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.