by DJ Tyrer
The night sky was as black as that of the virtual world. Cara had to blink for a moment to remind herself where she was. She was in the meat. You heard tales of jackers who lost sight of themselves, could no longer tell what was part of the physical world and what belonged to the elektroniese. That soon got you killed.
The ’net would be brighter though. You might mistake the Secure Zone for it, the buildings constantly lit, the adverts flaring about you, but not out here in, literally, the darkest corners of the sprawl. Here in the No-gos, virtually nobody had power – and, those who did made sure not to advertise the fact. Cara wasn’t religious, but, if there was a hell, she doubted it could be worse than this.
A fine English drizzle ran down her face and hair, dribbling down the back of her neck. The damp easily permeated her clothing, sending a chill down her spine. She could’ve chosen better than soy-based clothing; she hated eating and drinking the stuff, and she hated the rain, and as outerwear it was pretty lousy for skulking about in the open on a night like this.
Drops smeared her lowlight goggles, but she could see well enough. There was nobody on the street, no signs of life in the surrounding buildings, not the person she was looking for, not anyone. She sighed.
Like a black shadow, she slipped out of the alley, her close-fitting jacket and leggings making her almost invisible in the night. She didn’t want to be seen, neither by her prey nor by the other predators that stalked the streets, ones far, far worse than her.
After all, the streets were hardly her natural home. Here, she was small fry.
She’d much rather be jacked-in.
Patting the holster on her hip, she assured herself that her Milkor M8 was ready for use. It wasn’t the biggest of pistols, but it was more deadly than the holdout she usually carried.
Cara crossed to the building she’d been scoping, went inside. Figures slumped or crouched in corners, chipheads and druggies lost in their own worlds, squandering what little they had begged or stolen on escaping their lives. She so easily could have slipped into that sort of existence, the girl she was hunting might already have.
Cara tapped the smotch she wore on her wrist. It took two tries to get it to wake up and recognise what she wanted it to do; like most of the things she owned, it was old and knackered. The image of the teen she sought appeared on its cracked screen.
“I’m looking for this girl,” said Cara, crouching down beside an old man who didn’t seem as lost as the others, holding up her smotch to show him the image.
“Pay me,” he hissed past gums long devoid of teeth.
Out here, people still used cash, cold hard currency. Which meant roubles. She carried a few notes, handed a ten to him.
“She hasn’t been here.” He hacked a laugh, spat.
The couple of other deadbeats who were aware enough for her to question just stared at her blankly and shook their heads. They hadn’t seen the girl, or weren’t talking.
She was wasting her time.
Back outside, Cara tapped her smotch again. There was nothing new from any of the contacts she’d reached out to on the streets. She called up the list of locations she had; this was the last one.
She raised her wrist to her mouth and put a call through to Hawkeye.
“I’m done here. Pick me up.”
He rolled up in a van a couple of minutes later, an old rusty vehicle.
Even having known him as long as she had, it was still weird to see him at the wheel of the van (she was glad it was dumb – no way she’d ride in a self-driving vehicle); Hawkeye’s body and head were those of a child while his metal limbs were full size. One of his eyes was ringed in steel and obviously artificial, giving him his name. His mother had had the misfortune to be pregnant with him when the Attenborough Loyalists had put a cocktail of abortifacients and sterilising drugs in the Liverpool water supply; he’d made it to term, somehow, but had been left stunted and deformed. Not that he’d let it hold him back – he was one of the best fixers in the city.
“Get in. Bonzo called to say he saw Macaw over by Bellamy’s.”
That was one of the trading posts on the edge of the No-go, where you could swap anything for anything, if Bellamy was inclined to trade.
There was a squeal of brakes as the van tore away. Cara would’ve bet everyone in the vicinity who wasn’t out of their heads was diving for cover, wondering what was going down. They were lucky nobody took a potshot at them.
Macaw was easy to spot, dressed in layers of multi-coloured synth-leather and chains and with a massive rainbow mohican spiking atop his head. Although he looked like a banger, he was strictly small-time.
Strutting along with a bounce, listening to some old beat on his ridiculously-oversized ’phones, he didn’t hear them coming, even when Hawkeye gunned the van.
Cara opened her door and caught Macaw in the back with it, sending him flying.
Before he could recover, she was out of the van, her pistol in her hand, pointing it at him.
She reached down and yanked off his ’phones; Macaw looked up at her with a bemused, stunned expression, groaned; she guessed they’d busted a few of his ribs.
“Not chill, man,” he mumbled. “Not chill.”
Cara called up the image of the girl again and showed it to him.
“Never seen her,” he said, too readily.
“I know you’ve seen her, dummkopf. You traded her ’pad to Tony. Yes, he gave you up without any hesitation. So, where is she?”
She pressed the barrel of her gun to his chin and he blanched.
“Retrieve your memory.”
“Okay, okay. Little missy was lost, was looking for a roof over her head, so I traded with her – ’pad for directions. That’s all, I swear.”
Macaw’s eyes flickered nervously.
