Apple Butter and Strawberry Tea

It’s drizzling by the time Haru Ono stops her scooter at the bottom of the abandoned street that spirals up to the top of Twin Peaks. The two hills are situated at the dead center of Two Francisco’s geography, and used to be where the famed Sutro Tower stood overlooking the city, until the quake of 2122 brought the entire structure crashing down across the landscape. Most of the wreckage is still scattered about, covered in vines of jasmine, manroot, and wild strawberries. The road itself is cracked and buckled, another casualty of the quake, and the only attempt at reclamation has been locals over the years cutting pathways through the twisting beams of rusted steel that cross over the old broken blacktop and incorporating the scrap into building projects of their own.

Not that it matters if the road is clear. Ever since the quake, tech hasn’t worked at the Peaks (a side effect of whatever BoomBoom experiment-gone-wrong caused the quake in the first place, or at least that’s what the conspiracy theorists on the VerpNet whisper to one another), so Haru will be hoofing it up the hill anyway. Her scooter is the backpack model, so she quickly folds it down, zips it into its case, and slips her arms through the shoulder straps.

It’s a long walk up the ruined winding street, but it’s not an unpleasant one. The digital silence doesn’t bother Haru at all, since she’s never gotten the VerpNet implants that nearly everyone else of her generation has. Another tool of the surveillance corporate state, obviously. She’d powered down her vPhone and slipped it into its ghost bag before she’d left the auto yard, so that wasn’t a problem, either. She’s a fan of being off-grid, and silence is something she’s completely comfortable with.

Midway up, the drizzle turns to snow, which Haru finds rather exciting. It rarely snows in Two Francisco, and when it does, it never sticks more than an hour or two. She’s certain that it’s still just a drizzle in the city itself. The height of the hills is the only reason for the snow here. She sticks her tongue out to catch some flakes.

The higher up the street she walks, the more shacks and tents she begins to pass. The Peaks are home to a healthy contingent of No Techs, who thrive quite happily up here on the roof of the city. Communal gardens fill in the spaces between the homes, as well as sculptures and windmills made from scavenged bits of the felled Sutro Tower. Haru knows more than a few No Techs on sight, and exchanges greetings and waves as she passes by.

Haru doesn’t expect to find Sterling here at the Peaks. He’s too reliant on the VerpNet for his dealings to pitch himself a tent here and settle in. But anybody who makes an income on the shadier side of the economy (which, let’s be serious, is most people who can afford to live in Two Francisco these days), knows that sometimes you need to handle your business in a place free from electronic eyes and ears. The Peaks are basically one big isolation bubble, and she trusts that almost as much as she does the bubble she’s fabricated inside her own house in the scrap yard.

Almost.

The snow is still falling when Haru reaches the end of the street, at what used to be the base of Sutro Tower. This is as close to what could be called the center of No Tech Town (if the No Techs called it a town, which they don’t, thank you very much). There are a couple of dozen buildings here, although none of them are meant to be permanent. The No Techs deconstruct and rebuild according to need and (Haru is certain) just for the pleasure of it, so the layout of the hilltop changes every time she comes for a visit, but she figures out which place is Ruby Bradbury’s without too much difficulty: she just looks for the flag with the white rabbit on it that Ruby always puts up on whatever roof she’s currently living under.

Haru makes a fist and gives Ruby’s door a few solid thumps. While she waits, she takes off her scooter backpack and opens one of the side pockets, removing something from it: a pre-quake paperback book in a clear plass baggie. She puts the pack over her shoulder again, and as she does, the door swings in, and Ruby greets her with a grin. “Haru. Always a pleasure.”

“Ruby. Brought you something.”

Haru holds the book in the bag out to Ruby, who eagerly takes it from her. “Rudy Rucker!” Ruby exclaims. She flips the book over and scans the back cover. “Postsingular. I don’t know this one. What year is it?”

“Early twentieth century,” Haru says. “I don’t remember the exact year. Pre-BoomBoom nanotech stuff. Right up your alley. Not original editions, of course, but all the pages are there, at least.”

“I don’t deserve you. Better come in out of the snow—holy flapjack, it’s snowing—before you freeze to death.” Ruby steps aside to allow Haru to enter, and then shuts the door behind her. “You’re going to have some strawberry tea. That’ll warm you up.”

