This is a sequel to 2016’s THE DARKEST FRIDAY.
They frigging got me again.
I wake up in the dark, in what feels like a cramped space. I’ve got a headache, my mouth feels like cotton, and something sting-burns on my neck where a needle pricked me. I haven’t been in this exact situation before, but I’m not an idiot: I’ve been drugged and thrown into what’s probably trunk of a car. I can tell I’m moving.
A phone buzzes in my pocket. Strange, because I threw my phone away a week ago. Some idiot kept trying to recruit me for another Black Friday. Nobody seems to get it that I don’t do that anymore. I’m able to fish the phone out. The screen blinds me in the confined darkness, and I squint at it as I fiddle with the controls to dim the light.
A video call comes through. It’s from a dipstick in a Halloween mask. Generically grotesque, like a mummy-zombie-goblin that melted against the radiator a few times.
“Hello, Jim,” he says through a voice scrambler.
“Up yours. Jim was my father. I’m James.” Just speaking sends a wave of dizziness over me and I have to squeeze my eyes shut. “The hell’d you drug me with?”
“A fancy new cocktail called Cooperation Sauce. I could tell you needed it. You weren’t cooperating.”
“I’m retired, jackhole!”
Mr. Mummy-Goblin-Zombie shakes his head. “I’m muting you on this end. Listen closely: remember your sick uncle? We have completely erased his medical debt, and approved a new cure through the FDA that will eliminate his condition in a week’s time. He’ll live a long and happy life.”
That got my attention. I don’t speak Doctor, but Uncle Craig has something akin to Super Cancer in his brain. He was supposed to be dead before Christmas. The FDA was sitting on a cure for that? And these guys got it through?
I’m still retired. But I’m paying attention now.
“In return for our services, you’ve agreed to sit in a cargo crate en route to a floating warehouse off the coast of Oregon. It’s a secured aerial facility owned and operated by the Buybazon Corporation. No humans are allowed on these W-AirHouses, and each one is loaded with security drones that are trained to kill on sight.”
I groan, loud, not caring that he couldn’t hear it.
They want me to do to Cyber Monday what I normally do to Black Friday.
Buybazon is the biggest retailer in the world, online or otherwise. They move more merchandise than anyone in history. During this weekend, they move their floating W-AirHouses out over the water, because they’ve had issues with people trying to get to them on the ground. They’re packed with goods ten decks deep, everything from books to clothes to personal automobiles and more. Treasure troves, undoubtedly.
YouTube is full of videos of morons with homemade rockets strapped to their backs, or repurposed hot air balloons, and in one case, a DIY helicopter, that managed to land on top of the facility before the drones inside blew it to hell.
Whoever this twit is on the phone, he had knocked me out and thrown me into a cargo crate. I’m not moving in a car; I’m flying under a cargo drone. Some items are still coming into the flying facility in preparation for the online orgy of consumption. That’s how the guy sneaks me in. Once Cyber Monday is in full swing, the W-AirHouse will float inland again and start deploying delivery drones to send people their overpriced crap.
This is the thing that really ticks me off. This year Cyber Monday starts on Friday, because Black Friday starts on Wednesday. There was some beef after last year that people felt guilty about expressing such blind greed right after Thanksgiving, so the robber barons solved that problem by allowing people to indulge in that greed early on. If you never stop to be thankful, you’re less likely to feel bad for clubbing a random stranger so you can buy a cheap computer.
Friday on Wednesday. Monday on Friday. It’s like these morons in charge never look at a calendar and realize that two different days don’t happen at the same time.
No, wait, that’s not it. I know why they do it: they think they’re all-powerful, and the fact that they bilk so much money and violence out of people kind of vindicates them. I give it a decade before Halloween becomes the new Black Friday, regardless of what day it lands on.
Mr. Mummy-Goblin-Zombie is still talking. I realize I’ve tuned out. He gives me a crate number that I’m supposed to look up once I’m in the W-AirHouse.
“This is your primary target. There are secondary and tertiary targets that will earn you a bonus, but only if you have the first box. And hey, if you want to shop for yourself while you’re there, you’re more than welcome! Just make sure the full list is complete first. Oh, and stop by sector 4 on Deck 6; the manifest shows a lot of hunting and sporting equipment there. Might come in handy for the, you know…” he makes finger pistols and shoots at me.
The call ends. I memorize the location of the primary target. This twit is going to get it, hard. Best way to ensure that is to get the loot for a handoff in person.
