The Yellow Cabber took a sideways wheelie on Madison Avenue, then raised a two-fingered V. Me and Thompson, eyes still close, sat in the backseat patting our chests for signs of a heartbeat.
“You three okay?”
Considering the alternative: a carload behind us wanting us dead –– a gruesome party of annihilating cybots the cabber had managed to shake loose in busy street traffic –– I’d say we were fine. Only thing I hated though were folks including a Rough Houser in the conversation as if the titanium cybrute were human. I wanted to tap a human temple with the snub nose of my Zapruder 76 and warn one last time, “Hey, you blind? This ain’t human. It’s got a patent number engraved across its hairless chest. A titanium machine that only looks like you and me.”
The cabber shrugged both shoulders by way of an apology.
It’s back here for the ride. Maybe save our asses. Thompson and me–we can’t help it if we’re old career cops who find it hard making a stretch of faith for any metal other than our Zees.”
The cabber musically nodded his chartreuse head of long hair threaded with orange tin breads that tinkled like wind chimes I remembered as a kid those long-gone peaceful summers at Coney Island before the storms took her out to sea.
He was weird but human. A damn good wheel-hack the precinct had assigned to us when Personhattan streets became as impossible to navigate as an amusement park shooting gallery. He handled our old 2118 Regan Patroler as if it were an extension of himself. Speeding through horrendous rings of fire and around exploding wrecks, the Yellow-Cabber was our only chance of not dying on the streets, that and a litany of prayers might keep winning it for us. And if we got caught, there were the cybrute’s killing hands to abra-cadabra our luck from bad to a real quick good.
“We’re out of the soup, Thompson,” I said, but he just stared ahead through the front windshield with a look that said he knew a damn good liar when he saw one.
The number of city cops had dwindled down to almost a handful. Once we were a proud blue army of the finest, but not anymore. I touched Thompson’s shoulder. He winced and pulled himself as far away as he could.
“No, just sore. That last turn you slammed into me.”
“Better me than Rough Houser here,” I said. Thompson managed a half smile.
“Hernandez, why don’t we call it quits? Leave this hell island for the moon of Europa. Maybe mine some lune ore, get rich and ––”
“Who you kidding?”
“Nobody. Nobody at all. We’re living on borrowed time.
“Ain’t it a wonder we’ve made it this far?”
ReNew York was not the place to expect any longevity awards. Six years since the Big One and you could still find scrapers out of touch with the sky, their stone and steel jigsaw pieces lying across what once had been clean Manhattan streets. Now it was Personhattan, a ghost town. Worse than that. Ghosts can’t hurt you. But here, every shade of nightmare loomed on every corner. We were the cops patrolling the bombed-out streets and numbered-out avenues. We were the Zee toters with our Rough Housers and courage dangling from frazzled heartstrings.
His face turned nearly half around to face us, the cabber was talking again, his beads in a percussion of something vaguely nostalgic. “How about here?” he wanted to know. “Back of the station or drive this up nine stories and wiggle you two –– uh, three –– through the safe windows?”
Thompson finally said, “Bring us up.”
Rough Houser seemed most human now, inhaling deep breaths and exhaling them like a marathon runner before a race. It did that under stress which I could understand, given the recent past. Months back it had changed sides and come over to us. For awhile nobody trusted the turnbot, not even the other Housers, but then Rough Houser blew a chip and an old 21st Century Rap tune kept blasting nonstop over and over again from its hard mouth: “You Could Love Me Forever But How Long’s That Gonna Last?“ The classic rap hit of too many years before nearly drove it to pull its own cord when the tech-cops repaired the glitch, e-brainwashed the Houser, and things got better.
It was a machine nevertheless, equipped with synapses that sparked with near emotions, which we long-term cops understood. We had the same kind of reconstructed emotions, no, not by cy-engineers or cyintists wiring our hearts and guts, but by that deep craving for survival. If we let our emotions run us ragged, if we cried too long or laughed too hard, someone out there with a bigger zee than I holstered would reward my tears and laughter with enough bloody see-through holes, I’d flake apart and take to the polluted wind. Too many missions, too many failed attempts to save human lives, had burned away what had once made us happy and real. And fact is, it was getting harder all the time to give ourselves viable reasons why
life was so damn precious that we should fight to the death to keep it.
