The pieces of a sunset broken by the spines of ruined buildings had already faded, swallowed by the cracked and broken streets, by the time Mac's opened. Ten years on, and the man said that no sunlight had ever crossed his door. By the paleness of his skin, it wasn't so hard to believe - though why the man made that particular boast was something nobody had cared to ask. The Ruins, after all, weren't the natural habitat for those kinds of questions. Besides, as long as Mac kept the drinks flowing, who needed to know? Who would even care?
About a dozen people had scattered themselves around the space, some on favorite barstools, others standing, or sitting, or leaning wherever their fancy may have taken them. Young and old, scarred and fresh, as eclectic collection of misfits and malcontents as you could hope to find anywhere, with wild hair and, sometimes, even wilder thoughts. Artificial limbs and dermal implants gleamed in the dim diode light, a couple of mobiles throwing pools of their own soft illumination onto the old, ash-coloured walls. Behind the bar a small wallscreen glowed, the image crisp and clean - If nothing else, the people in the City made sure that even the Ruins were bathed in their television broadcasts.
"Hey," said a woman at the bar, the shimmering traceries of her dermal implant catching the light as she waved a thin, palm arm, "turn that up! I heard Sam Renner was s'posed to show off some new tech today." The woman looked excited, one of her ears pierced with a stud that vaguely resembled the stylized swan logo of Renner Industries.
"Yeah?" came another patron, his voice rough with alcohol and probably something much worse than tobacco, "I got something I'd show her." He chuckled, the sound like bricks bouncing around in a cement mixer.
"Get in line," Mac grunted, but he tapped the wallscreen, its tinny sound coming up to fill the little room.
The screen showed a sweeping view of the City and its spires of industry, taken with one of the new camera drones. The skyline panned into view, the massive spires of the City's major corporations gleaming like neon-edged monoliths, sparkling like the most complex constellations. Each huge building seemed to capture the nature of its owner in the broadest architectural strokes - the harsh geometry of the Argos compound, CommScale's glittering, multi-faceted, mushroom-shaped skyscraper, the elegant, flowing shape of the Renner Industries spire, and of course, the bulging, rounded exterior of Sakharov Power Systems, their offices built right over the colossal fusion plants that made sure everyone's lights stayed on. The drone was, of course, careful not to pan the camera around to the ruined high rises and cracked streets of the old city, fastidious in its avoidance of bonfires and hand-held searchlights.
"We return you now to an interview recorded earlier today," came a male voice made grating by his pleasant, serious tone of voice - one that thousands of hours of market research had shown was 'optimal.' His face never showed on the screen, but you could see him all the same. The kind of voice that could pitch effortlessly from tragedy to Human Interest without a single brain cell being involved in the exchange.
The cityscape faded to the interior of a bright studio, two chairs facing one another, made of some kind of light wood and silver metal. On the left, a man in a dark grey suit sat, a tablet near his hand still glowing. He had short, dark hair, carefully cut and styled to meet the specifications to subconsciously suggest "competent authority." He looked at the camera and his face curled into a smile with perfect white teeth that only barely touched his dark green eyes.
"We're back with Sam Renner, who earlier today showed off the technology they'll be incorporating into their new line of prosthetics and augmentations," the man said, then turned to look back at his guest, "So, we've talked about what you're putting in the implants - new muscle fibers, power control systems, synthetic nerves and all that. But why go in this direction? Augmentations have been common for years, why continue to innovate and drive this technology?"
Samantha Renner, chairwoman and chief executive officer of the company that bore her name, looked up from her own mobile, slipping a pair of small, brass-framed reading glasses from her face and stowing them in a pocket. She wore an impeccably tailored, immaculate suit of dark gold and alabaster, flowing traceries of black embroidery over the seams and even across the back and shoulders of her jacket, slung on the back of her chair. A thin chain with a single pearl hung around her neck, the richness of the small gemstone reflected in her cream-coloured shirt, the first couple of buttons undone to create an interesting, but not immodest, neckline. One dark gold eyebrow rose over an eye the colour of a metallic sunset, as though she couldn't quite believe the question.
"Because the state of the art isn't good enough, Mister Carter," Sam replied, her voice a rich, cultured alto, "This is a complex, constantly evolving world, and the patrons of RI should be secure in the knowledge that we are always leading the way, that we're never satisfied with 'the way things are.' And at the same time, RI always strives to be the state of the art," here, Sam raised her own right arm, undid the cufflink and tugged her shirtsleeve up, exposing the limb underneath.
