Although it controlled virtually all of Humanity, the Entente comprised a very small percentage of the population. This fractional population entrenched behind layers of bureaucracy protected by authoritarian, mercenary police quickly became the silent aristocracy of the New World Order. The accidental genius of the Entente was a corporate structure that discouraged marriage and children. This created a stable workforce that needed replacement at predictable intervals. With no or very few children to take legacy positions, able and motivated people who otherwise would agitate against the Entente were instead sought after to join its ranks and gain access to its privilege and security. Gaining admission therefore became the critical career goal of nearly every educated person on the globe. -Prof. Duncan, “The Histories”
Kerina gazed upon the world passing by as if she owned it. To be fair: in a strange, transitive way she sort of did. Kerina was on her way from Tijuana to San Francisco, THE city of the Entente. Even before the Orbital Rebellion the Frisco was a major hub of government, industry, education, culture, and activism. During the war it was one of the few major metropolises spared widespread devastation. With information being a premium in the new order and Frisco’s long established IT business community, it was only natural that the Entente would establish a serious presence there. Rather quickly a huge number of the bureaucracies that kept the day-to-day rhythms of the world predictable, safe, and stable moved their headquarters to the City by the Bay. Kerina had long stalked the SocMed pages of the celebrities and entertainers that lived or visited there. Even as a small child she would borrow other children’s netboxes just to look at the alluring vistas, vibrant nightlife, and entrancing cultural life of The Frisco. As long as she could remember she had wanted to live in this place where decadence and indulgence seemed to feed each other in an ever accelerating feedback loop.
Too bad for her that in the cold, filthy reality of her life she had been born into a family of poor, white hill trash in the Kentucky part of Appalachia. She was destined from birth to bear the illegitimate children of an alcoholic coal miner, if she were lucky. If she were unlucky, or at least typical, her life as a homemaker would be spent on welfare in a trailer while the fathers of her various children would be nowhere to be found. Her one advantage was that unlike most children where she lived she had two married parents and they owned the land on which they lived. True they were poor but they were also semi independent. And from that thin sliver of autonomy came a chance for Kerina to do something more with herself. At least until the war.
Her father had been one of those men that though poor and uneducated was blessed with common sense and an incredible toughness. America had been using men like her father to fight its wars since time immemorial. So when the Lunar Uprising became the War for the future of Humanity her father had been duly drafted and sent to space to bring the rebels to heel. On Lagrange 2 he had run into a commando squad captained by Barret Pilgrim and that, as they say, was that. Though widowed and impoverished her mother had tried to keep the family farm but the desperate measures needed to win the war and the partial collapse of the US government meant that by war’s end Kerina and her mother were refugees living in unfunded FEMA camps west of the Mississippi.
Despite this desperate circumstance there was one ray of sunshine. To keep those displaced and impoverished by the war happy the emerging political powers provided educational and employment benefits to the widows and orphans of soldiers who were KIA. Many people who tried the program found the conformity demands too great and dropped out to drift across the strange new post-war world. Kerina and her mother had just enough toughness and just enough need to stick it out and eventually Kerina had gotten an Entente approved secondary education. From here she found employment with a third party subcontractor doing welfare reviews in Northern Maine and Newfoundland. Her job was to slog through endless databases and double check that people weren’t cheating the system or being paid more than they should. The work was tedious and demoralizing as more than once she encountered people she had known during her impoverished childhood. The only thing that kept her going was the knowledge that if she were not on her side of the desk denying aid she would be on the other side begging for it.
After a few years of distinguishing herself in this role she found the next rung on the ladder and was promoted to an overseer position in Mexico City. Here she oversaw a team of five temp workers who were doing the job she had been doing in Maine. From there she got attached as a special consultant to the major Entente representative in Tijuana. After another year of playing secretary she had finally gotten the call she had been waiting for. The Frisco. She would enter the Entente at its absolute lowest rank, doing an even more menial job than what she had been doing all the way back in Maine, but she would be Entente. No more colored badges, special permissions, or clearance checks whenever she entered or left an office. Kerina was fitted with an ID chip in her left hand that would distinguish her from everyone else on the planet. She was real Entente in the city of the Entente. She was climbing the ladder.
As the Hyperloop sped northwards she let her gaze drift out the window at the seemingly endless stream of shacks, lean-tos, homeless camps, and dilapidated, abandoned farm houses. The poverty of her youth and the shame and deprivation that came with it never left her. She worked tirelessly to overcome her natural hillbilly accent and spent a great deal of her stipend to keep up with the fashion in clothes and hair styles. What she feared more than anything else was going back, becoming poor again. Her mother had died of cancer a few years ago and she had lost contact with any extended family during the refugee crisis during the war. She didn’t even use her real name. Her parents had named her Karen and her familial name was Harcourte. In the confusion caused by the war she had managed to change her name to Kerina Harkour when she enrolled in school. She did this in imitation of the Frisco celebrities she followed. Now she was surveying the life she had avoided as she sped on miraculous technology to a glittering city of prosperity and promise. No more so than this moment did she feel vindicated for draping herself in all the trappings of the Entente and its culture. No one would ever know where she came from, or who she really was. Kerina Harkour was Entente, she would always be Entente, and she would never want for anything again.
A few hours later the Hyperloop slid effortlessly into the station in downtown Frisco. The tube depressurized and the doors silently and elegantly slid open before Kerina. She stepped off the great loop and onto a great wide concrete platform that seemed to extended between all the great sky scrapers of downtown. The platform seemed to be a higher level of the ground with parks, benches, shops, and restaurants all at its level. One could not even see the real ground beneath it. Nor could she see any stairs or elevators that led downward.
Before she could really absorb the scene before her, her ID chip pinged her netbox and suddenly a person mixed in the crowd of people coming and going was highlighted in her vision. She turned to look at the person, about thirty meters away, and when she centered them in her vision bullet points with the person’s identity, role in the Entente, and relevance to Kerina were displayed. With a thought she dismissed the info aide in her netbox and returned to normal vision as she approached this contact.
“Hello,” She said extending a handshake, “So you’re Kal?”
“I sure am.” The man replied shaking her hand, “And it looks like you’re the white wizard from back east.”
“White Wizard?” She asked somewhat confused.
“You never heard that?” He asked as he led her away from the hyperloop and towards one of the towering sky scrapers, “It’s what your boss in TJ called you. Considering you’re white and because you always seemed to know how to navigate any bureaucratic snare.”
“Ha!” She laughed, “I never heard that one. So where are we headed?”
“First I’ll take you to your residence and show you how to enter and exit the building.” Kal said as they strode along, “Next I’ll take you to your workspace. The other people on your shift will be wrapping up when we get there and they’ll take over for me. It’s a good group of people. They’ll show you around and help you get a feel for the city.”
“Wow sounds great.” Kerina said, “Thank you.”
“All in a day’s work for an Orientation Liaison.” He replied, “You’re my third newbie today and I have two more after you, so I won’t be hanging around too long.”
“Well I appreciate your time anyway.” She replied.
At this Kal half sneered. After a strange moment he stopped walking and turned to Kerina, “Look, I appreciate that you’re trying to be polite and fit in, but things work differently here.” He said, “In the Frisco and especially amongst Entente Officers, like you, your down home charm and general courtesy will set you apart and make you seem untrustworthy to your peers. We don’t say thank you, because we have no one to thank. We are Entente. Everyone else thanks us.”
“For what?” Kerina asked a bit confused and dismayed.
“For saving the human race.” Kal replied flatly as he began walking again.
Kerina stood dazed for a moment then quickly followed after him. She remained quiet for a moment as she surveyed the area surrounding them. The platform really was a second ground level raised up she knew not how far above the rest of the city. The great seemingly infinite concrete slab was vast and while a good number of people were there it did not seem overly crowded. She had an odd feeling about the whole scene. There was something artificial and yet arrogant about this second level. She was especially dismayed by the lack of stairs or other means of descent. It was as though the people who lived above knew they were living in a falsehood, an artificial world with an artificial floor and they made no apologies for it. It was as though they were too good to even step foot on the surface of the planet, and they knew it.
“I do have one question…” She said after taking in the whole scene.
“The Entente Level?” Kal replied seeming to know her question, “A lot of people have trouble with that at first. But you’ll get used to it. The basics are that we’re about three stories above street level, depending on the surface terrain you’re on top of. It started out as a single walkway between the Entente Dormitories and the main office building. Pretty quickly it was expanded to provide security for officials.”
“Security?” Kerina asked.
