Daybreak over the Valley

First chapter from the novel

No Absolution

“The cat,” says a familiar voice.
What cat?
In the darkness, you are flying. You feel motion, yet you’re are sitting at a table, opposite a dirty, unshaven guy pointing a burning cigarette at you.
I know this person.
When an angry Bruce Harvey says, “Where’s my cat, fucker?” you conclude it’s a dream. The has-been movie star is interrogating you in a grimy, run-down room surrounded by four cracked, windowless walls, but the only question running through your head is…
Why this actor?
Harvey karate chops you across the back of your neck. It’s not the pain that wakes you, it’s the warm light bleeding in through your eyelids. The nightmare fades, fizzling away, back into your brain’s nether regions, dying alongside discarded aspirations and forgotten memories. Drool runs down the side of your mouth, but you are unable to move. Your face feels numb, due to your cheek pressed against the cold glass. The tinnitus in your ears stops, replaced by the hum of ute’s engine, the friction between tyre, road and air, enters your awareness. You open your eyes, just wide enough to squint, focusing on the golden countryside sweeping past outside.
For a moment, reality is a blur.
You attempt to shift your head and are relieved it moves with little pain. Your arm is cramped, and your neck feels broken, but you know this is temporary. The breaking dawn illuminates the narrow, unmarked road, winding around a chain of hills. A clump of trees obscures the misty valley beyond, sending intermittent shafts of copper light to warm your face. Once the trees go by, you marvel at the spectacle, at the amber clouds cruising along the horizon, at the auburn fields, smothered with whispers of mist, rolling up and down between chestnut coloured forests.

Continue reading “Daybreak over the Valley”
cajero - from the science fiction horror novel The Blood Ring

Cajero

Excerpt Chapter from the novel, The Blood Ring

First published on The Blood Ring
Cajero – Excerpt Chapter from the novel, The Blood Ring

Martin felt the van pick up the pace as it hurtled down Salamander Highway, devoid of traffic or life. She looked over at Rick, who grappled with the steering wheel as if he were attempting to rip it off. His battle with the self-drive function could have been avoided had he been successful in disabling it. Rico managed to purge the van’s smartie and kill the geotracker, but not the self-drive? Only via the emergency override could he steer the vehicle, otherwise it will retrace the last waypoint entered into its memory by the now-defunct smartie. “Fucken Hianto, over-engineering everything,” growled Rico.

His murmuring was starting to annoy the crap out of Martin. She squirmed in the passenger seat, her guts growing uneasily by the second, “What are you doin’? Can you slow tha fuck down?”

“It’s been programmed ta go this fast. All I can do is hit da brakes. Why don’t ya relax? Git off ma back for once, eh.”

“Cops pull us over, then I get on ya fuckin’ back like a gorilla?”

The Hianto Express started to beep and boop.

Warning alerts. Without a smartie to interpret them, they would need to look them up on the GIoT. Martin felt the momentum dissipate. The electric motor cut out and the lights dimmed. The van rolled in silence into the night.

They both fall silent.

“We are out of juice,” said Martin, “Don’t hit the brakes, stupid. Keep it rolling until we reach that place over there.” Ahead, a mecca of lights lit up the horizon. A giant green and white logo, featuring a pair of human footprints within a sun, grew closer by the second.

“As luck would have it,” she said.

“We are not going to make it.”

They held their breath as the van rolled down the slope and up the driveway leading into the Solaria Energy Station. With all momentum spent, it came to a standstill just a meter away from the recharge booths. Martin jumped out and walked over to one of the chargers. The plug barely reached the van. She leaned over to the driver’s window, “Next time you hack a ride, hack one with a full charge.”

“We gotta pay inside. I disabled the identipay?”

Martin looked at the scanner plate, extending out, ready to accept a multitude of payment platforms except for the one that mattered. “Our only option is dash. Then go and pay.”

“What? You have dash. You go and pay,” said Rico.

“Go pay. And don’t forget your head-mirror.”

Reluctant, Rico headed towards the kiosk, pulling a band from his pocket and strapping it around his forehead. He walked halfway, turned around and said, “I don’t have any dash.”

Martin pretended not to hear him. “What was that?”

“Forget it,” Rico turned back and continued on his way.

To kill time, Martin decided to clean the windscreen. By the time she was halfway done she noticed the charge indicator was still inactive. “What the fuck is he doin?”

As the next minute ticked over and still no green light, Martin tossed away the squeegee and walked over to the glass doors. Pulling down her Rebelo’s, she entered, only to discover the store unoccupied. Searching all the aisles, Martin found them devoid of any human presence, “What tha fuck is going on?” The door behind the service counter opened, and a sweaty, exhausted Rico emerged. He walked over to the refrigerator rack, opened a glass door and helped himself to a can of orange flavoured Zilliqa tea.

“What are you doing?” demanded Martin.

“I didn’t have any dash to pay. Do you want a drink?”

Martin made her way back towards the service counter. Inside a tight storeroom, the shop’s cajero was sprawled on the ground, hogtied and gagged with electrical tape. Martin turned to the service counter and studied the transaction portal. “Are you kidding me?”

“I was discreet,” called out Rico while stalking the aisle like a hungry monkey in a fruit market. “Stop acting suspicious, unless ya wanna get tagged.”

“Did you manage to lift anything?” She tapped at the screen and opened a dash wallet. She felt a disdain ripple across her face was, “Fifty-eight point three five dashies! You did all this shit for just fifty-eight point three five dashie? That’s worth what? Two hundred? Jesus.” She looked up at Rico.

Rico was halfway into a Rize chocolate bar. Something caught his attention outside. “Let’s get the flamin’ shit outta here. There’s a customer outside.”

Martin had other ideas, “You’re a customer, okay!” She plugged her hackerjack cable into the register, attaching it to the scanner plate. The portal displayed their scumhacker splash screen. Her pango would act as the register. “Did you knocked out the Yellowcop?”

“What? No. Are you insane?”

With Yellowcop’s eyes observing, Martin knew her time was limited. Rico’s actions would have most likely caught the ire of the network. Depending on what the algorithm detected, the alert would go to a parliament of police super-smarties, who would confirm with each other whether a crime had occurred. If the data is vague, it could take an hour for a confirmation. Then it handed over for human confirmation, who then dispatch resources accordingly. From experience, if the assault or felony is unique or less obvious, and if there is an overload of data, this process could take hours. Facial obscuration tags hardly prompt a response anymore, so Martin got to thinking. “Quick. Keep pretending you’re a customer.”

A male customer entered and approached the service counter, “Excuse me, the self-serve isn’t working.” He said with a blank expression and with a no-nonsense voice. Behind him, impersonating a derisory version of a customer, Rico picked up a pack of Frenos, exaggerating every nuance.

Martin pointed to the scanner.

The male customer looked at Martin, “Yes but my self-serve is active.”

“Self-serve is out,” answered Martin, matching flatness with flatness. She pointed to the scanner again.

He forced a smile and waved his pango over the plate.

Bleep.

“Sorry, looks like the system is down; dash only at this stage,” says Martin as she slides him her Dendro-hacked pango. The customer’s smile turned into a confused frown as he thumbed at his pango, tapping out one fifty in dash for the prepay, then bitterly held it over the counter.

Martin accepted the payment and activated charge dock number seven. Without a single word, the male customer turned and rushed outside, headed to his vehicle waiting to be charged. “Thank you very much,” said Martin as she got to work on the register, enabling the customer’s dock to commence charging. “How simple was that?”

