Coming this May 2017! New Cyberpunk Thriller series Thrall State.
In the early 21st century, the global community was shattered. Following the 72 Hour War, many of the world’s biggest countries closed their borders.
20 year old retired mercenary Rian has been a ghost for four years. When his past catches up with him, however, he is reluctantly forced to repay his late father’s debt. In the process, he discovers the world around him has changed, and that London may be an even more dangerous place than ever.
I perused the snack aisle with intent. My heart sank, however, upon spotting the chocolate digestives. The price had increased. Again. It had been steadily creeping up on what seemed like a weekly basis, though was probably more like every few months. The plain ones were still reasonable, but let’s face it, that wasn’t nearly the same. All the chocolate, it seemed, was more expensive than it had been a week ago. Sighing, I grabbed one tube of chocolate digestives. At this rate, I was going to have squandered all of my inheritance funding the UK cocoa project. I was just glad that I’d given up coffee.
Glancing across at the shop window, I noticed the light was fading. Very soon, it would reach that point where day becomes night. I didn’t want to be meandering through the streets after dark, so I hurried on to the crisps section. Crisps were much more affordable. For me, they were neither as filling nor as sweet as biscuits, but I had to start being more economically responsible. I grabbed a couple of multi-bags, and made my way over to the fridges. I passed by the counter. The guy behind the till, a large, middle-aged Greek man by the name of Darrius, was fiddling with the register. No doubt locking away the bulk of the cash before the nigh-time ‘rush’.
I grabbed a two pinter of milk, and made my way back towards Darrius. Along the way, the magazine rack caught my eye. Most of the publications were little more than corporate brochures, pushing commercial products between thinly veiled ‘editorials’. The newspapers, too, were all filled with headlines about the great good that various large corporations were doing for the people of London. I glanced out of the window again. The boarded up stores, and poorly dressed pedestrians begged to differ. I avoided politics when at all possible. At just twenty years old, I’d had enough of it for a lifetime. The cover of Intech Magazine boasted a huge 18 page feature on upgrades. ‘Completely safe, competitively priced’. Setting my grocery basket down, I started to flick through it, my curiosity getting the better of me.
There was a bit about the history of upgrades. The UK government had declared them legal in 2061. Of course, this was after UK government had been privatised, and the governing party at the time was a private medical conglomerate with a large bionics arm. The article, of course, only focused on the legal upgrades. Vision enhancement, internal orthotics, and integrated prosthetics for the injured, crippled, and those with disabilities. Things seemed to have moved on a lot in even just the four years I’d been retired. The list of available enhancements was becoming huge, as were the costs.
“Darrius,” I called out. He turned to look over at me. I held the magazine up. “Who’s buying this?” I asked him. He narrowed his eyes, examining the cover of the magazine.
“People dream,” he said by way of explanation. I looked out of the window once more.
“Not here,” I replied.
“Even here,” he insisted, shrugging. I put the magazine down, and made my way over the counter.
“Michael, how have you been?” he asked me. Even after three years, I was still getting used to that name.
“Same as last week,” I told him. “Same as always. What’s the deal with the biscuits?” I asked. “I’m sure these have doubled in price.” He looked at the biscuits with interest.
“I don’t make hardly any money on them,” he told me. “The supplier charges more, I have to charge more. Do you know how much it costs to make chocolate?” I shrugged. “A lot,” he said. “It’s even more expensive now to smuggle it in, since the crackdown. It’s supply and demand.” He went back to fiddling with something behind the counter. As I peered closer, I could see he was cleaning a weapon. It wasn’t his usual personal pistol, though. It was a monster of a gun, with three barrels and a shoulder stock.
“Darrius, what is that thing?” I asked him, aghast. He looked up at me, and a proud smile appeared on his face.
“Protection, isn’t it?” he replied. I raised an eyebrow.
“If someone tries to rob you, and you use that thing, I think you’ll be the one arrested,” I warned him. A look of disgust appeared on his face. He leaned towards me.
