(Written May 2004)
This is a kind of comic-book-esque cyberpunk tale about a bounty hunter called Crimson Black, the protagonist of an epic game design I had been working on for some time. One day I might finally get around to making that game...
This is the earliest story on the site, and probably my first real attempt to write any kind of story since highschool. As such it is a bit rough and juvenile, it contains grammtical flaws and writing sins. I could have corrected those here, but decided to leave it as it originally was. Either to remind me that I have improved (slightly). Or because I am inherently lazy (probably).
Contract ID: #2891-712-318
Type: Std Bnty/Rtrvl
The job had started in the usual way, or as usual as could be for someone in his line of work. Crimson Black was a bounty hunter, a cat burglar, a mercenary for hire, occasionally an assassin, an odd job man, but he only really considered himself the first or the last. He was one of a growing number of individuals freelancing for the powerful world-wide corporations in their increasingly bitter and bloody rivalries, stealing technology and research, holding each other to ransom, doing whatever they deemed necessary to get ahead and squeeze their competition. Some tabloid hack had coined the phrase Dark Agents of Mercy when reporting on these individuals, but few of them seemed to show any. Perhaps mercy was meant to be some play on mercenary, accidentally missing an apostrophe. Most of these individuals had started off as legitimate bounty hunters, just as Crimson had, working for the over-stretched authorities bringing in fugitives and taking out criminals considered too dangerous and costly for them to handle. The corporations however, could offer a fatter purse.
Crimson had scanned through the contracts posted on the net. They weren't posted just anywhere for anyone to see, but fragmented and scattered throughout dozens of seemingly innocuous posts on a myriad of unrelated sites. Specialised software was required to trace, decode and reconstitute these underground black-market job postings. It had appeared to be a fairly straightforward case - bring someone in for questioning, just another suit - but details were scarce. He had assumed that was why the reward was high, certainly it made the task more difficult and it took nearly a week to get a lead on the target's whereabouts. His name didn't check out, it wasn't registered with anything you might expect, no address, no car, no medical details, it was like hunting a ghost. Eventually a sleeper program Crimson had left analysing CCTV and web-cam images had come up with a partial face recognition, the authority's databases having produced nothing, and so he came to find himself marching through a neon-lit side street towards a downtown sushi bar.
Thumping electronic beats compressed the already heavy air saturated with sweat and smoke from the crowded bar area near the entrance and to the left. Crimson laid a hand to rest on the nearest edge of the bar and began to scour the scene. It had taken just fifteen minutes for him to get here and he was confident his target would not have left so soon, and he hadn't been picked up by the CCTV in the street outside.
“Yes sir, what can I get you?” enquired a young, Japanese barman, but Crimson ignored him as he peered across the room. The barman huffed slightly and moved away to serve one of his even more bothersome customers. To the right the floor was set down by a couple of steps, and what was probably a dance floor after hours and on weekends was packed tightly with small rectangular tables, just big enough for couples or close groups of four to huddle around, and every table was occupied. Overly made up waitresses scurried around and between them delivering steaming dishes of rice and soup, and brightly coloured cubes of chilled sushi on small bleached white saucers. Behind this lower section and separated by a banister illuminated in blue neon, the floor was at the same height as the bar and more secluded tables divided by dark velvet curtains lined the back wall. Most of these tables were empty, or occupied only by unopened menus and reservation cards. At the central most table a dark-haired man looking ill-at-ease in a light grey suit stared intently back across the room.
Crimson's eyes never broke contact with those of his target as he pushed past the people at the bar and made his way around the outside of the tabled area. Likewise the target never broke eye contact with Crimson as he moved around to stand in front of him on the opposite side of the table, but all he could really see was his own reflection in Crimson's shades. His briefcase lay closed on the table in front of him, one hand on each corner.
“Jason Gibbs?” asked Crimson in a deep, powerful voice.
“Who the bloody hell are you?” Gibbs asked in a rough, insolent London accent.
“Someone wants to talk to you.”
“Well tell them to fuck off!”
