She sat there, staring through the glass. The screen was tuned to a dead channel, the colour of the sky. She stared until the silence hanging in the air was corrupted by alarms.
“Hanin.” A voice filled the room. “We have a D650 on Almeida in progress.”
Her eyes refocussed from the ends of the earth back into the room. A quick swipe from her hand and a layer of skin disappeared from her left forearm. Her Cynet Interface Panel exposed, she used it to switch off the screen. Accessing the comms menu she calmly forwarded her orders to the others.
“Code D650. Daemon, fire up the APC. Mish, Canti, be ready to exit in two minutes.”
Three voices came back to her to acknowledge. Hanin threw a blue tank top on over her red undershirt and slipped her Kinesis Harvesters on underneath her red knee-length pleated skirt. An icon appeared on her Cynet, “Harvesting – Battery: 98%.”
“Han, quick question,” Canti said over the comm. “Was D650 a junkie on a frenzy, or dead whore in the sewers?”
“Neither Cant,” she replied. “Ambush on an unknown vehicle. Do try to remember that these codes only actually save us time if you’re not an idiot.”
“I told you it wasn’t the hooker,” Mishka said, her voice sounding in the background of Canti’s comm. “Besides, they can take care of themselves you f…”
Hanin cut the comm as she finished tying the laces on her shoes. Another icon appeared on her Cynet, “Ftwear engaged: N-absorb ready; N-disperse ready.” The elevator door opened in front of her and she left the rec-room heading up to the garage.
Daemon was already there waiting with the doors of the APC ajar when the elevator opened to reveal the dank concrete garage. She still felt the urge to crane her neck a little despite the ceiling being nearly half-a-metre above her. Mishka and Canti emerged from the other elevator at the other end of the garage, their figures gradually released from the shadows.
“Simone say if this is a credit job?” Canti asked Mishka. “I think the charity ones actually give me a reverse boner.”
“Fuck if I know. Your dick’s metal anyway. Just put a magnet on it.”
“Hey! I’m ninety-five-percent organic from the waist down,” Canti said as he hit himself on the chest. A thunk rang out as the web of plates covering his upper-body absorbed the impact.
The four of them convened around their vehicle. It vibrated slightly, but offered up nothing but muted soundwaves to the air. Daemon was already sat in the driver’s seat, ready and waiting.
Hanin struck a large red button on the wall and then sat down in the passenger seat. “ETA is less than five minutes people. Switch to relay channel seven, key four-hotel-juliet-seven-two.”
The APC went quiet, on the relay they were just voices in each other’s heads. An inner-monologue broadcast as signals over the air. An exercise in precise thought-control.
“Must not stare at Mishka’s tits. Must not stare at Mishka’s tits,” Canti relayed.
Mishka gave him a sideways glance at him in the backseat of the APC before striking him lethargically on his leg. The passengers let the backs of the chairs take their weight as the vehicle drove towards the exit ramp. At the top of the ramp the gate was still opening, leaking sunlight onto the concrete. These days, it didn’t pay to have any networks connected to your doors and gates. The more archaic the security, the better. A few sparks scattered across the garage as the APC began its ascent up the ramp. Within seconds, they would be outside in Core, fending for themselves.
Hanin watched through the one-way glass as they navigated the trafficless roads. Sunlight poured onto the decaying buildings which lined the streets. Bricks crumbled, leaving their dust as a veneer of despondency on the pavements. The windows were all boarded up now, each one a billboard for the local clubs, death threats, and the ever-optimistic missing persons poster. You couldn’t even pick out the graffiti anymore, ten-thousand images all projected onto one screen of hardened clay at once.
She guessed that most of the buildings used to be markets of some sort. Every so often they’d pass one which still had the faintest outline of a sign on top of it: “Am… Dry… Co…”, “Stea… Tavern”. For the most part though, all that remained was flaking paint and faded memories of an era lost in time. No one in Core put signs up anymore. If you had any services that were worthwhile, people came to you. To begin with, the CSS were like vigilantes watching the streets from towering roofs. Save enough people though and eventually they’ll start coming to you, or even let you know where your help was needed. It went like that for a couple of years, changing one mind at a time. Then Simone gave the E-Suites to Core. A lot of powerful enemies were made that year.
