Steele city Stories #3 - Red Rover
Dark Times backers,
Here is the third of the Steele City Stories pieces.
As always, if you have any questions or feedback or there's a particular part of the setting you'd like to see more of, don't hesitate to let us know.
By Richard Kelly
Rule number one in this kind of work?
Don’t trust your instincts.
The little kid with the case? That’s a trap, and if I’d been smarter I would’ve seen it before the flat, plastic box clicked open and I was staring at the Prometheus-branded liver inside.
I don’t know whether it was out loud or just in my head, but I let out a long, low whistle just then.
You can get some serious cash for one of those, provided you know how to override the biological safeties. I do, and that should’ve started a tickle of unease in the back of my head. Not a lot of people know about that. Most people think I’m just a fence, and they take a steep price cut when they try to sell me parts with the venom sacs still on.
Some of the gangs know better, and the gangs do use kids on some of their negotiations with the merchants, but this boy isn’t one of their usuals, and he doesn’t flash a hand-sign at me before he passes me the case.
He’s also been carrying it openly, not in a duffle, which turns the tickle of unease into a full suite of alarm bells and klaxons.
Rule number two is that if it seems too good to be true, it is.
Still, I hesitate.
Sometimes customers do dumb stuff. Sometimes a buyer or seller is so new to the game that they make stupid moves thinking that it’ll put me at ease. I scan the crowd of the night market, looking for this kid’s handler, and that’s when I see it.
There’s a commotion at the north entrance, right under the sign they’ve hung all the algae-bulbs from. The bulbs are glowing bright bioluminescent greens and blues, throwing a ghastly light over the squad of peacekeepers that's marching in under the sign.
I shift on my feet, throwing a look towards the west entrance. The crowd is too thick for me to make anything out in that direction, but when I look to the east I see another squad, armored in kevlar and hard plastic, heading my way.
The third and final rule is that the moment a situation starts to turn, you cut and run.
Large groups of people are dull and slow to react. If you’re just the right mix of fast and vicious, you can slip out of a crowd before they start to panic.
I grab the case, kick over my stall in the kid’s face, and bolt.
I get just far enough to see the west entrance, and my stomach drops. There’s a squad of peacekeepers there too, and another group setting up a cordon behind them.
Then the first of the screams goes up and the relaxed chaos of the night market turns into panicking anarchy.
The human instinct, when surrounded, is to pick a direction---any direction---and run.
That instinct is wrong.
Let me tell you why.
When you’re part of a crowd in a situation like this, the biggest threat to you isn’t your enemy.
It’s the rest of the crowd.
You can generally predict what your enemy is going to do, but the crowd is working on adrenaline and impulse. You can take an elbow to the face from a sixty year old Sichuan woman before you’ve even realized that you were in her way, and before she’s even realized that she’s elbowing you so that she can run towards the problem.
You might think that with good reflexes, a little neuralware, and the right programs this isn’t an issue, but even with a half a pound of circuitry in your dome, that Sichuan granny’s gonna get you because there’s a dozen people all trying to stampede past you and at any moment any of them could turn out to be the granny.
So I do the first smart thing I’ve done since that kid walked up to me with the case.
There’s a big inflatable plastic pool to my right, and I hop into it.
It’s not deep. The water’s only up to my calves, but it’s full of cuttlefish that snort water and flash improbable shades as they jet away from my feet. There’s a fishing rod propped up against the pool, complete with a wickedly barbed tangle of hooks on one end, and a sign with rates for catch-your-own-cuttlefish-dinner.
On either side of the pool, people are shoving and running and generally being the Sichuan granny to one another, but no one else has decided to cut through the pool. For the moment, I’m standing in a temporary oasis of calm. And cuttlefish.
That’s when I see the Splice.
He’s enormous, eight or nine feet, even with the slouch, and he’s swarming through the terrified crowd, heading towards where my stall was. Towards the boy that is just now struggling out from underneath it.
At first I think he means to eat the child. After all, the facts about Splices are well known. Then I see the boy’s left arm. The sleeve that was covering it has been torn away, exposing the mess of jumbled silicon and circuitry underneath, and I recognize it for what it is: a failed nanocolony.
An involuntary shudder goes through me, and I almost drop the case, but I remember that he was wearing a glove, and that I can always magnetically sterilize my hand, the case, and possibly my whole body if I need to.
Underneath that initial jolt of terror is another, deeper dread.
My clients were Splices.
Peacekeepers would never use Splices as part of a sting---especially not a sting on a low-level organ fence like me. Peacekeepers would never use a Splice on anything.
In addition to preventing anti-social violence, the unauthorized reassignment of wealth, or corporate-ideological bloodshed from intruding on the lives of regular civilians, the peacekeepers keep the Splices down in the sewers with a shoot-on-sight policy.
