Read this free interactive version of Part 1

Read this free interactive
version of Part 1

Part One

Spiky Haze

Birthday


All Andre Cross wanted was some peace and bloody quiet.

Strapped into his robotic four-armed harness, he dangled like a spider from the horizontal shaft’s ceiling. The harness motor purred, but another noise—a frantic shrill in the left gripper’s connector socket—squealed in his ear with mosquito persistence.

That’s gonna drive me nuts.

Three times, he’d asked Dirk to service his harness. Three times, the farm manager had blown him off.

Cool air brushed against the back of his neck. At first, he mistook the sensation for a twitch of the implant embedded against his cervical vertebrae. He checked his recent thoughts for any aggression that might have activated the device but gave himself the all-clear.

Just my mind playing tricks.

Shaking off the chill, he focused on completing his last job for the day, when the synthesized voice of the farm’s AI echoed through his visor.

“Operator 77. Two minutes remaining. Please report.”

He gritted his teeth. If he took longer to fix the lift than the time allotted by Control’s algorithms, those same damn algorithms would dock his Reliability Rating. The Baron did not like delays, and Control ensured the workers never forgot.

Yeah, yeah, Control, hold your horses.

The alignment mechanism in the lift’s motor had slipped, of course. They all came loose at the intersections. Suspended inside the lift’s motor cage, he reached down and slotted the mechanism back into place. Signaling with shoulder gestures, the grippers—the two upper robotic limbs on his harness—contracted and hauled him out of the cage, dangling him just above the lift. He flipped the cage panel shut, and the helpers—the two lower robotic limbs—screwed the panel back into place. Rolling his shoulders, the grippers hauled him clear of the cabin.

“Control, this is Operator 77. Lift Omega clear.”

“Copy, Operator 77. Running lift diagnostic now. Standby.”

But he didn’t standby. Andre had been working on lifts since he was sixteen. He knew the cabin was good to go. His twelve-hour shift was done and dusted, and so was he, physically and mentally. Thinking of a hot shower, he headed toward the trunk exit.

Rolling his shoulders again, to activate the grippers, he swung along the shaft like a six-arm monkey. As the swing steadied, he withdrew his vape from the inner pocket of his overalls, clicked the lighting switch, and sucked the sweet vapor deep into his lungs.

Doctor Steele had advised him to quit smoking—along with an extensive list of other habits he should break—to avoid aggravating the implant. But ever since the Doctor implanted the roach-shaped device, Andre wanted to smoke more. Anyway, he had quit, hadn't he? For four long months. So he’d ticked that one off the Doctor’s list of don't-dos and got back to doing what he wanted to do.

Part One

Spiky Haze

Birthday


All Andre Cross wanted was some peace and bloody quiet.

Strapped into his robotic four-armed harness, he dangled like a spider from the horizontal shaft’s ceiling. The harness motor purred, but another noise—a frantic shrill in the left gripper’s connector socket—squealed in his ear with mosquito persistence.

That’s gonna drive me nuts.

Three times, he’d asked Dirk to service his harness. Three times, the farm manager had blown him off.

Cool air brushed against the back of his neck. At first, he mistook the sensation for a twitch of the implant embedded against his cervical vertebrae. He checked his recent thoughts for any aggression that might have activated the device but gave himself the all-clear.

Just my mind playing tricks.

Shaking off the chill, he focused on completing his last job for the day, when the synthesized voice of the farm’s AI echoed through his visor.

“Operator 77. Two minutes remaining. Please report.”

He gritted his teeth. If he took longer to fix the lift than the time allotted by Control’s algorithms, those same damn algorithms would dock his Reliability Rating. The Baron did not like delays, and Control ensured the workers never forgot.

Yeah, yeah, Control, hold your horses.

The alignment mechanism in the lift’s motor had slipped, of course. They all came loose at the intersections. Suspended inside the lift’s motor cage, he reached down and slotted the mechanism back into place. Signaling with shoulder gestures, the grippers—the two upper robotic limbs on his harness—contracted and hauled him out of the cage, dangling him just above the lift. He flipped the cage panel shut, and the helpers—the two lower robotic limbs—screwed the panel back into place. Rolling his shoulders, the grippers hauled him clear of the cabin.

“Control, this is Operator 77. Lift Omega clear.”

