BLANK

by R.S. Mason

There’s nothing like a cybernetic sucker punch to the gut to alter your perspective on the day. I mean, I had plans for tonight, you know? My friend, an actual goddamn rockstar, has me on the guest list for her show tonight. “Cora,” she told me. “You’d better fucking make it.” And I was planning on it. All day long I’ve been thinking about how awesome it will be. Show of the goddamn century. And with one frankly inelegant sucker-punch this little asshole obliterates all those thoughts. Now all I can think of is beating him to a pulp. Fucker made me drop my coffee. He’s a lanky bastard, all long limbs, with this creepy blank stare like there’s nothing going on in his head. The sun’s glinting off his eyes, so those are probably cybernetic. And they’re following me. He’s sizing me up.

I ham up doubling over, let him think I’m weak, and he closes in for the kill. He tries a left hook. I catch it and throw him on the ground. “First one’s free,” I tell him. “You gotta work for the rest.” I kick him in the side, for good measure. He squelches. Then he tries to stagger to his feet and come at me again. Dumb fucker. I mean, props for persistence, but it still gets him a kick in the jaw. There’s a crunching sound and he hits the ground again.

I have him pinned before he can do anything else, my knees in his back, and I’m saying something like “Who the fuck do you think you are?” as he just keeps struggling. Blood coming from his mouth, and he’s panting and sweating like it’s going out of style. “Buddy,” I tell him, “you’re wasting your energy.”

For a moment he calms down. A look of panic crosses his face—the first expression this fucker has had since he jumped me. “You have to help me,” he says. His voice is quaking. He’s never been more scared. Then suddenly he lets out this horrible scream and starts bashing his head against the ground. I try to grab his head and stop him but it doesn’t help. He just keeps screaming and banging his head against the concrete, bones crunching, blood puddling under him, until he finally shudders and goes limp.

What the actual fuck?

So yeah, I run. And not the usual lazy jog, either. This is a full-on sprint, augmented muscles kicking into gear. Whatever the fuck just happened I want it far behind me. The motorcycle’s just around the corner, it’s not five o’clock yet, Portland’s five hours out for most drivers, so three if I’m driving. If I leave now I can still make the show.

Christ, I hate these small town runs.

The Columbia basin is full of little towns like this, where cheap power from the dams and cheap land from nobody fucking wanting to be there drew all the corporations out. Server farms, manufacturing, you name it—all the stuff they don’t mind having in the middle of nowhere, run by skeleton crews, lighting up the endless sage desert with their ghostly lights.

Sometimes they need something from HQ that they can’t just send by email, though, so they pay me, because I can make a five hour trip take three hours and it’s cheaper than flying, even if they’re just flying themselves. So that’s what I’m doing here. Delivering some prototype hardware for some experimental cybernetics to some corporation with a name like Northwest Data Solutions. The plan was to drop off the package, pick up some coffee, and take it easy heading home. Show’s at nine. Plenty of time.

Except now I don’t have any coffee and as I round the corner there’s no motorcycle, just a bunch of people with the same blank expression as the kid that just dashed his own brains out on the asphalt. They notice me because it’s hard to be stealthy when you’re skidding to a stop from a dead sprint. And they’re not just where the bike was, either. They’re blocking every exit but the one I came from, and I bet they’ll be in that one too before long.

Okay. This is bad.

I’ve pull up the special corporate-spec Where’s My Car? app the company provided. It tells me the bike is about a kilometer away, and the special diagnostic my hacker friend made for me says it still works. That’s good. Less good is the fact that it’s in a garage and I’ve got a bunch of creepy fuckers between me and freedom.

The company I work for is called Outpace Messengers. (They used to have We “Outpace” The Competition!!! printed on the courier vans but they eventually hired someone competent to handle marketing and publicity.) Outpace issues all of its motorcycle couriers with a blue and silver jumpsuit, made with a special ballistic fabric strong enough to stop a bullet and prevent road rash; a wireless signal jammer to discourage unwanted followers; a pistol and a stun baton for self-defense; goggles to protect the eyes, look stylish, provide a state-of-the-art augmented reality display, and record all on-duty interactions and upload them securely to the company server; and extensive biotech augmentations to make sure that they have the toughest, quickest, strongest couriers money can buy. They did not issue the datatap I had installed in my eyes to make sure I have an offline backup of any data I send them, or the submachine gun I am now removing from its concealed holster (which the company also did not issue).

Usually the SMG gives people pause. These blank-faced fuckers, though, they don’t care. They keep coming, trying to surround me. So I open fire, hoping they’ll try to get out of the way. They don’t. They don’t even flinch. A couple of them take a bullet to the leg and crumple to the ground, no screaming, no fuss.

