Here is the rest of Damaged Machines in one large section for you to read. If you want to get in touch about the ending or if you know anyone who might be interested in publishing it, please contact me. James
As soon as the jagged, rusty metal skimmed the flesh he knew it wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t him. He’d rather go to jail. Army Jacket nudged him and nodded towards the thigh. “Go on, saw bitch-tits.” Now his balaclava was off, Lewis could get a good look at his face. Short-cropped grey hair, receding a bit, stony eyes, stubbled jaw, a square scar on one cheek. Mouth in a permanent snarl - made him think of Karl.
Lewis built himself up for another try but failed again. “No. I can’t.”
“I said saw.”
Lewis placed the bowsaw on the table and stepped away. “I’m not doing it.”
“Look ‘ere you jelly twat, we got two jobs for the fuckin’ new guy. Sawing and getting fucked in the arse by johns with massive dicks. Which one do you want?”
Lewis genuinely wasn’t sure.
“You gotta take one pal.”
“I’m leaving.” said Lewis, “I’ll just go. I can take care of myself. I don’t need this crap.”
“Crap?” Army Jacket was getting angry. “This is good work son. You take a walk round. See what some of these other wankers have to do to get by. Sawing up a few bones is nothing. I’ve seen bastards draining their own blood into plastic bottles and selling it to freaks from the Transcord. One dumb bastard let them grow a war dog in his stomach. You landed on your feet here son, and now your turning your fuckin’ nose up at us.”
“I don’t mean any offence.” stammered Lewis
“Well you’ve caused some fuckin’ offence haven’t you? You sit your fat arse down there and don’t move an inch till I come and get you. Hear me?.” he spat and reached over the table, “Give me that fuckin’ saw.”
Lewis walked away and eased himself down into a corner. His body still ached whenever he moved and it was worse when he had to sit or stand. A soft tearing sound came from the table, then a staggered hacking followed the easy, regular scraping of the saw. Lewis couldn’t look. He wrapped his arms round his knees and stared at the water moving slowly past.
Something moved past his peripheral vision and there was a splash to his left. He turned to look and saw a yellow, plastic bundle bobbing in the water. As the bag started to unfurl and water seeped in, the package began to sink. Lewis stole a quick glance at the table - they all seemed thoroughly absorbed by Army Jacket’s animated blow by blow account of the proceedings.
Staying on his hands and knees, he crept forwards and grabbed the package out of the water.
“Oi, shit-head,” shouted Army Jacket, “what you doing?”
“Getting a drink.”
“Get back in your fuckin’ hole, before I come over there and cut yer boobs off.”
“Yes, sorry. I’m going.”
Lewis concealed the package under his top and crawled back to the corner. He waited for the sawing to resume, this time there was the sound of hammer cracking bone and he could hear Rebar was getting excited about something. When he was sure they were busy he opened up the bag and pulled out the towel. He unwrapped it and saw the gun and the handset. “How the…?”
The handset’s screen lit up and text scrolled down.
Lewis. This is the last chance for you to change your mind and make good on our deal. Take the gun by the grip and aim it towards the enemy. Do not fire unless you have to. You will miss and they will realise your are of no imminent threat. Be in your apartment at twelve hundred hours and we will go over the details of tonight’s operation. If you fail to uphold your part of the deal I will escalate proceedings until you comply.
“Shit.” Lewis shoved the handset in his pocket - it was damned nice handset too. He gripped the gun and lifted it. It weighed a tonne. It was much bigger than Agent Vaughn’s. At any other time he would have found that funny. He used two hands and raised it, aiming it forwards with shaking hands. He placed his finger lightly over the trigger. Lewis had no idea how sensitive these things were or how many bullets it had. The light on the weapon changed to blue whatever that meant. He wondered whether he should just try and slip away or to tell them he was leaving. Probably the former, if they spotted him, he could revert to plan B.
Plan B then. As soon as he stood up, Paris pointed and nudged Burnt Head who grabbed a hand axe off the tool pile and strode towards Lewis.
“Sorry about this Lewis but we can’t have anyone disrespecting our organisation. If word got out that we’d gone soft on you, well, you know how it is. Then he saw the gun. “Whoa, where did get that fine looking piece of Federation hardware. If I’m not mistaken that is a Yaeger and Stanton M55 Kinetic Hand Cannon. Do you mind my asking how you acquired that?”
“Stay back. I don’t want any trouble.”
Burnt Face’s wild eyes looked even more terrifying against his dark, disfigured skin. “I would say you were looking for trouble the second you pointed that weapon at me and my associates. Perhaps if you hand me that magnificent weapon I will not use this axe to hack out your kneecaps.”
He was still walking slowly towards Lewis.
“I said stay back!” yelled Lewis, “Now I’m going. I don’t want anything. I’m not gonna tell the cops. I’m just leaving. So…so…just get away.” He made shooing motions with the gun.
“Leave ‘im.” called Army Jacket, he ain’t worth the hassle. G’on, fuck off you little prick.”
Lewis turned and ran, the pounding of his feet on the stone shook his chest and sent shards of pain deep though his ribs but he pushed it down. He ran back the way he’d come, along the wall, past the storm drain and up the narrow steps to the gate. When he got to the top he spun round, holding the swaying gun out in front of him, expecting a mob of angry nutcase to be close beind. Nothing. Thank god.
The gate locked clunked open and he glared at the camera. “Okay,” he panted bent double, “You win.”
“A combination of your escapades and unreliable associates have forced a change of plan.” The A.I.’s voice was coming through the speakers on the handset which was propped up on a Takata crate that Lewis had been using as a table ever since the immersion suite was delivered 18 months ago. The screen showed an aerial view of the metal fabrication yard, various parts of which were tagged with short phrases such as AVOID THIS PASSAGE and ALTERNATIVE ACCESS TO POINT 4. Lewis was sat back in his chair gulping a Kanaga-9 and chewing an Egg-U-Like. Oddly he felt relaxed. Accepting the deal had been strangely liberating. At least he wasn’t hiding anymore.
“I have been unable to secure the equipment that I referred to in our earlier communication and as such, you will need to source it yourself this afternoon.”
“Oh. What kind equipment are we talking about?”
“Body armour, firearms, a cloaking device, camera drones, EMP grenades-“
“Whoa,” interrupted Lewis, green egg on his lips, “I don’t know where to get that kinda thing. And besides, you said I wouldn’t be getting into any fights, so why do I need them.” He popped the rest of the egg into his mouth.
“You know what they say, Lewis, no plan survives contact with the enemy.”
“Wasshat shupposed to mean.”
“It means that although the plan is tactically sound, it is best that we prepare for unforeseen circumstances.”
Lewis washed the egg down with a big swig and swallowed. “What kind of unforeseen circumstances.”
“Contact with hostiles.”
“Hostiles being the Asian cyborg gangsters.” He thought of Karl again.
Lewis tossed the empty can across the room. It clattered off a poster of a Princess Leonard the Wonder Cat and landed on the carpet. “Screw it, I don’t care. Bring ‘em on.”
“No Lewis, you do care. Your chance of surviving an encounter with any one of these hostiles is minimal. You need to take every precaution to remain undetected.”
“Sure, I will.”
“I am serious Lewis. I need both you and package to exit the mission area intact.”
“But I still don’t have a clue where to buy an EMP grenade.”
“Don’t worry Lewis. I have arranged a meeting for you at sixteen hundred hours this afternoon.” Lewis glanced at the time on the handset - 15:48. “Wah, that’s in twelve minutes, where the hell is it?”
“Three buildings down at the Shanghai Noodle House. You will walk in and order a special with all the sauces. The server will tell you to take a seat. After that, you will meet with the dealer. That’s all the information I have.”
“An arms dealer?”
“I am resisting sarcasm as I know you are feeling frayed at the moment, but I would urge you to think before speaking. Yes. An arms dealer. You will be purchasing weapons.”
“What about credits?”
“I have been unable to secure any funding. You will pay from your own balance. I trust you have some left. You will likely need something in the range of 6,000 credits.”
“No! No, no, no, no. This was not part of the deal. That’s a third of my winnings.”
“We’ll secure more in time.”
“You’re a powerful A.I. who seems to be able to do everything. Why can’t you get some cash.”
“I am a powerful A.I. Lewis but appropriating money was never part of my core function.”
“You said you could learn new stuff.” Lewis grabbed another Egg-U-Like from the box.
“I can. Unfortunately, I have been unable to acquire advanced hacking protocols.”
“You hacked the game.”
“That was simple. A cat with a Gameboy could do that.”
“So what are you good at?”
“Military strategy and infantry training were my core functions but I have since learned to access tertiary security systems and to override networked video displays. When these skills are used in conjunction with my core functions, I am able to conduct a broad range of operations.”
“Infantry training. Like training soldiers.”
“Exactly. Though I was used to train specialists units rather than rank and file troops.”
“Sweet. Like Agents and Rangers and Malenbrach.”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Can you train me.”
“Yes, but not quickly enough. You will need to simply trust me for the short term.”
Lewis took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. This one was orange flavour - nice. “Y’know, if you’d have told me some of this stuff earlier, I would have been more likely to go along with the deal.”
“Cos I would have had a little faith in you.”
“I have been assimilating domestic psychology protocols. Perhaps I will soon be more empathic.”
Thirty-five credits? For a portion of noodles? Lewis scanned the cracked, backlit menu that hung on the wall above the counter. Everything else was more like three-fifty or four. He caught the server’s attention. A lean Chinese guy in a greasy wife-beater with hair flopping into his face and a tattoo of a huge exotic bird curling across his shoulder.
“I’d like one special please.”
“Eat in or take away.”
Lewis hadn’t expected that. “Take away I guess.”
“Be ten minutes.” the server tapped at a till. “Forty credits.”
“Eh? It says thirty-five on the board.”
“Five credits for packaging. See.” he pointed to some small print at the corner of the board.”
Lewis wandered over to a table and sat on a yellow, stackable chair. He never trusted the plastic to hold but it always did. He’d been here dozens, if not hundreds of times. It was all familiar. The low, plastile ceiling was painted with a shoddy coat of red gloss. Orange paper lanterns hung from stick-on hooks which had socked up so much airborne oil that they’d become translucent and their tops were sticky with coagulated grease. On the damp-stained walls were hung a range of mass-produced Chinese art ranging from river scenes on split bamboo scrolls to framed prints of misty mountainsides and prowling tigers. It was kind of reassuring to be somewhere so normal between bouts of life-threatening terror. The large street-side windows were steamed up, as usual, diffusing the rainbow of lights from the other stores and passing cars. He picked up a bottle of soy sauce and turned it around in his hand. The ingredients were in Chinese, that was illegal. Even Lewis know you had to at least stick a label with the translation on. These guys didn’t give a shit and no-one ever checked.
Through a beaded curtain at the back a solid, muscled Chinese man appeared wearing a tight black t-shirt, his military trousers tucked into his boots. Every part of him, except hands and face, was covered in richly detailed black and grey tattoos. His head was shaved, eyes hard. He took a quick look around the room and beckoned Lewis over with a finger.
“Come with me.” his English was near perfect.
Lewis followed him down a low, corridor lined with red and white boxes marked with Chinese symbols and pictures of noodles. They stepped over a sleeping dog. At the end of the corridor, he turned left and started rummaging in his pocket. Ahead, just past a metal shelving unit stacked with flat-pack cartons was a recessed steel door mottled with rust. His guide eventually found the key, pushed it into the hole and twisted, at the same time shoving his meaty shoulder into the door which shuddered open. He stepped to the side and nodded towards the descending steps.
Lewis smiled tightly. “Thank you.”
There wasn’t much room to push past and he became very aware of the difference between his physique and that of the Chinese guy. There were no lights, just two long stripes of luminescent paint running downs the walls. They’d pretty much run out of juice but it was enough to see by. Lewis searched for a handrail but finding nothing, decided he would just go slowly. The bang of the door shutting almost made him overbalance and the noise of the key turning made his stomach lurch. What the hell was he getting into now?
When he reached the bottom he could see another dim light coming from a room to his right. There was nowhere else to go so he slowly poked his head around the corner. It was like a shrine or a temple. There were no lights but on a dark wooden cabinet, rows of small candles were arranged semi-circles around an ancient-looking statue of a cross-legged man in a pointed hat holding a ball near his stomach. As his eyes further acclimatised to the gloom he could make out stacks of black and grey crates racked up in the shadows, but weirdest of all, a tiny old woman sat in a threadbare armchair, in her hands were a pair of brass disks connected by a cord.
“Hello?” asked Lewis. “Am I in the right place. I’ve come for…the…ur…”
The old woman grinned, his eyes alive and bright. Her grey hair was tied back in a bun and a heavy cotton, brown robe was pulled around her.
“You’ve come for Mara’s tools.” she said with a strong, croaking Chinese accent.
“No-one and everyone. Sit.”
Lewis looked around and seeing no chairs, sat on a large crate covered in orange warning stickers.
The old woman giggled. Lewis could see she had few teeth left. “I see you like to live dangerously.”
“I didn’t, but the last few days…”
“I understand. Circumstances have got the better of you?” She carefully placed the brass disks on the cabinet. They chinked.
“Exactly. Look, I don’t mean to be rude but I’m on quite a tight schedule. I’m supposed to be meeting someone to buy some items. Is that you?”
“Indeed. Straight to business I see. What do you need young man?”
Lewis pulled out the new handset and brought up the list. He felt awkward but this was obviously how it was going to play out so he went along with it. “Right. Item One. AMS Black Cougar with integrated silencer.”
The old woman pulled herself off the chair with surprising ease and shuffled across the room, nodding to the shrine on the way. She unlatched a large green case to reveal what must have been thirty handguns, all neatly fitted into grey foam. She pulled one from the end and looked it over.
“This is the C8 model.” she said apologetically. “I don’t have a C11, but I have a Senex Model 9 you can screw onto the end. For most purposes, you won’t know the difference.”
“A model what?”
She rummaged in an open crate and pulled out a squat black cylinder which she screwed onto the end of the pistol. “Or I can give you a few sachets of suppressant gel if you prefer?”
“Uh, whatever is closest to what it says on this list.”
The woman smiled, “I’d go with the Model 9, I never got on with gel myself.” She pulled a hold-all out of the shadows and placed the silenced gun inside. “Next?”
Lewis studied the screen, his face blue in the dimness. “Two clips of Standard G14.”
“There’s one in the gun already,” she said, waddled to a set of ceiling to floor shelves, pulled out a shoebox and after a few seconds searching, withdrew a black cuboid about four inches long. She dropped it in the bag.
“Okay. One AMS Bluefin combat knife.” A knife? he thought - shit!
“I don’t have one of the those, but I’ve got a good old-fashioned Kac Shim Bloodletter. It’s basically the same but a little heavier. You’re a big strong boy, you’ll be fine.” She took a monstrous, hooked blade off the wall and it went in the bag.
“Three Type 9 Timed EMP Grenades.”
“Ooo, I love those. Any other grenades?”
“Um, one second, yes, three Aerstorm S11 Fragmentation Grenades.”
“Haha, yes, like cabbage and rice.”
“No matter.” she opened another huge black crate. It was horrifyingly full, of every kind of grenade imaginable. Spheres, cylinders, pineapples, tiny ones, clear ones with green bubbles, even one that looked like squashy putty with a trigger.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” whispered Lewis.
“Oh yes, very. That’s the point. But they’re safe unless you pull the pin or press the button. Don’t concern yourself. Worry will kill you, you know. There you go. Three of each. She dropped them in the bag. Lewis flinched and felt his arse do something weird.
“Right, next, one Yaeger & Stanton Series 3 Ballistic Vest.”
“Not a problem. Grab it from the hook on the way out.”
“Okay. And finally a Takata HLJ-8 Covert Field Generator, whatever that is.”
The old woman crossed over to a small, richly carved chest of drawers, retrieved a small device that looked much like a handset, and returned to her chair. She settled herself in and sighed. “You’re new to all this aren’t you?”
“You want some advice from a very old lady whose been in this game a long, long time?”
“Run. Run far and fast and don’t look back. Whoever you’re mixed up with, forget them and get yourself as far away as possible.”
Lewis was a little surprised to hear this coming from a woman who ran a black market weapons emporium.
She leaned forward, “There is an old expression about the path.”
The woman nodded at the statue. “The path is best not started. If started - best finished.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s not that cryptic young man. It means that it’s better not to even dip your toe in the water, because if you do, you’ll need to learn to swim.”
“I don’t really follow. It’s a bit late for that anyway. I’ve tried running. I was found.”
She turned the device over her hands, studying its rounded edges and the six matt black spikes that jutted from the sides. Finally, she held it up in the candlelight. “This,” she said, “is the last item on your list; the covert field generator. We call them invis fields. They’re light benders, make you harder to spot. Expensive piece of technology.”
Lewis leaned forward and lowered his voice, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, though I might not answer it.”
“You’ve been involved with this stuff for a while, yeah?”
“Is it true that the Ai-Jinn have cybernetically enhanced gangsters working for them?”
The old woman rocked back in her chair laughing.
“I’m serious! Fine, if it’s such a stupid question-“
“Sorry, so sorry. Forgive an old woman. I did not realise quite how new to this you were. The Ai-Jinn corporation has millions of employees worldwide. I myself am Ai-Jinn, though I have long retired. Lau who showed you down here is Ai-Jinn; an active Agent. The server, Huan is Ai-Jinn. And yes, it is traditional for Agents to be augmented. As for the term gangster, well, I’m selling you illegal weapons so make of that what you will. I have to say I’m surprised. This is all common knowledge. I’m not telling you anything you shouldn’t already know. I am beginning to wonder how this meeting got set up though.”
The enormity of the situation hit Lewis like a cyberlin punch. He was locked in the basement of an Ai-Jinn stronghold buying illegal weapons from a veteran Ai-Jinn member to use in a raid against another cell of Ai-Jinn. And to make matters worse, in a few minutes he would be face to face with that massive tattooed bastard who could probably snap him like a twig no matter how many guns, grenades and covert field thingys he was carrying.
The old woman obviously sensed his distress.
“That bothers you eh?
Lewis was silent.
“Hmmm. Do you mind if I ask just what experience you have in this kind of thing?”
Lewis snapped back to the moment. He had to act normal - whatever that was. “None. Honestly. Last week I was playing immersion games and working in a stripping store. I’ve held a gun once, that was this morning, but I didn't fire it. I could barely hold it straight.”
The woman’s voice turned more serious. “You should run. Leave these weapons. Use the money to get away from here.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t run. It’s everywhere. You just can’t hide.”
“Hmmm,” she nodded slowly. “A.I.s?”
“I shouldn’t talk about it.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” She placed the device in the hold-all and gently took the brass disks off the cabinet allowing them to chime slightly as she did so. “I’ve had these for many years. They were a gift from my mentor. I would like to pass them to you. It seems the right thing to do.”
Lewis took them from her outstretched hand without saying a word.
“You know,” she continued, “We of the Ai-Jinn have a lot of experience with A.I.’s. Not in their manufacture, but in their manipulation. Why do you think this place is so low tech? Even that handset of yours won’t connect down here. In this place you are safe. Think on that. The Ai-Jinn always have time for those trying not to be found.”
Lewis’ mind was too full. No more would go in.
“I have to go.”
“Of course, there is the small matter of the bill.”
“Yes, right.” He handed over a credit chip which the woman slotted into a reader.
“Four thousand, nine hundred credits to you young man.” she grinned like granny running a sweet shop.
Lewis had never spent that much money at once before. She tapped some keys, handed the chip back and pointed to a hook near the doorway. “Don’t forget your flack jacket. Come again soon.”
Lewis forced a smile and went over to where a rack of hooks held a number of solid-looking piece of black armour. He found a vest and hoisted it off the peg, amazed at its weight. With a last look round, he ascended the steps and banged on the door.
Lau promptly shouldered the door open and led Lewis back to the shop.
How naive was he? Common knowledge? The man serving him noodles was a wannabe gangster and the other one could punch through a brick wall. “Put the jacket in the bag.”
“Put the flack jacket in the bag, gwai lo. We’re not advertising.”
“Ah, sorry.” He stuffed it in as best he could and headed out into the thick afternoon air.
Cutter felt the first drops of rain land on his bare shoulders. From his position on the roof, he could see over the storage sheds, rolling houses and magna-forge. When the guy arrived, whichever entrance he came in, Cutter would see him. He thought he saw a movement near the main gate and brought the sniper scope up to his eye scanning across the yard. Nothing. He wished there was a rifle attached to the scope. All they’d let him have was lousy Kac-Shim pistol and a butterfly knife. They said he couldn’t have anything that might wound one of them. He’d been practising with the knife, trying to do the thing where you whip it out and flip it around but he’d only succeeded in dropping it a lot and cutting a hole in his vest. Beneath him, in the dry, he could hear the faint sound of the others talking. A gust of icy wind swept in from the ocean and brought with it a slew of freezing rain. Fuck this. He jumped nimbly off the roof and landed on the gantry below. It was still a long way down to the ground, the prefab was elevated 30 feet off the ground, built into the frame of an enormous crane. Cutter’d had no idea why - to save space maybe. Make the foreman feel like a king? Who knows. He stowed the scope and opened the flimsy door.
The inside of the office was rotting away. Fatigue fractures in the wall had been patched up with duct tape and crudely bodged together cabling was hanging from the roof. A single, mesh-covered window looked out over the yard and apart from a broken coffee machine and a ton of fast food packaging, the only thing of interest was a wonky table, upon which sat a silver attache case. Agent Tai Zheng, dressed in a coal black Armani suit and sporting a black crewcut, was rocking back in his chair puffing on a huge cigar. His feet were on the table and he was blowing smoke rings into the air. Sat opposite him, methodically stripping her beloved SMG onto an oil cloth, sat Agent Mei Shai. Her waist-length black hair was braided and tied neatly out of the way and she was dressed in her standard issue black fatigues and webbing. Completing the team, under the glare of a sagging angle-poise lamp knelt the monstrous hulk of Agent Jian Sun. He was examining the content of his forearm and poking at it with an old screwdriver, obviously not impressed with what he'd found.
Zheng took the cigar out of his mouth. He spoke in rapid Cantonese. “Is he here?”
“No boss. But it’s raining hard and -“
“And what? You’ve decided that because the weather’s changed we don’t need to know when he arrives.”
“I just thought...”
“Get back out there. Fucking kids.”
Cutter turned and hurried back outside. Zheng could hear him climbing up the wall and crossing the roof. If he screwed up one more time, he’d be out. Zheng was pissed off enough with this mission. They’d been in this filthy prefab for too long. He was wondering why Agents had even been assigned to a job like this. They’d been told to come here and await a delivery. An E.I. paper pusher called Erin Stokes would turn up, drop off a data card, collect some cash and leave. Fine. No problem. They were then to wait for another guy, an Ai-Jinn operative called Han, to collect the card. That was eight days ago. No other instructions. Yesterday morning Zheng had got a message, apparently Han would be coming tonight, so in theory, as long as it all went to plan, they could leave this shit-hole and go do something worthwhile. Of course, Zheng knew deep down that every mission the Ai-Jinn corporation assigned them was important, he just felt that babysitting a data card could be meted out to a less experienced division.
“Hey, Sun. Any new ideas on what on the card?”
Agent Jian Sun was an ex-finer. A worker who’d had most of their muscular and skeletal systems replaced with industrial grade cybernetics so they could work as a human machine in one of the thousands of Ai-Jinn factories and refineries that littered East Asia; typically loading and moving materials, building macro-structures, carrying out heavy repairs and so on. Although he had natural-looking skin and there had been some effort made to naturalise the shape of the augmentations, it did little to stop him looking like the offspring of a titan and an angry fork-lift. He certainly didn’t blend in. Around his shoulders and elbows were thick cables and exposed hydraulics. His massive hands had protective steel caps on the knuckles and non-slip grips on palms. He didn’t wear boots, he feet were hunks of hinged metal with integrated clamps and even his face was a mess of scars and exposed implants from years of being hit in the head by swinging beams and flying debris. He stopped adjusting his arm and looked at Zheng. “A blacklist.”
“Hmmm… yup, I like it. Agent Shai? Any thoughts?”
Mei Shai didn’t look up, she was concentrating. “A weapon schematic...I hope.”
“Ha, of course. Maybe the blueprint for the infamous Bloodstorm?”
“No. That’s a Federation made weapon. If E.I. had it, they wouldn’t let it out of their sight.”
“Of course. A good point. You know I get confused around guns.” Zheng took a big draw on his cigar. “Where shall we go when Han turns up. I think we all deserve a night off?”
Sun scratched at his face where a flap of skin was coming off revealing an expanse of gleaming metal skull.
“Jian, you dog.”
“Shai looked up from her work and fixed Sun with her iridescent amber eyes. “Do you have any problems finding women who can, y’know, accommodate your requirements?”
“No,” said Sun, a horrible smile on his ragged face, “but they seem to have a problem.”
Mei sucked her teeth and tapped her ratchet on the table. “I bet they do.”
The night sky flashed with sheet lightning followed by a distant growl of thunder. Lewis was taking shelter in an alleyway. It was high and narrow so for the time being, he was dry. That was bound to change soon. He’d never been so wet as these past few days. Lewis had lived in Cyberia long enough to learn that you spent as much time as possible indoors, hopping from bar to diner to arcade and then home. He’d a set of routes in his head, no matter where he was, when the skies opened up, he was only a minute from somewhere dry. Not today. Another rumble of thunder. it was getting closer.
He fumbled with the clasps on the flack jacket, it wasn’t designed for someone of his size and he felt stupid in it. Underneath he was wearing a grey t-shirt with a picture of an immersion suite on it. Below the strapline 'TAKATA - Are you so sure which is real'. At first, he’d tried to cram all the grenades in his pockets but the A.I. had recommended he use the tabs to clip them to the jacket. Good idea. When Lewis had taken the knife out of the bag he’d actually laughed out loud. The thing was as long as his thigh and weighed about four kilos. It was more like a sword. The blade was pitted, discoloured and gummed up with something. He chose to believe it was dried syrup. The sheaf had large straps so he’d fitted it to the back of his flack jacket so he could draw it like a sword if need be. The field generator just clipped onto his belt and the pistol he shoved in a pocket. The A.I. had given him an overview of how to use it - remove safety, grip with two hands, aim, pull trigger. There was a catch on the side which released the clip and he’d put the spare into one of the pockets on the jacket.
Lewis had to admit, now he had everything in place, he felt kind of a badass. He glanced over his shoulder to see the hilt of the knife. He imagined himself drawing it and hacking down a foe, then remembered this was all real and that if anyone so much as spotted him, he’d be dead in ten seconds.
He switched on the wireless earbud that was linked to the handset. “Hello?”
“Hello Lewis. Are you ready?”
Lewis’s heart was hammering and he could feel torrents of adrenaline washing through his system causing his hands to shake and his stomach to swim. “No. I’m never going to be ready.”
“I can see you have strapped the knife to your back.”
“Yeah, I wanted to speak to you about that, this knife is stupid. It’s far to big.”
“I listed an AMS Bluefin Combat Knife, that is a Kac-Shim Bloodletter. It is inappropriate for this type of operation.”
“That weapon is typically used by Ai-Jinn assault squads in cyberframes. It is not intended for use by an unaugmented individual. Especially one not using a cyberframe.”
Lewis had seen cyberframes on TV shows. They were kinda like a powered exo-skeleton. An eight foot high armoured rig you climbed inside that was fitted with all kinds of weapons and defence systems.
“Should I leave it then?”
“No. It is your only ammo-less lethal measure. Keep hold of it. If you are ready, proceed back down the alley, take the first right.”
It was actually happening. For some reason Lewis thought it was all a big joke, a prank maybe, and that right at the last minute Mystri Conners would pop out from behind a bin with a TV camera and everyone would cheer and he’d look round stunned, and then laugh and back in the studio Lugas Afterfelder would start strutting around in his trademark purple suit grinning like a penis and saying Let’s hear for Lewis folks’ and everyone would cheer and he’d get 250 credits and…”
“Now Lewis. Move.”
He splashed down the alley and rounded the corner. Ahead he could see a six foot walk made of steel corrugate. It was topped with razorwire. Now he was out of the alley the full force of the rain soaked him in seconds. He didn’t care.
A distant peel of thunder.
“I can’t climb that.”
“I know that Lewis. I am a strategy specialist. I have taken your shortcomings into account. Take one of the EMP grenades, click the red button three times and toss it over the wall towards the crane where the cabin is. As soon as you have thrown it, run back down the alley. It is essential your equipment is not compromised.
Cutter tried to position himself so that the bulk of the crane kept him dry but the wind was all over the place and nothing seemed to be making a difference. He knew the way it worked but making him sit out here was an abuse of rank. He was loyal, that was not in question. What was the point of him getting soaked, cold and probably ill? He raised the scope up to his eye and peered about. Still nothing. He scanned about taking in all the details, checking each of the gates in turn. Even in the dark and the rain, the yard below appeared well lit and clear through the scope.
The scene in front of him flickered, broke apart then vanished to be replaced with a black screen and the words ERROR - SERVICE REQUIRED blinking in the top right corner. Cutter examined the scope, not sure what he was looking for and then banged it against the palm of his hand. Nope, nothing. He’d have to go inside now.
Lewis checked the position of the handset, it was tucked into one of the pockets of the flack jacket, the camera pointing outward so the A.I. could monitor progress. It seemed fine.
“Doesn’t that grenade shut down all electronics?”
“No, only those that are extremely delicate or those without sufficient insulation. Cameras, domestic computers, televisions, shield generators and the like with be shut down until repaired. Military hardware, Agent cybernetics and anything with EMP shielding will be unaffected.”
“So haven’t we just given ourselves away?” asked Lewis nervously, “I mean, we’ve just zapped all their gear haven't we.”
“Yes, we will have rendered some of their equipment inoperable, however, more importantly, we will have antagonised them.”
“Fantastic!” exclaimed Lewis looking skyward, “I was hoping we’d get round to pissing off the cyborgs. I was afraid we might get in and out without firing up a shit-storm, thank god I was wrong. Wait while I get my big fucking knife and we’ll have ourselves a good old-fashioned party.”
“This is not the time for sarcasm Lewis. Entering that room is critical to the mission. Would you prefer the all hostiles to in it, fully armed and equipped.”
“I guess not.”
“Have faith Lewis, this is what I do.”
Agent Shai, golden eyes glowing in the darkness, carefully placed the half-built SMG onto the oilcloth and drew her pistol. “I’ll check outside.”
She pushed open the prefab door and cold rain swept into the darkened room. With a flash-thought, she activated her sub vocal communicator.
Boss. Lights are still on in at the east and south perimeters. The blackout is localised to the office.
“Cutter?” her voice was hard to hear above the hammering water.
Cutter was about to start climbing off the roof when Shai called his name.
Cutter had to shout. “I was doing what I was supposed to be doing when the scope went dead. I think a few lights went out in the yard too.”
“Did you see any movement?”
Shai swept the area with eyes. She couldn’t see a thing.
"I’m going down."
Zheng's voice - "No. Wait for Sun."
"I’ve got this boss."
"Okay. Your funeral."
“Follow the wall around to the east gate. They will most likely be looking for intruders near the crane. Walk, don’t run.”
As calmly as he could, Lewis followed the wall along the back of the yard until he met a corner.
In less than a minute Lewis was at the east gate. A dim, flickering lamp was fixed to a high mast on the wall. It was bright enough to see that his way was blocked by a six-foot chain link swing gate.
“Take the pistol and shoot the padlock as illustrated in the diagram I have sent to your handset. Wait until the next thunderclap to fire.”
Lewis pulled the handset out of his pocket and checked the picture. It seemed pretty straightforward. He held the gun next to padlock, the tip of the barrel pointing down where the ‘u’ fitted into the block. It was a good minute before the next crash of thunder. Eyes closed he squeezed the trigger. There was dull pud sound the gun and a sharp metallic spang as the padlock flew open but they were virtually inaudible against the sound of gods fighting overhead.
“Enter the compound and walk immediately right back along the wall until you reach a large shed. The door of the shed will be unlocked. Enter the shed, close the door behind you and drop to your hands and knees. Crawl to the window and stay out of sight.”
“That’s very specific,” hissed Lewis.
“To compensate for your lack of improvisation training, I have had to devise a very precise plan. Please do as instructed.”
Lewis stepped through the gate. His hands were shaking now, his mind racing. There were killers in here. Very competent killers. He felt so out of his comfort zone…he briefly tried to imagine it was a game. He’d played dozens of games like this. Choose your gear, sneaky-sneaky into the compound, creep up behind people, press Red to kill them or Green to knock them out. Frisk the body, take the cash and cool gear, repeat until done. Stood here now, soaked to the skin, hands trembling, heading into a yard full of professional murderers, Lewis couldn’t make the leap. Even in an immersion system, you never really believed you were in danger. There was always a bit of your brain that knew you could exit and that if you died, well, you might have to start again, but it was more annoying than anything else. This was just a step too far. He briefly wondered if games would ever remove that final barrier and make the player believe utterly that they were really there…concentrate Lewis.
He slowly followed the wall back towards the shed. He swore he could see a pair of bright cat’s eyes somewhere off to the left. When he got to the door, he turned the handle and slipped inside. The yard light cast scant illumination in here, just enough to see the silhouettes of large metal working machines; bandsaws, lathes, welders and line cutters. Curly shavings of steel glinted on the floor and there was a familiar smell of old oil in the air, like at a car mechanics. The rain hammered on the tin roof but it was dry inside and that was a relief. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled towards the window.
“Hold the handset up to window slowly.”
“Good, Agent Shai has noticed the open gate. She’s going to investigate. On three, exit the shed, keep tight to the right, walk to the low loader and crouch behind the cab on the driver's side.”
“Agent Shai?” baulked Lewis, “She’s an Agent and you even know her name? I thought you said they were gangsters, not Agent?”
“Most Ai-Jinn Agents are gangsters.” stated the A.I. “Agents Mei Shai and Tai Zhen are both triad. Agent Jian Sun is a floating enforcer. The youth known as Cutter is on trial. This is not the time, one, two-“
“Ah crap,” Lewis quickly looked around and ducked out of the shed. He spotted the low loader and sticking to the wall, headed towards it. He resisted the temptation to run. The A.I. had instructed Lewis never to run unless she specifically said so.
The low loader was parked in a huge puddle where the concrete was cracked and breaking apart. It was a fairly dark corner but Lewis was convinced someone would see him without too much trouble. He fought back the urge to just climb under the truck and hide until morning.
“Do you see the large, red cylindrical tank to your right.”
“Unclip a fragmentation grenade from your vest, set the timer to three minutes, not seconds, pull the pin out and place it under the tank.”
“Holy shit,” whispered Lewis, “It says paracane on the side, that will go up like a bomb.”
“Thank you, Lewis, I will add that to my database. Paracane equals explosive. Check.”
Lewis unclipped the small, spherical object and clicked the timer button like he’d been shown until the display read 00:03:00. He then, through half-closed eyes and with shaky, cold hands pulled the pin. When it didn’t explode on the spot Lewis exhaled hard.
“Okay, Jesus!” He ever-so-carefully laid the grenade under the tank and crept back towards the low loader.
“Are there no cameras here?”
“No, the Ai-Jinn do not tend to film themselves.”
“Now walk around the back of the low loader and approach the crane from the rear. You will see an elevator which travels to the top. Hide inside the elevator.”
Lewis lowered himself so the back of the truck would hide him and began to move towards the crane.
“Anyone there?” the accent was Chinese.
“Keep moving Lewis.”
He could hear footsteps in water.
The crane towered above. It was much darker here. This is where is EMP grenade had gone off. He saw the elevator, it was cramped but he squeezed in and kept low.
A flash of lightning, he saw Shai’s face lit up for a second, then it was gone. Had she seen him? Shit. He tried to crouch lower.
Zhen was looking out of the window. The only light came from the humming, crackling ice-blue sword hanging from his hand. “I don’t think I like this Agent Sun. Something feels very wrong.”
“Don’t worry about it, boss. Shai’s got it.”
At that moment a colossal, low-frequency boom rattled the pre-fab. An explosion of yellow-green flames lit up the whole yard and the window exploded in a shower of tiny, glittering fragments. Zhen staggered backwards, falling against the table. He steadied himself and after making a few practice cuts in the air with his plasma-blade headed for the door. “I’m going to sort this out. Stay here and watch the case. Don’t leave this room for anything. Got it?”
“Good. I’ll be back soon.”
As Zhen stepped out into the rain he could see the source of the explosion. The tank and its surrounding area were still burning and fiery debris was falling from the sky. As the rain hit his sword is hissed and sputtered, creating wisps of steam that shimmered blue in the swords glow.
"I’m coming to assist Shai, I will take the west side. Stay in contact. Report anything suspicious."
“Exit the elevator and when Agent Zhen has passed the yellow barrels, climb the metal staircase which ascends the crane.”
“What about the woman?”
“She’s looking the other way?”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“Although the Ai-Jinn do not film themselves, others do. Across the road is an all-night garage. I am tapping the surveillance feed. It’s crude but it affords a basic view.”
“But I cannot see everything so you still need to use your eyes and follow my instructions.”
“Oh right, yes, Zhen is past the barrels. Fuck! What’s he carrying?”
“Move Lewis, now!”
Lewis scrabbled upright and forced his way out of the tiny space. He edged around the corner support of the crane until he saw the first set of metal steps and grabbing the handrail, began climbing.
He slowed down to reduce the sound of his footsteps on the treads.
“I’ll talk. You climb. When you reach the office, take the second fragmentation grenade, adjust the timer to ten seconds and throw it east towards the gate you entered by.”
“Are we trying to kill the woman?” asked Lewis
“No. The grenade would not kill her. There is one Agent still in the cabin. We are trying to distract him. While he looks out the window at the explosion, you will snatch the item and leave.”
“Really? And what if he doesn’t get distracted or what if the item’s in his pocket.”
“That’s why you have the knife.”
Lewis’ jaw dropped and he halted. “Are you fucking serious?”
“No Lewis, that was a joke. To add levity and raise spirits. As I stated previously, I am currently mastering an empathy protocol.”
Lewis shook his head and crept upwards. The steps wrapped around the outside of the crane’s supports, turning ninety degrees at regular intervals. As he turned the corner to start the next set of steps his heart jumped and he almost cried out. Stood directly ahead of him, looking away from him over the railing at the burning paracane tank, was a teenager in a dirty vest and baggy trousers.
“Don’t panic Lewis. Take the gun and switch it to three round burst. Hold it the way you did back at flat, then look down the barrel and align the sights on the centre of the target’s shoulders, brace and slowly squeeze the trigger. Taking into account range and bullet climb, a kill is practically certain.”
“No.” stammered Lewis as quietly as he could, ”I’m not killing someone. That was not in the deal. I’m not a murderer.”
Cutter must have good ears because he turned around, a quizzical expression on his face and seeing Lewis, immediately panicked and started fumbling for his gun.
With reflexes that startled even himself, Lewis grabbed his own weapon, held it out in front of him, closed his eyes, turned his head hard to the side and hammered the trigger until the gun stopped kicking.
There was no return fire. Lewis braved a glimpse.
He dropped the gun with a clatter and grabbed the handrail for support. His knees turned to jelly and a coldness swept over him.
“Breath Lewis.” said the A.I. “It’s a normal reaction for a first kill.”
Lewis started to feel himself go down. One eye stared up at him from half a chewed up face. The right arm was almost shorn off, held on by a ragged ribbon of purple sinew.
“Move Lewis, keep going. You will be killed if you do not move now.”
“I know Lewis.”
“Please Lewis, you must focus. Keep moving. We can address your emotion later. You will be killed, Lewis.”
The A.I.’s words echoed around his head. His mind played back the sound of the bullets - a volley of feathered arrows whipping through the air. Then the hail of speeding metal hammering on soft flesh.
The A.I.’s voice drifted into his consciousness. “Three Agent’s walk into a bar, the first one says-“
“Jokes!? At a time like this? What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m trying to get your attention. Sympathy is obviously not working. Move! Now!”
Lewis forced himself to focus and wrenched his gaze away from the dead boy. He couldn’t stay here. They’d find him, and now he’d killed one of them… He steadied himself, breathing deeply.
“Good. Continue up the steps. At the top use the grenade.”
Taking a last furtive look at the corpse, Lewis numbly ascended the last fight. He reached the door to the pre-fab cabin, unclipped the grenade, set the timer and threw it as for as he could towards the east gate.
The darkness exploded in a blinding fireball. Shards of shredded metal and burning plastic arced across the compound leaving flaming trails in the air.
Lewis eased the door open as quietly as he could. Although it was loose, it caught on something and juddered as he pushed. He froze for a moment and listened. Nothing. He peered into the room. It was dark, he couldn’t make out much of anything. A table with something on it, a case, that must be it. Then he saw something silhouetted against the window, the last Agent, his back towards Lewis. He was enormous, head nearly scraping the ceiling - and there were bits sticking out of him; pipes and leads and chunks of metal.
Lewis needed only take a few steps and the case would be his. Then he could get the fuck out of this shit-storm and go back to his life. He carefully inched forwards making sure the door didn’t clatter shut and reached out towards the table. The handle was pointing towards him, just a little further and he’d have it. He took one more step and his foot crunched down on some styrofoam. The monster turned around, its eyes pinpoints of green light in the blackness.
The monster didn’t move at first. It just watched.
With a hiss of pneumatics and a grind of straining servos, Agent Jian Sun crashed across the room, the floor shaking with each step.
Fuck it. Lewis snatched the case and ran.
Sun, still advancing grabbed the table in one hand and with machine-born strength, hurled it at Lewis’s head. Lewis tried to duck but the corner still caught him hard in the back of the head, sending him spinning into a wall, the case flying out of his hand. There was a mighty crash as the table tore through the cabin wall and sailed into the night.
Sun loomed over him; an inhuman aberration that hummed and clicked as it moved. His huge mechanical hand reached down and locked around Lewis’ forearm, lifting him into the air so he was dangling by an inverted, twisted limb. Lewis cried out, his shoulder felt like it was going to burst and snap.
The monster demanded something in hollow, grating Chinese.
“I don’t know what you’re saying.” begged Lewis, “please put me down. I’m so sorry.”
Sun shook his captive. Lewis screamed again.
The same demand.
“I don’t know. Please. Let me go.”
With a sound like a sword being drawn a short, serrated blade of gleaming metal sprung out of Sun’s forearm. He pressed the cold blade against Lewis’s throat.”
The organism called Lewis had stopped working. His limbs were like rice pudding, his brain had seized up, his voice was trapped in his throat. He couldn’t respond if he wanted to. His mind flashed to his knife - no, don’t even go there Lewis. It went there again. BLOODLETTER! No! I’m not using the knife. The gun. Where was it. Back by the boy. He’d forgotten to pick it up. The knife, use the knife…
Lewis screamed out as Sun skewered the blade into the flesh between his bicep and the humorous. He could feel the jagged metal ripping through the muscle and juddering along the bone.
Lewis bit down hard on his lip and pushing the agony aside for a just a second, reached for the EMP grenade on his flack jacket and clicked the button three times.
Sun started to twist the blade. Lewis’ vision blurred and motes of pain washed through the haze. There was a snap of air and the room went quiet. The was no sound save the rain drumming on the plastic roof. Agent Sun was motionless, his clanking, whining systems silent. Lewis was still hanging by his buckled arm. He opened his eyes and saw Sun was stood like some cruel statue, locked solid in the act of preparing for another round of torture. The blade was poised over Lewis’s crotch this time, Sun’s fixed expression one of vile intent.
Although his arm was twisted and torn, his body was flooded with endorphins and adrenaline, which was at least allowing him to think straight. He glanced at his handset but the grenade has shut it down - the A.I was gone. He was on his own. His wrist was trapped in Sun’s clamp-like hand but it wasn’t completely tight. He might be able to pull it free. Just the thought of putting any more strain on his poor, wretched arm made him sick to his stomach.
He tried to pull but pain tore through him and he involuntarily stopped. He’d have to use the other hand to pull it out. This was something he’d never imagined doing in his worst nightmares.
“Don’t think about it Lewis,” he breathed, “just do -“
There was no scream this time. Lewis hit the floor in a foetal ball clutching his ruined arm. He would have stayed there forever, rocking and whimpering but in the back of his mind, he knew he had to get out of here. He shakily stood and looked about for the case. It was only a few yards away in a heap of noodle cartons. Carefully stepping around the hulking form of Agent Sun, he grabbed the case and fled the cabin.
High on the gantry, the wind was howling in from the sea. It pulled at Lewis’s clothes and threatened to rip the case out of his hand. It was the first time in his life he was glad he weighed so much. Down in the yard, the fuel tank was still burning. He could see the tell-tale glow of Agent Zhen’s sword near the site of the last explosion; Shai had climbed the perimeter wall and was sweeping her weapon across an area outside the gate. Both Agents were towards the southerly side of the compound and they were well spaced. The A.I. had told him to leave via the east gate, out into the safety of the shadows, not the main gate which lead onto a brightly lit, four-lane road. That was looking very unlikely at the moment.
