The Wake-Up Call
Chapter 1.35: Sanctuary
The street was harsh. The abrasive environment of an overpopulated sprawling city complex was a familiar scene. Hetch had seen it countless times from every possible angle from the outside of mega-skyscrapers to the inner depths of the city sewers. The contrast between survivors and predators was a tenuous one, often only a gunshot away. Once outside the hospital's perimeter the city soon deteriorated back into the normal, grey-brown colour scheme that infected most of the heavily populated areas. Hetch walked and walked. He wasn't sure where to go or what to do. He just knew he had to keep walking until he couldn't go any further. The darkness was receded back into its sleepy lair, ready to re-emerge later. The early morning mist gave the narrow streets a ghostly feel. Street gangs intoxicated with narc or 'scram-juice' were out of their skulls somewhere.
The towering chimneys threw out clouds of toxic smoke that hung over the city like a hood of ash. The crumbling city intra-structure, eroded by countless decades of acidic rainstorms, was home to everything small enough to fit into its torrent of cracks. The pavement was littered with people sleeping out in the open, huddling underneath broken corporate posters or discarded industrial packing material. Rats and other vermin ran side by side with the city's population, all trying to find a way to survive, a route to the next meal or paycheque.
The echo from the hospital room stalked Hetch as he continued to merge into the crowd and head towards the local commute station then onto the main section terminal. The early morning work detail was embarking on their daily three hour journey to work. The rail network was old and overloaded beyond its maximum capacity, yet still it continued to work day and night. The greasy filth that invaded every corner was one of hardship and decades of neglect.
The mood on the rail ferry was sombre. The passengers were all too tired to take any interest in Hetch's case apart from a few local punks looking for an opportunity to snatch it and run off. The bruises and cuts on Hetch's face combined with the look of confidence persuaded them to find an easier target. The motion of worn tracks and loose coupling joints on the rail ferry was unpredictable but the passengers accepted its rocky jumps like they did the city in general, with a great deal of contempt and reluctance. There was no escape, not even in a rail crash. The emergency escape had long since been welded up to provide space for yet more passengers and their work tools.
It was a low-tech transport and that meant no electronic ad board or id scanners. Most of the gadgets had been ripped out and sold in places like the Tek Emporium where under the counter hardware was cheap, illegal and always in demand. The massive number of inhabitants made the monitoring systems impractical. It was easier to place security devices around the expensive building.
Like the weather his path was unclear. He had no-one to help him and knew sooner or later he would have to find somewhere safe to place those credits, carrying them around was an open invitation to every street punk on the planet. The thought of trading them for his life wasn't worth considering because he knew his life was worthless to the McKaffs. Attempting to pay off the bounty on his head would certainly be suicidal. There are millions of individuals all queuing up to sell a body part in order to continue to exist, what would they do to get their hands on a few credits in return for telling Keel or Dakk? Hetch knew the answer all too clearly.
He didn't have the mind-set to find a solution; he needed some time to hit a plan that would be workable, and safe.
A plague of smells and dust moved down the train ferry as it crossed into a heavily industrialised region. A mass of commuters exchanged places with the previous night-shift workers. The carriage filled with the smell of chemicals, the doors closed once again and sealed the passengers inside for its next stage of the route. Where he was on the route was a mystery, even to the regular passengers. All direction information had long since been vandalised beyond use. In a way this was reassuring to Hetch. If he didn't know where he was, he hoped the McKaffs didn't too. The smells of stale sweat and factory dust drove itself deep into each pore. A lifetime of working in hazardous materials mines or on a conveyor belt repeating the same repetitive tasks year after year saturated the skin, mind and very soul of each citizen. The drudgery of this existence, if you could call it that, was unrelenting. Exhaustion was a luxury.
Hetch spotted the familiar chrome kneepads on most of the construction workers and he thought back to the look from the stewardess when he first boarded the shuttle. "She has never seen hard work in her life" he had thought. But this, like so many of his foolish notions proved flawed like the promises from Mewco about a "nice, easy little delivery job". He had left someone in that hospital room, but also found something new; hope.
