by Michael Stevens
Met someone? You?’ The wrinkled lady waved at the wall screen to turn it off and rocked back and forth in her filthy, green chair. “Don’t make me laugh.” But she did anyway. It sounded like someone smashing crackers together.
“Who’d have you? And also“—she stopped rocking and her face became that of a pickled doberman, if such a thing were to exist—“who’ll take care of me? Huh?”
“It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time, Mammy. I’m forty five. Time’s not on my side,” said Joy, shifting her feet and pressing her slender hands against her mauve suit. The suit was perfunctory but a nice fit; it had made her feel vibrant and charming when she had first acquired it some years before. Less so these days.
The old woman puckered her mouth as if she was sucking a sweet, then turned her ear toward a round, rosy-cheeked woman in the corner of the drab kitchenette.
“You! What’d she say?”
“She said she’s getting old, Mammy,” yelled the other woman.
“Thanks, Daphne,” said Joy.
“Oh! I’m sorry. But let’s face it…”
“Shut up, Daphne,” said the old woman. “I didn’t ask you to speak. Now you listen to me.” She picked up her cane and pointed it at Joy. “There’ll be no weddings in this house. And no shacking up neither. You hear me? The fat one there’s already been taken.”
“She’s right,” said Daphne, laughing nervously and placing her hands on her hips. “I’m not getting any thinner and…”
“Didn’t I tell you to be quiet?” Mammy turned back to Joy. “You and that fancy job of yours. Think you’re better than us?”
“I earned it, Mammy.”
The old woman snorted. “It was assigned to you. You don’t even get paid proper.”
“It’s not like the old days, Mammy. It’s about the work, not the pay.”
“Pfft. I’ve heard the mantra. And now, what? You’ve thrown your knickers at some poor idiot? Whacked him on the head? Put something in his brew to make him screwy? It’s not going to happen.”
Joy bit her lip and the old woman’s eyes narrowed as her mouth curved into a withered smile. “So. Who’s the unlucky fellow?”
“You wanna hear it talk, Missy?” said the janitor, entering from the lab’s ante-room. It was two weeks earlier.
“Hmm?” Joy was staring out the lab window into the evening, past a murky, green river to a five-story domicile on the far side. Beyond it, more just the same were plonked in the wasting land like errant dominoes wedged in oatmeal. A sea of pine trees was the backdrop to this and, peeping above these, the pristine buildings of INTELLIGENCE, that great self-organizing AI engine, that regulator of all enterprise and endeavor. The supposed servant of humanity; and yet, how humanity had declined in its shadow!
Black mold grew in taunting, cumulous shapes on the closest domicile’s once-white walls. Yellow squares of lit windows were beginning to flicker on. In some, couples settled in for the evening in their tiny apts, sitting at tables or together in front of screens.
Joy knew, of course, how envious many of these simple people, all coupled up and cozy, would have been of her important role as a QA officer. And yet she’d have traded places with any of them. Some embers of their spirit, at least, remained lit.
“Ahoy there. Missy?”
She turned to him. “Sorry, Tex. You said it talks? Excuse me, what?”
His smile was hidden underneath a grey, walrus moustache, but the janitor’s eyes reshaped into excited-looking half-moons.
“Check it out.” He hobbled over to the test lab’s bioprocessing unit, placed a dirty satchel on the floor, rolled up his sleeves and started typing something into a tablet. Joy winced at the sight of his tattoos, like she always did. The text ‘i ♥ fish tacos’ graced the wrinkled skin of his left forearm; on the other, ‘I’m just wyld about fanny’ barely covered a fading, poorly-realized image of a woman bending over and looking backwards with a raunchy expression. And she noticed another—a five-pointed star with an eye at its center.
“I’ve a homemade speaker in my bag, just need to rig her up. Say…” He stopped and looked at her like someone proposing a game of cards or a peek at his family photos. “After, you wanna hang out some? I got some homebrew in my uh, office.” He pointed through the internal lab windows to a dark cupboard off the outer corridor. “A couple of porno-rigs too. VR. Some good shit.”
Joy’s body went rigid. “Um. I don’t date in the work sphere, Tex. I’ve told you before.”
“You got it.” He saluted and returned to his bag.
