‘Good morning, Sir. You have new messages.’
‘Yeah yeah, PAL. Play them.’
“Now is your chance to win C400,000 in the Drake Sector lottery draw. Enter now for just one credit, and you could become the richest person out there. Don’t dawdle! – Dear Mr Goals, your subscription renewal request to Hot Action VR has been received and approved. We hope you continue your patronage. – Mr Gaols, our mutual client will be calling on you in one hour to retrieve the information we hired you to recover, and transfer your fee. Be ready.”
Gaols sighed and stretched his arms and legs. ‘That’s fine. PAL, set up my VR set. I’ve got time for a quick session this evening. Use Hot Action VR – Male 33.’
Gaols got out of bed and walked into the shower cubicle and let the steaming jets undo the knots in his muscles. Forty-five minutes later, when his client arrived, he was spotless. The exchange was made. Data from a local triad organisation for C40,000. Enough to keep Gaols’ business afloat for another two months.
He was expecting the wile away the rest of the day in solitude. But then someone else came to the door. A woman with the tight outfit and vividly dyed hair of the privilege few who lipped on the uppermost levels of the Terrace. She sat abruptly, then fidgeted in the chair for some moments. Gaols decided to initiate the conversation.
‘If you want serving, I’ll need to know how.’
‘Hmm? Oh yes. Sorry. I… Well…. It’s somewhat delicate.’
‘Hey, didn’t you read the ad? “Delicate situations a speciality. Discretion assured”. I don’t say what I don’t mean.’
‘I’m glad about that. You see, I want you to find my brother.’
‘Find your brother? As in find long-lost brother, or find mission brother?’
‘Isn’t it the same thing?’
‘Not at all. They’re totally different. So what’s yours?’
‘He’s… Missing. Since last week. I think he may be in the lower Terrace strata. He doesn’t know how to survive down there.’
‘I see. So you want me to find him. I’ll need details.’
Gaols got my details, then mentioned his fee. ‘It’s C40,000 for one job like this.’
‘Would you accept more?’
‘Who wouldn’t accept more for a job like this.’
‘I can pay you C500,000. Is that acceptable?’
Gaols almost went slack-jawed. C500,000. The same kind of sum he heard touted on the regional lottery commercials all day long. Twenty times the standard amount earned by lower strata citizens. More money than he had earned in his entire life. Enough to set him up for retirement, early or otherwise.
‘Sure. I’m willing to accept that. I’ll find your brother. Call round in a week. I’ll have something for you then, guaranteed.’
The woman got up and left abruptly. Gaols made a note in his small book; “Dyed woman, missing brother, C500,000.” He closed the book and smiled. This would be a synch. He cut his teeth on finding people in the lower strata, whether they wanted to be found or not. Even during his enforcer days, when he worked for the local Triads shaking down people who were late with payments.
‘PAL, I’m gonna be out for a while. If I get any calls, say I’m out on a case.’
Pulling on his jacket, Gaols left his apartment building and mounted the vertical Metro which would take him to the lower strata. He got some brief looks at the sun between the Terrace’s gleaming towers, then everything was plunged into industrial shadow. The smells changed from the tang of street purifiers to the industrial smog he knew so well. The Metro reached its destination and he stepped out onto a dilapidated platform, stepping round a homeless man who had clearly died during the recent cold snap. The station staff would notice once he started to smell.
A two street walk took him to Tseng’s Place, a small den he had frequented during his triad days. He walked in, strode through the shop and past its empty counter, into and beyond the hidden parlour with its intoxicating scents rising from discarded pipes, and into a sealed room deep within the building. He rapped on the door, and a voice sounded from within.
‘Who is it?’
‘Pizza guy. You ordered extra sleezy.’
The door opened with a sigh and Gaols passed inside. Tseng was lying on a large divan on the opposite side of the sumptuous room. He stared at Gaols as the door closed behind him.
‘I never imagined you would come back here, Gaols-san. You told my boys that you were now a respectable private detective. To what do I own the pleasure?’
