September 19, 2030
Oreo Double Stuf City, New Hampshire Commerce District

Hank Porchman's ringtone was the sound of a woman yelling "come an' get it!" and clanging a dinner bell. The Bechtel Warriors were up 7 points in the body count on "Combat! Live" and he didn't want to miss a single shot. He suspected that the Venezuelans that the Starbucks Baristas were clearing out had been supplied with firepower by one of their rival teams. No leftist guerilla outfit should be flinging Lava Drinker AT missiles around like that. Porchman didn't care though, his money was riding on the Warriors and he pumped his fist in the air when the Baristas lost their last up-armored SUV.

"Come an' get it!" The dinnerbell clanged again.

The screen cut to a freeze frame of one of the wounded Starbucks squad members flopping out of the shredded cab of the SUV. Blood was streaming down the man's face. Hank muted the color commentary and answered the phone. One of the commentators drew a circle around a piece of the SUV's roll cage that was sticking out of the Barista's abdomen.

"City's Finest Security, Lieutenant Porchman speaking."

Silence on the other end.

"Hello, this is-"

"Someone is in the house." It was a woman's voice, barely a whisper. "Someone is in the house and my husband isn't home."

"Do you have a gun, ma'am?"

"No." She answered. Hank raised his eyebrows.

"Okay, I will get someone there immediately. Are you a subscriber?"

"He's coming up the stairs," her voice was hissing with fear.

"Okay, calm down ma'am, if you're not a subscriber I'm going to have to get your credit card information."

"I…," she hesitated. There was a rustling on the other end as the phone shifted. "My purse is downstairs."

"Alright, stay calm ma'am, is there any way you can get downstairs? Or maybe hide until he goes past you and then get your purse?"

"No, I…" More fear crept into her voice, "he's at the top of the stairs!"

"Alright, what I can do for you, ma'am, is under the Pro Forma Act of 2018 I can provide you with a safety response at the market rate with compensation to be collected no later than 15 days after the fact. We can negotiate further involvement if necessary but what this entails is I will send a-"

"Okay, okay. Please, just hurry."

Hank sighed. Somehow word had gotten out that he had a soft spot for charity cases.

"Alright, state your first and last name and state that you are invoking the Pro Forma Act of 2018."

"Dolores Hooper and I invoke the Pro Forma Acts of 2018."

Hank got her address and hung up. He looked over wistfully at Nate Landau's empty desk. Pro Forma Act bullshit and no Nate around to dump the butt loaf on. Fine night to call in drunk to work.

Hank got up with a groan and, feeling every one of his 46 years, he shrugged his suspenders back over his middle-age paunch. He pulled his coat, hat and shoulder holster off of the peg on the wall and ducked out of the office.

The sky above Red Lobster Harbor was the color of television, tuned to a commercial for Jack's Megameth Pick Me Ups. It was that way in no small part because Jack's Megameth Pick Me Ups had paid for ad space above the harbor. A ship moored dead center in the middle of the harbor was spewing white smoke into an immense sheet-cloud onto which the advertisement was being projected. Dakota Fanning's eyes bugged out as she swallowed one of the neon-orange pills and cooed lustily down at the city below. Hank snorted and turned over the engine of his battered H4.

He took the elevated adway down to the Safe Streets skyway interchange, pausing long enough to fish his roadcard out of its tolljacker sheath. He quickly slid it back into the sheath when he spotted a smoking Huey hovering a few meters above the asphalt, a woman in safety webbing aiming a tolljacker at the exit to the toll enclosure. He watched with satisfaction in his rearview mirror as a bright yellow Toll Busters Longbow came up over the skyway and menaced them with its chaingun. The Huey fled in terror. They were lucky it was just Toll Busters: Road Angels was operating fixed wing and had a tendency to shoot first and worry about the cleanup costs later.

Hank glanced down at his vehicle's navigation computer and muttered a curse. The address was well outside the inner rings of core neighborhoods and the planned suburbs were in the opposite direction. Exit 99: Laramie Brothers Pizza Street. If a regional pizza chain was controlling the toll junctions that was a bad sign. Sure enough, exit 99 opened onto a two-lane in such a state of disrepair that weeds two and three feet tall were growing up out of the curbs. A pothole was visible just beyond the toll stop that had claimed the back end of a 20th century pickup. A bed full of pooled rainwater was sticking up out of the pothole with a bare axel that looked like a rusty bone.

