Golden beams of sunlight spilled through the skeletal high rises, and through the concrete and steel network of interlaced highways, bypasses, and rails that once flowed with harried humanity, now devoid of all but the meanest signs of life. Overpasses stacked ten high lay inert, arteries of a city embalmed. The wind was light but weighty with the failing autumn, like the hand of a blacksmith gently laid.
Beneath the lowest overpass, a lone figure plodded weary steps, bowed and hooded, burden dragging behind leaving long tracks in the concrete dust. He paused, raised his head, laid back his hood, and felt the cooling breeze on his sweat-beaded face. His sun-squinted eyes roved over the urban desert before him as he adjusted the straps of his makeshift harness to ease his protesting shoulders.
“I see why you left,” the man muttered. He spat, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his knee-length faded olive-brown-mottled coat, and started on his way again.
The man stepped up onto the road, felt his senseThetic boots soften slightly to better absorb the hard shock of the asphalt, cringed at the hollow echo of his cargo scraping across the scarred and pockmarked ground. As he walked, he imagined the city as it might’ve once been. The endless dissonance of a half-million people packed into five square miles, swimming in an almost tangible soup of electromagnetic traffic. He wondered what traces of personality might still be left, rippling through those invisible fields around him even now.
Progress was slow, but he was close. Another few minutes and at last the man stood before the gates of his destination: a small enclave of survivors set within the dead cityscape. From atop a twenty-foot wall of haphazardly-welded urban debris, a watchman called down.
“What’s your business, stranger?”
The man jerked his thumb behind him, indicating the cargo he was dragging. The watchman grunted.
“Yeah, alright,” he answered. “Reckon the agent’s gonna wanna take a look before you go far.”
The man waited in silence as the enormous gates ground open, just wide enough to admit him and his payload. They started to close again before he was all the way through.
“Second street on your right, agent’s the first on the left. First floor.”
The man nodded curt thanks, and headed to see the enclave’s agent. Within the walls, the architecture was unchanged from that outside: tall gunmetal skyscrapers with windows darkened like gaping sockets of a skull, dead flat panel signs forty-feet wide that might once have hawked the day’s latest technological fashion. In here, however, there were men, women, and even wide-eyed children, who stared in wonder at this new evidence of life from beyond the wall, walking amongst them. Most of the adults pretended not to notice him, though he felt their sidelong glances and heard the hushed whispers after he passed. Even in days as strange as these, it was unusual to see a man harnessed as he was, hauling such a load: scrap aluminum, worn and scratched, bent into the makeshift but unmistakable shape of a coffin.
The man reached the agent’s office, and he paused, steeling himself with a final deep breath of outside air. He’d dealt with agents before, nearly thirty he could recall, and they’d all been the same. Muscle-bound gun-toters with a lot of bark, always itching for a reason to bite. Mostly ex-military or law enforcement, agents were tough guys who liked the power, and still clung to the outdated notion that order could be maintained even in a desolate society. They had their uses. But the man had little use for them.
He stepped forward, automatic doors sliding smoothly open to admit him, and dragged in from concrete to polished granite. In an earlier time, the office might’ve been a bank, with all its oak and stone. Or a tomb. Now, it was just a long corridor, leading to an imposing flexiglass cube. The glass was darkly smoked, but the man correctly presumed whoever was inside could see his approach. Still, he strode nearly the length of the corridor, before a sudden booming voice stopped him five paces from the cube’s door.
“State your business,” thundered the voice, rolling emphatically down the stone hall.
“Bounty,” replied the man.
“State your name.”
There was a pause.
“You got three of ’em in there?”
“You asked my name.”
The voice puzzled for a moment. Then—
“Who you got in the box?”
“One of yours.”
“I’d rather not.”
The voice resumed a more professional tone.
“All collections must be verified and processed before payment will be distributed.”
“So open the cube.”
A slot opened in the cube, and a sleek metal case slid out, popping open to reveal a cracking rubberized interior.
“Deposit your weapons in the provided secure receptacle.”
“I’d rather not.”
Another pause. Though it still boomed, the voice sounded flustered.
“You cain’t come in here so armed, mister. I don’t care who you are.”
The man named Three let the straps of his harness slide off his shoulders. They clattered to the floor next to the coffin.
“Then you come out. I’m done dragging.”
Three turned around and started back down the corridor.
“Hey!” the voice thundered, “Hey, you cain’t just leave that settin’ there!”
Three walked on.
“I’ll have you arrested if you don’t come back!”
He was almost to the exit. There was a whir and a click behind him, and a thin, crackly voice called out from the cube.
“What about your bounty? Don’t you want it?”
Three stopped. But didn’t turn.
