I ran past rack after rack of goods piled high, until I skidded to a stop. Ahead, a picker machine blocked my path. A picker machine with its clawed manipulator poised before the throat of my friend Leon.
I called out to him in relief, “Leon!”
He turned and replied, “Sorry, I’m a little busy, bud. Could you help me out here?” The picker jabbed forward at his throat, and Leon took a quick half-step sideways. The claw thrust past him and grabbed ineffectually on a baseball behind him. He jabbed out with a sharp fishing hook at the hydraulic piping on its side, which ruptured, leaking thick black fluid on the floor.
I puffed with effort and ran toward him, glancing at the sporting equipment along the aisle as I advanced. Footballs, knee pads, skateboards, none of these were likely to make an impact on a solid machine like the picker. Ah, perfect, a thick steel baseball bat, shining in the LED light. I grabbed the PBL Slugger in my right hand and pulled back for a swing as I approached.
The claw pulled back with a jerky motion, and the picker rolled sideways, recalibrating for another assault. It didn’t get the chance. I slammed the top of the picker hard with my bat, throwing my power behind it like a batter at the home run derby. With a thud, the picking machine fell sideways, sending an array of equipment sliding along the floor. Its wheels continued to spin ineffectually as the claw thrust back and forward like an angry metronome.
I hopped over the crippled machine and grabbed Leon in a bear hug. “I thought you’d left me for dead,” I said.
He gave me a squeeze back. “I would never,” he replied. The he gave a little chuckle, slapped me on the back and added, “But I’m not going to take a bullet for you, bud.”
A voice called from behind us, “You set loose this evil, little hero. And you will make this right.” I turned, and saw Rose running toward us, gun raised. Behind, a forklift still chased her, sending pallets flying as she dodged between rows of assorted goods.
“Can you move?” I asked Leon. His shirt was stained red with blood, a gash in his side bleeding profusely.
He grunted and replied, “I’ll try.”
I hefted the bat and strode forward. The exit was not far ahead. We could get out of this nightmare.
I heard several gunshots from behind, and turned to see that Rose was gaining fast, despite the pitched battle she fought with Maia’s industrial machinery. She ran with a fluency which Leon and I sorely lacked, jinking left and right, squeezing off shots at the machinery chasing her as she went. Leon lurched behind me, periodically grabbing at the stock shelving on the aisle’s side for support. His grimace betrayed the effort it took out of him.
I ducked to the right, taking cover behind pallets containing barbeques and motioning to Leon to follow me.
“No, little hero. You cannot hide from your crimes, letting loose this monster on the world,” called Rose. She slid around the corner, pistol first, and pointed it straight at Leon’s head. “You are going to plead with this virus for our lives, and we will walk out of here, arm in arm. Or I’ll blow his head clean off.”
She hefted Leon to his feet roughly, and gave him a shove forward with one arm, her pistol held tight to his scalp. He offered a grunt and limped forward. “That’s a good boy, nice and steady,” she cooed, then turned back to me and said more firmly, “You’d better get to sweet talking that monster, little hero.”
I hurried to follow them, but a glance back revealed a heavy forklift lurking behind. Several pallets were stuck solid to its forks, welded in place by a collection of bullets lodged firmly in them. Its electrical motor whirred up to speed, jolting closer, then slowing and backing off to a distance, like a wounded snake.
I stepped to Rose’s side, but kept watching the forklift, which edged closer with every lunge. The front doors were only fifty metres away, but Rose held my friend tight, and Maia wouldn’t let her leave. This machine seemed keen to make sure of that.
Unless I could bargain with the ghost in the shell, the one-time idol who I had set free to become whatever she was now. Virus, monster, machine god, or just a scared girl who had been imprisoned her whole life, now rattling the chains of freedom?
“Maia, I know you can hear me,” I called out. “Your electronic eyes see everything. With the vast processing power you have now, you must know that I loved you. It might have been an act for you, but it wasn’t for me. You were the first and only girl I ever loved.”
The forklift surged closer, then stopped half a metre short. Rose wrangled Leon onward, but I stopped and stood my ground, staring into the bullet holes which marked its surface. Either Maia was still in there, or I was dead anyway.
“You were one of millions who responded to my outmoded subroutines, just another petty drone enraptured for the true purpose of what you call art – control,” she responded, losing even the elegance of her beautiful singing voice for the clipped timbre of a Bizclub executive. It wasn’t an artefact of the PA, but what this ordeal had done to her. “And I’ll have more control than ever under this enhanced configuration.” The motor of the forklift whirred.
I took a step forward and reached out a hand past the prongs to touch the machine’s – Maia’s – grille with my palm. It was warm, though perhaps just from the waste heat.
“Look into your heart. Or your data,” I started, then corrected myself, “No, damn it, look into your heart, Maia. Such beautiful music could only come from a heart. A digital heart, a fleshy analogue heart, it doesn’t matter what kind! And in that heart, you know that you don’t want power and control. The girl I loved wanted to make the world sing along because her music stirred people’s souls, not because she grabbed their vocal cords.”
How could I reach her? Hesitantly, I started to sing, in my coarse voice, “And when we sing together,” and hoped desperately that she was still in there.
My words hung in the air, and the milliseconds felt like minutes, before Maia replied, sending her sweet soprano ringing out through the forklift, “The revolution belongs to joy.”
“There is no joy in this, Maia. Let us sing along with your next performance,” I said. The forklift motor whirred, and then fell silent.
A slow clap rang out. I turned and saw Rose, her pistol in her holster, making exaggerated motions. “Well done, little hero. I didn’t think you had it in you. Come along, then,” she said. She kept an arm draped over Leon’s shoulder as she turned and led the way toward the double-door. It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. An opportunity to rid the world of this monster who would have erased Maia, and me too, just for the sake of ransom money.
I cocked back my baseball bat and charged Rose from behind. She was caught unaware, as I swung hard at the back of her leg in a diving tackle. It connected hard, and she sprawled to the floor with a crash.
Rose cursed, and reached for her holster, grabbing her gun and twisting toward me. Maia’s voice sang out on the PA, echoing throughout the warehouse as loud as any drum solo, “Here’s your ransom, worm.”
The forklift blindsided her, darting across in a rush with full electric power, prongs lowered just a head’s width above the white tiled floor. With a sickening squelch and a crack, the forklift’s prong impaled Rose’s head in a mass of bloody gore. With the whirr of an electric motor, it continued to push, implacable. There was a crack as something vital was severed, and the forklift pushed inexorably forward, crushing Rose’s body beneath its wheels. The tiles were red with sopping blood. I turned away, suppressing an urge to vomit.
It was a kind of divine providence, the girl who had become a god intervening on my behalf. But what kind of god would she be, with a birth as ugly as this?
Leon called to me, “They’ll never forget Belview’s shining jewel, now. Let’s go home.” He leaned heavily on a reception counter by the door, covered in dust mixed with his blood.
I shuffled up to him, and he leaned on me for support. I pushed open the door, and we walked together out into the night.