Lady Trouble (2)

The Combat Zone. Every modern American city has one: a burned-out sprawl of tenements, abandoned factories, boarded-up offices and trashed shopping malls, occupied only by the desperate, the devious and the dead.

Night City’s CZ lies somewhere south of the central City as shown on most Chamber of Commerce maps. For the first few miles this region is mostly made up of residential areas; blocks and blocks of nearly-identical tract housing interspersed with small businesses. Further south likes the area actually known as the Combat Zone, with its miles of burned-out wasteland.

There’s no clear definition of where the residential area ends and the CZ begins. Things just tend to degrade gradually, getting worse and worse until the neighbourhood is finally at the level of a post-holocaust hellhole. Entire police teams have disappeared in the Zone, and not even Trauma Team will go in there without state-of-the-art firepower. No streetlamps, no monitor cameras, no cops. Firefights are a way of life, drugs are a way of choice and brutal, sudden death is a constant option.

“A stray round from a .22 would pass through that car like it wasn’t even there,” Tranch mumbles over their earbuds. He’s on his bike about a half block behind. He bought it as-new second-hand from a corp in Northside who was jumping the pond for a better life in an arcology somewhere outside Liverpool. It’s not smarted, but it runs on rechargeable power cells. What it lacks in groin-level grunt it makes up in fuel savings. Plus his girlfriend likes it, which clinched the deal.

It’s getting close to 10:30pm as Emparo and Static watch the comforting firelight of Night City central give way to the wilderness that is everything south of 23rd Street. The polish begins to fall away from the façade, lit windows begin fade away, the moon becomes a brighter spot behind the clouds as streetlight becomes rarer and the silence is unsettling in its own right.

“How far south are we headed,” Static asks, working his shoulders. He’s wearing his coat again, and the new Kevlar lining is proving a bit stiff. It’ll wear in, in time. And the girls at FashionGuy were nice enough to give him his sandwich back, to boot.

“About ten kilometres.”

“A lot can change down here in three months,” Tranch says.

“Did you manage to get your brother on the phone?”

Emparo shakes his head. “My folks only use radio, so I can’t contact them, either.”

“Radio?”

“Yeah. Let’s them keep in touch with the rest of the clan and that’s all they need. They figure they don’t need to be talking to the outside world as long as they’ve got each other.”

A woman, all legs, totters out of the darkness of a skeletal bus shelter, waving at Ruben’s citycar with one fishnet-gloved hand, asking if they’re looking for something. Her eyes flash like a cat’s as stray light reflects across her corneas. Ruben fixes his eyes on the road and keeps driving.

-

“So, Ruben,” Static says from the back seat. “Who was Lorelai, anyway?”

The accountant’s eyes flick to the rear view mirror, and the passenger in the back. Looks like he’s been told there’s a bomb under his seat. “What… what do you mean. She was my wife.”

“Debbie’s your wife.”

“We did a cursory check on you before taking the job,” Emparo says. “Standard procedure.”

“It’s no big deal, Fisch. You’re a young guy, we’re young guys, we know how it is. What was it, an office romance?”

“No,” Ruben snaps. “I love my wife! I…” His eyes buckle, and then overflow, as he remembers for the fifteenth time everything that happened tonight. “Oh God,” he wails.

Emparo glances at Static, unsure, then reaches over and places a hand on Ruben’s arm. The car’s beginning to drift into the next lane. “Hey,” he says. “Hey, it’s…” Emparo wonders if maybe he should just grab the wheel. “It’s okay.”

“I’m going to jail,” he wails and drops his forehead onto the wheel. The car drifts back the way it came. Ruben pounds his head against the naugahyde. “Why, why, why did I think this was a good idea? Why?”

Outside the world is dark, lit only by the toy car’s headlights and the occasional burning drum around which are gathered indistinct shapes. Static eyes them warily as they roll past. From rooftops collections of children hoot down at them, spider monkeys in the moonlight.

“I hate kids,” Tranch mumbles.

Ruben abruptly raises his head, sniffs hard, and wipes his eyes with the back of one hand. “No,” he spits. “Lorelai wasn’t an… an ‘office romance.’ I wouldn’t have touched someone like that. I… I just heard that she was cheating on her real husband. Timothy van der Beek. That fucking sideshow. I… oh hell all right, I wanted to blackmail her. I wanted to use her against him.”

