(1) Still Human
Aaron Quinn stretched, frustration quickly taking hold. He stared blankly at the empty reports in front of him. The words gazed back ominously. Missing boy. Stolen amps. Vandalism at Reagan square. Aaron flipped through the paperwork anxiously. He already had so much on his plate; he was going to have to work some major overtime. Before Aaron's could engage in further self-pity, a voice interrupted.
"Hey Quinn! Maybe if you'd just give in and buy some of them new-edition finger amps, you could finish your report easier."
The teasing voice prompted Aaron to look over his shoulder. Sgt. Hannigan, chuckling, stared back at him. Barry Hannigan was a large, balding man with a fiery personality, and an even fierier appetite.
"But then I wouldn't have no excuse not to do my work," Aaron responded with a slight smile.
Hannigan winked, took a sip of his beer and let out an impressive burp.
"You're such a damn prude, I swear." said Lt. Manderly from across the room. "Lemme tell ya, just last week…" Manderly paused. "Was it two weeks ago? Last Tuesday was the 7th, yea? Anywho, the time doesn't really matter. Although, if my memory serves, it was last week. Anywho-"
"Jesus Christ Manderly," said Aaron. "Spit it out man."
Manderly looked down, almost as if the words had thoroughly exhausted him. "Asshole," he muttered, as he swiveled his chair away from the conversation.
"You were saying?" Aaron said, once again turning his attention towards Hannigan.
"I was just sayin' man, I aint kiddin, amps'll make your life a breeze," Hannigan said, as he lifted his amplified hand above the desk table. This specific amp, a skin colored prosthetic, was manufactured to increase arm strength, finger movement, and general reflexes. Hannigan had gotten it installed a few years earlier, and hadn't stopped raving about it since.
Aaron let out a dramatic grunt. "Not really my thing. My body's fine how it is, thanks."
Hannigan appeared disappointed by his answer, but remained inquisitive nonetheless. "One day I'm gonna getcha to tell me why you're so against em, I promise ya that. How about tonight, over some beers?"
Aaron, having decided to do his work the following day, stood up, gathered his badge and papers, and put on his favorite black leather jacket. "Maybe another time old friend."
As Aaron walked out of Precinct 3C, Hannigan shrugged. "Fool," he murmured under his breath. "Boy don't know what he's missing."
Aaron drudged through the streets of Spectorum city, the sound of rain doing nothing to quiet the bustling alleyways. This specific area, the Lucis District, was a beautiful mess. The Spectorum streets were originally made with an almost clear-red, glass-like substance, but time had transformed them into a less than attractive, murky pathway. Tall, menacing buildings encased the walkways, providing a claustrophobic aura to the already suffocating Spectorum air. Trash was frequent, so much so that it had practically become a quality of the city. Tattered clothes, mechanical parts, and smashed bottles littered the crowded streets. Aaron liked to joke that it gave the city some much needed "character", but the sight of the piled-up trash was more disheartening than funny. The city officials could not afford the cleanup, so trashy it remained.
Neon signs and billboards kept the gloomy boulevards alight, featuring ads for edition 4.9 leg amps, as well as for TekPost's new hit snack: cheesy toasters. Aaron's stomach growled, but the vibrations of a nearby Cosmo train reminded him of his destination, and he continued on his way.
As he walked, he came upon a crowd of people gathered around a small fire. They appeared to be listening to a young, bionic girl who was singing a song. Aaron stopped for a moment, entranced by the emotion of the performer. She could not have been more than 8 years old, yet amps covered her face, disfiguring her youth. A 7th edition eye amp, mouth amps created for the purpose of voice projection, and what appeared to be some type of amp on the back of her head spoiled the majority of her appearance. It was extremely unlikely that those amplifications were her own choice. Aaron grimaced, but continued listening.
"Hopeless, spirit wavers more and more
Hopeless, listen all, here and far
Hoping, pleading for an easy life
Is it living, with all this strife?"
"Oh, what am I really now?
Momma and pop left anyhow
At least, at least I have me
I'm still human don't you see?"
Aaron knelt down in front of the girl, dropping a coin into the paper bag sitting beside her.
"Can I help you?" Aaron asked quietly. "I'm a police officer."
The girl looked down at him. With tears in her eyes, she shook her head, continuing her sad song. Aaron paused for a moment, gave the young singer a melancholy smile, and stood up. As Aaron walked away, the child's voice echoed through the narrow alleyway.
Aaron crossed into Vilus district in a matter of minutes. As he walked, his hands stiffened and his eyes began to dart across passing faces. He instinctively reached for his pockets, making sure nothing had been removed. Deep breaths. He was almost there. Aaron squinted his eyes, noticing a shadow creeping closer and closer from behind. He began to walk faster. The shadow followed suit, growing larger and larger. He had never been followed, not like this. What could they want? Was it money? Information? It didn't matter. He had trained for this.
