"In the early days, men lived in forests and meadows eating berries and hunting animals. Then they Planted crops in the fertile fields, fished the ocean teeming with life, and drank clean water from pure springs flowing freely for all. Slowly, civilization crept upon the face of our planet, until every landmass was paved over. When those ran out, we drained the ocean and paved it too until our planet is nothing but a giant sphere of concrete. A sea of skyscrapers, arcologies, and gargantuan apartment blocks tens of kilometers high populated by hundreds of billions both living in extreme squalor and extreme luxury. Even the Moon, Mars, and the space around Earth followed the same fate. When space and planets started running out of living space, we started looking downwards, below the paved concrete landmass of Earth. That was when the great Warrens were built. A gargantuan man-made interconnected cave system spanning entire continents that housed entire cities, populated by billions of the poorest and outcasts who will never, ever see the sun in their lifetime, feasting on the scrap that falls from above the ground."
Martius wiped beads of sweat off his forehead. The debilitating heat and the loud hums of loading cranes and the industrial lights overhead bathing everything in a strong amber light assaulted his senses but he has gotten somehow used to the environment.
Dozens of men stood behind a conveyor belt in a rectangular warehouse with high ceilings where discarded robot parts continually flowed. Arms, foot, servo, motors anything that could be found in a robot flowed and a flying scanner overhead pinpointed refurbishable parts where the nearest worker picked it up and placed it on a specially designated bin that will eventually be hauled by their Robotic co-worker.
Martius was a few minutes away from clocking out and he used his last remaining toilet break, much to the chagrin of his supervisor.
The toilet was depressingly basic, with old chipping paint and yellow wall-mounted light. Martius washed his hands but the faucet only allowed 15 seconds of water before it stopped. He whisked his hands and reached out into his pocket to check his Holopad to check on any messages. There was a voicemail left from Keya, her pretty face adorned the screen. She had a dark complexion with short hair and dreamy eyes. He swiped left and a holographic projection of her appeared.
"Our informant at waste disposal just told us there might be a fully functioning industrial Fusion Torch Cutter in the scrapyards tonight, this could potentially be our biggest. I've already assembled the gang, meet us at Hammers Down immediately." Keya looked pretty excited, Martius pressed reply and faced the glass screen.
"Be right there Kay', if this goes well, we could finally buy our own prospecting equipment and I can finally leave this shitty job behind. See you soon."
Martius hit send and headed out.
His supervisor Kamila, a tall woman with cropped hair wearing a greasy coverall was angrily waiting for him in the line.
"Sorry Kam, never gonna happen again, I swear. By the way you seem to get prettier with each passing day."
"Shut up you handsome bullshitter, I might just believe you," said Kamila with a smile.
"Okay Kam, my shift is up, I'm heading out, see ya," said Martius
"Martius, I know it's been quite a while... but please take care of yourself. Don't do what your brother did." said Kamila
Martius smiled at the memory of his brother Thane dating Kamila before he disappeared, how they constantly got into trouble with the StateSec.
Kamila has always been sweet and caring towards him like an older sister he never had, he always thought that she was gonna be a part of their family until his brother's unfortunate disappearance.
"I still miss brother, but I'm not stupid like him to get involved with those crime lords, I can take care of myself."
Martius gave Kamila a quick hug before running off into the streets outside.
The rainy narrow streets outside were filled with holographic advertisements of all sorts. Dancing scantily clad women drinking beverages, men dressed in latest fashion suits, food packets of flavored algae and synthetic noodles, it beautifully reflected on the wet pavement below creating a dancing river of neon lights. The buildings around them were less colorful. Blocks of concrete and steel monstrosities with pipes and electrical wirings protruding like life support systems of a dying city, extending hundreds of meters above the artificially generated rain clouds obscuring the concrete ceiling of the Warrens where the holographic ads in their rooftops gave the gray clouds a faint and eerie light show seen from below.
