My life inexplicably twisted around that singular descriptor as it descended into chaos, the fixer, Raggi Josip, leaking fluids face down in a bowl of soy-soba noodles. Two coolers, JoiBois high on life and chemical stimulants, were working a killing spree with more enthusiasm than skill in the swanky ObWagi restaurant on the upper deck, bodies hitting the floor as I watched. I stared down at the blood leaching toward my VatProt fish tacos, figuring I was next, my belief in coincidences heavily weighted towards pessimistic. I was here to make an exchange, cash for information, and with Raggi dead I had to assume heavy A.I. was already tracing my location, with coolers coming to chill me. I pulled my hand from the phreak and the corpse disappeared, the virtual reality session terminated, leaving me in the back room of Jubee’s Home Style. I curled my hands into fists and slammed them onto the table, “Goddammit!”
My outburst drew unwanted attention, the other customers staring at me sitting alone in a corner booth. I glared at them until they decided discretion was the best course of action, switching their gaze back to their own meals. I looked around, making sure I didn’t have to deal with PrivSec. I didn’t see anyone showing a professional interest, so I scooped tablet, phone, phreak, and a bag of fish tacos into the messenger bag. I hesitated for a moment, then grabbed a fistful of Jubee’s fish sauce packets and dropped them into the bag as well. I pulled my pistol and shoved it into my jacket pocket where I could have it in hand, hidden, and stood, shouldering the bag. I headed toward the back, thinking the coolers would be coming through the front door. I was wrong.
I found two of them, obvious muscle, definitely enhanced, looking for the typical ‘jacker, skinny and pasty, surprised to find a man with my kind of skill, knuckle and skull, not afraid to take a hit. The closest punched low, hoping to break ribs, but I turned, taking the strike on the jacket, the mesh metal weave under the synthleather causing more damage to her than me, bones breaking in the cooler’s hand. She was shocked that I wasn’t devastated by the augmented hit, drawing a grunt instead of putting me on the ground, but she wasn’t the only one with improvements. Designer neurotrans doped into my blood stream and my hand came up faster than they could track, countering their next move with the black, blunt muzzle of my 10mm. The pistol barked a reply, leaving two cooling bodies in the grease strewn back passage. I wasn’t sure who they were fronting for, but they had the stench of CorpSec all over them.
Even with the heavy armored jacket taking the brunt of the hit, I was in pain as I cut through the alley, slipping through the back door of a bodega run by two bearded ladies. The lady behind the counter was dressed in a tight, maroon shift, her ruby red lips framed by mustache and goatee. My quick entrance startled her. She eyed me, her expression indicating she liked what she saw, “Hey baby, you interested in something extra?”
Because of the beard, I wasn’t sure, so I asked, “Man or woman?”
“Both,” she answered, unfazed by the question. I didn’t know if she meant her and her partner, or just her. I didn’t have time to ask and not wanting to offend, I contemplated the offer for a brief moment, then shook my head.
She leaned forward, showing cleavage, “Come on, sweetie. You’re different, exotic. I’ve never seen your type before. No charge, sugar.” Selling the experience, trying to get me to bite, no charge for the first but the rest is going to cost.
“Nah. Thanks, but I’m in kind of a hurry. I’m more of a traditionalist, anyway.”
She frowned, “Boring.”
“I know, right?” I nodded as I walked past.
“Hey! Aren’t you going to buy something?” she asked, pouting.
I rushed out the front, dodging through the meager traffic. I ducked into a VatProt market across the street selling chicken, fish, beef, and other protein flavors, vat grown. I worked my way through the aisles toward the back exit and stepped through the door. Knowing they’d be looking for my face, I scanned for trouble, then moved to the side of the door and leaned against the wall where the camera couldn’t record me. Not seeing anyone, I pulled the masque off and dropped it into the trash, quickly putting on another, shivering as the biotech squirmed across my face to settle into place.
