The Quarter, Neon District
The flimsy panel peeled open, and Paladin clambered up and over the edge. Turning, he reached down and helped Swipe out of the hole. The two perched on a three foot deep ledge where drones normally dropped off supplies for Zero Day.
They had emerged three stories up, just above the bright turmoil of Shen Ju Street, but still below the looming transit bridge connecting the next block. The upper levels of the building, constructed from printed, high-density edifice plates, rose far above the bridge, spearing up into the night sky. Revelution spun overhead, blasting them with fumes from the liquor-laced exhaust and bad music. The wind, always harsh this close to Rev, howled and threatened to shove them off the ledge.
“What the hell was that about?” Swipe shouted above the noise. His face, pebbled with gray sweat and mottled with the grimy smears dredged up while climbing the walls of the chute, pulsed with fear in the neon purple glow of Rev.
“That was the Zeno guy I was supposed to meet.”
“Are you sharking me?” Swipe’s hands shot wide, and he wobbled, nearly tumbling over into empty space. Windmilling arms, a hard lurch, and a slow exhale brought him back to finish his outburst. Though his question expressed gentler this time. “That freaker was your counter offer?”
“Yeah.” Paladin tapped his GHOST and brought up his vidconnect, sending his nanocam out where it hovered in front of his face. “And apparently served up with a side of syndicate war.”
“Yep.” He had already punched in Clutch’s handle.
“If he goes to the club . . . “
“Yep. On it, Swipe” Vid came up showing the inside of Clutch’s apartment. A familiar shape turned toward the cam, eyeliner only on one sleepy lid, bluestick still in-hand.
“I’m leaving right now, Paladin. Honest.”
“No. Stay there. We’re coming to you.”
“Oh, is the meeting already over?” Clutch frowned. “Why are you so dirty?”
“You’re lucky to be alive.” Clutch squatted on his lounge, eyes wide as Rev, and knees pulled up to his chest. “Who were those other Skins?”
“I think they were Voodoo Raiders. We didn’t really get a chance to snap a vid.” Paladin leaned forward and placed his head on one of the large, floor-to-ceiling windows in Clutch’s apartment. In the distance, he could just make out the cogs already cleaning up Zero Day.
Clutch was one of the top designers at Factor, and it showed through in his pad. The place was absolutely posh. After he sold his algorithm, Paladin hoped to upgrade his dingy coffin and move into this building, too.
“Voodoo Raiders? Don’t they run wetwork for Bliss?” Swipe was rummaging in the small kitchen for some food. He liked to eat his stress.
Clutch’s eyes flared, and he flipped around on the lounge to face Paladin. “Frak! Do you think they knew you were talking to Zeno?”
Swipe slammed a cabinet and yelled over his shoulder. “Clutch, where the hell are your food cannisters? I’m starving.”
“You neanderthal. Just tell the kitchen assistant what you want.” Clutch thumbed his tongue at his friend’s back.
“Right. I forget you’re the fanciest.” Swipe lifted his chin, fists on his hips, and addressed the assistant in a regal tone, “Kitchen, make me a sandwich pod.”
“FFS, Swipe, you nub.” Clutch clapped his hands twice, and called, “A porkmeat bocadillo, please.”
Lights flashed and servos spun, drawing Swipe’s attention to a small box on the counter where he could watch his meal being created from scratch. “Totally fire.”
“Check it,” Paladin called out and drew his friends’ attention to the wallscreen. He tapped his GHOST and started a SludgeCast vid playback. All thoughts of kitchen cogs vaporized as the projection lurched into motion.
“Tonight’s top feed comes from The Quarter. Zero Day bombed during Syndicate fight. Were the Corporations duking it out for the next piece of fire tech?”
Images captured mid-fight flashed across the wallscreen. Magcycles crashing through the transteel and everything. After only a moment of mayhem, it ended. Grim Bit fled, and the woman was left standing in the front window, aiming her weapon in the direction of the cam. At the time, Paladin would have sworn the flailing destruction had lasted hours, not seconds.
The voice continued, “My name is Vigil Knight, and this is SludgeFeed. We’ll now talk to a witness of this . . . ”
Paladin halted the broadcast, “Well, I guess we have a vid now.”
