Our December story is by Brandon O’Brien, a writer of fiction and poetry from Trinidad & Tobago, and the poetry editor of FIYAH. Brandon is one of my favorite new SFF writers, and his work has an impressively wide range. You can find a lot of his pieces online, but for the reprints series, I picked one of his stories that was previously only available in print, in the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean (edited by Karen Lord, Peekash Press, 2016).
To me, fallenangel.dll is one of those stories that can only be written by someone from a non-Anglo-Western country (being someone from a very different non-Anglo-Western country myself). It’s not about the setting, it is just as much about the perspective. Read it and see! I also wanted to pick a longer story for December, so that you have something to read over the holiday break – fallenangel.dll is almost novelette length. Happy holidays!
Content notice: the story includes depictions of police violence, including drug arrests on false charges.
fallenangel.dll by Brandon O’Brien
“Didn’t have any problems getting back?”
Imtiaz stretched on the couch and sighed. “Nah,” he called back to the kitchen. “Traffic was remarkably light today. You know how it is – takes a while for everyone to find their rhythm.”
“I don’t know how it is, actually,” Tevin shouted from the kitchen. There was a rustle of plastic bags, and then he poked his head from the door. “I never experienced a state of emergency before.”
“A blessing for which you should thank God,” Imtiaz said. “I would’ve killed for the chance to study abroad when the last one happened. Worst three months of our lives.”
After even more shuffling from the kitchen, Tevin came into the living room, a cold bottle of beer in each hand, and kissed Imtiaz on the cheek. “And was there a good reason for the last one?”
“Just as good a reason as this one.”
Tevin sighed and handed his partner a bottle. “I guess I should have gotten more beer then.”
Imtiaz chuckled. “Slow down, hoss. Since when you turn big drinker, anyway?”
“Country gone to the dogs? No better time, I figure.” Tevin raised his bottle before him as a toast.
“To the dogs. Now they get to see us trapped at home.” He brought his bottle to Tevin’s with a soft clink, and then put it to his lips and took a long swig. It had only been three days so far since the Prime Minister had declared the country under lockdown, and everyone knew what a joke looked like when they saw it. It had been seven years at least since the last time he’d been in one, and the excuse was the same. “We are working hard with the Armed Forces,” the Prime Minister would say, “to curtail the growing crime rate in this country, and we ask only that the citizens of this great twin-island state be patient in this effort.”
The first thing that popped up on social media was also the most accurate: “How you does curtail crime by simply asking criminals to stay inside?”
Imtiaz felt a vibrating in his pocket, and reached into it for his cell phone. Almost as soon as he saw the text on his screen, he shoved it back into his pocket.
“Everything okay?” Tevin asked.
“Yeah.” A long sigh, then Imtiaz took another, longer gulp of beer.
“… It’s nothing.”
“If I have to ask what nothing is –”
Imtiaz frowned and put his drink down. “I just might have to head out in a bit.”
Tevin squinted. Imtiaz didn’t like getting in fights, least of all with Tevin, whose disappointed glares had the power to make him feel ashamed for days afterward. “I don’t want to, but I kinda promised –”
“A friend of mine wanted help moving something. She doesn’t want to talk about it.” He got up and walked slowly to his bedroom. “I wish I didn’t have to, but I promised before this was a thing-”
“But you can say no? It’s minutes past six. You can’t just head back out –”
“I promised,” Imtiaz called back. “And I swear, it’s not a big deal. Lemme just take care of it, and I’ll be back before you miss me.” He took the phone back out and opened the text this time: so im at uwi, can you meet me at the gate?
“Im.” When he turned to the door, Tevin was already in the walkway, arms folded. “Come nah man. You wanna break curfew and not even tell me why?”
Imtiaz reached for a shirt hanging on the door of his wardrobe and put it over his grey tee. “It’s Shelly. She said she needed someone with a car to help her move something two weeks ago, and now is the only day it can happen. I volunteered.”
“‘Move something’? What?”
“One of her projects. I dunno what yet.”
There it was – Tevin’s dreaded glare, as he tapped his foot on the white tile of the walkway. “A’right. A project. But if the police hold you, you’re out of luck. And don’t play like you taking your time to answer the phone if I call. You hear?”
“Yes, boss,” Imtiaz said, a small smirk on his face. It was his only line of defence against Tevin’s sternness. It didn’t succeed often, but when it did, it did so well.