Good enough. I sprint for the fresh opening. A few of them try to close the gap, but a spray of aimless bullets keeps it open. Not one of them makes a sound.

Small towns like this don’t have much in the way of alleys. It’s all wide boulevards and squat ugly buildings, sprawling out endlessly, and in this case without much sense for design or architecture. It makes losing pursuit hard, but fuck it, I’m faster than them.

The Where’s My Car? app helpfully informs me that there are two armed guards in the immediate vicinity of my motorcycle, and helpfully suggests that I call an authorized police contractor before proceeding (estimated response time: 48 minutes). I don’t have 48 minutes, and since I don’t have any coffee for them I doubt the Basin Security contractors are going to be very helpful anyway.

They’re about a block behind me when I get to the garage. It’s an ugly little tin box of a building, a faded sign saying Mikes’ Motor’s above the glass doors, a neon open sign blinking in the late summer sun. I figure I may as well try the doors before shooting the lock, and what do you know? The open sign wasn’t lying. I fling it open and immediately dive for cover inside.

Nobody’s shooting. Someone at the reception desk—she looks about eighteen and already bored of it all—gives me a look. “Can I help you, ma’am?” She doesn’t give a fuck that some crazy woman with an SMG just busted in—she sees a hundred crazier things every Tuesday. I’ll have to try harder than that to get a reaction out of her.

I like her already.

I stand up and look around, and there it is. My bike. Some fucker in red overalls is touching it. I point. “That’s my bike,” I tell her. It didn’t sound stupid in my head.

“Yeah, I know.” She taps her glasses. “It’s not done yet. Come back in an hour.”

“I didn’t bring it in here.”

“Yeah. I know.” She gives me a look. “I’ve been here all day.”

“I didn’t want it brought in here. Tell Red to stop fucking with it.”

“Can’t. It’s already paid.”

She keeps staring at me like she’s waiting for me to say something useful. Meanwhile the blank-faced creeps from earlier are approaching the door. I hurriedly turn the lock. The receptionist says something to object but I’m done talking to her. Red looks like he’s about to do something, and I can’t have that. I run past her and kick the scanner out of his hands, position myself between him and the bike.

“You crazy, lady?” he says, backing up, hands in the air, eyes fixed on my SMG.

“Yes,” I tell him. I jump on the bike. “Is it ridable?”

“I don’t know,” he whines. “I just started the diagnostics. They said it was broken earlier—”

“They lied.” I turn it on with a thought. Strictly speaking the high-pitched humming noise it makes isn’t necessary, but it sounds cool, and it’s carefully calibrated so it makes a different sound if there’s something wrong with it. “Now open the garage door.”

“But I haven’t finished the diagnostics! I’m supposed to—”

I wire enough credits to cover a check-up to his account. Since it’s not a company-approved maintenance shop and there was no actual maintenance done, Outpace won’t cover the expense, but I’ve got a fucking show to catch. Red gets the idea and opens the garage. A bunch of blank-faced goons are waiting outside, but I’ve got my bike now. They try to block my escape but I run one down and blow past the rest, into the wide featureless streets.

A red notification appears in my goggles: there is chatter on both police and corporate security radio stations talking about me. Red icons appear on the map overlay. They’re watching the freeway, so that’s out. And they’re watching most of the main roads.

I switch on the police radio. Outpace has stolen most of the encryption protocols they use, so I can hear them with only a bit of added static. Some rookie is asking if he should try taking me alive, and the captain just starts laughing. “She’ll be more useful dead,” she says. I guess diplomacy is off the table.

I activate the signal jammer and aim for the back streets. Fortunately in a town like this there’s only a few main roads, and then it’s hundreds of kilometers of desolate country roads, connecting all the endless stretches of farmland to each other. Then I plot an evasive route to a friendly freeway. It’s about a hundred sixty kilometers out of my way, but it’s only just five o’clock. If I hurry I can make Portland before the show starts.

I’m just thinking Jesus Christ, these roads are boring, when finally there’s a road block ahead. Too much to get past, a couple APCs and half a dozen armed guards. I brake as hard as I can and barely skid to a stop in time, and then only because I throw the bike on its side at the last minute. Even with the jumpsuit that’s going to be some nasty road rash.

I get up, ready to mow down the lot of these fuckers, but all the guards are panicked, like they didn’t plan for what happened when they managed to stop me. Like they’ve never held a gun before, and wouldn’t dream of hurting someone. They all drop their weapons. A few of them turn and run, others are frozen in place or hide behind the APCs. None of them are attacking. When the runners get about fifty meters out they stop running and turn back towards me, only to freak out and start running again. Fifty meters is about the range of my wireless signal jammer.

I grab the nearest fucker by his collar and slam him against the APC. “What the fuck is going on here?”

“I don’t know!”

