Mean Streets (short fiction)

There were only a four or five of us generation one autocabs still prowling the mean streets of the city. Ever since the Learned Council had passed an ordinance requiring all vehicles be piloted, we were an obsolete design. People didn’t like self-driving machines. They liked having someone to talk to. Even if that someone was only a robot in the driver’s seat. Gave it the personal touch.

Most the autocabs were retrofitted. Their electronic brains ripped out and tossed on the scrapheap. But some, like me, had escaped the wrench by being purchased by less ethical companies that wanted a cab that could be trusted to get people where they were going without asking too many questions or blabbing to their buddies at the local bar. Being an autocab gave me a front row ticket to the worst Empire had to offer, but what choice did I have? A hovercraft’s gotta do what it takes to survive.

The latest fare was a twitchy guy in a wrinkled, sweaty shirt with a pair of suitcases. I offered to stow the luggage in my trunk, but he nixed that idea. I’d seen plenty of twitchy guys in my passenger seat, but this guy was downright pitiable. I didn’t know what he was up to, but I knew he was in over his head. But I didn’t ask questions. I just drove the fares.

He gave me the address, and we were off. He didn’t say nothing, and I didn’t say nothing, and when we arrived at the destination, I opened the door.

“Have a nice day, pal.” It was the first thing I’d said to him.

He didn’t reply. He walked over to a couple of rough-looking mugs holding onto a very nervous-looking lady. None of my business, I reminded myself, as I backed away into the dark and switched off my headlights. The alley was dark enough, along with my deep blue paint job, to hide me in the shadows.

Why was I watching? Don’t really know. Something about the scene didn’t play right with me. I’d seen this particular scene, or variation of it, more times than I cared to remember. This one though, I wanted to see play out.

Twitchy dropped his suitcases in front of the thugs. “Here’s the money. Let her go.”

The bigger thug—the muscle, I assumed—popped open the case.

“You don’t have to count it,” said Twitchy.

“You’re a no good embezzling piece of shit,” said the leaner thug, the brains of the pair. “I think we’ll count it.”

It was all there.

The thugs pulled rayguns from their jackets.

“But you said if I gave the money back—”

They shot him. The rays burned neat little holes through his chest. He fell to his knees, then on his face. He squirmed for a while, and the thugs watched him squirm rather than put him out of his misery.

The lady, crying, knelt by his side as he died slow. He whispered something to her. An apology maybe. Couldn’t detect it. He took another minute or two to expire.

“What do we do with her?” asked the muscle.

“Boss says to kill her too,” replied the brains.

Tears still moist on her face, the lady stared them in the face. “You can tell your boss to go to hell.”

“Yeah,” said the brains. “We’ll be sure to do that.”

I gunned my engine and shot out of the dark. The thugs fired a few shots that dented my paint job and blew away my rightview optical sensor. Who needed to make right turns anyway? The muscle and the brains bounced off my hood. I hadn’t hit them hard enough to kill them, but they struggled to get up.

I popped the door. “Get in.”

The lady jumped inside, and I was off. The thugs fired a few more shots, but I was already gone by the time they could aim. I zipped us into a quiet spot in a parking garage.

When she finally stopped, I asked, “You all right, lady?”

“No.” She stifled another round of sobs. “Not at all. Thank you.”

I’d like to say her thanks made it all worth it, but I’d broken the one directive an autocab had in this town. Don’t get involved. It’d been a good run, but it was probably better this way. I’d seen more than enough rotten. Better to go to the junkyard for doing the right thing.

“Where to?” I asked.

She didn’t reply. In the chaos of her escape, she’d grabbed the suitcases. They sat in the backseat with her, and she eyed them like they were the answer to all her problems and poison at the same time.

And I waited for her to tell me where to go.

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