HI-CRIME ZONE: CAUTION!
The warning flashes in bright green lettering across my augs as I approach a narrow path between two buildings. I don’t need the warning. Even through the lenses of augmented reality, I can see the scum lining the path ahead. Elite don’t usually travel this way. We take the high road, a gleaming path that runs above all this.
I don’t have time for the high road. I’m late for work, and at Gettem, late is about the worst thing you can be. I’ve seen my coworkers show up drunk, wasted, actually comatose, and none of that was as much of a problem as that one time Derrick from compliance was two minutes late. He was terminated on the spot. Some say you can still see the stain on the wall where his brain landed. That’s impossible, of course.
Life is cheap in Megaris, mostly because life is so expensive none of us are really sure it is worth it. There are three things that separate me from the feral scum I am about to encounter. I have my corporate apartment. I have access to Tier 3 privileges, including supermarkets, gyms, and clothing stores. Finally, I have my job. Assuming I can make it from here to there in the next four minutes.
That is why I’m about to walk down a stretch of street which has claimed thirteen lives in the past three days, according to the statistics flashing on the inside of my augs. The device looks like a pair of old-fashioned spectacles, but it is so much more than that. Augs augment reality in real-time, displaying data overlays and keeping me connected to the RMN, the Royal Megaris Network. The scum ahead are shifting about, mumbling to one another. Making plans. It’s a bad idea to walk down this gauntlet of desperate, lost souls, but it’s an even worse idea to be late for work.
I somehow hear something one of the scum says. My augs must be bugging out. They should be automatically filtering everything I hear via the earpieces, which pair to the small implants just beneath the skin of my head. Every crass, cruel word this asshole says should be transformed into a polite greeting or the trill of a bird. Things haven’t been working as well as they should lately. There have been bugs everywhere. Glitches in a lot of the systems. Some say it’s scum rebels doing the damage, but as soon as they say it, their words are erased, or they’re put on mute. Being muted means other people’s augs won’t catch a word you say. Scum should be auto-muted, but maybe they’ve found a way around it. Scum are always looking for a way around their restrictions.
I pretend I didn’t hear it. Scum words are not for me. They don’t know me. They are not really in my reality, and I am not really in theirs. We are persistent illusions to one another, a collection of incorrect impressions.
These incorrect impressions are hungry. More than that. They’re starving. That makes them dangerous.
I don’t get more than a dozen steps down the alley before one of the scum tries to mug me. I shouldn’t be surprised.
Scum are the lowest tier of humanity. I don’t understand why they aren’t simply rounded up for recycling, but the korabi must have some kind of reason for wanting to keep a perpetually violent underclass wandering the streets.
“Give me your fuzkin’ bux!”
The odds of an elite like myself carrying any physical currency are near zero. I don’t think he really wants bux. I think he’s giving himself a pretext to stab a hated elite.
He is skinny. Dangerously so. His hand shakes as though he’s not equal to the task of having the heavy knife in his hand, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. It doesn’t take a great deal of strength to stab a person. I’m not worried about being killed by him, though. I’m worried about the timer counting down in the upper right-hand corner of my field of vision. It was green, but it just turned red. There is only one minute, fifty-nine seconds before I am late for work.
I have something most elites don’t have. I work for Gettem, and that comes with additional perks. Like the badge in my left hip pocket. It’s more than a symbol; it’s a handheld enforcement tool. The mugger’s face goes pale as soon as he sees the badge. Part of that is his natural pallor and cowardice. The other part is the light reflected from the badge as it scans his dumb mug and loads him into the system for removal. One of the hunters will have his hide nailed to a wall by lunchtime if a drone doesn’t flame him first. Realizing he’s been scanned, the scum screams and runs, but he may as well not bother. Death is coming for him as surely as my time is running out.
One minute forty seconds.
I stride down the alley without any further fear of interference. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good to be able to send threatening scum scurrying away like frightened rats, especially when they deserve it.
One minute thirty seconds.
There are no police in Megaris. You would think that would make it a criminal hellscape, and you’d be right, but there are options for those who seek justice. Like Gettem, the company with the law enforcement contract for all Megaris. I’m an admin there, which doesn’t sound exciting, and isn’t, except for when I get to brush shoulders with some of the most dangerous, wild, and outright feral bounty hunters on the planet. And I get to see him. My crush. My unrequited love. Rath K’zar.
