The Wake Up Call. (Part 1.09)
Written by TAD
This continues the story I started back in Hugi 16. It's about Hetch, a small time criminal with delusions of grandeur and a burning desire to make enough money to enable him to escape from his slum housing block and into a more comfortable and less polluted area of the city. The city itself is a mass of crime, both corporate and civilian. Everyone is out for their own quick kill, their pound of flesh and a sucker to blame. Amongst this crowded environment terrorists, gangs, bio-tech freaks and religious cults all fight with each other for a few more credits. Like most of the citizens Hetch wants a little piece of paradise with clean air, good food and enough bare flesh to keep him grinning for 6 out of 7 days each week.
The wider picture.
Bio-technology is an expensive aspect of life, without it there simply isn't life, only a slow, agonising death. The slum areas of the city are more heavily tainted then the rest. They are the dumping grounds for corpses, toxic waste, the old, the disabled and the non-achievers. For most there isn't any medical care. You get ill, you die, plain and simple. The motto of corporations is "Survival of the fitness; and the most corrupt". Protection money has replaced taxes and insurance a long, long time ago. Banks are no longer the place for money, in fact there is no real money. Data is the sole currency, coins made of ones and zeros. The city is on the brink of civil chaos and barter is the only way for many to obtain food and clothes.
Espionage is rife. Companies use military style agents and illegal measures on a daily basis. Executioners have replaced lawyers and bodyguards have replaced most aspects of the police force. No longer is the entire city policed. Many zones are simply no-go areas. The emergency services don't exist unless you have a super-gold credit rating. Fires are now considered to be a cheap way of cleansing the undesirable citizens from the slum areas. Those who live in the high-class epicenter believe the outer slums to be a cancer, an irritant which needs to be cut out before it infects the core. Cults and underground groups are held to blame for all the problems of the city. Terrorists are given instant death sentences and hit squads often patrol the back alleys searching out and passing judgement on people who break their curfews. If you don't want to be labelled as a criminal then you must be a citizen and this means a high profit making citizen. Genetic material is taken at the moment of birth and only those deemed blessed with productive attributes are selected. This way the elite individuals are educated, encouraged, employeed and promoted. Those unfortunate enough to be born with the wrong genetic makeup was simply thrown to one side or expelled into the slums like human litter.
The city was once a thousand smaller cities, fragments of what it has become today. Once there were green bits, but now everything is dull and bland like a termite's nest sprayed battleship grey. Landlords have become hardened business men, corrupted by greed. They demand astromonical payments for a tiny one room appartment and then send in the heavy mobs if a tennant's rent is more than a day late. Each building fights and claws against it's neighbours climbing to escape from the layers of road networks, monorails and reach the sky, away from the choking smogg clouds. The vast influence of organised crime reaches deep into every corner, every boardroom, every citizen and every pocket.
Hostile takeovers often end on the ground with chalk outlines.
The story so far.
Hetch is on his first courier job, to deliver a metal case with its mystery cargo. His employeer is the sleazy character called Mewco, a real low-life character whose background and character are as dangerous as the illegal hardware he trades in. Hetch was meant to leave the shuttle at a place called Rhyton, but after days without rest he fell asleep. Later he found out that a bomb explosion had demolished most of Rhyton. Hetch was woken up by a kind stewardess after he fell sleep on a shuttle only to find both the case and his artificial arm missing. While in the lost property department he encounterd a little kid called 'Seven' and saw the beginning of a huge military operation through the grubby window. Finally he got both his arm and case back, but was tricked by the stewardess, who, with two well dressed agents, ambushed him in an empty appartment in the Eldora tower. After a quick beating the case was taken off him. He was left, locked in the room with the body of his boss, Mewco. Hetch robbed Mewco's corpse of it's wig, face mask and belongings. Beyond a gruesome transformation, where he became Mewco, Hetch almost torched himself in a fire which he started in order to escape from the appartment.
