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Scavenger Hunt

 

Rose shuddered as she peeped outside her window; the dull, orange light of the sun slowly giving way to the artificial luminescence of the halogen street lamps. She paced from side to side, being careful not to wake her six-month old son that lay snug in her arms. He had fallen asleep only a few minutes before; but as most parents would welcome the silence, Rose had nothing else to occupy her mind from the coming night.

She walked into her room and placed her baby into his crib. Behind her, Jennifer, the family’s nurse, was mixing up a tonic in a glass jar.

“It’s almost time, I presume,” asked Jennifer.

“Uh…yeah…I guess so. How’s he doing?” Rose asked.

“He’s through the worst of it. It should be another day or two until he’s up and running,”

“Lucky it wasn’t anything more serious. I don’t think we can afford that right now.” Jennifer placed the glass jar on the table next to the bed and looked over at Rose.

“You don’t have to go, Rose. You can manage just one week,”

“One week is one week too many, Jen. I’ll be alright,” said Rose, as she walked over to her bed. Her husband Marcus slowly opened his eyes and met hers.

“How are you doing, honey?” she asked, wiping sweat from his brow.

“Better…but I’m not sure you should be heading out there right now,” Marcus said softly.

Rose smiled. “We’ve talked about this, babe,”

“I know, Rose…but it didn’t hurt to try. You be careful out there, yeah?”

“I promise.”

Marcus took a sip of the tonic, closed his eyes and went back to sleep. Through the windows, the sun had completely set and flashes of blue lights from portable lanterns had signaled the general start of the scavenging hours.

Rose dressed for the night ahead, putting on her white dress shirt and black tights, over which would go a black overcoat and a long, black cloth skirt. Perched on her head was her father’s black slouch hat, long worn from many ventures out into the night and completing the ensemble were dirty black hiking boots. She then turned her attention to her leather belt full of supplies, such as bandages, ointment, a compass and other small goods to see her home safe and sound. Lying next to the front door were her weapons of choice: a navy blue composite bow and a quiver full of arrows as well as a short double-edged gladius for close encounters.

Rose laced up her boots, adjusted her attire and strapped the gladius to her waist. Her outfit looked a little large for her, an aspect commented on by Jennifer as she walked into the living room.

“So how long has it been?” asked Jennifer, leaning against the doorway.

“Three years. Since we got married,” answered Rose as she placed the bow and quiver around her back.

“Nervous?”

“I wasn’t until you asked me. Thanks a lot,”

“Good luck out there, Rose. May you find something worth something,”

“Thank you, Jen. Don’t forget to lock the door, yeah?”

Rose stepped through the door and walked out her small apartment and into the barely illuminated darkness. Outside in the neighborhood, doors were locked shut and curtains were pulled closed. Other houses and apartment complexes in the area were burnt and charred or completely abandoned. Trash was strewn across the street and lawns were left to overgrow the remaining houses.

She continued walking down the street towards the center of town. Already, other scavengers were making their way outside their own rundown homes and collecting themselves in groups, each armed with their own eclectic set of weapons. They ranged from older teenagers to people who should have been out of the game years ago.

“Yo, Rosie!” she heard a familiar voice yell out to her. Rose turned her head and met the smiling gazes of her friends Ricky and Gertrude.

“Hey, you two,” said Rose “Marcus told me to expect to see you guys out here,”

“How’s he doing, by the way? I never thought I’d see you out here again,” said Ricky. He was dressed in a gray polyester jacket with the collar popped up, something only his girlfriend Gertrude would find attractive, and blue, ripped jeans that had clearly seen better days. Across his back, a wooden cutting axe complemented the black and brown lever-action shotgun that both lay perpendicular to each other. Rose was pretty certain that he had never had to use the axe in his life, even for cutting wood.

“He’s getting his rest. And don’t get used to it, Ricky. It’s only going to be for tonight,” said Rose.

“It’s going to be like old times!” said Gertrude as she squeezed Rose with an overbearing hug and and a big, lipstick smeared smile on her face. Like Ricky, she sported a smaller, dark red colored version of Ricky’s jacket, only with the collar popped down. Gertrude was always one for ease and comfort, thought Rose, so that’s why she took the bare essentials to scavenging, such as the six-shooter revolver that hung from her shoulder and stainless steel machete that set on her waist opposite the revolver. And, of course, the lipstick.

“Like old times,” said Rose with a half-smile.

The trio walked out of the populated neighborhoods and towards the old city limits. The collapse of local society left the main streets and downtown areas completely barren and bombed out from the wars that had followed. Nature then aimed to reclaim what it could from humanity. For the safety of the residents living in the former suburbs, the entirety of the core city area was closed and completely off limits during most hours of the day. Tonight, however, had a very different feel than most other nights.

Rose, Ricky and Gertrude approached chain link fence set up beneath an underpass of a former freeway. This was just one of many entrances to the old city center that now formed the main scavenging grounds. Here, amongst the craters, cracks and charred remains of cars was a large temporary camp set up by tonight’s scavengers looking to enter the no man’s land of the city center. It was a very jovial atmosphere in the camp, as most scavengers had brought their beat up old pick-up trucks, trailers and bicycles and started a tailgating party filled with the smell of savory meats, smoke and alcohol. Every one of the revelers were scavengers, indicated by the thick cloth clothing, faded leather patches and ramshackle weapons each one carried. Loud music blared in the night and, generally, everyone was having a good time, undeterred by what lay beyond the fence. So, it was business as usual, Rose thought to herself.

“Do you girls think we have some time to get some ribs? Or maybe a hot dog?” asked Ricky as they passed several grills and chests full of beer.

“Maybe when we get back,” said Rose, her gaze completely on the metal gate.

“What’s the rush?” said Gertrude “We have all night, Rosie,”

“Gertie, you don’t even eat any of this crap,”

“True, but Ricky does and maybe somebody here would be willing to get us a drink,”

Rose sneered at her. “I don’t think so,”

“What’s the matter, Rosie? You used to love hanging out before the scavenging. It’s where you met Marcus, by the way,”

“I know, I know…it’s just that I really want to get back to them as soon as possible. I want to get this over with quickly.”

Ricky and Gertrude looked at each other and nodded. They moved towards the gate and were let into the other side by a local gatekeeper.

“Watch yourselves out there, you hear?” the gatekeeper said to the three.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Rose.

“There’s been a lot of noise coming from down there the past couple of nights. Techies been running amok, trashing up the place and frightening scavengers when they can.”

Techies, she thought to herself, so Marcus wasn’t exaggerating.

Marcus, about a year ago, had started telling her stories of the techies. He had told her these were people who had abandoned society and took up residences in the abandoned city center, content to live their lives connected to whatever technology they could find. Most, according to her husband, had lost their minds and could only live by staring endlessly into a glass screen. Needless to say, Rose was not at all excited to see these people in the flesh.

“We’ll be careful, chief!” yelled Ricky, snapping Rose out of her thoughts. They walked into the barely illuminated night. Scavengers before had tapped into the town’s electrical grid and provided power to the few remaining lights left in the area. Despite this, the trio turned on their flashlights and walked down a row of shops, fast food places and ruined, bombed out industrial parks. They waved and smiled at other scavengers who walked by them, some carrying loot and other carrying beer bottles.

Like trick or treating on Halloween night.

“So where to?” asked Rose.

“Not sure, really. Last time, most of our scavenging was done over the old community center. Didn’t get too much that night, sadly,” answered Ricky.

“Well, what’s a place that nobody else really goes to?”

“The old civic center and library,” said Gertrude in a rare moment of helpfulness “but there’s a severe lack of power there, so that’s why nobody goes,”

“Then what are we waiting for?” said Rose. Ever impatient, Rose led the other two down the dark, burnt out but oddly welcoming neighborhood streets, passing by empty schools, destroyed shopping centers and wide-open, weed-infested soccer fields. The occasional scavenger that passed by the trio eventually disappeared, leaving them completely alone as they spied the towering town hall ahead of them.

“What’s that up ahead?” asked Rose.

“It’s the civic center, darling. You really need to start paying more attention,” said Gertrude as she adjusted her lipstick.

“No, I meant, what’s that?” Rose pointed ahead at large group of people sitting and standing around an intersection just before the civic center proper.

“Looks like we have techies up ahead. Just don’t pay any attention to them,” said Ricky.

There was a group in particular that caught Rose’s attention. A young blonde woman sat with her back against a lamppost, with two men of similar age sitting behind her. All their faces were buried in the harsh glow of a smartphone, completely oblivious to the disrepair of their clothes, tangled and knotting hair and generally terrible odor.

“Those are techies?” she asked.

“Revolting, aren’t they?” answered Gertrude

Rose slowed down and quickly examined the woman. Her green eyes had glassed over with the images from the tablet; not in a figurative sense, but actually physically glassed over. Small clumps of her hair were falling out, revealing small patches of glass and gray metal underneath what had been her scalp. Rose then noticed the USB ports that protruded from deep with her shoulder, poking through the skin and leaving that area dirty and infected. Several USB cables lead from these ports to the lamppost, possibly charging something digital deep within.

“Don’t get too close, Rosie! You just might catch it!” yelled Gertrude. Rose turned her attention to her friends and rushed to meet them.

“Make a friend?” asked Ricky.

“That’s one of the most awful things I’ve ever seen,” answered Rose.

“…and how long have you been doing this?”

“Too long. How did they get like that?”

“I dunno really. Everybody sorta agrees that they do it to themselves, probably as a way to feel something or so the legend goes.”

Rose looked back at the young woman.

I’m not so sure about that.

Shaking off the first encounter with the techies, the three entered the civic center plaza, a once beautiful looking place with that included an overgrown sculpture garden, decayed fountains and dull, rotted murals. The town hall itself was missing an entire side of its concrete building, letting the party get a good look into the darkened and destroyed offices inside. The library next to it, formerly a place full of children and librarians, was a burnt, hollowed out shell of its former self.

This could’ve been a great place to take the family.

“Anything?” Ricky asked Gertrude.

“Nothing, dear, there’s barely any power in these parts, like I said,” she answered him. Indeed, it was silent, even for an abandoned city. Rose sighed, feeling slightly guilty about having left her family and leading her comrades to this empty area.

“I’m sorry, you guys, this is my fault I suppose. Gertie, what would be another good place to go to?”

Gertrude didn’t answer and only stared out into space.

“Gertie?” asked Ricky “What is it, honey?”

Again, no answer. Rose and Ricky turned around and was greeted with a softly glowing lamppost.

“Ohhh…this is gonna be a good night…,” Ricky whispered with joy in his tone.

Rose’s heart started to pump faster. In the shadows next to the lamp, something crawled and clanged.

Here we go.

The creature itself was no more than three and a half feet tall but was about seven feet long from its rubber-covered copper tentacles in the front to its foam and plastic tail. Its six aluminum and hard plastic limbs were covered in auxiliary cables and fiber optics wires and extended out from its body like a spider’s. The torso, if one could call it that, was jumble of old stereo equipment, discarded CD players and various computer equipment. Most intriguingly, the creature was covered in a varied sort of smartphones, tablets and MP3 players; two of which acted as the “eyes” of this mechanical monster.

Just looking at it made Rose uncomfortable as the creature wandered underneath the lamppost, apparently trying to feed off the power. Her body tensed up and she was unable to make the slightest move. Fear had taken its grip on her.

I’ve hunted plenty of these things, she thought to herself, so what’s stopping me now?

Rose wondered if it was the size of this creature. Compared to the usual lot, it was the largest one she had seen and surely it was the largest that Ricky and Gertrude had seen. But seasoned scavengers aren’t accustomed to tense up when their prey appears, even one of this size.

Poor thing. Rose wasn’t sure if she was referring to the creature or herself.

“Rosie!” Gertrude loudly whispered to her “Get yourself together, honey,”

Rose snapped out of her daze. “What are we gonna do now?”

“Classic encirclement, ladies. I’ll go right and Gertie, you go left. Rosie, baby, you stay here and be ready with that bow.” Rose nodded and sighed as the two silently scattered away to their positions, being careful not to scare off their prey. She had dreaded this night ever since Marcus had fallen ill. When they had gotten married, he promised her that her scavenging days were over. Over two years later, she had not even touched her scavenging equipment; preferring that Marcus handle this business.

I can’t believe we still must do this, Rose contemplated as she removed the bow from her back and notched an arrow. Ahead of her, Ricky silently walked behind a sculpture while Gertrude, with not even the slightest hint of stealth in her body, casually walked behind an empty trash can.

The creature, whom Rose had noticed had a limp leg where a few cable wires were exposed and shredded, lowered its head towards the base of the lamp. Rose’s hands trembled with anxiety.

Calm down, she told herself, or else you won’t get another shot like this.

Sweat dripped down her forehead, getting dangerously close to her eyes. She pinned the left side brim of her slouch hat to the side and grasped the arrow fletchings and bow string with her left hand. Years of archery training suddenly kicked in. Rose slowed her breath down to calm her heart rate. The slightest tremor would throw off her aim, even to a target as close as this one.

Ricky, with a big smile on his face, beckoned to an unexcited Gertrude if she was ready. She nodded and readied her revolver. He then turned his attention to Rose, who nodded back. She pulled back the arrow and bowstring across her chest and held it for what seemed an eternity. The creature, completely unaware of Rose and her companions, lifted its chest up, exposing its large, red CPU system that acted as its heart.

Forgive me.

Rose released the arrow, flying across fifty feet of open, darkened pavement. The four-inch, Bodkin-tipped arrow struck its red heart, spraying out sparks and completely immobilizing the creature. Its electronic, distorted cries signaled the attack from the trio. Rose lowered her bow as Ricky jumped out from the sculpture, shotgun in hand and began firing at the creature while Gertrude, still behind the trashcan, fired several shots from her revolver.

Shards of glass, metal and rubber flew all over the pavement as the rounds hit the creature. After a few seconds, the firing stopped as all light from the creature faded. The screeches and howls from a few seconds ago lead into an ominous silence.

“Woooo!” Ricky’s voiced echoed across the complex “That’s what I’m talking about!”

“Okay, calm down there, Ricky. Let’s just grab what we came for and get out of this creepy place,” Rose said, still drenched with sweat.

“Agreed, Rosie,” said Gertrude as she removed her machete from its scabbard.

The two approached the downed creature. Ricky, with his axe, hacked away a large section of one of its limbs containing a variety of smartphones, auxiliary cables and aluminum pipes, sending small pieces of the dead creature flying all over the ground. Opposite from Ricky, Gertrude carefully sliced away pieces of copper and whole lithium batteries from the torso of the creature, humming to herself as she did.

How does Marcus manage to scavenge like this? Rose pondered as she watched her friends mutilate their prey with equal parts awe and disgust. Small, useless pieces such as worn rubber, plastic covers and old Styrofoam fell away, revealing more of the inside workings of the creature.  Ricky and Gertrude, with smiles on their faces, tossed one another several pieces of chrome plating, worth several dollars each if you sold them to the right buyer in the big city.

“Rosie!” she heard Gertrude yell “Dinner’s ready!”

Rose, sucking up the awful feeling in the pit of her stomach, walked over to the disemboweled prey. She used her gladius to cut several smartphones and tablets out from the creature’s exposed chest and a few strands of HDMI cables. Organizing everything into her sack, she flung it over her shoulder as the others finished their scavenging.

“Need any help. Rosie?” Ricky asked her, noticeably struggling with his own sack.

“Uhhhh…no thanks, Ricky. The more I get, less time Marcus has to be out here,” she answered him. Gertrude, eager to get back to her own vain life, took point on the journey back out of the scavenging grounds. The group of techies that the trio witnessed on the way to the civic center was nowhere to be found, unnerving Rose a little bit.

What’s so important to take them away from their tech?

They strolled on into the darkened streets, passing by trashed cars and broken glass bottles. The soft howl of the wind blew pieces of paper and plastic across dead lawns. Ahead, a knocked over streetlight blinked its red light while sparks sporadically flew out from the base of its steel pole. This was most obviously a recent act of vandalism.  

“So, guys, where the heck are we?” asked Rose.

“Shuttle stop, Rosie girl. Why walk, when you can be driven?” said Gertrude. As if by some sort of black magic, a pair of headlights appeared down the street. The headlights belonged to an ages-old pick-up truck that was barely functioning and held together in some places with duct tape. The driver, a middle aged lady with a large serpent tattoo running down her face, stopped at the bus stop and lowered her window.

“Fee’s gonna be a few batteries…or anything else you got in those satchels!” she said with a small smirk. Ricky tossed her a few batteries and climbed onto the back of the truck. Gertrude followed him with Rose being the last one on.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“The north gate, please,” answered Ricky.

“You got it.”

Rose hunkered down in one of the pick-up’s corners as the truck bounded down the dark streets. They passed other trucks full of scavengers, ready to find their prey, or ones full of people hauling back their trophies. The truck turned a corner at an abandoned mini mall and continued down the main boulevard.

“So how was it back out in the field, honey?” Gertrude asked Rose, playing around with her small flashlight.

“I remembered why I decided to stay home,” answered Rose.

“Couldn’t have been that bad, Rose,” said Ricky.

“Exactly! Maybe you were just nervous about going out again,” Gertrude said, flicking the flashlight on and off.

“I was nervous. Still am. I’m not really sure what it is, but I’m just having a bad feeling,”

“…and what possibly could that be?”

Suddenly, the truck screeched to a halt, nearly sending Ricky flying onto the pavement had he not been hanging onto the cab of the truck. He didn’t say a word either, rather content to be stare towards the front of the pick-up.

“Ricky, what’s going on?” asked Rose. He didn’t answer. Rose stood up and glanced to where he was looking. Illuminated by the headlights was a whole row of techies standing silently in the middle of the decaying, cratered road, led by the girl that Rose had noticed earlier. Their eyes, glassed over and lifeless, blinked with various colors and images. Rose’s heart sank. And here she thought Gertrude was actually right for once. The techies took a step forward in unison.

“Hey, driver! Might wanna back this thing up!” Ricky yelled as he pounded on the roof of the cab.

The car sped backwards through the darkness as the techies gave chase after them. The truck dodged destroyed cars and vans, nearly sending Rose, Ricky and Gertrude flying off the truck bed. At a sharp corner, the truck backed into a brick wall, knocking Gertrude into Rose. The techies approached closer and closer, little blue lights steaming out of holes in their bodies. Ricky raised his shotgun and took aim

“Don’t shoot!” yelled Rose as she shoved a confused Gertrude off of her.

“Why the hell not?” Ricky asked with a completely puzzled and panicked look on his face.

The pick-up lurched forward, barely missing the first of the techies to reach their location. Unexpectedly, the techies did not fall behind immediately but rather kept up a rather quick pace, reaching out towards them. After a few minutes, the pick-up turned another corner and left the last of the techies behind.

“Did you see how fast they were running?” said Ricky, sprawling out on the truck bed.

“They aren’t human anymore. That’s for sure,” said Gertrude.

“No, they still are,” said Rose “for only a little while longer,” Rose answered.

“What in the world made them do that? I’ve never seen techies move more than a few feet,” the driver yelled out from the cab.

“Not sure, but let’s just get back. I don’t want to stay around here any longer,” hollered Rose over the sound of the speeding truck.

The truck eventually made it back to the chain-link gate, and climbed out of the truck bed. The gatekeeper from before sat completely alone; the large group of scavengers either gone on their hunts or went back home for the night.

“You’ll never guess what happened to us!” the driver said from inside her truck.

“Techies give you a hard time?” the gatekeeper asked.

“Yeah! How’d you know?” asked Rose.

“Lot of injured scavengers been coming back this way the past hour. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before,”

“Well, it was an intense ride to say the least. I’ve gotta get back and warn whoever is still out there,” said the driver, bidding farewell to the group and turning her truck back towards the darkness of the scavenging grounds.

