Chapter 1:

The Undercity Streets

Code: Zero Defect

Chatter, so loud.

Footsteps amidst the damp concrete, perhaps just as loud.

I made my way through the busy and murky street market and into a near-empty bylane. Doesn't look like too much is going on. A couple of guys off to the side with cigarettes between their fingers, and a pair who just left an obscured strip club. Everything seems normal... for now.

My presence seems to be catching the eyes of some bystanders. No matter. The only thing I need to do is to keep on walking. As long as I make it clear that I'm not a threat, they'll let me pass. However, on some occasions, not seeming like a threat is also a cause for concern.

I pulled up my mouth mask and continued forward. Seems like trouble is knocking.

"Hey, kid," said a man as he approached.

I tilted my head just slightly to see three of them walking towards me.

"Shouldn't you be at home?" he asked genuinely. "It's way too late for you to be out here, especially at this hour."

"Immediate circumstances have kept me from being in the comfort of my home," I replied.

He raised an eyebrow to which I bit my tongue. My... 'proper' dialect isn't one that is commonly found in the undercity. I never really got used to the way they speak down here.

"And what are these circumstances?" the man asked.

These guys don't seem that dangerous. At the very least, they're willing to talk, and their tone indicates that they mean no harm.

"Manfred," I said, which caught them off guard. "Have you seen him?"

"Ol' Manny, huh...?" the man muttered. "What business you got with him?"

"Let's just call it a business meeting."

Out here, I'm a walking time bomb. Whatever I do can mean the death of everyone around me. It's best to not involve them any more than this.

"I see..." the man said. "You caught him a bit too late, kid. Ol' Manny's been done in."

"What do you mean?"

He exchanged nervous looks with the others behind him. Did something happen to Manfred? As far as I know, there wasn't a bounty on his head.

"Ain't so sure you wanna see him right now," the man warned. "But... I won't keep you if you're really feelin' it."

"Show me," I said adamantly.

After a momentary pause, he let out a sigh. "Follow me."

The three of them began guiding me through the murky street. Along the sidewalks, everyone from homeless people to prostitutes. I can't say I blame them. In a city like this, it's difficult for the common folks to get by.

Neon signs lit up the darkness of the night, but most of them were flickering. A great number of graffiti art was plastered on the walls, covering almost every empty space. Within the backdrop of this quiet street, the scent of blood whisked through the air.

Normal, huh? No... There's nothing normal about this place.

In front of us was a crime scene. Electric tape was set up around a bloodied body. Upon closer inspection, it was the very man I was looking for.

"Ol' Manny was caught in a sting operation,'' the man next to me spoke softly to avoid attention. "He was dealin' weapons to an unknown recipient, and the coatsmen were there waiting for him."

"... Is that so...?" I muttered.

"This business meetin' you were gonna have with him... That wouldn't happen to be what this is all about, would it?"

"No. I had no idea."

Three guards, all armed. Doesn't look like there are more. Plenty of space, but not much cover. A ton of witnesses, but I doubt any of them will say anything.

"Look at those fuckers," one of the men behind me growled. "They just come in and mess with whoever they want just because they're with the High Order."

"And you're sure that these are the ones who killed Manfred?" I asked.

"Positive. I saw the three of them beatin' the poor guy until he was nothing but a deformed husk of his former self."

So that's how it went down. Judging by the way they're standing over there laughing and patting each other on the back, they've not a single shred of remorse for what they've done.

"Do they do this often?" I asked.

"Hell, yeah, they do. And it pisses me off that we can't do anything about it."

"Do me a favor, then. You're about to witness something you don't normally see. Keep these streets quiet, will you?"

"Eh? What are you about to do, kid?"

From a sheath that was strapped around my leg, I pulled out a curved dagger.

"Spring cleaning," I answered.

With that, I dashed towards the crime scene. It didn't take long before the coatsmen noticed me running at them.

"H-hey! Stop right-" was all he could say before I slashed him down.

The other two lifted their pistols and shot at me, but their efforts were futile. I like to think that I'm quite fast. Not fast enough to dodge point-blank bullet shots, but enough to read their trajectory range from a distance.

Right when they ran out of bullets, I pushed forward, slicing off the augmented arm of one before stabbing the other dead in his chest.

When I pulled the dagger out, a shower of sparks flew out.

Disgusting... the High Order and their damned technology. Giving up their humanity for the sake of power is one thing I will never understand.

I knelt down next to the lifeless body of Manfred. His eyes and mouth were both opened, perfectly capturing the emotional distress moments before his life ended.

"Rest well, old friend," I said as I shut his eyes. "You will be remembered."

Manfred was an arms dealer? Ex never told me about that, but... It's not like I had a reason to know.

"Hey, kid... Who... are you?" the same man from before asked cautiously.

I swung my dagger to the side, ridding it of the blood that covered it. From the interior of my coat, I pulled out a small dagger and hurled it towards the wall next to me.

Their heads turned to see the dagger sticking out of a wanted poster. It shows a masked individual by the name of "Strider." The bounty was a whopping two million credits.

"If blaming me will save your life, then don't hesitate," I said.

"You're... Strider?" he gasped.

I simply brushed the dust off of my coat and walked the other way. When did they increase my bounty? Last time I checked, it was at one million and five hundred thousand.

Oh, well. Another successful raid to add to the books.