Eventally he met up with the stewardess and his case again. But this time he appeared to her as the resurrection of Mewco, the dead body she had left in the appartment with a punk-ass courier called Hetch. In the dark days before she became a stewardess she had once worked for the repulsive Mewco in one of his sleazy flesh clubs. While walking through a crowd outside the Eldora tower Hetch was grabbed and forced into a back alley where a gang attempted to kill him. But Hetch's luck was in, he killed three of them before being the target of a gun picked up by the stewardess. A young cop mistook her as the killer of the three, dead gang members. Both her and Hetch escape back into a service tunnel. Hetch's abuse of his body then took its toll. More than four days without sleep, an acid burn on his side and a skull full of fading drugs forced him to collapse in the tunnel and fell asleep.
Chapter 1.09: Hostage
In the service tunnel slumped motionless against the wall like a crime scene victim sat Hetch. His filth covered clothes and dirty appearance seemed to contradict the surrounding clean, mass produced panels of the tunnel. He stuck out like a sore thumb, and a neon covered elephant thumb at that. The heartbeat of footsteps woke him from his short, restless cat-nap. The pounding lump of grey mush in his skull amplified the approaching footsteps like a sledgehammer on the back of his neck. His hands clawed against the slippy walls and finally he was standing upright, although it felt like his head was still laying somewhere on the floor. The metallic sound drew closer. The ping of a motion detector was clearly audible. His eyes, overdosed in light, painfully began to focus on his situation. He was half expecting to see a police search party breathed down his neck armed with shock-batons and the desire to kick the shit out of him. This was a thing he had witnessed countless times while moving around the corporate controlled parts of the city. They paid the cops to move along any 'undesirables' from their offices or trade centers. No-one wants to have a tramp sleeping on their doorstep, especially if you can pay someone to dispose of this human litter. He sighed. At this moment in time he would have happily paid for someone to dispose of him, or at least the smell which bathed his re-awakened senses.
So, you are finally awake.
How long was I asleep?
About 7 hours.
What? Oh Shit! We've gotta get moving...
Mumbled Hetch. The stewardess looked at him with a sly smile. Her raised arms were supported by the handcuffs. These round, criminal babysitters kept her seated underneath the metal bars of the service ladder which accended the high wall above her like a chrome barcode. She was his prisoner, yet she was able to capture his fatigued attention with her joking remark. The ladder itself was protected and surrounded by a dull, narrow drain-pipe like tunnel made from cheap alloy and spot welded like a badly made Dalmatian dog every few metres. It was clearly a ventilation shaft and maintenance access tunnel combined into one, probably a cheap fix to the building's flawed design plans. The construction of this structure was poor. The motion of cold air being sucked upwards by some unseen fans caused an irregular low frequency humm, like a wasp learning to play the harmonica during a Barry White concert.
He drew his eyelids wide open like two oysters leaning over the toilet bowl after an all night drinking session at a moonshine maker's convention. The blood-shot pearls inside, which passed as Hetch's eyeballs, focused on his female quest. Her long, dark hair danced upwards like a thousand headed hydra, the very image of a brunette Venus with her hands clasped together like a tiny pink shell around the ladder. Sure, she was good looking, but she was also dangerous and Hetch needed to remind himself of this fact.
The ping sound drew closer.
Hetch removed one cuff and helped her onto her feet.
With this he literally pushed her up onto the ladder and lept up himself. He stood around her, his arms gripped so tightly that she was almost suffocated in a bear-hug against the ladder.
Is this only the way you get your kicks these days Mewco?
Shut up and don't move!
Below them in the service tunnel an inspection droid crawled by. Its sensors and motors buzzing with activity. This bulky piece of machinery was primative. It was once state of the art piece of kit, but now forgotten by everyone except its repair crew. A heavy looking toolbox rattled on its rounded top. The droid looked the worst for wear. It was covered in scratches and dents of different sizes. The paint work was flaking off and obscene graffiti covered most of its cube like surface. Its tracks slipped for a moment on the floor until it finally came to rest against the locked door post. Hetch thought it was ironic that a droid solely assembled to help repair other systems should be so badly maintained itself. He guessed that the maintainence crew were slackers, and master slackers at that. The sort of employees who give idleness a bad name. He also thought, five minutes with one of his tech friends and that droid would be stripped down, resprayed and sold on the black market before the motors had had chance to cool down. But by the look and sound of it, perhaps it should be in a mechanical museum.
