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“Curfew is in effect, I repeat, curfew is in effect. Any citizen caught outside will be brought in for questioning. If needed, upgrades will be provided.”
Zimara Doyle stood in the shadows, listening to hear the crunch of copper-metal feet crunching on the cobblestone streets. Standing in the shadow her aunt’s building, Zimara wore black slacks and jacket, hiding from mechanical threats. She glared at the speakers placed on the corner of every building in the town of Steel Victoria. A town named and reshaped by a woman who had found immortality and the means to tether everyone in iron servitude.
Victoria had arrived in town ten years ago, a maid to an esteemed inventor. She stole his secrets than his life, and used his life’s work to become something greater than human. While not a goddess, Victoria owned the souls of the town one ‘upgrade’ at a time.
Curfew was simply one of the more ingenious means of chipping away the population and any chance of rebellion. Zimara had seen friends, acquaintances, and lovers disappear only to come back…different. Mechanical limbs, goggle lenses replacing eyes, and a steady burst of steam exhaling from their bodies in odd places were now nightmarish qualities of life.
What should have been the reason why Zimara decided to stay indoors became her motivation to sneak about for extra food. Zimara had a small collection of children she and her aunt looked after because the parents cared little about ‘underdeveloped workers’, since the upgrades.
With food rations going slim and the mere hint of exceeding registered rations an immediate call to upgrade beyond the need for food, Zimara risked her humanity to preserve the little that remained. A quarter of the populace was upgraded, but the growing number of factories with windows red as hellfire proved ill for all. Any imperfection called for upgrade: injury, hunger, protest, and the need to reach a certain quota per month were all legitimate reasons.
A race as fragile as humanity didn’t have a prayer.
Nor did they have a church, removed by Victoria’s Iron Citizens (V.I.C.) due to being an impractical use of space. The law, Zimara chuckled bitterly as she recalled how quickly the authorities found themselves in need of upgrades. At first they needed superior weapons, then superior medical care, and eventually Victoria had roaming collectors out to bring in flawed society members for attitude adjustment, upgrade in another slimy phrasing.
With so much control, people doubted a single person could rearrange their whole society. But Victoria wanted her presence to be known, her ego being the last remaining human quality, with posters showing a ‘youthful’ face of a woman in her late twenties wearing a blood red hat with long silver hair and black lips curled into a toxic smile. The words at the bottom of the poster said,
“Fixing the World, One Upgrade at a time”
Zimara made sure to spit on one of the posters as she passed by. Her supplier didn’t like to be kept waiting. She couldn’t blame him; there was no way of knowing what waited in the darkness.
At last, Zimara made it to the meeting point. It was a large dumping ground near the wall surrounding the city that was used for storing trash as well as the unnecessary parts from upgrades, the stench was strong enough to choke a maggot but it ensured privacy. It seemed the stench wasn’t as strong this evening to Zimara, but she decided her nose was simply used to the smell for it to affect her.
She saw her contact, Kurt, standing in the center of the surprisingly clean trash pit. Something was wrong. Zimara didn’t know what but everything was too clean, too fresh, and too quiet for Steel Victoria. A full moon came out from behind a veil of clouds, and shined light down on a nightmarish scene.
Kurt stood with his back to Zimara but she saw enough. There was no bag of food for the children in her care that Kurt, a bakery worker, had supplied for the last few months. Something dripped from Kurt’s sleeves and neck, and Zimara looked down to see a pool of blood at his feet. No one could lose so much blood and remain standing but Zimara realized Kurt wasn’t standing. His shoulders were hunched up, the moonlight vaguely reflecting off a pair of wires and his boots were barely touching the puddle of blood.
The instant Zimara realized Kurt was dead his corpse was yanked into the air by the wires and dangled in the air like a fish on a hook. She couldn’t mourn or contemplate the true horror of what Kurt’s death meant. Not until she heard the slight clink on copper feet.
There were three of them. They came out of the shadows: one on Zimara’s right, one on her left, and another standing in the way of her one and only exit. The collectors still had pieces of their humanity like hair, clothes, and some traces of skin while only necessary parts had been replaced like eyes, organs, feet, and hands. The nightmarish tales of people who helplessly watched others get collected taught Zimara to beware the hands the most.