"The human body is the most beautiful, complex, elegant thing on this planet," Sam said, turning her arm this way and that, showing off her own augment. Its pattern of sculpted, flowing curves fit together in a way that was deliberately inhuman…but also beautiful, with striking contrasts of white, silver, grey, and black. She rolled her fingers, making a fist and releasing it a few times - parts of the augment moved subtly, no more alarming than the movement of tendons in a flesh-and-blood appendage. Renner's pianist's fingers made a slow wave, smooth, contoured, and almost inviting as she continued, "I believe that our products should reflect that beauty, that effortless grace." She lowered her arm, rolling the sleeve back down with her living hand, "Regardless of why someone would choose to have an RI implant installed, I believe we should help them create beauty with that decision."
"But that isn't one of RI's standard units, is it?" Carter said, his voice sounding like someone poking a hole into a reasoned argument.
"RI has no…standard units," Sam replied, "Every body, and every one, is different. We have…platforms to start from, though, and tailor those to the particular client. But no, this isn't one of them," she admitted, bringing the arm up and looking down at the palm, "But it does demonstrate RI's attention to detail and aesthetic sense." She grinned a little, "We'll do our best to make everyone look this good."
"Then what…platform is that, then?" Carter replied, leaning forward, a Board-approved tone of noncommittal interest in his voice.
"Why, are you in the market?" Sam had a little chuckle behind her voice, as though pleasantly surprised in return.
"Oh, you never know. But would you say that RI imposes form over function?" Carter said, his voice taking on the corporate-approved tone of concern.
"I believe - and I've been proven right several times - that form follows function," Sam said, deftly snapping her cufflink back into place, "If you do things right, at least." A small grin pulled at the corner of her mouth as she finished.
"I see," Carter said, shifting back into his cheerful-host voice, "Well, that's all the time we have for now. I'm Robert Carter, and this has been…" His voice faded out as Mac slapped the volume controls again.
"Aww," said the woman at the bar, "I was hopin' they'd show some of the examples. Y'know, other than Sam, anyway."
"She should have kept rolling that sleeve up," came the man with the boulder-strewn voice, "Or, y'know, started with the buttons and worked her way down. Hey!" The last was to another patron, who had thrown a beer can at his head.
"Who cares," Mac said, "RI ain't my kind of aug anyway. Now this…" he tapped the screen's volume again, "this is what I'm talking about."
"It's a dangerous world out there," came a man's voice, pitched in intense, throaty tones only a shade away from an angry drill sergeant, "And when your life really counts, you don't need beauty-" A silver-and-grey bird flew into the center of the screen, "You need the beast." A larger-than-life set of fingers clamped down around the bird, closing it in a fist of black, woven carbon-ceramic fiber, every reinforced joint matte black, traced by silver accents. The screen pulled back, cutting to a tall, well-muscled man, his arm replaced from the shoulder and rib cage down, holding the augment as though he were ready punch the screen, "The Canis line of high-performance augmentations from Argus will let you face life's real challenges - and come out on top, every time." The screen swapped to a black title screen, the solid geometric logo of Argus, Ltd. in the center, "Argus - For When It Counts."
"See?" Mac said, turning back to the patrons, "That's what' it's really ab-"
He was cut off by a deep, echoing boom, coming from somewhere outside the bar. The floor trembled and the light fixtures swayed, their light dancing across the floor. The sound came again, and dust shook loose from the rafters. A handful of moments later, the bar's door exploded off its hinges in a spray of scrap wood shrapnel, the doorknob flying across the room and smashing the wallscreen to pieces. Heavy boots clattered through the doorway, still shrouded by the flying dust, but backlit from whatever was going on in the street outside. The boom came again, this time unmuffled by the doorway. It sounded like an explosion, or a huge cannon shot.
"All right!" one of the figures bellowed, his voice artificially amplified, "This is your one and only notice. This area has been annexed! You no longer live, work, or belong here! It no longer belongs to you, if it ever did. You will drop all your mobiles, weapons, and other gear, at which point you will be escorted out of this zone by my men. If you do not comply-"
"Fuck you!" The man with the rocky voice said, and pulled a handgun from under his coat. He clumsily took aim and fired at the leader, still shrouded with smoke and dust from the explosion that had blown the door apart. The round missed, thudding heavily into the wall beside another figure.
Without saying another word, one of the figures moved, and the chatter of automatic rifle fire filled the bar for a split second. The man jerked four times, then collapsed off his barstool, gurgling.
Mac pulled his shotgun out from behind the bar, took aim, and pulled the trigger.
All hell broke loose.