- Alan Veerkamp © 2021
All Rights Reserved
It was too early for bright lights. Even once they’d breached dawn, it would be hours before the sun rose above the towers choking the sky and illuminated the district through its near-permanent cloud layer.
Traffic beacons swept the corporate work zone, directing the shuddering mechanical beast to the landing pad. The ground quaked as it set down, metal legs straining. Its great mouth opened with a hydraulic release of breath, and it spit out another load of hopeful people to join the rest nearby. The last person had barely exited when it closed its mouth and roared off into the sky once more. Mustard-tinged exhaust choked the air in its wake.
Expandable fencing corralled the crowd like the livestock his parents used to talk about before cloned meat became necessary. Scarcity had driven the price high enough only the wealthiest elites could afford it.
It had been a long time since Arad Ansari had tasted actual meat.
“A little breathing space, please.” Bracing his shoulder, he nudged at the woman trying to press past him on the left. Everyone on this planet made him appear miniature, but he was wiry and didn’t allow anyone to push him aside.
Pulling his collar closed, Arad shivered, lacking enough layers to keep him warm in the chilly morning. More people than he’d hoped stood ahead of him in the claustrophobic queue leading to the Grey District A-5 tech yard after camping overnight in the nearby alley. Manufacturing was automated, leaving tech jobs scarce among the self-made engineers in the factory slums. The token he’d lifted off a wayward tourist allowed him to visit the bathhouse, so he’d be sure he was clean and appeared ready to work. He wouldn’t risk giving them any excuse to turn him away.
A chorus of boots clunked along the steel causeway in practiced unison as the mass of people shuffled forward, invading Arad’s personal space in all directions. Whether intentional or not, he kept a tight grip on his shoulder bag even though it was latched tight, keeping his few possessions safe. The crowd funneled into a line aimed at the guard wall entrance, but the man big enough to be a hybrid DemiShou blocked Arad’s view to see how much farther he had to travel. The sea of workers thrummed with anticipation and a hint of desperation yet plodded along at a cautious pace.
Above the crowd, a smooth electric hum drew Arad’s attention. A clutch of security drones hovered, lasers scanning everyone present with their unnatural eyes, maintaining order. The red pinpoint beam stopped on one person, then the next. Arad held his breath when it targeted the back of his neighbor’s head.
The project was a big deal if they’d gone to the expense of hiring a security force, and apparently word had gotten out given the number seeking positions. They would move along and keep to themselves because no sane person would be willing to lose wages spending the day dealing with District Authority.
Arad nudged the tall stranger next to him, trying not to cringe when he felt more bone than muscle beneath the man’s sleeve. “Are they actually doing anything yet? Or are we waiting to trample each other?”
“Naw, they’re checking people. It’s just slow as hell. How early did you get here?”
“Late last night.” Peering over his shoulder, Arad couldn’t see where the mass behind him ended. “Didn’t want to be in the back half when they filled the quota and sent us all away.”
“No shit. Good luck, kid.”
“Thanks. You too.”