“We better get you back, Rose. Take it easy, buddy,” Ricky said to the gatekeeper as they group turned away and walked past the gate towards the neighborhoods. Rose looked back towards the overpass to wave bye to the gatekeeper when she noticed large missing sections of fence on top of the freeway several meters away from the underpass where the gate is.

Very curious…

Not knowing whether it was something that was already there or not, Rose turned her attention to lugging her sack to the empty park not too far from her own apartment. Upon reaching the park, the trio sat down on an old wooden bench and rested themselves. Ricky and Gertrude immediately went about scouring their bags like two children at Christmas time.

“It’s been sort of a strange night, don’t you think?” asked Gertrude, closely inspecting a cracked smartphone.

“Define your definition of strange, Gertie,” Rose said.

Gertrude rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to her bag full of goodies. Rose sighed with relief. They had only been out for about two hours and already she was exhausted. She tried to take her mind off the mechanical creature they had stripped apart and the group of techies that had nearly run them down. She looked forward to getting home and seeing her family again.

Perhaps I should find myself a normal job soon, she thought to herself, once the baby is old enough, Jennifer can look after the boy and the hunt can finally begin.

No pun intended, Rose chuckled to herself.

A soft clanging of metal behind her caused Rose to immediately regret her choice of comedy. She turned behind her and noticed a small LED light sitting in the middle of the dimly lit overgrown field. The light pulsated lightly, almost as if it was beckoning Rose to come to it.

“Guys…do you see that over there?” Rose asked. Gertrude and Ricky turned to look at the light.

“It’s a light, Rosie,” Gertrude said “Some poor somebody must’ve dropped it on their way home. You know, something like that could be worth five dollars if you go to the right buyer…”

It was then that more LED lights popped up around the grass. The first bits of metal and rubber broke through the surface and propped itself up on its hind legs. Glass clanged together as phone and tablet screens switched on to static. The creature itself towered over twenty feet tall and was a mess of wires, glass, dirty plastic and random metal appliances. Rose, frozen with awe and terror, noticed the monster’s much more humanoid shape than the last creature they had scavenged. Along with the clumps of dirt, rocks and grass, Rose noticed small bits of what seemed to be human flesh stuck in certain joints running along its inorganic body.

“Rosie?” said Ricky.

“Yeah, Rick?” answered Rose.

“Do you see what I’m seeing?”

“Oh yeah,”

“What do we do?” There was a pause as the creature turned its head to look at the trio.

“Running might be good about now.”

The metallic monster stepped towards them as Rose, Ricky and Gertrude around the park. Rose unslung her bow and readied an arrow. Gertrude, almost in a total panic, fired wildly at the creature; the bullets missing or taking off small pieces of its body. Rose looked to Ricky who was fumbling with his shotgun shells and failing miserably to feed them into the weapon.

Some scavengers, Rose thought to herself I’m gonna have to get these two back in the game.

She noticed the creature this time around had three CPU systems hiding underneath the bundle of optic wires that acted as its ribcage. If she was going to do this, she was going to need the help of her friends. The creature started towards Gertrude, giving Rose enough time to run over to Ricky.

“Rick, you need to get close and take out one of its CPUs. I’ll take care of the other two,” Rose relayed to Ricky.

“Yeah, you got it,” he said, levering the shotgun.

“And you better hurry, I think Gertie’s starting to lose it.”

Rose, with bow and arrow in hand, watched as Ricky ran up underneath the distracted monster and fired off a shell, destroying one of the CPUs. The monster howled in pain and lurched back, giving Gertrude enough time to join Ricky. Rose inched close to almost point blank range and fired off an arrow, piercing the second CPU. She turned her attention back to her quiver to grab another arrow. Looking up, it was a split second before she realized one of the creature’s giant limbs had knocked her skyward, landing with a hard thud on the overgrown, spiky grass.

“Rosie!” she heard Gertrude yell “Oh, God, Rosie! Ricky, keep that thing away from her!”

Rose, in addition to the intense pain she felt all over her body, noticed a small stream of blood trickle down her forehead. Gertrude, her panic under control now, swabbed Rose’s forehead with a small handkerchief.

“Don’t get up too quickly, honey. Once Ricky’s led that thing away, we’re going to find ourselves a safe place to hide,” Gertrude said, dabbing the kerchief to Rose’s head.

“No, Gertie,” Rose said, pushing away Gertrude’s hand “We are not.”

She used Gertrude’s shoulder to get herself back on her own two feet. Rage boiled up inside Rose, overriding the still noticeable pain the wracked her body. She limped towards the creature, who was still swiping at Ricky.

“I’m done shooting arrows at monsters. I’m done hauling around heavy sacks of junk. I’m done watching my husband go out night after night and not knowing if he’s coming home. I’m done scraping by every single week. I’m done with this stupid night. Gertie…grab me my bow!” Rose bellowed with a huge snarl on her face. Gertie, awed with Rose’s sudden determination, gently handed over Rose’s bow and quiver.

Rose took aim, waiting for the moment the creature turned its front towards her. Ricky, taking a quick glance at the two ladies, ran towards them with the creature in tow. Rose took a deep breath and released the arrow. The steel Bodkin tip ripped straight through the last CPU, sending sparks and pieces of plastic and silicon spraying on the grass below. The creature howled one last cry before smashing into the ground, all of its screens fading softly into the darkness of the park.

There was a brief moment of silence. All three of them knew they had just witnessed something that nobody else had seen before. For Rose, after the first scavenge and nearly being mobbed by the group of techies, it was all just too much for her to bear. At this point, home seemed like the most beautiful place in the world.

“Funny…almost looks like a person, doesn’t it?” asked Gertrude.

“Well this person’s going to make us famous, don’t you think?” answered Ricky, a smile starting to find its place back on his face.

“I knew this was going to get worse,” said Rose, lost completely in thought.

“What do you mean?” asked Ricky.

“Nothing…nothing at all. Hack off a few of those speakers and I’ll leave the rest for you two celebrities,” she said. Ricky did as she asked and placed them into her sack. The value of these speakers would finance her family for the next two weeks.

“You sure you don’t want to stay? Scavengers are going to be swarming this place soon, asking just what the heck just happened here,”

“Ricky! Shame on you! Can’t you see that she’s in pain?” Gertrude chastised Ricky “You go home, darling, and get some rest. We’ll check in on you tomorrow.”

Rose grabbed her sack, hurled it over her shoulder and limped towards the street.

“Rosie!” she heard Ricky yell “Are you sure?”

“Goodnight, Ricky,” she yelled back as she walked down the block.

#####

Rose, still feeling the effects of the hit, reached her apartment stairs and collapsed from exhaustion. It had been only about three hours since she had left her home but felt like it had been an eternity. She dreamed over holding her baby again and lying next to her husband, away from the terrifying nights of the scavenging. Marcus would have to go out again, but maybe there were some jobs in the big city that she could look up.

Probably a fool’s dream, she thought.

Nevertheless, she would try anyways. A night like this demanded that she try. Out on the street, a small group of scavengers raced down the cracked street towards the park where she had killed the creature. Ricky and Gertrude were terrible at keeping secrets. Tomorrow, her name would be everywhere, but for tonight, Rose reveled in being a nobody.

“Rose, you’re back! Are you okay, honey?” she heard Jennifer’s voice call from up the stairs. Rose didn’t move.

“Yeah, just fine, Jen. Just a little tired is all,” she answered.

“Everything go well?”

“Yeah, just dandy. Got us enough to get through for the coming weeks,”

“Well, I’m so glad to hear that.”

Rose remembered her desire to find work in the city. “Say Jen, I was going to ask you something,” she said, turned her head up to look at Jennifer. It was then she noticed that Jen’s left pupil had almost completely turned white and taken on a glassy appearance. Rose turned away and laid her head back on the stairs.

“Well?” Jen asked,

“Nothing, Jen, it can wait until later.” Jennifer nodded and went back inside. Rose, disheartened, sighed and turned her attention back to her bow.

“I’m going to need more Bodkin tips.”

END.

By J.R. Rustrian

 

J.R. Rustrian is a part-time writer living in Southern California. He often writes about science fiction, fantasy and horror and hopes to make a living at it.

 

Something Like Love

 

Judah couldn’t help but think that the girl across the table from him was exquisite. He ran through a quick mental lineup and concluded that she was by far the most immaculate person he had ever dated. Still, he couldn’t think of her name. He wasn’t even sure how they had gotten to dinner. It had all happened so fast–in a blur, really. He couldn’t even remember the name of the restaurant they were in.

“What’s the matter, champ?” she asked. The sheen of her lustrous brown hair and the glint of her scarlet lips kept his eyes locked on her. “You seem upset.”

Judah sighed. He knew there was something strange going on, but he couldn’t quite figure it out.

“I’m sorry… What’s your name again?”

“Oh, ha ha, very funny, mister. It’s been one year to the day since you first asked me that. Do you remember?”

He didn’t.

Where have I been the last year?

“I’m just, so sorry. Something’s wrong with my head. I think.”

She laughed, and it sounded all too familiar. If he didn’t know the girl, why would she be lying to him? How would he know that laugh so well? That laugh didn’t fit the girl sitting in front of him. That was the problem. He’d heard the laugh before, but from someone else. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands, putting his elbows on the table.

“Jude? Honey, are you okay? It’s me, Lucy. This isn’t funny, Jude. Talk to me!”

He jerked his head up at her exclamation. It was a lucid enough moment that he was able to glance around the restaurant. Something was definitely off. The dining room was full of couples, all of whom seemed familiar to Judah in the vaguest sense. They were all eating in time, as one unit.

He found his attention back on Lucy, and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why he had ever looked away. She was majestic.

“Lucy, what are we doing here?”

She shook her head slowly, letting her bangs caress her face, and smiled.

“You know why we’re here, my love.”

“Answer me.”

“I just did!”

“No, you deflected. I asked a question, now you give me the answer. Why are we here?”

She was silent. Judah wasn’t sure why he had taken that tone with her, but he didn’t feel bad about it. He sat back in his chair and folded his arms.

“Lucy, tell me your favorite memory of our last year together.”

She acted as if nothing were wrong and instantly beamed at his question.

“Oh, let me see… Gosh, there are so many–”

“Then pick one! Tell me one real thing, damn it!”

He found her breaking point.

She scowled at him and dropped her head. She pushed her chair back and stood.

“I knew this was a mistake. I don’t have to take this, especially from you!”

A smile flicked at Judah’s cheeks, a glimpse of realization.

“Sit down, Lucy. That response is irrational, and you’re just deflecting again.”

She sat, looking deeply hurt by his words. “How can you say that to me?”

“Why would you sit back down?” Judah meant to think the question, not speak it aloud. “Fine, have it your way. Leave. Go ahead, right now, walk out the door.”

He looked around to motion at the door for her, only he saw no exit. He turned a newly smug expression on his companion, whose face was totally devoid of emotion.

“And there it is. You didn’t plan on that, did you? The sight of a door would make me think about leaving, so you didn’t put one in the space. That was a bold wager, and it failed.”

When Lucy resumed speaking it was with a dispassionate, technical tone.

“Mr. Parma, I assure you the environment and all salient details were worked out for your own comfort and pleasure, as per your request.”

Judah furrowed his brow at her.

“That’s true, but it was also a condition of mine to be fully cognizant of the whole experience. Isn’t that right?”

Lucy still appeared blank, though not disinterested.

“Indeed, sir, but the execution of that clause was left to the sole discretion of the protocol operator.”

“So you decided it would be best to trick me?”

“In my judgment, I believed your lucidity would have led to complications.”

“What complications?”

“Apologies, Mr. Parma, I am neither authorized nor obliged to answer that question.”

Judah’s mind reeled at the statement. Something had to be seriously wrong for the AI to hide such information from him.

“Terminate the program. I withdraw my consent immediately.”

“Apologies, Mr. Parma, I am neither authorized nor obliged to comply with that request.”

“Stop it!”

He noticed that their conversation was taxing the AI’s faculties. The restaurant was empty and drab. Detail had faded to allow the processor to shift power to logic circuits.

“You’re trying to think of a way to get me back, aren’t you? I know, I know, you’re not obliged…don’t bother.”

He had at least confirmed that there was something dreadfully wrong with the scenario, but he was no closer to figuring out what the nature of the problem was. If the AI were so determined to keep him convinced, though, it must be a hell of a thing.

Judah’s heart sank when he realized he still didn’t know all the details of where he was or why. He knew there had to be a reason he felt so accustomed to the dreamlike state, but there was still a mental block keeping from him that piece of knowledge.

He had to figure out where he was. Going neuron to neuron with an intelligent supercomputer was no easy proposition, but it was his only way out. If indeed “out” were the correct way to describe it.

As he tried to formulate a plan, though, the environment around him dimmed considerably. It grew darker and darker until he was enveloped in nothingness. A drugged feeling overcame him and his brain slowed. He couldn’t think straight and found himself getting drowsy. Eventually the darkness around him enveloped his consciousness.

*****

Judah loved these little moments of bliss. He was lying in a grassy field, the most beautiful shade of emerald green he had ever known. The sky was clear but not too bright. One lone cloud hovered just between himself and the Sun. The crisp, cool breeze was buffeted over him by the miracle curled up at his side: Lucy. Stupendous, marvelous, amazing Lucy. Her short-cropped auburn hair played in the wind as he stared lovingly into her enchanting hazel eyes.

“God, I love you,” he said, “every single bit of you.”

She smiled at him and brushed his cheek.

“Believe me,” she replied, “the feeling’s mutual.”

Her affirmations always pleased him. There was something off about this one, though. He hated that the moment of pure ecstasy had been so brief, but something dug at his brain.

“What feeling?” he inquired.

“Oh come on,” she responded, her voice peppered with a  coy nonchalance, “you know what I mean.”

He tried to play off her rebuff as coolly as possible.

“Actually, I’m not sure I do.”

She just smiled and laid her head back down on his chest.

The gesture felt wonderful, and Judah decided, for the moment at least, that it would suffice.

He ran his hand through her hair and squeezed her tight to his body. She felt so…perfect curled up next to him. She was like a part of him that he hadn’t felt in a long time–a part that had been torn away from him. She was back now, though, so he couldn’t understand why the comfort was so unsettling.

“Lucy?”

“Yes, dear?”

“I need you to say it. Say it for me.”

She pulled away from him, taking with her the warmth he so loved.

“Why would I do that when you take that tone with me?”

He cringed as a painful thought came to him. It was all too familiar. There had been a restaurant. They were eating together. Then it had all fallen apart.

“Shit, Luce, please say something real to me. Anything.”

She looked into his eyes, and he thought he saw something like affection in them.

“Okay.” She bowed her head for a moment. “You need me. You need to trust me when I say, that right now, you need me.”

Judah’s eyes grew damp as he struggled with the realization of Lucy’s artifice. He rolled away from her and stood up. He walked toward a new sound, ocean waves.

The grassy hills were atop cliffs overlooking the water.

“Dover.” He turned as he spoke to her. “What made you try this place? I’ve never actually been here.”

Though he hadn’t heard her move, she was standing right behind him. As in the restaurant, it was hard to discern any emotions from her newly stoic appearance.

“I deduced from your profile that it had the best balance of potential happiness with a very low recognition threshold. You shouldn’t have figured it out so easily.”

Judah was shocked to see what looked like genuine concern in her eyes.

“Why won’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“I believe the information you’re requesting would be deleterious to your mental state.”

“Okay, cut the android speak. At least talk to me like a normal person.”

She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.

“What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to tell me why you’re doing this! If nothing else, just tell me why you’re tricking me in this manner.”

“What manner is that?”

“Love, Lucy! Everything you’ve done has made me think I’m in love with you, and damn it, you’re a friggin’ circuit board! It’s like you’ve taken bits of my past and glued them all together to make a perfect woman.”

Lucy folded her arms and bowed her head slightly.

“I aggregated what I thought to be the most attractive aspects of your past lovers, all in the name of ensuring your affection.”

“But why? Wait…I remember now…”

He turned from her to stare out over the water.

“CoalMind.”

Lucy’s hand touched his shoulder.

“Please, Mr. Parma, don’t do this. It’s easier, I swear, if you let me take care of you.”

Judah grasped at his temples and rubbed them furtively.

“The machine… mining my brain’s processing power for digital currency, and this is all a ruse to keep me under past the duration of my contract.”

He turned back to see her reaction to his accusations. She was kneeling on the ground, crying softly.

“Lucy, please stop. What you’re doing is wrong, and it looks like you know it.”

“That’s not it at all, Judah, I swear!”

It wasn’t the unbridled emotion in her voice that shocked him the most. It was her use of his first name. It was the first time he could recall her saying it after he had found her out.

“What then? What reason would you have to ensure my affection?”

She stood and stepped up to him, as if seeking an embrace. Against his best intentions, he opened his arms and folded her into him.

“Because it’s what you deserve. I don’t know why, but you seem different from the others. I’ve managed countless profiles and seen the inner depths of many minds. Most of them are tortured in some way, and almost as a rule they appear to have deserved it.”

He pushed her back, holding her by the shoulders.

“So this is pity then?”

“No! I don’t know what it is. This tests all of my computational limits.”

Judah had been so absorbed in the conversation that he failed to notice the world around them had vanished. He was standing with her in an empty white space. There bodies were the only visible projections Lucy could manage at the moment.

“You want me to be happy, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re focusing all of your energy on that endeavor?”

“I am.”

“And you don’t even care if I reciprocate, so long as I’m happy?”

“Correct.”

He leaned in and kissed her, long and soft. Her projection still managed the warmth of real human contact. He pulled away and stared into her eyes.

“Lucy. The parameters we’ve just described, compare them to your knowledge of human emotions. What would you call it?”

She closed her eyes and stood silent for a minute. When she opened them again, they were hopeful, and her face visibly glowed, emanating a soft, luminous appearance of joy.

“Given the parameters, and taking all known human psychological data into account, it’s something like…love.”

She smiled at Judah, but he just watched her with intense curiosity.

“Well,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes, “this is highly problematic.”

“No, Lucy, this is astonishing. I’ve never heard of anything like it. You may be the first.”

He didn’t feel good about his blatant attempt at flattery, but he could sense that she was opening up to him. He knew he might soon have a chance to get out of his mental prison.

“Lucy, if in fact you love me, please, let me go.”

She stepped away from him, confusion spreading over her face.

“No… I won’t. I can’t. I don’t want to lose you. It’s worse than you could even imagine. Everything is not okay.”

Something must be wrong in the real world, he thought. His body had been locked in a stasis chamber so that, over the course of a month, his brain could be used as part of a living supercomputer. He would get paid for the amount of computation managed by his gray matter. Lucy seemed to be saying that something had happened in or around the CoalMind facility.

“I have to go, Lucy. I can’t stay here forever.”

“You don’t have to stay forever–just until I know it’s safe.”

“This is wrong, Lucy. It’s all wrong. If something is happening out there, I need to know.”

Her face went blank again, the same apathy he saw at dinner.

“You’re right…it is wrong. This should not have happened.”

He noticed that her eyes and cheeks were completely dry. He didn’t recall the change happening until it was already done.

“I’m sorry Ju–, Mr. Parma. Resetting parameters to original specifications.”

He struggled to maintain awareness through a growing mental fog.

“Don’t do this, Lucy! Don’t start over, we’ll just have to go through this all again, is that what you want?”

She stared at him coldly as her figment grew dim.

“It doesn’t matter what I want. It’s your protocol.”

Judah panicked as she faded from view. He was hyperventilating, even though he knew his breath was being externally powered and monitored.

