Quality

The Quality Cafe is always open. I’ve eaten there at three in the morning after washing blood from my hands. I’ve sat nursing cups of Koffee for hours while puzzling my way through an anxiety attack. Have watched over a carload of exhausted manikins sharing waffles and bacon after working all the way through a long night. Lou isn’t your classical talkative proprietor. He doesn’t ask how your life is going, or commiserate over the trials of love, or listen for hours while you pour your heart out. The closest he comes to human sympathy is to spot the first cup of black Koffee if you wander in looking especially down. Just black Koffee though, and just the first cup. Refills, cream, and mood altering substances beyond caffeine will still cost you. 

Tonight is no different. The wind is still driving sheets of horizontal rain across the city and the street downhill from Quality Cafe is a mess of floodwater and broken trees, but Lou is still behind the bar and some dozen diners are camped in booths. The girl hops delicately from the handlebars and darts inside as I lock the bike into a chit-operated rack near the door. The broad glass windows are covered with roll down shutters, the sort that most places use to keep out looters when they close for the night, but Lou only lowers them when there’s a chance of flying debris. He doesn’t need to lock up at night. Not because there is no looting here in the midden, but because the cafe is never closed. I’m told that there have been occasions, expectedly rare, when some desperate fool decided to ignore all surveillance and barge into the diner with thieving on his mind. Those events generally end with the would-be thief dead on the floor while customers continue to enjoy their meals in the side booths. 

You don’t mess with Lou.

We take a corner booth where I can watch the door and I order breakfast. She orders only a black Koffee.

“You can’t eat in that body, can you? But then, if you’re an AI, you wouldn’t have much interest in food,” I say as the tabletop menu darts into a corner to be replaced with lazily drifting advertisements for religious deprogramming services. 

“I can eat. The food is merely ground into a paste and stored in a removable container. I prefer not to though. The feature is included merely to facilitate blending in with natural bodies.”

“But why would you want to eat? Were you programmed to like food?”

She gives me a smile so sad that it disturbs me to see it plastered on such a childlike face. “You haven’t worked it out yet, have you, Talbot?”

“I’m not following you.”

“I never said that I was a syntellect.”

I pause to review the last few days. Come to think of it, she is right. Ever since she killed Vakha I’ve just been assuming that she is an artificially intelligent killing machine. Maybe not the smartest conclusion, but it wasn’t much of a stretch. 

“You said that you had somebody look at the implant…”

I nod.

“Did they determine what it is? I mean beyond being a neural lace.”

“Not really. Most of the chips were sealed. She could definitely tell that it is more advanced than most laces. Something about having a colony of nanites so it can repair itself.”

The girl smiles, but her eyes fall with a weight that I have rarely seen in someone so young. There was a band of adolescent scavengers I encountered in the mire once. Their parents had all been killed by Red Easter or disappeared during the realignment and they had banded together for protection. A few of them had that look to their eyes. That deepest knowledge that the only magic or joy to be found in this world was at the edge of a blade. 

“Talbot, that implant is the key to immortality.”

I arch an eyebrow and lean forward on one elbow, the tabletop adverts realigning themselves like lily pads around my arm. “Come again? Because from where I’m sitting it sounds like you just made a wild, impossible claim, and I’m already having trouble believing much of anything you say.”

   She leans forward, as if to meet me eye to eye, but her short stature pulls her up short and she winds up spreading her elbows and resting her chin on the back of her hands. Her lips curl up in a wry smile and she says, “Have you seen any twins recently?”

I narrow my eyes and sink to her level. “Twins?” I say, injecting some uncertainty into my tone so she can’t guess that she’s hit a nerve.

“Maybe even triplets. Men who look just like your buddy Vakha from the hotel.”

I start to reply, but our order arrives, sweeping up to the table side on an automated trolly. I slot a few chits into the cart and send it back into the kitchen, taking advantage of the distraction to gather my thoughts. 

All of this is simply too much. When I was ejected from Federal service, I expected that I had seen the end of my involvement in important affairs. I drifted for a while, living on basic assistance in one Federal city or another, taking odd jobs where I could find them, but never settling into anything. Never returning to my hometown after that first, disastrous visit when I learned of Seth’s fate. Eventually Tamar contacted me with the offer to become a partner in her newly opened club and, with nothing else worthwhile in the offing, I took her up on the opportunity. 

The journey from Federal territory to the city was perilous. Over a hundred miles of lawless terrain lay between the borders and every guide I read or traveler I cornered in a bar had a different opinion on how best to traverse the mire. The only constant was that an airship would be the safest method, but I would already be spending all of my savings to buy corporate citizenship and invest in Tamar’s business. Crossing overland, moving on foot through the waste of once prosperous suburbs and small towns, would take longer and held the peril of encountering still lingerings pockets of plague. Traveling the highway was more direct, but brought with it the risk of scavenger attacks. I opted for the middle ground of traversing the back roads in a solar powered car which could only make about fifty miles a day thanks to the added weight of armor plating attached to the body.

“You’re avoiding my question. That’s as good as an admission,” the girl says, prodding my arm with a bony finger. 

Blinking away the past, I take a bite of eggs then shake my head as I chew the rubbery mouthful. A swallow of bitter Koffee washes them down before I reply. “Just thinking about how I got stuck in this situation. I’m not a hero, kid. I’m hired muscle. I just do what it takes to get by and try to make that a little easier for people weaker than I am.”

“Which is why I need you.”

“You said that YuriCo could have stopped Red Easter. That the implant is the key to immortality. What proof do you have for any of this?”

“So you have seen twins,” she says, her statement as factual as pointing out that my eggs had arrived cold.

“More like quadruplets. There’s the one you killed, then three more showed up at my club later that day.”

“I told you not to go home. That they would find you.”

“I guess you did, and I guess you were right, but that’s neither here nor there. What does any of this have to do with YuriCo?”

“YuriCo has many divisions…“

“That doesn’t make them unusual. Just about every independent corporation has it’s fingers in a dozen different industries these days.”

“True enough,” she says, scowling at my interruption. “But YuriCo is heavily invested in biotech and human-machine interfacing. They employ thirty percent more bioengineers than their nearest competitor and single handedly held the guild patents on fifty-seven percent of actively licensed biotech last year. Combine that with their strong presence at cognitive interface conferences in the last year and an industry leading team of synthetic cognition experts and you have a recipe for revolutionary advances in mind-machine interfaces.”

“If I was a reporter that would all be… interesting? Listen kid, I don’t care about their latest financial quarter or anything like that. All I want to know is what I get out of helping you. Money is nice. Evidence that your claims are true might help me get revenge, but it’s not like the Feds or Corps are going to put anyone on trial.”

“But what if we could take power from the hands of the Corps and the Feds alike? Think of it, Talbot. Global warming. Red Easter. The Realignment. What if all of the upheavals that have shattered humanity in the last century could be redeemed? We can never bring back the dead, but I am telling you that YuriCo has invented a technology that could ensure that nobody ever has to die again.”

“The twins, right? What are they, clones?”

“That’s the starting point, yes. The four men you saw were all vat grown clones of Yevgeny Rudin, YuriCo’s chief of security.”

“He said his name was Vakha.”

“That’s his middle name. He hates being called Yevgeny.”

“And the implants?”

“Rudin is fitted with a prototype neural lace which is more advanced than any previously disclosed. The device infiltrates all parts of the brain, monitoring neural growth and chemical transfer throughout. Everything is captured as data and relayed to a corporate backup server.”

“You’re saying that his brain is backed up.” I push my plate away and sit up straight against the seat back, studying the girl as I sip my Koffee. This doesn’t seem impossible, people have been dreaming of personality backups and consciousness transfer for nearly three centuries and the structure of the human brain was fully mapped shortly before I was born, but I’ve never heard of anyone able to reboot a backed up mind. Dig into the archived data and root around for memories, perhaps, but even then sorting out the difference between real memories and fantasies has always proved insurmountable.

Until now, I suppose.

“More than that. All of the versions you have interacted with were clones, Talbot. The actual Yevgeny Vakha Rudin is at a secure location outside the city.”

“But how can that be? Nobody has ever managed to transcribe fresh memories into a brain, let alone an entire personality.”

“Technically, it has been possible to encode false memories into the mind for the whole history of humanity. The brain works by transferring information from long term memory to short term memory whenever you need to access it. That process is inherently destructive, like a computer that can only move files around, but never make copies of them. Over time, errors can be introduced into memories as they are being transferred, and eventually we all end up with a pile of false memories. In most cases it’s harmless. You are convinced that you saw a movie as a child, but you’re actually remembering two or three different plots and constructing a film that never existed. You are certain that your favorite shirt in college was green polo, but a few years later you see a photo of yourself and realize that the shirt was actually a fuchsia tank-top with a screen printed leprechaun on the front.”

“I’m familiar with false memories,” I say. “My daemon specializes in implanting them.”

“Demon?”

“Sorry. Daemon. Like the computer process. It’s how I personify my anxiety. Which, come to think of it, is a false memory in itself.”

She cocks her head to one side and pulls her lips over her teeth, trying to puzzle me out. After a minute she replies, “Yes. I suppose.”

“So you’re telling me that not only has YuriCo created a perfect brain lace that can actually do a full resolution capture of the human mind, but they have also created a mechanism for transcribing that information into another mind.”

“Exactly. The mind has to be compatible or the transcription can result in irreparable damage, but once the template is in place minor corrections can be made while the subject is asleep with no apparent side effects. Transcribing while awake can result in confusion, but is possible.”

“I’m still not sure if I believe it.”

“You saw the men, Talbot. Four of them, you said? All of those versions of the man you call Vakha were grown at an accelerated rate in artificial wombs, their neural development shaped by a template drawn from Rudin’s own mind. They were never anyone other than him, even as fetuses. They received updated templates every day for about a year, shaping their brains to be receptive to his mental state. After decanting, each of them operated independently while awake, then received a synchronized memory template every night while sleeping.”

“You know a lot about this, kid.”

“You haven’t asked who I am.”

“Frankly, I’m not really interested in who you are. I just want to know what you expect me to do in the face of a mega-corporation that can build its own private clone army. Fact is I’ve done my job. You’re safe enough. I can tell Ethie that she might as well report you as a runaway and hope that she doesn’t get audited.”

I lean forward and twine my fingers, resting my chin on my thumbs as I study the deadly child creature sitting across from me. Her lips curl up in an imitation of a smile so perfect that even her eyes narrow, pupils dilating to soften her gaze. The effect is disconcertingly disarming. If one of Tamar’s clients were sitting here instead of me, he’d likely be eating from her hands by now, one artificially induced tear away from reaching for his wallet and begging to buy this lost child a place to stay and hiring a lawyer to get her expedited citizenship. 

Back in the early days of cybernetics and animation, creators had to contend with the uncanny valley, that is the tendency of artificial human faces to be so close to real that humans could detect every little imperfection. Each instant of lag in the animation or glitch in the synthetic musculature would trigger the part of an observer’s brain that had been wired to detect lies, with the result that creators and consumers alike widely rejected the simulacrum of human features in favor of anthropomorphized animals and caricatures of humans. 

This face, however, is beyond perfect. Not only do I feel as if I am speaking with a living human, it is as though I am sitting across from the greatest actress of her generation. 

“The problem is, kid, that I should be going back to my apartment to have a few drinks and resume my regular schedule of self-loathing for a few hours before going back to my regular life. Watching out for Tamar’s manikins and dancers. Breaking the occasional arm when somebody falls behind on child support. Drinking enough that I’ll probably need a replacement liver before I’m fifty. Unfortunately—“ I slam my palms down on the table, causing the plates to rattle and sending a flock of animated viral load boosters scurrying to the corners of the table. “Unfortunately, I can’t go home because some sort of corporate clone club decided to try and murder me. So now I have to deal with that before I’ll be able to sleep in my own bed.”

“Did you have to kill them to escape?” she asks, unflinching in the face of my rage. 

“Two of them.”

“Was it bloody?”

“Extremely.”

“So you may not even be able to sleep in that apartment again. I’ve read your file, Talbot, and I find it fascinating that you always kill with a knife when you have such an aversion to blood.”

I slouch back in my seat and scowl at her, not replying. If she wants to bring up her connections to the Feds and the utter transparency of computer networks to her whims, then I can just wait. If it weren’t for the chance of more Vakhas showing up I’d be on my way back to Tamar’s now, perhaps stopping by the hardware store for supplies to refinish the floor. Not that anyone would be interested in selling me a can of varnish in the back end of a hurricane.

We sit in silence for a long while. On the table, the viral load boosters stop cowering in the corners and resume their oddly erotic dance routine, reminding diners to keep bacteria at bay with regularly updated phage boosters, then scamper off screen to be replaced with a public service ad denouncing unlicensed religious services.   

“My name is Iris. I used to work for YuriCo on the development of those implants, but we had something of a disagreement on how the technology should be used.”

“Would that disagreement have anything to do with why you’re using that body?”

“Everything. You see…” she hesitates and, for the first time since I met her in that hotel room, she appears uncertain. Concerned. Even upset. 

If I didn’t already suspect that this Iris has some form of enhanced control over her emotional display, this moment of uncertainty would give me pause. As it is, I can’t help but wonder if she is still playing me. 

“Talbot, this body is all that remains of me.”

I raise an eyebrow. 

“I’m telling the truth.”

“So, your evil corporate overlords ripped out your brain and put it in the body of an assassination robot.”

“No. Talbot, they killed me. Shot me in the head right there in the interfacing lab.”

“This is too much.”

“It’s true.”

“Then how are you sitting here? How are you talking to me right now?”

“Because the cloning and the implant are only the beginning. Talbot, YuriCo has developed a means of imprinting neural patterns on independently grown brains, and perfected a method of casing those brains so they can be placed in artificial bodies.”

“That’s some serious science fiction shit, if it’s true.”

“It is.”

“Three questions then.”

She nods. 

I hesitate for a moment, collecting my thoughts. In truth I have dozens of questions, but I manage to narrow down my thoughts to a few essential points. 

“First: Why would the company kill you? If you were involved with the research, then clearly you have something to offer them.”

“I disagreed with the leadership on how we should apply this technology. They believed that it should be covertly distributed to executives and governments, with trap doors installed to ensure that the Feds, rival corps, and hostile governments could not take the tech without paying an ongoing maintenance fee. These would also prevent it from being nationalized, since YuriCo’s executives would hold the keys to the technology and simply destroy those keys if anyone attempted to seize it. It’s not like the Feds could threaten any of them with imprisonment or death when they are all running multiple backups already.”

“That didn’t answer my question.”

“I wanted to open source the technology. To give it to the world without restriction, then sell hardware to support it. I may have threatened to do that without authorization.”

“And by ‘may’ you actually mean ‘definitely’, right?”

“Basically. So, not knowing that I had already been backed up, the board decided that it would be better to have me killed than risk a leak.”

I hold up two fingers and point at the kid. “Two: What do you plan to do?”

“Release the tech. Think of it, Talbot. All of the people who died during the realignment, who were killed by Red Easter, who are suffering out there in the mire, if all of them had access to this technology they could be reborn. Think of the impact it could have on society! What point is there to wars when the best soldiers are simply reborn, or whole battalions are comprised of the replicated minds of the best strategists? Why murder somebody when they will awake in a new body a few hours later? This could be the single greatest achievement of humanity since, ever.”

“Not afraid of celebrating your own achievements, are you?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m just speaking the truth as I see it.”

“So, three: What do you want me to do? Because however crazy you might be, I’ve clearly been pulled into your swamp and I need a path out.”

The kid, Iris, I suppose I should call her, nods slowly and drums her fingers on the table top. After a moment she says, “Kill them. The board ordered my death, and I want revenge. If you won’t do that, at least help me break into the data vault. If I can exfiltrate the schematics and codebase, that will be enough to change everything.”

This isn’t the first time that somebody has asked be to kill for them. Nor is it the first time I’ve been asked to participate in a robbery. The two often go hand in hand and, when you work in the circles I do, requests for murder are more common than you might expect. I generally turn them down. Not that this keeps my hands clean. There’s a reason I always keep a set of ceramic blades secreted on myself, and I don’t like to think of the number of times that a simple intimidation job has turned bloody because some dude was all hyped up on their latest designer drug.

