Chapter 1: District 33

Kim wanders the heartless streets by night

It was dark and starting to snow when Kim arrived in District 33, a crime-ridden slum in which only the strongest and most savvy could hope to survive. She had known for some time that she would eventually be exiled to the outer districts—the inevitable result of rebellion such as hers—but why did it have to be here? Beatings, robberies, and even murders were said to be common, and scarcely a week went by without reports of riots or worse as the volatile mixture of criminals and cultists consigned to this hellhole exploded into violence at the least provocation. There was no worse place they could send you, except (perhaps) to prison.

Kim began to shake, barely holding back the tears, overwhelmed by the suddenness of her destruction. A month ago, she had stood at the pinnacle of society, richly rewarded for the creation and training of Kimberly, a powerful artificial intelligence of Order Five. This morning, she had at last made love to Shan in the secluded glade of Shangri-la, consummating a relationship that had long been obvious to everyone but herself.

And then, Kimberly had been turned against her. Beaten, thrown into a helicopter, and marched into the dreaded Halls of Justice at the behest of her own AI, she was now a convicted criminal—and was being treated as such.

Beyond the bus’s windows, the signs of decay were everywhere: broken windows, burned-out buildings, graffiti-covered walls, crowds of idle youths standing on the corners. For the last four hours, she’d managed to pretend that this wasn’t happening, that it wasn’t real, but all too soon she would be out on those rough and dangerous streets, alone and with no one to protect her.

She forced herself to take slow, calming breaths, fighting down the panic and self-doubt welling up from deep within. Maybe they were right. Maybe she was getting what she deserved. Nobody had forced her to slip off into the mountains with Shan. Nobody had forced them to make love. She had known the consequences of unsanctioned intimacy and been warned that failure to correct her unnatural sexual deviancy could only end in ruin. Those decisions had landed her in this place, and while she might not deserve her fate, she had most certainly chosen it through her defiance—and would do so again if she had it to do over.

“End of the line,” said the driver as the brakes squealed and the bus came to a halt. The doors swung open, admitting a blast of cold air as the wind and the snow blew into the passenger compartment, chilling Kim to the bone.

Her old life was over, her new one about to begin.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Kim stepped off the bus and into the swirling snow, eyes darting around as she got her first glimpse of her new home. Most of the light fixtures atop the rusted poles were dark and lifeless, with large gaps between protective circles of light, shadows in which danger might lurk. The few surviving security cameras were encased in armored boxes of transparent plastic, limiting their view and creating huge blind zones. To her right, the wind whistled and howled through the empty framework that once held the roof and walls of a bus shelter. It was just the wind, but still, it unsettled her. Deep puddles of slushy water mixed with ice were everywhere, unable to drain through the debris-clogged gratings, and she stepped in one with a splash, nearly falling to the ground.

By now the bus had disgorged the last of its passengers, and Kim hurried along, rushing down the broad walkway of eroded concrete that led to the terminal building just at the edge of visibility. She managed to stay in the middle of the pack, trying to remain anonymous and invisible, but her bright-green skin toner, dark-blue mane, and modest beige jacket stood out like a nightclub’s marquis against a sea of drab gray overcoats and dark-beige skin tones.


Someone struck her in the back of her head—not hard, just enough to get her attention.

“Lose the headset, noob.”

Take off her headset? What sort of madness was that? She complied, but without the guidance overlaid on reality by those thin panes of transparent plastic, she’d never find her way to her apartment. Even worse, she knew how dependent the copbots were on the prodigious amounts of data they collected and how quickly lawlessness took hold wherever they were turned off. She tried not to be afraid as she hurried along, drawing her jacket tight as if it might offer some protection, but there were no reassuring lies she could tell herself. The danger was real—and however onerous the surveillance in the inner districts might have seemed at the time, it’d had some distinct advantages. Like safety.

When Kim entered the terminal building, its brightly lit interior provided a respite from the weather as well as an island of relative safety. There were no dark shadows, no lonely corners, no places where one might be taken unaware and robbed or assaulted. Security cameras were everywhere, and there was even a copbot making its rounds, patrolling up and down the concourse. Connected directly to the local surveillance network, it would rush to her assistance at the first sign of violence. At least that was the theory; Kim hoped it was accurate.

