Pieces – Asher #3 (cyberpunk)
The week-long, tropical storms finally hit Shenzhen.
A wall of rain turned the Deep Bay into a foggy void, smudging the ragged line of high-rises into sumi-e splashes, and as the bus ferried Asher away from the city center to Huangang Port, he watched streaks of murky water slide down the window, dripping down… just like the blood that collected at the soggy hem of his trenchcoat and leaked onto the flooring.
The bus was packed to the brim with wasted port-workers, and no one noticed.
He had behaved foolishly in Dafen. Overconfidence always brought about downfall, and the bullet-hole in his side was a good reminder of that axiom. Despite all, Chinese were still majorly lagging behind the finer twists and turns of the technological curve, something that Asher betted on and lost – he hadn't expected nonhanced security, even for a big pharma fish, to carry EMP-stickers. The thought didn't even occur to him, and now, walking… no, limping along the narrow canyons between Huanggang cargo holds, he had no-one to blame, but himself.
The radio silence was obviously deafening. He wiped his smartorq soon after the op's conclusion, assuming a new preloaded identity that in theory should get him out of Shenzhen.
In theory. DAX operatives working for the Chrome Orizuru were never guaranteed a life, a setback cushioned by a swell cut of profits. The assets were siphoned out and transferred while Asher sat, bleeding, at an ancient e-cafe, surrounded by farmers Skyping to their immigrant relatives in Australia or US. At least, the transaction was confirmed. Yet, the chance that the accumulated wealth would become entombed in his account like the bounty of a long-dead pharaoh, grew higher with each passing hour. Sure, he packed the wound, but his trouble's rabbit hole went much deeper than that.
Port markets are expected to smell of fish, oil and the sea. But the only smell Asher could identify for the last day or so, was the revolting, nauseating thin stench of burnt hair and dielectrics. It followed him everywhere, a reminder of failure clinging to his every move.
Asher cross-cut the commercial part of the Huanggang PA to the seedier, shadier parts of the sprawling port and kept his shaking hands close to himself, concealing the angular panes of his body under the oversized coat. Time was running out, right into the drainpipe, becoming sewage along with his blood and convictions. Somewhere, amidst the cold morgue light of midnight diners, steam and indifferent faces, lay a separate world, dissolved in plain sight.
A world that offered exotic services and played by different rules. Asher clenched his jaw, breathing heavily, and pressed onto a wall, almost sliding down the shuffling layer of posters.
Rhythmic inhalation and exhalation didn't help, mantras soon skipping on shortened breath and seconds later he vomited noisily, adding his contribution to the surrounding grime. Pain was the least of his problems now. The whole synaptic mesh went haywire.
The Fa Chou Rou market was stowed away at the port's outskirts, hidden from prying eyes. Asher was certain that the Huanggang authorities were fully aware of its existence, but by its nature, Fa Chou Rou had to generate enough grease to oil even the crankiest bureaucratic gears. Wind and rain rocked the plastic tents, threatening to rip them off, yet the sellers sat immobile, wrapped in bright neon sheen of cheap raincoats. Little plastic Buddhas glowing under the floodlights.
A cautious thermoscan didn't revel much – the rain turned every person fuzzy. Asher blinked, trying to clear and zoom, but aside from knives and an occasional taser, the market seemed safe, if he was to trust himself. He didn't.
His shaky walk through the first few rows yielded little results. Fa Chou Rou dealt with grey tech. Tons of noname wrist-tabs, torqs, smartphones, VR systems, colorful assortments of UZ-stimplants from Nintendo and Sony. Scramblers and darkweb blade configs, the always popular disposable trash to outsmart the Great Firewall. With twitching, unresponsive hands feeling for the merch, Asher moved from table to table, his only catch being the curious glances from the sellers. Rain drummed an increasingly ominous message onto his shoulders – you're going to die. Another spasm coursed through his body, and he veered away, hugging a lamppost.
He couldn't believe it. Since when did black markets become so predictable and tame?
