Decentralization and encryption/privacy are good principles for digital technology.
They’re also pretty good principles for effective, fair, and just government.
Those two principles are becoming more widespread within digital technology, and trend will only accelerate as more of our lives, interactions, transactions, and work move into the digital realm.
This will have inevitable, positive effects on political liberty and human flourishing.
The positive effects result from the fact that digital decentralization and encryption make it harder for the government to employ the tools it has to enable further centralization and to breach our privacy.
Centralized, large, and intrusive states require our lives — our communications, interactions, and economic transactions — to be legible. They have to know what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and what resources we’re acquiring and using to facilitate it.
“Require” here should be read in two ways.
First, states “require” legibility because it’s necessary to their functioning. Without making its citizenry legible, the modern, officious nation state simply cannot operate in the way it has. It cannot dictate anywhere near as much of our lives as it currently does, because to dictate our lives, it must know our lives.
Second, states “require” legibility in the sense that they demand it of us. Governments believe they have the right to make us legible by watching what we do, looking into our records, making us transact and interact via systems the state can surveil, and otherwise prohibit our own efforts to make ourselves illegible. States believe we are required to — have an obligation to — make ourselves legible to our rulers.
As technology makes us illegible to the state, the state will lose its power over us. Government is well-aware it requires legibility in both senses of the term. Moving to a decentralized, encrypted, peer-to-peer communication infrastructure and economy will mean the state will find it impossible to continue to regulate us, tax us, monitor us, and punish us to anywhere near the degree it’s become accustomed to.
The state will fight back, of course. It will seek to ban technology. It will try to scare us with stories of how our technology enables terrorism and crime. It will threaten innovators and entrepreneurs and pass laws with the aim to slow the development and adoption of strong encryption, cryptocurrencies, and surveillance-proof networks.
It will try all these things, and it may even succeed, occasionally and for a time. But progress — and math — are on our side. We know that a good government is a less intrusive government, that decentralization — through federalism or just smaller states — is the key to peace and prosperity, that every person has a right to be as legible or illegible as she chooses.
And we know that this genie is very much out of the bottle. There’s no going back, no stopping it, no reversing technological progress so the state can win the war for mass surveillance and so maintain our legibility.
The emancipated individual — and the thriving communities she chooses to cultivate and participate in — win in the end.
She looked at me in a soon-to-be-emotional way that meant I should get to the point as quickly as possible.
“Those are my fees,” I said. “I’m not flexible regarding them and I expect to be paid on time.”
She nodded and inhaled through her nose, a wet, stuffy sound made more pathetic by the tears. I didn’t have a Kleenex to give her.
I continued, “Mrs. Wynett, I’m aware this is difficult for you.”
“You don’t know anything,” she said.
I looked at her without speaking. She wore an outfit out of the latest fashion feed: ribbons of bioluminescent fabric hung from a plastic ring around her neck, covering nothing and pulsing colors in a caricature of chromed reflections. Her skirt was barely opaque and pale green, veined with darker shades. She looked like a flower gone to seed.
I nodded. “You might be right. But this is my job and I deal with situations like this every day. So while I may lack your subjective awareness, I certainly have a keen objective grasp of the in’s and out’s.”
“I’m beginning to not like you, Detective Pegg.”
“You don’t have to like me,” I said. “You’re hiring me to find your husband, not replace him.”
I think she would’ve slapped me if she’d been close enough. Instead, she sat up straighter and crossed her arms, grabbing her elbows. “You must find it difficult to keep clients if you say things like that to all of them.”
“I don’t,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I mean it. I added, “That was out of line.”
“It was.” She hugged herself tighter. “I’m willing to put it behind me, though. I need to find my husband, Detective.”
“I’ll do my best. It’s a big city. I can’t make any promises but — ”
“Is there some sort of refund if you don’t find him?”
Normally I’d say no, but I still felt bad and didn’t want to lose the client. “Fifteen percent. But that’s only if I decide to call it quits, not if you just think I’m taking too long.”
She reached for her purse. “I assume you don’t make a habit of dragging out investigations?”
“No. I’m honest, Mrs. Wynett.”
“I do hope so.” She pulled out her credit card and handed it to me. “Please take the retainer. I’d appreciate it if you’d begin immediately.”
I took my card out of my wallet, pressed it against hers, and thumbed the amount. “Of course,” I said. “My client list’s thin right now. I’ll start some digging tonight.”
“Thank you.” She smiled. I liked it and said so.
“You’re here to find my husband,” she reminded me. Mrs. Wynett stood, turned around, and left my office, the door banging shut behind her.
I leaned back in my chair and looked at the ceiling. A moth flew from the top of a shelf and got caught in the currents of the fan mounted at the center of the room. It moved in tight circles for a dozen revolutions and then broke free, fluttering down a helix path. It immediately returned to the fan.
I opened a window, waved my arms, and after much trial and error, guided the moth out.
I looked at the clock. 3:30. I palmed my desk into phone mode and rang up Wendell Nest at the police department. His smooth, baled, brown face — like an old boxer’s — appeared in an eight-by-eight square next to my coffee mug.
“Pegg. Good to see you.”
“Hey, Wendell. I need access to the citizen DB.”
“Is this for a case?”
I nodded. “Of course.”
“Good. I had to ask. Procedure.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll send you a temporary access code.”
“Thanks.” I reached over to hang up.
“It was good to hear from you, Ian.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Nest said, “Good luck,” and hung up before my hand hit the button.
I finished my coffee while I waited for the code. The desk beeped its arrival a couple of minutes later. I loaded up the DB, fed in the sequence of numbers Nest had sent me, and entered Robert Wynett’s name.
His picture loaded in the upper left corner and text began to fill in the space around it. I told myself to remember to renew my speech synth subscription soon.
Robert Wynett was a thin man in his mid-thirties. His Past Grievances Amendment registration photo was a couple of years old and showed him with wavy brown hair of the sort that can only come naturally and the sharp features of health and low body fat. He looked like someone I’d probably like.
His CV said he was currently employed by Accelerated Conduction, Inc. at a fifty-eighth story research park nine miles from the coast. The salary listed was higher than I’d expected but made sense in light of the clothes his wife had been wearing. Her name was listed under the heading “Spouse” and next to it was “unemployed.”
Wynett’s criminal record was short and boring. He’d been busted a decade ago for sex with a minor just before it had been made legal. It said he had begun the process of getting registered as an offender, but his lawyer had argued him out of it.
There was nothing to explain his sudden disappearance.
I pushed my chair back from the desk and stood. Then I quickly sat back down, looked for, and keyed Wynett’s mobile number. It rang eight times before someone picked up. In the background I could hear club music, a polyrhythmic thumping and the hiss of synthesized exhaust.
“Hello?” I said.
I got nothing for several seconds, just the music and, once, people shouting. Then: “And you are?” The voice had the strange modulations of heavy drug use.
“My name’s Ian Pegg. Is this Robert Wynett?”
Another few seconds went by before he responded, “Not anymore.”
“Mr. Wynett, I’m a detective. I was hired by your wife — ”
“She’s dead to me,” Wynett said.
“That may well be, sir, but she’d like me to find you. And I guess I sort of have. And, frankly, that has me a little confused.”
Wynett coughed. I heard him take a drink. He said, “I’m tired, Ian. I’m going to hang up.”
“Wait! Just one phone call, Mr. Wynett, that’s all I had to do. Why couldn’t she have done that?”
Robert Wynett killed the connection and I stood up for the second time, grabbed my coat, and left the office.
Outside the humidity was spiking. The beach just east of my building was covered with people holding what looked like a body mod festival, and the monolithic shadows of the cell generators half-a-mile out to sea cut the crowd into bands of light and dark.
I hailed a cab and gave the Native American woman behind the wheel Rebecca Wynett’s home address. As we drove, I thought about what I’d say. I couldn’t spook her; that was important. I couldn’t show her the same confusion I’d expressed to her husband. The more I thought about it, the less I was sure exactly why I was on the way to her apartment.
I hadn’t made any progress by the time the cab stopped. I got out and dug in my pocket for my card to tip. The woman pointed at the union policies sticker on the windshield and shook her head. I shrugged and put the card away.
The Wynetts were in the third-mile middle class: rich enough to avoid the worst of the humidity but not yet able to afford a lawn. I was as jealous as I usually get in these neighborhoods.
Their building rose a hundred stories, the windows tinted, the plastic between black and greasily reflective. I stretched my neck, looking up. The last quarter of the floors faded into the low clouds. Against the soft haze, the shadows of dehumidifier ports looked like bicycle tires.
I was buzzed in and rode up in the elevator. The Wynetts’ door was the forth along the hall. I rang the bell. A red light flashed on at eye level, switched to green, and the door opened.
Rebecca Wynett had changed her clothes to a more modest corset that rose just high enough to horizontally bisect her nipples, leaving red half circles on pale skin over the jade satin, like the bizarre double negative of an ocean sunset.
I accepted the drink she offered and sat down on the couch after draping my coat over a large, grey cushion. Mrs. Wynett sat on the floor in front of me, her legs crossed, and looked up at me.
“You haven’t decided to drop my case already, have you?”
I shook my head. “No. In fact, I’ve had a break. A big one.”
She crinkled her brow, confused. “I only spoke with you an hour ago. That seems quite fast.”
“I called him.”
“I looked up your husband’s record in the citizens database to see if maybe there was anything that might help. There wasn’t, but as a ‘what the hell?’ I called the personal number listed. And your husband picked up.” I leaned back to wait for a reaction. I didn’t get much of one.
“You’re wondering why I didn’t try that? I did. Of course I did. I’ve called him constantly since he went missing. He hasn’t picked up for me.” Her voice got quieter. “Perhaps he doesn’t wish to speak to me.”
“Actually, Mrs. Wynett, I was just passing on information. There wasn’t any question implied.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m on edge.”
“I imagine,” I said.
“What did he say?”
“Not much. He sounded high and he was drinking.”
“Where was he?”
“I can’t be sure. I think he was in a club. Or some other place with lots of people and loud music.”
“Robert doesn’t go to clubs,” she told me.
“Mrs. Wynett, I think it’s a good bet he didn’t know where he was.”
“I find that difficult to believe.”
I raised an eyebrow and continued, “He said he was tired and when I asked if this was Robert Wynett, he said ‘Not anymore.’”
That startled her.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said, her voice rising.
“Means he was high. As a kite or a trans. That’s my guess.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“Mission hasn’t changed. But the circumstances have. A little. In light of recent events,” I said and sipped my drink for effect, “I’m thinking he doesn’t want or need to be found.”
She stood up and shuddered. “That is not acceptable.”
“How long has he been missing?” I asked.
“Right. A week. We know he’s alive. Why don’t you just wait this out? Wait another week. See if he comes home. Give him some time. He probably just needs to sulk for a while.”
“I’m paying you.”
“And I’ll give you a refund. Don’t waste your money on an investigation that it looks like you don’t need.”
“I’ll double it.”
This time I was startled.
“I’ll pay you twice your asking price,” she said, “and all I ask is that you find him. You don’t even need to bring him home if he doesn’t want that.”
“I couldn’t do that anyway,” I said. “But, Mrs. Wynett, are you sure you want to do this? I mean, the money’d be nice and I’m loath to turn it down, but why don’t you just call him again yourself? Maybe he’ll pick up. If he doesn’t, call him from a public terminal. Hell, you can call him from my phone, you want.”
“No,” she said, walking over to the table by the door and picking up her purse, “No, I’d rather that you do it. I feel more comfortable that way.”
I shrugged. “Okay. It’s your tab.” I set down my drink and got up. “I’ll track him down. You want an image or just my word that I found him and talked to him?”
She hand me her card. “You can record it if it’s not too much trouble, but your word will suffice.”
I charged her my usual deposit for the second time and gave the card back. She took it and made brief eye contact, her face flashing some expression I couldn’t make. I smiled and somehow tried to nod and shrug at the same time. I probably looked like an idiot.
“I’ll call you if I find out anything more,” I said.
Rebecca Wynett thanked me and walked me to the door, her hand pressed lightly between my shoulder blades.
In the hall on the way to the elevator, I passed a short man — a gaudy sculpt — standing with his back to a ficus. He was engaged in a telepresence meeting, his hands gesturing and occasionally typing. As I got close, he stopped talking and looked at me, grinning with teeth like a ferret. Before I could say anything, he plunged back into his long distance conversation.
I slid my glasses down from the top of my head, indexed the guy, and set a spider to find out more about him. It was bound to be a waste but the CPU cycles were just sitting there.
The elevator ride down was quiet, twenty-six floors going by with only the calming blink of the progress indicator. The rent in the place must’ve been high to be so conspicuously spam-free.
My phone rang as I stepped out into the lobby.
“Ian, it’s Wendell.” He sounded borderline upset.
“You didn’t mess with anything while you were in the database, did you?”
I was almost to the doors. I stopped. “No. What do you mean?”
“I mean, the data you looked up, the logs show you accessed it, checked it out for a little while, and then deleted it.”
“I can’t delete it.” The elevator behind me dinged. I turned around and saw the gaudy sculpt step out. He smiled again, with just as many teeth.
Nest was saying, “I know. At least, you shouldn’t be able to delete anything.” He paused. “You can’t, can you?”
“I said I couldn’t.” The guy walked by me, close. I could smell disinfectant. I pulled down my glasses again.
“You haven’t paid anyone to up your access? Dicks do that — ”
“Hey, Wendell, I send you a shot of a guy, can you look it up for me real quick?”
