+J.M.J.+

The Shadows Between the Neon

By "Matrix Refugee"

Author's Note:

I have a lot of credit to give where credit is due: In some ways, this story is inspired by a lot of elements and concepts from a lot of different movies (besides "A.I."), including, but not confined to: Dark City (1998), Road to Perdition (which, alas, I still have not seen), Vertigo, and others. The structure of the story was in some ways inspired by Bram Stoker's Dracula and Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot (which I'm reading). But I also am indebted to Ruby Tuesday's "A.I." fiction "Lullaby for Cain" (On Laurie E. Smith's excellent "A.I." fansite "Clear and Haunting Visions"). I'm intending this as a Halloween treat for all of you, so I'll be trying to get a chapter out each week before "Fright Night". Enjoy! The rating may go up on this, for violence. Mwahahahahaha!!

Disclaimer:

I do not "own" "A.I., Artificial Intelligence", its characters, settings, concepts or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, of DreamWorks SKG, Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, et al.

I: October 21st, 2159

Transcript of an Instant Message from Cecie Martin ("RougeCityCecie") to Frank Sweitz ("HeroicReporter23")

HeroicReporter23: Done did any dumpster diving for me???

RougeCityCecie: Yeah, I came up with this: http:// www.rougecitybroadsheet.com/rougecitybroadsheet/jobs.htm

HeroicReporter23: Cool!

HeroicReporter23: Grreat! They've got a job for a seasoned reporter like me

HeroicReporter23: sez it here: experienced reporter needed. I wonder what kind of experience they want????

RougeCityCecie: watch out, Frank.

HeroicReporter23: ::halo is shining::

RougeCityCecie: Yeah RIIIGGHHHT! 8^P Think you can handle the terrain here?

HeroicReporter23: Probably. I've got Bernie-girl now.

RougeCityCecie: "Keep it clean, Frank!"

HeroicReporter23: CENSORED!!!

HeroicReporter23: It's a weekly, right?

RougeCityCecie: It comes every other day.

HeroicReporter23: ????

RougeCityCecie: We're a little different here in the City.

HeroicReporter23: So how are the men in your life?

RougeCityCecie: Kip's still not quite out of the woods over Irene.

HeroicReporter23: Yeah ::sniff:: I felt the same way when my parents died. I still cry for them once in a while.

RougeCityCecie: Irene had it lucky; she just went away quietly in her sleep.

HeroicReporter23: what about metal boy? What about the robot who looks like me?

RougeCityCecie: I haven't seen Joe much lately; he's been undergoing some repairs, sort of a downgrade.

HeroicReporter23: downgrade?!

HeroicReporter23: ???

HeroicReporter23: ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

RougeCityCecie: He had a chip removed.

HeroicReporter23: why?

RougeCityCecie: I guess one of his chips was faulty and it could cause problems for the rest of his programming, so they had to remove it before it went bad. Sort of like that Y2K thing.

HeroicReporter23: Why, what would happen? Make his pretty head explode?

RougeCityCecie: No, it would screw up his other chips and cause some serious malfunctions. It's not just him, it's a recall of this entire line of chips in a lot of models

HeroicReporter23: phew, at least he's safe now, right?

RougeCityCecie: Yeah, Flyte couldn't afford to lose him. Joe's one of his best Mechas.

HeroicReporter23: You couldn't afford to lose your boyfriend either.

RougeCityCecie: He's not my boyfriend, silly.

HeroicReporter23: well, he's sure not your girlfriend.

RougeCityCecie: ZAP!!

HeroicReporter23: If he's not your boyfriend, what is he?

RougeCityCecie: My muse, my confidant, my best friend.

HeroicReporter23: Aaaw!

RougeCityCecie: I suppose I might call him my gentleman friend.

HeroicReporter23: That's more like it.

HeroicReporter23: what about Mr. Flyte? How's he doing?

RougeCityCecie: He's doing okay from what I can tell, especially now that he's gotten this chip thing fixed. He had three Mechas all with this chip, and it took a little doing getting it removed and adjusting the programming on 'em.

HeroicReporter23: Gotta run. "Law and Order" is on.

RougeCityCecie: 'Kay, Frank. G'night. Phila sends her love to you and Bernie.

HeroicReporter23: Na-night, Cecie. Bernie's back atcha. "Give my regards to Broad Way"

HeroicReporter23: "Remember me to Harlot Square"

RougeCityCecie: ROTFL!

HeroicReporter23: "Tell all the gang at somethingsomethingsomething that I will soon be there" 'cause I'm gonna try and get the job. I'll email the details.

RougeCityCecie: 'Kay, Frank.

Cecie logged off the computer in Chatters, the largest 24-hour cybercafé in Rouge City, collected her disks and her notebooks and packed them back into her bag. She got up, signed out of the guest book at the front desk, said good night to Larry the tech and headed out into the night.

A cold wind from the river whipped around the corner formed by one of the concrete pylons supporting the Upper Deck of the city. She turned up the collar of her black simuleather trench coat and quick walked to the main escalator.

