Corporate Clarke's Fiction

Dissident, genre-fiction

North of the River

This was written in response to NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2022.

The brief was:

Genre – science fiction

Location – a river

Object – a dossier.

Word limit – 1,000.

Time limit – 48 hours.

Image: https://unsplash.com/@quentinburbach

*

“Got a location?” asks Luther, from the building perimeter, over the comms line.

“We’re supposed to be radio silent,” I remind him.

“It’s quiet.”

“Just get off the line.”

“Amen.”

“Amen.”

The building is a research centre from before the schism. It hasn’t had power for nearly three decades. Neither has the desktop computer I’m working on. I drop its hard drive into the universal data reader. A small box lined with seaweed-like tendrils. They begin moving, exploring and adapting to the connectors. The tab in my lap tells me…

Data found…

Defrag in progress…

I knead the small, wooden crucifix around my neck with my thumb, it keeps my hand away from the scars.

68% data recovery…

Good odds. I instruct it to search for the location of the dossier.

Searching…

Found.

Amen.

My tab gives me an archival cross-reference for the dossier and layers it over a blueprint of the facility.

I open the line to Luther, “I’ve got a location. Anything outside?”

“Nothing yet.”

“Amen.”

“Amen.”

I still have my infrared enhancements wrapped over my retinas. One of the implants I decided to keep. But they’re too electromagnetically active to use. So flashlight it is.

The research centre is not as decayed as I expected. Others who have been north of the river came back with exaggerated anecdotes. It is still recognisable as a lab, albeit lifeless, like a cadaver of a relative.

I hear the scurrying of rodents. Abandoned robots are scattered around the corridors. My breathing apparatus tells me the air is stale but harmless, so I turn it off to reduce my electromagnetic footprint further.

My former implants would be useful now. I could link my consciousness directly to the map. Intuitively know the building. But I ripped them out. Replaced by scars that run down my spine and the back of my arms. A cross wrapped around my body. The physical scars are insignificant. The damage the implants did to my psyche – a yoke to bear.

The dossier is in an office that has been converted into document storage. It should be in front of me, but there is a gap on the shelf.

What now?

My flashlight glances on someone in the room. I jump back, smashing into the shelves behind me. It’s just a vaguely humanoid archival bot, with something in its mitten-like claw. The box I need. 

Praise Him. 

I open a line to Luther, “I have it.”

“Good, I’m still in posi…” The connection cracks up. A couple of seconds later he gets me on another frequency. “We’re getting jammed…” He breaks off again.

An automated woman’s voice invades our line, “This is a public health enforcement robot. Please be prepared to prove your identity and vaccine status. We are authorised to…”

I flip the frequency again, “Do you have a visual yet, Luther?”

“No. But hurry up.”

“Amen.”

“Amen.”

I turn on my enhanced vision, no need for radio silence now. I ignore the fluttering movements in the corners of my eyes. Must be rats. Not the ghosts of robots that have developed half a soul. That’s just a tale to scare children, to stop them crossing the river.

Outside Luther is waiting by the diesel fuelled quad-bike with his mechanical machine gun. Both designed to be radio silent. Three, armoured, dog-like robots turn into our street, “K9 enforcement bots.”

“Start the quad,” says Luther as he calmly pumps four smoke grenades and a handful of shells into their general direction. This will force them to take a defensive posture and await new instructions, which will not come since their command centre has long been destroyed. They’ll revert to their base programming and give chase. But he’s bought us a few seconds.

The quad’s engine comes to life in a guttural chant. Luther straps himself backwards onto the seat behind me. “Go now,” he says, as he unloads another few rounds. I hear the ping of bullets hitting the K9’s tough metal bodies. 

Another message pushes itself into one of my frequencies. This time a man’s voice. “This is a public health enforcement robot. Attacking this robot is a serious offence. This robot is authorised to use…”

I drift the quad onto the main highway that leads to the destroyed bridge. The highway is strewn with obstacles. Potholes have turned to lakes. Cars abandoned. Fallen drones and traffic bots. I weave between the junk, pulling Luther’s shots off target. The K9s are leaping over obstacles, taking a direct line towards us. Despite the quad being faster they’re gaining on us.

“Got one,” says Luther.

“Amen.”

“Amen.”

I take a hard right to swing the quad down the exit lane towards the river moorings, briefly riding on two wheels. The K9s slide while trying to turn. We gain more valuable seconds.

At the bottom of the exit lane, Able has already prepped the boarding ramp for the pontoon ferry and is standing by the engine, ready to depart. I break hard as we board but the quad crashes into the walls of the deck. Luther’s weight hits my back, winding me.

Able starts the ferry’s engine as the K9s approach the mooring. Luther, fires another smoke grenade, enough to distract the K9s until there is clear water between us. The metal dogs stalk the riverbank as we drift away.

“You got it?” asks Able.

“Got it,” I say, finding my breath. “Now we can finally know how it all started, who’s to blame,” I say to myself.

I turn to the south, leaving my visual enhancements off, enjoying the smudge of our city on the opposite riverbank. The yellow glow of streetlights in the twilight, the colour of human flourishing. The outlines of blocky, low-rise living. Spires of churches. An enormous stone angel stands on a mound looking down over the city. The scars on the back of my neck tingle. But I divert my hand to the small wooden cross around my neck.

Amen.

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