Drasgow is a strange place for newcomers. Hell, I've lived here all my life and I think it's strange too, a huge, floating archopolis on a manmade island in the middle of the ocean. The first Drasgow was destroyed in AW 845 when the planets Palm and Mota decided to flip orbits--now that would have been a funky time to be alive--so the corps just went and built a new one. Then, when they wanted more space, they just stacked a whole new city on top of the first one. Not a new idea; they say that the same thing happened to the original back a thousand years ago. The whole idea of a city with no natural light, where it's always nighttime, spins people's heads. So does the idea of an island when all the dirt has to be imported.
You could tell that the guy we were after was a newbie by the way he rubbernecked openly, not even bothering to hide his surprise. Nightside did that to newbies. They liked to stare at the "sky" of steel plate where it was illuminated, at the crossbeams, and the nests of pipes and wires hiding among them. They stared, too, at the massive support pillars that bore the weight of the more than two million people living above, keeping them from landing on the six or so million below. This newcomer was short, plump, and round-faced, with a little white fringe of hair running around a balding pate. In his hand was a slim, black case.
The two men with our guy weren't newbies. They were pros, corp bodyguards in dark carbonsuits and tan fibercoats, and they weren't looking at the sights. They smoothly kept the executive moving from the subway station to the waiting landskimmer. Unfortunately for them, while they were experienced and competent, they weren't used to Nightside. I was, and so were my mates. Used to it and wanted out. That gave us the passion to do what we had to do. That's why WildChild hired us.
* * * * *
I hate working for WildChild. He's a good fixer, sure, the only one willing to give us a shot at the big-time jobs, real hunter stuff instead of thug work and bag runs any muscleboy could handle. I still can't stand him. He's a little guy, narrow-faced, with long white hair that spills across his shoulders. He's had some biosculpting work done to give him the face of a twelve-year-old or so and to make his eyes a weird sea-green that glows in the right light. Artificial light, the kind that's everywhere in Nightside. He's strange, but he's got power; he brokers deals for the corps and the syndicates, putting them in contact with hunters who'll do their brand of dirty work.
And, like I said, he's willing to send some of that work to me and my mates.
WildChild's table in Kinjar's was way in the back, pressed into a corner, a spot I'd figured at first was picked for forting up instead of escape. Only on the third visit did I realize that it was only a few feet from the corner of the stage, and that the crawlspace under the stage might just lead pretty much anywhere out back. There was no danger of any of the performers overhearing WildChild's biz; the girls at Kinjar's did their contortions in cages to keep out the skags who wanted a free feel. Flesh-to-flesh cost extra, and free samples weren't included with the cover charge.
Seeing my approach, WildChild shooed away the two girls who'd been sharing his booth. The fixer smiled up at me, eye-light dancing brightly. Too brightly; his latest metachem cocktail hadn't worn off yet. There was a foul taste in my mouth, the taste of corruption.
Maybe that's why WildChild annoys me so much. He stinks of Nightside; his soul's diseased, somehow. Kinjar's was a perfect place for him. But he had what I didn't have, power and respect, despite that corruption. Sort of like a flashing sign saying, VX, your life ain't worth crap, and your values aren't, either.
"Ahh, good! Mr. Xavierrr," he trilled, rolling the final r off his tongue. WildChild never uses my street tag; to him it's always Vincent Xavier. "Dooo sit down," he cooed. I sat.
"I have some business I believe you can handle for me, Mr. Xavier." He still trilled the r the second time, but not so badly. Biz talk always helps cure WildChild of his speech patterns. "A matter of a corporate executive in possession of da-ta someone does not wish him to have."
"I don't do wetwork," I sighed. Just surviving on the streets of Nightside's made me do a lot of things I'd rather not have, including kill, but I didn't kill for money. WildChild giggled; he always finds the idiosyncrasy amusing.
"I know that already! What I require is data, information which the executive carries on chips kept on his person. The man's life is inconsequential."
