A Night In The Life
Written by Diane Piron-Gelman and Robert Cruz, based on stories by Jonathan Szeto
I shoulda known it wouldn't be a simple run. It never is. The minute they call it a no-brainer, you know somethin's gonna go wrong. Bad wrong. Real, real bad wrong. And it sure's hell did on this milk run. Double-crossin' Johnson, not enough homework, whatever—somebody somewheres fragged up good, and we all pretty near paid for it in blood.
But at least I've still got Demon. It'll take awhile 'fore she's patched up and runnin' again, but she's still among the living. A survivor, that's what she is. Like me.
It started when we met the Johnson—fella in a Vashon Island knockoff suit and a porkpie hat who smelled like cheap cigars. Said he was a private detective, working for some small-time CEO wannabe who was tryin' to buy out another itty-bitty corp. Wanted "evidence of business fraud," which the detective said was in the computer systems of the little corp's HQ. Natch, the system was closed off from the Matrix, so the Johnson needed us to bust in and sit our decker down in front of the boss's terminal. I guess we shoulda asked why he couldn't hire himself a decker solo and sneak the both of 'em in through a window—but we'd all gone a time between jobs, and cred was gettin' tight. A milk run looked like a good deal, so we took it. And my part looked easiest of all-drive my buds 'cross town, drop 'em off in the warehouse district, keep an eye peeled outside while they got down to it inside, and then drive 'em away fast. No trick atall for a rigger like me, with ten years of street smarts and the fastest fraggin' Leyland-Rover in the 'plex. Souped up her engine my own self, and did a fraggin' good job. What could go wrong?
So I jacked into Speed Demon that night and roared down Intercity 5 toward the rendezvous. Round midnight on the open road... my favorite place, my favorite time. There is nothin', but nothin', in this world as free and easy and flat-out wonderful as jacking into your wheels and flyin' down the highway at whosiwhatever-klicks-per-hour. Felt lighter than air with just me in the van; I knew that'd change once my buds were on board, but for now I soared down that road like I might take off at the end of it.
'Cept for the occasional cold wreck, the highway was empty—not a heat sig in sight for klicks. Just as well, considering—at oh-dark-hundred hours, anybody sane'd know better'n to hit the highways. Roving go-gangs like to prowl late, lookin' for unsuspecting drivers to play with. Course, I don't claim to be sane. Sane's just another word for boring as dirt. 'Sides, there was other prey for gangbangers tonight. The Spike Wheels, who claimed turf on my side of the I-5, were busy huntin' down Eye-Fivers in revenge for last night's rumble. They weren't likely to come messing with The Stuntman.
So I flew on down the road toward the night's run. Demon's visual sensors spun a rainbow around me; I saw sodium-yellow lamps flittin' overhead and blinkin' neon billboards of every color flashin' by. Off leftward I spotted the industrial district, glowin' red as a hellhound's eyes on the thermo-sensors. Flashes of chlorine green lit up the car's microwave radar-spikes from solar flare eruptions, which mess up E-M profile like nobody's business. But little drek like that didn't bother me. Me an' Demon were roadrunnin', and by the end of the night I expected to have my hands on enough cred to finally buy the new set of tires I'd been promisin' her for weeks. Ain't nice to make promises and not keep 'em, especially to the bundle of bolts you depend on to save your hoop.
I shoulda known it was too good to last.
I reached the rendezvous and picked up the team—two sams, a decker and a street shaman. With me driving getaway, Rocker and Punch packing guns and chrome, Zipdrive to surf the electrons and Catseye to take care of any magical drek (best to be prepared for everything if you want to spend your pay), we figured we were all set. And we woulda been if the set-up had been what the Johnson advertised.
Demon took us crosstown to the warehouse district, which useta be a decent workin' neighborhood until the jobs dried up and the big-money boys quit paying taxes. It's been slidin' down the scale from "blue-collar" to "wasteland" for years, but seems to have stopped for awhile at "seedy." The only folks 'round the district these days are outfits just like the one we'd been hired to crash: little mom-and-pop corps with big ideas, bigger hopes and small cash flow. It's cheap rent; it's also bad roads with holes and litter and broken glass. I could feel every crack in the pavement through Demon's tires, like you can feel bumps in the sidewalk through thin shoes. For sure, I told myself, for damn-fraggin-sure I'm buying those tires. First thing tomorrow. And a full tank of gas, too. I was feeling hungrier than I had any right to be, considering I'd snarfed down a whole bag of Hot'n'Ched'r cayenne-and-cheese-flavored soychips before starting out. So I knew Demon could use a refill, even though the monitors told me she had enough gas for tonight.