The lady at the bodega would be disappointed, I wasn’t exotic anymore. I no longer had high cheekbones and dark red skin, looking more like what I was, a BulliBoi from the Grind. I wasn’t concerned with the optics of the two hitters I’d chilled, the slug to the face liquefying any implanted neurosynaptic frame capture wetware, but I knew CorpSec would eventually check video feeds around the restaurant. The security cameras around the shops on the Mids were a patchwork of varying private interests, and as such, hard to spoof effectively, even with Rose watching my back. The masque would make facial recognition impossible, but a quick census could identify my trail through the back alley, put the face I was currently wearing in the same location Cochise had disappeared from, which meant I needed to put space between me and Jubee’s. I changed the texture and color of my jacket, adding a little swish to my stride as I stepped into the street, hoping to throw off tracking software.
I stepped out of the side street and wandered through the neon boulevard, the clash of garish colors accompanied by the dissonance of disparate music attempting to lure customers into bars, brothels, and casinos. The avenue was one of the main thoroughfares, with large crowds checking out the entertainment. I acted like a tourist, using the press of bodies as cover to gauge my surroundings while dodging traffic, mainly rickshaws and bikes, with the occasional taxi picking up fares. I tried to blend in as I watched for hunters, CorpSec or independents, who might be tracking me.
I stopped to talk to the local talent, the hustlers, entropy’s angels, men, women and other, human and synth. The synthetics flashed QR codes across their foreheads as my gaze lingered on the product, the QRC displaying the price to revelers enhanced with augmented reality optics. Tall, thin, exoskeleton clad Martians moved through the crowd, some buying, some selling depending on how much cash they’d brought when they’d escaped the invasion. Behind the prostitutes, A.I. noted my interest in the flesh trade and flashed brothel advertisements, the ads becoming more carnal as I walked past, with lurid images of every conceivable option and position tempting me to visit the bordellos. I blinked five times in quick succession, turning off my optics and terminating AR, not wanting to be distracted. I watched MNC wage slaves, multinational corporations, slumming from the upper deck, AoS, Cavindish, Nakami, ZhengJohansen, KPP, WuYuBai, coming down to the Mids for entertainment, looking for services provided, mostly flesh, but other diversions as well, gambling, raves, pachinko, drugs.
There was plenty of CorpSec scanning the crowd, the ones that saw me quickly dismissing me as muscle. I decided it was time to get off the street and walked into a casino that offered slots, the house mirroring life, rigged against the patrons, pulling ninety-seven, ninety-eight percent from the machines. I hid among the gamblers in the dim interior for an hour, hour and half, my features washed out by gaudy lights that distracted as the house stole their customers’ creds. Not wanting to push my luck, I slipped out of the casino and made my way down the street.
I wandered in and out of ink parlors, mod shops, gene seqs, and brothels, checking the crowd for hunters while studying the menus. What I saw was disturbing. The coolers weren’t giving up, getting more aggressive, looking for anyone or anything suspicious. Someone with deep pockets had a grudge against me, paying serious bounty. I had to bolt to the lower levels, head down to one gee and go to ground until they lost interest.
The store fronts on the Mids shifted like sand depending on the vagaries of cash flow and microeconomics, but the maintenance tunnels were fixed, unchanging, an easy exit to scrape off the attention I’d acquired. I accessed maintenance schematics for the area, neurons firing in my visual cortex, wetware overlaying the plans across the reality around me. I walked to an out of the way maintenance hatch, made sure no one was watching, ran a cracker across the lock and slipped in, pulling the hatch shut behind me.
I pulled the masque off, dropped it on the ground and watched it melt. The masque, biotech tuned to my current DNA, changed the geometry of my face to spoof biometric tracking software. I’d have to do a full scrub soon, DNA, face, fingerprints, to throw the trackers off. Right now, it was human CorpSec hunting me, but if things got real, the MNC could drop serious loot, send HK ‘bots after me, and those bastards were hard to hide from. A full scrub would be expensive, money I didn’t have since Raggi had been chilled before we’d made the exchange.
