Chapter 1 – FUGU
Fugu spilled all over North Beach. You felt Fugu before you could see it. It began as a bass throbbing in the chest. Then there was the glow in the sky as if a building were on fire two blocks over. As you got closer, the sound was like a stadium crowd. For blocks around, you passed through streets full of driverless cars, cruising the streets on wait mode. Closer still you began to enter the crowd. Some people came not to get into Fugu but to experience the scene. A line dance, formed out of the crowd waiting to get in, circled the club. Sellers and takers moved among the crowd, their robot vans forming a wall along one street. People stood in conversation. Food trucks and carts were set up on another street. The people who called themselves Spectacles. Their bodies a living show screaming look at me!
Fugu went after the Cosplay crowd, the Rich Decadents in their evening clothes coming down from their towers, the tourists from the territories staring look-at-that, and all the varieties of wannabes. It was an inter-racial crowd, all seven or was it nine sexes represented. Some elaborately dressed. Some still wearing the dusters and wide-brimmed hats that had become fashionable daywear in an environment gone crazy. People openly chewed, smoked, inhaled, injected, and rubbed into their skin a number of narcotics advertised in neon ads that drifted through the streets. And somewhere in this crowd was Mark Redman.
Redman was six feet tall and two hundred pounds and looked as if he had spent his youth running after balls in various sports. He was a racial mixture. Redman strolled along like the others who had come to see. He allowed himself to be drawn toward the entrance by the motion of the crowd. Redman seemed to have no particular purpose in mind other than to enjoy the night. But he had acquired a follower. A Spectacle covered in white body paint, white hair jelled into a rooster comb, a knot, jerked into an explosion; the jell shifting it, leaping into the air near him. A red slash of a mouth and dark eyes, another figure of the night. The woman kept to his course though she also seemed to be an aimless wanderer. Nothing to make her stand out from the crowd being drawn to Fugu.
Ignoring the line, Redman drifted to a stop at the entrance.
“My friend,” said Afa.
The seven foot tall, 300 pound Tongan refugee in cowboy boots and an immaculate and bulletproof tuxedo, who was the Decider for Fugu, greeted Redman. He was a heavy on the cream café au lait shade, spoke eight languages, and his name meant Hurricane. It fitted. Redman had seen him handle a mob trying to break through the lines.
“Not yet,” said Afa.
“The Flash are out tonight,” said Redman.
The Flash, the people who came to be seen. Who invested every penny and every waking hour into being seen. Because once you were seen, you existed. Fugu was their life.
“Creepers and Crawlers all. We’ve caught a lot of people trying to sneak in Listeners. I don’t know what people think they’re going to hear. We’ve got the best countermeasures on club row.”
“Listeners, not visuals?” said Redman.
“And someone showed up with full shields. Had to register it before we let him in. Was quite nice about it. And a real heavy guy came in just ahead of you. Quintero.”
“Don’t know him.” Redman lied.
“I bet you don’t. That guy got some evil tats. Beware, Redman.”
“Where is he, Afa?”
“Thanks,” said Redman.
Redman entered through the tunnel. Two figures came off the wall. Packs of sellers were waiting. “You want a patch?”
“One for mild elevation,” said Redman.
“We got the whole spectrum of up and down, and sideways,” said the other.
Redman handed the guy one of the Blue 500 with Clinton’s hologram on it. A red fifty bought him a group of crowd breakers. The men formed a flying wedge in front of him. Redman followed in their wake. This was how they made enough to live on through the week. Busting crowds at Fugu.
The wedge of busters pushed through, moving him into the interior. Some wearing their avatar masks, electronic devices disguising the wearer’s appearance with a hologram. He reached a balcony and looked out over the crowd. The white Spectacle was dancing wildly on a table. A group of revelers painted a variety of colors danced around her.
Redman continued searching the masses on the floor until he found what he had come for. A woman was struggling through the crowd toward the lifts. She carried a thick, grey paper-wrapped package. Redman looked across at two men on the same level. They also were watching the woman.
And, Redman knew, a level up, in a space of darkness Quintero watched. Redman knew him quite well. He had all the Intel files on Redman that you could get in the legal world. And most of the black files.
