“You have to get it back,” said the girl with the sharp amethyst eyes. “Like hell,” I shot back. “I’m not bleeding anymore than I have to today.” I was shirtless in the communal bathroom of the slum apartments I resided in Lowtown. I had an angry red gash widthwise across my chest. It wasn’t deep, I’d been able to avoid most of the knife when Fish Face had ambushed me. But I’d need to get it taken care of quick.I held the strip of med-tape, trying to adjust it to fit over the wound with Valerie glaring at me all the while. Damn distracting. “Nathan,” she said, her tone edged. “I need that pendant.” “Valerie,” I said, matching her tone and fiddling with the tape, “I can get you more cheap, ugly jewelry somewhere else-” I felt my body be pushed sideways and in the space of a heartbeat Valery pinned me to the wall, forearm pushed into my neck. Um…ow. “I paid you to get that pendant,” her mouth curled into a vicious snarl. We were of a height, though she was a couple years older than I. Though that was just a guess. Valerie was fifteen, but I wasn’t sure exactly how old I was. People said that’s what I looked like so I went with that. I had better things to care about.I could have twisted out of her lock, but she wasn’t crushing my throat. She was just making a point. I shot daggers at her. “I got jumped, I-” “You got sloppy, Nathan. How long have you been stealing from shops? You’re going to finish the job.” Her attitude brooked no argument, so I didn’t bother. I just shot defiance at her violet eyes. The exotic color was a throwback from several generations ago when cosmetic genetics were all the rage. Combined with her ruthless determination, the near-alien gaze made her quite intimidating. I knew her well enough though to not be affected by that. For the most part. She held my gaze, waiting for me to give up. After about a minute I got bored. “Fine. I’ll head into Darktown and track him down.” Valerie nodded, satisfied. She took the tape from my fingers, pulled the adhesive strip, slapped it on my cut pulling the red tag. I bit down a scream as the tape sizzled, binding to my flesh and releasing medicine. Painful as all hell, but handy. “You take too long. We need to get moving.” “We?” I managed to bite out through the pain. “You’re not coming with.” “I’m going,” she said and headed out of the bathroom. I rolled my eyes and threw back on my shirt, wincing at every movement as the tape worked its magic.I never allowed myself to feel attracted to someone. That meant I had to trust, had to let my guard down. Too much of a liability. But if I would have let myself feel those things, I could have felt those things for Valerie. We had to steal a car. She drove. That suited me fine, the less I had to do on this suicidal errand the better. I looked out the window, watching Lowtown pass me by. It was mid-morning, people were now coming out in droves on their way to work, on their way to look for work, or on their way to drive someone out of work. There was a time, before the tsunami almost washed Long Island off the map, that people lived in safety, had jobs, families. Paradise. Now there were only remnants of that old world, rotting billboards promoting products that had long since been discontinued. There was a single standing moving graphic billboard, fabric screen, not the more standard holography on the other side of the Fence. There was a woman with chestnut hair, smiling at the viewers holding up some sort of hair beauty product that ninety percent of the people who lived here couldn’t afford. She winked and bit her lip, enticing her viewers. As if buying this product would make them as desirable as she was. I blinked, a small headache coming on, and looked away. “Okay, let’s go over the plan again,” Valerie said. My headache started growing. “We’ve already gone over the plan. It’s not that complicated-”“I’ve already called my contact in Darktown,” she continued as if I hadn’t spoken, “He’s set up a meet with a speaker for the Blades.”I inhaled sharply though my teeth. The Blades were arguably one of the more unbalanced and unpredictable gangs in Darktown. Leadership changed bi-yearly and it was never bloodless. The only thing that had kept them from folding I think was their legitimate businesses: liquor stores, a few restaurants in Lowtown, and a few other amenities here and there. It was pretty brilliant base actually, most up-and-comers went down-and-out if they lost a shipment of drugs or their prostitution ring broke a link.But still, with each regime change brought a host unknown policies that varied, even inconsistent within a single leader. It would have been better to meet with one of the more stable gangs like the Wolves or the Darks.