Inside, away from the hunters, I hurried through the maintenance tunnels, not wanting to attract the attention of the Guild. The Guild was the closest thing New Eden had resembling a government, pulling rent just to keep the habitat turning and the water running. No one fucked with the New Eden Engineering Guild, their efforts making our continued existence possible. They returned the favor by mostly leaving us alone. If you made the mistake of attracting their attention that was another thing entirely, hard to do since they were mainly concerned with the infrastructure. The kind of attention the Guild brought usually ended up with the person concerned being fed into one of the vats for recycling, nothing wasted in the void.
New Eden, the largest habitat in the solar system, was a crossroad, the stopover between the inner and outer systems. Now that Earth Federation had invaded Mars, EarthGov and Earth MNCs worked hand in glove to run the inner system like a machine, crushing dissent, leaving little space for free thinkers or innovators, a trend which started fifty plus years ago, the slow exodus beginning to accelerate since the invasion. Peeps looking for room to grow headed out system, looking for new horizons on the frontier. There was even talk of people heading out further, beyond Pluto, all the way to the Oort.
New Eden was the middle ground where the two met, caught between stagnant stability and absolute anarchy. Crazy as it was, inner and outer needed each other, tidal locked in a love-hate symbiosis with a steady exchange between the two. Some people went out system looking for a new life, others went in looking for the same. Some decided they liked the opportunities New Eden had to offer and chose to stay, working the hustle.
New Eden was much more than a transit point, though, debauching through the decades toward decadence as the demographics shifted, new inhabitants overwhelming and replacing the SoA. The Mids and the upper deck were the playground of the powerful slumming among the cast offs. Almost anything desired could be had if you could pay, with few constraints and no police. CEOs and Gov execs, fat cats with more money than smarts, came out to indulge vices and work out kinks they couldn’t get away with in-system. Out here, tucked among the asteroids, anything was possible if it didn’t screw with the infrastructure and piss off the Guild.
Everyone on New Eden had a scam to run, even me. Those corporate slummers were my bread and butter. I was a ‘jacker, a hacker who hijacked information, usually from other corps, but sometimes in house as executives sought advantage over a rival, shitting on others to climb the corporate ladder. In a solar system filled with more platinum, gold, and diamonds than anyone would ever use, information was king. I acquired information others were willing to pay and sometimes kill for. The corpse bleeding out on the table in the upper deck was my fixer, the front man, a man I’d never met face to face, our interactions through VR only. Raggi was reliable, social, someone the clients felt they could trust, a genial cutout who would get his hands dirty so they didn’t have to, plausible deniability. We’d been in the process of making the exchange when interrupted. A moment later the exchange would have been completed, but since the exchange hadn’t occurred, my current liquidity was now a concern.
‘Jacking isn’t cheap. It requires investment in resources: hardware, software, and people. I had investors who backed my operations and received their investment back in full, with points. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the kind of money stashed away to fork over the principal and points I currently owed, a problem since Nibiru wasn’t the kind of organization you wanted to owe money to. They were expecting payment in two days, forty-eight hours after the exchange, and the clock was ticking. If I didn’t have it, interest would accrue, interest I couldn’t afford, and dangerous people would come looking for me. I made enough cred to get by, but I wasn’t rich, not by a long shot, my money invested in tangible assets like the pistol, tablet, and phreak. The last thing I wanted was to become an object lesson, a message for others who couldn’t pay their bills. Nibiru’s last example had been found floating at the hub, gutted and displayed like an animal for the entire hab to see. I needed to find out who Raggi’s customer was or I’d soon be chilling to room temp, permanently horizontal.
I made my way to a rarely used access tube, Guild members preferring to use the lift, currently not an option for me. I leaned in, stepped out onto the ladder, and started down. It would be a long climb, but at least gravity, or what we perceived as gravity, actually centrifugal force, was working for me. Gravity on New Eden was heavier at the hull and lighter at the hub due to the shrinking circumference of the levels. Here in the Mids, gravity wasn’t as bad as it would be lower down, not that one gee would be a problem for me.