Tevin tried to fight the grin spreading over his face, and lost. “Be safe, Im. Please. Promise me that. Since you insist on keeping promises.”
Imtiaz walked up to him, still slipping the last buttons into their holes, and kissed his partner softly on the lips. “I absolutely positively promise. I’ll be fine.”
“You bet your ass you’ll be fine,” Tevin whispered. “Play you’re not going and be fine, see what I go do to you.”
Imtiaz sped down the highway at sixty, seventy miles an hour, past the three or four motorists still making their way back home who glanced at him with fear. A dusty navy-blue Nissan rushing past in the dark night blaring circa-2007 noise rock does that to people.
He made sure to call before he took off. He’d meet Shelly at the South Gate and take off immediately. She asked if the back seat was empty, and if his husband knew what they were going to pick up. Imtiaz reminded her that he didn’t know either, to which she replied, “Oho, right – well, see you just-now,” and hung up. This wasn’t a good sign, but the volatile mix of curiosity and dedication to keeping his promises got the better of him.
It was twenty to seven when he pulled up, screeching to a halt right in front of the short Indian girl in the brown cargo pants and black t-shirt. She took the lollipop out of her mouth and peeped through the open driver-side window, putting a finger of her free hand into her ear to block out the music.
“You just always wanted to do that, right?”
“Get the hell in,” he sneered.
“Alright, alright,” Shelly said. She lifted a black duffel bag off the ground beside her and got in the back.
“Wait.” Imtiaz turned back to face her. “What’s in the bag?”
“Tools.” She patted it gently as she said it, looking right at him, sporting a smug grin.
“Tools? Open it, lemme see.”
“What, you think I selling drugs or somet’ing?”
“I t’ink if you weren’t selling drugs, you’d be able to open the blasted bag.”
Shelly slapped the bag even harder, just so he could hear the clanging of metal within. Her hand recoiled painfully. “Happy now?”
“No.” He faced front and slowly got back on the road. “Where are we heading?”
“Eh… Just keep going west, I’ll let you know.”
“That isn’t how you ask people to give you a lift.”
Shelly sighed, rolling the lollipop from one side of her mouth to the next. “Would you get nervous if I said Laventi–”
“Laventille?” he shouted. “You want to go to Laventille at minutes to seven on the third night of a curfew? What, not being arrested or murdered is boring?”
“Trust me, when you see it, you’ll be glad you came.” Shelly grinned even wider. “Something you couldn’t imagine. I could’ve gone myself, but didn’t you wonder why I asked if you could do it? Not because I needed a car.” She shrugged. “Although we will.”
“Are you gonna tell me what it is?”
“Shh. You go see it.” She shifted the duffel bag and lay across the length of the seat. “I dare you to tell me you not impressed when we reach there.” She winced, turning to face the stereo deck. “How you could listen to this?”
Imtiaz couldn’t help but smirk. They’d spent many an afternoon debating the musical value of his thrashing, clanging metal music. At her most annoying, he wasn’t beyond blasting it just to get on her nerves. Today felt as good a time as any.
“It calms me,” he replied. It did. He imagined his thoughts dancing to it, his large sweaty moshpit of anxieties.
“I don’t see how this could calm anyone, Im. It sounds like two backhoes gettin’ in a fight.”
“If you say so.” He would have liked to describe the meaning of the present song at length – about rebellion, about sticking it to the man and rising above oppression and propaganda to finally live in a land where you were a free and equal citizen – but he had been Shelly’s friend long enough to know that she didn’t care. She appreciated that she had friends like Imtiaz who thought as deeply about the things they loved as she did about her own loves, but she never really wanted to know what those deep thoughts were. That would involve caring about the things they loved as well. She often didn’t. Passionate people were more interesting to her than their passions.
He glanced at his watch, and panic shot through him. “Shit!” He swerved, aiming for an exit into a side street in San Juan.
“What the –?” Shelly bumped her head on the door, then straightened up.
“Why did I do this?” Imtiaz’s eyes opened wide. “We going to get arrested!”
“Whoa!” Shelly put up her hands. “Don’t panic. We came off the bus route, no one going to see us now. I go give you directions, okay?”
He lowered the volume on the stereo. “I don’t like any of this, Michelle.”
She winced at the sound of her whole first name. “I know. I should’ve say something before. But would you have come if I didn’t?”
“What could be so important?”
“You really have to see it.”
