Esperanza Highway

Part One: Valley Boy

Chapter Fourteen

You're the Magpie guy?

Chuy had grown to hate Mark's longer hauls. There would always be some kind of issue and it was always too much to deal with issues with Mark gone. The house was always there for him, yes. He did value that. Marlon was always confident and easy, Paco and Tremaine would give him advice, Greg would question everything he said till even Chuy was sure he was telling the truth at last. But until he'd heard Mark 's unsparing criticism he didn't feel like an incident was over with. He'd just feel bad about it until he saw Mark again.

Last time when Mark had been gone three weeks he had had to go to an extra meeting with his committee. It wasn't so bad, objectively. It was just a meeting to make sure everything would be in order for the big final disposition hearing, and to set the date for it. Chuy had tried to change the date of the meeting, but he'd gone in, in the end, without Mark. He hadn't really been on his own, because Greg had gone with him, but Greg just sat there and didn't prompt Chuy the way Mark would, so Chuy had to do all his own thinking and talking. When he complained about it afterwards he heard how silly it sounded, but he qualified it: "I don't mind thinking, but it's just this stuff I hate to have to be there saying how great I am they're asking those hard questions."

"I hardly think 'how do you keep track of your participation in Discussion?' is a hard question," Mark said when he heard. "You've been doing it for almost three years. You had the records right there in your hands."

"Times like that I lose my wits. I really couldn't figure out what she meant a couple moments, did she mean the hours or was I talking up in Discussion or taking my share of prep? And did she mean the schedule or the number of hours or the weeks or what? I liked to cried before I figured I should just ask her."

"You should have been doing all these meetings yourself all along, I can see that now," Mark said. "You got to learn how to handle yourself. You think when this is over it will be the last meeting like that you ever go to?"

"I could dream, right?"

This time Mark was to be gone only three days, and the hassles started as soon as Mark went to Central Lading in the morning. One, the Greenwood Plunge neighborhood committee decided they weren't getting enough participation in the intramurals and a delegation came and pulled Chuy out from under a truck to talk to him about signing up.

"I don't do sports," Chuy said. "You just don't want me on the field, no matter what." It was too much for him to recall for ten minutes which way the ball was supposed to go or which of his neighbors was supposed to be on the opposite team, and therefore not supposed to receive the ball he kicked.

"I was thinking you might want to be accumulating evidence of your community participation," Harry said. "Since you get your conditions reviewed pretty soon."

Which was not the way to get Chuy's enthusiasm. The closer that final review came the less he liked to be reminded of it. "I'm satisfied the way things are."

"That's hard to believe. You got no perks at all." Gigi had to be forgiven: she didn't know what it was not to be rude: but Chuy wasn't sure it was he who had to forgive her. He turned pointedly away from her, addressed Harry alone.

"Look, you need guys on the field, maybe ask Mark when he gets home. He needs the exercise. All that sitting in the truck's not good for him. He's been short of breath lately."

When they had left, Charlsie said, "You should have told them you were busy with the sets for the children's theater. That's community participation. And the other stuff you do. You're booked to the gills when you're not on the job. Don't know how your house puts up with it. You should have told them."

"I don't make excuses for myself," Chuy said. "I don't measure up, I'll hear about it."

"You know, Chuy, anybody would think you weren't looking forward to that last meeting," Charlsie said. "It's like you've been looking for a fight or something."

"Not a fight," Chuy said. "Look, we going to fix this truck? You think I'm messing up, tell Renata, she'll write me up."

Later on it was Tomas. "Let's go for a ride. I want to talk to you about Mark," he said.

"I don't want to talk to you about Mark," Chuy said. He knew it was ungrateful to be uncomfortable with Tomas like this, after all Tomas had done for him and for Mark. But when Mark was out of town, Chuy would start to feel insecure, and he could only imagine one thing Tomas would want to say to him about Mark. If Tomas was changing his mind, was deciding to take Mark after all, Chuy didn't want to know about it until the deed was done.

"It's serious," Tomas said.

All the worse. "If you have to, talk to me here." Here where the presence of other people would keep him from saying anything stupid.

"I didn't want anybody else to hear it."

"Maybe I don't want to hear anything you don't want anybody else to hear. Or maybe I rather hear it from Mark."

"I don't know what you're thinking, but this is about Mark's health. And it's not about you, okay?"

"Okay, but get it over with," Chuy said, mounting the bike.

"You've been acting like a little shit lately. I wish you'd change your attitude."

