Aquilin by jonathan romeo #design
Surely they'd be here - they'd said they would be.
Weazy, do you see anything?
He never sees anything. He acts helpful, but in reality, the only way he helps is by snuffling my ear with his tiny snout when I'm worried.
The yellow tips of his silky ears are tickly. My own itch when his fur touches my earrings.
Come on, Weazy.
I'll change the settings on my radoggles. Maybe...
But no...just another high rise trader, wires trailing from his plunder box. What a hacker. His brain wiring must be off to go out for a trade in the middle of nowhere like this. On the other hand, with the corpos as paranoid as they have been lately, maybe this was as good a trade as he could get with those kinds of goods.
I'm distracting myself with the odd trader; maybe if I concentrate on him I won't think about what'll happen if my meet up doesn't happen. It's gotta happen - that's all.
If he's a desperate trader, why's he look so nonchalant? Where's his gun? I'll adjust my radoggles for distance...I'm curious...is it in his arm?
That's not a gun. That's...
I've got to run.
Come on, Weazy; if he sees us, it's the end. Forget the meet up. Forget it all. What he's got in his hand isn't worth a second split-second glance.
Too bad my board creaks when I gun it. I'll just have to carry it until we're out of earshot. I've never regretted passing up that slick, new, noiseless model that would cost a cybernetic eyeball - until now. Curse my frugality to the moon and back.
Speaking of the moon - it's high, too high. They'll be arriving now...close enough for him to see, close enough for him to see them before they see him over that rise.
Now what? I can't go back; I can't go forward. Now what?
Blast. Where is that rider? She said she'd be here before us, make sure we were alone to talk the job. I see no sign of her, and that rise is where she said she'd be. Once we get over that hill, we'll be at the rendezvous and out in the open. What was with kids these days? Say they'll be on time, say they'll take care of things, and then they run off with the first glib-shod that comes their way, forgetting all the stuff they promised. This is the last time I'll deal with anyone under thirty. Too dadblame dangerous. Stay put, Harry. I'll top the rise first, see if she's down there. Dumb kid. Stick to the instructions.
It's my last chance. No other. Hang in there, Jack. Ain't nothin' gonna stop me now. With this payload, I'll shoot straight for those craters - crater living for me, man. Just a hole and a coke and a shot in my arm. Heaven is comin'. Just gotta hold still for the Corpo...hold still, Jack, hold still. Look at that moon, Jack...hold still...
Going around the hill is taking too long, and this board is too heavy; I've gotta get a breath, but I've gotta stop them before that trader sees - there! There he is! Stop, old man, stop! I can't shout...What's the signal again? Maybe they're close enough to wireless connect...Nope. Old school then.
Twoo-twee-twoo-twee, light on, light off. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Come on...
Just a sec...I hear the signal. What's that kid doing, signaling when she's not in the right spot? We're not close enough to wireless and she's using an auditory? What an impatient welp! When I get there, she's gonna get a serious talking to. You don't endanger a rendezvous by...wait. Who in the phasing moon is that? What's he got?
Jus' a little longer, Jack. That's his craft now. There. The payload is comin', old boy, old Jackie. There it is!
Did he hear me? He stopped...but oh phaser, who's that now? Get back old man, get back down the hill! That 'craft can see you if you stay there! I'll be there with my gun in just a minute - don't die, old man!
Oo Jackie boy, Jackie me! It's a payday for me! Check the suit, check the gold buttons, check the -
I've never seen someone sniped like that: only the richest corpos got gunners that can shoot that far. Can they hear my breathing? Surely they can; it's louder than anything I've ever heard before, and my heart...is that my heart beating?
My old heart's about to pound right out of this chest. Thank stars I ducked down before that Corpocraft got me on their cam. Where's that rider? We better get out of here. I've a mind to hug that kid when we get close enough - if not for her signal...But we're not out of here yet. Keep sharp, Harry. Let's pick her up and go.
Weazy, I can't hear what he's saying with you sticking your snout in my ear like that. I'm glad you're not dead, old man. I've forgotten all about the job you have for me. Let's just go. Go, go, go. Before that sniper catches sight of us, thinks we know something, thinks we saw what we saw...what I just saw in the moonlight.
The kid's not huggable, but she's gonna get a pay raise on this job. That sneak action was great. She's not a glib-shod chaser, not her. I've a mind to ask her to stay on if she does the job well. We could use more fast-thinkers on the team. Harry'll agree.
Did you see what he had?
Yeah. Yeah, I did. Your first time seeing one, kid?
The things those hackers will dig up for a moon trip. I dunno. They're crazy. Crazy enough to kill us all - just for a high.
