Under the Amoral Bridge

Chapter 3

August 29, 2028
1:20 a.m.

Bridge staggered into his apartment after seeing Aristotle off in a cab, figuring he wouldn't need a faux bodyguard for the walk up to his place. It was the kind of perfect shithole Los Angeles apartment made cliched in so many bad movies, a series of Spanish adobe-style buildings with too little attention paid to maintenance. He lived in a second floor apartment in the back of Celestial Gardens, close enough to the Central City area to hear the nightly gunshots, but far enough away to be out of the firing line. Most of the residents kept to themselves, especially when the police were busting the Trip labs that sprung up throughout the complex like mushrooms, and he liked it that way.

The apartment was a mess as usual. His neat dress was an agonizingly maintained illusion of impeccable style, but his natural inclination tended towards barely constrained chaos. Though he never kept food and trash and dirty dishes all over, he did tend to stack things in untidy piles, books and news faxes and snail mail all heaped in their own disorderly scheme. He rarely threw these types of things away, regardless of how outdated. Angela had kept the place even messier, as she was the type to just leave food out, like most of the hackers Bridge had ever known.

The thought of Angela brought his mind back to business. He hesitated to contact her, even though she was the person to call for information thieves. She ran a stable of freelance hackers, brokering their information like a pimp brokers whores. Angela was a damn skilled hacker in her own right, and that skill had gotten her enough money to set up her network. Not that long ago, Bridge had been one of her dogs and more besides.

They’d met back in ’26 when he was just an arrogant freelancer looking for a job. Angela had already been brokering for a year, and she saw talent in Bridge despite his careless swagger. Within six months of the first job, they’d fell into a GlobalNet relationship, just Netsex for the first few months before they ever met in the flesh. The first skin meet had ended in bed, where they stayed for a whole weekend, never even touching the crèche. Two months of that had them moving into this place together as an official couple. They were a formidable tandem on the GlobalNet, in a field dominated by solo acts. Life had been good, until the riots.

The 2027 food riots had started in mid-summer, egged on by the massive heat wave and the callous indifference of the federal budget crisis. When federal aid to the states disappeared, welfare food shipments disappeared and poor people starved. First, there was looting, then wholesale ransacking of government facilities and then it got really nasty. Police stations, already undermanned by those officers who wouldn’t strike, were assaulted by well-organized mobs. Bridge and Angela hadn’t given too shits, watching the news coverage of the violence from the safety of the crèche with bemused cynicism. So long as someone would brave the violence to deliver a pizza and their Net connection held up, he and Angela could have lasted indefinitely.

Once the mobs started taking down local switches and power grids because there was little else to destroy, the couple were forced into the open. Rather than watching dispassionately, they had to brave the mobs just to find food. Those two days had been an eternity, but seeing up close the gibbering screams of human beings dropped to the level of animal violence he’d never witnessed before had broken his spirit in ways he never expected. When the corporations stepped in to quell the riots, Bridge swore off the crèche completely. He wanted nothing more to do with that make-believe world of bits and bytes. Much to his surprise, the riots had unearthed an alarming penchant for manipulating all the worst desires of humanity to get what he needed. Rather than steal information, he found much more pleasure in aiding sleazy fuckers get together in some macabre dance of self-immolation, feeding their secret hungers for immorality while keeping himself distanced from the cesspool.

Angela did not take the abrupt career change well. She was no innocent, since brokering information was highly illegal no matter how many corporations availed themselves of her services. But something about the slick persona, the impeccable fashion, and Bridge’s adamant refusal to use a crèche again infuriated her. She retreated to the crèche more than usual, and all too soon they were living separate lives, unable or unwilling to cross the divide between them. Finally, she moved out, taking her crèche and what little physical property she still owned. Their mutual friends, the ones who would still talk to Bridge after the breakup, would tell him about her personal life every so often, whether he wanted to hear it or not. Though she had become a physical recluse and shunned most human contact, it hadn’t stopped her from shacking up with some hacker who lived in Seoul. But she was still a great contact for Bridge, someone who could provide hackers like the one he needed now. Angela still trusted Bridge, at least as far as she trusted anyone in her business.

Bridge walked into the bedroom and past the night stand where the last picture they’d taken sat. He picked it up and stared at it forlornly for a moment, thinking of the day the picture had been taken. Before the riots, they’d gone to a New Year’s Eve party in Boyle Heights. The hacker gang Los Magos rented a string of houses in the neighborhood, and they’d hosted their own block party. Bridge remembered that some poser hacker, Dark-something or other, had insisted that everyone at the party get a photo for some GlobalNet slideshow museum room. The guy got whacked soon after, so the slideshow was never built, but Bridge finagled a download and put it by their bed. Angela had laughed, calling him a soppy sentimental bitch, but Bridge liked the shot. They both looked drunk in the picture, Angela’s seedy blond hair matted with sweat, her skin shiny from the exertions of dancing and running from house to house. Angela wasn’t what most would call beautiful. So much time in the crèche had turned her average looks into something else entirely, skin pale and yellowed, eyes a little too sunken. She had put on makeup that night, though, and to Bridge, she had been about as pretty as a girl could get. He had drunk a great deal that night, and his memories might have beer goggles. Even after all the bitterness and fighting, she was still beautiful to his eyes.

