Alchemist: Chapter 5
Entertainment, Fiction, X-Article

Alchemist: Chapter 5

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Arjun wakes up on the tram, gliding a thousand feet above the city. The bright light shines in from the windows, stinging their eyes. Above the windows, the AI news anchor voice blares with a list of The System’s victories for the week. They look out the window. The sun is high and the city is full of traffic, bots and workers. It’s midday- they must’ve been asleep for hours. The tram has probably circled the city four times by now. They lift a hand to their throbbing neck. They don’t have much time to get to the mines. It’s a good sign that the tracker hasn’t exploded. At least the rebels want Arjun alive- for now. For the first time, they consider that Hasp’s fate might not be the same.

Around Arjun, other workers around the tram cast nervous glances in their direction. They check their reflection in the window behind them and audibly gasp. They barely recognized themselves. Their hair is knotted together in clumps from the rain. Their face is swollen black and blue. Their clothes are covered in dust. Luckily, dirt wouldn’t draw attention in the mines. The bruises are another story.

Arjun pats some dust off of their clothes, but stops abruptly seeing the dust cloud it produces and someone nearby coughs. They lean back in their seat and stare up at the news screen, letting their thoughts wander. Is Hasp alive? If so, how long do they have? Can Arjun steal minerals unnoticed? It wouldn’t be the first time, but there are new factors at play now. First of all, Arjun is late for work. Secondly, they look like they were beat up and coerced by two separate parties. Third, before they only took a tiny bit. How would they snag enough vials to satisfy the rebels and still get away with their life?

An alarm sounds. The news screens flash red with bold red font: BREAKING. The AI news anchor’s vocal tone changes from jovial to intense:

“Attention. There has been a dangerous explosion at the eastern dams. Move to a higher floor directly. Those in transit, return to your hives. Catastrophic flooding is expected. Terrorist activity is suspected. Look out for this suspect and report to authorities immediately if seen.”

Arjun’s jaw drops. On the screen is a pixelated image of Hasp’s face.

The broadcast continues, “The suspect is thought to be a suicide bomber and to have died in the blast. No bodies have been recovered. Only a small disc.”

Arjun stops breathing. Hasp? Dead? The disc on the screen is the same one they discovered when they were supposed to meet Hasp- the first time they followed Veronic and she disappeared. It was by the eastern dams. 

The tram passengers are shuffling around the car in a panic. Arjun counts their breaths to calm their shock. If Hasp is dead, what are they supposed to do now? If Hasp is alive and caught, that could be worse than death. The throbbing in their neck pulls them back to the present moment. There is no point mourning now when nothing is certain. It’s time to get off the tram.

Sirens blare as Arjun exits and runs towards the mines, which are right by the dams. With The System in a panic, they should be able to sneak into the lithium stores without being noticed. Countless people are bumping into Arjun, heading in the opposite direction to get away from the rising water. They dodge the bodies and descend the stairs to the ground level, where the water has already risen to their knees. 

They reach the edge of the mines, green and yellow evaporation pools and dry pits stretching out to the horizon for miles. The pools are already overflowing. If there was more time, Arjun would start worrying about the state of the pits and their comrades who might be stuck down there.

They scale the perimeter of the site to the entrance, trying to ignore all the vehicles rushing by transporting people out. Thankfully, there are some small vehicles still parked near the entrance. Arjun runs over to one, jumps in, and scans their fingerprint on the dashboard to rev up the engine. They drive towards the storage warehouses nearest. There’s a loud explosion, and one warehouse is engulfed in flames. 

They stop the car and raid the glove compartment. Inside, they find a gas mask and gloves that they put on. They continue driving towards the warehouses, faster now. Another building ignites with a loud bang as more lithium combusts. Arjun is close enough to see masked figures emerge. Even with the sirens, they hear them screaming.

Arjun stops in front of a warehouse and jumps out of the vehicle, their feet hitting the ground with a splash. There is so much smoke from the nearby fires, they can hardly see. They brace themselves, and enter the building. Inside, behind a locked wire fence, there are thousands of shelves lined with vials of pure lithium floating in oil. No one is in sight. Quickly, Arjun scans their finger at the fence gate. Between them and the shelves are idle VR bots. They grab the headset hanging from one and manage to fit it over their gas mask.

