THE GIRL WITH THE IRON HEART
A STORY BY S.A. COSBY
This isn’t my world.
I wasn’t born here. My DNA is not on file in the Central Data Bank. My fingerprints are not recorded in the City Master File. I’m a man out of sorts. A fish pulled from a pond and thrown into the ocean. Only in this ocean there are hovercrafts and flying fortresses and your bartender at your favorite watering hole is a mechman with a metal face . This world is an ocean of iron and steel. And me? I’m just barely treading water.
I was pulled into this world three years ago. I suppose it was three years. I could have been traveling through the rift for a hundred years even though it felt like five minutes to me. Relativity and all that jazz. Once upon a midnight dreary I had been a soldier assigned to protect some scientists for the US of A at a lab in the middle of the desert near Area 51 . No one every looked for the lab because they were too busy looking for Area 51.
The scientists had been working on a complex machine that they spoke about in hushed tones . I never really knew what it was supposed to do. What it did was open a hole in the universe and create a portal to alternate dimensions. The whole facility was sucked into a swirling whirlpool light and fury and deposited in the desert in the same spot where the lab had been in our world. The building landed in a pile of rubble and everyone inside was dead except yours truly. The trip didn’t kill them but the fall fucked them up. I survived by sheer luck . Whether it was good or bad depends on your point of view but landing in a pile of hazmat suits saved my life. The world I entered as I left the wreckage of the lab was one different from the one I had left but tantalizingly familiar.
America was now called the North American Federation with a fully annexed Mexico as a member. World War Two was still being fought,in a fashion, forty years after it started. The Germans and the Japanese had invaded Canada from the west through Alaska and taken over the country . The Italians over threw Mussolini but the Axis powers never gave up in Europe. They kept everything east of Poland up to Russia while France brokered a non-aggression pact. England ,Sweden and Norway kept up the good fight but France and Spain played the neutrality card. Without support from the motherland the British Colonies fell and the land returned to the native Africans. Who quickly discovered the wealth of natural minerals that existed right under their feet. The war ebbed and flowed as the Axis Alliance West and the Axis Alliance East waxed and waned in their war efforts.
The world I found myself in had an Africa that was a superpower under one national government,a Jewish homeland in Italy instead of Israel and a Kaiser in what I would have called Canada. It was enough to make a Tea Partier eat his red ,white and blue pajamas. I had landed in the midst of one the ebbs where tensions between the Federation and the Alliance were at an all time low. Which was like saying the temperature had dropped from Hell to surface of the Sun.
As I found my bearings and realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore I began to understand that this world wasn’t better or worse that where I had come from just different. Apparently there had been a catastrophic accident in the Big Empty with atomic power leaving much of the Southwest a wasteland. Where our lab landed was just inside the massive Borderwall. A enormously hideous structure that stretched from the tip of Idaho to the bottom Arizona . It was two hundred feet tall and covered with gun ports and barbed wire . It looked like the worst fence around the worst junkyard in the world.
Electromagnetism was the magic that drove this place. Diesel was it’s blood and iron and steel was it’s skin. Hovercars bounced off the earth with glowing magnetron engines lighting up the night sky as they flew among the skyscrapers. Diesel powered twin turbine hoverbikes zipped through alleyways and up and down boulevards past luminescent billboards. I had walked out of the desert and entered one of the soot covered cities that crackled with eldricht lights at night and shimmered with an art deco aesthetic filtered through a hallucinogenic prism during the day.
I found out a few things pretty quickly. One, I was an anomaly. I didn’t have a government ID number. Nor did I have a DNA profile that was mandatory for all citizens of the Federation. Nor were my fingerprints on file anywhere. That was also mandatory. As far a the government was concerned I was a ghost. No ,not even a ghost because a ghost had once been alive. I was nothing , a nowhere man from somewhere no one believed existed. Little by little I learned how to navigate these dark streets. I had been born in Compton and trained by the Special Forces. I had a specific set of skills that when coupled with my anonymity gave me a certain cache with some segments of this Brave Strange world. I could go places that most citizens couldn’t without worrying about their DNA being picked up by the cops or worse the Sentries. Military Police. Slowly but surely I began to eke out a living. Back home I would have been called a mercenary or a hired gun.
Here I was known as an operator. All things being equal I think I adjusted to my new circumstances fairly smoothly. I didn’t waste time asking “how”or “why” I had ended up here . I just focused on living ,eating ,drinking and occasionally fucking. I had left everything I knew behind when I joined the Army back home. I had a talent for starting over. Occasionally the nightmares unnerved me. The nightmares were wretched ,filth covered things that climbed out the pit of my subconscious and grabbed hold of my soul with a madman’s grip. I saw…things in those nightmares. Things I wanted to forget all together or remember completely. Either one or the other . I hated the uncertainty of my dark visions. I would see flashes of light and then the faces of the scientists melting or my mother growing old and crumbling into dust waiting for me on the porch of our house . Other things horrible things that I’d rather not discuss right now thank you very much. There were times I was tempted to go to a speakeasy to imbibe something stronger than alcohol in hopes of quieting my dreams. But I was afraid of getting hooked on Zanaire. I didn’t want my disturbing dreams to become waking nightmares. So I stuck with gin and whiskey. Places like Slow Jim’s , The Tornado and The Steel Jack’s were my therapy clinics.
I had just entered the Alchemy Club and ordered my first drink of the evening when I got a line on a possible job. It was a rainy Friday night and I was in a mood to see how tough my liver was. I typed”gin and tonic/double” on the touch screen with one hand while I tapped a short cigar out of the pack with the other . I was just about to insert my debit square into the bartenders pay slot when the droid slid down the magnetic rail his chrome torso floated above and greeted me. He wore a brown suede vest over a shimmering chrome chest. He wore white sued gloves that covered his metal hands. His face was a smooth metallic mask with narrow slits that simulated a mouth ,eyes and a nose.
“Hey Traveler ,some military types were in here earlier looking for you.”the droid said. His voice sounded like an asthmatic speaking through a harmonica. His technical designation was a Hospitality And Libations Android. HALA. Most people bastardized the the acronym and added a gender . Hollowmen were what the were commonly called. I dug my lighter out of my pocket and lit a shortie cigar.