“So we go in,” she said with lazy confidence, “meet with the speaker, and explain the situation.” I pulled out my folding knife. It was the single most expensive item I owned and I took it with me only for special occasions. I had a few other homemade shivs hidden on me within easy reach. “You make is sound like a walk in the park.” I flicked open the knife, a satisfying sharp click as the knife locked into place. “You know how much can go wrong with this plan?” “And you’ve got a better idea?” “Go home and forget about it,” I said simply. “Not an option.” “Is there something you’re not telling me about the stupid pendant?” Valerie’s amethyst eyes flashed with a bit of regret. “Yes. It’s safer if you don’t know.”It was irritating that Valerie felt it was safer if I didn’t know. But I yielded to her judgment. It had saved my life before. I grunted an affirmative and put my knife away. We rode the rest of the way in silence. The headache went away but my gut kept tugging at me telling me I was deeper into something than I realized. But it was for Valerie, so I ignored it. Darktown in the day wasn’t too scary. The cops ran their regular, if sparse, patrols and most everyone out on the streets were legit. But come nightfall, it became something else entirely. Patrols were all but non-existent, and those that frequented there were crooked. There were plenty of shadows to hide drug deals, murder, prostitution, the works. Then in the morning, everyone would just quietly clean up and say nothing except to stay off the streets at night. I avoided Darktown as much as possible. The tug in my gut pulled harder.The liquor store looked legitimate enough from the outside. I kept my guard up and eyes open though. We pulled up on the street, directly in front of the store. And we went in, letting Valerie taking point. The store manager was smoking, eyeing us suspiciously. He probably had some sort of weapon under the counter and was just waiting for an excuse to use it. The manager’s office opened and a man squinted at us. “You Valerie?” Valerie nodded. “This is Nathan. He’s with me.” The man glowered at me. “I don’t know you.” I made my voice sound unconcerned. “I’m just the muscle, Squints.” Smokes gave a small chuckle and a tiny cloud framed his face. Squints growled, but he opened the door for us. The manager’s office, tiny but functional, had a neatish hole in the wall opening up into the gutted building adjacent to it. A filing cabinet slid closed behind us once we were inside.It was a modest office, obviously retrofitted from the building’s original purpose. Maybe a library. There were three men, Bulky and Brawny, both flanking Bossman who sat at an oddly ornate desk, the kind you’d expect to find in a business tycoon’s office. “I hear you ran into trouble with one of our runners, yes?” Bossman said, his voice higher pitched than I would have thought, but carried no less command. “Not sure exactly what you expect me to do about it. He was doing his job, am I right?” “He can do his job all he likes,” Valerie said, striding to the front of the desk. There were no chairs in front of it. “I just want my stuff back.” “My runners aren’t in the habit of returning their merchandise.” Bossman said, sounding painfully polite. “I’m sure something can be arranged.” Bossman tilted his head to Valerie. “You have very gorgeous eyes, no?”My gut twisted hard and I knew at once we were in trouble. Something was off, something wasn’t right. I moved to Valerie’s side before- My entire body exploded in pain all at once, starting in my back and coursing over my body like a tidal wave. I couldn’t even scream, fireworks exploded behind my eyes. Everything was amplified, I heard Bossman’s mild chuckle as a booming raucous. Valerie fell beside me and every muscle in my body demanded that I join her. I fought to stay upright and mostly succeeded. “And strong, this one.” I heard Bossman say, sounding like he was screaming into my head, though he was probably only murmuring to himself. I felt someone push me to the side from behind. The concrete ground rushed forward to hold me its embrace. I was barely able to throw my arms up to protect my face, the movements sluggish, and more on muscle memory than conscious act. I hit, rolled gracelessly, and caught a glimpse of Smoker and Squints, the former holding some sort of gun that looked like a toy more than anything. I found myself on my back looking at the water damaged ceiling and fighting to keep from blacking out. Rest felt so nice. Bossman started issuing orders, they sounded like battle cries of a military general but I figured they were calm, precise and routine. It hurt too much to pay attention. I had been so stupid. This was a trap all along. A pretty girl calls up wanting something, given directions, and then taken. I should have seen it, it was too simple. Valerie’s exotic looks would make her a prime ‘product’ in any prostitution ring. And I had let it happen. I had let it happen to my Valerie. Fury surged through me, a fire lit my soul and surged through my body. I felt sensation again, control, my fingers tightened into fists.“Take this one and toss him in the bay. We won’t need him, yes?” There were scattered chuckles and somewhere along the line my hearing had returned to somewhat normal. Or maybe it was just dulled behind the hot blood pouring through my ears. Hands grabbed me and lifted me. I moved. One of the shivs I held in my sleeve was still in place, and I pulled it out with my left and slashed at the first bit of skin I could find. It was Smoker’s throat. Smoker’s eyes widened as blood fell in a sheet over his shirt and his cigarette fell out of his slack mouth.I kept moving.With my right I pulled out my knife from my belt and twisted it, burying it up to the hilt into Squint’s chest. It’s hard to stab someone in the heart, the ribs tend to get in the way. But my aim was perfect, hot blood fountained onto my hand and sleeve. I kept moving. I spun around again to where I knew Bossman to be, my knife freed, soaked in blood, lusting for more. Bossman was only a few strides away, his