“Yeah, sure. But we gotta talk about this, Ian.”
“We will. Just do this for me.” I sent him the index flag I’d already made and did another one as the guy went out the doors. Sometimes a rear view could bring up something a front shot missed.
“Huh,” Nest said after a half-minute pause. “System shows he’s a standard. There’re thousands just like him out there.”
“A standard? It’s kinda ugly for that.”
“No accounting for taste. But — Can you do a remote print on him?”
“No, I don’t have the equipment with me.”
“Okay. With a stock genome, visual’s not going to give us much. But I’ll run it anyway.” Nest paused. “Ian, seriously, you didn’t delete Robert Wynett’s information?”
I sighed loud enough for him to hear. “I’m gonna keep saying ‘no’ and you’re only gonna like it less and less the more you ask.”
“I know. Sorry. I trust you but this type of thing the department has to look into. If it turns out you were involved, I’m the one who gets fined, demoted, or fired.”
“I wasn’t. But I’ll look into it. Don’t worry.”
“Great. Keep your phone on. I’ll get a hold of you if the department starts getting pushy.” He hung up.
I pushed open the doors and left Rebecca Wynett’s apartment building. I put on my hat and thought about food.
The neighborhood was too upscale to support the sort of thriving street vendor economy that kept everyone with a couple of bucks well fed on my block. After some looking, I found a little Cantonese dive and told the remote waiter I wanted something with noodles in it. When the food showed up, I ate slowly, doing research on Wynett and Accelerated Conduction between each spoonful.
The studying didn’t net me much. Back in my office at a little after six o’clock, I decided to go with another approach.
My search through the ad feed backlogs yielded two results. The song I’d heard in the background had been used in an ad-synchronized feed bought by a club in the north end at the same time I’d been talking to Wynett. Another place, this one only a mile or so up the coast, had bought the same feed.
I went with the closer one first.
It was a small joint, more a bar than a club, and they didn’t charge me cover when I pushed through the heavy red door. The walls in the little entrance hummed. I felt a tickling, the hairs on my arms shifting around, like I had walked under high power cables. The weapons scan finished, a speaker over my head beeped twice, and the child-sized gate in front of me slid to one side.
The red of the door continued inside. The walls were padded and dimpled in a two foot grid where the fabric was attached to the concrete behind it. The ceiling was low and pulsed in a hellish chessboard pattern. I walked past the small and nearly empty dance floor and over to the bar. Behind it stood a short man with orange skin and grey stripes tattooed down his cheeks. “Yeah?” he said.
“I’m looking for a guy.” I held up Wynett’s picture.
The bartender looked at it, rubbed his chin, said: “I ain’t see him.”
“This afternoon, maybe?”
“Lot of people come in here. Post-lunch rush. Most of ’em don’t stand out like you.”
I laughed. “It’s obvious?”
He shrugged. “You police? Or private?”
“Private,” I said. “This guy, he would’ve been in around three, three-thirty.” I looked around. “He was at a place playing some band called ‘Shapelessness and the Thick.’ He got cut off but he sounded in bad shape. So I’m trying to find him, make sure there isn’t any trouble.”
“Haven’t seen him.”
“Okay, sure.” I put the picture of Robert Wynett back in my pocket. “Sorry to take up your time.”
The bartender waved his hand at the empty bar and said, “I got nothing but time. Still, you’re sorry, maybe you could buy a drink?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.” I sat down. “I’ll take a light beer. Whatever you have on tap.”
I drank my beer quietly. When I’d finished, I thanked the bartender and went outside to hail a cab.
The inside of the second club was like the skin of a frog; deep greens and browns waved across the smooth surfaces and blended into each other or were lost in the high gloss reflections from the bioluminescent tapestries that hung as gauzy divides. I guessed there were a couple hundred people dancing, drinking, or flirting and a lot of them, in that warm light, could’ve been Robert Wynett.
Wynett’s lack of prior felonies meant he wasn’t tagged, so even if I had access to the tracking system, I wouldn’t have been able to find him that way.
A large man was standing by a gate in the steel cage that separated the entrance from the club proper. He looked bored, yawning twice in the time it took me to cross the distance from the door to his station. It was still early enough that there wasn’t much of a line.
When I got up to him, he pointed a meaty finger at the card scanner on a pedestal next to his leg and looked at me with complete detachment. I pulled out my ID and scrolled through it to my licensed investigator badge. The bouncer wasn’t impressed.
“You gotta pay if you wanna get in,” he said.
His voice had clearly been augmented to carry over the music.
I leaned in close to respond. “I’m looking for someone.”
He nodded, his blue hair staying in place like the top of a moving spring. “Customers only.”
I took my cash card out of my pocket, scanned it, and walked past him through the metal gate.
This place was much classier than the first, the clientele dressed in the latest fashions, the sort that put more emphasis on the flow of clean lines than the covering of skin. It was a good thing it rarely got cold; most of them would freeze before they could flag a taxi home.
I found the bar: a huge, a sweeping curve of creamy, transparent plastic with lights moving like fish along its surface.
I waved down one of the dozen bartenders and showed him Wynett’s picture. He didn’t know, but called over a couple of his coworkers to give a second and third opinion. One of them nodded, said, “I think he’s here, back through there in one of the private rooms,” pointing off to my left, and then asked if I wanted a drink. I said no, thanked him, and wandered through the crowd.
The third room, behind a glowing curtain, held what I was looking for.
Robert Wynett was thinner than his picture had shown. If he was lucky, he was a hundred-and-fifteen pounds and most of the weight seemed to be exhaustion. He had his back to me as he sat alone at a table for two and he rocked smoothly from side to side, shrugging his shoulders in the middle of each cycle.
“I ain’t goin’ home,” he said and I thought maybe he knew I was there. But it turned out to just be the first line of a chorus as he continued, “No, I AIN’T goin’ home! Not EH-ver!” He clapped his hands together and, as I came around the side of his chair, reached forward for a drink with both palms touching at the wrists, like he was grabbing a hot mug of cocoa.
“Mr. Wynett?” I said and he started, dropping the heavy tumbler, sloshing a few drops of something clear and probably cheap and probably strong.
Wynett looked at me. He said, “I said, on the phone — ” His right eye blinked with each syllable.
“I’m not here to take you home.” I sat down in the chair opposite him. “I just want to talk.”
He took a drink and shrugged out of sequence. Out in the hall, I could hear some trans I’d passed arguing about sapience. “You, you’re a detective. You said so on the phone.”
“What you detectin’, Mr. Detective?”
I pulled the chair in close to the table. “That you’re drunk. And that you can’t sing.”
“Ha!” He put the glass down and pushed it away towards me. “It’s a ruse. Like the Trojans and their horse.” He rubbed his head. “It’s big and wooden and it hides a world of little men.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “What have you been taking?”
“I’ve been taken,” he said. “But you’re not going to take me.”
“Mr. Wynett, your wife is very worried. If you could just call her — ”
“No!” He drank again, looking nervously around the room. “No, I won’t talk to her,” he continued. “I can’t do that. I can’t hurt her. She mustn’t let the horse through the gates.” He scratched behind his ear. “Have you ever seen a horse, detective?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Beautiful animals. So pure and majestic. If you ignore what’s hiding in their belly.”
“Yeah, I get it. The Trojans. The horse. The Greeks sacking Troy. It’s called a leitmotif and you’re dragging it out a bit too far.”
“What do you know?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure exactly what he was asking. “That you worked for Accelerated Conduction. That you ran off a week ago.”
“Not that,” he said. “That’s not important.”
“Okay. What is?”
“Right. Okay, Mr. Wynett, that’s enough of that I guess. You want to stay here and drink, that’s fine by me. I’d recommend you go through a toxic rebuild before you go home to your wife, but I’ve got what I need to earn my fee.”
As I stood up, he did the same. He came around the table and grabbed my arm. “You can’t leave.” His voice was sharp.
“It’s not safe. Rebecca, she’s — ”
I shrugged out of his grip. “Goodbye, Mr. Wynett.”
He grabbed me again and I pushed him away, hard. I shouldn’t have but I did and when I turned around, there was a young transient couple standing in the doorway, the curtain pushed aside. They looked at me startled and scared and rushed back out into the club’s main room.
I put my chair back and walked out.
I went home, put a little food in my stomach, watched the news, and went to sleep. My girlfriend came home a few hours later and woke me up briefly, but only briefly. I was exhausted and didn’t feel much like hearing about her day.
It was early morning and my phone was beeping. I rolled over in the wrong direction at first, bumped into Eve, sighed, and reached back over my shoulder to grab the thing. The clock on Eve’s little table read 4:21.
It was Nest.
“Ian?” he said, his voice sounding more like forced air than anything else. “Ian, did I get you?”
“It’s early, Wendell,” I said. As I spoke, I got up and walked across the small room to the door and closed it behind me, putting the couple of inches of wood between me and Eve to muffle the conversation.
“I have to ask you a question.” Nest was calmer now. His tone was artificial. “When was the last time you saw Robert Wynett?”
I thought for a moment, counting back the hours. “Would’ve been around nine-thirty last night. Ten, maybe. I can check my logs if you want it exact.”
“And he was — Was everything fine when you left him?”
I leaned against the door. “How?”
“Shot. From a distance. We don’t know much more than that.”
“An hour ago. Maybe less. It’s hard to tell for sure in places like that.”
“I’ll get out there,” I said and opened to door to the bedroom.
“I wouldn’t, Ian.”
“From what the boys are telling me, you’re a suspect. I wouldn’t be too surprised if you get a visit from them soon.”
I stepped back out into the hall. “They think I did it?”
“They have witnesses who placed you with the victim.”
“But that was last night.”
“And it sounds like they saw you hit him.”
“Not hard and I left right after — ”
“I don’t think you did it, Ian. They probably don’t for sure, either. But they’re still gonna want to talk to you.”
“Okay. Should I go down to headquarters?”
“You don’t need to now. I think I can buy you some time. You’re white, the victim’s white, I think I can tie it up a bit in Equal Opportunity procedures for maybe a day before they move forward with it or pass it off on someone private.”
“What am I going to do in a day?”
Nest said, “Find out something. You’re the brilliant detective. Crack the case.”
I crammed a quick breakfast and headed to the office. When I got in, my desk was beeping softly with the results of the spider I’d set on the ferret guy outside of the Wynetts’ apartment. I made myself some coffee, sat down, and read through what it had to say.
The ferret guy, like Nest had told me, was a stock job, a body type and feature set picked from a catalog for rapid genome reconstruction. But his teeth were custom. The spider had dug through all the photographs the search system had indexed and returned three results with teeth like that. Two of them were women. The last was my man.
I scanned through the associated articles. He was a member of a group called the Human Ascension League. They were a pretty standard AI rights group, their mission statement to advance humanity through the field of artificial sapience. I’d run into some of them before, handing out literature at the airport.
The pictures came from events they’d sponsored. The best one was of the ferret smiling wide for the camera and holding an oversized check HAL had won from some private charity.
I ran another search. I told the spider to find me, within three degrees of separation, links between Robert Wynett — or Rebecca Wynett — and HAL. I killed the hour it took by paying bills and cleaning the office. Eve was supposed to drop by for lunch tomorrow and I didn’t want her complaining about the dust.
I got one result and it was better than I’d hoped for. A year ago, Robert Wynett had written an article about an advancement in computer sapience he’d been working on. I skimmed the article but most of it was way over my head. It did, however, contain a quote from a coworker, Sebastian Sable, who worked at Accelerated Conduction as a ghost shrink. Sable was listed as having a Gold Level membership with HAL.
A hunch struck me and I called Nest.
“Wendell Nest, PD,” he said.
“You sound like a vid show.”
“Ian! I’ve been talking to an EOC attorney. They’re making the case private, so you’ve got a couple of days before anyone hauls you in.”
“I don’t think I’ll need that much.”
“But I need you to do me a favor.” I told him what I’d discovered and asked if he could have the medical examiner check if Robert Wynett had been fixed up with a rider AI. Nest said he’d call me back.
A half hour later, he did.
“Yeah, Ian, Wynett had a rider. Company installed. The ME said something was broken about it, though. Some shorts and other problems that wouldn’t have been caused just by Wynett being shot.”
“Great,” I said. “That’s what I was hoping for. I’ll call you back when I’m sure, but this is falling together.”
“One of those detective epiphanies?”
“Uh huh. I hope so.”
It all made sense in a sad and sick way. A less-than-legal check of Rebecca Wynett’s phone records and an hour of additional research confirmed it. I put on my coat, left the office, and hailed a cab to my client’s apartment.
After she opened the door, Rebecca Wynett moved cautiously away from me, her eyes on the floor and her shoulders sagging. I stepped into the room and said, “I wish this’d all turned out better.”
She lifted her head up and looked at me. “I shouldn’t have involved you.”
I walked around her, down the short hall, and into the kitchen to look for glasses. She needed something. “You didn’t have a choice,” I said over my shoulder. “You didn’t know what they’d do to Robert.”
She came up behind me and leaned against the door jam. “I still don’t know what they did to him. Not really.”
I pulled two crystal tumblers off a shelf. Rebecca pointed over my head at another cabinet. I found several bottles including a large one of scotch that seemed to fit the mood. As I poured, I said, “I can tell you all of it, from the beginning, if you think it’d help.”
She nodded and took the drink I held out to her. We stayed in the kitchen as I began:
“Straight up, it was corporate espionage. No real moral complexity or political agenda. What little there was was all a cover. Do you know what your husband was working on?”
