The Fierce Code

a M E T R O P O short story
by Magnus Aspli

Illustration by Naomi Franquiz

Lance stood in his cramped apartment, a sigh building up from his lungs, the beeps of a hung up telecall in his earpiece, and the sound of cursing in his brain. He wondered for a millisecond if thoughts ever had been recorded into soundwaves and concluded he’d never heard of that and shifted gears back to his main concern.

Trevor was in trouble again.

Twins were supposed to know, to feel, when there was something odd, or wrong, with the other. Lance was pretty sure he’d read that on some clickbaiter.

Wreckshit.

Lance hadn’t felt a thing. He’d been perfectly content eating synthetic beef jerky, watching his baby daughter sleep and scratching Spiffy behind his left ear. The right ear was no good, ever since the fur had begun to come off. Lance knew there would be a lot of minor maintenance needed on Spiffy the day he bought him, but he’d been cheap and looked real cute. The fact Mirra didn’t approve of getting a dog, a faux pet as she always — annoyingly — made sure to point out, had closed the deal for Lance.

All the annoying bits and bobs about Mirra that gnawed at him had seemed petty when she succumbed to prenatal depression, refused the cheaper Medica Invest Anti-Depression Drug Plan™ and opted for virtual reality therapy. Eventually she was mindlost, on mythic beaches, in warm sea wind and with soothing bird chirps. Lance had stopped repeating her belittling fancy words against her then, at least out loud. As the technicians concluded, she’d been too immersed and pulling her out would lead to suicidal depression at best and brain damage at worst. In the murky parts of his mind Lance wondered if Mirra had gotten a better deal than him.

Mirra gave birth in the tiny VR cubicle. Peeling paint on cheap plastic walls. A basic Medbot assisting an unlicensed nurse with a VR technician making sure the systems were stable. Mirra’s body shaking in pain and exhaustion. Her mind blissful at some long gone Asian beach. The techie, who was binging a historical documentary about nations at the same time as having one eye on the systems, had assured Lance, who had been forced to wait in the crowded narrow hallway between cubicles, that everything would be all right.

A little girl had tried to sell him plastic roses while he was stacking some trash to stand on so he could peer over the cubicle wall.

Spiffy had sat beside Lance, wagging his tail throughout the whole ordeal. He’d barked and yipped as the cubicle door opened. A baby girl was handed to Lance as his earpiece had chimed with the medical invoice dropping at the same time. Mirra’s insurance would not cover the delivery as it was already running on her VR therapy and Lance knew this, but he didn’t care. The baby girl he held in his arms as Spiffy tugged at his shoe had stolen his heart.

“Idiot.” Lance said into the room, wishing Trevor would hear it and hang his head in shame. Then the deep sigh erupted.

Trevor had probably had a worse life than his brother, but Lance was forever jealous of the victories in his life. Stupid and short-lived victories, yes, but crime doled out short bursts of quick cash, thrills and what Lance assumed was happiness. Trevor had never been good at stepping away when on top of a situation, though. Hence the short-lived victories. Because Lance couldn’t help but feel jealous when his brother showed up with more credits than Lance had ever had, he reveled in schadenfreude when the tide turned against Trevor.

Yet, he loved his brother, and this call had sounded high on the not-good scale.

“Idiot,” he proclaimed again.

Spiffy looked up at him with the tilted head of an inquisitive terrier. In the beginning Lance had been quite impressed with all the neat behavioral algorithms Spiffy performed, despite not really knowing much how real dogs behaved. He’d seen a few, up in the higher levels. Stared after them with deep curiosity, as most low-levelers would do. But never touched one. Never felt real fur between his fingers. Those who could afford real dogs could also afford bodyguards and security personnel. Touching a dog without permission was something you wouldn’t do unless you enjoyed being arrested, or had a kink for getting shot. Trevor had seen it happen when he was fleetingly part of an animal kidnapping gang.

Lance paced the apartment once, twice and one last time trying to make up his mind. Should he head out quickly and rescue Trevor, or let him sort out his own shit? He knelt by Hannah and the makeshift table-turned-crib. Five months to the day. Her face of sleep the calmest thing Lance had ever known and would know.

