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Chapter One - Pop-Up

The best thing that could be said about New Montreal’s hoverbus service was that it was cheap as shit.

All the worst complaints about it sounded the same.

The hoverbus landed with a hissing squeal—like a cat that caught its tail in a door—the ill-maintained airbrakes cried out its intention to stop in a way that the broken brake lights just couldn’t match.

There was a cry from a few of the kids who were tossed around by the sudden stop. Or maybe they were just burning off some of that excitement after finally arriving. I couldn’t really blame them, the ride from the orphanage to the museum was nearly an hour long. That was an hour of flying through congested air traffic with nothing to see but ads and smog.

I stood up from my place two rows from the door and, with my hand gripping the rails above for balance, leaned forwards until I could see the front of the building next to us.

The Rose Briar Museum of Human Endurance was so new that some sections of the exterior weren’t even completed yet. Embedded holographic projectors covered the walls with looping vids of the exhibits within, and the occasional ad by the museum’s sponsors.

As far as I was concerned, the entire thing could rot. It was little more than a tax write-off that was trying to pass itself off as a bastion for the cultural heritage of a city that barely deserved the word ‘culture’ associated with it.

“Wow. You look extra grumpy today.”

I rolled my one normal eye and turned to the girl who had been sitting next to me. “I’m not going to say that I’m thankful that we were loaned out to some morally bankrupt corp to be used as pity bait in a photoshoot.”

“But you’ll think it?”

“So hard,” I said.

Lucy grinned. It was the sort of smile that made men and women pause and that, somehow, always managed to be infectious. “Help me up?” she asked.

Lucy was... special. She had the kind of looks that could make a plain girl like me jealous, but one minute spent with her as she ranted about how cute some dogs she had seen on her media feed were and any sort of reservations about her would melt. We’d been friends ever since I arrived at the orphanage, each one taking our roles—her the nice one that snuck candy to the smaller kids and who would act disappointed when they did something wrong, and I the more pragmatic, and hard-assed, bitch—as easily as breathing.

I braced myself against the side of a faux-leather bench and gave Lucy a hand so that she could get to her feet. Then I reached into the racks above our bench and pulled out Lucy’s crutches one at a time.

It took long enough for the two of us to get ready that, by the time we were stepping off the bus, the kids that had come with us were already gathering in a loose bundle under the awning in front of the museum.

It was, as usual, raining, because having one day with blue skies and a bit of sunshine would have been asking too much. The air was thick with oppressive humidity and low lying smog banks made it hard to see past half a dozen buildings.

My hair plastered to my head and my clothes turned moist and uncomfortable within seconds.

“Oh, damn,” I said as the New Montreal stench hit. It was a mix of burnt rubber, piss, and the acrid perfume of kerosene-zero wafting off our ride.

“You’d think being this high up would get rid of some of that smell, huh?” Lucy wondered. She stepped over to the side, her crutches clicking on the steel pavement of the landing until she was a few steps past the front of the bus.

“Don’t stand so close to the edge,” I said as I ambled over. The drop below was rather daunting. Twelve floors down onto the gritty streets where only vagrants and cargo haulers moved. There were a few more landings connected to the superstructure beneath the museum, but they were barely worthy of note. Bridges spanned the distance between the towers, some even had gardens and greenery on them, the sort that reminded people that the area was meant to be worth something.

“I live on the edge,” Lucy said, her voice low and husky and—I thought—just short of sounding cool. She ruined it by giggling a moment later.

“Watch that you don’t cut yourself with all that edge,” I said. “C’mon, we’re supposed to watch over the brats.”

Spending the day watching over a dozen kids, all of them with exactly the sort of discipline one would expect from orphans raised more by poorly built androids than actual people, was not my idea of a fun time. But Lucy had insisted that she wanted to see the new museum that had been on her media feeds for the past few weeks. And when Lucy turned her puppy dog eyes on me I always ended up folding sooner or later.

I was distracted as another bus landed and a second group of kids started to jump off. I didn’t recognize them, but all of them were white, and their caretakers were actual humans. Probably one of the better orphanages run off of some Samurai’s charity money. Or just a group from a local school. Didn’t matter.

“Alright kittens,” I said as I came to a stop just next to the lip of the awning and beside the affectionately named Bitchbot, the robotic caretaker drone that the orphanage had bought on the cheap some years back.

Ten pairs of eyes locked onto me and I surveyed the little crowd.

This bunch were called the kittens. Some well-meaning paper-pusher thought that the kids would find it easier to remember a cutesy name over the more official designation of Orphan Collective K1-T3N.

It had stuck.

