The central street of the east district was slick like a runny nose on a toddler.
“I’m not high,” Tris heard someone think, as he glided down the sidewalk, through the crowds streaming out of the clubs. “You’re not high. Dammit, focus,” he heard the same voice think. It was the desperate thoughts of a clubber out too long. The clubs of the east district were for professional clubbers; these kids could go a week without sleep, days without food.
Sumo was tending his hotdog stand on the corner, thinking nothing, which is why Tris loved him. He saw Tris and smiled, his bloodshot eyes a map of the district’s unplanned streets, twisting into the mountains above. There were two people in line already, a young Asian clubber and a suit around a businessman, whose eyes were as empty as the sand plains. Tris got in line behind them, acknowledging Sumo with a nod. “Bill was looking for you,” Sumo said as he handed a dog to Tris, bypassing the other two customers. “He said he had something for you, you know what that might be?”
Tris shrugged. The clubber at the head of the line shot him a dirty look.
The vendor’s eyes widened. Those bright red veins nearly pulsing with the sound of the bass spilling out of the clubs. All these kids, all these businessmen, skin clear, eyes glazed; there was something about Sumo’s flabby arms and greasy face that had immediately endeared him to Tris. He plunged his tongs into the tepid water and pulled out another dog, shoving it into a bun and handing it to the impatient clubber. Sumo’s entire stand was an anachronism. “You and Bill, you’re always up to something.” Sumo coughed. The businessman flinched. He scratched his stomach with the tongs. “You’re the always-up-to-something gang.”
“That’s right,” Tris said and took a bite of his hotdog. “Somebody needs to be up to something around here besides drugs and hotdogs.”
The clubber laughed a demeaning laugh.
“Get the fuck outta here,” Sumo said to her, “This is none of your business.”
She looked at Tris and thought, “Jesus Christ, what an asshole,” and walked away.
“It’s come to the point where a man can’t enjoy a dog on the streets of the district, Sumo,” Tris said.
“Ha,” Sumo said, wiping down the top of his stand with a bar rag. “At least she paid for her dog.”
Tris took his last bite and suddenly the music from every club synced up for a split second, and the pause between bass notes rang a deathly silence through the street. He waited to hear a thousand thoughts, but they didn’t come.
Sumo grunted. “That was weird.”
“One day to make quota,” Tris heard the businessman think while he scarfed down his hotdog nearby, “I’ll call twice as many leads tomorrow.”
“Wow,” Tris thought to himself, “that is depressing.”
That businessman had spent more on thread than Tris had on his faulty embed. He probably bought and sold crypto tokens of embeds. Tris had barely scraped together enough for this back-alley hack job.
Bill met Tris in a new location this time. They always met in one of a handful of locations: the South Docks, the Warehouse District between building #40 and building #102, one of a couple of busy beer-and-ramen joints. But not this time. Bill had sent a coded message through their encrypted messaging app of choice, but apparently did not even trust it to keep the secret. Instead, he sent a long, obscure URL. When Tris clicked it, it immediately demanded a password. He checked the secure password vault he shared with Bill and found a new password stored there. Once in, the site displayed a singular file listed on an ancient Apache index page. He clicked the link. “NOPE,” was all that page said. He viewed the source for the page and found a comment containing binary code. He copy-pasted the binary into an ironically insecure binary translator and it revealed a vague location, Hilltop Park.
“Jesus, Bill,” Tris said to himself, “You could have just said so.” Tris hated unnecessary complexity. It only made things less secure.
Hilltop Park was 500 meters square, and Bill had neglected to specify a specific location within or a time. They always met at 17:00 the same day, though, so Tris headed up to the park and started walking around. The contrast to the East District could not have been more distinct. Hilltop was a meticulously maintained flower garden set in a clean, almost antiseptic, mostly concrete public space. Small groups of volunteer septuagenarians occupied sections of the large garden beds like quiet, introverted protestors. At first, the scene made Tris uncomfortable, but after a couple of laps, he began to feel an odd, meditative comfort envelop him. The only people here thinking loudly were the anguished lovers sitting on the edge of the park, overlooking the city. Tris just avoided that area.
