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“The shotgun.” “Oh.” He looks over at the gun and reads the message painted on its side. It takes him a second, then he lets out an ugly chortle. Through his vocal modulation, what’s supposed to be a laugh sounds more like a wasp nest inside of an industrial grinder. The debt collector I remember as Casino raises an eyebrow, her cyan eyes flamelike with intensity. “What’s so funny?” Her voice crackles with electronic rage, but she keeps her distance. Probably remembering my sweet pants. I stretch my leathered leg as a taunt, also because I’ve got some serious cramping going on. Before she can do anything, a hand grabs her shoulder. Each finger a cinderblock, each nail a saw. The owner steps aside her: it’s the skyscraper from before. He extends his index finger – the tip of which a hypnotising swirl.
“That your man?” he asks. I break free from the hypnosis, blushing heavily. “We just met!” Cyborg’s visor flicks to ‘:|’ and looks at me with computerised disdain. Skyscraper grunts a gutteral ugh. “Not you, gratis.” That means ‘freeloader’ in the racketeering business, someone who evades corporate tax by moving around a lot.
“For an insult, it’s not that cutting. Could’ve gone with, I don’t know, leech, or sapper, or society blighter. Someone on Third Life called me a ‘pantaloser’ once. That really hurt my feelings. These pants mean a lot to me, you know. You gotta get personal with these insults, I’m just saying.”
From behind Casino strides in a third member and joins motley duo, now a motlier crew. His leather jacket is covered in grime, and banana peels and empty tin cans are sticking to his chrome: two bulky arms with cogs and clockwork designs. His silver hair is gelled into a frictionless pompadour, like a lumpia of grease and grunge. God, I’m starving. His expression is unamused, his head tilted back to glare at Cyborg and I from the bottom of his sockets. He parts his dry lips.
“That’s him, yeah.” “Hey. ‘Them’, not ‘him’,” I object. The trio close their eyes in sudden shame and retroactive respect. Skyscraper repeats himself, “this the scumbag you were looking for?” “That’s them, yeah.” I nod in approval.
Pompadour forces his eyes wide open. “Yeah. That’s the one who stole my drop.” He’s struggling to keep a cool composure. Steam is blowing from his arm vents. A single hair flicks out of the formation of his perfect pompadour. “Jumped from a few floors lower than me so…” A vein on his forehead bulges, “he could be grabbed instead of me.” His bloodshot eyes jut at Cyborg. His visor switches to an alarmed red ‘!’.
“Wait… Don’t tell me. YOU’RE Caesar?” “Yeah, that’s me. Mind tellin’ me ’bout that poser you hooked up with?” I can feel both their burning stares plus an uncomfortable heat from a very, very angry visor. I look away and whistle an inconspicuous tune. Namely, Trish Rigs’s least-known song, ‘Silence after an Unsuccessful Surgery’, released on a 100-copy EP before her first major hit. “That song is rumoured to be autobiographical but she hasn’t confirmed or denied this yet so–” Four voices command me to “Shut up!” and I oblige.
Skyscraper steps forward and makes a cracking motion with his flawless metal neck, mimicking what that would sound like with his mouth — very unconvincingly I might add. He addresses the boy I’ve admittedly rudely imposed on and probably manipulated to a degree. “Here’s the situation, halfbot. You did your job wrong, snatched the wrong dropper. They ain’t even got the right data. Just a dog, called Data.” Cyborg shrugs, Data barks. “In fact,” he continues, “we were already chasing ’em. They’s a freeloader.” He looks at me with electrifying, condescending eyes, “A society blighter.” He lets out a chuckle, Casino follows suit with an equally forced one. “Now Caesar here,” he pats his leather jacket to wipe off some of the grime, “we met him on our way down. Told us about this shirtless freak that stole his drop. So, you see, our interests… they were… uh…” “Similar?” “Yeah, ‘similar’. Shut the jack up.” I do so! “So it was only natural we teamed up. That way, we can all have some fun with ’em, the three of us.” He cracks his knuckles, again doing the mouth thing. Ugh.
Cyborg looks lost in thought. I can tell ’cause his visor’s displaying a big blue ‘?’. “So, what undertaking would you have me do?” Caesar traipses forward and puts a disgusting, steampunkish arm on his shoulder, in clear violation of personal space laws. “You’re a smart kid. This is probably your first drop and this glitch took advantage of that. So, here’s how’s it gonna work. I give you the data, you give us the leech. And… I’ll be taking that with me, to cover for the inconveniences, mm?” He points at the terranium in the back of the room. If he was seriously considering Pompadour’s offer, he sure as cyber isn’t anymore now. Gripping Caesar’s hand and pulling it away with his real(?) arm, his visor turns a blood red, displaying a furious ‘>:(‘. His actual mouth clenches, too. Pompadour struggles to break free, pulling at Cyborg’s arm, gnawing at it with fake teeth, but fails so hard. Never get retroware installed. It’s weak and I mean, at no point was steampunk cool.
He clutches my arm with his robot hand. Huh? “I don’t think so,” a chilling femme voice fills the room. All falls quiet, all feels quiet, and the world rushes past me as I’m hurled at the debt collectors, pants-first.