Firestorms – An Infiltrator short story

Detestable things. They were an abomination to the living. Unfeeling. Amoral. Insouciance. Androids had no place on Earth. My place on Earth was to make the creatures feel unwelcome in any such way I could conjure.

I have chased the horrendous things through every continent, to the bottom of the Indian Ocean and to the top of K2. They deserve no quarter and I give none.

I had told the bartender an approximation of those words. I would say his expression was tepid at best. To him I was yet another drunk traveler with too little money come to see the Firestorms of the Great Sahara Desert, waxing on about that which he did not know, hoping to score a free drink.

He likely assumed my boasts of hunting down androids a drunk man’s glory dreams. Mere shades of a past which happened only in my sleep.

There also was something else about the man that did not sit well with me. If I had less alcohol in me I could have accurately pinpointed the change in demeanor that put me off so. Being what it was I placed his change in demeanor sometime before chasing to the bottom of an ocean and after claiming I gave no quarter. He was at the opposite end of the bar when I finished, so the time frame was left quite wide open.

“What did you say your name was?” I asked.

The green haired, a proclamation of hailing from Aris lineage, bartender either ignored my question or legitimately did not hear. He ignored it, of that I am sure.

The scratched and dented metal bar was not so long to not hear me, a mere eleven feet and that was a liberal estimate. The barroom had only one other patron in it, a woman. The way she was huddled up, from exiting the sandstorm I could hear, kept her features shrouded from me. A pop song two decades old played softly from the three speakers set up on the opposite end of the room from the front door.

“Hey buddy.” I said loudly.

The two looked in my direction. The headdress fell from the woman’s head. The sand burned lines on her face, hair like straw, brownish-black skin tone marked her as a local.

“Why don’t you pay attention to the man with money?” I asked.

“Why? So you can tell me more of your fantasies?” He asked.

“You don’t like the stories? You got yourself an android keeping your bed warm?”

He narrowed his eyes. Lips a straight line. If his skin was any tone than black I would have seen the red flush. I knew there was something about him. The man had a soft spot for androids. While that was not illegal, industrial trade between the United States of Androids and human countries was robust, I and my employer most definitely frowned upon it.

The majority of people alive had no issue with androids. The beings paid good money when they visited. Made no trouble on the surface. There was no reason to dislike the abhorrent creations. The majority of people did not understand what happened beneath the surface.

“Let me tell you both a story. This one is as true as the others I tell.” I held up my empty glass. “First a refill on the lizard piss.”

He rolled his eyes. The woman moved two stools closer, a slight smile played on her lips. The bartender grabbed a cleaned glass, filled it from the tap. He swapped the empty for the full.

“Well? What kind of story is this?” He asked and began to wash the glass.

“A story of loss.” I began. The sandstorm began to die down. “Seven years ago in Cairo I was visiting a relative, my cousin. The only cousin I had kept in touch with. Jasmine was her name. Olive skin, black hair, features as fair as an angel. She had just won a modeling contract from one of those holovision shows.”

I took a long drink. The bartender looked dubious.

“I had arrived around midday. She picked me up from the airport. She had a surprise; there was already a photographer following her. It was one of those spheres with a dozen lenses on them to capture every moment. I say it was a surprise since I don’t enjoy my picture being taken and would have told her to keep it at home. However I had doted on Jasmine since the day she was born, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her to put the camera away, not with the look of excitement on her face.”

“I’ll take a water.” The woman said. She held up a hand. “Sorry for the interruption. I’m quite parched.”

I gave her a nod, finished off the beer. It really did taste what I imagined lizard urine to taste like.

“Jasmine took me to her favorite watering hole. A small upscale café where all the drinks were three times the normal price. A few of the fellow models from the show were there. We talked, ate, and drank for an hour or so when I threw in the towel. I was beat from jet lag. I hail from Nagasaki so the time difference was extreme.

“We went back to her place. I went right to sleep in the guest bedroom, she did whatever it was she did during the day.”

I looked into the glass. Sadness on my face as I relived the moments. The bartender no longer looked dubious. He and the woman were rapt to my story. The front door shook from a strong gust of wind. A searing heat entered the bar. The Firestorms were heating up.

“I was awoken near twenty one hundred. The sun was down. The lights of the city illuminated my room in a ghoulish glow. I lay in the bed wondering what had woken me. I had woken with a start. It was not the waking of having enough sleep. Several minutes went by when I heard the sound that had awoke me from my slumber. It was a squishy sound. Imagine if you will walking along a beach filled with jellyfish, the sucking squishing sound that permeates from stepping upon the dead sea creatures. It is not a sound one hears in an apartment.

