I left Holmstrom with the details for the Earth-side run, got a promise out of him that he’d call it in as soon as it was done, and then I went home. I caught the Overground again, let it carry me away from the Strip, across the Southside quadrants and into the fractal mess of streets they call the Swirl. Outside, the lamina had given up their fiery early morning glare and settled to a transparency like grimy window glass. You could look up there and see the Martian sky above for what it really was – a washed out saffron dome studded here and there with forlorn squadrons of high altitude TF cloud, and poked through in the East with the pallid glare of a toy-sized sun.
Fucking High Frontier. Big whoop.
Ceres Arc station was deserted when I got off. Not much human traffic around here at the best of times, the Swirl is largely automated factory blocks and bulk storage of one sort or another. Its streets are weird and counter-intuitively laid out, n-djinn designed back when everybody apparently thought that was a good idea, slightly eerie-feeling in their endless curving away to something you can’t quite see, and a nightmare to navigate on foot. All of which gets a fairly obvious human response – no-one lives here who can afford anything else. And at this hour, even those who do call it home won’t be out on the streets. They’re either long gone across town to their shitty friction-free-economy jobs, or home in their capsules and sleeping off the nightshift.
I headed down time-scarred alloy steps to ground level and then out along Ceres Arc to where it sprouted the first of its daughter avenues. The switch-head derelict on the corner of Ceres Drive 4 was the only sign of life in any direction – though sign of life was really an over-generous term. He sat huddled into his niche as usual, glued to the paving in a small drying pool of his own piss and shit, leaning close to the factory wall whose power supply he’d managed to remote-hack. There was a worn old plastiskin pilot’s induction cap pinned on his head with snippets of duct-tape, a brutally customised masterboard hanging loose in his slack hands and lap.
When winter comes in hard, you can just about spot the curl of frosted breath from his lips, but in weather this mild you’d need your gear on to know he was alive.
They say he was a hotshot something-or-other back in the day.
But you hear that a lot in the Gash. Whole fucking valley’s littered with the leavings of earlier endeavour and better days. At least, it is if you believe the street poets and sacked historians tending bar or food barrows down in the Strip. These days, one of them told me, one freezing, slow-as-Sunday night, we’re all just feeding off the stored fat of a dream gone bad.
You want soy sauce on that?
Overriders don’t come with much baggage.
Hard to know if that’s the gene wiring, or just the job. Spend large chunks of your life deep dreaming in a free-fall hull millions of kilometres beyond the reach of any human society, it’s difficult to get attached to a favourite coffee mug. Artefacts take on a purely functional aspect – you wake up, see what’s available, use it. Get the job done with the tools to hand. No other approach will work out there. Perhaps they saw that coming and tweaked accordingly at the embryo stage, perhaps it just comes with the territory and you get used to it.
Either way, the habit spills over into life after demob. Guys like me don’t need much space because we’ve got nothing much to put in it. The Dyson capsule measures six metres by three, wet niche included, is just about tall enough to stand up in along the centre line, and from the outside resembles nothing so much as the deep space lifeboat on whose chassis it’s largely built. It’s a little bulkier than the standard-model living-pods in the other cradles on the rack, but that’s mostly the skin systems. You’d struggle to spot the difference if you weren’t looking for it, and from about twenty metres down the street even those slight variations start to fade out, replaced by a lozenge uniformity. The whole rack looms there at 1009 Ceres Drive 4 like some huge ornate stacking device for retired nuclear warheads. Dusty, caged staircases and gantry walkways for access, festooned with black-and-yellow power cabling the girth of pythons, draped about with careless loops of slim plastic piping, colour-coded blue for water and red for sewage. The arse end of the capsules in the first array all protrude out over the street a half metre or so, like an apartment block of residents mooning the public in unison.
