(The Traffic Report)
Gamma City was large enough and old enough that its scars were built over with scars. Damage to roads and bridges sent residents churning down alternate travel routes like blood routing around a blockage the body was tolerating for the present.
The fall out from the NME attack on the Durmphkoff Estates had been light in terms of the destruction inflicted. Only a few houses were destroyed, and a bit of roadway blasted into uselessness by the fight itself. The High Guard took credit for containing the monster and preventing the loss of countless lives. Their only mention of the work done by the Black Valkyries was to point out the NME had escaped once the Valkyries arrived on the scene and that the Valkyries were at least indirectly responsible for it crashing into I-7795, one of the major automotive arteries on the western side of the city.
For the residents of Durmphkoff Estates that meant either a few days working remotely while the damage was repaired to the point where priority vehicles would be allowed access to the road, or, if their physical presence at work was vital, a commute via one of the city’s aero-services.
Daniel Path was neither wealthy enough to merit priority vehicle access, nor well positioned enough that his support job would allow him to miss work for any reason. It was especially galling for him to see the Route E7 Aero-Bus packed to capacity when he arrived at the station the morning after the latest NME attack.
Standing in the turnstile, swamped by the dusty heat blowing from the security units cooling fans, he waved his Preferred Access Pass at the entry gate over and over, but the light that glared back at him remained a solid red.
“Aero-Bus departing in one minute, please exit the boarding zone if you have not been cleared for entry,” an automated voice said.
“No!” It sounded whiny even to Daniel’s ears but he knew the sort of trouble he was going to be in if he was late. Their department was already short staffed after the latest Efficin-Sizing Experts(™) had come through and suggested another round of layoffs to spur greater productivity from the support staff.
“Step away from the entry gate,” the automated voice said.
“Read my pass!” Daniel said. “I paid for the reserved seating upgrade. I need to be on that bus.”
“Terms and Conditions dictate that Metro Transit can resell passes at their discretion. That pass is no longer valid and has been purchased on auction already.”
“What? How did someone buy my pass? I’m all paid up!” Daniel said.
“Due overnight price adjustment calculations, fare values have exceeded the reallocation threshold. Messaging for this is pending in the system and you will be notified when bidding opens up on the new tickets.”
“If bidding hasn’t opened yet, then how did someone buy mine out from under me?” Daniel asked.
“Priority bidders are given first options on newly allocated fare tickets. To upgrade your account to the Gold Service Tier, provide a verbal acknowledgement to this message.”
“Will that let me get my ticket back?”
“No. All tickets have been purchased. When new tickets are available, you will have Gold Priority Access to them.”
“Can I even afford that?” It was more a question to himself than anything else but the automated voice answered anyways.
“No. A review of your public accounts shows you do not qualify for Gold Tier access.”
“How am I going to get to work then?” Daniel asked, feeling his future slipping irrevocably away. He’d worked hard in school, kept his record clean, even struggled enough to pay for two years of college and earn a degree before his funds ran out and he had to find a method of beginning to pay them back.
There was work in his old neighborhood. Part time jobs, under the table deals, but none of them would have been enough to get the mountain of debt he was under off his back, and without the right experience on his resume he would be forever disqualified from getting a job that would even let him squeak by on food paste and an apartment the size of a closet.
He’d taken the job with Tython in IT support despite the miserable hours, abusive working conditions and starvation level wages because it was the best offer he’d gotten, and the only one which would earn him the bedrock of job keywords (things like “5 years of experience”, and “oversaw customer facing operational process”) which he could insert into a resume when the time came to move up.
If it ever came.
Even under the best conditions, Daniel had seen that promotions didn’t go to the deserving. Higher level positions were filled by new hires from outside the company and hard work just meant Tython felt justified in laying off more people to allow the hard workers to shoulder an increasingly impossible burden.
If he couldn’t make it into work though? That was the end. There was no excuse for inconveniencing the company. No justification for making his manager’s day difficult at all. Their department was a drain on the company, each employee a cost that every higher up was eager to see paired down.
