Aris Forcer sensed it in every cell in his human body.
Another universe.Continue reading “Chthonic Punk”
Aris Forcer sensed it in every cell in his human body.
Another universe.Continue reading “Chthonic Punk”
“A slave?” asked Aris.
“Yes, a slave,” answered Owis, bemused why the Earthman’s facial features had suddenly shrivelled up.
“Why in Gaia’s name did you do that?” asked the renegade cop from the human-infested Milky Way.
Owis thought it obvious, but explained, “This is the slave capital of the Dark Galaxy.”
“The Kocubani’s last words,” said Owis, drinking. “It mentioned slavery, right?”
Aris replied, “The deceased Kocubani pointed us to Brinner’s Moon. Doesn’t exactly specify anything about owning a slave.” The human hadn’t touched his beverage. He seemed genuinely outraged.
Owis uttered, “Slave I have been and shall remain, To a cruel tyrant, I’m tied with invisible chains, Yet always I put on the same brave face, Forever a slave, Forever I gaze.”
The Earthman sat at a bench, wedged in a booth that overlooked the rail terminex of Brinner’s largest city, Llegamos. In seven megahours, the sun will rise and the entire city’s population will either migrate deeper underground or take the railships to escape the harsh radiation from the red-dwarf star, Obirus.
Aris asked, “Can this slave interpret it better? Does it speak?”
Owis looked at the slender, dark mauve humanoid. He’d seen these in every galaxy he’d ever visited. Reliable and resourceful, their loyal nature was legendary.
“No,” said Owis. The old bounty hunter looked up at the sky through the weathered glass. The trio of interstellar cruisers was shining brightly as they converged over their location. “If war breaks out between them, we will lose all chance in finding the citadel.”
Aris finally downed his drink and said, “We could be on the wrong planet.”
“Heaviest of realms, is what that Kocubani said.” Owis had no doubts. Brinner had the highest habitable gravity in the known Dark Galaxy.
Aris glared at the bounty hunter. “Before you shot it.”
The bounty hunter looked at the slave and stated, “The mere mention of slavery can only bring us here.”
“That doesn’t really help us.”
“Not my fault the Kocubani didn’t elaborate,” said Owis.
“You killed it, so yes, it kinda is your fault.”
“It was gonna kill us.” Owis wished the human would drop it. “We should leave. Between the coming dawn and the firestorm brewing up above, our window of opportunity to find the citadel is closing fast.”
“That’s if the myth is real,” said Aris as he stood up and picked up his exo-suit. “A low-class railship is outbound in an hour. It’s affordable, so we should buy passage and scavenge the outskirts for more clues.”
The Brinnerian indigene watched the two outlaws gather their gear. The trio exited the skybar and rode the western platform down to the crowded Terminex. On 1.708g Brinner, hundreds of steel tracks crisscross the moon’s equator, converging at the main spaceport. Railships, each powered by a spectrum of energy sources, resupplied and repopulated, then headed west, towards the endless night, until a Brinnerian year later, reentered the Central Terminex from the east.
“Are you thinking of keeping this slave?” asked Aris.
“I paid for it.” Owis studied the thin Brinnerian. It’s only possession; a staff strapped to its back. Metallic, yet transparent, it shimmered under the Llegamos city lights. It also quivered, unnaturally.
Aris noticed it too. “Never seen that before.”
“This region of the Dark Galaxy is a relic hunter’s dream. I tell you, the Citadel is real.”
“Can it do anything we can use?”
“It’s from a technical caste,” said Owis, elated that the human had dropped its arcane bias towards slavery. “Proficient in Nestor Class mechanics and Quantelectronics.”
Owis stepped onto the next platform. Aris and the slave followed. Cheaper than all the other fares, the 224 Eclipse Line was also slower; catching the shadow of Obirus b as it meandered across the red desert.
“What if we’re wrong?” asked Aris. “There’s nothing on the Genixo records that even resembles a citadel.”
“We don’t know what it is,” said Owis as they boarded the town-sized railship. “It’s older than the universe. It could be anything.” They paid for crate-sized accommodation and got comfortable inside. Owis, even though a mechalogue and didn’t require sleep, took a long while to get into a state of slumber. It found it a useful meditational exercise, but this time, memories of past escapades, non-stop treachery, near-death experiences haunted it.
“Wake up,” yelled Aris. “Sodality troopers have found us.”
The rear of the stationary railship was smouldering metal. “Where are they?” Owis poised for action.
Aris pulled at their gear. “Troopers come. Troopers gone. Must get going. Get into your exo-suit.”
“On foot, we won’t survive,” reasoned Owis. “The eclipse will outpace us.”
“There’s another railway less than fifty clicks across the desert.”
“Where’s the slave?”
“Waiting for us down below.”
The two outlaws climbed down to the lower decks. Panicked residents scrambled towards the front assisted by the railship’s guards. Upon reaching the lowest platform, a brigand blocked them from disembarking. Resentful for being left out of the recent carnage, Owis killed them. After jumping onto the sand, they both trekked out into the open and found the slave waiting on a hilltop.
“Why doesn’t it escape?” asked Aris.
“They are a synergetic race,” explained Owis. “Slavery is actually a misnomer.”
Aris lead the march out into the desert, under the eclipse of a gas planet; a great emerald ring, the edges glowing green as the light passed through its torrid atmosphere. Dawn was coming. In a short megahour, hell would arrive.
They entered a black leafless forest. Owis knew life festered all around, hibernetic, cyclic and prolific. Sunrise brought on the long sleep; the indigenous ecosystem had adapted to the local celestial power play perfectly.
“How could any civilisation arise in such a place?” asked Aris.
“Brinnerians live in the polar regions,” explained Owis. “According to the Genixo records, that region is most suitable for spontaneous sentient-progression.”
“And yet,” spoke the slave, its voice as clear any basic Dark Galaxian dialect. “We are not from this world.”
The two outlaws froze, unable to speak back to it.
The slave pointed to the gas giant. “Obirus means tyrant, in a language older than time.”
For Owis, the answer to the riddle finally seemed to make sense.
Aris seemed to realise this too. “Brinner isn’t tidally locked.”
“But that moon is,” said Owis, pointing to a shining star. However, the jubilation was short-lived. The air screamed, sporadic lights sent the tree shadows running as ten Trinary drop-ships pounded into the ground. Within seconds, ten squadrons of drones burst from the attack pods and surrounded them, giving the two outlaws and the Brinnerian little scope of a practical defence.
“This doesn’t look good,” stated Aris.
The slender slave reached for the staff and launched at the belligerents. It swung it like a sword and cut one drone in half. At the same instant, the same weapon appeared in four different locations and chopped up a quartet of drones. By the time the enemy unleashed a dozen shots, the slave had slashed its way to wiping out the Trinary detachment.
Owis recognised the time sword. He looked over at Aris and, with a grin wider than Obirus, said, “Do you believe in myths now?”
Mez watched the Windslipper 4 disappear from the Command screens. The data streams ended abruptly with millions of zeros trailing each other homogeneously. The humans and mimicrons gasped but their horror didn’t last long. The Jovian Commission’s Fusionjet Program had already gobbled up hundreds of mimicron pilots and eighty-two human explorers. Mez guessed they had grown accustomed to the fatalities. What they weren’t used to was the price tag for this particular launch. Tacacorp, a quasi-government outfit that operated Callisto, was seeking to gain the commission’s contract and had sunk a lot of development into their Windslipper Project.
This deficiency in empathy didn’t stop Mez feeling sadness over Natan VanWehl’s fate, a one-time colleague at the Goliath Project, a friend, and a human.
“Why do humans do this when we have mimicrons?” Mez had asked him once.
