Preamble: I'm happy to announce ebook editions of my recent serial, Mons, freshly edited and available now under the title We Walked to Space. Use the coupon code SA75K at Smashwords and your ebook is free! (Offer expires 1 April 2013. Discount applicable to all formats except Kindle, which is available exclusively via Amazon for $3.)
Remember, every download helps make my titles more visible to potential new readers so every byte counts.
This week's free slice of fiction is a self-contained short story about a man living in a container. It contains brief scenes of nothing objectionable, so very reactionary readers are warned they will have to make stuff up if they want to be indignant.
(The story begins and ends beneath the fold.)
BEST SOLD BY
by Cheeseburger Brown
On the outskirts of everywhere there is a warehouse. They're mostly alike. Throbbing organs of commerce, emergent from modular parts. They employ no one but serve us all. Or so they're sold.
You've never been inside one. Who would? It's all infra-red non-illumination overhead and swirling claws or snapping pincers on every side -- a nightmare labyrinth of speeding conveyor belts under the polished soulless eyes of dime-a-dozen panopticoids. Scanners beep plaintively, endlessly.
The modern warehouse is a wonder of automation. Without them we would quickly become overwhelmed by our own things. Civilization is too large by half to work affairs otherwise.
They are the domain of machines, and nobody living ever goes near them.
A train docks with the warehouse, the boom of the closing clamps echoing up to the high ceiling. Hrank crouches among the rafters. He leans in, watching. One hand hovers over an ankle holster. His trigger finger quivers.
The cargo doors roll up. Robotic armatures extend from the walls to handle the freight locks. The train cars are lifted, rotated and moved as if they are toys. Caterpillars and butterflies move in to move the intermodal containers full of goods, the butterflies scanning and the caterpillars lading. The bay is suddenly a cacophony of beeping and buzzing and rumbling.
Hrank's gun is extended. He squints along the barrel, finger squeezing rhythmically.
When the containers are moved onto the belts and ferried inside the cargo doors rattle closed. Darkness returns. The train lets go and glides away. The caterpillars roll into balls and plug in to recharge while the butterflies retreat to roost.
Hrank hops down. He turns his gun sidewise and gazes at the display, letting it scroll so he can skim all the barcodes he's captured. Now he knows what's new. Now he has what he needs to track his prey, and to eat for another day.
Living inside a robotic warehouse isn't easy. But Hrank has the inside word.
Hrank had had it all.
Hrank had had to envy no man except those richer, luckier and more handsome than himself. He had had a comfortable multitude to look down upon, should the need arise, from the vantage of his station as a voting citizen with full employment rights and an endlessly renewing contract at a planetary grocery concern.
He used to take the subway to work and pay the fare with his telephone. He used to drink exotic coffees while stealing glances at dark-skinned girls, because he fancied cocoa complexions. Sometimes when he shifted he would pseudo-accidentally drop his name tag on the floor of the subway and have to pick it up again, hoping a dark-skinned girl would see it, because dropping that he was employed had always proved a good way to pick up girls.
At work he sprayed lettuce to keep it moist, and he inspected kale. He oversaw the orders for more. He barked orders at junior workers or robots. He released shameless charm upon the paying customer, should their servicing require a human touch.
He had had an apartment, he had had a bicycle. But then his contract went past tense and everything changed.
Hrank loved his job so much he had hacked his pricing gun, to serve and inventory with unfettered efficiency. So when the grocery store told him he had been let go he didn't let go of the gun. Since its security bead had been bypassed it didn't even tattle. Hrank just walked away with it.
And to that act he now owed his life. Because without the pricing gun he wouldn't be the wizard of the warehouse. He would just be poor.
Hrank turns the gun on himself, and tags himself as a delicate antique lamp. Beep. He is scanned then gently scooped up and deposited on a conveyor belt by a host of mechanical arms he can hear but cannot see. He curls into a foetal position with the pricing gun tucked over his groin. He thinks of dark-skinned girls while he is whisked along through the dark.
He hops off before the refrigeration chambers, warned of their approach by the hum of the fans. He bounces the gun's laser off the walls to get oriented, squinting at the range finder on the hilt display. He wonders if the dessert cans he saw scanned in from the train have made it to the appropriate hold yet, and decides to have a look. He proceeds eighteen paces forward then turns left to proceed another thirty-six steps to the junction.
