From the author: In which Jordan learns to appreciate the advantages of architectural subtlety.
Here’s my first entry in What I Learned from the SZA: if you want to avoid being killed by a lynch mob that’s turned up in the middle of the night and is trying to burn your house to the ground: turn off your bedroom lights. This point was brought home to me by the bullet that crashed through my window and embedded itself in the wall above my head about two seconds after I turned the lights on. I rolled off my bed and onto the floor, and barked lights out just as a second shot came through the same window, passing right through the spot where my face had been a moment before. I reached up onto the nightstand and grabbed my phone.
Jordasaurus: Micah! Micah!
Jordasaurus: WAKE UP!!!!!!
But of course, Micah wasn’t going to wake up. Micah had his phone set on do not disturb at three in the morning. What about the county cops? I tapped the panic button app my mom had made me install the day I got my driver’s license. The icon blinked for five seconds, then ten. Finally, a message popped up: No Response. Try again? I had to bite back the urge to throw my phone across the room. I couldn’t see the smoke anymore, but I could smell it—acrid and biting, the smell of burning gas and plastic and paper and wood all mixed together—and I could feel it starting to eat at my eyes and nose and throat. I needed to do something, but what? Stay put, and eventually I’d either suffocate or burn. Get out of the house, and I’d get shot by some UnAltered troglodyte. Micah had been right. These guys weren’t about to wait for a DNA test to confirm that I was a standard-issue Homo sap, and they probably wouldn’t have cared even if I had a certificate on hand to show them. This house was enough to tell them that I was part of the problem here.
A half-dozen more bullets came through the window in quick succession. Glass sprayed across the room, shards bouncing off my arms and legs and the back of my neck. After I was finished wetting myself, I crawled across the floor to the door. I had a sudden memory of a fire-safety vid my parents made me watch when I was five or six years old. Touch the door, right? See if it’s hot. I did. Nope—nice and cool. I reached up, turned the knob, and opened the door.
The smell of smoke was stronger in the hallway, but I couldn’t see any actual flames, and I could breathe without choking. I stayed on my knees, scuttled away from my bedroom door, and then stood. My head spun, and I remembered that vid again. Stay low. The air is fresher. I dropped back to my knees, and crawled down the hallway toward the bathroom. I thought maybe I could jump out the window there and onto the roof of the veranda, and then maybe get to the ground and run like hell. It wasn't a great option, and I had a strong suspicion that I might wind up getting shot before I made it to the woods behind the house, but hey—better than burning, right?
I pulled the bathroom door closed behind me. It was cooler in there than it had been in the hallway, and the smoke seemed a bit thinner. I yanked a towel from the rack by the soaking tub, rolled it and crammed it against the crack under the door. The window was high up on the wall between the vanity and the toilet. I got to my feet, poked my head over the sill, and gave a look around outside. It was a moonless night, but the grounds outside were glowing red. Crap. The entire bottom floor was burning. I didn’t see any troglodytes. Maybe they’d gone? I slid the window up. The air was nearly as acrid outside as in. It took me a few minutes of jimmying and cursing in the darkness to get the screen out, but I finally managed it. I poked my head out…
A bullet whizzed past, so close that it moved the hair on the side of my head, and thunked into the ceiling. I dropped to my knees with a yelp. I waited for another volley, but it didn’t come. Instead, I heard a voice in the darkness.
“Hey! Plague rat! You still alive?”
I crouched against the wall and held my breath.
“Come on, boy. I know you’re in there.” The voice was high-pitched, almost whiny, and I couldn’t help picturing some pimple-faced freshman out there. I had to remind myself that he was a pimple-faced freshman with a really big gun. “Not sure you noticed,” he called, “but your house is on fire. You don’t get out here soon, you’re not gonna get out.”
I crawled to the door. I was about to pull the towel away and open it, but that safety vid… I pressed my hand against the bottom panel.
It was hot.
I crawled back to the window.
“Hey!” I yelled. “If I come out there, you gonna shoot me?”
Laughter drifted in through the window.
“Hey Mickey, you hear that?”
A different voice answered.
“Come on out, boy. We won’t hurt you.”
My phone pinged.
<UNK01>: Hey Jordan. How goes it?
I stared at the screen. What the hell?
Jordasaurus: Marta, this is you, right?
<UNK01>: Oh. Yes, of course. It is I, your pal Marta Longstreth.
Jordasaurus: Look, Marta, I’m in the shit right now, and I could really use some of those snipers. Does your dad have a rapid response team or something?
<UNK01>: Hmmm… Yeah, it’s very dark and hot where you are. That’s not good.
Jordasaurus: Please don’t weird out on me, Marta. My house is literally on fire, and there are rednecks out in the yard waiting to shoot me when I come out. If you can do something to help me here, you need to do it now.
“Hey in there! You still with us?”
A bullet thunked through the wall about a foot to my left. I stifled a whimper, and dropped to my belly.
