“Holy,” Zana whispers—too loudly—as soon as her eyes get over the wall. They grow wide, and I let her take it in for a few moments. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before; everyone I’ve taken to the Beast Feast has had the same reaction.
But Zana is just a kid, and she’s impressionable. I wait a few beats, but she continues to stand there with her eyes wide as saucers, and her head is slowly rising well above the wall.
She’s lost it.
I push my back against the wall for leverage and reach up to grab her by the arm. I jerk her down.
“Focus,” I hiss at her. I squeeze her arm, enough that her mouth falls open and her eyes drop down to look at my hand accusingly. “You’re here for what?” I remind her.
Zana still has the eyes: they’re big and dark and full of a childlike wonder that tugs at my heart a little. I’m starting to wonder if she’s too young. Too impulsive. Too easily seduced by the shiny baubles of the Sleaze. I had pegged her for a Scrapper like me, but I’m doubting my instincts.
You can never really tell who will crack up. Until they see it with their own two eyes, they just don’t believe it.
Zana looks a little hazy, but not especially torn. “Here for the Sleaze’s shit,” she responds, finally. And to my relief, convincingly. “But Lenny, did you see—?”
“I’ve seen it all,” I say, tying up the Middy boots I just hijacked with three hard tugs. I’m annoyed because they’re much smaller than I anticipated, so I won’t keep them after this run, and I really need some new footwear. I turn to look Zana in the eye. “You ready for this? Or are you gonna go Trudy on me?”
Zana’s eyes refocus, and she narrows them. “Who the fuzz is Trudy?”
“Exactly. Who the fuzz is Trudy. And that’s what everyone is gonna say in the future if you get wobbly on me now, except they’ll say, who the fuzz is Zana? Those people,” I jerk a thumb behind me, at the wall and what lies behind it, “are Sleaze. They will vaporize you without a second thought, and they left you to die in Unreg. You know this.”
Zana’s eyes get stony.
“So what do you think they’ll do to you if they find you here?” I finish.
It’s an effective sermon, I think, judging by Zana’s immediate reaction.
But then she pouts. “You said we could have some fun—” she begins.
She starts to wrench from my grip, and I toss her arm away at the same time, which makes her fall over.
“I said we could have some fun on the way out, and that’s only because we will be on the way out. Until we’re back in Middy-land, and we are on our way out, we are here for what?”
“Stealing shit,” she answers, annoyed and rubbing her hip.
“Returning wealth to its rightful owners,” I say, smiling.
I’m glad when this tips Zana back into my corner and she smiles back. The last thing I need is for her to wig out on me.
“Okay,” I say, pushing up against the wall until I can peer over. I count the patrol quickly: five Middy meat bags with drones. Like any Middy, they are not especially interested in their job, because it’s not a job that really needs doing. We’ve already crossed into Zone 2, where the Middies live, via our last remaining tunnel, and skulked through the repetitive archipelagos of human warehouses where the Middies toil all day—basically as AI batteries.
It isn’t hard to get around here once you recognize that Middies are pretty much zombies. With advertising and propaganda piped into their heads directly all day and night long, unless they’re at ‘work,’ emptying their brains for pennies, it’s no wonder.
I stole these boots off a fully conscious guy in his chair, for example. He didn’t even notice.
But the Beast Feast is special, because Middies are fine for boots and gloves and nutritional supplements, but the Sleaze have the good stuff, and it’s all locked down hard in Zone 1. Today—Beast Feast Day—is one of the few days that security is lax enough in the Sleaze Zone for us to get in with the Middies unnoticed.
Zana has never even been out of Unreg, so she’s understandably impressed by the baubles around here. I’ve encouraged her to stuff her face and steal as many zone chips as she can; when the Beast Feast is over and the crowd is disgorged back to Zone 2, the Sleaze police don’t bother looking at where the ping comes from as it happens. If they’re looking at all. Hardly anyone does their job properly on Beast Feast day.
Later, of course, there will be questions, and someone will probably be ‘decommissioned.’
But none of that is my problem. These people ‘decommissioned’ us a long time ago, and turnabout is fair play.
Zana took some convincing, and she’s got a look on her face now that tells me she’s going a little soft.