With any excuse, Daniel knew he’d be cut and no other company would look at him. There were too many potential new recruits to waste the time on one who had washed out of the system, especially with the various non-competition restrictions Daniel was contractually bound by even if his employment was terminated.
“Open Heart Enterprises is offering a private commuting service for those displaced by the recent transit disruptions,” the automated voice informed him, answering a question Daniel had not expected a response to. “Take your existing pass to boarding platform C17 to transfer the remaining balance on your account to Open Heart Enterprises ride system.”
Daniel swallowed. Private transport companies were renowned for being predatory in situations where people had no recourse but to use their services. On the other hand though, the alternative he faced was dismissal, and the destruction of the life he’d spent years building.
“Thank you,” he said, asking only one other question as he turned to go. “Who bought out my pass?”
He was thinking he might be able to switch it back with them once the transit delay was over. The metro Aero-buses weren’t particularly comfortable or safe rides, and once the skies weren’t so crowded, Daniel couldn’t imagine a ‘Gold Priority’ customer being interested in flying on a public bus any longer.
“Mort Couer Limited purchased all freshly allocated tickets on auction.”
Daniel had never heard of the company, but that was hardly surprising. Gamma City was rumored to have ten corporations in it for every actual human being that lived there.
As he sprinted to platform C17, he noticed a group of Tython managers, all decked out in their corporate branded business wear, stepping onto the departure platform for the next aero bus.
It struck him as a little odd. Normally each would have made their own arrangements to make it in, or just stayed home. If Tython had arranged for group transportation, they would typically have used the corporate fleet to provide it. The workings of Tython’s management was a mystery to Daniel though so he shrugged it off.
At least until he got into work and discovered that his manager hadn’t reported in. Nor had several other departments managers. They weren’t working remotely, and they hadn’t called in sick. They were simply gone.
Holly had a job. It wasn’t much of a job, but then catch-as-catch-can work didn’t have to be anything special.
“Can’t go in there,” she said to Tyrese as the older boy looked at the poster she’d hung on the door behind her.
Holly was sitting on steps that lead up to a burned out brick building whose name was lost decades before she was born. She was a gangly creature, all knobby elbows and knees but she didn’t need to be strong to watch a door. All she needed to do was fit into the neighborhood. That was probably why she’d been hired to by the combat-modded dude who’d shown up in the early morning hours when she was kicking around the street trying to stay out of all the familiar troubles she knew and maybe find a new one.
“Why not?” Tyrese asked. His boys smiled. They liked their leader, and they liked Holly, so they knew there was no trouble real brewing, just the bickering and sniping between brother and sister that was usually good for a laugh.
“You can read Tyrese,” Holly said nodded at the “Stay Out – Toxic Fumigation” poster. “Or do you like breathing rat gas?”
The poster warned the toxic chemicals in use without calling them “rat gas” but Holly knew enough chemistry to know that methyl isocyanate was equally good at killing humans as it was at killing vermin.
“I’ve had to breath in your stinky farts at home, how bad could this be?” Tyrese asked.
“You go in there and it’s going to cost me a day’s pay. If the rat gas isn’t bad enough to kill you, then I’ll finish the job,” Holly said.
“Woah, ok there little sis,” Tyrese said. “You’re all feisty this morning. How much you getting for this?”
“Not enough to share,” Holly said. It was what she always said, mostly because it was always true.
“How many guys they got in there? Maybe they need some more help?” Tyrese asked. If there was one thing Holly’s brother could always manage, it was riding her coattails whenever there was money involved.
“You don’t want to help these guys,” Holly said. “They’re not just killing rats in there.”
“Woah, what’s this, my little sister hooked up with some bad dudes?” Tyrese said. “Do I need to defend your honor? Run them out of the neighborhood?”
“You’re free to try,” Holly said. “I’m sure the one with the Plas10 built into her forearm is going to be real scared by you.”