“You’ll see soon enough.” Kal said. By now they were approaching the doors to one of the plainer looking skyscrapers. Its cold, brutalisk architecture gave no impressions, nor inspired no feelings. It was plain and utilitarian, utterly indifferent to human sensibilities. However the doors did have an awkward sense to them. They were large and imposing, but had obviously been cut into a higher floor of the building long after its initial construction. The craftsmen had done their best, but they could not totally conceal the sense of falsity and imperfection innate to such a later modification. “Here we are.” He said, “Go ahead grab the door handle. Kerina grabbed the door with her right hand and pulled. Nothing happened. Kal smiled knowingly as he said, “Try your left hand.” She reached out with her left hand and as soon as her hand touched the door it effortlessly swung open and a blast of cool, dry climate controlled air washed over Kerina like a soft fall breeze. “It’s keyed to your id chip.” Kal said as they entered, “Everything Entente level and up is keyed to your chip. If you turn on your chip vision you’ll get highlights and auto instructions on what to do and where to go almost anywhere in Entente areas.”
“Very convenient.” Kerina said as they walked down the hall. For the first time in her career she had misgivings about the Entente and her life as a privileged person. For a fleeting moment she felt more like a prisoner than social climber. Despite this she turned on her chip vision anyway. The world lit up with highlights and instructions. Bullet points appeared next to every person she looked at. For a moment she was slightly overwhelmed by all the information and began to feel a sudden and crippling sense of vertigo.
“That’s the all info default.” Kal said matter of factly as he paused in the hallway, “Try setting it to ‘bare minimum’ most people find that tolerable. Think ‘general settings’, ‘information displays’, ‘continuous updates’, ‘bare minimum’. That should do it.”
Kerina followed his instructions and suddenly the world stopped spinning. She still felt a slight disorientation, but it was much more bearable and she quickly adapted to this new stream of information. “Wow.” She said as they continued to the elevators, “I never knew my netbox could do so much.”
“That’s because you’ve never been somewhere where netboxes are fully activated. The nodes and servers that make all that info possible only work at short ranges in large UTP data dumps. The Frisco, parts of Shy-town, a few universities and some labs are the only places staffed entirely with full Entente resources. Everywhere else you’ve been has just been pretending to be Entente. Here is the real thing.” Kal said as they got in the elevator. Using her chip vision as a guide she was led through the great tall tower to her quarters, a twelve by eight studio apartment with attached bathroom and a kitchen nook that was comprised of a small refrigerator and a turbo convection cooker. Kal assured her she wouldn’t be cooking much food in her apartment, but that it was nice to have anyway. Kerina was put off by how small everything seemed but she had to admire how new, spotless, and sleek it all looked. Everything was of the latest fashion and manufacture. Metal door knobs and fixtures gleamed, polished to perfection. Counters were granite, not synthetic substitutes but real granite, wooden doors, shelves, and drawers had the heft of real, quality hardwoods. It was small but it was luxurious.
“Don’t worry about clothes or personal effects.” Kal said after their brief tour, “You’ve been signed up for auto replenish of both on a half-monthly basis. They’ll use your past consumption history to determine quantity and style. If you want to change either just rate the clothing and decorations you get in your personal preferences. If you want less you can do that too. Just decommit from whatever updates are on your list. It’ll be adjusted against your stipend.”
Kerina quickly checked her profile with her netbox, “Wow!” She said after a brief overview, “I’m already spending nearly ninety percent of my stipend each month! Just on necessities!”
“We were impressed when we saw that.” Kal replied, “It must be those frugal, spartan attitudes you learned back east.”
“Wait, ninety percent is frugal?” Kerina asked confused.
“Oh yeah.” Kal replied, “Most people max out their stipend on just clothes, hygiene or beauty products, and entertainment. Don’t worry, there’s a twenty percent credit overcharge allowance. Truth be told most people spend at about one hundred fifteen to one hundred seventeen percent of their stipend. Your thriftiness is pretty unusual.” A friendly, quiet ping echoed in Kal’s netbox, “Well, almost quitting time, we better get to your office so you can meet your team. How about you lead the way this time? Use your netbox cues to show me to your office.”
Kerina felt slightly nervous about this proposition but assented and called up the “find location: work” command in her netbox. Through her vision an illuminated path was superimposed on the floor and she began to follow it with Kal trailing behind her. The path led to the elevator but instead of going down, she was instructed to go up three floors. Trusting in the all knowing, all powerful Entente she did as she was told and when they got off the elevator the illuminated path led to an exterior door and a concrete sky bridge nearly twenty stories above the Entente level between her building and the neighboring office building. Crossing this walkway they entered the new building and then followed a twisting labyrinthine route through and endless sea of cubicles until the path terminated at a four person cubical. It was rectangular with the long sides being about twice as long as the short sides. One of the long sides was open to the walking area and a small shelf/desk ran along the other three walls. Three people were sitting at this desk staring at the cubicle walls in front of them. One sat at one of the short walls of the cube while two others populated the long section facing the wall. The other short end was empty. In the middle of the long section on the desk/shelf was a gray dome. The front of the dome had four lights on it, three green, one red.
“Here we are.” Kal said as Kerina took in the scene. “Try introducing yourself. Think ‘start secure connection’. At the prompt choose ‘assigned secure access point’.”
Kerina did just that and immediately her vision was overlaid with the on boarding programs of her new role. She found it hard to see both her virtual overlay and her real vision so she sat at the empty chair and turned her overlay opacity up to 100%. This solved her problem and she began to sort through the avalanche of digital messages waiting for her.
Seeing Kerina sit down and shift her focus to her virtual vision Kal considered his work done. “It looks like you’re catching on. Your team will help you figure it out from here. If you’ll excuse me I’ve got to get back to the Hyperloop platform.” Kal took his leave and left Kerina staring at the cubicle wall in silence.
The first task in her virtual planner was a prewritten introductory e-mail to her immediate team members. Kerina thought momentarily about drafting her own, more personal hello, but soon decided conformity, at least at first, was the best strategy. She sent off the message and a moment later the other three residents of the cube perked up and started talking.
“Hey, Souz!” the middle aged man sitting next to Kerina called out, “Looks like the new fish is here!”
“Not just any new fish,” Said the young Asian man sitting opposite Kerina on the other short wall, “The White Wizard herself!” He deactivated his netbox and spun around to look at Kerina. “Welcome to Box three-two-seven-one: Equity Distribution Fairness Outcome Allocation Arbitration! The good old E-D-F-O-A-A!”
“Oh, hey.” Kerina said turning off her virtual display and swiveling in her seat to face her cube mates. “It’s good to be here.”
“She says that now.” Said the middle-aged Indian woman, the third resident of the cube as she also turned off her virtual display and swiveled to face the others. “One week of these deadbeats pleading for money and she’ll be over it.”
“Ha!” Laughed the middle aged white man who sat closest to Kerina, “I bet she’ll deny all claims, get the apps to thank her for the denial, and get promoted out of here in three days.”
Kerina blushed slightly at the compliment. Instinctively she thought to thank this man, but remembered Kal’s advice about gratitude. Quickly she replied, “They may thank me for the denials,” She began, “But if there’s one thing I know about Bureaucracy is that you only get promoted if you’re sleeping with the boss.” The others laughed in that flat corporate way one laughs when it’s more habit and custom than actual humor. Still even this superficial acceptance made Kerina feel welcomed.
“Not just a wizard, but a comedian.” The Asian man replied, “I’m Sozuni, Souz for short, over here is Kapla, she’s been here for a while so don’t mess with her.”
“As if you could.” Kapla replied rolling her eyes.
“And finally this is Gerret.” Souz concluded gesturing at the paunchy, middle-aged balding man next to Kerina. “Gerret’s our resident frat-boy, but don’t hold it against him…” Souz began. Then leaning forward in his chair and holding a hand up to shield his mouth like you would see in a sitcom he fake-whispered, “He’s a vet.”
“Really?” Kerina said as she turned to look at Gerret, “Where’d you fight?”
“Here, there, everywhere.” the tubby balding man said. “It doesn’t really matter where I fought, I ended up here.”
“Right.” Kapla said as she blinked her eyes obviously checking something on her netbox. “Okay guys seventeen hours. Time to perform our Alms.”
“Oh yeah! Alms!” Gerret said jumping up out of his chair and hustling off to Kerina knew not where.
“My favorite time of the day.” Souz said as he also got up, “C’mon Kerry you’re gonna love this.”
As the others got up to leave Kerina stayed in her seat and asked, “Wait, what about my on boarding?”
“Phhhh.” Kapla scoffed, “That isn’t due until tomorrow at meridian. Besides, you won’t be assigned any real work for about a week anyway. C’mon!”
