Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Wait…what?” Coop was confused, and although mental whiplash wasn’t a real thing, he was undeniably suffering from it.
One second he was a normal welfare Rat looking at getting a slap on the wrist for steeling some retard’s air-car. The next minute he was facing charges against the Commonwealth for stealing classified intelligence. All he was thinking about was walking into a sterilized white room, getting a needle stuck in his shoulder, and going sleepy-bye forever. Now, the judge had decided not to throw the book at him. He’d been offered ten years in a prison where he was sure to be someone’s bitch, or four years getting shot at by one of the other starfaring nations’ militaries, corporate security forces, pirates, or religious zealots. If Coop was being honest, option number two wasn’t a whole lot better than option number one.
His defense attorney grabbed his arm hard before he could say another word. “You’re being given a chance, and I can tell you from experience that this judge doesn’t hand out these choices often. He saw something on that screen, and it is my legal opinion that you take him up on the offer.”
Coop would have responded colorfully if he wasn’t forcefully grabbed by the other arm, and easily yanked away from the defense attorney.
“What the…” Coop was about to take a swing at whomever was dragging him around, but he never got the chance.
His knees nearly gave out when a white-hot stabbing pain shot through his arm. The pain worked its way slowly through his arm, up his neck, and into his head. Coop didn’t even recognize that he was being manhandled out of the courtroom by one of the armored bailiffs. All he was able to register was pain, and all he was able to pray for was for it to stop.
“Hey, kid,” Coop didn’t even feel the first slap across his face. The second one registered, but it was still a full minute before he could make out the hulking shape of the armored man in front of him.
Coop was sitting on a bench just outside of the courtroom. The guard who’d scanned his slip was gone; probably inside to temporarily take the bailiff’s place. There was a reason there were two bailiffs in a courtroom. Rats like Coop didn’t have a reputation for conducting themselves in a manner acceptable to the court.
“Snap out of it,” one of the bailiff’s hands grabbed Coop’s face by the chin, while the other forced open his eyes.
“Wh’ fuck was tha’?” Coop couldn’t talk well with the man holding his face, but even without the armored gauntlet limiting his jaw’s motions, Coop wasn’t going to be eloquent anytime soon.
“You’ve been injected with your bail capsule,” the man saw the look of confusion in Coop’s eyes and explained with a sigh. “A capsule was injected into your arm since you’re being released on your own recognizance until noon tomorrow. If you do not return to this courtroom by noon the capsule will release the nanites inside of it and shut down your nervous system. You will shit yourself, piss yourself, and be a fucking vegetable until you’re picked up at the PHA’s convenience. We have a very low skip rate,” the bailiff’s eyes bored into Coops with the seriousness of the statement.
Anyone who was lying motionless in a PHA alley was going to have a bad day. If Coop didn’t return by noon tomorrow then he’d be signing his own death sentence. The Commonwealth wouldn’t have to spend a dime on a lethal injection; the other Rats would do the job for them.
“Ok,” Coop’s head was throbbing, and he didn’t have anything better to say.
“Good,” the armored bailiff left, and a moment later the PHA guard returned to his post.
“Get goin’, Rat,” the guard shooed Coop away like he would the four-legged rodent.
It took a few stumbling steps for Coop to get his bearings, but eventually his pain receded to a dull throb, and his vision cleared enough so he could find the exit. He took his first step into the waning afternoon light, and gagged after his first breath. Coop’s hands still felt heavy as he searched for the mask at his waist, and he was forced to take another breath. More pain stabbed his lungs as he inhaled the toxic air. Finally he found the familiar plastic apparatus, and slammed it over his mouth. He took another deep breath, and the mask filtered the smoggy air enough so he could breathe. The digital readout on the mask stated that the air was well below breathable levels.
“Thanks captain obvious,” Coop mumbled as he walked down the Civil Administration building steps.
Stretching out before Coop was the PHA in all its glory. The entire, self-contained, residence center was laid out in a typical grid fashion. Each block contained four fifty-story towers, and a small open recreation center in the middle. Each floor of a PHA tower had fifty rooms that housed a minimum of two people, but families of five or six routinely stuffed themselves into the confined quarters. That meant at a minimum there were a hundred Rats on each floor, and five-thousand per tower. With four towers that meant there were a minimum of twenty-thousand Rats crammed into a one block radius.
