This is the first chapter of Immaculate Conception, the initial book of the Cybersampa series. To get in the mood, the author suggests you start reading listening to VHS Dreams’ great track Miami’s Finest below.
“The very ring of the phone sounded like bad news.”
“You have lost – two – hours of your life expectancy.”
It was the sixth time the Kraftwerk 2000 in Cascavel’s wrist buzzed, one after each small drink swallowed whole by the detective. The machine was the most advanced portable data processor from forty years ago, half a dozen generations obsolete by now. It had a bulky industrial design, with a low resolution display and a worn keyboard. The thing had to be surgically implanted on Cascavel’s forearm, a far cry from today’s non-invasive augmented reality data processors that were all the rage with the kids.
Cascavel didn’t know for sure how the machine could guess how much left he had to live. He was told it used a complex algorithm to combine general population statistics with data from the user’s bloodstream. He only knew the thing was precise, or at least that’s what the good doctor guaranteed. Cascavel pressed a button and contemplated the numbers blinking on the monochromatic screen.
One year, two months, six days, one hour and seven – now six – minutes of life expectancy left.
Not bad, Cascavel had time for a few more drinks. He already did get a lot closer, after all. He got himself an extra year by buying a Brasletric-Yamaha synthetic heart. The hundred year mortgage was a bitch, sure, and the interest rate high enough to buy ten extra organs for the bank. That’s the very literal price of immortality: when you can live forever, banking corps can keep you indebted for centuries – and even reanimate your carcass to collect if you owe them enough. Life costs and death is free.
But about his heart, what a beauty that was. Cascavel even went nuts all the way and got himself the series 7 Jensen sport model along with a medium grade artificial liver bundled in the flash sale. “Three times more resistant to liver failure than a natural organ!”, assured the user manual, so Cascavel naturally took that as medical permission to drink like five people. He pointed to the empty glass and barman Wang filled it with that homemade spirit of his. Bá-Jú, or something. A traditional Chinese recipe spiked with enough radioactive isotopes to make you glow after you got a few cups in your system. The detective engulfed the overflowing glass in a single movement, twitching his face as the drink burned his throat.
“You have lost – two – hours of your life expectancy,” beeped the Kraftwerk 2000.
Then the pay phone over the counter rang. It was covered with a thin layer of sticky dust, much like the rest of Boteco do Wang. Which did grant a certain decadent charm to the place, as well as bacteria still unknown to modern science. The phone rang and rang again and neither Cascavel nor Wang moved a muscle. Somehow, the very ring of the phone sounded like bad news.
“You no go answer?” asked Wang. “It is for you after all, laowai.”
“How do you know?” replied Cascavel.
“Because you only one that still uses phone. And only one that treats my bar as personal office!” yelled Wang. “When you buy mobile communicator? They cheap! Then people find you easy all time!”
“That’s exactly the point,” Cascavel said. “Ok, I’ll answer the damn thing, pass me the cord.”
Cascavel took the payphone’s feed and plugged it into his USB cranial jack on the side of his scalp. Immediately an image appeared in his Kraftwerk 2000.
“Drinking already, Cascavel?” Cascavel could see commissioner Sakurai’s signature shark-like smile even in the low pixel monitor. “You are not even waiting for noon nowadays?”
Commissioner Sakurai worked for Proctech Inc, one of the biggest of the dozens of law enforcement corporations with security contracts signed with Megasampa’s administration. Commissioner was a fancy term in the corporate hierarchy, a throwback from when there was an actual non-private government, and it actually owned the police. It pretty much amounts to middle management nowadays, but Sakurai liked to think of himself as something between a town sheriff and c-level executive.
“It is always noon, commissioner,” the detective said while Wang served him more baijiu. “Somewhere.”
“You know, that’s what I like about you, Cascavel. You may lose your dignity, but never your humor. I have another freelance job for you.”
“I figured you didn’t call me because of my charming personality,” Cascavel said as he downed yet another drink, Kraftwerk 2000 politely deducting two hours from his life expectancy. “But you do know I am supposed to be retired, commissioner.”
“People like you never retire, Cascavel. Not until you figure a way to pay the boteco’s tab with sarcasm.”
Cascavel had to concede that the bastard had a point.
