Lost & Found

Lost & Found

Hajime Robotics Employee Housing Compound
San Francisco/Oakland Megacity, 2069

Downstairs, Shelby’s father yelled. Yelled at her brothers. Yelled that dinner was cold, although it was his fault since he hadn’t programmed the quickcooker correctly. A crash of glass indicated he had broken something. She heard Dak, her older brother, yell back, trying to defend himself against a tirade of unfair accusations. Tavas, her younger brother, sobbed, and Shelby listened to the thump of his feet as he ran upstairs into his room. His door slid into place, and she heard the click of the safety locks.

The house had been a place of pain and fear since her mother died a year ago. Every month her father became worse.

“Where’s your fucking sister! The cleaning mech isn’t working and I don’t have time to fucking fix it. I’m at work all day, and what do all you do? Nothing! Get her fucking ass down here to fix this mess!”

Instead of hiring a proper repairman to fix the mechs, it had become Shelby’s job since she appeared to have inherited her father’s talent for AI, electronics and robotics. If something didn’t work, it was always her fault and she had to fix it.

More thumping of feet on the stairs. Shelby heard the footsteps stop outside her room. She knew Dak stood out there, but his banging on the door still startled her.

“Shelby, dad wants you.”

“Go away, Dak.” Shelby was surprised her voice didn’t shake. It sounded strong, like she wasn’t about to melt into a puddle of trembling, frightened goo.

“You know that refusing to go down will just make him madder, right?” her brother said.

“Angrier,” she corrected automatically.

“Shel, this isn’t a good time for a grammar lesson,” Dak whispered furiously.

“Get her down here right now! If I have to fix this, I’m going to beat her ass,” Shelby’s father shouted.

“Shelby,” her brother’s voice lowered. “Please.”

More footsteps up the stairs, heavier, harder. Shelby could hear the angry huff of her father’s breath and his furious muttering.

Shelby fingered the bruise on her cheek. It had kept her out of school for two days, and she’d forged a note giving her permission to attend virtual class.

Her father banged on the door so hard that it quivered on its hinges. “What did you do to this door, Shelby? Did you reprogram it again? I swear I’m going to keep you in a cage with an old fashion lock if you don’t open this.” He banged on the door again. “Get out here right now. If I have to break down this door, you’re going to regret it.”

“Dad, leave her alone. You’re scaring her,” said Dak. “You’re scaring all of us.”

“You better leave, boy,” came her father’s low, harsh warning.

This time when her father banged on the door, she could hear the door jamb crack. Shelby ran to the window and hit the sensor to open it.

“Disabled,” said the AI. “Please enable at main panel.”

The main panel was in her father’s study.

Working quickly, feeling like a tiny mouse cornered by a cat, Shelby used a fingernail file to pry off the window sensor cover. Wiring. Computers. Electronics. They just made sense to her. She looked at them and knew how they worked. Using fingernail clippers, she clipped a few wires, bypassing the sensor and the window slid open.

“Shelby!” her father shouted.

Looking back once, she bit her lip and wondered if she had time to put on something other than pajamas and slippers. Her father began kicking the door and she heard it splinter.

Taped to the bottom of a drawer, Shelby’s emergency credstik held just a few hundred dollars she’d saved up. Not much, but enough to buy maglev tickets and clothes from a resell shop. After that, she didn’t have a plan. A new ID implant would cost a few thousand cred, but a few of the shadier ripperdocs took Virtual cred, and that she had plenty of. Shelby grabbed the credstik, a tiny flashlight, and a small, rectangular device from the drawer of her bedside table, then slid out the window onto the wet grass.

The Tucker home sat on a square plot of land on the outskirts of the Oakland side of the megacity in the Hajime Robots Corporation employee housing enclave. All the houses had yards with real grass and shrubs. In the back, her mother’s roses were tended by the garden bot that trimmed and kept them watered. The smell of the roses in the warmer months reminded Shelby of her mother. The houses here were all perfectly maintained by garden mechs, courtesy of Hajime Robotics. Streetlamps were spaced apart like perfect soldiers holding flashlights so that the edge of one light touched the edge of the next. Hajime’s private security prowled the streets in quiet, red and white ground cars with drones providing overhead assistance.

