Chapter 1: Serial
I woke up to the periwinkle light of sunset creaking in through the barred windows of my home. Late summer meant the days were shortening and I was due at Marv’s in half an hour. My hammock swung as I leapt from it, landing neatly on the ground beside a sleeping Pina. Her mouth was open and the wheezing of her mechanical lungs was audible in the quiet room. Knowing she and Devin had likely just gotten home from their shift at the energy mill I tiptoed through the small room toward the tiny closet that was also our bathroom.
With just an old toilet and a waist high spigot, it was the bare necessities to say
the least. But at least there was hot water. I washed my smudged face and did my best to reapply my heavy makeup in the dim light. Our cracked mirror did nothing to hide the mechanical glint from my eyes, but then neither did the makeup. I traced the outlines with black kohl, then shaded in my lids with a deep pewter eye shadow that somehow offset the bright silver of my synthetic eyes. There was nothing to be done about my slanted pupils though. Not that the clientele at Marv’s had anything to say about it.
I pulled my long dark hair up in a high pony tail, sleekly accenting my deep widow’s peak and examined myself in the mirror. I wore a fake leather mini-skirt that was a god awful red and a few sizes too small. But I’d found it in the bathroom at the bar the other night and Marv didn’t pay me enough to just throw away free clothes. Complete with a pair of government regulation black tights that were ripped at the knees where the springs from my mechanical caps kept snagging and the black combat boots that everyone wore, I was ready to go. I grabbed my cheap grey jacket and slipped it on over my black top before deciding it was too hot for that. Summer was clinging to New York like a desperate mother clings to her child. Not that I’d know anything about that.
I exited our little room as quietly as I could and made my way through the tangled hallway of the abandoned industrial building that was home to many Cybernetic Bio-Electric Research Subjects or CYBERS like myself. We’d all been relocated to the compound at the age of eight, once we were dubbed too old for the nurseries. The compound had housing units, of course, but those were horribly over-populated without enough beds. Those who stayed there had to sleep in shifts throughout the day and were at the mercy headmasters who took their anger and frustration caused by dozens of painful surgeries and years of poverty out on the inhabitants in their charge. I’d only lasted there a week before a headmaster smashed my face against the wall, trying to blind my mechanical eyes that he kept claiming “were watching him.”
The only cybers who lived in the housing units were either young ones freshly dropped off by medic nannies or the ones that were either too old or too disfigured to care for themselves within the compound. In an effort to survive I joined a variety of gangs that tolerated my presence but never really accepted me. The moment I proved to be more trouble than I was worth, I was kicked to the curb. Those years were hard, back before I found Pina, Devin and Eiko.
Once outside I took in a quick view of my surroundings, my eyes focusing and refocusing in their quick mechanical way. It was habit now, but I learned the hard way what can happen if caught unawares. I had my knees as proof of that.
Marv’s was the kind of crappy bar that catered specifically to cybers dealing in illegal trades. Marv made it clear on the first night I worked that the customers didn’t come for the overpriced drinks, but for the numerous inlets where groups could gather without being watched. I was only thirteen at the time, scared out of my mind of the burly old man, and he’d run me around the bar cleaning up tables and mopping up messes, until I thought I’d pass out from sheer exhaustion. But he sent me home with a wad of cash and a job, so I couldn’t complain. Since then I’d been promoted from bus-girl to bartender, even though I wasn’t even technically old enough to drink alcohol. But then, it’s not like that sort of thing is regulated in the compounds.
In total, the entire bar was three stories, each with a different vibe. The first floor had the front bar which was always crowded and full of loud voices trying to overcome the constant thumping of techno music coming from the back bar where the dance floor was. The upstairs was quieter, with tables and chairs for people actually wanting to sit and talk undisturbed. And then the basement was full of pool tables and card games, where cybers came to gamble or take part in various illegal activities.
