Since Amazon is having some sort of really irritating glitch that’s keeping Dying Paradigm’s sample from being visible on the site at the moment, this is the best I can offer. So, chapter one. Which is very slightly over 4K words out of 107K. KDP Select bots, that’s less than 10%, so back off! Anyway dear readers, enjoy.
Chapter One — A Day in the Dirt
The NYPD checkpoint guards stood watching calmly as a slug tore through the throat of a squatter. The man who’d fired ignored them and dropped his aim in unison with his target’s fall to the street. One more slug, and the squatter’s twitching stopped. Holstering his gun, the shooter bent to retrieve a bag from the man’s lifeless hands. Still the cops just stood watching from behind their checkpoint barricades on the street that passed through the Wall into New York.
Aramenta stepped aside as the shooter headed deeper into the Sector with the bag, away from the checkpoint, then resumed her course for the MTA station. Everyone else, those who had bothered to stop and watch, went back to their mornings as well. She didn’t have to step over the body, but others were. In fact, the dead man’s pockets were already being rifled through by some kids who were yelling and shoving at each other for the chance to grab something. The shooter walked deeper into the Sector calmly, without rushing. Though he did seem to glare at anyone who showed any interest in the dead man’s bag.
“Okay, MTA. Enjoy your time out of Sector,” one of the Castle Guardian escorts said as the group of squatters she was a part of reached the dirty and chipped sidewalk in front of the transit terminal.
“Such as it is,” his partner said with a grim chuckle as she hefted a bulky rifle and stood looking around at the pedestrians in view.
“Thanks for the cover,” Aramenta said.
“That’s why I like you Mint,” the man said, smiling broadly to display his surgically altered teeth. Red enamel, veined with grey streaks; neither of which were at all normal. “You always say thanks.”
The other squatters in the group were already headed for the turnstiles. Visible laser light flashed out from the scanners the MTA maintained at all Sector stations, strobing across each person who approached and passed through into the transit side of the turnstiles with flickering green and white lines.
“It’s nice to have company.”
“And people who’ll keep slags off you,” the woman, who had a mass of red and gray spray paint forming a design of jagged lines across the front of her armor vest, said with a shrug. “Right?”
“Right,” Aramenta nodded. “See you tonight.”
“You busy later?” the man asked.
She very carefully didn’t roll her eyes, but she did shake her head. “Probably be working late Monty, with my luck.”
“You should spend more time on the block,” Monty said, raking his eyes up and down her body. She was wearing her usual jumpsuit, so there wasn’t much more than the suggestion of curves beneath the plates and ballistic fabric. He was clearly filling in the blanks anyway as his gaze ran over her. “You work too hard.”
“Got rent to make, stuff to buy. A girl’s gotta eat, you know?”
He grinned. “There’s easier ways Mint. Stop running yourself ragged, live a little.”
Aramenta very carefully didn’t glance at the body. Instead she just gave a noncommittal shrug. “I like action. Later.” She turned and entered the overhang that marked the dividing line between sidewalk and station as Monty’s partner ribbed him.
“You know you can’t get it up without Mikie’s help anyway.”
“Hey Roena, I’ll have you know I’m getting fixed after the next run. One command and I’m all man.”
“Take more than an implant to get your dick up enough to poke anyone.”
Aramenta walked slowly through the initial pattern of scans that lanced out to engulf her in light. The lasers were just a reminder, and they’d turn red and sound a siren if a weapon was detected. Or if they didn’t get a good read on the person before reaching the turnstiles. She wasn’t in the mood to get felt up by one of the MTA guards that were loitering just inside the turnstiles.
Her hand stunner wasn’t sufficient to trip the alarm, especially turned off and tucked into one of her pockets. Standard scans never read it as anything other than a phone or something similar. Touching her wrist to the reader, she let the turnstile confirm her fare code and passed through.
St. Lawrence station smelled as bad as it always did. Why would the MTA bother cleaning a Sector station? The only thing they ever cared about was clearing bodies, and that was on Corpse Removal anyway. They even only kept the trains stopping here and the other New York Sectors because the corps didn’t want too much hassle having access to the dirt cheap labor they could hire out of them.