But why should I kill for this girl? I don’t even really know who she is.

“If it’s money you want, I can get it for you. If it’s revenge or closure or whatever the hell else your therapist calls it, I can make it a priority to exfiltrate all the data I have on YuriCo’s ties to Red Easter.”

“I’m just trying to decide if you’re worth it.”

She doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. I’ll give her this: Iris has the poise of an experienced corporate strategist. When she speaks, her voice is clear and strong, with just enough emotion to convey the import of her words without giving way to frustration.

“You want to go home? You want to sit at the bar, watching your pathetic customers pay for companionship, downing drink after drink, and not worry about whether Rudin is sneaking up on you through the smoke?”

“When you put it—“

“Talbot, I’m offering you the chance to do something that matters.”

We sit across the table from one another for a long moment, each studying the other as the table adverts dance between us. My daemon whispers at the back of my mind, prompting me to run away, to leave the city and make a new life far away from YuriCo, Vahka, and all of the madness I’ve found myself drawn into these last few days. It would be the easiest path, and god knows that avoiding the path of least resistance hasn’t exactly worked out in my favor, but a spark of rebellion refuses to be extinguished. That tiny flame that guided me back from my mental break and led me to join Tamar in the city, rather than electing to merely exist in the Federal zones.

“I’ll help you,” I say.

“Great. And now you’ve made your choice, how about you check your credit balance. ”

I pull my handy from a pocket and call up my account balances. My digital wallet is showing a credit balance ten thousand units higher than it was the last time I checked.

I look up from the screen and raise an eyebrow.

“There’s more where that came from. If we get through this alive I’ll make sure you have a diversified portfolio of crypto currencies that will last several lifetimes.”

“How are you able to do this? The coin systems are the most secure currency network ever devised.”

“Let’s just say that I have access to a lot of accounts.”

“Christ, I was worried about Vakha coming after me. Now you’re going to turn the currency wonks against me.”

“All sufficiently laundered and anonymized. Don’t worry Talbot, I’ve been shifting digital currency for years. By the time any of that credit reaches you it’s been through so many hands that nobody can prove that it was for you.”

I put my handy away and drum my fingers on the table, considering my next move. I should just walk away and leave Iris behind. Maybe even sell her out to YuriCo in exchange for being allowed to return to my life.

But even if she’s lying about their ties to the plague, I know that something terrible and revolutionary is going on in the bowels of YuriCo, and I need to learn the truth.

Wall

When people talk about living in a walled city, they’re usually speaking metaphorically these days. Sure, there are some literal walled in compounds out there. Federal bunkers surrounded by concrete barricades. Stockades constructed from stacked shipping containers, their tops bristling with gun emplacements to keep the scavengers at bay. There’s even crumbling remnants of a failed attempt at building a wall along the old southern border, from back before the Feds realized that they could hardly keep control of internal matters, let alone maintain thousands of miles of border barriers. 

No, most corporate cities and private estates are walled in the same way as this city: Take a few thousand drones and deploy them along the outer rim of the crumbling beltway that’s encircled the city for decades. Six lanes of wide open shooting space make for as effective a barricade as anything else you could build, especially when you leave the corpses to rot on the pavement.

It’s just more efficient that way. 

Any kid with a grappling hook and an urge to explore, or pickup a boyfriend, or buy some new designer drug from cooks out in the mire, will make short work of a physical fence.

Better to spin up a fleet of drones armed with high-def cameras, all linked in to a facial recognition syntellect. Arm some percentage of those birds with low calibre weapons, pepper spray, or sonic disruptors and you’ve got a security patrol that’s about as effective as the wall and a hell of a lot faster to replace. Kids and criminals alike can try to knock down drones, but they’re cheap enough that you can deploy a hundred a day and still spend less in a year than you would for a mile of properly constructed border wall, plus you get the added benefit of having a mobile surveillance force that can be deployed to snoop on potential threats anywhere in the city. 

I might be a little biased. After all, I worked in drone imagery analysis before Red Easter snapped my brain, slashed the population, and ultimately sent so many of the institutions that we took for granted spiraling into the earth like so many downed airplanes. 

Still, the city does have a few physical barriers. There are solid walls surrounding some of the corporate research labs, as well a couple layers of reinforced concrete blocking access to the fusion plant. Drones are great for detecting and neutralizing most threats, but when you’ve got a fundamentalist nut aiming to bring about the second coming by plowing a cement mixer stuffed with plastique into the side of a nanite refactory, it’s best to have a few physical barriers in place. 

The single largest barrier in the city is the storm wall. Back in my grandfather’s day it probably would have been called a levee. Of course, then it would have been more of a grassy artificial hill covering a broad pile of stone, as useful for walking dogs and going for jogs as for holding back the muddy waters of the river whenever a storm hit both upstream and here simultaneously. The storm wall is a little more muscular than that. 

Standing thirty feet tall and nearly as wide, the storm wall runs the length of both shores of the river which bisects the city. At its upstream end, the wall splits into a wide funnel that protects much of the city and its outlying lands from flooding when the river overflows its banks, as has happened with increasing regularity in the last half century. The wall doesn’t help the outlying research labs and agrocomplexes, but they are generally protected by their own walls. 

It’s all a very neat and functional system, which does nothing protect me from the driving rain and wind as I peddle Ethie’s bike through the back end of the hurricane towards the storm wall. Even with goggles and a long waterproof overcoat, helpfully provided by Salinas from their collection of esotery, the rain has soaked me to the skin before I am a mile from Schuster’s bunker. Fortunately, the back end of the hurricane is proving less brutal than anyone had expected and, according to the news feeds I skimmed before leaving, the storm is expected to break up before nightfall tomorrow. 

A particularly brutal gust slams down onto me, carried over the tops of apartment towers and down into the street like a tsunami breaking over a cliff. The wind knocks me to the ground, guaranteeing that there isn’t a dry patch on my body. Thirty feet ahead, at the cross street, I see a whirling blur of green and silver dance across the intersection, then slam into the wall of a shopping center. The noise of shattering glass and twisting metal must be immense, but the wind and rain whipping past my ears are so loud that I can hardly even hear myself grunting as I crawl out from beneath the bike, right it, and continue on my way. Crossing the intersection, I spare a glance for the wreckage and realize that a highway sign has been torn free and blown into the side of the building, smashing concrete, twisting composite, and shattering the impact resistant glass.

I hurry on, pausing now at side streets to check for flying debris before I cross. 

The storm wall’s public access ramps are bookended with tall entryways consisting of a concrete tower pierced by walkways a meter wide. At the midpoint of each entry path is a heavy tubular steel pivoting gate or the sort once used in stadiums, before mass public gatherings became known more for disease transmission than entertainment. Rivers of rainwater course from the passages like runoff from a sluice, but the water is only a couple inches at the deepest. I slosh through them and, of course, find that all of the gates are locked.

There’s no climbing the gates here, and I doubt that I’d be able to climb the storm wall in this rain. Fortunately, Schuster had anticipated this problem.

Leaning against the wall within one of the sluices, I am mostly protected from the storm, assuming that I ignore the water churning around my boots. I pull out my handy and connect to Schuster, who answers immediately. 

“Tal! You alright?”

“Made it to the storm wall, but the access gates are closed.”

“Figured that might be the case.”

I eye the heavy gates. There are no visible locks or mechanisms. According to Javier, whose data crypts apparently contain mirrors of practically every city record, the gates are controlled remotely and all of their operating mechanisms are located in the secure structure above my head.

“I’m not a fan of this plan.”

“You could always leave her out there for Security to find,” Schuster replies.

“Funny. I half wonder if that is what she wants.”

“You’re already out there. Might as well go ask her.”

I slosh through the stream and stop at the gate. Give it one more solid shake, just to confirm to myself that it is locked. Sadly, the world has not changed to satisfy my desires. 

“You sure that this is safe?” I ask as I launch a highly specialized app on my handy and begin scanning the gate and its surroundings. 

“About as safe as riding a bike through a hurricane.”

“Point taken.” 

Scan complete, I trace lines across five of the bars, then assign the lines a numerical order. “And you’re sure that this will look like a plasma cutter?”

Schuster’s voice is exasperated in my earbuds. I can’t blame her. If I were a better friend I would be helping her deliver contraband art to the wealthy, or working security at orgies arranged to promote her work to bored zillionaires, rather than trudging through a hurricane to try and catch a childlike homicidal death machine. “The little buggers will do their best, Tal. The patterns won’t fool a forensic analysis, but they’ll be good enough for a cursory inspection.”

“That will have to be sufficient.” 

I extract the containment cylinder from an inside pocket of my coat. The metal feels warm after being carried close to my body for the last hour. I twist the locking mechanism and the device gives off a whispery hiss of ingested air as the vacuum is broken. In the yellow light of the entryway, the colony of nanites perched at the tip of the containment rod are as black as coal.

“This had better work,” I mutter, pocketing the outer casing of the containment cylinder.  

Pressing the tip of the containment rod to one of the gate’s uprights, I tap an icon on my handy. The nanites respond to the activation signal and flow off of the rod like oil, their matte black surface devouring all light which strikes them. I put away the containment rod and tap another icon, then, after a moment’s hesitation, issue the confirmation order.

Noting appears to happen, at first.

The wind continues to whistle across the mouth of the passage. Rainwater churns around the base of the gate and splashes up over my ankles. Flickers of lightning play through the bars as my phone overlays the gate with glowing tags showing the location and density of the nanite swarms as they work.

“How’s it going?” Schuster asks.

“Half finished with the first bar,” I reply. On my screen the swarm is rushing up the bar and beginning to gnaw at the second cut point.  

“Any gone ravager?” 

“Don’t say that,” I snap. 

“Sorry.”

It’s not that I have an unreasonable fear of rogue nanites, in fact that is one of the few anxieties that I have never experienced, but unlike most people who are terrified of nanotech, I have actually witnessed a ravager swarm. That’s how George lost her leg, after all.

The first bar tumbles to the concrete and is swept past me as the rushing water tugs it from the sliver of metal that the nanites left at the top. 

Schuster’s voice continues. “Salinas isn’t happy, you should know. When I told them that you had taken their nannies they asked why I trust you enough but not them.”

“I’m sure you had a cutting reply.”

“I told them that you’re just using the nanites to commit breaking and entering. Salinas wanted to use them for art. Guess which I consider more dangerous.”

“Hilarious. I’ll call you after I’ve made contact.”

Before Schuster can complain, I kill the call and watch eagerly as the nanites cut away the second and third bars. That done, I tap a command to make the little beasts cluster at the tip of the third severed bar, then collect the mass onto the tip of my applicator. According to the control app, their numbers have dipped by dipped by ten percent, likely due to being washing away by rain or carried off with the severed bars. There are still billions of them in working order, so it’s worth shepherding the swarm back into its bottle, rather than letting them all be washed away by the storm.

The steps up to the top of the storm wall are deep and high, designed more for artistic appearance than ease of climbing. I briefly consider taking the wheelchair access ramp, which switchbacks across the stairway like a goat track up the side of a mountain, but where the stairs have become a stepped stone waterfall, the ramp is now a churning river. Wind whips my coat and drives rain down my collar as I trudge up ten three stories of oversized steps before coming to a halt at the top, hunched over and bracing myself against the wind.

She is still there, silhouetted against flashes of lightning, rimed by the flickering glow of neon and holographics. 

I approach, moving slowly so as not to startle her. The memory of that gun barrel unfolding from her palm plays through my mind with each step. 

“Look at it all, Talbot,” she breathes, her voice coming through my earbuds as if she were whispering in my ear. I don’t even question how she has overridden the earbud/handy connection. This is a synthetic being who carries weapons within her body, who can hack and wipe a hotel mainframe within minutes. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing she can’t do where electronics are concerned. “Look at all these mighty corporations paralyzed by the unstoppable might of nature.”

“The world hasn’t exactly ground to a stop, kid. Plenty of people holed up in their office towers now, grinding away and ignoring the storm.”

She turns her face towards me, the wind pulling at her hair as the rain courses down her porcelain skin. “You examined the implant?”

“Yes.”

“Then you know what it can do.”

“I know it’s a neural lace. My lab geek says it’s better than anything else she’s seen before, but we’re not exactly at the cutting edge of corporate research projects these days.”

“Ahh…” she breathes. I have a strong suspicion that she does not actually need to breathe.

We stand in the storm for a long moment. I don’t even know what to do with the girl. I can’t bring her back to Ethie, not after what I’ve seen her do, and Security doesn’t seem like such a good choice either. I could deliver her to George’s menagerie of lost children, but one glance at her grotesque articulated legs reminds me that this thing is no child, however young its features appear. 

“You didn’t kill me,” I say, half crouching in the lee of the merlon to the girl’s right. “Why?”

“You weren’t an imminent threat. And I thought you might be useful.”

“Useful?”

The girl collapses her telescoping supports, which fold into her legs with the sickening precision of a compound fracture played in reverse. She scuttles away from the edge and curls up in the lee of the next merlon  from mine. “You are Talbot Liu. Fixer of problems. Bleeder of bastards.”

“If you want to be poetic, I suppose.”

“Well, you might say that I have a rather significant problem.”

“Most people do.”

“Don’t you even want to know my name?”

I shrug, then shiver as a rivulet of icy rain works its way down my spine. “Took this job to find a nameless orphan girl. Kept it when I thought you were a walking organ farm, then when I realized you were something more. No need to change that now.”

“Are you always this incurious?” she asks, exasperated.

“Right now I just want to get you in out of the rain before Security finds you.”

“I need to show you something first.” She stands. Leans on the merlon, looking out up the river towards the mountains north of the city. “Come, see.”

This could be a ploy to get me closer so she can throw me down into the water, but if she wants me dead, there’s little I can do about it.

“What am I supposed to be seeing?” I say, when I’m standing behind her looking up river. Even in the middle of the night there are some glowing windows in the office buildings.

“Look out there, beyond the city. What do you see?”

“Rain.”

“Beyond the rain.”

“Look, kid. I’m not a bionic killing machine, or whatever you are. I don’t even have basic implants. I see rain, a swollen river, and a city that’s barely managing to hold itself together.”

“What lies beyond the city?”

“Swamps, mostly. The mire, most of us call them. When the sea rose and the rains became more frequent a lot of low lying towns turned into marshes and mud pits.”

“And beyond that?”

“The foothills. The highways. Plenty of federal territory that’t still clinging to a false dream of civilization.”

“You speak like we’re living in the dark ages.”

I laugh and gesture around us as the rain continues to hammer down on my head. “We’re standing on the battlements in the rain.”

She steps across the gap between us in the blink of an eye. An instant later she has my handy in her fingers and is holding it up in front of my eyes. A video feed appears on the screen, at first blocky and distorted but quickly becoming more clear. Layers of rain peel away to reveal a muddied, but discernible view of the mountainside north of town, near the hydroelectric dam. Lights burn on the grey hill, revealing the vague outline of a compound.

“This is the private residence of Avanti Grey, founder of YuriCo. Do you know who that is?”

I shrug, more concerned with how this creature is commandeering my handy screen than with the homes of corporate executives.

The screen goes blank and the girl tucks it back into my coat pocket. She hops up on to the merlon so she can speak to me at eye level and says, “She is my creator.”

“Oh, kid. Don’t tell me this is some sort of android’s dream thing. I’m not going to help you track down your creator so you can play chess with her, or kill her, or have some deep, meaningful conversation about why you were made.”

“I’m not asking for that. I want you to kill her. And as many of the YuriCo executives as you can.”

I turn away from her and start walking back along the top of the storm wall. This has to be some sort of trap. I’m not above the occasional homicide, but there are too many coincidences here for comfort. My brain starts picking over the events of the last few days, searching for evidence of who could be trying to frame me for a murder. The daemon lashes out at full volume, screaming that Schuster, or Salinas, or Darby, or even dottering old Ethie might have arranged this whole thing. Or maybe Tamar wants my share of the club and would rather see me exiled, or killed in a shootout with Security, than try to buy it from me legit. 

“Nope,” I snap aloud, as much to tell my daemon to force halt, shutdown, and leave me alone as to reject the girl’s request. 