When I arrived at the bar, there were already a few regulars hanging around the front, their glasses half empty and their eyes already half closed. Eiko got there shortly after I did, giving me a cat-like grin before heading upstairs to her usual post. She looked tired, her short black hair greasy and her limp more exaggerated than usual. I realized she must have put in a double already before coming here, which explains why she wasn’t home when I woke up. It’d be a long night for her. Then I cringed, thinking of my own shift at the mill come morning.
All of us had to work our government jobs at the energy mill. As long as we put in 40 hours a week, the hackies left us alone. You could do them any time you wanted, you just had to sign up for a shift and keep it. Those 40 hours were thankless, tired work and all you got at the end of the week was the assurance that the government paid for our bare necessities, like housing, small rations of food, and yearly updated clothing. But if you are anything like me and almost everyone I knew, you didn’t use the housing, which means you didn’t get the food. And we only got updated clothing once a year, and it was the same outfits every time: a pair of black tights, black pencil skirt, and white blouse for the women, black slacks for men (our formal attire). A pair of tight grey spandex pants and collared grey top for working at the mill, and a dark grey coat that only came in one size, Large. We also got a new pair of black regulation steel toed combat boots every year, which were pretty essential for working at the mill, unless you wanted broken feet. If you refused to go to work, the hackies found you, and forced you. They also took away most of your freedoms and made you live within the confines of the Directed Housing Units which was basically a jail.
Since the government compensation for working at the mill didn’t exactly provide much and certainly didn’t pay us actual money, almost everyone I knew worked another job. Whether to earn money for more exotic food (than the bread, milk and apple that was served at the HUs), clothing that actually fits and is warming, or just on the option to throw it all away on whiskey and drugs, we all needed money for something. Many human businesses took advantage of the cyber compounds and sold goods to cyber entrepreneurs, often at astronomical prices, who in turn sold the goods and services to us at a very high price. This sort of business was actually illegal, but as long as everyone went to work at the mill every day, and reported to the medics when called, no one said a word about our little economy.
Marv started the bar long before I was even born. He was a grizzled old cyber with hardly any human parts left. I heard people talking about how he should have been dead a long time ago, but that the medics replaced almost every vital organ in his body, so he could survive indefinitely. I believed it. He was old, but man he was tough. You’d have to be to survive all those surgeries. He was also a ruthless business owner and had run several other bars out of business in the compound. He was by far the most successful cyber entrepreneur, and you did not want to owe him money.
Marv came out from behind the bar where his little office was. He gave me a sidelong glance, taking in my red leather skirt and shook his head. “I’m pretty sure I saw that rolled up on the floor of the ladies’,” he said. “Who knows where that’s been?”
“Hey, I washed it,” I said back indignantly while I wiped down the counter top. Marv limped over to me, his prosthetic foot was getting too heavy for him. It wouldn’t be long until he was called in to the medics for more surgery. Every time that happened I feared he wouldn’t come back. He had steel grey hair and a face so full of wrinkles it was hard to see his sparkling blue eyes. But even through all that it was obvious he was pretty handsome back in his day. His teeth had been replaced long ago with synthetics that were an eerie phosphorescent white, but his lips could still spread over them in a way that made certain female patrons swoon.
“Lito called, said he’s gonna be late,” Marv said.
I grumbled. “How late?”
Marv shrugged. If Lito was any other employee Marv would have fired him long ago. But Lito was...Lito. He was not only devastatingly handsome, but he was the most shameless flirt I’d ever seen. And that was saying something. Many of the bar’s patrons kept coming back specifically to see him. In fact, Marv’s business tripled once Lito started working. To fire Lito would be to start a riot.
Lito also worked alongside me at the front bar nearly every night, meaning that if he was late, I was on my own. And there would doubtless be constant questioning on when he would arrive. I sighed.
