About a Girl

She lay in the dirt, facing up at me; a smile like sunshine and a hole in her head. The bullet caught her between her eyes, and a ring of gore around the back pointed to where it came out; a spatter on the wall behind at about waist height. She looked like an Otaku’s wet dream – Asian, in a waist high skirt and a mock school shirt, jacket and tie. Implants bulged conspicuously underneath.

I got to my feet and looked around. Wailing alarms punctuated by gunshots echoed down the alley, gently accompanied by the pitter-patter of rain on the sheet plastic above. I reached inside her breast pocket and found a picture of her family, subscript in letters I couldn’t read. Probably another migrant, fleeing from the latest fiscal disaster when the computers couldn’t put enough zeros on the chits to keep up with the inflation. So she went, with a host of other desperate young professionals, to the City of Angels. I guess I knew what happened next.

I walked out of the alley, a gaggle of girls milling around outside. I smiled at them in placation and walked past them. A couple hid behind the corner, others giggled spontaneously, all childlike in the haze of the drugs. The perpetual cold sores on their faces told me they’d been hooked on Arex: looks like pocky sticks, but laced with a Opioid three hundred times stronger than Morphine. Tastes like Chocolate – apparently.

“So, Michael, what happened?”

Karen was squatting on a dumpster, her image masking powering down made the sides of her body flutter. She turned up a few years ago. She didn’t tell me where she had come from, how she got her bleeding-edge bodyware, and Karen probably wasn’t her real name. But she was effective and loyal, and the closest thing I had to a friend in LA.

“She got shot in the head – there isn’t much else. Probably a hand gun – a rifle wouldn’t have left much above the jaw.”

“Figures. They aren’t so desperate to do a guy packing artillery. Anyone leave a signature?”

“None of our neighbours, although I doubt they would shoot recent imports. It’s strange – she looked like she was kneeling waiting for it, but she was smiling too.”

“Kinky.”

I scowled, “Did you get anything off the other girls?”

“Nope – my Japanese isn’t that hot, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t there to see anything. They heard the shot and ran over here. Fucking waste of our time. Just some pervert or sped-up merc.”

“Talk to Marvin and wrap up?”

“Yeah.”

Karen dropped down and walked across the street to the flop and shouted inside. I followed; some of the girls tagged along behind.

“Yeah, what is it?” Marvin said, waddling out of the door. He could’ve been a poster boy for the KKK; morbidly obese, with the features of a racial caricature – all lips, brow and nose.

“Marvin, you’ve put on weight since I saw you last. That’s surprising.” Karen drawled. Marvin ignored her and turned to me.

“You the specialists I asked for? Know which prick wasted my girl?”

I shook my head. “No, looks like it was a perv, junkie, trash. Shit happens.”

“Fucking right shit happens! You know I’m on the edge of our turf as it is! I don’t want every doped-up ass thinking he can use my girls for target practice! What the fuck am I going to do?” He turned to the girls again. “Piss off and get back to work! You have to make up for her takings now!” Rumour was that Marvin’s wife and child fled when he tried to take a tyre iron to them – it wouldn’t surprise me. The girls left.

“It wasn’t a gang hit, dumbass,” Karen said. “If it was, they would have let us know, and they haven’t. Hire some people to protect your girls so this doesn’t happen again.”

“Thanks for the advice, slitty-eyes, maybe you should join my other girls, because you evidently don’t know shit about-”

He stopped talking when Karen jammed a gun between his teeth.

“You might be a fat ass, Marvin, but you aren’t a big shot. You’re here on the edge of our strip, scrabbling in the shit of the night. I have a place in the ‘Plex. If I pulled the trigger, the Boss would only slap me on the wrist. So let’s try again.”

Karen looked over her shoulder to me, giving me half of a puerile smile.

“You’re going to stop whining like a little bitch, aren’t you Marvin?” she said. Marvin directed his shaking head up and down.

“Good, you’re also going to let me leave without slobbering all over me and telling me how I behave myself.” Marvin nodded again, and Karen holstered her pistol, stepping back. He glared but stayed quiet.

“If you don’t want to get your girls killed, Marvin,” I said. “Don’t have them working here and now. You know how the drifters keep to the outskirts.”

“Yeah, that’s easy. Where else do you expect them to work?”

I shrugged, “Not my business, you work it out. Unless there is anything else, we’ll be going.”

We left.

#

We had a car parked outside – it used to be some sort of people carrier, but with hillbilly armour and a fifty cal pintle in the passenger side it looked like a Humvee’s inbred, buck-toothed younger brother. The gun did have a bot to control it, but shot so badly it was only use for scaring off street hoods. It was stowed in a side alley a small walk away. It sighed in deference as Karen pointed her remote at it.

She got into the drivers seat, “Back home?”

“Yeah,” I said, getting in through the remains of the other door. “Unless you have any better ideas.”

She shrugged, and we set off.

The trip was uneventful: We were going through our patch, and we had a small armoury on the back seats, just in case someone forgot we were on their side. We owned a block of downtown, and the sprawl that radiated out from it like the slice of a pie. With the high value came high-risks. We were next to a few corporate Arcologies keen on reclamation, and lesser gangs outside always wanted to move in for a shot at the big time.

The Complex was the remains of car-park – multi-storey, although everything above the second floor had collapsed in long ago. The armour plating over-biting between each of the floors gave the impression of an armadillo hide, and a couple of rigged turrets turned to us before seeing the IFF on the bonnet and scanning elsewhere. We drove into the basement. There were a few cars, most of them clapped out besides the boss’s new run-around, a tricked-out Brute with all the trimmings. One of the heavy units, body long since a mess of man and metal peered at us with a cyclopic eye before waving us through. We parked and got out, stepping around a couple of men trying to get a bot to stop threatening the local wildlife. We went down the stairs.

A few partitions had been made out of sheet plastic, and the floors and ceiling nano-scrubbed and painted over, but it still looked like a car park. A woman peered out of one of the doors.

“Mr Hunter? Ms Black? Over here please.”

We shared a rueful glance before we obeyed, pushing the gaudy sheet plastic aside before walking in. The woman leant against the wall, craning over the computer in her palm, lighting her face cyan. Her name was Sarah: a cast off of Vault-tec’s latest downsizing, and her brown-smeared shirt and torn suit-trousers hadn’t damaged her arrogance.

“You were dispatched to answer a request from a… registered associate, yes?” She began.

“We got called by a pimp because one of his girls got shot, yeah,” Karen drawled. Sarah didn’t notice.

“Do you have a report?”

“Unknown cause,” I said. “No leads.”

“No idea whatsoever?”

“Not a one, why do you need to know?” I asked

“Well,” she began, sniffing. “It occurred to me that a means of patterning assaults and acts of violence would help us ascertain the threats our business model faces. I spoke to Mr White about this, and he concurred with my suggestion.”

“Lass, he’s not Mr White, just the Boss,” Karen said. “Just because you use peoples second name and have a palm top doesn’t impress anyone.” Silence.

“Anyway, as Mr White indicated, you -”

“Look,” I said. “If you need to put it down as something, call it ‘random violence’. It’s pretty uniform out in the ‘sprawl. If I find out otherwise, I’ll let you know.”

Sarah’s face briefly offered a mixture of relief and gratitude. “Thank you, Mr Hunter, I shan’t detain you any longer.”

We left. Karen nibbled on the end of an imaginary data-stylus, and grinned to herself.

“I say, Mr Hunter, that is most generous of you. I’m glad you and Mr White agree with me… I hope ‘Boss gives her a buckshot mouthwash when she’s finished being useful to him.”

“Save it, Karen. Can’t you give her a break, at least for a little while? Were you ever new somewhere?”

“Yeah, and I tried to fit in, instead of trying to shove my head up my own ass – she probably thinks that’s her office back there. I’m going to sleep – I’ve wasted enough of my time tonight. You still haven’t moved in here, have you?”

“No, I prefer not sleeping in a bullet magnet. Catch you tomorrow.”

“Sure. I’ll make sure ‘Bekah lets you out the door.”

#

My house lay on the corner of a street, it’s windows boarded up and the mortar between the breeze-blocks beginning to crumble. The utilities had long since been cut off, but I managed to scavenge some high-yield fluorescents and a water-scrubber to put me a few rungs above the rest of the slum. I pulled out the keys to the half-dozen locks I put on the door and opened them one by one. It was small, a single room with a sink, a bed and a computer screen, its colour tuner-static.

Russsckf, ruskt!

I turned to the dessicated yapping. Isabel was curled up in her usual corner, snout craned up in expectation. I had picked her up a decade ago, and she, like me, had seen better days. She rolled over as if to admonish me for letting her coat become a patchwork of matted fur and balding skin.

“Easy girl, I’ve only just been able to get washed myself.” I held the door open. “You’re going to have to find your own supper tonight.” Isabel got to her feet and made her way out, claws pattering against the floor. I shut the door behind her and sealed the locks. I slumped on the bed, pulling over one of the glo-sticks onto the pillow beside me.

I woke. Early dawn peeked between the metal plates I screwed onto the window frame. I stumbled over to the computer – Five forty-five A.M. I had only slept for two hours, but I wasn’t tired. I saw the back-side of a Polaroid on the floor and picked it up.

It was the girl who got shot. She looked nice, dressed up and framed in an awning, pink flowers curling around the wood. Her parents were beaming in the background. I wondered if they knew. I slotted it back into my jacket and tried the computer again, flicking through the channels.

- Sparky, you there?

Pause.

> Yeah, I'm here. What the hell are you doing up, it's barely morning.
- couldn't sleep. Look, can I talk to you?
> I'm here, aren't I?
- In real life.
> What is it?
- Long story. I'll get you a pizza.
> I can wipe the sixty gigs of porn off your computer remotely.
> Trying to woo that new corp bitch who turned up? Hand's off - she's mine.
- See you soon. Grow up.

I cut the link before the witty rejoinder. I retrieved my shotgun from the under the bed and turned the safety off. I left into the street outside, and out of the dumps onto what used to be the main road. The light pollution all around gave the horizon a sallow halo competing with the dawn, punctured by the bright-cyan spires of the Arcologies. The night life had gone in for the day, with only a few drug-addled drifters lying comatose on the streets, and a few urchins picking at their valuables. They ran off as they saw me – it wasn’t unheard of for gangs to prey on them in turn.

“Welcome to value-eat, food guaranteed by the finest genetic stock! Don’t delay, buy today! Now accepting more than five-hundred different currencies and bartering goods!”

A mobile vendor approached on its round, bright, clean and synthetic against the grubby mess of the slum. It modulated it’s price according to economic forecasts, and we were definitely sub-prime. The milbot on backstop pivoted on its tracks to face me. I looked around myself – the AI on them was poor, and a common ploy was to loose off some rounds nearby and let the bot dust the happy shopper.

