Rosa strode down Swerve Street, dragging her nails along the wall. Sparks leapt and underscored a graffiti saying, ONLY THE EXPERT WILL REALISE YOUR EXAGGERATIONS ARE TRUE. In her other hand was a Zero Approach gun identical to Dante’s except for a squeeze adjustment—Rosa had lost a finger in a mood ring explosion. She couldn’t believe she was here when Dante was waiting for the pickup on Deal Street. Download was up to no good. A guy like that needed a wound bigger than his body.
Developed to re-empower the victim, the Zero Approach gun worked on a principle of etheric consent and only fired when the target was asking for it. Since its introduction the homicide rate had risen by 400 percent. Download’s ignorance was sure to demand a bullet. Without the firm and necessary grasp of present and past, he didn’t believe an entire nation could lie. She thundered over the monroe grill which served as a welcome mat for his digital foundry.
Dante thought of dolls within dolls and wheels within wheels. “Hey Kid—Kid. I look okay?”
“Yuh look like shit, Danny.”
“Sure, but I ain’t all shiny, right, not movin’ like a robot?” He flexed his hand, viewing it. It seemed completely normal. “This look texture-mapped to you?”
The Kid ignored him, slumped morosely against a gas tank. He was thinking of a time when things were different as the result of an experiment. Hearing frequent news reports of people’s unsuspecting and carefree condition just prior to violent misfortune, the Kid had attempted to attain this condition by taking out a contract on himself and ingesting an amnesia drug to forget the arrangement. Sure enough, on the day of the hit he felt an alien lightheartedness. But as the hitman’s car sped toward him he remembered everything and felt more cheated than ever that others got the service for free. He leapt aside and the hitman, who hadn’t a care in the world, died violently on impact with a wall.
Seating herself opposite him, Corey the Teller asked gently after his well-being. He raised a face scorched with reality and whispered that life would be great if it weren’t for its termination in a box of earthworms. They got to talking about carrion, absence as therapy and the fact that not a single vitamin had ever been visually identified. The Kid described his ability to mentally unwind people like spiral-peeled apples and see them as skanking, swing-armed skeletons. “One thing you’ll say for skeletons,” Corey said brightly. “They’ll always give you a smile.” There are two ways of bringing someone around to your way of thinking—softly, or hardly.
“Danny says crime’s one of many methods justice may select,” the Kid quoted. “But I don’t think I believe in justice—d’you, miss?”
“Far as I can in somethin’ I never saw—so break it to me, you guys givin’ up or what?”
“You think we’re in Jones’s fuzz machine, Danny?” asked the Kid, uneasy at Dante’s suspicion that they weren’t real crooks. “Still in them old-fashioned roller wheels?”
Dante gazed up from his book. “Chances are this heist ain’t been accomplished Kid, just portrayed, like electoral hype.”
The Kid was nonplussed by his accomplice’s apparent apathy—this wasn’t the Dante he knew. The Dante he knew would spring into action so fast he’d leave his aura behind. Was this hanging around part of the plan? “What about intent, Danny?”
“Sure I guess we got that,” Dante conceded, though he was on shaky ground. There was a name for those with intent to crime who subsequently enacted it in a simulation—crap.
In fact VR was held in such contempt that many states ran hive jails in which prisoners were permanently hooked into a sim crime environment to play out their rage until decrepitude or drooling madness. Physically the prison was a coffin-stacked bunker, where inmates were drip-fed nutrients and urban fantasy.
It was a source of mirth throughout the SSA that the virtual environment, called the Mall, was modeled on Beerlight. This had led Beerlight itself to reject plans for a VR clench, opting instead for a re-offenders’ trashpile and a standard clench for first-timers. The petty clench was based on the old panopticon model despite complaints from tower guards that every single prisoner would stare at them.
“Maybe we been arrested already, Danny. Wired up in one of them funny places.”
“We’ll find out at midnight,” said Dante absently. He knew the Mall ran the same 24 hours on a loop and that there was a burst of static at the reset. Anyone killed was resurrected. Anything damaged was restored. Like a kid’s game.
“What about her?” whispered the Kid, pointing at Corey.
Dante said nothing. If this was Jones’s simulation she was no less a puppet than the toys in the warehouse—effectively, she was Jones.
None of it really accounted for the weirdness—since he worked the vault he’d been weaker, thin spread, in two minds about the whole match. He thought of Rumpelstiltskin, the real version where he tears himself down the middle—and found he preferred the PC mix, in which the little bastard just runs away. What would Gamete have said?
“Gotta realise, Benny,” Blince rumbled, slapping a new magazine into the gun, “value’s based on rarity, demand, and ease o’ replacement.” He resumed firing into the panicked crowd—people dropped as predictably as nine-pins. “This gun’s my pride and joy.”
He was referring to a Colt Demograph with a nine inch barrel, which he’d fetched from the squad car as the bank employees began to emerge. It could be set for age, color, and wage bracket. Blince had wanted to work in Vegas until he discovered he’d only be allowed to shoot blacks. He liked to throw it wide open. “Why ain’t they keepin’ still, Benny?”
“Guess it’s what they call civil unrest, Chief.”
“This ain’t civil unrest, Benny, it’s civil goddamn insomnia. Pull back. Take out the whole goddamn street.”
Everyone reversed up Deal and a Gates gun was trundled forward, steaming like a diesel truck. Denizens froze in its spotlight. Then they were crushed tightly together as though magnetized, and blown to tiny bits. As the cops moved forward, the street was being pelted as if by popcorn. Blince lit a cigar off a burning car and used it to gesture at the blasted bank front. “Now we can begin to find out what happened here.”
Rosa felt that if she stopped she’d receive a burn hole, like film in a jammed projector. Pre-detox pale, her face shone out in the gloom of a basement hung with cyberwire and spine X-rays. From here Download ran a sting board full of garbage as a honeytrap for the brotherhood—peeping cops would find their accounts abruptly devoid of cash. Moving cautiously through to the main chamber, gun already drawn, she saw two rocking gyrospheres. Download Jones was bent over a keyboard, hacking frantically, stress-free as a rabbi playing Twister with a psycho.
At the creak of leather, Jones spun to stare, glaucous-eyed.
Rosa raised the gun. “See you after the recession.”
When the trigger was squeezed an area of eighty cubic yards was mapped into an ethigraph grid, converging the vibes so intensely that the piece responded only to the needy. The gun was silent. Rosa frowned, suspecting a jam—then knew what it meant. The rounds weren’t meant for Download, who’d clunked to his knees and seemed about to sob.
Rosa took a closer look at the figures rolling in the VR spheres like hamsters in a wheel. One was big and one was small. It wasn’t Dante and the Kid. It was Chief Henry Blince and Benny the Trooper.