I give her another rundown. “You remember the plan: in, cards, take no more than five on your first run, and then eat all you want while you wait for me.” I smile. “And try not to get tangled up with a Kerz.”
Zana has other things on her mind.
“What’ll… what happens to the Middies when they find out…?”
I grab her arm again, sliding back down the wall and give her The Speech again. “Zana. These people made a conscientious decision to live here. They knew what that meant. They know that their Middy lives are built on the blood of the Unregs. They know what they sold. And they do it all for a shot at the Sleaze life—which they will never get, but that’s not our problem. So, what happens, you ask me? Who cares? Do you think any one of these Middy Burzhe wannabes spares a thought for what happens to you? Or to any Unreg? When they come out to snatch people to make a new brain farm, you think they go, ‘oh, what will happen to the poor little Unregs?’”
“No,” Zana says quietly.
I touch her, caringly now, and the sentiment is real. “When you take their zone card, I want you to think, right when you’re doing it: did this Middy fucker feel bad when he checked himself in to Zone 2? Because there’s only one way into Middy-ville, and you know what it is.”
Zara nods her head forward snappily, with such resolute conviction that I remember why I brought her. Thank fuzzing God.
I hold my arm up and shove down the Middy clothes I’ve had forever, since my first trip inside, and watch the digits on the watch I’ve wrapped around my forearm. This is the only part of our journey that’s especially scary now that we’re in Zone 2 and the festivities are starting. We just have to time our run down the hill, over the barricades, and into the crowd with… well, the crowd.
“Okay,” I say, my voice shaking slightly. If Zana weren’t here, I’d have no fear; the best gift my now-dead friend Rynan gave me before he died was the advice to accept that I’m already dead.
I can do that.
But, like Rynan, I don’t want to be responsible for someone else dying.
“I’m going to count down from ten,” I tell Zana. “On zero, we book it.”
“You remember the layout?”
She nods, impatient with me now, her eyes glistening with tension. Adrenaline has turned her pupils into orbs that have eaten away all traces of the appealing dark green of her irises. She looks high on Beduh, but that’s when Zana is at her best. “Wall, drain, ditch, wall, ten-foot chasm, column, vent, fan, ditch,” she recites. She’s focused, she’s in the zone.
“Do not stop for me.”
She hesitates. “Yeah.”
“I won’t stop for you,” I remind her.
“So don’t stop for me. No matter what.”
She sighs. “If you go down in Middy, you stay in Middy. And goodbye.”
I turn my head and stare into the darkness below. I’m transported to the last time I made this run with Rynan. That night had been cloudless, a rare fluke of weather that had opened up the sky to the hazy, full moon. I could almost feel him leaning over my shoulder now, his breath on my neck. “Remember,” he had breathed. “If you go down in Middy…”
“…you stay in Middy,” I had answered. “And goodbye.”
He had smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and then run past me at a crouch. “And I loved you,” he had said.
Maybe he had said that. He went down in Middy, so that was goodbye.
I shake it all away. “Ten,” I say, looking at the watch. “Nine… eight…”
I use my fingers for the last five seconds, and my fist for zero.
Zana darts from behind me, skinny, fast, and she is way ahead and already scaling the first wall when I see her next.
A fucking spider, this girl.
I hope she makes it.
The Sleaze have gone out of their way with this Beast Feast, so there must be someone they deem really important coming. They’re giving out Beduh by the spoonful, and I’ve snagged plenty. I can trade almost anything for Beduh.
I find the public bathroom and am immediately offered a shower by the drones, so I take one up on it before I disable it with Smithee’s specially designed spike. While it bobs up and down uselessly, singing a song, I change into my most precious possession: a Sleaze bodysuit, capable of over a million projections that wouldn’t fool anybody but a blitzed Middy or a distracted Sleaze. But I’m here to be unnoticed, and the Sleaze are here to be noticed. It’s why I get all my business conducted at the Beast Feast.
All changed, I pat the drone on the head and peel Smithee’s spike off, then swallow it. Just in case it makes it out the other end intact, I’d like to keep it but for now, it’s got to go where the sun literally doesn’t shine so the drone can’t locate it.
