Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 9.

[8 July 17, did some essential line edits and added some material. Currently working on Ch.10.- M]

 

9

Luck, fate, delusion, coincidence. They might have all been the same as far as Donny was concerned. The code made it all relative. That which he couldn’t control he named—for lack of any other way to emotionally cope with it. He called it bad luck. He called it coincidence. He called it the Damocles Algorithm.

Had he hallucinated a fragment of his consciousness as a lonely girl in a red cap? Had he named her Mera, the Cultivator, because some broken piece of awareness was trying to send him a message? It was possible. The history feed said Griffith Gardens had been locked for 57 years. Had he really been there? Or had Donny been sitting on a curb somewhere, delusional, lost in the deserted wastes of his own mind, another side-effect of being chipped, adrift an impossible world of his own making, like dreaming of a sky with no rain.

His black coveralls were uncomfortable, freshly creased smelling of chemical starch. He zipped the front all the way up as he swiped in through the tiny airlock on the north side of the Shung Building’s dome. Why the employee hallway needed an airlock was a question for the history feeds, not for night workers like Donny. Still, one noticed details now and then: airlocks where a simple doors would have sufficed, enormous anti-riot spikes as if a building were an ancient dreadnought set to tear holes in enemy ships, asymmetrical quadrangles designed to force rioters toward various choke-points or lines of sight.

If you paid attention, you’d see the signs of how corporate culture had anticipated changes in climate, population, and culture over time. Adapting to and channeling human behavior is what kept the multi-nationals alive. And now the sectors of Los Angeles were an archaeology of blight and control, layers of subcrete, Plexiglas, and steel pulverized and effaced decade after decade to make room for new, more profitable, layers. The dead zones were like necrotic organs, devoid of all profitability and therefore of meaning, of existence—disavowed, disrecognized spaces. Security gates walled them off with motion detectors, autoguns, electrified concertina wire. You didn’t approach a security gate red zone from the dead side unless you had a municipal identity card or chip with a transponder. The autoguns were highly accurate.

The Shung Building was itself was a kind of dead zone, a junk pile from an earlier era guarded by humans because synthetics were too valuable and expensive to waste on a detail like that. Over a century ago, the so-called robot revolution was expected to usher in utopia. All the dull, filthy, dangerous jobs were supposed to go to pre-synthetic industrial units and a universal basic income was promised to all—as if the corporations would ever let that happen. Instead, corporations like Shung, Ryderco, and Aspernix developed the first synthetic technology. And many of the dirty and low-paying jobs that went to low-AI proprietary robots went back to cheaper humans. Many specialist jobs went to the high-end synthetics. And so things continued the way they always had, if a little quieter, as the fearful voices of egalitarianism and humanism faded into the hum of mega-factories that operated unceasingly with flawless efficiency. Art, culture, and most human intelligence went orbital. Those left behind had ubiquitous AI, the feeds, an endless variety of pre-pac soy that imitated various old-world foods, the luminescent half-dark of the city, and the endless poison rain.

Donny entered the break room and printed a soy-chicken sandwich, still thinking about Mera, about his meeting with Freddy, and how that old woman’s PVC arm seemed obscene and yet just right, a sign of the times far more honest and true than the synthetic white Shiroi Karasu or even Freddy himself. The soy-meat sandwich was supposed to smell like the real thing. Sometimes Donny chose tuna, sometimes beef or chicken, but it always smelled the same, tasted the same. The printer’s internal assemblers congealed a gray patty and sprayed directly into a congealed soy-bun—a lunch eaten by every worker on the planet. It was supposed to have all the nutrients your body needed, but how many people on earth knew what actual chicken tasted like or what nutrients were necessary for a long, cancer-free life beyond your estimated peak productivity levels? Donny put the sandwich in the mini-fridge, filled his thermos with Postum, and his starting workday ritual was complete.

Then Loach stepped in, panting, smelling like body odor and patchouli.

“We don’t have no time to bullshit, Donny. You listening? We got a situation.”

“Why don’t you take a step back.” Donny held the topped-off thermos between them as much to cancel Loach’s smell as to put some symbolic distance on what the big man was muttering. Loach had told him that patchouli kept off the mosquitoes. Donny couldn’t remember ever getting bitten or even seeing a mosquito in the Shung building, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. According to Loach, the stagnant water bred swarms of them, some lethal, full of disease. But Donny would believe it when he saw it. Until then, killer mosquito swarms would be just another one of Loach’s stories.

“Them version ones up on the deck level 15 are activating and I don’t know what else.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Yeah?” Loach massaged the back of his neck. “Zeke’s here and he says he saw it. And Zeke doesn’t lie.” Loach looked more exhausted than usual. He’d unzipped his coveralls down to his navel and Donny could see a V of sweat on his ribbed tank-top underneath.

“You’ve been up to something down in control, haven’t you? Did you flip some switch, turn something on by accident?”

“I didn’t turn on shit! Come on!”