“I wouldn’t argue with a cup,” Haru says. “Your tea is always the best tea.”

“Secret spices, my dear,” says Ruby. “You may hallucinate a little while you’re drinking it, but the trip is worth the journey, or something like that.”

The house isn’t quite just as Haru remembers it, since it’s undergone at least one rebuild since the last time she came up the Peaks, but it’s still absolutely Ruby: canvases hanging on every wall, sculptures in every corner, and books stacked on every tabletop. She leads Haru through to the kitchen, and waves at her to sit at the table. “A little tea, some cinnamon bread. I’ve got some apple butter from Berkeley you’ve got to try, traded a tub of eggs for it.”

“I should have brought you another book,” Haru says. “You’re spoiling me.”

“Hush.” Ruby takes a kettle off the metal shelf by the stove, and fills it from the plass water reservoir by the sink. “New plumbing system,” she says, tapping the side of the reservoir. “Pump is down-Peak, so the anti-tech bubble doesn’t affect it. Water comes up to the main tank outside, everybody on-Peak has access. Gravity works just fine up here.” She sets the kettle on top of the stove, then adjusts the valve on the stove’s propane tank, and uses a fire lighter to get the burner going.

“You’re going to too much trouble,” Haru says.

“I’d be doing it anyway, so instead of beating around the bush, why don’t you tell me what you need.” She puts a jar of butter and half a loaf of cinnamon bread onto a tray, and brings it to the table, sitting across from Haru. “You didn’t come all the way up here just to bring me a book, although I do appreciate it, obviously.”

“I’m looking for Sterling. Thought you might have an idea where to start looking.”

Ruby hesitates a moment in reaching for a slice of bread, then continues the motion. “I haven’t seen Sterling since probably October. He was up here, running from somebody, I’d imagine.” She slathers apple butter across the bread, then puts it on a small plate and sets it in front of Haru. “He flapjacked something really bad, same as always.” She begins to butter herself a slice of bread as well. “What do you need him for?”

Haru starts to reach into her pocket for her vPhone, then remembers that it won’t work on the Peaks. “Omar found some bees.”

“Beez?”

“No. Real bees. At least he thinks they’re real. I had some pictures, but you know. No tech up here.”

“There aren’t any bees left. Omar’s been pharming. He’s seeing things.”

“I checked them out myself. I mean, yeah. Bees are extinct, sure. But I don’t think these were beez. I don’t know what they are. Figure Sterling would know a guy.”

“Sterling always knows a guy. Eat your bread,” Ruby says, nodding at Haru’s plate.

Haru takes a bite of the cinnamon bread. “Oh my. That apple butter is amazing.”

“Isn’t it? Absolutely worth the eggs I traded.” Ruby doesn’t touch her own bread, just taps the side of her plate absently. “Bees, huh?”

“Could be. Maybe. I don’t know, but they’re something. Omar’s got them in a glass tube. Wouldn’t let me bring them.”

“In a tube? They won’t last in there. I don’t know how long bees live, but it’ll be a lot shorter in a tube.”

“That’s why I need to find Sterling sooner than later. I don’t know what to do with them.”

Ruby keeps tapping her plate. “Last I remember, Sterling was talking about some data chips he was about to score, or something like that. It was six months ago, you know.”

“Data chips?” Haru has another bite of her bread. “Probably hooked up with Rama then, down by the old zoo.”

Ruby nods. “Rama’s always a safe bet with chips. Might not lead you anywhere, of course. Like I said, it was six months ago.”

“Worth a shot. If he didn’t see Sterling then, he might have seen him since.”

The kettle on the stove starts to whistle, and Ruby gets up to put the strawberry tea together. “Bees, huh?”

“Maybe. Possibly.”

“Which are supposed to be extinct.”

Haru shrugs. “That’s why I’m keeping this on the off-grid. No vPhones. No VerpNet.”

“Omar’s going to be a rich man, if he’s got a source for bees.”

“Or a dead man, if BoomBoom hears about it.”

Ruby brings two cups of tea back to the table. “You have a healthy degree of paranoia. You’d fit in up here on the Peaks.”

“Keep feeding me that apple butter, Ruby, and I might start to consider it.” Haru finishes her piece of cinnamon bread, and reaches across the table for another.

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