I felt no thrill, no excitement. It didn’t even cross my mind how stupid or cool I might have looked in my new armour. I didn’t even feel exposed wearing just a vest. No time to modify it, and I was beyond caring.
I wasn’t doing this because I felt restless, or angry. I wasn’t wandering around until I found a situation that I could easily win. I was doing this because I had to. I didn’t even like Mike, but I owed it to Beth.
I couldn’t even be sure he was in trouble. There was a chance he’s just skipped school for a bit. But I would have expected him to keep in contact with Beth, he cared about her. I remembered the warning he’d given me, a long time ago now.
Besides, I had an uneasy feeling that my suspicions were accurate.
I walked through the streets with my hood low down over my face, scarf already wrapped around my face. I was wearing the new clothes I had gotten for the sole purpose of going out. Plain black hooded top, t-shirt and cargo pants. Even then, the vest was a little too bulky to be easily hidden.
I didn’t bother, who was going to stop me? There were no police here.
I stuck to the backstreets, the alleys and the shortcuts. The forgotten pathways between buildings, over half-burnt out roofs. I’d spent my childhood running through this place. This was my playground. I knew exactly where to climb to get onto into the system of rotting pathways forming a labyrinth across the concrete roofs.
With an ever-increasing population, places like the Island grew exponentially. People flocked here to escape whatever rules and pressures societies placed on them. Most of the inhabitants weren’t recorded as even being alive. This was a place with no police, no government, no law beyond that enforced by mass social acceptance and the sharp end of the local gangs.
If you got in debt or if you’d committed a crime, you fled to places like this. Do you think those who have children here would sign their names to register them? No, most of the kids born of the Island have no record, no ID. Who’s going to check? They won’t go to school, they won’t pay tax.
The only reason I was a person was so my mother could rake in the measly allowance the government paid for my welfare. I’d realised that a long time ago. Most parents here had reasons not to register a new-born.
The government is perfectly happy with this arrangement. The people who live here would be either in prison or receiving benefits. Both of those are expenses it is willing to overlook.
As a result this place thrived. It grew, or at least festered like an infected wound. Not all of its industry is criminal, well, not directly. See, if you have a population of non-people they aren’t covered by any law. No employment legislation or safety laws. No minimum wage. No inspections. They can’t petition a court because they don’t exist as an entity of the legal system.
We learned in school that centuries ago the world was divided; it was split along lines of wealth – traditionally called the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. During the technology boom, before the inevitable plateau the developing East built its industry on cheap labour. Few rights for workers lead to their exploitation and it fed the West’s desire for cheap goods.
The East profited from this and grew. But growth is never going to go on for ever. It reached a point where it’s development approached that of the West. Both sides approached an equilibrium. Of course, the workers demanded rights. They wanted the lifestyle of the west. The demand for goods rose, but the cost to produce them exploded without anyone left to exploit. The world economy was brought to it’s knees because of a void they had once filled. The golden age, for those that wrote the history books at least, ended.
Nowadays, though it’s not taught in school, the demand is fulfilled by places like this. The Island isn’t just filled with drugs and brothels. Small technology firms produce one-off tech on a tiny scale; the people here will work for less than it costs to design the latest production process, less than it costs to build a shiny factory. If you’re building something to build something, you come to a place like this. People here have whole industries doing the things that robots can’t. I once stumbled upon one for sewing on buttons. Something that you could build a machine to do. It wouldn’t even be that expensive, but a family of eight working 13 hours a day can do it faster and cheaper. When you update the cut of your clothes to suit the latest fashion they adapt. It doesn’t increase the cost, no remanufacturing of machinery.
So the island grew, and it grew upwards. The demand for cheap housing and pressure from the city for it not to expand beyond the boundaries of the river resulted in a honeycomb of extensions, and who wants to keep going up and down stairs to visit a neighbour?
An upper level of walkways and passages grew as buildings joined up and fire escapes turned into thoroughfares. I liked it up here. There were less people, especially in weather like this. The snow made it treacherous, but I’d always been a climber. If you knew where you were going you could avoid others by taking the more difficult routes.
The people I did meet avoided me. It was strange, having others step to the side as I passed – my hand resting on the handle of my knife.
My memories of that night were cloudy. I remembered the general area and had a clear picture of the warehouse, but I didn’t know the exact location. Once I got close I had to start a search. I set about as close to a spiral as I could manage, keeping to the shadows and avoiding contact with anyone. I couldn’t be sure who was a gang member, Kolmek or otherwise.
It took me an hour. I saw a sign on a building I recognised from a blurry flashback. I remembered passing it, and started a search outward from that point before finding something else that triggered a flash of memory.
I was closer…
* * *
I could see four guards. I say guards, they were sitting at each entrance but none had a watchful or serious air. Two were talking, drinking and laughing on a small balcony above the exit I’d left the warehouse through before. The others were close to two other entrances, one seemed asleep and the other watching or playing something on his phone.
All four had black shapes at their hip, pistols. I couldn’t get in a gunfight.
I had vague memories of the interior. But I only knew the area around that one exit. The one I was least likely to get into. Firstly, I’d completely forgotten the code, even if they hadn’t changed it. Secondly, it had two guards and they seemed the most alert.
I couldn’t see any cameras, but I knew that you could never be sure, remembering the news. I could only hope that no one was watching wherever they were broadcasting.
It was a tough decision. Should I chose the blind door, with no knowledge of what lay behind, or the well guarded one?
I chose the unknown over the known-to-be-risky.
Of the two unknowns I picked the easiest. Asleep guard. I didn’t creep up on him. Instead, I followed my usual tactic of strolling up to him casually. He was in what was at some point a security post of some kind beside a wide shuttered loading bay. It probably controlled access from whenever this warehouse had operated as its intended purpose.
The two wide windows gave a panoramic view of the alleyway, windows I’d have to walk past to get through.
It would have been tough if he’d had his eyes open.
To my pleasure, when I tried the door it opened smoothly. Not even locked. However, the moment it swung open, whether it was the noise of the door or the draft of cold air, he woke.
I was ready. He wasn’t in a good position, feet crossed on the panel in front of him, chair leaning backwards.
“Excuse me, I seem to be lost-” I lashed out with a kick to his face as he leaned forwards to try get to his feet. It caught him in the nose, throwing him backwards. A crack echoed around the sheet-metal box of a room as his head hit the one brick wall behind him.
That was easy.
Ignoring the growing pool of sticky blood, I bound his hands with the cable-ties I’d brought and patted him down. I found a knife, one of those fancy flick out ones you see in the movies. I slipped it in my pocket just in case it would be useful later. I didn’t like it, too complex, but Jim said you can never have enough knives.
After a short hesitation, I pulled the gun out of it’s holster and checked the safety catch. Everyone knows about the safety catch thing. Finding it satisfyingly set to the green dot, which I assumed meant safe, I shoved it in a spare strap on my belt. It might come in useful. Finally I slipped the key-ring and fob over his neck and put it around my own.
I wished I had some kind of gag, though I didn’t think they were that effective anyway. I hoped that he wouldn’t wake up and make a lot of noise.
I took the smaller door in the security office. The large shutters looked like they hadn’t opened for a fair few years. It took me a minute to find the right key, physical this time.
There were no alarms, noises or shouts when I slipped through. Now all I need to do is find if Mike is even here…