WIP 3: CYBERPUNK DETECTIVE

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?”

“Yes.”

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.

“Zeki.”

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.”

Eight reasons?

The gutter king of Shìchǎng nodded. “Eight.”

I entered the church without another word. 

Eight.

One more reason to see Loi.

And to pray.

WIP 2: CYBERPUNK DETECTIVE

short story in progress

2: FOOD CHAIN

Shìchǎng is the largest market district in the center of Lower New Kowloon and Shao-Bei is its main drag, which means even this time of night, the street runs like the Mekong in monsoon season.

I stepped out of the alley into a torrent of people and traffic, all surging through a neon-bright canyon cliffed in steel and smartglass. Celebrities smiled down at the masses, endorsing hot ware that could sync and sex up anyone to be just like them. Holograms swam in a smog of bio-diesel and steam, spiced with curry and hot peanut oil, all buoyed on a hurricane of sound.

The Bank of Shanghai’s Neu-Deutsch Techno jingle announced a branch opening in district three. Ten-story tall Thai androgynes in Gosha Streetwear catwalked to West African Griot Folk Rap. A vendor stall next to me was blaring specials on cloned carp and sex dolls, while across the street, a bar’s window screen simulcast a cage fight in first-person view.

Bus stops flashed political ads and air quality notices. End-of-the-week sales floated past my face, everything from loom-grown beef to 3D bio-printed replacement organs. Shao-Bei Street was a valley of lurid consumer hallucinations.

Not only were the shops and stalls doing brisk business, the street species were in full bloom. Market center or no, a dark district is a poor district so the bottom-feeders had swarmed to nibble at the edges. I spotted beggars and buskers by the dozen, the thick shapes of grafted bodyguards herding intoxed corporate suits past burnt out wire-heads pleading for per diem memory courier gigs.

On the corners, missionaries from every faith competed with hookers of every flavor, all hoping to evangelize the wallets of the unwary one way or another. I spied a dozen grifters shadowing their marks.

Politicians who try to sound smart claim each district has a distinct eco-system, a unique civic biome subject to an arcane blend of location, economy, and residents only they can divine. I don’t know about that, but the sprawl certainly has a food chain. Step onto the street, you’re fair game.

It looked like everyone in the lower city decided to do their shopping here, tonight. Crowds like this, the only way to get where I needed to be was to find the right current and be carried along.

I felt the wind again just as the P.A. chimed the night sweat warning. It was misting already. A thousand holo-ads fuzzed as the oily drops started to fall.  I cut across the avenue under a sea of blooming, clear umbrellas, all seething with reflections – a riptide of electrified jellyfish – and joined a swarm of Japanese tourists.

They were headed my way, south, toward the electronics and ware boutiques in the Gray Market. I got a couple of sidelong glances but my virtual NKPD tags insured they didn’t linger.  No one wants the trouble that comes with police. 

I made it six blocks under borrowed cover with uncomfortable but polite Japanese salary men before I finally ducked down a side road. They bowed and waved goodbye. Relieved.

I tried to be, but my second thoughts bred geometrically with every step. I was going to see an illegal software dealer and even she thought my idea was bad. 

Two blocks off Shao-Bei, my low-light implants kicked in. This was the “other”Shìchǎng, the Naya Dalit slums where the Scrape, Scrap, and Shit gangs lived. Stuck here, two blocks from stuff they couldn’t afford, were the immigrants and refugees who worked underside repair, recycling, and sewage. Or any other filthy, dangerous, non-contract job they could find. No pretty lights and corporate jingles adorning these neighborhoods. Just teetering stacks of foam-crete apartments, salvaged fiberboard shacks, and cheap LEDs.  

The new untouchables are shackled by technology, not ethnicity. Or rather lack of technology. Some can’t even afford a neural chip. The rest simply can’t pay the monthly subscription fees. A domestic or dock worker with a basic Musk package can live in an edge district where they get a few hours of sunlight one way or another. Here in the middle of the Lower City, they’re in the dark and disconnected. 

