So I've got posts to make up, I know. More Soothsayer, I've got an Academy coming as well, I've got an announcement for Spanish speaking readers that most people probably already know about (which is so fucking cool), but I wanted to put something out there for you guys now that I'm not hacking up a lung or sleep deprived. So...how about some cyberpunk? It's my NaNo story, and while I'm not being nearly as productive as I should be with it, it's coming along. Plus, it's just kind of cool. I mean, cyberpunk. Cool!
So have a rough beginning (very rough, first draft rough) and rest assured I'll have more serial story for you on Tuesday. Happy Sunday, darlins'!
It was the second time that night that Greg burned to death, but this one hit him with far more subtlety than the house fire.
At first there was nothing at all, just an empty black expanse that seemed somehow spacious despite the fact that Greg had no way to judge distance or perspective in the barren mindscape. He turned in a circle, scanning for a clue of what he was about to face, looking up at the darkness above, staring down at his own feet. He could see his feet, his bare, hairy feet. Where was the light coming from? Or was it just that he knew what they should be, and so there they were?
He mistook it for a sunrise at first, a faint glimmer on the newly-appeared horizon. There was a distant crackle like static, or crushing trash beneath your shoes. Greg squinted and stared at the source of the light. It became brighter, bigger, a shimmering wave of orange and red. It was beautiful, almost hypnotic. He stared at it for a long moment before swearing as he began to feel the heat.
Asbestos suit, remember the one way-vent this time, the cooling system—the devil was in the details. His feet disappeared, covered by thick white boots. The wall of flame roared toward him, and then it was on top of him, the last of the black vanishing in a blaze of light. Hot, so hot. He sweated inside his suit, felt the air begin to thicken—air. No air, he had no air, he needed air. Greg tried to adjust the cooling system to supply oxygen as well but it was too late, he’d lost the fine control required to adjust on the fly, he was losing his clarity, he was losing his—
He was burning to death—
Greg’s eyes shot open as his head jerked back, triggering the bugout button beneath the headrest. His throat was freshly sore, like he’d been gargling gravel, and his eyelids felt like they were scraping him raw when he blinked. “Shit.” The burning sensation was already gone, all that heat dissipated by the cold sweat he suddenly realized he was sporting.
Ryu handed him a bottle of water, making sure Greg’s shaky fingers had a grip on it before letting go. “Can’t you die without screaming, Connelly?”
“That’s a stupid question.” Greg took a wavering sip and ignored Ryu’s cheeky grin. The drugs on top of the mindscape networking had shot his fine motor control to hell, but that was the price of staying awake long enough to get his practice in.
“I’m just saying, s’not very subtle. They kick you out of the bigger dens for losing control like that. People don’t want to hear screams unless they’re paying for them, y’know?”
“Good thing I’m working with you, then.”
“Not paying me, though.”
Greg grimaced at the younger man, not amused after spending the past three hours getting knocked around in the mindscape. “I haven’t arrested you yet. Sounds like you’re getting something out of this to me.”
“All right, all right!” Ryu held his hands up. Fluorescent green tattoos lit up his bare arms from shoulder to wrist, illuminating every vein and artery. As Greg watched the color shifted to red, then purple. He stared, unwillingly transfixed by the display. Last time Ryu had sported a strobe app that made his implants pulse with light. It had given Greg a massive headache after a few hours. “You going back in, then?”
“Back in,” he affirmed. Ryu shook his head.
“You sure? He’s making street meat out of you.”
Greg sighed. “I’m not going to learn anything if I let either of you get away with babying me.”
“Good luck, then.” Ryu reached behind the headrest and reset the bugout button. Greg’s head popped forward, the connection between his neural implant and the network suddenly live again, and when he opened his eyes in the mindscape this time, he was met by Specter, sitting on a stool, his hands clasped lightly around one knee.
