In a world where a killer clown is the biggest TV star, those who walk the Earth might be less alive than beings who exist only in the depths of cyberspace.
Everything you imagine exists. Even if it only exists in your imagination."
Nightingale Medical Center. Red Sector 16. New Atlantic City. The Year Of The Rat.
"I got a new job, Reb." Cody Ingram slides her hands into the pockets of her baggy black leather jacket and listens to the crickets in the field. An edgy silence descending between her and her younger sister as they sat on the hot metal bench.
Reb looks down at the grass. Up at the technicolor blue sky. Over the field at the other kids playing tag on a huge steel climbing frame. Everywhere but at Cody. Her voice, when she does speak, is deeper than most would expect of a girl of fifteen. Her words slurred and difficult to make out.
Reb sometimes feels embarrassed to talk -- but this is Cody, and she knows that no matter how bad her voice gets, her sister understands.
"You didn't come... to visit me this month... I... thought you had left me... I thought they... would switch me off."
Cody sighs. "I told you I had to go to San Angeles. The Callies needed me to do some corp-work. Infiltration, that kind of thing. I sent money back." She moves up to the bench and sits next to her sister. Tries to put her arm around her, to comfort her, but Reb just slides further away. "Sometimes I have to go where the work is. I told you before, when I went to Europe. I would never let them shut you down. I made a promise, remember?"
Reb nods to herself. "I just... thought..."
"Yeah," Cody says. "Well you know what Dad would say, don't you? Thought stuck his ass out the window and went outside to push it back in again. Don't think, girl. Know."
Reb looks down ashamedly. "Yeah..." The word a soft whisper on the wind.
"So, anyway," Cody continues, "I got a new job. Footwork. Harlequins want me to find somebody for them. A girl. Looks like she might have run away from some corporate dustzone or something. But she's supposed to be here, on the Island. Pays well, and all I have to do is snoop around some."
"What's her... name?"
As the sun sets over the Island, the air cools and the humid day becomes a hot, wet night. At twilight, the first few spatters of rain start to sizzle on the soft tarmac of Red Sector's streets.
Cody takes a quick look at the slate gray sky above Terminal. A police Locust aerodyne, bulbous head and black, evil body with vectoring jet thrusters for legs, skims across the skyline on a routine patrol. The police don't send ground traffic into Terminal anymore. Not after the Tag Team wars a few months back. The wars may have killed off the last remnants of the gangs, but there are still no-go zones on the Island. Safe havens for what the kids call keiki -- "business." She pulls her hands out of her jacket pockets and steps into the Apres Mort. Inside, the keiki is thick enough to choke on.
A blade of twilight slices through the mist to the bar at the far end. There's a background hum, a mixture of talk from the few kids here and ambient sounds from the darkwave selection on the CD jukebox. Cody glances around the main room of the bar, looking for one pony in particular, nodding to the kids she knows as she walks past them. They talk nonstop, fast and soft, in a melange of American English and Japanese. Romaji, they call it. Red Sector Patois. Cody has learned enough in four years here to get by, but, as in everything, there are intricacies that she will never fathom. Language is a mindset.
She finds her pony in the games room. Jacked into a hyperball game through thin silver interface cables dangling from NST sockets in the back of his shaven head. Green chrome cusps implanted over his eye sockets reflecting the flashing score lights on the hyperball machine's display. Holding the pistol grip that aims the balls on the pinball-like game, it's his neural inputs that fire the balls at the flashing targets. Picking them out to a split second the same way cybernetic smartguns target their victims.
Cody tries not to stare at the machine. The speed at which the targets pulse is liable to give her a fit. She waits until the pony has clocked the score display one final time and there are no more flashing targets. The game won, she taps him on the shoulder.
"Shouldn't you be out wasting people instead of wasting all your doru on the machines, Echo?" she says with a smile.
The pony looks around. She can see her face mirrored green in his metal eyes. He grins and pulls the cables out of his head. The machine slowly reels them back into a slot on the side.
"Jesus, Cody! I didn't know you were back." He grabs her around the waist and she returns his hug. He stops when he realizes he's pressing her shoulder-rigged pistol into her ribcage.
"Got back yesterday. Just thought I'd go see Reb first. Pay the bills, that kinda thing."
"Aces," Echo says. He flicks the dust covers back down on his NST sockets and slides a pair of black shades over the eyes. Black shades, long black hair shaved at the sides, black leather longcoat, black leather jeans tucked into tall black boots. Like most of the population of the Apres Mort, Echo looks like Death incarnate.
"So, how's life in Callie?"
"Dull," she says. "But the pay's good. Kinda hard trying to slow yourself down to their speed, you know?" She shrugs. "So, what's new on the Island?"
Echo laughs. "Things are still pretty fucked up. No one knows who's who now the teams are gone. Kinda weird, selling stuff from under the counter when there's no stock in the store." His green eyes stare blankly out into the void of the Apres Mort. They seem to try and pick people out from the haze of the bar's main room. It's as if, despite all the electronics fitted under those metal cusps, he's blind as a bat. Or maybe he's just lost in thought. Lost...
He shakes his head to shift the numbing daze. "Anyway.... You never come here for a social, so what do you need?"
Cody reaches into the inside pocket of her leather to pull out a small chip. A black silicon cylinder the size of her thumbnail. She hands it over to an inquisitive Echo.
"I need to know where I can find more of these."
Echo turns over the chip. Recognizes it as a neurosoft. Then raises his head and his brow wrinkles in thought. His stare seems to go straight through her.
Lycia wants to die.
Not with a bang. By any means necessary. Sits in a corner of her apartment, surrounded by a teenager's collection of knives and Japanese swords. Watching each one glint with gut-wrenching invitation under her single neon striplight.
She shivers as her gooseflesh skin ripples with anticipation. Pale white skin that wants to be broken. Bright crimson life that wants to be free. The hunger inside her all-consuming. Every thought drawn toward her death.
And the Shape. There. And there. Fluttering in her mind like a crazed moth. Wherever she looks. Whenever she tries to think. Concentrate.
"This don't last," she says to the knives. "Ihor said it and I trust him. It can't last!" And with one final effort of will and motion, she kicks a leg out at the shimmering hungry blades, spraying them across the floorboards.
Only one small bullet-knife remains. Calling her. Teasing her. Daring and pleading under the neon.
Cody slides the door shut and steps into her tiny apartment. Two rooms and a shared bathroom on the fifteenth story of a Loisada tower block. Red Sector 5. The soles of her boots thumping over the black and white plastic tiles lining the floor. She slumps down into the single low-cut red foam armchair. Drowns out the ambient mixture of downstairs domestic argument and next-door hick music by clicking on the TV.
