Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Babylon Blues Part 9

Electric City

Electric City existed only in the minds of the inhabitants of Babylon. Bounded by two subway stations, it ran rampant across streets and neighborhoods, violating the grids laid down by the city planners long ago. Administratively it was divided between three precincts, quietly encroaching on a fourth. To the government, it was an anomaly. To the people, it was an electronics paradise.
Consumer computers, DIY electronics, video games, household appliances; if it ran on electricity, if it had a silicon brain, it could be found in Electric City. Entire shopping malls specializing in tech bloomed across the area, offering cutting-edge rigs, secondhand parts, the latest boutique products from corps allied with the New Gods, assemblers to fabricate computers from the ground up.
With tech came the entertainment industry. Video games, movies, television, they were a natural partnership for tech. Wedged in between the shopping centers were themed stores and media cafes, arcades and theaters, crammed into narrow high-rises that sprouted like weeds all over the neighborhood. Forests of neon signs and holograms advertised the latest trends in fashions and pop culture. Electric City was a haven for youths, but anyone who came to worship at the altar of technology was welcome here.
The perfect place for a hacker to call home.
Electric City never slept. It merely downshifted in the deepness of the night, as though storing up energy for the day. Even now, an hour before dawn, it was revving up for the morning crowd. Late-night workers trudged out of their workplaces, swapping cigarettes and stories with their replacements. Salarymen and students in crumpled clothing emerged from all-night cafes and hotels, hustling to the trains before anyone they knew recognized them. Shopkeepers unshuttered their stores and prepared their wares. Gynoids in fancy dress, all of them young women in increasingly outrageous uniforms and costumes, stepped out to the roads and ran through their start-up diagnostics. Delivery trucks pulled up outside convenience stores and shopping malls, while flying drones dropped off packages on balconies and drone pads.
Fox studied them all, watching for anything out of place.
Or tried.
She’d been up for a full day without sleep. Her eyelids drooped. Fatigue weighed down her muscles. The successive firefights had consumed every last drop of adrenaline in her veins. Even a hot cup of vending machine coffee barely kept her awake. It took all her concentration just to stay on the go. She had no idea of the rhythms of Electric City this time of the day; as far as she was concerned, every person and every bot, unless proven otherwise, was a threat.
The rest of the Black Watch was gassing out too. All the same, they kept to their standards of tradecraft.
They dispersed their vehicles at the edges of Electric City, parking them in underground or multistory parking lots, safely hidden from casual observation. On foot, they converged on an unassuming high-rise. Twelve stories tall, it was a narrow column of raw concrete two windows wide, sandwiched between a dental clinic and a shorter but wider apartment block. Its only unusual feature was its utter plainness in contrast to the madness of Electric City.
The team converged at the narrow entrance, approaching from every direction. Silently they formed up in pairs, then in threes, each operator looking over the shoulder of the one opposite him. Karim shuffled out of an alley and walked next to Fox. Tan, his head covered with a ball cap, drifted out a convenience store and joined them. Fox scanned in every direction, checking mirrors and corners, cars and doors, keeping her head low and away from the streetlight cameras.
 At the doorstep of the building, Yamamoto nodded at Tan. The shorter operator walked up to the door and rang the intercom. An instant later, the speaker crackled.
A man’s voice. High-pitched but assured. Not a question, but a statement.
“It’s me. I’m here with my friends,” Tan said.
Tan’s shoulders slumped, his eyes widening as they rolled up.
“Sakura under a silver moon.”
What kind of idiot calls that a passphrase? Fox wondered.
“Come in.”

The intercom buzzed, and the door unlocked.
Eschewing the elevator, Tan led the team up the stairs. It was so tight they had to move in single file, the wooden steps steep and narrow. The eighth floor landing wasn’t much better, a claustrophobic antechamber with a parquet floor and a mass-produced painting of a generic vase of flowers. There was a single door and a welcome mat. That was all.
The team squeezed and shuffled around Tan, positioning themselves by the door, the elevator and the stairs as best as they could. Fox found herself hovering behind Tan’s shoulder. This close to the entrance, she noted the discreet security measures. The doorbell came with an integrated video camera and microphone, the handle had a keypad with one-touch lock button and a backup keyhole, a barred security grille defended the door. The door itself was thick and sturdy, no doubt wood overlaid over steel, reinforced with high-security bolts.
