Ellie stood there for a moment, wary. The church was empty. There was no-one else there, and no coffin up the front.
The only person in the church was a man in a suit, sitting at the front of the room. After a moment that man stood up and walked back towards Ellie.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We deceived you. Your daughter is alive and unharmed.”
Ellie stepped towards him. Sameh was quicker. The man tried to back away, but not quickly enough. He was down almost as he finished speaking. Sameh had him on the ground, in an arm lock, and was kneeling on shoulder and face. He was bleeding a little from a graze on his lip, where he had hit it as he’d fallen.
Suddenly, people appeared around them. Through the door Ellie and Sameh had come in by, and through another at the far end of the room. The backup team, flooding in, pointing guns, trying to overwhelm Ellie and Sameh with surprise. Ellie wasn’t surprised. She’d expected them, once it was obvious this wasn’t a funeral. There had to be a team, and Sameh probably expected that too, and decided it was best to get the team out into the open.
There was a lot of noise, and a lot of confusion. Everyone was shouting, what the fuck and you can’t do that and let him go. Everything Ellie would expect from a crowd of outraged hajjis, except they were shouting in English. That was a change.
It was a small room, and they were all standing too close to Ellie and Sameh. They had handguns, but their guns weren’t raised, weren’t leveled, which meant they had instructions not to risk hurting Ellie and Sameh.
They wanted to talk, Ellie decided. They had no intention of shooting her.
“There’s no problem,” Ellie said. “Everyone calm down.”
Then she had to grab at another of the backup team, a woman, who took a swing at her for no apparent reason except getting caught up in the excitement of it all. Ellie blocked the swing, and grabbed the woman’s arm, and turned into a bouncer’s lock, twisting the woman’s wrist until it bent enough the woman stopped moving. Ellie held her like Sameh was the man, until she decided they were both under control.
Then she looked at the others. “I’ll have to hit you,” she said. “I’ll have to put you down. I can’t hold two of you at once.”
“We’re not doing anything,” the first man said, from beside Sameh, the calmest of the lot. “We just want to talk.”
Ellie thought about that.
“It would be easier if I wasn’t bent over like this,” the man said.
Ellie said, “Let him go,” to Sameh.
Sameh did. She might have twisted his arm a little as she released him. Ellie shoved the woman she was holding, so she stumbled forward, out of Ellie’s way, and took a few steps towards the man who Sameh had just let go.
He watched her, then took out a gun and pointed it at her.
“That’s close enough, I think,” he said.
Ellie stopped, and thought about what to do now. He was obviously in charge, which meant he probably was allowed to shoot her, if he wanted to. Unlike his team of minions, who had been told to keep their weapons down.
Ellie was unarmed, and too far away to reach him with her hands, and wasn’t wearing tactical amour, either. Australia was modern, civilized, and didn’t allow aircraft to land that hadn’t been screened properly. Ellie and Sameh had been screened at the border, and screened in the street, passing e-sniffer checkpoints too. They were scanned and inspected and made certain they were disease free.
Disease free, and weapon-free, and free of unserviced debt, as well.
This man had a gun, and Ellie didn’t, and she didn’t have a hope of doing anything much to him from where she was standing.
So she stopped where she was, and said, “I’m not moving.”
“We need your help,” the man said.
“I don’t think I want to help you.”
“All the same,” he said. “You will.”
He held out a tablet so she could see the screen. It was Naomi, her kid, sitting in a room, on a bed, apparently watching something on a wall screen beside the camera. Naomi seemed unharmed. There was a trustlock id in the corner, with the date and time, confirming it was a live stream.
Naomi was alive, just like the man had said.
She was somewhere else, probably being held captive, Ellie assumed, but she was alive, right now.
Naomi wasn’t dead.
Ellie stood there, and to her surprise, she felt something. Some odd mix of relief and gratitude. She had been upset the kid was dead, although she hadn’t wanted to admit to herself. Upset enough to plan a revenge killing, she supposed, which must mean a little bit upset.
