You might be a redneck cyborg if... - Editor
by Paul Provenza
First you people hate us, then you crush us, then you hate us some more, then we're your entertainment. We're not allowed where you are until we pay our war debt, which will never happen, but your art makes it here oftener than you realize. I've seen Cleetus: Nutria Destroyer. I've seen Twins in Love. It's very funny, very mode, this art of yours. You people even made a holo about me, Finn McCool: Bootlegger, and despite the fact that the title was the only part of the production that remotely resembled reality, I near broke a rib laughing at the exploits of my bumbling, incestuous, meth-ridden, semi-retarded holographic self. Why? Because even as I gave my pet sheep Lucy a whompin' dose of country love on screen, off-screen I was selling 20,000 pirated copies to the Cubans, who love laughing at us as much as you do. And that's what it comes down to for me. Do you understand? Finn McCool and never mind the war, the cause, the South, or, God forbid, the politics of the situation -- I leave that to my brother. But it's like I tell Cash: if you think I do the thing I do for any reason besides me, me, me...well...sorry... you're wrong, wrong, wrong.
Of course, Cash being the egghead that he is, you're better off hammering a spike into your toe and calling it a hangnail than trying to convince him of the existence of individuals.
"They made us into bootleggers!" Cash splashes the paddle again and more mash slops out. "It's Shanty Town South down here. But try and earn a real living, and boy howdy, the I.R.S. shakes you harder than a crate of Mexican prunes and never mind the sprayback, brother!"
While Cash rages on, I look to the horizon, my hand warm and happy on my Cheney. Revenuers don't give much warning before they strike, but they're not hard to spot. When your personal arsenal's the size of the entire Bolivian army's, you tend to stand out.
"I always pay attention,” I say.
Arms wheeling, my brother says, "Finn! You don't know the clothes they wear in New York City or the books they read in Toronto...but the poor folk of Ontario and Ohio and Maine do. Don't you see they're good little peasants and we're bad?" Abruptly, Cash assumes a calm, peaceful pose, and inhales deeply through his nose. "Now, that's a good corn mash!" he says. "That's Coca-cola corn, straight from the Atlanta garrison, and no mistake!"
He comes down from the stirring platform, beaming like a proud uncle, and snorts another lungful of that sweet, stolen, bioengineered aroma. He then puts the heating cube in reverse, in preparation of pitching the yeast, and proceeds to curse the clunky Russian knock-off in language that would embolize our poor suffering mother, were she not already dead.
"I really do pay a lot of attention to the North." I say.
Cash gives the cube a kick, and the indicator blues. "And I pay attention to the quality of my bowel movements. So what?"
I can't help smiling. "But Cash, the North's where the Revenuers come from."
"R-Revenuers!" Cash goes frothy. He hates the R-word. Says it's tantamount to a scream. A bogeyman. A null-value. Maybe, but guess what? Revenuers are real, and if Professor Cash can't find room for that in his little book of theories, maybe the sight of Lynn hauling ass out of the radar shack -- boots flapping, patched jeans ripping at the knees, hair uncoiling like a ragged piece of snakeskin -- will inspire him to reshuffle his deck.
"How many?" I ask.
Lynn is heaving, hands on knees. She's more than a bit terrified, but -- as befits a former McCoy -- she's holding it together.
"One," she says. "Four clicks out."
"A R-Revenuer?" Cash is rooted to the duff, paralyzed. "But Finn, this is...Coca-cola corn! We can't just... We have to try and... Finn, smell those sugars!"
Let any man besides my brother pull this stunt, and let that man meet my Cheney. Fortunately Cash's wife is not the wimp he is. While I drain the mash tun -- all that sweet evidence sparging unceremoniously into the mud -- Lynn puts the heating cube into a feedback state and, yanking the mash paddle away from Cash, smashes the controls. Then she and I get our little three-man band moving toward the mine opening.
The heating cube glows pink-white -- you can't even look at it, really, it's so bright -- and just as it explodes a chromium blur swoops down over the ridge, zooming through the dirtclouds and fallout and still-airborne still-debris like some sort of silver Satan. I get my first look at the Revenuer's heat lamp eyes, all red and crazed and fixed on me, and I grip my Cheney tighter.
