There may have only been two types of weather on this layer as far as its residents were concerned.
It was said that whenever it rained, the people up there may have been stricken with grief and it was their tears that flowed down to wash away the sorrows of those below as well. Many speculations were made but only a handful survived.
No, it's the drool of the gods as they slept. No, it's just contaminated water carrying nasty diseases should one expose themselves for too long; like ultraviolet rays from this ‘sun’ or whatever. No, it might as well be this city's thermal control in action. However, any interpretation was unnecessary… irrelevant. Not because it's useless, but because—
Because rain wasn't beautiful.
The people at this level believed at nothing beautiful comes from above… except, of course, for one.
It's a drizzle today, yet nobody seemed to mind. Everything operated as usual; the gigantic screens featuring products almost no one on this area could afford, flickering lights the government had no time to fix, occasional sparks—and the even rarer arcs of bluish white from exposed wires from the transport cars, restless boots of citizens splashing rainwater as they travelled through the dirty streets wondering either how to make money or how best to spend it. Not much chatter from the shoppers. Only the shuffling of feet and the clink of coins as they changed owners.
This particular Merkado of the Commoner layer saw a normal day.
The smell of rust was everywhere, considering the whole city was practically made out of it, with concrete being the second… no, make that third. The residential area where the bulk of the people lived were made of rubbish; wood, cloth, plastic, anything that could be put together to have an excuse of a house. Thanks to the drizzle which went for hours now, everything that might wrinkle one's nose were combined into one nasty odor. Fortunately, everyone had masks on which negated the unpleasant stuff.
A figure wearing a mask with a Roman numeral ‘one’ held a bottle of cloudy liquid high up. He stood in the middle of a sizable crowd of cloaked individuals wearing masks of varying designs. Despite not knowing what lied behind their masks, he knew their eyes were up there… to the bottle of sinamak he held.
If this shopping district heard little to no activity, then it's the task of the auctioneers to liven things up. This one area of the Merkado was leagues different than the rest—it's a covered, highly-monitored space where traders from different districts of the Commoner layer could sell their items. With the huge Commoner area, commodities naturally became a trademark of sorts. For instance, one district had their vinegar made from cane, while others were from coconut, and so forth. This triggered a rather nomadic lifestyle for those aiming to hit big coin and hopefully say goodbye to this damned layer where everyday was a constant struggle of life and death. One such person was ‘I’.
I gave the bottle a slight shake to gauge their reaction. Everyone still looked up. Looks like they're interested. Well, compared to the other auctioneers busting their vocal chords shouting, I was as calm as he needed to be. Confidence was an important factor, whether their faces were shown or not.
“Alright folks!” he said. “Why don't we get this started? All-natural sinamak made with the finest ingredients.”
“Your starting price?” one man asked. A seemingly harmless question, but depending on I's answer, it might tremendously affect his business.
“Two Phis,” he shortly answered.
“What about assessing its quality?” another said.
I sighed. “You know, I wouldn't be here if it's not up there. So, are we gonna do this or not?”
The crowd of assorted masked figures whispered among themselves. Some left for the other auctioneers while others seemed to gaze at the item on I's hand, contemplating whether the starting price was good enough or not.
From a seller's perspective, two Phis weren't enough if one would be going for profit. The sinamak's ingredients alone would demand for a higher value. The salt mines for one were under heavy supervision procuring it through illegitimate means was the only way to have it at the Commoner layer. As for the vinegar itself…
Fortunately, the government lets some things slide. I wouldn't be punished for having quality sinamak even if he might've used smuggled ingredients. What mattered was the state of the product as it was registered for the Merkado. If it was stolen in its ‘assembled state’ then he'd be a criminal. Same with firearms or prosthetics. One could steal parts yet legally sell them, provided they weren't caught while acquiring said parts. As far as selling items, no questions were asked so long as the quality of the merchandise appeared to be what was claimed for it.
Soon enough, the crowd seemed to come to the same realization. Truth be told, I wasn't lying. The bottle he held wouldn't be sold to these unrefined people had he possessed enough Phi. The thought of parting with a fine product was indeed painful, like how those Elites up there would with their wine, it was a complicated feeling.
“F-Five Thetas… Two Phis and five Thetas!” someone blurted out. It's unreasonable to up the bid with the highest currency from the beginning anyway. If quality was not a problem, then the next one would be prices.
