Consciousness invaded the abyss of Risa’s dreamless sleep. She curled on her side, half buried in a mass of trash sucked up by the ventilation system over many decades. The plastic box she used for a pillow had likely been in the duct longer than she’d been alive. Her eyelids peeled apart, breaking the perfect dark with swaths of violet reflection on the dull plastisteel walls. Risa didn’t bother with night vision; fourteen stories below the surface of Mars, nothing existed she wanted to see.
Boop. A soft tone pulsed from the NetMini on her belt, alerting her to unanswered messages.
What am I doing? She sighed, still not bothering to move. Hiding in the vents again like a kid.
“Persistent thing.” Trash crinkled and compressed as she pushed herself up to sit. A crushed plastic cup bounced off her shoulder and landed in her lap. “I wonder what Garrison wants me to blow up this time.”
A quick mental urge triggered a wireless connection between her headware and NetMini. Aqua letters appeared in a holo-panel dimmed to compensate for the lack of ambient light, indicating eleven messages from Tamashī, two from Aurelia, and one from Garrison. Her stomach protested its current empty state with a snarl. She leaned forward and crossed her arms over her knees, forehead to forearms.
“Wow. Three whole people wondering where I went.”
She reached out and poked the air where Tamashī’s name appeared to be. All eleven messages were variations of ‘Plz call me,’ with ‘me’ growing by several ‘e’s with each successive email. Maybe she can help.
An attempt to send a short ‘okay’ failed with a ‘no signal’ error.
“So that’s how I managed to sleep.”
Aurelia’s first Vidmail appeared to come from inside an MDF facility, judging from the crimson-clad figures moving around behind her. Probably her desk. The woman looked exhausted, and a thick layer of red Martian dust coated her armored shoulders. Aurelia closed her eyes to let out a long sigh before leaning forward; her face filled the screen.
“No leads yet. Whoever we’re looking for knows how to cover their tracks. How’d it go with the big S?” Aurelia glanced to her side. “Damn, gotta go. Stupid psych eval. There ain’t enough coffee on Mars.”
Aurelia’s second contact took the form of a text-only message: “No reply in too long. Worried. Are you okay?”
She skipped Garrison’s message, dispelling the virtual holo-panel with an arm wave. It shattered apart in ‘glass’ fragments, reminding her she had not yet set up interface preferences for her new NIU. Feeling a mixture of foolish and hungry, she crawled free of the gathered junk. Her Wraith implant rendered the walls of the junction chamber in the ducts as planes of grey whenever she moved. All three passages out rested near the roof, five feet off the floor. Risa pulled herself up into the one she’d entered from, identifiable by the open grating.
As a child, she had never gone much deeper than Tier 6, being afraid of stories of mutants, monsters, and homicidal robots lurking in the dark. Now, the deep tunnels offered a place where she could effectively vanish from the world. Nine hours ago, she had chosen the first open chamber she could find, barely conscious.
Risa climbed up the nearest vertical connector, which spanned fifty feet and emerged from a floor grating in an inter-sector air handler as large as a standard apartment dwelling. Within the two-story structure, a henge of six fifteen-foot fans drew air from a cavernous opening in the ceiling and forced it down the various offshoots around the walls. Unending wind threatened to sweep her off her feet; the swirling vortex made any effort to contain her hair futile.
She stared straight up through the blur of fan blades. Disabling the roof fan long enough to get into the shaft was possible, but she couldn’t scale the inner wall of a hollow pyramid without climbing gear, not to mention the passage beyond it appeared too wide to brace her body against the sides. She backtracked along the maintenance catwalk, followed a set of metal grating stairs to the second floor, and hit the emergency stop on a five-foot air mover at the head end of a northerly tunnel. When the blades scraped to a halt, she ducked past them and walked. Seconds later, the fan started up, creating a gale at her back strong enough to force her up to a trot. She jogged to the end of the shaft, fifty meters later, and jumped down three feet to another junction chamber.