With a poke and a nudge -- but calm, Finn McCool is always calm -- I get Cash and Lynn started down the old Capricorn shaft. Cash, no surprise, is a claustrophobe; but if this dark, narrow, dubiously cross-braced passageway feels a little tight as Lynn helps him into the mine car and releases the hand brake, he gives no indication.
"You remember where this goes?" I ask him.
"A-All the way through. D-Dips, dives, then rises to exit on the opposite mountain face." Cash can't help looking back. The Revenuer's stomping over the remains of the still now. And by God if he isn't snarling like an honest-to-Carl junkyard dog! How's that for a theory, brother?
Lynn gives Cash's suspenders a jerk, and rather yelpingly he plops down in front of her. "Keep gawking," she says, "and wait for him to arrest us or worse. Is that your plan? Get your head down, Cash, and shine a light on the ceiling. Look for cracks."
"They have nothing on us from above. The Capricorn's insulated."
Lynn looks at me.
"It's true," I say. "The seam goes underneath a mountain of pure granite. We're impervious to any telemetry that even the I.R.S. can throw our way -- right, Cash?"
He gets a fist up. "The h-hell with the I.R.S.! They can't bomb a mountain!"
There's a roar and a bellow from outside, and a wet, rumbling, cha...cha...cha that shakes the tunnel underfoot. I resist the urge to look.
"Cash is my only brother," I remind Lynn, "and you're my only sister-in-law."
"I want to get the hell moving!"
I give the car a push, and, with another roar rattling the tracks beneath them, Lynn and Cash start down the Capricorn. I don't move an inch. In all the excitement, the car covers a hundred meters before Lynn awakens to the fact that she's alone with Cash. The spark of the brake lights up the tunnel.
"Don't be an asshole, Finn!" her voice echoes up the rails. "What if I have to protect him? Or, God forbid...him me? Don't you dare desert us."
"Lynn, time's up."
As if to emphasize my point, the Revenuer roars again. Cha...cha...cha!
"F-Finn," Cash calls out.
"D-don't forget, you have to shoot that bastard in the b-brainal nucleus. Otherwise you might as well be whistlepiggin'. Now, the BN's not located in the head, as most people mistakenly believe, but rather underneath the glow panel --"
"Don't you be an asshole, either," Lynn says. "Wanna prove something, Finn? Prove you have the brain of a bootlegger. Your ego's worth a road-dead dog to one of those...things."
"I know how to kill a Revenuer," I say, and I can tell by the lack of argument that they know I mean it. To both of them I say, "Go to the other side. Blockade the Capricorn behind you. If all goes well, and it will, I'll see you in one hour."
Lynn protests, but I don't hear it, because waiting outside is a smug, silver, seven-foot-tall skeleton with a pair of shoulder cannons trained directly on me, and Christ, my shorts. They say the true measure of a bootlegger is his calm, and calm I am, outside, but on the inside let no man ever know just how shaky my 'shiner legs are.
"Bootlegger! I be...touched!" The Revenuer advances like a silver lunatic, knees out cowboy-style, swaggering. His head's a giant ball bearing. He has no mouth. His smile's horrific. "I knew I'd meet a scumbag here, but never did I expect he'd be...cha, cha, cha...scared."
I make an effort to keep my voice level. "Revenuer, what's your business?"
"My b-business?" His head jerks savagely, and despite several attempts to right it, his neck remains stuck at an angle, until he whacks it into place with a lobstered fist. "Why, my business be your business...if your business be bustin' bootlegger noggin! Oh! I eats metal! Oh! I drinks oil! And burning down a redneck trailer park -- there's an honest day's toil!"
"Robot, what's your business here?" I ask again, keeping a cautious eye on those shoulder cannons.
The Revenuer throws his head back in raggedy laughter. "Bootlegger, crack my metal shell and know what ye shall find? A soft, chewy center! Cha...cha...cha! A cyborg am I, and a cyborg I shall die -- no robot."
"I collect taxes, bootlegger. What have ye for me?"
I sweep my hand across the hollow, in its full backwoods, mosquito-buzzing glory. The only evidence that I once operated a still is the black, stomped-in crater that the Revenuer himself smashed beyond all recognition. "Does the I.R.S. tax rocks and trees?" I ask. "Because that's what I have to declare: rocks, trees, dirt, and more rocks."
"Aye! And I declare that you're a...cha, cha, cha...asshole."
"Can you strike a match at thirty meters, Revenuer?" I gesture with my Cheney. I'm still afraid, but in my fear I find boldness.
