Lady Trouble

NOTE: This is a straight transfer from LJ, and the formatting needs fixing.

EPISODE ONE

The city. The place is only twenty-six years old and like anyone born in the Nineties it’s sullen and thinking only of itself. Home to over a million people, Night City is what the council likes to call a New City Democratic Mayorality. They can call it whatever they like, but it doesn’t change the fact that said council is bought and paid for by the corporations, and neither the council nor the corporations make a secret of it. They fronted the cash back in ’94, they’re fronting the cash now, so they decide how things shake out.

Sure. People can use their Identicards to vote through DataTerms, but all they change is the medium, not the message.

Take Betancourt Street, for instance. That long strip of asphalt running past the Justice Court. The one that guy in the owl-eye seeing glasses is staring down at through the blinds of a rented room on the fourteenth floor of what is still ostensibly the Demitrov, Koski, Pang & Lo Law Complex. The room that’s missing ceiling tiles here and there, insulation hanging down in giant brown furry tongues. The room with no bed and the same carpet it had back when this place was a legal office.

Last week.

Demitrov, Kaski, Pang & Lo are independent lawyers who one day realised that in a city of one million citizens that attracts nine million tourists a year the smart money is in downsizing caseload, upsizing rates, and turning most of their building into a convention centre. This means a lot of people with expensive degrees were turned out in the cold while the good people of DKP&L clacked out the math on what they could make on room service alone.

Which is how the guy with the glasses comes to be standing where he is.

“How are we doing for time,” he asks.

“We’ve got about fifteen minutes,” a broomstick-thin kid in a black suitcoat and stovepipes says, unfurling some cables he’s taken from his breast pocket. There’s a cheap ‘organic look’ EBM cyberdeck on the coffee table, next to a far more expensive receiver rig. The kid’s on the couch, in front of the deck. Beside him is a moist-looking accountant, making last minute adjustments to the receiver.

The man with the glasses presses a finger to his ear and says “Tranch, what’s it like down there?”

Down on Betancourt a guy in leather pants and coat stands in the shadow of a garbage bag tree, trying not to look like a victim. He has to shout above the sound of motorcycles roaring and screeching up and down Betancourt right in front of him. Half the riders have bodyparts that weren’t even made in this country, and all of them are armed. “Just great,” he says. “I only hope this guy’s wife isn’t into foreplay or I’m gonna die here.”

The accountant looks over. The man with the glasses clears his throat. “He can hear you, you know.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

The accountant lowers his head, fiddles with a dial, says nothing.

The man with the glasses turns back to the window, pulls a blind down with his forefinger, peers out again. “Don’t worry too much. The bartender tells me they’re so into dorph and sex they won’t pay you any attention. They’re saving themselves for the rest of the night. They probably don’t even know you’re there.”

Tranch peers out from behind the thin trunk of the tree. There’s no sidewalk traffic at all, but a few of the regular kids are still hanging around the NCART entrance out front of the Justice Court. They were serious when they built that thing. It’s an uncompromising and brutal piece of low poly-count architecture. It’s a giant box of seamless grey stone, rimmed with massive grey stone pillars devoid of adornment. The double doors are flat black metal and three storeys high. And just so you know they’re not messing around, there’s a fucking portcullis in front of those.

Just looking at it is like being beaten up.

Static – that’s what the man with the glasses calls himself – arranged this job for them. It’s a run-of-the-mill spousal surveillance gig, but it pays more than most, so Static accepted. The client – Ruben Fischer – isn’t much to look at, and he’s obviously never done anything like this before. The kind of man that listens to what you have to say, and then runs with it, hoping you think you’re both on the same wavelength, knowing you don’t and resenting you for it. His wife has a boyfriend and he wants evidence for a divorce proceeding. Says he doesn’t want her making off with half of what’s his. Paranoid. Damp and paranoid, that’s Ruben. Plays everything close to his chest, like he’s seen in the holos, playing James Bond and coming off twice as nervous for the trouble.

The group had to sign an NDA as part of the deal, and no one liked that. Static got it into his head to maybe get access to that security rig atop the Justice Court, turn it toward the room in Burleson Tower with the big glass window in front of the bed, and maybe at least get a little something for their trouble if everything went south. And he almost did it, too. Walked right up that wide ferrocrete path, up those steps made for giants, through those gargantuan stone columns, under that fucking portcullis and through those three-storey high black steel doors and into a place that dwarfed everyone in it and echoed like a tomb. He walked himself past the man-sized truncated cone of the security drone. The one with a band of rotating eyes around its middle, a spray of hair-like probes issuing from its top (moving like seaweed in a slow current) and A GIFT FROM THE ARASAKA CORPORATION TO THE PEOPLE OF NIGHT CITY. 2009 carved into a gold plate at the bottom. A gift, given two days before the corporations took on the Mob and bodies were laid out in the streets right across town.

He walked past all of that, hearing his own footsteps click and reclick back at him from some impossible distance, and got in line to speak to one of twelve diminutive female public assistants seated behind grey stone desks positioned at head height to everyone else. A friend in the Combat Zone had once been a tech for the city council and helped move a few things around inside the Court, back in the day. Static approached an assistant and – to cut a long story short – managed to use a combination of the right names, a work code and a genial attitude to get the woman in charge of surveillance for the Court to come on down. Unfortunately Static had wanted to head on up and get a look at the actual port codes for the cameras so that Emparo – the kid in the stovepipes – could hack them through the net and record everything and everyone that is hopefully about to go down in that bedroom on the fourteenth floor of Burleson Tower.

That didn’t happen. What did happen was a friendly conversation turned cold, Static cranked the geniality and got out of there as fast as he could. Right now just being this close to the Justice Court is making him nervous.

He turns away from the window again and asks the client “Everything checking out?”

Ruben nods, eyes flicking from readouts to viewscreen and back. “I… I think so. Bedroom, check. Bathroom, check. Living room, check. Phone line… check. And the cameras you left in the club check out as well. Those guys look dangerous. I can’t believe she comes here.” He laughs nervously. “Kinda glad we couldn’t get that room next to theirs.” He realises how lily-livered he sounds, and shuts up.

Static looked into Ruben, in the days leading up to this. Sicced Emparo onto him netside as well.