Gibbs' thumbs twitched and the briefcase popped open, startling himself slightly, he hadn't meant to, he was on edge. Crimson tensed, he didn't know what might be in the case, he should have scanned it as he crossed the room, but he hadn’t. Gibbs tried to reach inside but Crimson put one hand down on the back of the case, crushing his arm and causing him to wince. At a little over six feet Crimson had a lot of upper body weight focused through the small steel catch which in turn pressed through the light grey linen now offering little protection to Gibbs' flesh and bone.
“I'm afraid you'll be coming with me,” Crimson said with authority.
A scream came from the revellers at the bar and then quickly changed into a burst of drunken giggles but it was too late, the distraction had turned Crimson's head, and turning back as he realised his mistake he felt his weight shift forward and the catch of the brief case click shut.
The tables to the left bumped and rattled in turn, linen cloths and dividing curtains being tugged and snagged as Gibbs scrambled somewhere underneath. Crimson flipped the case over and popped it open but found it to be empty. He started pushing his way back past the expanding crowd towards the bar but as he did Gibbs emerged from the last table and flung himself through the hatch of the bar at the fire exit behind it, sending a waitress with a tray of scolding soup flying in the process. Crimson had to scramble over the last table to try and keep up, but as he burst through the exit into the cold night air of the dark back alley, he despaired at the sight of Gibbs a hundred or so yards ahead of him already.
“Christ that mother's fast...”
Crimson wasn’t slow himself. His first half dozen steps were at an impressive pace for a jog before he burst into a sprint that would have out run almost anyone else but barely matched the man ahead of him. The details of the alleyway either side of him were a blur in the near total darkness, but his eyes were ahead like a cheetah, locked on the prey. Infrared enhancement in his glasses helped his focus, even picking out the half degree difference of the footprints as a pale green trail where the friction between sole and ground had raised the temperature of the cold, moist tarmac fractionally, but temporarily.
A few hundred yards more and the strength of this trail seemed to increase slightly, either he was catching up or Gibbs was slowing down for some reason. The alley appeared to open up ahead where it met a road, perpendicular to its path, quiet and trafficless. Without warning what looked like white-hot flares began hissing past and ricocheting off tarmac and steel lockup doors left and right, the hail of bullets closely followed by the echo of gunfire. Crimson crashed full speed into the side of a dumpster for cover, making what could later be observed as a shoulder sized dent in the light steel. Fortunately for now it was strong enough to shield from the low calibre rounds. Next time I scan for weapons first he thought, they never are just a suit, no such thing.
The dull clatter of soft lead that had surrounded him petered off. After a few seconds of silence, Crimson risked a quick glance over the top of the dumpster. The bright red enhanced glow of the offending weapon could be seen fading into the distance so he took a deep breath, moved out from behind cover and continued his pursuit. As he moved away he felt like he’d torn a ligament in his shoulder with the impact, but as soon as the pain registered, the nanites in his blood severed the feedback and set about their onerous task of repairing the tissue damage.
Along the far side of the road was a chain link fence, perhaps 12 feet high. This is what had slowed Gibbs up, albeit briefly. Crimson rattled up it like a squirrel climbing a high wooden fence, swiftly but not without some effort and concentration, the small size of the diamond shaped gaps providing poor foothold for round-toed boots, and the whole fence swayed under his weight. He twisted catlike to continue facing the direction of travel as he dropped down on the other side, but found his gaze naturally turned to the floor as he landed and in that brief moment, he lost sight of Gibbs.
The fencing surrounded an area of a few thousand square yards of broken, weeded concrete adjacent to a derelict looking warehouse. Crimson suspected correctly that this warehouse backed onto the waterfront and that with any luck Gibbs could go no further. He walked about half way across the deserted yard before stopping and crouching, he could see the partially open door Gibbs must have passed through, but thought better of entering the same way. His left hand reached down to the wafer-thin PDA securely clipped to his belt at his side. It was linked wirelessly to the head-up display of his glasses, and although they were fully customisable and could show anything that could be shown on the PDA and often much more, sometimes it just felt more straightforward to look at the master device. Though some people would prefer wetware, Crimson still preferred hardware, something tangible. He knew if it was there, he knew if it wasn’t. He had enough tech swimming through his blood as it was. As he tapped at the corner of his lenses with his right hand, the PDA gently released from the belt.
