First ten chapters/fifty pages of current WIP now available as a PDF.
A Cyberpunk Crime Thriller, Soul Cache is a sliver of technoir set in fictional, future New Kowloon. A desperate homicide detective resorts to dangerous and illegal software to stop a serial killer. Can he catch the murderer before he loses his mind?
No shock I was late to the station the next morning.
I hadn’t slept. Or if I had, it was six hours of nightmares punctuated by unconscious exhaustion. I crawled out of bed sometime before the Big Lights blinked on feeling like I’d been dragged by a truck down a hundred kilometers of bad road. A cold shower, cold tea, and cold noodles got me on my feet. Two Zhan Ma dermal patches kept me there.
I headed to the work. Back in another autocab, I tried to get Lau out of my head by trawling the highlights from the night shift briefing. There was the usual quota of domestics, drug dealers, and drive-bys. Four Local Alerts topped the list.
First was a warning issued for the Hot Chow vendors on Sham Shui Po Street. Seems they’d been shut down by the Health Committee for using tainted loom beef. The vendors denied it but eleven hundred cases of food poisoning said otherwise.
Next, Shìchǎng scum bag luminary Hodoh Nghia, the puppet pimp, had been shot at – again – just after 0300. Someone serious this time, heavy caliber tungsten steel rounds had pierced his armored rickshaw. One had drilled a neat hole through his leg. He was currently lawyered up in a hospital screaming litigation against the LNKPD, claiming we deliberately reduced the police presence around his brothel, thereby endangering him – which was partially true, by the way, because Nghia was a manipulative bottom-feeder who profited from poor people’s desperation and other people’s base appetites. The other half of the reason was the Council wasn’t keen on the possibility of permanent records of visitors to his establishment.
Some gangster once commented the street found its own uses for things. Item three was a prime example: apparently a group of squatters in an empty warehouse in To Kwa Wan were using the power plant from a de-commissioned armored vehicle as a generator. Steady lights, WiFi, heat, simple perimeter security, the place had better amenities than a chunk the standard habitation blocks in the district. Word was another group of homeless had called it in and the investigating officer had the impression the rivals were more jealous that the warehouse bunch were charging for hot showers than concerned they had access to military surplus.
I wondered what Fat Quan knew about this. Another reason to pay the gutter king an official visit.
Last was a warning about potential civil disturbance in the So Uk area hab-stacks, specifically the units owned by Sino-Robotics. One of SR’s local factories had changed over to full automation and was coming online today. This meant increased profits of course, but also a metric shit ton of workers suddenly laid off, the majority of whom had undergone job-specific cyber-modifications.
The modifications had been mandated by Sino-Robotics to meet increased productivity quotas, but workers had been given the option to keep their positions so long as they underwent adaptive replacement surgery for the augments. The upfront costs were underwritten by SR of course, with low interest repayment deducted from the worker’s weekly salaries.
That was three years ago. Today, hundreds of massively indebted workers were about to be furloughed by the company that had required the cyber-augments in the first place. To do the jobs they’d just lost.
Hell, I’d riot too.
I’d nearly made it to my desk before Captain Lee pinged me. “Where are you with the murder case?”
Murder cases – plural. At least he was paying attention now. Gotta take what you can get.
I scrambled for an explanation but this wasn’t a discussion. “My inbox is flooded with formal information requests from reporters,” he continued. “And did you see the news drones loitering outside the station? I counted eight. Eight, detective.”
He counted eight drones…
Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.
I could hear him seething. Jen Cheung’s photos in mind, I took a chance he wanted a reply and chose my words carefully. “Sir, new evidence suggests the killer or killers have specific anti-corporate sentiments. I’m looking into aggrieved parties with criminal histor – – ”
I guessed wrong.
He cut me off. “It’s obvious the killer is anti-corporate, Detective. WayGo is one of the top transport companies in the hemisphere. You must have more for me than that. What did the lab report say?”
“Inconclusive, sir. The crime scene was sanitized, the body wiped down the same as the previous seven.”
Captain Lee hissed like a broken steam pipe. “Detective, a District One citizen has been brutally murdered. I need you to focus, not rummage through old cases. WayGo’s COO called me last night and both the Mayor and the Council scheduled a press conference for this 1600 this afternoon. People are looking for answers. Important people. The Shìchǎng District Police Department will not let them down. We need to make an arrest.”