I’d grown up down there, an orphan, discarded like garbage. When I was a kid, the upper deck had been a dream, a fantasy. As a scab living on the hull, the problem had been basic survival, and then later, getting into a position where I could make a little money, get mobile, move up level. I’d gotten lucky for a while, but fate intervened when I was fifteen and I had to go back out on my own. With no other prospects, I’d started out as a BulliBoi providing protection to anyone who could pay. Lucky for me, I’d had the smarts to graduate from muscle to ‘jacker. I’d probably never be upper deck, but so far, I’d made good.
I passed through the Mids into the Grind and climbed down further, another twenty levels, putting distance between me and the hunters. The Mids, despite the name, weren’t habitat mid-level. The upper deck, levels one through ten where the air was fresh and gravity was lower, was all prime real estate where the rich mingled; high rent, multilevel, multi-room apartments closest to the hub where the shuttles docked to bring in Gov and Corp execs and their staffs. The Mids occupied the fifty levels below that, the buffer between hustler and hustled, a coin flip on any given day to figure out which was which. In the Mids, MNC execs and staff mingled with the Grind, Corp to purchase services, the Grind to offer them.
The Grind was the other one hundred and ninety down levels below the Mids, where blue collar and low pay wage slaves lived, four million people scraping by to make sure they had a room and food on their plates. New Eden industry was also located in the Grind, factories, workshops, warehouses, cargo transportation. There were layers there as well, the more prosperous living in the upper levels, the hustlers sinking toward the hull as they lost the drive to compete. Anything above one-twenty-five was respectable, middle class, people working in factories and offices, trying to raise families. Level one-fifty and below was where the desperation began to set in. A good hustler with a long con could fight gravity, maybe make it out of the Grind completely, all the way to the upper deck. More often, after the upper deck consumed the last vestiges of beauty, talent, and vitality, gravity reasserted itself, pulling the hustlers back to the hull, discarded, wasted, forgotten.
Worried about spending more time in the maintenance tunnels than absolutely necessary, I climbed off the ladder, checked for Guild, and not finding any, moved toward the hatch. I had to use the cracker again, the hatch swinging open. I moved out into the Grind where I could spot CorpSec coming from a kilometer away. This area wasn’t as flashy, industrial chic the theme of the day, graffiti sprawled across the walls with varying degrees of artistic ability. I left the maintenance hatch and headed toward one of the public use areas, grabbing a soda from a vendor, purple flavor. I found a table and sat down, acting casual, trying to blend in. I pulled out the fish tacos and opened the soda. The tacos were cold and greasy, but the soda hit the spot.
I watched the locals, looking for anything out of place. The area was one of my favorites, an atrium with an open space three stories tall. Strangely, there wasn’t any graffiti, never was in public use areas like this, some kind of special coating on the walls. I didn’t know if the plants were real or not, but they made the place inviting, an area where families brought their kids to play. I watched four little girls run through the tables playing tag, the sound of their laughter tinkling through the air, bringing a smile to my face. The atrium was peaceful, relaxing. The open space gave me solace, made me feel like I was unfolding, expanding; as if the pressure of the confined spaces had crushed me into an emotional singularity, everything trapped inside. Light music played while people spent time with families and friends.
Nothing good lasts forever, though. The mood shifted. The girls, sensing a change in their environment, ran back to their parents. Like ripples on water, heads turned to assess the situation. Hands slipped under jackets and into bags, ready to respond with violence if needed, the parents savvy to life in the Grind, paying close attention to what was going on. Five BulliBois, teenagers, a razor gang augmented in a canine phenotype, came walking into the area. They raised empty hands, indicating they weren’t going to cause any trouble, just passing through. The parent’s hands became visible again, pulling away from zip guns and razors. One of the BulliBois, the leader, made me and walked toward my table, the others following, no worries since I knew the guy. Parents began hustling their kids away from the immediate area, not trusting the RoshVok razors’ peaceful intentions. Not that I blamed them.
