(…continued from part one)
A stiff breeze ran through the room, beginning its journey from the far wall. It carried the light odour of raspberry and fermentation with it as it travelled. It picked up the sounds too: the clinking of glasses, the laughter, the hum of the ventilation shaft. They all combined to form the atmosphere of the dining room. An atmosphere which held in the warm radiance of light, bouncing it around until its energy was absorbed by the life within.
“…and when will these sweep the land?” Hanin asked, tucking her leg under itself as she turned her body to face him.
“Thirty years, tops. Then every Corean will have their own hoverboard. If I were a betting man-”
“You gamble all the time,” she said.
“Okay, fair point. If I was a betting man with more than a hundred credits to my name, I’d be investing in them myself.”
Simone placed her glass of homebrew back onto the table which stood in the middle of the room, surrounded on three sides by lengthy settees, all uniform creme colour with splashes of floral patterns on cushions which sporadically filled the gaps between people.
“I’m clearly wasting my time then Canti,” Simone said, leaning back into the chair. “I’ll get working on the anti-gravity plank of wood right away. Well, as soon I sober up.”
Her lips broke into a smile, the kind which spread instantly to the rest of her face, finishing in a small wrinkle just below her eyes. She collected her dark brown hair from behind her neck and pushed it over her shoulder. She went for her glass again, holding it up in the air and trying to examine the reddish liquid inside.
“Which might take longer than I thought. How strong did this stuff come out Daemon?”
Daemon snapped out of his semi-catatonic state, adjusting his view slightly to meet Simone’s gaze.
“What’s the what now?” He tried vainly to compose himself, blushing slightly.
“Nevermind. Go back to your daydream,” she said. She pulled on the shoulder of her blue and purple dress, colours which ran in diagonal lines down to just above her knees. One smile had only just faded, and another one took over.
Simone announced the next round, picking up the five glasses from the table in front of her. She walked unsteadily across to the counter which populated the wall opposite the vent. She opened the cold-storage box and pulled out an enormous clear container. Glasses refilled, she made two equally unsteady trips to reunite them with their owners. She placed her own drink down before slumping gracefully onto the chair opposite her own, between Daemon and Mishka.
Hanin turned towards Mishka. “Your turn Mishie. What’s going to be the best thing about the future?”
Mishka kicked her bare feet up on the table, narrowly avoiding kicking Simone’s drink over. “You mean after we find the blue fairy and get Canti turned back into a real boy.”
Vague obscenities came from the direction of the chair currently housing Canti.
Mishka took a sip and glanced around. “Call me cloytastic, but I hope things don’t change one fuckin’ iota. With the possible exception of new BFGs for me to play with.”
“I’ve got a-” Canti began, a cushion hitting his head, with sage-like precision and timing, cut off the rest.
“Speaking of nausea, could you help me to the bathroom Daemon?” Simone perched herself uneasily on the edge of the settee. Daemon helped her up and led her out the door. Mishka met Hanin’s eyes and raised her eyebrows with a sly smirk on her face, one which broke into a smile as Hanin lifted a finger to her lips and scrunched her face into mock indignation as she silently bid her to be quiet.
“I guess it’s just us left then, ladies.” Canti moved himself to the arms of the settees which met at a right-angle, right between the two remaining women.
It’s just us left now.
“What’s that?” Staff said as he closed the door of the rec-room behind him. Hanin sat on a small sturdy wooden chair. She always found it so easy to get lost in the sea of blue pixels, her mind’s chroma key.
She dismissed his question with a vague excuse and adjusted to her new surroundings. In the three weeks since Canti’s death, she’d refitted the rec-room into a training space. The screen now relegated into a corner with a single chair. Nobody ever really came in here anymore. Simone had barely left her lab for weeks, Mishka was usually unaccounted for, and Daemon…
“You ready for a session then?” Staff asked her. He’d adopted something of the Core uniform, loose-fitting canvas trousers, N-Shock boots, but he still insisted on wearing his white shirt. Trying vainly to hold on to the past, it was a notion Hanin wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with.
Skin off, Cynet on, screen off. Most people didn’t bother with regen over their panels, but she preferred to keep an organic look if she could. Standing up, she nodded to the affirmative. Small traces of carpet fibre remained on the wooden floor from when she’d pulled it up. Now a series of red and blue lines painted on the ground provided the only decoration. Fibres were the only proof that this room used to be for relaxation. She kicked the chair against the wall and strode over to the recently installed weapons cabinet. Artwork used to hang there, now it decorated an alleyway somewhere. She grabbed a long wooden handle which housed two metal hoods, one at each end. There was a small seam at the handle’s centre, a detachment point. She grabbed two black gloves for herself. Pulling them on, four small metal circles settled over where her knuckles protruded. She threw the bõ to Staff.
“Little on-the-nose for weapon choice isn’t it?” he asked.
“I’m not giving you a sword.”
“But I’ve been fencing since I was little.”
“Don’t care. Fencing doesn’t teach you how not to swing it in my face if I happen to be stood behind you,” she said.
“I said I was sorry for that. But I suppose you’re the boss.”
“And who am I to argue with such a beautiful instructor.”