My crate docks with the W-AirHouse and stops moving. A drone whirrs outside, and I hear it come up to the crate, where it unlocks the lid and opens it up. It takes about two seconds to process what I am, and in that time I’m up and fighting. My hand covers its camera lens—not that I can do anything about its sonar vision or infrared scanner—as I climb to my feet. The little drone switches to combat mode and takes a swing at me. Its claw-hands are ridiculously strong, but its shoulders and elbows aren’t. Too heavy. I grab the wrist, wrench it back, and snap the arm off the drone.
Stupid. Of course they’re interconnected on a network. One of them gets “hurt” and the bigger brothers all come running. Buybazon is big and evil, not stupid. They had to figure someone would try getting in this way.
Mr. Mummy-Zombie-Goblin must think very highly of my abilities. I’m touched.
Here’s the problem: normally when I do this, I’m armored. I’ll have a helmet with a HUD, maybe a limited personal force field, a Beating Stick, a pulse rifle, and a couple of other toys, plus a generic tool belt with some caveman-level “universal keys.” Right now I’m wearing sneakers, sweat pants, a T-shirt that hasn’t been washed in a while, and my signature trench coat. Nice of them to put the coat on me.
I club the drone with its dismembered arm, then sprint into the corridor, ducking low because of how tight the fit is. This place was never designed to be occupied by people. It’s meant for drones moving crates. There’s enough space to get around, it’s all just shaped the wrong way.
The tiny little drone engines buzz behind me, getting louder as I dash through the tight network of honeycomb tubes that take me into the main cargo area. When I get out of here, Mr. Mummy-Zombie-Goblin is going to take a claw hammer to the face, I can tell you that much. For now, well, I kind of want to see what’s so damned important that they’d put me through this.
I’m not used to things going this fast. I reach the intended crate on the intended level and use the drone arm to pop the lid open. Inside there are several parcels wrapped differently, in brightly colored paper with metallic ribbons. Only one of them is in a drab cardboard box, sitting on top of the others, right in the middle. I grab it.
Then something hard hits me on the back. I stumble into the crate with a grunt, and the box flies out of my hand. By the time I’m up and around, brandishing the drone arm like a flaccid stick, my assailant is already on the move. He’s dressed in the typical garb of a power shopper: body armor, Jump Boots, various electro-ionic implements to serve as shields and weapons, and a pair of bulky techno-goggles wrapped around a neoprene balaclava.
An electronic screech stings my ear.
“James, we were warned there’d be another shopper in the W-AirHouse. Head to the sporting and hunting division for armor and weapons. Chase him down before he disembarks,” says the garbled voice of Mr. Mummy-Zombie-Goblin.
They stuck an earpiece in me. Now that’s just perverse. How’d they know I’d been attacked, though? Dumbly I reach up and…yup. This whole time I’ve been wearing video specs. I really need to wake up.
I jump down a level and rip open a few crates. The best I can come up with is a baseball bat and a can of pepper spray, before Mr. MZG warns me that the other power shopper is getting away. I hurry back to the receiving dock, taking a shortcut through the honeycombs, and I have an idea. Once I’m in the receiving area, I’m set upon by three drones, but they’re not the security kind. Three quick bashes to the dome—four for the stubborn drone at the end—renders them inert. I throw them in the only open crate and crank the lever to drop it out of the launch port, just as the power shopper comes in with the parcel. My parcel.
There’s no dialogue. This isn’t the movies. When two alpha wolves face off in real life, you just start beating the crap out of each other. We did. It hurt. My glasses went flying. I got a hand on his goggles and yanked down to fire the pepper spray, but then his balaclava came free and I found myself looking into a mirror. Well, an aged mirror.
“James,” he gasped.
Jim Kotter. The greatest power shopper in the history of the militarized Black Friday. The only guy who, as far as stats go, has been more successful at it than I have. Also, he’s dead.
“You’re on my bladder,” Dad wheezes.
I roll off of him, stunned. How is he alive? Where has he been all this time? What is in that box, that somebody wants it so badly?
“Son, I…” he begins.
We don’t get the chance to talk. Security drones race into the receiving dock and turn their lasers on us. Dad pulls his goggles back on, and I toss the pepper spray aside, brandishing the floppy drone limb. What I wouldn’t give for a laser cannon…
“They’re not attacking. Not yet.” Dad pushes a button on his goggles. “Cellular signal is strong. They’re broadcasting.”
“To the client?” I ask. Well, not really clients, more like captors, but whatever.
“To everyone. This is on the Web, kiddo.”
I glare. “How much you want to bet we’re working for the same guy?”
“Someone who wanted the top two power shoppers in a mega-match?”
“Aboard a W-AirHouse?”
“Dammit,” Dad hisses.