When she crouched at the opening of a smaller branch-off, her growling stomach echoed in the duct. The noise seemed to startle a metal spider-bot the size of a housecat, distracting it from its tireless search for vermin. It swiveled to face her, raising its front four legs, which sprouted small retractable blades. Once it determined her human, it went back to its task. Risa chuckled under her breath, remembering the scream she let off the first time she’d seen one of those.
“I gotta get out of these shafts. I’m done hiding.”
It is good to hear you say that.
The voice of Raziel shocked her nerves with a charge that left her paralyzed and struggling to breathe. Four seconds after he spoke, she collapsed on her chest in the pose of a murder victim.
“R-Raziel,” she wheezed.
Forgive my long silence. I have not forgotten you.
Tears welled up at the corners of her eyes. “I thought you were angry at me for failing.” She struggled to pull herself upright, but her muscles refused to move. “Ngh; what’s wrong with me?”
You did not fail. You saved many lives in Arden.
She moaned past clenched teeth, drawing her knees to her chest and curling up in a ball. “Pavo… Is it true?”
I am sorry, Risa. He has been taken to a place I cannot see.
“No…” How could an angel not be able to―She froze, wide-eyed at the realization. She wrapped her arms around herself, trembling in fear. Hell. All fight left her body; she sobbed. “It’s not right.” Consuming hollowness spread outward from her gut. Is that where I’m going too? She bit her knuckle, unable to stop shivering.
Do not let sorrow take root in your heart.
“It’s not sorrow.” Risa grunted, pushed herself up onto all fours, and crawled along the duct. “They all think I’m a tí-zhèn, an assassin. I’m going to prove them right.”
The people of Mars need you.
She shuddered under the weight of his voice and collapsed flat on the thin ductwork with a resounding boom that repeated in the distance. Despite the burning in her arms, she kept dragging herself forward. “They n-needed Pavo too.” She grunted. “Did you hear them in Concourse 3? Not one of them cares. They think the UCF protects them from us. They think we’re trying to hurt them.”
The pig adores the farmer until it becomes a ham.
“I don’t have any idea what that means.” She forced herself back up to a crawl. “Why should I care what happens to these people? The time I spent with him was the first time since I’d been a little girl that I’ve ever felt happy. Someone took it away from me. If I was nobody I’d―”
Have watched it happen and been helpless to stop it. What happened to Pavo was not about you, Risa. He was with the Pueri Verum Martis before you knew he existed.
“Maybe whoever attacked him wouldn’t have found him if…” She stopped; her breathless gasps for air echoed in the tight confines.
It is not your fault.
“If you didn’t send―”
Then everyone in Arden would be dead now. Do you believe Pavo would think his life worth a hundred?
She cried, lowering her forehead to the cold metal as she wailed. “It is to me.”
Raziel waited until her grief fell silent. I know you don’t mean that.
“Why didn’t you warn us?” She sniffled, wiped her face, and moved to the bottom of another vertical shaft.
I do not foresee all things. The architect of that plan acted on a whim, without preparation.
“So I’m supposed to go on like he never existed? Like everything’s fine?”
It is your destiny.
“My destiny?” After a two-story climb, she hauled her body over the edge of a square hole and slid into a horizontal passage. “Right now, my destiny is to find everyone responsible for what happened to Pavo.”
You’re not a killer, Risa.
She took a few breaths, resting. “I’m not? Tell that to the people in the weapons lab.” Pavo went to Hell for it. I guess we’ll be together someday. “Before you say ‘they were going to kill thousands,’ maybe it’s still wrong to kill them first.”
The most direct way to prevent a threat is to remove it. Destroying the facility was critical.
“I don’t understand anymore. None of this makes sense.” We’re damning ourselves for people who couldn’t care less. “I don’t know why you chose me or why things happened the way they did. When this is over, when the people responsible―”
The people need you.
