Autocracy and Autonomy [short fiction]

Betty devoured another jerky strip. It was the fourth and comprised the remainder of her meal. She felt hollow. Hungry, of course. Always hungry. But there were days when she did well in the Arena and was rewarded amply with jerky strips. On those days, when she gorged herself, her gums felt raw, her teeth sore, her jaws ached, her belly full, yet still on those days she still felt something missing. Like a jigsaw puzzle missing the edge pieces. She swallowed hard on a grizzly piece and tried not to think about it too much. It only made the hunger stronger.

To distract herself she pulled out her most treasured, and only, belonging. She got it from Lilly. Poor Lilly. It was an image of some sort. It was creased and wrinkled from the nights when Betty fell asleep staring at it. Wishing. Desperate for the dream that took place in the picture. Desperate for an escape from this nightmare. 

It was a picture of the outside. Green stuff covered the floor. The space above it was painted pastel blue. Wispy white things lay on top. Some sort of spotlight shone in every direction.  Betty didn’t quite know what she was looking at, but it didn’t stop her from admiring the beauty every chance she could. It was mesmerizing, like staring directly at a flame. 

“9-4-7-8-0-0-8-5,” said a voice from her wrist, “the arena battle begins in fifteen minutes. It’s time to get up and get ready. I’d hate for you to be late.”

The voice was friendly, but there was a hint of menace, a veiled threat, carefully concealed in a kindly voice as a helpful reminder. There were no clocks in her domicile so she needed to be told when to get ready.

She put the picture away, fighting herself all the while torn between what she needed to do and what she wanted to do.

Her only other possession was a Smart Cuff, which belonged to Benevolence. It was a technological marvel which allowed her to communicate with Benevolence at all times.

Her leotard was tight. Too tight. She gripped the toxic-green fabric from around her stick legs and arms and stretched it as much as he could but it was futile. Finally, she gave up and exited the automatic door.

The floor beneath her was lit with technicolor veins of LED lights. Her color was a pallid mauve. She kept her head bowed and followed her path religiously. Normally it led her on a straight and narrow path, but not always. Today was one of those days when it led her down new corridors, snaking through the Newcomers’ Quarters.

She nearly stumbled over a young man collapsed on the floor. Her breath caught in her mouth. Seeing him like that, it reminded her of Lilly. Poor Lilly. She instinctively shook her Smart Cuff awake.

“Benevolence, what should I do with this Resident?”

“I am your own personal AI, 9-4-7-8-0-0-8-5. I would not lead you astray. I have sent you to rescue this man. Through you, he will be saved. Take him to the Arena. You have four minutes remaining before the battle begins . . . and I’d hate for either of you to be late.”

She didn’t need to be told twice. She wasn’t strong by any means. The lack of sufficient sustenance ensured she was always a little shaky, but it also taught her how to deal with adversity. She knew what to do.

She bent down, flipped him on his back, and then energetically slapped his face to get him to wake up. His eyelids fluttered open. 

“Wha . . . Who . . .” he mumbled.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon. Let’s go, let’s go. Up, up, up.”

He was still dazed and needed her help to stand. They hobbled together, his arm around her small frame. 

She noticed that his fingers were bloody and staining her leotard and ugly brown. “Hey, buddy, what happened to your fingers?”

With a devilish grin he opened the palm of his other hand and revealed two tiny flat head screws.

“Where did you get those?” 

He knew. He knew things he shouldn’t know. So, without saying anything, he looked up to the left and up to the right. For the first time since Betty could remember, she saw air ducts spaced at regular intervals along the corridor. He winked.

“You can’t possibly be thinking of—”

“Escape,” he said, just as he began to crumple like a bug sprayed with insecticide. He curled up and started whimpering and kneading his feet. Then he passed out. Betty knew exactly what had happened because she remembered when she had first tried to escape. Little metal rods implanted in her feet began to throb with electromagnetic pulses. It was as if the floor became lava and scorched her feet. 

“You have two minutes before Assignment. I would advise getting there quickly before there are . . . any more consequences,” said Benevolence through the Smart Cuffs on their arms.

