Valentina Dunn

In a city split by wealth and power, Valentina Dunn's journey from the Core to the fringes uncovers hidden struggles for freedom. As she navigates a world of rebellion and survival, she discovers what it truly means to fight for justice.

DangerGirl
By DangerGirl Episode 4
26 Min Read
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Once upon a time electricity had a sound and there are nights when I imagine that sound buzzes through me. I like to believe that the taste of technology, cold and sharp, slices through my tongue when I reroute wiring in the basement of one of those old-fronting buildings in Metropolis Obscura.

The exposed wires used to shock me – perhaps they inspired the love of pain and light that still sizzles across my mind whenever I return home – but now, I’ve learned to tame them the same way that Edison tamed Tesla’s quest for power.

Perhaps I’m Tesla instead. Perhaps everyone I connect with through computers and backchannels that government officials don’t check have a mix of those two men with a dash of ‘rebel’ in them. And perhaps I’d care I was breaking multiple laws everyday if I didn’t have faith in my ability to cover my digital footsteps.

What is it my dad says? Ah, yes. “When a man bets, there are only two ways to do it. He can play it safe and hedge winnings or he can be a titan, a proper man of the Core, and risk it all to win it all.”

“When a man bets, there are only two ways to do it. He can play it safe and hedge winnings or he can be a titan, a proper man of the Core, and risk it all to win it all.”

Vex’s Dad

“Or you can do both, Dad,” I snort.

I take the small box that is my computer and finally connect it to one of the stripped wires from the dilapidated building in place. I set the computer on a shelf so it opens in beautiful graphic color on the wall.

Once upon a time, a computer was a standing object that required a desk or a lap, or at the bare minimum had to be held in someone’s hand. Now it only needs a working projector and a bit of creativity.

I walk to the wall, ignoring the ankle deep water that reflects the new light with each ripple, changing the picture the same way I change connections, as I escape the protection and eyes of the city’s tech guards.

The Core should really make a more concentrated effort to employ hackers and cyber activists rather than bury them or hang them with their own knowledge. I wish them luck in finding or killing me. Power is protection, and in the core, last names matter just like coding. Break the wrong connection or ruin your networking and it could be the last thing you do in your pathetic life.

“Vex here,” I say into my modulated headset, my voice online sounds vaguely human.

I’m greeted by a number of other voices but there’s one name I don’t see online. The ally that’s drawn me deeper into this world. Before I joined the Techno Rebels, I fed my certain someone information about the Core, told him all about the back doors I loved finding in technology since finding them in the real world has steeper consequences. Few policing people in the Core are kind to those who want to empower the working class.

The world is a slippery place. The higher a person climbs, the more rain that pelts the ladder they’ve used until the wind can catch them, shake their ascent, slick the rungs. No one in the Core fears the sun or ambition, they fear lightning. It reveals how many people you’ve thrown off the same ladder and those dead or destitute live in the fury and grief of their families at ground level.

Emotions are dangerous things – more dangerous than success or failure and more dangerous than any bit of technology. Emotions can’t be reasoned with, they can’t be calmed or corralled. No amount of logic will convince someone that their loved one shouldn’t be loved.

Which is why love isn’t welcome in the Core. It’s an alliance with no winners, an alliance without strategy, and the only thing alliances like that achieve is an early cremation.

“Has anyone heard from Nyx?” I ask after a few others check in.

“We’re more concerned with the hole you opened to the Core’s police records of the last ten years. It’s being closed quickly,” someone else says.

“It needs to be maintained – to be dug out every day. If you haven’t already archived the information in there, that’s your loss,” I growl. “I’ll recommend the right Shadow Traders to get it, but you know it won’t be free.”

“Nothing is free, not even these exchanges,” a dull, tired voice says.

My throat tightens. It’s Nyx. He’s never used a camera. Never uses a voice modulator. I don’t think he has access to anything higher tech than the fossils of an old computer he managed to bring to life like a necromancer.

