Chapter One

As-is. A lone mansion atop a steep and isolated hill on the outskirts of a dying former mining town, several hours from the megapolis. Un-renovated, uncomfortable, drafty, hard to heat and cool. This property is offered strictly “AS-IS,” no warranty or guarantee expressed or implied.

That’s not what the real estate brochure said, but it may as well have. It probably should also have mentioned that the house was built just after the First Civil War, in the late 1800s. Hadn’t been renovated much since then—it barely even had electricity, let alone any modern, AI-fueled conveniences.

Which is exactly what Henry wanted. He could be free. Safe. Alone.

He took one last look out the floor-to-ceiling glass windows in his sleek, modern apartment on the seventy-sixth floor. His view of the northern megapolis stretched as far as the eye could see, all the way to the horizon.

He liked the look of glass, of shiny steel. Clean, simple lines. Always light out, always bustling. The megapolis never slept.

Henry had loved all of that at first, but now he was ready for a change. What would it be like to live in a place that was actually dark at night? Actually quiet? He shivered in both excitement and a little fear at the thought of a truly dark night, then turned from the window abruptly—he didn’t want to make it look like he was staring out the window and thinking.

He’d been very careful while moving out; just a few pieces at a time, so that it didn’t look like he was moving out. He would leave all the furniture and most of his “city” clothes. Bank accounts, delivery services, local presence—he’d carefully left them alone, put them on vacation mode, or shut them down over time. Nothing all at once, no sudden moves, and nothing that would trigger any known behavioral patterns of someone about to go off the grid.

La la whee, do whee. His phone chimed a poor rendition of a popular tune—poor not because of lack of a quality speaker but perhaps lack of proper licensing. It wasn’t quite the same as the song it was supposed to be. But it got his attention.

He held it up and looked at the message. Someone from work.

Oh, leave me alone already. Assholes.

He started to put the phone back in his pocket, then changed his mind and headed into the galley kitchen instead. It was a narrow, small affair, but he didn’t mind as he rarely cooked anymore. Seemed there was never time, and fresh, unprocessed vegetables were just hard enough to get that he didn’t bother. He stuck his phone down the sink drain, into the disposal, turned on the water, and switched the disposal on.

A loud, piercing shriek. The cry of tortured and dying metal as his phone was shredded by the mechanism, which did a decent job of inflicting counter-damage to the disposal blades. Sparks flew as the battery exploded with a sharp snap, and a small fountain of glass blew up from the drain like a mini-tornado. He shut the ruined disposal off.

Just leave me alone.

Funny, that used to be the mantra he’d chant when dealing with his dad. Now he felt that with nearly everyone, everything.

It was time to go, now, just in case the missing phone signal raised some kind of alarm for being unresponsive. He poured a cup of coffeesynth into a travel mug, walked out of the kitchen, picked up his coat, and took one long, last look at the view.

Henry stepped out the front door and placed his palm on the luminescent panel. A white glow ran from the top of the panel to the bottom, quickly, confirming his identity from the biomarkers—and not just the ones from his palm. He knew he was also being scanned for facial recognition, posture, and who-knows-what-else. The palm reader was only one small part of the larger sensory net.

He walked down the hall a bit, then stepped into the glass elevator and clenched his stomach against the sudden drop as the car flung itself down dozens of stories. There were a couple of other people in the elevator already; they exchanged curt nods and kept their distance, as was customary in the city, but didn’t speak. The elevator was monitored, certainly for voice and video, at least. Identity recognition based on facial scans, or gait analysis, or something, was very likely. Henry couldn’t wait to get out of the city, away from the unsleeping eyes always on him. Always on everyone. It was nearly impossible to escape.


But not completely. It was very hard to find any property without sensors, cameras, AI house assistant, or persistent, low-latency comms these days. Most older properties that hadn’t been upgraded were just bulldozed and replaced with high-density, cheaper, fully-connected housing, and of course, all public streets and areas within the megapolises were fully monitored.

