The Great Secession of '38 was, as far as Amanda was concerned, a complete clusterfuck. After the United States of America split apart and died, its federal agencies died with it. No more USPS, no more IRS, no more FBI. One of the only agencies left standing, one that had never operated at a federal level, was the most hated of all: the DMV.
Amanda had already been working at the Santa Clara DMV for a few years before the secession. It was a thankless job. She slouched beneath fluorescent lights and endured everyone from teenagers to octogenarians throwing a tantrum at her while she navigated archaic government websites and the newer, more insidious TriCo productivity software. The only perk of a government job was having a slightly higher water ration, though sometimes it didn't seem worth all the tantrums. She felt that this was a job that built character, and there couldn't be more character left to build.
But the secession proved her wrong. With all of the federal agencies gone, the DMV was left handling everything from driving tests to immigration to water rations. All of this meant bureaucracy. God, so much bureaucracy. Someone from the Republic of Texas just immigrated here? Okay they needed to apply for citizenship and... oh they don't have their birth certificate? Or even a former American passport? Okay time to fill out a ten page international proof-of-identity form and wait twelve weeks for the El Paso DMV to send over–yes that's right sir, twelve weeks, the new Western Republic postal service is slow... and then of course there's the background check and... yes we'll need to notarize that... and a landlord will need to fill out... And this was all for just one person, out of the hundreds that would walk in each day. Amanda spent her life on an aging government computer, staring at forms and databases and impatient emails and that stupid little TriCo dashboard and the endless stream of angry, sallow faces.
A complete, thankless, god damn clusterfuck.
One day after work, Amanda plopped herself down on her couch with a joint in one hand, the TV remote in the other, and an already-translucent bag of takeout on the coffee table. She was flicking through the channels when she saw the breaking news story.
"...two hours east of Bakersfield. The identity of the attackers or their motive is currently unknown. We have TriCo's SVP of Data here. Joanne, can you tell us more about what happened?"
"Hey Mike. We cannot currently confirm or deny the extent of the damage to the facilities but we are relieved to say there have been no casualties. We want to reassure our users that your data is TriCo's number one priority and we have multiple levels of contingencies. TriCo is on top of it!"
"Thank you Joanne. Back at the scene of the attack, San Bernardino County Sheriff..."
Amanda leaned closer to the TV, taking a hit of the joint.
"Whoa," she coughed. The helicopter news cameras circled around the charred remains of one of TriCo's data centers out in the desert. Firefighters were extinguishing the last of the flames, walking through a crater of melted plastic obscured in a haze of toxic smoke. Thousands of servers had been destroyed, a dark scar in the pale emptiness of the Mojave.
Amanda checked the other news channels. It was all more of the same: footage of ash, someone from TriCo cheerily reassuring viewers that everything was fine, and no information about who had done this, or why.
She found her phone and opened her TriCo social app. Everything looked normal. There was some chatter on her feed (u guys seeing this lol?? Thank God no one was hurt! just what we need, more smoke jfc), some speculation, no real information. But a few people were sharing pictures of the damage. Amanda had seen photos of fires her whole life, it was almost banal at this point, but this felt different. This wasn't the tragedy of a burnt-down forest or neighborhood. There was nothing sad about all this tech, these tidy boxes of data, reduced to magma and electronic viscera. Looking at the incinerated corpse of TriCo’s data center, Amanda found herself smiling, and kept smiling as she scrolled herself to sleep on the couch, the TV still cycling through images of burnt servers.
Weeks went by and the story faded into the background. All of TriCo's services stayed operational like they promised, and while the attackers were still at large, no one had any leads. The news cycle moved on to water ration protests and border disputes between the Northeast Alliance and the Great Lakes Union and a brief but exhilarating two hours of rain that scattered over the Bay Area. It had happened during Amanda’s lunch break, and she had stood outside watching the rain darken the dry hills. She came back inside soaking wet and deliriously happy.
But her days returned to their usual monotony. She forgot about the attacks, and didn’t let herself think too much about that bittersweet rain. Right now she had to think about why in God's name this middle-aged woman thought Amanda could help her get into the still-locked down Southwestern states.
"No I do not accept that, I have to get to Phoenix, and if you would just do your job instead of sitting there—"
"Ma'am, no one has had any contact with the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, or Colorado since the secession. If you'd like to travel elsewhere, I can upgrade your ID card to allow you to fly interna—"
"God dammit, I already did that! What I need is..."
Amanda double-checked the woman's ID while she kept talking. The woman had not, in fact, upgraded her ID.
"...and I just can't believe that, what, we just don't fly there anymore? I can't just drive down the 10 anymore? I just—"
"Ma'am, I wish I could help you but those roads are completely closed and no one is being let in. I understand this is stressful but—"
"Understand?! What the hell do you understand? God dammit, where’s your manager?"