After all, Commoners would be Commoners. Only a handful knew how to discern value, or in this case—
—How it'd correlate and to what magnitude it'd affect the most precious asset of all, beauty.
To date, only one such individual managed to do it swiftly and perfectly, and others, while not as keen, had the aptitude for it.
Hmm, there's still reluctance, I thought. Although that guy with the leaf mask seemed to want to bid higher. He must've been waiting for someone or something to give him that final push.
And yes, I was one of those lucky individuals.
He had been observing every movement from the crowd that might be a potential buyer and was thinking of ways how to direct the flow so they'd be swept by the urge to buy. Should I use that? He contemplated. No, it's too soon. Although everyone wore masks and cloaks, I had a vague idea of their expressions when he put his mind to it. Obviously, it wasn't foolproof but it's enough that he relied on it and came this far.
“Then make that twenty Thetas!”
And so on. The bidding was up to a slow start. The other auctions were heating up but I chose this outcome instead. As the price crawled up, some more participants of his circle left.
However, that's also the outcome some bidders wanted. Most often than not, those with cash yet possessed no skill on spending it would rely on their environment for decisions. A bad habit, but these people strangely were the same bunch that could save up the fastest. Perhaps it's nature's way of reminding everyone that beauty was indeed equally showered, but the people were long passed that point now.
Surely enough, as the dumb buyers were weeded and, the price began gaining pace.
“Two hundred Thetas!”
I gripped the bottle tighter. This was what he expected. A crowd of people he could entrust his sinamak with. He wouldn't want giving it away to some random who wouldn't enjoy it for what it's worth. If he'd be selling it, then he'd gladly do so to connoisseurs.
“Keep it up, people!” I couldn't keep his excitement from leaking. “Who's Merchandise would be thankful for their Concierge today?”
With the atmosphere in his control, I now waited for the next step to happen. It might be the point he's been waiting for.
Everything was pricey here. Even a sweet potato that's gone bad would still fetch decent money when sold. Only the people up there—Elite layer—had the right for fresh produce. I himself had nothing but stale, moldy bread for as long as he knew, only opting for the goop-slash-food that was the government ration. In exchange for four hours of hard labor after entering your mask ID, one would be able to feed themselves for the rest of the day, but if one had a burned tongue or their nerves there were already weak then consuming half-rotten stuff was way better. Having to work on dangerous places for a helping of mud disguised as food wasn't very appealing especially to the young. As a side note, it wasn't nutritious either, making it the last resort since one could eat it in advance.
That's one of the reasons I chose to sell sinamak. He just acquired information for a delivery of leafy greens, among other vegetables, to the Commoner layer two days from now and, since prices surrounding condiments usually peaked during those times, I evaded it at all costs.
After all, three Phis today beats six in the future, especially when surveillance tightens around the Merkados due to the influx of buyers hoping for fresh produce. ‘Fresh’ meaning anything that's better than the usual half-rotten stuff. Even after employing both manual and automated checking, good stuff sometimes made it down.
The bidding came to a standstill for a couple of minutes until someone finally raised it to three Phis.
I couldn't help but grin underneath his mask. A Phi for profit was more than enough. In fact, if only the crowd stopped for no more than three seconds he would be happily trading his sinamak away. Fortunately, the bidding continued on his favor. A little extra wouldn't hurt.
Soon however, he found out that the boon was actually a bane. His calculations came to the point that he needed to actually end the bidding. His gut instincts told him about some subtle developments on the area.
Just when he's about to speak—
“Everyone! Look!” A guy wearing a mask printed with a beak barged in on I's audience waving a piece of paper around.
“The hell?” the current highest bidder, a man with a mask that had three claw marks across turned to the newcomer, annoyed.
“What's the matter, dude? And paper?”
“Th-The…” he stammered, pointing to the sinamak while waving the paper around.
“Son of a—” the man with a clawed mask design angrily shoved his way to the shocked beak mask. “If you're gonna write it on crap, at least don't just stand there like an idiot,” He read the information then quickly went back to the front row. “Four Phis. Give that thing to me. Now!”
There's a couple of gasps but one sly person snatched the piece of paper and was surprised himself.
“HOLY SHIT! QU CO! THIS SINAMAK IS QU CO!!” he shouted.