After almost an hour he began to worry that he’d misunderstood Bill’s message, or made a bad assumption about their meeting time. Then he noticed a narrow stairway in the shadow of some trees at the edge of the park. They were not as well maintained as the flower gardens, even the concrete there showed dirt and cracks. He changed course and began his descent. The stairs curved towards a landing tucked into the side of the hill and in the corner of the landing stood Bill, smoking a cigarette. Based on the pile of buds at his feet, he’d been waiting about an hour.
“About fucking time,” Bill said as he saw Tris approach.
“You were so vague and secretive,” Tris replied, “You know our messages are encrypted already, right?”
“Yes, but they all go through company servers,” Bill said, his eyes darting up to meet Tris’.
“Fair,” Tris conceded. “I did have a nice time wandering the park. Who knew senior citizens were my people?”
“Makes sense, you geezer,” Bill smirked in reply.
Tris was a common courier. Sometimes he carried entirely above-board materials–legal documents, collectibles, legal wetware–but usually it was illegal contraband of one form or another. The types of things that, when in need of transportation, should not be trusted to be under the panoptical eye of a big corporation. Usually drugs, sometimes cash, sometimes a black market embed snuck into the province by some boat-bound courier before him. Something like the one playing Chatty Cathy in the base of his brainstem.
Bill was a common fixer. He connected the ambitious capitalists in need of a westbound railroad with the slacker couriers who could be trusted to mind their own business, just freight cars carrying pixelated pickaxes to the digital gold mines of the Districts.
Tris was precisely that type of neutral professional, but even so, his curiosity was crescendoing by the time he’d found Bill on the side of the Hill. Sure, their business was almost always in hushed tones, but this level of secrecy indicated something beyond the norm. Tris expected detailed instructions, or possibly a trip away from the Districts. He imagined renting a scooter for a trip to some secret lab in the jungle.
Bill dropped his cigarette on the ground and smashed it with the toe of his sneaker. Then, without words, pulled an envelope out from the inner pocket of his black puffy jacket. He handed it to Tris, who took it and shoved it into the front pocket of his jeans. Bill then produced a small piece of paper. On it was an address hand-written in black pen. He palmed it and held it out towards Tris. Tris read the address–just some unfamiliar East District location, potentially anything, a bar, an office, a residence–and nodded. Bill then took his lighter and burned the paper. Before he flicked off the lighter, he lit another cigarette and nodded back at Tris. “See ya,” he began to say, but Tris was already headed down the stairs.
The envelope wasn’t thick but it was somewhat stiff, like a piece of cardboard or a folded stack of thick paper. It stuck out of his pocket and stabbed at his waist annoyingly. Tris pulled it out as he continued his descent down the new-to-him staircase down the Hill. He moved it between his thumb and fingers but its shape revealed nothing about its contents. Just as well, he thought, and carefully bent it in half so he could plunge it entirely into his pocket. When he reached the bottom of the stairs he found himself in an unfamiliar section of the Warehouse District. The cavernous, nameless streets between the grid of metal boxes lay just ahead, but the lush green canopy of the Hill still cast a shadow over this backmost alley.
A native in a straw hat rode by on a bicycle, his head on a swivel, making eye contact with Tris in a way that made him uncomfortable. Tris didn’t like to make eye contact while on a job. The bicycle encountered a pothole, forcing its rider’s eyes back onto the road ahead. Tris exhaled and stepped out of the shadow of the trees and into the shadows of the warehouses. Having come this way down the Hill, he would now need to traverse their entire expanse, down to the docks, to then make his way along the bay to the East District.
The Horsefolk, The Hooves of Hades, The Horse Gang, The Centaurians, whatever they might be calling themselves these days, were a group of centaur-fetishizing fleshmods. They injected their legs and glutes with synthetics, modded their feet to be more hoove-like, even adding hard but impressively tenacious horseshoes that let them turn on a dime but still kick like sledgehammers; and even the weakest of them could squat 200 kilos. They were terrible bullies, conscienceless mercenaries, and one of Tris’ least favorite gangs of the Districts. If there was a dead body found with a crushed skull, there was a 99% chance it was the horsies. As he tromped through the rows of warehouses, he caught a glimpse of one out of the corner of his eye. One street over, they found themselves across the block from one another at a cross street. The horse-man ran ahead before he could get a good look, but their alien gait gave them away.