At the desk next to Amanda, her coworker Michelle snorted then covered it up as a cough. Amanda had to stop herself from smiling. They both knew their boss Leon wasn't going to be able to help this woman smuggle herself into Phoenix either, but it was fun to send him the more challenging cases.
"Of course, ma'am. One second please."
She dialed Leon's extension, nodded stoically while he cursed these damn suburban moms, and gestured at the indignant woman to wait outside his office. She granted herself a moment to stare out the window at the clear blue sky and daydream, then buzzed for the next person to come to her desk.
"She was a real handful, huh?"
Amanda looked up from her computer. A woman in a beat up brown leather jacket was grinning at her like they were in on some big secret together.
"Oof, 'ma'am'? Please, the name's Paula McIntyre. I'm here to upgrade my ID card. Got all my paperwork right here." She handed a thick folder of papers to Amanda.
"Thank you, let me make sure everything looks correct."
"Yeah for sure, do what you gotta do."
Amanda looked at Paula. She wasn't used to people being so relaxed at the DMV. Everyone agreed this place was hell and couldn't wait to leave, but Paula looked content under the fluorescent lights, like she was sitting in a park on a beautiful day.
An odd duck, Amanda thought, then flipped through Paula's papers. Birth certificate, background check authorization, proof of residency, notarized scans of prior passports...
"Okay ma'a–Ms. McIntyre, everything looks good. We'll process everything and your upgraded ID card should be ready in about three to four weeks. We'll call you when it's ready for pickup. If you want it mailed, that's going to take longer of course..."
"Right on. Pickup's fine. And please, just call me Paula." She smiled and winked at Amanda then strolled off, the only person in the DMV who looked happy to have been there.
Amanda watched her go then shook her head and buzzed the next person. The fun never stopped.
That weekend there was another attack at a TriCo data center next to the Arizona border. Once again, there were no casualties, no witnesses, no suspects, no clues. But there was the same technological carnage, the server towers obliterated and charred like a city after an air raid.
The TriCo representatives still looked cheerful on the news, but this time some of their services did go down. The social app was down for half a day, and people in the Central Valley were reporting that their water bills had disappeared from the TriCo Power website, not that they were complaining. Once the social app came back online, Amanda stayed glued to her phone, scrolling through pictures of the wreckage and reading hare-brained theories about the motive: disgruntled TriCo employees? desert evangelists trying to kick off the apocalypse? a declaration of war from Arizona?
After work on Monday she and Michelle went to their usual bar, an unremarkable dive off the side of the highway. Influencers had never "discovered" it and the beer was as piss-poor as the service. But it was cheap, like pre-Silicon Valley cheap. Like when all of these suburbs were just orchards and grassland and a farmer would have laughed at paying $32 for a cocktail, whatever the hell that was.
"Crazy shit this weekend," said Michelle, finishing off a bottle and signaling the bartender for another one.
"Seriously. You think this has anything to do with Arizona?" asked Amanda. "This one was by the border."
"Nah. All those states made it pretty clear they want nothing to do with us. I think this is some homegrown shit. Like... okay, no casualties either time? You know there are security guards there and probably some geeks working on the weekend making sure the servers are beeping correctly or whatever. But no one was even hurt? Where were they?" Michelle gave Amanda a knowing look.
"You think there's a conspiracy here?"
"Listen... thanks man," Michelle said to the bartender, who gave her a beer and a middle finger. "Yeah. I think it's weird. I think there's someone on the inside at TriCo. How the fuck else did they get this kind of access, twice?"
Amanda sipped her beer and shook her head. "Yeah I get that but you don't think TriCo already looked into that? They probably track all of their employees all the time. Wouldn't they know if one of their own had gone out to the desert and blown up two server farms?"
Michelle considered this. "Maybe it goes all the way to the top."
"Man what the fuck are you talking about."
Michelle laughed. "I don't know. It's just weird shit, that's all I'm saying."
"Amen." Amanda paused for a moment. "You know, there’s almost something exciting about all of it. I don’t know, I kind of like seeing the footage. You know what I mean?" She kept her gaze on her beer.
Michelle raised an eyebrow. "Huh. Yeah, I guess."
They finished their beers in silence, watching a rerun of some old sitcom about miserable office workers on the TV above the bar.