"All right," I said, "tell me more."
* * * * *
The night was warm and a bit stifling. Locke's apartment always makes me feel constricted, though I'm not quite sure why. In truth, it's no more cluttered than any other slum flat; at least she's got a room to herself and a wall-mounted visiphone that comes with the rent, paid for up front just in case someone decides to take it with them. Our bodies were slick with sweat as we lay spooned together, listening to the night noises. I softly kissed the back of her neck.
"We should go shopping for an AC unit for this place."
"Yeah, right. Like either one of us has a couple hundred meseta lying around." She reached back and slid her hand along my thigh. "Nice thought, though."
"Not just a thought. I'm pulling down a job in a couple of days; my split's one K, two-fifty."
"Your split? That's five K for the whole team. VX, what is this job? You gravestoning people now?"
Funny we'd both jumped to that conclusion.
"Nah. just a snatch-and-grab on some Luveno exec."
Locke sighed with relief.
"That's good. When you start talking about money like that...and I know that Jolo Ambiri has been after you for a while to become a legbreaker for him."
"There's blood on my hands," I murmured.
Locke sat up and ran a hand over her close-cropped hair. The pale yellow light from the sign across the street highlighted her body, making the electric blue rose tattooed high on her right hip glimmer.
"That's true for any of us," she said, turning to me. Her eyes were the same blue as the rose, and for a second they seemed to be alight, just like WildChild's. "We've all done things we couldn't help. That's just part of life, at least life in Nightside. You, me, Sid, Roxy..." She sighed again. "I don't want to see you become a murderer, that's all. I know you've killed, but..."
She did. She'd seen it. I remembered how Jonny Kryne had wanted to add her to his stable, threatened to cut her face if she didn't sign up. He'd tried it, too, one day. I'd had an old one-hit wonder, didn't even know if the thing was slagged or if I could shoot straight, but it fired all right and the sonic pulse had blown off the back of the pimp's skull.
Funny, that was the first guy I'd ever killed, and I'd almost forgotten about it. I didn't get sick or anything, either; Locke and I were just fourteen then and too scared of what Jonny's syndicate connections would do to us to stew over the killing. Nico Ambiri, Jolo's uncle, had come after us, too, but now how I thought. He told me that he liked a guy who'd stand up for a friend and offered me a job doing a bag run. It was my first step towards becoming a hunter.
I pulled Locke back into my arms. We were the same, she and I. Holding her close against me, I felt it pass back and forth between us, Drasgow blood flowing through two hearts.
* * * * *
The man's name was Arven Dahlstrom; he was from Luveno Industrial Mechanisms. Nightside's biggest industrial facility was the wastewater treatment plant that served all of Drasgow, and Dahlstrom was going there to oversee the installation of certain new upgrades. The plant was as good as a fortress; it had to be due to its importance to Drasgow. His landskimmer was an armored model used by local management due to urban crime and gang activity; it could be stopped on the road but only with difficulty or with better equipment than we had.
Slick Sid, our gridrider--no neon angel, Sid, but I think that's got more to do with the quality of the equipment he's been able to cobble together than his skills--checked up as best he could on Dahlstrom's schedule, but he couldn't come out with a better spot to jump the exec where WildChild had suggested, right here at the station. Inside the building, security would move in quickly to protect their turf, but outside they were less...formal.
I aimed the silentshot out the van window. We were a bit higher than most of the passing traffic, and the line of fire was fairly clear. I squeezed the trigger, sending a neural-paralysis bolt from the bulky gun into one of the bodyguards. He dropped as he lost voluntary muscle control from the gun's effects. Someone in the crowd shouted a warning, and the second bodyguard immediately began ushering his charge towards the car. Like I said, they were pros.
The high-pitched whine of a sonic gun announced that my team was making its move right on cue. Two shots hit the second bodyguard in the back; three more screeched harmlessly off the skimmer's armor. Roxy was a whiz with electronics but not a great shot. The two soundbursts that had hit the company mad did little through his fibercoat and carbonsuit.