eyes wide with fear, and I knew within seconds I could close the distance and- The silly toy gun he was now holding coughed and a glob of electric blue goo splatted into my chest. Immediately, the same sensation of pure pain washed over me. This time I couldn’t hold myself up and I fell to the ground. I heard yelling, screaming only because the words were so much louder than I had heard anything before and threatened to rip the eardrums out of my head. I felt my body being flipped over. “YOU DID THIS!” Bossman leveled the not-toy gun at me and pulled the trigger again. Goo flew and I felt the pain redoubling, blocking any other sensation. I felt myself convulsing. The last thing I saw before darkness took me was the bottom of the Bossman’s boot. It didn’t even hurt as he stepped on my face. I woke in a cage. That I had woken at all was some sort of minor miracle. They had me dead to rights. Though I somehow suspected I might be better off dead. I couldn’t move, my body hummed and tingled with sensation. I had barely enough strength and will to look around. It was a modestly sized warehouse, dirty and rundown, the windows boarded or covered in grime, the only light coming from the center of the warehouse. At the center there looked to be some sort of portable medical theatre. There was a skinny tech in a lab coat messing with a tray of medicine. Another was at the raised slab, wearing an apron and washing his hands at a portable sink. Bossman’s lackeys were stationed around the warehouse, on lookout or guard duty. The cage I was locked in was the kind that held big dogs at a pound, barely enough for me to stretch in. There were a dozen others clustered nearby. All of them filled with young girls. All of them, even Valerie, were quiet except for the occasional sobs.I had seen this set-up once before. The girls would be sedated, injected with a tracking device so they couldn’t escape and made to be addicted to a controlled substance. It was usually heroine or the like, but there were some fancy drugs on the market that were more reliable and didn’t have the same debilitating effect as narcotics. Honestly, I hoped it was narcotics. No one should go through what these girls would go through sober.I saw Neil, the Fish Face who had jumped me earlier that day and had started this whole mess, near the entrance talking with Bossman. Fish Face carried a rucksack and holding up the stupid ugly, more-trouble-than-it-was-worth pendant. They were looking it over and talking trying to assess its value. Probably wondering why Valerie had been so intent on it. I saw Bossman shrug. Fish Face, his beady watery eyes and pinched face, causing me irrational anger.I decided I blamed him for all this. Valerie would have gotten her damned pendant and all this wouldn’t have been here.I saw Valerie a few cages up from me, her eyes intent on the rucksack. She noticed me. I saw the despair in her amethyst eyes. That frightened me. She should have been fighting with all her will. Maybe she already had.I looked back to Fish Face and found I had just enough strength to snarl.“I’m going to bury you Fish Face. I’ll dump your corpse in the bay.”I don’t think too many people cared what I said. Fish Face did, he looked at me and sweat beaded on his pale skin. Bossman only smiled.Apron looked up and saw me. His eyes narrowed quizzically. “What’s this one for?” he called out to Bossman. “A present. He killed two of my men. I want him to suffer.” Apron smiled. It was a wide, disgusting smile, much like a toad’s. His eyes glinted with demented glee. “My pleasure.” Something yanked hard at my gut, my innards all but tying themselves into knots. All at once I had this suspicion that I wasn’t looking at what I thought I was looking at. Some of the lackeys brought out bins, a lot of them. All had ice at the bottom. Apron pulled out a surgical kit from the tray of pharmaceuticals. The bottom fell out of my stomach as I figured out what all this meant. Organ harvesting. Holy hell! Sheer unbridled terror rippled through me and though I still felt numb, my limbs started shaking. Every one of these girls were going to be eviscerated and sold off as parts. Valerie was going to be eviscerated and sold off as parts. That’s why Bossman was interested in her eyes.I would have screamed if I could, puked if I could, instead I could only lie there limp as a rag doll waiting my turn to have my body scooped out and- A man entered the front door. He wasn’t a big man, normal height and weight, forty-something, a shock of brown hair tickled with grey, and wore a dark business suit under a darker canvas duster. It was his presence that was big, he walk right in as if he owned this nightmare factory. But from the looks of confusion, anger, and aggression, I figure he probably didn’t though. Bossman approached, while the stranger quietly assessed the layout of the warehouse. “Who the hell are you?” The stranger opened the duster wide enough so everyone could see he was pulling out a wallet and not a weapon. The man opened his wallet and something metallic shone as he spoke with a British accent. “I am Agent Emerson of Special Intelligence.” The reaction was instantaneous. Everyone who wasn’t locked in a cage pulled out a gun and trained it on English, even skinny Lab Coat guy. “You think you can arrest all of us, Fed?” Bossman said, weapon pointed directly at English’s head. It wasn’t the