Shattering glass sang a duet with the percussive rhythm of gunfire. The melody shattered a sleepy night, rousing the upper floor occupants with a healthy dose of chaos. Such a performance was rare for the wealthy community and it should have been. Each of them paid a hefty premium for safety.
Amelia Ambrose practically hummed along to the cacophonous sounds assaulting her ears. Crystal shards burst all around her, winking like imperfect stars in the dim moonlight. Each sharp piece became a dangerous distraction from the aerobatic insanity she chose for an escape route.
The gunfire didn’t start until after she cleared the window. As a preface, the security guards issued their predictable commands: freeze, give it up and don’t move, all shouted at once from different sources so none of the messages rang above the others. Throwing herself through the window adequately shocked her pursuers into hesitating.
She already passed one floor when the bullets began their journey across the skyline. Her gas grenade made an unimpressive pop before expelling a massive cloud of yellow smoke. The destroyed window would allow the toxin to harmlessly drift outside eventually but for a few imperative moments, it would keep the guards from casually blowing her away during her descent.
Amelia twisted in the air, changing her view from the dark pavement to the blackened sky. She took half a second to aim her grapple gun and pulled the trigger, her muscles absorbing the recoil. A flock of butterflies launched in her stomach. If the shot missed or did not plant firmly into the wall, she’d be dead. Her survival relied on a piece of technology and luck.
You’re an idiot. The thought came unbidden. This isn’t thrill seeking. It’s attempted suicide.
Black rope wheezed through the pulley and Amelia tensed up. A metallic clang echoed over the gunfire and the harness constricted, pinching her shoulders and thighs. The rope went taut and she began to swing toward the building, cool air pounding the light weight fabric of her balaclava and the high tech lenses of her goggles.
Amelia bent her knees as her feet contacted the wall, absorbing the shock by dropping into a crouch before shoving off again. She rappelled down, letting the rope out of her backpack through quick releases on the pulley situated below her breasts. Each hop equaled two stories. It felt too slow considering the urgency of the situation but her opposition couldn’t organize as quickly as she descended.
At ten feet above the sidewalk, she released the line. Even at such a short distance, the butterflies in her gut seemed to frenzy as if there was a possibility she misjudged the height of the fall. All the meditative breathing and preparedness in the world never seemed to quell her body’s instinctual anxiety of heights.
Amelia voluntarily collapsed when she hit the ground, dropping into a tight shoulder roll. She stumbled to her feet, recovered her balance and broke into an all out sprint, heading for an alley across the street.
The security com channel crackled in her ear, a commanding voice booming over a chaos of panic. These guys were well funded and heavily armed but they lacked experience. They promoted their veterans out of the field where they managed from afar. The newbies never dealt with anything more exciting than trespassing charges and domestic arguments.
Amelia’s brand of crime would be new to most if not all the men pursuing her.
“Air support is on the way.” The commander was trying to use a calm, firm tone to bring his subordinates back in line. It seemed to work as the random shouts eased off and were replaced by succinct action reports. “I need eyes on the street. Who’s on the ground floor?”
Amelia reached the end of the alley and tossed the tarp off her motorcycle, a matte black sport bike. She tapped in her security code to unlock the tires and kicked it to life, revving the engine twice. The tire screamed against the pavement, echoing off the walls as she jetted out toward the street.
“Sir, all units had converged on the apartment.” Finally, one of the security guards could speak into the com without screaming. “We didn’t have anyone in the lobby.”
Someone sighed so audibly it made Amelia wince. She turned left away from the building she’d broken into and accelerated to a hundred miles per hour. The streets were empty. Most districts maintained strict curfews requiring special permits to disobey. Those who didn’t care about such restrictions enjoyed traffic free travel, providing they were willing to risk the attention of the authorities.
“Are you down there now?” The commander’s sarcasm made Amelia grin. They wouldn’t get to their cars before she was long gone and even then, they wouldn’t know which way to go. The air support would be equally useless considering they had no idea what they were looking for.
“Affirmative, vehicles are loaded up and we’re ready to go. Orders?”
“Keep the ground floor guarded. I want two vehicles heading in opposite directions. Air support will circle until we spot our perp. Stop anyone you see and detain them, with or without permits.”
There was a general sound of affirmation from the crew. Amelia pulled over after driving five miles and tapped at the hand computer strapped to her wrist. The widely used term for personal devices was HAC and everyone carried them, usually on a bracer. They operated with touch screen technology and a wireless satellite connection to the internet.
Most people were content with the base models they received from corporate sponsored stores, which included ads and other frivolous software. Amelia cobbled hers together from the best parts available, customized down to the scrambler chip used to mask her IP address. A black market satellite provided her with illegal online service.
Using dark spots was considered a federal crime but the government hadn’t been able to do anything about such fringe activity for at least a decade. Manpower and budgetary restraints not to mention jurisdictional conflict with the security companies made it all very complicated.
Amelia uploaded a program to the security company’s servers before committing the robbery. A confirm button waited for her as she brought the application online. She tapped it and waited for the app to do its work.
“Shit, our air support’s being requested by District Seven!” The commander was no longer calm. “What the hell’s going on? We’ve got another break in? I need confirmation!”
Radio chatter picked up. Amelia logged out of their system and left their district as casual as a normal citizen. They’d be chasing ghosts the rest of the night and probably into the next day depending on how efficient their IT people were. Chances were good they outsourced and would be on the com forever.
