Last week, I mentioned that I would be publishing 3 webserials this month to gather reader feedback and decide my next series. This is the first chapter of the second story, A Quiet Night in Wai Yuen.
Set in the universe of Illusion City, the story takes place in the floating arcology of Singyeung, drifting not-so-peacefully along the Equator, somewhere in Southeast Asia. In an age where cultivation and technology collide, a brave new world of magic and cybernetics is upon us. It is the story of Mark Woo, a bottom-tier cultivator with a singularly unique power, and his adventures as a private policy officer in a city fraught with fault lines.
A Quiet Night in Wai Yuen has Mark and his partner, Jackie Lee, patrolling the neighbourhood of Wai Yuen at night. A quiet night, until the shooting starts.
Neon forests blazed bright against the night sky. Light and sound poured from rows of narrow shophouses, a dazzling, disorienting mix of high-energy tunes in hopeless asynchrony with blinking signboards and flashing holograms. Hawkers crammed the five-foot ways, hectoring passers-by with special offers and discounts. The scent of sizzling meats and fried pastries wafted from food carts, their owners careful to display their hygiene certifications in plain view. Ground cars trundled along the congested roads, their electric engines totally silent. Loud whirs announced the presence of airborne drones and sky cars, racing for the illuminated high-rises beyond the borders of the district.
A quiet night, for Wa Yuen.
Flowing through the crowds, I allowed the energy of the neighbourhood to pass into and through me, feeling the pulse of the area. Popular with tourists and locals alike, this was where people went to experience the real Singyeung, where the real people lived and worked and played, far from the shadows of the arcology spires and their high-ses inhabitants.
For the working crowd, Wa Yuen was a garden of earthly delights. Cheap eats, cheap deals, cheap everything. In the unmarked shophouses and the back alleys, in the dead zones where the near-omnipresent cameras couldn’t yet see, a man could find dark pleasures illicit yet tolerated—for now.
Where humans go, desires follow. Where desires concentrate, wrongdoing emerges. It was the way of the universe. A man’s Sing Score was no match for his sin score, and Singyeung was one of the last places in the city where the hawkers and shopkeepers didn’t look too hard at a customer’s Scorecard.
The government allowed it, of course. Better to give the low-scorers and the low-sessers somewhere they could go to vent their energies than to risk them running amok in the places where the high-scorers lived. Naturally, that meant secret societies and professional thugs flocked to Wa Yuen.
Now and then the police make a big show about public safety. Uniformed cops show their faces in the five-foot ways, always in groups of four or more. Hung Syun from the Special Operations Command rolled heavy down the roads, their distinctive red-and-black colorations commanding respect from drivers. The Criminal Investigation Department conducts regular raids and spot-checks. But everyone knows how things really work.
The jianghu polices its own.
Three paces behind me, Jackie Lee strutted down the sidewalk. Lean and mean, he was a wolf in man’s clothing, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. His qi field burned hot and heavy, a burning beacon in a sea of fog. Every inch of him radiated animal aggression barely kept in check. Everyone gave him a wide berth.
Me? Barely anyone noticed me.
I was the point man, he was the muscle, a division of labour we had grown accustomed to over the past half-year. Early on, our roles were reversed, as he showed me the ins and outs of Wa Yuen. But now, when I was just one night away from completing my probationary period, we had reverted to the roles that suited us best.
Nature could not be denied.
Hawkers and shopkeepers called out to us as we passed. Those who were busy, we simply returned their greetings and went on our way. Those who were not, we stopped to chat for a bit, to better understand the ebb and flow of the neighbourhood. They had paid a pretty sum to guarantee two private police officers on the streets at all times. Not just any private PPOs either, but martial cultivators. When Jackie and I were on duty, we would give them their money’s worth.
It was the right thing to do.
“Mark-gor!” a voice cried out.
At the end of the five-foot way, a tiny food cart sold satay. Skewers of chicken, mutton and fishballs rested on the smoking grill, releasing delicious scents. The owner, a tiny Malay woman in a colourful dress and tudung, waved at me.
“Makcik Halimah!” I replied. “How are you doing?”
“Good, good.” Tiptoeing, she turned to Jackie. “Jackie, you’re here too! Every time I see you, you grow taller!”
Jackie laughed. He was well past puberty, but Halimah always made light of her stature.
“How’s business?” Jackie asked.
“Okay, lah.” She looked both ways down the street, then leaned in. “Are you busy now?”
Her dark eyes were wide open, stress lines popped across her face, her hands clenched into fists.
She was afraid.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She thumbed over her shoulder.
“Ten minutes ago, I saw some gangster types walk into the park. I dunno what they’re doing there. Can you check it out?”
