X-Com meets Final Fantasy VII meets Left 4 Dead
- Everyone Needs Fresh Water
“Get your ass up here, Grant,” Chen whispered from above. “Guards will be back any second!”
As I stared at the fire escape a floor above and the fragile, homemade rope hanging down, I knew this was a stupid idea. Chen was stupid, but I was too hungry to back out. Chen was also at least twice my skinny weight, and if the rope hadn’t snapped for him, I’d probably be fine.
And if I didn’t pull this job off, I’d probably starve to death before I found another.
We were almost on top of the Cloud Nine quarantine zone, and they had soldiers patrolling all over Rocham. We’d managed to avoid scrutiny so far, but that had been two blocks away from here, where patrols were light. If any soldiers walked up this alley, they’d see us, and they’d get violent.
Yet if I went another day without eating, I’d probably be too weak to walk to the only remaining shelter, which was now almost twenty blocks away. All the other shelters in Rocham were now closed, stuck inside Cloud Nine’s bullshit “quarantine zone.”
Chen and I were unregistered, like many other kids our age, which left us trapped on the rapidly crumbling Rocham streets. We couldn’t sneak through the checkpoints on the bridges leading to the nicer parts of Dios. We weren’t anything to the city council, and we were even less to Dios PD.
If we got caught, getting arrested and tossed in a cell would be us getting lucky. Getting our teeth stomped in was more likely, and if they figured out we’d been trying to steal cels, well … they’d tie us up and toss us into the Shiva river.
I gripped the rope and climbed. It was thin and shifted constantly, and I hadn’t eaten in almost a day. I wasn’t totally without muscles, but I’d always been the skinny kid on the streets, because I’d depended on the shelters for meals since I was ten. The shelters only had so much food each day, and I had to eat fast and on the move to avoid bigger kids stealing it from me.
Yet I wasn’t going to fall off this stupid rope. Chen would tell everyone in the Stumps I was a weakling, and I’d never get another chance at a job like this. If Chen was right, and Old Man Lawrence was away, and we stole a crate of cels to pawn, we’d eat for weeks.
Cels did so many things in Dios—purifying water, powering cars, providing endless light—and honestly, the colorful little orbs had always seemed like magic … to me, at least. All I could think about was my next meal, my next move, my next place to sleep.
Gasping, I pulled myself onto the second floor fire escape and collapsed. Chen grinned wide, showing off his badly yellowed teeth. “You winded, squiddie? No wonder you can’t get laid.”
I vigorously extended a middle finger.
Chen’s smirk grew. “Least you can get that up.” He tossed me the bottle of motor oil he’d kept stashed in his threadbare pack. I caught it easily, then sat up.
I yanked off my tattered shirt and squirted oil on both shoulders. I shivered as the light gray liquid rolled down my chest and back, yet I was too hungry to care about modesty. We didn’t have much oil, and I barely managed to grease up my chest before we ran out.
My skinnier that average frame was the reason Chen enlisted me. He’d managed to pry a small, rectangular air vent off the back of Old Man Lawrence’s Cel Shop. It lined up with this fire escape.
Even oiled up, the narrow opening was too small for someone of Chen’s girth, but I could fit through it if I made myself as slippery as a squid from the Shiva river. I mean, I was pretty certain I could fit through that vent. If I didn’t get stuck and arrested, or worse.
Getting my head inside the damn vent ended up being the hardest part. I had to turn my neck painfully sideways to fit, and even with the oil, I still felt like the vent peeled the skin off my chest. Yet I’d never been a stranger to pain, and I needed this score.
As my shoulders folded up, I huffed. That was a mistake. I could barely squeeze another breath into my lungs. I wriggled in further, enduring the lovely feeling of my ribs getting crushed.
The vent was too narrow for me. I opened my mouth to tell Chen to pull me back, but I couldn’t speak. I could barely breathe. Panic seized every cell in my body.
Clammy hands grabbed my bare feet. Finally! Chen was going to pull me out! Black dots flickered before my eyes as Chen grunted, but he didn’t pull.
He pushed. He shoved. That absolute asshole.
Metal scraped flesh as my lungs burned. Chen slammed into my feet, again and again. The third time, I popped out of the vent so fast I damn near broke my arms when I landed.
Yet I didn’t break anything, and I could breathe again. I rolled onto my back on cold concrete. I lay gasping, trying not to pass out, and realized how much I liked being alive.
“Grant!” Chen hissed, from outside the vent. “You make it?”
Shelves rose on either side of me. If I’d popped out in line with either of those, I’d likely have broken my neck when I slammed into them. Yet crates labeled with various blackened stamps sat on the shelves, crates of valuable cels. I gulped breath and laughed, just a little. Holy crap.
