NORTHWEST BORDER OUTSIDE NEW WASHINGTON
NOVEMBER OF 2250 CE, EVENING
Cam gritted his teeth, knowing that the jibe was meant to get his hackles up and knowing that a reaction would be precisely what they wanted.
Cameron Owens stood out, and he knew it. It wasn’t his looks; he had brown hair and blue eyes and was tall and had a normal kind of build. It wasn’t the heavy steelwood bokken he carried: plenty of immigrants were armed with nonlethal weapons, and you wouldn’t get in trouble unless you actually started trying to kill anyone.
It also wasn’t his pointy, furred ears or his feline facial features, or the coating of fur all over his body. Cam was far from being the only morph waiting on the border of New Washington to get in, and he knew that too, but he didn’t spend much time with the close-knit knots of animal people that huddled together for protection. He didn’t like being reminded of home.
It was, honestly, a combination of those things. Being a morph with no pack, carrying a weapon and looking ready to use it, waiting patiently to get into the city and existing in a space with other frustrated indigent people. Fights were common out here, and Cam made a good target.
“Y’deef? I’m talkin a’ you, cat boy!” Cam recognized the voice. Bobby Allan, a New K immigrant whose entry in the city was so delayed that he was almost always trying to vent steam by hitting someone. He lost a lot of fights, though never to Cam. He’d never attacked Cam without at least six other guys with him. Today, though… he seemed to be alone.
Cam grit his teeth, facing Bobby head on now, setting his feet into a defensive stance, without reaching for his weapon or displaying his internal aggression in thoughts. “What?” he grunted, not raising his voice to the raised level that Bobby had chosen. He let his ears perk up, despite half expecting it to turn into another racist joke.
“The fook’s your problem? Fuzzball?” This was how it went. Bobby already had a thick tree branch in his hand, which would have taken at least a mile of walking to get since there were no trees here on the border. He wouldn’t admit that he wanted to fight, though, he always wanted the other fighter to be the one who crossed the line. Of course, he moved the line pretty freely.
Cam put his hands on his hips, his left hand conspicuously on his blade, strung at his hip for once, the heavy wooden blade of the bokken tucked into his belt. It was a gift from his parents, and it had served him well, shown by the notches in the heavy wood, from striking things, from wear, from tear. He finally raised his voice, seeing a stranger looking their way. “I don’t have a problem, except that you seem to have a problem with me.” He still kept it from being too loud, avoiding letting anger creep into his voice. He didn’t want to make a scene, he didn’t want to mess up all the time he was putting into getting into the city. He just wanted this resolved.
“You callin’ me a bigot?” Bobby bellowed, evidently running out of jabs that made sense. “I’ll whoop your arse, fluffy!” He took two steps forward, raising the branch in the exact manner of a person who has no idea how to fight with a weapon. Hell, Cam had only learned from watching movies and instructional videos (mom and dad had strictly forbidden melee training) and he was better than this guy.
He ducked it, drawing his sword as he did, raising a foot to push Bobby away by the back of his knee, forcing him to stumble forward. He almost wanted to chuckle at the terrible lack of logic, at just how blatantly obvious it was that Bobby hadn’t a clue of why he wanted to fight. But instead he weighted the sword with his hand, preparing himself for bobby to turn around, holding it ready at an angle in front of him, pointed towards his aggressor.
Bobby turned around stumbling and swinging, his makeshift cudgel tracing an inexpert arc through the air. Cameron caught it on the flat of his blade, shoving back as the recoil hit, running down the tool, lending his defensive stance into a shove.
His opponent grunted and took a step back, but landed his boot hard and turned the force into a grounding push. Bobby was a better unarmed opponent, so he didn’t know how to use his cudgel, but Cam had seen before that his footwork wasn’t too bad. Also, he was strong, as the tingling down Cam’s arm reminded him.
“That all you got?” Bobby demanded, taking another swing, this one a bit more controlled but still very obviously telegraphed. Cameron blocked again, putting his palm on the back side of the flat of it, bracing for the blow, and then letting the force of it, landing along his right side, tug him back, reaching forward with a foot to hook behind the ankle. Bobby found himself with his legs splitting, as Cameron stumbled back on his own, the unorthodox method breaking both of their guards. “This is fun!” he exclaimed, grinning even as he breathed slightly heavier from the exertion.