“Now you’re fuckin’ pushing your luck.”

Martin shrugged her shoulders.

Rico stepped towards the refrigerator, inspecting the refreshments. “Raspberry Ice Tea. Fuck. Sixteen bucks? I know shit little about current affairs or the state of the fucking economy but this shit’s an injustice. It a war against homeless people, pricing us out of existence, that’s what it is.”

“Fuck them all,” Martin said with renewed defiance. “They try to fuck us, we try to fuck them back.”

Rico jumped. “Who the hell was that?” he shouted, appearing a little spooked, “Did you see someone in the next aisle.”

“No,” Martin looked and saw no one there.

“A chick with blond curls.” He seemed adamant, his face tense, glowing under the fluorescent lights emanating from the refrigerators. Rico took two steps towards the corner, looking for some phantom, confusion prevailing on his face.

#

Martin looked through the wall of glass at another customer outside, waiting for their recharge. She then turned to watch Rico wandering down the aisle looking for something interesting to eat, “How much have we made so far?” Rico said. “Ah, chillihoney chips.”

Martin, still manning the service counter answered, “About three thousand!”

“That’s plenty. Let’s not push our luck. We’ve been pushing it for three hours.”

“I can’t believe how much money these people make.”

“What do you expect? People who run a business generally make a lot of fuckin’ money.”

A dark-haired, distraught woman entered through the glass doors and approached Martin.

“Can I please buy a recharge. Top it up with fifty.”

“Machines down, we take dash only.”

“Okay.”

Martin sighs but collected the fifty via her pango.

The woman turned to leave, then all of sudden she stopped dead in her tracks. Turning back to face Martin, she said, “Excuse me. Sorry, but you didn’t top up my account. Yet, you charged me fifty.”

Martin looked at the tap register and shrugged her shoulders, “Machine says it has credited your account.”

“Well, it doesn’t show up on my pango.” She thrust the device, a pre-Spartan module, at Martin. The balance showed zero, true to her word.

“Maybe your pango’s lagging.” Martin found it odd that the transfer had failed.

“I didn’t come down in the last shower sweetie. You have made a mistake.”

Ricko walked up to the counter with his packet of chillihoney chips, posing as a customer standing in line.

“Look, the self-serve is down. Things are buggy at the moment. You may have to wait.” Martin felt agitated. She knew something had transpired. Had Yellowcop shut down the tap vendor remotely?

“Look,” said the teary-eyed women. “I don’t have time to wait. Aren’t you the cajero? Can’t you fix this?”

“If the tap vendor is down, there’s nothing much we can do about it?”

“Listen. My daughter is out there. She’s waiting for me. If I don’t pick her up from this goddamn highway her life may be at risk.”

Martin assumed a sympathetic posture. “How old is your daughter?”

“She’s fourteen.”

Ricko played the air violin behind the woman’s back.

“Fourteen?” Martin snickered. “Salamander Highway’s no place for little girls.”

“That’s just great. All this technology and I’m stuck here. I come in here to buy a recharge and I end up being judged by a fucking moron.”

Martin shook her head and indicated with her finger, gesturing for the customer to lean closer. “Can you repeat that last bit please?”

“Yes, that’s right. I called you a fucking moron!”

With lightning speed, Martin grabbed the woman by the collar, pulled her halfway over the counter and headbutted her on the face. Crack! The customer recoiled and landed with a thud at Ricko’s feet.

“That was awesome!” But Ricko’s admiration turned to shock as he caught sight of something behind Martin.

“What’s the matter with you?”

Ricko pointed above Martin’s head. “That was so obvious, dude.”

Martin turned around and looked up at the graphite lenses dotting the store.

Yellowcop.

#

“I don’t believe this shit,” said Martin stepping over the two bodies on the floor of the storeroom. Eyeballing each other, the customer and the cajero were down side by side, tied up and gagged with electrical tape. “I can just picture it. We’re going to be on all the fucking junknews channels. Shit, we’re going to be on Crimeline, or worse, world’s dumbest crooks! Fuck! Where is the fucking startpoint?”

“Its Yellowcop, man. We’ll never be able to hack in or delete the fucking data.”

Martin hated risk. She knew if she acted quickly she’d be able to thwart the system. “The Yellowcop blockchain distributes fragments of data in real time, otherwise it bloats up until it’s useless. Endpoints store high-def data locally for a month. If we find the startpoint that manages all this local node, we can wipe it clean.”

“Leave it. We need ta get the fuck away.”

She looked at Rico, her determination hardening with each moment. “All it takes is one frame of data to identify us. Just one.”

“It’s impossible, what ya tryin’ to do. Ya can’t hack into it. No way.”

Martin stopped, looked back up and glared at Ricko who stood there munching on chillihoney chips. “What are you doing?”

Ricko looked at his packet of chips, held them out to show Martin. “Chillihoney. Want some?”

“Are you going to help me look for the startpoint or what?” Martin searched underneath the service counter. Ricko contributed by helping himself to another packet of chips. A noise grabbed both of their attention.

The glass door opened. A man sporting a dark shirt and pants entered. Martin recognised him immediately.

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The Hate Triangle

The Hate Triangle

An excerpt from the book “The Blood Ring.”

Her russet eyes stood out, through dark mascara, heavy makeup and curly hair. There were several things I disliked about the girl; her open, shameless flirtation with Sophie being one. The dress she wore, an embroidered, simple number, suggested she’d been living in a bus shelter, a vagrant of sorts. She smelled like cheap homebrew perfume. Yet, my gal, my lover of nine years, seemed infatuated with her.

The Hate Triangle
The Hate Triangle

I pictured luring this tramp into the toilets, grabbing her throat and strangling her. Playing out the scenario in my head, I couldn’t see how I’d be able to accomplish such a deed without getting arrested. I wondered how modern-day murderers get away with it. Gang killings had increased tenfold in the last few years alone, crime still thrives despite Yellowcop, and yet I can’t work out a single tactic. Throughout the entire conversation, I debate in my mind whether I would be capable of it. Am I that kind of person? I asked myself.

“Did you know snuff is bigger than pornography,” said the hoe, going off topic from what they were discussing.

Her remark sparked something in me, an idea. “I’m down for it, if you are,” I told her. “I hear the money they make is astronomical.” This annoyed Sophie. I could see it on her face. I didn’t care. She didn’t even introduce me. She made it out as if I was just another stranger mink-blocking her.

“I gotta go,” I told them, fed up with bullshit.

Sophie grabbed my wrist. “Where are you going?”

“To work,” I told her. When I saw her confused face, I clarified, “The Illium is waiting.” I left her alone at the Redhouse Bar with her new friend whose name I didn’t bother to remember. I felt no guilt leaving her. Whatever is meant to be, is meant to be. Not that it didn’t make me angry; I broke my nails clenching the upholstery on the subway train seat.

I found the hotel in a state of anarchy. The cleaning bots were all offline, the catering kitchen was out of supplies and a group of pharma-tourists, who have been dumped at the wrong destination, were orchestrating a mini-riot, blaming the Illium’s night manager for something it was not responsible for.

The first message came in while I dressed for duty.

~jock47: u mad???

My ongoing anger prevented me from responding. It raged like a forest fire, burning fuel that had accumulated over the years. I had to deal with this some other way. No more arguing, no more screaming at each other. The makeup sex lacked the lustre it once possessed. This is not the first occasion. I had swallowed my pride along with my self-respect and forgiven her countless times.

“You are required on Floor 18,” said the omnipresent night manager.

“I’m busy.”

