Compile:Quest

By Ronel van Tonder

Sci-Fi

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2711
44 mins

PROLOGUE: BLACK SUNDAY

Bloemfontein, South Africa
14 February 2037

Eric came to a stop, his ears straining for the sound of the girl’s terrified whimpers. As he moved through the farmhouse, the scuffed floorboards protested his weight in a series of creaks and groans. He arrived in the kitchen. A quick scan established the room to be empty.

“Where are you?” he called out in a tight voice.

A scrape on the floor behind him made him spin around. A young boy stood in the kitchen’s entrance, his red-knuckled fingers clasping a shotgun. The muzzle dipped as the boy’s reed-thin arms quivered.

“You don’t want to do that,” Eric said, lifting his hands to his head.

His hazmat suit crumpled loudly at the elbows. The boy’s eyes narrowed, his lips compressing as he took aim. He screamed as Eric dove at him and tore the shotgun from his hands. Eric straightened and cracked open the shotgun. He emptied the shells into his palm and threw the gun into the corner of the room. His hand closed around the boy’s wrist before the child could dart away.

“Los my!” the boy yelled, jerking his arm to escape Eric’s grasp.

“Where is she?” Eric hissed. Tears streamed down the boy’s grubby face. He paled as Eric shook him. “Where is she?”

“Los my uit!” the boy cried.

Damn, he would be Afrikaans, wouldn’t he? Eric took a knee in front of the boy, easing his grip.

“Where…” He paused as he translated in his mind. “Waar is jou… uh… suster?”

“Sé nie vir jou nie,” the boy mumbled. The boy’s eyes grew wide. Then he shook his head. “Voetsek, ka—”

Eric’s grip tightened and the boy stopped speaking, perhaps realising he wasn’t in a position to negotiate.

“I’m here to help you, you little shit. Tell me where she is!”

The boy’s lips trembled, his bravado evaporating. Eric heard a moan. The boy’s eyes shot to the floor behind Eric, panic etched across his face. Eric pushed the boy away and spun around to scan the room. The kitchen held little in the way of furnishings — a table with flaking white paint, four rickety chairs and a woven rug.

Eric toed back the rug with his boot. The ancient floorboards met in a neat line that ran under the kitchen table. The table was a massive thing. Eric glanced back at the boy, scrutinising him.

“It’s too heavy for you,” he said. “They put her in there, hey? Left you in charge with the gun?”

The boy huddled against the wall. A trickle of blood ran down one skinny leg. Tears coursed through the grime on his face and dripped from his chin. “Your folks show you how to shoot that thing?”

“Los ons uit,” the boy said, but his voice wavered.

“I wish I could leave you alone,” Eric muttered, pressing his hip to the table and sliding it across the floor.

He kicked the rug away, stuck his finger in the latch, and hauled the trapdoor open. Inside the darkness of the cellar, the girl screamed. Eric glanced around for a light switch and then rolled his eyes at his own idiocy. He stepped into the cellar and hesitated, the image of the girl aiming a shotgun at his nuts giving him pause.

Just in case, he called out: “Don’t shoot!” and entered the cellar.

When his eyes adjusted to the dark he scoured the cellar. He found her behind a trunk. She squealed as he hauled her out and dragged her up the stairs.

The boy had retrieved the shotgun. When Eric’s head cleared the cellar door, the boy lifted the weapon, his chest heaving as he aimed it.

“It’s empty,” Eric said, walking past the boy without a second glance. “Put it down. There’s nothing left for you here.”

Eric lugged the girl behind him as he exited the farmhouse. The boy would follow his sister. The girl gave up tugging at him and ran along at his side. Her massive blue eyes peered up at him with a mixture of shock and dread. Yellow hair hung in dirty clumps around her face. Eric crested the hill outside the farm, sighing when he saw Bosman seated in the Land Rover.

“What took you so long?” the man asked, giving the two children a single, disinterested glance.

“Little shit tried to hide her. And he had a shotgun. I knew you should have gone in. These Afrikaners take one look at me and—”

“Get in, Ndlovu,” Bosman said. “We’ve been out too long. These suits only help so much, you know.”

Eric hoisted the girl into the back of the Land Rover and gestured at the boy trailing them.

“Come,” Eric called. “You’re going to die out here.”

The boy stood, one hand swiping at his face to get rid of the tears. Eric ground his teeth and glanced over his shoulder at Bosman.

“No, go on.” Bosman said, chuckling. “I love your Afrikaans accent.”

“Kom seun. Ons gaan ry. Jy…” Eric broke off as he searched for the right word, “Jy gaan vrek hier buite.”

The boy hesitated before running to the car and scrambling in beside his sister. They clutched each other and the girl collapsed into wailing sobs.

“A shotgun?” Bosman accelerated down the road, the Land Rover eating up the kilometres as they sped back to the intake field.

“A fucking shotgun. Loaded and everything,” Eric said.

He stared out the window as the bushveld streamed past. It was hot inside the car, even with the windows rolled down. The ancient Land Rover had no air-con — anything advanced enough to have an air-con was no longer operational.

“Whoever joined the army thinking it was just a paycheck is hating it now,” Bosman said.

Eric grunted. That’s what he’d thought when he’d signed up.

“How long do we have?” Eric asked.

“Thirty minutes, give or take. We’ll make it.”

“Close shave.”

“It’s a good thing you saw the boy.”

“Ja? Almost had my head blown off.” Eric glanced around to make sure the kids hadn’t somehow developed the ability to understand English. “You find the parents?”

The boy glared at him. Eric sighed. He thought having Bosman around would make it easier. The man was a coloured, though. Maybe it was all the same to the kid.

“Ja. Both dead,” Bosman said. “Probably a gang.”

Eric shook his head. “I don’t get it.” His hazmat suit scrunched at the elbow as he gesticulated. The sound of the thick, plastic material was exaggerated in the confined space of the cab. “Why do some people just go nuts when shit hits the fan?”

“This isn’t just shit hitting the fan,” Bosman said. “This is the fan gone, no more shit because you have to eat it you’re so hungry, and you don’t have the energy to throw anything at anything.”

Eric curled his fingers against his mouth. “That’s one way of putting it,” he muttered. He dipped his head to look at the sun through the Land Rover’s dirty windscreen. “This’ll be the last intake today. Day’s almost over.”

“This whole thing freaks me out. No electricity? No money? I mean,” Bosman’s voice lowered. He glanced over at Eric with hooded eyes. “How they going to pay us?”

“With food. At least, that’s what Sarge said.”

“They’d better.” Bosman turned off the highway, decelerating as the barricaded gate of the intake field came into view. “I’m sure as hell not doing this for free.”

Barbed wire spanned the perimeter of the eighteen hectare field. A guard dressed in a bright yellow hazmat suit glanced inside the car before shooing them through with one hand, the other clutching a Vektor R4 assault rifle. Bosman parked next to a handful of other cars and jumped out.

“You book them, I’m going for a piss,” Bosman said over his shoulder and disappeared behind one of the tents.

Eric opened the back of the Land Rover for the kids. He was ready when the boy rushed out dragging his sister, intent on running away into the bushveld.

“Nee. Kom,” Eric said, using as stern a voice as he could muster.

Eric had to kneel to pull them apart. Both kids in tow, Eric stormed over to the closest intake tent. His eyes skimmed the lines of people he passed. Some glanced in his direction. Most turned away as soon as they saw his hazmat suit.

He shouldered a man and a young boy out of the way and hauled the two kids to the table. A rotund soldier sat behind it. The mask of his hazmat suit fogged up with every exhalation.

“These are the last from sector fourteen, Corporal.”

Corporal Mokoena glanced at the two children and grunted, turning over a new page in his file. He began scribbling on the form, glancing up at the children every few seconds. Eric waited. He suppressed the urge to tap his boot as sweat began trickling down his back.

The girl tugged on Eric’s hand. “Waar’s mamma?”

Corporal Mokoena peered over the table at her, lifting his chin as his eyes slid up to Eric. “Where are the parents?”

“Dead.”

Mokoena shook his head and returned to his form.

“Waar’s mamma?” A tremor had entered her high-pitched voice.

“Bly stil, Lina,” the boy snapped.

His sister burst into tears.

“Listen to your brother and stay quiet,” Eric said, but the girl dropped to the floor and continued wailing.

“How old?” Mokoena asked, raising his voice over the girl’s shrieking.

“Don’t know.”

Mokoena lifted his head and shrugged as he glanced at them. “Then ask.”

“Hoe oud is julle?” Eric managed.

The boy scowled at him before responding. “Ek’s ses. Lina’s vyf.”

“Uh, the girl’s five, he’s six.”

“Sector?”

“Fourteen.”

“Parents?”

Eric sighed. “Dead.”

“They show violence?” Mokoena looked up at Eric when he didn’t respond immediately. “They become violent?”

“No.”

“You telling me lies, Ndlovu?” Eric paused again. Mokoena slapped down his pen, pushing himself away from the table and leaning back in his chair. “What happened?”

“He was just protecting his sister.”

“What did he do?”

“He had a gun.”

Mokoena let out a whistle through his teeth. His arms rested on his gut. “He shoot you?”

“No. I disarmed him.”

“Still.” Mokoena’s hand knocked over a few stamps scattered haphazardly on the table beside him before finding the intended one. He pressed it into a pad of red ink and slammed it down on the boy’s form.

