Sigma-4: The Wanderlust

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A jagged length of dirty glass; it would suffice for a scalpel. I stuffed it into a coat pocket. The garbage container heaved with the impact of another spray of bullets. A quick look around the edge– there were only two of them, making their way through the alley with forearm guns drawn. Alternating red and blue eyes meant business here in Reshen.

On hands and knees I shuffled along the filth and stone through leaves of paper and reached a small cellar window. I cleared an entry with a heavy boot thrust and dragged myself in.

The air inside was disgusting– it filled my lungs with dust and mold from a decade ago and I stifled a fit of coughing. I pressed myself against the wall and clutched my associate, a snubnose .44 with a bloody and rusted switchblade in the handle.

The whirring and metallic pounding of their footsteps passed slowly and they surveyed the alleyway with clicks and redbeams, holding rapid conversation with the usual chittering rubbish they used for language. I scanned the room I had entered; nothing but cramped storage. This place would have to do for a hideout. I pulled back the heavy sleeve of my coat. It was still there, latched to my dirty forearm, and the festering was getting worse.

I pushed aside the grating that I’d covered the window with; I’d need some light for the bit of insanity I was about to pull. Twelve midnight had passed uneventfully out in the alley. Nothing but rats rooting through the refuse, and one I’d chewed through searching for some energy. Nothing but gristle and a foul smell.

Strapped to a saw horse and tourniqueted, my forearm was covered in branching infection that stood raised from the surface. Blisters and cracks in the skin were beginning to form. The glowing chip-strip had turned out to be rotten, and now it leaked a black fluid around the needles.

I swear to hell, if I live through this I’m going to find the dog that implanted it, though it made no difference now. It ached like a mother and had to come out, and if the extraction failed it would be straight to amputation. I’d done the entire procedure on a flatmate before and he’d lived, more or less… I was as confident as I would ever be. I bit down on a bit of strip and plunged the glass into the skin.

Blood spewed and spilled on the dusty floor. Fire spread through my circuitry. I shimmied the glass in a rough circle around the chip. A guttural and horrid growl burst from my lungs, and my legs threatened to give out. No turning back! I surged with adrenaline and pushed the glass further, digging the rotten thing out as quickly as I could.

At last, it hung by a thread of meat and I tore it out with a white-knuckled fist. My vision flickered wildly, and I took up the shirtsleeve I’d cut and wrapped it tightly around the pulsing wound. Adrenaline jacked my system to white-hot shreds and all balance swung from under me. I hit the ground like a wasted Tera-bot. The taste of dust and rat shit led me into quick sleep.

The impact spot ached, where my face had met solid concrete. The room slowly came into focus. Hues of neon filtered through the window, illuminating the dust particles in the air. I was still alone. My arm! Is my arm salvageable? The limb was not in my dark range of vision but it felt hot and throbbed with a boiling pulse. What had happened?

Like a lurching and rusted old mech, I heaved myself from the cellar floor. Every bone of my frame seemed to weigh a thousand kilos. My head swam, disoriented, and I leaned back against a stack of crates. How the hell long have I slept?

Though the rain had eased, it remained night outside in the streets. The hover horns and sirens, the ambience of Dirty Reshen, were still alive in the distance. I couldn’t wait any longer and began unwrapping the shirt-bandage from the torn mess of my forearm.

The shirt was soaked through and adhered to the wound in several places. A few quick rips tore it free, and after the pain I examined the hole where the chip-strip used to be. The black veins branching from the corroded center were still present, and the arm itself was now a bruised shade of violet and brown. It needed to be cleaned, but I knew it wouldn’t help; I would have to lose the arm.

The strip had done an irreversible amount of tissue damage. Without immediate attention, the infection would spread across the rest of my flesh and eventually to my heart, if not my brain first. My spine froze at the thought of being sickened with tech-death. Beyond Reshen, in the meat-markets of Quadro, I knew a chop-shop that would take me in immediately. It would keep me alive, but it would come at the cost of another debt.

Shit, add it to the list.

It was time to go.