The last time Shelby tried to run away she’d made the mistake of flagging down one of the security guards to ask for help. They had smiled, assured her they would help, then driven her right back to her house and the smiling madman who wore the mask of a loving father. He’d made excuses for his daughter running away from a perfectly decent home. Just a father-daughter spat. He could be charming; he had been charming and fatherly before her mother’s death. These days his anger, fueled by grief and alcohol, made him a monster. Shelby tried to remember what her dad had been like, but each day it became more challenging to recall the kindness in his eyes and the love in his smile.

At night, lying in bed, Shelby would plot her escape route in her head, determined not to make the same mistake twice. And now, with the rain-damp grass soaking into her unicorn slippers, it took a moment to recall her route. Her mind felt clouded with fear and uncertainty. The cracking of the door jogged her memory, and she started running. An obvious route would be the street, but Shelby knew better now. No one here would help her. All the neighbors thought she was the troubled young Tucker girl who’d lost her way after her mother’s death. A headstrong daughter who tried the patience of her poor, grieving father.

Shelby removed the rectangular device from the pocket of her robe. All the houses in the neighborhood had proximity alarms that came on automatically after dark. She had made the device in the Electronics lab at school specifically for this imagined escapea dream that was now very real. At the time, she’d wondered if she would ever really have the courage to use it.

Around the back of the house, she ran silently through the yard, slippers quiet on the grass. She thumbed the device, which momentarily disabled her house’s proximity alarm. The yard bot had kept trying to fix the loose board at the back of her mother’s rose bed, so Shelby had reprogrammed it to ignore that area. Now, the board moved easily out of its slot. She put it aside, squeezed through to the neighbor’s yard, thumbed the device to shut off the proximity alarm, and kept running. The houses remained quiet, no alarms, no panicked lights turning on as she cut through a myriad of yards. Except for upper management, most of the homes were the same, which made navigating them something she could almost do with her eyes closed.

The tall security fence surrounding the neighborhood offered more of a challenge than the yard proximity alarms. She had to pass by a security gatehouse to get out, and security cameras scanned the area, uploading the feed to the security groundcar and drones. Unfortunately, she had no device to disable the gates, but she did have neighbors that could do it for her.

While a few residents in the larger houses up a sloping hill had a view of the city and landing areas for their skycars, most regular employees drove groundcars or took the company transport to the downtown high rise. This part of the escape would be a waiting game. Someone had to go through the gate with their groundcar. Shelby crouched in the wet grass by manicured rectangular shrubs and waited. In the distance, she could hear her father calling her name. Above that, she could hear the whine of drone rotors. A glance over her shoulder showed that the drones were methodically searching, street by street, most likely with thermal imaging.

Incoming groundcar lights lit up the wet pavement from outside the neighborhood, and the beams turned off to allow the vehicle through. Shelby darted forward, the surprised eyes of the groundcar’s passenger following her. It wouldn’t take long for the passenger to figure out what was going on and report to her father.

Four blocks over, Shelby arrived out of breath at a clean, well-maintained maglev station. House slippers weren’t meant for running. Her attire caused a couple of odd glances from the few people in the station this late in the evening. Fortunately, she didn’t see anyone she knew.

A sleek, silver, bullet-shaped maglev train sat at the loading area.

“Train Eleven leaving for Old Town Embarcadero station,” a soothing female AI said over the PA. “By purchasing tickets, passengers agree to hold San Francisco-Oakland Megacity Transit harmless of any personal injury arising from travel to Old Town San Francisco. Sightseeing to Old Town is not advised. Leaving for Old Town Embarcadero Station in sixty seconds.”

Shelby vended a ticket, only half-listening to the announced destination. It didn’t matter. She had one option and that was to keep moving. A single hesitation and her father or the authorities would catch up to her. Just as she sat in the cold, molded plastic seat, the doors closed.

And fists began beating on the train door as it moved away from the station.