“Copy, Operator 77. Running lift diagnostic now. Standby.”

But he didn’t standby. Andre had been working on lifts since he was sixteen. He knew the cabin was good to go. His twelve-hour shift was done and dusted, and so was he, physically and mentally. Thinking of a hot shower, he headed toward the trunk exit.

Rolling his shoulders again, to activate the grippers, he swung along the shaft like a six-arm monkey. As the swing steadied, he withdrew his vape from the inner pocket of his overalls, clicked the lighting switch, and sucked the sweet vapor deep into his lungs.

Doctor Steele had advised him to quit smoking—along with an extensive list of other habits he should break—to avoid aggravating the implant. But ever since the Doctor implanted the roach-shaped device, Andre wanted to smoke more. Anyway, he had quit, hadn't he? For four long months. So he’d ticked that one off the Doctor’s list of don't-dos and got back to doing what he wanted to do.

He blew a chain of vapor rings that distorted and floated away behind him and enjoyed the solitude. As one of the few remaining non-machine employees, he rarely saw another human during his shift.

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Jackson all day.

And that suited him just fine. Six years of solitary confinement had ingrained in him a preference for being alone.

The steady swinging rocked him, like a baby in a cradle. He yawned, never feeling so exhausted at the end of a day. Every shift in the tree-towers was a long and strenuous one. Some days he felt like he was just a device for survival, on autopilot, no different from the harvest drones in the greenhouse.

Still, a job was a job, and Implants couldn't be choosers. If he hadn’t spent his prison labor time working on the Dock lifts, he would not have landed his lift-mechanic job on the farm. At least he got to work inside the tree-towers where there were always four walls to cling to. Out beyond the shafts, in the greenhouse itself, mountainous space sprawled above and below, with precarious branches spinning all around, the air pungent with the sickly sweet smell of the Blue Eye plants. As far as Andre was concerned, the greenhouse was Jackson’s gig and he could keep it.

Twelve fantastic months, he thought with sarcasm, as he swung along the shaft. Twelve months since he’d accepted the implant to walk free from prison. Sure, he still had to manage the violent urges that had put him into prison in the first place, and the implant wasn’t 100 percent accurate, sometimes mistaking panic or fear or excitement for the bad thoughts. The worst days were a spiky haze of temper flares and heavy sedation. But, so far, the device had recognized his violent urges and auto-medicated him before they’d eventuated into action. He was on track with his Plan, and well on his way to becoming a Good Citizen. That, at least, was worth a celebratory vape.

Happy nineteenth birthday to me.

He blew a chain of vapor rings that distorted and floated away behind him and enjoyed the solitude. As one of the few remaining non-machine employees, he rarely saw another human during his shift.

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Jackson all day.

And that suited him just fine. Six years of solitary confinement had ingrained in him a preference for being alone.

The steady swinging rocked him, like a baby in a cradle. He yawned, never feeling so exhausted at the end of a day. Every shift in the tree-towers was a long and strenuous one. Some days he felt like he was just a device for survival, on autopilot, no different from the harvest drones in the greenhouse.

Still, a job was a job, and Implants couldn't be choosers. If he hadn’t spent his prison labor time working on the Dock lifts, he would not have landed his lift-mechanic job on the farm. At least he got to work inside the tree-towers where there were always four walls to cling to. Out beyond the shafts, in the greenhouse itself, mountainous space sprawled above and below, with precarious branches spinning all around, the air pungent with the sickly sweet smell of the Blue Eye plants. As far as Andre was concerned, the greenhouse was Jackson’s gig and he could keep it.

Twelve fantastic months, he thought with sarcasm, as he swung along the shaft. Twelve months since he’d accepted the implant to walk free from prison. Sure, he still had to manage the violent urges that had put him into prison in the first place, and the implant wasn’t 100 percent accurate, sometimes mistaking panic or fear or excitement for the bad thoughts. The worst days were a spiky haze of temper flares and heavy sedation. But, so far, the device had recognized his violent urges and auto-medicated him before they’d eventuated into action. He was on track with his Plan, and well on his way to becoming a Good Citizen. That, at least, was worth a celebratory vape.

Happy nineteenth birthday to me.

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Artwork by Damien Lutz, with contributions by Jonny Gray

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