“Casualties of the neural interface revolution,” one journalist once called them. Poor bastards stuck on the wrong side of the technology gap. It’s the latest version of an old story: without money they can’t get tech. Without tech, they can’t get money. No info-net, no social credit, no bank history, no identity – nothing to help them claw their way up and out of here.

Sunlight doesn’t reach this deep under the Terrace and with the girded underside of the Upper City squatting over their heads, Shìchǎng might as well be the fucking Mariana Trench.

No wonder these people riot every few years.

Or snap and start murdering their neighbors.

Lights from the Gray Market played on the buildings ahead of me but I turned onto Chatham Road South. I needed to make a stop.  

I ‘faced and called Loi Cao. She picked up instantly. Tense. “Zek. You coming or what?” she asked.   

“I’m three blocks away but I have to make a quick detour. Thirty minutes.”

A soft curse. I could hear her scowl. “Not a fan this ware.”

“Twenty minutes, then.”

Silence.

“Please?”

“Okay, Zek. Not a second later.”

“I’ll be there.”

“I’m serious. Not one second later,” she said, and hung up.

WIP 1 : CYBERPUNK DETECTIVE

new short story in progress

1: REASONS

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.

Writing these days

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.

At the top of the fiction list, the first portion of my post-apocalyptic fantasy saga was polished and kicked out the door. Finally. Beneath the Broken Moon. Shattered Worlds, Book One is currently available as an ebook at Amazon.

Rachelle Stewart Ramirez of the Story Grid and Leonora Bulbeck over at Reedsy were both invaluable. A debt of eternal gratitude to them both. I can only hope I did justice to their hard work and excellent advice.

Next, my second STALKER/METRO 2033 flavored short story, Strange Treasure is now available as an audio book as well as a Kindle read. For anyone other than me keeping count, that makes six audio books: Strange Treasure, Prayer to St. Strelok, Hard Kill, Sozo, The Stones Remember, and The Barrow Lover. A little light listening for your daily commute. You’re welcome.

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.

Erm… nope.

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.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a book you really should read: Robert MacFarlane’s Underland.

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?

Now Available: Tsim Sha Tsui Expansion

The TSIM SHA TSUI EXPANSION. A supplement for the co-op/solo table top war game HARDWIRED. New weapons, new gear, new missions, new threats.

Available in PDF format at WARGAMEVAULT.COM or for Kindle at AMAZON .

Hardcopy version is on the way.

Here are some pictures from our games.

If you’re looking for ready-made figs to run a few test missions, you could always pick up this excellent set of cyberpunk flats from ArcKnight.

HARDWIRED and the TSIM SHA TSUI EXPANSION – It’s definitely time to put on your mirrorshades and get to work.

Thanks. Have a good day.

Next up: Clar1ty Wars 3

‘Strange Treasure: Another Tale from the Exclusion Zone’ is done, now it’s time to circle back to the Clar1ty Wars.

It seems Cyberpunk is making a comeback, what with CD Projekt Red’s upcoming game causing a huge nerd buzz in the PC and console gaming worlds. On the table top, the venerable RPGs, Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are getting new editions. And then there’s my fast play, miniature wargame rules HARDWIRED and Osprey’s upcoming mega game, Reality’s Edge

Gameplay video: https://youtu.be/RfmB1eoyzwY

Coincidentally, it wasn’t until very recently I started to receive a lot of feedback and questions about the books. Juggling a full-time business and all-time Real Life means fiction writing gets dropped from the To Do List . Obligations, everyday emergencies, and plain old end-of-the-day exhaustion pile up so fast – which is why I’m only now getting back to the next installment. My apologies and gratitude to those who wondered if it fell off the edge of the map – I’ll do my utmost to make it worth the wait.

I’ve resurrected the old notes, files, and assorted scraps of inspiration, and begun hammering the next set of stories. Things are getting ugly in Kepler22, and Seeb, Detectives Lynch, and Junior-Inspector Sarin are about to get stuck in the crossfire.

In case you’re interested, here are links to books one and two:

One Bad Apple and Under Strange Stars

That’s all for now. Thanks for all your support and have an excellent day.