Static looks at Emparo, silently asking Who?

Emparo thinks for a moment. “He’s a reformed booster, isn’t he? Works for a company in Night City as a motivational speaker.”

“Crock of shit…,” mumbles Ruben. “He can’t get anyone to take him seriously.”

Emparo fills Static in. “His whole angle is about having journeyed out of his personal abyss, gained a kind of humanitarian enlightenment via the dissolution and reconstruction of his own personality. Now he wants to impart what he’s learned to the corporate set for application in a commercial and business environment.”

“And a fat fee,” Ruben mumbles.

Static smiles unhelpfully. “You’ve lost me.”

“He went psycho. Borg Squad brought him down. He had all the tech stripped from him that wouldn’t kill him, and went through a couple of years of state-enforced deep psychotherapy and rehab. Fortunately for him he hadn’t succeeded in committing any capital offences that they could convict him of, so he got out after a five to ten year stint. And now he’s doing Power Hours at various offices around town.”

“Christ, people’ll buy anything,” Tranch mumbles.

“So what’s your beef with van der Beek,” Static says.

“I want to get promoted,” Ruben says. “That’s all. I was just… trying to be proactive.” He sighs. “I work for Night City Financial and Investment. van der Beek works for Night City Assured Mutual. They’re our only rivals for the small-scale, local business that keeps us running. The big accounts, it’s all Merril, Asukaga and Finch. But NCFI and NCAM… we handle the everyday stuff. We’ve been at each other for years, trying to screw each other out of bits and pieces of our respective client bases. We offer a discount tax package to senior citizens, they give away three months of food vouchers with every over-fifty life insurance policy. They offer intensive valuation on existing urban property for rental property owners, and we…”

“I liked it better when we were being shot at.”

Ruben continues on, regardless. “I’ve been in that job for longer than I can remember. Second floor, Cubicle 12.” He closes his eyes and his shoulders heave and drop. “Debbie,” he says. “She always wants me to take the initiative at work, get noticed. Well, a couple of weeks ago a J12 crossed my desk. A casting company needed their books done for the last few months and I noticed almost straight away: a customer named Lorelai van der Beek is hiring the same actor every week for a private function. I check the name, confirm Lorelai is actually Tim van der Beek’s wife, and that the ‘function’ is at the same cheap hotel room every Friday.”

Static leans forward. “Wait a minute. You mean…”

“The booster wasn’t a booster. Just some actor she hired to service her once a week.”

“That explains his nice wallet,” Emparo says. “I thought that was odd.”

“Anyway, I wanted to get the dirt on her, and then use her to get info from Tim on what NCAM were up to next. That way I could take the initiative at work, maybe even run NCAM out of business, maybe get promoted. Make Debbie proud of me.”

Static slumps back into his seat.

“Gentlemen,” Tranch says, “This, is bullshit.”

“So who called Lorelai before she was killed,” Static asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Who’s the Asian guy?”

“I don’t know.”

Static goes back to looking out the window, rubbing thumb and forefinger back across his lips. “Emparo, how far have we got to go?”

“Not far.” Emparo’s phone bleeps and he unfolds it. “Hey, I’ve been trying to call you. Yeah. Yeah. I’m coming home for a day or so, I’ll explain it when I get there. Yep. Sounds good. Where is that again? Okay, see you in ten.” He clicks it shut. “That was Zeb. We’re going to meet him at a bar for a couple of drinks, and then head back to my parents’ place.”

“Works for me,” Tranch says.