With a cry that begged for attention, of course the whole auction area was in disarray. Bidders that were supposed to be on other exhibits rushed to I's and started blurting out bids there while I's original participants became enraged to the invasion, asserting that they were the only ones who should have the right for the product. In a matter of seconds, the once peaceful bidding became a brawl between I's and the other auctioneers' audiences.
Oblivious to the chaos, and as if on cue, a holographic advertisement of some medicine came flashing bearing the word ‘Qu’.
Nobody knew how the corporation came to be. It was as if everyone was born after Qu Co and not a soul dared ask the W and H questions. Even the Elites seemed to be content on knowing Enn Qu and Nej Qu were the ones who owned the giant that monopolized everything be it food, clothing, medicine, or information. Well, so long as they raked were profitable, the stakeholders seemed not to care how they run their business.
I, nor these people fighting to death over a Qu Co sinamak, had not the slightest idea what Enn nor Nej looked like. Perhaps the wealthy knew, but even on big occasions, the two were never seen. Information from the public database suggested Enn looked like a harmless doll while Nej her gallant knight and that's it. They're both beautiful; with the female Commoners going so far as to establish a fan club for Nej apparently.
In any case, the mysterious Qu Co upheld but one standard: any product registered under the brand was guaranteed to be of the highest beauty possible. Meaning, Qu Co bread was more delicious, more nutritious, and more appealing than, say, local bread which was more deadly what with the molds and all that was unhealthy.
Meanwhile, I finally found the timing to get down from the auctioneer's platform. Despite the area reeking of sweat and blood, he managed to come out unscathed for the most part. One of the auctioneers sneered when he saw I saying, “To hell with you and your Qu Co shit!” before spitting to him and running off. Apparently, that guy held an expensive-looking fabric ripped due to the commotion. It can't be helped though, I thought, sighing at the damp part of his cloak he used to shield himself from the angry seller.
A sharp whistle cut through the riot. The police had finally arrived.
I heard the auction area quieting down with only orders and footsteps being the only sounds. Despite being so volatile at times, generally, everyone was obedient to the law. Well, they were left with no other choice anyway.
The police seemed to be searching for the source of the incident and it's obvious what to do next. I was already on the move.
He already had the map data saved and memorized as backup in case things went south but he still went as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. Even when things went well, never let your guard down, he thought.
After rounding up one of his marked ‘safe’ corners, he began the next step for his escape.
“As expected, they spared no effort,” He sighed as the police—or those wearing dog masks—searched the Merkado while barking orders to each other. Signal was weak around here and they must've known better than use the wireless. Well, if they truly were using their brains, they could've reported this problem and let the government fix it or implement stricter measures.
I hovered over the numerous windows flashing on his mask trying to input strings and strings of commands into it. Wirelessly connected to the brain thanks to a chip embedded into their skulls, the masks became an extension of everyone's selves aside from providing identification while simultaneously protecting their identities. It was a crucial piece of information that would ruin ones life or allow one to gain advantage over the other. Yes, beauty was an asset but with it were dangers.
The hacking took a lot of time even after I practiced for some time. He wasn't a master hacker; he only followed these procedures from a real pro and repeated it until finally making it second nature. Still, with the concentration needed to pull it off, I always secured himself first.
He started feeling lightheaded and his vision blurry, like the screen was emitting some sort of harmful radiation when in fact, it doesn't affect anyone anymore. Whenever he attempted this taxing task, he could feel his brain melting, like it's about to burst. He couldn't feel anything other than his face and head anymore. The rest of his body might've sublimated already due to overheating.
Upon inputting the last command, I's screen became clear. It had another purpose but he always just pulls out a copied data at this point and pressed ‘OK’.
After a couple of tense minutes, he's finally done.
The mask that had a big roman numeral for one was nowhere to be found. Instead—
Someone was clapping.
Still dizzy, I backed away from the source of the sound.
“Impressive,” A huge figure revealed themselves from the dark corner. He was wearing a dog mask albeit with fiercer design. “So that's how the great criminal escapes, eh, Mister Mask Stealer?”
I—or rather, ‘Blank Mask’ instinctively touched his mask, now without any pattern in it, then took a defensive stance.
“Oh, I wouldn't do anything reckless. Being a little high up on the force changes ones way of thinking, you know? You should try it—oops, my bad.”