“Computers. Computer sapience — or sentience; I don’t remember.”
“Sapience. I don’t have all the details. They’re hard to get or else none of this would’ve happened. Anyway, that’s what these guys were after. The details of your husband’s work. They went after him by what should’ve been an easy route: Robert’s rider AI.” I paused. “You knew he had one, right?”
Rebecca shook her head.
“I guess it was standard at Accelerated Conduction. The whole R&D staff had them to aid memory, cross-checking, that sort of thing. Usually a rider’s pretty stable. It sits there in your brain, waits for instructions, and helps out when it’s programmed to. No reason you ever would’ve noticed he had one.” I drank and shifted so I was propped against the counter. “Problem was, these guys — ”
“You don’t know who they are?”
“No. Well, I mean, there’s the doc — the ghost shrink — who set it up and the group HAL — Human Ascension League — that he was working for, but they’re only sellers. I don’t know who commissioned the job, but there must’ve been a buyer.”
She blinked and I saw fear flash into her eyes.
“You’re safe, Rebecca. This was pro. They’ve got no reason to bother you.”
She jerked her head and sipped nervously.
“Again,” I added quickly.
Rebecca sighed. “No, it’s okay. I trust you. Though,” she paused, “you obviously don’t have any reason to trust me.”
“You did what you had to do. You didn’t know what they were planning.”
“Just go back to the story,” she said without looking at me.
I did. “Riders need check-ups. As I said, they’re pretty stable — there aren’t many records of them going bad — but it’s usual policy to have them looked at occasionally. Monthly, bimonthly, sometimes annually. Riders are great recording devices. They have huge amounts of memory, they’re always on, and they have access to everything the host sees, hears, touches, that sort of thing. If you’re going to conduct industrial espionage, they’re a nice way to do it. Problem usually is, the encryption schemes buffering the riders are strong as hell and brute force attacks don’t work because you’re dealing with a living host. You can’t just plug him in to a cracking box for six to eight weeks. Not that that would really work anyway. The encryption keys are too big.”
Rebecca had stopped paying attention and was staring into her drink. I picked up the pace of the explanation.
“They hit Robert through his rider. To do it, they used a man on the inside, the doctor who did the semi-annual examination. Robert was put under and they snuck in an update to the software, installing a data tap. I think the way it was supposed to work, the system would override him at regular intervals and report in. That would seem to make the most sense but it didn’t work out. Best I can figure, Robert was put through a routine scan at some point after the placing of the tap and the rider went into passive mode to avoid the detection of — ”
“I’m sorry,” Rebecca cut in, “but this — I guess can you just give me a little less detail?”
“Sure,” I said. “Yeah, I can trim it down. The software they installed broke. It messed with Robert’s head. It looks like he knew it, that he recognized something was wrong, but couldn’t seem to make that known. He freaked out and ran. Whether it was to seek help or to protect you, I can’t be sure.”
Her eyes closed for a couple of heartbeats. Then she opened them and said, “And they used me — and used you — to find him. So they could kill him.”
“That’s what it looks like. They probably figured they could more easily hide their own responsibility if they got me involved and tried to make it look like I took him out at your request. I’d have had to keep my mouth shut because of privilege and if I did say anything on your behalf, it would’ve only look like I was protecting my interests and yours.”
“They told me they were from the company.”
“That they were trying to help him. They said he’d be spooked if he thought someone from AC was looking for him and said I should get a detective to do it. It’d put Robert more at ease.”
Her drink was almost empty. I reached behind me for the bottle and held it up to her but she shook her head, putting her glass down on the counter.
I said, “This wasn’t your fault.”
Rebecca shook her head.
“It wasn’t,” I said again. “When you came into my office, you were concerned about your husband. You wanted him found. That was genuine. You were doing what you thought was best for Robert.”
“If I’d left him alone, if I’d just — If I hadn’t come to you and had just told those men to go to hell, he’d be hiding out somewhere. Safe. He’d be alive.” She picked up the glass and gestured with it at the scotch. I poured. Her eyes were shiny and she looked away from me to hide it.
“Rebecca, I am sorry. I don’t know what else to say. This is hard, I understand that, and no matter what the motives behind it or who’s at fault, you’ve still lost your husband.” I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I’d gone past the point of helping her but everything felt so uncomfortable and silence would only make it worse.
“He loved you,” I said.
She looked up at me quickly, then back down at the glass, and drank a large swallow.
“He told me, when I saw him in the club the night he was killed. He was pretty incoherent — he’d been taking drugs and drinking to get away from the pain in his head — but he was clear on this. He said he loved you, he wanted me to tell you.”
Rebecca put down her drink and turned, walking out along the hall and into the living room.
I waited a moment before following her.
She turned to look at me. A tear hung from the corner of her mouth.
I reached over the back of the couch, grabbed my coat, and before putting it on, pulled a card out of the pocket. I walked past her and put the card down on the table by the door. Then I looked back, paused, and took a couple of steps so I was close enough to put my hand on her shoulder.
“You call me, you need anything,” I said.
Rebecca Wynett nodded and went slowly back down the hall and into the kitchen. I let myself out, rode down the elevator, and left the lobby, taking off my coat and draping it over my arm in the damp heat.
In 1999, with a couple of friends, I founded the Gaming Outpost. For a time in the early 2000s, it was the internet’s largest tabletop gaming website, until brought low by a combination a disgruntled employee, a late-night hack, tapering revenue, and founders who decided to get real jobs. But the Gaming Outpost’s influence lived on. Mike Mearls, designer of the wildly successful Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, got his first paid writing gig as a columnist on the site. Shannon Appelcline’s magisterial, four-volume history of the the RPG industry, Designers & Dragons, looks back on the Gaming Outpost as the incubator and stomping ground for the ideas and designers who eventually gave us the modern indie RPG movement. While it now exists only in the Internet Archives’s Wayback Machine, GO was a pretty cool place.
It was also a favorite hangout of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas.
The Gaming Outpost featured news, articles, and reviews about all things tabletop gaming, but its main attraction was its discussion forum. That’s where designers like Ron Edwards, Clinton R. Nixon, Jared A. Sorensen, Mike Mearls, and John Wick hashed out ideas. It’s where Mike Daisy, later infamous for his controversial The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs theatrical monolog, lead conversations in his “Critical Hit” board. And it was where Dave Thomas talked about his love of role playing games — or where an unnecessarily elaborate hoax tried to convince us he did.
This was all close to twenty years ago, so my memory’s a little fuzzy on dates and specifics. But here’s how I remember it: For some time, a user calling himself Dave Thomas was a semi-regular participant in the Gaming Outpost discussion boards. There wasn’t much remarkable about his posts, but it was clear he was an active tabletop gamer, like everyone at at GO.
Then another user asked if he was the Dave Thomas, the guy we’d all grown up with on TV, somewhat awkwardly pitching us on hamburgers, Frosties, and baked potatoes. Yes, Dave answered, I am. This was, of course, a remarkable claim. Proof was needed.
Here’s the thing: Dave delivered. He asked for the Gaming Outpost user’s mailing address. A couple of weeks later, this incredulous gamer received a care package containing signed Dave Thomas of Wendy’s photos. When Dave Thomas died, activity on the account stopped.
This could’ve been a hoax. Someone could’ve used a “Dave Thomas” account on the Gaming Outpost with the plan to one day play a prank when asked about his identity. He could’ve bought the signed photographs. That’s all possible.
But I don’t want it to be. I’d like to think that, in addition to everything my little website gave to the flourishing tabletop RPG scene today, it also provided Wendy’s Dave Thomas, in the last years of his life, with a break from hamburgers, and a place talk about the games he loved.
A short story of bad people, murder, mystery, and horror.
Hank stared through the windshield at the snow. His wipers shoved fat clumps. Where they didn’t reach, the slush piled two inches thick. Hank squinted and leaned forward over the steering wheel. The light from the bar’s sign barely came through.
He checked the clock. He didn’t know why. It didn’t matter what time it was. It did matter that he hadn’t driven far enough. Even with this storm, they could still be following him. If they were following him. He looked into the backseat at the duffel. Three-hundred grand. Not bad.
Hank popped the driver’s side door and climbed out. Cold cut through his jacket and snow stuck to his face. He brushed it away and opened the back, pulled out the duffel, and slung it over his shoulder. Fuck it. If he had to wait this thing out, at least he could do it with a roof over his head and a beer in his hands.
He trudged the thirty feet to the bar’s front door. Only one other car in the parking lot: a station wagon some distance away, obscured by snow. At the bar’s entrance, Hank stopped. Was there someone in that other car? He glanced back. Too much goddamn snow. But he didn’t think so. No, only shadows.
He had a gun in the duffel. He thought about taking it out, but didn’t. Jumpy. You’re just jumpy. Cut it out, get a beer to settle your nerves. This’ll blow over soon. Then you can get back on the road and drive. The safe house is only a few hours further. After that, you wait for the bigger storm — the shit storm you and your buddies just stirred up — to settle. This snow is nothing compared to that one.
Hank pushed open the bar’s door and stepped inside. Light and warmth and a jukebox playing the Talking Heads. He stood in the entrance, brushing snow from his hair and his jacket. He stomped his feet, knocking more snow from them. The small room held six tables. Along the far wall ran the bar proper, yards of polished oak and worn stools. A man in a turtleneck stood behind it, gaunt, with high cheekbones.
The man looked up, cocked his head, and chuckled. “Cold out there, innit?” he said, rubbing the bar with a rag.
Hank nodded, walking over. “Fucking cold as hell,” Hank said. He pulled out the stool nearest the bartender and sat down, putting the duffel on the next stool over, within easy reach.
“Amazed we still got power — ” the bartender said. “It gets like this, the lights are liable to go out. Stay that way, too, ’til the city gets someone out to fix ‘em.”
Hank shrugged. “Your cooler still working?”
“It is. What’ll you have?”
Hank ordered a Bud Light. This’d be the only one, though. The storm could quit any time and the last thing he wanted was to be swerving over the center line and get pulled over by some country cop.
“You just passing through?” the bartender asked after he’d set the bottle of beer in front of Hank.
“Anyone come by not just passing through?” Hank asked.
The bartender laughed again. “That’s the way of things, innit? Way out here, we never get more’n a handful of folks at any one time.”
“Sure,” Hank said.
“Where you headed after just passing through?”
“Logging job,” Hank said. His standard line. People told him he looked like a logger or a football player — and a logger was less prone to provoke interest.
“What’s that mean, ‘I’ll bet?’”
The bartender shrugged. “You just look the part.”
“Yeah?” Hank said. “Well, right now I want to look the part of drinking my beer without telling my fucking life story.”
The bartender smiled and nodded and walked to the far end of the bar where he picked up a rag and resumed polishing.
This was happening for a reason. She’d asked the Universe to provide. She’d put out positive thoughts. The Universe returned them with a snow storm and a busted engine.
Maggie adjusted the vent to blow warm air on her face. She leaned back into the seat. She put her hands behind her head, laced her fingers, and closed her eyes. Maggie imagined how this might be what she’d been waiting for. This snow storm, forcing her off the road. This bar, with its off-kilter sign. This unexpected — and actually kind of shitty — stop on what was supposed to be an easy trip to her sister’s cabin to stay a while, while her sister was out of town.
The Universe liked to play pranks, of course. She’d asked it for a man to sweep her off her feet and it’d given her William. He was good and kind and dependable, and so she’d asked the Universe to make him her husband and it’d provided that, too. William was dependable, if you depended on him to do whatever didn’t need to be done and neglect entirely whatever did.
Like the car. He’d promised to fix it, but half an hour ago she’d been cursing his name as black smoke leaked from under the trunk and the engine sputtered. She’d still been cursing when the snow hit.
But the Universe provides. It always does. This was all happening for a reason. Maggie just needed to figure out what that reason was and how she could best use it.
She got out of the car, shocked at the cold as the door popped and the wind hit. She walked around to the trunk, opened it, and glanced inside. Everything was where she’d put it. Nothing had come undone in the bumping and shaking from the road and the gusts. At least that wasn’t screwed up.
On the way across the parking lot, she passed an aging Ford pickup. She peered in the windows, clearing a hole in the snow with her hands. Nothing. Maggie had thought there was someone inside when she’d pulled up. Must’ve been shadows. She stood for a moment, watching the snow fill the spot she’d swept clean, telling herself to stay positive because the Universe rewarded positivity with positivity and compounded negativity a hundred fold.
It could be worse. There could be no bar, just mile after mile of empty road and snow coming down even heavier. She could’ve been stopped for speeding and then she’d have to deal with a ticket and everything else. The Universe gave her the bar at least. Maggie offered a quick thanks before stepping inside the building.
Warmth. She loved it. She stood, enjoying it for a moment, not even looking around. Then she noticed the two men watching her and smiled, waving. “Hey there,” she said, heading toward them.
The one behind the bar laughed. “Another?” he said.
Maggie said, “That’s me. I am another.”
The bartender said, “Storm’s good for business, innit?”
Maggie liked the other guy’s looks. Maybe forty. Forty-five. Tall. Burly, like a construction worker or a biker. Leather jacket like a biker too, and would you just look at the size of him? He had to have ten pounds on William, and without a bit of fat. The Universe was good, she thought. Very good indeed.
She took the stool to the left of him, seeing that the one on the right was occupied by a large duffel bag. She said, “I’m Maggie. What’s your name, honey?”
The guy turned. He looked at her. He said, “Hell of a storm.”