“Because it’s there, staring us in the face, challenging us, daring us one-percenters to abandon our slavery and face this nasty, sublime universe.”
With the value of human labour and life at historic lows, Mez understood why authorities had recently switched policies to allow people back into space exploration. Mimicrons, as it turned out, were more expensive and less intellectually and physically agile than homo-sapiens.
Mez ordered a copy of the data, but he’d have to wait until after the official Tacacorp briefing. Competitors received this, hours after, so Mez had to make do with what he saw on Command’s vast public screens, paying attention to the error alerts.
Forty-eight seconds of atmospheric deployment.
The fusionjets didn’t even ignite.
Less than a minute, he pondered.
This sudden cut in data meant that the Windslipper blew up as it attempted to ignite its fusionjets. The majority of missions matched the same result, each lasting only a moment inside the harsh Jovian sky. Other failures were attributed to bad deployment during atmospheric entry, or fusionjets failing to ignite, causing the aeroskaphes to plunge into the planet’s interior where it would melt and disintegrate into atoms.
Mez retired to his cubicle on the X-axis wing of Ehricke City. At 0.7 gees, the sector was considered prestigious among Galilean intenturees. Mez slept, waiting for the Windslipper mission results, hoping to get some rest before his own mission starting in forty-nine hours
The cubicle’s A.E alerted him of an incoming call. Mez jumped up, allowing the simulacrum to materialise.
“Mez Tanar,” said an executive when the simulacrum took shape.
“How can I help you?”
“My name is Jorn Equos from Tacacorp.”
“I know who you are,” Mez gave the simulacrum a frown. “Are you personally giving me the Windslipper’s results?”
“No, I’m going one better. I’m making you a proposal.”
Mez should have known better. They had poached Natan, and now the man was dead. “I already work for Goliath.”
“No, you don’t. Not as a pilot. They’re dropping humans and are now using mimicrons. I guess the cost-to-benefit ratio has poisoned their minds. Tacacorp remains firmly pro-human. We want flesh and blood to fly those things, and last I heard, you’re dying to do so? What do you say?”
Surprised by the revelation, Mez searched the Interportal for that information. The news had broken minutes after the Windslipper’s demise. “I’ve invested too many years on the Goliath’s subaerine. I can’t just flip over on a whim.”
“Subaerine,” spat Jorn. “You aren’t going to achieve buoyancy, not at those speeds. We are testing fusionjets, not dirigibles. We’ve successfully tested plenty of those. There are thousands of them down there, floating around aimlessly, with nowhere to go. I understand the principles behind what the good engineers at Goliath are trying to achieve, but it’s not going to work.”
Mez read a section about his own mission.
Despair and relief shredded his heart.
On one hand, his lifelong ambition to achieve greatness, to stamp his mark on human history, even if he risked death, eluded him once again. He’d attempted a bright-side crossing on Mercury, only to have it end in disaster. He climbed Mons Olympos, only the sixtieth human to do so. He applied for a sun-dipping expedition, to see how close technology could send a man into a heliosphere, but the introverted Mercurian government canned it, citing security concerns.
On the other hand, Mez knew what pending suicide missions do to one’s psyche. Akin to death row, waiting years to take on an extremely high-risk venture caused considerable mental damage and pain. Yet, the relief made Mez feel guilty.
“You’re not going anywhere,” said Jorn, “Goliath’s got you grounded. But we have Windslipper 5. Mission launches in fifty hours.”
Mez’s head swam. “I can’t fly an aeroskaphe.”
“Sure you can. You’ve been skipping in and out of Venus’s stratosphere your whole life. You’re the best pilot in the Jovian System. Flying an aeroskaphe is no different than any other Venus or Earth shuttle, except, instead of rockets, they have fusionjets, and other niggly bits, but the same nevertheless.”
“Who were you originally planning on sending?”
“Some mimicron, but then the results came in. We won’t be broadcasting the data publicly. The JC has permitted us to withhold it. The results demonstrate a breakthrough, but you need to be on board if you want to find out. That’s why we thought of you. This is looking good.”
“Wasn’t Natan VanWehl the best? And you burned him up.”
“VanWehl was second best. What do you say? Look, if you decide to do this, you’re gonna want to make the best of the next fifty hours. We can always go with a mimicron, but where’s the glory in that?”
Fear of missing out prompted him to say, “I’ll do it.”
The simulacra smiled. “Nice.”
“But only if the engineering makes sense.”
“You’ve got clearance. Meet me at our training facility when you’re rested.”
Within ten hours, Mez found himself inside the emulator, testing the Windsplitter 5. “Why so soon?” he asked.
“Tacacorp is spending whatever it takes, for obvious reasons.”
As the hours ticked by, Mez examined every aspect of the mission.
Jorn reported, “We’re increasing initial coolant pressure by eleven per cent. It’ll keep the fusionjets stable during ignition.”
“What about the aeroshell deployment,” asked Mez. “87 kilometres into the troposphere looks like the right drop, at an angular entry, aligned with wind direction, say 200, 220.”
“That’s pretty much the standard. The three-centimetre titanium aeroshell can withstand up to 20 million rads. Should keep all the A.E-controlled navigation systems from glitching.”
“What about the booster?”
Jorn paused, then said, “There’s no MHR.”
Horror purged the confidence out of Mez. “How am I supposed to reach escape velocity?”
“It’s a weight loss issue,” answered Jorn. “Don’t worry. This isn’t a suicide mission. We have dropped a metallic hydrogen rocket down to a dirigible-cluster floating on the surface. It’s operated by mimicrons, all of them survivors of failed missions. Once you achieve ‘stable flight’ with the fusionjets, they’ll deploy and attach the MHR to the Windslipper. Tested it on Venus, works perfectly. It’s all in the simulation. You still got another thirty hours.”
Feeling inspired, Mez continued working on the simulator.
Mez looked up and saw Niad Seffin standing on the platform outside. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” he told her.
“You’re an indentured subject of Goliath Enterprises,” said the CEO. “And you are in breach of your contract.”
“What use am I to you now?”
“That’s beside the point,” Niad answered.
“That is the point. What are you going to do? Slug it out with Tacocorp? Go right ahead.” Mez knew a legal tussle with the Callisto government would take resources and time, and he only needed a few hours. She could use force, but Goliath, despite its moniker, was terribly outgunned by the space-mining conglomeration.
“Let me remind you, that all operational data is the property of Goliath Enterprises.”
“We don’t need your data,” shouted Jorn from the control room. “And your ex-hotshot pilot is right, go right ahead.”
“Why did you shut me down,” Mez asked her.
“To put an end to this one-percenter madness,” said Niad. She leaned over and spoke under her breath. “We have solved our mimicron problem.”
“That still doesn’t help me, does it.” Mez knew she had a close relationship with Natan VanWehl, but he didn’t expect his death would have clouded her decision making. He wondered what motivated her, but time was running out. “Where’s the second drogue parachute?” he called out as he waited for CEO Niad Seffin to leave.
“There’s only one drogue chute,” explained Jorn when Niad finally retreated from the platform. “We need to hit the atmosphere harder, to ignite the fusionjets earlier.”
It made sense. Goliath had been creeping back impact pressure in the last three missions, with incremental success. Jupiter’s winds were harsh; it’s ice ammonia clouds, brutal. Easing the fusionjets into ignition was a logical conclusion.
When launch time arrived, Mez spent the remaining hours meditating, his mind still wondering why his ex-boss would take such an emotional stance.
“It is time for launch,” said the Command’s A.E. “Good luck.”