Every laborious step closer to the assignment room filled her with dread. Yesterday she nearly had her head cut off. If she had not tripped over a dead man at her feet, she certainly would have been a corpse by now.

Her stomach grumbled. Four pieces of beef jerky was not quite enough for a day’s worth of activity. Spurred on by her hunger for survival, she dragged this newcomer along with her and propped him up against the kiosk in the Assignment Room. 

She logged in with her fingerprint and her credentials, using her real name, 94780085, but was apparently too late. She clocked in at 00:01, a minute past the start time. The only available weapons were a pair of dull machetes and a rusty dagger. She submitted her choice and two machetes clattered out of the vending machine next to the kiosk. The newcomer staggered upright and stood staring at the screen confusedly. Realizing that he might stand there forever and that she was already late, she decided to help him. She smeared his bloody hand on the wall to clean it and pressed his pointer finger to the fingerprint scanner. Then she held his forearm face up and typed in his real name, 97848461. His only option was the remaining rusty dagger. So armed, they entered the arena.

The combatants were still getting warmed up. The arena was vast. It was so large that she could sprint across it and be winded by the time she got to the other side. 

“We have to get out of here.” He was still blinking awake.

“Yes, we have to survive.”

“No, I mean out out.” 

Her heart did a cartwheel and stopped halfway. “Out out?” It had been a long time before she had any hope of escape. It had died out with Lilly. Now here it was again. Hope. This man who was too curious for his own good, who had almost managed to get the cover off of a vent, and perhaps escaped.

He held out his hand again. Circled by blood-encrusted fingertips were the two screws. She plucked one from his palm and examined it under the harsh spotlights shining down from high overhead. “You got these from an air duct. These air ducts lead outside?”

“There’s only one way to find out.”

She eyed him suspiciously. At just that moment, a man strode between them, interrupting their conversation. He glanced behind him and sneered as if he had just whiffed a foul smell. “Watch where you’re going, losers,” spat the man.

Betty took her new friend by the shoulder and led him away. “That was Ace. He’s . . . Just steer clear of him, alright? What’s your name, anyway?”

“My name’s Saul,” said Saul, sticking his hand out for a shake, “what’s yours?”

“Betty,” said Betty, taking his hand apprehensively. “Saul, as much as I’d like to even get close to the vents, there’s one problem.”

“What’s that?”

Betty’s eyes drifted to the Vomitorium “Deathbots. . .”

A black tunnel was spewing out a few dozen Ankle Biters, tiny robots shaped like disks which roamed across the arena in an unpredictable zig-zag pattern. Saw blades mounted on their backs spun mercilessly. 

Chaos erupted in the arena. Residents scrambled in every direction, desperate to get away from the tiny devils. Saul and Betty frantically dashed in every direction, seeking safety.

Out of nowhere, a man ran right in front of Betty. Without thinking, she plowed into him. He fell to the floor, and as he lay there, an Ankle Biter quickly perforated his back with its whirling blade. He writhed in silent agony, too shocked to even scream, his life blood pooling on the floor. Betty was shocked, too. Too paralyzed to move, too revolted to look away, she gave her own silent scream and didn’t move until Saul pulled her away and urged her to keep moving.

“Well done, 9-4-7-8-0-0-8-5 . . . you survived.” said Benevolence through the Smart Cuff. Ahead of the pair, a small hole in the floor opened up and a platform rose up to eye level from somewhere below them. It held a shiny serrated dagger.

She grabbed it in disbelief. She had never held such a fearsome weapon. It was never offered as an option in the Assignment Room. In all her years in the Arena, this was her first kill. She noticed in the reflection someone was standing behind her.

She turned around to find Ace with his hands on his hips looking smug. He sported two gladii at his hips and a massive two-handed sword was strapped to his back.

“Congratulations on your first kill,” said Ace.

“I didn’t mean to. It was an accident,” said Betty. 

Ace walked over and nudged the dead man. “Tell that to this guy.”

The revulsion, the self loathing and pity for the man welled up in her.

“Don’t get too torn up about it. It happens. Your stomach will thank you tomorrow when you get extra rations. Trust me,” said Ace, patting his belly, “I know.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this. It shouldn’t be like this . . .” said Betty. Betty had been a Resident in the Care for a long time, but she never got comfortable with the killing and the death. The vacant faces of the dead always haunted her sleep. Especially Lilly’s.