I turned off at Milton and Third, right where the Johnson had told us, killed the lights and coasted half a block to a decrepit-looking brick rectangle surrounded by cracked concrete and a chain-link fence. As I pulled up and stopped, I keyed Demon into stealth mode. The ruthenium fibers on her outside, electric blue when she wasn't on a job, faded to clear. I'd paid a nice chunk of change to get a radarbane paint job underneath, and this run was Demon's first since her makeover. The area around the Tacoma docks ain't as bad as either of the Barrens, but that just means that late at night you're risking small ordnance 'stead of large. Plus, the few Lone Star patrols sniffin' around tend to ask lots of nosy questions. So stealth seemed like an extra-good thing.
The rest of the team bailed, Punch in the lead and Rocker bringin' up the rear. Rocker gave me a wolf's grin as she slipped her headset on and leaned in the driver's-side window. "I'll be listening, Stunt. You see anything, give a holler."
"Chill," I said, and watched 'em go. Four little reddish blobs on thermo, bobbin' toward the big, empty building like some kinda giant fireflies. I didn't wish 'em luck; didn't wanna jinx 'em. Might as well have shouted "Good luck" at the top of my lungs, as it turned out. But right then the night was quiet, and seemed likely to stay that way.
I settled in to wait. Didn't jack out, of course—Demon's zoom lenses, magnification and external audio sensors made better eyes and ears for trouble than mine. I turned the diskplayer on, with the volume low enough not to scrag the audio feeds from outside. I had an old-style R&B; recording I'd been dyin' to listen to, and this seemed like the perfect time. The music would keep my brain from being lulled to sleep by the silent night, much more pleasantly than the cold rain that had started to fall. ASIST can be damned inconvenient when it comes to the weather-whatever touches your wheels, you feel just like the metal body of the car or whatever is your own skin. I tuned out the pinpricks of cold and wet as best I could—you learn to, when you've hadda rig through snowstorms a time or two—and kept the sensors peeled for danger. Didn't see a thing 'cept the occasional passing pigeon and a ripped paper bag tossed by the wind; didn't hear a thing 'cept for that same wind and the dim roar of passing traffic streets and streets away. Far off in the distance, some drunk was shouting at his girlfriend. Just the normal night noises of the city.
Then the sky started to howl, and I knew we were hosed.
Wasn't really the sky, of course. It was the building's own alarm. Howling like a herd of banshees, loud enough to bring the Star down on us right quick even if nobody inside had managed to push a PANICBUTTON. Every fraggin' po-leece patrol within a klick of the place was gonna come a-runnin'-we needed to bug out right fraggin' now. So I fired up Demon's engine, just as three little red blobs came tearing outta the building. That's right, three-one of 'em big and shapeless, which meant somebody'd got hurt and somebody else was haulin' 'em along. Followed by four more blobs, a little ways behind as yet but catching up waaay too fast for comfort. I switched from thermo to visual sensors and saw Punch pounding toward me, with Zipdrive slung over his shoulder. Rocker and Catseye were close behind, stopping every so often to shoot or sling a spell at the sec-squad following. And I saw two sec-drones, the vidcam kind with a homing beacon that'll film your sorry hoop in the criminal act and follow you all the way home. The corps love those; they can track you to your safehouse and send the footage straight to the ten-o'clock news. A one-two punch.
I popped the doors open as Punch came up. Without missin' a step, Punch slid Zippy off his shoulder and into the back seat, then threw himself in beside him. Rocker and Cat jumped in the middle. I slammed the doors and took off. The sec-boys behind let loose a hail of gunfire, none of which hit. I could hear Punch's FN-HAR talkin' back, but didn't dare look behind Demon to see if he'd got anybody. Then I heard some more shots that didn't come from Punch, and somethin' smacked me hard on the back of the head.
I thought I was dead. Just for a second I really thought one of the sec-skags'd plugged a bullet right through my meat skull. Then my brain caught up with me, and I realized I was still runnin' Demon down the road. Which meant I was still alive. With a killer headache and a weird, itchy feeling across the back of my scalp that told me the fraggin' bastard had punched a hole through Demon's rear windshield. I didn't have to see it to know that the whole thing was crazed with fracture lines. Have to replace it, I thought, while the rest of me concentrated on the road ahead. And also on the sirens that were startin' to wail all around as the neighborhood Star patrols twigged that somethin' was up. I shunted a smidgen more mental energy toward the audio sensors to sharpen the pickup; I needed to know what direction the sirens were comin' from.
The sensors gave me bad news. The Star was headin' toward us from the north and east. The place we'd hit, with its sec squad on full alert, was behind us to the south. That left just one direction for a getaway-west, toward Puget Sound. Which meant Demon and me'd have to head west far enough to slip past the Star and hope to highway hell that we didn't hit water first. Then we'd have to make a sharp turn southwards, then pedal-medal it back crosstown to the safehouse. All the while keepin' the Star off our trail, or else losin' 'em somewheres in the maze of city streets.
I always did love a challenge.
First thing, though, I hadda take care of the drones. They were clingin' close, buzzin' 'round Demon like gnats. I opened the roof and raised the Vindicator from its inside mount, braced my hands on the wheel so they'd stay steady when the ASIST recoil hit me, and fired at the nearest drone. Blew the fragger to dust, and didn't hardly swerve atall. The FN-HAR barked again as Punch sent the second drone spinnin' into the side of a building. A little puffy fireball told me the second drone wasn't a problem anymore. Which just left the Star—and they were gettin' closer.