Maggie nodded. “Oh, it sure is. It most surely is. I’m so glad I found this place. I think the snow got stuck in my radiator, made the engine clog up, however those things work.” She sighed, trying to sound flirty. “Anyway, the car’s broke.” She put her hand on the burly man’s arm. He didn’t pull away. “Don’t suppose you know much about cars, do you honey?”
He shook his head. “Not a goddamn thing.”
The bartender said, “We got a phone, you want to call for a tow.”
Maggie pulled her attention from the biker and grinned at the bartender. “Oh, that’d be perfect, honey. There someone close by could fix it up?”
The bartender shrugged. “It’s gonna be a while,” he said, “in this weather.”
Maggie looked back at the biker. “I can wait,” she said. She still had her hand on his arm. She said, “You got a name, honey?”
The biker was quiet a moment. Then he said, “Hank.”
“Well, Hank, it’s a real pleasure to meet you.” Maggie held out her hand to shake.
Hank took it, tugged it up, then down, then let go. He said, “Pleasure.”
“You a local?” Maggie said.
Hank shook his head.
“He’s just passing through,” the bartender said.
Maggie said to Hank, “Fancy that. So am I.”
The bartender said, “I get you anything?”
“Can you do a cosmopolitan?” She smiled at Hank. “I’m going to be stuck here, I might as well splurge on something fancy, isn’t that right, honey?”
“Sure,” Hank said, staring straight across the bar at the row of bottles. “Might as well.”
While the bartender mixed her drink, Maggie asked Hank, “If you’re just passing through, where you passing through to?”
“A logging job,” Hank said.
“You’re a logger?”
“Yeah,” Hank said.
“That’s just a hoot.”
“Yeah?” Hank said.
“I was thinking to myself when I came in that that man’s in construction or maybe a biker. But now you mention it, you look exactly like a logger. Just like I always pictured them.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Hank said.
Emery licked his lips. He rubbed his eye with the back of his wrist. He scratched his arm — hard — and pulled at his fingernails. He grooved on the pain.
He’d killed them. Finally. He’d liked the feel of stabbing the woman. He’d loved the feel of bludgeoning the man.
Emery ran hot water over the wrench, watching blood and hair swirl in the sink and wash down the drain. The man’s blood and hair. He’d already cleaned the woman’s blood and bile and shit from the knife.
He couldn’t wait to do it again.
He checked the wrench. Clean. He picked up the knife and carried both over to the toilet, the tank open, the lid sitting on the closed seat. He lowered his tools carefully inside and put the lid back. He checked the toilet and the sink for blood — for evidence — and found none. Excellent job. Practice makes perfect.
Downstairs, the bar’s door opened and Emery heard wind before it slammed shut. He stood still, waiting. He heard the bartender say something, muffled, and then a man’s voice, deep. That voice sounded… No, he thought. Just a man. Just a new customer.
Emery stayed still. He listened to the new man and the bartender talk. He heard a stool scrape on wood. Emery scratched his arms and chewed his fingernails. He opened the toilet again, checking his tools. Still there. Still clean. A man has to respect his tools, Emery thought. Otherwise, they won’t respect him.
Emery made sure the toilet was back to the way it’d been. He gave the whole bathroom a once over. No mistakes. He was good at this.
He left the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Emery was curious to meet this new man, but he had something to do first. He walked down the short hallway to the room at the end, opened the door a few inches, and looked inside.
Moonlight came through the windows along the far wall. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to see the shape of the queen size bed, to see the jumble of sheets. The light reflected off blood, which dripped from linens and pooled on the floor. Emery let out his breath. Everything was just as he’d left it.
Softly, he pulled the door closed, feeling it latch. He hoped he’d never see them again. Somewhere, in the back of his head, in those parts of his mind he couldn’t control, a voice said, “Oh, but you will, my boy. You always do.”
Emery hissed, “Quiet.” He took a breath and added, calmer, “Leave me alone.”
He was walking back down the hall toward the bathroom, on his way to the stairs that lead to the bar, when he heard another new person come in. She said, “Hey there.” The bartender said something Emery couldn’t make out. The woman said, “That’s me. I am another.”
That voice… Again, no. A woman. Nothing more.
Emery made another stop in the bathroom. He looked in the mirror above the sink, spit in his hands, and slicked back his hair.
A new woman.
He took his jacket off the hook and shrugged into it. He adjusted his bow tie.
The stairs creaked. Hank turned on his stool. A kid, no more than twenty five, came down the steps. He wore a tweed jacket and sported a bow tie. He had his hair greased back like a 1950s nerd. The kid stopped at the bottom, looking across the room at Hank and Maggie.
Hank thought, what the hell’s wrong with this guy? The kid stared at them. He closed his eyes, opened them, stared long and hard again. He blinked, ran his hands across the top of his head and down to his neck. The kid looked like he might faint. It’s shock, Hank realized. Shock and surprise.
Maggie said, “Oh, there’s another one trapped here, too?” Then she said, “You okay, sugar?”
The kid licked his palm and rubbed his hands together. He hugged himself. Then he smiled and waved at them. “I apologize,” he said, crossing the empty bar. “The weather has me nervous and I admit to feeling a little sick besides.” He added, “Terribly glad to find I’m not the only one here, though.” He looked at the bartender. “Besides my buddy, of course.”
The bartender said, “You want anything to drink now?”
The kid shook his head. “No, I’m afraid my stomach couldn’t handle it.” He stared at Hank again. Then at Maggie, then back to Hank. What the hell was wrong with him? Hank thought again.
The kid took the open stool next to Maggie. He said to the bartender, “You wouldn’t by chance have some tea? That could go a long way towards making me feel better.”
The bartender grunted and nodded. The kid said, “Thank you so very much.” He turned to Maggie. He peered at her a moment, then at Hank. He said, “I’m Emery.”
Hank could see sweat beading on his forehead. Does this kid know me? Hank thought. He could be with the police. With the FBI, even. He looked young, but they start them young, and this kid looked so unimposing that he might just be undercover. But how could the feds figure out Hank would be here? Of all the places he might stop after nabbing the cash, there’s no way they could pin him down to this shack.
Unless they followed him. Hank said, leaning in front of Maggie, “Where you from, Emery?”
Emery looked at Hank. His face flashed worry. He blinked and swallowed. He said, “Out east. Just passing through. In all honesty, I’ve been hitchhiking, if you can believe it.” Emery licked his palm again, rubbed his hands together. The bartender brought his tea. Emery poured it carefully from the metal pot into the small cup. He lifted the string on the bag, pulled it out of the water and dropped it back in. He did this again. And again. Emery’s eyes kept flicking from the tea to Hank, from the tea to Maggie.
He knows us, Hank thought. He’s not a cop, he’s not FBI, but he knows us. And then he thought, Us? Maggie and I don’t know each other, so how can he know us?
Maggie felt bad for this kid. Maybe he’d come down with something like he said, but she bet it was more likely he was just wrong in the head.
And he kept staring at her.
She said, “Hitchhiking’s kind of risky, don’t you think, sugar? Lots of weirdoes out there.”
Emery nodded. “I’m careful,” he said. “Besides, ‘hitchhiking’ usually turns into a great deal of taking the bus. Not many people jump at the opportunity to pick up someone standing along the side of the road, if you can believe it. He could end up being a weirdo.” He flashed Maggie a nervous smile, then went back to his tea, but not before giving her a quick glance up and down.
Maggie always granted the Universe the benefit of the doubt. If it took the time to provide her with something, she’d err on the side of thinking it was for the best. But this guy, Emery, made her feel totally uncomfortable. She shifted away from him on her stool, closer to Hank.
She liked Hank. She imagined herself doing a whole lot more than just liking Hank and had to bring a hand up to her mouth to hide an embarrassed giggle. If Emery turned out weird in a bad way, she knew Hank would protect her. The Universe wouldn’t put her in an awful situation without providing a means to overcome it.
Over the next half hour, she tried to talk to Hank, but he stayed strong and silent, drinking his beer and keeping an eye on the duffel. Maggie told herself that even if it were drugs or something equally bad he had in there, she wouldn’t hold it against him. The Universe dealt everyone a different hand and you had to make the most of it. If Hank had drugs or guns, he had a reason.
She also tried talking to Emery, drawing out a bit more about the hitchhiking. But that creepy vibe came on even stronger. Maggie needed a break from it. So she said to the bartender, “You got a washroom, sugar?”
“Up the stairs, first door,” the bartender said.
Maggie excused herself.
It’s them, Emery thought. Jesus, it’s them. He played cool, the best he could. He drank his tea and made small talk and tried not to stare at the man and woman. But it was most certainly them. The same ones. All his life. Over and over and over. And every time — every goddamn, fuckingtime — he beat them or cut them or otherwise hurt them so bad that they died. And just as soon as he washed the blood off his tools — off himself — he’d find them again. Another couple. The same couple.
Except, as always, the man and the woman pretended it wasn’t them. They pretended not to recognize him. Emery acted like he didn’t know this, that he hadn’t figured out their game. But, inside, he was trembling, terrified.
The woman — “Maggie” she said her name was — pushed her drink away, stood up, and excused herself to use the bathroom. Emery turned on his stool, watching her go, apprehensive about his tools.
He stared at her back as she crossed the bar. He thought, angry and afraid, Why won’t you stay dead?
The kid, Emery, was twitching.
Hank watched him, revulsion making his skin crawl. Maggie got up to use the bathroom and the kid dunked his tea bag again, picked up the cup, hands shaking, slopping hot water over his fingers. He didn’t seem to notice. Hank watched the scalding liquid turn the kid’s skin pink.
Hank thought, Maybe it’s time to leave. Get back in the car, not worry about how bad the snow is, and just drive. Better than being trapped here with this jumpy, sweaty, creepy little shit.
Emery was staring at him again.
“Yeah?” Hank said.
Emery said, “Really bad weather, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” Hank said.
Emery broke eye contact. His fingers were streaked red with tea burns. He lifted his other hand, slicked back his hair. He said, “What’s in the bag?”
Hand didn’t say anything.
Emery set down his cup, stood, and walked around Hank, stopping behind the stool with Hank’s duffel. “Is it something special?”
Hank looked up at him.
“What I mean is,” Emery said, “you took the effort to bring it inside, out of the cold. You didn’t leave it in your automobile.” He glanced at Hank. “Is it something alive? Perhaps you didn’t want it to freeze?”
“It’s not alive,” Hank said.
“No, I expect not.” Emery lifted his burned hand to his chin, a contemplating gesture. “If it were alive, I’d expect it to be moving, at the very least. That is, if it’s an animal. It could be plants, I suppose. Is it plants?”
“Plants are alive,” Hank said. “This ain’t. You want to sit back down, drink your tea, and leave me and my bag alone?”
Emery turned his head, staring out the corner of his eyes at Hank. He said, “Sure, of course. I’m only making conversation. That’s what you do — what people do — when in these circumstances. They make conversation.”
Hank put his hand on the bag. He said, “I ain’t the sort for conversation.”
“Funny, that,” Emery said. “I feel a connection of a kind to you. Do you agree?”
“Fuck off,” Hank said. He glanced around for the bartender, who’d apparently wandered off.
“That’s not the sort of conversation I had in mind,” Emery said. He returned to his seat and dunked his tea again.
Hank thought he saw him use the cup to hide a dry heave.
Maggie stared at herself in the mirror. The Universe does provide, she thought. Her hair looked absolutely perfect. The snow hadn’t messed it up at all.
She pinched her cheeks, raising rosy spots. Hank would be fun, a perfect target for her feminine charms. “You’re a beautiful girl,” she said to her reflection, “and the Universe recognizes your beauty. It will bring you beautiful things.” Like that big man downstairs.
On the wall across from the door and to the right of the sink, a small window let in pale light. Maggie leaned toward it, looking through. Snow. Nothing but snow and the moon’s glow. Her breath fogged the glass. She rested her forehead on its cool surface. The Universe had provided her with so much bounty, bringing this new life she’d just embarked upon.
She breathed out, making the fog thicker. Maggie traced a heart.
The storm would fade, she’d get back in the car. She’d drive. Soon. Soon, Maggie’s past could be left entirely behind. Soon she’d become who she was always meant to be.
The Universe provides.
She turned away from the window. She flipped down the toilet seat , grabbed a handful of tissue, and wiped the surface. Maggie sat down and leaned back against the tank, its lid shifting behind her. She closed her eyes, put her hands on her knees, and tilted her head back. She imagined she could hear the snow falling. Great, fat flakes settling and crunching, burying who she’d been. With the Universe’s help, she’d emerge from this winter as fresh as the spring.
Maggie cleared her mind of everything but the silence of the snow.
Her meditation was deep. She didn’t know how long it had lasted before she heard someone out in the hall. She was standing up when a fist knocked on the door and Emery said through the thin wood, “Open up, you resourceful little whore.”
Emery’s mouth had gone dry. He dropped his teabag into the empty cup and looked over at Hank. At the man who was calling himself Hank but who Emery knew wasn’t Hank at all. Wasn’t even human.
That bag. Emery glanced at it, hanging over the edge of the stool. Why did he bring that?
Emery licked his palm and slicked back his hair. Hank ignored him.
Emery had to get out of here. He had to think.
He stood up. Hank didn’t move.
Emery looked around for the bartender, but didn’t see him. Emery headed upstairs, walking quietly up the steps, not wanting to disturb the other one. Not wanting to scare her. Not yet.
Past the bathroom, its door closed, down the hall, and to the room where he’d laid the bodies to rest. Emery twisted the knob and stepped inside.