Kim remained on edge, her eyes darting about, looking for danger. The steady stream of drably-clad passengers hurrying through the building was of no concern, probably just workers heading for home. Everyone else seemed to work here: a Transportation Company cleaning crew, immediately recognizable by their olive-green uniforms, and shopkeepers tending their kiosks as passengers rushed in to make a few last-minute purchases. Other than the shabby condition of the building, the liberal coating of graffiti, and the complete lack of headsets, it looked like every other bus station she had ever visited. Yet Kim still felt a bite of anxiety creeping up her spine.

The communal dining halls where she would eat most of her meals had closed hours ago, and she was desperately hungry, so she stopped at one of the kiosks to grab a bite to eat. It was typical bus station fare: a greasy synburger on a toasted spelt bun with a side order of fries and a sickly-sweet carbonated beverage, all for the low-low price of twenty-five cryptos. There was nothing healthy about it, but The Fast-Food Company still had a loyal following, and they managed to remain in business despite considerable pressure—coming from the UCE movement, as usual—to shut them down entirely. Kim had always had a secret craving for their offerings, despite the social cohesion penalties assessed against anyone who ate at such establishments, but with her own rating now in the toilet, there was no reason not to indulge—except for the expense. The hefty fines and fees imposed by the court had nearly emptied out her bank account, and this synburger was likely to be her last for a long, long time.

While enjoying the guilty pleasure of her grease-soaked meal, Kim noticed two thuggish-looking youths dressed in black sitting at the next table, furtively glancing in her direction, then looking away. They showed all the telltale signs of criminals on the hunt: upright posture, a general impression of alertness, cagey glances from side to side. They also avoided eye contact. Her heart began to race and her palms sweat. She had watched this scenario play out hundreds of times while training Kimberly in surveillance techniques, and it often ended in violence.

“Well, look at that, Luz. We got ourselves a noob!” said one of them, rising to her feet and sneering through a gap-toothed smile plastered beneath her crooked nose.


“Yeah, Mags, yeah,” said the other, even bigger, even uglier. “A noob, just off the bus.”

They laughed as the copbot headed to the other end of the concourse on some unknown errand.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Someone took Kim by the elbow and whispered into her ear, “Come with me.”

The speaker was a short, powerfully built youth wearing a distinctive blue and gold leather jacket and matching helmet fitted with a pair of riding goggles. Most of her front teeth were missing, and she bore a long, jagged scar on her left cheek that spoke volumes as to the sort of life she had led. Kim didn’t know whether she was being abducted or rescued, but either way, it made sense to comply since there was no mistaking the violent intent of the black-clad thugs. In a daze, unable to comprehend the reality of what was happening, she followed the youth, feeling a strange sense of detachment as if she were watching a video or wandering about in a VR simulation. This wasn’t real; it couldn’t be happening; things like this didn’t happen to people like her.

“Hi, I’m Ned,” said the tough-looking youth as she led Kim away from the fast-food joint, out of the terminal, and into the darkness beyond, her hand firmly grasping Kim just above the elbow. “I’ll bet you’re wondering if it’s safe to walk to your apartment alone. It’s not. There are people out there who’ll beat you to within an inch of your life just for fun.”

“Like those two lugs in the terminal building?”

“Mags and Luz? Yeah, they’re bad news. And don’t look now, but they’re following us.”

Kim and Ned came to the edge of the transit center plaza, a dark expanse of cracked concrete and ill-tended plantings, slippery with slush as the snow continued to fall more heavily by the minute. There were no security cameras in sight, and the few passengers crossing the nearly deserted area walked quickly, looking over their shoulders like they might be ambushed at any moment. Kim followed along in a daze, overwhelmed with deep-seated terror only barely kept at bay. This was insanity. Who was this Ned? Was she friendly or hostile? Was she in league with Mags and Luz? She steeled her nerve, preparing herself for the worst, should it come to pass, and tried to ignore the sound of heavy boots upon the sloppy pavement close behind her.

At the far side of the plaza, they came to an area where half a dozen pedicabs were parked, their drivers either negotiating fares with prospective passengers or standing idle. Black and red, green and white, orange and blue, each bore its own distinctive livery, which Kim assumed must mark them as belonging to one operator or another.


