Attention! Attention! The Guardians wish to inform you that they have just reached agreement on a new deal for cheaper food items as part of an ongoing negotiation with the rebel factions in Africa, decreasing the likelihood of future shortages. That is all. Be well.”

Only the newcomers gave any kind of response to the voice. They rarely, if ever, had to hear the Guardians’ updates in the city, an annoyance they would have to get used to in the Sub-levels. The line at the Food Center in the Western Sub-level was as long as it had ever been, stretching back to the door of the nearly derelict buildings across the street. As he got into line, Grey saw at least twenty new people in the linerecent Discards from the Corporate Society sent down by the Social Improvement Project. The number was surprisingly highthe summer months had the food processors at maximum efficiency and highest quality. The older denizens of the Sub-levels could recognize the new ones because their clothes had yet to be permeated by the dust and dirt of living in the Sub-levels. By the end of their first week, all the Discards’ clothes were tattered and dirty—covered in the grim they lived in. Uniformity and homogenization were the status quo in both worlds: sterile cleanliness on the streets and buildings above, never ending filth on the crumbling allies and ruins below.

Grey smiled grimly as he heard them talk about how they had been wrongly placed in the lowest bowels of the city complex. The new ones always made that argument when they first arrived, trying to convince anyone who would listen that they were wrongly sent down. As if there was anything to be done about it. Some laughed, but Grey just gave his brief grimace as he moved through the line. The attendant in the line plopped some of the steaming yellow mush onto his plate. The stench rising up to Grey’s nostrils made him wince.

The glance from the attendant killed any thought that Grey had of criticizing the culinary skill of the Food Center Staff, and he continued on to the eating area of the Food Center without comment. Criticism of those who feed you tends to be the fastest way to get your food spit in. Or worse.

Sitting down at a table, Grey noticed a few of the newer Discards were staring at him. Eating calmly, he ignored them. Using only his left hand to pick at the slop before him, they could not see his right arm beneath the dirty tan poncho that he wore. A veteran of the last Corporation War, his brown hair had become messy and unruly—becoming lost in neglect that followed his exile to the Sub-levels. It also was a fairly well followed rule that the more unruly and grimy appearance tended to stave off trouble in most cases.

The rest of the Discards formed their groups; social circles even in destitute exile. In the Food Center, they established their own territory. The political Discards liked to sit in the back, sometimes discussing the latest rumors of weakness in the Penstein Corporation or plotting an uprising. Nothing ever came of it. Grey preferred to avoid association with them because it just left him feeling more resentful than anything.

The formerly social elite sat to his right, reminiscing over their lost wealth and status. They were the ones who clung to the past most ferociously—by connection taking the most care to maintain their appearance. If they had made it down to the Sub-levels with anything of value, they griped those items tightly. Some Discards eyed them greedily, waiting for their moment to pounce and steal any trinket they thought could be turned for goods or any profit.

There was a small group of veterans like Grey, the former foot soldiers of Penstein Corporation during the war. Most of them just complained and whined about how they had been wronged when they were discharged early due to age or infirmity, robbed of their promised pensions and retirements. Despising them, Grey rarely paid attention to the other veterans and disregarded their attempts at establishing camaraderie. He never really liked how they complained about how they were treated or how they were wronged. It always seemed to him like they missed the point when they did that. Armies do that: They take what they can, throwing you away when they have no use for you anymore.

Filling the gaps were the random plethora of people who just had nowhere else to go. Many of them had started out there, born there. Others were immigrants. The only way out was through the military: a temporary escape for the great majority of them. Only a rare few earned the positions that would guarantee that they would not have to come back to the Sub-levels.

Grey had been an immigrant before he got absorbed into the machine. Serving in the Penstein Army had given him little, except for the dead mutilation they left him for a right arm and a trip down to the Sub-levels. Seeing no point in savoring the meal, Gray wasted no time in finishing his gruel before returning to his hovel. He made one stop as he went, stopping at a booze vendor as he went. The old man in the stand watched him approach and smiled. Grey was a regular customer, one of the many.