So I set to work as the evening rush began. Just as I predicted girls and guys alike pushed to the bar to order a drink only to ask where Lito was with worried glances. Even after I assured them he was just running late, they glared at me as if I was lying. Lito could not get there soon enough. I checked my cheap mobile communication device or Mocoms as we called them. They were one of the many items that were dealt illegally within the compound, as all electronics were banned for medical testing subjects, as it was said to interfere with our own computer chips embedded in our serial screens. But there were a number of places you could get your hands on a Mocom, but for a pretty penny. I’d saved for three years to get mine, and it was the cheapest model they had to offer. Practically an antique to the human world. I sent Lito a Mocom message but got no reply. Where was he?
When he finally did arrive, his face was as flawless as always but I could see the rings around his eyes. He greeted his fans with gentle hellos, but I could tell something was up. It wasn’t unlike Lito to come in late, but usually when he did, he would light up the room and it was obvious his reason for being late was not a cause for concern. But today, he looked different.
“What’s wrong?” I asked when he got behind the bar. He just looked at me tiredly.
“I might be a little slow tonight, Sis. Been at the Medic all day.”
I opened my mouth to ask if he was okay but didn’t get a chance to speak as we were bombarded with drink orders. But watching him proved he hadn’t been operated on. He would be in much worse shape if that were the case. He merely looked tired. Lito was one of those lucky cybers whose exterior looked completely human. All of his synthetics were on the inside of his body, and though it was kind of an unspoken rule to divulge into the specifics of synthetics, I knew he was a cosmetic specimen. Meaning, after every surgery he wasn’t just stitched up like the rest of us, but his skin was put back together flawlessly, without a single scar using advanced skin grafts. And that was one of the reasons he was so desirable. In a land of surgical scars and metallic replacements, Lito was one of us, but he looked like one of them. He pulled off his shirt before getting to work, flexing his perfect abs, his seamless skin glistening.
When there was finally a lull in the night and we had a second to talk, Lito explained to me that he’d been called to the Medic early this morning right after a confrontation with a group of Riggies’ boys. Riggies’ boys were a gang led by a new thug, a little older than me, but who was ruthless and cruel. He recruited younger boys to do his dirty work…pretty basic gang material. So Lito had just finished servicing a customer and was walking home when the Riggies jumped him, trying to take his freshly earned money. This tended to happen to Lito pretty often. His lack of metallic showcase often confused other cybers into thinking he was weak. He’d obviously fought them off, what with those chiseled muscles all over his body not exactly home-grown if you know what I mean. He said after the last riggie boy ran off he was approached by a stranger who asked him a few questions.
“He just walked out of the shadows like in one of those old movies and was all like, ‘Who are you?’ It was crazy, I couldn’t even really see his face. He scanned my serial with this weird thing embedded in his arm and I was like ‘I gotta go, man’ and then I took off. ”
Then Lito explained that two hours later his medic chimer beeped and said to report immediately. So he went and he said they just did a bunch of physical tests on him before letting him go. He had only just gotten done before coming straight to work.
“That’s weird,” I said and shrugged. “But the medics are always doing different experiments. Just be thankful you didn’t have to go under the knife.”
He nodded but still looked worried.
As Lito headed off to the other side of the room, I noticed a new face at the lip of the bar, holding out his cash to get my attention. I sidled over to him and couldn’t help but acknowledge that this new face was a very handsome one. Neat, dark hair with striking blue eyes that offset the metal imbedded in his perfectly square jaw. I smiled a saucy grin and said, “What can I do for you handsome?”
“Jack, neat,” he said stiffly before turning away from me, a clear indication that he was not interested. Now, normally this wouldn’t have actually bothered me. I’m pretty, but in a boyish sort of way and I’m not exactly a stranger to being turned down now and then. His disinterest shouldn’t have bothered me, but for some reason it stung. Some ruthless part of me wanted to get this guy’s attention.