Breathing heavily, Bobby stumbled to regain his footing without straining his groin, an undignified maneuver that earned him laughter from a pair of women playing cards nearby.
“Shut up!” He barked, red-faced. “Ye fookin’—ugh!” His frustration getting the better of him, Bobby lunged toward Cameron with the clumsiest attack yet, an overhead swing that let Cam slip beside it, bringing a heavy strike with the flat of it into Bobby’s ribs, eliciting an audible cracking noise.
“Awwwuuuooh! Fook!!” Bobby fell to the ground, writhing. “Aaah, ye fookin’ broke me rib!”
“Serves ye right, Bobby,” one of the card-playing women barked at him. “Ye shouldnae picked on Cameron wi’out yer boys.”
Cameron struggled to restrain a cocky grin, and instead spat on the ground near Bobby. The boy looked so pitiful like that. He averted his eyes, and slipped the sword back in his belt. “Better get that looked at, not that they can really do much fer ya.” he grumbled. He paused on his feet, poised to begin another step, but thinking instead.
He changed his mind. He didn’t help Bobby up.
“Hey, Owens,” a voice said from behind him. He turned and spotted the smirking face of Abel Marks, one of the liaisons who acted as a go-between for the tent city and the administrative offices. Abel looked, if anything, like a stereotypical washingtonian, the kind you’d see being interviewed on television. Brown skin and eyes, black curly hair, average height and build, attractive but not celebrity attractive. He’d been one of the only friendly faces associated with NW admin that Cam had seen so far. “If you’re done playing with Bobby, I’ve lined up a preliminary screening session for you.”
Cam nodded, narrowing his eyes habitually as he looked at the ground. “Okay.” He kicked a bit of dirt on the ground, away from Bobby, before looking back up. “When?”
“Either right now, or tomorrow same time. Or next week.”
“Let’s go.” he grunted as affirmation, wondering idly what they’d think of the bokken. He stretched his arms over and behind him with a relieved sigh as his back popped. He hoped the fights weren’t a bad impression. He did his best to defuse them when he could.
“You’re pretty good for that thing, for somebody with no certs,” Abel said, giving an appreciative glance back at Cameron as he led the way. “Once you’re inside, you’ll need to brawl a little less, but that’s cuz you’re be carrying around the real thing. I mean, if that’s the way you want to go.”
“I’m just gettin by. I’ll probably grab a cert or two, I hear there are some jobs that appreciate armed employees. Gives a sense of security or something.” Cam replied, brushing off the compliment. “I only fight when i have to.”
“Armed or unarmed, having martial and magic certification needs to be the first thing you do once you get inside. Actually,” Abel turned and walked backward for a few paces as they approached the looming outer wall of the border. “If this prelim goes all right, I can probably set you up with some advanced applications. You still got that old handshell I gave you?”
Being reminded of the little rectangular computing device made Cam suddenly aware of its weight in his pocket. It was a generous thing of Abel to lend; the tent city’s proximity to New Washington proper meant that with a little bit of scouting, Cameron could access the city’s data network, doing research and advance paperwork—oh right, they called it ‘shellwork’ here.
Cameron nodded, glancing back at Abel. “Yeah. I can do that, if you know a place with connection to work. If not I guess I could scout around.” he murmured thoughtfully. They walked at a steady, even pace to the border, the dirt giving way to flat polycrete pavement.
“I don’t know of a place off the top of my head,” Abel said, pressing his hand against a sensor pad. A large security door let out a noisy buzz and started raising itself slowly. “But there are programs you can get into. I’ll forward you some stuff you can look into. This is why I like you, Owens, you actually do your homework. Like no offense but a lot of y’all from the forest settlements really hate having to do research and just don’t bother, and that’s why you’ve got some families who’ve been waiting out there for like a year or more.”
Cam ground his teeth slightly, and nodded as his response, not agreeing or affirming, only acknowledging. “Sounds worth looking into. The programs I mean.” he couldn’t help but let his eyes follow the door as it raised itself, eyeing the technology. It was rather painful to see the stark divide between the tent city and the walled city fall away, leaving at least, for now, the tent city and its view of the natural world behind.
Abel led him through halls and doors, further and further in under artificial full-spectrum light crystals that shone more sunny than the real sun outside. Until now, Cameron had only been to a field office located on the outside of the wall, and had assumed that the wall itself was a monolithic piece of architecture, but as he found himself led up two flights of stairs, he realized that the entire wall must be a reinforced building, a skyscraper that stretched along the edge of the city.
