Chapter 1:

Chapter 1 (01-23-2473)

Simulcast Assassin

Somewhere across the vast expanse of cracked earth the color of dried blood, there’s a city. Most people, they’d probably say THE City, as if it’s the only one left.

It isn’t. But it is the only one left that matters.

The hydrogen cell bus in front of me hisses as spare pressurized gas tanks are connected to valves on the underside of it. Once they’re connected, large hinged plates lower back into place to cover them. The thing is less a transport and more a rolling fortress, with bulletproof glass, armor plating, and a pair of point-defense turrets concealed in small compartments on the vehicle’s roof. It’d be cheaper to take an unarmed electric shuttle instead, but hydrogen cell transports are the only ones capable of never having to stop on the way. No stops usually means safety in a part of the world like this. Usually.

I throw the duffel with what meager possessions I’m taking with me into the baggage hold, and climb the stairs into the interior. The tattered, stained interior is mostly empty, and I take a seat near the rear. Out the window, I can see the sprawling plastic and scrap metal mess of my hometown encircling a range of landfills the size of mountains. Parts of some of the soaring trash heaps are cut into terraces covered with drilling equipment, where any one of Hawkridge Corp.’s mining subsidiaries can be found drilling through hundreds of feet of petrified shit and fast food wrapper paste to find the bits of silicon and precious metal thrown away back before scarcity began to matter.

Below them, sprawled out in wide fields, are the piss refineries, where the surrounding areas pump their sewage to be skimmed and purified before being recycled back into the main water-debt network. All owned and managed by the Hawkridge Corporation, of course. Just like literally everything else.

Each seat in the bus has its own built-in satellite connection to the Hawknet, and for a small fee, you can also rent an absolutely ancient set of haptic gloves and a headset at least twenty years outdated if you want to do more than shop or watch something. Given the option, I press the synthetic print on my thumb against the touchpad on the screen in front of me, and watch as the screen shows a few drams of water-debt deducted from my account. With a faint hiss, a small hatch opens, and the gloves and immersion visor emerge from a containment slot in the left armrest. I boot into Hawknet, and the visor scans the RFID lacing housed in my aug-lenses for my personal information before granting me access. Before long, the bus begins rolling, and the life I’ve known since birth vanishes past the horizon, replaced by nothing but an endless rolling expanse of rust-colored dust.

Once upon a time, if Company history is to be believed, this all used to be fertile land covered in plants, fed by an endless supply of clean water falling from the heavens. Wild animals roamed in great packs under skies filled with clouds, and the sapient races lived alongside them, raising them for food and using the thick stalks of some plants as material to build their homes.

Yeah, right.

Next, some Company psyprop will be trying to convince us that back then there was no anger or sadness or violence or greed and everybody loved each other and absolutely nothing ever went wrong ever. It was an idyllic paradise, and if you just believe in the Company’s plan, they’ll restore Eden for the rest of us.

I guess you can say I’m a little skeptical.

The first and second days on the road pass in relative peace, with the gentle, consistent humming and rolling of the bus fading into the background.

Sometime during day three, I press my thumb against the touchpad in the latrine, and watch my water-debt balance rise by a couple gills as the urine drains into a holding tank underneath the bus. Once the bus reaches the City, the tank will be emptied into an exchange terminal where the waste will be piped back to the treatment refineries in towns like mine for recycling and returned to Hawkport. I get paid for the water I give up when I piss, the charter subsidiary gets paid when they drain their tanks at the exchange, the refineries get paid when they sell the purified water back to the City. And naturally, the Company takes a percentage of profit in tax every step of the way, so they make far more than they pay out.

I hear some commotion outside the bathroom. Then the bus begins to slow. I walk out to find the few other passengers all pressed against the left side windows, staring out into the open wastes. Joining them at an unoccupied section of glass, I could see what the fuss was about.

Now, I’ve never been in a heist before now, but it’s not hard to know one when you’re seeing it. A makeshift barricade blocks the road ahead, manned by nearly a dozen armed people in jumpsuits and facemasks. A half dozen rapidly approaching dust clouds moved to cut off the road behind. From the sound of it, they use combustion engines. Maybe biodiesel or something similar that doesn’t require a lot of electricity.