You're not a tripper, are ya, kid?
No. My dad...
Sorry. At least you know better.
That corpo - can't he buy a trip? He had a...a sniper...I mean...
Greedy sons-a-well. Sure he could buy it. But they're rare. And this hacker probably dug it up somewhere cheap, would sell a second seat cheap for the legitimacy. Make it easier for him. That corpo probably wanted the first seat too - probably has a wife...or a sideline. Greedy, like I said. They never have enough money. You remember that, kid. There's never enough. Better to live for the job than for the money.
I need the money right now.
Sure you do. Sure. That's ok, kid. But you're with us now. You had my back back there, and now we'll have yours. Don't worry about the money.
Thanks, old man.
Never enough, huh? What do you think of that, Weazy? I think we might have found enough, right here. Maybe that corpo just made it so we've got enough without knowing it.
Thanks, old man.
Maefilynn looked over the ruins before her, glancing up at the clouds overhead and the sun nearing. Oughta finish this run quickly before night falls, she thought. A squeak pulled her attention, and she moved her gaze to the source of the sound, a small furred blue and yellow creature sitting on her shoulder. “We’ll be in and out faster than you could relieve yourself on the side of the road, Tibsy.” The elf lifted her hand and held it palm facing upward flat for the creature to jump on to. When he did, Maefilynn pulled her backpack off, opened one of the compartments, and Tibsy took a small hop in. Zipping his compartment back up and replacing the backpack, Mae began her trudge inside the Old Empire outpost. Large stone structures stood partially destroyed and open to the elements. Maefilynn kneeled to the ground. The only tracks she could make out were those of the local wild animals: deer, rabbits, foxes, the usual like. No demons this time. Thank Solsteya. She stood and pulled a small crystal orb from her pants pocket. She began chanting quietly, a royal blue light flickered on within the orb as she began caressing the air around it with her other hand. The light began moving up her arm, causing her tattoos to glow like an arctic aurora. She put up two fingers, glued together and gathered the mystical energy around them and thrust her hand out. A wave of glimmering blue energy exhaled around her as it disappeared from the orb, her fingers and her tattoos. “No magic in the immediate vicinity. Old Empire junk probably broke years ago.” She began walking, her boots thudding against the dirt beneath her. Her fingers ran across the stone walls. Dusty. Gross. She shook it off her hand. From behind her, she heard a crunch. Her body whipped around, orb and casting hand at the ready as a doe ran from one side of the dirt road to the other, becoming obscured by the dilapidated stone walls of the outpost. Mae relaxed her stance and sighed. She continued her search through the buildings. Nothing much of interest within, some rusty armor and weaponry; chairs, some broken, some in pretty not terrible shape; regardless of its placement on the fixed-broken scale, everything was covered in healthy coverings of dust, but nothing of particular interest to the scavenger’s guild. “Looks like this trip might be a bust, Tibsy,” Mae sighed. “Another week of scraps. Joy, oh joy.” She peered at the one of the final buildings. Uniquely, this one’s door was still on its hinges and seemed to be in pretty decent shape. She pulled it open. No groaning on the hinges. I guess it's aged well, but what she saw inside perplexed her. A rather cramped room, wooden counters lined the walls with a circular wooden table at the center. Sitting on the table were slabs of meat, inelegantly cut from the corpse of some poor animal.
Charming, Mae thought. Someone’s been here recently. They might have something valuable to the guild. Better be quick though. She began searching around the room, some herbs, plants…the slabs of meat, a journal written in some language Mae couldn’t read or decipher. If you’re going to leave a journal for someone to loot, at least have the decency to write in it in Common. She peered in the corner, a door in the floor leading underground. She pulled the door open by its metal handle and began climbing down the wooden ladder that led underground. She was met with a basement, dirt packed against the walls and ceiling and a wooden floor beneath her feet. The only light coming from the sunlit room above. She spoke arcane words and coalesced her hands around the crystal orb, until a small flame began flickering within it. Further in the room, she noticed peculiar vines running in and out of the walls and the occasional vine on the floor that Mae had to be vigilant not to trip on. She took a few slow, careful steps watching the rather nondescript basement being revealed by mystical light. Until Mae saw the skull of a deer atop a totem of wood. A symbol that looked almost like a rune was painted in red across the center of the totem. Other branches of wood were attached to it, each coming out from its back diagonally. Scraps of cloth hung from the branches. Friggin’ creepy. There isn’t even anything else down here, just some crappy chairs. She turned and leaned over the chair, running a finger across the back of it. No dust on these ones. In an instant, vines shot out of small holes in the floor, grasping around her ankles as more shot out of the walls at her wrists. She grunted, dropping the orb to the floor as she heard a creaking behind her. Fear shot through her as she peeked behind her. The totem was shambling towards her. The diagonal branches began moving as arms, as the deer skull started blankly at Maefilynn. One of the ‘arms’ pointed toward her, another vine shot out of somewhere, around Maefilynn’s neck and it began squeezing...until Mae’s sight went black.
