The hunt was on.
Whether they made all that noise just to keep in touch with one another or to further scare Ashrej, she did not know but if that indeed was their aim, they had achieved it. In any case, she was forced to run once more. They had to give up eventually. She hoped so, at least.
Like coursing game, the hunters chased Ashrej down the channels of the cave.
The strain was now taking its toll, making the girl become sluggish. Several times she tripped and fell, adding new scars to her recent collection.
Once she missed evading a stalagmite, tackling and breaking it with a loud crack. It barely hurt, but the reverberating sound of breaking rock echoing through the shaft together with her outcry of surprise pointed the hunters right to her position.
Yet again succumbing to panic, the girl ran with and through what little reserves of strength she had left, throwing care to the wind, tripping and throwing wild glances over her shoulder.
At the end of the line she saw thin rays of light shine through a round, man-sized hatch. What kind of hatch it was and where it lead to was of no concern, with the voices gaining on her and even flashlights visible in the distance. There was no time left for questions. She had to get that hatch open and fast. She leaned against it and slammed into it with all of her weight, but the hatch didn’t budge. There was a locking mechanism held fast with a chain. She clawed at it at to no avail. As the first shot hit the metal next to her she flinched, and out of desperation did what a vampire does best: she bit it. To even her own surprise, the heavy, metal chain was cleaved cleanly in twain. New gunshots hammered the metal around her and one or two ripped at her clothes. One last time Ashrej put her might against the metal and after what felt like an eternity it gave way, offended by such a vulgar display of power. Now even the last remainders of strength left Ashrej’s abused body.
The hunters got close to her just in time to witness her slump down the hatchway, tumbling down some 25 feet into an ever-shifting river of shoddy dressed people walking. There she disappeared amongst the masses like a drop of water in the sea.
“Damn it, we’ve lost her!” was all that the least exhausted knight could exclaim to vent his frustration. The others only stared down the chasm in irritation and panted.
Slave new world
Ashrej came to her senses in a small room, more a cell than anything. Getting off the bed she was in, she began exploring her surroundings, but there wasn’t much to explore. In a space of no more than 30 square feet stood a bed, a drawer with clothes and personal belongings, along with a shower in the corner. And no one there besides her. Without anything better to do, seeing as the door was locked, Ashrej rummaged through the host’s meagre possessions. The most striking find was a coal sketch of a man standing by a woman, arm slung around her shoulders. Both smiled and looked content but something, perhaps in the way the eyes were drawn, betrayed an underlying sadness.
The door opened with a beep and a hiss and a man entered, the same one that was depicted on the sketch, though a bit slenderer and a lot more worn out. He just noted her presence with a dry “Ah, you’re up. Good.” Barely conscious he bore witness to the sight of a dumbstruck girl sitting in the middle of a mess created from his own clothes holding the sketch in her hands, staring back at him with wide open, yellow cat eyes. He yawned and trotted over to bed whereupon he let himself fall with a long sigh of relief.
“I’ll be with you in a moment. Just give me a few minutes…” He dozed off and almost instantly sunk into a deep slumber. Ashrej didn’t get what this was about and her best way to find out lay there, face down on the bed, snoring.
She decided not to go anywhere without an explanation and to wait for the man to wake up. Without grace, she stuffed his things back into the drawer, being careful not to damage the sketch and once finished, took a seat on the edge of the bed, waiting. Examining herself, she realized that most of her minor wounds had already healed, but her legs felt sore as anything. A good excuse to use the shower? Yes, a good enough excuse to use a complete stranger’s sanitary installations. Some hot water later and suddenly the world had become a better place.
The stranger was still asleep; no changes on that front. Back on the bed corner, a ticking attracted Ashrej’s attention, a ticking that she knew well and remembered fondly: the sound an old clock makes. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock.
Granted, in this case it appeared to be a newer clock than the one in Gramps’ hut, but still it got her thinking about him and what had become of him as the result of the chase. Maybe he was already back, looking for her. Maybe he’d gotten lost in the caves and was now sitting there as frightened as she had been. Or maybe, just perhaps he had been caught after all by the armored men—but this could mean anything. She jumped up from the bed. No, I can’t just sit around here waiting for some tired fart to wake up! She had to go and reunite with Gramps but on the other hand, where should she go if she wasn’t even sure of where she was now? She sat back down.
As much as Ashrej hated to dawdle, she had no choice but to patiently wait it out. Sitting still without a purpose was one of the few things she hated even more than eating cacti blossoms and Gramps trying to teach her ‘some manners’, as he called his endless preaching.
A few hours passed during which Ashrej paced out the room several times, counted every item in the drawers—which weren’t many—swayed with the ticking of the clock until her head hurt, and finally searched under the bed for some hidden stash without success until finally with a great yawn, the man awoke.
Already he looked quite a bit fitter. A snore made him look in the direction of the other bed corner, where the strange girl was napping on, her head supported on the palms. Cautiously he shook her and with a startled scream she bolted up. “Don’t!”
The man recoiled in surprise. Ashrej fell to the floor, and the impact made her remember where she was.
“Bad dream, huh?”
“Anyway, good that you are still here. It could have caused a lot of trouble for me if you’d just run off. Who are you, by the way?”
“I could ask the same thing of you. And also, where am I?”
“Me? No one interesting at all, just good ol’ 29x521, doing his honest work in factorum complex Q. But you, you are the curious one in this room. An outsider just falling out of the sky right before my feet. It was quite the piece of work to drag you here, so the least you could do is reveal your name.”
“A nice name. What does it mean?”
“Wow. There you meet someone who actually has a name and she doesn’t even know what it means. Tsk.” He looked at the clock. “So late already? I have to go. My next shift is about to start. A man has got to eat, you know.” He stood up with a smile and hurriedly poured himself a glass of water. Only a thin trickle came out of the faucet and a voice let him know that his water rations for this cycle were running on minimal output. “What!? I barely used it! How come, you stupid hunk o’ junk?” He turned to his guest.
“I’ve taken a shower while you were sleeping. I was caked in dirt.” the girl dryly informed him.
“What kind of shower uses up 80 liters of hard saved water!?” he yelled, waving his scarred arms around.
“A thorough one.” the girl replied firmly.
29x521 groaned. “I was planning on taking one, the first in three weeks and now it’s all gone.”
The voice now reminded him that his shift was about to start, and if he didn’t arrive on time his meals would be cut as well.
“Yes dammit, I know!” He exited the room with hurried strides.
“Do I have to wait here for ages again or what? It’s boring.”
“I don’t care what you do anymore, take a hike or something.”
Seeing the chance to escape her prison of solitude, Ashrej slipped out and the automatic door shut behind her. Only one way left to move: forward. Though cast out, she followed 29x521 through the oversized communal skyscraper, teeming with people, in the search for a way out.
Both exited onto a wide road filled to the brim with commuters wearing the same worn-out, red robes as 29x521, moving to and fro in what could only be described as rivers.
29x521 vanished into one of these as soon as he left the building, leaving Ashrej on the steps of the several thousand-foot-high pillar of tinted glass. She was not at all comfortable with the idea of being engulfed by a stream of human bodies, especially as never before in her life had she seen so many people, and such filthy ones at that. Every single one of them, no, the whole place was covered in orange-rusty dust, and the air itself seemed stale and rusty. Massive buildings, towers and factories shaped the landscape and made it feel cramped and small, despite streets so wide they would likely fit ten of Gramps’ trucks side to side. The buildings made the sky feel close, close enough to just stretch out a hand and touch it.
