It’s Friday, that means more fiction! I was going to write a longer chapter, though this part ended up being long enough, so rather than make a behemoth of a chapter, I felt that I would release this piece first (partially because I’ve been super busy today!).
Stephanie’s morning routine was fairly simple. She made the rounds looking for work, asking around in the local dives, shops and anywhere else where she was a familiar face. As a decker, she was well supplied with work, mostly breaking into systems and selling the information gathered back to her clients. She occasionally did work improving people’s Net security, though she generally only extended that service out to friends or people that she wouldn’t sell out. Reputation was important and she was not about to get the reputation of being untrustworthy. To do so would be financial suicide.
Also, obvious betrayal of the local crime syndicates was literal suicide. If they even so much as suspected that she was working for rivals they would have her ‘removed’ from the street.
Today, however, her morning rounds were totally different. No small jobs. She was heading to the Doc’s clinic.
Doctor Miller was the local street doctor for Stephanie, a man in his 40s with cropped, greying hair and was often found wearing an old, off-white lab coat and safety goggles over emerald eyes. His clinic was not what one might expect of a professional medical clinic, however it was located outside of the corporate ring of London so it was, by comparison to the local area, a paragon of cleanliness. Stephanie made her way through the front door to find him fiddling with what looked to her like a piece of rubbish. His eyes darted up from his work as she walked in, curiously looking her over before fixing on her face.
“What brings you in here, Steph?” he asked her with a mildly disinterested tone as she walked inside, his eyes going back to the item that he was working on.
“I need a data implant,” she replied quickly, catching Miller’s attention before he could get back to tinkering with the device in his hand. He raised a curious eyebrow at her once more. “I know the model too. TyCorp OLK. I know you have one around.”
Miller put down what he was working on and stood up. He was a tall man and stood about a foot taller than Stephanie He walked over to her, arms folded with an inquisitive gaze. “And how would you know what I have lying around here, hm?” he asked as he approached her, casting his inquisitive gaze down on her.
“I’m a decker. Do I really need to explain any further?” she answered with a grin, though she was now looking quite far up at him.
There was a silence before the doctor chuckled, shaking his head and raising a hand. “Unnerving, but a valid point,” he admitted, turning around and walking back to the bench he had been sitting at. “You do know that this will not be a cheap procedure and you will be under the knife for hours, right?” he asked, going to a cabinet to the right of the bench and rummaging through its contents.
“I got you covered, Doc. Don’t worry.” she answered, raising her hands in assurance.
“You’re not an affluent member of society, Steph. I don’t believe that for a second.”
“Hey, I’ll have you know that I-…”
“I don’t want to hear it, Steph. I don’t trust that you’re good for the money, so I want payment up front.”
“Five thousand cred?” her eyes went wide at the prospect. “That’s robbery. I’ll give you one thousand, five hundred up front!”
The doctor shook his head. “I knew that you weren’t good for it. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Look, I really need that data implant.”
“And I need payment for services rendered. You could afford the cheapest implant, but I know you’re smart enough to know that is a bad idea.”
Stephanie went silent, staring at the ground with a frown.
“You know what?” she finally spoke out, breaking the awkward silence, “I’ll make do without. Good day, doctor.”
Before he could answer, she stormed out of the door.
“Cheap son of a bitch,” she muttered to herself as she made her way down the street, past a stand where a greasy looking, rotund, balding man was serving synthcaf. He tried to wave her over to get her to buy a cup, but she raised her hand with a smile and shook her head. She wanted to sit somewhere comfortable and buy from somebody that she actually trusted. Synthcaf was easy to make, but home-brewing recipes were often questionable at best.
She made her way through the door to Café Gille, a small café on the corner of a commercial block under the ownership of Pierre Gille, a cleanly shaven Frenchman with blue eyes and light brown hair that seemed to defy the laws of gravity, growing up rather than downwards. He wore a light blue and white chequered shirt and a pair of fashionably ripped jeans. He smiled as Stephanie walked through the front door.
