Twelve years prior to the events of Division Zero…
Desperate to keep her food down, Kirsten cradled her stomach. She sat sideways in her father’s lap, resting her head on his shoulder, feet on his leg. He traced his fingers over dark spots on her shin before resting his hand atop her foot. Warmth filtered through her toes, and she snuggled into him. Terrified her mother would notice her trembling, she forced herself to sit still, and kept her head down. He seemed afraid; a hesitant finger hovered at the corner of her eye before he tried to move a strand of blonde hair away from her face. Strawberry shampoo tinted the air with fruit. She looked away so he could not see her crying, and watched a shiny, silver bot gliding back and forth an inch above the carpet. Azure laser light glistened through drab green fibers as it whisked in its endless pursuit of dirt.
Everything had started when she was six years old. The first time she called on her ability had been an accident. For days, she had felt something watching her at night. A feeling of not being alone when she was alone unsettled her, and seemed concentrated on the corner of her bedroom. When she wanted to know what was there―he appeared. A man who’d been shot. A ghost. Now, she knew she could turn her power on at will. The dead man in her room that night knew she had looked at him. He told others. They all came looking for help. Worst of all, Mother had seen her eyes glow. She remembered a priest, and her mother shaking her by the shoulders demanding she turn her back on “The Devil.”
After that, Kirsten ignored the ghosts. The apartment suffered patches of cold, strange noises at all hours, doors slamming, and fog on the windows, but the worst was never feeling alone. Always, someone watched, always something wanted. Even if she did not look at them, she heard them whispering.
Mother hadn’t taken it well.
Four years ago, Kirsten had “destroyed” her family. Mother blamed everything on her, not on the throng of tortured souls that came in search of help. It did not take long for her loving mother to descend into righteous madness. She dreaded the litanies of how Jesus would punish her. It didn’t matter what Kirsten did. She was no longer a daughter―she was a spawn of evil.
“Don’t cry, sweetie.” Her father rubbed her back, making her whimper. Bruises he didn’t see. “I’m not angry with you for breaking the cabinet. I’m happy you didn’t hurt yourself. Promise me you won’t try to climb them again?”
Kirsten shivered. Don’t throw up. Three drawers opened on their own. She closed her eyes, reliving Mother flinging her into the walls. The cabinet door had cracked on the third hit. She convulsed, but cradled her belly full of precious food. Don’t throw up; he’s leaving again.
“What’s gotten into you, Kirsten?”
She dug her fingers into his shirt, clenching two fistfuls of cloth. Don’t let me go. Don’t go away again. Please…
Her father tensed. He was afraid of them just like Mother, but he didn’t hit. He ran. This proximity was a moment of guilt overpowering fear. She looked up at him, shaking, hot tears on her cheeks. As always, he could not bear to look her in the eye. Tightness gripped her chest and heat flooded her face. She could tell him what Mother did whenever he was gone, when he ran away from the spirits who came calling.
Mother appeared out of nowhere, rounding the seat with a large glass of iced tea for Father. Kirsten jumped when the hand came towards her. Her body went limp with relief when all Mother did was rub her hair, acting as if she cared, all a show for Daddy.
“She’s exhausted, dear.” The sound of kissing made her dinner swell into her throat. “She’s worked up that you only got home this morning and you’re leaving already. Those idiots at TMC are asking too much of you.”
Who is this woman? Kirsten sniffled, forcing herself to smile. “Please don’t go.”
Mother met her fearful expression with a hard smile. As soon as he wasn’t watching, she glowered. Father patted her on the head and felt around her shoulder before reaching under her arm and squeezing her ribs. Kirsten sucked air through her teeth; that pain was too much to hold back. Mother’s eyes darkened, a command to keep quiet.
Father ran his fingers over the top of her foot. He gripped her heel, and held her leg up. “Look at how bony she is. She’s wasting away. We should take her to the med center. She ate enough for a grown man and look at her. She shouldn’t be this thin.”
Kirsten kept her gaze down. She doesn’t let me eat much when you’re gone.
“I was worried about that too,” said Mother. “I had her there Friday. They couldn’t find anything wrong.”
Isn’t lying a sin, Mother? Kirsten gripped his shirt tighter. “Can you stay home, please?”
An automatic door somewhere in the back of the apartment opened, despite no one being near it. Something hard rattled in the kitchen, perhaps a glass sliding across the counter. Mother turned as pale as Kirsten. Father heard it too. He slid his hands under her arms and eased her off his lap, setting her standing. She clung to him as he got out of the chair, shivering and sobbing.