He thumbed through the GPS menus, locating his position on the city maps, and pulled up an interactive blueprint of the warehouse ahead of him. With no other nearby light sources to create any glare, the screen of the palm-sized computer was at its most crisp and clear and illuminated Crimson’s face as brightly as a match, a fact he was a little wary of having nothing more than a wisp of nearby scrub for cover. It appeared to be a considerable distance to the next adjacent building along the waterfront to the left and outside the compound, and to the right it was open wasteland. With the target holed up and gone to ground came the distinct possibility that backup may be on its way, and Crimson felt he should probably move in fast rather than wait around.
The blueprint showed few points of access; heavy dockside doors, the usual ventilation points on the roof, the near side door that was visible, and a scattering of windows of which most were probably boarded up. Crimson made his way to one of these windows, near a corner of the building. On closer inspection the thin sheet of wood tacked precariously with long-since-rusted one-inch nails was damp and rotten, and came away with the minimum of persuasion. After half a step backwards, and with the PDA secured to its clip once more, his hands came up and forwards as he dived through the window with the grace of an acrobat diving through a hoop at the circus, not even close to touching the splintered frame toothed with broken glass.
Inside the warehouse floor was mostly empty, save for a scattering of broken down machine parts, a rusted conveyor belt running almost the length of the room, and a handful of wooden pallets soaking up the damp and providing a home for a variety of beetles and millipedes and wood lice. A loud and echoing clang from no particular direction preceded a brief flickering of phosphorescent light that soon became constant, though it was pale and diluted in the expanse it tried to fill from way above on steel girders, suspended just below the ceiling. But Crimson hadn’t touched any switches, and someone had taken away his advantage in the cover of darkness. His shades automatically adjusted to the changing level in light, blending what was available in the surroundings with just a little additional enhancement.
He made his way down the length of the warehouse. There was nowhere in particular to hide in the main room, but at the far end there was a steel staircase leading up to a gantry and a couple of office sized rooms suspended on half a dozen girders running from the walkway to the floor. All this was detailed in the electronic blueprints but Crimson had chosen not to enter at the same end, at the risk of being caught strategically below par. At the foot of the stairs he cocked his head and ran his eyes from bottom to top and to bottom again, debating whether the steel framework and steps would creak or squeal noticeably under his weight, but he needn’t have bothered...
One, two, three, four footsteps buckled the roof somewhere above, a second’s pause and then the sound of glass, crashing, splintering on the floor of one of the offices. A blood-curdling shriek came from the same direction, followed by five rapid automatic shots. What the hell is going on?
Crimson’s heart was beginning to pound as he instinctively pulled back the edge of his jacket and drew a gun from his right hip. He ran most of the way up the stairway, a few steps short of the top, his head now just level with the office windows that overlooked the rest of the warehouse. The almost shut blinds on the inside however revealed only the thinnest slivers of light, but there was enough spilling through to make out a tall dark figure near the middle of the room but it didn’t hang around. It moved in the direction of the corner opposite the office door and disappeared. In an instant, Crimson was up the last of the steps and kicked his way through the door, scanning the room all at once, stopping to blink only when the sting of the cold night air flowing in through the open window forced him to concede that whoever had been there had gone. He looked out of the window over the adjacent wasteland but saw nothing.
Gibbs’ broken body lay on the floor, his head slumped at an awkward, twisted angle against the wall, blood seeping from his nose and mouth into the material on his shoulder. There was a deep gash across his neck, it looked like he’d been swiped by a large bear. His gun, which he’d fired in the alleyway, lay in his hand by his side and appeared to be stone cold, no residual temperature was picked up by Crimson’s glasses. Lying squarely on his chest, as if placed with consideration, was a small, white, rectangular card exactly the same size as a regular business card. This card however, was not regular. It had no names and no numbers, just a monochrome, stylised symbol. As Crimson knew at once, it was a dark agent’s card.
