Rikki watched her ghostly reflection in the tube window, superimposed over the skyscrapers and bustling citizens of the Sprawl, and decided it was a fitting image for her current state. Rikki Sterling, no longer a resident of the Sprawl, now little more than a specter speeding through the figures and landmarks of her old life. Doors and windows flew through the dark reflection of her sunglasses, framed by crumbling brick or slick reflective metal. Same Sprawl she remembered, a mesh of old and new. Some things never changed.
She'd left the Sprawl with the intention of not coming back for at least a decade. But Hollywood hadn't gone as planned. Relatively speaking, she had been successful: she'd gotten small gigs, built up a short resume, secured an agent and earned a handful of followers. But her image had never found its way onto any posters; she still had to worry about bills; and her fans were few enough that she probably knew all of them by name.
And that was okay, really. Rikki realized, now, that she didn't want or need the global adoration of Tally Isham. A tiny fanbase, and a name in the credits of real, published sims, that was all she asked. But even that modest career wasn't going to happen in California, not right now. She didn't want to return to the Sprawl, but then, she hadn't wanted to become a "puppet," nor break Bobby's heart. But Rikki was driven. She was going to be a simstim star, whatever it took.
Her agent back in Hollywood had suggested she just give up on—or, as he worded it, "take a break from"—being a sim star altogether, and try her hand at something else. "Aspiring authors often start off with journals, blogs, short-stories in magazines. Why don't you try traditional film for a while? Or maybe the stage?" That was when Rikki had fired him. And then secretly decided to take his advice. She was going to make a documentary, a simstim recording about "the underground." The side of society that the government tried to conceal from the public, succeeding only marginally, as the average person maintained a loose connection to it through the drugs, sex, and illegal software they purchased. The backdrop of Rikki's childhood.
How truly a part of that world Rikki had been was debatable. She'd never jacked with the console cowboys, tussled with the augmented street samurai, or talked business with any of the crime lords. But one could argue that if Rikki hadn't been a monarch or a knight of the kingdom of the criminal underworld, she had been a peasant. A bar wench, maybe. She'd dated a few of the cowboys; bought from the drug dealers, moderately; was the drug dealer, on occasion; and had a brief career in a "puppet parlor." Three years away from that life, Rikki still wasn't certain how she felt about leaving it. She was glad she'd got away, but probably not as glad as she should have been. A normal person would consider her life's story tragic, traumatic; to Rikki, it had just been monotonous.
And maybe that was why she'd figured she should have no problem breaking into Hollywood. She could handle the worst parts of the Sprawl, and was accepted into the company of its Big Boys. So why not in Hollywood?
The tube finally began slowing to a stop, and Rikki quickly checked her disguise in her purse mirror. Straightened chin-length hair, tuned bright red. Eyebrows plucked and colored to a thin artificial brown. Eyes hidden behind a pair of black onyx shades. Checking to see no one else in the car was looking, Rikki quickly lifted her sunglasses, to examine her Ikons in the mirror. Bright blue, artificial, vat-grown eyes designed specifically for simstim recording, the sapphire iris revealing, upon the closest inspection, the ZEISS IKON logo along the outer ring. She dropped the sunglasses back onto her nose. No one needed know she was recording anything. And later, of course, she'd edit the tapes, to protect the identities of the criminals unknowingly being interviewed (less out of respect for her subjects than for her own safety).
Big risk, she was taking with this project. Life-threatening risk.
Rikki was driven.
"It's not like I'm an addict," a duster at the counter laughed. "It's more like…"
Rikki quietly finished the clichéd joke to herself: "…my body's developed a giant drug deficiency." It was a joke as old as Rikki's grandma.
The Gentleman Loser didn't look like it had changed a day in three years, except for the faces. Different individuals, but still the same crowd. Clusters of computer jockeys trading hacker stories; beefy men and fierce-eyed women flaunting their augmented reflexes and occasionally cybernetic limbs; hookers and drug dealers, looking for tricks; middle-aged bartender, looking like she'd rather be anywhere but here. Same old Sprawl.
