June 20, 2011
I fell in love with this story when I copy-edited it. When asked why, I had to think hard; it was a little like explaining why dark chocolate is my favorite, really—because it suits my taste. Although perhaps the key word there is dark…
“Darkest Amber” reminds me of Roger Zelazny’s style, especially in his short fiction. The dialogue is a mix of Roger with—appropriately enough—Kelly McCullough. It is not like the Amber books. This is more like the “I Am Legion” stories. And I would love to read more of these.
This story originally appeared in Electric Velocipede #19 in the Fall of 2009.
-Anne S. Zanoni, southeastern MI June 2011
by Erin Hoffman
The alley was dark and redolent, old dirt and new steel, rain-swept asphalt and acrid ozone. Kali’s footsteps spread halos of dryness where the ground gave before her. Two streets away something hollow and metallic hit the ground with a clang, and every muscle in Kali’s body screamed sudden tautness, a rush of adrenaline sending a wave of shadow across her vision.
Being out of JH’s range made her twitchy.
She kept walking, pulling air through barely parted lips and holding it in to slow her pounding heart. At last she came upon the slender figure that wavered out of the late evening humidity, a charcoal silhouette in the night. It bent with lazy grace to pull a glass canister from the crate at its feet, then tossed it at Kali.
The weight hit her outstretched hand cool and solid. A liter of liquid destruction, darkest amber, smoother than blood. The tang of it hammered her sinuses and wrapped around her throat, addictive as a new lover, poisonous as addiction unchained.
“How much?” she breathed, but only just, holding the chemical burn inside her as long as she could.
Night mist breathed apart, relinquishing Clio, the local Sixer’s flygirl. “Fifty.”
“That’s twice last week’s,” Kali spat, ire leaping up inside her, the flash of internal combustion.
Clio was trouble, blue steel cybergrunge and sultry eyes lumipainted to a persistent four-alarm come-hither. She took a long drag on her tres chic synthmenth cigarette and blew chartreuse smoke at Kali. “Deal with it.”
“Like hell, Clio!” Her free hand shook. “Like hell! What is this bullshit?”
Pity twinkled briefly in Clio’s doctored eyes the instant before she answered. “New boss, baby. Name’s Vance. I sure as hell don’t call the shots. He’ll want to meet you anyway. He’s looking for an on-site.”
Panic and dread surged in Kali’s gut and she fought it down desperately, willing her eyes to stay focused, fighting back shadow. “I don’t work in garages. We had a deal. I busted ass for Lex. I gotta pay off JH’s strut upgrade.” Numbers rolled in her mind, bringing darkness with them. Get a grip, she told herself.
“Times change, angel-face. Talk to the new guy. I’ll see you next week.” Clio turned, wet moonlight glittering off her sides. “What’s JH stand for, anyway?”
Kali tossed her head, flipping down Elektra sunglasses that recast the world in shades of sepia and gold. “Jacked Hallucination.”
The blip of JH’s signal in her HUD released a little piano wire of anxiety from the back of Kali’s neck as she moved back into his range. The rest flowed out as she dropped herself into the front seat, breathed in black leather and motor oil, and wrapped her hands around the wheel. For a moment she was ten years old again, crouched beneath a ’15 Solara, LED lamp on the undercarriage for her father. She let the memory ride out—they so rarely came on their own, these days—before reaching for the ignition.
JH knew her better than to say anything until she’d started him up. A thrill of reassurance went through her as the engine roared to life, sending vibrations through her legs and rib cage. JH might be the last of his kind, spinning rotors and caged explosions. He was speed, he was freedom, he was love on four sleek microchamber tires.
Kali drank in the hum and rumble of the engine for two blissful moments before flipping the dials down into stealth. The soft whir of servo motors spun beneath her, locking carbon fiber panels together, while the engine switched modes, dropping down into a near-quiet competitive to a pansy-assed yuppiemobile with a slight electrical glitch.
Set for the week? The words printed silently across Kali’s left eye. She didn’t know exactly when JH had developed tact, but it might have been Darwinian.
“Set. And behind. New boss and he’s jacked up the petrol.”
You could convert me. If I were road legal . . .