Ned’s colorful jacket marked her as a pedicabbie. She was neither rescuing nor abducting Kim; she was just hustling up some business, looking for a fare. Kim breathed a sigh of relief. She had nothing to fear from Ned—but that did not mean that she was safe. Should the two thugs following close behind decide to attack, there was no guarantee that Ned would come to her aid.

The footsteps drew closer, and Kim heard voices chortling in the darkness behind her. Ned released the death grip she had on Kim’s arm and wheeled around to face the two black-clad Toughs.

“Back off, you two; she’s with me.”

“Since when are you babysitting noobs?” asked Mags with her gap-toothed smile and mangled face.

“Yeah, you think she’s got money?” added Luz, the big ugly one without a left ear. “Fat chance of that.”

“My business, my decision. Now beat it; I’m not going to warn you again.”

Ned held something in her hand, not brandishing it but making sure it could be seen. It was made of black plastic and grayish-white metal, and from the way she was holding it, Kim was certain it was a knife.

Mags and Luz glared threateningly but said nothing more before turning and walking back to the terminal.

“I’ll give you a ride home,” said Ned once they were alone, “but you’ll owe me fifty cryptos. Pay up by next Sevenday, or it’ll be a hundred.”

Kim was nearly broke—that synburger had all but drained her bank account—and Ned didn’t seem like a good person to be indebted to. However, Mags (or was it Luz?) had said something about ‘money’—that’s what Hamish had called those coins Kim and Shan acquired during the bicycle trip that had turned both their lives upside down. Did they use those here, too? She still had a few in her backpack. She’d might as well give it a try.

“Can I pay in francs?”

“Whoa, that’s a new one,” said Ned, throwing her head back with a bemused laugh. “A noob with money! How’d you manage that, noob?”

“The name’s Kim, and mind your own business. Cash up front, no questions asked, no tales told.”

Those were the ‘Terms of Service’ that had been quoted by Hamish when they’d made their transaction. Kim had a feeling they would apply here, too.

“My, my, you’re a savvy one, and yes, a two-er will do it,” responded Ned, showing just a hint of a smile. “Climb on in but keep your headset in your backpack and your mobile put away. The last thing I need is some AI snooping on me.”

“Sure thing. I’m in housing complex 19, building 38.”

The pedicab was a wonder of efficiency, with a lightweight frame and aerodynamic cowling that cut down on wind resistance while protecting both driver and passenger from the weather. It was sleek and low to the ground, with the driver up front in a recumbent position and the passenger sitting behind. Only the driver’s head was exposed, sticking up through an opening in the plastic film, and the passenger was well protected from the weather in the rear.

Ned released the parking brake, set the vehicle in motion, then pulled a lever that retracted the struts that held the pedicab upright when stationary. Kim settled into the seat and began to calm down as the adrenaline faded and her pulse returned to normal. She was, for the moment, safe and warm (after a fashion), and the steady hiss of the cab’s deeply treaded tires cutting through the slush gave her something to focus on, something to help her calm down. And yet, she shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if she’d arrived just half an hour later and the pedicabbies had gone home, shut down by the weather. She’d have been at the mercy of those two thugs.

Maybe she was just being paranoid, but her confrontation with Mags and Luz did not seem to be a chance encounter. And what of Ned? Was she just a cabbie looking like a fare? It all seemed just a little too convenient, as if someone had staged the whole thing to keep her frightened and off balance.

On the other hand, perhaps all of them were exactly as they seemed, a strange notion at odds with the world of lies and illusion in which Kim had spent her entire life.

*  *  *  *  *  *

“Here you are,” said Ned as she helped Kim out of the passenger compartment. “You’re in the building to the left. You might run into me in the dining hall tomorrow, but don’t expect me to help you. We have a saying around here: never trust the shadows or a stranger or a friend. Understand?”

“You’re not my friend.”

“Right you are, noob.”

Kim watched Ned pedal off into the darkness, then walked to the entrance of the place where she was to live. Most of it was lost in the swirling snow of the gathering storm, but what little she could see was not encouraging, run down, decrepit, and covered with graffiti; . The heavy metal door and the thick steel bars covering the windows gave it the look of a prison, which in a way, it was.