Walking briskly under the artificial rain in dark, narrow alleyways, wearing his filter mask and his raincoat. The air felt unusually cold as he warmed his cold wet hands and struggled not to shiver. Security and Commercial delivery drones zoom past him overhead passing by a sea of people all wearing the same raincoat with different color variations and custom decorations and electrovehicles in an afternoon rush hour, or at least the analog version of it in a subterranean city where the sun neither rises nor sets. The streets were filled with water until it was about a couple of inches from the heel of his boots.
Martius waited with hundreds of others in an intersection as slow traffic of electrovehicles moved past them, faceless entities trying to survive just another day. There was no one speaking, everyone seemed to be busy with their holopad while wealthier ones who could afford cybernetic implants just stared into the distance, probably watching movies or games in their cybernetic minds, the faint whirring of electrovehicles and the sloshing water from the flooded streets filled the air.. When the last electrovehicle passed, a holographic projection of a StateSec officer signaled for the pedestrian to cross and Martius waded into the ankle deep flooded streets.
The Hammers Down pub was just a red door with a sign in a residential tower block that led him to a basement. Inside the pub, music played from the speakers and holographic images of men and women danced alongside real people.
The bartender was chatting up a few patrons, laughing atop a long gray metal bar. He immediately spots his gang in the corner.
There was Akira, a massive bulk of a man wearing a sleeveless shirt and jeans full of tattoos with long hair and beard, the designated "Hitter" of the group.
There was Ziv in a patched pullover shirt and ripped jeans, a man in a modest frame always carrying his bag of tech stuff, the "nerd" of the gang.
Finally, there was Keya, Ziv's older sister and the de facto leader of the group. Keya, with her short curly raven hair, sharp facial features, and dreamy eyes with her brown complexion. Martius had always found her to be very attractive. Only her status as leader of the gang prevented Martius from making any sort of move with her.
Keya's face immediately brightened upon seeing Martius.
"Hey! Over here dipshit!" yelled Keya from across the room.
He immediately came over and shook Akira and Ziv's hand. Martius tried to shake Keya's hand but it came off awkward and they just settled for a fistbump and an awkward half-smile. Martius picked up the mug of beer left for him and took a gulp while Akira eyed both Keya and Martius suspiciously.
"Okay what's going on here lately, you guys dating or something!?" Akira asked out of the blue.
Martius almost spat the beer while Keya's face flushed red from embarrassment.
"Wow, Martius, are we going to be in-laws now?" Joked Ziv.
Keya punched Ziv in the stomach then he and Akira let out a laugh.
"Martius and I are like brothers here you fucking creeps, that sort of thing ain't funny," said Keya.
"Yeah, guys let's not joke with that stuff any further, it's not funny." Added Martius.
Martius has been gathering the courage to ask Keya out but now it is clear that he will now have to extinguish any fantasy of them ending up together as it is clear that she's not interested in pursuing any relationship with him.
Akira was seeing someone, while Ziv was engaged and they constantly brag about their relationships and conquest whenever the gang congregated. Keya used to date someone, another scrapper bonehead from a different gang in Sector 4 she's been seeing on and off for 3 years and her man finally broke up with her a couple of weeks earlier leaving Keya devastated.
Martius has always been the most mysterious member of the group, although they know about his family and many aspects of his personal life, he kept his relationships secret and hence they never talked to him about romance and he liked it that way until now. Martius' last romantic encounter was with Norana, a fellow co-worker at the scrap processing plant where they dated for 8 months, but when Norana asked Martius to get married and settle down, he declined and Norana broke up with him not long after.
"Holy fucking shit, I almost forgot, the Fusion Torch Cutter in the scrapyard! Let's go guys!" said Keya.
The gang then promptly packed up. Akira downed his glass in one full swig, while Ziv and Martius tried to emulate him but ended up choking.
They waited on the Sector 6 Maglev station. The flickering amber lights illuminated bare concrete walls were filled with graffiti of different gangs and anarchist messages with a few ancient bullet holes etched like craters that the states didn't bother to patch, indicating the violence of their area. Two StateSec officers with pulse rifles stood guard near the platform.
Akira noticed a gang of 6 men on the other side of the platform eyeing them, a massive bulk of a man with a combat knife holstered on his side, winking at them provocatively. He immediately notified the gang.