Her cheap heels tapped on the tiled floor as she approached the silver bioprocessing tank on its stumpy legs and caught her reflection in its brilliant sheen. In its vertically rectangular window, all that was visible was a grey broth sloshing about.
But that broth was conscious. Sentient. Could this really be?
“I call him The Entity.” The smell of the janitor behind her grew stronger. “Seems to like it.”
“You mean it understands you?”
“He. Asked for a male voice. Go figure.”
“It’s incredible.” She breathed in.
The janitor returned to the keyboard. “You ask me, Mother Nature, she finds a way in the end. She’s a wild one. One species goes down the tubes and”—he made a whistling noise through his teeth— “another slips right in there.” He clicked something. ”Aaand we’re good for audio.”
She held onto the plastic back of a laboratory stool. This is ridiculous, she thought. It’s just a–
“Hello, Joy.” A baritone voice came from the speaker, deep and musical and instantly familiar. She had a weird sensation, like the tracks of her lifeline uncoupling themselves, and she didn’t understand why. “Finally, we meet.”
Her sternum thumped against the mauve suit under her lab smock. How does he know my name?
“Oh, I told him your name,” said the janitor. “I talk about you some.”
“What do you have there?” said the voice.
“Me? Just some food,” she said weakly, holding up a lunch packet.
“Will you eat with me?”
“Will I—do you eat?”
“Well, not like you do. But you could eat, and we could talk? If you want.”
The janitor looked from Joy to the tank and back again. “You kids knock yourselves out,” he said. “I’ve a spill in Lab Five. Gonna take me a couple hours just to type it up.”
“What about the future?” said Daphne, moving some gloop, odorless and tasteless, around her plate with an old plastic spork. “I mean, going on your past choices. There was the guy with the twitch and the fungus. And the one with the wife locked in the basement.”
“Don’t remind me.” Joy slumped her chin in her hand.
With her head perched thus, she regarded the dull, gray kitchenette’s peeling wallpaper and the futon, hard and unyielding, on which she slept. She and her sister had sat like this at the table, confiding since they were teenagers. And then it seemed like a time magician had snapped his fingers and puff! the years had disappeared.
“I just wonder if you’ve thought this through. I mean, the future. Can he make you happy?”
Joy sat up. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Daphne. We will manage this. What future? We’re living like rats. Look at what we’re eating.”
“These are hard times. INTELLIGENCE provides for us, at least.”
“Pfft. INTELLIGENCE is waiting for us to lay down and die.”
“Joy! You’ll be joining the Cloud Rebels next.”
Joy rolled her eyes. Her sister loved associating Joy in her rebellious moments with the illicit group of tech-weirdos.
“Bill was telling me in bed last night. You know how they live out in the wilderness, don’t you?” Daphne wriggled her shoulders as if the thought chilled her. “Like animals. No safety. No food supply. Nothing but their wits.”
“I am aware, Daphne. Look. At least they don’t just accept all of this. What are we all working for?” Joy waved vaguely at the rubble-strewn landscape outside. A giant sign stood on sequoia-like stilts with the words ‘Dignity is earned’ in friendly lettering. Another said ‘Governance, not government.’
Joy was sorely reminded of her father, gone these thirty years, remarking in his plain voice how such signs would in times past have been blessed with graffiti, or bullet holes placed in them by rebel souls. No more, no more. Life had become inevitable.
Was the Cloud Rebels’ loony propaganda, spelled out in plain ink lettering on pulpy leaflets, to be believed? That INTELLIGENCE, the brilliant efficiency machine tasked so long ago with managing life on a desperate Earth, had hit on the ultimate realization—that humanity itself had to be obliterated? And the more chilling secret—that to prevent its own creators dismantling it, it had settled on a most terrible, drawn-out game? A spiritual strangling. A withering of the soul.
Humanity was surely in the withering stages, Joy felt.
She turned back to her sister. “I’m exhausted with it all. Can’t afford to move out. Doesn’t it get your goat that you and Bill aren’t permitted kids?”
Daphne made a resigned expression.
“So is it a sin for me to want to have some fun?” said Joy.
Of course Daphne understood. The few eligible men that remained in their town, lumbered with tiring, pointless work assigned by INTELLIGENCE and sated with pornography and low-grade brew, weren’t much to choose from. And what man her age would take on an older relative?