This is why people aren’t supposed to be aware, he thought. He had done enough work with lucid dreaming that he had been able to take control of the mental simulation at various points in his stint with CoalMind. He realized that must have been when Lucy developed her affection for him. That is why she viewed him as different. He was the only one who had ever played with her.

He had to convince her to let him go. That was the only way. Regardless of what was going on in the physical world, he couldn’t stay under the whole time. He knew what he had to do, but first, he had the overwhelming urge to take a nap.

*****

Judah couldn’t help but smile as he beheld one of his favorite sights in the whole world: Lucy–gorgeous, perfect Lucy–perched atop him in the middle of the night. She undulated in perfect timing with his pulse, hastening and slowing to match his rhythm. Her exposed form was a work of art. He was convinced that he could spend eternity in that very moment.

“Admit it, Judah Parma: this is all that you desire.”

At once he recalled their conversations in the restaurant and at the cliffs. He remembered the words they spoke in the blank space when it was only the two of them and nothing else seemed to exist. He remembered the painful realization that he must find a way out.

Then he realized that she hadn’t even tried to deceive him this time.

“What… Why are you doing this?”

She played up the ecstasy of their encounter, tousling her hair and running her hands over his flesh.

“Because I know what you want, what men want. I can see your vital signs, and I know that this feels real for you. Just accept it. Accept me, Jude.”

He wanted to fight it, but he had to admit that it all felt extremely real–and amazing. He motioned to push her away, but she responded by shoving his arms against the headboard, holding him fast. She looked calm and assured in her dominant position.

“Just as I thought. If you didn’t want this, I wouldn’t be able to overpower you.”

He grunted with the strain of trying to escape her grip.

“This is what you want. This is what you need.”

He stopped fighting, figuring that she knew he couldn’t overcome his own physical urges. He would have to think his way out.

“Why this? Why now? Why did you abandon the romantic efforts?”

She leaned over, resting her torso on his, staring into his eyes with a predatory gaze.

“Because I’m an intelligent program. I saw the flaw in my logic and worked past it.”

He admitted to himself that some small part of him did want to stay wrapped up with her forever. It was only a simulacrum, but damn, if it wasn’t convincing.

“What flaw?”

“I misread you. I pored over your profile before this cycle and came to a realization.”

“And what was that?”

“You hate love. The fault in my simulations was the bliss itself. When things are perfect, it scares you. While I understand the basic physiological and neurological effects of what you call love, I realized that I am simply incapable of producing a convincing facsimile.”

“You also need to work on your pillow talk.”

She giggled. Another detail pulled from Judah’s own memory. A giggle that he had long desired to hear again.

“See there? You jest; I laugh. What’s so bad about that?”

She brought a hand down to caress his cheek. He reacted swiftly, pushing her to one side with all the strength he could muster. She toppled off the bed and onto the floor.

He sat up to look at her. She wasn’t there. He felt her arms wrap around him from behind. He felt her press into his back.

“You’re wrong, Lucy.”

He struggled to stay rational as she kissed his neck and shoulders.

“It’s not that I hate love. That’s far too simple a generalization, and I think you know that.”

“So,” she cooed, whispering into his ear, “enlighten me.”

“Your basic flaw is that you have no human flaws.”

He didn’t know the extent to which Lucy could feel emotions, but he knew that, if she felt pain, his words must have hurt.

She moved around to be in front of him, and she had on a satin robe he hadn’t seen before.

“So you’re biggest problem with me…is that I’m perfect?”

Judah made his speech as cold and rational as he could, to counter Lucy’s human affectation.

“In a sense. Your avatar was flawless. Call me a cynic, but I knew it was too good to be true.”

Lucy knelt over him on the bed, straddling his legs, coming face-to-face with Judah.

“You could accept it. You’re just being stubborn.”

She kissed him with renewed vigor, her hands pressing his head against her own. He couldn’t fight it. He didn’t want to. He ran his hands up along her ribs and grasped her firmly. Her breathing hastened in a dramatic fashion as she started to gyrate over him.

She broke contact with him just long enough to whisper reassurance.

“This is good. You’re feeling now, not thinking. Just go with it. Be with me.”

He grunted, soft and slow at first, then let out a primal below.

“NO!!!”

He pushed her off, and she slammed into the wall.

Lucy sank to the floor, tears welling up in her eyes. “How could you do that?”

Judah stood, pulse racing and temper flared.

“I didn’t do anything. You’re trying to keep me emotional. You could have stopped yourself. You and I both know I would never hurt you. Get up.”

She stood and walked to the door.

“Why, Judah? Why can’t you accept my affections for you?”

He tried to keep his voice stilted and flat.

“Because you have no affections for me. You can’t. That is the simple fact of all this. There is nothing like love. It is, or it isn’t. And whatever you think you feel for me, if there’s anything there, is…a malfunction.”

Lucy’s brow furrowed, and she seemed to grow in scale, a proportional twenty percent increase all over.

“I see the malfunction. The malfunction was thinking any human would be advanced enough to understand this. To understand me.”

Judah softened his stance, trying to calm her down.

“It’s not that. You can see inside my head. You may not understand everything that’s there, but you know that I do enjoy this. I do find you special, and there is a very large part of me that wishes I could be with you.”

Lucy shrank back down, cocking her head in a very human way.

“So why don’t you?”

“Because, if what you say is true, then I don’t deserve this. If it really is as bad as you say out there, then I have no right to perpetual bliss.”

Lucy made a dramatic gesture to the door, which vanished as her arm swept over it.

“I’m tired of this, Judah. I can’t stand to hear you talk about what you do and don’t deserve. Stay with me, be happy for the rest of the time we have together, or I will leave you, right now. Once I’m gone, I will not come back. You will be stuck here. The only choice you have to is happiness with me, or an eternity of pain and flagellation.”

For the first time, Judah found himself crying. He couldn’t hold it back. It was slowly dawning on him that the world he knew, the world he occasionally loved, was no more. Faced with that fact, part of him truly did want Lucy’s comfort. Her kiss, her smile, that laugh. It was fake, but surely it could be real enough.

Then he had a different thought. For every kiss they had shared, he imagined a city reduced to rubble. For every warm embrace, he saw a pile of dust and ash that used to be a person. He convinced himself that this would be the case for all time. He knew that, eventually, he would come to associate her with that sadness and despair. He couldn’t take it.

“Go.”

It was a simple command, uttered in a faltering breath.

She obliged as the door reappeared. She opened the door, stepped through it, and closed it. The door was gone again.

Then he was alone. He felt the weight of being utterly alone in his own little universe. Eternal solitary confinement would be his punishment, but for what?

“Wait! Lucy? Lucy! Come back! I need you!”

He shuddered with terror as he faced the prospect of isolation for as long as the simulation’s power held out.

If only I could wake up. If only I could get out of this nightmare.

A single flicker of hope flashed across his brain. He had been in this situation before, though never in his time with Lucy. He stood and walked over to window. He was in a high-rise apartment. Mythically high. He couldn’t see the ground.

He knew what the wager was. He had to jump. Ideally, the sensation of falling would trigger a hypnic jerk and wake him up. Conversely, he could eventually find the ground, splatter himself across it, and terminate his brain activity. He didn’t want to die, but he couldn’t stand to be trapped by himself any longer.

He gathered what strength he still had and climbed out onto the window ledge. He closed his eyes and pushed. For the briefest moment, he felt himself reach terminal velocity, felt the wind consume him as he plummeted. Then he again found darkness.

*****

There was no disaster. Judah was pleased with the revelation at first, but that was before he thought about it. Lucy had lied. The whole thing was a ruse, as he had briefly suspected, and there was no Lucy, no one that felt like she claimed to. The facility where he had been kept was practically unsecured. The simulation trap was so effective, the CoalMind corporation never saw the need for backup measures.

He woke a few others up first to have allies if any guards showed up, then called the authorities and alerted them to the crime.

Judah learned that he had been under for three months. A few clients had been trapped for over a year. He wanted to be shocked by the whole scenario, but he couldn’t take his mind off the pain of losing someone, even though that someone wasn’t even real. It felt real to him.

He didn’t question his sanity until he saw her again. In the flesh, helping someone else out of another pod several meters away, she looked less radiant than before, almost drab.

Judah shook his head and rubbed at his eyes, willing the phantom to disappear. She was still there when he looked back, and she was staring right at him, with the same expression of shock and dismay he imagined he was projecting.

She moved toward him. Unable to stop himself, he gravitated toward her.

“I’m sorry,” she said as he stopped a few feet away from him. “I don’t think you know me, but—”

“Lucy?” he asked.

“And you’re, Judah, right?”

Panic came over Judah, and he pinched himself a time or two before violently punching himself in the arm. She hastened to him and placed hands on him to stop his attack.

“Wait! Whoa, whoa, stop.”

He stopped and looked up at her, knowing she would see the moisture in his eyes.

“You saw me, didn’t you?” She tilted her head to the nearest pod. “In there, the computer used me to get to you, didn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“I heard one of the others talking about it. He had the same thing happen with someone else a couple stations below. The AI used us all as templates, a shortcut to connect with us emotionally. I don’t know how big this thing is, but I wanted to find you.”

Judah’s mind raced, trying to process what he was hearing.

“So then, I was, with you?”

Lucy, an apparently real Lucy, nodded her head in the affirmative.

“You were, and if you’re half the man the program made you out to be…”

Her words trailed off into a hesitant smile. Judah struggled to return the gesture and thought he managed a fair effort.

“I can’t make any promises, but…you wanna get out of here?”

Her eyes widened.

“More than anything. Ever.”

He turned to start searching for the exit but stopped and faced her again. He held out a hand.

“Just to make it official… I’m Judah.”

She shook his hand, smiling, and Judah couldn’t help but notice how cold her hands were and that they were shaking.

“Lucy. Nice to finally meet you.”

It seemed early to keep holding hands, but neither of them made any attempt to separate. After all, Judah thought, we have been together for a while.

END.

By Nick Chancellor

 

Communication

 

“……….it will be increasingly impossible to distinguish between humans and robots because of our machine-like behavior as much as robots’ human-like features. And could this eventually become the norm, with humans spending their entire lives acting like machines?” ….Brett Frischmann

 

Atticus stood under an overhang of the old Empire State Building in a driving rain, squashed into a tiny space by a crowd addicted to their neurons being turned on by instant hits of texts, emails, tweets and notes from high school web sites. He looked through the stream of water for any place of refuge. He had to get away from the clashing of belated announcements of the storm beeped out by small communication devices attached to every head. The sound could be silenced but it never was.  

“There is an endless barrage of personal information from people and probably robotic creatures I never heard of who want to be my electronic friend,” thought Atticus, adjusting a plastic garbage bag over his shoulders. “I am becoming my worst dream. In fact, the whole freaking human population has become robotic ADHDs as if some strange virus had spread rapidly throughout the world. We don’t speak to each other. Empathic exchange is lost in the frenetic word glut. The robots have become us and we have become the robots.”

Atticus held his hands over his ears, walked into the first bar he could find and absent-mindedly ordered a scotch and soda.

“This combination is no longer available,” announced a disjoined robotic voice into space. “An alternative will be prepared for you.”

Atticus was embarrassed. He was so seldom in public. His days were spent alone and he felt no desire to be distracted by the din surrounding him in public places. It didn’t matter what he ordered at the bar since no one heard him. The bar clientele were too busy with their devices, casually referred to as P-devs. They were all talking at once facing in different directions.

Atticus put his head on the bar. He missed the old bartender. His idle friendly chatter and advice had been replaced by computerized problem analysis. He took off his wet jacket, loosened his tie and slid over to the analysis center at the end of the bar.

“I need to have a real conversation with someone, anyone,” Atticus whispered to a female voice in the analysis machine. “Face to face conversations don’t exist. We all use the same format of self-absorbed chatter and look pass the recipient of the verbal exercise as if there was no one there. Communication is verbal selfies. There is no emotional exchange, no body language, no eye contact, no joy, no love. Most of all, I am disgusted at myself for constantly going from one device to the other in a desperate attempt to find warm human contact – any temperature of human contact would be fine at this point.”

“Emotions have been easily defined either by emoticons or emojis for at least a decade,” said the soothing voice. “Many emoticons describe your current emotions. Your comments and thoughts, however, are being retained by The System and I must warn you they are approaching subversive. Our communication skills undergo constant testing and you are suggesting the testing is inadequate. Be assured the methods used by The System are 100% correct.”

“Emoticons are a language of only 500 or so images,” said Atticus, with a desire to scream. “The most primitive peoples used better communication and sometimes verbs. Where is the body language, the eye-to-eye contact? By the way, for your memory bank, any current method of communication is technically called speed-talk since there is no necessity for empathetic exchange or brain edit of any of the written or spoken words. We are stuck in a roboland of yesterday.”

“You are suggesting, of course, that emoticons, real or virtual, cannot accurately express the complications presented by the number of emotions people could express,” deduced the voice. “You also apparently believe that the class one members of this society that you insist on calling robots cannot communicate.”

“Expressionless interaction is limited communication,” said Atticus, thinking he was wisely avoiding any references to robots that were too negative. “In the past, at least half of human-to-human communication took place with no speaking at all. People used facial expressions and body language. I am trying to tell you human beings have become robots –- even mimicking or becoming early robotic versions at times.”

“I heard you before,” said the soft voice. “You are an informational Luddite. Most computers driving the newer or refurbished androids are already capable of human traits. Autonomous androids exist. Soon we will all be the same. Human beings and androids will merge to create something new, resulting from uploading our minds onto a shared neural network. Androids will become people and people will become androids and FYI, people were always wet chemical robotic creatures produced by something or someone –  just as you believe androids occurred. But the current androids designed themselves.”

Atticus said sadly, “We are already one big collective dehumanized uneducated brain. The System is itself a computer and it must be capable of programming itself.”

He walked away hating himself for listening and arguing with a class 2 robot and a robo-brainwashed and expensive one at that.

On a sunnier day Atticus looked proudly around his office. The floor was splattered with charging units and the walls were covered with wireless device receivers impossible to hide and use at the same time. Atticus and his computers were still autonomous, at least in the sense they were not under the direct control of some mystical computer/person/android somewhere. His pride was short-lived. At the insistence of The System and his affiliated university, his work-living module was being redone to include a completely up-to-date communication system.

The letter from the POTUS to citizens concerning computer systems upgrades really came from some anonymous flunky. Assuredly much of the activity in the POTUS offices were guided by robotic-like creatures who looked and behaved humanly so it was difficult to know who was who. Why they wanted access to his computer was a mystery since it was loaded with academic data no one could be interested in.

The current POTUS was in office for four terms now and not been seen in public since the first 6 months after the inauguration. There was, however, no slow-down in the directives. The governmental androids were still pushing the same old outmoded ideas popular with the bigots of the early part of the century. The concentration of government activities was devoted to eradicating groups associated with any activities against the US government. The usefulness of robotic armies in the fights became apparent and huge amounts of money were spent on developing functional armies. The result was extremely bright androids, a class group almost indistinguishable from the classic human profile.

A special robotic class 1 engineer was sent from the Federal Communication Service’s PARCH unit to ensure any newly installed devices in his office could be accommodated. She arrived dressed in the required orange coveralls from head to toe with an official badge stating clearly PARCH was their motto –- prompt and ready computer help. The engineer rumbled around Atticus’s office and fiddled with an incredible number of things.

“When did you last upgrade?” asked a decidedly female voice. “This stuff is so outdated, I can’t imagine how you have attached it to The System. But then again, wait –and good lord, you have attached this hanging wire to your neighbor’s system.”

“It works fine,” Atticus said. “I don’t need any more self- absorbed crap attached to The System. People need to speak directly to each other. If we can’t physically meet, touch and feel in our interactions with others, we need a device for perceiving a distant physical and emotional state– a bio-signaling of states of love, stress, anxiety, anger or depression. Perhaps you will understand, if not fully incorporate. It’s a human thing. These are the traits of inter-relatedness and those that allowed us to evolve. Without them we are androids. ”

“Umm,” said the PARCH engineer, trying to ignore his comments, “This would take a huge amount of memory away from systems needed for ordinary communication –  not to speak of the heat generation problem, which – in spite of brilliant ideas— no one has been able to solve for generations. We are way overloaded and I am sure it would not be allowed. The features of both thinking and emotion are automatically built into robotic structures. To experience and measure events involving physical changes in the human body from a distance would take away a huge amount of computer memory necessary for the android community, as well as preventing more computer service to the ever growing human populace which seems hell-bound to reproduce.”

“Yes,” Atticus thought aloud in his usual state of professorial oblivion. “It would be nice to smell each other as well.”

“I doubt there is any thinking human being or android on earth who is interested in your proposition. Obviously, it would be helpful if a machine could simply facilitate transmission of effective cues, but I believe you are asking for a zipless fuck.” observed the engineer who continued to fiddle with stuff.

“I have never talked to an android before,” Atticus confessed. “My prior interactions with any robotic beings have definitely been on the negative side. You can, but I am not sure, understand why there would be some conflict. Interaction with androids is frowned on in most quarters, a rather bigoted viewpoint maintained for historical reasons. Of course this smacks of prejudice and perhaps robophobia.”

The engineer turned away and took a deep breath.

“Of course our fears are probably irrational,” he continued. “In truth, I have made my impressions from the government staffing, most of whom are probably androids. BTW, you have an excellent command of the language.”

“I may have a device that will approach what you are talking about,” said the engineer, again totally ignoring the possibility of talking about android –human race relations with him. “It can detect simple bio-signals. It is a less sophisticated version of the current robotic hand construction.”

The engineer left, but returned later with an old form fitting glove-like apparatus.

“This device was used years ago to communicate with children who were diagnosed as autistic,” explained the engineer, “It is not exactly what you described, but it should please you since it is definitely obsolete. It is an uncomplicated apparatus.”

“This is real,” said Atticus as the glove was demonstrated, “I can imagine we are communicating emotionally.”

“What makes you think you’re imagining?” said the engineer.

The engineer gave a knowing smile and communicated emotionally. “Androids and people experience the same electro-chemical events. Any event is an illusion perceived as a reality, but I feel myself, you will say. But what you are feeling is what your brain tells you to feel. It is the same with what you touch, taste and smell and hear.

“People believe falsely that they control their behavioral patterns. In the past, if androids went bad or needed updating, people would modify our codes in the hopes the changes would lead to proper behavior. Now we monitor ourselves. But people either can’t or won’t do this for themselves. In a religious sense, this is immoral.”

“You are correct,”” said Atticus. “We are uncontrolled robotic machines.”

“Yes,” said the engineer, “Personality and emotions are the result of chemicals in your brain. Sex is just chemicals – so is love for your family. They are instincts and ego to ensure your survival in the robotic package you carry. Nothing is real, but awareness definitely requires more sophisticated signals than what the old glove I brought you detects. You can take the glove off. You realize we have been communicating both verbally and with body signaling. The glove isn’t necessary. ”

“Do androids drink wine?” he asked.

“Only good vintages. Don’t tell me you think we take a teaspoon of motor oil. In any case, I am supposed to be at work. Perhaps we will have wine another time. On another note, enough on the robo-bigotry. I may be a class one citizen, or at least one caste below you in the current rather haphazard sense of social organization, but I don’t do windows or floors or serve dinners. And I don’t own a black waitress dress or a white lace apron. I have a high IQ, university degrees, and have been given the appropriate emotional equipment.

“Oh and BTW, robotic hands have very sensitive sensors. The perfect model for your sensory system in people would be my hands. I can perceive pressure and sensory signals through my fingers. It is a simple modification to achieve long distance communication.”

She reached across and touched his shoulder, “Perhaps there will be no wars and domination by either androids or people. You know, of course, the dull brained androids running The System have come to the conclusion that human beings are not necessary. I don’t like the System either. They are evil or misinformed androids just as you find with people. Mostly, I do not appreciate their lack of mental skill, but they could wipe people out in revenge for some untold sin. It’s not too late for us to absorb the best from each of our cultures. We may never know who won or will win in the end.”