“The hanging-bait tactic has improved in efficiency.” One of the collectors said.
“Preserving three of the ten captured tonight has proved useful.” The other said, getting closer to Zimara.
“Agreed,” the one in the pit’s entrance said. “Proceed with collection.”
Zimara say the two collectors move in with surprising speed, they’re bodies were limber enough to move quickly and strong enough to overpower anything that came their way. Of course, Zimara wasn’t careless enough to go unprepared. She pulled out an iron club and knife and held them firmly in each hand as she prepared for the worst.
She ducked out of the iron grip of one of the collectors and stabbed the other one in the chest. A small burst of steam spilled from the wound, no blood left to lose after being upgraded. Neither the collectors nor any of the V.I.C.s felt pain, which meant Zimara needed to move quickly.
The collector she stabbed was already starting to recover and the other was closing in as well. Zimara quickly spun about and struck the goggled eyes, hearing a small crack. It was time to leave her staggered allies and take her chances with the last collector.
The last one didn’t give her that chance. Zimara crashed into the remaining collector who decided to step into the fray. He was built heavier than the others; it felt like Zimara had hit an iron wall. Instead of capturing her, it pushed her onto her back. She was helped to her feet by the other two collectors.
“Status report,” The larger collector said to his colleagues.
“Chest cavity slightly ruptured.” The collector said as steam slowly seeped from the wound.
“Ocular lenses fractured.” The other collector said.
“Collect, deliver, then go in for repairs.” The two collectors said in unison.
The large collector raised his right arm and twitched the fingers of his hand. A copper tube protruded from the hand with a strange mist seeping from the opening. As the tube aimed down towards Zimara’s face, the light vapors escaping from the tube were enough to make the world feel like it was spinning. It was getting closer and once it reached her face…
Zimara didn’t want to think about that because it was doubtful if she’d still be human when she woke up. She struggled but the collectors didn’t move: their actions were the result of consistent precision and guaranteed success. Zimara almost wanted to close her eyes before the fumes put her out, think of something better before the darkness came.
The darkness arrived but not in a way anyone expected.
A shadowy wisp of smoke seemed to erupt within the large collector’s right arm. The leader looked confused while the other two kept their grip on Zimara, programmed to not surrender under pressure. With the arm destroyed, the vapors escaped into the air but Zimara was too close and was feeling worn down with every breath. She needed to get free.
The shadow wisps seemed to answer her plea; black smoke erupted within the hands that held her in place. She could feel the inner workings of the collector’s hands breaking from the foreign pressure. Zimara couldn’t take any more chances and began to struggle. Her efforts and the smoke helped shatter the hands and free her.
Zimara backed away from the soporific gas and was ignored by the three collectors. This didn’t surprise her. They had a new target, and this one could fight.
The three collectors searched everywhere for some sign of the attacker but only saw shadows. Zimara, however, still had human instinct, which told her she was being watched. She turned her head and saw someone she would not be able to make sense of for a long time.
A young woman, looking to be a teenager in height and adult in proportion, wearing a black dress and boots as well as a black mask that covered the top half of her face stood just in the shadows behind Zimara. The woman’s short red hair matched her red lips which gave off a mischievous smile. For some reason the smile was infectious and Zimara partially realized that she began to smile as well.
One of the collectors, looking about, noticed Zimara and followed her field of vision. Zimara heard a clinking sound and turned to see the collector bring out a gun barrel from his arm. He fired right at the woman with a bombardment of bullets. The other two followed his example while Zimara screamed and rolled out of the way. She expected the worse for the woman but remembered noticing something odd. The way the girl’s body was in shadow, it looked like the darkness had swallowed part of her.
After firing enough ammunition to kill just about anything with a pulse, the three collectors ceased firing. Smoke floated off the barrels of the guns equipped to the mechanical demons. No other noise was heard, neither in terror nor protest. No one truly fought back against Victoria.
Not until the woman in the shadows.
