Discount Skin Ticket: A Cyberpunk Beginning
Neon promises refract off the humidity gathering inside the display windows: cyan, chartreuse and helium-yellow; strobe lights flash to a seizure beat. The shop next door’s got a holo advertising vinyl trench coats, the ones with the buttons and the wide shoulders — always wanted one of those.
I step into the halo of a single diode hanging over a corrugated garage door. Metal scrapes on metal and a two-inch opening appears in the graffiti.
I pull the stained ticket from my suit jacket and hold it up.
An array of red lasers trace the code at the bottom. Normally they’d be verifying payment, but my scene’s less binary, sort of a discount quid pro quo. After a moment, the red winks out, and ancient chains begin to grind through gears.
This is Tiff’s chop-shop, a full day’s ride below the sun-drenched streets of the Promenade District’s Carousel boutiques; their Chroma-synth therapy includes all of the latest augmentations, next-gen variable apertures, ceramic fiber and porcelain glow-go; they even offer their clientele real coffee, with real milk, from real bio-sim cows.
Not so much down here; this is a snatch and grab, adoption re-pro outfit, specializing in mild, milquetoast hues, more marketable hues — and all of the foundation and skin work that goes with it — just dark enough for the Topsiders to feel good about themselves, but not so dark as to remind anyone of where the little sewer rats come from.
Most of them are just going to send the kids right back to a Carousel, get them cleansed and homogenized: nice white skin to match their blue eyes and blond hair, although, I hear green is making a comeback.
The white minds come later.
Incandescent light spills out onto the puddled sidewalk as the garage door rises.
“No more.” It’s Tiff. She waves her hands at me, wrinkles squeezing into a disappointed frown. “Too soon, too soon for you, Mister Miles. You go.” She’s been here since the tech went open source. Some say she had a hand in its opening, some say a lot of stuff — some don’t live that long.
I pout. It’s not very manly, but some habits die harder than others.
Her hands are stuffed into the pockets of her flowered overalls. All five feet of her glares up at me, as much as chromium optic implants can. I slip past, followed by the ever-present stench of street vendor yeast; and then she palms the wall mounted control, gently shaking her head as the gate lowers. She’s not mad, just worried. I’ve known her since I was six, the first time I came through here.
I hug her and whisper, “It’s necessary.”
“You always say that, Mister Big Job.”
I hold the ticket out. “I can even pay up front this time.”
She waves me off again. “Money no matter, too much old tech, you can’t keep doing this. No good for you.”
“Got the new chip-set to match the fingerprints?”
“Smart man, you run business now?”
I almost grin.
“Why do you still pretend you can’t speak English?” I ask casually as I pull out a Lucky Strike.
She drops the affectation, her voice as lyrical as I remember. “Because, to the discerning ear, Mister Jake Miles, it’s ugly, and to its core…vulgar.”
I grin now. “When in Rome…”
She frowns again, and then motions me through a door to the back, her gray ponytail flipping over her shoulder as she turns. “Too long in Rome,” she grumbles.
I light up and follow her down a sickly green hallway, old plastic tiles have come loose, the nearly petrified wood floor showing through. A row of old-fashioned light bulbs hang from the sagging ceiling.
Sixteen years and nothing’s changed.
She walks into her office, an empty cube of peeling wallpaper and dark carpet, and takes a seat behind a wide vid-desk. It looks out of place, until you consider the next room over, the magic behind the curtain. It’s level four clean, glowing white plastic — Chroma-synth pods line the far wall.
The only other thing in Tiff’s office is a sign nailed to the wall behind her desk, faded letters over a field of rust: Everyone is pissing on someone.
“Ticket,” she demands, but she barely glances at it before tossing it back. “No more gender re-pro.”
I rest my hands on the edge of her desk and lean forward. “Tiff, it’s my only way in.”
She sighs. “Gender reprogramming is illegal, I’m supposed to report you.”
“Never have before.”
“You still have my origin chip?”
She leans back in her chair and crosses her arms.
“This is my last job, and then, I’m done with synths, promise, just one more stem session, a reboot. Tiff…I want to be me again.”
She stares at me for a long time, and then finally shakes her head, her tone tempered. “Jake, we can clone the chip, but the backup…it’s gone.”
“Don’t bullshit me, nothing digital is ever gone. Where’s my data?”
She looks to her desk display, the silent feeds reflecting in her implants.
“Tiff, you know I love you, but don’t test me.”
Her face jerks up, arms tighten across her chest, and then coolly, “Thoro-Cor.”
“The industrial harvesting company, the one in Kansas?”
She nods, but still won’t look me in the eye. “They have a massive grid, huge neuro-farm, and rather questionable security. Chroma-stem backups require massive storage, Jake, expensive storage. We snuck in…borrowed a few sectors.”
“What’s the ‘and’ part?”
“And…the Tang got involved.”
“Jesus, the Tang?” I take a drag off my Lucky, and lean against the desk, holding my head in my hands.
“This was back when they were a Lincoln stock, small time gang, back before they muscled into New Brooklyn, before they got picked up by the Dow Jones. They had a re-pro ticket, same as anyone…just business.”
“Do I want to know how they caught onto the storage scam?”
She looks down, ashamed. “Liam.”
“He’s been dead for…why didn’t you ever tell me, it’s been years.”
“And exactly what business is it of yours? The Tang get theirs, they leave me alone, but the backup data is…restricted.”
“So get permission, I can pay the fees. I got no history with the Tang.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“The hell it isn’t. Look, Tiff, I need this last job, and then I can pay whatever. Get my goddamn data.”
“Jake, it’s deadlocked.”
I drop the cigarette and take a step back.
Tiff’s voice is gentle, like she’s trying to calm one of her snatched kids. “Zia, Tang’s second…her daughter was born…they had access to all of my backup stems, Persia was trendy that summer…to repair the damage, her illness…you were so beautiful, Jasmine. They used your Chroma-stem to reboot her.”
“But…” My head is reeling.
I smell the carpet burning.
Tiff comes around the desk and takes my hand. “I can work around the gender laws, but no one has ever hacked the single license locks. Until her death is logged, your data is useless, no matter how much money you bring to the game. Jasmine, there can only be one of you.”
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