Rikki moved through the crowded bar with the same confidence she'd owned back when she was a regular patron. Eyes still shaded, she wore a short black raincoat buttoned halfway, over a soft cotton sweater. Not too fancy, but not like she was out clubbing either. She'd aimed for the look of someone stopping in on her way home from work.
She thought back to the look she'd sported the last time she'd been in this bar. Brown curly hair, streaked with blond. Modest but well-coordinated fashion. Black nails. Face splattered with freckles. Brown eyes. Since moving to California she'd experimented with countless fashions and hairstyles, so her "disguise" now hadn't required much effort. Just the shades, and an alias. Back in Hollywood she worked under the name A.J. Daniels, and all of the friends she'd made since then called her A.J. For this little operation, she'd decided to introduce herself to people as "Barb."
This was a purely independent project. Rikki had come to the Sprawl completely on her own. Her agent, family, friends, everyone, would have insisted that it was too dangerous to do alone, but Rikki couldn't imagine doing it any other way. This was her life to revisit. And anyway, she didn't need any distractions. She didn't have time to play tour guide to an agent or relative. Plus, they'd bring the risk of them accidentally calling her by her real name.
For the first night she just recorded the environment, wandering the bar, making sure to briefly touch the surface of every table, stool, bar counter. Sat near the most interesting conversations, surveyed the colorful crowd. Let her eyes sit on certain hairdos, decorations in the bar, people providing perfect examples of under-the-table deals. She eventually began to converse with people, acting like she was just another bar patron in need of an after-work drink. Worming information out of people—who was still in the biz, who was still around, what names, gangs and technologies had changed since she'd left.
"And how 'bout that Bobby Quine?" she asked a local pimp casually, sipping her drink. "He still come around here?"
"Quine?" The pimp looked mildly amused under his pinstriped fedora. "Shit, Quine's here every other week. Probably be around this weekend. Hasn't had to work for a living since he burned Chrome, but he still needs to impress, y'know?"
Rikki nodded, all too knowingly. "Oh yeah. Yeah, I know Quinn. Well, knew him. Briefly."
The pimp took a long drag from his cigar. "That Quine, he got a way with women. And not a good way."
So Rikki made plans to stop by the Loser that weekend. The days in between, she just walked around town, recording parts of the city she'd frequented when she'd lived there. Tasting all of her old favorite foods again, running her blue-nailed hand through the water of her favorite fountain, all as much for her own benefit as her future audience's.
Now she was strolling through the crowded bar once again, sipping a club soda, black raincoat fully buttoned and shades down. Plenty of people wore sunglasses indoors and dressed like undertakers, so she knew she wouldn't stand out much. Bobby on the other hand, from what she'd been told, was making a point to stand out these days.
But then, so did half the people in this bar, it seemed. Inter-spaced between the everyday businessmen and low-profile hustler was a melting pot of aliens, sporting the latest clothing, hairdos and body modifications of the most outrageous trends. She began to lose herself in the sea of oddly sculpted hair and crazy makeup, starting to relax, forget about recording…
"Chrome, that was cake. The real bitch was keeping the money outta' sight from the Feds."
Rikki's head turned sharply at the sound of his voice.
There, at the table against the wall. Scrawny, dark-haired Bobby Quine, legendary console jokey, and Rikki's ex boyfriend. The man who's heart she'd broken, or thought she'd broken. But he didn't seem broken now, far from it. Sharp new fashion, slick trapezoid sunglasses with mirrored lenses. Leaning back against the booth, with his arm draped around a similarly dressed woman. He bragged before a group of console cowboys, who all looked like they'd gotten sick of this story a dozen re-tellings ago. Only his girlfriend seemed moderately impressed, and even then only humorously. Her bloodred lips smiled at his story with the affection of one accepting a squiggly drawing from a small child.
