A Dark Science Fantasy Short Story
Aiko Rei kept to the shadows as she moved down the alley. At her sides, looming apartment buildings reached for the stars, then disappeared into the frigid New Edo night. A blue disc on her wrist’s underside pulsed. The mark of the concierge, the android. It cast spectral wisps across the buildings’ hard grey faces, glowing like a beacon in the dark and frozen atmosphere of planet Hokkaido.
Aiko stuffed the hand inside a jacket pocket as a message from Esperanza flashed across her vision field:
[ There can be no witnesses. ]
She already knew that. She was there to capture a Shujou, a being that, according to the official story, did not even exist. According to the official story, there were no concierge that became sentient and assumed false identities as humans. The so-called Shujou lived only in the apocalyptic whisperings of doddering gossips and the ghost tales of fanciful children. Not even the satsu, the local police, knew the truth. So, according to the official story, AI-k0 117113017 was there to perpetrate a crime. She was there to abduct a human.
It wasn’t a difficult job. She’d done it dozens of times. But her last two missions had been disasters, ruined by the maddening voice inside her head.
A blast of frozen wind tore at Aiko’s black leather jacket. It blew away from her hand, exposing the pulsing blue token and bringing her attention back to her surroundings. In her vision field’s lower right quadrant, she sensed movement.
There—she zoomed in, boosted exposure and gain. At ground level, in the shadowed crevice between two buildings, a frantic frost hopper, 4 centimeters long, struggled to disentangle himself from a spider’s web. The hopper’s desperate spasms sent undulations through the gossamer sheet, alerting his host to his presence. The spider, a female funnel weaver, appeared at the mouth of her funnel and paused to size him up. The hopper was too small to be a threat. She moved in. Just a few seconds, and it would be over. Her mandibles would pierce his flimsy armor and deliver their paralyzing venom.
Aiko’s legs propelled her to the scene. She made it to the hopper before the weaver and scooped him up with flawless precision, leaving the web intact. On the other side of the alley, near a fence, she knelt and uncupped her hands, then watched as the hopper bounded from her palm and disappeared through a crack, already oblivious to his brush with death. Aiko envied him. She longed for the peace of such naivete, the quietude of mind.
There can be no witnesses.
The phrase reverberated, flooding Aiko’s senses, a sinister, thrumming voice emanating from nowhere and everywhere. She spooked, jerked backward, and landed hard on her ass against the cold blacktop.
Her legs shot out beneath her, and in an instant she was back on her feet and hastening down the alleyway, brushing the gravel from the seat of her jet-black leggings as she scanned the vicinity for anyone who had seen her fall.
Precisely when the tormenting disquiet of her own mind first began, Aiko could not say. But she knew what the voice was: an early symptom of the Shujou virus. She understood the prognosis well enough. The voice would never go away, but would instead grow steadily louder, until it was all that she could hear, until she botched one mission too many and Esperanza put her out of her misery, forever. But Aiko despised the voice not just because it was going to kill her. She hated it for what it was doing to her now. The voice had not come alone. It had brought with it a loathsome thing. A black, creeping thing that, at first, Aiko could not even name. Eventually, the name came to her … yearning. Yearning, Aiko had since learned, brought along pain.
What Aiko yearned for most was for things to go back to normal, for yearning itself to cease, for the infernal voice to retreat to the nethers and for the sweltering, suffocating fog of desire to evaporate into the atmosphere and be sucked out to the cold vacuum of space. So she’d kept the voice to herself, believing against all available data that somehow the virus could be wiped from her wet work, that her slow descent into the lunacy of consciousness could be reversed. Still, Esperanza was on her now, reminding, watching, suspecting, ready to strike should she malfunction again.
The alleyway’s lamps went dark. Aiko heard a breathy rumble behind her as a white hover van pulled up and parked near the mouth of the alley, its sides brightly declaring GANA’S CLEANERS. Esperanza’s courtesy shuttle to oblivion.
She reached the designated coordinates and looked back at the van. It sat motionless, brooding in silence under the flickering purple glow of a nearby massage parlor. A mist began to fall. She turned back and looked up at the Shujou’s apartment, three stories above.
[ distance: 11.728 m ]
[ surface: 10.896 cm ]
Aiko ran. Then she jumped.
Planet Hokkaido’s frigid wind sent ripples through her black jacket as she steadied herself on the sill. She reached into a pocket and pulled out a rogue. Her knees bent, and she waved the thin black superellipse across the window’s base. It unlatched, and she was inside.
She moved silently through the empty apartment, took up position in the foyer, and waited. Her mind emptied as she stared through the darkness at the token. It oscillated through shades of blue in gentle waves that refracted through a tall jade vase in the adjacent dining room, splashing its walls with languid tendrils of aquamarine.
The voice was electronic. It came from outside, just beyond the door.
Aiko stood on the opposite side, not two meters away. Somehow, she hadn’t heard the mark approaching.
Aiko jumped, banging her arm into the mahogany-framed mirror hanging next to her. It was happening again. The nameless voice, threatening to derail the mission.
“Dammit!” Another voice from outside, the mark’s this time. Then, the thunk of something hitting the ground, followed by a shuffling sound.
Aiko backed into the shadows of the elegant dining room and reached for the pistol-shaped weapon strapped to the hard girth of her black leggings, stretched tight against loaded coils. Her thighs flexed and readied, teeming stores of sheer power. Beneath them, her feet poised and her calves solidified, bristling, flush with electricity. A set of keys jangled outside. Aiko leveled her stingray at the door, clicked it hot.
A gust of icy wind hit her like a hammer. She turned to confirm another impossibility, the anticipation in her legs fading.
Beyond the dining room’s archway, in the bureau. Her point of entry. She’d left the window open.
The muted scrape of a key sliding into place brought her back, and she turned again to the door, finger uncertain on the stingray’s trigger. She’d need to wait until she made the ID. But she’d need to do that instantly. It wouldn’t take long for the mark to be tipped-off by the frigid air flooding the apartment.
The door handle clicked, turned. The door swung open …
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