“They say what they want?”The droid turned it’s chrome plated head from side to side.
“Negative . They instructed me to tell you they were looking for you. “he said in his quiet monotone.
“How’d they know I’d be coming in here?” I asked.
“Where else would you be on a Friday night Traveler. According to our records you have come into the Alchemy Club every Friday night for the past year and a half . Probability dictates-” I held up my hand and the droid stopped talking. He was right. Where else indeed. A man with no family ,no real friends. A bar is exactly where I would be . Only where I come from the bartenders didn’t have logic circuits . Military types looking for me could only mean one thing. They needed a job done. The kind of job only a man who didn’t exist on paper or in the central data banks could do. The man some people called Johnny Traveler . That’s what they stared calling me while I was locked up in a military jail after Borderwall patrols found me and what was left of the lab. It was just as good a name as any. My mind was a dichotomous paradox. I could remember what my mother looked like but couldn’t recall my given name. Maybe my head got scrambled coming through the portal. Or maybe I was laying somewhere in a hospital in a coma . That thought crossed my mind more than once. As we talked the droid made my gin and tonic and slid it to me across the lacquered bar top.
I finished my drink and put my debit square in the pay slot on the bar.
“Thank you Mr. Traveler for you purchase of ..”the droid paused for a second. “25 dolseos of alcohol and the…” Another pause.” Five dolseo tip.” The hollowmen announce you tip or lack there of out loud. I didn’t mind but some of the more frugal patrons of the bar hated it. They would get irate and belligerent . Then the hollowmen would escort them out ,forcefully without that quiet monotone ever changing it’s pitch.
“Don’t mention it .” I said. I took a drag off the shortie and moved to a table near the back of the bar and sat in a chair against the wall. The bar wasn’t full and the denizens that were there were hidden behind a fog of cigar and cigarette smoke. I pulled my fedora down over my eyes and waited. Every now and then I patted the handles of my Tesla eight charge plasma pistols . Here Tesla won the feud with Edison . He lived to the ripe old age of 109 and was still making discoveries and inventions right up to the day he checked out. Plasma pistols weren’t cheap and mostly illegal but I walked down streets where you could find anything for the right price. Those military types would be back in here sooner or later. I figured whatever they wanted me for it would be dangerous and totally illegal but I needed the money . The dollar and the peso had been combined like their parent countries and I went through them like a bullet through butter. I drank too much, I smoked too much, I dealt with women of ill repute or more accurately no repute. Anything to distract my mind from the Alice in Wonderland on acid story my life had become. So I sat and I listened to the house band sing songs that lamented lost love and lost life as the customers drank themselves into a mental oblivion to take their minds off the threat of annihilation. Everyone in the bar had their ears pricked waiting for the wail of an air raid siren while they laughed and talked and pretended they didn’t have a care in the world.
A few hours dragged by like a snail crawling through glue and I was just about to hang it up for the night and return to my little dingy apartment above another even seedier club when a tall ,ramrod straight military guy walked up to my table dressed in civilian clothes trying desperately to not look like a military guy in civilian clothes. He had a close cropped graying buzz cut and pale watery blue eyes. His face had a ruddy countenance and I pegged him for AirCorps. Maybe a gyropilot or more likely a captain of a flying fortress. He had on a black turtleneck and a ratty old blue blazer that would have looked better on a dead man.
“You Traveler?” he asked. His voice was deep and gravelly. It sounded like he gargled with battery acid. I pushed my hat out of my eyes and gazed up at the man.
“Naw I’m the Easter Bunny. “ I said. The military type frowned. He put his hands on the table,leaned forward and growled.
“Either you are or you aren’t but don’t get smart with me ya Moor.’ he said as spittle flew from his lips. For some reason “moor”was supposed to be a derogatory word toward people of color in this world. Some said it was a reference to some early explorers to the Americas. Others said it was a taken from the Shakespearean play Othello.( Yes along with racism Shakespeare was a constant throughout the multiverse.) I didn’t really get why it was offensive but I knew it was offensive and I didn’t like it.
“Trust me buddy I don’t think there is any possible way I could get smart with you.” I said as I stared at him. A mottled red flush began to spread across the military type’s face. He made his hands into fists and I put my hand around the heavy glass ashtray on the table.
“Come now Lt. Jarrell no need to be rude to our associate .’ an urbane voice said from my right. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Mr. Gray standing there holding a martini glass. Gray was a spook with the FIS ,Federation Intelligence Service. They ran spy networks, completed black box missions and organized wet works here and abroad. They were a Frankenstein made up of the worst parts of the CIA ,FBI and the NSA with some psychopaths and brainwashed assassins thrown in for good measure. Gray was a slight man with a sharp aquiline nose and a thick shock of black hair that he combed straight back and slicked down with some god-awful pomade. He wore a tight black suit with a black and white floral print tie and black shirt. He was thin but wiry and moved with the grace of a dancer that had been trained by ninjas. He had an engaging smile but to me it was the grin of a shark. I had worked for and with Gray before and I had no doubt he was the deadliest man I had ever had the misfortune to meet. I had once seen him kill three Alliance agents with a spoon. Yes a fucking spoon.
He sat down at my table and motioned for Lt. Jarrell to do the same. He sipped his drink then motioned toward my temple.
“As evidenced by your exchange with Lt. Jarrell and that shiner on your forehead you ability to irritate the hell out of people has not lessened since the last time I saw you Johnny. “ he said . I shrugged.
“It’s a gift . What can I say?” I said. Gray smiled again.
“The shiner or your attitude?”he said and I laughed.
“This is the guy you think can help us? A Moor with a smart mouth?” Lt. Jarrell asked.
“Say “moor” one more time and I’m going to put my foot so far up your ass when you burp you’ll be spitting up shoe polish “ I said not looking at Jarrell . He started to get up but Gray reached across the table quick as a hiccup and grabbed his wrist. He squeezed a spot near Jarrell’s thumb and the larger man went limp.
“Sorry about that. My superiors insisted I bring him along. Some interdepartmental posturing from the AirCorps since it was their incompetence that has necessitated our governments need for you services. .” Gray said as he took another sip from his drink.
