Sif muttered a garbled protest as Hex rose with the daylight. He’d only had a few hours of sleep and his body ached as though he’d taken a beating. He smiled down at his sleeping lover. She had one slim arm thrown over her head, with the other pale hand tucked under her chin. Her hair, like fine gold thread, had escaped its braid and blanketed her narrow shoulders. Relaxed with sleep; her normally defined muscles hid beneath unblemished skin.
Hex thought she looked at her most inhuman when she slept, less like a child than a doll. Every feature symmetrical, the coloring of her mouth, cheeks, and even her lashes were more like painted details than living flesh.
Hex carried his clothing into the main room and dressed quickly. He selected seven of the condensed food bars they’d appropriated the night before and tucked them into the pockets of his long brown coat. More grateful for stairs then he’d been in a long time; Hex navigated the twisting corridors of the building and descended slowly to street level. It was still raining, a slow lazy drizzle.
Though curfew ended with dawn, there were very few people moving along Casimir’s winding Main Street. Later, the streets would fill with bicycle traffic and throngs of bodies moving between underground stations. Ijipe’s lower levels held many small home shops and markets. It was possible to find almost anything one needed in the little registered or illegal shops tucked between the alleyways and building entries. A warren of commerce slept as Hex moved up the glowing road towards the edge of Ijipe housing district.
Sore as he was, he still opted to walk. The light rain cleared his head even as it matted his curls to his face and neck. Hex left his hood down. The food was safe enough inside his waterproof coat and the plastic packaging.
The solid walls of building shadowed his walk, the ubiquitous crowns, bells, and wings of traditional Casimir decoration casting odd shadows down on the rain-dark concrete. Here and there in the morning mist lights within windows glinted. The fiber-optics embedded into the streets lit the morning purple, green, and red.
A few hundred steps down the road, just as the buildings started to twist again in another curve of the giant spiral that was Casimir, Hex found the alley he was looking for. The alley was dimly lit by pale strands of fiber-optic light tucked into the edges. Debris and a dark plastic bench blocked some of the light rising up from the ground. Hex moved carefully down the alley until he came to a narrow stair leading upward into the buildings.
Hex climbed until his legs hurt. He bypassed one hallway entrance after another. Finally worn green paint in twisting designs greeted his eyes. He turned from the stair and stepped down the hallway. At the fifth door he hesitated. With a deep breath, Hex knocked.
A small, dark and wrinkled woman opened the door just enough to see him. He heard a chain being withdrawn and then the door opened fully.
“What do you want, Hex?” Jaline said.
“I’ve brought food for the kids,” Hex said, pulling the food bricks out of his pockets.
“They’re asleep. Come put it over here.” She moved aside, allowing him into the small room. This apartment was laid out much like Hex’s own. He walked to the kitchen, noticing the large crayons aligned neatly on the low table. He stacked the food on the counter and turned back to Jaline.
“Thank you. Is that all?” She said the last more as expectation than question.
“Daddy?” A soft voice asked from behind one of the curtains leading to the sleeping rooms.
“Nadia, hi.” Hex bent and held his arms out to his youngest child. She emerged from behind the cloth and ran the few steps to him. Her body was so thin and her heart beat so fast, more like a bird’s than a girl’s.
He carefully clutched the fragile four-year old in a hug and looked up at her grandmother. Jaline is nothing like her daughter was. Her daughter, the mother of Hex’s two children, had been so carefree and full of life. Her mother was a bitter creature that the world had long since sucked dry of all joy.
“Nadia, you should be in bed.” Jaline stepped forward as if to take the child.
Hex shook his head. “Nadia, I brought food for you all and Granma is going to make you a huge breakfast.” He let his face go hard as he stared Jaline down.
Nadia looked up at him with large purple eyes and her mother’s narrow chin. Her mother had been a Drift addict when she was pregnant and the drug’s mark was forever imprinted on his child.
“I don’t get breakfast, Daddy.”
“Don’t be silly, child,” Jaline said, her voice high with a panicked note. “Of course you get breakfast. Granma is going to do just as your daddy says.” She tore the child from his hands and set her down on the counter. “Hex,” she said, “it’s just that she isn’t registered, so of course it’s harder to get her rations. We have to pay attention to those things in this house. You see.”
“Of course,” Hex murmured. He wished suddenly that he hadn’t come. “Say hello to Eddy for me when he gets up. I’ve got to go.”