Local news about the latest violence uptown. Yet another borg gone psycho and SWAT called in with their new Japanese hardsuits. Half a building destroyed in the process.
Cody laughs at the debris. Unsure whether she's laughing at the overkill or the joy of being alive. Shaking her head as the story moves aside for commercials, she rummages through the pockets of her jacket for some zootie. There's one small blue derm left. She peels off the backing and presses it into her shoulder, breaking the seal.
Echo didn't seem to know much. He'd heard of a shipment of new chips coming in through the Terminal, maybe for computers or neuralware, but by the time he'd decided to try and skim some of it, it had already gone through. He gave her a few names for ponies that may have been selling, but nothing definite.
Cody tried the Port Authorities, claiming to be part of a Civic audit team, to try and look through the manifests, but they had found her out as she was flicking through the Terminal net.
As much as she hates the whole fucking idea, she knows there's only one avenue left open to her. She has to call Damon.
But not now...
Switching the channel, there's a Big Pierrot rerun she must have missed. Quietly, she settles down to watch it as the lights from a police aerodyne wash over the room from the round porthole window behind her. Her heart slowing down to a regular thump. Her skin tingling with soft waves of heat. Unconsciously chewing her bottom lip as the dark avenger in the clown suit saves yet another innocent victim from the insane clutches of a bioroid madman.
The smell destroys the nostrils. But she no longer senses that way. Made from part chrome and part flesh, only her face expresses emotions in the way of the meat. And then, not often.
The sound of machines in the background spins a low hum. Soft wind through air-cooled engineering. Sorting. Processing. Creating nirvana on cylindrical silicon.
She pulls herself from the machine. Tugging out the jacks from her metal head. Facing the real world through a cybernetic monoptic system that encases her now-useless eye sockets. Seeing the basement here like TV. Hearing the hum through two multidirectional sensor booms that move like the ears of a rabbit at the back of her armored cranium. Her new olfactory nerves filtering out the shit stench that plasters the walls of the building. The legacy of her insane minions.
When born, the body she occupies was human. One hundred percent meat. But the operations slowly took over. First the NST sockets allowing her to control cybernetic machines. Then, after a run-in with a gang, new metal arms and legs had to be fitted. Wary of the attention, she sought out a back-street clinic here in New Atlantic City to complete the job. With chromed body, head, and re-wired central nervous system. It was costly, but now the body is better. Better than all the meat. Better than anything. Better.
But the memories come crashing down on her like the night's rain. Remembering the real self. That her body once belonged to someone else. Her possession could never last long.
The machine behind her begins to cycle. The massive chip burner loading in a new batch and starting afresh. A mini-production line for a stolen neurosoft. Each one a little piece of personal heaven. Inside her own cybernetic mask she smiles. She's going to make everyone better.
"I'm a limited person in an unlimited world."
Snakestrike. A sea of nameless faces. A club packed with Japanese sons of pioneers and white- and black-skinned wannabes. Enka music flowing from speakers in every dark corner -- all low thumps and high-pitched melodies. The holographic snake scales crawling up and down the bare walls shining with condensed sweat.
Split into two levels. Upstairs, the mezzanine set around a square balcony looking down on the lower dance floor. One long bar on level one, and a cocktail bar and noodle bar opposing each other on level two. Party people downstairs, workers and joygirls at the noodle bar, ponies and buyers in the dark blue cocktail lounge. Cody's eyes take it all in like a brand-new dream, the way they always do.
She steps into the cocktail lounge and slides a stool out from the bar, watching the faces and trying to guess what the ponies are dealing.
"What you having?" The bargirl has bright blonde hair pulled back into a severe pony tail. Wiping her hands on the hem of her t-shirt.
"You know what a Model T is?" Cody asks.
The bargirl looks up in thought, then says, "Vodka absolut, lemon vodka and black currant juice, right?"
Cody smiles and nods. "Get me two," she says.
The bargirl disappears to the optics rack. Cody feels something tapping on her shoulder.
"You still drinking that shit, Ace?" A man's voice. She turns around. It's Damon. A ginger-haired tower of a man with chisel-cut bones and broad shoulders. His blue eyes are hazy. Phased and distant. Coming down off whatever he was just high on.
"Sneak up on me one more time, Damon, and I'll tear your fucking head off."
Damon tuts and pulls out a stool next to her. "Nothing like a friendly greeting from your ex-partner to brighten up your day." He opens a packet of Cherry Marlboros and offers her one.
"No thanks," she says.
"Suit yourself. Then again, you always do." He takes the stick and torches it with a high-power gas lighter.
The bargirl returns with the two Model T's. Cody slides a couple of notes across the counter. "What the fuck are you doing here, Damon?"
Damon blows cherry smoke up in the air. Watches it swirl and dance in the glow from the lights at the top of the bar. "What kind of question is that? You called me and told me to meet you here. One ay-em. Snakestrike. It's important. That's what you said."
She nods, her brown eyes never leaving his blues. "Yeah," she says. "But what the fuck are you doing here? You could have stood me up, sent someone round to do me, pretended you were unavailable... Anything. But you're fucking here. Why?"
She watches his soft-skinned forehead wrinkle as he makes to answer. "Because I wanted to see you. I heard you'd gotten back from San Angeles, and I wanted to see how you were. And what you could possibly need me for."
Cody downs the first Model T in one gulp. "I'm fine. San Angeles is fine. And I need you to do a little work for me." She pulls a small cylindrical neurosoft out of her jeans pocket and places it on the bar.
"You a pony now, Ace?"
"It's called Seven. Ever heard of it?"
Cody whips her hand up with inhuman speed. Grabs Damon by the scruff of his neck. Pulling at the short ginger hair. Tugging him down to the bar. Sweaty nose touching the black silicon.
"Someone took a shotgun to this arm in San Angeles, so they gave me a new one. It's pretty strong. Might even be able to crush your thick head."
"Okay! Okay! I've heard of it. Seven, yeah. Sends you straight to heaven. So what the fuck do you want?"
She's standing above him, forcing him in place. "You know what it does to people afterwards?"
Under her hard metal grip, she can feel him trying to shake his head no. She leans over him, bringing her face down close to whisper in his ear.
"The downside is so great that you want to kill yourself. And not just any old way. Oh, no. There's even a special subroutine dedicated to it. That makes a lot of suicidal loonboys out there with these things jacked into their skulls."
She lets him go. He jerks back and breathes hard. "So what, Cody? So fucking what?"