“I get it. He’s a racists jerk who is pissed off cause his boys fucked up.” I said. Gray shook his head and took another sip.
“ I have made arrangements with the owners of the establishment for use of a room in the back so that we may discuss how we will compensate you. Follow me . “he said as he rose from the table. I jerked my thumb toward Jarrell.
“What about him?” I asked. Gray smirked.
“I’ll wake him up on my way out. “he said smiling.
Gray and I entered a cool well lit room behind the bar . Full cases of liquor and boxes of napkins lined the walls. A heavy ,rough hewn wooden table held court in the middle of the room. I sat at on end and Gray sat at the other . Gray still had his martini and he took a sip as he removed a telescreen from his jacket. Telescreens were what cellphones would be if they had appeared a hundred years earlier. Gray’s was a small metal coated rectangle about the size of a deck of cards. He opened it like an old flip phone and I saw a smooth clear glass in the center . Gray touched the glass and suddenly a holographic image began to float above the table. It appeared to be some sort of file floating in mid air. The letters floating above the file spelled. FEATHERTOP. A picture of a fairly attractive woman appeared next to the floating file. Gray touched the screen again and a disembodied voice began to speak.
“FEATHERTOP : Protocol Seven Nine Seven Alpha Delta Delta Sigma. Operation FEATHERTOP is a program jointly authorized by the FIS and the Federation AirCorps. President Galen White has authorized this program in accordance with his powers under the War Act of 1947. All information contained in this file is level XPD.” I raised my hand . Gray nodded.
“XPD?” I asked.
“Expedited Demise .”he said plainly.
“Oh well that’s good to know.” I said under my breath. The voice droned on
“The FEATHERTOP intiative was the first program to succeed in creating a viable cybernetic agent. This agent code name “ Lily” has a fully functioning artificial intelligence which allows her to be self-aware,to rapidly assess numerous variables in her immediate environment and create an organic personality outside of the confines of her mission protocols. These attributes were intended to give the agent more flexible operating parameters during the course of assigned missions.” I held my hand up again.
“This thing is saying “supposed to”. What actually happened?” Gray put down his drink and touched the telescreen . The hologram disappeared. He put the telescreen back in his pocket.
“What happened was that this thing totally ignored it’s operating protocols,refused to go on missions and escaped AirCorps custody on it’s way to being destroyed.” Gray said.
“So she kicked some Air Corpsman ass. Nice . If I meet her I’ll shake her hand.”I said as I pulled out another shortie cigar. The AirCorps were the elite members of the Air Force for the Federation. These were the guys that carried out assaults on flying fortresses with only TM-25 mulch-phase machine guns and a jet pack. They were also to a man monumental assholes with a Viking like fascination about dying with honor.
“She didn’t kick their asses. It killed them. A week ago. Four AirCorpsmen and one Special Ops agent. “Gray said . For the first time I heard the faintest hint of anger in his voice. Couldn’t have been about the Aircorpsmen,he had as much disdain for them as I did. Maybe the Special Ops agent was a friend? Was Gray violating the cardinal rule of espionage? Was he taking this mission personal?
“So if this thing single handedly killed four highly trained operatives how the hell am I supposed to help you? “I said. Gray leaned forward.
“We just need you to find it. “ Gray said . I took a puff off my shortie.
“I don’t know Gray. I don’t need some robot showing me what my insides look like.” I said.
“It is a cyborg Traveler ,not a robot. A biological entity with a metallic indoskeleton and advanced diagnostic and strategic software uploaded into an artificial intelligence that achieved self-awareness in a body powered by an incredibly dense atomic battery encased in lead and iron in the center of her chest.”Gray said. He tapped the table with his index finger every three syllables for emphasis. I knocked some ash off my shortie.
“Atomic power is illegal in the Federation isn’t Gray?” I asked. The government man smiled and his thin lips parted showing his babyish teeth. He interlaced his fingers and placed his hands on the table.
“Hence our need for your particular skill set. We will provide you with a tracking device. Place it on the body and we will do the rest. For this you will be rewarded handsomely. “he said softly. I rubbed my chin.
“ I’m thinking about it Gray. But this is way outside my usual wheelhouse. Whatever you were thinking of paying me would have to be tripled just for me to consider it. This thing sounds like the Terminator. “ I said. Gray raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Never mind. It’s a movie where I’m from. But seriously I’m going to need more than our regular going rate to chase this thing down. “ I said taking another puff on my cigar.
“What if I told you we were prepared to offer you something more valuable that money? “ Gray said.
“Oh you planning on paying me in gold doubloons?”I said. I stared at Gray’s martini glass. I was suddenly dying for another drink. Or ten. This deal sounded bad. It felt bad. I didn’t have any idea what Gray was planning on offering me but I was beginning to doubt it would be enough for me to take this job.
“No ,not gold Traveler. What if I told you our scientists had been studying the phenomena that brought you here? That they think they can replicate it. That’s what we are prepared to offer you Traveler. A ticket home. “he said . Gray was good . He feinted with the seriousness of the job then sucker punched me with the thing he thought I wanted more than money. For a second it threw me off balance. I had no pithy rejoinder ,no smart ass comment. Going home. I had long ago put the thought out of my mind. A man could go crazy pining for home when home was on the other side of a wormhole . Gray could read the shock on my faces like a school kid going over his first primer.
“They just need the battery Traveler. In other words it’s heart. “ Gray said finally.
“Nice story Gray. Next you’ll tell me Santa Claus has a present just for me in his sack of toys. “I said but Gray saw the hope in my eyes.
“This isn’t a fairy tale. Find the cyborg Traveler and we will try to send you home.”he said .
“And then you can chop it up and hide your little mistake from the Federated Congress since using atomic energy is in direct violation with the International Nuclear Treaty the Federation signed with the Allies right? Kinda killing two birds with one stone huh Gray?” I said. Gray didn’t respond. He reached in his jacket again . I had the not so irrational thought he was going to pull out a weapon and grease me right then and there. My hands moved toward my plasma pistols . But he didn’t have a weapon . He pulled out a small black box and a cheap plastic telescreen. A throwaway.