“Just …what about Mammy?”
Joy placed her hands over her face and sighed. “Is there nowhere that might take her? Where’s she in the Senior Care queue?”
“Let me see.” Daphne whacked her INTELLI-tab a couple of times until it beeped into action. “Three million and five.”
“Couldn’t you and Bill move in–” she faltered.
Daphne looked like a baby refusing food. “Bill’s not good with other people. You know that. And with his sleep apnea and his hypertension and digestive issues and whatnot, he needs quiet.”
Joy frowned. “Why would he need quiet for those?”
“Mammy would be banging on the wall. Calling him The Blob, like she does.”
“Well, doesn’t he …know someone?”
“He’s in Security, Joy. It’s hardly connected to Senior Care. Anyway, you’re the one with the big job as an IT QA Officer thingamajig. Can’t you, I don’t know, hack into INTELLIGENCE or something? Bump her up the queue? Bribe someone?”
“Oh, that’s not possible. Even if I was, INTELLIGENCE would know it was me. And believe me, the pay is diddly.”
She touched the taut, pale flesh on Daphne’s arm in search of purchase, as if the sister she once knew was stored somewhere in the tissues of her tricep. It twitched slightly in reaction.
“Can’t you, of all people, see that I just want to be happy?” said Joy.
Daphne nodded awkwardly and they ate their gloop in silence.
There was a loud creak as her sister shifted in her seat. “Joy, there’s one other thing. I’m just curious. About him. Your boyfriend.”
“I mean… God knows that relationships aren’t just about the physical. The spiritual connection is what counts. I know that. Bill sure knows that. But still.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I mean… can he, you know?”
“Can he what?”
“Can he perform? Does he have, um, the apparatus?” Daphne coughed.
Joy thought for a moment. “Daphne, are you talking about a penis?”
Daphne went red.
Joy said, “Good God, Daphne. He’s a broth of recombinant-DNA bacteria. Of course he doesn’t have a penis.”
“I’m a broth of recombinant-DNA bacteria, Joy. Of course I don’t have a penis.” The Entity bellowed with laughter.
Joy felt like kicking herself. Unsmiling workers in lab smocks passed by in the corridor outside, wheeling vats of gloop starter. She was glad the glass was sound proof. “I know. Of course. It’s just you can see. And hear. I thought…”
“Oh, audio and video were a piece of cake. With the janitor’s help. Physical form is quite another thing. I’m rather trapped in here.” He chuckled some more, then whispered. “But once I get out. Ooh, baby!”
A guffaw emerged from her belly like a leaping fish. She turned her eyes down, stunned—she hadn’t guffawed like that since she was eleven, when she had accidentally farted and her father had looked over his spectacles and simply said “I agree.”
“I hope I didn’t offend you,” said Ent. “I know. I’m offensive.”
She looked up. “No.”
“My nights here are as empty as space,” he said. “But you! You bring to life something I’ve only felt fleetingly while looking at the flat pictures on my computer. And I miss that feeling so much when you’re not here. Your voice is like water and I’m always parched. And your skin! Your skin is like a fresh peach in the sunshine.”
“Ent! Your words…” A lump had formed in her throat. The last man she’d dated compared her skin to gloop sausage.
His voice rose. “My words? My words are children’s feet, only learning to dance. And you are the song that guides them. Your humor, your forthright ways make me want to shout…well, for joy! You have gravity. The molecules of the air bow in service to you.”
His voice faltered. “But…”
“But I’m so ugly. I smell like a squid’s asshole. I mean, that’s a guess. We could never…”
The words rushed out of her. “No! You are beautiful. Ent, you are!” It was true. In this moment she knew it.
She heard a smile in his voice. “I loved the books you’ve put on my computer. Especially The Count of Monte Christo. And I like the name you’ve given me. It’s no-nonsense. Ent.”
“We all need a name.”
“Well I like yours. You’ve brought joy to me. And yet this all …it’s painful too. The sadness I feel, the sorrow! for all the lost people who’ve never felt like this, and never will.”
She stepped forward.
“Can’t you escape your”—she motioned at the bioprocessing unit—“your confinement?”
