Deck was surprised to find that Actio's really was a pizza place. The exterior featured a bright red awning bearing the name, and from the inside came the unmistakable smell of freshly cooked pies. He vaguely remembered the tattoo parlor that had stood at the same address for the last few years, before it faded due to apathy, fraud, or incompetence.
The place had opened recently. Deck could see the faint outline of the former occupant's logo stenciled in the front window. Most of the furnishings looked new, and there was the smell of drywall in the air. He had expected to walk behind a facade and discover a ring of ruthless data pirates. Instead, he found an ordinary restaurant filled with massive pizza ovens, and a tiny cluster of red and white checkered tables.
A stunning redhead seemed to be running the place. She was young, healthy, and much too attractive to be living in the Undercity, much less working here. Her lips were painted with a heavy red lipstick that matched the semi-Italian decor. Occasionally, some minion clad in a white apron and red baseball cap would emerge from the kitchen and converse with her, almost bowing their heads in reverence. She would answer their question and dismiss them quickly, usually without making eye contact. She loved her job.
"There are a lot of places around here where you can go to stare at women. This isn't one of them."
He turned to find himself standing beside a man of massive proportions. Deck decided that if this guy wasn't on steroids, then his DNA had been tweaked at some point. His features suggested an Italian lineage. His hair was a tight, dark crew cut atop an almost completely square face. His chest was a wall of muscle covered in a thinly stretched orange tank top. His adam's apple was at eye height for Deck. His eyes were intense and deeply set. He looked like a bouncer, although it was unclear why a take-out pizza place with only three tables and six chairs would need a bouncer.
Deck opened his mouth to make some excuse but then decided it would be pointless. He closed his mouth and nodded.
The guy continued, "All I'm saying is, that woman behind the counter is not someone you want to be caught starting at."
The bouncer clapped a massive slab of hand down on his shoulder. He left it there for a moment and let Deck get used to the weight. "You made good time getting here. The boss is waiting for you."
Deck was led through the kitchen area to a storage room in the back. A worn, empty desk had been dragged to the center of the room. An open door just behind the desk revealed a stairway leading up. The room was filled with a thin haze of cigarette smoke. A few power and data feeds led down from the ceiling and into the rig sitting on the desk. There was some other hi-tech gear around, none of which Deck recognized. It was safe to bet this was way more computing power than was needed to run a pizza place.
The bouncer took his place beside the empty desk.
A man came down the stairs, lighting a cigarette. He drew in a deep breath through the roll of flaming paper and leaves like it was a breathing tube, until the tip glowed a brilliant red. His head was smoothly shaved and he was bare-chested. He could have been any number of nationalities that featured dark skin. His pants were baggy and covered in pockets.
The man sat and began working at the computer without so much as glancing in his direction. Deck shifted his weight nervously and coughed, as if the guy had somehow simply not noticed him standing three feet away, right in front of the desk.
Once he realized he was being ignored, Deck went from nervous to pissed. He drew the package from his backpack and dropped it onto the desk.
The guy held up a single finger to Deck without looking away from his screen. After a few more moments he nodded in satisfaction at what he saw and turned his attention away from the computer.
"Yes?" The man's voice was deep, his tone casual.
Deck blinked. He would have thought that "delivery" was enough of an explanation of why he was there.
"I have", he repeated, "a delivery."
The man seemed genuinely surprised. He frowned at the package as it were something unsavory. "A delivery? For whom?"
Deck suddenly wondered if this was the right place. Was this the person he was supposed to give it to? The orders didn't say. "Uh, for... Mr. Actio?"
"Are you saying..." the man paused to laugh gently, "that you have a delivery for a Mr. Actio?"
"Well, I don't know..."
"Do you know any Latin?"
Deck balked at the question, "What? No." He thought about the question for a few more seconds just to make sure it was as insane as it really sounded. He might as well have asked Deck if he knew how to ride a horse. "What are you talking about?"
The smile broadened. The bouncer seemed to be wearing one as well. "Well, you see... 'actio' is Latin... for 'delivery'. Furthermore... there is nobody here by that name. This must not be for me." He pushed the package away slightly.
"Well, my instructions were to deliver this to Actio's."
"One does not deliver packages to buildings, but to individuals. To whom are you delivering?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know what?"
Deck began to tire of the roundabout conversation. "I don't know the name of the person I'm supposed to give this to."
The laugh came again. "Are you sure you don't know any Latin?"
"Do I look like I went to school? How many people would live in this hellhole if they had a high-end education?"
