Three Vouchers, Split Five Ways
by Jack Windeyer
Ramona looked down at the small plastic box in her hands. A red-lettered stamp proclaimed Diplomatic Urgency, and beneath that a digi-label continued its countdown: 3:42, 3:41, 3:40 . . . until the package would be considered late and payment would be canceled. That countdown would only freeze once the package crossed the threshold of the delivery address.
The reception-bot’s mouth never moved, frozen in a crooked smile. “I’m afraid that’s the policy, ma’am: no home deliveries without the resident’s approval.” In this room, gilded from floor to ceiling, the bot’s malfunctioning mouth stuck out like a planette in an asteroid belt. Management had enough money to gold-brick the floors, but not enough to fix a bot? “I’ll ring them again in nine minutes and fifteen seconds. Please have a seat in the waiting area.”
Ramona didn’t have nine minutes.
It couldn’t end like this. She couldn’t return to the ship and face the crew with the package still in hand. They were her crew now, she reminded herself. Captaining had seemed so much easier when she wasn’t the one doing it—the burden of real responsibility now lay heavy on her shoulders. She glanced down one of the two hallways flanking the reception desk that curved inward at a hard enough angle that they likely met to form a continuous circle. Should she make a run for it now? No. Better to make a plan first.
She walked back to the entrance and leaned against a wall, pretending at compliance but actually looking around for signs as to which security system lay within the walls. Difficult that, because they’d customized everything to an absurd degree. No corporate marks, no obvious security cabinet, no looming defense systems.
Ramona noticed the receptionist scratch its gleaming metallic head. Under its finger was a spot where the gold paint was worn enough to show the dark gray beneath. So it was a Lintel. Legend was that Dr. Lintel’s prototype mimicked his head scratch during a final training session. There hadn’t been time to correct the code before release, so the first models all scratched their heads. In the fifty years since, each new model was programmed to scratch as a kind of trademark.
This was good. Lintel security systems were freestanding, not integrated. Management had gilded the entire place but cheaped out where it mattered. Knowing the make, it was easy now to spot the security cabinet built into the wall to the right of reception. She’d have to go down the hallway to the left if she had any hope of outrunning the security-bot that lurked within the cabinet. Ramona weighed the risks against her chances of success.
What are the odds? That’s what Captain Riley would have asked. It was his answer to everything, as if every choice in the universe could be boiled down to the ratio between two numbers. The chance of this delivery being his last—where would he have put those odds? A thousand to one? Ten thousand?
They hadn’t even had time to give him the sendoff he deserved, merely stuffed his body into deep freeze after the marauder attack. He still lay frozen, waiting to be jettisoned into space during the journey home. Even if Ramona completed the delivery, Riley’s half-melted face would still be waiting for her—an image she hadn’t been able to shake out of her dreams every night since. Despite the delivery time-crunch, the crew had at least found time to sit down, the four of them, and decide to split the payoff five ways: one part (a small fortune) going to the seven-year-old daughter waiting for Riley back at port.
Even odds is what she would’ve said to the late captain if he’d asked what her chances were now. But if he were around to ask, she wouldn’t be standing here hoping she’d reach the hallway before the security-bot T-boned her on the way.
No retail security-bot was ever sold with lethal capabilities, but the sales of kill mods had grown into a trillion-dollar market, so you had to assume the worst. Risking her life for a delivery was a first for Ramona, but the thought of returning home with nothing to give Riley’s little girl kept her from giving up.
She drew a deep breath. Gold curtains hung limp down the walls. Ramona narrowed her eyes at the hall.
She ran. The receptionist’s head snapped up to track her. By her third step, the security panel burst open. Ramona couldn’t spare the time to look back. Over the sound of her own heavy breathing, she listened for the tell-tale double stamp of a Lintel’s two legs hitting the floor. Instead, a bevy of heavier thuds sounded from behind her, then a hollow, clanging roar. What the hell was that?
It couldn’t be good: many-legged security-bots were banned throughout the seven sectors, so its very existence meant black-market upgrades—sawing blades, gnashing teeth, the whole gambit of intruder-killing kit—and all of that was approaching faster than she’d anticipated. She lengthened her stride, but when the thing roared again, it was closer, setting Ramona’s neck hairs on end.