The Eldora tower was vast. A momument to human ego and power. The cloud breaking structure stuck out like a elongated pyramid. The dense smog often choked its peak. On a really bad day it looked like half of its full height. To combat these airborne irritants the tower had a giant system of filtration stages and air conditioning stations dotted throughout its labyrinth-like construction. Plagues of droids and semi-automatic technology occupied its dark, cold service tunnels. Most of these chip based servants attended to the mudane aspects of keeping the tower working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. It was a neverending task. The few human staff who could not yet be replaced by robotic beings rarely left their control centres. Most were old or well below average IQ. After all, it was a badly paid and unrewarding job watching a hundred pressure gauges and LCD display panels for the entire 14 hour shift.
These members of staff were looked down apon even by the security guards who saw them as button pushers and nothing more. Most of the crew's work went on behind the scenes. Some of the most dangerous jobs were done by the crews. Often they had to recover vandalised droids or repair venting grates blown off the sides of the building by a faulty extractor fan. They were always the first to get blamed for an accident and the first to stumble across a bomb. The R-M (remote mantainence) bots were fine for most of the hazardous stuff on the outside of the building, until one broke down or took a nose dive onto the street below. These bots were often the target for hackers, people like Splice who wanted to spy on the tower's inhabitants and gain information about corporate plans to build new security systems. It was a clever scheme. Who would suspect a noisy old R-M bot of being a listening device? High powered bosses often used randomly chosen places across the city to have their meetings. It was a simple form of protection against corporate bugs. As most of these meetings resulted in illegal transactions of one kind or another, being in their own offices wasn't a good idea.
Man, I get sick of all this walking about.
said a rather chubby engineer to his work mate as he lifted the toolbox off the droid.
Stop complaining. At least it means we can stretch our legs.
Yeah, suppose so.
Something had to get you away from that adult vid-channel. I mean, you were drooling so much that you almost shorted out the fucking control panel with your saliva!
They both grinned. One of their favourite adult entertainment stations was the "Tugs-n-Jugs" channel. It showed nothing but naked chicks engaged in dubious sporting events like mud wrestling, tug of war and pie fights. It had absolutely no artistic merit, it was crude, rude, brainless, sexist and on 24-hours a day. The ideal characteristics to keep these two male engineers occupied during their long, boring shifts.
But why is it always us who have to check out a faulty door sensor? Why don't they get one of those security heros to check it out?
They can't. Too thick to use a screwdriver.
The chubby one laughed, he knocked the door lock with his knuckles, turned around and picked up his toolbox on threw it back onto the droid. Without raising a single screwdriver or opening the toolbox he considered the door sensor as tested. Even by their own low standards, this was poor. Idleness of the highest order.
Yeah! Looks okay to me. Let's go.
Damn right, another job well done.
The second engineer stopped and looked at the dirt on the plastic wall and floor where Hetch had been sitting.
Oh fuck! Look what some dirty bastard has done. Man, it stinks in here.
Hetch gulped, his heart pounded against his chest and the back of his almost suffocated hostage on the ladder. His only hope was to rely on the strength of the distance air fans somewhere far above them in the ventilation tunnel. He prayed that the foul odour from his ex-boss's disguise would be extracted upwards, away from the Laurel and Hardy workmen characters below him.
The engineer paused, looked around and sniffed the air...
Hey, wasn't me.
they both laughed. By the look them a fart joke was the ceiling of their intellectual ability. No doubt this was the highlite of their day.
Shouldn't we report this?
If you wanna spend an hour filling out paperwork, then be my guest. I'm off to break open a cool one.
