Then I opened my eyes.
Still pitch black.
I thought, "well, at least I'm alive." Then I patted myself down to take stock of myself. I seemed to be unscathed, wearing some sort of paper, but I was constricted by something. Fumbling around, I found the backside of a zipper. I paused to listen before trying it. Footsteps. I decided to get out of whatever it was I was in and quickly. I worked the zipper from the inside, bright light pouring in and stinging my eyes.
"Are you alright?" asked the figure standing in front of me.
"Who are you?" I snapped back.
"My name's Simon. I've come to get you out of here."
"Here where? Where am I?"
"Downers Grove. It's a shithole in the walled city of Chicago."
My eyes adjusted to the light, fading to the dim light of the decrepit room. Simon squatted down next to a nicely wrapped box with a bow that was near the bag I escaped from. He undid the bow and the box unfolded, revealing a card, a credstick, a pistol, and a knife.
"Tabitha? I think these are yours," he said.
I moved over to the objects and picked up the card. It was blank, but my mind superimposed words over it: "Take these and run."
I looked up at Simon. He seemed to have received a similar message as well, as he produced a briefcase, opened it, and retrieved a pistol.
I put the card and credstick in one of my paper pockets, tossed the box and ribbon into Simon's briefcase a fraction of a second before he snapped it shut, and picked up my gift weapons - one in each hand.
Simon made his way to the staircase down and I followed close behind. At the base of the stairs, a man with a huge rifle was keeping two other men at bay. The closer of the two, seeing Simon step off the stairs, called out, "let's make this easy. We just came for the merchandise," and nodded in my direction.
"Well, you can't have HER," replied Simon. "Why don't you leave before somebody gets hurt."
About that time, I heard a car pull up. The second guy turned and stepped outside to speak with the driver.
"Listen, in about two minutes, I'm going to have to put you both down and take the merchandise anyway."
Something about the way he said it triggered something in Simon. In one smooth movement, Simon darted across the hall, triggered the spring-loaded knife release in his boot, caught the knife, and plunged it into the guy's throat.
He grabbed his throat, dropped to his knees, and gurgled, "well, that sucks."
I'm surprised I remember that, as I was also enraged by his comment, tore across the hallway and out the door, and found my own knife plunged into the other guy's back. As he dropped to the concrete, the driver calmly asked, "now who's gonna pay for these sandwiches?"
Simon stepped up and said, "that's my order. Can we also get a lift out of Downers Grove?"
"That's strictly against policy. But the going rate's 10 credits each."
While Simon was making arrangements, I pulled out the card and looked at it again. This time, my mind read it: "Congratulations."
I then decided to check the two dead men. The were both carrying large pistols, both carrying credsticks, and both carrying I.D.s showing that they were Level 1 Support personnel for HelpDesk Inc. I took all of it. They were both wearing what looked to be almost identical outfits made to look like distressed street clothes. Actually, now that I think about it, they almost LOOKED identical.
I grabbed one of the jackets and a pair of boots and put them on.
Simon, the silent guy with the rifle, and I climbed into the small delivery vehicle. I handed Simon the credsticks, one of which he promptly paid the driver with and tossed out the window.
"Can I have one of the sandwiches?" I asked.
Simon handed me one, which I tore open and voraciously ate. It was simultaneously the best and worst thing I ever ate. It was a flavor I had never experienced, yet vaguely remember. At the same time I could taste each individual artificial chemical used in the processed protein and texturized vegetable matter.
Simon directed the driver to his apartment, which was situated above a convenient store. Upon arrival, the silent guy with the rifle got out and started hiking off into the distance, Simon stepped out, waved, and called after him, "See ya Zeb. Thanks!"
Simon's apartment was a sparsely furnished couple of rooms that doubled as storage for some of the convenient store's old hardware. Taking a look around, I found a pristine envelope taped to the side of an ancient slushy machine. "Hey Simon, what's this?"
Simon looked just as confused as I. He tore it off the side of the machine, opened the envelope, and removed another blank card. He stared at it for a long while, then looked up at me with furrowed brow. "I'm going to find out what HelpDesk Inc. is all about."
He sat down at a desk that had to be about 80 years old. "Huh, looks like there's two new job postings for them on craigslist."
I sat down at the coffee table and started going through the objects I collected during the evening:
- Boots - Men's, artificially distressed, no labels.
"Checking their public site."
- Jacket - Artificially distressed, no labels, bloody hole through the back.
- Two Plastic I.D.s - HelpDesk, Inc. Level 1 Support. Nothing else.
"Just a firm that rents out low-level security personnel."
- Two 10mm Watchdog Automatic Pistols - New, registered to HelpDesk Inc., fired two or three times at the most, 12 rounds each.
"I'm hitting up their private site."
- One 10mm Watchdog Automatic Pistol - New, unmarked, unregistered, and direct from the manufacturer.
"Huh, there's a big gap in their firewall…"
- One Combat Knife - New, unmarked, unregistered, and direct from the manufacturer, bloody.
"Big white room. Single file cabinet in the middle."
- Box and ribbon - High quality, otherwise unremarkable.
"I'm gonna open it."
- Blank card - Now it says, "We'll be in touch."
"Damn! Nothing in… SHIT!"
- Credstick - Labeled, "Rasa, Tabula."
Simon snapped out of his trance and sat upright in his chair, "damn honeypot…"
"Rasa, Tabula." Is that my name? Simon called me Tabitha. Did he read it correctly?