“Neat, huh?” I said, holding out a glass. “I’ve always liked it a little dirty,” I took the glass and licked a ring around the rim before pouring him a healthy dose. Doing something like that was a little uncharacteristic of me, and as I set the full glass down I felt my cheeks go pink.
The guy gave me an ‘are you serious?’ kind of look, disgust plain on his face. But that didn’t stop him from picking up the glass and tossing it back. He threw down too much cash and mumbled, “Keep the change” before stalking away. I scooped up the money and glared at his back feeling fully like an idiot. What a dick.
I got back to work, a little embarrassed, but the tips were flowing in that night, and I found myself thankful for that red pleather skirt I had on. Lito’s sour mood meant more people gravitated towards me and just when I was starting to think tonight was going to end on a high note I saw fight break out at the side of the bar that quickly escalated into an all-out brawl. I first noticed some raised voices, followed by a shoving that evolved and soon eclipse the whole bar. Scanning the crowd I saw that Riggie was among the pack, accompanied by a few of his boys and they had sought Lito out again. I recognized Cogo, a guy who’d actually been in my medic group and had been pretty nice to me back in the day. I saw him raise a knived club over his head and start to bring it down on an old cyber named Agga, who could hardly stand, let alone take a beating. I immediately vaulted over the bar, pushed a fool out of the way, and reached up just in time to intersect Cogo’s club.
“Hey!” he shouted, immediately turning the club on me before realizing who I was. He stopped short of my shoulder as I was preparing to knock him across the room with a spring-kneed kick to the chest.
“Damn it, Rane! Get out of here.”
“Take it somewhere else Cogo! I work here!” I shouted, elbowing him in the arm so he’d drop that damn club. It landed near my foot and I kicked it across the room, in the same second launching myself to the right as I saw another Riggie take aim. My springed knees gave me some good height as I vaulted a table and landed in the middle of another brawl. My eyes proved useful in these situations as I was able to scan the room and assess the most dangerous situations. Using my flexible spine, I flipped and turned through the room, breaking things up as I went, leaving stunned and incapacitated Riggie boys behind me. Vaguely I saw Lito fighting near the front door, ushering innocents to the exit. Finally Marv pulled out his shot gun and fired it in the air. By that point more Riggie boys were down than were up and the fight dispersed.
I was sweating and breathing heavy, but these sort of break outs happened at least once a week. I set about returning tables to their standing positions and cleaning up the broken bottles while Lito took care of the bar. I spotted Cogo through the bar window, waiting with a group of his cronies, his knived club back in his hand. I shook my head. What had happened to him, I thought. We used to be friends.
I was bent over a broken chair, cursing as I tried to fit the legs back in with the screws when I saw someone approach me out of my peripheral. I stood up quickly and faced the guy from earlier with the mechanical jaw. My eyes quickly scanned the rest of his body, noting that all of his joints appeared to be robotic implants, not just his jaw. He was broad shouldered and narrow waisted with rippling biceps apparent through his worn grey t-shirt. Standing this close I noticed his face had a layer of coarse stubble over the visible cheeks, which only seemed to make him more handsome. Despite his good looks, I was still pissed from his blunt attitude earlier, and was no longer in the mood to play games with him. My back smarted from all the action and I had noticed a tear in the pleather skirt, a total waste. I took a deep breath and gave him my best scowl.
“Can I help you?” I said, all venom and attitude.
“Can I help you?” he answered righting the chair I’d been working on and screwing the leg back in with expert hands. “Looks like you have your hands full.” He smiled at me. Gone was the stern demeanor I’d seen all over his face before. Now his green eyes danced with friendly boyishness. I arched an eyebrow.
“They’ve been fuller,” I grumbled, turning back to work.
“You’re hurt,” the mystery guy said reaching out toward my right eye. Before he could touch me, I flinched back, dabbing at a small cut above my brow.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Collateral damage. You should see the other guy.”
The guy smiled warmly again. “I did, actually. Where’d you learn to fight like that?”
