Chapter 1 (new)
God was dead. All that remained behind were his dumb third cousins: Hunger and Misery. And those bastards were drawn to me like flies to shit.
My stomach growled as I climbed down the fire escape leading to my last night’s hideout. Rust fluttered in the air, slowly descending towards the busy street below. The metal screeched scornfully. Cursing, I glanced down to make sure I wouldn’t land on anybody’s head.
Once there was an opening, I let go of the rugged ladder still ten feet above the ground but managed to land steadily on my feet. Nobody spared me a glance.
To survive in the city you needed to know two things — how to get food and how to find a safe place to spend the night. Anything with two exits and a solid door was considered a safe place. Big, uninhabited buildings with a lot of empty space gave you a 50/50 chance of getting your throat slit but were still okay. The top floors were a game of chance that was rarely in your favor. Decay had devoured the upper levels making them a no-go zone for anyone with half a brain and the luxury of choice.
Unfortunately, that was not me.
I ran my hand over the wide leather belt securing my abdomen, making sure all my knives were in place. The damn thing had saved me from stabbing more than once so I kept it on, always. I didn’t have to check for my saber on my back, I could feel the scabbard rubbing against my jacket.
All set then.
I could have left the saber for the day, the streets were too packed for me to draw or swing it anyway. But there was no guarantee that I would find it when I got back so I kept it on me — like everything else I owned.
A shadow passed over the busy street diminishing even further the dim grey light that told us it was daytime. A few heads turned up. I didn’t bother, I knew exactly what I’ll see.
The Age of Perpetual Night. Somebody named it that in a poem and it stuck — a tale about a world where the sun never shows its face through the thick clouds covering the sky.
Gas, some said caused it; government conspiracy, insisted others; magic, was the best one I had heard so far. Magic or gas — who cared? We would be dead soon enough. If it wasn’t from the grey depression sucking your life out then it would be the lack of food or the foul air.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!”
I scanned the area in search of the angry voice. Those words usually meant one of two things — danger or opportunity.
My eyes landed on a man standing in front of a wonky stall that seemed to be made of the forepart of a car. His merchandise consisted mostly of pans, utensils and other junk, all tucked carefully where the battery of the car would have been. On the very top of all stood a small crate of fruit — no doubt his most prized commodity. Somebody had turned the said box over, spilling its contents on the street. They were probably trying to steal a bite but got scared of being caught when the owner spotted them. Amateurs.
I returned my attention to the owner, just as he was finishing glaring at somebody long gone. He was short but stocky, dressed in loose brown pants and an oversized shirt. But what made me hesitate was his belt — it had a two-feet long rusty knife hanging menacingly from it. He could totally swing that even in the packed street.
By the time I was finished sizing him up, the vendor had gathered half of his merchandise. I elbowed a young woman who was about to offer her help then kneeled next to the man, picking up a few fruits and setting them carefully in the crate. Most were already brown and squishy but I could still see yellow and green patches here and there.
“Thank you.” He said, eyeing me apprehensively. I couldn’t blame him, not even when his eyes expected my clothes for suspicious bulges. I would have thought I was stealing if I were him. And in truth, well, I was.
“No problem,” I smiled, rising to my feet and circling the stall. I made my way down the street, painfully aware of his gaze on my back. When I turned the corner my smile widened. I lowered my eyes to the two small apples in my left hand — or at least I thought they were apples, it had been a long time since I had a non-canned fruit.
The trick was to keep your cool and force them to look elsewhere. He was so busy watching my hand helping that he failed to see the one that didn’t.
I brought the fruit to my nose, the sharp stench of rot and dirt challenging my insides. Bile rose in my throat as I pulled them away from my face giving them another hesitant look. My stomach growled.
I took a deep breath, held it and took a bite. The apple melted in my mouth, a bit crunchy, a bit soft. It tasted sour but it wasn’t too bad. It was better than nothing.
I kept scanning the crowd as I made a quick work of my breakfast. There were a few more traders scattered up and down the street. One was selling old, paper-thin blankets rolled and stacked neatly on a metal table. Their colors had faded to non-distinctive shades of brown and green and there were moth holes in some of them but that didn’t matter. If I had the funds and the means to carry it with me I would have bought one. Or stolen.
Another man further down was advertising a collection of knives and longer blades — there were a couple that looked decent enough but most had rust creeping up from the hilt or looked so dull that I doubted I could slice anything more than one of my apples. No good weapon dealer would lay their stuff so openly, weapons were more valuable than gold, which only meant the stuff that guy was offering was shit.