“Corporal—”

“Rules from the top.”

“I know but—”

“Here,” Mokoena said, ignoring Eric’s plea and rifling through a stack of papers beside him. “Before I forget.”

He handed Eric a piece of paper. There were a few fingerprints on the corners. Eric took it gingerly, glancing at the conspicuous logo on the letterhead. It looked like a red sun.

Eric read the memo, laughing before he was halfway through. “This some sort of joke?”

Mokoena’s eyebrows lifted. “It looks like I have time to joke?” His arms spread to encompass rows upon rows of intake tents. Lines of people looped through the field like a lazy snake.

“No, sir.”

“Then it’s no joke.”

Eric tapped the letterhead. “Who’s this ‘SUN’?”

“Something something Network.” The corporal rested his elbows on the table as he completed the form.

“Steller Unification Network,” Eric corrected. “But who are they? I thought our orders came from SANDF?”

Mokoena let out a heavy sigh. He shrugged and leaned forward, gesturing toward the boy with a flick of his fingers. Eric gripped the boy’s shoulders and lifted him so that Mokoena could grasp his hand. The boy struggled, but Eric held him aloft long enough for the corporal to dunk his hand into a bucket on the table. When the boy’s hand came out it was stained red. He shook it, spraying Mokoena with droplets of dye.

“Sorry, sir,” Eric mumbled.

He hastily lowered the boy, who was swiping his hand against his pants. Mokoena retrieved a large, stained handkerchief and used it wipe the mask of his hazmat suit.

The corporal’s sigh fogged up the mask. “They the ones setting up the domes.”

“What domes?”

“You been out too long, Ndlovu. A lot’s happened. All new intakes now go to these temporary domes they’re setting up. They planning to build bigger ones in the next month or so. The guard will tell you where they are on the way out.”

“We have to go there?”

“This is the last. After this, whoever’s out there stays out there. There’s only so much space.”

“But they’ll die of radiation poisoning.”

“Not my problem. Give the girl.”

Eric lifted the girl. The corporal dunked her pale hand in a different bucket. The girl took one look at her purple fingers and began crying.

“Get them away,” Mokoena snapped, flicking his hand to call forward the next intake.

“What about the boy?”

“You saw the memo. Take him to the red tent.”

“I can’t just…”

Mokoena wasn’t listening anymore.

Eric headed for the Land Rover. Bosman hadn’t returned. Eric opened the back of the car and the boy helped his sister inside. He grabbed the boy’s hand and slammed the door closed.

“Haai! Wat maak jy?” the boy exclaimed.

Eric dragged him away from the Land Rover, ignoring the girl’s faint howls. The boy fought him like a wild thing. Eric lifted him and gripped him to his chest. He tried to disregard the obscenities the boy screamed at him.

“Shut up,” he hissed.

The boy went limp. Eric put him back on the ground and took his hand. He made sure every bit of the red dye was obscured by his hazmat suit’s bulky glove.

When the guard saw them approach he hoisted his Vektor. “Where you going?”

“He needs to take a dump,” Eric said.

“He must go inside.”

“The line’s around the block,” Eric said, his voice low.

The guard hesitated. He cocked his head. “Hurry, Ndlovu. I’m closing in five minutes.”

Eric hurried out with the boy, glancing back to make sure the guard had lost interest. His hazmat suit made an unpleasant whisking sound as he took the boy to a patch of scree a few meters away.

Crouching, Eric took a deep breath. He spun the boy around to face him.

“Listen to me, okay? You have to get out of here or they’ll kill you. And you need to stay out of the sun. It’s going to kill you. Find a cave. Dig a hole, I don’t know. Just stay out of the sun.”

The boy’s face remained impassive and Eric let out a hiss. He paused, translating the sentence in his mind.

“Jy moet hardloop,” Eric said, awkwardly mimicking a run while trying to remain out of sight of the distant guard. He pointed toward the distant tents.

“Hulle gaan jou dood maak. Jy moet grou. In die grond. Die son,” Eric stabbed up at the sun, “gaan jou dood maak. Grou, en jy sal okay wees.” He made a digging motion in the sand in front of him until the boy began to nod. “Grou, en jy sal leef.” Dig, and you’ll live. Again the boy nodded, tears forming in his eyes.

“My suster?” he asked.

“Sy’s okay.” Eric gave the boy a thumbs up. “Sy sal leef.”

He left the wide-eyed boy in the thicket and returned to the barricade.

“Where’s the kid?” the guard snapped.

“I let him go,” Eric replied. The guard tensed and Eric shrugged. “It’s better than what they’ll do to him.”

“Who?” The guard’s fingers tightened around his Vektor. “What you talking about?”

Eric stopped and frowned at him. “You haven’t heard?”

“What? Heard what?”

“They’re killing them all.”

“Who?” The guard spun around as if trying to locate the source of this spontaneous genocide.

Eric whipped out Mokoena’s letter and waved it at the guard until he took it. He didn’t wait for the man to finish reading.

“These SUN people. They’re building this—” Eric waggled his fingers over the page “—dome and letting the peaceful people go inside. Say’s it’ll keep them from getting radiation poisoning.”

“What about the rest?” the guard asked.

“They’re gassing them.”

“All of them?” The guard whispered, his eyes skittering over the page.

“Even the kids,” Eric said.

CHAPTER 1: MASH-TECH

300 YEARS LATER...
Club_0, Lower Northbridge, Africa Dome

Peppermint danced. Hands flung over her head, eyes shut, she danced. Her hips gyrated in time to the pulsating rhythm of the mash-tech track blaring through her earbuds. Rocking her shoulders, she granted the music full control of her body and abandoned her limbs to its every wanton demand.

Fingers grasped her wrist. Peppermint jerked, her eyes flashing open. She smiled as she focused on Nick. He grinned back and slid against her. They settled into a new rhythm, their hips grinding together with the quickening tempo. Her eyes locked on his and she matched him move for move, their pace accelerating as the track soared.

The break came. Peppermint evaporated. The hands on her hips were only things keeping her atoms from scattering into oblivion. Nick gripped both her wrists and tugged at her and tapped her earlobe, lifting his eyebrows. Her feet relented and came to a rest.

Peppermint’s thumb slid across the tips of her index fingers. Her broad Cerberus ring reflected a red strobe light as she lowered the volume in her earbuds.

Her ears were ringing. “What?” she said, too loudly.

“Maple’s in the bass room,” Nick replied.

His voice was deep and melodic in the sudden silence. He cocked his head, sliding his fingers between hers and tugging at her hand until she followed.

“But I like it here,” Peppermint’s words muffled as her teeth clenched.

Nick stopped and turned back to her. “She wants you there, P.” She shivered as his hand brushed her bare arm. “Come.”

Multi-coloured strobe lights speared the room and illuminated the billows of smoke pouring from the ceiling — mint flavoured, tonight. Club Zero pumped, its massive main dance floor packed with hundreds of denizens. Their bodies jerked in time to an inaudible beat as they travelled through the rainbow fog. Shuffling feet and laboured breathing were the only sounds in the room.

Nick’s finger traced her collarbone. “Still peaking?”

She convulsed at his touch and his lips lifted in a small, satisfied smile.

He shook his head at her, his smile turning fond. “Looks like it to me.”

It must have been hours since her dose of jOy had kicked in. The peak usually lasted an hour or two, but she was still definitely in danger of leaving the planet.

Peppermint touched her thumb to the tip of her index finger and peered at the hologram that appeared beside Nick. Her eyes shuddered as she attempted to focus on the glowing pink icons of the weConnect program console. Half past two. She’d been dancing for three hours.

“Let’s go.” She upped her volume just enough to hear the current mash-tech track. Her head started to bob.

Nick’s fingers tightened around hers and he led her through the shifting crowd. The people parted around him. He was a mesobuild denizen — rangy with wide shoulders and a slim waist. Peppermint clutched his hand for fear of being separated.

Unlike him, Phoenix had decided she should be an ectobuild. She came to Nick’s chest, and had slender limbs. Where denizens rebounded from him they crashed into her, tossing her around until her head spun.

A dark rectangle emerged from the chaotic tangle of dancing bodies. Vibrations thrilled into her feet as they approached. They descended a ramp, each step taking them deeper into a pulsing bass. Even here, the music was just in her earbuds. She winced as it switched from mash-tech to thrash-dub.

As Peppermint’s eyes flashed through the crowd, holographic panels appeared around each denizen’s head, snapping off when her gaze moved. Disorientation flooded her. She pulled back on Nick’s hand and swooned against the wall. Her naked back cringed from its chill touch.

“What’s wrong?” Nick dipped his head down beside her as he stared into her eyes.

“Can’t… too much—”

Words abandoned her. Nick held up her hand and knocked their Cerberus rings together. Then he pressed the tip of her pinkie finger. The holograms disappeared. He bent, eyebrows lifting as he peered into her eyes. She nodded and grinned up at him.

He led her forward and they stepped into the subterranean pit that was the bass room. More denizens danced here. Their bodies squeezed together, forming a solid mass of sweaty, heaving flesh. Nick kept her to the circumference of the crowd. He tugged her into one of the many alcoves carved into the wall around the dance floor.

Maple sat in the pale leather booth. Her eyes were closed and a stranger massaged her neck and shoulders. Nick slid in beside her, tugging Peppermint until she followed. The man glanced over at them and exchanged a nod with Nick.