She rolled her eyes. He never seemed to stop. Kissing people’s asses must be something of a favourite pastime in Beacon. It gave her the urge to train with him anyway. If training was the right word.
Taking her position at the end of the room, she motioned him to attack. As always, he advanced like he was in a fencing tournament.
“Y’know, laughter isn’t really as disabling as you might think. I thought we’d moved past the sly-boy approach? Come at me.”
He changed his gait to something slightly more appropriate and began circling her, his weapon held low in front of him. She dropped her fighting posture, calmly walked up to him. Staff raised his bõ to defend himself, but Hanin fired a straight punch towards his face. It connected, sending a burst of sparks from the pulse-spots on her gloves. He went down to the floor.
“Nobody out here is going to play by any rules. Get up and come at me!”
Staff just moaned on the ground. It was a familiar posture for him. Usually she just turned away and let him get up.
“I said get the hell up and come at me.” She stood over him, nudging his foot with hers. “Out there, somebody’s raping your corpse right now. Does that sound fun to you?”
More moaning sounds, but this time he rolled over onto his knees and looked up at her. “Go easy will you Han, I’m feeling woozy here.”
She smiled slightly and stepped back, intently watching as he rose to standing position again. One punch and this guy was done for, she thought. This was pointless. An organic had no hope against even the weakest, most inebriated person out in Core. Simone had suggested a few basic upgrades for him, but he shrugged them off, saying they weren’t necessary. He was lying to himself, he still thought he’d be going back home, a place where tech would get you dead at the door. If there even was a door.
Besides, she wasn’t convinced that there wouldn’t be much of a welcome waiting for him. No search parties, no helicopters, no troops. Nobody had come for him. They probably had just chalked it up as a slight inconvenience. The headlines were probably “Idiot Declared Missing on Safari.” That’s what his little trip was called back in Beacon, a safari. Black market adventure for spoilt brats who thought that the cesspit they’d been stuck with was an object of entertainment. A block on their schedule between French art-history and the evening circle-jerk.
He closed in on her position, his bõ swinging slightly. He lurched forward and lunged at her. A hood made contact with her leg, sending a faint pulse through her leg. Since amps were the main weapon in Core, it made sense to make your first tech something which dampened them. Make your enemy drain themselves to hurt you. She wasn’t about to tell Staff this though. She cried out in pain and dropped onto one knee.
“Proposing already are you Miss?” he said, a note of triumph in his voice. He drew in closer, his weapon pulled back over his head.
Seeing his exposure, she propelled herself towards his torso. Both fists connected. The sparks scattered in a three metre radius. His breath sucked in like a vortex of air. He fell hard, leaving the ground for a brief second before hitting the wood and sliding back against the stone wall. He crumpled into a seated position, the wall taking his weight, his eyes flickering.
“What? No more jokes, no more compliments. Come come Staffy dear, it’s almost like you think this is some kind of game.”
Hanin stood over him, knelt down and grabbed his brown locks where they parted on the side of his head. He twitched slightly and opened his eyes again. She pulled his face to hers and kissed him hard on the lips. When his initial hesitation softened, his eyes closed again. Hanin raised her other hand to his face, stroking it once, gently. Her hand turned around, a pulse-spot on her knuckle made contact. He collapsed, unconscious.
“All promises, no stamina.” She let go of his hair and left him, walking towards the door. It opened before she got there.
Daemon glanced over her shoulder, observing the defeated man. “Getting on well still?”
“You can’t blame him for all this Han, he didn’t force us to come rescue him,” Daemon said.
“He needs to learn this is serious. I’m not one of his socialites he can just expect to fawn over him.”
“Must be others ways,” he said.
“You can talk. Is this your attempt at a light-hearted goodbye?”
“Don’t be like that Han. I’m not like you, I’m not a believer, I just go where the money is, and right now it’s with Bowers’ crew.” He backed off a little, resting against the doorframe. His eyes averted, looking at the floor beneath him.
“Simone offered you more money-”
“It’s not just about the money, alright.” Daemon brushed his hair away from eyes, a futile gesture since it invariably returned seconds later. “This place is like a gas chamber. You get too comfortable. You can smell the danger as it swirls around you, but you don’t want to leave. You breathe in gulps of sickly sweet air until it chokes the life out of you.”
“So turn off the gas,” she said.
“It’s too late for that now. You must feel it. Something’s changed, something’s coming. Stay here and we’ll all end up like Canti.”
“Well unfortunately I’m not a giant pussy.”
They stared at each other for a split-second before both fell into fits of giggles. She didn’t want to laugh, but it was a instinct which years of friendship builds up. Composure soon followed.
“You say goodbye to Simone yet?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Daemon, you know what I mean.”
“I…er…yeah. She’s okay, I think.” His hand stayed with his hair this time, pulling gently as he covered half of his face with the palm.
“Stay classy then Daemon. Shame, you’re missing a hell of a night. Me and Mish are out on the town.”
“And isn’t that always an evening of high glamour punctuated by no violence whatsoever.”
“Wouldn’t be a girls’ night without it.” She pulled Daemon in and hugged him. “Look after yourself mister.”
