Cold Neon

This story is a prequel to Ruins. Some details will make more sense if you read that first. Content warning: violence, war.

Night still comes early at this time in spring, and cold soon follows. The restaurant is open, but I'm not sitting in front where people can see me. I lean against the side, where the kitchen is, listening to stereo speakers on the porch entertaining the few customers who choose open air tables.

...You're here at Radio Capital, the time is now 18:00. In today's news: the Federation of Sovereign Republics has denounced the opening of a new Lublin-Lviv-Baia Mare corridor as another attempt by the G6 to drag the Balkan Union into their own sphere of influence, in the context of Black Sea ports being threatened by raising waters. Meanwhile, at the antipodes, BrazilFab has announced a new kind of 3D printer able to handle metal and wood paste at the same time, with unprecedented speed. And back home, a new executive order signed by the Prime Minister today could mandate prison sentences for citizens who damage police robots or other equipment...

The rest melts into a buzzing noise. I must have dozed off, because the next thing I know is a woman's voice snapping at me:

"You there! Leave before I call security."

I stumble to my feet and tromp noisily up the nearby side alley. The rear parking lot is in darkness; easy enough to circle back on cat feet and out in front again where no-one is looking. The strip mall across the street is a dazzling light show. One sign in particular is hard to resist.

There are still people queued in front of the pastry shop, drawn by the smells. They pretend not to see me as I stand in line. Then two more appear behind me.

"Don't you ever wash?" asks one of them. After a pause he adds, "Well, do you?"

They're both big and broad, with neckbeards and beer bellies. I walk off before they do more than talk. Other places are closed by now. Grocery stores. Pharmacies. Betting houses and the lone pawn shop. At the next corner, a dirty woman in mismatched clothes sits on a pile of rags. She waves at me and spouts random half-sentences, grinning. Might as well turn back.

No-one remains in front of the pastry shop. A vendor leans out the window. "Hey, kid. Want anything?"

"One... two pretzels, please." I rummage in my pocket for spare change. It's just short of the required amount, but he gives me both pretzels anyway. I dig into one of them on the way home.

I find Matt with his feet up in the old armchair, in a blanket, hunched over the phone: our only source of entertainment. His face lights up when he sees me. "Welcome home, Claude."

"Sorry I'm late. You hungry? I brought you something."

He starts tearing the pretzel apart while I take my clothes off. They smell. "Hey, Matt, is water still out?"

"Yeah. There's a bottle in the fridge if you want."

We don't sleep so well that night. Same as every other night.

These days, "home" is a room in a house that time forgot at the end of a long narrow yard. It's small, cluttered and has a stink we can't get out. Toilet's under the stairs, you can't even stand straight, but that's not it. Sometimes we hear creepy noises from the ceiling. Not sure who lives up there; not the owner, anyway. He's a friend of a friend, and lets us stay for next to nothing. For how long, that's anyone's guess, and besides, it comes at a price.

Today we're loading cement bags into a truck, from the back of a big-box store. Next door there's an office tower: all glass, metal and fake trees in granite planters. The human guards wear power frames; the robots have smiling plastic faces. Warehouse workers stand around watching me and Matt stumble under the burden. A couple of hours in he blanches and leans against a wall, then slides down to his knees. Two women help him sit on a chair, one too young, the other past retirement age.

"What's wrong with him?" asks the first one.

"Low blood sugar," says the other. "Get him something to eat."

They look at each other and their coworkers. At last, our driver drags his feet to the cab. He returns with a couple of donuts, then helps me finish loading while the kid recovers.

"Can we clean up somewhere?" I ask afterward.

Another worker shows us to a cracked sink set into a niche behind the door. There's nowhere to hang my shirt, so I reach under it as best I can after washing my hands and face. It doesn't make much of a difference.

We share half a small bottle of soda in the truck, while the driver steps on the pedal, complaining about how late it is.

A month or so later we're unloading roof shingles into someone's yard. It has a nice garden that's now covered in dust and construction materials. There seem to be several jobs in progress, none of them very far along. It's chaos. Luckily the owners have a son about our age who does all the talking.

"I need to pee," Matt whispers to him during a break.

He leads us into an outbuilding farther back. The first room is a kind of office, with several computers on rickety desks, and wires everywhere.

"Is that a SunDragon 600?" asks Matt, eyes suddenly bright.

"Yep, you got it. First-series DX model, before they got cheap." The host sounds impressed. You know how to use one?"

Matt shakes the mouse, opens a terminal and types a couple of commands, dancing in place. "Sure thing. Uhh... where's the bathroom?"

Our host shows him to a door in the back before turning to me. "So, how old are you?"

"Twenty-eight. And Matt over there is twenty-two."

"I'm right between the two of you. Hey, Matt," he asks once the kid returns. "Would you like to earn some real money for a change?"

Long before the end of summer we move to a studio apartment that's not much bigger, but at least it's the real deal. Soon each of us has a phone. A good one. We walk to work. It's a bad neighborhood, but no-one gives us grief here. Usually. The boss brings in a couple of his friends too. One of them is a cryptography expert. Can't sell what he makes through regular channels, so we figure out other ways. Soon, cops start asking questions in the area. Raids multiply. Officially they're looking for drugs, but the dark net's grapevine knows better.

"Everyone has the legal right to privacy," the boss reminds us. "You're doing fine."

We move offices twice, first to the back of a garage, up some stairs and through a gangway, then in a warehouse that was once offices, and before that a factory. At night I dream of being chased through the endless maze of a supermarket. I try to escape, but at every exit there's a police cruiser parked in front, red and blue lights flashing. Matt comforts me as best he can.