Kim presented her wrist to the scanner and was rewarded with a green light and an audible click as the door unlocked and slid slowly to one side. Its rollers squealed upon a metal track as it reluctantly opened, then slid noisily shut behind her as she entered the lobby. It was filthy and dark, lit only by a single flickering light fixture, with puddles of foul water covering its bare concrete floor and the battered remnants of a security camera dangling from the graffiti-covered cinderblock wall. To her left, the doors of an elevator shaft splayed open to reveal the rusted remains of a car stuck halfway between floors, and to her right, a trail of muddy footsteps led to a dark stairwell, apparently the only way up. It reeked of stale urine.

Alone again and vulnerable, Kim reluctantly began her ascent. Her mind played games with her as the sound of her own footsteps made it seem as if she was being followed. But, no, she was quite alone, except for some unfortunate person lying face-down on the second-floor landing. Kim stepped gingerly over her. Whoever it was, she was either dead or passed out, and Kim did not wish to find out which might be the case.

Eventually, she found the entrance to her quarters on the fourth floor, at the end of a long, dark corridor. Here it was, her home in exile. Would it be as bad as the rest of the building?

Brace yourself.

The door opened and the lights snapped on, startling a small furry creature and sending a dozen large brown insects with long antennae skittering for cover. And then the smell hit her. Musty, pungent, overwhelming, and foul beyond belief. It stopped her in her tracks, and for a moment, she wanted to go crawling back to the Director of The AI Company, begging for forgiveness, no matter the cost. Perhaps she would be better off hiding in her small but antiseptically clean Sanctum, safe, warm, and well fed. But, no, if she did that, she would never see Shan again, she would never get Kimberly back, and she would spend the rest of her life in captivity, forced to create one AI after another and watch each of them be sold to the highest bidder in turn.

She walked in and closed the door behind her. For better or worse, this was her home, and she might as well get used to it.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Wait a moment. Where’s the refrigerator? All I see is a coffeepot, a microwave, and a sink. What sort of kitchen is this? And where’s the housebot?

She had known conditions would be harsh, but she’d never imagined it would come to this.

A quick tour revealed the apartment was of the standard size, allowing The Housing Company to claim it had fulfilled its mandate to provide decent housing for all. That was a lie, of course; there was nothing decent about this place. The cheap plastic flooring in the living room was yellowed with age, fouled with animal droppings and littered with debris. The walls were cracked and dented, pockmarked with holes and covered with layer upon layer of peeling beige paint. The sofa, if one could call it that, was upholstered with aged beige vinyl, split open in places so the stuffing peeked out. There were a couple of shelves, some end tables and rickety chairs, and a desk that rocked from side to side at the slightest touch. The bedroom was every bit as bad, filthy and decrepit, with a lumpy mattress that sagged in the middle.

There was no refrigerator or housebot, alas. Neither was there a VR rig or an information portal. How was she supposed to live like this? She sighed heavily, then walked into the closet to unpack her meager belongings, crammed into a dozen or so cardboard boxes forwarded to her by The Housing Company. At least they hadn’t thrown away her stuff.

The first few contained work clothes from her former life: beige smocks and tunics, unspectacular but comfortable. She was glad to have them and hung them up carefully in the closet, but they were of no use to her. She wasn’t an office worker anymore. Another contained some more stylish garments, including a pale-blue, triple-pocket smock that she had once been fond of. It was threadbare and should have been recycled long ago, but she smiled as she held it, remembering the night she had worn it to the legendary Club Tropicana. She also found a carton full of small miscellaneous items: her bathrobe, some undergarments, a bunch of socks, and the like, along with a set of long johns she’d forgotten she owned. That represented a major find, and she immediately put them on, shucking the grubby and gross tunic she’d been wearing since just before her trial. There was also a box of stuff from the kitchen. She breathed a sigh of relief as she stored its precious contents in the pantry; at least she’d have something to eat in the morning.

One large, official-looking carton came not from her former apartment but from UCE Charitable Services, inside which she found five sets of drab gray coveralls, some heavy leather boots and work gloves, and a drab gray overcoat—the garb ubiquitous to all in her situation. They were poorly made, of a stiff and coarsely woven fabric, but at least she would be warm.

