Destruction and neglect marred every surface in this part of the city. Peeling sheets of plasfilm fluttered in the wind, clinging to decaying structures, posts, and vendomats broken longer than Kate had been alive. Some advertised local bands; others pushed merchandise that had gone out of production before the takeover of flying advert bots. The majority bore the eager, smiling faces of missing people. Most looked like high-school ID images, though a handful were adults who had the simple misfortune of working too close to the creeping rot spreading outward from a disavowed sector. They’d lingered too long after civilization had enough and left. Kate had stopped paying attention to them. The youngest of those teens would be twice her age now or more, assuming any remained alive. People could vanish for many reasons in East City, and none of those reasons smelled any better than the alley in which she’d slept the day away.
A baleful droning whirr passed overhead. A forlorn advert bot as big as a large, legless dog cruised amid the downpour in search of a mark it calculated would buy whatever items ComTec Corporation programmed it to sell. Sparks sprayed every few seconds from a flattened dent/scrape on one side, suggesting a recent duel with a careless hovercar. She shook her head when it performed a loop and raced off in an erratic spiral.
No wonder the damn thing’s out here in the grey, its nav’s gotta be fried. She tilted her head back until it touched the wall. You’ll fit right in here, little guy. This is where broken things live.
Kate stood in the shadow of a fallen thermacrete slab, which jutted six feet out from the second story of an abandoned residence tower, blocking the rain. She tucked up to an alcove beneath it to get out of the weather, hiding in a lingering cloud of steam. Across the street, scraps of plastic fluttered from exposed rebar teeth, stealing moments with their mesmerizing dance. Ruined, derelict skyscrapers gaped like skeletal jaws at the overcast sky, rendering it a jagged grey glow. The howl of distant wind mixed with the occasional gunshot or scream. Metal creaked to her right, the twisted remnants of decades-dead cars bristling at the touch of nature.
A paper cup skittered along the sidewalk, its faint scrape ending when it met the side of her foot―and burst into flames.
“Fuck you, too,” she whispered, kicking it into a burst of ash.
Splattering streams of rain ran through cracks in the slab, forming an intangible cage around her. She looked down, no longer wondering how long ago the building had been abandoned. Her maroon skirt hung still at mid-thigh, in flagrant disregard of the gusting that tossed her hair about. Water seemed afraid of her black boots; a shifting zone of dry wavered around her on the concrete walkway, the wet never less than an inch away. The foulness of low tide, a decaying mixture of vegetation, fish, and rot, clung to the air.
Five locals, barely men, rounded the corner and headed her way: black coats, guns on their belts, and the look of the hunt in their eyes. All wore the insignia of the Wharf Rats. The lead ganger’s hair shifted in an endless cycle of rainbow colors; violet overtook red, and by the time it reached the ends by his shoulder, blue crept out of the roots.
They made no subtle show of checking her out, staring at her legs and the exposed skin between her skirt and the hand-wide strip of dark fabric over her breasts. One reached toward her jacket to pull it aside for a better view.
Her head snapped up in a wave of auburn; the group jumped back in unison as though the sight of her face hit them with the force of a physical shove. Leering became fear. A man’s fingers paused an inch from contact with black leather. He flashed a disingenuous smile as the hairs on the back of his hand withered.
“Hey, Parrot. You guys look desperate.”
Parrot lowered his arm and took a step away. “Kate. Didn’t know ya for look.”
“I rarely wear the same thing twice.” She shifted her weight to thrust her chest forward, stance accentuating her hips. “I’m right here if you’re in the mood.”
Nervous laughter rippled among the Wharf Rats.
“Uhh.” Parrot grimaced. “’Preciate the offer, but uhh… Catch ya ‘round.” He winked and ‘shot’ her with a finger gun before moving past at a brisk walk.
The rest hurried off.
“It’s not my breath, is it?” Kate cracked up laughing and flipped her left arm over to glance at a small screen embedded in a thick, off-white band around her wrist. A few droplets on the glass caught the light and glimmered. “Damn rain.”
She left the shelter of the hanging debris and got up to a brisk walk, chased by the incessant sizzle of water dripped onto a hot skillet. Darkened monoliths passed on both sides; she trudged through the downpour, a trail of low-lying steam in her wake. Given the hour, people in this part of town stayed out of sight unless they hunted for food, chems, or something to fuck… or didn’t know to keep their head down. Whispers made her look up. Two dirt-smeared urchins crouched in the shadows of a third-floor window, watching her and whispering in Spanish. She smiled at the boys, who disappeared into a tangled mass of girders and junk.
“Hey, let’s have the earrings,” said a feminine voice, as nervous as it tried to be threatening.
