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Copyright ©2018 Jonathan Wright
Following Brady as they shouldered through the crowd in the free market at Temple Square, Jongo asked, "That guy from gHost been around again?"
"Yeah," said Brady absently.
Free market hawkers shouted lies and the booths were generally full of crap, but you could get warm beer and stale burgers for a decent price. If you had a job. Large people with long arms and heavy truncheons roamed the crowd. A few stood by jewelry booths and the like, vendors who could afford the service and needed it.
They headed for the Sky Mall at Nineteenth and Ash. Gravs slid through the canyons in a solid stream. The sun, where it could penetrate through the maze of skybridges, the sludge of traffic, the vertical walls of the superscrapers, and the thick drizzle-fog from the grav exhausts, fell faintly on the Certified Organic PermGrass. You could roll a P-5 battle tank over that stuff and every blade would spring right back.
At ground level, most of downtown was a meandering park, with low-light trees and flower gardens and wandering paths to soften the atmosphere of crumbling, graffiti covered tenements. Best thing about living here, if you ignored the fact that it looked like nineteenth century London at midnight, about which Brady was fairly certain Jongo didn't have a clue.
"You jacked in again?" asked Jongo, looking askance. Like most humans, Jongo practically lived to surf, but jacking scared him. "You're the only person I ever heard of can jack without an implant."
Brady thought Jongo sounded less envious than self pitying. Ordinary mortals needed an implant and a steady supply of nauseating drugs to make the necessary mental connection for real jacking.
The reward was the ability to be in the net, to swim with the sharks. The sort of thing high level corporate IT commandos got paid to do. The downside for plebes was two days retching your guts out when you checked back in from the ride. The corporate guys got the good stuff, no withdrawal, but the brain strain still sent three in ten to the psych ward.
Apparently I'm either immune or already insane.
Deep surfing demanded an out of body experience not compatible with walking, but Brady could cruise a little.
Ignoring Jongo, Brady chatted with Beezo, who Brady actually knew personally. Tall angular guy with shadowed eyes who spoke with deceptive softness and had no known address, or, for that matter, any obvious means of support. Beezo did mutter occasionally about overthrowing the establishment, whatever that meant, and was known to drive his environmentally devastating grav at speeds approaching escape velocity.
Beezo had planned one of his legendary, online/real-time parties, where he'd take over an entire lower level floor somewhere, spend thousands painting and decorating, invite three hundred total strangers, and provide food, beverages and drugs. Entertainment developed through spontaneous combustion.
Beezo mixed with a different crowd. Brady'd seen a society column online that had a picture of a big deal party out in the Hamptons and fuck if Beezo hadn't been in it. No explanation for that one but Brady always figured Beezo was some rich family's black sheep. Black demon sounds closer to it.
Brady had no idea where Beezo got the money, although the black demon analogy looked better all the time. There was always serious female talent, which appeared to be Beezo's primary interest, but just as frequently the parties attracted unwelcome legal attention, especially when someone inevitably jacked in and tried to crack a corporate firewall.
"You in?" Beezo asked by non-video voice link, meaning he was probably in a session with one or more girls. Brady could never tell anything by voice alone. Beezo seemed to have Herculean self-control.
Brady had no interest in Beezo's money or his drugs and he didn't want to take a chance on getting arrested, but before he could play the Elena card, Beezo said, "I can have two good people over there to look after Elena."
Brady trusted Beezo that way. "You're reading my mind. Thanks, but let me think about it."
"Way on." Beezo blinked out.
Beezo had no issue with Brady's noncommittal attitude, which Brady understood put him fairly high up the ladder of people Beezo liked. He liked Beezo in turn, but the party scene had soured for him before it started, in view of his current situation.
Freddy Lake pinged him, wanting to know who could reverse engineer a certain program that might perhaps be used to bypass the security system for a minor third world bank. If one were so inclined.
Brady dropped that one like a dirty bomb, referring Freddy to a vague acquaintance who had less regard for his own skin. Brady had helped Freddy out a few years ago with a similar technical issue, before he understood that Freddy's profession involved personal intrusion into other people's private property.
Rumor had Freddy living in a penthouse in Paris half the year, and an absolute zero mud hut on Frendel II out at the edge of the galaxy the other half. No one had any idea what Freddy looked like or where he actually lived. Brady figured he was a corporate AI construct, built to distract the masses from their prosaic woes when they weren't high on the drug of the week.
Hive flitted by, waving. She used a porn star avatar, totally nude and rendered in erotically charged detail. Hive liked bondage and D/s, which request Brady had occasionally obliged, although digital orgasms didn't do much for him.
If she actually jacked in we could trade sensory overlays. The idea appealed on a purely visceral level. But she wasn't having any, hangover aside. Sensory overlays were way too intimate for people who spent the majority of their lives connected to the net.
