Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
The border with the Gorilla Communes was totally lit. Spotlights raked across the concrete and barbed-wire. Towers loomed with bored-looking machine gunners scanning the horizon, as if a bunch of drugged-out hippies were about to try and invade the Expanding Tisser Empire.
Fat chance. Those dope fiends were too busy fucking in vast yurts atop, like, hemp blankets, or whatever. Some very sloth-like part of me envied their excess. Late nights at my trading desk, skull plastered to my Bloomberg terminal, amphetamines starting to wear off and the pill-girl gone home hours earlier, sometimes I felt like ripping off my shirt and going primal. Like shaving off my hair and disappearing into the prairie and living off the land surrounded by other shirtless, hairless, primalish men and women. I’d take a new name and completely rebrand.
Won’t ever happen, though. I was a company man.
My hotel, five-miles from the border, was filled with nausea-inducing geometric carpets and employees that looked like mannequins. The firm never sprung for five stars. As a Junior Bondsman, my entire reason for being was to make as much money buying high-yield securities from any moron willing to sell. Bonds, all day, every day, my every waking moment wrapped up in the near-panic-inducing obsession over yield and float.
And now, I was going to be the first trader to convince those Gorilla fucks to sell me their debt, wrapped up with a pretty bow, weed stink and all.
The Gorillas approached the zone dressed like professors, one woman and one man. They smiled at the border guards, produced their papers, and after two hours of questioning, they approached across the narrow gap in the fencing.
“Welcome to the Tisser Empire,” I said, giving them my best smile. I knew I was all sleaze: tall, slicked-back hair, black pinstriped suit.
The lady, a skinny broad with round eyes behind chunky black glasses, shoved a hand in my direction. “Monica Lampur,” she said, and we shook. “This is my associate, Gregory Howath.”
“Luke Fischer,” I said. “Thanks for making the trip.” These people weren’t the spaced-out druggies I expected. The guy was a little paunchy and looked pale as death, but the chick was fit, her skin tanned, and she had that glow people got voluntarily working outdoors.
I took them to the one safe place in the whole Empire—Panera Bread. After the States broke up post-revolt and the Tisser formed, most American companies changed their names and pivoted to their new reality, but not Panera. They doubled down. Shorter waits, cleaner food.
The Gorillas loved it. Monica cooed over the pastries, and Gregory refilled his soda twice, giggling like a little boy. I got them tucked into a corner booth then opened my laptop. They picked at steaming microwaved sandwiches with confused but delighted fingers.
“I’m not here to fuck you,” I said, which was trader-speak for, my company sent me to fuck you. “Fox Associates wants a stake in your commune and is willing to put up real money.”
Monica leaned toward me. “You do realize we don’t have money, right?”
“That’s not a problem,” I said dismissively. “We’ve done trades with communes before.” Another non-truth.
“No, but literally, we don’t use money.” Monica looked at Gregory, who seemed almost sheepish.
“I was an accountant in a past life,” he said. “I went over the border four years ago. They sent me here to tell you there’s no possible way we can sell bonds.”
“There’s always a way,” I said, tapping at the spacebar nervously. “Assets. Futures. Whatever. You don’t even need to use your own money. We have plenty.”
“You don’t understand,” Monica said, her voice acidly polite. “We only came to get a hot shower.”
I pointed at my screen filled with complex derivative schemes, tranches of debt piled on top of each other, triple-B rated loans re-rolled into synthetic securities with new ratings, beautiful, occult, obscure piles of dubious cash, like that could explain everything.
“I’m sorry,” Monica said, which to me sounded like, get fucked. And fair enough.
“Fine,” I said. “Enjoy your time in the Tisser. We’ll eat, check out the hotel, and revisit this later.”
Monica made a face like, well, if that’s what you want, and they tucked into their lukewarm meals.
Back at the hotel, Monica disappeared upstairs while I parked my ass at the empty bar. Gregory joined me, and sipped a Diet Coke like it was the last drink on earth. “I feel bad about this, you know,” he said. “We only accepted your invitation to, like, get away for a day or two.”
“It’s fine,” I said and the bartender returned with my beer.
“You can’t blame us though, can you?” Gregory asked. “I mean, you are the Expanding Tisser Empire, after all.”
“We’re not going to enter your territory,” I said. “You saw that fencing. Do you have any clue how much of a pain it is to break it all down?”
“No, I don’t,” he said, stirring his drink, ice tinkling against glass. “But it’s what you guys do.”
“Look, we might take some land at the edges, okay? A couple miles, no big deal. The expansion thing, it’s sort of baked into policy around here, but still. I’m looking to trade, not conquer.”
He went quiet for a minute. “She’ll kill me for telling you this, but—“ He hesitated, looked around. “We do business with your government. God, it’s so boring out there, you know?”
“Business?” That got me interested. I thought the Gorillas were off-limits. Everyone said so. But the Emperor existed outside limits.
He shook his head then cleared his throat. “I’ll talk to Monica, okay?”
“Whatever you can do.”
He downed his Diet Coke and ordered another.
Monica beamed at me across the hotel’s conference room table, her hair wrapped in a towel.
“We can’t do it,” she said. “I told you before. No money. No debt, no cash, nothing.”
“You have stuff out there,” I said. “Hemp fields. Agriculture. Surely you sell some to the Emperor.”
She glanced at Gregory, lips pulling down. “We might,” she said slowly. “But I don’t know how it helps.”
“We can work with agriculture,” I said. “The Tisser gives you something for all that crop, right? I’m willing to bet on the value of your harvest.”
She leaned back in the chair and studied me. “You’re pretty determined.”
“Look, Gorilla lady, I don’t give a shit about my government,” I said, and liked the way her face twisted. “I don’t care about you people living in some weird culty fuck shed where everyone’s married and everyone’s pregnant. I care about making a trade.”
She took a long breath and slowly let it out, like a meditation thing. “Hemp bonds,” she said.
“Hemp,” I repeated, nodding. “But I need to know what the Tisser gives you.”
“Movies,” Gregory said, then looked abashed when Monica stared at him like she wanted to slit his throat.
“Movies?” I asked, trying not to laugh.
“Entertainment,” Monica said, her fingers drumming on the table. “The Empire still makes film and TV, and the communes can get dull. Despite all the fucking.”
I leaned back in my chair, totally floored. “Holy crap. You people are junkies like the rest of us.” It shouldn’t have been so hard to believe. People were people. “Sell me bonds backed in agriculture and I’ll send you a shipment of every damn show I can get my hands on.”
“Plus music and books,” Gregory said, earning him one last dirty look.
I spread my hands. “Folks, you want hardcore porn, you got it.”
And with that, I knew I had them.
The truck rumbled toward the gap in the fencing. It was packed with DVDs and paperbacks. The guards barely gave it a second look.
Beyond the zone, in the heavily wooded border around the commune land, something moved. I figured it was my Gorillas. I leaned forward on the hood of the car and held up a pair of binoculars. Trees, trees, trees—and there, something on the edge of the forest, raising up toward the sky.
It was a Gregory, tied and bound to a long stake. I recognized him despite the missing nose and the flayed skin, his clothes plastered to his bloody raw flesh.
The Gorillas raised him like a totem.
The truck continued forward and stopped in sight of the flayed man. The driver got out, per the agreement, and walked back to the zone.
Three women came forward to claim it. I recognized Monica as she got into the driver’s side, and slowly rolled away.
They left Gregory, dead or almost there, to rot in the morning sun, his body slumped forward.
I looked away. Poor bastard. He loved Diet Coke. I stowed my binoculars, got into my car, and headed back home.
My bosses were so happy, they practically shoved a bonus down my throat.