“Do you think Bliss will be mad?” Clutch turned back to Paladin, “I mean, I only work in fashion and we only metaphorically stab each other in the back. Voodoo Raiders, though?”
He trailed off, letting the thought cling to the moment. They all knew the answer.
“Your bocadillo is ready,” said the kitchen assistant, and the smell of roasted porkmeat filled the pad.
“I’m not sure I’m hungry anymore.” A wash of deep dread swept over Swipe’s face.
The kitchen notification chimed and repeated, “Your bocadillo is ready.”
“Yeah, I heard you.”
An even louder notification chimed.
“What the frack is wrong with your kitchen, Clutch?”
“That was the door, lopknob.” Clutch hopped off the lounger and said, “Who’s there?”
At the question, the front door flickered, then shifted translucent, nanocams acting to make the door appear invisible. The two people standing in the hallway must have guessed what happened because the big man grinned and waved.
The other person was the woman from the SludgeCast vid.
“It’s the Reapers!” hissed Clutch.
Swipe squealed, and dove behind the counter in the kitchen.
“Frack.” It was all he could say. How had Paladin made a such a mess of this sale? He was going to die. And, worse, so were his friends. All because he’d felt the need to get greedy. He rubbed at his temples, “Can they get in?”
“We’re lucky. This building is made by my company, and it’s built to withstand the danger of Neon District. There’s a reason so many Factor executives live on the upper floors.”
“So, that’s a no?” Swipe’s voice sounded like it came from inside one of the kitchen cabinets.
“Correct. It’s as solid as a saferoom gets.” Clutch crossed his arms. “However, we can’t hide in here forever. I’ll have to call some . . .”
The woman on the other side of the door started tapping on her wrist device.
“What is she doing?” asked Clutch.
A final tap, a smirk, and the door went opaque again.
A soft sound, like flower petals skimming the surface of a pool, and the door slid open.
“Frack.” Paladin froze.
Fury wrapped around Clutch’s face, and he stormed forward to confront the intruders. “What do you think you’re doing? Do you know who . . . ?“
Another sound, this time wetter, stickier, followed by a wide blade erupting alongside Clutch’s spine.
His friend immediately went limp and slid to the ground. The large Voodoo Raider stepped back, holding two feet of gray death, Clutch’s blood running thick along its length.
The woman, her smirk gone, turned toward her partner, the sharp crease between her eyebrows pulling sharper, “Really?”
The big man simply shrugged and nodded at Clutch’s bloody corpse, “He attacked me.”
“I told you to put that thing away.” Long fingers squeezing the bridge of her nose, she addressed Paladin. “You. Get your friend out from under the kitchen counter. You’re coming with us.”
“Let me rephrase. Either you’re coming with us, or I tell him to cut your arms off.”
Glancing over at the other Voodoo Raider, a large, toothy smile filled every corner of Paladin’s vision.
Harmony Downs, Unity City
Chad’s brow furrowed, then lightened, lifting as in apology. He nodded silently a couple times, then chuckled awkwardly.
Watching someone have a conversation through their SHARE sometimes could be just as informative as if you’d been able to hear their words. Especially if that person was Chad. The man had no game face. Glorious often found herself wondering how he’d even made it to tier 3.
“He’s probably asking Rebel Pixie if she’s really going to throw him off Rev.” Win-Dee shook her head.
“I’m sure he’s doing fine,” said Glorious. She felt less confident than she sounded. “He’s a big boy.”
“Oh, he’s definitely going to die.” Candi nodded and sipped at her third electric blue cocktail. Frowning, “Hang on. Now I’m getting pinged. It’s my agent from Bliss.”
Candi tapped her SHARE as her eyes unfocused. Roberto took another bite of his cheese souffle and shrugged.
“Doesn’t Rebel Pixie shill for Zeno?” Win-Dee had that look in her eye.
Glorious crossed her legs, tilting her head. “I think so, why?”
Win-Dee nodded toward Candi, still engrossed in her chat with her agent. “Zeno and Bliss are always at war over something or other. This Rebel Pixie business might be related.”