He thought of bringing her along, bundled up and sleeping in the brown blankets, safe in his arms as he biked down to level C and into the Restless quadrant, but quickly thought better of it. If she woke…

It was called Quad Restless for a reason.

A sudden ounce of sadness, as if something intangible dropped from his throat and into his lower gut, hit him. If only he had money for proper stuff. He’d seen the baby stores with their monitored cribs. Even to lease, they were way above his budget. As his brain’s train of thought ended on the concept of budget the sadness stuck and lingered.

Hannah’s calm face was both a trigger and an antidote to such feelings. Lance ran the back of his index finger with utmost care and love up and down Hannah’s warm cheek. Spiffy was on two legs next to Lance’s knee, his paws on the mattress edge, his face a panting plethora of happiness and curiosity. Lance smiled at his best friend and scratched his head.

A bit of fur came off and Lance shook and blew his hand to let it drop to the floor. Buddy, the little vacuumbot he’d found in a dumpster several years ago was extra handy now that Spiffy was shedding hair like an actual animal. There were quite a few promises from the company who sold him the dog that Lance eventually had to accept were pure wreckshit. Yet, ironically and comfortingly, this made Spiffy more real.

Lance went over to his bed and lifted the mattress to get to the storage space beneath. Boxes of clothes, drone parts and junk. He rummaged around in the latter and, after a few sighs and curses, found his old social device. The Taco10, which was practically useless after last year’s system upgrade by TeleCine. Its dull grey frame light in his hand.

He had a plan. A pretty uncertain one, but a plan nonetheless.

The hallway outside his apartment was particularly cold this evening. As happened more and more often since the scraper had been sold to another estate firm, the ventilation fell out now and then and clearly needed a solid overhaul and repair. A job Lance himself had tried to be part of and had pitched the janitor several times. Every time the janitor had shaken his ugly face and sputtered words about cost and money.

Lance knelt by the door to give Spiffy a quick goodbye rub.

“I’ll be back in a little while, buddy. You be quiet and watch the place, okay? Keep Hannah company, but no barking.”

The vacuumbot came whirring.

“Not you,” Lance rolled his eyes. “Back to your dock, Buddy,” he commanded in a low and clear voice. He’d tried plenty of times since getting Spiffy to change the vacuumbot’s call name, to no avail.

He stood.

Spiffy turned a few times and headed back into the apartment, sat down in the middle, eyeing Lance, then the crib, then Lance again and wagged its tail.

The door slid shut and Lance pulled his coat on properly. The soft clang of his boots on the metal grating of the hallway filled the long but narrow space as he made his way outside.

Moist air and drizzle greeted his face, soft and pleasant in contrast to the blare of the city. The next-door sushi and comdevice joint had changed the colour of their sign again. Yesterday people’s faces and the bots’ surfaces had been bathed in violet. Today they were neon yellow. He pulled on his biker cap.

Lance joined in on the moving stream of people and machines on the walkway. Sliding in behind a Red Blood priest and his two zealots, cutting in front of a gorgeous android prost with her this is an android sign matching her red metallic lips.

The queue to the garage reel was — luckily — short and consisted of two people. They were also getting their dronebikes out. Lance was on his a minute later and hovered carefully out into the wide traffic airlane between his scraper and the one opposite. As much as his body wanted to spur his bike into the lane and shoot off towards the intersection that would allow him down to the lower level, his brain had noticed the SecForce traffic drone that hung silently above. He could not afford a chase or a fine tonight. Or any night these days.

As he flew towards the Happy High Five intersection Lance tapped his biker cap and its holodisplay came on. Speed, distance, altitude… the works. All the metrics of traffic life shone in bright green in front of his head. Most important to him was the TigerTooth icon that blinked, then became solid and made him smile. He’d connected his cap through his Taco11 to his old device, which rested on a shelf next to Hannah’s makeshift crib. Any sound she made, he’d hear, thanks to the long range of the TigerTooth link. Although it made both his shoulders and his anxiety chillax some, a vague murmuring in the back of his occipital lobe told him he had forgotten something.