Rube Fischer. Age 33. Five-feet six inches. Dark hair. A little packing around the middle. CPA for Night City Financial and Investment. Has been for seven years. No criminal record, save for one count of indecent exposure. Married to Debbie. No kids. Nothing to write home about. Nothing remarkable.

Except that the woman they’re meant to be surveilling, her name isn’t Debbie. It’s Lorelai.

By Ruben’s account this ‘wife’ of his has a thing for infidelity and rough trade. She’s taken up with a member of a boostergang (the Slaughterhouse – she really can pick them) and meets him once a week in a rented room within Burleson Tower off Betancourt Street. And tonight’s the night.

Static thought about calling Ruben on that discrepancy about this woman being his wife, but frankly they’re being paid to well to make a fuss. Men peep on women all the time, and women on men, and men on men and… whatever. Set it up, take the shots, get paid, leave. The deal’s on paper so if the little perv gets busted it’s plausible deniability all ‘round, except for him.

Res ipsa loquitur, as the man said. Let the good times roll.

“Okay,” Tranch’s voice filters in over the team’s earbuds. “She’s here. Walking west past the Justice Court.”

“All right, get into position and I’ll meet you down there.” Static lets the blind go with a snap and heads for the door, past Emparo and the client.

“I don’t understand,” the client says. “Why any of you need to leave this room.”

“You want your evidence,” Static says. “If something goes wrong, better we’re close enough to fix it.” He opens the door and dim light pours in. The hall is lit by emergency lamps strung from bare steel beams and attached to this floor’s CHOOH2-fuelled generator. “If we can.” The door shushes shut.

Christ, what a hoser.

The man with the glasses hunches his shoulders against a slight chill and fishes for a cigarette. He’s fourteen floors up and the elevator’s out.

-

Back in the room Emparo’s unfurled his ‘trodes and is attaching them to either wrist. One day he’ll have the cash for the real deal – actual interface plugs – and then real higher consciousness deal will be open to him. ‘Synergistic Englightenment’ is what he calls it. No one else on the team seems to get it, but for Emparo it’s the way, the truth and the light. Lightspeed stationary all the way. Better living through falling facefirst into a Mendelbrot set. Already he’s looking at this cheapie deck of his and wondering how to boost it. Taking it apart in his mind and turning into a doorway between the gutter and the stars.

“My life is shit,” says the client. “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Emparo isn’t sure what to say to this. Maybe he could pretend he’s jacked in already, that he didn’t hear it. Maybe the client won’t be able to tell the difference. Maybe… shit he made eye contact. Crap.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” he says, helpfully, hoping the client will leave it at that, knowing that he won’t. And then there’s something on one of the two small monitors and he points and says: “Look! There she is. Well, I guess I’d better get to work. Good luck!” And then he hits a switch on his deck and pretends to zone out.

-

Outside the Burleson Tower Static touches Tranch’s arm.

“She’s gone upstairs. The Slaughterhouse has done their fifty laps and it looks like they’re getting ready to pour in here. I know I’m supposed to wait out here, but screw that.”

Static looks at the wildlife tearing past at eighty klicks. One of them has his head thrown back and some kind of silver worm is shooting in and out of his throat, snapping its jaws, while he makes these godawful gurgling roars.

“Let’s go upstairs,” Static says.

-

Netside, Emparo’s wandered over to the Justice Building. Here he is, floating fourteen virtual floors above the sparkling neon grid of Night City, and over there is the same ominous grey block of heavy that is the Night City Justice Complex. It’s even got a fucking portcullis. Somewhere inside that thing is a direct control for the cameras they’ve got positioned on top of its realspace location. He’s got a bottom of the line deck, and he’s connected to it by a pair of cheap Malaysian galvanic-response electrodes attached to his skin.

Screw that.

He punches out. Vision goes static and white, gut tilts slightly and he’s out. The client is sitting next to him, unaware, absorbed by what’s happening in the apartment. Emparo hits the LOCATE REMOTE command. A small list of items in the immediate vicinity scroll down in green text. And there it is: the Justice Court securicam.

Emparo’s got a programme loaded into his kiddie deck. It’s called Crystal Ball and it’s the only commercially available camera controller on the market. He is so going to write his own version of this thing, eventually. But for now, it’s all he has. He’s pretty sure he won’t get into trouble if this doesn’t work.

Before he can think too much about it, he hits CONTROL REMOTE. The deck searches itself, locates Crystal Ball, and launches it.

On the receiver’s viewscreen the client is watching a woman sitting on the edge of an unmade double bed, looking at her watch.

On the deck’s screen the words GAZE INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL type themselves out, and the screen fritzes and blanks. After a few seconds it resolves into vision. Grainy, bracketed vision, with SECURICAM 1 printed in the corner. Emparo presses the right arrow key, and the camera swivels. He swivels it around so that it’s facing the Burleson Tower. He checks the receiver’s screen. He checks his own. Counts fourteen floors up and zooms in. There she is, sitting on her bed, checking her watch. She must be about thirty, Emparo guesses. Very slight. Eating disorder maybe. Thin neck, obvious collarbone. Dyed red hair cut short and in curls. She doesn’t look comfortable in the skirt, stockings and leathers she’s wearing. Must be for her friend’s benefit. Pretty though. European. Emparo hits RECORD, and turns the screen off.

He watches over the client’s shoulder.

There is a knock at the door. The woman stands suddenly and flies to it, offcamera. She re-enters the shot with a six-and-a-half-foot tall Samoan-looking guy whose eyes have been replaced with black optics with tiny red dots for pupils, a silver interface stud in each temple and his left arm looks like it’s had wet-look surgical machinery woven through flayed flesh. The forearm section has been amped up with some kind of hydraulic ram and the fingers on both hands end in inch-long transparent nails. His face has tribal tattooing that bleeds away from his nose and up toward his ears, and his teeth are perfect and white.

“Oh my God,” the client says, voice trembling.

They fall into a passionate embrace.

“He means business,” Emparo says. The client looks over his shoulder at him, sweat inching down his forehead. “Sorry,” Emparo says, as the tinny speaker on the receiver does a fair impression of Marilyn Monroe being raped by a bear.

Then the phone rings.

Somehow the woman extricates herself from her partner’s pneumatically enhanced grip and gets to the phone.

Ruben flicks a switch and Emparo hears a click as the woman presses TALK:

“Hello?”

“Lorelai.”