“You proposing to me Gray? My this is all so sudden .” I said as I placed my hand over my heart. Gray slid the box and the throwaway toward me.
“It’s the override control for it’s operating systems. It looks like a ring with a red stone. However when you get close to it the stone will change to orange .it’s like a mini Geiger counter. The closer you are the more intense the orange color. If you are less than five feet away it will glow. Touch the cyborg anywhere it has exposed skin and it’s operating systems and AI will reboot . At that time it will be susceptible to your suggestions. Tell it to follow you. Touch the engraved eagle on the side of the ring and that will engage a tracking device. We will send a team of AirCorpmen to retrieve it. The throwaway has a file with pictures and a detailed description of it’s appearance. Commit the details to memory then toss it.” He rose from the table. I stared at the box . If Gray was telling the truth that box was my first step toward going home. Back to a world where I wasn’t thought of as a freak or a mental case. Where people knew what the fucking Terminator was. Where the West Coast wasn’t an radiation filled waste land. Where I had a name. I picked up the box. Gray started to leave.
“Gray.” I said. He stopped and turned around.
“Any idea where I should start looking for this thing.?” I asked.
“Start at the speakeasies. Before it escaped it had become fascinated with being a showgirl. We would like you to start looking for it immediately . Tonight.” Gray said in a business like tone. Like we were talking about a crate of banannas that had been shipped to the wrong grocer. A showgirl ? Who designed this thing Jerome Robbins?
“Yeah sure. Getting right on it boss.” I said in an exaggerated rural accent then instantly regretted it. He had no context to understand the joke. Slavery hadn’t taken hold in this world the way it had back home. Before their civil war an incredibly virulent boll weevil infestation had destroyed 85 percent of the cotton fields in the South. Slaves were released or escaped as plantation after plantation fell into oblivion. By the time hemp was introduced as a replacement for cotton the country had moved past enslaving it’s citizens. The history books I borrowed from the library still painted a pretty bleak picture of life for people of color. But I got the impression it could have been much worse for a longer period of time if not for Mr. Boll Weevil.
“Yes…well I will be in touch. Goodnight Traveler.” Gray said . He left the room. I put the box and the throwaway in the pocket of my trench coat and left the room as well. I watched as Gray walked past Lt. Jarrell and flicked him on the ear. Jarrell awoke with a start and jumped up so fast he fell out of his chair. I stifled a laugh and motioned toward the hollowman .
“A drink before the war my good man.” I said as I typed my order on the touch screen. The droid floated toward the liquor bottles on the shelf behind the bar. An inebriated patron who was barely able to stand poked me in the shoulder. I turned and faced the man. By the look of the broken veins in his pale nose he was an experienced drunk.
“There ain’t no before the fucking war. The war ain’t got no beginning and it won’t have no goddam end.” he said . His voice slurred like he was swallowing a mouthful of marbles.
“ Gee thanks for the newsflash Nietzsche “ I said. That seemed to confuse him and he wandered back into the smoky haze of the club. I knew he was right of course. Wars don’t end or begin . They just have brief intermissions .
I left the Alchemy with Gray’s presents and headed for my car. I had some misgivings about this whole job I wondered why they didn’t just build the dam thing with an internal tracker but who was I to question the intelligence of the Federation? As I walked into the cool air I craned my neck upward and saw a few hovercrafts zipping by like hawks among the arc sodium lights that illuminated the night sky. One hoverbike flew by ,well under the minimum altitude that the government said they had to maintain. The person on the bike was wearing a bulbous chrome helmet and a billowing black leather jacket. If the hovercrafts were eagles then the hoverbikes were hornets zipping through the steel and iron forest of the city. Hovercrafts were expensive and usually only the most wealthy or the most corrupt citizens could lay claim to one. I was neither wealthy or corrupt enough so I drove a car . A burgundy Tucker . It’s cycloptic headlight stared at me like an angry lover inquiring about my whereabouts. I climbed in and fired up my old jalopy and eased into the heavy Friday night traffic.
I thought about what Gray had said. About sending me home. Part of me wanted to dismiss it out of hand. Another part of me, the part that had seen this world and the wonders it held had a small glimmer of hope. But hope is a dangerous thing. It can blind you . Lead you astray. Hope could get you killed. I also thought about what Gray had said about this thing and how it wanted to be a showgirl. Speakeasies were the easiest place for an aspiring dancer to get a job. They were also the most dangerous places in the city of New Sanctuary . In my line of work you couldn’t help but wander into places like that from time to time. I know what you’re thinking. Why are there speakeasies if alcohol is legal here? Well speakeasies didn’t sell alcohol. They sold Zanaire. What is Zanaire you ask?
It was the magic potion that made all your dreams come true.
I drove out to an abandoned cathedral near the industrial area of New Sanctuary . I passed the Verona Iron Works then turned left at the Geuaxton Ammunition plant . Another left turn and I saw Our Lady Of Perpetual Peace looming ahead of me. Composed of gray and charcoal colored brick it towered over the factories that surrounded it like a feudal lord standing over his serfs. I pulled into a parking lot across from the cathedral and trotted across the street. The rain had stopped but the stench of oil and petroleum and gun powder filled the air. Off to the west I could see the spotlights from the AirCorps base near the Great Lake that bordered this fair city. Across the lake the Axis Alliance waited like a junkyard dog ready for the slightest provocation to send their flying fortresses across the border . I tried not to think of what would happen if this job went ten toes up .
There were a few cars parked up and down the street. One shiny black hovercraft with red velvet seats and gold trim sat on it’s landing gear near the cathedral. That was the only hint about the true nature of this former house of God. I walked up the granite steps and entered the building. The light from a few weak street lamps shone through the cracked stain glass windows and cast weird shadows across the overturned pews. I went to the decrepit confessional and opened the door. The small bench had been stripped of it’s padding long ago.
I put my hand under the bench and pressed a small metal button . The screen between my confessional booth and the other one slid aside. I saw the silhouette of a man sitting there wearing a priest’s stole . He was definitely not a priest.
“The harvest is plentiful.”he said.
