The rain had stopped by the time Kate got several blocks deep into the grey. A mobile NavMap client on her wrist confirmed the address. The cartoon thumbtack wobbled back and forth with a faint chirp, indicating she neared her destination. Red warning text scrolled across a boundary along the top of the map, where void obscured city detail. It made her smile; there she felt safe.
Kate closed the navigation software and fiddled with the interface for her apparel app. A few pokes of a finger later, her jeans and shirt turned black. Light faded as she dropped her arm; the holo-panel shrank away to nothing. About a block and a half ahead, four armed gang members stood near the door to what once had been an electronics shop. Civilization had cleared out of there years ago; bullet holes and missing windows a testament to the turf war that caused evacuation.
They didn’t look like Wharf Rats, too new and too disorganized to have colors yet. Guns, however, they did have, as well as the nervous jitteriness of men who expected to piss someone like El Tío off.
A dull ache spread over her cheek as she eyed their weapons. The runaway’s little pistol had hit her like a stiff punch. The artillery these people had would likely knock her senseless. A head-on confrontation in the open would hurt. She crossed the street and jogged to an alley. The majority of structures in this area consisted of one or two stories of commercial space with residential apartments above them. Sizzling squeaks squelched with each step on the rain-soaked plastisteel surface, followed by the reek of incinerating foulness. More than once, she winced at the texture of slime boiling out from underfoot.
I’ll never get used to that.
When the NavMap showed she’d reached a point behind the building across the street from the drug operation, she stopped. A chain link fence surrounded a space recessed into the first floor, large enough to accept a small delivery truck. She climbed it with practiced ease, leaving a few glowing orange spots. At the top, she perched like a cat to evaluate the ground on the other side. Years of living in the forgotten parts of the city taught her to look before she stepped. Picking broken glass out of her feet was not an experience she wanted to repeat.
I’d kill a busload of people to be able to wear shoes.
Unable to find an appealing place to jump, she swung herself over and climbed down, tiptoeing through debris. Once clear of the crud stacked against the fence, she trotted to a loading dock with a single rolling door that had not opened in decades. To the left, a person-sized door fluttered in the wind. The soft, ghostly moan of a breeze emanated from a building with no windows. She grabbed the top of the loading dock, at chest level, and lifted herself up. The poured concrete structure was in no danger of catching fire, and afforded her the chance for a few easy breaths. Lacking dirt, stone made the best bed―at least until she met Greg.
She thought about him with a smile, one of the few people in the entire mess that was East City who had always been nice to her without ulterior motives. Kate leaned both hands on the wall, letting her head hang as she pictured his smiling face. Just once, she’d like someone to hold her and tell her everything would be okay. Whenever she fantasized, anyone who dared to be nice melted into a screaming puddle.
With a snarl, she leaned back and kicked in the door. In the garage, racks of mildewing clothing still shrouded in packing material mocked her. She glared at the once-clear plastic, yellow with age and grime. Most of the inventory looked like kids’ clothes. None of it would fit her even if she could touch it without destroying it.
Guess this place was another casualty of delivery bots.
Navigating a field of such flammable items proved tiring. Plastic melted and shrank away from her, and quite a few times, the old garments combusted. The fire Kate did not need to see; she felt it. Each time it winked into existence, she willed it away. Her observation post couldn’t be allowed to burn; at least not yet. She crouched at the doorway between the front and the storeroom, clutching a thick fireproof door.
The desperate had looted the place long ago; a few freestanding racks remained, some tilted over. Scraps of fabric, a sock here, a boy’s necktie there; damaged and useless things lingered amid a milieu of security tags and windblown debris from outside. For a moment, she locked eyes with a little girl mannequin holding a sign about a summer swimsuit sale. The racks on either side of it were empty. Someone had even taken the swimsuits. A bikini beats nothing. She scowled and crawled forward, savoring the overwhelming stink of mold, the stagnant air a comfortable blanket. Her passage left a series of blackened toe marks, knee smears, and handprints on what had once been thin carpeting; the concentration necessary to prevent lighting the room aflame left her unprepared for a sudden meeting between her head and the radiator along the front window.
