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“Nobody survives that jump, kid.” Judging by the boy’s ragged clothing, he’d been living on the streets for a while. He couldn’t have been more than about ten. “It’s a lie. They tell you that so they can steal from you once they discover your dead, mangled body on the rocks below.”
I kicked the door of my dronecraft shut with the tip of a titanium-toed boot. The vehicle rocked, but held steady. I ignored the grating whir coming from the motor as I made my way over to where the urchin stood, his toes already too close to the edge. I kept the craft running to err on the side of safety. We were out pretty far, and it was getting close to dark.
Save for the water rushing in the gorge sixty meters below, the desolate landscape was like everything around here: cold, dreary, dirty, and mostly dead.
I flipped the visor on my helmet down to keep the slanting rain out of my eyes. Swirling gray clouds were a near-constant sight and provided ongoing precipitation on most days. The only good thing about the moisture was it kept the iron dust down to a minimum, making air masks voluntary, except for the handful of days when the drizzle cleared, which numbered fewer than the fingers on one hand.
The kid had decided to ignore me. Couldn’t really blame him.
Crisp wind abraded my cheeks, the only skin exposed to the elements, the temperature always on the verge of too damn cold. My boots crunched over the ground, rocks skittering and bouncing in and out of dark, red-tinted puddles as I made my way toward him. I was dressed in head-to-toe leather. The usual: pants, jacket, vest, gloves.
Well, I wasn’t actually wearing animal hide, since all the livestock and most of the wild animals had been extinct for years, but we still called it that. Old habits. The synthetic texture was leatherlike, so the name had endured. As had many others. The consensus was that it was too hard to find new names for stuff, and no one really gave a shit what you called it anyway.
I was almost to him when he finally decided to speak. “They…they said if I survived I could go live on the Flotilla.” His voice wavered, reeking of fatigue, but stubbornly holding on to a single kernel of hope—that leaving this wretched place for something better was possible. It wasn’t.
“Whoever told you that was lying.” I tried to make my voice sound less like I wanted to throat-punch someone, since I was dealing with a child, but I had one dial, and it was always set to the same channel. That’s what years in this city did to you. It set your dial. I stuffed my gloved hands into my pockets. “Besides, how do you know that place even exists?”
The Flotilla was mostly a myth for those of us who’d been born after the mass exodus. That fateful day when the wealthy took their vast resources and launched The Water Initiative, which, according to the records left behind, consisted of a massive fleet of boats and barges stuffed with most of the city’s critical supplies. The entire fleet had sailed out of the harbor without so much as a backward glance, flipping the city a gigantic finger in its wake.
I’d heard the same rumors this kid had growing up—that the water city had flourished, was clean and chock full of food, commerce, and fresh, breathable air.
Everything we lacked here.
“The Flotilla exists,” the urchin insisted. “I heard from a runner, who heard from a peddler, who heard from a guard, that the Flotilla is running out of supplies and they need hard workers to rebuild after a great storm. I’m a hard worker.” He thumped his chest and eyed me, his face grimy and smeared with dirt.
On second thought, he was probably more like eight than ten.
I’d recently heard similar tales, and so had my crew, but unlike the kid, we’d written it off as gossip, like every other piece of information about that place. It ranked up there with other news I’d heard recently, like: Rain was in the forecast for this week, or protein cakes were delicious. They weren’t.
“I’m sure there’s no harder worker.” I peered over the edge. The drop would kill him instantly. Hell, it would kill anyone. I couldn’t blame him for believing the stories, however. There were always stories. And, honestly, who wouldn’t want to trade their shitty lives to be transported to a watery haven with fresh, breathable air and food that didn’t crumble down your chin every time you ate it?
Most of us would take the same running leap off a cliff if that were the case.
“They said it was about time someone survived,” he said. “I’d even get a parade thrown in my honor.”
“A parade?” Was this kid serious? “Honestly, have you ever glimpsed a parade in this town?”
“I’ve seen pictures,” he boasted. “In the zoom tunnels. There’s a bunch of stuff on the walls down there. The photos are torn and faded, but they exist. They had lots of colorful animals filled with air, and people were smiling.” His voice held hope.
“Pictures you find in dank undergrounds don’t represent our world today. You should know better than to listen to street gossip.”
He glared at me out of the corner of a soot-streaked eye, not appearing even a little bit convinced. He wanted to believe, and I was the big bad bitch who was going to stomp all over his dreams with my titanium-toed boots. “Listen, being gullible will get you killed quicker than a laser straight through the eye. Now, let’s get out of here. I’ve got important things to do today, like putting my feet up after my long journey out here.” He didn’t respond. “Today is not your day to die, kid. I promise. Get in my craft, and I’ll haul your skinny ass back to the city.” I gestured with my thumb toward my ride. A standard-issue A1 military dronecraft. “I call her Lucy, Luce for short.”
