“There is a girl that has been taken. A special girl. Now I would be remiss in saying that this reflects poorly on my organization. There are traitors in the Pride. Someone pulling the strings to sow discord in my business,” the large shirtless Boss of the Pride said.
His black eyes seemed to look through you instead of at you. His frankness was as unsettling as his gaze. But I guess when you have a Werepanther attack someone to test their mettle and they pass you tend to open up.
How does he know so much about me is the question. He mentioned the doctor that did this to me, and that is something I never talk about. The fact that he is really the floating brain of a Nazi scientist in a large jar of nutrients is embarrassing enough. His son in law runs a front for his experiments at the only decent chop shop in the East Side. But they wouldn’t talk, we have an arrangement they wouldn’t dare break. Besides, I am the only survivor of his special pill.
“Forgive me if I do not see how any of this is my business. I am just a nobody from the slums.”
He eyed me, appraising me. “Rumor has it you help people when they are in need. Some call you a hero.”
Again, he seems to have all the cards here. I need to find out where he is getting the information from. It isn’t like I advertise on the web, Gear Dreary hero for hire.
“Again with the rumors. You have the wrong guy.”
“No Mr Dreary, I have exactly who I need for this. You can get the girl back, safe and sound for me. This allows my group to stay out of the mess.”
“And say I decided to do this, what would be in it for me? The satisfaction of a job well done?The life of a girl I don’t even know?”
“You could join us. Receive the bite and become part of the Pride. Rule over the East Side with us.”
“No thank you. I am already quite hairy enough.”
Silence. I thought it was funny. Definitely the wrong answer.
“Maybe you don’t understand the offer you are receiving. Accomplish this mission. Return the girl unharmed and we will make you one of our own. This is the highest honor we can offer. One should not disregard it so frivolously.” The look on his face said I may not have a choice in the matter.
“I understand and appreciate the offer. I do. But I have a lot of shit going on in my life right now. So why don’t we get to the heart of this. Who is the girl, why do I care and where do I need to go?”
He sat not moving, that black eyed stare seeming to see more than he let on. I don’t like this at all. There is more to this than a missing girl and an invite to join the Werelion club. I just cannot see all the angles. It raised my hackles. As did the sudden influx of negative emotion in the room around me. Something just set everyone on edge. They all had hands to their ears. I stretched out my senses, slowly like I had been practicing in my hole above the bar.
I began to project out to Jason as he was the one I had spent the most time around. Like waves I let my mind flow out until I could feel his spike in alarm. An attack. Three dead. All Leos. At their HQ itself. I saw faces flash, scars and double hoops. This came to me as a series of flashes, like raw binary emotions. Or at least that is how Doktor explained it to me. As I gain ability to interpret the emotional data, the clearer the result. Give a me a headache just trying to figure it all out.
But what I understand is that someone attacked the Leos at their own home and killed two first lieutenants in the assault. They made off with something. Something important. But what? Jason didn’t know. I looked at the Boss. Did I dare try and read him?
This was all new to me. I have only had these, abilities for a month or so now. I didn’t even know what I was truly capable of. Herr Doktor said they were at their infancy still. His projections said the powers would grow exponentially as I grew into them. Right now I could sense strong emotions, mostly anger or violence. Occasionally I could do basic manipulation on rats or really drunk people but nothing consistent.
And I was faster and stronger then before. A lot stronger and faster, not enough to compete with a Were, but maybe eventually. I have the sinking feeling I am going to need to be soon. Something big is going down and I am being pulled into it whether I want to be or not.
“Mr Dreary, something has come up that requires my immediate attention. I have sent all the info necessary to Jason who will share it with you. Time is of the essence on this matter. For both of us. Jason will take you back now. I apologize for this. Thinking the offer I made you, it is an honor few are given. We shall speak again soon.”
With that he stood and his crew quickly got into pounders and sped off. Only Jason and one of the Leos that took out the would be sniper remained. Jason sat down at the table and handed me new phone.
“This has all the info you need, keep this on you. The Boss meant it, this is important. The girl needs found soon. Who knows what the fucking squirrels are after.”
“I still don’t see why you don’t just handle this yourselves. The squirrels are part of your organization. This isn’t my playground at all. I am small tine at best.”
“You are getting a rep on the streets. And we have our reasons. The squirrels broke off with us a couple months ago. It was kept quiet but they are starting to become a nuisance. One we will handle when the time is right. For now this is something we need to contract out. Take this bitstix, it has enough to finance your little operation and is not traceable back to either of us.”