I looked up and saw the leader, Andrej, pointing at my dinner. I motioned toward the other seat and Andrej sat down. I slid one of the tacos over as I looked at the table across from us, quickly vacated by a family of four. Andrej’s boys took seats there, guarding the boss’ back, pointed ears flicking back and forth, watching the crowd while Andrej dealt with me. Discipline wasn’t something razor gangs were known for. I was marginally impressed.
Andrej was a BulliBoi like me, his gang territorial, something I’d never seen the use for. Unlike me, he had heavy cosmetic mods showing off his gang affiliation, a wolf, with the ears, the teeth, the claws. I knew he had other mods as well, better reflexes, denser muscle, down level cheap stuff but good enough for what he dealt with. Andrej’s wardrobe was castoff, with a second-hand, patchwork jacket open to show his scars. The jacket was decorated with safety pins, a few chains, and other bits of badges and metal. His razor, twenty-five centimeters long, hung from the back of his belt. Multicolored hair matched his multicolor outfit, the scars he took to defend his territory displayed with pride; a badly healed, broken nose with scar tissue around the eyes, badly stitched cuts on the torso, the tip of an ear missing.
“How’s things?” I used the greeting as an intro, Andrej not known for being gregarious.
“Fightin’ grav. Usual,” he replied.
I nodded. “Like everybody else,” I continued. “Little out of your stomping grounds, aren’t you?” I asked.
He smiled at the question, “Lookin’ round. Got the low down. Scopin’. Found you.”
The smile turned all that scar tissue into a good-looking teenager, even with the fangs and the drool. He was mostly reliable, good for local information, generally trustworthy as a lookout, loyal as long as he got paid. He knew I was always good for the money, so we had a professional arrangement. A don’t screw with me, I won’t kill you, maybe we can make some creds together kind of arrangement that, in the past, had worked to our mutual benefit. I’d watched his back, helping him deal with rivals. He’d done the same for me.
As near as I could tell, Andrej was about fifteen, sixteen, an up and comer in the Grind. His razors controlled a street, but eventually he’d be pulling protection money from the entire block. He was smart, cunning, ruthless, but loyal to people who had been loyal to him. He picked up the taco and started eating. After the first bite, he frowned, “’s cold.”
I shrugged, “I didn’t have time to finish it there. Figured I’d finish it here.” I slid two packets of Jubee’s fish sauce over to make the taco more palatable.
Andrej took my explanation at face value, opened the packets and poured sauce on the taco. He inhaled the rest of it, giving me a thumbs up, a testimony to Jubee’s fish sauce. He nodded, and spoke around it as he ate, “Good thing you here, vat meat in the upper, paid for hit. CorpSec nosin’ ‘round.”
News travels fast. My expression didn’t change. I took another bite and swallowed before I spoke, nonchalant, “Really? Any idea who it was?”
Andrej’s composure cracked, the corner of his mouth curving up for just a moment as he studied my expression, a sardonic smile which quickly disappeared, “Word is, you involved.”
I waved a hand, casually dismissive, playing the game, “Old news, just curious how far the information has traveled.” I picked up the soda and took a drink. Andrej motioned toward the can. I nodded and handed it to him. He took a drink to wash down the taco, drool sliding down the side of the can.
“Gone far ‘nuff. Drexler got questions.”
That bit of information was interesting. Hassan Drexler was an independent enforcer, a contractor, a guy I knew by reputation only. The important question was, who was he acting as an enforcer for?
“Did he drop any names?”
Andrej nodded, setting the drink down where I could reach it, “Yah, BulliBoi, he lookin’ for you. Asked about Dimitri. Need talk, face-face.”
I nodded. I’d used the name before, back when. I took out a ten-cred card and slid it over on the table. Andrej shook his head, pushing it back toward me, “Nah, got. Doin’ favors. Gettin’ paid already. Drexler. ‘Case I saw you. Didn’t drop info, though. Knew you be interested, somebody checkin’ up.”