<UNK01>: Fire and rednecks. That is a real pickle, Jordan. However, I think that I, your pal Marta Longstreth, can definitely probably help. Can you hold on for ten minutes or so?
Jordasaurus: Ten minutes? Can you make it faster?
<UNK01>: Sorry, Jordan. I’m only human.
The next ten minutes were the longest of my life. In all fairness, this was mostly because I was pretty confident they were going to be the last ten minutes of my life. I didn’t know what Marta had in mind, but if it didn’t involve a really well-armed fire brigade, I didn’t see how it was going to help. My friends outside yelled up at me a few more times, and they put another couple of rounds through the wall, but when I didn’t answer them, they eventually seemed to lose interest. The smoke got gradually thicker, seeping around my apparently not impenetrable towel roll, but I was getting a little bit of fresh air through the window—enough to stay conscious, anyway. The travertine floor got warm, then hot, then near-unbearable.
Jordasaurus: Where are you, Marta? I’m out of time here.
<UNK01>: Funny you should ask. Hold your phone up to the nearest window.
I scooted over to the wall by the sink, and lifted my phone up above the windowsill. It pinged again, and I pulled it back down.
<UNK01>: Okay. Gotcha. Slither out that window and jump off the roof in 10…9…8…7…
A car horn sounded out in the yard. There was a wet crunch, followed by a high-pitched scream, two gunshots, and another crunch.
I leapt for the sill, pulled myself through the window, dropped to the roof of the veranda on my belly and squirmed to the edge. I tried to scan the yard for my friends, but between the darkness and the smoke I couldn’t even see the ground below me. The car horn sounded again. Another shot rang out, and another scream. A pair of headlights cut through the gloom, tearing around the house. My phone pinged.
<UNK01>: Jump, dummy!
It was ten feet to the ground. Flames were licking out of the windows below me. I leapt, hit the ground hard, and rolled. The car skidded to a stop beside me, and the rear door popped open. I dove inside. The door slammed behind me. A bullet crashed in through the rear window and out through the front. We fishtailed twice and peeled away.
I didn’t sit up until we were flying down the main road. I was in the back of a driverless cab. I looked back through the shattered rear window. It didn’t look like anyone was chasing me. My phone pinged.
<UNK01>: You’re still alive, right?
I breathed in deep, held it for a long five seconds, and let it out.
Jordasaurus: Yeah, Marta. I’m still alive.
“Nope,” Micah said. “I’m calling bullshit on you, Jordan. That didn’t happen.”
We were slouched on the futon couch in his basement, watching Dead Lands 2: The Re-Deadening on his wallscreen. I’d tried to tell him that this particular vid was a bit too on-the-nose for me at the moment, but he’d insisted it would help me work through the pain.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “You saw the cab when it dropped me off, right? You saw that the windows were shot out? How do you think that happened?”
“Oh,” he said, “I’m not saying the whole story is bullshit. You wouldn’t lie about your house burning to the ground, for instance, and I think I pretty much predicted that you’d wind up having problems with the UnAltered when the shit came down, didn’t I? Beyond that, the getting away in a cab part I definitely believe, and, yeah, I saw that the windows had taken some damage. No problem there. It’s the part in the middle, where the cab goes on a murderous rampage, that I’m having trouble with. It’s not just that auto-cabs don’t ever do that kind of stuff, Jordan. It’s that they literally can’t do that kind of stuff. Their preservation-of-life code is buried so deep that there’s no way to dig it out or circumvent it without completely disabling them. It has to be that way. Can you imagine what would happen if somebody figured out how to hack a fleet of cabs—or even worse, transport trucks—and turn them into weapons? No way. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” I said, “but maybe Marta knows something we don’t, right?”
“Okay, fair point. What about her dad?”
He laughed again, louder.
“You mean the guy who couldn’t keep Devon Morgan from using his VR tank to take over his house system? He’s the one you think hacked a cab and turned it into a killbot on five minutes’ notice?”
Huh. When he put it that way…
I picked up my phone and paged back through my exchanges with Marta.
Micah leaned over to look at my screen.
“Now that I’m not pissing myself, Marta’s pings seem a little… off.”
He reached around me to scroll the messages back up and down again.
“Gee,” he said when he’d finished reading. “You think?”
We sat in silence for a while, staring at her last message.
“Yeah,” I said finally. “I’m going to say that was not, in fact, Marta Longstreth.”
I tried to post a new message to the thread, but an error icon popped up: target ID not valid.
“Huh,” Micah said. “Never saw that before.”
I looked over at him.
“Neither have I. What do you think it means?”
He laughed again, and threw an arm around my shoulder.
“Honestly? I think it means you’ve got yourself a guardian angel.”
Drew Bergen is an Engineer. He builds living things, one gene at a time. He’s also kind of a doofus. Six years after the Stupid War—a bloody, inconclusive clash between the Engineered and the UnAltered—that’s a dangerous combination. Hannah is Drew’s greatest project, modified in utero to be just a bit more than human. She’s also his daughter.
Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.