Story Excerpt

The Last Biker Gang

by Wil McCarthy

 

Eleven

Last-Biker-Gang
Illustrated by Joel Iskowitz

Alan Szcyltz—aged eighty-four years, zero months, zero days—rolled on the ancient Harley’s throttle and gunned it to one mile per hour for every miserable year he’d been alive on this miserable planet. Eighty-four mph fast! It wasn’t easy to do; I-25 was clogged with colorful trains of robot cars and trucks, “platooning” ten to a group almost bumper-to-bumper at 65.00 miles per hour. Navigating through them was a matter of spotting the gaps well before he got to them, of plotting his moves in advance, of weaving sharply in and out and back, ignoring the astonished faces of passive “motorists” in their mobile living rooms.

The Harley’s engine roared. The highway’s wind roared back. His own heart roared with the thrill (yes, thrill, despite how bad he was feeling) of moving so fast when he damn well wasn’t supposed to. Take that, society.

He’d been in one of those driverless monstrosities this very morning. Bought it for himself as a birthday present, to replace the “real” car Rebecca had filled with her possessions and driven away, after fifty-three years of wedded bliss. Was it so bad, being married to him? She’d seemed to think so, once the normones and senility reversal treatments had really started kicking in. Back from the dead, from the very brink of death, and in a matter of weeks he’d gone from changing her Depends to defending his right to stand or sit or drink a beer. Everything he did, or tried to do, not only wrong but also somehow inflammatory.

“I spent one lifetime putting up with you, Alan. I won’t spend another.” Yeah.

The Harley’s tires squealed alarmingly as he dodged a pair of buses and squealed again as he nearly lost it on the on-ramp to I-70—a long loping curve that suddenly tightened near the end, just before it squashed down from three lanes to two. They used to call this the Mousetrap, and despite almost a century of engineering and reengineering, it still basically sucked, and would have been one of the deadliest chokepoints in the city if people still died in traffic accidents.

He let out a roar, a scream, just because. Just because it was easier than not screaming. It was fear and rage and humiliation and all the frustrated ambitions of a lifetime, all compressed into a single, simple emotion—perhaps the only one he needed anymore.

He thought he’d lived his life pretty honorably, hyah? Done what he was supposed to, what he was able to. Let her spend most of the money, let her mostly tell him what to do, mostly didn’t get angry and shout about things, mostly just smiled and nodded and sometimes bought her flowers. Right? And for what?

Approaching an ominous wall of trucks, he had to back off the throttle a bit, and finally even downshift into fourth gear, before he could actually drop behind and merge with the eastbound traffic on 70. More platoons, although a few actual motorists were puttering along as well, weaving like drunks among the razor-precise robots.

It was a hot day at the tail end of May—eighty-nine degrees by the real thermometer, but with his knees and elbows in the breeze, he was actually almost chilly, because he couldn’t find his old leather jacket and finally wondered why he was even bothering to look for it. What did he have left to protect? Why not roll out in just a T-shirt and, yes, a pair of sturdy old blue jeans? Now, situated on the highway proper, he let his speed creep back up again, wishing he could kick out the tail lights of every damn robot he passed.

Oh, he’d bought one of these beasts all right. Infiniti Q200, not cheap but worth it, hyah? But the moment he drove it off the lot, the first thing it did was lock the doors and start driving him in the wrong direction.

“Warning. The driver of this vehicle has an outstanding arrest warrant. Per state and federal law, this vehicle is required to report directly to the nearest police station. Please remain in your seat.”

It wouldn’t even tell him the charge, although he imagined it must be unpaid parking tickets. What else had he ever done wrong? So as it rolled to a halt at one of the city’s dwindling number of traffic lights, he’d blown the escape bolts on the driver’s side window, and then crawled out and walked away while the car’s alarm system blared and whooped. If the cops were too lazy to come arrest him themselves, if they needed a talking car to do their dirty work for them, then it was their loss. He was damned if he’d play that game, or any game. Or maybe he was just damned, period.

So he’d walked home twenty miles, pulled the canvas cover off his old Softail Deuce, slam charged its lithium (yes, lithium) battery, poured in a gallon of Stabilized Benzoethanol Blend, and fired her up. Who gave a shit if he was too old for motorcycles? He was also too old for work, too poor and dull for his oh-so-grown-up kids, too young to die of natural causes, and too chickenshit to put a bullet in his brain.