The park was right across the road. Though popular in the day with local families, this late at night the deep shadows and rare cameras offered many opportunities for street animals and predators.
“How many of them were there?” I asked.
“Four, five, I think. They drove up in a red car and walked into the park. Strange, isn’t it?”
“Sounds like they had something to do here,” Jackie said.
“Yah, yah. Very strange, right? So late already, there’s nothing happening at the park,” Halimah said.
“Can you describe them? What were they wearing?” I asked.
Shouts drifted across the road, almost lost in the din.
Jackie cocked his head. “Heard that?”
I nodded. “That’s from the park.”
A tiger roared.
White light seared across my sight. A wave of heavy qi, raw and savage, washed over me, buffeting the outer edges of my aura.
“What’s going on?” Halimah asked.
“Trouble,” I replied.
Someone had just cast magic. The kind that rends the veil between realms and pulls otherworldly beings into this one. A summoner. More than that, a heavy hitter. Someone with the capacity to unleash the kind of power that can be felt from a block away.
As I gathered my thoughts, a man screamed, his voice piercing the night, fading into a liquid gurgle.
“Come on! We gotta go!” Jackie shouted.
A loud bang echoed.
Two, three, four more followed, a rapid string of unmistakable explosions.
Guns were rare in Singyeung. Out on the street, only three kinds of people held guns: cops, corpo cops, and well-connected gangsters.
I ducked, hands covering my head, qi rushing from my dantian to reinforce my defences. Civilians around me froze. Others turned to the sound. A couple walked on, totally oblivious. Halimah gaped.
“Get inside and stay down!” I yelled.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
I grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her in the direction of the nearest shop.
“Shots fired! Take cover now!”
The spell broke. People screamed. Others ran. Jackie ran too—towards the shooting.
I followed him, sparing a moment to look both ways before crossing the road. The traffic had paused for a moment, long enough for us to weave our way between the cars and vans. As my boot hit the pavement on the other side, I scanned the world.
Streetlights lined the outer perimeter of the park. Lonely pavilions and lines of light poles showed the way in the dark. Outside the pools of illumination, I saw nothing.
The white light was gone. The qi wave was gone. The gunman cracked off another string, faster and more desperate than before.
Jackie pointed to the left.
“There! That’s the red car!”
Past the street corner, a red SUV sat right in front of the entrance to the park. As we approached, Jackie drew a flashlight from his pocket and lit up the interior. Empty.
With at least one gun in play, and quite likely magic, we were exposed. We had tricks of our own, of course, but a gun was a superpower all by itself. The engine block of the SUV offered the closest piece of hard cover. Ducking low, we headed for the car.
Footsteps pounded against pavement. Someone panted loudly. A qi field closed in from the direction of the entrance, large and diffused. Three, four people bunched closely together.
At the last second, I veered right, rushing for the welcome sign. The thin wood wouldn’t stop a bullet, but maybe it could conceal me. I pressed myself up against it and quieted my breath.
Three men rushed past me, completely ignoring me, making a beeline for the red car. All three of them alerted on Jackie.
“Oi! What the fuck are you doing?” the man in the middle yelled.
Jackie rose to his feet, squaring off against the speaker.
“I heard gunshots. What’s going on?”
“None of your business!”
The men fanned out. The leader, dressed in dark clothing bladed off against Jackie, hiding his right hand. From where I was, I couldn’t see what he held either. But I could read their qi.
The leader and the wingman on his right were mortals. Their thin auras were faint and ragged, betraying a rough life with little self-care. The one on the left was a cultivator. His aura was a thin red field, dark and sticky, shot through with faint lines. A Tier Five, only slightly more powerful than a regular human.
Nowhere near powerful enough to have caused the spike I’d felt.
Stepping away from the leader, the cultivator glanced over his shoulder, a quick witness check, and keyed on me.
“What the fuck?” he exclaimed.
“Hap haak!” I declared. “Identify yourself!”
In Cantonese, the term meant ‘follower of the Xia’. In Singyeung slang, it meant—
“Martial cultivator! Fuck!”
The cultivator swivelled around, turning to face me completely. His boss looked over his shoulder at me, then at Jackie. Breathing deep, I gathered my qi in my dantian, keeping my hands in sight.
“We’re private police. Tell us what’s going on,” Jackie said.
“Corpo cops!” the boss yelled.
Stepping back, he swung up his right arm at Jackie, revealing—
“GUN!” I yelled.
His qi surged, pouring out of his dantian, flooding the bracelet he wore on his right wrist. The device transformed the qi, manifesting it as coruscating streams of fierce yellow light. Eyes blazing, his bared teeth gnashed in a ghastly grimace, his muscles bulged, his fingers formed hardened into claws of steel.
He called this technique Wrath of the Asura: the technique that turned a Tier Three cultivator into a god of war.
