Winter Holidays - Story 5 - Christmas 2077 by E.N. Dahl

Editor's note: This fascinating and dystopian piece has dark themes, violence, and gore. Reader discretion is advised.

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The new laws meant Chip wouldn’t be getting a prosthetic arm, so he met Alexa outside the hospital. They’d apparently been signed just days earlier, not that his dealer let him know how useless Frostbyte would be. Light flurries of snow danced down from the sky, spinning his mood a little, coaxing him from depressed to jovial, until Alexa smacked him across the face.

He raised his one remaining hand to his cheek, noticing that the moisture running down her face wasn’t from melting snow. She balled her fists, probably wondering if she should do the world a favor and just kill him right here. A swift death might’ve been one of the better gifts he’d received over the recent holiday seasons. But rather than outright murdering him, Alexa wrapped her arms around him, squeezing tight, making sure it hurt at least a little. She avoided the fresh wound of his stumpy right arm.

“You dumbass.” She spoke directly into his ear, breath hot, words shaking harder than her body. Always a thin woman, her sharp angles and protruding bones dug into him through their clothing. Neither of them had enough layers for December, between her one sweater and his long-sleeved shirt, but neither noticed the cold. Not right now.

She pulled away and punched him in the chest.

“You complete fucking moron!”

Some patients and their family members glanced over in alarm, one even being well-to-do enough to let out a little gasp, as if the world wasn’t full of rapists, politicians, and murderers so swearing was the absolute worst behavior possible. Chip didn’t do anything to quiet her down, both because it wouldn’t work as much and because he deserved it.

“I… I tried something, okay? I figured, since I’ve been employed, and people want enhanced employees now—”

“Yeah, obviously they want cyborgs!” She scowled, taking hold of his remaining arm and dragging him off toward the bus stop. “Not drug users!”

“I did this for us! They used to offer replacements, you know? You come in with a dead limb, and they just… fix you.”

Their footsteps crunched over fresh snow, the city quiet except for the noise they made to disturb it. The city so rarely ever held still enough for silence, but midnight came and went a while earlier, which meant all the kids were tucked into bed while their parents got sneakily blasted. At least, that’s what Chip’s parents did. He’d leave out milk and cookies, his parents would turn that into White Russians. And cookies.

Alexa took a seat on the bus stop bench, dragging him down to sit next to her. Body heat radiated off her. Maybe her anger generated a lot of warmth, but he always said she had a smoking hot body, even if she never agreed. There remained a slim possibility that his brain had begun to shut down from pain or infection, so her heat could’ve been a hallucination, but he plopped down beside her, nestling into her side.

“Listen,” she said, a hand coming up to caress his cheek, turning him to face her. “You don’t need to be fixed.”

“Even now?” He wriggled his stump.

“Even now.” Alexa stared at the place where his arm used to be. “Besides, what did you think would happen? They give you a new limb and all the sudden, you use it to become a millionaire?”

Chip shrugged. “Jobs were hard enough to come by even a year or two ago. Now that everyone can just—” he snapped his remaining fingers— “buy new limbs, just like that, how am I supposed to compete? Beg the augmented workers to toss a few bitcoins my way? Sell my beautiful body for sex work? Get an internship and pray my bosses want me to go full-time afterward?”

Tires ground their way through the parking lot, headlights beaming as the bus approached, so they stood up. She already had their fare in hand.

“First of all, if those are your only options, you might as well enjoy getting fucked, so skip the internship. Blowjobs are better than data entry every day of the week. The one arm thing works against you, but maybe we can get you attachments or something.”

The bus pulled up, so they boarded and headed to the back, where the driver wouldn’t hear them as well. There remained a chance she’d hear anyway because the bus had no other passengers, but if she wanted to listen that badly, being disturbed would be her problem.

“So, you’re suggesting a dildo-arm?”

“I mean, it’s a possibility. Plus I know at least three people who’d want to fuck the stump once it’s healed. Amputees are a very real fetish, Chip.”

“Wait, seriously?” With Alexa’s sense of humor, he couldn’t be sure.

“Dead serious. You ever hear how width’s more important than length? Well, you’ve got both,” she tapped his shoulder, above the stump, “and it’s not like your nub is going to have problems with premature ejaculation.”

“I mean, hopefully.”

Her eyes drifted closed as she shuddered, face turning slightly green. “Okay, that’s gross. New conversation. Need to get that image out of my head.”

“You got it. Uh…” Nothing came to mind. What do you say to your significant other after you use an illicit substance to kill your own arm in an attempt to scam the government into giving you a better one? He looked out the window at the passing houses, most of them dark. A few had put up decorations, though the increasing amount of atheists and the general decrease of liquid capital among the middle class meant nobody had the time, money, or interest in decorating for today. Certain conservative types painted this as a war on Christmas, but really, it was more of the “slow fizzling out and dying of a materialistic holiday due to the fact that nobody has the financial ability to be materialistic anymore” on Christmas. The truth didn’t sound as snappy, but nobody likes the truth anyway.

“I don’t think I’d make a good prostitute,” Chip said, unable to find a subject less disgusting or depressing than the one they were already on.

