I awake in a dimly lit room. Neon lines cut across the walls, which glow with overlapping patterns of florescent artwork in the wash of a blacklight. I’m swaddled in zebra print fleece blankets atop a spongey mattress.
How did I get here?
And where is “here”?
I crawl out of the bed, muscles and joints screaming at me as I ask them to perform their daily work. Flashes of memory play out across my eyelids each time I blink. The fight outside the data vault. My unorthodox choice of exit. The long slide. Coming to a crashing halt in the fountain.
Clothes are stacked on a chair beside the bed. Freshly printed, judging by the scent of heated fiber and melting synthetics that wafts up from them. I dress slowly, with many a pained grunt as I push my aching limbs through the legs and sleeves. Even in the dim, colored light of the room I can see the layers of bruises that cover my sides, arms, legs. A bottle of bourbon, vat grown and sonically aged, sits on the writing desk beside the chair, accompanied by a thick bottomed glass and bottle of pills tagged with a distinctly non-medical label depicting a mallet the size of a truck smashing the head of a cartoon man who looks vaguely like me.
Beside the bottles, the folded photograph of Seth, Tamar, and me rests on the desk, the edges as battered as my body.
The eclectic decorations. Freshly printed clothing. Custom pharma. This must be Schuster’s place.
How did I get here?
I swallow a couple pills and, glass in hand, shuffle barefoot to the door, which opens at a push.
“You’ve decided to return to us, eh?” Schuster says, looking up from an array of gadgets spread on a tray in front of her. She’s sitting at a table in the living space. Light pours down on her from an overhead panel, throwing her face into shadowy relief while her hands are illuminated by a magnifying work lamp.
“How did I get here?”
“Why don’t you take a seat?” she says, by way of response. “You still look like shit.”
No point in arguing with that. I shuffle across the room and slump into the chair across from Schuster at the work table. She continues her work, using the magnifying lenses in the work light to guide her as she disassembles a cartridge from a twentieth century video game console.
“Won’t that destroy the value?” I ask. Even speaking hurts.
“Not when I’m done with it. George sent over a box of these after the storm passed. The cart internals are corroded and nonfunctional, but the artwork is in remarkably good condition. I’m going to swap out the bad board with a good one I’ve had in stock for a while.”
“Wish you could do that with me,” I groan, working my battered shoulders and neck. The pills seem to be helping, but I still feel like… well, like I’ve fallen from a seventh floor window.
“From what I hear, that’s exactly what you’ve brought back with you.” Schuster looks at me over the top of the work lamp, her blue eyes questioning. She raises her eyebrows, waiting for me to fill in.
“If you believe Iris.”
“Hard not to, what with all those Vakha clones.”
“You don’t know the half of it. We met a couple more while she was hacking the YuriCo mainframe.”
“Javier’s been looking at the data cube you brought back. Surprising, really. He even let me bring it into his lair instead of putting it through decontamination. He says there is some truly revolutionary stuff on there. Not just the mind synched clones. He called it, um, ‘mind state virtualization’ or something like that. Says it could be like running a brain fully on computer hardware without the need for flesh.”
I nod. Wince. Take another slug of the whiskey.
“You know anything about all of it?”
“Less than you. Iris did something to Abaroa, that exec we kidnapped. Said she interrogated his mind even after she’d put a bullet in his head. Got all the specifics of how to access the YuriCo data vault.”
“And then she died. Like everyone else.”
The woman in orange. Who is she? What did she mean about strains and erasure? Even now, thinking back to her, I’m struck with a sense of familiarity. Something in the cadence of her words or the curl of her lips.
“How did I get here?”
Schuster grunts, ignoring my question as she finally pries the corroded board from its plastic prison and sets it aside. She picks up a cotton swab and begins wiping away the cruft of a century’s corrosion from the interior of the cartridge.
“You going to answer that?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Well, I’d kind of like to know how I ended up in your bed. Not that I’m complaining. I know you’ve been trying to get me there for years.”
Schuster smiles at that and, after another moment of silently cleaning the cartridge, she says, “Salinas and Javier, mostly. We were watching your through his pirated video feeds. When we saw which building you went into they sent a flock of drones to wait around the building.”
“Drones brought me back.” Not unheard of. The Feds use medevac drones on the battlefield and most deliveries were done by drone.
Schuster waggles her fingers and gives me a pained look. “Sort of. The drones deployed a nanite swarm, which disassembled a chunk of the sidewalk and pulled you underground.
That’s enough to make me drain my glass and limp back to the bedroom to retrieve the bottle. I probably shouldn’t be mixing Schuster’s custom pharma with so much liquor, but I already feel like death, so why not flirt with liver failure? One shot of the liquor goes directly down my throat, the second settles into the glass as a companion as I question Schuster on the particulars of my rescue, which can be summarized thusly: Nanites eat the fountain hardware, wrap Talbot in a thin metal skin, then burrow him through the earth and to a nearby underground parking garage before he can suffocate.
“Salinas was thrilled to be allowed to deploy their nanites. Not quite the art display they had in mind, but it was enough to keep them happy for a while,” Schuster says after I finally stop asking questions.
Personally, I’m considering whether the entire bottle of whiskey will be enough to keep my skin from crawling and silence the daemon as it whispers sneaky tales of nanites invading my skin and eating be from the inside out.
“What are you going to do when Security comes knocking?” I ask, my lips beginning to go numb.
Schuster smiles and nods her head to one side. “We have ways of hiding. Speaking of which, if you’d told me that Abaroa had a drone escort we could have jammed their signal for you.”
“I didn’t expect that.”
“Add it to the list, right below the Spanish Inquisition.”
I drain my glass and sit, watching Schuster work as the fire burn works its way down my gullet and into my belly. We had technicians as good as Schuster and her little gang of rogue artists in the Federal service, but many of the best were among the first to die in the plague. Though, I suppose the same could be said of every organization and industry. When you lose more than half of the population, it’s going to put a strain on the talent pool.
“So what are you going to do next?”
I set the empty glass down on the table and push it towards Schuster with a fingertip. “I’m going to do what she asked me to.”
“And that is?”
“I’m going to kill them all.”