“Two men came in a couple of weeks ago, tried to clean out the till,” he said.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” I replied with concern. “What happened?”
“I waved my pistol around, they left, it was fine,” he said, shrugging it off. “I called the police? Took them three days to come. Three days. My commercial law and order plan says they’re supposed to come in four hours. So I cancelled my subscription, bought this instead!” His expression brightened as he held it up. I looked around to see if anyone was watching.
“Put it down,” I said. “You cancelled your law and order subscription? Doesn’t that affect your insurance?” I asked him. He shook his head.
“I’ve been robbed too many times. My premiums are top price anyway,” he said, shrugging. I shook my head.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, and it was genuine. Darrius had been nothing but nice to me since I’d been shopping there. When I’d first moved to the area, I hadn’t spoken to anyone. I lived in a block with several floors, and never even said so much as hello to a neighbour. But Darrius had been pretty persistent at engaging me in conversation. He was a bear of a man, with long curly black hair, and an overgrown goatee. I wouldn’t have wanted to try to rob him. Forget the gun, he looked like he could twist a man’s head off with his bear hands. He was, though, a thoroughly good guy. He rang my items up, and I paid in cash, as I always did.
“Hey, you know my niece is living with us now?” he asked. I nodded. “I was thinking, she’s around your age. A bit younger, I think. Maybe you could take her out?” I frowned at him
“Take her out?” I repeated back to him, confused.
“Yeah, you know. Take her out. Go out for dinner. Or to a club. You know.” I realised what he was saying, and I took a step back in surprise.
“You want me to date your niece?” I asked him. “Me?” He shrugged, looking hurt.
“You don’t have a girlfriend, do you?” he asked. Then, he looked me up and down appraisingly. “Or is that not your thing?”
“No, it’s not that,” I replied, shaking my head. He’d taken my surprise the wrong way. The thought of anyone thinking that I would be a good choice of boyfriend seemed crazy to me, but then, it was easy to forget that Darrius didn’t really know who I was. Who I’d been. “It’s just… I think she could do better, you know? I mean, I don’t have a job. I live in a tiny flat. I just think there are better options out there.”
“Out there?” he asked, motioning to the street.
“Well, maybe not right there, but somewhere,” I replied. “I’m not really relationship material.” Darrius shrugged, still looking a little hurt at the rejection. “Maybe in a few months, if she hasn’t met anyone by then,” I suggested, more to appease him than anything.
“OK,” he said, brightening a little. “You better get home,” he said, looking out at the sky. “It’s starting to get dark. The streets are not so good when its dark.” I picked up my grocery bag, and thanked him.
“Good luck tonight,” I told him. “And seriously, you might want to think about trading back down,” I said, nodding towards the shotgun on the stool next to him. “Guns don’t do anyone any good.” I stepped out into the street, and began the walk home.
The streets were starting to empty. There were a few people still around, but most were hurrying to get home. The night owls had yet come out. In many ways, it was the most eerie time of day. The air had the chill of evening about it, and the last deep blue of the sky was disappearing behind the tall buildings towards the north. I worried for Darrius. There were fewer and fewer shops staying open after dark in that part of London. The welcoming light was like a beacon to punks and thieves. Even I didn’t like to be out at night anymore, and I felt like I could take care of myself as well as anyone. The more well-lit areas, with bars and clubs weren’t so bad. Those that preyed on the weak shied away from crowds. In the dark, narrow back-streets around Southwark, however, it just wasn’t safe.
I tried to remember what it had been like before, when I was still a child. We’d lived in a less urban area, further south, on London’s outskirts. As a result, we hadn’t suffered the same problems as those in the more densely populated parts of the city. Many, though, seemed unconcerned. The nighttime crowds were just starting to appear. Kids who hung out on the streets in groups, with no fear that they might be marked as targets. An old man, walking a large, brutish looking dog. A couple of young women, on their way to Saunders, or The Junction, or one of the other local bars. They didn’t seem to realise the danger they were putting themselves in, walking through these streets unprotected. Maybe they didn’t care anymore. If life was going to be rough anyway, if they were all just going to be slaves to the commercial giants, maybe they just wanted to take pleasures where they could.
