It was one of those niggles that bore into my brain, eating away at my every thought until it consumed enough of my brainpower to confuse and distract me. I found myself staring blankly at my desk, halfway between Anita’s wonderful set of legs and my case file – either of which would normally consume the entirety of my attentions, but lately I could barely focus. Why couldn’t I find any information on my grandfather? Everywhere I looked, there was a dead end. No medical records, credit history, death certificates, but I remember him bouncing me on his knee when I was a lad – kind and gentle with tons of sweets around. The only thing that I could imagine was that he hid himself, or was hidden. But why had he been Zeroed? Was he a fugitive on the run? A government agent? Was he the kind man that I remembered, or was he something darker, more sinister of purpose? What connection did he have out in Omaha? Was he there when it happened? What would I find out there?
I was rudely interrupted from my reverie by a polite cough from across the table, coming from a dainty broad who had waltzed into my life with a bucket full of tears and a wad full of cash. She was this high-in-the-sky glitterati type, convinced that her prole husband was giving her the runaround, and she’d been giving me a migraine since I first took the case. I just hoped that she would leave any sparkles on the chair when she stormed out. My ersatz secretary and full-time girlfriend threw the lady some platitudes, affording me a bit of space to grind the gears in my brain with how to break the news to the broad in the hot-seat in front of me. I groaned inwardly, bracing myself for the inevitable slap, and slid the case file across the desk as best I could, navigating the perils of a desk covered in the detritus of my work, as well as Anita’s shapely presence. I’ll never understand why she had to wear those heels and play at filing her immaculate nails while distracting me from being productive, but you’ll not catch me complaining. I shook my head again to get my thoughts back on track, back to the case at hand. Focus, Mac. Just because this woman suspects her husband of adultery doesn’t give you any excuse to think about Anita right now. I sighed and wet my lips before breaking the news to her. “Missus Honey,” Her name tripped off my tongue every time I said it – there was no way she was born with it. Not with that name and as much money as she had, at any rate. I re-started, “Missus Honey, it was a long investigation, but I am afraid that your suspicions are completely unfounded. I’ve found no evidence that your husband has strayed in any of the colorful ways that you alleged.” There it was – the slap. Doesn’t matter how many times it happens, nor how much you prepare, it still stings. Moreso if you don’t deserve it.
“Liar! He’s been coming home late every night for the past two months! I know he’s cheating! You’re probably covering up for him, aren’t you? You men are all alike! I want my money back, you pig.”
Anita cast me a pitying look, her fluttering eyelashes promising to brush away the stinging in my cheek. “Look, lady. He’s been at work every single night for the past week and a half, and I’ve got photographic evidence to prove it.” I tapped the data chip in the middle of the folder, bringing up a slew of images from the hidden holo projector on my desk. “After, he’d take his extra cash and visit Vissini’s down on 347th, then head straight back home to you. “ Her outraged jaw worked overtime behind her augmented lips, opening and closing them like a drowning fish searching desperately for water. “Yeah. That Vissini’s. The poor fool was saving up to buy you a nice necklace, for your anniversary. This, if my research is right, is today. I don’t know what you’re playing at, coming in here to try and pick up this supposed ‘proof’ that he’s cheating, just to bring him low on your anniversary, but that’s cheap. If you ask me? That poor dumb bozo deserves better than a piece of mistrustful trash like you. And like I said before – you’re paying for my time, not results. I don’t get my time back, so you certainly don’t get a refund. Now scram.” It took her a few seconds to gather enough neurons together to realize that I was done talking before she launched into an angry tirade, swearing me up and down, using some colorful phrases I made note to make use of later before delivering a wound up slap to my already damaged cheek. Maybe I deserved that one, at least a little. Didn’t make it sting any less, unfortunately.
I was treated to the melodic sound of Anita’s laughter when the screaming was done and the door was slammed, knocking over a poor disabused potted plant in the process. “You poor baby – you’ve had a lot on your mind recently, and you still have to put up with creatures like that?” Her sympathetic smile went a long way to easing my cares, though thoughts of my ancestry began to eat away at my brain like worms so certainly did to theirs all those years ago. “How about I take you out for a nice evening of dinner, drinks and dancing?” I nodded – Anita was good for me. She kept me honest and sane, despite the insanity of the world the Lazarus group had brought into my life. “Good. And you’re not allowed to think of anything but me for the whole night, capiche? Or else.” Selfish, but I had to admit that it sounded like a good plan. I don’t know how she was managing to keep me that distracted, but I didn’t doubt she could do it. A look of confusion, doubt, or any number of miscellaneous emotions must have flashed across my face, because before I could blink, I was breathing in her heady scent and she had planted a warm kiss on my lips, already open for some sort of rebuttal. It was a brief second of bliss before she broke away, a coy grin playing across her face as she stood, fetching her scarf and wrapping it around her neck as she always did, to hide her voice from the public. “Come on, Mac. Let’s paint the town red.”
