I sit in a plain room, the fluorescent light flickering as I wait for the information officer to boot up so I can give my report. With a whir and click, the automaton sits up and begins the process of reporting a crime.
“Please State Your Full Name.” The voice comes out scratchy, like an old vpeg played over and over, yet with a tone of warmth. The person who recorded this truly cared about helping people.
“Terrius Gregory Maxon.” My middle name is an old family name, passed down from my great grandfather, a war hero from the battle for Alaska.
“Please State The Nature Of Your Crime.”
“I was accosted in the terrarium on the block of seventy-sixth and Helmswood, my wallet was stolen by a Purist, or an Amazon, I didn’t get a good look at her.” There’s a momentary pause while the program sorts through my words to decide which question comes next.
“Please State The Items That Were Taken From You.”
“Ummm, my me-card, an overdrawn credit stick, and a family heirloom.” I hope the program doesn’t pick up on the ambiguity of the final item.
“Please Clarify: Family Heirloom.” Damn, there’s a reason these machines replaced people.
“It was a cardboard baseball card, a Jose Menjivar rookie card from the 2028 campaign. Last year cardboard cards were manufactured. It’s not worth much, just sentimental value. Probably worth more as just paper than what’s on it.” I’m rambling, trying to justify my reasons for still having the card. As a registered citizen, I know as well as any of the uni-corp bylaw concerning paper. Now that trees are extinct, any paper is highly valuable.
“All Articles Are Categorized, Patrol Officers Will Contact You Further Should Any Results Come Of The Investigation.” I know I’m getting lucky, but the Information officer’s program must not allow for personal detainment. I exit the room and as the door is closing, I look back and see the automaton power off, lowering to the table.
I walk quickly through the halls of the station, knowing I need to return home to my wife. She will be worried as I’m normally back from work before this. I reach the front door and step into the sealed exit chamber. I pull my rebreather onto my face and press the power button. It glows a dull yellow, and I remember I need to change the air filter soon. I should have some at home, so I press the exit button and with a hiss of air I’m out on the street.
Without my me-card, I won’t be able to use the skytrain. I swallow nervously as this means I’ll have to use the walkways. Everyone knows the walkways are unsafe, abandoned to the homeless, the purists and the amazons. I know that I need to get home soon, to care for my love.
I picture my wife, lying in bed, pale and sick from the smog that hangs in the air at all times. She had only been an irresponsible child, who didn’t notice the blinking indicator on her filter. Only without an operational filter for three minutes, but it didn’t matter unfortunately. The effects on her hadn’t started occurring until last year, but now it was hard for her to leave her bed at all. She worried so much, her guilt over being like this eating her more than the toxins burning through her lungs. We both knew she didn’t have much time, and I didn’t make enough to buy much more of her medication for this week.
I start the four-block journey with much trepidation. It will take me about thirty minutes, each block being around 500 meters. There wasn’t any time to waste. I want to run, get home as fast as I could to check on her, ensure her safety, but I know that anything faster than a brisk jog and my filter would fail, and that would have very undesirable effects indeed.
The walkways are shrouded in the smog. It hugs the earth in entirety, with only the tops of the tallest penthouses peeking out of the yellowish poison. My visibility is constrained to about fifteen to twenty meters ahead of me and either side. The walkways are huge, about 100 meters wide, the pale marble they were built with a reminder of how far the human race has fallen. I can see shapes moving through the murk around me, but I keep my face forward and try to conceal the pounding heart I have.
It’s like walking through a silent world, knowing that danger is just beyond your sight, circling around you, waiting for your guard to be let down. Unbidden, the image of the Claurax springs to mind, the mythical beast in the fog my mother always warned me about.
“Terrius, if you run out of my sight, the Claurax will get you!” I chuckle at the memory, the sound coming out metallic and harsh through the re-breather. She would walk me down these walk ways, but up in the twenty-sixth district. I remember the little apartment we lived in, my mother and four brothers. Our dad had agreed to work on the terraform station on the man made moon, another uni-corp attempt to bring back normalcy to earth. This meant at least we had little to want, though it meant we never saw our father.
