Bang! Bang! Bang!! Startled, Kee jumped, looking up from the page she was colouring on at the kitchen table. Someone was at the door. Twisting, she looked behind her to where her sister had disappeared moments before into the bedroom they shared, but she didn't see her.
Bang! Bang! Bang! More pounding made her jump again, and her hands clenched. The sharp snapping sound of the crayon she'd been holding made her look down at her right hand. Opening her fingers, she stared at the two broken halves of her crayon as they fell from her grip to land on the table with a little click, flakes of coloured wax following. It was her favourite colour, the one she always chose first – Leaf Green. Tears welled up in her eyes as she stared at the broken pieces on the table.
“Police!” A muffled voice shouted from the front door, followed by more banging. Her chin quivering, Kee looked up again, this time to see Ondra standing in the bedroom doorway. Clasping her hands in front of herself, Ondra's eyes locked with Kee's, the fear easy to read on her young face.
“Shhhhh!” Reaching up to press a finger against her lips, Ondra tried to fake a reassuring smile. Kee nodded, tears still running down her round cheeks, and Ondra rushed to her side. Bending, she wrapped her arms around the little girl, hugging her close. “Shhhh, Kee. It's alright. They'll go away.” She whispered, her voice barely audible in Kee’s ear.
Bang! Bang! Bang! “Police! Open up, Miss Chase. We know you're both in there!” The voice shouted again. It sounded angry to Kee, and she buried her face in her sister's shoulder, scared, sniffling quietly. The feeling of Ondra's arms around her gave her comfort, and she swallowed hard, trying to fight back her tears. She wanted to show her sister how big she was, how mature she could be. That she wasn't a scared little baby anymore, and she could be brave, too.
“Shhhh, Kee.” Crooning gently, Ondra rocked them from side to side, burying her face in the little girl's soft hair. “It's alright, I'm right here. We can't let them in. They'll take us away, and we'll never see Mom and Dad again.” She explained, not for the first time. “Mom and Dad would want us to stay here, wouldn't they? To wait for them.” Nodding into her sister's shoulder, Kee sucked in a deep breath. She held it for a moment, trying to calm herself before letting it out in a rush.
“They'd want us to be strong.” She answered, mimicking the words Ondra had spoken so often in the last couple of weeks.
“That's right. They'd want us to be strong.” Together, the girls held one other, waiting for the banging to stop. It did, but only for a moment before they could hear another sound. The sound of a key in the lock a moment before the front door was opened. Surprised, they both looked up as the door burst open, turning to see who was coming in… but no one was there. Instead of the Police, like they'd expected, when the door burst wide, there was nothing on the other side of it. No Police, no people at all. Not even the hallway outside of their little apartment could be seen, just blackness. An empty void, it gaped as the door was ripped violently off its hinges with a horrible screeching sound before spinning away into the darkness beyond. As they watched in horror, the furniture in the room around them began to shift, sliding across the floor towards the void. The legs of the couch and matching armchairs scraped loudly on the metal floor, while smaller things, like books and toys, even the end tables, were lifted right up and sucked in, spinning wildly before disappearing from sight.
Terrified, Kee began to scream while she clung to Ondra, her long pale hair whipping wildly around her face. The vacuum created by the void felt almost like pressure to Kee, a force that seemed to simultaneously push and pull at her as she clung desperately to her sister’s body. The shards of her broken crayon spun past, one piece hitting her cheek as she pressed her eyes shut, trying to block out what was happening around her. The table moved behind her, bumping into them, but something seemed to be anchoring the girls. Some unseen force holding them in place while everything else was sucked towards the door. Unable to move through them, the far edge of the table suddenly flipped up, carrying it over their heads with a loud whoosh! It spun past into the void, along with the couch and chairs, and the low table that had been in the middle of the living room. In the kitchen, the cupboard doors snapped open, and the pots and pans flew past with loud bangs and clangs, drawing another breathless scream from Kee. Ceramic plates and bowls shattered into pieces as they smashed together on their way into the void, showering the girls with biting shards before disappearing with everything else. Kee squealed as her face and arms were cut by the shards, drawing thin lines of blood on her pale skin.
The force from the void grew until it was so strong it lifted Kee, her chair flipping out from underneath her. Her grip on her sister was the only thing holding her in place as her feet began to flap in the air, her shoes sliding off as the void tried to suck her in. Terrified, she looked down past her feet into the black, hands desperately clinging to her sister’s arms with every ounce of strength she had. Wind rushed past her face as the air was sucked away as well, making it hard to draw breath, or even to keep her eyes open.