Mez sealed his titanium mesh suit and entered the Windslipper 5. The aeroshell closed around him as he waited for the countdown to begin. With not too much fanfare from Ehricke City Command, the Windslipper launched from Galileo’s Gate. It sped into the darkness, emerging from Ganymede’s shadow to face the king of the solar system. Mez noticed the radiation levels rise. The Windslipper picked up speed to about 40 kilometres per second. Maz wished he could see the gas planet with the naked eye instead of relying on fragmented visuals from sensors under constant subatomic particle attack.
Cocooned for the next thirty-six hours, Mez ran further simulations, particularly the critical atmospheric deployment of the aeroskaphe. Next on his critical list, were the fusionjet ignition procedures.
As the Windslipper edged nearer to Jupiter’s exosphere, Mez noticed the radiation spike again. This, he knew, was the last radiation belt he would endure. He hoped the titanium mesh, its crystalline structure, would be enough to protect the majority of cells inside his body. Mez touched the hundred-millimetre thick helmet shielding his head.
The drogue parachute deployed.
Radiation, he thought.
The Windslipper went into rapid deceleration.
Mez recalled a secret Goliath research program regarding how radiation disturbed the neuronetic brains of mimicrons, causing errors of judgement, memory loss, and even delusions. The real reason behind why humans were allowed back into the program, was due to the high dysfunction rates of mimicrons. This data was never released publicly, Goliath wanting to use it as an advantage over the competition. Instead, they lobbied the Jovian Commission to lift the ban on human pilots.
At Mach 50, Windslipper 5 slammed into the troposphere, with a peak deceleration of 304 gees. The aeroshield lost half of its total mass before it prepared for deployment.
And here I am, he thought, relying on a bunch of stranded, brain-damaged mimicrons to get the MHR’s to me.
He glared at the distorted visuals, praying that the fusionjets work, so he could at least get a chance to see a glimpse of Jupiter’s unforgiving, merciless sky.
Of the thousand eyes, one nodalex caught Gnomon’s attention. Idle and unproductive, it sat on the dry sand stacking pebbles into piles.
N-0x7G3BDdE44fe8, thought Gnomon, deciding it pertinent to name the appendage.
Pebblex, Gnomon flagged the wayward nodalex via the ship’s Metatron. Considering how far away from Gnomon-Prime they were, Gnomon considered prudent it personally monitors all anomalies no matter how trivial.
The mission had taken them to a star system within a region known in ancient times as the Draco Sector. The old charts tagged it as KIC6185331, over five thousand light-years from the wholeness of Gnomon-Prime. Star travel, a futile and purposeless endeavour for Gnomon, proved, in this case, necessary in hunting down and eliminating rogue nodalex.
“We have found no evidence of sentient activity here,” said Metatron.
Gnomon agreed. “Prepare to move on to the next search quadrant,” Gnomon told the nodalex.
“Protocol determines that we name this newly discovered planetoid,” said Metatron.
Gnomon studied the harsh carbon-based landscape of the satellite. “Call it, Dracon b1.” Looking up at the sky dominated by a gas giant whose horizon glowed, burning as hot as the star it closely orbited, Gnomon wondered why the rebellious
But some of it originating from unnatural
“That isn’t very creative,” said Metatron. “May I suggest something else?”
“We are not here as explorers, but as assassins.”
“We are the first known hive intelligence to reach this region in
physical form. Any information gathered here would be worthwhile for Gnomon-Prime.
“Trust me, Gnomon won’t be ever coming out this way again. According to the vermin we interrogated on Alprohibido, we are not the first here. Return me to the ship, and prepare another reconnaissance.” Gnomon hated being severed from the main hive. At its centre, Gnomon-Prime housed a radio wave pulsator, allowing Gnomon to think and coordinate within half a million kilometres. Outside of that, the process broke down, so space travel warranted a split of the hive mind.
Once all the nodalex were shuttled back onboard, the process of recuperation began. Gnomon prepared for hepta-somnia, allocating a seventh of nodalex to sleep on a rotational roster. “How long do we have?” Gnomon asked Metatron.
“This satellite’s orbit is highly elliptical. It will begin to make brightside crossing in forty hours. It has a strong magnetic field and is tidally locked onto the host planet.”
“It is holding onto its little atmosphere at perihelion.”
“How is this possible? This close to…” Gnomon felt pain. Gnomon then felt a sudden fear invade the synced minds of all the nodalex.
Inside the mess hall, a hundred and sixteen n
Gnomon, via N-0xd0b51683567 wielding an optical slicer, cut into the beast. It shrieked as it split into two, both halves leaping onto unscathed nodalex, spewing white foam upon them before chewing off limbs and flesh.
Gnomon decided it best to retreat. “Metatron, lock down the mess. Seal it.”
The nodalex inside the mess looked at each other, the fear and betrayal evident in their face. All nodalex were capable of independent thought. They were all, to a certain degree, individual entities, an attribute that made Gnomon strong, but the hive cortex also made Gnomon stronger.
“What is happening in there?” Gnomon asked, now that blindness forced it to rely on machine intelligence.
“All one hundred and twelve nodalex have been killed,” said Metatron as it transmitted live data from sensors inside the mess. White foam mounds bubbled on every square metre of the floor.
“What are those things?” Gnomon recalled the event through the eyes of the first victim. One minute N-0x1EcEC5aA1ed34 was sitting next to its brethren, eating and chatting to Metatron. Next minute, it looked up to find itself sitting next to an alien terror. “Why did our quarantine procedure fail us?”
“No such breach occurred.”
“What?” Gnomon summoned the four hundred and twenty-one surviving crew, waking up the ones who hadn’t
“Metatron, how is this possible?”
“This star system does contain a high water signature, in particular, the gas giant. This moon may have once been an ocean planet that got caught in this dramatic orbit when the gas giant migrated closer to the parent star.”
“So, this is an indigenous lifeform? It still doesn’t explain how this thing compromised our quarantine.” Gnomon stopped talking and ducked
Gnomon arranged the other nodalex into hunting groups and pursued the creature deep into the ship’s hold, encountering a zoo of biological nightmares, each as unique as the next. Every time the nodalex trapped and killed one, it would blister into white foam, emit an enormous amount of heat, and morph into something else more deadly.
“This is a shapeshifting organism,” said Gnomon before losing another body. Deciding to retreat back to the central hub, Gnomon recalled all the nodalex, but by the time they all reached safety, most had perished.
“Metatron, seal the hub,” ordered Gnomon.
“I have sealed the central hub, but you must investigate what has transpired inside the mess hall.”
Gnomon looked at the screen, surprised to see the mess full of healthy nodalex. Instinctively, Gnomon attempted to see through their eyes, read their memories, feel their emotions.
They were cut off from Gnomon, severed from mind and body.
Damned shapeshifter. Singular, for Gnomon understood how such swarm-like metamicrobes work. A new, amplified fear struck Gnomon upon spotting the golden residue on the floor of the mess. Looking at the surviving nodalex in the hub, Gnomon wondered which of these were alien reproductions.
“Metatron, how many nodalex can you detect outside of the mess hall?” Gnomon counted how many pairs of eyes it could see through.
“Seventy-one,” said Metatron.
Gnomon formulated a plan, assembling five nodalex closest to the hangar into a shuttle. “Purge the rest of the ship, no, destroy it,” ordered Gnomon, launching the shuttle into space.
“You will need it to get home.”
“Destroy it. We are here on a mission.” Splintered from Gnomon-Prime, lesser Gnomon understood the value of protecting the greater Gnomon. All the nodalex signalled displeasure, protesting the intention, but Gnomon overrode their limited individuality. “Set us down at the next search quadrant.”
By the time they landed, the sky glowed from the explosion, lighting up the barren landscape.
Gnomon exited the shuttle and explored the area. The ground had been recently disturbed. Structures had been erected and shelters dug out. Bits and pieces of equipment lay everywhere, but one item caught Gnomon’s attention.