“Please, Daddy, please stay!”
Mother’s hand grasped her shoulder. “Look at you, missy! Acting like a four-year-old.”
“She’s only nine, Jean. Don’t be so demanding.”
Father had been away on “business” when her birthday came and went a few weeks ago. Mother didn’t bother to correct him. A faint thud came from a distant room. Fingers dug in, peeling her away from her lifeline―Daddy.
“You’ll miss your flight to the east,” said Mother, through a plastic smile.
Her pleas fell to wordless sniveling and begging eyes. Father did not look at her as he scurried to the closet. All these years, and he had never noticed the doorknob was backwards, to lock someone inside. He gathered his coat and put on his ViewPane glasses. Tiny flickering cyan lights danced in front of his eyes as it synced up to the NetMini in his pocket. The travel case he had packed waited by the door with a week’s worth of clothes.
She dared not shiver with Mother right there. Tell him. She looked up, mouth opening. What if he doesn’t believe me? What will Mother do after he leaves? Kirsten surrendered to fear and stared through silent tears as her Father drew close, kissed Mother on the cheek, and ruffled her hair.
How can he not know? Daddy…
“I’ll be back on the twentieth, unless the intercoastal gets delayed again.”
Eight days alone with Mother. Kirsten’s toes gripped the carpet. Her mouth opened, but no words came.
“Have a safe trip,” said Mother, still impersonating a human.
“I’ll vid when I land. No, that’ll be too late.” He wandered back over and poked Kirsten in the stomach. “You should be sleeping by then. Be a good girl and listen to your mother. I’ll vid in the morning.”
Tears splattered on her feet as he walked away. Her eyes crept shut; her body tensed. Hell would come as soon as the door closed. Tell him. Kirsten trembled, unable to get a voice out of her mouth.
Pssht. The apartment door sealed behind him.
Mother’s hand slid up Kirsten’s neck, gathering loose hair into a ponytail fist. She stumbled down the corridor, walking on the balls of her feet, head at an angle. The encouragement was firm but, for Mother, mild. Kirsten offered no protest as the unforgiving grip led to her bedroom. A weak shove at the back of her skull sent her forward. Mother stopped at the doorway. Right away, Kirsten knew they weren’t alone. She didn’t dare look. Mother’s face announced she did not care for the way the mood shifted in there.
Four pink walls festooned with two dozen crucifixes of varying size surrounded a girl’s Comforgel pad. Set for a little girl’s room, the dense liquid inside the slab lit pink regardless of whether it heated or cooled. Innumerable dolls and stuffed animals crowded it.
Every time Father went away, he’d bring her one.
Kirsten moved to the edge and lifted one knee to climb into bed.
Mother squinted. “One of your demons is here, isn’t it?”
“Jesus does not want me talking to demons.”
“Don’t!” screamed the monster. The sudden noise sent Kirsten to a ball on the floor, shaking. “How dare you speak the Lord’s name while you turn your back on him!”
She clung tight to the side of the bed, expecting Mother to stomp over and drag her to the closet. A minute passed with only the sound of raspy breathing. Kirsten whimpered at the shift of weight in the floor.
“Pray.” Mother was right behind her.
She scrambled to her knees, hands clasped at her chin. Jesus, who art in Heaven, Hallow―
“I said pray!”
Mother’s shadow on the wall raised a fist. Kirsten wailed through sobs. “Jesus, who art―”
“Those aren’t the words. Are you corrupting the Lord’s Prayer, or are you just stupid?”
Kirsten cringed, but no strike landed. “I-I’m just s-stupid.”
Mother grabbed her; rough hands forced her back into the proper posture for prayer. “Do it right!”
“O-our f-father…” Kirsten sniveled her way through the entire recitation, stuttering over half the words.
“Get in bed, and be quiet. Think about why you turned away from God.”
Kirsten crawled among the dolls and bears, curled on her side. The soft pssht of the door opening made her jump.
“Lights,” grumbled Mother, making it dark.
One hand rubbed her overstuffed belly while the other cradled a soft bear to her chest. Mother thought she was afraid of the dark. The woman thought programming the house electronics to ignore the Devil’s child would scare her. The closet had long since cured her of any fear of the dark. She wanted to be good, but Mother didn’t care.