He jokes and appeared to be at ease yet Blank Mask knew that unassuming form left no gaps for him to pass through. Neither of them showed hands and with their cloaks in the way, it became a part of strategy. In a fight, the first to move usually ends up losing except if their experience or luck was greater than the other. In this case, Blank Mask knew he'd be lost either way. Even if he trained to be a decent fighter, it wouldn't suddenly beat years of harsh reality.
Also, that menacing aura that could kill just by him standing there… who would believe that pacifist bullshit?
“As if I'd believe your bullshit,” Blank Mask finally said it. He chinned at the bunch awaiting orders behind him.
The dog stifled a chuckle. “Guess not. Well, how about this: I promise no one would lay a hand on your Merchandise if you surrender.”
“Is that the best you could offer?”
“Oh? Name your price then.”
“How about you let me go?”
“No can do. You know full well what you're doing ain't nice, right?”
“Hoh? I'm just selling stuff at the Merkado."
"How was stealing mask patterns a crime? I haven't hurt anybody as far as I'm concerned.”
“Identity theft is a heavy crime.”
“Heavier than anything the gangs could do apparently.”
Blank Mask had a point though. The fact that he stole identities from gangs to enter Merkados automatically made him a hoodlum while the actual criminals were left by the law. Even the resolute officer seemed affected by it.
Good, Blank Mask thought. Those behind me still weren't ordered to attack. This one must've been meaning to be as diplomatic as possible.
Unfortunately for him, he gave Blank Mask enough time to recover from fatigue. Slowly inching his hand underneath so as not to appear suspicious, he grabbed the item he needed to perform another escape plan.
At the same time, ever so slightly, the officer shifted. He sensed it? Gotta give it to him and his experience, all right.
Blank Mask was waiting for his timing when the huge man before him finally parted his cloak… and threw ‘it’ at him—
“—!! Huh?” Even the grunts behind seemed to not understand. The metal handcuffs fell quite a ways and slid the rest the of the distance off until finally arriving at his feet.
The officer grinned. “Your Merchandise would still be eligible to participate at the Fair without discrimination. The thing would have to work twice as hard but that's a small tradeoff for everything you've done so far. Who knows, maybe someone up there would be its new Concierge,” Even with their masks, his gaze seemed to pierce through Blank Mask's. “Let's end this on a peaceful note, Mask Stealer.”
Blank Mask hesitated. It might be some sort of motion-triggered trap. A lot of stuff appeared to be useless when in fact it fetched for a high price when sold to the correct hands. If he kicked it away though, he'd be a goner for sure.
It was brief, but he didn't see any guns or strange weapons when he threw the handcuffs. Weird for him to only carry a sword around when a tiny bullet fired kilometers away could be the end of everything.
Nevermind all that!
With the resolve of not turning himself in, Blank Mask raised his hand. Holding a syringe, he plunged it straight to his neck before anyone could react.
“SHIT!” The officer lunged as quickly as he could and tried grabbing him to avail.
Blank Mask was already gone.
‘Stork’, ‘Lily’, ‘Phalanges’, ‘I’, et cetera. The mysterious identity thief dubbed ‘Mask Stealer’ went by many names, all of which were his victims. He only targeted members of huge syndicates and apparently only used their masks to peddle stuff at Merkados. Before, he only sold cheap stuff for a Phi or two but, all of a sudden, his petty crimes turned to be a very deceitful ploy of unknown motives, the police then regarded him as a dangerous criminal.
Identity theft was a common occurrence that's why everyone protected their masks at all costs because that piece of plastic lied between the boundary of life and death. Many cases of people being framed or mistakenly killed by the underworld groups were due to stolen mask datas. Of course, the punishment for it was so severe those who attempted would rather kill themselves.
A living hell. Literally.
Blank Mask stared at the Commoner layer below as he dashed through. The hot pipes intersecting with each other would be baffling for someone unaccustomed to be so high up, but he's too used to it he could pick which pipe to follow and locate where it'd lead to. Obviously, he only memorized the important routes but it's no easy feat especially when setting foot here was illegal. Currently, this path led directly to the residential area of District 22.
Supposedly, these pipes delivered steam for public use, or mainly to power the generator there.
