A gritty, cyberpunk retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.
The wind shoved the unlocked balcony door open. High up, on the tower’s twenty-fifth floor, such gusts were common. Neon City’s artificial moonlight filtered in and cast its glow on the blood-spattered floor of a private apartment.
A media screen wall flashed blue, then flickered against inky darkness. He’d seen to the lights already—slashing the wires with his razor-sharp metal claws.
Now he waited in a shadowy corner. Patient. Licking his muzzle, he knew it wouldn’t be long.
Outside in the corridor, he heard soft footsteps and caught the scent of her hyacinth-oiled skin. Ever since the first moment he’d glimpsed her, he was captivated. Most humans were barely worth a second glance, but Ruby was different. A life force stirred within her, and he meant to drink every drop.
His attention swerved back to the door when the hallway floorboards creaked under her weight. Tail swaying, he envisioned his alloyed claws pressed against her graceful neck.
She would fight him. He knew this, and yet he persisted, driven by primal urges.
As she crept inside, her soft deerskin boots glided soundlessly across moonlit tiles, but she halted when she reached the first blood spot. Gasping, she drew a katana sword from her belt. He couldn’t help but grin as he ran his tongue over pointed canines.
“Show yourself.” Her voice rang out like a siren to pierce the darkness.
Another gust whipped the balcony curtains into ghostlike apparitions. She spun slowly, her wide eyes scanning the room, searching the darkness. Through the bedroom door, she spied a figure on the floor. As her eyes adjusted, she saw what was left of her grandmother.
A guttural sound escaped her throat, and her shoulders hunched, but only for a moment. Then her gaze shifted to his corner. Steadying herself, she raised the blade.
The beast growled like a race car ready to burst from the starting line. “Ruby.”
Her knees shook. “Why?” she asked, her voice choking. “Grandmother was innocent. It’s me you want.”
Kingston Wolf stalked forward until Ruby’s face was silhouetted in the moonlight. “To teach you a lesson, beauty.”
Her hands gripped the sword, squeezing the hilt, silently testing the balance.
“I’ll never stop hunting you. When I want something, I get it.” He reared up on massive hind legs, and his cybernetic arms gleamed as he extended his claws.
She held her ground. “You messed with the wrong girl.”
Wolf lunged, but she dodged him and jabbed. Heat blazed behind his left knee. Tipping his head, he howled and darted, making contact and bearing down on her. She toppled underneath his beastly metal mass. Digging his claws into the tiles, he tried to pin her, but she elbowed his jaw.
He recoiled and rolled off. Somersaulting into the opposite corner, she leaped to her feet.
Wolf snarled. “Why are you making this so difficult?” Then he charged, but she surged forward, raising her sword high and twisting her body.
The blade dazzled in the moonlight, mesmerizing Wolf, even when it plunged through his plated chest and pierced his synthetic canine heart.
The last thing he saw was Ruby standing over him, the mock moon reflected in her eyes.
On the last night of his life, Ben Mason eyed his microtab. Fairland Towers. A murder. “Shit,” he mumbled. Normally, he appreciated the night shift. Few other detectives on Neon City’s force did. He figured the work kept him out of trouble. Out of the bars.
As he walked the busy pedway, he glanced up at the manufactured sphere. Glowing serenely over the city, it reminded the residents that a moon orbited Earth, only it hadn’t been glimpsed in decades through the vast smog cover.
The orb was turned on high luminescence tonight. The full moon brought out the worst in the lunars. Lots of brawls and domestic calls.
But starting the night with a murder case was rare. Usually, homicides happened only once or twice a month on his shift. You had to work hard to kill someone these days. Victims were shuttled to clinics where replacement organs were hastily printed and implanted. So most of the time, his cases involved beat-up hookers or overdosing junkies.
Mason raised his half-smoked cigarette to his lips and checked his microtab again. The bulletin had been updated. Murder victims: 1 elderly woman, 1 lunar.
He inhaled in surprise, sputtering on tobacco fumes. A dead Moondog? That was rare. He’d only encountered it one other time in his seven years on the force. It had been a mob hit—lunar on lunar violence. You didn’t mess around with Moondogs. He could be executed for even using that word. Enhanced Canis Lunar was the official name for the ruling class of cyborgs.
Upon reaching Fairland Towers, he flicked his cigarette away, unbuttoned his trench coat, and entered the lobby. As he rode the elevator to the twenty-fifth floor, his temples throbbed. Another night of investigating the worst that people do to each other. No time to try to imagine the good things that were left, the people who still aspired to something, the few who weren’t always trying to steal from everyone else.
His first few months on the force had been enough to convince him how ugly people could be. Then the lunars came along and things got even worse.
Several first responders huddled in the hallway outside the apartment. One cop recognized him and nodded.
“Whose crime scene?” Mason asked.
