“You’re going to like this,” Schuster says, ducking to pull something out from beneath the counter.
We’re standing at the back of her shop, keeping our voices low so the customers browsing the shelves laden with arcane devices can’t hear us. I glance back towards the entryway, where the darkening clouds are just visible through the long, dimly illuminated corridor which leads up and out of the hillside bunker. In a way, this place is its own sort of landfill. The plastic grid shelves are laden with Frankensteined electronics, barely legal nanotech gadgets, brightly colored boxes of data cubes, and baroque weapons. Bare lightbulbs dangle from wires encased in woven sheaths, their glowstrips styled to look like the filaments of ancient incandescents. After taking possession of the bunker some ten years ago, Schuster made no effort to remove the stains and graffiti from the walls and floor, but rather sealed the vaguely organic mess behind heavy layers of clear enamel. The result is an art gallery-cum-arms dealership aesthetic that has become wildly popular with the uptown crowd with credits to burn.
Schuster stands and rests a battered black metal lockbox on the countertop. She checks the security feed on the monitor mounted at the end of the counter, then presses a button on the underside of the counter. The lights in the access corridor flicker, causing several customers to glance up nervously.
“Nothing to worry about,” Schuster calls to them. “Just a power flux.”
The customers go back to their browsing, most of them unaware that Schuster has just primed a powerful empulse generator built into the conduits running the length of the access tunnel. That can only mean one thing.
She leans across the counter, motioning me closer and shaking her head as she speaks. “Some of these people. They think they’re being subversive shopping here. Like it’s an act of rebellion or something. If only they knew that between my gadgets and your manikins us we probably service half the council.”
“You were about to show me something,” I prompt, tapping the box.
“One of my residents just cooked up this little baby,” she says, tapping a code into the lockbox keypad. The lock clicks open and, with another glance around the shop, she slips the lid to one side, revealing the complexly blank surface of a block of packing foam. “Just a little extra protection. The foam has traces of metal embedded in it, so it obscures the contents from most hard object scans.”
She lifts the foam, revealing the deadly object that lies nestled within the protective case like a serpent hiding amid folds of silk. It is a matte black handgun, approximately six inches long and conspicuously bare of any monitoring hardware.
“Christ, Schuster. You trying to get exiled?” I whisper, my eyes going wide.
“You want to hold it?”
“Hold it? I’m afraid to look at it,” I reply. The daemon awakes then, rising up to ask whether it is even safe to breathe near this thing. If my DNA gets onto it there could be a lot of uncomfortable questions. “Put that away, will you?”
She ignores me, lifting the weapon from its packing case and turning it in her hands, showing off the curves as she describes the weapon’s features. “I modeled it on a twentieth century Walther frame with a basic Derringer quad barrel design. Four pre-loaded slugs, each backed by an ultra coiled spring designed to accelerate the bullet to a muzzle velocity of around one hundred meters per second. More than enough to deliver the payload to your target.”
“And more then enough to get you killed. Jesus, Schuster, why are you still making these things?” I hiss, looking around nervously. “Why don’t you go ahead and show me whatever this nanotech thing is equipped with?”
She flashes me a white grin and runs the manicured fingers of her left hand through her bobbed hair flirtatiously. Hair so straight and blonde you might think it a wig if it didn’t perfectly match her thin, curved eyebrows. She bats her eyes at me, saying, “Talbot, I’m flattered that you noticed. What gave it away? The glint in my eyes? Maybe the tenor of my voice?”
“The way you primed the empulse.”
She shakes her head and laughs, drawing glances from several customers. I cringe, resisting the urge to pull my collar up and run from this place as fast as my feet can carry me, disappearing back into the midden before Security arrives to drag us all outside the border and revoke our citizenship.
“Three points to Talbot. Good observation.”
I scowl at her, waiting, praying that she will put the damned gun away before anyone sees it.
“Well, you got there, even if your path was a bit roundabout.” She holds up the gun and taps a finger on the side, where a tiny yellow light glows faintly. “This indicator tells you that the little buddies are all awake and ready to go for a ride.”
Deep within the pockets of my overcoat, I press my thumbnails against the pads of my middle fingers, hoping the pain will wake me from this nightmare. The daemon screams for me to run, but I keep my feet rooted, body chained in place by the gentle glint of Schuster’s broad blue eyes.
“Tell me you’re joking.”
She giggles and shakes her head.
