Slugs. Third floor of a Hydroponics lab, and still slugs. Rows upon rows of cabbages, carrots and peas; all basking under complex lighting and sprinkler systems, and laced with all manner of pesticides. And still slugs.
They must be mutating, Kylie mused. Not surprising, given the amount of fallout still littering the countryside.
From what she’d heard, at any rate. She had no memories of life outside the City. Few people from around here had ever even left. There was no need. Anything you could ever want lay within the walls. You had hydroponics labs for food, pharmacies for medicines and entertainment complexes for fun. The only people who really bothered going anywhere were upper echelon business suits, and those people often opted to travel by helicopter or direct clone-transfer. There was no need to go out.
Besides, it wasn’t like the public transport industry was exactly thriving. Trains were for Outerlanders; everyone knew that. No Inner City person in their right mind would share a train one with one of those people. Any trains that did run from the Inner City had a tendency to get ransacked Wastegangers before even getting half way.
Kylie’s lab partner—and fellow apprentice—Abby barely even left the lab. She’d converted one of the storage rooms into an impromptu bedroom, complete with a hammock and wardrobe (of sorts). Their boss Harper pretended not to notice, but he did. He was proof there were still some decent people left in the world. Unlike either of their parents.
Kylie watched as Abby cracked a window open and tossed out the handful of slugs she’d been picking up. The older apprentice had green fingers and an iron stomach, but hadn’t a clue when it came to dealing with people. Kylie on the other hand was active, chatty and seemed to kill everything she touched.
In their current lab gear; a hair net, blue face mask and brown apron, all worn over the mandatory blouse and trousers, the two girls could be mistaken for sisters - and often were. Both were short, with messy raven-black hair, dark skin and chestnut eyes. However Kylie bore a distinguishing red streak in her hair, whereas Abby often put hers up in a haphazard bun.
But the two shared no family, nor even any background. Abby had been raised in the city; born to a now-struck-off doctor and a corporate CEO. Kylie on the other hand was the child of a fugitive; wanted by Charon for corporate espionage, vandalism and theft of intellectual property. She was proud of her mother for that. But not so much for pawning her only child off on Adrian and taking off, never to be heard from again.
"Hey Kaz," Abby chirped, breaking her trance and striding towards her. "Close your eyes."
She did as instructed, opening her mouth in anticipation. Something rough, hairy and bumpy entered it. A berry of some form, probably. This was Abby, so it was definitely edible. She bit down, and nearly choked.
"Shit that’s sharp," Kylie exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hand. Whatever it was, it was hellishly tangy.
"Raspberries," Abby beamed. "Don’t tell Harper. I’m gonna try and make a crumble."
Kylie smacked her lips, reaching for her canteen of water. She took a few swigs to wash away the sharpness. That didn’t seem like something you should be eating, let alone cooking with.
Abby popped two of the little berries into her own mouth, then offered another to Kylie. When she refused, Abby popped that one in too, eyes looking to the novelty cake clock on the far wall.
Kylie followed her gaze. Half six. She should have buggered off home half an hour ago; it wasn’t like she was getting paid any overtime. Or at all, for that matter. But she liked it up here. Like the rest of the city, it was sterile and orderly. Everything had a place and a purpose—and a serial number.
Unlike the rest of the city, it was largely devoid of people. Her and Abby were not the keenest on others, neither particularly feeling inclined to mingle with the folk outside or at home. Ironically, it had been that desire for isolation which had brought them together.
"Hey girls," Harper said. His sudden appearance startled Kylie, who jumped at his approach.
He could really creep about when he needed to.
Abby audibly swallowed the berries in her mouth, pocketing the rest and praying he hadn’t noticed.
"Hey boss," she smiled.
“Abby," Harper said, tipping his flat cap in a mock gesture. "Still here huh?"
Their boss made for a strange sight indeed, dressed in a neatly pressed suit, with a pair of blue latex gloves and a checkered hat, hiding a balding head.
"Hadn’t noticed the time," Kylie lied. "Besides, it’s nice and warm in here. Swear I can feel my eyes freezing over when I go out."
“Blame us baby boomers and our Nuclear Winter,” Harper remarked slyly.
Both girls looked at each other with confusion and resignation. They often didn’t quite follow everything their boss was saying.
"So how are you two girls doing?" Harper asked, casually inspecting a nearby plant.