I sigh, knowing that I took it for granted, not getting the best education that I could’ve has ended up with me in this situation. A fool for love, my mother called me on her deathbed. My heart grows heavy, and the apartment draws near.
The apartment complex’s main door is open, which is unusual. Not bad, since only the individual apartments are sealed, so it’s not like the smog will get into our home. After five flights of stairs I reach our floor. I look down to the re-breather as I huff and puff trying to catch my breath. The indicator light is red. Shit, how long has it been like that? At best, the red light means I have twenty minutes to change my filter. I should be all right, as I’m only moments from the apartment.
I step into the chamber and a hiss of air lets me know I’m breathing clean air once more. I press the enter button and the inner door slides open to a heart stopping moment. Two men, dressed roughly, are sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea from our china. They have the mark of Harem on their forehead, and I know they’re from Big Joe.
“Mr. Maxon!” The one closest to me stands up and gives me an extravagant bow. “I’m glad you are finally here! Me and Tiny were starting to get bored of waiting.” He indicates to his partner. Tiny stands up and I let out a gasp. The name is obviously meant to be ironic as he is easily eight feet tall, with a frame that’s overly muscular. He must be a stim-junkie, there’s no way a normal human could be this big. A chuckle comes from the first man, who still hasn’t said his name, as he sees the look on my face.
“And trust me, there’s not much here that would keep us entertained while waiting for you.” His voice takes on a more sinister tone as he cocks an eyebrow at me and gestures his head towards my previously unnoticed wife in her wheelchair. I rush to her side.
“Oh baby, you ok?” I stroke her hair gently as I stare into her eyes. They’re wide and full of terror, with trails of tears staining her cheeks. I kiss her gently on the lips, trying to reassure her without words. She shakes her head no. I stand and turn back to the Big Joe’s henchmen, keeping a hand on her shoulder.
“What do you want? I’ve already told Big Joe I need a little more time to get the money I owe together. There’s been a spike in interest, but he said there wouldn’t be any more issues till it was due again.” Tiny growls at my bold words, and I gulp in fear.
“Well you see, there’s been a little change in the situation. We hear you held out on us when we did the original collection last year. That you have something of value, something you owe us. A certain cardboard card.” I gape at him. How did Big Joe find out? I had kept it secret for years. Maybe they had a tap on the information officers? Must be it. I try to hide my reaction, but my startled silence speaks for me.
“I guess you better give it over. Or things could get… unpleasant.” The implications are rather obvious.
“I don’t have it,” I splutter. “It was stolen today in Helmswood terrarium.” The smaller man’s laugh is quite sarcastic; he doesn’t believe a word I’m saying.
“Look, I don’t know why you’re holding out on us! Just give us the card, or we’ll kick the shit out of your wife, probably kill her and make you watch. After sinking so much of Big Joe’s money into keeping her alive, I doubt you want that to happen.” Tiny takes a menacing step towards me, and I know he would have no trouble killing anyone.
“Alright, alright.” I start lying to them, hoping it’ll buy me time. “I have the card, but it’s not here, it’s in a safe location. It’ll take me awhile to get it. Will you wait here while I go get it? It’ll only be a few hrs.” I go for a pacifying tone, hoping to come up with a plan in the few hours I have.
“What the hell, I can wait a few more hours to beat your old lady. We’ll give you two hours, to the minute. You’ll go now and get the card. We’ve given your picture to all the lenders, so don’t think you can double cross us and get money for a gun or something. Any move beyond getting it and returning, and she gets it.” His finger points at my wife. I stand staring at him, and then nod agreement to the deal.
“Starting now!” He exclaims, looking at his watch. I stand there frozen, surprised by his sudden decision. “Well what are you waiting for? You only have one hour and fifty-nine minutes now. It might take every second, so I wouldn’t wait around.” With that I run to the door, pressing the exit button rapidly.
The walkways are silent once more as I exit the building onto the street. What am I to do? I don’t have money to buy a gun, and I can’t get any more. Maybe I should just go try to find the card? Yeah right, my inner pessimist mutters, you’d go back to the park and find out where the bitch went and try to find the card in the clubhouse? Whether she’s an Amazon or a Purist, you’re screwed. They’re just plain crazy.
