Natas doesn’t make a habit of being at work at 8 am. Today he’s meeting with someone he has never met, doesn’t know and but has a hunch. It’s worth his time. He is also intrigued by how little he could find about her – especially considering what she looked like on the call. Natas is happy to get in early. He needs to check in on a fresh batch of straps he is growing on the rack. New material from Hawk. Hawk says it’s the best raw muscle he’s seen in years.
If nothing else, the gleaners and garbage kids of District 11 do a good job of keeping the sidewalks pretty clean, but Natas still hates this block. He’s not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, because Hawk set him up with the shop, but he’s still paying market rate. You’d think with all the talk of financial collapse you’d be able to see it on the streets, vacancies, but no. Businesses are packed, the streets are packed, PIM stalls are packed, techshops are busy, wetwork shops are busy, there’s a constant and steady stream of money changing hands, and in District 11, a disproportionate amount of those transactions are cash. Unlike District 20, District 11 doesn’t print its own currency. It still uses US Dollars. They’re just harder to come by.
Natas slides the transparent micro-mesh-steel gates open, dragging them across his storefront. The gates are on tracks that recede into the sides of the store like an old roll-top desk as they clank into place, lights behind the overhead sign struggle to life. Natas thought the irony of the previous tenant’s sign was humorous, so he didn’t bother to change it. As the lights finally blaze to life, the thick, block, hand-painted black letters over opaque Plexi declares, Carnicería Del Reyes. The only window decorations are a couple of fresh new Northcity United F.C. football team posters, which block the view to a simple, clean white doctor’s office-esque waiting room.
Natas picks up junk mail off the floor – it’s all for the old tenant – and strolls through a door marked LAB. The backroom is divided into three modern spaces by large glass walls. One wall is completely covered by wire-mesh panels growing synthetic muscle in strips of various lengths attached to the mesh frames by synthetic-white tendon material. The air in the rack room is visibly thick with humidity. Sensors and screens stream with ever-changing data about the system’s health. As Natas approaches, an interface appears on the glass wall next to the entrance door. He punches a few codes and makes a mental note about the response.
The other rooms hide behind frosted glass panels. Surgery. Office.
Inside, the office looks like the messy collision of a dorm room and a doctor’s office. Natas pops into a chair and punches up a call. The glass wall in front of him illuminates with a new call square defined in the glass – VOICE ONLY pulses in red letters.
“Reggie, it’s Natas.”
“I need that meet to happen with the North city manager.”
“At 8 am?”
“You said it was gonna happen last week. I needed it to happen two weeks ago. I’m growing a batch specifically for the team that I was told was going to make the deal.”
“Natas, we shouldn’t be having this conversation on a call. I’ll stop by this afternoon.”
“Only stop by if you’re bringing Staley with you.”
“I’ll stop by, and we can make plans to meet him.”
“If you’re not bringing Staley, bring cash.”
The call ends abruptly.
“Fucking punk.” Natas dials another call.
A face pops onto the screen sitting in a chair with widows behind him, clearly on the high floor of a building with an incredible view of Palomar City stretching out below. The face is covered in high-end lizard skin, and his rimless glasses appear to almost float in front of his face with no visible stems or support. A massive tangle of dreadlocks fills the rest of the frame.
In a thick Jamaican accent, “Natas.”
“Is Hawk in?”
“Nope. Not for 8 am. What you doing at the rack at this hour? You’re turning over a new leaf, man?” Nikko laughs at his own joke, which turns into a raspy smoker’s cough.
“Got a meeting. Do you know a blonde looker named Gingger Djordjie?
Nikko is silent, unmoving, as always – behind the dark glasses and on the pix-call, Natas can never read him.
“Nope.” Nikko takes a long slow drink from a tall cold glass of iced tea. “Your new girl?”
“Nope, just a meet. When’s Hawk in?”
“Couldn’t say. I’ll tell him you called. What’s the girl’s name again?”
“Probably nothing. Don’t tell him I called.”
