The Ravine

Illustration by Mathew Borrett

“Now you see why I got us one with tinted glass,” Palassio said, smacking the window while the car steered. “Nobody can see him waving for help!”

He shared a laugh with the boys. As they headed up Broadview, angles of streetlight alternately revealed and hid the glaring, gagged face of the city planner in the back seat.

“We can’t do him here,” said Hansen. “Get blood on the upholstery.”

“And we can’t get out of town,” added Louch, who shared the back with the planner. “Cameras all up the Don, and every other major route. Unless we take side-streets the whole way — ”

Palassio shook his head. “We gotta mind our alibis. Be back at the hotel before we’re missed.”

“The lake?”

“No. Look.” He shared the app in his smart glasses with the car’s dashboard screen. The big rectangle lit up with a map of Toronto; the city’s jumbled, almost logical grid of streets was overlaid with coloured swatches. It almost looked like a traffic app, but instead of congestion it showed security-camera and neighbourhood-watch coverage.

“See those?” He pointed at a rash of little red dots strewn across the map. “Those are police cruisers, and the little triangles are drones. God, I love crowd-sourcing.”

Palassio smiled, framing the screen with his hands in case the planner had been looking. “You fucked with the wrong people, jackass.”

The car was driving, so he had the luxury of turning to contemplate the distant city lights off to the left. Past the muted tones of the forested Don Valley, downtown was a milling crowd of glittering giants extending from the lake to the indefinite boundaries of North York up ahead. Toronto was a beautiful city; maybe, if he wasn’t here for work, he might have considered settling. Along with four million other people? He laughed and shook his head.

Anyway, you never live where you work. Not if you’re in the Profession.

“We should take the next right,” said Hansen. “Cop coming down the hill.”

“You heard him, turn right,” Palassio told the car. Then he turned back to the map. “See anywhere promising?”

“Maybe… What’s this?” Hansen pointed.

They were headed into an old corner of the city, East York, which was protected by water to the south, the Don Valley, which curved from the west over the north, and to the north-east… “That’s funny.” The map was highly detailed, but where O’Connor crossed a bridge at the top right corner of the neighborhood, the detail fuzzed out.

“Is that another valley?”

Hansen leaned forward, pinched and expanded the view. “A ravine. But a big one.”

“I see a road in.”

He turned and grinned at the planner. “You’re in luck. You get to dig your grave by a nice old creek.”

Palassio avoided cities unless he was working. Sure, there were also problems in the countryside, what with the permanent drought in America’s breadbasket, mass migrations within and from beyond the continent, and some new tropical disease hitting practically every month. He didn’t work in Canada much, and most American cities were hives now, squeezed into tight high-density knots by mass transit. Palassio hated crowds, and he hated the facial-recognition cameras that were everywhere now. It was getting harder and harder to do his job.

Luckily, all that densification came with its share of corruption. Development deals could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so having a city planner discover the short-cuts you were hiding in your budget could have dire consequences. Palassio’s fees were a rounding error compared with the litigation costs if that all went public.

They zig-zagged up to the Danforth, passing Relief-Line subway entrances just closing for the night, drunks from the pubs flagging down self-driving car-shares, little old ladies out walking their dogs. Palassio glanced out now and again, but mostly he was puzzling over the map. Finally he leaned back and said, “Ungag him.”

“You’re not going to get away with this!” gasped the planner.

“Seriously? You had all this time to think about what to say, and you chose that?” He waved at the screen. “What is that place? There’s no cameras, no police, no Neighbourhood Watch, no nothing.”

The planner shrugged. “Can’t see. Can’t help you.”

“It’s called…” Palassio squinted. “Warden Woods Park.”

“Oh shit.”

Something in the planner’s tone made Palassio look back. The guy was squirming up against the door as if he could burrow through it. “We can’t go there!”

“Why not? Toxic waste or something?”

The planner opened his mouth, closed it. “Never mind.”

“Make him co-operate,” Palassio told Louch, who went to work with the Taser. While he did that, Palassio unfiltered his smart glasses so he could see all the AR tags and overlays in the East York neighbourhoods they were passing through. The sky, which had been black, suddenly sprouted meridional lines as thin sheets of colour dissected off the city into zones, electrical-power cells, school and sewer catchments, electoral ridings. Every object manufactured in the last fifteen years had Internet of Things sensors and Net connectivity, and they all broadcast their statuses. The city had a nervous system through all its lines, pipes, and boulevards; no pothole could grow more than a few inches in diameter before Toronto felt it and reacted.

