“Out of bread,” I mumbled to myself, gazing into the small coldbox embedded in the wall. Out of everything, really. The chamber certainly wasn’t shy about showing off how completely bare it was.
I dreaded these days. It meant I had to shop for food, or at least what passed for food in this foul city. The bread here was the worst possible stuff you could buy, and the most disgusting thing you could put in your mouth. Except for everything else, of course, which was far worse.
Nobody could pay for real food anymore unless they had fat chitcards. The synthetic, poorly shaped sludgenuggets were all the rest of us had. Choose your own adventure. I typically chose bread.
I sighed through my breathing mask and went to the door. I grabbed my ocular goggles from where they waited on a hook and slipped them over my eyes, then put on my wide-brimmed hat and long coat. Finally, I checked the charge on my energy rifle and slung it over my shoulder into the holster hook on my back.
Slipping my small crypto chitcard into the inner pocket of my coat, I started unlocking my door. First the top chain, then two deadbolts, a sliding lock, and finally the thick metal draw bar.
The small CFS overwatch camera embedded above my door followed my movements with its beady little eye, but I had my doubts if anyone up there actually cared about those of us in the Bottoms. We didn’t have enough crypto to be worth the effort.
The narrow hallway outside was murky and lifeless. I ducked my head out and looked both ways, then closed the heavy door behind me. I locked those locks that could be operated with keys, and as an added bonus, set a small pressure-trigger explosive charge on the underside of the door knob itself to permanently deter curious hands.
My room was near the end of a dead-end hallway. To my left, the dead-end was a walled off stairwell against which was piled years of garbage, flotsam, and rotting flesh. To my right, past many apartment doors, the long hallway turned a sharp right angle that continued on and eventually led to a balcony that gave access to the city via a series of ramps and suspended platforms and ladders.
I stood in the silence of the hallway for a long moment. My breathing mask whirred faster under the strain of the toxins in the hallway air. The putter of the gaslight fixtures was the only other sound. Other than the sound of my mechanical pulse-heart, that is.
I walked slowly down the hallway toward the outside world, very aware of the doors I was passing and looking for light under the gaps at the bottom or doorknobs turning.
I reached the elbow of the hallway.
Perhaps I should be less focused on the doors I pass and more on the doors ahead…
“Hello again,” a rough, twisted voice sprouted from the darkness ahead of me like clutching vines.
Gods damn it all. I screwed up.
Down the hall, I could see the tip of a long nose and twisted, pulled skin as the flickering lights danced across the edges of his face then skittered away like uneasy moths. “Fancy finding you here. Fancy, fancy, fancy.”
I knew him. One of the Faultless.
He still held the same gladius as last time, although this time I could get a better view of it since it was not pressed against my head or embedded in my flesh. He was a tall, skinny, pale man, full of rippling sinew and bad intent.
Behind him, shadows lounged in the doorframes near the entrance to the suspended balcony, moving like sharks underwater, barely seen, guarding the only escape from this long tunnel.
But my eyes moved quickly from that back to the familiar creature in front of me. I slid my goggles up to my forehead, letting my eyes accommodate to the flickering darkness. That was the downside of these ocular compensation goggles. If there was too much motion too quickly, the night view of the goggles couldn’t keep up and I felt like I was seeing these lagged, slow-motion images, half a heartbeat behind. Best I could afford at the time, but I regretted it now.
Maybe the man in front of me knew that too. He grinned wickedly as he glanced around at the gas-bulb lights like he was chasing fireflies in his mind, then his eyes settled back on me.
“I see you remember me,” he said, dragging the words out languorously, running his finger across the flat of his weapon. His eyes lolled lazily in their sockets like they were marbles.
“Aye, I do.” I was proud my voice sounded stable, but my hot breath came rapidly inside my mask. My energy rifle was heavy across my back, and I wondered how long it would take me to draw it, and if I could do it without hitting the low ceiling, or the walls. If he wished it, he could likely have his blade in my throat in the time it took a man to swallow. “What do you want now?”
“How’s your new pulse-heart?” He drawled as casually as a man scratching his backside. Acting as if he himself hadn’t been the reason I had been almost cut in twain, and somehow saved, and now burdened with less flesh than before and more machine.
“Good. It’s strong.” As if in response, my pulse-heart ticked faster. “Why, were you planning on taking that too?” I wondered, perhaps too late, if cockiness was a bad tack.
“Ah, no. No, you know we would never use that. The Faultless, as you low-flesh call us, do not stoop to merge our bodies with machine. We are pure.” His eyes opened wide and bright and wet, and suddenly he thrust his gladius into the wall, and it stabbed deep, and he left it there. “But we can use flesh. And I do very much love your heart.” He tapped his fist to his own chest with a leer.
It was an odd sentence to hear from such an ugly voice. I blinked twice, then understood his meaning.
“You have my heart?”
The shadows behind him slowly grew bigger as they approached, dragging their weapons along the rough plaster of the walls and blocking out the dim light from the end of the hallway. Their guttural murmurs were mixed with low laughter, as if they were chatting about a particularly buxom barmaid and not trying to hide it.
Things were going poorly here.
I backed slowly down the hallway, towards the glimmer of safety that my room represented. If I could reach it.
“Now, now. Don’t be running away now, my little chitlicker. I need something.” His voice was low and sinuous, like a spider crawling slowly over dead flesh. “I need something!” He screamed at me, and his face looked just like it did almost a year ago when I had last seen him. The face of madness.
