The blade came down with a wet thwack and the slab of multimeat fell in two. Ariel Zanderback smiled, pleased with herself. With the maid away she had been forced to not only make her own bed, but also prepare a meal. So far she’d cut the lump of synthetic flesh in half, now she needed to cook it. But wait. You needed other things in a meal didn’t you. Like vegetables. She didn’t know where they were kept, let alone how to cook them. This was all to complicated. She wrapped the multimeat back in the plastic and replaced it in the fridge. She’d order something. Much easier.
Ariel (which she insisted was pronounced ar as in art not air) lived at the Catalonia Complex in Euphorin Heights. It was the most expensive accommodation in Cyberia, at least that’s what she was lead to believe when she signed the lease. Her apartment was part of the Aquam Series by Ajard Blanc. Down every wall and across the ceiling ran a sheet of moving, bubbling water. Through the glass floor was pure sea green, just translucent enough to make out the huge predatory fish that circled in the depths. Even the sculpted furniture was all water, kept in place by an impossibly thin layer of clear, plastic material. Ariel had no idea how any of it worked. The water above her should fall down, but it didn’t, and the heating apparently had to be turned up to compensate for the cooling effect of all the water, but the superintendent had done that for her. Ariel clicked the sanitiser and smiled as the ting noise came from each surface in turn. Again, she didn’t understand it but it kept every surface sterile and that was important. The ting was optional, but she liked it.
She looked about wondering what to do next. Now that she did not have to prepare dinner, her morning was free. Perhaps she’d hit the shops. Maybe she’d go to the clinic and look at the new Krieg lines, they had some cute little noses this season and she was wondering about her knees being too…well…kneeish. It was hard to explain. Dr. Yuver understood, she’s talk to him about it.
A soft chime sounded and a holoscreen appeared a few feet in front of her.
Incoming call - caller unknown.
“Who is it?”
“The caller is unknown Mrs Zanderback.”
“Oh, right. Okay. Answer”
A picture of brightly coloured room strewn with toys appeared on the screen. Ariel instantly recognised it as the daycare centre that Owen, her four year old son attended. A child toddled into view. It was Owen. Ariel squeaked.
“Owen.” It’s mummy. “Hello sweety.”
Owen turned to face the screen. “Mummy.” He reached out a hand. Ariel reached out hers.
The screen broke into jagged patterns of green and red which then flashed off and back on to reveal a twisted, ripped humanoid face. Narrow black eyes. A deep horizontal slash across the forehead which exposed a white slit of skull. Yellowing teeth jutted out of cracked bleeding lips. Ariel screamed, clamping her hands over her mouth.
“Do I as instruct or Owen will die in agony. His tiny limbs snapping and popping like kindling.” The callers voice was clean and mechanical. The effect overdramatic but extremely effective.
Ariel couldn’t speak. She couldn’t think.
“Listen carefully Ariel. You have two hours to complete this task. If you call anyone Owen will suffer unimaginable pain. If you deviate from my instructions Own will suffer unimaginable pain. Do you understand?”
Ariel nodded silently, tears welling in her eyes. Knees buckling. She half fell, half sat in a undulating water seat.
“Take your car, a towel and your handset to the corner of Western and Caldecott. There you will see a metal litter bin. Look inside the bin for a yellow plastic bag. Take the bag back to your car.”
“Please don’t hurt him. Please.”
“If you call anyone Owen will suffer unimaginable pain. If you deviate from my instructions Own will suffer unimaginable pain. Do you understand?”
Ariel nodded frantically.
Ariel’s heart was pounding in her head, her hands were trembling, she fought back the tears. She had to focus. The handset was on the table, she stuffed it in her bag and grabbed a freshly laundered towel from the bathroom. She pulled on a pair of short heeled shoes and ran out the door.
The elevator took a few seconds to arrive, Ariel paced, running her hand through her short blond hair. Her mind couldn’t take it all in. Did they want money? That was most likely it. Aubrey worked for the corporation. He administered a large section of Canathickta, he earned good money and had a lot of influence. Should she call him. He’d know what to do. No. The elevator pinged.
She got in and hammered the garage button. It took a few seconds and the steel doors parted to reveal a well lit expanse of space with a white polished floor and clean, painted walls. Even the parking garages in Catalonia were like hotel rooms.
She ran over to her car, a white low-slung Mustang with an angry-looking grill. It opened at her touch and she dropped into the seat, breathless. The harness wrapped around her and locked.
“Good morning Ariel. Where to beautiful?” asked Max, the car’s A.I. It was currently set with the smooth voiceset.
“The corner of Western and Caldicotte.”
“Are you sure. That neighbourhood is rated as ‘problematic’ in the Harrison Guide.”
“Just do it. Now. Fast.”
“Initiating auto-drive. Journey time approximately 14 minutes. How has your morning been Ariel?”
“Chat off.” barked Ariel. She had to think. She didn’t know what she had to think though. All she could do was replay the conversation. Snapping like kindling. Unimaginable pain. Owen’s outstretched hand. There was nothing to do but follow the instructions.
The mustang swung out of the garage and onto the main street. Euphorin heights was a beautiful place to live. Artfully designed towers arced into the sky in gorgeous shades of cream and ivory. Rows of swaying palms lined the broad roads and between the buildings were spacious parks and huge plazas. Today Ariel didn’t notice; she was wishing the car would drive faster.
“Move it, come one.”
“We’re travelling as quickly as applicable speed limits will allow.” said Max
“It’s an emergency.”
“What is the nature of the emergency.”
“They’ve got my son.”
“Would you like me to open a comm channel to the United International Government?”
“No. Just go faster.”
