A few more minutes passed, and I started passing a set of residential stacks, the scents of cooking and sweat wafted by. There were a few people out on the streets, though no one paid much attention to me. I kept my head down and tried to look like I knew where I was going. Another email arrived from Bretton, this one containing an external diagnostics package. I looked at the attachment and the instructions that came with it. It wanted me to plug into my charging station in the truck, create a restore point, then run the package. I sighed. A truck that was basically guaranteed to have someone in it who hated me. If I was lucky, it’d be one of the people who were discreet about it. “Fuck it,” I said, accepting the download. I created my own restore point and waited for the download to finish. I’m enjoying my time away from the truck, thanks. I opened the package.
And fell forward on my face.
“No, no, no, no, fuck no, fuck,” I hissed into the muddy snow. My suit was completely dead. “Please start, please start, please start.” I took a deep breath, inhaling no small amount of filthy snow as I did so, and fought back the panic. There was a reboot procedure. They’d made me practice it. This was just the suit’s system that had gone down; the neural jack should still have power. I concentrated, trying to remember the feeling, eventually feeling something click. Little green lights flickered on the edge of my vision. It’d take a few minutes, but I was going to be ok.
Crunching snow behind me. Oh shit. “You ok?” someone asked me. A kid.
“I’m fine,” I said, spitting snow out of the way. “Just … I’ll be fine.”
“What happened?” another kid asked. How many of them were there?
“What’d you do to him, Mike?”
“Nothing! I found him like this.”
“You’re going to be in trouble.”
“I’m fine, guys,” I said. “Honestly.” I watched the green lights resolve into letters, watching the boot sequence start. It was not a quick process.
“What’d he say?”
More crunching snow. My face rose off the ground as someone rolled me onto my back. “Thanks,” I said, hoping I sounded cool and also casually menacing. I was peering into the face of a young man, maybe seventeen or so. The two kids were standing behind him, looking at me curiously.
“You ok?” the young man asked.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just slipped.” I licked my lips, considered a couple things. “Can you find my friends? Big guys. White jackets.”
“Yeah.” He looked over his shoulder. “Mike, Rick. Keep a look out. Tell me if anyone’s coming.”
“What?” Oh. That. Shit.
He started opening my pockets, inside my jacket and out. I didn’t have anything of value on me, other than the extremely expensive military exoskeleton. I started to scream, but he was ready for that and clamped a hand over my mouth. He twisted his hand out of his glove as he did so, shoving the glove deeper into my maw. It tasted of dirt and grease and the more I fought against it the more I tasted it. “What the hell is this?” he said, returning his free hand back under my armpits, feeling the suit’s structure. He reached up to my neck and undid my jacket, then tugged up my shirt, revealing my sloppy body and the suit frame wrapped around it. “What the fuck are you? Some kind of robot?”
That’s not what a robot is, fuckwit. The boot sequence seemed to have stalled, choking on the idiotic software that cretin Bretton had sent me.
“Someone’s coming!” one of the kids said. The guy straddling my chest turned around. More crunching footsteps in the snow, coming quickly now. “Oh shi..” my new friend said, before he flew off me, tackled by a white blur. From somewhere behind me two wet thuds, and the distinct sound of something cracking. A moan.
“You ok, Luggage?” Kat said, kneeling down beside me, upside down from my perspective. She looked around. “Can you move?”
I blinked, then remembered to check the HUD. The boot sequence had gotten past whatever it had been hung up on and was almost done. “Yeah,” I said, stalling. I tried my arm, causing it to flop around. Back to square one.
She looked at the arm suspiciously. “Is that it?”
I grimaced. “Nope. Just … hang on.” I flopped the other arm, then ordered both legs to do the same.
She leaned away from me into a kneeling position. “What happened?” she asked, almost hissing through clenched teeth. She worked her jaw up and down a couple times.
I wondered how much I should tell her. “They tripped me,” I said. My limbs began moving a little more fluidly, and I slowly sat up to face her. She smiled and blinked. She was blinking a lot actually.
“We gotta go,” she said, looking past me. I turned to look, seeing a few people down the street watching us. She abruptly lunged at me, slinging one of my arms over her shoulder. Before I knew what was happening, she’d hoisted me to my feet. We began making our way back to the truck like that, my arm over her shoulder, though I soon found I didn’t really need it. “Bad, bad, bad idea going there, Gabe,” she said. “Ziggy let you off the truck? Bad, bad, bad.”
“There was a mixup,” I said. “I was with Mitchell and Jorda and we got separated. Jesus. Where are the cops in this place?”
She laughed. “I’m the cop, Luggage.” She leaned into me then, steering me around a corner. Ahead of us were the bright lights of the charging station. “You don’t fucking get how anything works out here.” We reached the concrete apron and were greeted by the unexpectedly calming sight of Ziggy shrieking at a different station attendant.
“Kat?” I asked, as we set off across the apron. I took my arm off of her shoulders and stopped.
“What?” she said, turning to look at me. In the brighter lights, I could see her eyes better now, pupils flared incredibly wide. She blinked.
“I’m ok now, yeah?” I said.
“What?” She shook her head. “What?” she asked again.
“I mean, I’m moving again. On my own.” I swallowed. “Can you maybe not tell Ziggy about this?”
A beat, then a grin spread across her face. “Yeah. Sure. I get it.” She licked her lips and nodded. “I’m cool.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m not sure what to s …”
She held a finger up. “Be cool.” And with that she turned around and set off across the pad.
I gaped at Kat for what must have been a seriously uncool amount of time before eventually following her back to the truck.