Authors: Mathew Ferguson
Feed the Machine Copyright 2015 Mathew Ferguson. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
“Look at that motherfucker,” Raj whispered into the freezing predawn air, a plume of steam erupting from his mouth.
A few heads turned, people frowning. Ash nodded, not willing to speak, seeing people looking at
as though it was his fault his friend talked too much. He could feel Kin’s warm breath against his ear, his cat’s comforting weight on the top of his pack, his fur brushing his neck, watching. Even Chirp, Raj’s idiot sparrow who only knew two phrases (Fuck yes! Fuck no!) had enough sense to stay silent.
The hazel stalking around outside the three fences protecting Cago was like Kin in shape and color but ten times the size, muscles bulging through black fur. This one was young—only half the size of a full-grown, pushing maybe fifty kilograms.
Everyone stood watching it as it moved around, waiting for it to leave. There had been fighting in the night and an adult hazel had been killed. Its mauled body lay a few meters past the gates, a hundred-kilo bloody mound of flesh and circuitry, wires glistening in the fence lights. As soon as the gates opened, bugs would stream out and reduce it to nothing—not even a bloody smear—collecting the precious organic material.
The hazel stalked over to the bloody mess and sniffed at it, opening its mouth and showing white teeth tipped with glints of silver. Because it was young, its teeth were not fully metal, its saliva still only very weakly acidic.
“Stupid hazel,” Kin whispered in Ash’s ear, low enough so no one else heard and showered him in glares. They hated the sun but sometimes would hide out in any shadow they could find if they were interested in prey. The guards couldn’t open the gates until the hazels were gone and hours of searching lost while you waited for a hazel to walk off couldn’t be recovered.
Ash reached up and scratched his cat’s ears, Kin pushing his head against his fingers. It was a comforting feeling—his warm fur, the brush of his whiskers, the touch of his breath on his hand—but not enough to shake off the chill that seemed to have settled deep in his bones.
The cold morning was to blame, his crappy hasdee-printed clothes doing little to keep him warm but it was mostly how far subzero his family was on the quota that was pulling him down. With only days until Feed when the quotas would reset and Fat Man would possibly buy all the debts, he and Raj had to have a fucking miracle out in the Scour to get warm. Raj needed less of a miracle though—his family was only minus seven hundred or so.
Ash shook himself out of these thoughts and glanced around at the mass of poor people, plumes of breath steaming from their mouths. He knew their quota debts almost by sight. Hefnan, scrawny and sunburned, his nose blistered red from sun outside and too much alcohol inside was down deep chill, heading to absolute zero. Somewhere down at minus eight hundred. He went cold eight years ago their mother said, spending most of the year paying off last year, never getting ahead because every time he found something worth anything, he went to the pub with it rather than the Machine to trade. Fat Man owned him forever. He was barefoot, his clothes ragged gray, the strips of fabric pulling apart, so far down he couldn’t even print off the cheapest thin-sole shoe. Even the silver collar around his neck seemed dull and worn out.
Ash let his gaze drift past Hefnan to the Los Tantos brothers. They were minus five and they’d clear their quota today. It was easy to get jealous about it. Their friends would be clapping them on the back in celebration, smiling through gritted teeth. It was hard for the cold to be happy for the warm, even if tradition dictated their first day over they’d hand out the day’s finds in little gifts. A screw here, a piece of wire there. Just a drop to pull the quota up. Their dogs sat curled up at their feet.
Ash looked back at the hazel. It was sniffing and prodding at the bloody mess with its paw. As he watched it pulled on a thread of wire with its claws, tugging at it, jumping away, looking so much like Kin playing Ash nearly laughed aloud. Unlike Kin who only gave you light scratches and maybe a bite if he became too excited, the hazel would rip your arm off, lodge its teeth in your throat. It was no pet to sit purring on your lap. It danced around, swatting at the dead hazel, playing with it before walking off to a darker spot of shadow under an overhang to sit and stare at the crowd with its yellow eyes. Some of the junk and rubble had moved in the night and a piece of metal was sticking out. It was pockmarked with holes and it was the collective wish of everyone watching the hazel that it wouldn’t be able to put up with the beams of light streaming through once the sun came up. As soon as it vanished and the gates opened a guard would have to cut the overhang away.