“Want something to drink?” Nick asked.

He drew her hand into his lap, his fingers tightening around hers, dragging through and entwining again. It was delicious, and she trembled.

“P?”

“Huh?” She snapped back from the velvety darkness she’d been lost in.

“You want something to drink?” Nick asked.

“Go.”

“Flavour?”

“Strawberry coffee,” she said.

He pushed past her, disappearing into the throng of bodies. Peppermint brushed her thumb over her fingertips and music flooded into her ears. She gasped as a hand clutched her shoulder. Her eyes flashed open, settling on a grinning Maple. The woman grinned at her, sliding over the vinyl bench until their thighs slapped together. Peppermint lowered the volume on her earbuds.

“Hey.” Maple’s blond curls bounced as she struggled to arrange her clothing.

How could she wear such a skin tight slasher dress? It was made from a reflective, silvery fabric that wrapped around her in thin strips, revealing slits of her shiny underwear with every shift of her body.

“Hey,” Peppermint managed, her eyes fixing to Maple’s dress for the longest time as she struggled to comprehend how the woman got into the it.

“Funning it up?” Maple asked.

Peppermint managed to unglue her eyes from Maple’s dress, only to have them stick to the woman’s lips.

“Yeah,” Peppermint replied, her voice soft and distracted. She lifted her hand, making a circle around her mouth as she stared in awe at Maple’s lips.

“It’s new. You like it?” Maple asked.

Her lipstick was fascinating, yet disturbing. Her lips coruscated in a rainbow of colours as she spoke. Maple gripped the back of Peppermint’s head, pulling her in for a kiss. When Peppermint’s eyes snapped open again, her clustermate was grinning impishly at her.

“There, now you have some, too.”

Peppermint reached up, touching her lips and staring down at her fingers in amazement. The strange substance coated her fingertips. She lost at least fifteen minutes staring at her wriggling fingers.

“DJ’s thrashing it,” Maple said, and Peppermint peered up at her again, nodding in agreement even though she couldn’t hear a thing.

She turned up her volume just enough to make out the track. Data, the DJ was thrashing it! Maybe she could learn to like thrash-dub. Her head bobbed, and she turned back to the crowd, searching for Nick. Why was he taking so long? Her mouth was glued shut from thirst.

“Hey, Titan here gives amazical massages. You want?”

She shook her head at Maple and the motion turned into a gentle rocking, syncing with the music.

As if his name had been an invitation, Titan slipped past Maple and sat beside her.

“Hey, Peppermint,” he said.

Peppermint glanced up at him. Ugh, another mesobuild. Her neck was aching already. And what was up with his tan? His skin was bronze, the muscles on his arms in danger of ripping his white t-shirt.

“Hey, Titan.” Her fingers moved unbidden to tap on her pinkie finger, and a hologram appeared around the man’s face.

Titanium 3487AF

Age: 26

Relationship Status: In a cluster with Holly, Juniper, Willow, Feldspar

Residing: East Northbridge.

“Hey, you enjoy Manic Depressors, too?” she said, recognising the name of one of his favourite bands.

“They’re the best,” he agreed, his teeth flashing as he smiled at her.

He was a gorgeous, just like everyone else in the dome, but when he moved closer and their bodies connected she flinched. “You okay?”

“I’m just… not—” Her words died away as she gestured.

He slid away, shrugging. Maple’s hand slid over Peppermint’s shoulder, pulling her close. She got a whole lot of Maple-scent up her nose; oranges and vanilla and something spicy.

“Where’s Nick?” Peppermint asked. “He’d been gone forever.”

“Went to fetch drinks, P.”

“That’s why I hate it here.” Peppermint pushed Maple’s hair out of her face.

“Where, Zero?”

“The bass room. There’s no bar here.”

Titan had decided to stay. He gazed at them with undisguised interest, his fingers twitching as he no doubt went through their social profiles. Nick’s hand closed over the man’s shoulder. Titan turned around, eyes widening. Nick smiled at him, cocking his head to the side.

“Move over bud,” he said, his voice resonating with amicability.

Titan nodded and slid aside, letting Nick in beside Peppermint. He handed them each a bottle of Go before turning back to Titan.

“See you like Manic Depressors. Peppermint loves them.”

“Yeah I know,” Titan replied dismissively. He glanced at them and then back at Nick. “You guys leaving soon?”

“Probably,” Nick said, his hand slipping around Peppermint’s waist.

She shifted until her head rested on his shoulder instead of Maple’s — she’d had enough of blond curls in her face for now. Nick’s hand caressed her back before delving into her hair. He drew it over her face, twining the sleek purple strands around his fingers. Her eyes fluttered closed at his touch, electric veins of energy spearing through her and rendering her incapacitated.

“Why, you wanna hook up?” she heard Nick prompt, when Titan didn’t respond.

Peppermint sighed. Mmmm, home. Warm bed, coffee, pyjamas. Nick’s hand tightened in her hair, dragging her back to reality. She opened her eyes and saw he was smiling down at her, his face radiating a love so intense her spine melted.

“Yeah, I think she’s done for tonight. What you think, M?” Peppermint turned her head, jerking up. Maple was gone.

Nick gripped the back of her neck and turned her head until she was facing Maple. The woman stood a few meters away on the edge of the bass room’s dance floor. Her body undulated to the music, her hands in her hair. Peppermint realised she was zoning out watching her dance and pushed herself away from Nick. She twisted open the bottle of Go and chugged down most of it.

“Maple,” Peppermint called out.

Maple must have turned her volume up all the way, because she wasn’t paying them any attention. Nick gave Peppermint a small push, and she rose to her feet, the ground spongy beneath her as she made her way to Maple.

“Nick says we have to go.” She paused and then nodded. “Yeah, we have to go.”

“One more track!” Maple whined, reaching out and gripping her hips.

Peppermint tried glancing back at Nick, but Maple pulled her close, grasping her hand and clicking their rings together. Maple drew her finger over Peppermint’s fingertips. Music washed over her again, and she surrendered herself to it.

“I have a surprise for you,” Nick whispered into her ear.

Peppermint’s eyes flashed open. She started in surprise. Her heart hammered in her throat. She was in Nick’s lap, his arms around her waist. Maple sat beside them, receiving yet another massage from Titan.

“Hey, is your volume down?” Nick asked and she nodded, willing her heart to steady.

“Zoned out,” she managed through numb lips.

“Don’t you want to know what it is?”

“What?”

“Your surprise?”

“Oh. Yes. What? What is it?”

Nick removed her hand from his leg, holding it up and tapping his ring against hers. He stared at her, biting his bottom lip with anticipation. She peered up at him, lost in his warm brown eyes.

His contact lenses were visible as a pale line around his irises. She leaned closer, focusing on the network of tiny circuits spanning the circumference of each lens. As he stared back at her, his eyes shifted. Light caught the section of the lens covering his pupil, refracting in a quick yellow glow.

Nick’s breath stirred her lips. She was less than a centimeter from him, having lost herself in his tech. His hands slid up her back. Their lips met. Peppermint disappeared into a world filled with strawberry coffee, spicy aftershave and Nick’s sweet tasting mouth. When she reared back from him, her head spun. Her teeth clamped together. A massive grin parted Nick’s now rainbow-sprinkled lips.

“Did I just make you peak again?”

“You scuzzy,” she muttered.

He shook her wrist and she remembered his surprise. Her fingers fumbled, opening Nick’s weConnect profile instead of her own.

Nickel 3894AF

Age: 26

Relationship Status: In a cluster with Maple, Peppermint, Rose

Residing: Upper Southbridge.

Peppermint glared at him “Hey, why’s Rose still on your profile?”

Nick’s shoulders slumped at the question. He sighed, both hands grabbing her arms.

“I haven’t had time to—”

“She was deleted more than four weeks ago, Nick,” Maple said, startling Peppermint with her unexpected input into their private conversation.

“Look, I’ll do it now, okay?”

Peppermint shook her head at him. She gripped his face between her hands, forcing him to stare down at her.

“We all miss her, Nick. But she’s gone,” Peppermint whispered.

Nick’s eyes flitted away from her and a frown formed between his brows, but she leaned in until he had no choice but to look at her. “Keeping her on your profile just makes every stage of grief take longer get through.”

“Pepper’s right,” Maple said, touching his neck. “You have to take her off your profile.”

“It’s already—look—she’s been greyed out,” Nick protested. “And when you go in, it says she’s deleted.”

Maple drew them both into a hug. Peppermint inhaled a deep breath that carried their combined scent to her in a warm, familiar aroma. Tears pricked at her eyes.

Titan cleared his throat. “You guys still leaving?”

They turned to stare at him. Peppermint caught Nick’s eye, and he smiled up at her.

“As soon as Peppermint opens her surprise,” Nick said.

Peppermint straightened her back, nodding as she selected her own weConnect profile.

“Open your inbox,” Nick said. It took her a moment to figure out what he’d given her. When she did, her hand pressed against her mouth. “No. You didn’t.”

“I wasn’t going to use it.”

“But—” she shook her head, glancing between him and the holographic projection of a level five virtual reality coupon. “I can’t, Nick, I can’t—”

“Take it. It’s going to expire in two days. You might as well—” He didn’t get any further.

Peppermint launched herself at him. “Thank you!” she said, speaking against his lips.

She felt him smile. “Anything for you, P,” he whispered.

