Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Vox

by Ian Cordingley



The ride was rough -- a jerky take off and an erratic flight. The pilot was plugged into the cockpit through an ersatz link. A mess of cables and wires running from his eyes to the controls. Not entirely the problem: he was treating any anomaly like it was the enemy about to blow them out of the sky.

Flying fast, though. Ben hadn't gotten used to machines like these. His father had driven him up, hands on the wheel, their old clunker running on corn alcohol. The copter was so quiet it was terrifying; and seeing the ground and sky race by him did not help. His stomach churned from the spasmodic shifts in altitude.

Especially over here. Buildings that were tombstones of a bygone age. Glass broken, the sides of the buildings beginning to chip a little. Plants, mosses mostly, reclaiming the lower portions. This part of the spiraling city was abandoned early and now constituted part of the no man's land. No traps or enemies hidden here, luckily.

A man with spider's webs running down his arms manned a small machine gun. Moving too fast for their enemies who pursued them but chancing an encounter with their scouts. Both sides dipped in and out, grabbing technology and anything else they needed.

Mallory was sitting opposite to him. Quiet with two large men at either side. As if to keep her from hurling herself out or perhaps to try and kill Ben. She was a little beaten up. They cared for her. A water bottle offered and refused with a short shake of the head. The man nodded. It was nothing personal.

He had grey semicircles plugged over his ears. When they spoke it was through Ben's assistant. He could hear but not understand speech. Mallory just seemed oblivious.

I think you're beautiful.

"She'll be your age," his father had explained. Emissaries had arrived the other night, and his father held council with them. He then came in to Ben's room and tried to explain as gently as possible.

"It won't take long," he said, "and you'll be there and back within a day."

Yes, but it was a day he would have to spend with them.

To Ben's left was a man with two artificial hemispheres glued over his ears. He grunted, pointing at Ben's messenger pad, his link between them.

WE'RE ARRIVING.

Ben nodded. They were descending. The landing was hard.

Everyone fumbled with their restraints. "Are you...?" he involuntarily asked Mallory.

She said nothing, giving a quick glimpse into his eyes.

He ran his hand over the back of his head. His plug was small and squat. His father had resisted all but the most basic intrusions of the modern world. Some concessions were made, though paranoia kept Ben from being permanently linked to the larger world.

No time to think of that: off the copter, now.

They had to make this quick. The east were coming to get Mallory back. And if they could they'd grab Ben. A large man with plastic and metal threads snaking along his arms lifts a weapon. When he is confident he nodded, his voice a loud squeal of gibberish. He turned, sealing the door behind them.

They were in now.

####

The elevator still functioned. Tin Ears ran a cable from his head to an access port. Metal, long neglected, scraped and whined and with a jolt the platform receded down into the dark. Time for a few minutes of peace.

They formed a cordon around Mallory. She was not going to run, not while the elevator was in motion. Even when it reached the bottom she would remain within the party: she could run, but where to? No chance of ambush, but it reminded her she was not here as a guest.

Still in one piece. Ben had heard that they needed to take her by force. When he had arrived she had been in the copter. She looked all right but had a bandage over an eye. Just a cut. She'll be all right.

If she wasn't so downcast she would look a lot prettier.

Ben was a volunteer. Not quite, no. He didn't want to be here. He had a sense of duty, true. But not like this. But he had come without coercion. Without them kicking down the door or ripping down walls. But they knew where he was. Mallory they had to hunt.

He fingered his assistant. A triangular shaped gadget that had their gift to his father, and subsequently Ben. He slowly lifted out of his pocket.

Worth a try.

Ben fiddled with it, trying to identify which one was her. There was a little list of names---if they could be called that. Enjoying their privacy they hid behind lengthy rows of letters and numbers. A general purpose ping seemed intrusive.

His choices were to run down the list or to decide which was likely to be her.

His fingers tapped a message. He watched her face as slowly she received it. It looked like she had bitten into a lemon.

Hi.

Her head moved back a fraction. Enough so that she could register him, peripherally, but not make eye contact. What did he want?

OK?

She did not betray emotion. His assistant did not register any response.

Ben had an idea. He fished through his pockets.