It had been a long, sleepless night when I crawled out of my bed to dig my pocketwatch out of the vest I had hung over the back of the chair. I moved gingerly around the bed, not wanting to disturb Anita at the hour known only to bums, foundry workers and criminals. Flicking open the pocket watch afforded me the view of my last bit of research – The Ad Astra Incident. In the soft glow the hololith cast about my tiny apartment, Anita stirred fitfully and I put a gentle hand on her leg, wondering what Anton and Mary’s last time spent together was like, what their last words were. At least Anita will know that I think she is wonderful if I never get to see her again.
It took some time for me to slowly gather up my things after reviewing my files on the incident and deciding on a course of action. There was one link that was too close to the Ad Astra investigation to pass up – John Howell. It had taken a week and a number of trips to the seedy underbelly of Night City to track down his schedule, and the only time he was going to be close enough to question was today, January 15th. See, Howell had been the chief investigator of the Ad Astra incident, and he had been picked up from Lift Tech specifically for it – he was now a schill for Dream Corp, spending most of his days luxuriating at their orbital headquarters. A few weeks out of the year, he descended from his heavenly perch to get his hands dirty inspecting launch facilities and manufacturers, and today he was close enough to pounce on – the Mojave spaceport. Getting out there via the high speed rail was simple enough after kissing Anita goodbye.
As the doors to the train hissed open, they stole my breath away like glimpsing Aphrodite from across a crowded room, and I took a second to gawk at the spectacle in front of me. For all of its marvels, the past never really offered much in the way of impressive scale the way space travel does. This facility was capable of sending starships on journeys almost as long as Anita’s legs, and I gave it the due reverence it deserved. The cold wind bit me through my heavy trenchcoat, and I felt naked as it pressed against the empty holster where my electrolaser habitually sat – used to be I could travel the streets unarmed, but ever since I met the Lazarus group, I started to feel edgy without a means of protecting myself. I started the cogs turning in my head, searching out a place where I would likely find Mr. Howell – if he was half the gear head my research pinned him on, he’d be in the workyards rather than the offices up front. As I wandered the massive expanse of the spaceport, I kept my camera out, taking the occasional snapshot that I had no intention of keeping, playing the unwitting tourist. Half an hour went by looking through restricted doorways when John Howell crossed in front of my viewfinder – out in the loading dock, nodding occasionally as a man in a jumpsuit explained the contents of a flimsy on a clipboard to him. He seemed satisfied with his inspection, as he shook the man’s hand and began heading in my direction. Whirling away, I began secreting myself in a videophone booth where the digital operator began interrogating me as to whom I was attempting to call. I checked Howell’s progress over my shoulder before giving the operator the Lazarus number and being connected to the group’s voicemail. “We really need to hurry up and get a secretary, guys – is anyone even there? Look, I’m out at the Mojave spaceport, and I just need to kill thirty more seconds until I can tail this cutter for a thing I’m working on. Pacoy, are we still on for poker tonight? I guess I’ll have to find out later – got to make dust before I lose him.”
Slipping out from the booth put me behind Howell’s security at a comfortable shadowing distance, keeping pace with them easily, camera taking scenic photos that occasionally contained my suspect as well as the more interesting facets of the spaceport. The jaunt was shortlived, as my target was escorted to a black car, idling like a panther at the curb. As he drove off towards the highway onramp, I leapt into a nearby cab, grinning inwardly as I pointed and shouted, “Follow that car!” There were a few moments of silence as it dawned on me that the JohnnyCab AI wasn’t that complex, and I began issuing a litany of instructions that got me vaguely going where I needed to. It took every ounce of IQ I had to keep him from spotting me on the highway, but I was a bit too effective when we hit Bakersfield. This built up area of the SoCal Metroplex seemed tailor made to lose a shadow in – had he spotted me, or was the traffic really that bad? It certainly seemed abysmal off in one direction, so on a hunch, I paid up my fare, got out in the middle of traffic and started jogging on along the traffic jam. A rather fancy hotel seemed to be at the locus of it all, and it took me a bit of dodging and weaving to make it there – all told, a tiny frog would have had a better go at crossing the street than I did, but we do what we must, even if it’s not entirely dignified in how we accomplish our goals.