“That’s a bit thin, don’t you think?”
Win-Dee shrugged. “In Unity, it’s about playing layers up layers if you want to succeed.”
“What was that about layers?” Candi had closed up her transmission.
“Oh, nothing,” said Win-Dee. “Glorious was just wondering about cutting more layers into her hair.”
“Ah, yes.” Candi flipped a few blonde strands framing her eyes. “More layers is definitely better.”
“What’d your agent want?” Glorious eagerly changed the subject.
“Apparently something big is about to happen here at the Downs.” Her straw gurgled as Candi pulled another long sip from her spritzer. “She wanted to make sure I was still here after the vidkids gig. So I could take advantage of it.”
Chad’s SHARE whirred, then tucked back behind his ear, and he finally finished his transmission. He squirmed as if he’d just witnessed a lemon party sim.
“C’mon, nub.” Win-Dee snapped her fingers at him. “What did she say?”
“It was a he.”
“Huh?” He’d said Pixie was pinging him as he’d fired up his SHARE. Who the hell had really been on the other end of the transmission?
“Her digital assistant is a he,” Chad said. “He was nice. Name was Wilbur. Probably running that new Grandfather ML model.”
“And . . . “ Win-Dee was relentless.
“And she’s coming here.”
“What?” Candi choked the word out through her straw and caused the gel ice to froth and bubble. The rest of the group sat stunned. Even Roberto, mouth full, stopped chewing.
Remembering what Candi’s agent had said about something happening at Harmony Downs, Win-Dee, Candi, and Glorious all exchanged a quick glance.
“I don’t know.” Hands in the air, Chad grumbled, “That’s what Wilbur said. Mentioned power shifting or rule changes or something.”
“Or something?” Win-Dee leaned forward. “Those are pretty serious terms to throw around loosely. What exactly did he say?”
Candi, eyes pinched tight, followed on, “Yes, idiot. Exact words.”
“I don’t remember. He seemed a bit . . . um . . . old, and he wandered a lot.”
“Probably on purpose.” Glorious suspected that was the entire strategy for that particular assistant personality. Kept Rebel Pixie’s plans flexible, coupled with the plausible deniability of a doddering old fool.
“I mentioned I wasn’t going to make it to Rev because I wasn’t feeling well,” said Chad. His eyes shot to Glorious, and Candi groaned.
Great. Now Glorious was going to be held responsible for their friend’s death because she’d stupidly suggested he called in sick.
“Did you record it at least? Just pull up the vid and show us.”
“I couldn’t. She connected through an encrypted line.” Chad pushed back from the table and stood. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?” Roberto also slid his chair back. “Do you need some help?”
“You can’t come. She asked me to do something really strange, but I can’t tell anyone. It’ll just take a minute for me to go get it.” Before any of them had time to object, Chad jogged back in the direction of where they’d finished up their vidkids session.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Win-Dee tapped her chin. “You know, I heard something about the Compact changing.”
“The Compact is always changing,” said Glorious.
Win-Dee ignored her and continued, “What if murder was legal now? For hi-socs?”
Glorious couldn’t stop herself from snorting at the absurdity.
“It doesn’t change quite that much.” Roberto had finally finished brunch and pushed his plate away.
“She might be right.” Candi motioned to Win-Dee. “Unity has been having overpopulation issues.”
“That’s just a rumor.”
“What about my agent saying something big was about to happen?”
Win-Dee, eyes wide, “OMG, she’s going to kill him right here.”
“You guys, it’s not that.”
A scream sliced through their conversation.
As one, they lurched around, turning toward Harmony Downs’ main gate and the source of the commotion. A small gathering of fleez had swarmed the entrance. The screaming came from one of the more excited fans, and she pealed off another, even more shrill this time.
“By nano,” Glorious whispered. “It’s her.”
Rebel Pixie strode through the gate, waving to her fans with an arm wrapped in a slender console glove. Above her head, an angular, teardrop-shaped drone flicked through the air, following her into Harmony Downs.
Win-Dee nodded. “And that’s Zeno’s design for a new high res surveillance drone. I’d guess she’s here to cam something.”
Glorious swallowed hard.
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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