“No fire this time, I do feel much more welcome,” Greg said. He concentrated on conjuring his own stool, imagined the feel and the weight of it, the height of it, how far he had to bend his knees to sit. It helped that he had one at home, by the kitchen counter. Soon a perfect replica sat a foot in front of him, and he settled onto it with a wince. Back in the mindscape everything felt sharper, a little closer, and even though there was no fire to be seen Greg still felt like he could feel the remnants of the heat charring his bones. The house fire had been worse, actually. Then he hadn’t been able to conjure up a suit in time, he’d had to try jumping through a window. The broken glass had been horrifically painful against his burns.
“Fire is a classic shock and awe tactic in the mindscape, Detective.” Specter looked as calm and cool as ever, explaining complex lucid mindscape battle theory in his three piece suit. He had skin the same lively, shifting brown color as a sandstorm, dark eyes under a high, heavy brow, and a strong jaw that sported an elegant length of stubble. Greg ran a self-conscious hand over his own face. His stubble had migrated with him into the mindscape, and it was anything but elegant. “You need to learn how to counter it if you’re going to become a half decent fighter.”
“I know.” Fire was one of the things the guys in the Mind Crime department at work were always bitching about, how sometimes the masters they chased down were so good with it that they swore the smell of charred flesh lingered in the real world with them. Having been on the receiving end of Specter’s demonstrations, Greg felt like he could identify with that sentiment now. “I couldn’t think of ways to block it fast enough.”
“Then you know what your homework is,” Specter told him. “Don’t try to conjure up items to help you piecemeal. That will relegate you to being reactionary, and once you’re reactionary, you’ve lost your advantage in the mindscape. Shock and awe works precisely because it’s overwhelming force, designed to intimidate you into losing your lucidity and falling prey to their construction. If you have a plan for the most common attacks, then you can respond immediately and start thinking about how to counter much faster.”
“I know.” He did know. This wasn’t the first time Specter had talked to Greg about what he needed to succeed unfettered in the mindscape, outside of the government’s restrictive, safety-conscious firewalls and patrolling AI programs. If Greg was going to get anywhere in his investigations, he had to be competent at mindscape combat. That, it turned out, was way easier said than done.
“Good.” Specter stood up and clapped his hands together. Greg felt the echo like a slap upside the head, and frowned.
“Do you have to do that?”
“Just keeping you awake, Detective,” Specter said blithely. “Shall we make another attempt?”
“Can you pick something other than fire this time?”
“Certainly.” Greg didn’t like Specter’s sudden bright, toothy smile. “I have just the thing.” He stood up, his stool vanishing like it had never been there. “Are you ready?”
Greg stood up too, and nervously shook out his arms. He didn’t feel the movement exactly the same here, didn’t feel the pull and release of aching muscles that he knew awaited him back in Ryu’s den, but it still seemed to work out a bit of his mental tension. “Go for it.”
The parts of Specter that made him recognizable, the shape of his nose and the curl of his full mouth, faded away into something strange and malleable-looking. The crisp lines of his suit went the same way, until he was nothing but a silhouette filled with gently churning…water?
Greg had just long enough to gasp before Specter’s silhouette dove at him, the water breaking over his head and filling up his world, enveloping him completely. Water. Well, here Greg had a leg up. He’d only watched The Little Mermaid with his daughter about a million times when she was a kid, playing an ancient DVD in their retro-fitted entertainment unit, the one Shelby had thought was more appropriate for young children than networking. It only took a second, and then Greg could breathe again, could actually move with his long, swishing tail. He even had a trident grasped in one hand.
The water around him was fairly dark, murky shapes drifting just beyond his sight. Greg frowned. He needed to take control of the mindscape, but he wasn’t good enough yet to project and maintain his own landscapes, not even the fairly simple ones that Specter had used on him so far. He needed a way to separate himself from Specter’s design. Maybe a submarine…
One of the blurs suddenly materialized a few feet in front of him, huge jaws opened wide to showcase rows upon rows of white, serrated teeth. Greg jerked back but didn’t quite bugout, spinning his new body down and around so that he was beneath the beast before he fired a bolt of electricity at it with his trident. It worked just like his tazer, noisy, bright and effective, and Greg grinned as he got the shark right across its broad belly, stunning it into stillness.
