An alarm, piercing and shrill, cut the air. The only occupant of the nearby bed let out a pained grunt. The alarm, oblivious, continued to beat its digital tattoo. The bed's occupant flailed at nothing in particular, then stretched her arm as far as it would go, just short of the bedside table where the alarm clock sat. With a noise of anguish, the ex-sleeper threw her body the critical extra foot and dealt the alarm's snooze button a crushing blow. The alarm lapsed into a shocked silence, and the woman in the bed shifted back to her previous position with a satisfied grunt.
A minute or two later, the woman in the bed, whose name was Mara, opened her eyes a tiny bit. The daylight, reflected and brilliant on the surface of her bedsheets, pierced her brain at once. She groaned and screwed her eyes shut, but after a few moments she tried to open them again. This time, through slow effort, she grew accustomed to the blinding hue of the sun, woke and witnessed a beautiful summer day. The window across from her bed afforded a picturesque view of New Washington's daytime skyline.
She grunted. Something was wrong.
Gathering her will, Mara forced her muscles into motion. As she strained against her own drowsy inertia, she found that she was sprawled with one arm across the bedsheets, as though she had moved to embrace a lover and found none there. This thought bothered her and she rolled over to stare at her ceiling. Through the ambient, imaginary tones she heard in her silent room, Mara could make out the noises of a city waking up for a busy day. She sighed, knowing that it was time for her to do the same; whatever had induced her discomfort would have to be figured out later.
She sat up and turned to look at herself in the mirror through sleep-tousled black curls. Swiveling, Mara shivered slightly as the dry soles of her bare feet rasped against the cool plastic of her bedroom floor. She hugged herself, stood, and strode to her bathroom with quick, short steps.
Mara was just beginning to reclaim her humanity through the percussive therapy of a hot shower when the alarm resumed its atonal aria from her bedroom. Mara scowled; she didn't remember mornings being this difficult. She hadn't this much annoyance from an alarm since...
Her mind went blank. After about ten seconds, Mara's alarm pushed through her reverie. She cursed, hurried through the rest of her shower and, betoweled, rushed into the bedroom to turn the alarm off.
Once she was dressed, the rest of her morning proceeded in the fashion to which Mara had become accustomed: reading the news on her kitchen shell's wall monitor as she wolfed down a mugful of granola and yogurt. Despite her interest in the news, she only skimmed the headlines; her disquiet was too intense to focus through. Once her cereal was finished, she gave up on the news, tapped 'sleep' on the kitchen shell, scooped up her bag, holstered her short-barreled shotgun, and walked out of the apartment.
Mara was out of breath and clearly flustered when she arrived at the office. Halting her powerwalk at her cubicle, she threw her bag on the floor next to the cube wall, then unhooked her shotgun's holster and hung it on the wall hook. She was about to throw herself in her desk chair when she noticed her friend and coworker Lily watching her with a raised eyebrow from her chair at the cube across the hallway.
"I know," Mara said.
"You're late." Lily said.
"I know." Mara growled.
"Later than me!" Lily clarified, her heavily-freckled face breaking into a wide grin.
"I know!" Mara barked. "I don't know why! I don't remember the walk to the Rail being that long!"
"I'm going to blog this," Lily said matter-of-factly. "I don't think you've been late to anything since Uni."
"You do that," Mara said coolly, sitting in the chair. "I guess I'll just have to find somebody else to give this present to."
"Whaaaaaat," Lily said, stricken. "Nooooo!"
"On the tag, where it says 'To Lily, my dear friend', I will have to edit it so it says 'Not to Lily, my dearest regrets, because no friend is so bitchy.'"
"You know I was kidding," Lily said. "Don't torture me. It's not like you're going to get written up for it like I was."
Mara's hands danced on the shell's keyboard, rotely entering her login at high speed. "No, but Michael stared at me like I had two heads when I came in. He said, 'What happened?' and I said 'Nothing, I'm just late.' I don't think he believed me."
"I'm not sure I do either," Lily said.
Lily watched as Mara launched her management program and instant messenger client, then asked, "So... you have a present for me?"
"Well ..." Mara said slowly.
"I'll whine at you again," Lily threatened.
"Whining? Can't have that." Mara said, then whirled quickly. One wiry arm lashed out in a deadly arc. "Hah!"
Lily squeaked as something sailed past her face to land with a thunk in the corkboard of her cubicle's message board. "Mara!" She cried, shocked.
"Look," Mara said with a smile.
Lily looked, then gasped. Buried in the corkboard was the end of an artisan throwing knife. Crafted from a single piece of silver plasteel and made of gentle curves, the workmanship was clearly that of an expert.