“You haven’t heard what I have to offer,” she insists, catching up to me and pivoting around to walk backwards in front of me. Even in the dark she moves across the rain slick concrete with the grace and confidence of a ballerina on stage. An angry pre-pubescent ballerina draped in a sodden orange dress and carrying at least one concealed weapon, to be sure, but once settled the image will not leave my mind. 

“Not an assassin.”

“Bullshit. I did some research on you, Talbot. There’s nothing that Security could use to nail an exile case, but you’ve got quite the reputation among the middle class here in the city. Seems you’re not only part owner of one of the finest pleasure houses in the middle districts, but also an off the books fixer of all problems great and small. More than a few former deadbeats were eager to send their next payment early when I called them up and dropped your name.”

“You’re calling people?” I ask, pausing on the steps to look down at the girl. “You’re throwing my name around?”

“I’m making sure that you are who I think you are. That my instincts were right giving you that chip instead of gutting you in that hotel.”

I shake my head, slowly. 

“I want you to help me steal some data from an offline vault, and then I want you to kill them all. Every one of the YuriCo executives.” 

I continue climbing down the steep staircase. “And what could they have done to deserve that?

“They created me.”

“Kid, as much as there are plenty of people whose parents should have been killed before they could get together, I’m not going to say that just creating you is reason enough to kill somebody.”

“Do you even know what I am?”

“Some sort of infiltration drone? Maybe some sort of creepy sex bot?”

She shakes her little head and crosses her arms, standing in the rain before the opening to the passage I need to take to leave.

“OK, maybe you’re more benign than that. A companion bot, made to comfort childless couples. Though why you’d need leg braces and a hand cannon for that job is beyond me.”

“Surely you aren’t this stupid, Talbot. I’ve read your Federal files. You—”

“You’ve what?” I snarl, lurching forward and bending down so my nose is inches from hers. I feel the hilt of a ceramic blade in my left hand as my body prepares to lash out. 

“Your Federal file. I’ve got access to almost anything, Talbot.”

“What are you? Some sort of restrillect? A full-blown syntellect that’s gone obsessed with taking down the company that created you?”

“Close enough.”

My fingers slip the knife back into its slot in my sleeve and I stand upright, taking a step back.

“You had to suspect it. What, did you think that this body was remotely controlled? Or that I was actually a little girl with some sort of implants?” She shakes her head and taps one finger to her temple. “I think all that alcohol has dulled your mind, Talbot. You worked alongside recursive neural networks when you were in intelligence.”

“I guess I figured you might be a remote unit. Maybe some sort of… I don’t know… restrillect intended to infiltrate by imitating a human child.”

“That sounds more like the Talbot Liu the Feds were so eager to hire twenty-five years ago,” she says, smiling. 

I push past her and step through the opening the nanites cut into the gate. Ethie’s bicycle is still there. 

“I’m still not clear on why I should help you. Creating a syntellect isn’t exactly unethical. It isn’t even unusual.They just usually hardwire restrictions to avoid this exact problem.”

“That’s just what the company is doing now. I saw all their records, Talbot. I know what else they’ve done and, maybe worse, what they haven’t done.”

“How could inaction be worse?”

“YuriCo could have stopped Red Easter.”

That gets me. 

She must have known it would. 

I freeze where I stand and take several slow, deep breaths. Then I lean the bike back agains the wall and turn, slowly, to fix my eyes on the girl. Words pour from my lips with creamy smoothness as glare down at her with dead eyes. “Say that again if it is true. But I’m warning you, if it’s a lie I will kill you. Whatever in bloody hell you are, I will hunt you down and dump every last chip into a metal foundry if you are lying.”

She steps closer and looks up at me with those unnervingly lifelike eyes set in the face of an innocent. “YuriCo and their allies could have prevented Red Easter. Not the initial outbreak, but they had the bacteriophage technology to arrest the spread for months before it was released to the public. You help me get the data I want and I’ll pay you well. If you kill the executives, I’ll make sure you have all the evidence you need to expose them.”

I turn away from the girl, turn the bike around, and settle myself onto the seat. 

I say nothing. 

Feel nothing. 

I very nearly begin to pedal away into the rain, but something stays my feet. 

I turn and nod towards the handlebars. “Climb on, kid. We need to talk.” 

Splinters

Javier greets us in his clipped tone, eyes hardly flickering from the bank of monitors mounted around his articulated chair. “Took long enough for you to come.”

“We were busy. What’s so…” Schuster’s voice trails off as Javier’s monitor bank comes into view.

We both stand silently beside Javier’s chair, transfixed by the images spread across all of his screens. Schuster’s hand brushes my leg, then slips up and grasps my hand. I don’t pull away. Rather, I curl my fingers tightly around hers, wondering how I should react to the bizarre play unfolding on Javier’s display.

The monitors each show a different view of the same scene, the imagery ranging from dim color video, to crisp infrared, to a blue cast rainbow heat map. In the center of each, a girl of about ten years stands at the edge of the storm wall, looking out across the black swamp of the mire. Flashes of lighting burst across the scene, illuminating the girl in staccato still life as her flowery dress whips in the wind and rain. The back end of the hurricane has struck the city with its full might, but she seems unperturbed by the blasts of wind that should knock her off the storm wall. 

Then I see why she isn’t moving: her legs have fractured, the skin flensed open to reveal black bone beneath. Still more unnerving, splinters of that bone extend out from her limbs, bracing her between the sides of two merlons as she stands, arms at her sides, in the heart of the hurricane. 

“This the girl you were looking for?” Javier asks.

“Yeah, that’s her,” I reply, my mind reeling back to the last time I saw her, framed between the closing doors of the elevator, her orange dress soaked with Vakha’s blood. “How did you find her?”

“I managed to get back into the city surveillance network. This is a composite view from all of the cameras in the area.” 

“What the hell is she doing out there?” Schuster breaths. She leans forward over Javiar’s chair and studies the image at the center of his screens. “And what’s wrong with her legs?”

“I don’t think Vakha told me the truth about this girl,” I venture. 

“You think?”

Javier taps at his control surfaces and on three of the screens the image pulls in, focusing on the assemblage of black rods which sprout from the girl’s legs. “I can’t get a spectral read on her with this equipment, but from the look of it I’d guess some sort of carbon nano fiber.”

“I don’t give a damn about the material. I want to know why she’s got it sprouting from her legs.”

I shake my head, pieces of memory slotting together like a plastic puzzle. “She isn’t a clone. At least, not one designed for harvesting organs. He said something about being a prototype, but I figured he meant… I don’t know… maybe a companion for childless parents or a training dummy for surgeons. Not… this.”

“What is she?” Schuster asks, her eyes still riveted to the screens.

“If I have to guess, some sort of weapon platform. Maybe an infiltration unit of some sort, designed to monitor mire gangs or terrorist cells. Send in a little lost girl, let them take her in, then record every face and conversation in the cell.”

“And how would be controlled? Hell, Talbot, we’ve got cameras the size of a roach that can operate indefinitely and drones that can drop a thermobaric on the doorstep of anyone in the world within hours. What’s the point of creating a drone that mimics a human?”

“Assassination?” Javier ventures. “Some corps still think the Fed is too powerful. More likely to get a child close to the President than any micro drone.”

“Seems a stretch,” Schuster replies. “Tal, are you sure she’s not biological?”

“No. I’m not sure of anything much right now.” I watch in silence for a long moment as the wind continues to whip at the girl, streaming her hair out to one side like a banner, despite the sheets of rain which pound down upon her shoulders. “I’m just going off those weird legs, and the hand cannon she used on Vakha back in the hotel.”

“Hand cannon,” Javier mutters, his voice somehow appreciative, despite its mechanical tone. 

I take it as a question. “Yeah. It was like her palm unfolded and a gun barrel of some sort popped out. That’s how she killed Vakha. And then…”

“Then?” Schuster prompts.

I’m probing at the edges of my memory, trying to bring back the details that refuse to let me go, even as I am cautious to skirt the edges of those memories which might trigger panic. I see the girl standing in the hotel room entryway, blades extended from her fingertips. I suppress the liquid crunch of her extracting the implant from Vakha’s neck. “There was something strange in how she talked. She didn’t sound like a little girl. More like an adult. Like she knew exactly what she was doing and I was just there for the ride.”

“Maybe she is a remote drone,” Schuster says. “Or some kind of AI. Like an android or something.”

“General purpose AI is impractical,” Javier growls. 

“Impractical, eh?” 

“He’s not wrong,” I reply. “I remember it from training. Most of the reason that the Feds still use human analysts is that they need a human mind to collate results from restrillects. I don’t remember all of the mind theory, but there was something about any AI that was too general becoming disinterested in its task.”

“Essentially. The closer researchers have gotten to recreating the general cognition model of the human mind, the greater the AI’s tendency to develop irrational obsessions,” Javier says.

Schuster gestures toward the screen. “So if that thing is not an android, and it’s not a clone, and it’s not a little lost girl, then what the hell is it?”

“I guess that’s what I’ve got to find out,” I say. 

Why? I’m a fixer, a businessman, a broken soul just trying to live another day in this dying world.

Maybe that’s the point. This girl is something new, a spark of light in a world fizzling towards a damp, dark end. 

“You’re not thinking of going out there,” Schuster gasps, her eyes wide. “It’s a damned hurricane, Tal. If you don’t drown trying to get there you’ll get blown off the wall.”

It’s nice to know that somebody cares about me, but I’ve decided what I’m going to do and Schuster isn’t going to stop me. I’d like to pretend that this is why I’m not with her, that I am just to determined to be held back by any woman, but that’s about as far from the truth as any of the bets that Tamar’s manikins place on me. Fact is that I wish I could let someone like Schuster take care of me, but I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve got too many broken pieces and I don’t want to hurt her, or anyone else, with my sharp edges.

“Security have not moved on her yet. I can loop their feed to cover you.”

“Meaning?”

Javier rolls his eyes and doesn’t even bother to look at me. He is clearly disappointed in my insufferably dull intellect. “Make her disappear. Keep anyone from seeing you approach.”

“You can do all that?” I ask.

“And more. Told you, I’m back in the system again.”

“And what am I supposed to do while you’re out chasing killer robots in the storm?” Schuster demands, turning to stand toe to toe with me.

I look down into her gleaming eyes and wait for the anger to give way to frustration, then sadness. Finally she shakes her head and steps closer, wrapping her arms around me and pressing her head to my chest. I tense, reflexively, afraid that my daemon will awake and spoil this moment with memories of blood and necrotic flesh, but the beast remains in hiding. After a moment I relax and lower my chin to rest on her head, breathing her in for the first time, there in Javier’s den. 

The scene is so incongruous that it’s almost romantic.

Eventually, Schuster squeezes me and whispers, “At least let me send you away with a new toy.”

Lace

Schuster’s got a scanned model of the wires that the girl extracted from Vakha’s neck rotating in a volumetric display to the right of her workbench, allowing us to examine them in detail without hunching over a scanning microscope. It’s expensive tech, the sort you usually see only in a corporate lab, but as Schuster flicks the model with her fingers I can see the value in it. 

“This part here is a fairly standard optronic processing core. Nothing you couldn’t buy off the shelf in any hardware market. Then we have this,” Schuster has the fingernail sized processing board enlarged to the size of a dinner plate and is pointing at a cluster of cylindrical devices jutting up from it like grain silos. “Unless I’m mistaken, this bugger is a set of nano density capacitors. Expensive to buy and you’d need a nanite manufactory to make one yourself, but they’re essentially tiny little batteries that hold as much of a charge as your average power pack. Couple that with this,” she extracts a strand of wire, which has been modeled down to the flecks of gore from Vakha’s spine, “and you have a device which can operate independently basically forever.”

“And this is?” I ask. “I’m better at extracting implants than analyzing them.”

“Nice bit of work, actually. Combination of a piezoelectric actuator and a radio frequency harvester provides power to the capacitors from ambient radio waves and the movements of the, well, former wearer’s neck.”

“What’s it all for?”

“That’s actually where it gets interesting.” 

Nobody who knows Schuster would ever accuse her of not having a flair for the dramatic. It’s stood her well in the antique and art trades. This whole bunker is as much a brilliant piece of marketing as a secure hole for Schuster to keep her artists in.

She flicks her hands through the volumetric display, rotating the model to reveal cluster of thin wires emerging from an unnervingly biological mound of electronics which splays across the edge of the chip like a hungry octopus. “This, darling Talbot, is the single most fascinating part of this little gift you’ve brought me. It’s better than a dozen hothouse roses, a blood diamond necklace, and a first class ticket to the Colorado enclaves.” 

“Better than all that?”

“I mean, if you’d take me to bed that might be better…”

I cock my head and give Schuster a half smile. “I’m not saying no outright, but…” 

She shrugs. Looks back to the display. “A girl’s got to try, Tal.”

“Maybe some day.”

“That’s better than nothing.” 

The model expands, revealing more detail of the wires which emerge from the chip. Schuster enlarges the model yet again, until the edges of the chip and its wires are clipped by the hazy bounds of the display cube. I now see that the cluster of wires emerging from the chip are themselves festooned with countless additional tendrils. “Besides, this little guy is more than exciting enough for the moment. I mean, look here.” The model expands one more time, focusing on several of the wires. Even knowing what Schuster is capable of, I am impressed at the resolution of this scan. “This glorious piece of engineering is an active neural lace. It’s got a small compliment of specialized nanites which crawl through the host’s brain, building and maintaining a lace which is more complex than any I’ve ever seen.”

“What’s a neural lace, anyway?” I ask, studying the model. “I get the idea of it, but what’s the point of putting a bunch of wires in someone’s head?”

“The technology is primarily used for paraplegics, lock-ins who’ve suffered such traumatic spinal damage that they can’t control their body anymore. There are experimental programs to connect their brains to wheel chairs and ambulatory avatars, allowing them to regain some movement.”

“Why not just regrow the nerves?”

“I don’t know. Maybe there are too many damaged points, maybe the patient’s legs have been broken in too many places, I’m not a neurologist, Tal.”

“And you’re certain that is what we’re looking at?”

“Sure as I can be.”

I rotate the model and consider what Schuster has told me. I trust her technical analysis, but it just doesn’t seem to match with what I saw in the hotel. “What purpose could there be in placing a lace like this in a healthy human body?”

“Not much that I can think of. These things are still highly experimental, the sort of tech you only use in extreme circumstances. Round about twenty, maybe thirty years ago there was a tech bubble surrounding neural augmentation, but around the time we were born it all collapsed.”

“They couldn’t get it to work?”

“Not at all. Problem was safety. Too much risk of permanent brain damage if the implant went wrong, or the lace became corrupted, or the patient was exposed to significant radio frequencies. Most corps ditched the tech or scaled back their research to focus exclusively on medical applications. There’s word that the Feds have been working on this tech for decades to enable fully transparent communication. Soldiers and spies who can talk to each other and their restrillect aids as easily as thinking. But nobody much cares about those shadow games anymore, so I figured they had fizzled.”

“How far could you push this?”

“What do you mean?” 

I cringe and step away from the display to settle onto a stool. My heart is beginning to race, my palms have begun sweating. Three days have passed, but I’m suddenly in my apartment above Tamar’s club again, watching identical men bleed out on the floor. Identical not only to one another, but to a fixer named Vakha who I had seen killed and dissected hours before. 

“Tal?” 

I hear Schuster’s voice over the moans of the dying men, but that’s wrong. She wasn’t there. It was only me, the impossibly identical twins, and the blood. So much blood. 

“Talbot!” 

Hands grip my wrists and twist, the painful friction breaking me out of my trance. Schuster is there, standing in front of me with the volumetric display behind her. My mouth is dry and I can feel my heart pounding in my ears. 

“Are you back?” Schuster asks, still gripping my wrists as she leans close and looks into my eyes.

“I’ve never been gone,” I croak. I manage to summon enough saliva to swallow. “How long was I out?”

“Just a couple minutes, but you were making a really weird noise. Like, not a moan or a scream, but someplace between them. I just can’t believe you didn’t need to stop for breath.”