Kate glanced over her shoulder at a stairway leading to a half-basement below the abandoned apartment tower. A teen girl in tattered clothing, plain shirt and pants, emerged from the shadows with a small handgun trained on her.
“If you think I’m going to feel sorry for you, you’re about to make a mistake.”
The teen put her other hand on the pistol. “E-earrings, now.”
Kate set her hands on her hips and sighed. “Okay, perhaps I do feel sorry for you since you’re still breathing. Fuck off.”
“That’s a fancy watch too.”
Kate narrowed her eyes. “Sorry bitch, the earrings don’t come off and there’s no way you’re taking my ‘mini.”
The girl fired; the shot caught Kate in the cheek like a punch, knocking her back into a stagger. She whirled with the force of the hit and landed on all fours. The teen started out of the recessed stairwell to search her kill, but stopped when Kate grumbled and shook off the dizziness; molten lead dripped from her cheek.
“If that left a bruise, I’m going to kill you slow.”
The girl screamed, backing up. “W-what the fuck? Y-you some kinda vampire?”
Kate wiped at her cheek and flicked her hand to shake off the liquefied metal. Red light glimmered in her eyes. She stared at the gun, focusing heat into the magazine. A second later, the pistol detonated with a flash of blue fire. The girl hit the ground in a ball, cradling her mauled fingers and shrieking.
Kate got to her feet and stalked over. Blue serpents of fire peeled away from both hands, coiling around her arms. The girl scooted away amid concrete debris and trash.
“P-please don’t kill me… I d-didn’t believe them. I’m sorry.” She sobbed. “I’m s-sorry!”
Kate glared. The girl looked younger with such wide eyes, barely sixteen. Killing her would make her feel better, but leaving her alive could mean one more person telling people to leave her alone. She left her arms burning while she pondered what to do. The flames rippled audibly in the wind, surrounding her with heat blur. A couple of guys ran over, hands up. Both turned pale; a dark-haired man a month or two past twenty seemed unable to speak.
The other one looked about the same age as the girl. “Kate… hey, give her a break, huh? She’s new. Only been here a couple days.”
“Y-yeah,” added the dark haired one. “Kid just got kicked out. You been here a long time too, you know how it is.”
A pile of trash on the ground less than a foot from her leg smoldered. She moved away from it, glaring. The fire shrank and died as she willed it out. A gasp came from the wounded girl as one of the boys helped her sit up.
Kate let her arms fall slack. “She shot me in the damn face.”
The younger boy scratched his head, offering a cheesy smile. “Manners… Tiffany kinda lacks ‘em.”
The other laughed at his friend’s observation, but looked too unnerved at seeing a gunshot reduced to causing a bruise. His eyes glazed over at witnessing rumor proven true. Kate squinted at the whimpering teen, focusing until a telepathic link formed to the girl’s thoughts. She hadn’t believed all the stories, the ones that built Kate up as some mythological figure not to be trifled with. This girl had thought it made up. Fear got the better of her under Kate’s utter lack of worry while staring her down. The gun went off unexpectedly, a result of nerves and an electronic trigger with a half-millimeter travel. Terror at what was about to happen to her dominated the rest of her attention, as well as the stinging pain of having a gun explode in her grip.
A dark smile spread over Kate’s lips as she extended a hand. “Truce then; might as well shake on it, especially since you’re bleeding. I should cauterize that before you pass out.”
Tiffany scooted away. “Please, no.”
“S’ok Tiff, Kate just likes it when people are scared of her.” The oldest winked at Kate. “Ain’t that right?”
“Yeah,” said Brown-hair. “We’ll get her to a med center. She’s still under eighteen, so it’s free.”
“You’re damn lucky I’m feeling lazy tonight.” Kate took a few steps back, touching at her cheek. “If you ever get tired of living out here, point a gun at me again and I’ll make sure all your problems go away.”
They kept quiet, save for whimpers of pain from the girl, as Kate trudged off down the street. Her heartbeat throbbed in her cheek where the bullet had struck. She clenched and released fists, annoyed at holding on to her pent-up anger. Her reaction to pain had always been to annihilate the source, even if it was her fault for walking into a solid object. A clump of trash paid the price for the girl’s insolence; flaming rats scurried into the rain, vanishing to faint smoke trails in the dark.
She checked the time once again on her wristband, adding urgency to her stride. The ‘black zone,’ an area of the city so lost to gang warfare and decay that even the military shied away from it, ended within the next few blocks. No clear demarcation point existed where it became a ‘grey zone.’ The evolution from complete decay to a few traces of civilization followed an irregular path, an organic shift based on how much bad happened to who. Some people had more balls than sense, while others cleared out as soon as the first thug walked by their front door. Where ‘black’ became ‘grey,’ buildings appeared less damaged―some even still had power―and the number of people on the street increased. Almost no one but Wharf Rats showed themselves within the heart of the areas blacked-out on the NavMap system.