I sigh, giving in to her obvious desire to tell me more about the weapon, and whisper, “So, what do the little guys do?”
“Oh, all kinds of great things. By default they burrow into the target and seek out the heart, then begin disassembling muscle tissue, but you can program them for nonlethal applications as well.”
I let her words hang in the air, not saying anything in response. Nothing should shock me anymore, but it’s always amazed me how Schuster can so casually switch between discussing the political ramifications of art and arcane means of killing a man in the space of a breath. She’s the living embodiment of mankind’s inbred contradictions and possibly the most beautifully broken person I know.
“Aren’t you afraid somebody will eventually use all these weapons on you? And that’s to say nothing of the ramifications if you get caught.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
Schuster rolls her eyes eloquently and begins repacking the gun into its case. “I looked that one up after you used it on me last time. It’s supposed to mean that we should have respect for the awesome power of god, and that having respect for something so much bigger than us teaches us humility. It doesn’t mean that we should be afraid of everything. ”
“I’ve heard it both ways.” Especially from the voice in my head.
“A little voice in your head tell you that?” she asks, snapping the case closed and slipping it back into a compartment beneath the counter.
“Nope.” Well, yes, but she doesn’t need to know that. Even knowing about my daemon puts Schuster in a select group of people who are abnormally close to me.
Damn it. I should leave. Should have never come here to ask a favor of Schuster or her menagerie.
“I know you better than you know yourself, Talbot Liu. And I know you’re not here to buy more knives or untraceable firearms.”
“Perceptive. The voices in your head tell you that?”
“I think you’ve got the narrative tangled, Tal. You’re the one who’s crazy. I just collect crazy people and lock them away in my basement.”
“Thanks, warden. I need to speak with one of your inmates.”
“Ahh,” she breathes, nodding and stepping back from the counter. “I thought so. Who you need? Han is still doing some lovely work with ceramics if you’ve run out of knives.”
I hold up my arms towards her, so she can just see into the sleeves of my coat where I have a set of Han blades concealed. “Still have plenty. I’ve only broken one this month, and that was my own fault for trying to pry a lock.”
Schuster grimaces. “That’s a big ask. You know he doesn’t like to be interrupted.”
“I need to know if he still has access to the citywide camera network,” I whisper.
“Not everyone gets to walk in here and ask questions like that.”
“I like to think I’m not just anyone,” I reply, offering her a half grin and raised eyebrow.
She smiles and leans across the counter to peck me on the cheek. My daemon remains quiet, surely knowing that I will grind it into submission if it attempts to interfere in my relationship with Schuster. “You know that invitation won’t remain open forever.”
“What if I promise to order a dozen knives next month?” I ask, ignoring her comment.
“You know the way to a girl’s heart, Talbot Liu,” Schuster replies, her blue eyes glinting.
“Mother always told me that weapons are a girl’s best friend.”
Schuster grins, then waves me aside and greets another customer who has come up to the counter with a question about one of the pieces of art on display. After a moment, Schuster tells me to go wait in her office, then follows her customer to the wall, where they begin haggling over the price of a set of glass panes with responsive nanoparticles trapped between them. Like ants in a terrarium, the restricted nanites labor to build fortifications out of multicolored grains of sand. Two factions of nanites, one orange and the other red, programmed to be in a state of constant war with one another so they swirl about, forming intricate patterns until the conditions of failure are achieved and the losing clusters turn black. A miniature war, played out again and again in perpetual stalemate for the amusement of art collectors.
I slip around the counter and though the door into Schuster’s office. I’ve been coming to Schuster for knives ever since I took one of her blades off a wannabe enforcer who was menacing one of Tamar’s girls. The quality of the blade, and the slim, discrete design of its sheath, were enough to impress me, so I took him up to my office and we had a frank discussion about all the ways I could use the blade on his body if he didn’t tell me where he got it. Since then we’ve become close, Schuster I mean, not the fool who lost his blade, and she’s probably the closest thing I have to family, outside of Tamar herself.
I settle on a worn leather barstool beside Schuster’s work bench, being careful not to touch anything. The distinction between a sexy piece of technological art and a deadly home-brew weapon is unsettlingly narrow in here.