He slid a bitstix across the table to me and I pocketed it. That was a small measure of relief at least. The free food and drinks I got from the bar for helping them out with a spit of trouble was nice. And I kept the bar rat free with my special juju. But I had been scraping by for so long I forgot what it felt like to be able to just go out and buy something.
“We can drop you back off at the bar if you want. You need to start working in this as soon as possible.”
And then that bastard stuck me in the neck and the world went black again.
— — —
The Leos took over the far reaches of the East Side right after the fire. My father was the last hold out, the only one keeping the rest from giving in. He had been the leader and everyone prospered under his rule. I never realized the power he held simply because he never used it. His goal was everyone living out from under the gang’s and their heavy handed rule. The Leos knew this and did removed the head so the body would fall.
The problem now was everyone looked to me to see what I would do. I wanted vengeance, I truly did. But I knew it was a fight that would lead to all the people I grew up with dead like my parents. The Hellion Four stood beside me and vowed to follow me down whatever path I chose. And they said the rest would as well. They left me no choice. The Leos had taken over, completely taken over the East Side from the border with Downtown to the hundreds of miles to our little edge.
But what good is revenge if you lose everything?
When I was a child and Billy first moved out there we did not hit it off. He picked a fight with me the third day to establish his dominance. Jumped me on my way home. I never saw him coming and he knocked me out with a piece of brick. I swore I would get him back this when I finally woke up. I was stuck in bed for two days after with a lingering concussion. My family couldn’t afford the nanotreatment so they let it heal the old fashioned way. No sleep and confined to bed. I plotted out my revenge. I was going to give it to him like he had given it to me.
My father disagreed.
He had gone and talked to Billy and his family about the incident. They were on the run from the Church of the Holy Mayhem in the South Side. The Church demands tariffs from the residents of the South. His family couldn’t afford them and they demanded payment. So they ran. But not before they took his little brother. His father was a drunk that couldn’t hold a job. The only thing he ever gave his son was the false idea that to be the strongest you had to take out the leader to take his place. He decided I was the target.
My father explained it in simple terms. I could destroy this boy. I was bigger and stronger. I could get my revenge. And he could go home and have his drunken father beat him for his failure. His dad would do far worse than I ever could. What the boy needed was a friend. He had lost everything when they came here. All I got was a headache.
What good is revenge on someone who lost it all?
It took time but Billy and I became best of friends. His father eventually drank himself to death, to the delight of all that knew him. But Billy had a new family at that point, Jeff and Lin had shown up in the time between and we were Hellions together. And family doesn’t mean blood necessarily.
And now I was marked. If I stayed out here the Leos would destroy me. I was a liability. And if they didn’t then it would be expected I would seek revenge. And I couldn’t risk my only remaining family. So I decided to run. To save them I needed to vanish. But where?
I had two options. Farther into the East Side where I could be invisible or out into the sticks. Now I am have been raised at the ass edge but I was still a city boy. I knew nothing about life outside. Barely know anything about the city to be honest. I wasn’t prepared for this. I had no trade except basic pounder repair. A diploma that wasn’t really worth the plastic it was printed on. When given the choice between two hells, choose the one you know best.
I snuck off in the middle of the night. I wrote a letter explaining my actions to the guys and left it pinned to my jacket. If they knew they would come with me and I didn’t expect to survive the streets. I couldn’t put that on them as well. This was my hell to pay. I had the bitstix the lawyer gave me that was the lump sum of what was left of my father’s hard work. Hardly anything. Just the clothes I was wearing and a few hundred creds. And fear in my belly. I left with a group of traveling monks, The Roaming Order of Disembodied Head.
Turned out to be prophetic. But not for a couple of years would it prove so. And then it was nearly too late.
— — —
I woke up propped against the door of the bar. The flickering sign said Our Bar but the u never quite ignited properly. Brad, the owner, said he was going to have it fixed and apparently had been saying that for the last ten years. It was rumored he was a synth, a former police bit with a glitch in his programming. Didn’t matter to me, he is a good man. Has two rooms above the bar, one for him and the other mine. He took me in after I got out of the chop shop and gave me a home and free booze. He is one of only five friends I have in this entire city, and three of them I haven’t spoke to in the last three years. I keep the rats out of his bar and fights to a minimum. Seems like a fair deal.