"Tommy's Squadron gang. That's Tommy, that beefcake there. What the hell are they doing here in Sector 6, Sector 2 is their territory, they have no business being here." said Ziv.
"Whatever it is, let's not provoke them. We're about to score the biggest find of our career."
"Good call, Kay, besides, those two StateSec officers seem to be looking at us too. We would want to be stuck in a rock and a hard place," said Martius.
"Nah, they're just eyeing me like the pervert pigs they are,"
"Damn Keya, you gotta try to stop looking ridiculously good sometimes HEHEH-." blurted out Akira.
Keya elbowed Akira hard enough that his snickering died down immediately."
The Maglev train arrived. A circular tube of metal with large glass windows, the door opened and the stream of people poured in. Inside, it was cold and cramped. The lights overhead were mostly bust and haven't been replaced for years if not decades, the walls were completely covered in graffiti and stains and the floor was littered with garbage and crushed paper cups, the few working lights bathed inside in an eerie light blue glow.
The train zoomed past the endless tube of concrete and a singular metal rail at moderate speeds. The train stopped occasionally to drop off passengers. Their destination was the scrapyard at sector 10 where the Fusion torch cutter is believed to be located.
"Sector 10 station right ahead, sector 10 station right ahead." said the holographic projection of a female announcer.
Martius woke up from his nap and noticed that Keya's head was rested on his shoulders, sleeping. Keya woke up and they briefly made awkward eye contact and avoided each other. Akira and Ziv were looking at them with a big, mischievous grin.
"Fuck off guys, seriously," said Martius to the two.
Ziv and Akira stifled a laugh then stood up.
The scrapyards was a rectangular empty lot smack drab among the hundreds of massive Production blocks of Sector 10. Lifeless towers of concrete with rusting pipes running through them like exposed veins of a human body, illuminated by bright neon signs and the occasional Verticars and drones flying past them. But even here, in the bleakest part of New Iconium, bright holographic advertisements filled the sky with beautiful women, food, clothing, and services that very few of its inhabitants could ever afford, hologram and neon signs beautifully reflecting in puddles and wet metal scrap surfaces like a dream.
Constantly showcasing the luxury of the topside to the people who sleep in cramped apartments and have never even eaten anything other than algae and synthetic proteins.
The gang vigorously scanned the area with Ziv's homemade scanner. It could detect the signature of an intact power unit.
They have been scouring the pile of rubbish slated for the Reprocessing plant at Sector 6, the one where Martius used to work for almost 1 and a half hours but there are still no signs of the Fusion Torch Cutter.
Keya was seriously considering calling off the hunt when Akira's sensor started beeping.
"Guys, I think I have something! Come over here quickly!" yelled Akira.
The gang congregated on Akira who then promptly dug into the pile of discarded metals, broken ceramics, and plastic. He was wearing a synthetic glove to protect from any unexpected sharp objects. After 5 minutes of digging and dislodging bigger scraps, a stained white cylinder with two metal rods protruding as robotic claws appeared.
"Fucking Jackpot! We have it folks!" exclaimed Ziv
"Holy fucking shit, we're rich now!"
The team celebrated and hugged one another.
Keya didn't hesitate and gave Martius a tight hug. Martius felt her warmth in the middle of the cold environment but nothing mattered to Martius at that moment except her.
He wanted to put time on pause, and just live in the moment.
Keya finally broke from her hug and gave Martius an enthusiastic smile.
The gang cleared the remaining debris off the Fusion Torch Cutter, it was heavy.
Martius and Akira pulled it out carefully from the pile and Keya took a photo of it with her holopad, with both of them grinning like idiots in the photo.
"How'd you think we'd move this thing back to Sector 6 without attracting attention?" asked Martius.
"StateSec isn't a problem. Those guys don't go after small-time shit like us, they already make insane money providing private security and sharing protection rackets throughout the Underside with the top crime dogs. They'll probably just ignore us." said Keya.
"The problem is gonna be fellow small-time shits like us. Street gangs. When you all live at rock bottom, you tend to kill each other for crumbs. You've seen Tommy from Sector 6 station, right? He and his crew are animals. Y'know I'm not afraid of people, but even I steer clear of animals like him. If we caught their attention, they'd gut us and leave us bleeding just for this item" said Akira.