Ellie stood there, thinking, trying to work out her feelings. She didn’t want the kid harmed, she decided. She felt some kind of obligation to Naomi. She didn’t quite know why, when Naomi was obviously trouble and so ought to able to take care of herself, but Ellie cared enough to try and help.
She didn’t want the kid harmed, and that probably meant doing what this man wanted her to do.
She would do what he wanted in the end, but she tried playing him first, just because she had to. He’d probably expect it anyway, but she tried anyway.
“I haven’t seen her in years,” Ellie said. “Why do I care?”
“Because you’re here,” the man said. “For her funeral.”
“It’s polite to turn up, that’s all.”
“And yet, you’re still here. Interrupting an deployment. Losing field pay. And it’s the first time you’ve been back to Australia in years…”
“I’m very polite,” Ellie said.
“Or you care.”
Ellie shrugged. She stood there. Sameh and the backup team were waiting too, all looking at Ellie and the man with the tablet, waiting to see if they all needed to try and kill each other.
“Well, if that’s all you wanted…” Ellie said.
The man waited.
“I mean it,” Ellie said. “She means nothing to me.”
The man nodded. He pretended to look regretful. He shrugged, probably copying Ellie. “All right then,” he said. “No problem. I understand.”
Ellie suddenly felt suspicious. He was giving in too easily.
“If your child is no hold over you,” the man said. “I suppose that can’t be helped. Our mistake, and we apologize for the unnecessary travel. I hope there’s no hard feelings, and I’ll let you be on your way.”
“And kill the kid, right?” Ellie said.
Ellie stood there for a moment, then sighed. “Don’t do that.”
The man smiled.
“Don’t do that,” Ellie said. “Just tell me what you want me to do.”
The man began to talk. He was John, a debt-recovery agent with one of the Chinese finance corporations.
Sameh stopped listening right then. Ellie could see it on Sameh’s face, out the corner of her eye. Sameh was bored as soon as she heard finance corporation, and started fidgeting and looking around.
Ellie listened anyway. She tried to stay out of debt-recovery work, and stick to chasing insurgents, but debt recovery was so widespread, so universal, that it was difficult to avoid completely.
She listened, and tried to work out what was going on. From what John was saying, his corporation owned a company which owned Ellie’s employer, and going through their records they had found her, found her team, and decided they were best for this. John looked at Sameh when he said that, looked at her and seemed a little smug. Ellie’s team, meaning he had expected Sameh to come too, Ellie supposed.
Sameh glanced up, and noticed John looking at her. She blinked, and then glared back. She was annoyed, was about to take a step towards him, and perhaps start everything again. Sameh was half an act, but sometimes such a good act that even Sameh forgot she was only pretending.
Ellie cleared her throat, and shook her head, and Sameh smiled and relaxed.
“If I work for you anyway,” Ellie said to John. “Why all this? Why not just tell me to do whatever you want done.”
“Need to know,” John said.
Ellie sighed. That particular phrase had come over from the old national governments and intelligence agencies and become the bane of people like her who were trying to actually get things done.
“Just let me explain,” John said. “It’ll all become clear.”
Ellie nodded, and John kept talking. He talked about demographics and skill sets and matches to niche task objectives. That part wasn’t useful, so Ellie stopped listening, the way she always did when people tried to give her instructions in corporate-speak. Eventually they would realize, and stop talking to themselves, and tell her what they actually wanted her to do in a way she would understand. Until then, she might as well stand there like Sameh was.
There wasn’t really any point bothering to listen. Ellie glanced at Sameh, and grinned, and Sameh grinned back. Sameh was okay. Sameh was waiting, too.
Since Sameh was okay, Ellie took the time to think.
The kid wasn’t hurt. That was the important thing to concentrate on now. Later on, she might want to kill this guy John, for putting her through what he had, but she’d wait and see and have a think about that before she did. John was just following his orders, and she understood that completely. It wasn’t really his fault that they had done things this way. And besides, the kid wasn’t hurt. That was actually what mattered.
Ellie thought, and while Ellie thought, John talked.