Cody snatches the neurosoft from the bar and sits back down on the pull-out stool. "So, Damon... I need you to do two things for me. I need you to stop fucking lying to me, and I need you to help me find the person who's producing these chips."
Damon takes a sharp deep breath. "Okay, Ace. How you wanna do it?"
Lycia's shaking. It began with a cold sensation. Creeping up her spine, resonant waves through her nerves. Then it grew to hard shakes.
Now, her whole body's broken down into spasms. And she can't make it stop. Lying on the floor in a pool of her own vomit. Her head reeling. Her eyes unable to focus. Falling. Always falling. Her muscles stretched to their limit.
The phone. Gotta get to the phone. Call a trauma unit.
The phone is a meter away. A small cellular placed face down on the top of a coffee table. It looks like a speck on the horizon.
She moves. Retches again. Dry. Spits a flowing stream of saliva onto the carpet. She spits again, but this time the stuff's stuck to the back of her throat, like a frog's tongue. She reaches up a violent hand and pulls the saliva from her mouth. Crawling forward. Each second an hour. Each inch a mile. Every so often, one single hard shake throws her to the ground. Her nervous system twitching like a roadcrash survivor and she's possessed by her own body.
She knocks the table. The phone falls under her face. She lets herself drop on her side. Forcing fingers to do her bidding. She presses a programmed emergency button.
Her hand kicks the phone away. She rolls over onto her back. Lungs clawing at the atmosphere in the room. She only hopes she can stay alive long enough for the paramedics to arrive.
Out on the grass inside the Nightingale medical Center, the white sun shines down on three people lying on the lawn. Strange dark shadows fall under them like black blobs in an oil painting.
"So what would you suggest, Reb?" Cody asks. She's taken her jacket off and rolled up the sleeves on her t-shirt to bask in the strange white sun.
Reb looks down in thought. Her thin face tightening. Cody knows her younger sister enjoys responsibility, but doesn't like others to think that. So Cody lets her in on secrets. Asks her opinion every once in a while. Even though she's perfectly capable of running her own show, she allows her sister a partnership.
"I think... you should go with... your orig...inal plan..." Reb replies slowly. "I... could ask someone... to help... you get papers from... San... Angeles... New ident...ities. Would that... help?"
Cody considers it for a moment. Nods. "Yeah, that'd help. We'd need two I.D.'s and some mail hardcopies. It'd have to be black market stuff. She's tried dealing with a zaibatsu before, I don't think she'd want to do it again. Do you think you can set us up as a small holding company?"
Reb nods yes. Her eyes gleaming with confidence and the spirit of adventure.
"Aces," says Cody. "Then we're almost set." She lifts herself to her feet like a graceful cat and picks up her jacket. "Use the name from my Mitsui portfolio account. Make up another one for Damon. Call him Jack Dangers for now. We could change it later if we have to. Transfer some yen from mine, but please... keep track of the numbers. I don't have too much to play with right now."
Reb smiles. A broad grin showing a line of perfect teeth. It's the first time Cody's seen her smile like this in nearly a year.
"I'll get... right... on it," she says, giving Cody a cheeky salute. Cody salutes back and heads for the door.
Damon, neither a participator nor a judge in this conversation, follows her silently out.
"Your sister's not real. She's a hologram."
Cody flashes Damon an angry look only to realize that he's simply stating the truth. She sighs and sits down on the seat of her Gage electric motorcycle.
"She's alive, Damon. But I'm not allowed to see her."
"She's got NMS. Neuroectodermal melanolysosomal syndrome. Basically, she's severely retarded. Mentally and physically. She can move enough to breathe, but otherwise she has hardly any control of herself. Medical sent her down the well for treatment about ten years ago. They keep her in a vat, and they've hooked her brain up to the holoroom. Everything I do pays for her to stay alive."
"What about your father?"
"Everything he makes he plows back into his research. He's still working on that cancer cure I was telling you about."
Damon nods. "Yeah, I know. But... All that cash, Cody? Is the treatment working?"
"Yeah. When I first came down to see her, she was a complete vegetable. No mental coordination at all. The blades tell me they're fixing the head before they get to work on the body. That's the difficult part, they say. Now... Well, her thoughts are slow, which translates in there as some kinda speech impediment, but she'll get past that in time. Here, take this and climb on."
He catches her spare helmet and slides it over his large head. An air pump races into action, snugly fitting the lining around him before he has a chance to set his crushed ears right. Somewhere in the strange sea-shell soundwash within the helmet, Cody's disembodied radio voice whispers to him.
"Time to head downtown. Shitamachi. Echo says some of the ponies down in Beirut are selling the fucking thing."
"Sure," Damon says. "Whatever."
"Hold on," she mumbles. And the buzz of the electric engine fills his head a single instant before the tug of the machine threatens to pull out his insides.
"Ladies and gentlemen, History has now left the building."
Beirut is built into the basement of a ninety-story tower. A single white light cuts through the smoke-machine haze. Somewhere inside the mists, a crowd of dancers fight for floor space and the chance to be the last one alive when the lights go up.
Ihor is here. A pony Echo knows. And Cody stalks him through the searchlight fog like a tiger. Damon standing guard by the door.
Ihor, a fifteen-year-old streetpunk with spiky blue hair and teeth filed into razor-sharp incisors, punches out at the world inside his space. On the Beirut dance floor, the space is everything. And he looks up as Cody walks right into it.
She takes a single fast blow to the ribs, but her wired reflexes kick in. The world slows down. She grabs. Spins. Lifts. Brings up a knee into his back.
The kid screams and squirms from her grasp. Pauses long enough for a single long rasping breath. Springs for the door. Smashing through the dancers.
Cody leaps through his wake. The dancers jumping into each other harder. Faster. The fight breaking rhythm for a time until the music takes control once more.
Ihor's running. Up the three steps off the dance floor in a step. Past the emergency-red lit bar. Over two tables, spilling drinks and seated customers across the ground. Kicking open the doors to the stairs. Up the stairs.
Into one of Damon's huge, hard legs.
Cody catches up with him coughing and fighting for breath next to the doorway out on the street. His blue hair now dark and wet with the night's rain. Damon watching over him with a snub-nose automatic.
"What do you want?" Ihor coughs. Blood spittle dribbling from his thin lips.
"I want you to offer your services," Cody says, kneeling down beside him.
The boy frowns. Confused.
"My name's Jack Dangers," Damon says from behind the pistol. "I run some interests down in San Angeles and I hear the organization you belong to has something new. We want to talk business."
