Tyler felt like a kid being sent to the principles office. It had happened enough times in his brief schooling, right before the incident that had changed the direction of his life. Tyler shrugged on his jacket, feeling the huff of warm air try to console him with comfort. The jacket went through a brief meltdown, and finally settled on lime green, a shade almost neon.
Tyler kept his head down, taking each step of the stairs like a man on death row.
“Really am sorry, mate,” Fuzz said, from behind him. He felt the guys hand on his shoulder again, and this time it lingered. “I wouldn’t blame you for feelin’ fuckin’ sore over this shit. No doubt we been through some wars together. But I’d be fuckin’ stupid to pass up the cash that’s connected to your name right now.”
Tyler wanted to say something, but held his tongue. Too busy thinking to cut back with a witty retort. He felt a brief shock of surprise as Fuzz slipped his hand through his dreadlocks and stroked lightly at his neck. An almost sensual touch. It was done almost as quickly as it started.
The bar looked it usual short, seedy self when Tyler got there. He expected to see the place swarming with Blacks and Whites, but all that was there was the usual crowd for this time of the night, whatever time that was. A random grab bag of slummers and off duty laborers, spotted about a run down dive with it’s strange corners and blunt, dead ends where doors might be.
Right there in the middle was a tall, thin man in specs, flanked by two obvious goons.
“Tyler Burrell,” the man said, voice sharp over the faint murmur of bar music. “Quite a hard man to get hold of. Can’t say it for lack of trying. A few serious misdemeanors with the authorities didn’t look to have done it. Care to take a ride?”
“Rather stay nice and public really,” he remarked. Tyler was already scoping the exits. Had Fuzz locked the door to his room on the way down?
The tall man stepped forward and proffered a hand. “James Erikson.” Tyler looked at his hand like it might shock him into unconsciousness. A brief moment longer and he took it for perhaps one of the most normal hand shakes he had had in recent times. “Of course, I already have the pleasure of knowing who you are.”
“Who are you, then?”
“All in time,” James remarked, his accent clipped. He motioned towards the door. “My car perhaps?”
“Fuck yourself. If you know who I am, you know I wouldn’t want to put myself in a locked car with you and two goons.”
“Of course not,” replied James, taking it all in perfect stride. “You have quite the reputation for escape, do you not? Time in Mount Eden? You managed to break the new protocols there, on the way out. You’ve been on the run from the Blues ever since. Not quite the nation wide organization they used to be, but impressive all the same.”
Tyler paused, re-evaluating what he thought about this man. This was all strictly real life. Nothing shady. Maybe this was all some strange misunderstanding. The tall man shattered his hopes as he leaned in close, close enough he could smell the soft scent of his aftershave.
“Then there’s the grassroots work for Section 17.”
“Who the fuck are you? Biodyne recruiters?” Tyler didn’t bother playing the fool. Experience told him it never worked like the movies. “Richmond Industries?”
Tyler ran through his memory, but it was hard enough recalling all these corporations when he was online, let alone off and flopping like a wet fish. “I’m not interested.”
“Of course your not,” James replied. His collarless suit was a pale shade of grey, like a film of dust, but expensively cut. “You’d be surprised how many of your colleagues are though. Not to mention your associates.”
Tyler glanced towards Fuzz, who was back behind the bar. He had a look of sorry about him, but Tyler didn’t give a fuck on that regard. If this ever got resolved, and he ever got free of this one, it was over between him and Fuzz. With extreme prejudice.
“You’re working in a bad line of work at the moment. Section 17 is just like any other corporation, even if you’re part of the Powers That Be. Consider this an aggressive take over. And what do you do when you know your little fish is being eaten by the big shark?”
Tyler wanted to shove his hands into the pockets of his jackets, hunch his shoulders against things. He felt his jacket trying to compensate for the nervous sweat that was lining his scrawny back.
“Take the severance package, boy,” James remarked, quietly. The two goons were emotionless, like they might actually be robots. “Don’t be so principled about this all. Does it matter whose paying your stipend at the end of the day? State or corp?”
“I’d be stupid not to at least consider it,” replied Tyler, and part of him really did mean it. He wondered how many of the Agency was on the corp payroll, the very groups they were working against. There wasn’t a day that passed that he didn’t consider his life between the street and an employer he only ever saw through hardline and call.
Some days he wondered if it was all an elaborate delusion.