Something brushed against Ash’s foot. A red-striped bug, one of many, making its way to mass at the gate. They were getting ready to travel unaccompanied out into the Scour. As the bugs trickled around them, Ash saw many people look down and the same idea flicker across their minds: stomp them into a paste of metal and goo. It was forbidden to do so of course but out of sight of others, bugs went missing all the time. The rich didn’t care much. When you had five hundred bugs working for you, fifty lost a day was no problem. Especially not with a top-of-the-line hasdee to churn replacements.
At the sight of bugs, Ash touched the bag hanging from his belt. It had ten bugs in it—half their family’s entire stock. His sister Nola had the other ten and they were on strict pap duty, collecting any organic material they could find to make food. Counting them by touch and weight, Ash relaxed. He hadn’t lost a bug for months and he didn’t intend to start now.
Time ticked by, the dark sky lightening, changing to hues of pink and orange and the crowd and the hazel stared off at each other. Finally the hazel stood up and strolled out to the dead hazel, sniffing at it again before jerking its head up as though it had heard something. In an instant it was off, sprinting away from Cago and into the Scour, disappearing over a mound of rubble and junk.
Ash let out a quiet relieved sigh with the other residents.
“Wow, did you see that motherfucker run?” Raj said, earning himself more glares.
Before someone could tell him to shut his face, the sun climbed over the hill of junk and rubble, the sentry with the binoculars waved his hand and the three gates buzzed open.
The people of Cago trudged out to start another day in the Scour.
Ash knelt on the sunbaked earth and pulled at the threads holding his pack together, ignoring the sound of Chirp diving at Kin and repeating “Fuck yes!” over and again. Kin was sitting there stoic but lashing his black tail back and forth.
“If he dives me again, I’m going to eat him,” Kin said. It was directed more at Raj than Ash. Raj clicked his fingers at Chirp who peeled off from another dive and landed on his pack.
“Fuck no!” Chirp said and started preening his wings.
“You right?” Raj asked.
He’d lodged himself under a junk overhang in the only shade he could find. A smooth sheet of aluminum, flecked with white. Probably the side of a fridge long ago.
“Just a sec,” Ash muttered, trying to pull the threads in just the right way to keep the pack together. It had been his father’s pack long ago, kept preserved, hidden away by his mother even through the tough times when selling it would have fed them more than pap. She’d kept it until he started scavenging out in the Cago Scour. It was used, rough and worn but it was strong leather and heavy fabric, tough and waterproof.
Now it was falling to fucking pieces. Just like everything else they owned.
Kin stalked off and sat at Raj’s feet in the shade until Ash tied and twisted the threads into place. This trip was the pack’s last unless he found a way to repair it. It was scraped, cut, stained and splashed with acid from a close encounter with a hazel six months back.
If he had any sense he’d trade it to someone with the pack plan on their hasdee. Mill it down into components, print another one good as new. But he just couldn’t let go of his father’s pack. Besides, they didn’t have the money.
“There’s some more shade down there. We can eat,” Raj said. He sipped his canteen. Ash nodded, too thirsty to waste mouth moisture on speaking.
He stood and pulled the pack on, feeling it press against his damp clothing, cool with sweat. From a cold day start, the sun had risen and was blistering down like a motherfucker. There was only so much wrapping in hasdee strips could do to protect your skin from burning. Raj had it far worse though—he was a paleboy, prone to burning rather than tanning. He was wrapped like a mummy. On hot days like this Ash was grateful for his pitch-black father, even if he had diluted his sun-resistant skin with a milky white woman.
Ash followed Raj, Chirp taking off again and flying high to look for any danger. Kin stalked behind Raj, walking in his shadow in perfect time. They were on a strip of hard earth between two low walls of rubble, mostly metal and concrete. Good visibility, no shade. They trudged around a corner, still heading roughly northwest and towards the dark pool of shade that had collected under an overhang formed from an airplane wing. It was the thick bit sticking out of the junk, tapering off as it went into the pile, snapped off the body who-knows-how-many years ago.
As they approached the shadow, Kin stalked forward, looking for any hazels that might be hiding there.