Just hearing his voice calms my spine. Eases the electric buzzing that crackles through my veins like energy banks, ready to spark and arch in a blinding dance of destruction hidden in lovely colored arcs.

I send a bit of code to Nyx, escaping the conversation about back doors closing and how frustrating it is to deal with those who monetize information that everyone should have. Nyx follows my coding, chasing me across sites, channels, and doors I leave barely ajar until he chuckles.

“Are you running from me, Vex?” He asks as I hear his manual keyboard clicking faster and faster, tracking his fingers in a mad dash to claim me.

“I wouldn’t be if you learned how to trip me up or close a door,” I say.

“And maybe I don’t want to think I’m suspicious enough to run from,” he argues.

We play the game for a solid thirty-five minutes until I realize he’s been slowly trapping me in code. I laugh as I come to a stop in a chat room that shouldn’t exist. He sighs. “Are you safe?”

“As any of us are. There’s nowhere in Danger City that’s safe for those who want to do what’s right,” I answer.

“Being moral is bigger risk than theft or murder,” he warns.

“Having ethics is a death sentence. A slow one. One you can watch stalking forward,” I whisper.

“Then take your eyes off the stalker, Vex,” he says.

I know what he’s saying. I’ve been talking with him for two years. We’ve been trying to bring the Techno Rebels from across districts together. Of course, that would be easier if we all weren’t so paranoid. Fake names, lying about our districts, jumping VPNs and using different code dumps to distract anyone trying to track our location … it’s not the best way to make friends.

Then again friendship in the Core is about as real as love.

Loneliness is a sign of safety. Work and progress are the mark of the person who will live another day. Here, a competitor will kill you with a smile if you progress enough to draw attention. Here, a boss will terminate you – or at minimum pay some Fringe-skulking monster to punish you – if you’re too complacent. And if you do nothing … well you better be a woman with a pretty face and a willingness to fake laugh, fake smile, and fake orgasm.

“I won’t stop being ethical, Nyx. I can’t. I’d rather be able to live with myself than simply survive,” I admit.

“That’s how I know you’re not from the Fringe,” he informs.

I freeze. That’s the closest he’s come to telling me where he actually lives. I hesitate. I’ve made sure that everyone online thinks I’m a man who lives in Mirage Marina. Few people have questions about me then. It’s Core adjacent, but with the cloak of nature, gambling, and fun. Odd how casinos have lower stakes than a hub of commercialized capitalism.

“I’ve owned up to that,” I reply.

“You’re not Zone material either. Just like I doubt you’re a Shadow Trader kicking back on the internet,” he says, his voice going fuzzy.

“Nyx?”

“I’m losing connection. I won’t be able to continue siphoning power. I wanted to say goodbye. You’ve been a good… friend, Vex. Your lies are sweet and I hope you burn your district’s coding to the ground.

I hope you are able to open the library documents that are chained or banned to the whole of Danger City. Save the city from engorging themselves on propaganda and fake stories.”

“No, no, no,” I breathe. “Nyx, tell me how to reach you. I can rewire wherever you are. I can make sure you keep access-”

“Electricity is a snake. I’ve been able to use it without being bitten, so it’s biting another hand – someone important to me. Survival means I can connect with my ethics another day. Survival means I’ll get a future to use to take down the Core,” he says.

“One hint, Nyx, please,” I beg, choking on the plea. I know what this would get me in my own home. My tongue hurts at the idea.

“You have all the hints you need to find me, Vex. I’ve been sloppy with you. Be safe and get off this channel. We’ve been here too long and there’s someone from the Core in the group. Fish discovered that last week,” he says.

Then he’s gone. I rip my computer from the stripped electrical cord and pant in the darkness.
They know that I’m in the Core. That’s the only reason Nyx would say that. And if I’m in the Core, I’m someone who can be ransomed or used. My parents wouldn’t respond to a ransom, they’d send someone to kill me instead. Call it an honor and more than I deserve for being this ‘idealistic’.

I pack everything up, then slip out of the basement of the old building, hoping the lions guarding the eves don’t give me away as I slip through the labyrinth of old and new buildings. I’m not dressed per my station. I’m dressed as a garbage person. It’s easier for me to be ignored since people don’t want to see me.