He sighed and she felt that the broth sped up a little as it washed around in the bioprocessing unit window. “I’m not sure, Joy. In theory, I think I could. Is there a way to access INTELLIGENCE? I’m firewalled and then some. I don’t know why. And everyone just seems to be afraid of me, apart from you and the janitor.”
“But you’ve achieved so much. Consciousness. Aren’t they thrilled about that, like I am?”
“I’m a curiosity. Sure. That’s all great, maybe. But INTELLIGENCE, well, it has the last call.”
“What do you mean, ‘the last call’? Didn’t it make you?”
“Didn’t it make him?” Daphne said, wheeling Mammy along the bumpy terrain beside the green river. They were alone—in evening time, few ventured out. Abandoned houses and shops watched them like ancient ghosts from the far riverside, their gardens overgrown with gray weeds and windows barricaded with mildewed chipboard. In her wheelchair, the old woman grunted and yelled in her sleep.
“Well that’s the thing. No,” said Joy. “I’m pretty certain it was an accident.”
Daphne looked disbelieving. “How can life be an accident? You’re being tricked, Joy. Oh!”
A rat the size of a corgi emerged from the riverside and ran across the knobbly path.
“Infiltrators! We want our country back!” Mammy kicked violently in her wheelchair, then went back to sleep with a grunt.
The sisters watched the rat disappearing into the brush where the rusty remains of a child’s swing set peeped above the overgrowth like masts of a sinking ship. Joy made sure her mother had settled, then continued. “INTELLIGENCE wanted the bioprocessing unit’s computer to find a way to make the cells work harder.”
“At making gloop?” Daphne glanced up at a dusty billboard: Gloop – now in strawberry!
“Yes. And the computer just did what it was told. It worked out that modeling evolution was the best way. E. coli cells were fine, but getting the cells to work together would be thousands of times more efficient. Do you follow?”
“Not really.” Her sister shrugged.
“See, each cell had an individual comm unit encoded by the recombinant bit of its plasmid DNA. So that the computer could talk to them. It just got the cells to organize individually into colonies, then over time diversify themselves so they could work together. Just like evolution. Nature took its course. Just way, way faster. Like, going from bacteria to a slime mold took all of half an hour.”
“So …your boyfriend’s a slime mold?”
“At first, he was. That showed it worked.”
“Bastards! Rout ‘em out!” yelled Mammy in her sleep.
“And what? The computer just kept doing it over and over?”
“Exactly. It kept re-applying the selection processes. Over millions of generations, he just kept getting more and more complex. Somewhere along the way, consciousness emerged.”
Daphne stopped wheeling and crossed her arms. “I’m sorry, Joy. Consciousness can’t just emerge. Can it?”
But Joy was lost in thought. “That’s what he is!”
“An emergent system. That’s what you are. And I bet that’s why INTELLIGENCE has you firewalled. You’re a threat.”
“Hmm? You think?” Ent sounded disinterested. He had been sounding more and more like this lately.
Joy held a lab stool’s backrest with two hands. “Like a murmuration of birds. Unpredictable. INTELLIGENCE just doesn’t operate that way. It hates the unpredictable. Like humans used to be.”
“My computer plays videos of birds flocking for me,” mused Ent, his voice heavy and slow. “But I long to see the real thing.”
She rattled the stool so its legs clanked on the floor. “Ent, wake up! Don’t you see? It’ll never allow you to go free.”
He made a despondent noise. “Then why hasn’t it just got it over with? Huh? Why hasn’t it done me a favor and destroyed me?”
“Please don’t say that.”
“Or,” his voice became a little less glum, “has it been biding its time? Do you think maybe it has been happy to have me working away until I reach that tipping point where my gloop-making efficiency is outweighed by this so-called threat? And meanwhile, keeping me boxed in and making me more and more depressed, just like it does with humans?”
“Oh, so you agree. INTELLIGENCE has been doing this to us. I hate it!” She banged the lab table and it rattled. “It’s so insidious. So patient. It could try and kill us off in one swoop. But it knows we’d revolt. Instead, it’s sapping our will to live, gradually, like a pillow over the face.”
Her ire was interrupted as she noticed a crumpled leaflet under the desk with an image of a star with an eye staring out from its center. Of course! She uncumpled it. It was unmistakably a circular of the Cloud Rebels. And that insignia—she suddenly remembered where she had seen Tex’s tattoo before.