A surge of adrenaline forced her forward faster, but already her right hamstring was threatening to cramp. She suppressed her panic in time to pick up on the offbeat pattern of its steps: four solid stamps, then two screeching lurches. Two legs malfunctioning? A second time: same pattern. It was close enough now that she could feel the heat it generated on the exposed skin of her shoulders. She waited for it to take another step, then flung herself to the floor, cradling the package against her stomach.
The thing’s two deadlocked legs couldn’t correct in time. Both of them struck Ramona in the back, forcing all the air from her lungs. As it fell, another of its sharp-tipped limbs struck out, slicing through the flesh of her thigh. Pain bloomed. She screamed, watching as a massive, flailing spider-droid tumbled down the curved hallway and out of sight.
It wouldn’t be down for long.
She struggled to her feet. Time for a new plan.
The receptionist’s smile, the spider’s legs—no one was maintaining this equipment. Ramona wrenched a golden curtain from the ceiling and wrapped herself in it before crouching down, stifling a second scream as her thigh muscle stretched. What are the odds you’ll survive ten seconds? Riley’s voice asked in her ear. In the darkness under the curtain, all she could see was the digi-label continuing its countdown. One minute and fifteen seconds.
The thick fabric of the curtain muffled any sounds from the hallway but amplified her exhales. She held her breath. Was that a faint clinking sound? Could a spider-droid creep that quietly? How close, now? Close, here—from whatever of its orifices was nearest, the spider expelled the waste heat that had accumulated during the chase. Hot acrid air invaded the space under the curtain, making her eyes water, her throat burn.
After several long moments, the spider scuttled back toward the reception area, evidently predicting that Ramona had headed toward the safety of her ship.
So she’d guessed right: the optical sensor was the first component to wear out on freestanding security systems, meaning the spider could still differentiate colors but not much else. Gold curtains on gold walls had made effective camouflage.
The package buzzed in her arms, signaling the final thirty-second countdown. Ramona stood, still wrapped in the curtain, and limped down the corridor until she reached apartment 17. There was no telling how long she had before the spider looped back—she knocked as loud as she dared.
A stately woman opened the door, ignored the curtain wrapped around her visitor, and smiled a smile of trained courtesy. “How can I help you?”
“Delivery,” Ramona whispered, revealing the box.
The woman took the box, removed the label now frozen at six seconds, and scowled. “Carson! Come here, please,” she shouted over her shoulder.
A young boy ran into view. When he saw the box, a greedy smile spread across his freckled face. “All right! It finally came,” he said, and grabbed the box.
Ramona looked over her shoulder, expecting to see the spider-droid galloping toward her. “Could you please press the blue button on the label to accept the—”
The woman held up a finger to shush Ramona without looking up from her son. As he tore off the various seals and urgency labels, she began to chastise him. “We talked about this. Using diplomatic privileges for deliveries could get Mummy in a lot of trouble.”
The boy ignored his mother’s scolding, cracked open the box, and began to dig through the packing material until he found a sealed pack of trading cards labeled “Extinct Trees of Old Earth.” He squealed, shoved the packing material out of the way, and began rifling through the cards one at a time on the floor.
“No . . . no . . . no . . . no . . . no . . .” Fifteen times he said it before he threw the box into the hallway. “This is the worst day of my life. The seller promised there would be a Joshua Tree in this pack,” he shouted. The brat tried to storm off, but “Mummy” caught his collar and bent down to whisper in his ear before pressing something into his hand.
Shoulders slumped, he turned, looked at the ground in front of the door, and mumbled, “Thank you for your hard work.” He handed Ramona a wad of paper. Mummy Diplomat held up the label and pressed the blue button with a smile, then closed the door.
Ramona looked at the tip in her hand: three gold-leafed laundromat vouchers, expired. She stuffed them into her pocket, swiping at the flakes of gold paint lingering on her hand. It didn’t matter. She’d beat the odds. The delivery was on time, and the crew—her crew—was probably watching their bank balances surge at that very moment. All that was left for Ramona to do was to get back to the ship.
As if on cue, the spider’s roar echoed down the hallway.
In the ultimate act of combined denial and delusion, Jack Windeyer writes about writing more often than he writes actual writing. To be part of the problem, please visit marginchronicles.com or @mrgnchrncls.