They were gone. He ran to the bed, threw away the covers, tore off the sheets. Blood soaked the fabric. But they were gone.
Emery bit down on his lower lip, willing himself not to scream. He rubbed his palms against the sides of his head, pulling painfully at his hair. Sweat popped. Chills ran along his back.
He fell to his knees, holding his face, worrying his lip with his teeth. Tasting blood.
He’d killed them. Was he going mad? He’d killed them and put them here and the evidence was right there in front of him. He kicked out at the sheets. All that blood. But was he imagining that, too? Was it really there? Or, like the bodies, was it gone as well, and now only an afterimage in his frayed mind?
Emery spun, staring out the open door into the hall. Or had they lived? They had. He hadn’t actually killed them.
And they were mocking him now.
But no. He’d checked them. They’d been dead. The man’s head he’d cut almost all the way off. He’d used the pliers on the woman’s windpipe. They had to be dead.
But then where were the bodies?
Emery stopped. He dropped his hands from his face. He let go of his lip.
They’d taken them. They’d come in from out there and, when he wasn’t looking, they’d come up here, into this room, and stolen themselves.
And now Emery would make them show him how they’d done it.
Hank turned. The kid came slowly down the stairs and crossed the room to the bar. When he was only a few feet away, Emery stopped and stared at Hank.
The kid’s eyes were different now. Harder.
Hank stood up, facing Emery. Hank could see sweat bead on the kid’s face.
Emery smiled. A huge, false smile. Emery said, “How ever did you do it?”
Hank took a step back, putting his hand on the duffel, ready to go for the gun he’d stashed inside. He saw blood on Emery’s knees.
Emery moved toward him, saying, “You two have it figured out. You must. How else to explain it?” He laughed. “How else, indeed?”
Hank said, “The fuck’s wrong with you?”
Emery cocked his head. “I’d expect more civility from you.”
Hank grabbed the bag’s handle.
Emery said, “Really, Hank, we have a relationship. We shouldn’t use such language.”
Hank yanked the bag up, pulling at the zipper, ripping it open, reaching for the gun. Emery’s hand came away from his side, holding a knife. He slashed at Hank, but the bag was in the way. The knife tore through the bottom of the duffel. The bag split. Stacks of cash tumbled.
Hank pulled the gun free, a heavy Browning automatic, its barrel tight in Hank’s palm, held upside down like a club. He dropped the bag, raised the pistol, and lunged forward, over the bills, swinging the weapon at Emery’s head.
But the kid ducked away. The knife darted at Hank, slicing the arm with the gun, then slicing the wrist with the gun.
Hank’s fingers let go. The Browning dropped. Hank balled a fist with his other hand and swung at Emery. Again, the kid moved too fast. The knife came up, raking Hank’s knuckles. Emery stepped into the space between Hank’s arms.
He stabbed Hank in the gut.
Maggie said, “Pardon me?”
Through the door, Emery said, “Oh, Maggie, I’m sure you heard what I said. Now please just do it.”
Maggie felt panic. She said, “Emery, sugar, are you alright?”
He hit the door with something heavy. She saw it shake. A moment’s pause and then, “Maggie, please. I need to speak with you. It’s a matter of some urgency.”
Maggie said, “I don’t think so, sugar. You wanna talk, just do it through the door, okay?”
“Oh, Maggie…” Emery said and then the door cracked and splinters flew. Maggie flinched away, falling from off the toilet, and landed on the floor. Her ears rang. A gunshot.
Emery had a gun.
She stared at the hole in the door, at the wood chips and dust. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, I’ll come out. You hurt me, sugar. Give me a moment to get up, okay?”
“Okay, Maggie,” he said from the hall.
Maggie grabbed the sink, pulling herself to her feet. He leg throbbed. Where was Hank? He must have heard the shot.
Her eyes came level with the toilet tank. She saw its heavy porcelain lid, slightly ajar.
The Universe provides.
Maggie reached. She lifted the lid from the tank.
She approached the door, holding the club, ready to swing. She said, “Okay, sugar, I’m coming out.”
“Thank you, Maggie,” Emery said.
Maggie pushed her toe under the bottom of the door and dragged it open a few inches. Hefting the toilet lid made her muscles ache. She said, “You put away that gun, okay?”
Maggie hooked her knee into the opening and flipped the door open the rest of the way. She charged forward, bringing the lid down.
Emery watched her, the gun at his side. He saw the blow coming and twisted. The lid missed his head and slammed into his shoulder. The gun flew. Emery screamed. Maggie lifted the lid again, brought it down, but Emery avoided it easily.
With his good arm, he yanked the lid from Maggie. It hit the floor and tumbled down the steps. Emery said, “You hurt me, Maggie.”
Maggie tried to run past him, toward the stairs. He grabbed her around the waist, pulling her against him. Maggie said, “Please don’t kill me.”
Emery threw her off the landing. Maggie snatched for the railing but couldn’t find it. Her arm hit a step. She felt bone break. Her head hit a step. Pain rang.
She tried to stay conscious, but couldn’t manage it.
Emery walked downstairs, rubbing his shoulder. Maggie had always tried to hurt him. Now she had. He looked at her, crumpled at the foot of the steps. She’d live — long enough. He glanced across the room at Hank, still slumped by his stool.
Emery would have answers.
He went back upstairs to get his tools.
Hank heaved. And immediately felt like he’d die. He opened his eyes and looked at his stomach. Blood. Too much blood.
Wire bound his wrists behind his back. He tried to stand up, pushing away from the stool, but the pain in his abdomen made him fall back, biting his lip, drawing more blood.
He looked around. Maggie lay on the ground next to him, hands similarly bound. Blood caked her scalp and face. He watched her breathe.
“Hi, Hank,” Emery said. The kid was behind the bar. Hank couldn’t see him.
“You really fucked up, you little shit,” Hank said.
“We all really fucked up,” Emery said. Hank heard him hop onto the top of the bar and then saw him jump down, landing a few feet away.
“Wake her up,” Emery said, pointing at Maggie.
Hank shook his head. Emery shrugged. He walked over and kicked Maggie in the thigh. “Wake up, Maggie,” he said.
Maggie stirred. She moaned. She opened her eyes to just slits — and then wide. Maggie jerked, coming to her knees, but Emery forced her back down with his foot. “Be still,” he said. Maggie closed her eyes.
Emery took something from the top of the bar. Hank’s gun, Hank saw. The one he’d had in his bag.
“We’re all going upstairs,” Emery said. “To my room. We’re going to have a discussion.”
He pistol whipped Hank in the jaw.
Moonlight on bloody sheets.
Maggie gasped. She couldn’t breathe. Pain spiked her brain.
She peered again through blood gummed eyes. But for the light from the window, the room was dark, the overhead lamp turned off. Hank sat next to her, his hands behind his back, his chin on his chest, unconscious. His shirt and pants looked black. More blood.
Maggie rolled onto her side. Her hands were also bound, wire cutting her wrists.
They both sat on the floor in the middle of the room. Gore-caked sheets piled high between them and a hotel bed. More blood streaked the hardwood. It couldn’t all be Hank’s, could it? It couldn’t all be Hank’s — and hers?
“Familiar, isn’t it?” Emery said. Maggie quickly glanced in the direction of his voice, but didn’t see him. Then Emery stepped forward, out of the gloom of the hallway and into the faint glow from the window above the bed.
Emery held a knife. And pliers.
Maggie squirmed away from him, sitting up and kicking back. She pushed through the sheets until she hit the bed. Emery watched her. Maggie got her legs under herself and stood up.
Emery shook his head. “You’re only going to wear yourself out,” he said, “and you’ve got quite an ordeal ahead of you.”
Hank moaned. Emery said, “Hank wakes.” He squatted on the floor in front of the bound man. “Can you hear me, Hank?” Emery tapped Hank’s jaw with the knife. Hank flinched, but didn’t open his eyes. “We have much to talk about and I need you fully alert.”
Maggie looked past Emery and Hank and at the open door. Emery said, “Maggie, don’t. I will cut you. Quite badly, if that’s what it takes to keep you here and an active participant.”
Maggie said, “What do you want?”
Emery slapped Hank. Hank reeled, coming awake. Emery said, “Hank, are you listening? Maggie asked me to explain myself. A fair request, considering the circumstances. But I’d like to be certain you hear me too, as I’d rather not repeat myself.”
Hank said, “Fuck you.”
“I’ll choose to take that as both a response to my query and an ill-considered outburst.” Emery stood, put the pliers in his pocket, licked his now empty palm, and slicked back his hair. He stared out the window. “I swear,” he said, “that we’ve done this before. Every time I do this, I swear it’s not he first time.” He looked back at Maggie. “Or am I quite nuts?”
Maggie said, “I’m sure — ”
“Really, Maggie, please.” He gestured at her with the knife. “What I brought us together for is to ask the two of you — nicely if you’ll let me, not so nicely if you make me — what you did with the dead people who used to be in this room.”
Maggie gaped. Hank moaned.
Emery said, “I’ll clarify. I killed two people earlier today.” He pulled the pliers out of his pants. “With these, as a matter of fact. I made quite sure they were dead.” He held the pliers out toward Maggie, level with her neck, clamped them shut just inches from her, and mimed twisting against resistance. Maggie tried to take a step back but the bed stopped her.
“After killing them, I put them there, in that bed.” He pointed. “Wrapped them in those sheets.” Pointing again. “And yet, as you can clearly see, they are not wrapped in those sheets and they are not in that bed. In fact — and this has been the story of my life, really — they are right here, quite alive. Hank there and Maggie right there.” He looked at Maggie. “Care to explain?”
Maggie said, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Oh, I’m aware,” Emery said.
Hank looked up. “I’m going to kill you.”
“I hope not,” Emery said. He stopped, considered, then laughed. “Though I do suppose it’d be fair. Tit for tat. Seeing as I already killed you.”
“What are you talking about?” Maggie said. “We’re alive, sugar.”
She doesn’t understand, Emery thought. She didn’t the last time, either. Or the time before that. She never had. All his life he’d been killing these fucking people and every goddamn time they didn’t understand why.
His head suddenly ached. His vision blurred. He licked his palm. Slicked his hair. He regained his composure.
Emery smiled at Maggie. “We really must stop this,” he said.
Maggie sat down on the bed. She didn’t seem to notice — or care about — the blood. Emery saw her wince at the pressure on her bound wrists. Maggie said, “I’m sure we can work this out, sugar. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, you can tell us. We’ll help.” She paused. “We’ll get you help.”
Emery laughed and step toward her, raising the knife. “I’m almost certain I need help of the very kind you’re implying, Maggie. But there are things that need to be taken care of first.” He put the point of the knife under her chin and lifter her head until she looked directly at him. “I want to end it this time, Maggie.” He tilted his head. “You hear that, Hank? I want this to be the last time.”
Emery slashed the knife across the soft skin under Maggie’s jaw. She screamed.
His stomach hurt like hell and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t live. Not with wounds like this. Not without getting to a hospital.
Hank tried to focus. He watched as Emery approached Maggie, raising the knife. Hank couldn’t make out what the sick fuck was saying, though. Blood pounded in his ears.
But when he saw Emery cut Maggie, Hank decided he didn’t care if he was dying. He didn’t care about the money, or the people he was meant to split it with, or the cops and FBI who were coming after him. All he cared about was pounding this little shit, no matter what the kid’s deal was.
Hank shoved off the ground, launching himself at Emery. Emery held the knife high, watching Maggie bleed and fall back onto the bed. Hank hit him solid, his shoulder connecting with Emery’s kidney, driving the kid away from Maggie.
Hank heard Emery start to shout, but then the air rushed from the kid’s lungs as the two men slammed into the floor, Emery’s head cracking off the wood. The knife Emery still held punctured Hank’s jeans and sunk deep into his thigh. The pain made Hank bite down on his tongue — almost through his tongue — but he ignored it.
Hank, laying on top of Emery, lifted his head and slammed his forehead into Emery’s nose.
More blood. So much blood. This time Emery screamed.
Again, the Universe provided.
He’d cut her and it hurt so bad Maggie had to force herself not to pass out. She could feel the blood washing down her chest, soaking her shirt. Her jaw burned.
Maggie swayed on the bed, telling herself if she died here, that was okay, because at least she’d done what she’d planned to do. At least she’d accomplished that.
But then, as always, the Universe provided.
Hank — she couldn’t imagine how he had any strength left in him, not with those wounds — jumped up and into Emery, knocking both of them down. And then Hank head-butted Emery in the face and Emery’s nose exploded. The Universe would not have put her in this situation without a way out, and here it was. This fine and wonderful man had saved her.
Maggie stood, unsure on her feet, and stepped over the two men, still struggling on the floor. Neither seemed to notice her. She walked around the bloody sheets, swaying, and then out into the hall. Where was the bartender? Hadn’t he heard any of this? Had Emery killed him?
She stopped at the top of the steps, looking down. She could make it. She wouldn’t fall. Except that she couldn’t hold the railing, not with her hands still wired behind her back.
Maggie sat down and began inching forward, lowering her feet onto a step, then scooting until her butt fell, then doing it again. Like a child descending. Each thump made her want to scream, pain lancing through her chin and up to the top of her head, and the wire cut deeper into her wrists.
Slow, she thought. Do it slow.