In fact, this mansion would have been on the National Historic Buildings registry, once upon a time, when there was just one nation and people cared about such things. But they did away with that after the war and bulldozed many of those historic places as well, to make room.

But not this one.

Weatherly Hall had some two-dozen bedrooms, a few baths, a couple of large ballrooms and drawing rooms, and a staircase large enough you could probably hold a wedding on it. Four or five stories—the stats varied depending on the source Henry had read—and an extensive basement. Some of the older portions of the house and outbuildings still had gas lighting, not even electric. And no network connections at all. No voice assistants, no streaming media, no optimized environmental control.

And no surveillance, either. Smack in the middle of nowhere—maybe the edge of nowhere, even—off the grid and overlooked. Henry’s own, private, massive, overlooked mansion.

Henry got off the elevator at street level, just as he always would, and made sure the camera in the elevator and hallway saw him. But around a corner, in a camera dead spot, he slipped into a stairway and down to the lowest parking level. It wasn’t supposed to be a camera dead spot, but he’d paid some local hooligans to smash a few key cameras and sensors. It would look like just random vandalism—he’d been careful to make sure they smashed other, unrelated sensors as well, not just the ones he needed. But now he had a clear shot down to the parking garage, and he calmly, directly, headed to the manual car and trailer he’d bought.

He palmed the sensor, opened the driver’s side door, and climbed in. Henry had never driven outside the borders of the megapolis before and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. He patted the sunglasses in his pocket. Would he need those on the open road?

You had to wear them on the trains and hyperloop cars and any other public transportation because of the UV light. Just one of many anti-viral measures that started after the waves of pandemics swept through. But that was nearly before his time, maybe even before the war.

The car hummed to life, glowing with the soft assurance of old-fashioned reliability. There was no transponder on the car itself, and the cameras at the street exit had suffered the same fate as the ones in the building.

Damn vandals. Henry smiled. He merged into the neat, orderly lines of self-driving cars, just an insignificant speck in the endless flow of traffic now. As he got farther from the central district of the megapolis, he thought he could make up some time and zip in and out between them—but not too aggressively.

There might even be intersections out there. Here in the city, there weren’t any as the roadbeds, tubes, and other transport systems all crossed at different levels.

Smooth and even, he reminded himself, resisting the urge to pass a handful of dutifully consistent cars.

Just like an automatic.

For the next few hours, he would be part of the background noise of life in the megapolis. Just a mote in the sea of traffic, going about his business like everyone else. He’d be on the monitors for a long while, and then he’d just be gone, past the outskirts of the megapolis. No one would know where he was.

They’d have no idea he was slowly, painstakingly making his way along backroads, through tiny towns long bypassed by the self-driving car tubes. Traversing the Wastelands, long abandoned, in his human-driven car.

Manual cars weren’t entirely unheard of, not yet, but were increasingly rare. The last few that did not yield to the convenience—or maybe the servitude—of the globally connected AI systems still hung on to their vintage manual cars with pride.

It wasn’t illegal or anything. But it certainly was viewed as odd, like wearing a heavy winter trench coat in the pavement-melting heat of summer. Sure, you could do it. But you’d get stared at. Judged. Maybe even questioned by the police.

The road stretched out and yawned ahead of him, and Henry almost did the same. He flipped on the satellite feed for some music to help keep him awake. As usual, he was disappointed. What counted as “music” was so sped up, so choppy, it barely registered before a hard cut to some jarring, completely different tone and feel.

Like listening to a high-speed factory robot. Or something. He tried a few different options, skipped past some talking heads bloviating on the state “news” channel.

Well, the “state” part is accurate, at least.

Then he gave up and tried to focus on the scenery instead. Henry watched the sun setting off his left side. Violent, dark orange colors stabbed the sky, with thick black clouds overhead. Long shadows grew over the cracked pavement and through the crumbling buildings.

Didn’t need those sunglasses after all.

Even though they called areas like this “Wastelands,” Henry thought that was a little melodramatic. These weren’t nuclear dead zones—the true wastelands—although there were a few of those on the planet already. Those weren’t even named, they were just… dead. Not even drug dealers worked there.