-

The thing about the Zone and everything around it is, if it hasn’t been wasted it doesn’t get wasted. To illustrate: the Eight Ball is a bar. Back in the day the Eight Ball had been a bar, and then it collapsed into the street. Straight down to the sewers. So what it is now is three wrecked brownstone walls standing around a crater, which has taken a bite out of a hundred-year-old brick-walled subterranean shit river. There’s a shattered ten-by-ten foot pipe jutting from the north and south walls of the crater, on the bottom. Halfway down between street level and the bottom there’s the remains of the Eight Ball’s basement. Now it’s a kind of jagged ferrocrete mezzanine looking over the bottom of the pit itself – a shallow-curve bowl with the remains of a bricked channel running through it. Sometimes it’s used as a dance floor but more often is a combat arena. Entrants enter from the north and south pipe and fight for beer money. No one’s been killed – it’s not that kind of place, fists only, and generally the combatants spend the rest of the night drinking together – but management doesn’t clean off the blood. That’s kind of the whole point. The blood’s history, just as much as the graffiti and the one-eyed septuagenarian who has her own stool at the bar and has hit on everyone in the place at least three times and wont stop making the same joke about how being toothless has its benefits.

Sheets of cast-off iron and steel have been riveted together and laid across tops of the remaining walls as a kind of roof. The entrance is through the missing wall, which has been fronted off with cyclone fencing, an old truck body, a couple of vending machines and more riveted-together plating. When it rains the central channel of the bottom floor tends to fill, and the dirt bowl get a bit slippery, but generally the patrons stay dry once they know where to sit.

Ruben’s little blue citycar pulls up and parks alongside a varied rack of serious looking motorcycles.

The guy on the door is a twenty-something year old kid in a kilt with a shock of blonde-white hair a frame-modified A-80 Assault Rifle slung under his arm. The bare legs beneath the kilt are superchromed metal, and there’s a triple-row of interface plugs at his temples. A single, thin fiberoptic trails down from one to the rifle. He’s leaning back against one of the vending machines and rolling a smoke. Light pours from the door and the cracks between the truck body and the vending machines, while from inside the sound of a good night can be heard.

“Hey fellas,” he says. “Long time no see, Emp. Zeb’s waiting for you inside.”

“How are you, Angus.”

“Pretty sweet. We’re expecting our first kid in six months.”

“Congratulations.”

The boy smiles. “Thanks. By the way, your folks are on the radio wondering where you are. Want me to let ‘em know?”

“Sure. Tell them we won’t be long.”

The kid salutes two fingers off his forehead, does something with his jaw, and begins subvocalising as the group walk by. The hand painted sign above the door says ten euro, but it looks like the fee’s been waived.

“My car,” Ruben whispers. “We can’t just leave it out there.”

“Angus’ll watch it,” Emparo says. “We won’t be long.”

Behind the door is a fat, ragged half-moon of ferrocrete looking down into the pit, lit by emergency lamps strung on cables, giving off segmented light patterns. Stairs have been built down to it on either side of the half-moon, and tables line the sides closest to the walls. A curved bartop has been erected along the inner lip of the half-moon, to give patrons a comfortable drinker’s view of the action below. The bar itself is off to the right of the main door. It’s almost midnight, and the crowd here is relaxing into a loud, raucous evening.

Most of the crowd are nomads. Easy enough to tell by the leathers, the higher-than-average use of visible armour, the clan tattoos, the braids, the occasional roadkill draped across a shoulder or two, the preference for large-calibre revolvers, and the racks of motorcycles outside.

Emparo looks around, then his face lights up and he strides to a corner table. Seated there is a thin, weathered-looking young man with a mess of black hair, drinking dark liquor from a glass jar with the aid of a well-used cyberarm. He’s dressed in fatigues, combat boots, and wears a pocketed canvas jacket.

Emparo beams down at this young man, stuffs his hands in his pockets and rocks excitedly on the balls of his feet. “Zeb, hey, wow, it’s good to see you.”

The young man looks up. “Hey there. These are your friends, then?”

Emparo nods. “Yep. Yep. Ah, this is Tranch, Static and Ruben. Guys, this is my brother, Zeb. He’s a doctor.”

(Zebedee “Zeb” Teach)

Zeb nods, finishes his drink. “Paramedic. Emparo said one of you were hurt?”

Static waves it away. “It’s nothing, just a little bruising.”

“Take off your coat.”

Static pauses a moment at this individual’s brusque manner, then shrugs, and slips his coat off. Zeb stands, as Static remembers the sandwich in his coat pocket and tentatively extracts it before it oozes out of the plastic baggie the FashionGuy girls scraped it into. He plops it onto the table and unbuttons his shirt.