She pointed out the route, giving vague directions as if she were guessing at them, only appearing to get a better sense of where they were going as they got closer to the house. Shelly said she often passed through this area to look for the person they were meeting. She had met the man on a forum early last year. He was one of the few seemingly deluded souls to believe the government rumours of drones and police riot-suppression bots. This interested her less for anarchist, anti-establishment reasons, and more because this was her only chance to get to see a bot up close – if the rumours were true. Almost every month her friend would have some evidence, and almost every week he’d need to be bailed out of Golden Grove Prison for a heroin possession that wouldn’t stick. Imtiaz asked if she trusted her friend, and she shook her head.
“That is why we going.” Shelly was still focusing on the road when she said it.
Imtiaz focused on the road, too. Along the way, he had noticed at least three police jeeps. It looked like they were circling the area. He swore, too, that he’d heard a helicopter above, after leaving the San Juan border, but he couldn’t hear it any more.
“We almost there,” Shelly said, pointing at a rusted shack of galvanised sheeting, with a glittering lime-green sedan parked outside. “By that car.” Imtiaz nodded, parked behind it, unplugged his phone, and got out. Shelly shuffled a bit inside before taking up her bag and opening the door. “Follow me. Lemme do the talking.”
Imtiaz closed the door behind her and gestured for her to lead the way, past the car, past the front door to the side entrance. Shelly knocked three times, and a stern woman’s voice shouted, “Just come inside, nah!”
The door swung open with a creak and Shelly stepped in, Imtiaz following close behind. He was hypervigilant, even to the point of being aware of his awareness, of whether he’d come across as nervous even as he glanced around for the faintest sign of threat. They were in the kitchen, which was better furnished than the outside of the house suggested – stainless steel sink, tiled countertop, the best dishwasher money could buy, even two double-door fridges.
A tall, dark woman was at the counter, dicing a tomato with a chef’s knife. She looked fit, with beautiful soft features, with skin that wrinkled almost imperceptibly at the corners of her lips and near her eyes. Imtiaz guessed she was around her late fifties.
“Ey, it’s Shelly!” the woman said, smiling but not taking her eyes off the tomato. “And who’s your friend?”
“Missus Atwell, this is Imtiaz. You know how your son and I like putting together puzzles. Imtiaz likes that sort of thing, so I invited him to help.”
“Ah, yes…” Ms. Atwell put down the knife and stared wistfully off into the TV room, where some soap opera was playing on mute. “Runako and his blasted puzzles. He does still never let me see them, you know. Even when the police take him, he insist – nobody mus’ go back in his room an’ look for anyt’ing.”
“Yeah, the puzzles are kinda important, miss.”
Ms. Atwell continued gazing distantly for a beat or two, and then went back to her tomato. “Well, just try not to stay too late. You getting a ride out of here after?”
“Yes, miss,” Shelly said, nodding as she left the kitchen, gesturing for Imtiaz to follow down the short hallway to a dark brown door. Shelly rapped on it three times. They could hear the sound of large containers being dragged across the floor, and then one, two, three bolt locks being opened.
The door opened a crack, and a dark-skinned face poked through. His eyes were wide at first, but then he glanced at Shelly and sighed calmly, pulling the door open slowly. “Oh, it’s you. Thanks for passing through.”
“Of course I must pass through,” she said as she entered, Imtiaz behind her. “You say you had something for me to see. I saw the picture. I just want to make sure.”
Runako was a tall black man, perfectly baldheaded, in a white Jointpop t-shirt and black sweatpants. When he noticed Imtiaz looking at him, he nudged Shelly and stepped back, leaning on the wall nervously. “Who is this? Your friend?”
“Yeah. Runako, meet Imtiaz. He’s the one going to help me put this back together. If you didn’t set me up like all the other times.”
He folded his arms. “Okay. But I telling you, too many times I get hold, I get lock up, because somebody tell somebody and the police hear. This is probably my last chance for somebody to see it.”
Imtiaz had focused on an odd shape in the corner of the room under a sheet of grey vinyl. When he turned back to the other two, they were glancing at it too. “This is it?” he asked.
Runako nodded. “Look at it, nah, Shelly? Exactly as I promised.”
She stepped toward it and pulled the dusty vinyl off. In a coughing fit, her eyes widened as she looked at it. When she got her breath back, she turned to Runako. “Really?”
“See?!” Runako grinned. “I is not no liar.”
