by Zoe Harding

(Part 7 of a serialised prose fiction endeavour. Part 1part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6) | CW: violence, language


I push the shop door open, and nod to Adil. He smiles back, salt-and-pepper beard twitching, and goes back to watching an old taped football match on his TV. I like Adil, even though we rarely talk. He’s a paid-up inhabitant of the Real World, the proverbial Englishman whose home is his castle, running his shop and veg garden like the world around him isn’t going to hell. I imagine his sitting room’s a comfortable throwback to the last millennium, kettle boiling and football on the TV glaring off the brown wallpaper.

His daughter appears behind the counter, and watches me carefully as I potter around the aisles, grabbing bags of pasta and pots of sauce from the shelves. I spend most of my time in front of the veg boxes, because Adil grows a mean onion when he wants to, and someone’s sold him some decent-sized tomatoes, but I can’t stock up on perishables. Our fridge has been hacked twice this week, since DeepGrey is both incapable of building fridges without bullshit IoT garbage in their systems and incapable of dealing with the fuckers from Chile who keep hacking ours. If they aren’t actively in league with them, of course – a convoluted international fridge-recycling protection racket probably isn’t beyond the bastards if ‘Connectivity’ is involved).

I pay with a handful of ragged-edged fivers, the Churchills on them long-since disfigured with anti-Tory slogans and moustaches, and nod to Adil’s daughter as I leave. It’s one of the things I like about Adil’s. Once you’ve been there twice you can conduct pretty much all transactions without speaking, and yet it still feels like you’ve seen a friend. He’s good news – always there with credit if one of the community hasn’t eaten for a week, plus he takes cash.

As I slide the shopping bag to my other hand and push the door open, I hear a raised voice outside. Something about the edge to it that stops me in my tracks.

I scan the street. There’s someone in a white shirt a few buildings down, shouting and struggling with two others. DeepGrey drones are scattering in every direction, hurrying away from the altercation. Almost unconsciously, I pull my glasses off, fold them and shove them in the pocket of my jacket. Last thing I need is to broadcast my location, because police malware will go straight through their defences and take over the camera, if it hasn’t already.

I sidle down the wall of Adil’s, trying to reach an alleyway I know is a few doors up. The shouting is still going, but now there’s more voices, and two of the men are holding the other down and yelling at him. I realise with a start that it’s the DeepGrey drones from before, now struggling and kicking. One rips his jacket off and yanks his tie from his neck, the other has the third on the pavement, shouting in his face, a vein standing out on his temple. The third guy is panicking, but as I reach the alley he begins shouting back, the same sudden anger in his voice.

I duck into the alley and scramble down it, but there’s a metal gate at the far end and the fucking thing is locked. These houses are presumably DeepGrey drone storage terraces, which means someone will have the key, but they’re almost certainly at work, and in any case they’d just call the cops on me.

I hear the shouting in the street getting closer, and hastily drop my shopping bag against the gate, then flip the buttons on my purse and withdraw my pepper spray in a practiced gesture. I don’t know how much use it’ll be if they’re in the alley blocking me, but it’ll slow them down for long enough to hit them somewhere where it’ll hurt.

I hear them yelling and kicking around in the street, and a couple of heavy crunching impacts as though someone’s slamming something against glass. I stay where I am, hearing the scrape of Adil’s security shutters closing, better late than never, and a pair of high heels click-click-clicking up the street towards me, their owner clearly in a rush. Someone howls, and then there are running feet behind them, and the woman in the heels actually screams, an odd strangled sobbing noise, like she’s forgotten how, one I recognise with a horrible lurch in the pit of my stomach.

Once, just once, I went to pick up off a guy living in the old north of the city, the bits that DeepGrey hasn’t properly colonised yet. They’re fucking scary up there, lots of angry biker types, going semi-feral now that Sky News just runs investment analysis all day and there’s no more football. Personally, of course, I thought they were all putting it on – who the fuck gathers around trashcan fires any more, or mounts skulls on their beat-up pickup trucks? I thought they were acting out, which I can entirely get behind, deliberately turning up the Mad Max apocalypse rather than succumbing to the Google My Business apocalypse.

I wasn’t wrong, strictly speaking, but I also wasn’t ready for the reality of it. The pickup went fine, the stuff was good (and after walking past the dealer’s security detail, a wall of leather-clad muscle and crowbars that looked me up and down like it was wondering what I’d taste like fried, I wasn’t going to object if they sold me catnip and lint), but as I was walking out I heard engines and whooping, and outside in the square there were torches and people running.

Cornered by the shuttered remains of a pound shop, a pair of DeepGrey drones stood awkwardly amidst a hail of shouting and abuse. They were stiff-shouldered, their eyes rolling into the backs of their heads, a sure sign of an internal overload going on.

The crowd surrounding them were whooping and throwing trash, but they were holding back, for the moment, forming a loose circle. Someone threw a bottle and caught the male drone in the chest, making him twitch and start, and a burst of mad laughter sounded through the square.

A woman rushed past, turning her head to look at me as she went, and I remember recoiling as I saw the jagged-edged scars that walked across her cheeks, one eye milky and slashed-open. She looked like someone had taken a chainsaw to her. Others followed, their faces torn up, one or two missing limbs, an eerie synchronicity to their movements.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t even move. I froze, in that moment, until the scarred ones pushed through the crowd, and went to work on the two drones with kitchen knives and power tools. I remembered the sounds the drones made, once the pain started, and brains forcibly rewired to face nothing more dangerous than hot coffee and the occasional PowerPoint presentation suddenly tried to deal with someone screaming mangled anti-memes into their ears.

After a while, the strange, strangled sobbing became real screaming, and then the cutters started to back off. I finally found the courage to run when someone handed the female drone a knife, and she hesitantly started cutting chunks out of the male’s arm, egged on by a whooping, half-naked man covered in long, symmetrical scars. Then I ran, back to my safe little flat at the other end of town, and never fucking looked back. Deprogrammer gangs. Avoid them.

Featured image via Pexels


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