"Enough," he said, muttering to himself.
Aaron turned quickly, the maneuver causing his jacket to flutter upwards. "Whoever you are, step out of the shadows with your hands where I can see em," Aaron shouted confidently. "That's your only warning." Aaron paused. The sound of rain hitting his jacket echoed throughout the street. Nothing. Aaron stayed perfectly still, his breathing remaining focused and steady. Still nothing. Was the threat gone? Was there anything there to begin with?
"Jesus, I need some shut eye." Aaron said, turning around, slightly embarrassed. "Damn city's got me on edge."
Suddenly, he felt the sensation of a hand on his shoulder. "Who-" Aaron whipped his head around.
"Hey pal, you interested in some tech?" whispered a passerby, his face showing off the exact amplifications he was selling.
"Sneaky bastard! Give a bloke some warning next time ya creep up on em like that. Jesus! What do ya want?"
The passerby's amplified eye gleamed as water droplets rolled down its glass cover. "I got some cheap tech, much cheaper than anything you'll find anywhere else. High quality stuff too, won't break or nothin. Unity scouts honor." He held his fist to his chest as if to salute.
Aaron rolled his eyes. "Not interested. I aint even gonna ask if you have a license to sell that crap," Aaron stated. He flashed his badge impatiently.
The passerby's face went as red as the neon liquor sign dangling above him. "I, uh-" he stuttered, before slinking back into the alleyway.
Aaron sighed. Those types were common. The demand for amps was at an all-time high; practically everyone had them. Unfortunately, the black-market followed suit, and illegal amplification trading became the norm. Black-market amps became cheaper, more accessible, and as a result, more popular. Most likely, about half the city had some form of illegal body amplification, and there was hardly anything anyone could do to regulate it.
Aaron sighed again, louder this time. "Damn amp vendors, gonna be the death of me." Aaron continued walking, his jacket flapping in the wind. Good thing he was almost home; it was freezing.
Aaron's apartment, a former "Melk Motel", was not much, but it provided him with a much-needed place to unwind and think. Compared to the majority of Spectorum, he lived like a king; a clean bed, a working stove, and plenty of space to keep his work paraphernalia organized. He kept pictures and details from his numerous cases on the far wall, along with awards and trinkets. Blue and silver ribbons celebrating marksmanship, valor, and resiliency laced the upper wall. Next to his work stood a singular closet, meant to store nostalgic keepsakes from his life before Precinct 3C.
Aaron forcefully threw his jacket on a nearby chair. Something had been bugging him. He opened the white closet door, grimacing in expectation.
The closet was mostly empty, the only object of substance acting as the centerpiece of the space. A large, drawn picture of a jaguar stared outwardly, inviting him forward. It's eyes, a menacing red color, never failed to send chills down Aaron's spine. A symbol of his past, one that he had obsessed over for years. His decision was made.
"No longer," Aaron whispered, ripping the picture off the wall. As he buried the jaguar under trash from the day before, tears ran down Aaron's face. It was time to let his past go. He hadn't uncovered a lead in years. Aaron closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and shuffled to his bed. He picked up the glass of water placed neatly on his nightstand, popped two SleepyG's into his mouth, and took a long swig of water. "Just one good sleep, Aaron," he remarked to himself, half joking. It had been quite a while since he had one of those. Aaron closed his eyes, and quickly fell asleep.
It was not a good sleep.
Per usual, there were cages. Rows of them lined the shadowy basement. Children huddled for warmth, banging on their crates desperately. One cage in particular contained a young girl and two boys. The larger boy sat in the middle of the crate, perfectly still. The scrawnier boy, standing directly next to the girl, let out a whimper.
"Shush," she said. "Or he'll hear you."
The boy looked at her, tears falling down his face. "There's gotta be a way out, there's got to!" cried the boy, louder than intended.
Upon hearing her cellmate, the young girl flinched in anticipation of what was to come.
Thwap! The young boy squealed in pain.
The girl looked away.
Thwap! Thwap! The crack of the whip silenced the rest of the children.
Thwap! Thwap! Thwap! Thwap!
The sound of the whip stopped, followed by the thud of the boy hitting the ground. It was over.
As the shrouded figure walked away from the cage, the girl sat down and cradled the boy in her arms. He was paralyzed by the pain, his mouth able to produce nothing but a light moan.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," the girl remarked, rolling her eyes.
He groaned again, a little louder this time.
"It's ok," she said, doubt filling her voice. "We've got each other. That means I'll help you whenever you're hurt."
