Three hundred years ago, human bodies were merely functional. Adequate. They were just as nature designed them. Boring. Then we came in with technology and made them remarkable.
Memoirs of A. St. Claire
The man with the handlebar moustache and plush burgundy waistcoat stood in the doorway of the cyber cafe.
What does he want? Samson thought, cocking an eyebrow in half-hearted interest, his mind more focused on the man’s fast-food bag. He was so hungry.
Life on the dirt-smeared streets of the slum city had been more difficult than the teenager had anticipated. While he was free from his mother’s heavy hand, this freedom was accompanied by the sharp knife of hunger that constantly sliced beneath his ribs. Newly-found independence tasted like the squalor of the abandoned warehouse where he sheltered with other homeless children. In the midst of these disenfranchised youths, no sense of solidarity arose, no kindred spirits. The bitter winter left them shivering, fighting over the meager scraps of food or combustible material.
He never imagined that hunger would stalk him like a predator. The upset of a grumbling stomach was an all-too-familiar feeling.
A year on his own had made him lean, gaunt, and desperate. His meals mostly came from dumpsters: greasy, overcooked protein from the one-star Asian restaurant, soggy sandwiches that were barely edible when fresh, and half-rotten fruit crawling with insects he couldn’t even identify; it was nourishment that stank with the rancid fumes of yesterday’s garbage.
Some days, no matter how hungry he was, he just couldn’t stomach it. Sadly, begging for the mildly stale remnants of a stranger’s half-eaten hoagie or the occasional mystery-meat kabob was barely better than the refuse. At least that stuff didn’t smell rotten…
No. You are smart, he told himself, You are better than garbage.
Sam had always had a talent with data: computer navigation was like a sixth sense to him. Most of his free time had been spent in dingy cyber cafés. A haven where he escaped the world: crouched over an ancient typepad, hunched in a cheap fiberglass chair, with eyes straining at a dimly lit LED.
He was slowly filling a fraudulent banking shell with real money – money that could only be spent outside of the city walls. Traveling in the security networks of big corporations, he stalked through the underground tunnels of their cybernet space. Worming his way into firewalls and secure shields like a cockroach made of bytes, he scrounged for scraps of cred that he put into in the virtual market. Win. Lose. Win. The CORPs never caught him. He couldn’t risk getting caught.
He snagged only bytes at a time. A little here. A little there. Keep a low profile. Don’t get noticed. Can’t get caught. The teenager didn’t fancy spending the rest of his short life on the inside of a CORP prison, serving time for a severely punished transgression.
He had too much to lose. Had to make money, not for food, or clothing, or mech mods. It wasn’t for him but for Charley; to get his sister out of this hate-filled shitthole of a city. To a real city. East, west, north – he didn’t care. All of them had promises, potential. A real life.
The man, who had, in their first encounters only observed him, began to speak. The cybercafé was empty, even the proprietor had gone for a smoke break. “You are not an easy kid to track down,” he said.
“What do you want from me?” The teen asked, tones of curiosity vying with hostility.
The man took a drag of a long, mud-colored cigarette and handed Sam a data chip. “I need you to hack a shopping mall’s security system and snatch the locked files. Payment is ten-thou.”
“Hack a system?” The teen asked incredulously, eyes bulging at the offer, “That’s it? You followed me around for months just to ask me to hack something?”
“I needed to see if you could do it. It’s not as easy as you might think, kid. And trust me, you weren’t my first choice for the job…” The man trailed off. His business-like demeanor returned quickly. He explained, “It’s an AI security system. Makes what you’ve been crawling through look like a toddler’s game. This takes Skill.”
“Oh, I got skills,” the boy responded arrogantly, a strong desire to comply with this man’s request suddenly smoldering in the hollow of his abdomen even though he only had the vaguest idea what an AI system was.
The man barely smirked and cocked his head. Nonetheless, he tapped a metal plate on the chip. There was one line of text:
JR. Avenue 5. Independence Plaza.
“This is where you can find me to deliver the goods. Payment upon delivery,” he said, nodding.
“I haven’t given you an answer yet!” The teenager called after the gentleman who was striding purposefully away.
He paused, looked over his shoulder and said, “You didn’t have to.” His smile was arrogant. Knowing. “Your face said enough.”
* * * * *
The mall’s computer was ancient. The teenager made a face. If the ones in the Internet café were 2220 models, this one must be from the mid-2000s. The server room hummed gently, the warm air heavy with sonic vibrations carrying waves of data. Colored LEDs blinked ominously, like so many eyes, watching him.
*tap* *tap* *tap* *tap* *tap*
Skills indeed, the teenager thought angrily, still fuming at the man’s smug smile from a few days ago, This bastard’s complicated as shit. He scowled at the screen.
