Science Fiction

Learning to Fly – Chapter 2.1

A soft electronic chirp startled Rehki out of a deep slumber.  She scrambled inside the cockpit to find the burner phone Asha gave her as her heart raced like never before.  The gap in the dome above must have let in just enough signal for the call to get through.  She cursed as she pulled the phone out, convinced that Asha had left a dozen voice mails, the last of which guaranteed her impending demise.  Instead, the phone showed no incoming calls since yesterday’s test. The chirping continued.  She found her old phone, read Ankit’s name on the screen and pressed the button to accept the call, noting it was past nine in the morning.  She’d been asleep for over twelve hours. 

“Where the hell are you?” Ankit bellowed. 

“Sorry,” Rehki mumbled as she rubbed her eyes.  “I guess I slept in today.” 

“You never came back yesterday, and now you’re late today.  I don’t know why I bother dealing with you anymore.” 

“Please, Ankit,” Rehki begged as she straightened her clothes.  “I … I just lost track of time.  I …”  She fumbled about for the best lie.  “I’m with someone.” 

There was a brief pause, and then Ankit burst out laughing.  “You?  With someone?  Oh, that’s rich.  Get your ass to work, gulama.  Now!”  The call disconnected. 

Rehki sighed as her heart finally slowed down.  She climbed out of the cockpit and shut the canopy behind her.  Then she confirmed the power cell was still recharging.  She figured it would max out at fifty percent without additional water.  Water wasn’t hard to get in the slum, thanks to the BMC.  Everything else was a challenge.  There was nothing she wanted more right now than to install the power cell inside the spaceship, but she had to make sure that Ankit didn’t suspect she was up to anything.  There were a lot of things she needed from the workshop to fix the ship, so she knew she had to do whatever it took to keep her job.

As Rehki slipped out from under the debris pile, she noticed how bad she smelled.  Yesterday was the most physical labor she’d ever done in her whole life.  Normally, she’d stop by the baths and take a quick shower, but there was no time now.  She stopped at the opening into the warehouse, confirmed there was no one around to see her leave and booked it down the road towards the workshop. 

As she approached the corner, she made sure to avoid the banger she’d bumped yesterday, but he still mumbled something about being a little pest of some kind.  The neon sign for AnkiTech was lit.  As she opened the door, a voice from above spooked her.  “Good morning, Rehki.  You are officially twenty-two minutes late.  I have adjusted your pay and alerted Mr. Kumar.  Have a nice day.” 

“Thanks, Dev,” Rehki grumbled as she slammed the door behind her.  Dev, the workshop A.I., reminded Rehki of the next item on her checklist to repair the spaceship:

2.  Get an A.I. to do the work for you.

Her brain raced with ideas on how to get an A.I., even from inside the slum.  First things first, she put on the most somber and apologetic face she could muster.  “Ankit?” 

She noted his boots through the opening under his workbench and scuttled over next to it.  “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t cancel your contract and kick you out on the street, right now?” he growled. 

This was not the first time he’d made this threat.  In fact, she’d lost count years ago.  “I … I finished fixing the interface and installed it.  It’s done.”  No need for him to know it also provided a secret communication network for a criminal organization.

Ankit raised the magnifying goggles over his head and looked at her.  Rehki fixed her gaze to the ground.  “I bet I’ll get a bonus for getting it done ahead of schedule.”  He lowered the glasses and returned to his work.  As Rehki turned away towards her workbench, he barked, “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood today or you’d have to go back to hoaring your way through life.” 

“What did you say?” Rehki hissed before she could stop herself. 

“Whoever you were with last night,” Ankit answered as he tweaked the circuit board on a tablet.  “I assume you got paid well for your … services.  I don’t care what you do after you leave this shop, but don’t ever let it get in the way of your job here again, you hear me?” 

Rehki’s blood boiled.  Letting her life become that desperate was something she tried to avoid every day.  She wanted to rail at him for even insinuating that she might stoop that low.  But now there was too much at stake to risk upsetting him.  “Did you,” she gulped.  “Did the buyer take the G4?” 

A smile curled on the side of his face.  “Oh, yes.  He was quite happy with the purchase.”  For a second, Rehki thought he might start drooling.  “He was also impressed with the workshop.  He said he might come back for more.  So, I want you to get to work on every mobile device we have.  I want to give him something just as good as a G4, or better.  I want it on my table for testing before you leave tonight.  Now get to work.”  He sniffed.  “And take a shower.  You smell like shit.”  He focused back on his work, and that was the end of it. 

Rehki slipped onto the stool behind her workbench and looked at the empty space.  Another beep sounded from her overalls, and her heart raced again.  She sighed when she saw it was just a chat message on her phone. 