Cybered-up gangers dwelled there for the most part, free from the scrutiny of authorities who would deem them mentally incompetent and take their ‘ware away. Bodies more metal than flesh propped against walls or sat around burn barrels. Most had crude street-tech cyberware: bulky, utilitarian, and anything but aesthetically pleasing. Luminous eyespots in the dark widened or narrowed as she passed. The telltale grin on one man gave away his use of high-resolution thermal. At the sight of his obvious excitement, the man next to him slapped his arm and shook his head.
“Not that one, man. No way,” he whispered.
“Burner?” asked the lecherous one, rubbing his crotch while squirming.
The first man laughed. “Yeah… you could say that.”
These people did not know her as well; she seldom left the safety of the place she had gone from frightened teen to hardened woman. The Norms, even cops, were terrified of setting foot in a black zone for a few minutes, but she had called one home for almost ten years.
Kate grasped the open flaps of her jacket, moving her arms as if to pull it closed over her bare stomach. The material reacted a second slower than her gesture, covering her, though the icy needles of falling rain continued striking her and exploding into puffs of steam. She tossed her hair back, glaring defiance at the gangers. Trash couldn’t scream. Unspent anger waited to be unleashed, any one of them would do.
A CyberBurger lit up a street corner four blocks deep in the grey zone. Kate headed right for it, waving both arms at the pair of automatic, sliding doors as if she were some manner of old wizard. Patrons, of which she counted about six, smirked at her and shifted so they didn’t look right at her.
Three Class 1 dolls, obvious artificial humans made in the image of teenagers, waited behind the counter. All wore the same unchanging smile permanently molded onto their plastic faces. At the far left end, a thin strung-out woman attempted to argue with a somewhat pudgy middle-aged Hispanic man who wore the uniform of a manager.
“…patties keep getting thinner and thinner.”
“We have not changed the assembler patterns in forty years, ma’am. The food you got today is the same food we made before you were born.”
The manager glanced over at the new arrival. Kate smiled at him and winked. All color fled from his cheeks as he wet himself, shaking where he stood.
“You look good, Alfonso. I hope business is doing well.” She waved her wrist-mini at him. “Don’t worry, sweetie; I’m going to pay.”
He covered his mouth with both hands, withering to the ground and curling into a weeping ball. The thin woman looked back and forth between them, speechless as Kate approached one of the teen dolls.
“I’ll have four double-orbitals and a large fry.”
The doser looked her up and down. “Bitch, where you gonna put all that?”
Kate waved her bracelet over the reader, causing it to beep. “I have a bit of a metabolism issue.”
“No shit.” The woman shook her head, moving closer with a sideways gate unsure if she were predator or prey. Whatever chem she’d taken caused her left eye to twitch. “Don’t blame ya. This shit’ll fuck you up. These bastards been skimmin’ beef off these things for years.”
“You know this isn’t real meat, right?” Kate shifted her weight onto her right leg. The smell wafting from the doser made her glad she couldn’t taste food.
“That’s just what they want you to think. The rich are saving the OmniSoy for themselves, leavin’ us poor people to eat real cows from the Badlands ‘cause they all full of radiation and disease and shit.”
Kate blinked. “Yeah, good point.” Shit nuts. Not worth the argument. I’d kill someone for real beef. Her mouth watered at the memory of fresh venison. Real meat didn’t ash over so fast; that, she had gotten to taste. Has it been that long?
The doll put a plastic tray on the counter, bearing four enormous hamburgers and a carton of French fries. Of course, all of it came from OmniSoy tweaked at a molecular level to approximate meat, bread, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. She had no idea what the dark green chips were supposed to be. A half hour from now, her magnificent feast would devolve back into the same beige slime. Cyberburger used cheap machines. As Alfonso had said, probably the same machines they installed forty years ago.
“Can I get a metal tray?” Kate didn’t bother smiling at the robot. “Please? I promise I won’t steal it.”
It stared at her with the only facial expression it could make: a vapid smile.
“Do it,” yelled Alfonso from a back hallway.
The doll obeyed, transferring the food to a metal tray and holding it up. “Thank you for dining at CyberBurger.”