John talked, and Ellie half-listened.
Once upon a time, at the end of the last century, the corporations that were now the largest lenders in the world had been small-scale plastics and electronic manufacturers. Those corporations had ended up making everything, absolutely everything in the world that anyone wanted to buy, and so had ended up owning all money, too. Obviously, in hindsight, Ellie supposed, but that had happened before anyone quite noticed, and apparently before the manufacturing corporations had thought it all through as well.
Their success caused a lot of problems, problems for them as well as everyone else. Suddenly the manufacturers had all the money, and were making things that now no-one could afford to buy. In order to keep manufacturing, and keep having customers, the manufacturers had to begin lending their money back to their customers, so people could keep buying their products. It was a lot more complicated than that, and had all sorts of shades of nuance about Chinese domestic politics and globalizing foreign trade and the place of denationalized financial institutions in an interconnected world. It was all very complicated, but actually it wasn’t. The Chinese manufacturing corporations which had all the money lent it to their customers, and somewhere along the way became Chinese finance corporations, and ended up owning the world. And by the time anyone thought to care, nobody had armies any more, or at least, not armies they could afford to pay without Chinese finance corporations’ loans, or equip without Chinese manufacturing corporations’ weapons, and they barely had governments either because governments didn’t actually do anything useful any more, so suddenly the world was as it was, and there wasn’t a great deal anyone could do to change it.
Everything had got a little tangled, but for most people it had actually been a good thing. Wars had stopped, mostly. Wars between real places, places with lawn sprinklers and fast-food chains and dishwashers in every kitchen. Those kind of places and got peaceful and secure, and had better credit, and got all the gadgets they needed.
Unless they made bad choices. Unless they took on more debt than they could handle.
The price of a comfortable life and peace and lots of gadgets was that sometimes whole countries went bankrupt. They went bankrupt, and were foreclosed on, and the debt-recovery corporations took over their business. Australia still had a government, as did Switzerland and the Baltic Union and Japan and what was left of the EU. And China, obviously. Those places had governments, but very few others. Mostly, incorporated trusts ran regions, and everyone was happy.
People were greedy, Ellie supposed. People always took more than they needed, or borrowed more than they could repay. They always did that, until eventually there hadn’t been very many governments left, not in any real sense, and that had made everything a lot simpler. And some governments had made terrible mistakes, too, which hadn’t helped. The Americans had made the worst of those. They had borrowed too much, and kept borrowing for too long, and then had agreed to allow debt-recovery on very unfavorable terms.
That was what debt-recovery work meant for Ellie, going to places where you were hated, where everyone was an insurgent, and taking away anything valuable you could find. It was a complicated, legalistic, highly political business. Much, much worse than just chasing hajjis around the mountains.
“Have you ever been to Měi-guó?” John said, suddenly.
“What?” Ellie said, hearing a question and shifting her attention back to him. “America?”
“Yes, have you been to America?”
“Fuck no,” Ellie said. “Why would I?”
John shrugged. Something about his expression made Ellie think he agreed with her. “Why not?” he said anyway. “For a holiday. To see the monuments of a fallen civilization.”
Ellie supposed he had a point. America wasn’t much fun any more, but people went all the same. A lot of people. Adventure tourism was about all the American economy was good for now.
“I’ve seen documentaries,” Ellie said. “That’ll do me.”
“We’d like you to go.”
“All right,” Ellie said.
John seemed surprised.
“Of course I’ll go,” Ellie said. “You’re holding my kid hostage. So I’ll go.”
“You don’t want to know what we’d like you to do?”
“Not really. Because holding my kid hostage. Find someone or kill someone, I assume.”
John seemed surprised again.
“We’re a hunt team,” Ellie said, bored again. “For fuck’s sake. What else would you want me to do?”
John seemed to accept that. He looked back to his tablet, and began flicking through pages. He cleared his throat, about to start talking again, and Ellie had a horrible feeling he was about to begin another long speech. Ellie sighed, and held out her hand.
John looked at her.