“I rolled off the bed, grabbed my luggage, and opened it as silently as I could. My Lightning Whip was in the middle. If you have not seen one, it is the length of my forearm, a flat rectangle with a hand grip, the barrel is the width and height of two fingers. I held the gun at the ready. Myself clothed only in a pair of shorts. My feet stepped lightly on the wooden floor.”

The bartender refilled my glass. I nodded thanks and took a sip.

“I walked out of the room, through the hall, and froze. My mind took several seconds to make out what I saw. Jasmine was there, what was left of her anyway. The top of her skull was removed. A woman crouched next to Jasmine with her fingers going through the brain. There was a Mind Scan in her hand. It’s an instrument only androids have. I must have made a sound. The woman leaped to her feet. She pushed the Mind Scan into her belly. I fired at it when it leaped through a window. When I ran to the window it was gone.”

I looked up from the glass of beer. The woman had an odd look on her face. The bartender shook his head. A violin concerto played from the speakers.

“Androids are evil its what I am getting at.” I said.

“Androids don’t do that.” The bartender said.

I looked hard at him. My eyes narrowed, my fists clenched.

“They do and it did.”

I stood abruptly. “I will be going now.” I pressed my palm on the palm scanner, next to the beer, to pay and walked out of the bar.

The night was oven hot. Flashes of the Firestorms illuminated the small town.

Tiny, hardly deserving of the moniker of town, Cato was a place which now existed solely for tourists to the Firestorms. And for said tourists to get pissed on rubbing alcohol–the bartender claimed it beer–when they found out you die if you go into the Firestorms. The warnings “you will die if you venture into the Firestorms” were not posted every twenty five feet through the one thousand yard town because the government in Timbuktu wished to cover their tail from lawsuits.

I glanced at the Firestorms beginning to heat up in earnest. The waves of heat which blew through Cato were intense enough to sting my eyes and rip the breath from my lungs. Waiting outside would be foolish and inviting of an early visit to Lady Death’s spacious home.

I moved twenty feet from the entrance to the only bar in town and waited.

Blue and red flashes of superheated air shown like lights on police cars titans patrolled with. Columns of thousand foot tall flames erupted after nearly every flash of blue or red. I had spoken to geologists and ecologists and physicists who explained the phenomenon of the Great Sahara Desert. The unanimous scientific explanation for the phenomenon being there was no unanimous explanation. However one thing I had learned from insanely dedicated geologists were that the columns of flame and flashes of light were not random. The awesome display of nature in its raw glorious form followed a pattern. It was such that one could enter and pass through the storms without losing their life (while properly equipped). However it only took a small slip on the sand to end that life. The flames may have a held a pattern, but it was a pattern created by the Devil to entice the foolish to an early demise.

I saw the pattern. Sitting on an overturned plastic trashbin, I recognized the minute variations to the placement of the flames. One day I would enter and pass through and have more stories to tell that no one believed while visiting hole in the wall bars. One day I would, although the courage I could muster every few years fell away shortly after I witnessed the first column of flame erupted. The heat was so intense I began to call those scientists many words, not one of them “genius”.

The heat continued unabated, beat against my skin and eyes hardened for instances such as these.

While gaining employment with The Soda Company my life had drastically changed. The private security firm treated their employees without equal and provided for them like no other. My third day on the job had seen a email go around to all the employees asking for volunteers on the skin, eye and mucous hardening program. A thirty percent pay raise and opportunity for up close experiences with androids prompted a metaphorical raising of my hand.

Three weeks after the procedure, eight days after the surgeon gave the green light for missions, I found out first hand why The Soda Company Mission Assignment Analysts asked for volunteers.

#

Darwin, a shithole of a town if there ever was one, even before The Four came into being. A port for the non-existent American ships that no longer patrolled the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It was quickly on the way to becoming the disgusting armpit in need of deodorant of Australia before the androids took over North and South America. It nearly instantly turned into the small pool of putridness that never quite leaves the holding tank of a sanitation truck when America was disbanded.

It was gladly not home.

“Why would anyone live in a place like this?” I asked my partner Huan.

“Not everyone can live like you Mr. California.” Huan said with a flair of his hands.

He stopped at a food cart in front of a condemned building. I stopped because he stopped and read the condemned notice twice, in the off chance I misread it. It was apparent the nightclub in the building had misread it or failed to read it at all.

