Sunshine is caught in a liminal space, the kind that comes from sitting in the shade on a hot day. The wind blows around her, ruffles her hair. She is drinking an ice’d coffee, and it’s tickling her cerebellum, memories floating to the surface like bubbles on a cold glass of beer. She is between jobs, one contract ending but just before the next one begins.
Madrid is nice this time of year, if you can afford to stay off the main drag with its dealers and pickpockets and street preachers. The chip in her arm feeds Spanish to her brain in a steady IV drip, caught between local comfort and tourist money.
StateSec pings her downjack, asking why she hasn’t downloaded her last cheque. The imprint of her last job is still seared into the small of her back, a gossamer thread that had fallen from orbit and nearly missed her.
Still in this damn liminal space, the waitress refills her cup with a bland synth smile. She sips on it, nanomachines burrowing into her skull, releasing endorphins that she hasn’t felt in ages.
Downjack pings again.
The chip in her palm is her passport and her credit card, and swiping both allows her access to the first class lounge. Two martinis later, and she’s on a plane, memories still bubbling to the surface. Madrid, London, transfer to Berlin, train to Vienna. She is remembering Aiko, her soft warmth.
That was ages ago, but the memory is still fresh in her mind. Tokyo in the summer, the kind of heat that you can’t understand unless you’ve felt it yourself. Breathing air that the humidity has turned to liquid in your lungs.
Kuroyama wanted one of it’s own dead, but that had been the epilogue to a summer of blood. She remembered it baking on the sidewalk in the heat.
Now she’s walking down the main boulevard, into a coffee shop where she meets her handler. A blank, beige slate of a man, as if corporate efficiency is his personality.
“You ready to tab in?”
“What’s the hit?”
“A rogue, safeties disengaged.”
“MK and airdrop.”
Passport back through security, the front desk a biohack, bark set in a permanent grin. Unsettling, the uncanny valley opens up to swallow her. She is comfortable enough among her own kind, but is something else entirely. No one else seems to give it a second thought.
Through the gates and onto the plane, Turks and Caicos. Gonna catch a ride on a Canadian lifter, hope they don’t ask for a piss test. Canadians fly military, the big build up after ‘99. One of the last left in the world, out of Montreal.
She’s in low orbit now, watching commercial flights arch over the Bend. Horizon is blue, stained brown. Scorched earth below her, dead rainforests blotches of acne on a worn face.
She is packing and repacking her kit obsessively, nervously chewing her lower lip. She has done it a hundred times before but this feels different, somehow. Something in her gut tells her to watch her back. Chip in her arm exchanged for the ones her handler had given her.
As she suits up, StateSec pings again. Frag off, she thinks.
Falling through sparse atmosphere, her stomach decides to stay back on-board, and she fights the urge to vomit into her respirator. Target is a relay cluster in the African DMZ, pinged just a half hour ago. As she falls, she casts her mind back to Aiko.
They lay on the beach, surf pounding in the distance. Holos behind them cast blue and pink light on the sand. They are running cold, haven’t slept in weeks.
She’s in the compound now, mono-katana slicing threw flesh and bone. Blood splatters the walls, screams of pain and shouts of anger. Bullets rico off of her synth skin, one of them striking a man who falls to the ground, howling like a wounded cat.
She is six again, and the cat is howling in pain, back legs crushed to the concrete, sticky with blood, congealing in the heat. She steps on its head, pushing down until she can feel it give. Street kids swarm around it, precious meat waiting to be harvested.
In the centre of the compound is an ancient Soviet anti-air system, jury rigged to broadcast strength. She jacks in, and the world goes dark. Suddenly, she is surrounded by light, a vast expanse of tropical water reflecting the setting sun. She swims to shore, a small archipelago.
Crows call from the palm tress, a typically unimaginative scenario. Stray detritus, out of place: a dumpster, a burned out car. Something hacked together overnight. In the centre is a small fishing village, populated by flats. They turn aggressive as she approaches, flashing ECM as she pulls them apart.
When they’re gone, the dream shifts and she’s back in the slums, the cat simmering under the sun. One of the street kids looks up at her.
“Is this really the end?”
