The blood was on her hands. It felt wet and sticky and it covered the upholstery of their stolen car, no matter how hard she pressed down on Jock’s limp body. Bomber swore under his breath at the wheel, pulling into a back lot at an abandoned corner shop. The car squealed to a halt and Bomber was out onto the pavement before the wheels even stopped turning.
     The blood was still on her hands. She still applied pressure to the seeping bullet wound, still felt the ragged, meaty hole under her fingers. Forceful hands detached her and hauled the body away inside. She sat there, unthinking and unmoving, until someone shook her and made her stand up in the cold night air.
     “Gina, I need you,” a voice said. She raised her tear-stained eyes and saw Bomber through the haze. “Listen, I need your help. I can’t fix Jock on my own. I gotta have a nurse, and you’re her. Come on.”
     Time passed. How much time or what happened during it, she couldn’t say. She remembered a dirty operating table. Surgical steel. Cracked, flaking plaster and a single bulb casting light into the ragged hole in Jock’s gut. Screaming. Too much screaming.
     She could feel the blood even through her plastic surgical gloves. It was warm, and she hated it. She hated the soft resistance of the flesh as she pulled it apart with the barbeque tongs. She hated the humid smell of blood. She hated the click of the bullet as Bomber let it fall into the plastic tray. She hated Jock as he cried and strained against the handcuffs holding him down. He babbled feverishly, hopped up on painkillers and stimulants that would keep him from drifting off.
     Later, she looked up to find herself sitting in a corridor, tired in body and soul. Cold on the inside. She couldn’t remember if she’d slept any, but her eyes felt like lead and there was a hint of greyness outside the corridor’s high, lonely window. She wiped at the dried blood on her face, but the surgical gloves were still on, and fresh slashes of red streaked across her forehead. She heaved a dry sob. Then she got up to find a washroom.
     After she’d scrubbed herself, she left the gloves in the rusted, leaking metal sink and went in search of Bomber. Her boots clacked emptily against the dirty grey tiles. Plasterboard walls no longer gave any hint as to what colour they’d once been.
     “He’ll live, I think,” said Bomber, throwing his own gloves into a corner. He too was covered in blood, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Be a while before he gets unfucked though.”
     “That’s good,” she replied. Exhaustion leeched all emotion from her voice.
     “Get some sleep. You look awful.”
     “So do you.”
     “I always look awful. Seriously, get some sleep. No telling when we’ll get the chance again.”
     “And then what?”
     “I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”
     She nodded. “I guess so.”
     He smiled at that, and whispered, “Goodnight, Gina.” He kissed her forehead and went back to check on Jock.
     She nodded again. Then she found an unoccupied gurney, slithered onto it and passed out. When she woke up, Bomber was gone.