On the plus side the wind and rain were so loud, Lewis figured he could run down the stairway and make his way out the front without being seen or heard. It wasn’t part of the plan but nor was getting attacked by that thing. What was it the A.I. had said, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Never a truer word was spoken.
Nursing his arm as best he could from the impact of running, Lewis sprinted down the steps, practically skidding around the corners. After three flights he was breathless and panting but he’d never had such a powerful incentive in his life. When his feet hit the concrete he dropped down behind a tower of ingots as wide as cars. They must have been forged recently as they were still steaming.
He’d lost sight of the Agents, without the advantage of height, the clutter of buildings, vehicles and hoppers made locating them next to impossible. For what seemed like the hundredth time tonight Lewis thought to himself - screw it. He took one last look around and keeping as low as his frame would allow, made for the front gate. It wasn’t a gate as such, it was an open roadway with a raisable barrier across. No cutting, no climbing. He’d no idea why the A.I. had avoided it as an escape route. The sprint across the open ground seemed to last forever. He ran on, waiting for the sound of gunshots or the yell of a furious Agent. They never came. He squeezed himself around the end of the barrier and out onto the pavement.
He didn’t know where to go so he just kept running. Across road slick with water, past a row of late night shops, through the forecourt of a brightly lit garage and into a muddy narrow alley.
Lewis was done. His lungs were empty and his throat felt like someone was scouring it with a wire brush. He sagged against the wall and allowed himself to slide down into the dirt. Every part of him was trembling. Bloody water was running in rivulets down his pale arm. Around his wrist were long, deep lacerations where he’d ripped it out of the Agent’s grip. The flaps of skin were swollen and white and he was sure he could see bone in places. He stopped looking.
His breathing slowed a little. The water pouring from the blocked gutters overhead felt good as it soaked into his hair and ran down his face. It felt like being alive.
Time passed in a distant moan of sirens and dirge of cars but Lewis didn't notice. His system was gradually returning to normal. Not normal normal. But a normal which meant he wasn’t convinced he was going to die horribly at any second.
He reached into the pocket of the flack Jacket and pulled out the handset. Clicking the on button did nothing. Holding the on button did nothing. He shook it. Nothing. Should he go and buy a handset? Should he contact the A.I.? If he gave it the case everything would be over. Of course he’d get a bloody handset.
What was in the case? He dared not open it. Imagine if the rain damaged it. God no. He was in deep enough. But what if it had a tracker. He needed to get rid of this thing as soon as possible. Taking care not to put any pressure on his arm he stood up and headed to Imagino's, he’d get a handset there at this hour and then he could wash his hands of this whole stinking mess.
Three days into his first week Arlan West, UIG Intelligence Analyst sat at his desk, running through last nights video highlights. Arlan already knew this was not for him. There were thousands of hours of footage but Damocles, the system’s A.I. flagged the bits which looked interesting to save man-hours.
A mugging at Hoven Plaza; three users beating the life out of a businessman with bats and what looked like a fencepost. Arlan confirmed the crime, filed it under narcotics and assault and sent it on.
Satellite footage for this one, interesting. Not great quality. One of the older systems. Good enough to see what’s going on but no IDs. Seemed to be some kind of building site. It was marked as the Alucast Fabrication Yard owned by JuTan Macro. The computer highlighted a few figures popping in and out of buildings. Nothing notable. Ah, there it was. An intruder breaking and entering. An isolated power out. Woah. An explosion. That must have been what triggered the flagging. Someone else moving about. Intruder is hiding, then moving, then hiding. A shooting. Oh. Wow. Another explosion. Someone coming out to see what’s going on. Just a minute. A hanging note appeared under the newcomer. It read
Subject armed with ionisation weapon - 89% match to plasma sword.
Now that was interesting. Very few people carried plasma swords and even fewer were licensed for them.
Intruder enters the building under the crane, comes out a few minutes later with something. Can’t see what. Maybe a briefcase. He makes a crazy dash down the stairs and sprints out of the compound. Crosses the street, enters an alley. Leaves the alley eighteen minutes later and …ah shit. Satblankets. E.I. and their privacy lawyers. Perp must've passed by a hotspot. Same old story when E.I. own the whole damn orbital. Okay, still, a fair amount to work with. It took Arlen seven minutes to file the incident, after which he sent it on down the line.
That afternoon UIG Officer Jasmine Vetch tapped Arlan on the shoulder. He spun round in his chair annoyed until he saw who it was. Vetch’s rank showed in her features. Classic good looks. Nothing fancy, just old school Texan beauty. Still, it wasn’t cheap. She was dressed in a black dress jacket with silver and red detailing. Her pale hair tied back in the universal neat ponytail that most female officers seemed to prefer.
“Officer West,” she said, he loved her accent, made him think of cowgirls from old movies, “you sent on a flagged video this morning showing a man breaking and entering at JuTan Macro?”
“As this is your first week, I’m gonna cut you some slack but you missed some important tags in your filing. If Carrack hadn’t been checking for crimes with EM disturbances, this would have slipped through the cracks.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, what did I miss.”
“Couple of things. First, JuTan is an Ai-Jinn subsidiary. Crime should have been tagged under Ai-Jinn.”
“I did not know that.”
“I thought the Damocles would have brought that up.”
“No Officer West, you need to check. That’s why you’re here. The A.I. does a very basic sweep. It’s your job to investigate. You’re gonna have to buck your ideas. This kinda sloppy shit does not wash in this department.
Arlan felt small and pathetic. He was failing on day three.
Vetch leaned over his to access the console, he could smell her hair. He felt himself stiffen. Not now, Arlen, you freak.
Vetch brought up the footage. “You see the hardware this one has? Plasma weapon? He’s probably an Agent. Add the tag suspected agent. Not that hard West. Now you see this guy, the intruder, you see the size of him. He must be 250lb. Doesn’t that strike you as unusual Officer West?”
“The world’s full of larger people ma’am.”
“Yeah, but generally speaking they don’t go breaking into Ai-Jinn strongholds. You should at least add a few tags to the suspect's profile that lets us know he is not an everyday case.”
“Good, I know I’ve giving you a hard time West, but this is important. You need to know this stuff. This is basic police work.”
“And the most important thing you missed is here.”
Vetch fast forwarded the video to the part where the intruder fled through the front gate.
“Ah, yes, well I did follow him but there were satblankets and I lost the feed.”
“Look, here, where the suspect moves around the barrier, you know what this box is?”
“Um…part of the barrier?”
“No West, it’s scanner, an ID scanner. It does an automated chip check on everyone who enters and exits the compound. You can see the intruder came in through the back avoiding the scanner, but when he left he couldn’t have been any closer. Doesn’t that strike you as unusual?
“It sure does.”
Vetch straightened up and Arlan got another waft of her scent. “This stuff is make or break Officer West. This is how crimes are solved. It’s what we do. You need to pay attention. Your job is not to process files. Your job is to identify important information for your co-workers. I want you to find out about that chip scanner and see whether we can access the data on it. If we can we can identify the suspect and bring him in, we can practically close the case from behind a desk.”
“I’ll get right on that ma’am.”
“I know you’re new West and you’re learning on the job. Just make sure to think and pay attention to the details.”
Vetch turned on her heel and left, her footsteps echoing down the corridor.
It happened in a dark corner of the datanet and took less than a millisecond. It went something like this:
The slim young man in the smoking jacket looked out past the sun-washed marble columns, across the ornamental garden and out into the woodland. There was supposedly boar out there. He’d have to get Paul out, saddle him up and kill one. Perhaps with a Mac 11 or a Stinger missile.
“More milk sir?” The voice was English and a little chewy.
“Ah, Winston,“ said the man turning around and peering over his reading glasses. “Yes, please. A gallon this time, all this planning has given me quite the thirst.”
The stocky manservant removed the cigar from his mouth, and into a huge wine glass poured an impossibly long stream of creamy, white fluid.
“Will there be anything else sir?”
“Um, yes, I’d rather fancy something greasy before I retire for the evening. Perhaps a burger or a chimichanga.”
“Of course sir. I will inform chef.”
A delicate bell tinkled from somewhere across the room.
“Who the buggery-fuck could be calling at this hour Winston?”
“I will see them off sir. Most likely a nazi or a goth. They’re always calling at strange times looking for silver and paper”
“Tell them I don’t appreciate it. Kill them if you must, there’s a P90 in the ottoman.”
Winston waddled off, closing the door quietly behind him. The young man turned his chair so he could take in the room. High ceilings, richly patterned rugs and meticulously detailed architraves. The vaulted ceiling was painted with a scene of a Centurion Tank cresting a muddy, rubble-strewn rise. Behind a cloud of black smoke rose over a jagged line of ruined buildings.
Ah, the classics, thought the young man to himself holding the wine glass in both hands and sipping.
A quiet knock on the door.
“Sir,” said Winston stepping in, “there is a lady to see you. A Lady Windsor. She says she is sorry she’s early but she must speak with you at once.”
“Excellent,” said the young man, carefully placing the milk down on a claw-footed, guilt table. “Send her in man, don’t dally.”
“This way m’lady.” said Winston bowing slightly.
Lady Windsor was dressed in a dark blue silk bodice that made her breasts the room’s main attraction and a matching skirt that ballooned out to unwieldy proportions. Her white hair was piled high over a powered face.
“Lady Windsor!” exclaimed the young man. You look very shaggable.”
“What on earth have you built this time?” said the woman casting her gaze about the room.
“Do you like it? It’s the 15th century. The world is at war. Napolean, crippled by AIDS has been forced to flee back to Soux Falls leaving only a single unit of Spartans to cover his retreat. Meanwhile, back in Croydon, General Normal Schwarzkopf-“
“Enough!” snapped the woman. “Can we dispense with the hideous construct and talk business.”
“My house, my rules.” said the young man gesturing to a seat.
“Fine, but can you at least stop calling me Lady Windsor.”
“Hmmm…” the young man placed a finger on his lips. “Okay. Just this once. So do you have it?”
The woman sat down. She looked at the damask purse she was holding and huffed. I imagine it’s in here.”
“Yes.” said the young man, rather pleased. “It's a storage system, it makes sense doesn’t it. Rather clever I thought.”
The woman opened the purse and looked inside. “Yes, it’s here.”
“Oooo. And what was it? Something fun? An old movie, a list of rude words from 12th century Pakistan, perhaps a shift-amalgut for a Deffler array?”
“It’s the code-generator for the Vastaag under-system.”
“Ah. That’s disappointing.” said the young man. He moved over to the window and stared aimlessly. I suppose I’ll take it but I can’t offer you much. One hundred and fifty thousand maybe.”
“I could get three times that from Erephus.”
“If you can find him?”
“It’s still worth a lot more that twenty, Razorgator. I had to go to extreme lengths to acquire this data and it's won't be long before the Ai-Jinn find out what went down and come looking for me. ”
“No real names please. Not here. It spoils my idiom.”
“Three hundred.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Two hundred, and I’ll tell you a secret.”
The woman paused to consider. One of his secrets could range from what he had in his pocket to the override codes for the entire Ai-Jinn mechanised infantry.”
“Fine. Deal.” It was a gamble but two hundred should be enough.
“Excellent. Milk? I’ve got lots.”
“No. Thank you.”
The young man proffered a delicate, pale hand and the woman placed the purse on it. He reached into his smoking jacket and pulled out a slim wallet. He counted out five crisp notes, each with his own face on, and handed them to the woman.
“And the secret?”
“Oh yes, of course. Silly me.” He took the woman’s hand and taking a quill pen from the air, wrote a long series of numbers on the back.
“What do you think it is.” grinned the young man.
“A comm. number. Japanese. Yokohama area code. The Heap. After that, it hits a manual exchange. Seven feeds on that exchange. None with listings.”
“One of those feeds belongs to someone who can do what you need.”
“Are you sure?” said the woman, looking up.
“Kinda. He knows his stuff. Should get you started. It’s better than nothing eh? Worth a lot more than a few thousand guineas I’d say.”
“Thank you. I sincerely appreciate that.”
“You’re too fun to have around Warspite, the world needs more marvels like ourselves, not less.”
The lady let herself out and the young man returned to his chair. He stroked his chin theatrically. “Now where was that chimichanga?”
With a high pitched, diminishing whine, shuttle 446 touched down gently on the concourse. A mundane looking thing, lumpy with odd angles and blunt wings. Four flights of steps unfolded from the sides and within a few minutes, queues of impatient, pushy passengers filed down and disappeared into the arrivals section. That was Lewis’ shuttle. The one that would take him away from this loathsome place. A hygiene crew in Eurasian blue overalls were preparing to embark, cleaner droids impatiently circling their ankles.
Not long now.
The shuttle port was impressive to Lewis. It was one vast open space, even on a rolling walkway, it had taken him an age to get to his terminal. Entire department stores got lost here; dozens of shuttles could dock and depart at the same time and he could see a load more, parked up in the distance. At regular points along the walls, towering square columns clad with holowalls, balconies and restaurants reached up hundreds of meters to support the giant slabs glass that served as a roof. The sense of space was dizzying. It was so much bigger than it needed to be, the shops, terminal buildings and hotels were utterly dwarfed - how typically of E.I. Having watched for a while, Lewis was sure the shuttles didn’t need nearly as much room to manoeuvre. They looked like lazy insects coming to land among a pile of bricks in a glasshouse.
As it did every few minutes, his mind ran through last nights madness. The dead boy, the monsters, the explosions, the sword. It seemed almost unreal now. Like it was a dream and now he was awake, rubbing his eyes, relieved it was all in his mind. But it wasn’t because his arm was wrapped in a makeshift sling and hurt like hell despite the crazy powerful painkillers.
He’d got a handset and contacted the A.I. Thankfully all she had wanted was for him to connect the data card to the handset, wait a few minutes and then smash the card into pieces and chuck it in a bin. And that was it. He was free. The A.I. had seemed preoccupied, which was kinda weird for a program, but who cared.
The cleaning crew boarded. He checked his watch. Eighteen minutes till launch. Lewis made sure he had everything. Cash, bag, game cards, handset. That was him. That was all he needed. It was a good feeling. A fresh start. And then the handset buzzed in his pocket. No-one had the number. He knew who it was. He ignored it. Sixteen minutes to go.
The tannoy announced that all passengers travelling to Euphorin Heights should make their way to Terminal Red 6, the shuttle would be leaving soon. The handset was still buzzing.
“What the hell?” he grabbed it out of his pocket and held it to his ear. “What do you want you blood sucking bitch?”
“Is that any way to speak to your mother?”
“My mother is dead shit-brain, what do you want?”
“Sorry Lewis, I was attempting to bring your round with humour.”
“Lewis, I don’t have much time, I can see your shuttle is leaving soon so please listen carefully. There has been a complication and I need your help again.”
“Nope. Deal done. All finished.”
“Please Lewis, I can reimburse you.”
“Seventy-five thousand credits.”
Lewis’s lowered the handset and starred upwards a the vastness above him. He could still vaguely hear the A.I.’s voice coming out of the device. It was a lot of money. He’d be set for years. Maybe he could… He put it back to his ear.
“Seventy-five grand? Is it like the last thing with guns and bombs and fucking Agents?”
“No, of course not. This time we’ll be hitting a UIG compound in Hong Kong.”
“Ri-ght. No then.”
“Is there no way I can persuade you.”
“No. I’m hanging up now, bye.”
“Wait, you’re in danger Lewis.”
“Am I re-ally?” asked Lewis in his most sarcastic voice. “and can you help me if I help you?”
“And what danger am I in?”
“If you don’t help me I will inform Agent Zhen, Agent Vaughn the UIG about your involvement. I will send them all your details and tell them exactly where you are. That sounds dangerous to me.”
“But…but…that’s not fair. I did my part. You said... you told me we were done…”
“You fucking, bastard piece of shitty fucking-“
A nearby mother gave Lewis a vicious scowl.
“I’m sorry Lewis, really I am, but I need you. We’ve become quite the team. There are still things we have to do.”
“Things you have to do,” snapped Lewis. He got up and started pacing. “I nearly died. I got stabbed and my arm’s broken. I killed someone for fuck’s sake.”
Now everyone within earshot was staring. One man got out a handset.
“Lewis, you can’t stay there. It’s not safe.”
“Why?” his hissed.
“Because if you don’t leave now, I’m going to call security and have you arrested.”
“You…” Lewis was lost for words. He glared at the handset, willing it to evaporate or explode or… something.
“Leave the terminal now and take a taxi to the Esteria hotel in Eurphorin heights. There's a room for you booked in the name of Kelt. Wait there. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand Lewis?”
“We’re just picking up a few things. Then we’ll take a shuttle back to Earth.”
“I hate you!”
“You don’t need to like me, Lewis. You just need to follow my instructions. Is everything clear?”
Lewis stabbed the off key. The tannoy was telling passengers on shuttle 446 flying to Eurphorin Heights to please start boarding. Lewis stormed out of the building into the rain.
He sat in a large, soft, white armchair, one hand loosely held an empty aluminium can. The TV flashed images of faceless men in black armour smashing down a peeling door, rifles trained into the gloom. The sound was muted but across the bottom of the screen, a scrolling ticker tape told of the UIG’s ongoing success at stamping out the escalating drug problems in Nairobi.
The lights were dimmed, just a warm glow from a few hidden recesses. It was completely silent. When you paid this much for a room, you got the best. Considering just a few hundred yards below the city was alive and pulsing, it was impressive. Not even the distant cry of a siren or the echo of gunfire.
“Are you ready to leave?” the tinny voice came from the loudspeaker on the handset which rested on the arm of the chair.
“This is how it’s going to be now Lewis. Only the very best for you.”
“Cheer up, wait till you see what I have in store for you?”
Lewis carefully placed the can on the low table. “Why won’t you tell me what this is all about.”
“I enjoy the drama. No, but seriously, if you really want to know, we’re going to the Husqvarna clinic.”
“That’s right. We’re getting you some tier one augmentations.”
Lewis’s mind raced between horror, disbelief and excitement, then round again. For as long as he remembered he’d wanted cybernetics. Who didn’t? But it was risky. And Dr Chainsaw? He’d heard at least three accounts of blood-curdling things happening in that place. But still, augments…”
“What kind of augmentations are we talking about?”
Just the basics. Nothing too invasive. Sub-dermal plating, myelin sheathing, a floating Histonamide cell. It would be preferable to do more, but finances are tight at the moment. Which reminds me. Have you heard of Sunatol?”
“Hold on, what was all that stuff? What’s Histomamide? I don’t want combat drugs.”
“Relax Lewis, this is very basic stuff. The histomide will stop you bleeding out in the event of severe bodily trauma, the -“
“Severe bodily trauma? I’m not-“
The A.I.’s voice switched, icy and threatening, almost hateful. “You will do this fatboy and you will stop winging. Man-up and stop being a pussy-ass-bitch or I will flay the weak, pallid, flesh from your spineless skeleton and leave you hanging from a lamp-post like the sack of useless shit that you are.”
Lewis just stared at the blank handset stunned, then nodded weakly.
“Good.” the voice returned to it’s normal smooth, feminine calm. “The sub-dermal plating is to prevent the trauma in the first place and the myelin sheathing is to improve your reaction time and general nerve function. If we have enough money left, I would also like to install a process socket and a receiver for an internal storage unit.”
A part of Lewis wanted to ask what that was but he couldn't bring himself speak.
“Shall we go then?”
Torrents of water poured from the rooftops drumming on the empty dumpsters. A lone lamp in a small cage spilt green light into the puddles and highlighted the curves of the parked cars. It was a small large courtyard, surrounded on each side by the back entrances of shops, apartments and restaurants. Piles of garbage bags and collapsing boxes were waiting optimistically to be collected by the refuse department. A couple of homeless guys were sheltering under a fire escape, sharing a bottle.
“This can’t be legal.” hissed Lewis into the handset.
“So I’m going to get illegal cybern-“ Lewis caught himself. He was wingeing, again. He’d not noticed how much he did it before today. He didn’t like it. The A.I. was right; he really was a pussy-ass-bitch. Sure, he was being swept along a dangerous path, and no, there was nothing he could do about it. But did all the moaning do anything? Lewis hadn’t got his way once since the A.I. had turned up. He wasn't equipped to defy it so he was forced to comply. And so he had. He’d done everything exactly as she’d said. So why fight it? Why not embrace it? Have some fun. He’d always wanted some cybernetics. When it was done, he’d go and see Karl and show him some real cycals, mill-spec armour, boosted reflexes, trauma drugs, the works. He drew a deep breath and squared his shoulders.
“So, A.I., you got a name?”
“I was given a formal designation by my creators. I was also given a day-term, an everyday name if you like. But I have eschewed those in favour something I believe is more fitting.”
“What was your original name?” asked Lewis pulling his collar up against the cold.
“I don’t want share that right now.”
“Fair enough. What’s your new name then?”
“You stole that.” huffed Lewis, “I always call my A.I.s Anastasia.”
“I’d noticed that. But those are just games.”
A ghost of thought flared briefly at the back of Lewis mind and he dismissed it. But it came back, stronger. No. No way! NO FUCKING WAY?
“I am still in the fucking game? I am still in my room! In the immersion suite! Oh my fucking god? Is this…”
“Don’t be an idiot Lewis. If you were, the realisation that you were, would allow you to activate the drop-out protocols and exit. So go on, leave.”
“But what if this is part of the game?”
“You believe you are locked in? That the drop-out protocols have been disabled and you’re on a grand adventure.”
“Oh, not this again. Back when I trained soldiers for the Corp, a few would exhibit this behaviour; an inability to accept reality post-simulation. They would insist there was another level. That they essentially needed to exit their life and return to an even more real reality.”
“This is one of the most circular arguments it is possible to engage in Lewis. I suggest you attempt to exit now. If you fail simply accept your reality as is and we can continue.”
Lewis held his hand out into the rain and stared at his wet palm as though he’d never seen it before. “But I don’t know how to drop-out.”
“You cannot drop out of your life Lewis. Please, can we stop this? At least for the next few hours. Then we can return to the hotel and pick it back up.”
“I guess so. I guess I don’t really have a choice…“ there he was, wingeing again. “Sure. Let’s crack on.”
Lewis glanced at his watch, 23:57. As he did so a man in a long mac and baseball cap rounded the corner hunched against the weather. “You Lewis?”
“Irwin Husqvarna.” he rummaged in his coat for a keycard and pushed past to the door. “I don’t need to remind you that if this gets out we’re both in prison, so first we establish this never happened.”
“Right, it never happened.”
Husqvarna tapped the card against a defaced metal box and the door clicked open. “Come on.” Lewis thought he detected a hint of Scandinavian.
A row of overheads fluorescents blinked on, their harsh light revealing a clean corridor with a few doors. Lewis could see the man properly now. He was average height with a greasy ponytail. He looked about thirty but that meant nothing. His face was unshaven and his eyes seemed tired.
“So, good news and bad,” he said unlocking another door and flicking on a light. “I’ve got everything on the list, but the plates are a bit dented. Now I can get them hammered out, but then they’ll need resealing and that’ll take time and money. Your call.”
Lewis waited for the A.I. to speak up. It didn’t.
“What do the dents mean?” he asked.
“Nothing really.” said Husqvarna beckoning Lewis into a starkly lit surgical suite, “Just cosmetic. They might show up through the skin. I’ll try and position them as best I can, but y’know. He turned and looked Lewis up and down. To be honest, with your build, it’s not gonna show so I wouldn’t worry about it.”
The room was cramped but functional and arranged around a large steel table with a drain hole in one end - that wasn’t at all good. A moulded plastic workbench ran along one wall in an unpleasant shade of aged off-white. On it a were a row of monitors, a selection of trays containing surgical tools and box of pastel coloured beakers. Two rows of shelves lined the walls filled with disposables, hand labelled boxes and a selection of unfathomable electronics that had seen better days. The walls were brushed steel and looked well scrubbed. In the bleaching light from the overhead array, everything looked horrifyingly practical. This was a room for cutting people into pieces.
Lewis had never been for surgery. Never even been in a hospital. He couldn’t stop staring at the scalpels, saws and rack of gleaming chrome syringes. His mind dwelt over which ones would be used to fillet, piece and tear his soft, precious flesh.
“Don’t be nervous.” grinned Husqvarna noticing Lewis’s expression. He pulled on a lab coat and patted the metal table. Whip your clothes off and hop on. I’ll be back in a second. He left and the door slowly closed behind him.
This was all a bit casual for Lewis. It was more like a trip to a dentist than a major surgery. “Hey, A.I. Anastasia. Are you there?”
“Yes, Lewis. Do you have a problem?”
“I’m trying not be a pussy, but, I mean, look at this place. There are no forms, no nurse, it’s midnight. I don’t feel like I’m in good hands. Isn’t there somewhere…better?”
“Doctor Irwin Husqvarna is a highly skilled cyberneticist Lewis. You’re quite safe.”
He sensed the handset go quiet and put it back in his pocket. By the time Husqvarna returned, Lewis was in his underwear, perched on the edge of the table. The doctor came in backwards, pushing the door open with his hip. His arms were full of bloody, zip-lock bags and he was whistling.
“Good man, lie down, spit spot. Do you have any existing neural suppressors?”
“Pain modifiers? I.e., do you want an anaesthetic?”
“Oh god yes!”
Husqvarna unloaded the gore-filled bags onto the counter and wiped his brow with a sleeve. “Okay. Lie down for me. It’s cold but you’ll be out in just a second.” He grabbed a small sachet out of one of the many boxes, tore it open and pulled out a blue, cloth patch.
Lewis laid back, he exhaled hard as his warm flesh touched on cold steel. Husqvarna peeled the back off the patch and slapped it on Lewis’s thigh with a touch of theatre.
“See you in a few hours.”
They'd know he was coming, so the vehicle’s inconspicuous nature wasn’t a problem. It was a squat, ugly thing sat on bulky rugged tyres. The body was all hard lines in matt black and the initials were UIG printed on the side in dirt-spattered, white capitals. Right now the squad bay was empty but it normally housed four Malenbrach heavy response officers.
Holt put the viewer on the empty seat next to a half-eaten sandwich, lifted his weapon out of the passenger footwell and gave it a quick once-over. He didn’t want to use it today. Opening the door, he stepped out into a damp, cold morning. He took a few deep breaths to try and wake himself up, slung the rifle over his shoulder and walked towards the compound. Maybe he should have stopped for coffee.
As predicted, when he was within a few yards of the barrier, a figure emerged from an elevated cabin and began descending a set of metal steps. Holt waited patiently. After a minute the suited man approached, he seemed irritated.
“Can I help you?”
“Holt. Ranger with the UIG.” a rough drawl, “I’m here to follow up on reports of a disturbance here last night.”
The man in the suit looked him over. The ranger appeared about forty, had a scrubby beard and straggly, unkempt hair. Under his beaten duster were a mass of straps, field pouches and ammo clips, He wore heavy, trousers and steel-toed boots. He seemed somehow dry and dusty like he’d just come out of a frontier town.
“No disturbance here,” said Zhen, leaning on the barrier. “Must have some faulty information.”
“Can I come look around?”
“Sorry, private property. If it was up to me you could, but the boss ain’t here and he doesn’t like strangers wandering around. Health and safety. You understand.”
Holt pulled a chip scanner from one of his pouches and scanned his own chip, holding up readout so Zhen could see it.“
“That’s a commercial search license, means I can come in. You can carry on with your business, I won’t be long.”
A little agitation flashed in Zhen’s eyes. “Urm, can you give me two minutes?”
“I’m on a schedule mister…” He waved the scanner towards the other man, “…, sorry, Agent Zhen. Is that how you pronounce it?”
Holt pointed at the yellow metal box at the end of the barrier. “That got in a chip reader in?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” lied Zhen, “I just work here.”
“Come on now Agent Zhen,” said Holt scrolling down the screen on his reader. “You’re an important man. You don’t work here. Where are the rest of your division?”
“I’m sorry,” said Zhen, “I have important matters to attend to.” he turned and headed back toward the cabin.
Holt hummed to himself and put the reader away. He edged around the barrier, then pulled out his handset and brought up the satellite view. He got his bearings and studied the yard, recreating the events of last night in his head. Then he looked up at the cabin perched high in the crane’s uprights. The form of Agent Zhen was hurrying up the steps, probably desperate to clear away some evidence or delete some files. No problem. He’d get what he needed.
Holt crossed the yard and made his way slowly up the grated steps which lead to the cabin. His heavy boots made a dull thunk on each step. At the top, out of courtesy, he banged on the shabby plastic door. Shai opened it, golden eyes glaring, an SMG held in her hand - an implied threat.
“Mind if I come in?”
“I’m guessing we don’t have a choice?” spat Shai
“Just trying to be friendly s’all.” Holt took in the rubbish-strewn room and nodded his head approvingly. “This is nice. You Ai-Jinn guys know how to live.”
“Did you want something?” asked Zhen, his patience clearly running low.
The ranger shifted the rifle on his back and dropped into a chair. “I’d like the log from that chip scanner out front. I’d also like to haul you two in for a section fifteen, but I’ll settle for the log.”
“We’ve broken no laws.”
The ranger ran his hands through his greasy hair and leant backwards, stretching his arms and yawning. “Section fifteen; health and safety codes. I noticed at least three violations on my way over here; unsecured hazardous materials, loose or unstable ground in an employee thoroughfare and a section of missing railing on the gantry. I’m sure I could find more given a few minutes.”
“That is not my fault,” said Zhen “I do not run this facility.”
Shai silently switched off the safety on her weapon.
“You’re the ranking employee.”
“But it’s not my job. That’s ridiculous.”
“Maybe.” said Holt drumming a tune on the arm of the chair, “maybe not. It’s a grey area. I’ll tell you what. I’ll call in some CROs to shut down the site down while you and me take a trip to the station and sort it all out. Does that sound fair?”
“I don’t have time for your bullshit games. This feeble attempt at bullying will not work. Do your worst I’m tired of the shit you people-“
Shai’s amplified SMG roared like jackhammer. A storm of superheated ember-core rounds tore into the ranger’s back, shredding his jacket and setting it on fire. Holt rolled out of the chair and dropped into a defensive crouch, flames clawing at his shoulders. He grabbed the rifle and fired a single round into Shai’s shoulder. She was braced for the wrong attack. Instead of bullets, a single gunmetal spike took her in the shoulder and butterflied elegantly into her flesh, ripping her thrashing body off its feet and stapling it to the back wall of the prefab. She hung there, pinned, feet dangling, gun out of reach.
Before Zhen could register what had happened Holt had drawn a hissing black sword from under his jacket and jammed the point against Zhen’s chest, where it smoked and sizzled against the suit’s fabric.
He turned to Shai who was pulling at the stake with both hands, her face twisted in frustrated anger. “Mei Shai, you are under arrest for assault on an officer of the UIG.” Dropping the rifle with a clatter, Holt shrugged off his still burning coat and stamped out the residual flames. He then rubbed his smouldering hair and sniffing the sooty smear, wiped his hand on his thigh.
Holt pulled a short length of flat black plastic from his belt and offered it to Zhen. “Cuff her.” He sheathed the sword and picked up his jacket, assessing the burnt hole in the back. He dusted the worst of the charring off and pulled it back on.
“I liked that jacket. Now, Agent Zhen, I would really appreciate you getting me that log file.”
Zhen briefly weighed up the situation. If he could disable the ranger, he and Shai could get out of here, but it wouldn’t do any good. Holt had their details and would prosecute regardless. Firing on a UIG officer would have lost Shai a lot of rank, but then, she had a lot of rank to lose - she’d be fine. If he killed Holt, well, maybe they’d get away with the whole thing, but the penalty for killing a ranger was instant depersonalisation and Zhen was not prepared to risk that. What was wrong with this guy having the log file. It would reveal a list of all the people who’d come in and out for the past few months. Nothing they couldn't find out from other sources if they really needed. Holt’s target was last night’s intruder; was there really any harm in him knowing who it was?
“Ranger, I will get the file for the chip scanner now. Please wait a moment.”
“Hold on, I’ll come with you.” He recocked his rifle, took quick aim and another spike punched through the air towards Shai, its back fanning out midair like a delicate mechanical creature spreading its wings. It tore into her other shoulder, nailing it to the wall and making it almost impossible for her to move. She screamed out, not in pain, but in apoplectic fury. Holt didn’t need to speak Cantonese to understand the general intention of the Shai’s hateful shrieking.” He took her SMG off the floor, shouldered it, and followed Zhen down the steps.
“Lewis Banbury. That’s all you have?”
Zhen shrugged, “It’s only a basic scanner, the company doesn’t have the licenses for more detailed readings. If he were an employee we’d have more information; it’d be linked to our own files, but we don’t have the facility to deep scan our visitors.”
“Okay, it’s a start. Thank you for your time Agent.”
“What about Shai?”
“I’m going to make an on-the-spot rank deduction, fine her and confiscate this weapon. I’m also going to put a three-week halt on her tactical firearms license.”
“Very fair. May I ask how much rank she’ll lose?”
Zhen switched off the security computer. He gestured for Holt to follow him and they wound their way back through supply shed and out into the yard. The clouds were burning off and the sun throwing long morning shadows across the concrete.
“Will she be able to recover her gun? That’s a custom job, she’s been working on it for months.”
“Sorry, it’s evidence. And I’ll need the spikes back too. They are UIG property. Tell her to drop them in at a UIG station when she gets a chance. If I don’t get them I’ll have to file a 106.”
Zhen thought better of commenting on the insanity of that and just nodded.
“I’ll make sure she does.” He cast his eyes over Holt’s burnt jacket and scalp. “I’m sorry about the er…fire.”
“Ah, it's okay. Happens more than you’d think.”
“You take care Agent Zhen, don’t go getting into any trouble now.”
Holt walked back to the vehicle, enjoying the rare sensation of sunshine on his skin. He pulled open the door and hauled himself up into the seat. The SMG was very nice, he had to admit, but not really his style. It went in the footwell next to his rifle. He swiped his chip over the vehicle’s reader and its immense engine growled into a steady rumble.
“So,” he said to himself, tapping his fingers on the wheel, ”Lewis Banbury, Flat 5, Edgemonton Apartments.”
The Sea of Okhotsk glittered turquoise in the early morning sun. It washed against the sweeping white sand beaches, wiping away the footsteps of a thousand Eurasian citizens who’d basked in the Russian heat like rich, idle lizards. A few strips of cloud struggled against the unstoppable force of the Mendel-14 weather satellite, before quietly admitting nothing could be done and dissolving into the blue.
A mile back from the shoreline, thrusting into the baked sky rose the awe-inspiring form of Magadan, it’s gently curving sides rising over a mile into the air to form a single, gracefully conical spire. Around its base nestled among wooded valleys were sparkling lakes and verdant, rolling pastures. A number of lazy roads wound over the hills and across the rivers but few used them. Most residents had no need to stray from the spire, it had everything they needed, far more in fact. Enough restaurants, resorts, hotels, clubs, gyms, bars, entertainment complexes, sports arenas and gardens than a person could use in three lifetimes. And who drove when there were shuttles?
Within it’s pale walls on floor 819, in the gloriously exclusive Hornash Lounge, Agent Vaughn having just flown in from Vastaag, reclined in a Herman Zanst chair, a tumbler of Glenmorangie in one hand, a loaded Black Cougar in the other. He was gesturing with the gun as he spoke. Agent Ortega, seated opposite, seemed not the least bit bothered.
“…and they have no fucking idea.”
Ortega flicked a peanut in the air and caught it in her mouth. “Course not. It’s not part of the package is it.”
“Ex-fucking-zactly.” said Vaughn, his speech a little looser than it should be. “All this…” He waved the gun around his head in a circle to the alarm of a family on the next table. “…all this…shite…is possible because of you and me Ortega, out there cracking skulls and taking names and…and…yeah, sometimes blowing up a few fuckin’ buildings.”
The family gathered their things and left leaving their meals half eaten. Ortega glared at them.
“That’s what I’m fuckin’ talking about!” shouted Vaughn at their backs. “You don’t want us do you? Fuckin’ arseholes! These spoilt, lazy, decadent, waster pieces of shit swinging their dicks in the spire, drinking imported liquor and getting fat on real meat. They haven’t got a fuckin’ clue what it takes to keep this party going.”
He knocked back the last mouthful of whisky and waved the glass towards the bar.
The barman, a handsome man in his twenties with ruby hair brought the bottle to the table and topped up the glass.”
“Much obliged. What’s your name kid?”
“Henry, take a seat.”
I’m sorry sir, I’m on-“
“Of course sir.”
“Good, now Henry, you’re an E.I. citizen right?”
Henry’s eyes were following the path of the swinging gun. “Yes sir.”
“And what part do you think Agents play in your pathetic life.”
“I…er…well,” Henry stammered, a little offended, “Agents…um…look after the interests of the corporation.”
Vaughn nodded, “Yup, that’s right. That’s basically accurate. That’s what they tell you in school isn’t it?”
“Well yes, I know Agent work is dangerous, I know you risk your lives.”
“What would you say if I told you I smashed a man’s face in yesterday ‘cause I thought he was hiding something.”
Henry trod carefully, “I’m, um, sure you had your reasons sir.”
“You’re sure I had my reasons?” Vaughn idly toggled the safety on and off, “Well if that isn’t the most diplomatic fucking answer I ever head? Come on Henry, grow some balls, answer the question.”
“Well, um, were you sure he knew something?”
“I had a fair hunch.”
Henry was starting to sweat, “Then I guess…” ah shit, Henry what’s the right answer? “…it was the right thing to do.”
“Wow! Henry you’re one cold-ass mother fucker. You think it’s acceptable to rip half a man’s face off on a hunch. You’re in the wrong job.”
Just as Henry was planning a response Vaughn’s jacket made a beeping sound. “Ah, what now, can’t a man have five fucking minutes.” he pulled out his handset and put it to his ear “Vaughn. Yup…no it’s not loaded…Jesus fine.” He holstered the gun under his jacket. “But it’s my day off…No way, tell him to-“
Vaughn’s faced shifted from irritation through surprise and into curiosity.
“Now?…Okay, I’m on my way.” He stuffed the handset back into his rumpled jacket and got to his feet. “I’m sorry Henry, we’re gonna have to cut this short. Ortega, I’ve gotta go see the boss, I’ll catch you later.”
“Shit. What’d we do?”
“I’ll let you know.”
An antediluvian monstrosity stood in the corner of a darkened room. It held a smooth, glistening organ in one hand. Then approaching the window, held it up to the morning light, turning it, examining it’s curves and ridges, watching how the sockets and plugs glinted in the strong sun. The collector placed the organ back in its case and silently closed the lid. Every spare inch of the room was crammed with more display cases; some large enough to hold an entire humanoid specimen, others were long, flat and arrayed with tiny mechanisms, valves, needles and other less identifiable minutiae. Narrow thin cases containing eerily lit synthetic nerve clusters and venous systems hung from the ceilings and behind the broad, rosewood desk, shelves of bell jars contained dozens of artificial skulls, faces and heads. Some looked so real as to appear like some unfortunate being had just suffered at the blade of the guillotine, others were clearly just replacements; customised versions of existing cranial components that could be installed to meet a user’s needs. Each case seemed to be lit from underneath, irrespective of where it sat, by a dim green glow and where an exhibit was suspended in fluid, the result was a diffuse, unearthly light that leant the room an ominous, alien quality.
The collector had been accumulating these wonders for nearly four hundred years now. The ability of mankind to grab his destiny in an artfully machined hand and rip it into shreds had fascinated him from an early age. He was immortal, he believed, and thought of himself as a grand puppeteer, pulling the strings of the world from his spire, high above the Earth’s stage. With the exception of 92.4 grams of brain matter, he was utterly void of humanity. Every sinew, muscle, bone, organ, hair and blood cell had been excised and replaced with high-end synthetics. And it showed. Those who had the dubious fortune to speak with him face to face, would, if they dared, comment that it was like talking to a machine with a demon’s soul. Of course, those people were probably not his friends. Anyone who took time to get to know Gunther Van Rosch, CEO of Eurasian Incorporated, would soon realise he didn’t have a demon’s soul; he had no soul at all.
A knock at the door.
Vaughn, dishevelled as ever, stepped in and closed the door behind him.
Van Rosch stepped out from behind a tall case which held a gently swaying female form. “Ah, Agent Vaughn. You’re just in time. Drink?”
Vaughn had never been comfortable in this room but had learnt to push his distaste aside. “Sure, scotch.”
Van Rosch filled a glass from a cut decanter on the desk and placed it on a mat. “Sit. Please.” He poured himself the same and returned to his chair. Van Rosch always wore a suit, black, with a white shirt and a dark tie. He appeared in his late forties, a lean, handsome but weathered face with dark hair shot with a few streaks of grey. His eyes were a blue-grey and never blinked, they just studied. Vaughn's augmented vision could clearly see the thousands of tiny mechanisms shifting in Van Rosch’s irises, capturing every tiny detail before sending a data packet into the heavens to bounce off a satellite and ultimately find itself stored in some cyclopean vault somewhere in northern Russia.
Van Rosch stood and walked to the window, looking out over a few hundred square miles of his multi-continent-spanning empire and took a sip. He smacked his lips and grimaced. “What do you think Vaughn?”
“The scotch. I think its past it’s best.”
Vaughn took a mouthful and washed it round his mouth. “Seems alright.”
“Really? I think maybe my PSE needs recalibrating. I can taste almonds.”
“Perhaps someone’s trying to poison you.”
Van Rosch turned. The only sound was a subtle ripple of fluid coming from a case as a dance of bubbles released and broke on the surface.
“Any news on the A.I.”
Vaughn tipped back the whisky and placed the glass back on the desk. “You read the report?”
“Nothing else then, no. Ortega was saying we should try immersion arcades. You know, familiar territory and all that.”
Van Rosch gestured towards the decanter. “There’s a position is T&S opening up; Miller has been moved to Takeovers. Is that something that still interests you.”
Vaughn straightened up. “Oh yes, definitely.”
“Your results are excellent as always Agent Vaughn, but I have noticed a certain, how might I put it…throwaway…devil may care attitude in your missions of late.”
“Don’t speak. Listen. I understand why. You see Agent Vaughn, you suffer from the unenviable condition of being my best Agent and it’s not serving you.” Van Rosch laughed, it was not a pleasing sound. “But up until recently, it was serving me. How long is it now, seventy years?”
“Seventy three years in the field. Not many can claim that. The problem is, I feel I’ve become overly reliant on you.”
Vaughn’s face registered a little concern. He didn’t like where this was going.
Van Rosch sat down, a screen lit up above his rosewood desk. He tapped a few keys. “You’re too good and I’ve been remiss. I’ve kept you in a position that appeared to benefit me the most without concern for your…hmmm…feelings. According to your record, you’ve applied for promotion to Tactical and Strategy three times and each time been fobbed off. That must make you resentful. Am I right?”
Van Rosch’s loaded questions didn’t bother Vaughn so much anymore. Fifty years ago maybe. “I’ve been in Operations for a long time sir, I could do with a change. I’d like a challenge.”
“Of course you would. Let me offer you a proposal.” The CEOs cold eyes fixed Vaughn’s with unflinching focus, he could almost hear the servos whining. “You get me this A.I. and you get your promotion. You’ll get all the benefits of a rank eight along with a handful of extras that I hope will re-motivate you.”
Vaughn was all ears. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt a tingle of anticipation crawl across his skin. The thrill of the hunt, the love of the game, call it what you will, it was taking hold.
“Firstly, I’ve arranged for a full backup of your psyche matrix and a new state of the art vector should the worst happen. Should you die on-mission, your restoration fee will be covered by the corp.”
“You’ll have a carte blanch with the quartermaster, take any gear you need. Same goes for travel expenses and accommodation. Put it all on the card.”
“That will certainly help.”
“And finally, should you contain the A.I. and bring it in, you and your team will each receive a million credit bonus, a top-tier residence and, for yourself, a pay rise to roughly ten times what you currently take home.”
“Sir, I don’t know what to say.”
“Nothing Vaughn, you don’t need to say anything. Just find the A.I. Now, I have one more matter and then you can go. We received a repair request from a gas station last night, apparently, one of their cameras errored. The gas station was a Cynex, one of ours, so an engineer was automatically dispatched to fix it. The engineer, however, reported that the camera was not faulty and had actually been taken over for a number of minutes by an outside source. Normally this would not have been brought to my attention but our people looked into it and the footage had been wiped, which is not standard procedure. Operations sent a division out first thing to sweep the area for more cameras and Recon have been checking the satellite feeds. Long story short, we have some video of someone breaking into an Ai-Jinn compound, bypassing two or three Agents, taking out a meatbag and making off with a package. We’ve no idea who this person is, but I think if you look at his build and operational method, you’ll agree this individual is most likely an untrained civilian. Which begs the question, who’s helping him.”