Rath is my idea of the perfect man, except he’s not a man. He’s a korabi. All hunters are korabi. All the criminals they hunt are human. You can draw inferences from that if you want, but I’m not one to get political. It doesn’t pay to go around noticing things and then saying them out loud. You know what you’re supposed to think. The truth is pumped into all your devices on a daily basis, so you are not burdened with the effort of thinking.
Rath is objectively better than any human male could ever be. I know that because the authority tells us so. Rath is tall, dark, handsome, a deep purple-blue, with a body trammeled with the finest augmented enhancements, which further magnify his massive natural powers.
You don’t look Rath in the eye. That’s because Rath’s eyes are possibly the most intimidating parts of him, which is saying a lot given he has razor-sharp extendable ridges on his arms from a scythkin originated augment.
I can’t stop thinking about Rath. This is what I do. I work, and I think about Rath. I finish work, and then I think about Rath. Sometimes I sleep. Then I dream about Rath. You could say I’m obsessed. I’d like to say that I’m very invested in my work. Rath is my work.
I am signed in automatically as I walk through the great doors of Gettem. I breathe a sigh of relief as I clock the time. 8.59.59. I made it with one second to spare.
“Lyric. You’re late.”
“If I were late, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” I say to Agnes, who has welcomed me with her usual dearth of charm.
“Rath K’zar has gone and dragged a bounty into your office,” she announces, more irritated than she should be. The hunters are worshipped here. They are the backbone of the company. Without them, we are nothing.
“Rath’s waiting? For me?” My heart skips a beat.
“You have his processing key,” she says. “I would have processed it, but he insists upon you.”
Rath insists upon me.
I feel hot and cold all over. It is the weirdest sensation like I want to be sick, but I’m also so happy, and I feel faint, and I feel light and… do I look alright? I catch a glimpse of myself in one of the many polished mirrored surfaces. I don’t know why I do that. I know what I look like. I look like what I always look like. Competent. Human. Small.
I go to my office as quickly as I can without actually running. My office here at Gettem is bigger than my apartment, which is fortunate because there wouldn’t be enough room for Rath to wait inside my apartment. He’d make the walls bulge at the seams. Maybe not literally, but that’s how it feels. He’s just So. Damn. Large.
My office is on the thirtieth floor. The elevator sweeps me up there in a matter of seconds. I proceed out the door, down the myriad of halls. Gettem is a warren, but there’s no way for me to get lost, even when the layout changes. My augs ensure that the path is marked with a bright green stripe flashing ever toward my destination.
There’s a trail of blood leading to my office. It is disappearing quickly, like snow melting on an unseasonably warm day. There’s some ancient part of my brain that is concerned by blood, but I don’t listen to the ancient parts of my brain. They aren’t really applicable in Megaris. If you want to survive here, you rely on technology.
I see him.
He’s in my office.
Every time I am in his presence, every internal part of me clenches tight. He is terrifying. His claws flex, dripping blood onto the carpet where it is immediately yet slowly and methodically cleaned by an unseen swarm of nanobots that consume every bit of organic material dropped into their realm.
The floor is a cannibal waiting to devour you whole. It will take time, but it will happen. You want the floor to swallow you? This is the floor that will take you dead or alive, honey.
Who am I talking to? I don’t know. The constant narration inside my head sometimes makes me feel like I’m going mad. Other times it feels like it might be the only thing keeping me sane.
Rath is taking up most of the space in my office and all of the space in my head. In my eagerness to lock eyes on him, I can almost ignore that my desk is covered in the remnants of someone. I don’t know who because the identifying features are missing.
He is standing there. Right where I work. All eight and a half feet of him. He has his long black hair tied back behind his head in a dramatic ponytail which swishes over his muscular shoulder when he turns to me. He has his hunting harness on, a garment which is not so much designed to cover his body as it is to interface with the many augmentations wired into his flesh. Rath was badly injured once. I don’t know what happened to him, but I do know it left him stronger than he was before, thanks to the augmentations the korabi wired into every inch of his body. The harness shows so much of it off. Everything, really. He’s not wearing pants. He’s wearing black straps which wrap from his shoulders, around his midsection, and then there’s sort of a thick modesty strap that covers his ass and mating region before returning to a strap design down his thighs, terminating in long, thick, skin-tight boots.
