What the Humans Call Heartache

The egg crunched in her fist, yolk oozing between her fingers onto the kitchen counter. She wiped away the mess, dropped the empty carton into the whirring garbage disposal chute, and patted down her apron in the doorway to the dining room.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Astrid, “but we seem to have run out of eggs.”

Her employer, dressed in a bathrobe, lowered the newspaper and tapped a nail on the breakfast table beside a plate of pork dumplings, fried noodles, and a void where the scrambled eggs and chives should have been.

“Would you like me to restock? I can be back—in twenty-six minutes, ma’am.”

Her employer glanced impatiently at the clock on the mantle and dismissed her with a wave. Astrid’s hands, clasped tightly behind her back, relaxed.

A panel in the woodwork slid open and Astrid stepped off the platform.

Fans whirred as Apple-Samsung All Terrain Intelligent Drone (ASTRID) #CU-9019 hovered while her navigation systems calibrated a flight plan.

Her recent excursions had taken far too long; she had an gnawing feeling that her employer was beginning to suspect that something was off. She had to be careful now, or there’d be a trip in a box to support center, or worse: replacement.

She reviewed the flight plan. Twenty-four minutes to Babel and back—that was good, she thought, she’d bought herself two extra minutes. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.

She directed her jets and pushed off.

A flock of openbills squawked and scattered as she burst from the evergreen canopy, banking low and then skimming over the reservoir. She climbed to five hundred meters and merged into the dronestream.

The flight path took her over the old city.

There were still gashes of concrete visible through the dense blanket of banyans like bald patches in a bad case of alopecia. That would make humanity the malfunctioning immune system, wouldn’t it? she mused; one that had gone berserk until total systemic collapse forced it to adapt. A handful of skyscrapers still rose above the tree line, but it would only be a matter of time before they too would return to the soil, dragged into the earth by vine and root.

On the horizon, Babel Distribution Megatrunk glinted in the sunlight, its upper half obscured by migrating cumulus clouds. It was neither the newest nor the tallest of the megatrunks—Taobao’s Jugan IV had a footprint the size of Greater Shenzhen and stretched beyond Medium Earth Orbit—but Babel was closer and Astrid needed every extra minute.

The dronestreams converged on Babel like ants marching in the sky.

She waited for six minutes at the docking bay before two cartons of large farm eggs appeared in the loading shaft. It had taken longer than expected and the two extra minutes that she thought she had was now down to one.

She strapped the cartons into her hold, untethered from the dock, and gunned the engine. The wind whistled as she rocketed back to cruising altitude.

Halfway back, when the old city was visible again, she switched off the autopilot, pointed her nose down, and dove.

It was dark beneath the green canopy, the only sounds the buzzing of her fans and the rustling of swaying branches. She ducked between wild banyans and their hanging vines and swooped under crumbling overpasses, between collapsed highrises, recognizing every inch of the route by heart.

When the flora became too dense, she cut the engine and sprinted the rest of the way, making sure her footfalls were soft so that the eggs would not break.

She hurried down steps, two at a time, to the abandoned parking lot she called home.

They ran to her and clung to her legs. She kneeled and pulled them in tight, nuzzling their faces, wishing violently that they had more time.

“Listen,” she said, “I only have a minute.”

“No—” pleaded the younger one.

The older one, who did not have a voice box installed, looked at her with disappointment.

“I’ll find a way to stay longer next time, okay?”

They were silent as the seconds ticked by. She wondered if they would still believe her next time.

“Pinky promise?” she offered.

She had forty-five seconds before she had to leave and she needed it all for the transfer. She opened the panel in the lichen-covered Tesla charger and plugged herself into the battery port. Five percent on the backup should get her back to the landing platform.

By the time she unplugged, she had drained her main and only had three percent on backup. It was a risk, but the children needed it more.

She hugged and kissed them again and forced herself to smile.

And then she turned and ran up the stairs, feeling their eyes on her. Was this what the humans call heartache? She did not know, nor did she have the luxury to care. But whatever coursed through her circuits now, she knew, was what all mothers must feel leaving their children behind.

She tumbled through the opening and skidded to a stop on the landing platform. The backup power had failed on final approach and she had glided the last hundred meters, barely able to keep her nose up.

“I’m done,” said her employer, wiping her mouth with a towel and getting up from the breakfast table. “Just put the eggs away and clean up.” She looked over her shoulder at the clock on the mantle before leaving the room.

“Yes,” said Astrid to the empty room, and then added: “Ma’am.”

Astrid restocked the fridge and did the dishes. Then she retired to the charging booth, quietly closing the plastic panel behind her. Finally, with her children’s faces beneath the wild banyans etched into memory, Astrid went into standby mode.

© 2021 by Jiksun Cheung

About the Author

By Jiksun Cheung

Jiksun Cheung is a short fiction writer from Hong Kong. His work has been published or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Atticus Review, Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. He was a SmokeLong Quarterly Flash Fiction Award finalist, and has received nominations for Best Microfiction and The Shirley Jackson Award. He and his wife share their home with two boisterous toddlers and enough playdough to last a lifetime. Find him on Twitter @JiksunCheung and