The Chariots of Fire, The Jumpers, The Monkeys, whatever they were referring to themselves as, or others were calling them, were a parkour gang often found leaping between buildings in the East District, or across the roofs of the warehouses, or climbing the cranes at the docks. Their white tennies and tracksuits gave them away even on those rare occasions when they were still. Usually, though, it seemed as though they could run indefinitely. They were terrible bullies, conscienceless mercenaries, and one of Tris’ least favorite gangs of the Districts. If a dead body was found, clearly splat on the ground from a great height, there was a 99% chance it was the parkours. As he tromped through the rows of warehouses, he saw a shadow fly across the street directly in front of him. He looked up in time to see a single leg disappear beyond the roofline, a white tapered pant leg with a black stripe down the side.
Tris accelerated, suddenly aware of his isolation, the street a narrow, rapid river, the walls of the warehouses cliffs of a desert canyon. He could see the cranes above, smell the water of the bay. He was close to where there would be people, close to making that left towards the East District and even more people and less predictable, more familiar streets and alleys. He could make out dockworkers just two blocks ahead, they grew as he approached. He wanted to run but did not dare.
Suddenly the way was blocked by a half-dozen stocky, thick-legged horsefolk. Tris froze. Then the shadows formed, bodies standing on the roofs above, blocking the sun. He realized he was surrounded on three sides. He held his hands up in front of him, the universal sign for “I don’t want any trouble,” moved one leg back, pivoted, and ran.
He could hear those synthetic hooves pounding the pavement behind him. He saw the shadows move alongside him. He would never be able to outrun either of these pack hunters. “This is it,” he thought to himself, “I can’t believe this is fucking it.” Then he saw a door open to his left.
In the doorway stood a short, native but light-skinned man in overalls. He had a substantial grey beard on his face and a mag-fed shotgun in his hands. He motioned subtly for Tris to come through the door. Tris needed no further impetus. Without slowing, he pivoted and raced past the man into the dark interior of the warehouse. He could barely see as his eyes adjusted to the dim light but slowed down and managed to avoid the tall metal shelves that formed a hallway in front of him. Behind him, he heard a shotgun blast and then some bits and pieces of a singular, aged voice speaking loudly, “You kids…no trouble…move on…” then the clang of a steel door slamming shut and a large deadbolt sliding into place. Tris continued to move into the innards of the warehouse.
He slowed further to a speed walk as he noticed some more light emanating from his left. Eventually, an opening appeared and he saw what appeared to be an encampment in a basketball-court-sized open space amongst the floor-to-ceiling shelves. There was a small caravan with lights strung between it and the shelves. A small metal barrel sat outside the caravan, a grate laid across its top, and short wooden benches surrounded it. It very much looked like a campsite.
Then he spotted the thing that made it very much not like a campsite. Across the space from the caravan was a large console–a two-meter-wide desk with a meter-high bank of monitors looming over it. There were what looked like at least ten closed-circuit television monitors and four large computer monitors. What appeared to be three old-school computer keyboards laid on the desk. Tris saw some movement on the CCTVs and recognized the gait of the horsepeople. Then he spotted himself, dead center in one of the displays, the opening behind him. Another figure appeared on the screen. Tris’ heart jumped, he flinched hard, and he turned to see the old man, shotgun in hand, giving him a skeptical look.
“What did they want with you and why are you here?” he asked.
“A man of few words and big guns,” Tris heard himself say. He was surprised that even in his startled and anxious state he was able to draw on some of the street cool he usually relied on to get himself out of difficult situations. He realized he was at least momentarily safe from the gangs, and he could feel the adrenaline drop coming. He hoped he didn’t pass out.
“Just answer the question,” the old man said.
“I don’t know what they want with me. I was just walking back from Hilltop Park to the East District.”
“Why would you come through the Warehouses?”
“I was going to check out the docks.”
“Those gangs don’t usually even come to this neighborhood, let alone set up an ambush. They’re either bored, desperate or wanted something you specifically could provide.”
“I don’t know, man, I’m just a regular guy.”
“My name is Zhao. Call me Zhao.”
“Oh. Tris. My name is Tris.”
“Gwailou,” the man muttered.
Tris wanted to roll his eyes at Zhao’s anachronistic categorization, but he knew better than to roll his eyes at someone holding a shotgun. “I haven’t had a chance to thank you. So thank you. Thank you very much. I thought I was going to die out there.”