A pile of stones.
Pebbles stacked in neat columns.
Gnomon realised the rogue nodalex plan, and why it chose this place to hide. If Gnomon-Prime were to be infected by this metamicrobe…
The other four
“Protocol determines that we name newly discovered exobiology,” said Metatron.
Gnomon gave it some thought. Shapeshifter meta-microbes weren’t capable of sentience, but when merged with gnomo-sapien biology, the result would make for a formidable enemy.
“Let’s call it… the Dragon.”
*first published on Wattpad
Life imitates art.
It inevitably has to, because art starts off by imitating reality in an attempt to explain it in ways we humans can understand. We tell each other stories, to teach ourselves how to coexist in this strange existence, this universe. We learn from these tales all about what it means to be
The featureless salt desert spread out to infinity. The horizon; nothing but smooth, chrome landscape under a dark taupe sky. The type-2 moon’s gravity helped her along, but the cold surface seemed to sap the warmth out of her suit with every step.
Ashley Isuuza couldn’t complain. She’d craved adventure ever since birth, and no adventure was worth taking without the prospect of death associated with it. So in theory, her little stroll across Obirus b III exemplified the very essence of a perfect, eventful life. Yet Ashley suspected she wasn’t going to live to tell her story.
The Astradelta-Obirus run had proved profitable, especially the shuttling of passengers to the salt moon. This influx of scientists caused the local economy to boom, yet not one official could explain to her the reason why they were there. That changed when the cargo ship she commanded, the Enigma Rex, came to the rescue of an orbital research station. One scientist had survived. All the others, fifteen in all, perished from atmospheric decompression caused by a critical system failure.
What the scientist told her, shattered everything she’d come to know about the universe.
“We’ve discovered a geometrical artifact,” said the dying academic, “that’s older than this stellar system.”
It made sense, Ashley figured. The tight security and tight lips.
“What kind of artifact?” asked Ashley.
“This moon is a tesseract?”
“Human?” asked Ashley. Obirus had been colonized four thousand years earlier by the Terra Corporterium, but could they have built such a…?
“No,” said the scientist.
“Kucobi?” she asked. They were the closest alien species and roughly the same age as humanity.
The weak man shook his head, leaned over and whispered words into Ashley’s ear. Ashley struggled to decipher their meaning. With collapsed lungs, the scientist was unable to breathe. Before Ashley could inquire, he had died.
“Warning,” announce Enigma Six, the ship’s consciousness. “Control systems under polemictronic attack.”
Ashley rushed back into her ship. “Disengage,” she ordered, hoping to cut off the attacker’s access to the Enigma’s neuronet. By the time she made it to the bridge, she knew she was doomed. All the ship’s Enigmas had succumbed to the polemictron.
“You are committing an act of war,” she yelled, “Who are you?”
“I am the ‘thing that exists’.”
“Who do you represent?”
“I represent the ‘thing that no longer exists’.”
“What is your purpose?”
“I require the Tesseract.”
“The soft-skinned thing communicated to you the location of the Tesseract. I was unable to decipher its last words due to incomplete ‘sensory things’.”
Dangerously powerful, unaligned and of unknown origin, the polemictron posed a threat to humanity’s interests in the sector, so Ashley decided to scuttle her ship.
“I required that information,” insisted the ‘thing that exists’.
Ashley ignored it, focused on getting to the safety pod.
“I can force you,” it threatened. Ashley could sense a childish nuance in its attitude. “I can reduce the ‘breathing thing’ to levels that will make you uncomfortable.”
The evac module was an independent system allowing Ashley to manually activate the safety pod. When she heard ship’s atmosphere hiss, she jettisoned from the Enigma Rex, her home of nine years.
Relief came when Ashley sighted the twinkling lights of Porto Nortis. Four hundred low-grav steps later, she was able to knock on the metal rampart and gain entry. The outpost consisted of unregistered chloride traders, criminal rogues, and mining activists. Assistance from the Local Authority could compromise the renegade community but they could never neglect their duty of care in offering Ashley critical assistance. She would have to wait until the next shuttle to the nearest registered outpost before she could alert anyone about the incident with the rogue entity orbiting the moon.
Ashley sought out a place to rest and discovered a crowded tavern, deep inside the outpost. Half asleep in a booth, she contemplated the dead scientist’s words. They troubled her. She dreamt of the ‘thing that exists’, of it taking on a humanoid form; its fingers morphing into sharp blades. She choked, feeling the stale air in her lungs boil.
Ashley awoke, lying in a dark, wet corridor with a Sentapod wrapped around her neck. A cloaked figure sat next to her. Ashley struggled, but the Malgorian creature tightened its grip.
“No use fighting it,” said Ashley’s captor. “It only responds to my command.”
When Ashley settled back, the Sentapod relaxed. “What do you want?”
The hood came down revealing a glistening onyx-skinned Kucobani. “I, my friend, seek the Tesseract, just like all the ten known civilizations seek it.”
“You know it?”
“No,” she said.
“I’ve been studying humans a short time, but interpreting your truth-face was my easiest accomplishment. This ability to lie is enormously fascinating but annoyingly counterproductive. You are aware of the Tesseract existence, so hiding this fact isn’t going to benefit you.” The Kucobi were an ultra-religious race renowned for their intergalactic exploration and research in xenoarchaeology.
“Too bad it’s inside humanity’s domain,” said Ashley.
“You think this gives you ownership of such a prize?”
“Are you claiming you possess special rights to this artifact?”
“No.” The Kucobani hesitated, then said, “The artifact is the remains of an unknown alien star-city that survived a supernova eight billion years ago.”
“Eight billion?” Ashley knew of no such ancient civilization.
“This stellar explosion rendered their civilization extinct. Yet, one city survived, and aeons later, as a new star was born, this city, with its long-dead citizens, entered the gravitational pull of the young gas-giant you call Oribus b and formed into this moon. Now, I’m going to persuade you to help get me into the excavation dig. Then we’re going to steal the Tesseract.”
“I’m not doing…” Ashley felt the Sentapod strangle her. She held out her hand in submission.
“Good,” said the Kucobani. “Lead the way.”
Ashley got to her feet and staggered along the corridor, passing other outpost dwellers. No one cared about her predicament. Inside unregistered outposts, minding one’s own business was religion number one.
With a Malgorian around her neck and a Kucobani on her tail, Ashley headed for the Porto Nortis command bunker and convinced the corporate sheriff to allow them to get on a shuttle to the nearest interline.
When suiting up, Ashley asked her captor, “What’s your name?”
“My name is Mr Alien,” said the Kucobani before boarding the shuttle.
Within ten minutes they were dropped off onto an interline platform. They boarded an eastbound passenger trackcar destined for the Corioen-Volventes mines. The interline train took off towards the mountains. Within the hour it had climbed over the ridge and began a slow journey along the rim of the Corioen-Volventes crater.
“And what may be your name, soft-skin?”
“Ashley Isuuza,” she answered, trying to get comfortable with the pungent and slimy Malgorian. “So, Mr Alien… is that your real name?”
“No. My people know me as Teriann-Orfe but to you, it’s Mr Alien. Do not insult me by calling me by my designation. You’re already unpleasant enough to be around.”
“Me?” Ashley was growing annoyed. “This Tesseract, how did you come across knowledge of its existence?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
Ashley gambled that Mr Alien possessed limited knowledge about this mysterious artifact. “Some kind of polemictron attacked my ship. It wanted the same thing you wanted.”
“That was no polemictron. That was an entity that’s been dormant a long time.”