"Hand over the item and nobody gets hurt" A voice from behind shouted.
The gang all turned behind them and saw Tommy and his crew standing atop a pile of scrap. All 6 of them, wearing coveralls and leather jackets.
"Speak of the fucking devil." said Akira
Tommy was an imposing man wearing a leather jacket adorned with a big number 6 on his back over his olive coveralls. He has solid square facial features and blonde close crop hair, with arms almost twice as thick as a normal person's. Only Akira in the group could hope to last in a toe-to-toe fight with him.
"Oh god, oh god, oh shit, oh fuck, we're screwed," said Ziv.
Tommy jumped from the scrap pile and walked halfway towards them.
"You know, it doesn't have to end in violence. We are indeed animals. Throw us a bone and we leave you alone. Give that Fusion Cutter and we walk away. Simple as that." said Tommy.
"Go to hell Tommy, maybe if you guys started making friends instead of killing them, you'd have a solid reliable source too and you could make an honest money for once in your life," shouted Keya.
Martius felt tense, his heart was beating his rib cages hard. He was assessing the situation. There were 4 of them versus 7 of them including Tommy. Akira and Keya are veteran street fighters and can probably hold on their own while He and Ziv would probably need a weapon. Martius eyed the surroundings looking for weapons but the scraps are either too big and unwieldy or too small to be used as a weapon. He was gonna have to fight with his fist.
"Okay we gave you the chance to surrender and you chose the hard way," said Tommy
Tommy then gestured to his screw. They jumped from the pile and lounged forward.
The first three went for Akira, the biggest. Akira held them back, his massive frame seems to easily absorb their picks and punch. Akira then punched back and knocked out one thug in a single swing. One of them tried to grab Akira but it proved a massive mistake.
Akira grabbed the thug's wrist, spun him, then threw him at the other thug in a loud thud and both of them never got back on their feet.
The second man went for Martius, he froze and braced himself for his blows. He dodged the left one but the right hit him in the wrist, Martius felt the impact. The thug kept punching him, blow by blow landing on his folded arms shielding his face, occasionally landing on his head and body. Martius finally saw his opening, the Thug was standing on a plant of broken ceramics, Martius kicked the man's leg, causing the ceramic piece to dislodge and slip. The man slipped and fell to the ground then Martius went into the offensive, pelting his exposed face and chest with punches. Martius was too cold to feel any pain at this point. Martius stopped punching when the thug appeared to be unconscious.
He saw Keya gracefully dodging and shielding punches and blows from a thug, she was experienced in hand-to-hand combat, occasionally landing a strong counterpunch.
Keya landed a strong kick that broke one of the thug's ribcages. Martius he the audible crunch and the thug fell to the ground writhing in pain.
Ziv was locked in a struggle with another thug until Ziv found an opening and kneed the thug on his groin. The thug fell on his knees and howled in pain and Ziv finished him by kicking him in the head.
With his crew knocked out, Tommy entered the fight. He went straight to Keya, which was the nearest. Keya punched and kicked him but it only bounced off Tommy's massive frame.
Tommy then strangled Keya, lifting her off the ground with the intention of snapping her neck. Martius panicked, he picked up a discarded robotic power pack and threw it to Tommy's head. Tommy howled in pain as the heavy power pack struck his head, bleeding heavily, Tommy let Keya go then turned his attention to Martius. He pulled out his combat knife and charged full speed at Martius.
Martius was cornered between two high piles of scrap and had nowhere to run, he saw a long pipe on his feet with a rusty end and pulled it up like a spear.
Tommy ran straight into the rusty pipe and impaled him in the chest. Tommy dropped his knife and tried to strangle Martius who was within arm's reach of him, but Tommy's strength faded fast.
He then finally lost consciousness and died, still staring at Martius with glazed eyes. He then let go of the pipe and Tommy fell on his knees still impaled on the pipe with his eyes open still looking at Martius. Martius has just killed a person and the thoughts sent powerful shocks throughout his body, he sat in the pile of scraps with a whirlpool of fear, regrets and hate washed over him.
