Authors: Nick Kelly
Cat had little more than a hunch, but his gut told him it was enough to engage the ornery coroner he’d called a friend for the last few months. “I wish I could claim some Divine Vision, but, really, partner, I ain’t got too much ta go on. That thing took out a friend a’ mine, and almost put me on the next table over. I would have hated ta die without givin’ you one last kiss goodbye.”
Will flipped Cat an appropriate one-finger gesture in silent reply, as he pulled aside the tarp covering the corpse. The news coverage had been above average and with the pressure on the MH’s manufacturer coming as a result, Cat was right, there would be little chance to investigate it without a badge very soon.
“As you’re so fond of reminding me when I need something, Cat, you ain’t a shocking cop anymore. So, what’s with the sudden desire to play detective? Or are you the hired dick on this case?”
“C: none of the above,” Cat replied, scanning the MH for markings not inflicted by the arsenal that finally took it down. “Rogue Metas pay a hefty cred load.” He pried open the scorched and dented panel at the base of the skull, quickly snapping a digital image of the serial numbers. There were enough remaining digits that it could be tracked. “Rumors have this thing linked to three different contract companies. Any guesses?”
Will rubbed his neck, opening one eye and addressing Catwalk over the lip of his coffee cup. “It’s too mish-mashed. Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, I find a different design algorithm that makes me second guess myself.” He walked to one of the side tables and lifted a metallic plate wrapped in a department-issued bag. It was the size of his fist. “This was interesting, though.”
The ex-cop stepped over. Will didn’t think anything was interesting. The statement alone caught him off guard. “What’s that, its forehead?”
“Not even close. This is the palm of its hand, before the swap-out to the Autoguns, but you saw that, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, full-auto, air-cooled, 15mm, looked like a Czech origin from what I saw.”
“Israeli, and it was 18mm, which is really rare.”
“Well, cut me some slack, there was the little detail of duckin’ Hovertanks and fallin’ buildings.”
Will nodded. “So here in the palm, I’ve never seen this design. I’m running it, and the numbers against the db and waiting on results. This artwork came close to a few gang symbols but not all that close.”
Cat snapped an image of the artwork. It was a cross, with the base planted in stone. The left and right points ended in a flaming profile face and a grinning skull, and a set of scales hung from the top point. Silhouetted behind it was a pair of skeletal wings. He turned the image slightly side to side. Something about it was familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
“Shockit,” he cursed, “have I mentioned I hate religious fanatics?”
“More times than I can count. It’s time for you to head out, my man. Press is already pounding at the gates for answers I ain’t got.”
“You’re not the DI on this?”
Will shook his head. “Nope, jurisdiction went immediately to CorpSec for TransTechnica when they got the kill. That’s odd, since they only engaged when it crashed onto their parking garage after three other companies wounded it. They’ve been fighting for the credit, which is how I got to sneak you in here.”
“Much obliged, baldy.”
“Shock you and your family. Now, get out of here before I have to toss you into a slab just to hide you.”
Cat silently obeyed, rushing out with his newfound information. This thing came from a manufacturer Will couldn’t identify quickly which meant a rogue company, a lunatic one-off, or the beginnings of something big. Hell, Will was a specialist in MH autopsy and analysis, a recent field added to the science of forensic pathology.
If Will didn’t know, something very strange was beginning to unfold, and the images Cat had just snapped were going to open the first doors to its revelation.
“Shockin’ son of a motherless whore!”
Cat chucked the wooden practice sword across the loft, wincing slightly at the sound of breaking glass when it impacted with his bar. He stared at the newsfeed, which seemed tailor-made to ruin his day.
“…and under the pressure of local Security Forces, Nanoengineering Institute, Inc., has immediately cut all funding to its Military Neurotechnology Research branch. This will mean layoffs of almost 200 highly educated and well-paid scientists. The Institute’s legal representation has stated in clear and concise fashion that the margin for error with the research branch’s experiments has cost far more than they had allowed in this fiscal budget, and therefore the risk had exceeded the benefits to the company’s long-term business plan.” The reporter droned on with a delivery usually reserved for test programs and Off-World terminal notifications about the “motorized walkway is coming to an end.” Cat wanted to commit violent acts against the face on the Holoscreen, but deep down, he knew that would forfeit more of a paycheck than he wanted.