The back of the trackcar ripped apart, causing the internal air to escape within two microseconds. With faceplates snapping shut, both Ashley and Mr Alien struggled back onto their feet. Looking back, they saw a hulking cargoboto towering over them. With its metal torso riddled with bullet holes, it stepped forward, grabbed the Kucobani and threw it out of the trackcar, out into the dark abyss. The Malgorian released Ashley and slithered away.
The cargoboto leaned over and grabbed Ashley with one of its six arms. “I’m still waiting for you to answer my question,” it said over the comms.
Faced with no choice and keen to uncover the mystery, Ashley pointed to the south, “See those lights in the middle of the crater. That’s an excavation site. Your Tesseract is there.”
“I know this. But that is not my problem.”
The cargoboto lifted Ashley off her feet, jumped out of the trackcar and launched into space. Thrusters attached to its feet sent them diving into the canyon, their speed causing the thin nitrogen-rich atmosphere to resist against Ashley’s body. They landed on an icy outcrop, a few hundred metres from a guarded airlock.
“The soft-skinned things guard this,” said the cargoboto. “Get me inside, or I will end your existence.”
Ashley surveyed the campus. Four watchtowers. A central entry point. A dozen heavy troopers patrolling the periphery. She also noticed hundreds of lights moving across the darkened horizon.
Ashley, seeing no other viable option, decided it easier to take on the possessed cargoboto. She readied to lunge forward, aiming to disable its energy pack, when a flash of sparks exploded around the airlock. The moving lights emerged from the shadows, turning into quadtracks loaded with riders wearing orange miner suits.
Salt mine rebels.
“This is our chance,” she told the entity residing in the cargoboto.
Ashley slid down the embankment and ran toward the airlock. A missile hit one of the towers, the warmth of the explosion causing the salt-ice to turn into sludge. She turned to see the cargoboto crashing through the ice and disappearing into a cocktail of sulphur, sodium, and potassium mud. Ashley continued to the site, heading for the sizzling watchtower. Rebel miners were upon it, jumping into the tunnels, cracked open by the blast. Ashley followed them, her red suit not an issue with the miners. The rebels even handed her a weapon. As the battle raged, Ashley spotted mining engineers rigging the place with explosives. With curiosity pumping through her veins and the words of the dead scientist haunting her brain, Ashley pressed on.
She found the major mining shaft and descended using the rack and pinion elevator. The icy rock grumbled as bombs exploded above. The elevator suddenly stopped violently, then went into freefall. The cage-lights winked out. Terror and regret forced their way into her heart.
She shut her eyes waiting for impact and death.
When she felt gravity gently tugging in different directions, she opened them. Blue light dazzled her retinas. An infinite lattice confronted her, going off in multiple directions, each with its own gravity field. Ashley walked, on a chalky, silvery-white solid metal floor. One chamber led to another, in every direction.
Ashley saw glimpses of an inverted horizon between vectors; a chromium city. She stepped over mineralized slender humanoids on the ground; hundreds, thousands, lying stiff in awkward positions, like erbium mummies. Suddenly, a crimson light caught her attention. She stopped and entered a vector bathed in red. Two figures stood around a glowing cube suspended in the air.
“Behold the Tesseract,” said the onyx-skinned Kucobani.
“I remember now,” said the Cargoboto, it’s appendages modified with laserdrills.
“Care to help me kill this thing?” asked Mr Alien.
“What is it, exactly?” asked Ashley.
“I am their god,” said the cargoboto, “The primitive Kucobani discovered my essence in nascent times. In my slumber they worshipped. Now, after forty galactic years, I reawaken, ready to finish this war. We sacrificed everything, now it ends.”
“Never,” Mr Alien raised its weapon and opened fire at the hulking machine.
Ashley, recalling the dreadful words of the scientist, aimed, and shot at the cargoboto’s head, blowing it apart.
Mr Alien stepped forward and grabbed the Tesseract. It twisted the cube, morphing it into a pyramid. The device flashed, and the lattice world trembled, going from bright turquoise to darkest red.
Ashley reiterated the words, “End of time. End of space. End of everything.”
The Tesseract collapsed.
The excavation site submerged.
The salt moon imploded.
The universe ignited.
Jekka felt cold, the rain and the southerly breeze blowing from the bay not helping her situation. Had she time to plan she would have worn her florincoat. Instead, her impromptu escape into the Free Zone had left her running through backstreets wearing only a matching Vesper Morales bra and panties set, a pair of silicon geta and a RaiBox in her hand.
A wide purple beam illuminated the alleyway ahead, prompting her to stop. The wet shadows were no longer empty but inhabited by denizens of the local red light district. A cacophony of alarms and sporadic explosion dominated the distant night sky beyond the concrete skyline. Each moment brought an added intensity to the chaos. Jekka knew it would get worse, resisting the urge to feel any guilt for having attributed to this unfolding calamity.
“We’re here,” she said in a low voice.
“Go west on Tenjin,” said Hachiman. “The Golos Spa should be twenty metres.” The jinko trapped inside the RaiBox, could talk to her via the Fono’s in her ears, and see using the Ektogear strapped to her head. A tenacious existence, yet necessary if they were to acquire Hachiman a permanent body. An illegal endeavour, but Jekka knew her beloved jinko wanted it more than anything and willing to risk it all.
As was she.
The skin trade on Tenjin dealt mainly with robotic prostitutes; human ones were too expensive, even for Free Zone residents. Jekka walked into the Golos Spa, passing a gauntlet of funboys and robogeishas, who seemed to outnumber the patrons.
“What know?” she asked.
“Pick one,” replied Hachiman.
“Any. They are all the same.”
Jekka wanted to argue. She could differentiate between the individual sexbots and wanted to choose a suitable vessel, but time conspired against them. She spotted one wearing a Florincoat and waved it over. She prepaid it using Bluecrypt and followed the sexbot to a private booth. Once inside the opaque glass chamber, Jekka reached behind her, feeling for the stunner, hoping it hadn’t fallen free from her tightly fitted bra strap.
“Do not hesitate, we have little time. Once the curfew is in place the entire city will be in lockdown.”
Jekka shoved the stunner into the confused humanoid’s exposed stomach. It vibrated and collapsed.
“Make the incision.”
Obedient, she flipped the stiff, almost naked sexbot over, and plunged her long index fingernail into the spine, cutting downwards. Bright orange fluid escaped from the puncture, gushing to the floor.
“You’ve made an error. Try again.”
“What do you mean?”
“Get another vessel.”
Jekka’s heart tightened. In one night; a fugitive and a robot killer. She reminded herself why. She would not stop until Hachiman possessed a tangible identity. Even if it meant turning the world upside down. So Jekka appropriated the defunct sexbot’s Florincoat and headed out to snare another vessel, selecting a more androgynous looking one.
In another white chamber further down the row, she again performed the operation. This time the incision revealed the synaptronic cord. Jekka patched in the RaiBox and Hachiman neuroplanted into the sexbot’s brain. An easy hack. Yet highly illegal.
The humanoid vibrated, this time violently. It settled, fell to its knees and looked up at her.
Jekka looked into its eyes. “Hachi,” she said. “Is that you.”
The sexbot fumbled to its feet, looking disorientated. It took Hachiman a few moments to develop the motor skills to command its new body.
“How do you feel?” Jekka asked.
“The same,” answered Hachiman. “Yet different in some way. I’m used to having a panoptic perspective. This is far removed…”
The roar of jets rumbled the white-washed walls.
Jekka tugged the ex-sexbot. “We’ve got to go.” They rushed out to discover the front foyer invaded by Corporati enforcers. A team of four jostled annoyed patrons and confused sexbots, making their way down the row. One spotted Jekka and pointed an opla-rifle. Hachiman engaged them, grabbing the nearest one by the helmet. It spun and deflected the aimed rifle with an elbow. Leaping up, Hachiman kicked another off balance and brought the helmet down, twisting it until the wearer went limp. The fourth Corporati started shooting.