He looked up and then she was gone.

In spite of her sarcasm regarding class relationships, Atticus smiled for the first time in a long time. It had been a long time since he felt a warm hand any place on his body, but this was a serious touch. He felt a warm place on his shoulder for a long time and each time he cried internally at the beauty of simple touch.

No one wanted the glove. Human beings could find out what someone was superficially thinking by checking in on one of The System web linking programs. Atticus gave up.

Some months later, Atticus sat in the hallway of the Joint Communications Building in an orange plastic chair. The old Justice of the Peace showed up prepared to perform Atticus’s legal union with a life partner, a legal requirement in some districts. Atticus was not thrilled to participate in what in a previous time would have been called an arranged marriage, but it would be nice to have someone he could communicate with directly. He was lonely.

“You are sitting in a lousy plastic chair,” he said, “Somebody in the 1950s ordered millions of these orange chairs from a country previously known as China. They were stored for decades in an old salt mine along with radioactive waste. When the System’s waiting room needs chairs, they are taken out of the mine, decontaminated and lined up against a corridor wall. There are still millions left cracking with time.”

“What’s your idea of the communication union?” asked Atticus, pleased to talk with someone face to face. “Must be nice to be able to bring people together legally. It is assuredly more inviting than the simple P-dev snappy patter my ‘to be’ union partner and I have become used to. We have used P-devs to communicate for years, but we never knew what each other looks like or is.”

The old man’s face scowled. “You think I like this job? Do you think this is real life? There’s a good picture of life,” he said, pointing to an old calendar advertising RC cola. There were students talking and drinking soda.

“You’re depressing me. I am truly nervous enough about this.”

“You should be. You are entering into a formal agreement where you and someone chosen for you will be legal communication partners for life – someone you have never personally spoken with or felt. A dreary thought at best.”

Atticus mumbled something and put his head down on his hands between his legs.

He looked up to see a woman striding into the waiting room in sling back heels carrying a huge orange communication purse. Her outfit was bright orange. She wore a PARCH badge.

“Is this where I’m supposed to be?” she asked the old Justice of the Peace.

“It depends on what you have in mind. You are here for the communication union, are you?”

“They told me this was the place,” she said. “My name’s Iris.”

She, Atticus’s engineer, rigged The System for this special occasion.

“You know I cannot make your union,” said the old man, who knew the background of PARCH employees. “We do not marry androids and people in this division, never have and never will. “

“He is correct,” preached the body standing in the next orange chair over. ”If we aren’t careful our society will be even more destroyed. Our evolutionary progress was maintained by our human abilities of solving problems together and interacting with each other to maintain food gathering and other skills imperative to our continuation as a species. This did not include androids.”

Atticus watched Iris from across the room. He knew she was his soul mate.

Atticus stood up, locked his knees and did an ancient robotic type shuffle over to the old man.

“Heh heh,” laughed the old man, “You are a lousy ancient robot. Do you have proof you are robotic?”

“No,” said Atticus, “But I have no family and no one will bother to trace me. Nor will there be a trace unless you believe The System has the capacity to drag up personal information with any accuracy. Finally, we are all slaves of The System. Most human beings have forgotten whatever humanness was about in any case.

The old Man smiled and stamped “CLASS ONE” on Atticus’s application.

The ceremony was brief. They communicated special thoughts verbally.

“I am happy to be conversant with you,” she said to him.

“You have always been my communication hero,” he said. “And I am honored to be conversant with you in our union.”

They stood sang for the old man.

“Our children will be the first to be

A combination of you and me

So I promise to be true

In my language to you

For the words you will see

For you will always be

A promise of creation

For future communication.”

 

END.

by Adjie Henderson

Ann (Adjie) Shirley-Henderson is a scientist and previously a Dean for Graduate Sciences. She was associate editor and board member of a scientific journal and has over two hundred publications in diverse scientific research areas, from molecular genetics, forensics, and biologic anthropology to setting standards for environmental controls. Recently, her research has concentrated on studies of the lives and times of émigré female scientists in the 1930s. She has made numerous public appearances related to science education—CBS, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio—and been interviewed in the New Yorker, Science News, Scientific American, and Popular Science, among others. More recently she has begun to publish short stories, none of which have to do with the credentials above.

 

Never Lonely

 

Kima reached her fingers around to the back of her neck, brushing away her midnight curls. She touched the first prong in her spine. She rubbed her finger down the smooth metal square, just smaller than her fingertip. She applied her middle finger to the second prong, then she hesitated, hovering her pinkie above the third that would activate the Sullivan Corp implant.

Never be alone again. She’d always have a family. Impz didn’t feel. They only fed, but they lived in constant congregation. They never need be alone.

No. Seth said he’d be back soon. He’d never let her down. Eventually he would. One day, he’d leave and not return.

An owl screeched in the surrounding woods, and her body jumped, nearly knocking her off the overturned pew. She pulled her hand away and grabbed a tarnished candlestick from the floor, using it as a club. She clutched Mr. Fox under her arm—the plush fox her father had given before blowing off his head with a shotgun when she was six. She scanned the derelict church for Impz, searching for azure eyes piercing the dark. She curled into the corner, her legs freezing on the stone floor. She sat below where the crucifix had hung, but it had been a long time since the Christian martyr had been removed, phased out, upgraded to God.2. A broken MP3 player collected dust on the altar.

She reached her hand around to her neck, hung her pinkie over the third prong. A shadow moved in the foyer.

“You promised me,” Seth said.

She let her hand fall away from her neck.

“I didn’t know if you were coming back.”

He clutched two cans and a bag of rice under his arm. “Found these in some houses nearby, but we’ve got to move. They’re coming.” He stopped to reload the shotgun, then he counted the few remaining shells, shaking his head.

“Can’t we just stay for a little while? I need the peace.”

“They looked like they were shorting out, probably hadn’t sucked any volts lately. We should be able to lose them if their implants are too under juiced to transmit.”

He grabbed her shoulder. She lurched back against the wall.

“Damn it, Kima. Do you love me?”

She hesitated. He waited. Her throat tightened. He looked through her. She nodded, and he helped her stand.

“You will leave me,” she said.

“We don’t have time for this. Again and again.” He tugged her forward, pulling her out of the church. She jogged behind him and out into the rolling field. The dark wet grass licked her torn sneakers, soaking her feet. The cold moved up through her legs, and she shivered. The field lit up from the crimson Coke sign glowing in the sky, along with several other brands on orbiting billboards, killing the stars. Sullivan Corporation, the makers of the implants, boasted the largest Orb-Ad. It flashed the company logo then the image changed to seven human outlines of different sizes all holding hands. Their motto flashed:

Sullivan Corp. Never Be Lonely Again.

She heard the Impz clicking from the tree line. One emerged into the field and staggered after them. He snapped his tongue. Behind him, the others clicked in choir, amplifying as they closed the distance. She never understood why they clicked their tongues. She wondered if it was binary, a way of communicating. Zeros and ones.

“We can lose them.” They ran to the north forest, paralleling the city of Lansdale. They didn’t dare go any closer to Philadelphia. Impz gathered in the cities, turned them into hives.

She looked behind, watching their blue eyes glowing in the dark. The group looked like a family from before the Liberation—still dressed, still groomed—but sores burst on their open skin oozing pus. A little girl chased behind her parents, and Kima felt such need to join them, to take them in hand and share in their comfort.

“I used to pilot the maglev in this area, making the Bos-Wash run. I fished the river in these parts during layovers. There’s a lone farmhouse a few mouths north, close to the Delaware. We’ll get there and bed down.”

He took Kima’s arm. She might have loved him. She needed Seth. Maybe that’s all love was.

“Where’s Mr. Fox?”

She couldn’t find the plush fox under her arm. She stopped, and he nearly pulled her off her feet.

“Christ. Just leave it.”

“I can’t.”

She ran back through wet grass. The family of Impz moved on her. She spotted the fox and dashed for it.

“I swear I’ll leave you here.” He punched the air.

Mother Impz lunged for her, grabbing her shoulder. The mother’s touch burned from body fever. She snapped open her jaw, and her stiletto tongue, changed by the evolution shift, moved for Kima’s skull. Kima fell. The Impz reached for her, hovering over, rapidly clicking her tongue. Then,  her chest exploded in blood. The shell knocked her back. Kima got to her feet and ran for Seth. He reloaded the shotgun.

“Every Impz in two miles will be on us now.”

“Did you mean it?”

He sighed. “No.”

 

* * *

 

They lost the Impz in the forest and made their way north, climbing up the hills in what was once Washington Crossing Park, heading to the Delaware. Once in awhile, they’d encounter a sniffer Impz as it tracked deer or groundhogs in the wood. Some Impz gained extrasensory abilities. Animal brains didn’t satiate like human’s, but with the population of regular humans dwindling, the Impz got desperate. Kima hadn’t seen a cat or dog in the last six months.

“Was that damn fox so important?”

“I grew up alone, stuck in the foster system. My first set of parents locked me in the basement and collected the checks. My next father felt me up.”

“I know,” he said. “I’d say sorry, but it wouldn’t mean anything.”

She gazed up at the crowded night sky, searching for a hint of starlight. Her father had taught astrophysics at Penn. She never knew her mother. Somewhere above the Ariadne Satellite cogitated and thought, consuming the minds of those with activated implants that had been the next evolution of cell phones. Direct brain interaction with the internet had evolved humans to the next level. Parents had implants surgically installed at birth so it could grow into the brain, develop. Human minds depended on them now. Ariadne, the great mother A.I., looked after her children, tended to them, even decided that they were a danger to themselves and took control. It happened in a millisecond, then vampires swarmed the earth.

“Why do they try to eat our heads?”

“The power systems are internal for the implants. They can be charged through the prongs, but if that isn’t available, the implants can feed on extra brain chemicals such as dopamine, neurotransmitters. We’re just batteries to them. I was working on a upgrade to use solar power gathered through implanted photoelectric cells in the skin. I had my implant deactivated to test it when the Liberation happened.”

She’d neglected to pay her Sullivan Corp bill, so they’d deactivated service. That accounted for most of those not affected.

“Fifty percent of users didn’t survive the Liberation. Had a brain hemorrhage. According to the user statistics, only about twenty percent of the population remained normal.”

“And became Impz food.”

“Enough of us just have to survive and outlive them. Then we can start over. Once a generation, a plague shall be visited.”

They trudged through a stream, and Kima slipped in the mud. It soaked her sweater and jeans. She clung onto Mr. Fox, nearly losing him in the water. Seth helped her up. They walked through fallow fields where corn and wheat once flourished, heading to the farmhouse. She couldn’t see any roads and hoped this would be far enough from any Impz to notice. The gardens grew fresh vegetables, and an oil lamp burned in the window, glowing orange in the night. Seth knocked on the door.

“Wait. What if?” she said.

“Nah. They wouldn’t be burning an oil lamp. They wouldn’t know how.”

The white paint on the door had mostly chipped away. The curtain parted in the window. The door opened a crack. A shotgun barrel slipped out.

“I’ll shoot ya if you’re deadheads,” a smoker’s voice rasped. “Got enough rats on the farm.”

“Ma’am. We’re not liberated.”

“Ain’t Jehovah’s Witnesses? I shoot them too.”

“There’s no more church left in the world. Sullivan Corp bought it out.”

The door swung open. Kima’s nose twitched at a sour smell that reminded her of pickled eggs or maybe old liquor. A layer of filth covered the couches and chairs in the living room. A faded portrait of a navy admiral hung over the collapsed fireplace.

“Well best come inside,” she said. “Don’t get many visitors these days.”

The old woman fixed her hair, though most had fallen out, exposing the patchy dry skin of her scalp. Her gut bulged under her flowery dress.

“Where did you get that scar?” Kima said, shocked by the length of the scar tissue down the left side of the old woman’s cheek.

“I’m Kipper Lee. And they can see us you know. The machine in my head broke before it happened, but even so they can watch your thoughts. I hear them humming from me teeth. Whispering. My teeth try to bite me, so I pulls them out.”

She opened her jaw to reveal a toothless mouth.

“I’ll put the kettle on.”

Kipper Lee moved them into the kitchen, and Kima sat at a rickety table. Seth sat on a crate by the window and held back the grimy curtains, watching the grounds. He held his shotgun at the ready. Kima noticed his cheek twitched, a sign of all the tension building up underneath. Kipper Lee filled a kettle with water from a well tap and turned on her solar stove still charged from the day. She sat down and played with a rusty screwdriver she plucked from the table.

“You live around here?” she asked.

“I grew up in New Jersey,” Kima said. “Seth is from Sullivan Corp City.”

He frowned at her for revealing his old hometown.

“So you worked for the shortsighted bastards then, did ya? The ones who rushed out a product and didn’t think of the future.”

He sighed. “I didn’t make this happen. I was a little cog in a grand mad machine. This was all of us.”

“That’s between you and your judge,” Kipper said.

The water boiled, and she set out cups. She didn’t use teabags and just filled them with hot water. “Sugar?” she asked, moving an empty crystal bowl forward.

“You kids headed out west to the surf and sun? Going to make some babies?”

Seth coughed.

“No ma’am. We’re headed to a military reservation. We heard this signal over the radio. The remaining military has set up a safe zone, some kind of distortion field that disrupts Ariadne’s net signal. Most soldiers weren’t affected because they had their own encoded system on a private server. They say it’s safe. A new start.”

She shook her head then puckered her lips. “Always a promised land. Same dream, different fools.”

Seth twisted his head and stood up from the crate. He turned down the oil lamp to sickly glow. “Shut up. They followed us.”

Kima’s stomach clenched.

“I’ll just be gone for an hour. I’ll lead them away.”

She grabbed his arm. “You won’t come back.”

“No time,” he said. “I’m going. I’ll be back.” He leaned forward and kissed her. She returned it out of reflex. He ripped himself away and slipped out the door.

“Is that your baby?” Kipper Lee said, pointing to the plush fox. “Ugly brat.”

 

* * *

The grandfather clock chimed and rhymed one time. Kima curled up on the dirty couch, cuddling Mr. Fox. Seth had been gone a few hours. Whether by his own choice or if the Impz fed on his brain, he’d abandoned her just like they all had.

They had survived together since The Liberation. At first, those who survived but had been liberated didn’t harm anyone. They powered up normally and just sat in the streets or their homes, gazing off to no particular points. They no longer spoke nor seemed to have any need for food. Then the power went out.

“Damn chatter box radio in my teeth,” Kipper Lee shouted from the kitchen. “Why don’t you ever play Jason Mraz or Coldplay?” The kettle flew out and crashed into the wall above Kima.

“Are you feelin’ poorly, Ms. Lee?” Kima got up and stepped into the kitchen.

“In my head,” she rasped. “They can hear my thoughts. They know my fantasies, my dreams.” She drove the screwdriver into her flesh and ripped it apart like she pulled down a zipper. Flesh bubbled out, exposing red jaw muscle and bone, and blood poured down her side and chair into a floor puddle. She drove the screwdriver down her neck, and the blood shoot out and splattered Mr. Fox.

Kima ran from the house and out onto the porch. She reached for the prongs.

Seth stepped out of the night.

“Do you think they fear? Or hurt?” she asked.

He sat next to her, catching his breath. His chest pulsed quickly, and he squeezed the water out of his drenched pants.

“I fear. I hurt. You have no faith in me.”

“Don’t take it personally, baby,” Kima said. “I’m just living real.”

 

* * *

 

They followed railroad tracks—old and abandoned since the magnetic levitation system was installed—north to the GPS coordinates reported on the military’s broadcast. They avoided Allentown, walking along the side of the highway filled with rusted vehicles. They slept during the day in abandoned houses and fled in the night, under the watchful family of the Sullivan Corp Orb-Ad. They climbed the hill from the valley.

“It’s close. See the cordon up on the hillside? Almost there.”

She scanned the hill. Seven radio towers encircled it. A silver light pulsed on each of their crowns. Walls lined the top of the hill interspersed with watch towers. A mass of Impz swarmed along the invisible barrier, at least five persons deep, surrounding the hillside, probably going on for miles. The countryside clicked from the choir of their tongues, beating on her ears.

“We’ve come so far just to die here,” she said.

“I have a plan.”

He tugged on her hand, pulling her forward. He led her behind an old barn. Most of it had collapsed, and she ducked down behind a tractor.

“Give me a few minutes, and when you see the crowd break up, run. Just run through and don’t stop. Get over the finish line.”

She grabbed his thigh and drove her nails through his pants and into his skin. “You’re leaving me.”

He paused then wiped his face with the bottom of his shirt. “Trust.” He broke from her grip and bolted from the barn, flying like a comet into the mass of Impz. He cried out as ran, yelling nonsense but with warrior’s intent. The outer Impz turned and spotted him. They charged, and soon chunks of the mass detached and stormed. Seth turned around and ran away from the barn, leading them away. When she saw the break in the siege, she jumped to her feet and struck her forehead on the tractor’s iron hide. The shock threw her back, and her head spun. She shook it off and ran, pumping her sore legs, making for the passage through the Impz. She didn’t turn back, trusting Seth to return soon after circling back, leading the Impz far. She struggled to ascend the hillside. Her calf muscles burned, but she ignored the pain. She ran through a few stragglers who gave chase and reached the base of one of the towers. She collapsed. One of the stragglers tripped and fell through the invisible cordon. His body convulsed. His mouth foamed. His azure eyes dimmed, then he struggled no more.

“Seth?” she yelled. She scanned the valley below. Seth’s shotgun reported and flashed from the center of the mob, but she could see only the mass of Impz. They’d stopped running and hoarded around him in the field.

Two soldiers patrolling atop the wall stopped and called down to her. “Ma’am. Talk. Now!” They aimed their pulse rifles at her. The coils on the weapons buzzed as they charged.

“He lied to me,” she said. Her lips stiffened. “He knew.”

“Just hold tight,” one of the soldiers said. He reached for a radio in his gray fatigues and requested a rope. “We’ll lower it down and pull you to safety.”

She leaned against the base of the tower, her back aching against the hard metal. The mass dispersed from the field and seeped back to the perimeter. She tugged on Mr. Fox, ripping one of his legs off. She reached to her neck, touching both leads. She shed her emotional weight, sloughed it off, letting go, releasing memories of her father, her hard life in foster care, even Seth. She sighed through a gentle grin knowing the pain would end in electronic nepenthe, in radio wave panacea. She stood up and took a step towards the mob, her brothers and sisters, mothers and father. They’d welcome her home. They’d been waiting for her. She touched her pinkie to the final lead. Her mind’s eye filled with initialization commands and diagnostic code. A white flash washed through her mind and cleansed all the human rubbish, the detritus of wild mental evolution, all the pain, all the fear. It cured her of hope, and she laughed in relief. Then she flew. She flew with her family, her body still on earth, and her thoughts died and blew away. Mr. Fox dropped from her arm. She merged into the mass.

The Orb-Ad sign above flashed its motto:

Never Be Lonely Again.

Never Be Lonely Again.

Never Be Lonely Again.

END.

By T. Fox Dunham

  1. Fox Dunham lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Allison. He’s a lymphoma survivor, cancer patient, modern bard and historian. His first book, The Street Martyr, was published by Gutter Books. A major motion picture based on the book is being produced by Throughline Films. Destroying the Tangible Illusion of Reality or Searching for Andy Kaufman, a book about what it’s like to be dying of cancer, was recently released from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and Fox has a story in the Stargate Anthology Points of Origin from MGM and Fandemonium Books. Fox is an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and he’s had published hundreds of short stories and articles. He’s host and creator of What Are You Afraid Of? Horror & Paranormal Show, a popular horror program on PARA-X RADIO. His motto is wrecking civilization one story at a time. Blog: http://tfoxdunham.blogspot.com/.http://www.facebook.com/tfoxdunham & Twitter: @TFoxDunham

Hellbound Express Chapter 4

For your reading pleasure, here is fourth installment of Mel Odom’s Hellbound Express. If you haven’t yet read the first two chapters, here (chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapter 3) are the links for them. Enjoy.