"Go!" I ordered Sid, who was driving the van. The squeal of tires sounded as we lurched forward. Dahlstrom jumped into the back seat of the landskimmer and the bodyguard moved to follow, but the third member of my team grabbed his shoulder.
I've never figured out why Riel hangs with us. Roxy, Sid, Locke, and I all grew up together, fought the same battles, struggled to get to the same place. Riel didn't. He wasn't like us; he was sleek, silent death in a jet black fibercoat that matched his hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. With a sweep of his arm, he hurled the bodyguard against the pavement. As the company man reached for a blade, he found himself looking into the barrel of an Inverness CV-3 combat shotgun.
The skimmer lurched away from the curb with Dahlstrom inside, but Sid already had the van across the street, crashing it into the side of the corp-car before it could get moving. I vaulted out of the door as the others converged on the landskimmer. Wasting no time, Riel pointed his fingertips at the door and commanded, "GITHU!" A searing bolt of energy like the beam of a laser slashed from his hand into the lock, punching through armor and slagging the mechanism.
Yeah, Riel wasn't only our best fighter, he was also the best technique user. Like I said, I've got no idea why he hangs with us.
I ripped the door open and shoved my gun into Dahlstrom's face. A thrill in short skirt, skimpy halter, and too much silver-blonde hair was curled in a fetal position against the far door, whimpering. The exec wasn't in much better shape, sweating profusely, eyes wide in terror.
"Don't kill me!" he begged.
"I want the datachips, not your life."
"Last chance," I snapped. The driver had probably sent out an emergency call, and backup was on its way. I didn't have time to argue.
Dahlstrom pulled out a slim silver case from a breast pocket and handed it over to me, pudgy fingers shaking. I opened the case, noting the three amber slivers nestled in their storage slots, then snapped it closed. Everything matched what it was supposed to be; Dahlstrom hadn't pulled any fast ones.
I pocketed the datachips and we bolted. We left the van; it wasn't ours, anyway.
* * * * *
The heat in Kinjar's was intense as I walked through the joint. Behind me, the crowds parted like water around a rock as Riel followed. I had to admit, I envied that, the subtle force that acted on everyone around him, communicating a need for respect. I wanted him along for this meet because of the size of the payoff; if the Nightside vultures got wind of the fact that we'd been paid five thousand meseta, it wouldn't do much for my chances of getting back home alive.
This time, WildChild didn't bother to shoo away the thrills clinging to him.
"Here," I said curtly, dropping the case on the table.
"Don't bother, Mr. Xavier," the fixer said with a curled lip.
"What are you trying to pull?"
WildChild gestured airily.
"Those are useless fakes. The real datachips were already delivered to me. You failed, Mr. Xavier. I pay for re-sults, not for attempts."
I scooped up the case.
"Then you won't mind if I keep these," I said, just in case it was a negotiating ploy. No concern showed on his face, though. His eyes were enigmatic.
"Be my guest. Perhaps you can profit from them somehow."
I slammed my fist down on the table.
"Damn it, WildChild, we followed your plan. This is the chipcase you described, right down to the scuff mark on the top."
"But not the chips." His gaze flicked past me to a couple of his muscleboys, who took a step towards me. Riel blocked their path, one hand upraised with the last three fingers extended.
"Let the negotiations continue," he advised smoothly. One muscleboy's hand froze halfway to the hilt of his knife, while the other thug lifted his hands, palms out. WildChild watched the byplay, intrigued.
"I may need to re-con-sid-er my hiring practices," he observed. "Now, to answer your question, Mr. Xavier--and believe me when I say that I would not do this for just anyone--I am aware that's the correct case. I know the chips are wrong, however, because I was given the right ones yes-ter-day," he announced in a singsong voice.
