Truth and Other Upgrades
Déjà vu is just reincarnation for beginners
I slid onto the bar stool alongside J.J. Bones and dropped my fedora on the counter. The surrounding patrons of Café Crank suddenly found an excuse to give us some room. J.J. had a reputation for violence, not that 'violence' came close to describing what he was capable of.
He didn't look up from his drink. "That's my friend's face you're wearing. Either leave now or leave it behind later."
I motioned to the barman but he pretended not to see me, talking great interest in polishing a glass instead. "That's no way to greet an old pal, J-J, especially someone you shot in the face last time out."
His eyes flickered in my direction. "Like I should know what you're talking about? In your next life try a different approach." J.J. tossed back his drink and stood up, arms hanging loosely at his sides. The other customers collectively cringed, and none of them were exactly blushing violets. The barman set the glass down on the counter and reached for his shotgun - a sub-sonic Sandbagger. Not to use on J.J. - he had more sense - but to take me out before things turned really nasty.
I dropped my voice. "That scar on your tongue, courtesy of Brakiri Dreams." Only four people knew what had happened outside the nightclub; me (in a previous incarnation), J.J. and the two McMaster sisters - both of whom had been remaindered shortly thereafter.
J.J. stared at me. "Rudi? That really you?"
"In the flesh, my man, and I mean that literally. A mirror image of my past self, if you like."
He sat down again and waved the barman over. "Two Jack D, straight up." Tension in the room dropped a notch and conversation around us restarted, if a tad louder than before. J.J. looked me up and down. "Mirror image? You're talking crystal lattice neural net in a vat-grown body?"
I grinned. "You got it. The second-best that Chiba City can provide."
"Expensive." He sipped his drink. "And then some."
"And money, J-J, is what I'm here to discuss." I tried my drink and shuddered at the unfamiliar sensation. Originally I'd been an organic brain in a synthetic body, but had to make other arrangements after J.J. blew my head off. "My last client lodged a fortune in escrow with several black clinics, knowing I wasn't going to collect. Despite my trusting nature I tapped some of it for a real-time uplink, live and direct. The memory of being killed is pretty weird, let me tell you."
"And, again, expensive. So you had to settle for a lattice rather than engram recreation?"
"Yup. Close, but no cigar. I'm now as human as they come, apart from where it counts." J.J. was entirely organic, with the BioPurity live-ink tattoo on his shoulder to prove it, whereas with my artificial mind I was still a cyborg.
He sipped his drink. "It was nothing personal." Which was as close to an apology as I was going to get. "You mentioned money?"
I nodded. "Uh-huh. The babe who hired me knows her money is gone. The Chiba City boys were more than happy to drain the escrow accounts and put it into circulation, for a percentage, but that leaves me with a big target on my back."
J.J. grinned. "And you're walking around with the same name, the same face? Gutsy."
"I figured she'd come after me regardless, so why not stick with what I know? Anyway, I've got the goods on her and its bound to be worth big bucks."
"So, we're talking straight-up blackmail?"
"Primo. The babe claimed to be a personality construct based on Rosa Hartz, a former exec with mediaCore. That may even be true, but it doesn't really matter. This is all about boardroom control, and that means moula. I figure we can back-track Rosa and find out who's running her."
He grunted. "If it was me she'd be body parts by now."
"True, true, but not everyone is as tidy as you, J-J. Plus I don't think she's told anyone I'm back from the dead. Rosa thought she was subject to psychological imperatives, but loyalty doesn't make you dumb. I get the distinct impression that with her crew it's one strike and you're out."
"OK, so she wants you snuffed but has to do it on the quiet. That maybe bought some time, but coming back here just burned you, and good."
I smiled. "Which is why I have a car outside, and an address to case. You in?"
"Depends. How much you figure we can take Rosa for?"
"Given what she's been able to do so far, and what it must have cost, I'd say an easy fifteen million."
J.J. finished his drink and set the glass down, inverted, on the bar. "Fifteen million dollars is not money. It's a motive with a universal adaptor on it."