Clutching at Ondra with what felt like nothing more than the tips of her fingers, twining them in her clothes, Kee tipped her head back and tried to open her eyes despite the harsh vacuum being created by the void. Still crouched where she’d been this entire time, seemingly completely unaffected by the draw of the void, Ondra stared back at her blankly, and Kee was surprised to find that her sister didn’t look like she was supposed to. She had expected to see her older sister looking like she had when she was eleven, when they’d been alone in their apartment waiting for their parents to come home and the Police had arrived to take them away. But she didn’t. Now, fully grown, Ondra stared back at her. Her eyes, normally a deep amber in colour, and so full of life, were flat and dull. Her complexion, usually flawless, her skin a rich deep brown, was gray and waxy, eyes and cheeks sunken into her skull. Her thick black hair whipped around her head and shoulders, slapping Kee painfully in the face. As she continued to struggle to keep her eyes open, looking up at her sister, Kee was horrified to see something move under the skin on Ondra’s neck. It moved and writhed like a worm in the mud, pushing out with enough force to tear the skin. Blood spurted, spraying Kee across the face as the thing burst out. A long black tendril that twined around her sister’s neck in a thick, wet strand, leaving dark red smears everywhere it touched. Heavy black wires, seeming to move of their own volition, whipped up the left side of Ondra’s face before plunging back into the skin of her cheek and curling out between her slightly parted lips.
Horrified, Kee watched as Ondra’s dulled eyes widened, as though she was just now noticing what was happening. Her expression changed from blank to a look of shocked pain. Mouth opening wide, her head snapped back, the muscles of her neck straining as she tried to scream. The wire tentacles forced their way out further, seeming to wave at Kee from Onda’s open mouth as though mocking her. At first, there was no sound as Ondra’s body convulsed violently beneath Kee’s desperately gripping hands. An inhuman, high pitched mechanical sound, mixed with a sickeningly wet gurgle, hit Kee’s ears, making her cry out in pain of her own. More wires were pushing their way out of Ondra’s mouth, exposed ends sparking as they wiggled and churned, reaching for Kee as her sister continued to choke on them.
Reflexively, Kee’s hands opened as she stared at what was happening, and released her grip on Ondra’s shirt without her permission. Immediately, she was sucked backwards, flipping head over heels as she screamed breathlessly. Throwing her arms out, she desperately tried to grab onto anything that might stop her, but there was nothing there. She caught a last glimpse of her sister as she spun away, still crouched where she’d been comforting Kee beside the table that was no longer there. More wires burst out in clumps all over Ondra’s tense body, tearing through her clothes and enveloping her in a mass of whipping, sparking tentacles before Kee lost sight of her completely.
Falling into the void, Kee’s body began spinning faster and faster as she squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to see anymore. She expected to fall on, spinning forever into the void, but the sudden icy splash of her body hitting water made her gasp, expelling the last breath of the oxygen from her lungs in an agonizing rush. Eyes snapping wide, she stared up into black nothingness, the shock of cold making her muscles contract painfully. Thrashing her arms and legs, she tried to gasp for more air but only succeeded in choking on the frigid black water around her. She couldn’t breathe! Lashing out, she tried to claw her way back to reality, her brain burning with the knowledge that this couldn’t be real, it wasn’t actually happening! But that knowledge didn’t help. She was alone, floating in icy nothingness, hands reaching for something that wasn’t there anymore. Within moments, her limbs were numb, mind slowing from the cold and lack of oxygen. Her eyelids fluttered closed as consciousness receded, faster than she would have expected. She knew, without a doubt, that she was dying, and there was nothing she could do about it. She would die alone, here in the empty darkness, and she didn’t even have the energy to struggle anymore. Her body was limp and numb, and it was almost comforting to allow herself to relax into it, to just let it happen.
Out of nowhere, something grabbed her shoulder, jerking her back painfully. Reaching out of the darkness, harsh hands clamped down, long fingers ending in claws that bit cruelly into soft flesh. They dug into her arms, the warmth of them burning through her clothing, jerking her back into reality as someone shouted through the water.