She checked her antique wind-up pendant watch: 11:30 (22.30 by modern time standards). It was late even for her, but she'd had a lot of files to send off and the Internet connection on her datascriber at home was still down. Derek the Net wonk hadn't called her back.

She held onto her hat as she stepped onto the escalator; a gust of wind tried to snatch her fedora from her head. If the wind was this bad down here, it would be worse upstairs.

The crowds on the escalator had thinned a little, so she had an easy ride—no giggling college kids on the lam or smirking business types. She hated it when some jerk in a pinstriped suit tried talking her up—or worse, tried to feel her up, thinking she might be a Mecha. She'd always turn and blink at them over the mirrorshades clipped to her glasses, which often was all it took to put them off.

But it seemed unusually thin. Sure, the post-summer lull had set in, things would pick up again in the middle of November to slack off again after New Years. But it didn't seem right. Four years of living in Rouge City had taught Cecie a good deal about this quirky, moody, demi-mondaine city. She knew it well enough to read its moods. She shrugged. The cold wind had probably sent the crowds scurrying into the clubs and casinos, looking for warmth and a warm pair of arms.

She stepped off the escalator onto Main Plaza and headed home to the Hotel Graceley.

Sure enough, the wind grew worse up here. She had to hang onto her hat with both hands. Cold gusts whipped at her, billowing the skirts of her trench coat and catching under the split of her black skirt.

Her path took her along a dull-lit stretch of Main Boulevard. She took a side street onto an alleyway tonight to get into the lee of some of the buildings.

She kept her hand on the stunner in her pocket. Rouge City had a reputation for few assaults, but they still happened from time to time. Her eyes went on wide angle, scanning the shadows for any figures, any movement. She put her awareness on high alert. She looked back, over her shoulder, from time to time.

Just as she reached the mouth of the alleyway, her foot caught on something on the ground. She jumped to keep from tripping and falling on her face, folding her thighs against her belly.

She hit the ground and turned on her heels, looking back.

A prone figure lay on the pavement at her feet. She stooped over it, expecting to find a drunk or a stoner. But she didn't smell any booze fumes or the odd metallic tang of stringer. She smelled something greasier.

She took out her pocket flashlight and turned it on the figure.

The beam fell over a dense shock of dark brown hair with bleached blonde lights. The figure lay face down; she reached out and turned him over carefully. His arm fell limply to the pavement as she did so. The man felt awfully cold.

The light glinted off metal. She looked at his torso as she laid him flat on his back.

The front of his slightly baggy white silk shirt had been torn open from collar to waist. A gash in his flesh followed the line of the tear in his shirt. Dark, wet patches stained the ground where he had lain. The same fluid stained the halves of his shirtfront from the cut lubrication tubes inside his torso.

Wires and components lay exposed, some dangling from the crevasse in his body. Hands shaking, Cecie turned the beam on his face.

The Mecha's face lay undamaged, the skin looking more plastic, even doll-like in its stillness, a dark young face with amber eyes lying open, sightless, lightless.

Dead.

She fumbled in his trouser pockets for an address card; she found it.

In case of severe damage or malfunction, please call Blue Fairy Escort Service.

She pulled her cell phone out of her coat pocket. It took an act of the will to get her shaking fingers to press the right buttons.

"Blue Fairy Escort Service, technical division, how can I help you?" said a business-like voice.

"I found one of your Mechas in the alleyway behind WildCards, the casino over on 12th Street. Someone killed him."

A few minutes later, a couple of techs in an electric cart and a handful of security guards showed up. While the techs assessed the damage, the guards questioned Cecie.

"Did you see anyone in the alleyway? Anyone at all?" one guard asked her.

"No, I was alone, I looked around; I'm cautious of places like this."

"Did you hear anything? Footsteps?"

"No, the wind was too loud."

"Did you see anything suspicious before you went into the alleyway?"

"No, I didn't"

The guard looked her in the eye. "Do you know anything about this destruction that we ought to know?"

"No, I wouldn't do something like that. My best friend is a Mecha."

"Stanger, let her alone," said the second guard, a woman. "The poor girl's shook up." To Cecie she added, "You want one of us to see you home, Miss Martin?"

"I'm over in the Graceley, I can make it there. I'll be all right."

A small knot of onlookers had gathered at the mouth of the alleyway, mostly Orgas, a few Mechas. Several cries of shock arose from the former as the techs and the guards carried out the tattered body of the Mecha; the latter regarded the sight unblinking, some mild concern from a few, in comprehension from most. The crowd parted to allow the strange procession to emerge.

A graceful figure in gleaming black and silver stepped from the back of the crowd and blocked Cecie's path. She looked up into a welcome dark, narrow face and a familiar pair of green-gold eyes.

"Hey, Joe, whaddya know?" she said her voice trembling slightly from the shock of it all.

"I had heard you had the misfortune to come upon a carcass in an alleyway," he said as she tried to step around him. "Shall I see you to your door, Cecie?"