A corporate cruiser swerved around a corner, riding low and slow, clearly on the hunt. Amber beams cut through the mist. Jongo stiffened and Brady knew he had Benedrene or Malzene on him again. The Legacy Corp decal shone bright yellow on the door of the cruiser. They both breathed out as the long blue shark glided off in search of other prey.
"Their CFO got iced a couple of days ago," muttered Brady by way of explanation, not that Jongo cared. "Probably Freeman Enterprises. I heard they were making a move on the North Jupiter mines. The guy who got it was jacked in at the time. Everybody's saying it was an inside job. Someone shorted his connection. Their whole online system collapsed, shut down the entire Jupiter operation for six days. Cost them a bundle."
Jongo screwed up his face. "Say what?"
"Nothing." Brady scowled.
Jongo grimaced. "Unassisted Jacking kills more people than smoking, Brady. Why the hell do you do it? And how do you do it without drugs?"
"How do you know I don't use?" muttered Brady, concentrating.
Jongo waved his hand. "Shit, man, you won't even blow a Wad. Besides, I heard it from the dealers... I mean, you know, people talk. They say you don't use. Think you're a loser." Then, "So why do you do it all the time, anyway? Jacking, I mean. You practically live there."
They stopped at Louie's Floating Food Kart. Jongo got a bowl of nut soup. Brady bought a soy burger.
"Just curious," Brady mumbled in reply as he wolfed down the tasteless, dripping mess.
"You're always curious," Jongo muttered.
Brady knew Jongo really didn't care.
"So what about the gHost guy?" Jongo asked between crunches. "You think he'll buy it?"
Brady shrugged as if he didn't much care, either. "The holo's pretty good. I jigged the program from a server uptown, jumped six links to do it."
Jongo scowled again like he thought that was crap. Even though he didn't say anything, Brady knew he was secretly awestruck. It didn't take much to impress Jongo. "Yeah, I wondered what the three alarm was all about last night."
Brady snorted at Jongo's attempt to sound like he understood one word of what Brady had said. "That was the Legacy whorehouse. I mean Sexual Therapy Clinic. Somebody torched the place. The Moral Mafia is taking credit." Brady shook his head in admiration. "Good old thermite. Nobody's used that since the War."
He'd have done it himself, but he had a strong suspicion somebody like Beezo had beat him to it. Or Freddy Lake, although Freddy was strongly rumored to have no ideology that did not involve money.
Only five years late, he thought.
"Shit, that's where your mom died, right? You glad it's gone?"
"It's not gone, just well scorched. Pretty hard to burn honeycrete and kelvic rebar. Somebody called in an alarm and they evacuated, ran the sniffers and found nothing, then they're walking back in and the place goes up. Security got some singed eyebrows is all." He smiled. Thanks, whoever.
They walked on, heading for the mall. Jongo wanted to look at stuff he couldn't buy. Brady went along for no particular reason. To get out for a while.
Brady saw Sleen and four of his ass lickers. Two were sizeable males of the species, Nix and Jawbone. Brady suspected they shared a single digit IQ but wasn't prepared to bet it was that high. The other two were females, one thin, the other not, neither of whom he knew.
Not-Thin-girl wasn't actually fat, being built more along the lines of a Roman Centurion, clad in retro-leather with fake metal patches that carried the Roman analogy even further. Her dark hair stood out in horizontal spikes and she had a razor chain wrapped around her left forearm. Brady thought she could probably run the hundred meters in ten flat with one of him under each arm. That and her possessive stance near the other girl tagged her as mistress or owner.
Following his brief cataloguing of the Centurion, Brady shifted his gaze and immediately forgot her.
Thin girl looked to be about a meter fifty if she stood straighter than she now did, might weigh forty-five kilos if she ate something. But thin is relative. Next to the Centurion she looked like a rod, but under her gray-black second-skin, which looked like it had been sprayed on, because it had, her ass looked firm and round and her tits stood out like melons, with spectacular nipples.
Her white-blonde hair had been buzzed. She had light chocolate skin and wore no makeup, which was clearly not an issue given her physical attributes. If she had been healthier her sharp face would have been elfin and intelligent instead of gaunt and flat-eyed.
She stood behind the others. Probably the group whore, but Brady didn't judge her. Neither, apparently, did Jongo, whose eyes clearly wished they were hands.
Sleen wore a jacket that appeared to be made from multi-hued feathers. A holographic tattoo on his bald head changed color and shape constantly, depending on his mood. Just now it was a snake swallowing a mouse. Brady watched the shimmering coils slither around the side of Sleen's head.
Sleen saw Jongo's look. He casually backhanded the girl, who turned her face away with practiced quickness and took the blow on her temple as she crumpled to the ground.
No one moved, including Brady. Sleen clamped one huge hand on Jongo's neck, squeezing lightly and making Jongo's eyes bulge.
"Forget about her, shitbird. She ain't for sale or rent and you got other business right now."