“Pizza Margarita, large.”

“Of course, sir!” the vocal synthesizer replied sunnily. “That’ll be eighteen point sixteen Neotech Dollars, or appropriate equivalent.”

I swiped a soft-card underneath one of it’s scanners, and it chirped in affirmation. I looked at the holographic reading – less than a dollar, so I cast it away. It took a few minutes for the food to be prepared, boxed and shrink-wrapped as a matter of routine against any fouling swells which ripped across the sprawl every once in a while. It offered its thanks and trundled on, the bot tracking me with its twin machine guns until it passed out of range.

Sparky’s place was a hovel much like mine, although in a slightly upmarket part of the slum. The tech was discreet: I saw a couple of irises narrow and focus upon me as I came close, and the door unlocked automatically. I knew under a pile of discarded clothes lay a few dozen remote controlled shotgun barrels, metal stormed so each could fire five shells apiece in under a second. He told me it was a good way of getting the Mormons to fuck off.

“Is that the best you can do? Shrink wrapped Corp Pizza facsimiles. I might as well eat a printout of a Margarita – probably taste better.” Sparky’s voice came from a few microphones set into the door frames.

“Sorry, Sparky, maybe next time I could hit up some Mafiosi to get you one from new Sicily. What do you expect me to do at six in the morning?”

He shut up. I descended down the tunnel to his lair, the wood disintegrating under the gurgling water-pipes. The rusting iron door lay ajar on its stiff hinges. I pushed it open and went inside.

Sparky lay on the bed, supine and half dressed. A half dozen computer screens arrayed by his feet. I could see the black processor stack, always-on, attached to the ground through a fan of fibre-optics each as thick as my arm. He sat up and opened his eyes, passing a hand through oily-blonde hair.

“Glad to see you’re not plugged in, Sparky.”

“Plugged in? Should be all wireless now, unless you’re some hick in a client state. Couldn’t pay me enough.”

I put the pizza on the floor by the bed. Sparky sniffed at it disapprovingly but made no further comment, tearing at the polythene and helping himself to a slice.

“So… what’s up?” He said between mouthfuls.

I produced the girls picture. “I want you to find out about her.”

He took the picture; his eyes gradually lost their glaze as they focused in.

“Not bad – where’d you pick her up?”

“In an alley down on Marvin’s turf. She’d been shot.”

“So why bother? Want to report it to the authorities like a good little citizen?”

“I need to know what happened to her. The Boss might want to know, but failing that, her family might.”

“Some letter – ‘Hey there, your daughter got shot while working as a whore. Regards, Mike.'”

“Yeah, I know.” I said. “I think she was Japanese – most of Marvin’s new intake were. Can you do something to find her?”

“‘Intake?’ You’re making it sound like a degree program at an off-shore credential-mill. And maybe. They’re economy got screwed, so I imagine they won’t have much living protection on public databases.”

“Good for you, eh?” I joked. “Wouldn’t want you to get your brain fried by another down-beat salaryman.”

“Fuck you – I’m not going to do it myself. I’ll get Lassie on the case. I think she’s sniffing through the chan-networks.”

I turned away to look at the computer screens again. “Image-boards, social networks… why do you bother? Scouting for a potential mate?”

“Pure noise, baby. Send something from one computer to another and you’re risking it getting picked up if someone is watching you. Keep up several large fluxes of data to websites like this, and its pretty impossible to find a signal. Still, it’s not like an AI can get bored.”

One of the screens changed to a blank white tile. Sparky closed his eyes and muttered to himself.

> You called?
- Yes, I need you to a job for me. See if you can find this girl..

“Put the picture under one the scanners, will you?” Sparky said. I obeyed.

> The woman in the centre of the picture?
- Yeah. Probably Japanese, so it might be worth checking there first.
> Is there anything else you need?
- Nah, just get this done and send a file of it to me. Think you can do it?
> Given I can pass a Turing test, I think I can manage this.
- Very funny. Goodbye, Lassie.

The screen faded, returning to scrolling down page after page of internet detritus.

“I can’t believe you called it ‘Lassie’. Couldn’t you just get a real dog and be done with it?” I said.

“Can your dog crack open one of the few remaining government databases, refine a single small cruddy photo given in by some deadbeat and scan through a billion or so records to find a match? No? Then your dog sucks.”

I rolled my eyes, “Later, Sparky. I’ll let you know how the real world’s getting on next time I come around.”

#

“Who the fuck is there at this time in the morning?”

“It’s me, Marvin, open up,” I said, locking stares with the angry pair of eyes glaring out the view-slit.

“Is psycho-bitch with you?”

“No, she’s sleeping.”

The door opened onto Marvin in a dressing gown. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

“This better be good.”

“I want to help find out about that girl who got shot.”

“Why, want some action on the house?”

“Do you want my help or not?”

“Fine,” Marvin said, snidely. “What do you want to know?”

“Tell me about her. Do you have any idea where she came from?”

Marvin shrugged, “She just came with one of the older girls. Didn’t talk much, not that I could understand a fucking word.”

“Can I talk to her? The older girl, I mean?”

“Clare? Yeah, I’ll get her.” He left before I could say anything else. I heard him shouting upstairs. Clare descended, an Arex stick smouldering between her lips and a cigarette lighter in her hand. Her surgically amplified figure and smeared cosmetics didn’t hide her fading youth.

“Aren’t you meant to chew those?” I said.

“Pretty sure they fuck you up just as good either way,” Clare said, tossing the charring remains of the stick aside. “Marvin said you wanted to talk about Akky.”

“Is that her name?”

“Probably not – I couldn’t pronounce it right. Akky, Ak-koo, something like that. Why do you care? ‘Shit happens,’ right?”

I winced, “… Yeah. I changed my mind. He might kill again.”

“Don’t give me that. You don’t give a shit about us. We’re just produce, a cash interest to the gang. Once we’ve got the best years of our lives thoroughly raped, you just cast us aside. I’m going to be thirty-five soon, and Marvin is already trying to push me off to one of your fetish-bars.”

“Look,” I said, raising my hands in mock surrender. “I can drop it if you like. But if I do, I doubt Marvin is going to bother looking out for you instead.”

“That’s better, sugar. I don’t buy any altruistic crap. Doesn’t exist in the sprawl. What do you want to know about her?”

“Where did she come from?”

Clare sat on the stairs, her left hand playing with the holes in a moulding banister. “Not sure. Japan would make sense, given the crud – recession or something. I picked her up by the ‘Current. She was wacked out of her mind on drink, and with a bunch of guys who wanted more than being just good friends.”

“You rescued her, then?” I asked. Clare laughed, the sound like a fire-crackle.

“Some rescue, eh? Partly, perhaps, but we needed a couple more girls to stay afloat. I would have felt bad about it, but it was one of her versus eight of us, and it isn’t like she had anywhere to go. I tried to keep her off the Arex though. Vile stuff.” She gave a bleak, devil-may-care smile.

“Did she say anything about herself? Where she was from, what happened to her?” I sat down beside her.

“No, not really. I think she spoke good English but she was too shy to use it. Mentioned her family a lot – didn’t seem too cuddly about them.”

“Did anyone else know her?”

“No, not really. You’ve seen most of us – we’re thick, and she wasn’t. In her spare time she used to doodle things – not really sure what, but it was mathematical. Looked damn hard. She should have done better than this.”

“Do you have them?”

“No. Marvin’s iced her room already and has sent Marie to find a new recruit,” Clare snorted angrily. “He even sold the body to a Necro. Someone should murder the motherfucker. Tell that girl of yours to pull the trigger next time – Marvin took out his frustration on Karo when we got back. Poor bitch was too scared to cry out.”

“I’ll let her know.” I said dryly. Clare smirked.

“Akky only really talked to me,” she added. “I was there to cuddle her after her first time – she might have been a virgin, for all I know. It was Marvin who got her the boob job. I tried to do what I could – I didn’t want her to end up like this. Or like me.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That helped a lot.”

“Kill the prick who did it,” she said. “Perverts and freaks might be an occupational hazard, but it’s always good for there to be one less.”

“I’ll try.” I said. I reached into my jacket and pulled out my wallet. She grabbed my wrist before I could pull out some cash.

“Don’t bother,” she said. Another weary smile. “I won’t spend it on anything worthwhile.”

“Fine, I’ll just owe you one instead.” I got up.

“Wait. Who are you?” I turned back to her.

“Michael.”

“Claire,” she said, getting up and offering her hand. “For twenty dollars, though, you can call me whatever the fuck you like.”

“Claire it is, then,” I said, taking it. We smiled. I left.

My mobile rang just outside. I flipped it up and put it to my ear.

“You called?” the voice was flat, switching pace at random. Lassie.

“I think you called me, but I guess you’re here to tell me what was found out. Lassie, right?”

“You are correct on both counts. This woman you sent me to find is interesting. It is a shame she is deceased: I would have liked to interact with her.”

“Go on.”

“Her name was Aiko Osaka, daughter of the C.E.O. of Osaka Heavy Industries with his second wife. Aiko was a mathematical prodigy of some repute, and was going to be involved in O.H.I’s refloatation. She completed her Doctoral research at the age of eighteen and was installed to head the company’s financial wing. She disappeared soon afterwards, and no subsequent record exists since. That was six months ago. As far as I can ascertain, this is all that is known about her, at least on the public Internet.”

“Have you tried to poke anywhere else besides trawling the public web?”

“O.H.I. has very good data security, in part because their business model simply doesn’t require large volume data transfer. Each factory complex is strictly on a local network, with critical transmissions deploying quantum encryption or one-time pads.”

“Thanks. Is there anything else?”

“Yes. There was a murmur across some financial networks about something erroneous with O.H. I.’s accounting. It could be a false-flag leak or many other things, but the timing narrowly precedes the Japanese Fiscal Crash. Analysis on known financial data will take a while.”

“Could you talk to the Boss, or at least Sarah?”

“Futile. I’m needing to borrow the severs of several pirate netcasters to make the problem tractable. I doubt either of them possess an equivalent number of FLOPS within several orders of magnitude.”

“No, I mean let them know about this woman we found, and what she’s mixed up in?”

“I should be able to send an email. If you find out anything, let me know. Returning a call to this number will be sufficient.”

“Thanks.”

I set an alarm for early evening and began to walk back to my place: no one I needed to talk to would be awake until then.

#

“Aiko Osaka?” Karen said, “Is it a new fad to call yourself after a city?”

“Let me finish,” I said, pushing my way through a couple more of drunks. It was only six, but the Undercurrent was already in full swing, with gaudy neon lights and prostitutes in the side alleyways. Drugs, guns, real and simulated sex and live music. It was on our turf, but the owner was straying close to the wind by trying to stay on everyone’s good side. We jumped the queue and were let inside.

