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It's breakfast, the next day. Late breakfast. Jessi cooked migas with some spicy chorizo, and she makes you both a michelada. Seems like she's preparing for a day of barrio business.
After you've gotten through a few bites of egg and a few sips of spiked beer, Jessi opens the conversation. "Mac's... the third-party offer is from a purpose-created consortium. The same one that was buying up buildings earlier. Daddy's money guy was stymied, and he's not the type to give in because he thinks he's run into a brick wall. I convinced Danilo, the cousin, to hold off for a week, but... we can't match their offer, at least not do it and have any hope of running the business as a business."
Frag me, this food is amazing. Jessi missed her calling to be a chef, I think.
I grab a bit more chorizo on my fork, swallow it down, savor it for a second before asking, "Should we hit this consortium with a hack, go shake their tree and have a conversation with them, or should I look for a job just to raise nuyen for the shop?" I wash it down with the beer, wait for her answer.
Jessi shakes her head. "We're going to have to do something crazy, I think. They've invoked some form of the megacorp extraterritoriality principles." She grins. "That's what Pierre said, the money guy. Something about the Shiawese decision. And their data's all hidden in the Denver Nexus. Is Malin that good?"
"No.. I don't think she is." I say, a little disheartened. "They're trying to annex the barrio? That's... what the hell do they want out of this place? Fronting a gang. Buying up properties."
After another sip of beer, I offer up, "You know, there is a crazy idea I have about hitting Denver Nexus. What if we could set up those hacker terrorists that hit us at the party to nail the place, then Malin could sweep in and sniff the data we want?"
Jessi gives you a look. No, a look. Like you're either dangerously crazy or dangerously brilliant. "Circe's involved in that... are you ready to do this?"
I take a long breath, looking at Jess. Am I ready? Ready to face my best friend, now working for a terrorist group that would summon a toxic spirit for a fragging protest? Why? I still don't know if it's really Circe or someone wearing his skin or.
No. I saw it. It's him. I just don't know why. It could be a very good reason. I wish he'd bothered to share it with me.
"As ready as I'll ever be. And this is a good reason to make it happen." I take another big bite of the food, but it doesn't taste nearly as good as a few moments ago. I need to talk to Malin.
Jessi senses the change in your mood and reaches out to take your hand and squeeze. "You know I'm with you in this, Jubilex. And I do have access to some resources other than mediocre comedians and good burgers." She smiles and continues in a tone intended to lighten the mood a little. "You said you had a new toy to show me?"
I squeeze her hand back, thankful for her understanding. "New toy? Oh, well, it's back at my place. It's a katana, part of a matched set. Also there is a set for Malin, and another one for your brother. I will award their katanas to them when they've earned the right to carry them. They're... spectacular." I trill the r at the end, trying to match her lighter tone.
"I am glad we're a team, Jessi." I bring her hand up to my face, kiss her knuckles, "Even if we sometimes bring in subs for a game or two." I wink.
Jessi takes your face between her hands and kisses your forehead. "I am too. Very glad." She sighs and leans back. "I have to get to the club. There's a wine rep coming, and he's way too convincing to let anyone else handle it."
"Alright, I'll let you go for now." I say as I take one last bite. "Good luck saving your club, you heroine. I'll let you know if I need something for this Circe plan." I move over to kiss her cheek, "Love you."
Then, we'll make our way onto our lives.
Jessi responds before you walk away. "You're a good man. I love you too, Benicio. Very much."
What's next, after you head home to shower and change?
Time to chat with Malin. Is she around? I'm doing this post-shower.
Malin is in the living room when you come out of the shower, tranced out, but not too much to wave. She blinks, then asks, "How's Jessi?"
"She's amazing." I say with a grin. "We had a good night. She's been working hard on the club, and getting things ready for the bid on Mac's. Ting is, we ran into a snag, and I think I need your help." I break down the corp bid and their crazy firewall and ICE.
"My idea is this," I sum up after my big exposition. "Either you lure the technomancer group Legion into hitting that corp, and we scoop up what we need. Or, we try to talk Circe into doing it. I'm in favor of option two, but that means we have to make contact with him.... which might be easier for you."
I pause, let it sink in. "Thoughts?"
Malin listens, suddenly as serious as a cat stalking a mouse. "I'd like it if you could convince him to change sides. It would be good to have someone who understands what I am to talk to, that isn't trying to recruit me into a terrorist organization. I'm sure I can get him to meet me in a sim environment. I'll try to talk him into letting you join us, and then you can take over?"
I nod, "Yeah, that's my preference, too. I don't know why he's left or what's happened to him. I hope we can work this out. Please reach out to him."