The bot beeps, waking up, and suddenly Arjun is staring through its eyes, right back at themselves. Arjun raises their arms, and the bot turns around. When Arjun lowers their arms forward, the bot walks to the shelves. Using the bot, they head to the nearest shelf and, carefully, grab two full boxes of lithium vials. They then carry them outside and load them onto the vehicle. Through the bot’s eyes, Arjun sees that the flood water has risen now, and two more nearby buildings are ablaze, busying anyone nearby who might notice them. Is there time to grab another load?

Arjun drives the bot back inside. It’s getting difficult to see through all the smoke and gas wafting in from outside. The bot grabs two more boxes from the shelves, and there’s another loud explosion. The back wall of the warehouse ignites. Arjun runs out of the building, the bot trailing behind them. They feel the heat pressing against their back, even through their clothes. They manage to load the remaining boxes onto the vehicles just as they start the engine and tear off their goggles. They drive away from the building just in time. Another explosion lights it all on fire, the force of it sending the VR bot crashing into the back of the vehicle. Despite their mask, Arjun tears up, choking on the smoke and gas. 

They are almost to the entrance, where a line of vehicles, slow in the water, are waiting to get out. Overhead, fire-fighting drones appear, flying toward the warehouses. To Arjun’s horror, the vehicle at the front of the line is directed back into the site, and the entrance gate begins to shut. They’re being called back to help with the fire!

Without thinking, Arjun does a quick u-turn. There’s only one way to leave with the lithium now – with a fire-fighting drone.

All the vehicles drive back towards the fires. There are small groups of miners surrounding the warehouses now, wearing gas masks and spraying the flames with CO2 foam. Everyone is wading waist deep in the water. Arjun reaches a building untouched by fire, praying that their boxes don’t combust in the heat or get damaged in the water. They park in front and get out, running blind through the smoke to the entrance of the building. They scan their fingerprint at the door.

“Access denied,” says a robot voice.

They scan the building for an entry point, and find a fire escape about ten feet over the ground. Underneath are windows and a storm drain. They hug the drain firmly with their arms and hoist themselves up. Before they slide back down, they catch the anchor fastening the drain to the wall with one hand. With enough force, they can spring themselves high enough to reach the window sill beneath the fire escape. There’s enough commotion and smoke that no one will notice.

Arjun grabs the anchor with their other hand and presses their knees against the wall to crawl them higher, one “step” at a time. A screw pops out of the anchor hold and one side comes loose, making it swing to the side. Arjun manages to hang on, but they’re jerked so hard that the side of their body slams into the wall. All their weight is hanging on one screw. They take a deep breath and use all their strength to volt towards the window sill a foot above them.

They catch the window sill and pull themselves to stand. Their body is flush against the window. The fire escape is a couple feet away. Arjun squints to see through the smoke, calculating the force needed to reach the bottom rung of the ladder. They look down. The ground is covered with smoke, invisible. The flood water could reach the lithium any second. There’s no time to think.

Arjun leaps into the air with arms outstretched and catches the ladder. They climb and pain radiates through their hands. They make it to the top of the warehouse and look out over the site. They hear the crackle of flames and the shouts of workers trying to extinguish the fires. Across the roof, they make out the silhouette of a drone, spraying and hovering around the burning, neighboring building. If they cross the roof in time, they can catch it and bring it down.

They break into a sprint, crossing the roof and jumping off the edge, grabbing the side of the drone mid air as it flies in front of them. The drone continues its mission, flying around the building with Arjun hanging off of it. The smoke and heat is overwhelming, and they can hardly see. They readjust their aching hands and tighten their grip on the drone landing gear, inching closer to its body in search of a control panel. In the center, there’s a keypad and a place to scan their fingerprint. 

They loosen one hand, and tighten the other, gagging from the level of tension in their fingers. They take a deep breath and tear off their gas mask, letting it fall and disappear into the air beneath them. They bring their free hand to their mouth and bite off their glove, then scan their fingerprint to reset the drone. The drone stops abruptly, hovering in place, and Arjun’s body swings back and forth unsteadily. They press a random button, and the drone flies straight up into the sky. Arjun presses more buttons, but nothing happens. They keep flying higher. Their heart races frantically and they keep pushing buttons, but nothing changes. Below them, the warehouses get smaller and smaller.

Breathing heavily and choking on the smoke, they switch hands, grabbing the drone with the free one and biting the glove off of the other. They scan their finger print on the panel. 

The drone shuts off entirely, the antigravity engine going quiet. Arjun goes cold, goosebumps rising all over their body. They drop fast, falling through the sky.

Read Chapter 6…

Oly is a musician, writer and gamer exploring the Somnium Space VR metaverse.

See what she’s working on at

January 6, 2023

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