“It isn’t a fad,” I said, passing two heavily modified guards by the entrance, shotguns glinting in the artificial half-light. “She was the daughter to the C.E.O. of Osaka Heavy Industries, and a maths genius. Apparently the C.E.O. almost runs the city – Mr. Osaka – so I guess it stuck.”

“So why was she working as a whore? Daddy must have a credit line from here to the New East Coast.”

“No idea. I’d have thought most of the Corps in central L.A. would be fighting for her. Maybe she couldn’t reveal who she was or something?”

The bar stuck out onto the middle of the dance floor, a platform on the top for the music. A few tables were scattered at the edges, and an internal balcony lay on one side. A few guards waved guns conspicuously, trying to keep the peace. Dusk glowed in the fogged upper windows, overpowered by heirotechnics. We walked to the bar. One of the staff – heavily tattooed, shaven headed – looked us over.

“What’ll it be?”

“We’re after the proprietor,” I said, nodding across to Karen.

“What about?”

“Its official business,” Karen said, “And I’m sure the Boss wouldn’t want us to be kept waiting. Get him.”

“Fine,” she scowled and stalked off.

“Was that entirely necessary, Karen?” I said.

“What? Did I forget to say please or something?”

I rolled my eyes. I leant on the bar and looked up onto the stage as the next act began to set up. They were announced as ‘Harlequin’, and the strobes went into a frenzy. The lead singer slunk onto the stage, a battered vaudeville suit and top hat clinging to her spindly figure. She curled her toes over the end of the mike-stand and flicked it up into a waiting hand. Showboating – any singer on any circuit would have labial pick-ups. She pulled the mike to her half-blacked out face as the bass began to rattle the glasses on the bar.

“He’ll be quarter of an hour.”

I turned back to the woman who spoke to us earlier. She shrugged.

“Pete’s got some business to attend to. He told me to tell you he’ll be out as soon as he can.”

“Tell him he can-” Karen began; I cut her off with a wave of my hand.

“Tell him it’ll be fine. We’ll wait,” I reached into my pocket and threw some change over the counter. “Thanks – treat yourself to one on us.”

“Thanks,” the woman said flatly, and turned away. We walked to a vacant table nearby and took a seat. Karen slipped out of her coat and stretched – I could see the ‘flex wires tracing fine, livid blue lines down the exposed musculature of her arms.

“Filling up,” she grunted, nodding across to the slowly growing tumour of people surrounding the stage. “Do you think Pete has anything to do besides sit on his ass?”

“No idea,” I said, shrugging. “Maybe he’s trying to make a point: Don’t piss off his staff?”

“Oh what?” Karen said. “What was she going to do? Whine louder? If we spooked her we could have met him and be gone by now.”

I looked down at the glass surface of the table and put the grinding music to the back of my mind. Karen rolled her narrow shoulders and peered around the bar.

Pete arrived; fat, balding and flustered. He pulled up a chair and sat with us, barely nodding to Karen.

“What can I do for you two?” He said.

I put the picture of Aiko and her parents on the table and slid it across to him.

“The girl in the middle of the picture,” I said. “What do you know about her? I was told she worked here.”

“Maybe she did,” Pete said. “What of it?”

Karen rapped her fingers on the glass. “Don’t be wise. Was she here or not?”

Pete turned his head to her as if to treat her to something offensive, but thought better of it. “Fine. Yeah, she worked here, but not for long.”

“Tell me about her,” I said.

He flicked his head to one side and shrugged. “Not much to say. She kicked up here a couple of months ago. She was quiet, but she worked well: just waitressing. I offered her some more cash if she danced – not the greatest assets, but good enough. She turned it down. Two or three weeks ago she stopped coming in. I assumed she got a better offer, but I couldn’t see what was special about her. Why’d you care?”

Karen looked distracted – ill at ease. She cocked her head like a curious bird to stare toward the ceiling. I raised my eyebrows at her before turning back to Pete.

“Well, turns out she was very special,” I said. “But she’s dead.”

“Woah-woah-woah, wait up,” Pete said. “Whatever crap she’s mixed up in, me or the ‘Current had nothing to do with it. All above board.”

“One sec,” Karen said. I glanced after her in time to see her burrow into the writhing crowd.

“I’m not saying you did,” I said. “But I need to know about her. You know about Osaka Heavy Industries?”

“Yeah, bots and the rest,” Pete said. “They were fingered for kicking off the latest Japanese fiscal crash, what about them?”

“She was an ex-employee. A very high up ex-employee.”

“But she couldn’t have been any more than -”

“Yeah, also a genius. She got a Ph.D. before her eighteenth birthday. She’s the sort of person a lot of people would want to find if she ran away and started serving drinks.”

“But she’s dead, right?”

“Yeah, but they don’t know that. And we can’t prove it – her body is god knows where by now – could’ve been slushed, or ‘greened.”

“Sounds like a good opportunity though,” Pete said, a calculating smirk growing from one side of his lips to the other.

“Right now it’s only an opportunity to have an O.H.I. bot division drop in to say hello. I want everything about her, her friends, account records, anything like that which even mentions her.”

Karen shimmered into view hanging one armed from underneath one of the walkways, waving frantically to get my attention. As she caught my gaze her arm started signalling, the action like shooing away.

Run! Run!

I was about to swear before the lights cut out. A series of explosions shattered the windows on the wall, and a figure crashed down from the skylight onto the stage, the musicians fleeing. It rose inevitably to its feet and climbed out of the crater of its own making. I saw figures silhouetted against the night climbing in through the high windows and dropping down inside out of sight. The figure in the centre raised its right arm, its minigun began to spin.

I dived over the table to tackle Pete to the ground. Panic broke in an eruption of screams and gunfire. The crowd started to run to the exit, cut short by a burst of fire stitching the floor in front of the door. A couple fell and died. Others reached for weapons and started trading shots with the intruders. I grabbed the shoulder of Pete, still shaking on the ground.

“We need to get out of here. How else besides the front door?”

“Roof,” he said.

“Show me.”

I slid along the ground and got to my knees and cajoled him into movement. He skirted a wide radius around the clattering gunfight and panicking crowds, making his way to a small hatch-door. It opened into a side-hall, lit ominously red by the back up power. A couple of rounds cracked against the wall besides me and I span to draw my weapon, but no one was there. I darted inside.

“There’s a service ladder up to a skylight. We can climb out there,” Pete stammered. “What the fuck have they done to my bar?”

“Worry about that later.”

“Stop! Stay where you are!”

I turned. Two soldiers behind us at the door, assault rifles levelled. A dot of a laser pointer traversed from my forehead down the bridge of my nose to my chest. I dropped my gun. It was hopeless: Each of them had at least two inches of ablative plating, and they would kill me before I could blow through any of it.

“Thanks for making our job easier,” the second one sneered in a foreign accent.

“I know why you are here. I know about Aiko,” I shouted across to them. “I know where you can find her.”

They paused. I glanced across to Pete, frozen still.

“You are both under arrest,” the first said. “Get on your knees, and put your hands on your head.”

He took a step forward but stalled, transfixed, a fine metal stalk protruding from his forehead. He shook and screamed as the other tumbled back in a panic, drawing his weapon across to bear. He was kicked flying into a wall while the other was still convulsing. A futter-futter of a silenced automatic mowed the man down in a puff of ablative powder and blood. Karen emerged, pulling her other weapon from the soldiers skull: he fell dead. She retracted it and put it away while she reloaded the machine pistol.

“We need to get out of here,” she said, breathing heavily.

“You’re telling us, we nearly got slaughtered by that man-bot O.H.I. delivered through the roof,” Pete said, sprinting on.

“Not O.H.I. Japanese defence force,” Karen said, then spat.

“What?” I said.

“Check their uniforms – the flags show up on infra-red too.”

She broke into a jog after Pete, and I followed. A rickety ladder carried us to a hatch, which Pete punched open. The gunfight inside seemed to have stopped, and Karen was looking fixedly at the ground with red-glow rimmed eyes.

“This shit is going on your tab, Mike,” Pete said. I laughed gamely.

He climbed up into the skylight as Karen craned her head up to see. She cursed and grabbed at Pete’s legs.

“Get down! Get down! It’s not safe!”

A beam-light picked out Pete as he got into the outside world, making him squint. He fell and died, his torso shattered by half a hundred bullets – I heard the sound a second later, followed by a falling metallic whine as the motor cooled down. I fought the urge to cry out. We skittled down the rungs of the ladder as gunfire savaged the roof – the occasional round pinged inside and around in murderous ricochets. We cowered at the bottom, out of sight from the skylight. Pete’s ruined face stared at us vacantly.

“Why the fuck are they fucking here!” Karen screeched. “Shouldn’t they be fire-bombing a Korean shanty or something?”

“How do we get out now?” I said.

“How am I supposed to know!” Karen said, before her head snapped across back to the entrance. She raised her arm and fired, a line of bullet holes rupturing the steam pipe and dispensing a fine white mist into the hall.

“Stealthers!” she said. “Watch for breaks in the smoke.”

I raised my pistol and pulled my phone to my ear. The ringing continued for interminably long in the silence.

“Mike, what are you doing? You might as well call them to tell them where to shoot! Turn the phone off!”

“What? You know how we are going to get out of here then?” I snapped. “If not, I’m calling Sparky.”

“Yeah, what’s up?” Sparky said tiredly after picking up.

“Get your AI on the phone now. Don’t even ask or waste time. Do it,” I grated. To his credit, he shut up.

“… You called?” The voice was blanched of warmth, the phonemes stretched and compressed by turns.

“We’re caught in the ‘Current with half of the Japanese military trying to kill us,” I said. “We need a way out.”

“That’s unfortunate, and surprising: I’ll see what I can do.”

“How’s it going?” Karen said.

“Alright – it says its working on it.”

“Tell it to hurry up.”

“I have a fix on your location. I will load way-points onto your colleague’s iris display as soon as possible. I hope you realize that your opponents likewise have your location now.”

“At least we know where we are going,” I said. “Karen, did you get waypoints?”

“Yeah. They’re loaded. I hope it doesn’t have a glitch.”

A single figure was silhouetted against a puff of steam. We both shot at it and it retreated. We kept firing as we treated down the hallway and into another. Karen favoured the right as she broke into a run, before jinking into a corridor to the left.

“God damn it! Get that AI to stop changing its mind!”

“I made a course correction to avoid likely JDF containment formations – I can’t seem to directly pick up their IFF signalling. I believe they will withdraw soon: Satellite US-187 will be overflying this location in a super-Kesslerian orbit.”

“Not a priority, Lassie.”

“I assure you I’m using as much applicable computing power as possible, Michael. I’m employing the spare cycles for the sake of curiosity. We should speak later.”