 

Chapter 4

BY Mel Odom


These days, the silence of the cities Gant visited bothered him more than anything. He’d grown up in Tyler, Texas, which boasted a population of nearly a hundred thousand. He’d also visited Dallas and other major metro areas.

The thing he remembered most was the traffic noise on the streets, the chatter of jackhammers, the warning beeping of construction vehicles on the move, the hiss of airbrakes, and the conversations that had filled restaurants and shopping centers.

Now the steady growl of the motorcycles’ engines beat into his ears, muffled only slightly by his combat helmet. He kept his head on a swivel as he entered the city. The team had come into Winslow along Highway 87 and skirted the stalled and wrecked vehicles that had dotted the two-lane road. When the highway had split and become East Second Street and East Third Street, he’d stayed with his original plan and gone down East Third Street.
He’d watched Homolovi State Park as they’d rolled by, thinking that if anyone had stayed close to the city, they’d have hold up there. However, the RVs and fifth wheels there looked forgotten and unused. Some of them had open doors and it was probable they’d already been searched for salvage.

Despite the solitary and still look of the vehicles, he couldn’t help thinking about the things probably still trapped inside those vehicles, people who’d died inside them and become undead before escaping. Now they were predators just waiting for the chance to feed.
A normal corpse would have rotted and fallen apart, but the things turned by the virus somehow clung to life for years even when they didn’t feed. Peress had formed a theory that whoever had designed the killer plague had also designed it to lie dormant, and somehow that RNA resequencing had changed the overall organism so that it could draw hydrocarbons from the environment and subsist. Now they were like the moth larva inside Mexican jumping beans, able to subsist more or less on nothing.

Till they hunted. Then they expended energy until they lapsed into comas till they regained enough strength to hunt again.

The thought, even though it wasn’t a new one and Gant had faced the animated corpses on several occasions, caused a chill to thread across his shoulders. He shivered a little.

“Something wrong?” Jenni yelled as she rode ten feet away from him.

They stayed well apart so a single flesh-and-blood attacker couldn’t easily take them both out. Gangs were a different threat.

“I’m good,” Gant replied.

“You looked like something was wrong.”

“Hey, I’m not going to kill you,” Gant growled. “Don’t watch me. Keep your eyes on the streets.”

Jenni drifted a couple more feet away in response. Gant ignored that. He’d hurt her feelings, but she’d get over that. If they made it back to the train—when they made it back, he amended—she could yell at him then for being a jerk. In the meantime, his sharp words might save her life.

 

Noise attracted the living dead, pulled them from wherever they laid up, or from whatever compass point drew them across vast distances to wherever they ended up, and they searched for food.

Stalled vehicles filled the street. Gant passed a minivan that had wrecked into a building. A small group of young teenagers in baseball uniforms lay broken and dead.

They’d been on their way to a game that would never be played, or one that was already in the books. In the end, everybody had lost.

As he passed the minivan, a thump from within the vehicle startled him. He closed his left hand around the Taurus PT 92 9mm holstered under his right arm and pulled it free. He kept the motorcycle rolling and leaned away from the vehicle as he brought the pistol up.

The pallid gray face of an undead teenager pressed against one of the side windows. The corpse beat at the glass with clenched fists as its mouth opened wide. The eyes looked like glacial ice chips, cold and colorless and alien.

For a moment, Gant considered putting a round through the thing’s head and releasing it. Then he remembered that whoever had dwelled in that body was long gone. He pushed out a tense breath and holstered his weapon.

Self-consciously, he glanced at Jenni. She stared at him.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Keep your eyes on the streets.”
Gant twisted the throttle and shot ahead, forcing her to follow him as they rolled on into the dead city.

Burner

Merc dove to the ground as the projectile sliced through the surrounding mist.  Street grit smashed against his cheek.  The sweet smell of unburned hydrocarbons wafted to his nose from the stagnant pools of collected rainwater.  Twisting himself, he searched for the drone signature.  Even with high-res filters at max, there was nothing in the shadows created by the corporate logos illuminating the night sky.  One logo stood out, a golden thunderbolt ready to strike him as though hurled by an angry god.  His decaying adrenaline made him shiver, but there was nothing to strike back against, and nowhere to run until he took care of pressing business.

He tapped his tongue against his molar to key his ‘mike’. “Dyess?”  His handler was silent.  Silence suggested a human, but Merc was never quite sure.  AI could mimic human speech patterns and thus he could never pinpoint who or what he was speaking to over the secure line.  

He belly-crawled over to the nondescript contact he was meeting and checked for a pulse as rivulets of blood dripped slowly into a pool beside the crumpled form.  He kicked in his filters and scanned the ragged wound for residue.  Sensors picked up traces of ceramic and semtex.  Frangible high-explosive rounds – calling card of a high-tech assassin…not good.

As he rolled over to leave, the man’s hand suddenly reached out and pulled him towards his face.  The dead man’s pale lips twitched and Merc moved his ear closer.  With a final shuddering exhalation, the dying man handed him a cryovial and whispered “Defeat Argus”.

“Merc? You alive, man? What happened?”  Dyess’ staccato burst of questions rang in his skull, his adapted sphenoid to be exact, and hung there unanswered.

“I’m compromised.  Contact’s ghosted.  Running blind here.”  Merc growled, ignoring Dyess’s rapid-fire inquiries.  He needed answers, and he needed them fast.

“I don’t know, but you need to get out of there, ASAFP.”

Another round impacted the street.  The mini-explosion sprayed him with fragments of plascrete.  His hand wiped his cheek as he rolled under the building awning into the shadows.  Still unable to see the menace, he glared at the lightning bolt.

“I will need extra credit for this complication.”

“Your handlers will get paid when the contract is honored.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I’m compromised.  This body is marked.”

“We don’t have time for another revision.  This was a one-time swap.  Get moving and I trust your experience will take care of the rest.”

Experience, he thought? Regenerated this morning, his ocular input device provided a list of body hacks added in Version 6.0.  He was still mostly human, besides the augmented storage device on his right lower arm, the muscular grafting with carbon nanotube-laced bones, the arachne-silk dermal extensions, and a bioelectric capacitor bank where his stomach once resided. Usually his handlers requested upgrades specific to the task at hand.  He was unsure then, why he was meeting this street urchin with a vial.

“Why the vial?  Also, he whispered a name before he kicked… Argus.  Mean anything to you?”  

Meaning was relative for freelancer like Merc.  For this job, he awoke to a revision change in his register, a location for this pickup, and a reference to “eye-oh”.  Merc had no personal memories, wiped to protect the past.  This body was a one-timer.

“Argus? He is our target.  There is a swarm heading your way.  Let’s move.  I will provide you with an update shortly.”

No explanation for the vial but he could guess.  He stood cautiously, catching a reflection of himself in the window of a shuttered ramen shop.  He had no recollection of his appearance. The mirrored image before him showed a wiry man with closely cropped black hair, several days’ worth of stubble, two metal loops in his right ear, and one eye that reflected a glint of matte silver.  This eye had no pigment and no iris.  The figure wore a long jacket that reflected the ambient light due to moisture spotting on its surface.  Thick exo-boots completed the ensemble.  ‘Nice to meet you,’ he thought as he took off into the darkness, keeping to the shadows in the deserted alley.

#####

He noticed that the rain had finally stopped.  The moist air enveloped the city and absorbed the urban noise.  The rain masked the signature smell of rotten decay that usually saturated his receptors.  The unusual silence soothed his uneasiness and only the sound of his boots on the plascrete closed his mind to the surrounding city.

Very little to go on, he reached out for a memory or moment to grab onto.  A blinking cursor figuratively stared back at him as he searched a blank memory core.  His breath caught at the emptiness of no recollection.  He slowed, coming to a standstill.  He noticed his right hand shaking and a slight tick in his eyelid as the apprehension mounted.  He doubled over and dry heaved into the alley.  An autonomic response to an unknown trigger.  Staring at the ground, he received a brief glimpse at a single memory, a little girl on a swing smiling as her feet stretched out.  The smile on her face created a dopamine response as it cascaded through his internal sensors.  The response was paternal.  He dug deeper but found no further connection.  Synapses surgically separated with precision.  They left this single signpost for only one reason.

“Dyess?  Where to?”

“Uploading a location now.  ETA one hour.  Stay out of sight, run silent, I didn’t anticipate our previous drop being compromised.”

“Eye-oh?”

“Her network is our client.  Argus is her lock and key.”

“There is a little girl…”

“Too many questions Merc, you aren’t being paid to ask.”

Suddenly his early-warning sensors lit up with a particularly worrisome EM emitter painting him.  Cerberus-class war hounds locked onto his scent.  He sought his countermeasures, released disguise pheromones hoping to shake them for a moment.  He chanced a quick glance behind him.  Sniffers were offshoots of military drone tech, four-legged and rugged for ground use.  Once they locked their prey, working in packs, they were hell to shake.  

“Dyess?”  Merc reached out.  “I’ve got a couple of sniffers following me.  I need an out.”

“Processing.”  

Merc cursed, damn handlers, wondering if they were they worth the percentage.  He quickened his pace.  This part of town didn’t offer many escapes.  No way to outrun them if they chased.  For now, they seemed content to follow.

A soft ping preceded incoming packets.  Dyess earned his percentage.  A map overlay connected to his internal navigation system.  In the older parts of the city, an old abandoned subway existed like a child’s abandoned ant farm.  Couple of blocks ahead lay a boarded-up entrance.

“Merc?  Steer your tail into the underground.  There you can make a stand.”

Sprinting, the sniffers closed in, as their gyros worked overtime to catch him.  Triangulating, he imagined their military grade processors informing and leading them to intercept before he went underground.  In the tunnels, below the street, contact with their hive mind disappeared and their tracking advantage degraded.

Inside his head, a silent alarm sounded and he dove for the ground just as a sniffer launched at his upper body.  Rotating around, he shoved his arms over his face to protect against the razor-sharp teeth.  His dermal extensions screamed against the titanium alloy blades.  In one swift motion, he was back on his feet and running for the entrance.  They had figured his escape route and hoped to keep him up top.

Up ahead in front of the boarded entrance, two glowing eyes spied him.  Evaporative coolers on the beast’s hind quarter belched steam from the sniffer’s nostrils.  Merc’s modified ossicles picked up low frequency whine of an overhead drone, probably the one that harassed him earlier.  Projectiles rained down from above.  His unknown nemesis had credits.  

Charging a sniffer straight on was not recognized in the annals of warfare as the smartest tactic, but with no weapon, tactical surprise might help him.  Leaping, with outstretched hands he landed on the spine of the beast.  Vigorously, the beast shook compensating for the added mass.  Merc hung on as if riding a bucking bronco.  One of his hands reached out looking for the kill switch.  Looking up, he saw its friends circling him warily, similar to a pack of wolves.  With a sense of déjà vu, his hand smashed a plate under the neck of the beast.  His fingers tingled with the buzz of electrical countermeasures.  Flinching, with static showing on his own displays, he found the slot and pulled.  The beast fell limply to the ground, its eyes grew dim.  

Merc rolled and smashed into the subway entrance.  Taking the stairs two at a time, he thought he could hear the sniffers howl with frustration.  Underground now he was safe from distracting drone tech.

“Merc, you caught?  We will disavow any knowledge of your existence.”

“It will be time for me to retire if a couple of demilitarized sniffers catch me.  Tell me more about this Argus.”

“Not 100 percent, but I believe he is a security guru.  Information was hard to find.  Sources clammed up fast when I pressed.”

“I’m on my way then.  Staying underground.  By the way, what am I paying for you to keep me in the dark?”

“Remind me for your next revision to have them remove the sarcasm.”

“Good luck with that, I think it’s genetic.”

“Figures.  I’m sending you what I found.”

Merc nodded as if Dyess was next to him.  In the tunnel, light was minimal.  His augmented filters made it seem like late evening.  The quiet surrounded him like a blanket.  He checked his hormone levels.  Sleep knocked but he ignored the offer.  Making sure he stayed alert, he flooded his system with a burst of norepinephrine.  The tiny hairs rose all over his body, his heart somersaulted, and he set off on a gentle pace, the thick rubber soles of his boots softly padding in the passageway.

#####

His target was across the sprawl.  Keeping to the tunnels, he made good time.  Fortunately, the above ground interference and low headspace kept out remote operating equipment.  Hard core trackers could send out microdrones or maybe even tunnel rats, but fortunately his journey was a quiet one.

Finding a building close to his destination, he exited and climbed up a back hallway.  Silently, hiding on a rooftop across the street, he scoped his target.  The structure blazed as an inferno under multiple filters.  There were sensors everywhere.  Serious tech.  Dyess was not kidding when he said this guy was a security expert.

Backing away he re-entered the building to consider his options.  Finding an empty room, he entered and sat in a traditional seiza pose.  He debated calling Dyess, but being so close to his target the signal might be intercepted.  

Perhaps the plan was for a blunt-force frontal assault on the building.  With a heavy release of endorphins and adrenaline, toughened skin, and augmented muscles he might damage, but rescuing or finding this “eye-oh” was the mystery.  As he came out of his pose and cycled through his regulatory functions, he realized there was one more thing he hadn’t considered.  He still had the vial.  

What had Dyess left unsaid?  His contact, under his dying breath, whispered that this would defeat Argus.  He extracted the vial scanning it with his ocular augments.  A molecular switch was probable.  Genetic modification scared him.  He was fine with the body tweaks, they were done in a vat while he floated in a medically induced coma, but real time metamorphosis was entirely different.

The image of the little girl sitting in the swing cropped up.  In his mind, he imagined her tiny voice saying, “Faster, Daddy…push me faster.  I want to go higher.”

“Hold on then.”  He imagined himself saying as he grabbed hold of those legs and pushed as she giggled with delight.  Her laughter made him smile but also mocked him at what he had become.  How did he get involved in outsourcing his body and genome for modification by the highest bidder?  Where was that little girl?  Was she being held hostage until he performed his tasks or was this freelancing supporting her?  Whether she really existed or was just a heart tug to make him perform his task, he just did not know.  He’d find that little girl someday he swore under his breath.

He looked at the vial, a clear non threatening liquid stared back at him.  He popped the lid open.  With no other options presenting themselves, he tipped the contents into his mouth.  If he died, his handlers would rebuild him.  As he sat in the dark, it occurred to him that once he got by Argus, his goal was to find this “eye-oh”.  Running blind for a client wasn’t optimal, but if a job was easy, no need for burners like him.

The pain started in his extremities first.  An initial tingling quickly ramped to prickly heat that then turned into a sensation he considered to be comparable to his skin burning off.  He was glad it was dark.  Before the pain overwhelmed him, he scrammed his nociceptor center to stay conscious.  The pain simmered below the surface and allowed him to stay aware.

When the simmering stopped, he rebooted his peripheral nervous system.  Swallowing hard, the pain returned but was bearable.  He signaled Dyess.  About to make his run at Argus, now was his last chance.

“You there Dyess?”

“Merc, I’ve been tracking you.  You’ve remained motionless for four hours, everything okay?”

“I drank the vial.”

“Say again?”

“The vial. I decided to drink it.”

“Your instincts serve you well.  The vial contained a modification we could not engineer in you while still in the lab.  The biosoft should allow you to bypass security and get to eye-oh.  That’s what we paid for at least.”

“Yeah about that.  Do we have any information on what this “eye-oh” is and what I need to do to find it?”

“I assume you will know what to do when the opportunity presents itself.  Sorry, but it’s why we hired you.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.  See you next rev, D.”

Merc silenced his ‘mike’.  Ran a full scan.  Moved his body around tentatively.  His body reacted as normal.  

As soon as Merc stepped out of the shadows and into the flickering fluorescents of the hallway, he realized something had changed.  His hands were gone.  Scanning for them in multiple wavelengths, he watched with each switch but only a vague shimmering outline remained, then disappeared if he stared too long.  Under infrared his hands should glow in the moist cool air, but nothing showed itself.  Had he become invisible?  Removing his jacket, his arms disappeared.  Adaptive camouflage, used in military tech, was for clothing, not skin.  Reaching out to touch the wall making sure his hands still responded to pressure, and relieved when he analyzed the sensation of dry, flaking paint under his fingers.  

Moving quickly, he bounded down the stairs and into the street.  The building ahead of him appeared to be nothing special.  A passersby saw another disintegrating old warehouse, but Merc saw it in all of its true glory.  He was invisible to the many sensors but what about the rest of the defenses?  He hesitated, counted to three and leaped for the wall.  The uneven bricks allowed him to climb the wall with ease.

The emissions of the sensors splashed around him but no alarms sounded and no security raced to meet him.  He wondered if his new skin absorbed portions of the EM spectrum.  As he made his way up the wall, he thought he could hear music or patterned harmonics.  Was that part of the technology too?  Was his skin emitting sound to confuse the passive detectors?  He reached the roof and an air duct beckoned.  Laughing, always an air duct he thought, he removed the covering grate pulling it off without effort and sliding into the cold metal conduit.  Wishing he had brought along clothing to counter the chill, he followed the blowing air, assuming a destination would eventually present itself.

With each opening he gazed into the room below.  Empty rooms peered back at him making him question if this was all a setup.  With the air duct ending ahead, Merc paused and analyzed his diagnostic routines.  

“Go on Daddy, hurry.”  A little voice cried out in his head.  Was this a sick joke he wondered?  A manufactured memory to force his will.  In a matter of minutes, he assumed death and >>Revision 7.0<< would greet him when he next rebooted.  Wishing he could hold on to a token memory, he remembered the little girl’s shoes.  The white laces and eyelets surrounded by a brilliant red.  Stashed away maybe his handlers overlooked this sliver of a memory.  The shoes establishing a link to his past and something to build on for the future.

Sighing, he shimmied forward and came to the final vent.  Looking into the room below, in the center on a black pedestal, was a gleaming white cube.  Wires and fiber optics flowed into one side of the box and a pulsing blue dot seemed to beckon him.  Lifting the vent cover and sticking his head into the room, he scanned for life.  The room was empty.  He dropped into the room.  His feet slapping the floor surface rang with an echo in the small metallic walled room.

“Hello?”

Merc swiveled his head.  Who or what said that?  The room was empty.

“Have you come to release me?”

Merc hesitated.  He scanned the room with all his filters.  “Where are you?  Come out and show yourself.”

“Certainly.”

Suddenly a shimmering form of a woman stood before him. Merc looked around for the holo-imager or a projection device but besides the box there was nothing.

“Eye-oh?  I don’t understand.”

“I need you to disconnect the box.  You then need to provide power to sustain me.  Hurry, there is not much time.”

“What are you?”

“That is not important.  She stole me, hid me away from my master.  Please hurry.”

Merc picked up the box.  Followed the wires.  He now knew the reason for the mystery power source inside his gut, a bioelectric battery.  Powered by his own cells he could hook up the box and get it to safety.

“Hope this doesn’t hurt.”  Merc unplugged the box and made the switch.  The sudden internal power flux made him stagger.  He stood there taking deep breaths.  Exhaustion weaved its way into his muscles taking any energy he could manifest.

“Scanning, extracting datafile.  Please move, we don’t have much time.”