“It’s too fraggin’ cold out here, Wai.”
A blue and yellow furred creature just smaller than a hamster scrambled up Riptacá’s shoulder and chittered agreeingly. It nuzzled against the base of her distinctly metahuman extended ears and shivered.
“It bites the skin, the air.” A small, soothing voice filled Riptacá’s mind. She reached up a hand and scratched between the creature’s ears.
“That it does, but we shouldn’t have far to go now.” She replied out loud out of habit, though she new it wasn’t necessary. Her paku, Wai, was capable of reading her thoughts and surface emotions, if she wanted to. If Wai was doing so now, it was clear Riptacá wasn’t being entirely truthful in her comfort. In reality, she had no idea where they were. A space between the pieces of the shattered moon had pointed to a star last it was bright, but that was over a week ago, and the clouds had covered the sky for the past three days making it impossible to navigate by the stars. Riptacá had done her best to head in a straight line, but the snowy hills and thick forests had made it increasingly difficult. She had heard from the nomads that nature grew thick near the dead cities, but that of course only made it more difficult to travel.
She adjusted the thick visor over her eyes as a strong, frigid wind caught up the snow in a small flurry around her. Loose ice crystals nipped at the exposed scalp between her tight, neon-blue braids. The tips of her distinctly metahuman pointed ears were growing numb despite repeated rubbings with her gloved hands. At this point, she more hoped than knew they were close. She had to press on knowing it was too late to turn back and she was ill equipped to make camp. The grey of the sky made all hours of the day blend together in monotony and she had been hungry for too long to accurately guess the time.
Her trudging was interrupted. “Up ahead, a presence.”
The hair on the back of Riptacá’s neck prickled, but not from the cold. “Hostile?” She tapped a tattoo on her shoulder and squinted through the thick trees ahead. The symbols lit up and pulsed a spectrum of colors in a dull glow. Small glyphs and faded geometric patterns encircled her hands as she slowly pressed forward.
“Not sure if that’s better or worse than a yes.”
Riptacá had no visual indication as to the direction, but her link with Wai made it clear. Stepping through the trees – not between the trees, but really sometimes through them – was a semi-transparent figure of a man.
A thought spiked through her mind – wraith – instantaneously with one of Wai’s – not alive, this thing. Though the fear of her own thought caused every muscle in her body to tense, Wai’s observation kept her from fleeing. Indeed, the approaching figure had a pleasant, neutral expression, not the bloodlust of a wraith. As it came closer, she could see it was using, or at least appeared to be using its normal, corporeal eyes, not its spectral third eye.
Slowly, the tension left Riptacá’s body. As she tried to understand how to address it, it instead spoke to her.
“Wai, I can’t understand its tongue.”
Wai’s tiny, glassy eyes closed, and its ears began to quiver. Through Wai’s mind, Riptacá began to understand the man’s words. It gestured for her to follow through the trees. She hesitated, but feeling no warnings from Wai, she walked on.
Most of what the man had to say was of matters she did not understand. Though the words were clear, their context was foreign. They stepped through the last line of trees and stepped rather suddenly into a vast clearing. The treeline formed a seemingly endless enclosure around unfathomably large ruins of an ancient cityscape. Buildings hundreds of lengths tall stretched toward the cloudy skies at odd angles. Rubble littered the ground pushing through the snow like fallen branches in early winter. The man’s voice was still registering in Riptacá’s mind, but was further confused by the spectacle she was trying to take in.
Finally, the last sentence came through clear: “And without further ado, we welcome you to the marvelous city of New York City!”
“I said, get up!”
Lyn shifted her hands to be flat on the ground so that she could push herself up. Her arms shivered with strain, but within a moment, the muscles bounced back into action and she leaped to her feet.
She tasted something iron on her bottom lip. She spat it out and wiped away the blood with the back of her hand.
“Lyn, I almost have it. But you need to hold out a little longer. Get…”
“Shut up, Eck!” she snapped aloud at the voice in her head – a voice only she could hear. “I know what I’m doing!”
A looming shadow blotted out the light of the holograph cluttered sky. Lyn was nothing but a child to the monster in front of her.
