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Book 1 / defrag

Chapter 1

The chopper blades thrummed like an overclocked hard drive through the void of the dead sky over Neosakka. Inside, Glitch clutched at the grimy, pleather armrests of her seat. Her stomach’s desire to empty itself onto the riveted floor was at odds with her head’s desire to Be a Professional, Dammit. Glitch abstained from the debate, and instead focused miserably on the overrated nature of biology in general. Each hammer of her heart beat brought them closer to first contact with their mark. That conversation would either put them back on terra firma, or get herself and the rest of the crew blown out of the sky back into the proverbial dust from whence they’d come. Either way, circumstances were only about to improve.

Glitch pressed her head back into the raised hood of her jacket until her long, black ponytail was crushed against the headrest. The end of her jack-in cable dug into her neck. Even though her model spooled the cable into a compartment at the base of her skull, she could never get the end of it to lie flat.The rim of her hood conveniently blocked her view of the window, the skyscrapers, and the nauseating drop beyond it into the glowing sea of neon light below. The pitch of the chopper ranged from irritating to deafening but she left the noise-canceling headset she’d been handed slung around her neck. It was better than having to interface with the rest of her team just now.

By contrast, N4n0bytes, to her left, was making full use of his rig, chattering non-stop into the mic. Glitch wondered if the rest of the crew had muted him by now. It had been years since her first run but surely, surely she hadn’t been this obnoxious about it.

The two of them were both considered techs on this job, but the similarity ended there. He was obsessed with the latest and greatest in hardware upgrades and hacking bots. She wrote most of her programs herself. His synthetic-cotton hoodie sported a SOUNDZ music label, and had been washed enough times to resemble pink more than red. Her jacket – while also considered a hoodie from a technical standpoint – was sleek, black leather, and reinforced to stop a taser or, if she was lucky, a low-caliber bullet. She carried a gun holstered under her hoodie – a small baretta she’d picked up off a body. N4n0bytes, as far as she could tell, went unarmed. He’d already mentioned twice that they should grab a drink together afterwards. All she wanted to do was go home and disappear into the Matrix. Added to that were a myriad of details: he was white, she was copper-skinned; he watched trad-sports, she played esports – it was hard to believe they inhabited the same check box on a Fixer’s crew list somewhere.  But here they were, a four-person team crammed together in a civilian Rent-a-Chopper: pilot, muscle, and two netrunners.

Their craft pitched downward. Glitch’s fingernails sank deeper into the pleather. N4n0bytes yelped and Jones, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat ahead of her, barked something loud enough to cut him off through the headset. Beside Jones, Wingz howled his elation over the roar of the keening engines.

Skyscrapers hundreds of stories tall rose up all around them. Reflections of names and logos in vivid red, green, blue, and yellow bent and slid across the chopper’s plexi-glass windows. Other air-transports shrieked around them. The gap between superstructures was no-man’s sky. It was cheaper and more efficient to hire pilots and build computers that avoided collision than it was to police airspace. In a city like Neosakka, governed by the bottom line, cheaper and more efficient were law to anyone below a VP’s pay grade.

In the pilot’s seat ahead of her, Wingz’ hands leapt between levers and buttons.  He was copper-skinned, like her, with short-cropped, dark hair and a smooth jawline. His quick smile had an interesting way of twisting the skull and eagle-feather tattoo grafted across his face. She’d heard him tell a cute waitress they were all-but-lost markers of his Aztec heritage, but Glitch was privately sure she’d seen their likeness in a video game somewhere. If he spent any less time recounting his accomplishments as a pilot, she’d be tempted to buy him a drink sometime.

Wingz’ lean build was encased entirely in a jumpsuit that was as much glinting, flickering, pulsating LED lights as it was chrome and webbing. The cable that ran from the back of his skull directly into the flickering, flashing console in front of him gave him the edge over more traditional piloting. The tech involved there impressed her. When she jacked into cyberspace, she was effectively gone from biospace, or as her profession derisively dubbed it, “meatspace”. Pilots of cyber-vehicles – planes, ships, cars – juggled the Matrix and bio-space simultaneously. Steel, chrome, pistons, rubber, and engines were all tactile to them. If this job went well, she might buy Wingz a whiskey or whatever he drank, just to ask about it.

Their destination appeared ahead of them through the jungle of buildings and sky-traffic. Eyes in the Sky was a golden, glowing monolith whose roof peaked in a stepped pyramid. A glowing, neon Eye of Horus sign peered haughtily at the city of Neosakka from each side of the structure. The chopper circled warily, eyeing its mark. Glitch swallowed the bile rising in her throat long enough to slip her headset back into place. If they were about to be shot out of the sky, she wanted to know about it.