Kate recoiled backward, twisting to sit with a hand on her face. Carpet smoldered and charred under her ass for a second or two while she bit back the urge to blow the entire building apart for the insolence of a radiator daring to hit her in the face. Once her anger ebbed, she scooted closer to the window and leaned her back against the metal, cradling her forehead in both hands. The rug beneath her caught fire until she gathered her wits enough to quench it. The people across the street didn’t appear to notice the smoke, too engrossed in the video games on their NetMinis to pay attention.
Eventually, the dull pain in her forehead faded and she shifted around to all fours again, peering over the top of the ancient heating element. Glass bits sparkled before her eyes; the demise of the store’s giant window had covered it with silica snow.
She listened in on their surface thoughts, mostly images of shooting aliens off the outer hull of a damaged space battleship. Every so often, one of the punks would pause his game to look up and around at the street. In those seconds, she caught one man’s worry that their boss―her primary target―would be there within the hour. The brief flash offered no clue as to why the man would be angry, only that something inside the lab hadn’t gone right.
This area was too far inland to attract the notice of Wharf Rats, probably why they thought they could handle a high-value product like Nightcandy.
Even the Rats, as established as they were, avoided the stuff. That chem hadn’t made it as high up on the police’s hate scale as Lace; the cops didn’t perform summary executions on those caught selling Nightcandy. Unlike most ‘soft’ chems, the cops would arrest people for selling it. Still, the Syndicate controlled the heavy chems in the east. Sometimes, they had to remind little upstart gangs like this about that fact.
For an hour, she sat curled against the radiator; head sideways atop her arm stretched over the metal. She snorted at the fumes of paint burning from the steel wherever her skin made contact. With her eyes closed, she could fall asleep if she let go. The rug below her had burned off to bare concrete, no longer requiring constant focus to keep fire away. Such places had been her home for most of her life.
A thunk from a car door jarred her out of her catnap. Her head popped up as a PubTran cab scurried off down the street, departing the grey zone fast enough for its wake to tear the hat off the man it had dropped off. She recognized the face from El Tío’s file. The mark. Kate hadn’t even bothered to look at his name.
Marks didn’t need names.
She shifted her weight onto the balls of her feet, faced the window, and clutched the edge of the radiator. Of the four idiots outside, one had a large submachine gun slung over his chest. Her gaze tried to bore a hole in the ammunition reserve; she concentrated on the spot, feeling for the sensitive propellant wrapped around the caseless ammunition.
The mark went inside after a terse greeting with the outside men. Manufacturers had gone to great lengths to make ballistic propellant stable. The focus needed to set it off with heat rather than an electrical spark required a lot of concentration. A wisp of blue flames burped from a gap in the weapon’s housing an instant before the entire magazine erupted in a crackling deflagration. Pings and zips echoed from slugs and fragments spraying everywhere, sending the other three diving for cover as the owner of the gun crashed to the ground holding his gut.
Kate stood, holding her hands out to either side. Flames enveloped her arms from elbow to fingertip in a sheath of burning that shifted from orange to blue as it gained intensity. A casual swipe launched a head-sized comet from her left hand across the street into the back of the nearest ganger. His clothes ignited on contact. She flung her other hand forward, sending another fireball into the next man’s face. They screamed and spun, trying to swat away the burning spots.
Her mind called to the flames, building the lingering low burn into roaring columns of dark blue that engulfed both men. Howling figures staggered about for only seconds before they collapsed. The fourth man ran for the building, squeezing off haphazard shots from a pistol over his shoulder. Kate dove to the ground and curled tight to the radiator. When bullets stopped bouncing around above her, she crawled to the side and peered past the metal frame of a door that once held glass. The large man who had the submachine gun had gone from moaning in pain to vomiting at the sight and smell of his former compatriots’ corpses.