"I'm doing okay with the one I've got. You said you had to tell me something."

"I'm worried about Mark's cough. I think he should go to the clinic."

"Tell me about it." Not saying, I've been asking him to go every few days and now he gets mad when I mention it.

"I mean it scares me."

"Yeah." It scared Chuy too. The cough got worse all the time. Mark could be wiped out walking up the stairs.

"I think he needs to be convinced."

"You try it."

"I think it ought to come from you."

"You think he'll listen to me? More likely he'll listen to you."

Without saying anything more, Tomas circled back to the Greenwood and stopped. "Okay, off, go home," he said.

"He probably would," Chuy said as Tomas pulled away. "He would probably listen to you more than me."

In the morning Charlsie said there was somebody looking for Chuy. Chuy supposed there might be somebody in town who Charlsie wouldn't recognize. Maybe even Greg, who didn't run in the same circles as Charlsie and might be after Chuy to come over at the end of the day to the neighborhood center where he worked and check out something. Or maybe a surprise visit from someone in his family. That had happened. Bobby had come out from the University, special to see Chuy. Chuy had tried to get him to stay at Tall Parts for a few days, but Bobby had a test and went back the next day.

Renata had a long list of places for Charlsie and Chuy to go. Miscellaneous repairs. Most of them could be done by one person as well as two but since Chuy wasn't licensed to drive it was faster for the two of them to go together. They got done and back faster than they expected so Chuy strolled over to where the modified Magpie lay in its idle glory, where he stood contemplating its beauty.

Two strangers approached. "You the Magpie guy?" asked the one with handsome eyes.

"No. We don't have a Magpie guy." Chuy saw they were dressed in city suits. Dignified shirts, real buttons on the jackets, soft shoes: and the big one was looking around, taking note of the modifications on the Magpie.

"But you did this? Woman over there says you did this."

"Yeah."

"You work on Magpies?"

"Strictly in-house."

"You got a license?"

"What do you want?" Chuy hesitated. "You need an authorized repair, you got to go to Merced y Gracias, maybe over to Carlita. All's I do is haywire stuff I can figure out from the manual."

"You got a manual?" Man went on alert, eyes narrowed, like a cat sniffing out a gopher.

Chuy froze.

The man stepped closer and repeated himself. "You got a manual? Let's see it."

"Look, what do you guys want? I can't do --"

"Go get the manual. I want to see it." He flipped open his wallet, and across from each other, two IDs: Valley Combined Authorities, and Incorporated Security. A medallion from Cuervecitos. He was a contract enforcer. Chuy briefly, desperately, considered running. But he walked, followed by the two men, into the lounge. The manual was sitting quite prominently on top of Chuy's things.

"I got it at a used bookstore over to Banner," Chuy said.

"Right," said the coolest looking of the two. "And you can always get all the proprietary material you want in some store in Banner."

"Probably." Chuy shrugged and held out the book. The bigger man took it and flipped through it, finding right away the torn-out pages in the front that should have contained the license and the name of the person it was licensed to. He shone a light across the top edge and a number glowed light green. Meanwhile the good-looking man had his phone out and a connection made. Chuy saw him enter the number from the manual and heard series of noises followed by a string of words he couldn't make out.

"How do you run legal in this town?" the man asked Chuy.

"The community has a legal society. What do you want?"

"Extradition will do, to start with. Damages."

The big man had a thin loop of plastic around Chuy's wrists before he knew what was going on. It was a new sensation. So was the nip of the restraint ampule, the drug which would heavily sedate him within fifteen minutes. This was unlike any other trouble he'd been in before.

"I got to talk to somebody," Chuy said. He knew it was too soon for the ampule to have had its effect, but it felt like he was drugged already. He felt like he could hardly move, and certainly not think.

"Sure, you'll talk to somebody. What's the address for your legal society?"

"Don't know." And he didn't. The legal society had been responsible for writing his conditions in their final form, but he had hardly dealt with them. Of all the committees that had struggled with him over the years, he remembered several more vividly than legal.

Renata came into the yard, just ahead of Charlsie who was wheeling a refrigerator unit in. Chuy recognized the unit. It had been in so many times that they were probably going to charge the household from which it came in dollars. "What's going on?" she asked.

"You in charge here?" the handsome man asked.

"Not always," Renata said, which Chuy thought was pretty clever, under the circumstances. She went into a huddle with the men, unslinging her rover, talking now to the man from Cuervecitos, now to the phone.