“Imtiaz, come!” She waved to her friend to come closer, and he stepped up beside her. It was a robot with a matte black shell and glossy black joints. It had suffered severe damage; frayed wires poked out of an arm, its chestplate had a fist-sized hole in it. Imtiaz noticed that on its back were a pair of camouflage-green retractable wings; they looked as if they would span half the room when opened, maybe even wider. On its neck was a serial number painted in white stencil: TTPS-8103-X79I.
“TTPS?” Imtiaz said, almost at a whisper. “As in –”
“Yeah, man,” Runako said behind them.
“A real live police bot…” Shelly straightened up slowly, dusting herself off. “This is the riot team model?”
“Yeah. The mark-two, in fact. Tear gas and pepper spray nozzles in the arm, but they not full, and stun gun charges; thrusters under the wings so it could dispense over crowds by flying overhead. Recording cam in one of the eyes – can’t remember which, supposed to be forty megapixels. And some other things, but I didn’t open it up yet. I was waiting for you.”
Shelly rubbed her hands and reached down beside her to open the duffel bag and take out a long, flat-head screwdriver. “Why, thank you, kind sir. Now, gimme my music there. Time to start.”
Runako nodded and stepped over to a stereo at the corner of the room. Shelly took a USB drive out of her back pocket and tossed it at him. He caught it, slotted it in a back port, and pressed a couple of buttons. He stepped back as something haunting and atmospheric played, the lyrics lo-fi and echoing, the instrumental thumping and dark. Shelly swayed a little as the sound rumbled through the room, eyes closed, facing the ceiling, as if taken briefly by some heavenly rapture. Then she straightened and pointed her screwdriver at Imtiaz. “You hear that, Immy? Now that is music to calm you. Not whatever wildness you does listen to.”
Imtiaz squinted, eager to ask what made her witchy-sounding, incomprehensible music better than his tastes, but he kept his question to himself.
Shelly knelt before the thing and started unscrewing the outer panels, observing the wiring as it snaked across its chest and limbs, leading to each gear or tool it powered. Imtiaz pulled up a chair by the wall so he could see, but not so close as to disturb her.
Her hands moved as if she were in a trance. Gently, screws would slowly wind out of their places, plating would fall into her hands, she would gently place it beside her on a sheet of newspaper on the floor. She would follow the lines of red and green and purple wire from the processor in its headpiece to the battery supply in its centre and then out to the extremities, to its tear gas canister launchers, its sensory databases. Imtiaz thought that they looked like the veins of… Of course they did. Of course they looked like veins, like nerves, like sinews. What else could a man do but copy?
He stared at the serial number on a sheet of plate on the floor. A police riot bot. Here, in Laventille. On a night of curfew. He went from peacefully admiring Shelly’s diligence right back into panic.
Shelly said softly, “You’re gonna be checking the BIOS after this is done, by the way. So get a laptop ready. Runako?”
Runako snapped a finger, then picked up a dusty grey notebook near the stereo. “Here, boss.” He took a couple of long steps to get to Imtiaz and rested it in his lap.
As Imtiaz opened it, he could hear Shelly mumbling to herself about “not that much damage”, and the bot being “up and running in an hour”. He glanced up to see that most of the outer shell, save for the wings, were gone, the bot’s innards entirely visible. He could see past them to the bedroom wall. It was almost a work of art as it was.
He opened a guest profile on the laptop and launched a web browser. “How you paying for this, again?” he said.
“‘You’?” Shelly chuckled. “You mean we.”
“What?” He froze for a moment. “No. No, I don’t. Trus’ me, I don’t.”
“So… I forgot to mention…” She had a pair of pliers in hand now, stripping some of the power-supply wires with them.
“I promised Runako we would come back if he needed anything. In exchange for this.”
“Wha–” He wanted to shout, but he glanced at Runako and decided against it. He didn’t know what kind of person he was dealing with. As the host folded his arms, Imtiaz cleared his throat. “You didn’t think this was probably worth sharing with me first? Before even asking me to come here?”
“I figured it wasn’t going and be a problem. You like them kinda thing.”
“But I don’t like doing it for free for people I don’t know.”
Shelly gestured to the robot with a free hand. “Look – it already open. We already here. I asking nicely. This is too big an opportunity.”
He didn’t answer right away, but he wanted to say no. This was the neighbourhood where strangers got shot. He wasn’t planning to come back, national lockdown or not. “How much something like this supposed to cost?”
Shelly had already returned her focus on the wiring. “This is seven figures at least.”
Runako chimed in. “Black market is nine hundred fifty thousand.”