When she drew back Maple’s face was set in a stormy expression.

Her clustermate crossed her arms over her chest. “Why’d she get a coupon?”

“It’s almost her inception day, M. Come on.”

“But I wanted it.”

“You won a voucher like four days ago. Stop being such a pluck.” Maple pouted, and Peppermint stuck her tongue out at Maple, transforming her pout into a frown.

“Hey you two, Titan’s about ready to burst a seam. We can sort this out at Peppermint’s place.”

“Why My house?”

“M’s is a total dive, you know that, and I’m all the way in Southbridge. Unless—” Nick turned to Titan, but the man shook his head quickly.

“My clustermates kicked me and Feldspar to the curb. They said they wanted a girl’s night.”

“He coming with us?” Nick asked.

Peppermint cringed. More people?

“Nah, he went to Club One,” Titan replied. “Say’s the music’s better there.”

“P? You fine with this?” Nick asked.

It was impossible to deny him anything. “Fine, whatever,” Peppermint said.

Pyjamas, coffee, bed. Not necessarily in that order, but the coffee was a pre-requisite.

CHAPTER 2: RUBBER BULLETS

Somewhere above the Rooivalk Digger Colony, African Continent

Jinx eased her finger from the trigger of her Glock. She exhaled, ears straining for any sound other than the rhythmic chirruping of crickets. The midday sun broiled her skin. Sweat trickled between her breasts and down the small of her back. Her long, dark braid had partially unravelled, the escaped strands slicked against her damp neck.

She crouched in a thicket. Its desiccated foliage was barely dense enough to provide enough cover. Squinting through the bush, she wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. She kept her pistol trained on the last place she’d seen her attacker.

Silence was key.

Her breathing was deep but silent — it didn’t even stir the leaves by her mouth. She heard a crunch of grass underfoot and shifted, altering her vantage point. Shells of derelict buildings littered the surrounding savanna, their collapsed walls eaten away by decades of sand storms and gales. The ground undulated over a wide area. A small depression darkened the terrain a few meters away. A good hiding place. Perhaps she should use the acacia tree to her left as cover and make a break for—

Another crunch, closer, to her right. Too late. He already knew where she was.

Her heart thudded in her chest as her finger slid over the trigger again, left hand gently cupping her right for support. She dipped her elbow just enough to enable flexibility without encouraging additional recoil.

Another footstep. She blinked stinging sweat from her eyes. One last crunch. He was here.

Jinx jumped up. She let out a victorious cry as her finger squeezed the trigger. The shot fired into empty air. The hairs on the back of her neck shot up. She twisted around and ducked under the man’s swinging fist.

Raising her weapon, she tried to get off another round. The man spun around and kicked her handgun from her fingers. The resulting shock wave ran up her arm, knocking her teeth together.

She dropped to the ground and scrambled after her weapon, but the man was too fast. His foot caught her in the stomach, sprawling her onto her back.

The man’s brown eyes glittered as they caught the sun. He lifted his M1911. A slow smile spread on his lips as he aimed.

“Sergeant Pearce! Stand down!”

The man jerked.

Jinx winced, anticipating a bullet. Nothing happened. Pearce’s eyes narrowed at her as he lowered his weapon. She smirked up at him and scrambled to her feet. He turned on his heel, snapping off a salute as Major Vanbuuren strode toward them.

She stood to attention beside Pearce. Her fingertips touched her forehead as the dust settled around them. She kept her expression neutral as the Major stopped. His eyebrows knotted as he glared at Pearce.

“You suddenly lost the ability to measure distance, Sergeant Pearce?”

“Sir, no sir!”

“Then what the hell are you doing firing at Sergeant Jinx from less than four meters away? And if there’s anything besides rubber bullets in those guns—”

“Sir, I was intimidating her, sir,” Pearce interrupted.

Jinx’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. She gave Pearce a grudging inward nod of admiration. She would never dare to interrupt the Major in the middle of a shake down.

“I never planned to fire, sir,” Pearce added, his voice an octave too high.

Jinx felt her lips twitch, but when the Major turned, her face froze into a stoic mask.

“Intimidating her?” the Major barked. “That’s no way to intimidate someone, Sergeant. This is how you intimidate someone.”

The Major’s immaculately restored Vektor Z88 appeared as if by magic a centimeter from Jinx’s forehead. Her legs dropped from under her, depositing her in the sand before she could blink. The violent fall knocked the air from her lungs and she puffed up dust as she tried hauling air back into them. The Major flipped her over with his boot and leaned down. His gray eyes drew to slits under his thick eyebrows.

“Are you fully intimidated, Sergeant Jinx?”

“Sir… yes…” she wheezed, “sir.”

“On your feet, Sergeant!”

Jinx straightened, wincing.

The Major doled out a glare between them. “What the hell are you two doing out here?”

“Training, sir,” Pearce supplied and Jinx scowled at him.

“This area’s off limits. Unless you two were looking to run into a Wildebeest raiding party just for the bloody fun of it.”

“Sir, no sir,” they chimed.

Pearce saluted, drawing Vanbuuren’s eye. “What they want out here?” Pearce asked.

“I’ll be sure to ask the next one I see, Sergeant.” The Major faced Jinx. “Training, né? Don’t see any vests.” His fingernail flicked her shoulder. “No gloves, no visors. No protective gear whatsoever. And who authorised this training session of yours?” His sarcasm laden words told her exactly what he thought of that excuse. “You have five seconds, Sergeants, before you’re both on dish-duty for the next—”

“We were settling a wager, sir,” Jinx snapped, forgetting herself long enough to glare at Pearce.

“Now you’re gambling? I’m gone for two days and the entire fucking squad goes to shit?”

“Sir, no sir,” they barked in unison.

Jinx snapped off a salute, just in case. The Major glared up at her, and then down at Pearce.

“You leave your casings lying around?”

Pearce hesitated. Then, “Yes, sir.”

“How many?”

Pearce squirmed.

Jinx cleared her throat. “We both shot off quite a few rounds, sir.”

“Pearce, get the casings. Jinx, follow me.” The Major turned on his heel, marching back through the underbrush.

Pearce grabbed her arm as she turned away.

“Why didn’t you tell me he’d be back today?” he hissed.

His brown eyes flickered between hers, intent on her response.

“I didn’t know!” She jerked her arm free. “Don’t you think if I’d known I would’ve—”

“Jinx!” the Major barked, and she flinched.

Pearce shook his head and hurried away, already searching through the scree for the spent rubber bullets. Jinx jogged to the Major, her gait uneven.

“Pearce give you that limp?”

“It’s nothing.”

“You shouldn’t be out here. It’s not safe.”

“For who?” She saw his lips quirk up and allowed herself a small smile.

“I have intel for you.”

“Good or bad?”

He paused, glancing over his shoulder toward where Pearce had disappeared. Then he cocked his head to the crooked shell of a building a few meters away. He slipped into its shadow and beckoned her with a flick of his hand. She limped after him and leaned against the wall, slumping to his eye level. The Major never seemed put off by her height, but it made talking easier.

Her eyebrows lifted when he remained silent. “Good or bad?” she hissed.

“Decide for yourself,” he said.

He pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket. Jinx took the soft, grubby paper, folded countless times, exhaling sharply as she unfolded it. She tipped it toward the sun to read the faint scratches of two pencilled names.

Her eyes narrowed. “Ne-els Za-zach—” she began.

“Neels Zachman and Brett Steyn,” Vanbuuren said.

Her lips parted in expectation. “Is it—”

“It’s not him,” the Major whispered, his words mixing with a sigh. “But he might know him.”

Her fingertips brushed the names. “How? Did they see him?”

“It’s the same person. He was on guard that night. His new name is Brett. But call him Neels and tell him you’re from Rooivalk. That’ll get his attention.”

Her eyes snapped to his, blazing blue meeting gray. “He was there? How do you know?”

“I have my sources.” The Major shrugged. “This is good intel, Jinx. You’re going to find him this time.”

Pressure swelled behind her eyes. Jinx caught her lip between her teeth, glancing away from Vanbuuren’s intense stare.

“I don’t know how to thank you, Major.”

“You call me Sol when it’s just me and you.”

“Sol.” She nodded, lifting the paper a fraction. “Thank you. You’ll let me go to the city during personal time tonight?”

“When is anything ever that easy, Jinx?”

Her heart thudded as Sol stepped closer. His palm pressed against the wall behind her.

She glanced at his hand. “What…” Her shoulders dug into the bricks.

“You won’t find him in the city,” Sol whispered, throwing a glance over his shoulder.

“He’s… dead?” she ventured.

“No, but he may as well be.”

“You’re not—”

“He’s at the Wildebeest colony.”

She stared at Sol, rendered speechless for a few moments. “No… but… then how—”

Sol lifted two fingers, silencing her. He glanced over his shoulder again.

“Pearce is going to be busy for a while,” she said, twisting her head to try and catch his eye. “Do you have a plan? Is there some way I can get into Wildebeest?”

He trapped her fingers in his hand, squeezing as if trying to crumple the paper in her palm.

“I wish I had better news, Jinx. But the trail ends here. Maybe one day, things will be different—”

Her voice sounded stronger than she’d expected. “I’ll go tonight.”

“Not a chance.” Sol frowned, his grip tightening.

“But—”

“You won’t get within sight of Wildebeest before they shoot you down like a dog.”