Instead, he followed the path of the wooden projectiles to the bar, happy to clean up any unceremoniously opened bottles of indulgence. The news broadcast confirmed what he’d found from the serial numbers. The NII was certainly the official manufacturer of the rogue Meta, but there was something screaming at him about the nature of its sudden rampage. And, despite three days of media coverage, no one save Will himself had even mentioned the rather unique artwork on the MH’s palm. That led Cat to believe this wasn’t a test subject gone bad, rather, it was an anomaly, something meant to stay off the record.
He cursed, shooting a glance over to the H-S. He wanted to ride, to clear his head, and get the hell out of the loft. The research part of the job wasn’t his passion. He had a partner for that. Correction. He formerly had a partner for that. He made a note to confirm a meeting with the new candidate. He preferred investigating first hand. It was, after all, where the excitement was. With a snarl, he picked up the comm. There were some headhunters on his contact list. The first step was to start scrubbing the database for the suddenly unemployed RII scientists.
The scientist stared at the Holoscreen. The image of the MetaHuman—his MetaHuman—filled the screen as the news replayed the destructive scene from downtown. The reporter’s polished voice went on about funding cuts and layoffs at NII, responsible for the rampage that killed.
He switched off the sound and watched the MetaHuman fall after armored vehicles and security forces unloaded a barrage of ammunition, enough to take down a small army, into it.
He scowled at the screen, a sneer crossing his scarred lips.
Too bad NII shut down his department. He’d like to try again—soon. He replayed the disaster again, keeping the sound muted. He’d use this incident to learn and do it better next time. The sudden psychosis of the MetaHuman occurred far earlier than he postulated. This miscalculation meant another setback and once again re-routing his financial sources. Without the NII lab at his disposal, he’d have to secure alternate laboratory facilities, something he’d researched in case this type of unfortunate event occurred.
There was no lack of investors for what he had planned. Many in the underground clamored to be the first to use his research, and he’d learned to be discreet. He had spent years on his pet project, all right under the nose of NII. The corporate snobs were so interested in profit margins that they never had a clue about his real work, the work that would change humanity itself. While his colleagues scattered from negative press like rats from a sinking ship, he had already secured a new stream of income to fund his research.
He narrowed his eyes and paused the image on the screen. Tiny yellow triangles caught his attention in the corner of the frame. He lifted his hand into the air and pushed his thumb and forefinger apart to expand the screen. The small yellow lights came into focus.
“Catwalk,” he whispered and smiled. His eyes trailed over the man who would be contributing to his next project.
Fortunately, for the scientist, Catwalk had no clue about his impending contribution.
He raised his hands, and the holograph scrolled upward until Catwalk’s cybernetic legs were at the scientist’s eye level.
He ran his hands over the image of Catwalk’s armored cyberlegs. His lips felt dry, and he licked them instinctively.
“What a shame. You will help herald a new era but won’t live to see it.” He lifted his hands above his head. Catwalk’s body filled the screen once again. The scientist waved his arms back and forth, the image of the hitman wavering back and forth with his every movement.
”Just be a good boy and let your conscience be your guide …” He nearly fell over laughing at his joke. “… straight to hell.”
The scientist snapped his fingers, and Catwalk’s image disappeared in an instant.
He flicked his hand and pulled up several bank registrars listed under various aliases. The down payment for Catwalk’s services had gone through. Catwalk accepted the assignment the scientist had hired him to do. He’d take out the pederast known as Hitch.
Not that the scientist particularly cared one way or the other if Hitch lived or died. He was a disgusting pervert, but he was a means to an end. An end that wouldn’t implicate the scientist, because once Midas—Hitch’s master and the most notorious and powerful pimp in the city—learned that Catwalk killed one of his own, he’d retaliate. And Catwalk didn’t have enough lives to stand against Midas’ very experienced team of assassins.