With the cabber at the wheel, the Regan climbed into the air, scaling the outside precinct wall like a giant dust mote rising in the hot afternoon air. Then we were shoving ourselves out the backseat and through the clearance window of Precinct 12.
Rough Houser pulled ahead of me, then swung his titanium arms, ordering us to “Get back in the hovercar! Now! This place is crawling with them!”
Hardly a second to spare I pivoted my six foot seven frame away from the window. With bits of flying steel whizzing over our heads, my partner and I dove into the backseat while Rough Houser covered for us, taking the ricochet of slugs that body-slammed against the cybrute’s blue cop suit. Finally he was with us in the Regan, his extended arm blocking our faces from the shots despite knowing the thickness of the Regan glass was impenetrable. We were safe for awhile.
Meanwhile the cabber with the musical beads was descending at breakneck speed towards the nighttime street below.
We lay low in a burnt-out doorway under the camouflage of blue tarp that shrouded fallen debris. Rough Houser’s fingertips were blinking red distress lights so I scanned the grounds. Through the night goggles my eyes fell on Thompson stretched out beside me. Blood spurted in a widening gush from his chest till it bubbled under his chin, popping out sounds that could’ve been words.
He turned his head slo-mo towards my voice and hooked his eyes into mine.
“Rough Houser,” I yelled without breaking my stare, “where the hell were you when we needed you?” By now Thompson’s eyes quit staring, only the appearance of an unbroken look that meant death. I closed his eyes. I draped the blue tarp over his face.
Precinct by precint they’d taken control of ReNew York. They’d wiped out nearly all ReNew Yorkers except for the last stronghold of cops –– the city’s last precinct.
“We don’t have much time, Hernandez,” Rough Houser said in that cybrute voice he had always detested. “We act now or we die.”
“We? You mean I die. Me! You’ll be free to live forever, Tin Man.” But the cybrute wasn’t buying. It raked its fingers, like an exasperated human, through long thick silver hair, and shook his titanium head. “Captain,” he said, “where would I go?”
It had me there. It was a deserter, a turnbot, a machine so used to kissing up to cops he’d be lost without them. He reminded me of the little birds in the pre-war countryside that were abandoned by their mothers when they fell from tree nests and curious little human children dared to touch them. Rough Houser was a goner too,
“I never trusted you,” I said. “Something about putting my life in the metal hands of a cybrute never sat right with me.”
But the machine ignored me. It threw me over its shoulder and hustled me back into the Regan where, across the front seat, the cabber lay dead. Rough Houser pulled the body out of the hovercar, tossed it onto the debris, and maneuvered itself behind the wheel.
I sat alone in the backseat, looking through the rear window at an approaching sawed-off Ford Taurus IX bent on rear-ending us. I could see the cybrute’s blinking red eyes in the rearview mirror. Just before contact, he stomped the gas pedal and we were airborne up the side of the old Empire Building on 34th.
“We can’t leave the island,” I said.
Rough Houser kept the Regan on course up the building, then made a sharp left until we were heading down toward and over the bridge, full speed ahead into BrookLion.
“You’ll be safe here, Captain. The renegade cybots took Personhattan Island, but the humans perhaps were smarter here. The machines will stay away, at least for awhile. Maybe you can live out your retirement here.”
I think it was the first time I’d seen Rough Hauser smile.
“What about you?”
“Cybrutes are not welcome here or anywhere. I know. I’ve been on both sides. I’ll drive back, and as you humans say, ‘I’ll take my medicine.’ “ It got back into the Regan, popped the window down and waved at me. “It’s been fun, Captain.”
I stood there a long while watching a tiny dot that was the Regan fade into the far-off distance. Then I saw it explode when it reached the other end of the BrookLion Bridge.
Salvatore Buttaci is an obsessive-compulsive writer whose work has appeared widely. He was the 2007 recipient of the $500 Cyber-wit Poetry Award. His poems, stories, articles, and letters have appeared widely in publications that include New York Times, U. S. A. Today, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Cats Magazine, The National Enquirer, Christian Science Monitor, Thinking Ten, Pen 10, and Cavalcade of Stars.
A former English instructor at a local community college and middle-school teacher in New Jersey, he retired in 2007 to commit himself to full-time writing.
Flashing My Shorts and 200 Shorts, published by All Things That Matter Press, are available in book and Kindle editions at
He lives with the love of his life Sharon in West Virginia.