Imtiaz sighed as softly as he could, too softly for them to hear. He couldn’t do it. His skin felt tight against him, his palms clammy and warm. He logged into Facebook in the hope of finding something silly and distracting while Shelly tended to the robot.
The very first shared link on his feed read Sources Warn of Police Raids in Hotspots to Curb Crime During Curfew. He opened it in another tab: “Residents in several so-called ‘crime hotspots’ across the island have claimed that their areas are being targeted by police officers who, as part of their crackdown on crime, are performing random house searches for illegal contraband…”
Imtiaz felt his chest get tight. He glanced at the window and was sure he could see flashing blue lights several streets away. He glanced back at the article: “Several Western areas, such as Belmont and Laventille, are due for their own random searches at the time of posting, sources say.” He heard a siren blare suddenly, and just as suddenly, silence. He was sure.
“You nervous or what, man?” Runako said sternly.
“What?” Imtiaz turned to face him. “Nah, I good.”
“You sure? Like you freaking out about the deal.”
He looked away, hoping to hide whatever signs of fear were on his face. “I just could’ve been told before, that’s all.”
“Ey.” Runako snapped his fingers, and Imtiaz twitched. “What? You is another one of them who feel they too good for Laventille?”
“I didn’t say that.” Imtiaz got out of his seat and walked to the bedroom window, pulling the curtains open only enough to get a good view. The street was empty and dimly lit. “Although you can’t blame a guy, can you?”
“What that supposed to mean?”
“It supposed to mean people don’t like coming to places and being afraid they not going and make it back home after.”
“Really?” Runako folded his arms. “This is the fool you go look to bring in my house, Shelly? During de curfew, no less, a man going and tell me the whole of Laventille not safe for nobody?”
“You hear me say –”
Shelly whistled, still not looking up from the robot. “Fellas, I like a good rousing sociopolitical debate just like everybody else, but we on a clock, right? So cool it.”
Runako backed off, but Imtiaz kept looking out of the window. This time he was positive – a police jeep stopping at the top of the street, one man coming out of the back seat and shouting at the window of a house. “I don’t like this.”
Shelly was already taping over some exposed wires, and taping around them all to keep them in place. “I’m almost done, Im. You’ll just check the firmware quick, help me load it into the car, and that’s it. We almost finished.”
Imtiaz saw the officer beat on the door of the house until a woman came out, and then grab her by the neck and throw her out onto the street. He shouted again. Another officer came out from the driver’s side door, a pistol already in his hand.
“Stop almost-finishing and finish, then,” he said nervously. “Trouble up the street.”
She looked over the inside of the shell again, tracing her hands along all the snaking wires, trying to find a spot she had overlooked. When she couldn’t find one, she shrugged, beginning to screw each plate of its iron skin back together. “We could deal with the outer damage when we take it home, I guess. Your turn.”
It took Imtiaz a moment to peel away from the window. The second officer had just struck a small child in the head with his handgun, and his partner was already barging into the house. Imtiaz sighed and got back to his chair. “You have a Type C cable?”
For a moment, Shelly was confused. “I might…” she rummaged in her toolbag for one, a couple seconds longer than her still-tense friend could handle.
He snapped his fingers. “It really can’t wait. We don’t have time.”
Over Imtiaz’s shoulder, Runako held a long looped black cable, its connectors seemingly brand new. “Don’t bother. One right here.”
“Thank you,” Imtiaz said, snatching it from him, tossing one end of it to Shelly. She slid a panel to the side of the robot’s head – one of the few parts of it still covered – and inserted it.
Imtiaz opened a command console and began his wizardry. He had learned a couple of tricks online ever since robots came in vogue, but they were light reading. He never anticipated actually having to apply them. There were never supposed to actually have any on his island. They were too expensive for leisure, save for the wealthiest corners of Cascade or Westmoorings where some fair-skinned grandfather with an Irish last name lived out his lonely retirement.
The government swore against them for public sector purposes, citing price mostly, but police bots were a particularly hot topic. They weren’t just costly to most leaders. They were problematic – too much power for anyone in office to hold. Leaders of the opposition for the last few years milked that argument in the parliament house – “Do you want our Prime Minister having full rein over armed machines? With no consciences? Wandering our streets under the guise of law and order, but really, she’s asking the people to pay for her own personal hit squad!” Another oft-milked idea – they called it the ‘flying squad’ – was a rumoured group of non-robotic policemen with a license to kill and a direct line to the Minister. Putting those two ideas together was a good way to whip up a panic.