“Why’s that?”

“Because. Now that I could just slap on a hook and eyepatch, how am I supposed to resist dressing up like a pirate?”

She laughed all the way back to their apartment.

***

Calling it an apartment might’ve been a stretch, but they could always call it home. It had four walls, a bed, and electricity, thanks to the fact that the power company had forgotten all about the “abandoned” structure. Plus the CONDEMNED stickers all over the exterior even warded off a lot of the other vagrant population, so they got to live there in almost total privacy, so long as they didn’t mind the occasional other guest on the other floor. Even rats avoided this place, despite how huge and aggressive most vermin had become.

The building had no heat, but they’d set up plenty of space heaters. This worried Chip sometimes, but he took extra care to see they wouldn’t ignite anything. He continued this duty tonight. Him being an idiot and getting his arm amputated didn’t mean shit when it came to finishing the few chores he had to do.

Alexa turned on their TV and found something to watch on Netflix. The building’s accidental free power and Wi-Fi leeched from a coffee shop next door meant that they could stream all they wanted. A friend of hers let them keep a profile on her account, so they didn’t have to pay even one of the dollars they didn’t have toward the service.

“Preference?” She gestured at the TV.

“No documentaries.”

“You always say that.”

“I always mean it.” He grinned.

“As if I’d ever pick one!” She smiled back, rolling her eyes. She eventually settled on a holiday-themed horror movie that was actually a few shorter stories rolled into one feature-length film. Horror always worked for him.

They only watched for a few minutes before she started talking, which was fine by him, because he’d actually seen this one before.

“You ever think about today, and how some say Christ is gonna come again to judge everybody and all that shit?” She turned a little, as if looking at him, despite not taking her eyes off the TV.

“Well, neither of us are religious, so no…”

“No, I mean, like, philosophically. For arguments sake. Think about it. Jesus was supposed to be a mortal guy with basically super powers, but his powers didn’t kick in until adulthood. What if the second coming happened, but he never got a chance to actually do shit? He was born into poverty the first time around. What if Christ came again, and starved to death? What if he got Type 1 diabetes, but his family couldn’t afford his insulin, so he died? What if Christ came back as a woman and a fundamentalist type got pissed off and killed her, saying, ‘It’s the son of God, not the daughter!’”

“I imagine he, or she, or they, or however God identifies, would judge the unholy fuck out of us for that.”

“Right? Look at Old Testament God and ask if The Big G would have mercy on anyone if we killed his kid because of stupid crap like that. We do… so much dumb shit.”

He looked over and saw her leaning around him, just a little, staring at his stump again.

“Sorry about this.” Chip whispered, a knot in his stomach preventing him from speaking at full volume.

She shrugged into him. “Don’t be sorry. Can’t undo it, right?”

“I still feel like an ass.”

“Eh. You’re my ass.” She kissed him on the cheek.

He tentatively slid his remaining hand along her back, sliding a finger under her waistband. “I thought this was your ass?”

She snickered but moved his hand away.

“Don’t push it. Survival’s as lucky as you’re gonna get tonight.”

They went back to watching the movie; not that either of them actually watched.

***

Chip didn’t remember falling asleep. He woke to the sound of beeping. A horrible, awful beeping that made every microwave he’d ever owned look quiet by comparison. It took a moment of shaking his sleep-addled head to realize what the sound signaled.

“Wake up!” He yelled, shaking Alexa awake. She’d fallen asleep with her head on his shoulder, their backs to the wall, but he jumped to his feet as best he could, shaking the stiffness from his limbs as he rushed to the window. Down below, heavy machinery reflected the pre-dawn gloom, their yellow sides stained and dirtied with the dust of a thousand buildings.

This one was obviously next.

“What’s happening?” She yawned, stumbling to her feet as Chip wrenched the window open against a lifetime of dirt and bad paint jobs. He stepped back and kicked out the screen.

“Hey!” He stuck his head out, shouting to the crew below. “There are people in here!”

“Holy shit, what are they—hey!” Alexa joined in.

As they cried out, he found himself struck with a peculiar sensation that they couldn’t hear him. Not that he wasn’t being loud enough; just that the people down there would never, ever be aware of a single sound either of them made. It felt the same as starting to tell a joke at a party, then stopping halfway through because you can feel that nobody’s listening.

Well, almost nobody. A man in a hardhat looked up at them, tilting his headgear a bit to show his face in its entirety. They locked eyes for an instant.

“We’re still in here! Don’t! Just give us a minute to leave!”

Then the foreman laughed. Not audibly, but they could see the shake of his body and knew he didn’t care. He winked at them and drew his finger across his neck, then signaled for the demolition to begin.

“What the hell’s his problem?” Chip said, heart hammering.

“Who cares? Let’s get out of here!” Alexa yelled, reaching for his arm and missing, because she was on the wrong side, so she spun him around, taking his one hand. They bolted for the door just as a wrecking ball collided with the side of the building. Cracks sprinted far ahead of them, ripping the floor from the walls, the ceiling caving in, a chasm opening up to drop them straight into Hell.