“The people need a lot of things. I’m not the only tí-zhèn on the planet.” Risa cringed inside, debating the wisdom of hurling sarcasm at an angel.
Kree needs you.
Risa halted at another ladder that would take her to a street-level intake on Tier 2. Air laced with the flavor of metal and the scent of street food awoke the monster in her belly. Guilt at the expression on Kree’s face when she had begged her not to go to Arden put it back to sleep.
I am here.
“I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me for almost five years.”
That is true.
“I haven’t asked you for much in return.”
Almost nothing, except to free those women.
She crept to the end of the shaft, crouching behind the grate and peering through the slats at a secluded courtyard beyond. Four street punks wearing the neon-green logo of the SecSpiders lounged around on old plastisteel shipping crates as big as caskets. One tended pale slabs of meat sizzling upon a rebuilt e-grill. A long, shallow box lay on the ground at his feet, filled with clear plastic film. Judging by the ‘Ernesto’s’ logo on the side, the gangers had scored an entire plank of vat-grown chicken. Risa had never seen a real chicken, but she doubted them big enough to carve off a five-foot long slab. The idea of a tank of green slime filled with hundreds of rectangular ingots of meat struck her as neither appetizing nor off-putting.
Whispering in the dark drew her gaze to the far side of the courtyard. A tiny grating opened, allowing pair of preteen boys in tattered clothes to creep out of the shadows, drawn by the scent of food. Her breath stalled in her throat as the children approached the notoriously violent gang. She knew full well how such a fragrance could overpower fear. A lifetime ago, she had been the rat crawling from the tunnel.
The boys approached slow and wide-eyed, young enough to hope their odds at begging outweighed their chances at escaping alive with thievery.
“Would ya lookit that then,” said the man cooking. “What’cha fink we should do?”
“Sorry.” The boy on the left stopped; the hope in his eyes gave way to fear.
The SecSpiders laughed.
Before Risa could shove the grate open, one of the gang members offered each boy a skewer. She drew a breath in surprise, mesmerized.
“I want you to watch over Kree.” Risa reached up and slid her fingers between the slats, letting her arm hang. “Don’t let them turn her into whatever it is I am.”
What you are is nothing to regret. Raziel’s voice existed as a whisper in the back of her mind, devoid of its usual paralytic charge. You grow weary of the conflict. If not Risa Black, then who?
“That’s not fair.” Her grip on the slat tightened until she expected to see blood. “You can’t have her in my place.”
You misunderstand me. The child is too young. The cause demands action now, not in ten or twelve years. Someone must bear the burden.
Images of the last moments of Pavo’s life replayed in her memory. “Okay. You win. Keep her safe and happy. I’ll do whatever the Front needs… as long as it doesn’t kill civilians.”
Keeping the child safe perhaps I can influence. You, however, are better suited to keeping her happy.
“Me?” Risa wiped a tear as she scoffed. “She’s already lost one mother, and I flirt with death every day. I couldn’t do that to her again. Kree deserves better than me.”
Pneumatic assists hissed as Risa shoved the grate away and up. Her sudden motion startled the SecSpiders, who reached for pistols and submachine guns. The boys kept eating, though their eyes locked on her as she emerged. Risa stood, closed the vent cover, and faced them. Opportunism and lust in the Spiders’ expressions melted to the sort of faces she’d have expected from a rat staring at a tiger. The boys didn’t display much of a reaction to her.
“Make a wrong turn, tí-zhèn?” The man behind the grill let his hand slip away from the pistol at the front of his belt. Yellow irises glowed stark in contrast to his dark-brown skin. “Y’aint here for us. Your kind of badness be too much cred for the likes of ‘dis ‘ere.”
“No,” said Risa before walking away.
A different man whistled after her. “Oh, what I wanna do to that ass.”
Risa stopped, leaving her back to them. “Come get it.”
Eyes closed, she relied on her Wraith implant. Six figures drawn in wisps of grey appeared. When did having 360 degree vision stop feeling strange? One figure got up and took three steps toward her before hesitating and twisting back.