I could feel the eyes of the crowd on us, anticipating a brawl, wondering if the tension surrounding WildChild's table was about to explode into quick, brutal violence. Some, no doubt, were eager to see it happen.
"Given by who?"
"Whom, Mr. Xavier, given by whom. Surely you don't expect me to tell you? I have a rep-u-ta-tion to maintain."
He reached out and lightly caressed the face of the pink-haired girl on his left. The thrill's eyes were glazed, and she had a vacant but happy smile on her face. I wanted to reach across the table and pound the name out of the green-eyed worm, but that would be dumb. Everyone knew WildChild had something up his sleeve, whether it was killer techniques, a holdout gun, or something personalized and nasty. Plus, Riel might not back my play if I tried a stunt as unprofessional as that.
"You...see how it is, Mr. Xavier?" the fixer asked. He continued to stroke the girl.
Then I did see. I saw in my mind's eye just the barest hint of electric blue peeking out over the top of a low-waisted skirt.
* * * * *
The apartment was empty, of course; a full day had passed and she must have known I'd find out sooner or later. Locke hadn't taken much, only a small bag at most--a few clothes, the holdout pistol she usually kept hidden in her bedside table, and oddly enough, a framed photo were all I could tell was missing. I knew the photo was gone right away, because I have a copy of the same picture back home. It was of the two of us, taken late one evening when we'd gone down to the docks and watched the sun set, something you don't see much of in Nightside.
Funny she'd take that.
The visiphone was blinking, its little green light indicating that a message was waiting. I don't know why I answered it. Sixth sense, maybe. I was right, though; it was Locke, and she's left the message for me.
"I hope this is you, VX," she said. She was still wearing the blonde wig, and there were tears in her brilliant blue eyes. "I'm sorry, I really am, but when you mentioned that five K, I knew it would be my ticket out of here, out of Nightside, out to somewhere I can see the sun every day."
She sniffled, then continued, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand.
"I knew if an LIM exec was coming to Nightside, then it had to be about the treatment plant. So I asked around, found out the guy's name and when he was coming in. From there, it was...easy," she finished with a sad smile. "I switched the chips in his room that night; I knew he'd never find out because you'd take them away from him the next morning."
I wondered what the dummy chips were; probably something she'd boosted, random stuff, maybe just blanks. Not that it mattered.
"I knew you'd find out sooner or later, so I'm leaving Nightside, leaving Drasgow for good. I've got a ticket on the Sea-Link and a passport; by the time you're supposed to meet with WildChild, I'll be gone."
She dropped her gaze.
"VX, I..." Locke's voice choked up, unable to speak. She trembled, then her head snapped up and she stared right at me, as if it was some act of courage she'd had to work herself up to. "I know you can't forgive me," she said, tears running down her cheeks, "but could you...at least...try to understand?"
The vidscreen went dark and the end-of-message light blinked. I reached out and played the message again, and when it was done, once more.
Did I understand?
Locke wasn't like me or Roxy. She wasn't going to fight her way out of Nightside with a gun or knife. She couldn't dive through datanet security with the neon angels like Sid. All she had going for her was her mind, her body, and her heart. Well, she'd used her mind to figure out a way, and she'd used her body to carry out her plan.
And she'd paid for it with her heart.
Locke had it backwards. I could forgive her, but as for understand, that I couldn't do. I wanted out, but all of me, not leaving bits and pieces behind. Not if I had to become someone else to do it.
I pulled myself to my feet. The apartment was just that now, a room, no different from other rooms. No reason to stay. I went out, walked slowly down the stairs, careful to avoid the loose step. I kicked a beer can into a shadowy corner of the tiny lobby and went outside. The street looked just the same as when I'd gone in, caught in Nightside's eternal darkness, but a glance at my chron showed that it was 6:04 AM. Morning.
I shrugged, then started down the street. It was a new day, and you can't let yourself get lost in the past. Not here.
Not in Drasgow.