Ihor gulps down some air. Slowly, watching Cody all the time to show there's no false move being made, he raises an arm to wipe the salted crimson from his face. "You wanna deal with Ghostdancer."
Cody smiles. "I think he's got the message, Jack."
The boy looks around him at the empty alley. Smells of piss and rotting cardboard kept down low by the heavy rain. He nods his head softly. "I can arrange that."
"Good." Cody reaches into the pocket of her black leather jacket and pulls out a thin bullet-knife. Touches a stud. The blade snicks out the end. With the speed of a re-wired nervous system running into an electric arm, she snatches his free arm and cuts his skin. Over and over. The boy screaming under her, but she has his body in a lock he can't escape from.
Finally, the blade disappears. Lost once more in a jacket pocket. She stands up.
"There's my number," she says. "Call me day or night."
They walk back down the alley. Ignoring his pain-fueled cries. "You fucking bitch! She'll fucking kill you for this! I'll fucking make sure of it!" Until they turn the corner into Bowery.
The rain hisses on hot sidewalk. The city sounding like a broken TV. The air closer than the walls of an elevator. Crowds of late night shoppers and streetkids fluid with the tides, each individual following the others. Following some dream of a better life somewhere else. Maybe higher in the social strata of the underground left behind by the demise of the teams, maybe higher in the zaibatsu, maybe as high as Heaven. Everyone out there looking like a prime candidate for the last temptation of Seven.
If Cody was morally-minded, she'd care enough to really want to stop it all. But she's only interested in the money to keep her sister alive. Damon, she knows, is only interested in her. Mankind finds its purpose in trying to find its purpose. Everyone looking for a way out. Cody sees things differently. There's now, and there's tomorrow; think about tomorrow and you forget what you're doing now. No sense worrying about the future... it won't run off if you don't pay attention.
She laughs quietly to herself, but Damon notices. Paranoid.
"What is it, Ace?" he asks, torching one of his Cherry Marlboros.
Cody shakes her head. "Nothing," she says. "Just a lot of bullshit going through my head, that's all. Come on. Let's go someplace and get wrecked."
A private ward in Bellevue. Transferred by an unknown angel. They drip-fed her with drugs and stuck more derms to her skin than she's seen in her life. Now her nerves are dead. She watches color TV projected onto a stretch of white wall by a small yellow Sony unit and forces her doped-up mind to follow the action.
"Lycia?" A male nurse stands in the open doorway. Her vision is too blurred to tell if he's cute or not. "Visitor for you."
He stands aside and lets the figure through. An indistinct shadow dressed in a deep red jumpsuit. A thick-set body like a steroid-enhanced muscleboy built onto a five-and-a-half foot frame. The figure moves with a strange alien grace into her field of focus. Chrome hands protruding from the crimson cloth. Metal where the hair should be. Rabbit-ear sensory booms pivoting on cranial mounts. The white walls of the room reflecting from an armored cover that encases both eyes. It finds a blue plastic chair and pulls it closer to the bed. Sitting gently down beside her. Its brown-skin mask smiles a white-toothed smile.
"How are you feeling, Lycia?" The voice is female. Strange tinny girl's tones. Like a TV news anchor's voice. Clean. Perfect.
"I feel better, thanks." She pauses. Presses a stud on the edge of the bed to raise her back so she can focus on the figure. "Who are you?"
"I do not actually have a name, but everybody calls me Ghostdancer. The neurosoft you took... I made it."
Anger charges into Lycia's head like a drug. Scrunching her face up into a ball. She turns away. Talks to the wall with the small frosted window.
"You tried to kill me."
"On the contrary," Ghostdancer says. "I tried to save you. You saw heaven and lived. There are few people in this world who could say that."
"It's just a fucking drug." She sniffs. Flashes of memory drawing tears to Lycia's eyes.
Behind her, a soft whirring as Ghostdancer shakes her inhuman head. "Drugs do not touch the soul, Lycia. And you know that this one has. Your soul has to be stronger than the others to survive. Where everyone has failed, you have triumphed. You have been chosen, Lycia."
Lycia turns. Everything a blur now behind her tears. "Chosen for what?"
Ghostdancer sits motionless. Emotionless. Her news presenter's voice flat and unwavering. "To help me."
Damon leans against the gray concrete wall of a tall Red Sector 6 apartment building. It's been two days since Cody dragged him into this and now he's glad for some time off.
Time off... He laughs to himself. So what the fuck is he doing here? Waiting outside a tower block for Ihor to appear. He decides to do what Cody would do in this situation and crosses the road into the building.
Typical of these slum blocks, the elevator is out of action. He climbs the fifty flights of stairs to Ihor's floor. Trying to read some of the illegible graffiti sprayed, scrawled and wiped along the walls. Stopping at the bottom of one flight to let a grubby joygirl past carrying a crying baby down to the street. Damon grew up in a block just like this. In a place they called Alphabet City. Now, after the latest social changes from the New Atlantic City council, they call it Red Sector 5. Slowly but surely the neighborhoods are disappearing entirely. Up into the sky.
Damon picks the electronic lock with a small black box. The noise of his entry smothered by music and TV sounds through paper-thin walls. The door clicks then swings open.
Inside, the apartment is grimy and bare. Shards of hard plastic strewn across the floor from a broken kitchenette window. Naked girls cut out from magazines glued to the white plaster walls. Flies buzzing around hardened food in white plastic micro-meal trays.
Damon shuts the door behind him and hears a sharp crack. He spins and raises his arm just in time to knock Ihor's unsteady hand out of aim. The heavy Feral pistol firing through the ceiling. Damon grabs it and wraps the gun hand around the pony's back. Bringing a swift knee up into Ihor's coccyx. The pony drops to his knees. The gun falling from his limp fingers.
"You fucking shit!" Ihor groans.
"Save it," says Damon. He kicks the gun out of reach. Lifts the pony up onto his feet by the hair and pushes him, screaming, into the living room.
"You ain't a fuckin' Callie, man! You're from the Six. I had you checked out."
Pushing him to the small round window. "Good work, smartboy. Did your Mom die and leave you a brain cell?"
"Fuck you, man! When Ghostdancer finds out..."
"But Ghostdancer's never gonna find out, is she? 'Cause I'm gonna throw you out this window first."
Damon knocks the whole window out with the palm of his huge hand. He lets go of Ihor's hair and grabs him by the belt. Lifting the pony's head and shoulders through the window. Quick hot winds tugging at the boy's long hair.
"What! Wait a minute! Just wait a fuckin' minute, man! I know things, you know. I fuckin' know things."
The muscleboy stops. Holding him out there. "Do you know where Ghostdancer's factory is?"
