Bryan Beal

Duchess of the Harvest

Cassandra's cold, blue eyes stared across the room at her friends talking at the bar. They were shrouded in a cloud of blue tobacco smoke from the pipes they were all enjoying immensely. At a time when such vices were frowned upon, to say the least, smoking reviled substances of any sort was almost a capital offence socially. Cassandra loved it.

She languidly lifted herself from the booth where she had been chatting to one of her oldest colleagues and joined her clique. She found a plain, ceramic pipe proffered by Ivan Kalinsky. The dark haired and brooding Kalinsky had been a failing writer in the 1950's when Cassie had turned him. Two and a half centuries later, nothing had changed for the man.

“Tell her.”, Kalinsky pointed at Janet with his pipe.

“The word is there's a rave near the Mauri LZ. A big one.”, Janet Gao, a petite blonde with the distinctive and fine features of her Asiatic ancestry.

“It's near a Lift Zone. Tight security. You all know what happened last time.”, Cassandra cautioned.

“Security's provided by the local Shield Inc. Most of them are on our payroll. Or want to be.”, Tamworth Gaines grinned.

“Sounds like you've all decided on this without me.”, Cassandra commented, not unpleasantly.

“Opportunities like this don't come along every week.”, chimed in Gao.

“Alright.”, Cassandra said.

The group of friends finished their pipes and drinks before leaving the old bar. It was in a side street of a nowhere suburb of the Greater Tāmaki Makaurau Metropolitan Region. Cassandra could remember when the mega-city had been separate urban areas called Kirikiriroa and Whāngarei. How times had changed. While some things got simpler, many more got extremely complicated.

The four friends caught a self-drive over to the West side of Tāmaki Makaurau proper, a place renowned once for beaches and surf. Vast towns had vanished into what was called the Mauri Lift Zone. Warehouses and vast numbers of robot workers who were keen to earn extra funds from shadow work made it the ideal place for illicit raves.

As the self-drive crossed the LZ boundaries, Gaines noted wryly they were being watched. Robots made excellent security staff. They could see perfectly well in the darkness and had enough firepower to dissuade even the most dedicated of officers. The four friends were not cops, so they had nothing to worry about. The self-drive stopped a hundred metres from the Dynamic Intel premises, abandoned the year before after the mysterious deaths of more than two thirds of their staff. Even now, no one had a clue about the cause. That boosted the appeal to the organisers of the rave.

Cassandra was the first out and she was mildly surprised that she could hear nothing at all. The gathering was well underway. Music would be thunderous wherever they were. The silence was almost eerie. The small group collected themselves and walked into a foyer where a dozen or more robots greeted them. They were scanned multiple times and allowed through. Cassandra was amused about already being on the guest list. The others would have added her knowing she would agree to this.

Neon markers shaped like arrows on the floors and walls conveniently pointed the way. As they descended through sub-basements, the noise slowly got louder. The choice of music was dredged from the annals of the past. Electronica that had not been made for a century or more. Retro was the flavour of the evening.

In a huge basement, lit with sparking Tesla coils and neon bio-luminescence painted over every spare surface, Cassandra found people and arties all mixed up and dancing. Some were making out and still others were openly making love. This was what the old Puritans had warned society about. Cassie could only thank whatever gods she did not believe that the Puritans had vanished.

Cassandra found a place by a Tesla coil, crackling and sparking as if it were having a riveting conversation with its neighbours, sending sparks overhead in wild colours. A robot waiter brought her a bourbon on the rocks. She smiled at it, appreciating that it had remembered her. The lone woman sipped her drink, enjoying the mellow burn of the liquid as it suffused her throat and body. She smiled warmly at those who happened to pass by with a glance. She did not have to wait long. Ample cleavage and pale skin soon attracted the type of attention she sought.

“Would you care for some company?”, he asked.

A tall, thin man with dark eyes and long, black hair smiled warmly at her. She noted his eye contact was constant and determined. He was dressed in a retro one-piece suit, a style more fitting two decades before he was born. He was a good looking man and Cassandra liked his smiled. She motioned at a chair next to hers.

“I'm Arden.”, he said as he took his seat.

“Cassie. What do you do in life, Arden?”, she asked in her most sultry voice.

“I'm an anti-grav engineer. It isn't that exciting, really. What about you?”, Arden replied.

“I run my own business. Antiquities, mostly.”, Cassandra said.

“Awesome. Do you come to these things often?”, Arden motioned around him.

“Not really. You?”

“Nah. My first time, hey?”, Arden smiled shyly.

“Would you like to get away from this noise for a bit? I'll get the first round.”, Cassandra suggested.

“Yeah. Sounds perfect. Whatever you're having.”, Arden pointed at Cassandra's glass.

“Bourbon on the rocks?”

“Perfect.”, he smiled.

The pair of new friends returned to the surface and found a small garden nestled between two warehouses. The type of place that tried to fool people into thinking they were not in an industrial heartland. Among the manicured paths and greenery were benches and ponds. Cassandra and Arden found a small rotunda with bench seating around the circumference inside. They sat close and sipped their drinks in silence. The stars in the sky were invisible, flushed out by the lights of the buildings and the LZ's launch towers.

Cassandra nestled closer to Arden. She found an arm around her shoulders. She moved in even closer, feeling his warmth against her. He gently stroked her cheek with his thumb. She turned her mouth towards his hand and he lightly touched her lips. Despite herself, Cassandra could feel the old emotions welling up. Arden shifted so he could gently kiss her neck while his fingers continued to follow the contours of her face and lips. Cassandra leant back into him.

An eruption of agonising fire exploded down Cassandra's throat, into her stomach. Her face imploded with searing brands of flame that torched her nerve endings. She tried to scream, but the wracking waves of pain constricted her throat. Arden yanked his arm from around her and jumped up.

Cassandra glimpsed his face. It did not bear any sign of surprise. Through tears of sheer torment, Cassandra watched the charming man observe her in cold detachment. She tried to ask what was happening, but the sound was strangled off in her pain-infested lungs and throat. The effort only made her start coughing up bits of her esophagus lining. Before long, it was followed by blood.

“Ah, you want to know what or why? They all do.”, Adren smiled as he sat down three metres away from the collapsed Cassandra. “A ruse, dear Cassie. How many times have your kind ravaged the innocent at gatherings just like this one? Two can play your game.”

Cassandra looked at him. His eyes were cold and calculating. He rubbed his chin in thought, but about what, she had no idea. The paroxysms brought on by her torture reached new areas inside her. She felt herself lose control of her bowels and bladder. It was the liquefied remains of her internal organs escaping from the confines of her body. She collapsed to the floor of the rotunda, too weak to hold herself up.

“It's amazing what a little natural garlic and special water can do, isn't it? A pity that natural anything is so hard to find these days.”, Arden mused lightly. “By the way, don't worry about your friends. We're taking care of them, too.”

Cassandra gasped and looked into his eyes.

“Oh, yeah. We work in teams. A bit dumb not to, really.”, Arden smiled coldly.

A final, convulsing cough from the core of Cassandra's being brought up the shredded and burnt remains of her lungs and throat. Contorted in her last thoes, Cassandra sank to the floor. A faint pall of smoke and the stink of burnt flesh hung in the air.

Arden simply walked away. In less than hour, there would only be dust. A light breeze would do the dirty work for him.

#Horror #Macabre #ShortStory