But then again, here was proof of one of the claims being true. A police bot. Number and all. The first known sighting – if only they survived the night.
A couple lines of code later, a small window popped up – the bot’s application screen. Reboot Y/N? He pressed the Y key, and another line of text appeared: Rebooting… They could hear a low whirring from the gears near the battery, and the robot’s LED eyes began to slowly fade in and out in a bright blue.
“Hurry up, nah, you dotish robot,” Imtiaz muttered. A sliver of him had all but given up that they would make it back out unnoticed with the robot in tow. But he had already begun. There was nothing left but to soldier on.
The robot’s head slowly tilted up, and a gentle, melodious bootup theme played from its neck, a little louder now without some of the plating to muffle it. Shelly’s hands shot up in triumph as she waited to hear it greet itself. The robot opened its dull-grey mouth and spoke:
“Здравствуйте. Я модель Mинерва, серийный номер TTPS-8103-X791. Я могу чем-нибудь помочь?”
“What?” Runako scratched his head. “What kinda language is that?”
“I don’t know, boy.” Shelly finished screwing the final plate, and then inched closer to Imtiaz. “Im, something wrong with the language options or what?”
“Maybe…” He went back into command prompt, typing in more code to get access to its folders. “But if it’s a neural wiring problem –”
“I just looked at it, Im. Everything in order. Don’t blame it on –”
“I not blaming anybody. I just saying we can’t solve this now. Police all over. We have to take this home and troubleshoot it there.”
“Nah. I can’t wait. I need to be sure Runako not setting me up.”
“Even if we make jail?” Imtiaz turned to her in panic.
Shelly pointed at his laptop screen. “Face front. If you don’t want to make jail, work faster. We getting out of here, and we getting out of here with this robot.”
Imtiaz rubbed his eyes anxiously before pressing the Enter key. There was a briefer, louder whir, and then the bot powered down, its folders spilling onto the screen in a small cascade. “Okay, the root is here…” He fished around for the language base. “Um… all I see here is Russian and Japanese. I can’t even find its preferred warning phrases document.” He put a few more lines in the command box to update its language files. “Okay, two minutes at least that’s fixed. I’ll have to reboot it again first.”
“Alright, what about everything else? Optical recording? Ear-side microphones? The riot gear?”
Imtiaz squinted at the rest of files and folders. “They all look fine here. Due for updates, but they could run fine till we get back home. So?” He gestured sternly to the window? “Can we?”
“Make sure for me, please?”
At this point, he was sweating. He couldn’t see through the window. At least seeing outside confirmed his fears. Now, worry just ran amok in his mind. He was sure he had just heard a gunshot higher up the street. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, and then opened them again, scanning the filenames for anything missing. Instead, he found new ones.
“When you find this?” he said.
Runako shifted, rubbing his hand over the top of his shiny bald head. “Who, me? Like, some weeks. Why?”
He turned to Shelly, eyes wide, beads of sweat falling down his cheeks. “Because it still have recordings, Shell.”
She straightened up, leaning closer to see the screen. A folder headed GATHER had reams of voice notes and video, most of which were so badly corrupted that their file types were missing, surely a result of whatever damage the bot had received. All of them were titled with numbers, and they had even more text files with the same kind of file name.
Shelly pointed to one at random, a text file. “Twelve oh nine, twenty twenty-three, sixteen thirty-four forty-one, oh thirty-nine? What that mean?”
“Most likely date and time, and… the last three, a place? Number of files on that day? I don’t know.” He opened it and read aloud. “‘Event log, September 12th 2023’ – wait, nah, that was just the other day? – ‘deployed on raid procedure in Arima area, address 34 Lime Avenue. Related files withheld by Winged Cpt. Sean Alexander.’ It have the number of people in the house, outstanding warrant info… it says, ‘Winged Det. Dexter Sandy, in compliance with Winged Cpt. Alexander, found previously tagged evidence 46859 in previously sealed case Trinidad & Tobago vs. Kareem Jones, which led to the arrest of –”
“Wait!” Runako stood behind Imtiaz, his hands pressed firmly on the back of the chair. “Previously tagged? You getting this, Shelly?”
“What? I don’t follow.” She hadn’t turned to face either of them, still reading the file. Imtiaz stared at it with a mild confusion.
“That evidence! Kareem Jones was in the papers months now for weed possession. He already in jail! How would they find already-seized weed in Arima from a case in Carenage, on the west side?”