“I will. You sure you won’t come too? Bowers could always use someone of your skills.”
“Goodbye Daemon.” She held on tightly for a moment before walking away from him, her hand brushing down his arm as she left. It was too much to hope that things might stabilise. Their group had splintered. Staff was the closest thing she had to a friend these last few weeks. She pinged Mishka on the comm. Her voice came back through the walls, microscopic speakers hidden in the paint which coloured them.
“Hell of a show you two put on there Han. I think the big kiss needs some orchestral shit behind it though.”
She spoke back into her Cynet. “Should have known you’d be spying.”
“Didn’t fancy a film, think I’ve seen ’em all,” Mishka’s voice responded. Whether Beacon or anyone else still made films, they didn’t know. What they did know was that they hadn’t been able to get their hands on anything made in the last fifteen years.
“You ready?” Hanin asked.
“Fuck yeah. Let’s go get our Midijunkies on!”
If their world was a graveyard during the day, it became the day of the dead come nightfall. The smell of decay receded as the air turned cool, the stars above made it easy to forget the walls which surrounded them. Not that it was any safer, to the contrary, with darkness came the monsters, but they lurked in the shadows waiting for the weak. The two women walking down the street were not the weak.
They approached the entrance to Midijunkies, it was tucked a few roads behind their headquarters on the site of an old theatre on Finsbury Street. The ground floor was just an empty shell now, it was too hard to secure anything above ground properly. They opened the splintering door with the rusting hinges and were confronted with the familiar M.J. welcome: four enormous guards surrounded by the latest hi-tech projectile and amp-resistant barriers. They could have been made of paper for all the use they got. No one dared raise even an obscenity in the direction of those guys. They could liquify your organs in the time it took you to even contemplate the folly of your suicide attack.
Behind them, the staircase which led underground, to the heart of the club. Compared to the rest of Core, Midijunkies was a bastion of civilisation. Like the other clubs in Core, nobody messed with them. This was where people came to connect, in business and especially in pleasure. It was also the best source of information credits could buy. That’s what brought Hanin there tonight.
In the weeks after the ambush, investigations had been slow. Mishka had been off doing her own thing, Daemon, it seems, had been planning his escape from CSS and Simone just locked herself away even more so. She’d never been overly social, her work took up most of her time, but recently she’d been spending a little time with the group. Now she was almost absent too. Hanin’s surrogate family had become like her actual family: gone.
She’d been able to follow a few leads on the attack though. Domino had been running with a guy named Okada and his crew up until he left abruptly, for a better deal. Okada specialised in repossessions. Clients would provide tech upgrades and installations for their customers, but some of them failed to meet the terms of the contract. Okada was called upon to take back his client’s property. It was a messy business, but Hanin had little sympathy for the customers. You don’t run when you’ve signed over your body to someone else. Not that you have anywhere to run in Core. Tough yet reasonable, that was Okada’s rep. She was hoping that maybe this guy knew something about the job Domino had moved on to. It was worth a look at any rate. Word had it that he could be found at the club on night-three and -five.
They got to the checkpoint and were put through the usual security scan. Since most weaponry wasn’t exactly detachable, the scans were used to inform the club of the kind of firepower you were packing, information which made it easy to deal with you if you caused a problem. Tough and unreasonable, that was Midijunkie’s rep. There were no appeals, no second chances. If those cannons had to fire on you, you’re walking home with a pronounced limp and a need to find a new place for connecting, and that’s if you were extremely lucky. Hanin frowned as the guards took entirely too long scrutinising her visualisation, Mishka just folded her arms and smiled sweetly as the four men cleared them for entry. Hanin called up the time display on her HUD as they walked down the stone steps: 8:85:91. They left the stars and artillery behind them as they segued into neon and noise.
“You need your hand holding with this guy?” Mishka asked.
“Why? You got better things to do?”
“Fine, go enjoy yourself. But keep me in sight, okay?” Hanin said.
“I’ll be watching your sexy ass like a gobot.”
“Way to be classy Mish.”
“I fuck classy in the face baby.”
Mishka surged ahead down the corridor, her bright yellow dress looking like the eye of a flame in a nondescript hallway. Hanin followed at a slightly slower pace. The distance between them was growing, conversations were getting briefer. As the yellow light disappeared from her view, she felt alone again. A knock to the shoulder brought her back. A man in black leather trousers turned back to face her and made a kiss gesture with his lips. Idiot, she thought, and carried on, becoming aware of the people who walked past her in greater numbers. She had to get her head in the game. People move on, it’s what they do, but this sniper needed urgent attention. She didn’t need a sage to tell her that this wasn’t over. There was something bigger at play.
Doors came into view on either side of the corridor. First were the toilets, then the slam rooms. A blonde girl in a tight black dress pulled a mech into one of the slams. Mechs and Orgs, the two extremes, some let the upgrades get out of hand, others preferred the more natural look from their tech. The girl stroking the cannon-sized arms on the guy clearly liked the former. They disappeared inside and the door turned red as it closed behind them. She didn’t peg them as being the private sort. If the door turned orange, you could pay to watch, it stayed red.