There was another spike of deja vu. This one stretched out over an expanse of time, extending the moment into several long minutes of memory-bending confusion. It seemed as though this moment in time had been happening for years, and yet it seemed new to him. A deep, throbbing ache reached from his wrist and followed a direct line to the back of his head.
The man shrugged, "You might be surprised." Somehow the deja vu had not interrupted the conversation in any way.
"Well, I don't know any Latin. I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't know the name of the person I'm delivering to. Do you want this thing or not?" Deck held out a hand, as if to take the package back.
"The reason I ask, you see, is that my name is Nomen Nescio." Both Nomen and the bouncer were grinning now at some inside joke.
"Great. You want this package?"
"And Nomen Nescio is Latin for.. 'I don't know the name'." Having fully incinerated the cigarette, he jammed it into the ashtray with force, as if he was punishing it for reaching its end.
Deck stood there with his hand on the package for a few more seconds, trying to figure out what he might be doing wrong. Why couldn't he get this conversation moving in a more useful direction? All he wanted from this guy was another massive tip and - if he was feeling extra social - a goodbye.
"So this isn't yours? You don't want it?", Deck picked up the package from the desk.
"No, it is not mine, but yes - I am the intended recipient."
"The item in question is technically not mine, but I am the person to whom it is to be delivered."
Deck rolled his eyes, "Couldn't you have just said so?"
"I just did." Nomen held out a hand to recieve the package.
"Fine", Deck handed it over.
Mr. Nescio opened the box and made sure of its contents. When he was satisfied with what he saw he closed the box and dropped it into the nearby trash can with a thud. "Thank you."
Deck couldn't take it anymore, "Ok, I give up. What is it that you are doing? What's with the pizza shop / data pirate thing? What are you guys doing here?"
"I think you should answer that question first. What are you doing here?"
"I'm delivering your package!"
"No, no. I mean why are you here in the Undercity? You don't belong here."
"What does that mean?"
"You know this area better than most. You travel it for a living. You must know that there is a line that divides the Undercity from the rest of the world. You won't find it on any maps. There is no gate, no fence to mark the boundary. You can cross over and the only perceptible change is that the streets are nicer and the buildings are taller."
"I don't think you need to be a courier to notice that."
"So, if this barrier can be so freely crossed, why does it act like the Berlin Wall?"
"Never mind.", he sighed. "The point is, you and I know that this line, this.. invisible boundary may as well be a fifty meter concrete wall. There is no crossing it. Only, instead of physical barrier, it is a social one. No corporate outfit is going to hire someone with an address from within the Undercity. At the same time, there is no way to afford housing outside of the Undercity without working at those same corporate outfits. People can fall into the Undercity, but there is no escape."
Deck shifted his weight nervously while Nomen continued, "People can lose their job, fall out of favor, suddenly find it hard to pay the bills. If the corporate machine doesn't pardon them, they will lose their place and end up here. And once you're here, you're here for good. This can happen to anyone."
Deck couldn't tell if Nomen was going somewhere or if he was just fishing for information. His fists clenched and his face felt hot. Finally he decided he would ask the question, "Is that what this is about? My dad?"
"In a way, yes - this is about your father. More importantly, it is about you."
"What do you want from me?"
"First, I want to know what really happened."
"You seem to be pretty good with data, I'm sure you don't need me for that."
He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, leaving and arc of smoke in the air between them. "I read their version. The corporate version. I read what the police reports said. I've also sorted through enough corporate databanks to spot a load of crap when I see it. Those reports were a complete fabrication, and I want to know your side of the story."
Deck shrugged, "I don't care. I'll tell you what happened, but its all pretty sketchy for me. I was just a kid."
A teenager appeared clad in a white apron, smeared with grease and tomato sauce. He handed a paper cup of soda to Deck and disappeared again. Soda wasn't usually his thing, but his mouth was pasty and dry as if he'd been crying.
Nomen pointed his cigarette at a folding chair leaning against the wall. "Have a seat. I'm afraid that is all I can offer. We've only just moved in and we're still getting settled. One of the first things on my list is office furniture. Not the kind you're thinking of, though. No plasic furniture in my office. Only the good stuff. Oak. Antique. We're also moving the office upstairs, once we get the place cleaned out."
Deck unfolded the stiff, bent metal chair and sat. It was slippery and sagged in a way that suggested its maximum weight capacity had been exceeded many times. Deck took a large gulp from the soda and began, "You probably already figured out that my dad was working for Skyward Technologies. He did some kind of R & D for them."