Hot tears streamed down her cheeks. She buried her face in a stuffed rabbit as big as she was. When Daddy came home, she’d tell him. Maybe if she behaved herself, Mother wouldn’t kill her before he returned.
Cold across her back woke Kirsten. The soft whirr of hovercars passed outside, in time with misshapen squares of light sliding over the far wall. Walls of metal crosses glinted. Kirsten brought her knees to her chest, shying away from the suffocating glare of tiny dying messiahs.
The two dozen faces of Jesus watched her from every surface, ready to send her to Hell if she disobeyed. Sometimes, the closet did not seem so bad. In there, Mother couldn’t sneak up on her. She snuggled into the mound of dolls and toys. They reminded her of her father―even if he was a coward.
A watched feeling returned. She hugged the enormous rabbit to her chest, determined to ignore whatever wayward spirit had come here. Mother would hear the smallest sound and fall upon her with the fury of Heaven. The mere thought of it gave her chills, as she imagined the unforgiving hand around her ankle dragging her down the hall. Mother had almost beaten her to death when she was eight. Nightmares of lying on the kitchen floor all night, one leg broken, still haunted her two years later. The close call scared Mother into backing off, but only a little. Less beating meant more burning. The little red stimpaks could grow back skin.
A chill whispered through the air―a woman. Kirsten huddled around her rabbit, too afraid to even whisper go away.
A presence moved through her, the feeling of sentience passing from behind to in front. Mother was oblivious to them, unless they broke things. They only broke things when they got angry. They got angry when she ignored them. Every time, it was a gamble, risk a beating for talking to them or get worse when they vented. She sat up, pawing crumbs from her eyes and yawning.
The ephemeral words came from her right. She glanced at the door and bit her lip.
“I can’t,” she whispered, “I’ll get in trouble. Jesus will hate me.”
“Lies,” hissed the spirit.
Chills rode down her spine from the disembodied voice. Her home was deathly quiet. She dreaded that even her tiny whisper would rouse Mother. No electronics were allowed in her room; no clock, no datapads, and certainly nothing considered entertainment. The Devil did not deserve such things.
Dread made her shiver as she clutched the edge of the bed. Kirsten concentrated, disobeying one of Mother’s most severe commands, wanting to see the ghost. Darkness weakened to monochromatic sepia as the astral realm permeated her reality. The crosses shimmered; the walls swayed. Everything took on a fuzzy, indistinct quality. A soft white glow from Kirsten’s eyes shimmered on her pale arms.
A few feet away, the transparent outline of a woman around Mother’s age, but far thinner and prettier faded into view. Kirsten rubbed her legs out of nerves, frightened at what Mother would do if she was caught letting her psionic energy off its short leash. The figure took on color and a false sense of solidity, appearing no different from a living person.
“Thank you, child. I need your help. My son is going to die tonight if I don’t warn him.”
Kirsten cast an uneasy glance at her door. “I… I’m not s’posed to talk to you. Mother thinks you’re evil.”
The woman’s hand passed through Kirsten’s head as she tried to pat it. “Oh, child… Your mother is very sick, and an idiot.”
“I don’t think you’re bad.” Kirsten folded her arms, looking down. “If I get caught talking to you, I’ll get in trouble. She burns me and hits me and locks me in the closet. Please, I can’t help you.”
“You must!” The woman blurred into a strip of color, reforming right in front of her. “Ryan is only fourteen. His friends got tainted Flowerbasket. It’s going to kill him.”
“What’s Flowerbasket? How…?”
“It’s a drug. The dead know things.” The woman pointed at the door. “I will make your VidPhone call him. Please, you must warn him.”
“No,” Kirsten whimpered. “Mother will wake up. I’m too scared.” She ground her toes into the bedding. “Your son won’t believe me anyway. No one does.”
Her spectral visitor shimmered between normal and looking as though she’d been shot in the head and chest. Kirsten turned away from the gore, covering her eyes and squealing. She’d seen worse before, what scared her was the sense of foreboding as the energy in the room changed from desperation to rage.
Thump… thump, thump, thump. Footsteps in the hallway.
Kirsten dove to the side, playing possum as the door slid open with a hiss.
“God sees your lies, girl.”
She didn’t move.
“The fires of hell burn through your eyelids. Your sin shines!”
“I told her to go away!” Kirsten sat up and burst into tears. “I love Jesus! The ghost won’t listen.”