Not five feet away was her father’s angry red face, pressed against the glass of the maglev car. She couldn’t help but cringe into the seat as the maglev rocketed away from the station, up onto the elevated track, and started over Oakland and the bay, leaving her father and the station behind. The blighted areas below were dark, with only a few lights to break up the inky blackness. Shelby wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, forcing back frightened tears. If her dad got her now, she was sure he would kill her in an alcohol-induced rage.

The few passengers on the train glanced at her with passing interest, then ignored her for the rest of the short ride.

The trip took just five minutes, but it felt longer, fear making her shiver almost uncontrollably, her mouth dry.

“Keep it together,” Shelby admonished herself in a whisper.

In stark contrast to her neighborhood’s maglev station, the Old Town Embarcadero station’s dim lights flickered over neon-painted gang tags and undecipherable scrawls that felt more menacing than they would have, had she understood their meaning. She cringed away from a tag in holopaint of a grave with a ghoul climbing out, its talons digging into black dirt and serrated teeth grinning in a rotting mouth. It laughed at her fear and sunk back into its cold grave only to crawl back out.

Further on, a crypt painted in minute detail had “fuck around and find out” painted over the top in red lettering that dripped like blood.

“Shelby! Shelby Tucker!” a male voice shouted her name.

Shelby turned, then silently cursed herself for reacting. A maglev security officer jogged down the platform toward her.

“Stay right there,” the officer said, holding a hand near his ear as an unconscious reaction of speaking over an implant comm. “I just want to talk to you. Your father is very worried. He doesn’t want you to hurt yourself.”

No surprise that her father commed ahead. And no surprise he told them a lie. No use in trying to convince the officer she wasn’t suicidal. He would believe her father before he believed a fourteen-year-old runaway. And maybe coming here to Old Town was suicidal. Anything was better than going back home.

The original plan was to catch another train out of the San Francisco-Oakland megacity to somewhere, anywhere, just away so it would be more difficult for her father to find her. That plan just left the station, pun intended, Shelby thought.

Shelby ran out of the maglev station into the cold, drizzly fog of Old Town San Francisco, named one of the most dangerous areas in the United States. Away from a father who might kill her and into a neighborhood that surely would. Maybe, she thought, she could hide just inside Old Town until the authorities left and her father gave up.

Rapid staccato breaths were consumed by the fog, which floated around like wraiths, creeping through the eyeless sockets of burnt buildings, whose carcasses tilted over the streets and teetered on crumbling foundations compromised by decades of decay. The neighborhoods south of Market Street were hit hard by the fires after the second quake, and no one had lived there in decades. No electricity. No water. The area was quiet as a tomb, except for the occasional rattle of distant gunfire.

Welcome to the Free Fire Zone. Aka Old Town San Francisco, Shelby thought. Only someone desperate and out of options would brave this area.

“And here I am,” she said to herself as she ran.

For a few blocks, Shelby could hear the security guard pursuing, calling to her. Then two familiar voices joined in: her father and brother. How did they get to Old Town so fast? Probably a law enforcement skycar. The low thudding sound of skycar turbines told her she’d guessed correctly. In the distance, she could see the cruiser’s spotlight shining a beacon over the dead buildings as it searched for her.

Shelby only stopped to catch her breath and brought the flashlight out of her robe pocket once she saw the skycruiser head off in the wrong direction.

The flashlight beam brought neon-painted gang tags to life, flares of brilliant color in a gray, black, and blacker cityscape. A gang tag loomed out of the darkness, red and neon purple-black hues: an angel in white robes, wings spread, holding a gun and sitting on a gravestone. RIP.


Shelby perched nervously on a wedge of cement. Her hand quivered, the flashlight shivering as breath burned in her chest. Her stomach churned and threatened to empty itself of her earlier lunch of quickcook mac and cheese. The box promised that the cheese was ‘real’, but the bright neon orange color made her leery of the claim.

“Come home, Shelby.” Her father’s voice sounded disconcertingly close. “It’s cold and rainy. You’ll die out here.” Then his voice changed. “Bitch! You’re going to regret this! We’ll find you! Chain you to your room.”

He must have walked out of hearing of law enforcement. If only they could hear what he’d become. Where would they send her and her brothers? Foster care system? Another abusive home?