It would turn out that Michelle and all the conspiracy theorists online were wrong. Later that week, the TriCo Power website was hacked. No one was able to view their utility bills or water usage reports because the entire website had been replaced with an image of a barren reservoir overlaid with large text that read:
TWENTY YEARS AGO YOU USED 100 GALLONS OF WATER A DAY. THEN YOU WERE LIMITED TO 80. TO 50. TO 10. YOU ARE LIMITED TO 10 GALLONS OF WATER A DAY FOR ALL YOUR NEEDS WHEN TRICO WASTES 1,000,000,000s ON THEIR MINES, THEIR DATA CENTERS, THEIR HEADQUARTERS. THEY WASTE YOUR WATER TO MAKE TECHNOLOGY TO SPY ON YOU AND SUBJUGATE YOU. WE ARE RETURNING THAT WATER TO YOU. EXPECT MORE SOON.
After that, the Water Attacks, as they became known, were all anyone could talk about. The news stations reported on almost nothing else, interviewing climate scientists and politicians and showing constant, depressing footage of all of California’s depleted lakes and rivers. TriCo launched a huge PR push to maintain the public's trust, but by the time they undid the hack, everyone had learned about the unequal water rations. The TriCo social app was almost impossible to keep up with, despite TriCo's blatant efforts to censor the criticism. Amanda's friends kept posting statistics about data center water usage and the impact of rare earth mining and how little it rained now compared to decades ago and everyone wondered, why didn't they know about this sooner? Some of these stats were from ten, fifteen years ago. Journalists had already been sounding the alarm about tech extraction and pollution, but it had disappeared in the rising sea of all other climate news. The Water Attacks made it impossible to ignore.
It was hard for Amanda to focus at work. Protests had broken out in Los Angeles, Oakland, Bakersfield, even small towns like Yucca Valley and Arcata. Amanda cared less and less about all these goddamn forms she had to fill out; she just wanted to read the news, maybe even go join one of the protests.
She sighed. It was only a silly fantasy. She wasn’t an activist, she was just someone working a desk job. So she checked her TriCo productivity dashboard, counting how many cases she'd need to close today to get the app to stop pinging her with its stupid little alerts. And then the website froze. She clicked around, tried to refresh a few times, but the website was down. She messaged Michelle:
hey is the trico dash working for you?
hold on. A short pause. uh no its frozen. u?
same. everything else is fine tho
grace justpinged me too, down for her too. guess lets give it a minute?
But even after half an hour it was still down. No one could see their open cases or make new ones for the growing lines of people. Everyone in the DMV had grown restless but the agents didn't know what to do. Had there been another attack?
Finally Leon messaged all the agents.
Hey everyone, looks like multiple TriCo services are down again. We can still process any hard copies of paperwork. Otherwise, take people's contact info and let them know we'll reach out when everything is operational again. This might be a bad one.
Michelle immediately messaged Amanda, is he fukcing serious
Amanda groaned. This was going to be a day with a lot of tantrums.
Even the short-lived car bans hadn't been this bad; at least back then Amanda could tell people what to expect. Now, no one knew why these services were down, since there hadn't been another attack, and no one knew when everything would come back online, because tech companies like TriCo were notoriously opaque. Then TriCo quietly announced that some data had been permanently lost, including files in that software the DMV used. Thousands of cases, tens of thousands of forms, all erased.
Amanda almost marveled at how this job kept finding a way to get worse. She now had to call people and let them know that all their DMV data was gone, and it didn't matter if they had already been waiting months for something, they'd have to start over, and it was going to take even longer now that everything needed to be processed by hand.
She spent several days in the backroom making these calls. Once again she found herself wondering if the higher water rations for government employees was worth all this. She cried on her lunch breaks. Sometimes she cried on the calls, still trying to sound pleasant while people screeched and berated her. Paperwork piled up. Sometimes she wanted to light it all on fire, light the whole DMV on fire. But that would be crazy, of course.
Eventually she got to Paula McIntyre's name on her list. Amanda blew her nose and dialed the number.
"Ms. McIntyre? Paula? This is Amanda from the DMV. I was handling your case. I'm sure you've heard abo—"
"Oh, the attacks right? Yeah I saw that on the news. That affected you guys, didn't it?"
"That's correct, unfortunately. I was calling to let you know that your data was lost during the attack and we would need to start your paperwork over again. As you can imagine we're very backed up at the moment and I want to apologize for the delay." She tensed up.
"Sure, that's fine. Not your fault. Do you need some time to get everything sorted first?"
"Ha!" Amanda yelped. "Oh, I'm sorry, yes. Yes we're going to need a lot of time, if I'm being honest with you." She rubbed her eyes and reminded herself to stay professional.
"Sounds like it hit you guys hard, huh."
"It... did, yes. But it's okay, it's…" Her voice cracked. "I don't know. I'm sorry, I'll admit I'm a bit tired."
"Hey no need to apologize for that."
Air crackled over the phone.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off. Please, go ahead," said Amanda.