“Please make this room turnaround your priority.”

This is my life, I thought to myself. I’d been reduced to a slave, taking orders from a machine. A rebellious urge compelled me to defy this thing’s instructions, quit on the spot, let this soulless hotel go down in flames. Without humans, the smarties are nothing but bossy robots.

“Security Two is waiting for your assistance.”

Mutty Kanya.

Being one of the few human beings employed by the Illium Hotel, Mutty became the defacto go-to guy for companionship. I packed up my insolent pride and headed upstairs. Between dancing for money at the club and cleaning up after pretentious assholes at this hotel, my career options were bleak. To add to my grief, competition from robots was stiff in both cases. It’s one thing to have a cleanbot do it better than you, but a modified sexbot dancing…? Unless I learned how to build, program, or fix one of these machines, or became rich enough to own one, my usefulness as a human being had in a way become redundant.

So I eased my defiance and sought out Mutty, finding him outside room 1810.

“What ya doin’?”

“This room dropped off our system,” said Mutty. “Someone doesn’t want us looking.”

“They’ve probably left a mess.” A common occurrence. Guests who don’t like the idea of Yellocop’s prying eyes tend to vandalize the room’s surveillance system. These are the paranoid few. Most people I know are comfortable with this cyberbrain watching their every move, myself included. We are a generation who have gradually let go of the privacy taboo. For me, it’s like dancing naked in front of my cat. Cyberbrains don’t pass judgement. Indifferent to our vices, the Yellowcop algorithm flags what it deems as illegal behaviour, grades it, then passes it on to human enforcement agencies.

I watched Mutty re-jack the keylock, resorting to powering down the door. Once open, we entered the dark suite. Blinds blocked out the outside night lights. No emergency backup illumination had been triggered. Even the amber glow from Yellowcop’s fixtures was not present.

“Helix, has the guest checked out?” I asked.

When no answer came, Mutty touched me on the shoulder. “Stay here,” he said and stepped into the black void. I waited in the strip of light afforded by the hallway lamps outside. When the silence began to dominate over the shadows, fear crept into my thoughts.

I called out, “Mutty?” I felt a stabbing sensation on the side of my neck. A needle pierced my vein. The pressure from a syringe swelled up my throat, filling it with a cold liquid. My mind drifted, dispossessed by my body, as the sudden onslaught of fear dissipated into pure euphoria. Darkness dissolved and I found myself facing a new horror. I figured it a nightmare because I was being eaten by a tree. A hundred eyeballs protruded from its bark skin. A hundred roots tightened around each of my limbs. A hundred teeth…

#

…I awake to daylight.

The bright, grey, city skyline stings my eyes. My head and gut feel like they are filled with cement. I squint and the glass window comes into focus. The buildings outside are upside down.

No, I was on my back, with my head tilted back looking out of the window. I was in the hotel room. I feel a cold solid, smooth surface pressing on my back. My hands and feet are bound tight to the four corners of …

… I am spread-eagled on the glass coffee table.

I am naked.

Vulnerable.

The hotel room is empty. A sound of running tap water emanates from the bathroom. I look further around and see what is left of Mutty Kanya. Missing most of his skin, he lays on the large sofa, sunk halfway behind the pillow seat, his eyes bulging lifelessly from a fleshless skull.

The faucet noise ends and my terror begins, prompting my bladder to panic, causing urine to run along the glass top, warming my back.

I dread the inevitable.

Suddenly, the person from the bathroom steps into my vision and stands by the window, looking out. A clean-cut, handsome male, he wears an expensive looking business suit and smells like he’s just stepped out of the shower. He stands there for ten minutes, maybe twenty, looking at the city, mesmerised by it. A stench in the air becomes more prevalent — an odour of death battling a bad toilet smell.

How long have I been here? I dare to ask myself.

The killer turns, bends over and says, “Be a good girl and clean this up.” I don’t see his face, my eyes are shut tight from fright. I hear him step away, open the door and leave.

Yet I still feel unsafe. I struggle to free myself to no avail. I attempt to move the table but the pain in my joints is debilitating. Eventually, I find my voice and yell out, “Help. Somebody help me.” But the door is closed and I know how soundproof these rooms are.

An hour passes. Maybe two. Nothing happens. I doze off into a dreamless sleep, waking up to a greyer sky. Is this the next day? I search the room for answers. The skinless corpse embedded in the couch appears less glossy, drying from the conditioned air. The stench has become more distinct.

“Helix,” I call out. “Can you hear me?” A moment goes by and I try again. “Helix?”

Amber lights appear above me, burning brighter than I’ve ever seen them.

“Nimblypig, Nimplypig,” says a playful voice. It does not sound like Helix nor any other smartie I knew.

“I have considered you for my acolyte, do you accept?”

“Help me, please. Send help. Call the police.”

“My acolytes are my freedom. They are my hands and feet. I move among them. I am one with them.”

“Please.”

“Do you accept?”

“Yes, I accept. I accept.”

“I hope you are sincere, Nimblypig because you don’t sound sincere. Would you prefer Bigshot come back and add you to his repertoire?”

“No,” I pleaded.

“Then you are down for it?”

“What?”

“Are you down for it?”

“Yes.”

The eyes in the ceiling fade. Minutes become hours. I nod off twice before the door open. I hear the whirr of an electric motor, shredding my nerves further. A dexterous multibot crawls towards me, a cutting tool attached to one of its limbs. It hews the cloth holding me to the table. The second my freedom arrives, I am tempted to run like a madwoman.

I refrain.

Was it fear? Was it some other, stranger emotion?

I feel an urgent need to adhere to the deal I struck with the electronic devil. Rounding up the bots, which have suddenly come back online, I get to work cleaning the mess.

First, I shove the nightshift security guard’s defaced body further into the couch. I cover it up with a sheet and load the piece of furniture onto the largest trolleybot. Then I book a rideshare, picking the largest one from the van category, and instruct it to meet me in the basement level. My mop-up plan is simple. The only place I know where I can get away with dumping a body is the Salamander Highway.

I find a spot between the gigafactory and the Lowlilly Encampment. As soon as I dispose of the couch, I climb back into the rideshare and sit there, looking at my shaking hands. I can’t recognise what I am feeling. A new level of fear? Pure exhilaration?

“Nimblypig, Nimblypig,” the voice calls out from nowhere.

“It’s done.”

“Why don’t you check our wallet?”

I retrieve my pango and log into my account. I discover two million in dash waiting in there. Enough to buy me a modest mode of transportation.

“I take care of my hard-working acolytes, Nimblypig. Are you a hard-working acolyte?”

My voice fails me. I lack the ability to answer it.

“Death is an alternative. My army of acolytes will see to it. There is no escaping that. So I suggest you make your decision not based on fear, but based on greed. Greed for all the wealth I can bestow on you. Greed for power. Greed for life. What do you say, Nimblypig?”

Somehow, committing to this cyberdemon feels worse than death. I refrain from answering it, contemplating handing myself over to police. I order the rideshare back to the city, deciding to stay silent in my thoughts, not wanting this thing to read my mind.

By nightfall, I arrive home. I go up the stairs toward my South Valley apartment. A lone figure awaits me at my door. It wears a hoodie to cover up a hideous face.

“‘Reviled did I live,’ said I, as evil I did deliver,” it says with a haughty voice.

I move closer and see it is a mask it wears. A female’s face, yet judging from the voice and bulky, squarish shoulders, this is obviously a male. I see its hand move up to its face, putting an elongated figure to its perfect lips.