I wait for a lull in the traffic. This is a Middy bathroom, and sometimes the Sleaze wander in here at a Beast Feast, looking for adventures with lost delegates or maybe to slum it with a Middy. Newly minted Middy men still have some testosterone kicking around, so Sleaze ladies like to find them and have an… uh… adventure. All this means for me is that it won’t cause a huge scene that I’m exiting as a bona-fide fake Sleaze, when I entered as a fake Middy.
I know all this because I spend a lot of time on Reali, Sleaze’s social network platform, like any Scrapper.
I’m not doing it to escape reality, though, like they are.
Right now, I have pockets to pick, zone cards to steal, and booze to drink.
I learned—from Rynan—that the best bet is to get right into the fray and work my way to the balcony sector. People are even more distracted than they are on the main floor because they’re trying to get a view of the main event.
In the corner of my eye, I watch the SoSco of the poor soul whose zone card I snagged to get in here diving, because I’m pushing my way through the crowd with reckless abandon. This gives me a perverse thrill. Whoever owned this Sleaze chip is probably dead now, but they would be mortified to see their coveted SoSco nosediving below twenty in less than five minutes because of pushing.
Finally, I make it to a balcony tier overlooking the stage where the ‘compatible females’ will be paraded in front of the Kerz beasts who will come to collect them. This is where everyone is most distracted. Even though it’s supposedly totally illegal, there’s a healthy gambling culture on Reali that no one tries to deter. There’s huge Xoin, and even SoSco wagers, on guessing which ‘debutantes’ will be rejected by the Kerz. No one is looking at anything but the girls on offer, cruelly pondering their fate. Placing bets on their imminent humiliation or—in my opinion, the worse outcome—their selection by the Kerz, to disappear forever from Earth as a Kerz bride/baby factory.
There’s a whole Reali channel blasting stories from these supposed brides, living out their lives on a Kerz moon somewhere, happy as clams, whatever clams were.
But it’s bullshit and everyone with a brain knows it.
The Sleaze are decked out in the weirdest shit I’ve ever seen this year, so I enjoy a moment of the spectacle with my Reali overlay turned on. The theme this year seems to be historical, something I’m pretty sure they call Victorian. The dresses are off the chain: they’re huge, and they have long trails that look idiotic when people walk right through them. Someone has lava pouring out of a volcano-shaped hat that slides around a deep chocolate dress with tiers of what looks like cake.
I turn off the Reali feed, and everyone but the girls on stage is in a Sleaze suit, identical in appearance. What a world Zone 1 is.
Without all the interference of the projections, I can easily access the small skin flap on the back of their necks, where the zone cards are embedded. Rynan designed a tool for popping it out and replacing it with a dummy card that fools the AI system. Most of them will never have any idea it happened, and if they do find out, it will be because they left the Sleaze Zone.
Which again, is not my problem. That’s all on them, because the only reason the Sleaze go to Zone 2 is to take advantage of someone with literally half a brain.
“Hello,” I say cheerfully to my first victim, who pays me no attention at all. He wouldn’t. My SoSco is so low now no one wants to interact with me. I would lower their score too much. I glance down at the debutantes; even without the overlay, they are still dressed up in real clothing, because the Kerz don’t plug into the AI system.
The Kerz tend to be real shits, but I have to admit that if I were faced with taking sides, I’d go with them over the Sleaze. They seem way smarter than the Sleaze, and they are pretty magnificent male specimens.
I steal the man’s card, and the card of the woman next to him, snag a drink from a floating drone server, and eat some terrible snacks. I refuse to eat the actual food—the meat is real—on principle. Everything floating around is probably the last of its kind.
I stuff some of the MREs they’re passing off as caviar on Reali in my specially designed pockets, because calories are calories even if they have no taste off-grid, and in Unreg, you just need non-radioactive calories.
I never used to drink when I came here, but I’ve gotten a little bit cocky. These people are truly out to lunch, and this is the only time I get to have anything close to fun, so now I indulge. The bubbly alcoholic mixture is going to my head. My display is warning me about it, telling me it will take hours to sober up.
I steal about ten more cards in quick succession, and the pickings are so easy I have to remind myself that I will take no more than twenty. It’s easy to get greedy, but as Rynan used to say, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. I just want to survive another year.