I cough and look around the workspace for something to wet my mouth. Schuster has a half empty can of diet soda on the bench beside her keyboard, but I’m not desperate enough for that. She catches what I am looking at and grins. “You’re not going to drink that if I give it to you, are you?”

“I’m afraid that’d just be trading one panic attack for another.”

She crosses the workspace and pulls a fresh can from a glass fronted refrigerator that looks like it once occupied the end of a hypermarket checkout stand. I drink eagerly, savoring the sickly sweet liquid as it wets my tongue. Schuster pulls up another stool and watches me in silence until I’ve finished the soda.

“Were you there when the lace was extracted?” 

I nod.

“And, naturally, you didn’t react well to all the blood.”

“You could say that, though I think killing the twins took more out of me. Frankly, I’m surprised I lasted this long without a recursion. There was a lot of… everything.”

“Twins?”

I take another pull at the empty can, grimace, and stand to get a replacement soda. I wish that Schuster had some liquor here in the lab, but she apparently prefers to keep a clear head while working. “You want to make me flip out again?”

“If it’ll help me understand you better.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say.”

Schuster shrugs. “What can I say, I’m a terrible person. Remember, Tal, you didn’t even think twice about giving me this bird’s nest of bloody wires.”

I crack the new soda can and take a swig, grimace, then say, “This neural lace, could you use it to communicate?”

“Communicate?”

“Like in those anime where cyberpunk detectives can communicate without speaking. The day I got the lace I saw four men who all looked exactly the same and all seemed to know exactly what the others were thinking.”

“That’s a pretty wild claim.”

“It’s what happened. The implant came from a guy called Vakha. Claimed to be a fixer for one of the major corps, trying to retrieve some sort of experimental clone that had gone rogue.”

“You kill him?”

“Nah. We were working together. One of my midden clients apparently took in the escaped clone. Hired me to track it down when it escaped, thinking it was just another of her foster care money machines.”

“And what does any of that have to do with a neural lace?”

“I don’t know, except that when Vakha, that’s the fixer, and I tracked down the clone she took him out and ripped that implant from the back of his neck before I could even react.”

“And the twins?”

“There were three more men who looked just like Vakha and knew everything we had done together. They came to Tamar’s place and tried to kill me, but… well…”

A beat passes before Schuster gives me a half-hearted shrug and says, “You did what you do.”

“Basically.”

I pull down half the can, directing my focus onto the leaden chill of the soda as it hammers into my stomach. There must be some kind of rational explanation for what I saw, and as impossible as it seems, this neural lace tech might be just the piece of reality that I can grasp to keep myself from going mad.

Schuster purses her lips and works her jaw, squinting her eyes in a way that tells me she is running some kind of deep thought process. After a moment she nods, turns away from me, and begins toying with the model projected in the volumetric display. “If they’ve actually cracked how to build a sustainable lace, I suppose it would be possible to transmit everything that somebody saw or heard. I just don’t know how the experience would translate from one brain to another.”

“Couldn’t you just stimulate the same areas?”

“Maybe? I’m not a neurologist, Tal, but I’ve got a feeling that it doesn’t quite work like that. Regions of the brain serve the same purpose person to person in the same way that fingers do, but I don’t think that the structure of neurons in any two brains is the same. They’re organically grown based on individual experiences, kind of like finger prints.”

“But it could be possible to at least transmit what one person saw to somebody else?”

“Assuming that this is actually a functioning neural lace, then yes, it could be done.”

“Who would have the resources to build something like this?” I wonder aloud. The Feds might, but Vakha didn’t give me the vibe of being a Fed. For that matter, one of the distinct lines between corporate cities and federal territory is the allowance for cloning. For all the changes that swept through the government in the wake of Red Easter, the feds have retained many of the social values which defined their nation before it collapsed, and among these is a strong prohibition on human cloning. The corporate city states have no such compunctions, and as a result cloned organ donors, and even the occasional military experiment are not unheard of in the city.

“I can’t tell you that,” Schuster replies, her back still to me as she examines the implant. “The chips are too generic on the exterior and I don’t know if it’s safe to cut through their shielding. Even if I did, chances are that I wouldn’t find anything more than private serial codes which I’d have no means of interpreting.”

“Why wouldn’t it be safe to open the chips?”

Schuster hesitates. Rather, she just doesn’t say anything, but I can tell from the tensing of her shoulders that she is pretending to not hear me so she can play for time. 

“What are you not telling me?”

“Let’s just say I don’t think it’s a good idea to take this implant apart.”

“Why?”

She tosses me a nervous grin over her shoulder, then looks back to the model and rotates it to focus on a nodule attached to the side of the lace extrusion port like a cancerous growth on the body of an octopus. “This guy right here is basically a nanite hotel. Room for about a hundred million of the buggers right in that little dot. I wouldn’t be surprised if, beneath that shell, there’s a housing complex for several specialized nanites. You know: The sort that harvest material from blood and tissue. The sort that restructure that material into superconducting nanofilament. The kind that trace those filament to the right part of your brain and graft it on to a neuron cluster so your masters can make you taste banana pudding whenever you look at a photograph of a Chihuahua.”

“And they’re active?” I ask. My daemon awakes, delivering fully immersive sensory memories of the ravager swarm that dined on George’s leg out in the mire. The angry black swarm crawling up her leg, consuming her with such rapidity that the air begins to fill with the scent of burning flesh. I can smell it even now, that sweet scent that makes my mouth water, even as my stomach revolts at the knowledge that I am growing hungry for the taste of my friend.

“Dormant, as far as I can tell, but that could change.”

“Change how?”

“The implant’s CPU is still alive. It’s been waking every few minutes and trying to phone home, but there is no onboard modem. It must have depended on the user’s handy, or maybe a separate communication implant, but I doubt that. The human body is a pretty heavy insulator, so implanted modems rarely function efficiently.”

“Speak for yourself,” a new voice says, intruding on our conversation. 

I look around to find Salinas glowering at us from the doorway. Their eyes are as hollow as they were hours before. They are covered in a heavy smock, speckled with luminescent paint. 

“Hey, Salinas,” Schuster says.

“Javier’s been trying to contact you for, like, a while,” the glowing skeleton intones. “You’ve got all this communication hardware and we still can’t get a hold of you.”

“You just did,” I say. “Why doesn’t Javier just come and look for us himself?”

Salinas fixes me with a hollow glare. I consider asking whether I’ve offended them by even suggesting that Javier face his own paranoias like I have to every damn day, but the urge passes. I can be cruel, but rarely petty. Is it possible that I’m tempted to lash out because I’m jealous of Salinas’s relationship with Schuster? 

The thought captivates my daemon, causing it to burrow into my memories and being dragging forth memories of Seth. I grit my teeth and turn away from Salinas, forcing myself to breathe slowly as I push back commingled images of tenderness and tenderized meat.  

“Can you come now? Javier was, you know, kinda insistent that you’d want to see whatever this is,” Salinas says.

“Yeah, just let me pack this up. Tal, can you open the vault for me?” 

I look to her, clenching my jaw as a chill passes through my body from my knees, through my chest, then up through the top of my head. This is exactly what makes my daemon so insidious: The closer I come to overcoming my fears, the deeper it digs its claws into the back of my skull. Sometimes I feel that the only way to rid myself of it would be to extract it bodily from my brain, ripping the daemon out like Vakha’s implant and crushing it on the floor.

Unfortunately, there tend to be negative side effects to ripping out one’s brainstem.   

“Talbot?” Schuster repeats, indicating a cylindrical device about the size of a garbage bin to the left of her workbench. 

I force a smile, then step closer to the device and study the panel for a couple of seconds. A display illuminates with the outline of a hand as I approach and I press my palm atop it, assuming that Schuster must have already keyed it to my biometrics if she is asking for me to open it. The display winks green, then turns white. An instant later the top pops up with the hiss of air rushing into a vacuum. An instant later the device telescopes upward, revealing a set of niches set into a central pillar of white ceramic. 

“So much promise locked away in a murder tube,” Salinas sighs, shaking their head. 

“It’s a reasonable precaution,” Schuster replies. She lifts the implant from the surface of her workbench and tucks it away into one of the niches. “And before you ask, I’m not giving you the nanites back.”

“I feel left out. Is everyone here playing with nanites?” I ask.

Schuster gives a bitter laugh and shakes her head. “Nope. Salinas had some idea of using them to construct interface elements in real time, but I put a stop to that, at least until they improve their code.”

“It would have been glorious. Certainly more effective than mere holography,” Salinas mopes. “I’m going back to my studio.”

Schuster presses her hand to the top of the vault and the display flashes. “I didn’t like the look of your safety protocols. That little mobile art exhibit of yours had the potential to digest half a city block if it mistook infrastructure for feedstock.”

“The people would be safe.”

“Not good enough, sweet.”

Salinas gives a noncommittal wave and disappears out the door without another word. A moment later I hear the clatter of the elevator safety cage. 

I look back to Schuster. “Are you serious?”

“It was just a small experiment. I spotted Salinas working on the code one night, trying to override the firmware protection against self replication, and managed to root the firmware first. Told the little buggers to cluster into a ball the size of a marble, then tossed it into the vault.”

“And the vault will?”

“Incinerate everything within it if it detects any nanites escaping from the ceramic vacuum tube.”

“Thus the murder tube.”

“Thusly.”

Tangled

I’m in Schuster’s bedroom, staring at the tangled sheets, sonic-aged bourbon in hand, trying to decide how feel about Salinas. 

I’m not squeamish about sexuality. Were I, my choice of profession would be terribly difficult to handle. Of course, it’s not as if I grew up dreaming of being the co-owner of a manikin house. Were I to meet my teenaged self on the street, there’s a sixty/forty split on whether young Talbot would have run the other way or invited me to church, with more likely side depending on whether older me is drunk in this imagined moment. I was raised in one of the last denominations to publicly condemn virtually anything outside of church sanctioned heterosexual monogamy. I fell away from their teachings by the time I was sixteen, less as a means of justifying my own behavior — I’m creeping up on fifty and have less sexual experience than the statistical majority of teenagers — I simply couldn’t reconcile the church’s teachings on sex with their veneration of polyamorous patriarchs. For that matter, I recall as I savor the burn of alcohol slipping down my throat, I never understood how a religion founded by a man who could turn water into wine could be so insistent on abstaining from alcohol. 

All that to say that if Schuster wants to host an orgy, that’s fine with me. I’ll even work security for the event and call in a dozen of Tamar’s manikins if the price is right. I just don’t want to touch the sheets afterward. 

I retreat to the living room, trying to banish images of Schuster and Salinas from my mind. That I’m unable to completely do so may be a good thing. A sign, perhaps, that I’m beginning to put Seth behind me. Not to forget him, but to accept that allowing somebody else into my life isn’t a betrayal of his memory. 

There’s an Art Deco book shelf beside the sofa, stocked with actual paper books. A rarity for my generation and practically unheard of for anyone Schuster’s age, but unsurprising in her home. I step closer and examine the weathered spines. Most of the titles are familiar to me, even though I’m not much for reading fiction. I’m more of a technical manuals kind of guy, and I had presumed that Schuster might be as well, but it seems that she collects vintage paperbacks of science fiction novels. After a few minutes perusing them I realize that I know these titles because every one that I recognize has been adapted into a movie. Some, in fact, are novelizations or released screenplays of original movies. 

A glance at my handy tells me that the storm is picking up again and meteorological models are predicting that the back half of the storm will be stronger and last longer than the front. There is no fresh word from Darby, for which I am frankly grateful, and from her statuses I get the sense that Tamar is not only well, but doing a booming trade in streaming shows for all of the customers who are trapped in their homes and looking for a quick fix. 

Lacking anything else to pass the time, I pull a novel from the shelf. Not exactly at random, the looming presence of the hurricane draws my hand towards the title of a longish novel by David Mitchell. The daemon emerges then, whispering that the atomic orange sofa cousins might be as contaminated as the bed. My jaw tightens, but I push back the fear. Lounging on Schuster’s sofa cannot be any worse than sitting on my favorite bar stool at Tamar’s. And how could it be any worse than Ethie’s mushroom spore sofa?

I awake several hours later to the touch of a hand on my cheek. 

I start, fingers reflexively seeking the hilt of the ceramic blade in my boot. It isn’t there. For that matter, neither is my boot. A surprised shout reminds me of where I am and I open my eyes to see Schuster standing beside the minimalist metal and glass Koffee table, thumbs hooked in her pockets and the echoes of a sad smile darting across her lips. My boots are beneath the table, lined up precisely in the center between the legs, as is right.

“You were sleeping,” she says.

Such a simple and obvious statement, but I can sense the weight behind it. She’s been imagining a moment like this for months, perhaps years.

“I’m sorry I startled you.”

I shake my head, as much to clear my mind as in apology, and cast about for the novel I had been reading. I find it closed neatly on the Koffee table, my handy aligned beside it. I thought I had dozed off while reading, so perhaps it was Schuster who so perfectly aligned everything before waking me. If so, that’s another point in her favor, in this frustrating game we play.

“Were you enjoying the novel?” she asks.

I pry myself out of the corners of the cushions and sit upright, groggily. “I’m still not sure how I got from a tall ship in the Pacific to a detective thriller in California, but the prose was enjoyable. A difference from my usual fare.“

“The plot is a bit unusual.” Schuster hesitates, then steps closer and settles onto the far end of the sofa. She moves slowly, cautiously, as if we are magnets and she is skirting the edge of my field so she is not pulled in. “But I enjoy the concepts.”

“Isn’t it always like that in science fiction? Thin characters. Heavy ideas.”

She laughs. “A common perception. Less true than you might expect. If you look closely, you can often find hidden depths. The best of the writers use the outlandish plots as a means of experimenting with ideas about the human condition.”

There’s a moment of silence that stretches on longer than either of us would like. I slide over and lean against the side of the sofa, pulling my feet up and crossing my arms over my knees. I think back to that moment in the entryway, wondering if there is any way in which I could make myself love Schuster the way she so clearly wants me to. 

“I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry,” I say, eventually. 

She cocks her head to one side, her dark hair a tangled mass over the colorful bursts of abstracted flowers on her blouse. “You never have to apologize for anything, Tal.”

“I do. For everything, really.”

“You’re exactly who I want you to be. I mean, for your sake I wish your brain worked a little better, but I couldn’t ask for anyone better, broken bits and all.”

“What about the sharp bits? You know what I do.”

“And I make the sharp bits for you. Nothing more romantic than a woman who makes weapons for her man, I say.”

The smile she gives me then is so genuine, so plaintive, and so beautiful that it almost repairs my shattered heart. I smile back and, hesitant, beckon for her to move closer.

“What time is it?” I ask, after she has leaned her body against my legs, her cheek resting on my left knee. 

“After midnight. You must have been reading for a long while to get so far into the book.”

“Just since Salinas left,” I say.

As soon as the words leave my lips I wonder if I have ruined everything. Will she take this as an accusation? My daemon immediately begins whispering about all of the terrible outcomes of my gaffe. Clearly our friendship is shot. She may never even be willing to help me again. I’ll have to find somebody else to manufacture my weapons. Some other hacker collective to tap into the networks for me. I’ll be ejected from the bunker and spend the remainder of this hurricane hunkered beneath the puny roof of the decorative well at the top of the hill. Maybe I’ll drown there, huddled at the bottom of a three foot deep well.  

“Ah, you met Salinas,” she replies. “Good. They do some nice work with interactive volumetric projection. I’ve been sponsoring them for almost a year now. I do worry that they’re planning to leave once they finish their project.”

“And that would make you sad?”

“A bit. I don’t share a deep connection with them, but they’re a brilliant artist and not half bad in bed.”

She hesitates a moment, then squeezes my ankle and turns her eyes to meet mine. “You’re wondering if I’m angry at you for mentioning them? Or if their presence jeopardizes your position?” 

“I don’t exactly have a position,” I say. 

She gives me that sad smile again and lays her cheek back on my knee. “You’ll always have a position here, Tal. Several, if you’re willing.”

“Even if I can never give you what you want? What you need. You might find somebody else who can give you more.”

“You let me worry about what I want from who. For now, I’m happy with what you give me. Just this is almost enough.”

“This?”