It’s about the only useful thing they do. Whatever else they’ve been through, whoever they used to be, Splices eat people. In the poor parts of town, where the peacekeepers don’t patrol much, everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s had a run-in with a Splice.
If the peacekeepers wanted to, they could probably go down into the tunnels and wipe out the infestation, but they’ll never do that. As long as the Splices are underneath us, we stay scared and compliant.
The peacekeepers like scared and compliant.
Which is probably why they finally decide to talk to us.
“Citizens of Steele City, I urge you to remain calm.” The voice is flat and inflectionless, and it pours out of every speaker and sound-system in the market. “We will only take a moment of your time.”
I watch the Splices to see how they’re reacting. They haven’t noticed me yet, and I crouch down like I’m tying my shoe, keeping my profile lower than the rest of the crowd’s. Cuttlefish press to the edges of the pool, fear rippling multicolored down their backs.
The larger Splice has picked the boy up and settled him onto its shoulders. It’s scanning the crowd in my direction, ignoring the peacekeepers.
I crouch lower. Salt water soaks into my pants.
If I can just keep my head down, maybe they’ll grab the Splices and leave.
Could I be that lucky?
“This is a mandatory citizen identification check,” booms the voice through the speakers. “I repeat, this is a mandatory citizen identification check. Please form two orderly lines, and we will begin processing---”
The sound of the voice through the speakers is cut off by the even louder report of small arms fire. It starts off staggered, like the first couple drops of a rainstorm, and then the rifles join in.
Rule number two in action, folks.
Everyone in this part of the city knows that mass citizen identification checks are a cover. The peacekeepers don’t come out in force to check IDs unless they’re planning on making some arrests, and if they’re planning on making arrests, that means they have a quota.
Some percentage of the people they check are going to be found guilty, no matter what. If a corp brat is out here slumming it and they flash their ID, they might skate by, but anyone wearing the colors of a gang that hasn’t recently donated to the peacekeepers is going to get brought in, as is anyone with contraband on their person or in their stall.
Even the corp brats sometimes get nabbed, especially if they act like they outrank the ‘keepers.
The peacekeepers like to make it clear that no one is above the law. Not when it’s time to make the quarterly arrests.
Listening to the gunfire, I count several Raptor 81s, a Street Companion, and a pair of Lead Thunders.
A peacekeeper tips over, poleaxed, a hole the size of bottlecap through the front of his visor.
The members of the crowd that haven’t already hit the deck freeze for a moment, and then from the four corners of the market the peacekeepers open up.
They’re using Black Ravens. I can tell from the assault rifles’ distinctive chatter, but they must have switched out the usual loads, because instead of blooming with sprays of crimson, people in the crowd just shiver and drop.
Taser rounds, I assume. Practically everyone but the peacekeepers is restricted from carrying them, and now my blood starts to run cold.
The peacekeepers don’t have much of a problem with just gunning a suspect down, especially if fire has already been exchanged, so taser rounds aren’t part of their standard loadout. Based on their reaction time, they didn’t stop to switch clips, either. They went into this with taser rounds loaded, which means they were expecting to have to immobilize people.
Which means they’re not just collaring a few marketeers.
They want everyone that’s here.
The peacekeepers are firing in waves, working their way inwards while the market crowd swells and tries to break past the edges.
I’m reminded of a game I used to play as a kid--a game that usually ended with bruises, grass-stains, or a chipped tooth.
The peacekeepers are very good at this game.
The Splices have both been struck multiple times, but it doesn’t seem to have bothered the big one, and the boy is still clinging to its back. Roaring, it takes off towards the northern exit, loping over the concrete and crushed stands and cowering humans like a wild animal.
The peacekeepers track it, more and more of them switching targets to the beast, and at that point I stop paying attention to it. It’s given me the opening I need.
The crowd has thinned enough that I can pick a route through it, and I stand back up, water fountaining into the air with the unexpected motion.
I can move very fast when I want to, and I’ve had a couple of unauthorized surgeries to press the point.
I light off across the market, falling into a sprinter’s stance, head down, profile low, as I dart through the thinning crowd. I head for the west entrance, past a knot of peacekeepers, a couple of which swivel to face me.
“Enhanced!” one of them starts to yell, finger clinching closed on the trigger of his Raven.
Enhanced? Not on your life. I wouldn’t let a company rummage around in my genetics.
But as it happens, I was in the second Russo-Kurdi conflict, and only one of my limbs is the original factory parts.
My legs tense and I launch myself into the air, arcing up and over the firing line of the peacekeeper. The others are shouting now, spinning to face me as I land and sprint past them.
Ravens chatter. Taser rounds sting my back.
I don’t go down.
That’d be the EMP shielding I’ve had run through my system. The name’s a bit misleading, but the surgeon assured me it 'sounds good on the street'. 'Like someone could drop a bomb on you and you’d survive.'