Rikki had never been a shy girl, and wasn't about to start. She coolly wove her way through the crowd, and leaned over their table. "Some story, cowboy."
Bobby gave her a passing glance. If his girl was offering any reaction, it was hidden behind those mirrored glasses. Up close, Rikki realized that, unlike hers and Bobby's, this girl's lenses had no frames, no handles. They were somehow fused over her eye-sockets, just rising up from her pale cheekbones. Choppy black hair framed her white face. Most of the rest of her was covered by a dark bulky jacket. Burgundy nails drummed the table impatiently. They looked artificial.
"Bobby," the girl said flatly, "You gonna introduce us to your friend?"
"Uh," Bobby's stared at Rikki behind his shades. "I was waiting for her to do the introducing, seeing as I never seen this girl before."
Rikki almost swiped her shades right off. Her disguise couldn't have been that good; anyone who'd genuinely cared about her would have recognized her. She'd played dress-up all the time growing up, and rarely fooled any of her friends or family. But even when dating Bobby, she'd gotten the sense that he wasn't that truly invested in her. He'd seemed more in love with loving her, than with Rikki herself. She figured she knew why his current girlfriend was reacting so hostilely to her presence.
"Name's Barb." She nodded to the girl with the implanted lenses. "Relax Mirrorshades, I'm not looking for a taken man. I was just wondering if he knew anyone who might be selling wiz, and maybe if one of these un-taken gents wouldn't mind buying a girl a drink."
"I got the wiz," said a black guy with white-blond hair, sitting across from Bobby. "But I also got a woman and three kids. Gonna have to find someone else 'buy you that drink."
Next to him, a lanky white guy ran his hand through two of three thin Mohawks running along his scalp. "I'm shit broke, babe."
The third guy simply shrugged bashfully.
"That a yes?" Rikki asked.
"If it's cheap."
"Cripes, never mind."
Rikki pulled over a chair, had a seat at their table.
"You want the wiz now," the black guy asked, "Or later?"
"Later. Right now, I think this guy's story's gonna give me enough of a high."
"'This guy?'" Mirrorshades shifted, rested her arm on the back of her seat, and thumbed to her boyfriend. "You don't know who this jockey is?"
Bobby removed his shades, and furrowed his brow mockingly at Rikki.
Rikki pursed her lips, shrugged. "I'm new around here."
"Bobby Quine?" Bobby pressed. "The guy who burned Chrome? Made a fortune in a night?"
His girlfriend added dryly, "And comes back to the same old creep joints to brag about it, 'cause traveling's for losers."
"For god's sake Mol, we'll go to Europe." It sounded like they had been debating this for a while. "After our next score, I'm taking you to Italy Molly, pinky-swear."
"After our next score," Molly muttered. "And the next, and the next…"
"How do those work?" Rikki gestured with her soda to Molly's lenses.
"You never seen a graft job before?" the jockey with the three Mohawks asked.
Rikki shook her head.
The blond black guy gave her a brief history lesson. "Started as a fringe fashion statement in Russia. Caught on in other places when people started including features like night vision and digital clocks."
"But how come they gotta be fused on? Don't you never wanna take your glasses off? How do you wipe your eyes if they itch? How do you cry?"
"I don't cry, I spit," Molly picked up her beer. "Atmosphere inside's controlled, so my eyes never get itchy or gooey. Don't need to take them off cuz it's nobody's fucking business what my eyes look like. How 'bout you New Girl, you hiding anything under those shades?" she sipped her drink.
Rikki's blood ran cold. Thinking quickly, she improvised, "I'm a runaway." Swallowed. "Don't want my parents to find me."
"Wait, how old are you?" Mohawks cocked his head at her.
Shit, didn't think that lie through. But maybe she could work with it. "Too old to still be living at home, letting Mom and Dad boss me around. So I take off, and I want to lie low until they get the idea I'm not coming back, end of story, okay?"