“Tell me more about this job,” Cascavel said chopping with his kukri knife a fried Soylent Green bolovo that Wang served him. Cascavel was unsure what they put in the stuff, but boy did it taste good.
“We found two bodies.”
“On Novo Bronx.”
“Yes, it’s very much a tragedy and all, commissioner, but a couple of dead gringos sounds very much like an average business day at the Bronx. If we are now crying every time that happens you will have to bump my fee so I can upgrade the old lachrymal glands.”
“Damn you are cold, Cascavel. Didn’t you just get a new heart?”
“Yeah I did. In black.”
Sakurai let out an uncomfortable chuckle.
“Besides, I doubt they have security insurance,” Cascavel continued. “Is Proctech getting generous urges all of the sudden to help the community?”
“Of course they have no insurance. We have been contracted by the active mayoral administration.”
That was stranger still. The city was currently ruled by Omni Cities, a branch of the Omnibank Corporation. They where known as an accountant utopia, considered close-fisted even for a financial conglomerate. And it was not like Novo Bronx was booming with consumers. Or investors. Or legal voters.
“One of the bodies is from a woman, she is a complete mess. More than usual. Someone had fun with her.”
“And the other?”
“Standard beheading as far as we could tell.”
“You just described a dozen dreamtear deals gone wrong. Still sounds like a regular ghetto morning to me.”
“It’s not just that, there are mad drawings everywhere. You know, that crazy macumba stuff you deal with. The social media trackers are off the charts, let’s just say the local community is a bit restless. Also more than usual.”
Cascavel could remember well the last time Novo Bronx got more restless than usual. It took two months of martial law and a federal army intervention to cool things down. Now things made better sense.
“And let me guess, the active mayor has been all over your ass because restlessness is bad for business. And he does not want restlessness in an contract renewal year for Omnibank Cities.”
“Yes,” Sakurai could not hide his uneasiness. “Something like that. You figured so, huh?”
“Like I said, commissioner, you didn’t call me because of my charming personality.”
“Yes, ok Cascavel, I called you because you are efficient, happy now? You go and sort this out. Your usual fee will be deposited within 30 business days.”
“There is just one thing I don’t understand, though, commissioner,” Cascavel said as pieces of food leaped out of his chewing mouth.
“What’s that?” answered Sakurai in a monotonous tone, eager to hang up.
“It’s just that I believe you previously considered my methods… how did you put it in the Prandoni case report? Oh, yeah, ‘questionable and without proved basis on forensic sciences’ and you just called me ‘efficient’ right now. You can see why I am a bit confused.”
“Don’t be like that, C…”
“So I’m thinking, I was ‘questionable’ a couple of months ago and now I am ‘efficient’ and all I did was sit on my ass the whole time. So, I can’t help but get curious about how the fuck did I get so goddamn ‘efficient’ all of a sudden.”
“Or perhaps I didn’t get more efficient at all. Perhaps it’s just you that got more desperate.”
“What do you want me to say, Cascavel?” Sakurai blurted out. “Do you want me to apologize? I’m sorry! There you go.”
“Apologies my ass,” Cascavel said as he ordered another Soylent bolovo from Wang. “I’m getting double my usual fee this time, investigation expenses not included. And my butt is not moving away from this seat until I see half of the deposit in my account. The rest you can pay me after I solve your case.”
“Whah what?! Seu filho da puta, you know we have to approve all payments in the quarterly budget before…”
“What can I say, commissioner? That’s the price you pay for efficiency these days. I’m sure you can find a way to cover my fee from one of your ‘alternate’ corporate accounts. Be creative.”
Sakurai didn’t yell anymore, but his image did seem to puff smoke like an old cartoon.
“Alright Cascavel. Just do the hocus pocus you do, but this needs to be sorted out or the active mayor will bust my balls, and then you know what will happen.”
“Then you will bust my balls, and I will bust some poor son of a bitch’s and so on. Karmic wheel and all that.”
“Exactly. I’m sending a squad car to get you and take you to the crime scene. It’s in a place called Hotel Galante. Your contact there will be lieutenant Chaves. She will fill you in.”
Sakurai approached the camera, his face became oblique and asymmetrical on the pixelated monitor.