Reaching the end of the corridor, Hanin emerged onto a rectangular balcony which ran around the gigantic room, hugging the wall, around three or four metres wide. Beneath her, the main dance floor. People stood leaning on the metal railings which stopped them from toppling onto the people a short distance below, they watched the centre, where four people were emerging onto a circular, raised platform. It elevated them to around head-height compared to the thousand or so people surrounding them. Must be a live night, Hanin thought as she watched them take their stations. Two guys, two girls. The guy with short-black hair and a black and white t-shirt on his thin frame looked to be the vocals. One of the girls picked up a heavily-modified guitar with a myriad of display screen beaming blue light from the body, the other girl stood at a desk filled with keyboards and enormous decks of knobs, sliders and screens. The final guy sat down at the minimalist drum kit, a generous name for a few metal wires supporting paper-thin mesh hoops. The rims glowed, working through the spectrum of colour as he tested each one. From above, the coloured lights started to rain downwards too. A few years back, the club had converted the entire ceiling to nano-vis. If the paint on the walls at HQ housed a thousand tiny speakers, this ceiling housed tens-of-thousands of light-emitting processors, all attuned to the sounds coming from the room below. Motion becomes vibration, vibration becomes sound, sound becomes light, light becomes energy. A swirling vortex of green and blue shone down, changing in form and colour each fraction of a second. This was no place for quiet reflection. She tried to spot Mishka from above, but yellow was clearly something of a theme with the girls tonight. She walked to the side of the walls and scanned her Cynet against the drink-station, ordering a shot of cranberry homebrew. She returned to the balcony and watched. It was only ninety-past eight, she had ten minutes to kill before she was due to meet Okada.
“Wake the fuck up Midijunkies,” the voice of the vocalist leapt from the walls all around her. “Some of you guys will know us already, we are Squirrel Trash, and I, Keeslar, will be your host for the evening. Standing with me tonight, I give you Rinoa on guitar, and Jessica on keys and sonic warfare. The fine-looking gentlemen to the rear is Montoya.” They each gave a subdued nod when introduced. Keeslar was being generous to the drummer, with a shaved head and a gaping wound running down his face, reinforced underneath by metal plating, he was not the best-looking guy in Core. Glancing around the room, she noted that he was nowhere near the worst either. Jessica’s face was covered by a curtain of unwashed brown hair. Rinoa and Keeslar were clearly the glamourous ones of the group. Not too long ago, it was just music pumping from the walls which provided the entertainment, but lately, these bands had been popping up with greater frequency.
“United we stand, bloodied they will fall,” he sneered into his mic. “This first song’s called ‘The Third Law’.” Montoya started stomping his foot and a quick, heavy bass kick erupted from all corners. Heavily modified guitar rhythms powered over them before being joined by tornados of manipulated noise which sounded like a thousand mechanised animals being tortured at once.
“Aim high and shoot the centre,
Raise the game and shoot the centre.
Equal force and opposite,
Falls short so aim higher.”
Keeslar seemed consumed by venom, she could relate. Her eyes roved around the room watching as waves of motion overtook the crowds. There was little doubt that unity was the ideal, but here, they were just words. Out there, she didn’t doubt that every single person in this room would leave her to die if they found her bleeding in an alleyway.
“They built the bomb, we’ll light the fuse,
A revolution no one can re-fuckin-fuse.
Lives conducted to the beat of a countdown,
Incite the riot and bring theirs to a meltdown.”
A flash of yellow caught her attention in the far corner of the floor. Squinting slightly she made out Mishka dancing, surrounded by around four or five guys, a mixed bunch, from mechs to orgs, from black to white, from tall to short. Hanin drew in a breath sharply as she noticed one of them make a grab at her ass as she turned her back. She begged that Mish would only lightly comatose him. There was no such reaction, the figure in yellow turned around, pulled him close as spoke something into his ear before stepping back, leaving a small space between them. An eternal second passed, punctuated by the guy swinging full-force at her face. He connected, hard. She went down as two Tesla-cannons emerged from above. Hanin watched with bemusement as they blasted the guy and he crumpled to the floor, dragged off by a guard who appeared from the midst of the crowd. She was getting clever, Hanin thought with a wry smile.
“Beaconised indifference will kill us all,
Anarchy, we’ll weaponise. They will fall.
Revolution is a force of nature,
Aim high and shoot the centre,
Equal and opposite is not for certain,
The iron fist meets the iron curtain.”
A brief beep registered in her head as her HUD flashed up a message. It was time to meet Okada. She pushed off the railing and left the equally large crowd which had formed around her. She pushed through politely and returned to the corridor. The music following her as she left.
“Go! Go! Go! Incite the riot! Bring ’em all to a meltdown! Go! Go! Go!”
Turning to face the third slam room on her right, she scanned her Cynet against the panel running down the side of the currently-green door. She selected ’20 minutes’, then ‘private’, then finally ‘pre-wash’ before the display flashed up the price, her new credit balance appeared on her HUD as the door swung open in front of her. A blast of steaming chemically-enhanced water, followed quickly by a tornado of warm air was just receding as she stood a step inside. Three red walls, a fourth white one at the far side. The beige floor was occupied by only one item of furniture, a soft box-bed in the corner. The walls housed only one drinks station and a med-scanner for those who didn’t have the tech to do it themselves. She sat down on the bed and waited. Soon afterwards the door clicked open and her guest for the next eighteen minutes quietly slipped inside, closing and locking it behind him.