Akira and Ziv were still recovering from their blows, Keya then stood up and sat beside Martius.
"Think we just dug our own graves guys," said Keya
"Wait, what'd just happened?" asked Martius
"Tommy was Pietrus' cousin, the leader of the Shroud gang and one of the top dog criminals in this city," Akira replied
"Fuck man, what do we do?" asked Ziv
"Let's worry about that later when we have sold this cursed item and have the money, otherwise fear will just cloud our judgement, we need our minds clear for this." Akira's worried reply.
"I agree," said Keya
Keya wrapped her hands around Martius' shoulder and he broke down crying.
Martius took a puff of his cigarette while leaning on the railing of an elevated walkway. The rain clouds have long dissipated, showing the gray concrete ceiling of the Underside 2 kilometres above.
The Horizon was its usual collection of production tower blocks, massive production towers standing like giant solid blocks of concrete, gargantuan apartment blocks in a perpetual state of disrepair, and several glass skyscrapers extending almost to the ceiling drenched in the sea of dancing purple, red and amber lights with drones and aero cars flying past them, swimming in the colorful sea of holographic ads. Six massive columns arranged in a circular pattern around the city, hundreds of meters in diameter across, supported the weight of the ceiling and the civilization above.
The size of the city, almost 34 kilometres across and 2 kilometers high from the pavement to the concrete ceiling, divided into 10 sectors giving the impression of being huge but in reality, the concrete ceiling above them is a constant reminder that they live in a cage, no matter how huge, that everything that has ever happened in his 28 years of existence all took place inside that 17 kilometre bounds of New Iconium, Underside, the Warrens, his city, while a vast global civilization existed just a few kilometres above them, in his mind, it felt like an entirely different reality. A distant fading dream that you only catch occasional glimpses of in holographic displays and magazines. Down below, the constant drama of everyday survival manifested itself in the usual river of pedestrians and electrovehicles in cramped streets. Bazaars and stalls selling noodles, clothing, refurbished electronics and beverages lined the narrow alleyways that branches off the streets where only pedestrians could fit.
"Ziv and Akira hid the Fusion cutter in Pedro's quarters temporarily until they found a buyer. Don't worry, Pedro's solid, He's been our man here in Sector 10 for these past two years. In fact, if Pedro lived in Sector 6, He'd be part of our gang."
"Great." Martius' unenthusiastic reply.
It was clear that the incident still disturbed Martius. It was the first time ever that he killed a person. There was nothing Keya could do but to be with him and comfort him.
"We had to, Martius, he would have killed us. He would have killed me. You saved my life."
"I know Kay, I'm happy that you are alive, but still, I'm gonna need some time to process and come to terms with this, this ain't easy I hope you understand," replied Martius.
"I understand, and I will always be here for you Martius,"
Keya hugged Martius. Martius felt her at ease with her warmth again, as if the morbid thoughts of the recent homicide dissipated into the acrid industrial air temporarily, and there was nothing but peace.
Keya breaks her hug and she wipes the tears of Martius' eyes.
"Hah, man what a day, isn't it!" said Keya
She then got a can of fungi alcohol from her pack and popped open it open offered some to Martius and he took a quick swig
Keya then finished the bottle in one drink.
"Yeah, I'm kinda tired Kay, let's call this a day. Please let me know if they have dispatched the Fusion cutter," replied Martius.
Martius looked at Keya, her eyes sparkled and her cheeks looked flushed. She was obviously tipsy from the strong alcohol.
"Goodnight Martius" said Keya,
To their surprise, Keya impulsively planted a kiss on Martius' cheek, Martius was clearly shocked at the unexpected kiss from her.
Keya, too surprised and embarrassed to explain what just happened, waved goodbye then hurried down the elevated walkway's stairs into the street level below, she took one last glance at Martius and they exchanged a brief awkward smile before Keya disappeared in the crowd below.
Martius finally made it to his apartment. He was cold from the rain, in pain from the fight, and still in shock with Keya's kiss. He lived in a small single apartment, where young unmarried people stay.