My back touched the wall, reaching the corner in the hallway. I felt my energy rifle shift in its holster on my back, and it teased me with its proximity. So close. I slid my hand behind me and pushed the rifle up. If I could grab the stock without him noticing…
The man approached, swaying like a sailor. New blades appeared in his hands, long daggers, and I could see they were powered by energy as well, the edges sharp and searing. He was a handful of paces away.
“Stay put, little doggy, and I’ll just take what I need and we’ll all be happy, yes?” He reached out to me as he came, arm straight, blade unwavering.
I stepped away from the wall, allowing my energy rifle to come free of its holster and it dropped to the floor and tipped over, the rippled barrel pointing down the hallway at the Faultless as they approached. I kicked at the trigger lever with the steel tip of my mechanical foot, hoping for the luck of the gods.
The gods, for once in my young life, were with me.
The rifle fired, flat against the ground, and shot between the Faultless leader’s legs. Energy sheared out like a whip down the hallway, cutting through the ankles of at least five of the dark shadows behind him. The light of the rifle’s beam lit them up from below, giving a ghastly appearance to their flesh as their legs burned from the floor upwards in a white flame. A gas-bulb exploded, then another, and flammable moisture misted from the open valves of the bulbs.
I turned and ran, and the hallway behind me exploded in a massive conflagration, screams and cracks and wet meaty thumps echoing like the Hells themselves had arrived. The heat buffeted the back of my leather longcoat, singeing the hair around my collar.
I glanced back over my shoulder and saw the pale leader of the Faultless only a step behind me, his face burned on one side so that his teeth were visible through the flesh. His eyes were wide, huge grin fixed, running like he himself had been shat out of hell.
The door to my room at the end of the hallway was an impossible distance. I would not reach it, and could not unlock it in time even if I did get there. With each step, I imagined the clutching fingers of the Faultless on my shoulder, the knife plunging into my flesh.
The door near the end of the hallway — my door — opened up, and a small, thin figure appeared, beckoning me hurriedly. A girl. She held a small device in her hands, a small red light peeking from between her thin fingers. She flicked a button with one tiny finger, and the red light turned to green. A pulse-bomb.
I pushed my pace with all the strength my mechanical leg could offer, and leapt through the open door just as the girl stepped aside and tossed the small device into the hallway behind me. Slamming the door, she placed her tiny frame against it and hunched her shoulders. She clapped her hands over her ears. I did the same.
An immense cracking boom resonated outside my door, and everything glass in my room shattered. Windows, bulbs, goggles, glasses. The steel door itself split down the middle, held only by the metal frame around it. A waft of smoke drifted in through the gap as the girl backed away from it, then looked at me.
My pulse-heart stuttered in the echoes of the concussion, then restarted its rhythm.
Breathing heavily, I turned over onto my elbows to look at my savior, and through the gap in the door over her shoulder. She’s a pretty young thing, I thought, even in my distraction.
She was dressed in the attire of the Bottoms—rough, rag-picker clothes interspersed with salvaged items and shiny bits. Her eyes were huge and blue, her hair short-cropped and so pale it was almost white.
“Who are you?” I asked, still looking through the gap in my door where smoke and red flickering could be seen, like it was a tiny, crooked doorway to the Hells. But there was no movement. “How did you get in here?”
She shook her head, brought out a tiny dog-eared pad of paper and a worn stub of a pencil, and wrote four words:
No tongue. Can’t speak.
I felt a pang of sympathy for her. Still, I briefly wondered why she didn’t at least acquire an energy voice. Those little devices were normally used by spies and those hiding their identities to create new voices for themselves. They also allowed the mute to speak by allowing subvocal humming and grunts to be translated into actual electronic speech. They weren’t cheap, and unless you were willing to be a thief or a whore then any of the subclasses certainly wouldn’t have a chitcard with enough crypto to cover it.
She was writing again, biting her lip in concentration.
I came from your coldbox. Trap door in bottom.
I laughed, then coughed in the smoke, then laughed again. She stared at me, her head tilted like the heads of birds I had seen in picture books.
“So you’ve been stealing my bread! I’m sorry you had to eat that, but better you than me.” I chuckled, winking at her.
I found myself looking more closely at her as the smoke cleared. She looked familiar, but I was sure I had never seen her before.
Then I suddenly connected the dots.
“Were you the one that saved me, last time? Last year, when I was cut, and my heart…stolen?”
She nodded, settling down with knees folded to her chest, her eyes fixed on me.
She made a motion with her hands to indicate a tongue in her mouth, and used her other hand to indicate a knife, and a brusque cutting motion, and I winced at the picture. She pointed back over her shoulder to the burning hallway behind her.
“He…took your tongue?”
She nodded again.
I swallowed hard, shaking my head.
“Do you know why? Who is he? Why did he come back for me?”
She paused, tapping her pencil against her lips before writing again.
He uses our parts in his body. Our parts match him. We are his incubators. She held it up to show me. I nodded slowly, and she flipped to a new page to write.
He is our father.
My mouth ran dry as I stared at my…sister?
The door burst open, throwing wood and dust and smoke and flayed metal into the room. The Faultless leader stood there, booted foot slowly lowering to the ground, the grin on his face etched in flesh, blood sheeting down from the open wounds, one hand entirely missing, the other still holding the long energy knife.
I reached for my sister, dragging her away from our father.
“Hello, children!” he said, looking down at the stub of his hand, sheared clean and blackened. “Looks like it’s harvest time again!”
one who is willing to stoop to any level or perform any task for the promise of cryptocurrency
This is an entry for the Hardfork Series contest
Thank you to the great folks at the Writers Block on Discord. Great community of writers there, helping each other get better at what they enjoy doing.