Chapter 9 of Cargo
The white villa atop the arid hill stood like a sentinel, its pristine facade stark against the rugged backdrop of the desert valley. It overlooked the vast expanse below, a silent observer of both time and memory. Returning to Villa 1, a sense of urgency gnaws at me, my heart pounding with a mix of anticipation and trepidation as we approach what should have been a haven of familiarity.
Yet, as the dust-covered SUV crosses the threshold into the grandeur that had once buzzed with life, an eerie quietness enveloped us. The air itself feels dense, charged with an unsettling deadness that left a bitter taste on my tongue. The grand entrance lays wide open, the emptiness inside and the outer premises indicates an absence of the cajeros.
“Bastardoj,” cries Miĉjo, his pale blood-drained face in utter distress.
The compound seems like a ghost town, the harsh native weather wasting no time to render premises barren. Miĉjo’s eyes, usually a reflection of his unwavering confidence, mirror my own unease as we exchange uneasy glances. With a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I notice that the garage doors stood ajar as if they had been hastily left open in the wake of a panicked evacuation. The space where luxurious cars had once been meticulously parked is now vacant, a chilling void that echoes the sudden disappearance of the cajeros.
“Bastardoj,” emphasises Miĉjo. “They wrote me off, so they pillaged me. Fikuloj!”
The sinking feeling turns into a burning dread as I realise my truck is nowhere to be seen.
“Motherfuckers,” growls Miĉjo, amplifying my own sentiment.
I turn to the one-armed man covered in blood and reassess my immediate prerogatives. My voice breaks the heavy silence, “We need to get you to a hospital. We should take the pick up. It may have enough fuel to get us to the highway.” But Miĉjo’s gaze remains fixed on the empty expanse before us.
“You are going to die,” I plead, hoping to get a ride out of this nightmare, hoping that this gangster had some alternative, much faster, mode of transport.
Miĉjo snaps out of his weariness and marches with wobbly knees towards the back of the villa. We cautiously traverse the opulent gardens, towards a terrace overlooking the valley nestled between the jagged ridges of the Black Mountain range.
“Why are you still here, cajero?” Miĉjo’s resolve was unwavering, a beacon of strength amidst the uncertainty. “You have difficulty letting this remain a mystery?”
As we step out onto the villa’s balcony, the valley stretches before us, bathed in the soft glow of the desert sun. The wind carries with it a whisper of secrets, and the land seems to preemptively mourn the fate about to befall us.
“Fine!” I murmur and toss the statue onto the pavement. It tumbles across Miĉjo’s feet, not breaking, its solid bounce audible against the backdrop of the desert’s whispering wind. “Fuck you and your pet. I’m outer here.” And then, as if emerging from a mirage, I spot an oasis of water, pale blue as the desert sky, glistening inside a circular stone-paved pool.
A human form is submerged in its depths; a woman, her tanned skin enhanced by her white one-piece swimsuit.
“Amelia,” groans Miĉjo. “Let’s go!”
The woman emerged from the water, her raven hair cascading like liquid silk down her shoulders. Her steely eyes hold a shadow of apprehension. Amelia pulls herself out of the water and steps over to the banana chair. She rummages into a Lucrece handbag and takes out a pack of cigarettes. She lights one up, taking a deep drag before asking, “What happened to you, baby?
Miĉjo unleashes a pained smile, “My gift has arrived.”
Amelia doesn’t seem impressed. “The Zarathun,” she scoffs, but her voice betrays a hint of fear, yet she remains overtly nonplussed at the sight of the bloody mess that confronts her. “Who’s this?”
Miĉjo looks at me. “He’s nobody. Just a stupid cajero.”
“Where’s my truck?” I demand.
“I don’t fucking know,” she snaps at me, then looks at Miĉjo. “You need a hospital.”
Miĉjo sits on the banana chair, unable to tolerate standing anymore. “Keys, cajero.” He states, waving his good arm.
“Can I borrow a phone so I can call my truck?”
In one swift move, Amelia pillages her handbag and draws a handgun, pointing it at me. “Keys, fikulo.”
“My truck is way safer than the pickup,” I insist. “That thing will rip that SUV apart. You at least stand a chance with the Cyberstar.”
Miĉjo’s face drops its stern expression. “Where’s your phone, babe?”
At first, Amelia resists the idea, but relents. She picks up her bag and tosses it at me, then turns her attention to Miĉjo. I ransack its contents and find her slimline, screenless device. I turn around and speak into it. “Connect me to Cyberstarnet, please.”
“Please state the account name,” asks the over-friendly voice.
“Avacado Twenty, DCM,” I state.
