by Andrew Openshaw
Sule had breezed through the depot door anticipating handshakes and bright eyes. Instead, he’d spent half an hour with the reception bot trying to explain who he was and what he was doing there. Two security droids were approaching when Norm, the chubby little supervisor, came bustling in. With a face that screamed embarrassment, he’d shepherded Sule into the building.
As the weeks passed and no progress was made, his decision to take the contract reminded Sule that eagerness didn’t always end well. Especially not when it came to his work, nor when applied to relationships, either.
Looking at Jim’s picture, now on his desk, Sule’s heart raced and his hand clenched the arm of the chair. If only he could get a break on this case, he could go home and call Jim, invite him out to dinner. They could try again, start a life worth clinging onto.
These thoughts disappeared, however, when Norm clattered down the stairs shouting, “Hey Wimpo, you read that email yet? The one about the kids in the hospital?”
Sule opened the brandy as the Autocar wound its way down from the storage tower and passed through various checkpoints. The bot-guards stalled his vehicle at each one. During their silent conversations, his only option was to fill another glass. At the tenth exit, the city’s dregs started pushing up against the windows. Hot breaths made the screens opaque, and dirty fingers drew circles with diagonal lines dashed through the middle.
Most of the people were disfigured – scarred and burned faces, fingers or entire hands and arms missing. Some were without eyes and noses too. Injured in the factories most likely, their hopes of an income gone.
The Autocar started up again, as a bot-guard helped one of the serfs to their feet.
Sule closed his eyes when they arrived at the tunnel, preferring complete darkness than the nothingness which crept from the glow. When he opened them again, he instructed the car to translucent its roof, so he could enjoy the sky. But it didn’t take long for a cold sweat to appear on his brow, and he yelled at the car to go dark again. No more wide-open spaces, not until he’d had another stiff drink.
Sule tripped on another loose brick, cursing the Autocar for failing to find the town. He slammed into the ground, his oxygen pack falling from his back, his left hand catching a sharp rock leaving a deep cut across his palm. Two mangy cats made a dash around a corner, startled by his ungraceful stride.
“Fuck,” he said, as he struggled to his feet.
Ahead was another expanse of land and beyond that, finally, the town. Sule’s shirt clung to his skin. He wiped his brow and face with a sleeve, let out a long sigh and breathed in through his nose. Straight away he began coughing and blowing hard, tears streaming down his face. His lungs hung heavy in his chest. When the stinging receded, he retrieved the mask from his pack and placed it over his head.
This murky air meant trouble, and he would track down those to blame.
Sule struggled on until he reached the end of the first row of houses. The ground here was chipped and worn. Plastic bags and tin cans moved about on the faint breeze. A mixture of cats, dogs, and some larger beasts lay dead on the road. As expected, no people were around – the contaminated air meant it would be impossible to step outside without a mask. So many houses, though. In this block alone, there must have been eighty. Where to start? Without the car, he couldn’t risk being here after dark. He needed a plan to lure out his targets, or a stroke of luck that would lead him quickly to the truth.
Holding on to that hope, Sule approached the first house and banged on the door. He managed to leave a dent on the surface. On the door was a red circle, with a diagonal dash through it. Looking around, it appeared some of the other doors had the same sign painted on them. Would he have to break down every door here if no one answered? Impossible. He’d have to call in reinforcements, and Norm wouldn’t allow that without concrete evidence.
He gave the door another bash. This time it clicked open and a bloodshot eye poked out.
“Yes,” said a woman’s voice, her chest rattled as she spoke.
Sule spoke, but the mask muffled his voice. He lifted the mouthpiece and tensed the muscles around his nose. “Weather police, can I come in?” he repeated.
The chain was unlatched and Sule stepped into a narrow hallway. Pulling the mask off, he ran a hand through his thinning hair, as the woman slammed the door shut and reattached the chain. She shuffled past him, her chest making a sickly rattle that became deeper and shakier with every slide of her feet. To Sule’s left was a staircase and behind him were some open boxes. He spotted an old bot tread and a battered drone with several holes in its exterior. On the boxes were more dashed circles. Taking out his phone, he snapped a sly picture.
When the woman reached the end of the hall, she beckoned for Sule to follow her through a door. He took a cautious step and his foot sank into a layer of dust on the carpet. How many days was it since anyone had walked here? Catching a sneeze, he entered the room and covered his mouth.
A man and young boy sat together on a sofa, their heads poking out from beneath a blanket. The woman dragged a wooden chair from a dining table and offered it to Sule. He sat down, grateful to rest his legs.
“I’m Magda” she croaked. “This is my husband, Tomaz,” she indicated the man. “And that is our son Baris,” she said.
“Are you really a Wimpo then?” said Tomaz, before Sule could introduce himself.
A common derogatory name for Weather Modification Police Officers, but Sule’s chest swelled with pride.
“Yes Sir, I am,” he said. “Tell me what happened here, and I’ll bring whoever is responsible to justice.”
Red raw eyes stared vacantly around.
“There’s been a crime here, hasn’t there?” Sule said. “Someone is using banned materials to seed clouds, am I right? You must have seen rocket launches or drone swarms in the sky?”
Magda started crying. Tomaz emerged from his blanket and walked across the room to comfort her. Sule stood and approached Baris.
“What about you kid, do you know what’s going on here? There were two boys brought to the city hospital the other day, sick like you. You know anything about them? Are you part of this son? You should start talking soon because the more you tell me now the easier it will be for you later.”
Baris started coughing violently, a thick slime draining from his mouth and onto the couch.
