It pounded the broken pavement and splattered salt muck against the sides of barnacle-encrusted buildings long since gutted by the powerful king tides.
Old Miami was dying.
The Atlantic had come back to reclaim the land it had given up so many years ago, and when it did, it did so with a vengeance.
I flipped up the thin jacket's collar to keep the worst of the weather out. My right hand reflected briefly in the hazy glow of a cool blue street lamp. While I knew the internal circuitry would be fine, it didn't stop me from tucking that carbon fiber hand in my pocket.
The hand, the arm it was attached to, and both of my legs, had been a parting gift from the last great war.
It hadn't been fought over precious metals, food, or land.
It had been fought over water.
We had it, and they wanted it.
Through a strange twist of fate, it turned out all those stories about the country being just a few bad decisions away from meltdown had been right. Earthquakes, firestorms, and king tides: together they brought our collective union to the brink, but we pushed it over the edge.
I am Jude Coverant, the first modified man, and the last human being to see Mickayla alive.
Micky and I had changed the world, and as it had turned out, the world really didn't like being changed.
My boot-covered feet splashed through deep puddles. The king tide wasn't here yet, but it was coming, and when it arrived I'd have to be off the ground.
The residents of Old Miami knew that and had built their homes over the rotting bones of the first city. Citizens of the Southern Federation lived like those barnacles, clinging to the bricks and rust-stained concrete above the tidal line. They hid in their shells above the dark, water-filled streets when the tide was in. They hid, afraid of the things that prowled that ever-shifting current.
But the tide was still out, so no one was afraid, yet.
Music pulsed overhead, booming from a stim club hidden somewhere in the over town. This was the time to move about this close to the ground. This was the time to live, love, and fight for the scraps needed to get by.
This was the time to make your meager life better.
We're making people's lives better, Jude...
Mickayla's words echoed in my head in time with that distant and pounding beat.
We tried, sweetheart, but sometimes people don't want to be made better.
Micky had been smart, so smart. She was one of those once in a century geniuses that the rest of us have to struggle to keep up with. It was times like these, down in the muck and slogging after an old lead, that I wondered why we'd ever gotten together in the first place.
What did you see in me?
I wasn't much to look at. The first Secession War had taken half my body, and the second one had taken my arm. Without the prosthetics, I wasn't much of anything, but that was in the real world.
Micky had never thought in terms of the real world.
A flyer drifted down from the second city above only to land in a puddle, it's moving display a strange combination of sexy girls and sharks.
Stim clubs had odd marketing, but they were a part of that unintended future we’d created.
What would she think?
Micky’d been gone a long time, but I could still close my eyes and see her beautiful face. I remembered when she'd put out a call for old soldiers, guys and girls that could shoot and didn't ask a lot of questions.
Since I didn't have anything else in the way of prospects, I jumped on the opportunity. Again, back then she was just some fiery little girl everybody called Micky. It would take years before the rest of the world took notice, and she became Mickayla, and even longer before I got the courage to marry her.
That was right about the time the rest of society came completely unglued.
When we'd started there had been so much promise, and even now, as the stim-club's music faded against the rising water, I still wanted to believe we'd done the right thing.
I just wasn't sure anymore.
I blinked, and for a second found Micky's warm brown eyes and cherubic face smiling back at me. But then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone.
Just like the woman that vision was patterned after.
The memory had come from one of our earliest days, back before cranial implants, scorched neurons, and a world that had turned in on itself.
In those early days, Micky had been looking for the right person to take the inaugural trip, the first step in what would become known as a Deep Drop.
I turned the words over in my head as if I'd find some hint to what happened to her: where she'd gone, and if she'd ever come back.
It was hard to believe she would have left willingly. That wasn’t Mickayla. The world may have wanted a piece of her, but she wasn’t the kind to back down from a fight.
And they’d wanted a fight.
In those first months with the technology, she’d been their angel. Like the god Prometheus, Micky had brought them fire, and just like early man, they'd used it to burn the ever-loving shit out of each other and themselves.
"I heard you're looking for a guy who can shoot?"
I smiled at the sound of my own voice running on playback in my head. Micky's implant, that cryptic neural spike, loved to roll through bits of my past in vivid detail and rarely on demand. They'd just happen, sometimes they were good, and sometimes they weren't. I knew I should find someone to look at it, but it was Micky's design, and anyone finding that out was more than likely to try to rip it out of my head.
That would be bad.
It was what kept me alive.
"I'm looking for more than just a warm body that can fire a gun. I need something special."
Micky's fiery little voice answered mine in the fragments of neural spike induced memory.
"Well, if you want something special, look somewhere else. I'm not special. I'm just a guy with a knack for doing the things no one else wants to do."
The breeze picked up and with it came more tidal water. I'd have to get off the ground soon, but I was too lost in the memories to focus on that.
In the neural spike's high-definition playback, I watched Micky place a thick metal band around my head. It was comical to think about it now, but it had been cutting edge when she designed it.
An induction loop.
It was the first step in going inside a truly alien world.
"I need you to just sit tight for a second." Micky's soft hand grazed my face. "I'm going to run a couple of tests."
"Tests? I'm not great with tests."
The petite woman cocked her hips to one side and scrolled through a sequence of what looked like gibberish. "It's almost done, soldier."
I didn't know it at the time, partially because Micky was good at hiding it, but also because I'd perhaps had a few too many drinks to dull my nerves.
I was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Micky had said she knew even then, all the way back in the beginning. She knew right then and there, even with my alcohol-muted neural kinetic score, that I was exactly the sort of person she needed on the other side.
Sometimes to fight the monsters in your head, it helped to bring your own.
In my head, Micky pulled off the loop and the neural spike chose that moment to switch off the memory playback.
Mickayla was gone, but the tide wasn't. The Atlantic was coming back, and soon it would reclaim the muddy and salt-stained ground.
It would be smart for me to not be here when that happened.
I turned down the nearest alley and kept my eyes out for some sort of stairwell, scaffolding, or ladder. It was faster to travel on the ground while the tide was out, but once the water got past your hips, it was suicide to stay down here.
Along with the rest of the world, ocean currents changed, and they brought with them new monsters.
I spotted a rusty ladder-like set of scaffolding that should have been enough to get me off the ground and into the over town, but never made it to it. Typically, the spike was a lot faster at detecting movement, threats, or even a piece of rebar to the back of the leg.
Carbon fiber cracked, and I got an up-close and personal view of the deepening tidal flow.
Micky's implant scrambled to regroup, filling my head with tactical lines and decision trees of options.
All of which centered on one thing. Do not get hit by rebar again.
I rolled over just in time to follow through on that prescription and get a bead on who was interested in making my acquaintance.
These guys weren't here for my money. They wanted the prosthetics, and anything else shiny they could get their hands on.
They wouldn't stop until they'd picked me clean.