I’d re-wrapped the arm, and the entire mess was covered by a coat sleeve. The wound needed to be out of sight. Outside the window, there was no sign of the street patrol. I snapped open the cylinder of the .44; two rounds left, and three wasted on the patrol that had chased me here. It would have to do. I holstered the weapon against my chest and heaved myself up and out of the window. The alleyway pavement was filthy and I washed my hands in a puddle of rainwater.

It was certainly still night, though day here wasn’t much brighter. Had an entire 24 hours elapsed?

High above, the overcast rumbled and swiftly carried on toward the next city. The air was crisp and smelled of diesel and grease. I took a deep breath and bolstered my courage. The chop-shop was a mile away through Dirty, Filthy Reshen.

At the end of the alley I rested and scanned the crowds. The West Edge was a bloody filth-pit, and hardly human anymore. Wasn’t to say the majority had turned to tech; many of them had simply lost any bit of soul they had left, and the city was on a sharp decline toward another wave of barbarism. Forced mutations, fashionable amputations, and face removals to be covered with masks, or nothing at all, had left Reshen looking like the setting of a nightmare. A living nightmare that crawled with real insanity. The kind of place where hypersensory chip-strips were dirt cheap and took an hour to install, and were apparently faulty as all hell.

One more look out into the sea of faces and I put a foot out into the street. Gravity swung off-kilter and my back slammed against the brick wall. Azanga jutted his crooked-faced grin into my personal space.

“What’s a… a right nasty human like yourself doing in Reshen, eh mate?”

I was inclined to spit in his face, but two bullets left said he was a waste of lead. “Same thing you are, Azanga…”

The horn of a hover blazed past, and I watched his ugly grin grow wider.

“Yeah? What’s that, Reach? Looking for a good time? Looking to stab a man in the back for a boost?” He pulled out a switchblade of his own and brandished it in amusement, “Oh, this looks familiar doesn’t it, mate?”

“Azanga, now’s not the time, trust me.”

“Oh, trust you now, eh mate?”

“Yeah, that’s right, Zang. I just tore a gig out of my own damn flesh, my face is hot on the scans as of last night, and I need to get through Reshen or I’m losing an arm. You are nothing to me right now and I wouldn’t push my luck, mate.

“Oh yeah? Well I say we just have a little sit down here and wait for sun to come up then. What’s a free night in a beautiful city without a little suffering?”

I sighed. “Azanga…” My boot connected squarely with his gut and he sprawled to the pavement, splashing up rainwater. I stared down at him past the barrel of the .44 and weighed my options. A flash in my peripherals. I watched as a jet black figure dashed past the opposite end of the alley. Wander! Finally! Azanga would have to wait… or better yet. I squeezed the trigger.

A moment later I was tearing through the alley, hoping to catch her before she disappeared down the next one.

Four injections and a prayer in a foreign tongue. My arm grew numb and I gave credit to the chemicals.

It had been longer than a decade since my last visit here, but the surgeon hadn’t changed a bit. Still mumbling to himself, still hunched over his work like a fiend over a keyboard, still using the same tray of dirty picks and blades… I wasn’t proud of my choice in medical facilities, but I was running out of time here.

My coat and shirt were off and I lay flat against the cold operating table. To my left, the doctor was quietly inspecting my glass-razor chip extraction job. To my right, a hellish mechanical arm leered over me, instruments of all sorts ready to whirr and dig and saw through whatever might need to come off. I attempted to distract myself from what I knew was about to happen, although the doc was scraping my bone at the moment and I just couldn’t find a happy thought to dwell on.

“Yep, it’s definitely going to have to come off.” He frowned slightly.

“Let’s get this over with.”

As the cutting began, I was thrown into a hazy recollection of memories and visions of her. No matter where I went, her name had followed me. Wander. And she was always there to steal my vision for a moment. To throw me off my track and convince me that there was something going on beneath this place, some sort of rebellion… but against what? And why did I feel so compelled to find out?

If I could only see her face, I would know what the next step was. But what until then?

It was all painless, but the spinning blade grinded to a halt. The arm was off. I tripped hard and fell headlong into the darkness.


…To Be Continued.

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