Shelby had an aunt in Phoenix, Arizona. She decided if she could find a way out of Old Town alive, she might hitchhike there. But that might be the first place her father would look. No, she was on her own.

For now, Old Town was the only place she knew her father and brothers wouldn’t follow her. Everyone was afraid of going into the bowels of Old Town. The outskirts were okay, where people still lived and electricity lit the streets. Poor but hardworking families lived in buildings still somewhat habitable. Not the inner areas. It was rumored cannibals lived in the old BART tunnels—

The sound of something scraping against rubble caught her attention.

Then, mounds of rags rose out of the darkness like fog wraiths. In the feeble glow of her flashlight, faces appeared, dirt-crusted. Hands clawed. They crawled, stumbled, and ambled toward her like creatures from a nightmare. Mountains of dirty rag people. Voices were barely human. Mumbles. Coughs. Chants of ‘eat’ and ‘food’.

Shelby stood, retreated, and stumbled. Her foot slipped between two pieces of cement. She pulled, but her slipper had wedged in tight. The rag people came closer. Shelby wrapped two hands around her ankle and pulled. Her foot came out of the slipper, still wedged into the cement and rebar.

Tired, shivering beyond control, Shelby ran, vaulting over concrete and rubble into the building behind her. Things loomed out of the dark. She bit back a scream and stumbled, the flashlight falling from her hand and rolling across the floor, breaking and plunging her surroundings into inky blackness. Shelby wanted to scream, howl, cry, but she bit her tongue to hold it back, feeling warm blood spill into her mouth and pain in her foot. A cut on her foot throbbed, and the looming silhouettes turned out to be burnt furniture, their purposes lost to decay.

Limping through the building, Shelby banged her knee on something in the dark and muffled a cry, tears blurring her vision, she kept going and wedged through a narrow opening into an alleyway. Behind her, the shuffling, stumbling noises of the rag people continued to follow—some of them mumbling and giggling and growling, noises that raised the hairs on the back of her neck.

Limp-running to the end of the block, Shelby almost ran full on into an old, battered dumpster. Crossing her fingers that nothing lived in it, she lifted the lid and looked inside, then back behind her. A misty rain washed away the blood trail from her injured foot. At least that was something.

Shelby climbed inside the dumpster. It was dry, but something smelled dead. She held her nose and listened to the rag people shuffle close.

They paused at the dumpster, mumbling to each other in words she didn’t understand. It was as if they had developed their own language. The top of the dumpsters started to lift. Shelby squeezed her eyes shut, lightning streaks of fear and dread sizzling up and down her body.

The lid fell back down with a loud clang.

New voices that she understood were shouting and laughing. Gunfire echoed in the empty, dead city, followed by more shuffling, more running, more shouts, and more laughter.

How could someone laugh in this hellish place?

The lid opened again. Shelby cringed and curled into a ball as she quivered, her foot throbbing and bleeding.

I’m going to die here.

Better here than at home beaten to death. At least she tried to get away. Even behind her tightly closed lids, she could see light in the dumpster. Shelby waited for hands to grab her and drag her out. Would they beat her to death? How would they kill her? Would they start ripping into her flesh like zombies and eat her alive?

“Is this yours?” an amused voice asked.

Surprised, Shelby slowly uncurled herself and looked up at the face peering into the dumpster. It was a guy with a headlamp, no mound of rags or face with jagged, broken teeth and black gums. He looked maybe late teens, early twenties, with short dark hair, handsome face, clean cut with no facial hair. This person didn’t look angry, crazy, or even dangerous. But anyone out here in the worst part of Old Town had to be more dangerous than the dangers. Or else crazy. She took the slipper from his hand.

“Thank you,” Shelby said, “and thanks for chasing those… things off.”

“Dwellers. You were nearly their next meal. You shouldn’t be here.”

“Oh really,” she said, “I’m sure it took a genius IQ to figure that one out.”

“She’s feisty,” said a gravelly female voice with a hint of laughter.