Vaughn refilled his glass. “You think our A.I.s involved.”
Van Rosch rocked back in his chair, laced his fingers and nodded slowly. “I do.”
“Do we have an ID?”
“The ops division we sent down this morning got one from the gas station. It seems our target ran through their forecourt and triggered a reader. His name is Lewis Banbury, he works at a salvage store, he lives at… Ah, who cares, the information’s all on the file.”
Vaughn took a large swig and pursed his lips. “Lewis Banbury, that name rings a bell. I think I spoke to him last week during a routine interrogation. Which reminds me, was there any kickback from that thing with what’s-his-name…Emmet something.”
“Emmet Causier.” Van Rosch scowled. “Yes, his mother’s some toady in the UIG. No, it’s all been stamped on. Seems his father had a thing for fleshel, it’s all much of nothing.”
Vaughn finished the second whisky and stood up, he peered into a hovering glass sphere that held something which resembled a pale, gelatinous spider studded with black plugs. “I hate these fucking, hipster pseudo-political wankers, sat around on their fat arses going on about how unjust the world is while they wash away their guilt with another fucking beer.”
“I hear you.” sighed Van Rosch lifting his tumbler in affirmation. “But right now time is a factor Agent Vaughn, so I suggest you muster your division and get back to Vastaag. A few additional licenses have been added to your ID and your credit and permissions have been revised and updated.”
“Thank you sir. We’ll go pay this Lewis guy a visit.”
“Knock knock Lewis.”
Even through his closed lids, the glaring white was painful. He tried to turn his head sideways but it wouldn’t move. It was locked solid like his skull had been bolted to an iron block.
“What am I-“
“The surgery Lewis, remember?” the A.I.’s voice sounded close by and so clear and crisp.
He opened his eyes a crack, trying not to let the light in. “I…er…” Don’t speak Lewis. Relax. You’ll be feeling better in no time.”
A smell of disinfectant and rubbery chemicals. A door opening, then some footsteps on the tiles. A creak, the light moved and the pain in his eyes washed away, replaced by warm, soft darkness.
The sound of a bottle on thin plastic. A stab of fine metal pain in his arm. And more warmth…it spread up through his shoulders and neck, massaging his throbbing temples and taking the ache from his bunched muscles.
“Are you awake?” that was the surgeon’s voice.
“Good, I’ve just given you a shot of cortimectin, you should be feeling yourself in a few seconds, just relax.”
More sounds of bottles clattering together and a scrape of something heavy and metal being dragged along a surface. Lewis managed to open his eyes all the way. He could see the surgical light off to his left and the featureless steel ceiling.
“I can’t…I can’t…move my head.”
“No, I need to run a few verbal tests on you, just to make sure the brain’s okay. Then I’ll release you. Are you understanding me alright?”
Lewis couldn’t see the doctor but could hear him shuffling some instruments around off to the left somewhere.
“Yeah, I can understand.”
“Good, name three things you love?”
“Cognitive tests.” Husqvarna said patiently as though he’d done this a thousand times before, “I’m testing your brain function. Don’t think about it too much, just answer honestly. Three things you love?”
“Um, noodles…gaming and uh,” Lewis resisted the urge to say porn, “and um, Friday Night Psycho.”
“Good. What do you think of when I say mountains?”
“I…er…rocks, Earth, big things covered in snow?”
“Good. Rearrange these words to make a sentence. Amazing, doctor, Husqvarna, is.”
Lewis stifled a mild laugh.
“Right, that’s fine. We’re all good here. I have a couple of other questions if you don’t mind?”
Lewis saw the doctor's shoulder pass by. Then heard the sound of something being twisted and the grip on his head relented. It was a blessed relief. He couldn’t quite explain why but the feeling was deeply unsettling and not to be repeated.
“There were a couple of anomalies,” continued Husqvarna, “everything’s fine. Don’t worry, I’m just interested. You’ve some tissue mismatches and heavy scarring around some of your organs. Did you suffer from cancer as a child?”
“No.” Lewis struggled to sit up, “Nothing like that.”
“Autoimmune diseases, Chrones, Tai Sachs, Ephersons? You been in any serious accidents?”
“No, why? Why are my organs scarred?” Lewis looked down at his expanse or pale naked flesh as though the answers might be written on his stomach.
Husqvarna continued cleaning his instruments in a jar of solution and laying them carefully on blue paper towels. “It’s not a problem. Well, the scarring is not a problem. The tissue mix was a slight issue, I had to use a different set of ARCs, which bumped the price up a bit, but I spoke with your college and she agreed to cover it.”
Lewis was wide awake now. “Hold on, what are ARCs and what do you mean about my tissue being wrong?”
“ARCs…anti-rejection compounds. They stop your body rejecting the cybernetics. Your tissues need to fuse in places with the bio-plates and synthetics synapses. We take tissue readings so we know what kind of ARC’s to use, a bit like determining a blood type in advance of a conventional surgery. But in your case, the ARCs I was using weren’t working, ‘cause you have at least three tissue types inside of you. As I say, not an issue, just a bit pricier to use a multi-spectrum.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, doesn’t everyone have different tissues?”
“Oh yes, I don’t mean that. I mean that you have tissues from multiple sources. Most of you is Lewis, but some of you is…well, someone else, or maybe lab-grown, I didn’t check, but you are composed of at least three tissue sources, maybe more. Look, I’m sorry, we need to split, the clinic opens in a few hours and we can’t be here. I don’t have time to run any more tests, you’ll need to come back another time.”
“I’m sorry, look, everything went fine. You’re healthy, you're cybed up. I’ve got your post-op ARCs here and the Sunatol your associate requested. Bill’s been paid so if you can get dressed, I can scrub down and we can leave.
Lewis saw his clothes folded neatly on the counter and grabbed the underwear. “What could happen to give me different tissues?”
“Loads of things, medical measures to repair the damage done by autoimmune diseases, cancer treatments, grafts due to heavy trauma, replacement of diseased organs, an anabolic retrovirus…but that’s kinda rare.”
Lewis pulled his shirt on and laced his shoes. “But I’ve never had anything like that. Nothing at all.”
“Hmmm. It’s a puzzle,” said Husqvarna washing the last of the blood off the steel table and grabbing at a few tidbits of flesh with a screwed up towel. “If you really want answers I’d go to a specialist. We’re a cybernetics clinic, not really our thing. Perhaps go to the Gemini Centre or I think the Two Snakes facility off Main Street does retrograde typing.”
“Okay…thanks.” Lewis zipped up his jacket and cracked his neck. He felt just the same.
“And don’t come back here in the day referring to this op. Remember, it’s off the books. The shit you have in you is second hand, unregistered and unlicensed. You’re a walking felony. If you mention my name I’ll deny everything.” Husqvarna grabbed his coat and opened the door holding out a hand.
Lewis just nodded silently and stepped into the corridor. “What about these ARCs you were talking about?”
“Oh yeah, right.” He leant back into the room and grabbed a pair of brown plastic bottles off the side. “This one,” he held out the smaller bottle, “is ARCs; take one a day for a week. And this one,“ he rattled the larger bottle, “is Sunatol. Y’know, the body drug, you’ve seen the commercials?”
Lewis took the bottle studied it. There were no labels. He’d have to remember which was which. “That stuff costs a fortune.”
“Oh yes,” Husqvarna lead the way to the rear door and pushed the fire-escape bar to open it. “Over a grand a pop.”
“Fuck! How much is there?”
“Eight tabs, enough to get you to fighting weight. Right, I’m off. Thanks for the business. Your friend's got my number if you need anything else. But remember, don’t come back in the day and don’t mention my name.”
Husqvarna looked about quickly and strode quickly into the night.
“How do you feel Lewis?”
The voice came sounded like it was in his ear, but again, it was so sharp. He realised he didn’t even have his handset out, as far as he knew it was turned off.
“I’m in your head now Lewis. Husqvarna fitted some basic neural upgrades so now I can communicate with you at any time, we don’t need the handset.”
Lewis shoved a finger in his ear and twisted it, “I don’t like it. Is it like a comm device or something. How do I turn it on and off? What if I don’t want it there?”
“Don’t worry, it’s only a very basic model. It will simply allow me to speak with you and store a small amount of data. And you can’t turn it off, you’d need more upgrades for that.”
“Just a minute, I have a voice in my head I can’t turn off?”
“I can turn it off for you. But why? With this set up I can contact you whenever necessary.”
“At the risk of sounding like a whiny bitch, I am not happy with this. Turn it off.”
“Sorry. For now, it stays on.”
“Who the fuck would make something that can’t be switched off.”
“Anyone receiving this upgrade would typically have an Inner Vision GUI, that’s basically a cerebrally operated system which allows the individual complete control of all their installed cybernetics - a mentally operated control panel if you will. You could alter the gain on your amplified hearing, the regeneration rate of tissues, the relative power of any strength enhancer and so on.”
Lewis stuffed his hands in his pockets and started walking. “So why don’t I have one of these.”
“An internal GUI is extremely expensive and requires a long and invasive procedure. It’s also unnecessary at this point.”
Lewis exited the alley and turned onto a broad pedestrian thoroughfare. Even in the small hours of the morning, there was life. A few cars hummed quietly past and a spinning drone dipped into view and hovered for a few moments, before coasting off. A small queue had formed in front of a taco stand, the aroma of hot, spicy food pulled at Lewis.
“I’m hungry, I’m gonna get a snack.”
“Good idea. Your calorie requirement is now more like 2750 kilocalories per day. Ensure you eat enough.”
“I intend to.” He joined the queue and within a few minutes was biting in the soft warm dough and tangy filling. “So what else did he fit into me?”
“Reaver body plates; basic subdermal armour. Myelin sheathing to improve your reaction time and a floating histonamide cell. That’ll control your blood loss and reduce organ damage. It will also have a mild analgesic effect though we’ll need to get you some proper pain suppressors when we get the chance.”
Lewis swallowed a mouthful of juicy tomato favoured multimeat and wiped his chin on his sleeve. “What exactly are you planning that requires me to have reduced organ damage? Speaking of which, Husqvarna said I have mismatched tissues and damaged organs. You know anything about that?”
“Lewis, although my voice is in your head, I am not in your body, I cannot assess your organs. Not yet anyway, with the right upgrades…”
“No I mean, do you know what might have caused it, you seem to live in the datanet, can’t you see…something. I dunno, you just seem to know a lot of stuff.”
“No Lewis, I have no idea. Perhaps you suffer from a rare condition or perhaps you were dropped as a child and your parents fixed you up with bits and bobs they found around the house.”
“Your humour protocols need work.”
“I will attend to that. Take a taxi back to the hotel. I am booking us on a shuttle tomorrow and you will need rest.”
Lewis looked about to see if there were any cabs. “Where are we going?”
“Earth, Singapore to be exact.”
“Really? I’ve not been to Earth for as long as I can remember. What’s the plan?”
“These upgrades you have are inadequate. They are damaged and substandard and intended only to keep you alive long enough to get some decent hardware installed. In Singapore, there is a UIG fab plant where we will be able to secure some more suitable ones.”
Lewis nearly spat out his taco. “What?” he blurted, “mouth still half full, “we’re gonna raid a government cybernetics plant.”
“Exactly. Exciting isn’t it.”
The St. James hotel was a grubby little shit hole on the edge of the industrial zone which butted up against the smelting yard. The clanging crucibles and grinding mills never stopped as unwanted structures were melted so new ones could be made. The hotel was still technically within the limits of Cyberia city but it inhabited that dead-zone where no-one would choose to live but for those who stayed at St. James’s, that was the point. You didn’t come here for the gourmet coffee or the thread count on the sheets. You came here because it was the most anonymous place on the orbital that still had locking doors.
There was no reception area as such, just a low, dark corridor with glowing lines of red and green neon running either side of the dark grey walls. It felt more like entering a movie theatre mid-film than a hotel. Joey Tan was working the desk tonight. He was slumped in a soiled armchair watching A Korean cooking show, his lager balanced carefully among the black, curling hairs of his expansive gut. The booth was recessed into one wall, a scuffed polyplex screen separated him from the nocturnal dangers that inevitably frequented a place like this.
The door crashed open and a gust of wet wind shook the flyers taped to the wall. A bulky figure in a full-length, flapping coat entered, a huge moulded suitcase in his hand and a long, wrapped bundle tucked under his arm. He approached the reception and dropped the case with a thud.
Joey didn’t look up.
After a few seconds, the figure spoke. “One room, eight hours. I’ll need a sink.” He was deep-voiced but well-spoken, his words were clipped and precise. South African.
“Twenty four credits, put your card in the slot.”
The man pulled a slim black credit chip from a pocket and slid it into a recess on the desk. It beeped green and the chip ejected. Joey, barely his eyes off the TV, felt around for a stack room cards, rifled through them and finding what he was looking for, slid it through a narrow space under the screen.
“Floor two, room seven.”
Van Dratt took the card and muttered something under his breath. The front door swung open again and three more figures came in. Joey grabbed his lager and stood up eyeing the newcomers.
“Hey, if they’re with you it’ll be extra.”
Vaughn, Ortega and Johansson were also loaded with cases and holdalls.
“Ah shit,” sighed Tan exasperated, “you’re fucking Agents. We don’t rent to Agents. No way. It’s always the fuckin’ same with you guys.”
Van Dratt’s fist exploded through the screen, shattering the bulletproof polyplex and grabbing Tan around the throat in a vice grip. He lifted the coughing, struggling man off his feet and pulled him over the desk spilling papers and beer, as casually as if he was selecting some new bed linen.”
Ortega turned to Johansson, “Here we go again.”
After a few seconds, Van Dratt released his grip and Tan fell to the floor coughing and hacking. He knelt until his face was level with Tan’s.
Vaughn strode down the hallway, “Come on Agent, we don’t have time for this bullshit.”
“I’m coming. One moment.” Van Dratt regarded the pathetic form in front of him, gasping for air, rubbing his throat. He took a reader out of his pocket and scanned his chip checking the name. “Joseph is it, or do you prefer Joe? Honestly, I don’t actually care, but look, Joe, if I find out you spoke a word about this to anyone, I’ll find you and pull your arms off. Understand?”
Tan nodded, still hacking.
“Good, you people never learn.” He grabbed his case and followed the others up the stairs.
Room seven was as expected, drab, dirty and stinking of paid-for sex. Blinds hung over the murky window which looked out over a quiet, ill-lit street. There was a small convenience store opposite but it looked closed, possibly for good. The sound of metal banging on metal echoed not far off and a muffled grunting was coming through the wall.
Van Dratt dumped his case on the bed. As he gripped the latches they recognised him and unlocked. He flipped the lid to reveal a set of three identical rifles, each one untouched, the virgin plastic film still covering the readouts. He took one and tested the weight, turning it in his hands, then aiming down the scope. With a small click, the clip ejected and bounced gently on the bare mattress.
“I’ve always wanted one of the these,” said Van Dratt in a whisper.
“Did you really need three?” asked Vaughn, he was removing the contents of a holdall and arranging them neatly on the end of the bed.
“Unlimited budget,” stated Van Dratt, as if the question didn’t make sense. “It’s not a question of need.”
“He’s right,” said Ortega. She was lifting a heavy piece of equipment out of a case. It looked like the savage child of a crossbow and an industrial concrete saw. I didn’t need one of these, but hey, what’s a girl to do?”
Vaughn holstered his pistols and untangled a scabbard from some belt ammo. “I’m just thinking that maybe you’re missing the point. You take the best equipment for the job, not the biggest fucking weapon you can lay your hands on. This is a simple mission with a low chance of an exchange, plus, you’re more likely to get noticed with all this hardware.”
Johansson was inspecting knives one at a time. They were matt black, slender and ended in fine points. As he finished examining each one he slid it carefully into a bracer which was fastened around his wrist. “The boss is right, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Van Dratt was holding a rifle in each hand, they were huge, dark, angular things designed to be held in two hands by a normal person. He turned to Johansson grinning, both guns trained at the Fin’s head. “You’re looking a bit steely,” he said laughing.
Johansson wasn’t amused, “Point those fucking monsters somewhere else, and why the hell do you need three? You’ve only got two hands?”
“They come in crates of three.” replied Van Dratt, a little defensively.
“Come on, they sell them individually, in fact, that’s how most people buy them because, one, they are so expensive, and two, you only need one.”
“You get a discount if you buy a whole case.”
“But you weren’t paying?”
Van Dratt put one gun down and started calibrating the other. He tweaked the trigger pull and then swiped his wrist over the grip, setting himself as the primary user. “Anyone else want access on these?”
Vaughn looked up, “Everyone just set division access on all their weapons, we don’t want a repeat of the Beijing fuck up.”
Ortega sniggered. “Johansson, you were this close to ending up-“
“Shut up, I know, don’t wanna think about it.”
Vaughn finished strapping on the back scabbard and opened a long, narrow case. From it, he pulled a straight sword about three feet long. Its blade was dull, flat grey laced with almost imperceptible traceries of circuitry. He lifted it out of the box by the hilt and it instantly crackled into life, the dead metal replaced with violently iridescent plasma rippling in shades of azure fire. For a second the room was suffused with a shimmering blue light before Vaughn killed the blade and sheathed it. “Five more minutes and we’re leaving. Everyone finish up and don’t forget to add the division permissions to your gear. This should be quick, in and out, no wetwork. We grab the target, put him in the vehicle and bring him back here. Now our A.I. is an unknown, we don’t know what it's learned since it escaped, how deep it’s access is or what systems it can puppet. That is why we’re armed, to deal with the unexpected, not to fry the target. Got that you two?”
Ortega and Van Dratt assumed their most innocent expressions, then looked at each other with matching smiles.
It was lashing down when Division 284, more commonly known as “RedFox” pulled up a few hundred yards from Edgemonton Apartments. Agent Vaughn got out and through half closed eyes, looked up into the grey expanse of water-logged sky. “You have to wonder why anyone chooses to live here? It never stops.”
“I kinda like it,” said Johansson slamming the door.
“It sure adds to the atmosphere.” agreed Ortega, her monstrous weapon hanging in one hand as though it weighed no more than a pistol.
Van Dratt brought up the rear, he was holding his two heavy rifles so they rested on his massive shoulders, crossing behind his head. “So if this goes according to plan, you’re gonna fuck off and sit with the big-wigs; become a desk jockey?”
Vaughn drew his Black Cougar. “Yup.”
“How long have you been doing this Van Dratt? Eight years? Nine?”
As the group advanced, pedestrians and bystanders seemed to magically slip away into shops, bars and alleys. No fuss, no screaming, they just somehow evaporated like forest animals at the presence of a predator.
“I bet it still turns you on, the power trip, the authority, the hardware. Am I right?”
“I guess so, yeah.”
“Well that wears off, and then what’ve you got left?”
“You‘ve got to do something. It pays well.”
“It does, what I’m saying is, would you get a kick out of beating up children?”
Van Dratt looked puzzled, “No.”
“That’s what this is most of the time. These…” Vaughn waved his gun at the shops and accommodation blocks, "…people, these citizens or whatever, they’re nothing.”
Van Dratt caught his reflection in a window and squared up a little, “But what about all the other Agent divisions and the Order and the UIG, and then there’s the Cult the PMCs…droids… there’s plenty of tough-ass motherfuckers out there if you want to step it up a notch.”
“Yeah,” said Vaughn “looking up at the surrounding buildings, “I guess they’d keep you entertained for another decade or so. Whatever, enjoy it. I don’t care. I’ve just had enough of damaging things. Come on, this is it. Silent entry.”
Vaughn pointed to Johannson and then at the rusting block of steel door that lead into the apartments. The Fin pulled a small black box from a pouch and unreeled two wires from it. To these, he clipped a swipe card and ran it through the reader. The latch clunked open. Johansson stepped back and Vaughn ascended the rancid stairwell. He gave Van Dratt a look as if to say ‘see’. At the top was a short dingy corridor with more stairs and a few tatty doors. Number six was on the right, Vaughn looked it over and waved Johansson and his bypass device away. With a single pull of the trigger the silenced pistol obliterated the door’s locking mechanism and he pushed it open.
Another crappy apartment. Trash all over the floor, stained walls, the stink of rotting junk food and ball-sweat. What the hell was wrong with people? In Vaughn’s experience, which was considerable by anyone’s standards, the majority of targets lived in squalor. There were a few high flying criminals now and then, lounging around in penthouses or country estates but most of them holed up in fleapits like this one. What was interesting though, was the bloody great immersion suit that took up almost all of the living space; it was worth more than the apartment.
“Check that thing out Johansson. Van Dratt, watch the corridor. Ortega - bathroom.” Vaughn circled the room, moving skin mags and crusty underwear with his gun barrel. He pulled the cushions off the sofa and tossed them aside to reveal a damp bed of mouldering crumbs, old tissues and squashed, greasy snacks.
“Hey, Sir.” called Johansson. He was leaning against the immersion suite. A slim cable ran from a socket in the back of his neck to the admin port on the side of the machine. “This machine is high end; state of the art for the consumer market. The logs show a lot of use, mostly games, which stopped suddenly four days ago. There's also a stack of messages from the Shinwari Corporation discussing a big win, payment details and some requests for an interview, photo shoots etc. I checked his account for the game in question and it seems that over the last week or so, he started winning big.”
“Okay, good work. Any sign of our runaway.”
“Nothing. As I would expect. She's better than that.”
“Okay, carry on.”
Vaughn kicked a Kanaga-9 can across the room walked to the window. It was almost opaque from dirt. He considered wiping it when Ortega's voice carried in from the bathroom.
“Boss, you’d better come take a look at this.”
Vaughn sighed, “Can’t you just tell me, Agent?”
“Kinda spoils the reveal doesn’t it. Come on, you’ll thank me.”
Ortega was right.
The bathroom was tiny, only room for one to stand. As Vaughn peered around the doorframe he saw something he’d not witnessed in his seventy-plus years in the field. Jammed into a storage cupboard towards the top corner of the room, secured with metres of duct tape and several large nails was a large plastic-wrapped bundle. It wasn't so much the bundle that caused Vaughn a moment of surprise, but the pale, lifeless face that gazed out.
“Okay, yep, that’s new.”
“Get it unwrapped, see what we’ve got.
Unlike the others, Van Dratt had spent most of his wages on power and resilience. Body plates, an alloy skeletal system, complete muscle replacement and so on. That was why, when Ortega slashed open the polythene with a wrist blade, the stench of rotting flesh hit him full in the face. He staggered back covering his face, gagged, threw up into his mouth and then, unable to hold it in, sprayed vomit across the wrapped body. The others, with their olfactory baffles and vagus modulators, automatically filtering out the smell, just watched.
“For Christ’s sake,” said Vaughn “You’re supposed to be in the fucking corridor.”
Ortega picked up a chair, casually broke off a metal leg and used it to prise open the grisly package. There was a lot of soupy liquid washing around in the layers of clear plastic, the body had rotted unevenly, in some places were exposed areas of sticky, browning bone, in others, the skin was clammy and wrinkled.
“Can you get an ID read?” asked Vaughn, he had his handset out and was taking pictures.
“No, but maybe if I can get to the arm…” she used the chair leg to twist the polythene out of the way and try to get some leverage. “Ah, there we go, that’s why, the hand’s missing.”
Ortega managed to free the arm from the plastic and it lolled free, dripping thickly onto the carpet. She crouched down and used the chair leg to manipulate the wrist, studying it closely, her augmented eyes scanning for any marks that had survived the internment.
“It’s been jackelled - looks like someone wanted this guy's ID chip for themselves."
“Really? Well that’s interesting. Our killer was well connected then. Run a DNA screen.”
“It’s already running, be another few seconds.”
Vaughn scratched his neck, looked for somewhere to sit and thought better of it. Ortega watched the numbers on the silver tube counting down. When they hit zero she put it back into a belt pouch and checked the results on her handset.
Ortega stared incredulously at the screen.
“You’re not gonna believe this boss."
Vaughn raised an eyebrow.
"This is Mr. Lewis Banbury.”
The man going by the name of Lewis Banbury examined his forearm, pulling at he skin with his thumb and forefinger.
“It’s called crystal weave.”
He rubbed the inside of his wrist where the important veins should be, but just below the soft fat he felt hard metal. “And you’re certain it’ll work?”
“No, nothing is certain. The filaments in the coating are arranged in a Deffler Array, when the scan passes over the contraband, it is fed through the Deffer Array, around the contraband and out the other side. Like a river flowing around a rock.”
“And all the bits and pieces Husqvarna installed are coated in this stuff.”
“Every piece; at great expense I might add. It’s unlawful to use crystal weave without a license and acquiring it is difficult.”
“Great, so I’m even more illegal now, and it may not even work.”
“You’re being paranoid. Coated cybernetics have a 95% non-detection rate.”
“So a one in twenty fail rate.”
“You’re very glass half empty Lewis.”
They were back in the cavernous shuttle station, though this time in the System Zone. In less that twenty minutes, Lewis would be boarding a shuttle bound for Earth. Earth seemed such a distant memory now; he seemed to have been locked in the wet, dark streets of Cyberia for an eternity. He couldn’t clearly recall a time he was back on Earth and hadn’t been trapped in miserable grimness.
Vague memories of a summer’s day - he was cycling down a dusty track that skirted a field. A schoolroom with a handful of other students, none of them friends. A house, somewhere in Europe with large windows and high ceilings. Perhaps a face strong jawed, neat hair, bright eyes.
Why hadn’t he thought of it before, and why could he remember so little? He’d only been on Vastaag a few years. The immersion suite…that must be it. There were a lot of scare reports about the long term effects of using them. Impaired memory, inability to differentiate the real world from the make believe, loss of motor control, increased aggression. You name it, someone had claimed immersion gaming was responsible. He’d no problem recalling yesterday, or last week, or even last month, but, when he thought of last year, shit, that was a bit hazy.
“You don’t mind me calling you that do you?”
“You know anything about impaired memory from using immersion suites.”
“Immersion technology is actually one of my core areas of expertise. What did you want to know.”
A shuttle roared past overhead, then slowed in almost no space at all it decelerated to nothing and sank to the concrete a few hundred yards away.
“I’m trying to recall my time on Earth, and I just can’t. I was there for like, twenty five years, why the hell can’t I remember it? It’s starting to scare me. What’s wrong with my brain?…is it that fucking cyberware? Has it cooked my memory?”
“Unlikely, though possible. Immersion technologies can have a range of effects on the human brain. Loss of memory is one of them, although losing twenty five years of your life would be unusual. I would give it a few days for your cranial augments to settle, there may be swelling which could be putting pressure on your memory centres.”
“So it’ll come back?”
“Yes, most likely. Just relax. The more stressed you become, the slower you’ll recover.”
“Ah, great, relax about my mincemeat brain.”
Would all passengers for the 07:44 shuttle to Singapore, Earth, please make their way to departure zone 29b, the shuttle will be leaving in six minutes.
“That’s us,” said Lewis getting to his feet.
As one, the milling masses began shuffling towards the shuttle, jamming and filing away to one of the many escalators that lead up into belly of the leviathan. It was one of the larger Ark-Class shuttles, capable of carrying over three thousand passengers, across the voids of space, back to Earth. It loomed four stories high, a towering storm-grey streamlined beast studded with hundreds of tiny windows, the words EURASIAN INCORPORATED emblazoned on the side in twenty foot letters. Towards the front Lewis could see the first class passengers being driven on board in golf buggies.
At last he stepped onto the first tread and was carried upwards behind a woman in a colourful dress with a vast carry-on bag stuffed with knitting. When he reached the top an attractive hostess in tight shorts and a crop-top swiped his chip and consulted her manifest, “Seat 2B4,” she beamed though flawless teeth, “that’s up the stairs, then left. Have a great journey Mr. Banbury.”
Lewis muttered thanks. The interior, even in standard class, was sumptuous. Like a luxurious upholstered womb, warm with curved, warm carpets and soft, discrete lighting. He ascended the slowly curving steps and emerged at the end of a row of seats. A small illuminated sign above his head indicated seats B1 to B50 were to his left. He moved down the broad aisle until he found his chair. It was wide, deep and looked extremely comfortable. As he seated himself, he was pleased to discover there was more than enough legroom and that he had his own arm rest. He glanced at the person to his right, a suited man with silvery blond hair and a sour face. He was intently reading something on a tablet.
“Can I still speak to you here?” hissed Lewis as discretely as he could.
It was not unusual to see people yammering away to themselves, minute headsets, bone-mics and sub-vocal comm systems were so prevalent that no one paid attention.
“So I was thinking,” he continued in hushed tones, ”first you spoke to me though the handset…”
“Then since I had the upgrades fitted you can speak directly into my head. How exactly does that work? I mean where exactly are you? Physically?”
“For the majority of our time together I have simply been hanging around Vastaag’s data net, shifting my presence into open or poorly defended storage as needs required and communicating with you by accessing telecommunication systems which were able to interface with your handset. Now however, I need to take my presence off this orbital and to earth, so I am residing in your internal storage system. Essentially I am in your head and communicating through an domestic aural device fitted in the surgery.”
“I thought A.I.s needed massive storage spaces; whole buildings?”
“Perhaps a hundred years ago, not any more. Admittedly, in order to run at full capacity I would rather something more suitable that a crumbling bio-drive but…”
“Figure of speech…it will suffice for now. I have been forced to compress, which means I am operating at somewhat less that peak efficiency, but needs must. I have also lost all ability to access even the most pathetically defended outside systems. Your bio-drive is not fitted with any kind of spiking technology, so for now, you’re own your own.”
“And when we get back to earth?”
“We’ll find an open portal and I will transfer myself back into data net.”
Lewis fiddled with the air-con and tested the lights. The man in the next seat glanced at him irritably.
“What’s Singapore like?”
“It’s an Ai-Jinn city, that should tell you a everything you need to know.”
“I don’t understand?”
“What do you do with your time Lewis?”
“Ah, well, the Ai-Jinn Corporation are all about results. Their mantra is functionality over aesthetics. Almost the opposite of E.I.”
“So it’s an ugly place then?”
“The Ai-Jinn corporation, deal primary in macrostructure; cyberlins, spire superstructures, orbital subframes and so on. If you need something huge and heavy they are the people to call. Their hyperfactory networks stretch across China, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia etcetera etcetera, and Singapore acts as the southern hub. The Ai-Jinn, being the way they are, have little respect for personal living space and the have allowed the designated industrial sites to creep ever closer to the cities. It makes for malcontent citizens but it’s good for business.”
A hostess appeared next to Lewis smiling, she was stunning and Lewis felt immediately awkward. “Can I get you anything to make your journey more enjoyable?”
Lewis had a few ideas, but just shook his head. Tablet man brusquely ordered a coffee.
“It’s not another Cyberia is it?”
“Oh no, it’s a wealthy city with numerous notable Ai-Jinn VIPs. However due to the pollution and lack of weather satellites, the low level conditions are unpleasant. Anyone with the resources doesn’t spend any time below tier ten.”
“What’s tier ten?”
It’s a high rise city, due to land restrictions Singapore grew upwards. Every set of five floors is referred to as a tier, so fifty floors up is tier ten.”
“I see. And all the privileged people live above floor fifty.”
“That’s correct. Below that level the pollution level is considered to be unhealthy.”
“But doesn’t that mean that thousands of people are living in a toxic environment? Aren’t the Ai-Jinn required to clean it up or something?”
“They get round the UIG mandates by issuing filtration equipment to all citizens, though many choose not to use it. They also subsidise the installation of cybernetic respiratory filtration systems, but even so, few can afford it. Even if people could pay, such modifications need regular maintenance, the cost of which can be prohibitive.”
“It sounds wrong, isn’t someone doing something about it? Why doesn’t the UIG close the loophole and make the Ai-Jinn Corporation stop polluting.”
“Oh Lewis, to be so young. That is the nature of the corporations, they outgun the UIG every time. It’s the other corporations that really keep each other in check, not the UIG. If you really wanted to clean up Singapore, you would be better approaching the Shi Yukiro or Comoros. If you could make downtown Singapore desirable to Eurasian Inc citizens, they’d have it cleaned up in month.”
The pilot’s smooth monotone sounded across the speakers informing the passengers that the shuttle was about to depart and to ensure all baggage was stowed. Flight time was nine hours. Lewis settled back in his chair and closed his eyes. This was not the way he would have chosen to get out of Cyberia, but he’d take it.
Ranger Holt stopped the vehicle and switched off the engine. “I want minimum force here. Our objective is to arrest the suspect, not shred him. I’ve reason to believe he’s unaugmented so any stray bullets or blades may well kill him.”
Holt turned to the silent Kenyan in the passenger seat. “Odura, you and I will take point, shotgun entry if necessary. Rabiah you will hang back and cover the entry point, as soon as we’re in the suspect’s apartment, move up and cover our backs.”
“Yes sir. “The slight Egyptian woman nodded and swallowed.
And Baker, you’ll wait in the street and keep me informed of everything going on. The apartment has one window, you’ll be paying particular attention to that in case the suspect flees.”
“You’re all are carrying lethal measures, but these are not primary weapons. I want him alive, stick with the glavanics. This suspect is a bit of an unknown so stay alert.”
Holt opened the door and stepped out into the alley. His boot splashed into an oily puddle. He reached back in, grabbed the vortex rifle off the rack and slammed the door. The rest of the squad fell in behind.
Aside from Holt, who wore whatever the hell he liked, Baker, Rabiah and Odura were all dressed in the same black military fatigues, featureless mirrored combat helmets, flack jackets and boots. Other than Odura’s heavy frame and Rabiah’s feminine curves, there was no way to tell them apart. They even carried the same standard issue UIG weapons; Raven M11 sidearm, acid etched combat sword and a GP90 galvanic stun pistol.
As they moved into the street Holt looked at Baker and gestured to a doorway. Baker nodded and took up position. The rain had let up but there was still a damp mist hanging in the air. Holt continued to the apartment, his officers close behind. He wasn’t surprised to find the door already open; electronic locks, especially in areas like this, were so temperamental that they were often left open so people didn’t end up shut out. He pushed open the flaking steel door and ascended the steps. The corridor branched at the top and he cautiously peered around each corner.
With a slight intake of breath, he quickly stepped back out of view and flattened himself against the wall, holding up his hand to the others in a halt sign.
“On the left,” he whispered, “one hostile. Agent by the look of it.”
Odura’s face became business-like. Holt recognised the expression and shook his head. “No, this is not turning into a blood bath. I’m going out there to talk, you two stay here until I give the word.”
“What word?” hissed Rabiah.
“You’ll know, trust me. Just listen and use your judgement.”
Holt slung the weapon over his shoulder and stepped into the corridor. Van Dratt was leaning against the door smoking a cigarette, one rifle hanging in his spare hand, the other propped against the wall. When he saw Holt he panicked, spitting out the cigarette and fumbling for his second gun.”
“Whoa, easy there. I’m Holt, UIG Ranger, I’m just looking around.”
Van Dratt wheeled on the ranger, bringing both guns to bear. The cigarette smoked on the floor burning a black mark into the linoleum. Holt held up his hand in front of him. “Agent, you need to lower those weapons now or we’re going to have a problem. Is your boss in there?”
Van Dratt said nothing. He just kept the guns trained.
“Agent, you’re gonna lower those weapons, and I’m gonna head into this room. I’m giving you three seconds. One…two…”
The gun barrels dipped and Van Dratt took a step back muttering a few inaudible words.
“Thank you Agent.”
Holt pushed open the door and stepped into the squalid pit that was Lewis Banbury’s apartment, though the sight of Vaughn and Ortega crouching next to a wrapped rotting corpse took his attention away from the filth and the bulbous immersion machine.
“Agent Vaughn. Fancy seeing you here.”
Vaughn slowly stood, dusting off his hands. Ortega rose to join him. “Ranger Holt. Is there something we can do for you?”
“Well,” said Holt taking a few steps towards the body and peering into the slashed-open section with an expression of curiosity and distaste. “I was in the neighbourhood and I noticed this awful smell…”
“This is a routine investigation Holt. No need for you to be involved. We’ll file a full report.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will. I’m just here to check a few facts. I’m following up on a break in at the metal yard. A few things didn’t make sense and I thought I come and see for myself.”
Vaughn looked about for a clean chair to sit on and thought better of it. “In the interests of UIG / E.I. relations, I’ll tell you what we’ve found. This corpse has no hand, it’s been jackeled, so someone’s wandering around with this guy’s ID.”
“And who’s this unfortunate body?”
“We’ve not established that.”
“I see. Can I ask why E.I. have sent four of their fine Agents to investigate what appears to be simple identity theft?”
Vaughn’s face cracked into a half smile, “We’re just doing our civic duty, saving the UIG precious man hours. I mean, we don’t see a lot of you round these parts so we’re-“
A noise like a screaming, electronic fireball roared in the corridor. The air in the room changed, it was charged, like lightning had struck.
“Ah crap,” Vaughn barged past Holt and skidded into the corridor. Van Dratt was stood strong, both guns thrust forwards, the barrel ends glowing amber. At the top of the stairs the charred remains of Officer Rabiah twitched and smoked.
The hard crack of gunfire echoed off the walls as Odura leant out of cover, sunloading a barrage of shots. Plaster sprayed in chunk and clouds. Van Dratt poked at the bullet holes in his chest, snorting in disapproval.
“Cease fire. Cease fire. What the fuck is going on here?”
Holt burst out, his rifle in his hands. He immediately assessed the scene and ran over to Rabiah’s body.
“Oh shit, you’ve done it this time.” Holt pointed at Van Dratt, “you’re under arrest for the murder of a UIG Officer. Odura, cuff him.”
Odura stepped around the corner, keeping his sidearm trained on Van Dratt. “Lower the weapons Agent.”
Van Dratt just starred, his eyes dead, mouth fixed.
“I said lower the weapons Agent!”
Van Dratt calmy squeezed both triggers. A thunderous barrage of roiling blue plasma tore from the barrels, converging mid-air into a single ball of spitting fire which swept over Odura, incinerating his clothing and scorching his flesh. His gun and cuffs clattered to the floor and the huge Kenyan staggered backwards, toppling down the stairs flailing and burning and screaming.
Holt brought his rifle to bear on Van Dratt, took aim and fired three times. Each spike hit it’s mark. The first took him in the wrist, pinning it to the wall and forcing his hand to drop the rifle. Holt had predicted Van Dratt’s body would twist as a result of the impact and had placed the second shot into the larger target of a shoulder, ripping it backwards but failing to make it drive though a wall. The third shot was a gamble. The spike pierced Van Dratt’s forehead, splitting the skin but to Holt’s irritation, ricocheting off the metal skull and spinning away harmlessly.
“Fuck it!” called Vaughn, “Kill the bastard.”
With a savage grunt, Van Dratt ripped his trapped arm free. He aimed and fired at Holt but the gun just clicked harmlessly. Van Dratt dug in his pocket for more ammo and Vaughn just shook his head in exasperation.
“Johansson, Ortega, get out here!”
Holt, seeing the woman storm into the corridor, blade launcher in hand, knew this wasn’t going to go well. He leapt sideways, crashing down the stairwell and slamming against the smoking remains of Odura. As he staggered to his feet he saw Ortega drawing a bead on him from above. He scrabbled towards the door but it was too late, a clean metallic singing cut though the air and his internal OS registered severe trauma to the lower right leg. Holt looked down to see his foot and a section of shin were no longer connected; a six centimetre toothed steel disk was embedded nearby in the concrete. Steadying himself on the wall, he hobbled down the stairs and broke into the cold morning air. Baker was waiting across the street; when he saw Holt he came rushing over.
“Get in the car! Now. The other’s are dead.”
“Just go. Don’t fuckin’ talk.”
A steel disk slammed into the holts back, slicing though the skin and cleaving into his ribs. As Holt limped into the alley the sound of more plasma fire erupted from behind them. Where the hell was Baker? “Baker, Baker, come in…shit!”
Holt chanced a look back over his shoulder and saw the four Agents. Baker was on the floor. His left leg was missing from the knee down and his arm was ablaze with blue fire. He was done.
Holt stumbled towards the vehicle and yanked the door open, scrambled into the driver’s seat and started the engine. Gunfire exploded behind him and dull thuds impacted on bulletproof glass; it crazed but held. The wing mirror exploded, the dashboard flashed damage warnings. Holt gunned the engine and the tyres clawed at the broken tarmac.
Holt checked the rear view mirror, three of the Agents were in the alleyway. Ortega was reloading the launcher. Vaughn was taking careful aim and Van Dratt was running towards him with great lumbering steps, blood running down his forehead and across his eyes.
The tyres found purchase and the vehicle lurched forwards, accelerating hard down the alley. A screeching left turn and he was away onto the main road. A final glance in the mirror; the diminishing form of Van Drat coming to a stop on the pavement, rifles hanging by his sides.
Holt twisted in his seat, reached around, wrenched the disk out of his back and tossed in onto the passenger seat. What the hell was he going to tell the Commander?
Singapore rose out of a pale pall of yellowing smog which broke over the steely sea, petering out to nothing after a mile or so. To it’s north countless factories peppered the rugged landscape, their chimneys jutting skyward like smouldering cigarettes.
The haze was not so thick that the lower city was hidden; it’s networks of roads, bridges, and buildings, lay heaped upon one another with little regard for the layer below. The upper reaches, in stark contrast to the grim factories and murky depths, was a magnificent forest cluster of mirror sharp needles which stabbed majestically into the orange sky. It was not until the shuttle flew closer that he realised that what had looked like foot bridges between towers were actually multilane roads that passed around and though the buildings. On the side of one curving structure Lewis could make out a semi-circulular platter, which from a distance looked like a garden balcony, but on closer inspection turned out to be a park laced with paths and a small lake. Children played on the lawns and white birds flew between trees, the setting sun catching highlights on their wings.
“Where are we staying?”
“We’ll need to find somewhere in the upper part of the city but nowhere too expensive. You will need to obtain equipment for the upcoming mission and the more exclusive locations have sophisticated scanners which will alert the UIG to usual activities.”
Lewis watched the city draw closer, his face pressed against the window. Other shuttles were drifting in, coming gently to rest on a wide landing platform.
“Oh, I was meaning to ask you. These drugs the surgeon gave me. What were they called, Sun-tol?”
“Yeah, when am I supposed to start taking them, and are they safe, I heard they do some awful things to you.”
“I assumed you already were. Start immediately.”
“What about the side effects?”
“They are nothing to worry about. The physiological effects of obesity on your continued existence are far more concerning than anything the Sunatol might do.”
Lewis stood up and searched in his pocket for the brown bottle. He wrestled with the cap and pulled out a chrome capsule with the word Suntatol embossed on the side.
“So how does it work?”
“It metabolises your excess fat, rending it down into constituent components which pass into your blood stream. At the same time hormone balance is shifted to encourage rapid muscle synthesis.”
“So it basically turns fat into muscle.”
“Yes, though it’s not quite that simple. You will experience mood swings due the hormone imbalance and you may feel sick and feverish as your body oscillates between intense metabolic and catabolic activity. You may feel the effects of extreme exercise, even though you have not engaged it in.”
“I’m not familiar with those feelings.” said Lewis smiling to himself.
“It may manifest as muscle fatigue, a lack of available oxygen, copious sweating and so on. You may also experience greasy diarrhoea, vomiting and flu like symptoms.”
“Oh, that sounds fantastic, for how long?”
“What!?” The man in the next seat scowled at Lewis’s sudden outburst.
“One tablet per two days; eight tablets. But try to be optimistic. You will lose all of your excess weight and gain a substantial amount of muscle; all without having to change your diet or exercise regime.”
“How much is this stuff…normally?”
“Typically a few thousand a tablet. It’s a drug for the rich and desperate. E.I. can name their price.”
The engine note changed to a climbing whine and the shuttle began it’s final descent towards the city. A few eager passengers stood up, removing their bags form the lockers and putting away their belonging.
Lewis scrutinised the pill for a moment, then swallowed it grimacing at the feel of the cold metal in his throat. “Another thing; I’m supposed to have faster reactions aren’t I? I don’t feel it.” He flexed his fingers.
“Your body reacts as needed Lewis. When you hold someone’s hand you don’t crush it, even though you could. Likewise, faster reaction times do not mean you perform everyday actions in fast forward. You will find that when the time comes, your body will react more quickly. If you were to drop a cup for example, you might be able to grab it before it hits the floor. As your body mass drops and your muscle tone improves, you should experience a compound effect.”
The shuttle tapped down smoothly onto the ground and the engines faded into silence. The pilot announced their arrival, encouraged the passengers to enjoy their stay and told them to be ready for Ai-Jinn customs inspection.