Loach walked out of the red-lit break room and Donny followed screwing the thermos shut and wondering whether his supervisor had finally gotten into the sand. Zeke was waiting for them in the hallway, three electric double-barrels bundled under his arm. Where Loach was balding and stocky with oily shoulder-length hair combed back behind his ears, Zeke was completely hairless. He didn’t even have eyebrows. Tall and thin, his coveralls hung on him, all bones and sharp angles and a long grave face.

“Hey Donny. Been a while.”

Donny nodded. He wanted to ask how long. They always worked opposite shifts. So Donny didn’t know exactly how long it had been since he’d last seen Zeke. Maybe since before. But if Zeke noticed a difference, he wasn’t letting on. He handed a shotgun to Loach and one to Donny. The guns had ARQUEBUS LTD down each barrel in chrome block letters like some kind of toy. But their 10-gauge 766-grain lead slugs accelerated and compressed to 1400 feet per second by an electrical current. They could cut most walls in half, turn an organic person into red mist. Donny didn’t know what they could do to a synthetic. He’d only seen the guns once when Loach showed him the security room down in control. They’d been locked to a wall-rack with a shiny steel chain through the trigger guards. But now one of them was right here in Donny’s hands. Why Loach thought they needed to be armed like this when they could just cut the power to the nursery level was unclear. Version ones didn’t have an onboard power supply. They drew power through the bottoms of their feet. Shut down the level and they’d shut down everything beneath a version three, of which there were none currently listed in the building.

“I hate this shit.” Loach cracked open his gun’s breach and checked the slugs in each barrel.

Donny looked at how Zeke was holding his shotgun resting in the crook of his arm and did the same. “I suppose you’re going to fill me in on why we’re set to take down an army.”

“We don’t actually know what’s going on up there. There might be a lot of them. They might be going apeshit.”

“It looked like a lot of them on the monitor,” Zeke said.

“How many?”

Loach sighed. “Does it matter? We got a protocol for this. We go straight by the book.”

They had a protocol for everything. There was a four-inch-thick operations manual back in the break room—an ancient, coffee-stained three-ring in a hard plastic case that Donny had never seen Loach take down, much less read. It stayed up there, covered in dust like some kind of forbidden scripture. Loach quoted from it with great specificity at times—a specificity that could only come from a perfect recall or from perfect bullshit. Maybe Loach carried eidetic cross-point memory implants, but Donny doubted that even more than the big man’s mosquito stories.

“So what’s the protocol?”

“Simple, kid.” Loach cocked the hammers on his double-barrel, and Donny heard the faint whine of its trigger coils charging.

“We go up there and shut the bitch down.”

Zeke put his hand on Donny’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Anything comes at you, blast it.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Good, Donny. That’s real good.” Zeke nodded and smiled around his cigarette as he lit it.

Loach went first. Then Donny. Then Zeke, keeping one eye on the hallway behind them. Then they went through the round opening that had once sported a pressurized cast-aluminum door with a wheel handle in the center for sealing the employee hallway from the main dome. It was made like that in case of a gas attack, but now the door was long gone, probably stolen. They crept out, across the ground floor of the dome—silent, except for the motion detector’s ping and the whispery shuffle of their work boots on the subcrete.

Speaking felt wrong under the vast dark of the broken Shung dome, vulgar, like raising one’s voice in a place of worship. Loach would have denied it, but it seemed to Donny that they all felt it, the solemnness, the quiet. They climbed the frozen escalator steps to the mezzanine like they were in some kind of procession—black-clad gunmen, the long hand of the Shung Corporation reaching out from 30 years ago to kill whatever had woken up on deck level 15.

It occurred to Donny that whatever, maybe whoever, was now awake up there probably didn’t know that there had been any kind of shutdown. These were version ones, the first generation of synthetics, still more machine than artificial person. They were supposed to have been problematic, made a lot of mistakes, sometimes caused accidents, deaths. Only the Shung corporation would have assigned a group of them to a nursery level.

“Hold up.” Loach murmured so quietly Donny almost missed it.

The three of them stopped, still in single-file, halfway across the mezzanine. Donny looked back and saw that Zeke had squatted, pointing his double-barrel over his left thigh at the valley between two six-foot-high mounds of what looked like broken plastic crates. Zeke looked coiled, ready to shoot or spring back, and Donny wondered where he’d learned that pose, what sort of life Zeke led before hiring on at Bug.

“What?”

Loach didn’t answer. He adjusted the motion detector, panned it around.

Then Zeke whispered, “We better get a move on,” smoke trailing up from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

“I hate this. Makes me want to shit myself.” Loach stared into the dark.

“Maybe using the flashlight would, you know, help you get control of your nether regions.”

“Fuck you.” Loach moved forward, the motion detector in his left hand, the double-barrel held low in his right.

By the time they reached the enormous urn and the hidden access hallway, Zeke was already getting to the end of a second cigarette. He flicked it and they watched it spark orange against the wall. When they got into the freight elevator and pulled the doors shut, the crackly AI voice said, “Smoking is hazardous to your health.”

Donny looked up, past the safety bars, as he always did, at the tiny points of light.

All kinds of things in the Shung building were hazardous to one’s health, some due to age, some by design. But Loach didn’t want to give away their position. If there were malfunctioning version ones wandering around the upper levels, keeping the flashlight off was probably wise. This generation of synthetics had limited vision, but they’d notice a flashlight.