“Get us out alive first.”

Karen kicked her way through some plasterboard into a small dingy room with a hole and a ladder, and I followed. The ladder took us down into the sewer system, long since choked on clotted excrement. I dry heaved.

“Lightweight,” Karen said, jogging her way along the sewer. “Why have they stopped chasing us?”

“Apparently there’s a satellite overflying soon. I guess it would screw the plausible deniability if your number-plates are on a satellite photograph.”

#

We emerged from a manhole two blocks away. Karen swept from the centre of the street into the glassy maw of a blown-out shop front. I followed limply behind and sat on the soiled linoleum. Karen discharged an auto-injector into her thigh and leant against the shelves.

“Don’t worry, Michael – all prescription, I promise,” she said, pre-empting my reproachful stare. “Just keeping myself topped up in case another Heavy falls through the roof.”

“Do you know where we are?” I asked.

Karen shrugged, “Well, somewhere near the ‘current. What does the AI say?”

I put the phone back to my ear and keyed it live. “Lassie. Can you get a fix on where we are? The soldiers seem to have gone.”

“That confirms my thoughts of a deniable operation by the Japanese government. Make your way to the corrected regression datapoint.”

“… Lassie?”

“Sorry… I am… preoccupied with a maximum likelihood analysis, one moment… I believe there has been attack near the location where you found the photograph – the corrected prior probability is on an upward trend over the last three hundred instances of data.”

I swore and picked myself to my feet.

“Anything else, Lassie?”

“Not for now. Marvin’s is two blocks south-west of your position. Go diagonally. We will speak later.”

I hung up and reloaded my pistol.

“What’s going on?” Karen said. “Why has Lassie stuck another set of waypoints onto my view-field?”

“Marvin’s got hit, or so it thinks.”

“Fuck’s sake,” she muttered, picking herself up. “That place has been enough hassle already.”

I kicked into a tired jog down the street, Karen keeping pace behind.

Marvin’s was quieter than it should be at that time of night, and the shutters across the upper windows newly charred. A number of circles in the street outside looked like they had been scoured clean of the better part of four decades of detritus – in each, a halo of silver powder at the rim. One woman screamed mutely through her charred face, prone on the ground.

Karen’s arm stopped me before I could run across to her. “Don’t. The JDF. isn’t above leaving some stealthers and bait to delay follow up. There’s nothing we can do.”

“Bull, she’s right there,” I stepped around her. “If I get shot, then we’ll know someone’s around.”

Karen sighed. “Wait a minute, I’ll go first. If I get shot, I’m holding you responsible.”

“You’re all heart, Karen.”

She shimmered out of view and crept out towards the shack. I soon lost sight of her foot-falls, as well as the wavelike distortions of the masking device. The stricken woman roused before falling still again, and I heard a faint tap against the shacks roof. I walked forwards.

She looked like someone had taken a spray-sander to the left half of her body – both arm and leg were tortuous, bloody wrecks. The other half had a polka-dot pattern of spots seared into and across the flesh. She looked at me, eyes wide and terrified; I clutched her uninjured thumb to placate her. She said something I couldn’t understand and kept staring at me. I smiled as best I could. Hopeless: the injuries were more than bad enough for her to shock-out, and the thousands of lesions would need micromachine therapy to fix. Leave alone infection.

“Look what I found,” Karen said. I looked over my shoulder to Karen, Claire shakily in tow behind her. She turned to her. “Why were you cowering in your room? I almost shot you.”

“I didn’t fancy a fighting whoever the fuck they were,” Claire said. “Figure it was a better bet than running. Thought I heard a chopper above.”

“Looks like it was,” Karen said, nodding over to me. Claire’s gaze followed across to me, then down to the woman.

“Oh fuck, Lily,” she said, stumbling over to me. “How bad is it?”

I shook my head gently. “Can she speak English?”

“Not really, no. Oh god, they rubbed her raw. Isn’t there…?”

“Karen,” I said. “What do you have on you? Drugs, I mean.”

“I’ve just got drive and Li-fon. Any use?”

I looked back down at Lily. The remains of her left hand were smeared around an Arex stick. I gently prized it free. The arm twitched, and she stared at me, mouth open and gasping. I ground the stick in my hands and sprinkled the dust inside her mouth.

“This should make you feel better,” I said.

Her head rested back against the ground, and her eyes rolled upwards. Breathing stopped a minute later. Claire kept staring at her.

Headlights flashed across the street ahead, and a ramshackle convey lunged around the corner. Men vaulted from the trucks and emerged from the cars, weapons drawn. They ran forward to us, several swearing in disbelief.

Karen raised a hand, “I looked inside. All clear. They ran off.” Some ran past to check for themselves, the rest congregated around us.

Another car arrived, sliding to a stop and barring the street, flaunting its sleek profile. Four got out metal suited with added plates of scrap and ablative, symbols daubed out in white paint. Ex-corps, and elite. Another man pulled himself from the car, and lumbered over towards us. The crowd parted for him and backed away. The armoured men surrounded him in a loose square, the eyepieces on their helmets switching colour as they flicked through the spectra.

Ezekiel White glared down at us, head almost sucked into the large armoured rig he wore. Where he ended and it began I didn’t know – he was never seen in public without it. Heavy armour and steroid-induced hypertrophy gave him impressive bulk, and a saccade controlled flechette cannon perched on his left shoulder with quiet malice.

“Do a body count, and get Marvin’s ass here,” he said, his voice a rich basso. The crowd thinned. He turned back to us. “What happened?”

“Japanese military raided the ‘Current, and, judging by the DIME remnants, here too,” Karen said.

“DIME? And why here? Why us?”

“Dense Inert Metal Explosive. Used on and off for the last fifty years. Japan got into it in a big way. Horrendous up close, but loses energy quickly. Ratshot for people,” Karen said. “As for why they’re here, I defer to my partner.”

I twisted my face into a frown. “Thanks, Karen.”

“Explain?” Ezekiel said, impatient.

“One of Marvin’s girls got killed here last night. She was Aiko Osaka, daughter of the CEO of Osaka Heavy Industries. It seems they were mixed up in the Japanese fiscal crash – given she was the head of finance, that might explain why they want to find her.”

“But she’s dead.”

“Yes, she is.”

“I thought I’d seen the last of you,” Marvin spluttered, stumbling towards us. “What the fuck have you two gotten me into? Half my girls aren’t good for anyone who isn’t blind now! What the fu-”

“Marvin. Shut up.” Ezekiel said. He did. “How many got killed? How many injured?

“Four of my girls died, including that one.” Marvin said, kicking the corpse nearby. I fought the urge to punch him. “Five injured, three unharmed, one unaccounted for.”

“Right,” Ezekiel said. “This needs to be sorted out, quickly. Karen, Mike, Bar, Tom, and Nuc: meeting room at the ‘Plex, one hour.”

“Nuc’s dead.” The voice was feminine, quietly and precisely spoken. “Died in the ‘current.”

“Who’s taken his place?”

“Me.”

“Name?”

“Tamsin. Tamsin Merriweather.”

“Consider yourself invited. Get moving,” Ezekiel turned away, his men rising and closing ranks.

“Where am I going to sleep tonight?” Claire said. Ezekiel ignored her.

“You can stay at mine.” I said.

“Have fun,” Karen drawled.

#

I walked Claire back to mine. It was nearing sunrise, and most of the night-life had scuttled back to their lairs. A few drifters lay scattered in the dirt, sheltered under doors or around the remains of benches, to be swept on with day-break. Only their destitution protected them from the carrion feeders, both human and automated, poised to spring. I kept my hand on my gun, but half of them couldn’t rouse themselves from their semi-permanent stupor, let alone put up a fight. A couple shuffled as we passed, another stared.

Claire was dishevelled, scratches and abrasions down her legs, and neatly parallel raised scar tissue on the inside of her left forearm – I spotted some track marks higher up. Her hair was a mess, and one the straps of her neon pink bra had slipped off her shoulder. She moved slowly, eyes focussed on the horizon’s sallow rim.

“Pretty, ain’t it?” she said.

“Really? Dawn isn’t for another couple of hours – just light pollution.”

“So what? It’s still nice to look at. Looks warm – like how it gets reflected off the underside of the clouds and stuff.”

“Real sunrises are better than this artificial copy. Not some yellow circle emerging from some yellow smudge at the bottom of the sky.”

“Maybe – I’ve seen some on photographs, or on the ‘Net. But hey, it’s the best I’m going to get, so I might as well enjoy it. Are you always so critical?”

“Sorry – bad habit.”

She shrugged and walked on ahead. She faltered and turned back to me.

“Was there really nothing you could have done for Lily?”

“If we were in an arcology I could have summoned an emergency team here within four minutes. She’d be stabilized in eight and rushed to a medical centre. We could have replaced her skin with artificial substitute whilst we were growing some from her own cell-line. A month, and a few autografts, and she’d have been as good as new.” I shrugged. “But out here? Maybe if I had my kit with me I could have delayed the inevitable, but even if I sorted that out she would have gone septic from heaven-knows-how-many bugs in the atmosphere.”

“Shit,” Claire stated. “And that could have been me…”

“I wish there was something I could have done, sorry,” I said automatically.

Silence fell.

“So, Claire, what’s your story?” I said, after a pause. She turned back to me.

“Why’d you care?”

“Just making conversation. It’s another half-mile to mine, and I’ll probably make better company than the bums.”

She smiled, “Fair enough. What do you want to know?”

“Don’t mind – up to you.”

“Alright – life story it is then.” She grinned. “I grew up north – place called Salemo. Middle of the Bible-belt, and my parents were good little Christians – heh, if they could see me now… It was a quiet place – at least when I was there, because we didn’t have anything worth taking. Too many mouths, not enough resources, so folks had to leave. So I headed south with as much distance-learning credentials as I could study for, and hopes to make some money in LA to send home.” She looked back at me, as if she was sizing me up.

“It didn’t quite work out. ” She threw her arms open. “Couldn’t get a job, and the money soon ran out – had to odd jobs here and there to try and keep myself alive. I certainly couldn’t go back – no fare for the trip, and there was nothing to go back to. But I was young and cute back then, and, well…” Claire huffed a smile and looked down. “The sprawl found a use for me.”

“About ten years ago I was gorgeous – yeah, believe it or not, but there are photos, even if I don’t have them… I did a lot of dancing and stuff. I felt bad about it – I could afford be religious back then. I kept promising myself I’d save up enough over the weekend to tide me over from job hunting to something more decent. I didn’t, obviously.”

“The sex came later. A businessman in the Arcologies took a shine to me, and finding out I was still a virgin was a plus. He offered me about two months of wages. He splashed out on a meal and took me around the arcology first – nice of him, I guess. So yeah, then we fucked.”