The Revenuer's eyes pulse brightly, briefly; and all the humor goes out of him. He assumes a rigid posture.
"Finnegan No-Middle-Name McCool, previously of the State of Tennessee, now of the Southern Territory, know that you are under arrest for the violation of the United States Code section thirty-one point seventy-eight point nine point four hundred three, The Illegal Distillation, Distribution, Sale, and/or Transportation of Hard Spirits or Other Fermentables. Be warned that --"
"-- that all Treasury Department personnel, including but not limited to analysts, auditors, and cyborg revenue agents, are authorized the use of deadly force in the apprehension of violators and yes, bootlegger, I see that pea shooter of yours. It's illegal, too." His head swivels left and right, paranoid-fast, and as it's coming back center I hear something groan inside. "Now are you ready to take a shot at the...cha, cha, cha...title or aren't you?"
"Revenuer, the worst day of your life is going to be my best."
I'd like to interrupt here and say that one thing Cash loves to trot out, as evidence of the depraved conditions we've been reduced to, is the fact that, throughout the Southern Territory, a person is far more likely to take care of business in an outhouse than on an indoor porcelain throne. It's true. I myself have used the stars-and-crescent many times; it's what we have at McCool Hollow. And do you know, when the rooster crows, and you go to make your morning glory, what will be waiting for you? Rats. You good people of the North have never seen an actual shithouse rat -- the rabid eyes, the shit-caked craziness, the sudden assaults on your tenderest of areas -- but you understand why it must die.
Why any creature that's stewed itself in shit long enough to lose its mind must die.
Why I raise my Cheney .50-cal slugpuncher now and say, "I can strike a match at thirty meters, Revenuer," and shoot the laser cannon off your tax collector's shoulder.
And why the Revenuer seems not to notice, and why he says, "I've hunted scumbags like you for seventy-five years. I've wrecked more stills, killed more bootleggers, than a dog has...cha, cha, cha...fleas. But down here dog's good eatin', and never mind the fleas! Hey, bootlegger?"
And why I shoot the other shoulder cannon even as its energy cells fill up. The explosion disables the Revenuer's left arm.
And why the Revenuer seems not to notice this either, why he says, "I contain the flesh of man but I've never known a woman; I've drained a million stills but not a drop for me. Oh! They built an armored man, that should abide the muck; but filthy Finn and his bootleg kin -- inside their muck I'm stuck!"
And why I aim again, this time at the Boeing marque on his chest, rocking him back on his heels. And why I continue to fire until he rushes forward to finish this thing.
And why he gets close enough to see the healthy fear in my eyes even as I bear witness to the sickness in his.
And why, as I expend my last bullet into the small joint where his breastplates meet -- just below the glow panel, just like Cash said -- and the Revenuer's brainal nucleus liquefies into so much artificially intelligent oatmeal, why he says, "And so, it's come to this. You'll have no s-s-satisfaction on my death, bootlegger; it's only c-c-cortical implants that prevented me from d-d-doing the j-j-job myself."
And why, as his eyes flare for the last time, I say to him, "I wish I could have killed you twice."
And why I return to the mine without a second look at your broken machinery.
Would you people of the North believe I could kill your finest Black and Decker? Finn McCool, a peasant bootlegger? Well, it doesn't matter what you believe. Or that your cyborg was sick and nihilistic. It only matters that he's dead. And it matters more that I'm alive. Me. Anything left standing after the war you people built a garrison around and claimed for yourselves. We have no industry in the Southern Territory anymore and no cities. All the good stuff you control. One day, when our war debt's paid, so you say, you'll return everything to us. Cash doesn't believe you. And me? I don't care. It's too much to think about right now, with the blood pounding hammerifically throughout my neck and the adrenaline electrifying every nerve in my body like I'm...well, like I'm some kind of cyborg.
And there at the mine opening is grim, reliable Lynn. Judging by the white knuckles gripping the lintel beam, the Revenuer's death did little to un-grim her.
I pounce on her. Her lips are chapped and her breath is dry and unpleasant, but she doesn't resist, except to mention that Cash is still in the car, and what if he works up the courage to come investigate?
I stop what I'm doing long enough to say, "Then I'll tell him what I always freaking tell him: if you think I do what I do for any reason but me, me, me...well...sorry, you're wrong, wrong, wrong."