In case you haven't read To the Stars (go read it), here's what you need to know for this story:
- It's set in the future (this story takes place in ~2370, about 90 years before To the Stars); Earth is a maturing utopia.
- The MSY is a humanity-wide organisation of magical girls, working closely with the Incubators to keep things secret and maximise entropy mitigation—preventing the heat-death of the universe.
- Governance is the complex web of upgraded humans, and provably benevolent AIs, that governs Earth and all official colonies.
- Governance has, in the name of cultural diversity, allowed a number of groups to set up their own unattached colonies, dedicating only a minimum of surveillance, and occasional spot-checks, to ensure that the Core Rights (of both humans and AIs) are being kept sacrosanct. The MSY puts in its own effort, for similar humanitarian reasons.
Neither are omnipotent, however, and sometimes things go wrong...
A dark alleyway, sky just beginning to lighten.
"Looks like we bit off more than we could chew," a woman clad in red raised her eyes, looking away from the pair of egg-shaped, darkened jewels resting before her. They were surrounded by a loose circle of black cubes. Despite the flowing trails of corruption leading out from the gems to the cubes, the jewels seemed to only get darker.
"We? I was handling my group just fine, thanks. Work on your crowd control!" this from a lady in blue. The two, sitting with their backs to opposite sides of the alley, could not differ more in appearance.
Red sighed. "It's a little late for that now, don't you think?" she nudged one of the cluster of dark cubes with her foot. "It's strange. There were so many," a glance at her ravaged torso—deep, raw gashes; several holes burnt all the way through; purple-black bruising seen through the rents in her clothing—"You don't think we... missed something?"
"What are you on about? It's been that way for years. It's more interesting like that anyhow. Can you imagine, fifty years of hunting standard packs? I'd die of depression!" Blue shifted slightly, taking weight off an arm sheathed in cracked metal. "Besides, the people seem fine. The nights have been peaceful, police are everywhere—what am I making excuses for! They aren't even our responsibility. We keep the demons down, and we do a damn good job of it!"
"Until now, at least,"
"Well... the Incubators won't let anything really bad happen, right?" Blue lifted her head to glance at the feline alien. It was silently watching their conversation from the entrance of the alleyway.
Red, unblinking eyes.
It would be a terrible waste of contractable population.
"Right! See? You Incubators are all softies at heart," Blue laughed, "nothing to worry about, Xiao Lei!"
"Don't call me that," spat Jinglei. She paused, her sudden frown easing. "Oh, fine," she sighed, "call me what you want. We're about done here after all." She blinked at her gem, now tarnished to the point that it seemed to be a window into a red-starred night.
"Hah! You're damn right I will. I always win in the end, eh!" She took a breath to continue her gloating, but was cut off by a sudden fit of coughing. Blood spattered. "Ugh." Telepathy is easier anyway.
"Gabrielle..." with another sigh, Jinglei leant her head back against the wall, closing her eyes.
The Incubator stayed to watch as the two silently finished their conversation, not moving an inch until they finally vanished forever. Standing, it padded over to collect the gently pulsing grief cubes, before it, too, vanished.
Shattered gravel crunched beneath her feet, the sun's blaze beat down on her shoulders, the thick, sweet air tore through her throat as she gasped for breath, running, running, she couldn't stop, or slow, she had to get there in time—even if she could do nothing, really, she had to get there in time.
It was early afternoon now, but it had been lunch when she had heard what had happened. She had just come back from the Felwater kitchens, where she shoveled coal for a mere handful of credits a day...
Ash strolled up the steps of her best friend Lily's home, happy to have lasted through a day's work unmolested, wiped her soot-stained palms on her shorts, and opened the unlocked door. Inside, her good mood vanished like smoke as she saw Lily's mother, sobbing, held by her tall husband, his face drawn, lined with stress. The tiny sisters not understanding, the younger brother grim, grey faced. Tom, the brother, looked up as Ash eased the door open, ran over to grab her hand and dragged her across the room, past the big table, to his father.
"W-what's happened?" Ash, beginning to feel the crawl of panic near her heart. "Where's Lily?"
Her friend's mother heaved another sob, and buried her face in Peter's shoulder, "Just one hour past," began Peter, gravely, calmly, claiming his place as the Channel family's stable rock "we were visited by auctioneers-" Ash gasped, "-they had scouted Lily during her rounds yesterday-"
"Where did they take her?!" the dark haired girl interrupted, gripping his sleeve.
He laid his heavy gaze on her, silent for a moment. "I don't think I should tell you that, Ash."
