Zero Day Club, Neon District
“Boom! Six minutes!”
The door to Zero Day banged open and Swipe strode the length of the club to join Paladin in the back.
“Early, even. Did you win?”
“Nah. One of those bastards got a couple lucky shots in on me, so I pulled the plug and wraithed them all.” Swipe slid into the booth across from his friend, waving at the cog behind the bar. “They’ll never know it’s not me sitting at my deck. Luckily, it wasn’t a ranked match.”
A whir signaled the arrival of the drone tray and cut off Paladin’s next question. Swipe snatched his drink from the drone and executed a deep inhale of the vapor swirling from the ice.
“Smokers?” His nose wrinkled and eyebrows lifted. “Isn’t it a little early to celebrate, Pal? Or did you sell it already?”
“Not yet. I’m still weighing my options.” Paladin leaned across the table prompting Swipe to pause, mid-sip. “Would Ceres be interested in buying it?”
“I thought you were already selling it to that crazy Bliss witch.”
“Yeah, but if I could get a solid counter, Bliss might unlock a few more coins.” He sat back in the booth again, sipping at his drink. “I mean, they really want it, Swipe. For some fraking reason.”
Nodding, Swipe ran a finger across the bumps of the cheap, printform tabletop. “It’s a pathing algorithm, right?”
“Mostly. It’s a path optimizer. I figured since you worked for Ceres, helping with their net warez, it might be useful.”
“Not really. We’ve got too many organics. The bacterial nano-machines Ceres specializes in don’t really have long-term travel plans. They just deal with the local microorganisms near them.”
“So, not really a big market for path prediction algorithms in the nano-pharma world?” Paladin leaned back in the booth and stared out the front window. Three men in dark leather longcoats stood motionless on the corner across the street, their faces and headgear locked in on the Zero Day. Paladin suspected that was his Zeno contact and the required syndicate muscle.
Swipe grinned and sipped on his smoker. “Maybe you can use it to help nano-chem bonding agents find their mates easier.”
Paladin chuckled, “Maybe it’ll help you find a mate easier.”
”Outside the window, the slender man in the middle wore an midnight-colored SHARE across most of his face. And not the cheap kind. His kit not only prevented retina eavesdropping, but also probably housed any number of nanites ready to situationally deploy. He stepped off the curb, heedless of any bikes or cog taxis, his SHARE seemingly focused on the entrance to the club. Once the three started moving, Paladin could see how large the other two men accompanying him actually were. “I was just hoping it’d be less risky to get a bid from you.”
“What about Yume?” Swipe thumped his mug down, eyes bright, his back to the oncoming Zeno toughs outside. “They get all the maglev and vehicle contracts from the Allocation. Cogs and physical machinery need path prediction, right?”
“They were my first choice.” Paladin wrapped his hands around the cold sweat of his transteel mug, pulled his gaze from the window, and stared at the melting ice. The two gorillas outside were wearing stoneboots and crack-jackets beneath their longcoats. What was he thinking when he had agreed to meet in-person? Paladin trailed off, “My algorithm …”
Did he really need a counteroffer? Sure Becca Redhat was a predator, but in comparison to the goons about to hit the door, she sure seemed like a nice lady. And, best of all, she was far away. Maybe he and Swipe could pretend to be random deckers when the crew outside arrived, oblivious to any shady algorithm deals that might be happening.
Paladin started working on an alternate name. Fizzbuzz, maybe?
“Sorry. I lost my train of thought.” He blinked, and tried to refocus. “My algorithm works because it uses pre-computed values and some creative approximations to update its graph.” The lead man was almost to the door, black leather glove reaching out for the handle. “Turns out, the Yume physics geeks like precision and exact values … not clever estimations … You know what? Nevermind. We should go.”
“Huh?” Swipe looked like he’d just seen a unicorn pull up a chair next to them, and order a coffee can of black tar.
The door opened. Slowly.
Leaning forward, eyes wide, Paladin whispered, “This was a mistake.”
Swipe leaned in with his friend, nearly nose-to-nose close, and still confused. “What about your competitive offer?”
“Indeed. What of the offer, Paladin?”
The voice fell over them like a sequin dress piling on a tile floor. A blood-soaked sequin dress.
Swipe and Paladin turned as one, eyes climbing the black-on-black suit until they arrived at the sparse, angular face, bisected by the same sleek Obsidian SHARE he’d seen at a distance earlier. The two large men stepped up and flanked the gaunt businessman, Leather Headz syndicate tattoos showing at their wrists. An identical pair of fully-automatic Fortov rifles appeared in their hands, held low and humming with anticipation.
“You must be Grim Bit.” Paladin swallowed. “From Zeno.”
Harmony Downs, Unity City
“I wouldn’t go to Rev with Rebel Pixie if I were you.”
“What?” Chad’s face pinched at the comment. He scowled, “You’re just jealous.”
“There’s only one reason that makes sense.” Win-Dee rubbed at her chin, eyes focused in the distance. “Yeah, that has to be it. Oh, she’s clever.”
“What are you on about now, Win-Dee?” Roberto paused, a bite of flan hovering on the fork in front of his mouth. “Just let Chad have his day.”
“I’m just trying to protect our friend,” said Win-Dee and Glorious couldn’t help but smirk. None of them were friends. They all knew that.
But, Win-Dee had obviously latched on to her theory now. She leaned forward, devious, meeting their eyes, one-by-one. “Think about it. She’s hi-soc, so being seen in public with Chad doesn’t benefit her in the slightest, right? And Rev’s pretty public. Especially for hi-socs.”
A grunt emanated from somewhere within Chad. Glorious thought it might have been the thunderous slap to his pride.