Charlsie just went on getting the refrigerator in to the shop like there was nothing unusual going on, Chuy stood and felt himself going deeper into sedation and didn't even try to listen in on Renata and the Cuervecitos men. The Cuervecitos men came and read the papers to Chuy, who nodded and signed with his bound hands everywhere he was told to sign. He noted dully that the Rancho Castro people looked horrified, and he heard somebody saying "I'm so sorry, Chuy," but his own tongue was too thick for him to respond, to say, no, I'm the one who's sorry.

At least his work stuff was in order, anybody could find what they needed out of it. He'd kept it nice and neat since the last time he'd gotten into trouble. Three years.

And then, out of nowhere: Tomas. "Charlsie called me," he said, and to the enforcers:"I've been sent by the Central Committee to represent the community. All of the legal society members happen to be at the Regional Unification Conference -- did you know that by any chance? We're asking for a complete disclosure of your plans, and signatures that you'll abide by the General Agreements for Employee Rights." He looked at his writer several times, searching in hastily scrawled notes to be sure he had said the right things. "You'll be hearing from our legal society within a couple of days."

The enforcers only nodded indulgently, as if nothing the integral communities did or said could be taken more seriously than child's play.

Tomas stuck to Chuy's side and they rode together in the luxurious Cuervecitos car to Chuy's house. All the way over, Tomas was talking. "They're probably going to keep you for a while. Keep your head down, don't argue, just cooperate. Think about getting home. And remember Nuevo Modesto, don't do anything stupid, it could be a lot worse up there. Don't forget you're not in Chistaville, and that'll get you back to Rancho quickest. "

Chuy barely had the self-will to nod. He certainly couldn't get a word out.

"You got to play it cool when you're in the maquilaville," Tomas repeated. "Keep your thoughts to yourself, don't make a show of yourself. They don't want to know you there. Just do your work, do it right, you can do that."

At the house everyone was at work and so Tomas simply left a message on the door greeter and they stumbled on up the stairs to the room Chuy shared with Mark. The enforcers nodded and Chuy stepped over to the wall of cabinets, but he couldn't raise his hand very far or grip anything, so Tomas just sat him down on the bed. Chuy noticed that the bed linen smelled of Mark. Tomas pulled Chuy's clothes out from the cabinets and asked him questions about his belongings. Chuy just kept shaking his head.

"Your writer. You want that. Where do you keep it?"

Chuy could just gesture with his head. It was in the pocket of his shorts.

"Good," Tomas said, but the handsome one of the enforcers reached in and took it out. "You'll get this back, most likely," he said. "After it's looked at."

"Evidence," said the other, producing a plastic pouch. The handsome one slipped it in, and the big one sealed the pouch and slipped it into his pocket.

My life is in there, Chuy thought. My pictures, everything. My notes on the Magpie: they'll never let me have it back.

Tomas brought four small mesh bags of Chuy's things to the car. "Don't worry," Tomas said. "I'll tell Mark. I'll take care of him for you."

I just bet you will, Chuy thought: why is that supposed to make me not worry?

"Remember, don't talk about unification, don't talk about politics, don't talk about sex. Don't tell them how to run their business. Smile and nod and listen and do what you're told. Remember Mark's stories."

Renata came over to the house before they were gone and gave him an embrace. Surprised, Chuy grunted an apology around his numb lips.

"I'll see you soon," she said with the desperate emphasis of one who knows she is lying.

The big man kindly helped Chuy into the car and slipped off the cuffs from Chuy's hands. "You don't need these anymore," he said. "You'll be nice and calm all the way home."

The ride to Cuervecitos was two days long, across the Valley and up the Spine almost to the back end of Gate. Chuy had never gone far in this direction, and a spark of curiosity was able to keep alive even through the fog of the restraint ampule. For a long time it all looked familiar: the same stripes of long narrow fields, the same bands of religiously untouched riparian woodland. The signs began soon to list places he had barely heard of, some he had only known as names on a map quiz in school. There was a very pretty sign for Rancho Esperanza. The highway came right through the town, or rather over it, and he could see the oldest of the integral communities at fairly close quarters.

It was, he thought, not a very consequential looking place, considering that it was the home of the very first settlers on Abundance, before even the "Pioneers" of Hallow who took themselves and their alarming history so seriously. Much of it was obscured by large flowering trees, whose gnarled and twisted shapes attested to their great age. The houses he could see were old and made of small room units tacked together in irregular formations. They passed an incurved length of plastic wall about three meters high, which seemed to serve no purpose, except that Chuy realized moments after they passed it that it was a fragment of the foundation of the old dome which had been in place around the Rancho for the first hundred years of its existence.