“You know that saying doesn’t make sense anymore, Huan. The first time I heard it said, I had to go look up what it meant. It’s been so goddamn long since California existed.”

“Two rats on a stick.” Huan said to the nearly toothless man sweating profusely in the Australian summer night. “It does have context in this situation. You’re being a pompous asshole for ridiculing the predicament of fellow humans. It’s the androids fault they are like this. Too many people, not enough land.”

I shrugged the personal comment aside. He wasn’t being an asshole, merely pointing out the obvious. “I do agree with you on the androids part.”

“Good to hear Jorge, my friend. The Soda Company will be pleased to hear they spent their millions well on your operation.”

Huan handed me a stick of burnt meat, palmed the payment pad, and inclined his chin to the north for us to start moving again.

“Goddamn I love meat on a stick.” Huan said between bites. A line of grease trailed down his chin. He wiped it with a nwaded up napkin and took another bite.

“It’s the sweat that does it. If we came here during winter the meat wouldn’t taste half as good.” I said.

Huan gave me a look.

“I’m not being facetious Huan. The salt from the sweat of that toothless wonderful cook adds an element you can’t find with spices. If you don’t believe me, come back here in June and tell me what tastes better: rat in summer or rat in winter.” I finished the last bite of rat just before Huan and tossed the stick into a recycling incinerator.

“Jorge. I really mean this when I say it: I hope to God I never have to come to Darwin again.” Huan replied. The way his eyes and head followed a woman heading to the nightclub, I knew he was rethinking those words.

“Now who’s Mr. California?” I punched him in the shoulder and winked.

“Just trying to bond better with my partner. You have to admit this place gets worse with each passing year, though the women seem to get better.”

“And younger.” I added.

“I think we’re just getting older.” Huan said with a smirk on his face.

“Speak for yourself. Thirty three is young and vibrant.” I nodded to a group of girls passing us to the club.

Red and blue lights flashed on the buildings around us. A cop car seemed to fly by, and would have at the speed it was going if it had wings.

“Those girls could use a jacket maybe.” Huan said.

“Or a little less makeup.”

Huan grinned at me. I groaned.

“You’re right. You’re right. I do hope Jasmine has more sense than those girls.” I said and followed Huan across the street.

A loud noise, not that of music, came from a bar in a building that should have been condemned. The windows were greased with so much dirt they were impossible to see through. Paint chipped in nearly every block of the structure. A wooden gable hung on by luck from the look of it.

I stopped in front of the open door. Huan looked over my shoulder. Two men in dirty white shirts and blue jeans were trading blows. The grunting and yelling from the men was all show. From the speed in which they threw punches, any that landed had to have felt like slaps from a two year old.

“I have half a mind to show them how to properly fight.” I said.

“You’d just end up with a broken nose and a bloody lip.” Huan patted me on the shoulder and inclined his head.

We left the fight to the drunks, headed closer to downtown proper. The dilapidated buildings began to get slightly nicer in appearance with the extra money the businesses generated. Half of a mile from the bar with drunks fighting, the buildings grew to twenty, thirty, forty stories tall. Industrial in design the architecture was such for erecting at the cheapest possible price. They city may have been run down, but it was home to three million people, and as such was going to have some sort of money coming into it.

The bottom floors of every building held the public businesses. Places to get a drink after a long day at work, or unwind in a museum without having to put up with the young revelers and old drunkards. It was not as busy as my home town of Nagasaki, although not many places were. It was quite populated for closing in on midnight.

A café on the bottom floor of a Bank of the People building caught our eye. It was not the classy dressed women and men who filled the establishment. It was the smell of a proper coffee, real beans ground on premises, that brought us into it. The instant stuff every street vendor sold was enough to get by the morning for a caffeine fix; it couldn’t hold a candle to the real deal.

I took point. Huan watched the surroundings. Two large black steaming cups from the barista later, I walked up to Huan. He had found his target; two women in their mid-thirties, white button blouses, navy blue pants, with the right amount of makeup and their brown hair done in a wavy manner. I winked at the first lady to catch my eye and placed the cup of joe in front of my partner.

“Crystal Goblet, down on Eighth Ave and Port Blvd?” He said to something spoken while I commandeered the coffees.

“You got it right.” The woman who I had not winked at said. It was no wonder why Huan was riveted to her. Her tight bodice was unbuttoned four buttons, revealing the tops of pale breasts held up by a black sheer bra that was seen slightly through her shirt. “You two boys taking a cab over there?”

Huan shook his head. “We’ll hoof it.”