Behind her, she heard shouting and stomping feet. She heard Emery say, “Fuck, that really does hurt,” and Hank say something, she didn’t know what, his voice oddly thick and mumbling. Then she heard the two of them come out into the hall and she looked back and saw them, Emery dragging Hank by the hair, Hank trying to get up. But his boots couldn’t find purchase on the wood floor, the heels slipping in the streaks of blood from Maggie’s jaw.
She started down again, faster, not ignoring the pain, but trying to imagine it elsewhere, happening to someone else. Maggie called out to the Universe.
“Where are you going, Maggie?” Emery said behind her. She felt his hand come down on her shoulder, grabbing hold of the fabric, pulling her back from the stairs.
No. She wouldn’t let him win. Not after everything she’d been through. Not after this fresh start she’d given herself.
Maggie jumped, jerking from Emery’s grip and rolling, tumbling, falling down the steps. A stair struck her elbow and she shrieked as bone cracked. Another clipped the side of her head, catching her ear and tearing it partially away. Maggie bounced and plunged.
She lay at the bottom of the steps, on her back, her arms pinned underneath her. Blood from her chin and ear covered her face, gummed her eyes. She coughed and sobbed. She felt the wire on her wrists, looser now, sliding off.
Then something else fell down the steps, something heavy and awkward. She could see only the vague shape as it flipped and rolled, banging into step after step after step.
It thudded beside her and lay still. Maggie turned her head, the pain awful, and looked at it.
Hank. His neck twisted, bent. Broken.
“One down,” Emery said. “One to go.”
Emery watched the bitch try to run. Beneath him, at the bottom of the steps, Maggie pushed herself away from Hank and struggled to her feet. She stumbled, nearly fell, but stayed up and limped toward the door.
“Oh, Maggie,” Emery called down to her. He dropped the knife, letting it bounce away down the steps until it hit the floor next to Hank’s head. “Oh, Maggie,” he said again when she didn’t look back.
This had gotten so fun, he admitted. Yes, it’d be good to have the cycle of killing over with, to return to his regular life, before things got so fucked up and out of hand. Before he ended up here. But he had come to enjoy the work.
He took a step down, again pulling out the pliers. With Hank, he’d needed to make a quick kill. With Maggie, he wanted to take his time.
Maggie got the door open and was immediately knocked back by the rush of wind and snow from outside. Emery laughed. But Maggie fought and managed to make it through, out into the parking lot. She pulled the door closed behind her.
Emery hopped the rest of the way down, leapt over Hank, and followed. The cold, as the door swung open, tore at his face. Blowing ice stung his shattered nose. He didn’t mind. He liked it. The pain helped him focus.
Maggie was little more than a rough outline in the moonlight and swirling snow — and she faded quickly the further away she got. She’s headed to her car, he thought. “You won’t get far, Maggie,” he whispered into the blizzard. “You’ll never leave this place, my dear.”
He chased after her. The snow covered the ground, almost six inches thick. Emery’s loafers failed to keep it out and his feet were quickly very wet and very cold. “Maggie!” he shouted. “Where are you going, Maggie?”
He jogged. Her shape reemerged, standing behind a station wagon. Maggie dug in her pockets and, as he came within a few yards, she pulled out keys, jammed them into the trunk’s lock, and popped it open.
She glanced back, saw him. “Get away from me!” she screamed.
Emery laughed again. “I could say the same to you, Maggie,” he said, not shouting, but loud enough for her to hear. She reached into the trunk. Emery took three steps toward her, then lunged.
He wasn’t fast enough. Maggie lifted the gun and brought it around. Light from the moon and the bulb inside the trunk reflected off polished steel. As he fell toward her, Emery saw simple calm on her face. He saw blood and hair caked on the butt of the gun.
Maggie fired once, the pistol jumping. The shot took Emery high in the chest and to the right, spinning him in the air. He tumbled into the rear of the car and collapsed against it, his upper body in the open trunk.
Emery smelled something. He knew the bullet had inflicted terrible damage. His ears rang. His arms were numb. He smelled something in the trunk.
Emery strained to lift his head — to see. Beneath him, under a tarp that’d been pushed away, eyes stared up at Emery from a bloated face. Middle age, fat, balding. The dead man smiled a rigor grin.
Maggie dropped the gun. Her broken left arm hung at her side. Blood covered her neck and shirt. Her torn ear had gone numb. She stared at Emery as he bled into the snow.
He shuddered. His breathing slowed. Stopped. He sagged over the open trunk. Maggie grabbed his hair and pulled him away, letting him fall into the crimson snow.
Her knees gave out and she collapsed beside him.
No. She wouldn’t let herself be weak. Not after the Universe gave her the tools to win. And she had won. First over William and her old life, and now over Emery.
Maggie put her hand on the bumper and pulled herself up. She reached to close the trunk, but paused, looking down at William. He’d been a good husband once, but only for the briefest time, and then he’d turned dull. Maggie needed excitement. The Universe wanted her to have excitement. But it told her that such pleasure wasn’t given. She need to take it. So she had — and it was wonderful.
“Thank you,” she said to the thick clouds above. Glancing up messed with her balance. Maggie took a step back to steady herself and nearly tripped over Emery. The Universe had nothing for him.
She slammed the trunk shut on William, then turned and began walking to the bar.
The storm seemed stronger. Maggie felt near death from cold by the time she got to the front door. She pushed it open.
The bar was empty. She looked to her right and saw Hank’s body at the bottom of the stairs. Maggie called out, “Hello? Bartender?”
Nothing. She walked around the side of the bar and along the back until she found a door to the employees-only portion of the place. But when she opened it, she found only a small room, ten feet square, the walls, ceiling, and floor painted a uniform white.
Maggie walked back across the main room, around Hank’s corpse, taking the knife that lay next to him, and up the stairs. Her hip throbbed. Her arm ached. She’d wash up, make a sling for her arm, and get out of here. She wouldn’t wait for the storm to stop.
Every room except the bathroom and Emery’s room was locked. Maggie inhaled, readied herself, and stepped into that awful space where she’d been tortured and nearly killed.
Still no sign of the bartender. He must’ve fled, she thought. When things turned violent, he took off. But where?
Maggie used the knife to cut a clean strip from the sheets. She carefully wrapped her arm and then, with considerable difficulty, tied the ends of the sling behind her neck.
She left the room and went down the hall toward the bath. She stopped before entering. She glanced down the steps.
What the fuck?
Hank was gone. Blood covered the wood where he’d lay, but his body wasn’t there.
Maggie shouted, “Hank!” Her call echoed. She ran down the stairs. “Hello!” No Hank. No bartender.
I have to get out of here, she thought. Now.
Maggie ran out into the snow.
Wind whipped at her, nearly knocking her down. Maggie leaned into it, willing her muscles to push, willing her legs to get her the hell away from this place.
Snow nicked her face, stung her eyes. She sent her thoughts out to the Universe, begging it to provide one more time. To offer her a way out — or to giver he the means to find one.
She passed the Ford pickup in the lot and saw her own car loom out of the blowing snow. It could drive in this. It could at least make it to the road, far enough away to then wait out the storm.
Maggie reached numb fingers into her pocket for the keys. And found nothing. She checked again, digging, feeling only the fabric of her jeans. She tried the other one.
She’d lost them. They must have fallen in the snow when Emery attacked her. She ran the rest of the way to the car and look down at the snow behind the back. Blood. Shoe prints. No keys.
Maggie spun around. He was dead. She’d watched him die.
Maggie fell to her hands and knees. She rooted around in the snow, desperately searching for the keys.
She stopped, glancing back over her shoulder. What was that? She strained to hear.
Maggie stood up and peered hard into the blowing snow. She could see them. Figures in the storm.
“Who are you?” she screamed at them, but the figures didn’t respond. Maggie turned and saw more of them, obscured by the storm, indistinct. But there, right there. And whispering.
Maggie forgot about the keys and the cold and Hank and Emery. She forgot about the bartender and her own wounds. Maggie ran, away from the bar. Away from her station wagon.
She passed more of the figures, dozens of them, then hundreds. They didn’t move, only watched her as she fled by. Eventually the paved parking lot disappeared from under her feet and she was running on snow-covered grass. The terrain was flat. No bushes, no trees, no hills.
Maggie ran. The cold was so awful. Soon, she didn’t feel it anymore. She didn’t feel anything anymore. Maggie fell. Her head bounced off a rock. She rolled over onto her back. The figures — just shapes, without features, without faces — stood over her.
They watched her close her eyes. They watched her until she lay still.
Maggie knew this all was happening for a reason. The snow, the storm, having to get off the road. She leaned forward and peered through the windshield at the lights of the bar.
She’d wait here until it blew over. She’d finish the drive to her sister’s cabin and bury William out in the woods. Then she’d begin her new life.
The Universe provides.
Maggie gathered her things, climbed out, and walked around to the trunk to check on William. He was still there, right where she’d left him, appearing, if anything, more alive than he ever had when actually living. At least now his face had an expression.
She slammed the trunk, then looked down. Was her car leaking oil? Maggie crouched. No, not oil. She reached out and touched the dark spot in the snow, and lifted her finger to her face. Blood? She shook her head. Some hunter had let his kill leak, she thought. It was disgusting.
Maggie trudged across the parking lot, noting the Ford pickup that appeared to be the only other car here.
She pushed open the bar’s front door, delighting in the warmth from inside as it washed over her.
On the far side of the large room, two men sat at the bar. They turned to look at her as she came in. The one on the right was large, in a leather jacket, with a duffel on the stool next to him. Maggie like him. He was so not like William at all.
The one on the left was just a kid, in his mid-twenties at most, wearing a tweed jacket, with slicked-back black hair. The kid nodded at her and lifted a teacup to his lips.
“Boy it’s cold,” Maggie said, walking over to them. When she’d gone half way, she heard someone coming down the stairs. She turned to look. He was a tall, gaunt man in a black turtleneck. He carried a garbage bag, stuffed full.
“Oh, hey,” he said, waving with his free hand. “I’ll be with you in a second. Just gotta finish changing the sheets.”
Decentralization will bring about a radically freer and more dynamic world, and without waiting for the blessing of government.
Decentralized, DIY Beginnings
I got my start when I was 14, dialing into local BBSes to play text games, post to FidoNet, and download warez. This would’ve been 1993. For those of you born about that time, these just someone’s personal computer, running software like Tag or Renegade, and plugged into a phone line via a modem. They’d sit waiting for guys like me to dial in when our parents were out of the house or asleep, because a parent picking up the phone would sever the connection.
More centralized, “professional” online services existed, which is why everything anyone ever bought at that time included an AOL CD. But, to be honest, they offered little of interest over the BBS scene, with its uncensored message boards, pirated softwares downloads, and low res pornographic images.
I grew up, then, with a decentralized network. Even as the early web became more widespread, this decentralization persisted. Websites were personal. If you wanted one, you either bought space on a server and uploaded HTML and Perl scripts. Or you went to Geocities, and that place was basically the Wild West.
Centralization vs. Political Liberty
Centralization displaced this delightful chaos in stages. Even as AOL was dying, ICQ came along, and we moved our communication from distributed email servers to a single service. Blogs got eaten up by Blogger. Then came the social networks, and before we knew it, only businesses and the hardcore ran their own websites or hosted their own communications tech. Everyone else — which amounted to very nearly everyone — moved to AIM, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever else the kids are into these days.
Of course, centralization brings benefits. The services do more, are more reliable, and the barrier to entry way lower. But they also hold us at their mercy. Innovation slows because you have to wait for them to decide something’s a good idea, and a profitable one, too. Your data belongs to them, which means they can do what they want with it, but also they can give it, or be compelled to give it, to people we’d rather not have it, like agents of government who’d like to be sure we’re not up to subversive activities.
From the perspective of an advocate for radical political liberty, this is troubling, to say the least. For the same reasons it’s bad to turn over increasing power to the state, and to shift more and more of our economy from free market dynamism to nationalized services, it’s bad to do the same to Facebook et al, though in less acute ways. The digital world increasingly simply is the world. We exist within it, communicate through it, engage each other in exchange for goods and services via it, define ourselves and create and grow through use of its tools. If Hayek was right about the problems of centralization in government, we ought to at the least be somewhat concerned about problems of centralization in tech, and for the same reasons.
This is not to ignore a difference between Facebook and the state. The state, as Max Weber noted, gets to use coercive physical force, and claims a monopoly on legitimately doing so. Facebook can make it hard for you to delete your account, but it can’t hold a gun to your head and pull the trigger if you persist. That’s a big deal. Those on the political left too easily believe corporations are as powerful as governments, and so to treat them as just as much of a threat — or as threats that can only be reined in by giving government (i.e., the guys with the actual guns) even more power. At the same time, however, if the state gets its way and these centralized services become every more heavily regulated, ever more burdened with requirements of cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, or even nationalized outright, the lines will blur or disappear entirely. The digital world enables many amazing things but, particularly when as centralized as it is today, it also enables many awful things because it makes so much of what we do scrutable and legible to those who want more and more control over our lives.
Reclaiming Our Freedom
That’s why I’m so excited about all these emerging techs that point the way to a return to a decentralized internet. We’re fast approaching a point where the benefits of the centralized services aren’t as unique to their particular architecture as they once were, and where decentralization can bring us more security and more innovation, with fewer trade-offs.
Senator Al Franken recently gave a speech calling for more direct government regulation of social media. These companies are too big to be left to their own devices, he said.
“Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers it is incumbent on us to ask the broader questions: How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives?” Franken asked in a speech to a Washington think tank. A handful of companies decide what Americans “see, read, and buy,” dominating access to information and facilitating the spread of disinformation, he added.