With this the chubby one entered a location code into the droid and walked off in the direction of the control centre. The second engineer tapped the screen of his handheld data recorder and entered a short reminder about the faulty door sensor. This electronic note wasn't to remind them to repair it, but rather to cover their asses if the tower inspector asked about it later on. It was also something to help pad out their work sheets, apart from the wet ring marks from their beer cans and food stains.
Hey, king gut, leave some beer for me!
Hetch and the stewardess nervously looked down and watched as the droid reversed its way out of the corridor following the second engineer. As soon as his echo had died away into the background noise of the tower Hetch climbed down. He peeked around the corners to make sure they had both gone. Meanwhile the stewardess climbed down the metal ladder, but she misjudged the last step, slipped and fell over, landing near Hetch's feet. Part of her heel broke off her shoe and span across the floor like a spider on rollerskates for the first time.
Like you care. Just leave me alone! I don't need or want your help.
she snapped, horrified by the idea of letting Mewco help her up.
Look, what's your problem?
What's my problem? It's YOU! You're like something nasty which I can't flush away. I was expecting you to appear in a sewer sooner or later... ...and you did!
Hetch glanced at her face, red with anger and filled with bitterness and fear. The bitterness was without question for him, well, Mewco, but the fear? The way she acted in the apartment proved that she had more experience and courage than most. She handled a gun like a pro and had little qualms about using it. He had once been stupid enough to under-estimate her, to trust her, but never again. From now on he would keep both eyes fixed in her direction. He wasn't sure if the fear was for him, the cops, or being late to meet her contact on the shuttle.
Are you trying to tell me there's something wrong with my aftershave?
You stink. Both as a human being and as an air pollutant.
Hetch sniffed his shirt in a gesture designed to mock her comments. But his grin soon vanished. As Hetch looked up he was greeted with the sight of her foot connecting sharply with his groin. The sudden pain forced him onto the ground in agony. She snatched the gun from his weakened grip and pointed the barrel directly at his mouth as if to silence him. So much for keeping both eyes on her, thought Hetch.
Give me the key.
She shook her wrist and the handcuff jumped around like a broken yo-yo. Hetch slowly searched in his pocket and his fist drew out the key together with a collection of keycards. His extended arm moved to his right, over a small grate in the floor which connected the corridor with the door's archway. A look of panic came across the stewardess. She had worked for a while in a casino before becoming a stewardess so knew a little about poker and decided to call his bluff.
Ok, drop it. I swear to God that I'll put a bullet in that ugly mug of yours Mewco.
She raised the barrel upto his forehead, sure that Mewco would try to weasle his way out of her gun sight in some way. She expected and longed for her creepy ex-boss to wriggle like a fisherman's bait on a hook, to swirm, to slither, to beg and then to die.
You think those two jerks with the toolbox won't hear the gun shot?
She took a step backwards and her face grew pale. She needed some time to think, some more space in which to tell that slime-bag in her gun sights why he was wrong, why those engineers would not hear it, but she couldn't.
Ok, shoot me. Then what? While you search for a way into this grate that 'dynamic-duo' out there will be calling the cops. They may not be rocket scientists, but those engineers are smart enough to know what a gun sounds like.
You've got to trust me.
Like that's a wise move!
she exclaimed with sarcasm.
Remember the young cop in the alley? He had a REAL close look at your face. By now I bet there's fifty cops out there searching for you. Do you know what they do to killers?
She stood frozen to the spot.
And what about that little fire in your apartment? I'm curious, whose apartment was it? Some innocent punk's or a little old lady's?
Her eyes jumped around the room, searching for an answer.
Tell me, you weren't dumb enough to use your real name? or apartment?
She sank onto the floor, her energy and desire to kill him drained. Their roles had now reversed. Hetch was energized with by his newly found power of persuasion, the adrenaline overcame his fears of dying and she, even with the gun in her hand, was now under his command, captive by the events in that alleyway and him being the only true witness who knew what really happened there.
Come on, trust me. I'm your only way out of this mess.
Her eyes closed with defeat. She surrended the gun and pushed it blindly across the floor. Then she felt his hand on her wrist. After a few seconds of his fumbling with the handcuffs she opened her eyes to see them fall to the ground.