“Mademoiselle Choi, always a pleasure,” he greeted her as she walked up to the counter where he was cleaning a mug. “You’re later than usual. May I ask why?”
She offered him a coy grin in response. “I don’t need to tell you, because you already know, right Monsieur Gille?”
The Frenchman returned the grin with one of his own. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, mademoiselle,” he started, placing a mug beneath a tap that extended below a cavernous gap in the metal box to his left. He flicked the switch and a dark liquid poured into the mug below. “I have no idea about a certain lady drinking a dozen too many and being helped back home by the redhead from the machine shop.”
He flicked the switch again and the liquid stopped pouring, sliding the mug over to Stephanie. She reached out to grab it and his hand shot out to divert it, grabbing her gently by the wrist.
She turned her hand so that her palm was facing upwards. She was holding a datastick.
Pierre smiled, his pristine teeth shining between his lips.
“I knew that I hired the correct person,” he uttered, placing his other hand over hers, taking the datastick. “Your account has been credited, the synthcaf is on the house today.”
“I made the right choice, huh?” she smiled, moving her hand to finally grasp the mug, bringing it to her lips and taking a small sip.
“You made the right choice,” he reiterated, retracting his hand. “Got plans for today? Preparing for a pretty big run, I hear.”
Stephanie’s eyes shot up to his, peering at him over the rim of the mug. He raised his hands defensively. “Relax, relax. I have no interest in seeing you damaged. You’re my little ace in the hole, remember?”
Stephanie took another sip of synthcaf, a smile forming on her lips. “Is there anything that you don’t know?” she asked, a light hearted tone to her voice.
“Your idea of a perfect date.”
An awkward silence.
He chuckled and shook his head, making his way to another customer who had made her way up to the bar. She was taller than Stephanie, fair skin underneath a long, brown leather coat and pair of dark grey trousers. Her hands were smooth, almost impossibly so, complimenting a soft, well-spoken voice. She had shoulder length brown hair that was worn loose which seemed to shimmer in the light. The woman lit a cigarette, puffing smoke as she spoke in a hushed voice to Pierre. Stephanie tried to make out what the two were talking about without looking obvious. She was confident in her subtlety, but it was impossible to make out the conversation over the noise. Something did not add up.
Then it hit her.
The cigarette was genuine. She could tell from the smoke. The difference was minor, but being a smoking addict afforded her one, singular benefit: the ability to tell authentic from synthetic. This woman was corporate, that much was obvious to her. Which company did she work for though? Matsutech? KleinNet? TyCorp? NetZen? Regardless, she was dangerous. Her mere presence made her feel uncomfortable.
Pierre walked off into the back room. The woman stood still, arms folded, those perfect hands stroking the outside of her coat’s sleeves, fingers tapping rhythmically. Stephanie’s brain was working over time trying to think of the best course of action. She could hack the woman and steal her secrets, though decking in public seemed a bit too obvious. She could follow her and kill her; selling her cybernetics could earn a small fortune. She could simply chat to the woman.
Pierre came out of the back room again, holding a small box which he passed to the woman. The woman seemed to examine it for a moment before smiling, nodding as she took the box, and walking out. Probably just a servant getting some genuine article cake for breakfast for her master.
Then again, all corporate drones were effectively slaves.
“Who was that?” she asked Pierre after the woman had left the café. Long after she had left.
“Oh, another client. Ace in the hole like you.”
Stephanie raised her eyebrow as she finished her cup of synthcaf. “You put me in the same category as a corporate? Not sure if I should be flattered or offended.”
“We all have our strengths, Mademoiselle Choi.”
Stephanie sighed and got to her feet. She had a lot to do before the evening. Besides, she wanted to get to Layla’s shop earlier than that. Nobody could be expected to be business all day every day, after all.
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.
“You woke me up. I’m entitled to at least some hostility.”
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.”
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.