The girl narrowed her eyes.
"You're thirteen years old, Ash. There's nothing you can do," a brief pause, "there's nothing we can do."
Ash spun on her heel and sprinted out, making damn sure to slam the door behind her.
She paced restlessly back and forth in front of the old, dry fountain—a relic of more hopeful times, back when the inhabitants of Theatre City thought they were building a paradise—burning to do something, but with nothing to do. Nothing she could do. She couldn't bear it, she could barely think it. The thoughts were scorching hot, forcing her to flinch away—Lily, the Lily she had protected countless times, tall, brave Lily, from whom she had beaten back snide bullies, stray dogs, the grasping hands of adults with no principles, that Lily was going to be... to be... just like...
... Laughing Lily, who tried countless times to teach short, graceless Ash how to dance; watching her stumble and trip through the delicate steps, eyes full of laughter, but never laughing at her. Brave Lily, who placed so much faith in Ash, who was never hurt before Ash could reach her. And now, caught Lily, caught by the grasping hands of adults with no principles—but these adults were serving nobles, and nobles were Not to be denied. Lily was now too far for Ash to reach—much too far. Nothing she could do.
She kicked a stone, feeling tears on her cheeks, ignoring the bored glances of passers-by and the silent, metal presence of a police droid—something she'd usually go out of her way to avoid. If she could just know where they had taken her then at least, at least she could say good-bye. If only she could know, it wouldn't have to be like-
Wei Auction House, in the southern part of Wei Gang's district.
A voice in her head. Oddly childish, almost playful.
She decided not to think. She acted.
Kicking off the ground, she sprinted to the end of the road, passing the Channel house—no-one was looking out of the window—and turned onto a main street. She knew the way—she had lived in the city her whole life, and children such as her were rarely happy to be confined to a single district. She had dragged Lily with her to all sorts of interesting corners of this gnarled town, and a huge place like Wei Auction House was hardly tucked in a corner. In fact, it was a menacing presence to be avoided, almost impossible not to notice. A place to be avoided—showing oneself to a noble was never a good idea. Saying good-bye to Lily would not be an easy feat. But if she could manage, maybe it would hurt less. Perhaps she would feel less empty.
She ran down a road lined with shattered gravel, breathing harshly now. She was no stranger to running, but Wei district was a long way from Felwater. A whole three districts lay between them, and nobles—along with their various entourages of questionable friends, sycophantic lackies and servile attendants—were the only ones allowed any kind of quick transport. It was to their advantage to keep people anchored to a district.
The day was hot, and the air—here in the slums strung thinly between districts—reeked of humans. She ran and ran, she had to see Lily one last time. Even if saying good-bye changed nothing, at least then she might not feel so lost. At least then it wouldn't be like mama... Mama, who disappeared from her life, sold to the Felwater house as a mistress. In three years of working there, she had not even caught a glimpse...
And now Lily was going to suffer the same fate. Not even fifteen years of age, Lily was going to be auctioned off to a noble to be a... mistress. To be used like a toy, until she was broken. Ash could not bear it, and so she ran.
She ran and ran, brushing past workers just finishing their lunch break, hopping a rail-crossing, skidding round corners, taking shortcut after shortcut, through narrow alleys and over neglected garden walls.
She ran until she came at last to South Wei, and there she stopped running. She must not be noticed. Showing oneself to a noble was never a good idea. The day was bright, and she was grimy and sweaty, still breathing hard. Not ideal conditions for going unnoticed, but she knew a way nevertheless. Wei Auction House was a place to be avoided, and kids like Ash love going nowhere more than places that must be avoided. This was familiar ground. She clambered up a building wall, feet scraping and slipping before finding purchase in the cracks between the bricks, grasping a drainage pipe, a protruding brick, the edge of the overhang, before finally hauling herself onto the smooth, sloping tiles of the roof. Moving low, almost crawling, she made her way, hopping gaps and finding bridges until she reached the semi-circle of buildings that enclosed the auction house plaza.
Running low to the far end of this half, she crouched for a moment, worried. She had been here before several times, but never during an auction. Never when the building was packed with nobles; the guards on high alert, every systems AI bending all of their considerable will to keeping the area safe. Not usually one to hesitate, Ash felt something deep inside her flinch away from the coming task. Just as the pressure of impending failure threatened to crush her resolve, she heard, once more, a voice—
You can go. The machines won't notice you. Just stay out of sight.
