Downfall is here, and the world has changed.
Content Warnings: i. mild body horror, ii. deadname usage
Red Like Roses - Az's Story
Written by Holly Chandler
Az slid a small handful of creds across the counter and took his popcorn and Diesel. He didn’t bother thanking the clerk - it was just another bioroid among thousands of identical machines.
It was hard not to feel tiny in Sportsmetal Stadium, especially when alone. The arena may have been built on top of an arcology, but it was still the biggest you'd find this side of the Beanstalk. Unfortunately, this made it that much harder to find someone you were looking for, even when you’d just spoken to them in a vidcall minutes ago. Az carefully scanned the signs that floated above each access hall to the attendee seats whilst giving his ticket the occasional quick glance.
“Oi, chico,” an unfamiliar voice called out from a hall’s gate. “You Az?”
He stopped and nodded at the figure. This guy was a client - he'd never met the man, but a display inside the boy’s eye zoomed in on his very own subtle, abstract signature on the man's robotic arm.
“Gotta say, I'm very impressed with your work. You surprised me.” The faint glow of bioluminescent tattoos silently sent Az a message: Los Muertos. The man raised his arm and flexed the fingers, inspecting the creation all around as he spoke. “The family was wonderin’ if you wanted a steady paycheck. Exclusive access for us, nice shiny creds for you.”
Az scowled. “Sorry, I don't like to tie myself down. Variety is the spice of life, and all that,” he retorted as he waved his hands around dismissively.
The man looked as if Az had just spat in his face, but quickly composed himself. “Alright, chico. You change your mind, you call me.” Az’s PAD flickered to life as the words “New Contact Received" hovered above the screen in a transparent blue.
“Little Mac, this man giving you trouble?” a heavy voice called around the corner in a thick Russian accent. Baklan couldn't have had better timing as his massive frame entered the gateway, the darkness of the hall and bright lights of the stadium beyond cast an ominous shadow from the huge man.
“No señor,” the stranger responded. “Just complimenting your boy’s tech.” With an overly dramatic bow he swept his arms back towards the stands, gesturing the young technician onward into the seating area. “Don't you forget about me now,” he whispered into Az’s ear as he passed.
Az growled towards Baklan as soon as the pair was out of earshot of their new acquaintance. “I told you not to call me that.”
“I just saved your life, punk.”
“You know he wouldn’t’ve done anything here. Los Muertos ain't that dumb. Eat your popcorn.” His slender hands dropped the bucket into his boss' lap as he fell into his own chair, the kernels inside rattling against the plastic. Az settled into his seat, sandwiched between the old man Baklan to his right and a heavy stranger on his left.
“I keep saying, you are too young for field--"
“This ain't field work, B. It's a ball game. Watch it.”
“A fast break out from SanSan! That brings them to 7 points! Wow, what a game! We'll be back for the exciting conclusion after halftime, folks!”
Az had always thought it was amusing that a game played by bioroids still had a human announcer. He shrugged and took the bucket from Baklan while he was entranced by the jumboholo. Only kernels left. Thanks, asshole.
The encounter from earlier seeped to the forefront of Az’s thoughts now that the game was paused. Los Muertos didn't have that big of a presence in ChiLo; it was far off from their home turf. He was almost surprised that the mob hadn't run them out by now, but they must not see the outsiders as much of a threat.
Az checked his PAD for the first time since the game started. 1 New Message. The notification hovered over the device in his cybernetic palm, visible only to him via the self-designed AR filter in his eye.
[New Contact] Just droppin’ you a line so you don’t forget about your new friend, chico.
“We should go,” Az declared flatly.
“But game is just getting good!” Baklan started, but a quick look around silenced his protests. There were a few of them now placed sporadically around the stands - bioluminescent tattoos flashing for the briefest moment as the old man's eyes met their owners. “...I am not sure I like your new friends.”
In just a moment the pair was exiting the gate that led back to the concourse. Az’s legs were significantly shorter than his partner's, but he still managed to match the man's pace. “I swear, you attract trouble no matter where I take you,” Baklan stammered. “Like little bad luck charm.” The Qianju Baklan drove in on would be cramped for two, but at least Az wasn't exactly the biggest dog in the pound.