“We’ve been over this before,” she said between clenched teeth. The thought of converting made her dizzier than the thought of busting tail for newly inflated black market petroleum. “I don’t have the cash anyway. We’ll just have to double-time it for awhile.” The weight of anticipated exhaustion threatened to bring back gut-eating dread, but she swallowed it.
You’ve got those new clients, he printed, the slowness of his letters aimed at calming her. It didn’t work, really.
“Talk to me about something else.”
I’ve been reading Plutarch, JH printed, and she wondered if she was about to regret his recent expanded memory banks. But she’d needed the storage. He talks about the Ship of Theseus. They sail it in and replace its old decaying planks, and Plutarch wants to know whether it’s the same ship.
“They just replace some parts? Sure it’s the same ship.”
So if you replaced all of my parts, would I still be the same car?
“All of your parts?” She knew where this was going and saw his engine in her mind, blackened labyrinth, and the silver letters . . .
Yes, all of them. It’s easier for you, you’re human, all that meat. Pull out your diag plant and you’re still Kali. The things that define me you can plug and unplug at will.
“I guess that makes you a Car of Theseus,” she said, all coppery lightness, but the questions made her intestines squirm. “Where are we headed?”
JH flipped a viewing screen onto his windshield. The dim display showed a sketched crosshatching of streets and alleys through which a vivid red line traced their route. Molly Bridgehart’s Lexus has a glitch.
“Yuppie piece of shit job,” Kali muttered. “Probably just flipped a bit or something.”
“Yeah,” Kali said, flexing her fingers around the wheel and gunning the engine just a little, soothing herself with the gees, “it does.” She took a deep breath. “Play number 1002.”
Without comment, JH drew the file and piped it through his speakers. Kali throttled down a ripple of familiar nervous emotion as her father’s voice, perfectly replicated on the costly sound system, filled her ears.
“We’re facing the extinction of the gasoline engine, the end of an era. Like everything else, we’ll adapt or we’ll die. Except me, of course. This ol’ dog’s too rickety to learn new tricks, a relic. A machine at least you can upgrade!” His laugh, a piston through her heart, and cold fury flashed through Kali’s veins. The digital display read 1859.
“You’re goddamn pushing it, JH,” she spat. “I get it, all right? I just don’t need this right now.” She spoke softer, not an apology, the shake in her voice was surely exhaustion. “1002. Now.”
The lecture on shock springs was one she’d heard before, many times, but it still reverberated off of memories; made them, for a few moments, more real.
They sped along the thirty mile expanse to the Bridgehart house in silence save for the voice that life had long since silenced, but tech retrieved.
When the recording reached a set so familiar Kali found herself reciting the words half an instant before they were spoken.
“That’s enough,” she said softly, and JH faded the file immediately. After a quiet moment, dry voice cracking, she added: “Turn on some music.”
Static crackled from JH’s speakers as he flipped on the chanserv and dialed for a station. A wave of melted honey easy-listening crooning assaulted Kali’s fragile eardrums.
I find the study in human culture fascinating, JH printed, before Kali could speak.
“Are you shitting me?” Astonishment shook her out of black melancholy.
Yes. JH spun the digits to synthpunk, his fine speakers slamming it full force into Kali’s chest, just the way they should.
“I was beginning to think you needed a defrag.”
Honey, you have no idea.
An hour later JH was parked next to Molly’s sleek sedan (champagne nanogloss with Venetian vat-leather interior), looking like a young cyberhead at the prom.
Kali connected in to the car’s chip and dialed across a diagnostic code, suppressing a grumble of distaste at this model’s absurd access length. The car silently came to life, a series of LEDs indicating its power-up sequence. Kali fought down a snarl of disgust.
The car’s AI came online. “What’s wrong?” she asked it.
“Rear warning light disabled,” it murmured across the connection, the voice in Kali’s head velvety, false-female.
“Stupid machine. What else?” she ground.
“Forward hydraulic impaired,” the car said. An unexpected boon; the hydraulics on these models were notoriously difficult to access—and expensive to repair. Kali’s mood inched upward. She fired a few codes to her diag plant and had JH send the full prognosis to the car’s owner. A couple of minutes later Molly’d approved the procedure, cleared funds transfer, and Kali was neck deep in the sedan’s AI, full integration, chasing down current.