"Oh Mara," Lily said, flushing. "It's so pretty!"
"To celebrate your B-Rank in Thrown," Mara said. "Just a little thing, but..." she smiled.
"I love it!" Lily said. "Thank you!"
"I bought it when I was in the artisan district," Mara said. "You were about to take your test, so I saw it and thought of you."
"Why were you in the artisan district?"
"I ..." Mara frowned. "Don't remember. Huh."
"Well, thank you Mara-bee." Lily scooted her chair across the gap, leaned over it, and hugged Mara.
"You're welcome, hun," Mara said. "Just don't lose it in somebody's gut or something."
"Oh, I'm not gonna use it," Lily said. "I'm going to leave it right there."
"Michael will love that," Mara rolled her eyes. She turned back to the shell and opened the first contract under query.
"Well, if he has a problem with it he can tell me so," Lily said petulantly. "I'm tired of being ... passive-aggressived at."
"Sweetie, that's not a sentence," Mara said, then furrowed her brow, "and I thought you were going to get this contract."
"I don't understand the Talon contracts!" Lily said. "They're so complicated!"
"Talon does a lot of wet work," Mara said with a sigh. "If they didn't have long contracts, their execs would all be in prison. I'll take this one, but please don't assign if you're not going to finish the job."
"I know," Lily said. "Sorry."
"It's fine; I do understand," Mara said with distaste. "I hate Talon too. Apparently they were hired on with the auxiliary force that attacked Precinct 8."
"Yeah, it was all over the forums. I'm never on them, but somebody told me." Mara frowned again. "Who told me? Who talks to me about the forums?" She said to herself, knitting her brow.
Lily shrugged. "I dunno. You sure are forgetting stuff today, Mara."
"Yeah," Mara conceded, her voice distant.
Once home, Mara kicked off her shoes, slung her shotgun from a nearby chair, sloughed her coat onto the couch, and fell onto it. She took a deep breath and sighed.
Something was still off.
Making an attempt at distracting herself, Mara turned on the den shell. The shell was preset to a sports station, and a game of Touchdown was in full swing. Players threw themselves at each other with swords and guns, 'dying' and being respawned repeatedly to battle over a glowing, anthropomorphic ball.
Mara grimaced. "Goddamn sports. Why the hell was I watching this?"
She watched the Touchdown game for another minute, finding it difficult for some reason to turn away. Her grimace turned to a more troubled look.
"Who was watching the ether in my apartment?" She paused. "Why do I have such a nice monitor for my den shell?"
She was still deep in thought when her handshell rang. Mara picked it up and put it to her face. "Hello?"
"Mara-beeeeee," the voice said on the other end.
"Hey Lily," Mara asked. "Why do I have such a nice den shell?"
"Um, what?" Lily said, giggling a bit. "Because nice shells are cool? That's a weird question."
"I don't watch many ethcasts," Mara said. "It seems strange."
"You seem strange," Lily said. "What's that noise? Are you watching Touchdown?"
"No," Mara said, and tapped her handshell to turn off the game. "Anyway, what's up?"
"Are you coming to the party tonight?"
"That was the plan," Mara replied.
"Are you bringing any booze?"
"Yeah," Mara replied automatically. "I just--"
After a pause, Lily asked, "Mara?"
"It's -- no," Mara said. "I thought I had something, but I thought about it and actually I don't."
"Oh," Lily said. "Are you okay?"
"I don't know," Mara replied. "I'll see you soon."
Several hours later, Mara stumbled down the steps of the townhouse, giggling and drunk. She turned and waved at Lily, who stood in the doorway.
"Bye sweetie," she said with a big grin.
"Night night, Mara-bee," Lily said, waving. "You sure you're ok?"
"Oh, it's not far," she said, waving the idea away. She patted the shotgun at her side. "And I got my walk-home buddy right here. I'll see you at work tomorrow. Drink water."
"You too!" Lily said. "Bye!"
Mara turned and swaggered away, relieved to be free of worry for the first time that day. She hummed a tune to herself as she ambled in the general direction of her apartment, letting instinct guide her way. Her bred Washingtonian paranoia periodically swept the streets for potential dangers, but she otherwise paid little attention to her surroundings.
It was therefore a complete surprise when Mara found herself at the entrance to a Rail station.
She stopped dead upon seeing it. Not two blocks from her home, she had found a rail station that she could not ever remember using. A monolithic Rail sign stood nearby, but the name of the station was unrecognizable -- not only were the characters of the name not in any language Mara knew, it made her head hurt simply to look at them. The gaping tunnel that led down to the subterranean depths beckoned, but the light below was irregular and she couldn't make out whether the station was open.