“We know you’re ghost at the moment,” James continued, pushing his specs back up his delicate nose. “So you don’t have to worry about employer reaction. Just take a walk to my car with us, and we’ll settle the contract out straight.”
It sounded all so reasonable. No more running. No more life on the edge. Tyler took a slow breath and nodded gently. He slipped his hands into his pockets finally, and let his shoulders hunch.
“Good boy. Sigma takes care of it’s own.”
Tyler walked, leaving Fuzz behind. He doubted he would ever see the man again, or even remember him if this went the way he figured it would. Wasn’t that the rumor? Sigma had commercialized the procedure. There was a whole generation waking up to a life they had always remembered.
The bar passed around him, and the noise of the street swallowed him as he stepped back out into the night. It was raining now, his jacket plaintively trying to compensate the change in temperature. Tyler felt the rain against his face, and saw the neon shower shine off the wet black carapace of the vehicle parked out front. It was like coming out of the Academy’s, red carpet and all.
The goons flanked him, Erikson no doubt right behind.
The new Diante. A nice car. Far too nice to be down here without attracting a lot of attention. They were close enough to the Fringe, but not quite close enough to Neon City. Another goon treated him like royalty by moving to the back door and pulling it open.
Door to a new life.
Tyler hated himself, but his instinct wouldn’t let him go any other way. He made the conscious thought to ignore the soft, warm interior of the car. He stepped towards it, feeling the two other goons getting cozy in close. That crucial moment came, and he planted a foot on the inner panel of the door, propelling his weight upwards. He spun himself onto his back, hitting hard onto the roof of the car, sending his foot out into the goon’s head as he rolled away.
A shout went up, something that sounded like James’s shrill voice. Tyler knew he only had a brief few seconds to get this right. He found himself relying all too sharply on luck, as he bounced off to the roof and dived towards the road.
He timed it just right as another car sped passed, and he shot off the roof of that one too. The driver hadn’t seen him coming, not shocked like the driver of the car coming the other way, who blasted his horns as Tyler stumbled into his path from the maneuver.
Tyler felt more than just the plexi windscreen crack as he slammed against the ride. There was the sharp squeal of rubber on wet road and the big car started skidding. Tyler rolled again, uncontrolled, straight into the gutter. He felt the cold effluent against his skin, like cold knifes.
Tyler dragged himself to his feet, seeing the stunned and ambivalent faces as he stumbled into the foot traffic again. More shouts. There was a hard impact, plastic and metal. A vehicle accident. Tyler didn’t look back at the result of his handiwork. He hoped no one had been hurt in the crash, wondering why he was feeling random empathy when his own body was barely walking straight.
Go online. Scream for help.
Tyler slammed into a huge Samoan, before stumbling passed, mumbling a pained apology. He fell through into an alley between two garish electronic stores, and shoved into the darkness. He heard the scream of surveillance drones. Fire. Fire. It seemed curiously close to the accident, maybe unrelated.
Tyler didn’t stop running until the sirens were gone. Until there was no heavy footfalls of chase. Every vault, every move and step hurt him to his core. When he collapsed into the dying bush on the far side of a dark park he didn’t recognize, Tyler wondered whether this time he was finally dying.
* * *
Tyler came to on an overcast nightmare of dirty brown haze and busted buildings. He had enough presence to realize that something was broken badly inside. The whole side of his body was on fire, and then there was the side that he had fallen asleep on in the dirt. He noticed how poorly he was hidden now there was light. He’d fallen into the bushes where they were most light. Last night they had seemed like a forest.
The place was an apology of foliage, mostly resembling a blast zone than a park. Tyler considered bringing himself back online to confirm, but knew it would only bring down Sigma and the Blacks and Whites. Even the Agency couldn’t deploy that quickly to save his ass. From here on in, like it had always been, he had to rely on himself.
Tyler winced, dragging himself out of the mud. He saw others emerging, dotting the park like zombies. None of them were here for recreation. Beyond, a dead line of tenements stood. Citizens living on the edge of utopia, a mix of online laborers and ghosts, were dragging themselves out of the shell of night.
If this was Halser Park, point 60 was a long hike away on foot. Question was whether he was going to make it there upright, or succumb along the way. Tyler took his first few tentative steps, and remembered the soft, warm comfort that the inside of the Diante had promised. He wondered why he always chose the hard path.