Mist, pervasive and cloying, settled in between the tall buildings and along Casimir’s spiraling street. The fog dimmed the bright advertisements pasted on screens, blurred the shining lamps and ever searching eyes of the security drones. On the far outskirts of the shell, beneath the conical towers of the aeroponic gardens, two shadows were up to no good.
Long warehouses stacked like steps lined the way between the wide alleys. The readout panels on the doors at ground level shone dimly red, all except one. The two shadows, revealing themselves to be thieves as they soundlessly shifted weapons and empty sacks in the darkness, honed in on the building with the panel. One was a slim woman covered all in black from eyes to toes. Her companion stood a head taller than she and was also covered in black but for his dark curling hair which escaped the hood of his jacket to stick to his swarthy brow.
It became immediately apparent to the thieves that someone else had gotten to the warehouse before them.
The woman, Sif, moved in on the guard watching from the doorway, dropping him to the ground before the hapless man could do more than open his mouth. Her companion, Hex, slipped inside the door and along one wall, listening to the two men haggle. He raised a hand, motioning the woman to move around and flank the men doing business, and their guards. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but Hex and Sif had learned to work with what they had.
Privately, Hex vowed to pay a nasty visit on the whisperman who’d sold him the info about this warehouse and teach the little bastard the real cost of double-selling.
A balding man with stick arms and a cheap suit leaned onto the large table dividing the back of the warehouse. On it were stacked bright red, blue, and yellow bricks of food stuffs with names like “Sunrise! Delicious!” stamped into the plastic. There were no batch numbers yet, nor dates.
In the eyes of the two men haggling, these were bricks of credit. For Sif and Hex, they were food. As much as he’d have liked to, Hex knew he and Sif couldn’t get enough out of the warehouse to afford to sell any on the black market.
“One hundred work income credits each, Mr. Cimbon.” Baldy stared up at the taller, younger man. “Seems fair, yes?”
“Fair? Seems like robbery, present situation not included, Mr. Armode.” Mr. Cimbon glanced at his goons and they both chuckled on queue. “Look, we’ll agree on sixty wic each, and be on our way home before curfew. Which,” his eyes unfocused as he queried his Personal Uplink Data Implant, “is in less than a half hour.”
“You’ll starve my family at that rate, Mr. Cimbon. Eighty-five at least.” Mr. Armode dropped his eyes to the man’s chest, seeming to sneer at the puff of chest hair spilling over Mr. Cimbon’s partially unbuttoned shirt.
“Seventy, and we’ll throw in a voucher for Sorjipe pond-grown fish. The real thing. Free and clear. Totally legit.”
“Seventy-five, and the voucher.” Mr. Armode licked his lips.
So did Hex. Pond-grown fish was a delicacy of the very privileged and though he’d never tasted any, it was reported to be night and day away from the vat grown imitation flesh standard vouchers could acquire. Hex knew instantly that Mr. Armode had made a mistake and bargained too low when Mr. Cimbon looked mockingly hurt as he accepted the deal.
“You’ll put us all out of business with those prices, friend. I suppose I must accept however. Man has to eat.”
Hex figured he’d given Sif enough time. As Mr. Cimbon had just said, a man had to eat.
The crackle of an electro pistol interrupted whatever either man might have said next. One of the muscle men dropped. The other went for his own gun, but another blast of energy dropped him with a blue hissing jolt. Hex emerged from near the warehouse entrance, pistol gleaming in his hand.
“Sit down, baldy. Put your hands on the table, flat.” His voice was silk over gravel. Mr. Armode did as directed.
Mr. Cimbon smirked at Hex. “You robbing robbers, fellow?”
“Indeed. Now, since you’re sneaking a hand toward the pistol in your jacket, you might as well remove it and set it down.” His gun hand didn’t waver.