"We’re good," Kylie answered. "Well, I’m good. Can’t vouch for Abby but she seems okay. What’s up boss?"
Abby nodded in agreement, shuffling her feet.
"I’m going to need the place to myself tonight," Harper began. "I have some… business associates coming by, and you know what those Suit-types are like."
The two girls shared suspicious glances. That pause wasn’t good.
"So," Harper continued. "I want you two to head down to the WEC. Treat yourselves. Blow off some steam; go for a swim or a sim game or whatever it is you fancy. I’ll foot the bill."
The way he said that last sentence made it clear there was no negotiation on the matter.
"WEC?" Abby asked, her sheltered life showing through.
"That big-ass tower you can see out the window," Kylie pointed for emphasis. "It’s like, this giant shopping mall of fun."
"It’s also," Harper added. "The only corporation-approved source of entertainment, for whatever that’s worth.”
The WEC was one of the few things that TransNational Enterprises brought to Charon - good publicity. Before their involvement in the MegaCorp alliance they were but a household name; one that could be found on just about any piece of crockery, furniture or item of clothing.
"It’s got like, a library and an arcade and a sports track and a gym and a swimming pool and laser quest—all in one place," Kylie said, counting on her fingers for emphasis.
"They’re also hideously expensive," Harper pointed out. "But don’t worry, I’ll sort that." He handed Kylie one of his credsticks. It was a strange device, looking somewhat like a pregnancy test stick made out of lego—and had been made the subject of many a meme when they were first introduced. It had a number printed on the side, and an entry port at the far end.
Charon hadn’t exactly gotten creative with their economic reforms. Given how people from all over the world were flooding to one of the six still-habitable places, the clash of currencies was one of the first problems to be dealt with. Charon had opted for credits, a neat little standardized currency that would be accepted in any of their territories; whether Canada, Portugal or anywhere in Eastern Asia. The Havens of northern Europe had instead opted for some form of medieval bartering system, and the Penitents… who knows.
Kylie took the credstick with hesitation, mouth agape at the number printed on its side: 25000C. Low level Suits would be lucky to make that much in six whole months. She wasn’t sure just how expensive this place was meant to be, but she was pretty sure even this was excessive. Her and Abby shared yet another concerned glance, their wariness at the kind of money their boss was throwing around rather evident.
But he’d looked the other way on quite a lot of their misdoings. He let Abby sleep in a closet and grow her own plants. He let Kylie keep her post as apprentice despite being possibly the worst gardener he’d ever met. So as their boss, and friend, he was more than entitled to his own secrets and clandestine adventures. Besides, they could always speculate once they got outside.
"Thanks boss," Kylie said. "We’ll go get ready."
They needed no further encouragement, and prepared to leave that night.
Streetlights did little to brighten the muggy city of Braid. A thick fog had rolled in with the evening, making the sharp chill all the worse. Visibility was nonexistent, which for Kylie was rather problematic. She didn’t have the best vision in the first place, nor sense of direction. Abby was her guide, utilizing her near-perfect memory and eagle eyes.
At least it was easy to navigate—streets were straight, orderly and clearly labelled. The TransNational Enterprises Wellness and Enjoyment Center—mercifully shortened to WEC by the locals—was not only well signposted, but could be seen from almost anywhere within the City Walls.
The streets themselves were lined with CCTV cameras, Szeven troops and the occasional drone keeping an eye on everything. Being neatly dressed, both girls passed by with minimal attention, both obviously belonging to the Inner City. For the few Outerlanders still around at this time however, all eyes would be on them.
The girls had gotten sidetracked with a little window shopping along the way, making the most of the time either of them was anywhere other than at work or at home. There was a nice assortment of clothing and sim stores along the high street, all struggling to get by under the stranglehold of TransNational Enterprises. But, faced with the ultimatum of scraping by or packing up and moving outside the Walls, few places opted for the latter.
It was half eight by the time they arrived at the WEC, shortly after peak hours. The expansive sixty-two story building was plastered with adverts, for everything from attractive singles near you, to the latest sim game. Afterlife Insurance and the steely reminder of the Szeven’s gaze were the most prominent displays however.
It was as much an assault on the auditory and olfactgory senses as a visual one, with thousands of loud conversations and arcade noises cascading down the tower. The scent of sweat and Chlorine stained the air, and some sort of obnoxious neo-trance music was blasting from the intercom a bit too loudly. It was a mile away from the "Classical Bark" Abby liked playing for her saplings.