If you want your dodecs or even just diaphane, you won’t find it there.

Not to mention more basic needs of food or uncontaminated water. No, these Wastelands were heavily damaged in the war and just not rebuilt. Not enough jobs in the area, no services, not enough reason to stay. So they crumbled into disrepair as people moved into the increasingly dense megapolis-style city networks and abandoned these areas. Henry thought they probably should have just called them “Abandonlands” or something. But Wastelands was close enough. It was a waste, to be sure.

Lightning cracked the sky open, vicious, high-energy bolts. A sudden wind gusted, and he struggled to keep the car on the road. Before he knew it, a blinding deluge dumped more water on his route than he had ever seen. He pulled over, where he thought the side of the road should be, and waited for it to pass.

He’d heard of these intense, dangerous storms in the Wastelands. In the megapolis, drones and high-powered lasers nudged the weather patterns to maintain a favorable local environment. Just enough rain when needed, not too much or too little, just enough of a nudge to steer severe storms away and out into the Wastelands.

You couldn’t really control weather, that was a popular misconception. But you could tilt the balance in your favor to protect the megapolis. But nature being nature, favoring one area likely meant devastating another.

Always a balance. That was something else his father never appreciated. Dad demanded control, not balance. He frowned at the memories.

A few more truly alarming lightning displays and the torrential downpour stopped as quickly as it had started. Standing water now covered the flooded roadway; he’d have to be careful. Slowly he eased the car and trailer back on the roadway and continued on.

Just up the road, he passed the half-collapsed remains of what was once a large apartment building. I suppose you could try and live here. But that’s too much wilderness for me. He shook his head.

The Wastelands were a harsh environment. He wanted peace, quiet, and privacy—but not a fight for survival every day.

Henry had started looking for a new place a while ago: a home, somewhere, that time had overlooked. A place others would reject as inconvenient, but he would embrace for its solitude. And protection. He couldn’t be discovered, not now.

They must not find me, he repeated to himself. It had become his new mantra.

He didn’t want to apply for the nav data for this trip. That would have been a huge red flag to anyone looking. The automatic cars would only take you to your personally approved locations, and stand-alone map or nav data was hard to come by. Partly that was to control the sporadic pandemics that swept the globe and also just so the state could better keep track of you. But, Henry grinned to himself, he had ways. He got the data he needed—and he had found the house in the first place.

Searching anonymously through national real estate listings, he found Weatherly Hall located in the far north of The Democratic Republic of New Yorkland. He was lucky and wouldn’t have to cross the border into Foundry or down south into the New Confederacy. The property was still located within the boundaries of his own country, the country where he was born and raised.

Weatherly Hall was stupidly huge—you could have run it as a hotel easily, or a boarding school, or something like that. But apparently that had never happened. From what Henry had read online, it was only and ever maintained as a private home, at least according to the tax records. And it was old. Must be solid to have survived this long; that was his reasoning. Two official world wars, two civil wars, countless foreign incursions, and unceasing global map-redrawing. He shook his head. It never ended, never would end. The latest near-war with Eurasia proved that. But that was the present; Henry preferred to let his mind dwell in the past.

He smiled at that, as the last of the sun gave up and sank into the inescapable darkness. He had to admit a certain nostalgia for anything from before the Second Civil War. Henry had been in his teens then but remembered—or thought he remembered—what the world used to be like. The world his parents knew, and their parents before them.

Nostalgia or not, Henry felt strongly that this was where he needed to be now. Away. Out of the spotlight, out of any lights at all. In the dark, on the edge of the bright lights of pervasive global awareness.

So here he was literally in the dark now, maneuvering his manually-driven car and trailer along pitch-black roads past the Wastelands. There were no other cars, not often, at least. No streetlights, no local guide beacons, no satellite guidance, and no shortage of potholes and broken, crumbling pavement. He sped along in peace.