Bridge set aside the memory with only a little pang and steeled himself for the coming conversation. It never went well, even when both agreed amicably on the business at hand. There would be cutting remarks, remarks that often led to retreading old arguments if either was in a mood. ‘Just get the business done,’ he told himself. He sat next to the neglected crèche.

The pill-shaped device, used to connect to the GlobalNet in the most visceral way possible, was covered in a thin shroud of dust, dulling the normally shiny surface. He ran a finger through the dust, letting out an exasperated sigh as he rubbed the greasy film between his thumb and forefinger. Proximity to the device tempted him, a muted siren’s call to undress, open the coffin-like lid and climb into the lukewarm saline solution, to plug his interface jack in, sheathe his genitals in the waste catch and sink down into the glorious rush of jacking in. He missed the freefall adrenaline of consciousness translated into pure data, of his body rendered in liquid mercury, shifting and changing with his every thought. He missed the thrill of cracking databank security, of running from anti-intrusion software and other hackers.

But those days were done. He bent over and opened the panel on the bottom of the crèche for remote access. Bridge pulled the interface plug out, dragging it back to the interface jack on the back of his neck and plugged in.

Remote access to the GlobalNet was nothing like crèche work. There was still the rush of dissolution, the feeling of consciousness disintegrating and then the re-emergence of sensory perceptions as Bridge’s netbody rezzed into the crèche’s entry room. But compared to crèche work, his NetBody was mired in mud, a sloppy, dragging sensation of lethargy encapsulating his actions. Sensory input that was normally sharper than real life was dull and uninteresting with remote access. It made him miss crèche work that much more.

Putting aside his desire, Bridge surveyed his entry room. Decorated with a baroque theme, like an 18th century Parisian ballroom, it gave Bridge a surge of pride. He had done all the texture work himself. Unfortunately, the textures were at least a generation behind what the latest crèche’s could handle, and to his critical eye, the whole room now felt outdated. But it wasn’t as if he entertained there anymore. He sat down in a lush, almost throne-like chair and accessed the room’s external communications menu, sending Angela a request for direct entry into one of her chats. Fiddling with a useless puzzle game in a floating window while he waited, he was surprised at how fast the response came. He grabbed hold of the floating key, which dragged him bodily through a hole in the air, depositing him in an elaborately-decorated room in the blink of a virtual eye.

Angela’s chat rooms always tended towards the fanciful, leaning heavily on a lack of gravity, objects floating by for no apparent reason. She’d always said, “If I want gravity, I’ll go walk around the goddamn park.” Bridge rezzed in upside down, though the concepts of up or down were purely perceptual and ineffective for describing his position relative to the rest of the room. If he had a stomach, it would have turned. His inner eyes adjusted to the whacked out perspective, and he began to examine the décor. The backdrop was space, an inky black cloud broken up by twinkling stars with the occasional brightly-colored galactic cloud. Bridge on his throne floated among a constellation of miniature cities, each covered in a shiny dome. Closer inspection revealed that each city was populated by a tiny civilization. He recognized the architecture of one of the cities as a virtual playground Angela ran for fun. All those tiny people were other real people on the GlobalNet, playing out their fantasies on worlds he presided over like a god.

“Do you like my little experiments?” Angela said with a bubbly giggle in her voice.

“I didn’t realize this was your admin interface,” Bridge replied. He examined the city he’d known as Ars-Perthnia more closely. He began to recognize landmarks that’d he only seen from street level with a fascinated rubbing of his chin. “Blows my mind.”

“It wasn’t always like this. I just added it last week. I got the idea after a 4-night run without any sleep. I was seeing some REAL strange shit.” She began to giggle in that mischievous, snorting sort of way she always had when a devious idea hit her. “It’s like I’m watching all my little minions running around doing minion shit in my little Dyson spheres.”

Her NetBody was gorgeous as always. Tall, lithe and graceful, she took on the perfect model of an undead liche queen, a white-skinned dark goddess. She rarely ever let her real looks influence her avatar’s appearance. He imagined her real face, with crooked teeth and sleep-deprived eyes but with a cuteness that shined through her average looks. Her self-image of the physical was terrible, but her NetBody was frighteningly gorgeous. He would always tell her how beautiful she was, but she insisted on obsessing over what she perceived as her physical flaws. Seeing her NetBody now brought back all the old feelings again, a pang of loss doing a drive-by on his heart.