Mother clutched her chest, staring aghast at Kirsten’s luminescent eyes.
“Jesus wants us to be kind to strangers. She says her son is gonna die, and wants me to warn him. It’s not the Dev―”
Kirsten screamed as Mother rushed in and slapped her flat to the bed. “Satan deceives! You let him in this house.”
She cradled her burning cheek, curling into a ball and wailing. Some of the sounds coming out of her turned into “Sorry.” Mother did not hit her again until she made the mistake of blurting, “Don’t hurt me, Mommy, I love you.”
“Get out of her!” Mother howled and pounded her fist into Kirsten’s back. “Get out of her!”
A loud crack, metal striking wood, caused silence. Mother screamed, backing away. Kirsten peered through her arms shielding her face. She could not see the ghost; the pain in her back destroyed her concentration. What she did see froze the blood in her veins.
Every cross from her walls had stacked in an impossible twisting sculpture reaching inches short of the ceiling. Crucifixes balanced on end, arm to arm, without order or reason. No law of gravity known to man should have allowed it to stand. Metal, wood, and plastic teetered on the edge of balance.
“I thought you were trying, Kirsten. I really did. I let you sleep in your bed tonight, and this is what you do? You invite the Devil into our home?”
Mother’s low voice scared her more than when she shouted.
She trembled. “Please, Mommy. I wanted to do what you said.”
“Go and think about what you have done.”
Kirsten leapt from the bed and ran down the corridor to the living room. Mother walked after her, slow and plodding. Kirsten ducked into the closet and pulled the door closed. Floorboards creaked as Mother approached. Kirsten backed into the inner wall and slid down to sit under the coats, hugging her knees to her chest. Mother’s heavy footfalls stopped right outside.
Kristen shied away from the locked door, wincing from the pain in her back as she moved to lie sideways on the hard floor. Without blankets or stuffed animals, the cold numbed her feet and set her teeth chattering, and the stink of carpet cleaner assaulted her nose. She tucked an arm under her head for a pillow and listened to Mother pacing about in the living room, muttering to God, Jesus, and various saints, asking them why she had been cursed with such a creature for a daughter.
Sleep stayed away, helped by the hard floor and terror. Kirsten cried, wishing her father had stayed home, praying he would find the courage to protect her from Mother. He had to know what was going on. He had to know how twisted she was. The e-bible Mother forced her to study spoke of love and forgiveness. Mother did not seem to be reading the same book.
“This is our fault!” Thud, thud, thud. “Humanity has brought this on itself!”
Mother ranted and paced outside. Kirsten cringed with every footfall.
“We have abandoned Him. So few in this evil nation believe anymore. These so-called psionics are everywhere! They grow in number, spreading their sinful ways. You punish us for our transgressions. Why!” Mother wailed. A heavy slam rumbled through the floor. Kirsten imagined Mother kneeling in the middle of the parlor, staring up at her giant stone and brass crucifix. “I am not one of the atheists who have disavowed you. Why do you punish me with such a demon?”
Something broke in the distance. Mother gasped. Rattling filled the air outside. A long scraping noise ended with a massive crash. Mother howled. Kirsten shot upright.
The spirit had to be livid. Her son was going to die and Kirsten could not help. A cascade of bangs and clattering came from the left. Mother thundered off in the direction of the main bedroom. After the sound of a door opening, Mother roared. Kirsten did not need to look to know what the noise was. All the crosses in Mother’s room were on the floor. Porcelain shattered against the wall.
The ghost was attacking Mother’s religion.
Kirsten stood in the center of the closet, gazing down at her feet. She tried the knob, finding it immobile. Had it been open, she’d have run out into the night. Weeks ago, a kindly old spirit had warned her she would die by her Mother’s hand if she did not save herself. She didn’t believe him then, but now Mother was coming, and her wrath would be spectacular.
This was the night.
Even the carpet bot ran for cover, zooming in under the door and vanishing through its little hole in the back of the closet. The door whipped open with enough force to pull Kirsten’s hair over her shoulders. Something shattered in the kitchen, no doubt one of the porcelain Virgins on the stove―the ones that frowned at her whenever it was time for purification.
At eight, the sight of her mother in the closet door would have paralyzed her with dread. Perhaps it was age, perhaps it was knowing this could be her last night on Earth, but desperation forced Kirsten to take a chance. She always accused Kirsten of lying anyway.
She flung herself into her mother, hugging her tight. “I love you, Mommy!”