Some actual music, as well as piped in, begins, and the crowd begins to move, excitement building. The fireworks are starting up and there are gasps and coos as the crowd delights in a real, earthly danger. Dancers are spinning in front of the chosen girls, and some VIP Sleaze is making the whole scene part for her as she strides among the debutantes.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she begins, in a loud and excited voice. “Welcome to the Commencement Ceremony of 2174!”
The crowd roars. Confetti is being piped into the scene, but only on Reali and not in real life, which is a change. I wonder why, but only briefly; the Kerz vehicle is arriving, and the head honcho is droning on.
“Today our most elite Burzhe women will be selected by our Kerz patrons, to ascend to the service and status of the Kerz clan Kirook on Europa, in a satisfying transaction for all!”
Honestly, this makes me retch every time. The crowd loves it. They clap, some ladies swoon, I see the angry and resentful faces of last year’s rejected crop in the crowd. These people are such idiots.
Oh, well. While everyone is dancing to the new and annoying music they’ve started playing, trying to catch the false confetti and get better Reali shots of themselves living it up, I snag a few more zone chips. Then I find a place to perch—these people never sit down at this stuff and so there are never any chairs—where I can watch the whole unfortunate display in peace with my stash of MRE snacks, which, out of pure curiosity, I go ahead and eat while plugged into Reali.
“Heh,” I say to myself, after trying the caviar. I’m probably one of the few Unregs who have eaten the real version of anything other than an MRE or a rad-infested squirrel, and I have to say, they’ve done a pretty good job.
The Kerz ship docks on the ridiculous real-life platform they’ve made. The door opens—it’s all so theatrical—and out they come. A hush falls over the crowd, with whispers running through it like currents.
General Krgoth of the Kirook clan leads the way.
This dude is the real OG deal. He has so much kryth—yellow, glimmering, liquid gold markings streaked with greenish patches, which you can only get more of by killing and absorbing someone else’s kryth—that he looks like a gold statue. He must be the reason for all the fanfare being turned up to high.
Say whatever you want about the Kerz, but they are hot. The Kerz warriors following him are inky-blue towers of muscle, yellow kryth streaks indicating that they, too, are fearsome guys who have killed in battle and won.
Too bad they’re so violent. Every single one of them is quite the specimen of male perfection: thick muscles, perfect proportions, lightning-quick reflexes, the diamond shape of the pupils nestled in the mesmerizing yellow-green of their eyes hinting at a sexy animalism. The obviously impressive package beneath their weird robes. Evidently their kryth can wrap around their cocks and some hot stuff apparently ensues because of that.
Like anyone, I’ve flirted with a Kerz on Reali and had ‘sex,’ even, with one, but I did it in Unreg with a hijacked Reali set, so I didn’t get the full effect. I have fantasies about them, for sure.
But I wouldn’t tango with a Kerz off Reali.
They’re nuts. Certifiably bonkers-bozonkoid nuts.
“People of the Burzhe,” the general booms. “We bring our greatest warriors to the ceremony, and this year we have six—six, count them!—perfect male specimens seeking brides!”
Clapping, cheers, the girls on stage swoon and get all excited. There are only nine debutantes, so this is great news for them.
I drink another bubbly beverage, which is going to my head, but I don’t have much left to do but watch the show and get out when the wild party starts and therefore no one is looking. I have eighteen chips and I’m pushing my luck getting more.
A very distracted woman butts in front of me and hangs over the balcony. She is waving her freak flag hard in the direction of the Kerz who are filing out of the ship behind the warrior crop.
These guys. They’re not here for brides; they’re here for a party of a very certain type. They don’t even pause on their way out, but instead brush by the warriors who are part of the ceremony. Their steely gazes send men scurrying away and women oozing around them in swirls of unadulterated, shameless flirtation. The Kerz take glasses of drinks and consume them in swift, single gulps before throwing the glasses on the ground and moving on to the next thing.
One year they killed like twelve people with their machetes.
It’s a known risk if you’re on the floor, but your SoSco gets such a bump for taking the risk that it’s worth it to people. I let my eyes wander around the room, trying to guess who will get axed, and how. I’m tempted to go to Reali and place some bets, but it’s sort of nihilistic even for me.
