Before The Fan

Flash Fiction
J.A. Waters
2000 Words

“There’s too much trash in this city.”

Jacob leaned over the roof’s edge and peered into the alley below. “Mmhm. Desconci is considered fifth in the world for street refuse.” He wiggled his helmet and tightened the seal for the thousandth time that evening.

Gina counted her steps backward, five from the edge. She glanced at Jake with a scowl. “Don’t be an ass. And why are you even here today? Transfer get denied? Again?” Not waiting for an answer, she raced forward on her three cybernetic legs. The mid-foot seated on the building’s seam and snapped her into space.

Watching a bum burrowing in foil wrapping and trash, Jake glanced up in time to see his partner tiptoe into a perfect landing on the next roof. “Not denied, exactly. They just want to review that incident with the runaway train.” He jogged backwards, boots whirring as they switched their energy preset. Sprinting for the gap, he grimaced at the sudden velocity from his suit’s jump motors. The pressurized heel-plates sent him sprawling.

Mechanical hips cocked to one side, Gina was watching him as he cleared the four-lane gap. There was a smirk on her face as he tumbled into a rolling landing. “Do you actually have to roll, or is it supposed to be some kind of flair?”

“Definitely not flair. I just hate using air brakes. My suit always over-compensates. Like hitting a wall.” Walking to the next edge, he peered at a street crowded with traffic, people, and mobile shops. Transparent sections of the road flashed as trains sped beneath the world. He frowned. “If I do get the transfer, I will miss these views.”

“Just the views?” Gina tilted her head.

Jake pressed his lips together. They had been friends for years, but they hardly hung out anymore. Their lives had been on separate paths for longer than he wanted to admit. Their priorities had been changing. Beliefs too. Though, maybe their beliefs had never actually meshed. “I mean, I’ll miss you too. You’ve always been nearby, and it’ll suck not having that.”

Gina chuckled. The laugh was just a little off. A digital version—no matter how well synthesized—never seemed quite as rich as the analog. “I’ll miss you too, Jakey. And I’m sure that train incident won’t be an issue. You saved lives that day. Not many would’ve thought of the resistor replacements. Circuit components! Seriously. Nobody checks electrical that deep anymore.”

“Well, you were the one that slowed the car so I could—” Jake’s suit started beeping.

A message began playing across empty air from Gina’s projectors. She sighed at the fuzzy lights. “Shit, will have to get them to tweak the focus again.”

All units on alert. Two blocks within Rutherford Square. A hostile land dispute has been initiated.

The display closed with a wave of her hand.

Jake tapped the air for further queries. His own arm-display beeped as searches began filling the queue. “Huh. Land dispute. Ah! This guy actually has a valid claim. It’s been in Department for, oof, twelve years? No wonder he’s active disputing.”

“Do you see this?” Gina’s glowing eyes flickered in a way that usually indicated rapid information transfer. She snorted. “Valid claim or not, dispatch says he’s threatening to blow up a building! That ain’t justified.” She grimaced. “I don’t have the patience for these folks anymore. Starting to think people are the biggest bugs in our system.”

Jake sighed. “I mean, doesn’t it make sense for someone to get frustrated? With a system so broken?”

Gina grunted. “Hmf. Plenty of people get things done just fine with how things are organized.”

“Maybe,” muttered Jake. He shifted to the immediate purpose. “But anyway, we’re the closest unit! We can probably elevate this through Systems Channel and get his dispute settled properly. There’s bound to be an annulment or memorandum we can use to bypass some of the BS. That’ll probably settle this whole issue.”

“Really? You want to accept? He’s a violent protestor!” Gina rolled her eyes. “Again, you’re not even supposed to be here today.”

“Well, you don’t have to, I mean, I could go alo—”

“Oh, fine!” Gina’s posture stiffened. Her internal mechanisms whirred with the activation of additional circuits. Leaning forward, she dropped off the edge of the building. Slipping down the side of the building, her form zipped toward the street.

“Gina!” Saving his queries with a gesture, Jake did a quick double stomp that set his boots into a ticking frenzy of preparation. A curse slipped under his breath as he dashed headlong over the roof’s end. He aimed for the top of a car. They needed to talk about their approach. He still needed to contact Systems. Hoping there was still time, he queued up a message tagging the man’s property file for an emergency review.

Sailing through the air, he barely registered as his boots screeched like old rubber tires. He hit the vehicle with minimal impact; his air brakes redirected momentum forward and slowed him just enough. Jake spread his arms wide to balance, then disengaged his shoes with a wiggle of his big toe. With the driver’s help—they had slammed the brakes—he arced in a leap over several cars and hit the sidewalk sprinting. A man careened on a tricked-out electroBMX and avoided Jake with a quick wall-ride up a building. Others, distracted pedestrians and annoyed delivery drones, dodged out of the way.

But where they dodged Jake, those same pedestrians fled from the swathe-cutting knife that was Gina’s mechanical form. Nobody wanted to be in the way of a speeding Desconci Policy Enforcer. Gina’s grafted armor made her weigh as much as a small motorcycle, and she had several times the power. Diving out of the way was a sensible reaction.