All korabi aliens are powerfully muscled. Rath is an impressive specimen, even for his species. A purple and blue pattern traces just beneath his skin, following lines of circuitry implanted therein. They light up when they are activated, and they are activated by both mental and physical activity. The overall effect is of a massive monster man who glows when he sees me. I’d swoon, but it’s not professional.
There is a lot to be fixated on about Rath, but it is his face that is the truly sexy part of him. His eyes are frequently remarked upon, one gold, one black. They are set beneath powerful, sharp brows which rise to tapered sharp points. His hair juts out in a pointed fringe which shades part of his face. He has hard planes of mandibular muscle and a jaw made for crushing bones. His teeth are sharp. Kissing him would be out of the question unless you wanted to lose your tongue. There’s a part of me that wants to kiss him anyway. Who cares what happens to me. I’d die happy if I could spend just one night with him.
But that’s fantasy. In reality, I’ll complain to anybody and everybody if I so much as get a paper cut. I’m a wimp. And I’m not in Rath’s league. Hell, I’m not even in his world. He barely looks at me as I enter.
I make up for all his not looking at me by staring at him. I could stare for hours and still not take in every hot aspect about him. His hair is a whole phenomenon all on its own. Thick and dark and shining, I want to wrap my hands in it and…
“Human,” he barks. “I bring you a bounty.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Thank you? Why did I say that? I should have said something smarter. Sexier. Show me your bounty, and I’ll show you mine—something like that. Something only a confident woman would say.
A bit of the bounty drips onto the carpet.
He flexes his claws. They are five inches long, extending from each and every one of his fingers. He’s made to kill. No wonder he has carved out a living as a hunter of humans. Most people hate him and his kind, though they’d never say it because saying it is illegal.
“I need a bioscan to confirm the identity and claim the reward,” he says. “Because of the missing parts.”
“Sure. One moment.”
I still want so badly to say something sexy, confident, and seductive to him, but there is a gutted human on my desk, and Rath has no interest in me. I don’t know if he actually distinguishes me from the computer terminal in terms of being sentient.
I could process the corpse in a matter of seconds if I had to. But I draw it out. The dead body is gross, but not so gross that I don’t want to soak up every second in Rath’s presence.
“Good hunt?” There, that’s a good question for a bounty hunter.
Rath doesn’t answer me. It’s like I didn’t speak at all. If he were human, I’d call him an asshole for that. But he’s not human. He’s korabi and very high status. I think he attended the royal academy at one point, though I’m not entirely sure how I know that.
Knowledge is a dangerous thing for a human to have. I know a few things I’m not supposed to know. I know history that is supposed to be secret. I discovered it while doing research. That’s what I call the snooping I do through the archives I’m not supposed to have access to. I found out korabi aliens aren’t native to this planet. Neither are humans. They brought us here about fifty years ago, and we’re all super lucky to be here. We don’t know how lucky we are. That’s the slogan, and of course, I agree with it.
“What is taking so long?” Rath is looking at me now. Actually looking at me. I’ve been his admin for almost a year, but most of our work has been remote. There’s never been any reason for our paths to cross, though they have come tangential from time to time.
* * *
One year ago…
“Your new administrator, Rath. Use her as you see fit.”
Those last words really have no limits. As an elite at the Gettem corporation, I am fully available to the bounty hunter I serve. It is not uncommon to hear moans and sometimes screams coming from administrator offices. Thick korabi cocks spear inside tight human flesh every day here. Alien semen and human juices of desire are consumed by the carpet bots just as often as human blood.
Rath turns to look at me. He is so heavily augmented he barely looks korabi. He looks like a super korabi; a creature made better and more advanced than any of the more common hunters who frequent these halls.
I stare at him, wide-eyed. He stares back at me with a possibly even more stunned expression.
“What is your name?”
