They climbed down three stories of dilapidated stairs and rickety ladders.

The building was occupied in the lower floors, ruined but clean, and with the green vines everywhere with the white flowers—maybe that was the only thing keeping the building up. They stopped on the thirtieth floor—fuck that had been a climb—where a heavy scent of cooking vegetables filled the air. The smell made her mouth water; all she'd had was that stick of Chew 20 and half a liter of bourbon. Her stomach growled. Hemu lead her to a line of scraggly-looking men and women and handed her a bowl carved of wood. They followed the line to a huge pot, repurposed from an industrial container of some sort, full of bubbling stew. They were served by baggy old women and then found a place alone in a corner by a window. It was dark and hard to see without night vision, but the hips didn't seem to have a problem. There were fires, which seemed like a terrible idea, but they were careful to contain them in drums and piles of rocks, and the whole wide floor flickered between light and shadow. Peace. It was peaceful. There were no city sounds and the people hardly spoke. There was a moan, some couple having sex in the shadows somewhere. She sipped at the broth of the stew—not bad, needed salt. Her poison sniffer said it was fine. 

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The thought hit her hard—peace.

That was the word. The quiet, the calm around the area, the green things growing everywhere and the flowers. And she hadn't seen an elzi in hours. She could believe that there was something here, a God, a gas leak, a fluke of topography that made it desirable real estate. 

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The girl had been bound and gagged, trussed up like a turkey, no signs of a struggle—she’d probably thought it was part of the game.

They'd slit her throat and then let the blood run into a trench about four inches deep, two feet wide, and four feet long. Now the trench was a rectangle of black, crusty, mud, like a giant chocolate bar. They'd scooped out the girl's eyes, cleanly, and then laid her down, spread her legs and arms, and unraveled her veins to make a blood angel in the dirt. It was the sixth girl in two weeks, and all Saru could feel—aside from an urge to fill the trench with vomit—was relief. This wasn't the girl; this wasn't her girl. She knew because of the flower in her hair. This was just a poor, sad, desperate woman who happened to have unusually bright blue eyes—she assumed. 

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“In the morning, we will help you,” Hemu said.

How did he know? Was he the leader? He hadn't talked to anyone but her this whole time. But she realized that didn't matter. No one talked here, in the Communion Place, but they communed. The decisions were made in conference with the Slow God. They were all together here, protected. She could feel it, just a little, in the corner of her mind. It was a nice feeling, but it made her sad.

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She could see the fab dozer now...

...a box frame on bus-sized treads with wrecking balls, heat rays, grinders, chemical recyclers, auto-assemblers, and three-dimensional printers. She could see the line of apartments it had shit out behind it—nice, two-story buildings with brick facades, for the young techies and embyays. It was a billion-dollar automated development device—it had to be automated to keep Hathaway's hands clean in case an elzi or a hip got caught in the blender—and Hemu was asking her to destroy it, because she would have to destroy it. It was doubtful she could get a sharp enough program to reroute the thing, and even if she did they would eventually catch the error and fix it. This would carry a terrorism charge at the least and you couldn't buy your way out of that. The feds'd strap her to a metal cross and rip out her fingernails, peel off her nipples, rape her with cattle prods and snap her bones, one by one until she confessed. There was no way. 

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We follow the First. The Slow God who knows time and waits.

She came when the skies lost their blue and told us how we could live in a world of dark. From Her we have learned peace. We have learned simplicity. We have learned to trust one another, and above all to turn from the Hunger. She knows the Blue God, has seen him in other worlds beyond ours. They are not the same but they know how to live without destroying one another. The Hunger does not know this. It knows only Hunger.

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The other…he was talking about the alien.

He knew about that. But to him it was all mixed up in religion. To the Gaespora it was a marketing gimmick. To Friar it was science. To this poor bastard it was divine intervention. And to her it was all just a fat pain in the ass. 

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“What am I doing here?” she asked, loudly, causing the hips to look up.