“What the hell’s that,” Zeb says.

“Tuna sandwich,” Static says. “I need to get it analysed.”

“Give it here.”

Static looks from Zeb to the sandwich and back. “Why?”

Zeb just looks tolerant and makes a gimme motion.

A smile on his face but brow furrowing, Static takes the bag off the table and hands it over. Emparo’s brother takes the bag, opens it, sticks his nose in and takes one deep, protracted whiff. Then he clips the bag shut and drops it onto the table. He fishes a cigarette and Zippo from his top pocket, flipsnaps the lighter open and flames up his smoke. He clicks the lighter shut, repockets it, and then rolls up the sleeve of his jacket. He shows Static the underside of his meat arm. “There you go.”

What Static is looking at is a brightly-lit subdermal LCD viewscreen shining up through the skin of Zeb’s arm. Five lines at a time it’s showing a complete chemical breakdown of the contents of the plastic baggie.

“Looks like a tuna sandwich to me,” Zeb says. “With mayo. 58% kibble.”

Static nods. “Yeah… yeah I guess so.” He looks from the screen to Zeb’s face, quizzical. “Neat trick.”

“Handy for a chemist.”

“When…” Emparo interjects. “When did you get that done?”

“While back,” Zeb says, squinting through his smoke, exhaling a plume. “Let’s see the damage.”

Standing this close to Emparo’s brother, Static notices two bright interface plugs – one in each temple just beneath the hairline. There was another set on his wrists. The cyberarm’s myomar musculature bunches and flexes as Zeb opens Static’s shirt and he checks the bruising. Ugly purple welts have clouded up either side of his ribcage.

“So what happened?”

“Wall exploded.”

“Exploded?”

“Boom,” Static says, illustratively.

Zeb stands back and surveys the group speculatively, eyes narrowed. He comes to a conclusion. “You were at a hotel tonight. In the city.”

At the rear of the group Tranch closes his eyes and swears.

Emparo steps forward. “How did…”

“We made the news,” says Static.

“You’re wanted,” says Zeb. “Not you two,” he points to Emparo and Ruben. “Just you two.” He gestures to Static and Tranch.

Tranch shoves past Ruben. “What?”

“Cops have footage of you in that room.”

Emparo groans. “The Justice Complex camera…”

“I thought you hacked that,” Tranch explodes.

“I did! I got control of it, and I tapped the feed, but that wouldn’t stop the feed. I’d need to hack their datafortress for that and I don’t have the gear!”

Tranch grabs him by the collar, reefing him close and onto the tips of his shoes. “What, and you just forgot to mention that little detail?”

There’s an instantaneous sound, swishing and insect like, from all around. Lots of clicks.

The bar has become suddenly very quiet.

Tranch slowly puts Emparo back down, and straightens his coat. He composes himself, and does his best to smile.

Every gun in the place is trained on Tranch’s head.

Zeb makes a flat-palmed downward gesture, and slowly everyone puts away their hardware.

“We’re pretty much all family here,” says Zeb. “Emparo may have taken a different path, but he’s still with us.” He hands Static his coat. “It’s just bruising. Nothing’s cracked. You’ll be fine in three or four days. I’ve got painkillers if you need ‘em.”

-

“Things aren’t too different around here,” Zeb says. They’re back in Ruben’s citycar, Tranch tailing behind. “We’ve managed to get some of the old buildings back into shape, got some power running. The Zone’s encroaching though. I keep telling them we should have moved further north, but they wouldn’t listen. Now Warrior Heart has made a few appearances. Mrs. Ventura’s doing what she can to push them back anytime one of their parties wanders into our area, but it’s only a matter of time before they get a toehold. This kind of decay and encroachment is as old as the Zone.”

“Who’s Mrs. Ventura,” Static asks.

“She does most of the organising for our area. Gets the men into cohesive units, arranges for arms and training. Coordinates perimeter defense, as well as making sure our supplies are constant.”

“Zeb’s her medic,” Emparo says.

“She keeps me on call, in case anyone gets hurt. Freeman got me the job.”

“Freeman’s our brother,” Emparo says.