Halfway there he flattens himself against a wall seconds before an intermodal container on walkers trundles through, its multi-tonne passage a shuddering of the floor grates and a whisper of air against the skin of Hrank's nose.
And it's gone. Hrank allows himself to exhale but then freezes, head tilted: amid the layers of rhythmic warehouses noises filling the air there is something distinctly alien -- lop-sided, intermittent, pointless. Only Hrank having lived inside the warehouse a fortnight could be so attuned.
Somebody else is inside, he decides. An interloper interloping on his interlope.
Hrank scrambles up to the rafters then jogs along the beams, counting his steps. He lays on his belly and cocks his head, listening. After the next alien sound he extends the pricing gun into the darkness beneath him. He squeezes off a few scans.
Beep, blip, beep: the pricing gun has touched the top of a stack of intermodal containers containing microwave ovens, a stack of intermodal containers containing bolts used in the assembly of intermodal containers, and an untagged object between them. Hrank can hear it move and breathe.
He squirms along the beam in pursuit.
The untagged object stops in an aisle of processed stomach-fill. A crowbar bangs open an access hatch on the container. A knife saws through plastic. Now someone is trying to yank bags of fill out of a shipping crate. Breathing faster now. Desperate. Probably hungry.
But you can't do it that way. You can't just wreck stuff. The system responds.
In seconds butterflies have swooped in for a closer scan and the thief is swinging at them with something Hrank can't see. Probably the crowbar. The thief's breathing becomes ragged and harried as he tries to dodge the machines to scamper away. But there's already got to be about a thousand mechanical ants running up his legs by now.
The thief screams. Hrank sighs, then pushes off the beam and drops into the fray.
He tags the thief as flash-frozen poultry so the ants will quit trying to figure him out then tends to the damaged crate of processed stomach-fill, defining the area of interest with four quick beeps of his pricing gun. He ducks as the maintenance arms swing into action, straightening only when he's caught up with the caterpillar gliding along with the terrified thief in its bucket.
Hrank pulls the cotton balls out of his ears. "Are you injured?"
The thief screams again. "Where are you taking me?"
"To the chicken freezer. You're frozen chicken."
"Calm down, pal."
"Is that a gun? Please don't shoot me! Oh God!"
At this Hrank realizes that the thief can see in the dark and must therefore have a pair of infra-red goggles. "Yes, it's a gun," says Hrank, "and I'll shoot you with it unless you give me your goggles."
"Security guards aren't allowed to shoot people! You can't shoot me!"
"I'm not a security guard."
"Who are you, man?"
"I'm the Ghost of Groceries Yet to Come," snaps Hrank. "Now give me the motherfornicating goggles or you'll be the clean up in aisle six."
She arrives. Everyone stands straighter.
"Explain it to me," she says.
Someone coughs. Someone else says, "Ma'am, this morning at quarter to four an SA courier delivered to these offices a live animal canister containing an indigent caucasian male tranquilized with what we believe to be a high-dose of children's cough and cold decongestant. Cherry flavour, apparently. In the subsequently scheduled motivated interview he volunteered that he had been apprehended in one of our automated warehouses by -- ahem -- a brown superhero with a gun."
She raises a brow. "Which warehouse?"
"The indigent was phoneless, ma'am, so have been unable to retrieve tracking data. We have good reason to think it may have been one of the units we cover in sector seventeen, grid twelve; there's been some use of obfuscation, however. We, um, pulled logs from the courier but there were manufacturer anti-tampers in place and we lost some of the meaningful yield. We've got an AI reconstructing the data set now. We'll have the origin soon."
She narrows her eyes, her high cocoa forehead crinkling. "If there's meat in one of our premises I want it boxed yesterday," she says.
"But, ma'am, the actor in question appears -- um, if anything -- to be acting in our favour. Whoever they are has handed us a trespasser, practically tied with a bow."
"The enemy of my enemy is not my friend," she says icily.
"Once we've collated the geotags we'll fix a position and send in a team of adjusters, ma'am."
She shakes her head. "No. I'll go in myself. Handling this may require chainless decisions." She cracks her knuckles then clasps her hands behind her back. "Requisition me transport, material support, smart staff and six latent instances of lethal force."
Relieved to have certain purpose, the men scamper to fulfill.
Now that Hrank looks at life through infra-red goggles he's never been happier.