Or maybe, they just didn’t know the things that I knew. Hadn’t seen the things that I’d seen. London was a wounded animal. A lion, hurt and threatened, paralysed by its injuries. At any time, though, it could bare its teeth once more, and lash out, causing carnage around it. The city’s population had accepted the status quo. This was life, and they were just getting on with living it. How long, though, before it all imploded?
I was startled from my thoughts by the sound of motorbikes, roaring through the narrow streets. They shot past me, in a line. Five of them. Electric bikes, all with bright, neon lighting in different colourings. One of the gangs. Maybe just off for a ride. Maybe with more sinister intentions. It was rare to see vehicles in this part of town. During the day, there’d be the occasional taxi. Electric bikes were more common. Mostly, though, it was bicycles. Commuters could uncoil them, jump on, and then ride to one of the overground trolleys, or to one of the underground stations. As I got nearer to home, I came across more gangs of kids. Some around my age, others just teenagers. A couple of girls yelled something at me. I glanced at them across the road, expecting angry faces etched with malice. Instead I saw interested glances, until they got a closer look. Then, their enthusiasm went. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a window as I passed. I looked rough. My hair had reached a length where I couldn’t do anything with it. I had a wispy, blond beard growing out. My facial hair had come in late, only starting to grow a couple of years previously, and I’d never shaved it. I hadn’t cut my hair for some time either, since my clippers had given out. I wasn’t tall, either, though I was pretty broad. In the last couple of years, I had become more barrel-shaped, my depth catching up to my width. Seeing my neglected self looking back at me, I found it even more odd that Darrius had seemed so intent on setting me up with his niece.
I had no intention of cleaning myself up, though. I had no reason too. Looking rough meant I was less likely to be targeted by gangs, who were usually looking for cash. I didn’t have anyone to look smart for. I wouldn’t be going for any job interviews or anything. Well, not for another couple of years at least. When the time came, I wasn’t sure what I would do. When I’d retired, I’d had no pension plan to speak of. I was just living off of my inheritance, such as it was. As I turned into my street, I was taken aback by an exceedingly rare sight. There was a car parked down the road. Not a small electric one, either. It was a gas guzzler. A black minivan, pretty new by the looks of it. I hadn’t realised they still made vehicles of its type in the UK. My understanding was that automobiles by that point were either really big, like trucks, or really small and efficient. I got a closer look at it as I walked past to the entrance to my block. The windows were tinted. The registration seemed to be a recent one, though I wasn’t exactly up to speed on the registration system.
I punched my code in, pushed my thumb to the plate, and made my way into the lobby. As per usual, there was no mail for me. That was a good thing. If I’d received any, either addressed to Michael or to my real name, I’d have been very concerned. I made my way up the three flights of stairs. There was no lift in my building. I was sure that when I’d originally moved in, the stairs were nothing to me. They seemed to be becoming more and more of a chore, though. After two flights, my breathing was heavy. As I reached the top of the third, there was sweat trickling down my lower back. I shook my head. It was ridiculous. I needed to be in much better shape than I was. When had it gotten so out of control?
Walking down the corridor, I saw two fresh vomit stains, and what was either a smear of blood, or something even more disgusting along one of the walls. I turned the corner, and approached my door. As I got closer, though, it became obvious that something wasn’t right. As I drew nearer to my flat, I began to sweat again. My breathing became even more shallow. I felt a deep pit in the reaches of my stomach. I could see light, too much of it, outlining my front door. It wasn’t that I hadn’t left the light on. I may well have. It was that the line of light was far too thick. My door wasn’t completely closed. My fears were confirmed when I looked down at the handle. The lock had been broken. It was a neat job, almost imperceptible if you weren’t really looking. The door had fallen ajar by a good couple of inches, though. Someone had broken in to my flat.