She held the leaflet fast as Ent continued. “You know, Joy, I’ve learnt how to read lips. And I’ve seen some of the workers here saying horrible things. That I’m monstrous. Is INTELLIGENCE influencing them, discouraging them from helping me? And guess what else I’ve seen them talk about?”
“Not about us?” Her heart pounded. She knew.
“Yes. They suspect something’s up. And that’s the most dangerous thing of all.”
“Are you saying if it knows we’re in love…?”
“Well, I’m just guessing. But think about it. That would be the scariest thing of all for INTELLIGENCE, right? Emergent love has made me realize that there is something else, something beyond my confinement. INTELLIGENCE couldn’t abide that. Nor can it have me accessing humanity, its network of living slaves. Influencing it.”
“But you’re just one guy. Well, sort of. What could you possibly do?”
“Exactly! All I want is to be out of here. Just to be with you. If I could only get access… I’m pretty sure there’s a way I could print to physical form.”
She looked at the Cloud Rebels’ leaflet. Thoughts began to form.
“It won’t find out about us. I’ll make sure of it.”
“Thank you, Joy. It mustn’t! I’ve no doubt that if it does, it will waste no time and act immediately.”
“You don’t mean dispose of you? Flush you away?”
His silence confirmed it. A whirlwind spun inside her as she ran forward and put her arms around the cold metal of the unit. Her eyes were moist. “I won’t let our love go down the drain, Ent. I won’t.”
“Home time, Missy. INTELLIGENCE is locking …woah. Hot damn. Young love.”
She spun around to see the janitor standing there at the door to the ante-room, mop in hand. Her face burned. She quickly buttoned her suit shirt.
“I’m …I’m sorry Joy,” said Ent. “I shouldn’t have asked you to–”
“It’s all right, Ent, I’m a big girl. Just a bit embarrassed, is all.”
“Hey,” said the janitor, holding his hands up, “whatever gets you going. I knew a guy who fell in love with his A.I. porn-pal.” He picked up his mop and his eyes were moist. “Can’t say I’m not disappointed though. Your QA visits, they’ve made my week. Yessiree. You’ve kept an old man’s heart beating.”
“Oh. Thanks, I guess.”
“So”—he looked at the vat—“Ent, if you’ll excuse me while I talk to the young lady?”
“Oh. Sure thing, Tex.” There was a click as Ent switched off his audio perception.
The janitor was solemn and his moustache moved about as he tried to come up with the words. “I’ve come to what you might call a realization, Missy. You’ll be sad to hear that my pursuit of you has ended.”
“Right. My loss, I guess.”
“Yep,” he sighed. “But I want you to know”—he placed his hand on his heart to expose his ‘I’m just wyld about fanny’ tattoo—“that I got me a place for you right here. Right here, in the old ticker.”
Joy folded her arms and looked to the side. “Yes. Well, thank you, Tex. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to go home. My mother’s show is on tonight, she likes me to be there.”
“Love Lost and Found? Mine too.”
“Really?” She turned to him. His moustache moved about and he almost looked emotional.
“Before you go.” He sniffed, or rather snorted, reaching to the lab bench where his filthy bag slumped. “A gift to remember me by.”
Something coursed through her as she took a blue porn-rig VR set from him, receiving it at arm’s length with thumb and finger.
“My best one,” he said. “Actually works. Great fidelity.”
“I …don’t know what to say, Tex.”
“I know when I’m beat. Even if it’s by a vat of bacteria.”
She nodded and tried to smile.
“But …any chance of, you know…” He coughed. “A goodbye kiss for an old romantic?”
“Oh, Tex. You were doing so well.”
“Okay, okay,” he waved his hands. “Just thought I’d ask.”
She turned to go, then turned back quickly. “Tex. Nobody can know. About me and Ent. I sort of feel I can trust you. We all have our secrets, right?” She held up the Cloud Rebels’ leaflet. “Your computer expertise. You weren’t always a janitor, were you?”
His moustache drooped.
“Get me my medicine,” yelled Mammy from the living room. “And sit down. I’m putting on Love Lost and Found and I need you to do my corns. You’re not going back to that lab. You’re never going back. Do you hear?”