My car was a rental; an unlicensed Brazilian copy of a retro BMW 7-Series fitted with a standard hydrogen cell. Given how Munich was this big hole in the ground I didn't think they'd mind. I drove while J.J. put together a semi-automatic pistol from the seemingly innocuous contents of his pockets; a lighter, a cigarette case, a pen - shit like that.
I glanced over. "They do come already assembled, so I'm told."
He paused to scratch his chin. "I'm trying this out for a client. Says he saw it in some old film and wants ready access to a firearm that can pass a full security inspection. If the man is willing to pay then who am I to argue?"
"Speaking of esoteric weaponry, J-J, you owe me a needle gun."
"You do. All bought and paid for. And don't give me no legal bullshit about how I'm not really the same person, right?"
J.J. smiled. "Well, if you can spare the time, make a stop at the StreetSafe on Inkerman. Couldn't shift the damn thing, anyway."
I kept the engine hot while J.J. punched in his code and waited for the internal carousel to present his safety deposit box at the access slot. There were two Byrons at the transit stop who might have complicated matters, but they only operate in threes - mad, bad and dangerous to know. Their third wheel was obviously running late.
J.J. returned to the car and tossed the needle gun into my lap. "Twenty-six rounds remaining. I used four to crucify a rabbit so the kid's dad would pay up." I winced, involuntarily, which provoked a harsh laugh. "This new body making you soft, Rudi? That will be the endocrine system interface acting up. You best watch that. But don't wet yourself, it was a bunny-rabbit, a soft toy. Made the kid scream herself blue in the face though."
I stashed the gun in my jacket pocket and pulled away from the kerb. "Anything you wouldn't do, J-J? I ask purely for information."
"On how much you're willing to pay, or how badly you piss me off. You looking for a resumé?"
"I'll pass. It's just that if Rosa turns out to be small-fry then we'll need to move on up the food chain to make this worth our while. That means getting a name outta' her."
He shrugged. "Easy enough. This dame, she's a looker?"
"Then you go for the face. Her body may be a replaceable meat-job, like yours, but the mind finds it hard to ignore the threat of disfigurement. Shit, I ain't brought a blade, though. Got a shiv about your person, Rudi?"
"Swiss Army knife any good?"
J.J. snorted. "Kinda' lacking in threat factor, no? Never mind, there's bound to be a bottle or glass we can use. Don't sweat it."
We drove on. A roving ad-ap hacked the car's multi-media system, which burst into life. "Welcome to the historic Foundry district. With its post-industrial, neo-brutalist charm, Foundry makes the ideal-". I tried to switch it off but the ad had a lock on the traffic information override. J.J. tore the console free and tossed it on the back seat. Neither of us said a word.
After a few blocks I turned onto Smelter, making it obvious where we were headed. J.J. Frowned. "Club Eighty-Eighty? You didn't tell me Rosa was a gun-bunny. Either that or she's moonlighting as a working girl or waitress." Club Eighty-Eight - 'An authentic experience of the Reagan-Bush era' was a combined shooting range, diner and whorehouse. Of course J.J. held a life-time membership.
I shook my head. "Neither, she's rented the entire top floor, the function suite, on a long-term contract."
"Don't take this the wrong way, Rudi, but if someone like you managed to trace her here, that's sloppy security, amateurish. You sure this babe is the real deal?"
I ignored the jibe. "When I went back to my office and checked the surveillance logs there was no sign she'd ever been there. Same with the building elevator, and she's got a real good memory for faces."
J.J. shrugged. "So you got hacked."
"So I got hacked, but because the building ice is so shit I keep a pair of net aps running a continual Fred-and-Ginger around the site. Sure enough, when I checked that log there was nothing there, but a 'nothing' that stopped my aps tracking each other."
He frowned. "Stealth programming? Absorption matrix? You're talking about something from the high cores - military, or as good as. Please tell me you didn't try and tag its ass?"
