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  There was no place on Earth like New Madison. Remy didn’t just say that when he was drunk or trying to impress some outlander girl fresh in town, he really meant it. Where else could someone find three full lakes without a thick slimy film? An undercity with a bit of topside peace? And there wasn’t anyplace else in the Federation you could get a slice of apple pie with real, honest-to-God cheese on it. The apples may be replicated but the cheese sure as hell wasn’t and anyone here would fight you for less.

  It was cold this morning, the first of November. The Ghostfence kept outlanders out but it didn’t do much against the wind. Remy tugged his collar close and ducked into a bar just off Revolution Square. It was nearly noon and that meant the bar was doing steady business. He nestled into a corner stool at the bar next to an old man falling asleep into his second whiskey and fourth cigarette. Remy shook off the cold and placed his hat on the bar.

  Luis placed an empty glass in front of him, and promptly filled it with something from an unmarked bottle. The smell of gin burned. Remy flashed a smile, it was his trademark feature.  He reached for his gin but Luis pulled it away before he could get there. Luis wagged a thick sausage of a finger in Remy’s face. The man was built like an oil rig, and with a greasy stubble to match.

  “Nah-uh, you got my money?”

  There it was, always about the money with these guys. Remy wrinkled his nose.

  “I got something better than money for you…” 

  Luis slammed the gin back in a swig and grimaced. “Nah, Rem. I think I’ll take cash this time. Can’t pay the bills on your tips, yeah?”

  The man next to Remy dipped his forehead to the bar and Luis flicked his ear. 

  “Up, Alvin!”

  Alvin grumbled and stood up. He took his half-drank whiskey only to settle in at the next table over. It was a start, at least. Remy reached into his pocket and pulled out a card, no bigger than one of them credit card things you saw in the old movies. He slid it across the bar to Luis who squinted to read the small lettering.

  “You owe me a lot more than some flimsy old Vasc, Rem…”

  “Hey, can I get a drink down here, or no?” a man called from the other side of the bar. Luis turned, and spat on the floor. You could count on noisy drunks, vile booze, and a modest chance of food poisoning at the School. Remy’s kind of joint.

  “Get it yourself, but so help me, Jon, the bots know how much is in stock. They’ll know if you cheat me.” Jon reached over the bar and filled his empty glass with a pale green beer. Luis turned back to Remy.

  “Anyways, as I…” 

  Remy stopped him right there.

  “Listen, Lou, this ain’t no ordinary Vasc, alright? It’s a dummy prototype, check the serials.” He pointed at a small line along the edge of the card. It was worn from years of living in someone’s pocket or someone else’s desk but it was there, plain as smog-less day. Luis shrugged.

  “So? It’s a dummy. Got a dozen of those in back. Bring me the real thing and we’ll talk.”

  Remy laughed, “Lou, you can’t afford the real thing. This dummy matches a real one about to come down our way from some ruin-pickers out east. Toronto, or some such place. Could be a payday for you if your guys can manage to make the switch.”

  Luis paused for a moment and eyed up the card stuck to the bar with sloshes of misplaced whiskey. He plucked it free and slipped it into his pocket. 

  “I’ll see if my guys are interested. If not, well, you better get some outlander friends, eh? You’ll be needing their hospitality.” He set the glass back on the bar and filled it up before walking away.

  Luis was a nice guy, Remy thought. Bit gruff, could stand to lose ten or forty pounds, but he didn’t take any shit in his bar and was great for when you were looking for a guy who knew a guy. In a town like New Madison, there were a lot of guys to know and only so many hours to sit in bars looking for them. Remy sipped at his gin and watched the light rain turn to snow. 

  “Fuck.” He grimaced. The gin was really terrible. Replicated, like everything else. Remy finished up and pulled his collar tight before leaving. Luis was making his way back to the toilet with a mop so he didn’t look to be in a mood for goodbyes.

  Remy had always liked the snow. The Ghostfence filtered out most of the poison so it wasn’t as bad as some really rainy days, or as caustic as river water so all things considered, it was a fine afternoon. Revolution Square bustled with vendors of every type. He strolled through, killing time before his next appointment. There was only so much piss-gin you could drink before a date until it became impolite.

  New Madison had it all, he thought. An aerofarmer lowered his skiff right into the Square and sold fresh cheese to anyone with enough heft in their pocket to pay for it. Judging by the crowd, he was probably making a killing too. Anything that didn’t taste like replicator grease was worth a few week’s savings. The farmer’s guards wore their Vasculators clearly and their displays flashed a bright yellow lightning bolt. A basic Volt card, but it would do the job. If anyone rushed the farmer’s stand, they’d find out what 50,000 volts through the chest felt like. Or maybe it was amps. Remy never paid much attention in physics.

  “Fresh from the sky, no replication here!” the farmer called. Remy passed him by, keeping his credits where they belonged in his pocket. Revolution Square promised more than just some good cheese. A small boy hawked grime-covered trinkets from the undercity to anyone his wobbly eyes caught. Remy knew which ones would get snared. They typically came in pairs, wore nice sweaters and carried a small pouch of cheese. Boy had a good eye for his marks.

  Elsewhere, men, women, and neither alike sold goods you wouldn’t find anywhere else, and focused as much on watching over the other vendors as they tried to pry money from a sucker willing to overpay for a red hat with a cartooned rodent on it. Who would steal a rat-hat? 

