“Are you sure he went this way?” asked Karl Bancroft, his voice a gravelly rasp. Grimacing, he unstrapped his breather mask so that he could spit a wad of tarry phlegm onto the stained pavement, barely missing his larger companion’s metal foot. A bout of painful coughing wracked the small man’s body before he could get his breather sealed back across his face, so he just left it dangling around his neck. Karl wasn’t sure why he even bothered with the damn thing anymore, the constant rattle in his lungs and what felt like razor blades in his throat every time he swallowed was proof enough that he’d need to go under the knife for upgrades soon either way, which was an unpleasant proposition regardless of whether he went to the corporate hospital or a black market chop shop. The corporate cutters may have been cleaner, but their prices were steep, and any medical interventions they provided just got added to his debt. No, anybody who wanted to buy out their indenture contract in their lifetime and actually leave this place used the unlicensed chirurgens over on Cyber Alley. Which meant, everybody used the chirurgens. Because everybody wanted to leave this place.
Especially Karl Bancroft. Karl Bankrupt, his friends so cleverly called him. A series of unfortunate business deals gone sour had temporarily forced him onto this shit pile. He was determined to swiftly rectify that situation.
Ordeal was a dying world. Terraforming had failed here, resulting in a barren wasteland, cracked and scarred by near constant volcanic activity. The planet was encircled by thick clouds of noxious chemicals, which left the entire globe enshrouded in constant twilight, and kept the atmosphere just on the wrong side of breathable. Although the perpetual tectonic upheaval continuously replenished deposits of valuable heavy metals and rare elements on or near the planetary surface, the inhospitable and deadly conditions prevented any civilized species from even thinking about colonizing.
Humans could hardly be considered civilized however. It was common for humans to claim and tame supposedly unclaimable and untameable planets that the Uurd, Radeacher, Kwann, and even the rapacious Hohk Jhet turned their various noses and nose equivalents up at. Unfortunately, even for humans, despite their impressive durability compared to most of the other races present in the galaxy, Ordeal was slowly, painfully, and inevitably fatal. It was the slowly part that caused hapless laborers like Karl and his companion to be there, on the planet as a whole, and there, skulking in the shadowy alley behind an abandoned manufactory at that particular moment specifically.
In the general sense, humans were on Ordeal because corporate bean counters had run the numbers and determined that even with the one hundred percent eventual mortality rate of their labor force, the value of the abundant rare mineral resources available for processing and shipment off planet exceeded the cost of constantly ferrying in the new indentured workers required to keep the mines and plants running. In typical human fashion, the chance for profit outweighed any compassionate or humanitarian concerns, and so the colony on Ordeal had existed for a double hundred years, constantly dying, but never allowed to complete the job.
In an immediate sense, Karl and his companion were currently freezing their balls off in a dirty alley because they were less than pleased with the thought of incrementally dying on Ordeal while their organs shut down and they asphyxiated on the blood soup slowly filling their lungs. So they had decided to leave. To do that they needed money. That’s why they were about to rob the rich off-worlder.
“Are you sure he went this way?” Karl asked again, his arms folded across his chest with his hands buried in his armpits in an attempt to keep them warm, and his legs spread wide to absorb the vibrations of one of the frequent mini earthquakes that the locals called tremblers.
“Yes,” Nip Tuck replied, his eerie electronic voice testament to the extensive cybernetic enhancements he had undergone.
He wasn’t unique in that regard. Despite looking more like a malnourished rodent than a middle-aged man thanks to his time spent on Ordeal, Karl was heavily modified as well. He had an artificial liver, artificial kidneys, artificial knees. Synthetic bones and muscles. Enhanced endocrine system. Mechanical wetware backups. Like most long term residents of Ordeal, he was constantly weighing the enhanced abilities and extended life expectancy that additional surgical splices provided against their exorbitant cost, since every penny spent meant more time stuck on Ordeal paying back their corporate debt. It was a bit of a hopeless situation. The surgeries allowed a person to survive Ordeal longer, but they also kept them stuck on Ordeal longer because they needed to work longer to afford them. The chirurgens did not work on credit. The corporate doctors were all too happy to. Of course, even with all of his body shop work, at least compared to Nip Tuck, Karl could easily pass as unmodified.
Nip Tuck was an addict. Where Karl hoarded his meager salary in the hopes of eventually buying out his contract and purchasing a ticket off world, Nip Tuck spent everything he made on upgrades. Like Anus Georg, he was no longer recognizably human. His biological body had been very nearly completely replaced with more durable mechanical components in a haphazard and strictly bootleg capacity. He was now eight feet tall, and farted fire. His mismatched cybernetic eyes could see equally well in Ordeal’s wan twilight as the blackness at the bottom of the deepest mine pits. His titanium body could easily withstand the noxious atmosphere, and never weakened. He was an untiring juggernaut, with only the top half of his sallow face and balding skull still visibly biological. Even his lower jaw had been replaced with a crude metal substitute. He looked terrifying. As a mugging partner, he was perfect.
“So where is he?” Karl asked, peering down the clearly empty alleyway.
“Where is who?”
“What do you mean, where is who? Where is that rich off-worlder prick we’ve been following,” Karl replied, then froze.
The question hadn’t been asked in Nip Tuck’s eerie electronic monotone.
Dumping adrenaline, Karl goosed his tweaked muscles and spun around faster than an unaugmented human could follow. Guns weren’t available on Ordeal, but he’d been able to fashion a wickedly sharp blade out of a piece of scrap metal, which he now raised menacingly toward the shadows where the voice had come from.
“Alright asshole, come on out where we can see you.”
“I’m not an asshole,” the voice complained, from behind him.