And apparently, too ornery for marriage. Rebecca’s final words still stung in his ears. It seemed like they might just echo there for the rest of his stupid life: “I’m leaving, and you’re not going to pester me out of it, Alan. Stop talking. Stop trying. You’ve got the jerk gene, and that’s never going to change. You’re never going to change.”

Never going to? Well, well. He’d just have to see what the fine people of I-70 had to say about that. Taking his left hand off the clutch, he felt for his chinstrap, slowly undid it and, shrugging off this last tangible piece of the give-a-shit world, flung his helmet as hard as he could at the windshield of a passing Fiat.

The glass didn’t break, and the Fiat didn’t waver in its course, and that might have been the end of it except the helmet bounced off and hit the pavement and rolled and flipped and then a highway full of autonomous vehicles didn’t know what it was or what to do about it, and all started swerving and braking and even knocking into each other a little, and even though nobody was probably going to get hurt, Alan realized he had caused what might well be Denver’s greatest traffic disaster of the calendar year.

But he was way out in front of it, probably caught on a hundred cameras but with no license plates on the bike—smart or dumb—to identify him, and no kill switch to stop him remotely, and no navigation electronics to take him for an unsolicited ride. So he gunned the throttle harder and sped away, leaving it behind, moving on, moving forward, all giddy with innocence and rage.

*   *   *

Ten

“I’m Skulls,” Alan said to the man two barstools down from him. It was his name, sort of. Alan Szcyltz was a difficult name to pronounce, and if you did it right it came out somewhere between “Shultz” and “Scalds”, but he was four bourbons to the wind at this point, and his mouth wasn’t forming words correctly. “Alan Skulls, retired.”

He was holding out his hand, which the man considered carefully. By some coincidence, he was a geezer in a battered old motorcycle jacket, presumably wearing it indoors because it was freezing as fuck in here with the A.C. cranked up to maximum.

“Okay,” the man said in a careful voice.

He was into that “ageless elderly” phase where he could have been anywhere from his late fifties to his early eighties—white hair, yellowing eyes, and grizzled puffy skin that stopped short of wrinkly, but not by much. He’d probably been good-looking once, but age hadn’t been kind. Which wasn’t all that surprising, because he smelled strongly of thic-nic vape, which (despite being mostly steam) had turned out to be nearly as bad for your skin as smoking used to be. Who knew?

“You ride here?” Alan tried, and when the man didn’t reply right away he added, “I rode here. Turn-of-the-century Harley.”

“Okay,” the man said again, apparently not wanting to be too friendly. Which was unfortunate, because it was three p.m. on a Tuesday, and they were just about the only people in this bar, except a much younger bartender who was talking to another man his own age, and a haggard woman who was also ageless and basically curled up by herself in a corner booth, staring at nothing. Alan had been cooped up at home for too long, and wanted someone to talk to, but apparently this was not his moment.

Disappointed, grumbling a little under his breath, he went back to nursing his drink.

The bar was called Dive Bar and looked like it had been around as long as Alan had. Not in a good, retro-’90s kind of way but in a sort of bad, actual ’90s way. It was all decked out in fishing nets and scuba gear, which was a joke because this was fucking Colorado, but the stuff was so old—cracked and yellowed and dusty and whatever else—it just looked like somebody’s basement that had never been cleaned. And it didn’t have projected ideoglyphs crawling all over everything, calling out the “mood of the nation,” the “daily consensus flavor” and whatnot; instead there was a single 3D monitor at one end of the room, farthest from the windows, showing a feed of actual, curated video news. All of this suited Alan’s mood, not least because the video had no sound attached, and in fact the sound system was playing a steady stream of late-twentieth-century ballads.

*   *   *

Nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody comes here, anymore . . .

She drives me crazy, ooh, ooh . . .

Janie’s got a gun . . .

*   *   *

Anywhere nicer, the music choices would have been unbearable. The latest ultravirals were a sort of nonsense ditty called Shoopidy Doopidy that really ought to nauseate anyone older than six, and a tone poem by the President of the United States called Age Don’t Make You Wise. And given that the president was a thirty-seven-year-old pre-op dysgendered with a spiral-shaved head, who openly took bribes and who talked like some stonehead Mr. Rogers, Alan was very definitely not in the mood.

