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 from 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 as it struggled to support my weight. Cursing, I glanced down to make sure I wouldn’t drop on anybody’s head.
Once I saw an opening, I let go. Nobody spared me a glance as I landed on the concrete, save for a filthy old man that shouted in surprise at my sudden appearance. In a blink of an eye, he snatched his blanket and bolted, glancing over his shoulder as if expecting me to chase him.
A shadow passed over the busy street, diminishing even further the dim gray light that told us it must be daytime. A few heads turned up. I didn’t bother; I knew exactly what I’d 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 depression sucking your life, 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 stopped on a man standing in front of a wonky stall made of the forepart of a car. Pans, utensils, and other junk filled the narrow space, all neatly tucked where the battery of the car would have been.
On 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 probably tried to steal a bite, but got scared of being caught when the owner spotted them.
I returned my attention to the man just as he was glaring after someone. He didn’t give chase though, which was smart — even if he got the thief by the time he was back, his things would be history. Especially the fruit.
The merchant cursed, kicking the flat tire of the car. His head barely reached the hood of the vehicle, but he was stocky, dressed in loose beige pants and a dirty shirt. What made me hesitate was his belt — it held 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 done sizing him up, the vendor had gathered half of his stock. I knelt next to him, picking up a few of the fruits and setting them in the box. Most looked 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 inspected 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. The trick was to keep a cool head and force them to look elsewhere. He was so busy watching the hand helping that he failed to see the one that didn’t.
I lowered my eyes to the two small apples in my palm. It had been a long time since I’d eaten non-canned food.
As I brought them to my nose, a sharp stench of rot and dirt challenged my insides. Bile rose in my throat, and I pulled them away from my face, giving them another hesitant look. My stomach growled.
I rubbed one of them against my shirt, then took a small bite. The apple melted in my mouth — a bit crunchy, a bit soft. It tasted sour, but not too bad. Way better than nothing.
“Oi, Raven!” a voice called, and I looked around in search of its owner. My eyes stopped on a pile of rags I had just passed, snuggled by the staircase of the nearest building. On a second glance, the pile took the shape of an old man with a dirty gray beard and clothes three times his size. His lips spread into a toothless grin. “Long time no see.”
“Diego,” I smiled back, leaning on the wall next to him and sliding down to the ground. The smell of sweat and dirt coming from him was stronger than I remembered, but I endured it. I doubted I smelled of roses. “What are you doing in these parts? You should go to the shelter.”
“What’s an old fart like me gonna do ther’? Thos’ places are fo’ people in need,” He lisped heavily thanks to his missing front teeth.
I shook my head. Past his sixties and constantly fighting a variety of ailments, he refused to accept any help, as usual. He hadn’t changed for the last ten years.
“When was the last time you ate?” I sighed. The old man had been a caretaker in one of the shelters I lived in when I was younger, until some thugs broke his legs. Ever since then, he couldn’t do much of the work needed and left the position. How he managed to stay alive out here by himself was beyond me.
“Ya should worry ‘bout yourself. I hea’ some ‘owdy guys lookin’ fo’ ya. Somethin’ ‘bout thei’ boss being assaulted. What did ya do again?”
“Nothing a perverted bastard like him didn’t deserve,” I shrugged, turning away from Diego’s reprimanding gaze. I scanned the street carefully, looking for any familiar faces. They had found me faster than I expected.
A few paces away, a tall man with dirty long hair and his back to us kept advertising his collection of knives and longer blades; a couple seemed decent enough, but most had rust creeping up from the hilt or looked so dull that I doubted I could slice anything firmer than my apples. Besides, no good weapon dealer would lay their stuff out in the open; weapons held more value than money, which only meant that the ones that the guy was offering were shit.
My eyes stopped on a group of men at the corner of the street across, studying them for a second. One of them looked familiar - an ugly shortie with small eyes and a goatee, which made him look like a gnome. A nasty bruise graced his left eye - a bruise I was positive I had left when he got in my way.
“It was nice seeing you, Diego,” I said, slowly getting to my feet. “Don’t be stubborn, go to the shelter.” He smiled but said nothing. “Here, catch.” I tossed him the second apple I was planning to keep for dinner, then stepped onto the street, adjusting the saber hanging from my back. It was too crowded to swing it in this place, but I had the feeling I might need to find a way.
I glanced back at the group of men, only to realize the one with the goatee was looking in my direction. Our eyes met, and a nasty smile blossomed on his face as he pointed a finger at me.
“That’s her! Get her!” Even before they crossed the street, I was already sprinting. “Don’t let that bitch get away! Cut her off! Hurry!”
I was tempted to look over my shoulder several times, but decided against it. That would only slow me down, and I had no intention of spending my next few days being tortured or worse.
I kept running at full speed, listening for the shouts behind me to determine how close they were when a sudden shift in the hazy, automatic movements of the people forced me to slow down. I dug my heels in, cursing as the wave of gray and brown parted to make way for two grim figures. Not that they needed much to clear their own path when they towered at 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 looked back to see the goatee man and one of his followers walking towards me. They must have noticed the Orion soldiers as well, which explained the sudden cautiousness. Nobody wanted to catch Orion’s attention, least of all me. My fake id was good enough for the odd jobs I did, but it had no chance of fooling their scanners.
I threw another look at the soldiers then snuck into the sidestreet on my 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 said nothing, though. Everybody was dead silent.
The side street was so narrow that two people could barely walk side by side. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure the soldiers hadn’t reached the intersection when I noticed the goatee man and his companion turning the corner, slipping after me. I gritted my teeth, breaking into a sprint in the opposite direction.
I was just reaching the end of the sidestreet when another figure blocked my path. A long rusty knife flashed in his hand, forcing me a step back.
“This is the end of the line for you, girlie,” He grinned, showing two missing teeth on the front. I knew that face too, especially since I was the one that forced them out of his mouth. “What would it be? Come with us and pay what you owe, or have a date with one of them Orion bastards? Choose wisely.”