Sif and Hex descended down the cabling of the hanging garden outside their flat and climbed in through the modified window, the latter feeling like a rat in a wash cycle. The blue curtain across the doorway into Ryg’s room was tied open and the tiny space beyond that held a cot and low desk was unoccupied.
“Did I miss something?” Hex asked. He bent, hands on thighs, and enjoyed just standing still in a place that wasn’t pissing down water on him.
Sif shrugged. “He said he had something to do tonight.”
She’d already started stripping down and tossing her wet clothing into the autowash installed in the main wall of the kitchen, conveniently near the window. Of course, in a place this small, everything was conveniently close to everything else. The apartment was typical of Ijipe housing plans and had four sleeping compartments that opened off the main room. The main room had enough space for a small kitchen and sitting area.
Hex slung the bag of stolen food up onto the chipped concrete counter next to the sink and sighed. “He never leaves base, that’s all I’m saying. When he said he was busy I assumed he meant busy plugged into the wires.”
“He’s probably down at Kadin’s. He’s got Fisheye with him.”
Hex glanced into Ryg’s room again and noticed she was right, the drone wasn’t resting it its cradle on the far wall. Sif, naked with her waist-length blonde hair unraveling from its braid, gripped his wet jacket and pulled it towards his head insistently.
“Hot shower. Food. Sex,” she said.
“In that order?” Hex asked, amused. What Sif wanted, Sif got. Mostly because she’d just take it and there were few humans capable of physically stopping her. He certainly wasn’t one.
She didn’t respond, instead she continued to assist him out of his clothing. The showers were shared by four other apartments and located across the hall outside. Hex snatched up a robe from the hooks beside the exterior door and followed Sif out. Sif hadn’t bothered to grab a robe. He watched her nude, curving form as she walked ahead of him and felt suddenly far less tired than he had a few minutes ago. Definitely not in that order.
* * *
Ryg hated the hallways. He thought a blind rat must have drawn up the architectural plans to this section of the building. Some stairs went to some levels and not others. Some hallways went through for hundreds of meters; others only accessed a few apartment clusters. This was also prone to change, since occupants sometimes blocked up or knocked down walls between sections depending on the usefulness of having a pass-through.
Once upon a time, probably centuries ago, someone had painted each hall with color coded bands that, if you had the key, could tell you where it went and other useful information. In some sections dirty colors would leap out of the uniform grey and white to shock his vision. The lack of continuity, of symmetry, annoyed Ryg.
Then there were the people. He could hear them. Smell them. Sometimes they’d brush against him in passing. He could sense their presence behind the composite walls of the building like vermin.
Fortunately tonight it was late enough that he encountered no one on his way up to the rooms he shared with Sif and Hex. He still kept his hood pulled down tight over his face, relying on his drone, Fisheye, for peripheral vision. The fist-sized drone floated above his head with a steady, comforting hum. Occasionally one of its trailing sensor tendrils would brush his head. Ryg kept the visual data the drone’s large single lens collected streaming onto the retinal screen in his right eye.
Ryg took deep, controlled breaths. Fifty meters. Forty. Thirty. Two red lines, familiar and garish, sprang out of the wall ahead of him as he turned a corner towards home. Ryg paused. He reached out with a gloved hand and touched the lines. One. Two. One. Two. Almost home. He made himself walk, resisting the urge to bolt the last few meters. Then he was at the keypad and the door. Ryg punched in his unlock code and then closed the door firmly behind him.
The apartment was empty. The heat readings from Fisheye had already warned him of this. Ryg thought his friends might not have returned yet until he noticed the puddles on the floor and the two large black bags resting on the kitchen counter. He turned and saw that Hex’s black robe was gone from its hook.
Ryg hung his duster up by the door and then grabbed a kitchen towel. Meticulously, he dried the counters and then the floor around the black bags. The bags themselves were waterproof, the beaded precipitation evaporating as he watched. He dumped the towel into the autowash.
Neatness restored as much as he could manage, Ryg let curiosity claim him and opened one of the bags. Blocks of yellow, blue, and red foodstuffs were piled within. He removed a blue brick that had ‘Roll Noodle! Amazing!’ stamped into the plastic. Pulling out a small knife, he slit open the brick. The food was compact, dehydrated noodles that smelled strongly of cheap dried fish.
Ryg shook his head. His friends would be hungry. He put the bags onto the floor, dried the counter underneath them with another kitchen rag, and started heating water on the electric burner to reconstitute the noodles.
* * *
Sif and Hex returned from the showers flushed and refreshed. Sif’s hair floated around her, dry from the blowers in the ceiling of the bathroom. She noticed Ryg was home and acknowledged him with a nod.
He was cooking. This pleased her as the smells of fish and starch awakened another hunger. She went into the little room that was all her own and pulled the curtain behind her.
Carefully Sif removed a narrow, flat box from underneath the lumpy mattress. Inside were two empty vials, a syringe, and one tiny vial of deep purple liquid. It shimmered like quicksilver in the dim light of the magnetized LEDs stuck at random to the room’s support beams.
It was never dark in Sif’s room if she could help it.
She removed her last vial and inserted it into the syringe. She expertly found a vein in her ankle, sliding the long needle beneath her pale, unmarked skin. Her heart, racing before from the long night of running followed by sex, slowed immediately as the drug took effect.
For a few moments the world was bright and clear. She could see everything; the cracks in the cement walls, the weave of the curtain that shut her away from the only two people in the world who gave a damn about her. She felt herself healing, cells that were genetically programmed to shut down and fail years and years past soaked up the un-distilled Drift and repaired themselves.