After locating the main entrance amidst the neon clutter, Abby and Kylie made their way over to reception, where they were kindly told to sign up before they could do anything. It was a relatively painless process; a few short questionnaires, a mugshot and a prick with a needle. Once that was done, a set of cards were printed off with their names and faces, topped off with a serial number (as most things had now).
At a time wherein cloning, body modifications and bioengineering were all commonplace, the only thing you could be sure of remaining constant was a person’s Soul. Each had a unique signature, effecting a sort of spiritual fingerprint. It was both a terrifically useful system, and a strangling means of identity control.
Abby finalized the proceedings by handing over the credstick Harper had given her, then swiping the two issued passcards. They passed through the turnstiles into the belly of the building, taking a moment to take in their surroundings. It was even more impressive on the inside, with a large hole through each floor, one above the other with the occasional silk net, all the way to the top of the building, which was little more than a blip at the top.
Neither girl had a clue where to start. People were milling about in all directions; that obnoxious trance music was still blaring, and there was a constant stream of announcements over the intercom about upcoming events, tournaments and new games. It was hard to ignore the Szevens dotted around the place—with their blanch white armour and fully automatic weaponry they kind of stood out. They certainly added a sense of urgency to the air.
Kylie spent a good half hour playing around with the 3D interactive map, enjoying spinning the building about and exploring without the need to actually move anywhere. Abby watched on in curiosity, occasionally tugging on her sleeve when the guards paid them notice.
She opted to show Abby to the Arcade first, seeing as it was only on the next floor, and the other girl barely even knew what a sim game was. It was also one of the few things Kylie was better at.
"Hey Kaz,"Abby whispered, at the top of the stairs, tugging on the other girl’s sleeve. "What’s that?"
Kylie followed her gaze, seeing how her eyes were locked on a set of screens. "Ooo, Drone Pilot," she purred. "You get to pilot these like, real-life drones around the Wastes. You can see all the ruined towns and big craters and all sorts. It’s pretty cool."
It wasn’t exactly the competition she had in mind, but she couldn’t deny Abby that sparkle in her eye.
They sat down next to each other and swiped their passes, picking up the old-school style joysticks. After sitting through the initial safety warnings, ’you break it you bought it’ and copyright notices, a world map appeared on the screen. It was littered with hundreds of little red dots, each indicating pilotable drones.
Kylie opted to fly around the Wastes of Texas; whereas Abby chose something a bit less adventurous, deciding to explore the nearby countryside.
Kylie started along a river, noting the desolate, sand-like terrain either side. It looked far different to the vibrant city she was used to. There was no sign of life in any direction, just a little shrub and murky grey waters.
She knew that water wasn’t for drinking; it was more than likely still full of radioactive fallout and botulism, the twin weapons of mass destruction Charon had used to decimate those who stood against them. The surviving world was still recovering.
She followed the flow of the river for a bit, enjoying the isolation.
But she couldn’t help but think: Was it always like this?
She’d heard of deserts before; wastes before the Wastes. But everything she’d heard of Old America had it down as a rich, populated land, full of wonders and technological advancement. The American Dream. Hollywood. Suburbs. It all sounded so romantic. She’d just failed to understand how vast it was. To her, the world was about the size of a city; floating among the wastes as the planet does among the stars.
And now there was nothing left—the majority of the American continents wiped clean by multiple incursion points of multiple diseases. What the nuclear wars of 2027 hadn’t already claimed, were destroyed by Charon in 2032 - six months before the SoulNet went online. All that was left of the Americas now was Canada, saved via allegiance to the corporations. Charon, to be precise. The bastard union of Shroud, TransNational Enterprises and Pathos, among other less influential corps.
Being witness to the stifling grip of Charon, Kylie could understand the temptation to flee to Eastern Europe and join the Penitents. But there was nowhere you could go to escape the SoulNet. In death, you became property of Charon.
"Mushrooms!" Abby squealed, poking Kylie rather squarely in the ribs. "Look!"
Kylie grinned, looking at Abby’s screen. She was flying precariously low to the ground, traveling slowly and taking care to investigate everything. She’d left the drone to hover by a large patch of fungi. They were bright yellow and misshapen, certainly some funny looking things. But whilst Abby was admiring her Chanterelles, Kylie was admiring the resolution.