She should be at a bar, drinking to keep her mind scrambled, chasing leads, checking on Lou, hunting down the bastards that had hacked her—pornographers, maybe, trying to rip out her sex life and sell it? Ha, bad luck buddies. This was a waste of time.

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He led her inside, through the carved wooden doors into the warmth and light.

There were pews, and hips, heads bowed, lips moving in quiet prayer. The floor was marble. Yes, this had been a chapel, McChristian maybe, but so old? Where had it come from? She tried to scan the Net but found a signal error. She was cut off, in a dead zone. At the far end where she guessed an altar would normally be was a large white statue. What was that girl the McChristians worshipped? Mara? Susan? Whatever, at some point it might have been her, but the face had been carved out, roughly, leaving an empty scoop in the head. Saru didn't like the statue. She could tell that it was the source of the bullshit, that it was the thing making her hair go all staticky and running the thrill-sex touch up and down her skin.

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The hip was on the ground, moaning.

For a second she thought of dashing, but it was hard to ignore her role in this tragedy. Plus, the hips looked after one another—community and all that bullhickey. Word got around and she didn't want to alienate half the population of Philadelphia over a freak-out. She'd fix him up and then figure out the asshole trying to claw his way into her brain. Lou, maybe? Twenty grand was a lot to toss around, maybe too much. Maybe he sniffed more and was trying to drill into her accounts. Hah, fat chance, Eugene had all her cash, but of course Lou didn't know that—or maybe he did now. Had they taken anything, any important thoughts? The sick feeling came back—the feasters, they were hacking her, trying to beat her to the prey, but no, that didn't make any sense, they couldn't know about her. Or care, even.

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She turned around but she couldn’t tell where she’d come from.

Her vision kept spinning even as her legs stopped. The fear had taken hold now, her breathing panicked, sweat staining her lucky heart tank. A flat, logical part of her wondered how much was natural and how much was induced by the hackers—because she had been hacked. Her worst fear—everyone's worst fear—to have your implants hacked, controlled by another person. They could do all kinds of nasty things—jack up your heart rate till you blew or just straight poison you on your own bile. Fuck up your vision so you saw your mom as a werewolf and stabbed her in the eye. Or make you think you could fly and leap off a building. Those were some of the better things you could hope for.

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Sure, people could hop into your vision from time to time; it was a simple circuit.

Maybe they’d get in your ears or catch a stray feed. But to take control—theoretically the implants were coded on the individual’s brain signature. To take control you’d pretty much have to carve out the brain and scan it. Theoretically. Her vision flickered and she heard a laugh, a hyena laugh. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a shadow, then it was gone. Then she saw him. Friar, standing a few feet away, looking to the right of her. It was Friar, perfectly, had to be him, but he was faint, not quite part of the surroundings.

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Condoms on the ground, needles, elzi lying in heaps of trash...

...and a dead elzi just lying there, guts all pulled out, run over and left. Another crawling his way over, easy meal, easy calories, easy way to keep going. She walked faster for no reason, moving closer to the Fish, away from the screech of cars and the angry honks. Not so much going on now. Getting into the hiplands, with their own rules. It was a safe place, safer than most, at least, with its rules and customs. Not quick to judge, the hips; she liked that much about them. Everyone was down for a reason and more often than not you were born to it. It was quieter here too; she saw gardens, passed a hip with a shotgun, took his nod and hustled by.

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She found her nicest clothes in a pile and saw they were covered in blood.

She’d broken the heels of her stilettos and tossed them in a dumpster on her flight back to the apartment, then when she’d gotten back she’d torn off her clothes, downed a bottle of gin, and cried herself to sleep. Sure she’d seen people dead, seen people killed, maybe even killed one or two herself in the end (it’s not like she went around checking). But to see a man, even if he was an elzi, rip himself apart like that, and then her friend, well, colleague at least—she’d seen him around—strap himself in like that and then make her snuff him. That wasn’t fair, Friar. You knew what you were doing. You brought me in because you didn’t have the guts to do it yourself. You were a brave sonofabitch, braver than me for sure, but there’s different kinds of brave and you tripped on that last step.

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