A 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.”
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.