A Cold Day

As the final iteration of Avani Grey sinks into the darkness, I can’t help wondering if she will be the last of us to die. 

The water claims her, drawing her printed body down to drift like a sleeping fetus in the womb from which she was never born. I wonder whether she knows that she is the last of her kin, if her soul can somehow sense the final severing of itself from this duplicated and version controlled replica of herself, or if the lights of mortality simply flicker, fade, and blink off like a dying lamp. Maybe it’s just an inversion of her unnatural birth: One instant she exists. The next she’s switched off. 

Shut down. 

Gone, like she never existed. 

Like the rest of us were to begin with, but may never be again. 

I trudge back along the dock towards the shore. The snow continues to fall in irregular curtains, whipped about by the cold wind which gusts down from the North across the broad grey expanse of the lake. A mountain of heavy clouds loom there, threatening to bury the blood and wreckage of the last few days beneath a purifying blanket.  

Above, one of Javier’s drones skitters past, pursued by a brown hawk, which seems to have taken it for a peculiarly large starling. I pause to watch their dance until, in a moment of blighted triumph, the hawk catches the drone in its talons. Blood and feathers burst in the air like a red and brown firework as the drone’s propellers cut a gash in the hawk’s chest and neck, the pair of them tumbling to the earth in a tangle of torn flesh and shattered gadgetry. 

My eyes fall on the water lapping at the dock and my daemon whispers that it is not too late to turn around and stride out to the far end, then to drop into the water, to swim north-west through the cold mountain lake until I can swim no more, then to surrender to the cold embrace of the water. There, somewhere in the midst of a welcoming doom, I could watch in icy detachment as the sky slipped further away above me and faded into the blessed darkness that I’ve craved for so long. 

The sound of applause rings out, shattering my reverie.

And there she is, again: Avani Grey.

She’s dressed in the same flowing orange evening gown as all the other variations I’ve killed today. She walks across the lawn towards me, tracing the path of her dead twin’s footprints in the snow, not even sparing a glance for the heap of mingled flesh and circuitry surrounded by a growing pool of red where it crashed to the earth.

“You’ve done well, Talbot. Better than I had even hoped.”

“Who the fuck are you?” I breathe, too weary to raise my voice.

“I think you know the answer to that.”

Three more slow, painful steps bring me back to land. Despite what my daemon tells me, today is not the day for that long, final swim. I face Avani, waiting in silence for her to speak again. Standing here, unseasonable snow settling upon my eyelashes as its purity cools the white heat of my fury, I find a sort of peace in the resignation. 

I release my fear and any pretense at wisdom I might possess. 

I surrender to the emptiness and inaction, finally allowing myself to be carried along by the flow of life around me, rather than trying to force myself into action. It’s a peculiar feeling, this lack of feeling. A suicide of sorts, but of my ego, rather than my body. I don’t want to take action, whether to kill myself, or defend someone, or force myself to keep on living. 

I simply want to wait until whatever may come will come.

“Do you know who I am?” Avani calls, her orange dress and black hair streaming away from her in a sudden gust of wind. Like me, she stands utterly still, seemingly unaffected by the chill or the passage of time.

“I’ve got an idea,” I reply, after a long while.

“You must have questions.”

“Not really… Iris.”

She applauds again, her voice rising up in crystalline laughter as the snap of flesh on flesh cracks the air. “Well done, Talbot. How did you know?”

“You’re still alive. The only reason for Iris to lie about how many there were was if she wanted me to stop killing with one of you still breathing.”

I start walking up the lawn, leaving Avani, Iris, or whoever she really is standing in the snow behind me as I trudge towards the cruiser parked behind the house. Breathing deeply, I taste the underlying fishy scent of the lake, the decaying wood in the forest, and the fresh cut grass beneath the lingering stench of spilled blood. The daemon reaches a talon into my mind, trying to stir up my old fears, but I push it back, breathe in the crisp air, and continue to walk quietly across the lawn. 

“You’re not finished yet,” she calls after me. 

“You don’t get to decide that.”

She catches up easily, tripping over the shimmering grass in her orange dress like a dancer swaying across the stage. She stops in front of me and produces a small pistol from beneath the many layered curtains of her dress. She points the gun at my chest. Her lips twitch, then settle into a sort of sad smile.

“Maybe I need to tie up loose ends.”

I keep walking. The desire for death has left me, but I’m not afraid of it. I shoulder past her and continue towards the cruiser. She doesn’t fire the gun. 

“I’m still here, Talbot,” she calls after me. “The job isn’t finished.”

“It doesn’t matter. None of this does. For all I know every one of those god damn YuriCo executives could be backed up in a server farm somewhere. That’s what your technology has done. It’s removed the finality of death.”

“That’s what I wanted. After the plague—” 

“You know that’s not true[ Go back to their discussion. She thinks the plague devalued humanity. Talbot thinks we never valued one another to begin with. ]. We’ve had this argument before, Iris.”

“Not… not exactly. Not us.” Her voice almost cracks. 

I turn to see her standing a stride away, gun still pointed directly at me. I look past the barrel and watch those deep green eyes quiver. It could be an act, micro expressions playing on my emotions in an effort to gain my trust, but I have the feeling that there is something genuine in her face this time. 

“There were three strains.”

A nod. A flicker of something deep in those eyes.

“Your personality, it was fractured more than once, wasn’t it?”

“I was conflicted about how to handle the transfer technology, so I decided to use it to help me solve the problem.”

“Three different variants.”

“Technically, there were only two. I am the original, Talbot. I hold in my head both the ambition and the altruism. The whole of Avani Iris Grey, all neatly packaged in a single person, contradictions and all. That’s why I arranged for my better self to escape in the cyborg body, and posed among my more ruthless selves until I could arrange this meeting.”

“So, now what? Are you going to kill me and take the company for yourself? The rest of the board is dead. The tech has been released, but you could still be the preeminent experts in implementing it.”

“I want you to finish the job,” she replies, her voice falling to a whisper.

She steps closer and turns the gun around, offering it to me. 

I grasp it. The lock chirps, accepting me as a user. By the weight of it there are at least a dozen bullets still in the magazine.

“I’m afraid, Talbot. I already lived through the plague, I don’t think I can face another upheaval of this magnitude. The storm that’s coming will be like nothing the world has ever seen. We can’t even predict what will happen.”

“After all this, you don’t even want to see what happens.”

“I don’t want to be present for the transition. You said it yourself, Talbot: With this technology death no longer matters. This is not the end for me.”

“Oh? You have another dozen imprints running around out there carrying your memories?”

“I’m the last one, and the first. The original. What I’ve got is a backup plan. I placed encrypted portions of my original backup into the source code that you released. Some day, far in the future, when all of the upheaval caused by this tech has sorted itself out, they will be reassembled and returned to life, imprinted on a new body in a better world. I will live to know the true impact of my life’s work.”

I raise the gun and aim at the bridge of Iris’s nose. Her eyes twitch inward, the instinctual panic at being threatened overriding all of her intellectualizing and plotting. There in her eyes I see all of the hope that she had for changing the world, but also the fear. Avani believed that she could remake the world, but after all the chaos and death we’ve both seen she is too afraid to take bold action. Too afraid that she would be caught up in the fire sparked by her invention, just as the engineers of the plague were slaughtered by their own disease and their grand vision for salvation was thrown upon the ash heap of genocides. 

Fear is the beginning of wisdom. 

My finger tightens on the trigger. 

Iris closes her eyes.

I fire a single bullet.

Then, with a scream that wrenches all of the fear and revulsion from the very core of my soul I pull the trigger again, and again, and again, emptying the magazine. I eject the magazine and throw the gun away with a final roar of rage. 

This day of blood and water and cold will be a new baptism for my soul. Whatever comes next, be it blood, or fire, or the bleak black midnight of my tattered soul each morning, I will face it. Fear is merely the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of it.

Iris opens her eyes.

I grasp her by the chin and step forward, tilting her head up, pressing my body against hers, and glaring down into her wide eyes.

“You’re not getting off that easy. If I have to keep on living and watch the world burn itself out again, and again, and yet again, then so do you. And I’m damn sure going to keep living.”

I release her and turn away, striding through the cold of the waning day towards the cruiser.

I’m finished drowning.

End

Time staggers for a moment, but rather than waking up curled into a ball beside a pool of my own vomit, I return to consciousness standing inside the gates of Avani Grey’s compound. The car clicks and sparks beside me, its front end a mess of shattered plastic, bent metal, and splattered blood. The wrecked bodies of two guards lay suspiciously close to the driveway, obviously killed by the impact of a fast moving vehicle. 

So much for using the cover story Javier arranged up for me. 

Turning towards the manor house, I see another guard running towards me across the lawn, cradling a compact submachine gun.

My eyes open from what I had assumed to be a blink and I am standing over the third guard, inspecting the damage done by my unlocked handgun. 

Whatever Schuster’s cooks put in my cocktail, it’s clearly hitting me hard. 

Reality becomes a shattered glass, my mind the bloody fingers of a drunkard numbly struggling to piece the fragments back together. I lose all sense of time until the pistol grip slams into my palm, alerting me to the death of four YuriCo executives seated around a table. 

A fifth dying figure stands across from me, her eyes wide as she clutches at the hole in the midst of her orange dress, mouth gaping with a scream as the nanites in my bullet consume her from within.

Who is she? 

Why does this woman have two bodies?

Two more of the damned Vakha clones burst in through the doors, weapons drawn. Before they can target me, I fire my last bullet into one of them, then flick my wrist and throw my empty gun at the other. That serves as distraction enough for me to close the distance between us and sink a ceramic blade into his throat. Hot blood sprays across my hand and I feel the old daemon rising up in terror, but I rip my blade free and wash away my fear in the waterfall of blood coursing down Vakha’s chest. 

A blink. A break in time that ought to end with me screaming on the floor, unable to move as fear consumes my soul. But under the influence of Schuster’s drugs I instead open my eyes to find myself standing at a bar in a gold-paneled ballroom, my blade buried in the gut of a balding old man dressed in an expensive t-shirt and acid washed jeans which do nothing to make him appear young or cool. 

His eye lock on to mine and I watch dispassionately as the light fades from them. What is one life compared to the tens of thousands I saw lost in the plague? 

A movement from the corner of my eye: A woman in an orange dress leaping over the body of another aged man laying near the bar as she scrambles to escape. 

How many have I killed today? A glance around the room reveals a trail of dead leading back to the door. Men and women dressed in business casual, their bodies surrounded by pools of dark blood. At least one more Vakha clone, slumped against the wall beside the doors, his chest a mess of flesh which disappears even as I watch, consumed by nanotech monsters every bit as voracious as the modified bacteria which devoured the old world. 

Another stutter in my consciousness.

She jerks forward, a knife burrowing into the center of her spine.

Spasms, legs pinwheeling beneath her.

She slams down to the tiles, a tangle of orange blossoming to red. 

I step out into the chill air, eyes locking onto a pair who stand a dozen feet away at the center of the terrace, cigarette smoke curling up from their lips as they stare at me in slack jawed horror. One is an elderly man from the YuriCo board. The woman is all to familiar and draped in an orange dress. They both hold handys, which they must have been using to try and summon help. Futile, of course, with Javier’s jamming drones circling the compound.  

Neither is armed, while I suddenly realize that I have a gun in my left hand. 

The woman at my feet groans in agony, still fighting the death to which she is fated. 

I put a bullet in her head.

As if they needed confirmation that I was, indeed, the person who had murdered their companions, the man steps between the woman and me, shouting, “Avani, go!”

That’s it. 

Avani Grey, the chief executive of YuriCo. That must be why I’ve been recognizing the woman in orange ever since she first appeared at the data vault. Of course she’d arrange to be one of the first to be cloned. 

No matter. I’ve come here to kill them all. 

I raise my gun, ready to pull the trigger, and see the slide has locked back. I drop the gun and search my pockets and belt for another, but come up with only a knife. A small voice, more conscience than daemon, raises the query of just how many weapons I have used up since arriving. The number is so large as to be irrelevant.

I whip my arm, sending my last blade whirling across the terrace to bounce off the back of the man’s head. The blow doesn’t drop him, but the shock of it throws him off balance long enough for me to catch him up and knock him down with a sudden, brutal fist to his right ear. I retrieve my knife from the tiles and drop the man with a swift kick to his already shaking knees. He falls at my feet and I slip my blade into his neck, watching dispassionately as it soaks into the fibers of his expensive suit and runs down to the tiles of the terrace floor.

Metal clatters against stone as the woman knocks over a patio chair. She glances over her back at me, black hair flying out around her shoulders, and lets out a strangled cry. She whips back around, hesitates for only an instant, then leaps over the railing. 

I step over the still thrashing body to follow the woman. Leaning out over the balustrade, I see her crumpled on the grass below. For an instant I hope that she is already dead, perhaps having broken her neck in the fall, but then she twitches, rolls to her feet, and takes off across the shorn grass, her filmy orange dress flapping behind her. 

I leap down, land with a roll, and take off across the yard after her. 

She is fast, like the others of her kind, and I am weary from fighting. Weary from killing. Weary from trying so hard to stay alive. The drugs seem to be fading as my body acknowledges how exhausted I truly am and comprehension of the brutality of my actions begins to dawn on my shattered mind. 

But she has nowhere else to run.

I catch her up at the boathouse as she stops to untie the stern mooring line of a speedboat docked to the peer. 

“Get away from me!” she screams, scrambling into the boat and ramming the throttle forward.

The boat surges to life, filling the air with the acrid stench of sparks and ozone as the motor whips from off to full in an instant. The boat lurches forward, then careens to one side, fishtails around, and slams into the dock. She neglected to untie the bowline. 

I leap into the boat and ram my fist into her gut, but the thrashing of the boat throws my aim off. She twists out of the way, then grabs at my hair and slams my head into the side of the steering column. The world fades to red for an instant, but the full black of a time-lapse never comes. 

The boat whips sideways again, throwing her over the side.

I pull myself up on the throttle, killing the engine as I do, then I turn and leap into the water after her.

Vantage

The wind bites at my face as Schuster cranks the blast doors open. The city outside is a dismal gray ghost of itself beneath heavy clouds, their swollen bellies dark with potential as they loom over the streets and buildings.

“It’s turned cold,” Schuster remarks, moving to stand beside me.

“It won’t last.”

“Nothing does. Seems like the weather changes faster every year.”

I shrug.

Schuster steps in front of me and takes my hands. I my surprise, I don’t even flinch at her touch. A pained smile creeps up half her face. “You don’t have to go, Talbot. We have the files. Javier and Salinas are already working on reproducing the hardware. You could just stay here until the storm blows over and we see what changes.”

Her eyes are as blue as the unseen sky above the clouds. Her fingers entwined with mine are pliable, relaxed, gentle to the point that I actually enjoy her touch. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, trying to feel the moment as others must, knowing that outside of my own head there is a beauty to this moment, and an opportunity. 

“Stay with us, Talbot. With me. You don’t have to share my bed if that’s too much, but you could share my life.”

“And what would be my purpose?” 

“You could still help people. Still protect Tamar. Then you could share your stories with me.”

“I need to do this,” I say. The words sound heroic in my head, but spoken aloud they crack in my constricted throat and sound hollow.

“Why?”

Good question. Because I made a promise to a woman with the body of a robotic child? Or maybe because I want revenge for YuriCo not acting more quickly to stop the plague, even though there is no evidence for that in the files that Iris give me. 

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Just open the trunk when you get there and the flock will take off automatically. They ought to keep any signal from getting out, but that also means I won’t be able to watch.”

I pull my hands away and offer her a thin smile. “Thanks.”

Schuster opens her mouth to speak, but I shoulder past and hurry towards the car waiting in the parking lot. It’s a battered green utility cruiser with a manual drive: A leftover from the previous century kept running with epoxy and determination. The perfect vehicle for an expedition that we don’t want to be tracked. Hundreds of similar machines are scattered across the mire, their few metal parts rusting away as solar radiation slowly converts their plastic bodies to brittle husks. 

“Don’t come back dead!” Schuster calls after me. 

Leaving the city is never difficult. The public security restrillect rarely even prevents suspected criminals from leaving, on the theory that going out into the mire unprepared is as good as a death sentence. Returning could be difficult if my identity has been flagged after the Yurico incident, but I’ve got to survive the day before I worry about that.

Iris told me that the YuriCo corporate retreat is located on an estate in the mountains north of the city. She claimed that she could see it from the storm wall. At the time I took that as a metaphorical statement, especially since I didn’t think she would actually be able to see anything through all the rain, but it may have actually been true. Javier dug into the YuriCo records and learned that the CEO of YuriCo, one Avani Grey, controls a large estate on the shore of the reservoir, about a two hour drive outside the city. More salient to my plan: The entire board and C-level management team are currently at the retreat for an emergency strategic meeting.

Something tells me that I know the topic of that meeting.

The road to the estate is maintained better than most streets outside of the city. A wide swath has been cleared on either side of the highway, the verge maintained by a small fleet of automated mowing bots which crawl across the grass like tremendous cockroaches, their solar cells lifted like wings as they turn to catch the sun. Beyond, the wreckage of abandoned homes and strip malls peek from behind a wall of trailing CarbZu. Thirty years ago this region was a struggling suburb of a city that was absorbing all of the intellectual capitol of the surrounding counties. When the plague hit and the realignment began, these lands were abandoned, like so many others across the country. The few survivors either applied for residence in the city or fled to the Federal protectorates, leaving their homes to moulder beneath the spreading vines.