“Castro.” The beat cop tilted his head at the door.
As Mason entered, the stench of blood and human waste assaulted his nostrils. Detective Castro stood a few feet away.
“Mason,” she said, “it’s about time you showed up. You’ve got a dead lunar on your hands.” She lowered her voice. “They’ll want results… fast. This one was high ranking.”
“What’s the scoop?”
Castro swooped her arm as if showing off a piece of art. “Eighty-two-year-old woman by the name of Fiona Crystal. Fifteen-year resident. No record.” She started toward the bedroom and glanced back. “Prepare yourself.”
“I’m cool,” he said, despite his roiling stomach.
“The victims ended up in the bedroom, although there was a struggle in the living room,” she continued.
Mason gagged when he spotted a pair of human legs on the floor. Her bloody limbs were covered in gashes; her entire torso had been ripped off.
“She hasn’t been dead long,” Castro added. “And then there’s this.”
She led him around a corner into a bedchamber occupied by a four-poster antique bed. A dead lunar hung, pegged to the wall, near the headboard. The cyborg was so tall that even with his shoulders nailed high above the bed, his feet still dragged the floor.
Mason whistled under his breath, a nervous habit.
“Yeah, it’s a real shit show. Not the kind of case I’d want if I were you.”
He ignored her and approached the cyborg’s body, but she grabbed his arm. “Not too close. We’re still analyzing.” Nearby, a hovering drone scanned every inch of the crime scene.
He hesitated and stared at the metal beast. “What did they use to—?”
“Pin him to the wall? They’re spikes of some kind. Maybe it was from the woman’s fireplace?”
The end of two staves jutted out from the wolfish shoulders. The lunar’s head was slashed at the throat, but not decapitated. Cyborg blood streamed from the wounds, covering the beast’s body in a sticky, green ooze. The assailant had sliced open the lunar, splitting the creature from crotch to chest. Gauges, gears, and bionic organs had been ripped out and tossed on the floor.
Mason was rarely shocked in his line of work, but this was an exception. Castro studied him. “It’s a mind fuck, for sure,” she said. “Each time I look, it just gets worse.”
“Why rip him open?”
“To pull something out. Follow me.” She led him across the living room to a bathroom.
He gazed at the dead lady’s cerulean tiled floor and ceiling. On the far side was a small tub. Nothing out of the ordinary, until he noticed all the blood.
Someone had gathered the pieces of the elderly woman’s body—head, part of her arm, and other bits he assumed made up her torso—and rested them in the tub.
He gagged and launched the contents of his stomach into the toilet, barely opening the lid in time.
“You owe me, Jenkins,” Castro yelled over her shoulder.
Mason rinsed his mouth in the sink. “Glad I helped make you a little richer.”
She shrugged. “Gotta keep spirits up around here. Let’s talk on the balcony. Get you some air. You’re looking mighty green still.”
Outside, he sucked in the breeze despite the pollution. It smelled better than the stale death cloud inside the apartment.
“Maybe the perp came in, found the woman half-eaten, and slaughtered the cyborg,” she said. “Why anyone would go up against a lunar… especially him. Everyone knows Kingston Wolf owned half of Neon City.”
Back in the apartment, Mason studied the living room. A coffee table and chair had been overturned and knocked aside. Deep gash marks interrupted the parquet wood tiles. Must have been a hell of a struggle.
“The scanner picked up evidence in the bedroom. A strand of hair. Human. Doesn’t match the old lady’s.” Castro smirked as she read her micro. “A positive ID. You’re gonna owe me big time for this.”
He flashed a grin. “Dinner on me.”
“Cheeky,” she muttered and handed the tablet over.
Mason’s breathing sped up as he studied the woman’s profile. Locks of fuchsia hair framed her cheekbones and heavy glam makeup obscured her delicate features. “Ruby Rollins,” he said, reading the info stream. “Only nineteen years old. Just a kid.” He paused. “Jesus, the victim was her grandmother.”
“There’s your motive. The kid got an address?”
He nodded. “On my way.”
As he left the tower, he glanced up. The counterfeit moon showered the city in a ghoulish glow.
Mason soared above the city streets in his unmarked sky cruiser. The Rollins girl’s last known address was in the abandoned toy district. With so few children born nowadays, demand had nosedived. His chance to have offspring had passed. Gone, years ago, when Marla left him after his drinking got worse.
He figured humans were dying off, anyway. So far, he’d resisted the peer pressure to get augmentations. His fellow detectives had biochips connecting them to the insurance companies who monitored their health. His buddy Smith had chips implanted in his ocular cavities giving him night vision and access to the info stream just by thinking.
But Mason waved his hands. “Nah, that’s not for me,” he told his pals. “I don’t want SimCorp getting in my head.”
