Sci-Fi Shorts / Sunday, March 1st, 2015
The rain that evening formed a translucent blur as it slid in sheets down the domed glass roof over the main street. The sky was hidden behind it somewhere, but it just looked like one ominous colour from where I was standing. Droves of people swirled around me. When I was young, the streets hadn’t been covered, the cities climate was at the mercy of the elements. To make it worse, the transport system had been wholly inadequate and slowly, as the population grew, it felt more and more like a battery-hen house as you tried to move around. What got me was that almost two short decades later, we had climate controlled streets, publicly assigned housing and the greatest transport system humanity had ever conceived, and yet I still felt like a battery-hen in a cage.

It was seven kilometres across town. Seven kilometres of ped-dodging and bot-hustling. On top of which my destination was only 2 kilometres away, but the one way system under the roof meant I had to go all the way around to get to it. I had eight minutes.

I pulled myself on to my bike and hauled my bag round to get my coat out. Pulling the breathable material tight around me, I felt like I was locking the rest of the world out. Twenty years since he gave it to me, and riding my Dad’s old bike was still the quickest way around town. Some of my friends laughed at me for riding an antique, no navigation, no power assist, no parts anymore. Others laughed at me for keeping hold of all my outdoor gear when living space was so much at a premium, there hadn’t been so much demand since the roofs went up. Pulling that coat on made me feel powerful, it took me out of the world around me which was so full of idiots. It made me feel safe.

I rode down the street, dodging the peds, watching for the drones. It was one minute to the old tube entrance. The old tube had been abandoned twenty years now, but I still remembered riding it. Slow, noisy and grossly inadequate for the population of the city, even if it had ever worked at full capacity. It still roused a little nostalgia though, a little romance. The old metal gate was secured with a D-lock. It was one I had a key to, we all had keys to them. Since they were derelict some of my friends and I had been using them to make getting around a bit easier for us. I fumbled in my hurry with the key, and dropped it as a law-drone saw me from it’s vantage point above the crowds. I heard the insect-like whine of the motors bringing it instantly into a descent toward me.

“You are entering a restricted area. Desist, the police have been called.” I was the other side of the gate from the computer-generated voice and had the D-lock re-attached again before it could get a good image of my face.

Another minute saw me the 100 meters across the great old gallery that had been the entrance to one of the largest old tube stations. Although it had decayed away, the industrial beams, computerised passenger gates and the printed signage and information displays had such an early-21st century utilitarian grandeur that it was humbling. There was no time to admire it though, I was off the bike, had it over my shoulder, and was back up the stairs at the other end of the structure. Heaving the door open, I could feel the cold, and the weight of the rain.

Protected by my jacket, I ploughed into it. Five minutes to go and only a three minute journey, I had this. The old roads out here were potholed and broken. The solar panels were like a forest of new metal and glass trees growing out of the rubble ashes after a forest fire. The maintenance robots for the energy array moved fast on metal gangways which they used to hold themselves slightly above the ruined ground. To avoid them was easy, they wouldn’t stop if I got caught in front of one moving fast, but the gangways were like tracks and you could predict their direction. But their personal metal highways were smooth, and I was in a hurry. Riding down the frictionless surface, I made good progress through the rain. I saw the robot moving toward me from my left. It was still at a distance, but there was only a few seconds before we would collide at the junction 15 meters in front of me. Checking habitually over my shoulder before I moved, a gust of wind caught me side on and I lost the back wheel on the slippery surface. The bike twisted, and throwing my weight to follow it, I recovered , but with no time left to find traction and get off the gangway. I threw myself sideways hard as the metal hulk of the maintenance bot began bearing down on my at 80 kmh. I got myself completely free by piling my shoulder into the dirt on the right, and pulling the bike flat onto the metal road, I managed only to clip the underside of the machine. The bot shuddered, almost lost the gangway, but the computers re-calculated, and it recovered, stopped and an orange light starting spinning on top as it now sat, idle.

It fucked me off. Some group of highly-qualified engineers had spent billions of credits and work-hours designing a fleet of future-tech, huge, autonomous maintenance robots to keep the power system for the city running. They had omitted a system whereby the robots might look in front of them for obstacles, and instead designed a secondary fleet of smaller maintenance bots to clear the gangways and quickly rescue and repair any machines that ran into something by accident. Thinking this a job well done, they left the robot population to exist in a world devoid of human intervention. And fair enough you know, it was a feat of technological achievement, no one could deny it. But why, why, why. Of all the most ridiculous things they could have done, did they stick an orange fucking light on the top.

It was actually kind of beautiful. Humankind designing the future based on the past, even if they couldn’t quite remember why. Recognising that lightened my mood and I pulled myself off the floor.

The rear wheel had taken the knock. It was out of true, but it still spun. The tire had punctured though. I cursed myself for not getting those expensive honeycombs all my friends had, and I cursed the stupid robots, and their engineers. And most of all as the rain streamed down my face, I cursed my father. As he repeatedly taught me to change a tube when I was young, he would make me repeat the process over and over saying…

“You need to be able to do it with your eyes closed. 60 seconds flat. When you get a puncture, you’ll probably be hung over, ill and cold. It’ll definitely be raining, maybe your wife will have just left you. I don’t know. You won’t be able to feel your fingers, and you’ll be late. I guarantee you’ll be late.”

I hated when he was right.

I got the tools out and started the stopwatch on my Casio. 64 seconds it took me. “Thanks Dad.” I said out loud.

I was more than half way toward my destination, but I had to take it easy as the rear wheel brushed the frame on both sides now. I stuck to the old roads instead of the gangways, and nailed the route, right, left, left, right, to go round the crater outside the old library, and the tube entrance was on my right. The heavy door was stuck, but someone else had found a bar to get it open with and left in there conveniently for me. Stepping into the dry abandoned station, I could already feel the warm summer’s day that was being simulated inside everyone else’s world as I stood there, a little drained and dripping. I checked my Casio.

I was late.

I had to wait a little longer to get out of the station because of a drone up above the street. Once it had moved on, I hauled myself out, back into the crowds, wheeling my bike as the rear wheel squeaked and rubbed. I reached the bench and dropped the bike to the floor, hauling off my wet coat and stuffing it back into my bag. I sat down.

I saw her walking across the square, she was late too. Another thing I couldn’t get my head round was how, with the greatest transport system in the world, accurate navigation systems on our wrists and perfect weather systems, no one could ever manage to be on time for anything.

“Hey Gorgeous.”

“Hey. How was the ride?”

“Yeah. Good.”

“Do you fancy going to that little pizza place over there? You know, the one with the fire. I love that place.”

“Yeah. Pizza sounds good.”