of pennies. Dancing monkeys. Come one, come all, and look how far the mighty have fallen.

Out of the restroom and into a hallway lined with gift shops selling trinkets to tourists. T-shirts emblazoned with “I Rode the Pike” or “Hit the Road, Jack!” Stars and stripes on everything. Ben pushed his hands into the pockets of his Hot Shoppe overalls and kept his eyes on the floor ahead of him. He didn't doubt that one of his shift-mates had already ratted him out to the supervisor, saying they saw him running for the bathroom when the first chopper roared over the plaza. Management frowned on unscheduled bathroom breaks and never allowed them when a tourist bus was scheduled to arrive. He would probably be docked half his pay for this shift.

Ben felt a prickling between his shoulder blades. He darted his eyes left and right, disguising his gaze behind a fall of dishwater blond hair. His shoulders were tense, and he shrugged them higher until they swallowed his neck. Who was watching him?

Charlie.

He caught a flash of hair dyed bright red as it disappeared behind the counter at Pequod Coffee and pictured it falling across cheeks the color of caramel, glasses framed in thick black plastic. Heat climbed his cheeks as he remembered the morning shuttle run from Patch to plaza. 

The autobus had been standing room only. It had made a sharp cutback as something in the road triggered the autonomous driving program to dodge around it. Charlie had fallen against him, and his arms had gone around her to keep her from falling any further. He hadn't touched her since they were children, roughhousing on the playground at school. She hadn't had curves then. At least not the ones he felt beneath the bulky jacket she wore.

Ben missed a step and stumbled, trying to decide whether to walk faster or to stop. Should he wait for her head to pop back above the counter? Wave to her? Smile? Would somebody report that to the supervisor?

He shook his head and kept walking. He knew she had seen him. She had been watching him and had ducked behind the counter on purpose. Why? Maybe she'd dropped something? Maybe she was fetching something for a customer?

Or maybe she was just embarrassed about this morning. About having lost her balance. Why would she want to have anything to do with him anyway? Ben felt a sickly grin creeping onto his face and shook his head, trying to dislodge it. He took the sharp left turn to the Hot Shoppe. Even without lifting his head, he sensed the current of foot traffic around him slowing. There was an eddy in the stream of bodies ahead. He pushed a hand through the hair falling into his eyes and glanced up.

His father stood beside the information kiosk in the middle of the vestibule. He was at ease, but even that stance was rigid. Feet shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind his vertical back, chin up. The close-cropped hair on his head was the exact length of the beard that gripped his square jaw. Ben knew he trimmed both every Tuesday before work. The only concession to irregularity were the patches of silver that speckled the dark hair.

You could take the man out of the Marines, but you couldn’t take the Marines out of the man.

Gunnery Sergeant Alexander Kazmaier, USMC, retired. Kaz to anybody who mattered.

Ben thought of him as Kaz first and father second. He shuffled forward, avoiding eye contact. Kaz was looking away from him and his eyes hadn’t moved, but Ben knew nothing much escaped his father's notice. Kaz knew he was there. There was nothing Ben could do to avoid the inevitable conversation. He pushed through the crowd to stand beside his father, tracking Kaz's stare to the wallscreen opposite the information kiosk.

Strange.

The screen always played the same loop of video, a documentary history of the Pike and the American highway system followed by a paean to the good works of PikeCo and its parent company, KBP Entertainment. Information screens listing prices and departure times for various tours associated with the Hill Cut Service Plaza would bookend the two videos.

But not today. Today, there was a talking head on the screen. Blonde and blue-eyed. Features tight, lips narrow. Ben picked out the KBP News logo in the corner of the screen before the image in a small window above the newswoman's shoulder expanded to fill the screen. His eyes went wide. Black smoke against a cornflower blue sky. A trembling image, not from a news camera. Hand-held, likely shot from a bystander's phone or meant to look like it was.

The black, insectile shape of helicopters hovered over the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.

Ben felt the sweat building on his brow, the accelerating rhythm of his heart. Something twisted in his gut, but not like it had before. The lack of sound insulated him, providing a layer of separation between him and whatever wreck had happened out on the Pike. Still, he could not stop the quaking that spread along his limbs, threatening to set his teeth chattering.

“Third one this month,” Kaz growled beside him.

“Accident?” Ben asked, his eyes still on the wallscreen, on the mangled wreck of the truck just off the side of the road, smoke billowing from its remains.

Kaz made a sound that might have been a laugh. It was hard to tell with Kaz. Ben knew it had been a foolish question. Even in its ruined state, he could see the burning vehicle was an autotruck. The Pike was one of the few places where you could still manually drive a vehicle, but the autotrucks were robot-driven. They were there for color, to paint a picture of the past for the tourists. Part of the landscape.