The nanny droid waved her arm towards all the kids in an attempt to get them to behave. It was not very effective. “Today, by the grace of Nimbletainment Inc., you have been given the opportunity to be some of the first to visit the Rose Briar Museum of Human Endurance. This is a grea—”

I sighed and stepped up in front of the bot. It wasn’t hard to talk over it. “Right. We’re here for some PR photoshoot shit. You know the deal. Look cute and nice and disabled and the folks behind the desks will let us have some better toys. Behave, don’t touch anything, and smile whenever you see a camera drone.”

The kids were twitchy and excited, and I wasn’t sure how well my motivational speech had registered.

“We’re sticking in pairs, alright?” I asked.

“Fuck off,” Junior, one of the slightly older kids said. She wasn’t keen on spending time with anyone, and I wasn’t sure why she’d even come.

“Alright. Junior, you’re with Spark. Don’t let him lick any sockets.”

She glowered and I glared right back until she crossed her arms and looked away.

“That was one time,” Spark said.

I Ignored him and surveyed the rest. We were all wearing the off-grey outfits the orphanage handed out, though every kid except Tim had personalized it. Jackets, scarves, holes artfully torn into shirts and pants, and some holes less artfully so.

Most of the kids had their little cloth masks over their noses, though how useful those would be with pins stuck to them was anyone’s guess. We probably looked like a little gang of street rats. They’d need to fix up any pictures they took in post.

“Tim, you’re with Bargain. Nemo, go with Nose. Twins, together. Daniel...” I eyed the wheelchair bound boy who stared back with one eyebrow raised. He was a couple of weeks older than I was, which made it a little weird to tell him what to do. “You’re old enough to do whatever. You know the drill.”

“Been there, done that,” he confirmed.

I snapped my fingers for attention. “Right. I’m gonna be with Lucy. Shit goes down, you find us. Don’t pick a fight with any other group.”

The kids were wet and excited. Someone had snuck a few cans of vanilla-flavoured Bathjuice (now with real sugar!) onto the hoverbus and it got passed around. Some were literally twitching with barely contained energy.

Bitchbot took a moment to register that the work had been done for it. “Please line up in single file by age and form up,” its tinny voice said. “We will enter the museum now. Please behave, you are representing the Happy Family Corporation today!”

The kids started to walk towards the front doors and I let out of sigh as I watched them go.

“You have a gift for poetry, Cat,” Lucy said.

Bitchbot turned towards me on a pair of poorly oiled tracks, the single camera on its angular face twitching as it scanned my face up and down. “Orphan 0501 Catherine, you are not wearing your respiratory protection.”

I grumbled and pulled a mask out of my pocket while turning around. Lucy had managed to slip on her own mask long before the nanny bot noticed its lack. The poorly stitched happy-face logo of the Happy Family Corp on the front mocked me. It didn’t help that the grey mask looked awful against Lucy’s dark skin.

“I’m sorry, I’m putting it on now,” I said.

“Your compliance is appreciated. No major infractions will be added to your file,” Bitchbot said. I gave it the finger as soon as it was turned around.

Then I started to fiddle with the mask, putting it on was always a chore. It wasn’t made for someone with only one hand.

“Lemme help ya,” Lucy said.

I smiled back as soon as the mask was on. My mouth wasn’t visible, but Lucy could always tell. “Thanks.”

“No prob! We’re moving in, by the way.”

The kittens were being funneled into the museum and directed towards a security desk. Daniel was the only one lagging behind as he frowned at the little step just outside the door. I’d seen him do some crazy stunts with his wheelchair, I didn’t doubt that he could get up there eventually. Still...

“Need help?” I asked as I walked up behind him. The boy was a skinny mess, with wild, curly hair and eyes that glowed blue with third-party augmentations that he had gotten on the cheap.

He removed his hands from his wheelchair’s wheels. “You know I love it when a pretty thing pushes me around,” he said.

“I could push you off the roof,” I offered.

Daniel snorted. “I said a pretty thing, which means I was talking about Lucy back there. Heya Lucy, didn’t see you much on the ride over.”

“Don’t be a jerk, Dan,” Lucy said. “We need to set an example for the kids.” I shook my head and grabbed onto the handle at the back of his chair. It took a bit of doing, but with Lucy helping we managed to drag him backwards and over the step.

Daniel laughed at that. “Sure, sure. You know I’m always working to better myself, yeah? Real saint in the making here.”

“Uh-huh,” Lucy said.

The moment I crossed the threshold of the museum’s entrance my vision went blank for a half second before a prompt filled it.


     
 
Welcome to the Rose Blair Museum of Human Endurance!
 
