Lyken hunts ‘borgs’; people mutated by an old nanite-virus. It usually pays well, but when Lyken is caught taking a quick cash loan for an unsecured bounty, the government demand he bring in a ‘behemoth borg’ to recover the debt. He manages, though he recovers a new virus, too.
The moment Lyken returns home, everything turns to shit and other people start dropping like flies. But no worries! The vaccine-providing government are eager to help with their all-new, all-too-expensive meds. Suddenly, Lyken can’t even wave hello without seeing middle fingers wave back.
As a well-known shirker of responsibility, Lyken attempts to pass the buck back and prove the government planned it all, and his efforts lead him to a decrepit hunting ground where soldiers-turned-bandits reward him with some bizarre truths…
All those anti-virus meds are pretty much snake oil.
Turns out the previous nanite-virus has already transformed people into something more synthetic, and there’s no cure for that. Other world leaders have devised potentially dangerous methods to deal with the problem, but Lyken’s government want to deplete the current population while expanding their secret human colonies.
Now all Lyken has to do is make a decision; rat out his governments and aid in the extinction of the last humans, or keep quiet while everyone else suffers and injects themselves with lies.
CAPTCHA is a soft adult sci-fi complete at 92k and I hope it will appeal to readers who usually run past the sci-fi section.
Nanites had clumped together all over the cyborg’s body, producing metal tumours the size of crystal balls. Someone had shot it clean in the head. The growths would’ve made it slow and docile, even at night, and where the synthetic flesh had tried to heal over the tumours, its legs were crippled.
Grade five crap. Not worth a damned thing.
Sia waved a fly from her face, examining the borg through the slits of her eyes.
I touched it with my foot and she smacked my leg. “How long do you think it’s been here?” I asked.
“A day, maybe?” She stared through the hole in the wall and out over Ashmouth City, then back at the borg. “What a waste of ammo,” she said. “I wouldn’t have left it.”
“I would’ve,” I said. “Look at it.”
“But it’s probably worth the bullet used to kill it.”
I used a finger to swipe the sweat from my brow. “Should we take it?”
“No, it’s not our bullet,” she said.
I stopped studying the bloody mess sprawled across the rubble and plucked at my vest. For the past three days the sun had been fierce and I had the tan to prove it. The smell, too.
Sia stood there combing her fingers through the tight coils of her black hair. She’d said she wanted to get rid of it. Short hair was simple; it attracted less dirt and flying ants. She’d proposed a buzz cut like mine. I told her she’d look weird. “Let’s take a break,” I said, nearing the large hole in the wall.
She joined me and we sat drinking water, admiring the century old abandoned buildings. I tried to imagine the place flooded with people then wondered what Sia was contemplating. She held her bottle between her thighs, eyes downcast and unfocused, frowning at nothing.
“What’re you doing for your birthday?” I asked.
“You know I don’t celebrate it…”
“I bought you something,” I lied, but I would.
“No you haven’t.”
“What is it?”
“And long?” She laughed. “I don’t want it.”
“Why not? You’ll like this stretch limo, champagne pops out the top.”
I was just testing the water. We were ‘off’ again. A week and a bit. I couldn’t remember what we’d argued about before she left Camp, or if we’d even argued, but since she’d returned we hadn’t seen much of each other. Not that we needed a reason to fall out, sometimes Sia just wanted to make her sister happy.
“So what would you like, then?” I asked.
She cocked a knee and her grin withered. “Credits,” she said.
“I know, but I really mean it this time. Karis has only six months’ worth of boosters and I’m so close to paying off that trailer loan.”
“Why so many boosters?” I asked. “What happened to the vaccine?”
“I had to cut into that budget. It’s the trailer, it’s a money sucker,” she sighed. “Lyken?”
“Yeah?” I looked at her. “What? You want creds?”
“No, it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. Help me hunt, the trailer is my problem.”