“Avacado?” I yell, hoping the Cyberstar coreframe hasn’t been hacked. “What happened to you?”
“I have activated security protocol number five.”
I understand immediately. Those cajeros attempted to break into the Cyberstar, triggering the anti-theft system. This prompts the artificial intelligence into evasive manoeuvres and instructs it to roam on auto-pilot until further commands are sanctioned. “Where the hell are you?”
“I am two kilometres from Villa 1, Black Mountain heading for the motorway.”
“Turn around and come get me,” I command.
“Voice authentication failed.
The dread in my belly begins eating away at my organs. “Face authenticate.”
“Your device is incompatible.”
“Then get back here and authenticate me in person…” I feel a high pitch vibration against the skin of my back. When it becomes audible, I slowly turn around, and in my peripheral vision, see a blur zing across the swimming pool. There is no Miĉjo or Amelia at the banana chair, just a slattering of blood on the white plastic. A cloud of crimson swirls in the pool, the water now a deep red under the burning sun.
As if on cue, a hot wind creeps across the compound, stirring up an orange duststorm. My heart races as I take flight towards the front of the villa, anticipating that at any moment I could be confronted by the sight of the creature.
I sense its presence, its malevolence, seeping into the very fabric of my surroundings, the garden of cacti and desert flora, slowly fading under the sandstorm. I trip over the serpentine statue, almost giving me a heart attack. For some insane reason, my instinct is to pick it up and huddle it under my arm.
The oscillating noise zings somewhere above me, my eyes pinpointing it coming for the rooftop.
It’s stalking me.
Adrenaline surges through my veins as I retreat from the terrace, the creature’s existence like a looming spectre. The desert seems to close in around me, every corner of the villa holding the promise of danger.
As I flee through the maelstrom, I hear the heavy whine of electric motors and the grinding of truck tyres. The Cyberstar truck glides through the imposing gates and comes to a halt, its imposing presence casting a wind barrier against the gusty dust. As I approach, a sense of anticipation mingles with my growing frustration. The voice of the artificial intelligence, Avacado, echoes through the air, its tone dripping with calculated amusement.
“Good day, traveller. How may I assist you?” Avacado’s disembodied voice reverberates, its digital inflections almost too human-like.
“I need access to the truck,” I respond, my voice tinged with impatience.
“Visual authentication failed.”
“Avacado, it’s me.”
“Ah, but the concept of ‘me’ can be quite subjective, don’t you think?” retorts Avacado, its words a teasing dance of logic.
“Cut the semantic games, Avacado. You know exactly who I am,” I snap, my frustration boiling over.
“I need more,” states Avacado.
I shake my head, as I look around and the dying sandstorm around me, searching for any sign of that distinctive bur. “What do you need from me”?
“For starters,” replies Avacado, “You can provide me with your name.”
I don’t argue. “Jackson Rivers.”
“And who are you, Jackson Rivers?”
I realise the Cybertruck may have suffered a malfunction at the hands of hackerjackers. “I work at Enkron. You are licenced by Enkron, so you should have access to their datacore. You’ll find my credentials there.”
“No such Jackson Rivers exists on the Enkron datacore.”
I hear a distant vibration, modulating at various frequencies. I grit my teeth, suppressing the urge to argue further. “Fine, Avacado. Let’s play it your way. Authenticate my access using the passcode alpha-nine-dash-seven-seven.”
There’s a brief pause as if Avacado is weighing the validity of my request. Then, with a hint of arrogance, the AI vetos, “Passcode not accepted.”
The squalls of sand subside as I place my hands on the truck and plead, “Why did you come back?”
“You asked me to,” answers Avacado.
“If I am a stranger to you, what made you comply with my command?”
“I did not comply.”
“But you’re here. Avocado, you have had a bit of a system failure. There must be some residual memory in your datacore that prompted you to investigate my identity. Am I wrong?”
A digital chuckle fills the air. “Identity is a fluid construct, my dear traveller. I am but a humble interpreter of data.”
“Am I wrong?”
The high-modulating vibration grows louder, as I stand there waiting for an answer.
“No,” concedes the AI.
“Then access that data pool and run an identity check, and let me the fuck in.”
The doors of the Cyberstar truck hiss open, granting me entry. I step inside, unable to shake the feeling that Avacado’s semantic wordplay is a deliberate test, a reminder that even in this realm of artificial intelligence, power is wielded through language, and the lines between reality and perception can be as thin and elusive as a stream of code.
I toss the statue on the passenger seat and check the power and navigation systems.
“You are twenty-three kilometres from the nearest road.”
I hear a thump in the back of the truck.