 
Please Allow Us Access to Your aug-gear to improve your enjoyment of our many exhibits!
 
  Accept?  
     


“Shit,” I said as I tried to blink away the screen. Nothing worked at first, not until I eyed the accept button and blinked at it. “I hate those,” I said as I let go of Daniel’s chair for a moment and rubbed at the side of my face where I could feel the minuscule wires of my eyegear under my skin.

“I hope you didn’t accept,” Daniel said. “The firmware in a place like this is shit. You’ll be getting pop ups in no time.”

“How do I refuse it?” Lucy asked.

“Wait ten seconds, a refuse prompt should appear,” Daniel said.

“Ah, I see it! Thanks.”

I cursed my luck and grabbed Daniel’s wheelchair just as a flurry of boxes started to appear in the corners of my vision.

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“Oh, come on,” I said as I blinked at the tiny Xs to close the pop-ups. A few of them tried to open up browsers right in front of me despite being closed. Had to shut those down in a hurry. The little fans on the cpu of my gear started to spin. It tickled the back of my neck.

Daniel laughed. “Just endure it for a bit. Maybe keep your eye closed and use the other?”

I glared at him.

“Oh, yeah. Uh. Once we’re in, I can jack into your system and run an anti-malware sweep. Free of charge.”

I weighed the offer. Daniel had pulled a few pranks before. That thing with the tiny cameras in the bathrooms had earned him a beating, but that had been years ago. And he was usually pretty alright.

The dancing images of naked women in the corner of my vision made up my mind for me. “What's in it for you?”

“I get to spend time with two pretty ladies and away from the kittens?” Daniel asked.

“... fair enough.”

The kittens in question were oohing and ahhing around the entrance lobby. It was a simple enough room. Large, and done up in sterile white and chrome, with holograms of New Montreal’s most popular Samurai hovering off to the side.

I recognized Three Swipes, and Tiny, and Maplefly as their forms flashed by, but the others, especially those long dead or the B-listers, were complete strangers.

Samurai weren’t my thing. If there was really a hierarchy of people who were important out there, then they were just a step below the CEOs and presidents of all the biggest megacorps in the world. The fact that half of those were Samurai themselves just blurred the line.

I didn’t buy into the whole ‘superhuman’ schtick some of them put on, and their whole gimmick of trying to look like heroes while living in penthouses just rubbed me the wrong way. Lucy was way into them though, so I had picked some names up by osmosis.

“Children,” Bitchbot said, snapping me out of my daydreams. “Please line up and present your identification chits at the gate.”

The kids formed a rough line leading up to the security gate where an android smiled at them, checked their ID, and clamped a bracelet onto their right wrist before letting them through with a “Enjoy your day at the Rose Blair Museum, courtesy of Nimbletainment Inc!”

With each repetition of the greeting and slogan, another kitten was let through the gate and into the next room over.

I pushed Daniel up to the gate before me, and after sliding over an ID chit that was scanned by the android’s glowing eyes, he was let through with a shiny new bracelet. Then it was my turn.

“Here,” I said as I fished my ID chit from my wallet and placed it on the counter.

The android picked it up, scanned it, and placed it back down with a pleasant smile. “Thank you, Catherine Leblanc. Please present your right hand for your confirmation bracelet.”

“I can’t,” I said.

The Android paused for a moment. “Please present your right hand for your confirmation bracelet.”

Sighing, I raised the six-inch stub that was my right arm. The burns and ugly scars weren’t visible under my tied off shirt, but I knew they were there. “Can you put it on this?”

The android froze up for a moment, staring at the missing limb. “Please present your right hand for your confirmation bracelet.”

“Can I give you my left?” I asked. I knew where this was going and hoped the primitive junk AI in the android could skip past the trouble.

“Please present your right hand for your confirmation bracelet.”

I resisted the urge to say something rude. “Can you verify my ID? Please check under the disabilities subheading.”

“I can,” the android said. “By presenting your Id chit you have consented to giving Nimbletainment a current copy, in perpetuity, of your personal information. You have... two major disabilities. One missing right eye with mild-to-severe nerve damage. One missing right arm with nerve damage associated with mild-to-severe burns.”

“Can I put on a bracelet on my right hand if I don’t have a right hand?” I asked.

Lucy patted my back, a reminder to keep civil.

“I will contact customer support. One moment. You are a valuable customer!”

“Oh, fuck me.”

Ancient pop music from the mid 2020s started playing from out of the android’s mouth and I stepped to the side, my only desire right then was to beat my head against the wall to the tune of some long-dead artist’s idea of sellable pop.

This day was off to a spectacular start.
***

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RavensDagger

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