“You will someday,” Zhao smirked and walked over to the console, standing before the CCTV screens. “It looks like they’ve scattered. You can stay here until tomorrow morning. Then you must go.”
That sounded like a long time to Tris, but he couldn’t think of a better time. He wanted the monkeys and horsies to give up on him for now, and he didn’t consider nighttime to be a great moment to be traveling through the Warehouse District or the South Docks.
“Ok, that sounds good. Thanks again.”
Zhao walked up to a large metal box near the console that Tris had failed to notice–taller than Zhao and twice as wide–and placed his hand over a scanner on its door. There was the sound of a lock disengaging and the door popped open a few centimeters. Zhao pried the door open. Inside was an arsenal of weapons–rifles, pistols, knives, more shotguns, and what Tris could swear looked like a rocket launcher. Zhao placed the shotgun into the safe and closed the door. The sound of the locks engaging corresponded with Tris’ adrenal drop. He felt a black curtain begin to descend over his consciousness. He stumbled over to the wooden benches and fell onto one before everything went dark.
Tris woke up to the sound of sizzling meat. He looked up and saw Zhao flipping some indistinguishable cuts of meat over a fire in the small barrel.
“Welcome back,” Zhao said.
“Thanks,” was all Tris could muster. He sat up. The food smelled fantastic, whatever it was, and Tris suddenly realized how hungry he was.
“Food will be ready soon,” Zhao remarked. Tris wondered if it was simple conversation or if Zhao was attuned to his inner workings. Despite the console and the weapons stash, Zhao did have a mystical quality about him.
They sat in silence as the meat was flipped repeatedly. Just as Tris thought he couldn’t stand it anymore and might just grab one of the slices off the grill, Zhao lifted two plates and served three pieces onto each. Then he took a pot that was also sitting on the grill–making Tris more aware of how much he wasn’t observing in this situation–and spooned out some rice onto each plate.
Tris ate quickly. It was delicious. The meat was lean but well seasoned and not too tough. The rice was a perfect consistency. As he took his last perfect bite and laid his chopsticks down, he thought to ask, “What was that? It was great!”
“Rice,” Zhao smirked again, “and rat.”
Tris swallowed before his throat tightened. “You don’t happen to have something to drink?” he managed to ask.
“Sure, have this,” Zhao said and reached into a cooler sat on the floor behind him. He handed Tris a salt soda.
“Thanks,” Tris said as he accepted the beverage. “What’s that you’re drinking?” he asked and pointed at the glass of murky red liquid sitting next to Zhao.
“Hooch,” Zhao replied. “You’re too young for hooch.” He smiled big, showing the most crooked teeth Tris had ever seen in his life.
Tris woke on the mat Zhao had supplied him with no concept of time. The warehouse was still lit in the same dim light. He heard Zhao shuffling about inside the caravan. Suddenly the old man appeared at the door and headed straight for Tris. “Time to go,” he said. Tris rose unsteadily but was trained to not outstay any welcome.
Tris went to head towards the door he’d run through the day before but Zhao snipped, “No! This way,” and headed to the far end of the warehouse. Tris followed as he zig-zagged through a disorganized section of the warehouse, piles of miscellaneous objects forming the halls instead of the tall metal shelves elsewhere. Finally, Zhao paused next to an oddly-placed piece of carpet, bent down, and flung the carpet aside. Beneath was a makeshift manhole cover. It was pulled open, revealing a ladder. They quietly descended.
The tunnels underneath the warehouse were dry but the smell was undeniable. Zhao had a secret egress through the sewer. Tris was relieved when their time below ended at another ladder, which Zhao ascended after extending a hand towards Tris that clearly indicated, “Wait.” From the top, he popped open what looked like a legitimate manhole cover and stuck his head out of the top. Then, a wave that said, “Come on.”
Tris walked briskly past the docks, under the cranes, wondering what it would be like to have a shipping container dropped on his head. Would he feel anything or would it be instadeath?
He could see the East District ahead of him, and when the smell of the food vendors on the edge of the district nearest the docks mingled with the sea smell, his spirits lifted. The East District meant home, home meant safety.
He considered the attack in the Warehouse District. Was it coincidental? Surely.
Tris had to concentrate to keep from running.