“Yeah,” Zeb laughs. “He’s her fucking accountant. Your little friend up front would probably love him.” He points out across Static’s seat, out the window. “Those are the apartments we got power to last week. Some families are in there now. And across the road there is the factory Mrs. Ventura got up and working again. Turned it into a garage. We get most of the vehicles serviced there now. The relentless march of fucking progress, writ large, right here.”

-

Ruben drove two blocks further south, past a burned-out mini mall and more decaying office and factory spaces, before turning right. In the hollowed out shell of another factory the clan had pulled in some of their vehicles, the streets outside becoming a community in their own right as well with vans, trailers, trucks and the like having turned streets into laneways between vehicles, awnings and mobile homes.

Zeb rolls up his sleeve. His forearm skin glows as he checks his skinwatch. “Folks’ll be asleep by now. Say hello in the morning. In the meantime you can crash with me.”

Zeb’s got a trailer outside the two central factory spaces. “Two beds, kitchenette, a couch. Space on the floor. Bed’s mine. I’ll let you sort out the rest amongst yourselves.” He opens the door, which was unlocked, and turns on the lights. “Anyone want a drink.”

“Yo,” says Tranch. Emparo passes and Static figures why not. Ruben says “Yes, please.”

Inside isn’t exactly what most would call squalid, but it is more like a locker room than a home. Zeb turns on the small TV above the sink on the way to the bed-section at the far end. “Help yourselves. Everything’s in the fridge. Get me two-fingers of Hobson’s while you’re at it.”

Cupboards and closet are closed, things are where they’re meant to be, but it’s also a place that says the person who lives here is in and out a lot. A pair of boots are lopsided by the sink, the main bed isn’t made and the one at the opposite end has clothes on it. The blinds are half-drawn and a medical kit looks like it was just left there on the way to or from something else. What gets Emparo’s attention is what’s lying strewn on the main bed, beneath underwear, socks and a scattering of still-sealed slap patches.

“Wow,” he says. “That’s really… professional. When did you get that?”

Zeb looks over. “Hm? Oh, Mrs. Ventura got it for me. Part of my contract package.”

What they’re looking at is an urban blue/grey patterned jumpsuit, with a matching set of hard-shell armour. There’s even a helmet.

“Combat medical armour,” Zeb says, rifling through his closet. “Latest BodyWeight Systems design.”

Emparo goes and takes a closer peek. It really is quite beautiful, and it looks like each piece does more than just protect the wearer. “Must be expensive,” he says. Zeb just shrugs.

“Here y’go.” He emerges from the closet and lobs a half-used blister pack to Static. “Should ease any discomfort you’re feeling. Where’s my drink?”

“Hey hey hey,” Tranch says, snapping his fingers for attention. “Lookit the TV.”

Onscreen, in grainy colour, the police AVs circle the Burleson Tower. On the street a wide cordon has been established, and leather-clad cops are keeping people back behind the line. The Trauma Team AV is where they last saw it, still faintly smoking from its wounds to the front and top. Briefly, the screen flashes a gory snippet of tens of chewed up boosters strewn across Rucker Street, outside the pocked and blasted cavity that was once the lobby. Two Solos are seen behind the line answering questions, while another cop looks incredulously at the enormous rifle he confiscated from one of them.

The scene cuts to an interview with someone the subtitle says is Detective Sgt. Eugene Estacado of the NCPD.

The cop is wearing a very nice, very expensive trenchcoat of smoothed sharkskin with a wide ribbed collar. His shirt is white silk, the tie embossed with hundreds of coiled Chinese dragons. Offscreen the reporter asks about the situation, and the cop takes the thin-stemmed pipe from his mouth and speaks.

No one really hears what he’s saying, to begin with.

Only the lower half of the cop’s face is exposed. His eyes, eyebrows and the bridge of his nose are concealed behind oversized mirrorshades affixed to his head. His entire cranium is armoured, and in the centre of his forehead a third eye swivels and focuses on the reporter.

“Jeeeezus…” Tranch exhales.

“Wow,” Zeb concedes.

“That’s a little unsettling,” Static says.

Emparo leans in and turns up the volume.

“… gone wrong. It seems that Trauma Team was indeed responding to a broken card on the 14th floor just after the incident took place, when they were fired upon from the 20th floor with some form of hand-held high-explosive munition.”