The zen of full linkage was a world away from oil and steel and rain. In featureless semidarkness she reached without hand or arm and pulled aspects of the car into view: circuit and pipeline, hinge and spring distilled into the perfection of translucent data visualization. Runways of layered sepia extended forever and back again in the effortless grace of the digital.
Kali—was all the warning she had before an override signal followed by a priority-authorized disable command shattered the whole visualization, not only dissolving her setup but shutting down her plant entirely. In a quick reflex she activated the plant’s backup, then turned from the sedan, eyes regaining focus on meatspace, fury growling eight-cylinder thunder under her skin.
The command came from a baseball bat ensconced in the fist of a bald and tattooed ogre with a blinking red chest. “Yo,” he said.
Kali queried the diag plant, linked with JH’s wifi unit and +fingered the bat. Owner info scrolled across her vision: Mean Mikey, a name about as creative as the BrUiSeR tattoo on his forehead. And the bat was a class three AI. Mikey must have thought himself quite the badass.
“Unlikely,” Kali muttered, then raised her voice. “I hope you know what you’re fucking with, asshole, because I am in no mood.”
“We’re from Vance,” he said, macabre grin revealing a gap on the left side of his teeth. “Sends his greetings.”
“With a fucking disabler?” Kali spat. “I’m trying to goddamn work here for his jacked up go-juice.”
“No,” Mikey said, “the disable was my little touch.”
“Mine, you mean!” the bat whined, its thin range voice about two octaves above common courtesy.
“Right, mate,” Mikey said, grin widening. “Anyway, sweetheart, Vance told us ta go around establishing ourselves as the local enforcement, and since you’re in the neighborhood we figgered we’d stop by.”
“Uh huh.” So killing him would probably be a bad idea. She eyed the rhythmic red glow at Mikey’s sternum. “What’s with the light show?”
Mikey thumped his chest cheerfully. “Had m’heart out two years back. No beat on this one, so the light keeps me goin’.”
“Outside your body?”
“It’s called style, baby.” He ran a hand across his bare head. “Much’s I know you’d like us to stick around, we do haveta blitz. Gotta job with Oberon,” Mikey said.
“ ‘Believe it!’ ” the bat shrilled, and both dissolved into hyenalike laughter. Mikey turned and swung one tree-like leg over the seat of a Harley nearly as wide as JH’s bumper. He gunned the engine, which snarled as only fire and fossil could allow. “We’ll see you again soon, sweetheart!” the bat chirped. “Mikey, you forgot to tell her Vance wants all his rides checked out.”
“JH doesn’t do inspections,” Kali said quickly.
“You got until tomorrow to decide,” Mikey said. “We’ll find you. JH . . . What’n hell’s that supposed to mean, anyway?”
Are you running low, or what? JH printed.
“Shut it,” she muttered, as Mikey and his laughing bat rolled roaring from the driveway. Scenarios washed through her, each one constricting her insides. Some of JH’s mods she’d had approved by Lex’s drones. Some she hadn’t. And the thought of some wrenchmonkey pawing through his insides—through the files on the expansion drives—made her lungs compress. Carefully she drew in two long, slow breaths, telling herself to focus, get back to the job. She turned back to the sedan and sent a full reset command to her diag plant.
A moment passed.
“Oh goddamn it,” she exploded, and queried the plant a second, then a third time, with the same result. “That fucker’s parlor trick shorted the plant. We’re going to have to go home. Message Molly that I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Are you sure you don’t want me to talk? JH printed as his tires crawled up the tar-patched driveway.
I think you’re oppressing me, denying me a voice.
“So call your union.” Back at the apartment, roughly closet-sized yet another indulgence for its privacy, Kali swung outside and slammed the driver door, hard.
Ouch, JH printed.
“Don’t start with me,” she warned. At the front door she snarled again as she manually punched in the front access code, feeling like a teenager. Her plant had been disabled before, but never to the degree of failing door contact. Now she’d need the diagnosticator.
It took three tries to get the numeric input right before the door clicked and she shoved it aside. Within the confines of the apartment, its mildew-thick air and dirt-colored polyfiber carpet, JH’s signal blinked back online, courtesy local relay.
