SEGMENT: COMPLEX PROPERTY; PERSENSE CPX
SOCIAL SCORE: NA, CPX-SPONSORED
THE COFFIN SMELLED OF SULFUR. It was dim and dingy, confining. Ray knew he was in the minority, but he found the tiny coffin apartment comforting. In the dark, his hands moved of their own accord. It was like working blindfolded, and he did it with a practiced fluidity. His stained fingers rolled up the thin, paper-shelled cylinder slowly, carefully. Strapped the missile safely in the pack with the drone. Allowed himself to exhale.
He sat cross-legged on the floor, hunched over a black pack. One knee touched the sagging, yellow mattress pushed up against the wall, the other knee touched the opposite wall. Through it he heard, and felt, muted thumps.
His neighbors changed almost daily, but the sounds remained the same. They were the sounds of a packed, destitute humanity. He could generally discern day-to-day activities from those of a sexual nature. It was all in the rhythm. Those were hour-long renters. Privacy on the cheap. Some days he could hear the usual thumping around a tiny coffin apartment. Other days he could hear full-blown, drug-fueled shouting matches through the paper-thin walls, which usually ended with the slamming of a hand, a fist, a body against the wall. Others ended on a silence so complete there could only be one explanation. He didn’t want to know. And he was certain they didn’t want to know about him.
Ray took a long pull of water from a gray canteen. The cool liquid slid down his throat. He replaced the lid, stuffed it in his pack then stood, stretching the tightness from his legs, the soreness out of his back. The monotony of his preparations had coaxed his body to a state of dull acceptance. But the task that lay before him required a quick presence of mind, an awareness of every aspect and detail that could affect the outcome of his work. A small voice inside told him not to do it, not to take a hit from the reserves of artificial chemicals stored inside his body, but the urge won out.
Just enough to get the blood flowing, and no more.
Through his system, Ray accessed the controls for his internal chemical reservoirs. Found the setting for Wake, bumped a thirty-percent dose. It was still early, but he planned on walking to work today. At normal pace it would take about an hour. By the time he arrived, the dose would still be active.
He slung the pack over his shoulders. No need for locking straps – it sealed automatically to his clothing – and made his way out of the A1 Coffin Apartments, onto the dim morning streets of lvl 1. Day time, yet darkness pervaded as always. The streets were already crowded with Arcside daytrippers, tourists making their way into the shadow of the massive mountain of a city. Brought in by the perception of safety in numbers. To these people, Lvls 1 and 2 were a curiosity, a freak show to be witnessed, but not experienced in their full dangers.
Ray headed south, against the flow of traffic. Up ahead, he could see the bright, razor thin line of light, east to west, that demarcated the southern edge of the megacity and its impenetrable shadow. He stepped over that line, from shadow to light, and felt the warmth of the sun on his face.
Out of the Arc, but still in Legacy territory. From beneath the shadow of the towering monolith that blotted out the sky, Ray continued to trek south, down into the shallow bowl where rusted rail lines cut through the array of buildings, dormant save the lean-tos and tents littering the rocky ground. The agglomeration of buildings stacked on buildings on giant levels of scaffolding receded behind him as he climbed the valley, past the crumbling war monument, and skirted the western edge of Signal Hill. He glanced left, to the east, and immediately regretted it. He shivered.
The homeless camp was more of a city unto itself, what looked like a cross between a shantytown and a shipping hub. Freight containers jumbled to the sky, held together with a web of fabricated lean-tos and fiber bridges. He had made the mistake of going through it, as opposed to around, once before. Never again. Despite the fact that it was actually more orderly than Legacy territory and by extension almost all of the Arc – save the upper levels – there was something about it that disturbed his military mind. Maybe the lack of hierarchy.
All that activity and no productivity, no commerce. At least none he could discern. Goddamn communists. Bugged the holy living piss out of him.
Might we suggest a sedative? The AI’s voice was a tickle inside his ear. Annoying and unbidden.
“No.” He shut out the AI.
The colorful freight containers and cracked opaque plastic roofs of Signal Hill shrank in the distance as Ray continued on his trek. When he passed the spot where the outer floodgates lay dormant in the ground, a point of demarcation between Legacy property and that of various small corporations and Complexes, the knot in his back unraveled.
Finally. Now he could enjoy the walk. The late fall, mid-morning air held a chill, but the sun was out and the air heating up, baking the fallen leaves dry. A sugary, earthy smell rose up lazily, lingered beneath the boughs of the tree-lined sidewalk.
Today’s job was at a local tourist destination. He scratched behind his ear. Doubts began to surface, like flotsam rising from a dark ocean. He pushed them down.
As he neared the job site, he varied his route. Standard operating procedure. East, then south, west, then south again as he wound through side streets that held leaning, dilapidated homes. They reminded him of ancient, bent people.
The architecture changed. The streets became broader; they held trees at regular intervals, branches ablaze with bright yellow, orange and red. The air smelled better, clean and fecund all at once.
The biggest difference is the people.
They moved with a purpose. A few even nodded and smiled.
He scratched behind his ear again, using the pad of his finger to feel the small welt that had formed there.
This place with its flower and tree-lined streets, outside the floodgates and beyond the deforming and sullying reach of the Arc, was really just a territory held by multiple small corporations working in concert. It would fall, too, and have to decide which side it was on. Complex or Legacy.
Ray rounded a corner heading back south and was met with loud music. Dead ahead, a twenty-foot high wall with a brick facade separated the Plaza from the rest of the city. It had gates that could lock down and turn the area inside into a walled fortress. Just outside those walls, the music emanated from a pop-up recruitment kiosk set back from the gate – a simple four-foot cube that could hold the weight of several people.