Robot drivers didn't crash. Not unless somebody hacked them.

Or something crashed into them.

“Same flag,” Kaz said.

Ben blinked, swallowing bile as sweat ran along the insides of his arms. He grabbed the lifeline offered by his father, trying not to think of wreckage and blood and sirens. He saw the flag then, but only for a moment as a man in a blue PikeCo Security jacket snatched it off a chain-link fence behind the crash. A splash of yellow fabric. A Gadsden flag. Coiled snake. Don’t Tread on Me.

There were whispers in the Patch about that flag, about what it meant. 

“Terrorists.” Kaz spat the word with venom.

Ben twisted to look at him. “Or patriots,” he said. “Wish I—”

Kaz moved so fast that Ben didn't register the movement until his father’s hands were on his shoulders, squeezing hard, inching closer to Ben’s throat.

Ben stared down into Kaz's dark eyes, trying to remember when he had grown taller than his father.

“Don’t,” Kaz hissed. “Don’t you dare.”

Ben swallowed past the lump in his throat, still anticipating Kaz’s fingers closing around it. Ready to kill. As befit a man of Kaz's history.

“Better than living like this,” Ben said.

The words coming from his throat were remote, as if he wasn’t the one saying them. He’d heard them often enough spilling from other lips in the Patch.

“Don’t you want America back?” he asked. “The real America?”

Kaz’s cheek twitched, and Ben felt Kaz’s hand on the same side, the one that wasn’t all flesh and blood, clench in time with it. He gasped, and Kaz’s cheek twitched again. This time, however, his father stepped back, letting go of Ben. His eyes shifted, staring at the tourists around them, tourists that had backed away from the confrontation, raising phones to capture the scene. They stared at Kaz’s blue PikeCo Security jacket. Their lenses tracked to the gun strapped to his thigh. They waited for Ben to do something worth capturing, something that would force a violent response from Security. As if Ben were the likely killer here and not his father, a man who had taken the lives of far more people than were currently packed into this service plaza.

Was that it? Was that why the tourists came? Not just to watch the death throes of a former superpower and revel in what it used to be, but because of the threat of violence, the aura of danger? Was the prevalence of guns and men trained to use them a novelty compared to their antiseptic societies back home?

Ben hunched his shoulders, trying to sink in on himself, to disappear. The sense of impending violence faded, and the tourists turned away. Their attention returned to the wallscreen, to the obvious evidence of barbarity there.

Ben felt Kaz step close beside him.

“If something scares the tourists away, we’re screwed, and don’t you forget it. The Pike pays our wages, wages we need to keep your mom alive. Don’t fuck with that, you got me, son? Don’t even think it.”

Kaz turned and moved into the crowd. Ben watched it part around him, the unconscious instincts of the herd shifting away from the apex predator. His father had spoken more words to him in these last few minutes than he had for months. Ben shivered, then hurried to the Hot Shoppe, preparing to spend the next few hours clearing tables and emptying trash.

Kaz was right. Ben needed to forget flags and revolutions. He needed to buckle down, do his job, and earn an income. Do the right thing, just like he’d done the right thing by giving up school despite administrators urging him to carry on, to go to university.

But universities weren’t cheap. And the machines keeping his mom alive weren’t cheap either.

* * *

Charlie was only half paying attention to the ancient couple tapping their orders into the touchscreen on the counter. She had to stifle a gasp as Ben’s father blurred into motion behind them, gripping Ben’s shoulders in the middle of the crowd hovering around the wallscreen. The man in front of her looked up, blinking owlishly, and Charlie prayed he wouldn’t have any questions. She had enough trouble making sense of foreign accents, and she probably wouldn’t know the answer anyway. She’d only been working at the plaza for a few weeks and still found it overwhelming. So many types of people. So many things she’d never encountered back in the Patch.

The man smiled at her, a slow unfolding of the complicated nest of dark wrinkles on his brown cheeks and chin. Charlie tried to do the math in her head, to figure out if this man was old enough to be her grandfather or great-grandfather. Her mom’s dad, a soldier who'd died in a foreign war long before Charlie's birth, had been as black as this man. She'd seen the pictures, and the kids of the Patch hadn’t been shy in reminding her of the fact. She looked away before her eyes could be trapped by the shifting ridges and valleys of the man’s face, and her gaze landed on Ben, standing by himself now.