She raised one hand and pulled at the air, tugging at the sense of combustion within the smoldering bodies. Gouts of yellow-orange fire burst from the charred husks and lapped over the survivor. He collapsed with a shriek, trying to guard his face. Kate slouched, hair touching the ground as she caught her breath.
This is easier when I’m pissed off.
A sharp snap of her head threw her hair back. She crawled through the bottom half of the old door and stood outside, brushing off the debris that did not burn away from her knees. The big man moaned and tried to drag himself away. Shouting from inside the improvised lab preceded another man running out with an assault rifle. He aimed it left and right, surveying the street as he walked past the dead. When he saw Kate, he pointed it at her, but tilted his head with confusion.
Hands up, she offered a demure smile while concentrating on the air behind him.
“Ain’t choo a fine piece.”
One of the corpses squeaked as trapped gasses seeped out of holes in his flesh. The man shifted away from the body, grimacing. He tried to look tough, and grinned at her. Even a non-telepath could read his thoughts from the way he ogled.
She covered her mouth with both hands and widened her eyes, staring past him. He whirled around to see what had ‘scared’ her. When he no longer aimed the rifle at her, she exerted herself. A cyclone of azure fire materialized around him, causing an immediate scream and reflexive automatic gunfire into the building. Kate poured energy into the flames until his motion brought him around, at which point she leapt for the cover of a nearby car. She tucked into the wheel, arms wrapped around her legs as the shooting and screaming continued for several more seconds.
Paint smoked away, leaving two bare-metal handprints where she grasped the side of the long-dead vehicle. The rifleman had collapsed on his back, still burning. Inside the building, the mark shouted at the top of his lungs, demanding answers for what was going on outside. Kate rounded the front end of the broken car and jogged across the street.
The ground floor room held a mass of folding tables covered in chemistry equipment. The mark, and two of his guards, stood near a handful of people in sealed white plastic protective wear with dark grey facemasks. All of them looked at her. She locked eyes with the mark, honing in on his surface thoughts.
Shit, it’s that Syndicate freak. I got somethin’ for you, puta. His arm flew up, pistol in hand. Indirium bullets, bitch. Melt this!
Kate let gravity take her down, falling hard on her knees while twisting sideways to take cover behind the wall by the door. Gunfire rang out, painting the lab in flashes of azure. Dust and sparks burst up from the floor, spraying her with grit. When the barrage stopped, she peeked around the doorjamb and induced a blast of flame in midair, inches from his face. The mark flinched, raising his left arm to guard his eyes. Breathing masks muted the screams of the chemists at the sight of combustion; in their panic, they plowed into the armed men as they scrambled for the door.
She gestured, pouring power into a standing wall of orange flames, backing them into each other at the doorway. Muted shouts of “other door” drowned in a subsequent rush as vapors ignited; a backdraft sucked her flame wall and air deep into the broken shell of the former electronics store. Kate wobbled to her feet as she forced a surge of psionic energy into the burning, amplifying it.
The explosion knocked her flat. Instinct stopped her from breathing; while the blast of fire going overhead felt comfortable, it carried toxic fumes. Debris, however, was less pleasant. When the concussive wave ended, she lay in silence, basking in the sting of dozens of cuts, serenaded by car alarms from several blocks away.
Who the hell has a working car here?
She sat up, pulling bits of metal and glass out of her body and dropping them one by one. Years ago, she learned her curse, as she called it, only heated the outside of her skin. The lesson had come painfully; soon after entering the city, fifteen-year-old Kate had stepped barefoot on broken glass, never having encountered it before. Once something pierced her skin, like shards of glass, she could not melt them out. Whatever subconscious process kept her ‘on’ all the time also prevented self-injury. Of course, glass didn’t melt at her touch anyway. She could force it to, but her constant temperature wouldn’t dull painful splinters underfoot.