"Seven bucks, no paper." A bored ten year old gazed out at him from the ramshackle toll booth, a game controller dangling from his hand.

Hank held up the roadcard and the kid shook his head and lit a cigarette. "Reader took a shit."

Hank cursed and fished through his glove box for the silver dollars the kid wanted. They were Commerce Zone dollars, backed by gold, not the bullshit Monopoly money the Federal Zones were still using. With a last look at the smoking pre-teen he tossed the coins into the funnel and sped on through the raised traffic gate.

The first few houses and apartment blocks had security placards up, chickenshit outfits like The Popo and AK-24/7. Kids with stolen guns and a shady license, mostly. A block in and the houses didn't even have that sort of protection, just rolls of concertina wire and hand-painted signs reading "intruders will be shot in the fucken head." Garbage was heaped by the side of the road and in one pile Hank was pretty sure he saw a shoe with a foot still in it. Telephone and electric lines drooped in useless loops from poles and then disappeared entirely where scavengers had picked them clean. He passed a cell tower that looked more like a bunker, with 20-foot electrified fence and perimeter guns on 30-foot concrete pylons. By the bloodstains on the pylons more than one person had tried to loot the tower.

The house turned out to be an old two-story pre-liberty duplex. The roof was partially caved in on one unit and segments of siding curled outward from a scorched hole like ribbon candy. The other unit was relatively intact, just a scattering of bullet holes and a door that was suspiciously ajar. Hank turned the engine off and coasted in neutral into the driveway with his lights out. No point announcing himself. He looked up at the windows. The lights were out but for all he knew the neighborhood wasn't even on the power grid.

He slid his Remington Multitool out of its holster and slid the selector over to non-lethal. It hummed reassuringly in his hand as the stunner coils charged up. Unless the guy was twisted on something really nasty that would be enough to put him out of commission and spare him the trouble of calling in Cal's Cleanup. He opened the door of the Hummer and got one foot on the ground before they hit him. He was slammed forward, his clavicle jamming painfully against the door's frame and his trick knee hitting the steering column hard enough to send white stars shooting through his vision. The Hummer's brakes popped and it thumped hard into the junk piled in front of the garage door.

Hank fell sideways out of the cab and hit the pavement face-first. He had just enough wits left to his name to yank his fingers away from the Hummer's tire as it rolled back on its brakes. One of the fingers on the hand still holding his Remington was broken, he knew it immediately by the pulsing pain zipping up his arm. Hank groaned and rolled onto his back. His mouth was full of blood from a cut lip. Every detail of the door's interior above him was in sharp relief thanks to the harsh light suddenly bathing the driveway. Headlights. An engine running, then shutting off.

Hank lifted his head as two men in black and white filigreed cowboy shirts, Stetsons, bolo ties and blue jeans stepped out of a sleek silver pickup.

"Shit." Hank said and tried to slide up into a sitting position.

"Yeop." Agreed one of the cowboys.

Spurs jangled as they approached and a third cowboy rounded the Hummer holding a plastic scattergun.

"Hank Porchman," the cowboy with a bushy mustache whistled, "I reckoned ya'll was better'n to come to a dump like this."

"Can the 'ya'lls', Pussy Patrol." Hank spit blood in what he hoped was a show of disrespect but it drooled out across his shirt instead.

"Patrol Posse," corrected the man with the scattergun. His two comrades shot him dirty looks.

"I'm guessing that there is no Dolores Hooper." Hank observed, becoming increasingly aware of the pistol in his throbbing hand.

"Not bad, huh? That was my girl Rita, works the call desk." Mustache gave him a lop-sided grin and a wink. "Nah, no Dolores Hooper. Sorry about the ruse, Hank, but we came to deliver a message from Pecos Pete."

Hank slowly began to turn his pistol towards the trio of cowboys.

"Now, now." Mustache stomped on the gun and a fresh jolt of pain shot up Hank's arm. "There is no need for violence here. I just came to give you final warning that you are out of business. Finished. Kaput."

"What the hell does Pete care?" Hank grimaced but did not let go of the gun. "There are, what, fifteen of you guys? I'm not going to cut into your business much, I run a two man operation."