“And I’m not kidding, Cascavel. This case needs to be cracked for real. I’m on the line here, and that means that so are you. Oh, and, yeah, happy birthday detective.”
Sakurai’s image disappeared from Cascavel’s data processor and the detective unjacked the USB, chewing contemplatively as Wang cleaned a cup with his own saliva.
“Ê, laowai,” said Wang. “Today really your birthday?”
Wang lived in Brazil for thirty years, but his Cantonese accent was so strong you would guess he was fresh out of the gravship. Cascavel could swear he went out of his way into the Chinaman stereotype just to make some point out of it.
“Yes it is,” answered Cascavel.
“Shengrì kuàilè! Congralutations!”
“Thanks, Wang. Though I’m not sure I have much to celebrate. I’m going to work for an uptight commissioner that will try to fuck me up at every chance and later I will have dinner with my family. And I’m not sure what’s worse.”
“Ê, don’t be like that, laowai. Birthday is when you born again. New life to you! Here, do read your fortune from a tapioca cookie, yes? Wang is sure it will be good. If it’s not, next baijiu on the house.”
Cascavel took the treat offered by Wang and broke it in half. A holographic dragon jumped out of the cookie and over it a colorful and neon-flashy phrase materialized: “Be very cautious when accepting new professional challenges!”
Wang shook his head and swore something in Cantonese as he filled Cascavel’s cup again.
“Look on bright side, laowai. Free baijiu for you. Shengrì kuàilè!”
“Yeah, the bright side,” Cascavel repeated before turning his cup.
“You have lost – two – hours of your life expectancy.”
The Proctech squad car landed right in front of Boteco do Wang. The policemen had to confirm twice with Central until they believed that was the special investigator they where supposed to fetch.
For starters, he seemed drunk as a quati. He wore an eye patch and had tattooed in the right wrist three interlocked spirals that formed the triskelion of the hermetic magick tradition. On the left forearm, an antique first generation data processor and a prosthetic hand. He had an old brown vinyl overcoat with the colors faded by the acid rain and a kukri knife on the belt. His face was taken by wrinkles and scars. His short hair was completely white.
Cascavel asked one of the officers to help him get his equipment in his office, conveniently located in a room right above Wang’s den. He left the building after a few minutes with the astonished officer carrying a synthetic wool blanket, an ancient “tape recorder” and a clay jar. They walked splashing water on the street up to the hovercar.
It rained in Megasampa, like always. Due to climatic changes, it always at least drizzled below the permaclouds that hovered over the city. Megasampa, the urban sprawl formed when the metropolitan areas of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro joined in the mid-21st century. It grows still, mad and uncontrolled like a concrete and steel mould, taking most of Brazil’s southwest. The city ends to the east by the “waters” of the Atlantic Ocean, a mass of pollution and algae bloom dense enough for you to run over it if you are not scared of being swallowed by the odd mutant eel. And to the west, the great walls that try to keep the dust bowls and desertification at bay.
The squad car took off gently, avoiding the myriad of cables as it rose between the Arcologias Shopping States, hundreds of meters high. Metal and concrete boxes that dominate the metropolis skyline. The Shopping States began as commercial centers that got residential areas, but evolved into self-sufficient communities. After the destruction in the Mall Wars in the 2070s, the Arcologias were granted legal independence, and each made it’s own laws, and each deepened it’s own subculture. Most of Megasampa’s two billion souls grow, live, get old and die without ever leaving the box in which they were born.
The hovercar got to permacloud altitude, the sulfuric smell somehow strong enough to creep itself inside the pressurized vehicle, watering Cascavel’s eyes. Past the polluted mist, Cascavel was blinded for a few seconds as his eyes adjusted. The Sun. Shinning red and ancient through the stratosphere. Cascavel entertained nostalgic thoughts as he looked over the scarlet cloudy landscape dotted by corporate towers, half-built and abandoned Arcologias and metallic chimneys expelling toxic flames.
Then he saw the space elevator, sprouting like a magickal beanstalk out of the clouds and getting lost from sight in the deep blue of the sky. Half a century in the making, costing hundreds of trillions of over-invoiced cryptoreais, surviving a dozen cartel scandals, thousands of builders lives and two Confederados bomb attacks. It promised to be one of humanity’s greatest engineering achievements when inaugurated in a few months. It promised cheap access to the Nova Brasilis offworld colonies for masses of potential colonists that now crowded old Earth. It promised to be a literal stairway to heaven to billions who desperately needed a new life.