The drones’ targeting lights come on. Dad and I jump in opposite directions, dodging the lasers before the drones can track us and correct their aim. We have to get out of the dock…and I have just sent Dad’s crate on a return trip. Crap. Gotta go the hard way.
We run and tuck and roll our way past the drones, which bump into each other in the tight quarters. A laser burns through my coat, searing the leather to a stinky crisp. Dad takes a hit square to the back, but his armor has some kind of reflective quality that bends the laser away. We leap into the open honeycomb corridor and crawl at full speed.
“What’s on Deck 5?” I ask.
“Books. No good.”
“They only told me where the sporting goods are, do you know where we can find laser cannons?” I ask.
“Home & Garden, Deck 9. We’ll never make it. Sporting goods!” The corridor curves up ahead, and we follow it until it opens right back where we came from.
“Go get something, I’ll close off the access,” I say. Dad runs off. I step aside and raise the floppy arm above my head. Just as a security drone flies out of the honeycomb corridor, I smash the heavy end of the limb down on it, wrestling it to the ground. It’s big, about the size of a man, but the shape of a wasp. Grabbing its wings, I pick it back up and swing it into the next incoming drone, plugging the hole. The lasers fire at random, cutting into each other, shredding the drones until their inner workings fail. I take a few more burns to the jacket and one more that cuts through my funky T-shirt, stinging my flesh and making me scream.
I’m not dead, so the laser is on a low setting. It should have gone right through me. Whoever’s at the controls is trying to make a show of this. Growling to myself, I drop the wrecked drones and go after Dad. More drones are coming, but I’ve bought a few seconds at least.
“We’ve got to get out of here. They’re toying for now, but eventually the audience will want something worse. You know how people are,” Dad says as he yanks a bulky, backpack-size object out of a crate and slings the straps over his shoulders.
“People suck,” I agree, pulling on another backpack. “Dad, where have you—”
“Later, kiddo. When we survive. Control room is on Deck 3.”
As a kid, people told me I was exactly like my dad. Not that I looked like him, but I was like him. I take after Mom’s side in terms of looks. Dad, though…he never did anything halfway. It’s what makes him the best at whatever he tries. So when he goes for the control room, I know exactly what he’s doing.
“Dad, give me the box,” I say, jogging behind him, looking over my shoulder as the security drones buzz over us.
“It’s not a weapon, Jamie. It’s not even valuable on the open market. It’s a trinket for trillionaires,” he says. “Useless here.”
“I have a point to make,” I say. We speed-crawl through the honeycombs to Deck 3. Dad gives me a quick look, loaded with depth and meaning, and I can tell he’s making the same assessment of me that I had just made of him. We are, after all, the same.
He gives me the box.
The drones swarm the room in great numbers, moving as only a hive can. Hot laser fire rains down all around us—they aren’t messing around now. We take cover under a shelf of crates, but that won’t protect us for long. I reach into my coat and grab one of the two laser cannons I had taken from the drones on the previous deck.
“Shoot back, Dad.” I shove the pistol into his hands, taking the other for myself. Again, sparing the dramatics, we carve a path to the control room. Dad melts the lock off and tugs the door open, covering me as I go in. His laser-reflective armor protects the doorway as I use the last of my cannon to melt through the computer core at the center of the W-AirHouse.
The power cuts out instantly all throughout the ship. But for the glaring red lights on the security drones, the whole deck falls into darkness. Dad grabs my backpack and pulls me out of the control room. He still has his HUD goggles, so I keep a hand on his shoulder and sprint after him, even as the angle of the floor tilts in an odd direction. The W-AirHouse is going down.
“To the honeycomb?” I ask.
“Closed off. I didn’t want to do this, but…close your eyes!”
I do. A few seconds later, a searing blast of heat eats through the wall of the W-AirHouse, and a shock of cold, wintery sea air cuts into the gaps of my clothes, stinging my laser burns.
Scorch grenade. Hardcore.
Dad leaps headfirst out the hole. We’re at an elevation of about two thousand feet. Not drastic, but you don’t want to hit the water from this height. Fortunately, the sporting goods section had recreational jump jets. I turn and hold up the box so the drones can see me. They stop firing. Whatever it is, they want it and know not to compromise it. So I throw it on the metal grating, crush it with my shoe, and fall out of the hole in the side of the flying building.
Grabbing the hand control off of the backpack strap, I slip it over my knuckles and go after Dad. The ignition switch fires the engine right up. I’ve never used one of these before, and while the strap around my torso feels fine, I realize I had forgotten to put a pair of straps around my thighs. The jet stays on, but I feel like most of me is dead weight as it spirits me away from the now-falling W-AirHouse.
Sight is out of the question. Wind speed and the cold cut at my eyes, so I have to squint and blink a lot until Dad comes up to me again and takes me by the arm again, flying me to shore.