I didn’t press, but I thought the explanation strange. Andrej never turned down money. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. Andrej still owed me a few favors, so I chalked it up to that, shrugging as I grabbed the credits and dropped them back into my pocket. I looked around. As much as I liked this place and the simple routine of families enjoying each other’s company, I knew I had to make changes. I’d grown too complacent if Andrej had located me this easily. Complacent equaled dead in the Grind. I was lucky Drexler had approached Andrej. That didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t spill, though.
I picked up the soda and took a drink, rolling the information around in my head. It couldn’t be Nibiru, they knew how to contact me. It had to be CorpSec, facilitating operations through an independent contractor. Question was, how did they figure out who I was. I never used a name when I conducted business with Raggi, only my tag, Níðhöggr, no other identifier. I sure as hell didn’t give the name Dimitri to him, one of the names I used before I ghosted, back before I worked with Raggi. Drexler using the name Dimitri was disturbing on levels I didn’t even want to contemplate. Few people could associate that name with me, most of them dead. Andrej knew the name because he’d been a runner for a guy I used to do business with, back in the day, a guy who’d been chilled a few years ago. That was my secondary concern, though. Right now, I had to disappear before the MNC found me and finished what they’d started.
I passed the last of the soda over to Andrej, who took it and emptied it. He motioned to his crew and they stood up.
“Thanks for the info,”
“Brez skrbi, no worries. Later.” He stood and turned, crushing the can before he dropped it into a receptacle as he walked away.
I nodded as he left, crew in tow. I quickly finished the other taco, grabbed the messenger bag, and stood to leave with my hand firmly on the pistol in my pocket. I needed a place to crash where I wouldn’t be looking over my shoulder. For me, that meant I had to travel down, back to my roots on the hull, one gee. I had acquaintances there who might let me hide out and help get me to the cutter for a sculpt. The hull was beyond Corp, beyond the Guild. The lower levels close to the hull went back to the old days, back when New Eden had been an agricultural habitat supplying food to the asteroid belt. You had to belong, be part of the tribe. Drexler would think twice about going and even Andrej wouldn’t be welcomed down there. If you weren’t from the hull, they would chew you up and spit you out. There wouldn’t be any visit to the vats, bone meal for the crops instead.
I walked through the crowds, headed to the lifts. The Grind was different than the Mids or the upper deck. Everybody was represented, in system, out system, mods cosmetic and genetic, he, she, ze, xe and any other pronoun people wanted to call themselves. New Eden didn’t turn anyone away, but that didn’t mean everyone could work the Mids. The trade operated throughout the Grind, blue collar just as desperate to satiate their hunger for sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Some had talent, most didn’t. The hustlers who couldn’t compete in the Mids plied their trades down level, still fighting gravity, selling their goods on the cheap, working wherever they could score a credit. Earn or burn, there were no handouts.
The closer you got to one gee, the more the Grind stank of desperation, people realizing there was no turning back, headed in the wrong direction, no way to reverse the trend. Only human stock worked retail down level below the Mids, the cost of a synth more than it could turn in profit. Hookers paraded their wares, turning tricks for the price of a meal or a night in a rental. The hustlers offered anything they thought I might be interested in, anything to sell the merchandise. Trans, bi, tri, singles, doubles, multiples, younger, older, in every skin tone imaginable, the traditional black, white, red, brown, with and without ink; and the non-traditional, green, blue, purple, scales, fur. They had classy, kinky and everything in between. They had mood enhancers as well, tweaks including stims, deps, designer, and all sorts of psychotropics. I kept moving, music competing in discordant overlays, different styles in different areas. I hadn’t been interested up top, and I wasn’t interested down here, more concerned about my continued good health. I had to go to ground, find safety. I headed toward the lifts. The lifts wouldn’t take me all the way but would get me closer to the hull.
A hooker, blond, pretty, good body, stepped away from the shadows, “Hey baby, want some alone time? It won’t cost much.”