“My bike is shit,” the man beside him said.

“Yeah?” Alan prompted, surprised.

“2020 Suzuki V-Strom. I got it free when a buddy died. Long time ago.”

“Ah. I’m sorry.”

“For what? The buddy or the bike? Either way, don’t be. I saw your Harley on the way in. It’s not bad. That’s actually why I stopped here.”

“Hmm. Okay. Not many people out riding on a Tuesday?”

“Not anymore.” The man paused after that, looking like he didn’t know what else to say. He finally settled for, “My name is Paul.”

That seemed to run out the conversation for a while, so they nursed their drinks and yes, listened to the music.

The bartender and his friend barely glanced their way, ever. To obtain each of his four drinks, Alan had had to get up from his stool and physically walk over to the two of them, clear his throat, interrupt, and ask for what he needed. Now it was nearly time to do that again, and it was getting on Alan’s nerves. And then all of a sudden Green Day came on the sound system singing about “shitty old men” who’d failed at everything, lost their youth, and just turned bitter. Alan knew the song—it had been popular back in the day—but here and now it struck him all kinds of wrong, because when you got right down to it, Green Day had been a bunch of spoiled suburban children, writing music in an idyll space between global wars, with no idea what they were talking about and no sense of harmony anyway.

Alan really wasn’t an impulsive or destructive person, even when he was drunk, but today he was still high on adrenaline, still low on divorce, still raging at the robotic betrayal of “his” new car, and so he took his whiskey glass and pushed it off the bar. It was made out of actual glass, and shattered on the old tile floor.

“Whoops.”

“Hey!” the bartender said, looking up.

“Clumsy. Sorry. Could I get another?”

The barkeep considered him for a moment before saying, “Yeah, but I’m charging you for the glass.”

“Fair enough.”

Alan didn’t see any retina scanners or other biometrics in the doorway, just a cash register and chip reader behind the bar. He’d already decided that if he was so damned invisible, he was going to walk out of here without paying. Or try to, anyway, because why the hell not?

“So what did you used to be?” he asked Paul while the bartender did his thing.

“Hmm? What? Oh, I was a surgeon.”

“Yeah? Humans?”

“Yeah.”

“Tubes replace you?”

A standard autodoc was tube-shaped, like a CAT scanner, and “going the tubes” was what people said these days when they needed cosmetic adjustments or internal part swaps or even just diagnostic scanning. There were human doctors in attendance, of course, but nobody wanted one holding a scalpel. This wasn’t the Civil War.

“Me? No, I was out of it before then.” He paused for a few seconds before adding, “Surgeons were like football players—high pay, short career, loooong retirement. I guess the tubes make more sense.”

He didn’t sound like he believed it.

“I was an electrical engineer,” Alan said, when it became clear Paul wasn’t going to ask. Another obsoleted job; today’s tech people were more like psychiatrists or kindergarten teachers, or maybe contract lawyers. No math, just a patient willingness to explain to the Cloud exactly what you wanted it to design for you. “Executive creativity” hadn’t been crushed out of the process yet, but designing circuits by hand seemed a bit silly even to Alan.

He said, “I guess we’re just taking up space, you and me.”

Paul grunted at that, back to not wanting to talk.

Something caught Alan’s eye at the other end of the room—the video monitor. It showed a blocky, bandwidth-starved 3PEG of a motorcyclist throwing his helmet at a car.

“Holy shit. That’s me!”

Paul looked up, saw the images.

“What?”

“That was me, just now, on I-70.”

Paul looked confused. “What were you doing?”

“I don’t know. What I felt like.”

The scene looped a few times, zoomed and sharpened and reoriented by various imperfect algorithms, and Paul studied it.

“Hmm.”

On the feed, Alan’s helmet toss didn’t look spontaneous at all. It seemed weirdly calm and premeditated, like he’d set out this afternoon with exactly that in mind. Like he’d been paid to do it, or dared. Maybe he had.

“Hmm.” Paul said, watching the screen. “Weird. Could have hurt someone. But okay.”