Also, I don’t have that kind of Xoin to burn. Whoever I got this chip from was living large and didn’t have the Xoin to cover it. She had a debt, in fact, and if this were any other day, I wouldn’t be able to use her card at all; now that I killed her SoSco, she’d be target practice for a newbie Enforcer and I’d get plugged into a Middy brain factory faster than I could say “boo.”
“Let the selection begin!”
Ugh. I turn away. This is basically a public orgy, and while I had a penchant for watching when I was still new to this game, I don’t really now. I have stuff to do, and now’s my season to harvest. I snag another drink and down it, turning around to look out around the balcony and see if there’s anything else I can snatch before I make my way back to the bathroom, change, and hoof it before anyone knows what hit them. Their glassy eyes are already melting into black orbs of pure attention: the Kerz are ripping clothing off the girls and inspecting them. It’s a display of raw, animal power and undiluted masculinity, and it’s eye bait.
Every single Reali channel is playing it now.
Yeah, better jet, I think. It’s the perfect time, and I promised myself to play it safe.
Looking stoned out of his mind, a man about the same size and build as a guy I know strolls by, eyes fully engulfed by his pupils. He’s high on Beduh, his attention is on the wild alien sex about to take place, and his SoSco is… unusually high for the balcony. He probably has a shit-ton of Xoin.
I know I shouldn’t try for his card, but this is a rare prize on the balcony. Even I sometimes have trouble analyzing risk versus reward.
I slide up to him and lean on the balcony provocatively. He doesn’t notice anything. On stage, the women are being sniffed and the dangerous claws of the Kerz are snaking over their bodies in sexually explicit ways.
I feel a little flush of arousal: I’m not immune to the magnetism of the Kerz. I get thoughts when I see their dangerous claws moving over the abdomens of fair young maidens, death or mating just a motion away. Sure, I’ve imagined what it feels like to have a razor-sharp claw pass over my mound, into the slit between my legs, the fleshy part of the finger strumming me to an orgasm in front of the whole place, a mortal injury just a hair-width away. Who hasn’t?
I watch, pretending to be mesmerized. On stage the Unreg girl has been stripped and three Kerz surround her, their fingers tracing long lines from her neck to her nipples, along her hipbone, between her trembling legs.
It looks like they like her. Too bad for her.
While I sort of watch this, I move my own hand to the man’s back. He doesn’t notice. Slowly, trying to cause minimal change in his external readings, which he’s studiously ignoring anyway, I creep up to his neck.
I decide to have a little fun, probably because I’m drunk. I lean close to his ear and make a sensual swirl on his neckline. “This is so hot,” I murmur in his ear.
No response. These folks are all deep in the bubble. It never gets old messing with them.
I anesthetize him, peel away his skin flap, and insert the device Rynan fashioned to grip his chip. “This makes me want to strip off my clothes and go at it like animals,” I say.
He nods, but he isn’t listening to me. It’s biting satire, because he’s here, like anyone else, to pick up a sexual encounter among all the hotted-up women, and judging by how much SoSco he has and his Xoin-dripping Sleaze suit, he’s the kind of guy who goes to the balcony just to slum it a little with some low-ranked Sleaze or classy Middies. Anything goes at the Beast Feast after the Kerz have their way.
Speaking of, the non-warrior Kerz are fanning out into the crowd, seizing their prizes.
It’s definitely my exit cue. I ready the device and start to press the makeshift lever, already plotting my departure; there’s a me-sized gap in the crowd that goes all the way to the bathroom, like it’s my lucky day.
I hear his voice before I feel his hand.
The hand came out of nowhere. It’s human, obviously male, and enormous, wielded by someone with very fast reflexes who has snapped it around my wrist in a grip that’s not painful, but solid as an Enforcer’s titanium-alloyed grip. It is only after seeing the hand that I realize his thumb is pressing slowly into my wrist, into the tendons that create my grip. I stare in horror and confusion as he presses, without causing pain, and my device falls neatly out of my hand as my fingers spread open.
It drops into his waiting, upturned palm.
I’m transfixed for these few seconds because I haven’t had time to process what’s happening.
I recover pretty quickly. I’ve been caught, and I’m in someone’s grip, and I need to take evasive action. Now.