The heavy snap of multiple deadbolts confirmed her hypothesis. The door swung open, revealing—
A maid.
A maid with an hourglass figure and slender legs, packaged in a short-sleeved black dress paired with a white apron. Her hemline ended at mid-thigh, and her white stockings disappeared under the fabric. She stood taller than Tan, augmented by her five-inch heels.
Her eyes were an unnatural shade of purple, huge and child-like. Her rust-red hair flowed down in long, silky locks that draped over her ample chest. Black cat ears poked out from her crown, sandwiching her white frilly headband. And an honest-to-God tail coiled out from under her dress.
Fox blinked.
Blinked again.
During the drive over, Tan had warned the team that his contact was eccentric. This, though…
The maid bowed, eyes and head downcast, white-gloved hands folded before her.
“Good morning, Mr. Tan and honored guests. The master is expecting you.”
She gracefully pivoted on her feet, swinging the door open. Tan wiped off his shoes and made entry. Fox followed in his footsteps. As she brushed past the maid, she caught a scent of lilac and roses.
She wasn’t human. Not completely human. Her eyes alone was proof, much less the… additional features. She wasn’t just a house maid; in that get-up, she had to provide bed service too.
Her eyes were wide open, scanning side to side and up and down, scanning Fox as she passed. She held the door open with her right hand, her left hand touching her dress. She was completely loose and relaxed, ready for instant action. Her smile was fake and her gaze cold.
And her eyes were dry.
Human eyes were coated in a thin layer of tears. The fluid lubricated the eyes, removed irritants, and aided the immune system. But the maid’s eyes were hard and dull and matte. They didn’t reflect the light the way organic eyes would.
Prosthetics? Or something else?
In the living room, she found the next surprise.
A woman stood in a corner. Tall and lithe, she wore a scarlet catsuit that gleamed in the light. The garment covered everything and concealed nothing, accented with black ankle boots the color of night, leaving only her face exposed. Black vertical zippers dangled daringly from her breasts and crotch.
But there was something off about her, and not just her appearance. Her hair was pale as snow, her cold wide eyes the yellow shade of a panther. Her latex-covered hands were huge for a woman, almost disproportionately so. She smiled invitingly, a tigress welcoming her prey, flicking her gaze back and forth, scanning the newcomers.
Slipping around Tan, Fox surveyed the living room.
A third woman sat on a sofa, directly in line with the door, even more scantily dressed than the last two. A blood-red lace bustier, a matching G-string, thigh-high stockings with garters and suspenders, delicate red see-through gloves. Her eyes and hair were the same color as her clothes. She sat wantonly, legs spread out like an ‘M’, smiling invitingly.
Fox wasn’t fooled. Her high heels were planted flat on the thick carpet, her hands resting squarely on the armrests, spine erect and floating away from the backing of the sofa, ready to launch herself across the room. Her cyan hair was styled in a bob cut—too short to be easily grabbed and manipulated. Her gaze was completely still, trained on the entrance hallway.
The women were more than what they seemed.
The men of the Black Watch ignored the women. They spread out across the room, dominating the door, the rear corners, the hallway on the right that fed to the rest of the apartment, positioning themselves to clear lines of sight and fire to the three women.
The master of the house watched them all in silence. He lounged alone on a plush leather sofa, legs crossed, hands on his knees. He was absurdly thin, anorexic almost, his skull a blown-up almond resting on a narrow stalk of a neck, almost too large for the rest of his body. His blue suit, fitted perfectly to his body, shone softly in the light, the way premium silk would. His skin was pale and thin, the sign of a man who rarely saw daylight. His face was completely flat and emotionless, and he stared at the Black Watch with a feverish, unblinking intensity.
“Zen. We meet again,” he said.
His accent was posh and clipped, alien to Babylon, as though it had come from a distant gilded age. He spoke so softly, she had to strain her ears to hear him. But he was definitely the one who had answered the intercom.
“Alex. It’s been a while,” Tan said.
His name wasn’t Alex. Tan had repeatedly stressed that back at the beach. It was only the most recent of his aliases, and Tan wouldn’t give up his real name.
“These are your friends?” Alex asked.
Tan quickly introduced the team, using only their first names. Fox would have preferred their callsigns, but everyone had to assume that they were known to the enemy.
Alex swept his arm in a stiff arc, gesturing at the dining table and the cushions on the floor. “Please, sit however you like. Would you like any drinks?”
“Coffee,” Tan said.