Engine cels. Light cels. Distillation cels. Old Man Lawrence had a treasure trove stashed in the back of his boarded up shop, and while Chen might be an asshole, he was, at this time, a correct asshole. I’d be damned before I’d tell him, though.
“Grant!” Chen hissed again.
I stood and rubbed my arms, grimacing as flecks of blood came away. Fresh cuts crisscrossed my chest, back, and arms, but I’d had far worse. I padded to the vent and stared up.
“Hey, Chen?” I said.
“Grant!” Chen sounded almost happy.
“Eat a dick,” I added.
Laughter echoed down the vent. “You just needed a push, squiddie! I helped you!”
“Get to the door,” I ordered.
I’d briefly pondered grabbing a few cels and slipping away, leaving Chen behind, but he’d just track me down at the Stumps and kick my ass. I wasn’t strong enough to carry a crate by myself, but together, Chen and I could do it. Just a few cels wouldn’t do.
We could pawn the cels out of even one crate for weeks, maybe even make enough money to buy fake IDs and get out of Rocham before Cloud Nine quarantined the rest of it, demolished everything, and moved in ‘burbers. I walked to the locked security door at the back of Old Man Lawrence’s shop, which was strong enough even a battering ram couldn’t take it down. I waited for Chen to knock.
I waited so long I half wondered if he’d run off. Finally, dull thumping sounded. I hit the glowing green button by the side of the security door.
Locks unsnapped inside with dull clicks, and then the door popped open. Chen slipped inside. He closed it again with scarcely any noise.
“Guards came,” Chen said, audibly apologetic. “Had to hide until they passed.”
“What a great story.” I jabbed a thumb over my shoulder. “We just hit the jackpot.”
Chen slammed his hands together. “I knew it! Shop’s been closed for a week now, ever since they expanded the quarantine to this block. Old Man Lawrence cut and ran.”
I slipped aside before Chen could shove his way past me. I might not be big or strong, but I was fast. When you didn’t have the food and protein to build muscles and punch people, you learned to not get punched. Or, I guess, you got your ass kicked and died.
Chen crouched by one of the shelves near where I’d landed. He ran both palms along the boxes. Why was he doing that? They all had the same stamp, a black car.
Chen stood. “No good. No one owns anything expensive enough to use these.”
I thumped the crates on the other side with my palm. “Distillation.”
Chen tapped his chin. “Yeah, that’d do. Everyone needs fresh water.”
Dios, our city, was actually a city on the sea, though I’d never seen the sea. Water to the horizon sounded like bullshit. Yet all the old folks told us kids Dios was a floating city, the biggest ever built. I had no reason to deny it, just as I had no reason to deny a God existed and Santa Claus was real.
None of them gave a crap about me, and they’d let me live on the streets for six years running for my goddamn life. So far as I was concerned, they could all die in a fire.
Something crashed to the floor beyond the closed door to the main part of the shop. It sounded heavy, and Chen and I froze like roaches in a spotlight. Was Old Man Lawrence home after all?
If Old Man Lawrence found us, we were dead. Breaking and entering was all the excuse Dios PD needed to beat a couple of unregistered kids to a pulp. It’d even be legal, probably.
I was halfway to the closed security door when Chen snatched my shoulder, or tried. I remained slick with oil. I instinctively slipped free.
“Wait!” Chen hissed. “It might just be a cat or something.”
I reached the closed security door and pushed the green button. “That’s a big fucking cat, Chen.”
Something else crashed in the room beyond the door to the inside of the shop. Chen joined me at the door, huffing, yet we both waited. Soldiers could be outside, so we couldn’t just run.
Chen and I pushed the door open a crack, peering out. No one in the alley. All clear.
The door at the front of the storeroom blew off its hinges hard enough to go airborne. Chen and I spun at the same time, and at the same time, we reacted. I was just smaller and faster.
As the door came at us like a sideways guillotine, I ducked under its recently crushed edge. The hurtling inner door hit the security door hard enough to slam it shut, then wedged itself horizontally like a cross bar. So that was fucking great.
I looked up to check on Chen, but all I saw was the underside of the door and Chen’s legs. Going through the door. How had Chen’s legs gotten through the door?
I rolled out from under it and scrambled up. Above the door, the rest of Chen blinked at me. As I stared, jaw slack, his upper torso slid down the slanted door on a trail of brown and red.
“Grant?” Chen whispered. He fell out of sight with a wet smack.
Yet as brain-numbingly horrible as it was to see a kid I barely knew cut in half, the clicking from the storeroom doorway was worse. It sounded like an old gas stove struggling to ignite.
And the tattered, lesion-covered figure that ducked into the storeroom looked like Hell.