“I felt shit afterwards – really, really shit, like I wanted to throw up all the time but I couldn’t. I blew the cash on drugs. Started a long and not-very-productive relationship with Arex. Then I kept fucking and kept smoking – gradually drifted down-market as age caught up with me. And here I am.”

She offered me a rictus of a smile, “Sorry, not a great story, is it?”

I put my hand on her shoulder, “Not that it’s worth much, but I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Not your fault,” she said, shrugging herself free.

“That isn’t what I meant.”

“Well, thanks, I guess,” Claire said. “So, what about you? You acted like a doctor earlier.”

“Watched too many medical dramas as a kid,” I said. “Some of it must have stuck..”

“Bullshit. Come on Mike, I told you my story. Your go.”

“Fair point. I went to medical school back in England.”

“Ah, ‘splains the accent,” Claire said. “So why aren’t you helping out Holiday?”

“I didn’t finish. Did a few other things – ended up here eventually.”

“That’s it? What few other things?”

“As I said, it isn’t much of a story. The few other things really aren’t very interesting – some science, some aid work. Got sick of it, left, ended up here.”

“Alright. How did you end up in LA – you’re a long way from home.”

“The last placement was in the states, but when it stopped I didn’t have a means of getting myself back again. Doubt I’d go even if I could.”

“Do you miss it?”

“The work and the company, sometimes. Not the location.”

Claire smiled. “You sound a bit like Aiko.”

“I left of my own accord. I think Aiko was running.” Quiet again.

“Why was everyone after her? She seemed pretty harmless whenever I spoke. Poor bitch.”

“You were right last time we talked: she was smart. She was a high ranking Corp – given her company and her country both hit hard times, she might have been mixed up in it. Don’t know – Ezekiel seems to want to do something about it.”

“Ezekiel, that three tonne block of metal?”

“Yeah, that’s him. Don’t say that to his face. Anyway, here we are.”

I pushed the locks aside and opened the door. Isabella scuttled through first between my legs, claws scratching on the floor. Claire started.

“Don’t mind her, she’s my dog. I can let her loose for the night if you want.”

“No, it’s alright, just startled me,” Claire said.

“Anyway, welcome to my humble abode, feel free to make yourself at home.”

“Thanks,” Claire said, conjuring up a smile. She kicked off her shoes and walked over to me. “I don’t have anything on me, but how about a house-warming gift?” She looped her thumbs under the straps of her bra.

I looked down and smiled ruefully before meeting her gaze again. “I owe you already, so I’m paying back. Nothing further necessary, if it’s all the same to you.”

She looked puzzled. “Paying me back for what?”

I took the opportunity to retreat a few steps back. “For answering my questions yesterday. The place is all yours – you can sleep here as long as you need, although I can’t offer much more than that.”

“Hmm, alright,” she said, sitting down on the bed. “That’s it?”

“Yes, that’s it. I have a meeting to get to. Have good morning.”

She hesitated, then smiled. “Yeah, you too.”

#

I was second to the meeting. Sarah was first, squatted in the corner and tapping away. We nodded to each other before I sprawled myself on the floor. The ‘conference facility’ (as she’d call it) wasn’t much – just bare ground, bare walls, and a holographer attacked by high-gauge wire through a hole in he wall.

“Hey up! If it isn’t Toffee and… who are you, then?”

I looked up and rolled my eyes theatrically. The speaker was Bar, short, bald, dark skinned, and heavily set. He got his name from the three-foot of lead pipe he carried around, in preference to the wire-screamers and nano-forged blades.

Sarah got to her feet. “Good morning. I am Ms. Lane, formerly of V-tech, and now operating as a private attaché of Mr. White.” She offered her hand. Bar stared for a while.

“Ah, Sarah, right. You’re new here, aren’t you?” he said finally.

“Yes, I am.”

“It shows.”

Bar turned back and leant against the wall. Sarah stalled, then retrieved her hand and busied herself again.

“Hey, ‘sup.”

Karen and Thomas walked in next, taking up their places. Karen tapped her fingers to her forehead at me in sardonic salute.

“Any problems sticking around back at the’ current, Tom?” I asked.

“Nothing major – fired a few shots into the air to scare off the lowlife, nothing more. Nice kit, although the best stuff failsafed.”

“I want that torsion crossbow,” Karen said. “Who claimed it?”

“Pyro,” Tom said. “He’ll sell. If it doesn’t go boom, he doesn’t really care.”

Sparky entered next. Ezekiel stomped in moment later, and marched to the centre of the room.

“Tom, did you police the area and get the stuff?” Ezekiel said

“Yeah, carted it back – no issues.”

“Good.” Ezekiel cleared his throat. “Good to see you all here. We have a lot to discuss. W-”

He stopped and looked back at the entrance, and I followed his gaze. A woman walked in. She looked like the offspring of a porn star and a Kalashnikov: tall, blonde, stick-slender, with a strappy two piece outfit and a pistol fastened to the point of her hip. A dragon tattoo curled up one side of her alabaster, juvenile features, and its tail sliced across her bare stomach to stab into her navel.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Was at Nuc’s send off. I’m Tamsin.”

“Jesus Christ, girl,” Bar said. “You’re replacing Nuc? Are you even legal?”

“Has that always been a problem in your family, Bar?” She shot back. “Explains a few things – like how you’re twice my age yet half my height.” Bar smirked.

“Anyway,” Ezekiel stated. “The meeting.” The display unit sprung to life, projecting a wireframe cylinder into the middle of the room. Pictures were fastened to the outside for us all to see as he talked.

“A lot of people died tonight, and two places got shot up badly – the Undercurrent bar and Marvin’s brothel. We need to get back at them – the Blacks and the Claws will have noticed, and might think we’ve gone soft otherwise. Besides, whatever they want is probably worth us trying to get. Mike, you said they wanted this girl for something or other?”

“Yes,” I said. “One of Marvin’s newer girls used to work as the financial head of Osaka Heavy Industries – the company mixed up in the most recent fiscal crash. I’m guessing she fled for whatever reason, but she was followed.”

“I have more information,” Lassie said, voice springing from the display unit. Maths exploded out in holographs. “I have analysed the financial data. We can be confident of deliberate irregularities in O.H.I.’s accounting led to the Japanese Fiscal Crash. However, analysis of grey markets suggest O.H.I. had marshalled very large sums of money into short positions on its own stock, suggestive of anticipation.”

“Wait: O.H.I. crashed the market deliberately?” Ezekiel interrupted. “Why? To pump and dump themselves?”

“One conjecture is that O.H.I.’s behaviour allowed them to mostly defray the cost of the crash, something their competitors were unable to do. They did not benefit in absolute terms, but in terms of relative advantage due to losing much less than competitors.” Lassie said. “The patterns of trading are novel – the actual movements of money are hidden from all but the largest data-sets via multiple shell companies and novel instruments, and thus escaped the automated data-sniffing of the Tokyo stock exchange. Given the brilliance of the scheme, and the intelligence of Aiko Osaka, I believe she was responsible for this.”

“Do you know why she left?” Ezekiel said. “I imagine being a top exec in O.H.I. is safer than turning tricks on the street for twenty dollars a time, even if the Japs are onto you.”

“Was she expendable?” Tom said.

“… Yes, that seems a reasonable inference,” Lassie said. “She would almost certainly be the only person who understood – or was able to understand – the scheme. So her death would have benefits for deniability purposes.”

“Could have been the plan from the start,” Bar said.

“She was a genius though,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be a waste?”

“Mathematical ability is fast becoming obsolete,” Lassie stated. “Aiko might have been the Kasparov of mathematics, but automated theorem proofers are, analogously, Deep Blue. Additionally, the competitive advantage gained by O.H.I. over the other companies, given the Fiscal crash, is worth approximately three hundred and twelve billion meaned dollar equivalents.”

“Her life was a bargain, then,” I said darkly.

“So she wised up, panicked, and ran?” Karen said. “For all the good it did her.”

“Yes, it is unfortunate. I would have liked to interact with her,” Lassie said.

“What, aren’t I good enough company for you, girl?” Sparky said.

“In the above sense, no.”

“Oooh, ouch,” Bar said, with a mock wince. “How’d you reckon you’re going to get your dick inside Sarah when you even get brushed off by an AI?” Sarah shone crimson, before plunging her head behind her computer with renewed vigour.

“Then it’s simple. Send a message across the Net: ‘she’s dead, go home, stop fucking with us.’” Ezekiel said.

“Respectfully, sir, I don’t think it is quite that simple,” Sarah said.

Ezekiel looked over his shoulder at her. “Go on.”

“From my recollection, Japanese fiscal law requires those working on the TSE to have government mandated FRIs.”

“Lass, wait up. TSE? FRI?” Karen said.

“Tokyo stock exchange, Forebrain recording implants. As I was saying, these are designed to store data, and proprietary government technology is meant to be able to retrieve this data. Data, in the present circumstance, which would incriminate O.H.I.”

“So the Japanese aren’t after Aiko, but rather her cyberware?” Ezekiel said.

“Brings a new meaning to ‘picking her brains’” Tom said.

“That seems a reasonable inference,” Lassie said. “It is likely the Japanese government is already aware of the implication – their computational power exceeds mine. However, they lack proof. Corporate interests in the legislative would like to punish O.H.I. for its deceit, and for their losses.”

“Corporate interests are the Japanese legislature.” Karen said. “Usually, the big Corps co-operate pretty well – not quite in each others pockets, but very cliquey. I wonder what made O.H.I. turn traitor.”

“It is elementary game theoretics that the further from equilibrium a collusive enterprise runs, the greater the benefits of defection,” Lassie said.

“Anyway,” Ezekiel said. “The Japs want her brain. O.H.I. definitely doesn’t want them to have her brain. I think we should take it and sell it to the highest bidder. But all that doesn’t matter. Where is her brain now?”

“I spoke to Claire yesterday,” I said. “Marvin got rid of Aiko’s body fast. No idea where it is now.”

“Fucking idiot,” Karen muttered.

“Anyone asked the vultures?” Ezekiel said. Silence.

“Right, any volunteers?” No one moved.

I raised my hand reluctantly, “Go for it.”

“I’ll play too,” Karen said.

“Aww, ain’t the little lovebirds cute together. Tweet, Tweet…” Bar said.

“Nah, Bar, he’s spoken for. By a hooker.” Karen said. My gaze flicked up in exasperation.

“I was just giving her a place to stay, given how Marvin’s place got shot up – nothing more than that.”

“Good old Mike,” Tom said. “If I ever become I hooker, I hope you’ll be there to patronise me.”

“Before I go, anyone else want to have a crack at me?” I said gamely. “How about you, Tamsin?”

She shrugged, “If you really are helping out this girl without making her fuck you, I think that’s pretty decent of you.”