He got the second shark as it came up from beneath him, and the third and fourth as well, but by the time the fifth one joined in the frenzy Greg forgot what he was trying to do and lost himself to the panic inherent in being attacked by things that wanted to eat him, holy fuck, he was too slow, they were going to eat him alive—
Greg hit the bugout button so hard he felt his vertebrae creak, eyes flashing open as he frantically looked down and checked to make sure he still had his tail—no, his legs, fuck, he was expecting to see his legs. They were both there, stiff and cramping and completely unharmed. He was out of the network, out of the mindscape, he was fine. Just fine.
“Connelly. Greg. Greg.” He finally noticed Ryu trying to get his attention. The young man held out the bottle of water again, his mouth tight with concern. “I don’t like this.”
Greg grasped the bottle with both hands, both of them shaking so hard he was glad the thing had a one-way spout to drink from. He swallowed a few gulps with a grimace; water was the last thing he wanted right now, but he knew he needed it. After a moment he handed it back to Ryu. “It’s not my favorite thing either.”
“Can’t you hire someone else to do this? Get a ronin, or one of the Elite’s gunslingers. Hell, lean on your cop buddies some more if you have to do things the legal way, but not this. It’s too hard on you; your blood pressure was off the charts.”
You’re too old, Greg heard unsaid, which was true. He was far older than the average user who went playing outside the lines. Most of the people that worked in Mind Crime on the force were retired from active hunting by the time they reached his age, a ripe and un-prolonged, completely organic forty five. Nine months ago, Greg had never imagined he would be spending every off hour that he didn’t absolutely have to spend sleeping in an illegal networking den, getting his mental ass handed to him by a government spook so he could go searching for a psychopath. Nine months ago, he’d had no reason to.
These past eight months had certainly been educational, and that was about the most charitable thing Greg could think to say about his experiences in Specter’s hands. He had asked for the fast track, and his wish had been granted. “I’ll get there.” He had to get there. There was no other choice but to improve. He couldn’t afford to hire a mindscape hitman, not on a detective’s salary, and he’d pushed the Mind Crime unit about as far as they could be pushed without filing more serious complaints about him.
“You won’t get there if you have a stroke.”
Greg rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to have a stroke, for god’s sake.”
“It happens to younger people, even inside the firewalls.”
“Ryu.” Greg laid one of his shaking hands on Ryu’s forearm. He could feel the coiled tubing just beneath the skin, pulsing with blood and electricity. “I’m going to be okay. One more time.”
“Just one,” Ryu warned him even as he reached to release the bugout button. “One more, and then I’m cutting you off for the night.”
“Got it.” Greg shut his eyes and felt his head ease forward, the network connection sparking to life in his mind. A moment later, he was with Specter again. “That was fucked up.”
“You responded well, especially in the beginning,” Specter reassured him. “I liked the trident. What made you decide it could fire lightning?”
“I wanted it to work like my tazer. Plus, it’s in the movie.” Specter looked blank. “The Little Mermaid. Old Disney film, you’ve never seen it?”
“No. Is it for children?”
“It seems very violent, if that’s the case.”
Greg laughed. It didn’t hurt his throat, in here. “Less violent than what you were doing to me!”
“True.” Specter didn’t sound sorry. He was almost never sorry for anything he put Greg through. In his more thoughtful moments, Greg appreciated that. He didn’t need a teacher that was hindered by worrying about his feelings instead of pushing him. On the other hand, a little compassion every now and then wouldn’t go amiss.
“You’re making progress,” Specter said, and that was more welcome than any apology would be. “Living longer, fighting harder. Soon we’ll experiment with you setting and controlling the mindscape scene on your terms, although I have the feeling that’s not going to be the best technique for you. Your strengths seem to lie with knowing yourself and your own capabilities. Shock and awe, while traditionally American, won’t be the best fit.”
Greg wouldn’t deny that he was slightly relieved by that. The sheet amount of concentration that had to go into not only controlling the mindscape but remaining lucid while you tried to overwhelm your opponent seemed almost impossible to him. “You do it well.”