The two women shared a look. The woman I winked at smiled at me. “The second level has a nice bar next to a balcony with a fantastic view.”

“We’ll have to check it out.” I replied.

“We hope you do.” She said.

We waved bye and headed out the café. The heat of the coffee would only add to the night, but it was real coffee. The only way to drink it was black and steaming.

After we walked in silence, drinking our coffee, for a good five minutes I looked at Huan and raised my eyebrows.

“I will wager my right arm the Crystal Goblet has a back room.” He said.

“One of those with a back entrance that’s invite only?”

He nodded. “The two beauties back there say that’s the only bar in the city they visit. From the look of them, unless I’m losing my touch, it’s the only bar in the city where big money and movers and shakers go.” Huan barked a laugh. “I’ll bet our salary is not big money to those women.”

“Convert it to rupees and mistakenly call it dollars.” I said. I took a gulp and hissed at the burn on my tongue.

“And that’s why we’re partners, Jorge.” Huan said.

Ten minutes later we stood kitty corner from a forty two story condominium tower with a bar that nearly smelled high class. Every city has at least one of them. Places of repute the money makers and power brokers in the city can go to that is policed by stringent security and actual police. The Crystal Goblet was all perfectly clear glass windows, blue and purple lights, and metal furniture polished to a glean.

I followed Huan’s actions and removed my tie from my jacket pocket. A quick practiced knot later I touched the Wind Snare on my back, underneath the jacket. It was a security firm special, untraceable by weapon detectors. A place like the Crystal Goblet wouldn’t do pat downs so I had no fear of it being found. The power brokers nearly all held protection on them. So long as they didn’t begin to shoot each other in the bar, the owners were going to be lenient and scrap the pat downs.

The security at the door gave us a cursory once over as we walked by the four men at the door who likely competed in strongmen competitions on weekends. Low jazz, background noise, came over the speakers hidden into the floors and ceilings. On a small stage to the left upon entering a stunning woman in a silver sequined dress, skin as black as her hair, sung a duet with a man equally as stunning. Not a one of the patrons of the bar gave the two singers any attention.

Up the stairs of marble we entered a large floor with two circle bars on it. Each bar was full of wealthy patrons. To our right, the bar, the woman mentioned, was situated next to enormous bay doors open to the pleasant breeze coming in.

Huan made for the bar and the two women from the café already at it. I walked past as if not noticing them and stepped outside. Four couples occupied the balcony with me. It was large enough to put enough space in between us all for no conversations to be overheard.

I posted up on the railing. I pretended to overlook the canal that had been created after the United States of America had been disbanded. Dug out at great expense, the canal through the city was a last ditch effort in hopes of attracting more water faring patrons, the variety that sailed around on hundred foot long yachts. Four hundred feet wide at the widest, one hundred at the narrowest, the entire twenty five mile winding waterway had been meticulously planned. It brought to mind visions of the old French Riviera and canals of Venice. What the city planners and City Hall forgot to take into account was just how blighted the rest of the city was and the effect it would have on the big money they hoped to attract. The canal was now overrun with tourist boats and fishing groups. The yachts were very few and very far between.

I needed to wait for only a few minutes before I heard a polite cough behind me.

“Your friend says you turn tricks for money and he pays for everything for you, which proves the quality of your work.” The woman I winked at said.

I turned around, one eyebrow up in question. She had let her hair down. And opened two extra buttons on her blouse.

“I’m saving to buy off my pimp.” I replied.

Her eyes glittered with amusement. She held a glass out to me. Whiskey with a large ball of ice in the glass.

“I figured I’d be nice in the chance it were true.” She said. “I’m Siann.”

I took her hand and kissed the top. “Jorge.”

She stepped up to the balcony and put her back to it, elbows resting on the railing.

“What brings you to the black sheep of Australia.”

“Would you believe me if I said a kangaroo tour?”

She laughed lightly. “I would sooner believe the gigolo story.”

“What if it’s true?” I took a small sip of the whiskey.

“The quality part?”

I shook my head.

Siann leaned forward. “Only one way to find out I would think.”

I smiled, laughed silently, and rose the whiskey to my lips. Sensory nanobots embedded in my tongue, lips, and nostrils during the skin hardening procedure flashed a warning by tingling my entire face.

Toxins detected sounded in my ear.

I locked eyes with her with several seconds then leaned forward. At the very last moment I changed trajectory moving my head and body to the side. My shoulder brushed hers. I feigned a stumble, slammed my hip against the railing and conveniently lost control of my glass of whiskey.

A sheepish grin slowly appeared on my face when I turned to face Siann.