The two stopped in their tracks once they reached the parking garage atop the arcology. Lights whizzed by around and below, down hundreds of feet to the streets of ChiLo. Among the neon, three shadows stretched out towards Az and Baklan. “We’d really appreciate it if we could make a deal,” one of the gangsters chided toward the boy. He unsheathed a vibroknife from under his belt while the other two behind him flashed Smith & Wessons.
“Why didn't you ever tell me our clients were Los Muertos?” Az grunted through clenched teeth.
“I never ask questions,” Baklan responded nervously. Az’s holo display cycled through options, his nervousness picked up by the EEG scan and translated into jerky selections on his HUD. Highlights on the trio signaled that they were all wearing his tech.
“Maybe you should start.” Before the group could react, Az snapped his mechanical fingers. The collective screams of the three attackers echoed through the garage. One grasped towards his knee as a robotic leg fell apart beneath him, the skin where the limb had been connected sizzling as it rapidly cauterized. Another clawed at her face as an implanted eye popped and smoked inside her skull.
“Always have a backup plan,” Az whispered to Baklan before breaking out in a sprint past the group. Before long they had circled the rows and rows of vehicles to Baklan’s old Qianju with the coast clear behind them. The old Russian brought the vehicle to life as Az pulled out his PAD.
“Oh, looks like SanSan scored again.”
Az let out a heavy sigh as he removed his shirt, then binder. Baklan chimed in from several feet away: “You know, I know a guy that would solve those little problems for cheap.”
“Yeah, no thanks. If someone's choppin’ something off my body it's gonna either be me or someone I have the capability to sue afterwards,” Az smirked.
“Is completely safe! Trust your friend Baklan.”
“Sorry old man, the creds are worth the sterile O-R.” The boy checked his accounts - he was actually getting close to his first goal. His work might not be completely legal, but it was hard to argue with the kinds of numbers he was seeing.
“I'll be in the back,” Az called out to Baklan as he exited the storefront into the bedroom that doubled as his workshop. He casually popped off his metallic arm and laid it out on the drafting table, adjusting his desk lights to the proper angles. 4B’s newest single quietly started playing from a nearby speaker, the low-fi beats just loud enough to drown out the neverending noise from outside. In the vast metropolis of ChiLo, Az’s workshop was his sanctuary.
“You know, most boys your age just drink or smoke when bored. Not intentionally remove limbs.” Baklan wasn't related to Az, just his ‘boss’ in this little operation they had going. He couldn't help but feel protective of the young prodigy, though. Az had a distinctive arrogant streak that more often than not attracted trouble.
“Why not both?” Az called back with a sly cock of an eyebrow. Resting his remaining hand on the faux-wood before him, a threedee holo materialized around his project. Numbers whizzed around the virt display faster than most people could even read them. The mechanic grabbed a can of Diesel from the massive case that sat under his desk; it was an addiction he'd picked up from his mother before leaving.
“That is going to blow up one of these days with as much ammunition as you keep in it, you know,” Baklan shouted from the opposite room. Az ignored him.
The top of the can opened with a satisfying pop. Az took a quick sip before setting the beverage aside and grabbing a nearby screwdriver, wasting no time before delving into his forever project.
Hours passed. Baklan in the other room was watching what remained of the game that they'd missed while Az worked. After all this time, he'd made little progress beyond tightening some barely-loose bolts. The full schematics floated above the arm itself, allowing Az to see every inch of the hardware before even tearing it open. If I can get this to seamlessly interface with the Network, I'd be set for life, he mused. With a heavy sigh, he waved his PAD to life. His grease-smeared hand hovered in the options for a solid minute before curiosity got the best of him.
Create New Message_
“I thought variety was the spice of life,” the mocking voice rung across the hopper park.
“It is. This ain't a contract, this is freelance.” Az was uncomfortable, but the gangster had told him to come alone, so he did his best not to show it. Still, his arm was loaded. Based on the man’s arrogant grin, he probably knew that.
The Los Muertos tattoos across the man's face were fully lit, which gave the already intimidating gangster an ominous blue glow. “Right, chico. Freelance.” The shirtless gangster flicked away a cigarette butt. “Call it what you want. I guess we aren't making you sign no papers or anything, to be fair.”
“Yeah, you're more about the violent extortion approach, huh?”
“Oh maaaan, chico, I heard about what you did to those lusers.” Az fidgeted nervously. “Relax, those weren't from me. That isn't my approach. Everything has a price.”