But it only ever held one. The recruiter – the person responsible for reeling the applicants in, turning potential recruits into pleebs.
A warmth bubbled up in his chest. The logo and tagline for PerSense, Civilian Defense Complex, were emblazoned in red on a giant white balloon that hovered forty feet above the cube. Five years in the service of the PerSense agenda and the kiosks hadn’t changed much. No need. Same loud music, same obnoxious recruiter jacked full of muscle juice hollering and cajoling.
It wasn’t the box, music or balloon that pushed people to sign their rights away in the service of a greater good.
It was Ray. Driving the fear.
Ray ambled by the PerSense kiosk, fifty yards from the pedestrian gate. “You there!” the recruiter shouted, pointing a finger at Ray. The man was stout, had the build of a wrestler: blocky jaw, crooked nose, cauliflower ears. He tilted his shaved head upward, looked down at Ray with a practiced solemnity. “Officer material right there.”
Ray smirked. He was tempted to tell the kid he was already on the payroll and outranked him by a vertical mile, but pushed it down. He looked away, pulled his hat down and took a right past the kiosk, walking parallel to the wall.
When the wall first went up the property owner had tried to bulldoze all the buildings surrounding it – a mix of old brick and concrete apartment buildings, none more than ten stories high. But the tenants had been organized and crafty; they sabotaged the equipment on a nightly basis. Eventually it had stopped being cost effective and the group had simply shoehorned the wall in-between the buildings it owned and the ones it didn’t.
Which was perfect for Ray, because the perimeter was lousy with dark and filthy alleyways. Good work spaces for people like him.
He plodded on for another few minutes, his pace leisurely, before ducking into a narrow passageway barely three feet wide.
He had used this one before. Draped in shadow from wall to wall – bordered on the Legacy side by a red-brick apartment building with crumbling, eroded mortar – it was walled off where the building ended, which meant no one had a reason to pass through. Correction. Almost no one.
Ray slipped his pack off, gently rested it on the ground and unzipped it. The drone inside was dull, grey and small, about the size and shape of his forearm, but dense. He took it out, hefted it. Fifteen pounds, give or take. So it didn’t get pushed around in the wind.
From a small, padded pocket he removed two cylinders the size of pencils and pushed them into sleeves mounted on the belly of the drone.
He unmuted the AI assistant, accessed the drone’s controls from his system and maneuevered the drone to take off.
Hello again, sir! Are we ready for another day of glorious, meaningful work? Might we take control of the drone and allow you to watch in leisure?
“No. And shut up while I’m flying.”
The target was a café on 47th, the street a main thoroughfare that ran through the walled city. Truth be told he’d rather be looking through the drone’s scope at the bums on Signal Hill instead of these people, who earned their keep. But this was his duty. PerSense had raised him up from the dregs of Legacy and given him purpose.
To rain fire and death. To cut Legacy off at the knees. To drive subscription, at whatever cost.
His system linked with the drone’s, so all controls were overlaid as a HUD on his system. He flew the drone straight up, some hundred feet above the wall. High enough to be out of a pedestrian’s field of view. Not that it made much difference. The drone’s skin was designed so the eye tended to slide around it.
“Volume lock,” Ray commanded the AI.
Twenty, give or take, on the umbrella-dotted patio. A constant crowd of pedestrians streamed by.
He locked on the middle of the café, armed the missiles.
The pencil missiles made a fizzing sound, like running water. They sped to the target in a domed Arc, taking the trajectory of a surface to surface missile. When they were forty-five feet above the patio their tiny chutes popped. The missiles drifted back and forth, tracking lazy circles downward. Another thirty seconds or so and they would penetrate the uppermost field of the café.
“Return the drone.”
Of course. Nicely done, might we add. Should net PerSense quite a few subscriptions today!
Yeah, he thought, but when will the real jobs come? I’m ready to do something more. Something bigger.
For this day, though, Ray’s job was mostly done. All that was left was the crying. And the panic. And, of course, the gore. He accessed the missiles’ cams, counted the targets one last time. A few couples, one family, a waiter. Oblivious to the fact that were playing out the last few moments of their lives. The pedestrians on the sidewalk were too numerous to count, but they would likely be shielded by the café’s security field. This particular store-front advertised perimeter defense. It gave people a warm fuzzy and a money-back guarantee, but the systems were stupidly simple to avert. Great at repelling and deflecting metal and items moving faster than 370 m/s, but shit with a paper-shelled pencil bomb drifting down at .5 m/s.
Ray slipped the pack over his shoulders, exited the alley. Headed back east.
He watched the leaves tumble down, listening to the birds’ bright calls in the crisp morning air. In the distance, the background hum of the city was suddenly studded with a dual pop-pop.
Screams, like the peals of an ambulance, ripped the air. It was human nature, but still so pedestrian. As Ray approached the gate to the plaza people streamed out, not looking back. The panic in their faces was wild, barely held in check by the flight response. Safety first, freak out later.
Set up the road a bit, back from the wall, the PerSense draft kiosk became flooded with applicants. Everyone knew that subscription to life in a Complex was the safest way to live, a guarantee against a violent death, they just failed to act on it until faced with the fact of their own mortality. The obnoxious pitch-man was enveloped in a sea of people, all clamoring to get his attention.
“One at a time!” he shouted. “There’s a home for everyone at PerSense.”
They were terrified people, and terrified people made hasty decisions. Ray watched them fidget anxiously as they waited for their turn to get sampled and enlist.
He stood, off in the distance, legs apart, chest out, watching his creation with pride. It must be the way an engineer felt after bringing his creation to life, watching it work precisely the way he’d designed it.
Ray took a deep breath. The air was cool, clean. It tasted wonderful.
What a beautiful day.