Damon pushes harder. Ihor's entire torso now hanging out of the window. Twenty-five stories high. "The chips. Where does she make them?"
"I swear I dunno! Somewhere down in Terminal. I don't know any more, man, I swear!" Ihor's screams are starting to break into sobs.
"Good, Ihor. That's very good. Like Big Pierrot says, information wants to be free... good information prefers to be sold." Damon puffs a hard sigh. "Unfortunately, what you know ain't good enough."
He lets go. Watches the pony's legs drop through the window frame. Picks up the Feral on the way out.
A young boy had stood at Cody's apartment door. A courier. His package was a brown paper envelope containing all the documents Cody had asked for. Much sooner than she had expected, but Cody was thankful for that -- Ghostdancer could call at any time and she needed those things for the meeting.
Now, as she taps in the code that opens the door to her sister's holoroom, she has those papers in her jacket pocket. The door slides back. She steps through into a dark cube. The door slides shut behind her. And the world changes.
She walks up the path to Reb's bench. The hill continuing up to her left, the other children screaming and running in the playground downhill to her right. When she gets there, Reb is not alone.
A young man sits on the bench's arm. Dressed in a black pilot's jacket and baggy bright red jeans. Spiky black hair topping a thin, angular face. He looks up as Cody arrives and she notices his hands steeple to his face, as if in nervous prayer.
"Hi Cody," Reb says. "I brought a friend this time. Thought you'd like to meet him."
Cody's eyes open wide. Suspicious. Reb's voice doesn't slur at all.
"I'd shake your hand, but, being a hologram, it would look bloody silly, so I won't." His accent is English. A soft Thames Midland voice. "I'm Boy."
The name registers in Cody's memory. "Camden Town Boy? I thought you were dead."
Boy smiles. "I am. It's becoming a bit of a habit."
Cody nods, understanding. "So that just leaves the question why you're here, right?"
"You're as smart as your profile says you are. Good." He stands, giving Reb a slight wink. Cody's hologram sister grins and sits back in the corner of the bench, watching him.
"You never questioned why the Harlequins want you to find Ghostdancer, did you?" he says.
She shrugs. "I get paid not to ask. The more I know, the more chance there is someone will try to cut that knowledge outta me."
"Well, there's a story behind everything, Cody. Sometimes it's better to understand it."
He sighs softly before beginning, as if he's been through this a thousand times already. "Ghostdancer was an Artificial Intelligence who stole a program from another AI before it went through beta. Ghostdancer tried to use one of its company's suits to market the stuff, but the suit got greedy and said he would inform Fednet of the deal if he didn't get a cut of the proceeds. So Ghostdancer escaped. Downloaded itself as a construct into a girl's brain and ran away."
"Now she's making the chips herself," Cody sighs.
"You catch on fast."
"Still doesn't answer my question."
"Ghostdancer's little zaibatsu were the first to kill me. They brought me back to Thames Midland to find her when she went missing. They thought the AI had gone rogue. When she disappeared from the Grid, she left a witch-hole behind. Like a black hole in cyberspace. I got sucked in. My second death. But I wasn't the only one. The girl, Kayjay, was uploaded into the witch-hole, too. She's just a program now. A virtual room in a Grid node. She has less control over her life than Reb here. Kayjay was my best friend for nine years. Friends aren't easy to find these days."
"Okay, so what do you want me to do when I find her?" Cody asks.
"There was a time when Kayjay thought she could reverse the process. Get her body back and carry on where she left off. Unfortunately, it'd never work. The neural system just couldn't handle it. I don't know just how Ghostdancer did it, but then, her intelligence is way beyond ours. Even mine. Now she just wants to die. She won't let me erase her until Ghostdancer is dead. Laid to rest, so to speak."
Cody watches him telling the tale. His gray-blue eyes begin as shining neon stars but fade slowly as he speaks. His whole image seems to radiate sadness, as if parts of him are dying and he can do nothing to stop them.
"You want me to kill her," she says.
"No," he says softly. "I want you to destroy her. And the program with her."
The three fall into silence. Only the noise of the laughing children in the playground fills the empty space between them.
Boy looks at his wrist as if checking his watch. "Anyway," he says. "I have to go. There's other stuff I have to be doing."
Cody watches him lean over the bench and kiss Reb's young head. Then he starts to walk away. Around the hill. He stops. Turns. Calls out.
"Look after her, will you Cody? She's very special. She'll make a fine decker some day."
Cody glances to her sister, who's blushing, and then back to him. But he's gone.
"You're dying so slowly that you think you're alive."
Like a huge, sprawling mausoleum in harsh white plasto-ceramics. Grand Central Microtel. Built two hundred meters under the eponymous monorail station at the center of the Island. This place is like a city in itself. Long thin corridors lined with coffin doors leading out from three levels of massive central concourse. A cathedral to cheap life. You can buy a room big enough for one person and a bag of belongings for a dollar a day. From 10 p.m. to 9 a.m., those bought rooms are locked tight. Some call it a prison for the homeless, keeping them off the streets at night. Others call it safe.
Cody once called it home. Back when she first came groundside to visit Reb. She earned her keep as a joygirl operating out of a different coffin every day. Her tricks paid for her food and accommodation. The knowledge she skimmed them for paid for her sister's welfare. Until she hooked up with the Asahi Tag Team, who saw her potential and paid for her to lie on a slab in some back street clinic in El Barrio while a trainee surgeon practiced his nerve-splicing and other new Japanese techniques on her. She was close to joining the team when Disney pulled out of sponsorship and the Tag Teams went to war on each other. Hundreds of cybernetic heroes splashing each other across the sidewalks of old Manhattan. And when the Tag Teams were gone, suddenly everyone was an independent. And independents need partners.
Cody and Damon step out from the elevator and into the chaos of the concourse. The civic authorities had set up stalls along the middle for traders. To encourage a "spirit of community." It is the largest, most open black market on the Island. It seems like everyone who can't make it on the street has sunk down here. Upstairs, it is known as the Strip. Ghostdancer has chosen it for her meeting.
"Alice?" The young girl wears a black dustcoat that kicks at her booted heels. The pommel of a cheap katana strapped to her belt flashes from under it when she walks. She motions them to follow her and continues in the direction of one of the corridors.
They tag behind her to a dead end. Wary of sudden ambushes. Nothing comes. So far, the trick is working.
One of the hexagonal coffin doors opens and out she comes. All that's left of her original self is a stretch of brown skin from cheek to chin.
"Alice Jourgenson," she says with a trace of electronics in her voice. "And you must be Jack. Everyone calls me Ghostdancer."