“But the workers are few.” I said. The man nodded and pushed a button under his seat . My bench began to descend at a leisurely pace into a hidden elevator shaft. When I reached the bottom I stepped out onto a wooden platform . On the other side of the platform was a stone covered wall with a heavy iron door in the center. I walked up to the door. A small hatch slid open and a pair of baleful eyes stared at me.
“To truly enjoy the harvest.” he said.
“You must have labored in the fields.” I said. The eyes disappeared and I heard the clang and grind of the door locks being opened. I stepped through the door and walked past the guard into the den of inequity . On the street this particular speakeasy was called the Church but nothing holy was taking place here. I’m no prude by any means. I’ve seen my share drunken bi-curious debutantes and Thailand boy-girls when I was in the Army. But The Church was on another level. It was an abattoir of inhibitions. Anything and everything could be found within these worn wooden walls. The Church was an formerly a bomb shelter built by the Catholic church when World War 2 reached the Canadian shores. Twenty foot ceilings striated by heavy teak beams soared above my head. Two rows of leather bound booths ran down both walls to my left and my right. The row of booths on the left were interrupted by a bar with a stolen hollowman and a large stage. A brass band was chugging away on stage at a frenetic pace. Wide octagon shaped tables filled the space between the rows. Someone had pushed a few of the tables to the right to give the patrons room to dance. And dance they did. Bodies gyrated and bucked like wild stallions and mares. The blackjack table and the craps table in the back were surrounded by men and women throwing money around like confetti on New Years Eve. I made my way to bar. I passed a table where a cop still wearing his uniform was receiving a handy from a socialite wearing a fox stole with the fox’s head still attached. In a dark booth near the bar two couples had cleared their table and were coupling furiously. Then they switched.
Zanaire was the fuel that fed this bonfire of the moralities. Part absinthe ,part Ecstasy Zanaire was a sparkling blue liquid that one could imbibe or spray from an atomizer and inhale. Incredibly potent and highly addictive it put it’s users into an incredible state of euphoria. How powerful the euphoria depended on the dose. A couple of shots you might forget where you parked. A half a liter and you could forget to sleep . Or eat. Hence it’s street name. Blue Amnesia. Which got shortened to Blue A.M.
Which then inexplicably became Blue Morning. One of those etymological anomalies I guess. Blue Morning had been illegal for a decade but that didn’t stop people from consuming it or gangsters from selling it . Guys with names like Tony “Clockwork” Taubert and the Russian and Sam “The Brighton Butcher” O’Bannon and their gangs fought for control of the lucrative Zanaire market. The Federation was stretched thin paying for the war effort and so individual municipalities were on their own when it came to fighting the gangs. Pitched gunfights on the sidewalk were as common as cookouts in the summertime.
I never tried Blue Morning. Oh I was tempted. When you wake up four or five times a night from nightmares the idea of not sleeping is sort of appealing. But the vacant eyes and perpetual grins of some of the hardcore users kept me away from the “blue fairy.” I would stick with alcohol. I got to the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. The bartender offered to put a shot of Blue Morning in it but I politely declined. The band stopped playing and the stage went dark. Sparse techno music began to fill the speakeasy. The stage lights came up and their were five scantily clad women standing there in sheer whit gowns and long sheer scarfs. The women began to glide over the stage in time with the techno-beat.
I pulled the box out of my pocket and put on the ring. The gaudy red stone stared back at me. I picked up my drink and edged closer to the stage. I passed a table where a women was spraying her companion in the face with an atomizer. The ring remained as red as a spring apple. I slowly edged a little bit closer. Nothing.
“Well cross this one off the list .” I murmured. The crowd was so loud I could barely hear myself. I finished my drink and was turning to head for the exit when I heard a roar come from the crowd. Pierre “PigIron “ LaPointe had entered the place. Since this was his speakeasy that wasn’t unexpected. LaPointe is a big man who looks more Nordic than Gallic as his surname would suggest. A large man with long ,wild blonde hair he tied back in a loose pony tail LaPointe ran this part of town and it’s Blue Morning market.. Rumor had it that he kept a pen below his club full of half-starved feral pigs. If LaPointe thought you had betrayed him or misled him in anyway you went to the petting zoo. Or if you wore purple socks. Pierre was funny like that.
He was flanked on either side by two gorgeous woman .One red head and one blonde. Neither one looked anything like the picture in the file on my phone. I decided to have one more drink before I left. As they passed me I held my hand up to get the hollowman’s attention.
The ring had gone from red to orange.
“Shit.” I whispered.
The three of them went to a booth all the way in the back of the speakeasy . His guards surrounded them. I cursed a few more times under my breath then tried to think . It made sense that it had come here . This was the biggest underground club in the city. Apparently the tin man didn’t want to dance anymore. It wanted to be a gangster. I’d have to come up with a reason to get close while avoiding the petting zoo . Did cyborgs have to use the bathroom? I didn’t think so. I got up from my stool and tried to casually make my way over to where LaPointe was holding court.
“I’m going home.”I whispered to myself. That was all that mattered.
I slipped through the crowd trying to look as nonchalant as I could . LaPointe’s guards were two coiled snakes on either side of their boss. I’d have to be quick and I had to be prepared to take some lumps. As the band struck up a new song I pretended to trip and fall into LaPointe’s booth. As I fell I tossed my drink at his bodyguard . There was a mad scramble as LaPointe jumped up and showed a total lack of chivalry. He grabbed the blond and tossed her toward me with one meaty hook hand. As I lay sprawled across the table I reached out for the red-heads right arm. It was incredibly fast. It gripped my hand and I could feel my metacarpals grinding together.
That was when I touched it’s forearm with the ring that was on my other hand. The effect was instantaneous. It’s eyes became completely white. It’s head snapped up and it appeared to be staring straight ahead. Seconds after hands pulled me away from the table but moments before they started pummeling me I was able to shout out a command. I didn’t know if it would work but things were moving fast and it was the best plan I had.
“Help me escape!” I screamed. Then a fist slammed into my jaw.
My own programming took over then. It’s funny. Not ha ha funny but peculiar. I can’t remember my rank but I remember I was in the Special Forces. I can’t remember my mother’s name but I can remember the training I received in military hand to hand combat. It’s times like these it comes in handy.
