My story starts with an ambush.
A grubby street kid spends months getting close to a Garda squad. He tags along after them, begging for food. He shows them into forgotten courtyards and warns them about local insurgents. In return, the squad medic patches him up after a beating and the sergeant tries to enroll him in a corporate school, with three meals a day and a roof over his head.
The boy laughs with them, he cries with them, he cares for them— and then he betrays them.
On the orders of the beloved, merciless leader of the patriot resistance, he leads them into a death trap.
The patriot leader is his grandmother. My grandmother. That boy was me; those sins are mine.
Ten years later, I know there are wrongs you can't right; there are debts you can't pay. You can't stop trying, though. Debts don't disappear because there's nobody left to collect them. They stay on the books, accumulating interest.
When the recruiter calls, I'm delivering a package to a partyclub on the 117th floor. Urgent music pounds and holographic projections strafe the dancers. I slide through the crowd, complete the delivery—and my cuff chimes. "This is Kaytu," I say.
"Welcome, Maseo Kaytu," an artificial voice says. "Your request for a recruitment interview has been"—there's a pause during which my heart stops—"granted."
"Thank you," I tell the recorded message. "Thank you, I'll—"
The connection crashes. It doesn't matter, though: the appointment information is already on my cuff. They expect me in thirty-five minutes. That's the first test. If you're not willing to drop everything, the corporate military doesn't want you.
As I slip toward the exit, my pulse thumps along with the music. A low note creeps up my spine, and then I'm in the bustling, bright corridor. Boutiques and cafés march toward the atrium with elevators servicing the highest floors of the tower. Chattering families browse the shops and rowdy kids play wall-hockey.
Late afternoon in a Freehold tower.
I grab redbean rolls at a warung and eat in the elevator. A projection on the wall shows the streets outside the tower: maintenance bots spark, adboards flicker, and mobile homes cling to the undersides of a tangle of highways. A crowd of kids chases a sweets caravan along a curving track, and a flock of new-generation sparrows dives through freight cables.
That's all behind me now.
The corporate military is in front of me, the recruiter and the future.
On the 186th floor, pillars of skarab drones palpate the air. I cross the foyer toward them and after a fraught pause they allow me into corpo territory, where the air is fresh and the music is stale. Like embassies in the days of nation-states, different rules apply on the corporate-owned floors of Freehold towers. Different laws.
That's why I'm here.
A massive space opens between the 186th and the 190th floors of the tower. Semitranslucent bubbles slide across rails and ramps and hang from cables like gondolas. Most carry passengers, barely visible in the luxurious interiors. The bubbles split in two when their routes diverge or merge into larger bubbles to form gathering spaces or conference rooms. Light glimmers on the sheen of rounded surfaces, colorful and delicate.
I enjoy the sight until my cuff hurries me along.
With three minutes to spare, I slip inside an empty office with a scented filtration fan. There's no furniture except for a round table with a lily on it. Maybe a lily. Maybe a rose or a decorative fungus. Heirloom plants aren't my strength.
I cuff messages to my boss and neighbors, saying good-bye. I send a longer one to Ionesca, my oldest friend, my first love. I tell her that my apartment is hers now; she's welcome to take whatever she wants and sell the rest.
One way or another, I'm not coming back.