“What’s the point, anyway?”
The day she met him started like most others, with her voice muffled by a pillow.
Gertrude Weathers was alone.
I could do it. Really do it this time.
She held her breath, and pulled tight.
A lump formed in her throat. It begged her to let go. To take that life-saving gulp of air.
She held her grip on the synthetic pillow case, and prepared herself for the end.
Her vision sparkled until it closed in and went black.
An hour later, a chime on Gertrude’s communicator startled her back to life. Her head pounded and pulsed.
Finally, her eyes focused on the communicator: she already had today’s first call.
“Time for work.”
She grabbed yesterday’s shirt off her bunk and pulled her pants on, careful to lace her feet through yesterday’s underwear.
Gertrude’s neighborhood was rough, like all of them on the ground. Walking out the door, she was careful to avoid the usual detritus.
Syringes, empty bottles, and puddles of piss.
“Still around the corner in the alleyway, just where you left it.”
“Jeez, Franklin. Did you have a big party last night?”
“Heh, you know me. Fella on Elm found a body with a bunch of un-used cred in their pocket. Looked like they was thrown from a few hundred floors, so we figured they didn’t need it anymore.”
“And you didn’t save any for me? I’m hurt.”
“That’ll be the day, Mizz Gertrude. You know where to find us, any night you want to join.”
“I don’t think your pals could handle me on a fix.”
Franklin looked up at her as she waved her communicator past his wrist. A soft ching! sounded.
“Always the quiet ones who surprise you.”
Gertrude’s late-20s model taxi was in the alleyway, just as Franklin had promised. Her car bore the familiar government seal on its doors. A sign to patrons the vehicle was part of the Human Taxi Program created after the Welfare Reform Act passed in 2043.
The program provided jobs for grounders who couldn’t get work because of automation.
“Elm and 27th. Six hundred and seventeenth floor?”
Gertrude raised her eyebrows when she glanced at her communicator. She pulled back on the yoke and climbed towards the cloud line.
Her taxi fell into the line behind a hoverlimo. Its polished metal sparkled in the harsh sunlight.
When she reached the platform at level 617, a man in a red waistcoat and wig directed her toward the waiting area.
“Good morning, mum. Please scan your license credential.”
Gertrude raised her communicator to the scanner. Then the doorman flipped through his manifest.
“Thank you, Miss Weathers. Your fare will be down momentarily.”
Gertrude nodded. There was a regal curl to his voice.
The flyers are always so formal.
Their palaces rose high above rest of the world. Few of them ever went below the clouds. Or rode in human taxis.
“Good morning, m’am. Can we make it to Ash, and 727th before 11am?”
An athletic man in fitted clothes and a dark cloak climbed into the back seat.
“Ash and 727th?”
This prince must be after loose women, and gambling.
“Can I recommend a good casino after your appointment? I know a guy, he’ll take real nice care of you.”
The man stared at Gertrude through the mirror, obviously startled by her suggestion. She wasn’t used to driving flyers, and had an unfortunate habit for saying the wrong thing.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She glanced down at her console. “Let me take a quick look at traffic.”
Flyers often booked human taxis when they needed to be inconspicuous. Every grounder knew flyers liked to drop-in for surprise inspections to ensure their businesses ran smoothly.
Must be his first time.
As she tapped her console, Gertrude risked an upward glance into the rear mirror. Her passenger’s skin wasn’t pockmarked from the harsh rains like those who lived under the cloud line.
It looked irresistibly smooth. Polished, with a shine that matched his bleached hair.
Gertrude was staring.
As she pushed her hair over her ears, a bolt of neon green fell back into her eyes. When she brushed it back, their eyes met.
His were a soft grey. And his smile revealed iridescent teeth. He’s smiling!
Gertrude suddenly looked away.
She cleared her throat and brought it back to business.
“Skyways four, and ten are blocked. We’ll have to go around, but yeah...”
She shrugged. “—we should be make it by 11am.”
He still had a smile on his face. Despite her best effort to conceal it, Gertrude was flush with embarassment.
She disengaged the air brake, and pressed heavy on the accelerator, in an attempt to deflect the awkward moment.
The taxi made a sharp dive for the cloud line and the handsome stranger’s smile was replaced by abject fear.
Once underneath the layer of thick clouds, Gertrude leveled off. The glare of the sun was replaced with the glow of signs and the mist of a light rain.
They were in the Heavy Industrial Zone, where millions of plant workers slaved for meager wages.
Animated billboards advertised everything from anti-fungal cream to enhancement surgeries.
One advertisement stood out amongst the crowd. Bright red and massive, with bold yellow letters.
Unhappy with your life?
Find meaning with NeroCorp,
and alter your path.
As they passed near it, the displays in Gertrude’s taxi lit-up with a simple invitation: “Submit your questionnaire today.”
“Have you ever thought about doing that?”
What was that handsome?
Gertrude almost forgot about her glossy-faced passenger. She tried to swallow the cotton in her throat.
“Sure. Hasn’t everyone? I know I’ve thought about it.”
Is he fucking with me?
“You don’t strike me as the type desperate enough...”
“Ouch. I’m not desperate...”
“...to fall into their trap?”
“...because I want to believe in something?”
“Suit yourself, flyer. I can’t afford a religion that costs that much.”
The man rubbed his left breast, just over his heart.
He was rubbing something in his coat pocket. Was he upset?
Oh God, he’s one of them. Probably trying to convert me.
“Hey mister, I’m sorry.”
The man smiled dimly, then glanced at a tablet he thought was concealed under his cloak.
“... I didn’t mean anything ugly by it.”
Her insides churned as she replayed his retort.
Gertrude submitted a questionnaire three months ago. It took her four years to save enough, including several nights with an empty stomach.
