Junkyard Cats – Faith Hunter

With a soft clatter, I put down the wrench and walked around my latest delivery, hands loose at my sides. I wasn’t sure why I was so discomfited by the hunk of scrap. It triggered that sixth sense that had kept me alive for so long, but I couldn’t tell why. Maybe I was finally being paranoid for no reason. I rubbed my sweaty scalp, my hand sliding up under my floppy hat, studying the old AGR Tesla fuselage. The hatch was sealed with the yellow tape of military and civilian decertification, tape that marked the AntiGrav Retrofit vehicle as airtight. It also marked it legal for scrap, not that it was. Legal, that is. Everything looked normal. But still. I picked at the cracked orange nail polish on my fingernails, staring at the hood. Walked down one side. Uncertain. My sixth sense buzzed stronger. Maybe it was the ugly paint, a piss-poor chitosan polymer job in an unexpected hot fuchsia-pink that someone with lousy taste had sprayed over the former military gray.

The vivid color made the space-worthy composite body look like a military camp follower in full hooker regalia. But. It was just paint. Nothing to make me so jittery. I walked around the fuselage and stopped at the hatch. Stepped closer. And backed away fast. That was what was bothering me. There were ants skittering over the Tesla, crawling around the hatch and up over the roof as if they had found a nice meal where the vehicle had been parked, and then seen their lunch box carried away from their nest. They were mad, racing around the sun-heated metal as if the temp wasn’t a problem at all.

Ants. But not just any ants. Cataglyphis bicolor fabricius ants. Over the last few years there had been any number of scrap deliveries that gave me the willies, and this 2035 AGR Tesla and its ants was at the top of the list. Fighting the natural desire to run, I took several more very slow steps back. The ants didn’t belong here, not on this Tesla, not in the stony West Virginia desert. They didn’t actually belong anywhere. The bicolors had been imported from the Sahara Desert during the first year of the war, when things had gotten bad. There had been all kinds of ecological and environmental catastrophes and stupid importations and genetic modifications that the survivors were still living with. Bicolors were among the worst environmental mistakes ever created and they were nearly indestructible.

The males—only the males—had been modified on the genetic level by bionanobots, and sent out from some top-secret lab by the millions to clean up the mounds of dead humans and eat the germs that came from the corpses. Unable to reproduce without a female, they were programmed to die at the end of their normal lifespans. Except a few of them had absorbed some transposons from a Ginkgo biloba plant, developed sequential hermaphroditism, and figured out how to reproduce. Their bites and stings had evolved overnight to become lethal. They were impossible to eradicate and mean as hell. I know. I was swarmed and survived and had the scars to prove it. I rejected the urge to rub my right wrist on my britches. It tingled with remembered pain, burning even though the damaged nerves had been cauterized and nothing was left of the injury except the scarring and the nightmares. Unlike my other scars, these showed, and if I was making a rare trip into the big city for supplies, I either covered them with makeup or hid them beneath a sparkly bracelet to match the girly clothes and lacy gloves and dangerous strappy shoes I got to wear once in a blue moon.

I still missed the girl I had been before the war, but staying alive was more important than pretty dresses. And since I was legally dead, I avoided cities and other people like the plagues they sometimes carried. I took another slow step back. I hadn’t seen a bicolor in five years. My Berger-chip implant started to provide me with the usual useless data, but I tapped it off. This stuff I knew, and the only thing that mattered was that the genetically modified ants had group intelligence and killed anything that moved. Because of the modified hermaphroditism, anytime thirteen male ants got together in one place without a queen, one would change sex and, voila, there was the start of a new nest. Twelve bicolors and nothing happened. Add in that thirteenth and bingo. The bio-nanobots that had created the bicolors could be transferred only by the main queen in a nest, not any secondary females born or added to the nest.

There were way more than thirteen on the scrap Tesla body. All males, the short bodies and small abdomens indicating their gender. Bloody damn. I pulled back on the red knob, slowly disengaging the AntiGravity Grabber. The vehicle settled gradually to the ground with a muted whomp. I adjusted my hat over my sweat-spiked hair and pulled on armored gauntlets that had been scavenged from an antique warbot, circa 2040. The bot had been part of the reason I had set up for business here, in the middle of nowhere. Smith’s Junk and Scrap specialized in post-war surplus and waste. The discarded bot—and the half-buried, partiallyintact, US spaceship on the back lot—had been too good to pass up. The junkyard “office”—an even bigger lure, once I figured out what it really was—had become my home and hideaway.