He seems unsurprised and yet surprised. I don’t know why. Maybe this is how he always is. The piercing augmented stare he is giving me makes me feel as though he is inspecting every internal part of me one at a time and taking my full measure. His skin is a deep purple-blue. It lights up with the augmentations beneath, which operate everything from his eyes to his muscles to the secondary characteristics which do not belong to him naturally. The backs of his forearms have hard ridges, which allow sharp blades to emerge when necessary. He is a magnificent creature, and I find my elite brain absolutely flooded by hormones. I want him to use me. I want him to bend me over my bland gray desk and thrust that augmented cock inside me. It’s an urge which comes from the very core of me in a frighteningly powerful rush that leads me to blush profusely. Can he see my sudden desire? Can he smell it?
I stare back so hard that even he begins to find it strange amid all his staring.
“What is it, human? Are your augmentations malfunctioning?”
“No, sir. You’re just so very impressive.”
He turns away from me without acknowledging what I’ve said.
“If you are going to be my administrator, you have to know everything about my bounties….”
“Of course, sir!”
“… but you also need to know everything about me. You are my interface with the authority. I will be coming to you not only for bounties but for information. I expect you to be available, understand?”
I try not to simper, but it is not easy. I have to get control of myself. I have to remember what my purpose is, not to pursue the desires of my flesh, but to serve him in every way he desires.
* * *
I finish processing his latest kill just as a new one flashes onto my pad. Usually, I’d review the bounty and send it to him, but he’s right here. I can give it to him in person, maybe talk about some of the details. I thumb open the screen and check to see what kind of bounty it is.
The green header tells me that the bounty isn’t one of the scum. It’s an elite. Someone has pissed off the powers that be. I feel sorry for the poor bastard. As elites, we get comfortable in our positions. We start to think that we’re untouchable, and nothing can hurt us.
The red text below the header details the crime.
This bounty has been caught trading secrets. Stupid rookie mistake. There’s no way to traffic intel without being caught. Everything these days is impregnated with personal thumbprints in the data itself. The chain of possession is undeniable and unhackable.
I thumb down to see the picture. What poor stupid sap is going to end today dead because he wanted a few extra bux?
It’s a woman.
Pretty, symmetrical features.
I’m looking at my own face. But that doesn’t mean anything. My face is everybody’s face. It’s just strange to see an elite on a bounty list. Hunters almost exclusively prey on scum. Who is the unfortunate elite about to lose everything, including her life?
That’s my name. It’s me. The contract is on me.
The world goes into slow motion, one breath drawing out into a slow, stodgy spiral of disbelief. Not me. Not my name. Is there another Lyric Fours? I already know there isn’t. Our designations are all utterly unique.
I glance up at Rath. He’s not paying attention. He’s staring off into the ether, which means he’s checking his internal data stream. He must trust me a lot to do that in front of me. Or, more likely, he doesn’t really consider me a sentient being. I’m part of the furniture to Rath. He doesn’t think any more about zoning out in front of me than he would about zoning in front of a potted plant.
I look back down at the tablet. This is a mistake. I know damn well I didn’t sell any secrets. I’ve been algo’d. That means the algorithm has incorrectly flagged me as a criminal. It happens from time to time. Fortunately, you can always appeal. It might even be upheld. The problem is, appeals take thirty days, and the average length of a hunt for an average bounty hunter is ten. Rath’s average hunt length is more like two hours. I can appeal this, but by the time a decision is made, I’m going to have already been separated into my composite elements and recycled.
I’m going to be sick.
Being an elite doesn’t stop you from experiencing justice, and justice doesn’t mean fairness. It means that the order was given and the bounty was collected, and the case was closed. We don’t have courts. There are no judges. Juries are a thing of the very distant past. There is only the algorithm. And it just flagged me for removal.
I look at Rath.
He has no idea he is about to kill me.
If he can catch me.
He’s hot. He’s deadly. And he’s hunting me.
Rath K’zar is an alien bounty hunter. The best in the universe.
I’m his admin assistant.
I send him his bounties, and I process his payments.
I know him better than anybody. He doesn’t know I exist.
I have dreamed about him every night for months. You could call it a crush, or a fixation, or maybe an obsession. Whatever. I never thought it would amount to anything.
Then there was a… misunderstanding at work.
I became the galaxy’s most wanted overnight.
Now he’s hunting me.
Nobody escapes Rath K’zar.
He doesn’t care about innocence.
He cares about the bounty.
And my name is on his list.