Thunder explodes overhead, and from inside the shanty made of corrugated metal plating, the heavy rain is a torrent of nails falling from the ruined sky. Inside the shanty, water drips or runs from the many leaks in the ceiling.
Min huddles in a dry corner, cradling the toolbox in her arms. Inside that red rusted box is everything she treasures: a faded picture of the man she called father, a ring of true silver she found on a dead child, a scrap of scented cloth that can trigger childhood memories, and the most precious of all, the mirror.
It is a real hand mirror, whole save for the small crack in the upper left corner. It is a relic - a thing from another world that should not exist.
Again the thunder crashes overhead, and Min whimpers, rocking rhythmically. The thunder and rain could cover the sound of approaching Yugai control officers. Or murderous thugs looking for salvage, a place to squat, or worse.
Min closes her eyes and pictures the mirror in her hands and imagines she is a lady, like the ones from the old stories about blue skies and food. She rarely looks into the mirror herself, the act too painful.
The pathetic face that stares back at her from the tarnished frame is a gray wasted thing. A gray ruined nothing, in a gray ruined world.
Tomorrow is payday. Tomorrow she eats.
The next day sees more of the gray, strangely hot rain. Same as it always is. Sixteen hours of Min's day are spent toiling in the level seven vats of the reclamation plant.
The work in those crowded catacombs is dangerous. Every day civs die from accidents caused by poorly maintained machinery or exhaustion, but today Min works with purpose. It is payday, and she looks forward to the meal to come. But the trip home is more dangerous than usual. Roving muggers prowl the city - it's payday for them too.
The Yugai control officers are out as well, silent in the pouring rain, their guns speaking for them in the darkness, the glow of their retinal scanners roving through the alleyways and tunnels. Min is extra careful today.
She fills her belly with paste noodles from a food cart, drinking the hot broth full of starch and protein. She takes the normally-crowded catwalks that run high above through the Hub.
The catwalks are treacherous in the pouring rain; but that means Min is almost alone on them, and she trusts in her footing more than the crowded streets below. She shrugs off one of Ret's recruiters. The gangs are foul like the Yugai, only worse, preying on their own kind in that ancient, cannibalistic dance for survival.
She arrives home safely and stashes her money in the hidden spot in the wall. But she is only home for minutes before her door shakes from the sound of several fists pounding upon it. No. Not today. Please not today. Again, the pounding on her door and Min holds her head in desperation.
If she doesn't answer, they may think she isn't home and leave. But her door shuddering off its hinges and hitting the muddy floor tells her she was spotted coming home. He stands there in the rain, water running off the black jacket covering his lanky Lentree body, and holds out one of his four hands.
Protection, he says. And Min feels something twisting inside her belly. She feels the weakness caused by malnutrition, feels the debt she owes her body. Protection, he says again. I'm sorry, she replies with a sad shake of her head. It was the cutters, they robbed me. Back in the Hub, she says pointing behind her.
But he does not believe her. He crosses through the doorway and strikes her across the face with a blue-gray fist. She reels backwards into a wall, mouth filling with the salty tang of her own blood.
Please, she hears herself whimper, but two hands close around her throat as the others check her pockets. She is thrown, and this time the wall she hits gives way. She hears the thug laugh, a deep guttural choking noise, and she cries out when she realizes why.
Rolling over, she sees her hiding place revealed and the thug taking her week's pay. Min tries to sit up, but he kicks her back. Leaning over her, he holds her money in her face.
Extra protection, he tells her, for extra effort. A blue-gray fist hits her one last time.
Min wakes the next morning, soaked and cold. The rain has stopped, but her shanty is in ruins. One of her eyes is swollen shut, her mouth tastes of iron, and her back is a slab of ache. Then she spies the toolbox. Trampled by a combat boot, it lies open and crushed, rainwater pooling over the contents. Her father, now gone forever, and the mirror...
She crawls over to it and looks at the shattered glass. Min wants to cry, but the tears don't come. She sees her reflection in the largest shard, and now she sees herself as if for the first time. She sees the starvation in her cheeks.
Sees the lines that don't belong on a young woman's face. Sees the dried blood and wasted eye. Her stomach twists at the sight of herself, and it calls out for food. But there is no money now, so she fills it with something else. Anger. It floods through her, and she looks at her gray reflection for the last time.
The boy runs, the block of soup held tightly in his hands, the large Yugai Security Forces ration symbol stamped into its foil wrapper. Behind him, the two control officers crush everything blocking their pursuit through the streets. The boy knows that if he can make it to the sewer entryway two blocks away he will escape them.
But a wall explodes ahead of him, sending concrete spraying through the air. He turns to see one of the control officers pointing its arm at him, smoky vapors rising from the plasma conduit on its palm. The other catches him by the head and rips the soup block from his hands.
Citizen, it barks. You have been found guilty of YSF supply theft. The boy knows he will die, looks around in animal desperation, yet the massive hand holding his head cheats him of any hope for escape.
But then the officer pointing his plasma blaster loses his head, a fountain of black gore erupting from the stump of his neck. The body crashes to the ground, and the other Yugai releases his grip on the boy. The remaining control officer powers up the generator in his armor's chest, pointing his arm in the direction he thinks the gunshot came from, but he is too late.
The Yugai flies backward with a flash and a boom as his chest blows inward, a sucking four-inch hole forming where armored plating and his more necessary parts once were. The body hits a wall and lies still.
The boy stares in shock as a woman steps out of the shadows, the weight of her grenade launcher apparent in the exaggerated movements of her slender body. She is a violent shock of color, with the yellow bolt of Ret's gang on her jacket and the fuzz of her shaved head dyed white. She kneels down by him, and he looks into her one good eye. You're scared, she says. It isn't a question, but he nods yes anyway.
Who are you? she asks.
She holds out a hand to him and says, I'm Min. Come with me. It's time to stop being afraid. Come with me and be someone again.