Chapter 0: Bad Dreams
The nightmare played out in Juliaya’s mind as it did so many times before.
She awoke a passenger in her own body, in her old bed that reeked of musky sweat, in her old apartment in Silverado Ranch. The one her parents left behind for her and her brother after their father died trying to rob the Prefecture’s Post Office and their mother died choosing euthanasia instead of letting the slow decay of a terminal brain tumour eat away at whatever savings they had left.
Rising fatigued from working a 14 hour shift in the casino the day beforehand, she navigated her way into the kitchen. Retrieving a lukewarm bottle of distilled water from a fridge she’d turned off to save on electricity, pouring it into a pot with a sachet of caffeine powder and coffee flavouring. Sprinkling powdered nutmeg and cinnamon into the mix to the absolute horror of some corporate quality manager somewhere in the world.
She heated the pot on the electric stove to just barely reach boiling before pouring it into a mug, taking it up into her hands to hold as she leaned against the counter, waiting until it was cool enough to drink.
The memory of its warmth and the smell of its vapour almost feeling real.
A feeling of wrongness washed over Juliaya upon looking down. A disgust. Not just of the tar in the mug but of looking down at her body and seeing everything she lacked. Everything she needed to live with herself. Everything she had since gained. Against the odds. Against the will of a world that wanted to break her.
It was what would have made her realise she was asleep. The dysphoria sometimes being the inner pain that woke her up, saving her from bad memories.
The old god of dreams denied her such an escape, like an asshole.
Her brother, Joseph, emerged from his bedroom. His movements twitchy and unfocused, his voice a little slurred as he walked into the kitchen and greeted Juliaya with a wave of his hand. She gave him a tired smile and a wave back.
He’d retrieve some cereal from the cupboard. A box of Cornstrips. Not even Cornflakes, just flat featureless shards of milled corn that looked more like cut squares of pasta than cereal.
He’d pour it into a plastic bowl, pour in milk powder and distilled water, then put it into the microwave with some raisins.
It was his routine on the weekends. When the special-needs school and its boarding dorms were closed.
When Juliaya had worked a double-shift the day before to get the weekend off.
That particular weekend was meant to be special. She nailed a job interview with the Doryukaza Zaibatsu. A security gig as a chauffer for some middle-manager, driving him from his home outside Anchorage to wherever the hell he needed to go any given day.
It wasn’t a glamourous job. But it came with benefits. An apartment in a Mega-Tower. A suit, a tie and standard issue Iron. Shorter hours with better pay, a health-care package after a few months and a paid neo-military scholarship at the end of the contract a year later.
It meant a new life. It meant actualisation as herself. It meant giving Joe a future.
It meant getting the hell out of Las Vegas Prefecture. Out of Silverado Ranch. Out of Los Arcángeles.
They were meant to move out that weekend. She was going to tell him she got the job. That they’d be taking the mag-lev train to their new home by tomorrow evening.
That, in a couple of months, they’d be able to afford cybernetics. She could get him a neural co-processor, a synaptic accelerator and a reflex tuner. He’d still be disabled in the same way that Juliaya would always be autistic but he’d have the ability to mask like her after that. He would be able to become independent should the worst ever happen to Juliaya.
She’d not say anything about the Estrogen Regulators or that she’d chosen her name until after she got them jacked in. It would be easier for them to understand by then.
She hoped that whoever he would become would accept her for who she was.
Juliaya lifted her head and the world had changed around her. She was in the basketball court of a sports park within Las Vegas prefectures old Flight Zone.
Safety laws and a few horrific disasters across the Giga-City back during the 50s had forced restrictions to building heights surrounding all the International Airports; back in the days of the Air Flight boom before the conception of the Aerodyne, before the Jaffe Orbital Terminal was built in Del Coronado prefecture; before the Laurasia and Gondwanan Rail Networks had been constructed to interconnect the entire world by rail.
It was one of the few places in all of Los Arcángeles where grass could grow. Brown, prickly and sick though it was. A place where one could look up and actually see the whole sky without the looming towers of vulconcrete and plasteel choking it from sight.
She’d taken Joe there all the time. He loved basketball and after years of playing it with him Juliaya came to realise that he was good. Not so much at manoeuvring and dribbling but he could sink it from beyond the three-point line with almost hilarious ease.