They stopped every few hours, at charging/fuel stations, but not to charge. They walked Chuy to the bathroom and back, though he would just as soon have stayed in the car, telling him this would make him feel much better later, when the restraint medication wore off. He found it hard to care. They gave him water and sometimes a nasty-tasting nutritional concoction to drink. Drinking was frustrating and even a little scary, as he wasn't sure the fluid was going down the right way. The big man went into the bars next door to the stations and brought back bags of ready food, which the two of them ate.

"Sorry I can't offer you any, guy, but it's not a good idea to eat real food until a few hours after the stuff wears off," the big man said the first time.

When it got dark he gave Chuy another ampule. "Just to keep you calm till we get you home," he said. "Don't worry, we won't keep you under forever. You got to be alert day after tomorrow when you talk to the lawyer and review your options."

He had options. That was mildly interesting.

They drove all night, the car doing all the work while the men took turns being awake to monitor its dash screen. In the morning they were coming up the east side of the Valley, driving right up into the brilliant multicolored haze of dawn. This side of the Valley was flatter than the other. Even where the land started to climb, it was without the elaborate folds of the west side: it was as smooth as if a plane had been tilted upwards. The east side rose slowly and gently, but the land was higher, here. Chuy knew that a little farther on there were steep mountains, and on the other side, Gate, another broad valley like the Altagracia, but all one thing administratively, belonging to the state of Hallow and Gate. But this was just steadily rising land, which his senses hardly registered until his ears popped. When they stopped for breakfast the big man gave him yet another ampule, cheerfully apologizing: "This is the last one, unless you do something stupid," he said. "We'll be in Cuervecitos tonight, get you bundled into your nice cozy bed."

They'd go an hour and see no more sign of civilization than a stake or a tower. Then they'd spend another hour passing cultivated strip fields and finally a sprawling settlement. Chuy wondered faintly what these places were, and what they were like. Could you tell a rancho from a municipio or a company town from the road or from the air, if you knew what to look for? And he would start to wonder about life in Cuervecitos, and then back off in a sluggish, sullen funk, and force his mind to think of something else. Anything else.

It got dark again. Off to the side there was a blur of lights that seemed to go on forever: a city. Which one? Chuy couldn't remember what the eastern Valley looked like on the map, much less the Spine.

They turned off on to a large road. They turned off on to a smaller road. Chuy was entirely asleep when a gentle stop woke him. They had arrived at a gate in the road. The driver conversed with a woman in a light-colored uniform, and then they entered into a large, manicured town. From what Chuy could see, all the buildings were large and built to a similar plan. They even seemed to be all the same color, at least on the main part of the walls. Between each building and the road was a teardrop-shaped lawn and some rounded shrubs, some low and wide, some taller and thinner. There were lights on in some of the buildings. Others were dark inside: but all of them had low lights around the perimeters, and up against the shrubbery.

"What was the number again?" Chuy heard the big man ask the handsome one.

"Five seventy-three in six hundred. Over near Seahawk."

"Yeah, I remember. Chump town." They chuckled.

The building they pulled up behind looked like all the others. It had a few lit windows. The back door, which they went into, opened right on to the driveway. Inside was a narrow lobby, with a bank of elevators and a few doorways. The walls held two large display panels with slowly-changing pictures and announcements. Chuy caught the words "incentive" and "mandatory" a few times. The lobby smelled of popcorn and brewer's yeast.

The elevator should have been interesting: Chuy had only been in one meant for people twice before. But a headache was growing right over Chuy's eyes, and the lifting sensation nauseated him. He shuddered, and the big man said, "It'll get better."

They brought him to a plain door on a long lit hall of plain doors. This corridor smelled like new carpeting. "Home sweet home," the handsome man said, palming the lock.

There was not much in the room. A narrow bed, almost more like a bench. Some empty shelves and a closet door. A multipurpose rank of modular cabinets which could have sections lifted out and appliances slipped into it. A window which looked out on another lighted teardrop of lawn and a clipped shrub, and more buildings. A table. A couple of universal wall jacks. An eye and projection screen for the uc.

"My advice is, drink some more water and go straight to sleep," the big man said, dumping Chuy's bags on the floor. "We'll be by in the morning. You can't leave, but you don't need to. You got everything you need for now right here. If you start to feel sick, jab the red button by the uc, somebody'll be here to take care of you."

end of Part One