A metal chirp echoed down the shaft.

Tin Ears' head spun, searching for the sound's source. The chirping disappeared. Cone Eyes and Web Arm stared at Tin Ears like he had gone mad. Tin Ears glared. Ben let the toy disappear back into his pocket. A trinket from his childhood that he carried with him whenever he was in the woods.

The others smirked a little.

Tin Ears glared at Ben, who shrugged defensively.

Ben glanced at Mallory. A small, wry grin.

Well, it was off to a good start.

OK?

Mallory nodded.

Sucks.

She nodded again.

Ben gestured with his thumbs: left or right. She replied by a rightward stabbing motion with her right thumb. Ben nodded.

They were complete and incomplete. Not screwed up, which helped. Enough of them was still together enough. There were a lot like Ben but not quite. Ben could move and think in speak. Useful in the tunnels.

Mallory? A one in a million girl. Understanding the code Ben would feed her was one thing, but doing something with it, translating it into the advanced equipment? There must not be very many like her in the world.

Not a lot like him for that matter. Some luddites were left to their own devices. Now that the fighting had started they were the greatest resource.

The lift thudded to a halt and they got off.

####

Not that he was disobedient, but he was trying to be as involved as little as possible. His father made him wait. A patient had been brought in. Suddenly: they almost kicked the door down, jamming the buzzer with a firm finger. Their arrogant, perplexed faces and wordless gestures.

Another one, probably a casualty. The fighting had no organized structure; it was here or it was there. This was not the early days when bodies lined the yard. Now they got very little warning. Tonight they did not have to clear the kitchen table; they hurried him upstairs to the sick room. A couple of old beds and tables. Very few left that room. It chilled Ben every time he had to walk past it.

It wasn't the days immediately after the crash either.

It was another night his father allowed someone the opportunity to die indoors, in a comfortable bed.

"Ben," his father said, "please bring me the green jar. The green jar?"

"Sure."

"Dammit, the plasma..."

His father had an annoying habit of talking to himself. Fragments of past cases would be muttered at less than welcome times. Their guests probably didn't hear him, and likely didn't care. Ben's father was a miracle worker. He could think whatever the hell he wanted.

Down the hall to the cupboard. The cold floorboards creaked underneath. Inside were rows of plastic bottles rimmed with coloured bands. He selected the appropriate one and went back. Burn cream. A moment of wondering what had happened. A quick second to shudder.

Trying to adapt old tools to new ends or trying to make do with a comprised brain? He had seen both.

Unfortunately his father was not waiting by the door. He had to go inside. His father had his back to him. Ben crept to the bed.

The patient was trembling. A sign of progress?

"Dad?"

"A minute."

Great. And there two of them by the foot of the bed.

Men, both in green ponchos wet with leave sticking to them. Standing stiff as if this was the most important event in their lives. All of them stood like that. Trying to impose how serious they were. Even while watching one of their own die.

Two black bulbs covered the eyes of one of them. The larger one: this was a cheap job or a rushed one. Screwed into his face, the bulbs drooped and with a finger he had to prop them back into place and gently push them in. The other, a squat man, had plastic and metal strands line his arm. His movements were slowly, sometimes jerky.

"Ben?" his father asked.

Ben gave his father the jar. By then he was rooted to the floor.

"Thank you," his father said.

"Do you need more?"

"Just a second."

His father gently applied the cream. Some soft moaning. His father had drugs to deal with the pain. His patient was hooked up to an adapted cathode ray screen displaying a squiggle of graphs and lines. Every person was different and would respond to treatment differently. Making sure he wasn't applying his patient's torment.

His father's fingers brushed back some dirty hair. A girl. Older then Ben, perhaps his age when she became inflicted with a compromised brain.

The electronics chirped. This wasn't going well.

"You can run along."

With a strength he suddenly found in his legs he strode out of the room. Let some instinctive part of him take over. Let the strength carry him out of the room, down the stairs, and onto the porch.

It was a lovely night. Early summer: longer days, warmth, and the plants coming to life. Fields of healthy green crops; the tractor, old but still usable, modified to new ends, where Ben and his father left it in partial disassembly.