Every day the heat and the taste of the air got more overpowering. A quarter-of-a-million people locked down with nowhere to go. When she was younger the smell used to make her sick, she used to almost pass out through trying to hold her breath during the worst parts. She hated the way her feet would stick to the floor like it was coated with adhesive. The sun beating down used to be pleasant, now it just bleached their whole world with a sickening brightness, evaporating the nausea from the ground and dispersing it in the air. She’d gotten used to it after a while, but had still insisted to Simone that she get her own shower when she formed the team with her. Thankfully the APC had its own air supply.
Hundreds of eyes watched them as they drove past, they lined the pathways, populated open doorways and cleared from the road as their vehicle approached. Six years ago, they would hurling rocks, firing Teslas and striking the side panels with various weapons. Now they just watched. A few seconds of mild intrigue before returning to talking, bartering, fighting, fucking: whatever had their attention before the Core Security Service vehicle drove past. Indifference was more than Hanin had ever hoped for. Simone harboured delusions of eventual acceptance and support, but for her, this was enough.
The more she pondered over it, the more it seemed an understandable response, on a long enough timeline. If you leave enough people wallowing in their own filth, first they’ll start bathing in it, then they’ll start digging in it. One day, though, the nausea gets too much, the sickening scratch lodges in the backs of their throats with no intention of departing. Then they start to look for a way to start climbing.
The drills were still warm.
Fifty years of neglect had left the roads as little more than suggestions. Suggestions with potholes. The faintest of white lines ran along the road. A white line tarnished by time, soaked by blood and ravaged by neglect. On the sides stood little stumps of wood protruding from the concrete. Soft as mush and almost liquid to the touch, they were the last remnants of life outside in Core. The only plants had now retreated to dingy basements lit by metal halide. Sunlight converted to electrons converted to artificial light converted to glucose converted to food converted to waste. Life didn’t circle so much as it spiralled slowly down the drain. The vehicle shook as Daemon hit another pothole, this one around thirty-centimetres deep.
“Dammit man,” said Canti as he rubbed his head. “I’ve already had to have my ribs replaced, I’d kinda like to keep my skull if you don’t mind.”
Daemon scarcely acknowledged the complaint as he analysed the road ahead for any potential complications. The overbearing image of the wall started to form on the horizon. It seemed to get higher every year without any signs of construction. A gate converted to a wall, converted to a border, converted to a fortress. It was the spiral of life. He wiped a few beads of sweat away which had formed on his forehead, turning his black hair into wet string which slashed at his eyes and scratched at the bridge of his nose. He repositioned the strands behind his ear and continued watching ahead through a windscreen framed by dirt and lacerations.
“We’ll be on Almeida in just over a minute Hanin.” Daemon extended her the courtesy of half-a-glance as he relayed.
“Good. Daemon, stay with the APC. You know how Simone hates it when they get jacked. Canti, Mishka: I want you on public relations. Keep them off my back. According to our intel, the vehicle was hit with a shredder. Its occupants were last seen fleeing down Barnsbury.”
“How many occupants?” Mishka relayed.
“Seems to be four.”
Hanin noticed the eyes on the periphery start to get sparser until the road ahead became devoid of life. Smoke started to leak over the horizon, smoke which quickly showed its source as they approached. The car was on its roof, ass to the air, all but consumed by flames. They pulled up around fifty metres away. Hanin and her PR team got out, closing the doors behind them, leaving Daemon inside. He reached forward to the APC’s interface and engaged defences. Outside a panel retracted on the roof of the vehicle, a large rod wrapped in metal coils emerged and started to rotate, seeming to watch the streets with its own set of eyes.
The three of them approached the overturned car, the flames still spilling thick columns of black smoke into the atmosphere. Hanin looked around, the street was deserted save for a few figures standing, lurking, watching from the horizon. She approached the back of the car and soon found out why. The floor was drowned in blood and two figures lay face-down in it. Something was off here. No tech was visible on them, their hair was short and neatly cut, their bodies dressed in matching black fabric with a white shirt underneath, their shoes gleamed in the light. No sign of burns, this wasn’t a Tesla hit, she thought. She walked up to one of the bodies and kicked it over onto its front. There were two small wounds in the chest of the man. She wiped the regenerated layer of skin off her forearm again and used her Cynet to run a tera-scan on the body. Nothing. No tech, not even an E-Jack. She felt sorry for him, not only was he currently redecorating the concrete, he mustn’t have gotten laid in four years either. The second body was the same too.