I twist my wrist and reach for my own fist with my other hand to help push through the fingers of this brute while my mind races. I look over at him, expecting an Enforcer.
I see an Enforcer-sized man in a Sleaze suit looking at me calmly. Twist, grab, pull, and my wrist starts to wrench free… who the hell is this dude?… but his fingers shift while his expression remains utterly the same, and I’m still trapped.
My eyes go to the device. Fear is rushing in faster than I can think, swallowing my thoughts.
I’m starting to do the one thing you never do, panic.
I need the device. I need to get free. I have eighteen zone cards on my person, and I need to ditch those if I’m going to get caught.
The guy holding onto me is huge. I’m struggling now, trying to wrench free, and he’s holding onto me like I weigh nothing. I retract the hand I tried to pull myself free with, and slip it down my suit, searching for the rip cord I’ve sewn into it for just such an unfortunate occasion. The whole pocket will detach and that’s eighteen crimes I won’t be doing time for, although I doubt it matters at this point. Everything I’m doing is illegal as fuzz.
His hand is around my free hand faster than I can blink, and my fingers wriggle uselessly near my pocket, trying to reach for the cord.
In one smooth motion, he moves the hand I have at the man’s neck down to my waist, still pinning my other arm to my side. He shuffles me, my arms pinned, to the left, and back to the place where I’d been sitting.
Then, to my utter surprise, he turns me around and closes his arms around me, like we’re a romantic couple.
The heavy muscle of this guy’s back is behind me, solid as steel. My hands are enclosed in his hands, and I can’t flail because he’s wrapped his huge biceps around me. I scan my brain for the image of his face: this isn’t a Kerz, right? His skin wasn’t blue. Or yellow.
But he’s huge.
Well. It was a great run here on Earth as an Unreg. I work my cyanide capsule from the side of my cheek and give an errant thought to whether or not it will still work: I’ve had the same one forever, and obviously never used it. It’s designed with a protective coating that will take about ten minutes to dissolve once you swallow it. This is so that if the glass breaks because someone hits you in the face, you have some time to spit it out.
I hesitate, though, because he isn’t doing anything. I am also finding that it’s a lot harder to get up the nerve to kill myself than I had assumed, now that the moment is actually here. He shifts around, so that only one arm is holding me to his chest, and he holds up Smithee’s device so he can look at it.
In my hair, I feel that his chin is just above my head. I decide I’m going to try jumping and see if I can knock him out.
This does nothing. I don’t even move; he just squeezes me tighter.
“Listen. Listen, listen, listen,” he breathes in my ear. He has a low, baritone voice that vibrates in my chest, smooth and silky like some of the booze they had here once. I’m squirming, but it’s useless and I recognize that.
Also, his voice is calming.
Out of curiosity (these are my last minutes on Earth, might as well stay till the bitter end), I relax.
“What are you up to… Isodora Glait? Aged… forty-six? Hmm? Besides pushing people around and dropping your SoSco to… let’s see here… 11.2?”
I laugh. “Go big or go home,” I say. Then I add, “Sleaze scum.”
He’s found out enough, it’s obvious, to get me plugged in to the Middy factories within the hour—if he reports me.
I crack the cyanide tablet, and it makes a much louder crunch than I thought it would.
He whips me around, again faster than my head is working, and holds me by the shoulders. I go with it, smiling, blood filling the pocket of my mouth. It’s the end, anyway. The tablet is in my mouth, the coating dissolving; all I have to do is swallow. The music is getting wilder, the people on the platform are getting naked, and there are animal yells coming from below that are a sign that the Kerz have found some entertainment.
But I’m not looking at any of that, I’m looking at him: an enormous, seemingly human man. He has green eyes, flecked with brown; they’re incisive and beautiful, hovering over an appealing set of features… a straight nose, full lips, a square jaw. His face is beautiful. I feel a throb of lust, and smile, about to deliver the final one-liner of my life.
But his features, set in stone and on the highest setting of ‘bored-neutral’ available to mankind, change abruptly when I smile, and his fingers jump inside my mouth and sweep the cyanide tablet out.
Again, before I can say “boo.”
