West Central Sprawl
May 28, 2055
Minotaur woke with a sense of defeat. Fisherman snored in the dark. He dropped from the hammock and stumbled to the bathroom. Gave some water, took some back, popped an Amphal and a Trill to take the edge off. In the blue light, his eyes looked hard as stones. He grabbed some joe from the pot and took it upstairs while Fisherman slept.
It was raining outside. Minotaur sat by the door and logged onto Netspace. He skimmed the morning traffic coming off the Central hub, checked his mail, cruised the C-lists for opportunities. Nothing, as expected. He had entered a virtual death spiral. He needed to advance the case or score a major win on BATTLEFIELD to turn it around.
His avatar showed up to deliver an update. Some good news, some bad.
‘Volition Data reports you’ve gained twenty points for getting traction on the BUTLER3010PP murder in advance of network release’, it informed him. ‘Deductions as of May 28: rent, sixty five credits; passage, thirty credits. Return on services, eighty one credits. Negative accretion ratio: eight point seven percent’.
Minotaur thumbed: INFO: HBBRAGS/MINO3GRAFXX30. No new developments. He stared into the rain.
‘Maintaining full-spectrum professional services coverage, central and coastal districts’, the avatar said. It snorted and thrust at him with its horns.
Minotaur checked the Representative reel. The Central feed led with an article on the Fifth Initiative. Dorien Xiao was on every major news channel selling the agenda. A pretty sylph invited him to check into the House to cast his vote. Minotaur didn’t have the stomach for it. He’d do it later. He was only voting for points, in any case. He logged onto BATTLEFIELD and sleepwalked through the siege of Riyadh instead.
The gas and goods convoy pulled out of Roanoke an hour later. The rain had abated. A crowd of children ran alongside the trucks as they left the supply center. At first they laughed and waved, splashing through the puddles and mud. They started begging as the trucks neared the outer perimeter. ‘Please mister. My daddy died in the Freeze’. Minotaur pretended not to hear them. The convoy rumbled through the razor wire and the children vanished in the drizzling haze.
Minotaur had drawn the short straw and assumed the task of lookout for the first leg of the trip. He sat alone in the glass canopy on top of the truck. Fisherman had given him an endorphin shot before he’d left, which had killed the hangover but reactivated the cocktail of chemicals in his system. Wired and blinking away the occasional hallucination, he studied the Sprawl through the rivulets of rain on the glass.
The Sprawl was a vast favela of slums and dormitories extended like a cancer down the east coast of the former United States of America. On a good day it was a garden of human misery. Wind farms loomed like skeletal flowers over the ruins. Rain beat on iron and plastic roofing that stretched to the horizon. Outside of DC and Upper NYC, the citizens were clustered into regimented precincts, surviving on a weekly drip-feed of hydrocrystal and meatstuff from the centers. They harvested the ruins of neighboring towns for materials, building the new world out of the old. They harnessed wind and solar and sold it on the grid. In the Thaw, when the weather was mild, they grew vegetables in pits irradiated with solar lamps. When the soil went bad, they used the pits to burn their trash and bury the dead.
The gas and goods convoy rolled past Crepshaw B, where children played in the carcasses of cars. Minotaur returned the hollow gaze of the gunmen above the gates. When he met them on BATTLEFIELD, he’d kill them all.
This was the remnants of America in 2055 – a stinking sea of prefabs choking the horizon, crammed full of hungry folk in wool hats, ski-parkas, and military-issue thermals. The eternal rambling campscape of the Sprawl. The Sprawl hunkered low on the weathered coast, focused inwards for the most part, struggling to sustain the flame of life.
A team of jets screamed over the convoy heading north. Minotaur watched them disappear into the browns and ochres of the northern horizon. It was hard to believe that the most desirable real estate in the Sprawl lay under that pallid sky. The domes and tunnels of North Sprawl supposedly represented the future of society, for those who could afford it. Life was cheaper, in all senses, in South Sprawl, where residents carved out a precarious existence in and above the inland tides. The North attracted citizens with knack for capital ventures. The South was home to a different sort of adventurer, committed or condemned to a different order of reward.
Most of the population of the Sprawl lived between these geographical extremes, in the chunk of land extending from DC, on the coast, two hundred and fifty miles inland to the foothills of the Appalachians. This was the Central Sprawl. Central Sprawl was the only home that Minotaur had left. He knew that success or failure in the region depended on how you plugged yourself into the network of service providers that formed the beating heart of the camp system. Fall into the cracks and you were good as dead. The Desolate zones dotting the landscape between camps were a grim reminder of this fact. Here faceless communities lived and died in shanties built in the sides of endlessly burning mountains of trash. Their sinuous spires strafed the morning sky, sending an SOS to a world incapable of answer, locked as it was in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of desolation across the campspace as a whole.