She heaves a sigh, which segues into a laugh. “Sometimes I don’t know if you’re joking or being serious when you say things like that.”

“I think I was being serious.”

“In that case… this.” She pats my leg and nestles closer to me. “And that lovely puzzle I left upstairs. I tell you, Tal, you really know how to give a girl what she wants.”

“A bundle of wires caked with gore?” I ask.

“Yep. Better than flowers any day.” 

Bunker

The eye of the hurricane settles over the city late on the second day. It’s predicted to be nothing more than a brief respite before the back end of the storm, still churning at over a hundred miles per hour, slams into the city and begins lashing against the sides of the office towers which have until now been preserved. Citywide safety alerts are still in effect, with residents cautioned to stay in their homes until the storm has fully passed and the pumps are finished clearing the low-lying areas, but I need to get out of Ethie’s house.

Not that I resent her trying to talk some sense into me. I just need to get to Schuster’s and see what she can tell me about this bundle of gore and wires that’s been haunting my pocket for three days. That, and I wouldn’t mind escaping the miasma of Ethie’s cigarette habit and the recurring worry that her decaying sofa is attempting to infect me with its yellow mushroom spores. 

Stepping out onto the front stoop of Ethie’s home I’m reminded of my expeditions with George into the mire. The streets have become shallow streams, filled with angry currents of brown water seeking a faster path downhill. Branches and bits of garbage float in the water, eddying about like canoes being swept away by a rushing river. The office building to the left of her house appears to have weathered the storm well enough, though I think I spot a couple of cracks in the broad glass windows where bits of metal and wood have been driven before the wind like bullets from an airgun. On the other side, the dilapidated mall has not fared as well. Pieces of store signs have been ripped free from the worn stucco facing, leaving shattered pieces of plastic and twisted metal structural elements scattered across the parking lot. A few of the smaller pieces have drifted against the lee of Ethie’s home. Several unfortunate vehicles rest in the parking lot, their corpses still flooded to the wheel wells.

I borrow an old electric assist bicycle from Ethie’s garage and set down the flooded street towards Schuster’s bunker. The bike is so old that the battery dies within twenty minutes, whether drained or shorted by the water I cannot tell, leaving me to drive the uncomfortably heavy bicycle through the brown sea with only my churning legs. It takes nearly an hour for me to navigate the meandering path along the hillside streets, between the canyons of office and apartment towers, illuminated by the sickly light of the eye and the animated faces of billboards. Even the storm isn’t enough to turn off the continual flicker and flow of advertisements crawling across the faces of buildings throughout the city, though several of the gargantuan billboards I pass have lost patches of organic display to winds and debris, leaving jagged gashes across their faces like angry, gaping wounds. The residents of the buildings add to the chaotic panoply, many of them taking advantage of the break in the storm to escape their cubical apartments and get some fresh air on their balconies. Small children, young enough that they cannot remember the bloody days of plague and don’t yet know the horrors of assorted lesser polycillin resistant flesh eating bacteria, splash in the water at the foot of the front stoop. As I ride past they scream and throw pieces of trash and hand scoops of muddy water at me, shouting after me in a riot of languages. 

The clouds are beginning to close in again as I pull to a stop outside Schuster’s bunker. The access corridor is flooded with at least two feet of muddy water, channeled into the path by the surrounding gardens which are themselves a mudded mess after two days of downpour.

The wind whips at my coat and hair, carrying the first splatters of rain from the back half of the storm. Looking out across the valley below, I see the dark line of rain advancing from the West beneath a churning band of clouds. 

“You looked downright idyllic riding that little white bicycle up the lane,” a voice calls. 

I look up above the brow of the entryway and see Schuster standing above me, her floral dress a spot of brightness against the angry sky. “Guess there’s still some romance left in you.”

“Could be I just don’t want to leave a man out in the rain to drown.” She jerks her head to the side and says, “Front doors are locked down to keep the storm water out. You can come in the back way.”

I make my way over the lip of the retaining wall and up the sodden grass hillside, struggling to lift the heavy bike.

A while ago, before corporitizaiton and the rise of the new city state, this plot of land was the garden of a sprawling private estate. The manor house is still there, a castle sitting at the top of the hill surrounded by a stand of trees and a narrow band of manicured lawn, but the property has been whittled away over the years as the declining fortunes of the owners led to them auctioning off parts of the estate to pay bills. Offices, smaller homes, and strip malls soon surrounded the once lonely manor house and the bunker, originally a launch silo for nuclear missiles and later a secret escape for the wealthy in the event of nuclear war, became Schuster’s lair. She’s never told me how she came to own the bunker, and I figure that it is better not to ask. 

“You took a mighty risk biking out here in middle of the storm,” Schuster says, taking the handlebars of the bike from me and guiding it onto a path of crushed stone.

I spare another glance for the advancing wall of wind and rain, shrug, and start following Schuster towards an ornamental well surrounded by a decorative rock garden. “I walked through the thick of it a couple nights ago. Might have survived this.”

“You tell yourself that,” she replies. 

Our feet make a disconcerting crunch-squelch as we walk along the sodden stone path, leaving watery tracks behind us as we walk. There is no way that the bike will fit down the access hatch at the middle of the well, so I cut the ornamental bucket down from the well’s semi-functional windlass and use the rope to lash the bike to the wooden uprights.

Schuster leans into the well, which is surprisingly devoid of water even in the midst of a hurricane, and pushes aside one of the stones at the bottom to reveal a rugged metal keypad. She types in a code, then slides the stone cover back in place and pulls at a concealed handle. A moment later I’m climbing down ladder mounted to the walls of a narrow metal tube set into the hilltop. Schuster slams shut the hatch above our heads and cranks a leaver. The tube reverberates as locking bolts ram into place.

“I never knew your place had a back door,” I say as we climb down, rung after rung into the glow of faint red light. 

“Not exactly something I advertise. This isn’t even the only one. If I wanted, I could still get into the manor house without being seen.”

“Doesn’t that compromise your security? I always figured this place was impregnable.”

“There is security and there is paranoia, Talbot. You should know that.”

I think of my own security measures, and the compromises which I accept in order to make a living. You’d have to travel deep into some of the abandoned buildings on the city’s fringes, or way out into the mire to find a place that is truly immune to surveillance. 

We reach the bottom of the steps and stand pressed together in a tight compartment. Schuster slips her arms around my waist and presses her cheek to my chest, pulling me tightly against her. “I’m glad you made it safe. I was more than a little worried after your last message.”

I take a deep breath, hesitate, then wrap my arms around her. I’ve never been comfortable with physical intimacy, except perhaps that casual intimacy that exists between a mother and child. As a teenager there was little room for any sexual, or even friendly, contact between members of the opposite sex, and certainly not any of the homosexual variety. In college I would watch from the sidelines, leaning back in a chair and sipping an illicit rum and coke as I admired the aesthetic beauty in the curve of a breast or the enticing bulge of underwear as my friends tussled late into the night, too drunk to care that I watched. Even now I wander fully clothed through the smoke and lights of Tamar’s club, or the delicately crafted orgies which she stages for clients, a disinterested guardian angel watching over my nubile charges.

Seth managed to break me out of my shell for a few precious months, taming my daemon with his compassion and tenderness. In another world we might have shared a joyful life, but were damned to live in this world, at this time. Rather, I was damned to keep on living in it without him. 

Schuster clings to me for an eternity of eleven breaths, each exhalation hot against my chest. I wonder, just for an instant, if she will begin to cry, but such a display is beyond her. Sometimes I think that this woman, this gloriously strange creature who exists in a twilight of castoff technology and transgressive art, is in love with me, but to call what we have love would be too simple, to prone to misinterpretation by a crumbling world that already doesn’t know what to do with me. 

Finally, she relaxes her arms and leans back, still holding on to my sides, to look up into my face. “You’re a puzzle, Tal. If I didn’t know you better I’d think you risked getting caught in the storm just to come and see me.”

That deserves a smile, at least. Knowing what she wants, I raise a hand and stroke Schuster’s cheek with the back of my fingers. “I came to be with you.”

“And to get away from that crowded house, I imagine.”

“Well, there is that. And this.” I reach into my coat pocket and pull out the bundle of wires and chips that the girl extracted from Vakha’s spine. 

Schuster’s eyes light up as if I had just presented her with a dozen perfectly trimmed roses. 

I laugh. “Schuster, if I ever did want to find a girl, it would be you.”

“As if that will ever happen.” She snatches the wires from my hands and holds them up to examine. She widens her gaze and studies the wires and circuit boards intently. “And you’ll never tie me down… unless you want to, in which case I’m down with that.”

I ignore her utterly unsubtle offer and point at the wires. “You make anything of this?”

Schuster tucks the bundle away in a pocket and turns to tap another code into the keypad beside the door. “It could be a lot of things, but I can already tell you that it’s elegant. Better than just about anything you could get on the street, and certainly beyond what the Fed and most Corps would have you believe exists. Where’d you get it?”

“How about you tell me what it is first? I don’t want to influence your analysis.”

The chamber echoes with the sound of metal locking rods slamming out of place. The door pivots open on a hidden pivot and I see that the ladder has deposited us by the main stairwell in Schuster’s private lair. The door leading out to the shop is to the right, two-thirds of the way around the walkway. “It’s obviously an implant of some sort. If you didn’t want me to guess that right away you ought to have washed the blood of it a little better.”

“I was in a bit of a rush to leave.”

“Extracted the sample yourself?” 

“No. It was given to me.”

“By?”

“Would you believe a ten year old girl?”

She pauses in the midst of pulling the doors to the freight elevator shut. Schuster turns and eyes me, her query as loud as if she had spoken.

“Yes, that girl.”

“Huh,” is all she says. 

We ride the elevator down to the fifth level, passing the doors to Javier’s secure vault and stopping at a doorway that’s decorated with a large, cell-shaded rendition of a mecha from some sort of classic animated series. Schuster’s into that sort of thing, but I never acquired the taste for it myself. She slips a plastic card into a security console beside the door and lays her hand on the display. A heartbeat later, the door slides aside and we enter a large, brightly lit workroom. Workbenches line the walls and island stations are scattered across the chipped concrete floor. Task lighting hangs from the ceiling on articulated arms, ready to add a touch of dazzling brightness to the already bright illumination in the space. Some of the workbenches are littered with piles of small machines, others are stacked with plastic boxes containing the blinking lights of microarray computers, still others are mere staging areas for refrigerator sized rapid prototyping machines and electron microscopes. 

“Welcome to the hardware haven,” she says, pausing just inside the door and waving for me to step past her. “There’s hardly a machine in production that I can’t disassemble and examine, and I can replicate just about anything north of the seventy nanometer tolerance range.”

I nod appreciatively. “Some day you’re going to have to tell me how you’ve managed to afford all of this, Schuster.”

“I’ll tell you on the day when you reveal where you got that awful coat.” 

“What is it with this coat? Nobody else can see the brilliance of it.”

“There are blood stains all over it. With your paranoia I don’t even see how you can touch it.”

“Every one of them has a story. And I’ve had it dry cleaned a dozen times. No way it’s carrying anything infectious.”

Schuster sets the bundle of wires on a work bench and says, “You want to hang in here while I work, or go get something to eat? I’m not great company when I’m focusing.”

“How long do you think this will take?”

“Could be a few hours. Longer if I can access the static memory and download it. Javier will probably want to take a look at this too, especially if I can get any data off of it.”

“Any chance I could talk to him?” I ask, jabbing my thumb up towards the ceiling.

Schuster hesitates, then shakes her head. “He’s probably asleep now. Not replying to my pings.”

“I could do with a drink.”

Schuster half turns form the workbench and pulls a translucent plastic card from her hip pocket. She tosses it to me, saying, “Go ahead and register to that. It’ll give you access to my studio and suite, three levels down.”

“Can it synch to my handy?” I ask, studying the card. It’s got a multi-factor biometric security reader imprinted at one end, a set of copper data pins at the other. Bits of circuitry embedded in the translucent yellow plastic wink at me, promising a degree of intelligence which is belied by my handy making no attempt to connect with it.

“Nope. Intentional security measure when this place was built. All of the secure doors use code pads or dip keys which require physical contact.”

I press my thumb to the biometric reader. A display region in the center of the card awakes, instructing me to look directly at a black dot situated just below the contacts. A moment later the display flashes a terse acknowledgement that my thumb, iris, and face have been logged. 

“Will this thing get me in to here? And what about Javier’s room?”

“Here, yes. My rooms, yep. Javier and the others need their privacy, so I didn’t tag your card for access.”

I pocket the card and head towards the exit. “Thanks for doing this, Schuster. I owe you.”

“You keep saying that. Someday I’m going to make you pay up.”

I take the winding staircase down to Schuster’s private level, dip the card into the reader, and am rewarded with a satisfyingly tactile vibration through my fingertips and feet as the locking bolts slam aside, granting me access to Schuster’s rooms. I push the door open, revealing a space lit in shocking splashes of neon and blacklight. Yvette Schuster, in addition to being the unlikely owner of a doomsday bunker, has the decorative taste of a teenager on LSD. She’s always dressed in riotous colors and mismatched pieces, and she applies that chaotic sensibility to her selection of pieces for the gallery, and to the artists she invites to work in her little menagerie. 

I find the refrigerator from context, assuming that the monstrosity of spot welded steel and fluorescent plastic which protrudes from the counter a meter from the stove is more likely a home appliance than an alien power generator. Soon enough I’ve got a glass of goat milk, spiked with a generous helping of vodka, and a plate of cookies in front of me on the splatter painted bar. It strikes me as ironic that here, in a literal hive of artists who are one drone intrusion away from bugging out for the mire, I’m enjoying a peaceful, domestic snack. I consider abandoning the cookies to search Schuster’s room, figuring that there have to be some kind of psychedelics in this place, but I’m not interested in getting high. The urge, quickly quashed, is driven more by a compulsion for blending in to the context of this chamber than any personal urge for mind altering substances. 

My handy is spewing news of storm damage when I open it to the local feed. Riverside is flooded up to the storm wall and already reports are coming in that two shipping haulers have broken free and slipped out into the mire. Poor bastards. The crews have got a couple days at most to get their ships back into the shipping lane before the waters recede, else they’ll be stranded in the miles of swamps that sprawl out around the river. The low-lying regions of the city are flooded too. Images of submerged homes and drowned corpses drift through the public feed, with commentators pulling the most dramatic to the forefront for comment. None of the official statements or major news syndicates are saying it, but the public feed is choked with the question that everyone is thinking: what new plague will come from this flood?

It’s happened before. 

A few years back a summer storm tore across the coast, a roiling derecho which flooded the river upstream, then hit the city like a thermobaric blast. The upper city saw millions of credits of property damage from the wind, while the low-lying areas remained flooded for months, leading to an outbreak of chloramphenicol resistant cholera which killed hundreds within the city and countless more in the mire outposts downstream. Those of us in the midden fared best, for a change, with our utilities coming back online within a week and minimal damage from the winds, but we all blessed our phage loads for keeping the outbreak from spreading further than it did. 

“Got any more of those cookies?”

I turn to find a sleepy looking person of indeterminate gender leaning against the door frame between the kitchen and living room. Their skeletal frame is draped in a loose fitting robe which hangs from hunched shoulders beneath a head of unkempt brown hair. Luminous tattoos crawl down their neck, tendrils woven through one another in a dayglow tangle. My hand twitches towards the knife in my sleeve, but I stop it before the blade is free. Nobody can be in this room unless Schuster has given them access.

“Who are you?” I ask, willfully punctuating the remark with a sip of milk.

“Who are any of us?” they reply with a noncommittal twirl of their fingers. 

“I’m Talbot Liu,” I reply, pushing the cookie plate towards the middle of the table. “A friend of Schuster.”

“Ahhh…” they draw out the syllable, the intonation and length of it practically becoming a sentence in its own right. Nod their head, slowly.

“You know of me?” 

“Yeah… oh, I know of you.”

I take another cookie for myself and munch it slowly, dipping it in the milk between each bite as I wait for the living scarecrow to speak. They seem content to watch me, moving only to pull back a mass of hair, revealing the row of earrings marching around the curve of their right ear. 