I took a peek in through the gold impregnated glass adorning the front doors, rapidly scanning the lobby for John, and feeling my heart plummet into my gut with the speed of the descending Ad Astra as I failed to locate him. I was running out of leads, and time, so I burst in through the doors and strode over towards the reception area, determined to try and get some answers out of the clerk, but some movement caught my eye from the attached restaurant – a gobsmackingly stunning woman, dolled up and hanging over the arm of a rather plain looking joe, coming from the direction of the bar. There was a familiar looking character perched on the edge of his barstool, chatting with the bartender. I started gravitating towards him, barely noticing the increasingly attractive women in the area of the bar accompanying men who looked like they didn’t deserve the pricy bands they wore on their fingers. A quick glance around confirmed my suspicions – the ladies didn’t have marriage bands, but the men all did. I shook my head, glancing at the bar as I did, then thanking my lucky stars – John Howell, in the flesh. Sidling up to the bar, I managed to catch Howell’s eye, throwing him a nod before introducing myself. “Say, weren’t you the lead investigator in that nasty Ad Astra business?” Apparently my nerves gave me away at being close to Able’s past, and the expression on his face wavered, slightly.
“You got questions? Fine, I’ll chat with you a while, but might I recommend the house amber? There’s a microdistillery downstairs, and it’s quite enjoyable – one of the small pleasures I take when I come back down to this area.” I took the hint and ordered two from the bartender, sliding one over to Howell, letting him get a few sips in before inundating him with the questions that were burning like lances of starfire in my mind.
Turns out, Howell didn’t know the pilot prior to the crash. He didn’t know the pilot prior to the crash, but interrogated him at length afterwards. It wasn’t the easiest interrogation – the man was in a coma for two weeks before he woke up, and even then was confined to the hospital and on heavy pain medication – but it occurred. The pilot’s account of the events was distinctly confused; he claimed that he and his wife were doing fine since the transfer to the Ad Astra – better than ever, really – and he could barely process that his family was dead. The guy was supremely distraught, but under it all Howell sensed an immense feeling of guilt. He wasn’t certain that he did it until the techs were able to recover data from the Ad Astra’s computer systems, including video of the pilot inserting the course into the computer that wound up intersecting with the Earth. I’d give my right leg to analyze that footage – the Able I know wouldn’t doom that many people. Someone must have tampered with it.
The pilot couldn’t give any sort of reason for why he was out of the ship and in an orbital dive suit, either; every time it was brought up, he only seemed to get more confused, erratic, or quiet. Howell finished up by summarizing that he’s certain that Davis did it, but isn’t sure of the reasons for it – none of the proposed explanations really jived with what Howell saw of the guy. Howell hasn’t kept in touch with all of the techs, though one of them is still on staff with him. Howell trusts him implicitly, but doesn’t hand over his name or contact information. I didn’t push him – he was helpful enough as it was. I thanked him wholeheartedly and bought him another beer – if they had a to-go cup, I’d have got myself one. It was a long trip back home, and I had a lot to mull over.
She was the most beautiful creature I had laid eyes on in a week, even under the dingy lighting which clung to her every curve as though afraid to let go, protecting her from the shadows that lingered around the edges of Sam’s place. My heart skipped a beat as a low purr escaped from her throat, barely audible from the doorway. I looked over at my pal, leaning smugly against the wall as though to prop it up with the sheer weight of his ego. That damn rat – he was too good at this game, and he knew it. If he weren’t such a good friend, I’d pop him in the jaw, no two ways about it. He had me in a barrel heading over a waterfall with no savior in sight, but I didn’t even want to get out. I had to have her, and it was written all over my face, plain as day. I threw him a look after glancing back at her before caving in. “Say it again, Sam.”
He spat the stub of his cigar out, the air of his smug attitude thicker than the smoke that habitually surrounded him. “Mac, she’s got more speed than you’ll ever find yourself in the need for. We’ve tooled her up special – whisper quiet electric motor, hand crafted curves – real quality stuff, let me tell you. Did the brass inlay on her frame myself. You won’t find a better quality machine in all of Night City, let me tell you. The seats are genuine synth-leather, no imitation, and the interior of the motor is a work of art – if you hadn’t put a deposit down, I’d ride her out of here myself.” A whistle escapes through my lips as I strode forward and took a closer look at her – a custom motorcycle, all mine. My hands traced the tapered curve of her sidecar before lightly hopping in, stretching my legs to their full extent, luxuriating in the craftsmanship. I could hear Sam’s grunting laughter behind the clicking of his lighter.