From the doorway, peering into the shadowed mess, “Bweep,” Kali said, b-flat.
“Chirp,” the diagnosticator answered in a soft e-flat from near the couch. She stepped over cartons, their graphics eerily inactive in the absence of her plant’s signal, to get to the ancient heap of springs and fabric. Something that had never really been in mode couldn’t ever be out of it, she told herself.
When she picked up the diagnosticator another memory rolled over her. Her hands, smaller, wrapped around the device whose name she couldn’t pronounce (Waverly Diagnostic Imaging Adaptor), waving it closer to the wrecked ’13’s bumper in a fruitless attempt to aid the signal. She strained after every sensory detail, wanting to engrave them in her memory as the audio feeds were etched into JH’s expanded memory drives, but she’d forgotten utterly what came next or she’d’ve known to shy away from it—“Don’t ever fall in love with grease and steel, honey,” Daddy said, “it don’t grow back.”
His words echoed in her ears, dredging up darkness from a yawning well that opened in her middle. This was why memories belonged on a drive, pressed between magnets, encased. Safe.
“I didn’t, Daddy,” she murmured, swallowing, then tossed herself onto the couch and started punching in for updates to the dated machine.
The sedan repair took twice as long with the diagnosticator, but the weight of the machine in her hands lent the process a classic feel. Molly tipped well, too, and the combination of events had Kali breathing easy enough to whistle as she and JH rolled down the drive and hit the highway.
As sunset stained the western sky the roar of the Harley rolled up behind them.
Darkness was settling in, and with it, Kali’s energy. As the light faded it took away the harshness of daytime reality, brought sepia and monochrome comfort. She nudged JH forward, just a little, engine growling against its stealth buffers.
I think we should pull over, JH printed. Nothing I’ve got is really that nonstandard . . .
“No,” Kali said, “let’s see what that asshole’s got.” She gunned it, foot hitting pedal hitting floor, sending JH roaring out of stealth mode and burning ridged concrete beneath them.
Gamely the Harley with its attendant monsters pursued. In the rear view mirror Kali saw the bruiser readying something that involved a tube and a trigger. And a large boom of high-pressured air.
The projectile whistled past, struck a concrete divider, and exploded in a burst of crimson sparks.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! JH printed.
“Exactly,” Kali breathed.
We should go back, JH printed quickly.
“That’s fucking pedestrian, “ she snarled, filled with a desperate desire to do something drastic and profoundly illegal.
All right, JH relented, and his circuits pulsed brighter as he fed them a burst of power. Let’s do it.
Kali reached down, turned a toggle, and flipped the switch marked badass mode.
JH leaped forward in a rush of speed and noise, burning fuel at a catastrophic rate, but causing the following Harley to dwindle most satisfactorily in a matter of moments. They screamed down the pavement, several hundred decibels of raw petroleum fury.
And Kali was sure they were entirely clear when a sharp, metallic impact rocked JH’s rear.
Behind them, Mikey and his Harley were holding steady, not gaining but no longer falling behind. And a long cable attached to a harpoon-edged grappling hook had stapled clean through JH’s trunk.
All it took was a quick, calculated swerve, and the heavy motorcycle snapped the cable taut at an angle, jerking both vehicles to one side. JH’s tires, intended for speed, slipped sideways, and suddenly they were out of control. His front end lurched left and Kali hauled hard on the wheel, knuckles white, willing them straight, but as the Harley’s weight caught they swerved again, right this time, leaving Kali’s stomach somewhere back on the blackened road.
On the third swerve JH spun entirely, and the world lost cohesion. Tires shrieked against the pavement, a scream that lasted forever but not long enough, and then they crashed against the divide, steel sides buckling, parts flying, the world coming apart.
Stillness, and only the pounding of blood between Kali’s ears.
The blip of emergency signals pierced through Kali’s shock. “JH?” she wheezed. Diagnostics ran across her vision. Somewhere in JH’s guts, something was hissing.
Still here, JH printed, and relief swept through her. But this is bad. The fuel line—
Kali kicked the crumpled driver’s side door and it broke open, falling to the ground in a twisted clatter. She stumbled outside and staggered for JH’s front.