Something was wrong, something I couldn’t place my finger on. Instinct put me on the defensive. A knife snaked out and I blocked with my forearm. The blade cut into the synthleather and slid across the woven steel, leaving a dark oily liquid smeared across the sleeve. She hissed at her failure, pulling her arm back to strike again. I realized what had set my alarms off. She was too pretty to be working this scene, even with the down level subdermal armor, her skin bulging in the wrong places. My gun came up, the bullet slamming into her stomach, knocking her back, down but not out, her body armor taking the brunt of the damage. The crowd scattered, unwilling to become innocent bystanders.
I knew she wouldn’t be working alone, an obvious distraction, so I whirled to check my six, enhanced neurotrans and additional over-oxygenated hemoglobin doping my blood stream, driving my reaction speed into hyperdrive. Behind me, two people, another woman, brunette with hair shorter than mine, and a bald, muscular, tattooed man came at me, trying to fillet me with long blades. I slapped the woman’s knife to the side, grabbed and pulled her toward me, sidestepping to place her between me and her partner, the chems in my blood making my reaction time much faster than hers. I didn’t want to waste another bullet on subdermal, so I stepped in close, put the gun under her chin and pulled the trigger. I wasn’t sure if she was dead, but she was down, her face gone. I kicked her into the man behind her and turned to deal with Blondie.
She’d recovered, coming at me with the knife low, trying to rip up into my guts. She couldn’t compete. I was primal, a god of war high on drugs and violence, Valkyries singing songs of murder in my brain as biotech neurostim and amphetamines coursed through my blood. She stabbed with the knife again. She was talented, but she didn’t have my mods or skills. I grabbed the wrist, pulling her toward me, my body rotating, the knife sliding past my belly, momentum pulling her forward. I twisted her wrist and turned back in the other direction, sending the knife flying. Blondie went head over heels, twisting in midair as I completed the kotegaeshi throw. She landed face down on the deck with a thud and I put two rounds in the back of her head to keep her down.
The man raged behind me as blood, bone and gore scattered across the deck, “You sonofabitch!”
I turned back toward him. Either the blond or the brunette had meant something to him, maybe both. He still had the knife, but he didn’t get a chance to clear the brunette, fluids bubbling from her ruined face. I shot him five times in the gut. He had subdermal also, heavily armored across the chest, flexible across the abdomen. He wasn’t dead, the shots not penetrating, but he went down like he’d been hit with a sledgehammer. I walked over and kicked the knife away. The guy lay on the floor, struggling to breathe, his hands against his belly. Had I shot him in the chest, he would have shrugged it off, staggering but still in the fight. In the gut, the bullets couldn’t penetrate the subdermal mesh, but the energy still had to go somewhere, transmitted into the organs below. It was easy to shrug off one bullet like Blondie had. This guy was bleeding internally.
I kicked his razor away and aimed the pistol at him, my eyes boring into his, death staring him in the face. “Who hired you?” I asked.
The curses stopped as he realized how close he was to the reaper, but I could see it in his eyes, he was a tough guy, didn’t want to talk. I turned and put a bullet through the head of the brunette, choking on her own blood.
“Motherfucker!” he screamed at me. I turned back and shot one of his knees, cursing when the bullet ricocheted, revealing metal below the skin. Since I couldn’t damage the knee, I shot one of the hands. Knees were easy to fix, hands, not so much, microsurgery and all that shit. He screamed from the pain and cursed me again.
What I told him next focused his attention, “You understand, this is the end for you. You’re going to die either way. What we’re discussing right now, is how much pain you experience before that happens.” It took a few moments, another hand and a shattered elbow to convince him I was serious, but I finally got it out of him. I didn’t get a name, but I found out someone was offering five figures for independent contractors to find and finish me. I had to assume it was Drexler since he was the man looking for Dimitri.
Finished with the questions, I looked around. Our waltz had driven off the locals. There wasn’t anyone around when I put a bullet in the guy’s skull. As I walked toward the lifts, I changed magazines, putting a fresh one in, prepping for the next person on the dance card. Things were getting hotter, and while I thought it had something to do with the information I’d ‘jacked, I wasn’t completely positive. I needed to take a look, dive into the details, see what I had, which meant I’d have to retrieve the brick, a read only hard drive; a problem since it was squirreled away in a room I’d rented up in the Mids. Since people knew who I was, I had to assume they’d be looking for me up level, so retrieving the information could be problematic.