There were ten blocks in a square kilometer, and Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit PHA-2 was twenty-five square kilometers. In a testament to the ingenuity of urban planning, the Commonwealth had sandwiched over one and a quarter million people into a twenty-five by twenty-five kilometer area south of the City of Buffalo on Lake Erie. The sad part was that Coop knew he had it a lot better than some.
Coop only lived two blocks from the Civil Administration building, in what was considered the “good” part of town. He still had to keep an eye out. After he passed through the gates at the foot of the building’s steps he had to assume everyone was armed. No one walked around a PHA, this close to dark, without something to defend themselves.
Coop stuck to the middle of the street, avoided the increasingly shadowed sidewalks, and the nefarious alleys beyond them. There were no air or regular cars on the road, because no one aside from the cops could afford them. Coop felt naked, he would give a billion dollars for anything to ward off the predators waiting for him to step outside the Civil Administration building’s line of site. At that point the bail capsule didn’t mean shit.
“Give me all your money,” Coop was still a little off his game, but he got his shit together quick.
You couldn’t freeze when someone tried to rob you in his neighborhood. You fought back, and you fought back hard. Losing what little a Rat had could be a death sentence, especially if you were carrying home your basic subsistence allowance.
Coop threw out his arm in a swinging back fist, hoping that the thief was close enough. Of course they weren’t. Coop’s day had been nothing but shit; and as his clenched fist passed through nothing but air, he had no reason to suspect it was going to improve.
“You’re slow,” Coop finally registered the familiar voice, and thanked the universe for finally giving him a break.
“Hogs shot me up with a bail capsule,” Coop turned toward the person and showed her the injection site. “It’s got me a little messed up.” It was a weak excuse, but it was his only way to save face.
“Bail capsule?” the girl standing just out of reach had the same confused look as Coop when the bailiff explain it to him.
Hailey was the closest thing Coop had to a girlfriend. Titles like boyfriend and girlfriend didn’t mean a whole lot in the PHA. Relationships revolved around protection or pleasure, rarely both. Hailey and Coop were more about protection, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a hell of a lot of pleasure involved.
Hailey was attractive, as far as women in the PHA went. She was skinny, not the athletic skinny that was on workout brochures, but the skinny that came from lack of food. People said that her skin was a rich caramel color, and Coop had to take their word on that. He’d never seen or tasted caramel in his life. She wasn’t really that tall, only about 165 centimeters, but her body had an hourglass shape that was hard to achieve without enhancement.
Hailey’s two most striking characteristics were her hair and her eyes. Her hair was platinum blonde, almost white; and braided into shoulder length cornrows. Coop knew it wasn’t her natural hair color, but it made her look exotic. He did know that she traded a day’s worth of rations for whatever bleached her hair like that. Sometimes it was better for a girl in the PHA to look good rather than eat. What was natural, but looked unnatural, were her eyes. Hailey’s eyes were a deep, beautiful amber. If Coop didn’t know any better he’d have thought that her parents had paid for genetic mutation before she was born. Eyes that color just didn’t occur naturally. But Coop did know better. He knew that Hailey, just like him, barely had enough to eat at the end of the day. There was no way her parents had tens of thousands of dollars to make their daughter’s eyes pretty.
Instead of explaining that he’d be a human vegetable in less than twenty-four hours; Coop walked up to her, used one hand to grab her ass, and the other to pull off both their masks so he could press his lips firmly against hers. Hailey tensed up for a second in surprise, but quickly melted into his embrace. It wasn’t smart to make out in the middle of a PHA street at twilight, but they did it anyway.
Hailey’s tongue poked past his lips and danced around his mouth. As she did that, she slipped her hands into his waistband. Coop liked where this was going, but jumped in surprise when he felt cold metal against his skin.
Hailey laughed, and pulled away with a mischievous smile on her face as she replaced her mask. Instead of fondling him in public, she’d done something much better. Coop looked down and saw the handle of his six shot revolver sticking out of his waistband. He sighed in relief; he didn’t feel naked anymore.
“Let’s get the hell out of here before someone jumps our asses,” Hailey’s attention returned to their dimming surroundings. “I’ll stick my hand down your pants when we get back to your place.”
Coop didn’t need any more motivation, and didn’t feel like breaking the news to her. He grabbed her hand and pulled her toward his apartment block; while keeping his free hand on the handle of his gun, and his eyes looking for trouble.