Chapter 2 – THE GUN WAKES UP
Adrastos Quintero, a man with a reputation for violence, watched the thin line of vapor chase the dark speck of the scramjet across the sky. The 3:10 am flight from Moscow ended its steep dive toward the Bay, leveled off and started a turn to bring it in over air traffic and put it on the path to Sacramento. Quintero—a regulator, thief, and gunman—was staring into the night from the top of the Mark Hopkins hotel. Before him, the nightscape of San Francisco was looming shapes covered with sheets of light.
“Come to me,” said Quintero.
The Gun woke up. First, a basic set of routines with no awareness. Then it knew itself. It recognized the parts of itself as they came online and went to ready status. It ran a systems check. It was alright. In a fraction of a second it moved through the four levels of intelligence. Now it could reason and plan. All visual systems went infrared and accepted and processed the cascade of data falling on its receptors. The Gun was suddenly aware of the world immediately around it. Its tools powered up. Four identical barrels extended and retracted: a .50 machine gun, a Direct Attack Autonomous Guided Weapon, and an Exact-Target, Long Range Sniper weapon. Defensive systems went down their checklists.
The final check: “Why is a Walking Gun like the East Bay?” from Gertrude Stein by way of Herb Caen, “Because there is no there there.” The Gun paused, and then understood the joke. It had reached its highest level of self-awareness, intelligence, and independence.
Looking like a cross between a Rottweiler and something out of the bio-tech labs at Livermore, the Walking Gun was a weapon with mobility features and a high-level AI.
Quintero began walking toward the edge of the building and the Gun followed him. The weapon reached the edge and stopped beside Quintero.
“Stay. Set up. Lock down. Locate position. Acquire target.”
The Walking Gun began to transform, moving from machine to organic, biologic and mechanical assembling its components for firing. The short barrel protruded from its mouth, taking the snout with it as a silencer. Hind legs moved away from the body and screwed themselves into the roof. A port popped open on its back.
“Safe?” said Quintero.
“Clear,” said the Gun.
Quintero carefully stepped within the gun’s defensive perimeter, waited a second, then took out a small targeting scope and plugged it into the port. He paused and listened. When Quintero listened he engaged the best upgrades you could obtain. He heard a baby pigeon tentatively peck at a straw in its nest, the flow of water down the sides of the building, the wind roughly sweeping over the granite and metal around him, and nothing threatening.
Quintero blinked and the Lake home was pulled out of the dark, appearing within arm’s reach. He saw heat radiating from everything within it. Blinked again, saw a high-resolution, incredibly detailed plan of Lake’s home. He activated his body’s network and linked to the Gun. He scanned across the length of the penthouse, penetrating the shielded windows. Shields blurred some areas, totally obscuring others. He gave the coordinates to the Gun.
A man wearing the formal dress of a European butler made his way through the rooms of the Lake penthouse followed by an attractive young woman who carried a champagne flute. Quintero almost smiled. A red hot shape with multiple limbs was forming and reforming in a bedroom. He saw them clearly through pebbled glass and shields.
The Gun has secured itself to the roof. Quintero removed a magazine from the bag, loading it into the gun.
“Target acquired. Five Stryker rounds loaded. Ready.”
The gun fired twice, two muffled metallic thunks the sound of a blade striking a log. At 101 meters past the barrel the projectiles gave a high-pitched roar, coming to life and arcing up.
James Lake was enjoying a courtesan in one of the lounges in his townhome. He was stretched out on a very large bed. The girl was astride Lake, working on him. Suddenly, something hit the window glass. The glass bellied in, ripples spread out over its surface. The window began to separate into layers. One of the middle layers caught fire, turning a translucent orange that flashed across the expanse of the whole window. A thin point suddenly appeared on the surface and then exploded. The projectile hit the girl, lifting her up in the air. She pin wheeled toward the wall. The window fractured and blew in, filling the air with a blizzard of burning plastic flakes.
“Blinds! Blinds!” yelled Lake.
Armored shutters came down like guillotines over the windows. Fire suppression filled the room with white particles of foam. Guards burst through the door.
“Stand down,” Quintero said to the Gun. Already in motion, he had somewhere he had to be. “Return home. Nest. Deactivate.”
Quintero was gone through the doorway. The Walking Gun moved to the edge of the building. Its feet became climbing appendages. The Gun started down the side of the building. But it did not return home and it did not deactivate. As it climbed, the Gun’s downlink was receiving terabytes of instructions.
ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.