"I'm not that dumb, but I did get an approach vector, and it didn't come from anywhere above the line. So I had Fred-and-Ginger back-track, looking for what wasn't there. Club Eight-Eight has this pissy little data net handling their membership, inventory and the like, but squatting inside it is this real big lump of nothing."
"A camouflaged net access point. Who is it we're tweaking again? Because this deal is going south by the minute."
"Originally I thought it had to be Margo Squires, but this really isn't her style. She's all about boardroom leverage and this crew are way outside the box."
I'd started out as a pleasure model, with Margo as one of my regular clients. She'd been ousted as Chairman and CEO of mediaCore by Leon Fabricant, the man I'd inadvertently assassinated. Margo might have been a ruthless, manipulative, conniving bitch, but the closest she'd ever come to corporate violence was a paper cut.
I parked the car. Even through the sound-proofing we could hear the faint pop of small arms and occasional rattle of a machine-pistol. A neon Ronald Reagan and George Bush towered above the entrance, arms around each other's shoulders. Reagan winked while Bush gave us the thumbs-up.
We got out and walked over. The two doormen were slabs of meat wearing dinner suits cut from ballistic cloth. I doubted they needed the protection. With their cartilage enhancements and muscle grafts they were probably proof against anything short of an anti-tank round.
J.J. flashed his membership. "This here is Rudi, my guest for the evening. Who's in tonight, boys?"
One of the monoliths spoke - a squeaky falsetto. "The Skorpions and Uzis, boss. So you maybe want to give the range a few minutes, yeah?" Out back the club sported a stylized urban trial course, complete with pop-up targets. It was also used by weapon-fetish gangs as a place to settle old scores.
My host nodded. "I was feeling hungry anyway. Maybe we'll rent some time on the fifty-cal later, Rudi?"
I managed an unconvincing grin. "Hell, yeah."
We moved through to the diner and settled into a corner booth. The waitress brought two schooners of beer over, unbidden. I looked around. "No menus?"
He smiled. "Here they serve steak, with all the trimmings. Don't ask for well-done or the cook will spit on it. If you're under the age of twelve, or have a doctor's note, they might let you off with a burger."
"Look, J-J, I'm still getting a handle on this whole eating malarkey. Don't they have a fish option?"
"Fish? Christ, man, that's no better than being a vegetarian. Well, if you want everyone to know you're a card-carrying pinko liberal commie fag, be my guest. Just give me a ten-minute head start, OK?"
"Yeah, yeah, I get the message." I sighed. "You actually like it here?"
J.J. grinned, a savage glint in his eye. "You bust a few caps to get the blood flowing, party with the girls upstairs, then recover with an overdose of red meat. What's not to like?"
"Sitting here with a target on my forehead? You may have forgotten but this is kinda' the lion's den for me, so I'd appreciate tackling why we really came here."
"No problem." He held up two fingers and the waitress delivered two shot glasses of bourbon. "Depth charges. It's an acceptable form of Dutch courage before taking on some of the heavier guns available for hire. The club is actually named after the largest caliber they'll supply."
"That's a joke, right?"
"Usually. OK, access to the conference suite is via the main lobby, but that's way too obvious given the lobby security. So we drink up, hit the john, carry on out back and try the fire escape."
I stared at him. "Charging up the stairs and and kicking the door in, that's your plan?"
"Pretty much. What it lacks in novelty, subtlety and the element of surprise it makes up for in brutality. Look, Rosa is the only person upstairs, and she's there right now?"
"Oh yeah. I've got a micro-drone across the parking lot, with a long shot of the lobby stairs, plus another covering the rear. She comes and goes quite frequently, and has a mania for changing her outfits like four times a day, but she's the only person I've seen accessing the conference suite."
J.J. smiled, but without humour. "So it don't matter if she has CCTV coverage, motion sensors, the works - once we're in we move quickly to find and overpower her. We're two grown men against one broad, so what could possibly go wrong?"
"She might be armed, for starters."