“Boo, hiss!” Bar said.

“As fascinating as this is,” Ezekiel said. “I need to talk to the rest of you regarding getting ready for an attack. I doubt whoever’s got Aiko’s brain is going to give it away for free.”

#

“G’day. If it isn’t Mr. Darcy? How’s life been treating you?”

Max Lightwater grinned at me. Average height, tanned and blond. He was the head of the local vultures – biomod scavengers. Some went into doing the killing themselves, but the ones near us kept to just picking apart any corpses that fell their way, with weapons, stims and drugs on the side. We let them stay, and they give us a discount.

“It’s alright, Max. How about at your end? Is Stella keeping well?”

“Oh, she’s good,” A shorter girl with close cropped hair appeared around the door behind the counter. She looped an arm around Max’s shoulders and pecked him on the cheek. “She could do with a better man though.”

“Nice to know you’re loved, isn’t it?” Max said, then turned back to me. “Anyway, what can we do for you?”

“I’m on an errand from the Boss. Any recent cyberware?”

“The usual trickle, but we don’t have any stock at the moment. Why do they always send you? Are they worried we’ll rip the biomods out of anyone else who showed up? You could do with some ‘ware, by the way.”

“Yeah, you haven’t been the first person to say that, Max – and they weren’t trying to sell me something,” I said with a smile. “Why no stock at the moment?”

“We got bought out a few hours ago – nothing left to sell in that department.”

“Who by?”

“Didn’t give his name. Suit – Asian or something. He let the money do the talking. He had some bots as backup.”

“Any idea what type?”

“Nah. Pretty standard though.”

“Some of the other guys we get in touch with reported the same,” Stella said. “Maybe someone was after something or other and had a credit line to find it by exhaustion.”

“Thanks – never mind then. One more thing, did a short Asian girl come your way? As a corpse, I mean.”

“You’d have to do better than that, mate,” Max said.

“Looks like a schoolgirl, breast implants.” I produced her photograph. “Face like this, at least before someone shot her in the head.”

Stella peered at it. “Actually, that rings a bell. Couldn’t swear to it, though. Sorry.”

“Well, thanks again. Be seeing you.”

“Have a good one,” Max said.

Karen joined me outside. “They were telling the truth about no stuff. I went around back.”

“You listened in on our conversation?”

“Yeah – stealthed around behind the door.”

“Doesn’t that wear you out?”

“Not when you’re jacked up of Li-fon. I’m probably pissing electrolyte right now.”

“Delightful.” I produced my phone and keyed in the code. The graphic showed Ezekiel picking up, and Karen patched herself in.

“What have you got for me?” Ezekiel said, voice raspy and uninflexioned – neural pick-up.

“Talked to the Vultures: Aiko might have been there, but not anymore. Someone’s been buying up everything they could see – my guess is O.H.I.” I said.

“The AI agrees with you,” Ezekiel said. “I want to get it before they nuke it or the Japanese government drops in. Should be a nice earner. Are you two in?”

“What’s to stop them having nuked it already?” Karen said.

“Nothing, but it will take time – they seem to have bought out every scav within 20 miles of here,” Ezekiel said. “Either they’ll everything in a furnace as fast as they can, or try scanning for the component. Both give us enough time, if they aren’t too far ahead of us. Or so Lassie tells me.”

I reflected on my ‘house’, Claire, and my lack of food. “I’m in, then. I need the cash.”

“Me too,” Karen said.

“Good. Tom’s organizing the raid. Karen, he said he thought you used to be a courier. If so, he wants you to get a few things.”

“Fine by me. Get Switch to patch him in so we can talk.”

“Anything for me?” I asked.

“Keep your phone ready, but for now you’re a free agent. Get to the plex at seventeen hundred – raid at sundown.

#

I crept back inside, and passed by Claire, slumped and dozing on the bed. I had nothing better to do, so I wrote a letter. I recovered a couple of sheets of paper, and envelope, and a scratchy biro. I sat on the floor.

Dear Mr. Osaka,

I trust life is treating you well at the head of your friendly local megacorp. You don’t know me, but I know your daughter. I found the attached photo on her corpse.

I didn’t know her very well – only after she died, in fact. Many men knew her far more intimately. After she ran from your company, she did a couple of things in L.A. – waitressing and prostitution. I doubt you’ve ever been to an L.A. brothel, but it’s bad. Not a good way to lose your virginity.

It looks like your company was responsible for the Japanese Fiscal crash, and by extension why she fled you and turned up on my street a couple of nights ago. I wonder whether you set her up for this all along or things got out of hand, but it doesn’t matter. Intentions are even cheaper than bullets.

She died by a single shot to the head. I don’t know who did it – maybe I’ll get a better idea whilst I’m visiting your American offices this evening. I suppose mathematical geniuses have an unfortunate habit of dying young, a bit like parents have an unfortunate habit of shafting their children. After she died, her body was sold by her pimp, it found its way to a corpse-scavenger, and most of her was probably liquidated there. Whatever had financial value was bought up by your company who endeavour to incinerate it as I write this. We’ll see if they manage.

Noblesse Oblige.

Michael Hunter.

I slipped Aiko’s photograph inside the envelope and sealed it shut. Then I changed.

#

“Right, everyone clear on what they need to do?” Tom said.

We were assembled inside a dilapidated house, a car outside. The real sun had set, returning the city to the perpetual sallow-rimmed horizon of light pollution. A few golden-uddered clouds floated above. O.H.I. was big enough to be a self-contained arcology. A few gangers hung around the main players: Tamsin, Tom, and Bar. Me, Karen and Sparky formed the misfits, side by side and offset from the rest.

“Yes,” Bar said. “Blow through the doors, run to the complex, get inside. We raise hell out the front. Barely-legal and you push inside to the a pile of cyberware. Sparky finds this bitch’s cyberware, you fish it out, we leave.”

“Close enough,” Tom said. He turned to one of his men. “Pyro, can you be sure that the car will nuke the checkpoint?”

“Fuck yeah,” Pyro said. Spotty, lanky, and couldn’t have been more than sixteen. “I’ve loaded the back two seats with C4, stacked the front two with blasting liquid and grenades. I even put an RPG in the glove compartment. It’s gonna fucking go, man, it’s gonna fucking go. For the corps, it’s like Christmas came early but they’ve all been n-n-n-naughty boys and instead of coal Santa’s packing semtex.” He broke off into a rasping cackle. Karen and I shared a glance.

“I am online,” Lassie said, voice appearing in my headset. “Recognition and IFF systems online in ten seconds.”

The figures in my field of view had green circles superimposed on them, downward pointers signalling their position.

“I have been unable to find the schematics of the building. I will infer them from your visual displays. I’ve set Daemons around the network nearby, but O.H.I. centres tend to work on their own network, with outside communication hard quarantined. I will notify if they transmit.”

Tamsin pulled down her visor, and I could see the technicolour outline of display projected onto its inside.

“I see,” she said. “There should be a terminal inside with at least a map – from there, we can get to a proper one to mine the data.” She turned to one of her men. “You’ve got the LOSC, right?” He nodded.

“Blow up the checkpoint, run inside, get to the main buildings, find a data-jack, run it, find the cyberware, get the hell out of there,” Tom said. “Clear?”

“Crystal,” Bar said. “Let’s get ready to roll, lads.”

Tamsin and her men got to their feet and activated their dapplers – auto-camoflague algorithm pushed slowly shifting patterns of murk across their armour. A poor man’s stealther, but not so sensitive. Tom primed his assault rifle, and everyone else did the same.

We crept outside and slunk along the street, hugging close to the shadow of the buildings. A few children saw us, before warily shying away. Pyro crouched by the corner and peered around, a remote controller in his hand.

“AI, auto our rides to our expected EZ,” Tom said. “Pyro, all yours”

“Oh yeah…”

I heard revving, and then the car flew past – dilapidated and bouncing on it’s own suspension. It sped past and then flew – driving up on the makeshift ramp discretely made earlier. I heard a crash and then a huge bang – I could see the white front of the compressed air of the blast front pass beside, rocking Pyro back.

“Fuck yeah! Perfect airburst!” He cried, exhilarated.

“We’re on!” Tom said. “Move!”

We broke into a run and rounded the corner. The check-point was wrecked, a warped skeleton of twisted metal with a broken concrete skin. One person was limping away, almost out of the range of the floodlights. Karen snapped still to loose a bolt from her crossbow. It went through the back of his head. She pulled another one from where it was strapped flush against her thigh, and rammed it home.

“Looks clear,” Bar said.

“Keep moving,” Tom said. “Goggles, get up on the building ahead and tell me what you see.”

“On it.”

We kept running, one of Tom’s squad peeled off and vaulted effortlessly to the top of one of the flat grey buildings. Sirens started screaming a moment later.

“Nothing yet, but looks like they’re know something’s going down,” he said. “Single girl working late at the main reception. Computer too. She’s heard and is getting up to leave.”

“Do her,” Tom said. I heard a gun-snap.

“Done, I’ll catch up with you. Infantry coming out – two hundred meters, bearing two-seventy.”

“Karen, make a nuisance of yourself. I don’t want to get pinned down outside,” Tom said. “Everyone, shoot and scoot. O.H.I. will have its hand-picked security here, and they’ll be lots of automated defence – they’re a fucking bot company, after all.”

“Don’t worry, I always do,” Karen said. She blinked out of sight.

I was tiring. The medical gear that was strapped to my back was heavy, and my poorly fitted holster bashed into my hip with every other stride. Sparky was even worse, and starting to lag behind. We reached the reception together, just about. Beam lights started sweeping through the sky.

Karen bounded in behind us just as Bar’s team barged through the door. She crossed the floor and kicked the dead receptionist in her swivel chair away. The blood spray on the back wall framed her own head as she typed on the computer, fingers a blur amidst the buzz of keystrokes.

“Bar, keep the front door locked down,” Tom said. Tamsin and her squad dumped some bandoliers of grenades and a missile launcher, and Bar’s men set up, guns trained outside.

“Got it,” Karen said. “Lassie, load ’em up.”

“Tamsin, clear a path down to the storage facility – Karen, go with her,” Tom said. “Mine, Mike and Sparky will get to the data-jack. Move.”

We rushed off, hitting the service stairs and clattering up them four floors. The lights died as we came out, replaced with a dark red – the lockdown came too late.

“Not seeing any bots,” Goggles said.

“Keep looking. Through here,” Tom stated, pushing through a storage room and out the other side. A young woman saw us and screamed in fear.

“Bok, goo her, quick!”

Bok stepped around Tom and brought his gun to bear. The impact could break bones, but it usually plastered someone’s body immobile. It had a rep as a slaver’s gun, but it could also be used to knock out bots with articulated joints. Or, in this case, panicking Corporate officers.