“Kee!” Ondra's voice shouted in her ear. Still caught in the nightmare, Kee lashed out, catching her sister in the collar bone with her elbow. Swearing, Ondra pulled back, clutching her shoulder. Gasping, Kee continued to thrash, tangled up in her blankets. Throwing her hammock off balance, it spun, dumping her gracelessly to the ground where she put her cheek off the metal floor with a bounce.
“Shit!” Ondra's hands grabbed for her again. Quickly, she began unwinding the blankets from Kee’s legs, tossing them aside while Kee lay panting and shivering on the ground. “What the Hell, Kee? Are you alright?” Gently taking Kee’s arm, Ondra helped her to roll over and sit up. “You were screaming, and then you just stopped breathing. You scared the shit out of us!” Bleary eyed and confused, Kee looked up into the worried face of her sister. The normal, worried face of her sister. She winced, remembering the Ondra from her nightmare, and dropped her eyes to her lap.
“Yeah.” Breathing heavily, heart still pounding as her body shook from adrenaline and cold, Kee nodded. “I'm sorry. I'm alright.” She didn't sound alright, even to herself. Her voice was weak and shaky, and she cleared her throat before swallowing hard. Her hands and feet felt icy cold, almost painfully numb, but they were already beginning to tingle with the return of warmth and sensation.
“Another nightmare?” Sighing, Ondra’s voice was sympathetic. The room was shadowed, but it was the normal shadows of nighttime. The sun wasn't even up yet, the room still illuminated by the city lights coming in through the window behind Kee's shoulder, and nothing else.
“Yeah.” She'd been getting them a lot lately. She’d suffered from night terrors her entire life, but they were coming even more than usual in the last few weeks. “I'm alright.” She paused, taking a deep breath as she tried to collect herself. “I'll be fine.” Reaching up, she rubbed her cheek with cold fingers, frowning. She'd probably have a bruise because of this. Her cheekbone burned and throbbed, but it wasn't broken at least. She knew what a broken cheekbone felt like, and this wasn't it. Her left knee throbbed where she’d landed on it as well, but again, she could move it easily, so it wasn't broken.
“You stopped breathing, Kee.” Ondra frowned, shaking her head. Her thick black hair hung down around her shoulders, tousled and beautifully normal. Her face was clean, meaning she'd been home long enough to wash up and remove her makeup.
“I'm fine.” Kee insisted, glancing around. “What time is it?” Flicking her eyes towards the time display glowing ghostly blue in the corner of her vision, she frowned. Four-fifty-seven. She sighed, rubbing her hands over her face.
“Come on, let's get you up.” Taking her arm again, Ondra began tugging Kee to her feet. “Do you wanna talk about it?” Ondra steadied Kee as she wobbled, shifting her weight from her bruised knee to her good leg.
“No.” She never wanted to talk about it. It was too weird, her dreams, and she didn't want to scare her sister. Especially considering Ondra often took a prominent role in them, showing up either dead, or injured, or well on her way to both. She knew that would bother her sister, so she kept quiet, kept it to herself. “Go back to bed. You're exhausted.” Glancing behind her sister, she saw another figure sitting up on the edge of the bed. Mila watched them quietly, blankets pulled up around her hips, feet on the floor.
“We were just going to bed when you started screaming.” The other girl snapped from where she sat, and Ondra frowned over her shoulder at her.
“Are you going to be alright? I can stay up with you if you want.” Turning a gentle expression back on Kee, Ondra spoke softly, like she didn't want to spook her.
“No. No, I'm fine.” Taking a deep breath, Kee smiled at her sister. It mustn’t have been a very convincing smile, since Ondra crossed her arms over her chest and frowned. “Seriously. Go to sleep.” Kee sighed, frowning back. “You worked all night.”
“Come on.” Mila called from behind Ondra. “Come to bed. She's a big girl, aren't you, Kee? She'll live. It was just a little nightmare.” The dismissive, slightly mocking tone in Mila's voice grated on Kee's temper, but she didn't argue. She and Mila didn't often get along, but Mila was Ondra's girlfriend, so Kee bit her tongue and nodded like she usually did.
“I'm fine.” She assured them through gritted teeth. Sighing, Ondra shook her head. Kee knew she didn't believe her, but wouldn't argue it any further.
“Alright. But if you need anything, you wake me up. Alright?” Giving her a hard look, Ondra raised an eyebrow. It was an expression that was the mirror of the look their mother used to give them when they were little and she’d caught them doing something she didn’t like. She didn't know if Ondra realized just how much she'd grown to look like their mother, or what little Kee could remember of her.