The hallways were an absolute dilapidated mess. Bare concrete walls once covered in white paint that have all but chipped away, gray covered in graffiti, busted lights that haven't been changed in probably a century. There was a lone holographic display where weather, news, and StateSec propaganda were constantly played nonstop, with a camera attached monitoring the resident of the floor.
In the windows, he could see a mass demonstration below. Citizens demanded the StateSec to end their partnership with the crime gangs and clean up the corrupt officers in the area. Private security in riot armour and Combat Androids formed a barricade line supervised by several StateSec troops in Combat Gear and rifle soon opened fire with rubber and stun bullets and the crowds dispersed in a hurry, creating silhouettes in tear gas clouds that looked like fleeing ghosts.
He closed the window and opened the apartment door then stepped inside, making sure to leave his boots and coat at the entrance.
The inside of the apartment he shared with 5 other people was modest. A bare concrete square with wall-mounted lights, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. 6 pods or personalized sleeping space lay on both sides with the 5, already occupied and their occupant sleeping, Only Martius' pod was empty. A picture of his younger brother hung on the wall beside his pod. It's been almost 12 years since he disappeared. A picture of his mother Hessa whom he hasn't spoken to in a very long time. He blamed her for his brother's disappearance. Hessa is a high-ranking member of the Twilight Serpent gang, one of the biggest in New Iconium.
Thane, his brother, did work for his mother's organization. Hessa groomed him to take her place in the gang leadership someday, but she fell out of favor from the StateSec and they withdrew their protection of her and her son Thane. Several days later, her son and Martius' brother Thane disappeared from the streets never to be seen again.
Martius never knew his father, rumours were that not long after Hessa's husband, Kirk, father of his older brother Thane and a senior member of the Twilight Serpent was murdered during a gang confrontation, she had a relationship with a StateSec officer, and that he was his father. He spent his childhood trying to get Hessa to open up about his father, but she never did, and Martius eventually stopped caring altogether.
He went to the kitchen to cook something. He turned on the stove, put a mushroom soup powder on boiling water, and put some insta-rice on the other one.
After finishing his meal, Martius left his stainless steel bowl then went to the water dispenser to get something to drink, he swiped his water allocation card and drinking water poured on his stainless steel mug, to his relief, he still had 72 percent of the allocated drinking water, but his clean water was only 41 percent. He's gonna have to skip a shower once every 3 days to make it to the next cycle.
He then went inside his pod and closed the soundproof hatch. The bed feels firm and comfortable enough but his personal space hasn't been cleaned for a while. He turned on the Holoprojector. News, propaganda, ostentatious display of wealth, he turned it off immediately. There was nothing new.
He then checked his holophone for any new messages. Nothing yet from Keya or the gang,
The vibration of the metal pipe as Tommy impaled himself played on the back of Martius' mind over and over, the look of hate and desperation in his eyes on his final moment haunted him.
He then lay awake on his pod thinking of his next move,hoping to sleep the feelings away, hoping that he could somehow get out of this predicament without ending like his brother Thane, but whenever he drifted deeper into sleep, Tommy's dying face and glazed eyes appeared from the Abyss and Martius found himself awake and staring at the pod ceiling a few inches above his face, sweating.
Martius gave up the idea of sleep and got out of the pod, lit another cigarette, and just stared at the chaotically colourful city outside, a whirlpool of emotions violently stirring inside him.
He then looked at a picture of his Grandpa Lou carrying him as an infant. He was one of the "old timers", people who used to live topside before the war and became refugees in the Warrens.
Memories of his friends, of Keya flashed back before him, of growing up in this environment, of his brother protecting him from the horrors of the streets, meeting Keya for the first time. It was clear that he will now have to let go of them and start a new life somewhere, but Keya, she will never go with him without her brother Ziv.
The idea of never seeing Keya ever again, her tall, slender frame and beautiful smile did not sit well with him but perhaps it was finally the time to finally let her go, maybe one day he will meet and love somebody like her on the surface. That and the fact that there is no other way to the surface except the heavily guarded central elevator, and his money from the job will probably not suffice for a bribe to the StateSec Immigration office.
"I've gotta get out of this place one way or the other," said Martius to himself.