The two men in white shuffled around the dingy break room, pretending they had more to do than sip terrible coffee out of Styrofoam cups. It was a Wednesday night, just after dark, and things were slow.
“Must be quiet out there tonight,” the short one muttered. He was covered in dark, blotchy tattoos under the sleeves of his scrubs; they coiled over his arms, out from the deep V of his top’s neckline and up his neck. A plastic nametag affixed to his breast pocket announced him as “Cliff”. He withdrew a packet of cigarettes from the pocket and stuck one under his mustache, offering another to his partner George, a much taller, thinner, and blanker canvas. Just as George was reaching to take the proffered smoke, the red, caged bulb buzzed angrily, announcing a load-in. “Spoke too soon,” Cliff muttered around the cigarette, as he wearily rose to his feet.
They rolled up the shutter with practiced boredom and met the EMT. This time of night it was bound to be the usual meat wagon drop-off, and the medic didn’t disappoint. The stiff on the gurney was found in bad part of Sector 12 (though they were all pretty bad, these days), jacked in to some jerry-rigged deck running power from a street lamp. Braindeath: no pulse, no identification, no witnesses. Another for the pile. George signed the paperwork while Cliff did the insurance-required once-over vital signs. The guy was practically grey, and cold to the touch, but still, Cliff did the once over and recorded no pulse, no heartbeat, no reflexive responses of any kind. Done and done, they thanked the EMT and rolled the shutter back down.
“Well, well,” George said, letting out a low whistle. The bulge in the back of the stiff’s pants turned out to be a Semtek .45 automatic. Very big, very powerful, and very illegal. He tossed it into the bin for the blue boys to pick up in the morning. “Homie’s into some hot stuff, huh?”
“That neighborhood you gotta be,” Cliff grunted. The guy was heavy, and it took the two of them to move him onto the prep table.
“Hot download?” George asked.
“Probably,” Cliff muttered, wiping the sweat from his brow with a tattooed forearm. “Either that or the poor bastard just fell out. Guy like this was probably in deep.” He tapped his penlight against a chunk of metal and wiring protruding from the corpse’s left temple. “That’s a pretty serious piece of hardware. Definitely not amateur hour.” George grunted in agreement. A moment of silence passed, and then Cliff looked up with a glint of mischief in his eyes.
“Aah, c’mon…” George complained, half-heartedly.
“400 bucks, easy,” Cliff said, pushing the issue even though he didn’t really have to. “50/50 split. C’mon, I’ll flip you for it.” He dug around for a quarter, and George called it in the air. He lost, just like every other time, and swore, just like every other time.
“At least let me catch that smoke first,” he whined.
“Sure thing, pal,” Cliff laughed. The two men in white headed outside, banging the shutter closed behind them.
Chase…the voice said. It was dark, and the voice echoed. He tried to open his eyes, but only saw flecks of blue penetrate the black. Chase…it said again, and then the soothing, feminine tone twisted and warped into something sinister, metallic, and digital. It ripped through his ears and brain in a shriek that seemed to drill down to the base of his spine, sending hot white flashes of searing pain through his temples, and then just as soon as it began, it was gone. His eyes fluttered open, and all he could see was the blur of fluorescent lights overhead.
Chase sat bolt upright, the metal table groaning underneath him. His hands went to the implant at his left temple and massaged it, trying to soothe the burn that lingered on his sweat-sick skin. He looked around the room, looked down at himself, and recognized nothing.
“I know who I am,” he rasped through cracked lips, but the sentence stopped there. It wasn’t true, really. He knew his name, but that was all. He hopped off the table and wandered the tiny linoleum box, and found nothing he knew, including the large Semtek pistol lying in the bin at the foot of the table. He picked it up anyway, hefting it in his right hand, feeling the weight. The faint odor of cordite that drifted into his nostrils was the first familiar sensation he had experienced in his new, short little life. Hell of a big gun, he thought, just as the two men in white banged through the door. They stared for a solid three seconds before bolting back out the door they came through. Cliff slipped and fell, banging his head on the door hinge, but he only swore under his breath and continued his retreat, leaving a telltale drip of blood out the open shutters.