No. No. He knew Shenzhen, this couldn't be it, not like this… This was just half of the Fa Chou Rou, and he still had some strength – some degree of control – to comb through the other one. Cursing under his breath, Asher pulled up despite agony threatening to uncoil and bloom like a lightning bolt along his spine.
"Ah…", he exhaled and picked up a small package. The grey bubblewrap crinkled and popped under his touch while he shook it before the shriveled ratty face of the seller. "You sell more?"
Beneath the thin plastic, an artigan glistened, all alloy allure and delicate shutters. Leica Eye-ssence, the latest summer '29 model, gold-plated nerve silica-fibers trailing out of the spherical silver shell. Asher had no use for it, but it was the first artigan he found at the black market, so there should've been more from where it came from.
The seller nodded vigorously, and wiped the damp mop of greying hair out of his face, suddenly alert.
Asher's Chinese was better than his Japanese, a weird fact all things considered, but he still found it hard to articulate his rather specific needs.
"What about… cortical controllers? No… Not that", he bit his lip in frustration, trying to recall the slang denominator for rare biotechs. The seller followed his dashing gaze eagerly, thin neck stretched out in an almost physical effort to help his potential customer find the right piece.
"Cortex bus? Damn. How is it in Mandarin? Uh… oh, right! Wetstone! You have wetstones? Garachi, Toshiba-Frauke – Matsuda?"
"Wazone?" The seller frowned.
"No, wetstone. Wait a sec", Asher made passes behind his neck, and then, realizing the seller still had little idea what he was talking about, leaned forward, twisting his neck almost like an owl and brushing up his short blond hair, so that the other man could see the burned-out socket. He hovered his fingers above. "Wetstone".
It wasn't the best idea to show a Chinese port seller his hances, but there was little choice. If the man understood, it was all that mattered, and when Asher straightened out, the man beamed at him brightly.
"Yes! Come, come?" The last words of the older man held a whiff of uncertainty. The look he cast at Asher was questioning – and at the same time, oddly fearful. Just like that, the burst of enthusiasm was shadowed by worry, as if the seller double-guessed himself right as he talked.
Asher looked around, rain still pouring down like a funeral shroud, dark and deafening. He grit his teeth, and followed the frail seller deeper into Huanggang.
By the time they reached the seller's container at the edge of Section 8, Asher could barely walk. Both the blood loss and the ruinous processes that began in Dafen caught up with his stamina and stoicism. By a stroke of luck, the merchant's container was at ground level. Asher was certain that a ladder would prove insurmountable in his condition.
His hands were twitching sporadically, and it got so bad, that he had to secure and curl his fists, hide them in the trenchcoat's pockets so not to rouse his already suspicious companion. The seller – Liu, as he introduced himself – was evidently wary of a possible tail, for their trip to Section 8 consisted mostly of looking behind the shoulder and freezing up whenever someone, even a drunk hauler, crossed their path.
In addition, Liu's face began to break apart into pieces. The optical axons started to disintegrate, and mindlessly, Asher slapped the side of his face and temple, in a reflexive attempt to re-arrange the fragile carbosilica in his head. As if it could help. No more than hitting the top of a "snowing" TV set back in the analogue days.
The seller tapped in a long string of passcode into the lock, and yanked at the rusty handle at the side of the container. But, before the door could swing open, he stretched out a dry, bird-like hand in warning, almost pressing into Asher's chest to stop the other man in his tracks.
"I have what you need, guizi. Big money, for shiny big man. But you sure? The tech should be kept fresh".
This puzzled Asher.
"Yeah? I know about handling corticals. Tissue matrix, live cells. What's the problem?"
Liu addressed Asher a quizzical look, something akin to sorrow and guilt pulling his saggy face inward. Asher chalked it up to things being lost in translation.
"You pay good, for this", with visible effort, he pulled the sliding handle, enough to open a man-wide crack in the container. Beyond, there was darkness. Asher stepped in, fumbling to find a prayer he never knew, to a God he never believed in, that it wasn't a trap.