She looked back to her screen, making sure she hadn’t crashed and landed herself (well, Harper really) with a whopping fine. Her stomach churned when she did so, but not out of concern for the drone.
She’d wandered upon a village. A ghost town, devoid of movement and building debris. All of the houses were intact; cars were left parked in driveways and market stalls were still on display. But not a thing moved. She kept flying, wanting to turn away, but not able. She needed to see this.
And then she found the residents.
They were in a large hole on the outskirts of the village. It was piled high with corpses, tossed away and discarded. All flesh had been picked away by detritivores and vermin by now, leaving an undignified pile of skeletons and cloth fragments. There were too many to count—hundreds easily. All plague victims. Casualties of war.
Dead because they’d had enough common sense to stand up to Charon before they got into power.
But at least they were long dead. Kylie pictured the corpses in their early stages, a mass grave of pustules and fluid. Flesh sloughing off and—
She was going to be sick.
"Oh God…" Abby trailed off from beside her. "Where are you?"
"Texas," Kylie replied, breathing deep. "See why this thing comes with a warning?" She pressed a button, returning to the main menu. "Think that’s enough of that for me."
"I get what the Penitents are on about now," Abby muttered, glancing around. She too shut down her screen, stepping away. "That was horrible."
"That was reality," Kylie pointed out. "Life outside the walls."
Abby sighed, not sure what to say. After some moment of reflection, she asked—"So what now?"
"Swim," Abby nodded in agreement.
The two girls headed to the ground floor to buy some overpriced swimsuits; then got changed. They were disturbed at first to find that the pool was a true, 50 meter affair—deep and full of serious swimmers.
Having never learned to swim, the two opted for the much shorter and shallower pool, wherein they spent a lot of time on the twisty slides and enjoying the wave machines. They tried swimming, Kylie seemed to have gotten the hang of it, and ended up trying to show Abby. She wasn’t as competent though, but was happy to sit by the edge as the waves lapped over her chest.
Then came the steam room, wherein the air tasted of peppermint; sharp and intrusive. Abby lay face up on the floor, partially obscured by mist. She’d tried sitting up high with Kylie, but the oppressive heat was a bit too much for her.
Kylie meanwhile sat fiddling with her red streak next to a colour-cycling salt lamp. She was pleased to find it covering the whole spectrum of the rainbow, and watched it with fascination.
The differences in the two girls were a bit more pronounced now. Abby was undeniably skinny, compared to the more plump and rounded Kylie. Like most people, they kept to a largely vegan diet—meat and dairy was an Outerlander luxury, and one of the few things those people could get away with overcharging for at the local market.
They weren’t alone in the steam room. A trio of naked Suits sat at the far back, chuckling at each others banter and toilet humour. An elderly lady with an egg timer lay on the bench opposite Kylie, and a husband and wife were busy getting a little too comfortable in a corner, currently in the throws of quite an involved breast massage.
It was absurdly spacious though, and even with the thick mist it was hard to feel cramped.
Abby had even managed to relax and shut out the outside world for the whole of thirty seconds before being interrupted.
"Okay, I gotta ask," Kylie huffed. "What do you think Harper’s doing tonight? He’s never kicked us out before. And this place is way expensive for a little distraction. I mean, what does he need the whole lab for anyway? It’s not like we’re going to cramp his style or anything."
She’d never been very good at this whole ’keeping quiet and relaxing’ thing.
"Dunno," Abby sighed. "Probably showing them to his secret lab."
Kylie scoffed. Abby remained silent.
"Wait," Kylie said, perking up. "Secret lab?"
Kylie stared at the unmoving Abby, who’d barely even opened her eyes. She poked her with her foot. "How do you know about this?"
"Dunno," Abby shrugged slightly. "Elevator door didn’t close fully once. Looked down and the shaft is far deeper than it lets on. Probably a secret floor below the basement."
Her nonchalance puzzled Kylie. "And you’ve never checked it out?"
"Why? Everyone’s entitled to their secrets. And he wouldn’t hide it if he didn’t have good reason," she opened her eyes now, looking back at Kylie through the fog, giving a disapproving raised eyebrow at the foot still poking her. "Besides, I only found out the other day."
There was a moment of silence.