Everyone seemed to buy it. Actually, it was a damn good story. Would make a good beginning to a simstim adventure, or even just a vid.
"Speaking of stories," Rikki turned back to Bobby. "I want to hear yours. What happened, night you 'burned Chrome?' What's that even mean anyway, 'burning chrome?'"
Bobby was all too glad to give her a retelling of the night he and Automatic Jack hacked Chrome's estate, embellishing on a few details, and leaving others out. Like Rikki. Entirely. It was as if she had never existed.
"So I scored big, and I invested. Automatic Jack, he's out in the 'burbs. Still fixing shit. Got money enough to retire, but insists on keeping up his repairman career."
Rikki was ready to make a point about some people loving their careers more than money, but thought better of it. She noticed that Molly's silver lenses seemed trained to her. Rikki couldn't be sure, but she got the sense the woman's eyes had flicked to her, noticing her subtle movement when she'd almost spoken a second ago.
"Me," Bobby shifted in the booth, "I'm keeping business steady. Invested, own a bit of a business myself. Rich enough to hire the best." He squeezed Molly against him.
Rikki raised her soda for another sip. "The best…?"
"Street samurai." Molly said. "Body guard. Razor girl. Anyone wanna fuck with my Bobby they fuck with me. And anyone fucks with me…"
Her pale fingers spread on the table. There was the faintest whisper of a click, and blue steel blades slid out from under the burgundy nails. Molly didn't smile, but her black eyebrows bobbed humorously.
Rikki's chest froze again, and not just from the claws. She got the feeling that the first "fuck" in Molly's last statement might have been very literal. The entire encounter gave new meaning to the phrase "this cat has claws."
And then, when the fear past, a bit of disgust at Bobby, dating his bodyguard. Okay, props to a guy who could set aside sexist stereotypes about chivalry to hire a female bodyguard; but one who you're dating? No person of either gender should expect their significant other to be their personal human shield. That was wrong on so many levels. And Molly knew it. Rikki had sensed the woman's romantic suspicion; if she cared enough to worry about another woman showing up, then Molly had to know, if only in the back of her mind, that something was very wrong with her relationship with Bobby.
"These babies cut through anything." Molly said, apparently assuming that it was her claws Rikki had been silently pondering for the last thirty seconds. "Wood, metal, bone, flesh, plastic."
At the last word, Molly's pinky flew up across the table, blade fully out, and brushed over the bridge of Rikki's nose. Rikki was frozen in a cringe, as the bridge of her sunglasses gave way, the two lenses limply falling in opposite directions. Rikki grabbed the two halves of her glasses, but not before her eyes were revealed.
"Where'd you buy those eyes?" the man with the Mohawks asked.
"Stim brand, I'd say," Molly answered coldly. "Ikons, looks like."
And then Rikki was running, tearing out of the bar, shoving through the tight crowd.
She finally reached the doorway and somehow, Molly was there, waiting for her. Was the "razor girl" really that fast? Exactly how jacked up were her reflexes? Rikki stopped in her tracks for confusion as much as fear.
The claws extended to Rikki's throat, just barely touching the skin. Rikki heard a gun click behind her. Half the bar was watching now. Conversations continued—scenes like this weren't unusual for the Gentleman Loser—but people were staring, or stealing glances at the scene during their smalltalk and orders. The bartender kept looking up from the mug she was filling.
Rikki's eyes moved back to Molly. She saw her blue Ikons, wide with terror, reflected in Molly's mirrored lenses.
From behind, Bobby said in a low voice, "I think maybe you come with us now." And Rikki realized it was Bobby holding the gun to the back of her head.
Molly corrected, "I think maybe I remove those Ikons now."
Rikki's blue eyes remained frozen wide in Molly's twin mirrors.
"Not yet, Mol." Bobby said. "First we get all the facts. Let's get the Finn 'come take a look at her."
Molly's jaw clenched.