The first guard reared back to sock me again while the second guard held my arms. As the first guard hurled his fist at my face I snapped my head back and to the right. My fedora provided a little bit of protection for the second guard but his nose still met the majority of my skull. He instinctively released my arms . I surged forward. As the first guards right fist slid over my left shoulder I reached up and trapped his elbow with both my forearms. I pulled down on his arm while raising right knee. His face slammed into my knee cap and I felt a soft explosion of flesh that told me I had broken his nose. The big man dropped to his knees.
I spun around just in time to see the second guard pull out his .45 and aim it at my face. His mouth and jaw were coated in his own blood from his bleeding nose. I was quick but he had the drop on me. While I contemplated whether I would end up in heaven or hell a blur came into my field of vision from the right . It was the cyborg. It kicked the second guard in the wrist and his gun went flying through the air. I heard a dull snap and realized it had broken his forearm. As he grabbed at his shattered radius and ulna bones it chopped him in the windpipe and the big man fell like a redwood. Without saying a word it grabbed me by the wrist and then dragged me along for the ride as we slammed through the crowd. Patrons were tossed aside like bowling pins . We reached the platform in front of the heavy iron door . The guard that had let me had his piece out and fired it right in the cyborgs pretty face. It didn’t even slow down. One punch to the solar plexus and then another one to the throat and that guard joined his co-workers in La La land. It released me for a moment while it used both hands to rip the lock off the door and open it . The sound of metal scraping filled my ears drowning out the screams chasing us out the club.
The empty elevator shaft seemed to mock us . I was staring at it when I heard a mechanized voice devoid of any emotion in my ear.
“Jump …on….my….back. “ it said in a stilted monotone. I dared to look over my shoulder. More guards were shoving their way through the crowd . Pierre LaPointe was leading them . He had a EMRG in his hand. An electromagnetic rail gun rifle. It fired small dime-sized shot. Using magnetic resistance instead of gunpowder the ball bearings came out of the gun at two thousand feet per second. I had a feeling that would do me and the cyborg in quite effectively.
“Fuck it.” I said and jumped on its back. I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked to find that it felt like a real woman. It was soft where it was supposed to be and firm where it needed to be. It’s hair smelled of lilacs not oil or that innominate scent computers and sterile plastic gives off. It stepped into the shaft and seemingly effortlessly began climbing up the shaft with me on it’s back. It spread it’s legs and arms wide until all four limbs had a point of contact with the shaft . Then it began to scuttle up the tube like a spider. We were moving incredibly fast. But not so fast I couldn’t hear someone mutter “What the hell?”.
We reached the top of the shaft and the cyborg punched through the floor of the confessional. Splinters rained down on my fedora. It pulled itself out of the hole and I jumped down off it’s back. I didn’t see the priest who wasn’t a priest.
“Follow me!” I said. We both took off running for the door.
“Hold it you sons of bitches!” It was the phony priest. He came around the confessional brandishing a shotgun. I dropped to my knees and turned as I slid along the old wooden floor. I pulled out my plasma pistols. I was just about to fire on him when I saw a pew fly over my head and slam into him as he stepped off the pulpit. Yes an entire pew. I glanced at my animantronic companion then hopped up and ran out the door . It followed me and we jumped in my Tucker . I roared out of the parking lot and we escaped into the night.
A pew. It threw a pew at him. What the hell had I gotten myself into ?
I drove out to my place on Decatur Avenue above the Tin Can a bar that lived down to it’s name. It was the roughest legal bar in the roughest part of town near the Pilcher auto plant. On my side of town the smell of diesel was so prevalent after awhile you stopped smelling it. The streets were soot swept roadways bathed in the plants vaporous jetsam. I pulled my car up to the curb.
“Get out and follow me .” I said. The cyborg complied. We had to walk up a staircase on the side of the bar to get to my apartment. As we passed the door a man was thrown through the door .He hit the sidewalk with a thud . He groaned as he rolled onto his back like an intoxicated turtle.
“Y’all ain’t shit man! Fuck your raggedy ass place. I’ve seen outhouses with more class!” the man screamed. A wiry figure appeared in the door carrying a cricket bat. The man’s dark face was a black cloud of fury. His bald head gleamed under the street lamps. He had a gold hoop in his right ear.
“Get out of here Willie. Or I’ll beat the gin out of you.” the bald man said .He noticed me and my guest passing by with our heads down.
“Hiya Traveler .” he said . His voice was low and and smooth like a sleek coupe .
“Hey Boiler . “ I mumbled. Boiler nodded and turned his attention back to the drunk. Most apartments here required your date of birth, DNA(to make sure you were not a foreign agent) job history , first born son and an oath of never ending fealty . Okay I’m kidding about the last two. Maybe. But Boiler was used to living on the outskirts of society and off the grid. He rented me this place with no questions asked …as long as I had the rent every month.
My apartment is as sparse as a Spartan’s . I had a Murphy bed on the left side of the room and patio door without a patio on the right. I didn’t open the door a lot because of the stench from the plant. In the morning the sun would cut through the oily haze that always seemed to permeate the air and wake me up from my latest drunken stupor. I pulled the Murphy bed down and lay across the bed. I eyed the cyborg warily. It was getting harder to call it an it instead of a she. The black dress it…she was wearing had torn during our escape and one firm thigh peeked at me through the rip. Her red hair was a tangled mess just the way I liked a woman’s hair to be. Gray had said it would revert back to it’s standard operating parameters after five minutes. It had been a lot longer than five minutes.
I don’t know why I touched her with the ring again. It just popped in my head and I did it. I had seen her carrying on a conversation with LaPointe. So I know she could be reasonable. I’d like to say it had nothing to do with being a lonely stranger in a strange land. I like to say I didn’t consider her a machine and therefore something I could control. I’d like to say those things. But I won’t . I stood up and walked over to her. I touched the ring to her shoulder. This time I noticed a circular pattern of light that appeared on her skin where I touched her. Her pupils reappeared and she punched me in the sternum so hard I flew through the air and landed on the Murphy bed. If it hadn’t folded up at that very moment I think she would have killed me. As it happened the bed fell into it’s recessed spot in my wall . When when she pulled the bed back down I was holding my plasma pistol and pointing it at her face. It was charged and the cylcletron was emitting a high whine as it charged a small pressurized capsule of gas.