The peacekeepers haven’t brought any bombs today. I switch the case to my flesh-and-blood left hand and tack around a market stall. This one has been shored up with bits of tin roofing material on all four sides, and while it’s not bulletproof, it’s still standing, and it screens me from sight.
At least, it screens me from the sight of the peacekeepers behind me.
There’s a practical wall of them at the western exit, choking off the street with their bodies, and I can see more of them on the rooftops circling the square, but there’s fewer of them up top than down in the street, so that’s where I go.
Changing direction, I pelt past a makeshift stage---now empty---and make it to the edge of a building. The building is two stories, a hempcrete hovel done in that slum aesthetic that’s supposed to be earthquake-proof, and I jump into the only second floor window it has.
Bulletproof glass crunches but holds, rejecting me. I feel myself rebounding, toppling back out into empty space. Taser rounds rake over me and the ground below calls my name.
I ignore it.
If you go to the shot-up ruins of Duffy at the wrong time of night, you’re as liable to get shot as anything else. But if you’re ex-mil, and you know who to talk to, and you show up one-handed and in a wheelchair but still looking like you’re going to bite the face off the first guy that messes with you, the clinics there make an exception.
In my case, they made three exceptions. Two of them were my legs. The third is my arm, which unfolds into a constellation of small plastic panels, revealing the thick metal tendril stored inside.
The Tangler attachment fires, long coils of steel alloy unspooling from the place that used to be my shoulder, and it harpoons itself through the lip of the rooftop. Then current flows down the synthetic muscle-analogue in the heart of the coils and it tenses, flexes, and drags me onto the rooftop, right into the face of the startled peacekeeper that was just starting to displace from his shooter’s crouch in order to better target me on the ground.
He looks surprised to see me up here with him, and then my knee catches him in the face and topples him over.
He sprays me with his Raven as he goes down, and this close up the Taser rounds hurt. I can feel them punching through my skin, but only for half a second. Then my Pain Reducers kick in, dialing the agony down to a mild buzz.
I land, snap a kick into the side of his helmet, and keep running.
There are cameras on me, I’m sure. People float drones over the slums all the time, just in case something interesting happens down below, but it doesn’t matter if the peacekeepers get ahold of the footage and blast my face out on every major news channel.
I’m free, I think as I jump off the other side of the roof, hit the pavement, and take off into a rat’s nest of alleyways.
And if I can get over to Duffy and spend a little time under the knife, it won’t matter what face the city saw me in.
I’ll be a new woman, as invisible to the peacekeepers as I was before they struck the market.
Daniel Quarterly eyes me up and down, then pushes his glasses further up his nose. It’s an affectation---the man has better eyesight than some of us who’ve swapped ours for prosthetics---but I let him have it.
He’s good, and we served together in the war. He’s earned a few eccentricities.
“Facial reconstruction in a hurry, huh?” he says. His tone is mild, but I can hear the edge to the question.
“This is something you haven’t done before?” I ask wryly.
“Doctor-patient confidentiality,” he says reflexively. Then, after a moment he adds “they’re saying on the news that the Greenfield night-market over in The Rails district was attacked by a group of Splices. You don’t look like you were fighting Splices.”
“Don’t tell me you believe what you see on the news,” I say offhandedly, but there’s a tension in the air that’s making me uneasy. Suddenly I have the overwhelming urge to turn and leave, but I ignore it.
I’ve known Daniel for over a decade.
At the end of the day, you have to trust someone, and Daniel’s as good a guy as I’ve met.
Something in my stomach roils.
Is this rule number one, paranoia brought on by the aftermath of an adrenaline crash? Instincts that I’m supposed to ignore?
Or is this rule number three? Am I supposed to cut and run?
And if I run, then to where?
Peacekeepers share information. If my face ends up in their database, then wherever I run, I’m going to have to switch it out eventually.
Better to trust Daniel here than to take my chances with the next clinic, I decide.
I cross my arms and wait for his response.
“How will you be paying for your surgery,” he says at last.
I have some money in my accounts--and also stashed in a handful of places around the city---but I hold up the case instead. “How about this? Fresh from the meatpacking plant.”
Daniel’s eyes widen a little, but he composes himself quickly. “Is that recent?” he asks.
“No idea,” I say truthfully. “Probably?”
He looks at me oddly. “You really don’t watch the news at all?” he asks.
“I’ve got better things to do,” I say.
He nods. “The case will do,” he says, then waves me towards the back of the clinic, where the surgical suites are set up.
“Even with the Pain Reducers,” he says, “assuming you’ve still got them installed, facial reconstruction hurts quite a bit.” He waves me towards a white chair in a white room with white robotic-surgery attachments recessed into the walls. “Do you mind if I put you under?”
“Not deep,” I say, slumping into the chair.
“Not deep,” he agrees, and then he sticks something in the vein on my left arm that snatches the light from the room and drops me into a pit, fifty thousand miles deep.