The cruiser’s dash pinged, snapping him from his thoughts. He approached Ruby’s building rooftop and landed. Eight stories above street level, the breeze lashed his face and the tail of his trench coat whipped behind him. He rested a hand at his hip, feeling the reassuring weight of his sidearm. The rooftop was empty. Even so, his heart raced and the hairs on his neck stood up. He felt like he was being watched, though clearly there was nobody around. Crime scenes rarely fazed him, but every time he pictured Ruby’s grandmother, his stomach churned. He launched a security perimeter drone to guard his cruiser and alert him to visitors.
Inside the building, he descended a steep staircase until he reached the third floor. Moldy grime covered the corridor walls and the cheap 3D-printed tiles were caked in years of dust. He passed a few apartments, heard a media screen blaring inside one, but no other signs of life. The place smelled like old newspapers, glue, and rust. He couldn’t imagine a girl as pretty as Ruby holed up here.
Mason reached her unit and clutched his gun at his side. He rapped on the door and waited as the laugh track down the hall echoed.
He knocked again, harder this time. Nothing. The deadbolt was old school, not the high-tech smart networks of fancier apartments. Retrieving his police-issued bump key, he unlatched it.
Inside the apartment, a dim table lamp flickered on. Motion sensor. Heady scents of rose and lavender tinged the air. A gold velour couch occupied the center of the lofty room next to a zebra-striped throw rug.
Mason roamed the flat, checking the small bathroom and bedroom. Ruby’s bed was neatly made with a rose velvet comforter. He flicked on a light switch in the bathroom. Five red bulbs bathed him in a scarlet glow. He inspected his face in the mirror. The hollows under his eyes were more obvious today. No doubt about it, he was aging faster than his augmented friends.
Something near the front door clinked. He drew his revolver and tiptoed over. A figure stood in the living room, partially obscured in the shadows. Mason knew right away when he saw its massive size, midnight black hair, and ochre eyes set back atop a steel muzzle. A lunar—a big one.
Mason edged out of sight, as the cyborg rummaged through Ruby’s living room. His nerves tingled with adrenaline. At any moment, the lunar would walk into the bedroom and discover him. Despite being above the law, most lunars operated by a code. They rarely harmed police officers. Usually.
He took a chance and holstered his weapon, stepping into view. “Don’t be alarmed,” he announced. “Neon City PD.”
The lunar recoiled, growled, and flashed his claws.
“Whoa,” Mason said, palms up. “You can check my badge. I’m a detective investigating a crime.”
The lunar relaxed his shoulders. “Why didn’t you show yourself when I entered?”
“I was in the bathroom. Nature was calling.” He smirked, hoping the cyborg would buy it. “I’m Detective Ben Mason. Have we met?”
Alarm bells rang in Mason’s head. Crimson was a notorious lunar mafia boss. He was guilty of many crimes including murder, but they could never find enough evidence. Not that you could convict the cyborg mafia anyway, not when every judge and jury feared retribution.
What was he doing here?
“So,” Mason said. “Looks like the apartment owner isn’t around.”
Crimson growled, low and guttural. “She’ll be here.”
“You a friend of hers?”
“A friend of a friend.” As he spoke, his lips curled to reveal large canines.
Mason rocked back on his heels. “Huh. I have a few questions for her and bad news to deliver… Her grandmother just died. Murder.”
Crimson held Mason’s gaze, unflinching.
“You happen to know anything about that? We believe there were two perps at the crime scene. One who killed the grandmother, and another who killed a lunar.”
“Kingston Wolf was my brother. Ruby Rollins murdered him.” Crimson’s metal claws flicked out from his fists. “I’m here for justice.”
Mason’s heart threatened to sprint from his chest, but he had to stay cool. “Guess we’re here for the same reason. I have questions for Miss Rollins.”
“You don’t believe she’s guilty?”
“Well,” Mason said, “I wasn’t around when it happened. I have to follow the law—innocent until proven guilty. So, I have questions for her, and I’ll probably end up taking her to the station—”
“Useless,” the lunar hissed. He swiped a meaty fist in the detective’s direction as if brushing Mason off.
Mason’s microtab buzzed with an alert from his security drone. An image of someone in a red hooded cloak appeared on screen. Ruby. She entered the building lobby. Mason glanced at the cyborg. Should he leave and cut her off? Take her to the police station? Or let the Wolf have her?
Crimson Wolf would surely kill Ruby. And if Mason tried to intervene with a lunar who was hell-bent on vengeance, he would end up a cadaver too.
“What’s on your screen?” Crimson asked.
“This? Just my annoying boss asking me about the case for the hundredth time. Bosses—so aggravating, right?”
Crimson sniffed the air, hunching his shoulders. “She’s near.”
Crap, crap, crap, thought Mason. So much for heading Ruby off.
“Look, I have to follow procedure here.” He searched the cyborg’s canine eyes. “You understand my dilemma, don’t you?”