Lance waved all the way through the Happy High Five intersection. Waved off all the synth-food drones, that is, with their promises of tasty lab grown snacks and beverages, all approaching with beaming smileys and jingles played with light, happy notes. He found the downward airlane as fast as dronebike-and-humanly possible, and down he went. The butterflies in his stomach the opposite of restless as he and a hundred other vehicles plummeted down. Down to the next level fifty meters below, then the next, fifty more meters. Slotting in perfectly in the speedlane, Lance kicked his bike to top speed and raced towards the quad five quadrants ahead, Quad Restless. Limos, autotaxis and SecForce drones and pursuit vehicles occupied the lane with him.

He passed the C-Level Transhuman Hospital, where, in his darkest moments as newborn Hannah cried and cried, he had contemplated bringing her. Delivering her. The hospital becomes a blur of neon strips in the corner of his eye, like the memory.

As Lance rushed past SmartClothing shops, a temple and a gang of kids having a drone fight, the holonumbers told him he was just two kilometers from Quad Restless and the estimated time on arrival to Trevor’s location was four minutes.

Lance eased his dronebike into a temporary parking space on a wall scaffolding just outside the Court, the hub of Quad Restless. The people streaming like cells in arteries on the walkways to and fro the Court seemed unending. The throb of every imaginable music pounded through Lance’s body as he slipped into the stream and was washed into the boiling pot that was the place to be in Sector 3.

The Court, a plaza that opened up into once-old grand architecture stretching skyhigh was now a patchwork of artistic expression, light and sound pollution, all clamouring for attention from every nook and cranny. Lance waved his way through dancers, spectators, buyers and sellers. Humans and machines. The club Trevor claimed to be in was opposite the plaza and Lance could see its entrance through the splashes of colour and strobing flashes of light and the occasional naked body part.

Every now and then, Lance thought he heard Hannah in his earpiece and had to stop, but it was just the plethora of sounds from the Court, and his mind, tricking him. He forced himself not to worry, but that vague murmuring he’d felt earlier had only grown.

In line for the club Lance tried his best to avoid social interaction. He noticed several others with masks and holodistorters. Displaying your identity was, for some, a weak spot. Restless was known to be a haven for synthetic euphoria and crime, from the casual pickpocket-y kind to the rumoured (but not debunked) subcity slave trade. When you house and entertain a scourge of thrillseekers and illicit money makers, crime comes with it like some incurable STD. SecForce rarely came down to Restless and if they did it was usually in droves. When he was younger and a frequent visitor to Restless and its Court, social media was buzzing with news — fake, illicit and real — that SecForce were in unending lawsuits with another security firm about the territory in this quad. Babylon Security wanted their piece of the pie. Likely a huge factor why they, even up until this day, rarely bothered to poke their taser stick in this teeming beehive.

Finally inside, only having had to engage in two awkward conversations about proposed sexual activity in the queue, Lance found the third balcony. Up there he could see the small club in all its splendour. A thousand high and sweating bodies, some moving like fluid, some like a crashed drone bouncing through oncoming traffic.

Trevor sat in the corner. Short chameleon trousers and a deep-black hoodie. His hood was pulled down casting his face in shadow. Lance knew it was him from the tough-guy posture, and the unnaturally defined calves. One of Trevor’s slightly failed shortcuts when chasing the perfect body. Before Lance stepped over his mind rummaged around the question of the perfect body. Who knew what that was these days?

After having smiled with genuine relief of seeing Lance and having clumsily hid his handgun, after telling Lance it was mighty great of him to come down — keeping his voice so low it croaked — and after explaining his predicament that a cage fighting club that allowed biomechanically enhancement had refused to turn the other cheek after discovering the miracle protein supplement Trevor had supplied them with was a hoax at best and a health danger at worst, Trevor put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and led him towards an exit.

“So how are you and Sarah doing?”

Lance wasn’t surprised.

“Her name is Hannah.”

“Shit, I knew that.”

Trevor tried to keep the conversation going, but just as he was about to say something he spotted a threat near the exit.

“What is it?”

“It’s them.”