The logo on the gun turret waved and morphed. Minotaur was loose. He studied the logo, focused his thoughts: Cherrycom is a company contracted by Volition Supply to service the Manassas 16 to Roanoke 7B route… It was an old route, set up in the early years of the Change under the Seaboard Federation. After the revolution, Volition had commercialized the entire aid operation, turning it into a line of business. More shit changes, Minotaur thought. Through the forties and fifties, competition between different convoys had thinned out the competitors, reducing the number of supply routes by a third. No doubt the revolution had improved the lives of people living in the big camps and centers like DC. But whole sectors had fallen off the grid in the twenty forties and no-one knew what happened to the people in them. Some moved on, some stayed and dealt with it. Minotaur couldn’t think about it. Life moved on.
The C30 Road was quiet. Minotaur studied the ruins of a passing urbscape. Reinforcing beams lay like dead trees, mired in debris. Next, a slope of burning tires slid by. Beyond the tires, framed against a steel-grey sky, a red brick mountain of shipping containers was hung with nets and ladders. People draped laundry from gunshot windows. Minotaur could see Best Buy on the horizon, surrounded by tent slums.
How did this happen? asked a voice in his head. How was it that less than thirty years ago, this land had belonged to the wealthiest, most kick-ass powerful nation on earth? Minotaur’s thoughts drifted back to another time, another world. Eyes on the horizon, he remembered the Change.
He signed up on St Patrick’s Day, 2019. Mosdef Junior, a.k.a. Minotaur, was ready to serve. Training for war took Minotaur’s mind off everything that was falling apart in the world. Everywhere you looked it seemed that things were going from bad to worse. Global warming had set in faster than people expected. By twenty eighteen, NASA scientists were saying that ninety five per cent of life on the planet was doomed to extinction. By the time the US-Eurozone coalition went to war with China, in November 2018, the Amazon jungle was in flames and the West Antarctic and Greenland ice-shelves were falling into the sea. Fifty million Americans, mostly ex-farmlanders from the Midwest, were making a bitter pilgrimage to the east, where the government had built the first generation of camps to house them. Minotaur’s neighborhood in west Atlanta was part of a strip that was razed to the ground to clear space for the camps. The campscape would spread like mould up the flank of the Appalachians the following decade. After the Change, it was all there was left.
Minotaur got the hell out of there before he became a camptramp himself. Age eighteen, he had no fixed abode, a minimal education, and zero prospects for the future. He decided that, if the world was going to hell, best place to be was in the army. Least you got a gun. Nice thing about the forces is that they censored the media, so you didn’t have to deal with the endless feed of bloggers telling America how bad everything had got. It was like America invented a new profession in the twenty teens, the celebrity expert. Know-it-all assholes got us into this mess, yo. Minotaur had seen through those experts from the start. Scientists and experts didn’t see it coming, did they? No one saw it coming, the Change.
The Atlantic Gulf Stream had kept the northern continents of the world in a climactic sweet spot for eons. By 2025, it had slowed considerably. Rising global temperatures were warming the seas, which contained the planet’s cooling agent – ice, in the form of frozen water. As the ice caps melted, cold water flooded the Atlantic and Pacific basins, transforming the dynamics of these thermal hubs, and the operation of the Atlantic conveyor. Everyone knew the tide was turning. No one thought it was a big deal. President Cleaver notoriously suggested that the Gulf Stream’s shutting down might actually be a good thing for the United States, in that it might knock a few bars off the thermometer and give people on the beaches of Miami some relief. Sure enough, with global temperatures going up, the economy in recession, oil prices on the hike, and protesters knocking down the gates of every waste-of-time climate summit in the world, there seemed to be more important things to worry about than ocean currents. No one thought that the Atlantic Ocean would turn around. No one even knew it could happen.
Legend has it that a Danish frigate aligned with the fifth fleet, stationed off the South Sandwich Islands in preparation for the offensive on Buenos Aires, first reported surface water agitation north of Antarctica on New Year’s Day, 2030. By the time the story made it out on Wikileaks, the impossible had already occurred. Major undersea flows were colliding in the southern Atlantic, where the ocean rolled and threshed like a hot tub. The entire ocean conveyor was turning around. No computer model had predicted it. It was a singularity, an unprecedented event.