Cascavel looked at the few timid stars that appeared at the dark zenith next to the space elevator’s top, but he saw no heaven there. Just a different purgatory.
Just short of two hours stuck in the flying traffic despite their sirens, they arrived at Hotel Galante. The hover hadn’t even landed when it was struck by the first rock.
“Queremos justiça! Queremos justiça!” yelled a crowd to the right.
“Ô, polícia, vai tomar no cu!” screamed the group to the left.
“Assassinos!” cried a single voice, cheered by the rest of the mob, that joined in a chorus: “Assassinos! Assassinos!”
The Proctech police ground forces retaliated the immigrant mob with “peacekeeping” microwave beams, but as one side of the crowd retreated from the “intolerable yet humane” heat, the back one just got enraged further and invaded the “active denial” tesla containment field where the hover landed. A smell of burned flesh took over as the first poor souls in the group fell into the “non-lethal” electric charge and where stampeded by the protesters behind.
A dozen protesters rushed the squad car as it still hovered a few meters from the ground. The pilot tried to climb, but the extra weight dragged it back down, damaging the frontal right turbine.
“Turn it off! Turn it off!” yelled the officer to the pilot, while Cascavel clung to the backseat. “Turn the other damn turbines off or we will rotate and stall!”
The pilot obeyed and the hover dropped like a dead bird crushing some of the protesters. The rest of the mob cheered and climbed the vehicle, some of them wore Confederados flags as a cape. They started banging the windows with improvised tools and Cascavel could only watch as the cracks spread across the glass at every strike. He and the two officers screamed together as the molotov cocktail landed on the hood, the heat from the flames beginning to melt the windshields.
Suddenly, a deafening sound. Cascavel could see people screaming, but heard nothing other than a constant buzz. Dazzled protesters fell and ran away with bleeding ears from the “uncomfortable auditory sensation” caused by the sonic pulses. Proctech shock troops in power armor moved in, “pacifying” the stragglers with “stun grade” electric batons. One of the shock troopers opened the squad car’s ceiling like a tin can and helped out Cascavel and the two policemen.
“Welcome to Novo Bronx,” the trooper’s voice sounded metallic and alien from outside the exoskeleton.
Someone directed Cascavel to Hotel Galante’s entrance. Once the human ground forces where away from the mob the drones started releasing the “negative stimulant” agent yellow epilepsy gas.
Hotel Galante managed to look decadent even by Novo Bronx’s standards. The broken neon sign flashed “Ho el G la te” and the last “e” was croocked and about to fall. The sewer-like smell indigenous to Megasampa’s flooded streets gained an additional strong musty aroma as soon as you entered the structure. It was an “old school” hotel, meaning it actually had rooms instead of the cheaper sleeping capsules of the human parks. This also meant Hotel Galante was not necessarily sought by people looking just for a place to sleep.
“Where’s lieutenant Chaves?” Cascavel yelled at a policeman as he entered the lobby. He and the two officers that accompanied him where still a bit deaf from the sonic pulses.
“Room 52-C,” answered the man. “Fifth floor”.
The old lift looked like an engineering death trap, so Cascavel took his time with the stairs, resting a bit at every floor. He really got to save enough for new lungs. Or quit those Bolivian funnels one day. Thank god he at least managed to hack his Kraftwerk 2000, or it would be non stop beeping every time he smoked. Cascavel finally got to the fifth floor and he found a woman with a Proctech officer’s armor by the room’s entrance.
She had a digital monocle flooding her right eye with information, an Auto 9 pistol holstered on her belt and a Vorpal sword sheathed on her back. Unlike Cascavel’s, her data processor projected elaborate high-def holograms on her forearm. The detective could only guess what kind of bio and mech augmentations she must had, but she sure looked stout enough to run through the wall. Cascavel noticed that her shooting hand was mechanical, possibly the entire arm, and her left breast had been removed. Lieutenant Cassandra Chaves had the typical predatory look one found in the young and ambitious. For centuries, investigative police work in Brazil mainly involved torturing some random guy so he confessed what needs to be confessed, and all looked good on the report statistics. But Cassandra was a different breed of cop. She actually used scientific method to actually investigate. Even in Megasampa some high profile cases needed, as commissioner Sakurai had put it, to be cracked for real.