***

     Gina carefully checked the manual for each step in the long process of changing Jock’s bandages. Bomber had left her a sheet of instructions, and Jock was eager to give her further suggestions along the way.
     “Don’t do it like that!” he squealed. “Fuck, that hurts.”
     “Do you want to do it yourself?” she shot back and held up the bloodstained gauze for emphasis. Jock swallowed and fell back on his pillows, nearly fainting. Gina continued, “That’s right, so shut up. I’m not exactly enjoying myself.” She deposited the repulsive bit of gauze into a plastic bag, then quickly wiped her fingers on a piece of cloth. The sight of the swollen red bandages made her sick. To the touch they were even worse.
     The job went by agonisingly slowly, and Gina felt like hitting Jock every time he made a noise. He could not stop talking or complaining or asking her pointless questions. One thing she liked about Bomber, at least he knew when to shut up. And he didn’t whinge.
     “Where do you think he’s gone?” Jock asked her when she was giving him some water.
     Gina sighed and said, “I don’t know. Doing what he does, I guess.”
     “Can’t believe he left us here alone.”
     “I’m going to kill him. As for the money . . .” She eyed the wad of cash lying limp on the dirty steel table. “I guess we’re supposed to buy food with it and stuff.”
     Jock smiled at the mention of food. “That sounds like a great idea. Why don’t you go?” he said sweetly, then flinched as she turned to glare at him. After a long, healthy build-up of anger, she snapped up the cash and headed outside, pulling her jacket back on. Of course she slammed the door behind her.
     The blazing grey sky made Shanghai feel like the inside of a pressure cooker. Her sunglasses kept the burning sky at bay, but nothing could protect her from the smell. Even the Street couldn’t rival the sewer-stench billowing in from the seaside.
     Despite the weather there were hundreds of people out on the streets doing people things. Running food stalls, drinking down the pubs, pissing in alleys. She was offered the finest fried dog in all of Shanghai, the finest beads, the finest imitation silk and crocodile skin, the finest cloned organs and cybersofts. If she wanted anything implanted, she need only show her wad of cash.
     Her shoulders relaxed once she’d inserted herself into the crowd. Here she was invisible. Not even an AI could pick her face out of the mass of moving flesh, just one of many Caucasian faces mixed in with the Asians and the blacks and those with a little bit of everything.
     She was in China, so she bought a couple of hamburgers and a tub of deep-fried chicken from the nearest fast-food shop. She wolfed down her share at one of the plastic tables, then gathered her bags and rejoined the throng of people. If she timed her shopping right, the food would be good and cold by the time it got back to Jock.
     For the first time in days, she didn’t feel hunted or watched. Hundreds of eyes glanced over her face and never saw it. It’d be a miracle for anyone to remember what she looked like, a random passer-by on a crowded street. She could probably disappear into it and never be found again, not by Bomber or Jock or Gabriel or any two-bit gang.
     The bubbling sensation of freedom almost swept Gina up, but then her sense of realism reared its ugly head, and she hunched her shoulders as if against the rain. She’d just end up on the Street again sooner or later, whoring out her body or her mind, or both. If you combined the two, some people would offer frightening amounts of dollar for a Spice fuck, but . . . Gina shuddered at the thought. Even though the image she affected on the Street practically promised it, she’d never quite sunk to offering sex for money. Life as a freelance telepath was enough to get by, although a self-destructive spiral into inevitable madness, but less frightening than the idea of giving up her body for nothing more than a credit chip.
     Besides, it might be the only job in the world where Gina would be appreciated for her brain.
     She resisted the temptation of cheap watches, overpriced perfume and glass jewellery. Scanning the chaotic displays, the place was obviously a tourist trap of immense proportions. The thought amused Gina. Tourists, coming to the City. What would they think of next?