The woman remained still. Kirsten’s fingers scraped the back of her mother’s nightdress as her hands became fists. She held on as though her life depended on it, even though she feared and hated the creature her mother had become.
“I tried to tell her to go away. She’s mad because her son is in danger. Mothers are supposed to protect their kids.”
She cringed as soon as she’d said it. The act of being flung to the floor hurt more than the landing.
“You’re not my mother anymore. You keep saying I’m bad, but you’re the Devil.”
Hands grabbed and slapped at her, seizing her by the forearms and hauling her through the apartment to the kitchen. Kirsten set her legs, but even with her feet sliding over carpet, her slight weight didn’t slow Mother down. At the approaching kitchen, Kirsten shrieked and kicked. Mother gathered both of her wrists in one hand and turned on the stove. Kirsten struggled, putting her foot on the oven door and trying to shove herself away from the source of so much pain. A disc of glowing orange appeared in the gloss black surface. Heat washed over Kirsten’s face as Mother forced her fingers closer to the element. Skin bunched at her wrists as she pulled, trying to keep her hands away from the horror that awaited them. She grunted, twisted, and screamed. Mother intended to burn both hands tonight.
Desperation flared in her heart. She pulled back on her arms and lunged forward, sinking her teeth into Mother’s forearm, but the ogrish woman didn’t relent.
“Hey!” A man’s voice echoed through the kitchen, sounding far away as if on the other end of a tube.
Mother jumped at the sound, her grip tightened with a spike of fear. Instinct to avoid the heat overwhelmed Kirsten; she put both feet against the oven door and pushed, crying out for help.
“Let her go!” The air in the kitchen seemed to vibrate with a spectral shout.
Shimmering white light danced over the wall. Mother stood statue still, frozen in terror. Kirsten wrenched herself free, falling on her backside and sobbing. By the time she scampered backward into the cabinet, Mother babbled.
A ghostly apparition stood by the hallway, green army jacket and scraggly hair the color of wet hay wavering in a nonexistent breeze. Hateful eyes perched under an explosion of light brown eyebrows narrowed at her mother. The stink of body odor, piss, and vomit saturated everything, making Kirsten gather her nightgown over her face and gag.
“Devil!” Mother pointed.
The spirit pulled an ancient gun, so old it had no electronics, from his jacket pocket and pointed it at Mother. “Close, but no.”
Bang, bang, bang!
The sounds came as though the gun went off fifty yards away and muted through water. Kirsten stared as tiny smears of spectral light flew through Mother and into the wall. No visible wounds appeared, but the woman clutched her chest and collapsed; dead or unconscious was not apparent.
“Hey, kid. Time ta go.” The man pointed over his shoulder with a thumb.
She focused on the desire to see spirits, dreading she would see her Mother’s wraith. The vagrant lost his glow as the solid appearance of a living person swam through his vaporous body. Her heels skidded on the tiles as she forced herself upright, back pressed to the cabinet.
“She saw you?”
“Aye.” He started to leave, but stopped to sigh at her. “Ye be a right bit o’ pathetic, you know? Best git on out before she wakes up. She’s gonna go too far this time.”
Kirsten sniffled, shivering. How long had she been terrified of the monster that now lay helpless on the ground? She whirled as he walked out.
“Wait, where are you going? Who are you?”
The man did not slow; his coat billowed out behind him as he went through the wall. Kirsten edged toward the exit, nauseous from panic. From the rear of the apartment, a woman’s voice screamed seconds before another statuette smashed into floor. She glanced back at her mother, bit her lip, and faced forward again.
“I’ll talk to him,” shouted Kirsten. “Please hurry.”
The thin thirty-something brunette blurred through the wall of Mother’s room. The pure rage on her face melted to urgency, and she moved in a smear of light that closed the distance to the kitchen in the blink of an eye. Kirsten yelped. The woman slipped her right hand into the Vidphone terminal on the kitchen wall and the device came online. Mirror-covered letters spun in a circle, CTI. A pleasant male voice thanked her for using ComTec International.
The face of boy in his early teens appeared on the screen. He looked half-asleep. “You got the wrong number, kid.”
“Tell him my name is Jennifer, and his first dog was Nibbles,” said the woman.
Kirsten repeated it.
“Whoa… What the hell is up with your eyes? You some kinda crazy doll?” The kid sighed. “Oh, I get it. Which one of you bastards is pranking me with a vid hack?”