“Heading to Barnsbury Street,” she relayed to the others. “Watch my back.”
She glanced up at Mishka and Canti and they nodded before starting to approach. Mishka shouldered her bulky Tesla Long-Range Rifle, a miniature version of the cannon currently scanning the area atop the nearby APC. Reaching Barnsbury Street Hanin heard the distant sound of a voice shouting. Whoever it was, she thought, they sounded like they were desperate. Who calls for help? You might as well send an open invite for everyone to rip the tech out of your body and urinate on your corpse. She followed the voice, turning up an alley which led behind a building. Like most of the buildings here it was gutted inside. Everything inside salvaged for credit or for upgrades. The sparks were the last vestige of celebrity in this place: looters, engineers and surgeons all rolled into one. Simone was their absent god. The debilitating heat was blocked somewhat by the walls flanking Hanin, but the piles of sodden crates and mounds of rubbish all covered in an unwelcome yellow hue did little to make the path any more hospitable. The alley twisted in an L-shape around forty metres ahead. She advanced onwards carefully, the panicked voice still echoing down the alley. Then it went silent.
Her stride reduced to mere centimetres, she advanced every step with exact precision and minimal sound. The air was still deathly silent. She watched the corner for any sign of movement. Nothing.
There was a beep in her head.
A message downloaded onto her cornea HUD: “Incoming Projectile – Speed 213.36 m/s: P.R.A Activated.”
In that split-second, she lost control of her body. The pre-emptive reflex arc took over her muscles and an explosion of energy sent her flying sideways into the wall. She thought she caught the briefest glimpse of an arrow out of the corner of her eye before she connected with the wall.
Then the lights went out.
Hanin opened her eyes and felt the pain register all over her body. It was the fall to earth which awoke her less than a second later. She landed on her knees and instinctively rolled behind one of the sodden crates. It was visual cover only. A strong spit would probably get through to her. Nursing her side, she scoured her surroundings. The wall opposite her was around four-and-a-half metres high: two-point-seven metres higher than she was. She scanned the top of it: thin brick, solid structure. It was the only option. She turned to face the opposite wall and placed her right foot flat on the bricks behind her, hands planted, head low. She swallowed hard. If she missed this, she thought, she’d fall right back into the centre, a target even a drunk child could hit. Breathing deeply, she fixed her eyes on her target.
Every gram of force she could muster surged into her right leg, she propelled herself forwards while standing up. It took five more strides to get to the wall. She leaped towards it, kicking off it with her leg while reaching up with her hands. They found the top. Swinging one leg back she used the momentum to pull her legs up under her arms. Quickly, she jumped across a gap to a roof which stretched out in front of her, it ran right across to the wall from which her attacker had fired. Stealthily, she approached, crouching, listening. Silence still.
Almost shaking from the tension, she peered over the far wall to the ground below. From her vantage point she could just make out an outline of a figure beneath her. From his head position, he looked like he was still focussed on her old position. There was a fifty-fifty chance that she was about to surprise the hostage. Those odds were far better than some of the jobs she’d done.
Deeply breathing once more, she was ready. She threw herself off the edge of the roof, clearing the gap and the wall and plummeted towards the assailant. He never saw her coming. Both of her feet connected with the top of his head as she pushed off, landing after a backwards flip. The crossbow flew out of his hands, clear from his reach as he face-planted the yellow concrete. He didn’t stay down. With mechanical force, he pulled himself to his feet and turned to face Hanin, who stood six metres away. She swiftly glanced behind her and saw a slumped figure lying on the ground. There was no blood. She faced her attacker.
“Nice move,” he said, dusting off his arms. “You should enjoy that while you can, moving.”