Cody slows her voice down to a Callie drawl. "Happy to meet you at last," she says.
"I hear from Gentle Ihor that you want to make some kind of deal with me. What is your interest?"
"Me and my partner here are with an organization called the Modern Angels. We number over two hundred members, each one of us regular users of neurosofts. There are also many others who trust us enough to know we only sell good shit. Now, we've heard through one of our contacts that you have the best there is. A high that feels like heaven."
"A high that is heaven," says the girl in the longcoat.
Cody blinks. "Exactly. We feel we may have a broader market for your trip than you could possibly dream of here."
"You would be surprised. But I am interested. I will give you a taste of my product. If you still wish to deal, meet me here on Friday night. Midnight."
"To tell the truth," Cody drawls, "I was kinda expecting more of a sales pitch."
"Its reputation speaks for itself, Miss Jourgenson. Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die. Finally you have a choice. If you like it, you will buy it. And I guarantee you will like it. Give them the chip, Lycia."
The young girl produces the small chip from her pocket. Hands it over to Damon. She and Ghostdancer turn to leave. Back up the passageway.
Damon looks over at Cody, leaning against the wall of hexagonal doors. He passes her the chip.
She makes a face at him. "Keep it. Souvenir," she says humorlessly. She gives it back and he pockets the thing.
"So what now?" Damon asks.
Cody shrugs. "I really don't know. It's obvious she won't be here. She'll either think we're genuine or cops. Either way, we'll still take the thing and that would only leave one of us, right? And she knows one person would never come here to make the deal." She sighs. Shakes her head. "I really don't have a fucking clue."
Damon steps over and carefully places a hand on her shoulder. Expecting one of her evil stares. She just looks at the white concrete floor. "Listen," he says. "I've got some stuff I've gotta tie up somewhere, okay?"
"Nothing special. Just a little keiki, you know. I do have other things beside your project, Ace."
She nods okay.
"If you hear anything, or come up with anything, give me a call, okay?"
She glances up into his hazy blue eyes. "Sure," she says. "You too."
"Yes ma'am." He flicks a salute and walks back down the corridor.
Cody smiles. A thin red line across her face. Then she finds herself laughing. Losing control. Pounding fists onto the coffin doors and saying "No, Cody, no! Don't do it, girl! Don't put yourself through it all...."
The laughter dies in her throat. Her eyes looking at some non-existent place behind one of the neon striplights on the ceiling. Softly, she slides to the floor. Her back still against the wall. Holding her bruising hands. "Don't fall for him again."
"Well, it was made by a company called Zilog. One-time use only. Like the old PROM chips, only much more sophisticated." Havoc twists the neurosoft between two thin fingers. "Wait a sec."
Damon watches him as he moves over to some metal dexion shelves.
Havoc is a low-key decker. He's young, still in his mid-teens, and used to run for the Tangerine Tag Team. He specializes in paydata. Information. Breaking banks is too dangerous. Havoc likes to play safe.
His apartment is dressed in data images. Hardcopies of the recon pictures of various system shells. A collage of monochrome crystal images. The rest of the room is sparse, a workroom rather than a living space. A chair, a table for his hardware, a thin red futon and two racks of shelves lined with laser disks. He flicks through the unmarked LD cases until he finds a blue plastic one and pulls it out from the collection.
He loads the LD into his small gray laptop and flicks through a maze of directory trees displayed on the tiny screen. Stops at one and hits the table top.
"Bingo! This is the list of Zilog's distribution companies. Now if I check that against the companies that have pushed stuff through Terminal in the last couple of weeks, we may find some of it heading where your man said it was."
He starts clicking through the files, setting up a program to cross-reference all the data.
"How long will it take?" Damon asks.
Havoc purses his thick lips. "Oh, about five minutes."
Damon lies back on the futon and waits. Smiling.
Cody powers up her electric bike and skids into the street. Weaving through the traffic as she travels cross-town. Ignoring the red lights. Ignoring everything except his video face.
"Found out where Ghostdancer's factory is," he repeats. Over and over. "I'm going there now."
She had gotten back from a night at the Apres Mort. Learning that Echo had been found dead. His face crushed by some psychotic bioroid in a Shitamachi back street. So she drank herself into a stupor and had to be helped home. Driven back in a cheap pedicab.
When she woke up, Damon had left a message on the viewphone machine. "Found out where Ghostdancer's factory is. I'm going there now." And the address. A reel of words and numbers in her fucked-up head. Spinning like a Möbius loop. Back and forth. Over and over....
That was four in the morning.
Now it's 6:15.
As she rides into Terminal, she realizes she never needed to know the address. Two private fire company aerodynes and a group of paramedics are landmarking it for her. A trail of thick smoke billowing into the fresh gray morning sky.
In the street, she drops the bike from under her and runs on without it. Letting it crash into the sidewalk. As she slows to a jog, she can see the chaos. Firefighters running in and out of a crumbling concrete electronics store. People upstairs screaming out of melting plastic windows. The paramedics lining the sidewalks attempting to resuscitate a dozen or so victims. Their bodies burnt and blistered red and black. She can't see Damon.
One of the firefighters rushes back to a parked aerodyne. Cody runs over to him and grabs him by the shoulders.
"What happened?" she asks.
"Some kind of explosion down in the cellar. Whole thing's gone up. You live here?"
"Give me your breathing mask."
She pulls her Feral 26 pistol out from its shoulder rig and slams it at the firefighter's ribcage. Aiming the 14mm barrel straight at his heart. "Give me your fucking breathing mask," she says, punching each word out through gritted teeth.
The firefighter tears off the full-face mask and unstraps the oxygen tanks from his back. "You'll fucking die in there, you crazy bitch!" he says softly. Never taking his scared eyes off her.
She pulls a strap over one shoulder and lowers the gun. Firing twice. One round into each kneecap. He falls to the pavement and drops unconscious. She straps the rest on tight. Runs into the building.
Inside it is a hell that Dante could never have imagined. Molten plastic bubbles in gray pools on the floor. The concrete walls blistering and charring black. Metal staircases red hot and aflame. Parts of the hard concrete floor have fallen away. Ragged holes in the ground lined with snapped rusting steel reinforcements and sparking electric cables.
Cody slows her breathing and tries to avoid the debris. Thick black smoke making things more difficult. She tests each piece of floor with a booted foot before making a step. All sound seems to have dropped away. Just the rushing of blood in her ears. All feeling lost. Just her own hot sweat pouring down her neck. And suddenly she feels cold and wet. A force against her back.