"It's only a coupled hundred feet to the hotel door; I think I can manage," she said. Joe's smile of mischievous insistence fell. "Well, I had a bad fright, so maybe I really do need the company."

"If only to drive away they shadows of fear," he said offering her his arm. She took it and let him lead her to the Graceley.

She let down her guard enough to permit him to accompany her up the stairs to her suite on the third floor.

Once she got in, she put on the teakettle to boil; Joe hovered in the doorway of her closet of a kitchenette, hands in pockets, eyes watching her movements.

"I still sense tension in you," he observed. She almost jumped on hearing his soft, husky voice behind her. She laughed at her own nervousness.

"You're absolutely right," she said.

He stepped away from the doorpost. "Shall I relieve you of it? You said yourself that my touch could drive away the ills of the heart."

"Well, okay," she said. She sat down sideways on a chair, leaning forward slightly, elbows on knees, forearms folded.

Joe knelt behind her, rubbing his palms together for a few seconds. He set to work, massaging the back of her neck, the sides, the angle of her neck and shoulder, the flank of her shoulders, first the front, then the back, then down along her spine. His fingers moved slowly, digging into her flesh with just the right amount of pressure, pinching and kneading ever so gently yet so firmly, with enough force that she felt the tension ooze from her flesh and dissipate. She sighed, leaning her shoulders into his hands.

The teakettle started chuffing, preparatory to chattering in a full boil. Joe's hands slid up her back, past her collarbone and undid the second button of her blouse; she felt so relaxed she hardly noticed what he was up to, until he lowered his face to the back of her neck and kissed her. She turned on him; he smiled at her with mischievous innocence.

"Quit that!" she cried. "I thought we had an agreement: no undoing of buttons. I haven't undone any of yours, so don't you go undoing mine."

"Your neck begged for another kind of massage; there was no other way to release the tensions in it," he said, half innocent, half earnestly passionate.

She got up and switched off the kettle. She filled her cup and left it to steep.

"You have not yet told me what brought you into that alleyway at such an hour of the night as this."

"I was trying to get out of the wind, but I guess I ended up stumbling on something worse than a cold wind."

"But you came away from it intact."

"Yeah, I just wish that poor Mecha was so lucky. Did you see him? Did you know him?"

"Yes, I saw his face as the security guards carried him away. His name was Carlos, a newer model, a Latino, very much the macho type, yet he could be tender in a fierce manner of tenderness."

"You knew him?"

He spread his hands slightly. "I know him only for a brief time he belonged to another agency, but our paths crossed and recrossed from time to time."

"And now he's gone."

"We pass in and out of each other's world like leaves blown on the wind pass in and out through a doorway. It is best to enjoy to the fullest the time we can know and share together."

"I would like to have known him—just enough to know what we'll be missing."

Joe lifted his chin with mild disdain. "You would not have liked him. Have you not said you prefer the sensitive artist types of men?"

"Yeah, but I'd like to have known him—as a comparison. This world needs all kinds."

He looked at her in earnest. "But does it need those who would destroy others?"

"No, but evil happens. It's a mystery none of us can understand: why does evil happen?"

"Why does it happen?"

"I'd like to thing it happens so that we can better appreciate the good."

He took this in silence, processing it, turning the data over and over in his logic centers. She could almost hear them humming. She took the tea bag from her cup and mixed honey into the tea before she sat down across from him again. He looked up to her face as she did so.

He put out his hand and clasped her free hand in both of his.

 "Do you appreciate me?"

She down her cup and covered his hand with hers. "Yes, Joe, you know that."

"I do know it, but it needs to be reiterated, does it not?"

"Yes."

He smiled and raised her hands to his lips.

A sharp electronic chirp broke through the stillness. He released her hands and reached for the medallion pager hanging around his neck.

"So soon?" Cecie asked as he rose; she walked with him to the door.

"You know that I mustn't keep a lady waiting," he said.

"I know, I'm sorry. I'm just all shaken from this," she said.

"Shall I return here afterward?" He put his hand on her arm.

"No, thanks, I'll be all right," she said. She slipped her arms around him, under his jacket, where she could feel the soft warmth radiating from his body as she held him close. He caressed her shoulders with both hands. "Take care of yourself, Joe. If you see anything suspicious, you run as fast as you can. Come back to me tomorrow."

"I shall return to you with the sunlight." He let her go and opened the door. He winked to her and swung through. He started to close the door behind him, but she held it open as he stepped out into the hallway.

She watched him swagger down the hall to the head of the stairs. He put his hand on the balustrade and leaped down the stairs taking them two and three and even four at a bound. Only when he leaped out of sight did she close the door. She leaned her forehead on it. She breathed deeply, trying to get her heart to stop beating so hard.

He took the spiraling staircases down to the Lower Deck, keeping his path in the shadows along the walls, avoiding the frequented areas civilized by the light. The men in the rent-a-cop uniforms had not seen him leaving the alleyway or they might have become suspicious of the stains on his clothes.

The boss would be pleased with the shots he'd gotten on this first night.

To be continued…