The Change threw Mother Nature into chaos.
Minotaur was with the Fighting 24th north of Madrid when news of the Change came through. He’d watched early reports on the holcrom unit in his headpiece. The military channel played up the state of things back home and dismissed what it called ‘disinformation’ about the fall of the government. He didn’t find out the truth of what happened in the US until later on.
Fact is, when FEMA forecast a climate shift on the horizon, US society fell apart. It was mid-April 2030, things were barely holding together as it was. The news of an impending climate shift triggered an apocalyptic fervor up and down the campscape on the Eastern Seaboard. People wept, clutched at Bibles and threw themselves off the top of buildings. Chanting mobs stormed shopping malls and waged open war with security staff in Walmart and Sears. Members of the Manhattan Shanhayaa Buddhist Church staged a mass immolation in New York’s Central Park. The fundamentalist Christian group Hosea 8:7 shuttled congregation after congregation straight to heaven in a grisly series of fire-bombings down the east coast.
A week after the Atlantic reversal became public, the skies across North America turned purple-back and the thermometer dropped below fifty. An ominous rumble filled the air. The people in the eastern camps stopped and listened to that sound. It was like a giant hole had opened in the Midwest and the entire continent was crashing into the pit. Then the wind picked up and the rain came down in black fat drops that morphed into hail and then blocks of ice were crashing from the sky and nothing out of cover was safe.
The Big Freeze had begun.
Tornadoes ripped through the campscape and left it in tatters. Tenements collapsed and cars flew about on the street. Giant waves battered the coast and floods swept whole suburbs into the sea. People hunkered down where they could. Millions were dying and nothing could be done. President Cleaver and his advisers were taken to a secret bunker in Virginia, where they spent three days blasted on pills and booze before being dispatched in a coup d’etat by a team of officers with the backing of the General Staff. These actions marked the end of the legitimate constitutional administration of the United States of America. They marked the birth of the brutal, short-lived, American Seaboard Federation.
The blast of a horn and the guard truck below him burst into life. Minotaur shook sleep from his eyes. He’d dozed off. He struggled to get his bearings. They had reached the stretch of road on which they had seen the band of figures the day before. In front of the convoy, about a mile ahead, a similar group was blocking the highway. Minotaur could make out a mix of people in a sorry state. A man in a red jacket was at the head of the group walking down the center of the highway towards the convoy. The man waved a rag on the end of a stick.
The convoy shuddered to a halt. The windows of the front truck bristled with guns. A squad of troopers sprang out into a defensive formation upon the road. There was a burst of automatic fire. A mechanical voice instructed the strangers to halt.
There was banging on the side of the truck.
‘Hola. Anybody home? Little help here’.
Minotaur dropped down the ladder and fell into formation with the other men on the road. They jogged to the head of the convoy. The armed troopers had corralled the strangers into a circle in the center of the highway. They had them on their knees, hands behind their heads.
The captain of the convoy was a barrel-chested man with a scarred face. He sweated in the breeze. He mopped his forehead as he looked the map that was laid before him on the road. His second in command came running back from the prisoners.
‘They’re not Zoners’, said the lieutenant. ‘They say they’re from Baystone Camp’.
‘I thought it was collapsed into Fairview?’
‘Fairview? That’s miles away’.
The Captain scowled at the map. ‘And we’re not commissioned for it either. Christ, we’re not here to hand out food parcels. You there’, he yelled at Minotaur. ‘Go find out what the story is. And you – call Central. Who’s delivering to Fairview?’
Minotaur walked towards the circle of prisoners with troopers to either side, weapons at the ready. The group was in a bad condition. They were malnourished and underdressed; some were wrapped in blankets and shredded sheets of tarpaulin.
‘Baystone or Fairview?’, Minotaur asked no one in particular.
The man with the flag spoke with a stammer.
‘We w-was raided’, he said. ‘In th-the Thaw’. He gestured towards the mall further down the road. ‘We need medicines’. His mouth was a jagged hole under his beard.
Minotaur saw bandages under the rags. The soldiers to either side lowered their ventilators.
‘What kind of sickness you got?’ he choked. The smell ripped a hole through time.
‘W-w-what do you think?’ The man coughed and spat a bloody oyster on the road. ‘W-w-war pox. What happened to the c-c-convoy to W-wood Creek’?
Minotaur glanced back at the trucks.
‘We’re not carrying medicines’, he said. ‘You people have to get off the road’.
‘We was relyin on the Wood Creek c-convoy’, the man said.