Hello Grey,” the old man said. His crackly voice usually intimidated the other customers. It did little to faze Grey. No one knew the old man’s name. Some believed he had no name. Everybody just called him “the old man.” He wore a red vest to look more professional, or at least as professional as one could in a slum. His wrinkled face, bald head, and thin body did little to help this as well. The pattern of dirt, wrinkles, and liver splotches that covered his skin shifted as he smiled. “What are you buyin’?”

The regular,” Grey said. He spoke in a low and gravelly voice, expressing only the basics of his request. A long time ago, somebody had told him he had a lovely singing voice—a drunken compliment from a hooker in the Penstein’s Caribbean City. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pouch. From the pouch he drew a black piece of rock. He laid it down on the counter and waited.

The old man inspected the rock, a piece of coal. After several rotations, rubs, and a lick, the old man smiled and accepted the payment. His investigation complete, he put the rock beneath the counter. A moment later he procured a large black bottle and handed it Grey.

Nodding his thanks, Grey continued on to his home.

As he drew closer to home, Grey realized he was being followed. The person tailing him was not concerned with detection. A sign in his experience that had rarely, if ever, amounted to good news. He felt his right arm give its subconscious, imaginary twitch beneath the poncho as his pursuer got closer. Turning into an alley, he moved into the shadows and waited. A brief moment passed before the tail caught up. He could hear the clicking of heels stepping on the rocky asphalt and metal ground. The shadow stopped at the mouth of the alley and looked down the corridor. It was difficult to make out Grey’s position in the darkness of the alley. Whoever it was did not seem inclined to move in and fish him out.

Looking out from the shadows, Grey could see the outline of a tall woman standing there. She wore a black coat, tied tightly around her thin and shapely torso. The coat went down just above the ground, concealing any real details about her frame or footwear. The only certain feature he could discern was that her hair was a dull red.

Grey,” she said. Her voice was strict and seemed almost devoid of emotion. It sounded almost commanding, and to others it would have been. “We need to talk. I’ve got a job offer for you.”

What kind of job?” he asked.

The kind that only you can do: take down the Penstein Corporation.”

You’re shitting me.”

I’m not. Let’s go somewhere more private to discuss this. I promise you, it will be worth your while.”

Grey slowly moved out of the alley, still not entirely sure he could trust her yet. Looking her in the eyes, he stared her down for a long moment as he familiarized himself with her aura. Her frame was not nearly as thin as it had initially appeared, having a fairly muscular build to it—accentuated nicely by her well endowed chest. With one glance, Grey found himself unexpectedly attracted to her.

You’re not alone,” he said.

What?”

Not saying another word, his right arm flew out from beneath his poncho. She jumped back in surprise as she saw it. The metal casing and machinery that constituted his forearm and hand jettisoned a tangle of cables and hooks towards their attackers. The hooks at the ends of the cables planted themselves in the first of the assailants, latching tightly to his flesh. Grey whipped the cables around and flung him into the wall.

Releasing the body of the first attacker, Grey caught the cables around the head of another and pulled. The force was enough to cause the man’s neck to break.

Retracting the cables back into the casing, Grey took down the next guy with ease—breaking his arm in four places before delivering a finishing blow. With his opponent out of the fray, Grey turned to the last man, but the woman had already taken care of things, having cut his throat.

Gray picked up the man he had just taken down and held him up for the woman to see.

Know him?” he asked.

No,” she said.

Grey looked the man in the face.

Who sent you?” he asked.

Go to Hell,” the man replied.

Already there.”

Creak! Snap!

Grey broke his neck and let him fall to the ground. The remaining wires reeled back into his arm, finding their home in the sockets. The Arm Piece itself was uniform gray, with a tiny display screen on the forearm and a hand constructed of metal jointed fingers, springs, and miniature pistons. It crackled and creaked as he moved the hand.

Who are you?” he asked.

Name’s Kira,” she said.

He smiled. At least somebody at taught her the first rule: only give enough information to adequately answer the question. He was not dealing with amateurs for a change. For a first impression, he was beginning to feel he could trust her.

Come with me,” he said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

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