“I’ll hide—”

“That’s an order, Sergeant!” he snapped.

Her chin dipped as she blinked at him. “But, Sol—”

“No. It’s not the way. Your chance will come. Just be patient.” Sol tore his hands away from her and stared out over the savanna. “What’s taking him so long?”

He stepped back, peering out past the wall, eyes narrowed against the glare thrown off by the pale sand. “I thought you only shot a few rounds?”

“I did,” Jinx said. “He shot a lot more.”

The Major huffed a short, rueful laugh, shaking his head. Sunlight gleamed in his black, slate-streaked hair, casting shadows under his strong nose and chin.

“What’s the real reason you two’re out here?”

“He didn’t want the other men to see me kicking his ass. Again.”

Sol glanced away. “So you weren’t…”

“What? No. Never. He’s… we’re—” A blush crept up her neck.

Sol’s voice was gruff. “I don’t want to hear it.”

Jinx folded up the paper and slipped it into the breast pocket of her fatigues. Her gaze dipped down, and she slapped at her empty holster.

“Shit. My Glock.”

“You left it behind?” Sol twisted his head, his eyes narrowing as they focused on her. “Go get it,” he said. “On the double, Sergeant!”

She leapt forward before he could complete the command, her muscles trained to follow his commands without the involvement of her brain.

Reaching the small thicket where the Major had found them, Jinx fell to her knees, hands splayed as she searched for her weapon. She heard quick footsteps behind her. Then the click of a safety releasing.

She sighed and her head sagged down. “Really, Pearce? The Major’s already pissed—”

“Get up nice and slow, meisie,” the man behind her said.

Jinx’s breath caught in her throat as her muscles tensed.

That wasn’t Pearce’s voice. She tried to get a peripheral view of the man standing behind her, but instead spotted her Glock nestled under a nearby bush. Jinx straightened. She interlaced her fingers behind her head and rested on her heels.

“Who are you?” She glanced at her Glock.

“Names aren’t important,” the man replied happily.

“Ja nee. You from Wildebeest then?”

He had to be. Otherwise he would’ve recognised her. But her throat was tight, her heart thundering away in her chest. He’d gotten it wrong. Names did mean something out here. Because it was nice to know the name of your captor when you screamed for mercy. Dry earth crackled underfoot as the man stepped closer. Damn Sol and damn Pearce and damn herself, most of all. This was not how she died.

“What are you going to do to me?” Jinx whimpered, injecting as much desperation into her voice as she could muster.

“Getting some lekker ideas,” the man took another step closer.

“Né? Me too.” Jinx dove onto her stomach and rolled away.

The man fired.

Six shots chased her into the bush, the last grazing the top of her arm. She fumbled with the Glock as she rolled over it and dropped it into the sand again, out of arm’s reach. She shifted, reaching for it, but the man gripped her ankle. He tugged and grunted when she didn’t move.

Jinx aimed a kick at his head. He blocked it with his arm but staggered back. Lips twisting into a sneer, he slammed a new magazine into his weapon with trained precision. He lowered the yawning barrel.

“Some other time then.” His lecherous smile assured her this would be immediately after death — while she was still nice and warm.

Jinx closed her eyes as she waited for death.

A shot rang out. Her eyes opened as she slapped her chest. A wave of icy relief flooded through her when she didn’t encounter any bullet holes.

The man’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. His face grew slack, the hand holding his weapon twisting to touch against his chest. Jinx rolled onto her side, clutched the Glock, and rolled back. She fired six rubber bullets into the man’s face. His left eye popped, spattering her with warm fluid. She grimaced and pushed herself up on her elbows.

Pearce materialised behind the man, cheeks flushed with exertion. He shook his head at her, switching the empty magazine in his weapon with another, no doubt this one loaded with rubber bullets. He lifted a finger to his lips, panting, before pressing his hands pressing to his knees.

“Thanks, Pearce,” she said.

She waited for her hammering heart to calm before rising to her feet. She caught sight of the Major marching toward them, his face set in a scowl. “Uh… you win, okay?” she added, glancing at Pearce.

Jinx shrugged her head into her shoulder, smearing the dead man’s gunk from her face. Still labouring for breath, Pearce shook his head, hand swiping the air in front of him.

“Doesn’t… work… like… that,” he heaved, straightening as the Major drew to a halt.

Sol glanced between them and then down at the man with the wrecked face. The Major stabbed toward the Wildebeest man with a victorious finger.

“And that, Sergeants, is why you keep a distance of four meters.”

“Sir, yes sir,” they chorused.

CHAPTER 3: FANTASY OASIS V3.4

WePlay Centre, Lower Northbridge, Africa Dome

A sea breeze caressed Peppermint’s face, cooling the sheen of moisture on her skin. Waves broke on the shore, their gentle crashes mingled with the whinnying of unicorns at play. Earlier, the massive silver creatures had strutted past her and disappeared between the palm trees lining the beach.

Peppermint shifted in the padded deck chair. A slow tingle coursed through her skin as the sun baked her. Was she thirsty enough to retrieve the exotic cocktail wedged in the sand beside her? She opened her eyes, her sunglasses filtering most of the glare from the sand as she stared at the ocean. A distant pair of dragons danced on thermals, their onyx bodies a stark contrast to the cerulean sky.

A cotton-ball cloud appeared. Flickered. Then reappeared.

The coconut’s bendy straw beckoned her parched lips. She reached for it, but her fingers closed around empty air.

“Ah, come on!” She grimaced and tried again.

As she watched, the coconut’s fine brown hairs pixelated. Peppermint ground her teeth and looked back at the beach. She was enjoying herself. This was fun.

Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, Peppermint closed her eyes. For a while she thought of her morning spent with Nick, Maple and Titan and his clustermates — what a rager. Smiling, she let out a small sigh, her hand sliding over the deck chair and slipping into the warm sand. Maybe she should turn onto her stomach and get more sun on her back. Her eyes opened as she prepared to reposition herself.

A gigantic, three-dimensional 5:00 hung in the sky. Then the timer began a count down.

4:59.

4:58.

4:57.

She glared at it before turning onto her stomach and nestling her face into her warm, sweaty arms. The breeze carried a fine spray of sea water. She shivered when it touched her.

Peppermint’s eyes snapped open at the sound of a wave crashing around her. Propping herself on her elbows she twisted her head around and groaned. A sparkling wave hovered above her. It flickered between the break line and her deck chair.

Thousands of water particles shimmered in the surrounding air, cleaving to her skin when she swung her legs over the side of the chair. She watched impassively as the dragons fell from the sky, jerked ninety degrees and then exploded in a cloud of pixels. The roiling surface of the ocean shifted through the colour spectrum — pink, shifting into yellow, blue and finally an obscene purple.

Her head sank into her hands. “Phoenix!” The word was muffled.

“Good p.m., Peppermint. How may I be of assistance?” Phoenix, the Africa Dome’s virtual assistant cum artificial intelligence program, spoke in a calm, androgynous voice.

“The VR’s glitched out.”

“You have fifteen minutes remaining in this virtual reality simulation. Would you like to abort?”

“Yes. Wouldn’t want a unicorn falling on my head.”

“VR aborted.”

“I demand a refund.” She knew how petulant she sounded, but she’d been looking forward to this VR session the entire day.

“All details of the technical difficulties you have experienced can be appended to the comments section of your survey,” Phoenix informed her.

Palm trees, sand dunes and sparkling waves disintegrated, leaving Peppermint in absolute darkness. She tapped her foot as she waited for light to return. A dim illumination suffused the spacious VR bubble. The interior consisted of a flexible screen wrapped around a steel frame, the canvas for the usually flawless CGI renders displayed in each session.

The pink sand she stood on shifted. Peppermint grimaced, clambering onto the deck chair as slots opened in the ground and the sand drained away.

A click beside her indicated the bubble’s hatch had unlocked. It opened at her approach and she descended into the climate-controlled air of the bubble’s changing room, shivering as her sweat cooled. The shiver became a shudder of revulsion as she caught sight of the child-sized auto-bot stationed beside the steps. She snatched the towel it held and strode to the weDress clothing dispenser on the far side of the room.

“Your survey is now available and is due to be submitted in four hours,” Phoenix told her.

Peppermint sighed.

It wasn’t the relaxed, amiable sigh of before, but an irritated exhalation that whistled through her teeth. She slipped off her generic silver bikini and accessed the clothing dispenser’s menu. A stab at the ‘favourite’ icon selected the same clothes she’d worn when she arrived. A small chime sounded. Peppermint grabbed out the clothes packet and tore it open with her teeth.

Throwing on her jeans and shirt she spun around and flung her damp towel at the auto-bot. It clawed at the towel on its head and she allowed herself a small smile as she left the VR room. A faint fizzle above her as she exited made her glance up. The sign above the door flicker from ‘Fantasy Oasis’ to ‘Out of Order’. Peppermint snorted.

Entering the waiting room, she scanned the sofas pushed to the wall. She sank into the first available one. Lines of denizens patiently waited to enter one of the fifteen VR rooms inside the wePlay Centre, but she didn’t recognise anyone. Still flushed with residual heat, she fanned herself, opening her weConnect program while she waited for her cheeks to stop burning.

The holographic display appeared in front of her, a blank wall on the other side of the waiting room creating a perfect canvas. Thumbnail images lined the sleek user interface, highlighting trending videos and topics. A news feed took up the right-hand column, newer items slotting in every few seconds. But her eyes fixed on the main information pane, and she failed to suppress her groan.