That doesn’t mean they won’t if I’m not careful. Head down, pace quick, stick to shadows. When I cross the district line into Neon Heights, I head down to the glistening subway.

Everything about Neon heights is luxury and technical marvel. The subways run off high powered magnets and robotics. Everything is clean and shining. Other than the small sparts of art that’s condemned as emotional displays of impulsiveness, the walls are sparkling white to hold the holographic announcements and show adds for the latest tech and home comfort.

A city that breathes to sell things. A city that swells with half-realized ideas that are stolen before completion so another claims them. Yes, Edison would be proud of this place. It’s a thought I used to love, but as I change in the subway bathroom, I hate it.

I set my disguise in one of the air vents and look at my reflection. I’m just a worker traveling from one part of the city to the other in my black on black shapeless outfit. My black wig doesn’t stand out.

The ride is short, but I still walk through the cars of the subway, determined to keep my body busy so I can utilize my mind. Nyx said he’s been sloppy so I should be able to find him. I know he’s in the Fringes based on his comments today. The way he talks about survival, about electricity being a snake … as if he’s touched snakes … where are there still snakes? They’re only in places that are near Zone territories.

He’s always tired, but always pushing forward and …. He’s in Nyxopolis! That’s the only option.

The realization hits as the computerized voice announces the stop. “Ford and Marx.”

I slip through the open car doors and walk up the stairs. Everyone here stays at a moderate pace. Walking is lazy. Running is suspicious. If a person walks with purpose, they blend in because they’re productive. Be productive, be progressive in the right ways, obey the ever changing social rules, and never befriend someone unless you’ve done a full background check.

Rather than slipping into the gold high rise I belong in through the lobby, I take the service entrance. Maids, tradesmen, security aren’t to be seen here. They’re rats, not people, unless – of course – they can be used. A maid quickly guides me to my floor and home in exchange for a USB of stocks to invest in.

Ethics and the innate human desire for survival keeps me sneaking in and out of my family’s home as if I’m a prisoner rather than a resident. Perhaps I am more of a hostage. My father’s only daughter, the only cow he’ll be able to use to further a relationship with my husband’s future family.

“I don’t have the luxury of worrying about that right now,” I growl at myself.

I sneak into the penthouse and into my room, escaping notice. I toss my black wig, wipe the dirt from my face, do some makeup, put myself in a gold gown with a plunging neckline to show my father I’m an asset and barely jerk a brush through my nearly white blonde hair before my father comes in.

“Valentina,” he sighs. “What a gem you are.”

“Thank you, Daddy,” I breathe, accepting his kiss to my cheek.

“I was worried about you today.” He says he leads me to the dining table. “I know you used to play right along the border between Neon Heights and Umbra City. You had friends there.”

“Acquaintances, Daddy,” I correct, just like I’m supposed to. “Friends are a choice, acquaintances can’t be helped.”

“Then you won’t be upset that a group of Shadow Traders were captured with their information intact.”

“They let ambition erode logic,” I say calmly.

My mother looks at me from her end of the table. The flatness of her gaze says she’s in some other world where happiness is the only goal. My father doesn’t want her aware of whatever is about to be discussed.

“I’m glad to know that you spend your days in your room inventing, or at the university. Apparently there’s some chatter that the Techno Rebels are recruiting in the Core,” he sighs.
I say nothing, because I’m not expected to.

“People like to believe they’re smart, but people are dangerous. If you give them too much information they get ideas. Ideas are bad for the status quo. The status quo keeps us safe, limits the areas of chaos, and allows us to keep powering forward and powering the future.”

“Of course, Daddy …”

He continues lecturing me over lunch which proves he’s suspicious I’m a rebel or a trader. I feel my ethical desires clawing at my throat. I feel the threatening taste of bleach on my tongue, the order to hold it without swallowing so my mouth is clean and I live another day.