Demon and I whipped around the corner hard enough to make me dizzy for a second. The street ahead was clear, the sirens all behind us or a ways off to the side. As I gunned Demon's engines, I snuck a peek at the gridmap. Seattle's traffic grid, superimposed in bright yellow lines over a detailed map of the city, flickered to ghostly life across the top of Demon's windshield. The bright orange dot that was Demon showed up just four city blocks shy of a main drag. If I could get to it, I could take it to the I-5 and on home.
I wasn't counting on the three patrol cars that suddenly shot into the intersection half a block ahead. They'd been runnin' silent, caught me off guard. Smart bastards, the Star. Don't underestimate 'em if you want to live long. So now I had a choice to make-fast. Stop and surrender, whip around or run backwards straight into the patrol I could hear closin' in behind us, floor it and hope Demon could crash through the blockade without takin' too much damage to keep goin' or find me an alley to fly down in the next couple seconds.
Luck was with me. A patch of empty dark appeared in the solid wall of plascrete to my right. I aimed Demon's nose toward it and floored the gas. I was gonna pay for this later on—I could feel the burn in my calves from too much redlinin', like a distance runner who starts out too fast and burns up his reserves—but so long as I got us out of immediate trouble, I'd deal with the consequences.
The dark hole was an alleyway, dirty and stinkin' and narrow. We took the turn a hair too sharply; my right arm caught fire as poor Demon scraped a fender against the side of a crumblin' factory. Now she'd need a new paint job along with everything else. Rubber screeched on pavement as the patrol cars caught on to the change of plan; I knew we didn't have much time to get ahead of 'em. So I poured on more power and ignored the charley horses that were formin' in both legs. The only thing that mattered was getting to the end of the alley before the Star did and then findin' us a fast route outta there.
We'da made it clean if the fraggin' hole in the road hadn't slowed us down. A real axle-breaker-big as an oil drum and so deep I swear it went halfway to China. Hurt like hell when we hit it. Think of the worst sprained ankle you ever had, then multiply that by ten, and you've got some idea. Luck was still with us, though; the internal sensors told me Demon's axles were still intact. So I floored it and we shot toward the alley's far end.
And fraggin' near collided with a patrol car. Just one—lucky again!—and a glancing blow at that; otherwise I wouldn't be tellin' this story. Demon's right front fender got up close and personal with the front left fender of the Starmobile. Spun the cop car all the way around; when a Leyland-Rover argues with an Americar, even the razzed-up kind the Star drives around in, the Rover almost always wins. Hell of an impact, though. Felt like I'd smacked my head into a brick wall. What with all the other hell I'd been through on this joyride, the crash nearly blacked me out. But I hung on to consciousness by my fingernails, stopped Demon's fishtailin' on the slick pavement and managed to turn us in the right direction. Then I burned rubber and sent us flyin' down the road.
The Star followed, of course. For awhile. Demon and I dodged and wove and bumped across sidewalks, even crashed through a coupla flimsy fences, before we finally lost the last cop car. My head felt like a thousand little guys were beatin' on it with hammers, my feet were freezin' from the icy asphalt under Demon's baldin' tires, and every wild turn made me want to throw up—but I gritted my teeth and kept goin'. That's how you survive in this biz. Me and Demon didn't stop until I pulled her up in front of a clinic near the safehouse, where we knew a street doc who'd patch Zipdrive up quick. And me, too. Wild rides take their toll on a rigger's meat even if lead and fireballs don't. I had a lump on my head the size of an egg from where I'd hit Demon's roof bouncin' outta the pothole, and I was so fraggin' tired that my hands were shakin' on the steering wheel. I popped the doors so Punch could take Zipdrive out, then jacked out and just sat for a moment. Just sat and breathed, and thought about how nice it was to be able to do that.
After a little while I got out of the van. Almost fell over when I tried to stand up; just for a second, my brain had some trouble with the difference between wheels and feet. Like gettin' your land legs back after you've been on the water a time. Then I started walkin' and that was even worse. Every muscle was screamin' at me, and my calves were threatenin' to go on permanent strike. I told 'em to save it and staggered on. The pain was a good thing in one way; it kept me from thinkin' too much about the size of Demon's repair bill. Not that I grudged her any of it, mind-but like I said before, cred was tight. And after this hose-up, I knew we wouldn't get so much as a plugged nuyen from the Johnson unless we took it.
Which we did. Well, Rocker and Punch did. Rocker don't like bein' double-crossed, and Punch... well, sometimes he just likes to break stuff. Specially the heads of people fool enough to rip him off. My share of the "insurance payment" was enough to fix Demon up, mostly-though she'll have to wait awhile for another stealth paint job. Those things cost.
Hell-maybe I'll just send the bill to the Star.