Where had Kaz gone? Charlie felt fingers of ice brush her spine. Did she really want to know? The stories they told about him…

Charlie shivered and blinked. Ben was moving away from her, skirting a pack of tourists gawking at the menu signboards glowing over the counter at the Hot Shoppe. She watched as he slouched lower and lower, trying to drop his head to the level of the crowd. Charlie hadn’t realized how tall he’d gotten these last few years. She’d been painfully aware of it this morning when he’d caught her as the bus jostled her off-balance, her cheek cushioned against his chest as his arms went around her.

Charlie felt herself blushing and forced herself to look at the couple ahead of her, trying not to think of Ben as a tall young man with his arms around her. She tried to picture Ben as a boy. They’d always used to pick on him in school, the other boys, just like they'd picked on her. They were tempting fate, playing a game and wondering if his assassin father might come to punish them. Sniper Junior, they’d called Ben, mimicking firing a rifle at him. That was before they realized how smart Ben was and shifted the focus of their teasing to his brains.

The order flashed across the screen on her side of the counter. Charlie sighed as she turned away from the old couple. All that time to order two black coffees? She wondered how Ben took his coffee, and caught herself blushing again. She busied herself with arranging a tray and cups. Dark coffee splashed against white plastic.

Coffee.

That was what they used to call her, those same boys who taunted Ben. And then Ben had stood up to them, had thrown punches and gotten his lip bloodied on the playground. They’d been Coffee and Cream for a few years after that. Until the teachers took a special interest in Ben. Until he got pushed into classes with the older kids, then shifted to online classes when skipping grades wasn’t challenge enough.

She had seen little of him after that. Around the Patch sometimes. Enough for a smile and a little wave, nothing more. But she'd noticed the way he began to slouch, to try and sink beneath the notice of others. Charlie recognized the instinct. Anything to escape unwanted attention. She brushed her forefinger across the scars on her wrist before grabbing the tray and turning to slide it across the counter. Her scars weren’t unique. She knew lots of folks in the Patch who bore similar marks. 

Charlie nodded at the old couple. They bowed and took their coffee, chattering their incomprehensible words at her. She couldn't make sense of what they were saying, but she smiled anyway. Always smile, that’s what the training videos had stressed.

Her smile froze.

Ben had vanished, but over the old couple’s heads, Charlie could see her grandfather—the one who hadn’t died in a foreign war, the one who only wished he’d been in the military—leaning on a mop planted in a yellow bucket. He tucked a lank strand of gray hair behind his ear, eyes intent on the wallscreen. His face was carefully blank, absent the fire that animated it when he was preaching to his flock or expounding upon the virtues of the Founding Fathers. But Charlie saw something there, something in his expression that spoke of satisfaction and pride.

She saw that look sometimes after he gave a good sermon. Her grandfather lived for a good sermon. It was so much a part of him that few in the Patch called him anything but “the Reverend.” Did anybody even remember his given name? And what was he watching?

A trio of tourists took the old couple’s place at the counter and started tapping on the screen, making their order. Charlie let her gaze track to the wallscreen. She’d only been working at the plaza for a few weeks, but she had never seen so many people watching the informational videos. The angle of the screen was bad, and she could barely make anything out. She saw enough to know that it wasn’t one of the looped videos that normally ran there. Too shaky. Too much of the same scene for too long. There were flashing lights in the corner of the screen, painting the pale face of a woman clutching a microphone.

News report?

The sirens and helicopters. Just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have been another terrorist attack, could it? Not so soon after the last one.

Charlie’s eyes slid back to her grandfather. He’d been on his phone late last night, whispering, his weathered face tight, running trembling fingers through his lanky hair or plucking at the buttons on his flannel shirt.

Could the Reverend have had something to do with the attack? He talked a tough game at home or when he was shooting the breeze with the old warhorses he hung out with. She’d heard their bluster often enough. And she’d heard him at the pulpit, bellowing sermons about lost American glory and the potential of the nation to claw its way back to greatness. If only the people could take back what had been stolen from them, if only they could wrest their inheritance from the clutches of corporations and foreign powers.

Charlie frowned and shook her head. But this? Carrying out some kind of attack? He wouldn’t go that far.

Would he?

“Oh, Miss?”

Charlie gritted her teeth behind a smiling mask and let her eyes return to the faces in front of her. Asian this time, though it was beyond her to know what country they hailed from. At least the man’s accent wasn’t too hard to understand.

Eyes blinked behind glasses, the lenses aglow with dancing glyphs.

Charlie wanted to shout at the man to use his stupid smart-glasses, that she wouldn’t know the answer to his question. She rubbed her thumb across the puffy tracks of the scars on her wrist and wondered if she knew the answers to any questions.

* * *