“That thing is a wreck.” He peered around me, scoffing. “I’m surprised it still runs.”
I arched an eyebrow at the kid, who had now decided he had some backbone. “I’ll have you know that this was my grandfather’s. He served in the militia until 2141. He handed it down to me, name and all, and I’ve kept her running ever since.”
“It looks like your grandpa’s. A1 is ancient. The new ones are W6’s. That’s almost the entire alphabet.”
I sighed. New was a relative term around here. They’d stopped making crafts thirty years ago, after the Flotilla left with all the remaining resources. Assholes. “Honestly, kid, if you want to live, get in the craft.” I swept a hand in front of me. “Or be my guest and shatter yourself on the rocks below. I get paid either way.” His jaw stuck out stubbornly and his skinny arms were locked in front of him. He was going to be a tough sell. “You might as well give me your tag.” I held out my palm. “At least I can give it to your next of kin once you perish in spectacular fashion. I promise not to describe to them how your broken body looked splattered all over the rocks, and I usually keep my word.” I always kept my word.
“I don’t have a tag.”
“What do you mean?” Everyone had a tag. They were government-issued IDs and were the only way to get sustenance and supplies on a regular basis. The food rations were crappy and came in the form of dry, crumbly protein blocks, but they kept us from gnawing our arms off or killing our irritating neighbors to stay alive. Most of the 3-D bio-printers were inactive, and those that still ran worked at limited capacity, based on their size and the fact we had few ingredients to fill them.
“I gave it away.”
“Seriously?” I didn’t even give a crap about this urchin, but I was floored. “Hold out your wrist.” He turned it over, and sure enough, there was a divot where the tag should’ve been. His skin was puckered and pink. “It can take up to a year to get new ones,” I warned. Tags were inserted at birth. They were a centimeter wide and less than a millimeter thick. They contained a frequency and symbol combination that was uniquely your own. As you grew, your flesh secured them. No one remembered how it felt to have them inserted, so no one complained. “Why’d you go and do a stupid thing like that?”
“Why do you care?” he shot back, flashing me a look of disdain that was praiseworthy—if I was in the mood to give out compliments, which I wasn’t.
“Who said I do? But that was dumb. If you live on the streets, you should know better.”
“Live on the streets. Well, I do now, since I ran away.” He stuck out his chin. “But I didn’t used to.”
“Where was home?” I crossed my arms, which was an accomplishment in my vest. It was fashioned from carbon fiber and was tase resistant, but not laser impenetrable—because there was nothing on the battered face of this Earth that would stop a concentrated blast of electromagnetic radiation. It was bulky and thick because my pockets were always stuffed with crap that could potentially save my life. But I managed to hook my wrists and get them comfortably wedged between my elbows.
“Why’d you run?”
“Because I hated it there.”
“Did the city treat you any better?” Port Station was a heavily guarded community just outside city limits. “Because it doesn’t look like it to me.”
He glanced down, likely battling back tears. Didn’t blame him. Crying here was the norm. Emotions had a way of eventually bubbling out. If not from the eyes, from the fists. “Everywhere is horrible.” He kicked a stone. It arced over the side, dropping out of sight into the rushing water below.
“I can’t argue with you there.” Joy had been known to happen on occasion, but you had to search for it. And most of the time you were too fucking tired to go looking.
“I want to live on the water or nowhere.” He shuffled a titch closer to the edge. “I’m not scared to die.”
I dropped my arms, suddenly wary of watching this kid plunge to his death. Yet another casualty of this city. “Don’t do it.” I’d felt like him a dozen million times. “Come back with me and give life another try. I know people. We can try to find a boat captain. Maybe they’ll take you on as a steward, or whatever hard workers on ships are called.” It was a lie, but worth telling if the kid didn’t jump. There were no boat captains, because there were no boats.
He shook his head slowly. “No.”
I tried another tactic. “Do you know who I am?”
He peered at me sideways. “Why would I?”
“I take it you haven’t been out of Port Station long, because I’m pretty famous. That’s why I’m here. Someone paid me real coin to bring you back, and I used my honest-to-goodness tracking skills to find you.” Leaving out that I’d known exactly where he’d be from the note I’d found stuffed in my slot. That didn’t sound at all impressive. Lies were important when told well. “I’m that good.”
“You tracked me in that rattling junk heap?”
I suppressed a smile. “It’s not about the craft, it’s about the lady who wields it.” When he didn’t take the bait, I pressed an index finger solidly into my chest. “Me. I’m talking about me. I’m the best salvager out there. I can find just about anything if given enough time, including runaways who give their tags away like dummies.”
