by Joe Nelson
A cyberpunk story about a thief being chased.
City Of Dreams
Nexus City stood on the edge of the world.
For those with the units, it was a gateway to the outer colonies, where a brighter future waited amidst the stars - or so the commercials said. Such electric dreams littered the walls of monolithic skyscrapers, beaming down at the masses with the promise of dazzling possibilities. A stranger could be forgiven for thinking that this was a neon wonderland, but far beneath the sparkling lights of the upper city lurked the shadowy streets of the lower slums, where the poor and the downtrodden fought to survive in the reflected glow of impossible dreams.
‘Somebody stop him!’
ShitShitShitShitShit! Jax was booking it like mad, scrambling through the crowd, his frantic feet tapping out the rhythm of his own thundering heart.
‘I’m gonna kill you, you little shit!’
He’d really done it this time. Fat Benny’s warehouse at the Spit had been a good mark for a while now, but he’d finally pushed his luck too far and Benny had caught him halfway through a fanlight with a box of Counts in his arms. The crazy bastard had nearly done for him then and there, but being small and quick like he was Jax had given him the slip, though it had cost him his shirt.
But Benny wasn’t one to give up easily, and now he was hot on the boy’s heels, still waving his shirt in the air while a half-naked Jax made off through the crush with a box of Benny’s best premiums. It was a fair trade, assuming he could get away with it.
‘I know who you are, runt!’ Benny cried, his furious voice swallowed up by the throng. ‘You won’t…. away... this.’
It sounded like Jax was losing him, and he risked a glance backward to find out for sure, but all he could see was a multitude of strangers, milling about the stalls and filling the streets. ‘Hey watch it, kid!’ Someone growled, as Jax collided with them, nearly dropping the package as he did.
‘Sorry,’ he muttered, tightening his grip on the box and moving quickly away. He didn’t need anymore attention than he already had, and though his little heist wasn’t worth much, it was better than nothing at all.
Dumb, Jax. Real dumb. He cursed himself for being so stupid. Never look back, Brody always said. It’s looking back that gets you killed.
To make matters worse it was picking with rain. Icy droplets were hitting his flesh, sending a shiver down his spine. It was the middle of fucking November and now he had no shirt. Great, Jax. Just… fucking… great.
At least there was no sign of Fat Benny anymore, but that meant nothing. There was no guarantee that he was gone, and Jax doubted that Benny would throw in the towel that quickly.
He ducked quickly past a couple in the midst of an argument and continued to weave his way through the gaps in the crowd. Tonight was market night in Low Sprawl and the crowds were teeming and thick. The air was filled with the scents of cooked chicken and fresh fish, and onion and oil and paprika, and a thousand other spices and herbs. A gnawing emptiness made itself known in his gut and for a moment he thought about stealing some food. But that was a stupid idea. There was no way to tell if Benny was still on his tail, and he knew he wouldn’t be truly safe until he made it back to the shafts.
Shit! The shafts, he thought, realising then that he’d gone too far. He could see the Elysium Club on the corner - the start of Cutter turf, and above him, on a vast holo-screen, Eliza Temple was reading the midnight news.
‘...Five years since the Praxis Massacre and commemorations are now well underway on the colony, but the last-minute financial bailout of Proteus have left many critics furious and demanding further action. Proteus spokesman Lucas Reed has vowed...’
Jax watched her for a brief moment, her words falling on deaf ears. He didn’t care about the news, but whenever he saw her he couldn’t help wonder why Brody liked her so much.
Silly distractions, he thought, focusing his mind back on escaping the streets. There was no way he was going through Cutter turf. Fat Benny might kick his teeth in but at least he wouldn’t chop him up and sell off his parts. Gritting his teeth and cursing under his breath, Jax turned and made his way back through the crowd, head down and eyes open for any sign of the enraged Benny.
With the rain coming down harder, umbrellas began to open, blooming rapidly like a field of nylon flowers in the street. Jax exhaled slowly, allowing the smallest measure of relief to creep into his heart. Benny would have a harder time spotting him now.
‘I see you, runt!’