     The only item that caught her attention was a small, elegant silver flick-knife laid out on a stall counter-top, surrounded on all sides by tacky jewellery. Something compelled her to pick it up and tested the blade. Against all expectations, it was well-constructed and razor sharp, and she found herself considering it. Despite the reassuring weight of the Mk5 in her purse, the last few days weighed heavily on her. She needed something more than just the taser.
     The cash left her hand without thinking and the knife was there moments later, silver and steel against her fingertips, ready to be concealed anywhere. Gina gave a lopsided smile and tucked it into her bra.
     She headed back to the abandoned shop feeling satisfied, treasuring the small nugget of new confidence resting coolly against her chest.

***

     The hole in Jock’s gut was red and ragged, but it was slowly starting to close. Watching it with morbid fascination was Gina’s only weapon against the mind-numbing boredom of the abandoned shop. When the sun went down, the only thing they could do was hide and watch the shop’s aging, derelict TV set as it flickered and warbled the news in six different languages all night long. It could only receive the one channel, and Jock seemed to find it fascinating. So fascinating that he took the opportunity to annoy her with it as much as possible.
     Faded wood panelling covered the massive thing all along the sides, dating it at about a century old. She tried unplugging it, but the plugs were firmly rusted into their ports. She tried throwing it out the window, but she couldn’t even lift it off the floor. Trying to cut the wires just got her a nasty shock for her trouble. No doubt the evil thing survived out of spite, just to get at her.
     She glared at it from her rickety chair next to Jock’s gurney. She could’ve sworn it glared back.
     “–space station should finish construction within the next three months,” said the newsman with the obvious toupee, smiling his bland, TV smile. He was almost lost behind a wall of blurred subtitles. “Back to you, Louanne.”
     Down to her last nerve, Gina made a vicious lunge for the remote, but Jock won the battle by lying on top of it and presenting his wounded side. Gina couldn’t do much without causing him surgical complications. Of course, when she thought about it, the idea of causing Jock some complications wasn’t so bad, but she hadn’t dared to try it. Yet.
     She turned away from him and hissed, “Would you turn that crap off? We’ve been watching the same goddamned show for three days.”
     “No,” said Jock. “It’s all I’ve got to do in this fucking dump. I got shot, remember?”
     “Oh, I remember. Prick.” A thought struck her then. “Speaking of which, isn’t it about time you told me what happened that night?”
     The temperature in the room dropped abruptly. His eyes were like orbs of ice as he looked at her. “The only one I talk to around here is Simon.”
     “Well, he’s not fucking here, is he? So tell me!” Gina snapped. She was standing over him, voice raised, but Jock didn’t seem afraid of her. He was afraid of everything else, but not her.
     “No.”
     He reached for the remote control again, but anger was making Gina quicker and nastier. She caught his hand, tore the remote out of his fingers, and threw it skittering across the room in a mass of shattered plastic. The old TV popped, then turned itself back on, tuned to a dead channel.
     “Let’s get something straight here,” Jock said slowly. “You think you’re in charge around here? Well, you’re not. I’m here because I’m too valuable to lose. That’s the way it is. The only reason you’re still around is because apparently Simon thinks you must have some kind of use, an opinion which I don’t share, except maybe for a good blowjob. I’m sure he’s already taken good advantage of that. So, why don’t you take your dolls and go die in a corner somewhere and stop pretending you matter?”
     Absolute silence followed his words. Gina’s joints were made out of stone, his voice still ringing in her ears, and it took an effort of will to move her frozen limbs. She hit him. Her hand made a dull, meaty slap as it connected with his face. She took her jacket and her purse and ran out the door, disappearing into the night.