“And what is a ‘winged’ officer?” Shelly made scare-quotes with her fingers as she said it.
“I was wondering the same thing,” Imtiaz said. “What kind of designation is that? It sure doesn’t sound official.”
“I could damn well tell you what it is –”
“I don’t want to believe it…” Shelly turned back to the robot, as if taking it in. It wasn’t just an illegal bot – it was a flying squad bot. A metal goon for the Prime Minister. It took a moment too long for Imtiaz to put it all together, but the moment he had, the back of his neck felt warm.
“It have video for that day here?” Runako put his hands on Imtiaz’s shoulders – and it made him even tenser still.
“L-lemme see.” He scrolled through them to find a video with the exact same title. He double-clicked it, and it loaded in his media player, a four-minute recording starting with the camera – the bot – leaving a police vehicle.
“Ey! Open up! Police!” A gruff man’s voice shouted from outside of view. The bot looked directly at the door of an apple-white house as it slowly opened, a short brown girl looking out timidly.
“Where your parents, girl?” another, softer, male voice said, still in a raised voice. The girl shook her head in reply, stepping back into the house, but a heavy-set officer ran up to the door and held it open.
They could hear someone else shouting inside. The officer at the door, the gruff one, shouted, “Ey! We reach, so don’t play like you’re hiding nothing!” Two other officers came to the door and they entered, the robot behind them in the tight, dim walkway.
The robot glanced everywhere, and was making readings of everything. It tried to scan for the name of the girl, but couldn’t find it; it calculated live on screen the percentage of threat posed by stray breadknives on the kitchen counter as they passed it, or of a cricket bat near the living-room window – low, it supposed, being sized for a primary school child, easy to deal with by a carbon-plated police bot.
It saw a man it identified at David Sellers, raising his voice at an officer, asking how they could barge into the house without a warrant.
It saw Sparkle Sellers, and brought up the recent date of their marriage beneath her name as she pulled David back, trying to calm him down.
It saw an officer pull a bag as big as his palm out of his side pocket while no one was looking. It tagged the bag “E-46859”, and followed awkwardly, focusing on it as the officer dropped it behind a plastic chair in the dining room. The officer nudged his partner and whispered, audibly enough for the robot, “It there, eh?” It saw him gesture with his elbow to the chair.
“What?” David shouted. “What where? What’s going on here?”
“Sir, you are under arrest for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute,” the gruff man said, reaching past Mrs. Sellers and grabbing David by his shoulder.
“Weed? You for real, officer? It have no weed here!”
He threw David on the brownish carpet, inches from the chair where they had dropped it, turning his head to face it as they put on the cuffs. “So what is that?”
The video stuttered here, playing that one moment repeatedly – of David Sellers’ frightened gaze, fixed on the clear package on his floor, looping the very moment when his eyes widened with fear, and then relaxed again in sad resignation, over and over and over…
For a moment, the three of them stared silently at the screen. Imtiaz’s hands were on his mouth.
Suddenly, Runako and Imtiaz jumped in unison. There was a loud rapping at the outermost door.
“Shit,” Runako whispered, beginning to pace in confused panic. “They catch we, fellas. That is it.”
“Wait, stop freaking out, guys,” Shelly said, getting up slowly.
Imtiaz still couldn’t find the words. This was it. They were done. They had in front of them what was probably an illegally sourced repository of evidence of police impropriety in the house of a career criminal drug offender. They were done for.
“Okay,” Shelly added. “We keeping the files, for sure.”
“How we going to keep what we can’t leave the house with?”
“Easy. We leave the house.”
Imtiaz wanted to shout, if not for the fear of police. “How?”
“Boot up the bot. We flying out.”
Runako started mumbling to himself. “We backing up everything. Four or five copies. And you going to take them. Don’t get catch, eh?”
“Wait, no, stop – how this supposed to work?” Imtiaz put his hands out to Shelly. “This is nonsense. How we flying out with the robot? It can’t even speak English yet!”
“It don’t need to. It just need to be able to fly.”
He checked the download – just complete. The flight module seemed to be fine in software, but he wasn’t convinced that Shelly had it all worked out on the hardware end. He didn’t like this idea at all. “Can we just think this over for –”
Outside, they heard someone tapping on the door. “Excuse me, this is the police –”
The three of them froze, their voice down to whispers. Imtiaz pointed at Shelly. “Okay, but let it be known I think this is craziness.”