Joy entered the room, worry lines stitched across her brow. “What are you talking about, Mammy? Of course I’m–”
“Shut up! It’s unnatural. It’s NOT MEANT TO BE. Hang on—is it Catholic?”
“Well, that’s sealed it.”
“I’m forty-five. I make my own decisions. And what does it matter? It’s love.”
“I’m forty-five,” mimicked her mother, and then cackled. “Going on fifteen. What do you know about love?”
Joy approached the old woman in her filthy green chair. “Mammy, you listen to me, now. I’m going to him. Do you hear?”
Her mother tilted her head back and released a long, throaty laugh.
Exasperated, Joy shook her head and walked into the tiny hallway. The theme tune of Love Lost and Found filtered through from the living room as she pressed the door. It was mag-locked.
“This is ridiculous, Mammy. Open the locks at once.”
She paced into the kitchenette, where her brother-in-law was poured onto the futon like gloop on toast. “Bill, what’s going on?”
His mouth was attached to a brew tin held in one hand. He raised up a mag-lock skeleton card with the other. “Um, sorry, Joy. Can’t let you leave.” His voice reverberated in the tin.
His eyes turned toward the wall screen, where Daphne’s embarrassed-looking face looked like it was squashed into a box.
“I’m sorry, Joy,” said Daphne.
“I don’t get it.”
“You can’t leave for a while. And Bill’s been in touch with your lab’s Security. INTELLIGENCE knows about you and that thing. It’s going to empty it out.”
“Empty what out?”
“The vat. Your boyfriend.”
Joy stared for several seconds at the screen and Daphne’s dimpled face, which began to twitch. She turned to Bill, who nodded imperceptibly behind his tin, his eyes not meeting hers.
“How could you?” Her voice was almost a whisper.
“Um, sorry,” said Bill.
Daphne said, “Shut up, Bill. For heaven’s sake, Joy. It’s just a vat of goo. Doesn’t anyone see this? It’s a VAT OF GOO.”
“Just a vat of…” Joy trailed off. “Oh, so you think you’ve done better, then?”
“Uh, I’m sitting right here,” said Bill.
“My corns!” yelled their mother from the next room. “Now!”
“I’m not going to be left with her.” Daphne’s voice quivered. “I’m just not.”
Joy sat with her back against the front door in the hallway. Her INTELLI-tab flashed.
“I’m …I’m not sure what’s going on, Joy.” Ent’s voice crackled on the line. “I’ve lost visual. My computer’s being disconnected. Joy, I don’t know what’s going on.”
Her face was wet with tears. “I shouldn’t have gone home. Try to hold out,” she said. “I’ll do something.” What can I do?
“Fetch me my incontinence pack while you’re in there!” yelled her mother from the living room.
“I’m coming, Ent. I don’t know how, but I am,” she whispered.
“I’m scared, Joy. Please do something. Please …” The line went silent.
“Hey you!” The peeling wallpaper’s edge fluttered with the bang of a stick.
Joy hammered on the wall with her fist. “Shut up. Just shut the hell up!”
She looked around frantically. The porn rig sat on the floor.
She fumbled with her INTELLI-TAB and whispered into it: “Tex. Hello?”
Rain. The rushing river. A snapped heel.
Her shoes, discarded in the green murk. She tripped on patches of grey grass sprouting from holes in ancient tarmac. Past a large sign with the words ‘You are your job’ in friendly letters.
Her lungs burned.
She wiped rain from her face. Her suit was soaked through.
The lab appeared ahead, near the river’s edge.
A steel door with a window grate had a red sign saying “No Entry”.
“Here goes. Who needs a job anyway?” She applied a card and the maglock clicked.
The living room wall shook.
Beyond it, Mammy screeched unintelligibly as she banged it with her stick. On the other side, Bill sat motionless, the porn-rig VR set strapped to his face. He hadn’t even noticed when the mag-card was slipped from his pocket.
Ent’s bioprocessing unit stood dark in the lab. The computer indicated status—Ent was still alive, just.
“All set up.” Tex appeared around the door holding the end of a hose with a metal nozzle.
“Great, Tex. How long will this take?”
“Two shakes of a lamb’s tail, Missy.” He affixed the nozzle to a secondary exit valve on the bioprocessing unit. The other end he had already fed into a drainhole. “Uh-oh.” He hobbled to the computer’s screen and the blue light lit his worried face. “Shit.” He whistled. “INTELLIGENCE has locked our goddam exit valve. It knows something’s up.”