The woman lowers her voice to a whisper. “We talked about this.”

“I… I just…” The man on the other end of the phone lets out a long breath. “You know.”

“I know, but you can’t call me here. Now I’ve got to go.”

“Yeah…”

“I’ve got to go.”

And she hangs up. She turns to the monster on the bed.

“I’m starving. You want something to eat? I’m gonna get something to eat.”

The booster growls, slaps the bed. Lorelai ignores him, pads into the kitchen and takes an old sandwich out of the fridge and heads back to the bedroom. The booster gets up as she enters, takes the sandwich out of her hand (his arm whining and shushing) and pulls her close.

“Okay, okay,” she says.

Then the phone rings. She growls in frustration and drops her head against this giant’s chest. You half expect to hear it clang.

“Leave it,” he says.

But her eyes are on it. She slips free, grabs the sandwich on the way to the phone and picks it up.

Ruben flips over to the phone bug.

“Stop calling.”

Onscreen she takes a bite out of the sandwich.

“I just wanted to apologise. To say sorry for…”

“For calling?”

“Well, yeah. I know how important…”

“Just get off…!” She stops mid-sentence, and you can see that narrow throat working. Her mouth is open, full of white bread. She’s gasping.

“Lorelai?”

She drops the phone, lowers herself to the bed, trying to cough. The booster has noticed how and rushes to her.

“I don’t know CPR,” he says, helpfully.

She has one hand around her throat, the other extended toward nothing in particular. Like a caricature.

“She’s choking,” Ruben exclaims, panicked. “Do something! Oh God!” He jams a finger into his earbud. “You have to do something!”

“What?” Static’s voice comes over the line. “Christ, we’re two floors down, hiding in a broom closet. The stairways and elevators are packed with dorph-heads.”

“Wait!” Emparo exclaims. “Look! It’s okay, see? Someone’s there!”

“Oh that can’t be good.”

Onscreen the bedroom door has opened and someone takes two quick steps into the room. Whoever he is, he’s not very tall and very slightly built. He’s wearing a 1970’s retro-style buttoned leather jacket, suit-cut almost, white t-shirt and black pants. He’s Asian. The woman sees him, and her eyes go even wider even as she’s turning blue.

The booster spins, exclaims “Who the hell are you?”

“I heard that,” Tranch says.

Onscreen the Asian man says nothing, he only stares at the woman, and now she’s shaking her head, still holding her throat, slowly collapsing back onto the bed.

And that’s when the Asian man pulls an Arasaka Minami 10 submachine gun, smartchipped to two plugs in the back of his neck, from behind his back and opens fire. Full auto.

<font>(Arasaka Minami 10)</font>

The plate glass window behind the bed explodes, even as the booster takes most of what the gun is throwing out. The monster of a man staggers under the assault, collapsing back onto the bed, a mass of red.

“What’s happening,” Static’s screaming down the line. “What’s happening?”

p=. EPISODE TWO

“Oh God,” Ruben panics. “Is she dead? Is she dead? Did he just shoot her?”

“Emparo,” Static’s voice floats over the line. “Ruben’s gone bye-bye. What have you got left?”

Emparo leans over Ruben’s shoulder. “The Asian guy’s reloading.” He reaches down and switches to another camera, noticing Ruben’s gotten sweat all over the keys. “No one in the club seems to have heard anything. Not sure about the ones in the halls. Our Oriental friend isn’t reacting to any sounds. I’m not picking up anything on audio, either, so I guess it’s quiet on 14.”

On the 12th floor, Tranch is looking around the maintenance closet they’re in while outside it sounds like a horde of speeding hyenas are running amok with chainsaws. “If we need to head out to the boosters, I’m all for attempting some legitimate pretext, maybe with some of these coveralls or something.”

”They’re violent psychopaths,” Static says over his shoulder. “Our only legitimate pretext runs along the line of the violently psychopathic.” He turns his attention back to Emparo. “What about the floorplans? Can we get into the elevator shaft?”

“Maybe we could get a pizza delivery or some mobile machine to deliver to this area and create a commotion in the stairwell. I know it sounds ridiculous but boosters are a way of life here and they must eat food sometime. Perhaps they have live pig deliveries at 11pm or something. Perhaps we can take advantage of that.”

”Good for getting us out. Not good for getting us up. The situation with the chick has the smell of money all over it. Even if she is dead.”

Ruben howls and the entire team clenches.

“Could you please shut him up.”

Emparo puts a bony hand on Ruben’s shoulder and edges him away from the receiver. “Well Ruben, I would call this a rather sudden and unexpected end to this stage of the gig. It not a good idea to hang around. You got what you wanted and we’ll do our best to get your wife out of there in one piece. Why don’t you keep busy. Get our payment organised while I pack up here, and that way we can jet just as soon as Static gives the all clear.”

Ruben straightens up and looks the Netrunner eye-to-watery-eye: “This is my mission, and I’m calling the shots here. Now… now I want you to get in there and save Lorelai before she chokes to death!”

Emparo raises his hands, placatingly, and speaks in soothing tones. “We are, we are, but you’re no good to us all wound up. Now while we’re chatting here time’s running out for Lorelai, isn’t it?”

Ruben takes a moment, then nods. “Of course it is. Get back to work.”

Emparo nods. “Yes sir.” And heads to the receiver, finger on one ear. “Gimme a sec.” He sits down at his deck and boots up Crystal Ball. He tries accessing the camera atop Citibank Tower in Corp Centre, perpendicular to the front of the Burleson Tower, to no avail. “Shit. Hang on.” He hits LOCATE REMOTE once more, selects the camera atop the complex he’s in and activates Crystal Ball.

GAZE INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL

The screen clears and Emparo is looking at the street outside the Burleson Tower from a northern vantage point. “Okay, the street’s empty save for all their bikes. There’s a handful hanging around out there, but that’s all.”

“Which means they’re mostly in here.”

“Yep…” Emparo reaches over and flicks the receiver back over to the club. “And it looks like Totentanz is getting pretty full, so the crowd should be just about past you.”

“And what the hell has happened to the little Asian guy? I have a sneaking suspicion we don’t actually want to run into him.”

“Um…” Emparo flicks back. “He’s still in the room.”

“Why?”

“Sounds like outside’s clearing up,” Tranch says, looking around.

