Three hundred years ago, human bodies were functional. Adequate. They were just as nature designed them. Boring. Then we came in with technology and made them remarkable.
– Memoirs of A. Saint Claire
* * * * *
The man with the handlebar mustache and plush burgundy waistcoat said from the shadowed doorway. Sam knew that mustache but this was the first time it had spoken.
Sam didn’t respond.
What does he want now? The teenager 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 The Sink, a large slum-city, had been more difficult than he’d thought. While he was free from his mother’s heavy hand, this freedom was accompanied by the sharp knife of hunger shooting beneath his ribs. Newly-found independence tasted like the squalor of the abandoned warehouses in which he was forced to take shelter with other homeless children. In the midst of those disenfranchised youths, no sense of solidarity arose, no kindred spirits. The bitter winter left them all shivering, fighting over the meager scraps of food or burnable material.
He never imagined he could be so hungry.
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 Lebanese restaurant, soggy sandwiches barely edible when fresh, and half-rotten fruit crawling with insects he couldn’t even identify; the nourishment stank with the rancid fumes of yesterday’s garbage.
Begging for the mildly stale remnants of a stranger’s half-eaten hoagie or the occasional mystery-meat kabob was no better. That stuff didn’t smell rotten but even then, no matter how hungry he was, he just couldn’t eat.
Instead, he occupied himself with his only talent. Computer navigation was as instinctual for him as breathing. Most of his time was spent in dingy cyber cafés. They became his haven: Long days crouched over an ancient typepad, hunched in a cheap fiberglass chair, with eyes straining at a dimly lit LED, he escaped.
Sam stalked through the underground security tunnels in the cybernet space of the CORPs. Worming his way into firewalls and secure shields; a cockroach made of bytes. He scrounged for scraps of cred to put into the virtual market. Win. Lose. Win.
He snagged only bytes at a time. A little here. A little there. Don’t get caught. Sam wanted to avoid spending the rest of his life serving time inside of a CORP prison.
He had too much to lose. He needed to find his sister, Charley, and leave this garbage pile of a city. East, west, north – he didn’t care. A real city had promises for both of them: A real job. A real school. A real life.
Sam remembered the mustache. He looked up.
The man was still there. He spoke again, undeterred by Sam’s silence. “You are not an easy kid to track down.”
“What do you want from me?” Sam asked. He was skeptical. Well-dressed strangers rarely wanted anything good.
Taking a drag of a long, mud-colored cigarette. He put a data chip from his pocket. “I need a dataheist. Hack into the security system at Battery Mall. Snatch the locked files.”
“Hack a system?” Sam asked, rising insecurely to his feet. “That’s bytes. I do it all the time.”
The stubble on the man’s cheeks creased into a frown. “This is not as easy as you might think, kid. 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,” Sam responded, puffing out his chest. “What’s the take?”
Sam’s eyes bulged. Ten thousand credits would not only buy a two tickets out of this place, but get them at least a few months in an apartment.
There has to be a catch, he thought, scuffing his boot on the floor.
“Well?” the man asked when Sam didn’t speak.
Sam wanted to say yes. He felt it, deep within his belly: a burning anticipation building toward excitement, for this task. He snatched the chip from the man’s raw-boned hand.
There was an address engraved on one side:
JR. Avenue 5. Independence Plaza.
“This is where you can find me to deliver the goods. Payment upon delivery,” the man said and turned away.
“But I haven’t given you an answer yet!” Sam called.
The man looked over his shoulder, giving Sam an arrogant smile, “You didn’t have to.”
* * * * *
Battery Mall was a throwback from an ancient time: An indoor retail center selling all manner of useless garbage where The Sink’s population came to socialize, shop, and drink. Mechs, savants and True Humans alike frequented this place with its outdated linoleum floors and yellowing walls.
Several months back, it had suffered a minor tragedy. The south wing had been destroyed by an explosion. The media claimed it was a fuel leak or electrical fire but word on the street said it was a bomb. Regardless, the center reopened shortly after the incident with caution tape and barricades walling off the rubble. Business resumed as usual, the downtrodden citizens thankful they still had somewhere to take their dates.
Sam tried to avoid the place at all costs. For one, he hated shopping. But also, staring at all the fake, modded-up mechs, made his stomach turn. Anyway, the aroma from the food court was just too tempting.
