The cineplex stood like Babel, jutting up through the layered structures of the Uplift. Roads and alleyways snaked around it, sometimes darting out over the empty air to connect to one of its many entrances. Far below, underneath its anchor plate, the distant ground was a patch of barren dirt. Robbed of sunlight by the industry overhead, it was inhabited by nothing save the occasional animal or surface tribal looking for a clear, dark place to set up a campfire.
In contrast, the cineplex swarmed with life. It was not the first of its kind in New Hartford, but it was certainly the grandest. Owned and operated by Crowe Media, it had exclusive first-rights to their in-house productions. The other companies swarmed like pecking birds around import films, quibbling over anything that landed outside the Crowe umbrella, but they had already lost the battle for New Hartford.
Crowe had something that none of the other local companies had the equipment to screen.
It had Flats.
Piper sat on the lip of the interpass, dangling his feet over the edge. The layered city stretched out above and below him, alive with light and noise.
A thick vapor-smog hung over the industrial roadways, where ground transports rolled and floated. It filtered up past light residential plates, shrouding the lower income houses in mist. Families moved though this like murky ghosts, stepping in and out of skyrail trollies, bound for jobs and schools and the houses of friends where the air was dry and cool.
Fifty meters below, on a scenic walkway, genefixed couples passed arm-in-arm. Piper imagined slipping off of the interpass, dropping through the rushing void, and landing in a tumble on the distant softcrete. Unconsciously, his tail shot out for balance.
If Public Sec caught him like this, he knew he was going to be looking at another talking-to. They couldn't do anything yet—anything other than reprimand him for his 'risky' behavior and tell him to move along—but he knew they were itching for the day when he came of majority and these misdemeanors could become a part of his permanent record. Defiantly, he kicked his feet against the rim. It wasn't his fault that someone had designed his bone structure for proper balance.
The chronostrip on his wrist beeped, drawing his eyes down to its screen. His shift was due to start in a couple of minutes. Heaving a sigh, he swept his legs back over to the safe side of the interpass railing and began the last leg of his hike to the cineplex.
"You look like a freak."
"Bite me." The costume had settled awkwardly on his shoulders, and he could feel its tail feathers clumping up behind him. It had not been designed for the shorter, thinner frame of a catsplice, and his face barely came up level with the hole in its parted beak. Obviously, the higher-ups thought this was hilarious, but mascot was the entry position for all new Crowe Cineplex employees, and he would suffer through it until he found a way to make them promote him.
Somewhere beyond his visual range, his coworker chuckled darkly. "Think you can make your way to the foyer on your own, or do you want me to walk you there?"
"I'll be fine." He took a step forward and stumbled, nearly pitching into the depths of the props closet.
"You sure about that?"
"Just hold the damn door for me. I can't work knobs with wings on."
"You got it, kid."
Somewhere in the upper distance, the top of a door swung open, and he shuffled out of the closet into brightness and noise.
Her name was Sara, and she was already regretting every second of her date.
It wasn't the way he treated her. By all possible standards, he was a perfect gentleman. He lived up-plate on a property with a garden, and he moved with a grace born of good breeding and careful habits. He spoke politely and with eloquence, and he treated her with exceptional respect.
A respect, in fact, that he did not extend to anyone else.
For the thirteenth time, she told herself that she was here to give him a chance.
Besides, she really wanted to see the Flats.
Ever since the rise of interactive holotheater, the old—ostensibly 3D—screens had fallen by the wayside. They were almost a lost technology. Why listen to a movie telling you what happened next when you could be calling the shots?
The answer, of course, was that you didn't go to a theater for the stories. You went there for the experience. You could catch any number of participatory dramas on your console at home.
Certain historical traditions had been preserved by the new 'flatiplex', and they were posted in informative lists on the walls. The theater was to be a big, communal space, with open rows of seating instead of private pods. You were encouraged to fraternize with the people next to you—although not to do so loudly—and you were expected to respond to the action on the screen as though you had some measure of false control over it. There would be deliberate prompts, projected discreetly onto the screen by the same antique technology used to display the Flat, and they would tell the audience when to clap or cheer. It was also appropriate at times to throw popped soysnacks.
It was the novelty of this that kept her going back.
How strange and communal people had been at the turn of the twenty first century, with no plates and company fiefs to segregate them.
Walking ahead of her, her date forged his way through the crowd to the edge of another quaint tradition: the ticket line.
"Try our new selection of holocomedies. They'll leave you Crowe-ing with laughter." Piper seethed as he said it, hating himself virulently, and imagining the kind of audience that this was meant to reach. Even unwashed tribals or low-plate trash would turn up their noses at corporate puns. The fact that some man in a distant boardroom had gotten triumphant high-fives and a pay raise for coming up with them only made things worse.
Cycling through his mental index of slogans, he picked the next one on the list. He could barely see out of the beak hole, and so he directed it universally, to the foyer at large. "Let your imagination take flight with our new Crowe flatdramas!"
Someone wandered by him on the invisible left, and he moved reflexively to the right. "Like romance? How about Crow-"
It was like being hit by a train. One moment, he was fine and vertical and stewing with inner angst, the next, he was on his back in a pile of limbs and feathers.
"Watch where you're going, bird."
He blinked. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me."
It was impossible to see the other man, thanks to the suit, but he could get a rough fix on his voice. "I don't think I did."
He could feel it, the other man leaning in. High up on his scalp, his ears flicked.
Piper lunged with both wings.
A crow was punching her date. This was probably bad PR. Her date was winning, of course, but then he was an intramural boxer. The crow was twisting and swinging to no effect. Feathers floated lazily in the air.
She decided she didn't want to be here anymore.
Walking up to the ticket counter, she selected a Flat at random and scanned her credit strap to pay for admission.
Behind her, security was dragging the crow away, and her date was red-faced and panting, trying and failing to find her in the crowd.
"You should consider yourself lucky that we're not pressing charges."
Piper dragged his signature over the fifth official-looking tablet screen, verifying the details of his suspension. He neither looked nor felt contrite. Inside the confines of the crow, his tail lashed angrily.
"We will also be deducting the costume from your pay."
He snorted. "Fine."
"Under normal circumstances, I would say that we regret your termination."
He was alone on the rail of the interpass again, just where he wanted to be. A passing breeze ruffled the feathers of his suit, and he let out a hearty sigh. Back to square one. Back to scraping and saving and praying.
He should have known it was too good to last.
"Um?" The voice took him by surprise.
Bracing his feet against the railing, he turned. Standing a few feet away was an enormous ecofoam hippopotamus with a girl inside it.
"Is this seat taken?" She smiled.
My friend's prompt for this story was "A small black cat named pippo has adventures in an attempt to get catnip and cat treats for a girl kitty hes trying to impress...but there's an evil crow king that wants to take her away."
I think I might have gotten a little off-base.