"According to what I've seen, he was in charge of evaluating new drugs. He didn't really do the research so much as look at what was being done, how much it cost, and decide what new products were the most likely money makers."
Deck shrugged, "Whatever. I was only five at the time, so it was all gibberish to me. Anyway, he found evidence that the company had been testing its drugs on the Undercity population."
Nomen leaned forward and exhaled a cloud of smoke that drifted across the desk like a weather system. "Right. I know that he claimed that. My question is: how?"
"How did he find out?"
"No. How were they doing it? How were they exposing people to the drug? They could never get away with putting it in the water or the air."
It was strange to have someone accept the story at face value. Even trusted friends had been skeptical, and for the most part everyone else took the company's side. "That wasn't it at all. They didn't want to just release it to everyone, or else they couldn't track the data. Instead, they manufactured some designer drugs - narcotics or hallucinogens that were popular with teens - and mixed it with their new drug. Then they turned them into pills or whatever and released them in batches to be sold in the Undercity."
Nomen smiled. "Pretty creative - for corp drones. What happened?"
"Well, they knew that the drug had some negative side-effect that would only affect a very small number of people. It was designed to control diabetes or asthma or something else like that, but the drug itself would just destroy one in so many people, turning them into vegetables or corpses. The company wanted to know what that number was: how many people in a thousand would have this adverse effect. I don't know why."
"The short answer would be: To save money. They did a trial run on humans and two died. The company needed to know why those people died. What made them special? The fastest, cheapest way to find this out was to give the drug to a large number of people and see who it kills. Once you have a large enough sample group, you can look for common traits."
"That was cheaper than just using mice?"
Nomen looked up at the ceiling as he spoke, "It did not affect mice, or monkeys. The 'adverse effect' - as they called it - probably only occurred in humans. So they released the drug, and then tracked the number of emergency room visits as they related to certain drugs. The deaths would be blamed on the narcotic that the addict knew he was taking, and not the medicine it contained."
"How do you know all that?"
Nomen shrugged, "I don't. I'm just making an educated guess based on what you've just told me and what I've read." He paused for another long draw from his cigarette. "So, your father went whistleblower on them..."
"Yeah, I don't have a real good picture of how it went. Its all kind of a blur now. Hell, it was a blur then. When I look back it seemed like it went on for years, but really the controversy only lasted a few months before he died."
"Tell me about that."
"He just... he provided evidence that the company had been manufacturing illegal drugs mixed with their experimental drugs. He somehow got his hands on evidence or whatever and showed it to the police."
"Well, technically, he didn't go to the police. He provided the data to a review board that is, in theory, supposed to investigate and expose that sort of behavior. If he had shown it to the police they wouldn't have even understood the crime, much less be able to evaluate the evidence."
"Whatever. He showed somebody. We started getting nasty phone calls. Mom and Dad wouldn't let me answer the phone anymore. The company claimed Dad had been making the drugs - all by himself I guess - without anyone noticing, and had been selling them. The bank informed us that our accounts were being frozen. They locked down all our cash, including an account none of us had ever seen before. It was in Dad's name, on some supposedly anonymous Global Net bank outfit. They claimed the money was ours, and that Dad had made it selling drugs he made in the company labs. There were people coming over all the time, asking Dad the same questions over and over. Mom was always either yelling at him or crying on him. When it was discovered that some street drugs did in fact contain experimental drugs from Skyward, they simply claimed that Dad's drugs had gotten contaminated because he was using their equipment. It was just more proof that he was manufacturing drugs at work."
"And a few weeks later he was found dead in his car of an apparent overdose, with a large quantity of sellable narcotics on the seat beside him."
"Yeah. Seems like a lot more than a few weeks but I guess it was." Deck had no idea why he was sitting in the back of a pizza shop talking about his childhood with some data pirate. It just felt good to have someone listen to the whole story for once. "Mom lost her job at the company where she was working, claiming her performance was unacceptable. Then Skyward managed to deny paying us any of Dad's pension, and in fact sued us for his 'damage' to the corporation. The life insurance company got out of paying, since drug overdose was considered under their plan to be suicide - and they don't pay if you suicide. Whatever we had saved had been frozen by the police. A few months after he died we were living here."
"Which is why you are here with me now."
"What? Because of what happened to my dad?"