I stepped away from the flow to the empty threshold of a tall building with double glass doors. The glass was missing, of course, and the insides stood empty and cold, trash scattered over the tiled floor. I leaned on the door frame facing the street as I finished the last of my second apple.
A woman a few paces away from where I stood paced in front of a rickety stand made of rotten planks with a few neatly folded sets of clothes in a basket. She kept circling random passers-by and promising warm shirts or comfortable trousers or even her sewing services for a very agreeable price.
Almost nobody paid them any mind, people just hurried on their way, looking around just often enough to make sure nobody was going to jump them. There were a few beggars, maybe more than a few, scattered on the dirty street or dragging their feet through the stream of people, hands outstretched in desperate pleas. Everybody ignored them, even harder than the vendors, as if they were part of the filth on the street.
A sudden shift in the hazy, automatic movements of the people caught my attention as the wave of grey and brown parted to make way for a few dark figures. Not that they needed much to clear their own path, towering to easy seven feet, shiny metal hugging them from head to toe. Each one held a standard-issue sleek three-feet-long A18 blaster rifle set on stun; they moved with a creepy unison, their heads looking only forward but no doubt taking in the whole hundred and eighty-degree curve.
Perfect, just perfect.
I threw the core of the apple, stepping back on the street. I moved back the way I came but took the first turn left, pushing between a bony blonde and a bald man. They glared at me as they stumbled, feeling their clothes to make sure I didn’t relieve them of their belongings. They didn’t say anything though — no one wanted to catch the attention of the Verizon soldiers even if it meant getting robbed.
The side street was nearly empty. I looked up in search of a way out. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure the soldiers hadn’t reached the intersection then sped up and jumped to grab the end of the ladder of the nearest fire escape. Despite being noisy and unstable those things were damn useful when you needed to disappear.
My muscles cried in protest as I hoisted myself up to the landing, moving under the metal railing and up the next two floors. A few curious eyes followed my movements as the stairs groaned.
One of the Verizon soldiers appeared on the side street clutching his blaster.
I froze by the wall watching him glide with slow, unhurried movements, his armor rattling barely audible with each step. If it wasn’t for everybody standing frozen, eyes on the ground in silent prayer, he would have been undetectable despite the heavy suit. Those babies provided the best protection you can get and if you had the muscle to work it the suit wouldn’t slow you down or betray you.
The moment the soldier disappeared around the corner I resumed my climb up. The building was just six floors high so it didn’t take long to hop over the edge and onto the roof. I looked around for any holes or signs of danger but I was met with solid concrete all the way.
I preferred it up here, the air was a bit clearer and you didn’t have to watch for shifty hands or a blade. The only danger was falling through the roof and the occasional Verizon drones but they sent those out only when there was serious trouble somewhere or someone important coming in.
I crossed the roof, crouching to pick up the two-steps-wide plank stowed by the edge. It looked solid enough so I slid it between the two rooftops. Without wasting any more time I climbed on, hoping not to hear a loud crack that would announce the end of my luck and the beginning of more pain and suffering.
I reached the other roof and pulled the plank over with a sigh, setting it down. A flicker of light in my peripheral vision caught my attention as I rose up. I stopped in my tracks, turning and waiting. For a few seconds nothing happened then another flash of red made me lock my eyes on one of the radio towers that were scattered all around the city. Most of them were decommissioned already but few were repurposed by ingenious entrepreneurs that had enough brains to avoid detection.
Ten seconds passed, the flash returned for five seconds, then faded again.
Now that was a great start to this otherwise shitty day. I got breakfast and I might even get paid. If the red light was still on then Killian was still looking for someone to claim the job.
I ran towards the edge of the next roof, soaring in the air for a moment before landing on the next one. The buildings were closer together on that side, some not even giving you the chance to fall to your death, so I picked up the pace, carefully choosing more familiar routes where I knew the roof was still reliable. I kept a close watch on the light making sure the red kept coming back, holding my breath every time it went off.
I reached the building next to the one with the antenna and made my way down between the two — it was just narrow enough to allow me to climb down with my hands and feet. By the time I landed on the ground I was panting, limbs crying with exhaustion. Whatever energy those apples gave me was burning out. I just hoped I wouldn’t have to fight anyone for the job.