“Don’t use Flowerbasket tomorrow. It’ll kill you,” said Kirsten, without emotion.
“You’re freaking me out, kid.”
“Your mom is here.” Kirsten jumped as her own mother moaned. “She says the drugs will kill you.”
The boy scowled, reaching to hang up. “She always said that.”
“Tell him Z-Bone is trying to impress Warden by poisoning the Chapel Street Gang,” said the ghost.
Mother wheezed and twitched. Kirsten blurted the message as fast as she could, leaving the boy dumbfounded.
“Z-Bone? He’s a little punk twelve year old. The hell does―”
“If you take the Flowerbasket, you’re gonna die!” shouted Kirsten.
She ran into the hallway when something scraped behind her. She stopped in the middle of the apartment, whirling in place. Walls slid by, feeling as false as a holovid: her room, the closet, the front door, the kitchen―certain death. She clutched her hands to her mouth, shaking.
The vagrant ghost came through the wall. “What the hell ye still doin’ here? You wanna get kilt? When she wakes up…”
“But…” Kirsten looked at her room.
“Ye wanna grab a doll or what’nae?”
She stared down at her shaking body. Daddy left me here. He never stops her, just brings me dolls. A crash came from the kitchen, followed by a roar. Kirsten ran into the living room and slapped the button by the front door. It buzzed, rejecting her. She poked it again. Kirsten whined at the ‘parental override’ showing on the screen. Her hair whipped about as she looked back and forth from the panel to the arch where Mother would appear. On impulse, she rushed over and dove behind father’s recliner to hide.
“Dammit, kid. Ya only got one chance. Run.” The ghost pointed at the door, tattered bits of green army coat trailed his swinging arm.
“I can’t get out,” whispered Kirsten. “She’s locked it.”
“Satan has come to this house!” Slam. “You send your dark minions to destroy me, but I have the Lord to protect me!” Slam. “You are no child of mine; you are the Beast.”
Kirsten cringed with every crash.
The ill-smelling vagrant ghost stuck his hand into the wall by the front door’s control panel. It burst in a shower of sparks. Emergency protocols caused the door to slide open with a faint squeak. Mother’s shadow stretched in from the archway between the hall and the living room, crucifix in one hand, steak knife in the other. One arm raised the knife toward the chair.
“I see the false light of your sin.”
“Mommy, please!” wailed Kirsten. She stood and clutched the side of the chair.
Mother held the crucifix high.
Freezing cold swept over her as the spirit took a step into the room. He shimmered with a glimmering radiant aura. A second later, his body shifted transparent to Kirsten. As soon as he resembled a ghost to her, Mother shifted the ‘aim’ of her crucifix to him, mouth agape. Brilliant white light danced on the walls. The room chilled to arctic cold, and shadows distorted Mother’s features into a horrible creature of nightmare. She thrust the cross at him, invoking God, Jesus, Mary, and a dozen other names.
The vagrant strode toward her.
Kirsten shivered, clinging to the green fabric of the chair arm that still smelled like her father―the man who couldn’t be bothered to help her. She gazed into Mother’s eyes, awestruck at the sight of that horrible woman looking frightened. The spirit snarled and raised his hands. The gun appeared.
Before she knew what she was doing, Kirsten pushed off the chair and sprinted out of the apartment. She raced down a hallway lined with apartment doors on both sides. At the end, she skidded to a halt in a small lobby area with fake plants on either side of a long sofa and six elevators, two of which were open. She ran into the nearer one, entering a featureless chamber of silvery walls. Three copies of Kirsten turned with her as she gazed around. A thin black rectangle to the right of the door hinted at where a control panel might be, but it had no buttons, being plain mirror like the rest of the walls. Kirsten couldn’t remember the last time she had been outside, much less in an elevator. She leaned her face up to the black rectangle.
The silver square ignored her. Kirsten sobbed, tears and snot running down her face as she slapped at it.
A chime sounded, and the doors closed. She backed against the wall and sank to the floor. Aside from being bright and metal, the chamber reminded her of the closet. Blue light appeared by the rectangle, a holographic rendition of a skyscraper with a little glowing box about halfway up. Kirsten edged up to it. The position of the light had to represent where she was. Another beep sounded when her finger pierced the insubstantial skyscraper at the ground level. The elevator vibrated and whirred. Kirsten sat, hugging her legs and rocking, gaze focused on the tiny sinking square.
