>J29[better_luck]

They were already putting her to good use. It was a clever reskin. Holograms were not cheap.

The man stepped off my bike.

“Oh hell,” I swore.

I stopped in place. From that moment I was counting the heartbeats.

How stupid could I have been? Even one was enough. And there was someone who knew I was an easy mark.

“Fuck me. Do we have to do this?” I pleaded. My gaze turned back the other way. I may have been exhausted, but I could still outrun this bitch. I was always one of the fastest.

Just then a white van came to a stop at the mouth of the opposite passage exit. Its side door suddenly rolled back.

I couldn’t take my time, here. I had to work fast.

My hand found the gun stuffed down my pants and everything slowed down. I carried out the motions, unpracticed and unprepared. As I drew mine, so did the motorcycle rider.

I didn’t think, I didn’t wait. I squeezed the trigger.

The kickback forced me to take hold with both hands. I kept firing, each gunshot as jarring as the last. Bright flashes took my sight. So I just kept firing, hoping. With his partner approaching behind me, he would hesitate.

It was over before I knew it. Empty clicks sounded. The motorcycle rider had fallen back, one out of nine had saved my life.

Then, she bashed me over the head.

I cried out as the extendable baton connected with my skull. My knees impacted the pavement and I fell over, hard. With instinct, my roll put me on my back. I was able to hold up my one arm to take the next swing, cradling my head with the other. Steel met steel, deflecting her blow and letting out a terrible clang.

I could actually feel the deep dent she struck.

“Fuck!” I kicked randomly, managing to hit something with a crack.

She screamed and stumbled sideways into the tight alley walls.

Without the strength to stand on my own, I could only crawl and try to brace myself against the corridor to work my way up.

Halfway to my feet, I saw her limping towards me, raising back her swing.

I threw a punch in the dark. My fleshy hand tagged face and pain shot up my limb. Again, I yelled in surprise.

Backing up, my glance caught empty air where the motorcycle rider had been. Taken off, perhaps just grazed and cowardly. My eyes were darting, trying to track everything in the unlit alley.

The woman mechanic had recovered, her black baton just a glint in the dark. On her face was a rubber mask, I finally noticed. A snarling black bear with glossy eyes.

We were deadlocked. She wouldn’t approach, I wouldn’t run.

She yelled at me. I would forget what exactly.

The white van honked twice. The limping woman began to back away. When I realized she was giving up, my legs nearly gave out. A steady torrent of insane obscenities and threats had been streaming out my mouth and I hadn’t even realized. Blood thumped in my ears. I had been screaming yet again.

She flipped me off as she threw herself through the door.

The van tires squealed, the taillights quickly disappearing.

God bless being more trouble than I’m worth.

I didn’t stay another second, first retrieving an empty gun, then getting cat and head in hand. The elevator ground door was so near.

I’d been mugged before, but nothing like that. I should have known.

Adrenaline caused an eerie quietness to fall on the world. At this time of night, now, save for the rainfall and gunshots’ lingering ringing, there was nothing.

But I had made it.

Blood streaming down from my scalp stung as it entered my eye. Half blinded, I still had the last stretch of walking ahead of me. I needed to get out of the rain, collect my things, and steal an hour of rest if I could.

If secret demons and muggers couldn’t kill me, fuck if another mile would.

//////////

When I had opened the door to my apartment, the first thing I saw were the red numbers on the wall. An inlaid clock ticked down to forced repossession and the beginning of the cleaning process. I had taken the time I needed to pack everything up, finally sitting down.

The cat was wandering about the room when I’d finished. He’d taken a shit under the bed. I considered taking one on the bed myself. They were going to burn everything anyway.

Beside me, the box of my few possessions was shallowly packed.

Just clothes, a laptop, some equipment, and food. When I thought of what I had to my name, digital achievements came to mind first, honestly. I’d beaten the Tetrarun on the hardest difficulty. I almost could have gone pro at one point, before the panic attacks and cold sweats caught up to me.

But I could never jack into the commercial system again. The sync up would immediately tell Smiler the naughty things I’d done. All of that was behind me.

“Come on, Cat.” I patted the bed. She turned her head but made no motion.

I sighed. Delilah came back to mind. I had never gotten her to come to my apartment, though I had really wanted to give it a try. Now I dreaded telling her about anything which had happened. But I would have to call her back eventually.

Unless I just… ghosted. The thought brought a deep uneasiness. That wasn’t something I wanted or could ever bring myself to do.

But I wasn’t sure where I would go from here. Beyond anything, I had wanted direction, but that direction was now pointing straight for hell. I had been homeless once before, back when I’d known Uriel. But that was so long ago it might as well have been a dream.

This is real.

The red countdown carried on and I had fifteen minutes left. Fifteen minutes just to stare at the glow, to shower or simply crawl into my covers and squeeze out the last moments of respite I could cling to.

Shaking out my odorous jacket, I started after my miserable tabby cat. There was nothing for me here.

I was done waiting around.

 

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>J28[mediocre_ideas]

From rock bottom, it can only get better, right?

That bike had been with me through thick and thin. When it had all been too much I would ride out, put myself in the hole for a few months, work off the insurance debt, then do the dance again.

But it was gone now and I was walking the streets alone. Over a thousand in Bits burning in my pocket.

My building was somewhere up ahead. I had tried to track down a garage within a reasonable distance. But with my heart and sedentary lifestyle, the trek was killing me. I had reached the point that my mind slowed to a dull rumination while I carried on, unsure if I was even going the right way.

The highway was over my head, rumbling and squealing. Under its coverage, I was dry enough, so I had followed it by memory. Every mistake would be just another toll on my muscles for the morning.

I stepped over people lying in the street. Navigated around blockades of garbage.

Even with the money in my pocket, I wasn’t really afraid. Theft was an uncommon crime in this era. If you could call it that. Nothing singled me out, so I was safe. Safe because petty theft stood to gain no one anything.

Every homeless person on this road had a phone on their person. They were dispensed from vending machines like cheap candy, free on every street corner. An ear in every pocket, the currency of privacy a price they were blind to.

They want our secrets.

The vagrants’ grimy faces and absent stares were lit by Smiler’s enticing eye in their palm. Even in the grim darkness of the underpass, the candied glow remained.

I grimaced.

Looking up and around, I had to admit it to myself; I wasn’t sure where I was. All the concrete looked the same at this hour. Every shop was a chain, every piece of architecture the same repetition. There was no such thing as a landmark.

As I kept walking I stayed on the lookout. As much contempt as had just been on my mind, I couldn’t deny it. I needed a phone.

At the next corner, a white vending machine stood out. I ducked through a patch of open air to drop my hand down on its faceplate.

Somewhere down the next few blocks, a gunshot sounded.

I didn’t like the implication. My paranoia surpassed my placating rationality.

This isn’t a high crime area. It was supposed to be subdued, bleak, and docile. I had paid to live it. There was seventy-percent camera coverage in this district. I knew it for a fact.

But I was missing something obvious.

The clear glass phone dropped into the bin at the bottom of the machine. I took it out and swiped my thumb. My data was there already from the cloud. The map came up without request.

Goddammit. I had been going the wrong way.

To get home I would have to cut through an alley, take a street elevator, and then hop the next train. I’d only just be able to arrive and collect what I could before instant eviction at dawn. Sleep was nowhere in that plan. The creeping exhaustion I felt boded ill, but I didn’t have a choice.

I had taken the cat out of my shirt and wrapped her in a jacket. The smell of piss lingered, but I had given up caring. She was snug in my arms as we entered the next unlit passage. Continue reading