Not stopping to wait for their new co-worker Souz and Kapla strode off in some arbitrary direction. Fearing she may be left behind Kerina quickly got up and followed them. She quickly turned on her netbox and instructed it to sync destination and directions with Souz and Kapla. Following these directions, Kerina quickly caught up to her co-workers as they wove their way through the impenetrable maze of cubicles, conference rooms, and open working spaces, finally reaching the elevator. Gerret was already there waiting for them. He was holding two large canvass bags that sagged with the weight of their contents. They all wordlessly got into the next elevator to come to their floor. Although everyone was silent, they all wore the same, dark grin. Their smiles projected a sense of unfettered joy, but not the joy of a child on Christmas, no. Their smiles were the smiles of a sadist. They grinned liked someone who had grown so dull to the happiness of simple pleasure and were now addicted to pain. There was something unsettling in their faces. That strange, cautious fear that had been nagging Kerina since she arrived was growing. After a short moment marinating in this feeling she finally asked:
“So, what are Alms? Why is everyone so…happy?”
Gerret chuckled darkly before answering, “Oh, you’ll see. We don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
“Oh yeah.” Souz chimed in, “This is the best part of the week. Consider this a sort of initiation ritual. After this, you’ll be a full member of Cube three-two-seven-one!” The others’ smirks grew wider as they let out low, dark chuckles. After a eternity of waiting they came to the Entente level and exited the elevator. This floor was much more wide open with multiple exterior exits, though the post-facto modifications that made a higher floor look like the ground floor were still as readily apparent as in the other buildings. The group left through the door farthest from the elevator and immediately ran into a small crowd. The members of cube 3271 skimmed along the outer edge of the crowd until they came to a gap in the masses. Here they pressed forward and Kerina saw the focal point of the gathering. A Stairway! Actual Stairs leading down about three stories to the actual ground level. The gap in the platform was about thirty feet wide by about sixty feet long with a waist high guard railing ringing just about the entire hole. The first two stories of the stairs matched the width of the gap and came up to a landing about a story beneath the Entente level. In the corner of this generous landing was a steel reinforced, concrete guard house, large enough for only two people. The stairs that led from the guard house to the Entente level were narrow and only accessible through the guardhouse itself. Kerina was so shocked that there may actually be access to the ground that at first she didn’t notice the people on the landing.
“Here it is.” Gerret said, “Time for our Alms.”
At this remark Kerina finally took note of the people assembled on the lower level. There were masses of them. The landing was packed to the brim with dirty, sullen, malnourished looking people. Even the stairway leading up to the landing was jammed full. Kerina also noticed that the overwhelming majority of these sad, desperate looking people wen men. Sure a few old women with graying hair, slouched shoulders and ragged clothes were there, but nine out ten were men of all ages and ancestries. The forgotten cast offs for whom no discernible purpose could be found.
After taking in the full scene, Kerina finally asked, “So what are we doing here?”
“Feeding the poor.” Kapla replied flatly and without a hint of sarcasm or irony. “Gerret, what do we have this week?”
“Oh, it’s good!” Gerret said opening the large canvass bag, “Let’s see…we’ve got some old salad, nice and wilted and greasy from some old dressing. We’ve got some old sandwiches, some half drunk nutrition shakes…oh, and my favorite! Someone left some old hard boiled eggs in the break fridge! They’re nice and sulfury!”
“Oh man is it going to be a good one!” Souz exclaimed, “Dibbs on the eggs!”
“Nah, nah! I found them, I get to chuck them!” Gerret replied.
“Hold on, boys.” Kapla replied, “Give the eggs to Kerina. Consider it a welcome aboard present.” Both Gerret and Souz smiled cruelly as Gerret took the plastic container of old, stinky eggs out of the bag and handed them to Kerina.
“Here you go, newbie!” He said, “Get ready it’s almost time.” Kerina had barely accepted the container of spoiled food when she heard a loud siren blaring. It was a loud, sharp, high pitched caterwaul that repeated three times. As soon as the third screech ended the crowd on the Entente level began pitching their spoiled food at the mass of sad, dirty people gathered on the stairs below. The food bombardment came with it’s own cacophony. Not just the sound of hundreds of people throwing food, but also the sound of the Ententes yelling at the poor sods they were abusing.
Came the shouts. Kapla who up until now had been curt and frugal with her verbiage screamed like a banshee as though her words were a great reservoir of anger and frustration and now, during her Alms, the flood gates were opened. Kerina stood dumb unable to believe what she was seeing. She was frozen in uncertainty and panic unable to even assess what was happening let alone make a conscious decision. As their edible ammunition was almost spent Souz noticed that Kerina had yet to join in.
“C’mon, Newbie!” He shouted, “What’s the matter? Just chuck it!”
Suddenly Kerina felt fear. Fear that she would not be accepted by her team, fear that she would not fit in in the Entente. Fear that being other would set her on the path to becoming like the desperate wretches on the platform below them. Without thought or consideration she tore the top off of the container and grabbed an egg. Then with as much force as she could muster she winged the sulfurous grenade into the mass below. The egg struck an elderly man on the side of the face and splattered into a odorous, wet mess that smeared his face and beard.
“Ha, ha!” Kapla exclaimed in sadistic joy, “Great shot! Do another! Try shouting this time.”
With more confidence and a greater sense of participation Kerina grabbed another egg and threw it. This time shouting the same cruelties she had just heard at the poor men below. Suddenly her sense of fear had left her, swept away by a new rush of sensation: power. For the first time in her life Kerina felt certain she was better than others. For the first time she could look down on someone and know concretely and without doubt that she was more of a person than them. And she found it intoxicating.
Soon enough the ritual was over and Kerina stood panting and flushed along with her coworkers, and everyone else on the Entente level, basking in the aftermath of power.
“Oh man,” Gerret said exhaling with a sense of satiation, “That really makes the whole week worth it.”
“You’re telling me.” Souz said, “Really helps put life into perspective.”
“We do this every week?” Kerina asked in between deep breathes.
“Yes.” Kapla replied, “Day three is our teams turn. Each working group is assigned a day to perform Alms. There’s a crowd out here just about every day.”
“Wow.” Kerina said, “Every day?”
“Yeah.” Gerret replied as the exhilaration of the experience began to fade, “But you really shouldn’t come out unless it’s your day. People don’t like it. Anyway…” He said looking into space as he activated his netbox, “Eighteen hours, who wants a drink?”
The nightclub glittered like a Versailles ball room. The vast space was filled with a luxury and decadence that would have made the Sun King weep. The adornments though post-modern and minimalist somehow still conveyed a sense of wealth and status Kerina had never seen before. The whole fifty-fifth floor of her residence building had been converted into a giant night club, complete with several hot tubs, game tables, and a dance floor. Here the employees of the Entente came to unwind after a long, dull day filled with endless drudgery and meaningless repetition. Here the repetition was endless diversion. The drudgery was finding your next hit of dopamine. The sterile, orthodox, conformist machine that was her office space was complemented by a safe-space for true Bacchanalia. She could not help but be astounded.
Her working group had taken up seats at a low crescent-shaped couch with an even lower half-moon coffee table to rest their drinks on. Everything was top shelf, or at least looked top shelf, and they were waited on hand and foot by young and attractive men and women who scurried about ceaselessly like ants. Kerina noticed immediately that while Souz and Gerret were merely rudely indifferent to their waitresses, Kapla was outright hostile. Chastising them for being slow, incompetent, or stupid. Kerina also noticed that not one of their servers ever made a mistake, or that they had to wait more than a moment or two for a refill. She also had her bar tab and current allowance balance up in her netbox so she could track her spending. She noticed how quickly the remaining allowance diminished, how exorbitantly expensive the drinks were. She thought for a moment on how to ask the question on her mind, how with such expensive entertainment they didn’t all end up broke or indebted to the Entente. Again her instincts told her that just asking a plain and simple questions with real world application, being honest, might be the wrong thing to do. So instead she took a round about path.
“So do we do this every night?” She asked during a lull in the conversation.
“Nah, only after Alms.” Souz replied, “Unless you’re Kapla. She’s a supervisor class resource so she gets a boosted entertainment budget. Work hard, play hard! Right Kapla?”
“Run down the stairs, you obsequious Beta.” Kapla replied venomously. There was something carnivorous about her. Something truly predatory and competitive that made Kerina feel uneasy. She also didn’t understand the “Run down the stairs” idiom. Rather than ask aloud, fearful they would judge her for asking an obvious question, she did a search of the term in her netbox. To her surprise there was an answer. “the stairs” was a reference to the stairs that led down to the surface level, the place where they had just pelted those poor wretches with spoiled food. Telling Souz to “run down the stairs” was Entente slang for instructing him to perform a lewd sexual act on himself.
For his part Souz just laughed. “Good ol’ Kapla.” he said, “I love working for you.”
“Whatever.” She said flatly and looked away to the dance floor. Something about the exchange triggered a need in Kerina. She felt that if she didn’t do something to assert herself, now, she would end up castrated and beaten into obsequiousness like Souz and Gerret. She hadn’t fought her way through the camps and the drudgery and survived all manner of mistreatment by her previous bosses just to end up cowed in an entry level job. She was here to climb the ladder.