"How'd you end up in that body bag?"
"I don't know."
"Well, what happened before you climbed out of it?"
"It was dark."
"Do you remember anything before that?"
I thought for a long while. "I don't remember anything before that..."
"Hey, I just got an IM from some guy. He liked our work dispatching the HelpDesk guys and wants to offer us a pickup job."
Something wasn't right. "That was awfully quick. I don't trust them."
"Yeah, but it's a job working for a company on the same level as HelpDesk."
"How do you know it's NOT HelpDesk trying to set us up?"
"Well, our only other plan is to take those two openings and work for HelpDesk… Anyway, we got a couple of days to decide. It's 5 AM, and I can use some sleep."
Simon moved to his cot, made no attempt at removing clothing, warned me, "don't go outside," and, as promised, went to sleep.
I was still reeling from the night's events, so I decided to do some online shopping and pulled up MallMart's clothing line. After perusing their entire catalog, I settled on some comfortable athletic wear, rugged running shoes, and a pleather jacket with ballistic panel inserts. They said it would be delivered within the hour, so I decided to take a quick shower.
Unfortunately, Simon's bathroom left something to be desired. Like cleanliness. My best bet would be to do some spot cleaning.
I shed the blood-splattered paper coveralls, wet some toilet paper, and stood in front of the cracked mirror. The body was medium-dark skinned and athletically built. But the face was startling. Blonde, pale eyes, strong bone structure. I didn't recognize it all, yet at the same time something deep inside was familiar about it.
I wiped off the remaining blood droplets and scanned my body for any distinguishing marks. As I ran my fingers over the nape of my neck I felt a raised pattern. I swiveled my shoulders around enough to make out the the genetically modified roman numeral "III".
At that moment, I was notified that my package had arrived and was waiting for me downstairs. I hurriedly pulled on the paper coveralls, put on the boots and ran downstairs.
Waiting for me was the same car and driver from earlier in the evening, however the "Johnny Jim's" placard had been replaced with "MallMart". I took the package from him, thanked him, and bid him a good evening. I opened the box, pulled out the armored pleather jacked and put it on. Then I decided to look around the area.
Noticing the convenient store clerk and my dry throat at about the same time, I stepped inside the brightly lit store.
Annoyed, he impatiently looked up from what he was working on.
"Hi! Where can I find the drinks?" I asked.
He jabbed a grungy finger across the store to a sign that boldly read, "DRINKS."
I made my way over to the slushy machine and poured myself the largest CrocAde Slushy available.
"Hi! Whatcha working' on?" I asked as I stepped up to the bulletproof booth to pay.
"I saw you come in earlier. You Simon's new girlfriend?"
"Well, I'm female and I'm Simon's friend, but that's about the extent of it."
"Well, a couple of guys were in here asking about you."
"When?!?" I shouted.
"About fifteen minutes ago."
"What'd they look like?!?"
"I dunno. Like street thugs."
I bolted for Simon's apartment.
Once inside, I ran over to Simon's cot and shook him.
"Simon! They're here!"
Rubbing his eyes, "Who?"
Fully awake now, "When?"
"About fifteen minutes ago!"
Simon leapt up and grabbed his weapons. I hurriedly tore off the paper garments and replaced them with my new purchases, jamming two pistols into the pockets of the jacket.
Then we ran back downstairs.
Carefully rounding the corner of the building, we noticed the convenient store clerk conspicuously missing. We entered the store and noticed some movement in the back row by the drink coolers. Simon went right, I took the left.
"Bang!" Simon's gun went off and Simon ducked back behind the shelves. There was obviously a threat, but Simon didn't hit it.
I decided to try my side. I ran to the end of the rows, peeked around the shelves and fired on the unsuspecting thug. He didn't stand a chance, going down with a thud. I ran back to the clerk's bulletproof booth only to meet the barrel of another thug's gun inside. Startled, I tried to stop quickly, but only slid in the puddle of the clerk's blood and ended up on my ass.
The thug fired. He was apparently startled as well, as his bullet hit the ceiling. I fumbled for my second pistol, fired both, but only one connected, putting the thug down.
I got myself on my feet and found the clerk's assault rifle behind the counter just in time to see another thug advancing on Simon. I pulled the trigger on the AR and held it down, putting several rounds into the bulletproof glass between me and Simon's new threat.
My bluff worked, because the thug bolted out the back of the store with Simon hot on his heels.
Just as Simon was about to clear the door to the stockroom, he stopped suddenly and dodged back into the store just as a launched grenade passed through the door and into the frozen foods behind him, blowing up the produce section and raining down bits of flaming vegetables.
I ran out of the clerk's booth and around the shelves, just in time to see a man in heavy red armor raise an assault rifle at Simon's prone body, forcing him to drop his gun. That's when I opened up on the guy in the red armor. Unfortunately, the armor did what it was supposed to, so I ducked back behind the shelves.
Simon took the distraction as an opportunity to pop his spring-loaded boot knife and try to find a chink in the armor. And failed.
Just as I was about to take another shot at the man in red, one of the thugs got the drop on me, sinking his blade deep into my right shoulder, cutting muscle and scraping bone. The pain was incredible!
It gets fuzzy from there. I remember sliding down the shelves to the floor. I remember handing the clerk's assault rifle to Simon. I remember the sound of breaking glass and my assailant's head disappearing in a pink cloud. I remember Simon frantically trying to apply medical care to me. I remember a few more shots. Then…