The sniper walked down the paths, looking around. Here, in the outer ring of the Arc he could see the true value of the Arcernment.
No value at all if they let these slums build up, these children starve, these communities exist. His anger burned within him, a hot coal for him to nurse. Burning, searing, pushing him towards his goal.
Not his goal to find and kill the artist, although that was still his immediate goal, but instead to find a way to someday escape his neural conditioning and destroy the Arcernment. Treasonous thoughts were, for some reason, not controlled like his artistic impulses were.
But it was idle thought. He could no more try and destroy the Arcernment than he could, right now, find the artist. She was well hidden down here, and he had lost her scent when she fell. he couldn’t pick it up again in the stench of the slums.
He settled down to wait for a few minutes, hoping that she may pass by hunting him. Eventually though he got up and walked back to the surface. He had a report to file, and he wanted to do it somewhere nicer than the slums.
As the artist fell she thought about why she had failed. She thought she knew.
She had tried to kill him with the guns. She had tried to ambush him and vanquish him before he even knew that she was there.
She had forsaken her art. But, if she could recapture her art then she would be able to kill him.
Yes. Yes! That must be it!
Her musings were broken when she broke her legs on landing. The pain was exquisite, but painful nonetheless.
She dragged herself to her feet through and began to walk. She could feel her implants beginning to fix the wounds, but that would take time, time that she didn’t have.
She gritted her teeth and continued to walk on shattered legs. Hopefully the blood trail would not lead the sniper to her, but there was little chance of that in the slums.
These slums were a mess. She knew that. The slum dwellers knew that. Everyone knew that. And nobody seemed to care.
Worse than Poletown itself, it was for the dregs of the dregs. Those who came to the Arc in search of a better life ended up here, in the ring spanning slum that held more people than the ring itself.
The artists shook her head. These poor people. She pitied them for they had nothing. Less than she even, as they did not have her art. She would never prey on these poor hopeless dregs for there was little art in that.
She had tried it before, but it had been unsatisfying. Although it did make them something better than what they were, it took from them any chance to make themselves better.
But those who already lived well, those who were rich, wealthy, powerful, well they had already made the most of themselves that they could, or deserved to. Then it was her turn to make something better.
She smiled at the thought, but the pain turned it into a grimace. Her legs were burning, fire, agony. But she could not stop. Not yet. She had to get to safety first.
She pulled out her paper map as she came to a junction between her small access catwalk and a larger walkway.
There was a name scrawled on the cabling by the catwalk, “Beggar’s Drift” Pleasant.
But it allowed her to get her bearings. She turned the map one way, then the other, and compared it to the digital map she had stashed in her bag.
She would be able to find the first safehouse without much trouble.
She pushed out into the crowd flowing by, and joined it. No need to make things harder than they already were.
She was jostled from side to side as the slums pressed in on her. Dirty people, children in rags, women and men with the haggard look of those who had not eaten in days, people with weapons everywhere, dogs barking, howling.
As she had thought originally, chaos, and pity. But there was a life here too, a life that was lacking elsewhere in the Arc.
The people here knew that each day truly could be their last, and so lived life to the fullest. Here you would find no heady excesses, no indulgences in drugs and vices for the people were too poor for that, but you would find other kinds of beauty.
Art. Singers, poets, sculptors abounded. For a pittance you could hear another damned soul sing of his past, her future, his addiction, her lost love, and so on and so forth.
Poetry was read on the corners for the hopes of a tossed coin, and often gathered large crowds. Those lucky enough to have some kind of instrument kept backup with shotguns at the ready whenever they performed, but their music was beautiful beyond compare, haunting in its raw pain and reality.
The sculptors and artists worked with what mediums they could, making beauty of discarded cables, spent shells, even corpses sometimes. Paintings were rendered in blood on dried skin. But it was so beautiful.
To her artistic soul it had been a heaven in the past. And free of the corruption of the upper levels. This was another reason why she did not make art here. These were artists of another kind, and she would not take their art from the world. She would instead give them her own art to see, but made of the oppressors, of the ones who kept the people down.
Finally she came to the safehouse. It was crawling with rats, and likely full of lice, but it had been deemed safe. When she showed the token she had been given to grant admittance she was led to a bunk in a cubby where she could have her privacy. The cubby was thankfully free of rats, bugs, and pests of any kind that she could see.
As she crawled in and lay down to rest and allow her leg time to heal she found an unexpected moment of pleasure. She would visit artists in the morning and find her art again. Then she would be ready to kill the sniper.
She fell asleep to the pain of her leg bones re-knitting, her flesh being grafted and spun, and a smile on her face.
The sniper spun and fired. The dogs trailing him yelped and ran. He would not kill dogs, no matter how wretched they were.
He sighed to himself as he got to the train platform and saw the special Arcernment railcar. There was to be no waiting tonight. Resigned he stepped through the doors which whooshed shut after him.
The car was empty save for a bunk, a desk, and a large screen transmission that doubled as a computer monitor, The keyboard would be at the desk. As the doors closed the screen blinked on with a message.
Await further instruction. Do not leave the car. Do not go to sleep. Await further instruction.
The sniper sighed again and sat down on the bunk. He pulled out his rifle and began to clean it. It needed to be orderly, perfect. It was the only thing that he could make perfect, that he could really control.
The screen flashed to life a few minutes later, the face of the Director filling the wall. The bags under his eyes were still there, but he could not see if the cuff stain was. He was likely wearing a different shirt a day later anyways.
“Jor. What is the status of the mission. You discharged bullets at two separate times, and we found bodies at a location that you stopped for some time. How do you explain this?” His stern face glared at the sniper.
“Director” he bowed “I had to deal with several local toughs. To avoid the fight I would have had to turn over my rifle. Further, the incident will create a reputation, and I will not be troubled again. I could have defeated them without killing, but then I would have been seen as weak, and would have been accosted again when they returned with greater numbers, resulting in greater loss of life.
“As for the bullets I was being stalked by several feral dogs. I thought it best to avoid killing and so discharged a bullet into the ground to scare them off. That was the second occasion I discharged my rifle.
“The first occasion was when the rogue found me. She had visited a chop shop to have have her implants improved. I underestimated her new abilities and she managed to catch me by surprise. I fired upon her, but she managed to avoid the shots. If I had not been on the defensive then I would have killed her. The shots caused her to fall into the Outer Ring. I believe that she may have been injured there, but could not follow her at the time. I will not underestimate her again sir”
The Director stared at him considering.
“You have not failed us in the past Jor. See that you do not do so this time. If you do not have her within two days I am sending a team of operatives to assist you. Report back here or to your nearest rail station to meet them”
“Director, sir, respectfully I do not need-”
“You will have a team of operatives to assist you if you cannot handle this by yourself. Do you understand?”
The sniper swallowed his words and nodded.
“Of course sir. She is tricky, and has many tricks that we have not seen before. Assistance from a team will be helpful”
“Excellent. Remember your place Jor. It would not do for you to get above yourself or to make a false move, especially now at this critical juncture. You will not fail the Arcernment in this. We must look good during the coming times”
The sniper bowed his head “Of course sir. I will not fail you”
“See that you don’t” the connection was cut and the screen was blank again.
The sniper sat back down and stared at the screen.
Was he slipping? He had never been assigned a team as backup before. Or was it just that important a mission? And why did the Arcernment need to look good right now?
All good questions, and no answers.
He could control his weapons. How well they worked, whether or not they were clean. That he could control.He picked up the pieces of his rifle and began to clean them again.