“Coffee,” Fox echoed.
Everyone voted in favor of coffee.
“Cindy, prepare six hot coffees for everyone,” Alex said. “Cream and sugar.”
“Yes master,” the bustier-clad woman replied.
She unfolded herself to her full height and sashayed away. Glancing behind her shoulder, Fox saw the maid standing by the closet next to the front door, her body completely still.
Fox wondered why the maid didn’t do it. Perhaps Alex’s order had vacated a space for the rest of the team.
The operators arranged themselves across the living room and dining table in a ragged semi-circle, their backs facing the walls. Fox took the sofa Cindy had left.
“You did well for yourself,” Tan said.
Alex nodded silently. On the rise, he tilted his head back slightly, looking down his nose at Tan.
The living room was elegantly furnished. Massive holographic television fitted flush against the wall, mated to expensive speakers and cameras. A soft synthetic silk carpet covered the floor in a blanket of pure white. Shelves flanked the TV, crammed with thick books. The dining table and chairs were cut from white marble, supported on legs of dark teak. A crystal chandelier provided soft illumination, slowly adjusting with the rising of the sun. Paintings and blown-up black-and-white photographs hung on the walls.
But the luxury was married to security. The windows were unusually thick, no doubt translucent ceramic rated for small-arms fire. Motion sensors waited above the doors and windows. An alarm panel was mounted at eye level next to the hallway. And these were just the visible security measures.
In such posh surroundings, Fox felt distinctly out of place. Her clothes were caked with dirt, and she reeked of sweat and gunpowder. The men were little different.
“Are you well?” Alex asked.
Tan licked his lips and drummed his fingers against his knee.
“We’re in a tight spot,” he admitted. “We could really use your help.”
“Yes, you said as much on the phone. I heard reports of a massive shootout at Fortune City, and two smaller ones at a hotel and an apartment. Was that you?”
“And the New Gods,” Tan said.
Alex’s eyebrow drifted sharply. “They’re going after the STS?”
“Just us. For now.”
“What did you do to offend them?”
“That’s what we need your help with.”
“Tell me everything.”
Fox held up a hand. “Do your… companions need to be here?”
Alex smiled thinly. “Every day I trust them with my secrets, and my life. You can trust them with yours.”
Tan briefed Alex on the situation, starting from the events of Riveria, skipping ahead to the Golden Mile, and filling in the blanks the civilian needed to understand the situation. Here and there, the other operators chimed in, adding their perspectives.
Alex listened intently, his eyes never once blinking. Occasionally he rocked slightly back and forth, or switched legs, but his butt was fixed to his spot.
Cindy returned with a coffee pot and six glasses on a larger silver tray. Smaller pots held milk and sugar. With deft, elegant movements, she filled the glasses with steaming black liquid. When the last glass was full, she bowed, and stepped back.
“Here, try this first,” Tan said, nudging forward a glass at random.
Alex unhesitatingly picked it up, poured in a heavy dose of milk and sugar, and swallowed a huge mouthful.
“Thanks,” Tan said.
He refilled the glass, carefully rotating it to avoid the spot where Alex’s lips had touched, and took a sip.
The rest of the Black Watch followed. Fox had her drink black. It was the good stuff. Rich and aromatic, it was a bitter bomb of concentrated caffeine. A single sip flushed the fatigue from her brain and muscles.
The men continued talking. Cindy stood in the corner opposite the catsuited woman and assumed the same posture. Now slightly more alert, Fox calculated angles and vectors, and realized that the women had placed themselves out of the line of sight from the windows.
As had everybody else, as best as they could.
At last, the Black Watch concluded their brief. Alex sat in silence for a beat, as though processing it all.
Everyone sipped and waited for him.
And at last, he spoke.
“The New Gods believe you have leverage over them. The Seekers of the Way captured and interrogated you, and presumably they now have control of the information formerly in your possession. You need my help to reconstruct the data you imaged and decrypt them. Is this correct?”
“Yup,” Tan confirmed.
“Why do you need it?”
“We need to know why they’re after us.”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? The Court of Shadows and the Void Collective want their data back. The Seekers of the Way, and the rest of the New Gods, want to gain an advantage over their rivals. Now that the Seekers have the data, the heat should be off you.”
“Only if the Seekers tell the other New Gods that they have the information now,” Yamamoto pointed out.
“And after what we did to them over the past year, they all have an axe to grind with us,” Connor added. “They’re not going to stop until we’re all dead.”
