Chapter 1: Rise and Shine

Stillness covered the small room. The only source of light came from the window, however the shutters were firmly down, allowing no more than the odd line of light to streak from one side of the room to the other, barely illuminating the room at all. It was silent, the sounds of everyday life outside drowned behind the thick window panes that separated the street from the room. It was on the third floor of a small apartment block near the outskirts of London.

A ringing sound sliced into the silence and serenity of the still room as a console lit up. A figure on the opposite side stirred to life as well, the silhouette of a woman beneath a thin, blue blanket groggily turning her head to look at the console, a mess of thick, black hair covering most of her face. Stephenie Choi was a small woman, skinny with no evidence of any physical training. She was of Korean descent with striking features, dark brown almond eyes to match her hair. The room was small, not much distance between the bed in which the woman lay and the opposite wall where the terminal was situated. She moved a hand through her hair, clearing her face somewhat as she reached for the bedside table with her other hand, fumbling about until she lay her hand on a pair of thick-rimmed, round glasses. Placing them on her face and pushing them up her nose into place she could make out what was going on a bit easier. It was a call from a friend, Layla Jansen.

With a groan she pushed herself up and to the side, sitting on the edge of her bed. Her head felt like there was a grenade going off inside her skull every second, but that was inevitable after her previous night’s exploits. She grabbed a cigarette from an open packet on the bedside table and placed it between her lips. It was synthetic, but she was not picky; nor was she rich enough to afford genuine tobacco. She got to her feet and walked over to the terminal, sitting in the seat and pressing a button to pick up the call. Onto the screen flashed the face of a fair-skinned woman with sharp blue eyes and shoulder length hair tied back into a ponytail. She grinned at the recently Stephenie, her smirk spread across Stephenie’s computer screen.

“Catch you at a bad time, Steph?” she asked cheekily, her Dutch accent ubiquitous in her voice though not intrusive.

“Go to hell, Layla,” Stephenie answered wearily, picking up a small lighter from next to the screen and lighting the cigarette that rested between her lips, taking a deep drag and blowing smoke lazily downwards.

“Now, now,” Layla replied, obviously having fun with Stephenie’s state, “is that any way to greet a friend? Also, do you always answer calls in your underwear? There’s something you’re not telling me. Am I going to start finding videos on the Net involving you and artistic methods of undressing, or worse?” she teased, her grin growing wider.

“Fuck off.”

“Grouchy.”

“You woke me up. I’m entitled to at least some hostility.”

“It’s 11am.”

A silence fell over the pair of them.

“Well, regardless, I apologise for waking you but I’m sure you’ll forgive me when you hear what I have to say,” Layla continued cheerfully, an aura of giddiness around the young Dutch woman as she reached over to the side of the screen.

“Uh huh…” Stephenie responded dismissively, taking another drag from her cigarette before placing her fingers around it, removing it from her lips and blowing smoke to the side.

“Don’t sound so disinterested or I’ll think that you’re not the right person.” With a beep, a small window popped up on screen, a file transfer request. “Don’t worry, it’s secure. You can trust me on that at least.”

Stephenie raised her eyebrow and tapped at the on-screen pop-up, accepting the file transfer. After a few brief seconds it opens into what looks like a document. Stephenie scanned the document quickly from top to bottom, her ability to absorb information was impressive to say the least. It was a message as well as attached information: maps, security systems, guard shifts. Stephenie’s eyes widened.

“What the fuck are you trying to pull, Layla?” Stephenie yelled in a mild panic. She briefly took a deep breath and calmed herself, taking another drag from her cigarette and blowing a long cloud of smoke. “Please, for the love of God, tell me that these files are clean.”

“Cleaner than the corridors of the building they were lifted from,” Layla replied with a wink before peering over Stephenie’s shoulder, “guess you wouldn’t know about that though,” she remarked upon seeing the state of Stephenie’s room through the darkness.

Stephenie sunk back into her chair, breathing a heavy sigh of relief. “I trust you on that.” She paused. “But you still haven’t told me what you’re doing with classified, corporate documents. You know what will happen if we’re caught with these, right?”

“Yeah. Matsutech will liquidate us or turn us into corporate slaves, I know the drill,” Layla muttered, waving her hand. “We just have to not get caught.” There was another silence between the two. “We were given this job through a certain ‘Mr. Turner’. Corporate, but we don’t know who. All that matters is a fat pay day at the end of it.”

“And you trust a suit to actually pay you for this run?”

“Amir trusts him enough to accept the job.”

“And you trust Amir?” Stephenie’s voice was thick with scepticism. “I can’t understand what you see in him as an agent.”

“Who’s the one who earned enough to open a shop in a semi-decent place in London?”

“Point taken.” Stephenie took another drag from her cigarette. “So why did you send it to me?”

“Because you’re the best decker in the London area.”

Stephenie laughed out loud, shaking her head. “What’s your angle, Layla? Doesn’t your crew run with Eddie?”

“Yeah, but Eddie’s addiction to stimchips was eventually the death of him. Fried his brain. Literally.”

