“Man in the Middle” (excerpt)

Vasil had flatlined for eleven minutes by the time the EM Assist drone arrived.  Lying limp in the street, as a low bank of oily cloud drizzled condensate across his inert form, he looked more like a sack of garbage than Nayce’s handler. She held his chunky, bald head in her lap, out of the rushing gutter, and waited for a robot to come and restart his heart.

If you’d told me, she thought, I’d have never believed it was possible to be absolutely alone in the Salish Conurb … the nuts-to-butts home of 11 million … yet, somehow, Vasil had found the most desolate corner to experience the latest in a string of increasingly regular heart attacks. 

Nayce stared into the asbestos-colored sky and stewed.  If the stubborn bastard would put a quarter of the money he invested in augmenting his brain toward fixing his failing body, he might live to see the gaudy retirement he was always talking about.

The “street” was, in reality, a long-neglected alleyway close to the old municipal demark and behind the Novo Liang Shan plex; a brutalist wall of crete rose sharply to her left as it wound around the massive structure’s obsidian flank, tracing the curve of some ancient hill around a high point nearby where the remains of a facing apartment block—an empty and disintegrating ruin—spilled into the roadway, blocking it to both motor and foot traffic.  They were in a part of the conurb that saw only partial reclamation after the ‘29 quake.  Most plexes either claimed broad plazas to keep the public at arm’s length or built up unsurmountable blocks at ground level; the monolith of Liang Shan looked like it had been dropped onto the rubble, fully constructed, and left to quietly contemplate its domination of the surrounding ruin.

An electronic trill broke the dull hush of drizzle.  A drone appeared high overhead, tilting into the alleyway out of the haze before halting and turning in place, red strobes flashing, to verify its GPS coords.  

As it descended, Nayce mused on Vasil’s shitty choice of meetup location.  If today was the day his BrainSafe™ batteries finally failed because it took too long for the bot to find them, it was his own stupid fault.

The hovering ball of white plastic halted in front of her and sang a jolly tune as a corporate logo danced onto its faceplate.

“Please identify the person in need of medical assistance.”  Its synthesized voice dripped with simulated cheer.

Nayce shook Vasil’s inert form.  “This.  The lifeless bag of skin lying in front of you.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that.  What is the name of—“

“Vasil Komarevich.”

A pause.  “The closest match I can find is Vasili E. Komarevich.  Is this correct?”

“Close enough … look, I don’t know the idiot’s middle name!”

“I understand.  Thank you for clarifying.”

The machine dropped in closer.  Then its housing broke open to reveal a number of sensory instruments, which whirred and hummed.  While Nayce waited, the cold rain found a gap in her collar and began to worm its way down her back.

So much fun, she mused.

“This person is currently in asystolic cardiac arrest and requires immediate medical intervention,” the drone said.  “Epinephrine and myoelectric stimulation are recommended.  Before I begin, who will be the primary payer for these services?”

Nayce assumed Vasil had more tucked away than she did, so she sure as shit wasn’t paying to have a robot jump-start his faulty ticker.

“Him.  The stiff.”

More whirring.  “Application of the minimum service fees to the account of Vasili E. Komarevich returns an error of ‘insufficient funds.’”

Anger boiled over onto her face.  “Shit.”

“It looks like we’ll need an alternate payment method,” the drone chirped.  “Will you accept the charges?  If you prefer, I can help you apply for a graduated individualized surety fund.”

Goddammit, Vasil.  You’d better not be lying about the fat paycheck at the end of this job, because I’m totally billing you for the cost of saving your miserable life.

The drone chimed impatiently.

“Do it! I’ll pay … just reboot him before his organs fail.”

Its plastic face turned toward hers.  “Of course.  What is your full name?”

She sighed.  “Naycia.  Naycia daMeer.”

Jason Clor, 2020