She drops back to ground level in a quiet alley, filled with stinking garbage and refuse. But empty, even any cameras likely to be stolen for scrap within days of going up. Her override had expired, her body seeming to turn to ice for a moment, coolness exploding in her mind. Pleasure gone, now it was time to get home.
Around the corner, the main street had once been wide enough for cars, back when people had owned such things. Years of unlicensed and unorganised building meant that it was barely three meters wide, the rest taken up with rough shanties of brick and tin. There’s the usual bunch of youthful dumbasses loitering around, all posture and pride, with whatever attempts at weapons they’ve been able to scavenge up. Alice approaches them, staring down their leader, or at least the one with the most swagger.
They’ve met before, when Alice made an important point of educating him on courtesy. Or, more pointedly, kicked him in the bollocks hard enough he probably couldn’t piss straight for a month. Since then, he’d been a lot less of an asshole. They glower at her, all untargeted anger and energy, with nowhere to go, nothing to do but skulk and sulk around the streets.
Alice reaches into her bag, pulling out a handful of plastic packets. ‘Got some gifts for you. If you want to keep an eye out for the night.’ She flicks one at the leader, who catches it and tears it open, taking a sniff.
‘That’s the good stuff! Keep us happy for a while.’ He dips his finger into the packet for another dose, before passing it to one of the others. ‘Treat us well, we’ll be swell.’
‘Just keep an eye out, alright?’ She stares at him until he stands aside, others doing the same. They’re idiots, but useful ones – enough dumb, stupid pride to start shit they really wouldn’t be able to finish, and loud enough that if they get killed, she’ll have time to make an escape. She strides through, into the courtyard of the block.
There was once an attempt at a patch of grass here, but it died long ago, leaving just scabby mud, even weeds struggling to survive here. Every door has either been reinforced, or destroyed, gaping like an abscess. There’s a few others around, even at this hour, huddled around a fire, cooking whatever passes for food tonight. No-one directly looks at her, her reputation having spread amongst them.
Her own place is down a narrow staircase, concrete steps worn in the centre. No fancy security scanners here, instead she checks no-one is watching, then reaches for a concealed compartment, fingers brushing against a scanner pad. There’s an electric beep, and the metal grille slides open. Behind it is a thick wooden doorway, the glass panels long-gone, replaced with a patchwork of metal and more wood. This is opened with a key, an old thing of bent and crooked metal, taking several attempts before catching and opening.
She steps inside, pulling the grille back down, making sure it is clicked back into place, then locking the door as well. Inside, it’s pitch black, as she moves through the darkness, sure of her steps and where everything is. Eight steps forward and a turn to the left, then she reaches out, hands brushing wood. She turns a metal dial and pushes it, a spark in the darkness before the gas catches light, shedding firelight and revealing some of the room.
The surfaces are wood and brass, gleaming where they catch the light. The space stretches further than can be seen, a large, open chamber, wooden benches mounted to the walls, a long wooden bar stretching further than the light extends.
She freezes, unmoving, old habit making her stop entirely, listening. This time of night, there should be barely any sound – even the rumble of the factories is quietened to a low thrum, quieter than the soft buzz of the wires running along one wall. Nothing, no-one. Alone. She relaxes, the blossoming of calm entirely natural for once. Then it’s time for the usual routine.
Another hissing bloom of gas snaps into a fire, cooking a lump of pre-processed paste with filtered water, creating a thick brown broth. It’s vaguely sweet, allegedly contains all the nutrients required for life, and reputedly drives people crazy. Whether that’s from a mysterious ingredient, a side effect of decay, or sheer tedium, is hard to tell. But it’s nutrition, enough to stay alive. As she spoons the stuff down, she starts to undress – jacket onto a hanger, then her loose shirt, folded and put away. Beneath is the stiff shell of her harness, tight black curves of reinforced plastic and metal, protecting the vials and mechanisms. Unhooking the tubes from herself is always the hardest part, as they dragged at her flesh, needles prickling as she un-stabbed herself.
The control panel blinks at her, lights flashing red for a moment before she shut it down. She takes a deep breath, forcing herself to stay calm, collar bleeping a warning. The evening still had her rattled. She stripes her trousers off, something rattling to the floor, falling from her pocket.
She stooped, picking it up – as she did so, the room filled with purple light, the gemstone catching the firelight, blazing with its inner fire again. When the fuck had that dumbass bitch planted it on her? And why?