His father walked down behind him. "I'm sorry you had to be there."

"Is it over?"

"Yes."

"Will they be long?"

"Not for much longer."

Ben sat on a step. His father sat next to him, placing an arm over his shoulders.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine," Ben said.

Ben's father nodded. He was slowly turning grey at the fringes of his hair and beard. He had a scar on his neck from when he pulled out his plug. He couldn't have stopped them from imprinting his son, but he could take him away to where they would have no effect on him.

Along the tree line was where you could have seen the lights of the old city. In the old days a thin ribbon of line lined the tips of the trees. And one night it suddenly disappeared. Allegedly Ben had been old enough to watch.

"Dad, why do we even help them?"

"Well, they need help. And only we can give it to them."

"Only us?"

His father sighed. "There aren't a lot like us."

There aren't many people like them: intact brains, a complete set of five senses. Over in the city they were clustered together. The really unlucky ones left where they were. Rendered useless by permanent convulsions, or sensory input so corrupted it wasn't like they were in the same world.

His father ran his fingers over the implant would have been. He understood, to an extent. But not the same way. Nobody except Ben could understand. When he was Ben's age his father could remember the pleasure and the glory. All Ben knew was the aftermath. The mess and the chaos when it came to a crashing halt.

His father gave him a pat on the shoulder.

Ben found a place to hide before they brought out the shrouded body.

####

It had batteries on the roof. In the past it could soak up the electricity from the road. Now, crippled, it was waiting for them. The doors slid open, Cone Eyes fumbling into the driver's seat and plugging himself in. With a whine the vehicle powered up, its dim lights penetrating the darkness to an extent.

They came to the road after forcing open a door marked PERSONNEL ONLY and stepping over scattered tools and debris. The road was long and wide, longer than Ben could have imagined. Sounds echoed for kilometres down pursuing the corridor's walls.

Ben was sandwiched between Tin Ears and Mallory, and another one who slammed the door shut behind him. With a sudden lurch the vehicle came to life. Slowly, building speed. There was only so much they could do, and they had to be cautious of all obstacles on the road. Obstacles of all kinds.

The road hadn't been used in years. The generators and reactors were dormant. Their ride looked a little beat up. It must have scrapped the wall before, until it was found and patched out, coming to a generation long rest.

After a few minutes Ben saw others. Cars, mostly, little boxes, some rammed together or standing with their doors open as they had been left. A cargo carrier was tipped onto its side, its load scattered across the road. The air smelled stale, vaguely like something was rotten. There had been fatalities but the corpses were supposed to have been taken away by now.

Let's see, Ben was how old? A long time.

Debate lingered on the cause, but the effects were immediate. Ben tried to imagine everyone suddenly slamming to a halt. The car doors opening, or a few locked behind them. Screaming, pounding on the windows. Screaming commands into their unresponsive cars, or just screaming.

The large wail running the breadth of the continent. The cry that rang across the planet.

The traffic was surprisingly light. Perhaps some cars had been carted off. They picked up speed. The tunnels remained dark but back in the day they would have glowed. Ben saw the advertisements and signs as they passed by, some permanently frozen, or black screens caked with dust. Garbage and litter piled in places, paper drifting by on weak currents. The smell was faint though sharp.

Ben leaned back. After the bumpy flight he feared that this part of the trip would be painfully slow and uncomfortable. He leaned his head back with some reluctance. Once it found a soft berth he closed his eyes and drew in deep breaths. He was relaxing. It almost stayed that way.

They lurched suddenly to the left. A loud metallic screeching as components ground against each other. Cone Eyes was panicking. The vehicle thundered along the side of the wall. There was a loud bang and silence.

Tin Ears had an arm stretched over Mallory. He shouted: an unformed cross of animal and machine. Cone Eyes was limp, body resting over the control panel. Web Arm had opened the door, tumbling out. He produced a weapon. He aimed. Loud metallic punching noises rang through the corridor.

Mallory looked bemused. Rescue was coming but she was in the crossfire. Studying it almost like a child.

"Get down!"

Web Arm flung back into the car. He clutched a small, growing stain on his arm. His gun dangled in the other hand.