"And we're still two against one. Trust me, up against those kinds of odds most people want to believe you're only there to talk." He dropped a shot glass into his beer. "So drink up and let's get this done."
I followed suit, raising the schooner to my lips and swallowing, swallowing, swallowing until it was empty and I could reveal the shot glass held between my teeth. Even diluted, the bourbon left a trail of fire down my throat. I set both glasses on the table and tried not to cough. J.J. was already on his feet, heading for the Men's Room. I threw down some bills and followed suit, my eyes watering.
At the far end of the corridor, past the rest rooms, lay the fire exit. J.J. put a round into the door sensor before shouldering it open, not that I thought anyone would give a damn. He raced up the external fire escape, two treads at a time, with me hustling to keep up. On reaching the top landing I barely had time to draw my needle gun before he blew the door off its hinges with two micro-strip charges.
We charged inside. I registered a short hallway ending in a T-junction with doors on either side.
Rosa Hartz appeared round the corner like a pop-up target on the range, holding a semi-automatic pistol in each hand. She shot me once in the chest by way of re-introduction before turning her fire on J.J. The pain was like a spike between the ribs. I gasped and staggered - before remembering to shut down the neural sensation interface.
But it was too late. Rosa blazed away at my partner, hitting him multiple times in the torso. J.J. jerked and twitched under the impacts, blood blossoming on his sleeveless jacket, but refused to fall.
I fired, the twee-twee-twee of the gas-powered weapon almost inaudible against the background barrage. My aim was off and I hit Rosa in the leg - I may not have been feeling any pain but my all-too-human body was still coping with being shot in the chest.
One needle shattered her kneecap and her leg gave way. Rosa slumped sideways against the wall, wild rounds taking out the ceiling light and glass panel door to our left. J.J. raised his composite pistol and shot her cleanly through the right eye.
Rosa Hartz collapsed to the floor like the proverbial puppet with its strings cut.
J.J. Bones dropped to his knees, gun trailing on the carpet tiles.
I tried to speak but it came out as a frothy wheeze, pink-tinged bubbles bursting on my lips.
J.J. groaned between clenched teeth. Bullets, spent rounds, began dropping from his chest to the floor with a soft plink. I groped a handkerchief from my pocket and pressed it against the sucking chest wound. "See if you're not dead, J-J, I'm having you in front of the Humanities Board. No fucking way could a regular body take shit like that."
He swore under his breath and slowly stood up, one hand braced against the wall for support. I didn't offer to help. J.J. took a breath and winced. "Straub harness. Elasticated. Retards penetration, expels the round. Chemical cauterization of the wound tract. Still hurts like fuck though. Cost me a couple of ribs at least, maybe some internal damage, but I'm good to go."
"Go? Go where? We just wasted our only lead. Anytime now, security will come investigate our little firefight and may not take kindly to us blowing away a paying client."
"Wanna get out now? Wanna quit? This is never gonna come your way again. I say we check out her operation for clues and find out who she was fronting for. You know, Rudi, like what a real private detective would do?"
I snarled through my teeth by way of reply, a combination of frustration and shame, and set off down the corridor. Rosa looked like an expensive rag doll, discarded by some easily-bored child - which was almost the case, given she'd been killed by J.J. Bones. I pocketed the needle gun and prized the two conventional pistols from her grasp. I kept one and handed the other to my partner.
Around the corner, from where Rosa had appeared, was another length of corridor. One of the doors stood ajar and there was light coming from the room beyond. J.J. gave me a 'three-two-one' finger countdown and we burst in.
A young man sat behind the desk across the room, facing the door. Two illumination orbs hovered either side of him as he tapped on a Workpad. Other than that the room was devoid of interest.
"I know this is a cliché but hands where we can see them, no sudden moves." I sounded semi-apologetic, even to myself.
The man looked up, arching an eyebrow. "Do you seriously think I'd go to all the time and expense of creating Rosa and bother to arm myself?" He sighed and placed his Workpad on the desk in front of him before raising his hands. "I take it she is dead?"
