Early had gone out in the yard again, past the pear trees full of wasps and the clay road that served as a moat half the year.
Virginia threw another knife at the wall of the trailer. It struck hilt-first and bounced off the thin fiberboard wall.
It was the wet half of the year, and as she ran her long fingers over the next squat black throwing knife, Virginia imagined Early out there stirring muddy water. If you stirred the mess they lived in for long enough, slick catfish the same color as the mud would come up gasping for air, and even someone as slow as Early could grab them.
She threw the next knife and it gouged a deep cut on the wall before falling to the damp carpet.
The old flat screen flickered on, the corner near Burl’s latest bullethole still looking like a spiderweb of rainbows over the black. Early liked looking at it, liked putting his finger in the hole. It was everything Virginia could do to keep him from pulling black shards from the corner and ruining the screen. The screens were rare, one of the things that neither she, nor Burl, nor Early could find out there in the tangled swamp.
Screens came on and off, each one drawing enough power to cause the lights to flicker. The light followed her as she walked into the other trailer, the one above the wire-filled gap. Early wasn’t there to mind the connection, but she felt like flying solo, today. She tossed the knife from one hand to another as the progress bar counted down, an arrhythmic countdown that jumped from percentage to percentage but kept coming down.
She threw the knife and it bounced off the wall again.
“Shit.” She said, putting her stringy hair behind her in a ponytail.
Screens flickered and faded, the room went dark, and then she was there, running her hands between the antenna, flying by repurposed theremin and VR box, gliding thousands of feet above the overgrown criss-cross of roads and smears of housing that had once been Lawrence, Kansas.
From ten thousand feet it looked like corduroy stretched over gangreen, a brown grid over a sickly green ring that edged the old city, with pieces of wilderness grown up and bleeding through the rubble.
Virginia turned to another screen, touched it, hit old buttons salvaged from a dozen keyboards. The view changed, the ground got closer, and a solar-powered drone discharged one of her many payloads, a humming, hovering thing that fell for eight thousand feet while Virginia watched the jerky, low-framerate feed, blocks resolving and dissolving in a display that she loved.
It was whirling, dizzying, clear and fuzzy, pixels and grace. She wanted it cleaner, wanted it clearer, wanted it faster, wanted it smoother, but the big brown smudge would not resolve, the green lines stretched into artifact, and static took over before error messages and progress bars and warning windows multiplied to fill the cracked screen in front of her.
“Shit.” She said, rebooting the connection with a jab of her hand. Bars shrank and numbers stopped changing. The new screen was just as fuzzy, just as chaotic and blocky, and within a few seconds it had turned into the same stream of numbers and warnings.
Kansas was a long way away. She wished Early was down in the pit stirring connections instead of in the mud stirring catfish. Somehow, this was her little brother’s fault.
Finally, the connection happened. The drone had gone into an automated pattern, waiting on a signal, hovering a few hundred feet above the Lawrence jail.
Virginia remembered what to do, the things her mom and Burl had taught her. It was rare that she’d look back at the worn, laminated cheat sheets taped to the peeling wallpaper.
Read the files. Fly the drones. Burl gets paid. Burl gets paid, Burl buys food. She picked up another knife as the drone neared the jailhouse window, pinched it between her thumb and forefinger, flicked her wrist, heard a satisfying THUNK.
Burl was something she’d heard her mother wax nostalgic about - a middleman. Middlemen, she gathered, had existed in some great numbers, long ago - arranging things, finding things, insuring and aiding in all the construction and assembly and distribution of the artifacts she and Early dug out of the mud, all the useless things that now had no meaning.
The drone had a good connection now - relayed from one unit to the next, the signal taking whichever bounce it could, using each platform to boost the processing power of the next.
On top of the bleached building was a brilliant field of solar panels, all cracked, some missing parts like a gap-toothed smile. Wires and bird-shit covered tressels stuck out all over, and the barbed wire circling the roof was rusted and limp.
Find the two men in the prison. It seemed simple enough. Whoever Burl got the datasticks from seemed to know that this was the last step. There were pictures, and Virginia knew how to turn them into the little 3D models that the drones wanted.
There were forms and papers with big red and black marks - apparently the jail they were in didn’t keep the best records. The two men had been assigned numbers and there were last names in there - Exenoes.
Getting the drone inside the prison might be impossible, she knew. But she also knew she could be patient: They were in jail, after all.
She looked back over to the carrier, flying high on solar power, holding a handful of tools to communicate and observe. This one wasn’t the bigger bird that waited up there, nearly in orbit, tucked up under the black of space with a fat missile ready to go on the carrier’s order. On her order.
The prison was run by a company named Cal-pikk. She smiled at the logo, an ear of corn, one she’d seen emblazoned on the waxy cardboard boxes of frozen vegetables that Burl brought in from town. Early liked the boxes because they burned well.
They’d have to go to work outside, then, picking vegetables, she reasoned. This, she thought, was why Early didn’t get to do the jobs. No reasoning. Now if she needed someone to sit and wait and watch them for hours, then she’d need to call Early in from outside.
She set up a routine for the drone and when night fell she’d try something different. Until then, there were mudcats to be gutted for dinner.