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I guess you could say it all began in a dimly lit hole off Main Street, but doesn’t it always? This particular one was a dingy cafe-bar dive that at least had the decency to serve coffee that didn’t make me retch.

I rolled a cigarette, then made the ‘next track’ finger gesture to change what was playing through my aural implants; they were cheap Toshis but hell, at least they worked. I’d just sparked up when Jackson walked in, looking smug. He always looked smug. He waddled over to my booth and slid in across from me, looking instantly at home amid the flecks of grease and who knows what else on the vinyl-covered seat.

“Still smoking that ancient shit, then?” He pointed to my cigarette. “It’s gonna kill you stone fucking dead someday.”

As he spoke he put a flame to the end of a Chariot Slim, the most expensive machine-rolled doob on the market. At least they would be if Jackson wasn’t importing cheap foreign knockoffs. Less than 100% legal, but at 33% of the price it was a risk that more than just Jackson would make, to at least look like they could afford the real deal. I was a pure tobacco smoker, one of about thirty left, at least in this city.

He called the moderately attractive waitress over and demanded his usual four espressos, then sat grinning, twirling his moustache with the air of a man well versed in the twirling of things. I could never shake the feeling that he had practiced this manoeuvre in front of a mirror at home. He thought it made him look distiguished. I thought it made him look like a Dickensian villain. Not that anyone knows who Dickens was. Not anymore.

As Jackson bombed his third tiny coffee I observed him. He hadn’t changed in all the time I’d known him; still short, thickset. The only real change was the streaks of grey forming in his dark hair.

He was a cartoonist by trade but between jobs he was a ‘middleman’ - a tech-smuggler. What I’m trying to ingrain here is that this man smuggled an awful lot of tech, whereas not many people had seen his cartoons.

“Anyway,” he began again, wiping excess coffee from his chin into his shirt collar, “I’ve managed to find you a job. Special. I’ve also managed, at great personal cost, to track down the gear you’ll need.” He slapped a bit of circuit board onto the table, wires splayed out like some dead squid from the future.

“Are you insane?” I asked him through a hastily exhaled cloud of blue smoke. “Do you know how long they’ll put you away for even having that?” All the same my fingers stretched towards the tech.

If it were possible for him to look more smug at this point, I imagine he would have.

“It’s all rammed together from parts obtainable through the proper legal channels. To the untrained eye it’s the countdown timer from an industrial dishwasher.”

“No one in Tec-Sec has untrained eyes, Jackson, and last time I checked, dishwashers didn’t need a ‘Rode hookup.”

I pointed to the tiny removable implant connected to the board. It had all the right connectors to interface with any cranial electrode; temple or behind the ear. Hell, I bet with the right exchanger you could even jack it into an old BNBS (Back of the Neck, Base of the Skull), although they probably weren’t fast enough anymore and the only people that had them were guys old enough to remember that Matrix movie.

“Listen,” he began, “I went through pain and hardship to get this to you. Damn hack-addict pulled a blade on me.” He pulled up his sleeve to show me a short, shallow cut.

I drummed a little pattern on the table, a signal to flip on the medical diagnostic software in my display contacts. I shouldn’t have it, but a while back I had a friend who had a friend who had a distant relative who robbed a hospital. This business is 46% who you know.

“That’s self-inflicted, jackass. You’re trying to guilt me into this job you’ve dredged up from somewhere.”

He glared at me for a second, chewing his doob.

“Right, asshole,” he dropped all pretense of patience or decorum and became the scum I knew and respected. “Do you want this or not? Unlike a few people I haven’t the luxury of weeks to make decisions. I know a guy in the Ciphers who’ll pay me fucking good money for it today.” He slapped the board emphatically.

“Calm yourself, Jacky-boy. I’m just playing a little hardball over coffee. It’s what you’ve come to expect, and who am I to disappoint?" I gave an exaggerated shrug. "Now stop hitting my tech.” I quickly placed the board into my jacket. “It’s valuable.”

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