Her muscles coiled with fear, she carefully looked about herself. She couldn't see anything. Well, if it had helped her once... and she had to get to Lily... With an uncomfortable feeling in her gut, she chose to trust the words, and dropped off the long roof, landing with a roll. She was now standing behind the House, near the goods entrance, but past the guards at the back gate.
There would be more guards standing inside the back door, but she wasn't going that way. Casting a glance towards the obvious lens of a surveillance device—there mostly to serve as a message, what with the majority of such security being well hidden—she jogged across the intricately decorated paving stones up to the vast glass and marble building. Throwing another nervous look over her shoulder, she continued round the side before crouching, lifting a cover and dropping down into a drainage channel. She was careful not to let the thick grate shut too heavily.
Heart pounding, she made her way slowly down the dark, low-ceilinged tunnel. It was lined with smooth metal plates, fit flush together. It smelled slightly of chemicals—Ash could not discern what kind. She took extreme care to tread lightly, as she knew sound echoed quite nicely in this channel. She had made it this far, fingers making a light scraping noise as they trailed along the wall, but she had no idea what to do next. She could watch from here... but how could she say good-bye?
Creeping as quietly as she could, flinching a little at every slight echo of a footstep, she continued until she was standing beneath another grating, this one long and quite thin, gently curving, set into a gutter that wrapped some distance from the semi-circular main stage. Raising herself carefully, she peered through the grate until she could just about see the auction stage.
It was already in progress.
A colossal, richly decorated chamber; the stage at one end; tiered seats at the other, curving around with four stairways, set at regular intervals, separating the seating area into chunks. The floor was a pale cream, marbled rock; the ceiling a sweeping white arch set with huge, perfectly transparent highlights. Pieces of art were scattered on the walls: copies of the most famous paintings sold previously in this very auction house, among them the distinctively strange and jarring visions of AI-authored art.
Sitting on the plushly cushioned wooden seats, a crowd of nobles with the occasional attendant, slave or personal whore—some chained, either restrained or linked to their master; some collared—usually a discreet smooth black ring fitted to the neck with no visible means of removal; and some simply stood or sat with glazed eyes staring at nothing. A number of armed police lined the front and back walls. There were far more men than women, among the nobles—this was an auction for female merchandise, after all.
Five girls left, they cowered, or slumped with dull eyes. Stark naked except for the smooth collars adorning their necks, and ordered to stand with hands at their sides, they had left no shred of dignity or hope to shield themselves with. Only the fourth in line was standing tall, almost proudly, chin set, fists clenched—Lily had not yet given up. She was attracting a lot of attention. Most nobles would love the chance to break such a person, though some might not have the patience.
Ash choked back a sob. This was real, really happening, and Lily was standing there like she always did, waiting bravely for Ash to defend her or rescue her. As she stared, trying to understand what Lily's absence from her life would mean for her, the first girl, standing forward of the small group, was sold. The groans of losers, and the laughter of those who felt the winner had paid far too much, filled the cavernous room. The auction winner simply stood up from his seat, spoke one word, "Come," and left the building. Apparently he was done for the day. The girl followed without question, unrestrained, stumbling slightly.
The second girl in line was short and slight, like Ash, but with long blonde hair that was more reminiscent of Lily's. She was hunched, red eyed from crying, face smeared by tears. She could not have been more than fourteen years old. There was a pause in the proceedings as the auctioneer stepped up to laud her 'gentle beauty and demure disposition'. The girl then came forward, and Ash felt her heartbeat pound faster, her breath quicken with trembling, impotent rage. What can I do!? Is there really nothing I can do?
The crowd was roaring, some shouting offers even as they logged them electronically, others arguing furiously with neighbours.
"I tell you, she's worth it, just look at her!"
"Raise your leg!" called out a large man sitting near the front row—prime seats—and directed at the girl being sold. It was not a command, merely a request—the young girl would have to carry it out of her own will. Jeers and laughter pounded against the stage as the little blonde shook her head desperately, coughing out a sob. Suddenly she winced horribly, clutched at her collar, staggered back a step. Then, visibly shaking, she slowly raised her leg.
More jeering, laughter and now catcalls.
"Hmph. Vulgar pigs" this muttered by a lady in middling seats, before she logged her own offer in the system. Ash ground her teeth and dug her nails into her palms, tears squeezed from the corners of her tightly shut eyes. Helpless. Hopeless.