“True,” Alex conceded. “But the data is already in the hands of the New Gods. What do you hope to do with it if you managed to crack it?”
“Publish it,” Yamamoto said.
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Whatever dirt we dug up on them, it’s damaging enough that they’re pulling out all the stops. The Seekers deployed military-grade hardware and Hellions on the streets. That means they believe the costs of disclosure far outweigh the costs of deploying that kind of firepower. They don’t care about staying below the radar, only about getting their hands on the data. There’s something in that data that they don’t want anybody else to know.
“That data is like a bomb. It’s extremely deadly if left alone. But once detonated, it can’t harm you again. Likewise, once the data is published, I’m willing to bet the New Gods will have far too much on their hands to worry about than going after us.”
“You sound quite confident in your hypothesis,” Alex said.
“Why else would they use such high-profile measures?”
“But you don’t know anything about the information Zen gathered.”
“We don’t. But if the New Gods are willing to kill for it, it tells us how important it is to them.”
“True. But I have another question for you. All of you.”
“Go ahead,” Fox said warily.
“A half hour before you came here, the New Gods posted a bounty on Dark Web job boards. They’re offering a quarter of a million dollars for each of you. Half a million if you’re taken alive. From my perspective, I’m looking at a three million dollar payday. More, if I can auction you to the New Gods.”
Hands went to waists and beltlines. Fox’s own flew to the butt of her pistol, her brain preparing firing solutions. Without a word, the men of the Black Watch oriented towards the closest targets, facing the women.
The women did not react.
“Was that a threat?” Connor said coldly.
“Merely an observation. If you wish for me to help you, you are asking me to assume a high degree of risk and to forfeit a rich reward in exchange for… what, precisely?”
“You owe me,” Tan said. “When I busted you while you were still in high school, I could have recommended hard time. Instead, I got you a job offer from the Bureau. Without that, you wouldn’t have gotten to where you are now. And over the years, I sent a lot of sugar your way.”
“Correct. And I am grateful. Nonetheless, the favor of the New Gods is worth far more than that of a team of rogue cops. In addition, if, or more precisely, when, the New Gods learn that I’ve helped you, where does that leave me? I don’t have your skills, resources or connections. Would you ask me to commit suicide on your behalf?”
Tan’s face flushed. Fox rested her palm on his shoulder.
“Easy. Alex, you said Zen got you a job with the PSB. How did that happen?”
“I got careless. The PSB traced me and arrested me. During sentencing, the judge gave me a choice. I could go for reformative training, or work for the government. I understand Zen had pushed the judge to extend that offer to me.”
“Nice digs you have here,” Mustafa observed. “How did you afford this on a government salary?”
“I didn’t.”
“You supplemented your income with… shall we say, side hustles,” Fox said.
“Correct. After my term of service was over, my side hustle became my day job. And here I am now.”
“What do you do, exactly?”
His lips twitched upwards. He leaned in. His irises dilated.
“I am a cybersecurity engineer.”
Tan laughed.
“And I got a nice house by Babylon Bay to sell you.”
“No thanks, I am quite satisfied with this one.”
Tan shook his head.
“Man, don’t be so literal, why don’t you?”
Alex shrugged, still smiling.
“What do you really do?” Fox pressed.
“I buy and sell information to people who can make use of it. On occasion, I obtain that information myself. I may also be contracted to perform other data-related services on a discretionary basis.”
“You hack into computers, steal their data, and sell it,” Karim translated.
Alex shrugged and said nothing.
“But that’s not all you do,” Fox probed.
“There are many things you can do once you’ve compromised a computer,” Alex said. “I’m sure you’re aware of what a cracker can do. Suffice to say that I have done those things and profited quite handsomely from it.”
“And if you’re weren’t an official government contractor, protected by the PSB and STS, we would have looked hard into what you do,” Tan pointed out.
Alex nodded slowly.
“True. But you are not my only protectors, and the STS is losing its power and prestige.”
“On the other hand, you let us in,” Yamamoto said. “That means you want something from us.”
Alex smirked.
“It’s true, isn’t it?” Fox pressed. “If you wanted to hand us to the New Gods, you wouldn’t have arranged to meet us here. What do you want?”
Alex slowly rocked back and forth, a smile growing across his face.
“I am a businessman. You know what the New Gods are offering me. Make me a counteroffer.”
