Christmas will always have the smell of cigarette smoke to me, the smoke of genuine vat-grown tobacco and the taste of cold air and hot ash with the night's first drag. I would sit in my car and smoke and watch some poor fool doing things that he had promised not to do. I was a mutt doing a robot's job, but I got paid for it because I could lie; the stim-tapes weren't that smart anymore. And after I filed my Observer's Report and the Mediation Board called me in, I would explain how I had just happened to see the Defendant speed biking, or sleeping with his supervisor, or smoking vat-grown tobacco, and how I had talked to the Board because I figured maybe there would be a fee in it. Sure, I had just happened to see three other Defendants breaking their contracts that month. I wasn't on any company's payroll anymore; I was a private witness now, a latter-day Private Eye, and that's the only way I could get by. A Defendant's lawyer rarely could prove that I'd gotten this particular subject's name ahead of time from the company. The contract was violated by Defendant, and its terms are null and void; Defendant is on the streets and the company can fill the gap with somebody shiny and new. Maybe that would be another Defendant, five years down the road. Who knows. In the meantime, I got paid.
Did I like it? Hell, no. I lost my own job when some Private Eye just happened to see me coming out of the wrong door one night. If I was still on the company plan I guess their shrinks would have told me to get into a team sport to boost my self-esteem, and then they would have given me something tasty and psychoactive to take in case the football didn't do its magic. But I was on the streets, a Private Eye myself, and the only pills I could get would do more magic than I cared for. A little White Flame would be psychoactive all right, psychoactive as all fucking hell. And I'd wake up tasting like piss and vomit and burning to do it again, only a little more, just a taste this time. That's what you get on the street when you look for something to pick you up. Call me crazy; I stuck with booze and smokes. I was off the payroll; no company beancounter could accuse me of buying tobacco and cite breach of contract from excessive nicotine levels in my blood. They say you can't kill a man who's already dead. Well, I saw enough in the GovWars to know that's a lie. But I think there's a good point in there somewhere.
"Up," he groused, and greyish flourescent bulbs sputtered to life. The clock gleamed softly in the lower left corner of his field of vision, cyberoptics flashing 16:35 in green and orange. An alarm set near his left eardrum buzzed just out of time with the flash, unsteady and irritating. It got him out of bed.
Home for Sam Dee was a grey plastic cubicle, four meters by four by precisely two-point-five, grey nearly the color of the ceiling lights but not quite. The cubicle was stainless; paint and stains rolled off and pooled on the floor until they rotted away, and a jolt of current would be enough for the memory-plastic to repair any gouges an occupant managed to inflict. It was anonymous. They all were anonymous. There must have been ten thousand souls (and the six Known Registered Androids) living in that building, all of them as featureless as the walls they called home.
"News," he said, nearly growling but loud enough for the sensors to make it out. He looked around for his coffee cup, while in the background of everything the News came on. The feed came from satellites, the signal through the room's simset and into his head. A wet receiver was pricey, but he had bought one when a company salary made it affordable. Most people still used the Tri-Screens; he got the imagery like it was right off his own retinas. The standard logo came up first:
Be a Part of the News!
From the Safety of Your Own Head!
24 hours a Day!
All the Time!
All waiting for
"No shit," he muttered, holding his cup impatiently beneath the faucet while the coffee percolated. "I bought it already."
The lead story on Network 54 faded first into his peripheral vision, but he immediately focused on it; the coffee wouldn't need much attention. It looked like an urban dust-up of some kind, fireworks and rioting around a gleaming cube bearing the holographic logo of Bauer Biotechniche, a subsidiary of Dornier Aerospace. Melinda Starr was the reporter on duty, all 1.6 meters of her expertly sculpted form like she was right there in his own room. She appeared to stand on a balcony overlooking the action. Blonde locks glittered as she shook her head in answer to some question of the unseen anchor.
"No, Jase," she said in an assertive voice modulated to produce mild sexual arousal in 59% of male test subjects; it always worked on Dee. "We don't know if theft was involved in this crisis. The reports are still unconfirmed. We do know that at least two security officers were seen wounded on the grounds of the Bauer-Biotechniche plant. Eyewitnesses also saw a hovercar leaving the vicinity before the explosions and the worst of the rioting began. But let's get another opinion on this growing crisis." She stepped toward Dee and addressed him directly. "Sir," she asked earnestly, "What is your take on this situation? Should Dornier Aerospace respond with its usual degree of force?"
He shook his head in irritation. She had already begun to respond to the motion when he cut in. "No bullshit," he said, and she nodded with an encouraging smile. "Interactive off." She went businesslike again and turned back to the scene at hand. The command would be registered with the RealStim databanks, ostensibly for statistical analysis of consumer use patterns, but he wanted the genuine article. Or as close to it as he could get with the News, at least.
"As you can see," she resumed, "the Dornier Security Force has arrived." She pointed as several hovercars, heavy craft bristling with weaponry, flew past. The lead vehicles opened fire in a deafening roar of automatics, anti-personnel rounds bursting against the pavement and sending flechette shards into the screaming crowds. A voice shouted over a bullhorn, somehow even louder than the guns: "DISPERSE AND CLEAR THE AREA OR DIE! DISPERSE AND CLEAR THE AREA OR DIE! LAST WARNING, COCKSUCKERS." The six craft flew into a circular pattern with staggered elevation over the streets surrounding the Bauer Biotechniche compound.
"No real surprise here, Jase," said Melinda Starr, "except perhaps that DornSec usually shows less restraint in situations like this. You may recall the unfortunate incident around the Heights of Denver complex last year, in which..."
The phone buzzed in his left ear. "News audio off," he said, and Melinda Starr went silent. The phone buzzed again. "Answer, voice."
Another image came into focus, driving Melinda Starr and her carnage toward the periphery to join the still-untouched cup of coffee. A middle-aged man appeared, fashionably dressed in an ancient dusty office, with steely grey hair and lines of age and wear in his face.
"Dee," he asked, seeing only the blank screen of his own phone. "Hey Baron, you there?"
"I'm here. Make it quick, I'm watching the news."
"Gotcha, gotcha. You still need money, Dee? Maybe need another woman since you shoved off the last one I sent your way?" He was a fixer, a reliable contact and a thoroughly unreliable man. Dee had once accepted a high-priced escort's contract from him in lieu of payment for a job. Her hair had glowed with every orgasm, distracting as hell.
"Money would be nice. But I'm surprised to see you on video, still. Figured you'd steer clear of cameras."
"Hey, fuck you, Dee." He was hot; pushing that button always did the trick. Dee smiled. "You weren't there," he snarled, the same as always. "That fucking reporter had my ass!"
"All right," Dee chuckled, "So he had your ass. What was that, twenty-five years ago? Been a long while since you wore a badge, buddy. So what's this job?"
"You think I'm still gonna hook you up with this deal? The way you yank my chain, asshole?"
"You wouldn't have called me if you didn't need me."
"Think you're smart, huh? Well, listen up, Dee, maybe I do have a job for you. Could be messy, but you can handle messy, right? Keep your eyes on the newsfeed, keyword Bauer Biotechniche Night City...."