The road switchbacks up the hillside, climbing the mountain about a mile from the dam. Boulders protrude from the side of the mountain like broken teeth, their jagged edges smoothed by blankets of moss and vines. Battered and bent guard rails curve alongside the road at the worst of the curves, but it is clear that the maintainers of this road are not interested in preserving public safety. Reaching the top of the switchbacks, I crest the ridge and see the lake spreading out beneath me, filling the valley. The road winds down the north side of the mountain in curves, no need for switchbacks on this shorter and more gentle slope, then straightens into a black ribbon stretching out into the distance of the lake valley. There, less than a mile straight overland, the estate rests between the road and the glistening waters of the lake, a collection of pre-realignment homes and outbuildings scattered across several acres of manicured landscape. A dozen sleek performance cars are parked along a curved driveway near a low slung garage, behind which half as many utility vehicles. Paved paths meander through gardens, eventually leading to the columned porch and arched entryway of the manor house, which is itself a three story rectangular edifice of glass, columns, and pointed grey stone. Balconies sprout like oysters from windows on the short side of the house, while a broad second floor balcony spreads from the rear of the house, dotted with umbrellas and lunge chairs which look out over the back lawn to the boathouse and dock out in the lake. 

A dozen people on the board.

Could be as many as thirty security guards if all of those utility vehicles were fully loaded when they arrived, not counting anyone who is stationed here. 

And I need to kill a dozen of them. Seven men. Five women. All conspiring to keep Iris’s tech from being released to humanity. A cabal of would-be immortals looking down on the humans dying in the streets and wondering only how long the bodies will sit and rot before a cleaning crew shovels the corpses away. 

It won’t be easy, but the flock of drones Schuster sent with me should help. 

I open the car trunk and step aside as dozens of small drones flit up into the sky, orient themselves, then begin drifting down the hill towards the estate. A second later my handy chirps, informing me that it has lost signal. 

That should keep them from calling for help or warning one another that I’m coming. Might even stop the Vakha clones from disseminating their memories to one another.

I pull a pair of binoculars from my jacket pocket and scan the perimeter of the manicured lawn. A waist high brick wall surrounds the property, topped with a spiked metal fence, which appears to be strung with electric shock wires along the outside. The wall appears to proceed all the way around the property, from the lake shore at the northern edge, where an ornamental lighthouse watches over the shore from a short jetty, to the southern edge, where the wall terminates abruptly ten feet out into the water. The only means of access that I can spot is the lake, if I’m willing to brave the frigid water, or the wrought steel gate that separates the estate from the highway.

It’ll have to be the gate.

I check my handy. The signal is completely dead. I’m still able to load the bogus security consulting message that Javier and Schuster cooked up for me, which should be enough to get me a face to face with the head of security, assuming that the drones are doing their job and nobody can check in with corporate headquarters to verify the message.

Get through the gate. Then I can worry about how to kill the YuriCo board.

There’s a bottle in my pocket, another gift of Schuster and her pet mad scientists. I unscrew the cap, hesitate for an instant, then pour the white liquid down my throat. It tastes like artificial strawberries, feels like chalk on my tongue, and has the viscosity of sour milk. The blend of neuroactive chemicals and unlicensed medical nanites will keep me focused and quicken my response time, with the mild side effects of a serious serotonin crash in a few hours and a mild chance of being converted into a killer robot. 

As I wait for the drugs to kick in, I pull a heavy case from the back seat of the car and, kneeling on the cracked pavement, extract a few of the toys that Schuster has sent for me. All are unlicensed and as close to illegal as can exist here in the hazy region between the city’s border and federal territory, and all of them possess the same deadly beauty as a cobra with its hood extended. The blades find snug homes in my sleeves and boots, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. The guns, including the sleek nanite delivery pistol that Schuster showed me last week, are tucked away in pockets and the back of my belt. 

I can feel the rush coming on now: My consciousness separating into distinct fragments which gleefully tell my daemon to go hide in the basement while the rest of my mind is occupied with the essential business of slaughter.

Burrow

I awake in a dimly lit room. Neon lines cut across the walls, which glow with overlapping patterns of florescent artwork in the wash of a blacklight. I’m swaddled in zebra print fleece blankets atop a spongey mattress. 

How did I get here?

And where is “here”?

I crawl out of the bed, muscles and joints screaming at me as I ask them to perform their daily work. Flashes of memory play out across my eyelids each time I blink. The fight outside the data vault. My unorthodox choice of exit. The long slide. Coming to a crashing halt in the fountain. 

Clothes are stacked on a chair beside the bed. Freshly printed, judging by the scent of heated fiber and melting synthetics that wafts up from them. I dress slowly, with many a pained grunt as I push my aching limbs through the legs and sleeves. Even in the dim, colored light of the room I can see the layers of bruises that cover my sides, arms, legs. A bottle of bourbon, vat grown and sonically aged, sits on the writing desk beside the chair, accompanied by a thick bottomed glass and bottle of pills tagged with a distinctly non-medical label depicting a mallet the size of a truck smashing the head of a cartoon man who looks vaguely like me.

Beside the bottles, the folded photograph of Seth, Tamar, and me rests on the desk, the edges as battered as my body. 

The eclectic decorations. Freshly printed clothing. Custom pharma. This must be Schuster’s place.

How did I get here?

I swallow a couple pills and, glass in hand, shuffle barefoot to the door, which opens at a push. 

“You’ve decided to return to us, eh?” Schuster says, looking up from an array of gadgets spread on a tray in front of her. She’s sitting at a table in the living space. Light pours down on her from an overhead panel, throwing her face into shadowy relief while her hands are illuminated by a magnifying work lamp. 

“How did I get here?”

“Why don’t you take a seat?” she says, by way of response. “You still look like shit.”

No point in arguing with that. I shuffle across the room and slump into the chair across from Schuster at the work table. She continues her work, using the magnifying lenses in the work light to guide her as she disassembles a cartridge from a twentieth century video game console. 

“Won’t that destroy the value?” I ask. Even speaking hurts. 

“Not when I’m done with it. George sent over a box of these after the storm passed. The cart internals are corroded and nonfunctional, but the artwork is in remarkably good condition. I’m going to swap out the bad board with a good one I’ve had in stock for a while.”

“Wish you could do that with me,” I groan, working my battered shoulders and neck. The pills seem to be helping, but I still feel like… well, like I’ve fallen from a seventh floor window. 

“From what I hear, that’s exactly what you’ve brought back with you.” Schuster looks at me over the top of the work lamp, her blue eyes questioning. She raises her eyebrows, waiting for me to fill in.

“If you believe Iris.”

“Hard not to, what with all those Vakha clones.”

“You don’t know the half of it. We met a couple more while she was hacking the YuriCo mainframe.”

“Javier’s been looking at the data cube you brought back. Surprising, really. He even let me bring it into his lair instead of putting it through decontamination. He says there is some truly revolutionary stuff on there. Not just the mind synched clones. He called it, um, ‘mind state virtualization’ or something like that. Says it could be like running a brain fully on computer hardware without the need for flesh.”

I nod. Wince. Take another slug of the whiskey. 

“You know anything about all of it?”

“Less than you. Iris did something to Abaroa, that exec we kidnapped. Said she interrogated his mind even after she’d put a bullet in his head. Got all the specifics of how to access the YuriCo data vault.”

“And…”

“And then she died. Like everyone else.”

The woman in orange. Who is she? What did she mean about strains and erasure? Even now, thinking back to her, I’m struck with a sense of familiarity. Something in the cadence of her words or the curl of her lips. 

“How did I get here?”

Schuster grunts, ignoring my question as she finally pries the corroded board from its plastic prison and sets it aside. She picks up a cotton swab and begins wiping away the cruft of a century’s corrosion from the interior of the cartridge. 

“You going to answer that?”

“I’d rather not.”

“Well, I’d kind of like to know how I ended up in your bed. Not that I’m complaining. I know you’ve been trying to get me there for years.”

Schuster smiles at that and, after another moment of silently cleaning the cartridge, she says, “Salinas and Javier, mostly. We were watching your through his pirated video feeds. When we saw which building you went into they sent a flock of drones to wait around the building.”

“Drones brought me back.” Not unheard of. The Feds use medevac drones on the battlefield and most deliveries were done by drone. 

Schuster waggles her fingers and gives me a pained look. “Sort of. The drones deployed a nanite swarm, which disassembled a chunk of the sidewalk and pulled you underground. 

That’s enough to make me drain my glass and limp back to the bedroom to retrieve the bottle. I probably shouldn’t be mixing Schuster’s custom pharma with so much liquor, but I already feel like death, so why not flirt with liver failure? One shot of the liquor goes directly down my throat, the second settles into the glass as a companion as I question Schuster on the particulars of my rescue, which can be summarized thusly: Nanites eat the fountain hardware, wrap Talbot in a thin metal skin, then burrow him through the earth and to a nearby underground parking garage before he can suffocate. 

“Salinas was thrilled to be allowed to deploy their nanites. Not quite the art display they had in mind, but it was enough to keep them happy for a while,” Schuster says after I finally stop asking questions.

Personally, I’m considering whether the entire bottle of whiskey will be enough to keep my skin from crawling and silence the daemon as it whispers sneaky tales of nanites invading my skin and eating be from the inside out. 

“What are you going to do when Security comes knocking?” I ask, my lips beginning to go numb. 

Schuster smiles and nods her head to one side. “We have ways of hiding. Speaking of which, if you’d told me that Abaroa had a drone escort we could have jammed their signal for you.”

“I didn’t expect that.”

“Add it to the list, right below the Spanish Inquisition.”

I drain my glass and sit, watching Schuster work as the fire burn works its way down my gullet and into my belly. We had technicians as good as Schuster and her little gang of rogue artists in the Federal service, but many of the best were among the first to die in the plague. Though, I suppose the same could be said of every organization and industry. When you lose more than half of the population, it’s going to put a strain on the talent pool.

“So what are you going to do next?”

I set the empty glass down on the table and push it towards Schuster with a fingertip. “I’m going to do what she asked me to.”

“And that is?”

“I’m going to kill them all.”

Vault

The YuriCo offices occupy an entire block of uptown, thrusting from the hill like shards of blue metal rammed into the concrete by an exploding air carrier. They stand at kiltered angles, some leaning against one another, some crossing through one another, many surrounded by pools of placid water or leaping fountains. In the way of most of the corporations in the city, YuriCo has made an effort to blend the fringes of their campus into the city, renting out retail space throughout the campus and bunking their employees in apartments above the shops and bars. 

Iris leads me to a tilted spire intersecting with the central corporate tower. The glassine walls of the building glisten with a liquid light, their integrated active displays reflecting the pedestrian traffic around them while editing out all of the streets and surrounding buildings, replacing them with a synthesized vision of the hilltop as it might have appeared two or three hundred years before: waving grass, stately trees, rolling hills and valleys unfolding away to the gleaming ribbon of river. 

“The data vault is a hardened chamber on the seventh floor of the office tower. Multiple hermetically sealed doors. Directional EMP generators built into the lock rooms so they can scramble any hardware on the way out if unauthorized intrusions are detected. Armed guards at multiple stations between the vault and the exit.”

“And you expect me to get us out intact? Hate to tell you, but I’m not a superhero. I don’t even have a gun.”

“You just do your thing, Talbot. Follow way lead and deal with anyone who tries to stop us and we’ll make it through together.”

“From what I’ve seen you’re pretty good at doing that on your own.”

“Not this time. Is your hacker friend ready?”

I check my handy. “Javier’s got over then thousand zombies ready to hit the network in about thirty seconds. If you can take care of the internal systems, he’ll keep them flooded from the outside.”

“No problem.” 

“It’ll probably be harder than whatever you pulled at the hotel.”

“Easier,” she says, blinking innocently up at me. “I’m using Araboa’s access codes to insert an appointment as we speak. With the chaos your friend is about to unleash nobody should notice that the meeting was just added.”

“You’re the expert. I’m just here to stab whoever gets in your way.”

She approaches the rotating doors of the office spire. I follow, fighting back images of the armed guards who must be posted just inside. Iris’s body was built for infiltration and assassination, but must surely be vulnerable to the same data erasure techniques as any other android. And there’s no way her synthetic chassis won’t be detected if there are scanners embedded in the frame of the revolving door.

Yet I follow her. 

The door turns ahead of us, servos driving it just ahead of our steps so our hands never touch the pristine glass slabs. We step into the lobby, footsteps echoing on the glossy back floor, muffled by the soft undercurrent of ambient music. Employees, contractors, and visiting citizens of other corps stand in small groups or sit in ovoid seats of flexible grey metamaterial surrounding low tables. 

This is too easy.

A security guard approaches us, dressed in a black and grey suit that probably cost him as many credits as a I scrape in a month. On the street it would be easy to mistake him for a businessman, but here, seen in context of other workers in their riotously different clothing and hair styles, the clean lines, trim hair, and broad shoulders of the guard cary an implicit air of authority. The bulge of a pistol beneath his unbuttoned suit jacket confirms my suspicion. 

“Welcome to YuriCo, sir. I’m afraid I have to ask your business here,” the guard says. His voice is low and genial, carefully pitched to not carry to any of the work groups around the lobby. The voice of a man who has had as much training in public relations as breaking fingers.

“We’re here for a private meeting on the seventh floor,” Iris says, stepping forward to stand between the guard and me. She modulates her voice as well, employing every bit of the algorithms that drive her presentation to manipulate the emotions of her human audience. Taking another half step forward and turning her head merely a few degrees to the right, she pitches her voice half a step towards frustration and  says, “Talbot, did you forget to forward my schedule to YuriCo security?”

“I sent it this morning, ma’am,” I reply, keeping my voice differential as I shoot a scowl towards the guard, hoping that she’s got a plan to deal with this. If I have to murder a man five steps into the building, we’re in for a difficult extraction.

“You may wish to check your records before you make me late for my meeting,” Iris snaps. She takes another step forward, testing the guard’s willingness to make a scene by blocking her in public. 

The guard maintains his composure, for the most part, but I do spot a flicker of uncertainty cross his face as he glances between me and Iris. He steps back a bit, obviously trained to balance security with decorum, and falls into step beside Iris as she stalks across the lobby. I watch him as we walk, trying to gauge whether I can best him in a fair fight. Judging from his broad shoulders and the easy cadence of his stride, my only chance of winning against him is to strike first, and that’s not accounting for the weapon beneath his jacket. 

All seems well until Iris stalks past the security desk and continues moving towards the elevator bank at the far wall of the lobby. The guard calls out and places a hand on Iris’s shoulder.

Half a dozen scenarios instantly play out in my mind, only a couple of them resulting in a positive outcome for everybody.

Iris begins to turn. I catch her scowl and know that she expects me to act. That eliminates the versions in which she instigates a fight or immediately shoots the guard in his face, but still leaves plenty of room for my daemon present deadly outcomes. 

I move forward and put my hand on the guard’s shoulder, knowing in that instant that we are down to perhaps three possible options which don’t end with blood.

“Sir, I need you to keep your hands away from…” I begin.

The daemon cackles and time slows to a crawl as he releases Iris’s shoulder and turns, right hand reaching towards the inside of his coat. I dance to his right, sliding my hand down the inside of his arm as I shift my left leg to rest between the guard’s feet. His hand is already half way into the jacket, mere inches from the butt of his pistol, when my fist locks around his wrist, middle finger digging into the nerves and numbing his fingers. He grunts and tries to twist and swing his left fist towards me, at the precise instant when I jerk my right leg up, ramming my knee into his groin, then plant it back down to trip him if he continues turning. The grunt turns into a muffled moan (his decorum training is clearly impressive), and I take the moment of ball crushing disorientation to pivot my hand around and grasp his index and middle fingers in a crushing grip. I twist, pull, and augment the action with a sudden blow to the left side of his neck from my free hand.

The guard falls to his knees, conveniently dropping his groin directly atop my knee for a second agonizing crush, his right arm twisted up behind him at a painful angle, fingers bent back as far as they will go without breaking, as the left arm hangs limp from my blow.

One set of potential lethalities avoided, a whole new branch unfolds as the guards posted to the security desk begin scrabbling for their weapons.

Iris steps towards the security desk, mustering as much indignant rage as a four foot tall pre-pubescent girl can muster. “Is this how you treat your guests? No wonder you’re in need of a buyout. I want all of your names, now! This bastard will be lucky to avoid exile, but I’ll settle for busting the rest of you down to repairing cleaning drones.”

The guards hesitate, unsure how to react to the spectacle.

“Kill the alarm and check your ancillaries,” I growl, my voice just loud enough to be heard by nearby groups. “My employer has an appointment and you’re acting like it’s her fault that the security in this building is incompetent.”

“Ancillary access is down,” one of the guards at the desk says. 

“Oh bloody hell. I’ve half a mind to let YuriCo collapse and just buy out the structures in the bankruptcy auction,” Iris shouts. She waves towards the elevators. “Do these bleeding things still work?”

A guard nods. 

The guard at my feet opens his mouth and emits the first syllables of some word, but rapidly twists them into a howl as I bend his fingers back further, popping one of his knuckles. 

“Does she have to tell you to double check your appointments?” I snap. 

One of the guards, clearly more intelligent or desperate than his companions, begins tapping at the desk screen. An instant later his face blanches and he taps an older guard on the shoulder. 

