A world that has forgotten its past, abandoned its future and was mired in an ever-repeating present. Steel covered the ground and engulfed the sky, its celestial bodies long consigned to oblivion, and cast eternal twilight over an endless city lit by cold neon billboards. Crawling through the veins of the megalopolis was an unconscious stream of things that were more, but also less than human. Buildings fearfully stretched towards the dreadful canopy above, in an impotent attempt to pierce the heavens as skyscrapers had done eons ago.
Yet, there were structures that connected the ground and the ceiling, massive constructs whose builders had long disappeared in the folds of time, which dwarfed even the tallest megacorporation architecture. Those windowless megastructures were of an unknown material, but they were far from monolithic. They consisted of parallel pillars with periodic platforms spanning the entire building, with gigantic bridges spanning the spaces between them, like the spongy part of bones, as if the megastructures were the remnants of cosmic titans. Within these the beings that called themselves “humans” of this age had built their beehive-like abodes. Unable to drill into the perfectly smooth surface, they could only hang their own, in comparison, miserable engineering from the bridges or build them into the horizontal ridges that were let into the pillars at regular intervals.
On one such bridge, high above the tallest skyscraper of human design, a lone woman in black sat in the eternal twilight of the unlit pillars. Her dark messy hair swayed in the unnatural breeze, engineered by giant wind machines hidden all over the city. Cold blue eyes reflected the faintly glowing screen of a PDA in her hands, as her thin lips, unfamiliar to smiles, were slightly pursed in thought. Her thin frame was completely covered by a black bodysuit, which sported countless modifications such as stitched-on pockets as well as an inbuilt smart backpack. It featured a holster for what looked like a black sawed-off shotgun with a rectangular stock and no opening for a barrel. In a sideways sheath on the back of her waist hung a black machete and a small handgun of the same design as the shotgun rested in a holster on her left thigh. This smaller gun featured a traditional barrel, although no loading chamber or magazine was visible.
The woman’s name was Sain, an independent bounty huntress who had become a legend among the megacorporations, her existence known down to the lowest workers. Whenever she accepted an assignment, it would be fulfilled within the given time limit, regardless of its dangers and difficulties. Her uncompromising methods and unquestioning work ethics made her a valuable asset for those who could pay her steep fee, and proved to be a menace for those who found themselves her target.
Her legs were dangling off the bridge carelessly as she sat on the edge, a small push from a long fall, focusing on the screen of her PDA, which played a video. A cable extended from it and was attached to a plug on her bodysuit’s collar. The screen cut to the face of a female, an emotionless smile on her porcelain-like face as she spoke in a practiced, almost robotic manner.
“The contractor is Payne Industries. The target is currently confined in the specimen holding cells of AMF Enterprises complex number 133551. Average security is to be expected, but proceed with caution.”
Wordlessly, Sain shut off the device and stored it in her shoulder pocket, before jumping off the bridge as if slipping into the water from a poolside - she just entered her element.
On a ledge with no railings - an unused ridge in one of the massive pillars - Sain was walking along the wall with a clear aim in mind. Her surroundings were clearly manmade, but it still felt like she was in a place far from civilization. It was a megastructure on the outskirts of the megalopolis, hours of travel with the supersonic train away from where she had received the contract. Remnants of a glorious age of expansion, when the megacorporations still needed the approval and favor of the people, the trains were now rarely used. They just continued to run and waste resources in the limitlessly automated system that was society of today.
She soon came upon a structure of clearly inferior human craftsmanship, hanging onto the ridge and blocking the way forward. No door was visible, but a terminal in the wall denoted the presence of a passage that would open to those who knew its secrets. From one of her many pockets Sain took a cubic device, pulled a cable from it and plugged it into the terminal’s outlet. A moment later, a rift opened in the wall, only a few centimeters wide; it was a sideways sliding hatch to a maintenance shaft leading into her target facility. Unplugging the small hacking device and stashing it away in one of the many pockets of her bodysuit, she put the fingers of her left hand into the small gap unhesitatingly and pulled.
With the sound of breaking machinery and deforming metal, the hatch opened and revealed a small corridor, just large enough for Sain to walk in while crouching down. Cables and pipes ran along the walls, presenting a stark contrast to the sterile and smooth surface of the megastructure outside. Switching on a small flashlight attached to her utility harness - another part of her all-purpose bodysuit - she began to make her way into the depth of the facility. Her hand hovered over the gun in the holster on her thigh, ready for the eventual enemy encounters and the battles she would have to fight to fulfill her goal.
The maintenance shaft soon narrowed into a crawl, but it was not a long way before Sain came upon a grate that led into the ventilation system of the facility. Despite the advances in technology, most humans still needed to breathe; this was no different for the workers in AMF Enterprises, one of the largest megacorporations in existence. This meant that the ventilation system would have outlets wherever people were.
And as expected, there was an opening right above the main security room, staffed with only a lone man in uniform watching a number of screens. It was a facility at the edge of the city after all, so there was not much reason for an extensive surveillance system and a large amount of guards. At this point, Sain wondered if she could have been able to get away with breaching the place from the front gate, but there was no use for such idle thoughts anymore.
Opening the grate silently, the bounty huntress dropped down and landed behind the guard soundlessly. Pulling the cable from the collar of her bodysuit, she plugged it into the back of the unaware man’s neck. In the next instant he shook violently, as if he was being electrocuted, before slouching over on his chair, no longer moving. Without a second’s delay, she proceeded to get to work on the computer, to find the exact location of her target.
Wandering the endless seeming corridors of the facility, Sain finally entered the area in which “specimen” for various researches were being held. In an age where public opinion no longer mattered when the monopoly on everything essential for human life was held by the megacorporations, experimentation on humans that were exiled from society, such as orphans, the homeless and convicted criminals, was a normal occurrence. There was no institution that controlled the corporations and checked for unethical research, and the press was just another one of their brand outlets. Yet, even if it was to become known that humans died in experiments, people did not care as long as it did not affect their own lives.
Past the many closed cells that featured nameplates denoting their contents, which included various human names as well as animals that had ceased to exist in the wild a long time ago, Sain walked briskly without paying them any heed. She knew the number she was looking for was still a little further inside the facility, and anything else along the way was a pointless distraction.
A few minutes later, she reached her destination and immediately opened the door to the cell, acting as quickly as possible. The smooth and sterile interior of the cell featured a bed that was nothing more than a metal bench. On it sat her target - a young boy with silver hair, barely in his teens, wearing a white hospital gown. He looked up at her expressionlessly, not the hint of an emotion in his features.
“You must be Asu. My name is Sain. I am contracted to Payne Industries and have come to retrieve you.”
Her voice was level and quiet, dispensing no feelings of warmth in its tone, as she firmly and tersely stated the reason for her presence. The boy named Asu looked at Sain, reacting as little as an automated doll would. Stepping into the cell without waiting for a response, she grabbed him and lifted him under her right arm, before quickly exiting again. The moment the boy left the cell an alarm resounded throughout the whole facility. Not stopping to pay attention to the implications of the noise, the bounty huntress carried her bounty and proceeded down the hallway.
She knew the way around the facility from the map she downloaded in the security room earlier, so her escape was on the shortest possible path to the next exit. Of course, she had disabled all security measures such as blast doors and electric locks beforehand, so there would be no structural obstacles. It was only a matter of time before guards would appear and try to stop her, but she had her weapons for that purpose. Furthermore, she knew that AMF Enterprises usually valued their specimens in these holding cells more than the lives of their personnel, which meant that they always gave the order to prioritize a safe retrieval. In short, they were not allowed to use lethal force and were only given stun rods instead of guns most of the time.
Two more corridor crossings and they would arrive at a room that had a window leading to the exterior of the building. So far, not a single guard had shown up and Sain sensed that something was amiss. The fact that the alarm had stopped was reason for concern as well, but to think that she would not encounter a single worker, let alone guard, rang alarm bells of her own in her head. One more crossing and she-
In that moment Sain bent her upper body backwards and slid across the ground on her knees; a slab of sharpened steel came from around the corner to the left corridor and cut through the space her neck would have occupied only a split second later. It missed, only cutting a few strands of her hair, and crashed into the wall, embedding itself deeply into it.
In the same motion as she dodged, she had already pulled out her handgun and discharged it into the darkness of the corridor beside her five times, each at different angles to make sure that she hit at least one. However, there was no sound of a lifeless body hitting the floor; instead, the step of a heavy boot on steel showed that the assailant was very much alive.
From the darkness a man, nearly three heads taller than Sain, stepped forward. He wore a heavy black cassock that seemed to absorb the little light that fell onto it, and featured an expressionless white mask covering his entire face. Cables and plugs covered his otherwise bald head and disappeared into the collar of his robe. The man was clearly a battle cyborg, one of the type that was fairly well known among bounty hunters: A templar from the Order of the Safeguards, a security company specialized in providing its exceptional services to megacorporations. The religious undertones behind their internal ranking system derived from the fact that their members consisted of heavily modified humans, who prayed to a machine god and labored for ascension into the form of immortal mechanical bodies. The templar class was in the upper categories in regards of battle strength, and could overpower entire groups of experienced bounty hunters on his own.
The man pulled the slab of steel out of the wall - it was the other side of his right arm, which could be folded back for a normal hand. His balled up metallic left hand opened to reveal the five bullets that Sain had shot at him, dropping them to the floor in what seemed like a mocking gesture.
Unperturbed, she put Asu down and pulled out her machete with her freed hand, aiming the gun at the templar’s head and pulling the trigger three more times. Her target caught them all with his left hand and swung the heavy blade down at her in the same motion.
Sain blocked the weapon with the butt of her handgun and used the momentum she gained from it to swing her whole body around and aim at the Templar’s neck with the machete. His left arm came up to block it, but Sain changed the trajectory mid-swing and aimed for his temple. It connected, embedding itself deeply in his head. However, she immediately let go of the lodged in weapon and ducked away, as the templar attacked with his blade. In the same motion as she ducked, she brought her right hand around and unloaded her gun at the enemy’s abdomen three more times, which were all intercepted without fail.
Just as the hand grabbed the last bullet out of the air, Sain stepped in and pushed herself onto her enemy, locking his arm to his chest. Placing the gun against his chin, she fired twice, the bullets blowing his heavily modified remains of a human brain out of the carbon-ceramic-compound skull. As he fell, Sain grabbed the machete and let gravity pull it out from the falling templar.
Without another look, she walked away from the body that was more scrap metal than lifeless corpse while stashing her weapons in their respective holsters, and returned to Asu’s side. He had not moved from where he had been placed and had watched the quick battle without the hint of an emotion. After all, it did not matter to him who won; the result bore the same consequences to his existence either way.
Thus, he also did not try to escape when Sain approached him to carry him away again. In the next instant, she crouched down and grabbed Asu in the same motion, rolling across the floor behind the corner of the corridor. A beam of light followed them, burning a thin red hot line into the wall all along the way. The clacking of sharp metal hitting the steel floor resounded throughout the corridor like footsteps, announcing the arrival of a new enemy.
The bounty huntress ran out from cover and performed an aerial cartwheel towards the other corner of the corridor, unloading her gun four times in midair. Behind cover again, she put her fingers to her face, where a red streak was forming. The beam had hit her. Unerringly, the footsteps continued to approach their position.
Just when they were about to round the corner, Sain jumped up into the air and spread her legs to hold onto the walls, and aimed her gun at where she assumed the enemy’s head would appear. She pulled the trigger the moment she saw something rounding the corner.
The bullet was repelled by a mask. The figure that appeared wore a black cassock as well, although the form underneath it undoubtedly belonged to a female’s. The golden mask featured a woman’s countenance, albeit it was just as expressionless as the templar’s had been. Her head was entirely covered by cables, which were attached to a harness that protected her neck and extended halfway down her back. It looked like she had dreadlocks, but their varying sizes and types made it clear that they served a solely functional purpose. She wore stiletto high heels, which were actually serrated knives, creating the distinct sounds she had made on her approach. She was a deacon, a high-level war potential of the Order of the Safeguards.
Sain’s first strike had proven unsuccessful and given away her advantageous position. The deacon lifted her left arm, which ended in a rectangular rod rather than a hand. From the center of its flat end a light flashed and shot through the space Sain’s head had occupied only a split second earlier; the bounty huntress had bent backwards and flipped herself over, kicking the deacon’s arm cannon with one foot before landing on her other. With a smooth motion, she shot at the cyborg’s stomach, but her metallic right hand caught the bullets out of the air, just like the templar’s had before.
Discarding the empty gun, Sain pulled out her machete and hacked at the deacon, who intercepted it with her metal hand, cutting the blade apart with her sharp claws. With a stamp kick that sent Sain flying, the deacon created some space between them and brought her arm cannon around. In mid-backflip the bounty huntress pulled out the shotgun and turned it to aim at the enemy.
The moment Sain landed, the deacon’s beam reached her and hit her right in the chest. The shotgun seemed to charge its shot for just a moment longer, before a deafening silence spread around its front end for just an instance. In the next moment, immense recoil sent Sain flying backwards into the wall behind her, denting it with her body. Looking up, she saw the deacon standing, seemingly unscathed. The emotionless mask tilted ever so slightly, as if in confusion. Then she collapsed forward, revealing that half her back was missing, only a sizzling crater in its place.
Slowly standing up again, Sain looked down at her chest to see a small hole in her bodysuit and the reddened skin underneath. Safe for that, she was completely unhurt. Walking past the deacon, she picked up the handgun she previously discarded and stashed both guns in their holsters. The broken machete was left where it had been cut apart. Returning to Asu’s side wordlessly, the bounty huntress continued the contract where she had left it off only minutes earlier, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
On a ledge extending outwards from a megastructure, one far away from the AMF Enterprises facility, Sain and Asu finally came to a stop. Sitting on one of the rare walls that had been built to prevent falls from the immense heights, Sain pulled out her communications device. Asu sat on the ground, by her side, making no attempts to run away. His behavior was typical of a human of these times, showing not a hint of a self-preservation instinct; that had been taken from them after generations of brainwashing in commercialized life, replaced with only a careless craving for ceaseless consumption.
Plugging the cable into her suit’s collar, Sain waited a moment before the rugged face of a man just past his prime appeared on the display of her device. His age was readily visible because of the fact that he strangely refused to make use of all the technological and medicinal advances that could preserve a human at their best years until their natural lifespans ran out. Of course, those who could afford it were able to extend it further, although it came with a steep subscription fee for continued maintenance. Still, he had to concede to the fact that to live in this society, he had to make certain sacrifices, such as the brain modifications that granted interconnectedness at all times - and allowed the megacorporations to spy on him. Still, as a hacker working in the dark side of society, he knew ways to prevent them from seeing everything.
“Hello Sain, ‘s been a while. How you doin’?” The man’s voice suited his apparent age.
“I need some information.” Sain’s response was as terse as her interaction with Asu had been.
“I thought you wanted a date. Why else would you - would anyone - call me, old Grav?”
The sarcasm was almost tangibly reaching out of the screen to strangle her, but Sain’s professionalism enabled her to ignore it. “I need you to find out about this boy. I’ve sent you the data.” A moment later, the custom jingle denoting the completion of a file transfer could be heard from Grav’s side.
“Got it. Lessee...” For a while, only his mumbling could be heard, as he looked over what Sain sent him. “Nothin’ official turned up, but that’s to be expected. Checking back channels... nope, nothin’ either. What’s so important ’bout him? Seems like just ’nother illegal child from the lower levels to me.”
“Payne Industries contracted me to retrieve the boy from an AMF Enterprises research facility. When I got him out, there was a third party security contractor instead of their normal guards.”
“That does seem odd, but nothin’ too fancy?”
“A templar and a deacon from the Order of the Safeguards.”
Grav breathed in sharply before whistling. “You don’t see those everyday. Took care of ‘em like nothin’, huh? That’s my Sain.” At these words, the woman in question showed slight irritation in her eyes and Grav quickly cleared his throat before continuing. “Erm, so the boy’s with you then. Gimme a scan of him.”
Turning around to Asu, who was watching the conversation with his ever-expressionless eyes, Sain aimed her communications device at him. A few seconds later, a short ping announced that the scan had been finished. Grav, on the other end of the line, grunted at it, ready to work on the information he had received.
“... is this for real?” His voice sounded unbelieving. “This is...”
“What is it?”
“This can’t be right.”
“Grav?” Sain was impatient and alarmed.
“The boy’s genetic makeup is completely different from a human’s. His DNA runs in a double helix, instead of a triple helix. There’s no cybernetics in his body, either,” Grav explained his findings, his voice filled with astonishment. Rather than a rare case, it was possible that Asu was a new species. “No wonder Payne specifically contracted you. And it explains the kind of security at AMF. Whatever he is, there’s nothin’ like him in any databanks.”
Silence fell over the ledge and Sain contemplated the situation; her face did not betray her emotions as she considered all the implications of the information at her disposal. Seemingly for a long time, during which Grav remained uncharacteristically quiet, the bounty huntress was deep in thought, her eyes staring into the endless twilight below, but seeing far beyond it.
“Grav... I’ve found it,” She finally said with conviction as she turned her head to look at Asu, whose expressionless face did not reveal his thoughts regarding the conversation about him.
“... are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ve been looking for this for a long-” Sain began but suddenly leapt up to cover Asu, when a man and woman in black suits approached their position openly.
“Sain? What’s goin’ on?” Grav’s worried voice resounded from the communications device, but she shut it off and put it back in its pocket, her free hand hovering over the holster of her handgun.
“Do not be alarmed. We are agents of Payne Industries,” The man announced his identity from afar and held out a badge that displayed the company logo. For the trained eye, it would be clear that it was the genuine article. “We are here to take over the specimen. Good work, bounty hunter.” The woman added and came closer.
“How did you know where to find me?” Sain asked with suspicion filling her voice.
“We always keep an eye on our investments. You have fulfilled your contract and the bounty has been transferred to your indicated account,” The man responded with a less than satisfactory explanation, and put the badge away. Sain was growing irritated at the voices of the two agents, who spoke in a manner that made it clear they were androids. Even though technology had become sophisticated enough to replicate the human body down to every detail, a soul could still not be artificially created. Thus, even if emotions could be mimicked, machines were still unable to feel them and act on them. Or maybe it was just her trained senses that were able to differentiate a machine from a human, but seeing those fakes grated on her nerves to no end.
“Now please hand the specimen over. Your job is complete.” The female android added.
Sain spun her head around at the sensation of something clinging onto her, and realized that Asu had, at one point, stood up and was grabbing onto her from behind. Even though he remained expressionless, she was able to sense that his mind was filled with anxiety; whether that was an illusion or reality did not matter at this moment.
“What will happen to him now?” She asked.
“That is of no concern to you, bounty hunter.” The male android responded, his voice mimicking a slight air of superiority. At these words, Sain wordlessly pulled out her handgun and shot him in the head. The female model was able to raise her arms and deflect the two bullets aimed at her head with her carbon-fiber suit as she stood farther away.
“What are you doing, bounty hunter? This is in violation of your contract with Payne Indus-“ The woman spoke, her voice raised and mimicking surprise and anger. A bullet, shot through the spaces between her arms, hit her in the jaw and blew half of her face off, revealing cold machinery under the synthetic skin. Sain ran up to the shaken android and kicked her off the ledge, into a long fall.
Sain and Asu stood on the ridge on the outside of a megastructure, overlooking the entirety of the megalopolis spreading out before them. They were at the outskirts, beyond which darkness reigned supreme, glancing over the city one last time before their departure. Seemingly nothing would ever disturb the ad nauseam repeating eons that passed in this place in the blink of an eye, not even the death of two from the Order of the Safeguards, or the top bounty huntress breaking a contract for the first time and taking away a top secret specimen. It was just another day in this place without a past or future, which only continued to exist without a direction and would do so until the end of time itself.
“Are your parents still alive, Asu?” Sain broke the silence. The boy looked up to her for a moment, contemplating for a moment before nodding in affirmation. “Would you like to see them?” Once again, a nod. “Do you know where they are?” A third nod, in assent. His eyes moved over the vast expanse before them, before he raised an arm to point - at a place above them. Sain followed the pointed out direction with her gaze, before turning it back to him, no surprise clouding her determined expression.
“Let’s go, then.”
She took Asu’s hand and they turned their backs on the brightly illuminated twilight of this world sealed in time, to ascend through the megastructure to the heavens above. Disappearing into the depths of the titanic construct, the fleeting footsteps they left behind in this city that placed no value in memories soon disappeared with them. Here, existence continued as if nothing ever happened and nothing would ever happen. Freeing themselves of the shackles of the present, they walked towards an uncertain future, but a future for certain.