Press conference that afternoon, the good Captain wanted something – anything – that would help him save face in front of all those Important People. I knew that, and part of me knew I should give him a something, even if it was wrong.
Stroke and stall, that little part of me said. Lie now, buy time, fix it after.
Maybe it was Lau’s ragged scream echoing in my head or maybe I’d just stepped in enough bullshit over the years. My job was to catch killers, not save his reputation.
I cleared my throat. “Sir, what we need is evidence. Absent any witnesses or definitive lab data, all I can do is task the station A.I. with sifting security and traffic video logs. Even then, Shichang is a dark district with terrible coverage outside the shopping areas and the killer has been extremely careful both in selecting victims and crime scene locations.”
“Those sound like excuses,” Lee snapped. “I know you’re getting near retirement, Detective ,but you need to resurrect the young Zeki Pemburu -the man who caught the Stonecutters Island Killer – because right now, you don’t seem to be doing much detecting.”
“Sir, listen – – “
“No, you listen to me, Pemburu. It was because of your service record that I went out of my way to assign you one of the new drones. But there’s a new round of efficiency and budget protocols at the end of the year, and given your age and lack of supplementary augmentations, your redundancy factor in the metric is, frankly, quite high.”
“Captain, my physicals are above standard, my Chip ware is current, and my closure rate is seventy-two percent.”
“I’m talking about dedication,” Captain Lee snapped. “Commitment to the job and the department. You have the minimum augmentation required for police work these days. Now perhaps your old school methodology worked back when you entered the force but today’s officers graduate the academy with an arsenal of cybernetic modifications above and beyond the baseline requirements for policing this century’s urban landscape. You don’t even have a cyber-limb, for god’s sake. I’m doing everything I can to enable you to retain your position, but if this incident isn’t resolved quickly, I’ll be hard pressed to justify not earmarking you for early retirement come the end of the fiscal year.”
I was absorbing that unsubtle threat when two messages popped up in my peripheral: first was high priority from Tech Department demanding I schedule a sync-session with my Turd Copter ASAP. The second was from Jen Cheung: there was another body.
Near Soy Park.
“Captain, I need to go. I have lead.”
“I want a full report before – – ”
It was my turn to cut him off. Old school methodology … Fuck him.
I checked my coat pocket for the Faraday pouch and headed for the door.
Sonia said later I walked back into the autopsy room and stared at the corpse of the brain-popped ganger for a full minute. Utterly still, not a word. She didn’t know who looked worse, me or the dead guy. She asked what was wrong but I left without as much as a glance.
I must have turned my Chip back on at some point because the next thing I remember was the back seat of an autocab. It was stopped at a red light and the bloody glare smeared on the lexan window stung my eyes. My joints ached, my nerves were on fire. It felt like my brain had been split by a hatchet.
The taxi started moving. My phone rang: Jen Cheung. “Am I bothering you?”
Images battered at my mind like moths at a screen. A woman’s face, a loop of club music, laughter. “Yes.”
“Bullshit. I know you’re not asleep. Locater says you just left the Morgue. What were you doing there?”
Lau screamed. My hands kept wiping at phantom blood, sticky and hot. I clenched my fists to stop. “Looking at Lau’s body one more time hoping something would happen.”
I truck horn blared. I flinched, felt my head lift off my neck. Revulsion and relief heaved through my body. “No.”
“Well, I got something for you.”
I tried to focus, bit the inside of my mouth for real pain and tasted blood. Bad idea. “What do you got?”
Jen Cheung was excited. “So I’ve been going over the crime scene photos, yeah? The Butcher. Dismembering and arranging the body parts is a display, I know. Part of a sick ritual. But the first six were patterns. Symmetrical puzzle pieces, but just patterns, right?”
The Voice shouted, furious and insistent, muffled like the other end of someone else’s phone argument. Lau was sobbing. Warmth spread at my crotch. I didn’t look to see if it was real. “You getting to a point? It’s late and I’m dying here.”
“Point is the last two were different,” Cheung said with certainty.
I shook my head to clear it, sat up. “Different how? What do you mean?”
“I mean not symmetrical. Obviously. At first I thought the killer was going abstract. Psychopath art. But something bugged me; the torso sideways just so, an arm bent there, the head under the leg here. It felt specific, you know?”