Both of them look up at the same time, wide eyes fixed on Iris.

Two minutes later we’re riding an elevator up to the third floor, where we cross through a security checkpoint without even stopping and make our way across the skybridge into the central office tower. I continue to walk two steps behind Iris, scanning every space we pass through for threats.

An eager young man in a pantsuit the color of an oil spill greets us at the next elevator, platinum hair slicked back hand extended. “Good afternoon, madam Ersae! Please allow me to extend the full welcome of the YuriCo family and escort you to your meeting.”

“After the reception I had downstairs, I have no interest in YuriCo hospitality,” Iris replies. She stops in front of the elevator and oil suit eagerly presses the call button for her.

“My deepest apologies for that, ma’am. Our network is suffering a severe denial of service attack at the moment and it has, unfortunately, disrupted all ancillary services. I’m told that ancillaries are slow or offline across the city.”

“A poor excuse. Item two on the employee reeducation agenda once my buyout is complete: Reading a bloody schedule at the beginning of the day, rather than depending on ancillaries for everything. Got that Talbot?”

“Heard and remembered, ma’am,” I reply, raising a sarcastic brow at the slick functionary. 

The elevator chimes and glides open. Oil suit is in the car, pressing the hold button before either of us can move. He offers Iris repeated awkward half-bows, clearly nervous and obsequious, but thrown off his game by her unexpected arrival and improbable appearance. Once we are in, he taps the button for the seventh floor and turns to face Iris, his body still awkwardly bent at the waist. 

“Much of our executive team is currently attending a leadership conference at Ms. Grey’s estate. I apologize for their absence.”

“I know. My purpose is to inspect your security arrangements as a condition of the merger talks which will be undertaken when I arrive at the conference this evening.”

“Merger, ma’am?”

“Surely you are aware of YuriCo’s financial difficulties, mister… I am sorry, but I do not believe you gave me your name,” Iris says, fixing oil suit with a glare that manages to make him shrink back from her, even though she is a good two feet shorter than him. 

“Apologies ma’am,” he replies, bowing twice in rapid succession. “I am David Walther, second Vice President of Public Relations.”

“A PR flack. Lovely.”

The elevator opens and Walther guides us down frosted glass corridors and presses us through two security checkpoints, berating the guards to check the master calendar each time, while Iris stands indignant beside him. The guards appear competent and might have given us some minor difficulty if we didn’t have a corporate secondary Vice President pushing us through. YuriCo clearly takes the security of their offline data seriously, as well as whatever research is housed behind the frosted glass walls of this level, but even data integrity appears to be secondary to following orders from an executive. We pass a common room equipped with privacy glass, allowing me only a brief glimpse of the interior as a blue-haired researcher dressed in nothing more than an oversized black t-shirt pushes through the door and nearly bumps into us in the hall. She sees our group, absently waves her photo ID in our direction, then turns down a side passage still carrying a half eaten muffin.

We arrive at the third checkpoint just in time to see the guard setting his handy in its cradle and turning to smile at us. 

“Mister Walther. Madam Ersati. Thank you for taking time for your busy schedules to visit-“

“Can it. Open the damn door and let me get on with my inspection,” Iris snaps. 

“Of course, ma’am,” the guard says. He nods to his partner who steps through the security scanner and proffers us a plastic bin. “I’m afraid I have to insist that you hand over any items which can cary data. Key drives. Holocubes. Handys. We can’t risk any viruses getting in to the vault, you see.”

“Do any of you have implants?” the second guard asks, still holding the empty plastic tray. “The vault entryway is designed to scramble all electrical devices if the security AI detects any unauthorized computer access and, frankly, it’s better to be safe and impolite than risk a mistake.”

“Ah, well, that could prove a problem,” Iris says.

“I’m sure we can come to some accommodation,” Walther replies, dropping his handy and a pocket folder filled with key drives into the tray. “Obviously the fields can be turned off to prevent damage to medical implants and…”

“Sorry, sir, but Legal won’t let us allow anyone through the access passage without signing the waver. Too much risk if the restrillect gets jumpy and fries somebody’s wetware.”

“Well, if I have to sign a waver…” Iris says, extending her hand as if to press her palm to a tablet screen. 

I see it in her posture. The angle of her back set to redirect the blast of the gunshot through her shoulders and down her spine, into her hips and legs, then into the floor through firmly planted feet. I flick my left wrist, unleashing the blade sheathed there.

The guard opens his mouth in shock and begins reaching for the panic switch on his desk, but then his head erupts in a spray of blood and brain as Iris’s palm gun fires a fragmenting bullet into his face.

I swallow bile and swing forward, grabbing the other guard by the top of his hair and slipping my blade into his left eye. It glides through the eye smoothly, hesitates at the skull, then pierces into the brain as I give the hilt a gentle tap. I grip the hilt and jerk backwards, extracting my knife along with a delicate spurt of blood and cerebrospinal fluid. 

Walther stammers. He’s the public face of the company, accustomed to trading barbs with the press and formulating strategic disinformation campaigns against dissident employees and rival corporations. He’s never seen violence like this outside vids and games. 

I almost feel bad killing him, but we don’t have time to deal with a hostage and if the security restrillect is active it will already have triggered an alarm. So I make it quick. An elbow to his face to stun. Step behind. Knife forward. Blade biting through soft flesh and protective cartilage alike, severing the spinal cord and devastating the brain stem. He’s brain dead before he hits the floor. 

“Hold it together,” Iris says, looking down at me. 

It’s only then then that I realize I’m laying on the floor beside Walther. Iris has already retracted her palm gun and looks ready to press forward. The pool of blood already extends a foot or more from the heads of both guards. 

“Christ. Sorry.” I stumble to my feet. Check my hands, arms, legs for blood.

“You still a believer?” Iris asks, turning away to approach the entryway to the data vault. “Not many swear like that since the plague. Tends to upset people.”

I wipe my blade on Walther’s sleeve, adding a streak of red to the oily shimmer of his suit, and slip the knife back into its nest in my sleeve. “I suppose.”

“Not a popular thing these days. How’s the guilt working out for you?”

“No worse than it ever was. Family church was a throwback congregation. Not fans of people like me.”

“Professional killers?”

“Anxious queers.”

The door pops open with the hiss and pop of pneumatic locks releasing. We step around the dead and into the security corridor. In practice and purpose it is very much like the entry into Javier’s rooms, but in industrial design it shows the presence of limitless budgets and a distinct loathing of both color and corners.

“With any luck that will all be gone in a few years,” Iris says as we step into the entry passage. The door closes behind us. 

“Religion? We’ve been working on that for a while and I don’t think humans will ever give up.”

“No. Prejudice. Think of it Talbot: How can you hate somebody for how the look or who they love when everybody can change their shape at will. When some people don’t even have a human shape. It’s the ultimate expression of humanity. In surrendering our human shapes, we will learn to respect one another for our minds.”

We arrive at the end of the passage and Iris closes her eyes for a moment, then presses her hand against the contact lock. It opens with a chime and the door glides aside.

“Or maybe we’ll just deny your digital immortality to anyone who isn’t like us. Edit out queerness or religion or political incorrectness like an antivirus quarantining infected files.”

“That’s why we need to give it to everyone. No point killing each other anymore when we are all immortal.”

“I wish I shared your enthusiasm for the human race,” I mutter, glancing back towards the three dead men laying outside the door. “But I’ve got a feeling we’ll find a way to ruin this as much as we do anything.” 

The data vault is a spartan octagonal room, lit from above with softly glowing panels, the white surfaces marred only by the bare minimum of interface hardware worked in black and silver hardware and softly glowing green, yellow, and red status indicators. Cold air blows in at the floor, a stream that is strong enough to stir the hem of my pants even thought it is whisper quiet. Stacks of storage clusters are arranged throughout the space like display plinths in some ancient temple, but instead of the bust of a dead general or emperor, the top of each is inset with a blank black touch panel and inset with an array of data connections. The black domes of pickups are situated at each corner of the room, as well as in a ring equidistant from the central cooling duct and the walls. From these, the security restrillect certainly watches over everything, ensuring that nobody removes or injects data without permission.

“I need to find the right databank,” Iris says, stepping up to a broad console at the center of the room. “Keep an eye out for anyone outside.”

“How?” I ask, gesturing to the frosted glass walls which surround us. 

In response, Iris waves a hand towards the glass wall beside the entry passage, which juts out nearly to the center of the room, then mimes drawing a circle. “By the passthrough. The glass is reactive.” 

I move towards the passthrough box situated beside the entryway. Where the passthrough at Javier’s lair is a pair of network isolated computers, this is a physical hole the size of a large mailbox cut into the wall, with an actuated drawer built into the side. I raise a hand and use my knuckle to trace a tight circle on the glass above the box. An instant later, the white glaze within the glass fades to transparence, affording me a view of the corridor outside. 

“I need you to listen, Talbot.”

“Nothing else to do, except maybe admire the view. Oh, look, the blood pools have merged into a single puddle. Isn’t that lovely.”

“There’s a chance I might not make it out of here,” Iris says, ignoring my comment.

“I’d say it’s equally likely for me.”

“Yes, but I’ve already had two lives. If it comes down to the two of us, I’d rather you get a chance to escape.”

“Not that I want to volunteer for death, but wouldn’t it be better for the woman who understands this tech to get out?”

“Just listen,” she says, turning away from the console and fixing me with a cold gaze. I’m suddenly keenly aware of the cold air stirring around my boots. “We need this posted to the dark nets. To the universities. Released to everybody who could possibly benefit. We can’t let YuriCo or any of the other corporations control this, and you know better than anyone that we can’t trust the Feds.”

“I get that, but how am I supposed to release something I don’t understand or necessarily even believe in?”

“I’m sure you’ll find a way.” She smiles and strides over to one of the plinths. She’s barely tall enough to see over the top as she stands on her toes and slots a holocube into the interface. Then she pulls a data cable from her pocket and plugs one end into the jack behind her left ear and the other into a matching jack on the data stack. She begins tapping at the screen with the tips of her fingers as she speaks. “Imagine a world without death, Talbot. A world where plagues can never again destroy the population, because we can simply abandon the frail sheathes of our bodies and be loaded into new hardware.”

“I’m sure we’ll find some new way to kill each other,” I say, glancing out the window to the three dead men laying in the corridor. For a woman on a quest to destroy death, Iris is leaving a long trail of corpses in her wake. “We’re remarkably innovative in that regard.”

“Have some hope, Talbot.”

A flicker of movement in the hall outside. Something arcing through the air. 

“Down!” I shout, dropping to the floor and covering my ears.

On the far side of the glass there is a muffled pop, followed by a flash of light that causes the smart glass to go suddenly opaque. 

Then silence.  

“I thought you disabled the security restrillect!” I snap. 

“I did my best. There must have been backup system I missed. Or maybe somebody caught on and rebooted the system.”

I draw another viewport in the glass and see three armored guards armed with automatic weapons approaching down the corridor, followed by a tall woman in a flowing orange dress. Long black hair hangs loose over her shoulders as she takes in the carnage at the security booth without even blinking. 

“We’ve got company,” I growl.

“The transfer is nearly complete.”

The armored guards take up positions around the door, ready to shoot anybody who steps out. The woman plays her eyes across the exterior of the vault, seemingly looking for something. Then her eyes fix on the portal I’ve drawn. A smile, strangely familiar, plays across her lips as she leans forward to look in at me through the portal. She waggles her fingertips at me in mocking greeting, her long red lacquered fingernails reflecting the corridor lights like cruel talons. 

“There’s a woman out there. Not armored.”

Iris doesn’t reply. A glance tells me that she’s still sitting with her back to the databank, eyes shut as she performs some sort of arcane programming wizardry in the depths of her mind. 

A faint noise invades the silence of the data vault. Turning, I see the woman has pressed her eye to the portal. She’s tapping at the glass as she watches us. Then she leans back and I see that smile again. So familiar. Perhaps she’s an actress? Or a corporate executive I’ve seen on television? But that makes no sense. I never pay attention to corporate intrigue in the news and there is no reason why anyone from outside YuriCo would have accompanied the security team. 

I scrub my hand across the glass, wiping the portal away.

“Done!” Iris shouts. 

“Great. Now how do we get out of here?”

In response, Iris throws me a data cube and walks up to the glass. She glances over her shoulder at me and says, “Get the data out there, Talbot. Get it onto the net.”

 “Wait, what are-“

Iris raises her right arm and unfolds the flesh of her palm to reveal the gun. Before I can react, she fires a burst of high velocity slugs into the glass wall. The glass cracks, but holds. An instant later she crouches, fires three more shots, and lunges through the cracked glass between the bullet holes. It shatters at her impact and she tumbles through, landing atop the security desk outside. The guards shout and raise their guns, but before they can shoot Iris has leapt onto the shoulders of the nearest guard. She fires her palm gun again. Her aim is off and the bullet slams into the guard’s armored chest plate, but at this close range the impact is sufficient to send them flailing backwards to trip over the table beside the doorway. 

Throwing caution away and ramming my daemon as far back into the dark corners of my mind as I can manage, I leap through the broken window and skid across the security desk on a field of  shattered safety glass. 

The third guard fires their rifle, stitching further impact marks across the glass wall behind me. Two bullets slam into Iris, ripping through synthetic flesh and shattering on steel bone. The impact knocks her backwards. She tightens her legs around the armored guard’s neck, stunning them as she tumbles down his back and arrests her fall with their body. Their head jerks back at a disturbing angle and they both hit the floor.

The woman in orange produces a small pistol from the folds of her gown and fires at me, but her shot goes wild as I fling the knife from my right sleeve towards her. The blade misses and clatters off the wall behind her, but it has done its job. I leap down from the counter, aiming a kick at the woman’s chest. She reels backwards and hits the wall as I stumble, regaining my balance. As soon as I’m stable, I throw myself at the woman again, driving a shoulder into her face as I reach for the gun held in her limp grip. 

The first guard Iris shot stumbles to their feet and reaches for the gun dangling from its strap on their chest. I jerk the woman’s arm in the guard’s direction and squeeze her trigger finger. Two bullets hammer into the wall, causing the guard to lurch away and duck behind the far side of the security station. 

I twist the gun up and find the registration lock on the bottom of the barrel. The woman raises her left hand, fingers splayed like she is going to plunge them into my chest and rip out my heart. Sparks arc from her fingernails as she swings her hand towards my chest, but I manage to deflect the blow with my right arm, grab her wrist, and slam her fingernails into her own leg. She spasms and lets out a scream of pain before going limp, stunned by her own weapon. I drop her to the floor, then kneel and press her thumb to the registration lock and pray for the gun to cycle quickly.

By the entryway, Iris has extracted herself from beneath the fallen guard. Raising her palm, she fires three quick shots at the guard who shot her. Their head snaps back, trailing a spray of blood as the bullets slam into their chest armor, rip though their neck, and crack their faceplate.

The gun registration chirps and I press my finger against it. A second chirp tells me that the gun is finally registered to me. 

The woman in orange twitches, then slams her left fist into the side of my head. Stunned, I drop the gun and stumble away from her and fall backwards onto floor amid a spray of shattered safety glass.

“Go!” Iris shouts. She presses her palm gun to the faceplate of the stunned guard and fires a shot that ricochets around the inside of their helmet, pulverizing the guard’s head in a spray of gore that bursts up through Iris’s fingers. 

I lunge for the gun, kicking the woman in orange as we both scrabble across the broken glass. My hand has just closed on the grip when a row of bullet impacts stitches across the floor beside my head. Out of the corner of my eye I spot three more guards rushing down the corridor, guns raised and spitting death. 

Role away. Stand. Shout: “Iris, let’s move!”

Iris hurls herself across the open corridor to follow me, only to be cut down by a storm of bullets slamming into her from the side. 

A scream surges from my lips. Irrational, I know. She’s just a gynoid. Just one manifestation of a personality which may be archived in a hundred other places. But watching her cut down by bullets feels like far more than property damage. I’m transfixed, forced to stand and watch in horror as Iris collapses like a broken toy, sparks and acrid smoke spewing from her limp corpse.

The woman in orange stands and, ignoring me, steps up to Iris’s smoking, sparking body. “You’re done, sister. I’ve erased every other copy of your strain. Now you get to die.”

She presses a hand to Iris’s head and discharges the stun weapon embedded in her fingernails. Iris’s body spasms as every servo and muscle contracts at once. Sparks burst from the ports behind her ears and a puff of acrid smoke bursts from her lips. 

No time to mourn. 

No time to listen to the daemon. 

No time to waste. 

I turn and run. Around the corner and down the next hallway. If I can get to an emergency stairwell I might be able to escape. Offices and storage rooms flit by until I come to a wide open format workspace. Tables surrounded by overturned chairs, beanbags, and inflatable balls are scattered across the carpeted floor, accompanied by piles of scattered eper and abandoned dishes. Clearly the employees of YuriCo are well drilled in seeking cover when they hear gunfire. Opposite the entrance, tall windows look out over the corporate campus and the cityscape. Beyond that, the setting sun silhouettes the mountains beyond the city and paints the canted towers of the YuriCo campus with strokes of red and orange. 

Back down the corridor, I can hear the guards approaching. The woman shouting.

Fuck it. There’s only one way out of here.

I press my back against the wall beside the doorway and eject the magazine in my stolen handgun. It’s only got three bullets remaining. Add the one in the chamber and I definitely need another weapon. I reload the weapon and stand against the wall, breathing slowly, listening for the telltale squeak of anti-skid boots on tile floor. 

