High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist
- Name: Matilda
- Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States
This is fiber optic cable, which is the future. This is culture, which is delicious.
Wednesday, February 01, 2017
I'm the person who cried wolf about prompt difficulty, but this was hard
Object: An investment
Character: An Airplane Maintenance Technician
Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic world, a pirate and a hostage take a gamble. “I wasn't always a pirate.”
“Ok.” I waited a decent pause before offering the word. What I hoped was a decent pause under the circumstances. “I wasn’t always a hostage.”
She laughed at that. Surprised the hell out of me—a harsh exhalation and the hitch of her shoulders before the lines of anything like emotion smoothed out of her. “You’re not a hostage.”
My eyebrows shot up. An unfortunate, involuntary movement that reopened what must have been quite a gash. Strapped tightly to the seat with my hands lashed together, the blood trickled unchecked down my temple. A striking Am too! visual, utterly lost on her as she kept her eyes on the road.
“This is an Auto,” I blurted.
It hadn’t been before. My memory was black-and-white bursts, like a heavy door rolling down and up inside my throbbing head. The grab. A run-of-the-mill heli on hand that had slipped seamlessly into the light evening traffic. Knowing and not knowing for long stretches, courtesy of the roughing up they'd given me, but I’d remember a fucking auto.
Information flooded in, too fast for my aching head. Scent, sight, and the sudden realization that the itch of drying blood was likely to be the least of my problems.
“It’s a fucking ancient, gas-powered Auto.” My head whipped toward her. A rapid move that brought on nausea, black at the edges of my vision, and instant regret. “What kind of a pirate are you?”
“The kind with a conscience.”
The reply was swift. Sharp and unexpected. Our eyes met in the confines of the rear-view mirror. A strange, curiously intimate sensation. Her lips parted, out of frame. Her brows drew together. Fine lines like words I could very nearly read. Very nearly, but her gaze flicked to the side mirror just then.
“The kind with a tail. Fuck.”
She jerked the wheel and jammed the accelerator to the floor. She muttered something. Too soon, maybe. The lumbering body of the car lurched side to side as she steered through gaps in the refuse cluttering the decaying road that seemed nonexistent until we were through them.
“Who?” I writhed against my restraints. Craned my neck trying to see, but my range of motion was nonexistent. Heaps of rusted out metal blurred by. Toppled furniture, luggage, toys, all of it from more years ago than it was worth counting. All of it from a world that used to be. “Who the hell would follow you out here?”
“Not who. What,” she muttered. “Aerial surveillance. Unmanned. Better be, anyway.”
She ducked her head to peer up through the spider-webbed windshield. To scan the sky for the source of the buzz close enough now to hear over the roar of the car’s engine. I envied her the view for a fraction of a second. Envied her the freedom of movement until I realized it was about to kill us both.
“Left,” I shouted. I hurled myself against the straps with bruising force. The fibrous cuffs around my wrists cut into my skin as I desperately tried to gesture. “Hard left!”
“I see.” She sounded annoyed. Far more annoyed than anyone deliberately hurtling toward certain death had a right to be.
At the last second, we cleared it. The dark, hulking silhouette of a tractor. Mostly cleared it. The Auto was huge, as well as ancient. The back quarter panel just managed to clip one enormous tire. The contact smacked the rear end off on a tangent.
We spun ninety degrees as a groan split the air. Through the driver’s side window, I watched, open-mouthed as years of corrosion met gravity. The tractor shuddered and fell in on itself. The cab toppled, taking out another of the slumping tires and setting off a chain reaction. Abandoned loads toppled off truck beds. Massive tree limbs, dead and gray like the rest of the landscape, raked the air. Reached out with brittle fingers to claw at the relics of lives interrupted a lifetime ago.
“What?” The question was out of my mouth before I realized what I was asking. Before I realized that the she’d hauled the front of the Auto almost all the way around. That we’d slowed to a crawl, apparently to take in the show. “What are you . . .?”
The question died in my mouth as it swooped into view. The black silhouette of a drone. Old school. Not car old school, but a bulky shape I’d never seen in the air. Never dreamed I’d see in the air. It hovered unsteadily, as if it had never dreamed it, either. The din of its rotors drowned out even the drumbeat of the badly idling car.
I found my voice again. Found the urgent question caught in my teeth, but it was too late by then. The drone erupted. The world erupted in chattering confusion.
“Target confusion.” She hauled the wheel, hand over hand, and slammed the accelerator to the floor again.
“Bullets.” I finally managed to choke out the world. “That thing was shooting fucking bullets.”
Her eyes were on the road. They had to be, but she spared me a sidelong glance. She spared me a grin and a sweeping, one-handed gesture to the gray landscape flickering in and out of view as we wound through the piles of rubble. “Welcome to life beyond the perimeter.”
“You won’t run.” The words were matter of fact. A statement, not a threat.
“Not at the moment.” I lifted my still-cuffed hands and let them fall back into my lap, a wasted gesture in the absolute black of whatever structure she’d pulled the car into.
Her only answer was an unnerving, unmistakable snick. The lumi-strips on her suit flickered to life, scrolling up her arms and across her chest. Illuminating her face from below to eerie effect. She reached for me, leading with the now-open knife. I jerked against the seat, but she was only going for the straps, slicing through them in rapid succession.
“Not now.” She flicked a glance toward my wrists. Wavered half a second before deftly sweeping the the blade through the tough fabric of the cuffs. “Not in an hour. Not along the way. You’re not going anywhere.”