Now Available: HARDWIRED

cover

HARDWIRED – a table top war game set during the Corporate Wars of 2069 in the mega-city of New Kowloon. Miniatures agnostic. 1 – 6 Players, Co-op or Solo Mode. Made for 15mm – 28mm miniatures. Grab your friends, create a team of elite Agents, and select a mission. It’s time to put all those cool, random sci fi miniatures to work.

***

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a long-time table top war gamer. (4 + decades) HARDWIRED is a set of simple, war game rules that allows players to reenact the desperate missions and frantic firefights from their favorite cyberpunk books, games, graphic novels, and movies. Select a mission, create your team of Agents, and gear up for a run-n-gun.

Also available in print:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1071441671

Thanks and enjoy.

Settling into the reins

calvin-writing

Happy 2019.  Hope you’re recovered from the holidays and settled into the reins of a new year.

On the fiction front, Beneath the Broken Moon is currently under the editor’s knife at Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid. My previous experience with an Editorial Service was, to put it politely, disappointing. (I don’t appreciate being viewed as an ATM, strung along with vague promises of actual helpful suggestions for my MS if only I purchased the next tier of services… )

Now I don’t know a thing about Rachelle Stewart Ramirez , but Shawn Coyne’s, Story Grid is on my very shortlist of genuinely helpful books about writing, so he’s got street cred with me. That, and the fact he’s Steven Pressfield’s editor and business partner. If you’ve never read The War of Art or Gates of Fire, you need to remedy that. Right now.

According to the website, the manuscript evaluation includes:

  1. The 6 Core Question Analysis. Your Story Grid Certified Editor will read your manuscript and apply the Story Grid 6 Core Question Analysis to your work. This is a deep dive into your manuscript, analyzing what works and what doesn’t work.
  2. A One-Hour Phone Consultation. You will talk one-on-one with your editor, discussing your own questions and the editor’s analysis of your story. You’ll leave the call with a clearer global, big-picture view of your manuscript and its genre.
  3. A Story Grid Spreadsheet of Your First Five Scenes. Your Story Grid Certified Editor will provide a full Story Grid work-up of the first five scenes of your manuscript. This will give you a black-and-white, close-up view of which scenes are working and which aren’t—and why.
  4. Next Steps Recommendation Letter. Every writer is at a different place in his or her journey. Your Story Grid Certified Editor will provide suggested next steps you can take to level-up as a writer. This will include specific Story Grid homework to help improve your skills and your manuscript.
  5. Masterworks of the Genre Recommendations and Additional Resources. Throughout the Story Grid Diagnostic process, your editor will help you identify and refine your genre choice. Once that’s done, your editor will provide a list of Masterworks to study along with the Story Grid Genre Cheat Sheet for your genre.

All delivered within 30 days.

Nothing so far. Then again, it’s only been two weeks and I remain cautiously optimistic. After all, I need a good editor. I want a good editor. Learning what works and what doesn’t is critical to learning how to write better. More on that as the story develops.

In other writing news, ZONA ALFA is complete. For those who aren’t familiar, I’m a long-time table top war gamer and ZA is a set of rules for miniature wargaming in a Russian-flavored post apocalyptic setting. (Think STALKER and METRO 2033)

Turns out the fine folks at Osprey Publishing in the UK had seen my painted toy soldiers and battle reports at my S7 blog, and were crazy enough to ask me to develop the rules for them. There’s still a lot of Polish and Tweak to do, but this has been a wargaming nerd’s dream come true. My heartfelt thanks to them for the opportunity.

scene2
ZA interior art and possible cover. Cool, eh?

In line with that, I’m currently hammering out another short Tale from the Exclusion Zone featuring veteran Zone Guide, Yuri Bonyev. (Vodka, AK74s and mutants… what can go wrong?)