“Have a good day,” Jaline said stiffly, though her eyes still showed a trace of fear.
Hex paused in the doorway and watched the domestic scene of Nadia waving a mixing spoon in the air while her grandmother peeled open a package of Sunrise! Delicious! He shut the door quickly and did not look back.
* * *
Sif, Ryg, and Hex gathered around the low table. On it Ryg had spread a print-out of building schematics.
“Here,” Ryg said, indicating a large room on the inside edge of the seventy-fifth floor.
“Just in and out, eh? The files won’t be hard to copy?” Hex asked.
“Shouldn’t be. I’ll send along one of my little standard chips. You might have to try running a couple different programs.”
“Sounds easy enough. Guards?”
“Drones. Totsi Electronics provides their security. They’ve got the regular issue. Non-lethal only. Patrols on a random generated pattern.”
Hex sighed. “Looks like roof entry through that central shaft is our best plan.”
Sif smiled at him and squeezed his hand. Hex hated the roofs, though he couldn’t deny that they were the best way to travel unnoticed in the city.
“Tomorrow night then, if you think that’s not too soon?” Ryg said. He sat very straight, body rigid. There was an air of anticipation about him.
Sif’s eyes narrowed.
“Not too soon at all, kid. Sooner we work, sooner we get paid,” Hex said and rose to clear their cups.
Sif followed Ryg into his room, yanking the curtain closed behind her.
“What’s going on?” she asked him, using sub-vocals.
Ryg turned his back to her and began fiddling with Fisheye. “Nothing.”
There was yellowish crust around his neck implant. It wasn’t like him to tolerate any bodily fluid leaking, much less drying on his skin.
“I know you better than that, brother.” Sif stepped forward and gently touched the wires protruding from his shirt.
Turning, he brushed her off. “I’m going to need to replace my knees soon. The joints are going. I need this job as much as you. That’s all.”
Sif considered him. He looked tired, yet focused. “Night then.” She turned away. We’re all falling apart.
* * *
Ryg waited until the curtain dropped closed behind Sif. He sighed and settled down in front of his computer screens. He loaded a program and made a call. Kadin’s face appeared. He was passing middle age, with short silvered hair and darker skin than Hex’s.
“They in?” Kadin asked.
“Yes. Though Sif’s suspicious,” Ryg said.
“Everything will be fine. They’ll never know.” Kadin’s image smiled wide and reassuring. “The real work will be going on far below them.”
“Except they won’t get paid. That’s going to ruffle things,” Ryg said. He hadn’t lied to Sif, he also needed the credit.
“Would they do it if they were getting paid?”
“No, not a job like this,” Ryg said with a sigh. He couldn’t tell his friends the truth. Sif would kill him for even thinking about it. Her rule was to stay as far away from anything having to do with the Council and government as possible. “But it’ll still look bad when we fail.”
“I’ll see what I can do for you at least,” Kadin said, reading into what Ryg wasn’t saying. “And we’ll see what we can do with what we get. There might be a larger payday later, if all goes as it should.”
“Thanks, friend,” Ryg said. He resisted the urge to scratch at wires in his neck, forcing his hands to stay quiet in his lap. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow night. Make sure everyone else is ready.”
“They will be,” Kadin said and then he ended the call.
“This better be worth it.” Ryg shivered. It would be. It had to be.
* * *
Sif fixed the tiny camera to her forehead, smack between her eyes. The apoxy stuck immediately and she inwardly winced at the idea of ripping it off. That part was never fun. The benefits of a live feed of what was going on, however, would always outweigh the bit of skin she’d lose later.
“Great,” Ryg said. “Now, try not to move your head around too much. I’m not the biggest fan of motion sickness.”
“Really?” Hex asked. “I figured you would have replaced your stomach with a spare bucket and some plumbing tape by now.”
Sif tensed. Ryg could be touchy when it came to making light of his body’s failings. She needn’t have worried. Ryg chuckled and then shrugged.
“I would, but you see, who knows where those spare buckets have been? So very unsanitary. So I’m unfortunately stuck with the acidic bacteria infestation that comes as standard option.”
“In that case I’ll try to resist all urges to pick Sif up and shake her like a rat,” Hex said solemnly.
“Aw, but then I’d get to witness, first person view and all, what she’d do to you afterwards.”
“Now that would be unsanitary.”
“If you two are done,” Sif muttered, “We have a building to rob.”