Chase walked to the edge of the loading dock and peered out into the night that seemed to immediately swallow every last ounce of light before it spilled out onto the street. He could barely make out the forms of the two retreating technicians as they tore down the block, not daring to look back, past a trash barrel fire tended to by two excessively pierced young men. They looked after the techs with amusement, then something closer to apprehension as Chase walked over.
“Hi,” he said, the greeting thudding flat in the still of the evening. Both kids were thin but corded with sinewy muscle, the kind of build that only comes from lots of fighting and malnutrition. Chase shifted uneasily on his feet, feeling the weight of the gun tucked into the back of his pants. The tough on the left stared at him blankly, with nothing close to an emotion registering on his face.
“What the fuck you want, plug-head?” the one on the right spat, his words dripping with venom.
“D’you know who those guys were?” Chase asked, dipping his head in the direction that the two techs ran.
“They’re the chop-shop boys,” the one on the left snorted. “They carve up the stiffs and fry-jobs.”
“Question is, who the fuck are you?” said the one on the right.
“I don’t know,” Chase answered, truthfully. The kid ignored him.
“That’s a nice jack you got there,” he cooed, eyeing the metal imbedded in Chase’s skull. “How much that set you back?”
“I don’t know,” Chase repeated. The kid grunted impatiently.
“You walked out of that place with no whites on,” he said, nodding towards the building with the open shutter “and it means only one thing.” He pulled a vibrating, surgical knife from his hip pocket, the blade immediately transformed into a whirring blur at the flick of a button. “You’re a fucking dead man!”
Before the teen could take a step towards him, Chase had drawn the gun from his belt and put two bullets square in the middle of the punk’s chest. He froze, staggered back, and fell to the asphalt, a red smoking crater burned into the center of his body. His eyes stared up as his breath came in wordless, shuddering gasps.
“Fuck!” his companion screamed before running off into the night. Chase looked down at the weapon smoldering by his side. He hadn’t even thought about it. The minute the knife came out, his body had moved of its own accord, pulled the steel from his waistband and unloaded two rounds as fluidly as rainwater in the gutter. What struck Chase, however, was that he didn’t care. He looked down at the body that lay crumpled on the street, no more than seventeen years old, scarred with track marks and other wounds, and felt nothing. No sorrow, no fear, not even anger or satisfaction; only a vague sense of confidence that the situation had been dealt with. He jammed the gun back into his belt and walked on.
In another twenty minutes, Chase was standing out in front of a squat, ashy sootbox of a building, with a broken neon sign that spelled out “SAPPHIRE”. All of the windows had been blacked out, and the only signs of life were the sounds—a thin layer of tinny music, punctuated by clinking glassware and raucous laughter—that rolled out from under a crack in the door. The building was the only establishment for miles, resting on a lot overgrown with weeds and covered in the shadows of nearby cooling towers and scrubber stacks. There was a parking lot, populated almost exclusively by rusted out scooters and one ancient pickup that seemed to have been born on the side of the building. Chase looked down at the crumpled matchbook in his palm. This was the place: 269 San Pedro Street. He turned the flap up, found one solitary stick, and used it to light the last cigarette in his jacket pocket before he pushed through the front door.
The red and blue bulbs inside bathed the room in muted pastels, a fuzzy splash of light that drowned details and left a thin edge of menace in its wake. The crowd was almost exclusively male, save for a few streetwalkers that lingered by the front, looking bored. There was a musclebound giant sitting at the corner of the bar nearest the door, nursing a bottle of beer that appeared laughably tiny in his oversized mitt. Next to him was a bald twig with snakes of wire coiling out of his head and running own his back like metallic tendrils. The man behind the bar sported a mug that looked like it had been through a fair share of smashed glasses and other sharp implements. The space where one eye should have been was sewn shut in a deep crevice of ribbon-like scar tissue. His good eye turned up towards the entrance as the door banged shut behind Chase, and the scowl turned upside down.
“Chase McGillan!” the bartender boomed, in a voice loud enough to drown out the music. “As I live and breathe!”