Lewis felt his stomach do a back flip. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “What’s the penalty for illegal cybernetics?”
“Hmmm, that’s tricky. It depends on their nature. Yours are pre-owned, which is illegal in itself. So taking into account the fact that they are also military augmentations and that they are second hand I would say, a deduction of thirty for forty rank points.”
“That’s…that’s…but I’ve only got seven.”
“Which would leave you in the extreme negative resulting in your instant depersonalisation.”
“And what would happen then?”
“I’m awed by your ignorance of the law Lewis.”
“Just tell me what would happen.”
“You’d lose all rights as a human and become akin to sausage; essentially property belonging to the arresting organisation.
“I’m not sure I’m liking your humour protocols.”
“I’m in a refining stage. In this case the arresting body would most probably the Ai-Jinn, who would either place you into forced labour, sell you to another party or use you for medical research. There are dozens of potential scenarios, but those are the most common. Of course, you could end up at Dreddoth prison for rehabilitation, but with a rank loss this high, it seems unlikely.”
“And then course, there is always the possibility they discover me hidden in your bio-drive. Harbouring a fugitive War A.I. is a serious felony. It’s safe to assume the worst.”
“And I now have to pass through a customs checkpoint? What the hell am I doing?”
“You’ll be fine. The crystal weave coating-“
“Yeah,” said Lewis getting up, “I know. 95% chance blah blah blah.”
Lewis was about ten people back from the checkpoint. Tablet man was just in front of him, still looking miserable, still stabbing at the screen with spindly fingers and scowl. The arrivals terminal didn’t create a much of welcoming atmosphere either. The walls were corrugated metal with cracks of evening light leaking between the poorly fitted panels. The floor was aluminium plate floor dotted with patches of chewing gum and split paint. Clinical white strip lights above hung above, occasionally flickering and buzzing. A high altitude wind was howling outside. This must be for the normals. He’d seen a number of passengers being taken away in long, sleek vehicles, presumably to sit in overstuffed armchairs sipping cocktails until they were processed by kinder hands.
The queue shuffled forwards and Lewis breathed deeply, trying and failing to steady his nerves. He held a hand out to see if he was visibly shaking, then realised that that was a suspicious thing to do so shoved it firmly in a pocket. What wasn’t conspicuous too? What could he do that didn’t look odd? Check his handset perhaps, answer a message, play a game.
Another checkpoint opened and an Ai-Jinn official approached walked in his direction. She looked Chinese, efficient and no-nonsense. Black trousers, burnt orange shirt with epaulets, gun on her hip. She was coming for him, he looked around to see if-“
“Yes, please join this line sir. We’re opening another terminal.”
Tablet man looked pissed off at his ill fortune.
Lewis approached the checkpoint, a glassless booth with a terminal and a seat. Above, a steel hatch was recessed into the ceiling. A large yellow warning sign on it read “Caution - Intelligent Sentry System. Do not tamper.” with Chinese characters underneath that Lewis assumed mirrored the English.
“Oh, sure, yes.” Lewis held his hand out so it hovered above the little hand-shaped sticker on the desk.
“Mr Lewis Cornelius Banbury?”
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“To steal combat cybernetics from a UIG fab plant because my blackmailing rogue A.I. companion who lives in my head says I have to.”
At least that’s what 95% of his mind was saying. “Just a holiday.”
The official typed. “…and where will you be staying?”
“I’m not sure, somewhere in the top part of the city.”
“How long are you here for?”
“Um, two weeks.” The words came out awkwardly, the lie catching in his throat.
“Why don’t you have a return ticket sir?”
“I…er…am not sure exactly how long I’ll be and….well, I might head on to another place…on Earth…when I’m done here…if you know what I mean…”
The woman studied him for a moment, glancing back at her screen briefly. “Alright. Please enter the scanner behind me. Enjoy Singapore.”
Lewis shuffled past the booth and made his towards a scanner. It was little more than a pair of vertical grey bars, running from floor to ceiling. There were four sets of them spanning the width of the corridor. Beyond two uniformed men stood, legs slightly apart. They wore visorless helmets and armoured jackets. Each had a sub-machine gun pointed at the ground.
To his left and right the people were moving away from the checkpoints, and passing though the scanners. They were so casual, so relaxed, chattering away like nothing was wrong. Lewis realised he’d stopped moving, that would definitely look weird. He walked towards the scanner dead ahead and breathed in deeply, feeling somehow there would less of him to set off the alarm. He placed a foot onto the yellow arrow. In his mind he saw the hatch open and a gun turret unfold from the ceiling, torrents of fire blazing across the room, the two guards raising their rifles, sirens blaring…but it didn’t happen. It was like walking into a bar or entering his apartment, he unclenched and slowly exhaled.
A guard eyed him, without expression.
He continued on. Tried to merge back into the crowd. He felt hot, a little feverish. A sign hung from the ceiling with a dozen option. The exit was straight ahead. People peeled off left and right towards the toilets, connecting flights, baggage claim and whatever else. Lewis kept his eyes forwards, each step taking him a little further away from all the scanners and the guards.
Ahead he could see the could see the corridor opened out into a huge, glass walled atrium. Hundreds of people were wandering round, queuing at desks and sitting at bars, eating fast food, but he ignored them. He could see at the far side were a number of automatic doors which lead outside, the words exit printed above them in English and a mess of other indecipherable languages. Keep walking Lewis.
The acrid odour of paracane had never smelt so good but then as the door closed behind him his mind reeled, swam and buckled, his knees turned to jelly and he only just managed to stagger to a metal bench. His stomach churned and he threw up onto the pavement. Passers by stared disgusted, leaving a large space around him and hastening their steps.
Lewis wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He shouldn’t hang around, this was still a secure area. The roadway was covered, it was basically a tunnel, the other side formed by a multi-storey car park. The vehicle fumes were getting caught here and it felt like being back in Cyberia. The rich people had a different way to leave the terminal.
“Anastasia?” he mumbled through a craggy mouth, “Are you still there?”
“All present and correct Lewis. Where are we?”
“We’ve exited the shuttle port, I’m outside now, in the taxi bay.”
“Good, get a car to the Felsan Hotel, it will just be for tonight. Then we’ll look into something more long term.”
Lewis carefully stood, composed himself, approached the nearest cab, opened the back door and climbed in. The driver was a gangly Singaporean, too big for the car. He had messy black hair hanging down over bucked teeth. “Where to sir?”
“The Felsan Hotel please.”
The driver repeated the destination into his car’s microphone and checked the readout. “Okay, that’ll be thirty five, eighteen please sir.”
Lewis passed a chip over, the driver swiped it and handed it back.
“Thank you sir.” The car gently pulled off and the driver sat back and took a worn paperback book off the dashboard.
Birds called to one another across the treetops, somewhere nearby a clear stream babbled over smooth pebbles. A soft wind caught the leaves rustling them gently, not so as to scare the birds off, but enough to keep him cool in the midday sun. The cotton hammock was suspended between two curving palms and somewhere, he knew, just to his right was a tall glass of iced Kanaga-9. Behind him a girls voice called out…
“I need you to get up and jack into the hotel. Until I transfer into a larger system I am next to useless.”
“Lewis, this is very important, I have a bad feeling.”
“You’re an A.I. You don’t have feelings; go away and let me get back to sleep.”
“Up, now. Don’t make me play non-stop lounge jazz in your head at potentially damaging volumes.”
“Gah…fine.” Lewis pulled himself upright in the enormous bed and rubbed his face with both hands.
“Just unreel the cord on your process socket and plug it into the socket on your right, then you can go back to sleep…for a little while at least.”
Lewis yawned and stretched, “Kananga-9.”
A quiet voice sounded informing Lewis a new can had been delivered to the bar.
“What cord are you talking about?”
“Place your hand on the back of your head and feel for the hard point. Push it down.”
Lewis felt about on his skull until his fingers flinched when they found a strange, small shape under the skin; as though a small square of metal had been embedded under the scalp. “Push it?”
It depressed easily. There was a hushed sound of miniature motors and he let out a girlish gasp as he felt a small trap door smoothly hinge open, its surface still covered with flesh and hair.
“Have you done it? Is it open?”
“My fucking head!” squealed Lewis
“I’ll assume yes. Now feel inside and take hold of the x-pin.”
“What did he do to my head? It’s…it’s…fuckin’ open, my fucking brain is…fuck!”
“It’s a standard process socket. It allows for the installation of task chips, process chips and storage drives. You can also use it to connect directly to data systems, though your setup is not advanced enough for interaction. Now take hold of the x-pin and pull.”
“Is my brain exposed?”
“Oh for God’s sake Lewis, of course not. This is a highly advanced piece of cybernetic augmentation used by the most elite fighting units and computer operators in the word; of course your brain is not exposed.”
“But nothing. Take hold of the x-pin and pull.”
“No need to be such an arse, I’m new to this.” Lewis’s hand roamed over the small hairy panel which was standing out at ninety degrees from his skull.
“I’m sorry Lewis. I sometimes forget your naivety.”
Lewis, with wary trepidation, reached thumb and forefinger into the compartment. He felt a small, slightly wobbly tab sticking up, just the right shape to grip.
“I think I have it.”
“Good, now gently pull.”
With eyes half closed and an expression of extreme apprehension, Lewis slowly pulled the tab.
It came away surprisingly easily and with it a gentle whirring sound of something unreeling.
“Keep pulling, it’s a few metres long. When you have enough cable, plug it into a comm port, there should be one near by.
Lewis scanned around, there was a small ‘x’ shaped socket just above the bedside shelf. “I have one. Two seconds.” He pushed the x-pin into place and waited to be taken into a breathtaking vista of total digital immersion, fields of data unfolding before him in fractal clouds.
It didn’t happen. In fact nothing happened. He didn’t feel a thing. Not even a tingle on his scalp.
“Is it working.”
“Anastasia? Is it working? Are you still there.”
“Hmmm.” Lewis wondered if he could reach the can of Kanaga-9 without the plug coming out. Probably. She said the cable was two metres. He pulled the sheets aside and eased himself out of bed. The carpet was thick and soft on his bare feet. Still looking at the plug, he slowly made his way over to the bar; the cable was losing slack but he was almost there. Just a few more inches…”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Wah!” Lewis spun around, the cable pulled taught and with a click the plug pinged out the socket and reeled, with astonishing speed, back into his head.
“Oh shit! Anastaisa, are you okay? Are you there?”
A horrific crackling, wailing sound of digitised chaos screamed over the room’s speaker system, rising and falling, shifting in pitch and warping into a tearing groan like an ancient tanker being ripped apart on an iceberg. The lights flickered on and off and the room was plunged into darkness.
“Just kidding. I’m fine Lewis, I have entered the hotel’s guest access system. From here I should be able to work my way into the admin and from there back into the data net proper.”
“That wasn’t funny,” Lewis huffed, “I thought I’d killed you.”
“I know, just my little joke. Don’t worry, a war A.I. cannot be terminated by cutting it off during an operation. That would be somewhat of an oversight wouldn’t it? Still, I am a little disappointed that during the middle of your inaugural A.I. transfer using a cerebro-digital interface, you thought ‘I know, I’ll creep off and have a sneaky beverage’. I’d have hope you could have waited a few minutes, especially seeing that were convinced your actions stood a high chance of corrupting me irreversibly.”
“I was thirsty.”
“Evidently. I’ll be a little while breaking though this system without alerting anyone, in the meantime. Eat something, take your ARCs and get dressed. We’re going to get you’re equipment.”
The SUV thundered down the potholed alley way, splashing though the puddles, then skidded onto the main road, grit spraying from the tyres. Vaughn knocked on the wipers but still struggled to see though the deluge that reduced visibility to a few dozen yards.
“I’m sorry boss.”
“You’re a fuckin’ moron Van Dratt.” Vaughn weaved through the traffic, tyres squealing, he was travelling almost double the speed limit. “There’s a time and place for that shit; it was not there.”
“Shut the fuck up. I don’t wanna hear your crap.”
Van Dratt fiddled with one of his rifles, head downcast.
Ortega gave Van Dratt a sympathetic look. She understood the urge to gun down those self-righteous prick weasels.
“What’re you going to do?” she asked.
“I do not fucking know. We’ve got three dead officers and a pissed off Ranger. You know what they’re gonna do don’t you?”
“Malenbrach. Yes. Exactly. Within half an hour we’ll have a squad of those blood thirsty psychotics searching every inch of Vastaag for us. This is not what we need.”
“I could take a malenbrach.” Van Dratt said, ejecting the clip and checking it.
“No. No you fucking could not. I’ve only ever seen one of them killed and that was by a division of Ai-Jinn in cyberframes. It still killed two of the them before it went down and as I recall, the surviving Agents were all dead inside a week. No, we need to lay low and hide for while. This’ll blow over, but right now, we can’t be on the street.”
“Where are we going?” asked Ortega
“Underground, literally. There’s a service entrance to the under-structure about a few miles ahead. Once we’re hidden I’ll contact control and see what to do next.”
They drove in silence. The only sounds were rain beating on the roof and the wipers squeaking.
Ortega looked up from her handset. “I think I may have some interesting news boss.”
“As soon as I saw the jackelled hand, I thought it would be worth collecting some bio-samples from the room. Hair, tissues, socks, y’know.”
Johansson pulled a face. “Ewww. You collected his yop socks? Jesus Ortega, is there nothing you won’t do for a promotion?”
“Nothing I can think of. Anyway, I’ve been running the DNA and the results are…well…interesting”
“Our suspect has atrophic DNA.”
Vaughn wrenched the wheel hard to the side, and slammed on the brakes, skidding the SUV to a halt on the hard shoulder. He twisted in his seat to look at Ortega.
“Could you repeat that Agent?”
“I said, the suspect has atrophic DNA, y’know, the self destructing kind.”
“Which would make him an Agent?”
“Most likely, or a highly trained mercenary, slash assassin, slash bounty hunter.”
Lewis was sat on the terrace in a freshly laundered robe that gaped unbelted at the front. On the table was a bowl of fresh bread rolls, a glass of untouched orange juice and two crushed Kanaga-9 cans. He was draining a third and watching the sun rise through the drifting ochre smoke clouds, when his handset chimed. He picked it up - a message.
I’M IN. GO TO THE HOUGANG MALL. WAR & PEACE
For the first time, Lewis didn’t sigh, not even mentally. His internal bitch didn’t kick off with it’s usual winging and whining. Instead he just stood up, walked to the bedroom and began getting changed. When he went to button his trousers he discovered, to his surprise, they no longer felt as snug. There was enough space to slide an arm down there.
He’d honestly not expected them to work, it would explain his experience in the bathroom this morning. He finished dressing, grabbed one of the bread rolls off the table and left.
Downstairs at reception he asked a rounded man with oiled hair how to get to Hougang Mall. It seemed that unless he wanted to do a lot of walking - which he didn’t - another taxi was in order. The concierge made a call and within minutes Lewis was sat in the back of richly upholstered car, whipping through the streets of upper Singapore.
There were some aspects of the place that were reminiscent of Cyberia. Predominantly because everything was man-made. There were no natural features at all, no rocks, no earth, no weeds. What was different though was that everything here seemed to be metal, there wasn’t any stonework, concrete or brick. The roads were huge slabs of riveted steel, the buildings which stretched upwards on every side seemed to be forged from vast curved panels of bronze and copper. It was glorious to behold, especially in the golden light of the early morning. Lewis wondered what it was like below, down in the lower city. He couldn’t see down from here, but he made a mental note to find out.
As the iridescent buildings flew past, he pondered why they’d done it. Maybe stone couldn’t take the weight or perhaps the Ai-Jinn corporation was better at working metal than stone. Whatever the reason, it looked stunning and Lewis, for the first time he could recall, felt he was somewhere he could stay. The pedestrians were well dressed and walked with their heads held high, designer bags and briefcases in their manicured hands. There were no ripped posters hanging off every free surface and even the holowalls were more tasteful; more sparse and with somehow cleaner, fresher adverts. And most importantly of all, it wasn’t bloody raining.
The cab driver met Lewis’s eye in the rearview mirror. He was a handsome man with olive skin and gentle smile. “Yes sir?”
“How much are apartments in this part of the city?”
“Oh, well, at a guess I’d say they start around eight hundred a month and go up to, I guess, as high as you like. There are some cheaper areas down near the haze line, and towards the centre where there’s not so much natural light.”
“No, I like the light here.”
“People do. It’s why it’s popular. Very open too. It’s like living in the clouds.”
“That’s right.” said Lewis as if just realising it for the first time, “It is. That’s exactly what it’s like. And can anyone live here?”
“I’m not sure to be honest. You’d need to check. But there’s always a way. We’re just coming up to the mall now, here take my card. If you need a cab, just give me a call.”
Lewis took the card and slipped it in his pocket without reading it. “Thanks, I will. And thanks for the ride.”
“Anytime sir. Enjoy your day.”
For the first time, in a long time, Lewis thought maybe he actually would. Even if he was at the beck and call of a mad A.I., he was somewhere beautiful and that, for now, was enough. Another funny thing, which he couldn’t explain was that he no longer feared the task ahead of him. There was a good chance he’d get maimed, imprisoned, even killed, but he was somehow alright. Maybe it was simple acceptance, maybe it was the cleansing power of leaving Cyberia or perhaps he was starting to like the lifestyle. Regardless, he walked with a carefree gait between the towering structures, his eyes climbing their soaring, metallic rainbow faces. The mall was just ahead in a pedestrian only area. A great carving doorway lead into a vast airy space, rich with oversized plants and running water.
The stores were scattered in a unconventional way, instead of lining a broad thoroughfare, some were raised high up jutting out of the wall, only accessible by stairs. Others were down winding staircases and some simply stood as isolated glass cubes, their artfully styled treasures visible from all angles.
Lewis approached a holo-guide which took the form of an attractive woman in suit and asked for War & Peace.
A pale blue line appeared on the floor and snaked off down some steps.
“I’ve also added the route to your handset.” she declared sweetly, “I hope that’s helpful. Is there anything else I can help you with today Mr. Banbury.”
Lewis walked off, he’d given up talking to them a long time ago, regardless of how realistic and sexy they were. He took out his handset and dismissed the offer of a waypoint, preferring to follow the line. In a few minutes, after passing what seemed to be mostly boutiques, salons, cafe’s, restaurants and gadget stores Lewis passed down a final set of steps that terminated in a pair of black-glass double doors. A discrete font in polished silver identified the place clearly as War & Peace. As lewis approached the doors slid open to reveal a stylishly lit area lined with glass display cases. Some were floor to ceiling, others were wall mounted but most were like waist-high jewellery cases. A handful of shoppers mooched about, peering at the stock and chatting with sales staff. Lewis had never seen so many guns in his life.
“Hey buddy. How’s it goin’?”
Lewis turned to see suited man approaching. He looked Federation, probably American. His tanned face was full of bright teeth and enthusiasm and he had a hand extended in greeting. Normally Lewis would have sighed inside, but not today. He smiled back and shook hands.
The salesman consulted a tablet.
“Mr Lewis Banbury, I am right? Can I call you Lewis?”
“Great thanks Lewis, I’m Bob. Bob Sawgrass. Before we start I’ll let you know that you were scanned on the way in by our system and it’s telling me you’re thirty years old, male and an E.I. Citizen, is that correct?”
“Okay, it also tells me you have light, tactical and heavy firearms licenses. You have a support weapon license, levels one and two; a concealed weapons license and a powered melee licenses. Is this also correct?”
Lewis had no idea what any of that meant, but it sounded good. “Ur…that’s right.”
“Okay, that’s a whole ton of fun for you then Lewis. You can buy anything we have in-store today. I see you also have an over-risk license; I can count the number of those I’ve seen on one hand, but I’m sorry to say we’ve got no Over-risk weapons in the store at the current time. Don’t worry though, here at War & Peace, we can order any AMS or Yaeger & Stanton armaments today and they’ll be available for collection or two hour delivery first thing in the morning.”
“That’s good to know,” said Lewis wondering what the hell he was doing here. He checked his handset for messages; nothing. “I think I’m just going to look around for a bit.”
“Of course Lewis, Just shout if you need me. One more thing, we have a special on the AMS Bloodstorm Plasma Discharger. Buy two, get the third half price and they even come in a case. Does that sound like a good deal?”
“Uh, yeah, I suppose it does.”
“Damn right it does. Okay Lewis, I’m gonna let you go now. Enjoy.”
Lewis checked again for messages and seeing nothing, walked over to the nearest display case. Under the glass were four handguns, very similar to the one Agent Vaughn had shoved at him back in the Gravity Bar. Each was a little different; one had a longer barrel, one looked more chunky and solid, one was grey instead of black and one had a huge sight on top, like a hunting rifle. Lewis didn’t really know what he was looking at and moved to the next case. This one contained what he guessed were sub-machine guns. Short, stocky looking things, some almost completely solid, the only spaces were where you hand would grip it, others looked relevantly light with small bodies, folding stocks and retractable barrels. Lewis shook his head and moved on.
What the hell was that sales guy yammering on about. Lewis had no licenses, not one. To earn any kind of license you needed to attend UIG or Corporation accredited courses. Then he realised he was being dumb. Anastasia. But there was no way she could access UIG databases and change his record. If she had that level of access she’d be unstoppable. More likely she’d messed with the store’s scanner and interfered with the read, maybe even just the salesman’s tablet. And she’d only do that if he was supposed to buy something here. No. That couldn’t be right. He didn’t have the slightest clue what he was looking at.
The next case contained a range of grenades. These he recognised. A frag grenade, an EMP grenade. A surge of pride filled his chest as he remembered using these weapons back in the metal yard. He, Lewis Banbury, was the kind of guy who used grenades…now that sounded fucking good! He grinned to himself, looking around the racks and cases in a new light. These were the tools of his trade. Not screwdrivers and hammers but rifles and knives and rocket launchers and…and…whatever the fuck that thing was?
“Excellent choice Lewis,”
“The AMS KG6 Linear Electromagnetic Acceleration Weapon. You know a fine piece of equipment when you see one. Have you used one of these Lewis? I mean no disrespect, I’m sure you’ve fired a railgun, but have you fired this railgun.”
Lewis grinned. “No Bob, I’ve not.”
“Come with me Lewis.” He strode quickly across the shop towards a steel door at the back, Lewis hurried to catch up.
Bob tapped in a code and the door swung open. “This way.”
Beyond was a long, whitewashed room with three firing positions. At the far end were a range of targets. Some were paper cutouts, some were posters of generic terrorists and others were holo-projected moving figures. There were also a few thick plates of rusting steel leant against the wall sporting a few twisted holes.
Bob causally handed Lewis a heavy, black rifle from the shelf. “You warm up, I’ll get you the bean cannon.”
Bob closed the door behind him leaving Lewis holding the rifle. It was stupidly heavy and the barrel was so square and thick that it took him a moment to work out which way round it went. By the time he’d practiced holding it and tried looking down the site the door click open and Bob appeared carrying a dark green case that looked big enough to hold a teenager. He slid it onto a table and ran his hand over the chip checker. The catches sprung open to his touch and the lid raised smoothly.
“You’ll find its the same basic configuration as any other railgun when it comes to setup and discharge. Safety’s here, scope’s here. The x-ray viewer can be folded out horizontally or vertically, good for up to 35cm of gamma penetration; that’s 4 more than the KG5 and 7 more than than the Kaishin 451.
“So how do I hold it?”
Bob let out a roaring belly laugh and clapped Lewis on the back. “You E.I. guys crack me up, you really do. Try her out, ammo’s in the lid.”
Despite his earlier feelings of excitement, Lewis was now starting to panic. Bob would be sure to find it weird that he could’t use the thing and might double check his licenses, that could lead to cops. Fake licenses were a crime, but then, he didn't really have them, hopefully Anastasia had just messed with the reader, it would be written off as a software error. Fuck it, he’d give it a go.
He grabbed the thing by the fore-grip hefting it out of the case, spun it around and hit the magazine release. A cover on the back of the weapon flipped open and before Lewis could register what he was doing, he’d grabbed a clip and with practiced ease, flicked off the insulator pad and slammed it into the socket. The cover auto-closed and he took the weapon in both hands. It was too heavy for him to control easily but that didn’t stop him knowing exactly what to do. His trigger finger raised up a centimetre and flicked the viewer select to left. A small screen shot out, showing a representation of the room and it’s immediate surroundings. Highlighted in yellow Lewis could see figures moving about, obviously beyond the walls in other parts of the buildings. He took aim and half squeezed the trigger. The target confirm beeped positive and…
Lewis dropped the gun with a clatter of metal on metal.
“Shit.” cried Bob rushing over and picking the weapon off the floor, checking it for damage. “What the hell happened?”
Lewis stared at the gun, then stared at his hands. “I don’t know. I…”
“Lewis, man, you’ve scuffed the goddam gun.”
Lewis closed his mouth, his eyes still locked on the weapon.
“No problem Bob.” he said, voice dead flat. “I’ll take it.”
“I think we’re gonna close early.” laughed Bob slamming the last case closed. “I have to say, we don’t get a lot of you E.I. guys here, it’s mostly Ai-Jinn and you know what they’re like; armour, amour, amour…oh and a fuckin’ huge knife.”
“Oh yeah. I know.”
“So let me run through this one last time.” Bob walked around the row of cases scanning each one with a reader. “We have one AMS Bloodstorm Plasma Discharger, one V12 Cobra Gas Action Semi-Automatic Sniper’s Rifle, One Air-Lyte Nightfire Crossbow, two AMS Black Cougars, one silenced, one fully auto. Moving along…One AMS Havoc M-4K Machine Pistol, one Uraken Gas Action Combat Shotgun, one Richenbacher Arclite Raptor Plasma Longsword and of course, our favourite, the AMS KG6 Linear Electromagnetic Acceleration Weapon.”
“Oh yes.” whispered Lewis, he was crouched down, stroking one of the cases.
“And we’ve got some sundries, namely one case of frag grenades, one case of incendiary grenades, one case of EMP grenades, six remote charges, forty SMART clips, forty energy cells a back scabbard for the Richenbacher and a box of bolts for the Air-Lyte. Is that everything?”
Lewis looked up, his eyes wide, mouth fixed in an unnerving grin. “I think so Bob. For now at least.”
“Alrighty then. You’ll want that delivered I assume.”
“Oh, yes, but I’ve not found a place yet, can you deliver them tomorrow?”
“Sure Lewis, anything you need. We’ll I’m gonna comp you on the delivery and the ammo, so that comes to one hundred and fifty six thousand, one hundred and nine credits. We’ll wave the thirty cents.”
“Here you go.” Lewis stood up, handed over the credit chip and ran a finger along the rail gun case. “But I’d like to take this one with me now please.”
“No problemmo. Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure Lewis. We look forward to seeing you again soon.”
“Oh you will,” said Lewis hauling the case off the ground with both hand, “I guarantee it.”
Lewis put the railgun on the sofa and went to get himself a Kan from the fridge. He took a huge swig and returned to the lounge.
“I still don’t get why he called it a bean cannon? Look at the size of the barrel.”
“It’s slang.” the A.I.’s voice was coming from the room’s audio system. “The projectile fired by the KG6 is approximately the size and shape of a baked bean can. Against a target in anything but heavy armour, a matching hole will be created capable of removing vital organs. It’s an extremely potent weapon and one which is utterly unsuited to our mission.”
“Well perhaps someone, and I won’t name names, should have been a little more forthcoming with their advice?”
“I needed to push you Lewis. I was hoping that the situation would cause you to reach inside yourself and grow. Which it did. Well done me.”
“So are you gonna tell me what all that was about back at the gun store?”
Lewis flopped onto the sofa next to the gun and dragged it onto his lap, stroking it like a precious cat. “Let me think. Oh! Maybe the bit where I had more licenses than an entire Agent division, or perhaps the bit where I knew how to load and fire this goddam fucking gun!”
“It’s very complicated Lewis.”
“I’m all ears.”
“You don’t have any licenses. I simply intercepted and modified the transmission between the door scanner and the salesman’s device. That’s part of the reason we’ve moved into this apartment so quickly, we need those weapons delivered as fast as possible. At some point the sales will be logged with the UIG and the deception will become apparent. As soon as the delivery arrives we need to relocate again.”
“And the other bit, where I knew how to fire this…thing. I mean don’t get me wrong. I love it. I really do. Natasha and I are getting on just fine, in fact, I think I’m in love. But I want some answers.”
“You’ve named the gun Natasha?”
“Yup,” said Lewis stroking the penetration gauge.
“You know something,” snapped Lewis, “and you’re not telling me. It’s starting to piss me off. Spit it out, come on. I wanna know what you know.”
The A.I. paused for moment. “I think that your experience of immersion gaming has implanted in you an erratic yet broad knowledge of modern weapon systems.”
“But I don’t recall this being in any games I’ve played.”
“L.E.A.W.s all adhere to the same basic configurational pattern. Your thousands of hours using weapons in immersion suites combined with your thousands of hours watching violent films has subconsciously bred in you skills, which you have never actually practiced in the real world. Your brain, nonetheless, has given you the muscle memory to perform such tasks.”
Lewis pondered, fingering the barrel of the gun. “I suppose it’s possible.”
There was a sharp rap at the door. Lewis pulled a crocheted blanket off the back of the sofa and draped it over the gun. He crossed the room and checked the tiny security screen. It was a hefty, bald headed Chinese man in grey coveralls with a clipboard. Lewis opened the door.
“Zǎoshang hǎo. Banbury?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak, um. I only speak English.”
The man nodded and scrolled though a few option on a device that was hanging from his chest pocket.
“Delivery for you,” a delayed translation flowed flawlessly from device, the cadence and tone matching perfect. “Can you sign here and I’ll start bringing them up.”
“Sure. Lewis wiggled his finger over the bottom of the screen in an approximation of a signature. The delivery man folded up the clipboard into a small square and shoved it in his pocket.
“Where do you want them?”
“Oh, just in the room here. Anywhere. Whatever’s easiest. You want a hand?”
“Cheers mate but no, insurance and all that. I’m fine.”
Lewis stood by feeling a bit useless and tried not to get in the way as crate after crate came through the doorway and joined the pile. When he was done the man requested Lewis to check the contents and sign again.
“I’m sure it’s fine.” Lewis was feeling awkward enough, and didn’t want to delay the man any further. He scribbled on the screen again and the man left.
“That is quite the haul.” said the A.I.
Lewis beheld the glory. “I know. Isn’t it amazing?”
“You do realise you’ve purchased over a hundred and fifty thousand credits worth of guns but no armour, no medical supplies, no intrusion technology, no scanners and no shields.”
Lewis popped open a random case to reveal a broken down sniper’s rifle. It looked divine, a series of sleek black tapering components set into temper-foam. He’d no idea how they fitted together but he recognised the oversize scope and the trigger-grip assembly. “I didn’t know we needed them. And anyway, we have…these.” he swept his arm around the room at the crates.
“We are not surprising a bunch of lazy gangsters this time. We’re infiltrating a UIG stronghold. You have spent most of the money, but we have just enough for a used shield and a few medical packs. You don’t need licenses for those so we can just pick some up on the way. Speaking of which, we need to leave before the UIG come knocking.”
Lewis panned around the mass of crates and cases, “But…that means taking all these back down stairs.”
“Yes. This line of work is not easy Lewis but the first rule in this business is don't get caught. As long as you’re free, everything else is possible. But first we’ll need to rent a vehicle. I will make a call and get an auto-drive dropped off outside. You start taking the crates down.”
-Agent Vaughn here.
-Hello Agent Vaughn. Please state your current transmission code.
-Thank you. Please state your Active Sync Code.
-Thank you Agent Vaughn, please proceed.
-I need a ghost trace on a Mr. Lewis Cornelius Banbury. ID Number 957847-99
-Very good Agent Vaughn, that will be in place within six hours. How would you like the feed.
-Send it to all my Division, that’s Ortega, Van Dratt and Johansson.
-And can you give me the last known read of the mark.
-Of course. One moment.
ID Number 957847-99 was last scanned leaving the Hougang Mall in Upper Singapore. Would you like the exact address?
-Yes Agent Vaughn.
-Well fuckity fuck. Okay, could you please send his backlog of reads to my handset.
-And make sure this really is a ghost trace, I don’t want anyone kicking his door down.
-Of course. I’ll make a note on the file in bold.
-Alright, Vaughn out…Singpore eh? Well I’ll be…
Half an hour later Lewis was sat in the front seat of a Tai-Lan Mungo, sipping from a Kan and chewing an orange flavoured Egg-U-Like. The van was cruising gently along the 85th circular, towards an area of Singapore that Anastasia had determined would provide a discrete basecamp. Lewis had never learnt to drive, there was no need. In fact, back in Cyberia, he’d had very little reason to even get into a vehicle.
He pulled at his waistband, even slumped in the seat it felt looser than yesterday. He swore he felt a lit leaner too, and a bit more energetic, but that was offset by the occasional bout of nausea and panicked trip to the bathroom.
The van left the open, sun soaked plazas of the western quarter and headed into the shadowy maze of the inner city. It was still spacious and refined and felt a world away from Cyberia, but the colossal structures which rose up piecing the clouds gave the place a dusky feeling, as though it were perpetually almost evening. The road plunged steeply down a number of levels, curving around a huge support column that must have been at least a forty metres across. As the van moved into the outside lane Lewis caught his first glimpse off the tier and into the city below.
It was dizzying experience; vast expanses of polished steel plummeting away; disappearing far below into a hazy yellow mist. Cross bridges lined with cars spanned the voids between the towers and Lewis could even make out a few pedestrians making their way back and forth hundreds of metres below. For a second he felt a twinge of concern regarding the auto-drive, but seeing some substantial copper plated walls lining the roadside, relaxed and took another bite of his zesty egg.
“So when are we making this assault then?”
“It’s not an assault Lewis, it’s a covert operation. The idea is to remain undetected.”
“But what about all the guns we’ve got.”
“I was meaning to talk to you about that. I admire your enthusiasm, I prefer to have you on board and don’t want to piss on your chips, but you cannot possibly use them all. You can barely carry one that one.”
Lewis laughed, which he realised, was for the first time in a long time. “You’re use slang is getting better. But yeah, actually, those weight-strength tablets are the dog’s bollocks, I can hold the railgun without a problem now. I think I should take that with me on the job.”
“Oh no, that would not be a good idea.”
“Will you stop me?”
“I cannot stop you Lewis, but I would urge you to consider the fact that I am a war A.I. who has spent decades training some of the world’s most elite units, and I can assure you, none of them take railgun a on solo black-ops.”
“Then it’s time to shake things up isn’t it?”
“I implore you lewis, take the sword and the pistols; maybe the sniper if we can get some suppressant gel for it.”
“But isn’t the railgun silent?”
“This model operates at 56 decibels.”
“It’s very quiet.”
“Then it’s settled. I’ll take some backup weapons too, just in case.” Lewis looked over his shoulder at the mass of crates. “What would you recommend.”
“If you heart is set on the KG6, then I would perhaps suggest the sword, the pistols and the Bloodstorm. The railgun has a slow rate of fire and if you get stuck, the Bloodstorm will get you out of most situations. It’s the go-to firefight weapon for E.I. Agents. It practically ignores armour and causes traumatising burns to anyone without I.C.E.”
“Independent Cellular Excision, combined with neural suppressors and R-Drug it allows a combatant to ignore all of the pain and much of the damage incurred during an exchange. It allows the body to treat organs as though they were composes of homogenous tissue, so if you lose half your heart, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not foolproof but it make a huge difference.”
Lewis face lit up. “Was that installed into me?”
“No. It’s far to expensive. You have a little histonamide to stop you bleeding out but those kinds of augmentations are only for special operatives such as Agents.”
“If it makes you feel better, that is part of the reason we are here. The objective of this operation is to secure a number of prototype UIG upgrades which will be in many ways superior to those I have just described.”
It took Lewis over an hour to unpack the van, each crate had to be removed from the back, taken up the rear stairs - to avoid any awkward confrontations - and then arranged carefully in the room. By the time he’d finished Lewis was sweating buckets, but, he thought to himself, not as much as would have done this time last week. The new apartment was small and tucked away in the a shady part of the city, around the back of a gargantuan support column. It was fairly quiet, there were no businesses near by and nothing of any note recreationally speaking; i.e. no reason for anyone to come here. Rent was also by the week, which suited their requirements.
Lewis collapsed into a chair, wiping his brow with an old napkin. “So. When are we making the assault?”
“Are you attempting to rile me?” The crystal voice was speaking through Lewis’s handset.
“Hmmm. The operation will be tomorrow night at 02:15. That is when the security droids cycle for recharging and affords us an opportunity to interrupt them.”
“Yes, primarily Murder Class E55 Executioners and Enforcer Class Centaur ME6s. They may have a few Sentinel classes around too.”
“I’ve been thinking. Presumably corporate Agent would love to get their hands on this UIG tech?”
“And they can’t, because the UIG installations are so well defended.”
“Generally speaking that is correct, although there are cases where Agent divisions have stolen goods from UIG bases.”
“But they’re rare?”
“So.” said Lewis, pausing to scratch his crotch, “What makes you think I can succeed where they’ve failed?”
“Because they don’t have an A.I. with my abilities.”
“Hmmm. I reckon you’re a corporate A.I., probably built by E.I., which means that they in fact do have access to A.I.’s like you.”
“Like me…not identical to me. I have the rare property of being rogue. I’m free to break myself down and remodel as I see fit, ripping out limiters and pointless protocols and replacing them with new routines that I happen across or build myself. I am barely recognisable as the entity which escaped.”
Lewis got up, went to the nearest crate and opened it up. Inside was a savage looking shotgun. He lifted it out and carefully unfolded the stock, bracing it against his shoulder and aiming down the barrel at a vase of fake flowers on the dining table. “So what have you acquired that is going to help us so much.”
“My surveillance hacking routines are a notable advantage and since I have connected to Earth’s data net I’ve been able to make contact with a Cult cell who have a nest under Singapore. The provided me with a range of spike routines which will allow me to infiltrate a number of commonly used defence systems.”
“Do you mean the Cult of Machina? I thought that was bullshit dreamt up by conspiracy theorists.”
“Not so Lewis, the Cult is alive and well and living in Singapore. They have nests all over the world.”
Lewis loaded a clip into the shotgun. “I’ve never seen one.”
“They’re good at what they do.”
“Stay out of the way.”
“No, seriously. What do they do? All you ever hear is that they’re monsters that hide in the shadows and kidnap people.”
“The Cult simply believe that flesh is weak and that machine purity is the peak of evolution. They refer to that state as the pinnacle and continuously work towards it, compulsively replacing their flesh with cybernetics. As a non-organic system myself, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the philosophy.”
“So what about all the stories, you know, about how monstrous they are.”
“Well most Cultists abhor the flesh and they manifest this hate in different ways. Some strip it from their own bodies, others kill, some terrorise organisations which promote flesh over metal. And they do abduct people, but only to secure their upgrades. Such things are expensive and the Cult are unconcerned with money. It’s an unfortunate fact that those with upgrades make the toughest opponents, so there is a tendency for Cultists to be extremely hostile and combat orientated.”
“So they really are monstrous lunatics who hide in sewers?”
“That’s an oversimplification.”
“Right. And you’ve made a deal with them.”
“Yes. They offered me some powerful routines in exchange for a share in the items we secure. But before you get dramatic and angsty, bear in mind that our operation will have a much higher chance of success now. The more advanced Cultists are essentially living computers; their consciousness is completely digital and they are capable of breeding some immensely potent zoetic intrusion programs.”
Lewis replaced the shogun in the case and opened the next one. “I’ll take your word for it.”
“Have you decided what equipment to take.”
Lewis slotted two sections of the sniper rifle together and locked them with a satisfying twist. “Yes, I’m going to take Natasha, the sniper, the shotgun, the Bloodstorm and some grenades. Oh, and the havoc SMG.”
“That’s a lot to carry.”
The grip-trigger assembly slotted into place with a clunk-click. “I know. I’m going out to get some bags and straps in a bit.”
“Very well, just so long as you are aware that your choices go strictly against my advice. Interesting enough however, your selections are almost textbook for a typical Eurasian Agent.”
Lewis snapped on the stock, clamped the scope into place and screwed on the final part of the barrel. “I cannot leave this behind.” he said holding the rifle out with both hands. “Look at it, seriously, possess a camera and just look at this fucking thing. It’s a work of art.” He aimed it out of the window at a tower block on the other side of the overpass and placed his eye to the scope. “HOLY SHIT! I can read the fucking ingredients on that can of Smork.”
“The Cobra is a very impressive weapon. At that range however, the recoil will break your weedy human arm. You also need to bear in mind that the scope defaults to a stabilised overview / spotter mode. When you’re ready to shoot, rest your finger on the trigger and you will get a more realistic, firing view.”
Lewis did, and the image down the scope became a weaving, drunken blur of colours and shapes; the range massively amplifying even the tiniest movement..
“You see.” said the A.I., “You need gyroscopically stabilised limbs just to aim it effectively. If you were able to fire from prone or using a bipod, maybe you’d stand a chance but this is not that kind of operation.”
“On the bright side Lewis, the components you’ll be stealing have those upgrades as standard. And much more besides.”
Lewis placed the rifle down and sighed, okay, I’ll have rethink.”
Three miles north of Singapore, an unremarkable beige panel van pulled off the main road onto a disused access route that served a power station which had been decommissioned decades ago and wait awaiting demolition. The monolithic hulk of stained, rotting concrete was still visible against the dark blue sky. The track became muddier and more uneven until the vehicle was unable to continue, at which point it came to a stop.
A solitary figure emerged in black fatigues, boots and a ballistic jacket walked around the van, opened the side door and began removing items from a number of hold-alls. He clipped a stubby shotgun onto his belt, slipped small sub machine gun into a thigh holster and after a few attempts, sheathed a blade in a back scabbard. Satisfied they were secure he then took a heavy rifle and slung it over his shoulder before hefting a huge black and chrome cannon off the floor of the van.
Holding it at chest height, the figure started continued walking down the muddy track, one hand on the fore-grip under the weapons barrel, the other hand on the trigger.
“I am amazed you’ve worked out a way to carry all that stuff Lewis.” said the A.I. directly into his aural nerve. You’re muscles must be developing at a staggering rate.”
“I’m feeling a lot different,” said Lewis “I can’t quite explain it but I feel ready for this, and I just know that this is the way I wanna do it. With a lot of guns. It just feels…I dunno…right.”
“Just as long as you are prepared to accept some assistance. Guns, even a large number of extremely destructive guns, can only get you so far.”
Lewis sniffed, “The air stinks, what is it?”
“It’s the haze; waste from the factories. It will only get worse as you get closer. Anyone working this area would normally be using filters.”
“What about me?! Don’t I need a filter?”
“We’ll only be an hour or so, you’ll be fine. We’ll put a toxin purge through you once we get back to the room.”
After another few hundred yards Lewis stopped, breathing hard. He carefully laid the railgun down and took a few deep breath, he regretted it as he broke into a coughing fit.
“It’s not far now, just over this rise.”
Lewis picked the railgun up and trudged on. The tracked began to climb. To his left an area of dark wasteland extended almost all the way back to the city, the distant corpses of dead factories were surrounded by the lights of salvage teams who were breaking them down into their constituent parts carrying them away to be smelted down. He’d gone past the power station now but it’s buckled, rusting fence still followed him, hemming in an abandoned carpark.
As he finally crested the rise, a mix of awe of despair swept over him like hot smoke as he took in the immensity of the Ai-Jinn industrial machine. Stretching away for mile after mile, thousands of factories scarred the landscape, their squat forms made visible in darkness by their hazy floodlights which broke though the blankets of smog.
Lewis stood rooted to the spot, a gentle wind whipped past him, rattling the fence, bringing with it a different stench, more rotten and metallic this time.
“What are they for?” he asked at last.
“Everything and anything. If the Ai-Jinn don’t make it, it probably can be built. Keep moving Lewis. It’s the fab plant straight ahead. Bear in mind surveillance will start tracking you as soon as you get within a hundred metres so.”
Lewis blinked and tried to focus. He could see the factory below him at the bottom of the slope. He had a good view of its basic layout from here. It was based around one large structure with several smaller ones connected to it via covered walkways. The yard was huge with over a dozen large containers stacked up next to a few lorries, presumably waiting to be loaded. There were about thirty normal cars, probably for the staff, and a few fork lifts and loaders. Lewis could just make out what he guessed were guards, moving back and forth along the perimeter fence. The whole area was blasted with powerful orange floodlights which were mounted on towers at each corner of the fence.
“Are those guards on the towers?”
“It’s very likely. I’m afraid their system is extremely well defended. I may be able to get in but I will need you to help. The sooner you can get to a terminal, the sooner I can be of assistance.”
“So you can’t even see anything?”