The transition into the District was like pulling on virtual reality glasses, or what Tris assumed a good VR embed felt like. A wall of sound and smells and people. It was a forest to the dock’s desert, the shade providing shelter from the sun but the stalls radiating heat.
Tris touched his pocket, feeling the outline of the envelope. Was it coincidental? Surely.
Bissell’s flip-flops stuck to the floor as he walked across the bar. They made a satisfying yet disgusting sound with each step, peeling off the floor over and over.
His drunk friends sent greetings as he passed.
“Hey, sweetheart.” That one always brought a smile to his lips. Sherry was the sweetheart.
Bo the bartender was turning skewers over the natural gas grill behind the bar in between pouring drinks. He reached down and pulled out a yellow can as Bissel approached.
“I only have time for one today,” Bissell said as Bo popped the can open and pushed it across the bar.
“I have some business to attend to,” the words obscured by the can.
Bo nodded as he pulled the skewers off the grill, plated them, and slid the plate in front of another gwailou at the bar.
And then he noticed him. Bissell’s Least Favorite Person at the Bar. Laying crotch-down on the bench near the door, up on his elbows, expressionless, lost in the displays projected onto the back of his sunglasses. Wearing that goddamned brimmed hat.
That posture and that hat represented everything Bissell hated in this world. Pretense. Privilege. Bissell sneered and returned to his drink. He’d taken just one more sip, hoping for something to distract from Least Favorite Person, when he heard some commotion on the street.
“Out of my way!” he heard a young voice shout. Then some distant screams.
Suddenly a man ran into the bar. He wore sneakers, jeans, and a loose-fitting white t-shirt. His eyes were bright, even in the dim light of the bar, partly due to the fact they were as wide as tea saucers. Bissell looked directly into those eyes, and he knew.
“This way!” he commanded as he rotated off his barstool and headed towards the back of the bar.
Tris didn’t know why this stranger was commanding him, but he knew he was out of options. The horsepeople and the parkours were only seconds behind. His knowledge of the twisting streets of the East District had only just barely kept him alive once they were once again on his ass.
The pair’s footwear made sloppy sounds as they rushed towards the back of the room. Tris quickly caught up to his flip-flop-clad leader, his choice of footwear slowing him down as he traversed the sticky floor. Soon enough, however, they arrived at a door well concealed in the back corner of the establishment. Bissell threw a shoulder into it and they slid through. He carefully closed it behind them just as the shouts of stout women and agile men became audible just outside the bar. Bissell prayed they would interrogate Least Favorite Person with prejudice.
Tris followed Bissell down a dark hallway and into a cavernous alleyway with a roof of hanging clothes. They spoke no words: Tris was still in shock, his adrenal boosters had maxed out, he could barely think of a sentence yet alone utter one. After what felt like an hour but was only minutes, Bissell entered a steel door. They entered what appeared to be a supply closet, and Bissell turned to Tris.
“You have something for my master.”
“In your pocket.”
Tris’s instincts overrode his confusion. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You have been given the job of delivering something to a specific address in the East District. We thought you might need help, so we waited for you throughout the District.”
“Huh?” Tris’s face contorted. He knew he was already giving away too much. “You know the address?”
Bissell leaned in close and whispered the address.
“This job just keeps getting weirder,” Tris thought out loud. “Ok, let’s go.”
Bissell grinned and continued walking. They walked through the dumpling restaurant they had entered via the alley. It opened to one of the ancient staircases that rose into the upper floors of the East District, to its ill-defined transition into the jungle. They climbed.
The address in question was on one of the last streets before the roads became dirt paths into the jungle. The buildings here were ancient and ramshackle. Bissell led Tris to a nondescript door with an old man sat in front, peeling an orange. As he made to enter, the old man grabbed Bissell’s leg.
“This is the courier.” The old man let go. They entered. As he walked past, Tris noticed the man was peeling the orange with an articulated blade that extended from the tip of his index finger.
The interior was like a time capsule. Red columns held large wood beams that held the second story, and shōji uncharacteristic of the District formed halls and rooms. Bissell led them up a narrow staircase off the foyer and down a hall where two young natives stood framing an ornate door. He raised his hand the natives nodded and one opened the door. The interior was sparse, save for a large desk. At the desk sat an angular man with grey hair and an eggshell linen shirt. He did not look up from the papers in front of him. Bissell stepped aside, bowed towards Tris, and motioned towards the desk. The man behind the desk looked up.