The girl was finally sold, and stumbled to the edge of the stage. She slipped, tripping off the stage, and fell hard to the ground. It was just too much—she burst into great wracking wails, to the great amusement of the crowd, before finally—perhaps taking pity, or simply running out of patience—her new owner sent a pair of mental commands. Reacting to the first immediately, she stopped crying, picked herself up and walked with measured steps to her new master's side. The second ordered her collar to administer appropriate calming drugs. She would learn to enjoy her new life.
Shaking with horror and bitter helplessness at the sick games they were playing, and with only one girl left before Lily was made to endure the same, Ash felt the panic settle firmly, crushingly over her heart. Barely able to keep herself from gasping loudly for air, she strained to remain safe and hidden. There has to be something I can do!
There is something you can do.
This time she was almost ready for it. Surpressing a slight jump of surprise, she looked to the side, cheeks smeared with teary grime, where for some reason she felt the voice had come from. There, sitting like a cat, a strange white creature. Like a cat, with strange, long ears. Red eyes and red markings, and a pair of golden hoops floating apparently unattached around the long ears. It cocked its head. Make a contract with me. Wish for something. Anything.
Mind clouded by panic, despair and now surprise, Ash could only stare. Above, the third girl was sold—a tall young woman with an eastern cast to her face, and long straight black hair, she would have been a striking figure were she not hunched over, glassy eyed—and Lily stepped forward, still strong, back straight.
"W-wish for... anything?" the wiry girl murmured, almost to herself.
"Then... then...!" She heard, above, offers begin being called, price starting to rise higher and higher, "m-make them leave Lily alone!"
Red eyes gleamed.
Searing, pounding pain throbbed behind her eyes, tore at her heart, burned through her limbs—for a split moment—and a bright, deep red light shone in the dark channel, its source an egg-shaped iridesence.
Take it, said the cat-thing, it is your destiny.
She reached a hand out, feeling a strange warmth and familiarity from the glowing object, and closed her fist.
A series of staccato bangs, and she watched in a detached kind of horror as the white creatures's head apparently disappeared, the body flopping to the floor, accompanied by an explosion of splintering agony in her right shoulder. She whimpered in pain, grabbing at her arm and collapsing to the floor. Above, nobles blinked as a small girl appeared out of nowhere on their internal maps. Another series of bangs sounded, shattering holes into the wall of the tunnel opposite the stage.
"Ashley Rake! Stay where you are!" a man's voice bellowed from the chamber. Lily's gasp. The heavy tramp of guards' feet, the rustle and murmur of a curious crowd.
Ash recognized it for what it was—a command—but strangely, she felt only the pain of her wound. A pain that, come to think of it, didn't seem to matter very much. She began to crawl, dragging her body across the hard, now bloody floor, until she felt confident enough to rise to her feet and stagger back the way she came, the fingers of her right hand white-knuckle tight around the shiny red egg. A shallow wash of chemical-laden water, automatically triggered, flowed past her feet, cleaning away the blood.
In the main hall, nobles were now talking frantically among themselves, a strange thread of fear winding through the room—the girl was moving—how could someone ignore a direct command? Guards were sprinting for the backstage doors.
Ash made it back to the 'entrance' grate, reached up with her left hand to shove it open, then gripped the edge of the hole and pulled herself up with shocking ease. Glancing around, she jumped a little when she heard the back door burst open, and in a panic, sprinted to the wall and leapt over it, landing on the long roof of the semi-circle of buildings again. Consciously deciding to ignore the strangeness of her ability, she sprinted, leapt, and lunged her way across the rooftops until she felt safe, at which point she promptly collapsed, exhausted, barely even noticing the sharp cuts of pain from her gunshot wound. She curled herself up, shaking but not breathing heavily, tucked into a hollow between a square chimney and a sloping roof. Her eyelids shut, and her thoughts returned to Lily.
I hope the wish was enough to save her. She should have made sure of things, she thought, but after those shots she could only know her intent to live. Had she heard Lily's surprise after the noble's command? It would have had to have been terribly loud... but come to think of it, she could hear an awful lot tucked away in this corner. People in the streets, walking, talking, clothes rustling; the hum of a railcar—was there a rail near here...?—a frantic scrabble of tiny paws somewhere below her.
And as her consciousness finally waned, she heard soft padding footfalls approach. Like a cat.
Don't worry. They won't find you while I'm here.
Notes: Ok, so this chapter gets pretty disturbing. Know that this is the exception, not the rule. It probably won't be the only exception though.
This is also my first effort at writing a story of my own, hope it goes well. Criticism welcome.
Thanks to Hieronym for the help with keeping my spin-off consistent with TtS, for the advice, and for saving the mess that was the first version of this chapter. I learnt a lot, from that.