The Julia Koch Story
New Shangri-La Region
Shoot down a drone with a slingshot.
The idea came from the Daring Club, a bunch of young scatterbrains that meets regularly to get up to mischief.
Used to meet, that is. Not anymore.
And who had volunteered to be ‘daring’ this time?
Who else was it going to be? My sister Carol, of course. Revelling in the glory of her fine head of curly hair, her slim athletic build, she was envied by all the girls in the valley. My younger sister also revelled in her own complete lack of judgement, maturity, common sense, or any other such workaday attribute that normal, rational human beings tend to possess.
Believe me, I’m not exaggerating: at 19 my sister still behaved like a child. I can see her now, arm outstretched, frantically waving her hand and yelling: ‘Me! Me!’ Ready, as always, to prove she was the coolest and most fearless queen bitch in the Hendrix Valley.
Perhaps this is unfair of me: I don’t know for sure if she volunteered or if perhaps she was nominated. Afterwards I heard conflicting accounts and didn’t reach any firm conclusion. Either way, Carol had accepted the challenge.
‘Shoot down a drone?’ I repeated when she told me about the plan.
My expression must have reflected exactly what I was feeling because Carol instantly began to defend herself by attacking first, as was her way.
‘If you’re just going to start blaming me maybe I shouldn’t have bothered saying anything. In fact, I don’t know why I did. I’m the one who’s going to shoot down the drone, not you. You couldn’t do it in a million years!’ Then she added, scornfully: ‘You can watch me, Julia. If you want to, of course. You don’t have to.’
I wondered whether this was a genuine invitation or a gesture of condescension, but I accepted anyway. After all, I was the elder sister, the pain-in-the-ass big girl of the family with a duty to keep an eye on whatever foolish antics my sibling got up to. And I felt it would be better if an adult were present to… I’m not sure exactly what difference I imagined I might make, but at the time the idea seemed sensible to me. I would come to discover, in the worst possible way, how misguided that was, and now live with the burden of knowing I was there and couldn’t lift a finger to help. Spilled milk or not, the tears I have cried, and still cry, when I remember that.
The plan was simple: Carol intended to hide in the scrub and shoot down a drone when it was about to hook and carry off one of our father’s hashish containers. I never had any doubt that she could do it; she could hit whatever she wanted to with a slingshot: rabbits, sparrows, even small lizards partly concealed in the grass. Compared to that, hitting a target as big as a drone would be like hitting a wall. The problem did not lie in the difficulty of the act so much as the stupidity of it. I tried hard to dissuade her.
‘If you shoot down a drone, it won’t take away the order and then Dad won’t be paid. You’re going to risk the only crop that brings us any money!’
‘Don’t be silly, sis, I’ll shoot down the one that’s going to pick up the last box. The Network will then send another to replace the faulty machine. It won’t make any difference in the end. The containers will all be delivered.’
‘The Network will charge you for the damage. Maybe with an added fine, I don’t know! And who’s going to pay that? Dad doesn’t have money to burn on your mock-heroic deeds just because you want to show off to your Daring Club friends.’
‘I’m not stupid, I’ve thought it all out,’ Carol countered. ‘I’m going to wear one of those robes that Mum makes. I won’t wear the clothes or the glasses that communicate with the Network. And you, if you want to watch, better do the same. That way we’ll both be anonymous.’
I just mumbled for reply. I’m not sure what exactly I meant to say, but Carol interpreted it as reluctant agreement. And probably got that right.
What else could I have done? Appeal to her finer feelings? ‘Dad slogs all year long to support you and Mum, you should have more respect.’ It wouldn’t have worked. Like all selfish people, my little sister was immune to any kind of emotional blackmail.
I could have opposed her, I suppose. Could have conjured up from the hidden depths of my usually retiring personality an implacable glare, held up my hand in warning and shouted ‘Don’t even think about it’, or ‘If I hear any of this nonsense again, I’m telling Dad’. Should have done, of course.
Carol would have reacted with a chuckle, a shrug, or more than likely countered with: ‘You don’t boss me around.’
I gave up on remonstrating and chose to stay vigilant, a plan that seemed reasonable at the time. Perhaps it would have been with another Carol, but this Carol could not be easily controlled.
After she closed the discussion and left the room, I continued to ponder the matter, my gaze still fixed on the sofa, as if my sister had never got up and our conversation were still going on. I must have remained like that for a long time. Luckily no one saw: if Carol had noticed, or even our mum, they’d have unleashed a nasty crack, such as: ‘Are you having a senior moment now you’re 24?’ I admit my mind wandered, straying back to the time when we were both kids and had slept in this same room. Later, Dad built a double annex and we ended up with a room each. One just for me, another just for Carol: real luxury.