“You must be Tris,” he said. “I’m Echo. You have something for me.”
Tris shrugged. All he knew was this address, and now he was inside. In other circumstances, he probably would have just left this thing with that old man sitting outside. He pulled the envelope out of his pocket, stepped forward, and handed it to Echo. He wanted to know what it was more than he had ever wanted to know what something he’d couriered was, but he was a pro. He stepped back and bowed subtly.
“I trust Bissell guided you without further trouble,” Echo said as he opened a drawer and dropped the envelope inside. “He is one of the best Bunnymen around; he and I have known each other, well, for a long time.”
“One of the best what?” Tris blurted out before he could stop himself.
“Bunnymen. They serve…this,” Echo gestured outwardly with his hands.
“This has no name. Others might call it the éminence grise, but our culture has never recognized it with a name.”
Tris had no idea what Echo was referring to, but he sensed that whatever it was these people were up to, it involved significant power in the Districts.
“You should join us.”
Tris stared at Echo blankly. He’d never been propositioned like that before.
“What were your hopes for your future? Surely it wasn’t to courier forever?”
“I don’t know,” Tris answered honestly. He wasn’t one for thinking about the future.
Tris sat on the edge of his bed in his cartridge deep in the East District. He hadn’t told Echo no, but he hadn’t said yes, either. Echo seemed ok with that, for now.
Then he heard it, the first voice he’d heard in over a day. Since Hilltop Park. It was a couple arguing a couple of cartridges over. The realization that his faulty embed hadn’t picked up a single signal the entire time hit him like a runaway car. Sure, the adrenaline pumps would have quieted those nerve clusters for a while, but he wasn’t that amped up the entire time. He hadn’t heard a thing from any of them. Not Zhao, not Bissell, not Echo.
Tris slept nine hours hooked up to the Equalibriumizer™, twice as long as he’d ever needed to before. His endocrine system was clearly fucked up after all that activity.
“Breakfast,” he thought out loud as he climbed out of bed.
The streets were as alive as ever, steam, the smell of frying oil, fish, grilled meats, plastics, shouts over the low din of a hundred conversations. Tris felt it all like a blanket on a cold morning. He was home again.
A half-block from his normal morning dumpling place, the crowd parted and he saw a throng of Horsefolk approaching.
“Fuck,” he said to himself. Then in his peripheral vision, he saw a familiar figure shuffle towards him. Bissell arrived just in time to position himself between Tris and the lead horse person. He held up his hand, two fingers gently extended skyward like a saint.
“He no longer has what you are looking for,” he said, calmly.
“Get the fuck out of our way, old man,” the Horsefolk leader said.
Just then, Tris heard a faint popping sound from behind him, and a hole appeared in the horse leader’s forehead. Then more popping sounds, and more holes in foreheads. The front half-dozen Horsefolk gang members fell to the floor.
The rest of the gang turned and ran, and Tris heard no more popping as he watched them disappear into the crowds of the district. Slowly people emerged from the stalls and buildings and began dragging the lifeless bodies of the Horsefolk away. He had never seen anything like this in all his years in the district, yet these people were acting like they were simply cleaning up after a particularly busy day. Soon, most of the bodies had disappeared. Tris realized there was very little blood. He turned and looked at Bissell in disbelief. Bissell smiled.
“Care for some tea?” Bissell asked as an old woman splashed a bucket of soapy water across the street.
“I’m not a fighter. I’m certainly not a killer.” Tris was still waiting for his tea to cool off enough to sip and was blurting out his primary anxiety about this new “opportunity”. When he thought about sharing it with anyone, he called it an opportunity and used his fingers to make air quotes as he said it.
“Oh, no, Bunnymen never kill.” Bissell replied.
“What do you call that back there?”
“Those weren’t Bunnymen. Those were just those who protect us. The Horsefolk had been warned. They didn’t listen. It was a last resort.”
Tris considered the logic. “How often do you find yourself last resorting?” He realized his hands were slightly shaking. He only noticed when he attempted to pick up his tea. The action in the street had happened so suddenly that his brain was only now really processing it.
Dumplings were brought to their table. “I ordered us some food. I think you still need to eat breakfast. And not very often.”