J.J. grinned. "Very, and you'll be joining her shortly if we don't get some answers. Who you are, for starters."
"Who am I? Now that is an interesting question. Well, this body is that of Simon McNeil, the new personal assistant to Margo Scales."
I frowned. "The body of Simon McNeil? Care to make some sense outta' that, pal?"
'McNeil' smiled. "My mind is that of Howard Ghent, Chairman and CEO of mediaCore until my - his - recent demise. McNeil was kind enough to donate his body so that I can again exercise control over the multi-media empire I founded. Not that Margo will recognize my influence as anything so blatant."
My partner laughed, winced, and went plink. "Donate? Somehow I doubt that. Mind jacking will get you remaindered, Ghent, regardless of what financial and political influence you have. That's assuming the Turing Bureau don't roast you alive first."
The neo-Ghent inclined his head. "One possible outcome, I admit, but in the short term would you be interested in replacing Rosa as my personal security? I'm sure you'll find the terms and conditions quite generous."
I shook my head. "Forget it, bozo, not reporting your crime comes with a-"
The world went white.
My senses returned like an antique TV being tuned into a station; sliding from static into coherence. I was lying on my side, still in the office, with J.J. on the floor nearby and 'Ghent' again typing on his Workpad.
Rosa Hartz stood in the doorway, holding a gun.
The weapons we'd taken from her earlier, and the composite pistol, lay on top of a filing cabinet. I tried to speak but could only wheeze and bubble, having lost my handkerchief.
Ghent looked up. "Ah, Mister Hess, you've returned to us. On scanning for weapons we discovered you're not quite as human as expected. Not many of your kind survive the effects of a neural disruptor, so you could almost count yourself fortunate."
J.J. groaned and raised himself up on one elbow. He blinked rapidly, took in the room, and grinned at Rosa. "Marry me. Any bitch who can take that kind of punishment deserves to be the mother of my child."
Rosa laughed. "I'm Rosamund Beatrice Hartz. The woman you killed was Rosamund Deborah. Sorry to disappoint you, Bones."
Ghent smiled. "Why go to all the time and expense of procuring one vat-grown bodyguard when you can have four at only eight times the price? Duplicating the same personality becomes ruinously expensive, but well worth it given the circumstances, I think you'll agree. Deborah will be missed, of course, although I'm never sure which one I'm dealing with anyway."
Now that I was paying attention it was obvious her outfit was different from the woman in the corridor, although the real giveaway was having both eyes. I felt like a fool - they'd been coming and going in plain sight all this time and I'd thought Rosa Hartz was simply a fashion-conscious clothes horse.
J.J. didn't seem discouraged. "The offer still stands. If you've got the same moves as your sister then you're someone I'd want covering my back any day of the week."
She smiled. "I'm almost flattered. The key word being 'almost'."
Ghent sounded irritated. "Enough of this. Please understand that you've been kept alive for the sole purpose of providing me with information. I need to know how you traced Rosa here and who else is involved. You have my apologies in advance, Mister Bones, should you be unable to furnish us with the technical aspects of your investigation, but I'm afraid we're not going to take 'I don't know' for an answer."
My partner snorted. "Then put Hess under the hammer, not me. I'm just the hired muscle."
"Unfortunately, Mister Hess, being the type of cyborg that he is, can simply choose not to experience pain. So he's superfluous for the purposes of this interrogation. " I felt myself relax at Ghent's words, if only slightly. " Rosa, if you would be so kind as to kill Mister Hess?"
I tried to speak as Rosa raised her weapon - and shot Ghent in the heart.
He slumped back in his chair, coughed, and smiled. "Bravo." His head fell forward.
I looked at J.J. We both looked at Rosa. She shrugged. "Same plan, different players. I'll be the new advisor to Margo Scales, keeping tabs until she can be ousted from the board. Howard really should have looked more closely into where I- we - came from, but like all egotistical men he assumed loyalty was a commodity with market value."
