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Chapter 1

MARCH 6, 2029
8:23 P.M.

Artemis Bridge never wanted to get into politics, or entertainment, or do anything to help anyone else but himself. He had always viewed politics with a jaundiced eye. Since his unfortunate involvement with the mayoral race the previous summer, he had seen behind the curtain of the grotesque pantomime show, a carefully staged drama run by the LGL corporation Chronosoft, Inc. Bridge's desperate machinations had altered the performance slightly but the end result had been the same. Mayor Sunderland, corporate puppet and part-time virtual pedophile had been defeated. His opponent, Arturo Soto, a corporate puppet of a different sort, had been elected mayor of Los Angeles. Other than personal animosity towards the players, Bridge hadn't really given a fuck.

Bridge had always been a reactor. He had taken what opportunities had come his way and reacted, turning what profit he could. His aptitude with the GlobalNet - and his loose morals - had created a subsistence life as a hacker with his girlfriend, Angela. When the federal budget crisis of 2026 had led to the explosion of violence of the '27 riots, he had reacted with a change in career, leaving behind the life of a GlobalNet hacker for a life in the flesh. He had become the go-to, know-who guy of the Los Angeles underworld, the amoral fixer with the know circuit, the man who could find whatever illegal or immoral good or service desired. He had made a decent, if somewhat dangerous, living dealing with the shitheels and the criminals and the wannabes of Los Angeles' underbelly while secretly hating them all.

The outlandish events in Boulder, Colorado the past November had compelled Bridge to visit the disaster area, ostensibly to save the grandmother of his bodyguard, Aristotle. That had been a flimsy excuse. He never gave a damn about Lalasa Freeman and only cared about Aristotle for the number of times the black giant had saved Bridge's ass. He had really gone to Boulder because of the scientists. The city had been trapped in an energy dome after the secret experiments of a group of university scientists. They had compelled Bridge to seek them out using the unusual powers of the mana engine, an extra-dimensional power source that gave them the ability to forge what Bridge had called “magic spells.” Seeing the powers they could wield, he had conspired with them to create a cult of sorts, the Order of the Technomancers. As silent partner to the reclusive sorcerers, Bridge morphed from reactionary to active participant in his future. Some vague idea had formed in his mind as he pictured the possibilities that the technomancers' powers could open up, but most importantly, the addition of such powerful allies had given Bridge the ability to act.

The technomancers had created an energy converter that Bridge himself had dubbed a Glowbug, a magical piece of tech that took a small input of electricity and returned that same energy multiplied, like a battery that doubled, tripled, quadrupled its output every second for infinity. The new local energy monopoly, Chronotility Energy and Water, a subsidiary of the Chronosoft LGL, squeezed everyone hard for their energy needs. Prices had almost doubled since the riots, on the pretense that the damage done by the militias to the power infrastructure of LA had strapped the utility with decreased supply and reconstruction expenses. Bridge didn't believe it for an instant, as one of Angela's info thieves had "found" an extensive study of Chronotility usage patterns and profit centers that proved the utility was manipulating prices by restricting supply. Bridge had held onto that report for future ammunition.

The stockpile of future ammunition was growing quite large. He had hired a technomancer recruit who went by the name of Mu as a bodyguard to supplement Aristotle. Since the death of his grandmother, Aristotle had been horribly unreliable, and Bridge suspected that the big man was drinking quite heavily. It wasn't as if Aristotle had ever been a true bodyguard. Bridge hadn't wanted to pay Aristotle enough to put his life on the line, but the giant had worked quite well most times as a six-foot-five bluff. Bridge had come to rely on the man as a personal assistant and as much of a friend as Bridge would allow. Mu was something different. As the rumors of the technomancer's magical abilities had spread, Mu had become more than a threat deterrent. He was a status symbol. The most well heeled corporate CEO couldn't afford a technomancer bodyguard, while Bridge could. No one had to know that the technomancers refused to work for corporations for fear those companies would steal the mana engine technology.

Bridge found himself using these resources in ways he never could have imagined to save lives.

Standing in an empty warehouse was not the most comfortable feeling for Bridge. Memories of the corpses of business associates in a cavernous, dingy building very similar to the one he was in now suffused his nerves with an itchy anxiety, which was exacerbated by the ill-fitting rented tuxedo. The addition of a crowd of strangers was yet another irritant. The presence of his bodyguard Mu did help, the black-clad technomancer drawing stares of disbelief and whispered wonderment. The kid wasn’t exactly being inconspicuous with his hooded cloak festooned with glowing golden runes.

Stonewall Ricardo, Bridge’s sometime bodyguard, friend, and Mexican ex-footballer, stood next to Bridge, looking just as uncomfortable and out of place in his tuxedo. Though Stonewall had invited Bridge and Angela, this really wasn’t his scene either. “Now, why are we here again?” Bridge asked.

