“You call that a dick?” a strange, distant voice said.
A flash broke through the veil of crimson pain. The smell of hot metal, burning sawdust and dirt scorched its way down Libby’s throat. An awful ringing swelled in her ears. And then … silence. Silence and darkness.
February 25, 2036
Libra Baingana adored the beauty of the sweeping arches that circled this part of “The South’s Most Romantic City.” Despite the lack of lighting and the lateness of the hour—it was past midnight—the arches gave the perimeter of this heavenly little district a distinctly positive and empowering atmosphere. Much better than walls or fences.
The cab came to a stop in the turnabout, alongside the “Welcome to Clinton—A Peace Enclave” sign. The brand-new, exclusive, inclusive community boasted a plan optimized for walking and cycling. The cab driver could take his vehicle no further. Only electric vehicles making deliveries that benefited the entire community were allowed on the few streets wide enough for cars.
Libby swiped her watch across the billing scanner. Ordinarily she prided herself in giving drivers a generous ten-percent tip if they went above and beyond. Sometimes she’d add a bit more if they were willing to listen to her sing the praises of the Enclave. But she’d not opted to sing tonight—the driver, a man with the boring name of “Joe” looked about as MAGA as they made them. Had she had a choice, she’d have called for another driver, but her app said none would be available until morning. It would be better for everyone if she invested his tip in some carbon credits instead. Besides, with gas as cheap as it was nowadays, there really should’ve been a discount, but greedy people like him insisted on overcharging those who needed their services.
She slammed the door shut and stepped away, expecting him to peel out and leave her choking on a cloud of carcinogens. Instead, he eased that criminally oversized four-seater into gear and drove the five-mile-per-hour speed limit all the way out as if he didn’t care at all, which he wouldn’t if he habitually overcharged. Not tipping had clearly been the right decision.
She took a deep, satisfied breath and started walking. It was an easy twenty minutes to her cottage even in heels and a dress. She set out across the community park with its exercise-encouraging footpaths. When the motion-activated solar lights failed to keep up with her pace, she slowed.
The glass of the framed certificate in her bag rattled a bit so she pulled it closer. She couldn’t wait to get home and put it on her wall, right above the ranking belts. They were like a rainbow—white, yellow, gold, orange, green, purple, brown and red. The final rank, black, was the reason she was out so late. She’d gone out to celebrate with the rest of her karate friends. But none of them lived in the Enclave. And her Enclave friends didn’t care for her karate friends’ violent ways. Which was completely ridiculous. There wasn’t a violent bone in their bodies—or hers. Karate was about discipline and conditioning. She loved moving through the forms. She’d even sparred. It wasn’t that hard and she’d only been bruised a couple of times. Karate had shown her the power within her own body. It had shown her that she was as strong as anyone else. Fierce. Independent. Equal.
Something caught the edge of her vision as she passed the communal composting drums. The small building that housed one of the park’s restrooms was up ahead, its blue, police call-box shining like a beacon. Usually she loved the Enclave’s energy-consciousness—it felt a bit like celebrating Earth Day every day—but the stupid path was so poorly lit, she’d have felt safer with a pair of light-up shoes. The hairs on the back of her neck stood, insisting that something was wrong.
Libby took a deep breath and shook off the trepidation. That MAGA cab driver had really gotten to her. She walked faster. In just fifteen minutes, she’d be in her own cottage, enjoying the—
A hulking silhouette stepped out of the dark and into her path. She spun and bolted without thinking.
The blow to the back of her head sent her reeling.
She dropped to her knees. Her palm scraped the sidewalk as she pushed up with one hand and drove her elbow back. It connected with a meaty thud and bounced off a wall of muscle and bone. There wasn’t even a grunt.
Fingers bit into the back of her neck, shoving her forward again as her voice caught in her throat. Freshly laid sod cushioned her landing.
She twisted and kicked under the pounding of piston-like fists.
They just kept coming, driving each and every breath from her body.
“Stop.” Blood gurgled into her throat.
Her arms were a meager shield. Pain exploded from her cheek. Her nose. Her jaw.
She fumbled for the watch with its SOS app, but it was gone.
His grip nearly yanked her scalp off—
—as he dragged her across the grass.
Light seared through swelling eyes.
She’d lost her heels. Her hose had torn. And then they were off and she was bare against the tiles.
Crimson dripped into her eyes, blurring her vision.
Straddling her hips, he looked down at her through a black morphmask.
She flailed under him going for his face. It was out of reach.
His hands wrapped around her throat.
She tried to break his hold, wedging her arms between his, but he was too strong. She punched from the side. He blocked with his elbows.
Adrenaline-powered knees pounded into his back. Once. Twice.
He didn’t buckle.
He didn’t budge.
The morphmask closed in until the reek of his breath was all she could smell.
He smacked her head into the tile. The world swam around her. Something wound around her neck and then the smell didn’t matter anymore.
All that mattered was air. The air she wasn’t getting. She could no longer feel the harsh unforgiving tile beneath her, could no longer see the uncaring light around her.