“He checked Lorelai, was about to leave, then went through the booster’s pockets. He’s… taking the booster’s wallet. Weird.”

“What’s weird.”

Emparo shrugs. “It’s a nice wallet. Hang on, he’s opening it. Looking at the guy. Pocketing the wallet. Okay, looks like he’s thinking about leaving.”

“How’s she looking?”

Emparo peers closely at the screen. He looks a little grey in the light from the monitor. A little damp. He leans back. “Fine.”

“Shit.”

Across the room, sitting against the unpainted wall, Ruben lets out a mournful howl and buries his head in his arms.

“How bad is it?

“There’s blood.”

“How much blood?”

Emparo measuredly licks one lip, then says “Possibly all of it.” Then, “Hang on.”

“Why not.”

Ruben leaps to his feet. “No! She’s not dead!” He marches across the hotel room and jabs a finger at Emparo’s face while Emparo jabs the face of his cellular. “We can do this!”

Tranch snorts. “Who’s ‘we’, white man?”

“This is what I’m paying you for!”

Static’s voice placidly interjects. “We know precisely what you’re paying us for. You made us a sign a contract.”

Onscreen the phone rings. The Asian man hesitates on his way to the door, eyes on the phone.

“C’mon… c’mon…”

Ruben’s eyes flick from Emparo to the screen and back and realises what is going on. “What are you doing? We don’t want him answering…!”

Onscreen the Asian man comes to a decision, turns on his heel and marches out twice as fast as he entered. Emparo collapses his phone.

“Then I guess we got what we want,” he says.

Ruben sticks a finger in his ear. “Get moving! When are you…!”

“We’ve been moving ever since you flipped out. Clear the line. Emparo, how’s the club looking?”

“Packed.”

“Good. We’re taking the stairs. Let me know if the apartment audio picks up anything at all.”

“Got it.”

On the 14th floor Static and Tranch quietly pry open the door. The hall’s quiet. They carefully move out, Static’s coat rasping against the drywall, pistol held in two hands, muzzle down. Tranch is right behind him. The hall’s maroon carpet has been worn down to ferrocrete in a few places, congealed hard in others. Bloody red knives have been painted up and down the hall. Makes the Pang & Lo look like a dollhouse.

(Sternmeyer Type-35 – Static’s weapon) (Dai Lung Streetmaster – Tranch’s weapon)

“The room’s just ahead. No sign of the Asian.”

“Taken the other stairs, maybe.”

Tranch moves into the hall, pistol up, looking back over his shoulder. “Eh, we coulda taken him.”

“Shit,” Static hisses suddenly.

“What,” Tranch hisses, head snapping back, eyes wide..

“What is it,” Emparo snaps, scanning the screens, flipping through views. “Is he there?”

“No, no,” Static’s shaking his head, tapping his glasses. Tiny motes of red light are crawling across his glasses. Letters, numerals, reversed. “I’m getting spammed again.”

Emparo relaxes, breathes. “I thought you were getting that fixed.”

“It was fine up until now.” The lenses clear.

Tranch’s grins to himself. “If you took them up on every offer you’d be hung like a whale.”

“Not that kind. It’s just garbage. Processor must be cracked.” He hitches his glasses further up his nose and refastens his hands around the pistol’s chequered grip. “Gonna have words with the guy who sold them to me. Okay, nice and easy.”

Tranch nods, sweat beading on his cheeks and brow. “No problem.”

They sidle up to the door, Static first, Tranch covering the rear.

“Apartment’s clear. Get in there.”

They move in quickly, Tranch shutting the door behind them.

“You guys look like you need a change of pants.”

“Funny.”

Static and Tranch move straight for the bedroom. The place is freezing, wind and light rain flying in through the shattered glass wall behind the bed. The sheets are soaked with water and blood. The booster is sprawled across and over a corner of the bed, his head an unrecognisable mess, and Lorelai is on the opposite corner, her hair wet hair weakly whipping in the wind. Her chest is a bloody mess, and her left leg is practically hanging off at the knee.

Static turns his head away, hand over his mouth. “Christ, Teach, you could have warned us.”

“I didn’t know what to say.”

Ruben isn’t saying anything. In the hotel room he’s taken to just standing and staring out the window, back to everything. Brainlocked, flipping out, hard to tell.

“Wow,” Tranch says. “That booster had a rifle.”

Static looks at him. “Who cares.”

“No seriously, check it out.” Tranch moves over to the corner near the closet and hefts an assault rifle that’s about five feet long. “Kalashnikov A-80 heavy assault. Dirt common, but he’s tricked it a little. Folding stock, triple cap drum magazine. Nice enough.” He opens the chamber, sniffs it, examines the stock and finish. “Hardly been used even.”

“Leave it.”

“What?”

“It’s evidence, it’s probably stolen, it will be stolen if you steal it, and we can’t take that and the body.”

Tranch slings it across his back. “Sure we can.” He waves his two free hands as proof. Static casts a weary glance at the hidden camera. Emparo smiles to himself. “Search the place.”

Tranch tosses the bed, Static goes for the dresser.

Emparo’s voice comes back over their earbuds. “Guys, something’s happening upstairs. The boosters have noticed something outside.”

Tranch and Static stop what they’re doing and look out the shattered glass wall, across the Justice Court and to the city beyond. They both see it as it slips out of Corporate Plaza to the south, sliding past the massive obelisk of the EBM building, spotlights playing over Burleson, focusing on the room they’re in. The sound of its jet engines is a distant metallic scream rising in pitch as the AV4 closes in.

“Shit,” says Tranch.

“Trauma Team,” says Static. He looks at the wife, and the booster. “One of them had an account.”

“Betting it wasn’t the booster.”

p=. EPISODE THREE

The scream of the ambulance’s engines rises to a valkyrie screech as it bears down on the building, Static says “Take anything suspicious and run for it” before snatching the sandwich and casting quickly about the room.

Wide-eyed, Tranch looks out the shattered window-wall then back to him. “What do you mean ‘suspicious’?”

Static pulls a drawer out, tips it over – empty – and tosses it onto the bed. “Anything out of the ordinary!”

“What, like a dead woman and a headless booster sprawled across a bed hanging over a ledge in full view of the Justice Complex?”

“Nevermind, just run for it.”

Tranch is already headed for the door. “Way ahead of you.”