***

     She pushed herself away from the bar, her drink untouched. She didn’t want it. She was sick of it all, sick of Bomber, sick of Jock, sick of her situation, sick of life. A thick miasma of anger, fear and hopelessness hung over her and she wallowed in it.
     But then, as she gingerly made her way to the door on trembling legs, sobering thoughts started to creep into her mind. She had nowhere to go, no one to turn to, and the whole world had it in for her. Where was she going to go?
     There was no way she’d be going back to the shop. She decided that early on, and she intended to stick with it. Keeping that in mind, her first order of business would be to find a place to stay. Bomber’s money should be plenty to rent a cheap coffin somewhere in Shanghai. That was the number one priority.
     She felt a little bit better for having cleared that up. Knowing what to do next. She smiled, patted herself on the back, and walked back into the bar.
     The place seemed to have transformed since she stepped out just a second ago. Where there had been a seedy-looking pub with a lecherous bartender who kept stealing glances at her chest, the grease-stain was now busily sweeping the floor with an obsequious grin on his face, chattering nervously at two Asian men nursing drinks at the bar. All the other patrons seemed to have cleared out in a hurry, leaving glasses half-drunk on their tables and cigarette butts smouldering on the floor. The two men never spared the barkeep a glance. They just sat there, smooth-shaven and immaculate, as if the dust and dirt of the Earth never touched them. Graven images of human perfection with their grey uniforms and gleaming silver buttons.
     Feds.
     Gina’s heart skipped a beat. Cold fear wormed down her spine as she watched them. Out on the Street, you counted yourself lucky if you ever saw a Fed without getting thrown into a cell and disappeared. Even the local police trod very very softly if there was a Fed in the neighbourhood. A hundred horror stories spun in Gina’s mind, but some of them got so wild, you never knew how much to believe . . .
     “Are you coming in, miss?” asked the Fed nearest to her, his glass paused exactly halfway to his mouth. “Either way, please close the door.”
     She panicked all over again. She couldn’t stay here! Not with them! But leaving would make her look suspicious, and if she looked suspicious they might ask her questions, and she was too afraid to lie.
     She was trapped.
     “I am, actually,” she murmured with feigned confidence and shut the door behind her. Her heels clacked ear-shatteringly against the floor on her way to the bar. She put on an inviting smile and sat down at a respectful distance. “I was just looking for someone to buy me a drink. Maybe one of you gentlemen would be kind enough to help me out?”
     The two looked at each other with unmoving faces. Then they looked back at Gina, and the one who’d spoken gave her the slightest hint of a smile. He raised his glass to her and said, “We’re friends of the owner. Please consider your drinks ‘on the house.'”
     “That’s mighty generous of you,” she replied. “I’ll have a gin and tonic, thanks. With lemon.”
     The greasy bartender muttered something and got to work at the bottle rack. The other Fed reached over the counter and pumped himself another beer without consulting anyone else, like it was the most ordinary thing in the world. Gina’s drink was in front of her within seconds, and she raised her glass.
     “To friendship.” The Feds echoed her toast and set to work on their pints. She drained her glass in one go. It didn’t really help; she was still dead sober.
     She licked her lips and leaned forward on her elbows, swaying slightly towards the Fed. “So, my gallant saviour, d’you mind if I ask your name?”
     “Not at all,” he said politely. His voice was cultured and soft-spoken. “Matthias. My comrade here is Jeffrey. And you?”
     “Beauty.” The lie came to her without prompting, smooth and easy. “I know, I know, please don’t ask. My parents were from a commune, see.”
     “Mm. And what brings you out to such a neighbourhood on a night like this?”
     “Just . . .” She shrugged, buying more time to find an appropriate lie. “Just feeling locked up, I guess. It gets so humid around here. I feel like I can’t breathe sometimes.” That seemed to satisfy the Fed. “What about you?”
     “Trying to unwind a little,” said Matthias. The way he said it, that simple sentence was loaded with hundreds of possible meanings. “It’s been a long day for us. Lot of bad things going on.” He fixed her with a look of casual interest that, under the surface, was anything but casual. “Did you hear about that warehouse fire the other day?”
     She looked away to hide her initial shock, then turned back with a vapid expression on her face. “No. Sorry.”
     The tiniest hint of surprise or suspicion crossed his face, but he banished it with a shake of his head. “Never mind. It’s not important.”
     “Sorry, I wish I could help. I’m not from around here, really, just up visiting friends. We don’t really watch the news.”
     Matthias cocked an eyebrow. “American?” he inquired, not because he cared about the answer but because etiquette demanded it.
     “Just my parents. I grew up in Hong Kong district, on the south side, y’know? We used to–“
     Booom, went the explosion outside, cutting her off before she even had the chance to make up an anecdote. The bulletproof windows cracked and squealed from the force of the shockwave. The Feds were on their feet and at the door in an instant, as if they’d been expecting it. They headed outside with trancelike calm, grey helmets covering their faces, long wicked-looking batons and plastic riot shields in their hands. The equipment had come out of nowhere. There didn’t seem to be enough room inside their uniforms to stash so much.
     Gina picked herself up off the floor just in time to watch them leave, and ducked again as a burst of machine gun fire ripped through the bar. Splinters flew like shrapnel. Glass shattered. The bartender hopped out from behind the counter, emitting a banshee wail as he clutched his thigh. Red liquid spurted through his fingers like wine. Then another bullet bored into his chest and he went quiet.
     “Stay,” Matthias said to Gina, dark eyes staring into hers. His voice had the command of a king. She shrank back and covered her head as the Feds turned and stepped out into the chaos. Outside, the noise suddenly stopped, as if some giant heart had paused in its beating.
     “This is the Federal Police,” boomed an amplified voice, speaking in Conglom. “Put down your weapons and surrender or we will be forced to use stern measures.”
     She could see everything through the bar window. The two Feds stood in the middle of the street, flanked on both sides by buildings crawling with confused and apprehensive gang troops. She recognised their colours. Yakuza on the left, Triads on the right. The Feds had interrupted a skirmish.
     “Yaks don’t come to Shanghai,” Bomber had told her once. “Lot of killing, lot of bad blood still around.” And now the Emperor was dead.
     But they hated and feared the Feds even more than they hated and feared each other.
     Another explosion ripped through the ground, even larger than the first, blowing out windows all along the street. Someone roared a war cry, and then gunfire consumed the street outside. All of it aimed at Matthias and Jeffrey.
     The Feds split up and casually walked into either camp. Bullets seemed to bounce off them without even slowing them down. Then they were in amongst the gangs, and the sound of shots turned to screams, cries of such pure agony that they rang in Gina’s ears like breaking crystal.
     She felt their pain. She felt it without Spice, without VR. She tried to block it out but couldn’t. It was primal and terrible, a cold shock down to her animal hindbrain, filling her with adrenaline and the need to act. Every muscle trembled with terror as she crawled behind the counter, climbed over the dead body of the bartender with tears in her eyes, and quietly slipped out the back door.
     Black helicopters thundered into the sky behind her and cut loose with machine guns. Spotlights bathed the scene in halogen light. Gina didn’t even notice, lost in her own panic. It barely registered when a missile split one of the helicopters in two, lighting up the sky like a fireworks display.
     The screams echoed behind her as she ran.