“Hey, you fuckers just gonna sit there?”
The Spiders aren’t known for preying on women; guess every group has a winner.
“Yep,” said the grill man. “Code don’t abide nothin’ bout stoppin’ suicide.”
The two other figures fidgeted, but made no move to stand.
“Feh,” said the ganger, returning to his seat. “Thought she was offerin’.”
Grill man laughed. “Yeah, to kill you.”
She stood motionless for ten seconds. When none made a move to get up, she walked down a once-wide passage, narrowed with stacked trash containers and loose debris. The din of a crowd grew in volume as she neared the end. Bits and pieces of conversation reflected off the walls from people going about their daily drudgery. The aroma of the Spiders’ street meat had scratched at her hunger, drawing it out from under the weight of her grief.
A spark leapt a synapse in her brain, raced along a neuron to a point where a nanometer-wide platinum thread touched it. At the left corner of her vision, a virtual holo-panel unfurled like a scroll with a pattern of thin blue lines against a transparent cyan background. The word ‘calling’ flashed and danced in the middle.
Risa wandered among the crowd, paying them as little mind as they did her. Six steps later, Aurelia Imari’s face appeared in the rectangular frame.
「Risa? Where the hell have you been?」 The woman leaned forward, sighing. 「For shit’s sake, I thought the bastards got you, too.」
「I had some hardware problems.」 Risa trudged with a sullen, downcast stare and a blank expression. If she had been wearing anything with pockets, she’d have stuffed her hands in them. 「Have you found anything?」
「Can’t talk here, but not much.」 Aurelia glanced to the side. 「That’s odd. I’m not getting a trace on your location. 」
At least I know that still works. 「New NIU, maybe it’s still upgrading its firmware.」 She caught a whiff of bacon on the wind and altered course in that direction. After stopping short to avoid a collision with a large man in a suit, she ducked into a dingy little eatery that appeared to have more grease on the walls than in the food. Another panel opened with the Elysium City navigation app. 「I’m on Tier 2, Sector 34 commerce square.」
「All right, I’ll meet you there.」
Risa took a seat in the last booth with her back against the wall. A thin open walkway separated the row of tables from a display case full of various vat-grown lunch meats and led to a pair of bathrooms in the back. Her vision zoomed in on the shirts of one of the men behind the counter, centering on the logo.
「Apparently, I’m in some shithole named ‘Bob’s.’ Judging from the war going on in the men’s room, maybe I shouldn’t eat here.」 Sometimes enhanced hearing is a curse.
Aurelia laughed. 「The place looks like hell, but the food’s good. A lot of MDF officers swear by it. I’ll be there in a few.」
“Hey.” A man in his early twenties wearing a Bob’s apron sidled up to her table. “What’ll you have?”
Aurelia’s virtual image faded as she disconnected the call. Risa looked past the waiter, above the counter where five holographic displays cycled to display different offerings. She pointed at something resembling an omelet on a bun. “What’s that?”
“Bacon-mageddon. Eggs, quarter pound of bacon, plus whatever else you want on it.” He smiled. “One of our favorites.”
“Ugh… Omni-bacon smells so good, but it congeals too fast.”
He gasped, and placed one hand flat on his chest. “Madame, how could you imply we serve such an atrocity? I assure you, our bacon is real.”
She raised an eyebrow. “This place has vat bacon?”
“We do.” He dropped the false snobbery, and gestured at the oldest man behind the counter, who appeared to be fifty-ish. “Jimmy says ‘the fancier a place looks, the less they spend on the quality of their food.’”
Risa took a moment to take in her surroundings; striated maroon-brown grease on the metal walls, scratched and dented furniture, and a ceiling full of exposed LED bulbs. “If that’s true, the food here ought to be worthy of angels.”
The man bowed. “Then you’ll have to tell me what you think.”
She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes, and smiled.