“Seven pages?” she moaned.

A man seated beside her glanced over at the sound of her voice, and she glared at him until he turned away. She read the first survey question.

‘How would you rate your overall impression of Fantasy Oasis V3.4?’

Her eyes hovered over the slider on the iconographic keypad at the bottom of the display. The word ‘unsatisfactory’ appeared, and the question greyed out.

‘Would you spend more time in this virtual reality?’

No.

‘How would you rate the rendering detail of the models in Fantasy Oasis V3.4?’

‘Would you recommend Fantasy Oasis V3.4 to your friends?’

No

Peppermint worked her way through the survey in a matter of seconds.

‘Do you have any comments?’ Instead of manually selecting a reply, she crossed her arms over her chest and leaned forward.

“It sucked. Death by glitches. I demand a coupon refund. And dragons are totally twentieth century,” she said. “The unicorns were amazical,” she admitted, “but they were there for like three seconds.”

There was a pause as her words appeared on the form. Her eyes hovered on ‘submit’. A full-screen image of Maple’s latest selfie replaced the form. She was at Peppermint’s apartment, and from the state of the photo, it looked like her and Nick were still in bed. There was a third person’s foot in the photo. Either Titan or one of his clustermates. She touched her pinkie and the weConnect display faded.

Peppermint left the wePlay centre and stood on the concrete paving, trying force her irritation out with a long exhale. It didn’t work. Small, pod-shaped vehicles rushed past on the road in front of her. Tinted windows rendered their occupants invisible.

A beep in Peppermint’s ear alerted her to a call. She opened weConnect to see who was calling.

“You finished?” Maple asked as soon as Peppermint accepted the call.

“Yeah.”

“Aaaand? How was it?”

“Totally glitchy.”

“Well then, get your ass back—” Maple’s voice faded.

“Your Medex visit is scheduled to begin in ten minutes,” Phoenix said. “For your convenience, a travel-bot will arrive to take you to the nearest Medex Way-Station.”

“Hey! Put Maple back on, I was busy—”

The AI smoothly interrupted her. “Please note that Medex visits are compulsory and can only be rescheduled in case of emergency. At which point you will be transported to the nearest Medex Way-Station.”

A pod slid to a halt in front of her. Its hatch slid open. Peppermint stared at it shaking her head. The travel-bot seemed happy to wait indefinitely for her.

Maple’s voice returned. “Pepper? Where’d you go?”

“Apparently I have my Medex now.”

“Really? It’s not on my calendar.”

“Mine neither. I’ll call you back now.” Peppermint ended the call. “What the data is going on, Phoenix?”

“Good p.m., Peppermint. How may I be of—”

“Don’t you start with that. I don’t have my Medex now,” she said. Her eyes flashed through her weConnect as she accessed her calendar. “It’s only in four days!” she declared triumphantly. As she watched, the appointment greyed out and disappeared, reappearing in a new time slot.

Today. Now.

“I have rescheduled your Medex,” Phoenix informed her.

“Hey, you can’t do that!” she squealed.

“There were no conflicting slots in your calendar. As per the—”

“Because I haven’t gotten chance to—”

“As per the Basic Existence Requirements Act Number 58—”

“Save it,” she snapped.

She flung herself into the waiting travel-bot, banging her head on the ceiling.

Her eyes closed and she tried a deep breath. She called Maple, her eyes fixed on the buildings the travel-bot sped past. They formed a solid line a few meters away from the road, their walls painted a universal beige. Their only differentiation was the font used by their electronic signboards.

The call to Maple timed out and Peppermint tried again, sinking down until she lay with her cheek pressed to the seat.

Maple answered after Peppermint’s fourth call. “You sort it out?”

“No. Phoenix is being a scuzzy. Apparently it’s legit because I didn’t add any appointments to my calendar.”

“That’s total phishpharming.” Maple sounded out of breath.

“Anyway,” Peppermint sighed. “I’ll be there as soon as I’m done.”

Maple giggled. Peppermint heard Nick’s voice in the background, his words unintelligible.

“What did he say?” Maple squealed in her ear, and Peppermint tipped her head to the side, wincing. “Maple?”

“He said to hurry. Me and Titan are wearing him out. There’ll be nothing left for you when you get home.”

The call ended.

Peppermint rested a fist on her forehead. Off to a Medex while her clustermates tossed around in her bed with Titan. Had the twins left? Maple hadn’t said.

Phoenix interrupted her sordid thoughts. “I have processed your survey.”

“’Tastic,” she muttered. At least she’d have a shiny new badge added to her profile. A small compensation for the irritations of the day. A few seconds passed. She sighed. “Don’t tell me you’re glitching out Phoenix. What badge did I get?”

“I did not award a badge.”

“What! Why?” She lifted her head, lips parting as waited for the AI’s reply.

“The commentary provided in your survey lacked sufficient detail for debugging purposes. Repetition in your ratings indicated a lack of thorough analysis. Your survey was rendered insignificant.”

Peppermint’s mouth fell open. “But that VR was glitchy. I wasn’t going to lie about it!”

“Would you like to dispute the results of this survey?”

“Yes!”

“Please wait.”

She did, but with her fingertips drumming on the soft arm of the travel-bot’s seat. A chime sounded in her ears.

“Complaint Form 72E is now in your inbox. Once submitted, results on the disputation of your survey will be available within twenty-four hours.”

Before Phoenix’s voice had faded from her ears, Peppermint opened the message.

“Twelve pages? Really?”

The travel-bot slid to a halt a few seconds later. She stepped out, pausing on the pavement. The double doors of the Medex Way-Station reflected pale skin, magenta hair and a magnificent scowl.

After today, she was almost ready to believe Maple’s rants about the system being flawed.

CHAPTER 4: CHATTEL

Izaak’s Burrow, Wildebeest Digger Colony, African Continent

Ray watched as the trader’s fat fingers rifled through the tatty wicker basket on the table. Every few seconds Izaak would jerk out a fig, apple or hubbard squash from the basket. It would either fly over his shoulder, landing on a mound of discarded loot, or be placed on a much smaller pile in front of him on the table.

When the basket was empty, Izaak pushed it back to him. Ray placed it at his feet beside another empty basket. Izaak took a fig from the pile in front of him, burst it open with thumb and forefinger and shoved it into his mouth. The trader stared at Ray while he ruminated.

Izaak sprayed Ray with a few fig seeds as he spoke. “Give you twenty.”

Ray resisted the urge to wipe at his face. “That’s half of what you paid me last time.”

“I pay for what you bring. Keep arguin’ and it’ll be fifteen.”

“Twenty’s plenty,” Ray said hurriedly.

Izaak laughed, expelling more fig-laced spit. “You’s a poet and you don’t even know it.” He dragged a hand over his mouth, smearing juice over his jowls. The trader lifted his hand, flicking his fingers. “Give ‘im twenty, Laddie.”

A shadow separated itself from the wall and transformed into the bulk of Laddie. He pushed through a lopsided bead curtain, the delicate clicking noise sounding inapt in the tiny, rancid burrow.

Ray decided to stare at the festering heap behind Izaak as he waited. It was better than watching the trader eat, an act almost as nauseating as the smell in the room — most of which came from Izaak’s unwashed flesh. Harvested too soon, most of Ray’s loot had ended up on the rubbish pile.

Laddie returned, dropping a leather pouch onto the rusting metal table. Izaak pulled it open, hunted inside and plonked down twenty tokens. Ray grabbed the stack of sticky metal tokens while suppressing a shudder. He retrieved his baskets and rose to his feet.

“Nothing from Ace today?” Izaak asked, clutching an apple core. When had he had time to eat that?

Ray shook his head. “Last month’s harvest is still curing.”

“Pity. He grows some good shit.”

“I’ll be sure to bring some by when it’s ready.”

Which would be never, knowing Ace. His son despised Izaak and refused to trade with him. Ray’s hand was on the door handle when Izaak smacked his lips together and spoke again.

“The Leider’s lookin’ at recruiting, you know.”

Ray hesitated. “Ja?” He touched the tokens through the fabric of his shirt pocket.

He heard the sound of another fruit disappearing into the trader’s cavernous maw.

“Heard he’ll even accept niners. You could get some use out of your Ace for a change.” Ray’s back tightened at the insult, but he forced himself to swivel back.

Ray smoothed the frown from his face before speaking. “I’ll be sure to let Ace know.”

“Hefty fee, though.”

“For you or the Leider?”

“We’re chommies, Ray!” The trader gave him a bright smile, wiping his hand on his stained vest. “I’m just the messenger.”

“What’s the fee?”

If the Leider Leo wanted recruits for Wildebeest’s military, why the hell did he demand a recruitment fee? Izaak was probably putting his own price on the information, despite what he said.

“Chattel,” Izaak replied.

Ray’s throat tightened at the word. “You know I don’t—”

“He’s always looking for chattel,” Izaak bellowed. “He just can’t get enough!” The trader erupted into a gale of laughter, slapping the table. A fig rolled off and splatted on the floor.

Maybe Izaak was insane. He’d heard rumours. The trader wheezed, shoving another fig in his mouth while his giggles trailed away. With the end result, of course, that he began choking. Ray watched. Hopefully the man would die. That would make his day. Hell, it would make his year. But then Laddie lurched forward, banging Izaak’s back. A gobbet of fig splashed onto the table. Izaak took a long, ragged breath and wiped at his streaming eyes.

