27 hours previously Thomas had enjoyed a 25 year old Highland single Malt in an air conditioned executive lounge, now he was in a room constructed of rusted corrugated plates and adobe bricks sewn together by old razor wire, sipping some beer as flat and stale as the sweat that ran down the arms of the Chokwe bartender who looked younger than the whisky he was recalling.
12 hours ago he had been suffering from nausea as he was been driven around the ruined roads of Lunda Norte in the glaring morning sun, now he was struggling to stay conscious, half enjoying the Cornish Mercenary’s tales which were, like the walls, blood splattered.
The Cornish Mercenary had introduced himself as Ivor and was one of seven dangerous individuals that was currently in Keme’s Bar but being in his sixties, bald, obese and wearing a sports jacket and purple corduroys, he was the only one that did not look like a serious threat. The others, unlike Ivor, had been desperate to aspire to the Hollywood stereotype and carefully clothed themselves in the greasy Bandanna, the filthy khakis, had the right sleeve tattoos and ammo belts and practically pranced around the makeshift bar with their faux thousand yard stares and cigarettes hung from lips at just the right angle as if they imagined themselves Willard going up river to find Kurtz. Still, even though they were ridiculous, their array of armaments made Thomas nervous and he found himself glancing over at them in the anticipation of violence. Ivor noticed this and turned to look. “Wankers” he chuckled and turned back to Thomas. “They’re the kind of fuckers who did a tour in Damascus and are convinced they’re Rambo.These kids end up dead or if they are real lucky ransoming everything to get a flight back out of this shithole, don’t let them fool you boy, you’ve got more balls than them. You’ve made it up here alone, with nothing but your mobile phone and credit card. Good for you.” He raised the dirty pint glass in toast at Thomas’ achievement.
“I’m not that kind of fortune hunter.” Thomas replied.
“Yeah? Your mate Reed was tight lipped about what he was doing here, if you’re not here for diamonds, why are you here?”
Thomas grabbed a cigarette from the half crushed box Ivor had placed on the table, popped it in his mouth and lit it as he said “your guess is as good as mine mate. Where is Reed anyway?”
Ivor shrugged and joined him in a smoke. “He said something about trying to buy some territory bout 20k from here, took Ted with him this morning and told me to come here and meet you”
“Shit, you don’t think he’s found a new site do you?” Asked Thomas.
“Up there? I doubt it. This province has been one of the world’s landfills for decades. Nothing there but rubbish, and war, no diamonds these days.” Ivor replied as he exhaled.
A voice agreed. “That’s right, it’s an absolute fucking shithole and thanks to greasing a few palms we are now own sole proprietary rights for a rather specific 1200 acres.” It was Reed. The light was dim and weak and sickly yellow as the room’s bulbs struggled to stay charged by a terminally ill generator but Reed, being Reed, was still wearing his sunglasses. Beside him was what looked like a shaved bear in a linen suit, this, Thomas assumed, would be Ted.
Thomas was relieved to see Reed alive. “Reed, Why the fuck did you bring us out here?”
“On the way, it’s not far, let’s get out of this dump. Ted said he saw an armed group, probably those FLECPM dudes heading into town, so let’s split before we end up as passport photo obituaries on BBC World News.” Reed replied as if being in a disputed zone in a Third World Country was as common to him as choosing a restaurant for lunch.
Ted who was looming over them all like a thunder cloud spoke quietly. “Yeah we got about 30 minutes before things around here get permanent. C’mon.”
They left Keme’s Bar just after sunset managing to avoid any unpleasantness that might befall the gun toting, union crushing posers. Ted was driving and he and Ivor sat in the front of the Jeep listening what Thomas recognised as Deep Purple. It was one of his dad’s favourite albums.
In the back seat Reed laid out the map which had been marked with their newly purchased land. He began to explain his plan with a question. “All right Tom, tell me, what is ounce by ounce, more expensive than diamond these days?”
“Umm cocaine?” Thomas thought out loud.
“Hah, be serious.” Reed answered.
“I don’t know, I’m a fucking engineer, Plutonium?”
“Yes technically, but think more practical.”
“Reed, I’ve been awake for a day, I’ve had practically nothing to eat or drink, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking that someone is going to shoot me. I’m fucked right? Just get to the point.”
“Rhodium.” grinned Reed as if revealing the secret of the universe itself.
“Rhodium?” repeated Thomas, none the wiser.
“Yup. It turns out that Rhodium is in short supply and so it’s a sellers market these days.” Reed explained.
“Who needs Rhodium?” Thomas queried.
“Mainly? That would be Cybior.” revealed Reed.
“Shit.” Thomas stated succinctly.
“Indeed. Turns out that they need it for the neural networks of every android they make.” Reed continued.
“And so you bought the rights to a Rhodium mine?” asked Thomas.
“No Tom. I bought the rights to a dumping ground I told you that.” Reed sighed
“So what we’re now in the scavenger business? We could have saved a lot of money and raided the landfills back in Britain.” suggested Thomas.
“We could have, but we wouldn’t have made nearly as much money.” Reed smiled. “Ted turn that racket down a minute will you?”
Ted turned down the music. Reed’s eyes rolled about his sockets as if he was scanning for something, Thomas realised he was listening for something. After a few seconds he nodded to himself looked back at Thomas and said “Can you hear it?”
Thomas did not know what he was listening out for but he could hear something. It was distant and phased in and out as it was carried towards them by the night breeze. It was like the ghost of an air raid siren but sounded alive. Thomas had never heard anything like it before.
“What is that?”
“The sound of profit.”
The smell was next, burnt tire with a hint of bacon. It soon became thick and pungent, stinging his eyes and burning his throat as Ted kept driving towards the location. The sound became louder and clearer, as if someone had left a child wailing in front of a microphone attached to the largest sound-system ever created. It was more unsettling than the thick stinking air they were now breathing. Both the mercenaries in the front put gel-plugs in their ears then covered their heads with expensive military gas masks. Reed handed Thomas the same. As he copied the others he could hear, amongst the blood hissing and heart-beats, Reed’s voice. “Can you hear me? Say something?”
“Perfect. Now listen Thomas. We’re about to come into view, what you’re about to see might be a freak out yeah? But remember it’s not real it’s just junk.”
“What are you…”
Thomas paused. At first his eyes couldn’t take it all in. It was a scene from a psychotic demon’s worst nightmare. The perimeter was brightly lit by floodlights but inside it people were climbing a shadow of steaming, smoking burning mountain. They held flame throwers and occasionally ignited them, which caused thick black grey smoke to rise from tiny individual fires which flared and faded. He noticed the mountain appeared to be moving and that the climbers were tearing charred melting rocks from it’s face and throwing them down hundreds of feed into massive industrial skips as if to combat this. A helicopter flew overhead, it’s search beam hitting the rough silhouette giving colour to the surface which seemed to be resemble a foam of white skin, though glints of light reflected shards of metal. Thomas staggered backwards as he realised what he was seeing. Another helicopter flew high above him and dropped a load. He craned his head upwards and it seemed like several seconds before Thomas realized that the baby in the sky was headed straight for him. He side stepped it but there was a rain of them, all still moving and mewling and naked. They bounced onto the muddy tire-marked ground where they became embedded but still struggled to move. Some hit rocks and gleaming metal “bones” burst through their semi-organic skin while they writhed in a well observed simulation of agony. Thomas ran back to avoid the dozens of falling infant androids knowing each one had the potential to crush his real living skull.
He was grabbed by Ivor who pulled him into a cabin. He could hear Reed shouting at someone, probably the incompetent helicopter who’d dropped the babies to early.
“Well Thomas what do you think of it?” came Reed’s voice in his ear speakers.
“It’s horrible! It’s a mountain of babies being burned.”
“Oh calm down it’s not really babies, It’s those Bay-B-real android dolls you know the ones that were all the rage at Christmas three years ago, just before before Cybior went Nova with the tech. They only have naïve A.I. ”
“Shit Reed, there are protests worldwide about this sort of thing. What about the Android rights movement?”
“Fuck them, these are toys, if the little girls who bought them don’t give a shit why would anyone else. Besides, each one of those babies contains about a forty thousand Euros worth of Rhodium and this dump-site is allotted to take 25 million, it’ll be filled by the end of the month.”
Thomas looked out at the mountain of howling screaming babies which were having their fake skins burned off by flame-throwers and then dumped, still active into skips which once filled would be taken to have the contents melted down and sold to the highest bidder. This was new kind of atrocity they were committing. That was the bottom line. Thomas shook his head recalled there was another, calculated the return and remembering the old adage that fortune favoured the bold said to Reed.
“Any other of these sites we could buy?”
# # #
Submitted for the February writing challenge, “Baby.” This story was written in response to the prompt, “It was several seconds before Thomas realized that the baby in the sky was headed straight for him.”
You can read more of John Webster’s (aka Audley Strange’s) work at www.audleystrange.com.