Walking back through the secret tunnel that connected the Northside District to downtown, Leah pondered over why her mother didn’t seem more surprised to learn that two of the boys she’d robbed on the other side of the Eastern Forests were in Koster today, and with enough energy to be tossing people around. She was becoming more and more sure that some of Koster’s elite were behind the successful raid of the caravan. How else could the thugs have arrived here, perhaps as quickly as she did, without some kind of aid?
She’d followed the caravan, unseen, for days on its way to Koster City. After it was attacked, she’d followed the raiders as they fought off small waves of their pursuers. They were completely exhausted when they hid out in those ruins, but they’d taken several measures to avoid being surprised in the night. Numerous noise traps were left around where they slept. They’d climbed into and hauled all their goods into a window that was hard to access. Leah had had to repel over jagged stones and the smooth, dusty wall’s surface.
The ginger spy had been impressed with the boys’ efforts. When she entered their “fortress”, she’d found that they were all hopelessly drained. Every one of them had been asleep, even the ones who were supposed to be keeping guard. That suggested to Leah that these really were just average thieves: they didn’t even have augments. Even now, as she recalled the events, she felt stunned that their raid had gone as well as it had for them.
Or had it? The boys in town were asking specifically for a green-eyed girl. They were looking for a career thief and they had come to Koster City. By keeping the stone, she must be quite the disturbance in more than a few people’s plans. Even her own mother seemed to suspect her of not being entirely forthcoming. Am I losing my edge? Leah thought, Does she know I do have it? If her mother did suspect her of having it, didn’t she just let her off a little too easily? Leah was beginning to feel an urge to rush home and make sure the odd stone was still hidden in her bedpost. It hadn’t been 24 hours since she’d stolen it; somehow it had affected every part of her day. Why do I feel like I need it? …Like I must have it?
Gizmo’s eyes suddenly glowed brighter as if in response to her feelings and the tunnels terminal reflected some of that purple light back at them. Out of mindless habit, Leah tuned her augments to detect anyone near the tunnel’s entrance. Feeling that the area was free of bystanders and onlookers, she carefully opened the trapdoor and let Gizmo walk out before her. Leah had one more order of business before setting out to find the red-vested leader of the band she’d literally robbed last night, so now seemed like a good time to get some food.
The duo moved into Downtown proper where Leah bought a refined crystal to recharge Gizmo’s energy matrix, then went to her favorite cafe in the Ivy Gardens. It was almost two hours after noon when they headed to their mechanic’s shop north-west of downtown. The industrial district took up the entire space between Downtown and the West Docks, and the St. John’s River flowed right through it. The way the industrial district appeared from the ground seemed like a random amalgamation of warehouses, workshops, factories, utility hubs, and plots of wild grass. However, if one were to view it from one of the tallest downtown buildings, they’d see a design in which most of the factories lined the river, most workshops were just west of downtown, and warehouses filled most of the space between St. Johns and the West Docks.
Gizmo and Leah turned off the main road to a dirt one that was surrounded on either side by broad fields of wild grass. One of the smaller, 2-story warehouses had been repurposed into a workshop, and stood alone, surrounded by what must have been a parking lot from the society that once was. The surrounding area looked more like a junkyard, now, and was enclosed by a run-down, chain-link fence. Gizmo and Leah rounded the building until they came to two large bay doors facing the river. Leah dismounted, and as she approached, a voice called out to her from the second story.
“Fancy seeing you here, Ms. McNab.” A skinny, 30-something man with deep blue eyes and long black hair in a ponytail was leaning from one of the windows. He was shirtless but wore a tattered denim vest and black jeans. His skin was almost pale but was covered in a variety of tattoos. Just below the shoulder of his left arm, was a tattoo of a reptilian griffin surrounded by a circle of flames.
Leah waved a happy greeting to the heavily tattooed man, one of her only true friends who knew who she truly was, “Hello, Mr. McNab!”
A sound came from Gizmo that sounded like a “purr”, and Leah glanced at the quattour in wonder. Her family’s high mechanics had told her that it was just the sound of Gizmo’s hydraulic systems resetting. They’d assured her that it was merely the noise of gases and liquids being flushed and replenished beneath Gizmo’s “exoskeleton?” Leah said aloud. She continued to gaze at the cat-like thing that looked like something from a Terminator movie.
The mechanics could say what they want, Leah knew that Gizmo made that particular sound only when it? …she? seemed excited. The quattour‘s gaze was focused, and Leah followed it into Beathen’s ocean-blue eyes. The mechanic straightened, and with an arm covered in purple tattoos, motioned for Gizmo, “Come on in then…”. Leah felt a little ignored as Gizmo eagerly strode past her into the first and widest of the bay doors.
. . . . .
The inside of the shop was dim, despite the doors and windows being open. The inner stone walls were a shady mix of dark grays, depending on how much light was hitting them. There were four of these stations on the bottom floor, and three on the second floor. At each of the bottom four stations, 2-4 men and women worked on quattours or other machines. The first bay door opened onto a small lift that allowed Beathen’s staff to work under machines. At the far end of the building, the painting area was the largest of the workstations; the 2nd bay door opening into it.
Those two stations were separated by a larger lift that carried machines to the second floor. All the workstations on that floor were Beathen’s. Gizmo trotted onto the large, wide, rectangular lift as Leah followed. Once they were both still, the lift started with a jolt. Beathen sat in a swiveling chair-on-wheels near a desk-high console. After the lift had fully ascended, Beathen flipped a switch and steel bars engaged grooves in its panel and locked it into place.
“Hello, Little Princess.” Beathen had taken to calling Leah that when she was still little.
“That’s annoying, Old Fart.” She had no idea what a “fart” was, but remembered that that’s what some of her schoolmates would call the elderly, “I’m no princess, and I certainly ain’t no child.”
“Ain’t?” Beathen grinned mischievously, “Oh, when your mother hears that…”
The tattooed mechanic had greeted them from the window above the first bay door. He smiled at his guests and walked back toward it, selecting some tools from a rack that hung just left of the window. Gizmo trotted merrily over to a workstation centered on a large, round floor panel. The panel had small grooves and knots in its flooring that would allow a quattour to anchor itself to the disc. Once Gizmo was in place, Beathen walked over and began turning the disc slowly with a remote control.
The cat-like machine lifted its head and shifted its posture in response to Beathen’s inspection: fully compliant. I think she likes this a little too much…, Leah thought. She realized at once how odd it was to think of Gizmo liking anything. “Do other quattours behave like this?” She asked Beathen.
“Of course not,” he replied without looking at her, “other quattours ain’t Gizmo.” He made sure to put obvious emphasis on “ain’t“.
Leah rolled her eyes, “So…, I’m not imagining things? She actually likes the attention?”
Beathen hesitated, then glanced back at her, “what in the time you two have spent together would make you think this is a normal quattour?”
“I… I…,” Leah was stunned by the question and more than a little embarrassed. “What does that even mean, Beathen?”
Beathen was thoughtful for a moment, then he pulled a tool from his belt that resembled a flashlight. He aimed it at Gizmo and a dim light did emit from it. Beathen used it to scan Gizmo as the quattour spun on the disc. “A quattour’s shell is completely unrelated to its mindcore.” He began, “They’re not even made at the same time. A factory over here makes and assembles shells; a factory over there pumps out mindcores. It used to be that mindcores were made to try and resemble intelligence, and were intended for specific quatt-shells. That was long ago though, before even… the Mannah fell. Now they just make operating systems… Interfaces for quattour buyers: mindless mindcores.”
The mechanic put the black-light scanner away and pulled out a small rubber mallet. He moved around Gizmo’s surface, lightly hammering at this or that joint. Leah had heard rumors about what Beathen was discussing, but couldn’t see the direct relation to her question. “Do you mean that quattours used to be able to think? Is Gizmo really old?”
Beathen shrugged his shoulders, “This model is relatively new… maybe a couple decades old.” He paused and looked at Leah, “But by comparison, Gizmo’s mindcore is ancient.”
This answer stunned Leah for reasons she couldn’t explain. She glanced hard at Gizmo for a few moments before, “So this quattour can think?”
“Think?!” Beathen seemed humored, “She can probably process intelligent thoughts faster than you can. They make ‘em now to wear off in time. …So you have to buy a new one… But this is from before. There’s no telling how long this mindcore might last.”
“If that’s the case, then shouldn’t there be a bunch of old ones out there? Why would people accept the new ones when there’s a better, more durable model?”
“People get afraid.” Beathen walked over to another console and punched something into a keypad. A holographic display of Gizmo’s systems appeared suddenly, and he waved at the air to turn it this way and that. “The smarter models were de-commissioned for being ‘too smart’”, he said, “They had the capacity to hack personal systems and track targets around the world with satellite data. By the time of the Crash, people just wanted machines to carry them around.” He walked back over to Gizmo and pulled another tool from his belt. It looked like a mix between a screwdriver and a crank. He began “cranking” at some of Gizmo’s joints.
Remembering when she’d first brought Gizmo to Beathen’s shop, Leah recalled how the mechanic had applauded her at how lucky she’d been. “I was the last one in my class to select a quattour. How come so many people overlooked this one?”
“You got the shell, and then were awarded this mindcore, remember? Your father knew what he was doing. Besides, most people never really consider the mindcore. They just don’t know what they’re looking for. …or what they’re talking about…”
“Is that why this core glows with that strange, ugly light?” Leah remembered having mixed feelings when “awarded” a mindcore that glowed like a dying yellow lantern. All the other graduates had cores that glowed a bright orange or white.
“Exactly!” Beathen said with an air of excitement, “To most people, it looks like a dull thing that won’t last long, but your father would’ve done his research. To most people in his circles, having a quattour from the days that were would be a dangerous thing. Your father does love power, eh?”
“But that doesn’t answer what happened to all the others. Shouldn’t they have survived like Gizmo’s?”
“Some are out there,” Beathen had reassembled Gizmo’s parts and was polishing the shell, “Most were lost in the wars before Mannah-Fall. Many were useless once we lost our satellites. But there are some, like your father, that have hunted down some of the old mindcores and hide them in newer models.”
“So he may want it back someday?” Leah observed Gizmo with a sudden sadness.
“Hah! You better believe your Da has a cache of his own.” Beathen winked at Leah, “You didn’t hear that from me, of course…. As for them that have an old core, watch out for those people, Young Lass. If you ever notice a quattour, or its owner, acting a little too strangely, steer clear of them. Someone with that kind of power”, he threw up his hands as he gave Gizmo a final inspection, “you don’t know what they could be up to.”
Leah thought back to anyone in the elite class who owned a quattour. She thought back over all of her old classmates and their parents. She couldn’t think of a single example in which a quattour didn’t do exactly what was expected. No one, as far as she knew, would think of anything but a battle quattour as dangerous. Up until her experiences with Gizmo, she’d never even considered that a vehicle could have a mind of its own.
The mechanic’s work was done on Gizmo. He settled the disc and the quattour dismounted. Leah said, “I still have a lot of work to do today. I’ll try to catch dinner with you sometime soon…”
“Where do you think you’re going?” Suddenly, Beathen’s tone had become authoritative, “I owe your father big for rescuing my family from the New Democracy’s goons. Once your augments had been commissioned, he made me swear to look after you. Working on Gizmo is always a treat, but I have a job that takes priority…” Beathen stepped to the side and motioned at a chair just beyond the disc. Leah knew the chair well, it was time for the mechanic to tune up her augments as well.
“I’ve heard it all a thousand times…” she said as she made her way to the chair.
This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.
Special Author’s Note
Up to this point, I had been avoiding exposition; when writing Beathen’s character I’d decided he’d be my exposition guy. Through the stories he’s trying to tell, he’d be dropping important nuggets about everything else going on around our protagonists. I always liked Beathen, and was uncertain to make him a “good” or “bad” guy, but his loyalties eventually made that obvious.
This chapter was intended to use Gizmo to shift the stone from a possible McGuffin to something that was really important to the characters on an individual level. Alas, it felt more natural to creep into that by first forcing Leah to address Gizmo’s uniqueness. One of my favorite parts of this chapter is Beathen’s awe at Gizmo coupled with his awe at Leah’s failed acknowledgment of such.