With her food in hand, Kate walked to the middle of the dining area and frowned at the plastic molded seats. She ducked out via a side door that led to a fenced-in area full of graffiti and broken playground equipment. A frigid steel bench elicited a squeal of discomfort upon contact with her ass. Smoke peeled from the bun as she took hold of the first burger, racing to eat it before it crisped to charcoal in her hands. The strange woman crept out the door, edging closer as burger number three died a rapid death. Kate took a few breaths, preparing to suck down number four, and glanced up at the woman as she moved closer to the bench.
The other woman’s rear end made contact with the steel for all of two seconds before she leapt up, screaming and dancing.
“The metal’s thin,” said Kate, before attacking the last burger.
“What the fuck?” shrieked the still-flailing chem-head as she waved a hand over her backside. “You could cook on that sumbitch! How the hell are you sittin’ on it?”
Kate swatted blackened crumbs off her hands. “Like I said, I have a high metabolism.”
The woman held a hand a few inches from the bench. “Shee-it.” She reached closer to Kate’s leg. “Praise the Lord, what the hell? You is burnin’ up! What you get them clothes made of that they not on fire?”
“Magic.” Kate winked. “They’re made of magic and wishes.”
The building’s shadow concealed Kate from a blue and white Division 1 patrol craft parked three blocks farther into the city. She had gotten close to the end of the grey zone, where civilization proper once again took hold. Dread came, fear of that which she could not see. Were they still looking for her? Would they find her if she moved into range of the little cameras all over everything? People said the police ran the citycams, but the people who’d made her could do what they wanted and didn’t care about trivial things like the law, or cops. The brown haired man she saw on the back of her eyelids appeared in her mind again, staring down at her. No matter how old she got, he always towered over her as if she remained seven.
A gust of wind brought a shiver. She leaned against the wall, coarse and scratchy on her arm and shoulder. Her gaze fell once more on her jacket, skirt, and boots, searching for the reassurance that came with the appearance of clothes. Fat droplets patted to the ground from the corner of a green and white awning. She reached out and caught one; the droplet hissed and bounced over her palm, fizzling away to steam in seconds. As a little girl, she’d wondered why the water didn’t like her. Now it just made her angrier. She shoved off the building with a grunt, stomping around the next corner into a familiar alley.
“Hey, Silva. Got somethin’ weird comin’ this way on thermal.”
The upper half of a broad-shouldered man emerged, leaning around from the far side of a trash compactor. He tilted his head, right eye open wider than the left. Patches of metal poked out of the collar of his suit, where skin gave way to augmented arms. Cold plastisteel hands opened and closed at the ends of his sleeves.
“No weapons, but, uhh…” He shot a sideways glance at someone out of sight. “She’s ridiculously hot.”
An unseen man laughed.
The big guy frowned. “No, you fucking tool. Heat hot. Like almost seven hundred degrees.”
Kate stopped a few steps from a side door, smiling up at him. The top of her head almost reached his chin. “You’re too kind.”
A thinner guy, short for a man―about her height―extended his arm and banged on the door with a closed fist twice. “It’s okay. She works for the boss.”
He winked. “It’s night.”
The big man shifted. “On thermal, she looks―”
“I am.” She grumbled. “Don’t fuckin’ remind me.”
She kicked at trash on the way to the door, leaving the new guy pondering how her boot left a char mark on a piece of wet cardboard in the shape of a bare footprint. A dim, cramped corridor made an abrupt right turn three steps in, leading past the kitchen of a restaurant. Kate tiptoed along at a brisk pace, trying not to touch the floor longer than necessary in any one place.
At another turn, this time left, a stationary sentry gun swiveled to aim, tracking her motion. Her bracelet chirped, the sound echoed a split second later by the sentry. It resumed its slow side-to-side panning as she trotted into another hallway. Here, exposed concrete let her slow to a casual walk as she passed doors leading to large cooler rooms on either side. Two augmented men guarded a plain door at the end. Kate offered a professional nod, but her eyes hardened at the grin one of them flashed. An image of her drawn in white upon his surface thoughts revealed every contour amid a wavering inferno of reds and oranges.
“High resolution thermal, huh?” She asked, staring at the floor.
His grin fell flat. “Uhh, sorry. I forgot―”
“I can see your thoughts?”
“Show a little respect.” The other man swatted his associate on the shoulder. “She helps the boss out with problems.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled, holding his hands up. “Standard procedure to scan… We don’t usually have such beautiful ladies come through here.”
“What? I’m tryin’ to be nice.” He flashed a cheesy smile. “Sides, it’s true. You’re gorgeous, like those European runaways the boss brings in.”
“You mean buys? Oh, sorry… covers the travel expenses for.” She studied the floor for a moment. “Oh, well… if you think I’m pretty.” Kate’s gaze shot upward, with a manic-eyed grin. “We can duck into a room if you want? Have a nice quickie? Maybe you could take me home, show me off to your buddies.”
