Nirvana is a place on Earth
“Nirvana?” I asked.
I knew the word, obviously. Kurt Cobain, classic rock. The other place I’d seen it was in D&D – it was one of the Outer Planes.
Pete saw my puzzled look but misinterpreted it. “It’s a bit of sophistry on my part. I like the Buddhist ideal of Nirvana. It’s not an afterlife you know. It’s the absence of—freedom from the wheel of dharma. You accomplish it with the quenching of rage, greed and ignorance. When I established our little freehold I named it that. It’s more aspirational than anything else.”
“Uh, sure,” I said.
Old Pete began walking along the top of the concrete river, and I followed. This man had information, a lot of it. I needed it.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“It’s just down here,” Pete said, pointing down the concrete river. “Circe will have made it here before us.”
I’d assumed we were following the river because it went in the direction he wanted to go. It was a good place to walk, actually. We were just about invisible to the surrounding streets down in the river. The Hip were hopefully still waiting outside the library, but if they’d got impatient and come in after we left then they might be actively driving around looking for me.
We were approaching one of the major bridges crossing the river, and it was clear we were going to have to go up to the street or down farther to get past it. Where the slope of the river and the bridge met was full of a large collection of sheet metal and scavenged fencing. I could see faint light behind the improvised walls. A homeless encampment.
Old Pete didn’t pause, and my dawning suspicions were confirmed when he turned to me with a wide grin. “Welcome to Nirvana.”
I hadn’t spent a lot of time in homeless camps. Exactly zero time, to be precise. I’d seem them on video, though. They’d all had the same look to them—desperate folks barely scraping by. They’d be surrounded by their possessions, none of it valuable enough for anyone else to steal. They were dirty places, chaotic, violent and lawless. Nirvana wasn’t any of that.
Old Pete approached a section of the wall of scrap that looked much the same as the rest and pounded on it. The hollow sound echoed loudly in the space under the bridge. A minute later there was the mechanical sound of a latch opening and the wall in front of us swung outward. Not a wall after all—a gate.
The man opening it was another one I recognized—the giant that had been talking with Pete about his build. He gave me a quick glance and then turned his attention to Pete, stepping aside to let us in. I IDed him and confirmed what I remembered.
“What’s going on? Z and I were just about to leave for the library,” Duke asked. His voice was a deep baritone, fitting his monolithic frame.
“Circe isn’t back yet?” Pete asked, stopping short.
“No, she’s not here. What’s going on, Pete? Who’s this?” he asked, looking at me again.
“This is Mack. I had to cancel our session tonight, I’m afraid. The Fatally Hip are hunting my young friend here, and had surrounded the library. We had to leave through the storm tunnels.”
Duke gave me another, harder look. It was intimidating coming from a man his size. He could crush me like a bug, I knew. I could almost see the questions roiling around in his head. They would be the ones I’d ask—why are we helping this kid? What’s in it for us? That sort of thing.
He looked back to Pete and asked the most burning question he had. “Are we going to do a make up session tomorrow? I was just about to level.”
“Possibly, but I can’t commit to that right now. I am worried that Circe is not here.”
“I’ll get Z and tell him what’s going on,” Duke said, and left.
Inside the wall wasn’t too large. Four low buildings were gathered around a community area in the middle with a table, chairs and a firepit. Here and there I could see electric lights, and it took me a moment to figure out where the power was coming from. A thick, orange cable descended one of the bridge pillars the camp was built around. The bridge above had power, so Nirvana did. Clever.
A sign was mounted on that pillar about ten feet above the roof of the building below. It was a rough metal rectangle and painted on it in an elegant script was ‘Nirvana.’ Something about it bothered me, so I focused on it. It was a territory claim marker.
Territory Claim Marker
On the wall right beside us a small platform was set about 2/3rd of the way up the wall. It’d let someone stand there and see over the wall, or—and this was the tactical gamer part of my brain chiming in—kneel there and have partial cover. The wall was only about seven feet tall, and this was a watchtower.
There were a few more on other sections of wall. This compound, as ragged looking as it was, had been built to be defensible.
Old Pete had been watching my assessment. “The realities of the world we live in means we need the wall. We leave someone here at all times to stand guard, although our neighbors know not to mess with us. Duke can be quite persuasive.”
“Don’t the cops hassle you for living here? And for stealing that power?” I asked.
“They would, if it were in their financial interest to do so,” Pete said, moving deeper into the compound. I followed along.
“Police need money like everyone else, Mack. So does their boss, and their boss’s boss. Anything is permissible when you grease the right palm.”
That sounded about right. Especially in this world, where without cash you literally couldn’t advance in your career. Nearly everyone in a position of authority would be dirty. How could they not be?
Pete set his gaming bag down by the central table and sat heavily with a groan.
“Don’t get old, Mack. It’s terribly overrated.”
I just chuckled and sat down across from him. “Do you think Circe is okay?”
“I am sure she is. She can take care of herself, but I still worry for her. It’s in my nature.”
Duke returned, leading the skinny young man I’d seen at the library the first time. This must be Z.
SilentZ, then. The title was strange, and I wondered what it meant but Pete was giving orders.