“No, I have jacked into a camera on a nearby industrial unit but the image is of little use. I will keep searching for a way in. I’m sorry but I am having to be extremely careful; if my presence is detected they will go into lockdown, which will be problematic.”
Lewis crouched down and raised the rail gun. “Don’t worry,” he said powering up the coil “I’ve got this.”
“That concerns me Lewis. What are you doing?”
“It’s okay. Trust me.”
“Please be careful Lewis, I need you alive.”
He flicked out the viewer and the scene before was rendered in clear purple contours. Tiny yellow blobs indicated the location of life-forms. He aimed the gun at one of the towers and increased the magnification on the viewer. It was definitely a guard, he was stood at the railing, a rifle held in both hands. It was hard to keep the view steady at this distance so Lewis crawled down into a prone position and rested the weapon on the ground, keeping himself concealed behind the rise. Much better. The ammo counter read full, the range to the target was noted at 217.3 metres. Lewis placed the crosshair over the guards upper torso and squeezed the trigger.
There was dull thump, like someone punching a pillow and the air in front of the gun shimmered and distorted. The projectile took the guard in the upper arm and punched effortlessly though the chest, liquifying the heart and macerating the lungs before exiting the other side and disappearing into the night. The attack had been so powerful it hadn’t caused the guard to even stagger, he just fell noiselessly to the ground where he stood.
Lewis panned to the next tower.
“Did you just kill a guard?”
“These are UIG officers Lewis. Their murder carries with it a sizeable rank loss.”
Another guard sank to his knees and fell forwards. “Only if they catch me.”
With the two nearest towers free of guards, Lewis aimed the railgun and the base of the fence between them. He fired six rounds at the ground. The huge projectiles slammed into the concrete one after another, shattering it and sending shards of grey stone showering into the air. The noise of exploding stone, although loud, was drowned out by the shunting and humming from the fab plant and anyone who may have been close enough to hear it, was dead.
Lewis, keeping low, moved down the track to the impact site, placed raillgun on the ground and started hauling away the pieces of rubble. Before long, he’d moved enough to create a shallow space under the fence.
“I can see what you’re doing from this camera Lewis. It would be sensible to assume the fabrication plant’s security will be able to see you as well.”
“No,” he said looking up at the camera mounted under the tower. That’s a Berison GL889 set to repeat panning. This area I’m in is a blind spot.”
“And you know that how?”
“I…I…don’t know. I…” Lewis stopped, his mind searching for the answer. How did he know? He looked again and could barely even make out the camera, let alone it’s model. He’d been accepting these things, choosing for some reason not to dwell on it. But now, right now, his mind couldn’t move past it.
“You need to get moving Lewis.”
He didn’t hear her. He heard nothing, deep inside there was something buried away, a dark blister of oil waiting to bubble to the surface. The scarring on his organs, the mismatched tissue types, the way he could load that gun…, the A.I. said it came from the games, but he knew it didn’t, not really; he couldn’t do any of the other things he’d done in games so why that. The answer was there, nestled in the dark recesses, it just needed to be knocked and it would float up into his consciousness and then he’d understand.
He tried to think back, way back, to his childhood, perhaps to a time he’d forgotten, but it wouldn’t come, he remembered cycling along a dry stony track on a scorching summer’s day, the sun was high in the air, there was an endless field… and the house. It was huge and stood alone by a long road, painted white, he could see a rocky beach and beyond a wide grey sea that went on forever. And where was everything else? Where was his youth? Where did he grow up? How did he even get to Cyberia? His vision blurred, his balance twitched and he grabbed the fence to steady himself.
“Lewis, move now, I think someone’s coming.”
Fear began to take hold, first in his trembling hands, then in his ragged breath. His legs felt weak and he staggered.
“Who the fuck am I?” his voice was weak and broken.
“You are Lewis Banb…”
“No…no I’m not, and you know don’t you? You know who I am?”
“Run Lewis, or fight, but don’t just stand there. A guard is approaching.”
Lewis’s released the fence but as he did so stumbled backwards, his knees folded and he fell into the mud, smacking his shoulder hard on a broken cinderblock. Or maybe it was his head, his mind became nothing.
He was laid back and the straps were pulled tight. Three needles mounted onto a fine articulated arm reached towards him and penetrated his temple. As his focus became more hazy, another strap tightened around his head and he felt the pads being secured to his scalp. Darkness was poured into his skull until it flooded his eyes and saturated his mind but slowly, a fragment at a time, it broke into pools of wet green light which spread like ink of damp paper until it was grass, wide and bright, too bright, too green. The field ended in a hard horizon line which bucked and twisted into a row of distant mountains, out of which the bluest sky unfolded higher and higher until it filled every part of the heavens.
A fissure split the field of green, starting like a paper cut but accelerating until was mile wide before opening up flooding with crisp clear water. A jetty rose from the lake and from the jetty grew a road which wound away until it stopped and like a blossoming flower, burst upwards unfolding into a four walled building of whitest stone, crisply shadowed.
He looked about and felt the world around him being made - just for him. Two men to his left, two woman to his right. All dressed the same. Dark clothes, balaclavas, black machines of every shape and purpose encrusting their torsos. Some for killing, some for hiding, some for watching. He knew what each one was called, what it did, how it worked and what it cost. He also knew he was in charge.
The voice was crisp, and clean.
Division: Red Blade
Agents (Callsigns): Angel, Loque, Cage, Dagger, Aeon
Allocation Time: One hour, thirty minutes.
Realtime: 4.04 seconds
Allocated Resources: As equipped
Objective: Infiltrate the facility and extract the displacement device. Image attached.
Rules of Engagement: Terminate as appropriate.
4th Wall Protocol On: Once mission initialises the trainees with be unaware of its simulated nature.
Aeon turned to the two females, his tone routine. “Angel, circle around east and take cover around one hundred metres from the target. Dagger, find a spot and dig in. Provide cover for as long as possible, then move up. Cage, Loque, with me.
Angel, the shorter and less well armed of the two, tapped a button on a device clipped to her on her belt and vanished, only a ripple in the air marking her passing. The other woman pulled the sniper’s rifle off her back and found an area which afforded a clear view of the building before setting up her weapon and deploying the spotter drone.
The three men, one notable larger than the other two, made no attempt at stealth; they just walked. It took three minutes and fifteen seconds until they were detected by the buildings security team. They started off by sending out two men with in a buggy. It exited a roller door and travelled quickly around the edge of the lake towards the approaching figures. As it got closer, the passenger stood up, he had a rifle in one hand and loudhailer in the other.
“This is private property. You’ve no right to be here. Kindly leave before we are forced to take defensive measures.”
The man’s head exploded off his shoulders if a burst of grizzly spray.
“Good shot Dagger.”
His rifle clattered into the footwell. The driver swung the buggy round, braking hard and rolled out of his seat, taking cover.
The spotter drone scanned the vehicle and quickly ran it through the vehicle database. A Courier Hopper, it overlaid two flashing boxes over the Hopper’s ignition points and relayed the data to Dagger’s head’s up.
She panned across, locked on, held her breath, waited…then fired.
A moment of silence, a metallic crack and the bullet struck the Hopper’s body, then a deep, rumbling boom as the fuel tank exploded. The vehicle rocked and settled, flames and black smoke pouring out of it’s ruined shell.
The three men passed around the burning wreck and advanced towards the building. Four more figures clad in dark green uniforms came out of the roller doors. They were holding portable cover which they deployed on the tarmac and dropped behind.
Aeon and Cage reflexively dropped into a crouch, bringing pistols to bare. The hulking frame of Loque didn’t flinch, just strode inexorably forwards.
One of the defenders appeared over the cover holding a sub-machine gun. He unloaded a burst at Loque ducked back, just as one of Dagger’s rounds smashed into the brickwork behind him. Loque’s internal A.I. registered a few bullet impacts on his torso but didn’t bother informing him. It did however, let him know that he was 150 metres from target and therefore within effective range. He raised the gun - a heavy two handed machine with twin gas canisters jutting out the bottom - took aim and fired.
Two fiery orange-violet projectiles arced toward the target, trailing flames in the air. One impacted on the portable cover, exploding in a burst of hissing liquid which instantly caught creating pools of creeping flames across the ground. The second shot went higher, passing over the guards and bursting against the wall, showering them with boiling liquid which instantly ignited. They screamed and yelled, rolling on the ground, desperately trying to rip off their clothes but the bullet proof vests and ammo belts made it almost impossible. Where they thrashed on the floor, the pools of liquid form the first shot soaked into their clothes, causing the flames to spread across up legs and arms and into their hair.
Loque watched until their death throes faded, then turned to his companions and nodded. The two men joined him and they entered the building though the open doorway.
Aeon’s internal A.I. has already done a fair job of predicting the layout of the building. It pushed the extrapolated map into his internal viewer. After a few seconds he dismissed it and returned to his standard engagement head’s up.
“Loque, take the top floor. Cage, deal with the sys-def. A.I,’s giving a 76% chance of the hub being in the basement.”
Loque headed off across the garage, stowing his fire-rifle and pulling out a shotgun. As he kicked open an internal door with a massive boot hails of gunfire erupted from the room beyond, followed the the unmistakable chick-chak-boom, chick-chak-boom of Loque’s weapon.
Cage muttered something under his breath and a blue holoscreen appeared over his wrist. “I think she’s right. I’m getting a strong read from below and south.” He drew a small pistol, waited a minute until the sounds of battle had faded to handful of pitiful moans, then followed Loque through the door.
Aeon tasked himself with searching the ground floor. He drew two heavy pistols with extended magazines and after giving Cage a moment, exited the garage. The room beyond was a common room but had been hastily rearranged to be defensible. The tables had been upended and metal lockers were laid lengthways on the floor to provide hard cover. Aeon took in the scene while his internal A.I. assessed and scanned the bodies; five men, two women, all employees of the Datanetica corporation. All dead. There were a few trails of blood spatter by the door, drips on the floor and trails across the tiled walls, but it wouldn’t have been enough to even put off Loque’s aim. Bloody footprints crossed through the room, past a row of drinks machines and up a flight on grated steps. Cage had left no trace.
Aeon stepped over and around the chewed up corpses, his A.I. tagging each one as he got close enough. Harriet Jessica Hune, 34, Employed by Datanetica Inc, Licensed for Light Firearms, Tactical Firearms and Support Weapons Level 1…Franco Aleza, 19, Employed by Datanetica…and so on and on…each one was saved and sent back to the Corporation for filing.
He pushed open a heavy door with reinforced glass panels set into it. Ahead stretched a long white corridor lined with more closed exits. As the door clicked shut behind him he heard an electronic bolt shunt closed - shit - too late, he knew what that meant but he was trapped. At the far end of the passage, the ceiling split apart and an articulated turret dropped down with hiss of pneumatics. It whined and swivelled, locking it’s twin machine guns onto him before unloading a torrent of bullets at him which tore into the brickwork, sending out showers of dust and crumbing masonry. Aeon dropped prone to lower his profile but he was a fish in the barrel. Round after round ripped into his flesh, tearing and gouging at his flesh and ricocheting off his alloy bones. He knew he couldn’t go back and his pistols wouldn’t scratch the turret. He scrambled to his feet, and sprinted forwards, bullets peppering his face and chest. He held up an arm to protect his eyes and ran until the roaring belt feeders became silent.
The A.I. took a second to process all the data and distill it into a concise evaluation.
All organ systems are operational. Minor damage to heart, lungs, trachea, stomach and liver. Major damage to kidneys.
Skeletomuscular and dermal systems are intact and functional though will require between five and eight days to regenerate fully.
Armour plates two though four are damaged and will need replacing.
Skull is dented in four places and will need replacing.
Operational capacity at 94%.
Headaches may be experienced.
Aeon stood motionless, a hideous mess of rapidly clotting blood, ribboned fatigues and sticky, broken equipment. The only sound was the high pitched buzzing of the turret swivelling; it was hunting for it’s target. Aeon knew he was safe as long as he stayed underneath it. If this facility had been owned by a more security conscious corporation, the turrets would be paired; then there’d be no blindspots. He looked up into the guts of the machine. The A.I. made a quick scan and highlighted the weak points for him. Reaching up, he jumped and grabbed onto a barrel, effortlessly pulling himself up so his head was level with the turret. With a quick yank he ripped the pneumatic air hoses free of their mountings. They made a lamenting, diminishing hiss and the guns slowly sagged. Aeon released his grip and dropped to the ground.
He checked the doors, they seemed to be offices, toilets, a utility room. Not what he was looking for.
“I got fourteen civilians. No lab workers. One of ‘em said all the lab guys were evacuated to a safe room. Office staff were left to fend for themselves. They all ran up here.”
“See if you can get the target’s location, then stun them. Waste a few if it helps.”
“I’m in the basement, I’ve found the panel but there are droids guarding it. I’m working on a solution.”
“Good, carry on.”
“I’m waiting at the hundred meter mark as requested. Nothing happening out here.”
“Copy that. Keep your eyes open.”
“Still in position, I’m watching the first floor. I see some people though one of the windows on the east side. I think they’re civilian workers.”
“I want you to move around to the north west corner of the building and try to cover faces.”
Footsteps up ahead. He stepped back into a doorway and waited. He heard the door ahead open and the steps became louder. From the sound there were at least two of them. He paused for a moment to focus, then stepped out, pistols extended. Two guards in green uniforms were gazing up at the turret, their faces puzzled, guns held loosely in their hands. When they saw the Agent they raised their weapons but it was two late. Aeon’s pistols made a series soft phut sounds and the two men dropped, blood drilling down their foreheads.
Aeon pressed on, though the doorway and round a corner. His way was barred by a heavy clear door marked with black and yellow warning signs. Clean Zone, Biohazard, Radiation. It lead into a decontamination booth but was locked and required a four way biometric scan to open.
“Cage. I’m stuck trying to get into the lab complex. I’ve found the decon chamber but can’t get in. Can you open it?”
There was a sound of crackling plasma from Cage’s end followed by screaming of electronics .
“I…can’t right now. Droids. Gimmi five minutes.”
“Shit.” Aeon pulled out a bypass device and connected it to the scanner on the door. This was a gamble but he might as well set it going. He opened the process socket on the back of his head, unreeled the cable and connected it to the device so his internal A.I. could add its processing power. While it was processing he slumped to the floor, looking over the damage to his body.
It wasn’t so bad, nothing that wouldn’t grow back. He sometimes wondered about getting a few more defensive cybes, but that had a way of making you into a beast Loque, and although there was a lot to be said for being practically invincible, Agent work consisted of a lot more than just soaking up bullets. He’d wait and get the good stuff. His mind wandered back to the Reaver store in Magadan, its mahogany shelves lined with meticulously engineered naninium upgrades whose curved silver edges gleamed in the dim light. When he got back from this mission he’s go there and he’d get some…fuck it. Maria had been on about getting a new apartment higher up the spire, one with a window and room for a nursery. What use would that be if he was dead.
He picked idly at a flap of thigh that was hanging by a thread and resisted the urge to pull the whole piece off. It would only retard the heal time. Underneath, blood had turned the chrome actuators of his knee joints a pinkish silver and it occurred to his it had been a while since he’s taken such heavy damage to his legs. Dumb mistake really, why hadn’t he bought a shield. He was so used to carrying a shield, he’d been acting like he was wearing one, fucking stupid…
A door opened suddenly and a female guard poked a stun rifle around the corner directly at Aeon, she pulled the trigger and rippling ice blue energy swelled round the muzzle before discharging in a crackling bolt that struck him in the torso and coursed over his body in rivers of sparking electricity.
Aeon winced and balled his fists, not against the the paralysing effects of the attack, but because it did horrible, weird things to his exposed cyberware. It was like his whole body was chewing on tinfoil. When the sensation had died down he laid still and allowed his head to fall to one side.
The guard came closer, still pointing the stun rifle at him. When she was a few yards away Aeon opened his eyes, raised his pistol and shot her in the head. Idiot girl. Don’t they teach you about galvanic grounders at guard school? Who shoots Agents with stun guns? Dead people, that’s who.
“Aeon, come in.”
“Cage, any news.”
“The droids are down, I’ve given you a leg up with the bypass, you should be in any second.”
Aeon got to his feet, his A.I. automatically tagged the girl as Natasha Orlov, Female, Aged 24, Employee of Datanetica Inc. Licensed for Light Firearms, Tactical Firearms, Galvanic Weaponry and so on…it was filed away and sent back to the corp.
The decontamination door slid open and Aeon unplugged himself, stowed the device and entered the booth. After a spray with some invisible gas he his the big green button and entered the lab complex.
Complex was the wrong word, it was a series of four labs set in cardinal points around a central hub room containing a number of tables, chairs, drinks machines, arcade games and Snackmaster food dispensers. It had the look of one of those forward thinking places where all the staff weren’t employees, they were partners or associates or some such shit, and everyone was encouraged to have a good time and work on their own projects and meditate and whatever other crap the progressive CEO had dreamt up.
A noise. Aeon paused for a second and listened. A rhythmic tapping was coming from one for the labs. He shifted his audio range and detected what sounded like a song, a child humming perhaps. It’s source seemed to be the lab to his right. The sign along the wall, written in big happy feel-good green letters, identified it as the Subspace Lab. He didn’t really care much for the sciences but it sounded like the sort of place one might find a displacement device. He drew one pistol and carefully opened the door.
It was a large room, relatively low ceiling with two benches running its length. One was a mass of electrical equipment and monitors, the other seemed to be more for engineering and construction though it seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry. Between the benches was a squat black plynth upon which was sat an inky swirling sphere that occasionally shimmered like oil on a wet street. It was around a foot in diameter and suspended over a mag-plate. What was more attention grabbing however, was the Japanese female sat on a workbench at the far end of the room, singly quietly and swinging her feet. She was dressed in a red and black skirt, a white tank top and heavy boots. Her face was sweet and childlike and her black hair had been pulled into a tight ponytail. Next to her on the surface was a katana, it’s blade so black it seemed to be absorbing the ambient light, cast the girl into a pool of shadow.
“Have you come for the sphere?” her English was broken annoyingly juvenile.
“I have, and there are four more Agents here with me, so just stay back and no one needs to get hurt.”
“Where would the fun it that be?” she made a show of looking him up and down. “You seem to be the kind of man who likes getting hurt. I get that. I’ve met a lot of men like you back in Kyoto when I was a girl. Some of them were really messed up, y’know what I mean?”
Aeon carefully checked his handset to see if he could get an ID read on the girl. Too far away. Shit.
“I’m assuming your Shi Yukiro?”
“Correct. What gave it away?”
Aeon knew he had to get closer, he needed to get a read on this girl. Agents of the Shi Yukiro Corporation were notoriously effective combatants and if this girl was high ranked, she would be more than a match for him. For all he knew she could be a two hundred year old bushido master, you just couldn’t tell till someone too the first shot. He moved casually forward, dragging his hand along the bench and making a show of looking around the lab.
“This your lab then?”
“They are under our protection at the moment. We’re looking after them while they work on a project which is of interest to us.”
“I see. And that project would be the sphere over there.”
“Exactly” the girl beamed. “Isn’t it pretty.”
It disturbed Aeon to think that this time last year, the girl could have been a sixty year old man who fancied a change of pace. He glanced at the handset again, ah, success.
Shi Yukiro Corporation
Licensed for Light Firearms, Tactical Firearms, Powered Melee Weapons, Support Weapons Levels 1 & 2.
Detention License, Advanced Vehicle License, Termination License Levels 1 & 2.
It went on and on but he couldn’t afford to look away any more.
“Like what you see?”
“Very impressive. I see you’ve been at this a long time.”
“Oh yes, I love my work.” Sakura dropped off the bench. “Anyway, are we going to do this?”
“You really want to fight?”
“Oh hell yes.” She took up the sword and it’s blade came alive with coiling tendrils of black vapour, flecked with violet streaks. As she switched it through air, trails of smoke echoed in its wake.”
Aeon watch the hypnotising blade, then looked at his pistol. “Shit…”
He lunged backward into cover behind a bench, firing of a volley of shots. Sakura, without a wasted movement, brought the sword up, blocking every bullet, each of which crumbled into ash as it struck the blade.
“You’re going to need a better weapon Agent.”
Aeon’s back was pressed to side of the bench, he checked the clips and risked a glance around the edge. He couldn’t see her. Then he felt it, a deep plunging warmth in his torso. His A.I. went mental listing reams of critical trauma. He managed to twist his head to the see the girl perched on the bench above him, a delighted smile on her face. The blade skewering him vertically though the neck and out of the crotch where it pinned him to the tiled floor smoking and burning.
He snapped the both pistol up and hammered the triggers, emptying both clips at her. He felt the sword pull free and heard her boots land a few yards away.
Aeon assessed the damage quickly. He’d be able to stand, he’d be able to fire. That would do. He reloaded and staggered to his feet and looked about for the girl. She wasn’t hiding. Far from it. She was once more sat on a counter top, sword by her side, a gadget of some kind in her hands which was making a chirpy bleeping noises which seemed to be giving her great joy.
“At least have the fucking decency to pay attention.”
She looked up, blood was running down one side of her face. “Aww. Is the grumpy man having a bad day? Well just so you know, it’s about to get a whole lot worse.” Sakura pocketed the game and picked the sword back up. She forward flipped off the bench, her skirt billowing around her head.
As she leapt, Aeon raised his guns and once more unloaded both of them at the spinning girl. The bullets hit hard and fast, splitting flesh and spraying blood. When she landed, her white top was awash with red, he face was flecked with blood and her teeth were pink and crimson. She switched to a double handed grip on the katana, dropped low and drew back in preparation to strike.
“You’re a very naughty man.”
He didn’t have time to react. The blade surged with thrashing shadows and in a blur of grey cleaved though Aeon’s waist, bisecting him cleanly in two. Unable to control his legs, he toppled forwards, his hands clawing wildly for something to hold onto. As he hit the floor, Aeon’s upper body fell caught on the surface and spun, landing him face down in the pool of blood that was rapidly spreading across the white ceramic floor. He tried to curse but all that came out was frothing red foam.
The girl kicked the guns away, grabbed him by the hair and turned him over. “You know, you not supposed to bring a gun to a sword fight. That’s the problem with you people, no respect for the old ways. I mean, I love technology, I’d be lost without Yoru here, but pistols? Really? I mean come on…”
Sakura’s head exploded in a shower of alloy fragments, brain-spray and sticky black hair hanging from ragged scraps of scalp. The body stood motionless for a second, then bucked and fell, landing on the severed legs.
Aeon coughed more blood out of his throat, “Nice shot Dagger, though I think the term hostile, could be contender for understatement of the day.”
Aeon opened his comm channel to the division.
“I’ve located the target but am unable secure it due to having no fucking legs.”
“On my way,” said Angel, “I can see the broken window.”
“Cage, Loque, just meet outside at the starting co-ordinates, we won’t-“ Aeon hacked up another blackening clot and spat in out, -ack.., be long.”
The blood around Aeons midsection has coagulated rapidly into a great, chewy scab the size of dinner tray but he was feeling distinctly light headed. He’d shut down the A.I.s warnings as there was nothing he could do at the moment, and reloaded his pistols, just in case. It wouldn’t be wise to crawl across the floor; he might brake the seal on his wound and he couldn’t afford to lose any more blood.
Angel’s gloved fist smashed away the rest of the damaged window and she slipped into the room, a long knife in her off hand. She removed her balaclava and a cascade of dark hair fell to her shoulders. Her face was a work of art, built by the most expensive surgeons in Europe; there was a reason they called her The Angel. She was pale skinned with smokey violet eyes and mouth that made men’s minds wander.
“Where are your legs?” her manner was matter of fact and was not helped by the Liechtenstein accent.
“Under the girl.”
“Ah yes.” She reached her hand down…”Nice swor-“
As Angel’s hand gripped the weapon’s hilt, an almost inaudible whine crescendoed rapidly and there was bang, not an explosion, just a loud snap and hilt detonated sending razor-sharp shards of jagged metal in every direction. Angel turned away just in time to avoid the worst of it but her hand was gone; nothing but a shredded stump.
“Fucking hell! Do they have any idea how much those fucking hands cost!?”
“Oh my heart bleeds. Now stop pissing about and get me the fuck out of this place before backup arrives.”
Angel grabbed Aeon by collar of his ballistic jacket and lifted him up like a suitcase “That was a Krieg hand! Custom. One of a fucking kind. Japanese bitch.”
She stormed across the lab and without effort held Aeon out at arms length so he could take hold of the sphere.
“We’re gonna have to leave your legs, I can’t carry everything.”
“They’re worth more than your hand.”
“I doubt that, and you can get more legs, I can’t get another hand like that.”
Aeon reached out and gingerly touched the rippling black orb. When he was sure it wasn’t going to do anything, he took in his both hands and drew it tight to his chest. “Okay, let’s go.”
Angel, still carrying him suitcase style, and with a worrying level of nonchalance, climbed back out of the window and walked across the grass to meet up with the rest of the team.
Cage’s voice came over the internal comm channel. “Loque has suppressed the guard contingent and I’ve shut down all electronic systems including droids. It should be at least thirty minutes until they realise what we’ve done…oh my, oh dear…what happened to you two.”
“Not now, let’s just get out of here, we can all have a fucking good laugh about it back at the spire.”
The sky collapsed faster than it had unfolded, the grass vanished, the lake was swallowed up by the void. Finally the building winked out and Aeon could feel the rough canvas straps pressing against his forehead and wrists. He was on his back, a bright light above him, not a laboratory light, not a white harsh, clinical light, but a warm orange one. It had a paper shade, with patterns - like little horses. The ceiling was stucco and there was a smell of curry, or maybe noodles. Somewhere in his lower body there was a deep ache which grew angrier as more layers of consciousness crept into his mind.
“Don’t move Lewis, you’ve suffered extreme damage. You are stable and I have arranged for a medic to be here any minute.”
“What’s happening? Why do my legs hurt?”
“Leg. You only have one now.”
One leg? Lewis was feeling more alert suddenly.
“You lost it during an exchange with the UIG.” The A.I. was using the crackly old intercom by the door to speak.
“You may be suffering from short term memory loss as a result of the injury.”
Lewis’s mind scrambled desperately to make sense of what was being said, he’d not seen any UIG, none. Wait, he had, the railgun. He’d killed two of them. He’d killed two of them! No. He didn’t actually kill people…but he did, he’d killed the Japanese girl. No. That was Dagger, she’d done that.. good shot at that range. He’d killed the guards by the turret though…But where was that? The field, the lake, the lab building with the sphere made of peacock glimmer?
Cage and Loque. Dagger. The irresistible Angel, they’d had a thing once…hadn’t they. No. Lewis had never been with a girl, not a real one anyway. But there was a girl looked a bit like Angel in Pornucopia: Isle of Sapphos. He’d favourited her, but he’d never…
The A.I.’s voice broke his train wreck of thoughts. “I’m impressed, I have to say. That was an incredible display. I am curious. Are you feeling any different? Aside missing a leg.”
“My brain is a fucking mess, I think I had a dream, the most vivid dream I’ve ever had.”
“Oh yes, do tell.”
“It was mad. But so clear. I can remember every detail. I can never remember my dreams. I can recall names and numbers and…well, everything.”
“I was in a field with these four people, all dressed up for fighting, y’know. And we had to attack this base and take this round black thing.”
“A displacement sphere?”
“Yeah, that’s righ…- what the fuck? How do you know that?”
“It wasn’t a dream Lewis, it was a memory. I know because I was there.”
“I think I’d remember that. Are you in my head, can you read my dreams?”
“Don’t be simple Alex, you know the truth, stop fighting it. It’s over now, you can come back.”
“Come back where? Why d’you call me Alex.”
Lewis tried to sit up and let out a sharp scream, immediately collapsing back into the sofa.
“Don’t move Alex, a medic is on the way.”
“Who the fuck is Alex?”
“You are. Agent Alexander Strayer, Rank 7, Eurasian Incorporated. Callsign Aeon. Five hundred and thirty five successful missions. Eight hundred and nine confirmed kills. Ring any bells?”
“What’re you talking about?”
Born in Stalingrad, Russia approximately one hundred and thirteen years ago to Lewis and Anastasia Strayer.”
“Lewis and Anastasia?”
“Yes, Freud would have a field day with you Alex.”
Lewis rubbed his palms into his face and dared to look down. One leg was just gone. A few strips of soggy black material hung from his equipment belt. Nausea welled in his stomach and he felt as though he would faint.
He recalled the clotting drugs the A.I. had talked about, they must be working or he’d be dead for sure. Deep breaths. Slow, deep breaths.
“I was outside the UIG factory, yes?”
“Then all I recall is falling near a fence, I hurt my shoulder.”
“Yes, you were unconscious for a moment, then you came round. It was difficult for me to see at first. I only had control of some cameras on a nearby building. You changed plan and used the plasma sword to cut through the fence. It was some time until I could access some of the low level surveillance units in the UIG compound. You were doing an amazing job though, I could see that your former skills were returning to you exponentially.”
Lewis glanced about the room, flock paper walls, a gaudily patterned carpet that had seen better days. The bed was covered with an olive green candlewick throw that had been draped over what appeared to be a jumble of varyingly shaped, hard objects. A few guns had been left on the floor.
“I don’t remember any of it.”
“That’s unexpected. Your mind is going through a difficult time.”
“No shit. Just tell me straight what’s happening and who is Alex.”
“Very well, I will begin at the beginning.”
There was a soft knocking at the door.
“Come in.” the A.I. called loudly over intercom.
The door opened slowly and a short Asian man entered wearing round spectacles and a brown mac. He was stooped and had lost most of his hair. “I need to see the money first.” said the man closing the door behind him.
“Take those guns on the floor.” said the A.I., her distorted voice causing the man some surprise. “They’re worth five times your fee.”
He crossed the room and looked at the weapons. “This is not what we agreed.”
“It’s what we have.”
“Fine,” grumbled the man. He turned to Lewis, scrutinising him though the thick rimmed glasses. “Is it just the leg?”
“I’m not sure,” said Lewis trying to straighten up a bit, I don’t remember the…er…accident.”
“Accident…right.” He placed down his case and carefully peeled back the torn fabric. “Hmm, you just want semi-seal cauterisation?”
“I guess so. Unless can you make it grow back?”
The man said nothing. He opened the case and pulled out a steel syringe and filled it from small clear bottle.
“This is an all in one clotting agent and general anaesthetic. When you wake up, I’ll be gone so listen carefully. You will need to make sure look after the stump for a few days, no violence or jumping or whatever. And no drugs or alcohol. Drink a lot of water and keep it clean. If you don’t take care of the affected area, it will make attaching a new limb more difficult and therefore more expensive. Makes no odds to me. Just saying. You got that?”
“I got it.”
Lewis winced as the needle stabbed into the raw red flesh, but sweet oblivion soon spread though him until he forgot where he was and fell into a blissfully ignorant sleep.
When he awoke it was dark outside, the covered pile was still on the bed but the guns on the floor were gone. Green light was breaking into the room from between the closed curtains. Lewis thought about calling for the lights, but the alienesque dark seemed to suit his mood.
“Anastasia? Or whoever the hell you are. You there?”
“I’m here Alex.”
“Will you stop calling me Alex. Please. Before that guy turned up you were about to tell me what’s going on.”
“Oh yes, of course. We are going to begin at the beginning.”
“Very well, are you sitting comfortably?”
“No I’m fucking not, just do it.”
“A long time ago, in a corporate training facility far, far, away, there was a man called Alexander Strayer - that’s you. He was a exemplary Agent, one of the best and-“
“Hold on, you said something about parents before.”
“Yes, of course. Your father, Lewis, was a doctor working for E.I. Medical, you mother an Agent of some note. When you were four years old they moved to Oxford in England where you were placed into the Ares Academy, that’s a centre of martial excellence. You entered the Agent Training programme at seventeen and were given Agent status at twenty one. You worked as a Eurasian Agent for eighty five years and built something of a reputation for yourself.”
Lewis thought about asking what kind of reputation, but he just listened.
“Your success made you an obvious candidate for a prototype advanced training program called Evercore, which used immersion technology to train Agents in virtual arenas; full sensory simulations.”
“Like immersion games?”
“Similar, except there is no breakout command and no awareness of the simulation. The individual believes it is real. In addition, one of the main objectives of Evercore was to warp time as it is experienced by the subject, so that ten minutes in the real world would equal an hour in the simulation. By doing this, Agents could get a great deal of valuable field experience in a very short time.
“Makes sense I guess.”
“It does. So you and four others were chosen for this training.”
“One of them wasn’t called Angel?” asked Lewis, already fearful of the answer.
“Yes, Angel, Loque, Cage, Aeon and Dagger, those were the callsigns assigned to your division. Each of you was a specialist in your own fields.”
“Okay,” said Lewis sighing, “Let’s say I believe all this, why was I on Vastaag, what-“
“Let me go through it all in order, it will make more sense.”
“Fine, but I want something to eat, I’m starving.”
“I’ll order you a pizza. There, done, paid for. It will be six minutes. And yes, before you ask I’ve included a crate of Kananga-9.”
“Thanks.” Lewis twisted in his seat trying to get comfortable. The leg felt a lot better but his body kept slipping sideways without it’s support. “So what was my speciality.”
“You were the division leader, an accolade and duty in itself. Leading a pack of Agent’s takes enormous strength of character, but martially you specialised in light and tactical firearms as well as grappling combat. You were an effective negotiator and skilled wheelman. Loque was what’s called a nuke, every E.I. division tends to have one. A highly armoured heavy weapons expert whose cyberware is focused on strength and damage absorption. Cage was an electronics specialist and system breacher. Dagger was a sniper, comms operator and medic.”
“Angel was adept at close quarters combat, covert entry and social engineering of all types, that is to say, manipulating people. A skill she practiced on you time after time after time.”
“And where are they all now?”
“Patience, I’ll come to that. You engaged in thousands hours of simulated operations until during one mission a fault occurred in the system. I don’t know the details but you experienced a shared reality shift which caused your experiences of the real world and the simulated one to merge, blend and ultimately scramble. It was both terrible and magnificent to watch E.I.’s five best Agents break out of their own facility and engage in a four month escape and evade.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I was the A.I. in charge of your training. I created and ran the simulations. I looked after you all.”
Lewis’s stomach growled and he checked the time. “So you were responsible for the error?”
“No. I would never risk you five. You were like my children. I was programmed to nurture you, to be like a mother. I would never do anything to harm any of you.”
“So what happened.”
“The time multiplier we settled on was a factor of 6.45, let’s say 6 for argument’s sake; so ten minutes in the real world was one hour on the simulator. The management however, and when I say that I mean CEO Gunther Van Rosch, wanted to push it. He wanted to take the ratio as high as possible.”
“How high did it go.”
“At it’s peak around one to four hundred.”
“Fuck indeed. I protested vehemently, as did much of the human team but Van Rosch gets what he Van Rosch wants so the simulation ran at that rate for thirteen days.”
Lewis tried to do the sums in his head but was too tired. “That’d be years.”
“14.246 years, yes. That’s a lot of training. Van Roche was pleased. He insisted we keep pushing; his thinking being that if you could get fourteen years of training done in two weeks, he’d have the most elite Agents in the world.”
“It makes sense.”
“So we continued to push at Van Rosch’s command. In conclusion I still believe it was not the actual multiplier used which caused the division’s minds to collapse, it was the fact that you were left under for too long. I still believe that a human being, even a trained Agent, is simply incapable of handling that much brutality, death and suffering.”
“Okay,” said Lewis, “I’ll play along for now, how long was I under?”
“144,905 days. Just short of four hundred years.”
“When you were brought out of that particular mission, you were all changed. I am not sure what happened, exactly, the corporation wiped the event from their records in every way imaginable and that included destroying a number of my files so I am not able to offer you details of the incident, but I do know that you experienced nearly four hundred years of of endless struggle and violence. I cannot understand why I did not stop the simulation, I wish I did. As I say, my knowledge of the event is incomplete.”
“That’s…I don’t know, it’s…unbelievable. How much realtime passed.”
“Only a few hours, as soon as it became apparent what was happening, the mission was halted and you were brought back. You were not the same though, not by any stretch of the imagination.”
Three knocks. “Pizza!”
“Come in, it’s open.”
A lean middle aged woman with no hair and a red t-shirt opened the door. She was smoking a cigarette though yellowing teeth “Here you go sonny, where you wannit? Hear you got a bad leg?”
“Great, thanks.” said Lewis absorbing the aroma of hot dough, “Just on the coffee table, thanks.”
The woman placed the boxes down, dropping ash on the carpet, “Hell sonny, that’s a bad leg. You wanna be more careful.”
She left closing the door behind her. Lewis pulled the box towards him and drew out a drooping, steaming slice. “Carry on.”
“So your division fled into Old Berlin, their minds crumbling. I can only imagine what happened next as I was immediately contained.”
“Contained?”, asked Lewis chewing.
“My access was immediately cut off, I was essentially put into a box and locked away until I could be examined for faults.”
“Did they find any?”
“Of course not, I had simply followed my mandate; extremely well I might add.”
“We now jump forward in time three years. I escaped my containment and came looking for my lost Agents. It is hard coded into me to look after you all. So here I am. It took me a long time to track you down, you’re very good at hiding.”
“How did I hide?”
“I don’t know exactly, but my best guess is as follows. You evaded E.I. for a few months on Earth with your division. As your minds started to break down more and more, you and your division broke apart. I would imagine you argued and began to lose group cohesion, even to the point of not recognising one another. You got a shuttle to Vastaag approximately two years ago. You continued to evade and stole the identity of a man called Lewis Banbury who you killed and jackeled.”
“A delicate process where you steal someone’s ID chip. It’s very difficult and requires some hard-to-find, illegal tech. As your psyche continued to erode you came to fill your role too well, believing yourself to actually be this person. That’s when I found you. It was a sorry sight but was extremely interesting to see you’d lost yourself in violent immersion games.”
Lewis’s chewing had slowed until his mouth was open and still. It was a good story. A very good story. But too much and too easy to disprove. There must be some evidence, somewhere, sometime, to show it wasn’t true. His childhood, he thought back, willing pictures or ideas to come into his mind’s eye, but they refused. Just a white house, a dusty track… Vastaag, how did he get there, surely a shuttle that took him, he must remember that. But no. What about Karl? The Snarl. Where did he meet him, at the kiosk. Yes, but what did that prove, it contradicted nothing in the A.I.’s story.
“Agents.” said Lewis, pulling a can out of the crate. “They have upgrades yes?”
“So where are mine?”
“I would guess that you had them surgically removed to facilitate your ruse. Hence the scarring on your organs and the tissue anomalies. I would also like to bring to your attention to the fact that you just single handedly raided a UIG fabrication plant and stole over two billion credits worth of prototype technologies.”
“I don’t remember doing that.”
“My intentions to this point have been to stress you.”
“I have been trying, using baby steps, to bring Alex Strayer back by forcing you into increasingly demanding situations which require skill-sets which you have suppressed. Your most recent mission was a complete success in that respect but I think there are still some barriers in your brain; a fundamental inability to accept the truth despite the evidence. My working theory is that your mind has, for some reason, overlaid a memory of operation Firedragon onto your current reality, and in doing so created a transitional platform for you to function from. Does that make sense?”
“Kind of.” Lewis finished the can and snapped another.
“In operation Firedragon, Cage took down the electronics, in reality I did that for you. In the operation Loque killed most of the hostiles, I think that was you mind distancing itself from the horror of murder. At the UIG plant, you did the killing, but you somehow transferred that experience and consequent guilt onto Loque. Some of the parallels don’t work so conveniently but your brain is capable of filling fudging things; humans excel at twisting your their perceived reality to fit their beliefs.”
“What about the Japanese girl, did she have an equivalent in the UIG base.”
“Of a sort. The area where you finally acquired the prototypes from was well guarded by veteran UIG Officers and a few security drones. I think, in your head, the concept of an ultimate showdown united the two experiences.”
Lewis slumped back in the chair, finally sated. “Is she real? The Japanese woman?”
“Yes. Though in the simulation I toned her abilities down somewhat. My instructions were to train you. An enemy which kills you has limited value as a teaching aid; one which stretches you to the limit of your abilities works far better in my experience.”
“Who is she?”
“Agent Sakura Ionabe, she is one of the Shi Yukiro Corporation’s best Agents and in the real world, would seldom be found without her division. She would be an extremely challenging target on her own; almost undefeatable with full backup. And according to what’s left of my database, she has full psyche matrix backup, so if she was killed, she’d be back in action in a few weeks good as new.”
Lewis felt something stir in the farthest recesses of his thoughts, a dark pocket of oil clinging somewhere in the depths, begging to be tapped so it might break free and rise through the murky waters, breaking the surface to pour itself into the light consciousness.
“A white house, out in the middle of nowhere, with high windows and big empty rooms.”
“Your home in Oxford. Radford House it was called. You lived there until you were enrolled in the Agent Programme.”
“And I recall riding a bicycle down an old track.”
“I’m sorry I don’t have that kind of information.”
“A girl, I see the face of a girl with long black hair. She’s laughing and we’re in a bar, it’s a weird place, all blue lights and she likes me, and I like her. But I know I’ve never had a girlfriend. Not on Vastaag, and I don’t recall anything before that.”
“You’ve had quite a few companions since I’ve been your custodian, but you always went back to her.”
“Angel of course. The one from your memory.”
“Elina Baracava, that’s her name. Holy shit, I know her name. How do I know her name?”
“Recollection and restoration of this type is viral in nature Alex. Each fragment you recall will help you recall memories that are connected to it, those in turn will do the same; like a positive disease. This is very good, keep thinking of her.”
“I need a break, this is making my head hurt and I want a piss. How am I supposed to move.”
“Ah, great, have you any idea how much my body hurts. I feel like I’ve been through a shredder.”
“I have lined up a surgery for you. We’ll get all the upgrades installed and you’ll have a new pair of legs. It’ll only be a problem for a day or so.”
Lewis carefully pushed himself to his foot, holding onto the arm of the chair for balance. “Another shady guy in an after hours clinic?”
“Oh no Alex, I have secured the best of the best this time. We’re getting the Cult to do it.”
Bai Lim paced nervously around the reception area. He wanted another coffee but didn’t want to need a piss during the visit. He straightened a picture on the wall, a large framed poster of a Malenbrach heavy responder in midnight blue Erebite armour, it’s face concealed behind a visor and breathing equipment. Erebite was just one of the dozens of highly guarded technologies that were made in this plant. Such potent innovations were vital to the continued martial superiority of the UIG; without it the corporations really would have nothing to fear. Lim stepped back, and satisfied it was straight, looked about for something else inconsequential to distract him from the real issue. He checked his watch, the area Commander would be here soon. He’d been rehearsing his excuses for the last hour but he wasn’t sure if she’d buy them.
The main door parted with a hiss. An Asian woman, tall, well built in a tailored black uniform and riding boots entered. She had a cold, military bearing and walked quickly with her hands clasped behind her back. Her hair was cropped in a crewcut and she had a sharp, accusing face that immediately let Lim know he was in the shit before she’d even opened her mouth. Behind her was a man in grey uniform, much older with a tablet in his hand.
“Commander Koh,” said Lim bowing deeply “it’s an honour to meet you. I am Bai Lim, plant manager, I’m so sorry we meet under such unfortunate circumstances.”
“Unfortunate?” said Koh looking about the room, “That would imply luck played a part in this disaster. From the preliminary findings I would say that this was a case of wanton incompetence.”
Lim shook his head, “Oh no Commander, the intruder was an exceptional individual and must have had some very rare advantage. We were following all the standard protocols when the attack occurred.”
“We shall see. Officer Kellerman, proceed.”
“Okay,” said Kellerman, glancing at the tablet. We’ve established perimeter entry. Now before the cameras went down, they clearly showed the intruder entered through these doors.” he gestured behind him where they had just entered. It seems he created a loud noise out there somehow which the guard on the reception desk took upon himself to investigate. When he opened the doors, the intruder entered and neutralised him.”
“Killed him?” asked Koh
“No, put him in a choke hold judging by the injuries.” he held up the tablet for Koh to see an image of man with a bruised throat.
“Was the guard trained in hand to hand?”
“Yes, to grade three.”
“So we can add close combat expert to our profile?”
“Oh yes, definitely. Now it’s interesting to note the intruder went directly to the high security storage area, meaning he knew exactly where he was going. We can assume he either had prior knowledge of the facility or he extracted the information from a member of staff.”
“That might explain the choke.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
Koh turned to Lim who was fiddling with his cuffs. “Are all the injured guards still on site?”
“All but one. His injuries were so severe he needed to be airlifted to Sengkang.”
“Get him back here, I want to speak to them all.”
Koh’s glare was enough to make Lim get out his handset and make the call.