The leader recoiled, stunned by the force and the fury of his battle cry, his arm frozen in mid-air for a single, fatal moment.
Bursting towards his centreline, Jackie was a burning thunderbolt. He slapped the gun hand away, first with his right hand, then his left. He clicked on the flashlight in his right hand, blinding the threat, then whipped around to smash the strike bezel into the leader’s jaw. He followed through, continuing his spin, slamming his left elbow into the same spot he struck. Left arm crossed over his chest, Jackie seized the leader’s left shoulder with fingers like eagle claws, rammed the flashlight into his crotch, and drove the leader towards the wingman on his right.
Which left me to deal with the other threat.
Rushing in, I discharged my own qi, infusing it with my intent and driving it to my own bracelet. Rivers of liquid lightning swirled across limbs, soft on the outside, hard on the inside, glowing in cool blues. The steel mala wrapped around my left wrist crackled.
I do not name my magic. It is enough that it works.
“Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck—”
Backing up, he raised his fists. His qi flared, covering his arms in swirling red clouds. Basic body hardening magic. Not bad, just irrelevant.
Leading with my left side, my arms formed a spearhead of bone. My hands shot towards his face. He covered up with his forearms, then cocked his right hand for a haymaker. I sank low and drilled my left fist into his solar plexus.
My qi blasted deep into him, shocking flesh, nerves, his own qi. He doubled over, gagging and coughing. I sidestepped and corkscrewed my right fist into his exposed liver.
He dropped on his ass and fell to the side, clearly out of the fight.
I looked back at Jackie, just in time to see him toss the leader at the wingman. Slipping aside, the wingman raised his hands to defend himself. Jackie seized his wrist with both hands and pulled him down into a groin kick. As the gangster bent over, Jackie clapped his ears with both hands. The stunned gangster quivered as the shockwave of energy, kinetic and ethereal, rolled through him. Jackie held on tight and cranked him down through a spiral, bringing him to the ground.
Glancing around me, I scanned the area.
“All threats down!” I called.
Jackie stepped back, fists clenched, then threw his head back and roared his victory at the heavens. Hot yang qi roiled off him, washing around me, slowly dissipating into the universe. The golden glow faded, leaving behind a regular man.
I drew my own qi into myself, returning it into my dantian. Breathing slowly and deeply, I cycled it through my meridians, returning the excess to the cosmos.
“What the hell was that all about?” Jackie asked.
The only response was a soft groan.
The cultivator I’d put down was curled up in the fetal position, clutching his injured flank. The other two thugs were concussed beyond unconsciousness.
“Securing suspect. Cover me,” I said.
I rolled the cultivator over on his belly and pinned my knee against the base of his spine. Jackie seized his left wrist, removed his transformation bracelet, and gave me the cultivator’s hand. I grabbed his other wrist, then brought both hands to the small of his back and kneed on them. I fished a pair of handcuffs from my belt pouch and cuffed him.
The cultivator didn’t have the strength to resist. The best he could do was wiggle about and moan some more.
Frisking him, I found a wallet, a bunch of keys, and a phone. No weapon. The other wingman was similarly unarmed. The leader’s handgun was a Type 192, cheap enough that it could be found everywhere on the black market, deadly enough that a self-respecting martial cultivator had to treat it with respect.
I sat the cultivator upright, supporting him against the wheel well of the car. He coughed, trying to summon the strength to speak. I produced my own phone from my pocket and touched the scroll button. The device unrolled on silent hinges, expanding to the size of a miniature tablet. I aimed the cameras at his face and took a picture.
With a flash and a click, the device captured his visage. I uploaded the photo into my facial recognition app. Connected to police and government databases, it was one of the minor perks that came with being a private police officer. Inside ten seconds, I was looking at the subject’s Scorecard.
Every Citizen and every Resident of Singyeung had one. It was a digital record of his life history, permanently stored on the government blockchain. It was a combination of national identity card, medical history, academic qualifications, and, most importantly, criminal record.
The first section of his Scorecard revealed his personal information. File photo, name, age, address, sex, blood type, Sing Score. I read it slowly, absorbing the information, preparing my approach.
“Murali Chawla,” I said out loud. “Is that you?”
Murali winced. “Who wants to know?”
Kneeling, I brought myself level with him, then brought out my badge case.
“My partner and I are Private Police Officers,” I said. “We heard gunshots and rushed over. Then you and your friends attacked me. You want to tell us what’s going on?”
Murali spat a curse in Hindi. I shook my head.
“When on duty, we hold the same powers as a regular cop. We can charge you with criminal offences. You want that?”
Another curse, this time in English.
“Using criminal force on a public servant, possession of a deadly weapon, criminal use of cultivation powers… You want me to go on?” I said.