“Duke, gear up and go look for Circe along our usual route. If she’s in trouble, extract her. Do what you need to do. Don’t get yourself killed.”
Duke nodded and ducked to enter the building at the base of the bridge pillar. It was the sturdiest looking of the four, although they all seemed fairly well engineered.
SilentZ was watching Pete, expectant. He was tall, although still shorter than Duke, but extremely skinny with curly, light-blond hair. He looked like he was my age or a bit older, with an intelligent, attentive expression on his face.
“Z, stick close to home and be ready,” Pete said.
SilentZ lived up to his name when he replied with sign language, his fingers flashing rapidly.
“Can’t that wait until tomorrow?” Pete asked.
Z shook his head and another rapid sequence of signs followed.
“Fine. Make it quick, but only if someone goes with you,” Pete said. “Mack, would you help out Z here? He just needs someone to watch his back while he clears his nets. Maybe a bit of physical assistance if one is too heavy. It’s not safe for him to do it alone. As Shayla isn’t here I’ll man the wall.”
“Sure, I guess,” I replied. Z ran off into another of the houses.
Duke emerged from the building he’d entered minutes earlier. If he’d been scary before, his transformed appearance was truly terrifying. He’d put on a black leather trench coat, one obviously made for his enormous frame. Under that, I saw a black, armored tactical rig festooned with magazines and slung under his left arm—under the coat—was what to my untrained eye looked like a black AK-47 with a folding stock.
“Holy shit,” I said. Duke smiled tightly as he saw me looking.
Pete and Duke didn’t spend any time with small talk, and thirty seconds later he had left the compound and Pete had locked the gate behind him.
“Mack, you are armed, correct?” Pete asked me. I nodded.
“Good. Watch Z’s back. He’s a good kid but he can’t defend himself. You’ll just be down at the water, but if it looks like something is wrong you abandon the nets and drag him back here if you have to.”
“Is he catching fish in the river? There’s no way we can eat that.”
Pete just laughed. “You’ll see. Hurry up, though. Here’s Z now.”
I turned to Z coming out of what must have been his house. He was wearing hip waders, thick, elbow-length rubber gloves and had a large wicker basket—a creel—over his shoulder. He caught my eye and gave me a “let’s go” motion with his head.
It turned out the wall had a few gates, one on the downhill side facing the center of the river. Z led us through that gate, leaving it unlocked behind us as we walked down to the water. The LA River never had a lot of water in it, and the ST river was much the same. It usually had more trash floating in it than fish, so I had no idea what Z was catching.
I followed Z as he walked out of the shadow of the bridge downstream about a hundred feet where he stopped.
Z didn’t stop to tell me what he was going to do, or tell me where to stand or anything like that. He jumped right in, the nasty water coming up to his thighs. When he reached into the water and pulled a net up, I finally saw it. Completely hidden beneath the surface of the water, the net was secured on the banks with pitons driven into the concrete. I could see why he’d insisted on doing it now—the net was full.
It was trash, almost all of it. He shuffled foot by foot along the net and pulled it up out of water. He’d free cans, plastic bags and random crap and toss it either onto the shore or the downstream side of the net. The freed trash continued its journey to the ocean.
I was watching him, but kept my eyes open. I wasn’t expecting that bandits would jump us for our valuable trash, but I had a job and I was going to do it. Everything was serene, the only sounds the flowing of the river and the traffic on the bridge above our heads.
When he found his first fish trapped in the net I was surprised. It was big and healthy looking. The fish struggled, its head caught tightly. Z gently worked it free from the net and then rather than placing it in his basket he set it gently down in the river on the downstream side. With a splash, it swum away.
“What the hell?” I said. Z didn’t react to my voice, but kept clearing the net.
It was a few minutes later when I saw what the Fisher of Iron really fished for. The shape was nearly unrecognizable, covered in plastic trash. Once it was cleared, though, it was obvious. A pistol. It went into the creel after Z ejected the magazine and a chambered round.
He was just over 2/3rds of the way across when he found his second gun. This one was an SMG of some kind. After being made safe it went into the creel as well.
I was shaking my head in wonder when I saw headlights enter the river about a mile away. A large SUV of some kind pulled out onto the concrete slope and started to drive our way. Z was facing the opposite direction and didn’t see it.
“Z, let’s go!” I yelled. He didn’t react.
I ran and jumped into the river, moving as fast as I could in the water. I grabbed Z by the shoulder and turned him to look at the approaching SUV. His expression changed from surprise to alarm and both of us splashed as fast as we could to the bank. We sprinted diagonally up the slope to the gate and had just latched it behind us when the SUV stopped fifty feet away from the wall.
As soon as we were inside, Z ran into the same building that Duke had geared up in. I sprinted over to Old Pete, who was crouched on the watch tower. The SUV’s doors opened, and large figures stepped out. The headlights were making it hard to see, but I could see silhouettes and that was enough to ID the driver.
|“Magnus” , The Fatally Hip|
One of the men on the passenger side dragged a smaller figure out of the back seat and I heard Old Pete’s hissing intake of breath as both of us IDed her. Circe.
Magnus’s voice boomed out.
“Pete! I have your woman, and I want to make a trade. You give me Mack, and I return her to you intact.”