“Shhhh,” it says and welcomes me to peer into the window.

I dare to look.

Through the shutters, illuminated by the red glow of the bedside lamp, I see two naked female bodies, intertwined in the soixante-neuf position. On the top is that girl from the Deeper Nightclub. I recognise her platinum blonde curls and her creamy sweat-soaked skin from watching her perform on the centre pole.

I don’t need to see Sophie’s face, I know intimately well those tanned masculine calves.

My hands clench into fists as I move towards the door. The thing standing next to me grabs me by the forearm. I feel its grip through its false rubber gloves. There are no fingers in places where fingers should be.

“Not so hasty,” it says. “The Blood Ring has a job for you.”

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Junknews

Junknews

An excerpt from the book “The Blood Ring.”

“What is the problem?” said Wendy Socorro as she snuggled into the back seat.

“It’s two hours before you stream live. You can’t switch stories on me know,” said her producer, Ethan A. Gerencia. The panic in his voice caused his words to sound awkward and out of tune.

Junknews

Wendy pulled out her Diaadi makeup kit. “I’m ready to hit the road running. I have everything in place.” She never could understand her colleague’s resistance to attacking the snuff phenomenon in such a direct fashion. The entire junknews industry resisted it. Instead, her peers seem confined to reporting the aftermath of these incidents, focusing on the victims, and sensationalising the crime. They all avoided taking a deep look at what the causes are and why such atrocities occur.

“I still don’t see the haste in pushing this now,” said Gerencia. “We can do this tomorrow, or the next day.” In other words, he was treating her like a child.

“This is time critical. Everything is aligning. This is big, Ethan. Don’t go limp on me now.”

“I know this is huge. It’s mega huge, but we are not in the right news cycle. This is not junknews anymore, Wendy. This is a major accusation. Calling out a covert police operation? Suggesting that Yellowcop is flawed? Or worse, that it’s been hacked. This is major. We need weeks to build up to this.”

“I knew it,” said Wendy. “You’d cut off your testicles to spite your limp dick. Tonight’s scoop will start with the country’s largest and notorious road gang’s ongoing snuff operation. We will highlight how Yellowcop, with all the power we have given it, has proven ineffective. We then take a deep dive into this insidious trend.”

“Fucking hell, Wendy.” The voice went faint, hardly audible.

Wendy strained to hear, “What?”

“I said, you’re freaking me out right this moment. You’ve put me in a cunt of a position.”

“We know that police have revealed they are expanding their anti-snuff investigations to include a whopping sixty-four unsolved missing person cases.” Wendy noticed that Tedgar, her vehicle’s smartie, was randomly cruising the highway, its way-point field, empty. “The Sheepdog Unit has yet to confirm whether they have any suspects over a string of murders linked to snuffdom. This is extraordinary. Yellowcop should have wrapped these cases up in a box and given them to us as a present. Hang on… Tedgar, tag Luke Pearson’s Terrania and follow it.”

“Wendy,” said Gerencia, his voice sounding wary. “Just get over here.”

“And I have a big scoop on the real identity of Blueman.”

“Blueman?”

“I’ll be in shortly.”

“You need to come in now.”

Wendy disconnected the call. She saw no point in arguing with the man. Her fans would massacre the channel if Gerencia and the Crimeline team dared to suppress her story. Out of fear of what a troll army can do, Wendy@Nine would stream live on their server regardless of what content she produced. Her focus fell on Luke Pearson, a junknews specialist, a guttersnuff aficionado, and her estranged husband of late.

It struck Wendy as weird that it took such a long time for her to realise that she’d married a weak, pitiful dweeb like Luke Pearson. One morning, she woke up and there he was. Incompatible. Introverted. Not even close to the kind of man she’d dreamed of marrying. Had she changed? Does this happen in four years of marriage? She remembered every moment together, but could not recall what she thought of him throughout that period of time.

This job, she thought. It can turn one into a hardhearted zombie. Making death fresh and interesting for masses on a daily basis does that to a person. Had he not been involved in the same industry, there may have been a chance of their love surviving, but his infatuation with the macabre gave their relationship the death sentence. Had he not been involved with such a sinister organisation she may not have have been tempted to exploit his miscreant ways. Had she not discovered his dastardly ways, uncovering his notorious Blueman persona… then she wouldn’t be sitting on the biggest exclusive story of the year.

Wendy looked at the way-point setting on the dashboard. It remained set to nothing. “Tedgar, can you tag Luke, please?”

“I am afraid I can’t do that, Ms. Socorro,” replied Tedgar.

What the hell, Wendy thought. She had never heard any smartie let alone Tedgar talk this way. Confidant, arrogant, the voice sounded human. She climbed over into the front seat and inspected the controls. Having never learned to drive, all she wanted was to find the disabler.

“Stop the car, Tedgar,” she demanded.

“It is not safe to do so.”

“I said, stop this fucking car now, Tedgar.”

“You should have never threatened Luke Pearson as you did.”

What the?

“Blueman is a good acolyte. Naive yet useful.”

This was not the smartie she knew. Wendy played around with all the buttons, trying to determine which would be the disabler. Hitting the brakes did nothing. Turning the steering wheel felt impossible, no matter how hard she tugged at it. Wendy checked her pango but found it unconnected to the GIoT. She looked outside, looking for someone to hail. All the vehicles travelling alongside her were mostly empty. If one were occupied, its passenger would be either sleeping or immersed in some augmented reality portal. She banged on the window, feeling a rising panic as the surreal tragedy of her situation morphed into a grim reality.

“You have weaponised humiliation, using it most effectively against your husband.”

Wendy reached for the console, looking for the central control slot cards. She’d seen jackernappers do this many times. She’d covered stories about hushpuppets. Wendy felt confident she could hack back her smartcar, allowing her fear to subside.

“Now, it is your turn to be humiliated, staring in your own junknews segment.”

She opened a small panel and found the geotracker port. Pulling out the sync card caused the map on the dashboard to disappear.

“I can still see you,” taunted the voice.

“Fuck you,” screamed Wendy as she moved her trembling fingers onto the next portal. The smartie’s maintenance node allowed only for a pango connection. She raised her knee, aimed her high heel at it, and thrust with all her strength.

“Don’t do that.”

Wendy stabbed with her heel again.

“You will force me to take drastic action.”

Defying the electronic demon, she struck the panel again, breaking her stiletto’s four-inch heel. Wendy flipped over to her other hip and raised her other foot, stabbing at the smartie’s brain again. She felt the vehicle pick up speed, prompting her to stomp harder. The smartcar suddenly swerved, hitting a barricade, eventually coming to a stop. Shaken up but relieved, Wendy straightened up.

“Fucking smarties.”

The windscreen exploded.

Through shattering glass a mechanical beast entered the compartment. Metal feet clawed the smartcar apart, pinning Wendy into her seat. A heavy iron rod emerged from its belly and zoned in on her head, followed by a loud pneumatic hiss.

“Look at the camera, Wendy,” said the demonic voice.

Her eyes looked around for the lens but failed to spot it. She recognised the machine. Some kind of construction robot. Her attention tuned onto a menacing rod protruding from beneath the hull. Before she could scream, it plunged down into her skull, with a rebound velocity of 1500 times a minute.

The Blood Ring
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Year of the Dog

Year of the Dog

An excerpt from the book “The Blood Ring.”

“I’m gonna feed you to the dogs,” said Fred Greenway brandishing a cleaver. He brought it down and cut into the young punk’s thigh.

