April 12, 2028
6:32 p.m.

The beetle-like black shell of the custom-pimped GlobalNet crèche split open down the middle to reveal a shriveled figure barely recognizable as human. The wizened humanoid slid forward out of a silk padded interior that eerily reminded Artemis Bridge of a coffin. Normally the crèche would be filled with a saline solution that aided the sensory deprivation required to jack into the GlobalNet for deep runs. This one’s sens-dep fluid instead coursed through a saggy clear plastic skin covering the runner’s body from neck to foot. Plastic tubes fed through the suit into the runner’s sallow white skin, feeding him nutrients. Bridge guessed there were also medicines that kept the mummified runner alive in the mix. Over 80 years old, this potential client’s complexion could have placed him years beyond the grave, a blood-drained zombie of a man soaking in a stew of his own juices. Sky-blue veins fed into burst capillaries all over his craggy face, a horror show visage that unnerved the normally ice cool fixer. Despite knowing the subject still lived, Bridge couldn’t help but jump slightly when its eyes snapped open to reveal yellowed globes with cataract-covered irises that burned with sightless ferocity. Gasping, the runner raised a shaky hand to remove the oxygen mask, the sound of plastic crinkling loudly in the room over the steady, low thrum of machinery.

"Mr. Artemis Bridge, I presume," the withered voice said, sounding like dried leaves rustling in the wind, every word a struggle for breath.

"Just Bridge, if you don’t mind."

"The Amoral Bridge, as they say. The guy who knows everybody, the guy that can get you anything you desire, no matter how disgusting or immoral."

"So they say." Bridge offered no further elaboration. Normally, he’d have launched into his normal spiel, but the sight of this barely-living creature had thrown him off his game. "And you are Cornelius Roth, billionaire inventor and executive for Chronosoft, Inc., the oldest man to ever be fitted with an interface jack, the reclusive rich looney who logs more GlobalNet time than hackers a quarter his age. I get that about right?"

"Do your homework, don’t you? Of course, you do. The number of enemies you make, the kind of illegal goods you traffic in will get you pinched if you’re not careful."

"I don’t deal in goods, I deal in connections. You have a need, a desire, I find the guy can fulfill that demand, no matter what it is. I do not touch the goods, I do not see the goods. I ask no questions, and I make no judgements."

"Thus the amoral moniker," Roth replied sarcastically.

"Not my choice."

"That’s not a denial."

"Wasn’t meant to be." Bridge spotted a well-adorned credenza, filled with what appeared to be some of the finest booze available. "May I?"

Roth nodded, a stuttering, shambling motion that threatened to send the man tumbling out of the crèche itself. As Bridge walked across the room to pour himself a glass of twelve-year old bourbon neat, he got a more complete picture of the crèche. Most were festooned with wires and tubes, but this model literally rested on a bed of connections so complex that the overall picture, with the split surface revealing the desiccated body at its heart, reminded Bridge of a giant alien spider queen reclining in a black web. One quick shot of the fine whiskey only just smoothed out the edges of his nerves. He poured another.

"What could a reclusive billionaire clinging to life by the fingernails need from a street level fixer like me? What could I possibly do for you that your billions couldn’t?"

"You get right to the point, don’t you, Bridge?"