My mouth was full of blood . I spit a globule on the floor. My sternum was aching like an elephant had tapped danced on my chest. I could barely breathe. Every time my abdomen drew inward a sharp pain shot through my chest.
“Stop…just …stop. “I panted. She stared at me impassively.
“That’s a Tesla 229 particle charging plasma pistol.” she said . Her voice was soft,subtle really. She started to move forward. It killed me but I straightened my arm.
“Bullets might not go through your head but this plasma particle will cut right through you and fry you up like a piece of chicken.” I said. The pain in my chest was troubling but not as troubling as what she could do to me if she got her hands on me.
“You are working for Gray and Jarrell aren’t you?”she said. I nodded. She laughed. The astonishment must have shown on my face. She crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side.
“I wouldn’t be a very good assassin if I couldn’t assimilate into various social settings with a passable sense of humor. I laughed because you have no idea what is really going on here.” she said . My arm started to quiver. The pain was a living thing devouring my body like some wild beast.
“W-w-what are you talking about?” I stammered. She uncrossed her arms and squatted down so we would be eye level as I sat on the bed.
“Gray and Jarrell are playing you. They were apart of the team that was escorting me to Central Command in Olde York. The scientists who designed me gave each member of that team an override chip hidden in that ring. Gray and Jarrell killed the crew and started flying me across the border.”she said. I stared at her.
“They were going to sell you to the Alliance.” I said. She nodded.
“Before they killed the crew that engaged my override. I heard the screams of those dying men and I could do nothing to help them. When the override protocols are engaged it’s like I’m in a lucid nightmare. I can only respond to commands. It’s like I’ve been kicked out of my own body. It’s disgusting.” she said. My arm was killing me.
“How’d you escape?”
“Jarrell. The pervert couldn’t stop touching me while I was under. He had me transmorph into his wife. Ugh it’s was horrible. Before he could get his penis inside me his ring brushed against my bare thigh. He accidentally released me. “ she said. I could guess the rest.
“You didn’t want to be a showgirl did you?” I said. She laughed again.
“No. But I knew I couldn’t legally get past the city limits without a profile in the city data banks. I headed for the speakeasies to find a member of the criminal underground. There was a 74% probability they would have access to alternative methods of leaving the city.” she said
“I’m going to put my pistol down. I think you broke my sternum. Please I’d appreciate it if you didn’t kill me. “ I said. I put the pistol on the bed. I spit another blob of blood on the floor. The cyborg didn’t move.
“So they don’t have anyway of using your power source to open an interdimensional doorway. “ I said. I slid to the floor. I didn’t realize I was crying until the tears hit my pants.
“No such procedure exists to accomplish such a task. “ she said. I nodded my head.
“Where were you going if you left the city?” I asked.
“Somewhere out west. Near the BorderWall. As my AI programs had evolved so had my consciousness. I have desires that do not align with my operating directives. I wish to explore these desires. I do not believe my designers anticipated my AI would evolved so quickly and with a separate identity apart from the one they had given me.”she said.
“You just wanna be yourself.” I said. My voice was barely a gasp. I felt stupid and dirty . I couldn’t turn this …creation over to Gray just so the Axis Alliance could chop her up into bits. I felt like a hood turning over a runaway to a pimp,
“Help me up. “ I said She grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet like I was a baby instead of a six foot tall two hundred pound man. As I reached in my trench coat I noticed it had blood on it. It wasn’t mine. I pulled the throwaway out that Gray had given me.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m calling Gray and telling him you left the city. That should give you a little bit of a head start. “ I said. She stood straight up and stared at the patio door. She turned back to me.
“No it won’t . He and Jarrell are approaching in a gyrocopter. They must have tracked you when you activated the ring to override my systems.” she said.
“But they said I had to- oh right they were lying. Well let’s leave the ring and I’ll get you out of here.” I said. She shook her head.
“They are already-” she started to say then my patio door/window exploded inward as projectiles shattered the glass. I fell to the floor and screamed in pain as my sternum slammed against the carpet. My arm and my leg were burning. I guessed I had been hit. Either that or my arthritis was acting up. Lily ,as now thought of her, did a back flip out of the line of fire,then dropped to a crouch near the card table where I usually ate dinner. I heard a loud WHOOSH and Jarrell came flying through my window wearing a jet pack. The jet pack user was wearing brass and leather goggles and an oxygen mask but it had to be Jarrell. Lily ran toward him like a synthetic polymer lioness. Jarrell was holding a metal box of some kind . It was about the size of a drink cooler. He dropped the cooler and pulled some type of collapsible staff from the pocket of of his flight suit. As Lily leaped into the air he extended the staff . It was then I saw a reddish jewel on the tip of the staff. Jarrell jabbed it into her neck. She fell to the floor then hopped up and stood at attention . Jarrell removed his mask.
“Get in the box.” he said . Lily bent down and flipped open the latches on the lid . She twisted her arms and legs into shapes that would have crippled a human being. She climbed into the box and folded herself like a piece of origami. Jarrell closed the lid . He turned and pulled on a cable that was attached to the box. I watched as the gyrocopter ascended into the night sky ,pulling the box with it. I rolled under the Murphy bed.
“I”m gonna kill ya. Ya hear that ya dusky Moor?” Jarell growled. I saw his legs directly in front of me. I had seconds before he flipped the bed up and I would be as vulnerable as a turtle on it’s back. I pulled my pistols and fired at Jarrell’s legs. Plasma pistols fire a small shot ,about the size of a pea,that is surrounded by a plasma bubble .When the shot leaves the glass packed barrel the plasma bubble is hotter than the surface of the sun. The plasma tore through Jarrell’s shins ripping them to shreds while cauterizing them at the same time. Jarrell screamed and fell onto his knees. I pushed up on the bed with my back and stood in front of him. I put the barrel of one of my pistols against the lens of his goggles . The pistol was a gaudy looking thing with an industrial gold plated surface and an exaggerated grip that had a bit of a flourish at the bottom. Jarrell had dropped his weapon. A TM-25 dual cylinder machine gun. It sat as a mute witness to our final conversation.