“Clearance code: 53A6TFF91,” she heard Wingz tell the wage slave on the other side of his headset.

“Code confirmed,” a bored, static voice replied. “You’re clear to land on Pad 3.”

Wingz turned his head to give Jones the thumbs up. Jones ignored him. Jones ignored most things that weren’t cred or gunfire. The big man kept his eyes fixed ahead and his hands on the modified, military-grade shotgun across his knees. He’d told her the name once, but she could only remember that it had enough letters and numbers to make for a pretty secure password. Most of the rest of his arsenal she recognized from video games: a pair of Glocks in different sizes, a stun gun, a bowie knife, a backup knife, and something in a case strapped to his leg Glitch hadn’t been able to identify.

Glitch planned on sticking close to him: when things inevitably went wrong, he’d have options. Jones had showed more restraint than Wingz with the tattooist’s needle: the only visible sigil inked into his person was a word or a name emblazoned on his beefy forearm. It was distorted beyond easy legibility by a scar that was too neat to have been accidental. She’d worked a job with him once before – a recon run – and he’d said as little about himself on that gig as he had on this one.

“Told you the codes would work,” N4n0bytes crowed over the comm. “Not bad for a wirehead, huh, Wingz? Or what was it you called me? A shut-in teenybopper whose first girlfriend took three hours to compile?”

Glitch cringed. JACKass was the slur of choice to describe netrunners whose time in cyberspace had cost them their social skills. N4n0bytes may as well have stitched the word into his hoodie.

“You want a medal or something?” Wingz retorted. They’d been going at it since their Fixer, [Handle], had introduced them. “Congratulations. You told a computer what you wanted and it gave it to you. I do the same thing with my coffee maker every morning.”

“Eyes front, people,” Jones voice silenced them before the fight could get any momentum behind it. Glitch suspected he was at least as tired of their fighting as she was.

The helicopter dropped towards the golden lights of Eyes in the Sky. Their ride touched down, and Glitch’s hammering pulse spun down in time with the rotors. She looked out the window. A gaunt, leather-skinned man headed towards them across the rooftop. The Eyes in the Sky uniform he wore was an off-white, collared jumpsuit with an embroidered Eye of Horus on the front left breast. It was at least a size too big, and the sagging seams only highlighted his lanky build. He gave the data pad in one, knobby hand a disinterested glance. The chopper door slid open. Jones leaned out of it, balancing with one hand against the doorframe.

“Welcome to Eyes in the Sky,” the uniformed man mumbled. “Says here you have a data delivery?”

Jones jerked a thumb over his shoulder at N4n0bytes. “He’s got an implant. Data’s on a partition inside his head.”

The uniformed man grunted acknowledgement and turned away.

“Right this way,” he said without looking back at them.

Jones landed on the tarmac with a grunt. Glitch looked down. For all her eagerness to be free of the chopper, she spent a few moments intentionally fumbling with the straps of her seat. Jones was good at his job, which meant he didn’t like to leave loose ends. Take, for example, a man in a jumpsuit who’d seen their faces. Firefights were one thing, but looking at a stranger she knew was about to die – well, she’d rather just not look.

“You coming?” N4n0bytes asked her.

Glitch waited until she heard the muffled cry before she looked up. N4n0bytes was half-in, half-out of the chopper. He had this expectant look on his face like a puppy waiting to see if she would come play. Was he really old enough to be doing this? Glitch looked past him. Over his shoulder, she could see Jones dragging the limp body of the uniformed man out of sight. The dead man’s head lolled away from her at an impossible angle. She popped the latches on her harness.

“Come on, Glitch!” N4n0bytes bounced up and down, reinforcing her puppy analogy. “Vámonos!” He grinned at her, trying to get her to return the smile.

Glitch rolled her eyes. “I don’t speak Spanish, kid,” she told him. In the hushed aftermath of the chopper’s whine, her voice sounded strange in her ears.

“Oh.” N4n0bytes made a face at her. “ I thought, ‘cause you’re Mexican…”

Glitch shook her head, hoping to just get on with the job, but Wingz had already spotted the opening.

“You got it wrong, gringo,” he said. He leaned around the pilot’s seat to smirk at both of them. “She’s as white as you are.”

So much for that drink. Glitch pulled her hood up again and adjusted her holstered gun underneath. She didn’t look back at Wingz.

“I’m a Runner,” she told N4n0bytes flatly.

Glitch shouldered past him. She went to seek refuge beside Jones, who was a proper Runner, and didn’t care about her one way or another beyond her ability to get the job done.