Az’s PAD lit up, though he ran the display through his eye rather than allowing himself the vulnerability of taking the device out.
Account Deposit: +10,000 Creds
The words stretched in blue across his peripheral vision. “How'd you even get my account num--"
The mysterious man raised a hand. “Breaking and entering is what I do. Doesn't always mean I take something.
“That's an advance. You rebuild my colleagues’ parts you broke. Without all the fireworks this time, s’all I'm asking for now." Az didn't think he was lying, but it was hard to tell amidst the tattoos’ glow.
“...two weeks. This ain't a promise for the future. Remember that,” Az demanded. “None of that ‘for now’ crap.” Geist held up his hands, seemingly conceding.
“You did what?!”
“It’s one job!” Az snapped.
“Do you not remember what they did at stadium?!” Baklan was furious, each exclamation opening with a slam of his massive fists onto the transplas table between the two.
“Those were some psycho lusers! I ain’t saying I trust the guy by a long shot, but ten thousand creds, B! It’s one job!”
“One job turns into more jobs,” Baklan grunted, his shouts finally muzzled but still drenched in anger and disappointment. “You always have to be arrogant little rebel! Where did that even come from? Is nothing like your moth--”
“Frag my mother. Don’t you ever compare me to her.”
“Your mother is great woman. Maybe if you listened to her more…” Baklan’s tone was calmer, but only because he was sure he had Az’s back against the wall.
“Maybe if she listened more, I wouldn’t be here in the first place. She never took the time to listen to me when I needed her most, she just cared about that damn magnum opus.” The boy’s words were laced with venom.
“You just want to be snotty little big shot, show the world how great you are.”
A sudden quietness overtook Az. “Y’know what my mom called me the last time we talked?” The animosity in the eyes that looked up at Baklan had a new emotion in them, however faint it was. A vulnerability of sorts.
"It wasn't even malicious, it was just... like she'd never taken the time to hear me out.” Though obviously trying to fight it, Az's eyes shone with tears in the dim lights of the shop.
The room went silent for several minutes. Baklan couldn’t meet Az’s stare - he realized he’d overstepped a line in an area that was entirely none of his business.
Eventually, Az’s patience ran out. Despite being over twice the boy’s size, Baklan felt smaller than he ever had before as Az pushed his way past the man into his room.
Morning broke the horizon, but the shadows of the ChiLo skyline wouldn't let the sun in for another couple hours. Az hadn't slept, and was only startled out of his deep concentration by the sound of massive footsteps trudging down the stairs into the shop. Empty cans of both Diesel and beer littered the floor around his desk and bed.
The door slid open, and the smell of warm bacon crept into Az’s lair. “I, um, brought breakfast,” Baklan uttered meekly as he held a full plate of meat and eggs.
“Not hungry,” Az lied.
“Jesus, kid,” Baklan groaned as he scanned the room. He sighed. “I am… sorry, for yesterday. I made assumptions where I had no right to.” The only sound as he paused was the shrill hum of a microdrill that the mechanic currently had poked into a bionic eyeball.
Az pondered for a moment. “It's fine. She ain't a bad person. I don't blame you for not knowin’ about all my dirty laundry.” He took the plate. “Sorry for snapping.”
“Is fine, Little Mac.”
“Still can't call me that. Think this eye is done, mind takin’ a look?”
Baklan took the cybernetic eyeball gingerly, as if it might bite him. “This is… for the loco gang man?”
“Is good work, kid. Just please be careful.”
The front door of the shop chimed as it slid open. It was after sundown, and the streetlights and neon of the city burned the dusk brighter than the dawn.
“You must be Baklan.” The faint SanSan accent startled Baklan from staring at the sensie that aired on a floating screen above his PAD. He composed himself before squinting his eyes at the guest.
“And you must be Geist.” The older man forced a smile, trying not to attract any unnecessary trouble.
“The one and only. Your boy told me to meet him here. You doing well?”
“Heh. There was saying in old Russia: ‘the cat knows whose meat it has eaten.’ Let us just hope that meat hasn't rotted.” Baklan retorted. The guest cocked an eyebrow, but didn't drop his overconfident smirk.
“Comiiiing!” Az shouted from the back. “One sec!”
Geist’s gaze drifted around the shop, exploring the messy collection of parts that were displayed with seemingly no organization. Most of the products out front were legit: mechanical replacement parts, harmless prosthetics, and other goods you might expect from a parts shop. Most of ChiLo’s underbelly knew the real reason you came to Baklan’s for, though.
