PRIORITY WON • by Bill Ward

Brad woke up caring about the date for once, and he got up and got himself together with a shot of cold black from the night before and a smoke. Hole-Lee Shee-It, he thought as he paced his small apartment, today’s finally the day. He stamped the smoke in the sink, splashed cold water on his face, and made for the door. He worked the five locks, the scan, the knob, and then he was out and away–the door to his apartment blurping an electronic see-ya-later at his back as he hopped down the stairs.

He was a man on a mission.

The street was snarled with traffic and noise and madness, and Brad sucked a lungful of sharp autumn air mingled with the char-stink of smoke from parts unknown. Brad stepped off the sidewalk and squeezed his way across the road, skinning between bumpers, not looking at the livid faces and the timid faces and the just plain empty faces in the cars around him. Up ahead a motorist charged out of his beige sedan and drove his fist into a truck window a few cars away, the knuckles bouncing back with a sound like a tennis ball on brick. Curses filled the air between horn bleats and roaring engines. The high, dark buildings of the city seemed all the taller for the chaos of the street.

But Brad knew a shortcut. Dodging the entreating hands of a pack of licensed vagrants, he angled into an alley two blocks from his place. He had his buds in his ears, of course, but kept them silent for now–the better to hear what was going on around him. Somewhere up ahead he imagined there must be a bigger than normal fire, because the smoke smell grew stronger as he hurried on his way.

Near the lip of East Avenue a scrawny kid plopped the eight feet from a fire escape into the alley, landing on a reef of trash collected around an old aluminum Christmas tree. Dazed, the boy looked at Brad, and pleaded with him in incompressible Street Spanish. His face was a smear of gaudy eyeliner and blood.

“Fuck off, baiter,” Brad mumbled, running past. The boy, wearing a woman’s top and nothing else, nestled down into the silver tree and closed his eyes.

No time for that shit, not today.

Fifteenth Street was worse, the traffic stuck behind a dead cop horse with a pack of pre-teens busily whaling on it with field hockey sticks. One little kipper began flensing the horse around the ears with a piece of broken glass–souvenir hunting. A GUMP-T army truck, civilian model, came roaring up the sidewalk before veering back onto the road and flattening the horse in a spray of entrails and congealing blood, sending the kids scrambling out of the way. The truck accelerated up Fifteenth, the helicopter engine that powered it shrieking like an oven full of eagles.

But today was an important day, and Brad wasn’t going to be stopped. He sprinted across the clot of vehicles before they got moving properly and ducked into another alley, a mishmash of gibberish curses from the street filtering after him. He reached a hand into a pocket, tracing a path along the rubberized earbud wires to the little metal and plastic egg that rested there. He squeezed it briefly and released. Real soon now, he thought, real soon.

He went a couple more blocks like that, but then a hash of smoke and noise greeted him, thickening as he proceeded downtown. On Smithfield he was passed by some teens running the other way, a couple of bucks supporting a groggy girl with a bleeding scalp. “Don’t go up there, man,” one said, and Brad stifled the urge to tell them to go suck themselves off.

Something in the smoke on Adams Avenue brought tears to his eyes, and he realized the cops must be using gas grenades somewhere up ahead. On Eighth the refugees were more common, all cracked heads and skinned knees, cries and cusses. On Susan Street he finally saw the fire, the burning remnants of a fuck-off big panel truck and a couple of smoldering shop fronts. The detour around it took him past some cops in jousting gear, all plexied-up in face shields and arm shields and shock vests, whatever riot they had been working on now dispersed. Close the universities and what the hell else are the kids going to do with themselves? he thought as he dodged the amped up patrolmen and hit Baker Street at last.

Here was victory–Victory Digital with its blacked out windows and designer graffiti shop sign. He elbowed a vagrant out of the way and stepped into its cool interior.

“Pisscutters, Tidy Dreams, out today,” Brad said to the girl behind the counter. He held the little green egg of his P-POD micro in his extended hand.

She was bored, and wearing last year’s metalskin. “You registered? That’s controlled stuff.”

Isn’t everything? he thought. “Of course I’m registered, why else would I be here?”

She rolled her eyes and wiped the grease off the thumbscan and indicated that he should use it. She plugged the P-POD into a fatline when he cleared, and eighteen seconds later Brad was listening to the first strains of syrupy angst from the Pisscutters’ sixth album, Tidy Dreams.

Back on the street, earbuds blaring, he didn’t hear what the woman said to him, the woman being forced into a vinyl bag by a group of uniformed men. Morality Squads liked to operate in the open more and more these days, it seemed. One of the hawk-faced men gave Brad a hard look, and he turned away and clutched at the P-POD in his jacket.

Brad cranked up the music, and the world retreated. For a time.

Bill Ward‘s fiction has appeared at Flashing Swords and the anthologies The Return of the Sword and Desolate Places. He is co-editor of the Magic & Mechanica anthology, comign soon from Ricasso Press.

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