“That’s me,” Alan said, trying in vain to catch the bartender’s attention again. Then: “I wonder what they’re saying about me on that feed.”

“Senile man loses his shit,” Paul suggested, and they both shared a dry chuckle at that.

And then the afternoon seemed to run empty on them again, nothing more to talk about and nothing more to do. Not here. So after a few minutes of unspoken restlessness they did indeed walk right out of the bar, as casual as you please. Really, what would the consequences be if they got caught?

The bar was in a little strip mall that Alan had passed a thousand times—maybe more than a thousand, maybe ten thousand—and never pulled into. Two of its shops were vacant, but a third one promised “Clothing Alteration Low Cost”—a rare thing in this day and age—and still another said “Tattoo 4 You.”

“It’s the Land the Time Forgot,” Alan said appreciatively, then wondered if Paul was of the proper age to catch the reference. Then wondered if it mattered and decided it didn’t.

“It’s hot out here,” Paul said. “And you’re too drunk to ride.”

Alan snorted at that. “I could ride. Break my neck it’s my own damn business. But all right, Doctor, shall we alter our clothes or our skin?”

Some questions sort of answer themselves.

Tattoo 4 You was as decrepit inside as Dive Bar and appeared to have nothing but freestyle manual equipment. The walls were covered in freestyle drawings that made Alan a bit nostalgic for the start of the twenty-first century, when it seemed like everyone was strutting handmade ink. Who knew the dot matrix implant would replace all that, and then just as quickly die off? Suddenly it seemed unthinkable that Alan had never inked his own skin. To have lived through that era, untouched by it, was rather odd in retrospect.

“I need some artwork,” he said to the proprietor, an ageless, wild-haired woman covered in faded freestyle of her own. Alan’s words slurred more than he wanted them to. He wanted to be the sort of man who could hold his liquor.

“You’re drunk,” the woman said. “You can’t sign a consent form.”

“I most certainly can,” Alan told her. “This here’s my doctor, Paul, uh . . .”

“Witcher.”

“Right. Witcher.”

The tattoo artist looked them over, bored and tired. “I actually can’t. Sorry.”

“You actually can,” Alan insisted. “How old are you? How long have you been sitting there, filling out forms? I’m done with that. I want a skull here, and another skull here”—he pointed to the backs of his hands—“and I’m not accepting any negativity about it. Not today.”

“And I want scalpels,” Paul said, then added, “We have Bitcash.”

The artist raised an eyebrow at that, suddenly a little less bored.

“I don’t take that,” she said.

“Yeah you do,” Paul said, fishing a wallet out of a back pocket. That by itself marked him as a creature of days gone by; few people under the age of thirty carried ID or credit cards anymore. Why bother, when a simple retinal scan could identify you beyond doubt or forgery, linking transactions directly to your bank accounts?

Bitcash was something different, though. Something ancient and terrible—an untraceable, untaxable whisper across the digisphere, illegal in virtually every country, and accepted in more places than anyone cared to admit. Sketchy places, where things got done that made very little economic sense, or too much sense, and it was best not to ask questions. Places like this one, hyah?

Paul the Surgeon pulled out his chip—a flat, circular wafer of gray ceramic, and slid it across the counter to her.

“I can’t”, she repeated, sounding a little nervous now.

“No? Ma’am, I still hold a medical license. I could report you to the health inspector.”

That made her angry. “For what? You just walked in here.”

“For whatever I goddamn say, that’s what.” Then he looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. Look, we’re old men. What say you whip up some ink for my boy, here, and then some ink for me, and we’ll buy you a nice dinner? Just between friends, not a transaction at all.”

Her glare was equal parts outrage, amusement, and sheer confusion. The bubble of her tedium had burst; she was really seeing the two of them now, really considering them. “Seriously? You’ve got nothing better to do on a Tuesday than give me a hard time?”

“Nope. Not even a little.”

She thought some more. “What kind of dinner would this be, hypothetically?”

“Depends what you like,” Paul said. “We’re on the Deal, so it can’t be anything too expensive, and we’re disreputable people, so it can’t be too, you know, reputable. Other than that, imagination is the only limit. What’s your name?”

“Does it matter?”