“What’s your name, then?”
Since I had no lead-in drum roll to amp up the reveal, I settled on a dramatic pause. When a sufficient amount of time passed, I answered, “Holly Danger.”
He shrugged. “So what?”
“Come on, you’ve heard of me. Admit it.”
Okay, my not-entirely-real celebrity status was non-impressive. Good to know. “I just heard about a new initiative they’re starting. They’re talking about shuttling people down South. There’s a rumor the sun is trying to break through there. The land is supposed to become habitable in a few years.”
“They’re always coming up with initiatives. They never work.”
“The Flotilla worked, or you wouldn’t be standing here willing to end your life for it.”
He shrugged his twiggy shoulders. Nothing but jutting bones popped against the thin fabric. The kid wanted to check out. Even if I could grab him before he flung himself over, and managed to haul him into Luce and back to the city, he’d likely dive out a megascraper window the first chance he got.
Most of the scrapers didn’t have glass anymore, which made plunging to your death incredibly easy. It was a popular way to go.
“Death is final,” I cautioned. “There’s no coming back, no second chances.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to come back.”
“Do you have family? Next of kin in Port Station?”
“No,” he answered dismally. “My mom died of the plague last year, and I never knew my dad. My sustainer family was going to sell me into slavery, so I ran.”
The story unfolded.
Sickness was rampant everywhere. If you didn’t have enough seniority or an effective way to bribe yourself an inoculation, which were heavily rationed, you were done for. We called everything “the plague,” because no one knew what they had. Most viruses were hybrids with genetically modified components. Before the dark days, people enjoyed perfect health. Sickness had been completely wiped out.
Nanobiotechnology, where a single manufactured cell was programmed to obliterate an invader cell, had been highly effective. But after the world my ancestors knew ended, disease eventually crept back in, and cures and inoculations were scarce.
“You must have someone,” I coaxed. “They gave me coin to recover you, remember?”
“I bet it was Tandor,” he replied glumly.
There were very few names in this town I didn’t recognize. It was my job to know who was who, and I took it seriously. I was a salvager and all-around procurer of things. It provided a living above and beyond table scraps and protein blocks. I had spaces filled with goods to sell scattered all over the city that no one knew anything about, and I planned to keep it that way.
To be fair, though, the job of tracking down this kid had come in the form of an anonymous note and a bunch of coin dumped directly into one of my contact slots—which were hard to find. You had to know people. And I didn’t make it a habit to turn down actual, physical currency, no matter what the job was.
Coin was still traded, and collectors held an affinity for it. A good collector would trade you a week’s worth of protein or slurry for a single coin. Collectors were another name for the hopeful souls who were banking their entire existence on the return of the elite, when, they believed, physical currency would be reinstated.
Coin kept me in business.
The kid ran a grimy shirtsleeve under his nose. “Tandor’s new in town. He’s…a bad man.”
My interest level jumped to inquisitively piqued. “You don’t say.” I tried not to sound surprised that this urchin knew something I didn’t. I’d heard rumors that there were new outskirts in town, but the info had been hush-hush and low to the ground. Fairly typical when the topic revolved around child slavery, which I took seriously—not just because it was repugnant and vile, but because I had a personal stake.
At any one time, the city was overrun with orphans, and snatching them was nothing new. The street kids had little means to fight back and could be used for all kinds of purposes, most of them horrific, including experimentation. There were very few options for scientific testing, so when orphans “volunteered” for the good of society, who was going to say no?
The moral code in this city bordered on nonexistent.
The only code anyone took seriously was survival.
These kinds of crime rings were usually run by outskirts, strangers who rolled into town, armed and dangerous, flouting our laws and rules to further their own agenda. Or those who’d already been kicked out of town for whatever reason and had slunk back in, which meant death if they were caught. The government didn’t give second chances. It barely gave firsts. Its favorite method of punishing someone for a high crime was an over-the-head acid dump. The lucky assholes got banishment.
The outskirts came, took what they wanted, wreaked havoc, and moved on.
Most of the time.
Occasionally, they stayed. Or tried to stay. That’s when we got in the way.
“You don’t know who he is, do you?” The kid was downright gleeful at my ignorance, actually cracking a real smile. His teeth were pretty clean, which wasn’t the norm. You had to work at it.
I took a step closer, coming up with something on the spot. “Listen, I have a proposition for you. You’d be an idiot to turn it down. I’m not known for sharing anything with anyone, so this would be a first for me.”
He looked me straight in the eyes. “I’m no idiot.”
Yes, kid, that was becoming abundantly clear...
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"A fast-paced adventure that kept me engrossed until the end. I couldn't put it down!"
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