“Yeah. Sure, fine.” Nodding, Kee bent and began picking up her blankets. “I'm going back to bed, too.”
“Alright.” Turning partially away, Ondra hesitated, watching Kee as she began untangling the twisted hammock. Sighing, she shook her head and went back to bed, obviously thinking better of saying anything further. Kee knew Ondra didn't like it when she wouldn't let her do things for her anymore, but she wasn't a little kid now. She was thirteen, and she could tuck herself back into bed after a nightmare. And she would never admit that they terrified her as much as they did, or that she often laid awake the rest of the night, unable to let herself relax back into sleep for fear of having another one.
Carefully climbing back into the hammock, Kee heard Ondra's voice murmur something behind her as she laid down in bed beside Mila. There was only one bed in the entire apartment, which consisted of a single room and a tiny washroom. The bed pulled out from the wall, a thin, plastic covered foam pad on a metal base that pushed in to make room in the tiny apartment. The apartment was a rectangle, the kitchen against the wall, beside the front door. A tiny strip of counter was cut into the metal wall, with a single sink, just enough counter space to set a pot, and two smooth heating elements for cooking. The cupboard beside the counter opened to the small fridge, and there were storage cupboards underneath, where they kept what little cookware they owned. Just far enough from the counter for a single person to stand between them was a small metal island with two built in stools, which they used in place of a table. From the same wall, the bed pulled out, and at the foot of that was the door to the only other room in the entire place, the washroom.
At the far end of the room was where Kee slept. She'd hung her hammock in front of the floor to ceiling window that spanned the entire end of the apartment. The window had been Kee's biggest draw for setting up her hammock there. That, and there hadn't really been anywhere else to hang it that wouldn't be in the way. But Kee loved laying in her hammock in front of the window at night. Cocooned in her blankets, she would stare out at the lights of the city beyond. Their building was one of the taller ones in their neighbourhood, granting her a fantastic view for miles. Each night, Kee could look out over the lights as they came on, shimmering in the darkness like thousands of little stars that had fallen from the sky to shine on Earth. They reminded her of a Vid she'd seen in her History class when she was a little girl. It had been from Before, and it had shown a huge cloud of little bugs, their bodies all lit up to glow as they'd danced and floated through the sky. Fireflies, they'd been called. Most of the other kids hadn't seemed to care, but to Kee, those tiny bodies had been pure magic. She'd stared, enraptured, as the teacher had explained what they were, and how they lit up like that.
Now, every night before Kee went to sleep, she would lay staring out at those twinkling lights. She would pretend that she was far, far away, laying in some huge, wide open field with thousands of those tiny bugs dancing around her. When she looked out at the lights, she found that she could almost believe her dream was real. That she was in that field now, laying in the soft, cool grass, looking up at fireflies swimming through the heavy shadows around her. It had never mattered to her that most of the lights out there were static, fixed in position and never moving. Enough of them moved that, if she squinted her eyes, unfocusing them just right, it made it seem more real. The little garden of soft pink flowers planted in their array of jars and cans that Kee had lined up along the floor in front of the window only added to the illusion.
Curled up on her side now, Kee stared out over the city until the sky in the distance began to turn first grey, then pink. Slowly, the sun rose over the horizon, its first golden rays lighting up the edge of the city and turning the white skyscrapers of the Core pink. The first curve of the sun was just visible, the window starting to dim slightly as it prepared to block out the harmful rays, when Kee's alarm went off.
Buzzing against her temple, the SimSense Bead adhered to her skin blinked to life. The dim time display that had been off in the corner of her vision, unobtrusive but ever present, lit up bright yellow, flashing directly before her eyes now. Almost six o'clock.
Sighing, Kee unwound her arm from the blankets, tapping the bead at her temple with a finger. The flashing time display dimmed, then disappeared back into the corner of her vision, once more awaiting the flick of her eyes to call it into the foreground. Pushing the blankets off completely, she sat up carefully this time, setting her feet on the floor. As she stood her bruised knee twinged, making her wince, but it took her weight without giving. At the foot of her hammock was a short row of three drawers built into the wall. Opening the bottom one, she dug out clothes, draping them over her shoulder before heading to the washroom to get ready.