A few moments later, Az emerged from the back door with a plain duffel bag. The young boy casually stepped up to the visitor and offered the package with a hint of caution. “We appreciate your business,” he said as mechanically as any of the shop's own wares.
“And I appreciate your service,” Geist replied with a polite nod. “Let me know if you decide you’d like some more work. You have my contact.”
“Will do,” the mechanic replied. “Have a good evening.”
“Hasta luego, chico.”
Baklan waited for the door to fully close before turning to Az. “Thank goodness that is done with. No more gang dealings, yes?”
“Good. OZ.EXE is on. Come watch. I order pizza.”
Az stirred in his sleep. Three days had passed since Geist's pickup, and he'd taken the weekend off as a reward. He was only startled out of his sleep by the fervent buzzing of the PAD he'd integrated into his wrist. The mechanic opened his AR-eye.
Baklan: dont leave not safe
Another notification signaled a 40,000 credit withdrawal from his account.
“Wh… the frag?” Az mumbled. He waved his arm upward, summoning a holo of cams that eyed the perimeter of the building. More Los Muertos. One was holding Baklan by the neck, their other fist gripping a knife to his throat. Before Az could even process what he was seeing, he'd already swapped his prosthesis to the more gun-filled version and was stomping to the door.
“Buenos dìas, chico,” the man holding Baklan jeered. “Let's cut to the chase. You give us all the weapons you got, and el hombre gordo lives.”
“Just do it kid, don't try to play hero,” Baklan urged. Sweat was dripping down the sides of his shaved head. “I told you, you don't just do one job for--”
“Shut up!” the criminal shouted, letting the knife barely pierce the older man's flesh. Drops of blood escaped the small wound, staining the blade’s edge a deep red.
Az backed inside, silently nodding. The group they'd sent didn't have any cybernetics on them. He didn't have a backup plan.
The boy packed up some of his most expensive works into a duffel bag. It pained him to part with his creations this way, but Baklan was the closest thing to a family he had. Az had to get him out safely.
Az stepped out the front door just a minute later, dragging the heavy bag behind him. “Thousands of creds worth of tech. Now let him go.”
The intruders’ tattoos flared to life, as if to drown out Az’s demand in their authority. The one holding Baklan moved his gripped blade from his hostage’s neck to Baklan's hand, and without a second thought, sliced through a knuckle. Baklan screamed, his normally imposing voice filled with fear and agony. His captor kicked him forward and Baklan scrambled to Az's side, trying to stifle the bleeding from where his finger had been.
Az did his best to throw the bag forward with his cybernetic arm - he could barely have even carried all of that machinery without it. The man stepped forward and threw the bag over his shoulder, then casually walked back to his group. “Geist sends his regards.”
“You have secret trick this time?” Baklan whispered under his breath.
“Nope.” He wasn't lying; he had no clever ploys up his sleeve this time around. But he did have guns.
As the group filed in to their hopper, Az quietly instructed to Baklan, “Run out the back and don't stop.” Baklan nodded and scrambled back into their home as Az raised up his arm. There was the faint sound of servos working inside the limb, barely audible in the white noise of the city around him.
The vehicle was sprayed in a hailstorm of lead, the bullets denting the sleek metal of the hopper but never breaking through. Az knew that even the most basic anti-ballistics would stop anything he might have loaded in his cyberarm, but he wasn’t shooting to kill - he was a kicked animal with its hackles raised and teeth bared that needed them to know he wasn’t ready to roll over. He couldn't let Los Muertos think that they could keep pushing him around.
A pair of Tommy guns peeked out from small openings in the windows and returned fire as the hopper lifted off the ground. Az responded with a thick cloud of white smoke from a canister that dropped from an opening in his palm, his blood hot and heart pounding in his throat. The defiant streak in him was still demanding he stand his ground, but he hushed it quiet in his mind. He had to play smart if he wanted to survive, and his reckless bravado had already dug him in quite the hole.
Az turned on his heel and ran through the shop and out the dim back alley, where he was greeted by Baklan offering him a helmet from atop his Qianju.
“We are skipping town,” Baklan instructed, his deep voice still shaking from shock. The rasp of fluid in his throat scratched against his words.
“Yeah? To where?”