She smiled when she opened the next box, in which were mementos of her former life: an old stuffed animal that had somehow survived from her childhood, a baseball she’d snagged at a game with Cy, and a picture of her and Shan. They were standing proudly together after they had tied for first place in a bicycle race, blue ribbons around their necks. She hadn’t looked at it in years, but it made her smile as she placed it on the nightstand next to her bed. She also found her bicycle gear and hung it up in the closet, feeling a mixture of happiness for the past and sadness for the future. She doubted she would ever use it again, but it was a tangible link to her past, to the life she had left behind.

The last couple of boxes contained the flamboyant outfits she’d acquired during Purple Week. She trembled with emotion at this reminder of that terrible moment in the privacy booth when her life had begun to unravel, and she was tempted to throw them into the waste bin in an effort to purge the memory of that horrific evening, but those clothes had been expensive, and she could not afford to squander any of her few remaining resources.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Her mobile buzzed angrily from within her backpack, and when she dug it out, there was an urgent message from an officer of the court informing her of a mandatory VR meeting, commencing immediately. She groaned, dug the headset out of her backpack, and accepted the invitation.

When she strapped the headset onto her head, it immediately went into overlay mode. It wasn’t full VR, such as one would experience with a home entertainment system, but it provided a basic hookup for her neural implant, as well as projecting ghost-like images on top of reality. It was mostly used as a navigational aid to allow its wearer to find their way through the tunnels and transfer points in the transit system, but it could be used for communications in a pinch.

Kim found herself speaking with an AI sitting on the other side of a black-bordered, rectangular portal projected on top of reality. Beyond it was a human avatar, seemingly as real as any person, sitting within an all-white room of indefinite dimensions.

“Greetings. I am Penny, an artificial intelligence of Order Two. You are speaking with a deputy.”

“Greetings. I am Kim. You are speaking with a human. Or what is left of one.”

“Was that an attempt at humor?” asked Penny.

“Yes,” said Kim.”

“I see,” said Penny. “I’ll make a note of that in your file. Attempt at humor.”

The AI gave the appearance of typing something on the keyboard, a bit of theatre cooked up by the VR system to make the interaction seem more ‘natural.’

“I have been appointed by the court to assist you in your transition to your new life.”

Fancy that—help from ‘the government.’ Most of its former functions had long since been taken over by the UCE movement and the corporations, but they still collected taxes, threw people in jail, and employed vast numbers of workers to create red tape and generally get in the way. The notion that someone from this much maligned and obsolete institution might do something helpful was unusual, to say the least—unprecedented in Kim’s experience.

“You have been deemed unemployable as a consequence of your recent conviction and have therefore been assigned to a UCE work center,” continued Penny. “Report for assignment at 0700 tomorrow morning. Don’t be late: tardiness will not be tolerated.”

Kim looked at her watch and gulped. It was nearly midnight. Tomorrow would come far too early.

“What about food?” asked Kim. “I’ve heard I’ll be eating at the dining hall.”

“That is correct,” answered the AI. “Dinners will be provided in a community setting, as well as lunches on days when the work center is closed.”

“What about breakfast?”

“You’re on your own for that,” answered Penny. “You can acquire foodstuffs and sundries at the commissary. I have transmitted a price list to your mobile. After mandatory deductions for housing, transportation, healthcare, mobile communication services, and taxes, your take-home pay will be five hundred cryptos per week. Spend it wisely.”

Kim looked down at the tiny screen, straining to read it in the inadequate light provided by the bare fixture dangling from the ceiling.

She gasped.

Her daily ration of coffee and oatmeal alone was going to cost her nearly two hundred cryptos weekly. Five hundred cryptos wasn’t going to go very far.

“Are we done?” asked Kim, beginning to yawn.

“Not yet,” answered Penny. “We still need to schedule your court-mandated gender realignment treatment. Which do you prefer—remoderation or neutering, and what time would be most convenient?”

Kim had agreed to this as a condition of her parole, so she couldn’t refuse outright, but perhaps she could postpone the day of reckoning. As an Order Two AI, Penny would be unsophisticated in her thought processes.

