By Will Greenway
Crystal clicked along the dingy lane, feeling cold stares on her back. She’d left her Chesterwood high-rise for a tense walk through the streets of bag-town. Flash a little gold jewelry and some spotless duralon and scags came to call. She took risks to get a rush and break out of the tedium of her corporate life. Besides the excitement, she did it to make her bodyguard, Gerron, mad. Maybe this time, he’d drop his shields and she’d see the man behind the armored mask.
She walked faster, glancing around to see if Gerron was visible. She saw nothing but darkened street sides, barred windows, and smog stained brickwork. A metallic smell lingered in the air, the caustic remnants of the mortigene toxins used clean up the biohazards found here in New Los Angeles’ ghettos.
Crystal forced down a surge of concern at not seeing Gerron nearby. Using the holo-photonic abilities of his armor he usually stayed invisible to prevent attracting attention. The tactic had surprised many an enemy. He protected her from the vermin by interposing his armored body. Fists, knives, bullets, partical blasts—all met the same resilient wall.
Tucking her dark hair into the collar of her jacket, she caught a glimpse of something big moving in the shadows behind her. She picked up the pace, feeling her heart thump harder. Alive. Not dead like her bio-stricken father. Not vegetized like her chip-popping brother.
Cats yowled in an alley. Turboelectric vehicles hummed across an intersection down the street.
Crystal scanned for some evidence of Gerron. Sometimes she located him by looking for inconsistencies where fog or dust blew around his camouflaged form.
A broad figure clad in rags shuffled down the sidewalk behind her; a big man, enough to make three of her. Something metallic in his hand caught the light from a street lamp.
She steeled herself. Gerron could handle it. Simply to see him in action and be close to the fight were part of what made her take chances. That, and it made him angry enough to talk to her. After years of being her guardian, it had been only last month that she’d heard his real voice.
The scene sprang like a tri-vid in Crystal’s mind. They stood on a rooftop looking across the neon colors of the city. An icy breeze laden with bitter scents of alkali stung her nose, remnants from the cloud seeding the night before. Her gold bodysuit felt moist and looked transparent in places from the exertion of running. Panting, she leaned against the rail. She’d tried to outrun Gerron up ten flights of stairs. She failed to increase the margin between them by more than a meter.
Her skin prickled as she felt the intensity of his focus on her. She turned and stared at the smooth mirror sheen of his face plate. She imagined seeing narrowed green eyes staring at her. The contours of the blue durathene carapace suggested a muscular physique; a twenty-first century knight in shining armor.
She often fantasized what he looked like underneath. Despite her best efforts she could not even coax him into removing his helmet. Threatening to fire him was no more persuasive. He remained another of the enigmas she inherited when her father died.
“Why do you do this?” He asked, his voice filtered by electronics sounded hollow and alien. “My duty is to protect you, but you try to make it hard for me. Big-G knows there’s enough scags who’d pay top creds to have you snuffed. Don’t make it easy for them.”
Heart speeding, she stepped close, fingers tracing the cool contours of his armor. “All this money and power has no meaning if I can’t feel free. I need a thrill once in a while, otherwise I’m as dead as father.”
Gerron snorted and took her hand. Even sheathed in heavy gauntlets his touch was delicate. “Your thrills will get you in a grave like your father.”
She shivered, feeling the subtle pressure of his fingers. “You worry too much.”
He growled and dropped her hand in apparent frustration. Servo motors hummed in the armor as he folded his arms. She longed to see the look of consternation on his face. She heard a click and an electronic crackle. Another voice spoke, this time a rich baritone, the words sharp and clipped. “Drek! Crystal, you don’t worry enough. Missy, we can’t afford to lose you and have the govs seize our corp.”
She stepped back, heart skipping a beat and throat tightening. The sound of his voice—the way he said her name startled her. It didn’t sound at all like she imagined—it wasn’t raspy or dark, nor did it roll out the way a singer’s voice might. Nothing in the accent gave any clues about the face behind the mask.
That irritated her. “So what? If I die, no big loss. No one cares anyway!” Face abruptly hot, she turned away and stared at the horizon. In the distance, lasers cast a dazzling filigree across the clouds.
Gerron stepped closer. His tone dropped. “Crystal.”
He said her name again. Why did she have to get him mad simply to hear him speak? Didn’t he understand how she felt? She was alone—her father’s enemies constantly testing and probing for weakness. There was no-one she could trust—except him. He wouldn’t talk to her. It was making her crazy.
“Crystal,” he said again.
“What?” she snarled.
He touched her neck. The glove was cool and it made her tremble. “This is bigger than just you. If the govs dismantle this corp, people will lose the only livelihood they have. They’ll be out on the street. They depend on us for money and shelter.”
Depend. It made her heart ache. Where had they been while Father wasted away a hospital bed? Put there by the stress over the death of her chip-popping brother who cranked himself into the grave on BTL chips. Their deaths had been so wasteful and unfair. She lived on, stuck with the legacy of this cred guzzling corporation, balancing books, managing the board and performing negotiations. It sucked the energy from her until she felt like a shell, bitter and empty.
“I’m tired of people depending on me. They don’t care about me.” She sniffed, feeling the words hot in her throat. “They just want their free damn ride. I’m honoring Dad’s last request and keeping this corp afloat. So don’t tell me how to live.”
Gerron sighed, she felt him grip her shoulder. “Not how to live. How to stay alive.”