Maybe he had gotten in over his head. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his t-shirt was becoming damp under his arms. No, he thought, it didn’t really matter. The money was too good, enough to get him and Charley out of the slums. To get to freedom.
*tap* *tap* *tap* *tap* *tap*
The lines of code taunted him. Flashing their glaring green deep into his strained retinas. His stomach growled. It’s just a shopping mall! He railed to himself silently. What could be on here?
*tap* *tap* *tap* *tap* *tap*
An AI system, the man had said. What was an AI system? It couldn’t be a new software because the boy knew all the security systems. However, he’d never heard the term before. Maybe it was an old word? An antiquated security system? Maybe that’s why it was so hard to crack?
*tap* *tap* *ta—
He was in, he stared wide-eyed. The files suddenly were zipping themselves onto the storage device. Bits flashed by in a whirr: zeroes and ones. Replicating with the precision of high-speed data, submitting to his hand, no longer taunting him, but almost screaming.
Screaming... Red lights flashing. Something had triggered an alarm. How, though? He had been so careful!
Shooting to his feet, he yanked the chip out of the mainframe just as a boring-looking man strode almost casually into the office. The man’s eyes, however, were not boring. They were dark, and angry. And they were looking straight at him.
Fuck! He ran like hell.
* * * * *
The mall was a hub of activity at this time of night. In the center of it all, sat a woman in her early thirties, with the chestnut brown hair and olive skin of a mediteranneo, nursing a dark brown beer. She was wrapped in black leather pants the shade of an octogenarian’s favorite easy chair, worn in just the right places, and a dingy white tank top under an equally loved leather vest.
The electrical humming of cold fluorescent lights could almost make her forget that the sun had long since set and all sensible people were in their homes, their Virtua-visions blaring some obnoxious live broadcast. Garishly colored storefronts looked out into the atrium, silently hawking their wares of manufactured diamonds and cheap plastic toys. On one side, nothing but top-of-the-line sex toys, the cylindrical outlines of countless male members shivering a welcome to all who were brave enough to cross the threshold of their inhibitions. And on the other, a front of a more sinister nature, where tatted rat boys hunched over too-white operating tables offering up the newest in body mod trends.
Here, some juiceheads sat at a table bristling with folds of muscle so large that they barely looked human. And over there, fashion sisters, their frozen smiles and stretch-tight skin the result of too many trips to the laser salon. A schizo trolled the floor in faded hospital gowns, begging for credits or junk or whatever you had on you, deftly weaving between the tables too fluidly. A pair of security guards rolled slowly back and forth on one-wheeled scooters, their lurid uniforms thinly disguising the mods encompassing their limbs that pulsed with the synthetic rhythm of black motor oil.
The woman carried no weapons here, as was the rule of all serious establishments. Not that it would matter, she thought, moving her dark glasses over to the juiceheads. Many were themselves weapons these days. However, it still felt strange, Mara thought, to be away for so long from her anlace – a rapier that was part robot and rarely ever left her side, though she carried it more for comfort than safety. She glanced coolly around the room, trying to project the demeanor of the stoic calm that she could barely hold on to.
The twins had told her that he would be here, on this night, getting into more trouble than he’d ever bargained for. She trusted the twins, they weren’t programmed to lie and even if they’d tried, she had other ways of keeping an honest cyborg honest. They lived in the alleys and had enough street cred to be in the know for just about every interesting pair of feet that crossed their patch of asphalt. But Mara had more street cred, and she’d pulled some strings and flexed a few muscles – the right muscles – to lead her to this frozen heart of commerce in the Sink.
The boy was only fourteen and much too young to be pulling off a heist of this magnitude. Mara could only guess how he’d planned it, how long it had taken him to devise a strategy that would actually lead him to this very spot on this very night. And she wondered even harder how he had expected to escape...unless he wasn’t aware of the danger he was in. That’s where she would come in. Clenching her teeth, she forced herself to trust that the right opportunity would present itself.
A commotion arose on the second floor balcony. Mara looked up through the tacky indoor skylight to see an achromatized pipe banister quiver in response to the sound of slapping feet. Her vantage point was such that, across the cafeteria, she could only see a corner of the long hallway with its custard-yellow walls scratched and faded from years of apathy. An adolescent with shaggy hair the color of sand was barreling toward the banister, heedless of bodily harm, eyes wild and breath pounding in and out like a bass drum. Following behind, almost unhurriedly, was a rotund, balding man in an obnoxious band T-Shirt from a decades-forgotten rock group. He wore an expression of boredom as if to indicate that he had already seen the attraction and had found it lacking.