The fucker’s been butchered, thought Crimson as he looked down on the tepid corpse. He felt ill at ease, a little faint, but not from the sight of blood. If he’d seen one body he’d seen a thousand, and maybe ended a hundred lives himself, though not without good reason he told himself, mostly. And mostly it was true, as it was of most agents, even assassins have to live with themselves, but therein people differed, he had once figured. His mind was racing. He reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a cellophane wrapped candy. As the rush of sugar began to register, the glucose slowly began to nourish the nanites flowing through the blood in his veins, warn down from soothing his shoulder. The wrapper evaporated to a wisp of orange smoke, warm between the fingers. Crimson had often pondered exactly what in the candy might stop this reaction or how they get the wrappers on in the first place, but now, as the thick smell of vanilla on his own breath formed a pocket of air that masked the heavy iron smell of fresh blood surrounding him, he thought only of the other agent and what information he might have gleaned or taken. The agent had obviously been here for a reason, and Crimson presumed his current employers might want to know why. He snapped a few strands of hair from Gibbs’ scalp and secured them inside a small plastic vial, then he picked up the agent’s card, and left.
Bounty hunters and assassins had started leaving cards as a joke, a taunt to authority, a cliché lifted from ancient films about mobsters and serial killers. They were a bit like graffiti artists brazenly tagging their work, they said I was here and almost said don’t bother pursuing this, it’s just corporate business. But the cards began to serve their own purpose. They became graphic representations of a public key, one half of the public-private key encryption algorithm that allows anyone to encrypt a piece of data but only the owner of the private key to decrypt it. And so although these cards had no visible contact details, with appropriate software a message could be conveyed to its owner, scattered and posted amongst terabytes of public data in much the same way as the black market job postings.
Crimson had tried to check out the card he’d found a few days earlier in the warehouse, there were a few databases set up by authorities trying to keep track of agents and their activities but there were lots of holes. This card lead to one such hole. He needed a little extra help and had asked an old friend for a favour.
“Kelly, you find anything out?”
“Hi, Crimson, why thank you I’m fine, how are you?” came her sarcastic reply.
“OK. I’m sorry but we can talk later, right now I’m on my way to a meet with that agent, I know his slate is blank but I have my suspicions, did you get anything from the details I sent you?”
“You were right to be suspicious, my underworld friends went nuts when I started flashing that tag around, belongs to Kaczynski,”
“Kaczynski? Shit, I thought it might be, but it was rumoured he was...”
“Retired?” Kelly finished his sentence.
“You could put it that way,” Crimson relented.
“Yeah, was also rumoured he did that job on Nexatu last year, guy must have waltzed in with half a ton of plastic in his pockets,”
“Remind me to thank him,”
“Anyway the boys reckon he’s been off the radar since, working to his own agenda. If Jay was still around right now I’d have him watch your back,”
He sighed, “If Jay was still around, for once I wouldn’t mind,”
“So where you meeting?” she asked.
“Top of the HSBC tower,”
Kelly sighed too, “What is it with you guys and rooftops?” she said but under her breath and more to herself than anyone else, and then louder “and where you at now?”
“On the elevator,”
“ON the elevator? Honey, those crates run up the outside of the building,”
“I know, you should see the view,” he said calmly and proudly, “no dark glass between me and the horizon. Oh, and rooftops mean no surprises, and no bystanders, they’re the only open spaces we have left.”
“Figures, anyway, you call me later, I gotta go.”
“Bye.” He ended the call.
The elevator was approaching the top few stories of the building, more than a thousand feet off the Southside broadwalk. Crimson had climbed onto the top while it was empty and while no one in particular was watching. A small child in the street had tugged at his mother’s coat sleeve but failed to get her attention, “Don’t be silly dear,” she’d said automatically. A maintenance panel had allowed him easily to override a few circuits and send it uninterrupted to the top floor, where it met a slightly rusted ladder reaching down from the roof. He’d seen it in the blueprints but had brought a grappling hook just in case, nevertheless he felt a little more relaxed once there was concrete under his feet again.