After another ding, the mirrored doors slid apart, revealing another bank of three elevators facing her across a short section of dingy beige tiles. The vagrant ghost stood to the right of a plastic tree in a flowerpot big enough for her to use as a bathtub. Kirsten stuck her head out and peeked. To the left, a pair of doors labeled ‘Emergency Exit’ dominated a wall fifteen feet away. To the right, a huge room waited beyond the elevator hallway, where a legless female doll―a torso and arms on a post―perched behind a reception desk. The front wall, all glass, looked out over a darkened street lit by the neon-shaded light of an uncountable number of advert bots. Spots of glow adorned the heads and hands of pedestrians.
Kirsten shivered. Going outside was terrifying, but what waited for her upstairs was worse.
She crawled out onto cold faux-marble, shivering as much from the temperature as from adrenaline. The reception doll whirled about with the whine of an electric motor to face her as she crept in. Kirsten froze, feeling tiny in the enormous lobby. The weight of the artificial woman’s stare pinned her. Outside, a cluster of advert bots chased a man in a loose, black coat. Four more hounded a woman with glowing green hair. At that hour, the machines outnumbered pedestrians three to one.
“Female child, you do not match any known resident. Your biometrics indicate a panic response condition. Do you require emergency services?” The doll tilted forward. The look on its molded plastic face made it seem as though it would walk over if it were able to move.
“C’mon kid,” said the spirit. “Don’t trust them cops. They’ll send ya right to her.”
A couple waiting for the next elevator glanced down at her, noticing the girl only due to the doll’s words. Her glowing white eyes made them both recoil and hurry away. The door behind her slid closed with a beep.
Mother’s coming after me.
Kirsten scrambled into a run, bare feet squeaking on polished tile as she crossed the lobby and went out into the night. The plastisteel walkway in front of the building warmed her feet, and a warm summer breeze made her thin nightgown tolerable. In seconds, a trio of orb bots pounced, surrounding her with flashing hologram ads for shoes, clothes, video games, and toy dolls. Automated voices chirped at her, telling her to ask her parents for anything she wanted. Fear that Mother would emerge from the building at any moment pushed her down the street, choosing alley after alley without thought, until she ran herself to collapse. Trash bags looked soft enough to sit on, and she curled up. She thought she would cry, but all she could do was stare in shock at a silver of traffic a half-block away, framed by grimy buildings. Soon, the reeking bed became comfortable and her eyelids heavy.
Unnatural cold brushed over her shoulder. She looked up, seeing nothing. It was still dark. Kirsten covered her mouth to conceal a gasp; she had fallen asleep. It had to be pure luck Mother had not found her. She leapt from her resting place, stumbling over the plastic that stuck to her legs. She had to hide, had to find some place where Mother could not get her.
She whipped about to face the voice, trembling. A man much younger than her father, with canary yellow hair swept over the side of his head, stood at the corner where alley met street. He had a gun on his belt, and a few friends who looked scary. One of the men held a purse with a broken strap and blood on it, clutched in bladed metal fingers. He flashed an overdone grin, hiding his artificial appendage―and the stolen item―behind his back.
Kirsten backed up, almost falling as her foot shot forward on something slippery. Gangers! Oh, no… Tears streamed down her cheeks. Out of the house for one night and she’d found criminals.
“Hey… relax kid. We’re not gonna hurt you.”
“Yeah, this one’s too young even for Bill.”
“Suck this, man,” said a guy with green hair.
“Look, you guys get outta here.” Yellow Hair waved them off. “I’ll deal with the lawdogs. Come on, girl. The cops will take you home.” He removed small objects from his pockets and tossed them to one of the others. “Hold my meds, Benny. Bastards might search me.”
The other gangers wandered out of sight onto the street as Yellow Hair took a NetMini out of his pocket. He held his hands up in a reassuring way.
“It’s okay, kid. I’m gonna call the police. I’m not gonna hurt you or anything. They’ll get you home.”
Kirsten’s heart stopped. “No. I don’t wanna go home!” She walked backwards faster. “Mother wants to kill me.”
“Aww. Your Mother doesn’t want to hurt you. Whatever you did to make her angry isn’t going to make her kill you.”
Ice tickled Kirsten’s left shoulder. She sensed a ghost behind her, and wanted to see into the spirit world. No sooner did her surroundings turn sepia than Yellow Hair froze like a statue, no doubt staring at her glowing eyes. The alley looked less dark, less scary despite the walls rippling and blurring.