The beeping from the collar became a long, drawn-out whine, a spark of pain into her neck, followed by blessed calm.
So, now she had something that she most definitely shouldn’t have, which someone else would certainly want, and probably be none-too gentle about it. Pause, another long breath, moving swiftly, trying to think calm thoughts as the storm began to rage inside of her. Behind the bar was her box – she opened it up, taking out a syringe, and swiftly plunging it into her arm, pushing the plunger down, feeling the ice burn into her. That should keep her stable, at least for now.
She forced her mind away, returning to her routine – she washed herself, a brief burst of warmth coaxed from the ancient heating system, cleaning off the soot, dirt and grit that accumulated from any trip through the ‘plex. It would have been nice, oh so nice, to simply relax under the water, but neither her credit balance, nor the decaying infrastructure, could support that, the water abruptly coughing and spluttering, turning to gasps of putrid sludge. She managed to move away before getting caught by it, towelling herself off and getting dressed again.
She pulled the harness on again, the tightness around her chest and stomach giving slight comfort, the familiar stab of it as everything settled into place, smart material clinging tightly to her body. Then she took a deep breath, and picked up the gem again, fighting to maintain her calm. What was she going to do with it? She’d been seen with the woman, so even ditching it would be dangerous. She examined it more closely – yes, the silver band had several studs and niches in, clearly designed to be mounted in something. So it wasn’t even a complete thing, there was another part as well.
Holding it up, and letting light strike it, was an impressive sight, light blazing forth in a wide band. She twisted the thing, watching the patterns shift and change as she did so. Very pretty, but not worth dying for. Likely worth a lot, to the right person, at least. She examined it more closely, checking for anything hidden – not that she’d be able to spot the most advanced bugs or trackers, but at least to see if it was a concealed data-stick or something. But no – it appeared to be a solid crystal, uniform except for the silver banding, without any sign of tech gimmicked in. At least it was small enough it could easily be concealed.
She froze, something seeming different, out-of-place. Covering the crystal with her hand immediately cut the purple glow, the only light now the flickering gas. The door, the lock, it’s somehow darker than usual. Something moves, a mote shining in the darkness, catching the light. She throws herself to the side as it turns towards her. In the darkness, there was the sound of wood splintering. It twisted, trying to target her again, as she rolled to her feet, behind a supporting pillar. Another shot, this time the sound of brick exploding. Rather the walls than her!
It could probably see in the dark better than she could, so there was no use in trying to turn the light off. Instead, she taps a button and then moves, running and skidding into the next patch of cover, taking refuge behind another pillar. As she moves, she tries to get a look at her attacker – a metallic tendril, snaking through the keyhole. The bastard must have cut a hole in the grille, or the bastard thing was thin enough and long enough to worm through. The shot was silent, up until it impacted with another wall. It didn’t seem to be able to fire fast, giving her an opening. Her heart raced, senses sharpening as she advanced again, now taking cover along the wall. Would it be long enough to snake out and see her? Well, no use in hesitating. There was a piece of wood, snapped off a table months ago. She picked it up and tossed it, the wood exploding into splinters.
Good. Either fucking stupid programming, or a fucking stupid user. Either way, an advantage for her. She hurls herself forward, not bothering with anything fancy, trusting her speed. Closer now, the thing was even clearer, a segmented metal tube, a ringed tube twisting around, seeking her again. It’s too slow to avoid her grab and she wrenches it from side to side, feeling wires snap and break under the force. A yank towards her reveals it to be rooted, somewhere out of sight.
‘Fucking break, you little shit!’ Another wrench, something inside popping, acrid smoke pouring out. There was a snap as her body spasms, some bastard electric defence routine kicking into action. She can hear the motors inside the thing keen and whine, focusing through the rictus spasms as more lightning slams into her. She gave it another wrench, something snapping inside, leaving it bent out of shape before she lets go, the metal retracting back through the keyhole.
Alice threw herself forward, slamming against the door, unable to open it quickly. There’s the sounds of movement from outside, someone beating a hasty escape. Someone else to hunt down, then. Bastard. She reaches for the handle, grabbing it hard enough that it hurts, as she pulls on it, the wood splintering. Then the override expires, and her rage is blasted apart into cool, impersonal hatred. Someone is going to get hurt for this, and it damn well isn’t going to be her.