Humanoid robot wearing gold armor with city shadow in background.

Devious Machines

Ginger conjured a river. A cool, dark river. The bottoms of her feet tingled, slipping over smooth rock in the virtual riverbed. She lowered her body into the wetness. Frightened river fish darted between her legs. The chaotic chirping of birds resonated through the boughs of the trees blanketing her insular sanctum. She closed her eyes and listened, carefully, until she heard the furtive fluttering of fragile wings. 

Everything echoed, even her breath.

The air became heavier and heavier. Anxiety swelling, she started to sing. She sang and she sang, and she sang. Her breath caught in her throat when she heard hushed whispers. 

Ginger opened her eyes. They surrounded her, eight curious-eyed but coltish, wary children.

“Who are you?”

Their voices harmonized as they mouthed the same words together.

One small girl, a melanin angel with wild, bushy black curls fanning out behind her, stepped forward. Her black irises glittered with unmistakable hostility. Her voice was silvery and stern.

“What,” she demanded, “are you doing here?”

The spooky children closed ranks around Ginger. She tried to lurch away but couldn’t move. Her limbs simply wouldn’t cooperate. Images of horrible deaths bubbled to the surface of her mind, feeding her fear. A scream began to build inside her throat.

The angelic girl bent low. She knelt before Ginger in the water. She tilted her head forward as if to bestow a kiss. Her hands clamped down onto Ginger’s shoulders. The captive thrashed and struggled against the child’s painful, vise-like grip. 

Ginger’s trembling fingers fumbled with the controller strapped to her wrist.

“Get me out!” Her mouth finally managed to form the words but she was vaguely aware that she’d made barely any sound.

Hurtling back to reality, she cried out over and over again.

Overhead, the sun’s rays speared down through the abandoned church’s stained glass. Bird droppings marred the walls and beams that braced the high ceiling. She could hear the eerie cooing of doves and the distant flapping of many wings. Too sickeningly familiar, it made the curdled feeling in her stomach worse.

Shuddering helplessly, she dissolved into ragged whimpers. She was safe. She was safe, yet she couldn’t let go of her terror.

Duke and Cheng were frantic. Elinor was pissed.

“Shut her up!” Elinor hissed.

Duke’s massive hand briefly clamped down over Ginger’s mouth, cutting off her air and forcing her into silence. The atmosphere was tense enough as it was. She knew. The fear that still resonated inside her body fed on something ugly inside as she glared first at Duke then Elinor. They were her kin but she’d kill them if she could. She would. She would. She would.


Cheng’s anxious voice snapped Ginger back to the here and now. Her teeth chattered as they raised her body up out of the ancient baptismal pool. She was still numb from the cold and shock. It stung like hell when they pulled the electric nodes out of her skin. She was vaguely aware of someone briskly toweling her down with a rough cloth. 

Ginger blinked against the dizzying blur of light and shadow. Duke was helping her into her clothes. She flinched and trembled slightly when his fingers accidentally brushed across her bare breast. He was all business, though. He turned away, seemingly oblivious to her plight. Her fingers fumbled as she fastened her shirt buttons. Mortification melted into vague and inexplicable misery. 

She stopped just short of the door and listened to the murmur of her companions’ voices outside for a few seconds. Cautious. She was just being cautious.

Ginger found Elinor strangely fascinating. Hair a star-burst of short braids, ocher on fire, the woman was maternal and magnetic, a bit of a fanatic. Her brusque manner was well-suited to leading a band of rebels bent on reclaiming control of a smart city gone mad.

Her brow crinkled when she turned to Ginger. “Cheng found an exotic droid’s seedling at the edge of this sector. It’s contained. Emmy’s got it on the truck.”

Ginger hesitated. “I need to run a thorough diagnostic of the core. Remote access won’t do.”

Elinor’s breath hitched. For a second, her expression was mutinous.

“If we don’t do something, we might be looking at critical failures all over the city.”  Ginger sighed. “You’re not the only one who loves this city, Elinor. I’m not asking you to trust me and Cheng. Just let us help.”

Elinor’s response was barely a grunt. Ginger watched her stalk toward the truck.

Tsui City had become dangerously paranoid and kept its human denizens trapped within for over a year. The problem went largely ignored until a certain political party suddenly deemed it necessary to free those “unfortunate” citizens from entrapment by machines-gone-amok. 

This was where Ginger’s brand of expertise came in handy. A fortress, like Tsui City, couldn’t be cracked open with a frontal attack. One needed to they needed sneak inside and deceive it. Since her attempt to infiltrate the city’s core processor and reason with its avatars failed, their next step was to employ guerilla tactics to bog down the central processor and cripple it.

