39 5 12

Taf always sent good cabs. Tonight's was easily big enough for the extra cargo and then some. It was sharp enough that no-one would stop Aria to check anything, but she flashed an ID anyway. She always did. She was never herself at work.

A calm, disembodied voice greeted her when she got in. Good evening, Dr Alicia Knightly. We will be arriving at the pick-up destination in fifty-four minutes.

She'd been Dr Alicia Knightly before, more times than she could keep track of. With Aria's face and Dr Knightly's name, she'd taken machinery from the boundaries, delivered cells to the suppliers of the suppliers, even accessed the archives of the Authority and the Administration to collect information that shouldn't have been in her possession, never mind the possession of the people she sold it to.

So many names, so many lives. The better Aria got at fitting in everywhere, the less she really belonged anywhere. She got so good at switching between versions of herself that sometimes she started to forget who she really was. After a while, she saw a stranger in the mirror and she didn't even care anymore. She thought about herself in first person, second person, third person, past and present tense, and it felt natural, even when nothing else did. When nothing else was. Because nothing was.

Sometimes it was about survival, but mainly it was profit. It had nothing to do with making the world a better place. The world was a terminal disaster anyway, lies gift-wrapped in convenience for people who knew just enough not to ask any questions. It was beautiful though, in its own way, the rancid mess of deception and high-gloss brutality. Looking up at it was preferable, but there was an appeal to seeing it from the air too.

The cab lifted thought low-lying cloud and still the structures of the city rose beyond. Every lit window, a star. Every life, a constellation in a galaxy. Every breath, a blink in a universe. From street to sky, a towering night. Bright pinpoints of rolling futures, waiting to happen. The glittering landscape stretched as far as Aria could see in every direction, an illusion that buried the ashes of the unsavoury and trampled underfoot the undesirable truths that few cared enough to breathe into being.

It would be at least half an hour before she hit the boundaries and the traffic might get heavy enough to slow her down, so Aria put her feet up, closed her eyes and waited. There was plenty of time not to think. She attached a relaxation boost, appreciating the novelty of a legally programmed cell, and set it for twenty-five minutes. Then she drifted and hovered, in body and mind and space. It was what it was, and she was in it.

The boundaries never slept. Everything was in a constant state of motion there, always on its way to somewhere else. Food, goods, and rehabs, all heading between the city and the facilitation zones, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Most of it was automated, but there were still custodians, joyless and efficient, to step in and stop any impending disasters before they properly took hold. The custodians probably didn't manage more than one smile between them in a year and they didn't even acknowledge that in case it made one of them happy enough to smile again and it violated their collective single smile limit.

The cab pulled into the open gate, sixteen storeys up, and Aria got out, screen showing Taf's transfer total. Delta-Echo-Zero was as humourless as ever. It was a mystery how much of her body was original parts, but she must have lost at least some of her soul in whatever events took her limbs. They could graft up whatever bits you needed and do their best to med you out of however your brain got broken, but the emotional fixes didn't fully take with some people. Or maybe that was just how she'd always been.

Still, it was a waste of time and energy to judge anyone and it wasn't like they saw each other socially. She was D-E-Zero to Aria and Aria was Alicia Knightly to her. Aria had been Dawn Singer the week before and countless other people at other times. Everyone played their roles and got really good at forgetting each other's names.

D-E-Zero nodded—she even did that efficiently—and started loading cargo into the cab. Aria lifted a few boxes, but it was nothing compared to what D-E-Zero was carrying. Boundary custodians got extra teched up sometimes, a weak apology from the system for whatever horrors befell them in the line of duty. If you lost an arm, they'd graft you a new one, but it would be stronger than the one you had to start with. You could lift more with it, hit harder, whatever. It was all unofficial, obviously, but it happened. Of course it did. Lots of unofficial things happened in lots of places.

Once the cargo was loaded, D-E-Zero caught Aria's eye and headed towards the back of the unit. There was a pile of crates in shadow and she moved them three at a time, hardly breaking a sweat. Then she pulled the lid off the only one left, bigger than the others, nodded at Aria again, and backed away.

There was a movement in the darkness, an anxious shuffling, and a face tilted towards the light, dark eyes blinking. A voice that sounded like it hadn't been used in a while whispered, dry and cold, "Did Taf send you?"

"Yeah. Are you Ruby?"

The face dipped into darkness again. She was crying, or maybe trying not to, and another whisper clawed its way into the air above the crate. "Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much."

D-E-Zero was at the other end of the unit, very intentionally not seeing anything that was going on. Aria reached into the crate, slowly, and two hands grasped hers.

Ruby pulled herself up, unsteady, hollow and bruised, dark circles under swollen eyes. She looked around like she was waiting for something to happen, something Aria wasn't prepared for.

"I'm Aria." Maybe sharing her real name wasn't the smartest move, but it was too late. It was done. "That's my cab. Taf said to bring you with me, to take you to JD. Does any of that mean anything to you?"

"Only that Taf sent someone for me. No-one told me your name and I don't know who JD is. I don't know where we're going. I'm not even sure exactly where we are now. Is this safe yet?"

"It's going to be OK." Maybe it was, but maybe it wasn't. It seemed like the right thing to say though, what someone in Ruby's position would want to hear. Who really had any power over whether or not anything was going to be anything?

Ruby looked like she didn't have much of a frame of reference for OK. "Are you going to help me?"

Helping people wasn't a regular part of Aria's assignments, but promises had been made. "Apparently so."

"You can't let them find me."

"Can't let who find you?"

"The Authority, I think." Ruby was still looking into corners, flinching at shadows.

Waiting until they were in the cab would have been sensible, but Aria's mouth was operating without her brain's consent. "That's a lot of who. Why are they looking for you?"

"Because I'm not supposed to know." Ruby looked down at her still-shaking hands, then back at Aria. "But I know."

Heavy Frequency [Updates Tue + Fri]Where stories live. Discover now