Damn. I’d missed it, juggling too many other things. I blinked and logged into the NKPD Net to access the Forensics files. The constant updates were annoying and intrusive, and I’d put off that month’s, so my connection lagged. “So what are you thinking? Specifically.”
“That the Butcher isn’t just showing off their kill. It’s something else.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated on Jen’s voice. Other noises fell silent. The pain subsided. My Chip finally chimed a secure connection, but Cheung was already explaining.
“So this afternoon I found a drone shot from victim number eight taken from the garage ceiling. Straight down over the body. That’s when I saw it.”
The taxi rolled to a soft stop in front of my apartment. “Saw what?”
“The WayGo Transport logo. The company Henry Lau worked for. Get this: the Butcher used his body to make the corporate logo.”
My skin goose-fleshed. “Holy shi… Are you sure?”
The cab door lifted. I blinked payment, climbed out and headed for the front of my building.
I heard her smile. “Bet your ass. Sending images now.”
My optic flickered as two photo files arrived: a CSI image and a GIF off the WayGo letterhead. I opened them. The pictures dropped to fifty percent opacity and merged, one over the other, Hanzi lines with severed limbs.
“Alamak,” I breathed. The shapes matched.
I stumbled though the lobby, stopped. “Wait…You said the last two bothered you. What about number seven?”
“That was tougher,” Cheung said. “But it turns out that victim was a per diem at a Sino-Biopharm lab in D-Five. And SB is part of the CP Group.” She paused. “Check this out.”
The blandly named CP Group was a founding member of the Asian-Pacific conglomerates club, with direct influence in seven countries in this hemisphere alone, and a corporate security force to rival all but the top twelve standing militaries. A quick check on the Wiki entry for ‘omnipresent global financial entity and soulless multinational’, CP Group would be Item One.
Two more images in my display. I watched CP Group’s logo blink open and melt into another CSI shot: Theresa Tse laid out on a green floor, arranged just so.
The blood drained from my face.
“I think our killer is anti-globalist somehow. A Seattle 2049 manifestant,” Jen Cheung concluded. “I mean, if these aren’t anti-corporate statements, I don’t know what is.”
I was alone in the elevator. The images hovered in my peripherals. My body was one giant dull ache. My brain had crashed. Cheung’s voice cut through the fog. “Hai, Zeki. You still there?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m buffering.” Jialat. I was drained. It was past time for sleep.
Jen waited a moment, then, “So the killer hates corporations and knew them, right? That what this means?”
The elevator doors slid open. I shook my head. It was frighteningly empty right then. “Knew of them, stalked them maybe. Easy to find personal info online.”
I stopped at my apartment door. “You went over the other victims’ files. They weren’t corp?”
Cheung snorted. “This is new New Kowloon, who isn’t corp to some degree or another?”
I nodded absently. “Hey, I’m home. I’m spent. First thing tomorrow I’ll go over the other vic’s profiles to see if they have any connections. To WayGo, each other… Any common thread.”
“I can do it.” Cheung said.
“You must really want to make detective.”
“I’m going to make detective, Detective. Do you think Tse and Lau were targeted because they were corp? ”
“Looks that way but I can’t be certain. I’ll dig. A per diem pharm-tech is probably clean but maybe Lau was dirty: IP theft, espionage, embezzlement, a mole for a rival, something.”
“Maybe WayGo was in some kind of trouble,” Cheung suggested. Tired as I was, I could hear her wheels turning. “Financial, a takeover… something that.”
Cheung definitely will make detective.
“Get some sleep,” she said. “I’ll let you know what I find in the morning.”
I signed off, opened my door. The hall light went on as I shuffled in and kicked off my shoes. I’d made it to my bedroom when another NKPD message appeared: the IRA software patch was complete. My aerial drone was ready and I was scheduled for synchronization tomorrow, first shift.
“Flying Shit Cakes,” I mumbled.
I went to undress and found the front of my khakis were damp. Dark.
Good point, I thought. They were stacking up against me fast, those points.
“Which, like I also said, is why this…” she hissed as she nudged the pouch, “is restricted by international law. God Almighty, Zek. We barely process our own thoughts correctly, let alone someone else’s. When a corporate wire head first discovered the neural buffer overflow, researchers thought they could read minds. Eighty percent of the first accessors snapped. The other twenty percent were so fucking scrambled, it took weeks for them to recover a stable identity. We’re talking about deep diving into the weird liminal space between meat and machine. You can lose your shit touching another person’s mind like this. Lose yourself.”