The waiting can be the hardest part. The patient moments of meditation as you prepare to spill blood. Killing is easy in the instant, but it’s the aftermath that begins to corrode your soul. The slow, steady accretion of blood that floods your spirit and makes it difficult to breath. Difficult to find yourself anymore amid the piles of corpses who accompany you to bed each night. When you stand, weapon in hand, and wait for your victim to round the corner, it can take everything in you to sustain the will to take their life. If you’re not careful, you start to think of everything that went into making that person who they are today. The countless man hours of effort from parents, teachers, doctors, and mentors. The infinitesimal likelihood of them surviving to adulthood in the realigned world, all thrown away in the instant you pull the trigger. 

Then the armored body of a corporate security guard rounds the corner in a rapid tactical sweep. Their gun is already lowered, ready to fire at any threat, but you are standing so close to the corner that the barrel is past you. That gives you an instant to react, to see the look of wide eyed surprise through their tactical visor as you make a minute adjustment to the aim of your pistol and fire a bullet into their face. The inside of their helmet erupts in a fountain of gore: blood, brain, and bone that until ten minutes ago was probably counting down the time until their shift ended and they could go home to play with their kids. 

But I need to live. And I need their gun. And when you get down to it, that’s the fundamental force of nature: Perceived threats to existence are met with aggressive survival instincts, which are met with more aggressive responses, until only one side remains alive.

The dead guard goes limp. I kick them out into the hall and fire my pistol over their shoulder, striking the guard who was sweeping the opposite side in the back of the neck. They jerk forward and smash face first into the wall, but don’t drop or disgorge any blood. The third guard is holding the center. They turn, finger already tightening on the trigger. I fire my last two bullets into the guard’s chest plate, knocking them back and throwing their aim upwards to stitch bullet holes into the ceiling. A glance down the hall shows the woman in orange approaching, flanked by three more armed guards. 

I’ve only got seconds. 

The assault rifles are secured with a proximity sensor rather than a print lock, allowing the user to wear tactical gloves while still preventing the weapons from being stolen. The first guard’s gun will have locked by now, responding to the sudden cessation of his heartbeat as I turned his brain into pulp, and won’t reactivate without an override. I leap out into the open hallway, kick off of the chest of the stumbling guard in the center to propel myself the rest of the way to the far side, then grab the second guard by the back of their tactical harness and pull them around the corner as bullets scream through the air behind me.

“Need your help,” I hiss to the guard as I slam their head against the wall. The armor can recognize its wearer’s death and even know when the hand has been removed from the body, but it don’t recognize when a user is merely dazed. I pull the gun from the guard’s stunned fingers, lean against their body, and fire a burst of lead around the corner.

A chorus of shouts and clattering armor tells me that I’ve sent the guards to the floor.

Time to go.

I turn the assault rifle towards the windows at the far side of the room and fire three bursts. The glass spangles with impacts, each hairline fracture line set afire by the light of the setting sun splaying over the mountaintops. Another burst shatters the glass, opening a passage. I turn and fire another burst down the hall.

Then I run.

Crossing the common room, I keep the assault rifle firing back, hoping to keep the guards pinned down. Bullets whine past me, further shattering the windows. It’s all a matter of chance now. The daemon is screaming, cackling, its fearful whispers subsumed by the vicious joy of knowing that I will certainly die here. My gun locks up with an audible clank as the proximity sensor triggers and drops a spring loaded rod into the chamber, blocking the mechanism.

I leap through the shattered window, throwing the useless rifle away as I plummet down the canted side of the YuriCo office tower.

There’s not a lot of time to think or act when you’re falling, but as I plummet from the window I consider whether I would take the gift that Iris is offering humanity. After spending so many years fighting suicidal urges, so many late nights spent sitting under a cold shower, trying to not think of the knives stored in my jacket, so many mornings spent nursing a whisky amid the scent of body gloss and sweat, praying for somebody to hear me and give me a reason to live, here I am risking my life to deliver salvation to my fellow man. It would be picturesque and damn near biblical, if only I actually believed that humanity was worth saving.

The glass ceiling of the intersecting tower rushes up to meet me. I strike it, tumble half a dozen times before I am able to right myself, and begin sliding down the slanted surface. The glass is hot beneath me, baked by the sun through the whole of the afternoon. I splay my arms out, attempting to direct my slide so I stay at the center of the structure, rather than flying over the edge and dropping to the hard concrete below. 

A panel to my right explodes. The sound of gunfire reaches my ears. 

I adjust my weight and begin swerving back and forth across the glass, each turn punctuated by a shuddering, juddering vibration up my arm and a painful squeal each time my palm touch the glass. A glance up and back shows the woman in orange standing in the broken window where I jumped, reprimanding an armored guard. I supposed that shooting her own employees is a step too far. Or maybe she’s just afraid of city Security intervening if her guards continue to fire their weapons outside. 

Below, the earth approaches with the rapid certainty of death. The spurts from the fountain dance in the cold evening wind. I press my elbows into the glass, trying to slow my descent so I don’t overshoot the water and scrape across the concrete like a bloody comet.

Then I’m falling again, dropping a dozen feet from the edge of the building into the pool that surrounds the low slung wing of the side structure. The water strikes me like concrete. I skid and tumble across the surface, carom off a fountain spout, and slam into one of the steel pillars placed around the perimeter of the pool. Breath explodes from my body and darkness falls over me, a dark more intense than the setting of the sun. 

I’m heavy. I’m sinking. The water will soon close over me, drawing me into its depths and drowning me. I’ll choke on it, inhale it, fight for a brief moment as my lungs try to extract oxygen from the thick liquid. 

Then I’ll be dead. 

That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Hell can’t be much worse than the life I’ve been trapped in for the last thirty years. And maybe god will remember all those prayers I said as a child, the heartfelt recitations of the sinner’s prayer at every church revival. The desperate pleas for Christ to take away my sinful nature every time I looked at another boy and felt a stirring, or saw a bare breast in an advertisement and had to choke back the hunger that it stoked in me. Maybe every time I whispered the names of god as Seth and I made love will count as prayers to release me from the inevitable torment. 

Water washes over my skin. Perhaps this will count as a second baptism if I pray for salvation again, right here in the fountain. 

The daemon wraps its talons around my throat and begins tightening its grip, pulling me down, dragging me to hell.

Voices of the damned cry out from below me. Thousands, millions, billions slaughtered by the plague and dragged down into perpetual darkness. I can hear them screaming. I feel their hands clawing at me, rending the concrete and stone around me, pulling me down into the earth to face my final judgement.

Emulated

A sparse, delicate fall of snow has begun by the time we leave Tamar’s and begin walking towards the upper district. The flakes glint in technicolor flashes as they flit past billboards displaying the usual assortment of product placement and public service advertisements: Upgrade your body with a com implant! Extremist cults are illegal! Get your phage booster today! Though half the billboards we pass have cracks in the screens or dead pixels somewhere in their display, the relentless drive of commerce and social engineering continues unabated.

“We need someplace private with secure network access,” Iris says, pressing close to me as we move past a section of sidewalk that has been cordoned off by warning tape. A twisted lamp post stands at the center of the tape like a diseased tree, surrounded by a pile of shattered glass from a window that was knocked loose five stories up. 

“Schuster has both.”

“We need to be closer to the YuriCo headquarters. Once I’ve got the access codes and file names we’ll have to move quickly.”

“Hold on,” I snap, stepping in front of Iris and scowling down at her like a disappointed father. “You’re telling me that after everything we went through this morning you still don’t have the codes?”

She shrugs and pushes past me, continuing her march. I want to shout after her, to demand an answer, but there’s only so much I can say here on the public street with the stream of pedestrians surging around us. We already make for an incongruous couple, the withered man in a battered black coat and the child in a stained sundress, without me screaming for an explanation of why we just murdered five people if it didn’t even get us the codes.   

So I step quickly to catch up with her, then mutter, “I thought you already got what you needed from that scalp massage.”

“I took a mind state image. I’ll be able to play it back and get whatever I need, resetting it whenever I make a mistake. Much better than physical torture.”

“Just like that? You have everything?”

She waggles the fingers of her left hand at me, smiling devilishly. “We worked very hard to perfect this tech.”

“I guess…” I hesitate, wondering what I had expected the mind transfer to look like. “I guess I thought that it would be more like a body scan. Lots of big, expensive equipment.”

“It used to be. Now, about that network access. Hotel?”

“Absolutely not. Their bandwidth is always saturated.” 

I trigger my ancillary and request directions to the virtual reality arcade nearest to YuriCo headquarters. There’s one only three blocks west and, before I can even give her the address, Iris nods and says, “Great idea.”

“It’s creepy when you do that.”

“Creepier than being a killer robot in the body of a little girl?”

“You’ve got a point.”

At the arcade I drop the desk clerk an additional fifty percent of the room fee in chits to ensure that we’ll be alerted if anybody comes. He pockets the chits, raises an eyebrow at Iris, and waves for us to follow him back into the warren of padded chambers.

“We’re only supposed to have one participant in each chamber,” he says, waving his hands towards the capsules which line both sides of the hallway. The omnipresent neon lighting reflects in rainbows across his chromed fingernails and washes all shadow from his face as he continues, “But I can make an exception for you.”

He stops at an entryway and taps a keycard agains the door, which slips aside whispering a melodic tone. The attendant hands me the keycard and grins, saying, “You’re paid up for three hours.”

Inside, the VR chamber is approximately four feet square and seven high, with a set of retractible metal steps leading down to the floor, which is slightly curved. Overlapping rubber gaskets connect the floor to the walls, hiding the machinery which allows the floor to pitch up to forty-five degrees in any direction while gliding to keep pace with the player’s steps. A harness dangles from the ceiling, along with ruggedized connectors for a variety of VR headsets and body suits. On one side of the room, a small wall-mounted shelf holds a basic headset and a bottle of electrolyte water, beside which a worn body suit hangs over a small bench. 

“The chamber is soundproof?” I ask as I descend the aluminum steps. 

“Just about. Can’t have players disturbing one another.”

“What about network access? I might need to download some client patches.”

“You should have full cellular signal, local wireless, and there’s a hardline somewhere in the connector bundle,” he replies, stepping into the chamber and pointing to the tangle of connectors dangling from the ceiling.

“Will this do?” I ask, looking to Iris.

“Perfectly.”

“I’ll leave you to it then. I’ll toggle the lights if anybody comes asking for you.”

When the clerk is gone I look to Iris and raise an eyebrow. “Did you really download his mind? I can’t imagine that our entire consciousness could be transferred so quickly.”

In response, she steps over to the immersion harness and begins strapping herself in. “Help me jack in, will you? This will go faster if I have a hardline.”

I pull the connection bundle down a bit lower and select the network adapter from the assortment of cables. Iris brushes aside her hair, then uses a fingertip and thumb to pull apart the synthetic flesh behind her left ear, revealing a network jack. Plugging the cable in to the side of her head feels like an act of violation, as if I am sliding one of my blades into her tender flesh, flensing it away to reveal the machine within. As the connector clicks into place, I half expect her to respond with a cry of pain or a shudder of dread. 

Neither happens.

“Go ahead and attach the power input too. I may draw energy more than my generators can recharge during this.”

A second plug, this one inserted behind her right ear. It’s somehow a relief to see that, whatever Iris’s synthetic body might have been built for, and whatever strange service she has pressed it into, it is still a machine built by humans using off the shelf connectors. 

Iris finishes strapping herself into the harness and taps at the integrated control nubs, raising it until only her toes are touching the floor as she dangles in the center of the room. I step back, looking into her face and wondering how much humanity remains. Wondering, not for the first time, whether I am actually helping a human woman, or if I have been duped by money and a caricature of childlike desperation into helping a syntellect commit murder and larceny. 

“You don’t have to stay here for this,” Iris says, her voice cold. “It may be unnerving.”

I step in front of her and grasp the straps, holding her still as I say, “Why go to all that trouble? If, and I’m still saying if, you can clone a mind so quickly, why not download him the car as we were escaping? Hell, why not drug him and do it right there in his home?”

She cocks her head to the side and gives me a half smile, as if I am a bright, but uneducated child. “Guess.”

“Maybe drugs would interfere?”

The slightest hint of a nod.

“He had to be conscious for the process to take place.”

“It helps. Directed lucid dreaming would have been as effective, but far more difficult and prone to errors.”

“And you wanted him dead anyway.”

She raises her eyebrows, acknowledging.

“So might as well bring him someplace where the signal won’t get out. Where he can’t scramble his passcodes before we use them. Where it’ll be week or months before anyone finds the body.”

“Very good, Talbot. Now, I’m going to warn you again that you might want to step out for the next few minutes. The mind cannot function in a stored state. It has to be activated. Has to run on a compatible platform. Think of it like self-compressing encrypted virtual machine image. You can move the data around, copy it, even delete a few random bits without destroying it, but until you unpack it and allow it to decrypt itself, you can never be certain where the data you need is located.”

“And, let me guess,  you’re the platform.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll be right here. If you need me to disconnect the network, just say so.”

“If that’s your decision, so be it. Don’t get too close. There’s no telling what he might make me do.”

With that she closes her eyes and goes limp in the harness. 

I take a step back and settle down on the stairs. For the next few minutes nothing happens. I take that time to calm my nerves, breathing deeply and forcing myself to ignore the daemon clawing at the back of my mind, whispering that my actions are going to get Tamar and Schuster and everyone else I know killed. That I’ve become the puppet of a rogue syntellect. That I should just walk away now and go back to my old life. It’s not like I am desperate for money, and I don’t know if I really believe anything that Iris has said about the capabilities of this technology.

Then she begins to speak. 

“Mind state unpacked. Beginning simulation in five, four, three, two, one…” her entire body goes slack. Her mouth falls open as her neck collapses forward, dangling her head and arms like an abandoned puppet.

Then her mouth opens in a scream. Her body contorts in its bonds, arms and legs pulling inward until she’s dangling in a fetal curl in mid air, body racked by spasms. An instant later her limbs go limp again and she collapses, legs and arms swinging unsupported.

She raises her head and looks directly at me, lips curling into a cruel snarl. “What did you do to me?” 

“Me? Nothing.”

“Where am I?” The voice shifts as she speaks, modulating down several tones until it is closer to the sound of a grown man than a girl child. “And what are you trying to-“

Then Iris’s voice is back, cutting off the male voice as if they were arguing face to face, rather than inhabiting the same body. “I’m asking the questions here.”

Another scream, this one a howl tinged with rage as Ortiz Abaroa realizes that he is not in control of his own body. Not even in own body.

I can’t help wondering how I would react in the same situation. Imagining the existential crisis of waking to find oneself in a body that is not your own. The sudden onset of body dysphoria, after a lifetime of being comfortable in one’s own skin. It might not be so bad for me, I decide, considering that I have never felt comfortable in my own head. The sudden transition into such a radically different body might be surprising, but I wonder whether the process of learning to inhabit the new form might unlock something in me. Might give me the opportunity to learn what it is about myself I am unable to love. 

Abaroa certainly isn’t as sanguine about the change as I imagine I might be. 

The screaming subsides with a shudder and the male voice speaks again. “You’ll never get it.”

“Oh, I will,” Iris says.

 Something overtakes her face then. In an instant the body’s face goes from slack to rigid. Then it begins to twitch, lips moving so rapidly that they begin to blur. Words spill from its mouth, the two voices blending together as the body spits syllables faster than I can understand them. The sounds continue to accelerate until they form a constant drone, interrupted by staccato blips of silence.

If not for everything that I have seen Iris do in the last few days, I would think that I was going mad. 

The temperature in the chamber begins to rise, drawing forth spots of sweat across by forehead and dampening my shirt. I check the control panel beside the door and lower the climate control set point by 10 degrees. I step closer to Iris and reach out a hand, feeling the heat radiate from her body as I approach. Whatever she is doing, it is putting an intense strain on her body.

I take the temperature as low as it can go and shiver as a blast of cold air passes over me. The chamber is designed to simulate environments ranging from frigid arctic tundra to dripping wet jungles. If I have to turn it into an icebox to prevent Iris from overheating, so be it. 

The lights flicker. 

Odd. I don’t know how Iris’s body is powered or what sort of processing core she uses, but she can’t be putting a strain on the power grid. The standard adapter plug I used has a maximum power draw and will burn out the power supply long before it affects the building’s grid. 

The lights flicker again.

A signal. 

I draw a ceramic blade from my sleeve and step up to the door, then activate the small screen that shows the corridor outside. The corridor is empty, save for a woman in yoga pants and a sports bra ducking into a VR chamber several doors down, at the edge of the frame.  

I press the release icon on the frame and the door whispers aside into the wall. I glance left, then immediately right, moving casually as if I were merely looking for the restroom. On my left, I see a pair of Vakha clones moving towards me down the corridor, hands tucked into their jackets. On my right, I see the communal toilet fifteen feet down the hall. If the twins draw their guns and shoot, I’m dead. But I can’t let them get to Iris. I palm the door shut, hesitating just long enough to hear it lock, then start walking towards the bathroom.

A ceramic knife is a versatile weapon for many reasons. The blade is lightweight and sharper than steel, perfect for cutting a rope, penetrating clothing, or slicing skin. Most importantly, there is no metal in the blade, allowing it to pass through metal detectors and be used to cut electrical wires with minimal risk. There are, however, two critical downsides to a ceramic blade: They are more brittle than steel blades and, more important to this moment, they are terrible as throwing knives because they are so light. 

