Lost in thought, Reggie nearly stumbled on the switchback cattle grate as she reached her destination. She cleared her throat before the high desk of Wayfarer Station Number One.
The attendant didn’t even look up from his scrawl-pad—a steam-powered device that he wrote upon with a fingernail cap that instantaneously transmitted the data through a wire to the Grand Archive at the heart of the city by way of taps and clicks, which were then translated into words. She knew she was about to be “memorialized.” Every Zoner knew about the info-dumps on every heartbeat in IG. It was an accepted form of technology, because it relied on steam to generate it. Whip out a surviving old-fashioned typewriter and one would likely be drawn and quartered. Use the original version of Morse code and surely the sky itself would fall.
Technology powered by steam is pure.
It was framed on the wall behind the attendant. Not looking up or acknowledging her in any way, the attendant asked, “Male or female?”
Reggie replied softly. Very softly. “Female.” She wasn’t dressed as a female, and city code dictated that lone females weren’t allowed to move unaccompanied within the outer walls.
The attendant glanced up through the steam emanating from his scrawl-pad. “Human or hybrid?”
Reggie leaned in, trying to keep their conversation private. “Hybrid.”
“Visual.” Reggie didn’t have to divulge the nature of her hybrid abilities, except by the single word catch-phrases allowed via the Mutations Equality Act enacted in Year Two, postwar. Visual, auditory, tactile, projection, detection…one word was all a recording agent could obtain.
Reggie withheld a snide remark. Do I look like a Wastelander, you moron?
“Long journey to find work, assuming that’s the advent of your trek. We have need of a few Sanguinarians at the hospital, and we can always use more Disposals. Oh, you’re not an airship pilot, are you? The fleet is always looking for new recruits, and the pay is quite good, I hear.” He paused, taking a thoughtful look at her. “Though if you’re here to ply your pillowing skills, I’m afraid you’ll have to audition for placement in a brothel.” He nodded toward a partition to his left. She saw a grease-stained feather mattress through rips in the curtains draped over the wooden frame. “Or perhaps you’re simply another strong back and seek the hard labor but high rewards of the underground…”
“I’m not a vampire, nor am I a garbage eater,” Reggie replied. “And I’m not a whore or shovel jockey.”
“Then what do you have to offer IG? And who, may I ask, is your escort?”
Here it goes. I’ve crossed hundreds of miles of crap-land on foot and worked my whole life for this moment. I can do it. I can say it.
“I can fight. And I need no escort.”
“Fighting is illegal. Any contact sport from the old system has been outlawed by the queen. Wrestling, boxing, martial arts…all illegal.”
Reggie nodded. “All the same, I’m very good at what I do.”
The attendant tapped nervously on his pad. Something quick. Two words, maybe. Reggie hoped it wasn’t “kill her.” He cocked his head and held very still for a moment. He wore an earpiece. Someone controlled his decisions from behind the scenes. Someone else watched her. Right then. Right there.
The attendant nodded as if Reggie had spoken to him. She hadn’t. Another sign that the scrivener wasn’t acting alone.
He straightened his posture, and very abruptly said, “I’m giving you a three-day pass to the outer city. If you intend to travel beyond your lodgings for any reason, you must pay for an escort. They dress similarly in black. They work on a connected grid, so any one of them can summon another for you. As long as you’re accompanied, you’re within the law.”
“Fine. Whatever.” She held out her hand as the attendant used an air-injection wand to insert a tracking device into the soft tissue between her thumb and index finger. The instrument’s brass flashed in the dim light. The pattern carved into it was well-worn from countless jabs into the hands of city-goers. The forefinger and thumb depressions of the attendant had etched themselves onto the device.
“Now we just need to wait for the data stream,” he said. “You do know what that is, don’t you, Zoner?”
“I know what a data stream is. We don’t call it that in the Zone, but it’s all the same thing. You’ve been at this job for a long time, huh?”
“Yes. I’m lucky to have it,” the attendant said. “How can you tell?”
“Your wand is worn about the edges as if it were molded to fit your hand.”
“It’s the tool of my trade. And you, Zoner, are very perceptive.” He leaned forward. “A smart trait in a fight, no?”
“I’d like to stay at the Zeppelin Hostel,” Reggie said. The Zeppelin Hostel was an enclave for ex-pat Zoners living in the city. At least she wouldn’t feel so alone and out of place with her own kind.
The attendant read the symbols as they appeared on his scrawl-pad. “You’re a disease-free hybrid female.”
“I’m aware of that.”
The attendant made a slight motion with his right hand. “These escorts will guide you to the Clockworx Tower. There’s no room at the ZH just now.”
Reggie felt a hand against her arm. She bristled at the touch. She turned her head to find two identically dressed “guest” escorts standing behind her. She wrinkled her nose. She didn’t like their type. Pseudo dandies. Dead men dressed in high class attire. They gave her the willies. Each wore a purple velvet jacket, beige riding breeches, a top hat, and a monocle. They were dressed according to the queen’s personal tastes. A ridiculous uniform for a ridiculous ruler.
“Thanks for the escort, but I can manage.”
The escorts shook their heads and, in unison, replied, “No unaccompanied females in the outer rim.”
Reggie tried a second time to free herself of her escorts. “I can take care of myself. I know where the Clockworx Tower is. I can see it from here. I’ve never used the services of Pseudos
before and I see no reason to begin now.”
She realized how bigoted her statement sounded. Pseudos couldn’t help what they were. They were epic fails. Reanimated, reconstructed, and recycled. They were used for labor and in the brothels. Given a task, they did it well. Given an abstract thought, they basically self-destructed. In the Zones they were called “Sortas” for “sort of human” or “Kindas” as in “kind of human.”
“It isn’t permitted. For your safety. The queen commands it.” The lead escort squeezed his fingers.
Reggie cast an annoyed glance at the attendant. “Really? Pseudos? A girl can’t even get a real man to show her around the place these days?” There was no response from him or the purple velvet-dressed, top-hat wearing creatures next to her. “I can handle myself. Do you think for one moment I couldn’t beat down an attacker?”
The attendant chuckled. “The idea is to make it so there is no reason to ‘beat anyone down,’ as you so brutally put it. This is a conflict-free zone for a very good reason.”
Reggie opened her mouth, ready to begin a debate, when she was interrupted by the rambunctious leap and bound of the dog boy. The shifter.
“There you are!” He darted up the ramp and nearly toppled Reggie in greeting. “She’s with me. I’ll escort her. No need for one of these fine reanimated gentlemen to go out of their way for her.” He took Reggie by the shoulders. “Come along now, darling. The Clockworx isn’t far.”
Reggie raised a questioning eyebrow at the shifter, but didn’t balk at his well-timed rescue. She moved past the wayfarer station, grateful for the company of a living creature.
“Pseudos give me the creeps. Thank you for the escort. Silly rule.”
“They’re none too fond of us, either,” said the dog boy. “Some say they will rise against the fully living. Have you heard this rumor in the RZ?”
“I’ve heard it all. Are we even now? I gave you meat and you give me escort?”
“If you’d like to look at it that way, yes. I was rather hoping we could get to know each other—”
Reggie cut him off. “Before I rip your lungs out through your ribcage in the arena?”
“Yes, exactly. You intrigued me in Antioch, and last night, when I realized it was you…well, I’m a fan.”
Reggie didn’t pull away as he took her arm. “I don’t give autographs.”
The shifter squeezed her elbow. “What about fellatio?”