Static casts one last, quick look around, and is out the door and into the darkened living area just as the AV4’s spotlight sweeps through the bedroom, sending bedclothes and shattered glass flying briefly against the far wall.

“Okay, the club’s half empty and everyone’s focused on that AV. I dunno what’s gonna happen next. The Justice Court camera’s showing it pulling up to a hover outside the bedroom on 14. Looks like they’re going to try and… Jesus.”

Tranch has retreated to the far end of the kitchenette, and Static is in a low crouch in the centre of the living room, trying to get a look at what the AV is doing outside. “What?”

“Get away from the windows.”

“What? Why?”

“The boosters are fighting over a gren… wait, one of them has it.”

“Fighting over what? A grenade?”

From three floors up is the sound of breaking glass, and a dull thump, followed almost immediately by a sound so deafening neither Static nor Tranch hear a thing, but the remainder of the glass wall in the lounge simply vanishes, as does most of the wall between lounge and bedroom, in a flash of bright light.

As time ceases to be any kind of useful concept, Static is belted off his feet and what’s left of the wall and half a burning couch tumble over his head.

“Launcher,” Emparo says. “Tranch? Static? You there?”

“Yeah,” Tranch says, standing up. Noticing a concrete block has punched through the fridge, his blood drains to his boots. “Sorta.”

“Where’s the AV,” Static says, slightly louder than necessary, struggling to his feet. “I don’t hear it.” Plaster falls off him in waves. He looks down to find a tuna and mayo sandwich has been pressed through his fingers. Behind him the television has exploded against the wall, and half the couch has sailed out the window, flaming into the night.

“Dunno,” Emparo says. “It took a direct hit to one fan, another to the roof, and then veered away from the building. The pilot managed to get it into a descending loop around the building. There was a lot of smoke.”

Then something occurs to Static and his eyes widen. “Lorelai.”

He runs into the next room, the air impenetrably thick with plaster dust, the stench of cordite and burning carpet, plastic, cloth, mattress and flesh.

“Ow, dammit…” He hops back out of the room, bubbling glass sticking to his shoes, melting the rubber. The concrete itself is steaming. Two-thirds of the mattress has vanished, the remainder having been thrown through the wall, along with the rest of the bed, into the bathroom where the smashed toilet is weakly pumping a lake into the rest of the apartment, hissing violently as it contacts the blackened concrete of the bedroom. Small bits and pieces of what may be charcoaled bodies have been pushed into far corners. “Great. Did they get her?”

“No way to tell, sorry.”

Tranch peers through what used to be the wall. “Let’s get the hell out of here while we still have legs.”

-

Back in the hotel room in the Demitrov, Koski, Pang & Lo Law Complex, Emparo is flipping between cameras.

Ruben, meanwhile, has devolved into staring wide-eyed, slack-jawed and semi-catatonic at the sight of distant police flashbars drawing closer.

“I’m going to jail,” he keeps saying. “I’m… I’m actually going to go to jail.”

“I think it’s time our stoic little friend levelled with us about what exactly is going on here.”

“You may want to focus more on getting out of there.”

“’More on’ being the operative term,” Tranch mumbles.

“Seriously, the boosters are filtering down from the club to the street level…”

“Why?”

Emparo switches cameras. “Because that’s where the AV set down. It’s on the corner of 4th Street and Rucker, right outside the Citibank Tower. Directly south of the Burleson entrance. The front right fan is toast and there’s a smoking hole in the rear roof. The medics are throwing burning gear out the side door. The boosters minding the bikes were passed over as they went to check the noise, and now they’re headed back, coming up on the AV from behind. The AV’s minigun is front mounted. It can’t cover that. I think they might be in trouble.”

“And the rest of the boosters in here are headed down to help out.”

“Yep, there’s a handful left in the club, the rest have all left. Also, the two solos are disembarking form the AV.”

“How many boosters?”

“Seven.”

“Then they’re dead.”

“Should we help? I mean, they might have the body.”

“I meant the boosters.”

Pause.

“Oh…” Emparo says weakly. “Oh yeah. No worries.”

“ Slaughterhouse is mostly about edged weapons.”

“’Mostly’ being the operative word,” Tranch mumbles.

“I’ve got a plan…”

“I hate your plans.”

“We skip across down the hall to a room behind the stairwells and elevator bays. It should give us a view down to the entrance. It also means that if TT make it up here they won’t find us in this room.”

“That sounds like a plan,” Emparo says.

“’Sounds’ being the…ow.”

“Moving.”

Emparo scrolls through the list of available remotes once more, and his eyes settle on a recent addition. “Guys, this may be of no use whatsoever…”

“What is it?”

“Someone’s landed a personal AV at that Chinese restaurant across the way. I… I think I could probably Hotwire it. I could pilot it to floor 14, or up to the roof. You could escape that way. In a pinch.”

“But you don’t actually want to steal an AV.”

“It’s a Swan. Scandinavian-made. It’s worth two-hundred-thousand euro.”

By the window Ruben screams “ABSOLUTELY NOT! WE’VE VIOLATED ENOUGH…!”

“I’m warming to Emparo’s plan,” Static says, thoughtfully.

“It has merit,” Tranch agrees.

”NO! NO NO NO NO NO!!”

“Okay, let’s try this one.”

Emparo hears Static knock on an apartment door, followed by an enormous boom, and what sounds like splintering wood.

“Moving on.”

Pause.

“Please don’t shoot us!” Knock knock knock. “Anyone home?”

Faintly: “No. Shit.”

Just as a sound like a hundred hyenas with chainsaws emanates from behind the wall between them and the stairwell.

“The party just passed 14,” Tranch says.

p=. EPISODE FOUR

The sound of Static jangling the lock, then a click. “We’re in. Emparo, bring that car around to the balcony of 1402.”

On Floor 14, Static and Tranch flank the worn wooden door leading to suite 1402. The interior is dark, with only a weak lava lamp providing any interior illumination. Tranch clicks his left eye over to low-lite, and Static taps the rear end of the right stem of his glasses, and both lenses glow warmly as his vision shifts to infrared. A strong odour of old laundry, old food and old cigarettes wafts out, beneath which travels the scent of Speedmart patchouli incense. The plaster is falling off the walls in chunks, many craters having been ineptly covered with posters for chromatic metal bands. Static and Tranch look past an entrance alcove, empty, and into a living area with kitchenette just beyond. Furniture of choice is inflatable. Soft rugs of fake fur line the floor three deep, and weird, molten undersea shapes are slowly circling the walls as the lavalamp does its thing. Tranch and Static both click up the resolution of what they’re seeing, and a pair of wide-frightened eyes are seen to be peering at them from behind a plastic inflatable jellybean that could be intended for use as a chair.