A woman rose to her feet, oblivious to the dozen rifles suddenly trained in her direction. The scarf about her head made her look Islamic. There was a child staring up from her skirts.
‘Please sir’, she said. ‘We got a girl who is sick. We need medicines’.
‘Baystone or Fairview?’, Minotaur demanded. His voice came from far away.
‘B-Baystone’, said the man. ‘W-w-we were the last ones there’.
Minotaur marched back to the convoy. ‘Stragglers from Baystone’, he said. ‘Which probably makes them Zoners. You decide’.
As the officers fell to arguing, he walked about the back of the truck and blew vomit through his fingers and nose.
Mecca had fallen and the siege of Riyadh was proceeding. Minotaur sat in the guard truck, hunched over his pod, bathed in a holoscene glow. He slid in and out of levels, commanding units on the ground before pulling up for a helicopter view, taking in the battle as it played out across the Peninsula. He was ranking well and scoring hits. It was enough to see him into credit in zero minus five, though not enough for the bonus.
His avatar flew over.
‘You should attend to more immediate matters’, it told him. ‘Creditserv are threatening to cut you off. If you don’t settle your account in the next twenty four hours, you’ll be disconnected’.
Minotaur flew to Riyadh. MINO3GRAFXX30 followed.
‘You need to close the case, Minotaur. Close the case and you are out of the red. I’m telling you, this is the only way you are going to get out of this hole. You need to go back to basics, start building again. Think about it. You are scoring well on BATTLEFIELD. The syndicates are watching and they are always looking for new players. You’ve had a string of bad luck, Minotaur. But you’re in a good position to turn this around. Hope. Strive. Desire. You know you can do it’.
Minotaur logged off Netspace. BATTLEFIELD was nothing compared to real life.
Ten minutes later he was online again. WORKIN FOR A LIVIN, he thumbed.
They hit traffic after Brandy Station and the convoy slowed to a crawl. Low-rise prefabs gave way to tenements and stacks. They were passing through Sweatshop Alley to the west of DC, the home of the manufacturing industries that had sprung up after the second round of Initiatives in 2044. The decade since had seen a surge of migrants to these areas, where an able-bodied citizen could earn enough to join the waiting list for dormitory quarters, or qualify for a day-pass into the city.
The convoy drifted under an overpass crowded with workers’ squats, seething with color and life. Everywhere you looked there were people. Two hundred fifty million, the fifty four census had said. Given the state of things, it was hard to credit that five hundred million had clogged the coast in the early years of the Change. Looking back, Minotaur couldn’t believe that anyone had survived this period at all. He thought of frozen corpses lined in pits. For a moment there, they’d teetered on the brink of extinction. If the latticework of supply lines had collapsed, the Federation government would have fallen fast as the US administration, and the Badlands would’ve stretched to the sea.
That was how it went down in the Eurozone. Minotaur barely got out in time. When the Spanish skies darkened and the population surged south away from the storms, military operations in the region fell to pieces. One morning Minotaur was a Captain in the Fighting 24th. By evening he just was another foreigner in uniform, battling his way through the crowded streets looking for a way out. He’d made it to the sea and managed to secure work on a gunboat doing supply runs about the Andalusian coast. The crew, a mix of Spanish navy men and Somali pirates, worked hard and tight, and after a night of drinking and shedding blood, he’d gathered those about him he trusted and let them in on his plan. Three weeks later they’d hijacked the gunboat in the port of Cádiz and rode it through the mines into open water. They broke though the refugee flotilla one hundred klicks offshore and ploughed the garbage soup all the way to the USA.
Minotaur would never forget the day that he laid eyes on the Sprawl. They’d come into Virginia Beach on a massive swell, At first he thought the coastline was encrusted with snow. As they drew nearer, he’d realized that he was looking at a sea of plastic on top of a landscape of modular huts. There were masses of people in ski-jackets huddling together in the sideways rain, crushed about kettle drums on the beach. Squads of soldiers in black uniforms crouched behind sandbags, machine guns at the ready. Minotaur didn’t recognize the insignia. He couldn’t see an Old Glory anywhere.
He’d asked a Federation trooper the moment they’d made landfall: where’s the Stars and Bars? The trooper raised his rifle to knock him down. Minotaur dodged the blow but the implications hit him hard. That was when he knew it was over. That was when he knew that the nation that he’d loved was gone.
