“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.