I punched in the code and unlocked the door and grabbed a bottle of whiskey as I headed up the stairs. The phone the Leos gave me buzzed in my pocket but ignored it. I had drinking to do. The last couple months had been rough and it seemed times were to get rougher still. And my instincts were screaming that i need to run again. But no matter how much faster I had become, I don’t think I am fast enough. I hate feeling morose and thinking of the good old days. Before running became my secret talent. Before Nazi Doktor and experimental pills. When the smell of gas and oil was the only thing I knew. Before whiskey. Before lions and panthers and wolves.
And the phone kept buzzing.
— — —
Jeff us the second oldest of the Hellion Four. And if Billy is the loose cannon then Jeff is the asshole with am innate ability with weapons. He hung out at the swap meet on the weekends around the old guns. He studied them and could tell you anything you wanted to know about them. And was fair at retooling them as well. Billy wanted to get a heater to carry, saying that no one on the South Side went anywhere without one. This was just another one of his stories he told in an effort to prove he was the toughest guy in the East.
He wasn’t but he had the heart of the biggest badass. He and I would roam the swap meet that opened every Saturday religiously. I did it for the girl watching. He did it for the chance to pick a fight. The last time we went I was talking to a couple girls when there boyfriends showed up. As I was explaining myself to them Billy started swinging a piece of rebar at their skulls. Until one of them pulled a pistol and we all decided to walk away. It wasn’t the first time a wanna be pulled a weapon but it was enough that Billy wanted one of his own to even the odds.
And lucky for us we met Jeff. He was standing beside the table we were looking over. Every time Billy grabbed for a gun he would clear his throat. It really aggravated the piss out of the man running the table and began to grate on Billy as well. At about the fifth time he cleared his throat and shook his head the man screamed at us all to fuck right off and leave.
Billy got into Jeff’s face, “What the fuck is your deal man?”
“You don’t have the first clue what you are looking for do you? You managed to look at every single shit gun on that table.”
I just stood back and watched. I had seen Jeff around, new he was older. Remembered him carrying a beat up guitar for a while but we never spoke.
“Oh, so you are some kind of expert then?”
“Compared to you, yes I am.”
“I bet you are Diamante stock then ain’t ya?”
I didn’t see it coming and I know Billy didn’t either. One second he was in Jeff’s face, the next on the ground holding his cheek with a pistol in his face. Jeff didn’t change expression the whole time. “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand little boy. I was trying to help you out.”
He put the gun back into a pocket inside his jacket. There wasn’t even a from it. And he extended a hand and helped Billy to his feet.
“Now if we are finished measuring dicks I got something to show you. Come with me.”
We just looked at each other and shrugged. Billy was quick to anger and just as quick to burn it off. We followed him to the ramshackle house his parents appeared to be in the middle of renovating. I say appear because it didn’t look like any work had been done for a long time. The roof sagged on the south side of the home and stacks of bricks sat under tarps and covered in dust.
“My dad hasn’t touched the house since the first summer we moved here. Big plans but the ched got to him first. Surprised he hasn’t sold the bricks for more. Back here.”
He showed us to a shack behind the house. We entered it to find a bunch of old machines. I couldn’t have named one of them. It smelled a bit like my dad’s shop. Oil and grease, bits of metal spirals on the floor. Odd press type machines and metal casings that looked like the bullets on the vids we watched.
“Before the ched took my father’s brain he was a gunsmith for the Diamante Corporation, so you were sort of right short stuff.”
Billy puffed up at that but the black eye slowly showing on his face reminded him of thirty minutes ago. He busier himself pretending to inspect the machinery.
I looked around, impressed and without a clue. “So he taught you to make guns? Why did you guys leave a cushy gig with a corporation? That is the dream life.”
He laughed, “What do you think drove him to become a fucking burn out? He was one of the best and they never gave him a moments peace. He started using to keep up with demand. And then he messed up a shipment. One of the guns blew the hand off a high ranking Diamante member’s son. We barely escaped to this shit corner of the world. He got steadily worse and I kept learning. If you need guns, I am your man.”
From that day on our duo became a trio. Jeff was as a good a shot as he was making guns. He taught us to shoot and we got him out of the shack. Billy loved to shoot, I preferred to watch. More importantly he taught us to respect the weapon and not use it as a crutch.