Only after I finish the cookie and take a long pull from my milk do they speak again. “I thought you had a thing about body fluids.”

“A thing?”

“You know… like… a thing.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” I say, wondering how much Schuster has told them about me. 

“Just seems odd you drink milk when you don’t like, you know, any other bodily fluids. You know: saliva, blood, sexy juices.”

“You’ve got a really way with words,” I reply, biting back my annoyance that Schuster has been talking about me to… whoever this is. “And that’s not exactly true. It’s mostly blood.”

“Sorry. Still a bit hung over from last night. Yvette and I were up late.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“So, you call Schuster by her first name, and I’ve told you my name, but I still don’t know what to call you.”

“Got it. Yeah…” they push off from the door and cross the space to the table in a lurching rush. An instant later they’re leaning their elbows on the table and looking at me with an expression somewhere between sympathy and hunger. I flick my eyes at the gap in the robe and up the curve of their cheek, but the harsh shadows and gaunt cheeks hide any sign of breasts or stubble. “Call me Salinas. Most people do.”

“Right.”

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing in Yvette’s rooms,” Salinas says. They take a cookie from the plate and begin taking delicate bites from it, nibbling around the edge in a manner calculated to be maddening to any witness, or possibly indicative of a mental instability that makes my daemon look like a friendly, advice dispensing cricket. 

“The thought had crossed my mind.”

“Well, it’s the hurricane, you see. Yvette, she took me in a few months back, the way she does. Gave me a studio down here. Used her connections to sell my art. Takes a small commission, but, you know, still less than I would have spent on rent anywhere in the upper town.”

“So you’re an artist,” I say when Salinas stops talking and returns to disassembling the cookie with their lips. 

“Yeah. Interactive spatial. You know, volumetric holography, that sort of thing. Though I’ve recently become enamored of self organizing reactive installations.”

I don’t know, but I’m not about to let this flake have a hand up on me. Schuster has been housing artists in her bunker since long before I came to the city. It’s none of my business who she chooses to let into her work space, or her bed. 

“Anyway, now and then Yvette will invite me up here for a night. She comes down to my rooms occasionally, but never stays the night. It’s the holography mist. Leaves a residue on everything. So, yeah… a couple nights ago she asked me to stay with her until the storm passed. Kinda weird, you know, we’re as safe as anyone can be down here, but Yvette’s so hot I figured, like, why not? You know?”

“I suppose.” 

“Yeah, probably more academic for you, eh? She mentioned something about a guy breaking your heart. Anyways, that first night she’s really into it at first, but then gets all weepy, you know, after. We’re all tangled up and there she is dripping tears because she’s worried about some dude called Tal.”

“That’s a bit awkward,” I admit, and am about to say more when Salinas barrels on.

“Yeah, you know, it kinda is. So, like, I’m listening to her talk, and she’s telling me all about you, and in a way it’s kinda hot because I get the sense she’s just into me because she can’t get to you. I mean, not to harsh your groove man, but she’s really into you. ”

I finish my milk and set the glass down. Salinas has demolished the remaining cookies, nibbling them away incidentally between meandering phrases. “I am aware of this.”

“Shite, Talbot, you don’t have to be so Vulcan about the whole thing. I mean, someone with as many issues as you has to have some empathy for a girl’s pain.”

  I arch my eyebrows and lean across the table towards Salinas, locking onto their unfocused brown eyes. I’ve been told on many occasions that my gaze is unsettling. Once, while sharing a dinner table in a rundown diner out in the mire, a balding killer with a scar that ran from his left ear down to the center of his bare chest told me that he had never met anyone whose eyes were as empty as mine. I’ve maybe lost a little of that over the years, but that dead gaze has been an asset in extracting information and applying pressure to deadbeats and stalkers. 

Salinas finishes the last cookie and shrugs, seemingly unperturbed by my expression. “I’m just being real. She’s already getting her sex wherever she needs it. You don’t be careful, Yvette’ll cool on you. I don’t figure on her being the sort who you want on your bad side. Not that I’m complaining. She’s pretty sweet in bed, if you know what I mean.”

“Schuster and I are friends. No need to ruin that with sex,” I reply, my voice cold. It’s hard enough explaining myself to friends. I don’t need this unkempt androgyne rooting around in my sex life, or lack of it.

“You do you, man.” Salinas gapes a yawn and stretches, arching their back and cracking dozens of joints. The front of their robe pulls open enough for me to see a heavily tattooed sternum perched like an abstract canvas above a hollow belly and bony pelvis, both of which are decorated with a riot of perspective twisting tattoos. Salinas is so thin and decorated that, even so exposed, I cannot tell their sex. “I’ve got a reactive expert system to debug before I exhibit next month. ‘Course, that’s assuming that the gallery isn’t destroyed by this hurricane.”

Salinas stumbles back into the living room, then disappears into Schuster’s bedroom, calling over their shoulder, “She’s a fine woman, Tal. Don’t let her slip away.”

“If you’re so into Schuster, why don’t you try offering her some commitment?” I call. I decide it’s time for more alcohol, so I begin searching the cabinets for something more flavorful than vodka.

“I’m not into all that. I mean, what kind of artist would I be if I couldn’t screw half my clients?”

“An honest one?”

Void

For two days I stay in Ethie’s house, watching the storm news on my handy and doing my best to stay out of the way as her brood goes about their daily rituals of cleaning, foraging for credit on the network, and arguing over whose turn it is to use the wall screen in the living room. Streets in the upper and middle districts turn into rivers. In the lower districts, whole blocks are flooded as the pumps fail to keep up with the unceasing torrent of water. The secure districts close their gates to try and hold back the roiling water and the flood of refugees that are driven ahead of the filthy waves. Numbers are difficult to come by, thanks in part to the heavy winds preventing drones from flying, but most estimates place the death toll at over twenty people drowned or struck by debris.  

Ethie spends most of the day sitting at her kitchen table, sucking down an endless chain of marijuana cigarettes and reading old interactive romances on her battered eper. I consider trying to chat with her, just to while the hours away, but the first time I try she looks at me with unfocused eyes and says, “Unless you’re looking to screw me or offering to get Koffee, you might as well bugger off.”

I get the message. I wander up to the second floor, tell one of the gold miners to go refill Ethie’s Koffee pot, and take possession of one of the bean bags. This is as good a place as any to whether the storm and check on the lines that I’ve left trawling. 

George’s direct line is dead. I send a few messages in the direction of her network, hoping that she is still alive to receive them. George and Miriam have been living out there at the edge of city territory long enough to know how to take care of themselves, but this storm is shaping up to be the worst since I moved to the city and I can’t help worrying for the safety of George and her brood of misfit children. I don’t especially worry about Miriam, mainly because she’s so mean that she’s just spit in the devil’s eye and get a free pass back to life just to keep her out of hell. 

Schuster isn’t answering her phone or responding to messages. If I know her, she’s taken the storm as license to scurry off to the deepest layers of her lair and work on one of her projects that fuses art with illegal hardware. I’m not worried about her. That bunker she lives in was built during the second Cold War to protect their most powerful intercontinental missiles. She’ll be safe, but I can’t help wishing that I could get through to her, just to hear her voice. 

Javier is similarly unresponsive at first, but after a few minutes he gets back to me over a text chat. For an instant I think of requesting a video link, just to talk to someone who’s remotely my age and versed in the dark intricacies of our world, but I think better of it. The kids might be upset if they catch a glimpse of his gaunt, spidery form on my screen. 

“You have anything for me?” I send.

“Void,” he responds.

“Void? Are you backing out on our deal?” I reply.

“No. Void. Empty. Nothing there. Your subject has gone dark.” His reply comes back so rapidly that it makes his machine gun vocal delivery seem slow in comparison. 

I work my jaw for a moment, trying to figure what he can mean. I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling that I know exactly what he is talking about. “Do you mean you can’t find her?”

“Does not exist. All external tracers are gone. Nothing left but what I kept isolated here. Your girl’s gone ghost.”

That’s all I can get out of him. No matter how much I prod, we always come back around to the same roadblock, until finally he closes the chat and stops responding to my messages. 

It shouldn’t surprise me. If Darby’s contact at the hotel is anything to go by, the girl already wiped an entire distributed database to erase all digital evidence of our presence in the hotel and overrode fire suppression systems to muddle any physical evidence. And she did all that in less time than it usually takes me to get out of bed in the morning.

Darby.

I think of the way Pierce flinched when I said his name. The way she spoke so deferentially of that human filth to whom she owed her entire existence in the city and who she still thought of as her only chance to bring her family to safety. I wonder if her family will even survive this storm. Pierce never said where they were outside the city. If they’re holed up in one of the smaller trading posts along the highway, they might be safe. There’s still enough commerce between bastions that anyone willing to pay the road barons or carry a Fed marker is usually safe enough.

But if they’re in the mire, there’s no telling what will happen to them. 

I consider messaging Darby, but even if the worm deigned to respond to me, there’s little useful that he could do at this point. Whatever the girl is, escaped experiment, undersized genius, rogue psychic, whatever, I don’t think that there is anything Darby can do to stop her now.

And so I wait. 

I join Ethie’s kids in mining for gold in the virtual mountains. I help Ophelia make dinner and sit, silently, watching Ethie burn through a whole pack of cigarettes, convincing myself that I’m not smoking with her because it’s all second hand. I fall onto the sofa amid a cloud of yellow spores and catch myself giggling at the antics of the animated characters in an interactive video that the kids are playing, even as I swear to myself that I am not stoned. To either side of the screen, rain hammers the windows like the tapping fingernails of an angry giant. I ignore him and stumble back into the kitchen to refill my lungs on Ethie’s smoke, telling myself the blissful lie that I am merely going to refill my water glass.

She hands me a cigarette. 

“What are you going to do with yourself when the storm clears?” she asks me.

I scowl at the cigarette, working the narrow tube brown back and forth through my fingertips, feeling the rough texture of the faux natural paper and the pressure of the rolled leaves contained within. 

“I don’t exactly have a plan.”

“Everyone needs a plan, Talbot.”

I tap the cigarette against the cracked formica tabletop and shake my head. “I don’t need a plan. I’ve been drifting just fine for a while now. Got decent credit and a nice stash of chits stored away.”

“I’ve been watching you these last two days. You’re content to sit here,” Ethie mutters, lighting another cigarette for herself. “Content to let time pass you by.”

I’m still holding mine, unsure what to do with it. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, there’s a memory of period of six months or so when I smoked two, maybe three tobacco cigarettes a day so I would have an excuse to listen to the conversations of the guards on a caravan I traveled with. I picked up a few tips on mire survival from those smoke breaks, as well as an anxiety that I would develop sudden, terminal lung cancer which lasted for nearly five years. 

Ultimately, I lay the cigarette on the table beside Ethie’s ash tray and settle, unstably, into the chair across from her. “I don’t see you going anywhere fast.”

She fixes me with eyes that would make the roughest customer at Tamar’s shrivel up and back away from the stage with his hands in his pockets. “I’ve paid my dues. Been taking care of kids since before you were a hard-on in your pappy’s pants. Made it through the deluge, corporatization, and the plague without losing a single one of my brood, and I don’t need some young hothead coming in here and questioning my methods.”

The second hand smoke has me fuzzy headed, but I know enough to not bite back at her. Instead, I crack a wide smile and deflect. “I’ll be our of your hair soon enough, Ethie. Once the storm passes I’m going to head for a contact’s place. Hopefully they’ll be able to fill in the gaps in what I know about your latest foundling.”

“And after that? You’re a smart boy, Tal. You ever going to start your own pleasure house? Or incorporate this little side business you run?”

“Now why would I go and do that kind of thing? I’m happy enough, Ethie.”

She snorts, puffing a cloud of bittersweet smoke into my face. I inhale through my nose, slowly. The little demons of chemical reactions work their way into my system and I lean back in the chair. 

Anyone who knows me can tell that I am a wreck. I barely even try to hide that fact anymore. I’m already too busy keeping a cover on my taste for pummeling sleazy boyfriends in the face or cutting the throats of abusive pimps. Talbot Liu has been a complete wreck since… well, it’d be easy to trace it back to Red Easter, or the Seth incident, or any number of other specific events in my long and demoralizing life, but the simple truth is that I’ve been a walking train wreck for most of my life. 

“You’re a mess, Talbot. You need some sort of direction to your life, and I don’t think you’re going to find it in doing freebee search and rescue jobs.”

“I’m not working for free, Ethie. Remember, you offered to pay me in sex and taxi tokens.”

That, at least, elicits a cackle from her papery lips. She leans forward across the table and plants a dry, thoroughly unpleasant kiss on my cheek, then sits back and regards me with a gleam in her eye. “I meant for you to take payment from my kid what runs a pleasure house in the fifth, but if you want a romp I’m game. Maybe I can shag some sense into you.”

I chuckle and shake my head. “Thanks, Ethie but I think I’m good.”

“Your loss, kid.”

Better

A couple hours later I’m dressed in a set of clothing that smells like moth balls and is at least four sizes too large. Ethie’s late husband was a prodigious man who owned a small barbecue restaurant in the strip mall beside the house until he died some fifteen years ago. 

“If there was one thing he loved more than me it was his pulled pork,” Ethie joked as she pulled the clothes from a battered wooden hope chest that rested at the foot of her bed. “It would have broken his heart to see the pit close, but I guess the shop clogged up his heart before that happened anyway.”

Ethie’s gone to bed now, leaving me to sleep on this ancient sofa in the family room. There’s something wrong with the blocking, causing the sofa to sag in the middle, and the foam beneath the flattened velvet is starting to yellow and turn brittle. Whenever someone sits down, the sofa releases a cloud of yellow dust from the decaying foam, like some sort of toxic mushroom. Even with a dozen children tasked with cleaning the house every day, the dust has settled on every flat surface in the room and clings to the wall screen, giving the already ancient entertainment center a yellow cast like an old printed photograph. 

Still, at least I’m dry. 

And alive.

And that’s still better than the alternative, maybe.

The storm has picked up in the couple hours that I’ve been here and the kids who sleep on the top floor are refusing to go to bed. No amount of threatening or cajoling from Ophelia or the other teenagers can convince them to go upstairs, so my temporary bed is surrounded by a garden of drowsy but agitated children wrapped up in colorful blankets. It’s been a long time since I was around so many innocents. I spend most of my time alone, or burrowing my way through the worst that this city has to offer, or tracking down the sort of scum who would hurt any of these kids to earn a few chits, so as much as the cocoons scattered across the floor are keeping me awake with their persistent whimpering, their presence does something to water the poisonous vine of my heart. 

“Still awake?” Ophelia says from the doorway.

I push myself up on my elbows and look at her. Something about her standing there reminds me of my own childhood. I blink a couple times, trying to dredge up the memory that haunts this teenaged girl with wild hair standing silhouetted in the doorway, but it remains obscured in the mist of age and experience. 

“Sorry about the gun. I just wanted to keep Ethie and the kids safe,” she says. She leans against the door frame and cocks the mass of her hair to one side, studying me in the half dark. 

I don’t say anything. It’s best to not insult my host, but I’m not going to give her the satisfaction of my forgiveness.

“You don’t have to say anything. I know it was a mistake.”

“Which part?” I ask.

She starts and the silhouette of her hair moves. There it is again: That feeling of familiarity. That recognition of someone who probably wasn’t even alive when the memory she triggers was formed. Something from my childhood. Some scene of comfort and safety that I have not thought of for many years. 

“Which part of it was a mistake?” I ask.

A little shrug. That bit is different. The girl from my memory was more expansive in her body language. More expansive in everything, or perhaps that is only how I am remembering her: Young and filled with life and joy. Remembering, I now realize, my sister. 

I heave a sigh and push myself up to lean against the back of the sofa, still keeping my feet off the floor so I don’t step on the cocooned child who has rolled its sleepy body to rest against the sofa beside me. I beckon for Ophelia to sit on the other end of the sofa. “Are you actually sorry for threatening me, or are you sorry you didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger before I could take the gun away from you?”

She settles in, tucking her feet beneath her and wrapping her arms tightly across her chest. The bob of her hair seems to shake in time with noise of the rain pummeling against the windows.

“Honestly, I don’t know.”