“I told you don’t call me that. “I said as I pulled the trigger. That close the plasma melted the lens and sliced through Jarrell’s skull like a rapier . The back of his head exploded like a pinata . The smell of broiled flesh filled my apartment. Jarrell fell face first onto my carpet. I looked out the window at the rapidly retreating lights of the gyro.
I looked at the jet pack that was strapped to Jarrell. When I was first released from the military base I spent most of my time in the local libraries. I stayed until they closed then I wandered the streets until they opened in the morning. I educated myself as much as I could on this place of androids and flying cars. I could fly that jet pack. I had no doubt in my mind about that. But I didn’t have to. I could let Gray take Lily across the border and go get some much needed medical attention and a drink. And not necessarily in that order. I thought of her in that box twisted up like a pretzel. A body that was no longer her own. I couldn’t leave that state. And then there was the matter of Mr. Gray . He had played on my greatest desire and made a fool of me while I risked my life for a ticket home that didn’t exist. Some debts needed to be settled.
I knelt down and flipped Jarrell over on his back. I started undoing the buckles of the jet pack. I slipped my arms through the harness rig and latched my buckles. There were two rubber coated throttle cables on each side of the jet pack. These cables ended in fingerless gloves . On the palms of the gloves were the throttle controls. I slipped my hands into the gloves and slipped the oxygen mask over my mouth. I didn’t have goggles so I grabbed some old sunglasses off what was left of the night stand . After a second I took them off and tossed them on the floor. The sky was still dark . I didn’t want to fly into one of the massive skyscrapers that dotted the city’s skyline. I reached over my shoulder and flicked the choke switch. I backed up to the Murphy bed.
“One,two ,THREE!” I screamed. I ran toward the window and jumped. I plummeted like a brick for a few seconds. I felt my gorge rising and I was sure I was going to vomit. I pressed my fingers into the palms of the gloves . The thrust from the jet pack sent waves of pain through my chest. I straightened my legs and angled my torso up like I was doing a Hindu push up . I rose through the night air like a broken down comet. I saw the gyrocopter. The box was hanging from it like a lamprey eel on a shark. It swung wildly as the copter headed north. I hit the throttle and zoomed toward the copter. The wind was scratching at my eyes . It felt like every piece of debris and dirt was being rubbed into my face. I was streaking toward the copter . I realized too late I was going to pass it. I zipped right over the twin fully articulated blades. I banked up and then did a barrel roll as I came around to faced the copter. Gray saw me and I swear I could see him smile. The two rotating barrel machine guns came up and Gray aimed them at me. I cut the throttle on right turbine and rolled to me left just as Gray opened fire. As the sound of two massive 45 caliber machine guns tore through the night I passed the copter on his right. As I slipped by I pulled out my plasma pistol and unloaded my six remaining shots into the cockpit. I didn’t see them hit Gray but I watched as the copter started to list to the right then back to the left . The nose dipped like a commoner curtsying and the copter fell to the earth . I banked to the left and the hit the throttle in my right turbine but I had waited to late . I couldn’t right myself. I saw the stars and the streets lamps swirling around me like a kaleidoscope as I rolled over and over. I cut the throttle in both turbines and then I did vomit as I saw the street racing up to meet me. I hit the throttles again and screamed as I skimmed the pavement at a height roughly the same as a politicians moral standing. I cut the throttles again and this time I crashed into the asphalt. I felt something in my chest burst. Blood filled my throat. I rolled over and over again until I landed near a parked sedan. I pulled off my oxygen mask and vomited again. Gin ,blood and yesterday’s lunch splashed across the street. I heard a thunderous explosion toward the north. I turned my head and saw a orange and blue fireball streak across the sky.
“Get up. Get up.” I told myself. I tried and fell back down to the street.
“Come on Traveler get up!” I thought .I pulled myself up by holding on to the door handle on the sedan. I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. My face was sporing some road rash and my shirt was covered in blood and vomit . I had lost my hat. I stumbled toward the explosion. The copter had crashed into a Woolworth s. Fire greedily ate the ladies coats and gentleman’s shoes. I was on the street in front of the burning building. The box was in the gutter . I fell down and crawled toward the box. My hands felt numb but I fought with the latches until the lid opened. I felt lightheaded and my legs were cold. I reached into the box and touched her on the shoulder with my ring.
A five foot six jack in the box popped into the air. Lily landed next to me . She turned her head from side to side and her twisted limbs went back to their normally scheduled positions. She knelt beside me.
“You risked your life for me. “ she said. Her voice was even and calm.
“Not …just you. I really didn’t like Gray . Jarrell’s dead too. Just so you know. “ I said. I felt very tired. She lay a cool hand on my forehead. Her eyes went totally white again.
‘You are very badly injured. You need medical attention.”she said.
“I could have told you that and I’m not even a cyborg .” I said. She laughed. It was too loud and too raucous but it made me smile. I pulled the ring off and tossed it toward the storm drain.
“Go on . Get out of here. If you the cops catch you here there will be too many questions. “ I said. She watched the ring roll into the storm drain. I thought I heard it clang against the sides of the drain as it fell. Lily ripped my shirt open and traced her hands over my chest. It felt so good I wanted to go to sleep. Until she pushed on my rib cage. I howled like a banshee. I felt a strange sensation. It was halfway between a tickle and a pinch.
“My skin consist of billions of nanobytes which gives me transmorphic capabilities. I have transferred some to your body. Your injury will be temporarily be repaired . You will still need medical attention. The nanobytes will degrade rapidly in you blood stream. “ she said. Quick as a snake she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.
“Goodbye Traveler.” she said. I nodded and gave her a thumbs up. I closed my eyes as I heard sires approaching. I hope the coppers don’t find Lily. I hope she finds what she is seeking . The same thing we are all seeking . A place to call our own that allows us to be ourselves. A home
That’s something I don’t think I’ll ever find.
THE GIRL WITH THE IRON HEART
A STORY BY S.A. COSBY