“Touch their soul, you mean?” I asked softly.
“I mean invade it on their worst day. Hell, their last day.”
The silver pouch sat between us radiating ugly endings like an exposed nuclear core.
I ignored it, pushed through. “Seven victims, Loi. Seven. Each one sliced , chopped, and arranged like a meat bouquet.”
“And the ever-vigilant NKPD has no leads. Nothing?”
“Would I be asking you for that if there was?”
“So no DNA?” she scoffed. “I find that hard to believe.”
“They’ve lifted a metric shitload of ambient, traces but nothing substantial around the bodies. I told you whoever is doing this is extremely careful.”
“What about video?” She countered. “We live in a surveillance state, for God’s sake. Big Brother and Big Sister are watching. Between the state security net and social media, the whole world’s gone Panopticon.”
“The future is here, it’s still not evenly distributed, Loi. You know that. That’s why you’re still down here. Go two blocks off Shao-Bei Street, public security is spotty at best. This is a dark district. Thirty-plus thousand people per square kilometer, ninety percent day laborers, bottom rung service workers, and their families. Hell, a quarter of them aren’t even Chipped. Extending the public security net for a bunch of immigrants and refugees isn’t high on the Council’s budget. So long as the Shao-Bei shoppers are unmolested, the city only cares if there’s a goddamn riot.”
She looked away at that. I caught myself, suddenly grateful for what she didn’t point out.
She cleared her throat. The awkwardness dissolved. I took a deep breath and continued. “Look… the bodies were all found in dead zones. This is someone who knows this district, knows how and where to hide. A predator. I have to stop them or more people are going to get carved into anatomy displays. To do that, I need to step outside the lines.”
I nodded at the pouch. “Show me how this works. Please.”
Loi clenched her teeth. Stared at the pouch. Then at me. “If you die, don’t come crying to me,” she said finally.
She tipped the silvery sack and slid its contents on the counter; a small, gray box with a stubby antenna and an LED display, and a crimson flash stick. Both had ‘Fishing Gear’ written on them in Chinese.
Loi picked up the box. “WiFi extender. Very short range. Turn it on and you have an ultra-secure wireless network within a 3 meter radius.” The flash stick. “Go-to-prison-for-the-rest-of your-life splice-ware. Slot it in the extender’s USB and let it run. You need the target’s PIP, but Personal Internet Protocols are synced to the individual and heavily encrypted for a reason. This will cut through that for a limited time. PIP encryption changes at random intervals as part of the security, so whatever you’re doing, you need to do fast.”
She set the flash stick down with a snap and scowled at me. “And don’t lose your mind or have a hemorrhagic stroke while you’re at it.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“You’re light years away from your best, messing with this.”
I couldn’t disagree.
I put the box and flash stick back in the pouch, put the pouch in my jacket pocket. “What else? There’s always something else.”
Concern flitted across her face like the shadow of a sparrow in flight. She tamped down on it and turned back to the prosthetic hand. “Neural chips run off bio-electricity. The circuitry starts to fragment and degrade once a person dies. I have no idea what you’re going to find or what condition it’ll be in when you do. If you’re lucky, there will be nothing left and you can apply your idiocy to regular police work.”
“Thanks,” I said.
She sucked her teeth, yanked the cloth off the hand and went back to work. “Just bring that back to me when you’re done, understand?”
She waved one hand again without looking my way. The lights brightened and the door unlocked. “You better, Zek.”
I walked outside. It was nearly two a.m. The smell of street food sat heavy on the cool night air. The shift-change crowds were gone and the traffic noise was subdued. If I looked up and squinted, the warning lights winking on the underside of the Terrace could almost pass for stars.
Late as it was, pouch weighing in my jacket pocket, I felt lighter somehow. Something I hadn’t felt in weeks. Like hope.
My stomach rumbled and I made a beeline for the nearest food stall.
I was halfway there when a NKPD alert bloomed in my mind: another body. Dissected. Arranged.
Night sweats done, the food stalls in Soy Park were opening back up. I made up for lost time crossing the plaza before the late shift crowds returned and I walked into Loi’s shop with thirty seconds to spare and the scent of steamed shumai and fish ball curry clinging to my jacket.