Nikko stays on the screen, unmoving.
“Nikko, you going to the North city game on Thursday?”
“Hawk and I gonna be there. You?”
“I’ll be there.”
“We’ll put you on the list, stop by the box.”
“That’d be great.”
“Nikko, you know Reggie W.?”
“Yah, man. Natas, you don’t go believe’n a word he says.”
“He gonna be in the box with you guys on Thursday?”
“Yah, man. But don’t bring no business to the box. Thursday is for Football.”
“Ok, catch you later.”
Hard morning sun blasts through the storefront windows, unveiling the streaks, dirt, and dust of imperfect cleaning efforts. This time of day, the sun and reflections are so bright you can’t see out to the sidewalk directly on the other side. Natas punches a button on the drink vending machine in the waiting room, a hot can of coffee drops into the trough just as the twinkle of an old-fashioned bell rings, announcing the arrival and the opening of the front door.
She’s standing in black tights, patent leather shoes, and a white trench coat belted at the waist. She looks like she just stepped off a fashion shoot, but carries it with the confidence of a celebrity. “I’m Gingger. I have a meeting with Natas Balthis.”
Natas extends a hand. “Natas, nice to meet you. Coffee?”
“No, thank you.” Gingger looks around, casually inspecting the office. “Thanks for meeting so early this morning. I have to get to work and can’t be late.”
“Where do you work?”
“Oh, it’s just a day job. Should we chat out here? Or…..”
“Let’s go into the back.”
The pix-call didn’t lie; she’s striking. Natas decides the office might not give the best impression, so he opens the surgery door and ushers her into a spotless state of the art medical lab. In the center of the room is a perfectly clean, white, operating table. An array of trays and menacing tools dangle above the table on the end of arms and cables – hovering like an exploded white gothic chandelier frozen in space.
Five motorized saddle-stools surround the table. Natas casually hops into one. Gingger slowly walks the room casually and purposefully inspecting every inch.
“I hear that if you want wetwork done ‘right’ in district 11, you’re the guy to talk to.”
“That’s flattering. There’s a lot of good competition, including Hawk himself.”
“But does anybody really get Hawk to do Works any more?”
“You’d have to ask his people.”
“Maybe I’ll do that.”
“What can I help you with, Ms. Djordjie?”
“I’m very interested in scrubbers.”
“I’ll have to stop you. I know a lot about scrubbers, but I’m not doing them yet.”
“Well, it may not be that I want them installed.”
“I’m sure you could get a very handsome set of scrubbers. I’ve heard there’s tech coming out this winter that can even patch the gill, make them seamless and hidden. Which might be a good thing with this rash of lifts.”
“Yes, the scrubber lifts. Gruesome. Why do you think they’re doing it?”
“People have always wanted what they can’t afford. And some don’t hesitate to take what they want, whatever the cost.”
“Would you advise against them?”
“Would I advise against them because there have been some high profile scrubber lifts? No. The world’s a dangerous place.”
“So why would you advise against them.”
“I didn’t say I would.”
“Where do you get your wetware?”
“We build most of our works and grow our ware in-house.”
“Everything I saw out there?”
“That’s muscle in the last critical growing stage. It has to be constantly monitored at this stage in its development.”
“Are you interested in straps or augmentation?”
“No, I’m interested in scrubbers.” Gingger makes her way toward the exit, catching Natas off guard. He pops out of his chair and skips to catch up to the closing glass door.
“I’d be happy to recommend a shop for Scrubbers, but I’m afraid you’re not going to find it in District 11. You’re going to have to go to a City District. It’ll probably be a Private Facility, which is going to cost if you’re not covered.”
“Thanks for your time Mr. Balthis…”
“I think we should chat again.” She extends a hand. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“Pleasure was mine.”
The bell on the twinkles as Gingger pulls it open, throwing a halo of light around her tall figure.
“Gingger, can I ask, who recommended me?”
“Everyone I asked.” Gingger whisks away into the bright morning light.
* * *