Still, it’s better than nothing.

“Talbot!” One of the Vakhas shouts.

Of course they recognize me. With daily memory synchronization and real time backup of sensory data, they all know me by now. I wish that Iris could tell me how many there are, or how to turn off the factory that keeps spitting them out. 

In response I turn and throw my knife directly at the chest of the Vakha on the left, then spin back around and dodge into the bathroom. They both shout in alarm and I hear the blade clatter against the wall. I wasn’t expecting to kill either of them, just hoping to slow them so they wouldn’t have time to shoot me in the back. 

The bathroom door swings shut behind me and I step to the side, pressing my back to the wall and drawing my second blade. Half a dozen stalls line the walls opposite a sink backed by a mirror framed in translucent tiles which bleed shifting neon colors. Player stats scroll down the mirror, their ghostly letters and graphs keeping customers appraised of their position in the five most popular games. Outside, footsteps echo on the glossy black and white tiles. I overhear a shouted profanity and imagine that one of the Vakhas has just failed to open the VR chamber door. Doubtless he’ll coerce the clerk into overriding the lock soon. I need to stop him before that happens. 

The bathroom door slams open, Vakha entering in a blur with his gun arm extended. 

I twist into his path and ram my knife into his chest. 

The force of our collision knocks us both off balance and we slam into the door of one of the stalls. It swings open, spilling Vakha across the toilet and leaving me to crash shoulder first into the door support. The polycarbonate buckles on impact and I cry out in agony as the edge of the frame rams into the joint of my shoulder. Vakha raises his gun and fires it, blasting a fist sized hole in the plastic inches from my head.  

Somebody screams in one of the other stalls. 

The daemon surges, clawing at my chest and pissing bile into my throat, but I hammer it back into the dark corners of my mind. 

I’m not going to die here. 

Not now. 

I lash out with a foot, slamming my boot into Vakha’s gun hand and sending the weapon spinning away under the stall dividers. Vakha roars at me, blood spraying from his lips, and lunges at my legs. I stumble back and lose my footing, barely managing to catch the edge of the counter with my elbow rather than the side of my head. 

Another gunshot shatters the mirror behind my head. The embedded display seizes and scatters a kaleidoscope of unaligned polygons across the smart glass. 

The second Vakha is standing in the door, adjusting his aim downwards to hit me. 

The first Vakha has clambered to his feet and is clutching at the knife protruding from his sternum as he stumbles forward.

I push off from the counter and slide under the door of the second toilet stall, pursued by a bullet which shatters the tile floor directly behind me, peppering my head and shoulders with spalling. The stall is occupied by a young man, who is desperately scrabbling to pull his pants up as an erotic animation spools on the battered eper laying beside the toilet. I leap to my feet, grab him by the front of his shirt, and twirl us around to slam him into the door just as two more bullets punch through the stall door, freezing the embedded display half way through some pro-gamer’s enthusiastic endorsement of an upgraded immersion suit. The man’s eyes bulge and his knees go limp as I scramble behind the toilet for Vakha’s gun. 

There it is, in the next stall. 

The dead man collapses just as I duck and reach under the partition for the gun. Another bullet rips through the door, scrambling the ad display, and shatters the toilet beside me. 

The gun is in my hand. I kick off the dead gamer’s body and slide into the next stall, raise the gun in the general direction of Vakha on the far side of the door, and pull the trigger.

Nothing happens. 

A glance tells me that the gun has a secure grip, which is now glowing with a pale orange light. 

“Move,” a voice commands from behind me. A hand presses against my left side and, without pausing to think, I step to my right. 

A gun swings into my vision and barks three times. The stall divider and door shatter in a spray of yellow plastic and polychrome advertising displays. I rip the door open, not pausing to wonder who is behind me, and hurl the disabled gun into the face of the second Vakha, who is already reeling from the spray of shattered glass unleashed by my unknown savior’s gunshots. He shouts in surprise and pain, firing two more shots blindly into the bank of toilet stalls.

The first Vakha is leaning agains the counter, still clutching at the knife, too weakened to pull it from his own chest. I slam a fist into the side of his head, rip the knife from his chest, and twist around his stunned from to slam the knife into the throat of the second Vakha. Blood sprays from his neck, painting the yellow and white tile lurid red as he drops his gun and collapses to the floor, clawing at his throat. The first Vakha follows him, groaning in agony as he clutches at his chest in a vain attempt to staunch the flow of blood from his wound. I grab both of their guns from the floor and throw them into the recycler slot and am about to leave when a shout freezes me:

“Stop or I’ll shoot you too!” 

I turn to look over my left shoulder and see a woman in a pixelated green and black dress standing in the ruined opening of the stall, clutching a tiny gun in her hands. She’s got platinum blonde hair, blue lipstick, and a face that’s icily composed considering her toilet was just interrupted by three men trading gunshots. 

“Who are you?”

“Thanks for saving my skin in there,” I say, ignoring her question and nodding to the stall she’s just emerged from. “I’m going to give you my business card, that alright?”

She nods, but the gun doesn’t move. 

I reach my right hand into an inner pocket of my coat, moving deliberately and painfully aware that my left hands is still clutching a knife that’s dripping with blood. 

Blood. 

No. Don’t think about the blood. Or the filthy floor that I’ve been crawling across. 

The daemon begins howling in the back of my left hand, wrapping its claws around my wrist as it stretches its lying tongue towards my ear to whisper than I am going to die now. All this blood, here in a public restroom, there’s no way I haven’t been exposed to something lethal. 

I bite down on my tongue. Not so hard as to draw more blood, just enough to refocus my brain and chase the daemon away for a little longer.

I hold up an eper business card in my right hand. “I owe you. You ever need help with anything, and I mean anything, use this to contact me. Now, I need to leave because I’ve got another client waiting for me. You might want to leave too, because there are probably more of these clone freaks on the way.”

“Who are you?” She demands, still in control. Her aim never wavers as she watches me set the card onto the countertop.  

“Talbot Liu. Maybe give me a call even if you don’t need help. I have work for someone like you. Cool under pressure. Not afraid to fire a gun in the city.”

She doesn’t lower the gun, but her eyes narrow, then she nods once. 

I cock my head towards the door. “I’m going now. Are you going to shoot me?”

She lowers the gun, but keeps it ready. 

I tap the card with a fingertip and say again, “Call.”

Then I’m gone, running down the corridor and back to the VR chamber. 

Opening the door, I’m hit with a wave of hot air. Even with the air conditioner blasting at full strength, Iris is generating so much heat that the system cannot fully compensate. I approach her, wondering how I am going to get her out of this place if she won’t end whatever program is overloading her processors. 

“Iris!” I shout.

Her eyes snap open. 

“Can you hear me?” 

She nods.

The lights begin to flicker again. 

“We need to get out of here. Are you able to leave?” 

Already I can feel the heat dissipating as she says, “Yes. I’m finished with him, for now.”

She reaches up and unplugs both cables from the sides of her head, then lowers her harness and steps out of it. “I have everything we need to get into the vault, but we need to move quickly.”

“Tell me about it,” I reply. A furtive glance out the door shows me an empty hall, so whatever has the clerk spooked enough to be hammering the light switch must still be in the lobby with him. “Tell me about it when we’re on the street.”

A glance to the right tells me that a crowd is gathering at the bathroom door. No way to make it past to the emergency exit without pushing through them. Back towards the lobby the path is still clear, so I decide to risk going that way. If we can make it to the street we should be safe, for the moment. Even Vakha wouldn’t be foolish enough to attack us on the surveilled streets, I hope.

We’re three steps from the lobby when I see the cause of the flickering lights. The clerk is cowering behind his desk, tapping insistently at the light icon on his control screen as he stares out the window at the Security cruiser just pulling up to the curb outside. I can just make out the distant wail of an ambulance, or perhaps more Security vehicles, closing in on the arcade. 

He turns to me with a panicked look on his face. His voice is strained to a hollow squeak as he says, “The gunshots triggered the automatic alarm.”

It’s then that I notice he is cradling his left arm and hand, the fingers of which are obviously disjointed. 

“The twins do that to you?” I ask. 

“Yeah. Bastards didn’t even give me the chance to sell you out.”

He flinches as I reach into my coat, then looks almost comically relieved as I toss a roll of chits onto the counter, along with one of my cards. “Help us out of here and I’ll owe you.”

Two Security agents in black tactical armor are moving towards the door now. If not for the mirrored glass they would already be able to see us. The clerk swipes the chit and card into his pocket, then steps back and palms open a door marked “Associates Only”. 

“There’s an employee entrance at the back. Go.”

We slip through and close the door behind us, then pause. Iris and I share a glance, then both lean against the door and listen. We hear the clerk telling the police about the “twins” showing up and breaking his fingers. About gunshots down the hall.

That’s enough to convince us that he isn’t going to immediately betray us. Hopefully the chits and my card will be enough for him to keep his mouth shut going forward. 

At the back door, we pause. Iris, still radiating the heat of her interrogation, looks up at me with questioning eyes. “If anyone tries to stop us, it’s back to the father and child bit. We’re trying to escape from a gunman.”

“You look the role,” she replies. “Those cuts on your face might make it a bit harder to get into the data vault.”

“That’s what you get for creating an army of killer clones.”

I shove the door open and we step out into the afternoon light. The rear of the shop opens onto a loading bay shared by all of the shops in this block. A wide alleyway takes us out to the street, where we join the early evening crowd and begin making our way towards the YuriCo office tower. If we were further away I would be concerned that my appearance would attract attention and get us stopped by Security, but even the ever vigilant eyes of the Security restrillect probably won’t flag me immediately. For all they know I’m on my way to a themed party, or taking part in a work of performance art or unlicensed filming. When you build an omniscient artificial intelligence watchdog, it’s just as important to train it to ignore aspects of human behavior as it is to teach the neural network to identify potential threats, otherwise you get a system that raises potential terrorism flags for every child playing cops and robbers on the street, to say nothing for the infinite variety of deviant behavior exhibited by adults. 

“What happened?” Iris asks.

“Two more Vakha clones showed up,” I reply, shouldering through a crowd gathered outside a home theater showroom. “I dealt with them.”

“I didn’t expect them to find us so fast.”

“Well, if Javier managed to tap into the city’s surveillance network I imagine YuriCo has full API access. They’re probably watching us now.”

“Could be.”

“What about you? Your body is still about thirty degrees hotter than it ought to be and I had the AC running full blast in there.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do.”

“You really don’t.”

I stop suddenly and grab Iris by the arm, eliciting angry outbursts from the people walking behind us. I shoot them all a withering glare and then pull Iris towards the windows of the restaurant we had been walking past. “I’m tired of being jerked around here, Iris. You’re going to tell me what the hell we’re getting into and what you just did back in the arcade, or I’m walking.”

She raises an eyebrow, apparently surprised by my sudden profanity. I’m a bit surprised as well, but the stress of taking down two assassins is getting to me. The daemon cackles behind my eyes and I bite my tongue to keep myself from shouting a further string of profanities into the heavens. 

“I put both of our minds into an accelerated timeframe,” Iris finally says. “It’s like when you’re emulating old software and everything runs too quickly because modern processors are exponentially more powerful. The mind runs at a clock speed of around two hundred cycles per second. I engaged every bit of computing power I have in my body, all the distributed processors and neural networks built into every part of me, and ran both of our minds in parallel at about ten times that rate.”

“Don’t lie to me, Iris.”

“It’s not quite that simple, yes, but I’m not lying.”

“And the point of all that was…”

“Every minute that passed for you, we were experiencing between three and twenty, depending on the intensity of the simulation. I managed to extract his passwords and the names of all of the files we need to download from the YuriCo data vault.”

“Why can’t you just download everything remotely?” I ask. “I’ve seen Vakha transfer memories. There must be some way to access the servers externally.”

“Some of them, but they only hold the code in compiled form. Think of it like this, Talbot: It’s one thing to steal a box of data cards from a store. You can get whatever music or movies or whatever is stored on those cards, but you don’t get the musicians or actors. If we’re going to give this tech to the world, we need access to the hardware schematics and software source code. Only then will people be able to replicate it free of YuriCo’s interference.”

“You’re serious about this.”

“Dead serious. Now, let’s get to their offices before Vakha realizes that the data vault is our target.”

Seth

I had the good fortune to lose my mind six months after Red Easter and spend the next three years locked in the mental health ward of a military hospital in Quantico. 

Fortunate in the sense that I managed to skip over the worst of the plague by curling into a fetal position and screaming at my daemon for hours on end, occasionally emerging watch decontamination teams spray the emergency room entryway with dilute acid disinfectant through my window. They remembered to feed me, usually, but therapy sessions were few and far between as the surviving hospital staff spent their days playing hide and seek with a weaponized strain of necrotizing fasciitis. By the time they got around to releasing me, the exit evaluation was perfunctory and my approval for release likely based more on dwindling food stocks than a genuine assessment of my improved mental health. 

But I managed. I kept the single blister pack of lorazepam they gave me in my pocket, fondling it like a good luck charm whenever the daemon started to whisper lies into my mind. A few times I broke down and took a couple of the pills, but for the most part I managed to cope by personifying my anxieties, externalizing them, and telling myself repeatedly that I have the will to survive. And when that failed, curling into a ball in the bathtub of a cheep motel and screaming for a couple of hours usually did the trick.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a bathtub here in the back seat of the car, so I’ll have to settle for the screaming. 

“Are you finished yet?” Iris asks, leaning around the front seat of the autocar that we summoned once we reached the edge of the city. I say we, but frankly she did most of the work, ordering my ancillary to call us a ride, then rigging the stolen car’s battery to explode while I busied myself with having a panic attack on the side of the road. 

I reply by transitioning from repeated screams to a sustained low whimper, which she correctly interprets as me saying, “No, but almost.”

I’ve mostly collected myself by the time our ride pulls up outside Tamar’s. As the flashing purple neon washes through the windows, my daemon finally agrees to take a back seat for a little while and I pull myself upright in the back seat. 

“That’s quite a problem you have there,” Iris says.

“You haven’t seen me on a bad day.”

She inspects me critically, then asks, “Can I trust you to do what I need?”

“I’m fine on the job,” I say, paying for the autocar with the free credits Ethie arranged for me. “It’s the aftershock that gets to me.”

“You sure you aren’t too afraid?”

“Eh, I always figure that having a little fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

We climb from the car and approach the rear door to Tamar’s, where Sven and Derrin are sharing pulls from a vaporizer. They nod to me as I approach, then Sven’s eyes narrow. 

“What’s with the kid, bossman? You know the rules.”

“Remember when I asked you about your cousins?” I ask, not even breaking my stride.

Derrin suppresses a laugh, then grunts as Sven punches him the shoulder. “Least I got family here. Boss, I’m just looking out for T’s license. You don’t want anyone catching a kid in here and getting the wrong idea.”

“She’s just a companion bot carrying some data for me. We’ll go up to my office, do the transfer, then be out within the hour.” I stop, my hand on the door pull. “Unless you want to tell me I can’t go into my own club?”

Sven chews on that, scowling at Iris as he works his jaw. “Still not comfortable, bossman. We got rules for a reason.”

Iris steps up to Sven and smiles beatifically up at him, then says, “Don’t worry, Sven… Or, rather, Steven. If you don’t give me any trouble I won’t tell Talbot about what you did down in Atlanta.”

Sven’s eyes pop wide and his jaw goes slack. His eyes dart from Iris to me, then out to scan the street for watching drones. He speaks in a hushed tone, “What’s this about? I’ve never even been—“

“To Druid Hills?” Iris whispers. Her voice barely loud enough to be heard, but it’s enough to stop Sven’s tongue and close his mouth with an audible click. 

We stand beneath the blinking purple lights in the chill for a long moment, then Sven swallows and steps aside, raising his hands in surrender as if Iris were pointing a weapon at his chest. I nod to him, wondering what secrets he left behind down south, but not particularly inclined to pry. Iris flashes him a grin then follows me into the back hall. Before the door even closes Derrin is laughing and punching Sven in the arm.

“What was that about?” I ask as we ascend the steps to my apartment, pursued by the relentless kick of drum and bass echoing through the thin walls. 

“Nothing you need to fire him over.”

“You sure? Tamar and I run a tight operation here. Full service viral load clinic. Security detail for every private party and fully anonymized reporting for our staff. I hate to think that we might have somebody who’s a danger to the manikins.”

“Steven didn’t react well when the plague hit. Blamed it on the wrong people and exacted a bit of vigilante justice before he was convinced that Beacon of Glory was responsible.”

I nod, slowly. “I’m really curious how you know so much about people.”

“I’m still tied into a lot of databases.”

Sven wouldn’t be alone in having some crimes in his past, if Iris has access to the right criminal databases. Plenty of people turned against one another after Red Easter. The infection was first reported in Israel, with the inevitable result that western media heaped blame on Islamist extremists. That suspicion only grew as the plague cropped up in European and American cities. Mosques were vandalized across the western world and more than a few assaults occurred, though reports of these were buried amid the horrors of video coming from infected cities. When it became clear that the plague had also been unleashed at Ramadan celebrations in Mecca and theme parks throughout Asia, people found new targets for their vengeance. China cracked down on religious organizations and democratic activists. Synagogues were burned throughout the Middle East. The flow of reprisals would likely have become a flood of violence, were it not for enforced curfews and quarantines in cities across the globe. 