She did a tera-scan on him. Her HUD filled up, almost obscuring her sight from the legion of tech he had installed. Barely anything human remained in his body now: bionic limbs fitted with on-board jackhammers, extendable chainsaws, arm-mounted Teslas; legs with hydraulic pistons holding enough power to make the earth itself quake; titanium cages surrounding his organs; controllable central nervous system, he could shut off his pain receptors at will. He towered above her, just standing there, rubbing his thick, sprawling hair back into style. A grin spread over his face which was one part derision to six parts vengeance. He removed his bulky jacket and cast it aside, his torso only covered by a small sleeveless shirt. There was no skin over his tech, just gleaming plates of bulging metal. It seemed he had no desire to hide his strength.
“I remember the last little girl that tried to take me on,” he said, slowly and deliberately pacing towards Hanin, a look of sadistic glee on his face. Hanin stood her ground, watching a square fill up in the corner of her HUD.
“How I miss those days before you dykes got those fancy pussy-protectors. You know, I can’t even think of her name anymore. I do remember her eyes as I held her against the wall, and fuckin’ choked the life out of her. I remember how, with her last breath, she said ‘thank you’.”
He stopped advancing three metres from her, relishing the moment as he saw the feigned panic on Hanin’s face.
“You’ll thank me too, when I’m finished with you, and believe me, I can more than compensate for the things I can’t do to you. In a way, I’m grateful. Really spurs the creativity of a guy y’know.”
The square on her HUD was nearly full. He continued towards her, the smell of his breath, stained with rotten meat began to reach her. She backed up calmly, her hands forming slowly into fists. His eyes caught her preparation.
“Just relax sweetie. I’ve got enough tech to decimate fifty blue-haired bitches like you. What do you have?” he said.
“Me?” she said. “Let’s see, a winning smile, class, all of my own teeth and a prototype EMP cannon.” She raised her palm to face him, a burst of electromagnetic radiation ran through her arm and imperceptibly shot out from the palm of her hand. The smile vanished from his face, his legs were motionless, his arms static. He was immobile. His shoulders lurched forward from strain, but his limbs didn’t respond.
“Okay, we’ll call it a draw,” he said. “Really, I’m sorry for taking up your time. I even quite like your hair: subtle, yet edgy. It really works for you.”
Hanin ignored him and turned to face the figure slumped behind her. He was dressed like the bodies they’d found back on Almeida, although this one didn’t have the same dark-fabric jacket on as the others, just a white shirt. She scanned him: no tech either. She wondered how he’d survived this long without. He looked around twenty-five years of age, just a few years younger than her. Heart-rate was slow, but still present. She knelt down besides him and put her hand on his back.
“Hey, you’re okay, I’m here to help, but I really need you to get up now.”
He stirred slightly.
“Guys,” she relayed, “we’ve got a survivor here. Threat has been neutralised. We’re on the first alley on the right side of Barnsbury. Daemon, stay put and be ready. Mish, Cant, head over for transport and sentencing.”
“It’s going to be okay,” she said to the young man on the ground, gently rubbing his back.
He started to turn over slowly, his eyes began to open. They had a look she hadn’t seen before, a look of innocence, conveyed by a face free from scars. He stared at her and smiled weakly. “Thank you.”
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Sebastian, Miss, it’s Sebastian Stafford.”
“You have a second name?” She held her body completely still, tilting her head slightly and staring at him inquisitively. “Where are you from?”
“Trenton Gardens. Beacon.”
Hanin stood up abruptly and looked in the direction of the currently obscured north wall. This was the first person from Beacon who’d come over in more than two decades. She was uncertain of the next move.
“Simone,” she relayed. “The survivor, he’s from Beacon. What should I do?”
The voice of a middle-aged woman came back over the relay, soft, yet inflected with urgency. “Bring him in.”
“That is so damn creepy. It’s like his eyes follow you wherever you go,” Mishka said, swaying from side to side as she surveyed Hanin’s attacker.
“Come a little closer, I dare you,” he said.
“And what? You’ll lick me to death,” Mishka said.
Canti walked up behind Mishka and kneed her in the back of her faded and torn blue jeans. She stumbled forwards a little before he grabbed her by the shoulders. She turned round and pushed him back, with a look of mock indignation, straightened her maroon halterneck and turned to Hanin.