"You're fine. You seem pretty wrecked by this. Let me buy you a beer after work."
"Listen, if I had to guess, you've had a lot of people yelling at you lately, right?"
"Oh, I mean, well, uh... well yes."
"Yeah so let me buy you a beer."
"Oh, but, why?"
Paula laughed. "Feeling charitable. Got a spot you like?"
After the last few days, hell the last few years, Amanda decided, fuck it. Yeah. She could use a beer. She sniffed.
"Okay, there's a spot by the highway..."
That evening after work Amanda took her time driving to the bar. She had been cooped up in the backroom for too long and, $15/gallon gas prices be damned, she needed a joyride to empty her mind. She got on a scenic highway and sped through blonde hills dotted with deep green oak trees, the dimming light in the west bathing everything in gold. Far in the distance she could see fog just barely peeking over the redwoods. Her eyes misted. God, she needed to go outside more. Needed to live more.
When she finally got to the bar, she was almost surprised to see Paula already there, this time in a threadbare T-shirt with a country singer on it. Paula smiled and waved at her.
"Long day at work?"
Amanda slumped into the seat and laughed. "Honestly, you have no idea."
Paula slid a beer towards Amanda. "Already got you one."
"Oh, thank you. You know you really didn't have to do this."
"I know. I wanted to. Cheers."
They clinked bottles.
Amanda glanced at Paula. "So, like, what's your deal?"
Paula grinned. "What do you mean?"
"I remember that time you came in. You didn't look completely miserable. Everyone's always miserable at the DMV. God, fuck that place."
Paula arched an eyebrow. "Not holding back, huh?"
Amanda took a big gulp of her beer. "No. Fuck it. I have to be so professional all day at work and for what? All those god damn tantrums... sorry. I guess I just met you."
"Ha, it's fine."
"Thanks," said Amanda. But then she found had more to say. "And then with these Water Attacks the job got so much worse but I don't even care about that, not really, I mean it's so god damn annoying making all these calls and dealing with angry people all day but I'm asking myself, why am I just sitting here? I've hated this job for so long and it's not that important and other things are important and why don't I drive up to Oakland and join the protesters or, or, I don't know, do something other than fill out forms and smoke weed at home and watch the news and stay miserable." With that, she finished her beer and let out a small burp.
"I knew you needed that beer."
Amanda looked at Paula and they both laughed.
"Yeah, I guess I did."
Paula waved at the bartender and pointed at a whiskey bottle.
"So, why don't you join the protesters?"
Amanda sighed. "I honestly don't know. I guess I–oh, I'm not much of a whiskey drinker you know."
"I think tonight you are. Enjoy it, it's on me."
"Okay. Thank you. Seriously, thank you."
"My pleasure. So, the protests?"
Amanda thought about it. "Yeah, I guess I just don't know what I would do there, and my life is comfortable, and... I don't know, I really support the Attacks, sorry if that's controversial but I do, and..." Amanda lowered her voice. "...and God knows I've wanted to set my own work computer on fire, and when I see pictures of the Attacks it excites me, it really does, and I want to do something but I just... Well, I'm just a DMV agent. What am I really going to do? File a form about it?"
Paula turned to face Amanda directly. "I think there's a lot you could do. And I think you owe it to yourself to try."
"What? What do you mean?"
"I mean, you seem completely miserable, no offense..."
Amanda nodded in resigned agreement.
"...and I think if you're excited about something, you should see where it takes you." Paula sipped her whiskey and looked at Amanda.
"I... yeah. Okay. I guess I just don't know where to start. Is that stupid?"
"No, not at all. I didn't either at first."
"Wait, what do you mean 'at first'?"Paula smiled. "You really want to do something? Make all of this worthwhile?"
"Yeah, I do."
"Okay, you free this weekend?"
"I think you should meet some friends of mine. Some people who also find the Attacks pretty exciting."
"Oh, okay. Wait, are these people..."
"You'll see." Paula smiled and winked at Amanda, just like she had at the DMV a few weeks ago.
And Amanda wasn't sure what Paula meant, and the beer and Paula’s smile and the whiskey made her feel warm, and she was so goddamn tired, and she thought about the beep of TriCo's software at work and spending the rest of her life at a government computer she wanted to blow up and how much shit she put up with for better water rations, and how much she missed having time to walk through the redwoods, and how many forest fires she had grown up seeing on the news, and how much she missed rain, oh God rain, and how crazy it was to ever waste a single drop of water, a drop she would do anything to feel on her face again, and she looked at Paula and said, "Okay, I'm in."
Lola is a writer and artist based in New York. She mostly writes about the American West, and thinks the East Coast could use more deserts. You can find her on Twitter.