stun gun either. English for his part looked mildly amused as he put his wallet back. “Well, aren’t you all precious? If I was here in an official government capacity, you really think all of you wouldn’t have little red dots pointed at your chests?” Some of the less bright lackeys looked down to check. English rolled his eyes. “Fine, brilliant lot you are. I’m here on behalf of your benefactor.”Bossman flinched. “You work for Sinclair?”English huffed out an irritated breath. “Sinclair is a paper-pushing moron who gets pissy if he gets a paper cut. Oh and he says you still owe him that forty.”Bossman burst out into laughter. “Sinclair has a twisted streak, agreed.” Bossman lowered his weapon, his lackeys took his cue.Great, a dirty Fed. Any other day this would have made me freak. Corrupt cops did a lot of damage here, arguably more than most of the gangs.“What is the message?”“Pack up and scrub out. The local police will be on you within a half-hour.”The warehouse went dead silent. The lackeys looked nervous, and the not so bright ones started looking around as if authorities were already there. Apron and Lab Coat traded looks and I could see the gears turning between them. Bossman looked irritably inconvenienced.“You buried the lead a bit, yes?”“Would it have been more effective if I had rushed in and screamed at the top of my lungs for everyone to leave? Everyone needs to pack up and go, now. Dump the bodies and leave town. Move!”People started moving, Apron and Lab Coat efficiently packed up their essentials, while the rest were less organized.“Stop,” Bossman said. Everyone froze.English looked impatient. “You have something more pressing?”Bossman took a step forward, like a tiger approaching his prey. “I don’t know you, you don’t give orders. These are my people, yes?”English rolled his eyes. “These are not my orders. I’m just the messenger.”“See, I don’t think I believe you. If Rene wanted to tell me to bail, he would have called me.”“Right,” English scoffed. “Because Rene regularly gets involved with you folk.” His voice dripped with contempt. Bossman’s eyes blazed with wrath and he pulled out his phone and dialed a number. English tapped his hand to his thigh and his face contorted in displeasure, but said nothing. Bossman dialed the number and talked on his phone.“Yeah I got an Agent Emerson here, SI. He’s telling me there is going to be a raid on the chop shop.”There was a pause as Bossman listened. Bossman nodded, frowned, the nodded again.“Alright, I’ll take care of it.” Bossman pulled out his gun and held it squarely between English’s eyes. “Rene’s never heard of you. You think you’re so clever, yes? You’re not the first Fed I’ve killed and-” For the second time in as many hours, my world exploded. This time it was different, instead of agonizing pain that amplified everything, it was almost a soothing wave that drowned everything out. It came from everywhere it seemed like. Sounds were muddy to the point of inaudibility, and my vision bounced as if he were sitting on an engine block. Men burst through every window in eerie silence, men in tactical armor and face masks. They moved swiftly while the rest of the lackeys and captured women seemed to be wildly disoriented. I didn’t know if it was because my bell had already been thoroughly rung, but I felt like I was handling it better than most. Lightning without thunder flashed and three of the tactical men went down in a bloody mess. Some idiot had used a grenade. I found a sort of panicked strength and I could suddenly move, not perfectly but good enough. I kicked right at the lock that held the cage shut. There was a groan of protest I felt through my foot rather than heard and the cage door swung open. I didn’t look to the chaos, didn’t want to see the muzzle flashes, the people screaming in silence, the blood misting in the air. I just got out and kicked at the lock of Valerie’s cage. It broke open the same as mine. I scooped her out of the cage and was vaguely aware of her both trying to help me and fight me. She probably didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t even know what was happening. I just knew we had to leave. A smallish, metal-can looking thing bounced toward me. I didn’t think, didn’t give the bowel-emptying terror time to react while I scooped the damned thing up and flung it as far away from anything as possible. I had the best and worse aim imaginable. When the grenade went off, it hit one of the shoddy load bearing walls. The warehouse began to crumble. Oops. I shouted a warning, though I know no one could hear me, and charged for the entrance heedless of any other danger. Valerie must have regained her focus because she was running under her own power and we both ambulated forward, hand in hand. The fear must have registered on our faces because anyone who looked at us stopped and looked at what we were running from and either did one of three things: stopped and stared, stopped and screamed, or ran like hell. We passed a mortified Fish Face and Valerie, ever determined to get the God-forsaken pendant snatched the rucksack from his hands. I don’t think Fish Face even reacted. We powered through the door and never looked back. We just ran, and ran, and ran… I must have blacked out at some point because I found myself in a strange car. Valerie was driving, the rucksack held close to her side.Everything in my body ached. “Are we