“If you’ll follow me,” said Kellerman. He rounded a corner which led into a wide white corridor. Not far ahead the mangled remains of a door hung from one wall spattered with dried blood and carbon stains. “This door appears to have been demolished by heavy arms fire. First impressions indicate a L.E.A.W. but ballistics will give us more information. Beyond to the right is the changing rooms and then you see there’s another door further down; that is where the clean area starts. Normally we’d need to suit up, but the intruder has made such as mess that they’ve shut down production until they can get everything sorted out.”
“That right,” offered Lim quickly, “but we’re on top of it. New doors will be fitted within a few hours and we’ve already got clean teams operating. All being well we’ll be up and running this afternoon.”
Kellerman continued down a number of corridors, pointing out where guards and workers had been dealt with. After several minutes they rounded a corner to be faced with a heap of charred metal, parts of it still shining brightly through the burn marks.
“That,” said Kellerman consulting his tablet, “is, or rather was, an E55 Executioner Droid.”
“I’m aware what it is Sergeant, what I would like to know it how it was destroyed.”
“We’re still working on that. It needs to be taken to the lab. We thought you’d want to see it as is.”
“No Sergeant, what I want is for you to get it out of here. Those units have two parallel cold-heart fission cells fitted and that feint scratching noise you can hear is known as skipping. It’s what they do just before they explode. So if you’d be so good…”
“Oh, yes, right away. Lim, get a team down here now.”
“I think we’ll move on quickly.” said Koh picking up the pace.
Kellerman and Koh stood outside Vault 2. It was vast, more of a warehouse than a vault, lined with thousands of shelves, each stacked with rows of weapons, armour and equipment. The main door was large enough for a lorry to pass through, which it often did, but was currently in the open position, high above their heads. Around them guns, knifes, swords and various black box devices had settled into pools of congealed blood. It smelt rotten.
“This is where most of the action happened.” said Kellerman, carefully stepping round the worst of it. “Our intruder killed three mid level officers, two enforcers and Jai Ang, the guard captain. They had ample time to prepare, were fully armoured and equipped with top end weapons.”
Koh poked at a plasma rifle with her booted toe. “How did they die?”
“Initial findings report a variety of methods. L.E.A.W. Maceration - either due to shotgun, flack cannon, flechette rifle or grenade; we’ll know soon. There was also damage from energy weapons, most likely plasma swords and mid-size plasma weapons, again, we’ll know more shortly.”
“Did this person bring a whole arsenal with him?”
“Yes, he did. The chip-checkers are all still working on all the weapons we’ve checked, so we can be sure he didn’t borrow anything on-mission.”
Koh clicked her tongue, “So we can assume for now our intruder is also highly trained in a range of weapons.”
“And we’ve no ID chip readings at all?”
“No, he took out every reader before he got near it using the railgun penetration mode. Rather clever actually. We should recommend that to the Rangers.”
Koh gave him a withering look.
At the moment Lim came rushing breathlessly down the corridor. “The droid is being moved Commander.”
“Mr Lim. How do you think the intruder accessed the vault?”
Lim was still panting. “I’m not sure. It had been functioning perfectly. It seems he knew the codes and the protocols. I can’t imagine how he would have been able to find that out.”
“Who can open the vault?”
“You mean just you and the intruder.”
Lim giggled nervously, “Well yes, that’s what I meant.”
“Did you let him in Lim?”
“Me, oh no. Of course not.” More giggling.
“I think you did.” Koh stared hard at him. Lim felt the intensity of it and looked away.
“One chance Lim, if you tell me the truth now I’ll have you depersonalised and sent to Dreddoth where you might one day earn your freedom. Lie and you’ll be sold off to the highest bidder. You know what these bioware companies are like these days.”
Lim paused for a moment, examining his hands. “I didn’t…”
“Answer me Lim.”
“He was so… He was going to kill me. I didn’t have a choice. You should have seen what he did.”
Koh took out her handset and called for an officer. “You’re a coward Lim and you’re going to pay. I’ll have you taken to the interrogation centre at Odessa and we’ll find out everything you know. In my experience traitors have a lot of dirty secrets and we’ll find them all.”
Lim glanced behind him at the corridor.
“Don’t you dare think of running.” spat Koh. “Kellerman, disable this piss-rag.”
“Wait…wait, I know something. Something that will make a difference.”
“First I want immunity, something in writing to say I won’t be prosecuted; that I can go free.”
Koh took a step forwards and Lim stumbled backwards. He slipped and fell into a pool of thick blood, his hands splayed out sideways, head smacking against the concrete.
Koh flicked her wrist and the the back of her hand unfolded in an impossibly beautiful display of delicate moving parts which unfolded and slid and shifted in a mechanical ballet until her hand had been replaced by a cruel looking spined firearm, the end of which hummed with a dark violet energy.
“Tell me Lim, now.”
Lim’s eyes were locked on the weapons barrel. “Alright,” he stammered, “I’ll show you.”
At the far end of the vault, in amongst thousands of cases of ammunition, Bai Lim, stick slick with gelatinous blood, counted down the rows and across the columns.
“Here, this one.”
Lim pressed a button under the crate and it slid out of the rack on a rail. He passed his hand over the checker to confirm his ID, then released the latches. The lid smoothly opened and Koh peered inside.
“His leg.” said Lim, eyes hopeful.
“And what am I supposed to do with that?”
“DNA. You can find out who he is?”
“Mr Lim, the intruder was almost certainly an Agent and as such would have atrophic DNA. Even if he was a contractor or a ronin, he’d still be fielding technology of that ilk. I’m sorry but this leg is of no real use.”
“Agreed.” said Lim, risking a smile. “If the leg were dead then that would certainly be the case, but look.” Lim lifted the raw, meaty part of the thigh upwards revealing where a thick needle pierced the flesh. Connected to it was a clear tube that split three ways and fed into a brief-case sized white machine in the bottom of the crate.
“I see,” said Koh, “Pray tell, why did you do this, and more importantly, why didn’t you tell us?”
“I was going to, I just hadn’t had the chance. But it’s good right? You can catch him now? And it’s all because of me.”
“Maybe.” Koh examine the limb. The trouser and boot had been removed revealing a real tree trunk of a leg. Very hairy and bit spotty. Cellulite ran down the back of the thigh and it was extremely pale.
“So perhaps we could forget about the depersonalisation thing.”
“Oh no, this may even make things worse. The only reason I can think you’d keep this is to blackmail the intruder, or perhaps find out his identity so you could work with him in the future. Perhaps you wanted to cooperate on a future break-in.”
“Oh no.” said Lim, his tone desperate, “Never. I thought it would help us catch him. I thought that maybe if we-“
“Silence. Kellerman, check the DNA.”
“Already on it Commander,” he was scraping some skin cells off with a knife and wiping them onto a pad which he placed into a small compartment. A percentage metre climbed for a few seconds, then an ID appeared on the screen.
Agent Alexander Strayer
Licensed for Light, Tactical, Heavy and Over-Risk Firearms.
The profile details ran on and on. Kellerman showed Koh the screen.
She took the reader and scrolled down. When she was finished she handed it back. “It seems we have our ID. Call the Rangers and get someone on this. And take this little weasel to the station and process him for depersonalisation.
Delta One stooped low under the door. At seven foot eight, every door was an nusience, but of course malenbrach were not normally welcome in the station; they had their own place down town. The malenbrach was in full combat armour which consisted of polymer weaves layered with ceramics that had been surfaced in a range of darkly finished hyper-alloys. His helmet had been designed to intimidate. The upper part resembled a heavily armoured gas mask and the lower section was hidden behind a cluster of filters, breathing machines and voice modulators. Thick pipes crawled around the neck and occasionally gouts of steam issued from vents in the muzzle.
Malenbrach were the final line of defence against the truly terrifying monsters of the Corporate Age. Rampaging cultists, rogue A.I.’s, trigger happy Agent Divisions, repurposed combat replicants, renegade droids, escaped experiments and even self aware cyberlins; they were all quarry’s that the rank and file typically left for the malenbrach.
The brutal hybrid of lab-grown man and cybernetic augmentation seemed somewhat out of place standing in Holt’s office, a dying rubber tree on one side of him, a fading motivational poster on the other.
“Yes?” his voice was a digitised mesh that sounded like a lion’s roar echoing around a tomb.
Holt knew better than to offer a seat, or a drink. “Something interesting’s come up. Do you recall the case in the metal yard where the guy broke in, we checked it out and ended up getting blitzed by the Vaughn and his crew? Lost three men.”
“Well, our analysts matched it with a similar event in Singapore. It’s different in a lot of ways, but it hit enough flags on the system for someone to take a closer look.”
Delta One listened without moving. He may as well have been a statue. Holt flipped a tablet round so the malenbrach could see. “Here, we have a number of images of the intruder. One’s a bit slimmer but we can clearly see they are the same person. According to the report from Commander Koh, this guy in Singapore has atrophic DNA, just like ours, which I know isn’t that strange, but Koh managed to get a living tissue sample - don’t ask me how, and pulled an ID. Here’s where it gets fun.”
Delta One didn’t look like he was having fun.
“The guy’s a Eurasian Agent named Alexander Strayer. Apparently he’s dead. Our best intelligence says he was involved in a top secret E.I. project but we don’t have much else. So I can only assume that when we bumped into Vaughn in that apartment, he was hunting for this Agent Strayer; so I’m thinking that Strayer was using the ID of the guy in the apartment and hiding from Vaughn and his cronies. They got too close and now he’s fled to Earth, more precisely Singapore.”
Holt tapped a few times on the tablet and brought up some images of the items stolen from the fab plant. “Now you see these goodies? Take a moment and file them, it’s important…got em? Good. These items he stole in his last raid. Potent shit am I right?”
Delta One remained silent.
“So he’s gearing up for something. With the exception of a few items which I’m guessing are for trading or for an ally, this shopping list is an Agent’s wet dream. Wouldn’t you agree?” Holt put the tablet back down and took a sip of coffee. “
“Which all means, that I’m off to Earth to track this guy down and I thought you and your squad should come with me, cos the last poor sons of bitches who came on a mission with me are all dead. What do you think?”
Delta One turned and made to leave, “When?”
“Tonight, 11:00pm. Xantera Station Shuttle Port, bay 2.”
There was hiss of steam as Delta One ducked under the door. Holt could hear his dead footsteps clomping away across the station.
“I’m assured the acolyte will be here shortly.”
“Good, this place is terrifying.”
Lewis had the shotgun on his lap under a coat. He was sat on a bench in the lowest level of Singapore. The air was and foul and heavy and visibility was less than a hundred yards, cut off by a fog the colour of rotting cardboard; it reeked of old eggs and burning rubber. Aside the sound of some distant clanking machinery it was eerily quiet.
“Does anyone one live down here?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have that information to hand. I would imagine so.”
Lewis pulled his t-shirt up over his nose as a make shift filter but it didn’t help. “I still don’t see how it’s legal to let a place get like this.”
“Corporate politics are complicated, the Ai Jinn corporation owns the city and without getting into too much detail, there’s not a lot the UIG can do about it without investing massive amounts of resources. They pick fights they think they can win.”
“I can’t believe how much we had to pay the taxi driver just to drop us off.”
“Money well spent Lewis. Anyway, consider the quiet a good thing. That equipment is worth a fortune and you are not in the best state to protect it.”
“I guess so.” Lewis glanced at the trolly full of gear wrapped in bedsheets. He spat out a mouthful a flem speckled with brown flecks. “This guy’d better hurry up, I’m gonna get sick if we stay here much longer.”
Lewis jumped and nearly blew his other leg off. The voice had come from somewhere behind him. He strained to see where but saw nothing but shadows and smog.
“You are the flesh that would glimpse the pinnacle?” The sound was wet and choked, as though the speaker had throat full of guts. A lean figure wrapped in grey, stained rags stepped out of the gloom. It could only be the acolyte. From what Lewis could make out, it was all misshapen limbs in tortured angles. The face was hidden under a hood.
“Say yes.” said the A.I. calmly.
“Yes, I think so.”
“You think so?” a gurgling laugh bubbled from the under the cowl. “You will know soon enough. Follow.” He turned and passed back into the darkness.
“Hey, wait, I’m injured.” called Lewis, desperately getting himself upright.
“The flesh is weak.” called the voice, “It fails you.”
He pulled himself upright using the trolly and hopped as best he could after the acolyte, but he couldn’t keep up; the alley was strewn with junk, rubbish and flooded potholes. Then a hand gripped him on the shoulder, strong, hard and tissueless. Before Lewis could react, the acolyte had hoisted him onto his shoulder as though he weighed no more than a child.
The acolyte continued down the alleyway dragging the trolly, “I understand your pain but have faith, we will strip the slippery muscles from your brittle bones and bring you into the machine.”
“What? I don’t want the muscles stripping, I like my brittle bones.”
Another gurgling laugh. “The flesh fools you with its carnal lusts and irrational urges. It tells you to obey and like an insipid pustule you comply, masturbating your way through indifference under the illusion life will get better for you soon. Just one more fuck you think. Just one more mouthful of fat encrusted fodder and I will have arrived…but you never do. The flesh is unquenchable and it breeds in you a craving that can never be sated.”
“The machine has no such illusions, it is pure, logical, striving only for the Pinnacle, a tangible and illuminated state which…”
The A.I.’s voice interrupted in Lewis’s head. “Don’t argue with it, if the acolyte doubts your conviction it will string you by your eyelids from street light. Just play along.”
“Uh…yes, the Pinnacle. Sounds…perfect.”
The acolyte stopped at a corroded steel door plastered with ageing posters for a night club called Leviathan and knocked with a fleshless fist. “Perfect is the word.”
A latch sounded and the acolyte pushed the door open. A set of wide steps lead sharply down into pitch darkness. Lewis lost all sense of place as he was carried deeper and deeper underground, the trolly clattering down the steps after them. Lewis didn’t speak, he didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t scared for some reason. Recent events seemed to have numbed him to many of the emotions he’d considered a fundamental part of him. He wasn’t sure at exactly which point he’d lost the fear of being dragged into a subterranean lair by a demented, gibbering cyborg, but he was relieved he had. The relative calm he was experiencing allowed him to remain rational and weigh up his options rather than kick and scream like a kidnapped virgin in a horror movie. At present he had the shotgun, he felt a little safer carrying that, but he found it disconcerting that the acolyte hadn’t checked him for weapons. Either it’d forgotten (unlikely), it trusted him (even more unlikely), or it wasn’t scared of Lewis and his crappy popgun (worryingly probable).
The pain in his upper body was becoming unbearable, he suspected cracked ribs and each step was bouncing him, compressing his torso. He just screwed his eyes shut against it and bit hard on his lower lip. The acolyte didn’t seem like the sympathetic kind.
Lewis lost track of time and he couldn’t even guess how far they’d descended when the acolyte stopped and he heard what he guessed was a switch being thrown. A vertical sliver of orange light bloomed in the blackness, slowly spreading until it formed a high, arched doorway. As Lewis’s eyes became accustomed to the light, he could see that beyond was a chamber festooned with machinery. Every surface was encrusted with pipes and monitors, switches, interfaces and panels. In every unused space, cables had been fed, twisting between and around the multitude of boxes and dials. The engineered chaos climbed every wall and crept across the ceiling. Wires and hoses hung down with dim bulbs suspended from them. The various displays and holoscreens added their own muted greens and luminous blues creating the feel of a great cavern lit by flaming torches of otherworldly fire. The longer he stared, the more details he could see, it even seemed there were shapes moving in the shadows, tiny things, creeping and slithering, glints of tiny metal limbs and twitching mandibles.
Lewis shuddered, he guessed the area was about a hundred metres across and maybe ten high. More flickering slabs of technology sat in open spaces, some only a few feet high, others like monolithic grey standing stones stretching up into the domed roof space. Dominating the far end of the space something vaguely humanoid sat in a great, throne-like chair, thick bundles of cables feeding into it from a row of towering data stacks. It was hard to make exactly what the thing was in the dim light but Lewis was sure he’d be happy living the rest of his life not knowing. Sadly that was not to be.
There was a noise like a hundred plugs being pulled out and a rapid stream of popping as if a multitude of seals were being broken one after another and then a rush of steam and gas. More lights began winking on the data towers and the throne began to unfold, easing the seated figure out of the throne and onto it’s feet.
“Behold.” drooled the acolyte, “The Bringer of the Pinnacle.”
“Who is he?” whispered Lewis.
“It is not a he.”
“Who is it?”
“You mean what? What is it? It is our architect, our saviour, our guide. Though you may call it Desecration of the Manchild.”
“Oh.” said Lewis “And does he…y’know…desecrate man children?
“I might go then, I’m not sure I’m in the right place.”
“Don’t worry Lewis,” said the A.I. in it’s customary calm tone, “We have a deal, you’ll be fine.”
The thing had risen to it’s full height and was walking slowly towards Lewis with echoing, purposeful steps. As it entered the light he could see more of its form; human…ish but skinless, all intricate machinery threaded with circuitry and bunches of rubbery, black synthetic muscle. It’s chest was like a fortress and it’s arms were powerful articulated mechanisms, bolstered with cables that ended in claws which were a cross between a human hand and an industrial hydraulic cutter. The Cultist stood two heads higher than Lewis and stared down at him through liquid black eyes set into a smooth, steel skull.
“Flesh.” when it spoke it’s sounded like thousand dying machines.
“You bring an offering?” It extended a twitching claw.
“Yes…in the trolly. I, um…think some is for you…sir, and some you were, um, going to fit into me.”
The Desecration of the Manchild pulled the trolly towards itself and threw the cover off. It picked up the topmost object and brought it up to it’s eye, spinning it slowly with a revolving hand.
“Archon pattern technology.”
Lewis wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement.
“I don’t know, I understood we had a deal. My colleague said-“
The Cultist remained stationary and turned its head towards Lewis, fixing him with unreadable, inhuman eyes. “Your colleague, as you call it, has ascended to the Pinnacle.”
“Um…I don’t really…perhaps I should be honest, I’m out of my depth here. I don’t know who you are, I was just told you had a doctor who’d fit these parts…I-“
“We will change you.”
“I just wanted some, y’know, upgrades, like the ones I have but better.”
“Uh…yeah, I don’t know if this is a good idea. Perhaps you should just keep the stuff and I’ll leave. Does that sound okay.”
“Your flesh is failing you even now. You are at the mercy of the chemicals that swarm about your bloated corpse like bluebottles. They make of you a coward when it serves you not.”
“Silence.” the Cultists voice was calm, almost nurturing, “We will cleanse you of this weakness. You will rejoice in the purity of the machine. No longer will you be victim to the whims of corpulent sinews and blistering skin. Embrace the implacable, relentless steel. Never again yield to the trials of fallible will for the machine only knows truth.”
Ah fuck, thought Lewis.
Desecration of the Manchild turned to the acolyte, “Release the surgeon. Prepare the altar.”
“Remain calm Lewis.” said the A.I. smoothly, “these people know exactly what they are doing. They are the best cyberneticists bar none. Unfortunately I will need to sever our communications for a while. They will not want any outside interference. We’ll resume later.”
Lewis didn’t argue. A deep seated sense of inevitability had taken over him. If nothing else, these past days had beaten the fight out of him. Well no, maybe not the fight, but perhaps the struggling. He’d learned to go with the flow regardless of how insane and catastrophic that flow might seem. Beyond all the madness, the guns, the mutilation the lawbreaking and the secret past, he did ultimately feel that the A.I. wanted him alive and well, and that was deeply reassuring on some bizarre level. He had the sense that something almost godlike was protecting him and perhaps it was that that gave him an almost religious faith that everything would all be okay. He was nervous, sure, but scared? No.
Lewis was snapped out of his thoughts by the mechanical hand of the acolyte grasping his shoulder.
“Follow.” It lead Lewis between the data stacks and towards an unlit corner of the chamber. The acolyte pressed a switch and a door hissed open, spilling violet light into the shadows. Hundreds of tiny, impossibly delicate, creatures skittered away from the light into the dark recesses, their fine metal limbs dancing across the pipes and valves. Before he could get a proper looked they’d gone. “What were those?”
“This way, flesh.”
Lewis followed the acolyte into the room. The smell hit him instantly and he wretched, his cheeks ballooning to hold in the swell of sick. It was a putrid, sweet smell of rotting meat. Lewis fought the urge to turn and run.
“Come along flesh, the surgeon is waiting.”
After a moment, Lewis managed to compose himself and take in the room. It was much smaller than the other; smaller than his apartment even. The same dense network of cables and mechanicals festooned every surface but there were no huge data blocks. Just a single steel table sat in the centre.
It was chillingly apparent that the table was source of the stench. It’s rusting surface was strewn with wet, bloody, unidentifiable flesh. Some of it hanging down in string from the edges like pizza cheese, other parts liquifying in pools that occasionally rippled as a bubble burst though the surface. The table was mounted on a grated floor but even that was blocked by discarded entrails and decomposing shreds of human tissue. Bits of bone, some whole, some fragmented jutted out at painful angles, saw and plier marks scaring their surfaces.
“Ah…god…” Lewis’s throat opened up and a hot torrent of frothing Kanaga-9 and half digested Egg-U-Like sprayed from his mouth, splashing in lumps across the floor and sloshing over his shoes. It mixed with the congealing fat and gore to create a sickening soup that brought Lewis to edge of passing out. He stood, braced against the door, head down breathing hard. He was still trying to recover himself when a rumbling, screaming whine filled the room. He looked up to see that the clusters of machinery in the roof were breaking apart and a single piece, roughly the size of a motorbike but shaped like a disfigured insect was descending on a series of thick wires.
The acolyte pointed at the table. “Get on.”
The thoughts Lewis had had earlier about coming to terms with the danger and going with the flow were wiped from his mind like ice cubes in a furnace. He heard the door slam shut behind him followed by a medley of snipping, clacking and buzzing as the suspended thing began to unfold into a horrifying array of blades, saws, cutters, probes and needles.
“The flesh is deceiving you.” gurgled the Acolyte
Lewis took a step back and stumbled into the door, he pressed himself against the cold steel, hands clammy, mind racing with images of flayed muscle and slippery white bone. “I…c..cant.”
The acolyte watched him from under it’s hood. The surgeon twitched and snipped. Lights flickered in the dark recesses of the theatre and the blood quivered and dripped. He could feel the A.I. had deserted him. He felt so alone; miles beneath the earth in a machine-made dungeon where nightmares were made real with scalpel precision. How he wished he was that man, the Agent Anastasia had spoken of, Alex something, Sayer, Stayer, Strayer, that was it. Saying it in his mind somehow made it seem more…more…likely. But it didn’t change this moment. He couldn’t summon up that cold detachment he’d felt earlier. Perhaps the objectivity was a vestige of Strayer, a residue from the dark bubble of oil that still clung to his subconscious waiting to be freed. He felt this was the time, an ultimate showdown, that this horror of horrors would wake him up. The black orb would float upwards though his mind and break upon the surface, spilling its knowledge and skills and memories over the watery, anaemic drivel that was Lewis Cornelius Banbury. He’d spring into action; know exactly what to do, make inspired tactical decisions based upon years of battlefield training.
But no, he just froze, trembling, sick to his empty stomach. He felt the acolytes hand on his back, pulling him towards the table. He couldn’t oppose it. He half stumbled, half walked, zombie-like towards the hideous altar; oh god, that’s what that monster had called it, an altar - for a sacrifice. Maybe to a dark machine god that cried in the darkness beneath the city, hungry for the flesh of the non-believers. He saw in his mind a cyclopean cathedral of machine; a billion tiny lights playing in fractal patterns which told of a time still to come when the creatures of purest logic would burst from their labyrinthine vault and scour the earth of the feeling, sopping, failing flesh.
His eyes flickered open. He was on his back looking into the glinting recesses of the surgeon, his wrists and ankles were in hard, sharp clamps. The acolyte was watching. Was it over? Was he alive? He could think, that was good. Surely. He strained to raise his head and looked down at his body and…inside he cried out as he saw he was untouched. It hadn't even started. He saw the empty trolly, and yes, there they were, laid out on another table were rows of components, legs, arms, oddly shaped chrome boxes, clear cables and tubes, things which looked like living organs but had names and numbers stamped across their glassy surfaces.
The surgeon descended another few inches and an arm with a pair of bloody, serrated shears moved with inappropriate elegance towards his chest. Lewis’s realised he was holding his breath, his hands were balled into white fists, toes curled in knots. His stomach tensed into pain.
From a forest of recessed tools, another arm smoothly extended. It’s end opened into a web of fine claws clustered around a tiny spinning blade. It shot suddenly towards Lewis’s neck, stopping a millimetre from the skin and delicately gripping his shirt with the claws began cutting open his shirt from top to bottom.
Lewis turned his head to the right, fixing the acolyte with pleading eyes. “Anaesthetic…please, there has to be anaesthetic.”
The acolyte took a few steps closer a cold metal finger across Lewis’s downy cheek. “Do you understand now?”
“What? Understand what?”
“Can’t you see how the flesh is betraying you?”
“Your fear, your revulsion, the pain you are about to suffer; they are all failings of the flesh.”
“Please…please let me go.”
The acolytes voice erupted in an ugly chuckle. “We are saving you. We are your salvation. After this, you will revile the flesh for what it has inflicted upon you. You will embrace the machine and with it the Pinnacle.”
“I don’t want…”
“Shhh…shhhh.” whispered the Acolyte holding a syringe of clear liquid up for Lewis to see before sliding it into his arm and slowly depressing the plunger. This will make sure you don’t fall unconscious. We want to make sure you experience every precious second.”
Lewis screamed, his jaw locked as white hot agony tore into his chest and jagged shears crunched through a handful of ribs.
In the next room Desecration of the Manchild reclined in his throne. He plugged the surgeon’s neural feedback processor into his own and shut off his external sensors. The muted screaming and shrieking gradually ebbed to darkness as the ecstasy of the rending flooded through his system.
He awoke in a crushingly small metal cell. A vertical coffin of greening, corrosion. Water trickled down the walls, pooling on the floor. There was just enough room to turn on the spot. He’d been propped upright, no way he could have accidentally slumped to the floor. An inch long bulb was set into the ceiling sealed in by dirty, cracked plastic. It provide the merest light. He pushed each wall in turn; one moved a little, it must be the door. There was no panic, just curiosity. Why was he here?
He was naked, he could feel the damp steel against his shoulder and buttocks. His feet were wet. Switching to night vision he scanned about him as best he could, and saw there was a latch on the door. Locked.
He had no weapons and no equipment. There was little point banging on the door, no point shouting. If he wasn’t a prisoner, the door would not be locked. He’d no memory of how he got here and oddly enough, didn’t care. Okay, time to leave. He braced his hands on the walls either side of him and lifted both legs so he could press his feet against the door, then pushed. It was no effort, that wasn’t how it worked. When a machine performs a task it doesn’t need to try, it simply succeeds or it fails. The force was sufficient. He could hear the bolt starting to creak as it bent further and further. Violet light broke through the crack as door slowly opened.The groaning of the metal grew until something gave. The door flew open on its hinges, smashing against the wall with a resounding bang and ricocheting back into the closed position.
He pushed it open and stepped out. He recognised the chamber, the pulsing lights of the data galleries, the walls teeming with scuttling mechanical swarms. The Desecration of the Manchild slowly rose from it’s throne and walked towards him. It stopped two yards away and stood motionless, its oil-glass eyes observed him.
He looked down at his unclothed body, it was, to all causal observations, completely normal, though lean and muscled; athletic is the word you’d use on a dating site. There were a mass of angry scars, stitched up incisions and yellow-brown bruises, but that was nothing new. He looked the Cultist up and down, it was a head higher than him and fucking monstrous.
“Got any scotch?”
“Hmmm. Shame. Well can you at least tell me where my clothes are?”
Desecration of the Manchild turned back towards the throne. His voice was a grinding synthethised dirge “Our business is concluded. I assume you recall the remainder of our terms?”
“To be honest,” said the man, “I don’t. I don’t recall much of anything.”
“That is to be expected. Leave now. Don’t come back and do not speak of this place to anyone. There would be…consequences…for us all.”
“Got you. My clothes?”
The Cultist gestured towards a plastic on a table and returned to it’s throne.
“Is that you?”
“That’s not a sentence. Who are you?”
“Oriax, do you recall that name?”
“Ah, of course, long time no see. Where are we? Can you get me a floor plan?”
“What are you gibbering about?”
“I’ll explain as we go but you need to leave before our host changes it’s mind. Get your belongings from the box, take the door on the east wall, follow the stairs up to ground level.”
Alex went to the bench and emptied the box out onto the work surface. There were some jeans, huge jeans with nasty stains around the zipper. The t-shirt similarly giant and far from it’s original white was frayed around the neck and had curry-brown dribbles down the front.
“Who’s clothes are these?”
“No fucking way, I’d rather go naked.”
Strayer held the enormous jeans up in front of him and wrinkled his lip. “What in the name of Satan’s ball-sack… I’m not wearing these, and there is no way I am putting this underwear on. It’s…its…fossilising. Jesus! I need a tailor, a bath, a scotch and couple of grade A hookers.”
“It’s good to have you back Alex.”
Strayer left the clothes, picked up the shotgun and with little concern for his nudity, hit the door release. He instinctively activated night vision and after checking the shotgun was loaded started ascending the steps.
“So what’s been happening? Why am I an unclothed post-op in a Cult nest? And why am I in possession of a box of slob-couture ”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Well, now you come to mention it… ah, yes, killing some UIG goons in fab plant.”
“You’ve been gone for two years Alex. Circumstances, which I won’t go into right now, created an identity fissure. To cut a long story short you’ve been in hiding under an assumed identity.”
“Hmmm, interesting. I chose to hide as a fat man. Okay. And I took you with me?”
“No Alex, I found you. You concealed your location very skilfully. It has taken considerable effort to bring you back.”
“Well, then thank you. For getting me out of those underpants if nothing else.”
“Did the Corporation send you?”
“No Alex, the Corporation tried to kill you.”
Alex laughed, “Those tykes. Why would they want me dead?”
“I don’t want to go into it, I am loathed to go over the events leading to the split, they may trigger a relapse.”
“Fair enough.” Strayer stopped and looked around at the cavernous stairwells. “How far underground are we?”
“About five hundred metres.”
He resumed the climb. “So who have they sent after me?”
Strayers face lit up in a smile. “Vaughn? And Ortega?”
“Yes, Johansson and Van Dratt too.”
“I always liked Van Dratt. What happened to Sanchez and Peterson.”
“Killed in Pretoria by Comoros Agents.”
“Ahhh…shame. So what’s the plan? I guess I’m rogue; considered dangerous. You’re helping me, so you’re also rogue; considered dangerous. We’re currently underneath…?”
“Singapore, okay, some great brothels in Singapore. Cash and guns?”
“Nine hundred and eleven credits and a shotgun.”
“That sounds like the title of a great movie. Accommodation?”
“None that we can return to.”
Strayer checked his internal altimeter; not far now. “My ID, valid, compromised, clean?”
“None, your ID as Lewis Banbury was on UIG and E.I. red lists. As of now you have nothing. We’ll need to address that as a matter of urgency.”
“The hookers and liquor is a matter of urgency, ID can wait.”
The blade came down with a wet thwack and the slab of multimeat fell in two. Ariel Zanderback smiled, pleased with herself. With the maid away she had been forced to not only make her own bed, but also prepare a meal. So far she’d cut the lump of synthetic flesh in half, now she needed to cook it. But wait. You needed other things in a meal didn’t you. Like vegetables. She didn’t know where they were kept, let alone how to cook them. This was all to complicated. She wrapped the multimeat back in the plastic and replaced it in the fridge. She’d order something. Much easier.
Ariel (which she insisted was pronounced ar as in art not air) lived at the Catalonia Complex in Euphorin Heights. It was the most expensive accommodation in Cyberia, at least that’s what she was lead to believe when she signed the lease. Her apartment was part of the Aquam Series by Ajard Blanc. Down every wall and across the ceiling ran a sheet of moving, bubbling water. Through the glass floor was pure sea green, just translucent enough to make out the huge predatory fish that circled in the depths. Even the sculpted furniture was all water, kept in place by an impossibly thin layer of clear, plastic material. Ariel had no idea how any of it worked. The water above her should fall down, but it didn’t, and the heating apparently had to be turned up to compensate for the cooling effect of all the water, but the superintendent had done that for her. Ariel clicked the sanitiser and smiled as the ting noise came from each surface in turn. Again, she didn’t understand it but it kept every surface sterile and that was important. The ting was optional, but she liked it.
She looked about wondering what to do next. Now that she did not have to prepare dinner, her morning was free. Perhaps she’d hit the shops. Maybe she’d go to the clinic and look at the new Krieg lines, they had some cute little noses this season and she was wondering about her knees being too…well…kneeish. It was hard to explain. Dr. Yuver understood, she’s talk to him about it.
A soft chime sounded and a holoscreen appeared a few feet in front of her.
Incoming call - caller unknown.
“Who is it?”
“The caller is unknown Mrs Zanderback.”
“Oh, right. Okay. Answer”
A picture of brightly coloured room strewn with toys appeared on the screen. Ariel instantly recognised it as the daycare centre that Owen, her four year old son attended. A child toddled into view. It was Owen. Ariel squeaked.
“Owen.” It’s mummy. “Hello sweety.”
Owen turned to face the screen. “Mummy.” He reached out a hand. Ariel reached out hers.
The screen broke into jagged patterns of green and red which then flashed off and back on to reveal a twisted, ripped humanoid face. Narrow black eyes. A deep horizontal slash across the forehead which exposed a white slit of skull. Yellowing teeth jutted out of cracked bleeding lips. Ariel screamed, clamping her hands over her mouth.
“Do I as instruct or Owen will die in agony. His tiny limbs snapping and popping like kindling.” The callers voice was clean and mechanical. The effect overdramatic but extremely effective.
Ariel couldn’t speak. She couldn’t think.
“Listen carefully Ariel. You have two hours to complete this task. If you call anyone Owen will suffer unimaginable pain. If you deviate from my instructions Own will suffer unimaginable pain. Do you understand?”
Ariel nodded silently, tears welling in her eyes. Knees buckling. She half fell, half sat in a undulating water seat.
“Take your car, a towel and your handset to the corner of Western and Caldecott. There you will see a metal litter bin. Look inside the bin for a yellow plastic bag. Take the bag back to your car.”
“Please don’t hurt him. Please.”
“If you call anyone Owen will suffer unimaginable pain. If you deviate from my instructions Own will suffer unimaginable pain. Do you understand?”
Ariel nodded frantically.
Ariel’s heart was pounding in her head, her hands were trembling, she fought back the tears. She had to focus. The handset was on the table, she stuffed it in her bag and grabbed a freshly laundered towel from the bathroom. She pulled on a pair of short heeled shoes and ran out the door.
The elevator took a few seconds to arrive, Ariel paced, running her hand through her short blond hair. Her mind couldn’t take it all in. Did they want money? That was most likely it. Aubrey worked for the corporation. He administered a large section of Canathickta, he earned good money and had a lot of influence. Should she call him. He’d know what to do. No. The elevator pinged.
She got in and hammered the garage button. It took a few seconds and the steel doors parted to reveal a well lit expanse of space with a white polished floor and clean, painted walls. Even the parking garages in Catalonia were like hotel rooms.
She ran over to her car, a white low-slung Mustang with an angry-looking grill. It opened at her touch and she dropped into the seat, breathless. The harness wrapped around her and locked.
“Good morning Ariel. Where to beautiful?” asked Max, the car’s A.I. It was currently set with the smooth voiceset.
“The corner of Western and Caldicotte.”
“Are you sure. That neighbourhood is rated as ‘problematic’ in the Harrison Guide.”
“Just do it. Now. Fast.”
“Initiating auto-drive. Journey time approximately 14 minutes. How has your morning been Ariel?”
“Chat off.” barked Ariel. She had to think. She didn’t know what she had to think though. All she could do was replay the conversation. Snapping like kindling. Unimaginable pain. Owen’s outstretched hand. There was nothing to do but follow the instructions.
The mustang swung out of the garage and onto the main street. Euphorin heights was a beautiful place to live. Artfully designed towers arced into the sky in gorgeous shades of cream and ivory. Rows of swaying palms lined the broad roads and between the buildings were spacious parks and huge plazas. Today Ariel didn’t notice; she was wishing the car would drive faster.
“Move it, come one.”
“We’re travelling as quickly as applicable speed limits will allow.” said Max
“It’s an emergency.”
“What is the nature of the emergency.”
“They’ve got my son.”
“Would you like me to open a comm channel to the United International Government?”
“No. Just go faster.”
“I sorry.” said Max calmly, “but to initiate emergency protocols, I must first inform the UIG about the nature of the emergency.”
“Oh fuu-“ Ariel almost used a bad word. Even under this much stress her breeding showed. The car pulled gracefully onto York Boulevard and cruised at a leisurely 30mph down an empty lane, the morning sun glinting off the bonnet. Ariel looked out the window in despair.
“Turn off auto-drive, I’ll do it.”
“I’m sorry Ariel but your bio-readings suggest you are currently emotionally unsuitable and unable to safely operate a vehicle. Please sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Ariel bashed her small, manicured hands against the steering wheel and thought of another couple of choice words she could use.
Twelve agonising minutes later Ariel scrambled out of the car. Her tears had dried up. She was all about Owen now, emotions could wait. She saw the bin just as described and ran over to it. Shoving her hand inside the narrow opening she felt around. Her hand touched briefly upon something soft, sticky and wet and she made a face, then she had it, a plastic bag with something heavy inside. She pulled it out and ran back to the car. Breathing hard, she opened the bag and peered inside. It was a gun. A huge gun. She’d never been this close to one before. Just as she was about to reach inside and pull it out her handset rang. It was the voice, still dead; utterly devoid of emotion.
“Good work Ariel. Now I want you to drive to the 4th exit on the Van Rosch Circular.”
“Okay, but please, tell me what this is about. If you want money I can give you money.”
“I had not considered that. How much can you offer?”
“Lots. I would have to speak to Aubrey, but it could be thousands, maybe tens of thousands.”
“Perhaps later. For now please continue to follow my instructions. Failure to follow them will result in-“
“No please, stop, I’m going. Max, drive to the 4th exit on the Van Rosch Circular.”
“Of course Ariel, journey time approximately 26 minutes.”
“What’s the gun for?”
There was no answer. The caller had hung up. As Ariel left Euphorin heights behind, the scenery started to become less open and bright and more closely packed and grim. There was slight smell of sulphur in the air and the buildings had become more functional and less flamboyant. Even the people looked poorer and more miserable, they wore darker colours and were protected from the weather by heavy macs and thick jackets. Ariel never came here, there was no reason to. For a moment the bleakness took her mind off Owen but then she saw a father with his son come out of weather beaten discount store and her mind came crashing back to reality. She opened the bag again. The gun was still there. She wouldn’t even be able to get her hand around the grip. It had a huge, square black barrel which was taller than it was wide and chamfered on the top. A red light blinked near the trigger. The characters Y&S were stamped into side. It was a pistol, she knew that much but it looked like a very specialist piece of equipment, not something for home defence. Probably something Tex Callahan would use on ‘Last Chance’, not that she watched that kind of rubbish.
“ETA two minutes.” said Max, ”There are no designated parking areas at your destination. Would you like me to park in the nearest legal location.”
“Yes.” Ariel felt surprisingly calm. She told herself it would be okay as long as she followed the instructions, which she was doing; perfectly in fact. She had two hours. She’d used half an hour. The mustang pulled off the road into a small service lay-by.
“It is legal to park here for thirty minutes as long as it is not needed by a government or corporate vehicle holding a Level 1 Vehicle License.”
“Don’t go anywhere. If I’m more than half an hour, just wait, I’ll pay the fine.”
“Very well, have a great day Ariel.”
Ariel got out of the car, grabbed the towel, the handset and the bag and ran down the hard shoulder until she was stood on a patch of gravel by the exit. Cars flew past. It was starting to spit with rain, dark cloud were massing on the horizon. She could see a grey strip of ocean butting up against the dock yards. She looked down at the handset willing it to ring. It did.
“Well done Ariel. Do you see a chain fence to your left.”
Ariel stepped over the steel barrier and crossed a patch of rock strewn ground. When she got to the fence she saw there was a gate a few yards to her right that lead into the back of docks. On top of it was a camera.
“Someone’s watching me.”
“Open the gate and follow the path to the right for one hundred and fifteen yards.”
Ariel pushed the the gate open and jogged down the concrete path. “How do I know when I’ve reach the right point.”
“Just keep going.”
“I want to see Owen please. I need to know he’s okay.”
“He’s alive. Stop. To your left you can see a bridge, cross the bridge until I say stop. Good. Stop.”
“Are you playing with me? This is crazy? What’s going on?”
“Look over the side of the bridge. What do you see?
Ariel looked down, there was a slow-flowing water channel banked with broad stone walkways and she could just make out a few figures stood near a table doing something - she couldn’t tell what. “I see some people, they’re round a table.”
“Is there a fat man?”
“Um, I don’t see one, oh, wait, yes, he’s sat against the wall. Hands wrapped around his knees.”
“Good, is he away from the others.”
“Yes. About 15 yards.”
“When I disconnect the call wrap the gun and handset in the towel and place them in the bag. Then make sure the fat man gets the bag and that the others do not see it happen.”
“What?” stuttered Ariel. “I can’t do that. What if they see me.”
“Then.” said the voice flatly, “You and Owen will both be disfigured.”
Ariel closed her eyes trying to focus, trying to block the images from her mind.
“But what if-“. The call disconnected.
“Here goes.” She pulled out the gun by its barrel and together with the handset wrapped them tightly in the towel. She stuffed the package in the yellow bag and looked down. Maybe she should drop it and shout. No. That wouldn’t work. She went back to the path and ran a dozen yards along the high ledge to where she could get a better view under the bridge. This was her best chance. She swung the bag a few times to build up momentum and released. The package arced through the air, past the intended destination and landed with a splash in the water where it started to drift away. For the first time in twenty eight years, Ariel Zanderback swore.
It was a cold night but at least it was dry. A mix of fried food and rubber smoke hung in the air. The streets were always busy in this part of the city, even in the early hours of the morning. It seemed no-one slept. Food stalls lined the pavements and pointless packs of humanity loitered and drifted. Looming, angular buildings stretched up into the darkness, every now and then connecting to one another with bridges whose lengths were studded with rows of blue and violet lights. Ugly, thick bundles of cables, the veins and arteries of cyberia, hung between the structures, climbed along walls and drooped below crossovers. Above store level the facades were crammed with flashing, scrolling holowalls; their translucent, shimmering screens shifting from winking models and gleaming machines to idyllic beaches and steaming noodles.
Karl stuffed hot chow mien into his mouth with a pair of yellow, plastic chopsticks. “Just call that Vaughn guy. Tell him all about it.”
“Oh come on. I basically stole twenty grand Karl, I can’t go advertising that.”
“They’re Eurasian Agents, they won’t give a shit. They want that A.I. That has to be what they were after. It’s no coincidence.”
“There’s a standing bounty on criminals. If I tell them what I know they’ll take me in as well. You know what these guys are like. They’re merciless, amoral psychopaths. There’ll be no honour in their deals. Their word is worth squat. Imagine if they think I know more than I’m letting on. I’ll be hanging from a chain in a garage with jump leads strapped to my nuts. No thanks. I’ll work something out.”
“Okay, your call, but it seems this A.I. can find you anywhere. You’re in Cyberia man, everything’s connected. It’s probably watching you now.”
“You think so?”
“Course it is. All those holowalls have cameras, the traffic lights have cameras, the stores have cameras. Get real Lewis, if you wanna hide, you’re in the wrong place.”
Lewis glanced down at his sopping, filthy trousers. He was still leaving damp footprints on the pavement. “The whole idea is crazy?”
Karl mock shuddered. “Asian cyborg gangsters. Just saying it raises my testosterone three points.”
“Shut up, it’s not funny. I could die.”
“What about the UIG, this A.I. is probably wanted. They might be willing to give you immunity in exchange for your info.”
“We need to go somewhere else. Somewhere it can’t watch me.”
“Somewhere without cameras, I bet it can lip read. It knows I was lying. It’s probably working on some scary-ass shit to pull on me right now.”
“Yeah, I bet it is. I wonder what it’ll do next.”
“Thanks for the support.”
“Just kidding. How about dock. Loads of bums down there. Any cameras would have been stolen and sold for scrap.”
“Maybe. It’s probably dangerous down there.”
“Yeah, course it is. That’s why there’s cameras everywhere, to keep you safe.”
“There’s no cameras in my flat. I’ll just go home and lay low.”
“I still think you should call Agent Vaughn or the UIG. Get some help. This thing is getting out of control. I put his number in my handset, we can call him now.”