After all of that, she heard nothing.
Gertrude swallowed the knot in her throat. Then she turned the wheel, and her taxi slid off the skyway.
“Worst of the traffic is done. We’ll be there in about 10 minutes.”
The rest of the trip was quiet. No more sideways glances or small talk. When they arrived, the man thumbed the screen for his fare, and stepped out onto the platform.
He left a gigantic tip.
Gertrude hollered out to him as he walked away.
“Hey thanks a lot mister!”
The man turned back and leaned into her window. He glanced at her credential on the dash, then bowed his head.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Weathers.”
He waved his communicator towards her console. A chime rang as his number was added to the address book.
“If you ever change your mind, I would love to discuss it.”
As he pulled away, his finger touched the side of her cheek. Her skin heated and she blushed once again.
I really hate choir boys.
... but it was the first time she had smiled in a month.
The stranger’s unusual tip was the highlight of Gertrude’s work day.
“You know, I’ve always preferred human drivers to those computer driven monstrosities. Wouldn’t you agree, love?”
The rest of her fares were to the nearest liquor store, or plant workers looking for shops that offered payday loans. Except this obnoxious flyer couple on their way to the Opera.
“Actually, I’ve never ridden in an auto.”
“Silly me, love. Of course you haven’t. I imagine you drive yourself wherever you need to go. That’s why the Human Taxi Program is so brilliant. Gets you gutter rats off the street so you can provide a valuable service to society.”
Gertrude forced a smile towards the rear mirror.
Stop calling me love.
“Charles and I only take human taxis. It’s our civic duty…”
Civic duty. These assholes run their mouth about charity. Their opera tickets are worth more than Gertrude makes in three months.
At least they left a pleasant scent in her car.
Gertrude used the roads to get home, instead of a quicker trip in the air. Under the program, each driver receives a stipend for energy cells. She pockets a portion of the stipend by spending more time on the ground.
A protest erupted a few blocks from her apartment, so she took a different alley to her building.
Halfway down the alley, a body fell out of the sky onto the hood of Gertrude’s taxi.
A large thump sounded through the dash.
She forced the brakes, and the body slid onto the street.
This drunk asshole couldn’t have killed himself in another alley?
Gertrude pulled off to the side, then approached the body. As she went to pull it off the street, a voice startled her.
“Oh lookey here. 'Nother cold gift from the sky.”
“Dammit Franklin, don’t scare me like that.”
“Sorry, Mizz Gertrude. Are you alright?”
Gertrude looked back to her taxi.
“Left a nice dent on my hood, but I’m alright. She’s a tough ‘ole bird.”
She looked down at the corpse. It was a man’s frame. Moderate build, and skin that didn’t show signs of exposure.
“Can you help me move him off the street?”
When she grabbed his arms, they were warm. She checked his pulse.
“He’s still alive.”
“Well, I’ll be. This be one pissed of flyer, come mornin’. Either he jumped, or he’ll be after revenge for whosever pushed him.”
Franklin looked disappointed.
“No cred or chip card in his pockets. Or ID badge.”
“Maybe he can tell us more after he wakes up.”
“... and we can collectin’ our re-ward.”
“What makes you think he has money?”
“Look his clothes. Feelin’ softer than your panties, me-thinks.”
His clothes were not lavish, but felt softer than any synthetic Gertrude had ever touched.
“No grounder have anything this soft. Which mean he‘ave cred.”
Gertrude looked up and down the alley. It was empty, no doubt since it would be dark soon.
The body wouldn’t be safe outside.
“Guess you’re coming with me.”
The Lucky Odds casino was loud for an early afternoon. It filled the corner of Ash and 727th Street with the sound of electronic slot machines.
A man in a dark cloak, and polished features approached the covered entrance. He glanced back towards the departing cab.
She was cute, even for a grounder.
The man thumbed his communicator.
“This is Hammersmith, I've reached the coordinates. In pursuit.”
Just inside the covered entrance was a valet stand. The attendant was young, with an untidy clump of dark hair, and tiny pockmarks on his face.
Hammersmith produced a grainy photo of middle-aged man. The caption read “TZZ-34663”.
“Have you seen anyone like this? Did they go through those doors?”
The valet glanced down towards Hammersmith’s right thigh, where his unlatched cloak caught on his holster.
“Don’t talk to suits, boss man.”
Hammersmith considered him for a moment. Then he pulled on the underside of the valet’s chin, matching gazes with the boy.
“It’s important I find him. There’s a lot of money involved.”
Hammersmith raised his eyebrow. Then he tapped his communicator on the valet’s console. His identity lit up the display.
The boy swallowed before his response.
“Dont’a talk to church boys neither.”
With his left hand, Hammersmith grabbed the valet’s head and smashed it into the stand. The console cracked, which opened a wound on the side of the boys face.
“You’re going to answer my questions.”
“Hey you, bossa man. Get’n yer ‘ands off that’n boy!”
Two oversized gorillas, posed as security guards, ran towards the stand. Hammersmith drew his pistol with his right hand.
“I’ll drop both of you if you take another step.”
He still held the valet’s neck in a grip with his left hand.
“My friend here was just telling me where I can find that man.”
Hammersmith nodded to the photo on the stand.
“Take me to your video room, and no one gets any holes in them. Okay?”
The security guards took a step back, and nodded.
“J’okay bossa man. No trouble. Floor manager set’n ya’up inside.”
Hammersmith snapped the safety, and re-holstered his weapon. He loosened his grip on the valet, then tossed him a handkerchief.
“Here kid. Put that on your face and apply pressure. If you see this man, you’ll be sure to contact me directly.”
The boy nodded without making a sound. He glanced down at the identity on his cracked display:
Todd walked into Lucky Odds and made for the manager’s cage in the back.