The warbot gauntlets were oversized and reached my elbows, but they worked just fine, slipping five miniscule needles under the skin of each hand to engage my peripheral nerves. It hurt like crap for about ten seconds, but I’d lost pain sensitivity at these particular insertion sites over the years, like calluses on my nerve endings. In the machine hut, I found a half-empty gallon jug of Maltodine, a sodium-based, flammable substance made for killing any number of genetically modified creatures. Back in the sun, I made sure I was downwind of the vehicle and the ants, doused the Tesla in the gooey red toxin, and watched it spread. It was created to expand and wasn’t something the ants had adapted to notice as deadly. Yet. I lit and tossed an old-fashioned match at the Tesla. The fluid whooshed into flame, instantly so hot it burned blue. On fire, it spread even faster. The bicolors screamed in unison, a terrible, high-pitched harmonic that spoke of group intelligence and communal vengeance.

“Burn, you little buggers,” I muttered, watching as they rushed to try and save their pals and all burned, hot and spitting and gone. The flower-pink paint looked cheery beneath the toxic blue flames, self-healing even as the fire danced across it. The flames were pretty in my 2-Gen sunglasses as I switched back and forth between the raptor eye lenses and UV. None of the ants made it off the Tesla’s valuable graphite epoxy trusses and hemplaz carbonfiber composite body. Not one. Relief spread through me when the last ant died. “My sensors are picking up Maltodine fumes,” Mateo said into my earbud. We were WIMPpowered, EntNu linked, the Entangled Dark Neutrinos providing instantaneous communication even had he been on the far side of the solar system. Mateo was my employee. Sort of.

I’d found the war vet working as slave labor in a town on the way here. I’d stolen him from his owner and given him a home. Mateo knew all my secrets. Every single one. I tapped my ear and told him about the ants and my solution, and said, “Come hell or high water, I’m making money off this purchase.” Unspoken was the addendum: and a lot more money of the stolen, spanking brand-new, functional black-market Tesla-23B engine my contact had put in the back hatch, along with a couple of space-going pulse weapons. Mateo and I knew scrap, and the AGR and its nowhere-near-legal cargo were mega-valuable. Scuttlebutt said the war was heating back up. Anyone with weapons and engines stood to make a nice profit. And anyone with military supplies, weapons, and scrap, needed to make sure it never fell into the wrong hands—the hands of traitors who were dealing with the enemy.

I sold only to people in my network, people I trusted, and while those could be counted on one hand with fingers left over, this delivery already had buyers on both the legal market and my black-market network. Mateo grunted, or as much of a grunt as his bio-metallic larynx could make, which was more like metal grinding and rubber squeaking. “Lunch is ready,” he added. Satisfied, I took a break in the air-conditioned office and ate the lunch, a cold plate Mateo left in the double-sided fridge. He was mostly cy-bot now, having lost everything below the hips, part of his face, and one arm at the shoulder. He was addicted to Devil Milk, and I grew the plants in the camouflaged greenhouse at the back of the property just for him. It was the only thing that helped the military vet’s pain, and though the Gov. and the Law said Devil Milk was illegal, the local law officers weren’t in pain. Mateo was. So, screw ’em.

I protected my own. I didn’t use. I never would. Except for surgery, we Outlaw Militia Warriors didn’t use drugs of any kind. Before and after, OMW just toughed it out. Not that the militia organization even knew I was alive anymore. But some traditions were never to be neglected. I stayed clean. Except for beer. And a little tequila if it was the good stuff.

