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.”