“I think so,” Paul mused. “Yeah, I think it does. It matters what kind of food you like, and whether the wind in your hair sets it free, or just messes it up.”

Well, Alan thought, look who’s a poet as well as a surgeon. He could see the artist thawing at these words and wondered how long it had been since anyone said anything that nice to her.

“I’m Carol,” she offered, reaching handshakes out to both of them.

*   *   *

Nine

Four motorcycles grunted their way up the canyon. Not much traffic here on a Thursday morning, and while the stone ramparts would occasionally widen out to reveal meadows and houses and little farms, the road mostly twisted so much that Alan barely had time to look up. Left, then right, an inside curve and then an outside one. On the barrier lane to the right, they passed the occasional brightly clothed bicyclist, and in the opposing traffic lane, there were very occasional automobiles heading downhill.

But mostly it was open road, and that was demanding enough, thank you. The inside curves were the ones where he could see what was coming for a little ways; the outside curves were where the cliff face stood between his eyeballs and whatever lay ahead. It could be anything; fallen rocks, slow traffic, deer, mountain goats, or what have you. One false move would smash his old-man body against the cliffs or the road or the bicycle barrier, or fling it off into the trees and the river, and that would be that, except there were three other bikes behind him. He was leading the charge.

With the morning light on his back and the wind whipping in around the edges of his sunglasses, Alan began to remember why he’d owned a motorcycle in the first place; this hypnotic, dangerous, all-consuming task that focused the entire organism. Fight or flight or steer or brake, shifting up and shifting down, never a moment to think about anything else, or to notice that he, himself, existed.

His troubles blew off him like they were written on Post-It Notes, and he felt . . . purified? Sanctified? Still very angry—the anger shone through even on the sharpest outside turns, when he wasn’t specifically self-aware—but it was a cleaner sort of anger than before. And a shared anger, too.

As it turned out, Carol knew a couple of other old men who owned motorcycles. Or knew of them, anyway. In retrospect this wasn’t surprising, given what she did for a living, so she’d sent some messages and lined up the introductions, and thirty-six hours later they’d all met up at a fueling depot at the mouth of Bear Creek Canyon. Conversation was brief and terse (enough so that Alan seriously wondered whether men his age were capable of any other sort of communication), and now here they were tearing up the canyon together.

Their little biker pack passed through a series of mountain towns—Idledale, Kittredge, Evergreen—that had changed very little over the course of Alan’s life. Really just wide spots in the canyon, they afforded no room for expansion, and no real basis for an economy beyond a handful of restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and underequipped fueling depots. After Evergreen, though, the canyon widened out into a real mountain valley, and the highway snaked, by turns, through its bottom and along the crests of the ridges that lined it. Here there were houses, little shopping malls, and a lot of mirrored-glass office buildings breaking up what might otherwise have been an idyllic view.

So the Evergreen Parkway took them across I-70 to the Central City Parkway, and up an even steeper climb, which Alan, and the bikes behind him, dug into with gusto. This was an old-fashioned group ride, and these new men—identified only as Dickel and Kamarov—had been content to let Alan lead it with minimal discussion as to the routes they might follow. So they climbed up and up the Central City Expressway, and the smell of pine trees was overwhelming, and hairpin turns were the norm, and the posted speed limit varied from seventy and even seventy-five kph, all the way down to twenty as the road crawled along the shoulders of one mountain after another. The view was occasionally spectacular, but mostly Alan was focused on the road itself, on cutting a perfect line through every curve so he wouldn’t fly off the pavement. So he wouldn’t come anywhere close to touching the painted lines.

He actually had a few minorly hair-raising moments, where he entered a curve a little too slow or too fast, and the bike threatened to tip over on its low side or flip over on its high one, and Alan began to realize that this was something altogether different than zipping through interstate traffic, and that as the minutes stretched into hours, his eighty-four years made it a challenging ride indeed. Or maybe it had always been difficult and he’d just forgotten about it. Either way, he began to look for somewhere he could pull off and rest his brain for a while. A few rustic restaurants passed by, but their driveways were steep and gravelly, and he frankly didn’t trust himself to navigate them until finally the road opened out again into the town of Nederland. He pulled into the first plausible-looking restaurant, a little place called Peak Bistro Technica, found a parking space, and killed the engine.