Glancing at the bed as she shut the door, the lights coming on automatically, Kee noticed that Ondra and Mila were both sound asleep, wrapped tightly around one another under the light sheet. The bed was barely wide enough for the both of them, and only because they were both slender, but even still, they had to cuddle up to not risk falling off the edge.
Shutting the door, Kee dumped her clothes into the water tight cupboard built into the wall where they kept their towels. Removing the shorts and tank top she'd worn to sleep, she dumped them in as well before turning to the mirror on the wall. The entire tiny room served as the shower stall, just wide enough for two people to fit, if necessary. Out of the wall popped the toilet, which flushed when kicked back into place, and above that was the sink cut into the wall, with the mirror over top. Behind the mirror was where they kept their personal things, like toothbrushes and combs, in another watertight cupboard to keep them dry.
Staring at herself in the mirror, Kee grimaced at the faint shadow of a bruise already appearing across her right cheekbone. Her skin marked easily, a side effect of her strange appearance. It also burned more quickly, and set her apart from everyone else around her. She hated it. Where Ondra was dark, her skin a beautiful shade of brown, Kee's skin was pale, almost bone white. Her hair was also pale, a soft, whitish yellow which she kept cut short in a choppy, ragged cut that she usually did herself in front of the mirror. Right now it didn't look too bad, since Mila had taken pity on her one night and offered to clean it up after Kee had done a particularly rough job of cutting it. She'd also added some dye that they'd found left over from when Mila's ex-girlfriend had moved out shortly before Kee and Ondra had moved in. Now, Kee's pale hair had large chunks of hot pink, deep purple, electric blue, and a deep, vibrant green splashed through it. She loved it. The only good thing about her hair was that it took colours amazingly well, showing them brighter and more vibrantly than either Mila or Ondra's black locks would without a lot of damaging effort.
Looking away from her reflection, Kee opened the mirror and pulled out her toothbrush. Covering it in thick, gritty paste, she quickly turned on the spray of the shower and tipped her head back to relish the first few moments of cool water that were all she was going to get. The best part of waking up early were those precious seconds of almost cold water that spilled over her forehead to run down her neck, shoulders, and body, before disappearing into the drain at her feet. Cold water was a rarity, especially this far from the Core. There, the wealthy could afford such luxuries whenever they wanted it. Here, it cost too much to cool the water past a certain point, and already it was beginning to warm up. By the time she finished it was almost hot, and she was quick to brush her teeth, soap up, and rinse off before it became too uncomfortable to handle.
Finished, she dried and dressed herself, first pulling on the full body black thermal suit that would help regulate her body temperature and keep her skin protected from the sun. Over that she pulled on a yellow tank top with a silly looking unicorn and rainbow on it, a bright purple skirt, and rainbow thigh highs. All of it was second hand clothing, and it looked worn, but she loved them. Turning on the fan she styled her hair with the dregs of a bottle of styling cream she'd found in a dumpster out back a few days ago. With expert precision, she used a brush and cream makeup to draw a thick band of black across her eyes and over the bridge of her nose from temple to temple. She did this every day, and it not only gave her an interesting look, highlighting her extra pale skin and gray eyes, but it kept some of the sun's glare out of her sensitive eyes. Not that anyone but herself and a few others ever got to see the effect, since the heavy welder’s glasses she wore whenever she went outside kept it covered from view. When she was little, her parents had special sunglasses made for her that blocked out the rays much like the Smart Windows did, but she'd outgrown them and they'd been sold years ago. She'd never been able to afford another pair like them, so she made do with the welder’s glasses and her makeup.
Dressed and done up, she left the washroom, the automatic lights flickering out behind her. Quietly, she slipped past the bed and headed to the front door. Pulling on her boots, she grabbed the heavy coat hanging on the wall above them. It was way too big for her, being sized for an adult man, but when Ondra had seen it in the thrift shop a few months before, she'd grabbed it. Coats like this were a rare find, especially for the price they'd managed to negotiate the owner down to. Pulling it on, Kee sighed under its weight. It hung almost to her knees, the sleeves trailing well past the tips of her fingers. She felt ridiculous in it, but the outer shell had enough soft armour to stop a small caliber bullet, or deflect the blow of a knife, which was why they'd bought it. It also had a deep hood, which was Kee's favourite part. Out of one of the large pockets she pulled a pair of heavy tinted goggles and slid them on over her head so they would hang around her neck until she needed them. Quickly, she zipped up the coat, snapping the hood up into place where she could hide in its shadow.