Two women with glowing tank tops, bodies built to maximum muscular power, peered out over the crowd.

“I don’t think they’ve seen us,” Trevor whispered, but he was wrong.

The two bulging pieces of human flesh elbowed their way toward Lance and Trevor. Curses and shouts.

“Wrong.” Lance pointed out.

Trevor pulled him in the other direction, but against the river of people and sexbots exiting, their progress was slow. Too slow. The women closed in and before they managed to slip out of the stream both Lance and Trevor were picked up like ragdolls. Strong fingers tight around their necks and balls. They cried out but with each yelp the grip on their crotch increased and so did the pain.

“Put me down, I don’t know him!” In Lance’s head they were words, but when they escaped his mouth they were like some fading corrupted audio signal.

Carrying them over their heads, the two ladies of ill-intent walked through the exit. Outside, the exo-skelled bouncers paid them no heed. The pain blotched out Lance’s vision. When it suddenly let go he was airborne. He and Trevor flew down the stairs of a side alley. The pain returned in staccato jolts as they crash landed and tumbled down the steel-grated steps. They came to a halt in a heap at the bottom. Whatever human activity was going on down in the alley it quickly scurried off.

“Think I broke a finger!” Lance moaned as he tried to find his bearing, but already the two superior antagonists were descending the stairs with chuckles and promises of more pain. Lance tried to haul Trevor up for an escape, but he knew instantly from the weight of Trevor’s body it was utterly futile.

“Some help would be nice!” Trevor croaked through soon-to-be knocked out teeth.

If only he could give Trevor a long piece of his mind, to tell him how his full terrible and reckless life had led to this and how he should be utterly ashamed of how he’d brought his own brother down with him, and that his brother had something important in his life now, a daughter and by the gods if anything were to happen he would haunt Trevor for the rest of eterni —

The booming sound echoed through Lance’s ears and mind. Two more cracking booms followed. Trevor held the gun with confidence even if his arm shook and his face bled. Like a sack of something heavy one of the ladies fell down the steps and skidded to a grating halt. The other one knelt as if in an awkward ritual, clutching her thigh. If Lance had been the owner of a high-end spectral contact lens he would have seen the soundwaves filling the air with excruciating pain.

Five minutes later, bodies aching and the taste of blood in their mouths, Lance and Trevor sat hunched behind a pile of spent electric gear somewhere in the darker parts of the Restless quadrant. After having cursed and bitten away the pain they had been able to run. Even here, in this forgotten walkway only drifters and dumpster drones came through, the sounds of entertainment and vibrations of music penetrated. Lance and Trevor hadn’t dared to speak during their escape but now Trevor was ready to apologise to Lance and admit he’d never shot anyone before and how it wasn’t a pleasant feeling at all and that he would get rid of the gun as soon as he could and it all came out in a flurry of words before Lance grabbed him and made him hush.

Not far off, people were shouting.

“Come out, you snake!”

Lance assumed correctly that that snake was his brother.

They sat as still as they could. Footsteps came closer. When the footsteps were loudest it struck them both just how poor a hiding spot they’d chosen. No escape route. Cornered like a square room.

Breaths held, suddenly Lance’s device beeped. His TigerTooth link was being hacked. Fumbling desperately and as quietly as possible he severed the connection. Trevor held the gun ready. The footsteps came closer.

“Nothing but rats and stink down here, Zike! Let’s go back.”

The feet and its unknown owner walked away.

A minute of silence and the two brothers dared to breathe out.

“That was anticlimactic.”

“I gotta go right now. I can’t hear if Hannah wakes up anymore.”

“What was it?”

“Someone stumbled on my TigerTooth link. Had my outdated old device set up as mic.”

“They get into your device they’ll rob you blind.”

“Not much to rob, I’m afraid.”

The admittance of being poorer off than his brother struck him as the words slipped out. A stinging defeat that Trevor could clearly see in Lance’s downcast eyes. Trevor stood and helped Lance up. Bruised skin and stiff muscles. The two brothers wandered out of the dark nook.

“Hey, would it be alright if I crashed at your place for a day or two?”

