Pandora’s Box

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Over his shoulder he heard the gunfire ring out in the constrained dimensions of the alleyway. Bray ducked quickly around a corner, hiding against another of the great gunmetal columns that reached skyward to recover his breath.

He felt down the side of his longcoat. The synthetic fabric felt loose. Trailing a hand down, he felt the fabric in tatters around a bullet hole.

Too close, he thought. Too close for comfort.

He moved swiftly down the alleyway. Footsteps approached briskly. Bray looked around, puzzled, but his eyes fixed on the silent, grey structure of the fire escape that led up one of the adjacent warehouses. He climbed, quickly, the wind flapping his ruined coat behind him.

Emerging onto the rooftop he ducked behind the brick parapet on top of the warehouse. Bray looked carefully over, into the alleyway.

Far from quiet, the alleyway was now teeming with troopers.

“Did anyone see where he went, the intruder?”

“No, no, he’s… he’s not here.”

“Sweep around. We can’t afford to have snoopers. Not now, anyway.”

Another one of the troopers came from the window at the back of the shop that Bray had escaped from. The lead trooper turned and nodded. “Is it done?”

“Ready for transit.”

“Did she consent to scanning?”

“Consent was…” the trooper began, trailing off. The lead trooper’s head cocked. “We acquired a form of consent to scan.”

A moment of silence. Then the lead trooper nodded. “Very well. Fall out. You two,” he indicated to two of the troopers, “keep an eye out for wanderers. Neutralise on sight. Dispose… use your imagination.” He gave the alleyway a final derisory look. “This place is filthy, a body’d fit right in here. Don’t waste too much time.”

The rest of the troopers fell out and proceeded to clamber back into the storeroom of the shop. Bray fell back and let the phone, which he had held in his hand, observing the entire exchange, fall back into his lap. He pressed the stop button and the display shimmered. Then a text message appeared on the screen in ominous, large font: Get back here now. Work to do.

“Okay,” he whispered to himself. He moved to the corner of the roof, pausing when he heard an unexpected clatter from the fire escape. He froze, but it was just the wind. He looked up, past the other rooftops and the pylons that supported the deck a couple of hundred feet above. There was one in the middle of the roof of the warehouse upon which Bray was standing. He moved toward it, and felt a hum coming from it in his ears.

Approaching it he saw the smooth gunmetal body of the pylon was formed of panels, and one was loose. Coming up next to it, the loose panel soon fell with a few tugs from Bray’s hands and he peered into the internals of the pylon. It was nearly four metres in diameter and mostly comprised of an organic, almost honeycomb structure of metal. Running in between and around this were thick, rubber-coated cables that pulsed with ethereal lights at regular intervals.

Bray held up his phone. “You getting this?” he whispered hoarsely.

The voice on the other end of the VOIP call was agitated. “Yes, I know where you are, too. Now shut up and get here! We need you alive for the next part, Bray.”

“Know where I…” Bray begun, pocketing the Candysoft again. He looked up above and saw, high on the pylon, round, circumferential garland of security and surveillance cameras. He looked at the cabling inside the access panel. The pulses ran up as well as down. He stepped away, back toward the fire escape. Bray gave a quick look down. No-one there. He slid down the metalwork, jumping back to the alley floor.

He took out the Candysoft again for a moment, consulting it. He ran down, away from the warehouse, around a corner and by another dumpster. It was empty of people but filled with trash and refuse. The shadows of the looming warehouses either side came in, blocking even the halogen sun that the underside of the deck was festooned with.

Bray stopped dead before he careened around the next corner. Out of the shadow loomed the back of one of the troopers left on guard. Bray held his breath and turned.

“Over here! Over here, quick!” a voice called. He turned and out of a doorway stood Aven, the skinny, petite girl he had been VOIPing with. She beckoned him into a doorway. Bray followed.

The doorway banged shut and the interior space of the building was cloaked in absolute pitch darkness.

“Any lights?” Bray wheezed.

“Are you sure you want to see?”

“What’s that smell?” Bray asked curtly, his nose contorting.

“Don’t worry,” Aven said. She handed him a flashlight. “Focus it on the floor and follow my movements.”

Bray did so. He held the torch toward the cement ground which gave way to a metal platform which rattled against a sea of dank emptiness. Bray grabbed the loose, makeshift handrail fashioned of metal poles. “What is this place? It stinks like… like shit.”

“Look around,” Aven said briskly. Bray could tell from the way she spoke that she was hurrying with her breath. “You’ll see why.”

Bray did so. He noticed the silhouettes of dark, metal objects. Pumping machinery, long since dormant and deserted. A relic of the past. Then he pointed the flashlight downwards, through the metal platform, which was formed of a gauze-like grille. Dank liquid.

“Why are you taking me through an old sewage plant, of all places?”

Aven stopped and turned. She looked sardonically at Bray. “Some places even the guards would rather not tread. And those that do are just the bottom-rungs. We,” she said with a haughty smile, “can deal with those.”

She continued walking and Bray looked over the railing again. Perhaps, he thought, it wasn’t just sewage festering in the pit of this building, after all.

Aven opened a door that was concealed around a wall. Bray felt the metal platform give way onto solid cement floor again. He sighed, reassured. “This way,” she called with a hush.