The smile slid off Mr. Cimbon’s face as he removed the pistol. Hex watched him evaluate his options as he sluggishly complied with the order. The tables covered in bricks of food could supply some cover. There was plenty of darkness to hide in as well since the only illumination was a small battery powered glow disk resting near the terrified Mr. Armode. Planning his next action, Mr. Cimbon kicked his gun aside, letting it slide under a table.
“Not thinking of diving after it, are you?” Hex chuckled. Mr. Cimbon’s thoughts were painted on his face with broad strokes.
“I have friends, mister. Connections. I could be useful to a man like you. If you can accomplish this alone, think of the possibilities of a partner.” Mr. Cimbon molded his face into an open, friendly look that was about as convincing as pink dye on a sewer rat and not nearly as pretty.
“Thanks,” Hex said, “but see, I’ve got a partner. And she’s a hell of a lot better looking than you, I’m afraid.”
Mr. Cimbon heard a scrape near him and turned his head. Sif emerged from the shadows holding his gun as though it were a festering rodent.
“I can certainly see your partner’s ‘perks’,” Mr. Cimbon muttered, looking at the woman’s chest filling out her hooded coat. “She going to shoot me?”
“Her? Loria no!” Hex said. “She hates guns.”
As if to demonstrate that her partner had the right of things, Sif dismantled the pistol into component parts in seconds.
“Hex,” she said to her partner in subvocals through their linked PUDI, “stop preening. Stun them and let’s pack up.”
Hex sighed. He’d been enjoying the feeling of turning the tables on these assholes.
He shot first Mr. Cimbon and then Mr. Armode, the crackling electro-pistol sounding loud inside the large warehouse. They filled two large black packs with the various food packages. Seconds ticked past. Sif raised her head and put up a hand. Hex froze.
“What is it?” he asked through the link. She shook her head. Then he heard the drones. “Damn,” Hex said, “Baldy must have called security before I got him. I guess it’s time for plan B.”
Sif crossed her green eyes and scrunched down her pale brows at him, which he barely made out in the dim interior.
Hex chuckled. “Plan B is always run like hell.”
Sif snorted and scanned the darkness. She ducked under a bank of tables and growled, “Hex, back door,” into her sub-vocal mic.
The two slipped out the back, keeping their bodies in shadow against the long row of warehouses. They moved through the mist toward the towering buildings that loomed like walls lining the main street of Outer Morrow. The hum of drones and the sound of booted feet echoed in the damp air. Hex wished they had a little heat mapping support from Ryg right now, but he’d been busy with something else tonight so they hadn’t included him in this little mission. A shout rang out and the boot steps grew louder, closer.
“I think they’ve spotted us, probably our heat signatures,” Hex muttered into the sub-vocal mic.
He and Sif broke for the wall of buildings a hundred meters distant. Options were meager for escape. Curfew was in a few minutes, so the subways had stopped running and soon the city lights would be shutting down. The district gates would close. Hex resigned himself to either a slog through the subway tunnels or a cold long climb and a mad run along the slick roofs and walkways of Outer Morrow.
Sif dashed ahead of him, a dim blur in the wet. Running, Hex pulled his goggles out of a jacket pocket. He shoved them on one-handed and slid the wire into his PUDI jack just below his hairline at the temple. Once again he envied Sif her ability to see at night without artificial aid. The world turned to shades of gray and green, shapes forming out of the darkness. He nearly slammed into the first towering building that formed the barrier between Outland and Outer Morrow.
Sif’s gloved hand gripped his shoulder painfully hard and shoved him back against the wall. He glanced at her. Her beautiful face was hidden by the shadow of her black hood, her head cocked ever so slightly to the left. Hex turned very carefully and looked out into the darkness. He could hear the hum of drones; see their infrared lights through his goggles. None were too close, but the net was slowly closing in.
“Not much chance of getting to a subway access from here,” Hex said into the subvocals. Sif didn’t answer, but he’d hardly expected her to.
He felt his partner move and looked back at her. She was crouching, staring upwards, her face pale and damp. Hex followed her gaze and saw a large crenellation in the building above them. Most of the buildings in the city had carvings and outcroppings such as this. The concrete bell above them was quite large for the area, sticking out and forming a convenient ledge. Convenient if you want to jump three meters.
