It's raining. It always rains. Unless you happen to live in the sunny, tall buildings that reach above the clouds. I always laugh when the Middie girls complain that they don't have enough time or money to go and get a tan, like all the Airheads have. Down here on the ground, those girls usually call me Mire-scum (because of all the mud) and add something clever, about how my skin is brown 'cause of the dirt. They're so stupid. Anyway, mud would come clean off within a minute of heavy winter rain. I wish, as I have for all of my life, that I could live as an Airhead, high above the clouds. I would never admit this to anyone, though. And I don't want to be one because of the money or the status. I want to be an artist, but you can't be an artist if you live in the Mire. You'd starve first.
I catch a bus to get the home from work, a faded yellow bus. Some old-timers say that children used to ride to school in them, but they were deemed unsafe awhile back- kids have been taking the slick skylines for ages. Apparently the city streets aren't safe enough for kids, but once you're out of school, you have to pay to ride the skyline. I haven't ridden it since 10th grade, seven years ago.
I'm outside my little flat that I share with my thirty-eight year old mother. I call her 'Mame' even though her name is Hanna Tam. My father, John Kanby, gave me little more than his name, and left my mom before I was born when she was fifteen and pregnant with me. I walk through the door. Immediately Mame is yelling at me, "Samantha Abigail Kanby!", not noticing as I wince at my full name, the name no one uses but Mame, "You are late again!". I sigh. She says this every night, every night the same words. I explain yet again, reciting my lines without vigor.
"Mame, first, it's Sama. Second, Mame," I say, but she isn't listening. She's rolling her eyes, but I continue, "It's not my fault. I punch out at five-thirty every afternoon and catch the six o'clock bus home, and it always takes longer than an hour to get home.", I finish, waiting for the question she asks every blessed night.
"Why don't you just walk?" I take a deep breath.
"Because the rain is poisonous, Mame! You want me to walk home in poison?" She makes a noise, and turns away. I swear under my breath in Mandarin, telling shut up and keep her thoughts to herself. Then I follow her into the "kitchen" (It isn't really a kitchen. It's an oven and a table tucked into one corner of our flat.), where she opens a pot of rice and salmon. She spoons some into my bowl, and hands the bowl to me. I'm so hungry, I'd probably eat it with my fingers, but Mame hands me my favorite chopsticks, pretty wooden ones. I smile at her, she smiles back, and our "fight" is over. The rest of dinner passes in silence.
Then I put my bowl in the sink, grab my sketch pad, and head out, covering the paper and myself with a raincoat made of plastic. I walk a little ways to my favorite spot to sketch- a place under an awning, facing a glowing 'Lite Beer' sign above a restaurant. While I'm watching and sketching, a Bridger peddles his services. But by the way people are reacting to him, I figure he's just a narc, planted to catch the desperate souls trying to get ahead anyway they can. If I could find a real Bridger though, I could be a Middie, live somewhere with actual rooms, a job I actually like. I put away my sketches, resolved to find a real Bridger within the week.
When I walk back into my flat, I find Mame sitting at the altar, incense lit. I mutter, "Please Buddha bring me a toy rocket and pony...", I trail off as Mame's eyes snap open and she says in a very scary voice,
"What did you say?" I shiver and force lightness into my voice.
"Nothing of interest, Mame." She eyes me, then turns back to the altar and closes her eyes. She mutters,
"I'm too old for this go se." I almost laugh, but know that I'd suffer for it. I hold my breath and count to ten in Chinese and then Spanish, letting it out when the laughter is gone. I quietly brush my teeth and crawl into bed.
It's Sunday, I think when I wake. I don't have to work. I look at Mame, snoring lightly in her "bed" across the room. I eat leftovers in my pajamas, then dress and peck Mame, before grabbing my wallet and keys and heading out. Once on the street, I run through the early morning crowds. I know that narcs are placed on streets where they're easier to secure, and its easier catch more people. But there is this one alleyway in between two old, old buildings that is rumored to have true bridgers- for a price. Hopefully not a very high one. Before I get there, though, I run into Oa, who grew up on the streets.
I meet her about halfway to my destination. I turn a corner and she runs right into me.
"Sama? Nice to see ya Bird!" she exclaims in her strange accent. She calls me Bird because I'm Sama Gail.