“Not surprised.” Her voice lacked empathy as she stubbed out her cigarette in a small dish by the side of the computer monitor. Layla’s expression shifted. Stephenie bit her lip. “I’m sorry for your loss either way. Not easy when a crew member goes down, even if it is to their own habits.”

“Yeah.”

Another awkward silence followed before Stephenie spoke up. “Still haven’t answered why you came to me though. We all know that I’m definitely not the best decker in London.”

“Truthfully,” Layla started, though she paused to think over her words, causing Stephenie to raise another curious eyebrow as she lit up another cigarette and placed it between her lips. “Honestly, it’s because you’re the best in our budget. That and I trust you.”

Stephenie pulled a mirror that was attached to the side of her wardrobe towards her, gathering her hair into a messy bun as her cigarette burned slowly between her lips. She held her hair in place as she turned to face the screen again. Layla seemed to have gotten a hold of herself, which was good.

“You’re doing a run for a suit and I’m your budget gal? Come on, you’re earning some serious sum from that, I can tell. So why not hire someone more competent than me?” Stephenie asked curiously, reaching for a hair band.

“Didn’t I already mention the trust part? This is big with big consequences. Can’t just sign on some decker who we know nothing about as they could sell us out to Matsutech for a pay day larger than their original share.” Layla’s tone shifted from one of cheer to serious in a heartbeat. “Look. We need your skills.”

“Aren’t you a pretty hot-shot decker yourself?” Stephenie asked as she secured her messy bun loosely in place. It was not a hairstyle that she would take out of the apartment, but it did a good job keeping hair out of her face.

“Not hot enough for a corporate run. I’m more mechanical than matrix savvy,” Layla admitted, shrugging. “So, you going to do it, or not?”

Stephenie inhaled through her cigarette, removing it from her mouth and blowing smoke again. She pondered on the proposition. It was true that the run would pay well. Corporates had little experience dealing directly with runners such as Layla or herself and tended to have more money than sense. However, the risks were a lot higher than a simple street job. Getting caught by a group of thugs or a rival gang was comparably pleasant to corporate captivity.

“Fuck it. Where and when?” she finally answered, taking a drag from her cigarette. Layla smiled.

“Meet me at my machine shop this evening. You don’t know where Amir’s hideout is, right?” she replied, still smiling, her cheerful tone returning in force.

“I’m not part of his crew and I’m a decker. Of course I don’t, but I bet I could find out.” Stephenie looked mischievously at her cyberdeck, probably the most expensive item that she owned, a KleinNet V3.1. In her profession though, it paid to have a strong deck.

“No need. Just meet me later. Wouldn’t want you to wreck his security sub-routines!” Layla chuckled, shaking her head. “Well, tot ziens! Remember to turn up in something more than just underwear!”

“Yeah, whatever. Later,” Stephenie replied before turning to her wardrobe. She quickly went about getting dressed, donning a pair of brown cargo pants and a white tank top. She placed her cyberdeck into an olive green satchel which she slung across her shoulder after putting on a black leather jacket and a pair of army surplus combat boots. Finally she grabbed a black holster and strapped it to her right thigh, housing a heavy duty semi-automatic pistol. Going just about anywhere in her area of London was a death wish. The police were on the pay roll of the larger corporations and kept to the more central locations, leaving the outer areas to the jurisdiction of local gangs and crime syndicates.

She left the small room, locking the door behind her as she exited into a dirty corridor. She made her way to the end, avoiding any dubious stains on the carpet and noting down any new ones. She made her way down the stairs, paint was peeling from the walls and the carpet was shredded beyond recognition, revealing the grey concrete beneath. As she made her way into the lobby, she was stopped by a skinny man in a long, grey coat, his eyes flashing with an inhuman shine.

“Hey, Steph, you interested in some jazz? I got some jazz, fresh and ready to run,” he asked with a sly edge to his voice, flashing a small computer chip in the palm of his hand. She gazed longingly at the chip in the man’s hand for what seemed like an eternity. She really, really wanted to taste the sensations of stimchips once again. She bit her lip and hastily dug into her jacket pocket, producing a packet of synthetic cigarettes, jamming one in her mouth and shaking her head.

“I quit that shit, you know that,” she replied, lighting up the cigarette and puffing smoke. “Cleaning up like a good little citizen.”

The man eyed her for a moment, his gaze going from her face, to the cigarette, to the gun at her hip. He sighed, shaking his head as he placed the chip back into his coat pocket. “You know, those will kill you. Fuck up your lungs. It’s messy,” he argued, pointing at the cigarette in her mouth. “At least my shit won’t put you in an early grave.”

“Physically, no,” Steph responded with an irritated tone. The last thing that she needed was a dealer trying to tempt her back into being a stim junkie. “But those chips empty your brain. Turn you into a shell. Is that really living?” she mused, inhaling through the synthetic tobacco. The man shifted uneasily. “No. If I wanted to be a shell, I’d go work for one of the corps. Hell, I got the qualifications for it and it’d get me out of this shit stain of a block,” she continued, giving the man an angry glare, “but why the fuck would I want that, huh? I’d rather die alive than live dead, if you know what I mean.”

Before he could give a reply, she turned on her heel and made her way past him, lightly pushing past his shoulder on her way to the door.

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