I let myself in at ground level with the residents’ code, jogged rapidly up the eight flights to the fourth floor, and crunched down the grit-strewn gantry run to the Dyson’s hatch. Pulse barely raised, the effort of the stairs felt like not much more than an appetiser for something altogether more violent to come. I shook my head at the sensation, couldn’t really drive it away though. I voiced myself inside the capsule instead, went to the workstation. My gear sat glinting dully on the desktop next to the half-litre flask of Mark on Mars. Top right-hand corner of the left lens, a tiny green light winked the All Done at me. I stared at it for a moment. Back at RSL, I’d promised Madison Jegede I’d hook up so she had the number, but fuck it, the call would keep. First things first – I wanted to stand under a shower, wash the last twenty-four hours off me and watch the residue spiral away down the drain.
Someone had other ideas. I’d barely got my jacket off when the capsule’s hardline phone started queeping at me like an orphaned kestrel hatchling. I glared at the big broad hard-screen above the workstation. Unknown contact. I thumbed it anyway. Yeah, nine times out of ten it’s an algorithm trying to sell you workplace comp insurance or a new gear upgrade you don’t really need. But that tenth call will turn out to be some twitchy client trying to stay anonymous. And clients aren’t something I can afford to pass up this early in the lean season. I smoothed all trace of irritation off my face, watched the line open.
It was a personal assistant interface, one of the rougher ones where you can see the better-than-real rez issues around the eyes and the corners of the mouth. Sexual appeal amped up way past subtle – deep, shaded cleavage, predator make-up, fine dark just-out-the-shower hair, cut to jaw-line length. You can rent them by the minute from most Bradbury AI providers. I stopped bothering with the efforts at professional poise.
“Yeah, I’m Veil. Something I can help you with?”
“My employer would like to know if you are available for a consultation this afternoon.”
“Over the link?”
The perfectly sculpted lips met in a smile. “A meeting in person. Do you know the Plurry Slunge on Sixty Fifth street?”
“The slush rider bar? Sure, but it won’t be open until at least-”
“My employer will meet you outside the Plurry Slunge at two o’clock. Please be punctual.”
“Yes, there’s the small matter of my fee. I usually charge-“
“An initial payment has been deposited. Please check your accounts. If you do not wish to retain the remuneration, failure to make the meeting will cause payment to revert. Do you have any questions?”
Got nothing but questions, I carefully didn’t say. “No, that’s fine. I’ll be there.”
“Excellent. Thank you for your attention.”
The ‘face inked out on a seductive smile. Contact ended. I prodded the screen through a couple of security sequences, checked my account and found the new payment. Discreetly routed funds out of a numbered Deimos account – six hundred Valley dollars clean. Moonbeam money, they call it on the street, just like those gleaming silver coins in the kid’s fairytale. Trickles down in the still of night, knows no owners, leaves no trace.
I stared at the pulsing figures for a long moment. Locked the account back up and dismissed the screen.
Six hundred slash.
Pretty steep pay for standing on a street corner and hearing a pitch.
I went to check my weapons.
The Heckler and Koch lives webbed to the underside of the bunk shelf, five centimetres in from the edge. Standard operating procedure for a table-turner – you could reach down and tear it loose in a heartbeat, clean out the whole capsule in a couple of blasts. But a deck broom’s a bad choice of gun for concealment and street-work, and it wouldn’t do for this. So I hauled out the battered Blond Vaisutis tool-case instead, hit the release catches and, as the lid hinged smoothly up, I brooded on the options within.
It wasn’t all BV-approved gear – though what they approve officially and what they turn a blind eye to you carrying are always two radically different things – and some of it was technically illegal, even on Mars. But from chokewrap gloves and over-clocked power knuckles all the way up to the polished steel bulk of the Cadogan-Izumi Nine, there was something there for pretty much every occasion.
I walked the meeting through in my head. Recalled what I could about that stretch of Sixty Fifth street, imagined the angles and distances. Made my choices accordingly and set them aside. Then I put everything else back under the bunk, shucked my clothes in a pile by the wet niche and got in the shower.