Opening the door, Kee slipped out into the hallway, pulling it shut behind her. She waited a moment until she heard the lock engage, then turned down the corridor. There was an elevator at the end, only two apartments down from hers, but Kee rarely used it. It was slow, and as high up as they were on the seventeenth floor, if someone pushed the button on the way down she'd have to stop, with no control of who would get in with her. She didn't like the idea of being enclosed in a small metal box with strangers, so she took the stairs. At least there she could run up or down, or dart into one of the hallways on each landing and run to the stairs on the other end if she had to get away. She'd learned years ago that it always paid to have an escape route planned.
Pushing the heavy metal door open, Kee stepped into the stairwell and paused, listening. Mornings were usually quiet, but sometimes she'd find the aftermaths of the night before left lying around. Mostly it was just garbage, sometimes the occasional person passed out on a landing, or even the stairs themselves. Once, just after they'd moved in, she'd come down to find what she'd thought was someone sleeping it off, only to realize that they'd died sometime in the night and the body had been left there for anyone to find. Thankfully, Mila and Ondra had been home, and she'd run back upstairs to them. Mila had gone to check it out while Kee stayed in the apartment with Ondra. Mila had had to talk to the Police, but there hadn't been much of an investigation as far as they could tell. In this end of town, the Police rarely cared. Just another drug deal gone bad, or a John that'd been roughed up by whoever he'd stupidly picked up. Who cared about them? Really, it had been surprising that they’d even responded to the call and shown up in the first place.
Today, though, Kee was lucky. As she jogged down the rusty metal grating that served as the stairs, she didn't find anything more interesting than a few discarded needles in a corner, and a puddle of suspicious looking yellow liquid on one of the landings. Jumping over that, she made it to the bottom unhindered, not touching either the wall or the railing the entire way. At the bottom, she pushed open the heavy fire door with her shoulder, peeking out into the lobby. It looked as it did every morning, run down,dirty, and empty. Grinning, she darted out, hurrying towards the front doors. She'd almost reached them when a shout from behind made her skid to a stop.
“Kid!” The gravely male voice called from the back of the lobby. Kee hesitated, wondering if she could make it outside and down the sidewalk before he could catch her. But her hesitation cost her, and she knew she wouldn't make it. She turned with a sigh, peering out from under her hood at the man coming towards her across the cracked tiles of the lobby.
Mr. Bergers, the superintendent, was tall and thin, with ragged greasy hair and a greasy mustache. Mila often referred to it as his “Porn 'stash”, which made all three of them shudder to think of him ever being in a film that someone might actually choose to watch. Middle aged, his belly had spread slightly, distending to give him a paunch at odds with his overall thinness everywhere else. For some reason, he seemed to disdain the normal use of the insulating black body suits most people wore, instead favouring a pair of mechanic's coveralls that he kept the top rolled down on, the arms tied around his waist, under his belly. Underneath he wore a thin, stained, white sleeveless top, as greasy as his hair, and he usually stank of body odour so sour it made Kee gag and her eyes water on the few occasions she'd gotten too close. She always knew when he'd been around, because the scent seemed to linger long after he was gone.
“You goin' out?” He jerked his chin at the door behind her, eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“Yeah.” Anxiously, Kee shifted her weight from one foot to the other, wrinkling her nose as his stench reached her. “I'm late.” She lied. She didn't have anywhere specific she needed to be, although she had a route she usually took. She just didn't want to stick around here with him any longer than necessary.
“Your sister's home?” He eyed her, and Kee shuddered. It always felt like some of his grease had rubbed off on her by proxy every time she had to deal with him. And he knew perfectly well that Mila wasn't her sister, she was Ondra's girlfriend. He must be feeling nice today, since he hadn't called them “The Dykes” or “The Whores” with his usual leer.
“Yeah, they're home.” She frowned at him, glad for the hood that hid most of her face from view. “They're sleeping.”
“Late night?” He sneered, and she bit the inside of her lip to keep from saying something stupid out of irritation.
“Yeah.” She answered through gritted teeth. “I gotta go. They'll be up later.” Taking a step back, she tried to turn her face to the side, looking for fresh air. The smell was getting worse the longer he stood in one spot, and she was worried her hood might trap it, holding it around her face.