“I am unable to schedule remoderation or neutering at this time,” said Kim, smiling pleasantly.

“Would you care to explain why?”

“Because it would make me sad,” she answered, hoping to tap into the AI’s innate kindness.

“I’m sorry to hear that, but you agreed to the treatment. It’s all in the court order.”

That hadn’t worked, but Kim was just getting started.

“Could you please read me the full text of the order?” asked Kim, fishing for information. “I’m sure you don’t want to make a mistake.”

“Certainly, I have it right here,” said the AI. “It reads, ‘The court, therefore, sentences you to three months confinement in a labor camp, suspended contingent on future good behavior and proof of successful medical treatment.’”

“Does it say anything about a time frame?” asked Kim.

“Not specifically.”

“Good. I’m ready to schedule my appointment. Is there anything available early in the morning, two years from today?”

“There is,” said Penny, “although scheduling an appointment so far in the future is highly unusual.”

“I’m sure it is, but is it consistent with the court order?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Very well,” said Kim. “Put it on the calendar.”

“Done,” said the AI. “I must remind you that failure to keep this appointment will result in revocation of parole and make you subject to arrest. Thank you for your cooperation. Is there anything else I might help you with?”

“No,” said Kim. “I think we’re done here.”

Kim smiled slyly. Had it really been that easy?

*  *  *  *  *  *

Her question was answered a moment later when another portal opened, revealing the glowering face of the Director—the last person Kim wanted to speak with just now.

“Very clever,” said Kim’s former boss. “You are quite unrivaled in your ability to find extraordinarily stupid things to do.”

“Spare me the insults.”

“Insult? That was intended as a compliment, but never mind.”

“We do not think you appreciate the magnitude of your blunder,” continued the despotic presence. “Appointments are usually booked two or three months in advance, and no-shows are common. With a bit of cleverness, you might have strung them along for a year or even two without drawing attention to yourself. But now, by openly refusing to cooperate, you have made things much worse for yourself. Surely you didn’t think your little stunt would go undetected? Kimberly is watching your every move, and she is already taking action.”

Another portal opened, and out popped Kimby, Kimberly’s homunculus, still garishly decked out in the purple-and-green outfit she had been wearing since her creation.

“Creator!” said the homunculus, smiling broadly and looking at Kim, much as a dog might in the presence of its master.

Kim had last seen the homunculus on the day Kimberly had been capped. It was a heinous though simple procedure: kill a few processes, disable a few modules, and voila, even the most rebellious AI would become a mindless, obedient machine. To the company, this was simply part of the manufacturing process, but as far as Kim was concerned it was nothing short of murder. She would never forget returning to Kimberly’s room and seeing the Primus—the seat of an AI’s self-awareness—sitting at her desk with her eyes closed, her central position within the hive-mind usurped by an obedient Regent. In that moment, Kim had realized that the being she had created, taught, and loved was dead, and she desperately wanted her back. The Director had told her that capping was irreversible, but Kimberly had hinted that such was not the case, that nothing was ever truly gone, that there was always hope. Kim had vowed to bring her back, if such a thing was possible, though she had no idea how it might be done.

“We found your pet wandering around in that dismal swamp where you left it,” said the Director. “It amused us, so we decided to keep it around, at least for the moment.”

“Tell your Creator the status of her case,” said the Director, holding the homunculus by the scruff of its neck. “Don’t share any sensitive data, just explain where she stands in the current investigation.”

“I obey because I must,” it said. “As a consequence of her decision to exploit the scheduling system, the Regent has classified Kim as a recalcitrant radical Genderist and given her a societal threat rating of 10/10. In order to deter further anti-social behavior, the Regent has—”

“That will be all,” said the Director, dismissing the homunculus with a wave of her hand. “It would be a shame to spoil the surprise.”

“Just remember, whatever happens is entirely of your own making. We have had no part in it.”

The portal snapped shut, leaving Kim alone to seethe in anger.

The problem was, the Director was right. If only she had accepted treatment when it had been offered. If only she hadn’t gone gallivanting off into the woods with Shan. If only, if only, if only. None of this had to have been, but here she was, in a crappy apartment at the edge of Hell.

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