“Women only,” he rasped when he’d gotten his breath back. “The younger, the better.”

“You know I don’t trade chattel.”

“Then it’s time you start, né?” Izaak’s lips slackened. “The past’s the past. What goes around comes around.” Ray felt his face heating. “Bring him just one girl and you’ll see. The Leider will add Ace to his army lick-spit. That’s fifty tokens a month, Ray.”

Ray took a short, sharp breath through his nose. Fifty tokens? The last he’d heard, military pay was thirty. With fifty tokens he could finally afford some livestock. He could move his family up from the niners to the eights. Maybe even the sevens.

“But he’ll take regular trade, too?” Ray asked. He tried calculating how far he’d have to travel to get another consignment of loot like today’s. It would have to be far.

“I keep trying to help, and you just chuck it in my face.” Izaak shrugged, looking disappointed. “I’d be in the milit’ry, wasn’t for my medical condition,” Izaak confided. Ja nee, because gluttony was a medical disorder, just like laziness.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Ray said.

“This late? Winter’s ‘round the corner. I know you’re good at scavenging, but your scraps,” a dismissive gesture took in Ray’s sparse collection of loot, “won’t do it. You’ll need chattel. Rooivalk’s just a few kay’s away. You just have to nab one of their women and done.”

“Never.”

The trader’s small, piggy eyes gleamed.“Tsk, tsk, tsk…” The attempted chastisement emerged damply muffled behind a wall of masticated fig. “What would your ma say?”

Izaak’s lips twitched. If they turned up into a smile Ray would kill the man. Blood sang in his ears. Ray concentrated on his breathing. Calm. He had to stay calm. But Izaak wasn’t done.

“Good thing old Leider Petrus didn’t like little boys, hey? You would’ve been a diff’rent man, today. Dead, for one. If not, then wishing you were.” The trader chuckled.

So Izaak was trying to rile him. Ray remained silent, but he couldn’t prevent his fingers curling into creaking fists.

“He liked his women, hey, Old Petrus? How long did your ma last? A month? Two?”

Ray’s lips peeled into a snarl. Laddie was beside him in an instant, one hand enclosing his upper arm. It took a big hand to do that, but Laddie managed with ease.

“When does recruitment end?” Ray asked, his voice tight with the effort of civility.

Izaak shrugged. “A week. Two, tops.”

Ray nodded and turned to leave.

“Gets Ace off his ass, né?” Izaak started laughing again.

Ray rushed from the trader’s burrow, emerging onto a dimly lit platform. He took a hurried step forward, gripping the rusted railing that spanned the length of the corridor. Eyes closing, he forced down the bile in his throat. His eyes opened, fixing on his black skin as he gripped the railing. He stared into the drop below. How many diggers had plummeted to their deaths from these corridors? Plenty — usually due to drunkenness, suicide or plain-ass stupidity.

Izaak’s rooms were on the third story of Wildebeest’s subterranean, warren-like colony. Each floor of burrows opened up into the Pit — an enormous cavern a kilometre in radius. Plexi-glass sky-lights seven stories above illuminated the Pit with a sulfurous light. The thick shafts of light barely pierced the muggy air.

Ray headed for the staircase. He passed a few doors. One of them was ajar, sounds of rhythmic, grunting pleasure emanating from it.

Chattel — a commodity that was always in demand.

He clattered down the staircase, so used to its violent shudders and groans that he didn’t bother to hold onto the railing. Only when his footfalls thudded onto the floor of the cavern did he look up again. The Pit’s reed-lined floor swallowed his footsteps as he crossed it.

With most diggers at their burrows for midday meals, the Pit was deserted. Smells of cooking and decay mingled in a sickening miasma. Ray lifted the rag looped around his neck, slipping it over his nose and mouth. He wasn’t too far from home, so he didn’t tie it across his face, instead keeping it up with his fingertips as he walked.

The Pit served as a focal point for the Wildebeest colony. Several corridors gouged from its walls sloped downward, leading to the eight and ninth level of the colony. Called the niners. Where his family lived.

Ray grimaced as a spider web draped his face. He hurriedly wiped it off and checked if the spider had been attached. Ja, the pale thing was making its uncertain way across his shoulder. He flicked it off as kindly as he could.

When he reached the niners the passage levelled out, splitting into three tunnels. Ray strode down the right-hand passage. He passed several burrows, their doors open — a silent invitation for other diggers to join them for lunch. Ray ignored them all as he headed for his home.

Izaak’s news repeated in his mind. A big haul.

CHAPTER 5: THE MEDEX

Medex Way-Station, Lower Northbridge, Africa Dome

Peppermint slouched in the single, egg-shaped chair inside the Medex pod. If she sat forward and stretched out her arm, she could touch the LED screen dominating the opposite end of the capsule. She sighed as she rested her chin on her knuckles and stared in utter dejection at the progress indicator spinning on the screen.

There were a gazillion reasons for her to hate the Medex pod. But first on her list: the constant stench of medicine. It didn’t matter if she went to a pod on the west or east side, upper or lower end of South- or Northbridge, the smell was always there. Nick’s theory ran that the pods spritzed out their unique scent before each visit, like Club Zero’s flavoured dance-floor smoke.

Next on her list of gripes were the pod’s outdated peripherals. They made her think of the ancient technology of yesteryear — used in a world were diseases ran rampant and people did all kinds of disgusting things like giving birth to children. She shuddered.

She read the two words above the progress wheel.

‘Please wait.’

That’s what she’d been doing. For like three minutes. Her finger stabbed the question mark icon on the bottom corner of the screen.

“Good p.m., Peppermint. How may I be of—” Phoenix began.

“This thing is stuck.”

“I am initialising the next—”

“I’ve been waiting forever, Phoenix. This wasn’t a scheduled Medex, I don’t care what you say—” she said, raising her voice in anticipation of the AI’s rebuttal, “so you hurry up and get me out of here!”

When Phoenix didn’t respond she sighed. Loudly. Hopefully, the AI would register her level of irritation. A minute later the progress wheel, replaced with the words ‘Auditory Examination 7 (beta).’

Her heart thumped. What the data was this? She’d had a Medex every month for the past twenty-three years of her life and there’d never been a new exam. The message changed again.

‘You will now hear various sounds.’

Her skin tried crawling from her body. Her heart delivered a few more knocks to her ribs. Another message appeared.

‘Please listen attentively.’

The sounds began.

She turned her head to the side, straining to make sense of the faint warbling. The volume rose. Peppermint sank into the chair and rested her head back.

‘This examination will end in twenty minutes.’

Twenty minutes of attentive listening? This was total phishpharming. Peppermint stuck out her hand but it hung in the air, its target no longer available.

Oh yes. Her third most hated part of the Medex: her weConnect didn’t work inside the pod. So she couldn’t contact Phoenix except through the now conveniently absent support icon. Peppermint glared at the screen.

The Medex was a vital element of her life in the dome, but knowing this didn’t make the monthly visits palatable. Every month she was subjected to a battery of aural, optic and logic examinations. Phoenix apparently used them to confirm her mental and physical wellbeing. The wonderful visit always concluded with a med-bot sticking a needle filled with vitamins and birth control in her arm.

Data forbid she fell pregnant.

Impregnation was a class one infringement of the Basic Existence Requirements Act something of something, after all. She was way too young to be deleted. Her thoughts trailed away as a new message appeared.

‘Close your eyes.’

“Yeah, like that’s going to happen,” she muttered.

The Medex pod was locked during every visit. Peppermint suppressed an insane urge to rattle the hatch’s door handle. Instead, she sat listening to weird music, if that’s what it was, playing through earbuds she couldn’t remove, in a room she couldn’t get out of… that smelled like a med-bot. She hugged her legs, acutely aware of the med-bot lurking under her seat, waiting to pounce on her.

Despite her reservations, Peppermint did close her eyes — but only for a few seconds. They were stinging like crazy from lack of sleep and felt too heavy to keep open, anyway. She’d managed to get in a massive two hours of snoozing this morning.

She should’ve scheduled the VR for tomorrow, or even the day after. Then maybe the VR choice would have been different. She wouldn’t have given it a bad review. Maybe, just maybe, Phoenix wouldn’t be punishing her right now.

It was a silly thought. More something Nick would accuse Phoenix of. But it lodged in her mind. Data, was Phoenix punishing her? How could you seek forgiveness from a computer program? Send it a cute script?

The change in the sound playing through her ears was so subtle, she didn’t register it until a strange tingle spread over her forehead. Her head jerked up. She massaged the flesh between her brows. The feeling disappeared.

‘Test complete. Analysing results. Please wait.’

Peppermint banged her head on the padded ceiling. She backed away from the screen, contorting into the pod’s curved wall. Was she hallucinating? She blinked a few times, just in case. The familiar post-Medex statistic report replaced the message a second later. Peppermint stepped closer. Her finger slid over each section. The report would be in her inbox already, but with the hatch sealed, she couldn’t—

Her finger paused. Then it retracted. There was no mention of an auditory examination. The report disappeared. The SUN logo and the words ‘Have a sunny day’ replaced it.

A loud ping sounded and beside her, the hatch slid open. She accessed her weConnect the instant she stepped outside and checked the time.

An hour had passed.