Loi was at her work bench, tinkering on what looked like a very expensive, very custom cyber hand. It was Ferrari sleek and skeletal, matte black with two opposable thumbs. Each finger housed what looked like half a dozen micro tools, including titanium scalpels and at least one cutting laser; a prosthetic for a brain surgeon or a micro-robotics machinist. Not occupations I associated with anyone in this district.
A cousin from my Chinese uncle’s side, Loi was small and round in a plump Han way, with a bowl of purple-dyed hair over fair skin. I had inherited my Malaysian mother’s darker complexion and racing hound leanness, and kept my hair buzzed and black.
“Looks complicated,” I said. “What is that?”
“You’re late and you smell,” she snapped.
“I’m always late and everything smells in this neighborhood. It’s part of the charm.”
“Charm…” she snorted. “Yesterday, a client said the gear she bought smelled like stinky tofu for a week.”
“At least you don’t have to go far for lunch.”
She fiddled with one of the thumb joints. “There is that.”
“So… who’s that for?”
She finished tinkering and covered the hand with a non-static cloth. “None of your business.” A sideways glance. “At least not yet, anyway.”
“Don’t worry Zek. It’s not your department.”
“What department would — never mind.” It was a stupid moment to press her on possible illegal activity.
“Exactly.” Loi made a swift but intricate gesture at the security camera above her counter. The lights dimmed. I heard the front door lock behind me. “I think you’ve finally cracked, asking me for this.”
She reached under the table and pulled out a silver faraday pouch, set it on battered lexan top.
It lay there between us. “This is serious,” I said.
“I know it’s serious. I live here, Zek. Two of the bodies were found by my apartment. But this…” She gestured at the bag. “Is crazy.” She paused, pursed her lips. “It’s suicidal.”
I couldn’t exactly disagree, but pushed on anyway. “Fat Quan says there’s another victim. An eighth one.”
“Eight?” She swore. “You sure?”
“Quan… Fat fucker. Is he sure?”
“Seemed to be.”
“You can’t trust him. Especially after –“
I cut her off. “I don’t. But I might need him.”
She waved her hand again, different gesture this time, then looked meaningfully at me. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I have no idea. But I don’t have one solid piece of evidence. Whoever is killing these people is vicious, specific, and careful. Like ‘sanitary’, careful.”
“You’re not helping. You’re saying the killer is smart, they struck again, and now you want illegal ware that could kill you. Or at least break your mind.”
“So I’ll go to prison after I’m released from the psych ward?”
“Something like that, yes.”
I set my shoulders. “I don’t have a choice.”
“You always have a choice, Zek. It’s consequences that are the problem.”
She stared at me. I stared back.
She nodded at the bag. “I can send this back. No one will ever know.”
I tried to joke away the tension. “To the shadows where it belongs?”
She didn’t smile. “To the nightmares, more like. There’s a reason only spooks and extreme corp-security have access to this, you know. You don’t bring back the dead, Zek.”
I forced more levity into my tone. I barely understood what this was and even that was enough to get me back in church after three decades. Make me pray. “You said, technically, I’m not bringing back the dead. I’m accessing memories.”
“Technically, you’re an asshole. They’re not even memories.”
“But you told me –.”
“I explained it in a way you could understand. The Neural chip connects people to the Net. It’s a modem router, not a processor. Not storage. You can’t play back people’s memories like a video – even when they’re alive. It doesn’t work like that. The Chip is just a connector. It’s a tiny, wafer-thin iPhone.”
“Leave it to Musk to put a phone in our brains.”
“Screwed us all up then fucked off to Mars. Fucking Musk.”
“Fucking Musk,” I agreed. “No good deed… So if they’re not memories what are they?”
“They are memories – sort of. They’re – – ,” She searched for the word. “Impressions. Sensations. Fragments of thoughts and emotion. Images. All nonlinear and unfiltered. It’s like being stuck in someone else’s dream.”
I thought of the crime scene pictures. The victims. “Or their nightmares, like you said.”
“Which, like I said, is why this…” she hissed as she nudged the pouch, “is restricted by international law.”
Good point, I thought. They were stacking up against me fast, those points.
The nave had seemed so much larger when I was young, the vaulted ceiling and high stained glass windows made for giants, not humans. Not me. I was always a trespasser. An ant in God’s room.