“You are the special investigator?” Cassandra’s question was also a statement of disbelief.
“Yes, I am. My name is Cascavel,” answered the detective.
“The commissioner said you where coming,” Cassandra spoke as her eyes raced incredulously over Cascavel’s face and body. She twitched involuntarily as if the mere sight of him was enough to contaminate her with decrepitude. “He didn’t sound too happy, though.”
“We have a love and hate relationship,” said Cascavel. “Emphasis on hate.”
Cassandra didn’t laugh, her cold eyes furiously studying him.
“I don’t like this at all. I am handling these weird cases from the beginning and when I ask for specialized support he sends me… whatever you are.”
Not the best reception, but at least it was honest. Cascavel could respect that.
“Well, I have everything under control right now,” she finally said. “So why don’t you just sit down and rest your old bones?”
“You rest your bones,” answered Cascavel. “But as you do, move aside so I can do the job you where supposed to be doing.”
“Look, grampa, I really don’t have time to deal with you, so, if you want to avoid trouble, why don’t you just leave?”
Cascavel lit up his Bolivian funnel and spoke:
“I am glad you said that, youngblood, so we can have this talk now rather than later and set some things straight right away. I am wearing underwear older than you and have solved more cases left unfinished by hotshots like yourself than you have hair between your legs.”
Cassandra was angry now, Cascavel could taste it.
“So this is not the first weird case you find, and my bet is you have been running in circles uploading to your brain occult archives, medieval demonologie, umbanda practices, shamanic magicks, espiritismo bibliographies, búzios rituals, and you still have no clue about what the fuck you found in there. Sakurai wouldn’t have called me if he really didn’t have to. Am I getting warm?”
“Go on,” Cassandra conceded after a tense pause.
“I could, but it would be digressive. My point is, youngblood, call me ‘grampa’ one more time and I really will leave you to deal with this shit. Now, be a good girl, run along out of the way and let the grown ups work, ok?”
Cassandra sure looked pissed, but she did move out of the way. And Cascavel stepped into the room accompanied by the two officers.
The room had the quality standards Cascavel came to expect from Hotel Galante. The floor had ancient shoe stains, cracks scaled the walls, a semi-broken fan turned slowly like it was bored, a plastic flower vase laid over the sticky table next to the bed. The neon from the building across the window was so close that the place had a perpetual blinking purple and red glow even with the lights out. In the bathroom, Cascavel found mould so developed he wouldn’t be surprised if it soon reached the Renaissance. It would look like a normal shit hole room if it wasn’t for the two butchered bodies lying on the bed.
One of the officers with Cascavel’s blanket, recorder and clay jar threw up. Cascavel grabbed both their ears and kicked them out of the room for befouling his crime scene before proceeding with his analysis.
The male victim was intact save for his head, that was nowhere to be found. Cascavel could see what appeared to be bloodied naked foot prints heading from the door and onto the bed, but they were too small to be from any of the victims. They looked child-sized. There were five synthetic candles in each extremity of the room forming an inverted pentagram.
The girl was naked. Her eyes had no visible iris or pupils, her mouth was open like in a soundless scream. She was aged and milky white, almost translucent, like a jellyfish. Classic dreamtear OD. Damn, could they even call it an overdose if they didn’t know what the hell it was? The press dubbed it dreamtears because of rumors that the mysterious new drug taking the megalopolis by storm looked like a translucent tear, but no one really knew what it was. No police organization could capture a single gram of the thing; it evaporated in thin air if it was not preserved by an unknown process. Autopsies and blood tests were useless, not one anomaly or different chemical reagent was found. It was like the thing itself did not want to be studied. “Specialists” argued in holodrome afternoon talk shows that it could be mass hysteria, of alien origin, macumba or some weird Chinese nanotech. Take you pick.