The inhabitant of this place has that kind of dark-tan skin you find on people from sunny climes where the sun hasn’t been entirely eclipsed by a citywide sheet of fluorocarbons, smog and burnt-up polymers. Dark hair, probably should have been curly, styled into some kind of immovable rockstar coif. He’s pale, he’s sweaty, he’s wide-eyed, he’s built like a Panzer and looks like he usually takes good care of himself. Despite the fact that he’s wearing nothing but old Y-fronts with the elastic gone, one still gets the impression he’s appearance-conscious… and still would be were it not for the dense collection of hospital-grade narcotics which are, at that very moment, navigating their way through his blood-brain barrier.

“Synth-coke,” Static murmurs to Tranch. “Make’s them paranoid, gives them the sweats.” Static peers at the guy. “Gotta take a lot of it, though.”

“Place like this, I’m just glad it’s not Black Lace.”

Static pokes his head around the corner, lenses glowing a subdued red. “Sir, we’re not with the people upstairs and we’re not looking for trouble. We just want to step out onto your balcony and then we’ll be gone.” He steps into the room, pistol lowered, and notices a handgun on the coffee table between himself and the freaked out bodybuilder hiding behind the giant jellybean. Static raises a placating hand. “My friend and I are just going to step through into the bedroom, and onto the balcony. Is that all right with you?”

Tranch files in behind Static, taking his cue and keeping his gun down. The pistol on the coffee table is a Dai Lung Magnum – it’s what’s known as a polymer one-shot: a plastic gun, one piece, no serviceable parts and no removable magazine. You empty the gun and throw it away. Costs about sixty bucks over the counter and is about as reliable as a two-euro watch. There are a lot of kids out there missing fingers because one of these things blew up in their hand. This one is fluorescent green. Tranch’s gun is also a piece of crap made by the same company, but at least his is an actual gun. It’s a source of embarrassment to him that he had to settle for it, but it was either a cheap gun and a serviceable bike, or a decent gun and taking the bus.

The bodybuilder slowly, nervously stands up, licks his sweaty lips, eyes on the coffee table.

“Hey,” Tranch snaps. “Stay put, you read me, chombatta? We asked you nice.”

The bodybuilder freezes says nothing, but he’s no longer looking at the table.

Static nods. “Okay. See? Friends.” Both he and Tranch back into the bedroom. The interior is lit a subdued, alternating blue by the light filtering through the white gauze curtains hanging before the arched windows behind the bed. The neon logo spread up the side of the Recording Systems building across the street lights the room alternately reddish-blue and whitish-blue as the sign flickers and changes. Old clothes and plastic food containers litter the floor. Two women are unconscious on the bed, naked beneath the bedclothes, and an end-table has been knocked over, the long side of it used to rack up lines of white powder.

“Wow,” Tranch says, forgetting about the guy outside.

“Balcony,” Static says, pistol trained on the door with both hands. “Now.” He coughs up some plaster dust, and looks out the open doors to the night beyond. His ribs hurt and he hopes this is almost over.

-

Back in the Pang & Lo building Emparo is getting a sensor’s eye view of a very expensive personal AV lifting off from the secure parking lot of a hideously expensive Chinese restaurant as a panicked valet calls for help.

“Okay, now Ruben, I need you to get your gear together as quickly as you can. Once the others are aboard I’m going to land this AV in the street just outside the Bay Area Savings and Loan building on Civic. That’s only a block away from where its owner is, so we’re not actually stealing it. He’s going to get it back as good as new. So we’re going to need to take your car and…”

“Forget it!” The accountant slams the receiver rig shut, slings his coat over his arm, takes the rig by the handle and makes for the door. “This job has been a fiasco from the moment I hired you people. What have you done? Nothing I asked for. You’ve made me an accomplice to breaking and entering, to massive property damage, possibly to murder! There are God-knows how many people dead in the streets because of this! And Lorelai? I wanted her observed, recorded. And now she’s dead! Dead because you people couldn’t do your jobs! I… I’m not going anywhere with you… I refuse to… and I most certainly do not expect to receive a bill! Good night to you sir!”

“Mr. Fischer…” Emparo says, eyes still on his screen, tongue edging slightly out of the corner of his mouth as he attempts to navigate the AV between this building and Burleson Tower. He thought for a moment he could see himself through the window, and almost clipped the building because he didn’t turn early enough. “Mr. Fischer I think you’re forgetting something. The Asian gentleman. The one who killed your wife. He was obviously there for a reason, and he obviously killed them for a reason.” He chances a quick look up from the screen. Ruben has stopped in the doorway. “Do you know the reason, Ruben?”

The accountant shakes his head. “No. I’ve never seen him before in my life.”

Emparo guides the AV around to the front of the building (noticing the Trauma Team solos have filed back into their AV and closed the side doors) and brings it to a hover. Then he slowly begins to raise altitude. “Well, that’s something to be concerned about then. You’re involved with a killer now, and you don’t know what he wants. What we do know is that he is capable of murder, and so far is capable of making a getaway. He has killed your wife, Mr. Fischer, and for all we know you may be next. The only people who know about this… are us. You can’t very well expect the police to protect you without first implicating yourself. Your options are very limited. In short, Ruben, we are the only people who can help you, and so it behooves you to ensure that we get out of this in one piece. So please, go start the car and I’ll be downstairs in just a moment.”

Emparo chances another glance, and finds Ruben a crumpled and shaking mess. The little accountant nods, slump-shouldered, and heads out. “I’ll… I’ll see you downstairs.” And he’s gone.

After a moment Emparo lets out a long breath.

“Hey. Hey! Down. Back down. You missed us.”

“Oh, right, sorry.” Emparo adjusts thrust. “I was just sorting something out. Listen, have I ever mentioned my brother?”

-

The Swan hovers delicately above the concrete balustrade of the 14th floor balcony, so much quieter than Trauma Team’s shrieking AV. Wind whips Tranch’s hair as he tries to work up the guts to climb up and step across the divide.