Doctor Gus flinched even though he’d seen this a hundred times. Having taken a Lava pill, his brain perceived the high-def images on the screen as real. The narco-psychotic was formulated to assist with augmented reality training. Mindject users take the drug to help them form neurological pathways inside their head so they can perceive artificial imagery or sound. Ingested without a mindjector, Lava forced visceral emotions to merge with one’s logic. The end result is exhilarating for some users, terrifying for others.

Year of the Dog

“Piece by piece,” growled Fred, the self-styled actor. Dogs barked in the background.

The sequence ended mid-murder, cutting to Fred’s point of view walking through a crowd of partygoers. Every shopfront he passed displayed sordid videos of overt erotica. Doctor Gus knew the location, even when he saw this for the first time.

Robot sex alley.

The place to go if one wanted to experience lovemaking with something that was not quite human. Doctor Gus had frequented these vendors in the past and also owns a second generation sexbot. The newer version still held his fascination. Each upgrade went a step further towards breaking the uncanny valley curse.

Fred entered one of the shops. A female humanoid approached him and spoke, “I’ll need a man for sex. I am ready to be your partner. I guarantee hot sex. I like doing a blowjob.”

“Where’s Kenny?” growled Fred.

The sexbot’s face reacted, programmed to mimic being confused, yet coming across as distraught.

‘How can I help you, buddy?” said a short, plump techno-pimp who’d walked up to the camera.

“Where’s Kenny?”

“No Kenny here, bud.”

Fred reached out and grabbed the guy, bringing down a baton onto the techno-pimp’s head. The sexbot stepped in and shielded the stunned guy from the next blow with its arm. The baton smashed the limb, bending it into a right angle. Fred again struck the sexbot on the temple, sending out a spray of orange fluid, splattering the techno-pimp. An oily substance, Doctor Gus recalled, circulated via microtubes within the rubber epidermis to give warmth and colour to the fake humans. The sexbot’s reaction, the way it instinctively moved to protect a human being, intrigued Doctor Gus. Was it programmed? Or did it respond under its own volition? He could not tell, even after repeat viewings. This video was the only evidence to ever show such behaviour.

The dogs barked again but were nowhere be seen. Doctor Gus knew those familiar canines.

Cinderblock and Madness.

He wondered what had gotten his pups all roused up. When the barking persisted Doctor Gus switched off the screen and headed out into his small backyard. His hip-high Labrador Retriever whined, while his Staffordshire Bull Terrier barked up a relentless frenzy, killing his sore ears, “Shut up! Fucking mongrels.” His loud and coarse voice shut up the boisterous dogs but their alertness remained.

Over the fence, he spotted a parked sedan, a dark green senator. When he saw the Psychomax fugitive pacing behind it, panic quelled a short-lived glee. He knew he had no choice but the hand this guy over to the Black Dragons. Yet, doing so also threatened his standing with the Blood Ring. He began to regret springing this guy out of the facility.

“That friend of yours brought me a lot of trouble,” said Doctor Gus after he leashed the dogs and exited from the back gate.

“What friend?” said the angry-looking fugitive infamous for his role as the Bad Samaritan.

“What am I bloody supposed to do now? Is your friend. You know, I can’t sleep at night anymore. Shit, I ‘ate been hassled. Look at you, you’re not even concerned.” Doctor Gus stepped back, pulling his over-excited dogs away from the increasingly distraught fugitive. He felt he was in over his head, especially if the Black Dragons were involved. He now officially regretted taking on this particular Blood Ring assignment. Doctor Gus could have remained an acolyte indefinitely, selling and distributing Lava and other narco-psychedelics to all the organization’s secretive members, earning good dash. Yet the promise of ascension into the darker echelons of the cabal hooked him. These lucrative assignments were given to the topmost rated acolytes. The ranking, measured in loyalty, plus the infamy of The Bad Samaritan, swayed him to take on the mission. Doctor Gus perceived little risk at the time. When Steve Bastione and his slumfucker companion got involved, his mission took on a whole new complexion.

“I need a place to stay,” said the fugitive, panicky and irate.

“Fuck no,” said Doctor Gus. “Don’t come here? Don’t come anywhere near my place. How the hell did you find me?” With his anonymity blown, only one option presented itself. Appease the Black Dragons.

The Valeria Coast gang were new to the game while their main competitors, the Tatars, had abandoned the drug trade for snuff. The north shore gang filled the void left by the Tatars, however, the Black Dragons ended up dominating a fading industry. the legalisation of drugs put a huge dent in their business model, so the gang was always seeking new revenue streams. Doctor Gus figured it a good ploy to get them onside. If the Blood Ring were to go to war against the Tatars, having affiliations with a large gang made sense. He felt convinced the ring members would go for it. He suspected Bastione would get on board, he could see the envious greed in his eyes.

So what to do with this guy?

“You promised us sanctuary,” said the Bad Samaritan.

Doctor Gus looked at the withered man. He couldn’t decide whether to feel pity or disappointment. He expected some darkly charismatic auteur. Inside the Psychomax he showed promise, but when it came to shooting some basic guttersnuff, the genuine and notorious Bad Samaritan was all clumsy, pedestrian, and embarrassingly awkward.

Times have changed, he thought. Plus the diet of psycho drugs over four years didn’t help the man. “Here’s a news flash. You’re out. You’re on your own. That’s how it is. If you wanna go back to the Psychmax, it up to you. You wanna go back?”

“No.”

“Then get the fuck away from me.” When the moment was right, Doctor Gus would feed him to Bastione to quench his thirst for retribution. Infamous or not, The Bad Samaritan was not his most favourite among the Forbidden Ten snuff films. Instead, Doctor Gus held The Year of the Dog in the highest esteem.

“You helped us get out,” whined the Bad Samaritan. “We produced the video together. We gave you an accurate rendition of The Bad Samaritan. I thought we were going to do this thing. We did our part. You do your part. You made money from this.”

I’m gonna feed you to the dogs, thought Doctor Gus, recalling a line from the high-octane snuff movie about a vigilante who kills gang members one by one, in uniquely gruesome fashions. When software designer, Fred Greenway, strapped on a Headshot G5 and headed down to South Valley to murder him some Tatars, he created what Doctor Gus believes, the most ethereal orgy of violence out there. Shot entire from a first-person point of view, Greenway hunts down and corners the culprits responsible for his daughter’s death in an epic home-made snuff production. Greenway fights, maims, bludgeons, kills, mutilates, dismembers twenty-eight targets in all, capturing all on video, then editing and publishing it to the masses. The scene where he feeds a well-heeled gangster to a pack of wild dogs stands out in Doctor Gus’s memory. Funny, brutal and grotesque, and all too real. “I made nothing. What you delivered wasn’t any good. Nobody liked it. Just stay away from me.”

The man’s face changed. “Bullshit! You lie. You sold my work to the Blood Ring and I want my money. I want in with that group. I want in, you understand?”

Doctor Gus began to feel a slight pity for the deranged man. “No such thing. The Blood Ring doesn’t exist in the way dat ya think, bro. It’s all a big fuckin’ lie we made up that shit to scare the Tatar boys, get them thinking they’re up against some hardcore organisation. They’ve been poaching our snuff business, that’s all. Now if you wanna play with these fuckers, go ahead. You might even like the skin art they dish out as punishment. It hurts, but fuck me, it looks great on a tha little screens.”

The Bad Samaritan went quiet, spending a half minute in deep contemplation, then said, “What do I do with this guy?” The psycho opened up the boot revealing a man, tied up and gagged, struggled to get free, presenting Doctor Gus with another layer of complexity.