  But mostly, there was food and drink. Carts would fry anything you brought or you could try something normal like a vegetable or guinea pig. Remy had a frozen cocktail fried up once. If you wanted it fried, they could make it happen. Tasted like shit, but it fried all the same. The booze selection was even more impressive. Kids running around with their alco-pops and their parents with their beers of every color. Remy stuck to the hard stuff. Harder to mess up the replication.

  He checked his watch. Quarter of noon. Close enough, he shrugged. It was only a short walk to the zoo. There weren’t any real animals, of course. Sota Zoo up north still had a few of the real ones. Remy went there once. It was nothing worth writing home about. A few mangy dogs you could see in any undercity dump, three or four horses missing a leg or, in one case, hind parts. Holo replicas did the job without all the, you know, gruesome trauma. New Madison had a pretty nice zoo, all things considered. The city’s junkies hung out there so it was a nice place to spend an afternoon. See some pretty birds, eat a hot dog, give a man some uppers for a rumor. Casual Saturday stuff. Today was different, though. He was on a case but there was no junkie to find today. He had a date. Remy saw her standing by the old world monkey enclosure.

  Stefanie Adelaide was a school teacher. Close enough to six feet to make no difference and legs that ran most of the way there. Reddish-gold hair fell past her shoulders in lazy waves, and bright green eyes sparkled in the sunlight. Ain’t nobody have lips like that and still be single. She turned to him and smiled. Her eyes dazzled. 

  “Remy! I’m so happy to see you.”

  “Hey, Stef.”

  She opened her arms and Remy took the invite. She smelled like cinnamon, smoky and sweet. It was their third date and the first to open with a hug. Progress. 

  “So, what’s up? Have you heard anything new?”

  Stefanie was a client too. Or, more accurately, strictly a client and so this wasn’t really a date. Remy preferred to forget about that. Spend enough time working together and who knew what would happen. He scratched his neck and glanced over at the holo-monkey scratching itself indecently. Life might be simpler as a holo-monkey.

  “Ah, no, I’m afraid not. It’s been quiet the past few days but I wanted to check in, see if you’re still doing okay.” Snowflakes disappeared on the holo-monkey as he continued to touch himself. Why would they program him like this? He turned back to Stefanie. She pursed her lips and Remy gritted his teeth. This could be going better. “Here, let’s check out some other places. The monkeys seem busy.” 

  “I don’t understand. I hired you because I’d heard you were the best. If you don’t know where Colin is, then why are we even here? I have class this afternoon!” Her cheeks flushed to match her hair and her nostrils flared. Cheese and rice, she was beautiful. He shook his head and tried his best smile.

  “I got a guy who owes me a favor. I’m going to see him this afternoon, see if anything pans out. Don’t worry, something always turns up in cases like this. See it all the time.” Remy stopped them in front of the extinct mammals display. Lions, and tigers, and bears mostly. Holographic zoos were the best. 

  He really didn’t want to use up a favor for this. Favors were expensive. Fuck Colin for disappearing without the good graces of leaving any trail, but mostly for marrying Stefanie first. A pair of kids ran up in front of them and goggled at the sleeping lions.

  Light filtered through the bars onto Stefanie’s face. The bars were a nice touch at a zoo with no animals. Authentic. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Remy fumbled for a cigarette and twisted off the end to light it up. Casting the end aside, he froze. In a shadow down the way, Remy saw a group of three men and knew his day was about to take a turn for the worse. Clarence ran to Happy Jack for something that small? It was only a gentle roughing up. Respectable enough for a guy like Clarence. Looked like Remy’d be using that favor to save his own skin. 

  “Ah, fuck.”

  Remy unbuttoned his sleeve and rolled back his coat to clear his Vasculator. Three purple lines pulsed brightly from its display. Force. It’d be enough. It had to be enough. He stepped back from the cage and in front of Stefanie. The kids ran off on their own, paying them no mind. Good, it would be messier with kids involved.

  “Hey, look, Stef. It’s been a treat but, uh, you should probably go.”

  “What’s going on?” She’d noticed Jack, Clarence, and the other man step forward. “Who are those men?”

  “I’ll find you later. Go on.” He pressed her back, brushing against her thigh on accident. Of course, this would be his luck. Cinnamon drifted away and the three men continued to approach. 

  “Now, Jack, let’s talk. I got something big for you. Something that could really make you a lot of money. Don’t do anything hasty now.” Remy said. Jack shook his head and rolled back his own sleeve to show his Vasculator. He stroked the end of his thick mustache with his free hand. Jack was a lean man, but looked positively thick next to Clarence, a junkie made of just skin and bones. Clarence hung back a step, with a twitching smirk flashing on and off his face.

  “Well, bless my stars, what a chance to find you here on a day like this, Remy? Come to beat on poor Clarence again? Can’t be having my boys shaken down, Remy. You know that. Maybe next time you’ll remember it, alright?”  Happy Jack slipped a thin card into his own Vasculator and a yellow lightning bolt pulsed on the display. Behind him, Clarence shook. Fuckin’ junkies. Remy didn’t recognize the other guy with the face tattoos. Probably new in town. Maybe he doesn't have any Vascs yet. 

  Tattoo-face unbuttoned his own sleeve and revealed a beat-up Vasc from before any of them had been born crackled to life. More lightning bolts. 

  This was going to suck.

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AdamJay

  • Purveyor of Fine Schlock

Bio: Purveyor of fine schlock. Cheese is love; cheese is life.

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