This week’s Challenge Image was brought to you by Javan Nelums, submitted over Facebook. The image is by JJasso, and is called Thekno City. I claim no authorship or attachment to said image, and if you are the owner please contact me if you disapprove of the post. Without Further ado…
E v e r y b o d y T a l k s
Corin dashed through the neon patchwork of the streets, the garish lights of billboards and the corporate spires of the New City muddled by his steps in the ever-present puddles on the street beneath him. It was December, but that didn’t keep the air from being thick with the humidity of the breath of the millions that lived above him, made impossibly more stagnant with the overabundant scent of the spices flowing from the vendors set up and down the street. He scrubbed the moisture out of the stubble on the left side of his head and took a moment to consider.
He’d arrived in the Old City only a few hours before, having just got into the station from Hong Kong a fraction of an hour before that. Since then, he’d been wandering without a destination, trying to appear as if he was a Midlevel on a jaunt below, something that had become commonplace enough as to not gather comment. Small flocks of squawking birds lit on street side heaters used to create circular patios to draw passersby into the shops, their mottled forms outnumbering the few patrons out at this hour of the night.
Few on this level could afford the shops and restaurants’ luxuries, only to work for them. His father had been one of them, though in a different borough. Corin had helped as a child, carrying food to the tables of those from the neighborhood fortunate enough that week to be able to order his cousin Sarya’s roasted dumplings, or those slumming from the wealthier Levels Above who came in for his aunt Marda’s pastries. Traditionalism had been a major fad for several years before he’d walked away from that life, and some of the Midlevels still latched onto it, desperate to gain face with those above them.
The hem of his coat was slick with the mixture of sludge and whatever liquid passed for rain this close to the surface. The biased leather trench had kept the chill away when he was Above, but he was roasting now that he’d reached the surface. He’d needed to hide, and they’d already been in the station when he’d arrived. He’d developed some arcane instinct detecting when he was being watched over the last six months. He’d had to, in order to have lasted this long. So he’d taken the nearest shuttle without looking, hoping his lack of a plan might buy him some time—but in hindsight setting himself up in a part of town where someone like him stuck out like an out’chiya in full plumage wasn’t going to get the job done.
His steps were deliberate, though his gait must’ve looked peculiar to those who glanced at him as he shuffled past. They didn’t engage their curiosity for more than a moment before they dropped their eyes back to their menus and drinks. He’d chosen this borough precisely because it wasn’t the sort of place you raised your gaze. Once part of downtown, the Old City had found itself pushed further and further to the periphery of the ever-growing metropolis. And in typical American tradition, the ethnic neighborhoods had been pushed to the edge of town as the powerful bought up the center of the city and began to build their spires, domes, and wealth. He was definitely an outsider here, and he needed to get off the streets before his aimless wanderings made him appear…conspicuous. He pulled up the collar of his coat to hide what he could of his visage and continued apace.
Corin shook his head to clear his thoughts, his lopsided mahogany bangs matting against the right side of his face. Cass had loved the look, he remembered wincing. He’d grown out all of it about a year ago, and she’d given him hell for it, asking if he’d decided to pursue a career as a urisen after all. She’d been the one to get the trimmers and, after a few too many shots and a dare, he let her shave off the left side. He should shave it all off. Get it together, man. This is not the time to fall apart. Focus. Keep moving. Don’t attract attention. He let the emotions slide off his face and put on a slightly askew, almost teasing grin. He didn’t care if it looked mocking—that would suit him just as well.
The package bulging through the brown leather bag slung over his right shoulder had to remain intact if he was going to survive this, even if he didn’t understand what it was, or why he’d been chased across two continents for it. Life as a courier had paid the bills, and kept him light on his feet, but the last year had kept him running almost nonstop, when he wasn’t in the air. Glancing up, ships lit the sky, flying to and from the New City, disappearing as crackling streaks of light in the smudge that was the sky. He felt his pocket buzzing, but he dared not answer the UBox. Encrypted as it was, it was dangerous enough to have kept it on. Just in case.
More blocks than he could count later, he had to stop at the corner of yet another two streets he couldn’t pronounce to make way for some armored transport headed out into the suburbs. He briefly stopped and contemplated trying to jump alongside, but by the time he contemplated it had long past and he took a breath. Across the street, a man with a weathered, cracked face looked up from his street stand and its barbequing meat, his hard amber eyes softening as he saw the tattoo on his neck. Corin winced—obviously the collar hadn’t been enough to hide what had mattered most. He tried to not let his exhaustion show as he met the man’s eyes, and nodded softly. The man was about to speak when Corin started down the side street. Safer for you to not get involved, he mused, if it came to that. Whoever wanted what he was carrying, wanted it badly enough to put down his partners in Boston, and the contacts in AIC he’d reached out to in Portland.
Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t realize he’d turned again down a small alley until he was facing the wall in front of him. Too tall to climb, covered in that damn slime-mold that was a plague on the older buildings of this part of town, he was going to have to turn around. Dead end, just like the last six months, he sighed, his shoulders slumping and the bag drooping towards the ground. I’m not going to do this.
Blue goo fell from the sky, some skyward ship dumping its waste in front of him, as gulls and what might’ve been a corvus flew from the nearby heaters and landed to promptly feast on it, screeching at him to protect their feast.
The inevitable footsteps crept up behind him.