Some babble was exchanged. Web Arm punched the vehicle's ceiling. Glass rained down from behind them. Cone Eyes groaned softly, then was quiet.

Web Arm struggled into the front seat. He ripped Cone Eyes out, plugging the connectors into plugs on his arms. He kicked Cone Eyes out the door, letting him fall softly and rest. Like a pile of rags. Slowly the vehicle began to scrape the wall. Bullets impacted the vehicle's sides. Penetrating the thin metal and plastic, perforating the already tortured sides. Ben had his arms over his head, eyes closed.

Mallory was sitting there, enjoying the fun.

Two men were taking positions behind crashed cars. Man traps had been set up on tripods. Circling, calculating. Letting a swarm of lead fly. Directed at the wheels and power plant of the vehicle. Destroying them would be a last resort.

They wanted Mallory back. Ben, if they could grab him, would be a welcome bonus.

Through a bottleneck of stalled cars they punched through. But not without a sudden gasp from the engine. The vehicle slowly crept to a putter, gracefully coming to a stop. Tin Ears pulled at Mallory. He had a gun; he leaned around the edge of the door and fired two shots.

Mallory came to her feet. Tin Ears gave her a quick inspection. He pushed her out the door. He grabbed for Ben. With a strong heave Ben was on his feet and standing on the Road, running before he could realize it.

Web Arms had reloaded: a thick stream of fire. An animal's roar raged through the corridor. Ben permitted a quick glance back. A figure lay on the floor, blood slowly seeping...no, head forward. Run.

Run for what? The walls were smooth and seamless; any hiding place would be reduced to metal shards, and did he seriously believe he could fight back?

Tin Ears seemed to know where they were going.

Bullets rang around them. Ben closed his eyes tight.

Tin Ears pushed Ben, pointed at Mallory and babbled.

A service door had opened into the wall. Tin Ears fired, babbling. Mallory nodded, standing there. Their aim was precise. They did a good job of avoiding Ben too. One way or another someone would haul Ben up to his feet and shove him through. He was going to do his job one way or another.

Tin Ears shoved them into a corner. He fired; silence followed. He glanced back at Ben. He dug around his clothes. He pulled out a gun.

Ben shook his head. Tin Ears thrust it into his chest. It felt very heavy. With no choice Ben shoved it into his belt. He would throw it away first chance he got.

Tin Ears yelped. A sticky red patch erupted under his shirt.

Ben fell in. He grabbed Mallory, pulling her inside. Behind her slammed the door. Shoving it as far as it would go. Then he grabbed Mallory's hand and ran fast as he could down the corridor.

####

He kept leading Mallory by the hand until it slipped out of his grasp. Their hands were slick with sweat and he had gotten tired of having to tug her along. Now, it being established that if he wanted to harm her he let a thousand opportunities pass, she followed along behind him. Eyes lowered, on the corridor floor. Trusting him.

Mistake: he had a paper map and his assistant but after awhile they proved useless. Clearly parallel to the main track. A junction should come soon to right them...but when? He stopped for a moment, fiddling with his assistant. A battery icon flickered in the tiny screen right hand corner.

Why not? He flicked it off. He let his back rest against the wall and slowly gave his legs permission to let his body sink to the floor.

The corridor had led to a catwalk towering over a service tunnel. The place was a maze. Ben could intuit some idea of where he was going. The control centre had to be around here someplace.

Mallory kept standing. Ben patted the floor. She looked confused.

"Sit?"

She just stared at him.

He didn't want to waste the power, but maybe they would find a recharge outlet. The way today was going the cosmos owed him. He flickered her: Sit.

She strode across from him. She sat down, regally, and perfectly crossed her legs.

OK?

She shrugged. Bandaged, bruised...what was this, really? If she was feeling depressed or traumatized from how they found her she had gotten over it by now. A few thin streams of blood trickled down her forehead, now crusty and black.

He dug around in his pockets. He found a thin paper napkin and offered it. She smiled, using it to dab the area around her bandage.

His father explained that she would be "a little banged up."

"But she'll be all right," he was quick to elaborate.

Not likely it any more than Ben, his father was powerless. He was intact, whole. He helped the near crippled. He didn't tell them what to do or think.