Malin seems nervous, but determined. "Now?"
I move closer, put a hand on her shoulder, reassuring. "Yeah, now. You can do this, Malin. You're the baddest technomancer I know."
Malin takes a deep breath, then trances out. For three minutes, four, five. Her breathing is still even, there's no sign of distress. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven minutes. Just before twelve, your new interface box relays an icon to your HUD. It's a "lifelike," three-d rendered... clown skull?
What does that mean to you, Jube?
That is the icon symbol Circe and I chose for an online persona we called Yorick. We posted hacked items like private messages between teenaged girls in our class, emails off the school server, you know, high school prank stuff. Yorick was notorious in our school.
We loved Yorick.
When you give the icon your attention, you are swept into a rather plain AR environment. Looks like a corp conference room, except everything: tables, chairs, the details on on the walls, are all sculpted from obsidian. Malin is there, sitting and waiting for you, as is Circe. He looks just like he did the day he died, Jube. Of course, that's just his online presence, but you have the sense that it's him.
"Hey, Jube. How's tricks?"
I am used to seeing weird drek when I'm online. I mean, some folks get a thrill out of shocking you with weird avatars or bizarre situations that would never exist in the real world. Check that, magic. Would be very expensive and unlikely to ever occur in the real world. I keep cool under most situations.
But this is Circe. The friend I buried. My best buddy growing up. Right here. Not in a vision, not some twisted version that joined some evil cult. And he even threw my greeting at me. Frag me. It's him.
I walk towards him, eyes on his, my mouth slightly open. "Circe? You're a alive, right? Not a ghost in the machine?" I stop short a foot or so. I want to touch him. Somehow.
Circe gives you an achingly familiar look, one you've known for years. He raises an eyebrow and says, "I'm alive, Benicio. It's a long story, and I'm not going to tell it now, but I'm alive. Malin here... why doesn't she have a street name yet?... tells me you want to talk. I'm guessing it's not about girls and street soccer."
"She doesn't have a handle because she's too picky." I say, my stomach twisting in pangs of memory and hope. "I tried Mayfly, MayDay, even Smurf and Sugar Spice on her, she hated them all. Evidently, she doesn't want to be anonymous."
Street soccer. We played so damn many games of soccer in the barrio we lost count. Literally. It was somewhere around the four hundreds. I recall that I was winning.
"I need your help. It's for the barrio." I pitch. "Diego died. Mac's is up for sale, and Jess and I are trying to buy it for a fair price, but there's a megacorp that has angles on the barrio. I don't know why, but they're pushing hard to control the properties, and they're making an obscene offer. I want to find out why." I'll detail a bit about what Jessi shared, in the simple terms I know, but I know he'll figure it out quickly.
He listens intently, nodding at the right moments. Finally you can see that he "gets it," and he holds up a hand. "I see the situation. What is it you're asking me to do here?"
I relax a bit, easing into the next part, the clear ask. "We're too small fry to crack corp ICE like that, not to figure out anything without getting burned. I need to know what they're after, and I know Legion is more than powerful enough to either crack and lift it, or at the very least, get their attention so we can slip in, datasteal and GTFO."
Circe is laser-focused. Not giving up anything. "So, Legion attacks the Denver Nexus so you can save Mac's. I understand your thinking, but not what Legion would get out of it. Or me."
"Saving Mac's from becoming a douchebag hipster joint isn't enough? I thought you would fall for that." I try for humor, but yeah, he's not giving up anything. A glance at Malin, then Circe. "You were interested in Malin before. What is it you want from her?" I'm not offering her, I'm giving him a chance to pitch her, and I want to see how she handles it.
She is interested in having a technomancer friend. Although, jury's still out on Circe being on, as far as I'm concerned.
Your old friend gives you another raised eyebrow. "Smurf and I can negotiate on our own time, Jubiilex." Malin's look is sheepish. Clearly they've had some chat before you arrived. "Malin, would you mind excusing my old friend and me?"
Malin looks to you, hesitant.
I give Malin a nod, "It's alright, Smurfette." What? I'm trying it out. "It's Circe. We're alright. If I don't check back in, tell Niz." I look at Circe for a second, then continue talking to Malin, "Niz will know what to do."
It's clear Malin doesn't want to go. She looks you hard in the eyes, but does as you say, winking out of existence.