Useless. I drop him and head back to the bike. My goggles are telling me there’s only cosmetic damage, so I haul it upright, move it past the barricade and gun it. There’s a chopper following me now, and my map overlay shows red icons trying to converge on my location. If I weren’t doing two hundred fifty kilometers an hour they’d probably trap me.

But I’m doing two-fifty, and they don’t have the Outpace augmented reality goggles to help them. It tracks them by leeching onto their wireless networks and stealing their ident data, analyzes their radio chatter for tactical updates, scans the roads ahead for obstacles, and plots an ever-shifting route for me to follow. I’m a ghost. I’m untraceable.

I blow past another road block as they’re trying to set it up, and bullets whiz past me. One of them catches me in the back, but the jumpsuit absorbs the impact. It’ll bruise later, but I’ve had bruises before. It’s hardly something to write home about.

Then one of their bike cops gets right up on my ass, and he’s actually pretty good. It’s easy to be good out here, I guess, where there’s no sudden turns and no obstacles to avoid. I make a few experimental maneuvers and he follows them instantly—too fast. So I pick a turn where there’s an oncoming truck, take it, and miss it by inches. Behind me the cop hits the truck and his red icon disappears from my overlay.

Now there’s no red icons within a kilometer. Two kilometers. Three. Finally they stop trying to pursue and start heading back home. I sigh and turn off the evasion protocols and map a route back to Portland. The back roads connect to a highway which connects to a bigger highway which connects to a freeway which finally connects to 84, which will bring me back home. It’s 8:45 when I finally get back into Portland’s city limits, and I breathe a sigh of relief and slow down to manageable speeds, winding through familiar back alleys, back home.

That’s when something latches onto the back of my bike and freezes it in place. I go flying forward and skid to a halt on the concrete.

It’s two guys in a black car. One of them picks up my SMG and tosses it aside while the other stays in the car, ready to go at a moment’s notice. The first guy hauls me to my feet then headbutts me right in the goddamn face. “You have something that belongs to us,” he says.

“I do?” Blood is trickling down my nose and I have no idea what he thinks I have.

Security footage starts playing in my goggles. Me, making my delivery earlier. “All footage recorded of any of our devices is the intellectual property of Northwest Data Solutions, and by the passage of the Data Security Act of 2061 we are authorized to use deadly force to secure any data breach. By recording any of the facilities, devices, experiments, or personnel of Northwest Data Solutions you have agreed to these terms.”

“That data’s already been uploaded and wiped, man,” I tell him. He punches me in the face and lets me slump to the ground. “You could have asked while I was still there.”

“We didn’t detect your recording until we analyzed the footage after the fact,” he explains, then kicks me in the gut. Normally that shit doesn’t hurt but this guy’s augmented to hell and back. He could punch a building and the building would drop its lunch money. “We also detected a datatap in your skull,” he’s saying. “If you surrender now—”

I flex my wrist and the standard-issue Outpace self-defense pistol leaps into my hand. I fire six shots at his head and it turns into a gooey tangled mess of blood, metal, and bone. His buddy starts driving towards me and I fire at the windshield until the clip’s empty, then dive out of the way at the last second. The car keeps going and crashes into a wall.

I access my personal recording of the incident. They didn’t want the prototype to be out there, and they’ll probably keep looking if they can. Wonder what it does? I send the file, along with the chase footage, to my hacker friend, take their grapnel from the bike, and make my way towards the show. My heart’s not in it, though.

My friend replies within ten minutes: [Nasty little thing. Interfaces with a neural implant to let you drive someone like a remote-control car. They probably ask for healthy volunteers, pay them pennies. They won’t remember a thing when the control lapses.] That explains the blank-face freaks, I guess.

I tell her to spread it around, and she says she’s way ahead of me. It’s 9:06 when I finally get to the club. The bouncer lets me in and tells me I should probably wash up in the bathroom. As I’m washing blood from my face and getting changed into something that isn’t battle-damaged, my friend comes up behind me. “You made it! I thought you were going to flake.”

“Nah,” I tell her. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.” This is almost true.

I throw a bloody paper towel in the trash. “You look like shit,” she tells me. “What happened?”

It’s true. Between the bloody nose and the black eye, I look exactly like a couple of guys in a dark car beat me up in a back alley because they wanted to extract data from my brain. “Eh, it’s nothing,” I say.

She’s not buying it, but she does buy me a drink. I get some whiskey for the pain and then some pain killers, also for the pain. Just before she goes on stage she asks again. “Come on. What happened?”

“I had a shitty day at work,” I tell her, which is also true.

Since I’m a friend of the band I get to spend the show backstage. Conveniently enough, I also don’t bleed on anyone or make the patrons uncomfortable back there. I close my eyes and try to sleep, my bruises throbbing in time with the music. This truly is the show of the goddamn century.