Mara stood up and downed the last of her lukewarm ale in one frenzied swig, gagging as the grainy dregs slid down her throat. She looked up and froze. The kid had made it to the banister and reached out to it with one desperate hand, vaulting over as if he were at a track and field event. Scuffed boots with frayed laces kicked wildly. He seemed to hang in midair, his left leg tucked under him, his right thrust out, grabbing at an ethereal purchase that only he could see. The man held out his hand where Mara could see a shiny metallic square on the inside of his wrist. He flipped that wrist toward the sandy haired acrobat and one rectangle broke off and flew with unnerving speed.
* * * * *
Samson was frozen, literally frozen. No, he hastily corrected himself, not frozen. He was in the air, floating…or falling incredibly slow. His boot had scraped off a layer of paint from the banister and it puffed out behind him in a small cloud. Below was a glass “skylight” – one of those tacky creations that had been popular during the decade before he was born. Even though it had never been subjected to the elements, years of smoke, dust, and dead insects had crusted its edges, giving Sam a blurred, cinematic view of the first floor cafeteria.
The patrons paid little attention to him, too wrapped up in their coffees, booze, or the undoubtedly witty conversation with their modded-up, super model dates. There was one exception, dressed in all black, she stared openly at him with a startled frown, lifting her dark glasses away from her eyes. A heavy beer stein was clutched in her white-knuckled fist. Sam’s confused expression met hers and held her within the trance.
Sharp stinging on his knee was the only indication that he had crashed through the bug-smeared skylight. He barely felt even that pain as glass fragments gently twirled around his face, falling like weightless snowflakes toward the yellowing linoleum. A hair-like wire glittered at the corner of his vision, lazily undulating like a serpent. What was that thing?
The dark woman had moved. Arm arched behind her back, she launched the mug in his direction. It gracefully slid past his ear as the aroma of spoiled barley assaulted his nose. Closer to the ground now, he felt his left leg tucked sharply into his chest, and his right leg…he wasn’t sure.
Something was on the floor below him, it looked like a limb. A leg. His leg? He shook his head. He was in shock, he told himself, gazing at the eerily-familiar boot toe, resting in a pool of blood. His blood?
Everything is too clear, he rationalized, I’m fine. Red droplets surrounded him, mimicking large jewels or small marbles. He could see the surface of each one dimple and shift as the circular shapes became amorphous. There was too much red around him, he thought, as the metallic tang shot through his taste buds. His chest fluttered as he forced himself to breathe.
His left leg was tucked underneath him, but his right…the floor reached him.
* * * * *
The boy’s face changed from an impetuous grimace of rebellion to a frantic O of surprise as his right leg plummeted to the floor. The rest of him followed in a pallid heap of shock and fear. The silver rectangle recoiled into itself and a faint iridescent thread shimmered in the artificial light. Razorwire. Mara had chucked her mug at the assassin with a force disproportionate to her size. It crossed the linoleum desert of the food court, and shot straight through the broken window into the man’s face, shattering into a hundred unforgiving shards of glass. The assassin clutched at his eyes, but slowed only a little.
Digging into her pocket, Mara pulled out another item. It was the size of a strawberry and gunmetal grey. Rolling it between her fingers, she held her hand out flat and the little ball floated imperceptibly over her palm. Pulling her arm back, she whipped it at the assassin with blinding speed. It flew true, past the falling boy, through the hole in the shattered skylight, and directly into the assassin’s chest.
An explosion followed: noxious green-yellow gas blossoming from the rift between the two halves. The gas enveloped the assassin in a clinging, stinking cloud more tangible than ethereal. He roared out in rage, his flailing, ducking figure obscured by the squall. That should keep him busy for a while…She thought.
She rushed over to Samson, who was curled up on the floor in a convulsing heap, blood pooling around him. Ripping off a piece of her shirt, she tied a tourniquet around Samson’s leg, the crimson spreading over it so quickly you’d think it animate. Then she flung the now-unconscious adolescent over her shoulder, and barreled out of the modish jungle. Juiceheads, fashion sisters, rats, schizos and security guards looked on with only mild curiosity as if a young vagabond being maimed by a highly trained, but innocuous-looking, assassin happened every day.
Mara pounded through the streets, carrying the teenager as if he were a sack of rice, before flinging him into the back of a low-flying, rusted transport.
“Where to?” A slight voice echoed quietly from the front.
“Back,” Mara replied tersely, climbing into the passenger seat.
The young pilot’s eyes grew wide as he saw Mara’s blood-spattered appearance.
“That bad, huh?” He grimaced and began to turn around.
“Don’t…” Mara put a hand on his shoulder, “Don’t turn around. Just fly.”
As the transport rose into the air, the pilot’s voice was heavy, “Back it is.”
Mara really hated violence.