No matter how much Lance wanted to object, he said yes. Apparently there’s a link between twin brothers, he thought. But he was pretty sure this came down to his gullible kindness.

After several sorry attempts at brotherly chatter from Trevor’s side, they were back at Lance’s scraper. He slotted the dronebike into the garage reel and led Trevor to the entrance.

“Place hasn’t changed much.” Trevor noted. It having been over six months since last he dropped by. Also back then to lay low for a few days.

Before Lance reached his door, Trevor stopped him.

“Hey, I want to pay up for this wreckshit I caused, okay. And you can’t say no.”

“I don’t need the credits.”

“You do. You got a kid.”

Lance didn’t want to admit he needed them.

“And that dog, which is a walking malfunction. Let me fix him up, if you still want the furball around.”

Lance shrugged a weak yeah, okay I’ll accept your money.

“Spiffy.”

“Huh?”

“Spiffy is my dog’s name. Spiffy and Hannah.”

Lance unlocked the door as his mind flooded with all the good memories of Spiffy and of Hannah.

Then, the vague murmuring he’d felt earlier came like a freak tsunami.

His place was a mess. Clutter on the floor and the makeshift crib had been toppled. In front of it sat Spiffy, his fur ripped on his face, sparks twinkled in his exposed neck, but the thing that sent a terrible shiver down Lance’s spine was the amount of blood. On the floor, sprayed on the makeshift crib and wall, and all over Spiffy’s face. As if someone had lowered his head in a bucket of the red stuff.

“Hannah!?”

She wasn’t in the ruined crib. Lance’s mind raced on in desperation but no logical conclusion presented itself. Only black rage. Spiffy, Lance’s little buddy, had eaten his dear little baby.

Spiffy sat waiting with his tail wagging. The curious tilted head. Eyes asking for a treat as Lance grabbed the first thing that could be used as a blunt instrument and went at his terrier. The dog’s friendly and animalistic eyes asked a hundred confusing questions as the guitar came crashing down.

Lance didn’t stop beating Spiffy until the yelps stopped, his limbs gave out and, flat on the floor, his core kernel broke. The electric sigh calmed Lance only to stir up the heaviest of emotions. Grief.

He knelt down by his ruined Spiffy, unable to hold the tears back. His eyes flailing around the room, looking for… anything but this.

Trevor had been shocked and frozen in the doorway during the ordeal.

“What the fuck…?”

“Hannah…”

In a rush of sudden responsibility Trevor came to Lance and held him. He offered his brother the generic comforting words but soon felt they carried no meaning and just held Lance in silence. The hug and silence spoke louder than any words ever uttered by Trevor. But Lance was beyond consolation. Weak hulking breaths filled everything.

A rustle suddenly startled them both. From under the makeshift crib. Then came the most welcoming sound. A cry. A baby’s cry.

Lance scurried over and lifted the sheets that were pulled down from the crib. There was Hannah. Unharmed and, at least in her mind, in dire need of her bottle and formula.

His daughter was alive and as Lance pulled her close and held her, he knew he was the luckiest man alive. He knew happiness, and he knew he would never be jealous of Trevor ever again.

Trevor was wiping and blinking away tears when he saw it.

“Uh, Lance…”

He was looking at something behind the door. Draped in shadow there between the door and Lance’s bed, was something they had missed when they first opened the door. Someone.

A bloody and mangled corpse.

“A Snatcher…” Trevor knew all the terms of all the scums of the sector.

It dawned on Lance. The lump in his throat returned to mix with the euphoric feeling of love.

Spiffy had saved Hannah. When Spiffy first noticed someone was picking the lock on the door, his algorithms had made him pull Hannah under the table and drape her with sheets. To secure her before whatever threat emerged from the doorway. The fight with the Snatcher had been brutal, but the man had not anticipated such fierce code in an outdated pet model.

A code that over the time spent with Lance, and with little Hannah, had created a neuronal pattern inside Spiffy’s kernel that resembled love.

The Fierce Code is one of the stories in the “slice of cyberpunk life” short story collection METROPO, coming in 2017. Facebook or Tumblr.

Illustration by John Jamtli