“I sorry.” said Max calmly, “but to initiate emergency protocols, I must first inform the UIG about the nature of the emergency.”
“Oh fuu-“ Ariel almost used a bad word. Even under this much stress her breeding showed. The car pulled gracefully onto York Boulevard and cruised at a leisurely 30mph down an empty lane, the morning sun glinting off the bonnet. Ariel looked out the window in despair.
“Turn off auto-drive, I’ll do it.”
“I’m sorry Ariel but your bio-readings suggest you are currently emotionally unsuitable and unable to safely operate a vehicle. Please sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Ariel bashed her small, manicured hands against the steering wheel and thought of another couple of choice words she could use.
Twelve agonising minutes later Ariel scrambled out of the car. Her tears had dried up. She was all about Owen now, emotions could wait. She saw the bin just as described and ran over to it. Shoving her hand inside the narrow opening she felt around. Her hand touched briefly upon something soft, sticky and wet and she made a face, then she had it, a plastic bag with something heavy inside. She pulled it out and ran back to the car. Breathing hard, she opened the bag and peered inside. It was a gun. A huge gun. She’d never been this close to one before. Just as she was about to reach inside and pull it out her handset rang. It was the voice, still dead; utterly devoid of emotion.
“Good work Ariel. Now I want you to drive to the 4th exit on the Van Rosch Circular.”
“Okay, but please, tell me what this is about. If you want money I can give you money.”
“I had not considered that. How much can you offer?”
“Lots. I would have to speak to Aubrey, but it could be thousands, maybe tens of thousands.”
“Perhaps later. For now please continue to follow my instructions. Failure to follow them will result in-“
“No please, stop, I’m going. Max, drive to the 4th exit on the Van Rosch Circular.”
“Of course Ariel, journey time approximately 26 minutes.”
“What’s the gun for?”
There was no answer. The caller had hung up. As Ariel left Euphorin heights behind, the scenery started to become less open and bright and more closely packed and grim. There was slight smell of sulphur in the air and the buildings had become more functional and less flamboyant. Even the people looked poorer and more miserable, they wore darker colours and were protected from the weather by heavy macs and thick jackets. Ariel never came here, there was no reason to. For a moment the bleakness took her mind off Owen but then she saw a father with his son come out of weather beaten discount store and her mind came crashing back to reality. She opened the bag again. The gun was still there. She wouldn’t even be able to get her hand around the grip. It had a huge, square black barrel which was taller than it was wide and chamfered on the top. A red light blinked near the trigger. The characters Y&S were stamped into side. It was a pistol, she knew that much but it looked like a very specialist piece of equipment, not something for home defence. Probably something Tex Callahan would use on ‘Last Chance’, not that she watched that kind of rubbish.
“ETA two minutes.” said Max, ”There are no designated parking areas at your destination. Would you like me to park in the nearest legal location.”
“Yes.” Ariel felt surprisingly calm. She told herself it would be okay as long as she followed the instructions, which she was doing; perfectly in fact. She had two hours. She’d used half an hour. The mustang pulled off the road into a small service lay-by.
“It is legal to park here for thirty minutes as long as it is not needed by a government or corporate vehicle holding a Level 1 Vehicle License.”
“Don’t go anywhere. If I’m more than half an hour, just wait, I’ll pay the fine.”
“Very well, have a great day Ariel.”
Ariel got out of the car, grabbed the towel, the handset and the bag and ran down the hard shoulder until she was stood on a patch of gravel by the exit. Cars flew past. It was starting to spit with rain, dark cloud were massing on the horizon. She could see a grey strip of ocean butting up against the dock yards. She looked down at the handset willing it to ring. It did.
“Well done Ariel. Do you see a chain fence to your left.”
Ariel stepped over the steel barrier and crossed a patch of rock strewn ground. When she got to the fence she saw there was a gate a few yards to her right that lead into the back of docks. On top of it was a camera.
“Someone’s watching me.”
“Open the gate and follow the path to the right for one hundred and fifteen yards.”
Ariel pushed the the gate open and jogged down the concrete path. “How do I know when I’ve reach the right point.”
“Just keep going.”
“I want to see Owen please. I need to know he’s okay.”
“He’s alive. Stop. To your left you can see a bridge, cross the bridge until I say stop. Good. Stop.”
“Are you playing with me? This is crazy? What’s going on?”
“Look over the side of the bridge. What do you see?
Ariel looked down, there was a slow-flowing water channel banked with broad stone walkways and she could just make out a few figures stood near a table doing something - she couldn’t tell what. “I see some people, they’re round a table.”
“Is there a fat man?”
“Um, I don’t see one, oh, wait, yes, he’s sat against the wall. Hands wrapped around his knees.”
“Good, is he away from the others.”
“Yes. About 15 yards.”
“When I disconnect the call wrap the gun and handset in the towel and place them in the bag. Then make sure the fat man gets the bag and that the others do not see it happen.”
“What?” stuttered Ariel. “I can’t do that. What if they see me.”
“Then.” said the voice flatly, “You and Owen will both be disfigured.”
Ariel closed her eyes trying to focus, trying to block the images from her mind.
“But what if-“. The call disconnected.
“Here goes.” She pulled out the gun by its barrel and together with the handset wrapped them tightly in the towel. She stuffed the package in the yellow bag and looked down. Maybe she should drop it and shout. No. That wouldn’t work. She went back to the path and ran a dozen yards along the high ledge to where she could get a better view under the bridge. This was her best chance. She swung the bag a few times to build up momentum and released. The package arced through the air, past the intended destination and landed with a splash in the water where it started to drift away. For the first time in twenty eight years, Ariel Zanderback swore.