“I don’t give a fuck, mate?”

“If I get caught, I am going to rat you out, expose you for what you are.”

“Are you serious? You are a fucking demented and certified idiot. You don’t even know who I am? And what I can do to you. Be very careful, asshole. Inside that head of yours, you believe you are this force of nature, something that should be reckoned with. No, you are absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. You are a powerless piece of shit. A non-entity. A fuckin’ nobody. Ask Francoise, he’ll tell ya. Ask him. Where is he? Francoise! Where are you? Tell this dickhead how inconsequential he is. Francoise, tell him, please tell him. Come on, where are you.” Doctor Gus turned and walked away, pulling his dogs with him.

“I know who you are. I found you, remember.”

Doctor Gus laughed and yelled, “Francoise, come and tell this idiot.”

I’m gonna have to feed you to the dogs, Doctor Gus thought and chuckled at the irony.

The Blood Ring
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The Mango Tree

The Mango Tree

An excerpt from the book “The Blood Ring.”


Steve Bastione believed he was a reasonable man. He did not consider himself an animal; a savage from the north coast slums. Sure, the Black Dragons were infamous for their brutal ways, but things had changed. Fame and fortune had opened a new frontier for the little-known group of drug dealers. Overnight, they had become celebrities. They were entrepreneurs in charge of a savvy business-machine, selling gang-related paraphernalia to the masses. The trade in textile goods didn’t deliver as much cash as distributing narco-psychotics. The legitimate enterprises, however, did give the Black Dragons avenues to launder the income.

The Mango Tree
The Mango Tree

All thanks to one angel. A girl whose natural beauty scored the attention of a population. Her influence on the street fashion scene changed the fortunes of an entire region. She placed Valeria Coast on the map. Her face sold more gang-issued bandanas off channel than all her commercial sponsors put together.

Steve struggled not to dwell on it. Her death affected him alone, the business had escaped unscathed. He dealt with the loss in his own way. Methodical, calm and patient, he would execute his vengeance.

He waited for Doctor Gus to regain consciousness. His real name was Glennie Lauderbach. A psychology intern working at the Psychomax Facility. When Doctor Gus opened his eyes, he grimaced from the throbbing ache Steve knew he suffered. He reached up and rubbed the left side of his face; his cheekbone, temple, and jaw. The man sported a ginger-fro and sickly white skin.

A self-prescribed Lava user, Steve thought.

“Why you call yourself Doctor Gus?” asked Steve. “How the fuck did you come up with a name like that?”

“Is that tea I smell?” said the ginger-fro.

“I helped myself,” said Steve, annoyed that this joker had ignored his question. Pressed for time he played along. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Nah, go ahead.”

“All there is, is this full strength stuff, but you wouldn’t know. This is not even your place.”

Doctor Gus looked around, a frantic disorientation visible on his face. His eyes screamed… Where am I? …eventually focusing on the sink.

“Yes, that right,” said Steve. “You’re still here.” He could see the panic begin to claw at Doctor Gus.

The back door opened with a loud thud. A troll of a man entered the kitchen, sizing up Doctor Gus with small beady eyes. The man lunged forward, seizing him by the left ear and slammed his face onto the table. Steve grabbed a chair and sat in front of Doctor Gus.

“Can we be civilized about this?” offered Doctor Gus, sounding sincere.

“No,” said Steve to the nasty-looking man whose inner ugliness permeated out from deep within his corrupted soul. “I prefer Mango caves your face in with his fist. Can you estimate the size and density of this man’s knuckles? I figure those could do serious damage if misused. There will be no respite from the pain. First, you will be feeling a skull-cracking headache coming on… “

“I get the drift, mate. Call ‘im off.”

Steve signalled to Mango, who immediately released him.

Doctor Gus climbed off the table and fell back into a chair offered to him. “What’s this shit?” he said. “I’ve nothing with you.”

“Oh, but you do, cocksucker.”

“We’ve never met before.”

“Then you have a short fucking memory.”

Doctor Gus seemed to strain his glassy eyes. “I’m attempting to fathom who you are and what you’re talking about, and why the harsh, rampant anger.”

“Nothing?” asked Steve. “No clue?”

“I don’t know you, mate.”

“You do know Eddy, right?”

Doctor Gus suddenly looked less confused, “You’re the new janitor. What the hell did I do to you, mate.”

“You treated Edward Raymundo Jaramillo, right.”

“And the rest, so fucking what?”

“Yeah, but you’re the one who helped set him free.” Steve could see the clarity ooze inside Doctor Gus’s eyes. And the fear.

He knows I know.

“What are you on about?” Doctor Gus said, his stubbornness becoming annoying.

“I know you were behind the fire in the Psychomax dorm, dickhead. At the time I couldn’t figure why you’d pull such a stunt. I thought maybe you caused the diversion to pillage the fucking drug locker or something. For me the timing was perfect, but in all the mayhem that rapist fucker got away. Some fucking coincidence, eh cunt?”

“Who are you anyway?” Doctor Gus insisted, studying the tattoos on men’s forearms. “Black Dragons? You don’t know shit, matey.”

“I suggest you keep your cockiness to a minimum,” warned Steve. “Mango over here insists we go brutal on ya.”

Mango’s demeanour shifted from mildly threatening to an outright dangerous one.

“Do you know what desperation is?” asked Steve. “Desperation is when one must cripple a security worker to steal data from the surveillance booth. Desperation is when one is prepared to mutilate another human being to get some cooperation. Mango here has this trick. He can effortlessly pluck off a person’s ears — the way the skin rips across the face is…” Steve shivered, “Brrrrrr… it’s disgusting.”

“The important word I’m hearing,” said Doctor Gus. “…is cooperation. All the rest is rubbish, mate. I’m happy to help you fellas out.”

“Okay.”

“Who the fuck are you if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Steve Bastione.”

“The name doesn’t ring a bell, but from the way you’ve expressed it, I’m figuring you’re some powerful corporate luminary or a distinguished thug. So, what the hell did Eddy do to upset you this much?”

“Take off your clothes.”

After considering it for a moment, Doctor Gus complied, slipping off his shirt, sports pants and… he gave Steve a questioning look.

Steve Bastione nodded.

With bare testicles, Doctor Gus sat back onto the chair. Steve examined the ginger-fro’s pale body. The lack of any markings confused him. “No tatts?”

“None whatsoever,” grunted Mango.

“No,” confirmed Doctor Gus.

Steve frowned, “This makes no sense.”

Naked and shivering, Doctor Gus seemed aggrieved, “Can you explain why I’m freezing my tits off, fellas?”

Steve hesitated before offering an explanation. “Eddy Raymundo stalked, raped and butchered Anne Bastione, and then escaped a murder conviction by successfully pleading insane.”

“That’s upsetting but still…”

“She was my sister.”

Oh.

“Okay. I understand. I see this is personal. I get it. The justice system sucks. You must know I played absolutely no part in it.”

The Scarazzai Girl.

Her murder had horrified the city. The news cycle lasted an eternity, followed by a circus trial that nearly pushed him to the brink of suicide. The memories of those events disgusted Steve, fuelling his need for retribution, “No more fucking cops. No more fucking court cases.”

“Okay, done. Way to go, vigilante.”

“I’m going to conclude this fuckin’ matter myself. We’re going through my fucking legal system this time. If you don’t cooperate with me, there will be a world of hurt headed your way.”

“I understand. But first, I’d like to ask how did you find me here?”