Instead of being insulted, the guy smiled. It was a friendly smile, and it changed his face. In the dim light, she noticed he had green eyes. They were kind eyes, but with an odd shimmer in them. He didn’t seem threatening at all, and her fear and dread started to trickle away.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I’m harmless… mostly.” There was a smattering of laughter behind him.

“Yeah, completely harmless,” said a male voice with a strong note of sarcasm, and more snickering followed.

Shelby tried to climb out of the dumpster to get a better look at her savior and his companions, but she fell back.

“I’m hurt. My foot.”

The guy held a hand down to her. “What’s your name?”

“Shelby,” she answered.

“I’m Joshua. Now that we know each other, give me your hand and let’s go.”

“Go where? I won’t go back,” Shelby shook her head. “I’d rather get eaten by Dwellers than go back.”

“We won’t take you to the crews,” a second male peered down into the dumpster. His long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail reminded Shelby of the surfer types from Santa Cruz. He wore a plain black t-shirt and a loose military jacket. Two guns rested in holsters that crisscrossed his chest. He smiled and looked both friendly and feral. The little finger wave he sent her was so incongruous with the surroundings and death dodging that Shelby laughed. “Hi, I’m Sid.”

“What are crews?” she asked.

“Cops,” Sid answered.

“They’re not fond of us, so no, you won’t be going back,” Joshua said.

“Good.” Shelby took his hand. It felt warm and solid and comforting. “You… you’re… Horned Gods?”

“For that insult, we should leave her out here,” said the female.

“Epitaph,” Joshua said.

Joshua helped her out of the dumpster, half-lifting her up and over the metal sides until she stood next to him in the dim, wet alleyway. Her foot was too painful to stand on, so she leaned on him, and he pulled her arm over his shoulder. Relief flooded over her. It had been so long since she had someone to lean on, figurately and literally. Not since her mom died.

“Ain’t you adorable,” said the female, coming into view.

Shelby did a double-take at a tall, imposing girl in black leather pants and a black studded jacket. A metal skull plate covered the top of her head with a mohawk of spikes. She wore a bandolier of knives, a dozen of them. And besides that, two guns in shoulder holsters. She was the most impressive female Shelby had ever seen, she noted with a dash of jealously. No one would beat or threaten this girl.

“Bathrobe?” Sid asked as he came to stand next to the amazing woman, who stood a head taller than he did. He raised an eyebrow. “And pajamas with unicorns?”

“I was in a hurry to leave,” Shelby said defensively.

“Yeah, I always run out of my digs in unicorn jammies when I’m in a hurry,” the steel woman laughed. Her black painted lips parted, showing pointed, titanium canines.

“Now that I’d like to see,” Sid quipped. “Spikeware in unicorn jammies.”

“I would rock those fucking jammies like nobody else,” she grinned. “And they’d be fucking rainbow unicorns with sparkles.”

Spikeware, Shelby thought. The name suited the woman.

“We should go,” Sid said and looked pointedly down the alleyway.

In the darkness of the alleyway, Dwellers gathered in silhouettes of rag mounds. Joshua, still propping Shelby up, turned and looked, and his face changed so suddenly that Shelby wondered if she had imagined the pleasant face peering down at her in the dumpster.

This face—she shivered—this guy was not nice. He was not a hero or a savior. He’d become something zoos kept behind thick bars, and wide moats. Spikeware stepped forward, took Shelby’s arm and drew her a half dozen paces back as Joshua sauntered toward the Dwellers with the loose-limbed prowl of a jungle predator. Shelby wondered if he was crazy.

“Give us the girl,” one of the mounds said, a male voice rough with disuse. He stepped forward away from the pack. “We will let you go in generosity for your—.”

One moment Joshua’s hands had been free, and the next, they both held guns. The muted thud of gunshots echoed between the empty buildings, and the Dweller who had stepped forward crumpled. The others grouped in an indistinguishable lump of rags and muttered fiercely between themselves.

“He… he killed him,” Shelby sputtered out, blinking rapidly.

“Fuck around and find out. That piece of shit just found out. No one fucks with the Reaper.” A note of grim amusement tinged Spikeware’s voice. “That’s why he leads. Weakness means death. Are you afraid? Does it bother you that he killed someone who would have cooked you and let others pick the meat off your bones? You can stay here with the Dwellers. Joshua won’t make you go with us.”