“I can’t make that leap straight up, love.” He looked back down at her.
Sif smiled up at him and interlaced her long fingers to form a step.
Hex sighed. He holstered his gun, checked the strap of the bag with their stolen food in it, and put a gritty, wet boot into her hand.
“Couldn’t we just shoot our way out of this in a blaze of glory like civilized people?” he muttered aloud.
Sif flung him upward into the air. He nearly missed the ledge of the ostentatious bell. His gloved hands scrabbled on it, and he winced at the noise he was making. Infrared light flared around him as a drone pinpointed their location. Hex hauled himself up, clinging precariously to the concrete. Sif joined him, leaping cleanly from the ground. She made anything physical look effortless.
Above and to the right was another bit of decoration. Slowly they made their way upward. Below they heard shouts but ignored them. One persistent drone kept up, climbing with them through the air. It was one of the egg-shaped spotter drones, at least, and not a full security model, which meant no gun.
No gun was good. Hex hated to be in a fair fight.
Hex drew his own gun and hung from the point of a concrete crown carved to look half-submerged in the building. The head-sized metallic construct drew near, the mist, now turning into a steady drizzle, forcing it closer in order to retain line of sight on the pair. Hex aimed and then closed his eyes against the bright flash of the electro pistol as he shot down the drone. It spiraled away into the darkness, echoing as it hit the pavement below.
“I just bought us a couple minutes ‘til they pinpoint us again, so let’s move.”
Sif climbed ahead of him, moving up the wall easily. They climbed higher until Hex felt as though his arms would never empty of blood again. No other drones had climbed this high and he wondered if they’d given up the hunt or if they’d just wait for the two to fall. So far they’d found no windows, no access points to the building they were climbing. He mused that their escape plan lacked some vital details in its construction.
There was a muffled curse and scrabbling off to the right and slightly above their position. Hex felt more than saw Sif shifting and moving towards the noise. He edged sideways, heading for the corner of the building. Sif had disappeared when he finally found enough purchase to risk looking up. Thankful for the roughened palms of his gloves, Hex gripped the edge of the building and cautiously swung his head around the side for a look.
Boots scrabbling on metal drew his gaze upwards. A couple meters above Sif leaned over the rail of a fire escape landing, staring down at him. She winked and beckoned to him. Hex couldn’t see a good way to get to the fire escape ladder without either leaping and hoping to catch the side of the ladder or sidling back along the wall and climbing higher. Sif would just jump.
He carefully counterbalanced his weight with his right arm against the corner and inched up the building. When he’d judged that he was on level with Sif he slid carefully around the wall again. She helpfully extended her hands towards him.
“This will be embarrassing if I fall,” he muttered.
“Only for about ten seconds,” said Sif.
Hex clenched his teeth and pushed away from the wall. For a split moment he was loose in the air, flying. Then his left hand gripped the rail while his right was caught expertly by Sif’s outstretched arms. He hauled himself over onto the landing.
Two of the Grey Guard, Casimir’s security force, lay piled against the far rail. To gain the ladder upwards, the two had to step over the bodies. Hex bent, partially to catch his breath, partially to check vital signs. They lived.
“Thanks for not killing anyone.” He looked up at Sif.
She shrugged and pushed him into the wall of the building. Her mouth, warm and soft, pressed against his as she grabbed a handful of curls to drag his head down to hers. He kissed her back, shivering as her body rubbed against his. Then he gently put a hand under her chin and lifted her face away from his own.
“Interesting timing, love,” Hex said. “Home first, perhaps.” He looked pointedly down at the unconscious guards they were practically standing on top of. Sif grinned at him and cupped his crotch suggestively. Then she stepped onto the ladder and began to climb.
Hex took a deep breath and started after her. It looked like it would be another cold, wet run across the roofs of the city.
* * *
(Continue to Chapter Two)