It wasn't a trap.
The trap was back in Dafen, in Yuzan Pharmalogical. It snapped shut along with the magnetic EMP-sticker that a dying security guard managed to sucker to Asher's forearm. A bit higher, and it would have probably totally fried his headspace.
However, Asher's luck was temporary. What the EMP did fry, was the cortical controller at the skull's base, sending every hance in his body into free flight with eventual degradation. CNS, PNS, limbs, cardiovascular 'plants, gastro-buxt, everything. His personal, mechanical lizard-brain, the trusty autopilot, the Alfred to his Batman… Or vice versa?
It could've been swapped, of course. Asher was falling to pieces, literally, but thankfully, he had a manual on how to put himself back together in such instances.
But he doubted the other person did.
Now, the meaning of the seller's question dawned on him. At first, he expected to see medical cooling cases in which the implants were usually transported, at worst – sterile packs with used units. What he didn't expect to see, under the single dangling light, was a terrified girl in a wheelchair, huddled in the corner, with tears streaming down the duct tape that held her mouth shut.
Asher stretched his spasming hand behind him, and closed the door with a cruel grating "clang!".
He took almost a minute to take it all in. The utter terror in the girl's eyes, the greenish stain of vomit on her blouse, the makeshift bandages on the stump of her leg, the way her nails dug into the padding of the filthy wheelchair. The other, yet untouched leg, the beautiful curves of evidently European-manufactured, maybe even custom, prosthetic. She squealed beneath the tape – a hushed, waning sound of a bird stuck in tar.
They took one leg first, pulling out all the delicate carbosilicate strands along with the bone, up to the hip, probably. Without the nervework, the prosthetics and artigans were just dumb mechanisms from a much more primitive era… The other was probably waiting for its new owner now.
What a mess. Even in China, nobody wanted local produce. Without doubt, the young woman's parents were wholly dedicated to their daughter, bringing her up and supporting her through the tragedy that left her paraplegic. No doubt that even with that lever of care, her cortical couldn't be nowhere near the level of sophistication his had been, for it was a purely civilian, medical wire-up. Not that it mattered much – the the sockets were largely standard, and it would at least stop the degradation, earn him some modicum of control back until he reached the DAX safehouse.
She didn't deserve this misery and horror, of course. The initial trauma that took her limbs, was more than enough, but now, abducted, abused and beaten, she was once again confined to a wheelchair.
And he, Asher, would soon be confined to a coffin. He could relate.
He approached cautiously, mute as she was. Kneeled before the girl, taking the tiny pale hand into his, making her watch the sporadic thrum of his prosthetic fingers through her silent tears and the wracking sobs. Her shiny dark eyes sought out his, practically screaming at Asher, darting a zigzag line across his disheveled features and then to the dark crimson patch in his side.
Confusion. Why was he there? What could he want? Would he hurt her? Would he save-… That hungry expression of hope pained Asher more than his wound did. Worst part, is he could see it. Could see himself battling this pain, the disobedience of his rogue bodyparts, lifting and carrying her back into the world, to the gurgle of the seller choking on his blood. A nice picture, framed by police flashes and the shuddering underbelly of the Shenzhen storm. An InstaPix still, perfect in its deception. A piece of a future that blacked out the moment they walked out of the container unit.
"I'm so sorry, flower", he whispered in English. Asher's hand reached momentarily for the duct tape, flicking the corner… and then fell down. He felt another surge of bloody vomit coming up, rolled the liquid in his mouth, feeling the coppery slime cover his teeth.
But you sure? The tech should be kept fresh, he recalled. In the dim light, he could see a distorted image of himself in the girl's pupil even through the glitching artifacts of his failing vision.
Was it a reflection of a human? Or something else? It was too dark to tell.
"I can fix this", Asher told her, holding her pleading stare… holding her hand. A single mental effort, and a blade slid out of his fingertip treacherously – a slice of metal, cold and still at his command.
Asher felt resistance and clamped down.
Indeed, he could fix this. He just needed the right piece.