“I’ve been training for far longer, and from a much earlier age.”
“For the government?”
Specter smiled. “You always ask, and I never answer. Why do you persist, Detective?”
Greg shrugged. “Just curious, I guess. I mean, we were introduced by a Fed, it stands to reason you’d have a connection to them.”
“Connections don’t necessarily mean collusion, and the Fed who introduced us was going outside of her professional mandate by doing so. I’m afraid you’re going to have to be curious for a while longer.”
“I guess I’ll have to live with it.” Greg rolled his shoulders and shook out his arms again, repetitive, but it helped get him into the right headspace. “So. Go again?”
Specter shook his head. “Not tonight, Detective. I think we could both use a break.”
Well, that was unexpected but not unpleasant. “Sure. Same time tomorrow?”
Specter tilted his head a little as he surveyed Greg. “Consider taking a day off, Detective. You’ve been at this almost nonstop for months. Someone is surely noticing the change in your appearance.”
Greg frowned. “What change?”
Suddenly there was an image of himself beside Specter, standing perfectly still. Greg stared at it, a little disconcerted. Something was off about it. “This is how you looked when you first came to me.” Another image sprang up next to the first one, and Greg almost did a double take. “This is how you appear now. Your mind is a faithful mimic of your physical self, Detective.”
Well, that was…huh. The hair was the same, salt-and-pepper gray with the salt rapidly winning the battle. The clothes were the same, a cheap Chinatown suit with a black trench coat over the top. The suit in the second image was looser than in the first, though, and his stubble was longer. His face had lost some of its boyish roundness, something Greg would have killed for back when he was in his twenties and still getting ID’d at bars, but coupled with the bruise-like shadows under his eyes the thinness just made him look haggard. His light brown eyes were bloodshot, and his head hung low with exhaustion. Fuck, he looked like a junkie. Then again, he was popping synthetic adrenaline almost every night to keep him awake enough for training, so maybe the comparison fit.
“So you’re saying I need a break.”
“Not a long one. One night, Detective, with no pills, no networking, no bugouts. One night to refresh yourself. When you come back, I’ll start teaching you Yakuza combat techniques.”
Greg shut his eyes and sighed heavily. It felt wrong to take a night off, even if his body was clamoring for it. Jade didn’t get any nights off, why should he? Why shouldn’t he push himself hard, harder even, so he could go after her sooner?
“Greg.” Big hands cupped the curves of Greg’s shoulders, startling his eyes open. Specter rarely touched him, preferring to interact through talking or the medium of mindscape control. When Greg met his gaze, his expression was terribly earnest. “This will help you. Trust me.”
“I do,” Greg said automatically. “I trust you.” It was true, and rather foolish when he thought about it. He knew nothing about Specter other than the Fed in charge of his daughter’s case had recommended him as “powerful and discreet.” He didn’t know the man’s real name, or where he lived, or what he did for work. He didn’t even know if he was a man. His mental projection could be a front, especially if he had the sort of control Greg thought he did. He might even be a new type of AI, although Greg doubted it.
“Good. Then listen to me. I’ll see you in two days’ time.” Specter stepped back and, a moment later, was gone. Greg was left alone in the empty mindscape, the secluded corner of the network that Ryu patrolled and maintained. It felt…strange, to be in here alone. Creepy. Closing his eyes again, he let his mental body fall backward, tilting toward the ground—
His head pressed down on the bugout button, and Greg opened his eyes to see the familiar cracked concrete ceiling of Ryu’s storage unit above him.
“That looked better,” Ryu commented as he disengaged Greg’s implant from the chair’s network plugin. The chair released him and Greg sat up with a wince. His neck ached from being held in place for hours, and he had the beginnings of a very familiar headache. “Less violent.”
“I was told to take a break.”
“Hallelujah.” The tone was sarcastic, but Ryu looked kind of relieved. “Does that mean I can get some real work done tomorrow night? Because I like you, Connelly, but you’re so needy sometimes.”
“Yeah, I won’t be bothering you tomorrow night.” Greg tried to sit up and almost fell over. Ryu clucked his tongue and passed Greg the water bottle again.