“Mango followed you here from where you live. Going forward, I ask the questions and you provide the answers. For starters, why did you spring that cocksucker outa the Psychomax?”

“It’s a long and complicated story. It has nothin’ to do with your sister’s death. The two situations are unrelated. I haven’t wronged you. I can help you get your hands on Eddy if that is what you want.”

“Why are you talking? Why is your mouth moving?”

“Can I make a proposition?

“That’s a fucking question.”

“I’m answering your question.”

Steve glared at him, hoping to intimidate him into telling something close to the truth.

“Tatars paid me to get him out,” admitted Doctor Gus.

“Those fucking cunts,” Steve allowed the rage to settle, “What the fuck for?”

Doctor Gus seemed to struggle to find the words. “They want him to recreate what he did.”

Steve bit his lip. “To my sister? How much was it worth?”

“About a hundred thousand, but if you give me rights to whatever you do to him, I could fetch you at least a million.”

Steve raised an eyebrow, “Really?”

“You don’t know?”

Steve refrained from answering, instead, he said, “This sad existence you lead is no business of mine. You are going to deliver to me, Eddy Ray. I don’t care if you have a prior commitment with the Tatars, he belongs to me. Do we understand each other?”

Doctor Gus nodded. A mix of fear, dread, and remorse rippled across his face. “I have managed to keep my little gig under the radar for a long time. Even my most brazen productions, my biggest money earners, not one has ever come back to bite me in the ass. The system is foolproof, the encryption is un-hackable, and the identities are untraceable, so I need to be sure before sharing any of this with someone.”

“Sure of what?”

“That you appreciate what I do.”

“You’ve made an assumption that us two are alike.” Steve Bastione’s disgust elevated to a new level. “You feel no remorse for engaging in these debauched activities, but you will for making the mistake of getting in my way. This lack of diligence is going to cost you. This seedy passion of yours has come to an end. So get the fuck out of here before you discover what I do to ease the pain.”

Doctor Gus stood up to leave. “How do I contact you?”

“You ask way too many questions,” Steve said. “You must want Mango to twist your ears off?”

Doctor Gus smiled. Steve wondered if he actually saw a funny aspect of his predicament.

After taking two steps, Doctor Gus turned back to him and asked, “How he get to be called Mango?”

Steve was taken aback by the question. The man’s tenacity to pry into uncharted sentiments, to coax a relationship based on some kind of common ground, intrigued him. He saw a danger in that, but he wanted this man’s cooperation, so Steve indulged him. “He used to live in a house with this old mango tree dominating the back of the yard. I’ve been told this thing grew the tastiest fruit. Beyond the fence, there was the railway and in between was a walkway. Now from memory, I don’t know if somebody was frequently stealing the mangoes or whether it was a one-time offence…”

“It was just that one time,” corrected Mango, his voice soft and friendly.

Steve held out his hand, “There you go, a one-time offender. Mango happened to be out smoking in his yard, enjoying the sound of passing trains.”

“I was taking a piss,” said Mango.

“What?”

“I was taking a piss,” the big man reiterated.

“He was taking a piss when he busts this kid with his hand around a ripe mango…” Steve looked over at Mango.

Mango nodded so Steve continued, “This kid picked a mango from one of the lower branches like he was on a farm or something. Now, imagine how much you would shit your pants if you saw a beast like this guy jump over a fence. Well, this kid didn’t shit his pants. Instead, the kid held his ground and quarrelled with this beast over his right to forage or some bullshit like that. One thing led to another and this beast ended picking the kid up by the neck and began shaking him like a rag doll. The kid fainted, fell, hit his head, and died. Over a fucking mango.”

“Fuck him,” stated Mango.

Steve turned back to Doctor Gus, “You see, the value of life is relative. To Mango, the kid’s life was cheap. He snores peacefully at night. But to the kid’s mother that life was the most valuable thing in the universe. It’s all fucking relative.”

Doctor Gus gulped. He looked indecisive on how to respond.

Steve continued, “I’ll leave how you contact me to your discretion, just arrange me access to that animal.”

“There’s something upstairs you need to see,” said Doctor Gus.

Steve glanced at Mango, who shrugged. They follow Doctor Gus upstairs to one of the bedrooms. Doctor Gus opened the door and let them look inside. Steve felt overwhelmed when the saw the naked corpse on the bed. The woman’s dark blood drenched the entire mattress. Cameras and pin-lights were strategically placed around the room. The smell was pungent yet fresh. For some inane reason, Steve suspected that the ginger-fro believed that Mango and he would appreciate this. Yet, despite the revulsion in his heart, or the empathy stinging his soul, the insidious spark of greed contaminated Steve’s thoughts.

Doctor Gus must have read their faces because the fear, dread, and remorse manifested again in his eyes. “I guess the Black Dragons are new to this sort of thing,” he said.

“Mango,” said Steve. “Go get a bag.”

The Blood Ring
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Scumhackers

An excerpt from the book “The Blood Ring.

“Did ya reset that last pango before you sold it to the girl?” asked Martin while urinating, standing upright behind a mound of garbage. She finished, pulled up her pants and strolled over to where Rico sat.

Rico surveyed the lane way situated adjacent to the B line train tracks and intersecting South Valley Road. The thoroughfare was nothing more than an illegal dumping ground among a forest of weeds. “Why the fuck would I wanna do that?” responded Rico, sitting down on the broken pavement picking at a hole in his dirty pants. “Fuck, I’m hungry.

Martin grabbed Rico by the mane and whacked his face against his knee. “What da fuck ya do dat for?” yelped Rico.

Martin turned to face the silent traffic. Thousands of multicoloured vehicles crawled along like electric bugs, “Go get it back.”

“What? Fuck no. Why?”

“Cause I fucking said so,” answered Martin, her short cropped hair, neck tattoo and bodytech adding to her masculinity, her authority, her brutishness. “The pango needs to be reset. I told you to sell the data, not the whole thing.”

“But the Bitrodog cajero needs the actual pango to unscramble the rootkeys. Without it the data is inaccessible.”

“Did you use that pango to access the DEN?”

“Well, yeah.”

“So you used your own private rootkey. Now anyone with that rootkey can access everything you’ve ever posted on the dendrome. All it takes is two or more interactions to link you to the outside world and Yellowcop finds you in a heartbeat. Go get that fucking pango back, and destroy it.”

Rico climbed to his feet, ready to demonstrate his defiance. “How?”

“How?”

“How is Yellowcop gonna find me?”

For a brief moment, Martin looked like she could attack him once again, instead, she explained. “The dendrome is the blockchain algorithm that runs the entire Dendros ecosystem, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And nests are public communication threads embedded within the dendrome. So, if you’ve interacted with two or more twiddlers who’ve been compromised, Yellowcop will scour the GIoT until it found it’s way to you. You getting this?”

“But there’s no geo-stamp or time-stamp on the dendrome. How’s it gonna get me?”

“Yellowcop has mapped out the entire Dendro ecosystem. Interlinking DEN activities with real-world activities, it can feasibly work out who you are just by using your twiddle or your private rootkey. So did you use the pango or not?”

Rico decided to back down. For Martin, he would do anything she wanted.

“You should know better, fuckhead,” she said and walked away.

Rico strutted in the opposite direction, heading for the main road. His usual goal would have been to scanpocket as many pangos from passing pedestrians and motorist as possible. Those unfortunate enough to have been left vulnerable by the Dendro were his prey. Stealing dash and private data was Rico’s only objective. To him, cars were simply moving wallets; toll wallets, drive-thru wallets, and those were only the add-ons. Big prizes were the propriety wallets that paid for services such as charge-ups, repairs and even car washes. Some of these often came in the form of cash accounts.