Just then she saw a waitress passing by and she seized her chance. “Hey, you, ant!” She called out with cruel command, “Where’s my next drink?” The waitress froze in shock, a hint of terror in her eyes. She opened her mouth to reply but the Medusa’s stare Kerina was giving her forced her to close her mouth without saying a word. Promptly the waitress hustled off to the bar to replenish Kerina’s drink. “And don’t let you fat-ass slow you down, bitch!” Kerina hollered after her as the poor girl ran off.
“Whoa, ho ho!” Souz said in that suckling sycophantic tone that crept into his voice whenever he spoke to a woman, “What a spark plug!”
“Uh-huh.” Kerina said turning her eyes away and acting as though she had not heard him.
Gerret gave her a quiet look of respect and then said, “You know you’re a pretty impressive girl.”
“More impressive than you’ll ever know, fat ass.” Kerina snapped back.
At this remark Souz and Gerret sat back astounded but also impressed, ohing and awing at the bull terrier that had just joined their team. Even Kapla’s eyebrows went up a little in surprise. Out of her peripheral vision Kerina caught Kapla giving her a once over, reassessing the “White Witch”, perhaps favorably. Kerina thought to press her advantage.
“What?” She asked with playful, feigned surprise. “Oh yes, we’re supposed to show respect to our veterans.” She then turned to Gerret, “I shouldn’t have said that…tubby. Thanks again for hiding in the corner and crying to avoid being killed by real men like Barret Pilgrim.”
At this the men practically exploded. They laughed furiously each of them trying to show more approval than the other. After a few moments of sycophancy Souz drained what was left of his drink. Then setting it on the table he said, “Well that’s enough entertainment for me for a whole month. See you guys tomorrow.” He then got up and left.
Gerret, still smiling, looked into his glass painfully for a moment as he swirled the last of its contents. Then he too downed his drink and set it down. “I think I’ll go get my own refill.” He said looking at Kapla and Kerina, “I’ll let you two have some ‘girl talk’.” Then he too got up and left.
The waitress returned with Kerina’s next drink and gingerly, deferentially handed it to her. She then took her leave as well. Once alone Kapla looked up at Kerina with approval, a certain pride that Kerina had not seen before. Then Kapla said, “You’ve got good instincts.”
“Thanks.” Kerina replied, finally feeling secure enough to offer real gratitude.
“But be careful. Good snipers turn battles, but they don’t win the war. If you want to get ahead here you have to be mean and good. That’s what I told the last girl and she was out and up in less than six months.”
“That quick?” Kerina asked, “Do you think I could do the same?”
“Sure.” Kapla said, “If you work hard enough.” She took a healthy pull of her drink then went on. “Just two more warnings. First: You stay the HELL away from my job. I’m in a good spot and I’m going to enjoy coasting here until I get retired. Second: Keep and eye out for Gerret. He’s…weird.”
“Weird?” Kerina asked, “Weird how?”
“For example,” Kapla said, “When he gets back from the bar he’s going to proposition you.”
“Oh.” Kerina said, “So he’s a pervert.”
“Not exactly.” Kapla replied, “He is a pervert, but that’s not all. It’s just—well—there’s something not right about him. Keep and eye on him and don’t underestimate him. He plays at being a docile, loyal dog like he’s supposed to be, but he’ll bite the hand that feeds him just to watch it bleed.”
“Huh.” Kerina said trying to process what she’d just heard. Before she could ask another question Kapla finished her drink then discretely took a small pink pill out of one of her pocket and swallowed it.
“That’s enough talk for today.” She said, “Now I’m going to dance!” With that she was off to one of the dance floors, moving and swaying to the thudding electronic beat with a fluidity and sexuality that Kerina found unbelievable. Kerina watched her sashay away towards the dance floor. When she got there, Kapla grabbed a young man that looked twenty-five years her junior and the two disappeared into the rolling, vibrating mass of Dionysian splendor.
Kerina sat and thought for a moment. She sipped her drink and carefully went through the events of the day. It was a lot to process, especially emotionally. She had serious misgivings about how she was acting. Something just did not feel right. But when the thought of walking away came to her she shuddered. Right away she snapped back. That fear of poverty, of obscurity welled up inside her like a rushing storm. No, she wasn’t going back, never, never. She looked about at the festival around her. She had arrived, she told herself. And she was going to keep climbing.
Soon after Gerret returned from the bar with two drinks. He set one down in front of her. “I got you a refill.” he said, “Don’t worry I put it on my tab.”
“Whatever.” Kerina said turning away. She could see the intention on Gerret’s face as he sat down. Kapla was right. He was going to try and seduce her. Best to slam the door hard and fast, she thought. Go right at it and leave no doubt in his mind.
“So, what have you got planned for your first night in the city?” he asked.
“Just stop, Gerret.” Kerina replied, “You’re not my type, you’re too old, too fat, too bald, and there aren’t enough drugs in the universe to make me sleep with you.”
“Oh, well, I mean…” He stammered out, searching for a reply.
“And what’s more,” She said sternly, “I’m not playing hard to get and I’m not a dominatrix. So whatever retarded bullshit you’re cooking up in your head, forget it. If you even look at me sideways again I’ll slap you with a harassment complaint so fast your head won’t stop spinning until you’re on the surface level getting pelted with old salad.”
Gerret sat dumbfounded for a moment. He seemed genuinely surprised by Kerina’s forceful confidence. She could see the the desires rise up in him automatically the way they do in all men when initially rebuffed. Then, taking her warning to heart, his look changed. Now there was something cruel and indifferent in his eyes. Now she saw that hidden menace that made him truly Entente.
“Sorry.” He said, “I had to ask.” He then swallowed his fresh drink in one gulp and tossed the empty glass to the other end of the couch. “Let me do you a favor to make up for it.” he said standing up. He then nodded his head at the bar, “I ran into a young man who might be your type. He’s hanging out at the bar. He was asking about you. You might want to go say hello.”
Kerina looked over to where Gerret had gestured and saw a young man in a stylish black suit leaning casually against the bar. He wore a black, skin-tight shirt in the most current fashion with immaculate, stylish black shoes. He was movie-star handsome. He was young, fit, and carried that indifferent gaze of confidence all the most desirable men have when they know they are the most desirable. Kerina was mystified. The man noticed her looking at him and he smiled invitingly.
Gerret saw them exchange glances and smiled knowingly. “Looks like he’s interested.” Gerret said, “Well I’ll leave you to it.” Gerret then left.
Kerina returned the man’s smile. She picked up the drink Gerret had left her and got up to go say hello to this mysteriously inviting stranger. On the way to the bar she began drinking the drink. She met the man at the bar and casually, but confidently said, “Hey.”
“Hey.” He said back in that cool, suave way only some men can.
Kerina smiled and took another drink. After that she didn’t remember anything.
She woke up with a jolt, bolting straight up. Immediately her head began pounding and she curled forward in pain with no idea of what had happened. She grabbed her head in agony and groaned loudly. After the pounding in her skull subsided to a dull, persistent throbbing she looked around and realized: she was not in her apartment. She was in the sanctuary hall of an old dilapidated church. The pews had been removed and replaced with old, filthy mattresses strewn about the floor in a haphazard fashion. Homeless people, mostly men of a filthy and disheveled state occupied the various mattresses. Kerina was terrified. She immediately called up her netbox to get directions home.
- Initiate path, home. She thought. Nothing. DIRECTIONS HOME! She mentally screamed. Silence. She heard back nothing but silence. Then she noticed that the minimum info display that had overlaid her vision was gone. She ran her hand behind her right ear. When her fingers passed over where her netbox was supposed to be she felt a ragged puss-filled scar. As soon as her fingers touched it she winced in pain. She waited a moment then more gingerly inspected the scar with her fingers. Nothing, it was just and ugly lump of diseased flesh. She then looked at her left hand. There in the webbing between her left index finger and thumb was a star shaped scar that had not fully closed and looked as though it were about to start bleeding again.
Oh no. She thought. Terror, abject holy terror filled her as she realized what had happened. Someone had rather clumsily and aggressively removed her netbox and ID chip. Everything that was her, or at least her in the Entente, was gone. She was alone, lost, and very, very afraid.
She took a better look at the other people in the room. Most were men and the few women were much older and in just as bad a shape as the others. They all wore mismatched, baggy, and torn clothing. Most were asleep and many tossed and turned as though in the throws of drug withdrawal. The few conscious residents were either rocking back and forth or swaying in strange ways talking to themselves. Junkies and schizos, all homeless. Meanwhile she was relatively clean and well dressed. She was wearing the professional pants suit she had been wearing the day before. It was elegantly cut with a stylish half-button down blouse and brand enw designer shoes. Here she was noticeably and dangerously out of place. As her fear and anxiety began to crescendo she noticed a man on the other side of the room. He was sitting on a mattress and looked fifteen to twenty years older than Kerina. He had an unkempt beard and hair that had been growing for who knew how long. He wasn’t swaying or talking to himself, nor was he gripped with the pains of withdrawal. He was sitting stark still like a statue and staring at Kerina with piercing unblinking eyes. There was something in his gaze that told Kerina he was not mentally well, not by a long shot. Seeing him she became even more terrified but in a more immediate way. She didn’t know where she was or where to go, but she knew she had to get away from that man as quickly as she could.