“Is that Perthnia?”

“Yep. Bet you never saw it from this angle. Your old buddy Cyndal is running his own guild now.” A picture of Cyndal’s Hierdul avatar popped up beside Angela, his stern look daring the viewer to start something. Cyndal was always a right asshole. “I’ve already had like 17 complaints against them and it’s only been two weeks since he quit Crimson Swords. Wanna fuck with their raid?”

Bridge waved his hands in front of his chest. “I’ve gotta get some sleep after this. I’ve got at least three meetings tomorrow night. I just needed a favor.”

“Meetings. Fleshy meetings?” Bridge nodded. Angela’s face took on an evil scowl. “You’re still schmoozing and boozing, huh? Who you meeting with? Some pedo wants a guilt-free childplay avatar? You can cater to the kid diddlers in here, then brain blast them when you feel like it.”

“That was the one time, and the guy only bought avatars and AI,” he lied. There were a surprising number of guys looking for custom ageplay avatars. “At least he wasn’t out raping real kids and shit.”

“That you know of. You don’t think he’ll get tired of the virtual shit eventually and get him some fresh meat?”

Bridge sighed. This was such an old argument. “Not my problem. He needed something. I set him up with someone who could fill that need. I never touched any of it.”

“You amoral fucker.”

“Rent don’t pay itself. You’d rather I go knock over old ladies’ pension funds, or become one of those cred-crashing fucks for some faceless corp? It’s not like I’m doing any of the things these shitheels ask me for.” He stopped himself on the edge of a rant, putting his hands defiantly on his knees. “I’m here for business, ba… Angie.” He had to refrain from calling her ‘baby.’ Those times were over.

She raised a finger as if to continue the argument, then snapped her mouth shut on the words. “Fine. What do you need?” Each word was a swirling blizzard, sharply clipped and full of venom, made all the more frigid by the addition of a reverb filter on her voice.

“Just a leaker, but I need him sharpish. Like tomorrow at the latest. Working a tight deadline. And he can’t be one of those goddamn trippers you use. The client doesn’t want druggies and arena adrenaline junkies.”

“Coffee and cake runner. Sure, I got a guy.” She leafed through a few files, and tossed one to Bridge, which floated into his hands as a streaking comet. “Lil’ Kira.”

“Kira? Woman?” Angela shook her head. “He’s not one of those gender-confused hormone-overloaded psychos, is he?”

“No, the name is short for Akira. Loves the old school manga and shit. He’s always a bit jumpy, but he’s solid. Never bottled on a job. Where you want to meet him?”

Bridge thought it over for a second, analyzing his schedule in floating window. “I’ll be at the Arsenal between nine and midnight, maybe one o’clock. He can get me there.”

“The Arsenal? That soccer club on Wilshire? They’ll never let him in a place that upscale.”

“If he can’t get in, just have him send a bouncer in after me. I’ll have ‘em looking out for me. They all know me.”

Angela paused for a minute, something obviously on her mind. “I still got a spot for you on my crew, babe. You can go back to running, if you want. It ain’t the same without you.”

“I thought you had Kim.” An acid reply.

“Yeah, he’s great but he’s in Seoul. Sometimes I could use a little fleshy cuddling.”

“Good night, Angie. Thanks for the help. Have fun with the spheres.” He quickly jacked out without waiting for a reply. He’d probably hear about it the next time they spoke, but for now he just wanted to get some sleep. It was already close to three a.m.

Sleep wouldn’t come. He spent hours tossing and turning, rolling in memories, before giving up and heading to the couch. He flipped on the GlobalNet vids, browsing through channel after channel of fare from infomercials to interactive shows to late-night porn and the big net news. One commercial caught his eye, for a new sitcom coming in the fall. Called Misogynist Theatre, the 30-second spot stopped Bridge’s browsing dead in his tracks, if for no other reason than the buxom brunette flouncing around onscreen. “Nothing like a great pair of breasts to grab your attention,” he muttered to himself. Once the commercial had finished, he used the remote to schedule a recording of the show. He also sent out an AI agent to search for some pre-release leak versions of the premiere. Two months out was enough lead-time for the leakers.

The next commercial made him shut the vids off in disgust. It was yet another political ad for the mayor's race, this one for the challenger, Arturo Soto. Soto was an attractive Hispanic man, slick and suave and the complete opposite physically of the more corpulent Caucasian Sunderland. Bridge would be damn glad when the election was finished. It was only four… no three days away now, this upcoming Saturday. “Fucking politicians,” he muttered, stalking to the kitchen and grabbing the bottle of sleeping pills. The bottle was almost empty, so he cut one of the flimsy paper tabs in half and let it dissolve on his tongue. He wouldn’t need a whole hit anyway. He had to get moving shortly after noon.

Unconsciousness found him soon after.

Under the Amoral Bridge

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