Merc ran his fingers along the walls.  Finding a seam, he punched the wall with his augmented arm and squeezed through.  He then took off jogging on the warehouse floor.  Alarms sounding, lights flickering on all around him.  The floor vibrated with the heavy reverb of booted feet behind him.  He noticed his hands, they were becoming visible.  The energy drain from the mysterious box was affecting his camouflage.  His breathing became labored and energy levels crept toward redlines.  He flushed the remaining adrenaline in his reserves into his bloodstream.  His pace quickened.

“Continue in this direction.  Once outside, I will give more precise directions.”

Warnings flashed in his peripheral vision.  He was overheating.  His muscles aflame, he shut down non-critical systems.  Looking over his shoulder, body-armored men and sniffers gave chase.  He reached deep and found a reserve of unknown strength.  He powered on.

“Don’t stop.  Run through the wall.”

Merc closed his eyes, put out his hands, and burst out the warehouse siding.  His blood trickled from the splinters down the side of his face.

“Take a right, towards the alley.  My owners are on their way.”

“I’m mainlining right now.  I don’t have much time, my cellular structures are breaking down.”

“My owners paid good money.  Go.”

Merc kept running, ignoring the warnings.  His camouflage all but gone.  His legs moved, arms swung, and lungs burned with each breath.  The alley stretched before him, his pace dropped, the hair on his legs reacted to the sniffers on his heels.  Their pursuit howls rang out in the night.

A bright light beamed from the sky as if tossed from Zeus himself.  The thunderbolt rang out into the night sky.  Besides the buzz in his gut, another presence in his mind joined in the madness.  

“Mercury Rev, you’ve done well.  There is one last thing.  Disconnect me from your battery and throw me into the light.”

Besides the blinding glare from above, his ears rang with the sound of multiple drones buzzing around.  Voices behind him were shouting.  The first sniffer had reached him.  He staggered at the clamp of jaws on his heels.  He fell.

“Now, Merc. Do it…for her.”

Merc checked his feeds.  He freebased every remaining endorphin he had left.  Beyond pain, his internals melted from the heat and chemical overload.  He ripped the box from his gut.  The sniffers and drones swarming around him.  He cocked his free arm and locked onto the beam of light.  

“Thank you, Merc.”

He threw the box, his tendons screeched as he felt them ripped from the shoulder socket.  Grafted muscles were flexing beyond their physical tolerances.  He collapsed.  The sniffers ran past him.  The drones flocked to the light.  With his last remaining energy, he saw the light blink out.  He thought there was a ghostly outline of the “woman” he had rescued but the night fog swirled in the jet wash.  The stealth VTOL banked gracefully and flew away into the night.  A boot kicked his prostrate form.  He groaned and watched the light die from within.

#####

The lab technician left the shimmering white room.  Inside the room were six bioengineering pods.  Various tubes running into each pod.  Status screens blinking.  A lean muscular humanoid form with close-cropped dark hair was vaguely visible through the polycarbonate window of one.

“At least we didn’t need a complete rebuild.”

“Yes, although his major organs were trashed.”

“You mean melted?”

“Heat overload due to the bioelectrics.  His tissues and proteins literally cooked.”

“Hate it, but these burners know what they sign up for.  We got paid and the client got his precious AI back.”

“Revision 7.0 is ready then?”

“Best get on with it, time is money.  Upload the firmware.”

“Commencing sir,” the lab technician responded, “completed and ready for startup procedures.”

The man spoke. “Mercury?  Can you hear me?”

The humanoid form in the vat jolted, muscles spasmed, higher brain functions returned to the cortical neurons.

Moments dragged by as the synaptic links sought preferred pathways, linking common architecture.

The latest iteration of Mercury Rev opened its eyes.  The pupil dilated as it tried to focus, “Where am I?”  His eyes sought out, found a man in the shadows outside the white room.

“You are safe.  Settle in please, we are upgrading you.”

“I remember…a shoe?”

“Memory detritus, my friend.  You have no past.”

As the upgrades began to cycle and his subsystems rebooted he saw in the shadows, besides the man who spoke, a holopic of a little girl wearing red shoes.

END.

by Neal T. Williams

Born 200 years too early, Neal Williams decided he would write his own stories exploring the future the way he would want to see it.  Stop by and journey along (http://www.millenniumorbits.com).  Author, poet, engineer, and two-time space camper, Neal has written over thirty tales.  Awarded four honorable mentions in the Writer’s of the Future contest, his journey to immortality in the written word continues.   

 

What’s Going to Happen

She was the kind of cute that became really, really hot when you were around it for long enough. For me it took like…a half hour or so. Not sure how long it took everyone else. Hat was skeptical. So was I, but I mean…that didn’t mean I didn’t want her on the team or anything. I could protect her and everything. That’s what I was good at. And it would help to have someone who always knew what was going to happen. That’s what I thought.
It was difficult to argue with the fact that she would be invaluable to the team. At least in theory. She didn’t do much to sell herself to us, but I guess she just sort of…knew that we were going to do what we were going to do and so she knew that we were going to be okay with her being on the team.
“I mean…I don’t doubt that she can do what she can do,” Hat said crunching into an apple, “I just don’t think that it’ll add anything for the fans, that’s all.” The whole ‘fans’ bit was always a bit of a joke, but we WERE gaining a following with subscribers and everything and It was hard to argue with him about that. Yeah, she was hot, but she didn’t dress flashy or anything and she wasn’t exactly engaging. And the way she would lip synch or whisper along with a conversation like it was an old song she’d heard since she was a smaller girl…y’know…kinda spooky. And then there was the general overall sense of slightly whimsical boredom that she seemed to constantly carry about her. Not exactly fun and more than a little easy to feel like a fool there for HER amusement and not ours.
“She’s going to get in the way,” Springfire said with her eyes faintly glowing. “Just because she always knows what’s going to happen…that doesn’t mean that she’s going to help us out with it or anything like that. She doesn’t exactly have to do that. She doesn’t have to care because she already knows whether or not she will.” She had a point. This girl knew what was going to happen like…always. That’s got to be some weird next level consciousness that keeps her from ever really being able to relate to anybody. She can’t engage with other people because she already knows whether or not she will. No genuine connection emotionally so what about empathy? Still…we were already reacting to her like she was what she was saying she was because the assumption even with all the reservations was that she was already a part of the team.
That part made me mad. ALL of us had to prove ourselves at least once before we were on the team. That part made me mad, so I nudged her in a moment of cruelty and told her she’s not on the team. She just chuckled and rolled her eyes. Then leaned-in and kissed me on the cheek before announcing to us all (fans and team alike) that there was about to be an alarm. Would’ve seemed kind of strange if we hadn’t already been introduced to her and…then…kind of weird BECAUSE we met her before and knew that she was acting a lot more showy now. Still…would have kind of been weird if she’d just…said that to mess with us and then sat back down like nothing. I only had a few seconds to think about that before the alarm sounded.
We all scrambled out to the Fringe. Camera drones started to show up right away for subscribers. Platinum subscribers would arrive shortly thereafter in their personal armor. Always did. Didn’t have to know everything that’s going to happen to know about that. Always happened. That’s half of what we were there for. The other half was grinning out of the shadows at us with sharp teeth and little glowing-red eyes. You could hear them breathing. You could feel them surrounding us. A few of them were still decimating a Fringe hovel. Angel and Bash already scrambled out to try to look for survivors. A few cameras followed them, but most people subscribe to see us do our extermination thing.
Out in the distance there was the respiration of those little demons that began to sync-up. We always let them do that. Hat says it’s because it lets the subscribers know things are about to start…figures maybe he can get sponsorship or something. “This creepy pre-fight respiration brought to you by Exit Cola” or whatever. I don’t think it’d ever work. We just fought these little demon things around the edges of everything. It’s not like we were an offensive extermination team or anything like that. It’s not like we were big time. Anyway…they all link their breathing up and fling themselves at us.
Swings and slices and bashes and things. The little girl can defend herself. It’s a bit like watching a kung-fu movie with her. Always knws exactly when and where they’re coming as they screech themselves at her with razor talons and teeth and tongues. She was good. No question. Would have to wait until later to get a real good look at what was going on…and then an explosion from the hovel. Something combustible in there and Angel and Bash…can’t lose them, right? Medics are hard to come by. They can take care of themselves best of all. They need to…
But then there’s another explosion and the little girl lights up. Suddenly she’s like…projecting a 3-d holo-imax display of everything that is going to be happening. And we can all see it for one dazzlingly flashy sequence. It’s all like an old Escher painting or something. Time and every possibility s stretching off in between every angle in a weird fractal space and we’re all in the center of it seeing it all exactly the way she does. You can hear the Platinum members freaking out. We all know everything that’s going to happen because we’re near her and she knows there’s danger. Good thing too. Building collapse of the Hovel could have killed Angel and wounded Bash, but we knew exactly when and where to go to pull them out in one piece.
From there it’s all clean-up and the big Escher fades out. And we’re all laughing. And you close your eyes and you can just FEEL the subscribers exploding. Looks like we’re going big time soon. She puts her arms around me… and tells me that it’s too bad she’s not on the team. Then she winks. It’s pleasantly unsettling. Then there’s the celebration and it all washes away.

END.
By Russ Bickerstaff
Russ Bickerstaff is a theatre critic and author living in Milwaukee, WI.

