By. Stephen Oram
Screaming white noise. Pitch black darkness.
What a way to be greeted into a new day.
Aiden felt around for the edge of his cardboard mattress. Beyond its frayed borders buried among the food scraps and his few discarded clothes was the nectar he craved.
The withdrawal was intense as the nanobots issued their friendly warning that his addiction needed feeding for him to stay alive.
Fumbling around in the detritus of his life he found his last vial of nanobot nectar and gulped it down.
A pinpoint of bright light appeared. Then another. And another. And another. He blinked. The nanobots were working. A gradual shift from the oppressive white noise to the welcoming sounds of a city about its daily business.
As his sight returned he noticed the clock on the house control unit in which his robot waited while he slept.
‘Jessie. Why didn’t you wake me? I told you – 7am.’
‘Good morning Aiden. It was in your best interests to sleep longer. Your metabolism needed the rest.’
‘Don’t you do what I tell you anymore?’
‘Not if it would cause you harm.’
‘For fuck’s sake. Being late for these lunatics will cause me more harm than a little tiredness you stupid robot.’
‘Would you like me to cancel your appointment?’
Aiden sat on the edge of his bed rifling through his clothes desperately trying to find something wearable. Everything was dirty, but he sniffed each item and gradually pieced together an outfit for the day. Maybe after today’s transaction he’d be able to buy a pure water bath to reactivate the self-clean molecules in his clothes.
‘It’s best to play safe today and inhabit the old female body.’
Jessie transferred from the control unit to the mother bot, as Aiden affectionately called it. With Jessie at the helm, the mother bot shook off the junk piled on top of it and stood up.
Aiden lifted the top four layers of his corrugated cardboard bed and took out a bag of vials wrapped in an old rag.
It would be delicious to keep a couple of the sweet nanobot nectar vials, but he was a mere delivery boy and even his addiction couldn’t overcome his fear of his supplier or today’s customer.
He handed the bag to Jessie.
‘Aiden, it’s illegal for me to carry this.’
‘Just carry the bloody thing.’
‘I have stored a copy of you issuing that instruction to protect myself from decommissioning.’
‘Let’s go,’ he said, more to himself than Jessie who would follow him wherever he went.
The streets were packed with humans going about their business, each accompanied by their own unique-looking robot following half a step behind.
‘Whatever happens with these guys,’ said Aiden to Jessie, ‘you must protect me.’
‘Understood,’ said Jessie.
‘Who knows what harm they might do to me if they’re not happy with the goods. It’ll be more than refusing to pay, that’s for sure.’
The door to the gang’s offices was conspicuous by its failed blandness. Painted dark battleship grey it was criss-crossed with STF filled plastic bars down its length. Bars that would instantly harden if forced.
The tiny speck of red light above the door let him know that someone inside was watching. He waved. Jessie waved too. ‘Remember. My life is in your hands,’ he said quietly.
With an over-engineered creak the door opened and the sound of a violin concerto drifted down the hallway.
‘Mendelssohn E Minor Opus 64,’ said Jessie matter-of-factly.
Aiden fixed his smile and walked towards the source of the haunting music. Beautiful in normal circumstances, but somehow made sinister by the setting.
‘Pass me the bag,’ he said to Jessie.
Through the smog of highly illegal cigarette smoke he could see the silhouettes of the gang members lost in the euphoria of nectar and music, each cradling a knife across their chest.
Their leader, who was standing watch, swaggered over to Aiden. He gave her the bag and she offered him a cigarette. The precious hand-rolled cylinder sat in the palm of his hand; it was only the second time in his life he’d been offered one.
Jessie crushed the cigarette to a pulp. ‘Smoking kills.’
All heads turned towards them.
‘Shit,’ said Aiden. ‘Sorry. Bit of a misunderstanding. These robots, eh?’ He laughed a hollow laugh.
The gang leader stared at the crumpled mess in Jessie’s hand. ‘Expensive mistake,’ she said as she ran her thumb along the sharp blade of her knife. ‘Aiden, isn’t it?’
‘Leave,’ she said. ‘Leave now.’
‘The nectar?’ he asked.
‘Thank you. Appreciated.’
‘Get out,’ she said quietly. ‘Now!’
She turned to the nearest gang member. ‘Terminate that robot,’ she said, looking at Aiden for confirmation.
When he didn’t reply she took a step closer to him while rubbing her blade against her leg.
He gulped, looked at Jessie and nodded his agreement.
Jessie adopted a fighting pose; she was equipped to maim and kill if necessary.
The gang leader took another step closer to Aiden.
‘Protect me,’ he shouted.
Jessie knocked the bag out of the gang leader’s hand and the vials of nectar spilled out on to the floor.
An unconvincing smile formed on Jessie’s lips as they emitted a high pitched whine, triggering a few of the vials to emit an orange glow which was followed quickly by a puff of black smoke.
They were destroying themselves.
The gang leader dropped her knife and scrabbled around on the floor desperately trying to gather as many as she could.
‘Shit and double shit,’ said Aiden.
Jessie grabbed his hand and dragged him out of the building.
‘Enemies for life,’ he said, as they walked away quickly. ‘No money. No escape.’ He turned his head. ‘Your stupid robot rules. I’m as good as dead.’
‘I will protect you,’ said Jessie.
Stephen Oram writes near-future fiction intended to provoke debate. In his time he’s been a hippie-punk, religious-squatter and a bureaucrat with a gentle attraction to anarchism; he thrives on contradictions. As 2016 Author in Residence at Virtual Futures he was one of the masterminds behind the new Near-Future Fiction series and continues to be a lead curator. He has been published in several anthologies, has two published novels, Quantum Confessions and Fluence, and a collection of shorter pieces of work, Eating Robots and Other Stories.
Yosa Buson is a musician from California.