And when that’s done, I’ll start in on the next installment of The Clar1ty Wars.  Been a long time coming but I assure you the shadow war between the Orbital Corporations and the Planetary Government is about to spill into the streets. The current working title for book 3 is Gun Monkey Rumble. Autonomous drones, genetically engineered agents, cyber-enhanced soldiers, criminal gangs, religious terrorists…  Our hero, black market pharma fence, Seeb Gilani, is going to have her hands full of flaming vials of nitro glycerin.

That’s all for now. My other job (stained glass work) calls. Have an excellent day. Live well. Art hard.

– patrick t.

 

 

Altered Carbon, Common Humanity

alteredcarbon-final

Binged ‘Altered Carbon’ this weekend, Netflix’ latest and reportedly most expensive series to date. ($6-7 million per episode? whoa) A 10-part cyberpunk/noir piece based on Richard K. Morgan’s book of the same name, it’s a bloody, sensual, cynical look at the future. Designer clone bodies, digitized consciousness, virtual imprisonment and torture, galaxy-spanning Spec Ops/Secret Police, obscene wealth disparity, functional immortality… the future’s so dark, you gotta wear NODs.

A solid Sci Fi show with a gritty story and great effects, but if ‘Altered Carbon’ says anything about the future, it’s that science is really secondary; humanity’s progress is not and never will be linked to technology. The bottom line is we never advance beyond our morality. Period.

In fact push it as far as you want, technology remains just another function of old-fashioned human cruelty, conceit, greed, lust, and rage. Dub, sample, and remix – it’s still the same old song all over again. Hide behind chrome and smart glass and mirror-shades, dress it up in gene-spliced, supermodel customized sexiness with neurachem lethality, package it in alien alloys and complex algorithms, our depravity still shows.

When the end credits rolled on episode 10, I was brought full circle back to 2009 and the fundamental conviction I had when I decided to try and write a SF novel as a Christian: only a spiritual ethic that upholds life as sacred can restrain humanity from becoming inhumane. Lose the preciousness of life and you open the door to contempt and cruelty; commodify people and you end up committing atrocities.

That’s not to say I want my fiction to be sermonizing. No, I aim for entertainment, escapism, and action. Most of my stories have loads of firepower and a high body count. But I want to build the work on a solid foundation. I want substance, themes, meaning in there as well.

Despite the cool visuals, wicked action scenes, and great acting, I was disappointed when Altered Carbon was over. Not that it had ended but at the sordid sameness of it all. It was almost a relief. What was meant to be action-packed cyberpunk coolness and world-weary wisdom was just so uninspired, so sad.

There was a smack upside the head afterwards too: a call to confront the question of faith in spec-fiction once again. To respect the conventions of genre, the demands of the medium, and the expectations of the audience  and aim for quality, and yet somehow portray spiritual realities organically in the plot, characters and fictional world.

Guess I’d better start praying about that again, eh?

Thanks and have a great day.

c9de0-cyberpunk_city

***

BTW, that first novel, RUNNING BLACK, and the sequel SHIFT TENSE are available at Amazon. HERE and HERE

Option2    SHIFT_TENSE_final_rgb_flatten_6x9inches_with_bleeds

Illustrated Excerpts – “Dainty Monsters”

UNDER_STRANGE_STARS_final_rgb_flatten_6x9inchesA chapter from Under Strange Stars, the second collection of Clar1ty Wars stories. Illustrations by Tim Teague 

1 – DAINTY MONSTERS

Jien stabbed at his maki roll. “It’s for your own good, babe.”

Seeb frowned for the tenth time that minute. A bad situation was turning several shades shittier and showed no sign of stopping. Her head understood going to ground meant changes, hassles, aggravation… Orbital creeps were shooting up city streets to kill her. A cheap two-room flat in A-Town, drab blend-in clothes, and a severe cut and bleach for her dark hair were a small price to pay for a hide-away package. But no Charm? No contact with Vasyl?

“Total blackout? No log-in at all?”

“Zero Grid,” Jien nodded. “Uncle Zhou said he wants you safe.”

Seeb snorted, started dissecting a wedge of nigiri on her plate. As far as she remembered, the Sun Yee On Dragon Head hadn’t said anything at all. Ten feet and four bodyguards away from the old man, she’d watched Jien blurt out rapid fire Mandarin, point at her, and bow. A lot. Finally, Uncle Zhou had glanced over and nodded. And it was done; she was under Triad protection.