“Come on get this box inside, and I’ll see what we owe ya. My back cain’t manage it.”
Three swiveled on a heel, and returned to the cube. There, a bent old man who looked like he weighed less than his age tottered and leaned against the now-opened door. A stimstick dangled precariously from his lower lip, glowing with casual indifference. Three grabbed the straps off the floor and hauled the coffin inside the cube. The old man followed him in.
“Don’t know why you folks gotta make things difficult for us folk. Times is rough enough without undeserved meanness.”
The cube interior was a stark contrast to the cavernous entryway. Nearly every available square inch was stuffed with various devices, blinking and humming and whirring, and it was easily fifteen degrees warmer inside than out. There was a desk of sorts in the middle of the room, with a plush recliner behind it, and an overturned plasticrate that Three assumed served as a seat for rare company. From within the cube, the flexiglass was clear, and the granite corridor stretched off to the glass exit at the far end.
“So who’d you git?” the agent asked.
“Nim. Nanokid out of the Six-Thirteen.”
The agent’s eyes twitched back and forth as he internally accessed the appropriate file.
“Alright. Looks like fifteen-hundred.”
“Nah, only fifteen for dead.”
“I didn’t say he was dead.”
The agent looked up into Three’s eyes, mouth open slightly, but he swallowed whatever question he’d been about to ask, and instead took a drag on the stimstick. He turned and rummaged through a pile of gadgets on his desk, dragging out a slender rod, pewter-colored, without any apparent seams or separate parts, which emitted a pleasant hum. This he pointed casually at the coffin, grunting after a moment with some mix of satisfaction and disdain.
“Well, that’s him in there alright,” he said, turning again to fish around in his desk drawer. “Pointcard’s OK?”
Without waiting for an answer, the agent produced a translucent green card and swept it through a slotted device, which clicked once and beeped cheerily. He extended it to Three.
“Hard, actually,” Three replied, hands in his coat pockets.
The agent’s slight shoulders slumped almost into non-existence.
“I don’t keep that kind of Hard just layin’ around. No more than a thousand any given day.”
The pointcard trembled in the agent’s still-outstretched hand, in vague hope that this strange man from beyond the wall would take it and disappear. Three could tell he disturbed the agent. The wrinkled old man stared at him like he didn’t belong there, like he was some alien thing wedged in the wrong reality. The agent shivered.
“I’ll take the thousand now, and come back for the rest.”
The agent pushed the card a little closer.
“Might be a day or two.”
The agent let out a weary sigh. He rummaged in, under, and around the electric clutter of his office, until he located an ancient lockbox, secured with physical biometrics. After running his bent and knobby fingers over the touchpad, the box hissed open. The agent opened it just wide enough to slip his hand in, counted out twenty nanocarb chips, and handed them over to Three with some reluctance. Three glimpsed more Hard in the box, but made no comment, sized the agent up instead: dilated pupils, thin sheen of perspiration, colorless ring around tensed lips.
“Sorry I frighten you,” Three said without apologetic tone. He leaned his head to one side and cracked his neck audibly, watching the old man carefully. The agent laughed, too suddenly, too loud.
“What? I ain’t scared of ya, don’t ya worry about that.”
Lie, Three thought.
“I lived plenty enough years to see things a lot worse than you, friend.”
That was true. Three lowered his head in the barest hint of a bow. Whatever the agent’s reason for withholding a portion of his stash, Three decided, he was an honest dealer. Probably owed someone. The agent got back to business.
“Gimme your SNIP, I’ll pim ya when I get the rest.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow.”
The agent’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“Be easier if you just gimme the SNIP.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Figgered that,” the agent snorted. “Well, gimme two days, I’ll have the rest for ya then. Late afternoon.”
Three unfastened his coat to pocket the payment, revealing a mammoth pistol crouching in a holster on his vest, coiled like some predator hungering to pounce. The agent’s eyes bulged at the hardware, but he quickly diverted his attention. He kicked at the coffin.
“’Preciate the work you done,” he said half-heartedly. “Dunno why you had to do him like that, though.”
Three adjusted the pistol, then refastened his coat, concealing it once more.
“You will when you open it.”
Three nodded to the agent, and swiveled back down the stone corridor. As Three walked away, the agent watched him briefly, then, on a sudden whim, picked up and aimed the humming rod at his back. The agent frowned slightly, shook the rod, and pointed it again, more purposefully. His frown deepened, eyes narrowed with some undefined emotion. A thought occurred, and wide-eyed he fumbled over himself to seal the flexiglass cube, as Three stepped back out onto the street.