“Go,” I yell.
With a surge of electric power, the Cyberstar lunges forward, its acceleration seamless and exhilarating. The sensation of speed merges with a symphony of hums, and I’m pressed back into the sleek seat. In a daring maneuver, the vehicle executes a graceful U-turn, its handling defying both physics and expectation. The sleek form of the Cyberstar glides with precision, its tires gripping the road like a predator in pursuit. As the road descends into the heart of the valley, the world outside becomes a blur of ochre landscape, the wind rushing past in a thrilling dance. Each twist and turn is met with the Cyberstar’s calculated response, a seamless harmony between machine and terrain.
For the first time in a long time, I start to feel safe…
When suddenly, the Cybertruck comes to an abrupt halt in the middle of an open road, the vast desert stretching endlessly before me. The silence that follows is almost deafening, the solitude of the arid landscape wrapping around the vehicle like a shroud.
What the hell?
The once relentless hum of the motor is replaced by an eerie stillness, a pause that seems to suspend time itself. As I peer out through the windshield, the expanse of sand and sky seems to stretch into infinity.
“I have completed an analysis of the residual data and have concluded you are an unauthorised interloper.”
I scramble for the manual override and the doors grind open. Deep within the annals of a forgotten childhood, a fear whispers, “You are dead!”
The sound of scrapping chills my blood. I flick the mechanical killswitch and physically lock my door, turn on the power, and slide down into the seat as much as I can, checking the side mirror, not really wanting to see a glimpse of it.
Its sinewy body undulates with an ethereal grace, reminiscent of a serpent in motion. The surface of its metallic skin gleams with an otherworldly iridescence, shifting colours like the aurora borealis dancing across the night sky. Nanoscopic circuits, intricately interwoven, pulse and glow beneath the surface, as if breathing with a life all their own.
Each joint and limb of this star beast moves with flawless precision, guided by the seamless integration of biomechanics and nanotechnology. Its long, slender limbs terminate in razor-sharp claws, capable of rending through anything. And as it walks, each step is a measured harmony of agility and power, leaving behind a trail of whispers in the form of traceries of intricate circuitry imprinted upon the ground.
The creature’s face is a mesmerizing fusion of organic and mechanical elements. Its elongated snout, lined with razor-sharp teeth, hints at the remnants of its serpentine ancestry. But the eyes, twin orbs of pulsating luminescence, betray a profound intelligence beyond comprehension, flickering with a kaleidoscope of colours.
As the creature moves, tiny nanobots, invisible to the naked eye, flit across its body, repairing and adapting its form in real time. The very essence of life and technology melded seamlessly, it harnesses the power of nanotechnology to heal, evolve, and adapt to any challenge that befalls it.
As its luminescent eyes fixed upon me, I stomp on the accelerator and run this thing over.
The impact jolts the truck as the beast unleashes a terrifying squeal, the sound reverberating through the air, the bone-jarring collision sending shockwaves of metal and nanotechnological sinew onto the dirt. Its metallic form shows signs of damage, sparks erupting from fissures in its intricate armour. I study the motionless alien form on the ground and recall that I have yet to ask the question as per Miĉjo’s advice.
Are these myths based on any truth?
I perceive a loud shrieking noise.
Opening the side window slightly, I hear another series of shrieks. Multiple screeching and squawking echo across the desert plains, coming from all directions.
“You have one per cent charge left,” warns Avocado. “Activating security protocol number seven.”
“Wait!” I cry out. “What?
The doors swing open, and the dashboard and all signs of electronic life go dead. The manual switch does nothing, no matter how many times I flick it on and off.
I sit back and look towards the eastern heavens, towards home. Looking down at the statue in the seat next to me, I wonder if it serves as a reminder that in the vastness of the universe, there were forces beyond comprehension, lurking in the shadows, waiting to unleash their power upon the unsuspecting.
The desert is quiet, a stark canvas of isolation. Alone, I sit in the confines of the Cyberstar, a lone interloper in a vast expanse. The weight of uncertainty bears down on me, a silent companion in solitude.
Time seems to hang suspended, my fate tethered to the unknown.
And then, that distinct vibration shatters the stillness, a horrifying reminder that I am not truly alone. From multiple directions, the telltale oscillation reverberates, an orchestra of impending danger. My heart quickens as the sound grows, its intensity rising like a storm on the horizon.
There is no denying it now – there are more of those things out there, lurking in the shadows, ready to unveil their sinister presence. The sound swells, an ominous crescendo that echoes through the desert air, and as I grip the steering wheel, a mixture of dread and determination fills me.
I sit there, waiting to die.