“We just porked Cyber Monday,” I say to him, shouting over the roaring wind.
“They’re gonna be mad.”
The W-AirHouse belly-flops against the cold, gray ocean. Coast Guard ships are already racing there from the nearest port, no doubt commandeered by the all-powerful Office of Economic Control and Societal Assurances. They will have to salvage as much of it as they can. The flotsam and jetsam will only get more expensive on Buybazon, because the supply is so much lower now. Whatever. They should have let me stay retired.
Our jet packs have enough ionic power to make it to shore, but we’re still about a mile off the coast when an airborne Merecedes-Benz Z-series flies up beside us, belly-open. A trio of neckless thugs in suits drags us onboard with—I kid you not—a fishing net. We try to fight free, but we have nothing left. Once we’re inside, they close the belly, cut us out of the net, and restrain us as we kneel on the floor.
Mr. Mummy-Zombie-Goblin gets out of the passenger seat and faces us, now without his mask. I know him: Senator Bernard Stewart. The Man of the People. Elected on a wave of populism and standing up for the mythical Little Guy.
Spoiler alert, there is no Little Guy, unless we’re all the Little Guy. Except for guys like Stewart. He’s on top, and he knows it. He just doesn’t want you to know it.
“That was a stupid thing you did, James,” Senator Stewart says in his signature smarmy twang.
“I’m not sure which of us you mean,” Dad says.
“Me either.” Stewart nods to the men holding Dad. One of them draws a pistol from an underarm holster.
“No!” I shout.
A deafening explosion rings out in the enclosed car. Everyone is wearing earplugs except for me and Dad…who isn’t dead. The shot had compromised his jet back. Still tangled in the remains of the net, he can’t move his legs. So when the thugs open the belly of the Mercededs again and shove him out over the surf…you can imagine how I feel.
I try to fight them. It doesn’t work. End of that story.
“I am a man who serves society, James Kotter Jr,” Stewart sneers. “And society is built on order. When I place an order, I expect it to be filled. When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed. If I can’t get what I expect, how can you expect any different? Would this make us equal?”
“Are we still on camera?” I spit.
Stewart chuckles. “Facts are facts, regardless of who’s watching. You just dealt serious economic damage to your fellow man. It’s bad enough that you don’t participate in Black Friday and Cyber Monday like everyone else. Why, those two holidays do so much to fuel our economy! The cut prices help the poor, and the taxes help the needy. Your refusal to be a part of that is akin to theft. Have you ever thought of that?”
“I’ve thought of a lot of things. I’m thinking about what I’m going to do to you when your thugs aren’t around,” I say.
“Oh? Why would you say that?”
“Because if you were going to kill me, you never would have brought me aboard. You still think you can get me to do this again. You don’t seem to get it that I’m retired.” I glare, eyes burning with tears. “And you just killed my dad, who I thought was dead. That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.”
“I admire your boldness, James. I can see I underestimated you.” He looks out the rear window. I can’t see, but I imagine the W-AirHouse is mostly sunk by now. Stewart continues. “But when I want something, I will get it. You still owe me a Christmas present.”
I rise to my feet, despite the no-necks on me. “Oh, you’ll get it, Stewart. Signed and delivered, you can count on that. You’ve made two big mistakes already today. The hat trick would be letting me out of this rig alive.”
Stewart just grins that million-dollar grin, which had gotten him elected to a third term. “You may go home now. Enjoy the holidays. Next year, I will hire you again, and I will make sure you do as you’re told. Merry Christmas.”
The thugs open the door and kick me out over the beach. I use the last of the jump jet fuel to land without breaking a leg. The sky is gray, and the ocean is grayer. A few people walk across the stretch of sand, but most of them are indoors like sane people. I stare out over the water.
Dad. They killed him. Gone and back and gone again in half an hour. My heart sags with anger and loss. Someone will answer for this pain.
I walk home and slept off the shock of the day, not knowing what else to do.
I’m a simple man. I hurt people, I break things, and I sleep.
Two days later, on the real Cyber Monday, a package comes for me in the mail. The drone drops it off on my doorstep and doesn’t even wait for a signature. The box is big, like a doghouse, and has a handwritten label on it. Curiousity beats me, and I bring inside to open it up.
It’s a recreational jump jet with a punctured ionic reactor, the hole about the size of a bullet. Attached to it is a laserproof vest with an inflatable inner lining that has been deployed.
I must be grinning like an idiot.
There’s a note. I unfold it and read the handwriting, the same handwriting I’d seen on all my childhood birthday cards.
Happy Monday, Son. We’ll talk soon.