Midas would kill Catwalk, and Catwalk’s body would be up for sale. Then the scientist could swoop in, lowball the butchers for Catwalk’s corpse, and finally have his hands on the only existing prototype of his mentor’s cybernetic research.
By the time they all realized how he’d played them, it would be too late. His children would be leading the path to a new world, and he would be their Savior.
The voice on the recording belonged to Hitch. Catwalk was certain, even before he saw the man’s crooked frame crowd the lens. Hitch had a rap sheet longer than an only child’s Christmas list: five counts of possession, four counts of intent to distribute, one count of attempted rape, one assault with a deadly weapon, and half a dozen counts of disorderly conduct. California’s penal code didn’t include a charge for necrophilia, but if it did, Hitch would have qualified for the state’s frequent flier program.
Physically deformed from a botched cyberleg implant, the creep couldn’t fight. The surgery had left Hitch with a limp and a permanent feeling most closely resembling sciatica. The painkiller addiction and bouts in prison had cooked his brain. If there was anything left of his conscious mind, it was controlled and manipulated by his employer. On any night, Hitch would be an easy hit, if not for his connections. The limping miscreant was well known as a handyman and occasional lab rat for one of the more demonstrative criminals in all of Downtown, the character who called himself Midas.
Tonight, Hitch was up to his old tricks, scouring the worst parts of town with the seediest of unspoken appetites. Usually he killed anyone innocent, stupid, drunk, or high enough to join his company. It was after they were dead when he chose to violate them, able to perform any of the variety of sick acts of sodomy, which drifted through the cobweb-filled rafters of his brain. Given his limited strength, death would ensure success and eliminate any witness testimony outside of the sordid story he created. His modus operandi, combined with bribes and crooked cops and lawyers, had held up so far. For all the charges against him, Hitch only served a combined three years in prison over two convictions. Midas held that kind of power in Nitro City.
Cat didn’t like the setup. It was too easy. Hitch tried to copy his boss in the game of flash and reputation. His attempts to appear rich and famous made him an easy tail. Any competent investigator could track the weasel down. The fact someone had been willing to pay him to retire such a waste of flesh was either a bonus or a trap. From Frame One, Cat’s gut told him that Midas himself was hiring him to either off his Renfield, or using Hitch as bait to draw Cat into the open. Either way, it could be a fatal mistake. Midas had more connections than an international telecom switchbox, but Cat made a mission of tracking his transactions for almost three months. He knew more about the pimp-turned-godfather than Midas knew of himself.
Cat wasn’t moved by the idea of Midas targeting him. He’d had hits taken out on him in the past. That was the ante if you wanted to play the game. If you didn’t have someone aiming to put steel between your shoulder blades, you weren’t really a player. Cat learned to sleep lightly, shoot straight, and cover his tracks long before he came to the former City of Angels.
Hitch’s rental limo was the cheapest Cat could remember tailing. The obvious kit-car was little more than a four-cylinder under the hood, with a fiberglass cover-up. The engine could hardly drive a scooter uphill. It clearly couldn’t handle the weight of an armored, professional escort service. It was held together with the cheapest of materials. Cat scoffed. The same could be said of the passenger’s sanity. When the driver eased up to the corner of Ocean Park and 4
, it was a welcome relief. He’d followed them so far west they’d run out of land, nearly reaching the polluted Pacific Ocean itself.
Cat slid his motorcycle into a parking lot, sliding a chip into the meter with a quick and silent payment acknowledgement. He armed the anti-personnel alarm and traversed the thirty meters between his vehicle and the opposite corner from Hitch’s limo in seconds. From the camouflage of a vacant newsstand, he watched the working girls approach the limo. One after another, they walked away, rejected by the disfigured man inside.
Finally, a slight man, his hair dyed blacker than an eclipse, approached nervously. Even across the intersection, Cat could read the surprise on the young man’s face. A one-sided conversation followed, with Hitch offering the stunned man a myriad of treasures. The youngster hardly remembered to negotiate price. Catwalk cursed under his breath, turned and ran back to the motorcycle as the pale male prostitute was led into the limo.