She surveyed the figure, he sure knew how to make an entry. “I know times are rough, but clothes aren’t exactly a luxury item.”
Okada stopped by the doorway, standing with his legs astride and hands on his hips. “I’ve got a certain reputation to maintain around here, little Blueberry. Can’t have people thinking I’m using the slams for something as perverted as conversation can I?” The pores all over his skin began to ooze a black liquid, it spread over his body evenly before solidifying and taking form. A second later he was stood wearing a pair of purple jeans and a white t-shirt. The only part of him not involved in this operation was his left arm, which remained as it was, mechanised. A thick wire frame housing a centre of crystalline metal filled with a blue fluid, meeting his flesh just below the shoulder with a cylindrical joint.
Tall, skinny, with light-brown skin and blonde hair whose thick strands stopped just above his eyes: besides the arm, there was nothing threatening about his appearance. That was the whole point of tech in Core, strength was no longer the domain of the largely-built and speed was not wielded exclusively by the petite.
“Handy tech that,” Hanin said as he sat down besides her on the bed.
“I’m a polar bear in a bikini. Ready for any occasion. Speaking of which…”
A message flashed up on her HUD: “E-Suite: Okada has requested consent for sex. Enter code for response.”
“You do know we’re not having sex here?” she said.
“Wouldn’t even dream of it, but all the same, for my logs Blueberry.”
Thanking him with a small amount of reservation, she entered the code for level one consent, access all areas. “Thanks for the rendezvous Okada, did Wiseau tell you the reason for it?”
“Said you wanted expo on Domino. Was sorry to hear about your boy. Good kid he was.”
“Yeah,” her voice became wistful as the image of his body returned to her mind for the hundredth time that day. “They say he was in your crew up until he took the assignment to kill the people in that car, that right?”
“He was one of mine alright, but he wasn’t hired to kill anybody. He was gushing about it like he was looping, how he was getting a boatload of credits just to stop a car and kidnap some kid,” he answered.
“What about the shooters, where did his team get the bullets from?” she asked.
“You doing your impression of a tortoise there Blue? There was no team, just him.”
She shifted her weight backwards on the bed-box, it didn’t make any sense. Domino wasn’t carrying any guns, and he was already dead when the shot was fired. Okada looked towards the door for a few seconds before returning his focus to Hanin. He sucked in a raft of air.
“Yeah. Like that. Sit on the flagpole bitch,” he shouted at the top of his voice. Still lost in puzzlement, this outburst didn’t help her any. He dropped his voice back to its normal volume and continued nonchalantly. “People expect a certain amount of misogyny in a repo’s sex-talk. Can’t have passers-by getting suspicious can we.”
Resigning herself to a sore throat in the morning Hanin joined his shouting match. “Oh my fuck. Ride me you barbary stallion.”
Voice subdued again, she continued. “Who killed the guys in the car then?”
Suck in, shout out. “Salute the flag baby. Your country needs you, and I need your c-“
“Must you,” she cut in.
“I like a little wordplay after my foreplay, what can I say.”
“Anything which doesn’t rhyme,” she answered.
“Then I suppose that’s fine.” He held up his mech-arm, she watched as his hand melted itself and took the form of a fist. He winked as it started to oscillate, making a rhythmic revving noise as the blue liquid started to blur from the motion, then glow.
The vibrations from the music still pounded through the walls. All this performance seemed somewhat unnecessary, but reputation was everything around here. She couldn’t complain, he’d taken a risk even talking to her: she wasn’t exactly unknown. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to remind him of the need to expedite matters. “I really should have bought us more than twenty minutes.”
“Let’s skip the q and a then shall we Blue. The shots were nothing to do with my boy. He wasn’t the kind of guy you call in for stealth operations you know. He was a sheep in a wolf-suit, about as lethal as a scarecrow. If you do find out who that guys were who killed him, do me a favour, break their knees, then call me. We’ll soon see their limits.”
Relief and guilt flooded in at once, she meticulously studied anything except his face. “Yeah, sure thing.” Her body swelled, “Oh Kada, I want to have your abortion,” she screamed.
“Just watch your back Blueberry, the streets are saying that your guys have been taking out more than a few people all over town in the last few weeks. Bodies have been turning up just like his. Messed up shit, even by my standards. That femme must mean business.”
“What?” She quickly said, more from instinct than thought.
“The woman who hired Domino. At least he said it was a woman. He only spoke to her by an encrypted comm. link, but he said she sounded older, kinda sweet voice, but the deadly kind. Type who’d poison your drink and smile to your face as you downed every last drop.” He paused for a moment. “Shame you guys got there so quickly really, were you nearby when it happened?”
“No. We…” She didn’t finish, a picture was beginning to form. She got the sense that she’d been fucked over alright, then left with an empty feeling inside. Appropriate place for it, she thought. “Thanks,” she mumbled. “You’d better go, our time’s almost up, and you need a head-start on me.”