“Blink’s? Scheisse. You sent her there?”
“I ought to shoot you.”
She returned to the van and told Hawkeye.
The tyres squealed again as he sped away. The drizzle was changing to rain, washing across the windscreen to the beat of the wipers.
Cara wiped her hand across her face, splashed the drops away.
Everyone who lurked in the shadows of London knew Blink’s… it was a place where kids could escape the chill of the streets if they were willing to… work, a place that swallowed kids whole.
Cara had nearly wound up in a place like that. She shivered, as if reliving those dark days on the streets, when she first escaped from her corporate cocoon. She knew exactly how Codrina must feel, could see her pretty face twisted with fear.
This wasn’t her world, any more than, once, it had been Cara’s…
Codrina Zimbrean was the fifteen year old daughter of the top exec at the London subsidiary of Siveco. She’d never wanted for a thing, had lived a life most would dream of.
Codrina’s mother hadn’t told them much, but Cara was a great believer in not only ensuring she had access to all the information she might need to get the job done, but also ensuring she wasn’t operating blind – not knowing what secrets an employer was keeping from you could come back to bite her in the gat – so she’d retrieved the girl’s deleted messages and learnt that she’d developed an attachment to a junior exec, an attachment that had been reciprocated. The man had been sent back to Romania at Codrina’s mother’s insistence and the girl had responded by running-away from the safety of the Secure Zone.
Hormones could make people do dumb things.
They pulled up outside Blink’s.
The building looked like it was ready to fall down. A solitary red light above the heavily-reinforced metal door identified it.
Cara looked at Hawkeye. “How do we do this?”
They didn’t even know for certain that the girl was in there.
“Blink knows me,” said Hawkeye, “and knows I don’t go in for his line of business. He’d never believe it if I wandered in, asking for a girl.”
“Okay, I’ve got this.” Cara reached into the foot-well and grabbed the case that contained her ’board. She turned it on and it began searching for a signal; there was one, but weak. She’d risk it; plugged the hitcher-jack into her data-port and let her consciousness slip across into the ’net.
It was as black as the street in which they were parked, except for the presence of red data-lines criss-crossing the ground beneath her virtual feet. There were few icons here, few systems connected, but there was Blink’s Place – it looked like a fairytale castle from some old kid’s cartoon with a prominent red light above its gates. Bastard had a sick sense of style.
Her surroundings flickered, her connection almost failing – she needed to be quick.
The silver ninja that was her persona here, Flash, slipped easily across to the castle entrance. Normally, she would be spoofing her way past security or battling her way in against the countermeasures protecting the system, but what she wanted was almost-certainly public information: If Codrina was here, Blink was surely advertising the fact.
Virtual images of boys and girls appeared about her, smiling and innocent, and she scanned the faces for the one she sought. Even divorced from her meat body, she could feel the nausea – there were so many.
And there was Codrina.
She blinked and was back in the van beside Hawkeye, pulling the hitcher-jack from her data-port.
“She’s in there,” she said. “Question is, how do we break her out?”
“Damn woman,” he meant the girl’s mother, “only ponied up enough nuRand for a misper location, not a rescue team. I’ll call her…”
He took out a ’pad and called up her ident, then snorted.
“Voice mail. Clearly rescuing her daughter isn’t number one on her list of priorities…”
“Nothing we can do but hold off until we can get the funds to put together a team.”
“Seriously? You think she wants to be in there? Do you think that bastard Macaw explained exactly what the place is?”
She shuddered at the thought of it. Could imagine a different path that had taken her down a road like that.
“She hasn’t been in there long, might be okay. But, if we leave her there…”
“So, what do you suggest?” Hawkeye’s tone was sceptical.
“We go in.”
“Blink knows me. He’ll know what’s up the moment I walk up to the door.”
“Then, I’ll go in.”
“Straightforward extraction – locate and withdraw. Just be ready with the engine running, because I’ll be coming out fast and hot.”
From the way he looked at her, she could see he felt the same doubts she did. She was a jacker and her usual MO was to keep her meat body well away from the shooting, and on those occasions when she had taken part in a mission, she’d been backed up by razors with real firepower and skills. She didn’t even have body armour.
Going in alone? She might as well just swallow some junk if she wanted to commit suicide. She could’ve done with a Mary Sue… Wished she was jacked-in…
Okay, keep calm, she told herself as she slid out of the van and pulled on her synth-leather jacket, trying to make herself look more like a punter. It’s no different to sleazing your way into a system, only… sleazier than usual.
She felt dirty already. Guilty. Sick.
The rain running down her face didn’t make her feel any cleaner.
A camera turned, following her approach. She ignored it, hoping her nerves didn’t show. Did she look suspicious? Or, did she look just like another customer?
The door clicked open and she went inside. There was the soft sound of some instrumental version of a Shonapop song piped in from somewhere.
The walls of the narrow hallway were stained with mould. She followed it through into a small lounge that was little better. Although there was seating, it was empty. There were three metal doors out of the room. A screen on the wall came to life, flashing 2-D images of the boys and girls she’d seen earlier.