Cheng and Ginger rode behind the truck on anti-grav cycles. They encountered a traffic snarl of epic proportions two from their goal. Bringing the truck to a stop, Duke and Elinor hopped out as Cheng and Ginger settled their cycles to the earth.

“How is it?”

Ginger gave Elinor a brief shake of the head.

“Deadlocked. It’ll be an hour before anything starts moving again. We might have to foot it the rest of the way from here.”

Ginger sat back on her cycle, mouth cottony and stomach rolling. Her legs suddenly couldn’t bear her weight. The encounter with the guardians had left a bad taste like bile rising up from her belly to her throat. She wasn’t going to feel better until they got this farce over with. She scowled. The end of this ordeal was still a few hours away yet. 

Elinor scanned their surroundings. People were getting out of their vehicles and spilling out onto the embankments. There was a collective air of bewilderment and annoyance. It hadn’t yet occurred to anyone yet, the epic nature of a system failure of this extent.

“This is a real mess,” Elinor grumbled.

Ginger watched her walk over to the other side of the truck. The rebel leader stood beside Duke. They talked lowly, their heads together. Ginger couldn’t make out what they were saying. Her vision blurred, too many worries rolling around inside her head. She blinked when Cheng hovered before her.

“Drink this,” Cheng offered. She thrust a bottle with a peeling and faded paper label into Ginger’s reluctant hands.

Ginger could tell from the smell alone, that the thick, brown liquid was brandy and it was old. It went down like lava. She wheezed, eyes tearing up as the liquor’s warmth fanned outward in her belly. She wanted to take another gulp but she knew better than to be so greedy. She corked the bottle and held it out to Cheng.


Cheng grabbed hold and squeezed Ginger’s hand. “What was it like?  Merging with the avatars?”

Ginger shrugged. “I can’t really put it into words. It was pretty scary. I can tell you that much.”

Cheng was the youngest of their mismatched gang. Eighteen and skinny as a wisp, the girl’s head barely came up to Ginger’s shoulders when they stood side by side. She had a peculiar fondness for strange hats. Today she was wearing a pink, bowl-shaped creation, held in place by translucent chinstraps. It was ridiculous yet suited her elfin features. Ginger never could help laughing a little at that. Cheng suddenly gave her an uncharacteristically dazzling smile and stuck the bottle back in her backpack.

Duke slapped his palm against the side of the truck.

“Emmy, any updates on the droid seedling?”

There was a muffled grunt from inside. “Two minutes!  I need two minutes,” came her strained reply. “Something’s not quite—”

Cheng suddenly had a strange look on her face.

“I’m sorry, Ginger. Follow me!”

Cheng’s cycle shot skyward. Propelled by the urgency in her tone, Ginger kicked hers into gear, streaking upward after her. An electrical hum filled the air. An earth-shaking explosion followed. Ginger barely had time to register that the truck had just gone up in a ball of flames, spewing projectiles and some sort of green mist. Cheng’s cycle flipped and stalled. She screamed, plummeting earthward. Ginger tore after her. 

Cheng’s body hit the ground hard, right in the middle of that madness. A deep roar filled the air as clouds of green spores bubbled up out of the billowing flames. Ginger landed her air-bike tipping over. She ran to Cheng, ears ringing with screams and alarms going off all over the city. Cheng lay flat on her back, dazed.


Her eyes opened and immediately swung shut. “Hurts.”



Ginger’s shaking hands probed for the worst of the damage. Cheng screamed when she tried to raise her up. The ground buckled beneath them, the monstrous, mechanized plant already taking root deep down and reshaping the broken landscape. 

Ginger clung desperately to the need to get Cheng the hell out of there. If she allowed herself to think for even one second about the cause of this madness, she wouldn’t be able to keep her panic down. Somehow, she managed to haul her companion over to her cycle. She was in the air a few seconds later, one arm tightly gripping Cheng’s limp body to her. She was vaguely amazed at how steady her hands were, with what felt like the whole world crumbling around them.

She brought Cheng back to the derelict church on the outskirts of Tsui City. Even this far out, the air was hazy with green and ash. The city still rumbled and quaked, the berserker plant working its way down into the earth and bursting forth in random places in the distance. Ginger sat on the lower steps of the church, Cheng’s head resting in her lap. 

Stamped on the back of Cheng’s neck, the “A.I.” logo for Alasiri Industries was perfectly intact. Ginger’s fingers brushed at the flesh there and Cheng started crying quietly.