The doorway opened back out onto the outside, but not the public alleyway from before. The yard was bathed in the artificial moonlight and it cast down on Aven’s features. She turned to Bray as he emerged, and he acknowledged her. She had a squat frame, almost diminutive, topped with black hair and glasses perched on her slender nose. Her face was slender, like the rest of her. By default, Aven’s face seemed to fall into an unimpressed half-glare. Bray was almost used to it.

“What?” Bray protested theatrically. There was nothing theatrical about Aven’s admonishment.

“Quit looking at me like you’d never seen me before. And follow, quickly,” Aven hissed, falling to the floor. She heaved at the heavy metal panel. Bray came over to help but she hissed again. “I can do it. Get the flashlight, you’ll see.”

Aven gave another heave and the panel slid away into a recess in the pavement. She indicated down. Bray shone the flashlight into the hole but gestured cheekily.

“Ladies first.”

“Shut up, alright, you’ve wasted enough time,” Aven said, but still proceeded down the steps into the gloom.

“I hope this isn’t the sewers,” Bray said nervously. Aven didn’t stop walking.

“I forgot, this is your first time down below, isn’t it? Well, you’re in luck, in that you didn’t get killed, or worse, caught by PANDORA, but we’re still in the shit. You did well, by the way, I forgot to tell you.”

“No you didn’t,” Bray said wryly. In front of him, Aven smiled.

“You’re right, I didn’t.”

A light flickered and the gloom was instantly replaced by the dazzle of bright incandescence. So too was the claustrophobia of the dark replaced with the cosiness of the underground space revealing itself. The brick walls showed their age, contrasting with the electronic gear that festooned workbenches lining them.

There was a bank of dusty monitors on the wall. One showed a map of the lower levels of the city, pulses racing around the streets like cars on a track. Another, smaller panel showed the rooftops, cycling through the pylon-mounted cameras. And finally, on one of the biggest screens around which the others were clustered was the street outside Silicon Dreams. Bray leaned in closer.

“Looks familiar,” he mused.

“Yes, it does,” Aven said, following Bray over. “And you know the most curious thing?” She tapped a few keys. The image dissected itself across the screen, with a still of the woman’s face now freeze-framed over the majority of it. “This woman. You know her?”

Bray leaned in close, examining the pixelized-representation of the woman. He’d only gotten a fleeting glance at her from his vantage point before having to make his escape. He narrowed his eyes, focusing. A name seemed on the tip of his tongue, but it was almost too incredulous to say it aloud. In this context, anyway.

“You can say it,” Aven nodded, her hands poised over the keyboard. “Go on.”

“That’s Genevieve Auletta,” Bray said, shocked. “But no-one’s seen her since…”

“For three hundred and sixty-four days, Bray. Since… the Great Nationalisation.”

Bray nodded, recalling. Genevieve Auletta had disappeared the same day that PANDORA had wrested control of the gene-customisation industry she was the figurehead and mastermind behind. When a group of revolutionaries seized the cogs of government and promised a ‘better future for humanity’. He snorted with derision even recalling that. Those that better humanity by force are tyrants by another, more marketable name. Still, Auletta had indeed disappeared, presumably taking flight to the New Americas.

Still, he examined the screen and his recollection of her likeness and he couldn’t pull himself away. It was her, alright. Barely fifty feet away from him and now. “She picked a fine time to re-appear, she did. And a lot of good that did.”

Aven looked cooly at him. “You weren’t in the loop were you? You missed out on some realtime comms.”

“Phone was broken,” Bray said apologetically. Then he put a hand in his pocket, looking like a guilty schoolboy. “But I did walk out with one of these.”

Aven gave a nonchalant look until her hand fell onto the Candysoft. “You’re kidding. That real?”

“As real as right now,” Bray said with pride.

Aven gave the device a reverent look. “I thought your metadata was spoofing it, but…”

“But what?”

“It doesn’t matter. Where’d you get it?”

“Silicon Dreams,” Bray replied. “I found it, needed it, and took it. I would’ve paid for it but then again, I didn’t have any access to my wallet.”

Aven nodded. Bray was referring to his cryptocurrency wallet, stored on his phone profile. “No matter,” she nodded, turning to face a hastily-assembled bank of games consoles slaved together. She flicked a switch. The whirr and hum of current was palpable. “We’ll mine enough crypto overnight to make adequate… recompense.” She met his sceptical glance. “His bail, Bray.”

“Now,” Bray said, “the real question is why Auletta is out and about. Though now captured. And at the hands of PANDORA.”

Aven laughed. “Don’t worry, we’ll get her out. She’s a useful asset to us.” Bray gave her a confused look. “Think about it, she’s the perfect way for us to track her and find where PANDORA processes those it deems… flawed. They find out Auletta’s resurfaced and you bet they’ll want her right in front of the big boss. And I know where that’ll be!”

“Where’s that then?”

“You remember that first clinic that opened?”

Bray did. It was a marvel of architecture and science. And it had mysteriously disappeared, its site now a barren patch of wasteland. What was seen as a historical milestone in the development of science and industry, combined with the auspices of art, had simply vanished.

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