“Welcome,” said a female voice. “We have a wide selection of toys to entertain you. Please choose the one you wish to use.”
“Female, teens,” said Cara.
A series of still images filled the screen, each numbered. She recognised Codrina.
“Number seven,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady, her face a blank.
Codrina’s image filled the screen, a value stamped across it
“New merchandise, premium rate.”
Cara almost cursed, but nodded – Codrina’s mother might not be paying them enough for a team, but there were sufficient funds in the dummy account Cara had set up.
“That’s fine.” She tapped her smotch and sent payment.
“Room 12,” said the voice as one of the doors opened.
Cara stepped through, shivered. Damn, she hated this place, it stank of fear.
Glancing back, she wished she could see some means of opening the door. She was going to have to hot-wire it on the run… scheisse.
She went upstairs and found the door she wanted. It clicked open at her arrival.
Codrina looked up at her, eyes wide with fear.
Cara held a finger to her lips and looked about, trying to spot cameras.
Did Blink offer his clientele privacy?
Dammit, she shouldn’t have come in blind, should’ve scouted it out first.
She looked back down at the girl. No, there hadn’t been time.
“You’re safe,” she said, softly. “Your mother sent me. I’m going to get you home.”
The girl nodded and rose at Cara’s gesture.
Problem was, even if there were no cameras in the rooms, there surely were in the corridors… Well, they just to hope for the best…
She waved the girl over to her and nudged her so that she was at her back.
“Keep behind me.”
Cara leaned out into the corridor, looked both ways, saw nobody.
“We have to be quick,” she whispered.
They began to run, the girl’s bare feet slapping loudly on the flooring as they went.
Down the stairs to the door. Slip out her handy toolkit, prise off the panel beside it, jack it into her smotch and pray that… Yes! She’d done it.
The door swung open and they ran into the waiting area, adrenaline driving them.
Blink was waiting for them, dressed in an armoured jacket and holding a gun.
“Ah, mudiwa, where ya think yer going?” he said, caressing the barrel of his Takeda Securimax shotgun. Probably non-lethal ammo. Probably the worse for it – she could imagine what he’d do to them if he took them alive.
Blink was well named. The big man’s eyes had been replaced by obviously-chromed ones while retaining his eyelids, which kept blinking down over them, as if they irritated.
“Ya shouldna messed with me stock, teef. She’s nice and new, don’t need no scars, yet.”
Codrina cowered behind her. Cara let her hand slip to her holster.
She should’ve drawn her pistol earlier…
“This teef has teeth, bastard.”
“Amusing. Ya bark, ya’ll regret it. Move yer hand away from yer gun.”
She did, eyes flicking about, searching for cover. There was only the chairs, nothing worth a damn. She fixed him with a look.
Blink stared straight back at her – not a pleasant experience – and leered a grin at her.
She’d royally screwed up, her luck run out.
Then, she felt a movement at her side, tried not to betray it with a twitch of her eyes.
The sound of the gunshot was sudden and deafening. Cara winced.
Blink looked at her, blinking. His jaw hung horribly from his face and he spat blood as he tried to speak. His fingers twitched as if he wanted to raise the shotgun, fire it, but it hung uselessly in his hands as he stumbled back and slowly slumped down onto one of the chairs. There was a splash of blood across the wall behind him.
There was a clatter as Codrina dropped the pistol.
Quickly, Cara picked it up, then hustled the girl out of the building, before any of Blink’s thugs could reach them. He might’ve thought he could handle them with ease, come alone, but his men would surely be out for blood.
Hawkeye had the door of the van open as they ran towards it and was leaning out with a Milkor N1 SMG in his hands.
“Down!” he shouted and Cara tugged the girl into a crouch and dragged her aside as Hawkeye let spray, sending Blink’s men scuttling back inside.
Cara hustled Codrina into the van and they sped away.
“I’ve got a place we can lay low in till we hear from her mother,” Hawkeye said as he glanced over at them, “then we can arrange a place to hand her over.”
Cara didn’t reply, just held Codrina close.
The girl was sobbing and her body shaking as Cara held her tightly and stroked her head. She wasn’t sure what reception awaited the girl when she got home, but it couldn’t be worse than her fate if they hadn’t got her away. She just hoped there wouldn’t be any comeback for her from Blink’s mob. These sorts of tangles were just too close to home.
She tried not to think of the kids she hadn’t been able to help, of how her life might have turned out. Look to the good, think of the money.
The rain blurred the windscreen as they drove through the unlit streets of the No-go and she stroked the girl’s head and wished she could comfort herself as easily.
Yes, this place truly was hell to her.
DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Altered States II (Indie Authors Press),and Destroy All Robots (Dynatox Ministries), and issues of Planet Scumm, L0wl1f3, and Awesome Tales, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor).
DJ Tyrer’s website is at https://djtyrer.blogspot.co.uk/
DJ Tyrer’s Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/DJTyrerwriter/
The Atlantean Publishing website is at https://atlanteanpublishing.wordpress.com/
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