But she didn’t need a family trailer; it was only her and her sister. If it wasn’t for the trailer I reckoned she’d be half way to buying Karis a level one vaccine - something to tide them over for the next few years. Though Sia never seemed to think so.
She stood. “Should we go?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t bother press her, she would talk when she was ready. “Where do you want to head next?” I asked.
“Let’s try Bartholomew’s Hospital.”
We drove deeper into the city, well, Sia did; causing a pile up at seventeen had made me apprehensive behind a wheel, even on a road with no cars. But I still kept a small mental map of the place. My old hunting partner had taught me the roads. Within a large enough radius, he knew which ones led to dead ends and which ones could wreck a car with surfaced tree roots, and like Sia, he had a knack for finding borgs. With his intuition and my aim, we made a formidable team. But old age had him call it a day. It took a year of bad hunting before I finally found Sia - a partner who shared fair and really watched my back.
“Pull in here…” I said.
She turned into the ground floor of the hospital and the tires crunched over old glass and debris, pushing rusted waiting room chairs out of the way. She cut the engine and we hopped out. I went to retrieve my rifle and ear muffs from the back of the pickup. Sia stood by the wide staircase checking her pistol and the digits on her tag gun. We wouldn’t have to worry about the pickup itself, it was hidden enough, and if other hunters were going to steal something, it wouldn’t be our ride.
Sia moved forward.
“Floor by the floor,” she said quietly. “Or we can start with the children’s ward.”
“I don’t think we’ll be that lucky again,” I said.
“I’ll track; you worry about your job.”
“I don’t have to worry, my shots are always clean.”
“That depends on your weapon and where I tell you to unload.”
“You’re filthy,” I said.
“You like it filthy.” She stopped at the double doors in front, poking her head through.
“Alright.” I pulled her back by the shoulder and went first, treading softly. “Focus,” I whispered.
Borgs were saps when it came to the sun. Or to be accurate, the nanites in them were. The trick was to catch borgs charging in UV rays, so places flooded with sunlight were true hotspots. Charging left them phased out, but on occasions, noise would send them ducking for shade in shadowy hallways or basements. And if a borg had charged enough, its energy became very apparent in the dark, so cat steps were essential when hunting.
Thankfully, age old curtains had been pulled down to let in light, probably by another hunter hoping to attract borgs. Along the corridor walls, trolley beds sat at awkward angles covered with stained sheets, and under those, the outline of old skeletons. There was no smell. Except dust. If time had a smell, it was dust, and if death had a friend, it was silence.
Places like hospitals, schools, and hotels were all testaments to a city’s final struggle. Many succumbed to the PV virus, but judging by the positions of some corpses, hunger killed the rest.
We made our way around the whole wing, but there was little evidence of borgs. Sia couldn’t spot any grouped footprints or dry lumps of synthetic skin. She’d found a radio which had been stripped down to the last screw, but the whole thing was dusty, proof it had been taken apart a while ago. We searched more wards jammed with bedside furniture and rooms littered with broken machinery. Any actual medical equipment was gone, looted decades ago.
In a room stacked with chairs, we thought we found a borg in front of a window, but the outline of its silhouette was too perfect, even for a human. It turned out to be a life sized classroom dummy.
Sia growled. Maybe she was having an off-day.
I stood near a wall, absent-mindedly pressing a switch. On a losing streak, borg hunting was shit. Two days of continuous stalking killed our moral. The sweltering sun corroded our optimism. A wash and a good meal forever played on our minds.
Sometimes it was easy to believe the business was finished, that the last hunter had caught the final borg and we were simply going after shadows. At the same time there was the dread of being so close, of nearly finding a borg just around the corner. But that one creaky door, or snapped floorboard, or stifled sneeze and there went our potential bounty.
Sia had her head down, hands on her hips.
“Next floor?” I said. “What about up top? We found three on the roof last time.”
“Luck,” she said.
“What happened to your perfect tracking?”