Squatters always needed capitals. Life was cheap, but it sure as hell cost a lot of caps to keep living. Even in a Sector.
The train was just arriving as she bounded up the stairs to the platform. She squeezed her way aboard, taking advantage of the jumpsuit’s plating to keep from being crushed — or groped — during the subsequent standing-room only ride to the 125th Street Station. There were no actual guards here, but there were two security bots positioned on the platform to monitor the rush hour foot traffic flooding in and out of the trains. Two more waited downstairs near the turnstiles, their armored bulk and scan bulbs a reminder to everyone that MTA was watching.
MTA didn’t care what anyone did, so long as it wasn’t in one of their stations. Back on the street, Aramenta flexed her toes against the switches in her boots to extend the bladed wheels from the soles. Loitering was a quick ticket to harassment, maybe a beating, and usually an arrest that would take caps she couldn’t afford to give up by any city cops who could get their hands on her.
Anyway, she didn’t have time to hang around. It was nearly seven. She skated three blocks down to the old skyscraper where the courier office she worked for was located, weaving around the foot traffic as the city’s gainfully employed headed to work, or home after the third shift. It was an old building, a mere seventy stories and almost as old as its floor count. The fact it was so decrepit, but still somehow able to pass the city’s zoning codes, was the only reason Trinyong could afford to maintain the space. That, and also he didn’t pay for shit.
The lobby guards, rent-a-corps assigned from a small security outfit who maintained an office and armory on the tenth floor, knew her. They still made her scan in before letting her through the turnstiles that divided the lobby from the elevator bank. Rules were rules. She might have been fired after all, but the code in her wrist implant was still valid, so they waved her through.
An elevator arrived after a minute’s wait, and she crammed herself in with fifteen other low-rent wage slaves. On the ninth floor she got off and turned down the hallway to a narrow door bearing an electro pigment sign that had recently been updated. She paused with her hand on the doorknob, counting the letters, then shook her head with a sigh. Then she pushed it open and went into the front office of AAAAAAAAA+ Fast Couriers, LLC.
“Hola Cherry. Trinyong added another A?”
A young Asian man chewing on a wad of gum that made his cheek bulge like he was giving head was sitting behind an enormous expanse of holographic arrays. He shrugged without taking his eyes from them. “That new joint a few blocks over doesn’t believe he won’t keep going to stay at the top of the search listings.”
“Yeah, well, like you said, they’re new.”
“They’ll learn. Hey, I’m glad you’re here. The coffee machine’s acting up again.”
“You need a new one.”
“Come on Mint, I need a fix.”
“I could swing by after the Winsonskis’ usual bagels and bananas, drop you off a cup from the shop.”
Cherry finally refocused his gaze to give her a pleading look, though he tempered it with a smile. “Please?”
“Fine,” she sighed, reaching into her pocket for her multitool. She skated down the stub of a hallway to the little table squeezed in next to the bathroom. The coffee machine’s display, an actual flat display which more than the grime and scratches on its casing told the tale of its age, was blinking the same error code it had been bringing up every few days for the past two weeks.
“Cheap bastard,” she muttered, pulling the empty pot out and setting it aside so she could flip the machine over. The powered driver in her multitool spun the screws out, and she knelt down so she could peer inside. The coffee maker was on its last legs, and had been through one too many moves, seen more than its share of slammed pots and hundreds of hours of heat.
One of the chips that regulated the power flow for the heating element needed fresh glue. As the old adhesive broke down from the heat, courtesy of the already worn out insulation that was supposed to prevent exactly that, the chip sagged into contact with the main power circuit. Which shorted it out, and that meant no more coffee.
“Cherry, I need some of your gum,” she said, turning to look at him.
His fingers were busy tapping away at the interface, but he reached into his mouth with one hand and scooped out part of the wad he was chewing on. One bite, a tug, and he separated a chunk that he tossed to her.