Then the truth came out. 

“How did you make it through?” I ask as we climb the steps to my office. “Or are you too young to remember?”

“I’m probably older than you, Talbot. I was working eighty hour weeks in a clean room at the YuriCo office in research triangle when the plague hit, sleeping in employee crash cubes instead of going home. When it became clear that the plague had reached the Carolinas, the company instated a lockdown. They wouldn’t stop anyone from leaving, but nobody was allowed back on campus.”

My office smells of enzymatic cleaners and air freshener, but all signs of the carnage have been erased. I check the corners of the room as I step in, half expecting to find another Vakha clone waiting for me, but the room is empty except for Iris and me.

I go over to the one printed photo I still have of Seth and take it off the wall. The rational side of my brain says that this is ridiculous, and the daemon is screaming that I’m putting Tamar at risk by returning, but if I’m going on an insane mission to steal data from a corporate vault I want to have all the luck I can with me. 

“And you?”

“Isn’t that in your databases?”

“Sure, I just thought it more polite to ask.”

“I don’t think we need to worry about that,” I reply, extracting the photo from the frame.

“Suppose not. So, what came after you were released from Quantico? You kind of vanish for a while until you reappear here in the city almost seven years later.”

I hold onto the picture for a moment, studying Tamar’s youthful face, and the lines of Seth’s body, and my own unironic smile. Two, maybe three lifetimes have passed since the photo was taken. 

“It got really bad for a while after Beacon released their statement. At first nobody wanted to believe them. I mean, who’d think that a fundamentalist Christian group could be responsible for the single worst terrorist attack in history. Not that I have to tell you. You weren’t locked up for the worst of it like I was.”

“Tell me about it. There was this period of maybe two weeks when everybody was denying it, claiming that the Beacon of Glory were a false front put up by atheists, or muslims, or the jews, but Jephthah kept posting those videos, then the news networks brought him on for that interview.”

“I did see that. One of the doctors would sometime let us watch television in the common room.” 

Iris sits on the corner of my desk, her eyes downcast as she recalls those terrible days. “I never imagined that there could be such a sudden and complete reversal. Hell, Talbot, I had a cousin who spent years attacking me for becoming a cyberneticist, claiming that I was violating god’s natural laws, that I was an awful person. She contacted me in the midst of the uprising to apologize. To say that she was leaving her church and fully supported the feds cracking down religious groups.”

“Was she disappointed that it never came to that, what with the realignment?” I ask as fold the photograph and tuck it into an inside pocket of my coat. 

“She died. In a secondary outbreak the next winter.”

I don’t say anything to that. What is there to say? Back before the plague people used to express condolences and give lip service to sympathy whenever somebody mentioned losing a loved one. Now? Now we are all just lucky to be alive. We’ve seen the worst that humanity can do and managed to come through with some semblance of civilization, but there’s no use pretending that death isn’t coming for us anymore. The specter of mortality awaits all of us, be it in old age, a rogue nanite colony, or a drug resistant bacterial strain. 

“That’s why we have to get this technology out into the public, Talbot. Don’t you see it? The world needs this so we can move beyond out physical bodies. If we were able to back up our minds, then there would be no purpose in committing violence against the body.”

“Or there would be no consequence,” I say. 

She looks over to me and cocks her head inquiringly. 

“Sven didn’t want to let you in because we have rules against kids being exposed to what we do here. We don’t want them to see the power dynamics or hear the fetish language and, obviously, we don’t want to risk anyone taking advantage of someone who isn’t mentally prepared to give consent. All that’s important, Iris, because while the last few generations have come around to realizing that everybody has their peccadilloes, there are still plenty of people out there who are unequivocally evil in their tastes.”

“I don’t see what your sex trade has to do with saving people from death.”

“You want to save people. You want to make sure that people can be cloned and have their consciousness transferred in to fresh bodies. Have their brains encased in little robot bodies that can survive almost anything.”

“Yes.”

I pull out my handy and summon a profile from Tamar’s customer database. Within a few seconds the image of an elderly man with narrow, steel grey eyes and long white sideburns appears on the display.

I hand the phone to Iris. “This is Joshua Hopkin. You might know his name from the corporate circles. He’s banned from this club. Can’t hire our manikins for an outside party. Can’t come in and watch the stage shows. Can’t even sit in the bar and have a drink. You know why?”

“I accessed the report while you were talking.”

“Say it.”

“Because he tried to cut a manikin.”

“Because he did cut a manikin, but I got her distress signal and pulled him from the room before she had anything a medispray couldn’t bandage. This vile old shit wanted to flay her alive, just to watch her die.”

“And you know this because?”

“Because he became very familiar with my knife before I dumped him on the street outside his home and posted epers showing his play session on the door of every house in the neighborhood.”

“Thats…” she hesitates, searching for a word to adequately describe either my vengeance or Hopkin’s depravity.

“Justice. Nobody hurts anyone in Tamar’s house. Nobody.”

“Except you,” Tamar says from he doorway.

I turn and give her a crooked smile and shrug. “Somebody’s got to enforce the rules, I suppose. That’s why you brought be down here.”

Tamar glides across the floor and pulls me into a hug. I reciprocate, holding her tightly against me and wrapping my arms around her shoulders. “I was worried about you,” she whispers. 

“I should have been worried for you,” I reply. “Did anyone try to come here?”

“No. We haven’t seen any more of… them.”

We pull apart and I give her arms a reassuring squeeze. “Just keep watching, but I think those clone types are going to be the least of our problems soon.”

“Oh? Because of her?” she asks, nodding towards Iris.

“Yeah, sort of.” I release her and wave a hand in introduction. “This is Iris. The girl Ethie asked me to find.”

Tamar nods coldly, her eyes narrowed as she waits for the rest of the story.

“She killed Darby.”

Tamar isn’t one to be easily surprised. She’s been protecting this house and fielding the strangest customer requests imaginable for more than a decade, but this news makes her eyes go wide. She breathes a low whistle and shakes her head. “You can’t be serious.”

“I shot him,” Iris replies. “Though, to be fair, he had it coming.”

Tamar looks to me for confirmation. 

I shrug. Nod.

Tamar shakes her head in wonder. “How long do you think we have?” 

“I doubt that we’re in his data bomb, but I wouldn’t want to place any bets on who among the C-level executives is safe.”

“What are you talking about?” Iris asks, looking between us. “Is there something I should know about that bastard besides the fact that bringing him in to help with the extraction was a disaster.”

Part of my wants to immediately bite back, arguing that if she’d told me that she only needed  a few minutes alone with Abaroa we could have taken him to a parking garage and saved ourselves a whole pile of trouble, but that’s an argument for another day. I glance at Tamar, hoping she’ll take my look as a hint that she should handle this question, having been a part of the city’s underbelly a lot longer than I. 

She catches my look and explains, “Darby was head of one of the nastier crime syndicates. Not especially large, but he was influential enough to operate in the heart of the city, while most of the gangs remain on the fringes, preying on the newcomers and people who haven’t managed to hold down a corporate job. At first nobody could understand how Darby managed to get a foothold in the city, but a few years ago Darby announced that he had placed a large cache of damaging material on the network, triggered to be released if he was ever killed or arrested.”

“What sort of material?” Iris asks.

“Nobody knows, but we assume it includes evidence of corruption or cruelty from dozens of high profile individuals. There’s not a lot that’s illegal in the city, but Tal and I could tell you some stories about clients we’ve had to blacklist.”

“Are you worried that you’ll be exposed?” 

Tamar shrugs and waves away the proposition. “I’ve been a citizen since corporatization. Probably the worst thing they could pin on me is letting Talbot live above the club, and nobody really gives a shit about zoning permits anymore.”

“But you’re concerned that the disclosure could have a negative impact on your clientele.”

“Yeah. Something like that,” Tamar says, nodding.

“The real problem is that it’s an unknown. Darby was a vile excuse for a human being, but he was a known quantity. We knew to work around him. To encapsulate him. Now, well… we don’t know what is going to happen next.”

I give Tamar a half smile and nod towards the door. She’s been instrumental to my survival these last few years. I couldn’t hope for a better business partner or surrogate sister, but now all of that might have to change. “We’re leaving. Iris and I have some work to do that can’t get traced back to you.”

“I figured as much when you took Seth. Are you coming back?”

“Ideally. We’ll have to see what the fallout looks like.”

Tamar wraps her arms around my shoulders and places a gentle kiss on my forehead, then leans back to look down into my eyes. “You’ll always have a home with me, Talbot Liu. Try not to get yourself killed.”

I breathe deeply, unwinding the tension in my back, then shoulders, then neck. Silently curse myself for still carrying this burden of pain and revulsion. I manage to put one arm up and pat Tamar on the back. “Thanks, Tam.”

She releases me and turns to Iris, still sitting on the corner of my desk. Tamar settles her hands on Iris’s shoulders and looks down into her round, innocent eyes and says, “Don’t you get him killed. I don’t know who you are or what you’ve done to get him on your side, but he’s my only friend still alive from before everything went to blood and shit.”

Iris blinks innocently, then lets the mask drop. For an instant her features have the weight of a woman who has seen the worst of humanity and spent decades laboring to correct it. Her lips fall into a resolute line and she nods, slowly. “I’ll try, Tamar, but I’d be lying if I told you this won’t be dangerous.”

“Is it important?”

Iris nods emphatically. 

Tamar looks back at me and I shrug, then nod in agreement. 

“Then you’d better get to it.”

Liquid

The roadway carries us southward along the outskirts of the city’s territory. There’s some risk that we’ll be spotted by border patrol here, but the security restrillect is more concerned with people trying to enter the city’s territory than those leaving it. The roads out here are a maze of flood lands and broken tar, but I’ve driven this route before, years ago, when George and I were scouring the mire south of the city for resources. On a sunny day the worn roads stretch away into the south hills like hastily penciled sketches across mottled green paper, their edges indistinct due to encroachment from CarbZu and new growth forest. In the aftermath of the hurricane, every low place has been flooded and all but the most intense plant tangles have been ripped away by the storm and strewn across the road like rotting green viscera.

After nearly an hour’s drive, we arrive at the abandoned aquarium at the south-east edge of the city’s sprawl. Forty years ago this was a thriving riverside arts district, only a fifteen minute highway jaunt from the city core, the heart of a new suburban sprawl. Then the realignment set in, and the flooding got worse, taking down vulnerable outlying districts like so many mud huts caught downstream of a broken dam. The highway was cut off when the river surged, turning a minor offshoot into a raging branch, which ripped down the overpass, cutting off the district’s direct link to the city. 

 There was talk of redeveloping this section of the city someday. Of constructing dykes and storm walls to protect it from the sprawling delta that the river was trying to make of itself here at the ragged edge of the mire. Of rebuilding the river crossing so people could again live out here in the suburbs, commuting to work on the freshly renewed highway.

That all ended with Red Easter. 

In the space of a month, it became clear that expansion was the last thing that the human race needed. Like so much of the world, the population of the city was slashed by half as the plague raced across the globe, carried by worshipers returning home from religious festivals in Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. A wildfire of death swept across the globe, burning up flesh like the wrath of god. By the time phage therapy and brutal quarantines had checked the plague’s spread, nobody was thinking about building new suburbs anymore.   

I guide the car on manual through stagnant water still flooding the parking lot outside the aquarium and park beneath the collapsing facade of the loading dock canopy. Tufts of thistle and nettle poke up from cracks in the asphalt and hungry green lines of CarbZu vines crawl up the rusted steel and crumbling concrete of the building.

“Boss said to meet them inside,” Glenn mutters, pushing his door open.

“Where’s his car?” I ask.

“You think Darby would be dumb enough to leave a car where it could be spotted by a drone patrol or marauders? It’s probably in the parking garage, or covered over with camouflage someplace on the far side.”

“There you go using names. You sure you’re cut out for a life of crime, because you seem set on getting yourself caught someday,” I say, climbing out of the car and glancing around for any sign that others are present. I wish I had a fleet of drones to search the building and set up a parameter, but my resources are rather more limited since the Feds dumped me. 

“Not like he’s going to be telling anyone what I said,” Glenn replies.

That comment elicits a muffled scream from Abaroa. He begins thrashing against his seat belt and howling some nonsense about abduction insurance paying us to release him. Too bad for him we aren’t after money. 

“Shut up,” Glenn snarls, slamming his palm on the roof. He hauls the rear passenger door open, then slams a fist into Abaroa’s stomach. “Make yourself useful and you might get out of this alive. Keep making trouble and I’ll zap you. And that’s just bad for all of us. Got it buddy? I don’t want to haul your seizing ass out of the car. You don’t want to make me do that, because hauling you puts me in a bad mood, then I have to take out that bad mood on your balls with a rusty wad of steel wool. We understand one another?”

Abaroa stops struggling, then nods his head. 

Interrogation is a delicate process, one which requires a balance of psychological and physical agony with a subtle manipulation of the subject’s psyche. Proper interrogation, of course. A brute like Glenn or Darby will often fall into the trap of believing that direct torture is the most effective method, simply because it is easy and gets you eighty percent of what you want about eighty percent of the time. The problem is exactly in that phrasing: You get what you want. 

Take the average human criminal and tell them that you are going to cut off a finger every ten minutes until they reveal the address where a terrorist cell is assembling a dirty bomb. The first assumption that you need to make is that you have the right person, which anybody who has worked in intelligence will tell you is not a guarantee. Humans are unpredictable creatures and you’d be surprised how many times the man you arrest outside a warehouse full of suicide vests was just there because his ancillary told him that a skilled pharmacook had a lab there. Meanwhile, that aid worker you allow past security because she has a pretty face and a bag full of nanite-infused bandages turns out to be wearing a shaped charge under her jacket. 

Getting back to our buddy who is about to enter the realm of digital manipulation: Turns out that (lucky you!) he actually is a terrorist. Unfortunately, he joined the movement more because his cousin died during a corporate annexation. He doesn’t really want to kill anyone, but he feels the need to lash out against the company that did his family wrong. So he keeps his lips tight, and you start loosening his fingertips from his hands. At this point, two things go suddenly, irreversibly wrong: First of all, you lose any chance of mister tenfingers working with you somewhere around the moment that you change his name to ninefingers. There are exceptions, but most people are more likely to be radicalized than turned by torture. Secondly, just about the time your tinsnips are getting their first taste of flesh, Eddie Mangledhands starts to think of how he can get you to stop hurting him, if only for an instant. If he know the full details of the plot you’re in luck, but considering that compartmentalized data structures were added to The Total Idiot’s Manual for Terrorism sometime in the last century, Johnny Shortfingers will probably just tell you the first address that comes to mind, which is more likely to be a curry shop in the midden than his favorite Build A Bomb factory.

Which is all to say that having Glenn along is useful as muscle, and if we pull this job off I won’t have to worry about Darby hassling Tamar, but I’m going to have to keep an eye on their methods. Glenn has got a violent streak as wide as the river and Darby enjoys inflicting agony all too much.

We guide Abaroa up the steps and in through the loading dock, not taking any special care to prevent him from stepping in animal droppings and puddles along the way. Once inside, I take the lead and guide the others through the warren of storage areas until we reach the former public displays. After the aquarium closed and this district fell to the deprivations of plague and overgrowth, the few remaining marine biologists and service employees did their best to ensure that the marine animals would not all die now that funding for the aquarium was gone. To that end, they transferred the majority of the salt water creatures to the gargantuan glass shark tank which occupies the center of the facility, and did their best to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. We pass a plaque, now tarnished with age and fringed with moss, which proclaims this to be the largest single-tank aquarium in the Americas with over 13 million gallons of salt water. Above the plaque rises the tank itself: Wrapped about with a double-helix of spiral staircases, the shark tank rises more than fifty feet from the ground floor to the fourth story access decks. The laminated glass is streaked and fogged with decades of grime on the outside, but one needs only wipe away the filth to see the schools of colorful fish swimming lazily above a bed of coral

The custodians of the tank are long gone, some killed defending the aquarium against looters, others drawn away from their passion for this facility by promises of work in corporate research labs and hydroponic farms. Still, this edifice to there aquarium’s former glory endures, the ecosystem remaining miraculously in a fragile balance. 

We ascend the spiral walkway to the first level, stepping carefully to avoid rank puddles and swaths of encroaching moss. The fish swimming behind the glass continue their patient dances. A suckerfish crawls along the wall of the tank, greedily harvesting algae which has grown on the interior. 

“I never knew this place existed,” Iris says, her voice hushed. “We thought about leasing the land from the council and building a facility, but it was judged too dangerous by the accountants. Better to just build a new smart building at the edge of the city than go to the cost of refurbishing.”

“We don’t have much use for places like this except to party. And if you’re going to party, hell, might as well use someplace closer to home, what say?” Glenn adds.

Abaroa just trudges along in resigned silence. Maybe because he has a hood over his face. Maybe because the whole being kidnapped and led to a torture session has put a damper on his nostalgia for the glorious past.

We walk a quarter of the way around the tank until we come to a tarnished bronze archway set against the side of the tank. The metal is decorated with all manner of sea creatures, with octopi, starfish, and whales rendered in abstract, unscaled form. Cutout letters along the top of the arch proclaim, “Enter the Kingdom of the Sea!” Beneath the archway, the curved glass of the tank bends inward, deforming to create a tunnel which dives into the heart of the artificial sea. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel are formed from curved glass which extends down below the flat glass floor panels to provide a fully encompassing view of the water on all sides. 