“Why don’t you track?”
“There’s no skill to it, it’s just guessing the right place a few times then finding patterns. I bet if we checked the roofs of the next five buildings we’d find some.”
“Go on then.” She shoved the tagger against my chest.
“No,” I said. “I shoot. You tag. Remember?”
“But it’s so easy, why can’t you do both?”
“Look.” I placed the tagger on the desk behind me. “Let’s just go back to Camp, rest at mine and then come back to - ”
“We’re moving too slow. At this rate I’ll be spending my birthday here. We should be in the subway.”
She started pacing.
“Something I should know?” I asked. She could talk when she was ready but right now it was compulsory. The subway was suicide. “If it’s really creds, I can lend you some. Just tell me how much.”
“You won’t have enough.”
She stopped in front of me. “I was late on the loan repayment and - “
I rolled my eyes.
“ - and I had to pay double this month, so I’m short for everything.”
“Just downsize,” I said.
“Because we don’t have to,” she said.
“You do. And why not?” I shrugged. “You don’t need a place that big.”
“I said no! I need creds, my own creds.” She walked off and her footsteps created puffs of dust as she left the room.
“Sia.” I picked up the tagger and left for the corridor. “Sia!” If there were any borgs in the building, there weren’t now. “Wait.”
She stopped by a broken window then grabbed my arm. “Look…” she whispered.
I stared across at an office building about sixty, maybe seventy yards away. Walking gingerly along the second floor were two hunters, both men, and above them in a third floor window were two borgs facing each other.
Sia was already scoping them out with her binoculars.
“Borgs?” I asked, leaning in to take them from her.
“Definitely. Shoot them!” she said, pulling away.
“No.” I snatched hold of her handgun. “Stay here.”
“Do it! Those guys might miss! They might scare them away. They’re taking their time creeping about, they don’t know their way around. I can get in through the side entrance and start running up the fire exit. I’ll tag them before they can.”
“No! I don’t want you in there by yourself.”
“Shoot them!” she said, backing up into a sideways jog. “Just do it, Lyken!” She disappeared through the double doors.
I placed her handgun in my belt then turned back to the broken window. I didn’t like Sia going it alone. I didn’t like going it alone either. Taking out a target called for concentration - even more so with iron sights. But I wouldn’t be on top form, not now. Firstly, I had no one watching my back; while I was aiming at a borg, a borg could’ve been aiming at me, so no muffs this time. It also pissed me off that Sia never let me take a proper look through her binoculars. It was her job to track but it was mine to be sure about the target.
With all those things weighing on my mind, I didn’t expect to hit a thing.
I waited for Sia to enter the office building. She looked back at me then went through the small black door.
The men had disappeared somewhere, probably making their way up the main stairs, and the two borgs remained adjacent from each other, standing diagonally from my point of view. I shifted to my left, moved the safety on my rifle and aimed. But I struggled to keep everything level. I lowered the muzzle, blinked hard, wiped my sweaty hands on my combats and tried again. This time I inhaled, relaxed, pretended I was at the range taking practice shots then exhaled slowly…
The bullet exploded from the rifle, crashing through the glass of the building opposite and hitting the first borg. It stumbled some, veering to the left and out of sight. The second borg went down like it was never made to stand.
I glanced over my shoulder. To my left. Right. No borgs. I was safe though with my ears were ringing. I lowered the rifle, put the safety back on and then ejected the brass. I didn’t reload. There were three people too many running around in that building. Another shot at anything would be too risky. Sia needed to just tag the borgs then get the hell out of there. If the men tagged first, the bounty would be theirs, if they got there second, it wouldn’t matter - our time of tag would take precedence. If they caught her tagging they could destroy the borgs out of spite and throw them from the third floor. Tag and run was our best bet, the tags themselves weren’t visible. The hunters would think they were stealing someone else’s kill, but once back at Camp, they wouldn’t be able to collect the credits; the tags wouldn’t sync to their tag gun.
Right now though, I was more concerned with Sia than claiming kills. I saw her crouching on the third floor to tag the second borg, though from the way she was looking around, the first borg was nowhere near her.
My phone vibrated. I dug inside my pocket and answered with a sweat-slicked hand. “Get down and get out!”
“Where’s the other one?” she asked.
“I don’t know, the bullet must’ve passed through it. Leave it, just get down.”
“No, if it’s still around I can tag it.”
“I don’t care, get down! Those guys will be up there in seconds!”
She hung up and disappeared from my view once again.
The window panes were covered in dust though I hoped the reason I couldn’t see her running through the corridors was because she was running down the fire exit.
But there was still no sign of her after ten seconds. Or fifteen. Or twenty.
I called her back. No answer.
Half a minute... Two…
The fire door swung open and out came Sia, thrown to the ground like a trouble maker turfed from a club. She hit the dirt hands first, the two hunters just behind her.
Sia ran, putting her about thirty yards from the hospital, but the larger of the two hunters caught up and dragged her down, rolling her onto her back and sitting on her legs. She punched the side of his head. He grabbed her vest collar.
“Hey!!” My voice bounced around, creating a confusing echo. “Get off or get shot!”
The hunter and his scrawny partner looked up, unable to spot me in the sea of windows. “She shot our bounty!” yelled the toothpick.
“She didn’t!” I yelled back. “I shot your borgs and I’ll shoot your balls if you don’t get the fuck off her!”
The big one took a handful of Sia's hair. “I’ll ground-smack her skull - ”
But I was already pointing my rifle at Bartholomew’s statue. The stone neurologist wasn’t facing me for an effective ball-shot, so I blew his head clean off.
The scrawny hunter backed off towards the office building and the brawny one released Sia, allowing her to crawl out from under him then jog over to the statue.
“I’m registered!” The hunter raised his hands in surrender. “I’ve got my hunter’s licence right here; you kill me and FarLife will have you.”
“Listen, pig-shit, a bullet in the knee won’t kill you, neither will popping all your tires, so unless you want both…”
They hesitated. Then, whistling to his lanky partner, the brawny hunter led the way to their gas guzzler. The two jumped in through the open roof, started up the engine and sped off.
I bolted down the corridor, my ears still singing with tinnitus and drumming with the dull beat of my heart.
Sia grinned as she stood waiting by the pickup.
“You okay?” I puffed.
“I’m fine. The other borg is on the stairs,” she said between heavy breaths.
“Did he hurt you?” I checked her neck. There were welts by her collar bone.
“It’s just scratches.” She took back her handgun. “Grab some rope, we - ”
“No. You’re staying in the car. You’re an idiot.”
“What? I just got us two borgs.”
“What you just did was stupid! You ran over there thinking they were hunters,” I said. “They could’ve been anything; bandits, crazy people - anything! And what if something happened to me? Who would be watching your back then?”
“We needed those borgs!”
“Yeah and I need you!”
She looked away.
Sweat trickled down my temple. “I need you to hunt,” I corrected. “But if we can’t even do that together then maybe we should both find someone else.”
“Oh my God, Lyken, cut the dramatics,” she said. “You know what I’m like. I’m sorry. I saw gold and I went for it, I wasn’t thinking.”
“And I wasn’t asking for a daily report. The next time you go it alone, give me a heads up. A proper one.”
“Are you sure? A daily report sounds fun. I could call you before a hunt and tell you what panties I’m putting on.”
I scratched my nose.
“No,” I said. “I’m serious.”
“So am I. I’ll put on your favourites, the black ones with the pink bow. Imagine it: me half naked in Ashmouth.”
“With bugs in your pubes?”
So did I.
“That’s it! Smile, we’re in the money!” She performed a two-step a jig. “Wait until you see these borgs, especially the female. And you won’t believe what they were doing up there.”