He walked towards the middle of the roof, looking from the little grey outhouses and red painted access doors on his right to the setting sun on his left. The sky flowed with a smooth gradient from dark blue above through cyan to bubblegum pink on the horizon, but the sun itself was already disappearing behind another tower some miles away. As he looked again to his right someone stepped out from behind pigeon spattered piping and water tanks, the light glinting in their shades and picking out the wear in his heavy leathers. His face looked similarly weathered, the grey in his once black hair hidden by the grease holding it back, and just catching the colour of the sky.
“Mr Black,” he said, nodding slowly in acknowledgement. They walked to within maybe ten yards of each other, but that was more than close enough for comfort, the remaining space representing an uncertain amount of unsaid respect.
“So why’d you bump my mark?”
“Gibbs has been a naughty boy,” he began to explain. His voice was relaxed, considered, theatrical and clear, a thespian in the wrong vocation. “He’s been selling research to a number of parties, including Nexatu.”
By comparison, Crimson spoke with haste, and angst, “What sort of research?”
“Biotoxins, neurotoxins, rather nasty little chemicals actually. The company developing them, for whom Gibbs was working, was allegedly doing so as a preventative, antiterrorist initiative, or some such excuse. Obviously the likes of Nexatu had some other purpose in mind for them.”
“I can imagine,”
“Then I sincerely sympathise,” he replied, with little apparent sincerity. “Anyway, Gibbs got scared,” he looked up through his brow as he considered “or greedy, or both. The people he was selling to found out they weren’t the sole recipients, and when they demanded a little more... exclusivity as it were, Gibbs doubled his price. Of course by this point his superiors had found him out, I believe it was they who contracted you to rein him in.”
“So why’d you kill him?” Crimson asked again.
“Because he had one last delivery to make.”
Kaczynski pulled out a test tube from the inside pocket of his black leather jacket, and shook it gently as he held it up to the dying light of the sun. It was three quarters full with a bright orange liquid, perhaps a little brighter than the available light should have allowed.
“But I had him, in the warehouse...”
“Do you know what this is Mr Black? It’s finished product. Just a sample, but there’s enough here to wipe out the entire city, you had no idea that it was there or what it was, I couldn’t take the risk.” Kaczynski began to sound increasingly impatient, “For all we know he might have stashed some somewhere and if I’d let you take him in he could have come back to it later.”
Crimson wasn’t entirely convinced but said nothing, he didn’t want to antagonise Kaczynski, who had a reputation for recklessness and a temper that flared like bush fire. The same might be said of Crimson were he not self-conscious of and constantly trying to suppress such urges. Kaczynski put the frail tube back in his jacket pocket. He took a deep breath, and seemed relaxed again.
“Should you be carrying that around still?”
“Its quite safe here,” Kaczynski scoffed, confidently slapping the breast of his jacket rather heavily, “wouldn’t want it just lying around somewhere...”
He’s certifiable, Crimson thought, praying the glass didn’t fracture, before asking “So, who are you working for?”
“Myself of course, there are such ills in this city, that one has been rather busy of late, trying to put some of them right. You could say, as did your friend, that I have my own agendas,”
“You tapped my call?” Crimson felt slightly perturbed, but had he reached the roof first would most likely have scanned for local comms while waiting too.
“I run a permanent trace in the background on nearby transmissions,” but Kaczynski’s smug grin then turned to a look of worried concern as his focus switched to a more distant part of the rooftop, and his voice began to accumulate indignation, “though had I been paying it more attention during our tête-à-tête, we might not have been quite so rudely surprised by them...”
Crimson span around. At first he could see nothing, then a dim red glow through acrid black smoke billowing gently from a vent near the corner of the roof. Then there were two, and a third appeared to clamber up over the edge, and elevated itself to approximately head height, level with the others. Three dark, cloaked figures stepped forwards and through the smoke, and each of the lights in turn resolved to become two separate, brighter point sources, two inches apart.