***** || *****
Memories of our shared past heaved and swelled within me like waves, topped with the wind-whipped foam of my present concern for my sister. Walks, games, pillow fights with Carol… despite being five years younger than I was, she always used to win. Or maybe I let her win on purpose, I’m not sure anymore. But had I done the right thing, allowing her to carry out this crazy scheme?
I remembered the time she decided to investigate the mystery of the magic Network, that seemed to know everything. I was about 13 and she 8. We were both naked, jumping on the bed together, throwing stupid questions into the air that remained unanswered. We had realised from a young age that with no clothes on we were not connected to the Network. Carol hummed:
‘I’m naked, I’m naked, the Network can’t hear me… It can’t hear me!’
Then I put on a T-shirt and asked:
‘Network On. Are there any girls prettier than me?’
My clothes picked up these words and the reaction was swift if laconic:
‘Network: Subjective question, answer unavailable.’
At age 13 the Network’s vibration still left me confused, reverberating through my bones and up into my ears, where it sounded like a voice without actually being one. I would get used to that. In cities, children are connected from birth and don’t have this problem, but in the middle of the countryside, traditional looms are common and kids are only connected when they start wearing store-bought clothing, made with officially approved fabrics.
Carol had heard nothing but gave a tug on my T-shirt and wanted to know the result.
‘The Network said it was me, didn’t it?’ she said. ‘It answered that I’m the most beautiful girl in the world!’
We began a pillow fight, jumping up and falling over on the ever more tangled cover. Carol then grabbed a piece of clothing, picked at random, and asked the Network something I couldn’t hear.
‘Did you get an answer?’ I wanted to know.
‘Of course I did. You’re really dumb. Can’t you see I’m holding some socks?’
What she did next was typical of her and foreshadowed personality traits that would emerge full force over the years ahead: she grabbed the socks and tucked them between her skinny childish thighs.
‘Network On. I want to talk to Diego, who lives at Hilltop Farm, and I want Julia to listen.’
What a stupid idea, I thought. Diego was a kid who lived on the smallholding next to ours, one year older than my sister, and taller, but who ran away at top speed whenever he saw her. I’m not criticising him for that – sometimes even I would run away from my sister. At light speed, if need be!
After a few seconds a child’s hesitant voice could be heard through the Network.
‘Hello… Is it you, Carol?’
For her the words must have been no more than a distant murmur, transmitted to her body through the small area of fabric touching her skin, but I heard clearly through the T-shirt. She didn’t reply to Diego, merely hummed an invented melody as she rocked her hips forwards and backwards while gripping the socks between her thighs.
‘My little thing is talking to Diego… My little thing is talking to Diego…’
She only shut her trap when I hit her with a pillow, causing her to topple over onto the bed.
***** || *****
The sound of a door banging startled me: my sister had gone out. I breathed a sigh of relief and decided to take advantage of this moment of privacy to clarify a nagging doubt. I looked around, scouring the room, until I found what I was looking for: a pair of glasses lying on a table. They were not prescription since we all had perfect vision – their only purpose was for communicating with the Network. Personally, I always prefer to use glasses rather than clothes. The part of the frame that fits over the ear lets you hear the answers more clearly than when the vibration comes from elsewhere on the body.
‘Network On. What is the consequence for someone who shoots down a drone?’
‘Network: Causing damage to public property entails various penalties, depending on whether the act was intentional or inadvertent.’
I assumed that the destruction of a single appliance would have a good chance of being accepted as an accident.
‘Network On. What is the penalty for inadvertently shooting one down?’
In front of me appeared several images of airborne devices – projected directly onto my retina by the rims of the glasses – accompanied by a table of costs.
‘Network: In the absence of criminal intent, the account of the citizen responsible will be charged in accordance with this table. Some drone models are not listed because they are classified. In such cases, additional penalties may be incurred.’
I shrugged my shoulders in resignation and thought to myself, ‘As long as the hash isn’t ready the drones won’t come and there is still some time left… she’ll probably forget. Why make a fuss now?’
Dad was actually still busy attending to the drying and curing of the plants, but even so my argument made no sense. Although it was not ready, the hashish had already been auctioned off and sold on – to unknown buyers, inevitably, because the Network does not deign to identify them to producers. When the curing was over, all that was left to do was to turn the material into bars and pack them according to each order.
I put the glasses back on the table and went looking for Dad. I assumed he was in the warehouse and would appreciate a helping hand from his daughter. And her company, too, as this would be my last day for a while in the Hendrix Valley. The next morning I would return to the city to resume my job at the hospital. I decided not to discuss Carol’s crazy plans with anyone.