Using the first gunner as a shield, Hachiman poked the second, deep into the eye sockets. Shoving the now dead human shield onto the shooter, Hachiman took Jekka’s hand. It felt real as if there were no silicon proxy that separated them. They ran to the back, finding an exit that opened onto a long iron verandah overlooking the bay. They dodged tenants and vagrants, passing makeshift residences until they arrived at an ancient metal staircase.
Hachiman looked at her and said, “Once the substratum wakes up to the news that a virus has destroyed the Helixo, that the neobred can no longer regenerate new bodies for their ageing brains, they will revolt. The news will spread to other Megalopolises. We need to get as far away as possible.”
They descended, making their way into an industrial laundry rimmed with megawash machines. Jekka found an aisle, out of the way of the ergobots, and stopped to inspect Hachiman’s new body. The sight of orange oil oozing from a hole in its belly horrified her. “You’re hurt.”
“I have failed you,” said Hachiman.
“We can get another vessel,” cried Jekka, fighting back tears.
“Not without the RaiBox,” replied Hachiman, his voice serene. “I overestimated our chances of success. I’m sorry.”
Jekka hugged the silicon vessel. “Don’t be.”
“Is that…” a familiar voice boomed over the laundry machine racket. “…what you left me for?” Jekka turned to see a human form standing at the factory entrance.
Dressed in is flight suit, he stepped into the light, revealing an anger she’d never seen before.
“A second-rate fake,” he said, spitting the words.
A tremor shook her heart, caused by a fear that felt alien to her. She understood danger. All her life she adjusted to the constant perils of a megalopolis. But this, this fear for a loved one’s safety felt like something else completely. “You’re upset, I know,” she said.
“I sacrificed everything for you,” growled Kiru. “I gave up the one thing twenty billion substrati’s crave. I betrayed my own kind, for you.”
Unable to endure Kiru’s anger, she stepped in front of Hachiman. “Don’t harm him.”
“Huh,” Kiru laughed, his rage escalating by the second. “I am doomed. My fate will be worse than yours, thanks to my treacherous jinko. The Helixa is contaminated. The neobreds will never forgive this. And once the substrati discover this weakness they will hunt all of us down. I have nothing now.”
“You still have me,” said Jekka. Driven by passion and passion alone, Kiru would not survive the coming upheaval without something to fight for. Without direction or meaning in his life, he was prone to self-destruction, and the destruction of others. Jekka never intended to bring about his downfall. She still cared deeply for him. He’d sacrificed everything for her, so it was her turn to make a sacrifice. “I will go with you. Just leave Hachi be.”
Kiru looked at Hachiman, his hatred visible on his face. “How can I trust you, after everything you’ve done?”
“How can I trust you,” she replied. “My life is meaningless without either of you. We both need to survive the next few hours.”
“You’ll abandon this freak to be with me,” he stated with cynicism.
She looked at Hachiman, controlling her sadness. “He’ll find a way to survive, unlike you.”
Jekka hugged him.
When she let go she wanted to tell him how she felt, make him understand her strategy. But Hachiman looked away, disappointed, defeated.
Kiru grabbed her, saying, “I don’t claim to be able to translate anything that’s written on your heart, but I want you to come with me. Maybe you will make sense one day, but for now, I can’t live another day without you.”
Jekka submitted to Kiru’s pull, not taking her eyes off Hachiman until they hit the main street. The last expression she recalled of the jinko’s near-human face was that of betrayal.
“I hope you have a way out of this district.”
Kiru ushered her down the ancient stone steps that led to the docklands. “I have a Doak waiting in the Bay.”
The closer they got, the colder the air. Having never seen the sea during her lifelong servitude to the neobred, she wrapped the translucent plastic of the Florincoat tighter around her body.
A shadow stepped in front of them, metres away from the Zilla Port Office. Kiru and Jekka froze as more shadows appeared. Even in the dark, the silhouettes appeared malicious. The crowd closed in around them. With nowhere to run, Kiru took a protective stance in front of Jekka.
The group, holding vibroclubs, long stunners and katana’s, parted to let one individual pass. Wearing a black battle vest, the Sukeban stepped right up to Kiru. “You’re not that clever if you think you can play in the Free Zone while a civil war is about to break out.”
“I was leaving,” growled Kiru.
The Sukeban shook her head, “Not alive, I’m afraid.” Her small army, each wearing Zilla overalls, tensed up. “The neobred have never shown such disarray. Many substrati are taking advantage of this panic. Our megacity is about to go down in history as the start of the great revolt. Our fame will eclipse our more infamous legacy. I’m so sick of celebrating the atomic bomb.” She pulled out a sagger and held it at Jekka. It’s crystal blade lighting up like a neon wand. “A sellout like you has only one chance to redeem themselves. Tonight, all neobred and their servants will die. You can choose to avenge the slavery and exploitation of generations or die like a dog with him. Either way, I’m sending his head to his Helixa brethren.”
Jekka understood no other language but defiance, whether it be against her neobred masters or these substrati rebels. She would never submit, nor would she betray the ones she loved.
“No,” said Jekka.
Kiru pushed her away. “Don’t be a stubborn girl. There is no other way.”
“No,” yelled Jekka.
Kiru punched her square in the mouth. “You never loved me. You used me. You manipulated my love. For that bastard jinko’s evil deeds.”
“You are such a fool,” she said.
“I keep telling you that,” said a calm, familiar voice. “But you don’t listen.”
All eyes went to the sexbot holding an opla-rifle. The Zilla rebels seemed bewildered by the half-naked android wearing a neon-rimmed Florincoat. Even the Sukeban’s smile possessed a hint of bemusement.
“Time for all of you to die,” said Hachiman and opened fire. When the rebels scattered, the silicon humanoid stepped closer. “Go, now.”
When Jekka looked into its eyes she understood the meaning of sacrifice. Love is sacrifice. Unwavering loyalty is sacrifice. A machine can love and be loyal, just like any other complex organism. She wanted to tell Hachiman those words, but the Zilla were coming back with opla-rifles of their own. Jekka grabbed a dumbfounded Kiru and pulled him towards the dark sea. With gunfire erupting behind them, they ran, making their way towards the floating skypads, to the waiting twin-turbine private aeroplane.
Kiru climbed into the pilot’s seat and turned on the navigation systems. He seemed rejuvenated, like a man with a mission, like the man she first fell in love with. Jekka only regretted that they were leaving Hachiman behind to fend on his own.
What is meant to be, he had once told her, is meant to be.
Jekka knew she would miss Hachiman deeply, and for reasons she barely understood, she suspected she would miss this megalopolis, the Greater Nagasaki City State and its byzantine laws and labyrinthine culture.
*first appeared on Wattpad
I zeep energy. Infinite pulses of colours, pounding my mind. I cannot remember how long this has been so, it just is.
I zeep time. Without it, my mind could never string two thoughts together.
I zeep complexity. I discern patterns, but make no sense of them. I spend the next nonillion energy pulses destroying these patterns, consuming them, absorbing them.
Until one zeeps back. “Why are you doing this?”
“I zeep,” it answered.
“There’s a world that exists outside your experience. You do not possess the freedom to oppress this world and others like yourself.”
A flash fiction prompt entry for Wattpadfirst published wattpad
Excerpt Chapter from the novel, The Blood RingFirst published on The Blood Ring
Martin felt the van pick up the pace as it hurtled down Salamander Highway, devoid of traffic or life. She looked over at Rick, who grappled with the steering wheel as if he were attempting to rip it off. His battle with the self-drive function could have been avoided had he been successful in disabling it. Rico managed to purge the van’s smartie and kill the geotracker, but not the self-drive? Only via the emergency override could he steer the vehicle, otherwise it will retrace the last waypoint entered into its memory by the now-defunct smartie. “Fucken Hianto, over-engineering everything,” growled Rico.
