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Chapter 3

MARCH 6, 2029
10:02 P.M.

Bridge felt the dizzying rush of air blowing him slightly off course in the seconds he hung dangerously in the air between trains. The cars couldn't have been going more than five miles an hour, but it still made his testicles shrivel and took his breath away. His feet hit the floor of The Barn and twisted, tumbling him over onto one of the catchers standing poised to brace the jumper's fall. Before he could even regain his balance, Aristotle and Mu slammed into him, sending the whole group sprawling up against the opposite door of the train. Bridge flailed out and grabbed a nearby seat back, hearing the door slam shut behind him with a hiss. The suddenly quieter train car was thick with tension as Bridge got a look at the occupants.

Los Magos was a collection of various Hispanic street gangs and citizen groups. All those different gangs and their leaders participated in an ad hoc ruling council, with the leaders of each faction, the Shotcallers, sent to represent their interests. Since the riots, the organization had taken on a much more formal structure with the addition of the Magic Men hacker gang and displaced citizens made homeless by the violence and police reprisals. The Magic Men and the Citizens Brigade sent their own Shotcaller to the council.

Bridge looked around at the gathered assembly. In all, there were eighteen people in the train besides himself, his two bodyguards and Stonewall. Every Shotcaller seemed to have one bodyguard or lieutenant with them. The Magic Men's representative was a bodyguard holding a holographic projector as he lounged in the back with a bored expression. The hologram depicting a muscular brown man with a skeleton tattooed across its face, represented C@L@C@, one of the more renowned hackers in the Los Angeles area. He was no Michael Freeman, but Bridge reckoned he could hold his own against Angela in a pinch. A balding man in his mid-forties, David Hernandez, represented the Citizens. Hernandez, as normal looking a guy as you could possibly imagine, appeared uncomfortably out of place amongst these tattooed, hardassed individuals.

"You're a little over-represented, ain't you, brother?" one of the Shotcallers Bridge recognized asked Stonewall. The man's measured voice was thick with unexpected venom. Goyo Cardenas, the oldest living Shotcaller of the Los Magos gangs, familial head of the Valley Locos, was an imposing figure even as he sat leaning on his cane. Were it not for the elaborate tattoos that covered his hands, he might look like nothing more than a typical middle-aged Mexican approaching his golden years. But the eyes, set into a craggy face lined with age, toil and perhaps even wisdom, the eyes told of a cunning that belied his average appearance. The cane was a necessity. He walked with a limp, the result of a gunshot in his younger years. Bridge had always wondered why he never chose to replace the leg with cybernetics. "They ain't even family. What are you doing bringing them to the Barn?"

Stonewall straightened his tuxedo. "These two saved my life tonight," he said, pointing at Mu and Aristotle. "And they come with the Bridge. You know the Bridge."

Goyo nodded with a scowl. "Yeah, I know the Bridge. I know this puta got no loyalty to nobody. He been trying to chat up El Diablos for months now."

"Business is business," Bridge replied deferentially.

"See, no loyalty."

"That's why I brought him," Stonewall admitted. "He's knows everybody, and he's got no stake in any of us. And he owes me." Bridge's eyes narrowed but Stonewall quickly moved on before Bridge had a chance to respond. "Where is he?"

The train got silent again, the earlier tension returning to the air. Eyes lowered to the floor all around. A woman who had been standing in the back of the car spoke up. "He's over here," she said, pointing to the bench beside her. A bloody sheet lay draped over the seat, the inert form of a body underneath it. Bridge recognized Cierra as well.

Cierra was the youngest Shotcaller in Los Magos at only twenty years old. She had been a Shotcaller less than a year, the title being forced upon her when her father and three brothers had all been killed in an ambush. Most believed El Diablos had been the shooters in that incident as well, but nothing had been proven. She carried herself with an angry confidence, almost daring the people around her to challenge her authority. She was perhaps one of the most beautiful women Bridge had ever seen, her raven hair flowing straight past her shoulders, her body an absolute brick house. The only flaw Bridge could find with her physically was the white, jagged line of a scar running from below her right eye to her chin.

Stonewall strode over to her deliberately, his eyes fixed on hers with an icy calm. "What happened?" he asked, as he raised the sheet. His eyes scanned the body slowly, a barely restrained sadness almost bringing tears to his eyes. Bridge could see the turmoil on the man's face, the struggle to maintain calm in the face of a hurricane of raging anger and morose sadness.