But not drugs. Ever. Today’s half-imported, half-homegrown, fermented delight was a lovely extra stout, dark as sin, with a head the color of caramel and a body so thick it was like sipping a milkshake. Best beer ever made, including pre-war stuff. With the beer came gourmet hummus with hot green chilies, a green salad with tomatoes, asparagus, okra, a homemade dressing of basil vinegar mixed with olive oil, and fresh bread. Just like yesterday and the day before, the veggies changing only with the growing seasons, not that I complained. Most anything was better than prepackaged ready-to-eat meals, and not many people got fresh food anymore. As a chef, Mateo was dependable, not inventive. He lost that part of his brain along with the rest of his body parts, but I never turned away a military vet who wanted a meal, a gallon of fresh water, or a job. Never.

It was part of the creed left to me by Pops, my father, who was OMW to the core. Leaning into the NBP compression command seat, I looked over the boards and screens that ran and oversaw the junkyard’s office. I breathed the air released from the leaves of the modified airscrubber plants and watched the burning Tesla. I fanned myself with my damp floppy hat, and let the A/C cool me, drying my sweat to a crusty, salty layer of white. I ate, drank the beer and a lot of water, took several electrolyte tablets, and watched through the heavy-weapon-fire resistant window as the Maltodine burned across the exterior of the ancient AGR Tesla. I could separate, recycle, and sell the body. The hemp tires were dry-rotted, the interior of the cockpit—what I had seen through the silk-plaz canopy—was bare to the frame, the space-worthy NBP compression seats were gone, electrical and hydro were gone. The wings had been stripped off and secured to a separate skid with military flex for easier transport. The rear engine compartment was sealed and invisible from the outside, but the weight alone told me that the Tesla-23B Massive Particle Propulsion engine I had paid extra for—a lot extra for—had been tucked into the hatch along with the weapons, just as I had been promised. Sooo.

That meant my jitters were solely from the ants—my own personal nightmare come calling. Pops had said, “Fear is a peculiar thing, love. You either run toward it, away from it, or you freeze.” Yeah. I had frozen, and that was stupid in the middle of a battle. I was always in the middle of a battle, even if it was just the one in my head. Half an hour later, the fire was out. I used the composting toilet, brushed my teeth, put on more 110 SPF sunscreen, and smeared on moisturizing lip gloss in a deep-orange color. Just because it was practical didn’t mean it couldn’t be pretty, even in the treeless, rocky West Virginia desert landscape where no one could see me. I headed back to the Tesla.

It was steaming in the day’s heat as the last of the toxic fumes blew away. The mounting jacks used for the pulse weapons, the AntiGrav, and the WIMP engine were now superheated hot-pink metal, as were the stripped weapons mounts. Using the wrench I had put aside earlier, I popped the lock, and the hatch over the rear engine compartment began to lift, ripping through the fire-proof yellow tape that marked it as sealed by various West Virginia authorities. The black maw opened. The stench boiled out. The engine and the weapons I’d been expecting had not been sealed inside after all. The body in their place smiled at me. So to speak. He’d been dead a while. Most of the tissue of his lips, nose, and lids were gone, revealing tobacco-stained teeth and empty holes where his eyes had been.

He was naked and mostly covered by hundreds of bicolors. I froze in place, not breathing, my heart beating so hard it felt as if it would pound through my chest. The little scavenger predator ants would have sensed their compatriots dying, but that had been eons ago in bicolor time. They paused, evaluated the opening of the hatch and my unmoving body—which was cooler than the ambient temp—decided there were no predators, and went back to work, rushing all over the inside of the Tesla and all over the naked body. Except three spots. Two were where his tats had been inked above his heart. On his upper pec were two black six-shooters, crossed over a gold star that still glittered with the ink the OMW had begun utilizing just after the war started in 2043—Tattered Pride Gold. Made only for the Outlaw Militia Warriors. The letters OMW were red and dripped down like blood onto the lower, larger tat. Touched by the last drop of red ink was an original Outlaw tat, skull and crossed Harley pistons, also free of ants.

The tats were old and faded and so was he, a war vet and an OMW made-man, mid-sixties, silvered red hair and beard, and a tattoo of Tennille Tennyson’s face on his left bicep. Ants were eating away at the tat of the singer’s pretty face. I knew this guy, just by his tattoos, even without running a viber over him for verification. His name was Harlan. Buck Harlan. He was my connection to the network, the black-market web where I bought and sold weapons and info. He and Mateo were the only people in the entire world who knew I was alive. He had been my father’s friend. He was also my friend, one of only two. Something inside me broke, shattered into slivers like glass, cutting my soul.