Gaols struggled not to scowl at the false Asian accent Tseng insisted on using. ‘I’m looking for someone. I thought you could help me. Someone from the Terrace’s gone missing.’ Gaols gave a brief and informative description. ‘I’ve been hired to find him.’
Tseng gently chewed the stem of his hooka. ‘No-one has been here from the Terrace for over a month. We’re out of fashion at the moment.’
‘They don’t need to come here for you to know. You keep your eye on everything in the lower strata. It’s your business to know.’
‘True. That’s why you made such a good enforcer. My brain and your muscles made the perfect combination. I’m surprised you left for the higher strata.’
‘I wanted to be my own man. Surely you can understand.’
‘Yes. But I miss your little quirks. You’re the only enforcer I’ve ever known who got paid bonuses in virtual sex. Is it still twice a day?’
Gaols’ eyes narrowed. ‘Just once these days. I haven’t got free time for any more. A self-run business isn’t an easy task master.’
‘True. And it must be hell keeping your chair in good order. I remember the bills we got after that night following the Terrace Anniversary job. You spent over two hours in the thing. Practically melted its motherboard.’
‘It was a rough mission. I needed to blow off steam.’
‘Most of my men do that with drink, drugs or real sex. Not a chair-mounted VR system and a subscription to Hot Action VR.’
‘I don’t like drink. I hate drugs. And real sex makes me squirm.’
‘Not a good advertisement for your kind, don’t you think?’
‘You gonna help me or not?’
Tseng smiled. ‘As this is the first time you’ve asked, and I owe you a favour or two, I’ll do this for free. But if you keep on coming back, I’ll expect payment.’
‘Understood. Phone me when you hear anything.’
Gaols left without another word. Returning to his office, he rang another of his lower strata contacts. He knew her under the name “Sally Surge”, the name she had taken when she entered one of Tseng’s businesses. Everything that Tseng didn’t know, Sally would. It took half an hour to get through to her, and even then the results were fruitless.
‘Sorry, Honey.’ Gaols grew red at Sally’s use of his given name. ‘Haven’t heard a thing about any Terrace tots down here. It’d cause a real stir.’
So he moved on to his own research methods. He slowly trawled through the Dark Net, looking at any sign of a Terrace resident getting lost in the lower strata. The whole thing looked like a big mess, and even his experience net surfing skills turned up nothing. It was almost as if this man didn’t want to be found.
The revelation was immediate and complete. He didn’t want to be found. And if someone didn’t want to be found, the lower strata were full of alternate worlds where someone would exist beyond society’s eyes. In fact, one location leapt immediately to mind. The Dregs. Once part of the early city’s advanced sewer system, left behind as the city climbed like the Tower of Babel towards the heavens, now it served as the home for everyone who fell or threw themselves off the grid. Once there, a person was effectively dead.
Near the end of the day, he got his news. Both Sally and Tseng reported back, and both confirmed that the only signs they could find pointed to the Dregs holding his quarry. Changing into something suitable for that quarter – slacks and waterproofs that looked the worse for wear – Gaols walked to the one major elevator which went down to the very deepest strata. Even then, he had to find one of the ancient sewer covers and make his way down a network of ladders and ramps to reach the Dregs proper. No-one wanted an easy way down there.
Gaols navigated a long line of ancient sewers, filled with the detritus of its ancient past, and the human remnants that drifted down from above. He even fancied he saw the remains of some in the large water channels which ran beneath him. He walked for some distance, then stopped at a vast chamber. One of the old sewer system’s recycling and pumping hubs, it now stood empty like an artificial sinkhole. A shanty town stood at the base of a power relay pillar which extended from the floor to ceiling. Tails of smoke rose to the ceiling and its vents, which in turn led into the city’s lowest strata and its eternal layer of smog.