“What the hell did you do that for, Cheng?”

“Schedule moved up. Dusk’s orders.”  She coughed. An oily blackness stained her mouth. “Do you think they realized…”

Ginger didn’t—couldn’t answer that honestly. Elinor, Duke, and Emmy were long dead.

“Don’t think about that.”

Her grimy fingers brushed at the veiny green particles clouding over Cheng’s eyes.

“Look,” she pointed into the distance, where one far side of the dome had fallen away, letting the outside in. “It’s sunset. Feels like forever since we last saw that, huh?”

“It’s beautiful,” Cheng murmured. “But it’s breaking my heart.”

Ginger knew the feeling.

“Was I wrong?” Cheng whispered. “Did I do something horribly, horribly wrong?”

Ginger swallowed hard. “You were just doing your job. The biomechanical ordinance was Dusk’s idea, wasn’t it?  Don’t forget to give the Devil her due.”

“Ginger?”  Cheng closed her eyes against the strangely wondrous panorama spread out before them. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“That makes two of us.”


“Hmmm?” Her hand idly stroked the fragile strands of Cheng’s hair.

“If Dusk is the devil, what am I?”

Ginger grimaced. Her fingers dug into the soil. It was warm and throbbed against her palm. Her other hand curled around the back of Cheng’s neck. An almost effortless twist in just the right spot produced a sickening pop. She watched the sun go down and listened quietly as the breath went out of Cheng. Right there and then, there was only one person on this entire planet she loathed more than herself.

Dusk’s mellow voice intruded. “It’s always the Cheng’s, isn’t it?” She commented idly. “They never fail to amaze me. The way they just suddenly go all… sideways.”

Ginger glared up at her twin. “Shut up, Dusk.”

Dusk let out a throaty laugh. “So, I’m the devil, heh? Does that make you the devil’s plaything?  Well, that does sound about right.”

Ginger retrieved the small knife that she kept in the strap of her boot. She pointed it at the spot where the company logo was stamped. The knife sank into the back of Cheng’s neck.

I’m the mastermind, aren’t I?” Dusk rambled on. “Things always work out as long as you do exactly as I say.”  

Twilight fell. Patches of star-studded sky peeked down through the shattered dome. 

Ginger stood abruptly, twirling the data chip that she’d removed from Cheng between her thumb and forefinger. She dropped it and ground it to useless bits under her heel.

“I don’t care how many more you build to replace her. I’m not working with this model anymore.”

Dusk scoffed at that.

“From your lips to Mother’s ears. I don’t make the rules. I just make sure that you follow them.”

Ginger’s mouth twisted sideways. Who was she kidding? “Well, aren’t you just a regular cog in the old wheel?  Casualties?”

Dusk skipped a beat. “Due to the traffic deadlock, today’s fatalities were minimal. At this rate, the grievance fee deducted from our overhead will be negligible.”

“What about the survivors?”

“Not our department. Search and Rescue ops should have already been on standby.”

Ginger contemplated the devastating results of the day’s work. So much for a corporate cover-up job. Why had Dusk gone behind her back and used Cheng to kill the city? It seemed more than just a case of Alisiri Industries erasing evidence of past mistakes to protect their standing in the shaky global markets.

“What kind of spin is Alasiri Industries putting on this?”

“None. This is purely a public service.”

The final pieces of this messy puzzle were falling into place now. This new, bitter taste in Ginger’s mouth had nothing to do with immersion fatigue.

“Yeah,” she muttered dryly. “I’m sure the sudden outpouring of public interest has nothing to do with the upcoming elections.”

“Voters need something to be passionate about, don’t they? This is a government-funded operation to free ’helpless citizens’ from paranoid technology that has kept them, prisoners of these domes, for decades. It’s merely a coincidence that all of those evacuees will be transported to shelters in certain ballot-starved municipalities.”

“So, the nasty biotech was just for effect?”

“Well, we are being paid to do what it takes to sell the story. The terrorism angle was my suggestion to Councilman Lars. He seemed to like it. I bet he’s already rehearsing his big speech.”

A shadowy craft hovering silently overhead. When it landed, the doors slid open.

Ginger shot Dusk a disgusted scowl, as they boarded. “You know, one of these days I really am going to destroy you.”

Dusk cracked a brittle grin and shrugged off Ginger’s threat. As the craft roared to life and ascended, she removed her spectacles and gazed out across the twilit remnants of Tsui City.

“You’ve just gotta love them, though,” she mused. “Humans and their short memories.”

Series NavigationIn the Making >>
This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Short Stories

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