He turned to Kaczynski, “Who the fuck are...” but the agent was already out of earshot and disappearing behind the outhouses. A swarm of laser-red dots swam over the dusty concrete all around him. “Shit!” Crimson started running in the same direction as Kaczynski, away from the approaching trio, his gut told him now was a very bad time to hang around. He tried weaving in and out of the radio masts and satellite dishes that cluttered the rooftop, in an attempt to put something, anything, between him and his pursuers, but still the red dots of light waved around just in front of him. The edge of the roof was now very close, and Crimson dived over a low wall just metres away from it, crouching behind to consider the situation after a brief glance to locate the three individuals. They continued to move in his direction, but slowly, cautiously, at walking pace. With his back against the wall, Crimson heard Kaczynski shuffle to his right, he was only a few metres away and peering out from behind the edge of a concrete hoarding. Crimson found he needed to shout over the sound of rushing air, air being pulled against its will by powerful fans into ventilation shafts, “Are they who I ...”
“The Cyburai? Yes. Apologies for not making a more formal introduction, dear boy, but now really isn’t a good time for questions...” Kaczynski was shouting back; he was pulling a small, egg-sized grenade from a belt clip previously concealed by his jacket, “...now is the time to turn heel and run!” He swung his arm around the side of the hoarding, tossing the grenade in the vague direction of the Cyburai.
Crimson instinctively ducked his head and clasped his hands around his ears until he felt the rumble of the detonation just a few seconds later. “We kinda run out of treadmill,” he yelled back, as he took another quick look over the wall. The Cyburai were unscathed, two had paused briefly to take cover, the third had just kept walking, slowly, and was now no more than 50 yards away. Crimson knew all too well who they were, cybernetically enhanced samurai warriors, Nexatu’s private henchmen. Nexatu rarely recruited dark agents, they’d built their own in a lab. There was little point in fighting them with most hand held weapons, they were impervious to small rounds and capable of astonishing rates of self repair, courtesy of the Nexatu Nanotech Division. Presumably they were here for the toxins Kaczynski had, or Kaczynski himself, or both. For a moment Crimson wasn’t sure this was his fight, but realised he couldn’t exactly count on their accordance.
“Then I suggest you run like a bird!” mocked Kaczynski as he pulled another grenade from his belt. He seemed to be relishing the prospect of what Crimson would have considered to be a dangerously one-sided stand-off if he wasn’t preoccupied with the possibilities for his own escape. Kaczynski leant out to get a better position on his target, but it proved to be a fatal mistake. Crimson didn’t hear a shot, but nevertheless one had been fired. He looked up to see Kaczynski’s right lens shatter. The imploding fragments of glass ripped through the retinal wall, burying themselves deep inside his brain and far off the path of the bullet that followed straight through and ripped off the back of his skull, leaving a cloud of atomised blood to disperse on the breeze. Still following the brain’s last instinctive instructions his arm raised towards his face, but long before it could reach it, he was gone. It was the tiniest fragment of glass that actually killed him. Grenade still in hand, his arm dropped as his knees gave way, his legs folded, and he slumped to the floor.
Kaczynski twisted and fell to his right, towards Crimson. The tube of orange toxins rolled out of his pocket and came to rest just inches from the dropped grenade.
“Shit!” Where’s the pin?
Had Crimson stopped to think, he would have been dead in three seconds, followed by much of the city within days. Another choice would have seen him dead maybe ten seconds later, and the city’s fate left unknown. He rolled forward and grabbed the test tube, then dived sideways over the edge of the building as the grenade exploded. A grenade such as this might produce over a thousand potentially lethal fragments, each travelling at an initial speed of over eight thousand metres per second. Thankfully only a small percentage of these lacerated Crimson’s calves and ankles, sending his nanites into a frenzy. His feet were protected by heavy boots and the rest of him was already clear over the side. He tumbled clumsily into free-fall, in a spin aggravated by the blast.