Five minutes in, the phone went again. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I lifted my head in the shower’s drizzle, peered out through clouds of steam. Sure enough, above the workstation, the screen was lit again in pale tones of grey and blue. Laconic ID from my contacts list pulsed on and off – Chakana.
“Fuck’s sake.” I stepped out of the shower stream, raked water out of my hair and stomped in range of the phone. “Yeah, what do you want?”
On screen, she blinked at me, lost sleep smeared under her eyes like last night’s make-up. “A towel on you below the waist, maybe? That’d be a start.”
“I was in the shower, Nikki.”
“Well now you’re not. So put some fucking clothes on.”
I cast about for a towel in the pile of delivered laundry by the workstation. “I thought you were going to bed.”
“I did, for about four hours. Things to do, Veil, things to do.”
“So go do them.” I tugged the towel loose of the pile, spilled everything else across the floor, wrapped myself tightly around the waist. “Happy now?”
“Where’s Madison Jegede?”
“I left her at RSL Exec Admin, talking to the Deiss man. Came home to get my gear. Why?”
Chakana glowered at me out of the screen. “You’re supposed to be shadowing her, that’s why. How are you going to do that standing bollock-naked in a shower halfway across town?”
“Thought I was supposed to be protecting her.”
“That too. Same question applies.”
“Well, let’s see.” I rubbed at my balls through the towel with malice aforethought. “I’m pretty sure Martin Deiss isn’t going to chop her up and feed her to his flash-pan. Not good for his career profile at all, something like that. And you’d need a tactical assault squad to get upstairs in that building without clearance. So what does that leave?”
“It leaves, genius, that she could go walkabout while you’re busy gussying yourself up over there in the Swirl. It leaves that she could start asking the wrong people the wrong questions in the wrong part of town without you, and end up with a prospecting spike through her pretty little cranium.”
“She could go walkabout while I’m asleep too.”
“You don’t sleep, Veil. Not this end of the cycle. That was the whole point.”
I grimaced. “Thanks. Nice to feel valued for something.”
“I wouldn’t call it valued. But just so we’re clear – you want to stay out of holding, you don’t go anywhere without Madison Jegede from now on.”
“Yeah, easy for you to say. Somehow I don’t see Ms Jegede warming to the idea of a trip down here to Pod-Park Heaven, just so I can collect my shades. And if you’d let me go home this morning before the meeting like I asked, it wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Oh what’s so fucking funny now?”
Her lips twitched again. “Pod-Park Heaven. Fits that fractal shit-hole you live in like a spray-on. What is that, Southside slang these days?”
“Earth usage. You’d know if you’d been.”
“Fuck off.” She leaned into the screen. “Get dressed, Veil, get your gear on, get your skinny paroled ass back over to RSL before I start thinking about alternative arrangements. And don’t make me call you like this again.”
Her image fizzled irritably and went out – contact ended again, printing out across the screen in apologetic pastel shades.
I looked thoughtfully at the lettering for a moment. I checked the time.
Couple of hours since I left RSL, three at most, and definitely less than ten minutes in the shower. And somehow, inside that time frame, Nikki Chakana already knew to call me at home and upbraid me for going there without Jegede.
It didn’t fit.
Back at the Hangout, she’d dismissed me like a minor task unloaded, had given the impression she was dismissing Madison Jegede almost as fast. One secondary irritant in the mountain of woe the audit had brought to her door, neatly handed off to a has-been ex-corporate enforcer at no real cost to the department. Not her problem anymore.
Now suddenly it was more important than the sleep she craved – more important than any of the cover-your arse countermeasures she was micro-managing for Mulholland – to chase me up personally and see how I was getting on.
I towelled myself fully dry, found some fresh clothes from the pile on the floor. I dressed absently, chewing it over.