But Crimson Wolf growled.
“Let’s make a deal,” Mason said. “I’ll ask her questions. If she confesses, you can have her.” His instincts screamed against this, but what else could he do? “If she denies it, I take her to the station and book her. Let the justice system figure it out.”
“You’re wasting my time, Detective.”
“You’ll get your chance if she confesses.” Mason’s throat was dry. “You can have her, and I’ll never tell a soul.”
“You test my patience.” Crimson glared at Mason. “Fine, I’ll wait behind the door while you ask your questions.” He crept toward the bedroom.
The doorknob rattled. Sweat dripped down Mason’s forehead, and he loosened his collar. Messing with Crimson meant certain death. Even for a cop, it was beyond foolish to go up against a lunar. If his plan backfired, he was done for.
He stood in the middle of the living room and pulled out his badge. Ruby shut the door behind her and cast off her hood. Wild fuchsia locks cascaded down the back of her cape.
As he cleared his throat, she spun. “Who are you?”
“Hey there, I’m Detective Ben Mason. Neon City PD. Here’s my badge in case you want to—”
She strode forward and grabbed it from his hand. He caught a whiff of the flowers again. Mason’s gaze fell to a speck of dried green cyber fluid on her ear when she shoved the badge back at him.
“Why are you in my apartment?”
“I can explain. You didn’t answer my knock, and I thought something might be wrong.” He paused and began tapping on his micro. “Unfortunately, I have terrible news.” He frowned. “Your grandmother was found murdered this evening.”
Ruby clenched her fists and fought back tears. “I know.”
Mason’s throat tightened. He didn’t want this girl to die at the hands of Crimson Wolf. This was madness. “How would you know that already?” he asked softly.
She bit her bottom lip as if measuring her words; Mason waited. Please don’t confess, he pleaded in his mind.
Finally, she met his gaze. “What do you want from me?”
“Do you recognize this lunar?” Sweat made him nearly drop his microtab, but he managed to hand it over.
She studied the screen, then her eyes flashed to his in confusion.
“Take your time, please,” he blurted out.
Instead of a picture on the screen, Mason had written:
Crimson Wolf behind bedroom door.
Leave w me now.
Her jaw tensed, and he glimpsed her pupils contract. They could still walk out alive–he was sure of it. But everything hinged on her next move.
She thrust the device into his hand and moved closer. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“Very well,” he said. “I’m taking you in for questioning. We have to leave right—”
Before he could finish, Ruby lunged toward him and grabbed his revolver, yanking it from his holster. In one leap, she faced the bedroom door and fired into it.
Crimson shrieked and uttered a high-pitched howl. As the creature slumped to the floor, Ruby loomed over him and emptied the gun chamber until he stopped twitching.
Every muscle in Mason’s body stiffened, and he felt as if he walked a tightrope to her bedroom. “What have you done?”
Ruby glared at him. “He was here to kill me and would have killed you too. Afterward, he’d have cut your eyes out to make sure you didn’t have an ocular camera streaming video.”
“I don’t have implants,” he muttered.
“Good.” She kicked Crimson’s body. Grabbing a knife from her belt, she pried a steel claw from the cyborg’s hand.
Ruby was eerily calm. She wiped the fluorescent cyber fluid from Crimson’s barbed digit on his coat, her cherry red lips parted in a smile.
He’d expected a frightened young girl, reduced to tears, collapsing in his arms.
From under her bed, she grasped a jewelry box in which she laid the cyber claw next to a dozen others–her collection of trophies.
Mason’s stomach twisted, and she was there in front of him, guiding him to the edge of her bed.
Ruby was no hapless victim; she hunted lunars.
“Don’t worry, Detective,” she whispered. “This will all be over soon.”
The weight of the badge in his palm reminded him that he should lunge for her, knock her down, retrieve his gun. His duty was to haul this murderous woman to his precinct. But as he stared into her eyes, her pupils morphed into crescents. What was she? His mind buzzed, shouting at him to flee, but his limbs were dead weights, dragging him down.
“I’m going to take care of everything,” she said. “You have no augmentations, right? Nothing in your eyes?”
His response was automatic; he’d repeated it so often for his coworkers. “Nah, that’s not for me.”
“Good. No witnesses. You understand, don’t you?”
Something inside him snapped, and he wished for a drink–one last toast. To whatever humankind was now becoming.
The last thing he saw was her heart-shaped face, peering at him in the dim bedroom light, as the artificial moon cast a hazy glow on her skin. A shiver rippled along his spine when the steel barrel met his temple.
Detective Castro was the first on the scene.
She found Mason sprawled atop Ruby’s bed. In stiff hands, he clutched the gun that had killed Neon City’s most notorious lunar.
His lifeless eyes watched the fake moon beaming down from the smog-choked sky.