— — —
This girl that has the Pride so worked up is no one as far as I can tell. Rae Delamar, eight years old from the west side. Father is some kind of failed scientist that used to work for Con Fed about five years ago. Mother died in a tram wreck around the same time. Same story you can find all over the sprawl. My skills at searching the web are not the best but there is really no story here. Her father has a couple published studies on something about amplification on liquid based solutions in application to neural something or other. It honestly makes no sense to me.
Which makes the Pride looking for her even more confusing. There are no missing person reports, no stories of an abducted child, no sign of anything that would lead me to believe this child is special in any way. Yet she is. I am not a detective, not some private investigator that finds missing crap. But this reeks of something I am missing. There has to be some correlation between the study on liquid based whatever and the missing kid.
Or the Pride has sudden become altruistic and cares about the community it has done nothing to rebuild. Doubtful.
The other four districts of the city are run by giant entities that have funneled significant funds to make them better places to live. Or at least to give the appearance of it. There are always going to be slums, always going to be people down on their luck and squatting. But the Corporations at least try and maintain an image. Diamante up North is constantly improving the infrastructure and building new sky high tower apartments. The Cult of Mayhem has used technology to improve the South Side. Even the hillbillies in Con Fed have tried to make the West side livable.
But not the Pride. They are content to keep the East below the poverty line. It is broken down and covered in filth. Except for their area where old downtown Dallas used to sit. The buildings there are liveable, kept moderately clean. Everything else is a source of revenue and nothing more. A place to be held down and choked until nothing is left. Content to burn it all down like they did to my parents. We ate all just lambs for the slaughter.
And I am being forced to work with them. The beasts I swore to hide from until I could figure out how to take down. And the promise of the bite sent chills down my spine. The last thing I wanted was to become one of them. And it looked painful, I don’t like pain. I have had my fair share of it since I took off on my own.
She was just another lost soul in a city full of them. To be eaten by the evil things that go bump on the night. Chewed up and spit back out into a dark alley somewhere. I know. I am one of them too. And it made me want, no, need to find her before she suffered like I had. No eight year old deserves that. I know what can happen. Lived it. Couldn’t allow it to happen to her. Fuck. Not for the Pride or the fucking Corporations. I would find her to erase one of the black marks on my soul burnt into my very core by this hell.
— — —
I had traveled the fifty or so miles under the protection of the Cult of the Disembodied Head. They are as fringe as it gets and everyone gives them a wide berth. It was the perfect cover. No one pays attention to them, in fact they go out of their way to avoid them. No one would notice me and I could put distance between myself and my friends. Keep everyone safe in ignorance. I was small time, able to fade away in the filth. My lack of training kept me from getting real work but there is always need for couriers who don’t ask questions.
I try to not ask questions.
It was a decent job. I would make a pick up and deliver in the allotted time. I got to learn the ins and outs of the East Side. Old Dallas district, Greenville, Garland became familiar over the years. A series of deliveries to Brad at Our Bar on a regular basis led to me renting the room I still occupy. All it took was getting fired. And nearly killed. And subjected to an experimental treatment. But that came a little bit later.
I knew I was moving illegal things. Drugs and weapons to two bit criminals here. Stolen items to brokers. It didn’t matter to me though, it was just more creds in my account. You don’t ask questions and you don’t think too much about what you are doing. Stay that way and succeed. And I was succeeding.
I steadily moved up, running parcels for the Corps. Eventually got put on retainer for a high end courier service, Citywide. Occasionally got to take the tram to other territories, a big deal for a slum runner like me. The glistening spires of Downtown to the Scicillian Grottos up North. I got to enter one of the gigantic Cult of Mayhem factories Billy talked about down south. It was epic in size and run by bots and synths. It was amazing to see the full city. People lived and died here never leaving a ten block radius and I saw it all.
It wasn’t all great. The Weresquirrels, the lowest tribe in the Pride targeted couriers for easy cash. Other predators roamed the streets as well. Once a week I would be given a delivery and someone was waiting to jump me and take my bitstix. Some wanted more. I barely escaped a man who tried to rape me in a warehouse. He was full of dirty nano and overpowered me. He had supplemented so much into his system when I tried to taze him he shrugged it off and laughed. You heard the stories of couriers taken and killed. The company supplied special gloves with built in tazers and neurotoxin injectors. I blasted him voltage in the chest and he just laughed as his skin smoked. He was hopped up on psyche meth and feeling no pain, his neurons firing so quickly it was over before his body had time to acknowledge it. I barely hit him with the puffer fish venom in my thumb before he…
Let’s just say it was going to be bad. The nano had changed his physiology and he had more of a jackhammer than a dick. And I was not going to survive the application. I still wake up on a cold sweat and screaming from that encounter. The venom hit and he fell back as his entire system locked up. I got out out there as quick as possible.