Seeb batted her eyes and leaned over the table, letting her shirt hang open. “Not even the public terminals in the Mahjong parlor?”

Jien laughed. “Nice try. No. Dainty monsters on your trail, you’re Luddite ’til the storm passes. You don’t have to worry about a thing while you’re here, but no one, and I mean no one, can know where you are.”

“Frak.” She flicked rice off a sliver of salmon with one chopstick. “Guess my ‘damsel in distress’ needs calibration.”

Jien spread his silver, six-digit hands and grinned. “Or a boob job… but hey, it got you this far.”

Seeb huffed, gave the Hong Ying Rice Shop another once-over. In the middle of Drop City’s sprawling Asian district, the tiny basement restaurant was one of a hundred tucked in the concrete and holo-ad maze that was Shenzhen Street. Like hiding a wave in the ocean, the place was invisible. As was her fourth-floor walk up right across the street.

“Big Time here I come.” She waved at the chef behind the glass counter. “At least the sushi’s good.”

“Soba’s better.” Jien pushed his plate away and pretended to remember something. “Oh yeah… And you can’t go past Russo or Second.”

Seeb spocked one eyebrow. “You’re not serious.”

“As a heart attack, babe.”

She snapped her chopstick in half. “A three block leash… What am I, some Tween grounded for blowing my boyfriend?”

“Simmer down. It’s called security, Seeb. Remember running in the alley? Me with the almost hole in my chest? The Four Horsemen have major fa shu – major. And they’re voodooing after you. You need to stay off – their – frakking – radar.” Jien grinned and made a show of peering down her shirt. “Say, you weren’t serious about the bl—”

Wángbā dàn, Jien.” Seeb shoved away from the table and stomped off.

“C’mon, I was kidding.”

“Asshat.”

Eyes front, Seeb raised one hand, flipped Jien off, then straight-armed the door with the other.

His tone changed. “Three blocks, Seeb. No joke. The sky is falling, and this shit will get worse before it — ”

She threw up another finger before the door jingled shut.

DM1   Outside, the narrow street was a riot of color, smell and sound. A dozen of the latest sultry faces pouted down at her, giant-sized on SmartGlass frontages, each panting deep, dark brand-name fantasies. Duly captivated, the flood of laowai shoppers flowed around her, in from the Green Zones for the day, chattering, laughing, laden as pack mules with designer-label bags. Directly overhead, a hologram green dragon blazoned with the Xiaomi logo flashed dagger-teeth smiles and discount wireless codes before huffing Disney flame across the rooftops. Delighted children screamed at every gout. And everywhere the saccharine thump of auto-tuned K-Pop and chili oil heat of street food.

   Security my ass, Seeb fumed. More like gangland house arrest.

***

The apartment was small but clean. Two rooms with a scattering of sturdy faux-bamboo plasti-molded furniture. The front featured an ancient X-Box 20 console synced to a Toshiba flatscreen, and a kitchenette with a three quarter fridge, microwave unit. Cigarette burn hatch marks covered the grey corian counter, the cuneiform of twitchy confinement. No translation required. One window framed a stunning view of bricks, the other a scabby metal fire escape that went down into an alley and up to the roof- two options on the fast exit menu. Both windows had brand new roll down steel shutters.

A poly-foam futon and a shower/toilet stall filled the tiny back bedroom. A coffin of a closet held several sets of new but drab clothes, and extra linen. Celery green walls did little to fend off the minimum-security prison vibe.

There was one bright spot. The previous occupant had left gifts of a more pragmatic kind; a weighted carbon fiber tonfa and a karambit, the hooked knife favored by Indonesian street punks. In the right hands, one stroke could gut an opponent chest to balls. Seeb hefted it, the balance was odd, stroked her thumb gently along the crescent, razored edge. The image of Ferret’s head, lolling, his jacket, shoes drenched and sticky…

DM2

She bit down on the memory and dropped the karambit in her purse. The baton was too big to conceal, unless she counted shoving it up Jien’s ass, and she figured she was as likely to slice herself on the strange curved blade, but it was better than nothing. Although, if it came down to yanking it, the situation was pretty well frakked.