The Elites should be enjoying their cool season for now hence the condition here. When it's time to switch weathers however, the Commoners still got the short end of the stick. Personally, he preferred this sweltering heat than the cold that made moving a hassle. Even Blank refused to go out when it's close to zero at the layer.
His boots wouldn't hold much longer. The heat was too much for his beat-up equipment that he could already smell the pungent odor of burned rubber mixed in with rust.
Suddenly, his stomach spasmed and he felt the urge to throw up. It wasn't the air and he knew what it was.
“Side effect already kicking in, huh…”
The heat surely made matters worse. He started gasping for air and his throat burned.
Blank Mask clicked his tongue at the worst possible outcome. As if that wasn't enough, the officer he encountered earlier blocked his path again.
“You've got balls, I'll give you that,” the man said.
“Huff… puff… how…”
“Oh? That thing's also Qu Co despite being in the ‘dangerous’ category,” He did some stabbing action to his neck, just like what Blank Mask did earlier. “ ‘For patients with messed up… uhh… whatchamacallit’. In any case, you shouldn't be using it… under normal circumstances, that is.
“And to answer your question, if it's available to you, it's available to everyone.”
Sweat trickled from his chin, turning into vapor the instant it hit the pipes with a sizzle. He couldn't flee anymore. Using that drug the second time within a short interval would definitely be bad news even if he succeeded escaping for good. No, he thought. I couldn't let myself be the one being taken care of. Anything but to tarnish my pride as her Concierge.
“Great,” the officer nodded, pleased. “Now I just have to wait until you're unconscious before hauling your thieving ass back to HQ.”
“You haven't… ughh… answered. How did you… know?”
The man only tapped his mask. They wore the design exactly because they excelled at searching their target, like a hunting dog. In a city where every mask, every action monitored, searching the database to locate possible routes the perpetrator might take was a cinch. Nobody could pull off the same trick over and over again and assume they had the authorities fooled.
Signal was also strong here. Threats continued overwhelming Blank Mask even as his consciousness barely held on.
He again inched his hands to a pocket.
“Don't think I'd fall for the same trick twice. I just thought you'd bluff your way out before that's why you managed to escape here,” He looked down at the bustling Commoner layer and whistled. “You sure jumped one helluva distance though.”
Blank Mask didn't waste the chance and struck first. His dagger might be light and useless on heavy armor but he could at least use it in some ways.
He went straight to the dog. A strong fist was about to meet his face so he, anticipating the counter, ducked to evade. With momentum on his favor and with all the strength he could muster, he slammed his weapon downward.
The officer shifted his boot to block the blow. The weapon was sharp as it was tough; it didn't chip off or bend upon hitting reinforced carbon fiber. It even got through.
He knew Blank Mask would target not him but the pipe underneath his feet. Still looking down, he said, “Clever, but not enough.”
Blank felt a weight around his stomach. He was getting carried! The dagger plunged deep into the officer's prosthetic foot that he couldn't take it. Talk about bad luck. He could've at least hit something organic with his blade for once. Well, his right hand all the way up to the ball and socket joint was metal. He shouldn't just hope for someone from the police to retain human body parts, or at least somewhere he could exploit anyway.
As it turned out, he couldn't resist and got carried. Even if he tried, this guy immediately sensed his intentions and suppressed him in painful ways. He even let him fall face first into the scorching pipes only to catch him at the last second, further proving that resistance was futile.
“I see. So this was your so-called authentic sinamak, eh?” he said, observing the bottle. “Great as salad dressing and sauces… wait. You didn't happen to know about the shipment, right?”
Blank Mask didn't answer. His consciousness waned every passing second.
The officer shrugged. “Meh, doesn't matter. You could never hope to understand the ones controlling this whole world. Not you, not me. No one.”
Maybe he's right. Nobody had the power to change anything. Despite him trying his best for years now, he never saw significant improvements. He still couldn't win the gambles he took. He hadn't made progress with his hacking… his tactics… his trading instinct… nothing. Even if he did, those were offset by the harsh reality. A damned Commoner destined to stagnate and eventually rot away with neither a soul that remembered nor a legacy to his name.
Maybe… just maybe…
It's about time to admit it…
He's barely keeping his eyes open…
It felt like he's underwater. Something just crashed. His body seemed to be moving too much. What's happening..?
The clinking of metal. Perhaps coin.
And then, darkness.
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