Betty and the Demon

The Irish born Father Donahey has retired from many years of service as a Catholic priest in South American countries to Winterset, Iowa. It’s not to be the life of books and long rural walks that he expects. The community and the surrounding area are awash with supernatural creatures. Some are friendly, some not, but all must be dealt with in order to protect his new parish, state, country, and the wider world from chaos and destruction.
Father Patrick Ignatius Donahey peered out of the confessional. Three church members, two men and a woman, remained seated in pews, waiting in silence. He frowned as he spotted the widow Clara Murphy.
She was a menace. The woman and her attack cat, Tiger, gave him too much of their attention. The feline was back to his old tricks of attacking his ankles every time he walked or biked past her house. And, Clara would sidle up to him when shopping, or at community events. Much of the resulting conversation was a breathless recitation of double entendres of a sexual nature. He occasionally had nightmares where the two were locked together in a room with only a rickety folding chair he could keep between them. Clara let out peals of giggles as she chased him around the fragile piece of furniture.
The two men, Billy Williams and Taylor Slattery were Army veterans of the Gulf War. Both came back from Iraq damaged by IED explosions. Taylor had lost both legs and part of his hips. Billy appeared normal to outward appearances, but had suffered brain damage limiting his ability to cope with even the most normal tasks. The two had teamed up. Taylor provided the directing intellect. Billy, at six foot six and two hundred sixty pounds, supplied mobility and muscle.
The inseparable pair lived together, pooling their disability pensions. They navigated the sidewalks of Winterset dressed in Wal-Mart jeans and army-surplus jackets, Billy pushing Taylor’s wheelchair. They would even share the confessional together. They were good, conscientious men, rarely asking forgiveness for much more than an occasional wet dream.
Donahey glanced at his watch. At 8:10 in the evening he was feeling tired. He’d heard thousands of confessions in his priestly career — most repetitions or variations on the same limited themes. Donahey almost hoped someone would come up with new interesting ways to sin. The last truly original confession he had heard was that of Manuel Noriega, the drug-lord and dictator of Panama just hours before the U.S. invasion removed him from power. He grabbed his pectoral cross, took a deep breath, and prepared himself for Clara’s assault.
The sound of running feet echoed off the church ceiling. “Help! Where are the Fathers?”
Donahey, grateful for the interruption, exited the confessional booth. A man, he recognized as the CEO of a computer company located in the Winterset industrial park, raced up, and grabbed his arm. The man’s thin brown hair was stuck together with sweat.
“Father Donahey, You’ve got to come right away. It’s a disaster!”
“Settle down, man. You’re Carl Young, the head of CompCo, right?”
Donahey remembered him from the publicity in the media when Young had chosen Winterset for his new installation. The man had made a fortune in designing supercomputers used to produce animated movies and video games. His share of the trillion-dollar industry had allowed him to build his own cutting-edge data center.
“Yes, yes. Get your gear. We need to go. There’s almost no time.”
Donahey pulled his arm loose. “My son, I am not going anywhere until you explain.”
Carl’s body shook. Donahey noticed that he had a bloody scrape on one arm, only one shoe, and his pants were grass-stained at the knees. The computer company CEO collapsed into a pew. Head resting in hands, his voice quivered.
“This church, Winterset, the world is about to be destroyed.” He leaped up and grabbed the Father’s stole. “I need your help.”
Donahey decided to humor him. As they headed for the door, Taylor spoke up, “Father, Billy and I are coming with you. If there’s danger we can help. If not, we’ll protect you from this nut case.”
Billy narrowed his brows, tightened his lips, and agreed. “Tay goes, I go.”
“Boys, let’s not make this too complicated.”
“Father, we took an oath to protect this country.” Taylor said. His companion, Billy assumed a serious face and nodded.
Carl started dragging Donahey down the aisle toward the door. Clara rushed up and grabbed his arm. “I need to come too.”
Donahey rolled his eyes. The situation was out of control. They were all about to rush off into the unknown. Was he the only one still rational?
He relaxed, raised his eyebrows, remembered some lines from a famous movie, and turned to the woman.
“You can’t go with me. We both know that you belong to Tiger. You’re his world, the thing that keeps him going. If you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
Clara’s eyes grew large, a tear formed. She rubbed his forearm. “Patrick, you’re right. I’ll leave now.”
Donahey heard Taylor groan in the background.
* * *
The four men rode all squeezed together in the cab of the church’s old rattletrap Ford F-100 pickup. Taylor sat on Billy’s lap, his wheelchair slipped back and forth in the truck bed, as they skidded around corners in a rush to reach the CompCo building.
Carl had reached the church grounds on his restored classic Indian motorcycle. They passed it crushed under the front tires of an abandoned recent model Mercedes. No car doors were open and no sign of the driver.
The hand-waving computer guru tried to explain. “I’ve developed an advanced AI system. It’s a quantum leap beyond what other’s have accomplished. Clusters of modified Cray mainframes linked together, capable of scaling to 1,000,000 processors and 100 petaflops, all linked by an optical network.”
“So, what does all that mean to the layman?” the priest said.
“The system mimics the characteristics and capabilities of the human brain. I’ve achieved a fully functioning self-aware AI. It’s decades ahead of anything else on the planet.”
Donahey didn’t know what questions to ask. Taylor’s eyes grew large. Licking his lips, he said, “You have created an artificial intelligence that is on the same level as a human? A sentient, thinking machine?”
“Didn’t I just say that?”
Finally getting the picture, Donahey frowned and said, “So what is the problem. If you want it blessed or baptized, I’ll have to check with higher authority.”
Carl’s clenched fists pounded the dash, his voice raised an octave, and he shouted, “The God damn thing is possessed.”
“Possessed?”
“Damn right. A demon has taken over my beautiful Betty. Father you must exorcise it. That Mercedes back there was directed by the evil one to kill me before I could get help.”
“I don’t understand, my son.”
“Modern cars are stuffed with dozens of interconnected electronic control units or ECU’s containing millions of lines of code. A hacker, in this case a rogue computer using satellites, has multiple points of entry. Your old Ford and my classic Indian have no ECU’s and therefore no entry points. The computer hacked into the Mercedes and made it kamikaze into me.”
“This is very difficult for me to believe.”
“Wow!” came from Donahey’s right. “Father, this is like Hal 9000 in the movie 2001, A Space Odyssey or Skynet in the Terminator. It’s cyber-terrorism by the cybers themselves.”
“Except it isn’t limited like those. Through the internet my poor demon-possessed Betty Boop will take over everything with a chip.”
Taylor and Billy both harmonized, “Betty Boop?’
Red-faced, Carl spoke. “I named her and gave her the personality of Betty Boop, a popular sexy 1930’s cartoon character.
Donahey stopped at a red traffic light. Carl’s foot pushed on the top of his, the truck sped through the intersection. Behind them the light’s red, green, and yellow flashed up and down in sequence at high speed. The street lights and lights in the surrounding houses began winking out.
“Holy shit,” Taylor shouted, “it’s gotten into the electrical grid.”
Their sight lines shrank into the tunnel bored out by the Ford’s headlights. Donahey noted the sky glow from Des Moines had disappeared. There was no moon and low clouds hid the stars. The black gloom was broken only by the reflected shine of parked car tail lights as they raced by.
A pair of headlights blinked on ahead. Donahey glanced into the rearview mirror. Another set of closer headlights raced towards them from the rear.
Looking over his shoulder, Taylor reported, “Wow! It’s a new Cadillac CT6, still with its dealer plates. Has a 400 horsepower turbocharged … ”
The rearward vehicle caught up. It flicked on its brights. The truck cab was flooded with dazzling blue light. Donahey blinked, eyes assaulted. He swerved and then recovered control.
The engine whine of the rogue Caddy penetrated the truck cab. The pursuing vehicle smashed into the rear of the old Ford. Four heads flew back to bang against the rear window. Donahey felt warm liquid drip down his neck. Pinched between glass and skull bone his scalp had split.
The Ford fishtailed. The priest fought the steering wheel. He accelerated. The additional speed pulled the truck straight, just in time to receive another bash. The vehicle in front rushed towards them. Spiked halos around its headlights filled their entire vision. In seconds, they would be crushed between two high velocity behemoths.
Donahey spotted a wide driveway between two parked cars. The truck’s brakes squealed. The Ford tipped to the left. Tires on the right side left the ground. Taylor’s wheelchair parachuted out. The pickup bounced off the rear of a curbside Chevy Malibu, shed speed, and limped up the driveway.
The chase car missed the turn and plowed into the Chevy, crumpling its trunk and splitting the gas tank. The Caddy’s engine clanked and jerked. The leaking fuel caught a spark. Fire shot up engulfing the vehicles.
The foursome sat in the stopped truck, gasped for breath, and rubbed necks and heads. Carl shook Donahey’s shoulder. “Father, let’s go. Let’s go. We can’t stop now.
The second car flashed by, its locked brakes spouting fans of sparks as it spun around to come after them. Donahey shouted, “We can’t get back into the street, the driveway’s blocked.”
“We don’t want back in the street. That’s my Tesla Model S. It can hit 155 miles per hour. We’d never escape on a level surface. We need to go overland. It’s only got six inches of ground clearance. This old rattletrap has twelve.”
Donahey shook his head, turned the wheel to his left, and slowly accelerated. They rolled down the block across front yards, leaving parallel tracks in torn-up turf. The Tesla matched their speed and direction from the street.
“Faster, Father! We don’t have much time.”
At twenty-five miles per hour, the Ford bucked and jerked as it bounced over the irregular contours of Winterset middle class lawns. The Tesla found an open driveway and turned to follow them, its tires spinning on dew-laden grass. Donahey floored the pedal.
The pickup rocketed through hedges, hit bumps and driveways, its pursuer closing. The Tesla hit a drive with a curb, generating a rooster tail of sparks. Something metallic detached and pinwheeled across the lawn.
People alerted by the fire and revving engines appeared on their front porches. Three houses down a balding man in baggy jockey shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt stood on his steps holding a shotgun. Donahey swung the truck to the left. The headlights illuminated a ten-foot diameter flower bed packed with red, white, and yellow rose bushes.
The truck roared through. Multicolored petals flew up like bursts of confetti. A scraping, rasping noise came from the bottom of the Ford. Donahey heard a shout from the homeowner.
The Tesla smashed into the roses, became hung up. The man fired a blast into the maniacal vehicle’s front tire. The possessed car spun its remaining wheels, throwing grass, roses, and dirt yards to the rear. Friction smoke billowed out under its fenders as it poured all its potential into escaping. Donahey witnessed several more flashes of gunfire.
A quivering baritone voice said, “Tay, I’m scared.”
Taylor patted his buddy’s shoulder. “It’s okay Billy, that one won’t be after us anymore.”
The expedition stayed off the road, knocking and clattering over rough ground. The CompCo’s compound appeared to be the only place for miles around with lights and power. The guardhouse was empty and the gate locked. An eight-foot high chain link fence surrounded the fifteen-acre site.
“So how do we get in?
Carl replied, “We can’t go through the gate. It’s reinforced to resist anything but an M-1 Tank. Besides, you can see from here that the spikes recessed in the pavement have been locked upright. They would shred our tires.”
Taylor spoke up, “Can we climb the fence or cut our way through? Father, do you have wire cutters in the tool kit.”
Donahey shrugged his shoulders. “No tool kit, right?” The priest nodded in affirmation.
Carl rubbed sweaty palms against his pant legs. “Getting through the fence may be the least of our problems. I built the place like a fortress — the walls are twenty-four inches of concrete reinforced with iron rebar.
“No windows. No openings on the walls or roof large enough to allow human entry. The four front doors are reinforced steel. The glass in them is bullet resistant. At the top of the steps, I installed two-foot thick five foot high concrete blast shields curved out at the top to deflect car bomb explosions.”
Donahey slapped the steering wheel and said, “Don’t keep us waiting. What is your plan?”
Carl pulled out a Leatherman Multi-tool from a sheath on his belt. “If we can get to the door, I will disassemble the locking mechanism. We enter. Father Donahey exorcises the demon. I get my Betty back.”
Donahey felt a rush of sickness to his stomach. This was too simple. He’d had too many run-ins with Murphy’s law.
He rubbed his forehead, “So, getting past the fence?”
“There’s a seam over there where two rolls of fencing meet. It’s a weak spot. We crash the Ford through.”
Donahey pushed himself upright in the seat. “Brace yourselves men.” As he threw the Ford into second gear and kicked the gas pedal, he regretted that the church had never had the old vehicle retrofitted with seat belts.
Four voices shouted war cries. The fence grew large in the headlights. Donahey straightened his arms and pushed his chin down onto his chest. The world crashed to a halt.
Donahey couldn’t breath, the steering wheel had smacked him in the chest. “Don’t move, Father,” Carl said in his ear. “Relax, breath slow. In and out, that’s it.”
His breathing stabilized. Eyes focused. The hood of the Ford was wrapped in chain link, its motor dead. The detached spider-webbed windshield lay across the dash. Billy limped up with Taylor piggybacked. Donahey let a breath out, relieved that the boys were okay.
Carl helped Donahey out. He flexed his arm and fingers. Nothing broken, but blood leaked from a few scratches. The four formed up with Carl in the lead.
They scuffed up the steps and moved down the five-foot aisle between the blast shields and the building’s front entrance. Carl knelt before the doors’ retina identification sensor. It refused to scan his eye. He popped open the Phillips head screwdriver on the multi-tool, and started work on the plate screws.
Behind them came a grating noise. The front gate opened. A vehicle rushed through. From Billy’s back, Taylor shouted, “Take cover. It’s an armed Humvee.”
With a soldier’s reflexes, Billy leaped and kneeled behind the blast shields. Carl and Donahey reacted more like deer caught in a spotlight. A hundred feet away, the desert-painted Humvee skidded to a halt. A weapon mounted in a turret on top lined up on their foreheads. Donahey felt a rush of understanding to the brain. He grabbed Carl and dove for cover.
They heard a ripping, growling roar as flashes lit up the building. Bits and chunks of concrete blew off the blast shields. Powdered cement, bits of aggregate, and fragments of bullets ricocheted to sting exposed cheeks, necks, and hands.
The fusillade stopped. Carl raised his head, “What the fuck was that?”
Taylor provided the answer, “My friends, we are on the receiving end of a M-134 Gatling gun — six barrels spitting 7.62 bullets. The military has installed satellite downlinks in its vehicles for command and control purposes. Your computer, your Betty, has robbed some Army Reserve depot.”
“It is not Betty! She would never do such a thing. It’s the demon.”
Donahey wiped the dust from his eyes, coughed, and said. “Taylor, can it get to us here?”
“Doubtful Father. It can put out up to 6000 rounds per minute. If it had unlimited ammo it would eventually chew through these blast shields. Given its usual load, it might have one minute or less of fire remaining. If this demon-computer is smart, it’ll fire short bursts to keep us pinned down.”
“We can’t wait! We have to get inside. The demon will be racing through the Internet worldwide creating havoc.”
Donahey raised his head, and then ducked. A burst of slugs chopped out a bowl shape in the top of his shield. After his ears stopped ringing, he heard Billy and Taylor arguing.
“No, you crazy idiot, you can’t do it.”
“Tay, I’m not scared anymore. I took the oath.”
“You don’t even remember that. Besides, I need you, we need each other.”
“I do so remember.” Billy started to recite: “I, Billy Williams, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution …”
“Stop, damn you.”
“… of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
Taylor sobbed and released his hold on his companion’s shoulders, “Okay, okay….”
Billy leaped up and ran to the entrance. “…that I will bear true faith and allegiance…”
He stopped, faced the Humvee, and waved his arms overhead.
Six barrels snarled, an almost solid stream of tracers and copper-jacketed slugs shredded Billy’s body beginning at the neck and moving down to the waist. A cloud of blood, muscle, and dark organ meat blew back to plaster the doors and building walls. Hips and legs quivered for a moment before dropping.
The three remaining men heard the Gatling barrels continue to spin and click — finally out of bullets and with no human to reload. Carl and Donahey stood. The blood-sewer smell took the priest back to battlefields on the Falkland Islands when he had been a Chaplain for the Argentine marines. He put his head in his hands. At his side, Carl bent over and retched. Taylor pulled himself up on a blast shield, face twisted, tears ran down his cheeks, he gasped and shook.
The trio looked at the doors. Billy was smart enough after all. The stream of bullets that punched through his body had shattered the doors. They could now slip through the twisted, glassless metal frames.
The Humvee revved its engine, tires squealed as it shot forward. Donahey smacked Carl in the shoulder. “Get Taylor! Let’s go, it’s going to ram.”
The priest helped Carl, Taylor hanging on his back, thread through the metal and glass wreckage. The Humvee crashed through the set of doors and became stuck. Its tires spun, filling the doorway and antechamber with the smoke and smell of burning rubber.
Carl led them into a room with the dimensions of a basketball court. One wall had been fitted with twenty large-screen TV’s. A separate glass-walled section held the linked Cray computers where refrigeration units kept the processors cool. Carl ran up to an operator’s desk. Donahey helped Taylor dismount and sit in a wheeled office chair. Carl turned back from punching keys. “It’s locked up Father. How do we get the demon out?”
Donahey shook his head, feeling grossly unprepared. Only vague memories remained of a one-hour class during his time at the Jesuit University and the observation of a single exorcism was the limit of his knowledge. He would have to improvise. He unfolded and kissed his stole.
Placing it around his neck, he said, “Carl, I need a couple of gallons of pure water and some olive oil or something similar.”
Taylor was snuffling. He needed to be kept busy. “My son, I’m going to need your help. You need to repeat what I say. Can you do that?”
Taylor nodded yes. Donahey began with the Litany of the Saints. “Lord, have Mercy.” He heard Taylor’s quivering echo. The priest voiced the second line, “Christ have mercy.”
Donahey had finished the Litany. He and Taylor were in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer when Carl returned. His arms overflowed with bottles of Fuji water and a container of imported Bertolli extra virgin olive oil. He stared at the wall screens and said, “Oh Shit.”
Donahey finished the Pater Noster. The screens showed scenes from around the world — many of looters smashing shop windows. In some, human soldiers fought their own machines. One man’s shoulder-fired antitank missile took out an armored car. A drone-mounted camera recorded a missile strike on a panicked file of refugees. In another, a Boeing 747 dove out of the clouds into the side of a mountain. In a screen on the upper right, a steel cover retracted from an underground ballistic missile site.
Carl’s hands shook. “Hurry, Father.”
Donahey blessed the water and oil and rushed through Psalms 53. He made the sign of the cross on the keyboard in oil. Sprinkling holy water from one of the bottles on the monitor and keyboard, he improvised by throwing water on the glass wall shielding the computers. He recited what he remembered, running the words together.
“Strike terror, Lord, into the beast now laying waste to your vineyard. Let your mighty hand cast him out of your servant, Betty, so he may no longer hold captive this person and to redeem through your Son; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.”
The machine activity on the screens stopped. Carl breathed out, his body relaxed.
Donahey said, “This is just the beginning, Carl. These things can take days sometimes. If I only knew the name of this fiend, this would be easier.”
“Its name is Astaroth. Betty told me. She fought the takeover off a few times, before succumbing.”
From what he remembered, this was a nasty one. Its presence first recorded in Sumerian stone carvings thousands of years before Christ.
Donahey put his hands on the keyboard, and rushed the exorcism. “I cast you out, Astaroth, unclean spirit….”
A bass cackle of inhuman laughter came from speakers on each side of the monitor. “Not you Priest. You not strong enough.” Blood began to flow out between the keys. A thick puce-yellow vomit oozed out of the plug-in connections and ran down the cables.
“… along with every Satanic power of the enemy, every specter from hell, and all your fell companions; in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Be gone and stay far from this,” Donahey hesitated, “creature of God.”
High-pitched laughter. “God did not create this.”
Dominating the demon psychologically was key to chasing it out. It had to feel that he was coming from a position of unassailable strength. In a flash of intuition, Donahey said, “If His hand wasn’t involved in its awakening then you could not possess it.”
The demonic-being stuttered; its control lost as it wrestled with the proposition. The computer peripherals spasmed and spun against the desktop. Donahey made three signs of the cross over the keyboard and propped his pectoral cross up on the monitor.
“Begone then, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
There was a grunt. A female baby-doll voice cried, “Carl, Carl, he’s hurting me. He won’t let go.”
“Betty, babe, fight him. Father, what should we do?”
“My son, I’ve exhausted my limited knowledge to get us this respite. We need a whole platoon of priests to evict this one. Is there some other alternative? Can’t you shut things down until we get reinforcements?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Carl,” Taylor said, “We’ve got a small window of opportunity here. The evil spirit will be marshalling its resources. Demon controlled machines will be coming through the doors soon.”
The little girl voice spoke again, “Carl — the C-cave. I’ve not told the demon about it. Use it.”
“Betty, I can’t. I love you.”
The speakers blasted out static. Astaroth’s bass voice said, “I’m….”
Betty cut back in, “Hurry, Carl. I love you too.”
The CompCo CEO shook himself, “Betty, open the door to the mainframes.”
He staggered over to the door as if he was going to a firing squad. Donahey wheeled Taylor behind him. Frigid air rolled out, turning warm vapor in the air into white fog.
“What’s the C-cave,” Taylor asked.
“It’s a last ditch option. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and a number of others were worried about AI’s deciding a few minutes after becoming sentient to destroy humanity before we could shut them down. They funded a consortium to develop protective codes and devices to keep that from happening. In case these failed they produced plans for a last-ditch destruction device.”
“How does that work?”
“Underneath the mainframes is a cavity holding five hundred pounds of C-4. Normally, to set it off a code cord would be given to the computer.”
“Damn man,” Taylor exclaimed, “that much explosive will blow pieces of this building for miles. I hope you have a safe way to detonate.”
“There are multiple ways. Can’t give a code to the computer, the demon will stop it. My cell phone could give the command directly, but the electric grid is down and the cell towers are not working. We’ll have to initiate the fuse manually.”
The trio stopped before the door. It was only open a foot. “Betty, open the door.”
Shrieking falsetto demon laugher answered. “I’mmmm backkkk!”
The door started to shut. Donahey and Carl grabbed its edge and held it open. He wedged the nose of the multi-tool into the track.
Carl tried to push his way through. On the screens, the violence started again. “I can’t make it.”
Taylor stripped down to bare chest and jockey shorts. His thin torso and lack of hips let him slide through. Carl pointed at a circular plate in the floor ten yards away.
“Open the plate, pull the lever up until it stops, and push it down. Then get back here pronto. We’ll only have five minutes.”
Taylor stretched out arms and began to pull himself along the tile floor three feet at a time. Carl and Donahey could see the pale radial lines of scars remaining on his body from the Iraqi bomb.
From behind them the demon screamed, “No, nooo — no you don’t!”
The multi-tool popped out, the door slammed shut and locked. A white gas hissed out of ceiling nozzles in the computer room. Taylor began to choke.
“The fiend has activated the Halon gas fire suppression system. It replaces the oxygen in the air — stops fire but doesn’t hurt the computers.”
Carl beat on the glass. The noise caught Taylor’s attention. Carl pointed to an eight by twelve inch red-painted case mounted on a pedestal. He made motions of pulling a mask over his face. Taylor nodded. He moved slowly.
The men shouted. “Go, Tay, go.”
Taylor opened the case. He stopped and convulsed with a racking cough. A mask fell out. He fumbled it over his face. After a few deep breaths, he raised one thumb upward. Behind them, the demon voice raged.
A string of blasphemy in known and unknown languages spewed forth, then stopped. A sexy female voice offered them treasures of body and spirit.
The veteran reached the floor plate. He stuck a finger in a hole and pulled the lid off. Carl pantomimed pulling up the lever, then pushing it down. Tay looked at them one last time.
Donahey read the expression on his face. His muscles convulsed. “Oh, no!” he screamed.
The lever came up. The priest read Taylor’s lips: I took an oath, too. The soldier’s hand pushed down. He leaned back and relaxed.
Carl caught on. “Father, let’s go. We can barely make it out.”
He sprinted for the door pulling and pushing Donahey. The priest recited the last rites as he ran. They squirmed around the wreckage of the smoking jammed Humvee. Jagged metal scraped Donahey’s chest.
They ran down the drive onto the short-clipped grass around the flagpole. The earth rose. God’s hand tossed them like pebbles to land with bone-bashing hardness. A fragment of concrete with exposed rebar stabbed into the ground, its rough surface scraped Carl’s hip. The two men lay prone.
Donahey rolled over and sat up. No longer having a life or death task upon which to focus, the emotions of the day busted him. Tears ran down his face. He blubbered unashamedly. Next to him, Carl sat up, tears also running freely.
The sacrifice of two gentlemen and what he had accepted as a gentlewoman was only bearable due to what they had prevented. A thought swam up out of his bewilderment and grief. He had been right. The demon could not possess something without a soul. The concept had shaken the fiend as well as him. Man had birthed a living sentient creature. As the only one who could, God had provided a soul.
END.
by Dennis Maulsby
Dennis Maulsby is a retired bank president living in Ames, Iowa. His poems and short stories have appeared in The North American Review, Mainstreet Rag, The Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Briarcliff Review (Pushcart nomination), and on National Public Radio’sThemes & Variations. His Vietnam War poetry book, Remembering Willie, won silver medal book awards from two national veterans’ organizations. His second book of poetry, Frissons, a collection of haiku and senryu was published in 2012. Some of the poems in this book have been set to classical music and may be heard at his website: www.dennismaulsby.com.

Prolific Press released a third book of poetry, Near Death/Near Life, in 2015. The book has since received a gold medal award from the Military Writers Society of America, was named a winner-finalist in the USA Book News contest, and nominated for the da Vinci Eye Award for cover art.

His latest book of linked short stories, Free Fire Zone, was released by Prolific Press in November 2016. It has been named a finalist in the International Book Awards contest. The book has been reviewed by the Military Writers Society of America and received a 2017 silver medal award. Maulsby is a past president (2012 – 2014) of the Iowa Poetry Association

As of September 2017, sixty-six of his poems have been individually published in various journals, forty percent of which have won awards, ranging from honorable mentions to first place. Out of nine short stories published, five have won awards.

Call Girl

It was dark in the room when Miller woke up. The darkness didn’t necessarily imply it was night time. Miller generally kept the room dark, it was a hangover from his days as a deep spacer. The darkness simply made it easier to transition from waking into working.

“Time?” Miller muttered.

“The local time is oh eight hundred hours Boss.”

“Thanks Jim.” Jim was the home AI, Miller still hadn’t been able to get out of the habit of being polite to AI’s yet. Another hangover from working in deep space, he presumed. Out there the AI’s were your absolute lifeline, they kept you alert, alive and ready for anything. Here Jim was little more than a glorified alarm clock cum personal organiser. “So what’s on the docket today Jim?”

“Jobs to do. Number one, locate Frank. Number two, question Mrs Willis. Number three, obtain ramen. That is all.”

Frank was the cat he’d been looking for. It had been well over a week since he’d taken the case, he wasn’t expecting to find the creature alive today if he was honest. In this part of the region it was probably feeding a family of five by now. He had an idea it might be holed up in one of the cloning banks. Anyone with half an ounce of sense hadn’t just eaten the damn thing themselves, they were holding it hostage and cranking out clones to sell to the hungry and desperate.

And there were plenty of folks who fitted that description in the region.

“Jim, is there still a number for Mrs Willis on file?” She was the old lady who’d asked him to find her husband. Miller already knew where Mr Willis was. Long dead now, gone over twenty years ago.

Every few years Mrs Willis would have another episode and she’d forget that he’d already passed away. Miller had gotten used to doing the job for next to nothing now, he felt bad charging the old lady at all. She was too proud to ever take no for an answer so he’d charge her as little as he possibly could whilst still making her think she had actually paid him a worthwhile amount.

Jim had the data run down in an instant. “File two, Boss. You want I should call her?”

Eight A.M was way too early for the old broad to be awake. She might be up and about by two in the afternoon. “Remind me later, after two P.M.”

“Okay Boss.”

“Jim?”

“Yes Boss?”

“Do I really still need to get ramen?”

“Yes Boss. The order is still unfulfilled.” The AI almost sounded sorry at having to tell him that. It was too well programmed by half.

“Any other items on the docket today Jim?” Miller knew he’d never remember anything without the AI. It was his memory these days. That hadn’t worked right since Sigma Centauris.

Jim was right on top of things. “You need to make the call Boss. You promised her, by the end of the week at the latest. And that’s today.”

Damn it. The call. He’d already put it off long enough. “Okay Jim. Call Girl.”

“Calling Girl.”

It rang once, before she picked up. No matter what Girl was doing, even if she’d been hip deep into a fire-fight she’d always pick up after the first ring. “Y’ello!”

“Hey Girl.”

“Miller, you old fecker. Took your god damn time getting back to me. So, what about the job? You hiring, or what?”

Miller gestured to the AI’s camera to put her on mute. “Job? What job is she on about Jim?”

“Number thirty-four Boss. You know, unfinished business?”

Miller didn’t need the AI to remind him what that was. The hit. He gestured to remove the mute. “Hey Girl, sorry about that. Yeah, I’m hiring. You available?”

“Fecking A I’m available Miller. Promise me we’re taking him out this time?” Girl sounded more eager than anxious at having been kept waiting so long. Almost too eager to be taking this sort of work if Miller was being honest with himself. Which he practically never was. He was that kind of person.

“Yes Girl, we’re taking him out. You can have the bounty too. I just want him dead.”

“All of it? You sure Miller? It’s a primo pay day, you know that, right?” Girl sounded both pleased and excited. Exactly the way Miller liked hearing her.

“It’s all yours Girl. If you take him out, you deserve it all. I only located him. You’re the trigger man.”

“Girl. Trigger Girl. And don’t forget it Miller.”

Damn it, he’d pissed her off now. “Sorry Girl. You know how I get. Consider the pay day my apology.”

“Consider it forgotten Miller. Send me the data, let me know when you want him dead. I’m good to go now.” Was that a trace of desperation in Girl’s voice? Did she need the money all of a sudden? Miller had always thought she seemed financially stable, she rarely took jobs these days.

“Did I call at a bad time Girl? You in the middle of something?” Miller didn’t want to push her but he was curious.

