With the thudding of the early morning train, Lee looked around his pokey room at the East View dwellings and felt nothing but emptiness. The walls shuddered and plaster fell from the ceiling like flaking dry skin. Living just above the central freight line meant he was used to this intrusion. In fact, most mornings if he wasn’t on duty he would sleep right through. But not today.
Today he was leaving for the Rose Flats. He’d pulled a double shift at the hospital yesterday, after he’d thrown that good for nothing soldier out of course, and squared away all his duties by calling in favours and using up what little holiday time he had. He should have been scared to go but, in truth, he was leaving no one behind.
At last, the freight train passed and the room settled. He hefted his woven plastic bag onto his shoulder, threading his arms through the straps and tightening them. He’d dressed in his tough leather medic gear they used when, back in training, they’d go out onto the flats for a major rescue. He didn’t do that much now he worked in Central Trine, but he’d kept the uniform. He wished it had been for salacious reasons, but if truth be known the gear had sentimental value and Lee was a bit of a hoarder. Had been since he was a child.
His room attested to this fact. Stacked high with old bits of tech he had salvaged, new bits of tech he had been taking apart to understand how they worked and more than a few (clean) human bones and skulls. When you worked at a hospital in the Trine all these things were easy to come by, and they fascinated him. But now it was time to leave.
“Bye,” he said, to the skull of a little girl that he kept by the doorway. A hand to the flat of the door and the fingerprint recognition dinged. Not for the first time, the door gave an abject wheeze but didn’t budge. He tried it again. The same ding, the same inaction. Lee kicked the bottom of the door frame so that the metal, thankfully now old and brittle, popped off its caster and gave him room to get a good grip. A bit of waggling, no small amount of swearing, and the door eventually complied. With an inelegant raking, he pulled the stuttering door open.
Dawn Gline, his next-door neighbour, sat on her stoop. Half her face had been taken in an explosion at the chemical factory where she worked, so now that side was just a flat mask of shiny metal where, for effect, there played images salvaged from the data streams of years now long gone. At the moment, she was haunted by the video of a sunset she would never see. “You going somewhere?” her electronic voice box croaked.
“A trip. Be back by the end of the month, hopefully.”
“Well, enjoy yourself,” she said. She picked up a small cup of coffee and took a sip.
“Thanks. You take care, Dawn,” Lee said. Dawn’s body had been rejecting the grafts and augments. Lee had done more than was probably reasonable to try to help her, offering new grafts to monitor the old, and carrying out repair work on the side–that was, until she said enough was enough. “There’s a time to live, and this ain’t it,” she’d told him.
He looked back at her as he walked down the cracked stone of his apartment building. Dawn hadn’t long to live. If Lee had his way though, she’d have at least a little longer. That was, if he could just reach the Rose Flats in time.
At least getting there should be a simple matter, he thought.
“No, absolutely not,” a woman in a large bird mask said. Many people wore breathing masks. Making them look like other things, and generally just prettying them up, had become a fashion among some of the men and women in the Trine, to the point where some sects now considered it taboo to remove those masks in public.
His patron, Xana, had chosen a fat hooked beak and tawny owl colours. At least that was what Lee thought. He’d only seen pictures of owls. But the speckled plumage was glorious, the huge amber eyes magnificently fixing.
“I need your best dragon bike. Please, I’ve been coming here for years.”
“That you have,” the woman said, tidying up her little kiosk. Behind her sat the caged compound in which she kept her rental vehicles. You could try to steal them, but the plethora of automatic guns adorning the enclosure’s perimeter and the vicious mud worms she had cultivated beneath ground suggested this might not be wise. “But you’ve never asked to go out to the Rose Flats before. If you had, my answer would have been the same the first time you came to me as it is now: no way in Trine are you taking one of my rentals out there. If it comes back at all, it will have so much ash as to make it unusable and, besides, you’re weedy and grating to the nerves. I just know you’ll wind up dead.”
“I see,” Lee answered as a replacement for the string of profanities he really wanted to lob. “Okay, can you recommend anyone who might have a rental that I can take?”
“No, no, no,” Xana said. She swept off the ash from her wooden booth’s counter and drummed her fingers. “I could tell you several names but they’re all no good. I won’t have you doing business with reprobates.”
Lee exhaled sharply. “Well what in Trine am I meant to do then?”
“Not take that tone with me for a start,” she said and folded her arms. After a protracted silence, she then offered: “I do have one vehicle. It’s of my own design. Very cutting edge, potentially deadly. You’ll test that for me.”
“Very deadly?” Lee was about to protest. Then he remembered the reason he was going out onto the Rose Flats and thought that, perhaps, it didn’t matter.
Xana opened the door to her booth. Given her impressive height, the usually packed crowds parted for her. “You will follow me,” she said, wagging a gloved finger and, without waiting for him to reply, strolled off.
Lee followed Xana down the tightly packed street with Lee scuttling behind and trying to avoid being buffeted by the throng of people.
Several streets over, and just as it looked like a fight was about to break out between a hulking genetically altered man with muscles several times larger than his head and a much smaller man with a long electrified blade instead of his left forearm, Xana ducked down a urine soaked alley in between two sex augment shops.
“Excuse me, but where are we–”
“No. Questions are for stupid people and the chronically masochistic.”
She stepped her way around a nest of electric and communications cables tacked to the floor and continued down the way. At the end of the alley she parted the overhanging lines where Lee had supposed there was nothing but a wall to reveal a metal door. Xana hawked and spat on its surface.
“DNA recognised. Welcome, Xana.”
Xana looked back at Lee, the orange lenses of her mask fixing him. “I apologise for the overly familiar AI. I never got round to changing it.”
She entered. Lee, trying to avoid any residual spittle, followed.
The warehouse was vast, with various crafts, mopeds, bikes, and even air craft in various stages of repair, hoisted to the ceiling, left on their sides and generally tethered, wired and being worked on. People of all ages–even some who were definitely only just over their first decade of life–were busy attending to the various repairs amid showers of sparks and a grinding racket.
Lee stood open-mouthed. “We’re not allowed high-powered transport. How have you hidden this from the Einz?”
“Very well, that’s how. Now come, come.”
She led him through the warehouse, expertly picking her way over the many vehicle parts across the floor, ducking the overhanging industrial equipment, and dodging the various oil and solvent-stained workers.
“Ah, here we are.” She stopped. “An augment manta.”
Before him was a small bronze craft, a miniature version of the manta that the Einz army had used to deliver Jack to the hospital. It had just enough room for two people in its cockpit, its shape slightly more streamlined suggesting that it was built for speed, not long-haul flight.
“She can fly,” Xana said, “but she’s better used as a terrain navigator. Get in then, I’ll have to calibrate you to her needs.”
“Well, I think we can both agree she’s perfect and you…are not.”
She pushed Lee toward the manta which, as though sensing their presence, whirred into life. Its teal lights blushed on, its cockpit opening like the fish was yawning.
“Stop pushing. Ow, jeez.”
“Now, this might sting a bit,” Xana said, diving into the cockpit and withdrawing a cable as thick as Lee’s wrist.
“What? Why would it sting? What are you–”
She thrust the cable to the back of Lee’s neck just above the notch of his spine. Its teeth bit. Lee roared in pain and almost blacked out.
Through the rush of blood in his ears, Lee heard Xana say:
“When you’re done being dramatic, I can show you how to interface with her…”