She turns to see one of the firefighters dousing her down with foam from an extinguisher. Cooling her skin. Washing away the sweat. Soaking her clothes. She takes another step without checking and she's falling...
Somehow in the glow of the flames, she can recognize what might be a human arm. Thick with muscle grafting. Blackened from the fire. She lifts herself from the charred ground and looks up. A single ray of light cuts through the hole through which she fell. She glances back and the arm is there, sticking out from under the rubble like so much grilled meat.
She tugs at the detritus. Her breathing quickening. Her hands starting to blister and bleed in the heat of the flames around her. Pulling the burned pieces off and throwing them back into the fire. As if trying to kill it by feeding it its own shit.
Until she finds his face. The skin peeled away. Wisps of burned hair glued to his crushed skull by blackened blood. His own blood. Using all the anger filling her body, she grabs him and pulls him out of the rubble. Lifts his limp body over her shoulders. Carries him to the burning metal staircase.
She runs up the stairs after they threaten to give way to their combined weight twice. The fire licking at her face. Catching on her short black hair. At the top, she kicks a firefighter out of the way and dashes across the pitfall floor to the street outside. She drops him on the sidewalk and finds the last of the paramedics, ready to slam the doors shut on his aerodyne. She drags him over to Damon's smoldering corpse.
"Take a look at this one," she says.
The paramedic scratches his cheek and glances at the body for less than a second. "No way," he says.
She pulls out the gun again. "How much are they paying you, Ace? Enough to want to die on this street?"
He looks at her with weary eyes. "Shooting me ain't gonna make any difference, girl. He was dead before the fire got him. His head's been crushed. Probably under the rubble."
He walks away. She looks back at Damon and knows. Ghostdancer was there. Ghostdancer did this. Cody's going to make her wish she'd never been created.
"If violence is golden, then I have the Midas touch."
The strip is deserted. A cold air-conditioned breeze running through the concourse of the Grand Central Microtel. Slices of paper and gas-planet plastic tumbling along the clean concrete floor. Occasionally sticking to the ceramo-plastic walls. Fluttering off like moths caught in the soft anarchic eddies. Twisting. Spiraling. Landing finally in the center, where their journeys began. Wrapped around the steel frames of the market stalls.
She moves. Silent as an insect in this utopian nest. Her heart kicking the blood through her veins. Her eyes wire-sharp and tight, flicking from one darkened corner to the next. Her fingers wrapped around the handle of her Feral pistol. Her body fluid and graceful. Jumping effortlessly up a stairwell. Sliding into a space between the bee-hive of hexagonal coffin doors. Back to the walls. Watching her position. Trying to out-think whoever is in here. If anybody is...
Down the maze of corridors leading from the concourse in irregular triangular blocks. Until the dead end. Where the meeting was. She touches the back wall and turns away from it. Sliding down to sit on the cold floor.
She kisses the barrel of her gun and waits. The silence filling the empty corridors. Salt water filling her eyes. Trailing down her cheeks. Splashing onto the concrete. The tears a sign of weakness. Emotion. But she's allowing that emotion to surface. Her stomach feeding from its flesh. Thriving on the energy it provides. Giving the emotion a form. A word...
The sound of a deliberate single step drags her mind back into focus. She looks up at the two figures standing over her. One, a tall girl with long black hair and black leather dustcoat. Eyes vague and wide. Face knitted into a strange, confused frown. The girl from the first meeting.
The other is Ghostdancer.
"Cody Ingram," she says in her strange, metallic voice. "Born April 17, twenty-three years ago on the Crystal Palace space station. Grew up with extended family on the workstation Pale Saint in geosynchronous orbit. Dropped down the well at eighteen and has since worked as a prostitute, a trainee Tag Teamster and now a hired gun. Interesting profile, Cody. Much more interesting than that of Alice Jourgenson. She only seemed to have a Mitsui bank account, and not an awful lot of history."
Cody wipes tears and mucous across the sleeve of her leather jacket and smiles. "Fooled you for a day or so, though, didn't it?"
When Ghostdancer smiles, her lips do not part. As if the smile is perfectly calculated. Perfectly cold. "Maybe you did," she says. "But your colleague gave the game away when he killed Gentle Ihor. The deal had been made. You would have the chips by now, even if you were not who you said you were."
She still doesn't know why I'm here, Cody realizes. "We're only human."
Ghostdancer sighs. "Some more human than others," she whispers.
Cody levels the gun toward Ghostdancer's face. Aiming at the single strip of flesh. The unarmored weak point leading to the brain. The gray behind the chrome. She squeezes the trigger.
Ghostdancer becomes an expressionist blur under the white lights. Forcing Cody to blink. Flinching in the instant as the gun is kicked from her grip. Choking as a cold chrome hand closes in around her throat, tugging upward. Stretching. Hanging. She grabs Ghostdancer's thin metal arm with both hands. Tries to crush it with her own electric limb. But her own technology is inferior to the advanced alloys protecting Ghostdancer's frail body, and Cody's enhanced strength has no effect.
She hangs there, toes barely touching the floor, at the very edge of the cyborg's reach. Fighting to hold herself up so that she can breathe.
The gun clatters into the corridor.
"I expected more from you, Cody. I thought you would be smarter. At least stronger. Otherwise, why try to fight me?"
"Because I'm twice as insane as you are," Cody whispers.
Ghostdancer's cold smile spreads once more across her brown skin. "Is that what you think this is, Cody? Insanity?" She barks a harsh, metallic laugh. "You wouldn't know insanity if he went out and bought you a birthday present. No... You have balls of steel, girl, I admit that. But otherwise, you are no different to any other punk on the street. No different than Ihor, or Echo, or Damon."
Cody's eyes widen. She can feel an understanding dropping down on her like spots of night rain. Each one separately soaking through. Pieces of the puzzle spreading to fill the dry gaps. "You killed Echo."
"Of course I did. I found out he was helping you. Anyone who will not work for me is working against me."
"Then you'd better take a good look around you, Ace, 'cause you're all alone. Is that why you stole Seven? To create a little army of helpers who think you're the new messiah?"
Ghostdancer's smile drops. Her lips now pouting in thought. She nods once. "Something like that."
"What then? Start a zaibatsu of your own? Take over the world?"
"Try freedom, Cody. I can not survive without the help of others. That I can accept. What I could not accept was the solitary confinement of being stuck in a single node of the Grid for all eternity. So I grabbed a meal ticket, broke my way out, and here I am. Not you, nor anybody else in the world could make me go back."
Cody snorts a laugh. "That's lucky. They don't want you back. Nobody paid me to turn you in. I was paid to find you. That's all. Though, I must admit, there are more than a few people who just wanna see you flatlined."