The squirrels had broken my jaw once, my left arm, my right collar bone and dislocated my knee in different encounters. Say what You want about them being the laughing stock of the Pride but they always travelled in numbers and were far stronger than a normal person. And most of them skipped lunch for a healthy helping of ched. A normal person on ched was sped up and focused before the addiction made them zombies. Squirrels were twice as vicious and worked most of the ill effects out due to their rapid healing. It put them into a frenzy and they lived for ultraviolence.
You learned quick to carry a dummy bitstix with tram or cab fare and a little extra so when, not if, they attacked you had something to give them and hope it was enough to satiate them and stop the beat down. And I caught quite a few of those beat downs.
The worst came after a delivery gone right if that makes any sense. It was a simple drop off at a place I had been to a hundred times. Two large boxes signed for and delivered. Easy peasy. Even got a huge tip for doing it. A nondescript building in decent enough shape filled with business people. That turned out to be a sham. I know, after they reported that I had stolen the shipment instead of dropping it off I returned to try and explain there was some kind of mistake. The entire building was vacant, no sign of anyone having been there for ages. A thick layer of dust covered everything inside of it. I wasn’t crazy, I knew there had been people working there the day before. I tried to explain to my boss. They didn’t believe it. A check on my account showed the huge tip they transferred to me but it had come from an unknown source that couldn’t be traced. Almost as if I been paid for selling the merch to a broker. I swore it was a set up. I demanded a scan to show I was telling the truth. It came back inconclusive, maybe because I went back and had doubts when I saw the empty building. Maybe because I had apparently been dosed with something that set off red flags in my blood test. I was fired, not just fired but blacklisted from any courier service in the sprawl.
You do not get fired for theft and expect any one to trust you to make good on deliveries. I understood that. But I knew I was innocent. My account was drained and censured. I lost my apartment. My only means to survive. My reputation was shot. I had nothing left. I was broken and left to die on the streets.
I found an empty warehouse to squat in. Made it my mission to prove my innocence. I staked out that building everyday. Waiting for someone to come back. Anything to prove it was real. No one ever showed up except some homeless squatters that set up shop on the first floor. But I kept at it for weeks. Scavenged for food. Begged when it came to it. Even ran synth meth for a little while to get enough creds to have a hot meal. What I didn’t know was the warehouse ideas squatting in was squirrel territory. They were gone running errands for the Pride while I had been sleeping there. They returned one night after I had passed out. I was nearly dead as it was. Sick, starving, spent from sinking to levels no person should have to sink to try and eek out another day to prove I was no thief. I was at that point. Tue last couple months had changed me. Erased any good I had left and replaced it with need.
When they found me I became their personal toy. They beat me. Raped me. And finally broke me. Left me chained to the wall so they had easy access to me. I don’t know how long they abused me. Time seemed to stretch and I lost all concept of reality. They fed me ched to keep me going and scraps whenever they thought I might finally die. On and on it went, like the river against the stone they wore me down.
Then one night as I prayed for death to relieve this torture something divine happened. The squirrels were out and had left only two to guard the warehouse. They didn’t want someone coming and ruining the fun. I was at the end of the line. The fever was burning me up and the sick was eating my insides. I heard the sharp crack of a pistol go off and for a brief moment thought the bullet was meant for me. Then another and another. A series of controlled fire and the sound of bodies hitting with a wet thump. A man in all black entered the room I was chained up in. He looked familiar but I couldn’t place the face. Delirium from sickness making it all hazy like for filled the air. I was brought down gently and they stuck a needle into me and injected coolness through my arm. I tried to talk and my mouth didn’t work right. I tried to ask them to kill me. To just end it. But there was nothing but darkness.
I woke up in an alley surrounded by bums. I call them bums but they looked better than I did. They helped me up and told me they were paid to watch over me. They didn’t know who paid them and wouldn’t have asked any questions or given any answers if they knew. Street code. I understood now better than ever. They made sure I wasn’t going to die right there on the spot and fed me broth, I would hate to know what animal it was made from. When they were satisfied I would make it another hour they told me about a chop shop, a good one where they weren’t just trying to harvest parts from patients and helped me get there in one piece.
And that is where things took a turn for the strange and my life got even more fucked up.