“Just let me read,” Ellie said. “It’s quicker.”
“Of course,” John said, and handed her the tablet.
Ellie read. It was about what she’d expected. Not good, not bad, mostly just complicated. The son of a senior executive of their Shanghai parent corporation had gone missing. He was somewhere in the old United States, on his post-university gap year. He was touring the wonders of America, seeing Nashville and Detroit and Los Angeles, and somewhere along the way he had disappeared. There was no ransom demand, and no communication. Just his trackers and monitors had suddenly gone dead, the way they always did in tunnels and near the last remaining US government facilities, which still always had cell jammers. The trackers had gone dead, and then never restarted.
That had been three days ago. Now the corporate headquarters was starting to panic.
The company had made inquiries through diplomatic channels, and through their debt-recovery officials too, which Ellie would have expected to be more effective. Neither had done very much good. The file John had on his tablet detailed a great many unsuccessful attempt to do anything useful, including covert interviews with friends, a statistical analysis of the kid’s spending patterns, and reports from the corporate tech services division about their unsuccessful attempts to restart the trackers remotely. Ellie hadn’t realized that was possible, but it was quite useful to know it was.
She kept reading, ignoring John’s tense expression as she flicked pages sideways on his tablet without bothering to ask. There were other reports, the best they could do she supposed, giving an approximate location based on satellite triangulation somewhere in the middle of the country and a little towards the north. This was confirmed by financial records and the locations of his last few bank transactions. There were attempts to contact the friends he had been travelling with, who still seemed to be New York. The group had separated weeks ago, and no-one had mentioned this to their respective parents until now.
There were more memos. A lot of speculative, guesswork memos, the same kind as people in Shanghai wrote about Ellie’s operations in Afghanistan. Ellie read them anyway, but they didn’t tell her much. One of them, the most sensible, a background briefing document for second-tier managers, said quite calmly that the US was a shambles. A failing-state shambles of poverty and debt-slavery and complex tribal tensions, at war with itself as much as any actual rival. Probably the corporate son had been snatched by anti-debt terrorists and was going to be ransomed, or murdered. Or he’d been snatched by some faction seeking assistance from the corporation against a rival. Or by slavers. But probably one or the other of those. The person who had written the memo fairly obviously thought the corporate son was already dead, but made a point of not actually saying so.
Ellie thought the corporate son was dead, too. Any sensible insurgent would have killed him and hidden the body as soon as they worked out who he was.
She sighed. She thought about Naomi.
It was a terrible waste of time bothering to do this, to go hunting for an already-dead heir. But she had to. The corporate parent would probably want the body back, if nothing else.
“We’ll go,” Ellie said.
“I suppose there’s no point asking you to release my daughter, since I’ll do what you want anyway.”
“There’s no point, no.”
“I’ll kill you if you harm her.”
Ellie looked around, at the cameras on the backup team. Then she looked upwards. People always looked upwards, towards imaginary unseen cameras on the ceiling, even though the cameras were as likely to be on other people, or on the floor.
She assumed she was being watched in Shanghai. Probably not by the kid’s parent, who most likely didn’t know the full details of this brilliant plan, but by the kid’s parent’s close advisers, at least.
“If anything happens to my daughter,” Ellie said. “I’ll kill you all. You know what I do. You know what I can do if I want to. If my daughter is hurt at all, even by accident, I’ll blame you and I’ll kill all of you.”
John nodded as she spoke, as if he was listening on an earpiece. He probably was, Ellie thought.
“They say they understand,” John said. “Your daughter won’t be hurt.”
“Even if I fail? Even if I die?”
“If you do your best, your daughter won’t be hurt.”
Ellie nodded. That was as much as she could hope for. “We’ll need weapons,” she said. “And armor. Proper armor.”
“I’ll arrange it.”
Ellie nodded. She looked at Sameh. “Will you come? You don’t have to, but if you would, I’d be grateful?”
Sameh shrugged. “Habibi. Of course.”
“Thank you,” Ellie said to Sameh. Then she looked at John. “What are you standing there for?” she said to him. “Let’s go.”