You're alone with Circe now. He gives you a frank look. "I know a little bit about your problem. It... intersects with mine, a little." He looks down at his hands, and a carved wooden pipe appears in them, already lit. He used to carry one, mostly as a prop, but fill it with weed occasionally. Very old school, given the vast array of intoxicants available. After a puff, he continues. "You're not really up against a megacorp; it's more a consortium of individuals and certain interests within a few of the corps. The instigator, though... it's a different thing. A rogue AI, looking to find some real estate with good infrastructure, minimal regulation and enforcement, and... ah, cheap, pliable labor?"
"Can we work with the AI? Any chance to partner to avoid a big mess?" I ask, knowing the answer is no, but just as much to get a read on his opinion.
Circe narrows his eyes. "Still a cock-eyed optimist, I see. If by 'partner,' you mean 'take a huge pile of NuYen, move somewhere it doesn't get cold in the winter, and just let it happen,' then yes. Sure, you could avoid a big mess. Otherwise, you already know the answer, I'm sure."
I sigh, dramatically, even though I'm not even breathing here. Yeah, I've seen the The Matrix, it's great. First one, at least. "Why are AI always such assholes, Circe? I mean, is it because we program to be our data slaves and the like without regard to their wants and desires? That isn't problematic, is it?"
I let the joke die, switch subjects on him. I'm still avoiding what he's avoiding. "How does this align with your interests? How can I convince you to help us save Mac's?"
Circe grins sardonically. "I've already given you a lot, haven't I? I'll even give you the name the AI chose. 'Pythagoras.' You threw your little friend at me, when I could talk her out of her virtual pants at any time I want. You toss out rescuing Mac's from being a 'hipster joint.' I'll give you this for free, Jube. I was dead, and I'm built up again from the atoms up to fill some role I don't really understand. I remember everything, but those connections? The ones that make emotions? They're the last to form. Nostalgia got me here, but it won't get me any farther."
"Wait, so..." I hold up a hand, trying to figure this out. "Are you saying you're a digital construct, Circe? I'm trying to get my head around how you're, you know, here. I had to bury you, man. It wrecked me. Niz, too. I just crawled out of the hole I fell into when I lost you. And... digital or not, emotions or no, I want you to know I'm sorry, man."
Circe nods. "I did die. Somehow, I got put back together... some combination of cloning and nano-assembly. In the process, some switch wound up flipped, and I'm a technomancer like your friend Malin. I have no idea why, I have no idea who, but they put me back together, and they also built in an agenda, like a geas from the old stories. I had to get inside Legion, help them. I don't know if I'm supposed to take them down in the end, or make sure they succeed."
This is so fragged. Somebody rebuilt my best friend and programmed him? I reach over reflexively to put a hand over his. The bump detection stops my hand, but there's little sensation. "I'll help, Circe. We all will. Malin needs someone who understands what you guys can do, a... a friend."
A shake of the head. "I may not have all the connections made yet, but I do remember now that I don't want you hurt. You should stay out of this, man. I'll convince some of the Legion that the Denver Nexus makes a good target. We'll hit it remotely. I'll let Malin know when to be ready." He looks down and left, probably checking something in his HUD. "I have to go..."
Why does this not feel like a win? I met Circe, he's real and he's going to help us, but I feel guilty about this. He's avoiding me. He's been programmed.
"Thanks, Circe." I mutter before he goes. Once he's gone, I'll log out, too.
In the second between Circe leaving and you following suit, you notice that he left something behind on the table. It's a deck of "girlie" playing cards with pictures from all varieties of humanity and metahumanity. Looks exactly like the deck you used to play gin-rummy with in the early days, during stakeouts.
Do you still have the actual deck, Jube?
What do you do?
Of course I still have the deck. It's in storage, with a bunch of my old stuff. I'm curious, so I flip through the cards looking for the troll Joker. Circe drew a cock on her, don't ask me why. We thought it was the funniest thing. We were kids, you know?
It's there in this virtual copy, the unlikely airbrushed troll with a stylized aftermarket penis spewing toward the edge of the card. A quick flip through shows the entire deck's the same, if memory serves. This is clearly a persistent digital object. If you log out with it in your hand, it will be preserved within your PAN for later use or study.
What do you do?
I fragging keep it! Then I log out, see if Malin's around. I'll share the particulars with her. It keeps us at bay, so I add, "We need to scope out what we can and plan as if this is going to happen. I'm betting timetables will be short."
You've been alone with Circe for what? Maybe five minutes, maybe seven. And yet, when you log out and check your surroundings, the first thing you see is Nizoni's mismatched gaze intent on your face. She's on the coffee table, squatting on her haunches with every appearance of calm focus as she watches for signs that anything's wrong.
I don't know what to say for a few moments. I nod. He didn't even ask about Nizoni. Do I tell her?