“What the shit!?” Karl yelped, spinning back around. The off-worlder was standing a pace away, right in the middle of the previously empty alley, his hands raised in a placating gesture.
“How did you get there?” Karl demanded, brandishing his shiv.
“Oh, you know, a step here, a shuffle there. Your partner gets it, don’t you big guy?” the well-dressed off-worlder said, nodding genially at Nip Tuck. Nip Tuck looked at Karl and shrugged. He didn’t get it.
“What are you doing?” Karl asked.
“Just having a walk to stretch my legs. I’ve been cooped up on my ship for a while and felt the need for a bit of a vacation so I dropped by Ordeal to take in the sights, and wouldn’t you know, almost as soon as I’m on planet you guys started following me. Very welcoming. I’m guessing you’re from Ordeal’s board of tourism? I must say, I like it here.” He gestured up toward the ever swirling cloud cover, “I find the climate most agreeable.”
Karl was annoyed. This wasn’t going as planned. His speed and blade backed by Nip Tuck’s hulking intimidation factor was supposed to have this clean-clothes-having off-world fancy boy begging for mercy, and instead he was having a laugh at their expense.
“Shut it, gimp boy. Ordeal got no tourism boards, nobody comes here by choice.”
“Yeah, well you chose wrong. And now you’re about to find out just how welcoming we can be. Empty your pockets, we’re robbing you.”
“Why?” the off-worlder asked.
“Because we need fucking money, obviously,” Karl said, exasperated.
“Are you serious? So we can get off this piece of shit planet.”
“Oh, well why didn’t you ask for a ride instead? I can take you on my ship.”
That gave Karl pause. Even Nip Tuck shifted a little, his servos clicking and whirring.
“No,” Karl responded eventually, “wouldn’t work. We’ve got to buy out our indenture contracts first. Otherwise, Bzzzzt,” he mimed finger guns pointed at his own head, “genetically locked, surgically implanted kill switch. We go off planet without deactivation, we’re dead.”
“That’s positively barbaric,” the strange off-worlder for the first time seemed impressed. Karl was relieved, his lack of fear had been unsettling.
“Right, that’s why we need money. Every cent you’ve got.”
“What do you mean, no?” Karl asked.
“No, I’m not giving you my money.”
“But, I have a knife! And look at Nip Tuck! He’s big and scary!” Karl yelled, his frustration mounting.
“Don’t care,” the strange off-worlder said.
“But that doesn’t make sense!” Karl cried.
“Okay, fuck that, fuck this and fuck you,” Karl had had enough, “Nip Tuck, smash him.”
The big cyborg was only too happy to oblige, rushing forward with an electronic roar, his sledge hammer sized metal fists swinging up above his head and then down with devastating force. Despite having given the order, Karl still winced at the impact. He’d watched those fists pound solid bedrock into so much rubble over many shifts in the mines, so he anticipated the off-worlder to now be much shorter through the simple expedient of having his head and neck turned into jelly.
When the dust cleared, the off-worlder was shorter, but his head and neck where still their original size and shape. Karl’s eyes bulged. The off-worlder was shorter because the force of Nip Tucks blow had driven his feet several inches down into the pavement, but he was still standing, and incredibly had caught Nip Tuck’s fists with his own much smaller hands, and was actually holding them extended above his head. It shouldn’t have been possible, but the slender off-worlder then began bending Nip Tuck’s arms back even further, until with a tortured groan his artificial shoulder joints failed completely, and his arms fell limp and lifeless to his sides, leaking blue hydraulic fluids and twitching feebly. Those arms were rated to carry tons. Multiple. Suddenly remembering that he had better things to do than getting dismembered by a silver-eyed devil, Nip Tuck shrugged apologetically at Karl, and then promptly ran away, his damaged arms flopping listlessly at his sides.
While Nip Tuck lumbered off, the off-worlder stepped out of his footprint holes and, scowling, bent down to brush a scuff off of one of his nice shoes. Karl took that opportunity to stab him in the back. Obviously the off-worlder was spliced to the gills, Karl didn’t know if he was some sort of corporate spy or military specialist or what, but the strength he’d just shown was way beyond anything any cutter on Ordeal was capable of producing. Karl hadn’t planned on killing the guy when he and Nip Tuck had made the fateful decision to mug him, but there was no way he was letting someone so clearly dangerous turn on him next, especially when his enforcer had been so very literally disarmed and then driven away. He figured a foot of steel buried in the off-worlder’s kidney would go a long way toward mitigating that danger. Instead of having the common decency to collapse in agony and die, the guy merely grunted slightly and stood up to look incredulously at Karl.
“Dude, seriously?” he said, “not cool. This was a new suit!”
Karl took a page from Nip Tuck’s Appropriate Reactions to Failed Muggings manual, and ran. With all the speed available to his juiced up, tweaked, spliced, and upgraded musculature, he ran. He barreled down the alleyway faster than he had ever run before, so fast that the wind whistled in his ears and brought tears to his eyes. At least, he told himself it was just the wind. Getting to the far end of the massive manufactory building, he sprinted around the corner and somehow, impossibly, inconceivably, found the off-worlder casually leaning against the wall, already waiting for him. Trying to change direction, Karl’s boots slipped on some loose gravel, and he fell, collecting some painful abrasions on his leg and palms as he skidded to an undignified stop. The off-worlder sauntered over.
“How did you do that?” Karl asked resignedly from his position on the ground.
“You know why I like it here?” the off-worlder asked back. He pointed up at the clouds with a slender finger. “You never see the sun.”
“What are you?” Karl wondered.
The off-worlder presented him with a fang-filled smile.
“Hungry,” he said.
Karl Bancroft pissed his pants.