a cyberpunk short story in progress
3: NIGHT SWEATS
There were beggars outside Our Lady of Pompeii.
The night sweats were coming down hard and every square meter of church yard under the awning was packed with people. Late-comers jostled at the edges, huddled under scraps of poly-sheeting, all shoving to get out of the downpour. The church looked besieged by an army of trash pickers.
Every day, the steam and smog from the Lower City rises and collects on the thousands of kilometers pipes and struts on the underside of the Terrace. After sunset, when the cool ocean winds come, all that moisture condenses and falls; twenty minutes of oily, rusty chemical rain. Every night. The Upper City pissing on our heads.
Long-term homeless get ‘Beggar’s Spots’, a permanent burn mottle on their skin. Some go blind after too many years on the street. Those who can’t afford replacement eyes stay blind. That’s why cover was currency in the under-city.
I got closer, heard angry voices. An argument in front of me turned into a shoving match. One of them pulled a knife, the other a length of pipe. My Chip widebanded NKPD I.D. and the conflict dissolved like wet rice paper. The crowd parted and here at a church, I thought of the Red Sea.
“No more or I call the district watch to clear the area,” I said as I jogged past.
Everyone looked away, even the junkies and low-life thugs who picked on the homeless. A threat like that, everyone would at least wait until I was out of sight. Which was fine because I didn’t want to call Loi again.
Two-hundred and fifty years old, the Rosary Church dedicated to Our Lady of Pompeii was the last Catholic place of worship in New Kowloon. Perhaps the entire Greater Hong Kong Metro area. I didn’t pay attention anymore, plus the faithful were few and far between in this part of the world. But the tiny cathedral was on UNESCO’s historic register, so the vaulted awning over the property kept the worst of the underside’s effluent from damaging the building. Nestled at the foot of the dark urban sprawl towering all around, old Rosary looked like a Gothic lawn ornament in a half-shell.
I was on the stairs when I heard my name. “Detective Pemburu.” A man’s voice.
My hand shifted toward the pistol under my coat. I kept moving.
“Over here,” the voice insisted.
An obese man with milky eyes sat beneath a spindly hibiscus tree. He grinned in my direction. Fat Quan, gutter king of Shìchǎng.
I stopped and slowly showed both my hands. “Mr. Quan. What a surprise.”
“Doubly so. Doubly so,” he said. “Do you have a moment?”
I didn’t but I walked over anyway. Quan was not a man to ignore.
He waved a pudgy hand and several homeless around me relaxed. “How is your mother, Detective? In good spirits?”
I nodded. “Still walks in the park, morning and evening. And you? You look healthy as ever.”
He chuckled sagely. “Losing weight, they tell me. Wasting away to nothing. Must be all the recent stress. It has everyone on edge though, don’t you think?”
“Lower city life – lower city problems,” I replied. “Still, less of a fall than Upstairs.”
He gave a tired joke a hearty laugh that ended abruptly as it began. “Never found that much of a consolation.”
Silence settled between us. He fixed his cataract gaze over my right shoulder. The milky eyes were an affectation; if you believed the street talk, half his cranium was packed with net ware and sensory gear. Fat bastard knew exactly where I was. Probably my credit score and my heart rate too.
Quan finally spoke again, softer this time. “So Detective Pemburu, are you here seeking spiritual solace for your own problems? I thought you were long departed from the fold.”
I shrugged. “I was in the neighborhood when the sweats started. Forgot my umbrella. Plus I heard the sisters in the kitchen were serving fish balls tonight.”
Quan rolled with my deflection. “And how is your cousin?” he countered. “She still in the Gray Market?”
He tutted, double chin bobbing. “Never understood why she stayed in the Lower City. Smart, that girl.” His round face turned up toward the awning over the church, the underside of the Terrace. “She could have worked her way up and out.”
“She could have,” I agreed. I still remembered the family feud that erupted when she rejected her fifth corporate employment offer. It was the last she ever got. “Loi believes tech should be in the hands of those that need it most. Down here.”
“A noble sentiment.” Quan pressed his hands together and shook his head. “I used to think so too. For many years. Now, I’m not so sure.”
“Oh?” I checked the time. Loi wasn’t kidding about me not being late. Fat Quan had better get to a point soon. I still had something I wanted to do.
“Technology does violence to the soul,” he continued. “Someone said that long ago. I’m starting to believe it. What was meant to liberate, to make life easier, has instead separated us. Alienated us from ourselves. From one another.” He pointed up. “Take our fine city as an obvious example.”
Under the scrawny tree, one hand raised, a frown on his big round face, Quan looked the very picture of a fat, sad Buddha.
“You don’t sound like a man who’s lost his faith.”
He smiled. “Don’t I? Well, you would know.”
That did it. “Forgive me, Mr. Quan, but I must excuse myself.”
Another time check: thirteen minutes. I’d need to hurry.
I turned toward the church.
I turned back. “It’s Detective Pemburu.”
He bowed his head. “Apologies. If I can be of any help to the NKPD…”
“I appreciate your offer but there’s no reason to—“
He cut me off. “I count eight reasons.”
The gutter king of Shìchǎng nodded. “Eight.”
I entered the church without another word.
One more reason to see Loi.
And to pray.