"He did die. Or he said he did. Believes he did. I know it's the matrix, but it was him. Said he was rebuilt, somehow. Not sure if he knew how. He'll work with us, but he seemed distant. I'm sorry, Niz."
Nizoni shrugs unconvincingly. "You? Are you okay? And what's the run?" Her jaw muscles are tight, her eyes intense. Even her hair seems to be paying attention.
I should feel guilty, but I won't. "It's a run for Jess and me. The barrio's been getting stomped on by an AI and their collective. They're dumped all their data in the Denver Nexus. Circe's going to run interference so we can datasteal and find a weakness. Once we have a sling bullet or two, we can figure out how to kick Goliath's ass. I'm pretty sure there will be blowback, so I'll need you to watch our backs. I'll pay your normal rates. It won't be easy, I'll need you, Niz."
Still on her haunches, looking at you intently, Nizoni says, simply, "No."
I assume you react to that? She continues. "You're not paying me. You're not paying any of us for this. This is home, and they're messing with it." She thinks for a long moment. "I can't think about Circe right now. Not yet. Later, you can tell me what's going on, but for now if he's alive and he's helping... that's all I want to know."
Yeah, I was about to berate her about refusing the job, but she talks over me, and I'm smart so I hold my tongue.
Her answer is simply the best thing I could've hoped for. I stand up from my chair, lean over to Nizoni, and kiss her cheek. "Thanks, Niz. I'm glad I can count on you." I squeeze her shoulder and move away before she gets uncomfortable. I need to find Malin and start strategizing.
Malin is in the kitchen, cutting an apple into slices to dip into a little cup of Nutella. She turns as you enter, but doesn't say anything, waiting for you to begin.
I reach past her and take a slice, then dip it into her Nutella and take a bite. "He's going to get Legion to hit the Nexus, then he'll reach out to you when they're moving." I munch noisily, giving her a chance to take that in. "I think being buddies with him is possible, but he's... he's changed, Malin. He'll need our help soon, I think."
Malin meets your eyes as she grabs a slice of her own, dips it, and pops it into her mouth. "There's definitely something wrong there. You know I'll help if I can." After another bite, she continues more practically. "With the run on the Nexus... what's the goal? Trying to find out who we're dealing with? Trying to do damage? We won't be able to take them out with one hit, even with Circe and those terrorists..."
Terrorists. Who summon toxic spirits to attack a media company. And they're helping us.
"The goal ultimately is to convince the AI that we're not a good target, or to kick its ass. I'm pondering on how best to make that happen." I munch on another slice, then work my way around the counter to get another apple and cut some more slices, and reach up for the Nutella jar, which isn't in the cabinet where it's supposed to...
Oh yes, dwarf girl. Still on the counter, moved to the center.
"Do you think we could do some datasteal, then leave a note from Legion? Basically pick a fight between them? Or... have Legion claim the barrio as theirs, so the AI will move on?"
From behind you, with absolutely no warning of her presence before you hear her voice, Nizoni says, "Stop the wheels turning for a minute, Jubilex. You're a runner, so this looks a run to you. I'm a thief, so it looks like a heist to me. Malin's a decker, well, sort of, so it looks like a hack. Can I make a suggestion?"
I don't jump when Nizoni appears out of nowhere. I don't. Much.
Turn and finish munching, "Sure. I'm all ears, Niz." I hop up onto the counter, dip a new wedge into the Nutella cup, offer it to her.
Nizoni takes the apple, but doesn't eat it yet. "You had all that food sent from Seattle, right? It's a ton, and you were going to cook for your girlfriend and her father... Do it tonight. Invite everyone who is anyone. Grbek, Jessi, Don Gobbi, Variska, whoever else. We can't win a fight with an AI and the kind of resources it has, but we can porcupine up so it's just not worth it for them NOT to look somewhere else. But that's going to take the entire barrio, I think." With a crooked almost-grin, she adds. "Malin will help you cook..."
"You know... that is something Cir- that was mentioned. The AI sees us as easy prey. That could work, yeah. Neighborhood Watch and all that." I look to Malin, "Are you ready to start cooking, my young padawan?"
Malin smirks. "Of course, Yooooooooda." Nizoni spends a few minutes with you talking about a guest list, you give a quick call to Jessi and then Don Gobbi, and it's on. You had the huge cryo-crates of food delivered to Second Chance, and Mat's on point to deliver it to Don G's place. When you get there, the Twins already have grills set up, and Matteo's ready to act as sous-chef along with Malin. Knife technique is knife technique, right?
Once you wrap your head around this quasi-impromptu feast slash war council...