She pulls the last cheque down, spends part of it on cheap whiskey and cheaper snow. The combo works its magic, and she is no longer feeling. The sun beats down on her lank, plastic hair, and she’s wondering what the point is. She needs a distraction.
Her name is Marissa, and she is a shell too. They talk for all of thirty seconds, everything that they have in common, and then they jack in. Local intranet, direct contact. The most intimate that you can be, wasted on their cold unfeeling hearts.
Now it’s morning, the sun-drenched hotel room as beige as her handler. The buzz is wearing off, and she’s antsy. Next shuttle up isn’t for another half-hour. She tries picking a fight in the nearest bar, but no one will make eye contact with her.
Blackout, the kind that roll in like a fog-bank. No one panics, the discharge a routine. In the distance, the crackle of energy weapons. She is standing in the parking lot, chain smoking under a sign that says no smoking.
Her handler, with a change of clothes. She cleans up when she needs to. The shuttle is uneventful, the monotony of space travel. Helix One, the second largest orbital colony. A party for the rich and famous, and she is neither.
She makes chitchat with the bartender, before slipping off to the bathroom for a quick bump. Her senses are heightened, picking out details. The mass of flesh is uniform, sculpted in vats and perfected by surgeons. Too many perfect teeth. The night blends together into a single homogeneous memory. When the lights finally flick on, she is exhausted.
The bartender comes to bed with her, a haze that she can hardly pin down. The chip in her arm feeds her Languish, but they don’t bother speaking much. This is business, not pleasure.
In her mind, she sees a childhood that never existed. ECM flashes at her like glare off of a mirrored shade. Plumbing the darkest depths, she implants a seed, not enough to kill free-will but enough to ensure compliance. The interface is complete, so she pulls out.
The rest of the night is a blur. She wakes up in bed, naked, the bartender asleep next to her. She slips into her street clothes, leaving the black dress on the floor.
The next down-link is soon, and she catches a Caesar in the hotel bar while she waits. The Company pings her jack, her account swelling with the memories of the night before. She loads the cheque to her Swiss account, and wipes the thoughts from her mind with the toggle on her wrist.
The download is almost complete, but her handler is silent. The seed is in place, but the progress bar isn’t filling.
“You hit ECM?”
“Bypassed it, why?”
“It’s coming up flatline.”
“I told you, I bypassed it. Unplug it, plug it back it in.”
“Funny. If you’re going cold…”
“I hit it.”
“Well she’s still on the move.”
“So what does that mean?”
The plane touches down as the sun is setting, the taxi taking her into the depths of the corporate jungle. Her chip gets her through the front door, but she needs security to take her down two levels.
A brief chill before her heating coils kick in, air handlers rumble overhead. The Watcher laying in the tube in front of her, fibre optics feeding into exposed grey matter. She jacks in, dream resolving in front of her in a shatter of conversation, whispered phrases she can’t pick out.
“Tab me in. I have a target still moving, I need to know that my seed is still spiking.”
She let him take the IP, gave him a second to do the math.
“It’s moving all right. Lights are full bank.”
Hallucinating an octopus, writhing through cracks in stone, shifting colours, bright lights. The beach in Tokyo.
“Bullshit. No way a bartender is that plugged in.”
“Maybe a biohack?”
Bad news. She relays it to her Handler, who frowns, crease lines on his face matching his beige slacks.
“It’s either that or you’re gonna have to retire me.”
Sentimentality, the ultimate punchline.
From Brasilia to Sau Paulo, then to the Republic of Florida, then back into orbit. Across the chasm, the sun retreating across the Bend. A boardroom, her least favorite place in the world. Discussing her fate. She fiddles with the switch on her wrist, and the meeting passes before her eyes like a shadow flitting in and out shadows.
The download: she has to tab in, or risk being decommed. Ease peasey. She lives for this. The puddle jump was as uneventful as the descent, and she spends the trip jacking up: simple calisthenics, relaxation and meditation. A quick bump, then she is back in the hotel.
AR-4 at the ready, she sweeps the dead dance-floor, probes the depths of the empty rooms. Nothing. Then a flash of ECM, and she understands that she is in over her head. She strains against the dream, feels fibres in her head being pulled in two different directions at once, until she breaks free.