He settles into a new routine, his week a slow circuit of surveying delivery doors during input cycles then chasing down his quarry throughout the vast empire of metal before it can all be routed out again.
He rides the conveyor belts like a pro, side-stepping robotic armatures and leaping off at his destinations so that he hits the floor at a run. He tags himself as a maintenance drone or a wedding dress or a freshly slaughtered pig as the situation requires. He has an entire batch of mobile device batteries reclassified as french fries in order to have them expelled from their secured stacks, then robs the caterpillar as it lumbers to deliver them to refrigeration.
He pops a replacement battery into his pricing gun. The display stutters alight. The status indicator glows green. Hrank nods to himself and moves out into the warehouse wilds once more...
At night he beds down in a bed of down-filled comforters tagged as construction zone dust-covers. His nest inside an intermodal container is bordered by maintenance beacons that broadcast a hazardous job in progress. The local panopticoid has been tricked into looping the same innocuous five minutes of footage over and over again by one well-aimed squirt of malscripted barcode from Hrank's gun. He has a row of fans bearing bright yellow price tags, panning sedately left to right then back again. He has a little hand-cranked lamp shaped like a copyrighted cartoon character.
Hrank wonders: what would he be doing if he were on the outside?
Standing in line if he were lucky. For what it didn't matter. But if it weren't standing in line it would only have been because he wasn't able to stand.
What happens to chronically jobless people, anyway? Why do you so seldom see old ones?
Hrank never wants to find out. With wads of cotton in his ears he hunches over the pricing gun, using its simple input keypad to patiently scroll through the alphabet to fill out job applications. Later, while making the rounds, he will transmit them into some world-exposed part of the warehouse network and hope for the best.
Any day now he expects to be cordially if mechanically congratulated on his acquisition of a new contract as a litter sorter or cashier or janitor or whore. Hrank holds high hopes.
"But there's more," her underling hurries to say. "Ma'am, we think what we have on our hands is a combination hacker and squatter. This isn't your typical bum. If he's tapping into inventory he's doing it at or beneath the normalized loss margins, never triggering a single theft alarm. That says he's an inside man. He knows how to ride the numbers to avoid bio-intervention."
"Crank up the bio-scrutiny. He'll mess up. We'll see it."
"Ma'am, we have over a thousand warehouses in that grid alone. We simply don't have the manpower to bio-see him except by fantastic luck. If he doesn't trigger a pattern anomaly we're never going to home in."
She paces to the window and pauses there, hands behind her back. "Temptation," she says to her reflection.
"We need to ship out something network-wide with which he can't help but interact." She turns from the window, one brow arched. "We need a honeypot."
"What kind of honeypot?"
"What does a man living alone for weeks or even months inside an automated, lightless warehouse need more than anything?" she asks.
Hrank has become a part of the warehouse's whole. He has memorized its strict schedules and knows the noises and rules of its improvisations when strict schedules are stretched so far they tear. He knows the drill when something wears out or breaks down. The ebb and flow of activity throughout the day is his clock.
He feels like Tarzan.
Every third day he tags himself as a grease spill on expensive fabric goods. The house responds with a warm shower and suds. Hrank sings, the clank of machinery his percussion. He lets the local panopticoids off loop when he leaves with a lazy wave of his wand.
He has luxuriously soft towels from a shipment bound for the Ritz in New York. He's swaddled in layers like a yogi as he rides the conveyor belt back to his nest, goggles gleaming and wet hair ruffling in the wind. He ducks three times to avoid decapitation, yawning in between.
Once home he spins his pricing gun on his thumb then hangs it on its hook.
Within walls of stacked toilet paper he lounges, pawing through a manifest of recent intake. He has an open can of sardines and pauses with one half way in his mouth. He blinks, then zooms an item and taps to drill down. He tries to ignore it but can't.
Hrank surfs the belts to the west side, leaning into the wind. His hand hovers over his holster. He jumps down at his destination and hits the floor walking.
The pricing gun chirps. A palette is isolated for inspection. When the inspector arrives Hrank bobs under the inspection field and snags a box. He hugs the box to his chest as he rides home.
Inside the box is supposed to be a semi-autonomous inflatable sex puppet but instead it's just a panopticoid sitting in a bed of shredded plastic. The panopticoid flashes. Startled, Hrank repeatedly blinks.
A train docks with the warehouse. Hrank crouches among the rafters.