Officially, Yvette Schuster runs a curio shop. Besides the weapons and art on display in the main room, she’s got a whole room devoted to the sort of quality trash that George’s kids dig up at the mine, and another stacked with shelves and boxes filled with handys and antique micro computers. Schuster inherited this bunker and several dozen acres of prime real estate aboveground, as well as a healthy punitive settlement, after her parents were killed in an autocar accident. Since then, she’s applied her considerable skill as a marketer to making herself something of an icon among the city’s trendsetters. Living and selling art in a two hundred year old decommissioned missile silo certainly helped boost her credibility with a certain subset of the retro-weapon market.
Unofficially, she’s converted several of the lower levels to a makeshift mad scientist’s laboratory, where she and a motley crew of artists in residence assemble monstrosities like that unlicensed gun. At any given time she’s got half a dozen artists, tinkerers, and hackers living somewhere in her private underground apartment tower. Among these residents is an agoraphobic software hacker named Javier. He’s the one I’m really hoping to see today.
Schuster steps into the workroom and closes the door behind her, then cracks a smile. “I’m glad that you’re finally willing to take advantage of my offer.”
“Don’t get too excited. I just need your help finding someone,” I reply.
“I’ll take what I can get,” she says, smiling coyly.
“So, is Javier in?” I reply, hoping to redirect the conversation before it becomes awkward.
She gestures for me to follow and walks to a corner of her office, pushing open a heavy fire door and revealing a brightly lit stairwell beyond. “This is a conversation for level four. You haven’t acquired any new implants have you?”
“Still just flesh,” I reply. “Your basic Tal Bot one point oh.”
That earns a giggle and Schuster leads me down a tight spiral staircase. The walls are stark white, lined with white glow strips. The staircase is metal, and even the bolts attaching it to the concrete wall have been painted white. At the center of the spiral run the tracks of a freight elevator, though I don’t see any controls for it mounted to the walls. As we descend, the intensity of the light increases until I am squinting to keep my eyes from tearing up. We pass two landings, their fire doors marked with simple block form numbers indicating level two and three, then stop at the fourth level, where Schuster ushers me into a small room.
“You’ll need to leave anything electronic in the anteroom. I mean anything,” she says, gesturing to a couple of coat hooks mounted on the concrete walls and a basket sitting on a solitary corner table. There’s another steel fire door, this one with a heavy glass window inset, standing directly across from the entrance. “There’s a strong empulse field in the transfer hall that will fry anything.”
I check my pants pockets and transfer the few chits and data cards I’m carrying to my coat pocket, then shrug out of the coat and hold it up. “I need to show him some data on an eper. Any way to get it through?”
“Give it here.”
I pull the eper from my coat pocket and hand it to her, then hang my coat and stand, waiting for instructions.
Schuster studies the eper for a moment, then steps up to a gray box mounted to the wall beside the inner door, taps a code into the lock, and opens the faceplate to reveal a data contact. Pressing the eper agains the contact, she taps one button to extract the contents of the eper and transfer it into the computer in the wall. Judging from the locked access panel, I guess that this particular computer is not connected to her network. A moment later she removes the eper and hands it back to me. “The data will be waiting for us in the clean room.”
“Is that safe?” I ask, nodding towards the data port.
“The room isn’t completely cut off from the network. I designed the space to prevent snooping and make sure that Security can’t take the hardware out without erasing all of the evidence. That’s assuming they can even get into the chamber.”
The inner door opens with the sound of heavy bolts being dragged out of place by powerful electromagnets. Schuster pulls the door open and ushers me into the shadowy hallway beyond.
Stepping across the threshold, I feel an electric tingle run up my arms. The hall is about three meters long and is illuminated only by the light coming through the heavy, bullet proof glass windows set into the doors at either end. Three steps forward, and I’m beginning to feel light headed. Two more steps and I’m beginning to hallucinate stilted, large-eyed monsters crouching in the shadows. I hurry forward, trusting that Schuster hasn’t loud me into a gas chamber. Three hurried steps later and I’m pressing the crash bar of the far door, stumbling out into the chill air of Javier’s technological lair.
In the center of the room, Javier rests half prone in an articulated chair that looks to have been salvaged from a nineteenth century barber surgeon. He is engrossed in a bank of nine monitors, arrayed in a three by three grid over his face. His thin fingers play across a broad touch surface and hammer on an aggressively mechanical keyboard, both of which are mounted on an arm that rests across his lap. His eyes, set deep in his gaunt face, dart from the screens and fix on me for a moment, before going back to whatever task has him preoccupied.
“Javier, you remember Talbot Liu, don’t you?” Schuster says, pushing the heavy door shut behind her.