"Heya, Oa", I say quietly, because I'm out of breath. I scan her quickly, trying to be discreet. She'd made her hair into a beautiful fro, her skin still a gorgeous deep brown. Various scars mark her skinny arms from her bad teen years. I start to study her face, but she locks eyes with me.
"I know what you're doin' Bird.", she says. "You tryin' to see if I'm usin' or somethin'. Isn't that right, sweetie." I blush but still look. Her eyes are wild and red. I sigh.
"You're wasted, Oa. What did you do last night?" I grab her arms and check the insides while speaking.
"What I always do, sweetie bird!". I spot a tiny prick, covered by a bit of bandage. "Shit, girl. You have been using. What the hell you thinking, Oa? Where did you even by that shit anyway?" I'm half dragging her down the street, towards the nearest hostel. I check her in, paying for a moth up front, and take her straight to the little infirmary, to detox and recuperate. "Oa, listen to me." I say. Her head lolls. I hold it up, looking in her eyes. "Oa. You have to stay here, ok? Get better, please. Please, Oa. Get better, get a real job. You can have mine." I'm desperate. I knew Oa had done stuff, but she's in bad shape.
Oa makes a sad little smile and whispers, "I'm not a silversmith, meimei." I grimace. It's true, she's no smith, but I'm not her little sister.
"Plese, Oa-chan. Please, get better." With that, I leave, heading towards that alley.
I run for awhile, dodging people and bikes until I'm forced to slow as the alleyway shrinks narrower and narrower until I pop out on the other end. It's impossibly dark, and dry.
"Hello," I say into the dark, "I'm looking for some help. A step up." Out of the dark comes a tall man. He's wearing a long leather trench coat, and walks towards me. "And you are...?" He asks, eyebrows raised.
"Sama Gail," I answer. He's three feet away, grasping his coat tighter around him, as though he's cold.
"It's going to be a high price," he says, "four thousand credits." I almost laugh. The price is amazing, lower than I thought it would be. But I stay cool.
"Very well," I whisper, and dig in my pockets, then place the money in his hands. He pockets it.
"Meet me in the square tomorrow, across from the White Elephant". I nod, and he disappears.
The next day, I go to meet the Bridger. I walk to access the restaurant labeled by three white elephants. I see him there, still in his trench coat. I walk towards him. It's so busy today that I'm running into people trying to reach him. Finally I do. I give him a tight smile. He turns around, and I mirror him, looking at the crowd. I am surrounded by cops. I look back at the Bridger, who smiles big.
"Silly Samantha," is the last thing I hear before dropping like a rock. A tranquilizer, I realize, into my neck. I claw at my neck, trying to pull it out, until I can see nothing but gray sky. And then the sky goes black.
I slowly wake, sluggishly realizing that the sleep I wake from is not true. I wince as I lift my head, reaching back to probe where the traq went in. Should have known that deal was too quick and too easy. Thank goodness they can't hold me here for long. A week tops. They took my four grand, so there's no fine. I ask to make a call to Mame, so she won't worry. She cries and tells me to be safe and come home as soon as I can.
The week passes slowly. The food is crap and the people are worse. Finally, my name is called, even though they call me Samantha Kirby here, as I never legally changed my name. I'm out the door and running as soon as they let me. I look back and realize someone is following me. They hired someone to follow me. To make certain I don't return to my illicit activities. Which means that stepping up will have to be put on hold until the tracker gives up.
I duck down an alley, running over a kid. "Sorry," I yell back. The kid stares.
"You got a tracker on you?" whispers the kid. I look at him carefully, and then nod. "I can fix that," he says. "Come on." He holds out a grungy hand. I hesitate before reluctantly taking his hand. He pulls me down the alley.
"Who are you?" I shout once we reach the street, over the sounds of people, rain, and machines. He doesn't answer, but pulls me over to an ATM.
"Giz. My name's Giz." He pulls out a plate on the ATM, revealing wires and such. He pulls on a few wires, muttering, "...volume..identity...account number...Done!"
"Done what?" Giz rolls his eyes.
