The compound-guard’s eyes changed colour as Li crossed the short bridge to the thick, mechanised gate, suffocating street traffic left behind all of a sudden. Few had reason to turn onto the anachronistic wooden walkway, and the guard in front of the solid, maroon door was all it took to dissuade the curious. His was a semi-sophisticated rig-job. If the Triad could afford tank-grown, it wasn’t letting anyone know. The guard’s body was ridged with semi-flexible bio-alloys, face concealed by a helm which delivered vital readouts and communiqués directly to his sensory nerves. The sapphire blue LEDs which dotted the faceplate switched to cautious amber as Li approached. His grip didn’t noticeable tighten around the rifle in his hands; it didn’t have to. Though primarily connected to the guard’s spine, lacking the full-body nerve bond that would have come as standard with a tank-job, the armour still acted as an exoskeleton, propelling the user’s strength and reflexes far beyond their organic base. If the genius-loci of the Bearded Tigers chose to reject this pilgrim, the last thing Li would see in this life would be an impossibly fast snap of movement, accompanied by the faceplate lights taking their final, terminal plunge to crimson.
Li considered tg=his as he made his way across the wooden bridge, making no effort to appear overtly diplomatic. He fought the urge to hold his palms out at his sides. The guard had doubtless detected the circuitry of his Mazzaram sidearm immediately, the Neo-Persian weapon considered the gun of choice for diplomats and ambassadors; the weapon was designed to announce itself to security systems loudly, in code that some mechanists described as ‘courteous’, or ‘civil’. Li suspected it only took the guard a quick sweep of his heat signature to notice the .38 snub too, a black slab of cold iron against the warmth of his ankle. Such crude, Pre-Nano throwbacks were often useful against those who placed too much faith in high-tech security. Some Canadian police departments no longer even bothered training officers in old-fashioned ballistics. Li’s intentions in carrying this weapon here weren’t malevolent; only a fool would think they could conceal or smuggle something here. But such precautions gave off the right message: he was capable.
When he was about three feet away from the sentry, Li stopped and stood, almost feeling the countless scanners and view-feeds caress him.
“I seek an audience with the Bearded Tigers,” he announced clearly to both the guard and the security team watching him.
“I have not been invited, yet I have information regarding Luo Zhun which I do not wish to share in an unsecure manner.”
Li waited, counting an unblinking twelve seconds, before the faceplate in front of him switched back to blue and the gate slowly, loudly slid open. The wooden boards he stood on were fat with rain, and Li knew there was a plethora of explosives and EMP emitters hidden beneath to stop any force the guard found beyond him. The Bearded Tigers’ territory was bordered on all sides by canal. With the flip of a switch, they could turn their piece of Hong Kong into a fortress. The gate finally open, the guard stepped aside to allow Li entry, and Li stepped forth over the threshold. He didn’t turn as the door slid shut. Ho didn’t need to to know that the guard was no longer watching him, Li knew his life now lay at the whim of any of a dozen snipers concealed in the higher apartment windows. His every breath now was a gift from the Triad. He set off straight ahead, moving away from the canal and into the heart of the district. There was more litter here, yet it felt cleaner. The Triads had long maintained a policy of exclusion in regard to foreign megacorps and zaibatsus, and as such the scant neon on display was all local. The lack of multinational indicators gave the place a sense of ‘authenticity’, mostly absent from such urban spaces and colonies.
The long path, walled in by housing tenements that stretched up into the cosmetic night sky’s orange haze came into a large central plaza, circular and dominated by a massive statue of Guan Yu, venerated in the Pre-Nano age as a god of war by some, loyalty by others. Li suspected that Guan Yu’s legendarily prominent beard was the true reason this particular Triad had adopted the long-dead god as their patron saint. At the foot of the statue, standing waist-high next to it was a woman Li recognised. It was intimidating, to be greeted by a face which stated out from countless wanted posters in the sprawl of south-east Asia.
“You know me.” She called to him across the eerily empty plaza as he approached. It didn’t sound like a question.
“You are Xing Guozhang,” Li responded, stopping halfway into the plaza. Might as well give the marksmen plenty of room to work with, he thought.
“Rising star of the Bearded Tigers,” Li continued. “It is said you’ll likely make Red Pole within the month.” Xing was covered from neck to toe with thick, grey traditional robes. Li quietly hoped she wouldn’t ask him to come closer. With all the obvious hidden security, the robe was a disarmingly defenceless article to wear. Li wasn’t fooled; by appearing relaxed in this place of her utmost safety, few would immediately suspect the arsenal of hidden guns and augmentations doubtless beneath the thick folds. Li was familiar enough with the Triads to know that someone like Xing didn’t rise the ascend the ladder this high by lowering her defences around ambitious allies.