When Juliaya thought about it, she doesn’t think she’s seen Joe ever miss a shot.
Looking down at the mug of coffee, it had been replaced by an orange basketball.
Looking back up, Joe was standing in the middle of field asking her to throw it back to him.
The sky had changed. The sun was gone, replaced by overcast skies.
In the corner of her vision she could see movement and she looked towards the woman who had walked onto the court.
Nyoka Diop. A woman with black skin and a head of black hair tipped with purple. Wearing the bulletproof jacket she always wore over her bartending uniform.
She was Juliaya’s best friend. They’d gone to the same public high school. It was Nyoka that had gotten Juliaya the job in the Casino. It was her that had gotten her the interview with Doryukaza.
She called over to Juliaya with a name that wasn’t hers anymore, waving with a beaming smile. She had just gotten the results back from her law school entrance exam and was choosing to attend a law school in Seattle.
Juliaya was pretty sure she had chosen that city cause there still wasn’t a law school in Alaska. And she wanted to stay close to Juliaya.
In her heart, Juliaya knew why. It was the same reason why Nyoka seemed to look at her lips when she spoke. The same reason why she mirrored her more defensive expressions.
Juliaya threw the basketball back to Joe before turning back to Nyoka and moving to greet her friend; only to find herself in ridged metallic handcuffs.
She looked up and Nyoka was on her knees with her hands in the air. Two faceless corporate-cops in beige uniforms, body armour and balaclavas holding Nyoka at gunpoint with their department issued Smith, Wesson & Barret revolvers.
One moved to position themselves behind her, pulling out a small zip-lock bag of transparent tablets from his back pocket before dipping his hand into Nyoka’s own and pulling it out for the body-cam on his chest to pick up. Making it look like he had found it on her. Like she was in possession of Class-A Nootropes.
Nyoka called it out before she got bashed in the face by a nightstick and forced to lie flat on the ground, her nose left broken and bleeding.
Juliaya tried to call out in outrage but no words escaped her mouth. She tried to take a step forward but she was knocked off her feet and forced to the ground.
The weather had changed again.
Black Rain. Caustic and sticky, smelling foul like sewage and making the air chalky, thick with vapour as it lashed onto the ground and stained the worn dirt black.
Every instinct within Juliaya screamed at her to run. To grab Joe and get out of the rain before it ate away at their bodies.
Turning her head back up she looked up at the two faceless corpo-cops in beige that had arrested her on ‘suspicion of possessing illegal nootropes’.
One had his knee on her back between her shoulder blades, keeping her pinned down. The other kept his gun on her. His finger on the trigger. So badly wanting to fire. To kill her.
She struggled to get back up on their feet. To get to Joe. To rescue Nyoka. To get them all away from there. To get them all to safety. To get them all far, far away from this crapsack city.
She turned her head the other way and looked over to where Joe should have been.
There, in the middle of the basketball court, to just beyond the 3-point line. She caught a glimpse of Joe covering his ears and crying as the scream of the sirens and shouting of angry men overstimulated him. He was having a meltdown and there was nothing Juliaya could do to help him out of it.
The Corpo-Cop holding a revolver to the back of Joe’s head demanded he turn around and put his hands behind his head. But it was just more noise piled high onto noise.
Juliaya sees the Corpo-Cop smile to himself. He was smiling. Her mind wasn’t tricking her. She hadn’t imagined it! She wasn’t remembering it wrong!
Then the Monster in the shape of a Man did what Juliaya could only call the unthinkable.
He pulled the trigger.
There was a bang that resounded throughout the park. Juliaya blinked and Joe was laying dead on the ground in a growing puddle of his own blood.
His face a vision of horror as blood gushed out from where his nose used to be. Where it should have been. His head propped up on the orange basketball she had thrown back to him only a minute earlier.
Her eyes traced back up to the face of the man that had murdered her brother. A face she committed to memory. Burning into her mind like discordant music onto a CD.
A man with a broad face, shaved hair, blue eyes, a thin scar over the left eye brow and a more jagged one over the right side of his mouth. A tattoo of a bald eagle just under his left ear.
Juliaya tried to scream in howling fury and grief. But no noise escaped her mouth. Not until after the Corpo-Cop started emptying the cylinder of the revolver into Joe’s back.