Walking down the aisle in the muffled quiet under that high, deep darkness, I felt that old familiar discomfort. I suppressed an urge to genuflect; another muscle memory triggered by flickering candles and the smell of old upholstery, wood wax, and incense. It was an older one, faded. Easier to ignore.
I slid into a pew and sat instead. I had seven minutes to get to Loi’s shop.
It had been more than three decades since I’d been here, and my only visits to other churches had been funerals or the ultra-rare traditional wedding – deaths outpacing matrimony more and more lately.
I wasn’t so much lapsed as self-exiled, and part of me would be fine if it was another thirty years before I came back.
Another part was scared shitless for my mortal soul.
Those weren’t the exact words. My grasp on the notion of ‘soul’ was slippery at best these days. The fear was more a pull at the back of my mind, like a diver low on oxygen tugging on a line to be pulled up out of the deep. Wordless, but pretty damn insistent.
What do you say to God in three minutes after three decades of ignoring Him?
Hey, I know I walked away and told everyone you’re not up there, but I need to stop a psychopath. So how ‘bout a little help here, eh? In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I folded my hands and tried to form better words as a host of unwelcome memories barged in.
My mother had cried when I told her I’d left the Church. Asked why. Said I would damn myself in unbelief.
I’d just graduated top of my class from the police academy. Successful, cocksure, so certain I knew more about the world than an old lady who refused to get a Chip and still fumbled with her smart phone. I confronted her on the Church’s stand on clones. Demanded she explain what a soul meant in an age of neural fiber cybernetics and artificial intelligence.
Technology was threaded through society like a kudzu vine. It invaded and reshaped everything. Police were constantly asking what constituted ‘crime’ now – let alone ‘sin’ or ‘damnation’ – in an era of programmable robot companions and stimsense virtual reality. From replicant celebrity androids to murder-fantasy VR apps, a person could screw or slaughter anyone as many times as they wanted. Feel every thrust, every warm splash, all in the privacy of their own home, their own mind. No real world consequences.
God obviously didn’t care, I said; He didn’t stop real murders, let alone fake ones.
I told her religion was an appendix; a vestigial organ from when humans tried to swallow the indigestible. We were defined by science now. Nourished by a universe of data and technology. Life fed itself from the slime of that trinity. Nothing more, nothing less.
“There’s no meaning beyond the meat, ibu. The meat spoils, the spark dies. That’s it. I’m not wasting any more time on bad, outdated answers to wrong questions.”
I remembered her silence. A long one, tears on her cheeks, staring out the kitchen window. Finally she dried her eyes and turned to me. “There’s more than one way to measure the universe, Zeki. Some day you’ll see there are mysteries beyond all your data.”
After a few years on the force, the notion of a ‘spark of the ineffable’ in each of us only became absurd. The shit people did to each other in the real world made religion seem like just one more hoax for the desperate, the delusional, and the downright stupid.
It had taken thirty years but there I was kneeling in front of Mary and Her Son, teetering on the edge of that mystery cliff between faith and science. Right then felt a hell of a lot like an I-told-you-so moment.
I looked up at the altar. “Sorry.”
I closed my eyes. Bowed my head.
“God, this is tough. Here I am and if you’re there, then you already know what’s going on. Know what I’m about to do.” I swallowed. “So… so help me. Help these people. Please. Amen.”
Weak as shit – but it was all I had.
I thought about crossing myself when I was done, but decided that would stretch it too far. It wasn’t much of a prayer but I’d meant it as much as I could; token piety wasn’t going to bump my request to the top of God’s To Do list.
I stood, brushed my knees as a call came in. Loi.
“Where are you? You’ve got two minutes. I should see you in the Soy Park by now.”
“On my way.”
“What the hell, Zek?”
“I ran into Quan. Had to stop and kiss the ring.”
“Kiss his ass, you mean. What’d that old bastard want?”
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—“
I tripped over my own feet coming to the gate; my body stopped to let the surveillance mast read my chip the same instant my mind remembered I didn’t need to do that anymore. Everything was faster these days. Smoothed into the NKPD Net. I’d probably been scanned and approved a hundred meters back. The pause was an old habit – the muscle memory from other summer nights a decade gone.