The sudden lack of wind and vibration was disorienting, but in a moment of bravado he hopped off his bike, stood there while the other men pulled up and killed their own engines. Silence enveloped him.

“Who’s hungry?” he asked.

It was actually a pretty reasonable question; from the angle of the sun it had to be close to noon by now.

“I could eat,” said Kamarov, taking off his riding glasses. He was a man younger than either Alan or Paul—possibly as young as sixty-five, and certainly no older than seventy-five—with a hard look about him. Or the remnants of a hard look, anyway. His shaved head and beard looked like they’d been neglected for a few days. His hair was steely gray, but his eyes were a cold, copper-brown squint that seemed to take in everything and to be impressed by none of it. He wore a leather jacket—quite necessary in this cool mountain air—so it was hard to gauge just how much muscle he’d managed to hang onto, but he certainly carried himself like a physically strong person. And in these days of magical medicines, it wasn’t like hanging onto muscle mass was all that difficult an achievement. As Kamarov took off his gloves, Alan could see the words PURE HATE tattooed across his knuckles. Well, well. The ink was faded, so it appeared that sentiment had been around for quite a while, and Alan felt that some part of him should probably be repulsed. Unstable. Antisocial. But instead he felt nothing, not even really any surprise. It seemed appropriate to the occasion, was all.

“Yes, food,” said Doctor Paul, and Dickel nodded beside him. Dickel was more of an enigma; Alan couldn’t tell how old he was, or whether he and Kamarov knew each other, or really much of anything. Nobody got their face muscles immobilized with botox anymore, but it seemed as though something analogous had happened to Dickel. His face was way too smooth, way too fixed, and even his white hair had a sort of frozen look to it—coiffed neatly despite the wind of the ride. He shrugged his shoulders and spread his arms as if to say, who am I to disagree?, and the gesture reminded Alan of some Japanese puppets he’d seen back in the ’90s. Expressive and expressionless all at once, carved blocks of wood somehow brought to life by the puppeteer standing behind them in a weird ninja outfit. There was no animating ninja standing behind Dickel, but there was something eerie about him; his appearance said something unsettling about the world that Alan had not quite pieced together. Old men are reptiles!

The four of them walked into the restaurant together like a bad smell.

“Good morning,” said a waist-high robot shaped like a black-and-white bowling pin with triangular tank-tread feet and outsized headlight eyes. A sign beside it said PLEASE WAIT FOR SEATING, but Kamarov brushed right past it, knocking into both the robot and the sign in a way that made several human customers look up.

“Excuse me, sir, how many in your party?” The robot tried.

“Fuck off,” Kamarov said to it, in a tightly coiled voice that suggested violence if not heeded. “Kick your fucking guts out.”

“Very excellent, sir,” the robot said, retreating as politely as a bowling pin could do. “Please feel free to seat yourselves.”

So they found a booth by the window, facing west toward houses and tree-covered mountaintops.

“Such a lifelike voice,” Paul marveled. “I wonder how much awareness they really have?”

These little robots were new, or rather, they were newly cheap enough to be popping up in restaurants all over the place.

“Who give a shit?” Kamarov asked, picking up the napkin holder and turning it over in his hands, as if looking for some hidden mechanism there.

Paul shrugged. “They act sensibly, to preserve themselves. I’m impressed.”

“So do people.”

“Hmm.”

“Is it more satisfying to intimidate a real person?” Dickel asked.

Kamarov considered that for a long moment before answering, “You’re a little old to be asking that question.”

Alan was still trying to figure out how to interpret that when an older model waiterbot came around. This one was all white plastic and necessarily humanoid in shape, although it was only four feet tall, and had a second pair of arms tucked discreetly against its torso, and a second pair of spindly “emergency legs” tucked against its pelvis.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” it said, passing out four flimsy paper menus. “Can I offer you anything to drink?”

“You’re not able to ‘offer’ me anything,” Kamarov told it, “and if you got a human being on premises I suggest you send her out here immediately, before I start ripping pieces off you.”

The white light on the waiterbot’s head turned red, but otherwise it didn’t seem to know how to respond.