“We’re showing support for a brother,” Stonewall replied. The “brother” was an artist by the name of Marjun Pulido. Pulido also happened to be a member of Stonewall’s latest project, the Los Magos gang of the Five Families. Bridge wasn’t sure what kind of art Pulido trafficked in. The barren warehouse had no fixtures to hang paintings or photos, no stage or visible equipment for a performance piece. There wasn’t even a buffet table or wine bar.

“This brother of yours needs to learn how to schmooze the pinkies-up drinking set,” Bridge quipped. “Can’t a brother even get some piss-weak wine in this place?”

Stonewall smiled. “It’s all part of the theme, amigo. Marjun is trying to set a mood here.”

“If the mood is starvation, then he’s spot on.” Stonewall flashed Bridge a knowing grin. “Oh goddamnit, it is, isn’t it? It’s just some lazy-ass statement on the emptiness of modern life, ain’t it? You could at least have warned me beforehand, I haven’t eaten since I woke up.”

The lights suddenly cut out with an audible snap. Bridge started to panic, visions of armed hit teams rushing into the warehouse to take him out. “Relax,” Stonewall whispered. “Time for the show.” A faint glow of light bloomed from the inky blackness in the shape of a hand. Mu had cast a spell illuminating the area around him. Shadowy figures started to cluster unconsciously around the only source of light in the room.

In the top corner of the warehouse, another light source grew, a mini-sun outlining a piece of blue sky where the ceiling should be. Skyscrapers so large they blotted out most of the smog-filled sky winked into existence. Bridge looked around furtively, and finally caught sight of the centerpiece of the exhibit.

The scene was a distorted ant’s eye view of a disgusting, trash-filled alleyway. The proportions of everything were distorted. Bridge and the rest of the observers appeared to be no larger than a few inches high. Towering over the whole scene was an unconscious figure, sitting with one outstretched leg; his back leaned up against one side of the alleyway. His arms hung limply at his sides, an air-hypo Bridge recognized as the delivery device for most of the really good designer street drugs hanging from the figure’s limp right hand. Bridge stood next to the giant’s crotch. The man’s attire was threadbare; a worn jacket filled with holes, news faxes providing a bed sheet for this figure on the nod. The bum’s left eye, larger than any of the viewers, twitched unconsciously. Dirt and slime stained the man’s face, his hands, and every bit of his clothing. A scraggly beard so large Bridge could see the fleas working their way in and out of the tree trunk sized hairs plastered the bum’s face.

“That’s both disgusting and amazing.”

“Isn’t it, though?” Stonewall whispered.

“How the fuck did a starving artist afford such an expensive hologram setup? He’s got to be running at least ten large for the equipment alone.”

Stonewall’s irritation was written across his scowling face. “It’s always about the paper with you, ain’t it?” Bridge shrugged.

“You could have asked me, I know a guy who could have gotten it for him cheap.”

“The equipment wasn’t an issue,” Stonewall replied. Bridge knew what that meant. This kind of gear sometimes found its way “off the truck,” as it were.

“The power consumption’s got to be off the charts, though.”

“Why you think the show’s only half-an-hour? Any more than that and the utility cops shows up.”

“I could have had Mu hook up a Glowbug.”

“We won’t be here long enough for it to matter, and we sure as fuck ain’t paying rent on the space. I’m not even sure who owns the joint.”

Bridge continued his criticism. “Mu could have really spruced this thing up, though. I mean, I’m looking at a scabby bum covered in shit, and he could have gone with the full sensory experience. Smells so strong you can taste them, feeling the heat, everything. I mean, the gear he’s got is good, but well… magic.” Bridge secretly liked showing off his pet wizard, though he’d never admit it.

“It’s fine, Bridge. I think it makes the point quite succinctly.” Stonewall changed the subject quickly. “So where’s Aristotle? He’d appreciate this.”

Bridge shrugged sadly. “Don’t know. He was supposed to be here at eight sharpish, but I’m going to guess he’ll show up late and drunk again, if at all.”

“Still not taking the grandmother thing well?” Bridge shook his head and Stonewall nodded knowingly. His conspiratorial whisper laid it all out there. “You gotta give him time on this one, Bridge. Not only did your wizard buddies cause her death, you shacked up with them, turned them into a religion even. You’re lucky he hasn’t killed you himself.”

“Balfour still isn’t sure those people are all dead,” Bridge dissembled. Seeing Stonewall’s scowl, he conceded the point. “But you’re right. The fact he even still talks to me is a miracle. Couldn’t your boys at least have hooked us up with some of those little cocktail weenies?”

