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?”