J.J. sat up and scratched his chest. He went plink. "OK, so you've an agenda that doesn't involve Ghent, and that's cool. Now, with him gone that's the end of the money trail as far as we're concerned, so how about we call this a score-draw and leave it at that? Unless you'd be interested in dinner?"
She laughed and shook her head. "Like I said, same plan, different players. I still need to know how you traced us here, and Hess is still surplus to requirements. Sorry, you might even be fun to have around, but this is business."
I managed to speak. "Handkerchief. Pocket."
Rosa looked at me quizzically. "Famous last words? Oh, go on then, why not. Given what you've cost us we may as well get our money's worth."
I fumbled in my pocket, hand closing over the needle gun. The plastic and ceramic piece that didn't show up on a weapons scanner.
I fired at Rosa, needles busting from my coat pocket and spraying her face - more through luck than judgment. She screamed and shot back at me, the bullet blasting simulated wood paneling from a spot beside my ear. J.J. rolled away. Rosa fired again, but she was blind and merely hit the floor near my foot. My gun hissed empty and I tossed it aside.
Rosa stood there, breathing heavily, looking like a failed extra from Hellraiser. Ocular fluid ran down her cheeks like tears. I tried not to wheeze, a finger jammed into my chest wound.
J.J. went plink. Rosa turned and fired, hitting him in the shoulder. I managed to stand but couldn't help but cough while doing so. She twisted in my direction and shot me in the thigh, aiming low. I stumbled forward against the filing cabinet and fell to my knees. I held my breath. A second shot punched a neat hole in the metal beside my head. J.J. threw a waste paper basket at Rosa but it bounced harmlessly off her shoulder. She ignored it, staring at me intently with her ruined eyes.
J.J.s composite pistol teetered on the edge of the filing cabinet above me, just out of reach.
A thrown paperweight struck the cabinet. The pistol fell and I caught it before it hit the carpet. Rosa lowered her aim and shot me in the right forearm. I grunted and threw myself sideways, sprawling on the carpet. The pistol was in my left hand and I hadn't paid extra to be ambidextrous.
I tried to breathe just through my nose but blood bubbles were building up, making me want to sneeze. It was an involuntary reaction and not one I could override. J.J. motioned for me to throw the gun over, but I wasn't even sure I could do that.
The composite pistol fired puissant .22 long rounds - a marksman load with bugger-all stopping power. Unless I could hit something vital, shooting Rosa was just advertising my presence. I forced my wounded arm into play and pulled back the fountain pen breech, ejecting a round. The bullet rolled across the parquet strip that ran between the door and desk - an unmistakable sound. Rosa had no way of knowing what weapon I held.
J.J. coughed. "Give it up, Rosa, Hess has you cold. All we want is the name of your backer. Tell us that and nobody has to die."
She stiffened. "My life is not yours to give or take." Rosa placed the muzzle under her chin and pulled the trigger. The bullet blew the top of her skull off and embedded itself in the ceiling. The corpse collapsed in a heap.
J.J. crawled over to retrieve her gun and then sat back against the wall. He didn't look so good. I managed to prop myself up against the filing cabinet. What bodily sensations I let myself experience didn't feel great.
A small dog, a terrier, trotted into the room. He wore a coat labeled 'Security' and carried a webcam around his neck. Given the extensive CCTV coverage of the ranges I hoped nobody was paying much attention to their roving reporter. The dog sniffed my foot, then sat down at my side and licked his balls.
I jammed a fold of cloth into my chest wound and tried to breathe. "How the hell do we get out of this, J-J? We got three bodies and enough evidence so that even the local cops could make a case. And if the Turing boys get a sniff of that-" I gestured towards the dead avatar of Howard Ghent, "-we'll feel some serious heat."
He didn't answer. The dog sat and panted, his tongue lolling. I wheezed and burbled. J.J went plink.
Finally he smiled at me and the dog. "Hang on lads, I've got a great idea "
© Martin Clark 2014 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 17:08 Thu 27 Mar 2014
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