“I need'ta talk to 'em about the rent money.” He didn't look like he was as interested in cutting their conversation short as she was. She took another step back, and he took a step forward, remaining just out of arm's reach. Not that she had any intention of reaching out to touch him, or allowing him to touch her.
“Then talk to them. Not my problem.” Behind her, she heard the front door open as someone came in. Bergers glanced away from her, looking up, and she took the opportunity to bolt. Spinning around, she threw herself through the open doorway, ducking under the arm of the man now coming in. He stepped quickly aside, holding the door for her, and then she was gone, outside in the fresher air.
Pushing her hood back, she sucked in a lungful of warm morning air, shaking the lingering smell out of the folds of her coat. She really hated talking to that man. Not just because of the smell, but because everything that came out of his mouth somehow managed to feel as greasy as the man speaking it. With a shudder, she hit the sidewalk and turned right, heading along her normal route. This way she had a few stops to make, places where they sometimes had odd jobs for her where she might get paid in marks. Anything that might bring in enough to cover their food costs, really. Mila and Ondra worked hard at what they did, and they made alright money at it. They were young, and in good condition. But the rent took most of that, and if Bergers wanted to talk to them about it, there was the chance it was going up again. Which meant Kee was now going to have to bring in as much as she could manage if they were going to be able to pay the rent and keep eating. Not to mention the little extra costs, like toothpaste, or clothes if theirs wore out.
As she walked down the sidewalk, away from her building and into one of the shopping districts, the sun beat down on the back of Kee's head, and she quickly pulled her hood back into place. Even at this time of morning it was already heating up quickly. The sun was ruthless as it rose over the horizon, preparing to bake the land anew, as it did every day. Rain was nearly unheard of, and most freshwater came from springs found deep underground. Once brought up, it flowed first to the Core, where it was filtered nearly constantly through recycling stations over and over and over again before it made it to the outer rings of the city. By the time it got to where Kee lived, it had been filtered and purified so many times she was sometimes surprised it was even still usable, if she really stopped to think about it. But she tried not to think about it too hard.
Reaching her first stop, Kee ducked inside a little SoySub shop only a couple of blocks from her apartment building. Like most of the stores in the area, it was independently owned and operated, not run by any of the big Corporations that seemed to populate most of the Core sectors of any city. At this time of day Markis, the owner, was often willing to trade a cup of SoySub for help taking out the garbage, or tidying up the front lobby. His workers were often busy making the day's baked goods and prepping for service, not to mention serving the long line of people coming in off the street looking for their morning fix before heading to work.
“Good morning.” The Barista behind the counter, a girl only a couple of years older than Kee, looked up with a forced smile.
“Good morning.” Kee greeted in return. The girl had never been openly hostile, but neither had she ever been overly welcoming when Kee came in. “Is Markis around?”
“He's in the back.” Glancing over her shoulder, the girl frowned at the half door that led into the kitchen. “Markis! Your stray’s here.” It was how she always referred to Kee. Some people would view it as an insult, but Kee had long since stopped caring about such things. Insults were just words with no real consequence.
“Wonderful!” A deep voice called back. A second later and a large figure appeared in the doorway. Markis was a solid six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a big voice. He’d always been kind to Kee, ever since the first morning she’d come in looking for work, and he always seemed happy to see her. “Come on back, Kee. I've got a few things for you to do.” He waved her around the counter, and Kee moved quickly. When she reached the half door, he unlatched and opened it for her, pulling it shut behind her when she was in the kitchen. “Take off your coat. I've got an apron for you. You can wash up over there, like usual.” He gestured to a deep sink off to one side, where all of his employees were expected to wash their hands and up their arms at regular intervals throughout the day. Markis was very strict about such things, and Kee had learned quickly that if she wanted the work he had for her, she’d do the same. Even if it was just for taking out the trash, he insisted that anyone who came into his kitchen was clean.
Not wanting to waste any time, Kee did as she was told. She hung her coat on a hook just inside the door, pulling her goggles off and hanging them as well before taking the apron he handed her. Pulling it over her head, she secured it before scrubbing her hands and arms in the sink, and drying them on a towel he held out.
“Where’s the garbage?” She asked when she was cleaned and ready. He waved a dismissive hand at her, smiling as he shook his head sharply.