“Oh you know, around,” I said evasively. To be completely honest, no one ever taught me to fight. I’d sort of had to learn the hard way. I flexed my right hand where the medics had had to replace three of my five knuckles that I’d broken in a fist fight a few years back. Life in the compound was a violent one. If you lived here, you either fought or ran. And since I wasn’t really much of a runner…
“Are you new around here?” I asked. “I’ve never seen you before and I have a feeling a guy like you would stand out.” I didn’t understand the change in this guy’s attitude. Maybe watching a hot girl kick ass turned him on, how did I know?
The guy chuckled. “Am I that obvious? I was just transferred here from Chicago. Arthritis research or something like that. You know how it is.”
I did. The medics were never very forthcoming with information on our testing. They simply gave us instructions and you sort of picked stuff up along the way. We were just lab rats to them. Bred to live and die in captivity, preferably on a cold table under the knife. I’d heard of people being transferred between research sites, but it was rare. Most of the time the scientists working on specific specimens liked to keep us close. This guy must have made a breakthrough or something.
“I’m Rane,” I said flashing him my serial on the inside of my right wrist, a metal screen insert that read “R198-01026.” It was standard introduction around here. As children, once we learned that most people had actual names rather than serial numbers, we did our best to name each other, usually finding some kind of pattern within our serials that spelled out a name. Mine was R, which I later found out refers to my retinal implants, followed by 1 which was translated to A, being the first letter of the alphabet. Then 9 and 8 signifying the initials N and E. So R198 is a roundabout spelling of RANE. Me.
“Aldo,” the guy said, pulling his t-shirt sleeve aside revealing “A120-06523.” I got the spelling immediately. A probably stood for Arthritis research patient, like he said. Then the 1 looking much like a lower case L, followed by 2 which resembles a lower case D when written. And then the obvious zero that looks like letter O.
“Well Aldo,” I said over my shoulder as I set back to cleaning up the bar. “Looks like I might get out of here a little early tonight.” The bar was nearly empty after the fight broke out and it was nearing our closing time anyway. I could already see Marv roaming around, counting heads. He’d make a few of us go home so he didn’t have to pay us for the rest of the night. I saw Eiko coming down the stairs, her coat and bag in her hand, a relieved look on her face.
“Going home?” I asked as she walked by.
“I wish,” she grumbled. “I’m meeting Tessa to help with the new shipment. Won’t be home till you’re long gone. See you later.” She never broke stride and soon she was out the door. Eiko only worked at Marv’s every other night so she had to find work elsewhere with Tessa (T551) an old cyber who sold cyber cigarettes and booze out of a little shop near the mill. She got great business from people getting off their shifts, ready to drown the pain in illegal substances.
I turned back to Aldo who was watching Eiko’s limped stride through the window with an odd look on his face. I considered him, wondering what this guy was all about. He seemed harmless enough, a bit cocky, but then I remembered that he was newly transferred, thrust into a new environment without a single friend. My stomach turned at the thought. The compound in New York wasn’t much, but it was home. I didn’t know what I would do if I had to leave it. I decided to forgive his earlier dick demeanor. He needed a friend, and I needed…well… I wasn’t sure what I needed. But I certainly could afford some company for the rest of the night.
“So Aldo,” I said, getting his attention again. “What would you say about getting a late night dinner with me? I can show you around the compound on the way. My treat,” I held up the wad of cash I’d shoved in my skirt, the tips from tonight.
The look Aldo gave me was perfect. His eyes narrowed slyly and his lips quirked. I could practically hear him thinking about me naked. Not exactly what I had in mind for tonight, but then I wasn’t exactly made of stone.
I held up one finger, indicating he should wait while I headed toward the bar. “I’m takin’ off!” I shouted to Marv and Lito. Marv waved absently and Lito looked significantly between me and Aldo, a slow smile creeping up his face. I stuck my tongue out at him and grabbed my bag from behind the bar.