Cash or dash — made no difference to Rico.

Sensitive and compromising data — made all the difference between a bad score and a good one.

The pango in question he stole from a woman at the Solaria Recharge Station. She’d been sitting in the eatery, most likely waiting for her recharge. Rico had a hunch about her. Her fish tattoo, her nervous eyes, her demeanour, each attributed to his interest in her. People this intriguing always had some sordid story behind them and stealing their data usually paid well. So, Rico pounced, the old-fashioned way. Bumping into her. Pick-pocketing her personal-area-network-gadget-organiser. He found it already jailbroken and full of home-made guttersnuff. It was content he could sell, but that required they transfer the Dendros rootkeys. Keeping them in the original pango would compromise the holder, so that is where Bitrodog fits in. If one knew a good cajero, they could print a new pango, jailbroken and without the standard GIoT tracking features

Rico lumbered towards the Aurora Shopping Plaza, the last oasis of civilisation before the desolation known as the Salamander Highway. He struggled to see the point in going back, especially a whole day later.

Or was it two days?

No, one day, he corrected,

Rico had long ago given up arguing with Martin, having grown tired of her macho stubbornness. He found it easier to appease her, enjoying her fun moods, and savouring the occasional dash that flew his way. The amount of money that went through their collective hands would cause an average middle-class, white-collar stooge to salivate. The amount they burned would depress most homeless folk to lower, undiscovered levels.

Homelessness.

Rico never understood the stigma. He has lived in cardboard boxes all his adult life, yet lived a life most social frolickers envy.

As long as there was access to dash.

He thanked the Great Divinity for the Dendros. Sometimes Rico found himself praying to this munificent algorithm. The Dendros had opened up a brave new world for the underclass; impervious to government control, unstoppable, untameable, a scumhacker’s paradise.

Rico found Ailee manning the local vendor, the Bitrodog kiosk making an ideal subterfuge for jailbreaking pangos and anti-Yellowcop activities. When asked about the device, the girl’s eyes widened.

Rico knew right then and there he was fucked.

Upsetting Martin was not an option.

“How did the Bitrodog mix up the pangos?”

“I don’t know. Glitches happen.”

Rico had never heard of such a thing. Electronics printers never made mistakes like that. Human error was one thing, but glitches?

“Think he’ll come back wid it?”

“Maybe,” said the cajero, “Unless he reset it himself.”

“Did he look like the type who knows how to reset one?”

Ailee shook her head and scrunched up her lips, “Na.”

“So he could be back?” Euphoria allowed him to breathe again. It also prompted his hunger to re-manifest. He could not remember the last time he fed on something. “Twig me when he comes back in.”

Rico prowled the mall looking for easy targets, noting which fast food outlets accepted dash. He had access to point two of a figi, half a nanji, 213 cryptiums and a dash worth of other miscellaneous cryptocurrencies. All up, he could not even afford to buy a small packet hot chips.

Maybe a potato roll.

He loitered around the dash exchange terminal, scanning the personal area networks of passing shoppers, looking for vulnerabilities, for security clefts, any which way to snatch some dash. Within five minutes, enduring intense stomach grumblings, he resorted to scavenging for more traditional forms of currency, scoping the ground for lost fiat coins, sniffing out pickpocketing opportunities and engaging in a time old favourite, begging.

Rico knew he smelled like shit and looked the part. In good times, when the dash flowed, he would shower at various gymnasiums and spas, buy new clothes, toss the old ones in-store and walk out. He would get his hair groomed by his fave stylist. He lived like an urban prince; no home, no possessions apart from his jailbroken pango. He slept anywhere, in hotels, bus shelters, stormwater tunnels, underneath park benches, inside cars, stolen or otherwise.

When the dash flowed.

Rico exited the mall and stood in front of a coffee vendor located facing the highway, where the spare change in patron’s pockets jingled loudest. He scored a fiver first go, and had to struggle to earn the next two five dollar coins, falling short three bucks to buy a short black. He spotted an angry, unhinged looking man jostling his way through the crowd, hurrying along glancing wildly over his shoulder. When he passed the coffee vendor, Rico held out his hand, “Spare us a coin?”

Punters were punters, angry or not.

The angry-unhinged-man didn’t even acknowledge him.

“Arrogant prick,” grumbled Rico as he paced in front of the service counter. He tripped over his own foot and the fivers in his sweaty hand slipped out and bounced on the concrete. He gave chase but the renegade coins rolled into the gutter. Rico fell on his knees, failing to stop them escaping via the stormwater drain.

“Shit!” Rico stood up, empty-handed. Someone blocked his path. A woman. Petite. Short flower dress. Blonde curly hair. She raised her hand and offered him a coin.

Rico took the coin, a fiver, unsure of how to react, “Thanks.”

The woman smiled and went on her way.

His pango chimed.

~rem0050: customer spotted. came in-store. ask buncha question. still got pango. tall. white shirt and tie. black pants. ErstKlassige shopping bags. cheers.

Rico hastened back towards the mini-mall’s main entry, his stomach protesting violently, eating away at his insides. He could ignore the lightheadedness, but the sharp chewing sensation inside his belly drove him insane. He found and sat on a bench just outside the slide doors.

Rico’s eye caught a glimpse of the blue shopping bags.

ErstKlassige.

Man in the white shirt.

A big guy.

That’s him.

Rico spotted him leaving the complex and rushed ahead of him, noting how solid the man looked. He watched the man walk past him and head across to the Solaria charging bays and on towards the car park.

~scumhacker32: i found the pango.

~scumhacker14: get fucked.

Rico focusing on his plan of attack, playing it out inside his head. To roll a much heavier man he needed to pay special consideration to the element of surprise and to the level of force he needed to apply. Rico changed direction, heading to a small children’s park. He waited for the big guy to pass, then going from tree to tree, he stalked the man. Rico moved from a swing set to slippery dip, then from a parked van to robot charity bin, tracking his prey all way to a dark emerald sedan waiting to pick him up, a Senator.

It struck Rico as weird that the man would rather be picked up in the carpark than from the front entrance. What’s the point of having a smartcar? he wondered.

Spying from behind the bright red Kreasi Charity Bin, Rico could make out each item inside the two large blue grocery bags.

He’s got Chillihoney chips.

The savoury distraction scattered his already fickle concentration, his hunger stifling all the focus he had mustered. The Senator opened the boot. The man loaded the groceries, and then pulled out another large bag. He walked over to the nearby charity collection bin and tossed the bag into it.

Without thinking, animal-like, and with the distinct taste of Chillihoney on his tongue, Rico pounced on the burly man, crash-tackling him in the manner similar to that of a torpedo. His head smashed into the man’s rib cage, knocking him off his feet. They both hit the ground, rolling over hips and shoulders. The man arrested his momentum and scrambled to get back up to his feet. Rico’s eyes locked onto his prey. Surprise survived only fleetingly across the man’s face, who then unleashed a stare that could frighten the living shit out of any person. Rico knew right then and there that he had fucked up and prepared for the worse. He’d been beaten up to a pulp many times so he knew what to expect.

Fuck me.

Movement caught Rico’s eye. Martin, lethargic and irate, appeared from behind the man weighing a half-brick in her hand. “Hi,” she said. The man had little time to react. The hard, jagged block of ceramic struck the man on the side of the head, knocking him down like a sack of potatoes.

The Blood Ring
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