He wasn’t even inside the city yet and its technology had already surprised him.
“In here,” Abel said, opening a door and following Cam through it. There was a modest waiting room, a few people of mixed subspecies and race reading magazines or flipping through their handshells. “They’ll call you when they’re ready. Once you’re done, don’t leave, cuz I still have to lead you out of the wall. Just sit tight and I’ll be back in an hour.”
Cam nodded, taking a seat and crossing his legs, his face firm and emotionless. His mind was running, however, thinking about how to pass the time. He had a handshell at least to tinker with, and even with his lack of experience he found his way to the certification sites. Started downloading course info, files on how to study.
The quiet didn’t last. A little figure came through the door, padded over to the chair next to Cam, and vaulted up into the seat. The figure had a long, pointed nose, sharp fangs, and dull grey-green skin. A goblin—an adolescent one, by her facial features, build… and acne. She was wearing a pair of overalls, and the model of shell she had in her front pocket was significantly bulkier than the one Cam had.
“Oh hey! You readin’ about certs? I’m studying that stuff too!”
Cameron nodded, gathering his thoughts, eyeing the stranger carefully. “Yeah.” he worked into a stale smile. “Wanna work together?” he asked, unsure of her intentions.
“Sure!” The stranger chirped. “I mean, I ain’t looking for melee certifications like you, but a lot of the programs you can apply for cover multiple subjects. If you gimme yer ether address, I can send you what I have links to! See, I got friends on the inside.” She winked, then extended a hand. “Name’s Skurk, by the way!”
Cameron took the hand, held that smile as best he could. “Cam. Can you show me how to get my ether address?” he asked, letting the smile fall into slight confusion. He was out of his depth here.
“Oh sure! Take outcher shell, lemme see the model.” She peered at it with little beady eyes and nodded. “Hokay, just hold the two top buttons on either side and it’ll go into handshake mode. Then I’ll do the same—” she pulled out her own handshell and pressed a few buttons, and a little chime came from Cam’s shell just as a remix airhorn sounded from Skurk’s.
“There! Now you got my info, and I got yours!” She beamed.
Cam brushed his thumb over the screen, reading the info, as meaningless to him as it was. Skurk. He committed the name to memory as best he could, blinking his eyes closed and slipping the shell back into his pocket. “How long you been waiting to get in.” he tilted his head, gesturing weakly toward the inner parts of the city.
She laughed a little nervously and lowered her voice. “Technically I’m already in,” she murmured. “I’m an undocumented resident, you know? So I gotta go real slow, real careful. I been working on getting my Thaumomorph Citizenship for a year and a half.” She put a chubby hand up to her long, pointed nose and bent its tip downward, the gesture clearly an unconscious habit. “Shouldn’t be so long for you. You’re a zoomorph, right? That’s a registered subspecies, so you can attain full citizenship. Monsters like me can’t do that.”
Cam winced at that, then reached over, putting a hand on Skurk’s shoulder. “Not a monster. And it sounds like you’re on top of things, you’re ahead of me at least.” a reassuring smile.
“Eh, I’m reclaiming it.” Skurk smirked and shrugged. “Just as long as you inerts don’t use it for me. And yeah, I ain’t too worried. You shouldn’t be, neither, especially not with my help. If you’re just waiting bored out there, there’s lots you c’n do. Subsidized housing, subsidized education, expedited shellwork. You’ll be good.”
A staff member opened the door and looked around. “Cameron Owens?”
Cameron couldn’t help but let his cat ears perk up, towards the calling of his name. He cursed the habit mentally, slipping to his feet. “That’s me.” he called back, albeit quieter than the staff member had. He turned back to Skurk. “Seeya around, alright?” he said.
“Sure thing! Good luck in there, Cam!”
Skurk was still waving at him as he turned around and walked into the hall, toward his appointment.
ONE WEEK LATER
Well, that was odd. Usually there was an exclamation point at the end of Bobby’s sentences, particularly when greeting Cameron. But when Cam set his rationed meal down on the outdoor table surface and turned around, the hulking scotsman wasn’t holding a cudgel—he was holding a sheaf of paper and a pen.
“You, eh.” Bobby seemed to be having trouble thinking how to phrase what he wanted to say next. “Ye done rather a lot o’ paperwork, hain’t ye.”