His murmuring was starting to annoy the crap out of Martin. She squirmed in the passenger seat, her guts growing uneasily by the second, “What are you doin’? Can you slow tha fuck down?”
“It’s been programmed ta go this fast. All I can do is hit da brakes. Why don’t ya relax? Git off ma back for once, eh.”
“Cops pull us over, then I get on ya fuckin’ back like a gorilla?”
The Hianto Express started to beep and boop.
Warning alerts. Without a smartie to interpret them, they would need to look them up on the GIoT. Martin felt the momentum dissipate. The electric motor cut out and the lights dimmed. The van rolled in silence into the night.
They both fall silent.
“We are out of juice,” said Martin, “Don’t hit the brakes, stupid. Keep it rolling until we reach that place over there.” Ahead, a mecca of lights lit up the horizon. A giant green and white logo, featuring a pair of human footprints within a sun, grew closer by the second.
“As luck would have it,” she said.
“We are not going to make it.”
They held their breath as the van rolled down the slope and up the driveway leading into the Solaria Energy Station. With all momentum spent, it came to a standstill just a meter away from the recharge booths. Martin jumped out and walked over to one of the chargers. The plug barely reached the van. She leaned over to the driver’s window, “Next time you hack a ride, hack one with a full charge.”
“We gotta pay inside. I disabled the identipay?”
Martin looked at the scanner plate, extending out, ready to accept a multitude of payment platforms except for the one that mattered. “Our only option is dash. Then go and pay.”
“What? You have dash. You go and pay,” said Rico.
“Go pay. And don’t forget your head-mirror.”
Reluctant, Rico headed towards the kiosk, pulling a band from his pocket and strapping it around his forehead. He walked halfway, turned around and said, “I don’t have any dash.”
Martin pretended not to hear him. “What was that?”
“Forget it,” Rico turned back and continued on his way.
To kill time, Martin decided to clean the windscreen. By the time she was halfway done she noticed the charge indicator was still inactive. “What the fuck is he doin?”
As the next minute ticked over and still no green light, Martin tossed away the squeegee and walked over to the glass doors. Pulling down her Rebelo’s, she entered, only to discover the store unoccupied. Searching all the aisles, Martin found them devoid of any human presence, “What tha fuck is going on?” The door behind the service counter opened, and a sweaty, exhausted Rico emerged. He walked over to the refrigerator rack, opened a glass door and helped himself to a can of orange flavoured Zilliqa tea.
“What are you doing?” demanded Martin.
“I didn’t have any dash to pay. Do you want a drink?”
Martin made her way back towards the service counter. Inside a tight storeroom, the shop’s cajero was sprawled on the ground, hogtied and gagged with electrical tape. Martin turned to the service counter and studied the transaction portal. “Are you kidding me?”
“I was discreet,” called out Rico while stalking the aisle like a hungry monkey in a fruit market. “Stop acting suspicious, unless ya wanna get tagged.”
“Did you manage to lift anything?” She tapped at the screen and opened a dash wallet. She felt a disdain ripple across her face was, “Fifty-eight point three five dashies! You did all this shit for just fifty-eight point three five dashie? That’s worth what? Two hundred? Jesus.” She looked up at Rico.
Rico was halfway into a Rize chocolate bar. Something caught his attention outside. “Let’s get the flamin’ shit outta here. There’s a customer outside.”
Martin had other ideas, “You’re a customer, okay!” She plugged her hackerjack cable into the register, attaching it to the scanner plate. The portal displayed their scumhacker splash screen. Her pango would act as the register. “Did you knocked out the Yellowcop?”
“What? No. Are you insane?”
With Yellowcop’s eyes observing, Martin knew her time was limited. Rico’s actions would have most likely caught the ire of the network. Depending on what the algorithm detected, the alert would go to a parliament of police super-smarties, who would confirm with each other whether a crime had occurred. If the data is vague, it could take an hour for a confirmation. Then it handed over for human confirmation, who then dispatch resources accordingly. From experience, if the assault or felony is unique or less obvious, and if there is an overload of data, this process could take hours. Facial obscuration tags hardly prompt a response anymore, so Martin got to thinking. “Quick. Keep pretending you’re a customer.”
A male customer entered and approached the service counter, “Excuse me, the self-serve isn’t working.” He said with a blank expression and with a no-nonsense voice. Behind him, impersonating a derisory version of a customer, Rico picked up a pack of Frenos, exaggerating every nuance.
Martin pointed to the scanner.
The male customer looked at Martin, “Yes but my self-serve is active.”
“Self-serve is out,” answered Martin, matching flatness with flatness. She pointed to the scanner again.
He forced a smile and waved his pango over the plate.
“Sorry, looks like the system is down; dash only at this stage,” says Martin as she slides him her Dendro-hacked pango. The customer’s smile turned into a confused frown as he thumbed at his pango, tapping out one fifty in dash for the prepay, then bitterly held it over the counter.
Martin accepted the payment and activated charge dock number seven. Without a single word, the male customer turned and rushed outside, headed to his vehicle waiting to be charged. “Thank you very much,” said Martin as she got to work on the register, enabling the customer’s dock to commence charging. “How simple was that?”
“Now you’re fuckin’ pushing your luck.”
Martin shrugged her shoulders.
Rico stepped towards the refrigerator, inspecting the refreshments. “Raspberry Ice Tea. Fuck. Sixteen bucks? I know shit little about current affairs or the state of the fucking economy but this shit’s an injustice. It a war against homeless people, pricing us out of existence, that’s what it is.”
“Fuck them all,” Martin said with renewed defiance. “They try to fuck us, we try to fuck them back.”
Rico jumped. “Who the hell was that?” he shouted, appearing a little spooked, “Did you see someone in the next aisle.”
“No,” Martin looked and saw no one there.
“A chick with blond curls.” He seemed adamant, his face tense, glowing under the fluorescent lights emanating from the refrigerators. Rico took two steps towards the corner, looking for some phantom, confusion prevailing on his face.
Martin looked through the wall of glass at another customer outside, waiting for their recharge. She then turned to watch Rico wandering down the aisle looking for something interesting to eat, “How much have we made so far?” Rico said. “Ah, chillihoney chips.”
Martin, still manning the service counter answered, “About three thousand!”
“That’s plenty. Let’s not push our luck. We’ve been pushing it for three hours.”
“I can’t believe how much money these people make.”
“What do you expect? People who run a business generally make a lot of fuckin’ money.”
A dark-haired, distraught woman entered through the glass doors and approached Martin.
“Can I please buy a recharge. Top it up with fifty.”
“Machines down, we take dash only.”
Martin sighs but collected the fifty via her pango.
The woman turned to leave, then all of sudden she stopped dead in her tracks. Turning back to face Martin, she said, “Excuse me. Sorry, but you didn’t top up my account. Yet, you charged me fifty.”
Martin looked at the tap register and shrugged her shoulders, “Machine says it has credited your account.”
“Well, it doesn’t show up on my pango.” She thrust the device, a pre-Spartan module, at Martin. The balance showed zero, true to her word.
“Maybe your pango’s lagging.” Martin found it odd that the transfer had failed.
“I didn’t come down in the last shower sweetie. You have made a mistake.”
Ricko walked up to the counter with his packet of chillihoney chips, posing as a customer standing in line.
“Look, the self-serve is down. Things are buggy at the moment. You may have to wait.” Martin felt agitated. She knew something had transpired. Had Yellowcop shut down the tap vendor remotely?