However, this night, he had broken into the security control room to hack into their server. That came across no guards nor complex locks did concern him a little, but he pushed those thoughts away. It was just a shopping mall, not the Triumvirate’s HQ.
The mall’s computer was ancient. Sam frowned. If those in the Internet café were from before his parents’ time, this one must be from the early 2070s. The server room hummed gently, warm air heavy with sonic vibrations carrying waves of data. Sam could feel these vibrations as easily as he could hear the rush of a river. Colored LEDs blinked ominously, like so many eyes, watching him. His fingers began running over the typepad.
*tap* *tap* *tap* *tap* *tap*
Skills indeed, he thought, annoyed. This bastard’s convoluted as shit. No wonder the take was so high.
He just may be in over his head. The man had warned him. Several others had tried and failed. Sweat beaded on his forehead. His t-shirt was becoming damp under his arms.
They’d failed, a tiny voice goaded in the back of his mind.
Sam ignored it. He was determined not to fail.
*tap* *tap* *tap* *tap* *tap*
The lines of code taunted him, flashing their glaring green deep into his retinas. 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. He’d never heard the term before. Maybe it was an outdated security system?
*tap* *tap* *ta—
CREDENTIALS ACCEPTED, the screen read.
He was in! He stared. Files suddenly began zipping themselves onto his inserted chip. Bits flashed by in a whirr. The zeroes and ones of code were replicating themselves with the precision of high-speed data.
Dizziness overwhelmed him, as if he were falling. He gripped the edge of the desk to steady himself as an image flashed at him: He was running. Tripping. Falling.
Shaking his head, the image vanished, but sick dizziness remained. Uneasiness began to creep from his throat, spreading to his now-shaking hands. Before he could reason it away, he shot to his feet and yanked the chip out of the mainframe.
Seconds later, a man in a worn band T-shirt and faded jeans opened the door the only. His face was sharp and cold. His eyes were meched: tiny cameras with rapidly dilating pupils, staring straight at Sam.
* * * * *
The mall food court was a hub of activity even at this late hour. The electrical humming of cold fluorescent lights could make one forget the sun had long since set. Holo-ads played across the glass ceiling silently hawking the wares of garishly colored stores which surrounded the atrium. On one side, there were 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 body mod trends.
Juiceheads sat at a table rippling with folds of muscle so large they barely looked human. Fashion sisters chattered in a tight knot, their frozen smiles and stretch-tight skin the result of too many trips to the laser salon. A clutterhead trolled the floor in faded institution gowns, begging for credits or junk as he wove between the tables. A pair of security guards rolled slowly back and forth on one-wheeled scooters, their lurid uniforms thinly disguising the mods that pulsed with the synthetic rhythm of black motor oil.
Mara sat at a table in the tiny café-bar, a dark brown beer grasped in her olive-skinned hands. She was wrapped in black leather pants the shade of an octogenarian’s favorite easy chair, and wore dingy white tank top under an equally loved leather vest.
Her dark eyes scanned the atrium, coming to rest on a barricaded wing of the mall, walls gripped by blackened tendrils of long-extinguished fire. Beyond the barricade metal protruded from crumbling stone, the hall swathed in darkness. An explosion, perhaps? Or just an electrical fire? Either way, it made the woman uneasy.
Weapons were forbidden in places like this, so she’d left her gun and anlace behind. It wouldn’t do for an un-meched to temped the heavily-modded guards. Not that she needed them, anyway. Many people like her were weapons already.
All the same, it still felt strange to be away for so long from her anlace—a nanobot weapon in the shape of a rapier. In a way, it was her most trusted companion, having seen her through more tough situations than any human. It rarely left her side.
She hoped he’d be here.
The mech twins, her favorite informants in the underground, had given her a tip. The teenager she’d been seeking for the last year and a half was working a questionable job that would send him to Battery Mall. The twins also warned that he would attract unwanted attention. Mara had no reason to doubt this prediction. While she never entirely trusted mechs, the twins had enough street cred to keep track of just about every interesting pair of boots in The Sink.
They’d better not be wrong, Mara thought. She’d been pulling strings and flexing muscles for months to track down the scuffed size-tens of Samson Lilly, son of Robert Lilly. Eleven years ago, she’d made a promise to his father. Now it was time to fulfill that promise.