The honey-colored liquid swirled gently in the finger-smudged squat glass on the table in front of Three. It was his fourth of the afternoon. Still he waited for the comforting blanket of alcoholic haze to embrace him. He leaned forward, resting his face in his hands, and his elbows on the table, felt it shift slightly to the right, and wondered briefly if it were the table or himself that had wobbled. Was this the wobbly table? Or had that been yesterday? Yesterday? Yesterday. It was the second day since he’d met with the agent. Payday.
Three let out a weary sigh, ran his hands back over his shaved head, feeling the stubble of a few days’ growth, then massaged his temples, probably throbbing though he couldn’t be sure. It was like this when he didn’t have a job; something to find, someone to bring in. The restlessness was setting in, the need to move. To hunt. It was the third day in the same town. Might as well have been a month. There were benefits to being a freelancer, but down time wasn’t one of them.
From his corner booth, he had a commanding view of all the critical angles. The booth itself was U-shaped, tucked in the front corner of the bar, a natural blind spot from the entrance. Temprafoam, covered in some cheap imitation of a much sturdier textile, it was adequate comfort and gave him all the room he needed, and best of all required no reservation, deposit, or record of stay. He sat with his feet propped on the bench opposite, with his coat bundled around his hardware on the perpendicular seat that completed the U. His eyes involuntarily swept around the bar, taking stock of his surroundings, the way they had two minutes before. Habit.
But everything was the same. Same hazy atmosphere. Same chattering regulars. Same bartender. The bartender was a lean man, lean like he’d been a foot shorter and stretched to his current height, and fidgety. He was never completely still, fingers always working the air when they weren’t cleaning glasses or pouring drinks. Three guessed the bartender was splitting time between customers and some fantasy app, but didn’t want to guess the type.
He took another swig of his drink, then casual interest in the door. Instinct. A moment later, a woman entered pulling a small boy along behind her. She was bent at an awkward angle, clutching her long coat closed tight around her with a balled fist pressed hard to her side. Colorless, sweating, desperate. Damp shoulder-length brown hair plastered to her forehead. Wild brown eyes darting around the room. The boy was blond, vibrantly pale, with eyes deep sea-green and natural, the mesmerizing kind the Money would’ve paid top Hard for at the height of the market. Three guessed him perhaps five years old. The boy trembled with the frightened silence of a child who’s been told everything’s alright, but knows it isn’t. His shocking innocence swept through the bar: fragile, beautiful, a snowflake drifting amongst ash.
Three lowered his eyes back to his glass, kept the woman and boy in his peripheral awareness. She moved from patron to patron, urgent, pleading, waved off impatiently. Three shut his eyes and drank deeply the remaining honey-liquid from his glass. He set it back on the table with a dull crack, felt the table shift again.
Good, he thought with a half-smile. Table, not me.
When he opened his eyes, she was there.
“Please…” she began. Three’s gaze flicked to the door behind her. In the next instant, it swung open, and she whipped around to face it, inhaling sharply. Whoever she was expecting wasn’t there. Just a pair of teen Skinners blowing in off the street. She clenched her eyes, bent over Three’s table, dropped a fist to support herself. Three watched her hazily, felt his eyes float to the boy. The boy ran his hand slowly, methodically, back and forth along the edge of Three’s table, tiny fingers wrapped around some scavenged plaything: a model of an ancient shuttlecar with a few flecks of yellow paint where bare metal hadn’t yet worn through. He fixed Three with a wet, penetrating stare, and never looked away.
Three reached in his vest pocket and flicked a pair of nanocarb chips onto the table, a hundred Hard. The woman opened her eyes, stared down blankly at them, then back up at him, shaking her head.
“No,” she practically whispered, teeth catching her bottom lip for an instant in an almost imperceptible struggle to maintain thin composure. “We need help.”
“You lose something?” Three heard himself ask heavily. The fog was settling nicely now.
“Did you lose something?” he repeated, with overemphasized precision.
“Looking for someone?”
“What? No, we’re just—”
“Then I can’t help you.”
The woman straightened, and looked back to the door, but didn’t leave. Three glanced to the boy again, found himself staring into deep green pools, fascinated. The boy seemed equally intrigued by Three. The woman made one more attempt.
“I’m not asking you to help me,” she pushed the boy to the front. “Look, will you help him?”
“I’m not being rude, ma’am. Just honest.”
Three tilted his glass on the table, signaled to the bartender for another. Still the woman stood, chewing her lip, pressing her fist to her abdomen, while the bartender jerked his way over and refilled Three’s glass to the brim.
“Take the money,” Three said, sipping from the glass, feeling the warmth roll down his throat, filling his chest with dull flame.
“Mama,” a small voice peeped next to the woman. “Mama, let’s just go.”