Seeb spotted her shadow that evening.

Jien had left a message in the restaurant, pleading urgent business and the promise to check in every day. Apparently, a xiǎodì – ‘little brother’- was to keep her company whenever she left the apartment. Subtlety an alien concept for most Triad rank and file, he threw the sneaky Asian/ninja myth off the roof faster than a police informant. He became a mute, tattooed, trench coat, mirror-shade Kua Fu forever six steps behind her. Seeb decided he made her previous bodyguard, Stepan, damn near a Mensa candidate.

The kid’s only claim to individuality was a red fauxhawk dyed the color of kimchee. She dubbed him Cabbage Head, and ignored him.

The only other person she saw with regularity was the little buck-toothed woman who sold fried bat and frosty bottles of Tsing-Tao beer from an ancient stainless steel pushcart.

The woman had several regular spots on the street, and she wheeled the heavy cart around its course single-handed, the batter-dipped, deep fried mammals swaying upside down around the rim of the sloped roof like sleeping tempura versions. Her sign had a grinning child with a bat-stick in each fist, inviting everyone to ‘Enjoy the crunch, crunch!’

Seeb figured if she ever had a kid – and she let him eat batsicles – she’d probably let him wash it down with a cold one.

Seeb made another discovery that night: she didn’t have to pay for a thing.

Jien had given her a list of stores for food, clothes, sundries, laundry, and such. If her fugitive status was secret, the shopkeepers sure as hell knew all about it. Her attempts to pay with from the stack of New Yuan Jien had left, were waved off with too-large smiles and lots of bows. Waitresses, owners, clerks were deferent to the point of obsequiousness. Maybe they were paying off debts, or billing the Triad later. Perhaps they took her for the Luckycat’s latest làmèi. Seeb couldn’t tell. Back at a corner table in the Hong Ying Rice Shop, she decided it wasn’t her problem, and ordered more crab and sake.

The fawning didn’t extend to electronics or Grid time. After tea and dessert, she sauntered into E-Ming’s Mini-Mart and tossed a prepaid Huawei charm, a garish thing with pink sparkles, on the counter with a pile of single-serve toiletries. The clerk plucked it out with a single apologetic shake of the head. She waved a wad of neon bills. Still no.

Seeb blushed up a bit of guilt, and gave him a shy ‘hey, had to try, didn’t I?’ shrug, then marched next door to a high end boutique and picked out an annual salary’s worth of knock-off Vestique outfits, including a reversible nano-pore leather jacket.

The bobbing salesgirl bundled everything in black tissue paper, then into a shiny white smart-bag with gold hanzi scrolling across the sides: ‘the beauty of freedom- the freedom of beauty.’ Fortune-cookie Confucius strikes again.

Cabbage Head held the door then fell in step behind her, Seeb humming along with the K-Pop all the way back to the apartment. A real Chinese proverb came to mind as she climbed the stairs. ‘A mountain cannot turn, but a road can.’

Seeb held that thought. In the apartment, she tipped the bag, black paper cocoons slithering onto the futon. She opened the reversible jacket first. Curry yellow under iridescent black-green.

“You bet it can,” she said to herself.

dm3

***

She followed Jien the next day.

They met for tea and fresh rolls, a Hong Ying lunch special, Jien alternately nattering on about cream he’d skimmed off a tech transfer to the moon colonies, and taking urgent messages on his Charm. His blue privacy haze fuzzed so many times, Seeb joked there was a cop car in the tiny restaurant.

Jien looked up and flashed his ‘I’m full of shit’ grin. “It’s nothing, babe. Forged Customs’ tags acting up… You know how it is – no matter how smooth you hack, some two-fifty fraks it up.”