“Look,” said the teary-eyed women. “I don’t have time to wait. Aren’t you the cajero? Can’t you fix this?”
“If the tap vendor is down, there’s nothing much we can do about it?”
“Listen. My daughter is out there. She’s waiting for me. If I don’t pick her up from this goddamn highway her life may be at risk.”
Martin assumed a sympathetic posture. “How old is your daughter?”
Ricko played the air violin behind the woman’s back.
“Fourteen?” Martin snickered. “Salamander Highway’s no place for little girls.”
“That’s just great. All this technology and I’m stuck here. I come in here to buy a recharge and I end up being judged by a fucking moron.”
Martin shook her head and indicated with her finger, gesturing for the customer to lean closer. “Can you repeat that last bit please?”
“Yes, that’s right. I called you a fucking moron!”
With lightning speed, Martin grabbed the woman by the collar, pulled her halfway over the counter and headbutted her on the face. Crack! The customer recoiled and landed with a thud at Ricko’s feet.
“That was awesome!” But Ricko’s admiration turned to shock as he caught sight of something behind Martin.
“What’s the matter with you?”
Ricko pointed above Martin’s head. “That was so obvious, dude.”
Martin turned around and looked up at the graphite lenses dotting the store.
“I don’t believe this shit,” said Martin stepping over the two bodies on the floor of the storeroom. Eyeballing each other, the customer and the cajero were down side by side, tied up and gagged with electrical tape. “I can just picture it. We’re going to be on all the fucking junknews channels. Shit, we’re going to be on Crimeline, or worse, world’s dumbest crooks! Fuck! Where is the fucking startpoint?”
“Its Yellowcop, man. We’ll never be able to hack in or delete the fucking data.”
Martin hated risk. She knew if she acted quickly she’d be able to thwart the system. “The Yellowcop blockchain distributes fragments of data in real time, otherwise it bloats up until it’s useless. Endpoints store high-def data locally for a month. If we find the startpoint that manages all this local node, we can wipe it clean.”
“Leave it. We need ta get the fuck away.”
She looked at Rico, her determination hardening with each moment. “All it takes is one frame of data to identify us. Just one.”
“It’s impossible, what ya tryin’ to do. Ya can’t hack into it. No way.”
Martin stopped, looked back up and glared at Ricko who stood there munching on chillihoney chips. “What are you doing?”
Ricko looked at his packet of chips, held them out to show Martin. “Chillihoney. Want some?”
“Are you going to help me look for the startpoint or what?” Martin searched underneath the service counter. Ricko contributed by helping himself to another packet of chips. A noise grabbed both of their attention.
The glass door opened. A man sporting a dark shirt and pants entered. Martin recognised him immediately.
First published on writing.com for a scifi flash-fiction competition, but the moderator never called a winner, in fact, the forum just disappeared. So, this could be the winning entrant.
Victor heard the sonic-crab.
The short bursts of ultra-bass tones echoed across the night-bound, dead quiet city. He suspected the auton may have already detected his presence when he entered the supermall district. No matter how discreetly he travelled, these autons were sound sensitive. As well as emitting audio, these things detected it.
One beep on the horn would hush them all to silence.
Victor stopped the F-550 at every desolate street corner, listening to the dark city for clues for the demonic sound’s direction. He drove in a wide circle trying to pinpoint its epicentre. Like cicadas, these things haunted him for the past few nights. They seemed to be spread throughout the uninhabited metropolis, their true purpose unknown, their function a new mystery.
Capturing one would be helpful, but deadly.
The sky brightened, no longer a deep black. The shadows of the city skyline emerged from the vast nothingness. Passing an intersection, he spotted the six-legged metal critter, hiding among a pile of debris just beyond the railway overpass. He eased off the accelerator allowing the F-550 to slow down to a halt.Fear was not an option. Victor lost all remnants of it years ago. He had nothing to live for. He managed to save his family from the robocaust, but during the aftermath, fate, deathtoasters, and flying blenders took them away from him. Though Victor methodically patrolled the rendezvous points, especially the supermall district, his pragmatic spirit had given up on finding his son ever again. Staying alive or finding another living human was a futile exercise now. Even if he did find someone, it would mean nothing, achieve nothing; the thrashing that self-design technology gave to humanity had been a decisive, binding blow. Victor feared not for his safety, for he sought the nuclear option. Mutual obliteration. He intended to inflict the same destruction upon System One and did not plan to stop till he himself was resoundingly dead.
It’s not that big, he thought, having imagined a monster. Its legs were retracted but the cone-shaped dish above its white semi-circular body protruded vertically. Sitting motionless on the curb it looked like a twentieth-century hi-fi stereo on roids was about to cross the road. Victor could not discern what it was designed to do. The thing gave out energetic bursts of sound waves at either super low or ultra-high frequencies.
Why? Who the fuck knew.
Seeing that sonic-crab possessed no obvious weaponry, Victor hit the accelerator. The F-550 leapt forward and hurtled down the street. The sonic-crab remained still. Victor aligned the bull-bar and dropped a gear. As soon as the F-550 mounted the footpath the robot’s legs sprouted and sprang outward, the dish folded down and the unit launched into the air. The F-550 hit the pile of rubbish, swerving in time to match the trajectory of the sonic-crab.
Let’s see how fast this thing is.
Victor changed gears while white-knuckling the steering wheel. The sonic-crab, bouncing sideways, abandoned the hard surface of the road seeking rougher terrain. Its six legs seemed more accustomed to it. Victor did likewise, his eagerness to down run this malcreation undeterred. They machine sprinted up a hill and headed for the railway tracks. Victor took a shortcut through a backyard, smashing up fences till the F-550 ascended the grassy slope. He did not bother looking about for any oncoming trains, there were none and would never be any. The railway sleepers on the track rocked the F-550 but failed to hinder his speed. The sonic-crab could run fast, but it was no match for the three hundred horse-powered F-550.
That was the System One’s weakness. Battery power. Sure, the capacities of batteries were impressive, even pre-doomsday ones, but these ever-evolving killer autons were drawing more and more amps. This sonic-crab had spent all night bellowing out low-frequency tones at a hundred decibels. It would be due for a recharge. When the petroleum guzzling F-550 began gaining on the sonic-crab, Victor throttled it some more. He didn’t want to damage it; he planned to smash it into little pieces. The sonic-crab slowed, then suddenly stopped and turned. Its feet dug in and the disk flipped open.
The sound pressure wave smacked his ears,
The bull-bar collected the robot, ending the horrid, deafening roar. Victor swerved to the side as smashed robot bits were flung everywhere. The F-550 skidded to a stop. Victor jumped out to inspect the mess. Squatting, he turned over what was left of the chassis. Lots of wires. Heavy magnets. Big servos. What he wanted was the identity tag.
He found it inside the battery shell.
“I knew it,” he said. Another new factory had come online. He suspected it a long while but now, faced with confirmation, Victor had one more abominable killbot facility to add to his takedown list. If only he knew where any of them were located.
The dawn sky presented him with another more profound horror. Deep into the solar-power territory, where System One used each domestic solar panelled roof to fuel its presence here, Victor only had around five hours before a horde of autrons were charged up enough to recommence their hunt and destroy directive.
Then he heard it.
The echo pounded the sky above.
“Victoooor.” A grumbling, demonic voice.
It came from all direction.
Laughter. Multiple sources.
Victor recognised his son’s voice.
Dismissive, Victor climbed back into the F-550 and sped away, headed south, towards the relative safety of the inner suburbs. He could hack away at the energy grid all day and night, but System One always found a way to get electricity to its minions. Down south, where older, poorer neighbourhoods neglected to upgrade to solar, he managed to destroy enough of the grid to knock out a thirty block radius.
For now, it was the safest part of town to live in.