safe?” I asked, my words slurred and clumsy, but I felt my mind pulling itself together.Valerie nodded.A thought occurred to me. “Did the other girls survive?” I had only had time to grab Valerie. I didn’t even think of everyone else, and with the building collapsing…“From what I heard after, only the back half fell.” Her voice was flat and dead of emotion.I nodded.We didn’t say much else on the ride back, didn’t really need to, didn’t really want to. Dusk was approaching by the time we ditched the car roughly in the same spot we found it and made it home. The nightlife was just warming up, alcohol, music, and the more seedy transactions starting to lift their heads. They had no idea how good they had it. Kittens at play compared to what happened. My face was broken, the tape on my chest had ripped and I was bleeding again. I didn’t care though. I wanted to just shut myself away from the world forever. “I’m leaving, Nathan,” Valerie told me once I got her to the outside of her apartment, life creeping into her words again. “Leaving where?” I asked. “I’m going over the Fence.” Valerie pulled me into her apartment. It was empty of people, her roommates most likely off partying. She took the stupid, ugly pendant, the damn thing that had made this day a living hell, and smashed it against the wall, shattering the cheap plastic bindings. I blinked, not quite sure how to react. Valerie picked at the broken, plastic clasp and a little white shard of something popped out.There were still wisps of sunset streaming through the mostly broken and boarded windows and the tiny shard fell into one of them. For the barest of instants the tiny, dirty, cramped apartment was brilliantly lit, as if a tiny sun had snuck in and peeped into the confined space. Then it was gone, and the shard, which was not a shard, clattered against the bare floor, somehow sounding musical. Valerie snatched it off the ground and held it up to me. It was a tiny diamond, no bigger than half a pinky nail. It reflected a world more beautiful than reality. “My grandmother gave me this, before she died,” her voice was a low whisper, “Told me what it was. I have the certificate, it’s all legit. We got robbed and I’ve been looking for this for five years.” She stepped forward, so close that our breaths intertwined “Come with me,” she said. “I want you with me.” That sparked something in me. To leave this place, to go out and experience what I had only seen in vids, to walk the same streets as the beautiful people plastered on every advertisement. It was tempting, so tempting. To be able to taste that kind of luxury. This little gem wouldn’t be able to buy everything, but it was a start. A start was more than most people here got. “No,” I heard myself saying. Though her face remained steady, a tear blossomed in her violet eyes and tumbled down her cheek. “Why not?” “My place is here.” Valerie nodded. “And it’s not with me.” It wasn’t a question. A knot tightened in my throat. I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak. Valerie kissed my hair and left. It was for the best, long good-byes were never our style. When she left though, it felt like she was taking a part of me with her. I closed her apartment door after me and walked down the hall to my room. I passed my door and kept walking. I couldn’t return there, not without her. I didn’t begrudge her leaving, I wished her well. But I couldn’t stay here without her. I had something to do, I was sure of it. It nagged at me. Something compelled me to stay and I couldn’t place my finger on it. I walked the street, the night life starting to bloom. But none of it mattered to me, I didn’t care. Why not go with her, I thought to myself. A sudden thought came to me, if we left together, then maybe I could finally feel something for her… “Boy!” A small body fell to the ground and quickly got on its feet in front of a bakery. “If I see you sniffing around here again, I’ll beat you until your mother bleeds!” The baker was red with rage. The boy, not even eight, shot the baker a lude gesture. “I already banged your mother!” The baker went off on a tirade, drawing looks from all the passers by. I walked past the scene and the front of the baker’s shop without breaking stride. I rounded the corner and saw the baker had given the boy another kick and the boy stalked away, limping slightly. Without going past the bakery again, I moved through the streets until I caught up with the boy. He had tucked himself in an alley, holding his knees and crying. His little body rocking on his heels. “Hey kid,” I said. Immediately the boy stood up, a tiny knife in his hand. “Get away! I’ll gut you!” I smirked and reached into my jacket and pulled out one of the two sweet rolls I’d managed to pilfer while walking past the bakery. The boy’s eyes went as wide as saucers. I tossed on of the rolls to him and he snatched it out of the air. It was too big for him to hold in one hand, and he guarded it greedily. “Best to save some for later. It’ll keep for a day or two. Don’t try to steal from vendors until you’re ready. Practice on passers-by first, random little things until you get good at it.” The boy’s eyes flickered from me to the roll and back, delight and suspicion intertwined. “What are you trying to do?” the boy demanded I shrugged. “Trying to make a difference.” I pulled out my own sweet roll and headed out of the alley to try exactly that.