Shelby realized then her handsome savior was the Reaper, the leader of the Epitaphs, the most notorious and dangerous gang in Old Town.

“No,” the word tumbled out before she realized she had spoken. She’d never seen anyone die before. Fortunately, the darkness hid any blood. She didn’t think she could handle blood. A part of her felt she should feel something for the dead and was ashamed to only feel relief. “They were going to kill me.”

The blond kid held up a black gun, red dots strobed up and down the barrel length. He stepped forward next to Joshua and sent a dozen rapid shots into the air.

The Dwellers scattered, and an unnerving half-smile tweaked one corner of Joshua’s mouth when he turned back to Spikeware and Shelby. “Sometimes they can make the right decisions.” He holstered his weapons and sauntered over to Shelby. “Okay, Shelby, climb on.” He turned and offered his back. “Piggyback ride.” He crouched a little, making it easier to hop up. She wrapped her legs around his waist, and he laced his arms under her knees to help hold her in place. With her arms around his neck, she felt… what did she feel? The sensation was familiar. Safe. She felt safe and warm against his back. “Sid, you take point. Spike, you’re at the rear. Keep sharp.”

They moved out at a jog, Sid ahead, guns drawn, and Spike behind. Shelby glanced back as they moved down the alleyway. The body lay where it had fallen, but she could see the lurking shadows of the Dwellers. Despite everything, fear flowed out of Shelby, and she relaxed for the first time in… she couldn’t remember. Fear had been her constant companion for months.

The three Epitaph members were vigilant, but didn’t seem worried, and she took comfort from that. Pent-up anxiety and the dread that had become so ingrained in her daily existence drained from her body, and with a soft sob of relief, her head lolled against Joshua’s back. Of the many ways this evening could have ended, she would never have guessed it would culminate with a piggyback ride from the Reaper. Shelby tried to keep her eyes open, but her escape, fear, and pain sapped the last of her strength. Joshua’s steady, even breathing soothed her, and the tension left her like a deflating balloon.

Shelby wasn’t sure how long they had been jogging through Old Town when they turned down the underground parking ramp of an abandoned hotel, just past an empty Park and Pay booth with broken gates. A string of dusty, old Christmas lights dimly lit the subterranean gloom. Parked along one wall she noticed several dozen top-of-the-line Solaria motorcycles. Judging by the frequency of the quietly humming shock alarms, Shelby guessed they were on max setting. A silhouette of a gang member with a rifle slung over their shoulder stood near a set of cement stairs leading up.

They climbed stairs to an unexpected blast door of steel with an old model retina scanner. Sid leaned forward and a blue, wedged-shaped light beamed over his face. The door clicked open, and they entered a narrow corridor where another Epitaph, a woman with white hair and pale eyes, stood guard. She gave them a nod as they passed, a question in her eyes as she noted Shelby clinging to Joshua’s back.

Several doorless openings led to what looked like a kitchen and another to a room with two squat commercial laundry mechs. It seemed incongruous to see a tattooed Epitaph gang member inside folding laundry on a long, rectangular stainless-steel table.

The corridor opened into a cavernous hotel lobby. The main check-in desk served as a bar with a half-dozen stools along the dented and scarred wood counter. Shelby quickly counted eighteen gang members lounging inside. A few watched a popular sitcom on the holovision set. Six top-of-the-line mainline rigs on the lobby’s faded flower-patterned carpet were occupied. One kid, who didn’t look much older than herself, live streamed the latest virtual game on a big holoscreen. A few gang members sat around commenting on the game. It all seemed very homey and comfortable and…ordinary.

This was more akin to the student lounge at her high school than the headquarters—or whatever they called it—of a notorious Old Town gang.

“Whatcha got there, Joshua,” one dark boy asked as he walked in from a second kitchen entrance with a few slices of pizza on a plate in one hand. He went behind the counter of the bar and drew out a beer.

Joshua carefully set her down. “A lost little lamb named Shelby.”