He glared at me and sucked his teeth.
Ignoring him, I glanced at his Scorecard.
“You have an extensive criminal record too. Gang robbery, involvement in a secret society, possession of weapons… Even though you served in the SDF, you lost your citizenship. Now your Sing Score is just 138 points. You’re in a bad way.”
Everyone started with 500 points. As he committed infractions, major or minor, his score dropped, sometimes hundreds of points at once. Anyone who scored below 100 was deemed a threat to society—and permanently removed from the streets.
“Between this fight and your Sing Score, if you’re charged again with a major criminal offence, you are going to jail for life.”
He snorted. “Not your problem.”
I scrolled down, looking at his family information.
“Your mother is sixty-nine,” I said slowly. “If you go to jail again, who’s going to look after her?”
Murali shot up. I slammed my palm into his chest, using just enough force to hold him back. Then I gripped his collar and pushed him back against the wheel.
“Do you want to see your mother again?”
“You fucking piece of shit!”
“Do you want. To see. Your mother. Again?”
Baring his teeth, he glared at me. His silence was all the answer I needed.
“You have one shot to make this right,” I continued. “You can see her again, but only if you cooperate. Tell us what happened.”
“We never started anything!” Murali blurted. “They attacked us first!”
I raised my eyebrow.
Chinese for ‘18’, it was the name of a secret society that operated in the region.
“Which number do you play?” I asked.
His eyes flicked to my screen. “You can read it on your phone, right?”
“You’re all part of 108?”
I took care to pronounce the numbers individually: one-zero-eight.
“Yeah,” he admitted.
A single number separated the names of the rival gangs. They thought it enough cause to wage a state of permanent low-level war all over Singyeung.
“What are you doing here?”
“One of their headmen called us here. He said he wanted to settle with us.”
“What did they want to settle?”
“Turf. They say that they own 9th Street. But we own it.”
“They wanted to fight you for it.”
“Ya. They didn’t even bother to talk. Once we all gathered at the park, their headman summoned a spirit to attack us.”
“What kind of spirit?”
“A white tiger. Big. Fierce. Like the kind you see in the zoo.”
“How did he summon it?”
“Dunno. Think he held up some kind of pendant. The tiger jumped out of it.”
“What did the tiger do?”
“It… It jumped on Johnny. Then it… it… it bit his throat. Took his head off.”
My blood chilled. A spirit that powerful could only be summoned by an even more powerful summoner. Or someone who had bought a spirit talisman from such a summoner.
“What did you do next?” I asked.
“We ran. What else could we do?”
“What about the gunshots?”
Murali looked at his unconscious buddy.
“That was Tom. I didn’t know about the gun, okay? Not until he pulled it out. While we were running away, he was laying covering fire for us.”
“You were defending yourselves.”
Murali nodded vigorously. “Yeah, yeah! That’s right! It was self-defense!”
The penalty for illegally possessing a firearm was ten years in prison and ten strokes of the neural scourge. Using a firearm in the commission of a crime guaranteed a life sentence—and twenty strokes of the scourge. Shooting someone was a one-way trip to death row. Anyone who consorts with someone who he knows was unlawfully carrying a weapon will receive the same sentence as the offender. Murali was probably hoping that this excuse would get them off the hook. Or at least himself.
But the law was as cold and uncompromising as the algorithms that govern Singyeung.
“Did Tom hit any of them?” I asked.
“Dunno. Too dark. Didn’t see.”
“How many Shiba members were there?”
“Can you describe them?”
Murali shook his head. “Too dark. Look, I don’t know any of them, okay? Never see them before. Headman says I come, I come. That’s all.”
“And your headman asked your buddies to come too.”
“Where did the Shiba members go?”
Murali cocked his head vaguely to the left.
“Around there. After we ran, they ran away too. Never saw what happened next.”
“You ran back to the entrance of the park. Is that right?”
“Yes. Then we ran into you.”
“Why did you attack us?”
Murali shrugged. “I don’t know… I thought you were here to catch us. I thought you were part of Shiba too.”
“A misunderstanding. Jesus Christ,” Jackie remarked.
Murali hung his head.
Fighting was bad enough. But fighting because they thought we were there to stop them? Insane.
Rotors whirred in the hot, muggy night. A chorus of police sirens filled the streets. Red and blue lights flashed in the skies above.
“At last,” Jackie muttered.
“Better late than never,” I agreed, then turned back to Murali. “You’ve been very cooperative so far. Thank you. Do you feel ready to help us some more?”
“But I help you already!”
“When the police come, they’re going to take you away. If you prove to them that you were cooperative, maybe they won’t reduce your Sing Score too much. Maybe they’ll even let you see your mother.”
“What do you want to know?”
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