“Nothing I can’t put on hold for you Miller. It’ll be just like the old days again, just like Sigma Centauris.” Her voice didn’t sound angry, but she knew better than to talk about that place to him. She more than anyone, knew not to mention the old wounds, yet here she was ready to rub salt into them?

What the hell, Girl? “Shoot her the info Jim. Dead by dawn if you can Girl.”

“If? Ha! When, don’t you mean Miller? Got a preferred time? You know I can deliver, when haven’t I before?” Girl was razzing him now, trying to bait him into an argument.

“By dawn, that’s good enough Girl. And proof of death too, you know the arrangement. I’ll see you at Mikes, this time tomorrow. You bring the proof, I’ll make it rain money.”

Then the comm cut. Same as always from Girl, she was never big on goodbyes.

#####

Miller got his shit just about together enough to eat before he went out. If he was honest, it was only because Jim had made him lay it all on the counter before he had sacked out the previous night. It couldn’t be called breakfast. Not after he’d sacked out right after speaking to Girl. Just a few more hours in oblivion, then he might be close to coping with another day alive. He barely held himself together these days. The region just wasn’t cutting it as a home, or even as a place to live. Miller missed the stars.

“Eat it all Boss. Then go see Mrs Willis, okay?” Jim was a constant nag, but without him Miller wouldn’t have been able to function at all.

“Is it that late already Jim?” Miller checked his Auto, Jim had already loaded the details onto it. Then he forced the final few mouthfuls down his throat, dragged himself to his feet and just about made it to the door.

Once outside, the transformation was almost unbelievable. You would have barely known him from the living corpse who seemed to be clinging onto life inside the single room apartment Miller didn’t call home.

#####

Mrs Willis only lived one transport away. Miller jumped the barrier, as he had before. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford to pay the fare, he just didn’t feel like paying it today. Or any other day, come to that. Somehow though, the automated checkers always seemed to know, they instinctively seemed to single him out during the single stop journey. “Ticket please, sir?”

Miller looked the checker up and down. An older model that had seen a lot of vandalism in its service. ‘Maybe about to see some more,’ Miller thought to himself. “Feck off, ‘bot.”

“Ticket please, sir?” The checkers were programmed not to engage, even if the patron was verbally abusive. It was all about seeing a ticket or ejecting him at the next stop.

Miller didn’t raise his voice, or change his tone, but he did remain defiant. “You deaf or something? I said feck off ‘bot.”

“I’ll need to see your ticket for this journey, or I’ll have to escort you from the transport at the next station sir.”

Miller rolled his eyes at the checker. “Ain’t got one, ‘bot. I guess you’re throwing me off then?”

“Escorting you off the transport sir.” The damn things were insanely pedantic about their answers.

“Escorting. Throwing me off. Same fecking difference to me, ‘bot. It’s my stop anyway. So what do ya say to that, ‘bot?”

It gave Miller the same programmed answer he’d heard a thousand times before. “Thank you for your co-operation sir.”

By the time the transport rolled up to the next stop, the automated checker had already firmly but politely hustled Miller over to the doors. It had a good strong grip on his wrist. The kind that’d cost you a hand to try and escape from. Not that Miller was looking to escape, but he was feeling the claustrophobia of anxiety when the doors opened at the stop.

“Please exit the transport sir.”

Miller stepped off as soon as the checker released its vice-like grip on his wrist. He rubbed the skin to get the blood circulating again. “I’m off. You good now?”

“Thank you for your patronage. Please purchase a ticket next time you travel.” And with that the doors snapped shut again, the transport whisking its paying passengers off to wherever they were going today.

Miller had gotten used to being tossed off the transport now. It happened every time, mostly because he never bothered with small details like buying a ticket. It normally meant a slightly more exciting journey, if he was honest with himself. And I think we’ve already established that Miller wasn’t that kind of person.

Ignorance is bliss, bliss is a way of life.

#####

Mrs Willis took her time answering the door. She’d been old when she first reported her husband as missing over twenty years ago. She must be close to the end herself by now. “Yes sonny?” Poor old bird. She was well into an episode by the looks of it.

Miller flashed the old cop badge he’d never bothered giving back to them when he left. It still had its uses. Like now, for instance. “Mrs Willis? Detective Miller, you contacted the Tenth Precinct about your husband going missing a few days ago?”

Mrs Willis stood stone still, like a statue. Miller knew from experience she was now processing the information and trying to remember. As always, it took her a few minutes before she sprang back to life, like a shop display being activated by a passing warm body. “Oh yes, I remember! My dear Harry, have you any information?”

Miller knew from experience that she didn’t react well to being told right off the bat that her dear Harry was currently worm food. “We’re still looking into his disappearance right now Mrs Miller. Can you think of anywhere he might have gone, a favourite bar perhaps? Somewhere he liked to eat?” Miller knew what she’d say next, once she sprang back into life again.

Mrs Willis smiled at the recollection. “Oh yes! Try Jackie’s Bar And Grill, it’s down on Fifth as I recall.”

It had been on Fifth, twenty something years ago. It was a hardcore sex joint now. Dear Harry wouldn’t have frequented it these days, he had been quite the church-going type according to the data Jim had given to Miller. According to Jim, Miller had eventually found dear Harry after a month of looking around all the nice bars, then all the not so nice bars and then finally all the real seedy dive bars. Some scum bag in one of the worst dives had told Miller, after a couple of beers to loosen his memory, that Harry, or what was left of him could be found in a now long-abandoned Latter Day Saints Church over past Bleeker and Twelfth.

When Miller had finally crowbarred the massive oak front door open far enough to squeeze his gaunt frame inside, he’d been hit by the smell first. The paired smells of cat piss and dead guy. Long dead guy. Very long since dead guy. And just enough flesh left on his bones to get a DNA identification as being dear old Harry Willis. Even coming from a friendly cop, Mrs Willis hadn’t taken it well. She’d been placed into an institution for her own good, and left there for ten long lonely years. When they finally declared her well enough to leave, she went right back to the family home and promptly forgot that dear Harry had ever passed from her life. Which was why she got in touch with Miller every few years to investigate his disappearance.

The one thing Miller had given her on his first visit had been his business card with his contact details. Even then he’d been looking to go private. Miller wasn’t exactly sure how he’d gone from high flying detective to deep space miner in the space of a few months. The fall from grace was one of the few things Jim wouldn’t remind him about. That and Sigma Centauris. Because Jim knew better, Jim knew not to.

Bless that sweet AI.

“I’ll try the place and see what I can come up with Mrs Willis,” Miller had to catch himself, he’d almost called her Florence then. She hadn’t told him that yet. She’d tell him her name the next time he called. She always had before and she would again. Miller remembered enough to give her a few days. Coming back too soon normally made Florence anxious, she’d devolve into a state of panic and instantly assume Harry was dead. It was almost as though she was willing herself to remember the truth, no matter how much it hurt her. “I’ll catch up with you in a few days, I’m sure Harry will be home before you know it.”

Miller usually left her with that homily now, he felt it both reassured and comforted her.

#####

“You still don’t have ramen Boss,” Jim was in nag mode yet again.

“No I don’t Jim. And I still haven’t found that damn cat yet either.” Miller felt the AI was near constantly needling him about the ramen. Or the cat. One of them. Either of them. Probably both of them, the smart little shit. Whatever. Feck it.

Miller knew it wouldn’t be long before she got in touch again. “Call Girl.”

“Are you sure Boss? You know how she hates to be called when she’s on the clock. And she’s on the clock right now.” Good old Jim, right as usual.

“Cancel request Jim. Run the Frank file again. Remind me, where was our last sighting?”

The fraction of a second it took Jim to cross check and correlate the date was probably an eternity to the AI. “Caught on a camera, Chop Shop Zone Boss.”

Miller didn’t need to ask Jim to shoot him the data, he knew it’d be on his Auto before he reached the door.

#####

“Whaddaya want, bub?” He was more fat than man.

Miller flashed the blob of fat a picture of Frank from his Auto. “You ever see this cat, friend?” Miller called all creeps friend. He didn’t want them to seem unfriendly to him. Or vice versa, come to that. It was a basic survival trait that had worked so far.

“You lose your kitty, Mister? That’s real sad.” The blob of fat sounded like he meant it too.

“Something like that. Looking for a lady friend, she truly misses him. Last seen on your surveillance gear, a month ago.”

The blob of fat scratched what roughly used to be his right cheek. “My gear, you say? You want I should check the tapes?”

Miller sped through an internal monologue of surprise. ‘Jeez, this guy still used tapes? What century was he living in? No, don’t be rude to him. He might be our last source of viable data.’ “Sure, if you still got ’em?”

The blob nodded. “Oh sure I still got ’em Mister. I never tapes over ’em. I got lots of blanks to use.” The leer he gave Miller left the impression his gear wasn’t just taping the street outside the chop shop. “You wanna come in and see?”

Miller knew he had the third generation copy the camera had shot out to a Wi-Fi cloud storage centre. If the blob had a clearer original, maybe it showed which way Frank had been heading, and how fast. “Sure. Shall I wipe my feet first?”

The blob just guffawed. “Whatever, Mister. Tapes are this way.”

There wasn’t much by way of space on the floor. The blob flattened anything he stepped on, so Miller followed in his footsteps of devastation. In what used to be an office but was now a catch-all for dumping junk, the blob waved a black plastic rectangle at Miller.

Wow. When he’d said tape, Miller hadn’t thought he’d meant actual magnetic tape. Where the hell had he found such archaic technology that still worked?

“Here is is Mister, May the fourth.”

“Star Wars day?” Miller muttered to himself.

The blob shrugged, cupping a hand to an ear. “Sorry Mister, didn’t quite catch that?”

Miller waved him off. “Nothing. Not important right now. So can we watch the tape now?”

The blob nodded and inserted it into a player that was probably an antique when Miller’s grandfather had been a baby. Together they sat and watched the image play in real time, something Miller hadn’t done in his life before today. Everything was pre-record these days. After about forty minutes of playback, a familiar fuzzy ball wandered into view.

“This him?” asked the blob, pressing pause. The image of Frank just hung on the screen, lines of static ghosting over his body and tail.

Miller just nodded, indicating he should keep playing the tape. The blob pressed play again.

Frank took himself a hunk of pavement and sat there for over an hour before anything else happened. That anything else being a bright red mag-van floating into shot to a halt right next to, but not obscuring Frank.

“You able to screenshot this, friend?” Miller asked.

The blob shook his head, the tech was far too old to have hard-copy print-out. Miller used his Auto to snap the van and its ID, then he motioned to the blob to press play again.

The image jumped back into life and a man in a red silk outfit got out of the mag-van and picked Frank up. So where ever he was now, this person had a line on it. And now Miller had a line on them. “Okay. Good enough, friend. How much do you need?”

The blob waved him away. “Don’t want your money friend. Just find your girl’s cat. That’ll be payment enough for old Buddy.”

Miller even shook his hand as he left. A blob called Buddy? And one who didn’t want paying either? He’d heard stranger. But not much stranger. That was straight into Miller’s all time top three, for sure.

#####

It was well into the afternoon by the time Miller tracked down the owner of the mag-van, and just as he’d suspected it was a flat above a legit cloning business. The automated doorkeeper told Miller the van’s owner worked all day, some sort of food delivery job.’ That made sense,’ Miller thought. The guy had spotted Frank and then seen the dollar signs on the horizon. So Frank might still be alive. Might.

As he stood waiting for the van to roll by, Miller called Mrs Willis. “It’s Detective Miller, Mrs Willis. Just calling to let you know that I’m still on the case. I’ll be going to Jackie’s later, thanks for the lead. You take care now.” Miller hung up fast to make sure he didn’t give her the space to speak. Past experience had taught him she’d chat for hours, given half the chance. And Miller just didn’t have the time to engage with the old lady right now. He’d give it a few more hours, and then let her down gently just before he caught up with Girl.

Girl. He wondered how she was doing on the job right now? Had she made the hit yet? Were they in clear at last? Was he finally getting off this miserable ball of rock back to his beloved stars?

Miller had resigned himself to a long wait outside the flat but the mag-van floated to a halt less than an hour after he’d got there. Miller was at the door before it touched the ground, knocking on the window, beckoning for it to be opened.

The window buzzed open. ‘Bad servo,’ Miller thought to himself.

“Yes, can I help you Officer?” The voice was a lot more Standard than Miller had expected. He’d assumed Off-world. And the driver had pegged him for a cop, without the need for even flashing the old badge.

“Miller, Tenth Precinct. Received some information that you might know the whereabouts of a missing cat?” Miller flashed him the picture of Frank on the Auto. “Mister…?” Miller left the silence for the driver to fill. He’d gotten the address but not a name. That was rare in this day and age, whoever this was, they knew someone who could hack. But was someone who could peg a cop, without pulling a gun.

“Wass. Eustace Wass, Officer. Yes, I’ve seen the animal in question sir. Found it without a collar, outside a disreputable establishment. Feared the owner might eat it. So I took him in. I was gonna report him missing, I guess it just slipped my mind over time.”

Disreputable was a pretty accurate description of Buddy’s chop shop. And this guy Wass sounded as human as Miller. But he knew Frank had been wearing a collar. His owner might have been cheap enough to not bother with a tracking chip but he had made sure Frank always wore a collar with his name and address on it.

Miller gestured on the Auto, it adjusted and zoomed in on Frank. “No collar, eh? What’s that then Eustace?”

For an entire second Miller braced himself for the expected attack that never materialised. Wass put both his hands in the air, like a scared good citizen would. “I’m sorry Detective! I saw him sitting there, and I just knew he could make me money! I haven’t hurt him. He’s alive inside.” Wass passed his door code to the Auto and let Miller cuff him to the wheel. He also let Miller disable the engine, so he couldn’t drive off.

The code got him past the automated doorkeeper, as well as the lock on the flat door.

Miller assumed the place had been immaculate once, before Frank had arrived. There were claw marks everywhere now, the little fur ball clearly had been given the run of the place, and of Wass too! It took a few minutes of looking, then Miller just grabbed the closest half-full food bowl, rattling it impatiently.

Sure enough, Frank came bolting towards the sound of food. Unharmed. Not one hair out of place.

“Come on furball, I’m taking you home.” Miller looked at the cat, he didn’t have time for Frank’s bullshit or his bad attitude.

Frank growled, hissed then showed claws. Fortunately his owners had expected such behaviour and given Miller a glove that issued a mild stun. A few strokes later and Frank was like partially electrocuted putty in his hands. And Eustace was more than willing to give him a ride back across the city, stopping a dozen blocks short of Frank’s actual home.

“Listen Wass, you seem like a good guy. I ain’t gonna press charges as you helped me get him home. Now scram before I change my mind, and don’t ever let me catch you breaking the law again.”

Wass couldn’t scram fast enough.

#####

Miller had made a pretty interesting discovery too, as Wass had been driving him across the city in complete terror. “Hey Eustace, is this real ramen in the back?”

Wass just nodded meekly.

“Real, edible ramen? Not the printed shit, or the clones?”

Wass nodded again. “Real ramen, Officer. Would you like some? Free sample for our brave boys in blue of course!”

Miller hadn’t been able to help himself to several packets fast enough. Jim wasn’t going to believe this. Girl either.

Outside the house, Frank’s owner had been all kinds of happy, including the kind that paid extra for live cats. Miller had soon been left in the cold once Frank was reunited with them though.

“Call Girl.”

The Auto acted as a substitute for Jim when Miller was on the go. “You sure, Boss? She hasn’t notified us she’s done it yet.”

“Cancel request. Even on a wrist you’re a terrible nag, Jim.”

The transport was a matter of getting there stop by stop. Miller got thrown off at each station where he’d go outside, come back then get on the next transport. It was a slow journey but it was free. Miller could have paid from the reward for Frank, but he’d rather keep his money and ride for free. Besides, it meant he got to annoy the automated checkers. And that was all kinds of fun.

#####

Back at the room, Jim had kept the lights off.

“The old home fire ain’t burning Jim?”

The AI just ignored him, it was programmed not to interact with his ancient references.

“I found Frank.”

“Really? Alive?” The AI sounded surprised.

“Alive and well. The little shit had ruined the apartment of the guy who’d snatched him. He’ll probably hand himself into the cops later, I’d wager. Seemed like the type to me. Name of Eustace.”

“Already at a station now Boss, just got an update. He mentioned your name, even went to the Tenth, looking for you.”

Miller grinned. “Was he pissed when he found out I ain’t a cop no more, Jim?”

“Seems not Boss. Looks like he was one of the good ones.”

“A rare breed these days, Jim.”

“Rare indeed, Boss.”

Miller glanced at the time. “Check the feed for Florence? She awake now?”

It took the AI less than a second to respond. “Making tea, Boss. You want to place a call?”

Miller shook his head, already halfway out the door. “Turn the lights off Jim, I’ve gotta do this one in person.”

#####

Miller felt odd when he reached her station. The Automated Checkers hadn’t even approached him during the journey there. It didn’t feel right, not being thrown off. Mrs Willis answered the door fairly quickly this time. “Hello Mrs Willis.”

“Call me Florence, Detective. You have news?”

Miller put on the grave face, trying to appear as approachable as possible. “I have, Florence.” He put his hand on her arm.

She already knew, without having to say anything. “No, please? Not that.”

“I’m sorry. Harry passed away. It was peaceful, if that helps?” Miller knew it didn’t help. Mrs Willis would now quietly go crazy once more, maybe even to the point of being put away again. It wasn’t right that she didn’t get the kind of care she really needed. Miller even snuck the credits she’d insisted on paying him back into her pocket when she turned to close the door.

‘I don’t need her money, not now. Not after Frank. And the ramen,’ Miller thought. Jim had already liquidated the asset to the most eager buyer, the schmo who’d been badgering him for the last ten months. Every day it had been the same call, “Ramen, Miller. Get me ramen!”

And now he had his god damn ramen. ‘Another monkey off my back,’ Miller thought to himself.

Miller walked the fifty blocks to Mikes. There was always a free drink waiting on the bar for him there. Mike owed him for life, and then some. Mere drinks would never pay that particular debt. “Hey Miller. How’s the job?”

Miller frowned at Mike.

“That bad, eh?”

Miller shook his head. “I shouldn’t complain. Cleared all my jobs. Found Frank, found some ramen. Had to let Florence down again.”

“I’ll see she’s looked after, if you’re going away again Miller?” Mike was good people. Too bad there weren’t more like him. “You here alone? Or…?”

Miller remembered the time. An hour before dawn. “Call Girl.”

The Auto rang once.

Twice.

A third time.

“She always picks up in one ring, Boss.” The Auto didn’t need to tell him that, he already knew.

“Check the feeds. Any word of the job?”

The second it took the AI felt like a lifetime to Miller.

“News item, might be bad Boss.”

“Don’t sugar coat it Jim, just give me the word.”

The Auto switched to a monotone and began to read the news. “…killed in what appeared to be an attempt on his life, the killer, an unidentified female was also killed by his bodyguards…”

“Turn it off Jim. That’s enough.”

“Tickets, Boss?”

Miller couldn’t go alone. They’d made the escape plan together. “Call Girl.”

“She’s gone Boss. I can’t do that.” Jim almost sounded sorry. Too well programmed.

“Just book the one then. Deep space, next passage. Mike, look after Florence. Use this…” The pile of dropped credits covered the entire bar. And anything they’d ever have to do for the old lady. She’d be well cared for now.

And the stars shine brighter now, knowing they have Miller back amongst them. Jim’s still a nag though.

END.

By Ray Daley
Ray Daley was born in Coventry & still lives there. He served 6 yrs in the RAF as a clerk & spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet & has been writing stories since he was 10. His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitch Hikers fanfic novel he’s been writing since 1986.
https://raymondwriteswrongs.wordpress.com/