All of the apprehension and doubt that Mara had pushed out with drink and company returned, accompanied by a cold fear whose origin Mara didn't know.
Mara was about to walk around the Rail entrance when something moved at the bottom of the stairwell. It was a lone figure, shuffling along like a wino. Indeed, as the figure walked further into Mara's view she noted that it was carrying a bottle of liquor.
Seized with a nameless terror, Mara braced her shotgun against her side and broke into a dead run away from the station. She didn't stop running until she reached the door to her apartment, and her hands shook as she fitted the key into the lock.
Even the familiarity of her apartment couldn't dispel the eerie feeling. Mara went to the kitchen, threw back a glass of water, and went to bed immediately thereafter. The alcohol's soporific effects came mercifully quickly, and Mara's consciousness drifted away.
Mara dreamt of a familiar man with a smile a girl could fall in love with. She dreamt that she gave him a 20-cred chit, and he said he'd be right back.
She dreamt of waiting at home. She dreamt of getting bored and killing time. She dreamt of falling asleep.
She woke up with a tear-streaked face and her arm thrown over a lover who wasn't there.
The next morning at work, Mara was quiet. Lily, assuming that her friend had a hangover, left her alone.
Mara stared at a map of her neighborhood, at the blank space where the Rail station had been. There was nothing there. No, search, no matter how exhaustive, turned up any record of a Rail station ever having been at that intersection. Mara alt-tabbed back to her contract manager and stared at the contract that she had been trying to work on. The terms and conditions jumbled together in her mind. Her focus was shot.
Trying again for a distraction, Mara went over her weekly personal tasks, checking her bank balance and outstanding bills. Mara ran the numbers as she always did, but this time the numbers came out wrong. She frowned and checked each balance, and the sum equation in her spreadsheet. Still short. Dramatically short.
The fear in her stomach crawled further up her body.
"Lily?" Mara asked quietly.
"Yeah?" Lily asked, a note of concern in her voice.
"How can someone at our job afford an apartment that costs 3400 creds a month?"
"Um ... savings?"
"Does my apartment seem big to you?" she asked, her voice even quieter.
"No?" Lily asked, then gave the question some thought. "Well ... yeah. Maybe a bit? You're scaring me, Mara-bee..."
"Me too," Mara whispered.
Mara arrived home to an empty apartment and dropped her bag by the door.
Rather than simply shedding the rest of her effects and logging onto one of her shells, she stood in front of the doorway and gave her apartment a careful once-over. For the first time in days, she bothered to take in the surroundings of her own home. For the first time in days she realized the incongruity of a single woman living in such a space. For the first time in days she noticed possessions that simply could not be hers; books and objects that she had no interest in whatsoever.
Her eyes lighted on a photo, which was sitting in a frame on top of her dish cabinet. She walked to it and picked up the frame. The photo was taken on a sunny day outside of the New Washington aquarium. In it, Mara smiled radiantly, her arm around the waist of a man a few inches taller than her. The man was smiling, too; it was a brilliant expression that a girl could easily fall in love with.
Rather, it would have been, if the top half of his face wasn't covered in an ugly black scribble.
Mara slapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes going wide. Her gorge rose and she rushed to the bathroom, still clutching the photo in its frame. She dropped the photo, fell to her knees, and vomited into the toilet. She threw up everything her stomach contained, but her horror was not satisfied; she writhed in the wracking pain of dry heaves for several minutes after she had vomited the last ounce of fluid she contained. Once her stomach stopped seizing, Mara collapsed to the floor and grabbed the picture with both hands.
Her face wet with tears and her throat and nose seared with bile, she screamed at the photo. "Who are you? Why don't I remember you? What happened?"
Mara stood trembling in front of the entrance to the nonexistent Rail station. She held her double-short-barreled shotgun, drawn and loaded, in her right hand. Her eyes, nose and throat burned, and the cold fear that radiated from her core easily overwhelmed the comfort of the mild summer night.
There was no one at the bottom of the stairs. After several minutes of stillness, Mara started down them. With slow, careful steps, she walked down the tunnel and into the Rail station itself.
Inside, the station was clean but completely abandoned. The lights seemed somehow dim, almost sepia-toned, and even the sound of Mara's boots against the tile floor seemed quieter than they should have been.
"Hello?" Mara called.
She walked slowly forward, toward the Rail gates. There were no sounds of travelers or trains.