Assume Chakana’s keeping tabs. Alright. High-alt drone surveillance, or – if that looks too risky, too hard to get clearance for in these paranoid days of audit – maybe just a bagful of aerobugs. Stag beetle chassis with enhanced flight specs and twinned feedcam capacity in place of antlers, that’d work well enough. Bradbury PD had to have a couple of thousand of them deployed at any given hour of the day or night anyway, easy enough to shunt some over to the RSL campus. Of course, Chakana would need to know when we left the Hangout and how. But that’s what, a machine tap on shuttle departures, intercepted footage from hotel securicam systems, even something as stone-age as a paid tip-off from someone on staff? No end of ways to do it, if it matters enough.
Assume it matters enough.
Assume it’s been eyes-on from the start.
You don’t go to that much trouble for a secondary irritant.
Speaking of which…
I picked up my headgear from the desk, settled it in place across my eyes. Blinked away the sudden unaccustomed rush of upclosewrap it engendered, relaxed into the cool blue shifting fields beyond.
Hello, said Osiris, like dark honey dripping over sandpaper in my head. Miss me?
“Stop that.” Four months in a hib coma, three days up without gear – I’d lost the habit of subvocalising. I cleared my throat. Stop that.
The parameters are yours. Give me back the BV command voice if you prefer.
I don’t prefer. I like you like this.
Then don’t complain.
Got a number I need you to call. I subbed through the digit chain Madison Jegede had given me, waited while it dialled.
“Jegede,” she said crisply in my ear. I thought some of the throatiness was missing, but that might just have been by contrast with Osiris. Any decent headgear these days will take your subbed words, map them onto pre-held voice samples and deliver a perfect meld. And secondary irritant or not, I found it hard to imagine Madison Jegede was walking around with anything less than very state-of-the-art gear on her sculpted features.
“Checking in,” I said. “As promised. You’ll get me on this number from now on.”
“Yes, thank you for that.” Still no sign of an image overlay, she was staying dark, audio only. “I can’t really talk right now, Veil. Can we pick this up tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” Visions of Chakana’s probable fury cascaded through my head. “Ms Jegede, I am supposed to be your assigned security escort for the duration of any-“
“And I am well aware of that fact.” Now she snapped abruptly into view on the overlay. Tell-tale generic pastel-shaded backdrop, it was a headgear image, synthed up from pre-held and animated to fit voice and tone. “But I am going to be occupied at RSL until quite late tonight, and Martin Deiss has promised me his own personal security detail will escort me back to the Hangout when we’re done. We can meet again tomorrow morning at the hotel, or if you prefer at ValleyVac Boarding West in the Port Authority. I want to be in Cradle City by lunchtime.”
“The hotel is fine.” Grimacing at the thought of what Chakana would do if she found out I’d let Jegede waltz back into town on her own. “You just sit tight there and wait for me. What time you want to leave?”
“Well, let’s see.” The synthed image hesitated a moment, eerily inexpressive and doll-like, while the real Madison Jegede presumably looked something up. “There’s a westbound VV departure for the Uplands at ten that drops off in Cradle City. Shall we say eight at the Hangout?”
“Eight.” I’d go up there an hour early just to be on the safe side. “I’ll see you in the lobby.”
And gone again.
She seems nice, said Osiris.
You shut up. I glanced up and left, saw nothing but an uninterrupted view of capsule wall. Where’d the time go?
Digits flared soft blue in my upper left field of vision. Nearly time to be on my way over to Sixty Fifth street and my mysterious new client.
You turn the display off? I asked curiously.
It’s an upgrade. They’re phasing visuals out for circadian sense meld. Proprietary SomaSystems tech, on lease to the COLIN flow. You’ll just know the time instinctively, to the minute. Want it switched on?
No, fuck that shit. I want to be able to see the numbers.
Looking is a lot slower than just knowing.
Yeah? What is that, SomaSys marketing copy?
It is a statement of physiological fact.
Leave the numbers where they are. And fire up the situational systems – we’re going out.