The freight elevator took the three of them to deck level 15, but it didn’t open directly onto the marble foyer that led to what had once been condos for Shung middle management. Instead, they had to walk through a completely dark loading area by the glow of Loach’s motion detector, then through another access hallway so narrow that, if Donny hadn’t been holding a shotgun, he could have reached out and touched both sides. When the detector started pinging, they stopped in place.

Loach muted it but kept his eyes on the detector’s small glowing screen. “16 meters,” he murmured. “North-northeast.”

“What’s up there?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”

“Just get ready,” whispered Zeke as he patted Donny on the back. Zeke had gotten very close in the dark. And Donny found himself wondering again about Zeke’s past. What possessed a normal person to want to work in a place like this—to want to work for Bug Security at all? Donny knew his own excuse. And Loach was clearly making a career out of it because it was just about the best he could do for himself. But there was something off about Zeke, off like the guys who came to Friendly’s group. Was he chipped? He didn’t show signs of wreckage. So what was it? He could be a little crazy. Maybe he was just a weirdo. Or maybe—though Donny didn’t even like entertaining the possibility—Zeke was synthetic.

When they reached the end of the hallway, Loach shut the detector off and faced them. “This is an access hatch. It’s designed not to be noticed. But we got no idea what’s going on out there. The scan said multiple pings, 16, maybe 20. So pick your targets, if it comes to that. There’s a hallway goes straight back. At the end is the power emitter. We shut that down, the whole floor goes dead.”

“The floor is dead,” said Donny.

“As dead as it gets,” said Zeke.

Loach set the motion detector down at the base of the wall and turned back towards the door. “Just don’t shoot me in the ass.”

And you, Donny wanted to say to Zeke, when the time comes, where will you be pointing your gun? But he just looked back and saw the other man’s bald, eyebrowless visage in the light from Zeke’s antique chemical lighter. He puffed a cigarette into being, grinned with the corner of his mouth, and snapped the lighter shut. Then all Donny could see was the glowing ember when Zeke took a drag.

“I think I got it.” Loach said as he cranked the wheel handle. The hatch groaned and he pushed it open.

They crouched in silence, gripping their guns—so quiet that the hiss of Zeke’s cigarette sounded like air being let out of a tire in short intervals. It was humid. A nearby pipe must have burst or the heat exchangers must have spooled up when the level came on. Loach was sweating out every drop of moisture in his body. Fear sweat. Don’t make a sound sweat. Did version ones have a sense of smell? If so, Loach was more of a problem than a solution.

They crept a few feet into the foyer, then crouched again. The three of them stayed that way, perfectly still, not making a sound, until their knees started to ache. Eventually, Donny detected a mechanical hum, almost beyond the range of hearing, somewhere far off in the dark. It might have been in the walls. Might have been on another level entirely. But it was the only thing noticeable apart from the sound of Zeke smoking.

Finally, Loach couldn’t take it anymore, whether from knee pain or stress. He stood up and said with a normal voice: “Fuck it. I’m done with this shit,” then snapped on the flashlight. Loach could take care. He could be methodical. But he hated being like that. And enough was enough. They couldn’t crouch there in the dark forever.

When the light came on, Zeke said, “Holy shit,” his voice higher than usual, cutting off at the end as if he had a lump in his throat.

There were 16 version ones standing in the foyer. In good condition, they’d look vaguely human—rubbery skin over a baked ceramic endoskeleton harder than steel. The ones meant to pass for female had on dresses or miniskirts. The males had jumpsuits or faux-canvas work pants and long-sleeved vinyl shirts. They wore wigs, had fake eyeballs that hid tiny sensor arrays, brains that contained 1000 microprocessors and the most advanced AI for their era, which still couldn’t pass the Turing Test; though, it could beat the world’s greatest living chess master nine games out of ten.

But these version ones were not in good condition at all. A few had been burned horribly such that arms or, in one case, half of a torso had melted like wax. Others had lost their wigs and had put new ones on incorrectly, long blond hair hiding half of a scorched face or slipping back on a an exposed ceramic skull meant to imitate human bone structure. All 16 of them simultaneously turned toward Loach a moment after he shined the flashlight around the room. Then two started walking over. The one on the right was missing both of her arms and her face was half-melted. The top half of her dress no longer existed and her rubbery breasts were torn and blackened. But the male on the left seemed relatively whole. He even had his wig on properly and could have easily been mistaken for an organic person in low light—save for the star-shaped bullet hole in the center of his forehead.

Loach shined the flashlight on him. The version one’s eyes stared straight ahead the way a blind man seems to have traded common sight for a vision of something infinite and distant.

“Stop right where you are,” Loach said. “Designate.”

Hearing the old command word, the two did stop, for a second, the lead synthetic tilting his head to the side like a puzzled animal. Then they continued forward.

“I knew it.” Loach started backing up. “Command and control is offline.”

Donny was in the middle of asking what that meant, when Zeke opened fire.

Advertisements

About Michael Davis

Writer. Reader. Appreciator of corgis. View all posts by Michael Davis

2 responses to “Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 9.

%d bloggers like this: