Zhen and the Art of Feral Decommissioning

Inspired by: Art by Xiaohui Hu 

Zhen peered down the street. The building she was peeking out from behind had been an office building once upon a time, but she thought the top four floors were occupied with families now. They must be in morphs adapted for the constant wind and cold up there. Or in synths. They could be synthetics.  Zhen shuddered a little. 

She wasn’t a bio-chauvinist. Really she wasn’t. But every time she even thought about trading in the shitty Ruster morph her mammas had gotten her before they disappeared for a synth without all the stomach cramps and allergies, well... she just got shaky and her brain... itched. She just couldn’t. It’s not like she’d keep growing in a synth. Mamma June had always said biogrowth only until 25. Which was... eleven more years. Zhen didn’t think she’d feel better about a synth by then.

A skittering movement from down the street brought her back to the here and now. She had to pay attention or she wouldn’t be able to buy breakfast or lunch today. No dinner either unless she talked Nico over in Janks-Yao (instead of Nico in Central) into letting her work on the machines in his place today. For a triad connect simulspace brothel owner, he was weirdly squeamish about letting her work around the shop. Maybe Awotwi over in the souk had some synth parts Zhen could clean up for a meal. Awotwi was nicer than Nico. But she had less for Zhen to do than he did. Bought more parts Zhen scrounged though. 

The skittering was halfway down the street now, somewhere in the shadows of the building the Olympus Infrastructure Authority had blown up last week. They’d said there’d been terrorists trying to sabotage the space elevator. They always said that. Rumor on the street was another corp grey robotics project gone weird. As usual, rumor was more accurate than official brownstock — a robot with seven struts (and one broken off at the tip) was running to the other side of the street. It had a central ball in the middle of the struts, antennae at the joints of the struts, and sharp, pointy bits on its two front legs, like fangs.

Zhen ran over. The robot reared back on four legs and waved its fanged legs at her. A hissing screech came from the ball. Zhen swung her pipe down on the ball as hard as she could. 

The screeching got louder and the fang legs stabbed towards her.

Zhen battered at the robot until it stopped moving.

“Good job kid.”

Zhen looked up in fear. She hadn’t heard any of the folks pointing guns at her (no, not her, the robot) approaching. There were three of them, a decent looking synth and two Rusters (no hand tremors!). No, wait, one of the Rusters was an Alpiner with the same red skin tone as Rusters. All of them had on regular clothing, not the green and yellow OIA uniforms, so at least they weren’t cops. Even if the Alpiner was trying to pass for less class than they were.

“We need you to back away form the ‘bot now,” the Alpiner said, motioning to the side with their pistol. It was a heavy, chunky looking thing.

“No,” whispered Zhen, dropping the pipe and scooping the robot to her chest. “Please, it’s mine. I killed it, its mine.”

“Kid, it’s dangerous—”

“I’m not going to keep it! I’m not stupid. But those O’Conner X34 antennae go for 15 credits each and the Rise ball is worth 50 credits at least and the carbon is—”

“Kid knows their machines,” the synth murmured to the Alpiner. 

The Alpiner looked her over, a quick up and down; Zhen’s chest tightened. The Ruster and and the synth stilled while the Alpiner’s eyes focused past Zhen, over her shoulder. They had to be talking to each other through the mesh; Zhen started backing up. There was an alley 10 meters south she might be able to duck into if she ran fast enough. Zhen froze as the Alpiner looked at her again.

“Tell you what kid, we’ll buy the robot off you. 250 credits for the whole thing right now and we’ll spot you lunch at the noodle place two blocks over.”

“Three Monkeys’? The uplift bar?”

“Yeah, that one. We hunt ferals, right? Three of us, we’re good with the hunting, not so much with the disassembling and the markets around here. We’ll buy your robot, spot you lunch, and leave you our address — you talk it over with your parents–"

Zhen couldn't keep her hand from spasming against the feral. She wanted Mamma June and Poppy back so bad.

The Alpiner definitely noticed her traitorous hand "–check the rumor mills about us, yeah? When you’re sure we ain’t dangerous to kids, you drop by, take apart ferals we catch, talk us through selling the parts on the black market, and you get a fourth, plus all the snacks you can coax our POS faber into printing for you. Okay?”

Zhen’s stomach growled; the Ruster smirked a little and held out a cred stick. Zhen snatched the stick and slowly handed the robot, dangling from her hand by a leg. 

“Three Monkeys’ now?” Zhen mumbled.

“Yeah, sure, kid.”