Seemingly returning from the dead, the woman appeared out of the shadows in the far corner of the trash pit, an impossible transition to pull off in less than a minute. She didn’t hesitate for an instant while charging at the three collectors. One of the collectors, immune to confusion, simply moved his arm to finish the job. The woman gripped the collector’s gun arm, which shattered in a burst of darkness a second later. Another collector, replacing his injured hands with blades moved in to cut down the woman. She dodged the lethal swings then vanished in puff of black smoke. The collector searched frantically, even with injured eyes, but didn’t see the woman. He suddenly twitched violently as a burst of darkness went off in his head. Zimara saw the woman behind the collector as he fell dead to the ground: she had somehow transported herself behind the collector through darkness.
The two remaining collectors turned to crush the woman while she was in between them. She dodged their combined hits with a dancer’s spin. The woman then placed both her hands on each collector’s head and a burst of darkness finished them both. She stood among the bodies, while Zimara looked at this woman of shadows, wondering if she was actually a greater threat than the collectors.
Zimara tensed up as she saw the shadowy woman turn in her direction. She looked down at the knife and club she’d dropped earlier when caught, but didn’t run to pick them up. She doubted that someone who apparently walked around in shadows and could decimate collectors by touching them would be vulnerable to knives or clubs, obviously not gunfire.
She was so caught up looking at the weapons that she didn’t realize the shadow woman was in front of her until she looked up. Zimara yelped and was starting to fall backwards. The shadow woman caught her by the hand; Zimara noticed that the woman’s touch was cold.
“It’s okay,” the shadow woman said happily. “You’re safe.”
Zimara didn’t feel safe, but was relieved that the shadow woman didn’t consider a threat.
“Thanks.” Zimara said it was the only thing she could think of that wasn’t screaming.
“Glad to help,” the woman said while holding up her hand. “My name’s Alice, Alice Shade.”
“Z-Zimara.” The stunned girl said as she shook Alice’s hand, still surprised that the hand and its owner were real.
“You should probably get on home, Zimara,” Alice said. “I have to head to the factory and save the rest of the people caught before they’re ‘upgraded’, whatever the Hell that means.”
“How did you kn−”
Alice held up a hand to stop Zimara from asking.
“That’s on a need to know basis,” Alice said apologetically. “The safest way I can describe it without you getting too involved is that shadows have ears. I should be moving, goodnight.”
Alice began to walk towards one of the shadows with the casual grace of someone exiting a room, which Zimara imagined was not too far from the truth. Part of her wanted to just let Alice go away into the darkness and get on home, and hopefully find the means to bury Kurt. Kurt…thinking about Kurt brought out the words she couldn’t believe left her lips.
“I’m coming with you.”
Alice stopped and turned. Both Alice and Zimara looked surprised that she had said the words. Alice went back to Zimara, a stern look in her eye.
“Listen,” the shadow woman said. “From what I’ve listened in on for the past few days, these factories are nothing but trouble, even worse than these mechanized marauders. I understand that these are your townsfolk bu−”
“All the more reason for a citizen of this town who gives a damn about the people to help,” Zimara snapped. “And no offense, ‘Miss Shade’, but I don’t have much reason to trust you. You want to convince me otherwise, help a true citizen of this town save this community.”
Alice looked annoyed, and Zimara tried to her best to not show how stupid she felt for shouting at a woman who could pop her brain with a flick of the finger. She had no regret for what happened to the collectors; they were dead the moment they became upgraded. Zimara at least knew she’d be damned before letting anyone else end up like that. And with Alice, she might actually achieve that same damnation due to what she saw so far.
Alice looked like she was debating whether to just leave Zimara. But then she stared Zimara in the eyes and saw the uncertainty but also the determination to go forward. It was a combination that was practically Alice’s life philosophy.
“It’s just Alice,” the shadow woman sighed. “Miss Shade sounds bizarre even for me. So, you wish to join the rescue? Fair enough, but be prepared for the worst. If you’re ready, hold my hand, follow me to the shadow, and don’t let go.”