But I see no other course of action. I need to do this for my wife. I remember the tear stains on her face, and know I need to save her from whatever fate Tiny can bestow on her. I start running towards the park, heedless of what lies beyond my sight in the smog, my breath ragged in my chest.
After a few blocks, a strange tangy taste begins to fill my mouth, and I look down in horror at my rebreather. The light is off. That means I’m breathing unfiltered air. The smog is getting into my lungs. I stop running and stand still in complete shock. I’ve been running for five minutes, but I have no clue how long it will take me to get to Helmswood terrarium, find the card and get back. I know it means my death, but I take off the rebreather. My wife is going to die soon, why shouldn’t I die with her? I look around trying to see through the hazy air. There’s nothing to live for here. This world is a dying place, may as well abandon with a woman I love before the true end.
As I resume my run to the park, I feel truly alive. There’s a mild burning in my lungs, and I know it’s the chemicals in the air reacting to the conditions in my lungs. I always knew that it was designed in the war to not affect the eyes, but now I’m curious as to how they managed that. The thought passes from my mind as I reach the terrarium. I look down at my watch and a bolt of fear races through my heart. I’ve wasted a half an hour to reach here. I only have an hour to find out where the card is and then start heading back.
The terrarium is shady from the plastic representations of trees placed throughout the area. It was supposed to be a place of rest and relaxation when it was built, but now with its plastic trees and fake rubber grass it’s eerie. The smog, combined with the shade make the atmosphere intimidating. In the distance I hear whoops and shrieks. It’s a good place as any to start looking.
As I run towards where the sound seems to come from, I notice a light in the same direction. This affirms my hopes and I keep my head down and run all the harder, my breathing becoming more and more difficult as I proceed. The light grows brighter and brighter.
I stumble into a yard of sorts. A large building looms in front of me and through the windows I can see the light coming, cheerful and warm in the cool misty darkness of the terrarium. I start to cough uncontrollably, falling to my knees trying to catch my breath. A minute later when I manage to regain control, I look up to see two women standing above me, with their buzz sticks in their hands. Without a word they haul me to my feet and drag me inside.
Inside, I’m thrown to the floor of a hollowed out building. I slowly rise to a standing position and look around me. There’s a fire directly in front of me, casting light to almost all corners of the large room. Around the fire are approximately fifty women, all lacking one breast. Ah so Amazons then, my mind confirms. Women who feel they are so much better than men that they don’t need them at all. They cut off one breast so their archery is improved, allowing them better aim. They’re known for abducting and raping men to increase their numbers without men’s influence on them. As bad as purists, but in other ways. I realize that they’re all staring at me, waiting for me to act.
“I need to speak to your leader.” I start off, my voice surprisingly ragged. Then I realize the smog outside has affected my throat. “I need audience with her to discuss something.”
“She speaks to no man,” one of the women who brought me in hisses, and jabs me with her buzz stick. The current brings me to my knees and I cry out in pain. A woman’s feet walk into my view and I take a glance upward. She stands in front of me, a headdress of brightly colored fabric with plastic entwined between them on her head. Her head is tilted to one side with a confused look on her face.
“Shush, my follower, he is strange. Why do you come here?” Her voice is gruff and deep for a woman.
“I had something stolen from me in the terrarium today, and I desperately need it to sell for medicine for my wife.” I take a deep breath, trying to not cough, trying to not look weak. Although being on my knees probably does that already. The leader of this clan throws her head back and laughs a full hearty laugh.
“Little man, why should I give you the glory I have won from you? You have shown that you aren’t fit enough to carry your possessions in the first place. I care not for your wife, or the bond you have to her. What would I gain from this?”
I had figured on this last question from her. Amazon’s are about glory, and I needed to exploit that. “You don’t have to give it. I challenge you to one on one combat to the death. Winner gets to keep the card.” I look her in the eye and stand up once again. “Unless you’re too scared to fight me.” Her eyes explode in fury, and I know I have her.