“I’m not that good at the flirting before the gigolo act.”

“What are you good at?” She asked and stepped closer.

I put my finger to my chin to appear thoughtful. “I am very good at observing. Look out there.” I pointed at the waterway. “It is quite a beautiful sight to behold. I would wager very few people on earth would have an opinion to the contrary, yet the canal’s function is drastically different than the designer’s vision. The designers envisioned a vast, complicated dream, that would net them incredible amounts of dollars. They created the canal and when it came time to harvest the fruits of their labors, they watched in horror as their worst nightmares became true. The canal seemed to turn against them.”

I looked around us, carefully noting the placement of every person, the angles of their bodies, the way they could possibly be watching us. I turned my attention back to Siann and gripped her wrist next to my waist. She pulled her wrist, I held it tight with a titan’s strength.

“It’s the same as The Four. Built so it’s creators could gain great monetary wealth, it ended up to be a thing of their nightmares.” I whispered.

“The Four? What the fuck are you talking about you whacko?” She ripped her hand free. “Get the fuck away from me!”

Siann pushed me and nearly ran from the balcony. I had never felt so confused in my life. I had been seduced by a beautiful woman and poisoned by that same woman. She had to have been who I was looking for. I closed my eyes when the revelation washed over me. My suspicion was confirmed when Huan ran out of the bar onto the balcony, chased by the sounds of a woman screaming angrily.

“They aren’t androids or android sympathizers.” I said.

“No shit. It’s the bartender. Somehow we were marked before we got here.” Huan leaned over the railing. “What’s that twenty five feet?”

“Huh?” My question was answered when the four from the front door and two of their friends were silhouetted in the doorway. I stepped backwards, my lower back pressed against the railing. “You’ll break your ankles if you jump. Grab the tree branches, our skin should protect against any cuts.”

Huan had lept before I finished talking. I glanced down, back at six enormous men running towards me, and threw myself backwards. The fall was not entirely how I envisioned in my head. My feet caught on the railing and flipped my body. I slammed into the top of the tree like a belly flop into water. Two ribs cracked, my skin stayed tightly intact. Thank God for medical science. Gravity and momentum carried me downward, slamming into branches, until I managed to claw onto a branch, which slowed my speed enough to not break my legs when I hit the ground.

I hauled myself to my feet with groans, my body protested the movements. Huan leaned against the tree and winked at me.

“Stop. Police!” A man shouted from the boardwalk along the canal’s edge.

“That ain’t a cop.” I said.

The quickness of the man proved my words to be true. The android whipped out a giant hand gun. My partner and I pulled out ours. I got a shot off. Huan didn’t.

Four high caliber rounds pierced his skin and breast plate as if it were tissue paper. A vortex of miniscule blades erupted from my gun and surrounded the android. I fired four more times. Strength fueled by adrenaline, I picked up my dead partner and ran for the boardwalk.

Down the boardwalk and then down a dock. I kicked a man in the face who was standing at the edge of his boat. The man went over the side. My dead partner and I went onto the boat.

#

I shook my head free of the awful memory. The memory came back to haunt me nearly every time I thought on my hardened skin. I had known Huan eight years before becoming his partner. Losing him was akin to losing a brother. It was hard and not something I would likely forget.

The Firestorms gained in intensity. Hardened skin and eyes, or not, outside in such close proximity to the force of nature was scary. I was not afraid of dying, but being unafraid of dying and looking death in the eyes are two different beasts.

I stood up to stretch then stepped backwards into what I hoped was the shadow of the building. Light pooled out of the front door of the bar I had not bothered to find the name of. It was the only place in Cato that served alcohol on tap, it sold itself on that point alone.

The light vanished. The door closed. Two people left the bar. I counted to twenty and followed. I tried to make the building an extension of me. So close to the structures I followed, the arm of my long sleeve shirt was torn in four places when the bartender, the woman and I came to a stop.

The two entered into what was a domicile of eight apartment homes. The only light which shone was that of the two red bioluminescent squares above the front entrance. The squares signified residential status and a place of emergency shelter.

Having second thoughts of my gut feeling I nearly left when a pale yellow light shone from a second floor window. A few moments later the woman silhouetted herself against the light in the window. My second thoughts were gone. I was fairly good at my job as a Bountier, a person who took on android and android related contracts. I was sure shortly I would be validated as a better than average Bountier as well.