She got up and hastily looked around her. The only personal possessions she still had were her clothes. None of the refuse and discarded items on or around the mattress belonged to her. After this quick assessment she hastily looked around for an exit and started to leave. The whole time trying desperately to avoid the gaze of the strange man staring at her. She saw what was probably a door to the outside and headed for it. As she opened the door to leave she could feel the man’s gaze following her. Outside on the street the world was dim and dirty. About three stories above was a thick concrete slab that covered the whole sky. The streets were strewn with broken down cars, trash, and homeless people piled one on top of the other pressed up against the walls of buildings and in alley ways. She could not tell which ones were dead and which were alive. The whole world stunk of feces and urine. Used needles, broken glass pipes, and all other manner of drug paraphernalia were mixed in with the people and the trash. Large, fearless rats ran wild while a handful of street lights flickered desperately, offering the most minimal amount of illumination.
- She was on the street level. I’ve been robbed! She thought. Worse! They’ve stolen my netbox and my id chip. Then they dumped on the STREET LEVEL! For a moment her mind stood still, trying to assimilate her new situation. She thought back to the previous night. She couldn’t remember anything. I was all just images and vague sensations. She remembered a sense of helplessness, trying to scream but no noise coming out. She remembered pain, great pain, and being unable to do anything about it. She thought hard and finally an image came into her mind. In her mind’s eye she saw the sharply dressed, handsome man at the Entente bar. His name? What was his name? She couldn’t remember. All she could remember was saying hello to him and drinking…
The drink! It was the drink that Gerret had given her! It was–
Her thoughts halted as she realized what had happened. The handsome man at the bar must have been some kind of criminal. He must have been some go between that lured Entente women somewhere to take their Netboxes and ID chips, some black market way of hacking into the Entente systems. But if he was a criminal that meant…
That meant that Gerret must have been part of it. He must have drugged her. Kapla had warned her about him. She had flat out told her to watch him carefully, and yet she took the drink he offered anyway. What was she thinking? She hadn’t been. Flush with victory and bravado in the war of words she hadn’t even considered he would assault her this way. How could she have been so stupid?
She wasted a few seconds on self pity and self flagellation. After a brief moment she pulled herself together. There was nothing to be gained through anger or grief. She had a problem and she needed to solve it. When she was back in her apartment, when she was safe on the Entente level again, then she would get angry. And then she would teach Gerret the full meaning of vengeance. First she had to get out of here. She quickly surveyed the street as far as she could see in any direction. To her right, far off and feint, she could see what may be actual daylight. She decided it was her only logical option.
She walked down the steps of the old church and into the street itself. The sidewalks were far to cluttered with people and refuse. As she walked she strode boldly, her head held up high, her posture confident, and her gate purposeful. She walked as though she owned the place, which in a way she did. After all she was Entente. Her self assured, aristocratic march lasted only about a block. As she walked in that purposeful way she felt eyes attracted to her. All around her she could sense the helpless refuse of humanity noticing her. Rather quickly her privileged confidence eroded and was replaced with a swell of anxious vulnerability. At the end of the first block she felt the hair on the back of her neck stick up and an intuitive swell of fear seize her. Unconsciously she turned her head to look back at the old church and saw the strange, terrifying man with unblinking eyes standing in the doorway of the church staring at her, still gazing in that off-balance and unsettling way.
Kerina quickly turned her eyes away and looked around. She saw an alleyway that offered a good deal of concealment and quickly ducked into it to get out of sight, if only temporarily. Her heart was beating quickly and a cold sweat had accumulated on her forehead. She sat on the dirty ground and curled up against the wall. She breathed deeply for a few minutes as she grappled with the fear seizing her.
Don’t lose your head. She thought. This is just like the camps when you were a kid. You’ve been here before. You can do this. But no matter the mantras she repeated to herself she knew this was not like the camps. Though they could get bad, and though she was a young child, there were important differences. In the camps people had some hope of a less desperate future, and some access to food and water that kept their animal instincts from taking over. Also she had her mother as well as one or two good Samaritan men who mostly shielded her from the worst of camp life. Here there was none of that. Here she was on her own, desperately out-gunned, and impossibly out-numbered. Quickly she came to an idea and began searching the alley. In the dark it was difficult to see but eventually she found two dead homeless people. She stripped them of their outter garments, a baggy shirt, pants meant for a much fatter man, a baggy overcoat and a well used, disgustingly dirty knit cap. She quickly put on these concealing garments. Then she very carefully peaked out of the alley. The strange man with the terrifying stare was standing on a corner a little farther along the street looking around. He did not see her. She very slowly and carefully slipped out of the alley and began walking towards the day light. This time she stayed on the side walk. Her walk was also slightly shuffling and she remained hunched over. She did her best to blend in with the rest of the dying and suffering. It seemed to work. In a few minutes that felt like eternity she had passed the frightening man and he seemed not to notice her. When she had gone a block past him she let out a silent sigh of relief.
The rest of the walk took a long time. She remained disciplined and was always attentive to her camouflage, never allowing the excitement of anticipation, or even a sense of security get the best of her. No, she stuck to the plan. And the plan was going to work, it had to work. She kept telling herself. But she knew the truth: There was no plan. She was shambling in an arbitrary direction hoping to find something. The uncertainty, the constant mental focus to keep up her disguise, the constant vigilance scanning her surrounding for threats, and all of it, all the mental effort for what? She didn’t know. It was exhausting mentally and emotionally. She was so depleted that when her plan did bear the smallest and most bitter of fruit she did not notice it at first.
After a long time shuffling through the dilapidated streets strewn with the discarded, unnecessary people of the Entente’s brave new world she finally found what she was looking for. In the short time she had been down there her eyes had grown accustomed to the dim and dangerous darkness of the street. Then suddenly she recoiled from a painful sensation just ahead of her. Some invisible force was stabbing her in the eyes. Instinctively she raised her right hand to shield her eyes from the discomfort. Then she realized what it was. It was daylight! Daylight! She had been right. Up ahead there was a stairway that lead to the Entente level. She almost burst into a run, but after one exuberant step she remembered her disguise and returned to her slow, deliberate shuffling. In what felt like a very short time she had reached the steps and began climbing them. They rose about two thirds of the way to the Entente level. The giant rectangular hole in the concrete ceiling of the street became a shining beacon. A great and beautiful portal that would whisk her from the confines of this dreary, hellish dream and redeposit her where she belonged. Safe, secured, and spoiled in her luxury apartment with her safe, boring job. She would have her life back. She felt her heart soar at the very idea and as she climbed the steps she could feel salvation in her bones.
Only it was not to be.
When she got to the top of the stairs she realized she was still about fifteen feet below the Entente level. Other than the sky overhead she could see nothing of the world above. The platform she was on was wide and rectangular and almost the same size as the gap in the ceiling. A handful of the same dirty, diseased, drug addicted homeless were scattered about the platform. As she looked around she saw a small trickle of people also ascending the stairs and staking out positions on the platform. On the far side was a double layered steel mesh fence with razor wire strung along spokes that projected towards the open platform. One end of the fence terminated at a concrete bunker with a small window and a heavy steel door with no exterior door knob. Behind the fence and the bunker was a narrow stairwell that led up to the Entente level towards salvation. She walked across the platform towards the guard house. This time she strode tall and confidently. She was so close to getting her life back. So close to ending this terrible if brief ordeal that she no longer feared being noticed. Kerina traversed the platform in an instant and began rapping forcefully on the steel shudders of the guardhouse window.
She Knocked again somewhat more forcefully.
Now she began hammering the steel shudders continuously as hard as she could. She wailed away on the guardhouse window for a solid three minutes wondering if anyone was even inside the guard shack. Finally the steel shudders rolled up and a young man in a black Entente Security Uniform appeared behind the solid, three inch thick plexiglass window.
“I-m–” Kerina began but the guard cut her off.
“Alms are in an hour and half.” He bluntly scoffed and rolled the window down again.
Kerina stood dumbfounded. After a moment of shock she began hammering the window again. Again the shudders rolled up and the same young man with a cruel demeanor appeared before her. “Alms are at seventeen hours, like usual. Knock again and you’re getting volts.” The shudders clanged shut once more. Now more furious than confused Kerina began banging on the shudders with both hands. Instantly a powerful shock of electricity emanated from the shudders. Kerina was paralyzed for an instant, every muscle in her body seizing in involuntary convulsions. Then the seizing voltage ceased and Kerina collapsed to the ground in a heap. It took her a few minutes to catch her breath and recover from the disorienting sensation. Slowly she came to her knees and tried to stand up but her legs were still unstable and her body would spasm involuntarily in small, unpredictable ways. Using the mesh fence for support she pulled herself up to a slouch and hobbled away from the guard house. She found a corner of the platform and resolved to try again after the Alms. She just needed some time to catch her breath.