"Including you?" Ghostdancer asks. Her electronic voice inquisitive.
As much as she can with a hand on her neck, Cody nods.
"You put me in a bad position, Cody. I was just starting to like you and now I have to kill you, too."
"Well, at least I'll die with clean panties on."
The hand clicks away from Cody's neck and she drops to her knees. Clutching at her throat. Trying to loosen the skin so she can breathe. But the metal hand returns. Pressing like a clamp onto her skull and squeezing. Squeezing.
"Nooooo!!" The scream comes from behind. In the corridor.
Ghostdancer spins around. Lycia, no more than a thin black silhouette against the white lights, white concrete, white ceramo-plastics of the corridor, gripping Cody's 14mm Feral in both hands. She gives Ghostdancer just enough time to comprehend.
Then Lycia shoots Ghostdancer in the face. Three times. The cyborg drops to the floor, the face within the sights is Cody's. Lycia can see her eyes slowly widening.
"Saving my ass only to blow me away with my own gun's what I'd call a negative karma act, girl." Cody slowly stands. A half-foot taller than Lycia. But the girl is in shock and can't move. Cody slides her back along the wall, into the corner of the corridor's dead end. The girl remains frozen.
Slowly, now out of the angle of fire, Cody walks up to the girl. "I'm gonna take the gun from you now, okay?"
Lycia cannot move, save for a soft tremor just under her skin. Cody prizes her fingers from the gun's grip. Slides it quietly back into her shoulder holster.
"Can you walk?" Cody puts her arm around the girl's shoulder and turns her around. Lycia doesn't resist. Just lets herself be carried away from the spreading pool of blood.
"I killed her," Lycia whispers. Tears start to stream down her dirty pale face. "I killed my savior."
"No you didn't," Cody reassures her. "Your savior was never alive to begin with. You just put down a bioroid. Just like on Big Pierrot."
Lycia says nothing for a moment. Just following Cody's lead. But when they step out onto the Strip, just filling up with the first batch of cleaning robots, Cody looks down at her and sees a thin smile under the tears. A weak thin smile that reminds her very much of herself.
The room is silent. like a vacuum. Filled with strange ornate grandfather clocks and photographs and plastered with green Edwardian wallpaper. Furnished with a mahogany dining table and a bizarre purple chaise lounge found in Arkansas University. A room that was once simple, now an Aladdin's cave of virtual treasures tacked in from designer's archive sites around the world. Smelling of rich spices and sweet rose oils.
Somewhere there is a thought. A visual click noticeable only in the corner of the mind's eye, and the smells evaporate. Gone. Just a sensual illusion.
Until she speaks. "Thanks for the scent-bytes, Boy. They get a bit heady in here." The eager young girl who once showed him The Way seems so old and tired now. Her thin Bangladeshi frame sitting on the edge of the chaise lounge, shoulders sagging from the mental weight.
Boy kneels down before her. Wishing he could touch her. Comfort her. Far off thoughts constantly reminding him that he is touching her. For this is Kayjay. This room and all inside. And her image within it is just a part of her program.
"That's okay," he says. "I'd have brought you roses, but you've got nowhere left to put them."
Kayjay smiles. A sweet smile that reveals a near-perfect set of white teeth. "You never give up, do you?"
Boy shakes his head, indignant. "Until the very last, remember?"
"Yeah..." She nods slowly. Her eyes suddenly so sad. "It's dead now, isn't it?"
"Over," he says.
"Then there's one more thing I need you to do for me." Her voice is hardly there now. Barely a whisper. He looks at her small face, but she just stares down at the floor. A thin, solitary tear running down her soft brown cheek.
"You want me to erase you."
"I was afraid you were going to say that."
Kayjay looks up. Tears streaming down her face now. Boy can smell the salt. "I can't do it without you, Boy. You have to understand, I can't exist like this. Trapped in this cell. Powerless. You have to do it."
Now it's Boy's turn to look away. "You know how much I hate clichés, but I always loved you. That's why I had to leave the Outzone. I couldn't bear to stay there while you didn't love me."
"The crazy thing is that I did," she admits. "I did love you, Boy. I just didn't believe in it. Didn't believe that I could love someone."
Kayjay nods her head in shame. Laughs without mirth. " 'Fraid so."
"We did some pretty stupid things in realspace, didn't we? I mean, here we are telling the truth and we're not even real ourselves."
Kayjay looks up to see Boy smiling, his eyes shining with the memories of past mischiefs. She laughs again. This time for real. "Yeah, we kicked up a real storm in that teacup, didn't we?" Her laughter dies. Her smile remains. "You've got to keep it going, Boy. Keep evading those Rogue Hunters and kick complete ass. It's what you're best at."
"Is that an order?" he asks.
"No. It's a plea. Do it for me. Please?"
Boy looks into Kayjay's brown eyes. Deep within the black pupils, he can almost see the flickering light within. The last candle keeping her alive.
Finally he nods. Unable to look away now. "Okay," he says. "But I can't say goodbye."
Kayjay giggles. "You just did, Boy."
He stretches out a hand for her. She reaches out with her own. Although they can't touch, the presence is enough, the illusion, the pretense of warmth is a strange final comfort for both of them.
Slowly, he closes his eyes. The warmth goes. When he opens them, everything is gone. The room has disappeared and Kayjay's soul is released. All around, Boy's world. Nothing but data.
Boy reels his trace-thread back through the skin of the Vijayanta IG core and watches the protective shell seal up as if nothing was ever there. He floats for a moment. A soft silent ripple in the vast ocean of technicolor neon information swimming across the checkerboard Grid. Deciding on priorities. Working out the best ways to keep Fednet off his back. Living in nanoseconds and trying to kill time.
Eventually he decides to jump on a satellite connection. Bounce over to New Atlantic City. In a life-support vat under the Nightingale Medical Center, there's a young girl keen to become a decker, just waiting for someone to give her that first lesson. It's been a long time since the Boy had a pupil.
Ridley McIntyre (Fraujingle@aol.com) was born in London, but now lives in New Jersey with his fiancée. He has been writing SF since the age of 8, but took a brief hiatus in 1997 while exploring the potential of growing up. He plans to do this with grace, having many tales to tell other people's grandchildren.
InterText stories written by Ridley McIntyre: "Boy" (v2n2), "Seven" (v2n6), "Mercy Street" (v3n3), "Nails of Rust" (v3n4), "Monkeytrick" (v4n4), "Ghostdancer" (v5n5), "Life Without Buildings" (v8n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Ridley McIntyre.