In the inside pocket of my coat worn to keep up appearances that I had to shelter my skin from the dust storms and the heat of the Firestorms, I produced two spheres. No larger than the rubber bouncy balls I played with as a kid, the spheres were far more than springy rubber. I threw the spheres in the air and watched the two objects speed up to the lit window. The balls came to a hover at the top right and lower left corners of the window. A click sound in my ears alerted me to a communication link to the two Extra Ears.

“He gives me the creeps Arinlyn. You should have heard him speak about androids. He hates them irrationally. I don’t for a minute buy that story of his niece, daughter, friend, whatever dying by the hands of an android. But I’ll tell you what, he has quite the hardon for androids and it isn’t the sexual kind either.” The bartender said.

“For once we are in complete agreement Oumar.” Arinlyn said.

Validation complete.

The words were a death sentence. It proved the two to be android sympathizers (AS). Being kind to androids was not illegal, many people were. Relations on the surface were fantastic between humans and androids. However for the scum who dared associate themselves with the name of android sympathizer, life was very much different. The Black Court, a top-secret court ran by the International Criminal Court, outlawed those who helped androids in the underground war private security firms fought on behalf of humanity. Those who worked for private security firms were fully allowed, their actions condoned by a court of law, to dole out justice as they saw fit on the people who should not be allowed to be considered a person.

“I think if I see him tomorrow I’ll load him up on shine and that god awful beer he keeps drinking. Bumming liar or no, there is no reason to drink Timbuk Lager. That he keeps drinking the lizard piss is reason enough to be wary.” Oumar said.

“And if he stands outside and labels you a sympathizer? You play a dangerous game Oumar. You know as well as anyone, out here, so far from real civilization, even breathing those words is enough to get you hung.”

“No one would believe him Arinlyn. He’s a degenerate, here to get himself killed in the Firestorms. He probably lost contact with his wife and kid because of his alcohol problem and is now here to prove just how much of a man he is. Anyone that sees him tomorrow will see a pathetic drunk tourist about to get himself killed by the desert.” Oumar made a loud sound. “I’m not worried about him. Do let yourself be worried either. I wouldn’t have brought it up for a second if I knew you would get riled up.”

I imagined them having horrendous scum sex. The lizard piss Oumar made a remark on, was still quite present in my system. It did wonders for my imagination.

“Come back to the window so I can shoot you in the face.” I muttered.

“You’re a good friend Oumar. We would all hate to lose someone like you.” Arinlyn said instead of stepping to the window.

I perked up at the statement. Either the woman was at a high-level in the android sympathizer network or she was a robot in a human’s disguise, an android. Her future was sealed whichever it turned out to be.

“Bad omens Arinlyn. Let us talk on that which does not preclude my death by a myriad of morbid ways. Bigsing section H of the Firestorms moonlight spell. Quip assholes and new body networks for two aggressors.” Oumar said.

For a fleeting moment my thoughts were that the alcohol had made me far more drunk than it should have; then it turned to me having a seizure which is why words were not making sense. What was being said eventually clicked into place. The scum were talking in code, code I could never fully comprehend. Bigsing I knew to be ‘meeting a contact’, assholes are politicians and aggressors my employer and firms of the same.

“Contact meeting in section H of Firestorms tonight. Conveying movements and network upgrades.” The Extra Ears translated roughly the same time I recalled the jumble of words to be code. I thanked my lucky stars for being so far out from real cities. The AS was talking in code so old The Soda Company or another such firm had cracked the code he used.

“What spell token Bigsi?” Arinlyn asked.

“What time am I to meet her?” The Extra Ears translated.

“Two spelling.” Oumar replied.

I cursed the bottom feeders. I knew spell to mean the time of day and spelling to mean hours. I cursed the cockroaches for doing all their illegal proceedings in the twilight hours.

The conversation went nowhere after their damning statements. I did keep the EEs up in the corners of the window. There was always a chance their mundane drawl turned into more evidence used to condemn the two to death by a Lightning Whip.

An hour later I recalled the Extra Ears and shook my body to loosen up. I now had a chance to enter the Firestorms and come out to brag about it. I did not want to. But I did have a job to do. That I had come to Cato to stare at the Firestorms and bemoan the losses I had suffered in the name of the safety of humanity was not going to stop me from acting on the training I had as a Bountier.

Arinlyn, I assumed, she was bundled so fully I could not make out even her eyes, exited the building. She paused at the front steps. I was one hundred yards away on the opposite side of the street with compact field glasses to my eyes.

The woman left the steps and made for a three story structure kitty corner from the residence she walked out of. The timing was off now to enter the Firestorms, we had another forty two minutes before the pattern reached the columns of flame along the city perimeter and allowed insane death seeking individuals to pass through.