I shriek in real horror and my head tips forward, my eyes searching for the tablet. I see it falling down his suit, rolling, clinging with one glob of spit to the fabric… I strain to reach my hand up and tip my head forward to suck it up, but he blocks both actions, and the tablet falls to the floor after swaying on an ever-stretching string of clear saliva.
Boom. It’s gone.
“Nooo!” I start to yell, but he places a hand over my mouth and glares at me. I stop making noise, I don’t even know why.
“You’re a very well-preserved forty-six,” he says. “Isodora.”
I stare at him.
“Is that your name?”
I don’t know. My mind is blank.
“What do you call this?” He holds up my device.
I am panting, and I continue doing so, hoping he’ll think I’m exhausted. I’m plotting my way out of here, but the doors are closing one by one. There’s always jumping… but how will I get out of his grip?
I look over the balcony. He pulls me back a few feet and embraces me again. “Now why would a Burzhe woman be stealing zone chips from Mr. Edgaln Rotopholos?”
This name is vaguely familiar. Some Sleaze hotshot with his own Reali channel.
I shrug the best I can. “Low SoSco. A girl can’t get anywhere with an… eleven… point…” My voice trails off. What did he say? “…point… five…” I guess.
“A Burzhe with no idea what her SoSco is,” he murmurs, with a chuckle.
“Ah, fuzz,” I say, giving up. “Look, do me a solid and let me grab that tablet. I’m willing to barter…” I make this last suggestion flirtatiously.
I don’t care about dying; I care about getting plugged in as a Middy.
He is seemingly unmoved.
Then he stuns me.
“What do you call your device?”
The music is getting louder and the people around us are getting hyped. They’re all on Beduh, so the music is melding with their minds. Me and this guy stare at each other, equally unmoved.
“Huh?” I yell.
“What do you call your device?”
This is too much. Really. I have no idea what to say, so I blink at him, and then yell, infuriated.
“What the fuzz are you?” Below us, the ceremony is evidently getting underway. There are shrill shrieks and screams coming from females somewhere below.
I’m figuring out a few things: this guy is not an Enforcer, but he’s no regular Burzhe.
And he’s not a Middy. Too much brain power is still under his own control.
“You tell me, I’ll tell you,” he yells back. People are actually bouncing up and down next to us, turning into beasts, raving and wild. All hell is about to break loose, and I need to be either on my way to the grave, or out of here.
“Gadget!” I yell back.
“I call it Gadget!” I scream. “What the fuzz are you?”
He leans forward, like he’s going to kiss me. His lips are so close I am already anticipating the feeling, almost ready to enjoy it. He’s about to turn me in Middy slush and I’m actually thinking about how nice it would be to kiss this guy.
I can feel his breath as it moves close to my lips, warm and pleasant, a hint of mint and the bubbly juice I was drinking. A memory of Rynan wanders through, and my body floods with warmth and electricity. I close my eyes.
He strokes my lip, but it is less like a caress than a swipe. I feel the slip of his finger over something wet, and when the metallic taste reverberates in my mouth I realize he’s swiping the blood that must have oozed from tiny cuts from the cyanide tablet glass.
I open my eyes. I feel like the entire room is dissolving around us, the music fading away, his green eyes boring into mine. His fingers move over my cheek, I feel a throb of longing in my chest. It’s an echo of the only meaningful human contact, near-intercourse I’ve ever had, with Rynan. For a moment, I’m not even on this planet, but somewhere else, with him, and I want him so bad I can taste it.
But he doesn’t brush my cheek lovingly; he presses his finger to my display control, activating the Assistant, and the scene around me transforms. The guy I was just about to steal from is wearing the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen, and it makes me smile: he has wild pink hair and looks like a cupcake.
But the guy holding me is wearing a plain, undecorated black suit.
My heart falls to the floor and lands with a thud.
“You aren’t by any chance a Merc in Govy clothing, are you?” I scream. When it’s your last shot, you have to take it. I’m going down—to Middy—for so many violations already. It scarcely matters that I’m trying to bribe a Protector, with all the other things I’ve done.
This makes him kind of smile. “You aren’t by any chance a Scrapper in Burzhe clothing?”
Hope, elusive as it is in this shit world, blooms in my heart. “I have eighteen zone cards,” I say loudly, but not too loud. “They’re yours if you let me jump over the balcony.”