Eventually, the United States had run out of money.
This wasn’t unusual. Ellie had learned about it at school. Most of the nations still organized as nations ultimately did. Their costs were too high, with their grandparented-in welfare and healthcare expenses, so they were unable to survive as competitive business entities in a world made up primarily of business entities.
At first, nations had some advantages over businesses. Nations controlled territory, and so could charge access fees, exclusive or otherwise, which they usually still called taxes. Nations had legacy armed forces, too, which could operate either as bill collectors or brigands and so supplement their income. Nations should have been unable to compete, but they were stifled by their inherited expenses, and so most eventually reached one kind of financial crisis or another. Some survived their crisis, but many did not, and the worst affected were usually those still dependent on oil-based energy systems in a world rapidly switching to cheaply-manufactured wind-farm and solar plants. Nations dependent on oil, like the United States.
In the United States, the transition had triggered a crisis. Or rather, it had precipitated a crisis which had been looming for a generation. The economic cost of overly-expensive legacy energy sources had combined with assumptions about limitless credit, and social dysfunction, and a hesitant attempt at empire, and expectations about how comfortable life ought to be for everyone in what had still been seen as the most important nation in the world, together those things had created a crisis from which the United States had never recovered.
The United States had run out of money, and had no way to pay its debts, so those debts had been sold to banks and foreign nations, and eventually, years later, to companies such as Ellie’s.
Not long afterwards the debt-recovery operations had begun.
Debt-recovery was a vast, disorganized, semi-military operation, ostensibly begun to recover the capital cost of the unpaid loans, plus service fees such as interest, but mostly now just a business enterprise which existed for the sake of its own existence. It had been going on for decades, and showed no signs of ending soon. There had been a lot of wealth in America once, and also a vast amount of debt, and so there was a great deal to recover, and no real reason to hurry about doing it.
Now, debt-recovery had taken on a life of its own. Like all large business enterprises sooner or later did, Ellie supposed. The American debt-recovery, the Měi-guó debt-recovery, had ballooned into a web of interlinked businesses, all providing cost-added services to one another, a kind of self-perpetuating system of patronage and contracts and pocket-lining and greed rather than anything to do with the most efficient way to recover outstanding credit. The debt-recovery companies charged exorbitant fees for their services, adding on those costs to the capital debt they were recovering. Costs such as shipping and security and consultant analysts to advise on best-value removal strategies, until it seemed as though there was almost a cycle of services fees where entire subcontracting companies existed to do nothing but provide a service to another company, and then charge a fee. Companies existed to resell recovered equipment, or recover the component metals in scrap, or advise on predicted market fluctuations which could alter the expected returns on recovered goods. Old rubbish tips were mined. Old industrial plants were too. That mining incurred expenses. There were refineries which did nothing but recover rare earths from scrapped electronics, or oils from dumped plastic. There were engineering firms which did nothing but remove factories and bridges and old railway lines for scrap, and all of these consultants added their fees to the existing debt, and none of their fees were regulated or controlled, since the creditor banks didn’t care, and most of the time the subcontractors were owned by the creditor banks anyway, because they had decided they might as well retain the profits of their debt-recovery business.
The debt-recovery operations had turned into a multi-generational, continent-wide plunder, but Ellie didn’t especially care. It wasn’t her home, it wasn’t her people, and it had been going on for so long that no-one really seemed to notice any more. The debt-recovery operations were deeply entrenched in corporate balance sheets and geopolitical stability now. So deeply entrenched, and with such a potential negative impact on profitability if they ended, that it just seemed obvious to her that debt-recovery was never going away.