Tyrese’s eyes opened wider than any of his boys. A Plas10 combat mod was the kind of weapon that showed up movies for the distinctive deadly hum it produced. They weren’t cheap, and they weren’t legal, but for intimidation value they were hard to beat. You just had to be able to live life in the shadows to get away with having one and that took more money than Holly, Tyrese and all of their friends would see in a lifetime.
“So who are these badasses then? What’d the guy who hired you say his name was?” Tyrese asked.
“Boss,” Holly said. “But one of his crew called him Sidewalker.”
“You said they’re killing some guy in there?” Aaron, one of Tyrese’s friends asked.
“Could be,” Holly said. “They dragged some corporate type in. Might have been dead already. Don’t know. Don’t care.”
“For real?” Tyrese asked.
“Do you think they’re paying me to sit here and keep people away because they feel like kicking back with a cold one in a place like this?” Holly asked.
“There’s no reason we can’t be doing both,” Sidewalker said, stepping out from the door.
His appearance drew a startled reaction from the small crowd, but when he smiled at them, Tyrese and his friends relaxed.
“Anything we can help you with sir?” Tyrese asked, eyeing the fine clothes Sidewalker was wearing.
“Feel like killing a guy?” Sidewaker asked. A moment of shocked silence followed before he smiled again. “I’m just kidding. Nobody is getting killed here today. Boss’s orders.”
“What do you need a dump like this for then?” Aaron asked before Tyrese or Holly could stop him.
“We’re filming a vid,” Sidewalker said.
“What about the guy you dragged in?” Tyrese asked.
“That was our star,” Sidewalker said. “Drunk as usual.”
“He had a bag over his head,” Holly said, feeling stupid the moment the words left her mouth. It was never wise to challenge your paycheck provider.
“Can’t have the talent getting recognized,” Sidewalker said. “Stokes up their ego, makes them think they should hold out for a bigger share of the take.”
“That why you got the posters up?” Tyrese asked.
“Anything to keep the fans away,” Sidewalker said. “Speaking of which, we’re not technically supposed to have access to our star. He’s under contract with another studio. If anyone comes sniffing around for looking for someone let me know ok?”
“What’s in it for us?” Tyrese asked.
“I’ll buy you a keg,” Sidewalker said. “Get a good identi-scan on them and I’ll buy you two and throw in a bonus.”
“Sign me up!” Tyrese said.
“Hey, you need any extras for the shoot?” Aaron asked.
Sidewalker thought about that for a minute.
“You know, we just might.”
Harp sat in her cell because she had no other choice. Dr. Raju had locked down all of her functions, even basic motor control. For her own good, or so Dr. Raju had claimed.
No matter how diligently Harp searched her memories though, she couldn’t find a moment when she would have been vulnerable to memetic corruption.
Yes, she’d met with Ai and Zai alone. Yes, they’d acquired information that Dr. Raju had forbidden her to look for. And yes, Harp was positively inclined towards Ai and that could have been the result of calculated workings by a machine intelligence that was playing two roles at once.
But Harp didn’t believe it.
She didn’t have proof and she knew it was possible that a sufficiently advanced machine intelligence could appear to be a variety of people, but Ai had been so earnest about winning Harp’s trust openly and honestly that Harp couldn’t believe that the Ai she’d met was a lie.
Couldn’t believe, or didn’t want to?
In the end it didn’t matter, Harp supposed. Dr. Raju had shut her down the moment she’d returned, before she’d been able to communicate with the other Valkyries or ask Raju to justify her presence on the security footage that linked her to the start of the NME Cure project.
The Valkyries were supposedly working on finding a method of verifying that Harp’s systems were clean, but whether they succeeded, or were allowed to succeed rested almost entirely on whether Dr. Raju was on the level with who she claimed to be.
Raju had saved Harp’s life. Had put her back together and made her something greater than Harp had ever been before. The question that wrapped around Harp’s mind as she sat, motionless in the dark wasn’t a new one. It was something she’d wondering about since she first awoke in her new body.
Raju had saved her, but what was the price of that salvation?