Crimson hadn’t brought a primary parachute, but had an emergency chute concealed in the lining of his jacket. This was linked to the altimeter in his PDA, and would trigger automatically below a preset height. Unfortunately Crimson was still spinning out of control and didn’t have time to correct his fall, the HSBC tower was only a few hundred floors. Earth-horizon-sky-horizon... If the altimeter triggered the chute while he was facing upwards, he could end up plummeting like a brick in a refuse sack. Earth-horizon-sky-horizon-earth-horizon-sky-RIP... He pulled the manual release just a fraction of a second before the altimeter would have kicked in, ripping the back of his jacket open, allowing layer upon layer of the thinnest silk to unfurl into a wide, dark plume, instantly halting his spin, and then gradually easing his undulating sway.
As the rate of descent relaxed into a near horizontal glide, Crimson banked hard to the left to avoid the tops of some very tall trees, and then hard to the right again to avoid flying over the Northside broadwalk. His legs were numb below the knees, but he could still feel the warmth of blood seeping over his feet and welling in the bottom of his boots, his nanites as yet unable to stem the bleeding. A cursory glance over his shoulder back towards the tower left him feeling like a pigeon that had just spotted a hawk. One of the Cyburai had taken to the air too, having not yet given up the chase, the bright red of their goggles visible a few feet above the treetops and closing in fast. Crimson’s flight path was taking him towards the glass-topped roof of a low-level shopping mall. He had hoped to land there just off the glass and unseen, he might just have enough speed to clear it, but...
There was a sickening crack just above his head, a well aimed and razor-edged shuriken had cut through some of the cords that suspended Crimson above the world below. The chute began to lose its grasp on the air above, and he plunged uncontrollably onto the glass over the mall. For a moment it held its place, but the impact had left it fractured and opaque with dense stress lines in all directions. Then it gave way. Crimson continued to drop. Shards and splinters went everywhere, lost amongst the screams of horrified late night shoppers whose attention had been turned by the initial thump. The chute caught on the framework that had once held the panes of the ceiling in place and Crimson’s fall came to a violent halt a few feet above the floor.
It felt like it was all he could do to stay conscious, but somehow Crimson managed to wrestle his way out of his jacket and he fell to the floor, his legs collapsed beneath him. He struggled to all fours, and looked around and up, up above the circle of onlookers, up towards the ceiling through which he’d arrived in such unorthodox fashion. And there they were. Looking down through the remains of the glass, the three pairs of blazing red eyes, still and intent. One of them appeared to raise a hand to an earpiece, nodding in acknowledgement of an unheard communiqué. With a squinting scowl, Crimson whispered, “Fuck you!” He tried to stand. Waves of scorching hot pain washed over him from head to toe, he felt like he was in a rotisserie, blood ran down his face from cuts in his brow. He turned his back on the crowd, and on the Cyburai. He didn’t know if they would follow, or if they would shoot, and possibly neither did they. They were three floors up from his level. He shuffled the twenty yards or so to the edge of the mall’s ground floor, where an escalator lead down into an underground train station. The crowd of shoppers had begun to go about their business once more, unknowingly putting themselves between Crimson and the Cyburai’s vantage point. Crimson leant heavily on the rail of the escalator as it descended to the platform. Thirty seconds or so passed before the next train pulled in. The platform doors accepted an electronic handshake from Crimson’s PDA and opened to allow him to stagger into a relatively quiet carriage. He lowered himself with care into a seat. As the train thundered off into the darkness of the tunnel, he took a handful of glucose-rich candy from a pocket, and crammed it into his mouth as he gently closed his eyes.
After a day or so Crimson’s wounds had largely healed. The hairline fractures in his shins had fused, and the tiny remaining scars on his flesh would soon fade away to nothing, replaced by soft brown flesh, good as new, give or take a few follicles. He hadn’t slept much recently, his subconscious and his conscious mind were working too hard, trying to process the events of the past week. He’d spent hours staring across the dark of his apartment at the eerie half-glow of the orange liquid, emotions flickering between simple awe, and conscientious terror. Presumably the Cyburai couldn’t easily trace either it or him, or at least they hadn’t yet, but Crimson knew it wasn’t safe with him, he knew he had to return it to the manufacturers, the company that had contracted him to find Gibbs.