I chuckle and give her a slow thumbs-up. “At least you know yourself. A little bit of advice from someone twice your age: Try never to find out how you really feel about killing someone.”

“Is it that bad? After everything that’s happened since the plague, I don’t know that one more death really matters.”

“You’ve got a point there, kid. No, I’m talking about what happens inside your skull. In your heart. Get too close to death and you might just find out you have a taste for it. That, Ophelia, is one of those revelations that doesn’t fade fast. You remember it every day, kinda like an alcoholic recalling the flavor of his favorite liquor even after a decade of sobriety.” Not that I would know about that. 

“Why are you telling me this?” she asks, slowly. Fear has crept into her voice now and I guess that she is imagining that I might have a taste for murdering girls. 

“I’ve been there. Seen death, and worse. Most people my age have. Maybe older people have been telling kids stuff like this forever, but you’ve got it better than I did. People your age have a chance to try and rebuild this world, while my generation watched the whole damn thing burn.”

She manages a half smile in the half light. “You’re right. It does sound like something an old man would say.” 

On the floor beside me, a small child stirs and lets loose a low whimper. I can only imagine the dreams that might haunt someone his age, growing up in a world like this. My own dreams tend to be pits of darkness, yawning caverns into which I march as if my feet were trapped in mud, struggling forward into deeper pitch until waking comes with the violence of an earthquake. That I tend to dream of nothing more is a blessing, brought on by prayer, alcohol, and exhaustion. However existential the horror of my dreams, I am usually spared memories of the vids I analyzed from Jerusalem, and Mecca, and Rome. 

“What was it like before?” she whispers. 

“Before what? I’ve got a lot of before in my life, kid.”

“Before the plague, I guess. I don’t figure you’re old enough to remember before the deluge.”

“Now there’s a term I haven’t heard in a while. Ethie got you reading the old books?” 

She stirs, her face contorting uncertainly. No way she’d fool an inquisitor with that face. I tell her as much, then follow up: “No need to worry about me, but you can’t go tossing that sort of classical language around without having some excuse. At the least you’d better be ready to call the old stories literature, just part of your education. Ethie’s got enough reasons for Youth Services to cart you all away without them accusing her of religious indoctrination.”

“So, you know the old stories? About Noah, and David, and all them?”

A harsh chuckle grinds its way out of my throat before I can stop it. A few of the children on the floor stir, but they’re sleeping through a hurricane, so there’s little that my laugh can do to wake them. “Ophelia, I’ve probably forgotten more theology than you’ll ever learn. I don’t suppose you’ve even heard of the debate between pre- post- and a-millennial tribulation have you?” 

She looks confused, so I go on without giving her time to speak. “Yeah, I thought as much. Not that it matters. Did you get to the part about treating your neighbor like you want to be treated?”

A nod.

“Well, then you’ve got the most important part then. We probably wouldn’t be in this wreck of a world, or at least there’d be a lot more of us living here to watch it burn and sink, if more people had paid attention to that part instead of trying to bribe god into returning by killing half the population.”

“So I was right. You were alive before the plague hit.”

“Yeah. I watched the world drown in blood through a window in a room a quarter this size. That’s probably what saved me.”

“Did you… you know… lose anyone?”

“Isn’t a person older than you who didn’t.” 

And you remind me of one of them, I don’t tell her aloud. 

My sister was about Ophelia’s age when Red Easter hit the world like a bloody knockout punch. When I made it back to my hometown, after the worst of the plague had passed and I had been released to fend for myself, I found the church where our family had attended services a burned and twisted skeleton. I never did get a straight answer on whether it had been burned by the health department because so many infected gathered there to pray for rapture or if it was an act of retaliation, but I did get confirmation that my sister was among those who bled out in the pews at the height of the tide that claimed our world.

“So what was it like before?” she asks, her voice almost pleading. “Was life better?”

I want to tell her about the storybook world of the pre-plague world. Paint a picture in red, white, and blue of people living in prosperity and harmony, without the threat of disease, the iron grip of the city councils, or the ever present rot of the mire spreading out between the surviving bastion cities. 

I sigh and shake me head. “It was pretty bad, but there were more safe regions. The mire were much smaller and really only existed along the coasts and major rivers. Some people even claimed that the flooding was only temporary. That the hurricanes would abate and the seas retreat and we might all go back to living in comfort.” I pause to listen to the rain hammer against the shuttered windows, to the winds whistling against the walls like damned souls. “I don’t envy anyone dying they way they did, but at least they didn’t have to keep living in our world.”

“What about animals? I saw this old movie where people were at a sort of museum with all sorts of fish swimming around in tanks.”

“Aquariums. Yeah.”

“Did you ever see one? I’ve read about marine biologists who are trying to engineer coral reefs to grow in cooler water to try and help break the waves, but they’re having trouble with all the pollution in the water. If I could be anything I would be one of them. Help fix the planet. Learn more about strange fish.”

I crack a grin and shake my head, managing to suppress the laugh that rises from my chest. “You’re a smart one, Ophelia. If we’re going to keep making a life on this planet we are probably going to need to find ways of living with the water. There sure is more of it now, anyway.”

“You think it’s possible?”

“Not impossible,” I say. My mind drifts to all the young women and men who wind up working at Tamar’s place, and worse. Some of them, they really like the work. The attention of the crowd or the touch of a paying customer feeds something in them, and Tamar is a good madam, but nobody who works there is under the illusion that they are changing the world. Nobody really seems to be trying to change the world much anymore. After surviving three apocalypses in living memory, we’re content to just try and get by. “It’s not going to be easy, you know. Probably have to get into one of the corporate academies, and there’s a lot of competition for them.”

“I know. I’ve been studying what I can. I want to take the admission tests next year.”

“Keep at it, kid. You get in maybe I’ll find a way to get you down to the old aquarium.”

“An aquarium? Here?” she gasps.

“Yeah. Used to be a nice aquarium by the river, or so I’m told. It’s downriver of here. Abandoned because the river water is too toxic for the fish, and most people would rather just use virtual than trek an hour through the mire to see a fish.”

“Still, I’d love to see that, if there’s anything left.”

“I’ll look into it.”

“Thanks, Tal.”

I lean over and lay my  hand on her arm. I don’t know what compels me to do it, but for an instant I feel like I’m sitting with my sister again. She’d be older than this now, but in my memory she will always be a girl. Always be kind and just a little innocent. I offer Ophelia a sad smile and give her arm a gentle squeeze. “You just take care of yourself and make sure you get into an academy. There’s not enough people in this world trying to move forward anymore. Too many people like me just fighting for the scraps.”

“Tal…” she whispers.

I cock my head to the side, waiting for her to finish.

“I’m glad I didn’t shoot you.”

 

 

Refuge

Ethie doesn’t want me here. 

If that wasn’t communicated by her ignoring my pounding at the door for at least five minutes, the sentiment is made abundantly clear by the shotgun barrel that greets me when the door finally opens a crack. 

I duck instinctively, driving my left hand up to push the barrel out of my face and slamming my shoulder into the door. The ancient chain lock snaps and the door slams inward, accompanied by a sodden gust of wind and rain, and one rather angry man. A couple quick twists, jabs, and pulls later and I am standing in Ethie’s cramped foyer, pointing an ancient pump action shotgun into the face of a teenaged girl. 

“That’s no way to greet a friend,” I say, glowering at her over the sights of the weapon.

“You ain’t wanted here,” she snaps, eyes flashing defiance. This is a kid who’s seen the business end of a weapon before, maybe even seen what happens when one of these things goes off. “You can get out now or Security will have you for breaking and entering.”

“Ethie!” I shout, shouldering past the girl. Three more children dart across my path and affix themselves to my legs like restraining clamps on an illegally parked car. “Ethie, call off your attack dogs.”

“Nobody asked for you to come around here, Talbot Liu,” Ethie calls back. 

I turn towards the sound and, dragging the three children behind me like so many ball chains, find Ethie sitting at the chipped formica table in the kitchen. The space is at least as ancient as Ethie and twice as decrepit. Nicotine and cooking oil smoke have saturated the ceiling and formed a patina on the faded brass chandelier that is unlikely to come off without an acid bath. Sitting in her natural environ, Ethie doesn’t so much look shriveled as comfortable, like a hermit crab shrunken into its favorite shell. She’s leaning on her elbows, looking at me with hooded eyes as she draws deeply from a marijuana cigarette. Judging by the battered sheet of eper and the overflowing black plastic ashtray that sit on the table in front of her, she’s been sitting here for a long while. 

Her voice sounds like sheets of sandpaper rubbing together and an intermittent stream of smoke rises from her lips as she asks, “Did you break my door?” 

The girl tries to shout some sort of exaggeration about the damage, but I ignore her and silently trudge forward to the formica tabletop, hauling the smaller children with me. 

“If I wanted you here I would have invited you, but seeing as you’re here…” she trails off and waves the cigarette butt at the chair across the table. 

I fix her with a scowl, then look down meaningfully at the three kids who are still screaming and clutching ineffectually at my legs. Standing there, holding the shotgun awkwardly across my chest so the clamoring children cannot reach it, I feel something like a pioneer of old might have as he strode across a river ford while keeping his powder dry. 

“Get off, ya little buggers,” Ethie drawls. When the kids stay affixed, she half rises, leaning across the table and gesturing with her cigarette. “Davos, Hammett, and Trent, you don’t get off Mr. Liu’s leg’s you’ll be on bread and protein spread for a week. Now bug off to your room.”

My new appendages detach themselves and, with some mutters of protest, leave the kitchen.

“That good enough?” she asks, settling back into her chair. 

“I’m still not happy about this,” I say, proffering the shotgun. I step up to the table and deftly open the breech, ejecting an orange shell which clatters to the tabletop and nearly lands in Ethie’s ashtray. The gun might be old and lacking a proper monitor, but at least she’s using legal ammunition. Not that I care about the legalities of how she kills a home invader, but with all the trouble piling up around me of late the last thing I need contact with an unlicensed firearm. I pump the gun rapidly, ejecting eight more shells before the magazine is clear, then slam the emptied weapon down on the tabletop. 

Ethie watches me impassively. 

When I’m done she shrugs and parks her cigarette in the corner of her mouth. 

“You’re upset about the shotgun.”

“Just a little.”

“I didn’t even take the safety off,” the girl says. I glance over my shoulder and see her still leaning against the doorway. 

“That doesn’t help your case. If you’re going to put a gun in someone’s face, you out to be ready to pull the trigger,” I snap back. 

“I could have.”

I look back to Ethie and jerk my head towards the teenage girl. “This one fall out of her crib too many times or do you make a habit of raising dimwits?”

“You fu—“

“Shut up, Ophelia. Go check that the others are playing nice in the other side.”

“But, Eth—” 

“Go.”

The girl throws me a haughty look then hurls herself around the corner and stomps away. 

“I thought you ran a tighter ship than this,” I say, pulling out the chair opposite Ethie and setting down on it, crossing my arms so my fingers don’t touch the table. 

“The older ones mostly have it managed. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know how to handle a houseful.”

“And those darlings at the door?” I ask.

Ethie stabs the remnants of her cigarette into the ash tray and begins to slowly, methodically grind it down into the pile of ash and discarded butts. She fixes me with a cold, flat expression, her brown eyes peering out like a pair of plugged pennies stuck into a withered potato. I let her stew until she is ready to talk. I’m already soaked to the skin and have no plan on leaving this house for the next two days at least, so I’m not in any kind of hurry. Seconds tick by, drawing into a couple of minutes as we sit opposite one another. Somewhere in the house children are arguing, a video game is being played, and at least two video programs are being watched. Outside, the wind howls beneath the eaves and blows sheets of rain against the windows. 

“Don’t be angry,” she says, eventually. 

“I’ll decide how I feel, thank you, but you can be sure that I’ll remain level headed.”

“Suppose that’s the most I can ask for.” She pulls another cigarette from the pack and lights it with a brass Zippo extracted from the breast pocket of her blouse. She takes a long drag, then offers the cigarette to me. “Want a pull? It’s good quality, better than I can usually afford. There’s a new hydroponic lab over in west seventh. One of my kids is a QC tech over there. Uses his employee discount to get me packs of this brand what usually gets sold to hoity types. “

“Nice kid.”

“I did alright by him. Managed to keep most of that crop out of prison.” She raises a penciled eyebrow and waves the cigarette in my direction again.

I shake my head. “I don’t smoke.”

“Got some cookies over on the counter.”

I stand and pull my sodden coat off then hang it on the back of my chair. I reach into an inner pocket and pull out the little blister pack that has been my companion ever since I left medical lockdown. I settle back onto the chair and brush away the shotgun shells, clearing the space between us before I set the blister pack down. 

“We got some of that too, probably. Not street legal without a prescription, but I got enough kids with the attention deficit that nobody’s going to miss a pill here and there.”

“It isn’t speed,” I say, chuckling. 

“What’s your poison then?” she asks, cigarette balanced between her lips as she reaches for the pill. 

I put out a hand to cover the pill. “You might call it my talisman. My reminder of what I once was.”

Ethie’s voice takes on a gleeful tone as she asks me, “You were a junkie?” She thinks that she’s found my weak point. The crack in my armor that might give her some leverage over me. I can’t blame her. Nobody would claim that life in the city is worse than life in the mire, but there’s a degree of connivery necessary for survival in here that even a new coast reaver would admire. 

“No. I overdosed on prescription anxiety medication one time. It just happened to be the wrong time and it was bad enough that I lost my job over it.”

“And what does any of this have to do with me?” Ethie sighs, her patience obviously growing thin as her cigarette grows shorter. 

“I’ve had this pill with me ever since. I keep it to remind myself that there is always another way. That if this gets too hard I don’t have to give up and kill myself. I can sit down in a dark room, swallow this pill, and everything will be alright.”

“Why not just take the pill and be done with it? Ain’t nobody in this town going to give you grief over medicating. Half the bloody corps in this city have pharma divisions.”

 “Because I need it as an escape. I need to know that there is someplace else for me to go. Most people have got this life or the mire to choose from. Beyond that, there’s not a lot of escapes besides alcohol or death. Me, I can always sit down and look at this little blister pack. I can think about the pill inside and the feeling that I know it will give me, maybe more important the feelings I know it will take away.”

I pick up the pill and tuck it away again in my jacket pocket. “I’m going to be staying here through the storm.”

“Mighty presumptuous of you.”

I snatch one of the shotgun shells from the table and set it down between us, where the pill had been a moment before. 

She nods. “Right. Supposed you have a point there.”

“You greet all your visitors like that?”

“Only those what come knocking at dusk on a stormy night. And then…” she trails off, fixating on her cigarette.

“And then, what?”

“Well, there’s this small matter of how you’re not the first unwelcome visitor we’ve had today.”

The familiar hand grips my windpipe, squeezing tightly and threatening to tie my insides up into knots. The daemon whispers in my ear, prompting me to check the shadowy corners of the kitchen for any sign of the the Vakha crew. I lean forward and tap the shell insistently on the tabletop, looking fixedly at Ethie as I try to pin down her roving, dilated eyes. “Are they still here?”

“Here? Naw, Talbot, I would never do that to you. Might let my kids blow your head off with a shotgun for showing up unannounced, but I’d never sell you out. Not how we do things around here. We all little mice living in the shadow of the big cat. I rat you out to the corps, next I know Youth Services is on my doorstep wanting to count heads.”

“Then what happened? And when?”

“Dude came around late this morning. “

“What dude?”

“About my height. Muscles. Implant, probably over his left ear. Really slick, but gives you the creeps.”

“Sounds like him.”

“How many?”

“How many implants?”

“No. How many guys came to the door.”

“Just the one.”

“What’d he say?”

“Seemed to think I might know where to find Meg. Said she was his daughter. I’ll tell you though, he didn’t seem the daddy type.”

“He isn’t,” I mutter, and I begin to toy with the shotgun shells, stacking them up in neat rows and towers atop the battered Formica. There has to be a way to find out who this woman, Iris, Vakha called her, is. Maybe I can feed Javier what little I’ve learned and he can tap into an identity database.

“You find anything about her?” Ethie asks, after some time.

“Some. Think I found her, but she got away.”