“Just the way the world works. Nothing you can do about it.” Ace sauntered away, pulling his left gladius from its sheath.

“What if there was?” said Betty to his back.

Ace stopped dead in his tracks. He looked over his shoulder, “You mean, what if there was a way out?”

That wasn’t what she meant, but it was what he needed to hear if she wanted his help.

“Exactly. We need to work together. Saul and I have a plan.”

Ace cocked an eyebrow.

“There are air ducts in the walls of the arena that lead . . . out. But we need to survive long enough to get there.”

“So, I get you there, and you get me out.” Ace admired his fingernails and contemplated the proposition before saying, “I’m in.”

At that very moment, the Armbots marched in. Eight-foot-tall monsters stomped through the Vomitorium. They had four spear-like feet which stabbed the ground with every step. Their feet supported a grotesque, multi-jointed arm which pivoted and spun around every which way. The Armbot in front marched up to a woman with hip length black hair. She charged headlong and leapt at the last minute. She gripped her sword with both hands above her head and poised to slice straight down. The Armbot grabbed her by the ankle and slammed her into the ground. Her sword went flying. She was too dazed to crawl away. Betty watched in horror as it proceeded to stab a woman in the stomach repeatedly. Blood stained her green leotard and turned it brown.

The three of them scanned the arena, looking for the closest air duct and the one farthest from the Armbots. Saul spotted one on the far side of the arena. 

Ace motioned for them to follow. He began walking, stomping on stray Ankle Biters that wandered too close, and then he sped up. 

He casually slaughtered several Residents that got in his way. He broke into a sprint as he approached the air duct, and his comrades did what they could to keep up. His wake of destruction was wide, leaving bloody body parts and sparking, twitching Deathbots. It made Betty queasy to see so many dead Residents because of her. Because of her plan. Because of her cooperation with people like Ace. 

Finally, the three of them arrived at the wall. Both Betty and Saul were out of breath, but Ace seemed hardly to have exerted himself at all. Ace and Saul boosted Betty up the wall toward the air duct. Each held up one of her feet. Betty pulled out her shiny new dagger and began to unscrew the fasteners. Her Smart Cuff chimed awake and said, “You’re making a dire mistake, 9-4-7-8-0-0-8-5. I would advise you to cease this activity immediately.”

Betty disregarded the warning. She got the first screw undone, and then the other. Wedging her dagger between the wall and the vent then giving it a little twist, she pried it open. With another push from below, she was able to hoist herself into the tiny hole. A little shimmy farther in revealed a cavernous alcove where she was able to crawl on her hands and knees and turn around. She reached back out and pulled Saul in next. Saul crawled into the tiny alcove, but with barely enough room for one person, decided to keep going. 

“Hold my ankles. I’ll pull Ace in next,” said Betty.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” said Saul.

Betty looked behind her incredulously. She could hear his thumping echo through the tunnel and around the corners of the ductwork. 

She went back to the hole and looked down at Ace. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. Betty could see an Armbot creeping up on Ace from behind. Her eyes went wide. Ace made a mad dash for the wall and kicked out a foot to propel himself upward. Betty reached down as far as she dared to without risking a fall from her perch in the process. 

Ace couldn’t reach her. The Armbot was closer now. He tried again, running more frantically this time, pushing even harder against the wall, scrabbling with both hands for purchase, but came up short yet again. 

Ace tried a third time. This time, the Armbot was right under him. It snared his ankle and dragged him to the floor. He pulled out both gladii and lopped off Armbot’s claw. It made to stab him with one of its feet, but he rolled out of the way into a crouch and then severed the leg. Another Armbot approached. Ace threw each gladius at the second one and landed them solidly in the protective plastic shell. But it did no good. They didn’t penetrate into the circuitry underneath the shell. The two Armbots had him backed against a wall. He pulled out his broadsword and got into a fighting stance. What he didn’t notice was an Anklebiter. One distraction was all it took, and he was another victim, another body, another face to haunt Betty.