Aramenta caught it and rolled it between her fingers to thin it sufficiently before changing her multitool over to the knife and scraping out the gum she’d used to repair the machine a few days earlier. The fresh gum, still wet with Cherry’s saliva, she wedged in to hold the chip when she pressed it back into place. Carefully she adjusted the fit, until the chip had a little shelf of wet gum along its bottom that might help hold it in place a little longer.
The heat would dry the gum out, and reduce its ability to hold the chip, but maybe gravity would work as an advantage and buy her a few more days before the next breakdown. When she tried the power button, the machine wouldn’t activate, so she had to fiddle with the chip’s alignment until she found one that it was happy with, and the machine came on like everything was normal.
“You need a new coffee machine,” she said as she stood after closing up the access port. “There’s gonna be a fire one of these days.”
“Thanks. I’m sure Trin’ll jump right on that.”
Aramenta opened the bathroom door and scraped the old gum off her knife into the trash bin. As she was washing the knife, and her hands, she heard another door open and a lisping voice, loud enough to turn some of the lisps into whistles, shattered what was left of her morning.
“You are late. No couriers in toilet.”
“I’m washing my hands,” Aramenta said without turning.
“Water is expensive.”
“Trin, she fixed the coffee machine again,” Cherry said as Aramenta rinsed soap off her fingers. Soap, and Cherry’s spit.
“Humph. Still late.”
“It’s not even seven yet,” Aramenta said mildly, resisting the urge to snap back at him. “How late can I be if I’ve been here long enough to fix that piece of junk? Again.”
“Time is money. I do not pay for washing hands. Especially not with my water.”
“Thanks would be nice,” Aramenta muttered before she turned and flicked her hands at the threadbare carpet to dislodge the worst of the water.
“What?” The man glaring at her from the doorway was Asian, but much older, less attractive, and a lot smellier, than Cherry. Stringy hair, bad skin, and teeth that pointed in almost every direction except toward the others. Aramenta had never been able to figure out what Cherry saw in Trinyong. It certainly couldn’t be the money. And she had a very hard time believing the stingy old bastard was that good in the sack.
“Winsonskis,” Cherry said. “They just dropped their usual order on me.”
“I’m on it,” Aramenta said, squeezing past the still glaring company owner and skating toward the front door. Before she reached it her phone pinged, and she pulled it out of the sleeve pocket it lived in to confirm Cherry had just forwarded the pickup ticket to her. “Enjoy the coffee Cherry.”
“Work!” Trinyong snapped, tottering into the tiny lobby as she opened the front door. “Time is money.”
“Asshole,” she said to herself once she was on the other side of the door. But she needed the job. Every delivery put a little money in her pocket, and a full shift of hustling could add up. Fortunately she only had to see the irritable skinflint twice a day, when she checked in and out. Which itself was one more annoyance; she could have easily logged in for pickups over the net. But Trinyong insisted on laying his beady eyes on every courier he grudgingly employed, twice a day.
He was always hiring.
Skating away from the office, Aramenta went back to the elevators and pinged the bagel shop while she waited for one to arrive. Their system confirmed the order, it was already waiting. She went downstairs, crossed the street and skated a block down, and picked up the bag of food and spreads before returning to the same building she’d just left.
This time she rode the elevator up to the seventeenth floor. The Winsonskis were a family run legal contract firm, though ‘firm’ was stretching the definition a bit. Three generations of lawyers, spread across about two dozen parents and grandparents and children and aunts and uncles, and even three cousins. They focused exclusively on contingency cases they chased against about a thousand other identical ‘firms.’ All competing to scrape the most shit off the bottom of the barrel, hoping to make enough to make rent and keep themselves fed.
“Breakfast,” Aramenta said, cranking her work smile into place as she went into the suite’s lobby on foot; her blade wheels retracting so she could walk properly. Suite was also pushing the definition; it was just a big room with lots of third-hand chairs, doors into offices or hallways, and one sullen secretary who was cheaper than a proper administrative bot or AI.
“About time,” the secretary said. “They’ve been pinging me every two minutes for the last twenty.”