I scouted the lifts before I walked through the open area in front of them. There were too many people out there trying to look casual. I’d have to find another way down. With the lifts covered, I knew they were watching the other routes also. After my tango with the three coolers, I was pretty sure the hunters knew I was in the area. If they didn’t, they would soon enough, after someone reported the three corpses I’d left behind. With the kind of money being thrown around to chill me, I knew more hunters were on the way.
My options were becoming extremely limited. There was a way out, but it was a, you’re screwed if you’re even considering this, last case scenario kind of thing. Surviving as a ‘jacker meant having options if operations went one gee. This was one of those options, probably the only one I had left. I’d had it fabricated in case I needed a no shit exit. It was something I’d never wanted to be in the position to use, but here I was, the noose tightening, no other way out.
I left the lifts and headed into the back corridors. Once clear, I started running, heavy boots pounding against the deck, echoing through the narrow passageways. Doors opened and shut again, the inhabitants unwilling to get involved in whatever was happening. I checked the level and location, and knew I was close. I turned and ran counter-spin, heading toward one of the big open shafts positioned throughout the habitat for air circulation. The airshaft wasn’t truly a shaft at all, more of a hole which went through the decks, with a four-foot wall around it on every level so kids and tweakers didn’t accidentally step off. The holes were huge, fifteen meters by fifteen meters, more than one resident using them to punch out, usually leaving parts behind on the way down. Falling in the habitat wasn’t a straight line, the variable rotational speed on the different levels coming into play.
I heard a commotion behind me. It could be something, it could be nothing, but I wasn’t going to slow down to investigate. I kept running until I recognized the area, realizing I was close. I slowed down and pulled the pistol to make sure there weren’t any hard cases waiting for me. There weren’t, the idea of jumping down the shaft so firmly affixed in people’s minds as a suicidal move that no one had even considered I would attempt it. Of course, suicidal was not far from the truth, considering what I was contemplating.
I looked over the rail to make sure there weren’t any obstacles which could interfere. The shaft revealed the skeletal framework of the habitat, the structural materials uncovered, no paint or plastic. Ninety percent of New Eden was graphene, used for woven cables, aerogels, even electrical lines. Graphene was ubiquitous, used for anything that had to do with the structural integrity of the habitat, as well as car bodies and the bullet resistant body sleeve I was wearing. The habitat wouldn’t have been possible a hundred years ago, but the use of carbon in all its forms made it an engineering marvel, the first of its kind, the mold for all the others in system and out. SoA, the Sons of Abraham, the consortium that built New Eden, Jews, Christians and Muslims, were some of the first non-conformists who’d left Earth decades ago, tired of being picked on by an increasingly secular world government. Most of them were gone now, headed further out system as the habitat population changed, only the name left to mark their passage.
I rummaged around in the messenger bag and pulled out my escape plan. It didn’t look like much, a tube as long as my forearm, about as wide, with webbing attached to it and a carabiner dangling from the end. I took the pistol from my pocket and shoved it in the holster, zipping up the jacket so I didn’t lose anything. I pulled the webbing away from the tube and climbed into the harness, cinching it down until it was tight against my body. I zipped close the messenger bag, passing the strap over my shoulder, as ready as I could be for what came next. I walked over, passed the woven, graphene line around the vertical stabilizer, and locked the carabiner in place.
I’d read about this, watched vids, designed and had this made for me, just in case. Practice would have given it away, so I’d never used the equipment before, and I was pretty damn nervous about it. I didn’t really have a choice, though. People were close enough that I could hear them shouting.
“He came down this way!”
I jumped up to sit on the horizontal railing. I turned until my legs dangled over the hole. I looked down and jumped. Batman, bitches.