“As you wish Blue.” They started to mimic the final throes of pleasure together. “Mountains, plains or valley?” he shouted out, his voice starting to crack increasingly from stress.
“Flood the valley. Drown them all,” she shouted back at the same volume.
Okada stood up and placed his organic arm on her shoulder, smiling at her. “You take care of yourself Blue.” He turned to leave, his clothes dissolving into black liquid, re-entering his pores as he opened the door. She waited on the bed, counting down the seconds until the time was up.
Un-straightening her kelly-green blouse, she ruffled her hair and exited. Rejoining the ranks of Midijunkies, she felt different. She was no longer the enlightened one amongst the masses, she was lost the same as them, only without the bliss of ignorance. A group of five farther down the corridor all raised their thumbs at her. She forced a mild grin which only materialised with a side of malice and derision. She needed to find Mishka.
Back at the barrier and Squirrel Trash were just leaving the circular stage. Searching for yellow again, she found nothing. She couldn’t see anything from up here. Hanin swiftly jumped up onto the railing in one smooth motion, balancing briefly before slipping off to floor below. “Descent detected, initiating N-Absorb. Est. Distance: 8.4m” registered on her HUD. She’d aimed for a clearing, hitting the floor gracefully as her shoes and knees took the impact. A few astonished glances later and she began to search through the crowd. This was Mish’s idea of watching her back was it? Nearly a hundred shoulder grabs and dismissals later and she gave up, taking the stairs this time. The weight of the crowd grew intense as she got to the corner with the staircase. She’d never had a fondness for large groups of people, too many things could go wrong too quickly. Any number of people could stab you in the face, walk on, and not one person in the whole room would care. Some people held to the creed “protect the one you’re with,” but the only person she was with had been swallowed by the masses. The panic was starting to take over her mind now, she became increasingly abrupt as she barged through the throngs on the stairs and quickly made for the corridor. Her focus on the exit, she picked up her pace. An arm appeared and grabbed her.
“Hey gorgeous, I like your tits.” A beaming face met her as she turned. “Oh my days Han, you would not believe the lame ass lines that pass for a come-on here. I swear, that was the sweetest one I had all night. Contenders for runner-up include: ‘If water were beauty, my cock could make you gorgeous,’ and ‘hey bitch, let’s fuck’.”
“Where have you been?” She asked Mishka. She had a vague idea already since the yellow dress was gone, replaced by a blue top with strategically placed slashes at the front and back. She didn’t really care enough to wait for an answer. “Let’s get out of here Mish.”
“Sure thing valley-girl. I’m bored already.”
Hanin blushed slightly before shrugging it off and tucking her arm inside Mish’s. She wanted to unload all of her suspicions onto her friend, but she knew how fragile her facade was. It wouldn’t benefit anyone right now, perhaps later, she could use that anger. Noise and neon segued into the freshly tainted air of the supraterranean as they exited the shell building. There was a crowd gathered near the alley up ahead. Hanin started to pull towards it to investigate, but the arm in hers pulled her on.
“Don’t bother, it’s not an exciting one,” her companion said.
Nonetheless, she caught a glimpse of the object of attention. One pool of blood complete with freshly killed corpse. She recognised his frame and hair. Even if she had seen his face, it wouldn’t help now, he didn’t really have one. The MJ security had really gone to town on this guy. They never took kindly to the attacking of their patrons. Self-control probably saved Mishka’s life tonight, the guy who swung at her was spending the rest of his days decaying in an alleyway as scavengers molested his corpse for tech.
It was cold out, which was a relief because it subdued the caustic aroma they called home. The groups of people thinned until it was just the odd couples either fucking or stabbing each other. In either case it was rude to interfere unless asked, or paid. Hanin tried to come up with a plan as to what to do next. She decided not to act that evening. Simone was probably asleep anyway. She suddenly longed to be to sleeping too, she clutched Mishka closer, slowing their steps somewhat. Unseen faces watched them from the shadows, not one of them made an approach.
When it’s just you and the sky, it’s easy to forget the world. You can become hypnotised by a life millions of kilometres away, a life which is a mere slither of light. She had tried, but she couldn’t sleep that night. They’d returned to darkness at HQ and Mishka had ignored her covert plea for company. The moon and the stars beamed brightly in the sky as she tried to remember the names of all of them. It seemed important to her to learn all these things, to not let that knowledge fade into the past. Life shouldn’t just be about putrified streets and the perennial tech-race. If she let go of the little details, then it was just about survival. Various locations around Core had a dedicated source box through which they could view the Cortex. All the machines around the world used to be linked, and humanity had pooled their knowledge. As time went on, the information deemed pertinent to the common man diminished more and more, until one day it was decided that the dangers for global connection outweighed the benefits. Even when Beacon was a part of Core, they found themselves cut off from the world. It wasn’t sudden, more than long enough for people to make a copy. What took a million machines to store back then could be held in one now. Hanin would spend her nights just reading, learning, longing.