The larger boy remained still in the middle of the room, unable to react. The girl's words ran through his head.
"Stop," the large boy said, his voice remaining steady. "Please stop. You don't even know him. You don't know anything. None of us do." The boy stood up. "Just shut up. Please. This nightmare isn't going to end. It's not going to end."
His voice began to fade.
"It's pointless, it can't end. It won't. What's even the point, this is a nightmare, it just-"
Then there was silence.
"Oooegh," Aaron wheezed, the impact of the mechanical blow leaving him gasping for air. He snarled, wiping sweat out of his eyes. Aaron glared at the perpetrator. The man had begun to sprint away, the yellow bottoms of his shoes clearly visible. "Damnit." He jumped to his feet, wobbling as he landed. Aaron paused, took a moment to recuperate, then set off after his assailant.
The man he was chasing after, Rico Valdi, was a potential accomplice in an ongoing investigation involving human trafficking. Valdi had been spotted in a few suspicious places at some very suspicious times, and Aaron had decided to stop by his apartment in order to ask him a few questions. Valdi hadn't liked that very much. His dissatisfaction was made known, and a sucker punch to the gut swiftly followed.
"That was dirty," Aaron mumbled. His stomach still ached, and his ego didn't feel much better. Aaron, seeing Valdi a few meters in front of him, swiftly cut into any alleyway to his left. Valdi's current trajectory would run him straight into a construction team working on a large pothole, a rut caused by a quake earlier that week. He would have no choice but to be forced to his left, giving Aaron an opportunity to cut him off. All Aaron had to do was run really, really fast or he would lose his opportunity.
"Move it," Aaron said, encouraging his body to move even faster. He gritted his teeth. The frigid wind burned Aaron's face, but he ignored the pain. It was now or never. He drifted into an alley to his right, zigzagging through a group of well-dressed women. One of the women screamed, but Aaron had no time to apologize. He continued running, his heart thrashing in his chest. He hadn't run this hard since his days in the academy. Aaron stopped suddenly, his feet skidding across the glass street as he came to a halt. He had arrived at a crossroad. He looked up at the neon sign hanging above him. Darius street. Perfect. Not too much further. Aaron panted, looked down at the ground, and then picked up his pace once again, nearly tripping over an overflowing trash can resting on the curb.
"Hey buddy, slow down," yelled a passing heckler.
"Where's he going in such a hurry?" another asked. "There aint nothing that important to get to in this city, I'm tellin ya."
"He sure is runnin fast. Leg amps ya think?"
"Probably. I think I'd be runnin that fast if I had some of them, woo boy them things are neat."
Aaron, after what felt like hours, arrived at his destination. The alley was lined with trash cans. Many, along with their contents, was strewn across the glass road. Aaron folded his arms and leaned up against the alley wall, using the moment as a chance to rest. Now all he had to do was wait.
Valdi dipped into the alleyway less than a minute later. "You," Valdi sneered, noticing Aaron. "How did you-"
"Listen pal," Aaron interjected. "I am in a VERY bad mood. A bad mood that you are responsible for." Aaron flashed a forced smile. "But it's nothing to worry about really, cause it's your lucky day. You turn yourself in, my bad mood goes away. How about it?"
Aaron exhaled. "That good cop crap never seems to work, does it," He said, scratching his head. "Oh well."
As Valdi put his fists up in a boxing position, Aaron examined his enemy. He was a large man; Aaron would be at a serious disadvantage up close. Valdi only had one amp, the speedy mechanical arm that had surprised him earlier. The arm was a pain, but it wasn't unbeatable. He just had to be smart.
"Come here, you dog," snarled Valdi, as he raised his amplified left arm. He leaped at Aaron, extending his mechanical fist. Aaron took a step back, narrowly dodging the punch. He raised his arm rapidly. Valdi punched again. The blow grazed Aaron's arm, stinging. Valdi, feinting a jab, instead came at Aaron's head. Aaron ducked, slipping out of Valdi's range.
"You're a slippery one," taunted Valdi, obviously pleased with himself.
The two men stared at each other for a few seconds, reading their opponents. Aaron retaliated first. He charged at Valdi, faking a frontal assault. Aaron, ducking under Valdi's outstretched arms, dropped into a slide. He had dodged Valdi's attack! Now it was Aaron's turn to take the offensive. Two jabs to the sides did the trick, then one to the back of the head. Valdi stumbled forwards, his flailing body knocking over a trash can and spilling all of its contents. Aaron backed off, regaining his composure.
"You are nothing," said Valdi, visibly staggered by the exchange.