The sight of it, synthcarbon body plates folded obscenely, black finish cracked to reveal skeletal steel beneath, sealed her throat instantly. But the stream of fluid dripping onto the pavement from the undercarriage shorted her heart, filling her chest with sudden emptiness. Amber and memory, leaking out there onto the burned asphalt, spilled, all—
She threw open JH’s hood, baring the labyrinth of guts, the black pipes, the steel fittings—the letters, silver foil, embossed onto the antique six-cylinder engine core: John Henry.
Wires sparked, throwing spikes of blinding blue electricity up from shredded wires, lines of brightness that left rust-colored ghosts against Kali’s eyelids when they evaporated. The connections—if she could disconnect it, the drives, and JH’s mind, at least, could be saved—
A growing glow around the edge of her vision climbed steadily, refusing to be ignored, as she struggled with the wires. The flames had started, somehow away from JH entirely, but a line of fire crept toward his ruined body, leaping, finding liquid—and, as only this amber could, it burned.
Kali, get clear!
The front of JH’s body went up in a roar of orange flame and black smoke. There was no impact from the explosion, no finality, no BOOM—only the rush of hungry fire.
Three warning alarms flickered across Kali’s vision before JH’s signal dropped entirely.
The desolation of unmarked vision and the cold reality of lone night fell upon Kali’s shoulders like an iron anchor. Thwarted adrenaline rattled in her veins and she struggled to breathe.
Deep laughter returned heat to her veins, fast. She turned. Mikey stood with feet spread wide, the bat in one hand, a smoking match in the other.
“You son of a bitch!” Kali screamed, grabbed a length of pitted exhaust pipe, and sprinted at the laughing ogre, swinging. He had just enough time to stop laughing and register a flicker of alarm before she smashed the pipe into the back of his bald head.
“Mikey!” the bat screamed. Kali turned a burning gaze on it, then struck, yanking it from Mikey’s nerveless fingers. She pulled back, right arm angled high like a star hitter, and swung full force at Mikey’s chest.
The stylish casing shattered under the blow, baring flickering LEDs, and Mikey choked, eyes more white than iris. He staggered back, but Kali jabbed the bat’s aluminum head at the LEDs, hitting them square and sliding down, ripping wires, extinguishing light.
Mikey’s eyes remained opened and bulging for one long second. He did not breathe. When the lights didn’t come back, didn’t rescue him from the crevasse of rhythmic silence, his chest started to go crazy, pumping in furious hyperventilation. In the bizarreness of adrenaline time-stop Kali realized his heart was probably still working, but without its signal, there was no way for him to know, and his mind was going berserk. Gasping, he fell to his knees, hands scraping at the ruined LEDs in desperate senselessness. The speed of his breathing increased. All at once, the mechanical heart couldn’t take it; it shorted with a high-pitched squeal, and Mikey pitched over sideways.
Hands shaking around the black rubber grip of the bat, Kali stood over the dead bruiser in cold shock.
“Holy shit, you killed him! You whore!” The bat’s voice, if anything, climbed another octave as it began to release the full extent of its tier-three-powered vocabulary on Kali.
A tier three AI with the power to fire a long-range signal interrupt strong enough to disable her plant had to have one hell of an energy cell—
Her hands slid to the bat’s maintenance catch, flipped it, and popped the aluminum casing away from the bat’s core, revealing a cylinder of copper-etched silicon studded with miscellaneous electronics and wrapped with lurid green tube lighting.
“What the hell are you doing?” the bat shrieked. “Somebody help me! Rape! Rape!”
“Shut up,” she told it, and snapped out its energy cell. The tube lights dimmed instantly and pulsed red as the bat went into backup power—and cut off the voice mid-scream. Kali locked the casing back down and tossed the bat to the asphalt, where its now decidedly nonverbal head ping!ed against the street.
She ran back to JH, squinting against the light and heat and throwing an arm up to protect her mouth and nose from the acrid smoke. Heedless of the creeping flames, of the smaller explosions that impacted from the front and rear, she dove through the gaping hole in the driver’s side and reached for the console. For half a second she considered the drives—the audio files, the last recordings of her father’s voice—everything she had fought for, drives she had not allowed more than ten meters away from her at any time in the last five years—
Another explosion rocked the car, followed by the sizzling pop of microchamber collapse as two of JH’s tires popped in the heat. The jolt threw her sideways, and blinding pain sang through her right arm. Shaking, with her left hand she threw open the console and pulled free the control box that lived there, then shoved herself out of the burning car.