Over the next hour and half the platform began to fill up. The human debris of the streets slowly trickled onto the platform. First in ones and twos, then five at a time, then ten, and eventually so many had pushed onto the platform that Kerina was forced to stand up and was nearly crushed against corner she had claimed by the shear mass of humanity crowding onto the platform. Her anxiety and claustrophobia began to rise and she was sure that some of the men crowded in around her had seen through her disheveled disguise and were using the crowded, jostling mob to steal gropes of her breasts, buttocks and even her privates. She turned her back to the mob and let herself be crammed into the corner. After this the groping mostly ceased. In the humid fog of the mob she had lost track of time and the claustrophobia had so heightened her anxiety that she had forgotten what she was even doing there. All she cared about was survival. At the height of her fear and confusion she suddenly heard a loud, blaring electronic siren. It sounded three times. For a brief moment the world stopped turning and all was still. Given a moment to breath, Kerina suddenly remember. Alms. She thought. It’s time for Alms.
Then the silence erupted into a cacophony. She looked up to see the crowd of clean, trim, and well dressed Entente ringing the edge of the gap in the ceiling. They began shouting obscenities and insults at her while all manner of rotten food descended at high velocity upon her and everyone on the platform. The homeless mass on the platform began trying to pluck it out of the air, or grab bits of it that fell on people or the ground. They fought each other for scraps of spoiled garbage, screaming, punching, kicking, and biting each other. It was bedlam. Kerina could do nothing except cover herself with her arms and hide in the corner.
The street brawl lasted for about five minutes, though it felt like a whole day. Kerina was tossed about, crushed against the wall, and knocked down several times. The last time a rotten banana had landed on her head and smashed into a paste. An old woman near Kerina in the crowd had seen it and grabbed Kerina by the collar of her over sized hobo coat and thrown her down. The crazy old woman then began to eat the spoiled banana off her hat. Then a large man saw this and kicked the old woman in the head, knocking her out before scooping up the remains of the banana and eating it himself. This time Kerina resolved to curl up in the fetal position and hope for the best. Finally the storm abated and slowly the din of battle faded. When things had mostly quieted down Kerina slowly uncurled form the fetal position and found herself on her hands and knees amid a pile of debris. Rotten food, torn clothing, blood, even some teeth were scattered across the platform like the aftermath of an ancient battle. She herself was covered in all kinds of disgusting fluid and rotten food. She couldn’t even begin to figure out what any of it was. The platform was mostly deserted. There were a handful of old women shifting through the refuse trying to find something, anything to eat and a few of the more mentally unwell men were fighting with each other over scraps of clothing, but mostly the people had left.
She struggled to her feet, every inch of her sore and bruised. Again using the fence to brace herself she limped back to the guard station. When she got to the window she began softly knocking on the shudders. Again there was no reply. She knocked again and then began pleading.
“Please!” She moaned, “Please help me! I’m Entente! I’ve been robbed! Please!”
The shudders slowly rolled open and the same mean looking young man from earlier was staring back at her with a quizzical look. He stared at her, disheveled and covered in rotting food for a long moment. Finally he asked, “You’re Entente?”
“Yes!” Kerina said desperately, “Look!” She pulled off her disguise to reveal the sleek, if slightly worn professional suit she had been wearing since the day before. Her hair and face were still messy from the alms, but her Hobo disguise had shielded her clothes from becoming soiled. “My name is Kerina Harkour. Entente Ident number four-five-seven-A-T-D-four-eight-eight. Yesterday I started with work group three-two-seven-one.”
The guard looked at her for a moment. Then his eyes glossed over and Kerina could see he was searching for her in the universal Entente database. His eyes flickered left and right, not seeing anything in front of him, immersed in the virtual space of his netbox. Then he recoiled with a start, genuinely surprised that she had been telling the truth. After he blinked his confusion away he said, “How the hell did you end up out there?”
“I don’t know.” She said, “I was drugged last night. Someone drugged me and removed my netbox and ID chip.” She showed the man the scar on her hand and pulled back her hair to reveal the scar behind her ear. The man looked frightfully nervous when confronted with this evidence. “Ah man.” He said, “I’m new. I don’t know how to deal with this. Wait a minute.” His eyes glazed over again and he said, “Hey, Cap, can you come down to the bunker? I got something you need to see.” He returned his attention to Kerina. “My boss is on his way. He’ll figure it out.”
“Thank you.” Kerina said, genuinely grateful. Then they waited. Again time moved slowly, too slowly. Kerina could feel salvation in her bones. She knew it. In her excitement her mind wandered, planning how to get back at Gerret. Resolving to find the sleek looking man who had stolen from her. Joy at redemption triggered a supreme sense of righteous vengeance that somehow sent her joyous anticipation soaring even higher. In a short time an aging man, gray haired with concrete features, dressed in a more officious looking Entente security uniform descended the stairs. He entered the back of the guard house and soon appeared at the window.
“What the fuck?” He asked gruffly. There was an impatience in his voice that he didn’t bother to hide.
“Cap,” Said the young man, “Check it out. She’s Entente. Look at her clothes, she’s got scars. It looks like she got spiked.”
“What?” The old man asked turning his attention to Kerina.
“Look!” Said the young man urgently. Kerina came right up to the window and showed the man her scars. She then stepped back and said, “Seriously, are any of these hobos dressed like this?” She asked gesturing to her clothes, “I’m Kerina Harkour. I just arrived in the city yesterday and last night someone drugged me and stole my netbox and ID chip. My entente Identifier is four-five-seven-A-T-D-four-eight-eight. Look me up.” The old man looked at her suspiciously. His brow furrowed and his eyes cast shadows of doubt towards Kerina. Dutifully though his eyes glazed over and he began searching for her. After a moment of looking his eyes returned to normal and he let out a great, giant belly laugh. Though there was genuine mirth in the tenor of his laugh, there was something more cynical and cruel underneath. This terrified Kerina.
The old man then turned to the young guard, “You dumb fuck!” He chortled, “She spiked herself! It’s the oldest con on the streets! Look! Kerina Harkour is five-ten, dark hair, and she’s Latin-x-indigenous! Didn’t you bother looking at her picture!”
“What!” Kerina and the guard exclaimed at once.
Ignoring Kerina Cap replied only to his guard, “Look, sometimes those bozos in the towers get too careless and someone down here gets their hands on an ID number. Then they stab themselves to make it look like they got robbed. She got those old clothes from some dealer, scarred herself, and thought she could run a scam on your dumb ass.” By now his laughter had abated to a small chuckle.
“Cap, I–” The young man stammered.
“Hey, it’s Okay, kid.” The old man replied, “You did the right thing. Now you know.”
“Wait!” Kerina exclaimed slamming against the window, “Please! I was robbed! I’m Entente, Please help!”
“Fuck off.” The old man said as his arm reached out towards something beneath the window. Suddenly Kerina was jolted again. This time much worse than before. The pain seared every nerve in her body and she involuntarily arched in a grotesque and terrifying position. She stayed that way for far too long. So long that she didn’t even feel the pain anymore. She just wanted her muscles to stop contracting and to feel, well, anything again. After an eternity the shock ceased and she collapsed in a heap, unconscious.
When she came to she was lying on the platform where she had fallen. She was lying on her back and as her eyes blinked back to consciousness she saw that the sky visible through the gap in the ceiling had darkened to a subtle twilight.
“Ughhh.” She grunted rolling over to her belly and beginning to get up. How long was I out? She thought. When she got to her feet she quickly assessed her situation. Her hair had come undone and was frayed in manic, Einstein curls. Also she felt cold, and wet. Her feet especially were very cold and very wet, almost as if–
She looked down to see that she was barefoot. Not just barefoot, but without pants either! Her suit jacket and slacks had been stolen as had her new designer shoes. Her stylish a half button down blouse had been ripped at few of the seems and all the buttons torn off. There she stood in her underwear, half naked, cold, wet, and stunned. She turned to the guard house window and extended a hand to knock one last time. But as her knuckles approached the steel of the shudders she paused. A great fear of the electrical shock had overcome her. The memory of the pain stopped her cold. For a moment her courage welled up inside her, determined to sort this out, to get back, but she couldn’t force herself to knock again. She backed slowly away from the guard house. Once she felt she was far enough away that she need not fear another shock she turned to leave the platform. Her arms curled around her waist to try and preserve some body heat, but in the gathering twilight she was cold, wet, hungry, and very, very alone. The descent down the stairs back to the street was brief, but harrowing. In her disguise she could roughly blend in and go mostly unnoticed. Now, half naked cold and wet she stood out. All down the steps she could feel eyes on her. Sizing her up, gauging her weakness, her vulnerability. Simultaneously she couldn’t bring herself to look at anyone. She was anxious, vulnerable, uncertain, and it showed terribly. When she finally made it to the street darkness was descending and the murky, dim conditions of street level became some unreal world, as though she had entered the underworld of Greek myth. She didn’t know what to do next. She had only come down to street level out of some animal instinct to go to ground. Her trance was interrupted by a strange, gruff voice coming from nearby shadows.