That’s why decentralization, blockchains, and strong encryption are so exciting. Yes, they will enable new avenues of economic growth and new ways for people to earn a living. Yes, they will enable us to experiment more and innovate faster. But this emerging tech will also allow us to more easily and safely ignore people like Al Franken, and get on with the business of communicating, exploring, learning, buying, selling, organizing, and self-defining, free from the possibility of officious or authoritarian interference.
Bitcoin gives us money without the state, and sidechains and level 2 tech will help us make that money more efficient and more private. Filecoin and IPFS will enable us to keep our data private, secure, and inaccessible to regimes who want to see what we’re up to and want to punish us if we don’t toe their line. The Orchid Protocol promises to hide all of this activity behind a distributed VPN, making it not only invisible to snooping eyes, but also unblockable unless a state takes the drastic step of turning off the Internet entirely. We’ll soon have distributed organizations that can self-govern and pay contributors, without the need to let the state in on any of it. We’ll be able to ditch centrally run social media networks, replace them with encrypted peer-to-peer services, and not have to worry about whether the feds can force Facebook and Twitter to turn over our data.
The result will be a freer, more dynamic, wealthier, and safer world.
Technology and Our Libertarian Future
It will also be a world truer to the principles I’ve built my Cato Institute career championing, and which provide the mission for Libertarianism.org. Our statement of principles on the site reads,
Liberty. It’s a simple idea and the linchpin of a complex system of values and practices: justice, prosperity, responsibility, toleration, cooperation, and peace. Many people believe that liberty is the core political value of modern civilization itself, the one that gives substance and form to all the other values of social life. They’re called libertarians.
Permissionless innovation matters, not just because it’s what gave us Uber, but because it’s what will give us our freedom from unnecessarily large and unjustifiably intrusive governments. Unbreachable privacy matters, not just because it means we can talk to each other without fear of embarrassment, but because it will let us think thoughts and exchange ideas that will become the foundation of a radically better world, without the crippling worry that governments opposed to that world will hunt us down and punish us to silence our voices.
This is not to say technology is always good, always a force for freedom. It’s clearly not, and we can go wrong with it in countless ways. But the technologies of encryption and decentralization and private exchange of ideas and resources put a heavy thumb on the right side of the scale. We need to work to ensure that the people developing and deploying those technologies do so consciously, with virtue, and a healthy respect for human dignity and rights. That’s why I’ll keep doing the moral and political philosophy work I do at Libertarianism.org. But I have faith in the technology community, and I’m more hopeful about humanity’s future than I’ve been in a long, long time.
A guide to the books and essays containing the most powerful arguments against libertarianism.
It’s not enough to be familiar with the major libertarian thinkers and their arguments. A well-informed advocate of liberty must also understand and appreciate the positions of those thinkers who disagree with libertarianism. The works on this list offer a comprehensive introduction to many of the most intriguing, enduring, and forceful attacks on libertarianism — as well as positive arguments for visions incompatible with the philosophy of liberty.
A first step
Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction by Will Kymlicka
Kymlicka’s book tops this list for two reasons. First, it contains an excellent — and highly critical — chapter on libertarianism, one that clearly presents several strong critiques of libertarian philosophy, particularly that of Robert Nozick. Second, it offers equally excellent overviews of the other major schools of modern political thought — utilitarianism, liberal egalitarianism, Marxism, communitarianism, citizenship theory, multiculturalism, and feminism. Each of these schools has something to offer the curious libertarian seeking a better and more nuanced view of political philosophy.
A Theory of Justice by John Rawls
Rawls’s monumental A Theory of Justice is very likely the most important work of political philosophy in the last hundred years. It’s often said that all political philosophy published after A Theory of Justice came out in 1971 is, in one way or another, a reaction to it. The theory Rawls lays out isn’t a direct attack on libertarianism — some have even argued it can be interpreted as a powerful foundation for a libertarian society. But it forms much of the background for all contemporary debate, especially within the liberal tradition, making it crucial that any student of libertarian thought understand Rawls.
Liberalism and the Limits of Justice by Michael J. Sandel
Sandel represents one version of the rich school of political philosophy known as communitarianism. At its core, communitarianism is a reaction against philosophical liberalism’s focus on the individual. Communitarians believe that individuals can only be understood as members of a community, and that the community should be a — if not the — focus of political theory. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice takes this so far as to claim that, if the community is given enough weight within a society, there will be no need for considerations of justice. Justice is only needed, Sandel thinks, as a remedy when people are not sufficiently concerned with love and shared goals.
Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality by G. A. Cohen
This is Cohen’s classic response to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Cohen, a Marxist, agrees with Nozick — and other libertarians — that self-ownership and private property lead to libertarianism. His response is not to abandon Marxism, but to abandon self-ownership and private property. He argues that neither, at least in the strong form Nozick endorses, can be defended. In the area of private ownership of land, for example, Cohen argues that land does not begin in the “unowned” state John Locke and Robert Nozick assume but, rather, that all land is at all times owned by all people. Many outside of libertarianism have found Cohen’s critique perfectly fatal to Nozick’s project. Libertarians, of course, would no longer be libertarians if they agreed.
The Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt
Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political comes from a perspective so far removed from a libertarian’s view of politics — and even what it means to be human — that it can be a profoundly difficult book to wrestle with. For Schmitt, politics defines humanity. This means that the liberal ideal of reducing or doing away with the sphere of politics means reducing or doing away with humanity itself. Even more troubling, politics only exists because of friend-enemy distinctions. A people genuinely without enemies is a people without politics — and so not really a people at all. The liberal project of toleration and scaling back the power of the state is thus doomed, Schmitt thinks, because it is impossible to abandon our nature, meaning we cannot abandon politics — or enemies. Perhaps even more distressing than the details of Schmitt’s argument is the deep and continuing influence it has had on much modern political thought, particularly that of the neoconservatives and the more radical, collectivist strains of the Left.
Anti-libertarianism: Markets, Philosophy, and Myth by Alan Haworth
If libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds freedom of central importance, then libertarians, Alan Haworth argues, are actually anti-libertarian. In this short book, he sets out to expose the shaky foundations of what Haworth sees as the three principles of libertarianism: the belief in moral good of free markets, the moral evil of the state, and the supreme importance of freedom. Anti-libertarianism is written clearly and passionately, and many of Haworth’s arguments will force libertarians to more closely examine their own beliefs and the reasons they have for holding them. For that reason alone, this book is valuable, even if it ultimately fails in wiping libertarianism from the field.
“What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty” by Charles Taylor
A focus of many critiques of libertarianism, especially from the left, is the idea that libertarians advocate a hyper-individualist, dog-eat-dog morality. Charles Taylor, one of our most important contemporary philosophers, develops this argument by way of attacking “negative liberty.” Negative liberty is the idea, held by most libertarians, that freedom can only be conceived as freedom from something external to the individual. The state’s only legitimate role is to protect us from violations of our negative liberty by others. Taylor argues that this isn’t good enough. “Freedom cannot just be the absence of external obstacles, for there may also be internal ones. Nor may the internal obstacles be confined to those the subject identifies as such, for he may be profoundly mistaken about his purposes and about what he wants to repudiate. And if so, he is less capable of freedom in the meaningful sense of the word.” Even if libertarians are inclined to accept some of Taylor’s argument, they draw a bright line between voluntary, non-coercive efforts to help others achieve freedom in this “meaningful sense,” and state-based, coercive efforts to force us to be free. The imperfect exercise of freedom (in Taylor’s sense of the term) may be the price we pay to avoid tyranny.
“Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries” by Russell Kirk
Twentieth century conservative icon Russell Kirk really didn’t like libertarians — and he set out his reasons why in this essay. The piece is valuable not so much as a compelling critique but as an exemplar of the way libertarianism is often seen by non-libertarians, especially conservatives. For example, Kirk accuses libertarians of being in favor of “exalting an absolute and indefinable ‘liberty’ at the expense of order.” Libertarians, he argues, assume human nature is overwhelmingly good, and the state is an oppressor. But the conservative,” he writes, “finds that the state is ordained of God.” Broadly speaking, Kirk sees libertarians as irresponsible and childish hedonists who lack the realist and tragic view of humanity of the conservative. Most of Kirk’s volleys miss the truth of libertarianism entirely, but his characterization remains one that libertarians must work to expose the inaccuracy of.
Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality by Robert George
The libertarian view of the state’s proper role is that it should protect rights but not legislate or enforce morality, particularly when it comes to victimless crimes. Robert George disagrees. Morals legislation, George argues, is crucial in establishing the moral environment necessary for citizens to lead good and virtuous lives. He spends much of the book critiquing several liberal philosophers in the non-perfectionist tradition, a strain of thought that, like libertarianism, holds that it isn’t proper for the state to force a particular conception of morality (beyond the morality of respecting rights) upon its citizens. From George’s perspective, it is very much the state’s role to morally perfect its subjects. This view ought to deeply concern libertarians — and isn’t one they can safely ignore.
A guide to books on the history of liberty and libertarianism.
The history of libertarianism is more than a series of scholarly statements on philosophy, economics, and the social sciences. It is the history of courageous men and women struggling to bring freedom to the lives of those living without it. The works on this list give important context to the ideas found on the others.
A first step
“A History of Libertarianism” by David Boaz
This essay, reprinted from Libertarianism: A Primer, covers the sweep of libertarian and pre-libertarian history, from Lao Tzu in the sixth century B.C. to the latest developments of the 21st century. Because it’s available for free on Libertarianism.org, the essay also includes numerous links to more information about major thinkers and their works. For a general sense of the rich history of the movement for liberty, this is easily the best place to start.
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
Bernard Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the ideas that influenced the American Revolution had a profound influence on our understanding of the republic’s origin by exposing its deeply libertarian foundations. Bailyn studied the many political pamphlets published between 1750 and 1776 and identified patterns of language, argument, and references to figures such as the radical Whigs and Cato the Younger. Because these were “notions which men often saw little need to explain because they were so obvious,” their understanding was assumed by the Founders and thus not immediately obvious to modern readers. When the Revolution is reexamined with Bailyn’s findings in mind, there’s no way to escape the conclusion that America was always steeped in libertarian principles.
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty
The libertarian movement in America in the 20th century is the focus of this delightful history from Brian Dorhety. Radicals for Capitalism is more the story of the men and women who fought for freedom and limited government than it is an intellectual history of libertarian ideas. But it is an important story because it helps to place the contemporary debate about the place of libertarianism in American politics within the context of a major and long-lived social movement.
The Decline of American Liberalism by Arthur A. Ekirch Jr.
Ekirch traces the history of the liberal idea in the United States from the founding through World War II. He places the high point of true liberalism in the years immediately following the American Revolution, before the federal government began its long march of ever more centralized control over the country. And he shows how this shift has negatively impacted everything from global peace to the economy to individual autonomy.
Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade by Douglas A. Irwin
Ever since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations appeared in 1776, the case for free trade — both its economic benefits and its moral footing — seemed settled. Yet in the ensuing two centuries, many have attempted to restrict freedom of trade with claims about its deleterious effects. Irwin’s Against the Tide traces the intellectual history of free trade from the early mercantilists, through Smith and the neoclassical economists, and to the present. He shows how free trade has withstood theoretical assaults from protectionists of all stripes — and how it remains the most effective means for bringing prosperity and peace to people throughout the world.
The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000 Year History Told Through the Lives of Freedom’s Greatest Champions by Jim Powell
If Radicals for Capitalism is the tale of the men and women who fought for liberty in the 20th century, Jim Powell’s The Triumph of Liberty fills in the backstory. The book is an exhaustive collection of biographical articles on 65 major figures, from Marcus Tullius Cicero to Martin Luther King, Jr., summarizing their lives, thought, and impact. While not all of them were strictly libertarian, every one of the people Powell covers was instrumental in making the world a freer. For a grand sweep of liberty’s history through the lives of those who struggled in its name, there’s no better source than The Triumph of Liberty.
How The West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation Of The Industrial World by Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell Jr.
The central question that How the West Grew Rich addresses is precisely what its title implies. For thousands of years, human beings lived in unrelieved misery: hunger, famine, illiteracy, superstition, ignorance, pestilence and worse have been their lot. How did things change? How did a relatively few people — those in what we call “the West” — escape from grinding poverty into sustained economic growth and material well-being when most other societies remained trapped in an endless cycle of birth, hardship, and death? This fascinating book tells that story. The explanations that many historians have offered — claiming that it was all due to science, or luck, or natural resources, or exploitations or imperialism — are refuted at the outset, in the book’s opening chapter. Rosenberg and Birdzell are then free to provide an explanation that makes much more sense.
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
Much political philosophy begins with a “social concept” theory of the state. Mankind originally existed in a “state of nature,” and the state only arose when people came together and agreed to give up some of their liberties in exchange for protection of others. Oppenheimer rejects this rosy picture and replaces it with his much more realistic “conquest theory,” which finds the genesis of states in roving bands of marauders who eventually settled down and turned to taxation when they realized it was easier than perpetual raiding. The State also features Oppenheimer’s influential distinction between the two means by which man can set about fulfilling his needs: “I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’ for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the ‘political means.’”
Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World by Deirdre McCloskey
In Bourgeois Dignity, McCloskey offers a different story of economic growth from the common one of capitalism and markets. The West grew rich, she argues, not simply because it embraced trade, but because its cultural ideas shifted, specifically in granting a sense of dignity to the bourgeoisie. It is that dignity — and the rhetoric surrounding it — that sparked the Industrial Revolution and, in turn, lead to the modern world. Bourgeois Dignity traces the influence of these changing ideas — and uses them to explain not just the rise of the West but also the recent, monumental growth of India and China. The book is the second in a four-volume series, “The Bourgeois Era.”