“I see. And the two men wanted in relation to this tragedy?”

“We have security footage of two individuals…”

The image shifts to a still of a thin man in a long coat and a broad, dark-haired man in leathers standing in the bedroom. The shot is taken from across the street, through the shattered glass window. They are standing over the scene of carnage, armed. Green brackets flash into existence around their head and shoulders, and hi-res close-ups of the two move forward and fill the screen.

It is Static and Tranch. Their real names are printed large beneath the portraits.

“Anyone knowing the whereabouts of these men should inform their nearest NCPD sector house, as they are wanted for questioning. No attempt should be made to approach them.”

Tranch stands slack-jawed. Ruben quietly begins to cry.

“Wow,” Zeb says. “Looks like you guys are in deep shit.”

Episode 6

Emparo steps out of the nighttime factory space – the place where his parents have their Winnebago parked with the trucks and RVs of the other, older people in the clan. The younger kids have their rides outside, a circle of nocturnal party people protecting their parents.

His mother hadn’t been in – she hardly ever is – but his father had been. She’s taken to sitting on the rooftops of the factory spaces around here, he said. Less cramped. Makes her feel as if she’s alone in the world, he says. Doesn’t make her skin itch quite so much.

Dad always puts a brave face on it, but Emparo knows how alone he is. It makes him think of Zeb.

That trick his brother performed with Static’s sandwich… that was new. So was the subdermal viewscreen in his arm. He wonders what else might have changed with his brother since the last time they met. There was something different to Zebedee now, a crueller edge. Emparo knows what it means; he’s seen it before, with his mother, in the days when everything changed with her. She didn’t have a choice; Zeb does.

He looks up at obsolete power lines, phone cables. Admires the fact that the clan’s managed to get some juice back to some of them. Thinks about Zeb’s mention of Warrior Heart, how the boostergang has been making a slow encroachment into the area, and wonders how long Mrs Ventura’s militia can keep them at bay.

Emparo remembers when Mrs Ventura had first appeared: just set up camp amongst them and started to organise. It was the women, first, who really started to listen to what she had to say. Emparo remembers a lot of thoughtful faces, a lot of nodding. Then it was the men who came onboard. Reluctantly at first – organising into squads, squads being assigned, camaraderie building up – and as results were had the genius of Mrs Ventura’s planning could no longer be denied. Now many of the women darkly refer to Mrs Ventura as their husbands’ second wife.

He thinks of Zeb again, and that suit of medical armour Mrs Ventura had bought him. State-of-the-art. Wonders why he doesn’t feel comfortable, why it feels as if his family’s command of their own future is being slowly and steadily eased from their grasp. Maybe it’s two generations of nomad impulse; maybe it’s something else.

His father had shown him a box of cigars, and a gun. A compact little old world-looking automatic. “Stolbovoy,” his dad had said. “Russian. Mrs Ventura gave one to me when Zebbie signed up with her. Gave one to Zeb as well. I suppose he mentioned how your mother and I wanted to revisit the old country some day. Very hard to get over here, these guns. Very hard.” The cigars had been real, as well. Mexican.

Emparo looks to the rooftops, and thinks of his mother sitting up there, somewhere, alone, watching the dawn.

-

Closing the door behind himself, Emparo finds Static and Tranch have set up Ruben’s surveillance receiver on Zeb’s Formica breakfast table and are going over the footage frame by frame. Rain clatters lightly off the aluminium roof.

“Found anything?”

“We think so,” Static says. Emparo comes over and sits down. No sign of his brother anywhere. Ruben’s asleep on the guest bed.

“Zeb stepped out for a minute. Check this.” Static turns the receiver so Emparo can see the screens. Emparo is looking at the aftermath of the murder. Through the jagged maw of the shattered, bloodstained window-wall the Asian is visible, looking down at Lorelai’s body. His mouth is tight, pressed closed, his chin dimpled with what looks like…

“Grief?” Emparo looks again. “Is he upset?”

“Looks that way.”

“Huh. What about the news?”

Tranch picks up the remote and turns on the TV. A couple of channel switches and eventually a shot of the Rucker Street carnage materialises. And there’s that cop again, talking to a reporter.