“You.” Came the strange, coarse voice, “I seen you.”
She looked in the direction of the speaker and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she could make him out. It was the psychotic stranger who had followed her out of the church. Now fear seized her mind and body and she felt as though she were receiving a third electric shock. Her heart began to race and her body flushed with adrenaline. Yet her fight or flight was broken. She knew not what to do.
“Yeah.” The man said walking towards her with the strange, off kilter gate that only the truly psychotic can manage, “You pretty. I like you.” He said as he approached. The other refuse of the streets perked up a little bit. Once drowsing and disinterested homeless now looked up. They might get to witness a rape, which in the filthy futility of the streets was about as much entertainment as one could get. Not one of them stood to intervene. “Valentine, valentine.” The man mumbled coming closer, “Bee mine, valentine. I like candy. You pretty, you like flowers? Flower’s is pretty. I get flowers.” There was something seriously disconnected in the man that froze Kerina. She felt like a mouse staring into the eyes of a viper, hypnotized by fear. Her instincts failed her and she had surrendered to whatever was about to happen. She tried not to think about it, or anything else for that matter. The man was close enough to reach her and as his hand reached out to grab her she closed her eyes and braced for the end.
Then suddenly and without warning, salvation!
“Tenga Cuidado, loco!” Came a shout as an arm shot out and grabbed the crazy man’s hand. It was a young voice, a male voice, a voice full of confidence and grit. “She’s mine!” This newcomer then threw a solid punch with his free hand and caught the maniac square on the chin. This sent the madman stumbling back, blinking in surprise. Kerina’s savior now stepped forward between her and the insanity of her attacker. He was young, a little taller than average, and athletically built. The man was thin and lithe. He didn’t have big showy muscles like the models in advertisements, nor were his shoulders broad and bulging like a movie star. Yet in his slim, scrappy posture there existed the real feeling of danger. He wasn’t as disheveled or unkempt as the rest, but his roughly trimmed hair, cropped beard, and worn clothing betrayed that he was a street rat through and through. The mystery man took up a fluid and athletic defensive stance.
When the madman had recomposed himself there was something different in his eyes. Something deeply cruel and deeply evil had taken over. It was as though the attack had focused, if temporarily, his fractured mind. Before him was a true reason, a true purpose. Kill the man take the woman. Whatever fog had caused him to behave erratically had lifted for just a moment and this temporary clarity somehow made him more dangerous. Kerina shuffled backwards, away from the fight, terrified to her core. The rest of the homeless now formed a hard ring of people around the the three. A rape and a fight-slash-murder. This was one hell of a night!
They were disappointed. The fight lasted only one step. After a short perfunctory amount of circling each other the madman lunged at Kerina’s young protector. With deft grace and imperceptible fluidity the young street rat sidestepped him and buried a hand in the man’s abdomen. This halted the man immediately. The maniac then tried to withdraw and struggled to free himself. But the young man appeared to be twisting his hand in some strange way. After a moment or two of struggle the maniac went limp, and after another moment the young man withdrew his hand and let him fall to the pavement. The crowd sighed in disappointment. Kerina, awestruck by the young man’s courage and skill, couldn’t take her eyes off the action. Even so she barely noticed him fold the pocket knife he had stabbed the maniac with before deftly and imperceptibly clipping it on the back of his belt, carefully hidden underneath his old and worn jacket. The man then wiped the blood from his knife hand on the inside of his jacket so as to conceal the stains. Then while the crowd was murmuring and grumbling in discontent he quickly grabbed Kerina’s hand and said, “Quick, come with me.” He then led her through the ring of people, and hurried her a short ways along the dark and filthy street to a dilapidated van parked on the next corner. “Get in.” He commanded firmly as they approached. Kerina quickly ran to the passenger door and clambered inside. Her savior was already in the driver’s seat. He locked the doors and started the van as soon as she was inside. The engine struggled to turn for a moment but soon sputtered to life despite its protestations to the contrary. The man pulled the car into the street and began driving away at the best speed the dark conditions, cluttered street, and aging, seizing engine would allow.
“You Okay?” He asked. “Are you hurt.”
“Yeah—no–I–” Kerina stammered, “I’m okay. I just need to catch my breath. I need–” She halted as she began to absorb the last few minutes and realization struck her, “Wait did you kill that guy?”
“Maybe.” The man shrugged, “Wouldn’t be the first time. You grow up on the street, things get rough.” He said keeping his attention on the street. “How about you. What are you doing here?”
“It’s a long story.” Kerina began, “But yesterday was my first day with the Entente. I was a low level bureaucrat. Last night I was drugged and someone stole my netbox and ID chip. I woke up down here and I’m trying to get back up to the Entente level to get my life back.”
“Hummph.” The man half grunted-half chuckled, “You been spiked. Happens a lot. Some syndies who know the toppers, they nab some of the peons, you know? Small fish not gonna be missed. Then they spike ‘em. Take the boxes and the chippies. People buyin’, they get to be toppers now. The people been spiked get to the shelters.”
“My god.” Kerina said, “That’s what happened to me! Can you help me? Can I fix this?”
The man thought for a moment taking the time to be very deliberate with what he said next, “I get yous up top.” he finally said, “We goin see my amigo. He take you upstairs.”
“Oh thank you!” Kerina shouted as she lunged from her seat and hugged the man, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She said squeezing his neck and planting grateful kisses on his cheek.
“Easy, chica!” He said, “You tank me after! I drivin.” Kerina withdrew to her seat flushed with hope. The horror, the pain, the abasement she had suffered today seemed worth it. She felt enormous gratitude to this kindly white knight who was going to give her her life back. She resolved that after she had made Gerret and his accomplice pay she would do something for this young man.
They drove on through the dusky, dirty underworld of the street. The man picking their way around blocked streets, homeless in the road, dark alleys, and cut-throughs. Eventually they came to stop in front of the entrance to an old hotel. It was old and worn, definitely not an entente building, but it was cleaner, more well kept than the other buildings on the street. “We here.” He said, “C’mon, I get you set.” They got out of the van and walked towards the front door. Two large frightening looking men were standing at the entrance. Again, their clothes and general appearance made it clear they were not Entente but they also seemed to be far from the homeless refuse Kerina had grown accustomed to. One of the men made a quick assessment of Kerina, half nude, barefoot in her underwear, and shot a quizzical look at the young man.
Kerina’s good shepherd nodded at Kerina and said, “One for Jimmy.” The over-sized doorman nodded in understanding and mumbled something into the collar of his jacket and the two were ushered in. The lobby was the same, nicer than the street but somehow less than the Entente. There was a bawdiness, a raw, unrefined honesty that Entente buildings and people simply didn’t have. This world was real alright. Just real enough to make you uncomfortable. “Here.” The man said pointing at a chair, “Seat down. I habla wit Jimmy” Kerina dutifully took her seat. The day had been a harrowing one. Now that she was finally out of immediate danger she found herself relaxing. She closed her eyes and finally began to process everything that had happened to her. A wash of fear, anxiety, hope, dashed hopes, betrayal, dismay, and life-threatening terror poured through her psyche. At the end of it she shuddered involuntarily and then finally let go. It was going to be okay. She told herself. It was all going to be okay.
She opened her eyes and looked around for her white knight. She found him far off in the corner of the barroom adjoining the lobby. He was seated with his back to her at a table talking to a man. They were too far away to hear what was being said but it appeared they were haggling. It was almost as though her savior was trying to sort out a minor disagreement but to no avail. The man he was talking to was very strange. He had long dark hair with streaks of gray that curled and waved as it fell to his shoulders. He had a salt and pepper handlebar mustache. His left eye was covered with a snake skin eye patch and a long jagged scar ran from his forehead down under the eye patch and ended beneath his left cheek bone. The one-eyed stranger was wearing a snake skin jacket and a silk shirt with a snake skull bola tie. There was something exceptionally unsettling about this man but Kerina was so emotionally exhausted her mind could not be made to precisely name it.