“Aren’t you ever going to get one of those that works, Sam?” I chuckled and tossed him a pack of wooden matches, amused by his struggle with his new electric torch. “Can’t beat a match for starting a fire, bo.” Or the kiss of a woman, but that wouldn’t help Sam with his cigar, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to suggest it. I clambered out of the sidecar and onto the motorcycle proper, familiarizing myself with all of the dials and gauges, feeling her purr beneath me. “You did good, Sam. Real good.” I found a boyish grin creeping across my face as I tossed a credit chip across the shop to my friend, before revving the engine and slinking off into the cool night air.
The pieces of Able’s past were beginning to fall into place, but there was one thing that was keeping me up tonight – the look on his face as he crouched over me, right before he severed Gregori’s spine. I could hear the gunshot echoing through my mind, bouncing between my ears until I was forced to get up and grab a few fingers of whiskey to make it stop. I stood at the one dingy window in my bedroom, staring out at the street below, hazy through the grime, and found myself repeating the same question: Who is was that man who displaced my friend?
It took me half an hour to calm my nerves enough to bring my station online and start researching Dr. Luther Wahlen – the head scientist of Rossum Universal’s Neurological Programming Division; everything indicates he’s in charge of new research into the technology that lead to the creation of the Janissaries and Spartans and the other mind-wiped Slates. At the very least, there’s a connection to Able right there, but not an explanation of why he was in his head. His profile says he’s in his mid-forties, but looking at him puts him at not having aged too gracefully, despite earning a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Toronto; the developments that he’s actually responsible for are very much classified, unfortunately, and every publication list I could set my eyes on failed to mention him. Curious that there’s been no news about him or even activity on his various accounts or the past three years; there are rumors in the press that he may either be dead or doing a major project for Rossum that requires him to be kept under-wraps to prevent a headhunter from getting at him. Can’t say I’d mind getting at him myself.
After spending the morning digging up who the world thought Wahlen to be, I decided to see about discovering who he actually was. Looking at where a man came from can tell you an awful lot who he is – a man can lie and hide, but he can’t change his past. I slipped out of my apartment, intent on getting some fresh air and took the subway a random number of stops in each direction, counting down from fifteen until finally making my last stop. Feeling relatively secure in my obscurity, I settled down near a payphone, punching in the number for the University of Toronto. It was faster to hide my tracks to the payphone than it was to manage to get through all of the AI secretaries to someone with an ear I could chat at. Doing my best to hide my exasperation, I began the long an arduous process of pretending to be writing a biography on Luther Wahlen, and would she be so kind to give me some access to his records, for posterity, and wouldn’t it look so well on the University to be so forthcoming and transparent about one of its greatest minds. I don’t know whether she bought it or just didn’t care, but she forwarded some information to a cutout account at a nearby cybercafé. A quick three block stroll let me know I wasn’t being followed, although perhaps did alert me to my overzealous paranoia – I couldn’t help but think it was justified after seeing Wahlen’s behaviors firsthand.
Academically, the man was a genius – he got excellent marks all-around in a very demanding field, coupling his neuroscience PhD with a Masters in computer science. Clearly he wasn’t one to be trifled with, mentally at least. He graduated second in his class, though the valedictorian was found dead of a pill overdose a few weeks after graduation – my gut was telling me that this was no mere coincidence.
Behavior-wise, Wahlen’s true personality began to leak through, like a coffee filter used to hold back a dam of anger and insanity. The file contained a note that he had received counseling about the accusations of him sexually assaulting at least one woman on campus. Drugs had been found in the women’s system during the course of the investigation, but no charges were ever filed. So our dear professor is not so smart after all. His records indicate that he got in two fights during his time at Toronto, both times ‘defending himself’ against a larger, but stupider man, and both times the larger one claimed that Luther instigated the situation. Looks like our man has a bit of a superiority complex to go with an anger problem, just like so many other big dumb brutes I’ve had to deal with.
Looks like he was seriously wounded in one of those fights, when a broken bottle was slashed across his face, causing him to lose an eye; his cybernetic eyes aren’t an upgrade but a genuine prosthetic. Hard to feel sorry for him, all things considered.
