Date Published: April 16, 2021
Welcome to DevTown.
In this city, holo ads lumber like neon giants seeking advertising targets. Men and women pop Oracle tabs in search of relief or enlightenment or both. Creatures of unknown origin stalk the darkest alleys. In the center of it all, NexDev Tower looms over the city, home to hundreds of floors of top-secret research.
And in its shadow, Shan Hayes kills people for money.
Rejecting the mechanical enhancements so popular in DevTown, Shan needs only two things: The resynth serum that can reshape her body's entire cellular structure, and her hand-cannon containing a sentient parasite capable of converting her blood into weaponized wasps.
As a hired gun for various crime syndicates, there's little of the city's underbelly Shan hasn't encountered. But when a longtime business associate hires her to track down an underling who's vanished into the neon night, Shan finds DevTown still holds secrets more deadly and terrifying than anything she could imagine.
The target pauses, turns to look at Shan. Here in the alley, shadow swallows his face. Emerald neon reflects off his mirrorshades, but it’s not the only surface catching the soft glow. As he turns, light flashes around his knees and continues to his feet.
As he stares her down through green-glinting shades, a hissing whine fills the alley. He turns just as the sound reaches a crescendo, and as it releases in a blast, he bounds away. The single leap carries him thirty feet, and the instant he lands, there’s another blast, carrying him another thirty feet.
The mech legs must have some sort of repulsor technology. Shan has heard of newer models which concentrate electromagnetic fields and use them to propel users at high velocities, but it doesn’t matter how his models work. Shan won’t catch him without enhancements of her own. There isn’t a single mech installed on her body, but she doesn’t need mechs. Not when she has resynth.
All these thoughts pass through her head in an instant. Before the target lands, Shan swallows a handful of CalPills. The large yellow capsules land in her stomach like a ton of bricks, but she needs the calories for what comes next. She slides a syringe from the clip on her belt and plunges the needle into her thigh.
Resynth serum, that cocktail of proteins and viruses, floods her bloodstream, issuing commands to each cell it touches. The cells comply, transforming to accommodate the design coded into the serum. Heat ignites in her belly as the CalPills fuel the change. Shan’s joints rearrange, her muscles grow, her tendons expand and contract, reforming her body until she isn’t running, but galloping, using the force of four limbs to chase her target. She is more than human now. She is a predator, and her target is prey, no matter how much organic tissue he’s traded for metal.
Thanks to those mech legs, her target is fast, but she’s faster still. The pavement is cool and rough on her palms. The scents of DevTown sharpen as air rushes past her face. Her lips twist in a bitter smile. No hunt is complete without a chase.
A news report on the old flatscreen details another attack in another alley. In a dry voice with a matter-of-fact tone, the anchor narrates grainy footage of bone-thin men and women overwhelming a victim, mentions the growing trend of corpses covered in bite wounds. She relays the authorities’ promise to investigate the violence and provides a phone number for anyone with information to share.
“Literal zombies is what they are,” says the bartender, wiping a pint glass with a rag. “People comin’ back from the dead and bitin’ chunks outta folks.”
Shan grunts, but offers no comment. She doesn’t care what he thinks. Theories won’t improve the streets of DevTown, but that’s never stopped conversation at Infusion.
“Aw, not this again,” shouts a voice behind Shan. “We got no proof the shamblers ever died to begin with.”
Shamblers. It’s the term used by anyone unbound by journalistic integrity, referencing the clumsy way the attackers move.
“Every single one of ’em looks like a walkin’ corpse. Add the bite marks, and how they don’t seem to feel nothin’ when folks fight back, it makes perfect sense.” The bartender sets down the pint glass and leans into the bar. Slender mech fingers drum a staccato on old wood. “I bet it’s Oracle tabs makin’ people do it. Ever notice how many of those victims turn up in Tabber Alley?”
“Shut up,” says another voice. “Oracle can’t raise the dead.”
“You sure?” says the bartender. “Oracle’s the newest drug on the street. No one’s studyin’ it. Tabbers know what happens after they swallow, but what about after they die?”
The door to Infusion slams open. Shan glances over her shoulder, half-expecting to find a bone-white, withered corpse of a person. It would shamble in, fall upon one of Infusion’s patrons and bite into his neck, sucking everything out until the patron is twitching on the stained floor and the newcomer’s body bloats with fluid.
