It was just too fucking cold for a downpour like this. There should be snow, big puffy white flakes that muffled all sounds and reduced visibility to a few dozen metres at best. Or at least a decent hailstorm that kept people inside their crappy little houses. Instead she got soaked and frozen simultaneously while the wind did its very best to rob her of what little protection she had left. Stoically she pulled the hood down over her face and hurried through another nameless back alley, barely wide enough for her slender figure and the ubiquitous stench of piss and rotting fast food that told her she was finally approaching the inhabited part of the city. Not that she needed a reminder. The sickly orange glow of low-cost street lights had warned her half an hour ago. Now it was already bright enough to make her uncomfortable.
With a quick and, she hoped, halfway elegant movement she vaulted over a low, half-eroded iron fence. Past the next corner it was already crowded enough to rekindle her seething ire. What in the burning hells did these people even do out here in the middle of the night? Didn't they have somewhere else to be? Anywhere? She could understand shopping, of course, though she preferred more... useful things, things you wouldn't find in a Burger King or Nokia store. But there were more people outside the damn buildings than inside, aimlessly strolling about, never looking, probably not even caring where they actually went. Getting in her goddamn way! If they had even the slightest about who she was or what she had done – was about to do – the street would be blissfully vacant in about three seconds, tops.
Yet it was better this way, she told herself once again. The safe, the low-profile way, even if it meant playing obedient little citizen more often than not. She had known someone, hell, had been friends with someone who had decided to go all-out-berserk in the middle of a crowded mall. Had been one hell of a firework, she recalled, but the guy had lasted a mere fifteen minutes or so before they put a dozen bullets through his skull. In theory they had to formally arrest you, inform your relatives, even bring you a lawyer if you wanted one. Reality was a little more messy. The take-no-chances-shoot-on-sight kind of messy. No real, living cop would risk getting their head fried from the inside – according to mainstream media that would be well within her abilities – for the sake of someone who'd get lifetime anyway.
It wasn't fair, not at all, and that was exactly why a part of her desperately wanted to rebel, why those stupid, ignorant little bastards without a care in their lifes made her so fucking angry. Glumly she pushed through another cluster of googly-eyed peasants, took the escalator three steps at a time and hurried past the insultingly cheery cristmas decorations. Inside the mall there was at least some room to breathe. Gradually her pulse slowed. She had better keep her cool on this one. Anger would not serve her tonight. She wasn't usually this irritable. In fact, people hired her because she was smarter and more reliable than the competition. And because she had survived long enough to make a name for herself. Someone was bound to notice you if you managed to stick around for more than a few months.
Which was surprisingly easy if you knew how to plan. And had at least some sort of backup for those inevitable situations when things went downhill no matter how careful you were. That was why she had chosen this place. It was secluded enough for a whispered conversation, yet close enough to the crowded areas that the guy she was about to meet would think twice about doing anything... obvious.
Not that her contact was particularly fond of subtlety. So far he had seized every conceivable opportunity to, consciuosly or not, act out one tired gangster cliché after another. And, sure enough, there he was, at least six feet tall but hunched over like some cartoon villain from the sixties. As if that would fool anyone. Long brown trenchcoat, expensive shoes, sunglasses. Leaning against the wall, smoking, in a far too obvious attempt to look relaxed. It took some real effort not to sigh and shake her head in disgust. She honestly felt more like screaming.
He straightened as soon as he saw her, which, despite the ridiculous getup, reminded her that he was not only far stronger and in better shape than her, but also a professional with a reputation of, well, getting the job done. Any job.
“Took you long enough.” He tossed his cigarette into the empty corridor. “Thought you guys were in a hurry.”
She shrugged, annoyed. “Took the long route. Too many patrols.”
“Heh. Ain't that the truth. Fuckers are everywhere these days. Closing in on us too. Not long till we gotta move again. Might just buy a goddamn office building or something, in the civilized parts. Hide in plain sight.”
“You do know they spy on everyone 'round here, right?” She had weighed and discarded the same idea over a dozen times now. Yes, if you legally owned a building, they couldn't just round you up for loitering or some other bureaucratic bullshit. But being constantly surrounded by people who'd shoot you on sight if they knew who you really were, that was just asking for trouble. One slipup and they'd be right on your doorstep. In the Rubble you could at least see them coming.
He pulled out another cigarette. “We can't just hide in parks and ruins forever, you know? If they really want to, they'll find ya.”
She shrugged again. “They haven't so far. Anyway, you got it?”
A wide, confident grin. “Sure. But I'm still gonna take twenty percent extra. Express delivery and all.”
“Already taken care of.” She slipped him the small, bulging envelope.
“Good.” He lit the cigarette and turned to go.
“Hey, what about -”
“Already in your pocket, girl. See ya around.”
She searched her coat pockets while the man disappeared through a maintenance exit. Her left found a smooth, angular object. Whatever that was, it was not a flash drive. She turned to follow him, then changed her mind. If he'd intended to fuck with her, he could have just given her an empty drive. Better to just get out of here and let Annie sort it out.
On the way back – at least the rain had stopped, though she was still soaked to the bone and shivering – she couldn't help but wonder if the guy had been right. People like him and her had lived in the abandoned areas for as long as she could remember, long before she even knew of their existence – before the world knew – but things were getting more dicey by the day. Part of that, although she hated to admit it, was the squatters' fault. At first, most downtowners had been more than happy to get the homeless out of their streets and strip malls, and no one had given a rat's ass about a few of them settling in abandoned factories and warehouses. But some of these improvised shelters had, over time, grown into bustling villages, each with their own customs and rules. And one or two of these – she still wasn't sure, which ones exactly – had turned quite a profit supplying the upper class with less than legal goods and services.
It didn't take the downtowners long to retaliate. There hadn't even been much of a public debate. Laws were already in place, someone just needed to enforce them. Most of the settlements had been torn down, hundreds of squatters had been arrested, only to be released a few days later, the rest had scattered. Since then the Rubble had been plagued by more and more frequent – and increasingly brutal – police patrols.
Most of her people had kept their heads down, but there was always someone bitter or deranged enough to retaliate, naturally drawing even more attention and making everyone else's life just a little bit harder. It was plain, at least to any level-headed person, that they would not win this war. Most of their “abilities” were little more than parlor tricks, and even the most powerful “casters” had yet to invent a spell that could stop bullets. Of course it also didn't help that every single one of them was technically a murderer. So they kept hiding, just scraping by, along with everybody else who could or would not assimilate into mainstream society.