The side door unlocks with a pneumatic clunk and opens gently upwards. The interior is comforting and cosy, dark-lit-green like the cockpit of a fighter plane. No one is driving.

“Be quick,” Emparo says. “I think the valet went to get the owner. He might try to regain control of this if we don’t hurry.”

Tranch looks over the fourteen-storey drop, and swallows. “Oh crap.”

Static backs out onto the balcony, gun still trained on the bedroom door. “Come on, come on.” There is movement from the living room. “Dammit.” Static clicks his Sternmeyer off safety.

Tranch shoves his pistol into his belt and climbs up. “Shitshitshitshitshit…” The AV hovers before him, shifting slightly in the same wind that is making Tranch’s boots feel so uncertain atop the balustrade.

The weightlifter lurches through the bedroom door, pistol in hand, wide-eyed and staring.

“Sir, please drop the gun!”

The bodybuilder seems to see this stranger in his apartment for the first time, draws a quick deep breath and the large green gun comes up level with Static’s head. The room is lit twice by muzzleflash. The first round sails past Static’s knee and takes a crater out of the balustrade. The second brushes past his gun arm and punches a hole the size of a silver dollar into the metallic-finish of the AV’s rear-left airfan. It lurches suddenly, emitting a disturbing crunching sound, and the fan goes dead but Emparo manages to maintain control.

Tranch throws himself in and scrambles over into the passenger seat, hauling his pistol out as he does so, while simultaneously trying to wrestle the assault rifle off his back.

In a universe about a half-millimetre to the left of this one, Static just had his left arm blown off above the elbow. He pulls the trigger.

The Sternmeyer lets out two airy, plosive coughs and the bodybuilder’s right thigh explodes. The mangled limb abruptly gives way beneath him, and he collapses horribly to the ground, blood spilling from him as if being poured from a bucket. On the floor, without even quite looking at Static in particular, the bodybuilder raises the gun again. For a brief moment Static can’t quite believe what he’s seeing, that this man is still going, and he is filled with a sudden and deep regret for the way in which this has played out. And in doing so loses the one chance to save his own life as the green gun’s black eye comes level with his own.

Tranch topples out the driver-side door and looses two shots from pistol. One round blows a hole in the far wall, the other blows a hole in the weightlifter’s abdomen and the man collapses backward with a yell. The gun thuds to the carpet in the far corner.

Nothing happens after that. The bodybuilder lies there, his body strobing blue-red, blue-white in the light through the window. One of the women mumbles, and rolls over in her sleep.

The wind is cold against Static’s face, as downstairs he hears the first of the boosters crash through the front doors of Burleson Tower and the AV4’s minigun cycles out a thousand rounds a minute – a warcry even Slaughterhouse can’t compete with. “That was… pointless.”

Tranch taps Static on the shoulder. “We gotta go.”

There is a slight tremor in the foundations of the building as Trauma Team’s sustained fire whittles quickly and efficiently away at any cover Slaughterhouse had: a tree, concrete walls, support pillars. The wail of sirens is now distinct and pronounced, and a handful of NCPD prowlcars converge from several directions, rubber screaming as they corner around and TT abruptly cuts the fire. The street is filled by a pall of pulverised concrete, good cover by which to make an escape.

Static turns and climbs into the AV, and Emparo closes the door.

“Here we go.”

The AV pivots gracefully about, and with a soft jetstream song disappears around the corner of Burleson Tower.

p=. EPISODE FIVE

Emparo managed to guide the damaged AV7 down to a perfect landing in a spare kerbside parking slot outside Bay Area Savings & Loan. The left-rear fan was huffing and crunching the whole way, but other than that the ride was smooth and unsuspicious.

It’s almost 8:30pm and the restaurant crowd is out and about a block to the west. From where they’re standing Static and Tranch have got a pretty good view of a flight of three NCPD AVs take off from the roof pads of the dark blue mirrored glass monolith that is the Municipal Criminal Justice Complex – affectionately known as the MuCJuC. They rise, pivot, and head quickly toward Burleson, their flashbars snapping red-and-blue.

“You think we got out okay,” Tranch asks, watching them cross the sky above the Justice Complex.

Static fishes a cigarette out of his coat, wincing only slightly. “I think so.” He lights up, and looks at Tranch sidelong. “Listen…”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I know you’re good, but I don’t know if you could have jury-rigged a whole new arm for me.”

“We’re cool.”

There’s almost no foot traffic here at this time on a weeknight. A block to the west it’s a little busier. Tranch glances around, trying not to look nervous. He’s stashed the assault rifle under the AV7 until Emparo gets here with Ruben.

Across the street the library is closed for the night, floodlights throwing up yellow glow like a monster effect over the mismatched buildings that make up Night City’s repository of records and knowledge. No unified style whatsoever. Total disaster.

A small blue citycar pulls up next to the AV7 and barples its horn. Trapped inside, behind the wheel, Ruben looks like a puppy in a pound. Obviously he almost wishes he were dead. Driving a car like that, Tranch can understand why.

Toyo-Chevrolet Hopper (p33 CB4)

Tranch looks at Static. “I thought we were gonna head into the Combat Zone.”

“Get in.”

“Shit…”

They shuffle into the back. “Nice work, Ruben,” Static says. “Good to know we’re with someone who can keep their head in a tight corner. We got a direction?”

“I don’t know,” the accountant says, his hands flexing nervously on the wheel. “I… I’ve never been south past 19th street. Can’t… can’t we hide out somewhere else? Somewhere safer?”

Emparo turns around. “I was going to see if maybe my brother could get us an escort, or even a ride… but phone reception’s crap in the Zone. Either that or he’s got his turned off.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Static says. “We’re still on Plan A. We just keep tweaking it, is all.” He taps Ruben’s headrest. “Better get moving, Mr. Fischer. We’re parked next to a stolen vehicle.”

Miserably, Ruben presses down on the accelerator and the little car rolls forward. Tranch watches the AV7 slip away behind them, and Ruben turns south past the library.

Static smiles at Emparo. “Hell of a piece of flying you did there, Teach.”

“I really hope we don’t get caught for doing that.”

“You stole an AV7,” Ruben explodes, slapping his moist palms against the wheel. “I didn’t ask you to do that!”

In the back seat Tranch looks sidelong at Static.