Another three hours circling the city found me at another streetphone, taking another shot in the dark – I got the directory of the administrative office in charge of supplying counseling for Wahlen’s behavior problem. The man on the other end of the line tries to be accommodating, only leaving me on hold for half an hour while he pulled up Wahlen’s record. He seemed rather startled to discover that it was completely blank. All sorts of alarm bells started going off in the caverns of my mind. If someone hacked in, they should have been able to remove the citation for the counseling from the system, but that’s not what happened – instead, they have a file for him, and the dates for when he was supposedly counseled, but there are no actual notes. Nothing recorded saying what was talked about during the sessions, and no recordings of the actual sessions. The person who held the sessions is even more interesting – it was Dean R. Hunt, the Dean of Students of the university; usually it’s someone a little further down on the chain. Dean Hunt, retired two years after the counseling session and moved out of the area; there is no forwarding information, but some facial recognition runs put someone with a 75% match to his likeness in the background of some tourism photos on a beach in the Bahamas. Who knew getting in bed with a psychopath could be so lucrative?
The night was young at C# – I was only halfway into my fourth drink, sitting at the bar, listening to Anita croon. I was staring into my drink, letting her songs and the alcohol wash over me, causing me no end of relaxation, when I was startled by a rather unpleasant odor creeping along from my right. A caustic glance gave me a good look at its source – a young looking woman with missing teeth and a glassy eye. Her remaining eye was vibrant and bright, as was her case of halitosis, and what she lacked in fashion she made up for with an unusual keenness. Daisy was my cutout – the person I used for investigations that I didn’t want to too close to, or have people know that I was on to them. She was memorable, for one, but she had an eye for detail. It was a shame she only had the one, but it was thanks to me that she at least had that. I took a stiff drink through her greeting and refrained from asking her what she had found for me on the Lipstick Stalker – the less she talked, the more my dinner would stay down. I hadn’t wanted to use the normal dead drop, as the information wasn’t as sensitive as it could be, but I didn’t want anyone to chance upon it. “Right D, we’re square now. Don’t fret about anything else. I might have need of you and your skills again, but I’ll pay you proper for it – maybe help you get some saved up to buy an augmetic eye or somesuch.” She seemed at ease, and couldn’t leave fast enough, to my relief, despite my offer to buy her a drink. Places to go, I suppose.
I began sorting through the datafiles she passed onto me, playing them on the HUD of my glasses, sipping at my beer as I tried to wrap my head around my pal Wormwood’s activities. I gleaned enough to feel comfortable that he wasn’t a cold blooded killer, just a bit of a nutcase, but that was no more than I had known from before. Still, he has an odd way of killing a Friday night. I leaned back against the bar, dropping the investigative files into a virtual dumpster as I raised my glass to my Anita, eliciting a surreptitious wink from across the room. There are much better ways to spend an evening that doesn’t involve wearing black lipstick. Not that you’ve applied to yourself, anyway.
The cold wind whipped against my trenchcoat as my tires silently trundled along the pavement, eating up distance like a fat man at a buffet. It had been a long, refreshing night ride – another sleepless night, and I’m starting to worry that this insomnia is getting worse. Even at night, getting out of Night City to see what passes for nature out on the long, abandoned roads was an experience I’m glad to have had. Hardly any traffic getting back into town either. The early morning sunlight cut through the smog, glinting off my glasses as I glided up to the Lazarus hangar, door opened slightly in greeting. I grinned at the sight of a grumpy looking Pitbull taking his morning cigarette and coffee outside, tossing him a quick salute as I pulled my motorcycle in through the open door. A quick press of the button and I had the kickstand out and the engine off and found myself striding across the open hangar to an already lit office, ears casting about for sounds of the rest of the team.
I poked my head into the office, finding Pacoy puzzling away at a blueprint, surrounded by cups of coffee, the bags under his eyes belying a lack of sleep. I felt the same way, instinctively rubbing at my eyes before grabbing a cup myself and sinking back into my leather recliner and kicking my feet up. We chatted for a while about his project – I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand much of what he was on about, but I do try to take an interest. Eventually our words turned to the days ahead, and we grew a bit quieter, until we both were sipping our coffee in silence, the last word between us looming overhead like a storm cloud, charged with lightning and ready to strike. Omaha. I let a small sigh escape, throwing a quick glance over at the framed picture of Anita that was sitting on my desk while my free hand reached out for one of the darts Pacoy and I kept around for the dartboard we had hung at the back of the office. It had originally been near the door, but we had been scolded when an errant dart had nearly hit someone walking by. I took a brief look at the large paper map of the US that I had taken the liberty of putting up on the wall by way of decoration and threw the dart. There’s one thing that everything kept coming back around to, that seemed to be all I could focus on, and that’s where the dart landed. Omaha.