“The data,” Tan said. “You’ll get first crack at it. You’ll have inside access to the dirty laundry of the Court of the Shadows and the Void Collective. I’m sure a man in your position would be well-placed to make use of this information. It’ll be worth far more than three million dollars.”
“Tempting, but once you publish the information, it loses all value as leverage.”
“What if we gave you advance notice?” Fox asked.
“How much notice? From my perspective, you would want to release the information as soon as you have it to eliminate the threat to yourself.”
“The information won’t immediately lose its value when it’s published,” Tan said. “It needs to be processed, analyzed, verified. Ordinary people don’t have the tools needed to rapidly process vast amounts of data. Large organizations must overcome bureaucratic inertia. They’ll take days, even weeks, to catch up.
“But you, you have text scrapers and bots, don’t you? And you don’t have to deal with paperwork or other such nonsense. Once you have the raw data, you can process it immediately, get ahead of the game, do what you have to do before the house of cards comes tumbling down.”
“I see. Is that all?”
“And one more thing.”
“We don’t tell the New Gods about the jobs you ran against them for us. The Court of Shadows would be very interested to know who uncovered links between them and the Guzman Cartel, the Singularity Network would love to find out who breached their Net last year, the Liberated are still hunting for the ones who hacked into their slush funds—”
“I see your point,” Alex interrupted.
“How about it?” Yamamoto asked.
“These terms are acceptable. I accept your commission.” Alex clapped his hands twice. “Girls, high home security posture.”
The women sprang into action.
The maid opened a closet and reached in. A lock beeped. Out come a black bullpup dual-tube shotgun, fitted with a red dot sight. She slung the weapon over her left shoulder, then donned a bandoleer of shotgun shells over her right. Shotgun in hand, she stood watch next to the door.
Cindy and the other woman tottered over to the bookshelves. Running their hands down the sides, they undid invisible latches, grabbed the tops of the shelves, and pulled. The bookshelves slid open on unseen rails, revealing hidden gun closets.
Long guns rested inside gun racks. Pistols hung from holsters on the doors. The interior shelves held magazines and boxes of spare ammo. Each woman selected an M83 carbine, configured as an ultra-compact weapon and loaded with a 75-round drum, and slung it around her neck. They reached for the top shelves, each pulling out a H-harness laden with pouches. Working swiftly, they clipped on the load bearing gear and inspected each pouch.
They closed the shelves and broke off. Cindy marched to the window. The woman in the catsuit positioned herself by the hallway between the living room and the bedrooms.
“High home security posture, ready,” Cindy said.
“Who… what are they?” Fox asked.
“Gynoids. The latest iteration of Kawano’s Angel line. They were custom ordered using three separate aliases, delivered to three different addresses, before being brought here. And before you ask, yes, I am aware of the backdoor and data tap the Singularity Network installs in all Angel gynoids. I deleted them from their operating systems, triple-checked their programming, and run full diagnostics and scans after every firmware update.”
Fox was right. The bots’ appearance was meant to be arresting and provocative, to distract intruders from their true function until it was too late.
“They aren’t playbots, huh?” Connor said.
“They have many uses.”
As he spoke, Alex uncrossed his legs, re-crossed them left over right, and rocked slowly back and forth, talking not to Connor, but to the floor.
“You’d rather buy bots than hire humans?” Fox asked.
“Humans are… complex. Difficult. Easier to work with bots than humans. And, as I said, the Angels have many purposes. Security is among them. You’d be hard-pressed to find humans who can do what these Angels can.”
For the first time since they arrived, he seemed flustered. He rocked faster, talking to the carpet.
A wave of pity washed over Fox. She’d known more than a few guys like him throughout her life. If he had what she thought he had, he was probably far more comfortable with computers than humans. If you program a bot properly, download and debug appropriate software, you would know exactly what to expect from it. You would know how it would act, it would do exactly what you told it to do, and it would never let you down.
You couldn’t say the same for humans.
Abruptly he went still.
And looked up at Fox.
She met his intense stare with one of her own. No challenge in it, just mirroring what he offered.
He stayed there for a moment, as if demanding her to say something.
She held her peace.
He sighed.
Rocked himself up to his feet.
“I’ve learned everything I need to know. Let’s get started.”

Babylon Blues is the culmination of a five-part cyberpunk horror saga. If you want to read them all in a single collection, plus a bonus story, back the Babylon Blues Remastered Kickstarter here!

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