“He got the car back, it’s all fine, I don’t think the owner’s going to be going after anyone.”

Emparo looks back at him. “What do you mean?”

“He’s only just gotten out of a year in hospital having his nervous system reconstructed.”

Emparo’s brow furrows. “How do you know that?”

“I went through the glove compartment on the way over here. Drivers license, a long-standing hospital parking chit, and records and receipts from his last few visits were all stuffed in there. Probably why he’s got an AV with autopilot.” Static claws his hands in front of his face and shudders them. “The ol’ hand-eye isn’t what it used to be.”

“You stole a cripple’s car,” Ruben sulks. “Great. Just great.”

“So…” Emparo says. “So… are you hurt? You look okay.”

“Just a scratch. Could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.” Static eyes Emparo over the top of his glasses. “Smooth piece of work, gentlemen. I got us in there, you got us through there, Tranch got us out of there.”

“Was it worth it?”

“We’ve got more questions than answers at this stage. I’m calling that a ‘qualified yes’.”

Tranch snorts. “Optimist.”

“I certainly hope so.”

“Who… who do you think he was. That guy, I mean…”

The humour slowly evaporates from Static’s demeanour, and eventually he just shrugs. “Question for the ages.” Outside Tranch’s window the monoliths of Corporate Centre watch their tiny car as it moves on a diagonal toward them, past an upscale hotel and the gold-and-glass fronted fashion store – Ashcroft and Hammersmith – attached to it. “Hey, that reminds me,” Static says. “I need to buy a coat.”

“What? No. If the police are after us…”

“Don’t think like a criminal and you won’t be treated like one.”

“Then why are we going into the Zone at all,” Tranch says. “If we made a clean getaway, why not stay in the city? Hell, why not stay with Ruben?”

“No way! No… no I absolutely draw the line…”

“We don’t know that we made a clean getaway,” Static says. “If we spend a little time out of the area we can see how all of this shakes out over the news services tomorrow. Emparo here can check netspace and see if there’s anything we should be aware of. That way if someone is on to us, we’re not going to be where they can find us.”

“If we’re doing stopovers,” Tranch says, levelly. “I’m getting my bike.”

-

Tranch, Static, Emparo and Ruben sit in a mostly-empty food court in The Town Centre, a small urban mall in Corp Centre, worryingly close to Burleson Tower. Unlike most malls this place is focused on a more mature clientele. Patrons are mainly those that live in the nearby condos, hotel guests, tourists and corporate employees. It’s 10:28pm, Static and Tranch are polishing off a sushi dinner while Emparo sips a soda and Ruben looks around like a poisoned man waiting to die. Tranch is in shirtsleeves, his coat absent.

“How much longer do we have to sit here,” he asks, weakly.

“Not much longer, the girls at FashionGuy are finishing off my coat now and then we can get out of here. Have some sushi.”

Ruben shakes his head.

“You know,” Emparo says. “Ruben may have a point. We may actually be in danger. We never saw the Asian guy again. Did he make it out the building? Did he hide in a different room and wait it out? Did he see us fly off from the 14th floor? Does he care? Was someone else watching the whole debacle? Why exactly was that booster targeted? Is she, and by extension Ruben, and by extension us now involved in something really nasty? A few too many unanswered questions.”

Around a cheekful of nori roll, Static says, “This is Night City. Everything here is dangerous. The Combat Zone, the upper set, the street… That booster that Tranch took down was dangerous. Loreli was dangerous. Hell, you and your deck are two of the most dangerous things I’ve encountered all day. The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”

Emparo nods, doing his best to look like he hasn’t heard this before. “Do you think no-one else is interested in what happened in that room? Someone was interested enough to send someone to kill two people. I am not the only netrunner who can tap into cameras, and there were plenty in that area.”

“Did we actually do anything illegal,” Tranch suggests.

Emparo looks at him. “Illegal? Illegal is not relevant. You only have to know too much or have some other random reason for Someone With Resources to have you rubbed out.”

“What are you saying?”

Emparo looks at both of them. “Look, I like working with you. We’ve done some good jobs, made a little money. I’m pretty happy with it. But…”

Static looks concerned. “But what?”

“Well… I don’t feel certain that my job is safe.”

Static raises his hands. “Guys, guys. Let’s go over what we know for certain.” He counts off on his fingers. “One, Ruben’s wife was having an affair, presumably with a member of Slaughterhouse. Two, someone called her during her last meeting. Three, an Asian man knew where they were and killed them both. Four, we have the entire incident on camera. Five, one of the deceased had an account with Trauma Team. Six, she seemed to choke on a tuna sandwich, which I saved. Shit.” Static turns in his seat.

“What?”

“I left it in my coat pocket.” He shrugs. “Ah well. Anyway, the question now is: what do we infer from all of this? Where do we go with it?”

“I’d like to go home,” Ruben says.

“Laying low ‘til tomorrow sounds like a good idea,” Tranch admits. “If we go deep enough into the Zone no one’s going to bother us. Not between now and then.”

“I’m all for crashing for as little time as we need,” Static says, to placate Ruben. “Don’t want to outstay our welcome.”

“We’re not crashing with my people,” Emparo says. “We’ll find someplace nearby where Zeb can check you out and I can get a decent link to the net.”

“Zeb,” Static asks.

“My brother. He’s a qualified medic, does some work for the community in the Zone. That’s the other thing: my family doesn’t live deep-Zone. They’re in the section of semi-abandoned tract housing between here and the Zone itself. Still not popular with the police, but not the full-tilt nightmare that the actual Zone can be.”

“When were you last there,” Tranch asks.

“A few months ago. The family’s got themselves parked and circled in some old factory space, living out of RVs and stuff. There’s a mall or two in the area run by locals that still does decent trade, and a couple of more prominent elders organise defense against encroachment from the Zone. It’s not Beverly Hills, but it’s free and it’s ours. We’ll be staying in a totally different block and pay whoever it is whose space we’re occupying. We will also pay when we get out safe, and that combined with the fact that my brother and I are locals should hopefully mean people will look out of us.”

Tranch looks up from his bowl of miso. “’Hopefully.’”

“Each clan looks after its own. There’s two or three families using that area. If its no trouble for them I’m sure they’ll cover our backs.”

Tranch goes back to his soup.

Lady Trouble (2)

Lady Trouble

Cyberpunk 2020 Bandatta