"Getting rid of your tracker. Come on!" He pulls me across the street. "Listen." I listen to the street noise. I notice Giz counting down with his hands. Five, four, three, two, one…
"THIS IS SQUADRON 19 IN CONJUCTION WITH THE GOVERNMENT. IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY IN THE EMPLOYMENT OF SQUADRON 19, REPORT IMMEDIATELY TO HEADQUARTERS WITHIN THIRTY MINUTES." Giz mouths the words, but the actual noise is piped from the ATM he hacked.
"Very flashy," I whisper, "You have that programmed just for me?" Giz grins.
"Nah." I cross my eyes and glare at him.
"You just have a basic code for hacking ATMs?" Giz nods his grimy head.
"Sama?" he asks timidly, "Could you get me something to eat?" I look at him closer, under the layer of baggy old clothes. He's skin and bones.
"Sure." I answer. He looks a relieved and fakes a "phew" gesture.
"McDonald's?" he asks innocently. I groan and nod.
Later, after explaining my dreams of being an artist to Giz over over-salted fried and chalky milkshakes, Giz agrees to help me, in return for being the new addition to the family. We cook up a story of him being a cousin on my dad's side. I explain to Mame how he got rid of the tracker, and he rattles off some Mandarin, attempting a bit of conversation. She shakes her head and gives in.
We stay up for hours, trying to come up with a way to bridge into the Middie. Giz thinks out loud, rambling, furiously typing on what used to be my laptop.
"... you have to be seen somewhere, somebody has to know you, so you can me recommended for Uprgrade. See, last year this one girl bridged because of her voice- some talent scout picked her up from a church choir. And the other, well, he's a bad example- he's a thug now. Sorry, Sama. Anyway, there's a party for this season's aspiring artists. I bet if I got you invitation and you took your sketches, you'd be picked up like that." He snaps his fingers and smiles at me, eyes bright. I smile back. He turns back to the computer screen, fingers flying over the keyboard.
What seems like hours later, he suddenly jumps up (carefully setting the laptop down) and runs out the door. "Giz!" I call after him, confused. I frown at my snoring mother, who had long since quit nagging on us to go to sleep and simply covered her eyes. I wait. A few minutes later, he runs back into the room, holding up a piece of paper, printed in goldish ink. "Giz, who'd you steal this from?" I tease him gently, examining it.
He acts hurt, pouting before he says, "I printed it out in the office across the street."
"Giz, the office closed hours ago." Giz grins and holds up some lock picks. I sigh.
Giz protests, "I didn't steal anything but the paper and ink. They'll never miss it."
"I have no response to that." I sigh again. "So when's the party?"
He grins, "First, we clean you up."
Then next day, we shop online for a dress. Then Giz scares the hell out of me by hacking into an online storehouse and tracking down the best dress, in my size, and changing the address to the office across the steeet's, lining up the hours so the dress was delivered after hours, crossing the street, and just picking it up, and taking back inside our flat. "I can't believe you did that!" I admonish him.
"You want me to put it back?" He opens the box, revealing the beautiful dress, a blue dress with beading that is delicate as snow falling.
"Noooo... but it was very, very wrong." Giz grins at me. I sigh again.
The party draws closer. I practice speaking nice and smiling "without scaring children" (so says Giz). I find a pair of heels I can live with, even though it about kills Giz not to get a pair that matches my dress. I won't let him "order" me a pair that coordinates better. I borrow jewelry from Mame and sketch all the time, trying to produce something exceptional.
Finally it's the day of the party. Giz whines at me, "Take a cab, Sama, you can't arrive on the bus, or walk. Your hair will get all messed up, and your shoes will get muddy and your dress will get wet..." I sigh.
"Fine, I'll take a cab! But I'll have to wait for one to come, Giz, and I can't be late."
"Not to worry, Sama. One is already here." He pushes me out the door, and there is indeed a cab, a nice one, still relatively new. He hands me my sketches, my best ones. Helps me into the cab and waves to the driver. I check my purse for the invitation and read off the address. The cabbie, a nondescript Mire, looks at my sad little flat, then at my dress, and finally (thankfully) starts the engine of the cab.
It's a short ride, much shorter than a bus ride, or walking. The cab pulls up to the house. I pay the cabbie and clamber out as gracefully as I can. At the door of the grand house I hand the security guide my invitation. He checks it and hands it back with a smile.