Crystal looked back. For a moment, she thought she saw green eyes through the face plate. “Gerron, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
He pulled her against him, her back pressing against hard metal. “It matters to me.”
A can clattering on the sidewalk behind her sparked her out of her recollection. The shadowy figure stepped quickly now. He looked closer than Gerron usually allowed.
Crystal’s heart pounded. She ran. The figure broke into a sprint.
One of her high-heels caught in a crack. She stumbled against a sooty wall next to a gap between two buildings. Before she could move again a huge hand engulfed her shoulder.
Something hard shoved into the small of her back.
“Make like ice, moms.”
Crystal stared at the revolver aimed at her stomach. Why didn’t Gerron intervene? The hulk used the gun to push her back. The sound of her heels echoed as she backed into the alley. Pustules covered his face. His breath reeked of decay. Heart thundering she retreated, scattering dust, roaches, and old refuse. Her back struck a wall. No place to run.
Where did Gerron go? Was he waiting to scare her? She felt perspiration matting her dark hair. Nails digging into the crumbling brick, she stared at the square of light framing the alley exit.
The creature shambled closer. Seeing this drug riddled zombie, she stopped thinking of him as a man. It stared with eyes dilated to the point no color remained. Pawing at her zipper its fingers left gray streaks on the fabric.
“Gerron!” Squirming, she scanned for the telltale shimmer that would mark his reappearance. She listened for the reassuring buzz of his holo field dropping. She heard nothing.
The man snarled and slapped a grimy hand across her mouth. It felt rigid and cold. A foul taste made her recoil. The stench of garbage clung to him.
His husky voice sounded as though uttered with a tongue of stone. “Close your port, missy.” A ring of metal pressed against her cheek. His thick lips pulled back in a grin.
Crystal shuddered. Had something happened to Gerron? Her stomach felt leaden. She’d die in an alley a victim of her own foolishness. Nothing would remain but a corporate estate claimed by the govs and a ten line obituary in the daily data-script.
She forced herself still. An ache between her eyes grew with each heartbeat.
It grunted, nose close to hers. “Nice meat, stay still and I might let you jam.”
She averted her face and steeled herself as he fondled her breasts. Crystal wished she could shut off her nerves and quell the growing panic. If she freaked this drek-head would ice her.
She looked for anything that would help. Broken bottles, crushed lactate cartons and breakfast boxes lay scattered around several overstuffed biolene sacks crammed into the skeletal remains of some freight boxes.
Nothing useful as a weapon. My only chance is if he’s so jacked that I can get around the corner before he shoots.
He fumbled at the zipper of her jacket.
The thought of this thing touching her bare flesh sent electricity sizzling through her. She prayed to big-G that this drugger could still feel and rammed a knee into his groin.
It groaned. She hit his wrist sending the gun flying into the refuse. A shove sent him crashing to the dirt.
Crystal plunged for the exit. A hand snagged her ankle. She threw out an arm as the ground rushed up at her. A crunching sound. Fire shot through her wrist. She rolled onto her haunches and kicked at his head with a spiked heel.
The drugger warded off the next strike. He growled and pinned her legs, then clawed his way up her body.
She twisted and groped for a purchase. Finding none, she hammered at the exposed portions of his face. It felt like pummeling a side of beef. She struck until her hand bled. Snarling, his face came closer. The alley flickered gray and brown. Her breaths came in staccato gasps.
His weight ground her back into the concrete. She swung an elbow, trying to gouge an eye or break bone. He blocked and grabbed her wrist. A vein throbbed in his forehead. His eyes looked like pits.
“Gonna have to die now.” Spit ran down his chin.
His weight squashed out all her wind, leaving no air to scream. Steely fingers gripped her throat. She beat at his arms, but they might as well have been rock. Stars danced in her vision.
“Gerron!” The plea died in her throat.
Crystal saw no mercy in the drugger’s lifeless eyes. This was the penalty for foolishness. The pain in her arm faded. White auras blossomed around the objects in sight.
The crushing pressure seemed to lessen. Rainbows of color danced across everything. Bells crashed with diminishing volume. A dreamy detachment overtook her. The pounding of her heart slowed.
Gerron. Why had he failed? Was it spite?
She took the chances simply to get Gerron’s attention. To hear his angry voice was more pleasing than the empty banality she faced every day. At least Gerron cared.
I never did get him angry enough to lift that visor.
The alley spun, the last dregs of her life vanishing down a filthy drain. The leering visage loomed over her.
He was obviously drawing it out simply to make her suffer.
So tired. Why did she fight so hard? In a way, the drugger was doing her a favor by bringing an end to the indifference and misery.
Her father died because he gave up. So much easier to let go and saddle her with the responsibility. She hated him for being weak. She would never take the lamb’s way out.
“Come on you drek-faced bastard,” she croaked. “Do it.” Tears distorted everything. Her lungs hurt. “I’ve jacked it all up. It doesn’t matter. Don’t sit there and stink. Get it over!”
Crystal grabbed his throat. The effort sent jangles of pain through her bad wrist. His skin felt clammy and rigid.
The drugger only stared at Crystal with shadowy eyes as she squeezed with all her strength. The grip on her throat loosened. She heard a familiar crackle and the drugger melted into a robotic form. A mirrored visor rolled back and green eyes stared at her. “It matters to me. This enough of a thrill for you?”