“Uh… you one of them wacked out kid dolls?” Yellow Hair edged backward.
“No. Why are you afraid of me?” She tilted her head.
“Shit. Psionic…” He almost tripped over himself to run, and vanished around the corner.
The vagrant ghost, now visible, shook his head. “Idiot.”
Kirsten looked up at him with blank eyes. He offered his hand. Hers passed right through it, and she frowned.
“Guess you nae’ figger’d that trick out yet.” He wheezed a chuckle.
She followed him deeper into the city for several blocks. Homeless people shied away from her as soon as they saw the light in her eyes. Whispering voices wondered if she was a malfunctioning android or a psionic. The way they said psionic sounded like a bad thing. Mother had hurled the same word at her. Kirsten hung her head, following the spirit until he came to a halt by a pile of debris in the middle of the alley surface.
“Clear tha’ crap away, kiddo.” The ghost rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, and sneezed a cloud of white powder that faded in a few seconds. “Feelin ‘bit drained.”
Kirsten dug through sheets of plasfilm and crushed shipping cartons, eventually discovering a large hatch with a rubberized handle set into the ground. Blue light glowed from a code panel in the center, next to a police symbol and some words too big for her.
She squatted, tracing her fingers over the writing. “What does it say?”
“Says, momma won’t go here.” He wheezed into a laugh. When Kirsten didn’t challenge him, he shook his head. “Says, unauthorized entry prohibited.”
“What does that mean?”
“Means you can hide down there.” He stuck his hand into the mechanism, causing the panel to sputter and flicker. The hatch emitted a loud hiss and clank. “G’won, lif’ it up. Down there, she won’t bug yas, and the damn cops won’t grab ya either.”
Kirsten tugged at the handle, unable to move it. She planted a foot on either side, held the squishy grip in both hands, and hauled. As if she had exerted some preset minimum amount of pressure, it sprang up on motorized struts. She screamed and leapt away.
“Hey!” she yelled, whining at the ghost who was wandering away. “Are you coming with me?”
“Got some wanderin’ ta do. There’s plenty o’ spirits down there what kin watch over ya.”
“What’s your name?” Kirsten slipped into the shaft, finding the rungs of a ladder sticky underfoot and the air foul. She waited, chin at the level of the road.
“You dinnae wanna know me, kiddo. Imma bad soul.”
“But…” Kirsten cringed away from the beeping hatch. “I think you’re nice.”
He paused, chuckled, and spat. “Ritchie.”
Kirsten climbed down into the dark, jumping with a start when the automatic cover closed over her. She clung to the ladder, not sure if she felt locked in or safe from Mother. She looked down past her wavering nightdress at a narrow shaft leading towards the dark. The underside of the cover glowed green with a code panel. Even if she wanted out, she couldn’t open it. She gulped, smiling at the thought Mother could not open it either. Kirsten climbed down, grimacing as her feet peeled off rung after rung, wondering if everything down here would feel so nasty.
At the bottom, she found herself in a metal maze, lit here and there by weak maintenance lights. Having no idea where she was, she followed the trail of glowing rectangles to a second ladder that led further down. She squatted at the hole in the floor, feet and hands covered in sticky, black slime. Warm, sickly sweet wind blew up from below, tossing her hair at her face. Fifty meters down, the wreckage of the prewar city sprawled. Houses, streets, and cars, left where they were when the modern city was built over them.
Without Mother to punish her for it, Kirsten left her mind open to the spirit world and squinted into the breeze. The ancient city teemed with the shimmering light of dozens of specters. It took a dead person to care enough to save her life. She would no longer be afraid to help them. It was the least she could do.
She grinned with hope, disregarding her fear of the unknown.
The ladder, bolted to the side of an immense round column, plunged straight through a hole in the top of a building that had once been a giant fancy home. She felt like a doll with a dollhouse all to her own. Free of the fear of Mother’s wrath, Kirsten lowered herself step by step until she reached the roof. As far as she could see, a metal sky laced with struts, wires, and tubes spanned over a dead civilization. With a grin, she squeezed through the hole and made her way to the ground level.
This first room was larger than her parents’ entire apartment, decorated with paintings taller than she was, depicting people centuries dead. Kirsten, jaw open, crept to a large bay window and peered over a life-sized glass swan at the dark front yard. She did not know who Ritchie was, but she needed to find him.
She had to thank him.