Zimara looked at Alice’s outstretched hand, an agreement and warning at the same time. Realizing she couldn’t waste time debating the risks, she gripped Alice’s hand firmly. Alice nodded solemnly and together they walked into the shadows.
Zimara thought it would feel cold in darkness but it was worse. There was nothing: no heat, no cold, there didn’t even seem to be air in the few seconds they walked in the darkness. Who would choose to be connected to such a place?
There was no time to think about the question as Alice and Zimara returned to cold night air, the factory in front of them.
They had walked onto a rooftop of a building adjacent to the factory on the other side of town. Once Zimara stomached the fact that they hadn’t move up or down to arrive at the roof, her eyes focused on a more disturbing sight.
At the entrance to the factory, a light from the doorway casting everything in a shade of blood red, seven people were in chains and being shuffled to their doom. Two guards stood at the doorway, wearing iron armor over every part of their bodies and spears that gave off an electric charge.
“What’s the plan,” Zimara said. “You must have some idea of how to get those people out of there. Why not do that shadow thing and break their shackles?”
Alice glared annoyingly at her newfound partner.
“It’s not that simple,” Alice muttered. “Even if I do my ‘shadow thing’ and free them, what’s keeping the guards from shooting them down or keeping this factory from doing the same thing tomorrow night?”
Realization struck Zimara like a lightning bolt.
“You plan to destroy the entire factory.”
It sounded impossible to actually say, let alone imagine. But someone like Alice seemed just as impossible. Zimara was at least convinced enough to find out how.
“We’re going to go inside, shut down the factory, and get out of there. Sound good?”
Zimara nodded. Alice nodded back and held out her hand. This time, Zimara didn’t hesitate to grab hold as they went through the same shadow that put them on the roof and wound up somewhere different.
They stood on top of a metal railing that looked to be the color red but Zimara realized it was actually from the light of the furnace. The furnace… they were actually inside the factory, the very heart of madness. It was a horrific revelation Zimara couldn’t relish for long as alarm bells rang throughout the factory.
“Organic detected, I repeat, Organic detected. Upgrade or terminate if necessary.”
Somehow the building was designed to actually identity humans that weren’t upgraded. Zimara wondered if the scanners only picked up her and also what they might identify Alice as. The answer came sooner than she expected as the thundering steps of an armored guard charged across the balcony at them.
“You two,” the guard called out, “Surrender and proceed to be upgraded or I will cease all biological functions.” The spear gave off bluish sparks of lighting and flashed two lights on his shoulders to improve visibility on the targets.
The lights became the greater threat than the spear. As soon as the light touched Alice, she screamed. It sounded like acid had been poured on her flesh with the way it sizzled.
Zimara, hating the fact that Alice’s weakness had to show up when they were right in the factory, realized she needed to do something or else the spear would come next. In an act of insanity, Zimara stepped in between the guard and Alice and wrapped her body around Alice, shielding her from the light. Once in darkness, Alice breathed easier and gripped Zimara.
Zimara felt the air rush out of her and then collapsed a foot off the ground. She looked up to see that they had popped down to the ground floor of the factory, the railing right above them. The guard recovered too quickly from the confusion and sent a blast of electricity down at them. Zimara tugged herself and Alice out of the way as the bolt struck the ground with force of a bomb and just as loud. Alice was shaking fiercely; the glow of the furnace seemed to be strong enough to disorient her after the guard’s light. The other guards were starting to stomp towards their location. The guard from the railing had jumping down and aimed his spear at the two women. Alice raised her hands, the guard twitched wildly; his whole body was covered in the shadow of the armor, and was bent in on itself, making a makeshift iron ball.
Alice looked like she was suffocating from using so much power while still being weak and Zimara guessed they couldn’t hope to use that trick again unless Alice got back in complete darkness. Bolts of electricity erupted around them; the other guards were closing in. Zimara knew they needed to move and lugged herself and Alice further into the factory.