“Foolish is fine once it works –” She gripped the robot’s left arm firmly, then leaned over to the keyboard to begin another reboot sequence. “You better had grab hold of something. Runako, you coming with us?”
“Nah. Somebody have to take the licks,” he whispered. He was standing at the door now, facing it at attention. “Just get out quick.”
Shelly nodded, then looked sternly at Imtiaz, who shot her a confused look. The moment the robot’s boot sound sprung to life, he suddenly grabbed hold of its free arm.
“Hello,” it said. “I am model Minerva, serial number TTPS-8103-X79I. How may I help you?”
“By getting airborne,” Shelly whispered. “Uh… Hostiles en route, or whatever.”
“Understood.” Suddenly, its wings spread open with a tinny, rusty clang. Its edges hit both walls without even opening fully, and then it just as suddenly retracted them. “Wingspan obstacle issue.” It turned to Shelly. “Primary launch will include thrusters only. Will that be a problem?”
“Nah, you do what you have to do, man.” The moment Shelly said this was when Imtiaz realized he was about to do something well and truly foolish.
The knocking at the door became more insistent, and the officer’s voice harsher. “You better open up right now before I have to kick this blasted –”
The bot’s thrusters thrummed to life, warm air gushing from it. It turned to Imtiaz. “Please hold on to my arms with both hands. Flight may often be turbulent and dangerous.”
“No shit –” Shelly nearly exclaimed it, but another persistent knock at the door brought her back to whispers. “We should go now, you know.”
“Understood,” the bot replied.
A louder, harder purr of wind and heat flooded out of the thrusters, and the bot sprang up with its two parcels on each side, through the galvanised sheet roof with enough force to push it clean off. They didn’t have enough time to ready themselves; Imtiaz would have slid all the way off its arm if it hadn’t swivelled its palm to grab his belt buckle. Shelly responded by wrapping her limbs around its arm for more support.
The robot spread its wings, and the thrusters let out an even harder gust. “Clearing distance. What is our destination?”
“Take me to San Juan,” Shelly shouted into its microphoned ear.
“Understood.” It flapped its chrome-feathered wings once, and then sped east with a force Imtiaz swore would tear his flesh from the rest of him.
Imtiaz looked down to see three police officers rush through the door, one of them already pinning Runako to the wall. Another reached for his pistol and let out one shot, narrowly missing the robot’s forehead, and by extension, Imtiaz.
Shelly would later spring Runako from prison with the spoils of her newfound publicity. Runako’s charge, again, was drug pushing, until the real news broke. Shelly sent a compact disc to every major television station as soon as she had watched all of the video herself – hours of ‘winged’ officers kicking in doors, windows, and the occasional civilian’s face; dozens of false arrests and misappropriations, with all the officers’ faces on screen. Imtiaz refused to look at them. They both spent their quiet moments trembling at the thought of what must have been on the videos that were lost to hard drive damage and time. The Prime Minister resigned two nights after, owning up to the whole flying squad programme. The new hot topic on the web, though, was that till the snap election was done, the citizens would be under a state of emergency anyway.
As for the bot, Shelly put it to work helping her mother around the house on her behalf. She had tinkered with it so intensively that it had taken to cooking their dinner and tending to their herb garden with near-mathematical accuracy. On weekends, she strapped a bespoke harness around its wings and learned to fly with it for fun, a hobby which frightened her mother every single time.
“What’s next for the girl who blew the whistle on the Flying Squad fiasco?” the press would ask her every other day in the papers.
“Graduate from UWI?” she’d reply, shrugging, looking away from the cameras like she was already bored with it all.
Imtiaz managed to keep his face out of the papers, for his own sake. Even his husband had yet to hear of the drama of that night. He’d have the occasional paranoid episode coming from work, though, looking in his rearview mirror for flashing blue lights as he hurried down the highway. Whenever he found himself panicking, he raised the volume on his industrial-rock driving music just a little higher.
Imtiaz grew to enjoy the safety of his house. He held on to Tevin a little tighter every day. He’d even find himself grinning like a fool at the simplest, most mundane questions, simply because he was still around to answer them.
“Didn’t have any problems getting back?” Tevin would ask.
“Nah,” Imtiaz would reply. “Traffic was light today. You know how it is.”
Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad and Tobago. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Reckoning, Fireside Magazine, Arsenika, and Ride The Star Wind, among others. He is also a performing and teaching artist with The 2 Cents Movement, and the poetry editor of FIYAH: A Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction.