Steele City Stories #1 - Smash & Grab
Dark Times backers,
This is Richard here, the editor/short fiction writer for the project. Since the campaign went live, I've been working on a few stories to help flesh out the setting. The stories will all be set in broadly the same area of the Dark Times world, and characters from some stories will appear in others.
I don't have a set number planned, but I'm enjoying working with the Dark Times world, and I'd like to do several more if people are interested.
Let me know any feedback in the comments section, and tell me if there's any part of the setting you'd like to see more of.
Without further ado, here's--
By Richard Kelly
“You ever hear the one about the man and the bird?” says Sawyer, the words coming loud and clear through my implant.
I just grunt.
It’s best not to give him the impression I’m paying attention. He’ll talk my ear off, and I’ve got better things to do.
I pick another wire and start shaving down the insulation with my pocket knife. One more to go, and then it’s time to light the fireworks.
“I’m sure you’ve heard it,” Sawyer continues, like I haven’t been giving him the cold shoulder all week. “It’s a classic.”
“I’ve heard a lot of ones about men and birds,” I subvocalize into my jaw-mic. “None of them are relevant.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” says Sawyer smugly, no doubt pleased to have finally baited a response. “This isn’t any old one about a man and a bird. This is the one about the man and the bird. Man’s even got a name this time. Prometheus.”
I pause, both wires stripped, my hand resting over the alarm panel. “You’re kidding.”
“Yeah. Like the corp,” says Sawyer, and I swear I can hear the grin. “Like the owners of the clinic we’re robbing. That Prometheus.”
“They named a guy after it?” I ask, apparently unable to help myself. “Isn’t that trademark infringement? Don’t they own him or something?”
“Nah,” says Sawyer breezily. “This was long ago, before they used to do that sort of thing. Hey,” he adds conversationally, “you’ve got about thirty seconds before the cameras come back online. We gonna do this or what?”
I bite back a response. Arguing with him now would only waste time.
I slip off my glove and settle my hand onto the bare wires. I can feel the electricity try to nip at me, but my Power is already there, a barrier between the current and my skin.
It wants to be used. I can feel the eagerness of the gift singing in my blood. All I need to do is focus--
“So anyway, Prometheus is like this big-time deniable asset,” says Sawyer, and if I could reach through the radio waves and strangle him, I would. “For old people, I mean,” Sawyer continues. “People way before the collapse. They didn’t even have internet, but the gods did, and so one day Prometheus--”
“Would you just shut up?” I hiss, putting as much venom into the words as I can manage without saying anything aloud. Before he can reply, I let my thoughts slip gears and all the energy from the panel pulls into me.
It’s like taking a deep breath, the kind where you don’t need to breathe again for another couple minutes.
“Was that the power?” Sawyer asks.
“I sure hope it was,” I say. “Are the cameras still down?”
I’ve been standing in this alley for almost a full five minutes. That’s an eternity when you’re on a heist, and the only two things that are keeping me from being noticed are the worm that Sawyer uploaded into the nearby cameras--and the fact that this part of Steele City is crawling with peacekeepers.
Sane people don’t so much as jaywalk where a peacekeeper could smell it. Those goons are paid by the arrest, and odds are only about fifty-fifty that whatever’s under their faceplates is genetically pure human.
So, logically, this is the perfect place for a robbery.
“Sawyer,” I repeat harshly. “Cameras.”
“Sorry,” says Sawyer brightly. “I was checking the feeds at the intersection. Yeah, they're gonna come back online. You’ve got seven.”
“Seven what?” I ask.
“Six,” says Sawyer. “Five.”
I sigh in exasperation. “Hit the fireworks,” I say, then I fling open the back door to the clinic and stride through.
Let me stop for a second. The thing I’m about to do sometimes makes honest people flinch, so you need a little context.
My name’s Jeremy Clint.
I’m known as “Gremlin” to some very particular friends.
I’m the second child of three, grew up middle class back when we still had a middle class, and two years ago my mom died because Prometheus Medical changed the licensing agreement on her pancreas and she couldn’t pay for the retrovirals to keep it operational.
Not that I’ve taken that hard or anything.
The clinic I'm robbing? That's just coincidental.
“Knives down. Get on the floor right now, or I sweat to whatever brand you worship I’ll put five thousand amps through your chest.” I’m shouting, but it’s dark in the meatpacking room and I’m not sure if any of the clinic techs know who it is that’s yelling at them.
It’s my fault for cutting the power in their building, so I let electricity crawl blue-white up my fingers, lighting up the space.
I’ve got a mask on; some big faux-wood thing that the art dealer assured me was a tengu--whatever that is. I just know it’s got a nose like a riot baton, and it looks fearsome in the low light.
One of the clinic’s meatpackers screams. The others just look stunned. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen here. People like me are supposed to be terrorizing the poorer parts of town.
As if the poor don’t have enough to deal with.
“Uh-uh,” I say to a woman in a surgical mask who’s lifting a freshly grown liver out of a storage case. “Leave it.” She drops it back into the case with an audible thump. “In fact, you might want to load up a couple more of those and slide them my way. Otherwise this deranged, criminal cape is likely to start frying little wage-workers.” I let lines of thin blue current lick and snap between my fingers, illustrating the point.
They start putting organs in cases.
“So far, so good,” I subvocalize.