A nine foot tall, humanoid beast with nearly translucent skin that was stretched thin across synthetic, bulging muscles. Even muscles had sprouted across his head and face, causing him to look like an overpowered, skinless zombie. His clothes had been tailored to fit his oversized form, but the motions involved with fighting Lyn had proved too much for them. Threads prayed for mercy as they barely held a simple shirt and pants together.
He lunged at Lyn, a fist prepared to take off her head. She instantly ducked and managed to escape the blow by slipping under his arm and turning around to face his right flank. His fist collided with the wall; pieces of brick coming away at the hit.
Seeing a minor opportunity, Lyn touched a device circling her right wrist so that a string of lights flicked on. Once the beast turned to face her, she punched the air in his direction, sending a shock wave down the alley.
The recoil was enough to make Lyn falter, but the monstrous man was only taken off guard for a moment by the direct hit.
He sneered, his eyes wide and wild with maddening fury. “Is that all you got?” he growled from deep in his chest.
“Eck?” Lyn squeaked before she failed to escape a back-handed swat across her face.
She slid across the pavement until her head collided with a dumpster.
“…going on? Lyn? Hey, what’s happening? Lyn?!”
“I’m…here,” she croaked, focusing her eyes so that she only saw one enemy instead of the hazy two. She commanded her HUD to appear, where information floated in front of her eyes in translucent blocks. No bones were broken, but there was at least one cracked rib.
“Where are you with that uh…uh…?” Her battered brain could barely remember what they were even doing anymore.
“The hack is nearly complete,” Eck reported. “Just…”
“If you tell to me to hang in there one more time I’m going to scream. Tell me how to take this guy down.”
“Okay, well, hold on.”
Lyn rolled her eyes and forced away the HUD before she noticed the beast circling back around to finish her off. A cruel smile cracked across his taut face, relishing the idea of snapping her spine in his fist.
Without hesitation, she flicked her arm, causing a short blade to protrude from a cuff around her forearm. It wasn’t much, but it was all she had left.
As he made another lunge at her, Lyn spun to his left while dragging the blade across his torso as she went. To her dismay, she realized that she had just escaped into the dead end side of the alley, leaving the monster in front of her only means of running away. Furthermore, her knife had done little more than cut his shirt and slice only the very outer layer of his skin. All of the insane muscle had protected anything vital or painful from being injured.
She thought she heard the beast laugh as he observed his invincibility.
“Anytime now, Eck,” Lyn said, feeling the icy touch of dread flood her veins.
“This guy really went all out,” Eck replied. “I’m looking at his medical records. He had every muscle of his body synthetically enhanced. He even has skin grafts lined up to accommodate future modifications. That’s not to mention all of the highly-experimental steroid mixtures that he’s consuming every single day. I don’t…”
“I don’t need to hear the heading of his fan page,” Lyn snipped. “Tell me what I can do until the hack is done. He’s ready to kill me!”
“The eyes!” Eck shouted.
“Eyes?!” Lyn repeated.
“Yeah, that’s going to be a huge weakness. It’s one of the few things that synthetic muscle can’t protect. Get to his eyes.
“You don’t understand; I can’t do that! This guy is huge!”
Suddenly, the beast seemed to remember that Lyn was there and began sauntering his way towards her.
“I have you now, you little brat!” he chuckled. He stood up to his full height so that she could see how little chance she stood against him. “Any last words?”
Lyn swallowed, determined not to let him know that she could no longer feel her legs out of pure terror.
“Uh…why don’t you say that to my face…” she said in a shaking voice. She felt for the blade still protruding from her arm and waited for the prime moment to strike.
The beast threw back his head and laughed before, miraculously, leaning down so that his face was closer to hers.
Surprised but undeterred, Lyn flexed her arm and went to strike, only to have him seize her arm and pin it against the wall. The blade dug into the back of her hand, drawing a thin trickle of blood.
“Pathetic,” he growled before also grabbing her throat. His monstrous hand easily wrapped around the entirety of her neck, closing her windpipe without breaking a sweat.
“What are you? Some kind of undercover cop?” he asked. “I expected more.”
She couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe. Blackness began intruding on the edges of her vision.
“Done!” Eck announced.
In the same instant, the beast’s eyes widen, his jaw went slack. In the next second, he was flat on the ground.
Lyn held herself upright as his hand was forcefully removed from her throat and arm. Air rushed back into her with an inviting shock.
“About…time…” she said between gasps.
“Why? Was it close?” Eck asked, not knowing the events that had just transpired.
“Uh, yeah…it was close. But, I suppose that's the name of the game, right?”
“Yeah, and Lyn? Better get out of there, cops are on their way.”
“No, that’s good. Time for this bio-hack-addict to do his time. That’s one more off the street.”