The roof she sat on didn’t exactly lend itself to the purpose of reflection. The tiles were cracked and unstable, yet only at a slight angle, so slippage was less the main threat than falling through to the room below. There were gaps everywhere, every time she came up here, she chose a different spot, a new place to see the stars from. Staying put could be dangerous.
“Aren’t you cold?”
She rubbed her forehead on her arms which wrapped around her knees. “Only when I need to be,” she said. She kept her body stationary as she twisted her neck to look at the outline of Staff who was just clambering out of a window leading up to the roof. The mention of the word “cold” made her suddenly aware of the feeling, while he was wrapped up in jumpers and coats, she was still clad in her blouse and black jeans. She gave him a weak smile as he stumbled slightly across the tiles. “I’m sorry about earlier Staff?”
“It’s okay Han, girls electrocute me all the time.”
“I meant the kissing.”
“Shut up,” he said, initially sounding serious, but his tone quickly being overcome by a minuscule laugh. He seemed deep in thought as he carefully chose his steps over to her.
“Being here, it’s liberating in a strange sort of way. It’s nothing like we learned. I sometimes forget that my little adventure has caused you all nothing but pain. I wish I could just have a do-over say no to the whole safari now.”
He sat down beside her, leaving a small gap in-between them. For the longest time, she said nothing, they shared the same view until an niggling feeling forced her to speak. “It wasn’t your fault Sebastian. There’s more to everything than either you or I can control.” Immediately she regretted giving that opening to the inevitable array of follow-up questions from Staff, but he said nothing further. The wind whipped around them, rattling the loose tiles, another period of silence followed, but she didn’t feel particularly awkward about it. Still looking up she found herself asking, “Staff, what’s it like where you’re from?”
“What do you think it’s like?”
“I dunno. I always imagine everything painted in beautiful colours, people smiling all of the time, doing things which make them happy. People wanting for nothing, safe in their homes.”
“Yes, that pretty much covers it,” he said.
He never talked about Beacon to anyone. Over the weeks, Simone had grown increasingly angry at the fact, Hanin supposed that he didn’t want to give away his country’s secrets. He’d never wavered in his expressed belief that he would return back there one day. He probably didn’t want his first debriefing to contain the phrase, “by the way, everyone in Core knows everything about us now, where we eat, where we sleep and what our weaknesses are.” This was assuming they had any weaknesses. It dawned on her now that Simone’s desire to find out all of this information from him could have led to her arranging the kidnapping. What to do about Simone? That question had brought her to her previously isolated spot and yet the answer still failed to present itself. Confrontation seemed like the only way to go, but what if Simone wanted her to keep it quiet? Mish and Staff deserved to know and yet this knowledge could destroy the already fractured building they lived in. A tile moved from underfoot, scraping the others as it fell towards the edge of the roof. It plunged off the end, she waited for the smash, yet it failed to reach her.
They sat as the night carried on, as the moon moved across the sky, the gap between them remaining constant as quiet possessed the roof once more. She shivered slightly from the breeze.
Brief slithers of sleep came that night.
The dining room was even more basic in its appearance than the others. Light blue walls, a kitchen section painted white occupied the corner. Hanin walked over to it, as she neared the corner, it came to life. Cupboards, cabinets and appliances all extracted themselves from the wall, adjusted to her height. She approached the screen which revealed itself above the long marble-patterned countertop and selected the food preparation menu. She hit for taurine-laced hot water and the drink app sprang to life. Scrolling through the food menu, the benefits of having a fairly extensive subterranean halide-farm became apparent. The Cell analysed ingredients they had in stock and rolled off a list of potential options. Selecting toast, she went over to the Stratum and watched through the glass as the machine quickly formed her selection one molecular layer at a time, all heated to the optimal temperature, ingredients combined perfectly. Within a few seconds, it was done. She grabbed her stuff and left the area, returning to the table in the centre of the dining area. Everything retracted behind her, initiating self-clean as it returned inside the wall.
The door opened and Mishka joined her, having made only the barest attempt at dressing herself. She couldn’t function in the morning until she’d eaten something.
“Fuck me in both ears, I feel like shit. I think it should be a life-lesson, when you wake up in the morning and find yourself naked, alone, with a toothbrush stuck up your ass, it’s time to stop drinking. Nice of Daemon to leave that behind for us though. I really need to get one which vibrates. Girl’s gotta treat herself once in a while.”
There were no words which came in reply to Hanin except for the obvious. “Mish, good morning. Have you met Fawkes and Loomis yet?” She gestured to the two guys sat at the other end of the table. Mishka casually raised her head.
“New recruits?” she asked.
“New recruits,” Hanin replied in a monotone.
“Fuck that.” Without a word further, Mishka strated herself some food and walked straight back out to wherever she came from. Hanin sighed, wishing she could do the same, yet she was stuck giving the guided tour. The arrival of Canti and Daemon’s replacements had given her some clarity though, Simone had the resources to burn through every person in Core, she needed to remind her that these people mattered. She’d spent hours forming a speech within her internal monologue. It had points, reasoning, logic, strategy, emotional resonance, similes and a gripping conclusion. In short, it was the best speech ever concocted by a sleep-deprived brain at two-sixty in the morning. She’d find out everything soon enough.