The woman stared vacantly, at the door, at the table, at the Hard.
“Go on,” Three said. “I’ve got plenty.”
“Mama, please, can we go now, can we go?”
Without a word, the woman swept the two nanocarb chips up off the table and into her pocket, then whirled and tugged the boy along behind her to the bar. She spoke animatedly with the bartender, who directed her with various twitching gestures towards the back. The boy never took his eyes from Three, not until he vanished with his mother into a back room and, Three assumed, out again into the streets.
Three downed a good half of his glass, felt a faint satisfaction waft through, like the smoke-wisp of a just snuffed candle, knowing he’d helped some local skew and her runt, and hadn’t even been annoyed when she hadn’t thanked him. A hundred Hard was probably more than she’d make in a week of nights under sweaty Joes who couldn’t afford even C-grade sims.
“Hold my table,” Three called to the bartender, hauling himself out of the booth to take care of the growing pressure in his bladder that he’d just noticed.
In the stall, he watched in a sort of drunken lucidity the stream splashing onto the stainless grate, knowing somewhere below it was being absorbed, filtered, broken down into useful parts for biochem batteries, or solvent, or cooking. He chuckled aloud at the thought of his fellow patrons out there drinking his recycled urine.
But then the sudden image of the boy’s sea-green eyes cut short his personal amusement, and Three couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something in them he should’ve noted, something he missed that was important, or would’ve been if he’d noticed. He was still rolling it over in his thickened mind when he stepped back out to the bar and felt the twinge, the automatic heightening of senses he’d learned to trust even when he didn’t know why.
He continued to his table smoothly, seemingly unconcerned, knowing any change of intent might draw unwanted attention, and slid into his booth, absorbing at a glance the altered environment. The adrenaline surge burned away all traces of the alcohol-induced mist he’d spent the afternoon cultivating. The bar was nearly the same; same hazy atmosphere, same regulars, same bartender. The regulars weren’t chattering now. The Skinners had a new companion.
He was tall; taller than the bartender, broad-shouldered, with long, stringy dark hair like tendrils down his back. His face was skullish, skin stretched taut across sharp features, unnaturally smooth despite other, more subtle signs of age. Thin hands, tapering to long, dexterous fingers. The eyes were the key: a slight wrinkling at the edge, with thirty more years of life in them than the rest of the man’s build suggested.
Genie, Three guessed. Dangerous.
He’d run afoul of a couple of Genies before, humans who through extensive genetic engineering, or outright tampering, had attained preternaturally advanced talents or skills. It was a mistake Three didn’t plan to repeat. The trouble with Genies was you never knew what about them had been enhanced. The eggheads were never a problem. Others, though, could be lethal. Judging the tall man at the bar, Three guessed he was a strength tweaker. Could probably crush a man’s skull in his massive hand.
The man spoke few words, but each brought forth a torrent of information and gestures from the Skinners, as they tripped over one another trying to convince him of their eagerness to help. They both looked terrified. Three hadn’t drawn his notice, but the newcomer wasn’t interested in him anyway. One of the Skinners motioned to the back of the bar, and shortly after, the tall man exited by way of the front door, without so much as a glance in Three’s direction. After several tense moments, one of the regulars mumbled something that drew laughter from the others at the bar. Normalcy rebooted, a programmatic hiccup resolved.
Three reached for his glass, half-empty when he left, now half-full. The boy’s eyes burned before him, innocent, unaccusing. There was no doubt the tall man was after the woman; the boy. Veins in the tall man’s temples had bulged slightly as he left the bar. Anger. Three knew in his heart that the tall man meant harm to those two. He shook his head: not his problem.
A hundred Hard, Three thought. That’ll go a long way, if she’s smart.
He picked up his glass, swirled the slightly viscous liquid. Unappealing now. He wanted to want to drink it, but instead just watched it spin and settle. Over the rim of his glass, on the far side of the table, something caught his eye. A small model shuttlecar with chipping yellow paint.
He left the glass.
“How much do I owe you?” Three called to the bartender, standing and gathering his things.
The bartender looked his way, puzzled.
“For the drinks,” Three explained.
“Your woman-friend already paid,” the bartender answered. “Nice tipper, too.”
Silence descended upon the bar as Three made ready, patrons goggle-eyed at this last brazen assault on their day-to-day routine. They’d all assumed Three was a drunken drifter. Now, he was checking the cylinder of his pistol and holstering it, sliding a slender-bladed short sword into its sheath at his lower back.
Three threw his coat on over his hardware, and wordlessly flowed out onto the street, in pursuit of a deadly man he didn’t know for reasons he couldn’t understand.