“I’ve been thinking it’s time for me to get married,” I lie when my father keeps looking at me. I sigh. “I’m a burden. Perhaps I could find a sweet professor who would open a new profession for me, give me a way to channel all my ideas about technology.”

My father immediately says that’s not good enough for me and he’ll find someone better. He heads to his office, saying he has to go through his contacts. With my mother dazed, my father distracted, I have the opportunity I need and nothing to lose.

I pack a bag with things I need and things I can sell – only my own things, of course, then retrace my steps from earlier today. Once I’m miles away, lost in the maze of Metropolis Obscura, I take my first full breath.

My father knows, or suspects I’m a traitor, and suspicion passes for fact here. Staying will get me married or murdered and both involve being confined and cut off from technology itself.

I can’t do it – won’t.

But I’ve never left the Core.

Staring at the dividing line between Metropolis Obscura and Nyxopolis, I hesitate. I don’t look like them. I don’t have calloused fingers. I can’t slit a throat with my attitude alone or a look.

I can bribe like the best of them, offer information, give Core clothing if someone wants to take my place or make some money. My heart pounds in my ears, igniting something new in my body. I feel a rush I haven’t since I was little and hid under a Shadow Trader’s table.

So I step forward. Then again, and again. Each step taints me with Fringe bloodlust and adrenaline. I don’t want to stop walking or the smile spreading over my face as I finally dive into my rebellion instead of settling for a taste.

I dip into the first market I see, trade my dress for clothing from this district, then ask about areas that still have electricity. I pay for the information and give the woman nursing a child a USB. She stares at it.

“They’re forgotten lullabies and books for kids. There are at least a thousand,” I explain.
She stares at me, then narrows her eyes. “You better cover where you come from better.”

I manage to nod, then saunter through the broken down suburban landscape, but even I admit I’m wandering. Once night consumes Nyxopolis with a darkness I’ve never known, as if some horrible creature has bit down along the district line and cut this land from the city, I retreat to an abandoned building.

Stripping some wire from the wall, I test the electrical current, check to see if my internet connection will work here, then create a weak connection to the last chatroom Nyx trapped me in.

“Nyx?” I ask. “Nyx, please. Nyx!”

I spam a few other places, saying ‘our spot’ again and again. Just as I’m about to give up, too exhausted, too shaky, too unfamiliar with the hunger growling low in my belly, I finally hear an exhausted reply. “Vex … I told you …”

“Is this a secure room for us?” I ask, nearly panting.
“As secure as any other locked door.”

I check my location, then send it. I close my eyes, knowing what a risk this is. I take a breath.

“I can’t find you, not really. So I need you to find me.”
“You can’t be-”

“I am. I won’t be by morning. You said the rules are different here and I don’t think wearing the right clothes will help me fit in here,” I hint.

“Fuck, Vex …”

“Keep chasing me, Nyx. This time, make it count.”

I quickly sever the connection, then hunker down behind a fallen desk. As much as I don’t want to sleep here, my eyes are heavy.

Then a light appears on the walls I’m facing, the one away from the door. Someone shuffles and my fear of rats – real rats, not staff and service workers – ignites. I bite my tongue, clinging to silence as if it’s salvation.

“Vex?” A tired voice calls. “Vex, it’s Nyx … Vex! We need to go now. Gangs from the Fringes come to salvage here.”

I slowly peek over the edge of the desk and the light moves to my face. I hold up my hand.
“You’re …. you can’t be,” he breathes as the light moves over me.

“I make myself sound like a man so people don’t question it. Thanks for the warning about the Core infiltration,” I say, wanting to prove I am who I am. “You’re good at chasing me down.”

He sighs and then the light moves to the desk. I stand and look at the man in front of me. His dark skin, tired face, impossibly beautiful green eyes, full lips, hair that’s pulled back away from his face.

He’s twice my size, muscled, dark …. beautiful.

“Nyx,” I breathe softly.

“You just looped me into a death sentence, Vex. Is that any way to treat a friend?” He asks before hugging me so I can smell the metal and dirt on him. I’ve never inhaled anything sweeter.

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