Crackling flames consumed the lab, burning in swirls of greens, blues, purple, reds, and yellows from the different chemicals. Each separate pocket of combustion glimmered in her mind, a sense beyond sight or hearing. Her consciousness mingled with the intensity of the burn; she felt the heat as a sentient mind, almost as if the flames breathed and desired to consume more, but starved. Kate slouched and exhaled. The effort to detonate the entire ground floor left her seriously considering sleeping where she’d fallen.
Someone moaned inside.
She forced herself upright and staggered over to the abandoned assault rifle. Unlike the handguns, the magazine went in the top part of the stock away from the pistol grip, so she didn’t worry about touching it.
The comfortable, rubberized pads on the grip melted between her fingers as she picked it up. She walked fast, putting a bullet or two into all the bodies strewn about, moving or not. Draped half out of the building, one man reached up, his molten face fused to his chem mask. Bloody slime oozed from the filter unit dangling at his chin.
“You poor bastard.”
She shot him in the forehead and stepped over him. The heat and flame in the lab didn’t faze her, though she remained close to the door, squinting from the fumes. She pumped four shots into the mark, just to be sure, and one each to the remaining chemists.
“Oi, Kate. There you are, luv. ‘Ave a minnit?”
She jumped at the sudden voice from behind, slipping and sliding in blood-laced chemicals that boiled on contact with her feet. A dark-skinned man, a mixture of African and something Latin, emerged from a hiding place among trash boxes. His gun remained in his belt, and he had both hands up. Heat from the chemical fire caused her bracelet to falter and her clothing to flicker in and out of existence for a second. She rushed out into the cool air, aiming the rifle at him and waving the armband to cool it.
“Have you ever ‘eld one of those before, luv? You’re ‘olding it like a bloody action holo star what barely knows which end to point at the enemy. Stock to the shoulder, look over the sights. You’ll not hit a damn thing like that.”
“I’m shooting dead men. They don’t dodge much.” Kate blinked. “What’s with the funny accent?”
“Funny?” He gasped, adopting the hands-on-hip stance of an annoyed debutante. “It’s not funny. It’s British!”
“Oh.” She lifted the rifle. “No offense… It’s just a job.”
“Wait. I’m not one of these tossers; I’m a woman inside.”
Kate pursed her lips. “We all got our issues. I don’t have anything to say to that. If you’re trying to make me feel bad for having to kill you―”
“Bugger all, you’re not listening! I need to talk. I’m only borrowing this idiot.”
His surface thoughts rattled on in a woman’s voice; somewhere beneath it, a man gurgled, making mental noises as if constipated. Kate took a step back, holding the rifle in a way to minimize how much she destroyed by touching it.
The man shivered and twisted, staggering forward in a zombie gait. His shirt rippled and tore open; the skin on his chest stretched out into the hollow upper body of a topless woman with no hair. Arms to the sides, the flesh apparition smiled.
“There we go.” The creature’s voice sounded feminine and seemed to emanate from nowhere in particular. “Does this make it easi―?”
Kate learned where the full auto selector was.
The recoil knocked her on her ass, but she held the trigger down until the magazine ran dry. More than half the bullets went off into the sky, sparking and clanking into a skyscraper a block away. A nude woman with paper-white skin, generous hips, and shin-length blonde hair appeared in the midst of a cloud of glowing vapor behind where the perforated corpse hit the ground. Kate screamed like a schoolgirl, and released an expanding torus of blue flames.
“Oh, hell,” said the woman.
When Kate opened her eyes, she found herself alone with the scent of burned meat. Patches of fire clung to anything flammable, fluttering in the wind. The wail of distant sirens got her upright in a hurry. She looked up at the stars and over at flames inside buildings on the far side of the street.
“Bastards probably saw that on satellite.” She backed away from the former drug lab. “Shit.”
Flashing blue and purple lights reflected on the glass of a building several blocks distant, high in the air. She darted into the nearest alley and headed for the black zone.
She needed to get somewhere safe.