“Feeding the viewer would be a bit hypocritical in a piece decrying the starvation of the underclass by the corporate oligarchy. Now go mingle.” Stonewall walked away from Bridge and began speaking to a very attractive blonde woman.

“Mingle? Fuck, I hate people. What am I doing here?”

Bitching like a woman, apparently, said the disembodied voice in his head.

Bridge had asked Angela to come with him to the showing as a date, but she had refused. She made tons of excuses: she was working on some serious upgrades to Ars-Perthinia, there were jobs in the hopper she wanted to finish, and she didn’t have anything good to wear. Bridge knew the truth, though. Months of deep running on the GlobalNet had left her skin morbidly pale, her eyes sunken and dark, and her figure dangerously thin. While the crèche provided the nutritional equivalent of three square meals, it was not an adequate substitute for real food. She couldn’t starve, but she had still lost a noticeable bit of weight, and she had been skinny to begin with. The few hours she spent outside the crèche had just reminded her how much of a toll the marathon sessions on the GlobalNet were taking. Bridge knew that her terrible self-image had taken too much of a beating from casual glimpses in the mirror for her to venture into a situation with a crowd of strangers.

Instead, Bridge had gotten Mu to cast a spell that connected them via a two-way GlobalNet link. What would normally have been little more immersive than a phone call had become a two-way sensory experience. Angela could see, smell, hear and feel everything that Bridge could in the physical world as well as talk directly to him. He would hear the voice in his head and could respond without speaking by thinking about the words. She had become the perfect eavesdropper, and could experience the show viscerally without anyone else’s knowledge. Bridge could experience what she was up to in the GlobalNet as well if he chose, but he decided against it. The sensation of being jacked in would tempt him back to the crèche and he had sworn that off almost two years ago, except in the direst circumstances.

Bridge could see an illusion of Angela’s body projected into the space. She stood in full lich queen glory, her death-white skin a pale contrast to the jet-black hair that flowed over her shoulders. Her crown was a spiked monstrosity, splattered in blood and viscera. Clad in a gorgeous black full-length gown that highlighted her augmented breasts with enticing directness, she was an apparition of terrifying beauty. “Don’t you ever just shut up and enjoy yourself?”

Bridge grinned. “Tell you what. You come out here and stand head high to a bum’s balls and we’ll see how much you bitch.”

“No thanks. I have more important things to do than count the hairs on a corpse’s knuckles.” Bridge peered at the slumped figure’s hands.

“No, he’s not dead. He’s just resting. See, his chest is moving. He’s breathing.” Noticing the ragged nature of the rising and falling chest, he added, “He’s not breathing well, but he’s still breathing.”

“It’s a pretty powerful message,” Angela commented.

Bridge jumped as a person sidled up next to him and added an opinion. “Striking. Engrossing!” The speaker was an impeccably dressed corporate type, a man at least twice Bridge’s age with a silvery beard. He rubbed his chin while tossing out more vague adjectives.

Angela began to mock the man. “FRIGHTENING! SPELLBINDING!” she screamed in Bridge’s ear. He barely controlled the giggles until she added, “I believe we’re slated for a journey up the poor soul’s rectum for the finale. I can hardly wait!” Bridge lost it then, letting loose a loud guffaw before slapping a hand over his mouth with an embarrassed flush.

Bridge spent the next half hour mingling, while trying to ignore the snide comments Angela made about the guests. It was a pained study in immaculate self-control, and by the time the artificial sunlight dimmed to extinction, he was relieved for the peace. The crowd filed out of the abandoned building self-consciously aware of the likely crime they were committing by intruding on the space.

Bridge caught up with Stonewall on the street outside. “It occurs to me that I know a guy could maybe give your boy some more exposure.”

“Always working an angle, aren’t you, Bridge?”

“No angle. Well, except my fee, of course. But still, I do know this guy owns an art gallery. He might be interested.”

Stonewall stared over Bridge’s shoulder with a sad expression on his face. Bridge turned to see what Stonewall saw. Coming up the street at a jog was Aristotle. He wavered on his feet, weaving a little as he ran. His shirt was half-tucked into his pants, and the big man was unshaven. “Fuck,” Bridge sighed. “Geez, he looks like shit.”

“Cut him some slack, brother.”

“Slack is the right word. Maybe we should do an intervention?”

“You’re the last one to talk about interventions, Artie,” Angela yelled in his head.

Aristotle had almost reached the pair when his expression darkened. His face melted from hurried anxiety to the fear of imminent danger and on to the determined resolve of decision. His arm raised to point behind Bridge, Aristotle yelled something as he dove at the pair.

Bridge’s neck snapped around to catch a glimpse before the big man tackled the two of them. As he fell over under Aristotle’s weight, he heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire stitching the air around him.

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