Shelby leaned against him, keeping her injured foot off the ground.

“Is she the reason the crews’re all stirred up like a hive of angry hornets?” asked a girl with a blond mohawk from the sofa.

“Yep,” Spikeware replied. “Ran right into the crematorium like she didn’t have good sense.”

“Yuck,” the blond girl said.

“Is that a bad place?” Shelby quietly asked Joshua.

“To give you an idea, even the gang members avoid it.”

Spikeware shrugged out of her shoulder holsters and placed them on a long, scarred wooden conference table loaded with various firearms and knives. She joined the crowd watching the streaming game and sank down into a battered lounge chair. Sid had disappeared back down the hallway where they’d entered the hotel.

“Betts,” Joshua called to one girl watching the streaming game. “Get your med kit, chop chop.

“On it.” The young woman, short and round with a long brown ponytail, jumped up from an old-style folding chair and jogged off into a room at the far end of the lobby.

“You hungry?” Joshua asked.

Shelby realized she never had a chance to eat dinner, and despite being chased through Old Town by cannibals, she could feel her stomach rumbling. She nodded.

“Hey, Shot, can I have a piggyback ride?” said a girl with a blond mohawk. She turned and punched the guy sitting next to her on the sofa in the arm. “Hey Dane, I wanna piggyback ride.”

“No way, Vex. You’ll put my fucking back out.”

Vex punched him again. “Asshole.”

Joshua picked up Shelby and carried her a short distance into the kitchen, surprisingly clean and well equipped with several of the latest model quickcookers. He put her on a barstool at a center island, then threw two pieces of pizza on a plate for her from boxes stacked near the quickcooker. He retrieved a beer from a cooling unit, popped it open, and put it down in front of her.

“I’m only fourteen,” Shelby said reflexively.

Joshua leaned on the island counter. “Oh no,” he deadpanned, “the crews are going to burst in here and arrest me.”

“I guess that was kinda dumb,” she muttered and bit into a pizza. It was cold, but who didn’t like pizza, cold or hot? The beer wasn’t bad either, not that she was an expert in beers.

The young woman called Betts came into the kitchen with a medkit. She put a towel over her lap and patted it. “Spin around, honey, and let’s see that foot. When was the last time your nanos were updated?”

“Ummm, last year?”

“That should be good. They’ll take care of any infection. That part of Old Town is a nasty place to get a cut like this.”

Later, with a full belly and a bandaged foot held together by liquid stitches, Shelby felt her eyes drooping.

“Is there a place where I can crash, just for tonight? Tomorrow I’ll be on my way.”

Joshua picked her up again like she weighed no more than a feather pillow and headed out of the kitchen, up a flight of stairs to the hotel’s second floor. At a door with metal numbers that read 208 on it, he put her down, opened it, and helped her inside.

“All of this is a little unexpected.” Shelby couldn’t hold back the surprise in her voice at the neatly made twin bed on a clean but threadbare patterned rug. A standard hotel dresser that had seen better days sat up against one wall, and a bedside table held an old pull-chain style lamp.

“I’m sure most of New and Old Town like to think we live like half-civilized savages. A lot of the gang lives here. Most of them have nowhere else to go,” Joshua explained.

“Like me,” Shelby said and collapsed onto the bed.

“I provide what their families cannot. We always have a few empty rooms. You’ll be safe here until you figure out what you want to do. No one will bother you.”

“Any place is better than where I came from.”

“Hajime Cybernetics employee housing compound,” Joshua said. “Pretty posh neighborhood. It had to be bad if you were willing to run through the Crematorium to get away. That’s where the highest concentration of Dwellers lives.”

“How… how did you know…?”

“About where you came from? It’s all over the crews’ comms. It’s how we found you. We always monitor crews coming into Epitaph territory…even with the system constantly fucking up. Doesn’t work half the time. We’re lucky we got to you.” Joshua walked to the door.

Shelby cocked her head. “I can fix your system if you want. Payment for helping me.”