***

     The sound of guns and shouting followed at her heels. It was as if the whole of Shanghai was in flames. Gina remembered gang wars around the Street, small scuffles where both sides exchanged a few expendable foot soldiers and did some posturing, then returned to the status quo with a few bits of territory changing hands. They seemed like playground scraps now compared to what was going on around her. This was a blood feud.
     An RPG hissed into the air from the rooftop to her left. Gina paused to look up, then darted away in panic as a Fed gunship turned its autocannons on the offending roof. The night sky became suddenly bright again as flaming rubble shot into the air, then rained down into the street. White-eyed and wild with fear, Gina dove into a lean-to for shelter and huddled against the wall, shivering.
     Two men came staggering out of the building barely two yards away from her. Their arms were locked together at shoulder height in a struggle for life and death, constantly trying to land the killing blow. One wore Yakuza colours, the other those of the Triads. The larger Triad man held his knife in a death grip, slowly forcing it down into his enemy’s neck, while the Yakuza man fought to bring his pistol down.
     They staggered backwards into the road, where the Yakuza man lost his footing and stumbled. The Triad man let go instantly and disembowelled him. He grinned in triumph as the Yakuza man inched back, looking down in horror at his life leaving his body. Then, trembling, the Yakuza man raised his pistol and blew the Triad man’s brains out.
     The two lay next to each other like toppled statues, and Gina choked when she saw their clothes and skin start to flake away, revealing the charred ash underneath. Horror squeezed her throat until she couldn’t breathe. The sky was red above her.
     Another man in a Fed uniform came walking down the road to investigate and took a machine gun burst to the back. He stumbled from the hits, going down to his knees, but then he stood back up without showing any sign of injury. He just turned around, hefted his baton and trudged grimly towards the source of the shots.
     All the while the screams went on, roaring through her head like a waterfall. There was only madness in those streets.
     There seemed to be no passage of time at all between huddling under the lean-to and stumbling into the abandoned shop. Water streamed off her, dripping from her chin and her nose and her fingers and every stringy strand of her drenched hair. Her shirt clung to her body like a vice. Torrential rain pounded the pavement behind her, but she didn’t know when it had started or how she’d failed to notice it before now. The fires seemed far behind her, beaten down by the rain, each explosion no more than a muffled thump to Gina’s ears.
     She dragged her feet into the corridor, found the cracked plastic chair bolted to the wall, and sagged into it. Dry sobs shook her body. She gasped out with each one, but her eyes were dry.
     “Gina?” Jock’s voice echoed from the doorway. There was a statue there, leaning heavily against the plastic doorframe and holding its belly with one hand. It was made of black, flaking ash, and embers fell from its mouth as it spoke.
     “Stay away!” she shrieked at him. She hid her face in her hands, didn’t want to see.
     “Look, you need to come in here,” the statue said. Its tone was urgent, and it emitted a grunt of pain as it tried to move towards her. “Hurry! We’re in trouble!”
     She let out a wordless scream, then curled up into a ball and covered her head, blocking out the world until a rush of tranquilisers filled her bloodstream.
     Jock pulled out the syringe and moved back. It took him a second to work up the nerve to speak again. “These should work instantly. How do you feel?”
     Gina opened her eyes, looked up, unsure of what had happened. Tried to remember how to speak. Her voice was cracked and hoarse as she said, “Like . . . Like waking up from a nightmare.” Then she glanced around. “Only it’s still going on.”
     “Well, clear your head and get over here right away. You need to see this.”
     He took her hand, and she followed him into the bedroom, too confused to protest. Unsteady legs carried them into the room with the ancient TV, which seemed to have restored itself to operation despite the shattered remote control.
     The sputtering device didn’t catch her attention until Jock set her down in front of it and pointed. The news anchor burbled through the haze of static, something about Hong Kong police arresting a major criminal. It soon cut to a video clip of a man being thrown into a paddy wagon by the local police. They ripped his hood off moments before the doors slammed shut, and Gina gasped as she saw his face.
     “It’s Bomber,” she blurted.
     Jock stared at the screen, the light reflecting off his face in the dark, expressionless. His voice was dead level. “Get me to a VR terminal.”
     All arguments were forgotten for the moment. With a walking cane made out of an old chair leg, they hobbled out through the rain-soaked night and into the nearest public GlobeNet booth. Flatscreen only, no VR, but it would have to do.
     She asked him, “What are we looking for?”
     “Help,” he replied. “Lots of it.”

2 Responses to “EMPATHY: Part 5”

  1. Sahira d'Aqua says:

    I think (check me if you like) the word “vice” in this section is meant to be “vise” – as in “vise grip”. Entertaining story

    • Ryan A. Span says:

      It’s only ‘vise’ if you’re American! 😛 As a native of Europe, I exclusively use British spellings in my work.

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