A commotion arose on the second floor balcony. Mara looked up through the glass holoceiling to see an achromatized pipe banister quiver in response to the rhythm of slapping feet. From her vantage point in the café, she could only see a corner of the long hallway above with its faded custard-yellow walls.
An adolescent with shaggy hair the color of sand was barreling toward the banister, eyes wild. Following behind, almost unhurriedly, was a man with a craggy face and thin buzz cut. He was almost expressionless, save for his malicious scoped eyes and blue-tinged skin. This was no mere man. He was a CORP assassin.
Mara’s eyes briefly met the mech ones of the assassin, but they slipped off her like oil on water. She felt dirty as she downed the last of her lukewarm ale in one frenzied swig, gagging at the grainy dregs. She stood up, clenching the heavy mug in her fist.
Sam had made it to the banister. He reached out with one desperate hand, vaulting over it, left leg tucked underneath, right thrust out. His arms flailed.
The assassin held out his hand. A shiny metallic square flew from his palm. Attached to it was a wire so thin it was barely visible. The contraption flew toward Sam with unnerving speed.
* * * * *
Sam was frozen, literally frozen. No, he hastily corrected himself. He was not frozen but he also wasn’t exactly falling. His scream hung in the air.
It was almost as if he were outside his body, watching all this happen to someone else. A layer of paint from the banister, crumbled off by his heel, puffed out in a small, motionless cloud. Below him was a glass holo-ceiling with an ad for the Bröt 790 Sandwich Shop plastered across its face.
Sharp stinging on his knee was the only indication he had crashed through the holo-ceiling. Bröt 790’s featured sandwich, The Entropita, dissolved in a wave of holo-pixels. Glass fragments gently twirled around his face, drifting like weightless snowflakes toward the yellowing linoleum floor. A hair-like wire glittered at the corner of his vision, lazily undulating.
Most people didn’t seemed to notice him, being too wrapped up in themselves. There was one woman though, dressed in all black and holding a thick glass stein, who stared at him purposefully as if she had been seeking him. Arm arched behind her back, she launched the mug in his direction. It slid past his ear, the aroma of fermented barley assailing his nose. Closer to the ground now, he felt his left leg tucked sharply into his chest, but 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. Red jewel-like droplets surrounded him. 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. A metallic tang shot through his taste buds. His chest fluttered. He forced himself to breathe.
The world snapped back into normalcy. Time evened out. He crumpled to the floor.
* * * * *
Mara noticed Sam’s face change from an impetuous grimace of rebellion to a frantic O of surprise as his right leg was severed at the knee. The rest of him followed the leg and fell into in a pallid heap of shock and fear. The silver rectangle recoiled back toward the caster, a faint iridescent thread shimmering in the artificial light. Razorwire.
Mara’s mug flew across the food court, through the broken holo-ceiling and directly into the face of the assassin, shattering into a hundred unforgiving shards of glass. He clutched at his eyes, but slowed only a little.
Reaching into her pocket, Mara pulled out another item. It was the size of a strawberry and gunmetal gray. 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 fallen 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 him in a clinging, stinking cloud. He roared, his flailing, ducking figure obscured by the squall.
Mara rushed over to Sam, who was curled in a convulsing heap, blood pooling around him. Ripping off a piece of her shirt, she tied a tourniquet around his leg, the crimson staining through almost immediately. She flung the now-unconscious adolescent over her shoulder, and barreled out of Battery Mall. Juiceheads, fashion sisters, rats, clutterheads, and security guards looked on with mild curiosity.
Using her inherent strength, she kicked open the exterior door, gritting her teeth against complete panic. She raced down the street, periodically glancing over her shoulder to ensure they were not being followed. Assassins terrified her.
Finally, she reached The Company’s rusted hovervan. Flinging Sam in the back, she crawled in after.
“Home?” A high-pitched voice asked from the front seat.
“Home,” Mara replied tersely checking Sam’s pulse.
The young pilot’s eyes grew wide as he saw Mara’s blood-spattered appearance in the rearview mirror.
“That bad, huh?” He grimaced and began to turn around.
“Trent, don’t…” Mara put a hand on his shoulder, “Don’t turn around. Just get us home.”
As the transport rose slightly into the air, Trent’s voice was heavy, “Home it is.”
© 2020 Lyndsie Clark
To read more: contact me for questions on the future publication of Anamnesis!