It was over within a minute. Bitterness replaced the fleeting elation. She’d have to talk to Lucien, she knew, to get more. Not something she looked forward to, especially since they were so broke at the moment. She’d have to rob a business perhaps, which would piss off Ryg.
The curtain twitched a moment before Hex started pulling it back. Sif shoved the box back under the mattress along with the empty syringe.
“Oh,” Hex said, staring at her naked body sitting cross-legged on the floor, “I thought you were getting dressed.”
Sif smiled up at him and shrugged. She’d learned early in life that talking generally got you in more trouble than not talking. If she had nothing to say, she didn’t bother filling the air with meaningless excuses. She didn’t think he’d noticed the box. She was too quick for that. But his dark eyes, the color of high quality wood, narrowed slightly. She pretended not to see his suspicion and continued smiling up at him.
He shook his head.
“Food’s nearly ready.” Giving her a final, odd, look, Hex let the curtain fall behind him.
Sif slipped the box back out and replaced the syringe. She pulled a clean set of drawstring trousers and a tee-shirt out of the stacked plastic containers that made up her headrest. Her hair was too fine to need much brushing and stayed in its customary braid from habit more than natural inclination. She braided it quickly before pulling on her clothes and tying the curtain aside.
“Sit, sit,” Ryg said. “I’ll bring bowls over.”
Sif sank down onto a faded blue cushion next to Hex at the low grey table centering the small living room. She noticed, not for the first time, how different the two men were. They were both tall, over six feet. The resemblance ended there, however.
Hex was swarthy in complexion, dark like most people, with a strong jaw, long black eyelashes, and a cruel twist to his full lips. Small scars cut pale reminders in his chin and right eyebrow, giving him even more of a bad boy air. Dark curls more fitting for a child’s fancy doll than a grown, muscular man, lingered around his face. Sif was always fascinated with how his hair managed to be both soft and coarse at the same time.
Ryg was pale, nearly translucent, much like Sif herself. And also like Sif, he was dying slowly. Unlike Sif, however, Ryg couldn’t use Drift to repair his traitorous cells.
He was a different generation, a different model. His body was painfully thin no matter what he ate, and he had no hair. His left eye had been replaced years ago, a high-tech screen that glowed imperceptibly red covered over the empty socket. His right eye was also an implant, though it was formed to resemble a human eye and had a hazel iris striking only in its normalcy.
Ryg always wore a large robe over trousers that hid his body from the throat down. Underneath, Sif knew, he was slowly replacing everything with whatever he could engineer to work. Lucien had hooked them up years ago with experimental engineered organs to refit Ryg’s dying ones. Parts of his left arm were fitted with hydraulics and cabling instead of tendon and muscle now.
Someday, we’ll run out of ways to rebuild him. She didn’t finish her thought. Pain hovered there, lurking down that road, waiting for her to care too much.
She turned her mind away, rejecting the bright burning of memory. No past. No future. Eat, Sif. Sif picked up her plastic eating sticks and dug into the noodles. For a while the three just sat and ate in silence.
Ryg rose awkwardly and took their bowls when they’d finished. Sif noticed that his right leg was moving more stiffly than usual and made a mental note to ask him about it later. More things to replace, we’ll need more credits.
Pickings had been lean lately. The Grey Guard’s latest recruitment surge, due to the poisoning of Twelfth-Seat Councilman Blake, meant more police on the streets and less easy opportunities for criminal activity. The usual suspects for jobs were laying low until the Council selection process was over. It could take months. No one was sure exactly how long, since it was almost unheard of for a councilman to die without an heir.
Ryg cleared his throat and stood at the imperceptible boundary between kitchen and sitting area. Hex and Sif looked up, abandoning their private thoughts.
“So, we’ve got a job, if we want it.” Ryg’s pale face was tense.
“A job? What kind of job? What does it pay?” Hex asked.
Sif watched Ryg, running her tongue along the inside of her lip. He avoided her gaze.
“Kadin got an offer for it. We’ll go through him. It’s a pretty simple in and out information theft. Totsi Electronics building, some offices BioCore rents from them I guess,” Ryg said.
“Smash and grab, eh? How much?” Hex said, as though they had a real choice. They needed work. The food they’d stolen tonight would tide them over for a few weeks, but there was tech to keep upgraded, building officials to keep bribed, and other, more personal, needs.
“Six hundred wic each, I think it works out to,” Ryg said. “Apparently someone in Isidore at the Phemed main office wants to know what the Casimir’s BioCore is up to. And they’re willing to pay well to get it. Clean credits.”
“The biggest pharmaceuticals company wanting information on their competition?” Hex grinned. “They’d better have clean credits.”
Something’s wrong. Sif knew Ryg, they’d been together almost as siblings for nearly half a century. He was too tense, too still. His body language beneath the coarse robe screamed for them to agree, please agree. Was it the credits? Had something gone wrong? Did he need a complicated implant? Sif shut down that line of thought again. Whatever it was, Ryg wouldn’t tell her unless he wanted to. She’d have to just wait, be patient. Six hundred wic would be enough, more than enough, to pay Lucien for more Drift. She could get a couple months worth of vials. Months without having to worry about her body shutting down was worth whatever anxieties were pulling Ryg into a quiet ball in front of her.
“Let’s do it,” she said.
“What she said.” Hex echoed and put a muscular arm around her shoulders. “Six hundred buys a lot of needs.”