HAMISH:  How you doing, Rehki? 

Rehki had never met Hamish, but she had learned a lot from him and enjoyed chatting with him online from time to time.  It had been weeks since she heard from him.  She unlocked her phone and brought up the chat app. 

REHKI:  Swamped. U? 

HAMISH:  Living the dream.  Need an assist on something. 

REHKI:  What’s up?

HAMISH:  Got an OS hiccup.  Error 7705.  No disk can be found. 

REHKI:  Come on.  Challenge me. 

HAMISH:  What do you mean?  I’ve been working on this for hours! 

REHKI:  Seriously? 

HAMISH:  What is it? 

Rehki stopped for a moment.  Maybe Hamish could help her solve one of her problems.   

REHKI:  I’ll help you, but I need something from you in return. 

HAMISH:  Dear God.  What? 

REHKI:  I need a line on an A.I. 

There was an odd pause in the conversation. 

HAMISH:  What do you need with an A.I.? 

Rehki had a couple of lies prepared already, so she randomly selected one. 

REHKI:  Local goomba wants an A.I. to run his bar’s numbers for him.  Doesn’t trust the goon anymore. 

Rehki thought of Asha getting replaced by an A.I. and chuckled.  Then she still felt a chill at the idea of ever having to talk to her or Arjun again.  The sooner the spaceship was ready, the better.  To do that, she needed an A.I.

HAMISH:  Seriously?  You working for Goombas now? 

Rehki considered telling the truth.  Hamish probably lived on another continent and was unlikely to talk to Ankit, Simon Hawthorne, Asha or anyone else that knew her.  Even still, her gut told her to keep the full story to herself. 

REHKI:  You got one or not? 

HAMISH:  Yeah, I got a line on one.  It’s a bit of an oddball, but it’s free. 

REHKI:  You said the magic word.  To restore your disk, pull jumper 2 from the board. 

HAMISH:  What will that do? 

REHKI:  Try it and find out. 

“That had better be a tablet you’re working on over there,” Ankit yelled from across the room.  Rehki set her phone down, grabbed a random tablet from the stack of derelicts behind her and dropped it on the table.  She pulled the casing off and ignored the text response from Hamish while she dug into the guts of the tablet.  Most of the components were fried.  Most likely someone either tried to supercharge it or plugged it into the wrong kind of power source.  At best, it was good for the casing and glass.  Everything else was scrap. 

She tossed the tablet aside and picked up the phone. 

HAMISH:  I hate you.  You’re too good at this. 

REHKI:  Pay up, loser. 

HAMISH:  Fine, but you find your way to my parts any time soon, you come work for me.   

REHKI:  Maybe I will. 

She wasn’t sure why she wrote that.  It was the first time in her entire life that she believed she could have a life outside of the slum.  Her eyes watered at the prospect.

HAMISH:  I’ll hold you to that.  Okay, the A.I. is sitting out at this link.  I’ve got to warn you.  It was made in Nagasaki. 

Rehki gasped.  Some of the most sophisticated A.I. came out of the labs in Nagasaki.  Normally you’d have to live in mid-town, and the nice part of mid-town, to be able to afford one.  If it was available on the open market, there were either major problems with it or it was intended to do bad, bad things.  Even still, she had no money at all to spend on an A.I.  Her original plan was to get a backup copy of Dev off of Ankit’s servers, but she dreaded the idea of dealing with Dev every day inside the spaceship.  Anything would be better than that, even a potentially insane system out of Japan. 

REHKI:  Thanks!

HAMISH:  You may not thank me, but I’ve got a feeling you can wrangle this A.I. and whip it into shape.  Be careful though.  Your Goomba may not like it. 

REHKI:  Risk I’ll take.  Thanks! 

HAMISH:  Until next time, punk. 

Hamish signed off the chat.  She tapped on the link and visited the download page.  All of the text was in Japanese, naturally.  She was amazed to see that the file size for the A.I. was so small.  She fumbled around on her desk and found a small, older SD card with just enough space, slipped it into her phone and without hesitation clicked to download the A.I.   

While Rehki noticed the bright red letters at the bottom of the page, she was too excited about the possibilities of installing an A.I. into the spaceship to engage the translator and read the warnings.  When the download was finished, the download page strangely vanished.  Instinctively, she cleared the history and closed the browser. 

The power cell back in the warehouse would be up to half capacity by mid-day.  She grabbed a half-empty water bottle that had been sitting on her desk for weeks and tucked it into one of the side pockets in her overalls so she wouldn’t forget it.  One mission complete, she thought.  The key to the second mission was now stored on the SD card in her phone.  She couldn’t wait to check item #2 off the list and get her spaceship back up and running.