"Keep talking big guy. That mouth won't be moving sooner or-"
Valdi leaped forward, this time quicker than the instance before. Aaron, surprised by Valdi's speed, fell backwards, landing directly on his butt. Valdi, taking advantage, jumped on Aaron, pinning him down.
"Get. The Hell. Off. Of. Me," said Aaron, blocking his face with his arms.
Valdi grinned. "You are puny!" Valdi's mechanical arm came down on Aaron. "A puny little man." Another punch. And another. "A puny, little man with no tech!" Valdi lifted his head up, engrossed by laughter. As he did, his necklace pendant flew out of his shirt, dangling in front of Aaron.
"No-" Aaron let out, overwhelmed by the offensive. As Valdi slammed Aaron's arms harder and harder, Aaron felt his defense slipping.
"Give up," laughed Valdi.
"No, stop, I-" Aaron pleaded.
"Heugh," Valdi grunted, putting the momentum of his entire body into his amped arm.
The hit paralyzed Aaron, dropping his arms down to his sides. He was wide open. One more punch like that and it was over. He desperately reached behind him, praying for his hands to find anything of use. As he reached, he felt a cold, metal object. Aaron frantically took hold of the object, placing it between himself and Valdi's oncoming fist.
"What the-" Valdi said, his hand denting the metal trash can lid protecting Aaron's face. Aaron slowly lowered the lid, surprised by his luck. As he lowered his eyes, Valdi's necklace pendant swung past Aaron's head, nearly hitting him. Aaron, seeing it for the first time, gawked at the pendant.
"What's your problem?" asked Valdi, surprised by Aaron's expression.
"Wha-" Aaron's face had gone pale, matching the color of the trash lid. "Where did you-" Aaron gulped. "Where did you get that pendant?"
Valdi squinted, the question visibly confusing him. "What the hell are you on about?"
Bam! The metal lid smashed Valdi's head, sending him sprawling across the ruby glass street.
"I said." Aaron stood up menacingly, hovering over Valdi. "Where did you get that pendant?" Spit flew out of Aaron's mouth, drenching Valdi's face and torso. Valdi, terrified by Aaron's sudden mood shift, began slowly scooting backwards.
"Man, s-s-stay awa-a-ay," stuttered Valdi.
Aaron's eyes remained glued on Valdi as he unclipped his revolver from his belt. "Don't make me ask again."
Valdi's eyes went wide. "Wait, no, stop!"
Aaron pointed the gun at Valdi. "So Valdi, what's it gonna be?"
Valdi remained wide eyed. He was taken aback by the man standing over him. He began to look around wildly, whipping his head back and forth. No exit. No where to go.
"What the hell! Man, I thought you were a cop!" shouted Valdi. The words caused Aaron to hesitate. He frowned. What was he doing?
"I-I am," stumbled Aaron, clipping the gun back on his belt. He paused. Then, without warning, Aaron moved forward, practically on top of his opponent. Valdi recoiled as Aaron bent down and took hold of the gold chain around his neck. As he tore, the chain snapped, leaving a red mark on Valdi's neck. Aaron held up the pendant and took a few steps back, his eyes never leaving the item he tightly gripped in his hand. Valdi slowly stood, taking advantage of Aaron's trance-like interest in the necklace.
"Freak." Valdi muttered, gradually creeping away. Aaron hadn't noticed. His focus was somewhere else, somewhere much more important. The pendant he held in his hand changed everything. Finally, he had a lead.
A buzzlike sound whistled through the frigid air.
"Ouch," Aaron exclaimed, as he reached his hand to the back of his neck. A seething pain shot through his body. Aaron hunched over, dazed. He dropped the pendant, its remains clinking on the glass ground. He began to feel tired, almost as if sleep was the most important thing in the world. Aaron rubbed his eyes, desperately trying to keep himself awake. He grasped his head with both his hands, unaware of his surroundings. His skull seemed to pound in his head. Aaron dropped to his knees. His hands, placed on the glass directly in front of him, were the only thing holding him up.
The faint sound of heels clinked in the distance. "Relax. The pain will fade." said a feminine voice. Aaron used the last of his strength to look up at the origin of the voice. A woman, donned in an all-black attire, stared down at him. A floppy hat covered her eyes, her only visible feature being her hair: also raven black. It fell slightly past her shoulders. She held a gun of sorts, most likely responsible for Aaron's current predicament.
"Who-" Aaron asked.
Before he could finish his question, his arms began to wobble. Aaron grunted. His time was up. "No," Aaron mustered, unable to say more. His hands slipped, incapable of holding his own bodyweight.
Before his head hit the ground, Aaron caught a final glimpse of Valdi's pendant. It was forever etched into his memory now, along with the familiar symbol on its front: two ruby jaguar eyes.