Arjun squares off the check with the diner bot and watches the green haired girl sip her coffee listlessly, unaware she’s being watched. With her mask down and her round, youthful face showing, she looks harmless- childlike. The tattoos and The System get up contradict this- and one another. one The tattoos would omit her from any hive as well as System job, yet she’s wearing blatant Resetter attire and she’s out alone in the middle of the night. What has she gotten herself into?
Her watch beeps, and she abruptly jumps off her barstool, pulls up her mask, and walks briskly towards the door. That’s Arjun’s cue.
They stand, still unsteady on their feet, and follow greenie out the door. It’s pouring rain out. There’s a dim glow of approaching dawn in the sky. Arjun picks up their pace as the girl turns a corner, and follows them out into the busy road packed with taxi’s, bots, and hive members on their way to work or school. She weaves between passersby, kiosks, and vendor tents briskly, especially for someone so short. It was uncommon seeing anyone below six feet tall these days. Arjun would be surprised if she was older than sixteen, which was only a year less than they. She’d have to be at least twenty to be natural-born, unless she was born on the outside. Was that even possible?
As Arjun gets closer, she darts down another alley. There are a lot of homeless people camping here, so Arjun uses it as the chance to keep on her heels. Up close, her yellow coat is dusty and tattered. Her boots are holy. They conclude she’s not likely an agent.
She stops abruptly at an abandoned building with the doors and windows boarded up. Arjun is forced to pass her and continue walking down the alley to avoid detection. They peak over their shoulder, and she disappears into the building. Arjun does a one eighty and almost loses their balance, the nausea coming back. They steady themselves, then head to where she disappears. There’s nothing but a boarded up door.
For a moment, Arjun considers catching a taxi back to the hive to sleep for an hour before going to the mines. They picture resting their sore body in their warm cot and a render of blueberry pancakes and eggs in the morning. They’d kill for a VR bot to work for them tomorrow. They almost convince themselves, when a voice speaks from the other side of the board blocking the door:
Arjun jumps, “Eh?”
“No password, no entry.”
Arjun’s stomach sinks, then they have an idea.
“I’ve got some busted gliders.”
Silence. Arjun sighs. It’s probably for the best. The girl must be long gone by now, and gob knows where Hasp is if they’re even alive…
The board creaks and disappears to the side. Behind it, a homeless-looking rebel stands with arms outstretched, an entire encampment with forty or fifty rebels behind them in what used to be the first floor of an office building.
Quickly, Arjun rips the gliders off of their shoes and hands them to the sunken, impatient face in front of them. Then, they get a move on, covering their face with their shirt to avoid the awful smell of campfire, gasoline and body odor. Stepping over a few bodies to get there, they make it to the other end of the floor.
Where the back wall should be is an opening to a hydroponic garden. They step through the opening, careful not to step on anyone sleeping on the floor or trip on debris. No one seems to notice or care about Arjun’s presence. With how last night went, they must blend in perfectly.
Besides all the plants and some people asleep in sleeping bags, the garden is pretty empty. Arjun hears the echo of their own footsteps bouncing off the concrete walls. Overhead, a little sun shines through a paned glass ceiling. They take what seems like an endless path through the garden, immersed in big green leaves. It’s darker ahead.
The garden ends and there’s a drop and ladder leading to an abandoned subway. There’s not a soul in sight down there. Arjun shivers, but then shrugs. They’ve made it this far. Slowly, they let themselves down the rusting ladder.
Arjun hears footsteps clamoring towards them. They let go on the ladder and drop down to the pebbly ground – hard. They’re met with a fist in the face. They fall, crying out in pain as their wounded hand meets the rocky ground. Someone from behind yanks them to their feet. Someone on either side holds their arms in a vice-like grip so that Arjun can’t get away. In front the them, the green-haired girl stands with her arms crossed.
“Why are you following me?!” She yells.
Arjun coughs, wincing at the sharp pain in their face, “You’re easy to follow.”
She pulls back her hand and brings it back to Arjun’s face in a full force slap.
Not again, Arjun thinks.
“We told you,” she speaks so forcefully, she spits, “not to look for Hasp. It’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous? Why? Whatever!” Arjun says, “Just tell me where they are. Are they okay?”
She laughs, “And they say they stamped out familial bonds.You pathetic zombie.”
They all laugh. Arjun doesn’t get the joke.
“Seriously though,” says the man gripping Arjun’s left arm, “We need them, Veronic. Why’d you lead them all the way here? We could’ve all just met in the diner.”
“Shut up!” She screams.
Arjun’s done with the show, “Veronic, huh? You led me here on purpose now? What exactly do you want and where is Hasp?”
“That’s not my name!” She yells.
“Enough,” a new, deep voice says.
A man appears from behind. They are wearing an overstarched, blue System security jumpsuit. Arjun recognizes them as the third person from the drug deal with Hasp. He’s big- twice the size of the ones holding Arjun and two hundred pounds of muscle at least. If he wasn’t created in a lab, he is absolutely pumped with chemicals and body modifiers.
“It’s my turn, V,” he says, turning from Veronic to Arjun, “You’re a miner.”
Arjun takes it as a question, “Yeah, and…”
“Quiet, zombie,” he says calmly, only inches away from Arjun’s face, “You’re a miner, and we have Hasp. If you want to see them again, you’ll meet us here tomorrow at the same time with as much lithium as you can carry.”
Arjun shakes their head, “I just dig for pegmatites! I don’t have access to lithium stores.”
Veronic chuckles, “That’s not what I heard.”
The man ignores them both and continues, “We’ll create a distraction so no one notices you stealing it. If you go anywhere besides your hive, the mine and then back here, we’ll know.”
He nods, and the masked rebel on the right presses a cool metal gun to Arjun’s neck and pulls the trigger. They’re neck stings and Arjun gasps in pain. They let Arjun loose, and they fall on their knees to the ground, grabbing their neck.
“This is the last time you’ll feel it,” he pauses, “as long as you follow orders that is.”
The four of them walk off and disappear into the darkness. Greenie looks back and spits on the ground.
What a pleasant bunch Hasp’s new friends are.
TO BE CONTINUED
Oly is a musician, writer and gamer exploring the Somnium Space VR metaverse.
See what she’s working on at linktr.ee/olysounds.