The girl was not only dreamteared, though. Her throat was slit and her chest wide open with hanging ribs like a chimera in the slaughterhouse. She had no internal organs, like something burst out of her. Cascavel could see the smudged remains of classic magick glyphs all over the walls and her body, but didn’t care for the sloppy calligraphy. Cascavel bent down as much as his arthritis allowed and illuminated under the bed with his Kraftwerk 2000. There was something else inscribed there.
The detective looked at the door and Cassandra was there.
“I’m glad you decided to finally join me, youngblood,” said Cascavel. “Did you identify the bodies?”
“The staff said the headless man was Sandro Pereira, the hotel’s janitor, and DNA confirms. The girl was called Patricia Smith, a local hooker.”
“Upload me their files.”
Cassandra stared at Cascavel’s Kraftwerk 2000.
“Does that thing even have wireless support?”
“No, but pass me a jack plug.”
“Nothing built in the last twenty years has a ‘jack plug’.”
“Project me their files on the wall then.”
After a sigh Cassandra obeyed, pressing holographic buttons on her forearm.
Cascavel didn’t find anything unusual on the man, and thought that that by itself was unusual. The girl was in the city for only six months. The typical clueless American chasing the Brazilian dream, trying not to die of radiation poisoning or starvation on what was left of the Northern Hemisphere only to die of something else here. She was a teacher, Classic English Literature PHD. But hooking has been in higher demand these days.
“The central AI is still analyzing him for poisons or illicit subs…” Cassandra stopped her sentence in the middle as Cascavel took a handful of dark blood and put it on his mouth, gargled it and spit it back.
“No, they were clean, at least physically,” Cascavel said with his teeth dirtied by the blood. “The girl was alive when the innards were taken.”
“And you know this by the… taste of the blood?”
“By smell and color too,” said Cascavel. “Any DNA traces in the room other than the victim’s?”
“Well, the sheet had two soccer teams worth of sperm samples, but it seems to be old. I figure the girl was dreamtearing in the room for a few days. The janitor came to check on her – or steal or rape – and someone surprised him from behind and then got her too,” said Cassandra.
“Nice theory. But what about the bloodied footprints?”
“Misdirection,” said Cassandra. “An attempt to slow the investigation and inflame the locals.”
Cascavel looked again under the bed and called Cassandra.
“Take a look at this.”
There was a strange drawing there full of unintelligible symbols, stranger still than the ones on the girl.
“What is that?” Cassandra asked.
“A poor attempt at a Solomon Seal.”
“And what the hell is a Solomon Seal?”
“A protective barrier against summoned demons, at least when done properly. This one is inverted, like someone was trying to protect the sacrificial victim rather than trapping a spirit within. These goddamn amateurs download medieval daemonology 101 from the aethernet and go nuts trying to conjure themselves a succubus,” Cascavel said. “Most likely the headless janitor here wanted a sex slave.”
“Wait… are you trying to tell me a demon did this?”
“What I am saying is that the janitor probably thought he was conjuring a demon. And in ninety nine out of every hundred of these cases there is nothing supernatural going on. Usually someone gets piss drunk and hallucinates that they saw a ghost. Or it really is someone just faking some paranormal phenomena to throw the investigation off. Just like in Scooby-Doo”.
“What the hell is a ‘scooby-doo’?”
“Never mind,” Cascavel said shaking his head.
“And… in one out of a hundred there really is a killer demon or ghost on the loose?”
Cascavel looked gravely at Cassandra and puffed his Bolivian funnel.
“We’ll cross that bridge if it comes to it,” Cascavel said. He picked his blanket and clay jar and sat on a chair.
“And too bad the janitor’s head is not here,” he said. “I would very much like to interrogate it.”
Cassandra did not get the joke.
“Anyway… the manager is here. If you want to talk to someone alive for a change,” she said.
“It will have to do. Bring him in, youngblood. But first I need ten minutes. And a bucket,” said Cascavel.
“Why do you need a bucket?” asked Cassandra.
Cascavel opened the clay jar, and a pungent stench took over the room.
“So I don’t puke on the floor,” and Cascavel turned the jar bottom up and drank it all.
Cassandra didn’t need her data processor to know that whatever the “specialist” was drinking, it was toxic as hell. But all sorts of warning lights did flare up on her digital monocle’s drug detectors.