“Uhh…” He leaned into the wall.
She reached up and put her hand on the Epoxil paneling trying to pass itself off as wood. Smoke peeled from her touch. Hissing, melting plastic sizzled, filling the air with an eye-watering chemical stench. The augmented bodyguard stood on tiptoe, cringing away from her proximity.
“Just once, I’d like to reach the end of a day without some idiot reminding me of what I can’t have.”
He stared at the wisps peeling away from the black handprint, speechless as she went through the door.
On the other side, as plush an office as the surroundings allowed took up the entirety of a repurposed storeroom. Slats covered the windows, breaking the glow of an outside streetlamp into shimmering bands of floating dust. At the center, a thin, older man in a black suit sat behind an ornate metal desk: two kneeling succubus nudes sculpted in chrome holding a slab of obsidian over their heads. He nudged a white hat up in a gesture of greeting and extended a dark caramel-hued hand as if to indicate her seat.
A few quick steps spared the linoleum and brought her to a field of thick, white tiles upon which waited a metal chair marred with the blued discoloration of repeated exposure to high heat. Kate sat and crossed her legs. She picked at her wristband, the off-white material identical to the substance underfoot. Her chair creaked. Even covered by holographic clothing, she still felt naked. Despite knowing him for years, she always felt exposed sitting in front of him. A Syndicate underboss could make anyone cease to exist over business, even if he liked them.
Some manner of game involving rectangular scraps of paper and colored chips between two men paused as they glanced in her direction. Off to the right of the desk, they sat in downdraft of a slow-spinning ceiling fan and seemed as likely to run as they did to pull guns on her.
“You look sad, my dear. The usual”―he waved his hand about, searching for the right words―“fire in your eyes is dim.”
Kate kept her head down, unsettled by the eerie glow her clothing gave off in the dim light. “Shitty morning.”
He drew a sharp breath. “What happened to your face? Who has forfeited their life?”
The sound of his voice, deep and dry, brought back a sense of confidence. “Thank you for your concern, El Tío. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Look at me.”
“I do not want you to think I pry into your thoughts.” She closed her eyes and lifted her chin, posing so he could see the bruise.
“You have such magnificent cheekbones. I will find this dog that struck you.”
“It’s not worth your attention. No one struck me.”
El Tío’s eyebrow went up.
“Some little bitch punk shot me. It was a misunderstanding.” In an effort to avoid eye contact with the underboss, she watched the two men.
They shifted, hands moving away from their guns.
El Tío laughed, patting the desk. After his hand came down twice, he went stone-faced. “I should envy your ability to forgive mistakes, but I don’t. Mistakes cost lives.”
Kate let her gaze fall into her lap again. “It’s done.”
A terminal on the desk came to life, tinting El Tío’s face and making his hat glow bright blue. He swatted his hand at the terminal, paging over a series of screens; the hat flickered orange. Kate waved at her bracelet, causing a holo-panel to spread open a few inches above it, and poked at the intangible controls. The miniskirt shimmered and changed into jeans while her top grew into a baggy T-shirt. Despite showing no skin beyond face and hands, she still felt exposed.
Her bracelet beeped. A text message indicated a deposit of fifty thousand credits to her account. ‘Emily Ramirez’ was doing well for herself. She ran her fingers over the solid part of the device, careful not to touch the screen. How silly that something so small could be so important.
“Well done. The entire building too… That was rather thorough.”
“Sorry, El Tío. Anger management issues.”
He chuckled, this time letting the emotion run its natural course. “I’d like for you to consider staying somewhere nicer. I would sleep better knowing you weren’t out there in the blight.”
“And do what? Curl up on heat tiles in my own little corner of an expensive apartment I couldn’t enjoy? I’d feel like a dog in a kennel.”
“I promise not to lock the door.” He winked.
“Thanks, but it would be a waste. You’d spend a lot of money on a fancy place where I couldn’t touch anything in a part of the city where I’d be near people who’d try to shake hands or grab my ass and run away screaming. It’s better for everyone if I just stay where I am.”
El Tío steepled his fingers, lifting his upper lip in thought. “Very well. There is another matter I need you to attend to. An unintelligent man is making and selling Nightcandy in my part of the city.”
He made a gesture as if grasping something from his holo-terminal and throwing it at her wristband. The small device beeped. She held her arm up, swiping past a series of ghostly faces.
Kate ignored the wisp of smoke from the chair as she stood and let her arm fall at her side. “How many need to die this time?”
He sat back with a casual smile. “Only about a dozen.”