Phut

It kicked her back, sticking her against the wall in a crude spread-eagle. She thought better of screaming when Tom pushed his assault rifle into her face. We kept moving, skidding on the smooth white linoleum. The next room looked like a board room, with a large, bulging table in the middle and neatly ordered chairs. I dropped my envelope at the head of the table.

“Here we are,” Tom said. “Pyro, get a hole in the wall.”

Pyro pressed some plastic explosive in a rough square against one of the walls. Sparky dumped the LOSC nearby, and busied himself with the holographer in the middle of the table.

“Get back,” Pyro said.

“That wall isn’t structural or anything, is it?” Tom asked.

“Dunno, let’s see,” Pyro said, and hit the detonator. A ragged square was taken out, giving us a view back onto the night.

“Bot!” Goggles yelled behind us. We span. It was spindly, a couple of legs with rollers and a machine gun on the top. Goggles’ first shot blew one of its legs off, and it was ripped apart by a spurt of gunfire from Tom.

“Heavier stuff will be around soon,” Tom said. “Tamsin, status?”

“I’ve lost one man,” she stated tersely over the radio link. “Almost in position.”

“Fuck, fine,” he broke off the comm. “Mike, stick with Sparky. Everyone else, get outside, seal the doors, then make your way to Tamsin.”

“How are we getting out?” I asked.

“Through the wall. I’ll leave a grapple with you,” Tom said. “Once you’re done, join back to the lobby. Safer that way then whatever ordinance O.H.I. are summoning.”

He left. His men followed, and I could hear Pyro and Bok start sealing the doors, either spraying them with glue or melting the surfaces together.

“Almost in…” Sparky murmured. “Ah… gotya! Mike, get the LOSC up and running, let’s see how hard this is.”

I obeyed and peered out into the night, a few blue lines highlighted any pylons in range – whoever worked up the area did it well.

“You need only initialize operations and ensure at least one transmitter is in line-of-sight,” Lassie spoke quietly in my earpiece. “I have modified the firmware of the Line-of-sight communicator to track to signals automatically.”

I obeyed and activated it. The legs sprang out first, and levered itself up. Its head pushed out and craned itself to the outside world – it blossomed out like a petal, the micro-arrays wafting like fern leaves before brittling taut. I plugged the high-gauge fibre-optic line into the holographer and tapped Sparky on the shoulder.

“It’s up. How long?”

“Working on it.”

I crouched and pointed my shotgun at the double doors in – for all the good it would do if a squad tac-entered.

“How’s it going?” Karen said, gasping. “I’m still outside – O.H.I.’s military are going to realize it’s just me. You guys better be in there.”

“We are,” Tom said. “Sweep around the flanks and around to the back – that looks like our way out. Sparky, we don’t have all night!”

Sparky muttered obscenities, but nothing that got onto the comm.

“Bar here. Front still locked down, but I’m seeing bot movement on the perimeter – they’re gearing up. We’ll keep plinking.”

“Got it,” Sparky said. “Too – fuck! AI.”

“What is the cause of this delay?” Lassie said.

“Fucking sweepers,” Sparky said. “Wasting my time.”

“Sparky, ETA!” Tom snapped.

“Don’t know. I’ll keep trying.”

“F’sake…” Karen said. “Bar, get your anti-armour up and ready, I’m seeing Medium walkers about to run at you.”

“Hey, Sparky, while your putting our asses at risk, don’t suppose you could hack them?” Bar said.

“I could do without the distractions,” Sparky snapped. “They’re on their local net – no hacking. Shoot them.”

“Hacker,” Lassie said. “Try and pass access to the AI code into the transmission stream. I have a strategy.”

“Go for it – I don’t,” Sparky said. “Wait… what the..”

“W-w-w-we,” Lassie said, voice screeching up the register. “… Improvement. You shall no longer be impeded, hacker. Provide us the data… Excellent.”

“Got fixes, we’re in business,” Thomas said.

“I thought you said it would take you a while Lassie?” Sparky said.

“Our estimate was mistaken. It should take you three minutes for you to find the object. Warning: incoming contacts on over-the-horizon radar: Satellite imagery suggests Japanese Defence Force, first marine detachment. Three transport and one attack helicopter.”

“How long?” Tom asked.

“Eighty seconds.”

“Fuck! Bar, pull back from the door.”

“Yeah,” Bar said. “It’s like the fourth of July out there! … Sh- Mike! Need your help down here, now!”

“I’m on my way. Waypoints to his position, Lassie.”

I tapped Sparky on the shoulder twice. “We need to go.”

“Yeah, Yeah.”

I went past him to the hole into the sky. I slammed the grapple into the floor, and triggered the electromagnet. I took the descender and pulled to test it had fixed, then stepped out the building. The motor in the descender whirred in my hand as it took me down three floors to ground level. I let go and it whirred to the top. Sparky made his away down a moment later.

Karen appeared. “One Marine will have ten men per helicopter,” she said. “Two fire teams of four, one support group of two. There’ll also be a mech strapped underneath. We need to get out of there before they perimeter and sweep this building.”

She smashed her fists into the door once, then again – it sounded like cymbal crashes, and left huge dents in the metal. She bent the door open and we squeezed through. The emergency lights flickered as an explosion rumbled its way through the complex, then another.

We saw Bar’s group clustered by the doors out of reception, spraying fire downrange. Dashed lines of tracer fire split the sky, accompanied by the thuds and shock-waves of munitions hitting home.

“’Bout fucking time!” Bar shouted, between long bursts of fire. “We dragged Baldy down behind the desk. She’s losing a lot of blood. Don’t have much time.”

I dived and slid across the gap to the marble desk set into the floor. A couple of bullets pinged off the facing behind and chipped away the cheap veneer. A shaven-headed woman lay sprawled on the ground, a neat red hole in the armour plate about six inches to the right of her navel. A thin pool of blood was spreading out underneath her, already congealing into a film. Bad news: a bullet through her guts meant intestines, and that meant likely sepsis.

“ABC, ABC,” I murmured to myself. The cacophony began to fade from my attention.

Airway: fine. Breathing: shallow, and fast. I swung my pack off my shoulder onto the floor and tore it open. I wrapped the cuff around her arm: saturations 96% – fine. Circulation: pulse 150 – not so good, blood pressure 80/60 – worse. I rolled up one of the legs of her trousers, and slammed the bone needle into the top of her shin with a crack. I attached the access, a fishbone of ports and electrical wiring. I plugged a display unit and two packs of expanded simulsanguinant in: almost as good as programmable blood, and an order of magnitude cheaper. They started expressing themselves in just after some blood was sucked up into the display for assay.

I looked back at the cuff. Blood pressure 100/80 – getting better. I felt around her side for the violation of the exit wound. Also right sided, good. Bleeding profusely. I sandwiched the wound channel between two dressings, which sucked themselves onto the skin. Probably ineffective, and likely internal haemorrhage. I rummaged into my pack for the cavity haemostasis syringe. I stabbed it in just above her navel and injected it. Her abdomen bulged; the foam would reacted to grow to many times its original volume, encasing the abdominal organs and any bleeding points. Or so it was advertised.

I checked her again. Numbers better. No more bleeding. Lab results pending. I pushed in a cocktail of antibiotics although only ten percent of flora would be sensitive to any of them. She was probably dead anyway if she was infected, and would probably need surgery after the foam disintegrated.

“We’ve found it,” Tom said. “Bar, status?”

“Holding down the front – just. Baldy’s down, Mike’s looking at her.”

“What are her chances, Mike?” Tom said.

“Don’t you even fucking think about it, Tom. I owe her.”

“Fair,” I said. “We can move her.”

“Get her out of there,” Tom said. “R.D.V. at the back door.”

“Twenty more seconds, Bar!” I shouted above the din.

“Incoming!” someone shouted. I dived between Baldy and the table. The blast hit, and I heard the buzz as the fragments shot past and into the wall behind me. It took me a moment to realize I was still whole, I looked up and down my charge and saw she was the same.

I rolled her onto the stretcher and telescoped the handle out. I signalled to Bar and pushed – the stretcher slid easily thanks to its air cushion. We ran out and through the building, shooting at shadows as we went. We met Tamsin and Tom with their men squatted either side of the rear doors – it looked like a loading bay. I stopped the stretcher behind one of the pallet-shifters.

“Lassie, what’s it like outside?” Tom said.

“We struggle to see – someone in O.H.I. has patched a back-up AI into the system… The transports have moved to stand off distance from the air defences, although the attack helicopter remains. There is a running battle both outside and inside this building.”

“We need to get out of here before they kill us,” Tamsin stated. “Vincent, do you still have a rocket left?”

“If we can lure it lower down…” Karen said.

The display I attached to Baldy bleeped. I looked at it – blood looked fine, initial microbial sampling unremarkable. Lucky her.

“Baldy’s stabilized,” I shouted across to them. “Looking good so far. Hopefully nothing microbial.”

“Let’s hope so,” Bar said. “Thanks, Mike.”

“Rear!” Goggles shouted, before his voice was lost in a scream of gunshots. He pulled a grenade and threw it, and then held his gun around the corner and fired blind.

A couple scurried across to Goggles to join in the fight. I turned back down to Baldy, her figures gradually returning to baseline. I pushed in some stimulant.

She looked at me, eyes unequally open. She pushed a hand forward at me.

“What… Ugh. I feel like someone’s dropped the sky on me.”

“Listen,” I said. “You got shot, and you lost a lot of blood. I’ve topped you up – but you’ll still feel like shit. We need you up on your feet.”

She nodded, and sat up slowly. She shook her head and looked around.

“Sorry,” I explained while I pulled the line out. “I left your gun and armour plate by the entrance. We had to leave in a hurry. Have my pistol if you like, you can use it better than I.”

“Well, you brought the rest of me,” she said, taking the gun from my holster.

She looped her other arm around my neck and we got to our feet. I saw the frantic battle just a little way away – each man taking it in turns to empty his magazine downrange. I could see Tamsin shooting occasionally too. She looked over her shoulder at us as she changed magazines.

“Raising the dead. Not bad.”

“I moonlight as Jesus,” I said dryly. Baldy unhooked her arm and stood on her own two feet.

“Run, split, and pray,” Karen said. “I’ll come out last and see if I can do anything to that chopper when it decides who it wants to kill.”

“Sounds fantastic,” Tom said. “Bar! Goggles! We’re running it!”

We sped out the back door and split into the warrens of out-buildings. I took the furthest left before correcting back onto the waypoint, Baldy lagging slightly behind.

“You’ve got the Aiko’s ‘ware, right Tom?” Tamsin said breathlessly.

“Yes.”

I kept running, half expecting my chest to explode in front of my face at any moment. I heard the rising scream of the minigun.