(Detective Sergeant Eugene Estacado, NCPD)

“We’re still wanted for questioning,” Tranch says. “I dunno if that’s a euphemism or what, but we have to do something about this.”

“Well, the sun’s coming up,” Emparo says. “We should get out of here.”

“Zeb’s gone to get breakfast. He’ll be back in a half hour.”

“All right.” Emparo fishes his deck from where he left it atop the fridge and heads for Zeb’s bed section. “Tap me when he gets in.”

-

‘Trodes on skin, a switch-slap and Zeb’s trailer vanishes upward as Emparo drops like a stone down the interior of a column of white noise and vertigo, coming out the other end in free fall, plunging toward the Night City datanet, visible as a patch of digital cloth that suddenly swarms up to envelop his vision: a stippled bedspread of raw information.

A shape-change has taken place, and he touches down upon the grid a different person: a short, fat kid in a reversed baseball cap, pants a touch too low, red-and-white sneakers slightly oversized poking out from beneath the hem of worn jeans.

Looking around he is in familiar territory. He has landed outside the Night City datanet proper: this is the periphery, just as the real-world neighbourhood is the liminal band between full metro, and full Zone. This area is not the starfield Night City is, nor is it the vacant mind-black expanse of the Combat Zone’s digital outland.

Emparo adjusts the cap on his fat little head, rises half a foot off the green-black grid floor and flies toward the lights.

-

The chamber is empty. This is where they meet, the Church, such as they are. The Church has a membership of four. Someday there may be more, or less, but recruitment isn’t a motive: something else is. Something… unquantifiable. Enlightenment, of sorts. A kind of fractal knowledge buried deep within the emergent pattern systems of human creation, as manifested within the topography of its culture, as rendered within the net. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“Hello,” Emparo says. His words echo faintly back: immediate, short-lived and chiming three notes higher. He really is alone.

The place is small: a tiny little datafortress sequestered away amid the larger ones dotted throughout the NC grid. Someday they’ll trick it out, but for now this is what they have: a place to meet.

He flops his feet over to a small node on a blue neon wall scrolling nonsensical cyanic datatext. Hand and node glow.

“Blip,” Emparo says. “If you’re there, meet me netside. I could use the company.”

Silence. And then, from very far away, a woman’s voice: “Emphat. I’m on the metro. Give me five minutes and I’ll find a café.” Blip’s Spanish. Lives somewhere near Saville, near as Emparo can tell.

He removes his hand from the node, and waits.

-

Half an hour later he jacks out. Zeb’s cooking powdered eggs and Tranch is asleep at the table, head back, snoring. Emparo sits down next to Static, who has folded away the receiver kit. Emparo and Blip spent some time contemplating the output of the random number generator she devised, but as unconsciously as possible. You can’t think about nothing by thinking about thinking about nothing. Emparo has often thought of the experience as being more like bathing than meditating. Bathing in convergent meaning.

“I think,” Emparo says. “That we should negotiate with Ruben.”

-

Having awoken Ruben to the promise of a hot breakfast, Static and Emparo present him with an itemised bill for their services.

“Fine! Take whatever you want! Just get me out of here!”

“I knew we could sort something out,” Static says.

Tranch snorts and sits bolt upright. “What’d I miss?”

-

Ruben’s back behind the wheel of his almost entirely silent plastic citycar. Orange sunlight is blasting through the right-side windows, winking down perpendicular streets, popping out from behind gutted buildings as they trundle closer and closer to the massed skyline of Night City.

“So that’s it? You’re just going to let me go?”

“You’re safe enough,” Static says. “There was nothing about you on the news. Just leave the gear, squirt the cash into our accounts and we’ll call it even.”

“Absolutely,” Ruben insists, pressing down on the steering wheel for emphasis. “This was such a bad idea. Thank you for being so understanding.”

“Don’t mention it. Just drop Emparo off at the nearest shopping mall, and myself at the nearest bar.”