The order hadn’t hit dispatch but twelve minutes ago, but Aramenta didn’t say that. “Sorry, the bakery was backed up. Their morning truck was late, and they’ve been playing catch up since dawn.”
Aramenta just kept smiling, and held her wrist out; keeping the bag of food in her other hand at her side. The secretary opened a drawer, rummaged around, and withdrew a cap coin. When she passed it across Aramenta’s wrist, it flashed green to signal funds had been transferred.
“Thanks. Enjoy,” Aramenta said, finally surrendering the food.
Leaving the secretary to take it from there, Aramenta went back to the elevators. And very carefully didn’t pull her phone out to check her tip until she was out of sight in the car.
“Fuck,” she muttered. One cap. One measly cap. That wouldn’t even buy a bottle of water. And there wasn’t anything waiting in her queue either, so she decided to vent her irritation by dumping on Cherry. Pinging him, she waited as the elevator descended back to the lobby. He didn’t pick it up until she was stepping out.
“Done, next?” she said, cutting him off as soon as she heard his breath on the link.
“Nothing at the moment.”
“Oh come on! I fixed the coffee machine. Again! Throw me something, a girl’s gotta eat. A shop would’ve charged Trin twenty caps just to look at the thing—”
“Hang on. Okay here. Just came in,” Cherry interrupted, completely nonplussed. Everything rolled off him. Maybe that was how he put up with Trinyong. But Aramenta still figured that didn’t explain putting up with Trinyong’s teeth.
“Got it,” she said, looking at the dispatch ticket that slid up on her display. She hit the street, popped her blades back out, and started weaving through the morning pedestrian rush hour toward the pickup. No matter how poor most New Yorkers were, and that was pretty poor in ninety percent of the cases, they almost never carried or picked up their own food. And offices, regardless of how small or ramshackle they might be? Forget about it.
* * * * *
“ID,” the city cop said.
Aramenta didn’t stop chewing, she just held her wrist out. He nailed it with the scanner mounted on his own wrist. Every minute she spent eating was a minute less she had for a delivery. And even the crap she was eating now had cost her a good chunk of what it had taken her the morning to earn.
“Gainfully employed officer,” Aramenta said around her mouthful of noodles. “With a CIN.”
“Let’s just see about that,” he said.
She very carefully didn’t sigh, but she didn’t stop eating either. He flexed his fingers, making a call, then looked down at her as he waited for Cherry to pick up. The little plaza was a duly designated City Resting Area, which basically meant it was okay to stop and sit on one of the benches or ledges. Even to eat. Nearly everyone doing so, however, was wearing a suit, had careful styling and coifing on their faces and hair, and was obviously a corp employee of one kind or another.
That made a courier squatter stand out. She was used to it.
“Yeah, NYPD. Listen, I’ve got a girl here, Aramenta Nimi. She’s got a code that says she’s on your—”
Aramenta took another bite of noodles as Cherry obviously interrupted and confirmed she was on the roster. The cop didn’t even bother to pronounce her name correctly. He said it ‘are-a-menta’ and turned the short ‘I’s in Nimi into drawn out ‘EEE’s. She wasn’t sure why she cared. It was just a random name NYDFCS had tacked on to her — and a misspelled one at that — but it was about the only thing she had that most squatters didn’t. She was in the system. That was why she could hold even this shitty job without spending more time swept up in harassment arrests than she would actually working.
“You sure? I could send an ima—” the cop said, still studying her. And still not talking to her. “Really? Hmmm, okay.”
He finally ended the call and stood looking at her for another moment. “I guess it checks out.”
Aramenta very carefully didn’t say she’d told him so. She just took another bite of noodles and produced the calmest and politest nod she could.
“How long have you been on this bench?”
“Three minutes,” she said.
“No, just sat down. And I’ll be up and moving again in two. See?” She tilted the box of noodles toward him, so he could see it was over half empty.
He didn’t look, but just glowered at her for a moment. Then he jabbed a finger at her, but she could tell he was already giving up. “Don’t be here when I circle back around.”