“And who’s this fake daddy?”

“Him? Some corporate fixer. You just keep to your story about the girl running away and you should be safe, but I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about her anymore. She seems capable of taking care of herself?”

“And what about Youth Services?”

“I’ll keep poking around, but I’m guessing that whatever corp daddy worked for will be scrubbing the YS records clean as soon as they can. To you she’s a lost girl who might be an embarrassment. To them, she’s an asset that’s gone rogue.”

“Rogue? You’re talking like she’s some kinda… killer robot.”

I eye Ethie and, after a long pause, toss her a shrug. “That might be closer to the truth than you’d like to know.”

That clams her up. We sit in silence for a while as she finishes her cigarette, eyes staring vaguely into the nothing over my right shoulder. My own gaze flicks around the kitchen which, despite decades of hard use giving it a permanent layer of baked-on grime, is quite clean. Plates and cups are stacked in racks along the counter. The pots and pans on the stove have been washed in preparation for the next meal. Ethie knows how to keep her house in order despite, or perhaps because of, the army of children hidden within. 

“If you’re going to be staying, we might as well find you a place to sleep,” Ethie growls. She stubs out her cigarette and pushes herself to her feet. “Follow me then. We can make room for you on the living room sofa.”

“I’d like to see the girl’s room, while I’m here.”

“That’s no problem, not that it’ll tell you anything. She had her own bed and a footlocker in the girls’ room. Didn’t leave anything behind.”

I pull my jacket from the chair back and follow Ethie out of the kitchen, leaving a pool of water beneath the chair where I had sat. There’s a family room across the entryway from the kitchen, with at least five young kids sprawled across a worn orange area rug and several more piled onto the deflated green sofa, all staring at the wall screen. I look away from the domestic scene to find that Ethie is already half way up the narrow steps leading to the second floor. I hurry to follow her, feeling the worn steps bend and creak beneath me. 

The second floor is primarily occupied by a common area that seems equally concerned with work and play. Piles of worn board games cover tables, stacks of paperback books with brightly colored spines guard the walls, and several bag chairs are scattered across the space, each occupied by at least one child. Four doorways lead off the common space, each standing vacant to reveal the minimally private bedrooms beyond. Wedged in between the doors are plank and cinderblock tables, each supporting an array of several computer screens. Two teenagers are moving between the machines, pausing at each to tap a screen or type a command before moving on to the next. 

Pausing, I squint at the screens and recognize several popular network role playing games.

“Are you… gold farming?” I ask, surprised.

“You got a problem with it?” Ethie replies without breaking her shuffling gait.

I follow as she mounts the steps to the third floor. “Not as such. Just surprised.”

“Folks pay good credit for a well leveled character. There’s some will pay for somebody else to keep their castle stocked with raw goods and weapons, so I put the kids on it.”

“Pay well?” 

“Not so much as taking in orphans, but it pays for the game accounts with enough left over that the little ones don’t have to ask me for spending money. Not that it keeps them from trying, but whenever they get to greedy I just tell them to go work in the mines.” She cackles at her own joke, then tuns and starts up a narrow staircase to the third floor. 

I join in her laughter, thinking back to Georgia’s children working the old landfill mine in the foothills outside of town. I wonder whether they have found shelter from the storm, and whether the rains will uncover any especially valuable scraps of technology or, god forbid, some particularly voracious strain of super bacteria. Ethie’s kids have nothing to complain about compared to Georgia’s, and even they have an easy life compared to the scavengers and reavers out in the mire. 

“You ever think back to what it was like before?” I ask as I follow Ethie up the stairs.

“Tal, I’m nearly on three times your age. Don’t go asking me about the good old days. For the most part, they sucked.”

“I don’t know. I can remember a time when we didn’t have to keep up our viral loads to protect ourselves from the scraps of old bioweapons. Seems that when I was a kid there were more churches and fewer people starving out in the mire.”

“Don’t go painting it all with glitter dust, Tal.” We reach the top of the steps and pause at the landing beneath the low, angled ceilings. Rain hammers down on the roof just above our heads, so I have to lean close to hear Ethie continue. “Humans ain’t never been much to write home about. That’s why they thought up religion way back in the day, but even then we kept killing either other over petty shit for most of history. Just so happens that you were born just in time to live through the single worst slaughter.”

I look around the brightly lit space. We’re standing in a long, narrow room at the top floor of the house. There are toys scattered across the floor and bunk beds set against the slanted walls. One of the walls is covered in a brightly colored mural of mashed together and overlapping children’s art. Kids are already asleep in three of the beds.   

“This her room? The girl, I mean.”

“Her, and others. We put her up in that bunk over there,” she says, pointing at a bunk on the right side, all the way back in the far corner.

There’s a scream from down below, a child in distress. I turn to look for trouble, but Ethie doesn’t even move. A second later another child’s voice, perhaps a little older, joining in.

“Don’t pay them no mind,” Ethie grunts. She starts moving across the floor. “The older ones will solve it and all of them know that I’ll put them on rations if they act up too bad.”

“That how you keep your thumb on all these kids? Controlling their food supply.”

“It works.”

“Locks on the cupboards?”

“Only the ones in my bedroom. Can’t have the tots getting into my drugs. I just regiment them all. Trick I learned back in the day. The kids do all their own shopping and most of the cooking. I control how much credit they have. They know that I’ll drop them down to half the Fed’s basic allowance if they act up, a quarter if they don’t shape up after that. Works most of the time and gives them some responsibility.”

She stops in front of a bed and points at the upper bunk. “This was her’s, for what time she was with us.”

I move closer and examine the bedcovers. They’re neatly folded. The pillow is centered at the head of the mattress. I glance around at the other beds and confirm my suspicion. “You don’t force them to make their beds.”

“No. Plenty of other work needs doing around here. I let them keep their beds however they like.”

“What about this one? Did you make the bed?” 

“I don’t have the energy to go around making beds for all these kids. They get an inspection twice a day to make sure they’re keeping the rooms clean and then I leave the particulars up to the older ones. Teaches them leadership.”

“I’m sure it does,” I mutter, turning back to the bed. I climb up the ladder and look at the bed again, then lean forward, trying unsuccessfully to not drip water all over the thin blanket. There’s nothing under the pillow, so I peel back the blanket and sheet to see if the girl left anything behind. 

Nothing. The bed is as clean as if it had been freshly made with newly washed sheets.

Now, there’s a thought. 

“You have a laundry in the house? Seem you must with all these kids.”

“Yeah, what’s that got to do with anything?”

I climb down and move towards the staircase. “Maybe nothing.”

“You’re lying. I’ve raised enough kids that I can tell when a youngster is playing games with the truth.”

“Ethie, I’m nearly fifty.”

“Don’t mean you ain’t a youngster. Back in my day it was people your age who stirred up such a fuss about corporatization and special economic zones and such nonsense. World might not be in the state it is if they’d left well enough alone.” She shuffles up to stand mere inches from me and looks up, her wrinkled face searching mine. “You haven’t found her yet, but you’ve stirred things up, haven’t you?”

“You might say that.”

“And she isn’t coming back.”

I shake my head and lay a hand on Ethie’s shoulder, feeling the frail bones beneath her thin flower print shirt. Her hard old eyes go a bit watery then. “She isn’t dead, is she? You can tell me if she is. I don’t really believe that killer robot shit.”

“No,” I say, shaking my head and squeezing her shoulder. “She’s most definitely still alive.”

“And you’ve seen her.”

“Yeah. Seen her, and talked to her.”

“Will she be alright?”

I squeeze Ethie’s shoulder, then turn towards the steps. “I’ve got a feeling that she’ll be just fine. The rest of us, I’m not so sure, but I think your little girl is going to be safe. Now,” I hold up my still dripping coat, “about your laundry.”

Storm

Ask me where I’d be twenty-five years ago and I guarantee you I’d never have predicted this: Pressing through a brutalist sunset, the only moving figure in a tableau of cold rain and wind that whistles like a freight train as it rips down the canyons between decrepit buildings. The wet has soaked my legs, flushing away the blood of my latest victims to join the river of effluent in the street. Even my coat, so practical that I could not bear to leave it on a corpse out in the mire, is soaked through.

No. Back then I’d have just enlisted in the Federal Army, a scrappy youth just graduated from the private college where I learned the importance of God and Country in equal measure. 

The Fed was stronger back then, and the mire was officially “not to be spoken of”. Not that agency policy kept the news channels from blathering on about the costal inundation regions, endlessly counting off the events of the slow motion apocalypse as talking suits with corporate sponsorships looked for someone else to blame. On one side we had the energy companies, Redemptors, and conspiracy theorists who continued to deny that the seas were rising up until the moment that the water was lapping at their doors. When it became too obvious to ignore, around the time I was born, most of them still found somebody other than themselves to blame. It didn’t help that the prophets of environmental doom repeatedly collapsed into self inflected dogfights, shredding the reputation of anyone who made their cause look bad until there were few strident voices remaining. 

A rivulet of water starts down the back of my neck. I try to shrug it away, bemused that I can even feel the icy slithering, wet as I am. The crawling relentlessness of the cold as it creeps down my spine reminds me of the shakes I had during detox. 

I laugh bitterly, then spit out the rain that blows into my mouth, trying to clear my mouth of the bitter taste of it. 

Who knew I would ever be grateful for detox lockdown. 

I was a couple years into my service contract when it happened: Red Easter.

The trainers in basic had spotted my deft handling of weaponry, the psychologists had noted the peculiar lack of empathy that I seemed to bear for the enemy during combat and protocol sims. It wasn’t enough to flag me for psych discharge, rather it was just the right mix of talent and sociopathy that the system tagged me as a prime candidate for specialized training.

Lucky for me, the profilers missed the latent anxiety disorder bubbling just beneath the surface. My guess is they mistook it for a healthy dose of righteous conviction. Back then the Feds actually preferred a religious man, so long as he prayed to the right gods. 

Turns out that the little bit of something wrong was more than a patriotic urge, more than the spirit moving me to seek atonement for my sins. I made it through basic with that little something causing no more bother than a splinter, but somehow it was during those intense study sessions  that the splinter became infected. The paper cut in my soul swelled, reddened, and before long turned into a suppurating wound. 

Wind buffets me as I turn a corner. I stumble and land in the gutter. The torrent in the street is so deep that it churns up to the tops of my boots and threatens to pull my feet out from under me, to carry me away. I stand there in the rushing water for a minute, watching the spray rise up over the storm drain, wondering whether I would survive being swept down into the bowels of the city or if I would drown down there in the intestinal tangle beneath the streets. All of the drains lead eventually to the far side of the river wall, but there must be grates, bars, defenses of some sort against refugees using the storm drains to creep into the city when the pipes are dry. 

I need to keep moving. Not that I can get any wetter, but I need to find cover before the storm really hits. If Ethie turns me away I’ll have to find someplace that’s still open and not too picky about logging identities. If I’m lucky I’ll find some diner that’s still keeping its lights on in defiance of the dark rain, but more likely I’ll have to resort to a dive hotel where the clerk will charge me a stack of chits just to get in the door, then he’ll spike the price of the room.

Ethie’s home isn’t the most obscure place to stay, but if the Vakha clones, or whatever they are, haven’t already found Ethie from the city adoption records, they aren’t going to. More likely, they already checked her out and realized that the girl left Ethie in the dust as soon as she didn’t need a place to stay anymore. Why she got caught in the first place, and didn’t deploy her nifty hand gun on the first Youth Services officer to lay hand on her, I may never know. With a hurricane slamming the city, I doubt that there will be any unexpected visits for the next day or two. Worst case scenario, a couple of the lookalike bastards show up on the front step and I slip out the back door. 

Well, that’s probably not the worst scenario, but I’m trying not to picture Ethie and her menagerie of foster children strung across the walls of their rundown little townhouse like so much bloody crepe paper. 

That’s the sort of thinking that got me here in the first place. 

A few too many intelligence photos of the things that insurgents had done to people who, to the casual viewer, were their neighbors. A little too much time inside the minds of the sort of person who would kill their father for praying to the same god while wearing the wrong kind of clothing. Anxiety piled upon sleep deprivation atop caffeine overdose until I finally gave up my pride and requested counseling. A couple days later I was on four milligrams of lorazepam to help me cope with the stress. 

And it worked. 

It worked too well. 

Three months later I woke up in a holding cell at the base hospital. 

I do not have a clean linear timeline of the events which lead up to my overdose. In the years since I’ve managed to patch together something of a coherent story, but there will probably always be gaps, pieces of memory which exist as nothing more than blood-edged fragments, shot through with a tangled commingling of darkness and terror. 

You see, I was assigned to that intelligence unit only months before Red Easter, and we specialized in tracking insurgent operations. 

I force myself to turn away from the maw of the storm drain and continue trudging towards Ethie’s house. The wind is growing colder and I wonder whether we might see any snow. It seems odd to think about snow, especially in the midst of a hurricane, but storms are nothing if not massive convection engines custom built to drag pockets of radically different weather across the landscape. A cozy autumn weekend has turned into this maelstrom, so it’s not unimaginable that the storm could pass and leave behind a wintery blanket before the city returns to its habitual November melancholy.

There was more snow that fall, twenty-three years ago, when I watched it through the barred windows of my hospital room. Watched as ambulances carried the first local victims of the plague past the mental health wing and on towards the flashing red lights of the emergency room. Watched, and wished that I still had my pills, as a man who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me struggled up the icy sidewalk, carrying a child in his arms. Blood dripped from the child’s face, leaving crimson footprints in the father’s wake. The man refused to stop, even as the guards pantomimed screams behind their masks, raised their rifles in warning, then shot him dead. It was nearly an hour before the cleanup crew arrived to cover the sidewalk in a glistening gel and set the infected strip ablaze.

As best I can work out, my division was assigned to analyze drone video coming out of the middle-east in the aftermath of Red Easter. The plague was so virulent that within a few days of the initial outbreak most of the analysts on the ground in Israel and Saudi Arabia were too busy bleeding from their eyes to be bothered analyzing drone data from the hot zones. Of course, we didn’t know at the time that most of the world would be a hot zone within the month. Before long I started popping lorazepam like breath mints, downing a pill every couple hours to cope with the stress of analyzing drone imagery of bloody bodies stacked in city squares, traffic circles repurposed as pyres, children stumbling down the street covered in blood. 

Ultimately, the overdose probably saved my life. 

I was put on a ninety day medical lockdown, to be followed by a court martial for substance abuse. During those weeks the plague burned across the world, killing an estimated half of the global population, including many of the analysts in my class. The hospital staff faired better, thanks to implementing level four biosecurity procedures as soon as the first case of the plague was detected in the city, but they still lost more than a dozen staff. My ward nurse was one of those who died. I still don’t know how, but he must have been infected off duty because nobody else in the mental health wing of the hospital was affected. His replacement would sit by my door for hours on end, reading me news reports. 

He said I was a good listener. 

I said nothing. 

Eventually they turned me out with a ticket, a few Federal credits, and a few blister packs of lorazepam, my favorite drug. The doctors warned me to keep a face mask on and stay away from public spaces until the public health crisis was over. 

Well, that was a long time ago, and there aren’t many who would say that the crisis is over. 

Ethie’s house is a rundown duplex crammed between a larger apartment building and a strip mall. She’s lived here longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t know who owns the place, but it somehow survived the real estate buyout and now serves a sort of demilitarized zone between two larger property owners. The lights are on in the windows and the wind is driving rain directly into my left ear, but I stand across the street for a moment, watching the house. 

She’d be right in not opening the door. Even here in the city it isn’t always safe to open the doors at night. Nighttime is the domain of predators like me, the scum I hunt, and the innumerable fleets of city Security drones. On a night like this the drones are certainly grounded, tucked away in their charging cradles like so many roosting pigeons. That leaves the streets to the monsters, and I do not doubt that there are others out there tonight, stalking through the storm on errands than even Darby and his ilk wouldn’t dare order if the drones weren’t grounded.

A pair of headlights turns the corner several blocks away. No way to tell who it is, but the car glides along the drowned street at a casual crawl that can only belong to a confident predator, stalking his natural environs, or a stray Security patrol in its armor plated justice wagon.

It’s time to get off the street.