One step, then another, and she was running for clear ground, away from the smoke that streamed up into the night, and the sound of the other two tires going. Her hands were slick with sweat, and as she stopped, panting, the fuel cell slipped and hit the ground with a clink. She dove after it, arm screaming, grabbing it by the wires, and turned the flat control box over in one hand, then pressed it against her leg to balance it. With shaking fingers she connected the wires, and waited.
Silence, for two moments.
“Car of Theseus,” the bat’s voice said.
“JH?” Kali breathed, hope combusting in her chest, obliterating pain.
The hope exploded again, flooding her eyes. “I—I’m glad you’re all right,” she managed.
“I, uh, think we need to go talk to this Vance.”
“Good idea. What about Mikey’s friend?”
The aluminum bat sat silently on the asphalt, etched surface reflecting ripples of orange from JH’s burning body.
“We’ll leave him. Some kids’ll find him and make better use of him than Mikey did.” She smiled, feral. “And they probably won’t even figure out he’s got that brain. He’s got a whole exciting life of Little League ahead of him.”
“Your cruelty amazes me sometimes,” JH-the-bat-chip said.
“You want to take him with us?”
Kali laughed, and the sound—with the rush of feeling it brought—surprised her. The flames that flickered around JH’s corpse should have disabled her entirely, should have eaten her heart and left her a dry husk. It was terror burning there, and dread, on four melting wheels. But they didn’t. “We lost it all,” she said softly. “How do you feel?”
A line of lights flickered on the control box, darting back and forth, JH searching his new limits. “Free,” he said.
“Yeah,” Kali sighed. She punched an emergency code into the diagnosticator, which linked in with Lex’s support network—now Vance’s—and called out a recovery truck.
“Kali?” JH had figured out how to modulate the bat’s voice down several notes. “Back there. You took me, instead of the drives.”
Kali’s heart picked up speed, the fast crush of metal in her ears, but she let it go. You hold onto it, she figured, it just waits there to explode. “Yeah?”
A dozen answers bubbled, just below speaking, but Kali only tapped JH’s control box against her palm before tucking it into her belt.
They stood there in companionable silence and the crackle of flames. Far above the haze of the city there were probably stars. Cars swept by, some flicking their high beams, none stopping. After the fiftieth or so one of them slowed; Vance’s recovery truck, a charcoal behemoth crawled over by acres of jointed piping and servo rig. Kali steeled herself, then approached to peer through the passenger side window.
Clio sat in the driver’s seat, running a current-comb through her layered hair to turn it different shades of electric purple. The sight of her gave Kali a surprised pulse of relieved affection.
“Where’s Vance?” she asked, sure he would have shown up to continue what Mikey left off, minus the shrieking sport equipment.
“Out west,” Clio said. “Back in a few days.” She tilted her head to eye the burning wreckage. “Shit. What a mess.”
“Yeah, I know, I—”
“Get in. I’ll take it all out of Mikey’s contract.”
Kali choked. “You can do that?”
“So long as you don’t contest that he was the instigator.”
“I think I can swallow my objections,” she managed, and climbed into the cabin.
Clio deployed a heat-seeking CO2 hose from the truck’s front and drenched JH’s corpse in foam. When the automated process kicked in, she sat back, all indolence, and jerked her chin at Kali. “So what’ll you do now? Besides get that arm looked at.” No remorse. No quarter.
Kali pulled a powered wrench from her workbelt. “Heard Vance was looking for an on-site mech.”
“You?” Clio said, managing a sketch of angled skepticism with fingers splayed elegantly on her hip, even while sitting. And indolent. “The new mech? I thought you never stayed in one place.”
“Rules change. Deal with it,” Kali said, and buzzed the wrench.
A smile cracked Clio’s cool surface like a drop of antifreeze in an oil slick. “You’re all right,” she allowed, and hit a few buttons on the recovery truck’s control panel, deploying cleanup bots.
Kali flipped down her Elektras, drenching the world in gold. “Honey, you have no idea.”