But that’s not what she sees. Instead, it’s three men. They’re pale, but not bleached white, and they certainly aren’t wasting away. Their arms are thick, their chests wide. As one, they stride up to the bar. There’s no sizing up the patrons, no scanning for dangerous characters. Each man’s gate is purposeful, fearless. One settles into a stool next to Shan, and the others wait behind him, snapping at the bartender for attention. After they order a round of drinks, an uneasy silence falls over Infusion. Nobody offers another opinion on Oracle tabs, nobody theorizes on the shamblers’ origin. Everyone stares at their glasses, but the bar’s collective focus centers on the newcomers.
“You Shan Hayes?” says one man. His voice is a dagger, piercing the silence and leaving a gaping wound in its wake.
The man’s lips quirk in a smile. “Heard we might find her here.”
Shan holds his stare, tracking his companions in the corner of her eye. One has shifted a hand inside his black trench coat; the other drifts sideways, flanking her. She doesn’t know who sent them, but they aren’t here for a friendly chat.
So Shan acts before they do. She throws an elbow back, sinking it into the gut of the man shifting behind her. As he grunts, more from surprise than pain, she keeps turning, spinning off her seat and using her other hand to snatch his glass of whiskey and hurl it at his companion in the stool beside her. He dodges the projectile, and it shatters in a spray of gold and glitter. That split second of hesitation is all she needs. She shuffles away until they’re in front of her, the bar at their backs. At least she’s not surrounded anymore.
The guy reaching into his jacket withdraws his hand to reveal a weapon. It’s not a gun or even a knife, though. This is a long black baton with ice blue spirals running up and down its length. He lunges at her, lifting the weapon over his head. Reckless.
With ease, she sidesteps the attack and throws herself into a counterstrike. Her knuckles crash into his jaw, but a jarring vibration runs from her wrist to her shoulder. He barely reacts to the perfectly placed blow, now whirling toward her. He even has the audacity to smile.
Of course. He’d used mechs to reinforce his bones. Not a terrible investment for someone on his career path.
The guy with the baton lurches toward her, and Shan reacts instantly. She grabs a syringe from her belt, plunges it into her thigh, and throws the empty canister at her attacker. He dodges, and she backs away, waiting for the serum to do its work.
The cells in her arms split, change, and die, burning calories at a rapid rate. Her stomach feels empty, and the emptiness spreads to her entire body as the serum demands more fuel.
Kim would not approve of this.
Shan forces herself to focus through the sudden hunger, the lightheadedness, the feverish disorientation. Her right arm has grown razor-sharp spines along the edge of the forearm, and her left has changed into a massive claw as hard as a diamond.
This time, when the guy swings at her, Shan plants her feet and blocks with her spiny forearm. His elbow catches on the fresh blades, and when she jerks her arm aside, it shreds his mech. The club rattles to the floor, but he stays upright. Synthetic skin hangs in ribbons around the ruined chrome. He sneers.
Shan sways where she stands, her body burning through calories at an unsustainable rate. She has to finish this. Without CalPills, she can’t hold this form long.
She launches herself at the man with the shredded arm, bringing the full weight of her claw into the crook of his neck. Now he falls, legs buckling under the force of her blow. The claw sinks into his shoulder. It isn’t heavy enough to sever an entire mech, but its serrations still cut partway through. Shan rips the claw free, and he collapses, twitching in the chaos of shorted and severed connections.
The clock is ticking. Shan’s growing weaker by the second.
She kicks a loose barstool at one attacker and lunges at the other. It’s a reckless move, but she doesn’t have the time to maneuver so there’s nobody behind her. She must rely on her own speed, hoping to finish one guy before the other recovers.
In the blink of an eye, she’s on top of her target. The spines on her forearm pierce flesh and tendons on his chest with ease, and when she tears the arm free, he gives a low, gurgling moan. Blood sprays a nearby table. Her stomach roars with hunger, and her head vibrates, but she can’t stop yet.
She whirls to face the last of them, but he’s ready for her. The barstool she kicked is his weapon now. He’s already mid-swing, and the seat catches her under the ear.
Darkness swallows her.
About the Author
Taylor Hohulin is a radio personality by morning, a science fiction author by afternoon, and asleep by 9:30. He is the author of The Marian Trilogy, Tar, Your Best Apocalypse Now, and other genre-bending stories. He lives in West Des Moines, Iowa with his wife, where they are owned by two cats and a dog.
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