The tunnel extends into the heart of the aquarium tank, where a domed observation platform rests like a bubble trapped at the center of an ice cube. All around us swim fish, large and small, churning through the water in schools as they continue their lives, oblivious to the changes that have been wrought in the world outside their tank. Red branches of kelp drift lazily in the convection currents, their fronds nibbled at by smaller fish and shrimp. Below us rise the jagged green and yellow trees of a coral forest, shot through with sparks of orange and blue as fish dart through the colony. The only light in the dome comes from the skylight above the tank, filtered to an opalescent blue-green by the millions of gallons of water surrounding us.

Reaching the center of the room, I use cable ties to bind Abaroa’s ankles together, then push him down onto his knees and pull his arms back, binding them down to the ankle tie so he cannot stand. 

I stand in front of him, check that my mask is still in place, and pull the bag from his head. “Here’s the deal: We’re going to ask you some questions and you’re going to give the true answers. Not what you think we want to hear. True answers.”

He blinks in the soft light, looking around in apparent confusion. Then his closes his eyes and shakes his head defiantly. 

A sickly cackle of a laugh echoes through the chamber, followed by Darby’s derisive voice. “You’re a bloody fool, Talbot. Do you really expect to get answers by asking nicely?”

I turn away from Abaroa to see Darby emerging from the tunnel at the far end of the dome, accompanied by two more guards. He moves with the ease of a man long accustomed to his massive frame, his blue leather shoes stepping lightly across the glass floor despite the weight they bear.   

“You’ve got to learn to apply the right sort of pressure. To make your guest feel as though they would do anything, say anything, betray anyone just to make the pain stop. Isn’t that right, Ortiz?”

Abaroa’s eyes snap open and he glares at Darby. “Who the hell are you?”

“I am Darby.”

“Darby? What are you, a bloody race horse?”

Glenn slams a fist into Abaroa’s face, knocking him to the floor. He lands hard on his right shoulder and groans as blood begins to drip out his nose and onto the textured glass tiles. 

I wait. Breathing slowly, willing myself back from the precipice. In my mind I go through the motions of hammering my fist into the side of Glenn’s head, twisting the gun from his hand while he is stunned, then tripping him and putting a hollow point into his chest from three inches away. I rehearse the motions, judge the likelihood of a through and through shattering the floor and decide that the multiple layers of laminated glass must be sufficiently strong to handle one gunshot since there are no weight limits posted outside the tunnel.

Darby cackles and steps closer, applauding. “Good instinct, Glenn, but we do need to keep his jaw intact for the moment.” He pauses beside me and crosses his hands over his belly, studying the bleeding man on the floor. “Oh, Ortiz, I am going to enjoy the next few days. You can’t imagine the pain that I will put you through if you don’t tell us what we want.”

“After I’m finished,” Iris says, stepping up to the man and kneeling down to look into his eyes. “Do you recognize me, Ortiz?”

Abaroa’s eyes flicker open for an instant, then his face twists in recognition and his eyes lock onto Iris. 

“Yes. It’s me, Ortiz. You thought you’d killed me, but here I am.”

“Screw you,” he snaps. 

Iris laughs and shakes her head. She grabs Abaroa by the shoulder and deftly rocks him back up to his knees, then stands in front of him and caresses his face with a single fingertip. “You can’t stop me, Ortiz. You can’t take the future away from the people.”

“The people?” he tries to pull his face away from her, but Iris presses her palm against his cheek, the same palm which unfolded like a deadly flower to fire a slug into Vakha’s head. He struggles for an instant, then relaxes and glares at her defiantly. “The people don’t even exist anymore, Iris. Republics had their run, but you know Dunbar theory as well as I do. Societies simply cannot support group compassion at high populations. The realignment was inevitable. If the plague hadn’t come than a war would have.”

“I’m not here to argue with you.”

“Good, because you’ll be dead soon. My extraction team is already on its way.”

“Nice try,” I interject. “But you don’t have a signal.”

Abaroa tries to turn towards me, but Iris still holds his face with one hand, her fingers locked onto his cheek like a vice.

“Thirteen million gallons of sea water around us. Signal repeaters have been dead for at least ten years. You and your ancillary can call out all you want, but you’re not going to get any help.”

Abaroa scowls at Iris, standing there in her short little body with her eyes nearly level with his. He tries to pull his face away from her, but she keeps the fingers of her left hand pressed to his cheek, then smiles angelically as she pressed her right hand to the other side of his face. Frames of memory flash in my mind, interpolating the sight of Iris’s palm peeling open to reveal a gun barrel and hurling a slug into Vakha’s face with the curiously tender movements of her hands now. 

“I need you help, Ortiz. I need you to tell me the new codes for the YuriCo data vault.”

“Screw… you…” he replies, the worlds coming out slowly, dripping with deliberate distain. 

“Let my men have a minute with him,” Darby chimes in. He waves a hand and one of the newly arrived bodyguards steps forward and unfurls a rolled case containing a variety of implements. Darby lingers over his options for a moment, then plucks a pair of pliers from the case and holds them up to inspect like a fine jewel. He smiles, then proffers the pliers to Glenn and says, “Precisely one minute. I want to see how many fingernails Glenn can take in sixty seconds.”

In response, Iris sighs, shakes her head, and plunges the fingertips of her left hand into Araboa’s brainstem. 

Darby unleashes a stream of profanity and jumps back, dropping the pliers. Glenn and the other guards raise their guns and scurry to stand between their employer and the grisly operation. 

Reality stutters for an instant. In the space of a blink Glenn, Darby, and the other guards have rearranged themselves to stand in a tight group off to the right, were Darby can more easily watch the atrocity unfold. I rip the mask from my face and breathe deeply, smelling the blood and the salty water and the rust and the mold, fixating on those solid smells so I don’t drop into a dissociative state. The panic can wait. The daemon can hold its screams.

I move around to the left until I can see the back of Abaroa’s head, where the fingertips of Iris’s left hand have sprouted four sinuous metallic cables, which now plunge into the back of his head. Blood and spinal fluid drip from the cables as Abaroa’s bound limbs begin twitching, but Iris keeps his head steady in her grip as the probes do something inexplicably awful to his mind. 

“You know this was going to happen?” Darby snaps, looking at me with wide eyes. “This is the strangest method of torment I’ve ever seen.”

“Just keep calm. You’ll get your money and then we’ll be even,” I shoot back, unable to pull my eyes from Iris and her victim.

“Shit, Tally, I’ve got to know what she’s doing to him.” I begin to realize that Darby is less afraid than invigorated by the bizarre scene unfolding before him. “Man, whatever this is I’ve got to have it.”

I remain silent, focusing on the bizarre coupling taking place before me. Leave it to Darby to see a demonstration of cutting edge cyborgization and find in it the means to torture his debtors. I’ve done my share of cruelty in my line of work and there are surely people who would prefer that I listen to the daemon and off myself, but I can always count on Darby to be the villain in the shadows, making me look positively kind in comparison to his monstrosity. 

Abaroa lets out a scream that echoes from the walls, caroming down the passageways like a tsunami before reverberating back into the observation dome, then collapses like a deflated balloon. He sags against his bonds, back flexing until he rests in a sagging, squashed ovoid.

Iris turned away from the deflated body and looks up at me. “I’m done with him. If you want access to his accounts you should probably take his hands and eyes for biometrics.”

“That’s it?” Darby asks. “Don’t we need to, you know, get his passwords out of him? Extract the location of his data vault?”

“I have all I need. Talbot will give you the passwords you need to loot his accounts after we are safely out of here. Between that and his biometrics you should have everything you need.”

There’s a long moment as we stand in silence, looking at one another in the shifting underwater light. Iris smiles beatifically, seemingly unaffected by whatever horrors she has just inflected upon Ortiz Araboa. She’s a coiled spring. A perfect machine ready to attack with deadly precision. 

Glenn begins to fidget, his gun hand wavering as he clicks the pliers rapidly open and closed. His eyes twitch between Darby, me, and Abaroa, causing the twin lightning bolts on his face to ripple. 

“Patience…” Darby mutters, as if warning a snarling dog to remain at heel. 

“Do we have to kill him?” I ask, proffering the question in hopes of breaking the tension.

“Doesn’t sound like you,” Darby replies, his tone mocking. “Hell, Tally, way I remember it we first met because you cut up one of my soldiers.”

“Some of us do what it takes to survive, and some get off on pain. I’ll leave it to you to guess which of us is the sadist.”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Iris says, stepping away from Araboa and flicking gore from the wires protruding from her fingers. I try to look away, but my eyes remain fixed on her hand as the probes retract into her fingertips like silvery tongues slipping back into serpentine mouths. “So long as YuriCo doesn’t get their claws on him in the next forty-eight hours.”

“I’ll leave him to you then,” I say, nodding towards Darby. I walk towards the tunnel we entered by, not bothering to look back as I call out, “You do what you want with him. When you’re finished, message me and I’ll send the account data.”

“We’re not done here,” Darby growls. 

He snaps his fingers and an instant later I feel a hand on my shoulder. A glance tells me that Glenn is the foolish guard dog who has leapt into action at his master’s command. 

The daemon laughs gleefully as it tells me that this will be the fight that kills me, but I ignore it and, seeming to surrender to Glenn’s pull, reposition my feet for maximum leverage. 

Then the tattooed henchman makes his final mistake: From the corner of my eye I see him raising his gun towards me.

Before he can bring it to bear I pivot around behind him, flick one of Schuster’s lovely ceramic knives from my left sleeve, and ram the blade into the back of Glenn’s neck with a backhanded strike. He goes limp, but before his body collapses, I step around his still vertical corpse, grab his gun arm, and use my blade as a lever to pivot the sack of meat that was so recently Glenn around to serve as a shield. I snag the gun from his limp fingers and aim over the ex-Glenn’s shoulder setting my sights on Darby. 

“That was quite unnecessary. Now, Tally, I’m going to have to kill you,” Darby growls from behind his remaining guards. 

Darby’s guards respond immediately, firing their pistols in my direction, but they strike only the corpse of their dead comrade. I fire back, striking one of the guards in the chest. He stumbles backward and bumps into Darby, who shoves him away. The guard hits the floor at Darby’s feet and his dying finger twitches, spitting a hollow point slug into the floor between us. The tempered glass panel stops the bullet, holds for an instant, then begins to shatter with a slow, music box tinkling sound as stress fractures spiderweb out from the center. 

Darby roars in anger and turns to run towards the exit, but slips in the spreading pool of blood pouring from his bodyguard’s chest, skids across the floor, and falls on his back only a few feet from his guard.   

Iris leaps from Ortiz’s side, her body arcing gracefully through the air before landing on Darby’s chest. As she lands, she bends down with the grace of dancer and plucks the gun from the fingers of his fallen guard, then kicks off into a backflip that tumbles her through to air to land nimbly beside me. In the instant that her feet touch the floor, Iris has already raised her gun arm and taken aim. Four times she pulls the trigger, stitching a line of bloody geysers up the chest of Darby’s remaining guard, who stumbles backwards, hits the far wall of the dome, and begins sliding down to rest on the floor. 

Darby grunts, rolling towards us as he scrabbles to right himself on the blood slick floor.  

Before I can react, Iris adjusts her aim and fires a final shot into the center of his face.

The echoes of violence reverberate through the observation dome for the space of seven heartbeats before Abaroa begins adding his own chorus of screams. I turn to look at him, still pivoting Glenn’s corpse on the tip-off my knife like a deathly stick puppet. We watch in silence as Abaroa continues to scream, his eyes fixed on the carnage splayed before him. I glance at Iris, then extract my blade from the back of Glenn’s neck and allow his corpse to fall at my feet. Iris drops her gun beside Glenn’s body and steps around the spreading pool of blood. 

She stands over Abaroa, closes her eyes, and tenses her frame as if preparing to dive into him. 

An instant later Ortiz Abaroa stops screaming and collapses onto the glass floor. A sickly odor fills the air as tendrils of smoke begin wafting up from char marks on his scalp and the back of his neck, his implants overloaded. 

Iris turns away from the carnage and walks out of the observation dome without a second glance. I follow in her wake as the marine life continues to swirl around us, unconcerned with the drama that has just played out in the midst of their preserved kingdom. 

Snatch

As abduction jobs go, this one has a few wrinkles above my usual modus operandi of snatching some lowlife who’s been selling watered down drugs and tossing him out of a moving car thirty miles outside of the city. That sort of job comes with its own risks, but generally speaking if you hit a chemical cook with a stun gun to the back of his neck, even the largest steroid chomping bro will hit the ground. Occasionally there will be issues with guard dogs and gang soldiers, but if you act quick and pick your place just about anyone can be grabbed. 

Turns out that YuriCo executives have a bit more security than your usual low-level street cook. 

Our unwary guest for the day will be on Ortiz Abaroa, an upper floor executive for YuriCo who Iris claims will be useful in gaining access to the data vault, since her credentials have been revoked. It doesn’t hurt her plan that he’s also on the list of people she wants dead. 

We pull to the curb three buildings up the street from Abaroa’s apartment. He lives in a pre-realignment brownstone in the upper city, one of those structure that cost more to refurbish than to knock down and rebuild, and so of course the elite choose to spend a fortune on restoring the exterior and rewiring the interior, just so they can brag about how much the renovation cost. CarbZu vines climb a pair of trellises framing the lobby door, joining together at the top to form a green band which surrounds the top of the building. Above the band, the rooftop prickles with the upward reaching fins of vertical wind turbines. There are no visible cameras, but that just means that security is probably even tighter than in a midden neighborhood festooned with obvious cameras. When you can afford to live in a building so old, and so visibly carbon neutral, you don’t want to sully the curb appeal with a cluster of black domes. No, better to use an array of micro cameras supplemented by whisper drones and a small force of heavily armed security contractors hidden away in some ground floor office.

“I don’t like your plan,” Darby’s goon growls from the passenger seat. He’s a wiry street urchin with tattoos that crawl up his neck and down his wrists and a pair of angular lightning bolts tattooed beneath his left eye. Looking at him,I can’t but wonder if Darby actually send me a competent soldier who doesn’t give a damn if he can be instantly recognized, or if he’s a cocky bastard who Darby is hoping to be rid of when he mucks up my plans. “Too many moving parts. Better we sneak in while he’s gone and be waiting when he returns.”

“Right, Glenn, because a top executive isn’t going to have a home security system.”

“I have boys who could crack that. If you’d given boss more than a day’s notice I could have arranged something better for you.” 

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Iris says from the back seat. “Abaroa is hosting a gathering for YuriCo executives in two days to vote on what to do with the tech. We need to have the data exfiltrated by then.”

“And I still don’t get that,” Glenn growls, jerking a finger over his shoulder towards Iris. “What does a kid know about any of this?”

“That’s for me to know and you to shut up about,” I reply. 

A black sedan, apparently a duplicate of our own, passes our parked car and pulls to a stop at the curb outside Abaroa’s apartment building. 

“That’s his car,” Iris says. She leans back in the leather seat and closes her eyes, seeming to concentrate as she continues. “It’s fully automated. I’m attempting to override the command protocols now.”

I can only imagine what it must be like to be in Iris’s head in this moment. People have dreamed of virtual computing interfaces for centuries, picturing everything from illusory replicas of offices complete with stacks of paper files and clattering keyboards to neon cityscapes where whole databases are displayed as buildings, their crosslinks represented by gleaming chrome tubes crisscrossing the skyline. Meanwhile, here in the actual future, the best most of us can do is rent a few hours in a virtual reality arcade and database management is still about as exciting as plucking paper cards from a wooden file cabinet. 

I ease our car forward and park directly behind the newly arrived vehicle, turning the wheel to prepare for a quick exit.

“The car is autonomous. No backup driver on board,” Iris announces. “I should be able to… yes. There it goes.”

The summoned car pulls away from the curb and down the road, taking a left at the next cross street. Immediately, I pull forward and take its place.

“I’ve sent the car to his office. If we’re lucky, nobody will notice that he’s missing until it arrives in about twenty minutes.”

The heavy brass and glass door to the brownstone swings open, revealing a doorman exchanging pleasantries with Abaroa in the entryway. He laughs and claps the doorman on the arm, then gestures towards us as if to explain his hurry. He steps nimbly down the stairs, opens the rear door of the car, and is half way into the vehicle when he spots Iris sitting in the back seat.

“Oh, sh—“ is all he has time to say before Iris drops the isolation bag over his face. 

The bag is black and looks like any other heavy sack that a kidnapper in a spy movie might use to cover the face of their victim. This bag is a bit more special because it contains a faraday cage woven into the fabric. Minute metallic fibers block all but the strongest signals, effectively preventing Abaroa’s implants from talking to the network. At least, any implants that he’s got in his head. 

He struggles, trying to rip the bag from his head and shoulders, but Iris holds the bag firmly down. Glenn reaches back around his seat, stun gun already crackling in his hand. Iris releases Abaroa just long enough for Glenn’s prod to dig into his right bicep, sending twenty-thousand volts ripping into Abaroa’s’s body. He convulses, screams, then collapses onto the rear bench seat as Iris pulls a set of plastic ties from her pocket and begins wrapping them around Abaroa’s wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles. 

Meanwhile, I hit the accelerator and pull out into the street, trying to drive as casually as possible. 

I don’t know if it was my driving, or a silent alarm that we missed, or even just that somebody happened to be watching the security feed in that instant, but as I reach the end of the block and prepare to turn down a side street, I check my mirror and see a flock of drones flitting after us and a pair of armed private security guards leaping down the steps.