“How dare you!” Her words are dangerous and angry. She steps back from me and shouts to the crowd. “Watch, all of you! I will dispatch of this man and we will feast on his flesh!” The roam roars in approval of their leader’s decision. She turns to me with a wicked smile. I try to look brave, but I probably fail.
A buzz stick is thrown to me, and she receives one as well. The room falls silent. This is it, the extent of my plan. I have no training in fighting, just a woman I need to save. I hope that it’s enough. A shock to my right shoulder brings me back to the moment. The leader dances away with her eyes alight with battle. My arm spasms and I drop the buzz stick to the floor. I desperately grab at the baton with my left hand. I see her coming at me again and I spin around bringing the weapon high, trying to smash it down onto her. She deftly avoids the attack and my back spasms as I continue through, falling to the ground.
The crowd shouts their approval of their leaders prowess. I roll onto my back just in time to avoid an electrocution to the back of my neck. I take another wild swing but it’s like I’m trying to hit a ghost, she only comes close enough when she’s sure she will get a blow.
I scramble back trying to distance myself from her, and she walks calmly forward, victory in her eyes. She stands over me, stepping on my left hand, the buzz stick falling out of it and I wince in pain. Gloating she raises her buzz stick for the killing blow and inside I say a silent goodbye to my wife, only wishing she could know what I’ve done and not wonder if I just ran off and left her. Suddenly an idea occurs to me.
Using all the strength that is left in my body, I head-butt her in the crotch. My skin on my left hand screams in agony as it tears from the awkward angle and her foot restricting its movement. She falls backward, a look of shock on her face. Her buzz stick stays firmly in her hand, so I know I don’t have much time. I throw myself onto her, fists swinging, and feet kicking. Screaming in agony from the sudden assault, she drops her weapon and I pounce on it, bringing it down on her face with all the force I can generate.
Silence permeates the room as I stand over the body of a woman I have just killed. My left hand is red and dripping, my pinkie missing entirely from my hand. I stare at the room with wild eyes, challenging anyone else to try anything
“Just give me the fucking card.” I leave without ceremony and quickly as I don’t know how much time I’ve wasted, and I don’t want them to gang up on me. Outside I have another coughing fit and the strange tangy taste fills my mouth. I realize with a slightly sickening feeling that it tastes like orange juice. I throw up and wipe my mouth with my now functional right arm. My watch on my left hand got smashed and isn’t telling me anything at all. So I only have one choice. I run.
The stairs seem to take an eternity once I am back at the apartment. I’m starting to feel like I’m drowning. No breath satisfies my need for oxygen, and I just want to curl up in my love’s arms. Everything will be ok then, I tell myself.
I step into the apartment looking like a mad man, not wearing a rebreather, my clothing torn and dirtied, my left hand a mess of blood and bone. Tiny and the other man are still sitting there and they look at me surprised by my state. Well the other one does, I don’t think Tiny is capable of surprise.
“Huh, you did it eh?” The other one looks at me with some respect.
“Yeah, here it is, so get the hell out. That’ll cover it all, so don’t come back anymore.” My words drip with anger and deadly intent.
“Well considering you’re not wearing a unit, I figure you’ll be dead pretty soon, so we’ll call it even.” He gets up and motions to Tiny who follows after him silently.
Once we’re alone, I turn to my wife and find her staring at me in horror, her mouth moving without any sound coming out of it. I cross the space between us in the little apartment and wrap my good arm around her.
“I couldn’t imagine being without you, so I had to go get the card from the people who stole it from me.” Tears of sorrow and relief fill her eyes and fall silently and I know she thought I wasn’t coming back for her. Her arms wrap around me and she sobs into me.
“What happened to your rebreather?” There’s another question in there; will you be ok?
“The filter ran out, and I didn’t have time to come back.” A coughing fit interrupts me and it takes me a few minutes before I can talk again. “I figured you didn’t have much time and I don’t have anything other than you to live for, so dying with you seemed a perfectly reasonable alternative.” I try to smile, but my face hurts and I don’t think it works very well, because she bursts into fresh tears and buries her face into my shoulder.
“Shhhh,” I try to reassure her. “Everything’s gonna be ok.” And deep down, I know it will.