The cargo doors roll up and Hrank squints. The hints of sunlight make his eyes burn and swim with tears. His goggles hang on the beam next to him. Ruefully he rubs the lines on his skin that mark where they usually sit.
Robotic armatures extend from the walls to handle the freight locks. Caterpillars and butterflies move in in anticipation of work. Hrank draws the pricing gun from its holster and checks the charge.
A troop charges into the loading bay, occluding the light. Hrank's eyes widen. He drops his gun. He nearly falls.
Automated infantry. Their devices squawk. In unison the humanoid machines look up from behind their riot shields and stare right at Hrank. In their midst is an actual human being -- a dark-skinned woman whose brown eyes do not rove. She acts before any of the machines, levelling a non-lethal at the skin between Hrank's eyes. Her finger twitches on the trigger.
Hrank is engulfed in a warm splatter of containment gel. Paralyzed, he falls backward off the rafter.
There is no impact he can remember.
He's throwing up containment gel. In between goes he gasps for air. He's not alone in the room. The room is painfully bright.
Hrank hiccups. He tries to wipe his mouth on his wrist but his wrists are bound.
A set of long cocoa-coloured fingers snap rudely in front of his eyes. "Hey, hey, hey!" stabs a voice. "Time to talk."
He tries to find its source, lolling his head, gaping at blurs. "I have an account with PeopleLaw," he manages to say. "My customer ID is --"
"You're not under arrest, Mr. Tilki."
Hrank fights to focus. He narrows his eyes at the logo on her lapel. "You're insurers."
"We cover this facility," she says with a curt nod. "Your invasion has been recorded, your trespass duly interrupted. The report will read you died while trying to flee through the works. It's impossible to live inside a warehouse, of course, and I can't have your anecdote inspiring rumours that guess otherwise."
Hrank is tied to a chair. Hrank struggles against his bonds. Hrank's bowels croak miserably as it dawns on him that the worst case scenario he'd considered wasn't worse enough. He's about to be fatally adjusted.
At her signal the robot infantry exit the room, leaving her alone with Hrank. She crosses her legs. "I'm going to question you some before the end, Mr. Tilki."
"You want to know how I did it -- how I managed to survive in here."
"No, Mr. Tilki. I'm not interested in your methods. The subjects of my curiosity will be arbitrary, my satisfaction elusive. Each response that displeases me will see that displeasure turned back against you. This is bound to be awful, I'm afraid. Very awful for you."
"Why are you doing this?"
She shrugs. "Sometimes it's simple: some people are just bad."
"You think I'm a bad person?" he ventures.
"No," she says. "I am."
She opens a leather valise and takes out what look like dentist's tools. Hrank kicks sidewise against the wall but catches his balance with one leg under him before the chair can topple. The dark-skinned woman lunges at him but he rolls, body over chair over body, and hits the door with as much momentum as he can muster.
It bends aside. Hrank, still tied to the chair, stumbles out into the warehouse dark. He knocks at least one robot soldier down with the chair swinging wildly behind him before managing to fall heavily onto the nearest conveyor belt, his feet sticking up above him.
The woman bellows behind him. Hrank is sped away. He forces his breathing shallower so he can try to hear out his location: upstream of the junior junction by the southern maintenance shack, he reckons.
He can also hear her boots clattering against a catwalk in pursuit. A loud metallic bang sounds and sparks fly from the belt next to Hrank. With a jolt he realizes she's firing lethals.
Hrank rolls left at the junction. While on his belly he grinds his back against the low ceiling of the backscatter scanning box, snapping the legs off the chair. Because his wrist bindings had been secured through the legs of the chair he's now able to squirm along the chair's back until it slides free. He brings his bound wrists over his head to his front. As he comes out of the backscatter box he dodges right and jumps, knocking her over before she can shoot again.
Hrank scrambles blindly into the works. She straightens her infra-red goggles while feeling around for her pistol. Hrank's unseen face is taut with fear but hers is gleeful.
She finds the manacles on the floor, the sliced edges still laser warmed. She tosses them aside and trots further along the narrow aisle between towering stacks of intermodals, dodging the odd robotic armature as it swings through.
Hrank's hands shake as he tugs on his beloved infra-red goggles. He climbs down from the high beam to search the floor for his pricing gun. He finds it half-hidden beneath the edge of a skid. He cranks it sideways and eyes the display. He nods to himself and sets forth.