“No garbage today. I took it out myself first thing. No, one of my mixers called in sick today, and no one else was able to come in to cover his shift. I'm doing it all myself, and I'm way behind on my morning's baking. We're going to run out if I don't get it finished soon. I was hoping you’d have time to stay and operate the mixer for a couple hours? I'll pay you in marks, as well as some sandwiches maybe?” He gave her a hopeful look. Grinning, Kee nodded. It would throw off her usual routine, but there needed to be some adjustments made here and there along the way. She was flexible, and the chance to make some decent marks wasn't something she could afford to pass up. Besides, there was always the chance that if he liked her performance it might work out into something more frequent than just taking out the trash from time to time in the hopes of a free cup of SoySub.
“Yeah, I can do that.” She assured him eagerly. He beamed down at her, obviously pleased by her answer.
“Wonderful! Alright, here's what you need to know.” He gave Kee the rundown on how to safely operate the massive stand mixer, as well as reading the recipes and measuring out the proper ingredients. It was harder work than Kee would have thought, but she listened intently, asking questions when she wasn't sure about something. In the end she had it going alright as she measured out the correct ingredients for the muffins and pastries Markis prepared every morning. He worked on the other side of the kitchen, calling out orders and checking on her from time to time.
Three hours later, and everything was finished. She had all of the batters mixed and set aside in the cooler, where he'd instructed her to put them. Then Markis helped her dismantle the mixer she'd been using, and showed her how to give it a thorough cleaning. When she was finished, he told her to go wash up. He had a couple of bags of garbage for her to take out, and then he paid her in mark bills, handing her a bag of sandwiches along with it.
“Thanks, Kee. You really saved me this morning.” He smiled at her as she dropped her apron in the wash basket beside the coat rack.
“You can always call me if you need help like that again.” She offered, pulling her coat on and zipping it up the front. “I'd be willing to help out when you need it. I can even come in early.” Taking the bag of sandwiches from him, she gave a friendly smile in return. He nodded thoughtfully.
“I might just take you up on that. Leave your SimCard with the front. I'll put it in our contacts when I get a free moment.” He gave her hand a quick shake. “I have to get back to work, but thanks again, Kee. You’re a hard worker for someone so young.” Turning, he went about his business, and Kee let herself out through the half door, pulling her coat on as she went.
In the front, there was a steady stream of customers trickling in looking for their SoySub and food. The counter girl was busy, along with a young man who'd joined her at some point while Kee was in the back. Not wanting to distract them, she found their SimTerminal and quickly added her own Card. The girl smirked at her, a slightly mocking look, but didn't say anything as she prepared a mug of SoySub for a customer. Kee ignored her. She wasn’t sure why the girl seemed to dislike her so much, although it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence in her life. She'd never been popular, even when she'd still been in school.
As Kee left the shop, she stuffed the bag of sandwiches into the deep outer pocket of her coat. She could carry quite a bit in there, although her marks she kept tucked in a pocket she'd sewn into the inside of her body suit, in the chest. That way it was less likely to be found, and she could keep it close with no chance of losing it. She couldn't afford to be reckless with marks.
The rest of Kee's morning route was a bust. They'd already taken out their trash and done the morning sweep up that was often required in a lot of the shops. Giving up on the rest of her route for the morning, Kee jogged a couple of blocks over and slipped in behind a row of buildings. This was The Strip, with lines of higher end boutiques and frivolous stores, as well as bars and nightclubs. It was where Mila and Ondra went every night to work, and the dumpsters out back often held a myriad of interesting things she could sometimes scavenge. The bars and clubs were closed until closer to dark, so Kee was relatively alone as she made her way from dumpster to dumpster, looking for anything that might be salvageable.
By noon, she'd managed to fill a small bag with discarded clothes from a few of the shops, and a pair of used, but decent condition boots that she snagged. She’d also found a container of half eaten fries that had been protected from the other garbage by a plastic bag which she stopped to eat before moving on. Mostly, it was disposable plastics and wasted food stuff that had mingled to give off a very particular odour, and those bins Kee avoided. No one would want to deal with her if she came in stinking of rotting garbage, so instead, she rummaged through the discarded clothes and things that were thrown out of the higher end shops. A lot of decent stuff got thrown out, seen as too damaged to sell here, but were perfectly acceptable to lower end places where Kee brought them in.
When she had a good sized bundle, Kee carried it all back a couple of blocks towards her usual route, and stopped in at the thrift store. There, she managed to show off her finds to the girl behind the counter, and haggled out an alright deal with her at a few marks for the lot.