The vehicles encircle the bus. A couple of the masked bodies approach the driver’s box, and shout something unintelligible in a tone that’s hard to misunderstand. An automated warning plays over the exterior loudspeaker warning the bandits to find someplace else to be. Seeming to have not gotten the response they were looking for, one of the two men raises his rifle and opens fire. He gets about 3 rounds off before the bus’s point-defense system comes to life. Each of the guns whirrs like a mining drill, and the man disappears in a cloud of crimson paste. The man next to him disappears as well, then one by one the rust-coated dustrods that had surrounded the bus exploded into piles of scrap as the turrets tear into them. Within less than a minute, the entire thing is over as the few survivors run sprinting into the barren wilderness. Another automated message chimes in over the internal intercom in a disconcertingly cheerful tone.

“We here at Hawkridge Corporation pride ourselves on customer safety and satisfaction. We are currently experiencing a brief unexpected delay, and will resume travel momentarily. Please return to your seats and remain seated. The Hawkridge Corporation takes no responsibility for any injuries, abandonment, or death that may befall any individual who fails to comply with these instructions!”

As if on cue, a pair of men that had been talking quietly amongst themselves get up in unison and make their way to the rear of the bus. I see one a moment later, fishing nylon pouches and lengths of plastic hosing out of a ratty backpack next to one of the downed bandits outside. The other strips the bandit from the waist down. Cath-scavengers, and judging by their speed, experienced ones. Within moments they’ve got the catheter inside the first body, filling one of the nylon bags with yellow-brown urine.

Within a few minutes, the two of them have a dozen pouches of liquid gold stuffed into a much bulkier backpack on the seat between the two of them, and the bus is rolling down a featureless expanse of asphalt towards a black speck growing gradually larger on the horizon. Judging by the hungry, predatory looks on the faces of some of the other passengers, those two will get jumped for their newly-found riches before they make it thirty steps off the bus.

By sunset, the City is large enough to occupy the majority of the horizon, a seemingly endless, glittering expanse of steel and glass and light towering to the sky. As we get closer and closer, more and more traffic fills the road around us and the sky above us, until we make it within the outer periphery and disappear among the countless other vehicles into the labyrinthine maze of high-rises and concrete. The bus takes numerous turns, before finally taking a ramp down into the Lower Warrens and out of the fading sunlight.

The Lower Warrens are the subterranean undercity that resides under Hawkport proper. Devoid of natural light, relying on insulation from the surrounding earth to keep the temperature down, and packed with bodies well past the point of safety or comfort, it’s easy to see why topsiders call this place the Rat’s Nest.

The bus finally arrives to the station, and the cath-scavengers are off the bus first. I get off last. The station is grimy and poorly lit, with a single vacant-eyed employee sitting behind bulletproof glass selling tickets to sunny Literally Nowhere and scenic Don’t Even Bother. For only a few drams more, you can even get to either via an air transport with an ironclad Definitely Won’t Get Shot Down By Terrorists® clause.

Where I am going is a small apartment block a dozen or so blocks from the station called Sunshine Heights, located at the bottom of an earthen depression near one of the lowest points in the Warrens. The place is, by every metric conceivable, an absolute shithole. But it only costs two quarts a month, has a direct fiber optic line to the Hawknet servers, and is owned by someone who doesn’t ask questions. This is, surprisingly, enough to satisfy my staggeringly low expectations.

A few blocks away from the building, sounds of a scuffle draw my attention to a nearby alley. Peeking inside as I pass, I spot a pair of familiar faces getting worked over by a group of tweakers with bats. A moment later, one of the junkies happens to glance my way as he jerks the backpack off the scavenger’s body. He stops and straightens, taking a step towards me as he points his blood-soaked club at me.

“Whadda you lookin’ at, piss-purse?” He says.

I give him a nod and a wave as I keep on walking. I’m not a hero, even if I do play one for a living. And besides, if you’re gonna do something as stupid as be seen carrying a large amount of money in broad daylight, you probably deserve getting jumped. You want to not get jumped? Carry a gun. Or find religion, if that sort of thing tickles your fancy.

Or do what I do and keep your damn head down and your mouth shut. Life’s short and brutal as it is. There’s no need to make it shorter and more brutal by drawing attention to yourself.