by Edward M. Erdelac -
The cafeteria was tastefully decorated with shifting holographic motivational images, the contoured chairs and tables kept clean by a floating automaid which rested in the corner and whirred gently over whenever an employee rose and exited, dispensing with trays and disposable dishes, storing discarded food and drink to be reprocessed later.
A shining service machine dispensed the daily meal from behind a semicircular counter which displayed images of the various dishes. It took orders and then turned and retrieved them almost instantly from a space in the wall behind which the massive unseen autochef dwelled, whipping up meals at speed.
Orin Bantry had just left the line and sat down with a plate of Eclectian bug fry when Considine stepped in.
Bantry was wearing the same clothes he’d worn earlier in the day. The same damned company cap.
Considine stepped aside to let a pretty woman in a stylish suit leave, then set himself squarely in the doorway, took the stingshot pistol from beneath his coat, and announced in a loud voice that caused every diner to look over;
“Inspector Considine, Zirconian Peacekeeper. Orin Bantry. A word.”
Bantry swallowed a mouthful of bug fry and dabbed at his rusty beard with a napkin before rising slowly to his feet.
He pushed the chair back, and then bolted for the line.
Where the hell did he think he was going?
But then Considine saw.
Bantry shoved aside his coworkers, hopped over the counter past the droning server, and dove head first for the square leading to the kitchen.
Considine collided with the confounded automaid, recovered, and reached the counter just as Bantry’s shoes disappeared through the hole in the wall.
He took aim with his stingshot, eliciting screams and calls for security from the ducking cafeteria patrons, but had no shot.
He limped around the counter, stared dubiously at the hole and cursing, thrust his weapon through first, and wedged his head and shoulder after. He didn’t want Bantry waiting on the other side to crown him with a pan or something.
But Bantry was leaping over the whirring limbs of the massive autochef, a gleaming, towering apparatus that filled the cavernous room, catering to six floors’ worth of cafeterias and eateries at the peak of the lunch hour. Part convection oven, part immense freezer, it was an autonomous food factory, programmed to prepare and deliver foodstuffs at a dizzying rate via an incomprehensible array of specialized appendages, each capped with beaters, pans, blenders, rolling pins, and flashing cutlery. The faroff animal squeal meant that somewhere within the thing an automated slaughterhouse was also in full swing, disassembling livestock into fresh meat, likely for the executives on the top levels. A great pool of sizzling grease popped and spattered him as six hands plunged baskets of some unidentifiable food into its depths.
His hand seared, he ducked away.
Considine aimed his stingshot across the blur of busy machinery and yelled for Bantry to stop, but he could scarcely be heard above the din.
He saw no cut off switch, but spied a service ladder leading up to a safe catwalk and quickly scaled it.
Bantry lost time trying to pace his run through massive prep area, ducking under a huge, buzzing eggbeater that suddenly emerged from a cloud of flour, and Considine managed to get ahead of him, running overhead.
He reached the far end of the chamber and slid down the ladder, cutting off Bantry’s escape route, but nearly crashed to the floor on his wounded leg. He suddenly wished he’d taken all the suppressants he had been prescribed.
“That’s far enough, Bantry!”
Bantry hesitated, then raised his hands slowly. He had a desperate look though, dilated irises, sweaty sheen. It all made Considine wary.
“Recognize me?” Considine said. “You tried to blow me up this morning and failed. But you did manage to kill one of my enforcers. A good man. You’re going to pay for it, Bantry. But first things first. I want to know about the explosives you stole for Almer Croix. What were they for?”
“To free them.”
“The prisoners. The prisoners in the darkness.”
Croix had said something about being imprisoned in the darkness, in his delirium. Something else. Something about wardens.
“You wanted to kill the wardens?”
Bantry’s eyes widened.
“Yes! Then you know. God can’t be free until the angels are dead.”
“The angels. The angels are the wardens?”
Bantry’s expression fell.
“You don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “You don’t know at all!”
He spun on his heel and ran straight at the autochef.
“Bantry!” Considine yelled, lunging for him.
He came away with the man’s hat in his fist.
And Bantry was gone. Plucked suddenly from the prep area floor, the man was passed swiftly from arm to arm and deposited at last in some glowing compartment in one of the upper segments.
Considine heard the buzz of automatic chainsaws and a brief shriek.
Then there was a bleating klaxon, and the room lighting turned scarlet. The colossal culinary automaton slowed and stopped.
The exit door behind him opened, and two heavily armored men with MorgenStar Security emblazoned on their breastplates leveled expensive looking hyperuzis at him.
He raised the hand with the pitiful stingshot over his head and flipped open his ID badge with the other.
“We know who you are, Inspector Considine,” said one of the security men. “Mr. Morgenstar would like a word with you before we remand you to the custody of the Peace Council.”