Glimmers of silver peeked out of the masses in irregular intervals. Drones, melon-sized spheres, some flying the larger ones comparable to a sizeable boulder rolling on wheels, polished by the constant friction of fabric against metal mingled in between people, doing something that Ashrej couldn’t quite make out even with her enhanced vision. One thing was certain: despite the acute lack of space, the people tried to evade the machines whenever possible. They were afraid to even look up at them. Heads low, they tried to move aside, an ultimately futile effort in the crowd.
Far off in the distance, chimneys spewed forth thick clouds of purple smoke, which the constant wind blew ever westwards towards a mountain range.
Having seen enough and unwilling to bear more dust lodging itself into her clothes, pockets and skin, Ashrej stepped into the stream with a whimper and was drifted away. As she passed by a fascinating variety of people, there suddenly appeared to be a commotion going on right before her.
The men and women around her unanimously moved into the opposite direction of the noise, but Ashrej, being at the edge of the movement, was left not swept away.
Then an explosion rocked the area and the swarm contracted. Those who could not react quickly enough fell and got trampled, while the others fled from whence they came.
Through the smoke, fires flailed and sounds of fighting could be made out. A squadron of flying bots hastened out of the stream and towards the flames, some extinguishing the fires and others just whizzing around as if searching for something. Suddenly, with a staccato of bare feet on stone, a woman came running through the wad of smoke, coughing. Something hit her from behind and she fell, crashing onto the ground, twitching, coughing, and crying.
One of the flying bots followed out of the same direction at a leisurely pace. It came to a stop above the poor puddle of human existence that lay writhing in the dirt. A panning beam of light scanned the woman’s neck, a barcode tattooed on it.
Once finished, it turned its attention to Ashrej, who until now had stood there petrified by the scene unfolding before her eyes. The machine’s cold, malignant stare was directed at her. The bot came closer and scanned her as well, the tingling on her neck broke the spell. Ashrej took a frightened step back.
The same voice that had previously informed 29x521 about his shift now addressed Ashrej: “Unidentified personnel. Remain calm and step forward for incorporation.”
As one of the drone’s four underslung barrels changed with a crunchy tshak, remaining calm was the last thing on Ashrej’s mind right now.
She turned to run but wheeled as even meaner looking drones closed in from behind, cutting off her route of escape. She turned back just in time to see the flash of the paralyzing dart that struck her and a second later a distant thud informed her fading consciousness that she had hit the ground. The last thing she saw before vision finally left were the treads of robots moving past her to catch further prey. Something lifted her up and that was it.
Ashrej awoke to the ringing of an alarm clock. Despite the brain-rattling volume she had trouble waking up. Lazily she slid off the bed, only with trouble regaining her standing.
“If 473i1 will not be through the door within 30 seconds the daily rations will be cut,” the all-present voice from the roof speaker let her know. Still dizzy and slow from the sedative, Ashrej barely managed to stagger over to the table in the given time to get dressed in her new red robes that lay there. Her old attire was nowhere to be found and the search only cost her additional time.
“473i1, your daily rations have been cancelled. You have two minutes until collectors will be dispatched.” The voice rang hollow and inflectionless but contained an unmistakable threat. Ashrej barreled out the door before those collectors came for her. It was loud, nauseatingly loud Shuffling of feet, conversations, the hissing of opening and closing doors, the flutter and scraping of fabric all melted together into a hum of white noise.
“Oh, hello there. Didn’t expect to meet you here again. Was only a matter of time though, come to think of it.” Ashrej turned towards the speaker, 29x521 looked up at her from his cell. It just so happened that Ashrej was housed in the room above his, the neighbor from above so to say.
“See you around then.” He made his way towards the exit and beckoned after himself. “You better get going. We’re already running late!”
She clumsily descended the ladder by her door and caught up to him just as he was about to leave the building and disappear into the river of people once more and grabbed his wrist. He looked puzzled first at the hand, then at the girl.
She gripped over to his sleeve. “So I won’t get lost again.” She started. He shrugged and they drifted through the flow towards Complex Q.
