A fast-paced thriller set in a bru­tal un­der­world, which is both a search for self and fam­ily and a des­per­ate race for sur­vival.

SFX - - First Read - by Ren Warom

There are many places to party on Foon Gung’s claus­tro­pho­bic sprawl but Plaza’s the only one bright enough to be seen from the hubs, the ci­ties smugly or­bit­ing the bound­ary to end­less space. Plaza’s high-end is a mi­graine-pro­vok­ing frenzy; a gaudy pa­rade of VIP clubs, Slip joints, art houses and karaoke bars. De­spite the money prac­ti­cally ooz­ing from the cracks in the side­walk th­ese mul­ti­far­i­ous amuse­ments look cheap stacked side by side and swad­dled in neon and fairy lights span­gled as a K-rock star’s thong.

This scene is as far from Shock’s idea of a good time as it’s pos­si­ble to get, but he’s not sur­prised Mim’s blipped to meet him here. She’s a freak­ing mag­pie, and al­ways out for max­i­mum flim ex­pen­di­ture. Doubt­less she’s not numb­ing her arse much, prob­a­bly got a gag­gle of lanky Biz-Cad creeps or­bit­ing her hori­zons, daz­zled by the glare of her head­lights.

Re­luc­tantly jack­ing her IM, Shock hooks her sig­nal, trac­ing it to one of the cheesi­est karaoke joints on Plaza: Keen Ma­chine.

“F**king jim goddamn dandy,” he sneers, shield­ing his eyes from the high-in­ten­sity blast of il­lu­mi­na­tion that com­prizes the en­trance.

Con­cen­trat­ing hard to re­main steady on his feet, he rolls in past the mus­cle, a gag­gle of uber­pumped gorks in suits, their necks so thick they look like trun­cated thighs, and heads for the bar. There’s a skinny lit­tle short-arse with neon fangs serv­ing the whole thirty me­ters of pol­ished cop­per by her­self, clack­ing to and fro on knifeblade heels and snarling at ev­ery­one as she jug­gles glasses and snatches flim.

All out of sym­pa­thy, his head still ba­si­cally tofu be­neath the strag­gly S bump-sheen and Mim-xi­ety, he orders an ap­ple juice, no ice, with two shots of pure green caf­feine for him­self and a vod­die lime slim for Mim and skulks off to hunt her down in the shad­owy re­cesses.

Pre­dictably, he finds her hold­ing court amongst a gag­gle of wide-eyed Frat boys from the Biz-Cad, a dif­fer­ent shade of learn­ing than the academies, for hI-Qs and the wealthy. Th­ese are the lat­ter, all spend­ing daddy’s money and try­ing to look smart in clothes so new they still smell of the print fac­tory; a clean, sharp scent not un­like bleach.

Mim’s in her usual uni­form, a body­suit fit­ted close as sec­ond skin in holo­graphic ma­te­rial, blend­ing her into the cor­ner like a mi­rage; the only signs of her ex­is­tence an inky mass of iri­des­cent black hair and those crazy mir­rored eyes. Mim’s a chameleon – you can’t see her, only her sur­round­ings and your­self, re­flected back at you into in­fin­ity.

That’s Mim’s prob­lem. She lives her role. 24/7 365 in Imp-mode. Con­se­quently she’s only ever been any use as a re­flec­tion. Ex­pect­ing to find a person some­where in those vague dis­torted echoes is a sure-fire route to end­ing up dis­ap­pointed. At least he did. Dis­ap­pointed and sick to the core, his heart aching, just like it is now. He only has to look at her to feel wrecked. She’s a wall he keeps crash­ing into.

He still re­mem­bers the first time he saw her. In Tech. She’d trans­ferred in from Cad af­ter a Tech-skills test, was perched like a crow in the win­dow of his lec­ture hall on the sev­en­teenth floor, smok­ing a long, pur­ple cig­a­rette. Psy. Il­le­gal as hell. She wore a flimsy, red-plas­tic play­suit and shades, had her feet rammed into

When Mimic brings Shock a job which could help him es­cape his mis­er­able ex­is­tence, he ac­cepts, lit­tle re­al­iz­ing that this will turn out to be his most im­pos­si­ble, il­le­gal and in­sane as­sign­ment yet.

Her dis­tant grin and cold mirror eyes gave him shivers he mis­took for at­trac­tion

match­ing bladers, stack-heel shoes with a mag-strip for speed­ing along mono lines, and he fell for her cat­a­stroph­i­cally.