Cameron let an eyebrow raise, rising to his feet smoothly, matching Bobby’s stance, mirroring him, albeit, crossed arms instead of a bunch of paper. “That’s what it takes to get out of here.” he grunted as affirmation.
Bobby mumbled something indistinct, shuffling the papers in his hand. He then cleared his throat and repeated himself, barely loud enough to hear. “Ken ye help me wi’ t.”
Cam blinked, eyes widened slightly. He sat back down, took another bite of his meal, and, while chewing, he patted the bench beside him.
“I’ll see what you can do, but you better stay off my ass from now on, kay?” he said, his voice no longer in a fighting voice, in a pleasant one instead.
“Fook. Fine.” His face stormy but body language resigned, Bobby sat down and they started to work. It was a mess, of course; Bobby had printed out more forms than he needed, and given up when he realized that some of them had contradictory information on them. After about an hour, the two of them had successfully torn up all the forms that didn’t need to be completed, and sorted out most of the information that Bobby had found confusing.
By the time Abel showed up and beckoned Cameron over, Bobby no longer seemed nearly so anxious, and even offered a ducked head and a “thanks” to Cam as he shuffled away with the sheaf of paper clutched to his chest.
Cameron turned in his chair, resting his back to the table now, looking up at Abel. “What’s up?” he asked quietly, reaching back to pick up the remains of his food’s packaging. He nodded to Bobby as he retreated away as parting, his hands too full to wave.
“You available right now?” Abel jerked a thumb back toward the wall. “I got a council member from Precinct Nine who’s debuting a new visa program, and I recommended you.”
Cameron stood up, tossing the trash into the receptacle, and then wiped his hands on his jeans, then his face, trying not to look quite so tired. “Yeah. yeah I can do that.” he said, his voice calculated, restraining his exhaustion from sneaking into it. “Let’s go.”
“Good. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but the way things are politically, being accepted means getting moved in really fast. P9 is a very nice neighborhood, and it leans left-wing in terms of constituency. Diversity initiatives poll well. Not to be too mercenary, but that can be a huge advantage for someone like you.”
Cameron nodded quietly, eyes closed, rubbing a bit of tiredness out of his eyes still. “Sounds like a plan.” then he paused, opened his eyes after a moment. “What’s wrong with mercenaries?” he asked.
“Nothin’,” Abel shrugged, “but as an adjective, it kinda means… ruthless? But you kinda have to be a little ruthless to get by, don’t you? Less in P9 than elsewhere, maybe. Anyway.”
Abel led Cameron into the wall again, through a maze of hallways, up stairs, tracing a different path even further in. Finally, he led Cameron into a room with a large conference table. It was odd: clearly made of plastic, but with a veneer on top that made it look like wood.
On the other side of the table was a tall, slender, dark-skinned elven woman who inclined her head to Cameron and gestured to a seat across from her.
“Mr. Owens? I am Councillor Parsley. Please take a seat; let’s talk.”
Cameron nodded, nearly a bow, then sat down. “Cameron is just fine, too.” he offered, sitting and looking across at the woman, letting himself rest a little back against the chair, hands in his lap.
“All right, and you may call me Avee,” the woman said. “I’ve been reviewing your shellwork and details, and I must say that for someone who has not had a career opportunity, you are a very hard worker.”
Cameron shrugged. “It’s what you do if you really want something.” he stated, eyeing the strangers face. “…But thanks. I try.”
“Well, why don’t you tell me about why you want to become a New Washingtonian, Cameron?” The Councillor laced her fingers, setting both hands on the table together. “Let’s hear your story.”
Cam did his best not to frown. “Uh. Work. Certifications.” he cleared his throat, putting a hand to his head, scratching softly, thinking. He did his best to not look frayed at the edges. “I’ve always wanted to live in a city.” he admitted, smiling weakly. “Even the tent city was better than the middle of nowhere, for me, I guess. So.. that’s that. Get a job, learn, work..” another pause, almost a sigh of a breath. “Live.”
“You don’t sound particularly excited about the prospect,” Parsley said, tipping her head a bit to the side.
He chuckled slightly. “I’m sorry if I sound as tired as I am. Long day. I am very excited. Things seem to finally be moving quickly now. I..” he met her eyes. “I don’t have words for how much this matters to me.” he said, his eyes intense, emotion filtering through that forced face of calmness.
“Fair enough,” she replied, smiling slightly. “What kind of work do you see yourself doing in the city, Cameron?”