There’s bound to be a wad of Xoin somewhere in these cards, and he knows this.
He doesn’t like this, I can see. He squeezes me tighter, turning me around, and puts his lips near my ear again. I have a view of the spectacle below: the Kerz are all naked and running around like the violent, psycho maniacs they are, screwing indiscriminately. The girls are being subjected to the usual: sniffing, pulling apart of their legs, scanning, and two warriors are evidently going to brawl.
He turns my hand over, and slaps Gadget into it. Hard. My fingers close on instinct, but my mind screams warnings.
“When the selection starts,” he growls in my ear, “I’m going to release you. Do not jump over the balcony, and do not look for your tablet because it’s dust on the floor under my heel. You’re going to leave, Scrapper, because if you turn up again tonight, I will be forced to kill you myself.”
His hold on me loosens. I stare into the scene below, and tears are forming inexplicably in my eyes, blurring my vision.
Protectors, especially Govies, never let Scrappers go. Especially not when they’re caught stealing—and admitting to the theft of—eighteen zone cards.
I’m about to run this by him, just to make sure we’re clear, because I still have a death wish and I smell something fishy about this whole thing. A trap. I decide I need to provoke him, get him to toss me over the balcony.
“Protectorate scum,” I start to hiss, and I have a whole lengthy speech ready. In it, I will insult his mother and call him a cyborg piece of shit with no dick—none of which especially applies to Protectors, who are, by default, none of those things. But they’re full of testosterone and kept off the Beduh, and the most invasive of Reali channels, the mood inducers. This is all deliberate.
So he’ll probably lose his cool.
It’s my only shot. To be fair to myself, this is an idea born of about ten seconds of thinking in the final moments of my life. So it’s not the best plan, but it will have to do.
I don’t get a chance to do any of that, though, because the whole scene below lights up instantly. The glare is phosphoric, lightning white, and swells to the small, white-hot orb of a nuclear fission reaction. The heat is momentarily so intense that I assume we’re all dead and rejoice, but it is an instant and not even long enough to burn our suits.
Complete darkness swallows us whole, and a quick glance tells me all the tech I possess has gone offline.
The screams around me tell me that everyone else’s tech is toast, too. The Sleaze really can’t handle real life. There’s a whole Reali channel about it, and everyone who tries ‘unplugging’ ends up so mentally deranged they are sent to Middy.
“Never mind,” I shout gleefully, and then I laugh.
When I pictured dying, which I do a lot, it was never like this.
We are all going down from the looks of it. Smoke rises from below, and the smell is positively hideous. The heat has died off up here, but not closer to the stage. Orange flames are catching onto people below, who are screaming, on fire, and running around. Where the stage was, I see only blackness, and the whole mass of people is seething, screaming, moving chaotically in a panic.
Bodies begin to impact me from every direction.
It is definitely time to roll.
But I’m still in the grip of the Protector, his arms encircling me, both of them. We’re going down, onto the floor, and suddenly I’m on my hands and knees, kind of, and he’s over me, but I can’t free myself or move.
It doesn’t matter, I realize. It will soon be over. I close my eyes and hope another flash of light takes me out. Burning to death sounds like the pits; the whole reason I carry cyanide around with me is because I’m trying to avoid a painful death. Like any Unreg.
One of the Protector’s arms is still around my waist and he’s crawling. We’re crawling. Objects are falling on him and his right arm is swinging wildly in front of us.
Since I don’t know what else to do, I hang on for dear life, my hands wrapped around his bicep and my knees dragging between his legs. It’s total chaos, and then the sirens start, and electronic lights begin to twinkle back to life in the dark.
Then he’s standing up, pulling me with him, and I turn instinctively to shield my face. I feel my feet leave the ground, and I feel us rising in the air, falling, rising, falling. I have my eyes squeezed shut and I just let myself get pulled along.
Soon it will end, I think.
But there is a small smile turning up the corners of my mouth. A silver lining.
Somebody finally fuzzed the Kerz over, I am thinking.
Good riddance to the Burzhe, and probably this whole fuzzing planet.
The Kerz, after all, are not known for their sense of humor about this kind of thing.