The Wastes: Part 4

All things considered, it didn’t take me long to find where the meeting had taken place. My head was killing me by the time I’d arrived, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.

The body of my associate was sprawled out on the floor, just inside a sort of warehouse that was open at both ends. A gantry ran across the entrance at the far end as I approached.

The building was pretty much all that was left of a manufacturing plant of some kind, as best as I could tell. There was the odd remnant of conveyor belts and storage vats, but nothing else really beyond this building. It was isolated, too.

A great place for an ambush.

Whatever had happened here happened days ago. I kept looking around, but wasn’t too worried about being jumped. But it soon became clear that whoever had attacked my associate could have been anywhere in the vast expanse outside either entrance – or lurking in the shadows of the ruined site. It was a sniper’s heaven.

I approached the body slowly, trying to work out why he’d just walked in here like this. He was one of the best people I had, and he’d acted like an amateur.

That, or the other people were just better. I fleetingly wondered if they freelanced on the side – I could find work for people like that.

As I got closer, I could make out the glint of metal where it shouldn’t be. A cold feeling spread through my stomach as it became obvious that where bone and brain should be was full of computer chips, wiring and shining components.

Had my organisation been completely infiltrated by these mechanoid things?

Someone had clearly rifled through his gear as his bag lay nearby, items strewn across the dusty ground. I couldn’t tell if anything was missing, but I was able to steal some supplies and handgun ammo. That instantly ruled out scavengers – all this stuff would have gone already.

I tried not to think about the fact he had food with him, even though he wasn’t human.

A hole had been blown clean through the front and back of his skull. An eye was missing, along with maybe a quarter of the head. Exposed wires dangled down – nothing was fizzing or sparking, so whatever powered him must have been destroyed.

I quickly tried to line up the entry and exit wounds with possible angles he could have been attacked from. For all I knew the body might have been moved, so it didn’t tell me much.

The thought hit me again about what had been left on him. You’d have thought that scavengers would have stopped by to pick at the corpse. Whoever killed him was either after him specifically, or had what they were after. A terrible thought bubbled to the surface – I was being watched. The body was left here as bait. It was a

Why hadn’t anyone looted the corpse since? A terrible thought bubbled to the surface – I was being watched. The body was left here as bait. It was a setup.

I told myself to calm down. I’d been poking around the body long enough by that point that if anyone had wanted me dead, I’ve been killed already.

Yet, still, my gut was twisted up, telling me that something wasn’t right.

I sighed and looked around as I sat down next to him. I didn’t really know this man. The way I operated meant I’d always maintained a “professional distance” – literally and figuratively. Anonymity had been important layer of security for me.

But, sat next to that corpse, I suddenly felt some responsibility – even if he wasn’t human.

If anything, given my dealings in the city before I’d moved out here, the fact he wasn’t human was the troubling thing.

Especially as he thought he was human. His report about the killing I’d ordered at the used car place suggested even he was surprised to find out mechanoids were out here.

The whole situation was wrong, and my organisation at the heart of it.

Going to the used car dealership seemed a wise next step. While I swiftly dismissed the notion of some repentant pilgrimage to the site of every murder or robbery or assault I’d ever facilitated, it did seem like these two killings were too closely linked to ignore.

Someone was gunning for me – or my business at least. They had to be. I’d been used.

A wave of nausea crept over me again. I could feel the pressure building on my head. The hangover had been harassing me on and off all day, but then I was used to that. Usually, I’d have just started trying to fend it off by drinking some more. I couldn’t out here.

The sun wasn’t helping. Nor was the stress or trying to think straight.

I gazed around at the vast expanse of nothing, spreading out from me on all sides.

What have I even expected to find by coming out here?

I could go back to my little bubble. Convince myself that this was nothing more than an oddity; a freak one-off where I’d drunkenly ordered one mechanoid to kill the other so I could make some extra cash. I tried lying to myself and told myself that it must happen all the time. Nobody was out to get me. Nobody was out to muscle in on my work. Nobody was out to put me out of business. I was just being paranoid.

The second mechanoid not knowing he was a mechanoid? Well, that was just unfortunate. AI must have come on a lot since I’d left the city.

That mechanoid being out here to start with? Probably just ran away from the city like the rest of us.

And getting killed? His past catching up to him.

Just like the rest of us.

I felt sick. If mechanoids from the city were out here, it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to assume that the city’s arms manufacturers were letting munitions trickle out here too. Let us kill each other off in the Wastes, then they can sweep in and “reclaim” the land.

Besides, if someone got hold of explosives, my little penthouse base of operations suddenly wasn’t quite so safe.

The remaining city-states had built up huge stockpiles of missiles and arms after the war – just in case anyone was dumb enough to make an aggressive move during the fragile ceasefire and needed to be wiped out. We’d only all survived out here in the Wastes as long as we had because even the small arms we had were notoriously hard to come by.

Not that it mattered. Sticks, rocks, blades… We could still kill each other fine. Hell, some people even made a good living out of building weapons from junk.

But if mechanoids were out there, the same companies might have “lost” more weapons out here too, becasue – make no mistake – the mechanoids were weapons.

I tried to think of friends I could turn to for help. None. They were all people I only vaguely knew of through my business out here. And if these two were anything to go by, they might not even be people.

Going further back, it was only people back in the city. Company men. And I burned those bridges long ago.

No, heading to the dealership was the only move I had left.

Then a thought occurred to me.

I turned the corpse’s head towards me, into the light, and took a hard look inside. I squinted and leant in close.

Finally, I found what I was looking for. One of the tiny processing units near the centre of the head had a tiny stamp. A manufacturer.

Berkeley Arms.

A shiver ran down my spine. The company.

I wondered if my old keycard would still work. Or if this was them coming after me for the fact that I terminated my contract on less than amicable terms.

I unceremoniously dumped the body on the floor and fished in my bag for a knife and a screwdriver. Within moments I’d cut open the skin at the top of the neck, popped open the metal hatch at the base of the spine, and was rooting around the memory core.

I couldn’t believe it – 15 years and they still put them in the same place they did in the original models. I’d always told them it should be centre mass, to avoid being tampered with or shot off. They never listened.

Finally, I managed to pull the memory core out. It looked like some fragments from the round that had passed through his head had damaged it a little, but the connections were still intact – I might be able to get something useful from it.

I threw everything in my bag, heaved myself up and started walking. For a moment, I wondered if I should say a few words about my fallen associate. I looked back, saw nothing by a dead pile of wires, and went on my way – hoping that the dealership had a working computer.

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