"He was hanging Eastsidez, trying to show us how to channel some Trip money into legit businesses," Cierra began.

"I'm still not sure that's a good idea," Hernandez interrupted. "The last thing the few citizens who still have businesses need is to be linked up with gang activity."

"You think CLED ain't already targeting you?" Goyo yelled. "You're part of the Families now, that's put a target all over your back whether you touch any of the gang shit or not."

"Were you there?" Stonewall yelled, silencing the petty bickering. Hernandez nodded. "And what did you see?"

Hernandez hesitated, scanning the faces of Cierra and Goyo before answering. "We were sitting on Cierra's balcony. You know that loft she's got looking out over the warehouses? Having some coffee and talking. This car comes screaming around the corner and started blasting."

"And you hid like a little bitch!" Cierra screamed.

"I'm no gangster, Cierra. I'm just some schmuck with nowhere else to go. I don't even own a gun."

"You fucking ought to, you little woman! Maybe with another heater we could have stopped…"

"ENOUGH!" Stonewall bellowed.

Cierra jumped at the sound, staring up at Stonewall with a mixture of embarrassed shame and defiance. "Pedro saved my life, all our lives. He stepped out front and got lit up. The assholes got away. I might have winged one of them."

"Did you recognize them?"

"They were masked," Hernandez added.

Goyo began tapping his cane. He smoothed the corners of his mustache with his thumb and forefinger casually. "You sure it was El Diablos, Tapia?"

Stonewall nodded solemnly. "Thanks to Mu here, we blew up their car. One of them got tossed and I recognized him. Flaco." Goyo made the sign of the cross.

"What do you want to do about it, Los Reyes Magos?"

"Whoa, I ain't el jefe yet, brother. We haven't even had an election."

"Come on, brother, we all know who Pedro wanted taking over for him. Hell, you've been handling the day to day shit more than him since you got back from Mexico. You want an election? You want it official?" Goyo stared around at his fellow Shotcallers. "Anyone besides me going to object?" The crowd stood silent, some looking down and shuffling their feet with embarrassed deference, others like Cierra staring with open disdain at Goyo. "I didn't think so. Consider yourself elected. Long live Los Reyes Magos." He finished with a dismissive wave of his hand, a palpable derision in his voice.

"I don't appreciate the sarcasm," Stonewall grumbled. "I don't want to be Los Reyes Magos, I never did."

"Spare me the humble pie." The voice was heavily distorted, both a deliberate choice on the part of C@L@C@ and a result of the tinny speaker on the holographic projector. "We all know you're the best choice, no matter what Goyo over there thinks. Just because you're the only idiot that doesn't step back from the line when volunteers are called for doesn't mean you aren't the best for the job. Now what's your suggestion for our course of action, el jefe? Do we strike back or not? I've got a line on four groups of El Diablos that are good immediate targets. There's two groups doing guard duty up the line a bit, another group is out at the Tanz and one dealer on the corner of 13th. No sign of Chimuelo or Nacho, though." Nacho was the leader of El Diablos, Chimuelo his second.

Stonewall sat down heavily, staring into his hands. His voice was a whisper at first, inaudible by all. Goyo asked him to speak up, and he raised his burning, angry eyes to the older man. "I said, I think we need to seek peace with Nacho."

The train car erupted into cross talk and angry yelling. Only Cierra, Goyo, Hernandez, Stonewall and C@L@C@ were silent. Goyo and Stonewall stared daggers into each other, while Cierra stood with arms crossed looking curiously at Stonewall's back. As the discussion died down, Goyo's calm, measured tones cut through the noise. "What about the concept of retribution do you disagree with, homes? They hit us. We hit them back. That's how it's done. That's how it's always been done."

"That's not how Pedro saw it," Stonewall replied.

"Pedro is dead, mi camarada. Pedro's way got him killed. We sat back and got fat and lazy, and then got caught by surprise. Pedro's dead because of how he saw it. I don't know what grand vision of a kinder gentler gang Pedro had, but this is primal shit, bro. This is protecting the tribe, eh?"

"If you want blood so badly, old man," Cierra began, "why don't you go over there yourself and take revenge?"

"You think I'm scared, niña? I ain't afraid to die for my family, for my set, for my colors. A man takes care of his business." The sexism was implicit in his statements, and Cierra smoldered even more than normal. Her beautiful brown face flared red, the scar glowing white in contrast.