The hours withered and dropped away as night grew long. Henry caught himself nodding off a few times. In a normal car that wouldn’t be a problem, but this was off the grid and off automatic. It was all on him, and he could quite easily crash into the row of dark, solid trees or unforgiving rubble spilled into the roadway. He opened the windows. The air was uncomfortably cold, but it helped keep him awake. A few more hours to go, still.

Suddenly, something large and unnaturally white flashed right in front of his headlights.

He slammed on the brakes and shot a glance in the rear view, where he saw the trailer starting to jackknife, in sickening slow motion. Car and trailer both shuddered as it all skidded sideways off the pavement into the shoulder with a groaning noise, punctuated with the sharp ping of gravel spraying up and ripping into the car. He came to a stop in the ditch as the deer shot past and off into the black.

Shit, fuck, shit shit shit!

Panting, heart pounding, adrenalin racing, Henry had to pause and take a few deep breaths. It would be okay. He’d been so lucky so far, and was so close now. But, shit!

His right leg was soaking wet from the coffeesynth. The mug had flown right out of the cup holder when he hit the brakes. And that wasn’t all—two boxes had slammed into the dash from the passenger seat. He grimaced as he took in the damage, desperately hoping the trailer was still upright and hadn’t turned turtle. If it had tipped, he’d need a tow truck, or official help. And that was attention he could not afford. Not now.

He got out of the car and walked behind to the hitch. Ah. Sigh of relief. The trailer was fine, just cocked at an awkward angle off the side of the road. But still upright, still connected. It could have been so much worse.

Absentmindedly, Henry dabbed at his leg where the drink had spilled and went around to the passenger side to right the boxes. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of the deer in the distance.

Pure white.

An albino, he guessed. Damn thing could have killed me. I guess that’s why they call it the Wastelands. Taken over by damn ghostly deer.

He looked to the woods. And who knows what else.

He gently, cautiously eased the car back on the road, slowly straightening out the hitch and trailer into a straight line. Back on the road bed, all lined up, Henry got back out to double-check the hitch and such. Everything seemed okay. He breathed a formally deep breath and thanked his lucky stars and any god who might be listening or cared in the slightest.

Hey, to all of you, thanks.

He flicked his eyes heavenward, just in case.

The last few hours though the northern expanse of the Wastelands was uneventful, and civilization—he gave a bitter laugh at that word—started to encroach on the wild and barren landscape. Small towns at first, then skirting the edge of a major megapolis, the last one this far north. He had to stop once to fuel up on liquid hydrogen. It was probably overkill, but he pulled on a special prosthetic face mask just in case. It didn’t look like a mask, just like a normal person. But it was specially designed to confuse the recognition algorithms. It was also highly illegal. He didn’t tarry.

Finally, just as dawn reluctantly crawled up and over the fractured horizon, he saw the signs for the town. Newthington was just up ahead. Street lights and guide beacons gave a warm, familiar, welcoming glow to the small town; an island of convenience and comfort after the abandoned, indifferent brutality of the wasted regions.

But he avoided that and instead skirted the very rim of the town, staying well away from the center, to the farthest edge where Weatherly Hall lay waiting. The real estate agent, an unnaturally perky woman named Gloria, had sent him the keys via courier service. Well, not directly to him, of course—that would be too easily traceable. But through enough freight forwarders and misdirection, he eventually got the keys and the deed to this magnificent anachronism.

What the hell am I doing? He wound his way past desolate fields to foothills where the mansion lay.

He flirted with doubt for a minute. Really, this was insane. He’d bought a huge, barely-functional estate with no staff. There wasn’t a lot of money left for renovations, and he certainly didn’t want to do anything showy anyway. He couldn’t be seen as the “new rich guy” in town flashing a lot of cash about.

Shit, the state goons would be on me in a heartbeat. Mine. My last, probably.

No, anything that needed fixing, he needed to manage himself. Anything he needed to live, to survive, he needed to do himself. He was on his own.

In a world dominated by interconnectedness, by total surveillance, total awareness, analyzed to death by AI, by low-level state officers, by your own damn nosy neighbors anxious to score points, he was the anachronism.

He was on his own.

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