You don't need them anymore.
She was confused. Why release her from these stolen police shackles? It didn't make sense. What was Mewco up to? Would he shoot her in the back? Or turn her in and collect the reward for a triple murderer? It dawned on her that not only did she have the cops to contend with, but now Mewco. And she knew enough about her ex-boss to realise that even inside a detention centre she wouldn't be safe from him. Her only hope was to play along with him and hope for a second chance, a clean shot and that her contact on the shuttle would provide an opportunity for escape, from both her sleazy guard and her current, desparate situation. It seemed as if her entire future was now in tatters, torn to shreds and laid out before her like a jigsaw puzzle after a plane crash.
They promised her a new identity, a new life and a new face after this 'simple' job. Just hand over the metal case to us, they said. But all those years ago Mewco had promised her the same dream and look how that turned out, working in The Money shot club. She was grateful that he had taught her a valuable lesson, to trust no-one, to be independant, to rely on no-one, to help no-one. Yet at this insane point in her life that same slimy low-life was now offering to help her.
Is it a trap? It must be a trap! she repeated to herself over and over again..
She followed him as he wove a course through the narrow corridors with one eye on her and the other on their surroundings, he wouldn't want to bump into those two slackers again. Now Hetch had a plan, or at least the beginning of a plan.
They walked for almost half an hour until Hetch found what he had been searching for. A large air conditioning and temperature control unit. These regulate both air quality and climate through each level of the tower by means of refridgeration, high pressure steam and networks of ventilation pipes, tunnels, fans and remote airlocks. A mammoth feat of engineering and mass produced, robot assembled components. Hetch popped open the side panels and turned a number of values, redirecting a small jet of steam down onto the refridgeration unit. A few moments later and a steady stream of luke warm water began to run off the curved sides of the noisy cooling unit. He slipped the gun into his belt and started to wash his hands.
Very clever, I suppose! But you're going to need a huge mountain of soap if you ever wish to scrub away your bad smell Mewco..
Hetch grinned a sly smile. It was an old trick known to everyone in the slum areas. For most people it was their only means to get clean, free water for washing themselves and their clothes. Few inhabitants of the Eldora tower would have ever thought of this, or ever need to get water this way. As long as you only took a small amount at a time the maintenance crews would never know that someone was siphoning off water. He emptied his pockets and placed the contents, including the gun, on the case lid then held each item of clothing in front of a large valve. After a dozen or so blasts of steam Mewco's coat was reasonably clean. Most of the foul stains and putrid smells had been killed by the strong jets of expelled boiling water.
While the stewardess cleaned herself up using the warm water which had now collected in the bottom of cooling unit tray, Hetch disappeared around the back of the ventilation system and washed his face, hair and the rest of his clothes. It was a risk, she could peek around the corner and realise that he wasn't Mewco, and there was a slim chance of Mewco's gruesome face mask and hair could dissolve if he used too much steam. He hoped that she would be too busy thinking about her own situation and recent events, besides, Hetch was a good judge of female vanity, he knew how long it took for an average woman to get ready. She was no average woman for sure, but his gamble paid off... he had just enough time to quickly dress, replace Mewco's skin and claw his hair back with his clean, reddened fingers before she began to look for him.
Why hide in the shadows? Mewco isn't shy, is he?
No, I wanted to keep an eye on you from a distance.
Some things never change. Just like the old days spying on your employees. Once a creep, always a creep.
That's me alright, same old Mewco. Come on, let's go.
Hetch led the way and before long he was faced by another service door identical to the one which had allowed them to escape from the alleyway what seemed like a week ago. His hand trembled on the door bar, for a moment he paused, unable to snap the exit catch down and open the door to the outside world. Then with a nervous push, click and step forwards he found himself looking up a small flight of stone steps between two shops. A wave of feet and vehicles flowed past at eye level along the crowded walkways and fume soaked road at the top of the steps.
A nod of his head prompted the stewardess to follow him up onto the street and they both merged into the hectic city scene without a word.
To be continued...