She hears him. She closes in. She whirls around a corner and raises her pistol, a latent lethality instance in the chamber ready to be actualized. She frowns beneath her goggles. A lading ferry is moving around in a random, erratic fashion, swishing against the stacks and bumping against pillars. Could it be a purposeful decoy? Is this a more interesting hunt than she had dare imagine?
In the rafters Hrank squints along the barrel of his pricing gun and squeezes off a single microwave squirt. He tags the woman as fire.
She throws up her arms as she is doused in flame-retardant foam from three sides at once. She gasps as an oxygen void is pumped out by long, articulated extensions with fans for hands. Butterflies circle, scanning madly.
Hrank sprints, leaping from the top of one intermodal stack to the next. As he runs he taps madly on the keypad of his pricing gun, spinning the settings and tagging every stack he touches: he tags them all for immediate export.
She stumbles out of the foam spitting and coughing. She throws a lobe of the stuff from her face with a grimace and consults a bio-seeking motion sensor on her wrist. But as soon as she sets off in the right direction the neat corridor of stacked containers ahead of her becomes broken up in a flurry of motion as robotic arms extend down from the ceiling and start grabbing and moving their targets. She's knocked to her knees by the low swoop of a butterfly, and when she tries to rise she looks up to see a caterpillar trundling right at her. Desperately she dives aside.
The warehouse has become a madhouse of purposeful motion.
Hrank jumps on top of his home container. After he's tagged everything in the vicinity for immediate random export with his manifest scrambling script he kicks a box of supplies down the hatch and tags his own intermodal to go.
He peers over the edge. He stares into the face of a robot soldier climbing the side. Before it can raise an arm to tase him he rolls over and draws his pricing gun. "Enjoy the trash system," he says as the humanoid machine hauls itself up on top of the container. Hrank tags it as derelict equipment in need of high-temperature remediation. Arms extend and pluck the robot away.
He manages to similarly tag three more before loud crack rings out.
Hrank is shot. He spins and stumble, yelping in surprise and pain. He feels like he's been hit in the shoulder with a hammer. He lands at the edge of the box with a grunt. A sprinkle of blood lands with him, faintly glowing in the infra-red.
He reaches for his pricing gun but she shoots it. The casing splinters and the insides pop and flash and hiss.
He puts up his hands.
She laughs. She levels the pistol at his heart.
The corner of an intermodal container being passed overhead catches her from behind. She pinwheels her arms to keep from falling off the edge and when she looks up again Hrank has vaulted off the container. He lands awkwardly on another container as it moves past, his injured shoulder failing to support him.
She follows him but he's moved on. Hrank hops to a third container, and then a fourth, coming around in a wide circle. He keeps his home container desperately in sight, risking only the quickest glances upward to see how close to the cargo bay tunnel they are.
Sparks fly near his feet as she shoots again. With his last ounce of strength Hrank leaps for his home intermodal.
He barely makes it. His good arm feels like it's going to tear. He screams as he pulls himself up fully to the top of the container, then crawls for the hatch. He slips inside just as the sounds ahead are made muffled and close by the tight confines of the tunnel.
She sees it. Her pistol wilts. She looks around wildly, then starts clawing at the hatch of the container she's on top of. But it takes finesse to open an intermodal without tripping the onboard security. She scratches her fingers bloody against it, then looks up one last time.
"I'm sorry," says Hrank, then ducks.
The containers are drawn into the tunnel to the output bay. There are five millimeters of clearance on each side. One of the containers swings out the other side with a red smear along its top.
When Hrank awakes his nest is gently swaying. He sits up and rubs his eyes.
A baritone horn sounds somewhere outside the intermodal. Gulls squawk. He has been loaded on a seagoing ship.
Hrank wonders where he's going. He hopes it's some place hot. He hopes there are dark-skinned girls there who have no interest at all in hurting him or shooting him.
He cranks up his copyrighted cartoon character lamp and switches it on. He inspects his shoulder wound. It isn't too bad. Though his orderly little world has been turned upside down by the export process he knows somewhere buried in here are first aid supplies. After he has had a snack he'll go scouting.
For six to eight weeks Hrank's horizons will be near and hatefully familiar, but who knows what the final port of call may bring?
Hrank's own expiration date remains uncertain, and that's good enough for him.