“Great,” says Sawyer. “Fireworks went off fine. That bank the next block over looks like we shelled it. On the other hand, civilians just fled out the front of the clinic, so you’ve probably got a couple minutes before the first peacekeeper realizes the bank wasn’t our target. Anyway, what I was saying about Prometheus...”
I grit my teeth, trying to tune him out, but it’s already too late.
“He’s like this genuinely good guy, right?” Sawyer says brightly. “Like, he cares about the people around him, and he sees them suffering, and he sees all the stuff the gods have, so he figures he’ll just go and steal it. He’s good at it, right? And so that’s what he does.”
“I really think there’s a better time for this,” I tell Sawyer as the meatpackers hand me case after case of organs. I make sure I take a few of the big ones--lungs, liver, stomach--but not too many. They’re heavy and hard to haul, and you’d be surprised how quickly a case of good, Prometheus-branded spleens sells.
In about a minute and a half, my arms are full. The damn tengu mask is also slipping down my face, making it hard to see the bounty of stolen biology in my arms. “Thank you,” I tell the technicians. “Your cooperation has been most appreciated.”
And that’s when the the peacekeepers hit the clinic, Black Raven assault rifles set to full auto, rounds chewing through the walls like they're made of rice paper.
If you’ve never been shot at by peacekeepers, here’s what it feels like:
Every ounce of you is alive. You’re more real, more important than anyone else on the planet.
At least you are until a bullet clips the side of your head, rips your mask off, and knocks you sprawling.
The meatpackers somehow knew what was coming, and every paid-by-the-hour trade-school surgeon and bio-engineer is already on the ground, hands over their heads, in The Position.
The Position is a good way not to make the peacekeepers madder. Civilians in the good parts of town assume it whenever a fight breaks out.
Of course, some of them get shot anyway, so I prefer my own strategy: running like the devil is after me.
For what it's worth, I haven’t been killed yet.
“Sawyer, I’m taking fire!” I shout, not bothering to sub-vocalize.
“Funny,” says Sawyer. “So was Prometheus.”
I open my mouth again to yell at him, but then a series of smoke grenades drop out of the sky, plopping down into the alley, and I let out a sigh of relief.
I sprint away towards the main street, impervious black clouds billowing behind me. I’ve got seconds, maybe, before the peacekeepers switch to thermal and light me up with a hail of 7.62 despite the smoke cover, so I pour on the gas. I pelt down the blacktop, but it doesn’t matter. I know I’m not going fast enough. Even if I could hit the crowds on the main street and somehow blend in, I’m not going to make it there in time.
Then Sawyer slides off the edge of a neighboring roof, drops down beside me, faces the wall on my left, and screams.
He might as well have set off a C4 charge in its face. The hempcrete crumbles, dissolving explosively as the sound punches through it, and then Sawyer’s grabbing me by the collar and pulling me through the cloud of dust as automatic fire rakes the air behind us.
For a moment, we’re in a narrow crawlspace, a spot between buildings that’s too small even for vagrants. Sawyer screams again, this time at the floor, and his voice goes through it like a surgical saw through a gangrenous limb.
Below us, exposed, is a tunnel, part of the vast network of condemned passages that runs under Steele City.
Sawyer hops down. After a moment I follow.
Then we’re both running away into the dark, the cases of organs clacking together, the peacekeepers an angry memory behind us.
We’re in an abandoned subway station under the bad part of town when we finally slow to a stop. The whole place should be dark as pitch, but some rich kid’s lab experiment got loose here a few years back and now there’s shelves of glowing fungus hanging off the walls, piles of rubble, and the sides of the derelict trains.
No one from the city has come down to clean it up.
No one goes below ground much anymore--not unless they have to--which makes this the perfect place for getaways.
“So, what’s the take?” says Sawyer.
We have a fence for this kind of haul, and we’ve done enough of these clinic smash-and-grabs that we both have a good notion of what Left-Eye Laura will pay for each organ.
“Fifty thousand,” I say, setting the cases down on the cold, cracked floor. “Assuming nothing in here caught a bullet, and assuming Prometheus didn’t roll out any new theft-prevention measures. If the liver dissolves itself in the next few hours, we’ll make a few credits less.”
“That’s not bad for a few day’s planning.” Sawyer says thoughtfully, then looks at me as if he’s just remembering something. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t tell you how the story ends.”
“The one about Prometheus?” I ask warily.
“Yeah,” says Sawyer. “The man, I mean. Not the corp.”
“Alright, fine,” I sigh. “I’ll bite. What happens to him?”
“He gets caught,” says Sawyer. “The gods find him afterwards, after he’s given all their cool tech to the people. They can’t get it back, so instead they chain him up to a rock for all eternity and every morning this giant bird comes over and pecks out his liver.”
I look at Sawyer blankly. “And this is supposed to be a joke?”
“Well, kind of?” says Sawyer. “I mean,” he adds, “it isn’t really funny ‘ha-ha’. It’s more funny-weird, since we’re stealing organs, and the biggest corp in the Divided States is called--”
I hold up a hand. “You don’t need to over-explain it.”
“Yeah,” admits Sawyer. “I should’ve just delivered the punchline and left it at that. Let me help you with the cases,” he adds contritely.
Together we gather up the organs and start walking towards the exit.
Neither of us is aware of the twenty or so beings that have gathered in the dark, that have been following us for the past two miles, that are the reason no one goes down in these tunnels anymore.
Neither of us notices until they’ve circled us, and by then it’s far too late.