Gaols had no choice but to use the stairs, inuring himself to the mounting stench rising from the town and every vent he passed. There weren’t enough outlets for the general miasma produced by a few thousand people, and he shuddered to think what the facilities were like. If they even had facilities. When he reached the main “street”, he found himself walking through puddles of sludge he tried not to think about. When this was done, these clothes were getting incinerated. As he pushed into another part of the town, something caught his eye. A figure who vainly struggled to avoid the puddles of filth, and who walked with a strange upright stance he remembered from earlier that day. A stance only those in the Terrace would hold.
Gaols came up to the man and tapped him gently on the shoulder. ‘Your sister’s worried. She asked me to find you.’
The reaction was not what Gaols expected. The man turned, punched him hard in the stomach, then began running. Gaols recovered quickly and ran after his quarry. The pursuit took the two through the other side of the shanty town. up another flight of stairs, and down a large waste pipe converted by the locals into a walkway. Gaols rounded a corner, almost slipping and falling off the walkway into the festering mire beneath. His quarry was frantically climbing a ladder, heading for the bottom strata. As he continued his pursuit, Gaols wondered why this man was so terrified. Had he wanted to get lost in the Dregs?
Gaols emerged in the middle of a large square, and saw his quarry struggling to free himself from two Servitor drones who were demanding he “cease his erratic and disturbing behaviour before further measures were taken”. Gaols quickly ran over and spoke with the drones.
‘Sorry about him. He’s…under treatment. PTDS. I’m his minder, but he managed to slip away. Crows upset him so. Sometimes he just doesn’t know what’s happening. Come on now, let’s go.’
Gaols took the man’s arm, and he suddenly seemed docile. The drones let them go, and the two walked to the elevator which would take them to the upper levels. Before leaving, they had to go through decontamination to get rid of the worst of the mud and stink. They were still the only ones on the lift, as everyone else hung back. The lift took fifteen minutes to reach the upper strata, so Gaols had time to talk with his companion.
‘Why d’you run?’
‘I don’t want my sister running my life any more.’
‘That’s what she does?’
‘Simon, do this. Simon, do that. It never stops.’
‘You know she’s worried.’
‘Yeah. Worried about her position. If I’m not around, whose gonna make the money to look after our senile parents, keep our Terrace apartment, pay for all her fancy clothes. She’s a parasite, and I can’t shake her off. Why couldn’t you just leave me there?’
‘It’s not my business to help you. I got paid to find you.’
The man looked at Gaols, and for a second their eyes locked. In that glance, Gaols saw a man driven into nothingness, someone whose own will had never been exerted, who had only ever lived for others. It had broken him.
‘Yeah, sure.’ the man smiled. ‘Guess you’ll have to disappoint her.’
The lift, a simple platform surrounded by a scaffolding structure, was passing through a large open area where an old strata had been evacuated due to contamination. Before Gaols could stop him, the man dived to one side, leaping through a gap in the scaffolding into thin air. Gaols rushed to the edge of the platform, but knew there was nothing he could do. It was a 100-foot drop. No-one would survive that.
The following day, the woman called round again. Gaols received her with professional impassivity, and she was equally impassive when he told her of her brother’s death. She slowly nodded.
‘I know you did all you could. Perhaps, given the circumstances, you might accept a reduction of your fee.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I’d expect too.’
‘Shall we say…C50,000.’
‘Sure. Why not? Transfer now?’
The transfer was done. The woman left without another word.
Gaols found himself wondering how much of the original money would now be put aside to save herself and her social position. With her brother dead, she was on her own. He leaned back in his chair, smiling and looking back on what he had seen. A sister distraught at the wrong thing. A brother so afraid of his life that he saw no other way out but death – whether social or actual. And himself, the private eye who got involved. Was he responsible for that man’s death? He shook his head. If he started thinking like that, he would be back on two sessions a day in the VR chair. With the rest of the day clear, he decided to read one of his books, then go out and get some fresh waterproof gear to replace the ones ruined in the Dregs.
‘Yep.’ he said with a rueful grin. ‘Just another day in paradise.’