“Please go away,” Alan said to it quickly, before things had a chance to get ugly. And within seconds a door was opening and a man was coming out toward them, looking upset. The restaurant’s owner?

“Can I help you gentlemen?” He was looking the four of them up and down, trying to figure out just what was going on here. Alan felt a stab of satisfaction at his expression; not so invisible now, were they?

“Against my religion to talk to machines,” Kamarov said. “What’s to drink around here?”

And from the tone of his voice, Alan deduced that yes, it was more satisfying to intimidate a human being.

“I’ll have a Coke,” Paul said, filling the silence in an attempt to defuse things.

“Coffee,” said Dickel.

“Just water for me,” Alan said.

Kamarov allowed a significant pause before saying, “Beer if you have it. I don’t care which brand. Otherwise just water. And a cheeseburger with fries, if you know what the fuck that is. Look it up if you don’t, because my blood sugar is dropping and I get a little short-tempered.”

The restaurant owner apparently had no idea what to say to any of that, so the rest of them took advantage of the confusion to place their own orders, before he retreated back into his office again.

Alan, feeling no sense of caution whatsoever, said to Kamarov, “You’ve got that finely honed, don’t you? Threatening people without actually threatening them. Threatening machines without actually damaging them. Nothing actionable.”

Kamarov looked at him for a moment before saying, “It’s all in the intonation.”

Alan didn’t bother asking what Kamarov used to do for a living, because he figured it didn’t matter much, but he did say, “It’s a useful talent. Hard sometimes for senior citizens to get the attention we deserve.”

“Okay,” Kamarov said, noncommittally. Alan considered this a victory of sorts, because he could just as easily have been met with that same withering tone.

And once again the conversation dried up, as all of Alan’s conversations seemed destined to. So they waited in silence—not really uncomfortable silence, but just a sort of weary patience—until the waiterbot returned with their orders.

“Mmm,” Kamarov said, grabbing an ugly-looking cheeseburger off the tray and biting into it.

And Alan had to agree, biting into a club sandwich of his own and thinking that yeah, okay, vat-cloned meat had never tasted so good.

*   *   *

Eight

They ended up back at Alan’s house, where the four of them quickly burned through his meager supply of beer and vodka, and then through Paul’s supply of THC-nicotine vapor capsules. Alan had never cared much for thic-nic himself, but alcohol was fine, of course, and it seemed intolerable right now that he couldn’t get any drunker than he already was.

“You take the same normones your doctor prescribes,” Dickel was saying around a reeking cloud of vapor, “but it’s triple the geriatric dose. I’m here to tell you, it puts the hair back on your balls.”

“Bad for your liver,” Paul said, though not sounding terribly committed to it.

“You know what’s bad for your liver?” Dickel shot back. “Sitting around waiting to die. Anyway, this guy Feng says to me, ‘How many times you gonna pay for this stuff with paper bills? You know how hard it is to deposit this stuff in an actual bank?’ I guess they run a gas chromatograph over it every time. Too many dubious substances attached and they put an asterisk next to your name.”

“That’s not all they do,” Kamarov growled. His cool anger from earlier in the day had fanned up into something more proactive; it seemed he might jump up and start punching things at any moment. “Fingerprints, DNA, isotopes, you name. If any bill you touch ever lands in a bank, the pattern recognizers are like signed confession of whatever you done. Fuck, man. Fuck! This used to be America.”

“So he only takes Bitcash now?” Paul asked.

“Not only that, but you have to double-encrypt it for him. Which is, you know, not reversible. Feds catch you with a chip, it’s fine, they can’t prove anything for like three hundred days of straight cracking, and they ain’t got the time. Not for chumps like you and me. Put your medical records on the top layer, tell them that’s what the chip is for, and they can’t even confiscate it without a federal warrant. But yeah, it’s a goddamn pain in the balls is what it is. That money is just for Feng; you can’t buy fireworks or cigars or anything.”

“They can still see your account draining into blank space,” Kamarov said.

“Yeah, well, that’s not illegal. They’d have to arrest half the country.”

That seemed like a stretch to Alan. He’d listened to this conversation with interest and envy, because he’d never engaged in any sort of shady transaction in his life. Hell, he’d never even tried marijuana until after they’d made it legal.