After a few minutes of watching her friend plead unsuccessfully she saw him sigh and slump forward in his chair laying his head on the table. His head still flat on the table top her friend reluctantly extended a defeated handshake. The snake skin man shook it. He then snapped his fingers and young, entrancing woman dressed in skin tight snake skin leggings and very revealing skin tight top with long sleeves sauntered over from behind the bar with a leather satchel. The snake man took the bag and opened it then began pulling small card looking objects out and stacking them on the table. Are those? Are they cred chips? Kerina thought. What’s going on? After the proper amount had been counted her savior counted the cred chips again. Then he got up and stuffed them in the pocket of his jacket. He extended his hand to the snake man and shook his hand again. Then her friend stole a glance over his shoulder at Kerina. There was a strange somberness in his eyes. Something sad and apologetic came through in his glance. The moment passed and the young street rat turned his eyes away and he left walking past the snake man away from Kerina and presumably heading for an alternate exit.
The snake man then looked at Kerina with a warm, inviting, yet somehow predatory smile. Kerina wore a face of dire confusion. She got up and began looking for where her savior had gone. She barely took a step before a woman approached her and subtly but firmly grabbed Kerina’s arm.
“Hey, Sugar.” She said. The woman was older than Kerina, maybe fifteen years older. Yet there was something sexual about her. She wore a dress that concealed enough to demand respect but revealed enough to entice. Her voice was smooth and alluring full of care and kindness. Those words alone, “Hey, Sugar.” caused a strange ease to settle over Kerina. The woman kept talking, “I heard you had a rough day. Well don’t worry, Sug, we’re going to make it all better.”
“I, uh, yeah.” Kerina replied. Somewhere in her mind a great blaring warning siren was going off. She suddenly felt the need to get away, far away, very quickly. “I need to get up top. I need to get back to the Entente.” She stepped back trying to get out of the woman’s grip, “I need to go.”
“Oh, no, no, no, Sugar.” The woman said, “Little thing like you on the street at night? You won’t last an hour. Here, stay with us, Sug. We’ll take care of you.”
“I—Uh–” Kerina stammered. The woman’s voice had the effect of shoving cotton into the siren inside her mind. She still felt she should not stay here but somehow the urgency had been diminished. That sense of fear in the back of her head had been muffled by this woman’s soothing tones. “I need to get up top.” Kerina blurted awkwardly.
“Well of course, Sug.” The woman replied, “That’s where I’m taking you.”
“Really!” Kerina shouted in surprise, “Right now?”
“Right now.” The woman replied smiling her voice wrapped in warm assurance. “C’mon this way, baby.” The woman, still holding Kerina by the arm, lead her away. They went through the lobby and around a corner to elevators. The woman waved her hand over an old RFID sensor, the kinds they had before the war, and the elevator doors opened. The two stepped in. The woman pressed the button for the 17th floor and the doors closed and they began their ascent. Like everything else in the hotel the elevator worked but just barely. Not Entente, better than the street, one hundred percent real. As the elevator began to ascend the woman turned to Kerina and said, “I’m Claudette. I’m Jimmy’s personal secretary.”
“Oh, hi.” Kerina replied, “I’m Kerina.”
“Nice to meet you, Kerina.” Claudette answered in her honeyed tones, “Oh dear you look like you’ve been through it today. All those bruises, you must be positively aching!”
“I, well, It does hurt a little.” Kerina replied.
“Well here, Sugar,” Claudette said reaching into a discretely placed pocket and producing a small lavender pill, “This’ll help.”
“Oh, thanks.” Kerina replied. Somewhere in her mind came a flash of recognition. She should not take this pill. At the same time her exhaustion was weighing on her. Something heavy had been bearing down on her since she got of the train the day before and in this little purple disc she saw an opportunity to relieve the pressure. She took the pill from Claudette and swallowed it.
“There, better?” Claudette asked.
A wave of relaxation and near euphoria washed over Kerina. She was suddenly untroubled by anything. All of her fears, anxieties and exhaustion simply melted away. “Yes.” She replied, “much better.” Soon the elevator came to a stop and Caludette lead Kerina out into the hallway of the 17th floor. There was a window next to the elevators and Kerina looked out of it at the city, The City, bejeweled in nocturnal illumination. It looked like heaven. Suddenly the street and its endless dread felt very, very far away. In the distance just barely visible through the towering pillars of the city’s sky scrappers she could see her apartment building. “Hey,” She began lazily pointing a finger as a child might, “I can see my building.”
“Oh I bet you can, Sug.” Claudette replied, “But we can’t send you home looking like this. Half naked and bruised up, c’mon let’s clean you up. Come with me.” Meekly Kerina allowed herself to be led away from the window. She no longer cared about going home. There was something in her mind stopping her from caring. From now on she was like a sheep or a lost puppy following whoever bothered to lead her. Claudette led her down the hallway past rooms and rooms of girls. All the girls wore lingerie and were dolled up to look as sexually desirable as possible. There were even a few young boys no older than seventeen also dressed up in enticing clothing whose lips were puffed up and bright red. Kerina took it all in with zen indifference. She didn’t care. She was happy. Just really, really happy. She’d have to ask Claudette for another one of those pills.
Eventually they came to an empty room. “Here, Sug.” Claudette said, “This is yours.” Kerina stepped in and took it in. It was an old hotel room. Sure it wasn’t nearly the posh apartment she had had, but it was still nice. It was nice and warm and safe. Claudette helped her bath and wash the grime and grit form her hair. Then she put medical salves and moisturizing lotions on her bruises to help them heal. Then she gave Kerina another pill, a different pill, to help her sleep. When she was done she put Kerina to bed wearing a thin bath robe and left locking the door from the outside when she did.
Kerina drifted in and out of consciousness. She didn’t know how long this strange fugue state lasted. Every so often Claudette would come check on her and make sure she was taking her pills. Claudette explained that Jimmy had contracted Kerina to work for him. That he had paid a lot of money to her white knight and that Kerina had to pay him back. Kerina was told that they host important people here, very important people, people who work for the Entente. Jimmy liked to make his guests happy so Kerina needed to make them happy. After she had made enough people happy Kerina could leave. At some point Claudette brought other girls with her to help coach Kerina. She was taught how to dress, how to talk, how to act, and how to do the things she needed to do to make these important guests happy. After some time, a few days? A week? A month? Kerina didn’t know, she was told she was ready. She would start work that night. That day she was given a different pill. It still made her feel happy, not as happy as the other ones, but it lifted some of the fog that had shrouded Kerina’s mind. She remembered the things she was taught. She knew where she was and what she needed to do, but somehow everything before that just didn’t seem to matter.
She was sitting on the edge of her bed dressed in her best lingerie, repeating in her mind all the things she had been coached on when her first guest arrived. The door opened, unlocked from the outside, and a middle-aged, portly balding man stepped in. There was something eminently familiar about him. This recognition shook Kerina’s mind and something deep from her memory began to rise.
“Oh, look at you.” The man replied, “Don’t you look sweet. Just my type, spritely, petite, and red-headed too.” He sauntered to the liquor cabinet in the room and poured himself a glass of tequila. Then he produced a blue, diamond shaped pill from his pocket and washed it down with the drink. Something in his manner resonated with that thing in Kerina’s memory. She knew something. It rose up in her mind and pushed it’s way however feebly, through the pills and the delusion.
“Gerret…” She half whispered half mumbled.
“That’s right.” He replied, “Gerret in the flesh. Give me a minute before we get going. Those pills take a second to get me up.”
Kerina smiled absently at Gerret. Something else, something lost began pushing through her mind. “Gerret, the veteran…” She said.
“Huh!” Gerret chortled, “Almost, not quite. I mean everyone thinks I am. Lord knows I’m happy to mine that sympathy vein. But no. I drove a garbage truck. I was a contractor to an army base in Virginia. When Bragg got blasted during the war I was in the middle of pick up. I had just gotten the truck going when the base was bombed. People, soldiers, other contractors begged me to take them out. I just gunned it. Fuck ‘em. I got myself out. No one knows though, no one’s bothered to check up on me.” He smirked in self satisfaction at the thrill of survival, the feeling of superiority of being the one who made it. He poured another tequila and downed it one gulp, then tossed the empty to a chair on the other side of the room. “Alright, sweetie, we ready to get going?” He said looking at her.
When Gerret threw the glass suddenly the thing that had been pushing upwards came through. Kerina remembered, remembered it all. Kerina stood up a look of realization on her face. “Wait.” She said, “I know you. You know me.” She said with awe and surprise, “I’m Entente!”
“Oh yeah.” Gerret said moving towards her and shedding his pants, “TH’s what I want to hear. Keep telling me that.” He grabbed her and threw her on the bed. Then he climbed on top of her and began to take her with rough indifference.
“No, Stop!” Kerina protested in futility. This was her life now. She felt cheated and used, used by everyone. All she could do was repeat over and over the magic words. Hoping against hope that they would save her, “I’m Entente! I’m Entente!” She pleaded but to no avail. Now all she had was the memory. The memory of who she was and how far she had fallen. Now the words became faint prayer. An old memento to which she could cling for a sliver of cold solace, “I’m Entente!” She said again, “I’m Entente!”