I managed a breath I had been holding too long. The ants didn’t notice the slight movement. The third part of Harlan that hadn’t been attacked by bicolors was the hemp-plaz note in his swollen fingers. On the front were my initials in his messy scrawl. The chances of Harlan showing up here, in the middle of nowhere, by accident, covered in bicolors, with a note to me in his dead fingers, were low enough to be impossible. Harlan was dead because of me. Which meant there was a traitor in the Gov. and in Harlan’s network. I just didn’t know who. I swore, but silently, in my head, not where the ants could hear me.

They still hadn’t noticed me. Yet. I stepped back, slowly, slowly, moving steadily, doing nothing quick to attract attention. I pulled my Hand-Held and took a burst of the body. Walking at a snail’s pace around the vehicle, I took multiple bursts of stills as I moved, until I was back at the hatch. Moving so slow it was like watching the sun cross the sky, I slipped on the military bot gloves. But something alerted the bicolors. As the gloves gripped onto my hands and arms, the ants turned to look at me. All of them. All at once.

A shiver took me, even with the heat. But I didn’t scream, run, or indicate fear that might tweak their predatory instincts. Moving millimeter by millimeter, I pocketed the Hand-Held and reached for the Maltodine. I needed to kill them. I needed to read that letter. The ants hissed. All of them together. A single sharp, piercing note. Looking right at me. “Oh, bloody damn,” I whispered.

The ants raced around, forming into small groups, each the requisite thirty-nine in number, which was three groups of thirteen. There were four groups of thirty-nine in all, with a ragged half group. Enough to start over a dozen new nests. Here. On my junkyard land. Over my dead body. Over Harlan’s dead body. Assuming they were a swarming party, sent to bring back food to an established nest, that meant these bicolors had been transported a good hundred kilometers from their queen; it tended to take a few hours before the ants noticed that they didn’t have a female anymore. It took seventy-two hours to complete the transition to female. I didn’t know how long they had been away from their nest, but they would notice they needed to create a queen soon.

I had to act now. But I needed that note. “Shining. Company,” Mateo’s synthetic voice said directly into my wireless earbud. “Bike. Unknown model. Ten klicks out. I am launching ARVACs,” he said, referring to Auto Remote Viewing Air Craft—flying drones with better-than-standard artificial intelligence and real-time viewing, part of the junkyard’s defense system. “The Law?” I whispered, looking at Harlan’s body, the jug a handbreadth from my fingertips. I had no desire to be hauled in for questioning over a dead man I hadn’t seen in years.

But I had no desire to have ants take over my junkyard. I had no desire to be swarmed again. Remembered fear shivered down my spine like thousands of tiny ant feet. “Unproven,” he said. “One vehicle. Approaching at 54 kph. No visible backup.” No sane lawman rode anywhere alone, and never on a bike. Someone had sent Harlan’s body, part of a special delivery sealed by the Gov. With bloody bicolor ants which no sane person would have done.

It could not be simple bad luck. Not the Law. Not the Gov. Not the military. The gift-giver was someone who wanted to play with me like a pride of cats with a junkyard dog. Or someone who knew what I really had on the property. I opened the Maltodine and tossed the entire container in the hatch. The ants swarmed toward me. I struck a match. Reached for the hatch door with one gloved hand.

Tossed the match with the other. Lightning fast, I ripped the note away. Just before the hatch closed, intense heat boiled out, and I heard the ants scream as the sound cut off. Maltodine burned anything anywhere, even without oxygen—except hemp-plaz composite. Maltodine didn’t burn anything made of metal or hemp that had been combined with silk-plaz at the atomic level. It burned until it no longer had anything organic to fuel it. Harlan, however, was organic. I tapped over my heart with a two fingered salute and said, “Peace, my brother. There will be no more war. May your last ride on the dragon’s tail be peaceful.

” I dropped my salute. “Deets on the visitor when available,” I requested of Mateo. “And calculate Maltodine burn time of one hundred kilos of organic matter in an anaerobic environment.” “Copy that.”

.

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