When she had entered the building I passed over the empty street, devoid of even an occasional insect. I was thankful for that fact. If any insects could survive the intense furnace like heat night after night, it was going to be an insect that could bite limbs off. Across the empty street, through the first door with red lights over it I came to, and up to a closed door near the center of the lobby.

A twenty by ten square with an elevator next to a central stairwell, the lobby was as sparse and utilitarian as a lobby could get. It offered protection from the elements. It offered a way to different parts of the building. The lobby did its function well. In Cato, far from the money of larger cities, a well decorated interior was as foreign of a design idea one could have.

I entered the stairwell. I exited out of the stairwell and looked around, hands on my hips. An aha moment passed through my tired and slightly inebriated brain. I pulled out my phone, a twisted up piece of metamaterial, and stretched it in the semblance of a circle.

“Cookin’ High.” I said to the phone.

An app I had a coded two years back, by a coder I kept out of jail by claiming I killed the man because he was an android sympathizer, booted up. The app itself was enough to see me in a bit of hot water. As a Bountier I was privy to certain exceptions to the laws other citizens were held to. However an unauthorized app that allowed the override of the majority of authentication systems used on Earth, would be frowned upon in a most stringent of ways. If I showed an AS or an android after using it I am sure my superiors would look the other way.

The authentication system was one of many the app overrode in a moment. I placed the phone against the keypad to call for the elevator, and was instantly greeted with the keypad lighting blue and the sound of an elevator car rising from the nethers below my feet.

Cato was never intended to be a tourist town. In the years after the disbandment of the United States, Mexico, all of Central America and South America (except Uruguay), there were many wars. Cato was built by the African Union as a staging point. Their thoughts were that the natural freak weather of the Firestorms would shelter their movements. After an entire battalion, one thousand fifty men and women, were dropped in a supposed calm spot of the Firestorms to head to the military staging point that way, and an entire battalion was burnt to cinders, the idea of the staging point was thrown out. That particular war ended two weeks later. The treaty turned Cato from a military point to a town that the only money it saw was from the tourists wanting to watch two thousand foot columns of flame try to burn the Earth.

The basement, designed to house senior military officers, was now a basement that housed odds and ends. Mothballed weapons disabled and left because no one wished to pay for their transport out took up the majority of the space next to the clutter the custodians left in the basement.

The basement also ran the length of the city, the reason why I went to it.

I let my phone tell me where to stop. Went up the only elevator shaft in the building above me and stopped at the top of the stairs on the second floor. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer that I live through what I was about to do. There was no such thing as “too prepared” for an encounter. I had seen many people die from overconfidence and many more die from stupid mistakes that would not have been made if they simply slowed down.

Ten feet from where I said the prayer I knocked on a yellow wooden door with a faded blue steel kickplate.

I threw a left jab as soon as the door opened. Oumar yelled and grabbed his cheek. I jabbed again in his solar plexus, kicked him in the groin then rushed him. Oumar attempted to yell and groan at the same time. His breath expelled violently when his back connected with the corner of the opening into the kitchen. I began to punch him in the stomach and kidneys with wild abandon.

The man didn’t stand a chance. He fell to the ground after my arms got tired. I followed him down and straddled his chest, his arms pinned under my legs. I grabbed his throat with both hands and squeezed slightly.

“I take it you’re not an android. Those hits to the body wouldn’t have done anything to one.” I said. “That means you’re an android sympathizer. I am a Bountier. I am sure even someone of your lowly stature and lack of intelligence understands what this situation entails. Why should you be allowed to live?”

Oumar thrashed. He pushed me off of his body. The wall was much closer than I thought, I found out when my head slammed against it. Black dots appeared for a moment. The bartender spun to his belly and scrambled towards a side table. I fought off the lightness of my head and half-jumped, half-fell onto his lower back.

The weight of my fall onto an already beaten up torso proved quite painful. Oumar shouted from the pain and spun wildly. His left fist hit my lower jaw, a tooth rattled around in my mouth. I spit blood and saliva at him and fell into a left cross. Perfectly hit, the AS lapsed into unconsciousness.

“Ah fuck.” I said when I realized what happened. I could rationalize with myself if I killed him while we were fighting. Now that he was lying on the ground, as good as sleeping, I couldn’t very well bring myself to kill the piece of shit that helped androids kill humans.