You seem...

Fine.

Okay. Ben knew when to keep his distance.

Mallory managed to smile. She let some hair fall over her face. Her face was a little grimy and she dabbed at it. Slowly rosy cheeks emerged.

So...you?

Mallory looked confused by the question.

Parents?

She held up two fingers. A slight change of expression on her face. She'll be dinged up...but anyone in their way? Irrelevant.

"Yeah," he said.

Since the crash, pithed masses had crawled around for awhile. Now they lashed out. Alliances and territories had stabilized. Perhaps they blamed each other for their misfortune.

The west, after today, would have a decisive advantage. Resurrect the old roads and bypass the old but serviceable overland routes. Outflank the east on all fronts. The war would end and Ben and his father would not have any more visitors.

Or maybe not. Nothing was preordained.

The east was nothing if not resourceful.

The east?

He asked Mallory about it.

Dry. Trying, but...hungry.

The west wasn't much better, but it was better. Enough food to go around, most of the time. Between the two was the large stretch of concrete forests. Most of the fighting was along there, grabbing whatever they could find that they could use or adapt to use.

West...is?

"The same. Probably worse."

Mallory nodded, her head hanging low. She looked like she was thinking about how unfair the world she was born into was. After today her life would get worse. Ben made his decision.

"Come on."

Ben got to his feet.

"We'll do this."

She smiled.

####

It didn't take long before they blundered into each other. Rounding a corner sparks flew and metal sang. They were on a catwalk below them. Ben ducked, hitting the ground, pulling Mallory with him. He barely noticed the metallic clunking behind him.

Mallory scrambled around the ground. She gave him what he had dropped.

The gun that Tin Ears had given him.

Oh God, no...

A bullet impacted behind his head. Maybe if he was careful...yes, he was inexperienced and they weren't stupid. Just as long as they could get away.

The weapon rocketed back in his hand. He managed to guide it to where the closest flash was, and managed to fire in the direction of the most distant before he ran out of ammunition.

A few more shots thumped the wall behind him. Then there was no sound. Except for his breathing, his racing pulse thundering in his ears. Mallory squealed when she saw the fatality.

Ben glanced down. One of his, lying on his stomach. His head was half there. The two at the other end fell back. His or theirs? Injured? These would be the final casualties.

He sank to his knees, letting the weapon fall. He could have vomited.

Mallory stood over him. She was beaming.

She pulled him up, leading the way.

####

Just like his father said it would be. Large, dusty, black screens and consoles with paper scattered across the floor. Some emergency power systems displaying dark red glows over the consoles; when Ben moved closer they shone back to life.

"Mallory?"

She nodded, walking next to him. She took a plug and stuck it into her neck socket. Ben dug around for his computer. He linked it into her.

"Ready?"

She nodded.

He started the sequence.

His fingers tapped in the code. His father had spent may monotonous nights teaching it to him, in hopes of it eventually being useful. Out of memory each keystroke controlled his fingers, mandating exactly the sequences and rhythms of the program.

Just like the one he had at home.

His father was useful for something. A first time for everything.

"There," he said.

The map glowed. Lines connecting the regions became solid.

Equality. No favoritism, no discrimination, and no longer any need to fight.

Mallory studied him with an indifferent look.

See?

She replied very slowly, as if she was holding something back in her mind.

Yes.

Ben smiled. He pointed up, showing where the water resources would be relayed. Balanced: the south-west and centre would have enough for their needs, provided they kept their needs modest. Electricity from the few remaining reactors was evenly distributed; lights would be dim but they could see, and now they had the ability to build more reactors.

Mallory studied the map closely, noticing the balance between east and west.

His father would be proud.

Mallory studied the map.

"Like it?"

No one in the east would ever need to fear for their lives again. No one in the west either.

Yes. Mallory's face showed the opposite sentiment.

Well, it wasn't like she did not have cause.

She turned and walked out. Ben turned off his screen.

THE END


© 2011 Ian Cordingley

Bio: Ian Cordingley's work has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Estronomicon and, of course, Aphelion (most recently, A Traveler Returns, December 2011 / January 2012).

E-mail: Ian Cordingley

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