As the boy got his breathing under control, Sule brought out his phone and flashed the circle in front of the kid’s face.
“Know what this is?” he asked and stepped back into the center of the room, waving the image around. “Any of you seen this before? This is a criminal investigation, you will be charged with obstructing the truth if it transpires you are hiding information from me now.”
Tomaz left the inconsolable Magda and bowled towards Sule, his chest rumbling with each step. “Now you listen, Wimpo, we’ve nothing to do with this” he yelled. “We never asked for this to–” his tirade collapsed into a choking cough, as he fell to his knees, wincing with pain.
“Never asked for what?” said Sule. “Tell me and” I–”
An explosion outside knocked Sule to his knees. Tomaz now lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. The windows had shattered, and Sule could see Baris through the fog, his body coated in glass, his face sliced with a hundred cuts. Sule’s eyes were streaming and his ears rang from the blast. He got back on his feet, attaching his mask as he fled the house through the gap where the window had been. A high-pitched ringing continued, overlaid with his own heavy breathing. He unhooked his gun and walked into the dust cloud.
After a few strides he heard a growl and suddenly a giant wildcat emerged from the mist. As it leaped, Sule fired and caught the beast in the center of its head, killing it outright. His pace became more determined as he headed into the blast site. Gunfire erupted and Sule dove to the ground, as bullets skimmed off the road sending up loose stones which battered against his mask. He made a few retaliatory shots but heard no cries.
Ahead was a building aflame, the air around it filled with a purple tint. Sule ran to a nearby wall and peered around at the structure, its red bricks blackening from the fire, whole sections crumbled to the ground. The smoke was thick, though Sule was sure he could see barrels inside; his heart sank. If they go up, he’d be blown back to his car.
“Shit!” he yelled and dug out his phone.
His head exploded with pain, and everything went black.
Norm was dead. Heart attack. That was the first news droid agent 4672 had shared. Not about the cut on Sule’s hand and what it meant, or the outcome of his mission.
Sule stared around the ward. The bleached-white walls caused stabbing pains in his head. Three other beds were occupied, though the people in them weren’t conscious. How lucky were they to have already slipped beneath the veil?
Beeping monitors provided a comforting rhythm. An orchestra of automation for these poor souls, as they crossed over and the cadence faded. At one bed, family members gathered, and the nurse bots had pulled a curtain around to enable some privacy. Weeping drifted from under the thin material and Sule choked back his own tears when imagining Jim receiving the news.
And what? Laughing and shrugging in his infuriatingly nonchalant way?
Sule slumped back onto the pillow, the story he’d been told going around in his head. When Sule hadn’t returned later that day, or answered any calls, it was Norm, 4672 said, who’d taken a chopper to the outskirts to find him. Norm wasn’t in great shape, but the man had insisted on being there to bring his agent out, especially now the truth was revealed.
The kids in the hospital, explained 4672 in its mechanized monotone, had a smoking-related illness. After discovering a stash of old cigarettes in the loft of a relative, they soon got addicted and their daily habit had made them sick. Not long after Sule left that afternoon, they’d finally started talking.
“But what about their location chips?” Sule asked, straining the words out through gritted teeth, and taking a blast of morphine.
“Those rich brats had broken them,” replied 4672. “They’d never left the city before, ever.” And that was all the droid would divulge.
“What about the weather?” Sule demanded as he fell back onto the bed, pain coursing through his chest and lungs. “The frequent storms and heavy rain. It was wrong!”
“We’re just going through a period of unstable meteorological conditions is all, nothing to worry ourselves with. There’s nothing you could have done,” was 4672’s reply.
Sule leaned forward, getting in the droid’s face, clasping onto its metallic arm. “The explosion, the chemicals in the air, the purple smoke. God dammit! There’s barrels out there, they’re manufacturing the stuff!”
4672 had shaken its flat head and placed a conciliatory hand on Sule’s arm. “You cut yourself,” it said. “The land there is still radioactive. The infection spread quickly and soon started altering your brain. You started to smell things, see things, act… weird.”
Sule had just stared as words poured from the machine.
“We spoke to the family you visited,” it continued. “We’ve agreed to replace the window you smashed. They were scared, they thought you were going to hurt them. You accused them of being part of some conspiracy.”
“They are!” Sule screamed and 4672 clamped the morphine to his face, beating him down into the pillow. When he awoke again, the droid was gone.
Sule clung desperately to consciousness, as he continued asking himself questions. Why were those serfs gathered at the border gate? Why did the guard bots not pull them away from his car? Why was his vehicle detained? Why did it refuse to take him to the town? What are those dashed circles? Why was there no human here to debrief him?
“The serfs are organizing… the bots, the droids?”
“Are you OK?” asked a female voice.
Sule must have been muttering in his sleep. He opened his eyes a fraction.
“It’ll be over soon Mr. Bradley, no more pain,” said the nurse.
The woman moved away to another bed. Sule forced himself to watch her as she reached over to adjust his neighbor’s sheets. There at the top of her calf was a tattoo, the red dashed circle.
Outside, a commotion. A man’s voice this time, that caramel voice he loved so much.
“Where is he, can I see him?” he yelled. Please let me in!”
Sule saw Jim’s arm reach around the door, and his heart lifted and hung lazily in his chest. He sunk back onto the bed, his last breath drawn.
About the Author
Andrew Openshaw is an aspiring speculative fiction writer from Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. An avid reader of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, he is now taking tentative steps into the world of speculative fiction. Married to Josephine, he is a proud parent to the world’s noisiest cats: Maxwell, Molko & Bodhi.