Towards winter, work runs into money problems. One time we can't make rent on the office, and the landlord decides our little operation is too hot for him all of a sudden. We start scouting abandoned malls, some of them never completed, now hidden behind newer developments. It's always cold and damp, crawling through service corridors under flickering lights to piggyback onto poorly secured networks, and it gets harder over time.

Worse, there are other potential tenants interested in the real estate.

They catch up with us one day, seven hungry wharf rats to five nerds from the backstreets. That's us. We don't back down so easily. It comes to pushing and shoving. One pulls a knife on Matt; I grab the fucker, throw him to the ground and take his weapon. No idea how to use it, but they don't know that.

"Back off," says the boss. "Don't test us. You won't like it."

You don't want to mess with the boss when he's that way. In the end he makes a deal. Even kind of an alliance. I keep the knife and start training with it. Matt teases me.

"Going claws out, big brother?" he asks.

The resident girl in our boy band looks puzzled. "Oh, you two are brothers?"

"Not that we know of," I tell her, and give the kid a hug.

"Awww," says Matt. "You're still a soft boy after all."

For the National Day parade, the sky fills with drones and helicopters that never go away again. On the radio they talk about "readiness". Some stuff gets hard to find in stores and stays that way. We're up north by now, hanging around those old business centers that investors tried to turn into apartments years ago and nobody came. To make ends meet, we take odd jobs keeping troublemakers off the backs of local merchants. It's easy money, except when it isn't. Long story short, one time an old friend of the boss ends up in hospital. We lie low for a while after that.

Before Christmas, City Hall covers the streets in little lights. There's never any shortage of those. Only apartment buildings are mostly dark at night. You never see people alone after sunset anymore. We start taking up the same kind of work again, only this time it's not just small-time crooks to deal with.

Our little band has grown from twelve to twenty, give or take. There's thirty of them, more than we were told, all with clubs and axes. Their leader has a mad dog air about him. We try to negotiate, but he gets in our faces, making demands. The boss and his closest friends take out guns. The gangsters posture and threaten us, but in the end back down before a fire is shot.

"What the hell, boss?!" I ask him afterward. "Where did you get guns?"

"From a 3D printer. No serial numbers. They're untraceable."

"Okay. Fine." I take a deep breath. "You know how to use it, right?"

He shrugs with a smile. "Point it and squeeze the trigger?"

"Dammit, boss. Hand it over." He does so, grip first. I eject the magazine, empty the chamber and show him how to use the safety.

"Where did you learn that?" asks someone from behind.

It's my turn to shrug. "Ten years ago, if you didn't get a job right out of high school, you had to enlist in the civil defense for six months, or pay a big fine."

"Oh." The boss rubs his chin. "Tell you what. There are going to be fireworks all the time from now to New Year. Why don't we all go target practice a few times, and you can tell us more."

Shootings multiply in the neighborhood after that. Miraculously, no-one dies, but now my nightmares are about deadly games of hide-and-seek in dank corridors half-lit by flickering neons.

Sometime after the holidays, on the empty field near the train tracks here, the Army organizes a public event of sorts: part exhibition, part meet-and-greet, all a poorly disguised recruitment drive. Kind of hard for them to make a good impression when the cops have better gear and look well-fed for a change. Besides, everyone kinda suspects why it's so urgent. We hunker down, ration food and forget what it's like to feel warm.

There's an air raid exercise not long after that. Sirens howl. They sweep the streets, round up everyone they can find and shove us down the stairs of the local Metro station. It can fit maybe one in ten people who live around here, if we all stand. We get back to base to find the door broken. It's pretty obvious who did it, too, and we know where they live. That night, half of us have new bandages, and the boss has a new toy in the closet: a 3D printer.

When it actually happens, there are no sirens, only video streams that shake and cut off. It's a sunny morning; winter looks to be on the way out. A few hours later, it starts raining missiles, and doesn't stop for two days. Most of them fall downtown. The southern sky turns black by day, and glows red at night. Our troops pass through again, only stopping to raze flower beds and plant barbed wire instead. They order every other shop to close, on whose authority nobody knows. There weren't many left anyway. Then they head out of town to the north and don't come back. Rumor has it they tried to deploy robots on the battlefield and the rust buckets broke down from dust and humidity after a few hours. Good thing the tankies aren't any smarter, otherwise they'd be here already.

"What do we do when they come, boss?" asks his lieutenant. "Do we run? Hide? Join the Army?"

"They'll conscript us soon anyway," Matt reminds him.

"You and Claude don't have papers," points out the boss, "and the rest of us aren't where they'll be looking. Bumbling fools."

"People here still need us," says one of the new girls. "You know what tankies did to civilians last time."

"You think we can fight literal tanks with our pea shooters?" asks someone else.

The boss holds up his hands. "I have a proposal, but you're not going to like it. Just, please, hear me out here."

He reaches under the table and comes up with an elongated package he unwraps. My jaw drops. "That's a PM-65 assault rifle! Where did you dig up such an antique?"

"Actually it's brand new," he says, pointing at the 3D printer. "The blueprints leaked online a while ago."

"If we do this," his lieutenant says carefully, "There's no turning back."

"I know. If it helps, we won't be alone. There are other cells throughout the city."

"The guns are going to need tuning and fixing," I say in a daze. "Little brother, find me some instructional videos."

Over the next week, sounds of battle gradually die down to the north. One morning, a couple of trucks with a dozen tankies apiece roll down the empty streets, just like that, and pull over in front of a supermarket. They go in guns in hand; when they come back out, twice as many of us are waiting for them, positioned all around the parking lot. The sound of rounds being chambered is deafening. They argue among themselves, but I don't know what they're saying. One of them panics and starts shooting, then it all turns into a bloodbath.

It's the first and last time we have it so easy.