As she neared the gate, one of them swung open with a shockingly loud beep. Mara started violently, aiming her shotgun at the gate. It remained open. Still holding her gun at the ready, she walked carefully through the gate.
The gate slid shut behind her. Mara whirled, and for a moment considered leaping the gate and running away from the station at top speed. Forgetting that there was anything wrong. Moving to another precinct. Drinking herself to death.
Instead, she turned the corner and walked onto the train platform.
She continued along the platform, each step deliberate and all of her senses at their most heightened. By all rights, the station appeared to be an ordinary Rail station. There were no signs of neglect or destruction, and the lights, while dim, were all on. It was, Mara thought, not unlike the station existed just on the wrong side of reality, visible and audible but muffled from the real world.
Mara's reverie was broken by a shuffling from the entrance to the platform behind her. She turned and saw the figure from her previous visit at the end of the platform from which she had come.
The figure was male, of average build and just barely taller than Mara. He wore jeans and a t-shirt, and he gripped a bottle of rum by the neck in his left hand. A black plastic liquor store shopping bag was draped over his head, obscuring most of it. All Mara could see of his face was a leer, a gross perversion of the smile that she had seen in the picture. It was not the kind of smile a girl could fall in love with.
Mara glanced behind her. She was boxed in; the exit on this side was blocked with a heavy plasteel gate. She turned back to the figure, which stood still and leered at her.
"Who are you?" she asked the figure, which still stood a good fifty paces away from her.
The figure did not respond, but began to shuffle toward her.
"That's far enough!" Mara shouted, aiming her shotgun at the man with the bottle. The man stopped.
"I ... I used to know you, I think," Mara said to the man. "I think we used to live together."
The man grinned.
"I think we were in love," Mara said. Tears began to roll down her cheeks again. "I think ... I remember you a little."
He started to shuffle forward again.
"No!" she yelled, pulling back the hammers on her shotgun. "You're not who you used to be!"
The man hesitated.
"What ... what happened?" Mara demanded. "You were ... just going to get a bottle of rum for the party. You didn't come back. Why didn't you come back?"
The man swayed in place, swinging the bottle slightly.
"Were you here when this place went to the other side?" Mara asked, lowering her shotgun slightly.
Mara blinked, and suddenly the man was running toward her, closing in impossibly fast. She shouted wordlessly and brought her shotgun to bear. Its muzzle flashed with fire and the bottle in the man's hand exploded, spraying polyglass and rum across the platform.
Before she had time to fire the other barrel, the man closed the last of the distance between them and drove what was left of the bottle into Mara's stomach. Her eyes went wide and her mouth opened in a shocked, silent scream as she felt the sharp edges of the polyglass bottle pierce the soft flesh of her belly.
The two stayed still, locked in their deadly embrace for several seconds. The man moved first, and Mara moaned as she felt a sickening tearing sensation. The bottle slowly ripped through her skin and muscle; Mara twitched spasmodically and the other barrel of her shotgun fired, scarring the tile of the station floor.
Finally the man with the bottle pulled away, his half-bottle making a nauseating sucking noise as it pulled out of Mara's midsection. She fell to her knees and heard a splattering noise; she tilted her head down on her trembling neck to numbly regard her intestines, which lay on a pile in front of her.
With tremendous effort, Mara looked back up at the man with the viscera-clogged bottle. "Why?" she gurgled.
The Bottleman started to laugh.
The next morning, an alarm beat a digital tattoo. It had been doing so for hours, but no one was there to shut it off.
A few blocks away, underground, a pair of figures stood next to each other on a train platform. One was a man in a blood-stained t-shirt and jeans. A black plastic bag was draped over his head, and in his left hand he held the shattered remains of a liquor bottle. The bottle dripped blood on the floor steadily, as though from an endless source.
Next to him stood a thin woman with bedraggled, black, curly hair. Her head lolled to the side, and her vacant eyes stared at nothing in particular. Her mouth was fixed in a wide rictus grin. Her abdomen had been torn open, and her innards were strewn down the front of her body, most of them resting on the ground. Her right hand clutched a double-short-barreled shotgun, spasmodically cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger on spent shells, over and over again.
The two stood still for a long time, then both looked up suddenly.
In an office elsewhere, Lily Favre stopped work on the mercenary contract she had been reviewing. She frowned, turned and looked at the empty cubicle across from her. She turned back to the screen, then her eyes strayed over to her message board, where the point of an ornate and beautiful throwing knife was buried.
A small, cold fear clawed in Lily's gut.
"Who ... gave me this?" she asked no one.