Deadman’s Switch

Arcade can barely get himself through the door, again. Drekky thing wedged itself into the frame again, and the landlord once again wasn’t answering calls. Aces. Pushing his way in, Arcade can finally take a breath free of the usual mix of chemicals that fills the air out there on the Edge. Air still stinks like a dirty rag, but at least he can’t see it. The cheap old floors groan under his boots, pulling Arcade out of his head. The apartment is small—barely more than three rooms—and probably hasn’t had a good cleaning in a lifetime or two. Unlike his last place though, it wasn’t on fire, so there were some plusses to living here. Playing the role of a runner was a life of feast and famine, and some chummer must have salted the earth long ago.

Arcade flicks his wrist, moving the sleeve of his dingy jacket out of the way of his DNI display chip. The green readout under the skin blinks to life, lighting up his face. With a chirp it links up to the place’s comm. Two messages. Arcade smirks; he hasn’t been this popular in a while. With a blink he sets the tapes to start playing, sliding over to a nearby notepad. Never know, might finally be a call for work.

First call is the landlord, cancelling his visit about the leaky faucet in what passed for a shower in this place. Leaky was his way of saying ‘runs hard enough to drown a horse,’ to put it lightly. Arcade makes a note next to the landlord’s name in his contact book, ‘null help: Bakebrain.’

It had been a while since Arcade had sat down and really looked at these notes. He paused, flipping through the pages. Page after page of names, each one with a series of little black notes scribbled next to them, already starting to fade away into blots of nondescript ink. Half of them were other runners, and of those barely one wasn’t marked as dead. Now he remembered why he never flipped the pages—not enough booze to drink to all these memories.

“Hey Arc, long time no run, eh?” The noise makes Arcade jump, hearing that awful grungy voice somewhere between dying pig and your average cop. He’d forgotten that the comm was running. Flipping around in his chair, Arcade had a second to see that smarmy smile he hadn’t seen in years. Half-Jack Crowley, one of his old partners.

“Drek Jack, warn a guy before you call, will you?” Arcade snapped, running a hand though his hair, thumbing the dataport on the back of his head.

“Now, before you get too far Arc, should probably warn you this is a pre-rec call,” the image on the comm continued. “And if you’re seeing this that means someone’s gone and offed me.” That hit harder than Arcade would probably be willing to admit. Jack hadn’t ever been the kind of guy that you could call reliable, or even decent, but they’d watched each other’s backs more times than not, and that meant something.

The hologram continued, taking a swig out of a dirty brown bag, “Probably deserved it too. Hard times living a life with a dozen names, even harder when each and every one is a guy like me.” The hologram stumbled, propping itself up against an unseen wall. Even when he was a collection of pixels, Jack might as well have been swimming in his drink. “Either way, that’s where you come in, kid. I want you to track down whatever SINless chromer decided to waste me.”

Arcade opened his mouth to protest, but remembered he was talking to a dead man. He wanted to shout every dirty word he could think of—on top of several that he couldn’t—about him going and getting himself killed like that, then expecting him to pick up the pieces. Typical. Arcade crossed his arms, watching the glimmering shape of his former friend wobble back onto both feet. He needed work, not a charity case.

Jack’s usual drek-eating grin dimmed, his breath leaving his puffy lips in a ragged sigh. “Look, Arc, I know you and I weren’t exactly chummers, but you’re all I got. If anyone in the world is even going to notice that I’m dead, it would be you.” Jack straightened up, tugging his trench coat tighter around himself, grimacing against the hands of some unseen chill. “We never talked after what happened with Nix…”

Arcade bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. He remembered that night clearer than anything else in his life. He still felt the icy rain stabbing at him as it fell all around the old gang. He still remembered that run, that night that everything went to hell…

 

“He’s late,” Duchess grumbled, her eyes darting back and forth. She sat on an empty shipping barrel, tapping the butt of her handgun on the polysteel rim. Her other hand hung limp at her side in a sad pile of twisted wires and warped metal, swaying in the breeze. The rest of her ware wasn’t faring too better, the rest of her arm pock-marked by bullet holes and dents, and her hair caked to her head in a mix of blood and coolant. She didn’t seem to notice, or was doing a damn fine job of hiding it.

The meeting place should have been a dead tip off that something wasn’t right; it was a makeshift bar the dockworkers used in between shifts. Unused crates and packaging were used for seats and tables, and a few hastily cobbled together neon signs sputtered hard against the rain. The four of them sat there, breathing hard, nursing wounds, wondering what went wrong.

Arcade was pacing back and forth, fighting to hold himself back. Nix had messed up, and now he was dead. It had to be that simple. He could still see the look of shock on his face when the corporate security guard had popped around the corner and laid into him, see the way he crumpled down to the polished floor in a mess of sparks and gore. Nothing would make that go away.

Across the way, Jack was talking to Tilt, the wispy little decker they had picked up a few months ago. Guy looked like a stick-figure made of twigs, and fought like a limp noodle. Still, he had his uses, especially when it came to cracking security. He and Jack were going at it, whisper-shouting in some hushed up argument.

“He’ll be here,” Arcade said, eyeing the two. The Johnson had said he’d have someone there over half-an-hour ago to pick up the package, and to slip them the cash. Damn well had better be worth Nix, if he ever showed.

“Don’t like this place,” Duchess continued, hopping off her barrel and walking closer to the others, her ruined hand seeming to wave to Arcade as she approached. “And these two have been at it like a couple of kids.”

“Everything cool over there?” Arcade shouted over the wind and the rain. Two pairs of eyes shot back at him. He could see Jack scowling so hard his face might split like broken glass, and the kid Tilt might as well have seen a ghost with the way his eyes bulged out. “Something’s wrong. Tell me.”