"You’re immediately going to go check it out now, aren’t you?" Abby sighed.
"No..." Kylie said innocently. "I’m going to wait till tomorrow."
There was the sound of exhalation as Abby facepalmed.
“Besides, you wouldn’t have told me if you didn’t want me to," Kylie added.
"Your logic never ceases to amaze me."
“What do you mean we’re lost?” Kylie wailed.
The two girls spun around in the street, trying to get their bearings. High rise flats dominated the landscape to their left, dotted with the lights of Suits still working from home, or relaxing with a good sim game. The right hand side stood the disused railway, and Vancouver harbour.
They could smell the sea rather strong where they stood. That enough told them they were far from home. The sounds of gulls and occasional drop of bird shit merely cemented that fact.
They were also completely alone. In all directions they saw desolate street; neat and tidy, free of clutter of any form.
“I don’t know,” Abigail whined. “All these streets look the same. This is why I don’t like going outside.”
Kylie jabbed her in the ribs. “You’re meant to be the human map. You know, professor brainbox.”
“You put me off too much.”
“Are we even going the right way?” Abby asked. “I mean, I don’t remember hearing any trains in the lab.”
“That’s ‘cos the trains don’t run anymore,” Kylie replied, picking pieces of dinner from between her teeth. “People that stupid have already been killed off.”
Kylie grabbed Abby by the hand, pulling her along and detouring down an alley perpendicular to the tracks. She figured she’d just walk away from them till they got home.
They froze when they saw something headed towards them.
First came a whirring noise, like the clacking of nails on glass. Then they saw the glow; two probing searchlights, each moving independently. They darted from object to object, picking up on even the slightest movement.
Then they saw the girls. A light fixed on each of them.
They could see it clearly now. It was a strange drone, lit up with dim red lights that gave it the impression of being on fire. It bore six metallic-feathered wings, two covering its face—with holes for the eyes to see through—and two that draped down, covering its lower torso. If you could call the strange knobbly ball a torso. The last two wings ran parallel to the ground, spread wide as an albatross in flight.
Kylie was well aware that those front wings could part in seconds, bringing twin chainguns to bear. The parallel wings were built like a broadsword, fully capable of slicing you in half if they so deigned it.
“Kaz,” Abby said, tugging on her friend’s sleeve. “What is that thing?”
“Drone,” Kylie said, not moving. “Just, act normal. It’s a Seraph type. They’re the worst” —she sensed Abby tensing up beside her— “but they only shoot Penitents. We’re okay.”
“I don’t like the way it’s looking at us,” Abby muttered.
The lights from the drone’s eyes were blinding, lighting the girls up like a Christmas tree as it approached. Then the lights flickered, and darted elsewhere. The drone left.
Abby heaved a sigh of relief.
“See,” Kylie said proudly. “Only Penitents gotta be scared.”
“Let’s just go Kaz,” Abby whispered, squeezing on Kylie’s hand. “I want to get home.”
“Me too Abs,” Kylie said, before pulling her along gently. “Me too.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:14] “Harper.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:15] “You figured this thing out yet?”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:15] “You old fart. ;)”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:16] “yes”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:16] “now shut up duncan”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:16] “trade deal tomorrow”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:17] “you in?”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:18] “Sure.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:18] “You know this is secure right?”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:18] “Just say drug deal.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:19] “I want your Fuzz Harper.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:19] “Alyx is on my ass big time.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:19] “She has a problem.”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:20] “i can’t know that”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:20] “i just supply”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:20] “whatever keeps her going”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:20] “im tired dp”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:20] “Me too man.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:20] “Will be there 19:00.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:21] “The whole crew are coming.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:21] “They wanna check out your booty.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:21] “And by booty I mean guns.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:21] “The ones in your basement.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 19:21] “Not on your arms.”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:20] “shut it dp”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:20] “im too old for you”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:27] “just get here alive”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 19:27] “and sober”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 20:30] “hullo?”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 21:01] “Sure.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 21:01] “Sorry. Mum goes on and on.”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 21:02] “I gotta go piss off the Parks later. You in?”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 21:02] “Should be fun.
thegunshow [15/02/2049 21:15] “u kidding right?”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 21:15] “id rather flash a drone”
DProflcopter [15/02/2049 21:22] “You’re no fun. :P”
thegunshow [15/02/2049 21:23] “thats why im still alive”