To her, it was mostly just a very gentle kind of war, a military occupation no different to the police actions in Afghanistan and Iran. There were said to be more security forces on the ground in the former United States than were involved in all other peace operations elsewhere in the world combined. Ellie believed it. There was a lot work in Měi-guó. Between security for the actual collections, the personnel with spanners removing scrap metal and machinery, and security for the audit and investigation teams checking everything valuable had been taken, and security for the shipping and logistical supply convoys, there were a lot of people on the ground, and a lot of security needed. There was good steady work in Měi-guó America, Ellie had heard, but all the same, she had always avoided working there. In part, she didn’t know the culture, and had always felt better in the MidEast. In part, because Měi-guó security was unskilled work, less precise and so badly paid, better suited to emerging-economy mercenaries without any actual training than members of an elite hunt-and-snatch team like hers. Debt-recovery operational security wasn’t difficult, like hunting insurgents was difficult. Debt-recovery security mostly meant standing at checkpoints, controlling movement in and out of declared debtor zones, and sometimes guarding debtor work-gangs, although that was usually done by trustee debtors. Měi-guó debt-recovery security mostly meant standing around, waiting for something bad to happen, and Měi-guó America was still a fairly dangerous place to be.
All her life, even as a kid in Sydney, Ellie had been hearing what a hazardous place Měi-guó was. There was crime and debt and poverty and almost unending near-civil war. It had got so bad, and been bad for so long, that everyday life was more like it was in Afghanistan than anywhere in the modern world. Life was dangerous. Life needed to be lived with care. Even ordinary people lived in fortified homes and drove fortified trucks to fortified shops to buy their goods. And everywhere they went, they went armed. Those who worked mostly worked at home, web-commuting to jobs in other parts of the world.
Crime and civil unrest had always been America’s problems, and now they were infinitely worse. The old American government had lost its cities to crime gangs generations ago and had never taken them back, and then, with the debt-recovery settlement, they had lost the farms and suburbs, too. The countryside was at war with the debt-recovery corporates, and with what was left of the American government, as well.
The problem was guns. Like in the MidEast, people in Měi-guó had always been well-armed, and so had the capability to cause trouble when they wished, and just like the MidEast, they wished to quite often. Insurgencies began quickly, as soon as a few people were irritated with their rulers. They began, and spread, and caused no end of trouble. There had been insurgencies in America for thirty years now, on and off, flaring up and dying down in different places and different times, for reasons from anti-debt activism to old-style political separatists separating from something that was already broken, to hajjis who still through they were fighting the last great war between believers and rest, and hadn’t realized the Chinese banks had already won. Which they had.
The Americans had kept their guns as part of the debt-recovery settlement, because even then it had been obvious the trouble of taking them away would be too great. It was a near-religious issue to them. Self-respect and pride came from a gun, just like it did in the MidEast. As well, it hadn’t been with the trouble of disarming America, Ellie supposed, because body armor had been good enough, even then, that being shot was mostly just nuisance. The guns were a nuisance, Ellie thought, and added to the overall tension. They led to more pointless shootings, and more civilian deaths, just like in Afghanistan, because the guns meant every operation was a live one, which wore on the collection agents’ nerves, and made them tense and irritable and more likely to shoot.
America had changed, Ellie supposed, but it hadn’t changed so much. Not enough that everyone who’d seen any old film couldn’t recognize large parts of it. Americans still had their cultural weapons, and still ate their cultural food, and they were still allowed to keep their cultural customs like politics and free speech, as long as nothing changed and no-one was actually listening. Just like the MidEast, Ellie supposed, they could talk until they starved because it was an outlet for their frustration. Or not, on occasion, when their guns and speeches combined to get them so worked up they caused trouble.
It was all a mess, Ellie thought. Měi-guó, what was left of what had been America, was a mess, and it was a different kind of mess to what Ellie was used to. It was all workhouses and industrial deconstruction and strip-malls full of plastic clothes and plastic food. The food was awful, Ellie had heard, but she didn’t plan to eat anything local so she didn’t especially care.
She would need to pay attention, to learn as she went. She would be unfamiliar with the environment and tactical situation, and might be oblivious to danger around her. And worse, because of where the heir had last been seen, she was going into the middle of Měi-guó, the heartland, the most traditionally American part of all, away from the relative safety and normality of the debt-recovery bases in the ports along the coasts.
It was Afghanistan all over again.