Cameron raised his hand, kind of gesturing beneath the table to lift the bokken at his waist up into sight. “Mercenary work, is what I aim for.” he said, then lowering the sword so as to not look threatening. “Till then, whatever I can do to get by, shit jobs, I don’t really care.” he said, doing his best not to shrug and look noncommittal about it.
“Hmm.” She nodded thoughtfully, tapping her chin with one forefinger. “You’re a bit rough around the edges, but that’s to be expected, and that may actually be more believable for the program. The shareholders won’t be expecting you to come in knowing how to hold a Tea gathering. Fine. Cameron, can you be ready to move in three days?”
He nodded, without a pause even to think. He didn’t own much anyway, and what he did was easy to move. “Of course, What time?” he asked.
“We’d love to have you in your temporary housing by eight o’ clock on Friday morning. We have partnerships with several local companies, and your precertification shellwork means you’ll be eligible for a job within a week of being moved in. We can only partially subsidize your rent, but the temporary housing will keep you until you have your first paycheck. Does that sound all right?”
He nodded, shifting in his chair slightly before speaking. “Sounds just fine. Anything else you need from me?” he asked, still looking at her head on, directly. Eye contact was powerful, his father had once told him. The Councillor’s eyes were so dark, he could barely distinguish her pupil from iris.
“Not at this time.” She offered him a smile that didn’t quite reach those dark eyes. “Welcome to New Washington, Mr. Owens.”
As he was being led back, Cameron found himself unconsciously hesitating in front of a locked door. He felt odd, as if a cold breeze had just blown over him, and he could swear he heard whispering.
Abel turned back to look at him. “Hey, you all right?” His voice sounded so distant in that moment.
“Uh. yeah, yeah.” he said, turning away even as he stepped forward, looking at that door a little closer. There was no sign or number on the door, which made it stand out from the others. He wondered if the AC had just flipped on.
“They don’t let us in there,” Abel said with a small smirk. “Rumors say that there was some kind of violent incident and they boarded it up rather than trying to repurpose the room. Customs is low on funds and we have a lot of rooms in the wall, so some empty ones are likely in the first place.”
Cam nodded, gathering his wits and following again, patting Abel on the back. “Ghost stories, huh?” he asked, faking a grin. He didn’t believe it, honestly. It must have been the AC, or a draft.
“That’s what they say. But the department isn’t willing to hire a medium, so I guess we’ll never know until we get more funding.” Abel winked and kept walking. “C’mon, I imagine you have to say goodbye to your refugee friends.”
Cameron followed, nodding as the only reply. He wondered what a medium was, but chose not to ask.
FOUR DAYS LATER
Cameron sighed, took a moment before turning, gathering his wits about him. It was getting really impossible to be nice to Bobby, what with that nickname every five seconds. Finally he turned around, his voice even and composed. “Yes?”
“Hear yer gettin’ in.” Bobby’s voice was flat, his face stormy. Cam felt his body tense unconsciously, ready for the man to throw a punch.
“Yeah.” he grunted, pulling one hand out of the pocket it had rested in, not yet bringing his hands up into a fighting stance, but on hand on each hip, high enough to block whatever came next.
“Mn,” Bobby grunted. For a few seconds, only tension hung in the air. Several tent city dwellers turned to stare at them, unsure whether violence was about to break out but not wanting to miss it in any case.
Finally, Bobby spoke. “Best stay safe. They use real weapons in there. If ye get killed before I make it in, I’ll kick yer ass.”
Cam couldn’t help but chuckle. “Take care, Bobby. Hope for the best for you too.” he said, shoving both hands into his pockets again to emphasize that he wasn’t here to fight himself, turning to walk back to his humble tent.
“Might kick yer ass anyway!” He barked to Cam’s retreating back. “If y’still deserve it!”
“Aww,” one of the other New K immigrants said as Cam walked by. “He likes you.”
Cam tried to hold his cocky grin inside, but he smirked a little despite it. He didn’t answer Bobby, trusting him, even if he didn’t deserve that. He felt his bokken bob against his arm as he moved, reminding him that he could fight, even if he had made the conscious decision not to.
“Hey, Owens!” Abel Marks yelled from the path to the wall. “Grab your shit, buddy, it’s just about time!”
Cameron turned back, finally, glancing past Bobby towards the city that would be soon his home. Everything was changing, and he couldn’t help but think it was for the better.