“How come you get all the cool tech?” she said. “I only just got the tera-scan and you’re already on EMP?”
Hanin smiled and walked confidently up to her. “I get the ‘cool tech’ because somebody’s got to test it in the field. Did you want to be the one wearing the seismic generator?”
“I withdraw the question.”
Sebastian was still sat on the floor, he leaned against the brickwork layered with dirt and paint, bracing his knees under his chin. He watched them, occasionally smiling to himself, but for the most part, looking vacant. Canti walked over to him, his burly boots overshadowing his quite thin frame. He stood a few metres away and combed his hand through his mop of thick white hair.
“Hey kid, you’re Sebastian right? What do you go by?”
Sebastian looked up from his knees, appearing puzzled by the question.
“What’s your nickname? Seb, Basty, Fagbait?” he asked a little more impatiently.
“My name is Sebastian Stafford.” He spoke with precision, enunciating every syllable carefully, breaking off eye contact with Canti after a few words. He didn’t seem about to show any gratitude.
“I think we’ll call you Staff, you know, in honour of the object you need to remove from your ass.”
He was unfazed by Canti’s attempts to draw him out and continue to sit there, as if unaware of the dire nature of his situation. That wall was a constant reminder of the exile those living in Core had endured, left to starve, cut off from everybody else. Even though generations had since come and gone, the antipathy still possessed the populace. It had been a long while since there had been a face to direct that vitriol at. If anyone found out who he was, things would get very bad, very quickly.
Canti shrugged and turned back to Hanin who was typing a report onto her Cynet.
“Canti,” she relayed. “take Staff around the corner and keep him out of sight. Me and Mish will deal with the rest here.”
He nodded silently, then leaned over and firmly pulled Staff to his feet, who barely acknowledged the move, still in his own private daze. After a few steps, he started to struggle to stand up, the injuries of his short altercation growing more painful. He leaned on Canti, and the two of them slowly turned the L-bend and disappeared from sight. The two women turned their attention to the captive.
“Name?” Hanin asked.
He appeared hesitant, as if deciding how best to handle the conversation. His eyes flitted between the two of them, his limbs still impotent. “Domino,” he eventually replied.
“All yours,” she said, stepping back as Mishka approached him. Mishka lifted her sunglasses and perched them on top of her black hair which loosely cascaded down to the middle of her back. She wore two identical silver bracelets which now perched on her wrists, she began to idly spin one around with her other arm while staring down Domino. The other arm still held the Tesla rifle which pointed down at the earth, the barrel almost scraping the floor. Hanin stood back in the shadows of the alleyway, her arms folded, watching.
“Domino,” Mishka said, “you have been found guilty of the crime of murder, by the power invested to me by this very large Tesla, you will be sentenced. If you wish to appeal this verdict, you must do so personally in writing within seven days.”
Any sense of diplomacy disappeared from Domino’s demeanour. His face gave voice to a surging rage. “What the hell is this you Paki bitch!”
“Just for that, you get the second option.”
Mishka placed the rifle down behind her, and stood facing Domino. With a quick flick of her arms simultaneously, the bracelets fell down over her wrists and she grabbed each one in a fist. Automatically, the bracelets gripped onto her hand and three curved titanium blades shot out of each, expanding to around ten centimetres in length. She scraped them together, eliciting an nerve-shredding sound from the blades.
“Congratulations, you just got fucked,” she said with an absolutely calm demeanour, although she did give a certain emphasis to the last syllable. She pulled back her arm and swung it at Domino’s neck, aiming just above where the metal ended at the top of his clavicle, it sliced through his skin with ease, blood spilling out of the wound. She swung her other arm to hit the same area, leaving six thick lacerations in total on his throat. He watched her with grim determination, not flinching until his head began to bow forwards, resting. The blood continued to spill down his chest, then his legs and pooled on the ground.
“Really?” Hanin said. “Appeal in writing?”
“Well, you’ve got to give them hope, otherwise it’s just mean.” Mishka released her grip on the bracelets and they loosened from her fist as the blades retracted. She pushed them back up her arms.