The people I just robbed may get behind American jobs for Americans now. Not like we have any better people for fending off cyber-attacks.
Amelia crossed the border into a lightly patrolled area. The rag tag enforcers of this district were little more than a citizen’s neighborhood watch group. Amelia lived in the center of the ten block space and she specifically picked the place for its lax law enforcement.
The second half of the twenty-first century saw major changes. An economically compromised US government found itself at the mercy of wealthy corporations. Special interest groups paid for reform. Inside a short twenty year period, several key services were privatized, including local police forces.
These were modeled after the San Francisco Patrol Special Police program where anyone with approved training could solicit citizens to pay for their services. At first these groups were monitored and governed by city cops. Funding was cut and so districts went up for grabs. With no one to scrutinize applications in fringe areas, the highest bidder won even if they were not qualified or particularly scrupulous.
Citizens could rely on the FBI to deal with especially corrupt security forces but only in the non-corporate districts. The wealthier areas declawed the feds through sponsored legislation. The positive spin stated the companies were doing them a favor since the government couldn’t possibly monitor all activity in the nation.
When the FBI could respond, they did so with extreme prejudice as if frustrated by the yolk they were forced to endure. The threat of their wrath kept the unscrupulous security groups under a semblance of control.
Utilities followed the same line. All the basics, such as water, sewage, power and traffic infrastructure were managed by private companies. Major corporations created subsidiaries to collect money from the citizens to pay for upkeep. Municipal necessities were steady but there was a catch.
Wealthy areas enjoyed first world privileges. Outages were rare and short. Poor areas weren’t so lucky. Even if all the citizens managed to pay on time, and they never did, they were low on the list for any service. Their roads were outright dangerous as pot holes turned into ditches until the community came up with a makeshift solution.
Low rent places could elevate themselves on the service list by accepting registration, a seemingly benign concept which amounted to tracking their every movement through a microchip.
Big companies existed in the major downtown areas throughout the US. Amelia lived in the Pacific Northwest. Corporate influence spread from the Canadian border all through Western Washington and Oregon. The hub of technology and influence centralized on what used to be Seattle and spread to Bellevue. Such names became designations for grids on computer generated maps, stripping away their cultural significance.
The next big hub comprised Portland and Vancouver. Everything outside such influence was considered a suburban district or fringe to anyone living in them.
Amelia pulled into her apartment complex and killed the engine, pushing the bike onto the elevator. She and her roommate Eleanor lived in the old building for over two years along with seventy other refugees from other districts. It was considered a freehold of sorts with morally flexible businesses seeming to flaunt their wares at the pristine and uptight corporations surrounding them on all borders.
The elevator creaked to a halt on Amelia’s floor and she pushed the bike down the hall to the shabby door of apartment twelve. She installed the security lock herself, a computer access panel controlling a magnetic seal on the door. The parts cost her a fortune and took two weeks to assemble.
Even so, the hardest part was convincing Eleanor it wasn’t expensive. Amelia’s day job didn’t pay enough for such extravagance.
“Hello?” Amelia whispered. Eleanor tended to be a night owl but if the sun went down before she could get home, she didn’t venture out.
The freedom of their district came with a price. Crime was rampant and though many lived by an honor among thieves code, there were plenty of animals who did not. Amelia didn’t blame Eleanor for her caution but neither could she adopt it. More than half the reason she lived her extracurricular lifestyle was the thrill of danger. Worrying about a few thugs would have defeated the purpose entirely.
She didn’t bother with the lights in her room, opening the window instead and letting in the moon. It cast a gray haze over the threadbare carpet and tiny bed shoved in the corner. The only other furniture involved an ancient desk she used as a workbench, a crappy wooden chair and a scorched dresser she picked up on the side of the road. It still smelled faintly of smoke on one side but fortunately, it dissipated enough to not soak into her clothes.
Amelia sat down with a sigh and removed her goggles, tossing them on the desk. The mask left her auburn hair a rat’s nest about her head. Her blue eyes stung from exhaustion. If she weren’t so uncomfortable, she wouldn’t have bothered to undress. It wouldn’t be the first time she collapsed on the bed and slept with her clothes on.
Once adrenaline faded, she wanted nothing more than to be unconscious.
The harness came off next and when she tried to shrug it off her shoulders, an involuntary hiss of pain whistled through her teeth. She stood and peeled it off her thighs, enduring a wave of nausea as her thighs began to throb through her leather pants.
Taking those off is going to be great fun. I have got to find a better harness!
Half an hour later, she was lying in a hot bath with a bottle of vodka sitting beside the tub. She ached down to the bones. Compression wounds on her shoulders and thighs were angry and red and some of them bled. Soaking and drinking would help her sleep but the morning would be hell.
We all play this game every day. Buy more time. One day to the next, another month to another year, a decade to a lifetime with nothing to look back on. America: home of the free to do what we’re told. Even here in this little hub of anarchy we can’t fall too far out of step. There’s always someone available to slap us back down.
She looked at the empty bottle and rolled her eyes.
Depressing ass drink. Maybe I should go back to tequila. Violent urges to punch people in the face beat out morose ramblings and broken ideologies…I think.
Definitely better than asking myself stupid rhetorical questions before bed. I’m going to have nightmares now, I guarantee it.