"Ran. Past tense. And even if it wasn't it would only be a one man operation." The cowboy smirked and Hank wanted to kill him. "Your boy Landau signed up this afternoon. Pete told me to make you the same offer but I know you're Fed through and through and that sort of pride wouldn't let you sign up."

"I wasn't Fed I was City," Hank pretended the jab hurt his feelings. Nothing was worse than being called a Fed to most folks so it was an act Mustache bought easily enough.

"Point stands, I know you're not going to take the offer," another smirk, "and you're too good at your job to work for anyone other than Pete. Got me?"

"I was no goddamn Fed." Hank continued with the indignation.

"Really getting' to you, old man." Mustache laughed and looked back over his shoulder at his comrades. "Hey boys, you think if I cut him in half and count the rings of red tape he'll-"

Hank's knee caught Mustache straight in his prairie oysters and he made a sound like a steam kettle saying the letter "n" before dropping heavily on Hank's chest. Hank figured it was just about the hardest anyone on the planet had ever been hit in the marbles. The guy with the scatter gun brought it up but could not fire with his boss in the way. The other cowboy backpedaled towards the cab of the pickup. Hank had his Remington up and squeezed the trigger. It vibrated in his grip as the stunner discharged. With a wet ripping sound the guy with the scatter gun shit himself and fell to the ground. He puked loudly onto the driveway, beef stroganoff by the look of it.

The other cowboy whipped a golden revolver out of the truck cab and swung it towards Hank. The stunner coils would take another few seconds to recharge so he thumbed it over to metal and squeezed the trigger. It was a terrible shot. It was the kind of shot a kid or an old woman would take, or maybe a man with a broken ring finger and a groaning cowboy on his chest. It hit the ram-guard of the pickup and sparked brightly on the composite and off into the night. Only not completely, somewhere in the country dark of the decrepit neighborhood it found another surface and ricocheted again. It came back and punched a neat hole through the middle of the Stetson on the cowboy's head, knocking the hat forward onto the ground by his boots.

He yelped and dropped his pistol, hands going instinctively to the part in his hair. It was a graze but Hank knew well enough that any scalp wound would bleed fearsomely.

"Oh God!" The cowboy cried and dropped to his knees, blood streaming across his face.

Hank remembered that freeze frame of the Barista squaddie and half expected to see a piece of roll cage sticking out of the cowboy's guts. Hank shoved the mewling weight of Mustache off of his chest and struggled to his feet.

"Alright, Pussy Patrol, you said your piece." He scooped up the scatter gun and revolver. "Now, you take mine back to Pete and that ratfucker Nate Landau. You tell them that Hank Porchman didn't go out of business for the secessions, he didn't go out of business for the fire of '16 and he isn't going out of business because a bunch of Lone Star wannabes with sissy shirts try to run him off."

Hank glanced over at the crumpled hatchback of his H4.

"And you tell him I'm going to be filing with Public Rulings for the repair bill on that. You got that?"

He gave Mustache a kick in the side.

"Yessss," the man groaned.

"Good." Hank nailed him with the recharged stunner and Mustache emptied from both ends. Definitely beef stroganoff.

Hank walked past the cowboys, threw their truck into neutral and gave it a good shove downhill into the street where it slammed into one of the gaping potholes and stuck fast. They scrambled feebly out of his way as he backed out. He honked and waved as he left, but their spirit was too broken by his victory for them to even look at him.

On his way into the city the crumbling West suburbs were backlit by a fire spreading through the old Portsmouth housing projects. It happened almost every night, the neighborhoods too poor to pay for the fire teams to quench the flames, one at a time the last refuges of squatters were being cleared out. The fire-lit plumes of smoke gave the powerless portions of the city a sort of sad beauty in death that they never had in life.

A church bus merged recklessly onto the skyway alongside Hank and he nodded gravely to the driver. It was empty but no doubt headed in to clear out the holding cells at the jail and take derelicts to one of the charity work camps in the countryside. The big church mining operations were the only groups that would feed and clothe society's castoffs free of charge.

It was the sort of "free" that used to have to have a little asterisk next to it attached to some nasty fine print. Hank smiled at the recollection, but it didn't last.

– Zack "Geist Editor" Parsons (@sexyfacts4u)

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