A selection of books to take readers beyond the basics of libertarianism and into the philosophy and economics that provide its foundations.
If you’re already familiar with the basics of libertarian thought and are interested in exploring deeper, the books on this list provide a thorough overview of the rich fundamentals. A mixture of established classics and modern contributions, these books are a bit more demanding than those on the “Introducing Libertarianism” list. But for the serious student of liberty, these works greatly reward careful study.
A first step
The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Writings from Lao Tzu to Milton Friedman by David Boaz
The scope of libertarian philosophy can be overwhelming. With countless thinkers stretching back thousands of years, it’s difficult to know where to start. David Boaz’s The Libertarian Reader is a great source for the major works, including essays and selections from books. Divided thematically and featuring both classics and newer contributions, it’s the perfect first step in exploring libertarian theory. By reading The Libertarian Reader, you’ll come away with an appreciation of the full reach and complexity of libertarian thought — as well as a sense of where to focus future exploration.
The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law by Randy E. Barnett
In The Structure of Liberty, Randy Barnett tackles the problem of justifying a complete libertarian philosophy. Starting with a clear, compelling, and secular account of natural law and natural rights, Barnett moves on to address three significant problems with power, government, and central control: the problem of knowledge, the problem of interest, and the problem of power. Barnett explains how a decentralized markets and polycentric legal orders can best deal with these fundamental limitations of human institutions.
The Bastiat Collection by Frédéric Bastiat
More than 150 years after his death, the works of Frédéric Bastiat remain some of the most incisive critiques of protectionism and big government — was well as the most thoughtful and clear articulations of the benefits of free trade. Bastiat possessed a remarkable ability to make economic analysis clear and compelling and he is unmatched as a popularizer of economic thinking. Highlights include “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen,” which features the now-famous “broken window” fallacy, and “A PETITION From the Manufacturers of Candles,” a terribly funny satire of protectionism, which has a coalition of lighting manufacturers petitioning the government because, they say, “We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price.” They are speaking, of course, of the sun.
Simple Rules for a Complex World by Richard A. Epstein
Richard Epstein is one of the most important contemporary consequentialist libertarian thinkers. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of law and economics, and Simple Rules is no exception. The book sets out a powerful argument for reducing the scope of law to a handful of “simple rules” (autonomy, first possession, consensual exchange) and defines a simple rule as one that generates more benefits than harm. Thus streamlined, law will be more efficient and more conducive to a flourishing society.
Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
Capitalism and Freedom is the book that introduced Milton Friedman to general audiences. In it, Friedman, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, shows how political freedom depends upon economic freedom. He develops this argument through examinations of education, discrimination, the regulation of monopoly, occupational licensing, and poverty. And he shows how free markets, and the incentives they unleash, can address many of the social concerns governments have failed to solve.
The Constitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek
The Constitution of Liberty is Hayek’s monumental restatement of the principles of classical liberalism. Hayek is arguably the most important libertarian thinker of the 20th century, and The Constitution of Liberty is the most thorough and accessible summary of his thought. Hayek’s major contribution is in understanding the way that knowledge operates within a society and how unplanned and emergent behaviors and institutions are better able to draw upon knowledge held by individuals than are bureaucrats and central-planners. The Constitution of Liberty sets out his vision for what a free society respecting these principles would look like.
Second Treatise of Civil Government by John Locke
One of history’s most important works of political philosophy, John Locke’s Second Treatise is a classic and timeless statement of the principles of individual liberty and limited government, one that had a major influence on the founding of the American republic. By starting with a hypothetical “state of nature,” Locke develops a system of human rights, including a right to property, and shows how governments are created by men in order to protect those rights. He argues that, because governments are so limited, citizens are justified in rebelling when the rulers overstep their bounds — an idea that found clear expression in the Declaration of Independence.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection,” John Stuart Mill writes in his classic utilitarian defense of liberalism, On Liberty. This very libertarian argument leads Mill to defend a great many rights against state incursion, including liberty of conscience, freedom of thought and expression, association, freedom to choose one’s own path in life, and more. On Liberty is a powerful — and beautifully written — defense of the core beliefs of libertarianism.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick’s book, released to widespread critical and popular acclaim in 1974, was almost single-handedly responsible for making libertarianism a force in modern academic philosophy. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick shows how a minimal state — one that acts only to protect its citizens from violence and fraud — can arise within a state of nature, and without violating any rights. He then goes on to argue that such a minimal state is the only morally legitimate form of government and that it is also the form most conducive to human happiness and a pluralistic conception of the good. Anarchy, State, and Utopia retains a proud place in the canon of political philosophy.
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand
Rand’s collection of essays — which also includes pieces from Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Hessen — represents an extended defense of laissez-faire capitalism, which Rand considers the only system compatible with man’s rational nature. The book’s first section addresses the fundamental theories supporting capitalism, as well as its history. The second section applies these ideas to then-contemporary political issues. Taken as a whole, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal offers a thorough application of the ideas of Objectivism to politics and the economy. The book closes with an appendix republishing two major essays, “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government,” which first appeared in The Virtue of Selfishness.
Moral Principles and Political Obligations by A. John Simmons
Most political philosophy begins by assuming the existence of the state and the duty of its subjects to obey its rules. In Moral Principles and Political Obligations, Simmons asks us to take a step back and first address the question of what duty — if any — do we have to obey the state? He examines the most common arguments for state authority — including consent, gratitude, fair play, and natural duty — and finds them either uncompelling or unrealistic when applied to existing governments. His conclusion is “philosophical anarchy,” the idea that we don’t have a moral duty to obey the government — but that there may be other, non-moral reasons for doing so. Political authority is an important issue paid far too little attention by both libertarian and non-libertarian thinkers.
Do libertarians want to destroy social bonds so we can live in a world without cooperation?
If you believe Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu, libertarians are nuts. In a recent commentary, they gave a litany of reasons for “Why libertarian society is doomed to fail.” The trouble is, they’ve managed not only to misunderstand libertarianism, but also to ignore the very problems libertarians see in the authors’ own preferred big government solutions.
Hanauer and Liu attack “radical libertarianism,” which they define as “the ideology that holds that individual liberty trumps all other values.” Yet this isn’t quite right, whether we’re talking about moderate or radical libertarianism. Liberty isn’t the ultimate value. But it is the ultimate political value. It holds this status not because we shouldn’t care about other values, but because a state that aims at liberty will enable us to realize much more of what we value than one that aims at something else. Whether the goal is wealth, happiness, health, culture or any other value we hold dear, political liberty will bring us more of it than officious government.
The authors then call out libertarians for our “defective” theory of human nature. They tell us libertarians believe “humans are wired only to be selfish, when in fact cooperation is the height of human evolution.” But libertarians embrace free markets and voluntary association, which both require and encourage cooperation. What libertarians are skeptical of is not cooperation, but the use of, and threat of, force to coerce people into taking part in schemes they don’t approve of, or that harm them, or that aren’t as efficient or effective as other means. Is it “cooperation” when the state forces poor, minority children into failing schools? Is it “cooperation” when politically connected businesses get regulators and legislators to craft rules in their favor? Is it “cooperation” when politicians send young men and women to die in unnecessary wars? Cooperation, far from being anathema to libertarianism, is in fact a core libertarian value.
Hanauer and Liu tell us that libertarians believe “societies are efficient mechanisms requiring no rules or enforcers.” Yet no libertarian thinks society can function without codes of conduct and methods for enforcing them. Libertarians believe strongly in the rule of law — much more so, in fact, than many on the left and right who would carve out exceptions in statutes and regulations to benefit political friends and powerful interest groups.
The authors also make a mistake when they claim that libertarians believe rolling back the state is the solution to every problem. It’s not. Rather, it is often the way we can enable solutions, in whatever form they may take. Private individuals are capable of amazing things if given the opportunity to exercise their ingenuity. Too often, the state stands in the way, protecting established industries and special interests by preventing the growth of new and better ones.
This isn’t a path to progress Hanauer and Liu are willing to entertain, however. Instead, they see the very act of shifting power from government to private citizens as destructive and necessarily at odds with the very idea of creation. Yet we need only look at the inventions and discoveries that have radically improved our lives to see how much creation occurs outside of the direct control of the state. Libertarians demand policies to accelerate that, not to undermine it.
Defenders of the status quo are always quick to label as unreasonable those who advocate for a different and better world. There was a time when activists for democracy were called unreasonable, and told that turning over power to the people was a laughable idea. “Reasonable people” argued for solutions within the systems of monarchy and theocracy. Hanauer and Liu are just modern versions of these “reasonable people.”
Libertarians believe the status quo isn’t good enough. Not because we’re selfish or destructive or anti-community, but because we want to make the world better for everyone — and believe freedom is the best catalyst for progress.
The eight books on this list offer a thorough but accessible introduction to libertarianism.
Libertarianism — its theory, its practice — is an awfully big topic. This reading list gives you a place to start. A combination of newcomers and established classics, these books offer accessible introductions to variety of libertarian thought, from philosophy to history to economics.
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind is a quick and easy read, but it’s also a remarkably thorough introduction to libertarianism. It covers the historical roots of libertarianism and the basics of libertarian political philosophy and economic thinking. Boaz then applies these ideas to major policy areas, showing how free association and free markets, not government coercion and bureaucracy, can solve our most pressing social issues.
The Law by Frédéric Bastiat
Everything this 19th century Frenchman wrote is worth reading — and The Law is a great place to start. Bastiat’s knack is tackling head-on, with great wit and clarity, the fundamental errors and hidden interests behind much economic and political thinking. With The Law, published in 1850, his target is “legal plunder” or state-authorized confiscation of property. The law exists to protect our basic rights, Bastiat argues. When it instead becomes a means of coerced redistribution, “the law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others.”
The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism by David Friedman
Libertarianism represents a spectrum of political philosophies, all sharing a general presumption of liberty. These philosophies vary in how much of a role they grant the state. Classical liberals, for instance, allow government to tax for the provision of many services, including education and social safety nets. Minarchists see government’s only legitimate role as providing rights protection in the form of police, courts, and national defense. At the extreme are the anarcho-capitalists, who would abolish the state altogether and replace it with purely private and voluntary provision of services, including for the law itself. David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom offers an introduction to anarcho-capitalism, arguing from a “consequentialist” perspective that the state is both unnecessary for achieving a desirable society and that it in fact makes the world worse through its actions. The questions Friedman raises and the analysis he offers will benefit any student of liberty.
Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman
Published as the companion volume to the 10-hour documentary of the same name, Free to Choose was one of the bestselling books of 1980. Here Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose, give a spirited and readable critique of the interventionist state, focusing on concrete examples and explanations. Free to Choose is an excellent introduction to the productive power unleashed by freedom — and also a primer on the economic analysis of public policy. The Friedmans examine the workings of markets, look at how well-meaning policies like the minimum wage hurt the poor, and explain the causes of the Great Depression. Covering much the same ground as the documentary series, though in more depth, Free to Choose is a perfect introduction not only to the thought of Milton Friedman, one of the 20th century’s foremost champions of liberty, but also to the under-appreciated and often misunderstood benefits of laissez faire.
Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics by P. J. O’Rourke
Proving that economics need not be a dry, textbook affair, P. J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich sets out to answer the critical question, “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?” O’Rourke, one of America’s premier humorists, travels the world, visiting Wall Street, Albania, Sweden, Cuba, Russia, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, and uses his experiences to untangle the relationship between markets, political institutions, and culture. While Eat the Rich is a breezy and hilarious read, it is far from facile. O’Rourke’s explorations and the insights he draws from them make the book live up to its subtitle, “A Treatise on Economics.” If you’ve never taken Econ 101 and the thought of supply and demand curves makes you want to nod off, Eat the Richis a perfect book.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
A perennial bestseller since its publication in 1957, Ayn Rand’s mammoth novel Atlas Shrugged has probably turned more people on to libertarianism than any other book. Atlas Shrugged explores a dystopian future, where the government has enthusiastically embraced collectivism in the name of fairness and equality and leading innovators, industrialists, and artists have begun disappearing. The book served as Rand’s platform for promoting Objectivism, her comprehensive philosophy of “rational selfishness.” While Rand’s philosophy remains deeply divisive to this day, it is impossible to deny the enormous impact she’s had on promoting the benefits of free markets and dynamic capitalism.
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
The newest book on this list, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimistemploys the grand sweep of human history and pre-history to argue for the incredible significance of free trade — and against those who would seek to restrict it. In so doing, Ridley offers what amounts to a book-length answer to the question, “Why are people rich?” Most humans who have ever lived did so in unimaginable poverty. It was only recently that standards of living began their remarkable — and accelerating — climb. What happened? Free exchange. “Just as sex made biological evolution cumulative,” Ridley writes, “so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men and women discernible beneath the chaos of their actions.”
Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell
While the libertarian vision is much more than just free markets, economic thinking greatly informs the libertarian approach to public policy. When you’re ready to move beyond the brief introduction provided by P. J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich, Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics is the ideal place to turn. Sowell presents the fundamentals of economic reasoning in clear, jargon-free prose. He addresses everything from incentives and the role of prices, to international trade, monetary policy, and the banking system. Sowell shows how so many government programs, enacted with the best of intentions, run afoul of simple economic truths and, as a result, often do far more harm than good.