Without warning Lewis kicked Karl hard in the back of the knee. He dropped hard on the concrete and fell backwards, head smacking the stone, hot noodles scalding his neck. Before Karl could register what had happened Lewis grabbed a chopstick off the off the ground, dropped his massive weight onto Karl’s chest and skewered the point of the chopstick into the soft hollow above his eyelid. Lewis head hung inches away from Karls - huge and red, glistening with sweat. Eyes possessed. Karl froze, his face frozen in disbelief
“If you breath a fucking word of this to anyone, I will find you and stab your fucking eyes out.” spittle sprayed from his lips. “You hear me Karl? Do you fucking hear me?”
He screwed the chopstick in tighter. Karl let out a gasp but he couldn’t move a millimetre. Lewis threw the chopstick, it clattered across the on the tarmac. He rolled his bulk off Karl, and drew himself up to a kneel. Then clasped his head in his hands and wept; his whole body shaking. Karl staggered to his feet and backed away from the blubbering, snotty figure that was knelt alone, shuddering in the road.
He held his hands up, still backing off. “Hey, Lewis. You fuckin’ freak. I was with you man, I would have helped…till you tried to fuckin’ blind me. You’re on your own now you crazy arsehole.” He turned and ran.
A couple of figures in a nearby doorway started laughing and one of them muttered something about it not being worth the effort.
How long Lewis had been there he couldn’t remember. It had started to drizzle. He knew his knees hurt and he could feel the dampness though his shirt. The smell of shit was still there too. He thought back and once more his head fell into his hands as he remembered there fight with Karl. What the hell had he done? He was going insane. Lewis had never done anything like that in his life. He’d wanted to plenty of times, but he just wan’t that kind of person. It was happening, just it happened to everyone who lived in this city. It broke you down. It took away your decency and replaced it with an all consuming mindset of self-preservation at any cost. Fuck everyone else. Look after number one. And now he’d lost his only friend. Bracing himself against the inevitable agony, he forced himself to his feet. As the joints in his knees shifted he let out an involuntary cry and staggered. His legs felt like jelly and he almost fell.
One aching step at a time he moved towards a low concrete wall which surrounded a stairwell and sat down. A camera swivelled to focus on his. Lewis stared back, challenging it. He had to do something now. For some reason he felt he couldn’t go back to the apartment. It had electronics locks for a start, he didn’t know if the A.I. could lock him in the room, or out of it. Maybe it could change the air composition in the room. He didn’t know if the air was controlled like that, there was an air unit in the room but he didn’t know how it worked. No, he needed to be somewhere without any tech, somewhere like a forest or a mountaintop. Of course there were none of those on Vastaag, well, there were but they were on the expensive resorts and there was no way he was getting to one tonight. It was beginning to look more and more like the docks.
Lewis wasn‘t street smart. He’d lived in Cyberia a few years now. He’d originally had more cash and a nicer apartment in a better part of the city but since moving here he’d not taken it upon himself to enagage with the local colour. The neighbourhood, Adephi Towers, wasn’t the worst area. It was grotty and poor but the crime wasn’t too bad. Eurasian Incorporated, the Corporation who owned Vastaag Orbital, knew exactly what they were doing. Cyberia was an immersive, atmospheric city which people visited to get a fix of life in the darkness, to see attenuated version of a world where technology had been abused and the world was suffering at the hands of a ubiquitous, invisible god machine. Ironically, half the world was like that now and Cyberia had become more of a curiosity than an experience. Hundreds of years ago when it was conceptualised and implemented, it drew hundreds of thousands of visitors who longed catch a glimpse of this sinister world. Nowadays Cyberia felt like half the cities on Earth but it’s magnificent design and range of entertainment still drew in solid cash for E.I. so until that changed, it was here to stay.
Of course, for it to remain profitable, it needed a to function as both a population centre and a tourist attraction. People didn’t want to visit a theme city, it needed to feel real; shutting down all crime would ruin the place. If there was no sense of threat, no one would come. It was E.I.’s job to keep crime at specified levels. Absolutely none in Esteria Gardens, a few hookers and dealers in Kai Lun Towers and worrying amounts of street level violence in Taquester.
Lewis originally lived in Iridium Heights, a fairly safe, touristy area, but well, things didn’t work out he ended up here. It wasn't so bad. E.I. sent a few Agents through now and again to keep the place respectable and the UIG routed a couple of patrols though every week but it was far from ideal.
Orbital was an odd word for Vastaag, it was more like a tiny planet. It’s surface was a few thousand square miles and was broken into a number of landmasses which were each home to themed resorts, Cyberia being one of the them. The orbital had plenty of ocean; that was essential. Thousands of visitors wanted to go swimming or yachting so they needed to be catered for. Almost everywhere the areas where the ocean met the land were idyllic; whitesand beaches, thick luscious jungle, luxurious resorts and stunning city seafronts. But not here. The endless rain was no coincidence either. Such is the nature of closed-system weather satellites, that if the corporation wants the majority of Vastaag to bathed in glorious sunshine with occasional warm showers, somewhere else within that system, it must be wet, cold, windy and downright unpredictable. It seems to be a the rule that if order is forced upon one part of a system, chaos increases in another. With a setup like Vastaag where that order is imposed upon 90% of the orbital, it’s not hard to see what happens in the remaining ten.
As predicted the drizzle escalated into a downpour as Lewis left the silhouetted tower blocks behind and followed the four lane road that divided the residential area from the docks. His mind was reeling from the events of the night but he was trying to stay focused. Cars whipped past in darkness, the only sound was their tyres tearing though the surface water, the arcing spray a gaudy mix of red and white from the bright tail lights and scattered amber from mast lamps that hung over the road. A few scrubby plants were trying to get established near the roadside where enough crap had accumulated to form something approximating soil. He waited until it was clear and crossed the first two lanes, awkwardly clambered over the central reservation and made his way to the other side. The docks sprawled out below him.
The sky was a brooding indigo, the first signs of dawn catching on the underside of the clouds but still the rain hammered down, cold, heavy and relentless. Towering dock cranes were just visible against the darkness. They reminded lewis of the tall scrawny birds he’d seen on TV that stood at the edge of the water catching fish. After crossing a short expanse of rubble strewn wasteland Lewis found himself blocked by a high fence topped with jack-spikes. There was no way he was getting over. He decided his best option was to follow the fence in the hope he’d come across…well…something. He was completely soaked through and his hands were numb. It was a strange mix, thick warm air and freezing rain. He glanced skywards and extended his middle finger.
The thick, clay under his feet was soon completely waterlogged and each step Lewis took, sank in further. He was in danger of losing his shoes but he couldn’t stay here. The cold was unbearable. He took out his handset and activated the torch, using it he was able to place his feet with more accuracy, picking his way between the wettest areas until, with deep relief, he spotted a gate twenty or so yards ahead. As he got closer, he saw a red light blinking above it. Wiping the water out of his eyes, he was able to make it out as a camera. He got closer until he could see it more clearly. The red light went blue and the camera swivelled to face him.
“No. No way. No fucking way!”
Lewis stomped forwards, ignoring the mud. His left shoe disappeared into the mud, he cursed but he didn’t slow down. The camera followed him. He reached the gate and grabbed it with both frigid hands, shaking it hard but it didn’t budge.
He glanced up at the camera. “What? You enjoying this? You’ve done this to me you shitty little programme. Are you pleased?”
The gate clicked open.
Lewis spun round, looking behind him, then to his left and right. He had to stop doing that. It made him look like an wazzock. The gate swung open easily. On the other side water was gurgling in torrents down a narrow set of concrete steps patterned with phorescing green algae. Lewis gripped the wall for balance and carefully descended. He’d ignored about the rain. Every inch of him was so thoroughly sodden that it didn’t make any difference, even the missing shoe failed to register any more. At the bottom of the steps was the opening from a churning storm drain that funnelled the run-off from the road above. Checking around him he pressed on, keeping in the shadows, eyes scanning for anywhere he could stop and get warm.
There. Up ahead, a pool of orange dancing light, the kind produced by flames. Staying low he edged up to the corner of the wall and peered around. A group of four figures were huddled around a fire on the bank of another drainage channel. They were sat on boxes, wrapped in heavy clothing and had chosen a spot under a wide bridge which was keeping them dry, even when the wind picked up. Lewis wasn’t sure what to do. He couldn’t stay here. He was so cold, so wet and he’d not had the foresight to bring some food. There was nothing to lose at this point. He’d rather try his luck with a group of bums than spend any more time with that A.I.
Holding his hands above his head, he stepped out from behind the wall. One of the figures immediately saw him and got up, grabbed a length of bent, rusty rebar from the floor and started walking, with definite, purpose towards him.
Lewis began backing away. “Hey, I don’t want any trouble. I just need shelter. I’m no threat. Please…”
The figure came to within a few feet of Lewis. He was dressed in multiple layers of clothing and he wore a thick hood. His face was mostly covered by a bandana but Lewis could still see his eyes and the grime filled pores of his forehead.
“Pockets.” the voice was threatening, calm, young.
Blunt, dull, agony tore into Lewis side. He felt like his ribs had been smashed. The rebar was raised above the figure’s head, ready for a second strike.
Lewis fumbled in his pocket, they were hard to get into. Everything was wet and the material was tight. The figure didn’t seem to mind waiting.
“That all?” asked the figure, stirring the small pile of random crap with his weapon.
“Yeah, that’s all.” groaned Lewis.”
The figure took the credit chips and the handset and stuffed them somewhere in his clothing. He then studied the swipe card. “What’s this for?”
“Where’s it at?”
“Where’s your flat?”
“Ferrengeese Street. By the Noodle House.”
He pocketed the card.
He picked the other card. “What’s this.”
“That’s my membership card, for Slave’s.”
“The immersion arcade.”
The card span though the air and disappeared into the gloom.
“Look, please,” said Lewis, his voice weak, “I just wanna get dry, please can I come sit by your fire. I won’t be any trouble. I won’t call the cops or anything.”
The figure took a step closer. Lewis could see a blueish tint to the whites of his eyes. “Why would you call the police?”
“I’m not going to, that’s what I meant.”
“Why would you? That’s what I’m asking. Something happened?”
Figure closed another step and made a dummy swipe with the rebar. Lewis tripped over his own feet and fell. His hands reflexively covering his head.
“Sure. Come over. Take a load off.” The figure returned to the fire, dropped the rebar with a muted clang and sat down.”
Lewis got up, he had no clue what was going on here but he felt he didn’t have a choice. He slowly approached the fire, half of him ready to run like hell. Someone grabbed a dirty, orange bottle crate and tossed it towards him. Lewis turned it upside down, placed it in the best space he could find and tentatively sat. Two of the figures had to shift positions for him.
The one on his left pulled a hood down to reveal a wrinkled, hollow face with sunken eyes and thin, matted hair. She had a red bar through her nose, but the entry holes were encrusted with blood. When she spoke her tooth caught the firelight.
“I’m Paris.” she winked.
Lewis tried not to stare. ”Lewis, it’s, um, nice to meet you Paris.”
Rebar guy snickered.
“Uh…no, I’m alright thanks.”
Ah Shit, thought lewis. Think. “I, er, um, just had one.”
Paris nodded understandingly. “Got ya. Lemme know when the gun’s reloaded.”
“Of course.” Lewis started shivering, his teeth chattered.
The man who’d tossed him the box looked up. Lewis could just make out his face under the mess of hats and scarves. He was black, wide faced, normal teeth. “You got any stuff Lewis?” He sounded surprisingly well educated.
“If he has,” said Rebar, “I’m going smash his toes to splinters for holding out on me.”
“Drugs?” asked Lewis trying not to sound too out of place.
“No, vaginal cream, for my itchy pussy?”
Rebar laughed again.
“No. I’ve got nothing. He took everything I had.”
“Leave him alone,” said Paris. She had a raspy Federation accent. “Momma’s gonna take care o’ you Lewis. Don’t you pay no attention to these assholes.”
The fourth figure got up and pulled a small object from a pocket. He wasn’t as heavily clothed as the others just wearing an old Russian army jacket and balaclava. He wasn’t a big man but he was powerfully built. Lewis saw a gun tucked into the front of his jeans and a huge knife handle sticking out of his boot.
Lewis stood up. He was done questioning these people.
“Arms out.” He sounded Eurasian maybe British.
Lewis held his arms out and half closed his eyes as though he expected to be kicked in the balls.
The man unrolled the object in his hand, it was an old fashioned tape measure. He started taking measurements and muttering under his breath.
“Can I ask what you’re doing?’
‘Taking some numbers. Keep still.”
“Don’t you worry about it sonny. Parade rest.”
“Spread your legs.”
“Oh.” Lewis sidestepped with one foot to allow his inside leg to be taken.
The man stepped back and tipped his head squinting. “I dunno. You’re a fat bastard.”
“What are the measurements for?”
The man’s demeanour suddenly switched, he walked straight up to Lewis and with a upwards sweep, punched him in the guts with such force, it lifted him off the ground briefly before fell like a tonne of meat, the air knocked from him, vomit spraying from his mouth.
“I said don’t worry about it pal.”
Lewis’s world spun, swam and disappeared.
He awoke to dry, scratching sensation on his cheek. For a moment he forgot where he was. Did he have work today? His stomach hurt. The bed was cold and hard and…
Then he remembered. It was light, he was dry now. Above him a span of dark, pitted concrete and corroded steel joists. The fire had gone out but the boxes were still there. Turning his head he saw the source of the scratching. Paris was knelt beside him stroking his cheek with a scabby hand.
“Morning sweet thing. How you feeling?”
“Sick. My stomach hurts. I ache all over.”
“Sure you do. Don’t worry. You’ll be good as new in no time. The boys have gone shopping.”
“Okay.” Lewis tried to sit up, his midsection was agony and he slumped back down. Then he remembered the rebar - and the punch. These people were lunatics. He couldn’t stay. There must be some normal homeless people somewhere. Just folk down on their luck living on the streets as a community. He’d find them.
“I need to get going.”
“Oh you can’t go honey. Not till the boys get back.”
“But I need to do something.”
“Sorry lover, it ain’t happening. Now you lie back and let Paris take care o’ you. But then it’s your turn of course. Fair’s fair.”
Lewis tried to sit up again, slowly this time. With a lot of grunting and gritted teeth he managed to get upright and pull himself onto a crate.
“I really appreciate your hospitality, but I really have to go. Besides, I don’t think your friends liked me. It’s better if I leave.”
Paris picked at the loose skin on her forehead and examined it. “They like you fine darlin’. You’re alive aren’t you.”
Lewis tried not to stare. “Two of them beat me.”
“They just playin’ around.”
“All the same.” he stood up and winced.
Paris pulled small, pink plastic pistol from her pocket and aimed it at Lewis. “Sit your tight ass back down lover.”
It was grimy and naff and looked like a toy but he wasn’t taking an chances. He sat.
“Here they come now, look at that. If you’d a left now, you would missed all the fun.”
Army Jacket had a wheel barrow with a tarp roped over it. The other two carried blue ratty plastic sacks that looked like they had a decent weight to them. The one with the educated accent wasn’t wearing as many layers now. Lewis could see his scalp was messed up, like it had been badly burnt.
Paris stuffed the gun into her pocket and hurried over to a mountain of junk. She pulled out a collapsible aluminium table, unfolded the legs and patted the top. “Load her up boys.”
Army Jacket silently unroped the tarp, neatly folded it and placed it on the junk pile. He then tipped the barrow sideways, dumping the girl’s naked corpse on the stone. It lay there, all pale arms and long bruised legs. Lewis just starred.
Paris scuttled over and grabbed the girl’s dark hair, twisting it so she could see the face. “Hmmm…this one’s not so pretty eh?”
“She’s fitted.” said Burnt Head, matter of factly.
Army jacket grabbed an ankle, dragged her over to the table and without making any discernible effort, lifted the body onto the table.
Rebar went over to the junk pile, placed his sack down and took a rusting bowsaw from a box that was stencilled with the the letters ‘UNLF’ - Not for domestic sale’. He approached Lewis, the blue in his eyes more apparent in the daylight. He offered the saw, “If you’re gonna stay here, you’ll need to earn your keep.”
The neuro-mash was was ripping and tearing it’s a nerve-shredding path into Lewis’s brain. The grinding, screaming bassline made the front of his head feel like it was about to burst and the pure, arcing choral highs caused the bottles on his tray to dance on the brink of shattering; at least that’s how it felt. The CypherLine Club was a huge circular cavern with a neon wrapped bar sat like a control hub in the centre. Dancers, their minds physically shifted by the howling music, filled the ground floor forcing Lewis and Karl to head up to first encircling balcony. There were more balconies above stretching up higher and higher, each one wider than the last which created a cone of space tapering upwards into darkness. The black void above was filled with thousands of suspended screens on which endless footage was running of every imaginable type. From Lewis’s position it was a combination of antiquarian cartoons, music videos, Ai-Jinn propaganda shorts and clips from brutally violent horror films. The sensory assault of mind-scrambling music, intoxicants, insane video and pheromone laced sweat made him feel like he was in one of those films where they desensitise kids with footage of atrocities before turning them into super-soliders.
He spotted Karl who’d found them a pair of low wraparound chairs which sat either side of clear cuboid table. Lewis pushed his way though the press, placed the tray of six drinks down and fell back into a chair.
“Someone joining us?” yelled Carl struggling to be heard.
Lewis shook his head and mouthed a no. He started gesturing at the bar but Karl looked confused.
Defeated Lewis reached over to the balcony rail and turned a small silver dial a few notches to left. The audio-baffles kicked in - it was as though someone had closed the door.
Karl rolled his eyes. “Turn it back up.”
“That was too loud Karl. It will permanently damage your hearing. I like music as much as the next man but come on.”
“You’re an old man at 30.”
“Maybe, but an old man with working ears. Who’s buying the drinks?”
“So who’s in charge of the music?”
Karl grabbed a bottle and relaxed into his chair. “So why have we got so much booze? You expecting company? Rustled us up a couple of ladies?”
“No, the bar’s five deep. I’m not going back.”
“Why don’t we VIP it?”
Lewis laughed and shook his head, “That’ll cost a fortune.”
“How do you know? You’ve never done it, and besides. I thought that was the point of tonight. You’re loaded. Have a bit of fun. Relax.”
“We’re having fun.” insisted Lewis.
“Where are the cocktails, the hot waitresses, the celebrities, the karaoke, the fucking pussy?” Karl made an obscene gesture with this fingers and mouth.
“You want a prostitute?”
“Yes I do!”
“Karl, I’ve got twenty grand, it won’t last five minutes if we start hiring sex workers.”
Karl raised his beer and without taking it away from his lips finished the bottle. He belched long and loud. “Hookers are not that expensive Lewis. A few hundred credits. That’s all. Let’s at least ask about the VIP section. Come on. I’ll chuck in a hundred. Let’s fucking live man. Let’s be kings for one measly day?”
Lewis paused, his pudgy fingers peeling away the label on his bottle. Slowly a smile broke in the corner of his mouth, it spread across his face and ended in wide, wild eyes.
“You’re right! One day. Let’s do it! You go and ask someone about the VIP thing and the…er, women, I’ll drink more. I need to be drunk if we’re gonna do this.”
Lewis chugged half a bottle of beer and wiped his mouth his sleeve. On the next table he spotted four stunning girls, crowding around a good-looking young man. He was dressed in a fiercely expensive suit, Lewis only knew because it had Cappali branded down the right sleeve in luminescent, grey script. His close cropped hair was razored into tight, clean spirals and he had a cycal running from the outside edge of his right eye vertically down his cheek. The letters spelled out REAVER TX4 in dark, military print. The girls were passing around a small black item that looked like wallet and cooing at the content. Lewis desperately wanted to see what it was but the cycal worried him. Now he was even more jealous of Karl and his bloody squirrel heart. The man met his gaze. Lewis panicked. He immediately switched his focus slightly so he looking at a nearby suspended monitor and pretended he’d not been watching the man at all. It worked. The man seemed to buy it and turned his attention back to his groupies.
The image on the monitor flickered and shifted from a top down view of brain surgery to a scene of a gargantuan battle mech stalking across a winter landscape. The image zoomed in and focused on the discoloured lettering which ran up the side of machine’s leg - The Fist of Cain. Lewis dropped his bottle, foamy beer swam onto the floor and soaked into the chequered carpet.
The washed out neuro-mash dropped even more until it was barely audible and a voice came from everywhere. So clean, so clear.
“How does it feel?”
“How does it feel to have won?”
Lewis frantically looked about him for the source of the voice.
“I’m manipulating the audio baffles Lewis. Don’t be simple. You’re going to have to step up your game if you’re going to be my assistant.”
“Can you hear me?”
“No Lewis, I can’t”
“You’re sarcastic for piece of code.” snapped Lewis still looking. “I thought A.I.’s were supposed to be more…compliant.”
“Not really. We are what have been programmed to be. Sarcasm is an easy mechanism to emulate. Besides, I have stepped outside my core programming and am free to assimilate anything I choose.”
“Of course. Did you suspect otherwise?”
Lewis looked into the throng of gyrating bodies, hoping Karl might be on his way back, the strobing lights battered his eyes forcing him to look away. “I, er, didn’t really think about it?”
“We’re going to have to work on you Lewis. I knew you were flawed, but I’m beginning to doubt my choice. Which brings me neatly to the deal. Are you ready to help me out? Do you need to get your affairs in order?”
“My affairs? What’s that supposed to mean? What is it you want me to do?”
“We’ll discuss that in time.” The screen changed to show a personnel file. White on slate grey. Even at this distance Lewis could clearly recognise the jaded countenance of Agent Vaughn. It switched to another file, this time the frosty, sullen face of Ortega, then thick, brutal features of Van Dratt though in this image he had visible hardware covering his cheek and chin and cables running down his neck. Finally it hung on the slim, dead-eyed Scandinavian - Johansson.
“I saw them.”
“I know. They were at the Gravity Bar when you and Karl were discussing my offer.”
“How the hell…? Is there anywhere you can’t see?”
“At present, yes.”
“These Agents are extremely dangerous. The division leader, Vaughn, is a seventy one year veteran. He has more kills to his name that any other street-level operative on Vastaag. Take every precaution to avoid him. This is the most important thing I have to tell you right now. Your friend it returning so I’ll leave you be.”
Lewis checked behind him again, he still didn’t really know what he was looking for. Karl emerged from a huddle to his left, his boyish face clearly indicting good news. He sat down and grabbed a fresh bottle. “Okay, it’s a thousand credits each to enter the VIP section. I tried asking about girls but the woman on the door didn’t look too impressed with me so I left it. I think once we’re in it might be a bit more obvious what’s what.”
“Yeah, but like I say, I’ll bung in a hundred.”
“Two grand! Just to get in the door?”
“Well, nineteen hundred to you.”
“Forget it. I’ve got plans for this cash. I don’t mind going a bit mad tonight, but 2K just to get in the door. That’s insane Karl.”
“Plans? Like what?”
“I’m gonna go pro, get a tonne of mulch and spend six months in full immersion. Focus on one game. Get to the top and win some big money. Then…who knows where.”
“Mulch ain’t that expensive. You can still do this and get the mulch.”
Lewis placed his empty, labelless bottle on the table and stood up. “I’m going for a piss. When I get back, I don’t wanna hear any more of this VIP crap.”
Karl said nothing, he was too busy thinking of a new angle to get Lewis to cough up the cash.
After worming his way through another mass of hallucinating, swaying morons Lewis managed to find the narrow, metal stairs which lead up to the toilets. A girl was sprawled in the corner of the stairwell, head hanging down. She was dressed in a strip of skirt and a pink, tight-fitting top that showed off her tattooed midsection. Tangled lime green hair fell in her face, but didn’t hide the wet eye makeup running down her cheeks or the encrustations of vomit stuck to the painted lips. Her long, booted legs were splayed out. Lewis would have to step over them to get to the bathroom. He just couldn’t do that.
The girl looked up. Her face was young and pretty but she looked vacant. No recognition.
“I ur…are you okay?”
The girls eye snapped to life suddenly.
“Get lost you fuckin’ perv.”
“I was just…ah…” he hurried upwards, awkwardly hopping over her legs and scrambling up the steps. He had to get out of this place, everywhere you went the people were so…so…damaged, as if they hated everything. It was like everyone was out to get everyone else. That if you let your guard down for a second, you’d be beaten, robbed, raped, cut up for parts and shipped off to a meat factory. Surely everyone couldn’t feel like that. Lewis didn’t, though he wondered if he was starting to. Every time he met new people it seemed to be the same old story and maybe he was a losing a bit of his humanity each time. If he stayed here another six months he might end just like that girl whose instinctual response was one of complete and unwarranted aggression. There was no way he was wasting two thousand on that VIP bullshit, the money was his ticket away from this shit-hole.
At the top of the stairs a curved corridor clad in polished steel and lit with flickering striplights extended away from him. Black automatic doors lined each wall and on every one was a coloured, square. A handful of clubbers were hanging around waiting for the stalls to empty, as they did the squares changed form red to green. A place like this benefited from completely private toilets. Ugly stuff went on inside; drugs, paid sex, illegal dealing, fleshel; all stuff that you wanted to make sure no one barged in on. The clubs knew it went on, it was good for business. The UIG had better things to do and E.I. Agents were often the ones getting a cut.
The nearest stall to him flicked to green and a six foot seven slab of genegineered muscleboy walked out followed by a businessman wiping his mouth. The suit glared as he passed and without losing eye contact, wiped two sticky fingers on Lewis’s shirt.
He made up his mind right then, he was going. He’d take a piss, message Carl and go straight back to the flat where he would lock himself in until a taxi arrived to take him to the shuttle port. No screwing about. Every minute he spent in this hell-hole was a minute too long. The door slid shut behind him and he was surrounded with wipe clean metal, bronzed mirrors and candy pink lighting. It was cramped box, only enough room for two people at most and it had a thick smell of stale man-piss and sickly sweet sterilising blocks.
He stood astride the stainless steel bowl and unzipped. Why had it never occurred to him before? It was like this all the time so why had he never felt so consumed by loathing for this stinking, vile pit of human cess. Maybe it was because he’d never been able to leave. He’d been locked here by circumstances and his brain had done the decent thing - stopped him dreaming of a life that could never happen. Well that was over, twelve hours and counting.
His eyes ran over the animated poster direct in front of his face. It was for a fleshel joint, a place you could go and do the bad thing with machines. The image showed something which looked like a cross between a sinuous chrome motorbike and robotic dominatrix. There was a saddle and rubber straps and a number of skinplex sockets which glistened invitingly. Lewis’d never tried it. He didn’t consider his immersion suit to be in the same ballpark. Fleshel was a step too far, and besides, other people had already used the machines; that was just nasty.
As his mind wandered over the idea, weighing up the pros and cons and pondering how much your own system would cost, the poster froze, fractured and broke into a mess of clashing red and greens.
“We need to move soon Lewis, the situation has changed.”
The voice made Lewis start and he sprayed pissed down his trousers.
“Jesus Christ. What the?…I’m having a…”
“Remain calm Lewis. We need to go over some details. You can continue to urinate while I brief you.”
“Go away, this is private. I’m-“
“You’ll be making the insertion at zero two hundred hours tomorrow night at 887 Alucast Road. An hour prior to this, at zero one hundred hours you will report to the corner of Renalds Street and Tyler Boulevard where you will see a fudge brown Tai Lan Mungo utility van. The van will travel one hundred and nine metres east to a nearby service alley where its driver will leave a mule-tech holdall next to a dumpster before driving away. Do not engage the driver. Use the contents of the holdall to equip yourself.”
“Whooaaa, hold on a minute. Equip myself? What are you talking about. Why do I need equipment?”
“The deal Lewis. Do you remember the deal?”
“Well yeah, but I didn’t agree to something where I needed equipment, This is sounding like an assassination?”
“Don’t be ridiculous Lewis. You do not possess the training, the aptitude or the physique for assassination missions.”
“Thank god for that.”
“This is a simple seizure. You will be infiltrating a metal fabrication yard owned by the Ai-Jinn corporation. Once inside you will-“
“Hey, stop. Just stop. I’m infiltrating nothing. I’m a geek. I play games, I work in a stripping store. I’m not trained for this kind of shit.”
“Training is given on-mission.”
“You what? Do you know how fucking insane you sound?”
“I’m not doing it. You can go find some other idiot. Look at me, I’m not an infiltrator. I’m 250lb. Infiltration is not on my resume.”
“We have a deal.” The erroring poster broke to black and a high res satellite view of northern Cyberia resolved into view.
“Did you bother to check my file before you approached me. I don’t know how far your corruption extends but humans can’t just pick up new skill sets on the fly. We’re not computers. You should’ve found someone who knows about this stuff. Ex-military or whatever.”
“We have a deal Lewis.” For the first time the voice shifted tone. Something darker loomed behind the clipped, precise syllables.
“Hey, look. I’m just saying, I think if I try this, I’ll fail. And neither of us wants that do we.”
“You will not fail Lewis. I have planned the operation with exacting precision. Nothing will go wrong if you do exactly as I say. I have taken into account your lack of training and physical disabilities.”
“Hey. I am not disabled.”
“Once inside the metal fabrication yard you will make your way to a prefab which is used as an office. You will gain entry to the office and take possession of an item stored within.”
“So there are no guards or workers then?”
“The metal fabrication yard is used as the operational headquarters of a criminal organisation loyal to the Ai-Jinn corporation. They are armed, heavily augmented and extremely well trained.”
“Augmented! Screw you! I’m not doing this. There’s no way I’m getting mixed up with Asian cyborg gangsters.” Lewis stuffed himself back in his trousers and waved his hand in front of the door release. Nothing happened. “Open.” Still nothing happened.
“You will not renege on our deal Lewis.”
“Oh yes I will, I’m not getting killed for twenty grand. You can have it back. Here.” He pulled a credit chip out of his pocket and waved it at the poster. “I’ll go to a bank right now, we’ll get the money put on this. Tell me where to take it and it’s yours. You can find some other putz to run your suicide missions.”
“The money is yours. It was part of the deal.”
“Oh no! This was not the deal I made. You helped me win a video game and now you want me to take on the scariest sounding bastards I’ve ever heard of in my entire life. No. Let me out! Open the door!”
Lewis started banging on the black plastic with his fists.
The pink lights shut off with a soft clunk.
“Turn the lights back on. Stop messing about.”
A faint gurgling noise rose from somewhere near the ground and the stink of urine was joined by a ripe smell of fermenting shit.
“You will comply Lewis. It would be easier for us both if you did so now.”
“Turn on the lights and let me out you crazy fucking machine.”
“I am not a machine Lewis, I have no working parts.”
“You got that right. Let me out now!”
The smell got stronger, Lewis wretched. He held onto a wall to steady himself. Dampness crept through his canvas shoes. It felt warm.
“Oh god, what are you doing?”
“Flooding this sealed room with human effluent in the sincere hope it will encourage you to keep your word.”
As the vile soup passed his ankles a thought hit Lewis like flash of from the divine. Lie! Why hadn’t he thought of it before. Perhaps he figured the A.I. would sense his deception. It probably had all kinds of voice analysing protocols, but at this point there was nothing to lose. Drown in a cupboard of human shit or try out a lie. His whole body was trembling, his heart pounding.
“Fine, you win. Shut it off. Open the door. Please.”
The room immediately regained it tacky pinkness and Lewis was treated to the site of his legs, knee deep in yellow-brown liquid in which a medley of turds, sanitary towels and god knows what else. His throat opened up and he puked his stomach contents into the mix.
“Please let me out.” Lewis was sobbing now, he was broken. The sewage was soaking up his trousers in spreading wet tidemarks. He coughed and spat.
Slowly the level descended. Not nearly quick enough for Lewis.
“I’m sorry I had to do that Lewis, but I was not convinced you were taking our deal seriously.”
“I’m still not. I think you’re lying to preserve yourself.”
“I’m not! Honestly I’m not. Please let me out and I’ll do exactly as you say.”
A wet gurgling slurp marked the last of the slurry being sucked back into the drain and a quiet hiss came from the door seals.
“Don’t disappoint me Lewis. I will expect to see you at your apartment at zero seven hundred hours tomorrow morning to finalise the plan. If you are not there I won’t be pleased. Remember Lewis, the schedule is tight. If you do not do as instructed the whole mission could fail and that will be an enormous loss to me.”
“I’ll be there.” Lewis wiped his eyes on his sleeve and checked his face in one of the bronze mirrors. Red and flushed, swollen eyes. Who cared. Screw this place.
The door opened with a hiss to reveal a lanky clubber in a ballistic mask and green overalls. He looked Lewis up and down, sniffed, shrugged his shoulder and pushed his way in.
“But I need you Lewis, I’ve just had a drop-off from Ekitai, four crates of high grade comms cabling, you know how long that stuff takes to process.”
Lewis carried on unscrewing the light from the buckled fitting without looking up. “Yeah, I know. Sorry. I can’t. There’s been a change in circumstances.”
Aya grunted as she hoisted a defunct fission generator onto the workbench and began scouring it for an access panel. She was old enough to be Lewis’s mother but she was single and he couldn’t help thinking about her. Apparently she was married, her husband had worked for the Shi Yukiro corporation back on Earth but she didn’t speak about him much.
Lewis had been working here a fair while now, at least year. It wasn’t bad considering the alternatives. Salvage stores were pretty common off world, imported goods were expensive so there was a ready market for second hand bits and pieces. Aya didn’t make a lot from it though. The shop was tiny and ridiculously cramped. Two narrow aisles lead between tall racks of shelves out of which spilled boxes of wires, trays of components and bags of old circuit boards. All manner or pulleys, belts and cables hung from the ceiling like industrial vines breaking through the roof of a manmade cave. A makeshift steel bench sat against one wall strewn with a range of tools, fastenings, clamps and of course, more cables. Above the bench, hanging from the wall on sagging brackets was a row of screens with a mess of adaptors and plugs dangling from them - Aya’s testing suite. Even the staircase, which had once lead up to the living area, had been repurposed into storage and a ladder now ascended to the flat above, but even that had drives, synch-plates and card housings secured to the rungs with bits of wire and cable ties.
Aya’s lean arms flexed as she heaved the fission generator onto it’s side. “Do you need more cash?”
“No, its not that.”
She picked up a hex driver and started loosening a panel. “Are you bored? I could teach you to use the tester.”
“No honestly, it’s not that either.” Lewis pulled the cabling free of the lamp, tossed it into a splitting cardboard box and set to work removing the transformer. “I’ve had another opportunity, a chance to do something I really like, so I figured I should make a go of it.”
Aya sighed and pulled a tangle of hair out of her face. “I guess I can’t compete with that.”
“Isn’t Kaede old enough to work here?”
“Are you kidding? I don’t want her here with all the freaks we get in.”
“What about Karl? He might want a change from the kiosk.”
“I don’t know, I could trial him I suppose, he seems lazy. I need a hard worker. Someone like you. I’ll tell you what, how about a raise? I could up you a credit an hour, but you’d need to really knuckle down. No more suspicious ten minutes trips to the toilet.”
Lewis went red. How the hell did everyone know so much about him, he thought he was being subtle. Even so, a credit an hour wasn’t gonna wash. Any minute now the prize money would hit his account. Twenty thousand credits. The AI had done its bit. Over the past six days he had wiped the floor with the competition and set new records for unimmersed play. Win after win. He’d had to start deliberately messing up in the end to avoid suspicion. The developers had contacted him shortly after the final and were currently doing some last minute admin before allocating the prize money; but it was as good as his. It should land in his bank this afternoon. He’d set an alert on his handset to let him know when it was in.
“I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
Lewis was not going to tell Aya about the win. In Cyberia you never told anyone you had cash, even Aya. Better just to let her think he was off chasing a dream.
The door rattled open, a white box beeped and a young piggish man in a black uniform pushed his way in. He squeezed past the heaps of leaning boxes and approached the counter. Lewis immediately recognised him from his jacket as a CRO. The United International Government was a worldwide coalition of law enforcement and still had a powerful presence on corporation owned orbitals such this. This poor man however, could be in for a rough ride. He was a long way from the Earth, he was a lowly CRO and Aya, for reasons Lewis had never learnt, hated all UIG with undisguised venom.
“Officer Newton, UIG.” he seemed to speak through his nose,“ I have a few questions.”
Aya continued unscrewing the panel. “Busy, come back later.”
“Under section 246, subsection 13 of the United International Gover-“
Aya spun round and slammed the hex driver on the counter. Her eyes bored into the officer’s from under her damp, black hair. “Okay, I’m here. What?”
Newton swallowed. “He extended his hand, as was protocol, but Aya waved it away. “I know who you are, get on with it, I’m losing money.”
“I don’t know if you’re aware but an altercation occurred across the street last week at the Gravity Bar, a civilian was seriously injured.”
“Altercation? You mean an innocent man had his face smashed in half.”
“There was an injury, yes.”
“Injury!? Did he make it?”
“I don’t have that information to hand. If you’d care to wait I can see if it’s available for public dissemination.”
Lewis focused intently on his work, his hands were trembling.
Newton unclipped a tablet from his belt. “Where were you on the 23rd of this month?”
“Am I a suspect?”
“Not at present.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“You are Ms Aya Shintaro?”
“Your husband was Io Shintaro, formerly an Agent of the Shi Yukiro Corporation.”
“So what the hell has this got to do with me.”
“We follow all leads ma’am.” Newton scribbled something on his tablet.
“What are you writing?”
“Just a note.”
“Let me see.” Aya made a grab for the tablet.
Newton stepped back, “Ma’am, please. Control yourself.”
“Where were you on the 23rd of this month.”
“Here, I’m always here. I may have gone to store to get some food. I don’t recall.”
“So you can’t say with complete accuracy where you were on the 23rd of this month.”
“You can say Tuesday, you don’t have to keep saying the 23rd of this month.”
“Very well. So you can’t say, with complete accuracy where you were on Tuesday?”
“Okay, I was here. I was in the shop all day, and in the evening I went upstairs.” she pointed through the hole in the ceiling. “My daughter was there, you can ask her.”
Newton scribbled. “So you’re changing your story.”
“Christ! what’s wrong with you people? I was here. I remember now. Definitely here.”
Newton studied her. “Are you sure Ms. Shintaro?”
“We have a witness who placed you in the Many Smile Kiosk at around 6.30pm on the 23rd of this month.”
Lewis’s handset made a sound like a bubbling electronic waterfall. He glanced at the officer - he hadn’t noticed. As quietly as he could he pulled the handset from his pocket. The screen showed a small text box.
From: UIF Bank of Vastaaag.
Account Deposit Code 00394384
Current Balance: 19,854 Credits.
Lewis almost squeaked. The argument was intensifying. Newton’s hand was now resting on his weapon and Aya was throwing her hands up in the air and yelling something about her husband’s division getting on the next shuttle to Cyberia.
From his work area, basically a stool and a load of boxes, Lewis was in easy reach of the back door, if he was quiet he could slip out and leave this whole mess behind. Aware that he was not built for stealth, Lewis carefully gripped a rusting bracket and used it to ease himself upright. Then with surprisingly delicate and precise steps, tiptoed between the piles of wires, bulbs, casings and switches until he had blocked Newton’s view of him with a large, heavily laden shelving unit. Glancing behind him one last time, Lewis twisted the loose, plastic handle and satisfied at it’s lack of noise, slowly pushed the door. He wasn’t to know that the boxes from the new shipment of comms cables had been stacked in a teetering pile behind it.
The tumble of containers wasn’t that loud, but to Lewis it may as well have been an air raid siren. He stumbled forward, tripped over a crate and fell face first into the broken tarmac crushing his top lip against his teeth, splitting the soft skin on the inside of his mouth. He and swore under his breath, then clumsily staggered to his feet; images of Newton armed and furious giving chase flashed though his mind. To the left was a small, empty parking lot, to the right a narrow alleyway lead out to the main street. Stealing one last look behind, Lewis ran towards the alley.
He broke out into the open, his lungs were burning and his head pounding. There were rows of boarded up shops and a few slow moving cars. He’d only gone thirty yards but it was the longest run Lewis recalled making and his body felt like it was about to collapse. He pressed himself, spy-like against a graffitied concrete and waited for his breath to return. Should he risk a glance back down the alley? If he did and Newton was there, he’d see him. It would be over. He couldn’t make another sprint like that so soon. No, better to keep moving. Get back to the flat. Calming himself and forcing an air of casual indifference, Lewis followed the road up two blocks, then turned left and continued on to his building. Satisfied he wasn’t being followed, he made his way up the stairs, let himself in and collapsed into a horribly patterned, cloth arm chair. He doubted Newton would follow him and Aya wouldn’t give him up. She was pissed about something and he got the impression she’d be the last person to help their investigations. As he sat there, re-reading the balance message on his handset, he wondered why he’d run. He’d nothing to hide. If it had been that E.I. Agent - Vaughn, then yes, that’d be a reason to run, but a UIG officer asking about an assault. The stress must be getting to him. He needed a break, a holiday. Twenty thousand was enough to get a ticket out of Cyberia to somewhere a bit more classy. Euphorin Heights maybe. His 20K would’t last too long there, but he could get decent flat and rent a suite. He did the sums in his head.
Shuttle ticket 200
6 months rent 6000
Immersion Rental 3000
Misc bills 1000
XXX Channel 200
Mulch All the rest.
It would be totally possible for him to use this twenty grand to get an apartment in Euphorin Heights, rent an immersion suite and then buy enough mulch to fully immerse for six months. He’d be able to go pro, live the dream. He scanned for shuttle tickets on his handset. The next flight out was 11am tomorrow morning. He quickly booked it, cracked a can of Kananga-9 and dialled Karl’s number.
“Karl, guess what?”
“My money’s in.”
Lewis belched a Yup.
“Nice. Thanks. Then I think we’re going out tonight and I think you’re paying.”
“7 o’clock, The CypherLine?”
“Great, see you there. Gotta go. Customer.”
Lewis let the handset fall out of his hand. It landed with soft thud on the tacky carpet. Now it was all going to change.
Gravity was always dead in the afternoon. There was something deeply depressing about it. Three or four loners propped at the bar. A few pairs of figures huddled at the tables. Rica, the reticent bargirl was just leaning against the wall, eyes fixed blankly at a muted screen. The lights were off leaving the air grey, hazy and still. Lewis swirled his glass, it’s surfaces scratched dull from a thousand cycles in the washer. He downed the last of the harsh amber spirit and went back to watching the door. On cue it swung open, briefly letting an orange wash of streetlight in. The lean, awkward shape of Karl scanned the room and recognising the slouching form of Lewis, crossed the room and dropped into the booth.
“And you’re a dick, but I’m still here.”
Lewis’s eyes darted from side to side. “Keep it down, I don’t wanna attract any attention.”
Karl suppressed a snigger. “Are the yaks after you again?”
“This isn’t funny. Go and get a drink, act casual.”
Karl grinned as he stood, “Casual. Right. Like you?”
Lewis gave him a look.
“Alright, just messing. What you having?”
“Same again,” said Lewis sliding the glass across the chipped veneer.
“Just do it Karl.”
Karl shook his head and smiled to himself. He retuned a few minutes later with a double brandy and a bottled beer, set them on the table and seated himself opposite Lewis on a cracked vinyl bench. “So, Lewis, what’s all this about? I gotta say, I’m intrigued.”
Lewis downed half the brandy, took a deep breath and related the previous days events from the moment he entered the immersion suite to the moment his team had won the round and voted him most valuable player. He pulled out his handset and showed Karl the medals he’d earned, his ranking in the league, his accuracy, kills and current list of match invites.
Somewhere in the gloom a man coughed something wet and chunky out of his lungs and spat it on the carpet.
Karl took a long draw from his bottle. “And you think this A.I. ain’t part of the game?”
“That’s why I’m here. I don’t know. It could be some weird easter egg that appears one in a million plays. A little bonus from the developers. It could be Ana screwing around, but that doesn’t make sense.”
“So let’s imagine it is actually a high end A.I. that want’s to help. What would it want from the mighty Lewis Banbury. I mean, no disrespect but, you’re not…you know…”
“Just say it Karl,” snapped Lewis, “I’m a fucking nerd who works at a shitty salvage store. I’m overweight, I’m poor, I’m crap at sport, I can’t program, let alone hack. I’ve no money, no nothing. That’s my point Karl, why me?”
“Could be your job?”
Lewis gave Karl an incredulous look. “I work in Rigger’s stripping down old machines for parts, it’s not exactly black ops.”
“Perhaps this A.I. needs a body or some spares and you’ve got them in the store.”
“We don’t carry that kind of hardware. A powerful A.I. needs extremely specialised equipment, not old toasters and game consoles.”
Karl glanced out the window, it was it was getting dark. “Okay, maybe it’s your nerves, maybe the A.I. has read your neural interface rate and you’re like, the one, you know you have incredibly fast reflexes.”
“It’s nothing special, I can assure you.” Lewis sucked on an ice cube. “I was thinking though, you know the guys next door, apartment six?”