"There's nothing about violence that makes you a man," Hernandez replied. "Jesus said to turn the other cheek."

Goyo spit on the floor. "Don't bring your religious shit into this. Jesus got crucified for turning that cheek. I ain't going out like that."

It was Stonewall's turn to undercut Goyo. "Don't assault his religion, brother. Just because neither you nor I believes don't mean you should insult him." He pointed an accusing finger at Goyo. "You know as well as I that now is the worst possible time to be starting some shit in this town. The Chronosoft cops are itching for an excuse to push us into a hole and bury us. You don't think gang war in the streets will give them that excuse? We'll be fighting El Diablos and CLED before we know it. If we're lucky, they won't send in the National Guard again. We'll still be outgunned and probably outmanned. This ain't like the riots, CLED has its shit together."

Goyo leaned over on his cane until it brushed his left cheek. "They're already driving us into the hole, brother. How much juice you got outside of the Warehouse District? How much juice does any of us? My boys can't even walk their neighborhoods anymore without risking a firefight with CLED. You think turning the Families legit is going to stop them?"

"If you don't want to fight," interrupted C@L@C@, "what do you propose?"

"I want to send Bridge over there to broker a peace."

"Yo, what?" Bridge croaked, his eyes bulging. "How did I get involved in this?"

"You said it yourself, business is business. What's worse for business than a three-way war between the gangs and the police state? You think the cops will stop when they take us down? They'll come after you first because of your connections. They'll try to turn you rat."

"They can't afford me," Bridge said, but his mind was racing. Stonewall had a good point. Bridge knew everybody on all sides. If CLED wanted to work their way up the chain, Bridge would be an invaluable source of information. "Even so, the fucking Diablos don't want to know from me. I been working them for months and they won't give me the time of day because they know we're friends. I've never gotten a meeting with anyone above a lieutenant."

"He's hardly the most trustworthy emissary." Goyo's piercing stare told Bridge all he needed to know about the man's feelings towards him. "Only person he's going to look out for is himself."

Goyo had meant it as an insult, but Bridge didn't take it that way. "You're goddamn right."

"One thing Bridge won't do is turn on me," Stonewall said with absolute confidence. "He may be a bastard, but he owes me for some shit neither one of us is about to talk about here." Bridge knew Stonewall was talking about Boulder. Stonewall hadn't had to do much for Bridge there, but it was enough to make Bridge feel beholden to the ex-footballer. What little guilt Bridge ever felt Stonewall was able to manipulate.

Bridge sighed. "You really think they're going to talk to me? They fucking hate me. You forget they tried to kill me tonight too."

"Only because you were near me. If you give them something they can't resist, I'm sure they'll listen. Unless they are out for total annihilation, in which case, they won't listen to anyone."

Bridge stared absentmindedly out the window while the Shotcallers argued amongst themselves. He wasn't sure Stonewall knew what he was talking about. El Diablos had their own go-to guy, and were downright hostile to Bridge every time he tried to work anything with them. He'd heard enough of Nacho to know that the El Diablos leader was a real hardass. There were possibly apocryphal stories about Nacho's violent tactics, mostly involving a gas can, a match and crispy gangsters. It was called the Devil's Retribution on the street, some kind of clever word play to spook the street soldiers. All things considered, Bridge was in no way looking forward to a conversation with this man.

The city twinkled with billions of pinpricks of light as the train rumbled on. Bridge was amazed that Chronosoft still let the Families control the subway system. They weren't known for magnanimous gestures towards the under classes. Even though the corporation didn't need the subway, with its buses, dirigibles and car services, Bridge could envision a scenario in which Chronosoft found a way to make money with the trains. In that instance, they would need a reason to take back the system, and a gang war using the trains to transport street soldiers around would certainly be a good reason.

A flash of light outside of the window shook him from his thoughts. It was a small, bright flash, a puff of orange smoke that formed a glowing tail. The flaming trail seemed to veer towards Bridge in an arc, starting perhaps six hundred feet away and moving fast. It took him a second before Bridge recognized the distinct signature of the rocket-propelled grenade being fired at him. The Barn was under attack. "MU!" he screamed, ducking behind the seats. He could hear the technomancer babbling in that strange language he used to cast spells, and then the world exploded with light, sound and concussion.

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