The hacker’s eyes flicker like the seek light on a drive, indicating that his brain is performing a high speed search of his prodigious memory. A moment later he nods without looking away from the screen. Words spill from his lips in a breakneck jumble that aspires to the warble of an angry starling. “Talbot Liu. Formerly of the Unified Federal Districts, by way of the eastern floodplain disaster area. Ejected from federal service due to chemical dependency and psychological unfitness for duty. Arrived in the city twelve years ago and needed assistance in expanding the clearance and privileges of his identity credentials.”
“You keep all that in a database?” I ask, suddenly wondering if it was such a great idea to come here. Javier is not the most stable individual, and if he were to crack and post everything he knows on the networks a lot of people could end up serving labor or being set into exile.
“Memory sufficient,” he responds in the same rapid, clipped voice.
“He needs our help again,” Schuster says. She picks up a data card and drops it on a panel beside the door, then transfers the data from my eper onto it. She steps up to Javier and proffers the card.
He looks from the card, to Schuster, to me, then back at his screens. “What is the profit? You know I am busy, Yvette.”
“I’ll owe you favors,” I say, stepping closer, but mindful to keep a respectful distance from Javier. I remember from last time that he values his personal space. “You don’t get out much. I can run a couple errands for you, maybe send someone to keep you company for a few hours.”
Javier pauses in his assault on the keyboard. Looks over at me with a fresh glow in his eye. “What do you mean by company?”
“Almost anything you can imagine,” I reply, eyebrows climbing meaningfully. “Just don’t return any of them damaged, eh?”
I keep my eyes locked to Javier’s as he hesitates for a long moment, his dark red tongue darting out from between his lips. I can only imagine the hunger that he must have developed in his dark heart over the years that he has lived in this small suite. As far as I know, he’s never left since Schuster started renting him the space some fifteen years ago.
Finally, he rips his eyes away from mine and he takes the data card from Schuster. His response comes in a hushed rush of mumbled words, conveying his desire as well as a healthy dose of shame at the deal that he is making. “I need at least two women at a time. Older, but still hot. No implants or the EM field will fry them. I don’t want to hurt them, just watch. Not touch. Not the first time, at least. Deal?”
I wait just long enough to make him wonder, to keep him hungry, then I nod.
He snaps the data card into a reader and returns to fidgeting with him computer. Everything he does is manually ordered by keyboard. No voice. No apparent restrillect interactivity. Javier is as old school a hacker as you’re likely to find these days.
“I’ll make it happen before the storm hits.”
“Storm?” he asks, not turning from his screen.
Of course. Javier probably doesn’t even pay attention to the weather outside unless it affects deliveries. “Just a hurricane. It’s already made landfall in the gulf and jumped the mountains. It’ll be here within a day. We’re in for a lot of rain and some nasty winds.”
The data chip disgorges its contents into Javier’s system and he begins sorting through the missing girl’s file, muttering as if speaking to himself instead of Schuster and me. “Minimal results. Typical shoddy work from youth services. Didn’t even finish the blood panel. I’m telling you, ever need to sneak something into the city just run it through Youth Services. They wouldn’t notice a hemorrhagic fever victim if they were bleeding out at the dinner table. Imagery is decent. I should be able to task the eyes to look for her.”
“Are you in the camera network?” I ask, interrupting the muttered narrative.
Javier grunts and continues working, not responding to me. Instead, it’s Schuster who speaks up to explain. “He’s been locked out of the central computers for several months. Some security manager got busted peddling camera time to a ring of voyeurs.”
“Yeah, I think I heard something about that. Wasn’t everyone involved acquitted?”
Schuster laughed bitterly and crossed her arms, shaking her head. “Only the viewers. A couple of them were mid-level executives in one of the big three. Their corporate attorney successfully argued that they weren’t directly responsible for any illegal activity, as they had merely accessed a service in good faith.”
“So they picked some midden hacker to get hard labor in exchange for a payday, and they get to go on with their lives. Right?”
“Pretty much. The manager in charge got canned too, but he doesn’t seem to be hurting. His replacement insisted on a full security audit and the holes Javier was using were closed. He hasn’t found a way back in yet.”
“I will find a path,” Javier mumbles. “There’s always a hole, somewhere.”
“Most he can do for now is side load a skimmer onto the emergency response drones,” Schuster says.
