The Black Zone – Part 1
By Diana Grove
Strange clunking sounds came from the back of the Pod. My hands gripped the sides of the seat as I waited for something bad to happen. When an announcement blared through the ceiling speakers I jumped like I’d been jabbed with a needle.
“PODRAIL WISHES TO ADVISE TRAVELLERS IN POD 453 THAT AN ERROR CODE HAS BEEN DETECTED. THIS POD WILL BE REROUTED TO THE NEAREST DOCKING STATION FOR URGENT MAINTENANCE. PLEASE STAY IN YOUR SEAT AND REMAIN CALM.”
I was the only passenger. I stayed in my seat, but it was impossible to be calm. Just my luck. They mustn’t be able to fix it remotely. Peering out the window, I saw my reflection in the dark glass–a transparent girl with wide green eyes and curly brown hair, chewing her bottom lip. A few seconds later the Pod shuddered to a standstill at a derelict docking station.
I was headed to my weekly piano lesson. My teacher, Mrs Kerr, moved house recently and my parents didn’t think it was safe for me to ride to her home on my Zipp-E scooter anymore. They insisted I travel by Pod. I can’t handle confined spaces but usually travelling by Pod is bearable. The large windows help. But being stuck in a malfunctioning Pod, alone and suspended ten meters above the ground, was too much for me. My breathing sped up and my heart felt fluttery. I’ve got to get out. I’ve got to get out. I leapt up from my seat and waved my hand in front of the exit sensor by the door.
As I stepped out of the Pod there was another announcement in the same sing-song, female voice.
“FOR THE SAFETY OF YOUR PERSON AND PERSONAL BELONGINGS PODRAIL ADVISES ALL TRAVELLERS REMAIN INSIDE THE POD.”
I wasn’t sure where I was. The name on the docking station meant nothing to me, but I knew this area must be a Black Zone. The Black Zones are dangerous slum areas outside Atticas City where crime and disease thrive like mould on old cheese. Atticas citizens are not allowed to enter most of them. Only CyCops, two meter tall android police officers, are safe in the Black Zones. CyCops have smooth faces with no eyes or mouth, just a large sphere in the centre that records everything they see.
Head down, I held onto a rusty safety rail while I tried to calm my breathing. After a minute I straightened up and surveyed the Black Zone. Derelict buildings. Rubbish. Emptiness. Then, just as I was about to head back, I saw something unexpected–a toddler holding a pink teddy stumbled out of an alley. She was all alone. I knew going into a Black Zone was all kinds of stupid, and the thought of leaving the platform made my stomach lurch, but I had to do it… That little kid was probably lost and scared.
The docking station’s glass elevator was damaged and covered in layers of graffiti, but still worked. On the ground, I felt as vulnerable as a mouse in the centre of a kitchen floor. I looked all around as I hurried after the kid.
“Hey!” I called. “Are you ok? Are you lost? It’s alright. I’ll help you.”
The kid didn’t stop. She waddled faster and didn’t even turn around.
“Wait! I won’t hurt you.”
A dog barked. No one owned pet dogs in the Black Zones. There were only guard dogs and strays. I sped up and, reaching out a hand, touched the girl on the shoulder. She stopped, and her head turned right round like no human head could. Big blue eyes met mine. One long-lashed eyelid fluttered continually like a broken eye on an antique doll.
I gasped, realising I was staring into the face of a SubChild. Subs (short for Substitutes) are androids that look like humans. Like the CyCops, Subs have artificial intelligence, but they were discontinued due to their tendency to lie and deceive.
I looked around, my mind whizzing like a rotor on a drone. It was a trap. I couldn’t see anyone, but I knew I was being watched. Who’s out there? Organ traders? Ransom seekers? The dirty faced SubChild watched me and chuckled. I backed away from it, and ran for the Pod.
The first bullet hit a rock just meters from my foot. The second pierced the meat of my thigh. This can’t be happening. Grunting with pain, I fell to the ground. I pushed myself up with my hands and saw a bright orange blur. It was another Pod. The Emergency Response Crew had arrived.
“Help!” I yelled, kneeling in the dirt and waving my arms.
I didn’t see the man come up behind me. He kicked me hard in the back, knocking me to the ground.
“Dumb Atticas skag,” the man said with a snort of laughter, “Shoulda stayed and waited for help. Ain’t nobody gonna help you now girl.”
I tasted dirt on my lips. Before I raised myself up, I grabbed a handful of gravel and threw it at the man’s gaunt face. Then I was on my feet again and running. The bloodstain on my pants grew and my leg throbbed, but I had to keep going. Nearing the elevator, I glanced over my shoulder and saw two men running behind me–the one who shot me and another man, even more malnourished with sallow skin covered in oozing cysts.
I made it to the elevator. The glass doors automatically opened and, once I was safe inside, closed behind me. Slumped against the wall, I closed my eyes for a moment. Mrs Kerr had probably called my parents by now. I pictured her standing by the lounge room window watching for me while complaining to her robot dog, Ziggy.
The elevator rose, and I screamed as bullets shattered the glass on one side. Shielding my head with my hands, I crouched down low. A shard of glass slashed my arm, but I didn’t look to check how bad it was. The doors opened, and I stumbled out.
“No!” I wailed.
The orange Pod was zooming away.
There was another gunshot. Gritting my teeth from the worsening pain in my leg, I staggered into the broken-down Pod. It was only a matter of seconds before the men would be on the platform. No one had repaired the Pod, and I had no way of keeping the automatic door closed. All I could do was thump the red emergency button at the front of the Pod.
“TRAVELLER PLEASE STATE YOUR EMERGENCY AND PROVIDE YOUR CITIZEN IDENTIFICATION NUMBER,” instructed the familiar, recorded voice.
I started to speak but couldn’t continue over the rapid gunfire. With the power of a megaphone, a voice below boomed, “Citizens are not authorised to carry weapons. Put down your weapon and surrender.”
The CyCops were here. I peeked out a window. There were two of them. The scrawny gunman swore at the android police officers and continued firing, his face twisted with hatred. A bullet to the head from one of the CyCops silenced him. In the distance I saw the SubChild disappear behind a building with her teddy in tow.
The Pod door opened and a CyCop stood outside. I saw myself reflected in its glass eye.
It scanned my Identity Chip with its palm and said, “Citizen Alissa Bollen you are under arrest for entering a restricted Black Zone. You will be taken to Mercy Hospital for medical treatment and quarantine then remanded to Selwyn Women’s Prison to await trial. You are under police surveillance now and anything you do or say could be used against you in Atticas City law courts. Do you understand?”
“A verbal response is required Citizen.”
“Step out of the Pod, please.”
Diana Grove writes weird short stories for children and adults that seldom have happy endings. Her stories have appeared in the anthology Freak Pure Slush Vol. 13 and the zine Trembling With Fear. Diana can be found on Twitter: @ImaginaryGrove
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