The twig and the giant turned on their stools and also broke out in wide grins, lifting their glasses in salute. Chase managed a weak smile and took a seat on the other side of the giant, figuring he might be able to coax a few details out of this crowd of strangers that obviously knew him.
“How’s it going partner?” the giant asked with sincere warmth as he extended a hand. Chase tried not to grimace in the crushing grip.
“We thought you were a fry-job for sure,” the twig piped up, in a voice that sounded half-electronic, glitchy. His face was a patchy mess of wires and implants, something that resembled a circuit board more than anything human. His eyes pulsed faintly with dull blue light as he carefully navigated a straw past all the hardware and into his mouth. “But since you’re here, in one piece,” he continued with a flourish, “that must mean you’ve dropped in to buy a round for the peons.”
A small roar went up from the tiny crowd, and Chase nodded and smiled whilst secretly panicking. He patted down his pockets and was relieved to find a small leather wallet, and even more relieved to find it stuffed with cash. He signaled to the bartender: “One for the house,” and the crowd went wild.
The three of them at the corner were served first, a fresh round of beers and a mysterious concoction that resembled dirty dishwater and smoked in a glass. The giant raised his glass in two fingers and nodded appreciatively in Chase’s direction. “To Matahari,”
The cry went up from all the men clustered at the bar: “To Matahari!” before they thunked the glasses on the scarred wood and downed the smoky contents. Chase immediately reached for his beer, hoping to extinguish the urge to vomit. The bartender slapped him on the back, roughly, and then went to attend to the drunks at the other end.
The night wore on steadily, and Chase found it harder and harder to focus on the blurry shapes moving about in the low light. Somebody fed a wad of bills into the jukebox and they spent the next fifteen minutes yelling over old punk songs from the 1980s until the giant got pissed and smashed the juke with a pool cue. An altercation followed, and soon three warm, broken bodies were cooling outside on the pavement. It was 3:00AM by the time the giant lumbered back in and flopped onto his stool. The bartender tossed him a clean rag without comment, and the night continued as though nothing had happened.
Chase tried to remember. He wondered who these people were, and what they did. Most of all, he wondered how he fit into the entire sordid scene that had left three kids out in the gutter with broken bones for the crime of using the jukebox. There was nothing there when he plumbed the depths, only black gaping holes where his past should have been. He was completely blank, and as dawn approached, the twig and the giant’s intoxication levels soared as well, and their questions about this mysterious job and whoever this “Matahari” person was became more and more pointed and confrontational. They kept up a veneer of friendliness, but they got sloppy: Chase could see the looks they exchanged when they thought his back was turned. He didn’t feel afraid or alarmed, only annoyed. He didn’t know these people: not anymore. Most of all, he was tired, and wanted to go home, but he didn’t know where it would be, or if it even existed.
Light had already begun to leak underneath the crack in the door when Chase finally excused himself. He staggered to his feet and zig-zagged out to the parking lot, completely unsurprised to hear footsteps following. He patted his pockets down for cigarettes, and only found a crumpled, empty packet. The giant’s massive forearm appeared at the side of his face, and he took the proffered tobacco and lit it, watching the smoke rise up in the dull morning light and dissipate as it bled into the clouds. He heard the slide of the pistol being racked, and didn’t flinch as the twig’s spidery hands fumbled in his pocket and withdrew the wallet, still fat with cash.
“Sorry,” the glitchy computer-voice said.
“I don’t even know who you are anymore,” Chase responded, smirking with the knowledge that they would always think they knew what he had meant, but they’d always be wrong. A flock of pigeons lit off of the roof of the bar as the shot cracked through the air.
The medics arrived a few minutes later, and the twig and the giant had left. The bartender had been closing up and was getting ready to take the last of the trash bags outside when he saw what he thought was a discarded jacket, lying in the dust. They went to turn the body over, looked into Chase’s cold and waxen face, and went white. One of them looked at the other, his mouth agape, and then turned to the bartender.
“Do you know this guy?” he asked.
“His name’s Chase,” the bartender said. “He’s a regular.”