“What do you mean you won’t save her?”
“Well, you see son, it’s a property matter, and Disculture have been clear that they aren’t interested in paying the ransom,” said the police officer, crisply starched collar pressing tight on his dangling jowls. “They don’t want any more bad publicity, and would rather just forget about it. So that’s what we’ll do.”
To see an officer of the law so calmly ignoring this outrage was exasperating. Officer Kirkwood, if the name badge affixed to his shirt beneath the embossed Pepsico logo could be believed. At this time in the early morning on Saturday, the small station floated on an air of apathy and freeze-dried coffee, the flabby arm of what passed for the law in Belview.
“They can’t just give up on Maia, she’s important, she’s a worldwide star! You have to do something, officer, please,” I half shouted, half begged, the jitters of cheap energy drinks covering for the three hours of sleep I got last night.
Officer Kirkwood leaned in closer to me, almost conspiratorially, and said, “She’ll be fine, kiddo. They’ll just reboot her from the original parameters. She’s not a real person.”
I pushed back from the chipboard enquiry desk in a huff. “She’s real to me, dammit!” I called out, as I turned to leave. I sighted the officer shaking his head as I swung the steel door open and marched outside.
Leon clapped me on the shoulder. “How’d it go, bud?” he asked.
“Badly,” I replied, shaking my head. “They’re treating her as lost property, Maia – the angel of joy – as just property!” I turned and started to stride down the footpath, just for a way to blow off my energy.
Leon trotted up beside me, then matched my strides, his heavy combat boots thumping the cracking concrete path. We walked in silence for thirty seconds, my sneakers and Leon’s boots stamping out a frantic tempo on the damp pavement. The storm clouds overhead had thrown down their anger this morning, brief and heavy. Mine was still smouldering.
“I know she means a lot to you, Ethan,” he started, cautiously, before taking a big sip of his iced coffee, which coated his blonde moustache with foam. “But she is, after all, not really our problem,” he continued, trying awkwardly to meet my eyes. “We’re just a couple of kids from Belview, not Marvelman and DC Boy. Maybe we should leave this to the professionals.”
“I know you’re trying to help, and, look, I appreciate it,” I replied as we strode past a McCafe, drive-through line already full of dazed commuters seeking a hit of their preferred stimulant before work. “But this isn’t just about Maia getting wiped. This is about the dreams of every kid from a shit-hole town like Belview.”
I paused in my speech, struggling to find the right words, as we walked past a used car yard, filled with first wave EVs whose batteries barely functioned and gaudy signs offering finance. On the other side of the road, shopfronts had been taken over by the glittering signs of a megachurch, promising Christbucks and Bizclub credits to every worshipper who referred a friend. The road was thick with vans and e-bikes, all heading out of Belview toward the leafier suburbs for another day of gig work. The apps paying Pepsicoin were the best hope any of us had.
“Sure, I love her because she’s hot as hell and has the voice of an angel,” I continued. Leon tried and failed to suppress a smirk. “But really, that’s not why she matters.”
“There are plenty of other AI idols. Why is Maia so important to you?” Leon asked, a note of genuine curiosity in his voice, rising just above the looped audio advertisements hawking discounted rugs at closing down prices from Crazy Frog’s Emporium. “Last night you dodged bullets for her.”
“She’s the only one who made it out,” I said. Crazy Frog receded into the distance, replaced by the flashing lights of a Sammy’s Smokables, the titular character plastered across a yellowing portrait in the window, his eyes replaced by a poorly sketched leaf of weed popping out of his face. “Everyone else who grows up in Belview stays in Belview. We drop out of our shit-hole schools into a shit-hole gig for a Pepsico subsidiary. Living and dying within view of the almighty Penis Hawk,” I raised my arm and pointed to the sculpture, several hundred metres down the street, poking above the empty shopfronts. “She made it out. She’s hope personified, for all the kids here, back at school, and for all the gig work stragglers like us too.”
“What’s come over you, man?” asked Leon.
“Maybe it’s really love, and I’m deluding myself with all this pretentious bullshit. Maybe its the three hours sleep I had last night screwing with my brain,” But as we walked toward a homeless man, scruffily bearded, his bare arm tattooed with his crypto wallet details, I continued, “The possibility of something better is all that gets me out of bed in the morning, ready for another day of hustling fares on Pepsicourier. Maia is that something better.”
“That’s touching, you know. I never really thought of it like that,” he replied, then turned to scan a few Pepsicoins from his phone to the man, whose grim countenance just briefly showed a skerrick of a smile. “If she means that much to you then you know what?” he asked, rhetorically, before declaring, “Fuck it. Let’s get your girl back.”
“How?” I asked. “The cops don’t give a damn.”
“As they are fond of saying in classical music, fuck the police,” he replied, a wide grin lighting up his face. He pulled out his phone, and pointed to the map, where a red pin stood at the end of Blue Origin Boulevard in the industrial area of town. “We know where she is. We know they plan to execute her if they don’t get a ransom tonight,” he continued, and pulled up the front page of Disculture News, which placed the kidnappers’ demands for 10,000 Bitcoin in capital letters, declaring that a group called Divine Providence had claimed credit. “And, most important of all, we know Belview. These people think they can steal our homegirl, in her homecoming show? Steal the light of joy and possibility from Belview? They’ve got another thing coming.”