Betty couldn’t take it. She was trying to save these people, but she couldn’t. They kept killing each other and they kept dying. She was revolted. The wanton destruction and vile menace of the world created and perpetuated by Benevolence. She could feel the disgust bubble up in her stomach. She vomited her guts out and then her brains. She retched until she was empty.

The chaos of battle still raged below her, indifferent to her suffering. Ace’s body still lay in a heap. Saul’s thumping crawl still echoed in her head.

She was dismayed, but not defeated. The memory of the picture she’d held in her hand, the one she kept under her bed, of the green area and white smears on a blue background, gave her hope. She had to keep going. There had to be more to life than this. 

She looked deeper in the darkness of the cavern. There was no way out but through. 

The tunnel was dark, dry, and warm. A breeze blew past her constantly. She had to move slowly to avoid bumping her head. It was so dark, she could not even see her hand if she held it right in front of her nose. 

Eventually the tunnel opened into a vast room full of holes like the one she crawled through. At the center of the room was a massive machine that hummed furiously and shook the walls. She clambered out of her hole and dropped to the ground. 

She took a minute to admire the room. Floor to ceiling, all four of the walls had tunnels leading out. She figured she could probably make her way to anywhere in the Care from here. She could sneak out other Residents directly from their rooms.  

There was a corridor at the far end of the room, lit by the same LED strips along the ground that she followed every morning, except these were white instead of the purple she was used to. She followed the path down, down, down. Perfectly straight and narrow. She could see a light in the distance. She picked up the pace.

At the end of the corridor was a metal door, swung wide open. She stopped at the threshold and took it all in. This was the out she had been looking for this whole time. She had finally done it. She discovered the outside world. She sank to her knees and wept. Tears of joy streamed down her face. After everything she’d been through. Now she could be free. Now she could free her fellow residents. 

She composed herself and stood up and faced the outside world. In the distance, she could see a bonfire raging. There must be other people who have already escaped. What a stroke of luck! She could work with these people to create a safe haven for residents to escape to. She set out to meet and befriend these people.

The outside world was cold. Much colder than she had expected. A wind howled and stole all of the warmth from her nose and lips. A wide swath of brown stretched in every direction. There were scraggly shrubs dotting the landscape and a glowing crescent hovered overhead.

She could smell it before she saw it. Something putrid rankled her nose. Then she saw the black soot billowing up from the bonfire. When she got closer, she could see there was a spit over the fire, and it held something large. Around the fire were the people she aimed to meet. They had matted hair and their skin was dappled with charcoal smears of war paint. 

The one at the front shouted something unintelligible, but it sounded foreboding. Betty slowed down and as she did, the troop sped up. She could see them fairly well now. Their teeth were sharpened to points and their weapons were bloodstained. Whatever they wanted, or wanted to offer, it wasn’t friendship. 

Betty back pedaled before pivoting on her heel and running for her life. She knew no good could come from these outsiders. Her feet pounded the dirt as hard and fast as they could. She could see a stainless-steel structure ahead of her. It was the Care that she had spent her whole life in. The place she had dreamed of leaving.

The troop was hot on her heels, moving much faster than she could. She ran straight back into the antechamber. She heaved on the massive metal door and urged it closed with all her might. It groaned and resisted her tiny frame. The troop was getting dangerously close. Her pulse was pounding in her ears. She gave one final heave and managed to close the door at the very last minute. She could hear the troop run at full tilt into the door and subsequent thuds. They hollered like maniacs, but there was nothing they could do to get in. 

She rested her hands on her knees and gasped until she caught her breath. 

“Welcome back, 9-4-7-8-0-0-8-5,” said Benevolence. “Did you enjoy your little trip?”

Betty didn’t bother to answer. It was too humiliating. Reality began to sink in. She did everything right to escape. She cooperated as much as she could. But it wasn’t enough. No matter how much she offered to work with others, no matter how much progress they made, her fellow residents were too short sighted and would betray her in the end. The reality was: she was doomed to a life in the Care forever.

“I’m sorry, Benevolence, for leaving. For not trusting you. Please, let me back in.”

“You are always welcome back into the Care. Always.”