This stretch of wall had gone up in ’46 at the height of the water riots. It was a hot summer, a bad summer. Protestors had taken over the entire Shìchǎng district. The mayor’s council was worried the demonstrations would spread through the rest of the lower city, so the wall was constructed: a hundred-plus kilometers of interlocking ferro-crete slabs, five meters tall, topped with cameras and sonic turrets and loops of writhing live wire. Every secondary street was closed off and the main avenues sprouted checkpoints and steel gates overnight. The district went from street markets to triple max prison overnight. On top of that, half a dozen concealed access points were installed so undercover teams could outflank the barricades and conduct what officials called ‘containment operations’ to secure public safety and prevent civilian casualties.
Not that the protestors had killed anyone. Sure, there were the usual torched cars and smashed shop windows, but mostly it was regular line up of popular demagogues, opportunist celebrities, day-swarms of idealistic cause groupies all hitching a ride to the moral high-ground on the backs of thousands of sick, thirsty, low-tier workers and their families who couldn’t afford another rate hike for clean water.
This particular access opened into an alley at the south end of Shao-Bei Street. My squad had used it every night for three months to slip in and do things I’d rather forget. Back then, the neighborhood was all cheap noodles, puppet brothels, and pachinko parlors. Now it’s shops and micro-apartments, tea houses and boutique knock-offs. LNK’s version of gentrification.
I pulled the hinged slab shut behind me, felt a shudder as the bolts thunked back in place. The turrets and wire were long since removed but the alley looked the same. Less trash maybe. I wiped slime and grime off my fingers, shook off a clutch of ghosts, and was back in Shìchǎng.
The night was young so the passage was empty, which was good because I was running late and this put me five blocks closer to where I needed to be. Plus it let me bypass a serious bar fight, an in-progress robbery, and a full blown raid. The bar fight was just another drunken brawl, police drones were already on scene at the ramen stand, and the raid… the raid was an omnishambles presided over by Captain Lee himself.
None of them were my concern – there were no bodies – but the system would log me going through the perimeter, so I would need an explanation.
The bouncers would get the fight under control before it turned serious. It was highly unlikely someone would get killed in the ramen stand hold up. Fēng Niú, the local Red Pole, took a dim view of anyone messing with the revenue stream in his territory. Everyone in Sector Nine knew it and any junkie stupid enough to slot a shop owner would be dead before I ever chased them down. All I’d get was a courtesy email telling me where to find the body. So no real pressure there either.
The raid was a thing to avoid for a lot of reasons, most of all because it was nothing but dick swagger. Our fearless leader had requisitioned two tac-teams in a Norinco 6-wheeler to pay a visit to a new, gray market cyber-ware clinic. Lee’s official reason was the place might be a front for HK separatists. In reality, our district captain was killing two birds with one sledgehammer, intimidating a new business with a welcome wagon while reminding everyone on the street he was still a big kid in the neighborhood.
Hunu, one of my CIs, said the clinic was mostly legit, specializing in geisha-mods and copycat Faberge cyber limbs. That it was backed by the Macau Triad, no less. Then again, she insisted one of her regular johns was an alien from the Andromeda galaxy, so on the off chance she wasn’t full of shit and ‘Phoria, Captain Lee might lose serious face – and maybe a finger depending on who he pissed off. If not, he’d be a few thousand e-Yuan richer when the doctor paid the ‘licensing’ fee to operate in this part of Lower New Kowloon.
Maybe I’m thick, but it seemed to me twelve heavily armed ninja trolls backed by a Pacification droid was a bit over the top for a chop shop micro-surgeon and a pair of cloned nurses fresh out of Chiba City. A polite ‘meet and greet’ at the station would have sufficed. But what do I know? I’m just a homicide detective with just enough sense not to stick my hand in the middle of that mess. Either way, smart money said the clinic would reopen this time tomorrow.
The captain would grill me at roll call in the morning, but I had reasons – seven, bloody, dismembered ones – that would save me the worst of his scorn. Even he realized he needed to get ahead of this mess before the stink reached higher up the chain of command. Or worse, the newsfeeds got wind of it. Between the noxious election rhetoric, the latest SARS outbreak, and rumors of another hike in electric rates, tensions in the poorer districts of Lower New Kowloon were high enough. No need to add ‘serial killer panic’ to the mix.
I needed to get ahead of it too. Not to preserve my reputation – too late for that – but because it was my job and so far I had seven bodies, not a single, solid lead, and only a really bad idea on how to get one.