Seeb made appropriate noises, half a fresh roll in her mouth. Made the effort to look interested and jealous, which she figured he expected. He had deflected all her questions about her stolen Charm and whoever was data-mining her Cloud. “It’s being taken care of,’ was all she got.

She accepted his bullshit with a smile, and played along. Jien was definitely strung tight – talking too fast, smiling too much – two tells she remembered from when they ran together. The bigger the job, the edgier he got. Way he was acting, he was neck deep in something tectonic. Fake RFID chips on desalination components had nothing to do with it.

Yesterday, he’d said the sky was falling. Seeb was damn sure the Triads weren’t waiting to get crushed.

She had flipped through the Toshiba’s NewsNets that morning. Aside a string of Clar1ty ODs on the waterfront – twenty-seven cases of Rapid Cerebral Hemorrhaging in the last two days – every channel featured a different specimen of former official, each one grimly speculating on the rising tension between the Orbitals and the Trade and Transit Authority. A number of prominent Senators were missing or presumed dead, and while conspiracies were waved off with contempt, there were nagging reports of accidents, explosions, and grainy video of gunmen. Fast, deadly, obviously trained gunmen.

The default demons were conjured yet again. Mention of Khalaf Jones and his Anachronists red-lined the threat level and brought phalanxes of Central Enforcement Armed Response units to Bradbury Space Port, Government Square, the mag-lev stations, ports and major intersections. Live-feed flashed across the screen; everything she’d seen in the KC vehicle coming in the other day, on steroids. One sequence even featured Kalkan Condotta private security guarding the massive Shumai hydro-plant, and the thought of Vasyl made something lurch in her chest.

That made up her mind.

She waved the screen off and immediately divided the entire stack of New Yuan between her purse and her pockets. Next, she double-checked on the wicked blade curled in her purse. Folded a plain black scarf beside it.

Then Vestique jacket, yellow side out.

“Color me gone,” she told her saffron reflection in the window.

Lunch ended, and after more lies and a kiss on the cheek from Jien, Seeb channeled her anger and dusted off some old skills. Been a decade since she had street-hustled, but some things really are like riding a bike…

First, she ganked a very nice, very expensive Bulgari charm from a woman’s bag in the booth behind her, then slipped a glass from the busboy’s tray. Both disappeared in the Vestique’s inside pocket. Seeb gave it thirty minutes before the woman noticed it missing. The DNA from the glass would be enough to activate it.

Following Jien was child’s play. Putting a reason to it was harder. Something to do with betrayal, proving to herself he was playing her. Maybe dig out the how and why.

Jien ‘Luckycat Wong’ Heng was too valuable to risk, which is why he stayed in A-town most of the time. What goes around comes around – unless you’re at the center. And Jien was definitely nestled in the core of the Triad universe, tight as a tick. He had bodyguards, but Seeb was confident they were watching him, not her. So she window-shopped down the crowded avenue after him, coy and careful until he ducked into an underground parking garage on the corner of Russo and Shenzhen. The very edge of A-town.

Even rusty, loosing Cabbage Head was simple: in with a department store mob, up an elevator, reverse the jacket to black, add scarf, then down and back on the street. She spied the kimchee rooster comb as she strolled out, darting around the first floor men’s wear. He’d lose a finger over it, or whatever it was Chinese gangsters did when one of their own fouled up. She gripped her purse strap tighter. Again, not her problem, she told herself as she crossed Shenzhen toward the garage.

Seeb stuck to the shadows, padded down the ramps. He likes to burrow, she reminded herself. Like his lair under the Go Hall. She kept going until she found him.

Lousy place for a tryst, a damp corner on the lowest level. Behind a concrete column, she was surprised to see Jien merited not one or two, but four bodyguards, none of them like Cabbage Head.

They stood with four other men whose high and tight haircuts and off-the-rack suits screamed ‘Central Enforcement’ louder than any siren. All of them clustered around the yawning rear doors of an unmarked white van. Inside, stacked boxes, the kind military or SWAT used for guns and gear. The dour cops appeared to be giving them to Jien.

Seeb frowned, studied the scene. A payoff? Some kind of trade? With Central Enforcement? What the —

A fifth man emerged from the van. Hackles rose on Seeb’s neck.