Instead of murdering him I pulled out a fist full of industrial strength zipties I always keep in my jacket pocket. I had forgotten them one time on a sanctioned mission. One time was enough to make me grab a handful every single time I left the house; in this case the motel room. Two minutes later Oumar had his limbs ziptied behind him at angles that stretched joints and ligaments to their limits. His face had so much cloth for the gag I prayed he would eventually suffocate. I could rationalize that. I wouldn’t be around to see an enemy of humanity dead.

The trip through the basement and the fight with the (hopefully) dead man walking had taken the better part of the hour. I had to hurry if I was going to make the beginning pattern. I knew of only one way through the Firestorms that followed the pattern. I had heard rumors of multiple ways, but researching multiple ways through would have just made me throw in the towel long ago. Which would have meant I would not have been in Cato to catch the two sympathizers.

I did hope the woman knew of the other ways. I needed to see who she was meeting.

The way to the opening in the pattern was one hundred three feet past the northeastern most structure of the small town. It was marked with a cement marker, burnt black. There was no one there at the marker when I arrived.

I stared at the countdown timer on my watch. I tried my best to ignore the gouts of flame appearing in the air. At zero two towers of flame, a thousand feet at the least, fizzled out, the superheated air crackled with energy, and flashed blue and red. I began to walk quickly, the cadence I kept was to the English alphabet, each letter half of a second.

Columns of blue and orange flame, preceded by flashes of red and blue light, burst out of nothingness, at least to my eyes, around me to fizzle out half of a second to three seconds later. Small balls of flames, I wasn’t expecting those, passed a few hundred feet over my head at fantastic speeds. The air hurt to inhale, I knew if I didn’t make it to the relative safety of the section H safezone in the next ten minutes, I was dead. The mucous in my body may have been hardened with nanotechnology, but even it had its limit.

At the letter T the world around me seemed to turn into a single flame. I closed my eyes and held my breath. The hair on my body began to smolder. I continued my feet forward, at the letter X the flames vanished. I pulled in a lungful of hot hair and changed direction thirteen degrees to the north.

Four lightning bolts, no one had ever told me about those, slammed into the sand close enough to make me nearly stumble. Gouts of flame shot from the sand. Blue and red light strobed. I threw my hand up to protect my eyes from a shower of heated sand. I broke into a run and jumped around at the unbearable pain from the sand.

“Oh fuck no.” I said when what I did made it to the thinking part of my brain.

I jumped aside from a flame appearing in the air. A rush of superheated air pushed me forward. I tried to do the math in my mind to get back on track. A wall of blue and orange hell approached from my left. Seven balls of fire came like meteors down from the heavens. I leaped forward, fell backwards from a lightning bolt and felt my hand begin to burn. I threw myself to the right, scrambled over a sand dune, and rolled down the opposite side through two columns of fire.

It took me nearly two minutes to realize I was not dead, that I had somehow made it (alive) to section H safezone. The meeting place of the AS scum. I immediately began to dig into the sand. The clouds in front of the moon had given me shadow in which to hide. For how long I didn’t know so I buried myself as fast as I could manage.

I had buried all but my face and a hand to hold my phone up when the clouds shifted. A half-crescent moon shone down on the sand around me. Stars filled the heavens. The infrared vision app on my phone illuminated two figures green. Neither were my Arinlyn I had supposedly followed here. The phone zoomed in under my control, snapped multiple photos and streamed the photos back to The Soda Company HQ along with video I was recording.

So engrossed in what was happening before me I didn’t see the sand move next to me or hear it. I did see a foot crush the phone and my hand. I hollered in pain, which was quickly choked off by a hand around my throat and my body pulled free from the sand.

“I thought you were a Bountier.” The woman who called herself Arinlyn said.

“An android.” I croaked out.

She smiled, punched me square in the nose and pushed me towards the two who awaited her presence. I stumbled, she kicked me in the ribs. I felt one or two crack. The android punched me in the back of the skull then kicked me in the face.

“A Bountier.” She said. I suppose to the other two. I was busy choking down sand.

“How did he live through that? Those are regular clothes.”

“Hardened skin.” Arinlyn said.

“It won’t last forever in the fires. Just break his legs and throw him in. Let the desert claim him.” A woman said.

“No, I’m taking him back to test out this skin hardening. It’s a new technique, we need to find out how humans do it.”

I tried to struggle to me feet. I felt a piercing pain in my back, a sense of weightlessness as if I had somehow left my body.

“You can kill me.” I managed to say. “But I have the identities of the two AS assholes already uploaded to The Soda Company. You’re fucked.”

Another pain and then blackness.

 

END

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