I shiver, feeling again the unwanted attentions of the EM fields which guard this room. I shove my hands into my pockets and tighten my stance, trying to play off the disturbance as a reaction to the heavy air conditioning. “So it’s slower than piggybacking the city systems?”
“Yes. I will let you know if the system finds anything,” Javier says.
“And you can’t go back in the feed history?”
Javier minimizes the search tool to a small window on the bottom row of his array of displays and doesn’t respond. I take that as a “no” and choose not to press him any farther. I linger for a moment, as much because I am reticent to step back into the EM field as because I am hoping that Javier might have more to say about his methods, but he remains silent.
Schuster touches my elbow and jerks her head towards the exit.
Back in the anteroom, head still swimming from induced hallucinations, I ask Schuster why she still runs the risk of keeping Javier in her basement. I’ve been trying to work out their relationship since I first learned of Javier’s existence and the solution still eludes me.
“He’s useful and mostly low maintenance,” is her only reply, even now.
“How many like him you have down here?” I ask.
Deadpan, she shakes her head and replies, “A few. If you’d take me up on my offer you might learn more.”
I shrug into my coat and check the pockets, counting my knives, data cards, folded epers, and terminal three times before I satisfy the daemon that I have everything. “What about the markets? Do you know anyone who might be interested in buying a little girl?”
“Buying?” Schuster says, pausing with the door half open.
“You know what I mean. There’s lots of reasons why someone might snatch a kid off the streets and most of them are pretty repulsive.”
“That takes a lot coming from someone like you.”
I open my mouth, ready to bite back at her, but Schuster pulls the door the rest of the way open and waves me through. “I’m not talking about your official business, Tal. I’m talking about the people who come to you with real problems, and all the tangled shit that goes on in your brain every day.”
She holds my gaze for a moment, then nods and starts up the stairs.
I laugh bitterly and follow her up the staircase, my footfalls suddenly seeming loud on the metal steps. If she only knew the half of it: The torturous intestinal knotting that precedes every significant decision that I foresee. The daily rituals of self preservation, enumerating reasons to remain alive and continue fighting, even as my mind flits through a half dozen worse case scenarios and plays fast motion premonitions of all the ways I might have to protect, kill, abandon everyone I know.
“I just mean that if you are actually disturbed by some of the shit you’ve encountered out there, maybe it’s time to do something about it, rather than wading through it to make a living.”
“Is that why you keep Javier around? Looking to change the world through hacktavism? I’ve got news for you, Schuster, that boat sailed long ago. If you haven’t noticed, the world’s gone to hell in our lifetimes and I don’t think we’ll live to see it crawl back out again.”
That earns another laugh. “You talking about the Feds? Or the midlands? Or maybe the flotillas? Come on, Schuster, the closest anyone’s got to the dreams of our fathers anymore is maybe some of the upstart democracies in central Africa or down south, but most of them are hopelessly corrupt.”
She stops before reaching the next landing and turns back, looking down on me like a condescending schoolmarm. She bends over and puts her red lips to my ear, whispering so low that I can hardly make out the words. “You ever change you mind, come back and I’ll take you down to another level. You’re a good man, Talbot Liu, even if you have to wade through shit to make a living. We could use someone like you.”
She pecks me on the cheek, then goes back to climbing the staircase. “Go talk to Darby if you want an opinion on the darker side of the flesh market. I try to stick to hardware.”
I stand, fixed to the step for a long moment, feeling the wetness of her kiss still burning my cheek. The daemon wraps its talons around the mark and tries to rend my flesh, but I fight it back, allowing the warmth of her lips to fade before I give in and wipe my cheek on the sleeve of my coat. For all her faults and my flaws, Schuster might be the only person who could help me forget Seth and push the daemon a little deeper into his cave, if anyone ever could. But not, there is no time for healing now.
“I’ve already seen Darby,” I say, stepping quickly to catch up with her.
“He’s keeping an ear open.”
“I’m disappointed you went to him first.”
“You were busy last night.”
We arrive at the door to Schuster’s office and she turns, taking the front of my coat in her fingers and pulling me close. She looks up into my eyes, her blue gaze melting through my defense like a particle beam. We stand that way for what feels like a very long while, my ears pounding as I study her features, hoping to find the words I need in the curve of her nose or the folds at the corners of her eyes. Finally, she gives me a sad smile and presses her palms against my chest, sighing deeply.
“I’ll be careful,” I say.