He didn’t so much step out as flow. Thin and pale, he moved like a water snake, insinuating himself into each location with the same lithe and poisonous motion. He was like the Grafters who killed Ferret. Only worse.

Seeb backed away, edging along the darkened wall like it was a ledge over a deep canyon. She didn’t know what she was seeing, but it was more than enough.

Another level up, she broke into a run, and didn’t stop until she hit the street.

dm4

On the sidewalk, she smoothed her scarf, jacket, forced herself to walk. Don’t draw attention, her heart pounded out. Nothing sketchy.

She hurried as fast as she dared until she found a narrow cut between two apartments. Tidy, color-coded trash bins lined the passage like giant plastic children’s blocks. The signs were English.

She was out of A-town.

Ripping the Charm out of the package, she pressed the glass on the sensor. There was a long sixty seconds when she wanted to scream before the LED lit green. She was on-line.

She waved up Vasyl’s private number.

“Who is this?” He answered on the third ring, his voice smooth and hard.

Tears welled up. “It’s me, krasavchik. Seeb.”

“Seeb? Where the frak are you? Whose number is this?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“What happened? Stepan said some Chinese guys—”

“I’ve had nightmares. Come get me, Vasyl.”

“Where?”

She looked around. “Near A-town. A block or two up from Russo, where Shenzhen turns into Aldrin. By some apartments. Look for me in a black jacket.”

There was a pause as he passed the information on to someone. “I’ve got people nearby. Hang on, lubimka. They’re coming.”

Tears threatened to spill over again. “See you soon, then,” she choked out.

“‘Til then.”

She waved the call off and crumpled against a wall. Ferret’s murder, someone framing her, sifting her Cloud, then trying to kill her. And now Luckycat lying, dealing with the CE. And that man… Thing. What the hell was he–

“Ms. Gilani? Seeb Gilani?”

Seeb looked up. Two men blocked the mouth of the alley. Not Asian – Caucasian, with what looked like comms gear bio-mods laced around their heads, slipped into their ears. Definitely not off-the-rack suits. “We need you to come with us.”

The one on the left pulled a neural stunner, ice-blue tip glowing like a pinprick of lightning. The right one kept his hand under his jacket. Seeb guessed it wasn’t gripping a stunner.

She dug into her purse, wrapped her fingers around the karambit’s handle. The cool metal curled flat against her underarm. She let the purse fall.

“Frak you.”

The one on the left shook his head. Smiled a sad little smile. “Ms. Gilani, there’s no need for that.”

The one on the right chuckled. “Ma’am, that’s inadvisable–”

There was a coughing sound, slapping like stone skipping on water. The man on the right took a step forward, stains blooming on his shirt. He looked puzzled, crumpled to the asphalt. In the sudden gap appeared a stainless steel pushcart with a little bucktooth woman holding a rather large handgun.

The other man dropped the neural stunner, clawed at his jacket. The gun spit again.

The woman spoke over the two prone bodies. “You. Come with me, now.”

Seeb held up her hands, the knife more question mark than threat.

The woman shook her head, made the pistol vanish. “Come – now. No time.”

dm5

Seeb started forward automatically. The woman impatient, stepped around the pushcart, as if to grab her, urge her on. She was at the first of the crayola-bright recycle bins when there was a loud smack on the brick wall across from Seeb, a slam at the end of the alley behind her.

Seeb flinched, eyes darting back and forth as the little woman was thrown toward her like a rag doll. Something like a smashed melon was at her feet. A grimace of buck teeth and one eye. A single thunderclap roiled down the street a millisecond later.

Sniper.

Ice splashed through Seeb, some arctic level of terror, and she ran.

Charm in one hand, knife in the other, down the street, with a white hot spot between her shoulder blades taut and itching. Ready to burst. She ran until her breath came in ragged gasps and her heart pounded in her ears but she didn’t stop until she saw a large black jeep tearing down the street toward her, Kalkan Condotta shield on the door. Stepan at the wheel.

dm6