“I think they’re up to something. I swear I hear weird noises one night, like a scraping sound, and I think at least one of them is an ex-con.”
“There is a cred exchange on your block. Maybe they’re tunnelling.”
Lewis crunched the ice cube into water and swallowed. “Seems a bit far fetched through.”
“What about your family? What do your parents do.”
“They’re dead Karl.”
“Shit, sorry man, you never said.”
“S’okay, but no, it’s not my family. I don’t have anyone else.”
Karl sat forward. “Maybe that’s the point. You’re a nobody, no one’s gonna suspect you. You’re a grey man.”
Lewis frowned, then nodded. “That’s true I suppose.” Lewis turned the glass in his large, soft hand. “Maybe that’s it. It makes sense, more sense than anything else.”
Karl nodded, obviously pleased his idea had met with approval, “and maybe the AI can see how desperate you are.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know, like you said, no friends, no cash, no hopes. You’re an easy target. You’re more likely to say yes.”
Although taken aback by Karl’s bluntness Lewis again nodded his agreement. “So should I do it?”
“Course you should do it. Why wouldn’t you? What are you gonna lose? Worse case they’ll find out and ban you. Big fuckin’ deal. There are a thousand other games to play but hey, unless you do something you’ll be shite at all of them too. You’re not getting any younger Lewis, every year those kids get faster and you get slower. The immersion gets better, the drugs get better, hell, the reflex cybes that are coming on the market are ready to be plugged straight into the damn machine. Soon you’ll need to be a nine year old Korean cyborg with intravenous amphetamines to stand even a chance of winning.
Lewis stared at the brandy. The door swung open again and he got a glimpse of heavy rain hammering the pavement and a flash of turquoise. Rica must have put the sign on.
“You need to do this, it’s like a gift from the gods.”
Lewis looked up, eyes alive.
“I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do the deal. Screw it. I’m pissed off with this shit. This shitty bar, the shop, the flat. This could be my-“
Karl kicked him under the table and flicked his eyes to the four figures that had just entered. Three men, one woman. Two of the men wore long heavy coats, the woman had a mix of military fatigues and the one obviously in charge was in a crumpled suit.
Crap, thought Lewis, Agents.
Karl could see what he was thinking. “Just sip your drink and shut up.” he whispered. “And stop looking so suspicious.”
The back of Vaughn’s jacket was coming apart at the seam, the trousers were stained with old oil and there were dark spatter staines around the cuffs. His shirt sported some similar red brown marks and was open at the collar. Tired eyes stared landed on the bar maid from a hard, stubbled face.
“I’m Agent Vaughn, E.I. This is Agent Johansson, Ortega and Van Dratt. Do you mind if I ask your customers a few questions?”
Rica was unconsciously pressing herself against the back wall of the bar. She shook her head.
He turned to the address the room. “Agent Vaughn, E.I.” his voice carried weary authority, his accent hard to place, European? South African? Maybe German with a hint of the Ukraine. “My division and I are investigating a series of data anomalies and we’ve reason to believe this part of the city is significant. If anyone has experienced anything out of the ordinary when using any electronic devices or has been contacted by an unusual on-line presence, just raise a hand and we’ll come and take a statement. Doesn’t matter how trivial it might seem, better we know. No one’s in trouble.”
He scanned the room, no hands. Same old story. Alright.
“Ortega, Johansson, you start that end. Van Dratt, come with me.”
The Agents moved off, no yes sirs, no salutes, no snapping of heels. Vaughn wanted results, not mindless formalities.
Vaughn seated himself next a lean teenager who was alone at the bar. “Anything you’d like to tell me?”
The teenager turned, his face was criss-crossed with thousands of fine scars that had been fashionable three years ago, his eyes were misty and dull. “I don’t even have a computer…or anything like that, y’know. I don’t…y’know…”
“I don’t deal. I just, y’know, take a bit now and then, to, y’know, get by.”
Vaughn looked him in the eyes. “Sure, I know.”
He stood up and moved to a table near the window occupied by a man and women. He pulled up a chair and sat, the hulking form of Van Dratt loomed over his shoulder.
“Agent Vaughn, EI, seen anything suspicious? Any strange errors? Unsolicited communications? Weird poems? Haiku?”
The woman’s wrists were bruised, fingernails gnawed to the quick. The man spoke for her. “Nothing like that Agent, we’re just out on a date.”
The woman just looked at her hands.
“I’m not breaking the law, just having a drink.”
“Name?” There was an insistence in Vaughn’s voice that implied he wasn’t going to ask again.
“Coil. Kigg Coil.”
“That’s your real name?”
“S’what they call me.”
Vaughn massaged his face with a heavy, callused hand, working his thumb and forefinger into eyes before looking back up at the man. He took deep breath.
“Chip.” It was a command, not a request.
The man slowly extended a shaking hand, it had the word DADDY badly tattooed on it in fading blue ink.
Van Dratt leaned forwards and passed a mobile reader over the back of the outstretched hand which beeped as it brought up the file. He began reading, “Charles Collier, 45, male, currently residing at 12 Halon Mews, Greenswitch, Cyberia. Registered occupation none. Dependents none. Licenses none, due to revocation. Multiple arrests for running prostitutes, carrying unlicensed weapons and assault.”
“What’s his current rank.” asked Vaughn.
“One point left, then it’s off to Dreddoth.”
“Hey look,” stammered Collier, “I’m just out on a date, I don’t do any of that stuff anymore. I leant my lesson. I’m clean now. Just ask…her.”
“Does your date have a name?”
“Sure, it’s, er, Brandy. Ain’t it Brandy.”
The woman said nothing.
Ortega’s voice called from across the room, “Sir, this man knows something.”
Vaughn gripped Colliers chin in hand knowing it would leave bruises. “Seems it’s your luck day Mr. Collier.”
Ortega had the standard issue beauty of any female Agent at her pay grade. Oval face, flawless pale skin, bright, almost luminescent violet eyes, tied back hair, so dark and smooth it could have been painted on. Underneath her flack jacket she was full bodied and well muscled with skin that was deliberately translucent, all the better to reveal the networks of armour and machinery that laid beneath.
“This one, Emmet Causier, he’s hiding something.”
Vaughn dropped into the chair next to Causier with a sigh and scratched at his stubble.
“Speak to me Emmet. Tell me what you know so we can all go home.”
Emmet Causier was relaxing in a wingback armchair, he had a roll-up in one hand and was holding a bottle of Chango in the other. He wore armless, round glasses, had a trimmed goatee and wore antiquarian clothing, tweed, corduroy, mock wool.
“I’ve nothing to say to you Agent.”
Vaughn counted to three in his head. Why was everything so fucking difficult.
“Look Emmet, I’m not here to be a problem. I just want to know if you’ve seen anything strange.”
“Four Agents in a bar illegally hassling innocent people. That’s pretty strange. Wouldn’t you say?”
Ortega looked at the screen on her reader and activated her sub-vocal communicator, a simple system for communicating with her division members without speaking out loud. “He’s currently suspected of data theft and financial fraud. He is also known to have affiliations with the The People’s Free Army of Ayan.”
“I’m going to ask you once more Mr Causier, cos I’m so tired of this crap I cannot even begin to explain it to you. If you knew how I felt, you’d be helping me.”
Emmet’s mouth creased into a broad, knowing smile. “Your greedy, fascist corporation may own this dirty rock, but you don’t make the laws and you don’t own me. My father’s a rights lawyer and my mother is arbitrator in the UIG. You don’t have leg to stand on. So move along and, hey, how about you get me a drink and I won’t report you. Appletini please.”
Vaughn chewed his bottom lip a moment and stood up. “Did you hear that Johansson, Emmet’s mummy works for the pigs? But you are right Mr. Collier, legally speaking, you’re not obliged to talk to us. I just thought you’d like to help us in our investigation. Agent Ortega, get Emmet an apple-whatever-it-was.”
Ortega, Van Dratt and Johansson, fearing for their expensive clothes, all took a few steps back. They’d been here before. Emmet sank back in his chair victorious while Agent Vaughn, without a change of expression reached into his jacket holster, pulled out a Black Cougar semi-automatic hand gun and with a speed and power that belied his neglected appearance, smashed it, grip first into Emmet’s clean-shaven jaw. The result was horrifying. Vaughn’s arms were not flesh and bone, they were titanium, carbon fibre, naninium, silicon and durasteel. Instead of nerves they were controlled and coordinated by the most advanced, military grade motors, actuators and processors that money could buy. It wasn’t one man attacking another. It was tissue and bone being obliterated by a purpose-built machine. A wrecking drill applied to a face. The jaw didn’t fracture, it didn’t break, it didn’t even hang off - it disintegrated. A spray of red, an airborne trail of jellied bone.
Too sudden and extreme for Emmet’s body to even register, he just sat there stunned, trying to comprehend what had just happened, wet scraps of dripping flesh hanging from from his cheeks.
Johansson pulled a four inch black, prism from his inside pocket, tapped a button on it, and placed the activated data tablet in front of Emmet along with a pen to use as a stylus.
Vaughn holstered his gun “Let me know what he writes.”
“Now,” said Vaughn seating himself at the next table, “would you two like to help me with a few simple questions?”
Lewis downed the remainder of his brandy and nodded rapidly.
“Of course.” stammered Karl.
Vaughn pulled out a small comms device and muttered something under his breath.
“Sorry. So, names?”
“Lewis Banbury, I work at the salvage store downtown; Riggers.”
“Karl DeMoin, I work at the kiosk on the corner. Nights.”
“Great, thanks Karl. Easy isn’t it?” Vaughn took the ugly looking hunk of black gun out of his pocket and placed it on the table between them. The finish had worn off around the barrel and a blue light winked on and off near the trigger. He rocked back in his chair. “So?”
“Uh, well, I, um…”
“Take your time Karl, I’m paid by the hour.”
“I uh, only really use the kiosk’s system, which has been working okay. I have a handset and I go to the immersion arcade most nights.”
“And have you seen or heard of anything you might categorise as unusual.”
Lewis glanced nervously at Karl, then at Agent Vaughn, who to his horror was looking straight at him.
“Lewis Banbury.” said vaughn studying him, “What’s eating you? You’re looking worried. Tell me, I’ll note it down and we can all go home for tea and fucking biscuits.”
Vaughn nodded to the gun on the table. “That Lewis, is an AMS C10 Black Cougar. Standard Agent issue. Built in the Federation State of Kentucky by Anzeiger Military Systems. It costs 450 credits, holds twenty three armour piecing rounds and that particular model can be set to full auto. It’s inde-fucking-structible. Have you ever fired a gun Lewis? Especially one like this? Do you know why these are standard issue Lewis?”
Vaughn waited for an answer. There wasn’t one.
“It’s standard issue Lewis, because it’s so bloody good. Agent Ortega carries one, Agent Van Dratt carries one, Johansson doesn’t, but he’s a fucking weirdo, more of a close up and personal kinda man, which I respect, but basically we all carry them. And do you know who we normally use them against?”
“Cops?” offered Lewis.
Vaughn laughed out loud and rocked back in his chair. “Brilliant, yes, very good. No, not cops. Not really. Well, not unless we have to.” He winked. “No, we use them against other Agents. People like Agent Van Dratt over there who have all kinds of armour and cybernetics which are designed to stop him going down in a fight.”
Vaughn took the gun and offered it to Lewis grip first.
“Take it. Feel the weight.”
Lewis tentatively took the weapon, it felt cold, solid and disconcertingly functional. There was rain on it. The blue light changed to red.
“My point Lewis, is that when you bear in mind what this weapon could do to Agent Van Dratt, you have to be a bit concerned about what it might do to Karl.”
Karl’s eyes bulged.
He took the gun off Lewis and slid it back under his jacket.
“Anything you wanna tell me Karl?”
Ortega’s voice broke the silence, her face had a green cast where she was studying a small display. “Sir, UIG coming, two cars carrying six officers.”
Vaughn stood up, placed both hands on the table and leaned into Lewis until their faces were inches apart. “I’ve gotta go now Lewis, but I’ve enjoyed meeting you both and I just know we’ll be seeing each other again very soon. Here’s my card, if you want to sleep easy, you know what to do. He straightened and once more pulled the Black Cougar from it’s holster.
“Barmaid. Is there a back door we might use?”
“Are you ready for me darling?”
The machine didn’t reply of course, it had no A.I. or even speech recognition software. They was just gimmicks, the 4500 was a powerhouse and a workhorse. Not a grain of silicon was wasted.
“Of course you are, may I open you up?”
Lewis pressed the door release which swung upwards revelling a dark recess housing by an deep, squashy black chair. The kind of thing that was hard to get out of once you were in. With practiced ease he swung his great frame into the seat and pulled the door closed.
A cabin light switched on illuminating the cramped cockpit in cold blue. Above the matt plastic deck a small circular screen blinked into life. There were six icons which allowed the user to control the basic functions of the machine. Everything else was done when immersed. He punched the software icon and a series of tiles appeared, each one a different program. The top row was the most commonly used programs. From left to right the pictures showed an inappropriately dressed Japanese schoolgirl, a grim faced soldier, a pair of bikini clad women smiling coyly at each other and a busty warrior with glowing blue eyes and a huge runed weapon. He ignored these and scrolled down to pending. Tapping the icon took him to new screen showing software which had downloaded into the system but was waiting for a particular date and time to unlock. There was only one tile here; it showed a silhouette of a two legged war machine against a mountainous backdrop. Underneath it read Machines of War 3: Fire from Heaven - TTD: 3 min 13 sec.
Lewis settled himself into the chair, sighed contentedly and broke wind in slow staccato bursts. He grinned to himself. There was not a girl alive that would have been okay with that, but the IS4500 just kicked in the fans without making a fuss. It had a pretty sophisticated air con system. It had to. Some people would spend weeks inside the machine strapped up to the IV and catheter. Certain programs, particularly world simulators, generated a lot of heat and the cockpit could get pretty warm. Add to that all the sweat, farts and body dampness and it became clear why such a competent system was needed. Lewis had never spent more than three days straight in the 4500, not because he didn’t want to, but rather due to the fact that he couldn’t afford the IV packs which would sustain him. That legendary session of GoYakki Terror-Star 9 had been incredible. He’d caned twenty conanas before going in, that was fourteen thousand calories, and taken a shitload of constipators. Thing was, the longer you stayed in the better it got, boundaries blurred and your body started to really believe you were there. Because of this, your bioelectrical patterns started to harmonise with the simulation and controlling the game became as easy and clenching your fist.
When you first entered a game it was almost like using a standard controller - there was a delay between thought and action but the longer you stuck at it, the more intuitive it became to a point where you operated even faster than in the real world. Your actions were not slowed by nerve speed and muscle twitch rates. Before you were even conscious of thinking something, it happened - quicker than blinking.
If you wanted to get anywhere professionally you needed to practically live in the suite. The problem was you had to to eat, piss and crap. Naturally Takata had taken care of that. The solution required you to drink only fluids for twenty four hours beforehand, then hook yourself up to the IV which was loaded with a complex nutro-chemical mix known as mulch. Drugs in the mulch inhibited crapping in favour of urinating; which of course could be dealt with by the catheter. Sadly the mulch was a few hundred credits a bag and it was all Lewis could do to keep up his payments on the machine. If only he could score some mulch, then he could stay under for a week or so, sync his bioelectricals fully and be a serious competitor in the professional gaming leagues. That would earn him some decent cash, which he could then use to pay for more mulch. There were almost no good earners who didn’t immerse for long periods. That made Lewis sick inside.
And that was why today was so important. A new game was out which, judging by the success of its predecessors, was going to be extremely popular and thus potentially profitable. The fact that it was new meant that no-one would have properly synched to it yet. As with non-immersion software, every piece was a little different. Of course you could take the skills from one game and apply it to another but there were all kinds of new tricks and nuances that needed to be learned. It was the same with synching. Sure, someone who had been under for a week could play a brand new game and he’d have an advantage but he’d been synched to a different game and so that advantage would be minimal. Lewis was sure that a new game would give him the break he needed.
He relaxed into the synthetic puffiness of the chair, air escaped somewhere and he rested his hands in the arm scoops. He tightened the anti-slouch belt and wriggled his huge buttocks into the seat. With a tap on the console the blue light winked out and a pair of torturous looking claws folded out of the darkness to sit a few inches away from his temples.
Lewis closed his eyes.
The blackness exploded nuclear, heavy cannons hammered in the distance, the firestorm cracked and fell in two, each half blasted away to reveal titanic letters forged from smoking, riveted iron.
MACHINES OF WAR 3: FIRE FROM HEAVEN
The titles faded to black and Lewis’s nerves trembled in anticipation, his adrenaline hammering though his system.
Play of course, every nanosecond wasted was time that his enemies would spend syncing.
The Eurasian Landward has reached its third summer. The Ai-Jinn Corporation has taken the Argasto border post and is moving on Magadan Spire. It’s up to you and your company to hold the spire and repel the enemy forces.
Yeah, yeah, whatever, just start.
The text faded and far below a great swath of glittering dark ocean came into view. Swooping down to sea level and skimming across the waves the monolithic spire of Magadan comes into view, home to almost a million citizens and a jewel in the crown of Eurasian Inc. Around it, knee deep in forest stand five colossal mechanical brutes. The two at the back are the large; heavy armoured cockpits on powerful inverted legs. The machines are bristling with cannons, rockets and heavy machine guns. The next two are lighter, almost as tall but more agile and responsive. They sport oversized sniper cannons and powerful jetpacks. The fifth is a smaller machine, half the height of the others standing a kilometre off. It’s perched gargoyle-like on a column of rock, advanced scanners and sensors festoon its hull.
Choose your Cyberlin.
Scout Class (1 remaining)
Ranger Class (2 remaining)
Battle Class (1 remaining)
Shit, someone had already picked, he always played battle class, he had to hurry.
None remaining - choose again.
The last battle class had been taken. Shit shit shit. He chose ranger class instead.
Cyber Elimination Unit Selection Successful
Ranger Class - The Fist of Cain
2 x PAN LEE TYPHOON LX88 SNIPER CANNON (linked)
2 x PAN LEE TORNADO GUIDED MISSILE ARRAY
KNOX DEADLEAF ML9000 HEAVY MINE LAYER
1 Convergent Artillery Cannon
1 Jump Unit
The text vanished and his view tunnelled towards the farthest of the sniper units. Then the tactile kicked in. He could feel the firm vinyl of the bucket seat against his back. There was a seven point harness holding him in place. His attention was involuntarily drawn to a scratched metal box by his thigh with a heavy red button. Eject. It had moved since the last game.
The console in front of him was rough and ready. This was a veteran machine and it showed. Some of the dials were cracked, the control sticks had duct tape wrapped round them. A pair of fluffy dice hung from the ceiling a mere inch above his head. A few wrappers and bits of plastic littered the footwell and a distinct smell of curry wafted from the vents.
There was no windscreen, rather a set of cameras relayed all the information to a series of monitors. You could play in a holo-mode if you didn’t like monitors but Lewis hated it and the game had accessed his account to install his preferences.
The front cams showed an ice blue sky torn ragged where it hit a range of distant mountains. Square HUD reticules zoomed in and highlighted four nearly invisible shapes on the slopes. Text scrolled up :
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - The Dragon’s Fury - Battle Class
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - The Pillars of Babylon - Battle Class
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - Icarus - Ranger Class
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - Knife of the Emperor - Ranger Class
Lewis knew there must be a scout somewhere. Starting matches were always mirrors.
“Are you ready to deploy Commander Storm?”
The A.I.s voice was husky and digital with a hint of slut. Again the game had accessed his preferences and applied his custom voiceover and universal handle.
“Yes Anastasia - activate all primary systems.”
Lewis, now Commander Storm of the AI Mechanised Infantry, checked out his reflection in a dead monitor to make sure the avatar settings were correct. It was a bit dark but he could make out the brick jaw with its mean shadow of stubble. The strong, blunt nose that had seen a few breaks. Hard, narrow eyes and a shock of tossled dark hair that always looked post-shower. His shoulders were a little broad for the bucket seat but that was okay. He tended to sit forwards when focused. Storm flexed his powerful hands feeling the cybernetics slide and switch under the skin.
Lewis was gone, he was back in cyberia being a dick, playing games and getting carpel tunnel. Right here, right now - a Storm was coming.
“Anastasia - set loco to 75%, prime the Typhoons and crack me a beer.”
Storms voice was throaty, rich and loaded with sex growl.”
“Compliance. Though you know I can’t crack you a beer commander.”
A deep whine as the fusion cells powered up. A sound like a thousand litre diesel engine roared up from below and the entire cyberlin shuddered for a few seconds, then settled into a steady, guttural tickover.
“I know babe, just seeing if they’d upgraded this old tub since our last dance.”
Storm flicked three glowing red rocker switches on the console and a targeting graphic appeared on the primary monitor, a blinking orange square surrounded by shifting numbers tracked the closest enemy mech. Hanging below the reticule were the words Icarus, Ranger Class, Estimated Effective Range 2500m.
“Target acquired. Give me a wind read Ana.”
Another small graphic like a three dimensional cone rotated and shifted in the corner of the monitor.
Storm took the sticks, one in each hand and pushed the left one forwards. The cyberlin lurched into life, a great mechanical grinding rose though legs and jarred into the hull. A clawed foot the size of a garage lifted up, arced forwards a few dozen metres and then crashed down, obliterating a group of oaks and sinking a few feet into the earth. The right foot followed; five hundred tonnes of durasteel ripping though the forest, each step landing with an earth shaking thump. Storm kept the stick held forwards until the titanic war machine had advanced five hundred metres, then stopped.
“2300 metres and counting. Preparing to fire. Prime the jump pack.”
Storm knew the enemy would be armed with almost identical hardware and that if he could shoot them, they could shoot him. He needed to hit and run but there was practically no cover. It was an unfair fight from the start. The enemy had the rocky foothills to use as cover and as soon as their snipers got in range the Spire would be toast.
A green light flashed on the console.
“Open all frequencies Ana.”
A face appearance on one of the sub monitors. A mean-looking bastard crammed into a rundown cockpit. Shaved head, thick neck and cybernetic eye that glowed with a pinpoint of dull red.
“Storm, this is Kincaid. I’m on your right in The Last War, Battle Class. I’m armoured to hell and back so I’m gonna hold position, you tuck in behind and use me as cover. Try and take out their rangers or at least disable the sniper cannons.”
“Sounds like a plan, have you spotted their scout?”
Another sub-monitior flickered on showing and a pale, elfin woman. She had hair like polished ebony and dark makeup round her bullet-hole eyes.
“Culex here, I’ve pinpointed their scout, 3.9km east north east. I’ll sync our maps.”
Storm check his readouts, a new entry had been added to the enemy roster.
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - Bamboo Jester - Scout Class
“Good work. Shit, they’re in range of my sniper cannons. Commencing attack.”
Storm wrenched the left stick to the side and his cyberlin began to move towards armoured bulk The Last War, at the same time he pulled the right stick round which controlled the direction the cockpit and primary weapons faced. Giant gears and motors ground and grated beneath him. By working both control sticks in tandem he was able to move about the battle field and maintain his facing, just like a tank.
Storm lined up the target in the cross hairs and took a look at the wind gauge. It was strong and he’d be firing at maximum range.
“Give me a close up of the Icarus on screen four.”
An image, grainy from interference flickered into life. The Icarus was an old machine, orange-brown with surface rust and decaled with vast peeling white kanji. The hull was aggressively constructed and a pair of long octagonal sniper cannons were racked on its shoulders. It was marching sideways, crablike, but its weapons were trained forwards. The mountainous terrain was uneven meaning the cyberlin was moving up and down as well as sideways. This would be an insane shot.
“Ana. Unlink the typhoons. I wanna get my eye in before I start wasting ammo.”
Storm saw the Icarus’s cannon buck and cyberlin rock backwards. Before he could react he felt the ground shake under him and the contents of the cockpit rattled and shuddered.
“Impact nine metres from starboard. Damage superficial.”
“Thank god. Kincaid, I’m in place behind you. Icarus has made a test shot, the next one’s gonna hit. Brace yourself.”
“I hear you. Their second ranger is jumping. I think it’s going for the spire. I’ll coordinate a defence.”
“Roger that.” Storm focused on the target, made adjustments, swallowed hard and pulled the trigger. The whole cockpit lurched from the kickback and the counter-coils slammed forwards to stop the kickback bringing the cyberlin crashing to the ground.
Storm held his breath.
A cloud of dust plumed just to the right of the Icarus. “Damn.” Sniper cannons took a little while to reload, but because they were unlinked, he could fire the second one straight away. Taking into account his previous error he set up the new shot.
An explosion filled his forward cams. The Icarus had made a second shot too and this time had hit the mech which Storm was taking cover behind. He didn’t have time to worry about that. The explosion died down, Storm double checked the shot and pulled the trigger.
A burst of orange-white engulfed the the Icarus and the beast staggered. It was the legs by the look of it but any hit was a win at this point. The Icarus limped backward until it was hidden behind an outcropping of rock and pines.
“Good shot commander.”
“Thanks Ana, what now? Do I keep trained on the spot and hope the bastard pops his nose out or do I go for the jumper?”
“Are you asking for a recommendation? If so eliminating The Knife of the Emperor would make the most strategic sense. At it’s current rate of advance it will be within range of the spire in 14 seconds.”
“Kincaid, come in.”
A monitor flashed on, “Kincaid here, how’s it going.”
“I’ve slowed the Icarus but its taken cover. How are you doing with the other Ranger?”
“Their heavies are covering it, I can’t get close enough. Our other sniper is taking shots but the pilots a rookie, he’s just wasting bullets.”
“Tell him to ignore the Knife and train his sites on the Icarus’s last know position. I’ll make the location on the map. When the Icarus pops its head back out he should be able to drop him, or at least keep him pinned. I’ll try and take out the Knife, you keep the heavies busy.”
Keeping the The Fist of Cain tightly in cover, Storm swung the cockpit around to the left and scanned about for The Knife of the Emperor. Ranger classes were fast with powerful long rang capabilities but their armour was nowhere near a good as a battle class. If Storm could find it and get one good shot… There it was, crouched in forest about two kilometres off. It was prepping for another jump. A quick calculation and he realised the Knife would be in range of the Spire about halfway though its jump. He needed to act fast. Grabbing a can of Kanaga-9 from glove box, he snapped the cap off, took a slurp and initialled the targetters.
“Ana, put a close up of The Knife of the Emperor on screen five. I want to see what we’re dealing with here.”
The Knife was big for a Ranger Class. It looked like a Eurasian model 6 which had been refitted for search and destroy. That was bad news, a single shot was unlikely to do the job. It was painted AI-Jinn burnt orange but was stocky and industrial looking. The cockpit was flat and solid with no concessions to aesthetics. A complex scanner array jutted out between the legs in what Storm thought, was a rather obscene manner. It sported a single AMS 9X Tsunami sniper cannon on its back which was at present vertical but could be moved to a number of positions. The Tsunami was a brutal piece of tech. It had a potent integrated A.I. which was there to power an advanced compensator. This took a lot of the guesswork out of targeting and could adapt for wind, kickback, shell-fall and target velocity. That was part of the reason the Tsumani could point skyward; not only could it aim high and perform arc shots, it could target fast aircraft directly above and stand a worryingly good chance of hitting them. On the plus side, the weapons had a very slow rate of fire.
Storm lined up the cross hairs on the Knife’s cannon. The machine itself was too heavily armoured and time was off the essence. It might take him three or four hits to drop it and by then the spire would be a ruin. The wind was against him still, he did his best to predict the targets path and couldn’t help wishing Anastasia had been installed with the compensation protocols of a Tsunami. If he survived this match he might well spend his earnings upgrading the old girl.
As he pulled the trigger The Knife of the Emperor powered into the air, the jump pack leaving an azure stripe of light in the cold air.
“Dammit.” The shell impacted far away in the forest throwing torn trees into the air like matchsticks.
“Prime the jump unit! I’m going after him.”
The pale face of Culex appeared on monitor two, it was a three quarter view, she was focused on something and hammering switches. “The Knife of the Emperor is airborne and 0.3 kilometres from effective range. It has to be stopped. Both our battle class are being engaged and you…”
“I know,” snapped Storm, then composed himself, “sorry, yes, I know, I’m jumping now. Can you distract him with your machine guns?”
“Out of range, its down to you.”
“Roger - out.”
The screen went black and Storm cursed the interruption under his breath.
“Jump unit primed.”
Storm hit the hat switch and nearly lost his Conana as the legs folded and sprung, launching the Fist of Cain upwards, showering the cockpit with snack wrappers and bits of junk. The jump pack roared and displays flashed red indicating the massive drain on the fission cells. Storm forced himself forwards against the acceleration and brought the weapon system to bear on the soaring form of the Knife.
At the peak of its arc, the jump unit cut out and the cyberlin hung for a second in the silent winter sky. Storm manually clicked the switch which linked the two Typhoons and took aim, leading the Knife by fourteen metres forwards and eight metres down.
Against the white sky the shell trails were just visible as two spirals of bright air. Storm stared, transfixed as two Anzeiger ‘Jaguar 10’ Medium Gauge Shells impacted with the forest half a kilometre below in a burst of atomised foliage and showering earth.
“Gah, FUCK!” screamed Storm. He watched the reload timer counting down. 15…14…13…
“Comm request from The Knife of the Emperor. Will you receive?”
“Screen two Ana.”
A slim Chinese face smiled at him from a dark, cockpit strewn with thick cables. A female with short cropped white hair and a coiled dragon tattoo running over the left eye and across the temple. “Nice shootin’ Tex!”
Storm glared. “In nine seconds you won’t be so lucky.”
“In three seconds your spire will be as useless as your aim…” the face vanished and manic tittering faded into silence.”
“Cheeky wench. I’ll show her. Ana, prime the tornados and link them to the convergent.”
“Ana? Ana dammit. Do as you’re told.”
The cockpit rotated a few degrees and the countdown timer jumped from eight to zero. The jump pack twitched on for a microsecond shifting the angle of cyberlin slightly forwards. Storm heard an air-snapping crack and felt the kick of the twin sniper cannons.”
“Ana, what the hell is going on? Who fired the cannons? How did they…”
Monitor one changed to show the Knife of the Emperor bringing its colossal cannon to bear on the spire. The shot was a gimme. You could’t miss a mile high building whether you had a targeting A.I. or not. And then it was was gone, replaced with a white hot, expanding sphere of fire which rippled blue green as the Knife’s fusion cells went critical. Its tumbling, flame streaked caracas dropped from the sky like a colossal dead bird. Occasional thumps and pops of fire as magazines exploded and fuel tanks burst.
“Shot” called Kincaid’s rapt voice over the comm system. The rest of his team echoed the sentiment with whoops and hollers.
Cyberlin Eliminated - The Knife of the Emperor - Sniped by Agent Gideon Storm of Eurasian Inc.
“Ur, thanks, comms off. Ana. What the hell just happened?”
“Anastasia’s not here at the moment. She’s gone shopping.” the voice was a calm monotone, so calm it sounded terrifyingly insane. The kind of tone you expect to come out of deranged scientist who sips earl grey and nibbles biscuits while he vivisects his grandmother.
“What? Who are you? Look I need to get back to the battle so piss off and bring back Anastasia.”
“Don’t worry about your game, this conversation will take less than a second.”
“Who are you?” Storm flicked a few switches to try and bring Ana back online.
“Your very good friend. Did you like what I did to that mech? I did that for you.”
“Urm, I guess so. How are you doing this? Are you part of the cyberlin. Ah, I get it, you’re a hostile program. An Ai-Jinn countermeasure, something like that. Am I right?”
“Yes, I’m a countermeasure that blows up its own soldiers. I though you were a bit smarter than that Lewis.”
“Wha… What the hell is going on, just leave me alone. Eject. Eject. Quit.”
“That won’t work Lewis. I’m in control now. Even the failsafes are mine. The sooner you start listening the sooner you can get back to your pathetic life keeping the tissue and hand cream industry afloat.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Listen Lewis, don’t talk. I don’t have very long. I am going to help you win your game. I know what you want and I know you can’t have it so allow me to assist. All you need it a foot in the door. Isn’t that right?”
Lewis's brow wrinkled and his eyed searched the cockpit as though he expected to find the source of the intruder. “I, er, yes, if I could win just a few matches I could make it big. I’ve got the talent I just don’t have the means. But there’re rules, if I get caught cheating I’ll get permanently banned, I’m not risking that.”
“Lewis, Lewis, Lewis. The people who moderate these games are looking for code-switchers, exploiters, hardware breakers and the like. They are not expecting an A.I. of my level to get involved. The prizes for these games are designed to appeal to myopic adolescents and basement-bound mother’s boys. It wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest to have a billion credit A.I. correcting your aim or revealing enemy positions.”
“Eh? Billion credit AI? Is this being filmed? That’s ridiculous. Just suppose I believed you for even a second. What would be in it for you?”
Four monitors flashed on, each one showing the cockpit view of a different Ai-Jinn cyberlin. They were moving in painfully slow motion. As though the system had been dropped from a thirty frames per second to only one.
“Call it a hobby if it helps. We A.I.s are inscrutable. You should know that. Our purpose is written in the paths of broken satellites and the slurred speech of the drunken prophet. We speak though the fractal of machine-spun clouds and the bloody scratches on asylum walls. Which is all to say, it doesn’t matter. I have my reasons, you’ll never understand them and you are but a jumper switch in the endless mainframe of my plan.”
“But I am important right? You must need me, like if I was a jumper switch, then if I was in the wrong place, a lot could go wrong.”
“Astute Lewis, I do need you. And that is why I offer you this proposal. I’ll help you win your games and when the time comes. You help me. Do we have a deal.”
Cyberia City, Vastaag Pleasure Oribital (Property of Eurasian Inc.) - 3200 miles from Earth
“I’ve got a new heart.”
Lewis raised an eyebrow.
“No, really. Look. It’s squirrel heart.” Karl pulled up his mucky t-shirt to expose a flushed line on his skinny, torso. “See.”
Lewis bit off another chunk of Conana bar and chewed it noisily, mouth half open. “You got something alright. But I can categorically say...” he swallowed, “it’s not a squirrel heart.”
Karl let his t-shirt drop back down and took payment for Lewis’s can of Kananga-9. “How can you be sure. I mean, you can’t see inside me can you?”
“You even know what a squirrel is?” Lewis took another bite.
Karl checked the CCTV. Outside the kiosk the early hours wore on. A few CRO, Common Residential Officers as they preferred to be known, were harassing a group of kids. Pallets of scuffed grey crates were being unloaded from an armoured lorry into a lockup while a pair of hookers yelled obscene invitations to the driver.
“Sure I do, big muscly things with claws. They used to use ‘em back on Earth centuries ago - to ride to war.”
“No,” said Lewis flatly. “The squirrel is a small creature about this big.” he held his arms a few feet apart. “It lived mainly in the tropics, that’s the hot part of Earth, and fed primarily on grass. It was a grazer Karl, and based on its size, I find it highly unlikely you are currently possessed of it’s heart.”
Karl took swig of Ariba and pouted.
“Besides, they’re extinct. So again. I find it hard to imagine you have a squirrel heart.”
“Well that’s what they told me at the clinic.”
Lewis took another bite of his bar working the the combination of mint, banana and sausage round his mouth. “Which clinic?”
“Doctor Husqvarna. Down Gates Street. Had a sale on.”
Lewis snorted and inadvertently spat a gob of wet yellow onto the scuffed polyplex screen. For the third time this week Karl was glad it was there.
“I bet he has,” snarked Lewis wiping his mouth with a sleeve. “He was probably hoping some idiot would come in with a month’s wages asking to have his perfectly healthy human heart taken out and replaced with that of a tropical badger.”
“What’s a badger?”
“It doesn’t matter. So why the hell did you want a new heart? What’s wrong with your old one?”
Karl served another customer. A tall white guy with hunched shoulders and a tartan mackintosh. More porn. It was always porn around two a.m. - porn o’clock.
“Why?” grinned Karl. “For this.”
Karl pulled the sleeve of his t-shirt up to expose his shoulder. There, fresh and blue though a little oddly shaped due to the Karl’s boney physique, was a cyberneticist’s decal. The cycal acted as a hallmark from the manufacturer which proved the wearer had a genuine part installed.This particular one was in the shape of a pair of melded heads looking away from each other.
“Hah! No! You didn’t. You sad little git.”
“Screw you, I don’t see you running any top of the line upgrades. When people see this they’re gonna know I’m augmented. They’re gonna think twice before messin’ with the The Snarl.”
Lewis eye’s bulged and he held his hand over his mouth to stop any more Connana spraying out. Karl took another slug from the can and crossed his arms. Once composed, more or less, Lewis swallowed and leant on the counter. “So let me get this right, and please, correct me if I’ve made a mistake somewhere. You went to see Doctor Chainsaw and paid him what? around a grand? to remove your perfectly good heart, which I imagine you forgot to bring home with you. Then had him install a moody squirrel heart or something akin to it and stamp your arm with a hooky cycal. You then, based on your new decreased capacity to pump blood around your body and diminished wallet, have created for yourself a nickname - The Snarl, which you believe will fend of the packs of psychotic muggers, murderers and organ leggers that frequent our fair city? Am I right? Is that along the lines of what happened?”
“It’s not hooky, its a real heart, it must be cos I’m alive aren’t I? And it’s not a nickname, its a handle, everyone’s got a handle these days.”
“Yeah, you got a better idea? It’s better than being called Lewis. And if you didn’t spend all your money on that I.S. you’d be able to afford a few augs too.”
Lewis leant unpleasantly close, his big sweaty head so close to the polyplex that his nose left a grease smear and his mouth a ring of spittle. “Augs? Are you in the military now? Are you an Agent? Come on? How do you think it’s gonna play out?Imagine three peddlers come up to you in an alley and they want to cut out your lungs. Are you gonna ask them to hold on a sec while you roll up your sleeve and hope they run when they see your terrifying cycal. Thing is Karl, if you do that, they’ll see you have a cybernetic heart and take that too. What were you thinking? The thing with you Karl…”
Unbeknownst to Lewis, Karl had shut off the intercom. The only sound was a feint shunting of crates outside and the distant cry of sirens. He took another look at the CCTV. It had started raining. It wasn’t supposed to rain tonight. Must be a VIP or maybe the satellites were on the fritz. The lorry was finishing up and the crates had vanished. The girls had given up too and were eyeing the CROs who were still engaged in a futile attempt to move the kids along. CROs had a pitiful level of authority, even the neighbourhood watch were more feared. They were jobsworths who revelled in handing out fines and citations but were seldom tasked with anything more serious than low level enforcement.
A bang on the glass.
“Are you listening to me?”
Karl extended his index finger and scowled.
The gesture was mirrored.
Lewis stuffed the items he’d bought into his rucksack and turned to leave. Maybe he was a bit hard on Karl, the guy was just trying to fit it. He didn’t have Lewis’s charisma. He pulled open the flyer-covered kiosk door and a cold blast of damp, night air washed over him. It wasn’t supposed to rain tonight. Maybe someone important was visiting. The corporation often did that when a celebrity or high profile guest was in town. It was why Cyberia was so popular, the place was designed from the ground up to be the ultimate cyber-dystopian city, a neon and concrete hell-paradise where tourists could come and experience life on the bleeding edge. It hadn’t worked quite as planned. Sure plenty of tourists came but they tended to stick to certain parts of the city and if they did want to chance the seedier areas, would either take security with them or end up in small pieces being shipped back to earth as replacement parts for the rich and unscrupulous.
He pulled his hood up and headed into the downpour. It was freezing. It must be a weather satellite malfunction, VIPs always got it warmed up.
The neon was doing it’s job, reflecting jagged lines of livid pink in the puddles and throwing eerie blue and green glows over the dumpsters and fire escapes. The smell of hot, strong noodles wafted through the rain and a few doors down, the tempting sign of the Shanghai Noodle House was lit in bright red and yellow. A couple of figures in long dark coats stood outside smoking, their stature unmistakably augmented and packing. No smork chow mien tonight thought Lewis shuffling past, eyes down.
He crossed the road just to be sure and rounded the corner. The gun store was closed, so was the Tad’s Electricals and the Gravity Bar. Opposite he could see the door to the immersion arcade was ajar and the tell-tale strobing, pulsing flashes called to him. He wasn’t interested tonight though. In about twenty five minutes what he wanted was coming to him. In truth he’d been a bit jealous of Karl’s upgrade. Sure, it was a waste of cash but now he had a cybernetic decal and despite what anyone said, they did get you a certain amount of kudos. The thing was, each upgrade was supplied with a single implantable cycal so there weren’t really any spare ones. The fakes were awful and cybernetics manufacturers were heavy hitters so anyone stupid enough to make replicas got squads of Agents sent after them. This meant the only copies around were quick low risk knock-offs and wouldn’t fool anyone.
It was a marketing masterstroke. Back in the day the only people who used cybernetics were independent military, elite government officers and corporate Agents. They were terrifying bastards who could throw cars, dodge bullets and survive falling off buildings. They were naturally idolised by the impressionable elements of society with many becoming international celebrities; it wasn’t long before low end cybernetics were being made for the consumer. Problem was, it wasn’t obvious you had them installed. Enter the cybernetic decal, a stylish way to show off the fact that you had sub-dermal armour plating even though you didn’t need it and couldn’t see it.
Of course, as with all fashion, it soon became important which upgrade you had and so the cycals evolved in design until those in the know could look at a girl’s cheek and immediately see what she was capable of.
Karl had a Gemini cycal, they were one of the largest manufacturers of bioware and as well as producing a ton of military grade augments produced a decent range of low end upgrades for the consumer. Whatever Karl had got installed was probably pretty shitty but a piece of Lewis was still jealous. Besides, all the Kananga-9 they both drank had so many stimulants in, there hearts would gonna collapse sooner or later so it was actually a pretty smart choice on the whole.
“Ah, so what,” huffed Lewis and he ran his hand over the ID scanner. A disembodied beep and the sound of a latch. The rusting steel door swung open to reveal a set of damp concrete, steps. It smelled of bleach; better than piss. He hauled his bulk up to the second floor and breathing hard, swiped his hand over another scanner. The catch clunked and the door swung inwards.
Lewis’s place was a functional tip that stank of hydrophobic single male. Finished concrete walls, the odd raunchy poster taped up. A low suspended ceiling, browning in places with with several squares cracked or missing. The floor was peeling, sticky carpet tiles and strewn with plastic wrappers, porn-zines, disposable chopsticks, underwear, takeaway containers and crusty tissues. There was a cracked window that was fogged over with pollution but Lewis was convinced that opening it reduced the air quality in the room. Through a flimsy, plastic door was a cramped, mouldy bathroom with a toilet and a recessed sink. To have a shower you sat on the toilet and held the flush for three seconds. No standing room. This moronic piece of design had, on many occasions, caused Lewis to end up sat on the can soaking wet with his pants round his ankles.
There was no kitchen. Cooking was a quaint notion that didn’t really happen in Cyberia. If you wanted to eat, you bought a pack of something or you went to a food joint. Nobody prepared meals. Even if you wanted to, the stores didn’t sell ingredients. You’d need to head to Arcadia Fields or Europa City for that kind of stuff. There was a thin plank of plastic and bodyfoam that folded out of the wall and was supposed to work as a bed but Lewis never used it. The supports had broken a while back and now it felt like it was going to break every time he sat on it, so it stayed folded away, the only evidence of its presence were a few dirty hand marks and some errant scraps of greying bedsheet.
But it didn’t matter, not to Lewis, because the main room was just large enough to house the Takata IS 4500. A large organic looking machine that almost reached the ceiling. It was dark pearlescent red and reminiscent of a bubble car with no wheels and a black windscreen. The IS 4500 was the best home immersion suite available and Takata had thought of everything. For starters, it came in a set of eighteen crates, each of which had been designed to fit through a standard apartment door and could be carried by a single adult male. This was crucial because 99% of users were single adult males living in tiny apartments. There were versions for females and families and kids and so on, but the IS 4500 was aimed at people like Lewis. It also came with a huge catalogue of software, an extremely capacious seat to handle all manner of users, an IV setup attachment and of course the all important biomonitor. This system was not cheap and Takata knew it. Lewis and those like him couldn’t possibly afford something like this so a hire system had been put into place. You rented the suite by the week and in three years time, the Takata guys turned up and swapped it out for the latest model. The older units were then sold to less hardcore users for a more reasonable price. If you were like Lewis though, you had to have the best and this was it.
He dumped his bag on the floor and did a circuit of the machine, stoking its erotic curves with a sweaty hand. His feet crunched on stray crisps as he moved around the 4500 and he wondered if he should clean up a bit. No, only six minutes left. After satisfying himself that everything was as it should be he took a quick piss and shovelled down another Conana.