On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Townes lay there on his side, looking across the room at floor level, and marvelling at the new perspective on his life.
Everything was rotated ninety degrees to the left, and he could see a complex geography of scrapes and scuffs on the worn wooden planks.
Must be a hundred years worth of varnish here, he thought, which would fit the age of the building. This whole area of the city had sprung up during the course of a couple of decades, back in the late nineteenth century. But this wasn’t the time for local history.
His HUD indicated that the beating he’d just received had disabled three of his mods, and unfortunately they were his favourites: AutoCombat, NanoHeal, and the all-important HeadTunes for his preferred internal-only soundtrack. He should have been more careful on his approach; they’d surprised him and they shouldn’t have been able to.
The job was theoretically straightforward: it was a data steal. Townes had everything with him, and the drive he needed to clone was a reasonable size; barely five petabytes. He could have copied it internally if necessary. Now, he’d be lucky to get it at all.
One of his attackers was walking towards where he lay, heavy boots making the floor thud. The sound came up through his bones. He could see that the guy had an entirely replaced right arm, and it must have been what hit him so hard a few moments ago. The work was crude, with scar tissue visible at the shoulder joint, but it clearly did the job well enough. The big guy was probably on a cocktail of antibiotics and painkillers, which was even more of a problem. This job used to be much simpler.
1986 continues to be a hell of a year, Townes thought, and then he suddenly rolled onto his stomach and sprang up, in the same instant drawing a taser drone from his hip pocket and flipping it towards the approaching man with his thumb.
The little bug was the size of a packet of matches, and its eight miniature rotors made short work of the distance. It automatically targeted heat sources, and less than two seconds later, it sank four copper barbs into the guy’s neck and sent a hundred thousand volts through to establish the arc, then dropped to two thousand. He hit the floor like a felled tree, did some writhing, then lay still.
Townes wasn’t exactly a hundred percent original parts, either, even ignoring the HUD installation or the internal data storage. His left palm was synthetic, with a subcutaneous mesh that could be used as a directed microwave weapon. Guaranteed superficial burning sensation, without real lasting damage. It had come in useful many times, and he hoped it would serve him again tonight.
He looked at the remaining two; a ratty looking man who looked like he was high already on some street drug, and a woman who was holding a huge fifty calibre pistol like it was a live snake. The safety was on, so his HUD said at least, and after a couple of seconds of staring them down, he realised he wasn’t going to have another fight on his hands after all. The woman dropped the gun and looked grateful, then she turned and ran. Townes let her go. A moment later, the rat followed her lead, leaving him alone in the room with the temporarily unconscious big guy.
He picked up the cannon and disengaged the safety, just in case. He really didn’t care either way whether the man lived, but holding the weapon made it more likely that Townes himself would.
He turned to the console that was the reason for all this trouble, and saw it was the usual Japanese import, complete with dual-language keyboard and flickering holo. It wouldn’t be a problem. Townes took his stealer drive from his coat and inspected the console’s data port carefully. You could attach a device in either orientation, but one would result in a complete data wipe. The trick was to see what way the traces ran to the pins, which was a much easier job if your HUD gave you magnified infrared. He connected the drive properly and let it start to do its work, then he walked over to the window and looked out.
It was raining, just like always. Neon was omnipresent, a lot of it broken and blinking but still trying to shine, and there was a drunk passed out at the corner, lying half in the gutter and getting soaked. Townes thought the old man would probably be dead by morning if not for the damned heat. A cool night was twenty-five degrees these days, so thank god for the warm rain.
A blip in his internal earpiece indicated that the stealer drive was ready to detach, and he walked back over to the console and pocketed it, simultaneously scanning the detritus on the desk. Congealed takeout in cartons, mostly Chinese. Data disks of no interest. A porn magazine on polymer paper, with its strange faded colours making it look vintage despite the photography being decidedly not so. Apparently it was a special issue with girls who’d had mech augmentation done. Not really Townes’ thing. He considered dropping it into the wastebasket nearby, then decided against touching the thing at all.
He’d have to get his mods repaired, and the cost would come out of the job money, but that was fine. Townes had endured a hundred repairs; it was an occupational hazard. Maybe he’d even get some upgrades this time, though he knew he’d almost certainly just get things back to status quo, buy some food, put a few credits aside for some companionship, and bank the rest in his own safe. It was an uncertain world.
The street was warm, as always, and it was slick with rain, as always, and for a moment Townes was utterly sick of it all. He could skip the repair work, keep his head down, do a few more sneak jobs and save as much as he could, then get the hell out of the city. Go far away; somewhere with water — real water, like an untouched part of the coast. If such a thing even existed. He could live simply and quietly, not bothering anyone who hadn’t bothered him first. He could almost taste it.
His HUD chimed with a message from the client, and he didn’t need to open it to know they were impatient for a status report. Townes sighed. So much for his daydream.
It would be the new year before long, and 1987 would dawn with all its wonder and promise. Maybe it would be the year they finally started rationing the oxygen they pumped into the upper levels of the city. Or maybe an asteroid would hit and solve everyone’s problems just like with the dinosaurs. That’d be just fine too.
Townes tugged the collar of his coat up around his jaw, his hair already wet again, and he started to walk.
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