Before Jax knew it he was running again, headlong through the crowd, dodging some folk, pushing past others. He needed to get to the alley behind Charlie’s Bar, but he could see that Benny was moving to intercept him. Jax reckoned the old bastard didn’t have much left in him, his round face was red with exertion and the sweat was pouring off him, but he was a good deal closer to the alley than Jax was and in a few short heartbeats he’d beaten the boy to the entrance.
‘Ah-ha!’ Benny cried, nearly doubled over and gasping for breath. ‘I got you now, you little shit!’
Jax was quick and he damn well knew it, but he also knew there was no way he’d make it around Benny. The alleyway was narrow enough without that fat bastard blocking the path. With no other options, he dashed into Charlie’s Bar, slipping past the bouncer before the dumb brute realised what was happening. Within seconds he was in the darkened bar itself, darting past drunks and dodging the down-and-outs while the bitter tang of smoke and spilled booze stung his eyes. Somewhere behind him he could hear Benny arguing with the doorman, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before they were both on his heels.
‘Hey!’ Charlie yelled, slamming his meaty fist on the bar. ‘I warned you kids before. Get the fuck out of my bar!’
Ah, shit. Now Charlie was after him too, screaming obscenities and waving his trusty bat in the air. The doorman wasn’t far behind, either, pushing through Charlie’s customers like a prize fighter at a bout. Jax didn’t fancy his chances with that one. The man put six foot to shame and had chrome knuckles surgically implanted in his fists. Fat Benny was close behind him, goading the man on with a gleeful look on his stupid face.
Jax was cornered, and he knew that between Benny and the bouncer, and Charlie and his bat, there was only one hell of an ass-kicking. His only option now, he quickly realised, was a door that was rather optimistically labelled as ladies. He threw himself through it, slamming the door shut behind him, as if it would somehow stop his pursuers.
Seeing that his only way out now lay in a narrow window that was too high for him to reach, Jax’s heart sank. But hope lay before him in the form of a delirium junkie in the midst of her latest fix. Pipette in hand, she turned to stare at him with vacant, drug-laced eyes.
‘Hey,’ Jax said, thinking fast and ripping the box in his arms open. ‘I’ll give you a pack of Counts if you give me a boost to that window.’
For what seemed like an eternity, the woman simply stood there, watching him in dumbfounded silence. Jax hoped she wasn’t too deep in the dream to realise what was happening. When delirium kicks in you’re dead to the world. A living fantasy - or so they say, but Jax had no interest in finding out if it was true. He’d seen what happened when the dream ends.
‘Give me two.’ She said eventually, singing the words in a strange, child-like melody.
‘Fine,’ Jax said, practically hurling the cigarettes at her. ‘But do it quick!’
She quickly jammed the cigarettes into a soiled handbag and then cupped her hands. With no time to lose, Jax clambered atop her and up to the window, trying not to retch at the stench of body-odour and stale piss that the woman exuded. He was halfway to freedom when the door burst open.
‘Get that filthy skank out of my bar!’ he heard Charlie yell, and it was immediately followed by the shriek of the woman as she was pulled violently away.
Jax stumbled, almost falling back but gripping the sill at the very last second and righting his balance. From the corner of his eye he could see knuckles dragging the woman out by her straggly hair, and Benny charging towards him with grasping hands. He wriggled forward, trying to escape, but Benny had managed to get a hold of Jax’s foot and was pulling the boy back inside.
‘Get off me you fat fucker!’ Jax yelled, feeling his chance of escape diminish with each passing second.
‘Oh, I’ve got you now, you little shit!’ Benny said, with a mixture of anger and glee. ‘Just you wait until...’
Jax twisted his foot, slipping his shoe off and losing his balance in the process. He tumbled head first through the narrow window, into the alleyway and onto a pile of filthy refuse that broke his fall. Within seconds he was back on his feet, still holding his package while Benny seethed madly behind the window.
‘Damn you, you gutter-rat thief! I will find you!’
‘Hey Benny,’ Jax called. ‘I’ll give you a pack of Counts if you give me back my shoe.’
‘I’ll fucking kill you!’ he shrieked, but Jax was already moving again, half-naked with one bare foot and a big grin on his goofy face.