“Working with glitchy hardware makes me want to shoot shit. Anyone who can fix our fucked-up system is welcome to try,” Joshua said dismissively. She could tell he didn’t believe she could fix it. “Your room door has a lock if that makes you feel better. Help yourself to food in the kitchen. The bathrooms in the rooms don’t work, but there’s a shared bathroom down the hall. Tomorrow, we can talk about getting you an Epitaph escort out of Old Town, if that’s what you want. But no one here will fuck with you.”

Shelby felt all the remaining tension flow out of her at his words. She was safe. Like, really safe in the den of the most notorious gang in Old Town. She suddenly found the energy to hobble off the bed and hug him. Judging by Joshua’s awkward pats on her back, she wondered if he wasn’t used to displays of affection.  

“Thank you.” She hobbled back to bed and sat with her hands folded in her lap, scarcely able to believe the night happened. “Will you stay? At least for a little while?”

Joshua did. And a few times in the night when she woke up with a gasp and a panicked scream on her lips, he sat there in the chair, silent as a shadow, a faint shimmer in his eyes, watching over her.

“From the Embarcadero to Castro Street all along Market, I want to see Sentinels,” Joshua said to Spike, Sid, Rappo, and a few other gang members who gathered around him on the third floor of an old building with an unobstructed view up and down Market. Once a thriving thoroughfare, the street was deserted and debris-littered. “That’s almost four miles of solid Epitaph presence along the border of Epitaph and Horned God territory.”

Spikeware leaned on a waist-high wall, looking up and down Market. Automatic gunfire punctuated the otherwise quiet morning with a following booming salvo from what sounded like a hyped-up machine pistol.

“The problem is not the people, but the comms here are shit up and down this stretch,” Spike said. “And if we boost it, the clots will pick up everything we say, and the crews will know where to find us and who to bust.”

“We need some kind of private channel or encryption that the crews can’t decrypt,” Rappo said.

A few others murmured their agreement.

Joshua’s watchcom chimed. He and the gang looked down at it in surprise.

“I did say comms are shitty here, didn’t I?” Spikeware said.

“This is on a channel I’ve never seen,” Joshua said.

“Could be a clot fucking with ya,” Sid said. Clots were a nickname the Epitaphs had given to the Horned Gods.

Joshua answered and the screen folded out showing a white unicorn with a gold horn and rainbowed colored mane and tail. It was someone’s avatar, meaning whoever this was, they were mainlined into the system.

“Who the hell?” Joshua said.

“Oh good, it works. This is Shelby. I fixed your shitty comms,” said the unicorn. “Who the hell built this piece of crap system? Anyway, I’m still working on everything because there’s some terrible spaghetti code here, but you should be able to contact everyone on this comm channel, and the crews can’t hack it. You’re number 1! Isn’t that special? You can assign numbers or nicknames to everyone. Oh, your cleaner mech was broken so I fixed that, too. Gotta go.”

“Wait—,” Joshua began, but she hung up.

“Was that the dumpster girl we rescued last night?” Spikeware asked.

“Yeah,” Joshua said. “What did you say about shitty comms, Spike?”

“Looks like we have ourselves a new recruit,” she said, a slight smile showing her titanium canines.

“You all continue scouting for Sentinel positions up and down Market. Tag ‘em when you find ‘em. Rap,” Joshua looked at a tall, reedy dark kid, “you map the spots and we’ll review later.”

Rappo held up a spray paint can of neon red holopaint. “Got it.”

“I’m going to talk to our new tech lead.”

In less than a day’s work, Shelby had the Epitaph computer systems working reliably, boosted the signals, and Joshua had assigned and tested the Sentinel call signs.

Later that evening, sitting back in their comms closet, which used to be a luggage room, Joshua watched Shelby work. Breenie, their tech guy, had been awed into silence and finally gave up trying to tell her what to do. Breen was a decent tech. This girl was a fucking genius.

“Looking for a permanent home, dumpster girl? Food, a place to live, no one will fuck with you, and all the tinkering you want. Anything you want.”

Shelby turned in the swivel chair and grinned. “I was hoping you’d ask.”

Hope you enjoyed Shelby’s first experience with the Epitaphs. Come back later for more short stories. If you want to be notified when new stories are available, be sure to subscribe!

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