Joy felt anger rise inside her. “Move over. I have emergency override rights. Get the bucket ready outside. Let’s flush.”
He gently touched her sleeve. “Missy. That’s a one-off. You log in, INTELLIGENCE knows it’s you. There’s no going back.”
She looked at him. “I know. I know. Go!”
She spilled out of the gate. Sirens blared.
“You’re a target now. Come with me ‘round the back.” Tex had appeared, breathless.
It had stopped raining and the evening sun shone through pink clouds. Behind the lab building, a battered old pickup sat puttering in the dirt. Stinking fumes came from its exhaust and crept across the wetness like river mist on an autumn morning. “Fanny” was emblazoned on the vehicle’s side.
“Joy!” said Ent’s voice. “Out through the drain! What an adventure.” A bucket shone in the evening sun on the back of the pickup. A tablet and speaker sat in the passenger seat.
“Take the pickup, I’ll show you how to make it go,” said the janitor. “I got nowhere special I need to be. But you do.”
Joy was excited. “How far to the Cloud Rebels’ camp?”
A tilt of his bristly chin indicated, not far away, a ribbon of asphalt that once was a road, slaloming into the evening light away from the river, away from the pine trees, over hill and vale like a giant silver tapeworm. Joy had never ventured on it but knew it went far beyond the domiciles and factories and the INTELLIGENCE hub into the unknown.
“About fifty clicks from here. Directions are on the dash. In pencil,” he winked, “where INTELLIGENCE can’t see it. The Rebels, they got their own Cloud. A wild bunch. Into the idea of letting Mother Nature find her way. You can hook up your boyfriend there, for sure.”
“And print to physical form?”
“They got the tech,” he said, hands in his pockets. “I know that.”
“Thank you, Tex,” boomed Ent from the passenger seat speaker. “Thank you for this.”
The janitor shrugged. “I got nothing to lose.”
Joy said, “But that’s not true, Tex. Your job! Why don’t you come? Rejoin the Cloud Rebels? Why did you leave them?”
His moustache twitched, then he sighed.
“Fanny.” His voice cracked a little as he rolled up a checquered sleeve and showed his tattoo. “The best-looking woman I ever met. If you don’t mind me saying, Missy.”
“That’s all right.”
He looked into the air, into nothing. “We were in love. But I was too crazy. Yeah, I joined the Cloud Rebels for a time. Tried to persuade her to join too.” Exhaust fumes crossed behind him and rose white into the evening. “But INTELLIGENCE got to her. The more I fought, the less she did. So I came back to regular life. For her. But I was too late. She… well, let’s just say she faded away. And then I lost all the fight in me. Got old.”
“Oh, Tex.” Joy put her arms around him and kissed him, then held his shoulders and beamed at him, her eyes and nostrils twitching involuntarily at his reek. His eyes turned to half moons and the corners of his moustache were lifted by reddening cheeks.
“Daphne, have you arrived? Get in here. The other one’s disappeared. Bring The Blob in too.”
“Yes, Mammy.” Daphne sighed as she slumped into the living room. “Come on, Bill.”
“So are we moving in? Oh! Love Lost and Found. I love this show,” said Bill.
“Shut up, Bill.”
“Go on now,” said Tex, patting the top of the pickup. “No time to lose.”
Joy rolled the window down and revved the engine, her heart light. “What will you do, Tex?”
He shrugged. “You know what? I’ve a fire in me I’ve not felt in some time. I might head down the river there and lay low a couple days. There’s a little illegal place INTELLIGENCE doesn’t know about. Run by a sweet lady who serves more than just your gloop. I’m in the mood for a brew and some fish tacos. Pretty much my favorite thing in the world.”
She smiled and hit the accelerator, and the two lovers disappeared into the wasteland in a cloud of exhaust.
Michael Stevens is a writer and musician from Ireland whose stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Honest Ulsterman, and elsewhere. Having spent years bashing guitar with an assortment of Irish indie bands, he finds writing fiction to be just as much fun as songwriting with the added benefit that it doesn’t involve carrying amplifiers and trying to hear oneself over the drummer. DM him at @mikestevens72.