“Some of us fucking work for a living,” she thought, but she just produced her work smile and nodded again. He hitched up his gun belt and ambled, waddled really, toward the next bench where there was a guy in a dirty apron with food stains on his shirt and sleeves. The guy had just pulled out a sandwich, and was only now unwrapping it, but he wasn’t in a suit. That made him a safe target for harassment.
“Asshole,” Aramenta thought as the city cop started with his ID demand again.
But asshole or not, he had firepower on his side. No one cared about anyone like her, regardless of how wrong the cop — city or corp or whoever else it might be — was. Over twenty squatters, street people, and generally anyone who didn’t sit down behind a desk while they worked were killed or put in the hospital every eight hours. That was just in the ‘nice’ parts of towns. The few incidents that weren’t inflicted by someone exactly like the cop putting the sandwich guy through the same routine he’d just made Aramenta suffer through were ignored by him and his fellow tough-guy bigots.
Life was cheap, unless you didn’t have any money.
Aramenta finished her noodles, using her chopsticks to scrape every last one out of the container and into her mouth. She stood up, popped her blades, and skated over to the closest garbage can where she made damn sure the asshole cop was watching before she put her noodle box in. Then she left the park, pulling out her phone and checking for any available deliveries.
* * * * *
“Evening Bob,” Aramenta said, skating through the shop’s door and retracting her wheels. “What’s good tonight?”
“Nothing. But I’ve got some stuff cheap,” the Indian behind the corner store’s counter said with a shrug.
“Let’s have it.” He knew was she was after.
“Bread, some deli slices, and those.”
Aramenta looked where he was pointing, and saw a row of wave meals lined up on the shelf. The date codes showed they were a week past expiration, but they were also dehydrated and sealed. A week past wasn’t that bad, and they’d keep her fed. And they’d be a lot cheaper than the regular food and packages on shelves further back in the shop. “How much?”
“Two twenty each.”
“Two twenty?” she protested. “They’re three fifty new! Which these aren’t.”
“Hey, seller’s market.”
“I’m here now. Why wait for the next slag to roll through? One sixty each and I’ll take the lot.”
“Two even, and you’re starting to bother me,” Bob said.
“One ninety. Come on, instant sale.”
“So are you,” Aramenta said, folding her arms. “Well, how about it?”
“Fine, fine,” he said, shrugging. “But no bag. Not at one ninety.”
“Don’t need one,” Aramenta said, unzipping her back pocket. She started counting the meals on the shelf.
“Nineteen sixty-seven,” he said as she ran her fingers across the packages.”
“Hey, there’s only eight here,” she protested.
“It’s nine including the one in your pocket.”
“Eight, not nine,” Aramenta shot back, stepping back from the shelf and pointing up at the inventory scanner on the ceiling. She was standing right beneath it, which was by design. Anyone who checked out gave the scanner a good chance to tickle them with radiation.
He sniffed, tapped his fingers through his interface, sniffed again, then shrugged. “Fine. Seventeen forty-eight.”
“You make me pay ‘tax and fees’ that you’ll pocket before forwarding to the city and I’ll make an anonymous tip to the Revenue Department,” she said immediately. She and Bob both knew nothing he sold under the counter ever showed up on his statements.
Another battle of glaring and will ensued as he stared at her, before he sniffed again and resumed tapping. Aramenta waited until the total on the scanner changed to 15.2. And he’d stepped back from it so he couldn’t change the amount. Only then did she stick her wrist out to be scanned. As soon as the loop blinked green to show the transaction was complete, she started cramming the packages into the backpack pocket that covered the rear of her jumpsuit’s torso.
“Thief,” he said as she tucked the last two in and closed the Velcro fastenings to keep everything in.
“Same as you.”
Outside the shop, Aramenta double checked that the backpack pocket was closed properly, then popped her blades and headed for the MTA station. The shadows of early evening were draping the sidewalks and streets in gloom, but the store and traffic lights provided enough illumination for her to dodge around the people in her way. Everyone was headed home, except for the brighter eyed third shift workers who were going in for another turn of the wheel.
It had been a long day.
Dying Paradigm is available now.