The plan? To ride this rail ferry to its final terminal then make his way across the south border and into the far reaches of a forgotten outpost, somewhere where even the town has forgot it's own name, Hetch hoped to continue this tradition. For now he was relatively safe. Day was approached and many of the city's lowlifes where back in their cribs or getting drunk. It could take another two and a half days to reach the south perimeter and that meant darkness again. Crossing the border was risky enough with snipers and local crime lords trafficking people into the north, at night it was doubly difficult. A shiny case filled with credits would be a magnet. Before reaching that line he had to find a place to stash it and tool up with some discrete hardware and some sleep. That was the plan. Rent out a cheap dream tube in a sleazy part of the rail terminal and then move again in the daytime, disguise himself as a transient, some insignificant citizen fallen on hard times and willing to head south in order to find work in the notorious mines digging radioactive ore.
The south held another dark secret, the Nexus, an underground organisation of radical militant freedom fighters. Linked with countless assassination attempts and bombings they commanded respect, even from the likes of the McKaffs. The draw of the south to Hetch gained more hold over him. Mewco's connections supplied everything from hardware to human flesh to the Nexus. The popular belief that these are just fragmented groups of crazed psychotic terrorists have given them an umbrella of power that overshadows corporate transactions and shelters them from the eye of the uni-state government like ants under a rock. Hetch's mind flicked through the news channel info-casts bulletins that occurred on a regular basis, seeking any useful facts that he could remember. After decades of confronting the global domination of vast corporations very little was known about the Nexus, even if they truly exist. The paranoia induced from a corrupt police state and treacherous governments capable of committing genocide against its own citizens could be mistaken for using the myth of the Nexus to carry out brutal acts of self-repression. The death squads employed by many big organisation to 'cleanse' areas, ready for some new high profit venture were stable guests on board-casters like Global News Channel 57-39.
The remaining days drifted on and past more quickly than Hetch would have believed possible. The frequent stops to exchange passengers and occasional bomb scare were welcome reliefs to the unceasing drone from the rail ferry motors and noisy ventilation system fans. His body ached, not just an exhausted ached but an empty ache that made his bones heavy and his skin tight with pain. The sight of prostitutes and street traders gave him a moment of hope. He was close to a sleazy rail hotel, the kind of place no one wants to remember except when trying to avoid it the next time.
Hetch stretched his legs and stepped onto the polluted station platform. His feet left footprints in the layers of trash covering the rough floor blocks. The air was heavy. The smog was being awoken from its slumber and the sun's rays fought against it to cast patches of broken daylight onto the scene below. The rail ferry's doors hissed shut and lurched off behind him to disappear into an inky black tunnel beneath the towering habitation flats. The ad-hoc, blocky appearance of these hundreds of condemned living quarters would have tried the nerve of most men, but Hetch was too numb to care for anything except crashing down in a deep tube and catching some much needed sleep. His entire body craved it. It had been starved of rest for too long.
He glanced up at the flickering neon sign above the door before walking down the narrow stone steps and beyond the filthy entrance. He was greeted with the sight of pimps and drug-fuelled hookers arguing with some punter about the cost of her services and threatening to beat the guy's brains out of his ears with a rusty pipe. Dead centre stood an unshaven man in a dirty vest picking what seemed like his entire brain from up his nose before wiping its contents on the vest. Hetch cautiously approached and looked at the man straight in the eye.
"One night, how much?"
The slob behind the counter took a moment to take stock of his latest customers and the shiny case in his hand.
"For you sir, fifty, in advance. Hookers not included."
"Sixty and no questions" bartered Hetch.
The man scratched himself, eyed the pimp in the corner before replying.
"Sure. We are the epitome of privacy."
They both laughed at this tired looking tourist in the grimy hotel reception.
"We have a strong room out back with a tech safe if you need it." He said, looking again at the case.
"It stays with me." Commanded Hetch.
"Sure. Of course." He said grinning. The black gaps in his mouth where teeth used to be gave a look of pure treachery; the look of someone who has sold their mother for a bottle of gut-rot juice.
Hetch took the cracked key card from the landlord and headed towards the dark stairs at the side of the desk.
"Don't forget sir, enjoy your self and welcome to the Sanctuary hotel!" said the man laughing insanely.
To be continued...