“Can you show me how to put funds on a chip?” he asked Dickel. “Hidden under some photographs or whatever?”

“Sure,” Dickel said. “Take about ten minutes if you’re sober enough to work a keyboard.”

“Unfortunately, I am. You should call this Feng character right now, tell him to bring six bottles of bourbon and six boxes of thic-nic.”

Dickel snorted at that. “Feng won’t deal in that stuff, Alan. VAT taxes on the markup! It’s way easier to move merch that was never legal to begin with.”

Paul, ugly as a Halloween zombie in the colored lights of Alan’s living room, was stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I bet Carol would bring us that stuff. I should call her.”

“What can Feng bring us?” Alan asked. “Steroids, okay, I could use some hair on my groinal area. What about endorphins? Or amphetamines? Some kind of feel-good shit?”

Dickel snorted again. “Sure, but why stop there? Four blots of QSD would get these colors dancin’.”

An hour later, they had a full-on party on their hands, with Feng and Carol, and Feng’s friend Shrieky, and Carol’s friends Wanda and Maria, and a bunch of elderly black men and women speaking rapid-fire Spanish over plastic cups filled with ice and booze and green flashing parkledots.

Or maybe they weren’t parkledots; maybe Alan’s brain was just buzzing with staccato colors, and maybe there was no such fucking thing as parkledots anyway. Alan had just spent his entire Social Security check on narcotics, and he had never felt better in his motherbluthering life, and he was just going to have to eat rice and beans for the rest of the month, and that was just fine, just fine with him.

“Is time passing?” Kamarov asked him, or asked everyone. “Is everything happen at once? We ride, we sit, we get up again. Is time passing at all?”

Alan considered him through the pulsing haze of the drug. “Do you feel that time is passing?”

“I feel strange,” Kamarov admitted. “If that question has answer, I feel that I should know it. What year is this?”

Alan thought about it and realized he didn’t know and didn’t care. He wasn’t up to the task of caring.

“You! You have broken your own heart,” Kamarov said to him, his eyes bright, his tone suddenly accusing. “You think someone else break it, but this is not possible. This is why you ride? It happens to people, yes. You still think you can outrun your own heart. Oh, Alan. Oh, my friend. What if we live forever? What will we do if we live forever?”

He sounded panicky now, and Alan felt that he should talk him down somehow.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. And he wanted to say more, but the words wouldn’t come. Thoughts were avalanching through him, too big for words.

He thought of Kamarov, of what he must have been like as a younger man. His face seemed to flicker, becoming younger and older, and both. Alan stole a glance at the clock on his bookcase, trying to puzzle out the time. Trying to determine if it was indeed passing, and if so, in which direction.

In Italian neigborhoods, in the twentieth century when the Cosa Nostra were still a thing, there used to be tough guys who swaggered around, trying to act the part. Guys with nothing, guys too decent to make viable gangsters, who needed something to hold onto. It felt so recent. Was it that way in Russian neighborhoods in the twenty-first? For all his glower and glare, Kamarov didn’t strike Alan as a genuinely lethal person. Violent, perhaps. Or perhaps not even that. Perhaps he was nothing but an empty jacket, a pair of studded gloves. A set of boots walking through time, leaving temporary ripples and then gone.

“What about your heart?” Alan finally asked.

“Mine? It’s meat.” He thumped his chest. “Nobody break this thing. Nobody ever, I don’t know why. I get lonely, wishing for someone who is capable of breaking me, but I think it’s maybe too late.”

Paul stood up, then, and announced, “I held a woman’s heart in my hand one time, a beating heart. Inside of her. Beating heart. It was crazy. This thing had been transplanted from a donor, it was a hundred years old. The heart was older than she was. Beating for a hundred years. How crazy was that? She was dying on the table and still this thing would not stop beating. How many things had it seen? That’s the human heart, boys. That’s what a heart can do.”

And that seemed a sad thought to Alan. Every part of it sad, though Paul didn’t mean it that way.

But Carol—still sober as far as Alan could tell—seemed to find it romantic. “You used to be so cool,” she said.

And somehow that was funny, and the room exploded in laughter and froze that way, because time didn’t need to pass. Nothing needed to do anything anymore.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. The Last Biker Gang by Wil McCarthy

Content here.