“So, she talks you into heading to Neon District with her,” she continued. “There are no Unity Realtime Safety Cams outside the wall, because the laws of the Compact don’t extend out there. So she can walk side-by-side with you, right up to a romantic railing on Rev, and run her fingers through your hair. Maybe even tug at your belt. All in front of everyone. No one will be streaming, so there’s no danger to her rep. But everyone’s attention will be absolutely welded to the two of you. And, the rumors won’t be able to start until people upload their cams from the safety of Unity City.”
Glorious’s eyes widened in realization, and she gasped. If this went where she thought it was headed, it was genius. Glorious glanced over at Chad, who was still juggling the possibility that he wasn’t a benefit to Rebel Pixie and the thought of her playfully tugging on his belt.
If only Glorious had contrived to hatch this plan first, she’d have gone to Rev with Chad and become a hi-soc overnight. Well, maybe. She wasn’t sure she could follow through with it.
“Then, while everyone is recording every hair stroke, thinking they’ve caught her slumming with a tier three?” Win-Dee paused a moment and dramatically locked eyes with Chad. “She shoves you over the railing!”
Win-Dee threw her arms out straight toward Chad, making him twitch, as she mimicked shoving him to his death.
“Instant fame for her. Splattery demise for you.” She sat back and brushed aside a stray lock of hair that had sprung free with the exertion of her pretend shove. “She’d probably have more rep than even Allison after a move like that.”
Chad swallowed hard, and set his spritzer back on the table.
Glorious made a mental note to never visit Rev with Win-Dee. Ever.
“Squee, OMG!” The high-pitched squeal blasted up from one of the lower seating platforms. Followed immediately by another burst of brassy excitement, “Is that Candi?”
The heads of all five influencers swiveled, searching down below for the voice, practiced smiles snapping into place just in case it was someone from a higher tier. You never knew when there was a stunt underway.
One glance at the scrawny, awkward low-tier bounding up the steps in a technicolor bear suit, and Glorious was positive this was a stunt. She started side-eyeing for hidden cams or invisidrones. Nobody did squealed like that. Much less for a table of tier threes.
The kid laserlined to Candi, stripping the bear hood from his head, and wringing it nervously beneath white knuckles. “I’m your biggest fan. I know people always say that, but I really am. I have a poster from when you made tier three. That day at the Metafood Lounge is burned on repeat in my SHARE. I couldn’t believe I was actually there. It was the best moment of my life.”
The kid finally stopped to breathe.
Candi, who had turned back to her flatcakes when it was apparent he was a tier nothing, realized he had been talking directly to her. “Thanks. I always love meeting fans.”
She tried to go back to her brunch, but he had mistakenly assumed she was actually excited to meet him.
“You’re amazing. And when you ribboned every single pole south of Oxide Park? Making them look like they were striped candy canes? That was brilliant, and proved you deserved the bump to tier two. I was so proud of you that I decided right there that I wanted to become an influencer. I just needed to find my hook. Kind of like how yours is candy, right?”
He paused. Again presumably to breathe, but this time he was waiting, like an unused servicecog, eager for a single word from Candi. After all, she had just said she loved meeting him.
After a swollen moment of silence, Candi finally realized he was waiting for her to reply. She finished her mouthful of flatcake and, having no idea what he’d just said, gestured to his eager face and shilled at him, “Make sure to pick up the new XOR line of gender neutral gloss from Bliss. It’ll help smooth some of those cracks.”
His lips may have been a bit dry, but it was actually his smile that cracked. Only for a single tick, but Glorious caught it.
“Yes. She’s certainly famous for her candy imprint. Is this yours?” Glorious reached out a stroked the fuzzy bear suit.
“Yes.” His eyes brightened a little. “I call it a plasma bear.”
“I like that. What’s your name?”
“Hi, Justin. My name is . . .”
“Glorious. Yeah, I know. You’re one of the tier threes with a physics imprint. You always sound so smart.”
“Thank you so much.” Glorious looked around the table, and all of her fellow influencers had suddenly found themselves with mouthfuls of egg, porkmeat, or fruit. She was on her own.
“I love your plasma bear, Justin. The colors are total fire. You’re going to do well with it, I can tell.”
His face softened with a soulful smile, genuinely thankful for the kind words.
“You’ll have to excuse our exhaustion,” she motioned with a delicate hand at the group. “Our friend Chad has been invited to a dangerous vid session in Neon District, and we’re trying to figure out how to free him from the obligation.”
Justin bobbed his head, thankful again, but this time she hoped it was for the obvious offer of a graceful exit. It wasn’t.
“Of course, of course. Neon District can be dangerous. Good idea.”
“Exactly. So we’re all thinking about it while we eat, and then we’re going to come up with a plan after brunch. So, we’ll need a bit of time.”
Justin was printform-still. As if he was a green and purple bear statue, come right off the Factor cogline.
“Justin?” Had he finally gotten the clue?
“Oh! I’m sorry!” He jolted into motion. “I was lost in thought. A vid in Neon District gave me an idea.”
“Great. You should jump on it right now.”
“Surely!” He was shining bright again. “Thank you, Glorious. I’ll never forget this.”
“You’re welcome, Justin.” She found herself hoping his idea worked. “Just be careful.”
“Oh, I will.” He turned, and almost toppled down the wide steps. He shouted over his shoulder and waved as he raced to the bottom. “I’ll keep you posted on my progress.”
Glorious waved back, calling out, “Good luck.”
Finally turning back to her own brunch, she discovered her eggs were cold.
“And that,” Candi waved her fork at Justin’s retreating form without looking up, “is why you’ll never make tier two.”
A new chapter of Neon District: The Future. Edited., written by Christopher D. Chapman, will be released weekly in preparation of the highly anticipated cyberpunk RPG “Neon District: Season One”.
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