She had neither the mood nor the inclination to spend time with strangers. They seemed pleasant enough. They’d both worked together before with Jericho and seemed quite comfortable around each other. She could deal with them later, she made her excuses, invited them to explore for themselves and then left.
Alighting the elevator, she made a line for Simone’s laboratory. Buried deep below the streets, it had been converted from an underground train line which used to operate before the secession. A few additional walls later and the place was a perfect testament to creepy-as-shit cleanliness. Expansive spaces were interspersed with smallish cubicles comprising a few screens and a plethora of wires. At the far end, a large room was sectioned off. This was Simone’s place of work, the rest was her sandbox. This far underground, the eyes never get used to the bright gleaming walls: self-purifying paint with a layer of spray-glass over them. Science and blinding light seemed to go hand-in-hand. Her steps echoed as she made her way across the sandbox, stroking the sides of the monitoring cubicles with an extended arm as she passed them. The big speech was slipping from her mind, fracturing between her synapses until it became a jumbled mess of words. Minutes later, at the door on the far side, clarity was still eluding her. She knocked regardless. No answer.
A figure dressed in black lay slumped against the wall, sweat poured down her skin, leaving visible patches even on the dark fabric.
“Simone!” she shouted. The figure raised her face, and then smiled.
“The quadrature voltage, it’s all wrong. Arc-lamps, signal flares, a shower of white. The light, it hurts. Turn off the fucking light and let me rest. The input, it’s all coming back. Nyquist says it’s time to start over, but it stings.”
Hanin knew that look on her face instantly, she was looping. She hit a command on her Cynet and accessed her emergency weapon, she pulled up the lower leg of her Harvesters and the skin peeled away, revealing a small enclosure inside her lower-leg. She pulled an knife out, flicking it open with urgency. She calibrated her tera-scan to hunt for a specific frequency and blasted Simone with terahertz radiation. She found it, the Heisenberg Loop was behind her left ear, she pushed Simone to the ground and started cutting.
Drugs used to be something grown in the soil, they were products you needed to go out and buy, stuff you needed credits for. When the Loop started to circulate, it ended all that. A direct link to your brain which could simulate the experience of any chemical combination, in any volume. For a one-off payment, you could make all your problems go away. It worked, too well. A hit a week became a hit every-other-day, then daily. Before long, you needed one every hour to get through. There was nothing stopping you now, so frequency increased until you just set the thing to constant. Perpetual euphoria is all well and good, but those in paradise don’t eat, they don’t sleep and they don’t drink. Thousands of corpses with a smile on their faces were added to the pile every month. That is what the HL brought to Core.
She pried the small chip out, cutting its bio-organic connecters. It was a messy job, but there was no time for finesse. She sat Simone up and kept the wound firmly pressurised. There was nothing to do but wait. Nothing but to crush that chip underfoot, a small-fortune became worthless in a second, and the floor became a little dirtier.
Hours passed until life started to return to Simone. She started to complain, thrashing her legs around. The rest of her body just shook, burning hot while Simone insisted she was too cold. The effects of withdrawal were extreme, but ended quickly if you had the self-control not to dose again. For Simone now, that wasn’t an option, a realisation which brought violent outbursts with it. Another hour wasted.
It was late in the day before rationality returned to the woman. Any thoughts of a considered and ordered speech were long gone. She let go of her and took a step back, sitting down on the floor. “Simone, I know about Domino.” She searched her face for any sign of recognition or remorse.
“I had to stop the plan… end us all,” Simone said, weakly.
“They’re scared of us, they need a war Hanin. They’ll kill us all. The locks held tight, but the peering eyes brought only fear. It stabbed at them while they crumbled.”
“How does this have anything to do with us Simone?”
“The Lamb, they’ll sacrifice the lamb and point to the wolves. A mob with torches go hunting, mount their heads and sooth their burning vision. His face, it fills the airwaves, the Lamb is dead and they ask for blood.”
“The Lamb… is Sebastian?”
“The Field Marshal’s son, the martyr to their cause. If his blood spills, they’ll delete us all,” Simone said, still looking up through her own eyelids as she spoke.
“Do they know-“
A buzz sounded throughout the lab, Hanin accessed a cam feed on her HUD, the alarm was triggered from the front door. Someone had used a retired code for access. The feed showed nothing but a small dark mass on the ground outside. She picked Simone up in her arms and carried her across the sandbox, back to the elevator. Making a brief stop at the nearest available bed, she dumped her, heading for the front entrance.
“Mish, we got a situation here. Meet at the front,” she said over the comm after pinging her location.
“Coming. Hey, did you know that Loomis and Fawkes once-“
“Not now Mish. Front door, bring your Tesla.”
The two women scanned the streets outside via the cams. Nothing except the dark mass was in view, they opened the door. Mishka kicked the lump. It groaned.
“Holy fucksticks,” she said. She bent over and peeled the dark layers of clothing off the face of the figure slumped at the door. Daemon’s bruised and battered visage flowed with blood from cuts that were too multitudinous to count. From his swollen lips were uttered two words. Two words which moved Hanin to pull her injured friend inside, lock the doors and set the security system on its highest alert.
Continue to part three…