They’d tried other ways of dealing with the sort of scum that Domino was. Way back when, there was Helix, he’d broken into a protected home where a few women were keeping their children. Thanks to the E-Suite, the women were off-limits for anyone not wanting a round of electroshock treatment through their dick. The children weren’t fitted yet. They caught up with him later through a tip-off from someone at Red Lagoon, one takedown later and they took him back to HQ. Three months of imprisonment, and all he did was to try to rip apart anyone who came near him. It took hours to feed him, to wash him. They automated all of his care eventually, but still he screamed day and night: screamed vengeance, screamed insults. Hanin’s nerves wore thin. He knew who they were, twenty seconds out there, anywhere in Core and he’d find out where they lived. There was no way to rehabilitate. Simone started working on a stasis prison, but progress was slow, and even then, you’ve got to do something with them eventually. He was their first capture, and their first deliberate execution. Hanin had asked for someone else to do them afterwards, Mishka complied, but even now, Hanin noticed the change it made in her, the one she feared happening to her after Helix. It wasn’t perfect, she thought, but it was the right course for the present.
The two of them pushed Domino’s body under a pile of garbage. Normally they’d remove all the tech to prevent it falling into worse hands, but all of it was fried in this one. No one was getting any use out of this guy. Between them they arranged a stack of flyers for Midijunkies, a large array of damp boxes of various colours and around a tonne of rubble over the corpse. In Core, the smell of rotting flesh wasn’t exactly unheard of. Maybe no one would find him. Besides, they already had an extra person to transport now.
They turned the corner and met up with Canti. Staff was still in his makeshift hypnotic state, perched against the side of the alley. He looked around like he was on holiday, peering curiously at all the buildings, examining them in a way that you might analyse an image capture. Hanin released Canti from his babysitting duty and took hold of Staff’s arm to help him along. She thought he could probably walk fine if he tried, but he was about to have a sharp downturn in quality of life from this point on, so she humoured him. The four of them walked back towards the APC, Hanin relayed to Daemon to get the vehicle ready to go. She didn’t want to hang around for any longer than absolutely necessary.
They rejoined the main road and headed towards the APC, the Tesla cannon was still circling around, the road was still deserted, the eyes still watched from the horizon.
“Don’t worry Staff,” Canti said as they walked side-by-side. “It takes a while to get used to Core, but once you get over the smell, the lack of any social status, the constant threat of extreme violence, the ongoing arms race for tech, the need to protect your food supply, the end of any kind of realistic prospects in life, it’s got a quaint charm to it. I think you’ll…”
There was a beep in Hanin’s head.
A message downloaded onto her cornea HUD: “Incoming Projectile – Speed 927.81 m/s: P.R.A Activated.”
She didn’t even register the message before the muscle control took over, forcing her to the ground. Staff fell forwards at the same time, still holding on to Hanin. They hit the concrete hard. She waited for the pain to come, the sound of the projectile still rang in her ears. Only the pain from the concrete registered, she was okay, but the world seemed muted around her. Sounds began to filter through to her mind.
Mishka was screaming. She threw herself behind the APC, ducking out to look around. She spotted a glimmer of light from the roof of one of the buildings, around three-hundred metres away. She rested the barrel of her Tesla rifle on the bonnet of the APC, looking through the scope as she tried to stay hidden. She fired a burst of electric death towards her target. She watched through the scope as the figure fell, flames taking hold of him. She dropped the rifle and returned to the figure lying on the other side of the APC.
“Get the fuck up you fucktard!” she shouted at him. He didn’t move. His white hair had turned red, his mouth stuck in a slight smile. She screamed again, kicking him in the side. His body rocked from the impact, but he still didn’t respond.
“Mish, we’ve gotta go. We need to go.” Hanin ran to grab her, she was still kicking, still shouting. Left to himself, Staff ran towards the APC, he stumbled slightly over his own feet.
She clutched Mishka by the arm and pulled her away. Shoving her into the back of the vehicle besides Staff before herself jumping in the passenger seat. She looked at Daemon, he said nothing. She said nothing. Voices came from the back.
“You fuckin’ killed him, you son of a bitch. That should have been you. It was meant for you.”
Hanin didn’t intervene. That was a sniper hit, she thought, with an actual bullet. An almost mythic item in Core.
This was very bad.
Continue to part two…