Crimson set off into the small hours of the night. He took two wheels instead of four, choosing to weave his way through the claustrophobic maze of back alleys and unlit side roads, keeping a low profile. The test tube was securely packed away within a padded steel box in a rucksack on his back. He rode to an address on the outskirts of the city, a towering complex of glass that might have seemed small amongst those near the centre of the metropolis, if it could ever find the floor space. Out here where it was allowed to sprawl, it managed to impose itself menacingly on the collective horizons of the surrounding suburbs. Crimson handed the package through a heavy grill to a night porter with strict instructions to give it to the contact name he was supposed to have brought Gibbs to. The porter turned a little pale at the sound of the name, and despite Crimson’s assurances, insisted on being given the appropriate security codes, which Crimson had also been given in his contract. Crimson left as the porter scurried away into the depths of the building. He headed back downtown; he had one more call to make.
The predawn sky was beginning to lighten as Crimson pulled up outside another corporate stronghold. The brown-grey concrete looked old and shabby, belying the building owner’s reputation of being at the forefront of new tech, but this wasn’t their HQ or even offices of any real importance, just another site of paperwork processing. There wasn’t even a Nexatu sign on display to identify its use. Its insignificance afforded Crimson a feeling of security. He could deliver his message in person with no risk, and be fairly confident that his message would get through, perhaps hoping that the message would be all-the-stronger for it. Alone in the twilight world, he scaled the steps at the foot of the building and deposited a brown paper envelope into a mail box set into the wall by the heavy wooden doors. He paused to watch the glimmering light of the security scanners spilling out of the corners of the box as the package was checked over. Then he turned and walked away.
Crimson started to ride back the same way he had come but made a turn over the Half-Mile Bridge and stopped at the entrance to the North Bank Park. The iron gates were locked. Crimson shimmied over the wall effortlessly. He had been wrong about empty spaces amidst the labyrinthine constructs of concrete and steel. There was this one, the largest and perhaps the only one that still existed at ground level, besides the deserted yards of the warehouses across the river. It was the only place of any size where the earth wasn’t forcibly separated from the sky, and where it could still breathe.
The swirling mists on the ornamental ponds were starting to recede as Crimson crossed the footbridge into the main field of the park. He strayed off the path and stopped under a large oak tree to watch the blinding orange sunlight burst over the horizon and breathe life into the brilliant green of the dewy grass. He removed his shades and allowed his eyes to adjust to the natural levels of light. As the urge to squint and blink faded his pupils relaxed and his retinas could relish in the natural colours of the world. Colours so unlike the drab greys of the city around him and the harsh pure tones of electronic images that demanded so much attention, so much of the time. The dawn chorus gently drowned out the distant hum of early morning traffic. Somewhere overhead, a large, black raven settled on a branch, and cocked its head several times to look down over Crimson who - just this once - was blissfully unaware of being watched.
Sometime later that day a secretary would open the envelope Crimson had deposited, to find three small items. The first was a small plastic vial, with a few strands of hair inside. The vial was labelled ‘Gibbs – deceased’. The second was Kaczynski’s card, collected from the warehouse, and also labelled ‘Deceased’ on the reverse. The third was Crimson’s own card. His own unique logo was a slight variation of one his father had used, although Crimson wasn’t consciously aware of it. A strong black silhouette of a raven in flight, wings at full span. On the reverse Crimson had written ‘alive and kicking’, and then underneath that, ‘WATCHING’.
Crimson turned his back on the warmth of the sun to leave the park. His corvine companion took to the ether. A set of shrill electronic bleeps from his PDA informed Crimson of a potential new contract arriving in his inbox. He returned his shades to his face as he recrossed the bridge - his footsteps on the wooden planks sending brightly coloured carp diving back into the shadows below the lily pads. Crimson tapped at the corner of his lenses to start reading the new message, a new day, a new contract, and to himself he said, “Here we go again…”
Read a later short featuring Crimson Black: Last Act of Defiance.
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