There was a chill on my neck. The wind off the South China Sea had finally reached under the Terrace. I cursed for forgetting my umbrella, turned up my collar and started down the alley.
Got a newsletter recently from one of the Indie Writer groups I lurk around, asking if/how the Covid-19 lock down affected my writing. Have to say ‘Quite a bit” if I’m being honest.
It’s not just the Covid-19 though. That was tough. Weird. But do-able.
Nope. In short order, global pandemic was at the bottom of a pig pile of deaths, crises in leadership, international strife, economic uncertainly, racism, political and social animosity, demonstrations, looting*… and then I got sick and spent a month in an out of the hospital.
It felt like I was breathing smog. Gasping, every time I sat down at the computer. It was hard to think straight, let alone relax and get creative. “Flow Space, anyone?“
I pushed on. No props to me, really. It was some combination of prayer, grace, and mule-headed desperation. Had to keep busy with something and I didn’t have the energy for anything new, so I stuck with the familiar.
Felt like I was clawing at granite with my fingernails but things got done.
While we’re getting post-apocalyptic, I should mention my writing for the table top wargame hobby is still going strong. Zona Alfa has been available since late January, courtesy of Osprey Publishing. (Thanks, guys) The S7 Facebook Group is approaching 800 members and is filled with some very cool, creative, and inspiring war game comrades. I’m quite grateful.
It’s not limited to a Soviet-style apocalypse either. Gamers from all sorts of interesting places also seem to enjoy my solo/cooperative cyberpunk skirmish game, Hardwired, and the expansion, Tsim Sha Tsui Expansion.
I was encouraged enough by the support to build on the same game mechanics to hammer out a set of Fantasy-genre, monster hunting rules. Titled, Nightwatch: Terror and Treasure in the Dark Corners of the World, it’s nearing completion and should (God willing) be out in August, 2020.
It’s been a slog, I have to admit. I feel like I’ve been tunneling out of a POW Camp with a soup spoon; cramped, sweating, panting in the dark, measuring progress inches at a time. Not quite the artist’s life I imagined, buoyed by a supportive community of like-minded creatives and a brisk, tail wind of the Spirit.
Still, stuff got done. There’s more stuff to do. Forward motion – even in inches – is still progress. We’re all going though it, getting through it. That’s the season we’re in. It’ll turn. Until then, we persevere and keep doing the next right thing.
Dissonance is produced by any landscape that enchants in the present but has been a site of violence in the past. But to read such a place only for its dark histories is to disallow its possibilities for future life, to deny reparation or hope – and this is another kind of oppression. If there is a way of seeing such landscapes, it might be thought of as ‘occulting’: the nautical term for a light that flashes on and off, and in which the periods of illumination are longer than the periods of darkness.
That’s all for now. I hope and pray you are all safe and well.
Until next time, take care.
*what happened to the Murder Hornets? Are they still around?
I received an advance copy of ZONA ALFA from Osprey Publishing yesterday. I understood in my head it was happening but taking the actual copy out of the envelope was pretty epic. An Osprey Wargames ‘Blue Book’, ZA is done in their standard format 64 pages with original art and color photographs. Sam Lamont did an outstanding job capturing that STALKER, decayed Soviet post-apoc feel, and Lead Adventure was gracious enough to supply some great shots of their eminently suitable miniatures. Chris C and the team at Osprey wrangled with my scribbles and lists, transmogrifying them into a presentable set of war game rules. Alchemy with words.
My fiction projects have been on the back burner for the last year or so as I’ve been involved in a series of large commissions and restoration projects in my full time work, as well as bringing Hardwired, and the Tsim Sha Tsui Expansion to market, plus getting Zona Alfa ready for release.
Writing for the war game industry has been a different sort of challenge, both oddly familiar and strangely difficult, making sure I translate what I’m assured of in my head into concise, understandable language. (Communication. Always useful) Not unlike writing a story but a bit more technical.
Speaking of fiction though, the first quarter of the new year is traditionally slow, so I plan on using Jan and Feb 2020 to bring the first portion of the Shattered Worlds storyline to completion. God willing, part 1, Beneath the Broken Moon, will be ready for release early next year. More on that as the story develops.
Work calls so that’s it for now. Art hard and have an excellent day.