“Why’s that?” I flexed my fingers, forcing blood back into them. Stamped my leaden feet against the car’s flimsy-feeling floorboards, making her point for the moment, at least.
“One. You’ve no idea where you are.” Her hands were busy as she spoke. Tugging, extracting, gathering things from under the seat. From a drop-down compartment in the car’s roof. From the glovebox banging painfully against my knees as it fell open. “Two. The drone from back there?” She jerked her chin in the general direction of the blackness out the back window. “It’s got friends. Lots of heat-seeking, motion-sensing friends—”
“So we’re not going anywhere.”
“—that I know how to avoid.” She went on, fetching, sorting, piling, as thought I hadn’t spoken. “Three. I’ve done my homework.”
She stopped her busy work at last, only to flip open a dark, sleek case. A screen. A state-of-the-art personal screen, as alien to me as the drone. Alien to damned near everyone.
“Pirate,” she said. It sounded almost apologetic, though her hands were busy again. “For the moment, at least, I specialize in knowing.”
Blue light flooded the black between us, endless text, scrolling almost faster than I could read. Almost faster. My Old Name. The one no one was allowed to say anymore. No one had said in a lifetime. My history. Birth to Conflict to now, all there in excruciating detail. Long gone and all there.
"Elohna, comma, Mircea D. Don't know what the D stands for. Information loss, but don't say that where anyone can hear you." She wasn't reading. Wasn't even looking at the screen, and it wasn't like I needed to. "Captain, once upon a time. A big deal for someone so young. A big deal for your kind." She paused like she was waiting for a reaction. Went on when she didn't get one. "You flew for them. Scouted behind enemy lines and always brought your crew back alive. Chest full of medals by the time it was all over, and everything."
"Virtual," I said. Not knowing why. Not knowing what else to say. "Virtual by then."
"Virtual." She laughed in the near dark. "And then there was peace. And then it all went away. They took it away.” She paused again. Left me an opening, as if I might contradict her. As if I might know something she didn't. "You hung on a while. Longer than most. Trash routes and graveyard shifts. Demotions. To Co-pilot. To Mechanic."
"Maintenance technician," I cut in. "Airline Maintenance Technician, Grade Three."
She swore under her breath, sympathy or empathy, I didn't know. Pity maybe. Pity, quite possibly. She passed a hand over the screen, blanking it out.
“There's nothing for you in Center,” she said quietly.
"Nothing for anyone," I snapped, angry at last. "Unless you're a pirate."
"You'd make a great one." Her reply was mild. Unfazed. "Even tempered. Inquisitive and a quick study. Not exactly a social butterfly. Nondescript."
"For 'my kind'," I couldn't resist the sarcastic quote marks, but she didn't rise to the bait any more than I had.
"For your kind."
Silence fell on that particular truth. I was the first to break it, embarrassed for no reason I could name. "So. This isn't a recruiting mission for you, then."
She didn't laugh. Didn't say anything. She toyed with dark, glossy expanse of the now-dark screen, considering something. Making a decision.
"Not a recruiting mission. A gamble." She nodded sharply to herself. Waved the screen to life again and tapped it once. The space flooded with light. The cavernous space of an ancient airplane hangar. "An investment."
"How?" I asked. Eventually asked. "How long?"
"My father," she said. An answer to both. All the answer she seemed to want to give, but she set her teeth and went on. "He fought, too." She held up a hand. Waved off the question of Old Names before I could even ask it. "He saw how it would go long before the end of Conflict. He wanted no part of it, so he made plans. He had an idea . . ."
I swore under my breath. Sympathy. Empathy. Pity. All of it together.
We sat in silence a while. The two of us on the hood of the ancient Auto, dwarfed now by half a dozen hulking aircraft.
"We call it Green.”
She slid the screen from its case, almost reluctantly this time. She passed a palm over the black surface, end to end, then drew her fingers up, pulling the hologram with it. She curved an arm protectively around it, as though there was only so much she could stand for me to see.
“Not so accurate at first. Lived off what we could scrounge. Bunkers and houses and stores far enough out.” She flicked at one corner, shifting the field of view, blowing up one corner. “But we’ve earned it now.” Her voice was full of pride. “We grow things."
It was incredible. Impossible, farther even than this from Center, but there it was. Space stretching out. Houses and tilled land. Fences and tiny figures streaming out of a bigger building. There they were. I leaned in, my eyes darting from figure to figure, counting. Losing count.
"How many?" I could hardly find the breath to ask.
"One-seventy-six the last time I left for Center. I spend the most time there. Amassing capital. Making sure we’re stay off the radar. One-seventy-six,” she said again. Her gaze strayed toward one edge. "Two-hundred now, maybe. Children. Other investments. Two-hundred, I hope." She bunched an abrupt fist. The hologram shrank to a single cerulean point of light and winked out. "We've outgrown it. We need to find more land. Another place it's safe to settle. We need"—she blew out a breath—"so much of everything."
“And you know where to get it.”
My gaze drifted up. Roamed over the motley assemblage ranging from two-seater crop dusters to something medium sized that must've hauled cargo. Must’ve hauled personnel toward the end of the Conflict.
Personnel like me.
It clicked, then. What she was asking. It only clicked just then. I’d have liked to blame the head injury. The roughing up her goons had given me, but the truth is it was too big. Entirely too big.
I thought about fuel. Parts and the hundred other things. How impossible it all was, when there was nothing at all this far from Center, yet here we were, the two of us on the hood of an ancient Auto.
“You know how to get it there.”
"I specialize in knowing." She nodded without bitterness. With something like hope as her gaze drifted up. “I’m a pirate.”
“But you weren’t always.”