This fog of information was a problem to anybody who wanted to colour outside the lines. The city was a maze, more complex and layered than any map of city streets could be. The city planner spent his days exploring that maze. Zoning restrictions and local bylaws were embodied in the very sensors in the sidewalks and bridges, and they all chattered constantly. The city itself told the planner what power, water, and other services were allowed here and not there, but it was his responsibility to report any violations to the Planning Council. That made him the weak link. Silencing him could keep certain infractions from becoming public.

After a long drive past storefronts and hair salons and incongruous mid-rise condos, they turned onto a wide avenue called Pharmacy and headed north. After a few blocks the car made a right at a tennis court. It was very dark up ahead. Palassio glanced back; the planner licked his lips, looking out now. He seemed properly scared.

They entered a parking lot; past it, one of Toronto’s famous ravines fell away to the north and east. The cloven valley was darkly forested and unlabeled in AR, its trees rendered two-dimensionally, like a painting, by distant streetlights. There were no cameras in sight, but oddly, a chain-link fence with a padlocked gate stood between them and the woods.

Nothing moved. They parked, and Palassio got out.

It smelled great here, fresh and green. There were no lights in the little valley, though houses climbed the slopes on the other side. “Get him out.” Palassio dragged a dufflebag full of tools out of the trunk and lugged it over to the fence. His app continued to insist that there was no surveillance down here — but why? Warden Woods Park was visible in Palassio’s Augmented Reality view, but only as an absence of light and labels. It made him uneasy, this one blind spot in the heart of a giant city.

Except, he noticed, it wasn’t quite empty. There were labels in there. Palassio squinted through the black trees. “Huron-Wendat. Anishinabek? What the fu — And what the hell is the Haudeno — the Haudenosaun…”

“Haudenosaunee Confederacy,” gasped the planner.

“Yeah, what?”

“Those are the territories we’re on. The First Nations.”

“Oh, right.” Palassio had heard about this. Canada was being carved up by increasingly ambitious land-claims settlements with its original inhabitants. Seems they’d spent the past generation graduating constitutional lawyers from the country’s best schools, and now they were putting them to use. “Truth and Reconciliation, right?” he said to the man he was going to murder tonight. “You did the truth part, now it’s time for the reconciliation — and guess what! It’s costing you.”

The planner had shut up again, so Palassio continued. “This ravine where we’re going to bury you, it’s claimed by the, the Haudenosauneega? That’s why it’s black in AR, because they’re running the place themselves, and won’t let us white folk in?”

The planner wouldn’t look him in the eye. “Something like that.”

“They live down here?”

The planner croaked a laugh. “No. They made a deal, and then they walked away. Nobody owns this place now.”

“Nobody? — Hey, stop that!” Hansen had been about to break the padlock on the gate with a set of bolt-cutters. “You pick it, stupid. We don’t want anybody knowing we came down here. No sense them finding this guy before we leave town.”

Hansen set to work picking the lock, and meanwhile Palassio grabbed the planner by the scruff of his neck and frog-marched him up to the fence. “Grab it.” The planner did, and nothing happened. Palassio grunted. “Not electric. What do you mean, nobody owns this place now?”

The planner slumped, seemingly defeated. “That was the deal they made. The First Nations have talked Canada into adopting a legal framework of Buen Vivir. That means that places can own themselves. They’ve got rights, like people.”

Palassio laughed. “So what, this park owns itself?” The planner nodded.

“Got it!” Hansen opened the gate, then hesitated. “Safe?” He looked to Palassio, who looked to the planner.

The planner sighed. “There are no police drones, Neighbourhood-Watch cameras, First-Nations monitors or provincial environmental sensors in there. No tech owned by anybody, not even an electric fence.”

“Go on, then.” Palassio gave him a shove, and he crossed from parking lot to dewed grass. His killers followed, toting flashlights and shovels.

There had been an asphalt path here at one time, but tall grass had invaded it from both sides, and broken branches lay across it. Palassio made out the top of a park bench poking above the weeds. The whole place had an air of abandonment that was downright creepy. It was as if nobody had set foot in here in years; but that was impossible. They were in the middle of a city.

The planner was walking straight now, looking around himself as if he too were curious. Not a good sign. Palassio considered shooting him right here, but they still had a good fifty yards to go to the bank of Massey Creek, which was where he wanted to bury the jerk. He didn’t want to drag a limp (and likely messy) body any further than he had to.

Hansen stopped suddenly. “Hey!” he hissed, pointing off to the left. There were big leaning trees there, but one giant had fallen and made a kind of clearing. Its log made a black bench across the gray tangle, and on it, something glowed.

“Is that a… a phone?” Palassio had his gun out now, but he couldn’t see any people. He moved under the trees, and yep, it looked like somebody had nailed a plastic-wrapped smartphone to the downed log. When he reached it, he saw that a thin wire led from it to a small solar panel that was also nailed to the log.

The screen flicked off, and as it did he heard something moving in the bush. “What the hell?”

“Get ‘em!” Hansen took off before Palassio could stop him.

“Oh, for the — come on!” Palassio broke the little screen away from its moorings, then pushed the planner ahead of him. Hansen was leading them deeper under the arching roof of trees. When Palassio caught up with Hansen, he smacked him on the back of the head. “Just a raccoon, dumbass! Jeez, they’re gonna hear you up the slope.” He thrust the little screen, now dark, under the planner’s nose. “So what the hell are these?”

“They’re all through here,” said the planner. He no longer sounded afraid; his tone now was wry, even humorous. “See? There’s another.”

A blue square lit up high on one of the trees. It was dim, but just managed to silhouette a tiny, hunched figure that sat in front of it. Louch swore. “Is that a squirrel?”

“Shit, there are cameras here!” Hansen yanked at a cable, and something toppled out of another tree. He drew his gun and marched up to the planner. “You lied to us!”

“I never said there was no Internet of Things in here. I just said there wasn’t human surveillance.”

Hansen put his pistol to the planner’s temple. “What does that even mean?”

The planner gulped. “The — the climate plan. You know, everybody knows the Plan. With the carbon bubble bursting and all, people want to go the next step and reduce the carbon already in the atmosphere. Torontonians wanted to help. Wh-when the Anishinabek negotiated the personhood of Warden Woods, they had a council and asked themselves, what would the Woods want? They decided it would want to be rewilded, so they fenced out the city. And they added an Internet of Things here — sensors, cameras, facial-recognition for animals and computer interfaces for animals. So the creatures living around the Woods could order up food, bird-houses, whatever they needed to thrive. The phones train them, even the birds are part of it.”

“And this reports to the Anishin — ” But the planner shook his head.

“It’s all coordinated by a Distributed Autonomous Organization, a dumb AI that runs on the Net and is paid for by carbon credits that the Woods sell to the city. This part of Warden Woods is a person, and it’s beholden to no one.”

Something about the tone of his voice… Palassio shone his light at the planner. “Why are you smiling?” Hansen looked as well, then stepped back, swearing. The smile on the planner’s face was not pleasant.

“People didn’t get it. They were like you — the first few years, all kinds of jerks broke in here to party, or dump trash, or just carve their initials on the trees. First the Woods put up signs, then fences, then it sued the city… It tried everything. Nothing kept people out. So it finally had to take extreme measures. Now, nobody I know’s been down here in ages.”

“Something else out there,” hissed Hansen, crouching. Palassio could hear it now — a rushing sound he’d mistaken for the wind, starting and subsiding now here, now there in the treetops.

“I had this crazy hope,” said the planner, “that I might get out of this alive. But when you decided to come here, I realized that was a stupid fantasy. But, if I was going to die, at least it wouldn’t have to be alone.”

The rushing sound was everywhere, and cut twigs and leaves were drifting down. Palassio and the boys swung their lights around and around, trying to catch whatever it was. Louch had dropped his shovel; they were backed together now, on the buckled remains of the path next to a broken footbridge.

The planner had disappeared, but his voice still came faintly from the darkness. “The city’s asked the government to intervene. This military technology would be illegal in anyone else’s hands. But Warden Wood’s got good lawyers, and they argue that it has to go to extremes to protect itself.”

A dozen spotlights suddenly pinioned the three of them, and more hit the planner, as a buzzing roar filled the air and swirling dust spiralled up around them.

“Can’t say it’s wrong, can you?” shouted the planner…

And then it all went dark.

About Karl Schroeder