The Federation offered him a position in the Homeland Guard, but he’d turned them down. Ever a patriot, he said. A patriot without a country. Turning his back on the military, he had focused on staying alive. He bunked in stadiums and clustered dormitories. He spent days and nights queuing for rations in the wind and the rain. He picked up construction work when he could get it, though there was nothing regular. He froze and starved and watched the men and women in that ugly uniform crush every expression of revolt. Minotaur probably wouldn’t have survived without the hate. His carbine kept him safe and the heart and enhancements kept him solid. But it was hate that got him out of the rig in the morning. Hate and anger stronger than grief.
Meanwhile the weather raged through a miscellany of unforgiving conditions. Hurricanes, flash-floods, tornadoes and blizzards launched themselves on top of one another in violation of all known meteorological logic. When the storms drew breath, thunderheads in the western skies grumbled from morning to night. But already things were starting to settle down. It wasn’t long before the people in the camps realized that the climate had settled into a new equilibrium. The pattern was clear from 2032. November to March brought the cruelest winters that the continent had seen for ten thousand years. They called it the Freeze, after the Big Freeze, the drop in temperature that had signaled the Change. In April came the Thaw. The blizzards turned to sleet and rain, and temperatures rose to a balmy fifty degrees. On a good year, the Thaw lasted to October. At the height of the season, the residents of the camps would pull off their parkas and sunbathe in the frosty glow. Mid-afternoon it was straight back into the thermals. Mostly, the climate was wet and cold, and worried by an evil wind. They said it was a Siberian climate, befitting the new American Gulag.
The Seaboard Federation didn’t have a shred of legitimacy and it knew it. Opposition to the Council of Marshalls – the military junta who had seized control in 2030 – became louder and more reckless with each passing year. Things came to a head in 2035 when the Homeland Guard turned their machine guns on rioters in DC. After that the soldiers on the street took on the air of an occupying force. When, in October thirty six, on the brink of the Freeze, the Council announced further cuts to the gas ration, the popular discontent boiled over into massive protests across the camps. The mob, by this point, had nothing to lose. They ran amok with molotovs and carbines. They raided and looted, sang, drank, and screwed in the mud. The Homeland Guard was presented with an impossible situation and restrained itself to using gas and rubber bullets in response to the protests. It was a strategic mistake. When the fires had died and the dust settled down and the protesters returned to their camps, all that anyone could talk about was what an amazing time it had been.
News media at the time was tightly controlled, so it was impossible to know the true scale of the riots. But no one in the camps had any doubt that it was the largest single political event in the history of the continent, if not the world. Almost by accident, the residents of the camps had discovered that they could be more than just a mass of aching bellies, but an awesome political force. It was the spark that lit the fires of revolution.
A week after the riots, Minotaur saw a placard bearing the slogan: VOLITION. Within six months, Volition Party agitators were spiriting copies of the Freedom Manifesto from camp to camp, and Dorien Xiao, the leader of the movement, had called for a citizen’s referendum on the future government of the Sprawl.
Three years of bloody guerrilla warfare ensued. The revolutionaries were branded terrorists, but everyone knew it was the junta who was responsible for the crimes. By the time the Volition armies stormed Capitol Hill, with Xiao at their head, the revolutionaries had united the campscape into a single entity under their red and blue flag. When the new administration was sworn in, on July 4, 2040, Xiao’s first act as leader was to give official status to the campscape name that had become coinage for the rebels: the Sprawl.
Truth be told, the Sprawl was born earlier than this, in the Thaw of thirty seven, when the Freedom manifesto was first circulated about the camps. If the revolution had succeeded, it was not just because the Volition Party opposed an unpopular and illegitimate government. It was because it reaffirmed values and ideals that had defined the old America, which many assumed had died in the period of the Change. The Freedom manifesto was a new beginning for the residents of the east coast camps. The spirit of democracy had returned, and with it, hope.
Minotaur could remember the Freedom manifesto world for word. He recited it below his breath as the campscape rolled slowly by.
The Council of Marshalls has declared that sovereign authority resides in you, the military government of the Sprawl. But it seems to us that we, the people, gave you this authority by an unspoken consensus, and in doing so we became a sovereign body with a far greater right than your own. We are well assured that the governance you have provided has preserved our lives and safeguarded the future. But we are equally assured that the future exists only so far as the present is given to change and that volition is the right of all.
We present the following truths as incontrovertible. First, that volition is the wellspring of human happiness and virtue, and should be enshrined in a universal legal code. Second, that democracy is the political expression of volition, and should be the principle ambition of any legitimate administration. Third, that free enterprise is the economic expression of volition, and the underpinning of a sovereign state.
Friends, any less than these principles is an affront to the legacy of this land. We offer you the chance to join us in realizing these principles or to break before the power of our common vision.