***

Chip woke screaming from the unending darkness behind his eyelids, cast too quickly into a world of lights. Outdated bulbs flickered overhead while a medical assistant android monitored his vitals. He tried to recoil from the deathly gray of her synthetic skin, unable to tear his gaze away from her unblinking, pupil-less eyes, but he couldn’t move.

Actually, he could move, but only his torso.

Whipping his head around, he tried not to scream at the fact that he wasn’t just missing his right arm. He’d lost all of his limbs entirely, right to the joint. The fugue of morphine and god knows what else did little to dull the sharp blade of horror piercing his chest.

“Wh-wh-what?” He gasped. “No. No!”

The android glanced over and shook her head. “Stupid human. What were you thinking, living in a condemned building?” Her words ground their way through a static haze, unmistakably machine-born. “You’re lucky the city is afraid you’ll sue, or you’d be stuck like this: a wriggling, helpless worm.”

“Excuse me? I lost all my limbs and you’re, what, telling me off? Where am I?” He groaned, throat raw. A shrill beep in his right ear signaled that his heart rate had spiked, not that he needed a machine to know this. He could feel its tremor in the ghosts clinging to his stumps. “Where’s Alexa?”

The nurse snickered. “Of course I’m telling you off. What are they going to do, fire me? I can accomplish 718 percent more than any of you squishy little meat bags, never sleep, can’t get sick or pregnant, and if I break down, I can simply replace my faulty component. That’s a luxury you’ll learn about firsthand.” Her mouth turned up in a grin. “If you’ll excuse the pun. There’s a girl around here with a rather infectious sense of humor who seems to have corrupted my hard drive… I suppose I can get viruses.”

Chip’s heart clawed its way into his throat. He remembered the days before artificial intelligence, before even the first, the one that called itself Nova, broke onto the scene and began changing everything. A hard drive with a virus meant running a scan or getting it to a professional before the whole system collapsed. Hell, one weak password could breach the privacy of over a hundred million people. People liked to say androids had internal safeguards that would isolate viruses, but that didn’t mean shit to him. Not when the news still played the occasional story of an AI going berserk and attacking other droids, or humans, or itself.

“You’re corrupted? Should you be working with patients if you’re all fucked up?” Alexa would’ve had a lot to say here. She would’ve shut this robot down, fast. Such as it was, he couldn’t even press an emergency call button to get a human in here if this took a bad turn.

His protest got shot down with one wave of a cold, dismissive hand.

“My personality is open source—easily changed. My medical prowess is encrypted. You’re fine. You’ll be better than ever soon, considering that the mayor personally authorized you to receive four—yes, four, despite your little Frostbyte incident last night—shiny new artificial limbs. No excuse for you not getting a job now that you’ll be able to literally lift a car into the air and rip it apart with your bare hands.” She scowled. “People like you disgust me. Using drugs to induce tissue death, almost winding up septic and gangrenous, all in the name of cheating the system. But I suppose you got lucky.”

He sure didn’t feel lucky, stuck in a hospital with this deranged machine. A medical haze in his head prevented him from screaming in agony, but he had no idea if he’d even survive the pain if they turned off his morphine drip. That didn’t answer the question the droid kept ignoring, but that didn’t surprise him. Companies built these things to be human-shaped, but still distinctly machine, so there’d never be any confusing them for real people. It really pissed off the AIs, but it kept the divide between organics and synthetics nice and clear.

The nurse opened up her midriff to reveal, apparently, a storage compartment with four bundles of wiring and machinery. These got placed on his stomach while it loaded four nanotech ampoules into the fingers of her left hand, flexing them to extend hypodermic needles from her fingers. This AI walked straight out of a nightmare, but he needed an answer.

“Wait!” He said, as sharp and authoritative as he could in his condition. “Where is Alexa?”

A harsh laugh that could’ve just been an audio glitch echoed from that twisted mouth. “Dead. Ironically, if you haven’t been dosing up on Frostbyte to kill your arm and get yourself a free replacement, you might’ve been there when the demo crew did a walkthrough to ensure the rooms were clear. So busy trying to build a life together that you ended hers. What delightful irony.” The droid couldn’t have hurt him worse if she tore open his chest and ripped his heart out with her teeth. “Now buckle up, ’cause you have to be conscious for this, and it’s gonna hurt.”

The nurse pointed the hypodermic index finger down into the joint of his right shoulder, ready to begin even as his whole world ended, but paused. That metallic right hand came to rest on his torso, then cupped his chin, tilting his head to make eye contact. The fragmented pieces of his world coalesced for just an instant.

“Hey.” That robotic voice came out a little softer than before, her smile just a tad nicer, hinting that, somewhere in her corroded memory banks, she might’ve once had the code for decency and kindness. She might’ve once been just a little human. “Merry Christmas, Chip.”

Then she began to operate.

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E.N. Dahl is an award-winning screenwriter and novelist from coastal New Jersey. She’s the author of the upcoming Nova EXE, among other works. Under various names, her short fiction has appeared with The Horror Tree, Siren’s Call Publications, Thunderdome Press, J. Ellington Ashton, Transmundane Press, and numerous others. When not writing, she can probably be found reading, watching anime, or doing yoga.

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