Authors: Kirk Dougal
Edited by J.M. Martin & Tim Marquitz
Cover Design by Shawn T. King
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Created in the United States of America
Published by PER ASPERA PRESS
Associate Editor: Jak Koke
An Imprint of Ragnarok Publications
Publisher: Tim Marquitz | Creative Director: J.M. Martin
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Kegan, never let anyone—including yourself—stand between you and your dreams.
Table of Contents
If they caught him again they would kill him.
Tar sprinted across the street, dodging the grill of a 1970s-era Chrysler that had more rust on it than green paint. That made it a government vehicle since only city workers and the rich could afford gas and nobody with money would be seen in that car.
The driver shouted a curse but stopped mid-word, rolling up his window when a group of older boys ran around his car after Tar. It was one thing to cuss out a lone fifteen-year-old, it was quite another to provoke a group of twenty-somethings wearing the local blue and orange gang colors.
Tar never heard the driver. He was too busy running for his life.
It had been stupid of him to travel this far downtown. In San Jose the gangs wandered openly up and down the streets with no fear. They were the law in this neighborhood. Their territory. Their turf.
And Tar had told them “no.”
That wasn’t exactly true; he had never said the word. He had smashed his heel down hard on the boy’s foot, the one who’d been holding his arms, and felt the toes crack beneath his shoe. The gang member had screamed and let go, allowing Tar the opportunity to rip his backpack out of the leader’s hands and run.
Although his pursuers were bigger Tar was able to keep the gap he had opened when the Chrysler cut them off. But now his lungs were starting to burn and his feet felt ten pounds heavier. He would never make it back home to the south side, at least not in one piece.
He ran past empty storefronts, his shoes on the sidewalk echoing off all the boarded-up windows. It was the only sound on the street. This block had died when most of its owners went away.
Above him the ever-present gray haze hung in the sky and Tar blinked through the sweat running down his face. Ahead on the next block he saw flashing neon lights and people wandering, heard the rumbling of music, and the blare of voices shouting for shoppers to buy at their stores. It was a bright spot of life in a dark and dreary backdrop.
He hoped the people would slow the bangers chasing him, counting on his small size to help him dart quickly through the sparse crowd. Unfortunately, they parted like curtains in a breeze, blowing back with his passing, getting out of his way and moving even farther apart for the group of hunters on his trail. Some of the people looked away in shame from Tar’s pleading eyes but no one wanted to be blamed for helping him. No one wanted to become the hunted.
Two more blocks and the crowds thinned, the empty street opening up in front of Tar again. He chanced a quick look over his shoulder and immediately felt his legs lighten. He was still a long way from his part of the city but he must be nearing the edge of the gang’s territory. Most of them had already fallen back, slowing to a jog while they looked side to side at the buildings.
Not the gang leader, though. He was still pounding along about half a block behind Tar.
“I’m goin’ aggro on you,” the older boy yelled between gulps of air. “You’ll be 404 so long your momma’ll think you’re hard boot.”
But Tar ignored the threat. He had finally found what he was looking for: the store on the corner with the sign hanging from only one side, swinging gently back and forth over the sidewalk. The chipped paint said it had been a hardware store at one time, back before The Crash. He had searched this building earlier in the day for bits of metal and anything useful so he knew it was just a hollow shell.
But it was also his escape.
He swung wide and cut down the side street, pushing himself for a last bit of speed until he stood, panting, at the building’s tall, metal door. It loomed up in the wall but Tar’s eyes never left the security box alongside it. He slapped his hand down on the box’s scratched, rusting surface.
His palm tingled as soon as his skin made contact.
In his mind Tar saw a series of lines and dots, light flying down a path until it reached a dead end. His thoughts retreated and tried a different route, quickly jumping around the blocked point until finding the way to the end.
A green light came on above his fingers and the bolt clicked. Tar yanked the door open and pulled it shut behind him. The metal closed off the light and left him in darkness. He heard the door latch slide and a red light flashed on the security box on the inside wall.
He waited until he could barely hear the gang leader’s muffled footsteps race past the doorway and on down the side street. Tar slid along the wall and sat in the dust, finally catching his breath. The gang leader might backtrack, looking for signs of where his quarry had disappeared, but it didn’t matter, the door was locked. Now Tar just had to wait until nightfall. Only the desperate walked the streets after dark——and that described him at the moment——but at least he would make it home now without bangers on his heels the whole way.
This was as safe as things got after The Crash.
Tar slipped through the side door of the apartment building, shutting it softly behind him and listening to the bolt lock back into place. He waited in the semi-dark, one bare bulb down the hall struggling to defeat the shadows, and took note of the voices above him for a few seconds before he smiled.
He had made it home.
Tar walked past the elevator—he had never known a time when it worked—and went straight to the stairway on the other side. He was only on the fourth step, each one creaking louder than the last, when an old man rounded the corner of the landing. Flyaway tufts of white hair broke up the baldness above his ears and punctuated the worried look in his eyes.
“Where’ve you been?” the man said, his voice quiet through clenched teeth. “I was just getting ready to come find you.”
Tar leaned against the wall and looked away.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Jahn. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
Jahn sat down on the top step of the landing.
“So, where’ve you been?” he asked again.
Tar hesitated. His answer would not be welcome.
“I went grepping for apps and some guys tried to take my backpack.”
“Someone new came into the neighborhood?”
“No.” Tar took a deep breath before the plunge. “I was downtown by the park.”
“Tar! You fool boy. What were you thinking?” Jahn rubbed his hands along both sides of his head, the hair sticking out even more than before. “It wasn’t Black Shirts, was it?”
“No. It was youngers. Just some gang guys.”
“Just some gang guys.” Jahn snorted. “With some of those gangs you’d be just as dead as if it was Black Shirts. How’d you get away?”
“I fragged a guy’s foot and ran.”
“You ran? All the way back here?”
An already bad conversation was about to get worse.
“No. I fixed a door and waited inside the building until they were gone.”
“Omigod, Tar. Did they see you fix it? Do you think they’ll tell anyone?”
“They never saw me. I fixed it and was inside before they got around the corner of the building.”
Jahn shook his head and sighed.
“Tar, you’ve got to be more careful. Even if the gang didn’t hurt you there’s a big price on fixers’ heads. With what the Black Shirts pay for someone like you, brothers turn in brothers.” He leaned forward and put a hand on Tar’s shoulder. “You need to stay closer to home and be safe.”
Tar shook off Jahn’s hand.
“You know I can’t! I’ve grepped all the old buildings around here. There aren’t any good apps left. Everything here is just brick, nothing fixable.”
“Shhh!” Jahn looked back up the stairway toward the voices. He waited several seconds before continuing. “Keep it down, boy!”
“But you know it’s true,” Tar said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I’m just adware. If I can’t sell things that people need then I’m dead weight.”