They passed by operating tables. People lay on the slabs mindlessly moaning with mechanical parts affixed to their bleeding flesh while a bucket of the remains was next to each table. These people were already dead; a cable stabbed into their head was reanimating them and programming the obedience for Victoria into their bodies. The mechanical surgeons slashed their scalpel hands at the girls while the nurses stabbed their syringe fingers full of sedatives at them as well. Zimara only managed to handle the madness by focusing on finding someplace dark. The overhead lights were nauseatingly bright even for Zimara, she could only imagine how Alice felt.
The guards were rushing in behind them while others had cut off their path ahead and surgeons and nurses circled around them. They were cornered, everything around them led to death. Zimara knew she stood little chance against it all and at least understood that Alice needed darkness to thrive.
A mad thought burst into Zimara’s mind at that moment. She looked over at the operating table, noticing how close the light was to the table. The iron pipe was missing but a metal hand lay on the table, solid and punishingly brutal, just waiting to be used.
“If this works, save us.” Zimara whispered into Alice’s ear.
Then let go of Alice and charged. A surgeon cut into her jacket, just missing her throat, as she jumped onto the table. Mechanical death seemed to converge on her, no time to slow down, but she ignored it and grabbed the metal hand and smashed the lights.
There was a spark, a small shower of glass, the feeling of metal bodies pressing in around Zimara, and then nothing. Nothing but darkness.
An inhuman roar was heard, coming from the direction Zimara left. Then the creak of metal as all the mechanical demons bent apart and tumbled to the ground. But Alice wasn’t done. She reached into up at the broken light and the lights from the other operating tables erupted, coating the place in more darkness. Alice’s roar, a shadowy battle cry, echoed everywhere, even in the speakers a second before they blew up as well. A great whine came from the center of the factory and shook the whole foundation, Alice had reached the furnace.
Fire shot up from everywhere. Zimara jumped off the table and away from the flames as the whole factory seemed to fall apart around her. Before the walls or flames reached her, a hand grabbed Zimara and a moment later she was in darkness.
When she managed to open her eyes again she was outside the factory, which was falling in on itself. Zimara noticed that the seven people they saw shuffled into the factory as well as ten others who were fortunate enough to not be upgraded had survived. Everyone was equally confused, muttering about a hand in the dark, a fact that made Zimara smile. Alice showed up a moment later, dropping down from the sky in a burst of black smoke, smiling beneath the mask. She told everyone to hold onto her, saying she felt like she could pull this off, and a moment later everyone was gone.
Zimara arrived back in front of her aunt’s home, alone. It could almost have been a dream except for the fact that her clothes carried the burns and cuts from the chaos. Also, Alice appeared out of a shadow in the corner.
“Who are you?” Zimara said, too tired to care how strange everything was.
“Like I said,” Alice smiled. “I’m here to help.”
“Well you certainly made an enemy of Victoria.” Zimara said as she noticed the flames from the factory in the distance rising.
“She was my enemy the moment she decided to hurt humans,” Alice said with a grin. “The fact that’s she just realizing it means she’s already in over her head.”
“Thank you,” Zimara said. “Not just for me or the factory, but just for probably being the first to truly fight back and win.”
I’m not the first,” Alice said. “Neither of us would be here if you hadn’t hit that light. I just wanted to keep my promise.”
Zimara nodded, watched the flames with Alice as though it were a ceremonial bonfire.
“What now?” Zimara asked.
Alice craned her head past the flames and quickly turned back to Zimara.
“The sun’s rising,” Alice said. “I’m going to find a nice a shady place to hide until I can think of some other way to trouble Victoria. And before you suggest it, no, you don’t have enough space to house me or the danger I’d bring. But I hope to meet you again, Zimara. If you ever you need something, just whisper my name in the dark and Alice Shade will arrive.”
She bowed like an actress after a performance and vanished in a puff of darkness.
Zimara gazed at the spot, seeing the dark vapors drift away into the sky. She went inside a moment later, doing her best to not disturb the sleeping children or her hawk-eared aunt. Her stealthy trek forced her to go by the kitchen, remembering a lack of food still unfulfilled in all the excitement. That is until she went into her room. A bag, filled to the brim with apples, stood by her bed. Part of the bag was cloaked in shadow.