Once there, 29x521 introduced her to the mechanical overseer, who in turn assigned Ashrej a workplace, whereto she was led by a small wheeled bot.
Behind a heavy metal door lay a dank, pitch black space. Even her enhanced eyes could barely make out a thing.
Distant, unrhythmic ticking sounds echoed through the space, previously overshadowed by the robot’s whirring wheels, leading Ashrej to believe that she was once again inside a cavern of some sort. The cool breeze from inside lightened her headache and made her think clearer again. She was handed something heavy and then abandoned by the robot, which went back the way it came.
At first Ashrej tried to follow it back out of the cave, raising whatever was handed to her in preparation of striking down the creaking machine, but before she could do so a blinding light illuminated her and she dropped the improvised weapon to shield her eyes.
A few blinks later, her vision somewhat adapted to the brightness and she saw the harsh grimace of the robot staring back at her, expressionless. Now it also became clear exactly what she’d tried to strike the robot with: a pickaxe. A few dozen feet before them was the massive door they’d entered through, closed shut. “Warning: Do not act against the overseers and administrators. Follow their every command, as it is in your own best interest and with the best for every colonist in mind. Mistreatment of this rule will be punished. Attempts to disregard the rules will be punished. Ignoring the rules will be punished. Damaging of personnel, deliberate or not, will be punished.”
With that cleared up, the machine moved backwards, facing the girl, and exited through the thick, reinforced door that opened only to it. With the metallic fiend gone and raging at her own helplessness because of some stupid light, Ashrej picked back up the pickaxe and pounded it against the metal gateway.
Once, twice, thrice, even a fourth time for good measure but to no effect, except for a few impotent bangs and sparks which served only to reignite her headache.
Heaving but calmer, she realized that it was a fruitless endeavor and finding the source of the ticking was the only logical thing left to do.
Stumbling and fumbling her way through the darkness, though with less tripping and head hitting than in caves previously, thanks to her experience, Ashrej came to the source of the familiar but disharmonic sound. Colored in a dim, purple-pinkish light of fluorescent crystals, there stood a handful of malnourished workers armed with pickaxes and arduously hacking away at the walls, breaking free the very same crystals. Though barely existent, there was more than enough light there for Ashrej to see clearly again, but the purple glow gave the men and women an unpleasant and sickish hue.
Her sudden appearance within their midst didn’t seem to bother them in the least; in fact, they didn’t give any sign of noticing her. Using this moment of peace, the vampire spent her time observing the miners. Most of them hit the tiny dots of purple until they fell out of the wall, then let them lie where they had fallen. Others scurried around picking up as many of the fallen dots as they could carry and then dropped them into a metal shaft and ran off once more.
It was like a busy anthill, if on a much larger scale.
A feeling of uselessness and boredom soon kicked in and compelled the girl to join in. One careless hack later, pieces of the unsupported ceiling broke loose, burying one of the workers beneath them while a stray piece of rock hit another one in his shoulder, ripping open a wide gash. He dropped with a scream.
Ashrej herself was cast aside and escaped the avalanche but was left shook and covered in dust, coughing.
What just happened? Where is the guy who just stood next to me? Ashrej recovered as, with a renewed roar, the injured one announced himself. Adrenaline made her legs shake and heart race. Standing back up felt impossible so she crawled over on all fours.
She reached out and her hand found a wet spot on the cloth where his left shoulder was soaked in blood. “Hold on I’ll get some help!”
Unable to do anything other than clutch the wound, Ashrej called out to the other miners for help, but they ignored her pleas and continued their work as if nothing had happened. In her growing desperation, she even called out to the overseers, but if the robots even heard her, they decided to ignore her as well. Just why does nobody help?
Annoyed at the girl’s constant shouting, one of the miners finally answered. “Quit whining already, missy. He’s beyond our help and we have quotas to meet. Let him die in peace already and go back to work.”