"Because you do not belong here. You've heard the saying, 'in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king'? Well, this is the land of the blind. Most people are here because they are defective. They may be too violent. Lacking in intelligence. A slave to some drug. Hiding from a criminal past. In the end, it doesn't matter. There is something wrong with them that prevents them from rising above their settings. You are different. You did not start down here - you were pushed. Better yet, you were flung down here, and are in many ways still held here by the corporate machinery your father betrayed. If your father had kept his mouth shut, you would be right there with him, offering all of your intelligence and creativity to the greater good of the company. You, my friend, are better than the one-eyed man. Up there, you would be another drone, but here you can be king."
"A king like you?"
Deck looked around the tired old storage area. "Is this your throne room then?"
Nescio chuckled, "Not kings in the sense of material wealth - although there is money to be made - but kings in the sense of freedom. Up there, you do what the corporation tells you to do. Here, you do what you need to do to survive. Even the wealthy clan leaders are slaves. If they stop fighting their rivals and protecting their territory, their wealth will evaporate. But not us. We have the freedom to do what we want."
"This is what you want?"
"Sure. My wife says she's always wanted to own a pizza place. So, we get a pizza place. I want to run my affairs as I see fit, and I do. I don't live in a fancy house, and I don't work in a pretty new building, but I am exactly where I want to be doing what I want to do."
"And what is that?"
The smile appeared again. "I gave you a peek at it this week. Tell me what you've seen."
"Well, you bought some communications gear that looked just like the stuff on the Iris International building. You had it picked up and delivered to several places. One probably reprogrammed the unit for you, another made the counterfeit Iris logo sticker. I don't know what all the other places did. In the end, you moved the unit all over the place by courier so that it would be impossible to link it to you, should the thing ever be discovered."
Deck had been watching Nomen's face carefully, trying to judge how close his guesses were to the truth. Nescio never changed his expression, but kept his eyes fixed on Deck. He decided this was a good thing, so he kept going, "You programmed the unit to look like it was beaming an entertainment feed over to some hotel, but it was really eavesdropping on the corp datafeed, gathering up data, and sending it here in bursts."
The was a long silence. The only motion in the room was the slow shifting of smoke as it reacted to otherwise imperceptible movements of air. The only sound was the muffled murmur of activity that came from the kitchen.
"I still have no idea why the delivery times were so tight.", Deck smiled, trying to get the conversation moving again. Nomen remained motionless and the silence returned.
Nomen took a few long pulls from his cigarette to finish it and then jammed it into the ashtray just like its predecessor. He leaned back in his chair and watched the moving clouds of smoke as they followed the slow currents of air throughout the room. Finally he broke the silence, "I was testing you. Seeing what you were made of. All of this has been a test in one way or another. A test which you have just passed. And now, I offer you a job."
"A job? Doing what?"
"Whatever you want."
"So you'll pay me to sit around all day and do nothing?"
"If that is really what you want to do? Then... no. But I believe what you really want is the same thing that I want."
"What is that?"
"To even the score with the system that screwed you, and to make money doing so."
Deck hadn't even heard the job description yet, but it had to be better than ferrying packages around on a bike all day for next to nothing. "What do I have to do?"
"The corporate world is not a single entity. Instead, corporations are like separate countries... some are allied with each other, others are at war. For the most part the casualties are people like you, your father, and the idiots that took those pills made by Skyward. People. Animals. Culture. The environment. These things are simply fuel to be burned, and mean nothing to corporations. In effect, these corporations fight to destroy one another, but instead destroy everything around them but themselves. It is a war in which the only casualties are collateral damage. We may hate the system, or we can profit from it."
"I am a mercenary. Corporations give me money, asking for my help in destroying other corporations. I help, and I take the money. I'm very good at my job, as you will be."
Deck didn't need to think it over very long, "Sign me up."
"Excellent.", Nomen nodded towards the bouncer, "The healthy looking gentleman on my right is Marshal."
The name Marshal struck a chord with Deck. Suddenly his face seemed familiar, like an old friend.
Marshal extended his hand, "Welcome to the team."
Deck offered his hand and it was engulfed in the massive grip, "Thanks, I'm Deckard Stephens."
He froze, mid-handshake, as the moment drew itself out over a massive expanse of time. The two of them stood motionless, dreamlike, for hours, then weeks, then months, then years, hanging in a state of perpetual deja vu. Deck could feel a deep pain radiating from the palm of his hand, following a white-hot line of agony to the base of his skull. It was if someone had injected magma into his bloodstream. The handshake seemed to extend onward into infinity. It was a never-ending moment perfectly preserved over countless millennia.