-

Static wouldn’t be here if he had a choice, but it’s the one cityside locale he can think of where the cops don’t visit and the patrons actively encourage that. The place is Hababas. It’s an ex-biker bar in the Night City University district with a perpetually broken front plate window which is now permanently replaced with a plyboard sheet. It’s also perhaps the only place where one of Night City’s most wanted gangs is known to frequent with any regularity: The Voodoo Boys. They’re a terrorist gang with ritual magic overtones who finance their bizarre tastes via the sale of mostly non-synthetic drugs. They’ve been a high priority for the NCPD for years now, but have proven impossible to take down thus far as their organization is pretty thinly spread. Hababas is the closest the cops have come to fingering anything that might be called a regular hangout.

(Voodoo Boy)

The Boys hold sway over the place with threats of random violence and a twisted sort of celebrity. It’s also where much of their dealing is done.

Despite the bones through their noses, feather implants in their scalps and ritual tattoos, the majority of the membership are average white boys with an occasional female, who are always bad news: they’ve got more to prove.

Static’s parked himself in a corner booth thickly constructed of high-wear steel and polymer materials that are hard to break, like every other fixture in here. It’s a good vantage on the rest of the place, and close to the toilet in case he needs to make a quick and undignified exit through a slat-glass miniature ventilation window.

The door opens and daylight, which appears heavenly by contrast to the neon-and-dope gloom in which Static is steeping, spears diagonally into the place, illuminating a floor which he has been studiously keeping his eyes from. A short Japanese guy with a mane of long, unwashed hair walks in, wearing a videojacket that’s cycling through a range of logos, images and dramatically violent cartoons associated with obscure Roppongi brands Static is completely unfamiliar with. He takes off his a pair of broad, mirrored sunglasses and looks around the place. From the way his head’s nodding he’s either telepathically letting the few people in here know he’s arrived and takes no shit, or he’s grooving to a beat only he can hear. This done he pockets the shades, spots Static, and clomps on over in biker boots with weighted soles.

“Static,” he says. “My main motherfucker. What it is, yo.”

Static has no idea how Hideo has gone this long as a narc without being killed.

“Hey, Tanaka. New jacket.”

The cop cocks one knee, takes lapels between thumb and forefinger and does that groove thing again. “NuTek,” he says. “Superflash.” On his left breast an overjoyed saucer-eyed cartoon schoolgirl shows two fingers and explodes in bouquet of yellow stars.

Static supposes that if he can’t believe Hideo’s a cop, neither can anyone else.

-

Twenty-five minutes and two flat beers later, Static’s on the phone to Emparo, one finger in his ear against the deafening blast of chromatic rock which Hideo has summoned from the DigiTrax unit in the corner.

“Yeah,” Static yells. “He’ll take care of it. Delete the lot.”

“Are you sure you trust him? He’s a cop, he’s supposed to be arresting you right now.”

Static looks over to where Hideo is standing splay-legged in the middle of the room, slapping his greasy mane back and forth between his groin and his butt while strangling the neck of some unseen guitar.

“I think we’ll be okay.”

On the other end Emparo sighs. “So what’s the password?”

“Got a pen?”

-

The password is for access to the Justice Complex’s datafortress, the footage archive for their security cameras and, most importantly, access to their criminal database. They came up with a plan, back in Zeb’s trailer, to use Static’s cop friend to do what they could to sanitise the entire Burleson incident. It also struck Emparo as odd that Static and Tranch had their mugs plastered all over the newsfeeds, but no mention was made of the Asian gunman.

And so, armed only with three different passwords, a bottom of the line deck, and a pair of cheap Malaysian galvanic-response electrodes, Emparo-as-Emphat returns to the Justice Complex’s datafortress, with its fucking portcullis, and tries his luck.

“You’re really going in there,” Blip says, disbelievingly. “You really think this is gonna work?”

She looks like a bright point of light about the size of a baby’s head, lensflare elongated top and bottom, white-blue. Reminds Emparo of pictures of the North Star you always see on Christmas cards, over the baby’s manger.

“Yep.” Resigned.

“Buena suerte, mi amigo.”

“Thanks. If I don’t make it back, you can have my stuff.” He rises a half foot from the green-black grid, and into the one place in the whole Night City grid almost no one wants to be.

“But you don’t have any stuff,” Blip calls out.

In through the portcullis.

Lady Trouble (2)

Cyberpunk 2020 Bandatta