Her dis­tant grin and cold mirror eyes gave him shivers he mis­took for at­trac­tion, and that off-hand way she has drove him out of his mind, full-on crazy as a primo high. He took to fol­low­ing her like a shadow, hang­ing in her wake, neb­u­lous as a cloud of smoke and half as no­tice­able. Some­times he thinks she only no­ticed him by ac­ci­dent, out of the cor­ner of her eye, like see­ing a ghost. Ap­pro­pri­ate. It makes him laugh nowa­days. But only now and then.

It took him a year to per­suade her to f**k him, an­other for her to scheme a way to get rid of him. By that time they’d moved in to­gether and ev­ery­one spoke their name in one long breath­less mouth­ful, like they were con­joined twins in a freak show. What a f**king waste of two years, and he doesn’t plead the stu­pid­ity of youth about any of it. He’s for­got­ten how to be that kind to him­self.

Un­able to muster up a shout, Shock stands at her ta­ble and stares, wait­ing un­til she no­tices him, try­ing to ig­nore how much like the old days it is. This is his choice, not hers – and it’s all busi­ness. There’s noth­ing per­sonal in it. When she clocks him, her head­lights flare, and she throws down a se­ri­ous grin, like a chal­lenge.

“Shock­ing boy, long time no spy.” She makes shoo­ing ges­tures with tiny hands tipped with nails like talons. She-bird. Bird of prey. “Skedad­dle, dick­heads, my boy is here. We have busi­ness.”

“I’m not your boy,” he says with in­fin­itely more calm than he feels, slid­ing in be­side her and slam­ming her drink down next to a half-empty flute of what looks like liq­uid pur­ple glit­ter and smells bad as candy-coated burnt rub­ber. “What’s the job?”

“What, no time to rem­i­nisce?”

She tries for a hurt tone, but it falls light years short. Sounds like she’s ask­ing a bug she’s got un­der a mag­ni­fy­ing glass if the sun burns yet. The fact she still gets to him as eas­ily as when he thought they were a go­ing concern makes him de­spise her even more. Or maybe he just de­spises him­self?

He should quit the habit of her. Quit this vi­cious cy­cle, a vis­cous cy­cle, cling­ing to him like she still does, out of con­ve­nience, and he lets her. More fool him. He takes a deep breath, feel­ing like he’s suck­ing the whole club down into his lungs. “Job, Mim, or I’m out.” Her teeth flash, blind­ing, mak­ing him dizzy. “Tetchy,” she drawls, and he knows that she’s feel­ing his dis­com­fort and lov­ing it. F**k but he hates her. “I need a bulls­eye, close as dammit to my stats as you can hit. Two K flim.”

Mim is an ID sniper, an info clone, an Imp. She hunts, copies, and tem­po­rar­ily re­places for the pur­poses of theft. Pretty good at hack­ing bullseyes on a ba­sic level, Mim’s pro­fi­ciency dive-bombs to be­low use­less with any kind of VA, Vir­tual Ar­ma­ment.

Her cur­rent f**k, Johnny Sez, an L-plates hack, can only crack up to level 6. For any­thing above that, she has Shock, her re­luc­tant hacker on call. It’s a crap job, and far too in­ter­mit­tent, but it’s flim and re­ally he’s in no po­si­tion to be picky. He wishes he were. When­ever he works for Mim, she al­ways wants de­liv­ery in person. Max­imis­ing his dis­com­fort is one of her favourite pas­times.

“I need the com­pany you ex­pect me to phish in be­fore I Y or N.”

“Ol­bax Corp.” Ol­bax. Great. Could be worse though. Could be Pa­ra­derm. “That’s a pretty mean amount of VA for Two K. Two K barely even cov­ers my f**king rent.” “Take it or leave it, sport. Not run­ning a char­ity here. Or maybe you don’t think you need it?” She gives him the sly look, up and down. “I’m guess­ing that’s why you’re look­ing so swell. Corpse-chic suits you.” Shock tries not to re­act, it costs him way too much dig­nity and tem­po­rary con­trol of an eye­lid. “Fine.” She reaches out and pats his hand. “Good Shock­ing Boy. Info in your IM as we speak.” Slid­ing out of the booth, the back of his hand tin­gling like it’s been stung, he makes for the Risi District and enough al­co­hol to drown a land ship the size of the Gung. Maybe this time it’ll be enough to drown out the ugly mix of hate and need he gets from too close prox­im­ity to her. He makes a con­certed ef­fort to for­get about the job be­fore he’s even half­way there. At some point his IM will blip and Mim will squeak a re­minder. Un­til then, f**k her, f**k ev­ery­thing. All he wants to do is drown.

To find out what hap­pens next, pick up Es­capol­ogy, out on 14 June in all good book­shops. Ebook also avail­able.

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