“Null sheen,” Tilt stammered, pulling his hoodie up to try and cover his face, “nothing’s wrong. Chip-truth.”

“Bull, and you know it,” Jack shot back, jamming a finger into Tilt’s chest hard enough to bruise. He snorted hard, looking less and less like some grungy runner and more and more like an angry bull. “You messed up, and now Nix is dead. Spill it!”

Arcade and Duchess crossed the way, Duchess placing her good hand on Arcade’s shoulder, giving him a warning look. “What happened?” Arcade hissed.

“Ask him,” Jack jerked his chin to Tilt, his voice shooting up in volume. “You’ve seen this guy’s rig. No way he trips an alarm in a place like that!” Tilt backed up into a shipping crate, cowering and shrinking from Jack.

“It was a mista-“ Tilt tried to defend himself, but was cut off when Jack brought his fist square into his cheek. Hard. The kid stumbled, scrambling back up and coughing up a spurt of blood against the rain-soaked pier.

“You let that guy kill Nix before you even tried to pull your gun! I saw you!” Jack yelled. He raised his fist to have another round with Tilt’s head, but Duchess caught him mid-swing and forced the brute down. There was an uneasy silence between the four of them. Only the rain and the distant roll of thunder broke it.

Arcade pulled Tilt up, holding him face to face, looking him dead in the eyes. “How much did you sell us out for?” His words were colder than the air, hissed out in dark, sibilant tones. Arcade’s eyes—one of the few parts of his body left unmarred by augmentation—burned with growing contempt. His fingers dug into the sides of Tilt’s head, knuckles white with strain. He’d never felt so hurt, so vulnerable, or so full of anger.

The silence returned, choking the air around the four. Tilt’s split lip pulled into a small grin, and he started laughing. Soft, menacing laughs. “I wanted out of this place, and you knew it. They paid me enough to get a cozy place in the Highrise, just like I always wanted.” His voice was void of any feeling, void of any sensation. Arcade dropped him like trash, catching something out of the corner of his eyes.

“Down!” Duchess shouted, and the three scrambled for cover among the boxes and crates. Gun fire rattled out, and a squad of corporate soldiers stormed in from the shipping lanes. They had them pinned, and the way their shots were ripping through what little cover the gang had wasn’t comforting either. Tilt continued to smile at them, walking towards the soldiers.

“Double pay to the man that scores their kills,” one of the soldiers shouted between bursts of deafening fire. Arcade rolled to another crate, lying flat on his stomach. The cold stone and metal of the pier soaked him through to the bone, numbing him. All around him, ghostly holo-images projected across the pier. Working at blinding speeds, his DNI projected vast amounts of information, from red-backed images projecting where his targets were moving towards, to smaller details such as distance, wind direction, and makes and models of their firearms.

He focused against the torrent of information, flicking his wrist and setting his sights on one of the soldiers. His DNI flashed ready, and Arcade focused in, feeling his augmented mind reaching out for the soldier’s own implants. The images shifted, blue lines jumping like lightning towards the soldier, graphic displays depicting Arcade’s mental barrage decking through the soldier’s defenses. A few thoughts, a few taps on his display, and the electronic signals he sent into the trooper’s head were enough to send him screaming to the ground, clutching at his ears as the runner’s unseen attack did its work, deafening him with wave after wave of debilitating sounds.

The gap in fire was small. Duchess peaked out from behind her own cover, taking a series of blind shots at the soldiers. None of them were close, but the return fire was enough to force them down into cover. Jack rushed across the makeshift bar, grabbing hold of one of the tables as he went. Augmented muscles bugled with effort as he hurled the table as a massive wooden missile, catching one of the hidden soldiers square in the side. He and the table smashed through the crate, ending up heaped among a pile of broken wood. Duchess popped out of cover again, placing a couple shots to keep the downed soldier out for good.

“Great one,” Duchess shouted, following after the man as he tore after the soldiers like a man possessed. Arcade slipped around the opposite way, hefting the rifle from the recently offed trooper. He held the rifle up against a chair for support, sighting in on the remaining troops. A few deep breaths, and a few quick shots rang out. One managed to connect, knocking through the head plate of one of the more cyberized troopers, laying him flat.

Two more soldiers sprang up, firing at Jack and Duchess. The burly man threw up his arms, the bullets springing and bouncing off of his steel-hard skin. Duchess, meanwhile, dropped to the ground, planting a round firmly between each corp’s eyes. Just like that, the three had somehow scrapped by again.

Arcade ran to the others, and the three of them clasped each other’s shoulders, breathing hard. None of them wanted to speak first, not even on the run home. They spent the rest of the night slipping in and out of alleys, jumping at shadows, and finally ended it hunkered down in an abandoned parking garage, cold, but somehow still living.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

“Things happened that night, and none of it good.” Arcade blinked back into the present. The sound of the rain returned to the dull thrum of a radiator, and the parking garage bled back into his dingy apartment. He was still looking Jack’s hologram in the eye. “After we all split, I started scrounging up enough cash to get a Deadman’s Switch. Knew it wouldn’t be long before someone got the better of me. Guess I was right.”

The hologram grunted, its lips pulling up into a dark smirk. “So what do you say, Arc? Willing to give an old friend another run, for old time’s sake?” Arcade paused, looking around his ‘humble’ abode. Judging by the way the paint was peeling, it seemed like as good a time as any to start looking for a new residence. He paused. Was he willing to get caught up in another one of Jack’s schemes for the promise of some far-off reward? Was it worth putting his own skin out there? Jack wasn’t Nix, never would be.

Half-Jack smiled, letting out a deep sigh as he reached to kill the record feed. “I hope you said yes.”

 

Image made available by Jared Arango via Unsplash

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