Jake finally remembered to turn on his helmet’s sirens. They blared with his shoulders flashing as he trailed behind his partner’s vastly-more-nimble form. Annoyed with the busy sidewalk, she jumped and caught a light pole, then swung herself to the side of a nearby building. She started darting between poles to window ledges to bilboards. Her feet stopped touching the ground. Jake muttered into his mic, “You’d be pretty fucking great at Don’t Touch the Lava.”

They rounded an intersection that led straight into the contested square. It was full of advertisement boards, city park attractions, and instamake vending machines. No wonder the man’s claim had gone ignored. It was prime business space. Still, it was maybe half an acre. The city could do with the loss of at least one sales zone. He spoke into his mic, “Okay, seems like he’s just waiting for some kind of response. Let’s hold back a sec and see if Systems responds…”

Gina ignored him. With one final snap of cybernetic muscle, she twisted through the air and barreled into the man making the land protest. Undoubtedly, she was focused on the near-weapon he was wielding. It was a PulseHammer: an advanced jackhammer that could practically disintegrate a human body.

The man went flying. His left arm snapped at the elbow. Bone ripped through skin and cloth on his upper arm. Gina’s three legs pinned the protestor down by his three uninjured limbs, “You must remain silent and still. You have the privilege of being an offender of Policy 55E.10-Golf and hereby have given up any rights—those paid for or due by your citizenship grade and/or grades.”

The sudden violence made Jacob screech to a halt. He gaped as Gina hunched over the quaking citizen.

Growling, the violator kept writhing as if his arm hadn’t been broken. “Fuck you! I got papers from generations ago that I own this land! Screw your damned policy and the whole book under it!” A tiny spider-bot crawled out of the man’s chest pocket. He was wearing a one-piece flight-suit in a dark gray-blue cloth. The spider skittered down the man’s body and seated itself into a small output terminal at the stomach of his suit.

Gina’s eyes went wide and her third leg kicked at the spider-bot with precise urgency. She missed. The spider ducked into the suit’s connection-port too quickly. She blinked—probably snapping a photo—and then she turned to run. “Move! Go! We have to clear the area!”

Over their comms, Gina was reciting procedural tactic numbers and sub-notes.

Jake was still frozen to the spot from before. Their specialty was adjusting electro-mechanical policy issues, though they could settle any policy dispute in a pinch. They weren’t supposed to physically apprehend people. They weren’t supposed to attack anyone. Nobody did that anymore. Not when you could just foam a person and roll them to a de-escalation tank.

Gina was shouting at him, “Tactical Response Alpha! Condition B! Now, Jake!” A wailing siren sprang to life around them. The square’s advertising flickered and became warnings: Alert! Alert! Clear the area! There is danger of explosive force in this area!”

Shaking his head, Jake crouched and switched boot modes. That spider-bot looked familiar? Some sort of activator? A control unit that could attach anywhere. Then his suit gave a whirr, the boots went chunk, and he was suddenly vaulting through the air. The crisis sensors were moving him whether he meant to or not. Landing next to his partner, he crouched and gave a quizzical look. “What did you see? Why are we running? And why are you being so… aggressive?”

She gave him a look. It seemed to be a mix of confusion and anger. “Aggressive?” Her lip curled. “Just, stay down and watch out. I called in crowd control.”

That crowd control arrived on drone platforms within moments. They were all robots, though someone was usually managing the group. Several had the long-handled foam dispensers, and those were spraying as soon as their feet touched the ground. Some people always resisted leaving, even if there was actual danger nearby. Luckily, most of the square’s patrons were running to clear the area.

Raising his head over their cover, Jake spied the land-dispute man. There was a dull red glow coming from his chest. The control spider had disappeared; had it burrowed inside of the man? “Shit, I think it’s—” The man began screaming.

And then an explosion thumped into being. Gore and concrete thudded around them. At the core of the man’s now-pulped body, the spider-bot’s brain was still intact and still glowing. Rapid burst transmissions pinged through Jake’s communications shield. A litany of grievances were included in the transmission. Shrapnel embedded itself in the walls of buildings or on the exteriors of cars and the occasional bus.

Gina stood and helped Jake stand in one motion. She seemed unperturbed by the situation’s escalation of violence. Her face had transformed into the artificial mask that it was, no longer pretending to retain humanity. “So much for stopping the shit from hitting the fan. That manifesto is gonna be on the net for weeks.”

Jake twisted his helmet’s seal tight yet again. He did so wearily this time. Why was he at work after all. He could be waiting for the transfer decision. “Gina.”

She glanced back at him. She seemed primed. Shoulders thrown back. Leaning forward. “What?”

“Why? You…” He choked on his words. He felt betrayed. “Do you realize what you did? That wouldn’t have, maybe, I mean. We could’ve tried—”

“We could’ve tried what? To let him do that without us clearing the street? He wasn’t here to negotiate, Jake.”

He frowned. “You’re just assuming. We can’t just presume like that! You don’t have the right!”

“I see.” She rolled her eyes and turned away. “Buzz off, Jake. You’re leaving anyway.”

He clenched his fists. “Not just yet. For now? You’re still my partner. Don’t you see how outrageous this is? That man died!”

She spun on him. “He was going to kill as many people as he could! And you’re worried about him?” She scoffed. “Fuck you, man. Just go ahead and leave already!” Crouching for just a moment, she leapt clear over the roadway and sprang down the nearest alley.

Sighing. Jake rubbed his temple. “Fuck.”

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