How in the name of tech… She must have fallen asleep. It was the only logical explanation. The bit where she’d closed her eyes — it must have been for more than a bit. She padded over the carpet as she processed this information.

The examination room’s door slid open. The Medex waiting room was identical to the one at the wePlay centre. A few denizens glanced up at her as she passed, but she strode past with purpose, eager to escape all the weird. She hadn’t longed for Nick and Maple like this since the time she’d broken her leg. She’d been stuck in a Medex pod for half a day.

Peppermint dispelled the unpleasant memory with a shake of her head. The large glass doors leading out of the Medex centre opened for her, and she stepped into the dome, inhaling the freon-scented air with a smile.

The electronic symphony of the dome was intense after the Medex pod; a thousand fans, motors, processors and ventilation ducts purring, humming and whirring.

Peppermint stared up. Her eyes narrowed as she gazed at the hundreds of lights illuminating the dome every hour of the day. They were so high up that they twinkled. Day-stars. Did they even resemble actual night-time stars? An incoming call interrupted her thought.

Expecting it to be Maple, she answered without checking the caller ID. “Hey, you.”

“Good p.m., Peppermint. This is Apple from Lambent Laboratories.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Peppermint replied, frowning.

The woman paused before responding. “This is Apple. Do we have a clear connection?”

“Yes, sorry Apple, I was—” she cleared her throat. “What up?”

“I’m calling to schedule your appointment.”

“My what?”

“This is Apple. I’m calling from Lambent Laboratories,” the woman spoke in short, sharp sentences now, carefully emphasising her words. Scuzzy.

“Yes?” Peppermint pushed the word past her teeth.

“I’m calling to arrange an appointment with you. I see you don’t have any bookings for the rest of today. I’ll schedule you for four.”

“Why?”

“We would like to see you as soon as possible.”

“No, I mean, why do I have to go to a lab?”

“Your Medex visit triggered a notification.”

“What kind of notification?”

“I don’t have that information at hand.”

“Well, I’m not going through to some lab if you can’t—”

“Please note that follow-up visits initiated by a Medex visit are compulsory,” Phoenix informed her.

“Phoenix, look, I’m sorry about the review I gave—”

“As per the Basic Existence Requirements Act Number 58 of 2279, if an alert is triggered during a Medex visit, said denizen is to be scheduled for a follow up consultation at the nearest laboratory within a period of—”

“Fine, you buggy piece of code. But I’m unavailable today. And no, I haven’t put anything in my calendar yet because I’ve been so busy attending unscheduled Medex visits that I haven’t had the time!” Her harangue crescendoed into a yell.

Peppermint closed her eyes and took a long breath.

A second later the woman’s voice returned. “Hello? Are we still connected, Peppermint?”

“Yeah, look, I’m kind of in the middle of a meltdown right now. Today’s not going to work, no matter what my calendar says. Tomorrow’s going to have to do.”

As Peppermint stepped up to the travel-bot console, a pod rounded the distant corner. It decelerated in front of the Medex building and she waited for the denizen inside to disembark before sliding in.

“I can schedule you for eight,” Apple said as Peppermint settled in a seat.

“Eight p.m., yes, that’s—”

“Eight a.m.” the woman snapped.

“Nohoho,” Peppermint laughed. “I don’t wake up before ten, like, ever.”

“Then ten it is. See you tomorrow, Peppermint. Have a sunny day.” The call ended.

Peppermint closed her eyes and yearned for home. Her neck and shoulders ached. Maybe Titan hadn’t left yet — he did give amazical massages.

Another call came through. She checked before answering. No more surprises for her today, thank you very much. It was Nick. Peppermint jiggled.

“Hey nunu. Why you still at the Medex?” Nick asked.

A smile tugged at her lips. Nick used her pet name so rarely that it was a happiness power up to hear it.

“Data, it’s good to hear your voice,” she breathed. “I’ve had a day of days. I can’t wait to get home.”

“Everyone’s left.”

“Oh,” she said, failing to keep the disappointment from her voice. “When?”

“About ten minutes ago. Titan and M went to go watch the AU tunnel opening in Southbridge. I’m going to an inception party tonight, so I’m hunting for a gift. Wanna come?”

“Party yes, shopping noooooo. I need a long bath and a lie down.”

“M said your VR was a disaster.”

“That’s just the beginning. I’ll give you the skinny when I see you.”

“I sent you the e-vite. The party’s in a few hours.” Nick ended the call with a loud kiss and she took a big, happy breath.

“Good p.m., Peppermint.”She jerked at Phoenix’s unexpected voice. “An exciting new upgrade is available for your Cerberus unit. Would you like me to stop at the closest Cerberus Way-Station for your convenience?”

“You know, Phoenix,” Peppermint said. “I was trying to think of a way I could make this up to you.”

“I do not understand the nature of your query,” the AI replied after a lengthy pause. That was its usual response to any odd-ball statement or question. “Would you like to search for tutorials on cosmetic application techniques?”

She tried rephrasing. “I’m sorry for the bad review I gave on the VR. Maybe, instead of punishing me like this, I could do something to make it up to you. Is there something else I can review? What about last week’s weEat software update? Hey? That was a biggy. Lots of amazical stuff. I’m sure you haven’t—”

“You have not been selected to review the weEat V4.0c upgrade.”

“That’s not very nice, Phoenix, I’m trying to—”

“Detouring to Cerberus Way-Station.” Apparently reasoning hadn’t been included in the AI’s programming.

Her head flopped back on the headrest as the travel-bot decelerated and took the corner, heading deeper into the dome. It stopped a few minutes later.

“You have arrived at the Northbridge Cerberus Way-Station. Have a sunny day.”

She got out as slowly as possible in protest. Peppermint watched the travel-bot speed on for few meters before stopping for another denizen waiting outside a sport equipment building. She received a new message chime in her ear and opened her weConnect, sighing before she was halfway through reading the email.

“FROM: SUN Council (AF)

TO: Peppermint OC3027AF

SUBJECT: Cerberus V8.04 Upgrade

Dear Peppermint,

Please note that a standard upgrade has been issued for the Cerberus V8.04 unit.

Kindly return your unit to your closest technical way-station for an upgrade.

You have twenty-four hours to comply with this request.

To view the upgrade release notes, please visit Cerberus’s technical release page at Cerberus.SUN/technical/release-notes

Have a sunny day!

Stellar Unification Network

Africa Council”

Peppermint dismissed the message and stepped inside the way-station.

The Cerberus Way-Station was a room sandwiched between a sport equipment depot and a disused building. There was a couch against either wall and a counter spanning the entire wall opposite the door. It was empty.

She strode over SUN’s massive green logo emblazoned on the white carpet which was, fittingly, a stylised sun. Standing on the two over-sized red footprints etched onto a tile in front of the counter, Peppermint glanced at the rows of Cerberus units laid out in the display case to her right.

Her choices were abundant with over three hundred units in different materials, patterns and colours. Peppermint glanced at her Cerberus ring — silver with a few starbursts etched into the metal. Peering back at the selections, her eyes fixed on a pale blue ring traced with delicate silver lines.

“Good p.m., Peppermint,” Phoenix greeted. “Please place your right hand inside the Cerberus upgrade assistant.”

Staring at the blue ring, Peppermint slid her arm into a large box fixed to the counter. Her skin brushed against a soft, velvety fabric. The fabric solidified around her wrist and fingers, gently trapping her.

“Please make your selection.” She spotted the blue ring’s thumbnail and selected it. “Please confirm your selection.”

She did, resting her forehead on the corner of the unit as she waited. A few seconds later something touched her thumb and her Cerberus ring came unfastened. She wriggled her thumb; the brief interval during an upgrade was the only time the ring wasn’t present. She felt naked. Fastening her new ring a little too snugly for her liking, the box released her hand.

“Synchronising user profile. Please wait. Would you like to listen to your favourite Manic Depressor’s album while you wait, Peppermint?”

“No,” she sighed.

“Thank you for upgrading your Cerberus unit. Be sure to read the upgrade manual as it highlights all the exciting new features available. Have a sunny day.”

Stepping outside, Peppermint summoned a travel-bot to take her home. She spent the short trip reading the Cerberus’s release notes and experimenting with its new functions.

“You have arrived at Northbridge Residential Zone 4b,” Phoenix informed her. “Have a sunny day.”

Peppermint hurried through the lobby and into the elevator, letting out a sigh when the door closed. Home. As the elevator ascended, so did her mood.

Her suite was on the top floor of the apartment block, but it was totally worth the extra thirty-five seconds to get there.

Wait for it… wait for it…

The elevator shot past the last line of buildings, revealing Upper Northbridge. The city sparkled. Glass spires of apartment blocks all across the residential zone glittered as they reflected the day-stars. The elevator came to a halt. Peppermint remained motionless. A melancholy settled over her, most likely due to lack of sleep, as she stared out over the dome. It was stunning in its shiny sterility, like her newly minted ring.

An enormous, sleek air-bot flashed past the transparent elevator wall, so close that she reared back in alarm, a strangled cry caught in her throat. She scrabbled at the wall for a moment, trying to keep her feet, and then thumped to the floor. Peppermint sat, knees crooked, glaring out at the air-bot as it swerved and disappeared around an apartment block.

The elevator began to chime — a polite reminder that she was holding up traffic.

FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT:

Head over to my website and download a larger sample of the novel, or buy the full novel from Amazon.



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