“Electrolytes, man, you need them. And protein. Go eat a steak.”
Greg chuckled around the spout. “Who can afford a steak?”
“I know all sorts of people who eat steak every night,” Ryu said as he shut down his network hub. The screens went dark, the generators stopped whirring, even the dampeners blinked out until all that was left was the tiny red light of the alarm system and the single, flickering neon light by the door. “You chose the wrong profession, Connelly. Watarimono and Elites, they eat like kings.”
“You’re Watarimono,” Greg pointed out as he finished off the water. Watarimono meant wanderer, it was the name the Japanese immigrant community had originally taken for themselves after the tsunami almost three decades ago that had decimated Japan. The word had quickly been usurped by the Yakuza, who went to work almost immediately carving out a place of power for themselves in City West, the enormous conglomeration of people and technology that made up America’s west coast. The middle of the country was almost unlivable thanks to dust storms and drought, and so the population congregated along the coasts, the most enormous migration in the history of the states. “Where’s your steak, Ryu?”
Ryu grinned, looking so young for a moment. “Working my way up the ranks, Connelly. I’ll get there eventually.” He used his arms to lift himself off the comfortable platform he favored when he was running his network and shifted smoothly into his mechrider. Ryu had been born without legs, just stumps ending at the base of his hips. A lot of the Watarimono had been affected by the radioactive pollution that ruined Japan, and birth defects were rampant in those born after the tsunami.
To compensate, Ryu used a mechrider, a mechanical assistive device that ranged from simple wheelchairs to complex integrative body sheaths. Ryu’s was a little different: it had a custom saddle that responded to the impulses and weight shifts of his body, and it had eight legs that could crawl over everything from oil spills to overturned cars without dislodging its rider. It was functional, but more importantly it was distinctive, which Greg knew was something that Ryu craved. He’d grown up in group homes, overlooked like so many other damaged, abandoned children. Ryu craved the spotlight, and Greg facilitated his more theatrical urges by not arresting him for minor crimes in exchange for the occasional tipoff, or more recently, for time in Ryu’s unofficial network.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Greg warned him as he stood up and put himself back together. Shoes, suit jacket, trench coat. He hung his weapon on the clip on his belt, its weight a pleasant reassurance.
Ryu snorted. “I think you’ve got the monopoly on stupid right now, Connelly.”
“Just being honest, man. If you burn your mind out I’ll have to butter up another detective, and that would take way too much work.”
“You say the sweetest things.” Greg’s voice was drier than the desert. “Ready to head out?”
“Sure.” Ryu walked over to the rolling door of the storage unit and lifted it up about four feet. Greg ducked down as he exited, and Ryu followed behind, his mechrider’s multi-jointed legs bending low as he scuttled forward. Ryu rolled the door back down, locked down the bar on the outside meant to discourage casual pillaging, then straightened up and made a face. “Fucking rain.”
It was drizzling, the sort of cold, misty drizzle that happened so often in this part of City West, halfway up the coast. It was rarely a full-out downpour, but Greg couldn’t quite remember the last time he’d seen the sun either. “You know it’s going to be like this,” he said as they headed toward the end of the alley where Ryu’s storage unit was situated. The ground was slick with more than rain under Greg’s feet, but he had a lifetime of experience in these streets, and barely even noticed as he shifted his weight forward to compensate for the slipperiness. “Why don’t you wear a jacket?”
“Hello?” Ryu flexed his muscular arms and the lights buried within them flashed in an attractive, circular pattern. “How else will people admire these babies?”
“Vanity.” Greg shook his head. “You’re risking pneumonia for vanity. Oh, to be young and an idiot again.”
Ryu shrugged. “Got to attract attention somehow, it’s not like I’m already married with children like…you.” Too late he realized his mistake. “Fuck, I’m sorry.”
Greg forced a smile. “It’s fine. Go home, I’ll see you in a few days. Be careful going through the Choke Zone!”
“Yeah, I will.” Ryu turned right and Greg watched him go for a moment, then headed left himself.