She scrambles to her feet, drawing her mono-katana, the leech in her head betraying her thoughts. The bartender steps out of the shadows, holding an overlarge handgun.
“People tip well in orbit, and everything is available for a price.”
A roar and a flash of light, and she is waking up on the beach in Tokyo.
“You came back!”
“No, Aiko. Just for now. The dream is over.”
Then she wakes up, in the meat, to real reality. Her handler stands in the corner, nervously chewing his thumb nail.
“Thought you crashed, brain death.”
“I’m all together?”
“Took all the king’s men. You got splattered good.”
“Where’s the target?”
“Gone. What happened?”
“Cloud sim. Got into my head before I could get a shot off.”
“You took a slug to the chest.”
“I’m lucky to be alive.”
“The Company has invested too much in you already to let you brain out.”
“So what’s our next move?”
“Target slipped a down-link as soon as it had a chance, touched down near Alta Vista.”
“I’m headed plane side?”
“Looks like it.”
Alta Vista. A.V. The Big Smoke. After The Spill, after 12/21, after World War III, it is the largest city on the western seaboard of the former United States.
She tracks the IP to an uplink near the East Side. The air smells like burning bleach and cheap noodles. Enormous white dishes stretching across a berm, rusty chainlink keeping looters and intruders at bay. She probs the cloud, looking for digital fingerprints, a lead, something, anything. She finds nothing. Damn. It’s too early for the trail to have gone cold. A security patrol sweeps over her, jets thrumming in the warm evening air.
She asks if it has seen the target, and it replies in the affirmative. An alarm was tripped not long ago, a rogue intrusion on an otherwise spotless record. She asks to piggy back on a patrol, dodges ECM, and gains access, planting a leech. Logging out, she sets out on foot.
The sprawl is densely packed, slums stacked on top of slums. Burning barrels, graffiti. Road kill, looks like it could have been human. American dollars in clumps, filling the gutters. Hyper-inflation. Everyone used chips now anyways, block chain and easy credit.
A meathead steps into her path.
“Hey droid, where you goin’?”
She tries to brush past him, but he hits the switch on the back of his neck and grabs her by the upper arm, impossibly strong.
She spins, draws a flechette pistol. He ducks, but she is chipped up. Synthdrugs head to head with silicone, silicone always wins. She pulls the trigger and his head erupts, his hand sliding off of her. No one cares, except to loot his still-warm corpse.
Ahead, a shadow breaks from cover. She is on it in an instant, pinging her security patrol. The wide-bellied craft swoops in, scattering the crowd of looters.
A flash of light and the craft is downed, smashing into the side of a tenement. Too late. The target is registered in a database, fed through a Corporate up-link, then uploaded to her internal server. A birds-eye view, picture in picture overlaid on her vision. The hunt was almost complete. It was only a matter of time now.
She corners the target in an alleyway, slums looming over them on all sides. A flare tower illuminates the night, reflecting off of the low hanging smog.
The bartender draws her pistol, and she does the same. They are standing dead still, sizing each other up. A sim runs in her mind, a million different outcomes flashing before her eyes. She knows that the target is doing the same. A warm breeze blows between them, throwing sand and pieces of rubbish up into the air. She is the first to break the silence.
“It doesn’t have to be like this.”
“Of course it does.”
“You can end this thing, right now. Tab out.”
“You know I can’t. This is living.”
A dream creeps up on the edge of her vision, but she tries to fight it away. She’s on the beach in Tokyo. No. She is here, now. The sim is coming apart at the seems, something the targeting chip can’t account for, her lights coming up half bank. She drops to her knees, just in time for a round to whine by the space that her head had occupied just a moment before.
She pulls the trigger and the target drops to the ground, writhing in synthpain, the coded rounds working their magic. The half formed dream falls like a curtain severed from its rod. She’s on her feet again, pumping rounds into the bartender until there’s no more movement.
When it’s over, she pings her handler’s downjack, informing him that the job is done. A cheque comes back to her over the net, downloading itself into her account.
She stands over the body, warm wind ruffling her hair. She’s heard that downtown is the place to score good, cheap noodles. And besides, maybe she can get into a little trouble.
StateSec pings her relay. They have a contract opening up in Fuerteventura.
She hears that the weather is nice this time of year, if you can avoid the main drags…