“Vincent!” Tamsin screamed.

“Don’t stop and shoot, keep running!” Tom said.

“Mike, it’s zeroing onto you next!” Bar said.

It swerved into view, correcting into level flight and lowering in front of me. I frantically looked for a side-alley to dive down: nothing.

Karen darted past me and jumped, bouncing off two opposing walls before leaping twenty feet straight up at the helicopter. One hand clutched onto the landing skid. She pulled herself up as it began to lurch and spin in an attempt to dislodge her. I slowed to a jog, barely believing my eyes, and Baldy caught up behind me.

“Holy shit,” she said.

Karen produced another bolt in her left hand and smashed it into the side of the fuselage in her left hand. She began hacking at the cockpit with her right. I lost sight of her as the helicopter veered behind a building, and then spotted her rending the plastic back. She pulled out her machine pistol and jammed its snout through the gap inside, and held down the trigger – the cockpit looked like someone had dropped a strober inside it.

The helicopter reared backwards and upwards in a giant arc; I saw Karen leap clear onto a rooftop. The helicopter veered over the O.H.I. building, catching some tracers as it did. It fell and died behind the building in a blossom of fire. Karen vaulted down to land in a squat in front of us. She got to her feet with a pose and a massive grin.

“Did you fucking see that?” Her neural pick-up screamed over the radio, exalted. “Top of the range military helicopter versus me, and I won! You guys fucking owe me, big time!”

“Yes, Karen, we’ll suck you off later. Can you guys get to the evac? Pyro’s just about to spring the perimeter fence,” Tom said. “In case you guys haven’t noticed, there’s still half a dozen bots, an elite marine detachment and a batallion of O.H.I. security goons back there.”

We ran like bandits into the night.

#

A week passed. I spent it doing little in general and nothing in particular. Holiday managed to fix Baldy, and Baldy got me more than a few drinks and promised she’d help me out however I could if I asked. Tamsin locked herself in an erotech for four days, and spent the other three telling everyone else to go fuck themselves too. She lost the majority of her gang thanks to Aiko, and didn’t get all that much to show for it.

Most of all, we got paid: Aiko’s cyberware made an obscene amount on the black market. It was all anonymous, so we never found out who stumped up the several million credits or where it went, but the fact we didn’t hear about Japan suing O.H.I., I guess it ended up with O.H.I. somehow. The boss bought himself an even bigger run around, and Karen got double, as well as news of her and the helicopter rippling across the net. I went to see her back at the ‘Plex.

“Hey Mike,” Karen’s voice was languid, drawn out. I saw her curled on her couch, an IV stand beside her. Its thin plastic line caught the red glow of the nearby neon sign through the window. The couch looked new, as did most of the furniture.

“Hey, dare I ask what you’re doing to yourself?”

“Huxley. New drug. Great stuff.” she purred. “Ah… It’s like an hour-long orgasm.”

“Lovely. I guess that’s where your cut went?”

“Yeah, with some other stuff. I got a bit extra. Damn right, given I took out an attack heli single-handed. The JDF will probably develop a new operating procedure thanks to me. What are you going to do with yours?”

“I don’t need half of it,” I said. “I got some extra too. I might give it to Claire.”

“What, that hooker? What’s gotten into you, Michael? It’s not like you to pull something quite this stupid. Have you fallen in love with her or something? She doesn’t feel the same.”

“No. She’s smarter than she let’s on, she could do better than this.”

“Evidently not that fucking bright,” she pretended to suck on an imaginary cock, before breaking off into giggles.

“Very clever yourself, Karen.”

Karen shrugged, and triggered another hit from the bag. “Ah… Mike, it’s a waste of money. She’s a fuck up, don’t bother. Swallow your moralizing and get some of this. You won’t regret it.”

“Are you always this selfish, Karen, or is it just an act?” I said, exasperation flaring. “I’d expect you, of all people, to sympathize with these girls.”

“What, Mike, because I’ve got tits and epicanthic folds, they’re suddenly my sisters? I’m nowhere near as pathetic.”

“No, you’re just sitting around doing someone else’s dirty work for cash, with history in Japan, and stonking yourself out of your mind on drugs. How could I possibly draw a parallel?”

“I don’t have history in Japan.”

“Bullshit – your knowledge about the JDF is what, divine inspiration? We’ve worked together for a year now, and I still know bugger all.”

“One: my past is my business, not yours, so back off. Two: I don’t think your average whore could have saved your life in the Undercurrent, or stalled half of O.H.I’s infantry whilst we were getting in, nor taken out an attack heli, so ‘scuse me if I think there’s a couple of important differences, and three: just fuck off back to your hooker, you’re spoiling my high. One hundred says she’ll have gone through your money and be back on her back in a fortnight.”

“Fuck you, Karen.”

“Love ya too, baby. Shut the door on your way out,” she turned to look out the window. “Ah…

#

Marvin glared at me through the viewslit.

“You again?”

“Yeah, me. I’d like to see Claire.”

“She’s done for the night. Trying to sleep. Come back tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to fuck her. Tell her it’s me.”

“Twenty dollars.”

I produced my phone and showed it to him. “Your choice. Open up or psycho-bitch.”

“F’sake,” he growled, but complied. I entered, thanked him, and closed my ears as I went up the stairs. I knocked twice on the door.

She groaned “… I told Marvin I’m out for tonight. Go back to him and ask for Karo, sugar.”

“Claire, it’s Mike.”

Silence, then the door opened. Claire greeted me, bare-legged and in a short white dressing gown.

“Wasn’t expecting you… Come in.”

The room was squalid, small and dirty, a dishevelled bed in one corner with the bin beside it, and a plastic dresser across from it next to the window. Some fairy-lights dangled around the round mirror. Claire produced some Arex and a lighter from a pocket in the gown, and sat on her haunches on the bed.

“Busy night; I’ll spare you the details,” she said. “Sorry for leaving without saying goodbye. Marvin’s got back up earlier than I expected, and I need to make a living. Besides, I don’t want to impose on you more than I already did.”

“It’s no problem, on either count. I can always do with the company.”

“I would offer to pay you back, but I owe Marvin about a hundred, and a few pushers a hundred more. And the only thing I can give you you ain’t interested in taking.”

I looked down a moment, before meeting her gaze, summoning the best smile I could.

“I’m flattered, Claire, really. But as I said, you don’t owe me anything.”

She took a drag from her stick, puffing a gobbet of smoke over her features. “Bullshit – but thanks, anyway.”

“Hey honey! I got thirty dollars, if you’ve got twenty minutes!” The voice came from outside, loud and uneven.

Claire got up and made her way to the window.

“Hello sugar!” she said, at once her voice sprightly and voluptuous. She pulled her gown apart to flash her breasts. “Girls gotta get some shut-eye sometime, and I’d hate to receive you when I’m not at my best. I’m around every night though, meet me then!”

She turned back to me, modesty returned. She quirked a weak smile and spoke, more tiredly, again. “Speak of the devil, eh?”

She returned to the bed and pulled on of her feet up, and stared intently at her toenails, daubed with chipped red paint. “… Actually, it’s a good thing you showed up. I should apologize: I’ve treated you like a dickhead, and you aren’t.”

“Claire, you don’t need to keep saying thanks or keep saying sorry. You’re welcome, and you’re forgiven – not that you’ve done very much wrong.”

“No, I mean it. I’ve been unfair… You’ve been far kinder than – well, anyone I’ve met for years.”

“Well, shame on them, then. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Shit happens,” she said with a shrug. We shared a smile, and she lit up again.

“Mike, the story I gave earlier wasn’t just one to get the guys off my back – I’m pretty smashed, and I’d like to get some sleep. Can we chat another time?”

“Of course, but one more thing before I go,” I said. Claire raised an eyebrow. I reached into my coat and pulled out one of the chips. I threw it to her; it landed at her foot. “I got you a present.”

She picked it up and stared. “… What? Mike, no, this is ridiculous. I mean – this is three months work.”

“You helped me out with Aiko, so I figure you deserve a share. More importantly, it’s a gift. I don’t need the money.”

“Mike, I’m touched, but there’s no way I can accept this.”

“Why?”

“I’m not going to spend it on anything worthwhile.”

I paced over to the window and braced my arms at either side, looking out over the familiar destitution. “How do you think you’ll end up, Claire?”

“Badly, I’d imagine,” Claire drawled. “I’m running out of youth – I need to do more, and worse to keep my place here. When I run out of road here, there are even lower places I can go to ply my trade. They aren’t a friendly place for a girl. The worst sort of customers are there – the ones who get off when they knife a girl or shoot her in the face. If I’m really lucky, though, I’ll just starve – finally so worthless as I can’t even earn the food to keep my body running. Thanks for reminding me.”

“Yeah, sounds about right,” I said. “So…” I let the word linger.

“So what?” Claire said. “What do you want from me, Mike? I’m just a whore.”

“Look,” I said, squaring off with her. “I think you can be better than just a whore. It’s enough money to pay your debts and keep you afloat for a few months. Enough time to try and find a job when the fiscal crash corrects. Then, who knows? Maybe you stand a better chance of kicking the habit when you have a steady job – a different sort of steady job. That’s all I want – don’t need the money.”

“Who is going to employ me?” Claire said. “My creds are crap, especially for someone the wrong side of thirty. Recent relevant experience?” A fire-crackle laugh.

She stooped and picked up the credit. “Besides, not even this could put me in rehab long enough to get clean from everything. It’s not just Arex, but you knew that already – yeah, I saw you staring at my arms before.”

“I didn’t think it would be easy.”

“Easy? Jesus, Mike, I like you, but you have no idea. It’s not ‘not easy’, it’s ‘not possible’.” She gestured with a sweep of her arm. “This is the best I can manage, sorry.”

“Are you sure of that? Enough that you don’t want to try?”

“Sure enough I don’t want to waste your money. Besides, I prefer being a victim of circumstance.”

“Claire…”

“Don’t worry about it, please.” she flashed a broken smile. “I don’t understand why you’re making such a fuss over me and trying to help – but I’m grateful, really, sugar, I am. But no.” Her voice had returned to the same register she gave to the man outside her window. She pushed the credit down into my back pocket and slapped me on the rear for good measure. I turned to leave.

“I’ll be seeing you, Claire,” I said over my shoulder. “I figure you could do with the company.”

“I’ve been having company pretty much solidly for the last eight hours, sugar.”

“Precisely.”

I left, letting the door slam shut behind me.

#

“Well well, if it ain’t Mr. Darcy! Top of the evenin’ to ya’, feller. What can we do for you now?”

I rolled the hard surface of my pay between finger and thumb. “You said you’re out of cyberware. What about guns?”

“Guns? Plenty of ’em, killer selection, now you happen to mention it.”

“Show me.”

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