“We’ve got company,” I say and I slam my foot down on the accelerator. 

The electric motors react instantly, gobbling up the additional energy and hurling the vehicle forward across the blacktop. We race down two blocks of residential apartments, my daemon screaming that I need to stop the car immediately before I run over some innocent child playing in the morning light after being confined by the storm for days. I push such thoughts to the back of my mind and focus on steering through a sharp turn onto a major thoroughfare. Autonomous vehicles scatter ahead of us like spray bursting up from the bow of a speedboat as my car skids out of the neighborhood.

“Drone still behind us,” Darby shouts.

“I’ll try to take them out,” Iris replies. She turns to look behind, searching for the drones in the sky. 

We hurtle up a ramp and briefly take flight as the car leaps onto the highway. A tone sounds, bleating insistently as the car’s navigation system receives repeated demands from the highway management syntellect to surrender control to the traffic regulation system. Fortunately, Javier has loaded some modifications into the car’s firmware which allow us to keep traveling under manual control. 

Our car cuts a path through the highway traffic as the autonomous vehicles respond the panicked messages from the traffic regulation restrillect, ordering them to stay out of the path of the madman who dared to travel without safety engaged. We’re committed now. The traffic fines alone would likely cost several years’ pay, but since we’re driving a car that will soon be reported as stolen that isn’t a concern. Assuming, of course, that we aren’t captured and arrested for kidnapping, but it’s generally better to keep looking at the bright side when you’re in the middle of committing a crime.

“I’m in!” Iris shouts. “Now to just…” 

There’s a spatter of clanging noises form the rear of the car, like bolts being thrown onto a glass tabletop. A glance in the rearview screen tells me that the drones are shooting at us. There are no muzzle flashes. They must be using the same linear accelerated ferrous ammunition that the Feds arm their drones with.  

“Shit! Sorry. Wrong control interface.”

An instant later I see one of the drones flip over sideways, churn though a violent horizontal spiral, then slam into the side of an autonomous cargo pod.

I swing the car onto a ramp which will take us off the highway loop. Another drone fails, dropping from the sky at the head of a smoke trail, then exploding as Iris does something terrible to its power management system.

“We have to lose them,” Darby snarls. He pulls a gun from his waistband and reaches for the window controls, then swears as they click ineffectually. “Let me lean out and shoot them down!”

“Nope.”

“She’s not hacking them fast enough. We can’t let security trace us.”

“Just be patient.”

A pair of drones swing wide and accelerate, coming even with the sides of the car. They keep pace with the side windows for a moment, skimming effortlessly through the air as the camera pods on their undercarriage twitch on their vibration dampening mounts. They won’t catch any images from the heavily tinted side windows, but if they can get around to the front they’ll have a clear view of us. 

An opinion obviously shared by the drone supervisor, as the pair put on another burst of speed and swing around to the front of the car. 

“They’ve kicked me out,” Iris says. “Swapped encryption keys on the fly. I’ll have to start the penetration all over, but you can bet they’re upped the key length this time around.”

“Just keep down. We can’t have them knowing why we grabbed him,” I say. 

I’m already a wearing custom printed mask which obscures my features with an abstract design intended to confuse image recognition algorithms. Glenn refused to wear a mask, not that I care much about this job being traced back to one of Darby’s street enforcers. The way things are going, I’ll probably have to kill Glenn before the day is out anyway. 

“I can just shoot them!” Darby shouts, rattling his gun against the window glass. 

“Right. And get yourself shot as soon as you lean out.”

“I’m better than these pricks. Just let me take a shot and—“

Darby is interrupted by the rattle of bullets hammering into the windshield front of his face.

He screams and unleashes a torrent of obscenity. 

Abaroa lets out a muffled scream as he returns to consciousness and curls himself into a ball. If he could fit how whole body into the footwell, I imagine he would be down there already. 

“These windows can take a little more. Just keep down.”

“Screw that,“ Glenn snaps, punching the window controls.

I whip my right arm out and slam my fist into Glenn’s jaw before the window is down more than in inch, then override the control from my own fingertip instrument cluster. 

We hurtle down the road, my foot never leaving the accelerator as we speed westward towards the folds of the mountains. The rearview screen shows the city silhouetted against the brazen light of the rising sun, the first unobstructed sunrise since the hurricane, the pursuing drones flittering specks of black against the growing brightness.  

I break hard and pull off the paved road, fishtailing in a spray of gravel and setting the front swarm into frantic action as they jockey to reacquire us. Ahead, a flock of drones guards the ridge. 

“Why the hell are we at this shit hole?” Glenn growls.

Abaroa groans and begins kicking at Glenn’s seat back, stopping only when Iris calmly wraps her fingers around his throat and pulls him to sit upright.

Rather than respond, I accelerate. The car hits the top of the ridge and goes airborne, slamming down on its ample suspension as the flock of mismatched drones swoops down to investigate.

“Just stay low. This could get hairy for a minute.”

Outside, George’s drones flit around the car, trying to identify the occupants. I pull my mask off and lean forward, hoping that they will catch sight of my face before the defensive elements of their personality come to the forefront. 

“Come on. Recognize me,” I mutter. “Just get a good look and…”

George’s drones flit upward, abandoning my car to investigate the drones which have been pursuing me. I pull my mask back down, then decelerate into a cloud of dust. As soon as we’ve bled enough speed to turn without rolling the car, I twist the wheel and put the car into a skidding turn that takes us off the road, through the sodden grass, then back around to face the entryway. 

Just in time to watch as one of the pursuing drones opens fire, shredding two of George’s drones in a spray of ferrous shards. 

“What are you waiting for?” Glenn screeches. “We need to get out of here.”

“We need to wait,” I reply.

“For what?”

Another of George’s drones falls in a spray of shattered composite.

“For those, I would say,” Iris says, pointing out the rear window. 

Down below, a flock of dozens of drones is rising up from the excavation pits, scrub growth, and landing support pads scattered through the valley. At the parking lot, I see a figure in a blue dress step out from the office trailer, shotgun slung across one arm as she watches the drones speed past.

“Yep. That’s it,” I say.

The drones zip past us, so many of them that the noise of their rotors penetrates the shell of the car like the buzz of swarming bees. The remaining pursuit drones spread out and begin skittering through the sky at seemingly random angles, preparing for the fight.

The areal conflict is brief, played out with such speed that I can hardly track where each of the drones is. The five pursuit drones zip about, spitting projectiles from their undercarriage as they attempt to destroy George’s defensive drones. They are either piloted by experts or, more likely, guided by highly aggressive combat targeting algorithms which were designed to provide maximum destructive force, even at the cost of the drone. Rotors are torn from bodies. Batteries are punctured, resulting in fiery bursts and billowing streamers of toxic smoke. Shards of melted plastic and mangled metal rain down from the sky to pepper the ridge.

It’s all over within minutes. 

A glance at the rearview screen shows George and Miriam strolling towards the car, long guns slung over their arms, moving with a determined air as they cross the field. Meanwhile, the surviving drones wheel about and form a defensive line stretching the length of the ridge, watching for any further intruders. 

“That who I think it is?” Glenn asks. 

“Yep.”

“And you’re just going to sit here?” 

I fix him with a glare that could wither a dandelion. “We leave now and they’ll send their drones after us. Remember, these folks are known for scrapping. It’s what they do. We don’t make nice before we go and there’s a solid chance they might decide to claim this car and everything in it for the recompiler.”

Glenn swears and hunkers down in the seat. 

“I’ll get out and feed them a line. Shouldn’t be too hard to get away. I’ve done a job or two for them in the past.”

With that I push my door open and climb out into the chill morning air. The hurricane might have been born in the churning heat of the Caribbean and nurtured by the sickly humidity of the gulf, but according to my ancillary’s morning weather report we can expect a swing towards cold in the next few days as bitter winds churn southwards to clash against the remnants of their hotblooded southern cousins.

Leaning against the back of the car, I stuff my hands into my pockets and wait for George and Miriam to approach.

“Hiya, Talbot,” George says, swinging her rifle up onto her back and lurching forward with open arms. 

Suppressing my dislike of being touched, let alone hugged, by just about anyone, I step forward and embrace her. This is as much a show for Miriam as a genuine welcome, I’m sure. For her part, Miriam keeps a grip on her shotgun and studies me critically. 

“You bring trouble with you,” George whispers, her lips close to my ear. 

“Sorry,” I reply. 

We separate and she nods her chin towards the ridge. “I assume there’s a reason for all that mess.”

“You’d assume right.”

“Damnit Talbot!” Miriam snaps. She turns to George and continues, “I keep telling you he’s no good, but you keep letting him come around and pull you into trouble.”

“We need to be going,” I say. “And depending on how this job goes I might not be around again for a while.”

“Good riddance.”

George shoots her wife a scowl, then looks back to me and shrugs. “I’ll miss you coming around. Do try if you can.”

“You and the kids make it through the storm alright?”

“Well enough.”

“There’s a cold front coming through soon. Looks like the storm got slung out to sea and is looping back from the North with a fistful of ice.”

“We have weather reports,” Miriam spits. “Just because we’d rather live out here than in your stinking city doesn’t mean that we’re backwards hicks.”

“I’m just trying to take care of an old friend,” I say, turning to walk back to my car. Pausing with my hand on the pull handle, I add, “Take care of each other, if I don’t see you again. Thanks for getting those drone off my back.” 

With that, I climb back into the car and drive up the ridge, then back out onto the cracked roadway. 

“You know them?” Glenn asks as I accelerate away from the city and head southward. 

“You could say that.”

“I’ll be damned. Never knew those two to have a civil word to say. Boss thought about grabbing their business a while back, but they’re so damn well defended.”

“Have to be, living out here.”

Calls

I take Iris back to Schuster’s place, where she spends the next two days gushing over the design of the little gynoid. Even Javier deigns to come out of his lair for a few hours to sit in Schuster’s workshop, debriefing Iris on the software which interfaces her brain with the artificial body.

For my part, I spend those days making preparations. The plan might be simple enough, but it involves enough moving pieces that I need to ensure that all of the equipment is in order and all of the people involved know their roles. Most of the equipment can be procured or manufactured in Schuster’s bunker, but I do have to make three calls:

The first is to George.

“The kids ok?” I ask, after our handys have negotiated a secure connection.

“Well enough. We lost one trailer to blown debris, but I’ve got everyone circled round and tied down up at the house. Nobody hurt.”

“Anything unpleasant rise up?” I ask, thinking of the all the sinkholes and regions where decomposing medical waste occasionally rises to the surface.

“Dunno. Today’s like to be the first I can release the drones since all this started. If we’re lucky there won’t be anything worse than your standard spectrum resistant bacteria. Super lucky we may find a new breed a bacteriophage that’s adapted to the mine, or maybe a fresh cache of obsolete hardware.”

“Listen, George, I need a favor,” I say, hesitant. George will do anything for me but if she’s got Miriam in the room, she’ll have to say no. 

“Shoot. 

Miriam must be taking care of some kids in one of the trailers. I press my advantage before she can come back and prohibit George from helping me. “Those drones have defensive capabilities, right?”

“Most of them are armed. Gotta be prepared, living out here on the edge of the mire, you know.

“That’s what I was hoping to hear…”

The second call is to a regular client of Tamar’s who runs a fleet service. He’s a pleasant man, but seemingly deficient in neurotransmitters which encourage forming long term emotional relationships. That, or he’s just really good at keeping some terrible secret hidden from his paid partners. I’ve escorted a dozen or more manikins to his place over the last couple years and he always has a fresh pot of Koffee waiting in the kitchen for me, then joins me and whichever man or woman I’m escorting for a pastry and chat after they’re done playing in the other rooms. 

“This is a pleasant surprise,” he says when our call connects. “I heard that Tamar was running quite the party during the storm, but I thought I would sit this one out and catch up on my interactives.” He gestures behind him to a slim virtual reality headset. 

“So I hear also, but I’m not calling for Tamar this time.”

“Oh?” His bushy eyebrows rise as he draws out the word into two languid syllables. 

“Do you remember how you offered to sell me one of your used cars a few months back? One of the old executive protection models with a manual drive mode.”

 His eyes narrow for an instant, then he nods enthusiastically. “Certainly! Are you ready to buy?” It’s a masterful performance. Anyone screening this call, human or restrillect, would be hard pressed to claim that he is doing anything more than recalling a half forgotten conversation. 

“Maybe. I had to borrow a bike to run errands during the storm. Nearly got hit by some debris. Starting to think that a nice durable vehicle might be the safer choice, even if it sets me back some coin.”

That’s as much as I can say on an open call. We aren’t close enough to be using impenetrable shared key encryption, so we have to assume that the call is being monitored.

A few pleasantries later, it is all arranged. I’ll stop by the fleet offices next week and he’ll show me a run down fleet vehicle that I might actually buy. In the meantime, he’ll wait forty-eight hours before reporting any of his vehicles stolen between now and then and, in exchange, I’ll cover his tab at Tamar’s for the next month.

The final call is the one I’m dreading. 

“You’re not asking for another favor are you?” Darby says when the call connects. “Because I’m not feeling particularly generous today.”

“I’m looking to pay you back,” I reply.

Darby leers into the camera, his bare chest glistening as he holds the phone out so I can see that he is sitting shirtless in a padded chair. The room around him is hung about with vaguely medical devices. “Now, Tally, you know that’s not how favors work. I own the favor. You do me the favor when I call for it and, until then, I own you.”

“Getting another implant? Or is this just a tat?” I ask, identifying the room as one of the many shops that peddle unregulated implants. I’m surprised to see Darby there. He’s got enough money to pay for proper, tested and guaranteed wetware at the upper city or midden clinics. Why would he gamble with sepsis and implants that burn out after a few months?

He tilts the camera, revealing the reddened patch of skin on his left pectoral where the clinician has prepped him for surgery by slathering his skin in iodine. Guidelines drawn in black marker peek through the red sheen, revealing the path that the subdermal wires will take. 

“This is going to be sweet, Tally. Remember that little show I put on for you in at the range? This will be even better. Artificial tendons wired to an encrypted link.” He holds up an adhesive patch with several small probes on it. “Slap this baby on someone and I’ll feel every beat of their heart. Figure it could be fun for those special times when somebody is… fatally late in payment.”

That’s why. Easier to clean a lowtown clinic until it’s safe to use than to find a regulated clinician willing to implant a device intended to let Darby feel his victims’ heartbeats as he murders them.

He pulls the camera close again and gazes intently into the lens. “What could you possible have for me that’s worth this intrusion?”

“How about access to YuriCo’s network?”

That gets his attention. 

Darby leans forward in the chair, holding his phone in both hands so the view pivots upwards to show the ceiling behind his head. “Don’t tease me, Tally.”

“I’m just making you an offer. You came through on finding that girl for me, now I have a chance to get something I think you’d like, but I’m not giving it to you for free.”

“I could count this as the favor.”

“More. If I let you in on this, I get territory.”

“Oh, hell no!” Darby laughs, shaking his head. “You don’t get to stake a claim anywhere, Tally. You’re lucky I haven’t collected rent for that shitty sex club. Keep talking like this and I’ll have to push that up on my priorities.”

“You don’t seem to understand, Darby. I’m going to finish talking, then give you thirty seconds to decide. You don’t agree to my terms, or you take too long to decide, and I’ll hang up and get my backup somewhere else. I’m sure the Zheng sisters would be willing. Maybe Kreiger would join in.”

“Don’t you bl—“

“So the terms are these,” I snap, cutting him off. “You send your best soldier along on my job to help if I need another body. We meet someplace outside the city and you help me interrogate a contact. When the job is done, you’ll have deep access into YuriCo’s network. After this, I owe you nothing. After this, I own a five block radius around Tamar’s. You don’t get to hustle anyone there. It’s mine. You have thirty seconds to decide.”

“You don’t get to dictate terms, you little shit!” Darby snarls. 

I don’t say anything. Just look back at him through my phone camera and wait, counting silently in my head. 

Darby’s face contorts and I imagine the rage he is feeling has more to do with my nonplussed response to his outburst than my demand. “You know what, Tally? Just for this I’m going to pay a special visit to your little club. I’m thinking I’ll find your best dancer and do a bit of cosmetic surgery on them. How you like that?”

“Seventeen,” I say. 

Darby lunges up from his chair, the background twisting wildly as his face contorts in anger. “You don’t belong here. You hear me? I’ve had a stake in this city since I was old enough to slit a throat. You? You’ve barely been here a decade.”

“Nine.” 

Darby’s eyes widen. The ropey muscles of his neck tighten and I half expect him to throw his phone across the room, ending our call with a whirl of color and a sudden, definitive crunch.

“Five.”

“Fine!” Darby shouts. 

“Three.”

“You have a deal.”

“See, that wasn’t so hard,” I say, breaking my count. “I’m glad we could settle this as rational men.”

“I don’t generally go into the field myself,” he growls. “That’s what I have people for.”

“I know, which is why I am so sure that you’ll be picking nice safe place for the interrogation. Someplace where nobody can hear us, or monitor our movements.”

That elicits another scowl, but Darby is smart enough to keep his mouth shut. 

“Tell you man to be at the Quality Cafe tomorrow at five in the morning. I’ll fill you in on the details then. All goes well, we’ll be done with our business by nightfall.”

I end the call before Darby can complain.